Twilight must delve into Celestia's past to save the future of Equestria.
Things have begun to go wrong in Equestria: a massive storm, stolen artifacts, and some force gathering Equestria's greatest enemies in the background. Most disturbingly, it appears that Celestia herself has a hoof in the machinations troubling the land. The only answers may lie in Celestia's past and the ancient diary she entrusts to her Faithful Student. Can Twilight uncover her mentor's past secrets in order to save Equestria's future?
One of the most difficult things to do while in the midst of a prank is to keep a straight face. After centuries of practice, however, Princess Celestia was extremely good at that. She watched with just the right mix of calm stoicism and mild befuddlement as the three ministers hurried up to the throne, each of them waving a shelf of paper work.
"Princess Celestia!" a yellow coated and red maned unicorn with a stylized wax seal for a cutie mark named Red Tape proclaimed loudly, "This is intolerable! Why were these triplicate forms detailing the need for triplicate forms sent back yesterday without being signed?!"
"To say nothing of these documents," an officious blue earth-pony with a white mane muscled in, waving another shelf of papers in her hoof, "How is the government to document the creation of documents if the document allowing documentation to be created isn't signed?"
"I say, Your Highness," Stuffed Shirt, a brown earth-pony with a grey mane that melded into bristly mutton chops, "It is positively inconceivable that this proposal for a new wing to the Proposal Ministry was sent back also unsigned. It is almost as if Her Highness discounted the importance of more space for the Proposal Ministry, what what!" Stuffed Shirt punctuated the sentence with a cascade of flummoxed huffing that always sounded to Celestia like a mix between a steam locomotive and a cat hawking up a hairball.
All three of the ministers looked to Celestia expectantly, their comically intense gazes nearly causing the alicorn's elegantly passive facade to crack. Nearly. Instead, she motioned to the three aggravated ponies to bring her the affronted paperwork.
With practiced, methodical calm, Celestia made a show of going over each shelf of paper in turn. Here was the important part, where the true part of the prank happened -- Celestia imparted some earth-pony magic into each of the sheets, sending the signal to the ink. Earth-pony magic was critical in this; if she used her horn, then its glow might alert the prankees to her con; perhaps not the specifics, but at least they would know something was up. Celestia affected a confused frown, looking to the three indignant ministers, "I think you are all mistaken. These papers are all properly signed."
"See for yourself," Celestia replied to the trio, unable to keep from cracking a smile as she floated each of the papers back to their respective attendants.
Each of the ministers tore into the paperwork, scrutinizing each page for the needed signatures. They were, of course, right where they were supposed to be. The three ponies glanced at each other in perplexed confusion before each shifted into contrite embarrassment.
"Forgive us, Princess," Red Tape said with a obsequious bow of his head, "It... it seems we were, um, mistaken."
"Yes," the blue pony -- Round File was her name -- added, "Do accept our most humble apologies for wasting both your and the court's time."
"I certainly don't know how this bloody could've happened," Stuffed Shirt finished, "I was sure the signatures were not there previously."
Celestia couldn't hold it any more. She let out a string of coquettish titters that soon expanded into full on laughter -- which further confused the three poor ministers -- then slowly faded to hissing snickers. Once recovered from her fit of laughter, the white alicorn flashed a beatific smile at the trio and winked. "Gotcha!" Her horn glowed with a soft, yellow, warm light and an inkwell floated from behind the throne -- she had stored it there specifically for this reveal.
The inkwell itself looked like any other standard inkwell; a stubby, short dark jar. On the label, however, was written: "Pratfall Pranks and Jokes - Disappearing-Reappearing Ink! Just add earth-pony magic!" A picture of a cherry red stallion with a wild bright yellow mane winking at the viewer was printed beside the label.
For a moment, the three ministers stared flatly, Round File's mouth slightly agape. The stunned silence lasted long enough to start to become uncomfortable and Celestia began to worry if she had gone too far with her gentle prank. Fortunately, however, Stuffed Shirt began to laugh -- a rough, raucous sound that filled the throne room. Soon after, Red Tape also began to chortle, followed soon by a series of airy titters from Round File.
"Oh, jolly good prank, Princess," Stuffed Shirt said, his muttonchops bristling as he smiled, "Jolly good, indeed."
"Yes, very funny!" Round File agreed, stamping her hooves on the ground in applause.
"You really had us going there, Princess," Red Tape said with a smirk before his face fell, "But, in all seriousness, Princess Celestia. We need those forms."
Her fun over, Celestia sighed and nodded, motioning to the papers, "As you saw, they're all already signed. And don't worry, the disappearing-reappearing ink only can be used once. They're now permanently signed."
The three ministers nodded with approval, bowed to the Princess, and then left to file their precious paperwork. Celestia watched as another supplicant came to her with a scroll and she sighed again. She had needed that little break in the tedium that was holding court, but it was over now and she had to get back to work.
Deepening, elongated shadows moved across the land as the last orange rays of the sun slipped over the horizon. Celestia sat at the large window in her suite overlooking Equestria from the tower in Canterlot, her horn glowing a soft, pale gold watching as she lowered the sun. Most of the time she didn't bother; she was so used to this chore by now that she mostly did it nearly on automatic. Today, however, she did indeed watch the sun sink and the corresponding rise of the moon.
Part of it had been her desire to escape from the throne room; she had played a little prank today with the never-ending paperwork that always demanded her attention and she knew that the rest of the court who had seen it would now be checking their own signed documents for any pranking done. She hadn't, but there were always false positives from some of the more paranoid bureaucrats and she didn't want to end the day by spending a half hour assuring ponies that, yes, she really did sign in proper ink today. It was an exasperating consequence of her pranks in court, but she still considered the jokes worth it.
Celestia could hardly suppress a grin when she remembered the look on those minister's faces when they realized that the signatures were there. It had been quite amusing and a welcome respite from the plain drudgery that was her normal day of ruling the kingdom. Using the one-use disappearing-reappearing ink had been a great idea. She didn't even need to resign the documents; they were immediately taken back to be stamped, copied, and filed by the bureaucratic machine that was the government.
The other reason she decided to retreat to her suite to watch the sunset she brought about was a bit more somber; it was the anniversary (as near as she could figure it) of when she first raised the sun all those centuries ago. It gave her that quiet sense of bittersweet nostalgia that she kept mostly hidden; only her sister and her Most Faithful Student had ever seen that part of her and hadn't yet passed beyond the veil. Any others were long gone.
Celestia turned her eyes away from Luna's lovely moon and night sky (even after all this time, Celestia thought it was wondrous; much more so than the flaming ball of plasma she controlled) and towards the far wall with its myriad of portraits and pictures. She let her gaze slip easily from one to the other like water along well-worn river stones.
Princess Celestia suddenly felt very tired.
With a yawn that she stifled with a hoof, the white alicorn moved over to her bed and settled down on it, quickly drifting off to sleep.
Having a mental link with all of one's subjects was normally a distinct advantage. One could issue orders and have immediate feedback as to how successfully those orders had been carried out. One could gain immediate information from a throng of spies spread throughout any target. One could adjust to circumstances far more quickly than one's enemies.
But for a certain Changeling Queen Chrysalis, that advantage had turned double-edged. While muted, she still felt the hunger of her throng. And with a brood as big as hers, all those muted hungers added together gave rise to a much more pressing need in her.
She was hungry. No, more than that, she was starving. So distracting was this ache that she initially missed the tingling sensation that was one of those little mental lights buzzing out. Then another. And another.
Chrysalis frowned, but never lifted her gaze from the round map of Equestria dominating what served as her throne room. Lit by a sickly green glow of magic, the sticky walls oozed with moisture that dripped to the floor, the entire room a cavernous example of the kind of biological engineering her species was capable of.
It had taken her months to call back her scattered brood and to build a new secret seat of power -- her old one had no doubt been destroyed by those hateful ponies -- but love reserves were running low and every Changeling excursion out into Equestria proper for more had the risk of discovery. Her position was precarious and she needed to be cautious. But that accursed hunger continued to gnaw at her belly, doggedly insisting she be more bold, however much such action would be folly.
Another light in her mind fizzled out and the Changeling Queen began to focus on this new problem. Occasionally, one of her subjects may be outed or caught, but never so many in such quick succession. Where was the problem area? Her eyes narrowed as they flickered across the map of Equestria, seeking it. Another tingle of fizzling allowed her to pinpoint the area... but wait, that was right outside the Hive!
Panic momentarily clouded Chrysalis' mind; had the ponies discovered her location and now sought to lay the final blow? But how? If any of her subjects had been caught, they would've rather died than talk. They couldn't even speak the pony language in their natural form. Had they been magically coerced to change into a form capable of speech, then further compelled to tell the location of her hive? There were only a scarce few ponies she knew of that could do the former and fewer still that could also do the latter.
Chrysalis forced the dread and despair from her mind. If this was to be her end, then she would make it such an end! She sent a mental rallying cry out to the Changeling guard, telling them to converge on the interlopers.
That couldn't be right... the subjects whose lights fell from her senses should've survived long enough to send a warning or a picture to their Queen. Even if they were taken out stealthily -- an idea which Chrysalis considered laughable; who could possibly sneak up on a Changeling? -- her species was hardy. Even after being victim to very powerful spells, her subjects should've survived for a second or two before expiring. Long enough to send a warning at the very least. Who could possibly wield such power that her only warning was that tingle as their lives were snuffed out?
As the figure stepped closer and the Changeling guard could see who it was, Chrysalis had her answer. She grimaced her muzzle and hissed as a wave of hate welled up inside her, the actions repeated by her subjects standing in front of the figure. Chrysalis readied her subjects for a suicidal charge while she prepared to escape. With luck, she would be long gone and far past tracking by the time her subjects had all been defeated.
Before she could issue the order, however, the figure spoke. The voice was... odd. Clearly recognizable as belonging to its proper owner, but lacking... something. Chrysalis mulled over the voice for a moment, trying to piece together what was so off about it. It then hit her: it lacked the sickening sense of warmth she was used to.
"Changeling Queen," the cold voice said, "I come not to destroy you, but to parlay. I have a... proposition to discuss with you. Shall we meet?"
Chrysalis was honestly at a loss. It seemed extremely unlikely that a deal of any stripe could be cut. It would also be dangerous to allow her into striking distance. On the other hand, even if Chrysalis escaped, she wasn't sure she would have the resources needed to rebuild yet again. The situation was dire and extinction beckoned either way.
Eventually, she ordered the line of guard Changelings to let the figure inside. Risky, yes, but the chance that this wasn't some kind of trick was worth taking. Also, Chrysalis had to admit, her curiosity was gnawing at her even more so than her hunger. By any token, this was a strange move for her opponent to take and Chrysalis needed to know why.
As the figure was led deep into the network of sticky tunnels of the hive (flanked, of course, by a cadre of Changeling guards -- Chrysalis was curious, not stupid), the Changeling Queen noted that the figure carried along with her a brown sack, held in the air behind her by magic. She could see the sack move as it was effortlessly floated along -- clearly something alive was inside.
The large double chitinous doors to the throne room swung open, the parting of the two letting out a squelching noise as lines of mucus linking the doors pulled taut and snapped wetly against the ground, bidding entry to the figure. Still flanked by the guard, the figure stopped a respectable distance away and surveyed her surroundings before settling her gaze on Chrysalis. It was imperious and impassive and infuriated the Changeling Queen as she glared back.
"What do you want?" Chrysalis asked flatly. She wasn't about to waste pleasantries on this 'guest'.
"As I said," the figure replied, "I wish to parlay." When Chrysalis just continued to glare silently, the figure continued. "You are starving, Queen Chrysalis. Your brood is in danger of extinction. I wish to help you."
"Help me?" Chrysalis asked incredulously before bursting out in sardonic laughter, "Oh, you do have a sense of humor. Like you 'helped' my subjects just a moment ago?"
A small, smug little smirk appeared on the figure's face which set Chrysalis' blood boiling in anger. "But I was helping you. After all, with a few less mouths to feed, surely what little reserves you have will stretch just a little while longer, yes?" Before Chrysalis could launch into a enraged retort, the figure continued, "How would you like to have all the love of ponykind to feed you and your brood?"
Chrysalis blinked twice. "You can't be serious."
"I am serious," the figure said, "Deadly serious. Join me and neither you nor your subjects will ever go hungry again."
"Join you in what?" Chrysalis asked with suspicion.
"Isn't it obvious? Join me in taking over Equestria. I need an army and I need intelligence. You will provide both. Do this, and you may sup at all the love therein."
Again, Chrysalis was thrown for a loop and she desperately tried to process what had just transpired. "Why should I believe you?"
"Because you will starve to death without clutching this one last hope," the figure replied matter-of-factly, "Because you can always betray me later if you feel the deal is not to your liking or suspect I may not follow through on my end." A small, cold smile slowly spread across the figure's features and Chrysalis was uncomfortably reminded of a dagger being unsheathed, "And because I brought a gift, to prove my honesty and goodwill."
The sack floated towards the Changeling Queen, stopping halfway between her and the figure. It then turned in midair and unceremoniously dumped the contents out onto the chitinous floor. It was a pony, male, clad in what was clearly the night Royal Guard armor, minus the helmet. His legs were hogtied together and his muzzle held closed with rope. Wide, orange eyes darted around the room and he wiggled in his bonds as dawning fear began to show on his features.
"This one," the figure stated coolly, "Happened upon me as I made my way here. I believe he was meeting a young mare for a midnight tryst." The figure clucked her tongue and shook her head at the pony, "For shame, skirting your duties for a little romantic interlude? Whatever would my dear sister say to such a treasonous act?" The figure turned her attention to Chrysalis who stared at the bound pony with a salivating mouth. "I'm sure he would prove quite... plump... with love. Go ahead. Satiate yourself, if we have a deal."
The pony guard's eyes shifted wildly between Chrysalis and the figure, making muffled noises and continuing to struggle futily in his bonds. After a long pause, Chrysalis let out a short laugh that soon grew into a loud peal. She grinned viciously and turned her attention to the figure, "A most interesting proposal. I think, for now, we have a deal... Princess Celestia."
Princess Celestia smiled thinly, the expression lacking any of the normal beatific warmth as Queen Chrysalis advanced on the helpless, bound pony, her eyes and horn glowing a sickly green as she prepared to feed.
His screams echoed throughout the hive.
Princess Twilight Sparkle was aware of the banging in her head. Where was it coming from? Why won't it stop and just let her sleep?
The purple alicorn's eyes snapped open and she found herself staring at the ceiling in her new palace bedchamber. Was the banging a dream? No, she heard it again, louder this time. Insistent. Desperate, even.
With a groan of frustration, Twilight rolled out of bed, her horn glowing as she used her magic to smooth down her frizzy hair. Spike was blissfully undisturbed by the now loud banging, the little dragon snoring faintly in his box by Twilight's bed (despite there being plenty of other bedrooms in the new castle, he had insisted on sleeping in her room in that old box of his). Twilight couldn't help but smile as she walked past the sleeping dragon and moved out of the room.
The source of the banging was the front door. Twilight felt a twinge of annoyance rise up inside her. "Who in Equestria would be knocking this late at night?" she asked rhetorically as she used her magic to open the door. Whoever she might've mused would be there, Twilight had to agree that this was likely one of her last guesses.
"Princess Celestia?" Twilight asked hesitantly, "It's rather late... is something wrong?"
The larger alicorn stepped through the crystalline doors into the palace proper, her cloak flowing behind her. "Twilight," Celestia said, casting a furtive look around the room, "You're all right?"
"Yes," Twilight replied, her brows furrowing with concern, "Uh... why wouldn't I be?"
An expression of relief spread over Celestia's features for a moment before they set again. "I'm sorry, Twilight, but I don't have time to explain. I need you to do something for me."
"Anything, Princess Celestia," Twilight said immediately as she watched her mentor nuzzle open a saddlebag and pull out a book. Twilight's eyes widened, though her gaze flickered curiously towards Celestia and then to her horn; the lack of magic use was noted by the astute young mare, though why that would be she could not guess. The older alicorn set the book carefully down at Twilight's feet.
"You need to read this, Twilight," Celestia said even as Twilight's magic flowed over the tome and lifted it off the floor, "If I should fail, it will explain everything. Perhaps you can find a way."
"Find a way?" Twilight asked, turning her gaze from the ornate cover of the book (no title, though -- hmm, curious) back to her former teacher, "What is this, Princess Celestia?"
"It is... a journal," the other alicorn replied after a bit of hesitation.
Twilight tilted her head to one side, "A journal? Like the one you wrote with Luna?"
Celestia shook her head, "No, this is my personal journal. My sister knows not its contents." Celestia hesitated before her head dropped, a frown marring her features, "That isn't accurate. It is more like... my confession."
"Confession?" Twilight asked with sudden alarm, "Confession of what?"
"You'll have to read it, Twilight," Celestia stated evasively before her ears suddenly perked and she looked behind her. She stared through the still-open door of the castle as a rumble of thunder could be heard.
Odd, mused Twilight idly, the thought bubbling up from the worry and questions already in her mind, I don't remember there being any storms scheduled today. Certainly not this late at night.
"I have to go, Twilight," Celestia stated as she turned back to her former pupil, "Read the book. It has the answers you need. Also... ask my sister to investigate the possible disappearance of one of the night time Royal Guard. I don't know who it might be, but look for a stallion with orange eyes. Earth pony."
Twilight frowned in worry, but nodded her assent.
Celestia hesitated as she peered down at her former student. Suddenly, the larger alicorn moved towards the smaller and wrapped her in a surprisingly fierce, but still gentle, hug. "No matter what happens, Twilight, I want you to know... I'm very, very proud of you. If you believe nothing else from me, believe that."
Conflicting emotions of worry and unease dueled with the satisfaction and happiness in Twilight's mind and she found herself at a bit of a loss. She hugged her mentor back and replied softly, "I'll... I'll believe that. Thank you, Princess Celestia."
The older alicorn held Twilight for a moment more before releasing her and stepping back, her eyes shining with tears. "I must go. Good bye, Twilight." Rain had begun to pour down outside and lightening flashed before the crack of thunder, silhouetting Celestia starkly for a moment. She hesitated then looked over her shoulder at Twilight, "And tell my sister... I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry." With that, the Princess of the Sun slipped out into the dark and stormy night.
Worry clawed at Twilight's psyche as she watched her mentor disappear, closing the door as her focus switched to the book. "Well, I suppose I should read you," she said to the inanimate object before turning around and heading back upstairs.
One of the very nice things about the new castle was how well appointed the study was. Twilight settled down on a plush couch underneath a bright reading light and opened the book, her eyes scanning the page as more thunder rumbled outside.
Tia's eyes flickered up over the roofs of the adjourning buildings, watching as a blue alicorn she could never remember the name of drew out a red and gold banner between two rods in either side of the street. Her eyes quickly moved away, shifting to regard her red-maned mother beside her and her sister who trotted along excitedly behind the pair.
"I don't see what all the fuss is about," the pink haired alicorn filly said to her mother, "I mean, Stardancer's birthday was last month and the whole town didn't decorate for her. Why are me and Luna any different?"
"Because we're twins," Luna stated as she came up beside her sister, a weary sigh punctuating the sentence, "Twins are very ousp... asp... oop--"
"'Auspicious' is the word you're looking for," Tia completed with a note of annoyance.
"Yeah, that!" Luna exclaimed, grinning broadly.
"But auspicious of what exactly?" Tia asked frustration evident in her voice, "We haven't even done anything yet. And it's not like we got this treatment last year."
"Well, I think it's awesome," Luna stated with a bright smile, holding up her head imperiously, "Besides, it's not like we can't do anything. I can already do this!" The dark maned filly closed her eyes tightly in concentration as her horn began to glow with the customary glittery blue of her magic. The wobbling band of magic slowly grew as the trio walked along the narrow thoroughfare of the main street towards the shopping district before suddenly expanding to encompass her body. In a flash of light, the filly disappeared and then instantly reappeared a few steps ahead of the other two, Tia rolling her eyes at the display.
"Luna!" their mother scolded, frowning at the small alicorn, "What have I told you about teleporting in public? It's rude."
Luna's ears flattened against her head as she looked down before falling into step beside her mother, "Sorry, mom."
"I still wanna know what we're supposed to be auspicious of," Tia prodded her mother, nudging the older alicorn with her side as the three continued their journey.
The matronly alicorn sighed, shaking her head before replying, "We don't know yet, Tia. Even the most powerful divining magics can't say precisely. But it is the case that children are rare for us and twins almost vanishingly so. There has never been a case where twins born didn't go on to do something amazing."
Tia frowned and flattened her ears, staring at the ground again. "I just... don't feel that special, that's all. It makes me kinda... y'know... feel weird."
"That's because you're not special," Luna replied with a smug smile, "All you ever do is sit in your room and read and ask questions. You never go out and do anything yourself!"
"Luna!" their mother snapped, furrowing her brows at the filly in question, "That was uncalled for. Apologize to your sister right now."
"Now, young filly."
Luna huffed and dropped behind the pair only to trot back up beside her sister, and spoke in a slightly begrudging tone, "I'm sorry."
Their mother was about to snap at Luna again when Tia spoke up, "It's fine, mom. She's right, anyway."
An expression of concern passed over Luna's features that was echoed in the larger alicorn. Luna bumped herself up against her sister and offered a wide smile, "Hey, c'mon. I was just kidding. You don't need to worry about some dumb oss... auspliciousiness. I'll be amazing enough for the both of us." The filly stopped to wrap her hooves around Tia in a hug, which the pink haired filly returned after a moment.
"Come along, you two," their mother said gently as she looked down at them and smiled, "We still have to meet your father. He's getting your presents for tonight."
"Yaay, presents!" Luna cheered, releasing her sister from the hug and waving her hooves in the hair before galloping on ahead with their mother in hot pursuit. Tia watched as the two trotted on ahead and smiled faintly, turning her eyes up towards the cloudless blue sky and the bright orb of the sun as it shined down on them before hurrying to catch up with her sister and mother.
The sky was already turning golden with the approaching dusk as the trio found themselves in front of one of the many storefronts in the town. Luna and Tia had barely stepped up to the doorway before it opened and out stepped the tall, lean figure of their father, a pair of carefully wrapped gifts floating behind him. One was thin and long and encased in dark blue wrapping paper peppered with starry patterns that glittered in the light, while the other was much more short and squat and covered with deep rich red wrapping paper speckled with gold.
"There's my two little princesses!" their father exclaimed heartily as he bespied his two children, "All ready for your birthday, girls?"
"Yup!" chirped Luna excitedly as she bounded around her father, "Ooh, are those our presents?"
The patriarch alicorn laughed and reached over to tussle the filly's mane with a hoof, "Indeed they are, Lulu! Very special gifts!"
An embarrassed blush flushed on Luna's face before she spoke out in a faint whine, "Daaaaad. Don't call me that any more. I'm not a little foal."
"Aww, c'mon," her father childed her gently, again ruffling Luna's mane, "At least give an old stallion this much."
Luna let out an exaggerated sigh, rolling her eyes, "Oh, fine. Just please don't do it at the party in front of all our friends, okay?"
Rumbling laughter burst out from the tall, lanky alicorn and a wide grin split his features, "I make no promises!" Luna scrunched her muzzle in consternation but her father winked, "But I'll try, okay?" That seemed to satisfy the filly who smiled brightly up at the other alicorn.
He turned his attention to Tia and his demeanor suddenly became much more reserved, "And what about you, young lady? Looking forward to the festivities?"
"I guess," Tia replied noncommittally, causing both parents to exchange looks of concern. Luna rolled her eyes again, "She's been like this all day. You'd think she wasn't happy about it at all!"
"Is that true, Tia?" her father asked gently, "Is something wrong with the party?"
"There's nothing wrong with the party!" Tia replied with a note of exasperation in her voice, "I just... I just don't see what all the big deal is, that's all. I know we're twins and supposed to do great things and all, but I just... just don't feel all that great and powerful."
Again, both parents exchanged looks.
"Tia," her mother spoke suddenly, though with gentle, patient tones, "Sometimes events -- even birthday parties -- can be more for others than yourself. You might not understand it or even be comfortable with it, but it's still important to others."
"Yes, mother," Tia replied, looking down.
"Cheer up, dear heart," the patriarch of the family stated with a grin to the pink maned alicorn, "At least try to enjoy yourself a little? For this old stallion?"
Tia looked up into the grinning features of her father and offered a tentative smile, "All right. I'll try."
His grin widened and he clopped his hooves against the ground happily. "Great! Now, we should head to the town square. They've probably set up the whole thing by now. We wouldn't want to be late!"
"Let's go! Let's go!" Luna said excitedly, hopping in place for a moment before galloping down the street ahead of the pack.
"Luna! Don't run off ahead!" her mother scolded as she, in turn, headed off to catch up to the errant filly.
Alternating patterns of blue and black banners criss-crossed with red and gold lined the parameter of the square. The centerpiece of the town, a large ornate golden gazebo with a flowing fountain inside, was stuffed full of various dignitaries of the town while benches and tables had been strewn throughout the area, all with various sundry treats of both the sweet and savory variety. Near the gazebo was an exceptionally long table, filled with gifts and two cushioned seats at the head, one red velvet, the other a dark blue. Between the seats and benches various amusements and games had been set up and the scant few alicorn fillies of the town frolicked and cavorted between them as the adults mostly hovered around the tables.
Luna's eyes grew wide and she let out a small squeal of delight as she spied the various wonders in the square and immediately trotted off to inspect them. Tia stayed by her parents who began to chat with one of the other adults. After a few minutes, a young powder blue filly with a bright white mane trotted up to Tia.
"Hello, Stardancer," Tia greeted the other filly.
"Tia! I can't wait to show you what I learned!"
Tia blinked questioningly at Stardancer, canting her head to one side.
"It's for the celebration!" Stardancer continued proudly, drawing herself up, "A true display of magic!"
Tia found herself smiling in spite of herself at the other filly's enthusiasm, "I'm sure it will be great. You're always really good with magic."
Stardancer grinned broadly then reached a hoof over to tug on Tia's shoulder lightly, "C'mon, you should join the rest of us! There'll be time enough apart when you're sitting at the big table."
"I... I don't know," Tia replied uneasily, glancing over at where Luna was engaged in a game involving magically guiding small dull pins along a precise shape of thin cracker, "I think I should stay by my parents."
"Oh, don't worry about us!" Tia's father suddenly cut in, bowing his head to the pair of fillies, "We'll be fine. Remember what I asked you to do, Tia? This may be a great time to do it!"
Tia hesitated again before offering up a smile to Stardancer and following her over towards where the other fillies played.
"Still having those bad dreams?" Stardancer asked rather bluntly while they were only partway to their destination.
Tia winced, but reluctantly replied, "Yes. They've been worse recently."
"You really should tell your folks, Tia," Stardancer stated with a frown and worried brow, "I mean, I'm only just beginning with magic. You might need some real help."
"It's fine," Tia replied tersely, "Really. Besides..." Tia looked over her shoulder at where her parents still chatted away with other alicorn adults, "I think they may already know." The pink maned filly shook her head quickly, determination settling on her features, "They're just some bad dreams, Stardancer. I can handle that. I'm not a foal."
Stardancer looked doubtful, but said nothing more.
The party proceeded fairly uneventfully after that and Tia found herself actually enjoying the festivities in spite of herself. It was good, she had to admit, to forget the bad dreams and just be a filly enjoying herself for once. By the time it was to open the presents, the dark mood that had affected her ever since that morning had slowly abated.
Tia sat with her sister at the head of the long table as the pair systematically went through the various gifts given by the townsfolk. A pile of various toys, books, and other amusements had been set aside as the last two gifts were presented to the pair; the ones from their own parents.
Luna unwrapped hers first; the young filly tore at the paper with abandon by both hooves and magic, revealing a lacquered brown box with brass latches on the sides. Curiously, Luna unfastened the latches with her magic and opened up the box to reveal a long metallic tube. Luna just stared blankly at the object.
"It's a telescope," her father clarified as the tube was surrounded by the faint light blue glow of his magic and eased out of the case. The lenses on either end glittered in the fading twilight of approaching night as the telescope swung around then angled up to the stars and moon just beginning to come out in the sky. "Go ahead, look through it."
Luna seemed a bit skeptical but did as instructed, leaning forward and peering through the eyepiece up at the sky. The filly let out a gasp of surprise and her wings fluttered with excitement. "I can... I can see the surface of the moon!" A rumbling laugh tumbled out from her father who couldn't resist tussling Luna's mane as she continued to gaze through the eyepiece in wonder.
"You're named after that place," her mother intoned softly with a smile, "You and your sister's birth straddled the day and the night. She was born when the sun was setting, and you were born when the moon was rising."
"I'm going to go there someday," Luna stated with certainty as she continued to peer through the astronomical device, "I'll be the first pony to set hoof there. You'll see!" This statement resulted in good natured chuckling throughout the gathered crowd.
Tia had paused in her own unwrapping (a much more methodological enterprise compared to Luna's enthusiastic rending) to watch her sister engage with the telescope, but returned to the task soon enough. The paper was removed to reveal an ornate tome, the surface embossed with gold in a complicated, flowing geometrical design. There was a golden clasp on the side with a jagged keyhole. Tia opened the book, but found the pages curiously blank.
"It's a diary, dear," her mother explained, "And a very special one. No matter how much you write in it, there will always be blank pages to add more. And there's a translation spell on it that even works on vernacular, so no matter what you'll always be able to look back and see what you were thinking when you noted something down. And see that lock? Only you and anypony you allow access to will be able to open the book."
"You can put down all your private thoughts in it," her father broke in with a wide smile, "No one will be able to see it. Not even your mother or I!"
"Use it when... when you need to talk about something, but don't feel you can come to us or your friends," her mother finished, a worried but understanding smile gracing her features.
Tia looked from one parent to the other before turning her attention back to the book, closing it and hearing the latch snap shut on its own. "Thank you."
"And now!" a voice suddenly broke through the general babble of voices. The crowd parted slightly to reveal Stardancer, standing proudly a small ways away, "For the finale!" The filly closed her eyes and concentrated while the crowd of alicorns watched expectantly, her horn glowing brightly. For several moments nothing happened, but quite suddenly there was a loud whistle and a bang as the now night sky erupted in a shower of sparks and light rays that arced across the square in a dazzling, swirling arrangement of light. Even some of the adults seemed impressed by the display and the square erupted in hoof claps.
Tia had to admit, this had been a pretty good birthday.
Tia had finished writing the first entry in her diary when her mother came into the room. Luna, who was occupied with the telescope staring up at the stars through their window, didn't even look over at the older alicorn.
"All right you two. Time for bed."
"Aww," Luna said dejectedly as she turned away from window, "Can't we stay up a little longer? Please? It's our birthday!"
"It's already far too late as it is," their mother stated primly, "C'mon, off to bed the both of you."
Tia had already closed her diary and was trotting over to her bed when she heard her sister whine again, "But I'm not even tired! The night's better, anyway!" A stern glare from their mother caused Luna's ears to flatten and the filly to shrink from the gaze, "All right, mom." Dejectedly, Luna packed up her telescope and went to her bed on the other opposite side of the room from Tia's. For her own part, Tia was asleep before the light went out.
Grey fog curled around Tia's hooves as she stared into the empty blackness surrounding her. There was ground of some type under her feet, but no matter how much she tried to push away the fog, she could not see it. There was light, but it seemed to come from no where in particular and still did nothing to illuminate the yawning maw of darkness that stretched on and on in all directions. Yet still... there was the constant, gnawing sensation of being watched.
Though there wasn't any danger apparent, Tia was afraid.
"Hello? Is anyone there?" she called out into the black.
Only silence greeted her.
With nothing else to do, Tia decided to walk forward.
The young filly glanced around her from time to time, but there was nothing but that impenetrable blackness. Still, the sensation of being observed persisted.
She seemed to walk on and on for quite some time, but no landmarks or features or ponies or anything presented themselves. Suddenly Tia stopped as the crushing realization hit her all at once.
She was alone.
Utterly and completely. There was no one and nothing in the blackness. Just her, herself. Even the sensation of being watched was wrong.
Panic began to well up in the filly as she glanced wildly about her, searching for something or somepony to relieve the oppressive loneliness.
"I know you're there!" she cried out into the black, her voice cracking with the rising panic, "Come out! Please come out!"
Only silence greeted her again.
Her breathing hardened and her heart raced and she began to run off through the curling fog, blind panic fueling her featureless advance through the dark.
Wait, what was that...? A figure in the fog?
Tia skidded to a halt and rapidly changed her trajectory towards the figure, racing as fast as she could towards it. It was shadowy and indistinct, and the parts there didn't make any sense, like the silhouette of a bunch of different animals crudely collected and sewn together. But Tia didn't care... it was something in this endless black.
She heard a laugh -- no, more of a cackle -- tinged with sly cruelty and madness. It didn't matter, she was running to the figure, whatever it may be.
But just as she was nearing it and the features began to get more distinct, it disappeared, melting away into the fog like more mist.
Tia heard another laugh from another direction, this one different. It was a laugh of exultation, yet still colored with malice. Tia turned towards the laughter and saw another figure in the mist, this one clearly an alicorn. She again changed her course towards it.
Again, though, just as she approached, the figure dissolved into mist and floated down to mingle with the fog still coiling around her legs.
Yet another laugh from yet a different direction. This one was booming, filled with power. Tia again moved to intercept to be greeted with the silhouette of... something. The bottom was pony, surely, but the top was... something else. Minotaur, perhaps? Again, she didn't care. She ran as fast as she could towards the towering figure.
And once more, just as she approached, the figure melted into the mist.
Tia finally stopped her mad dash into the dark and sat down, tears streaming from her eyes. "Who are you? What do you want from me?"
As if to answer her query, another figure appeared in front of her in the dark. This time, she did not chase it, but it seemed as if that was unnecessary; the figure was approaching.
Clearly an alicorn this time, but larger than the other she saw. As the oppressive darkness cleared, Tia could see the white coat and rainbow mane on the alicorn that flowed behind her like water. A golden breastplate with an inset red jewel was worn on the front, and a rounded golden helm that compressed the bright flowing mane sat on the alicorn's brow. She stopped just before Tia and stared down with cold imperiousness at the filly, mouth a thin line. She stood there for a long while, just staring down at Tia and the filly could not find her own voice as she stared back. Finally, the figure spoke, the voice cold and hard and pitiless.
"You are alone," she said, "You will always be alone."
Then the alicorn's wings spread wide and a harsh light and withering heat poured forth from the alicorn, her eyes glowing brightly in the dark like each was the sun themselves. Tia screamed as the light and heat intensified, blinding her, searing her flesh--
Tia woke with a start, breathing heavily and looking wildly about the darkened bedroom. "Just a dream," she murmured to herself before letting out a squeak of surprise as a loud noise bombarded her ears and a flash of light from the window briefly illuminated the room. Lightening and thunder? No, this was different.
Another loud boom and flash awoke Luna nearby, the filly falling out of her bed and hitting the floor hard. "Ow," she said ruefully, "What was that?"
"I don't know," Tia replied, frowning as she got out of her own bed and moved to the window, "It woke me up, too." Tia unfastened the latch on the window and pushed it open, her eyes widening in shock at the scene that greeted her.
Chrysalis found herself uneasy. It wasn't just that she was walking through the depths of the Everfree Forest -- the reputation was fearsome, to be sure, but she was reasonably certain she could handle almost anything within its confines. It wasn't just that she was close to Canterlot and Ponyville, the seat of Equestrian power and the locale of the Elements of Harmony respectively -- she was reasonably certain her current guise and her companion could dissuade any problems on that front.
No, what bothered Chrysalis was the form she had been told to take while on this assignment; that of the Princess of the Night Luna.
When Chrysalis had usurped Princess Cadence, she had weeks to observe her quarry via her agents in the capital. Even with Princess Celestia, she had ample opportunity to watch. Luna however... had been different. Even when masquerading as Cadence, Chrysalis rarely saw the ancient alicorn. On the few occasions she did meet with the Princess of the Night, she had seemed standoffish and on her guard. Originally, Chrysalis had worried this was because Luna had seen through her disguise, but as the weeks passed and no reprisals suddenly decended on her, she had discounted this hypothesis. Even still, the nagging sensation of Luna watching her and knowing wouldn't go away.
All of that was irrelevant to her current feelings, however. No, what made her uneasy was that she had no idea how Luna truly acted. There was no baseline to run off of, no way to weave a convincing facismile. She was certain she could fool most ponies or casual aquaintences, but anyone who knew the Princess well might certianly be able to see through her. It led to the Queen of the Changelings feeling strangely vulnerable, a sensation she did not like at all.
"Are you certain I should not recall a few of my subjects to accompany us?" Chrysalis asked in Luna's voice to the alicorn beside her as they trudged through the thick and wild underbrush of the Everfree Forest, "It would be an easy thing for them to disguise themselves as a royal escort and be ready to aid should the need arise."
"Your brood is more useful in their current assignments," Celestia replied matter-of-factly, "They will be critical for the upcoming parts of my plan."
Chrysalis said no more; in her brief time in this alliance with Celestia, she had learned not to argue with the alicorn, a fact that irritated the Queen more than she let on. Still, it would be worth it if she could be relieved, even just a bit, from this damnable hunger constantly clawing at her insides.
The pair walked on through the Everfree forest in silence, the thick canopy blocking out most of the moon and starlight and their way lit by the bright yet somehow harsh white light glowing from Celestia's horn. The pale glow cast ghostly shadows over everything and more than a few of the denizens of the forest could be seen darting away from the light. After a while, they came on a small clearing in the dense forest, dominated by a gnarled old tree. The tree was festooned with vines and ropes from which hung corked bottles as well as a few tribal masks (Chrysalis sifted through her drone's memories and decided that the masks were of Zebra origin). Set in the front of the tree and seeming to be grown there were a pair of mishapen ovoid windows and a wooden door.
"This is our destination," Celestia said, "Do not speak unless directly spoken to and be ready to attack at a moments notice. Zacora is more cunning than she may seem at first."
This information did nothing to help Chrysalis' mood, but she kept silent.
Celestia walked up to the door and rapped a hoof against it. No answer came after a pregnant pause, so she rapped again.
This time noises could be heard inside and light began to stream through the windows. A few moments later and the door swung open slowly revealing a zebra with a slightly mussed mohawk and winking away sleep. She peered owlishly at the pair before her before canting her head to one side, "Quite late at night to be, wandering through the Forest of Everfree."
Celestia affected a kindly smile (Chrysalis was impressed by the change in demeanor; it was almost as good as a Changeling -- except for the eyes... the kindness never reached the eyes) and bowed her head to the zebra, "Greetings Zacora. We are terribly sorry to wake you, but a matter of immense importance has arisen. May we come inside?"
Chrysalis stiffened slightly as she noticed the zebra's eyes narrow slightly at Celestia, but relaxed again when Zacora pulled back and bade them enter -- likely, the narrowed eyes were trying to focus through a haze of sleep.
On entering the house, Chrysalis was mildly surprised at how spacious it was. She was further bemused by the sheer amount of odd bric-a-brac and pots and pans left lying around. If not for the tribal decor, it would not look out of place as a mad scientist's abode in a Derring Doo novel. In fact, the tribal decor might enhance that.
"Thank you very much, Zacora," Celestia said as she peered around the confines of the room, "I'll be brief: I fear there is a danger facing Equestria. I'm not sure as to its origin or nature, but I do believe I know the first target." Celestia focused her eyes on the zebra, "I understand that Twilight entrusted you with an ancient artifact of great power. The Alicorn Amulet?"
Zacora listened intently, head canted to one side and paused for a long time before replying. "The Alicorn Amulet is quite a powerful foe, as to if I have it... how would you know?"
Celestia smiled again, though Chrysalis noted with a small bout of schadenfrude that her mask betrayed a segment of irritation. "Twilight may not write to me regularly any longer, but the... incident... in question where the Amulet was revealed was made known to me." Her voice turned plaintive, "Please, Zacora, it's important that I take it from here and bring it back to Canterlot where it can be secured. I fear we may not have much time."
"If this enemy knew the Amulet was here, would it not be better if it just merely... disappeared?" Zacora asked, "Canterlot is a fortress, as safe as a locked book, but is also the first place one would look."
"Perhaps," Celestia consented, "But it is also the one place I can be sure to keep watch over it. I don't believe merely hiding it would work."
Zacora paused again, pursing her lips and staring intently first at Celestia then at Luna. Without another word, the zebra turned and moved towards one of the many shelves on the walls. She carefully pushed a few odds and ends away with a hoof then pulled out a small laquered box with a silver lock on the front. Zacora set the box down and stepped back, looking at the pair of supposed alicorns expectedly.
Silence reigned in the hollowed out tree for several beats before Celestia spoke. "It's in there?"
Zacora said nothing.
Chrysalis shuffled her hooves uncomfortably -- something she didn't quite understand was going on here and that made her discomfort even more manifest. Celestia slowly approached the box and circled the table it sat on, her eyes focusing on the item. After a complete circuit, the alicorn stopped and stared at the lock for a long moment before closing her eyes. Her horn began to glow with bright magic, filling the entire room with white, harsh light, so bright that Chrysalis had to shield her eyes. It only lasted for a few seconds before there was a loud clunk and click. Chrysalis opened her eyes and saw the lid of the box open, revealing...
Nothing. The box was empty.
Celestia turned around and faced Zacora, a beatific smile in her features. "I trust this has verified my person?"
Zacora paused again then smiled herself, bowing her head once, "To be sure, I had to be. The Alicorn Amulet is so very dangerous, you see." The zebra turned to a different corner of the tree and bent down to pull out a brown earthenware pot that she upended on the table. With a jingle and a thud, a carefully wrapped burlap cloth came tumbling out. Celestia's smile widened as her magic surrounded the bundle and pulled it up to examine, carefully unwrapping it. The red jewel and odd angular shape of the Alicorn Amulet greeted her and she nodded in satisfaction. "Thank you, Zecora," Celestia said to the zebra, bowing her head to her before immediately turning around and moving towards the door, "Now I must get this to safety as quickly as possible. Sleep well. Luna! We go."
Once back in the Everfree forest and safely out of earshot, Chrysalis finally spoke again. "You should've killed her after you got the amulet," she stated flatly, "Or at least allowed me to bring some of my Changelings to capture her. She's a loose end."
"Perhaps," Celestia allowed, though her eyes remained fixed on the bundle still held before her in the harsh white glow of her magic, "But a fight would've delayed us even more and I believe we are already being persued."
"Persued!" Chrysalis asked in alarm, "By whom?"
Celestia allowed her gaze to wander away from the bundle to her walking companion, a sardonic smile spreading on her features, "Oh, don't worry so. I have anticipated this."
"And what of the zebra?" Chrysalis asked ruefully, irritation at the smug visage of her companion rising again, "You're taking an awful risk she won't tell anyone about this."
"Oh, I'm sure she will," Celestia remarked matter-of-factly, "Quite soon, probably. You saw how suspicious she was. But even if she was suspicious, I doubt she will risk going through the Everfree at night. She will wait until first light before heading off."
Chrysalis grumbled to herself but said nothing more as they travelled through the forest. After a few moments more, however, the Changeling Queen spoke again, "Is not our business concluded in this wretched place? Why are we still here?"
"Our business is not yet concluded here," Celestia said brusquely, "There are a few more errands that must be done this night."
Through the clearing, Chrysalis saw the crumbling towers of the old Castle of the Two Sisters in the distance. At first, she had thought this was to be their destination, but Celestia had turned and lead them towards a deep canyon, away from the bridge across it and towards the crumbling edifice. Brambles and twisted foliage descended down the steep sides into a deep gloom below. Celestia's eyes scanned the crevasse, squinting slightly as she searched for something below.
"There," she said, pointing with one hoof, "We must go there."
Chrysalis peered into the darkness and could see nothing. Before she could say so, however, Celestia unfurled her wings and began to glide down into the murky shadows. After a moment's hesitation, Chrysalis followed.
Their hooves crunched on the strangely barren ground, surrounded on all sides by the steep slopes of the canyon and surprisingly thick foliage. The pair walked in silence for a while before Celestia suddenly stopped, holding out a hoof to prevent Chrysalis from continuing. "Here. This is it."
Again, Chrysalis saw nothing. Just more plants. "Here's what?"
"The Tree of Harmony," Celestia said, her lips curling in a thin, cold smile, staring straight at one of the trees here; a particularly healthy and thick specimen. It looked distinctly unremarkable to Chrysalis.
"A tree," Chrysalis said, deadpan, "We came all the way out here for a tree?"
A quiet chuckle raised from the Princess of the Sun as she shook her head, "It's no mere tree. It contains the Elements of Harmony."
Chrysalis blinked twice and took a step backwards, staring in alarm at the tree. "Impossible!" she said, "The Elements are in Canterlot."
"Your intelligence is outdated," Celestia replied dryly as she moved closer to the tree, the bundle containing the Alicorn Amulet slipping away and dropping unceremoniously on the floor as the amulet itself remained floating in place before her, before suddenly moving out of sight to the underbrush, "The Elements were placed her for... safe keeping, I suppose you could say."
"You mean Equestria is defenseless?!" Chrysalis exclaimed, internally annoyed that her spies had missed a critical weakness for so long.
"Not defenseless," Celestia replied with a shake of her head, "The Elements are merely tools. Means by which the inherent magic of their essences can be brought forth. There are other ways to do the same thing. Still, a tool unused is a waste." She glanced over at her changeling companion, a darkly amused smile spreading on her features, "Don't worry, you haven't wasted a great opportunity. If you had tried another invasion, you would've been crushed. There were some... special circumstances that even allowed you to get so far the last time."
Chrysalis was about to ask about these "special circumstances" when a quiet crunch behind them heralded the arrival of somepony new. Chrysalis whirled around and gasped, wide-eyed at what she saw; a second Celestia stood there, clad in a cloak and her wings unfurled out and horn glowing with radiant, warm yellow power. Momentarily stunned, Chrysalis looked between both alicorns.
"Ahh, there you are," Celestia -- the first Celestia -- replied to the interloper, the amused smile still playing on her features.
"Whatever it is you are planning, I won't allow it," the second Celestia stated, eyes warily moving between Chrysalis and her doppelganger. She snorted derisively, "Resorting to alliances with bugs? My you have fallen far."
Cold, trilling laughter -- a twisted parody of mirth -- echoed through the canyon. "Oh, Tia, you're not good at this at all, are you," the first Celestia replied with a shake of her head, "Not only is that not much of a taunt, trying to put a wedge between dear Chrysalis and myself by using a slur is just so obvious." She looked reproachfully at her other self, "Really, I thought I had taught you better than that."
The cloaked Celestia's eyes narrowed. "I am better."
"We shall see," replied the first Celestia, still smiling in cold amusement. Her eyes darted around the canyon for a moment before frowning faintly. "What, no Luna? Not your faithful student and her friends? Not even any guards? Tsk, tsk, Celestia. I didn't expect you to come alone."
"I don't need anyone else to put you back into your place," Celestia's eyes darted towards Chrysalis, "Or her."
"Unfortunate," the first Celestia said, still frowning, "Now I'll have to hunt them down individually once Equestria is won. Still. My timetable is not too adversely affected. A few weeks more before the final blow is landed hardly matter."
The second Celestia's horn flared and she reared up in a battle stance, "You won't get the chance for anything, demon!" A sudden blast of hot, yellow magic erupted from her horn, moving straight towards the pair. Chrysalis couldn't help it -- she flinched away from the beam. Even when she was energized by Shining Armor's love, she had not felt such power; had the Princess always been capable of such? If so, why did she allow herself to lose? Chrysalis felt a pang of regret that she'd never get the answer to those questions as she fully expected to be vaporized.
But that didn't happen.
Tentatively, Chrysalis opened her eyes and was greeted by an amazing sight. The yellow-hot beam of magical energy cast cloying shadows on the ground, yet it did not hit her. No, the entire thing seemed to be... drawn, sort of compressed to a point in front of the floating Alicorn Amulet that her Celestia held out in front of her like a shield. Cold, quiet confidence emanated from the white alicorn in the face of the overwhelming power in front of them, like she was merely presiding over some official function rather than facing down the energy of the sun itself. The glare meant that Chrysalis could not see beyond her immediate surroundings, but she heard a voice struggle to speak beyond the light: "What... are.... you doing?"
"Taking what is rightfully mine," Celestia replied, her voice a sibilant whisper. A few moments more passed before the cascade of magical energy suddenly stopped, leaving the darkness of the canyon even more repressive for the previous light. Chrysalis blinked several times to clear the spots in her eyes then squinted as she peered into the dark.
There lie the cloaked Celestia, collapsed on her side. Still conscious, but only able to weakly flail her limbs, gasping for breath.
Beside her, Chrysalis saw her Celestia staring at the Alicorn Amulet with barely restrained glee. The central crystal glowed red with power, pulsing like a heartbeat and sending a sickly crimson light around the area. "At last," Celestia whispered, her face a mask of sadistic triumph. The alicorn stared at the jewel for several moments before closing her eyes, her horn igniting with pure, cold white light that soon was drawn off and swirled around the amulet like a snake before being drawn into the center. The pulsing frequency increased, becoming more rapid until finally it shone with a steady, blood red light. With an affectation of ceremony, Celestia levitated the amulet over her head and let it hang around her neck before opening her eyes and letting out a sigh of contentment.
"The... Alicorn Amulet...?" the prone Celestia gasped, peering up at her double.
The first Celestia ignored her, instead turning towards the large tree that housed the Elements of Harmony. Again, she closed her eyes and began to murmur in an arcane, eldrich tongue as her horn glowed once more, an answering brightness registering in the gem of the amulet. The Tree of Harmony shook, its branches turning and twisting, becoming gnarled and withered. Six hollows (which Chrysalis was surprised not to have noticed until this point) began to glow in a rainbow of colors that quickly shifted to more sedated hues. Finally, six geometrical gems floated out from the tree, it's grey, withered bark cracking as they were removed from the hollows in which they sat.
A rumble of thunder registered in the sky.
"What... have you done?" the second Celestia gasped, horror in the face and voice.
"Begun the first step," Celestia replied, still not looking back at her counterpart, "To bringing true order to Equestria. My order." She smiled thinly, the six gems floating in front of her for a moment more before five slid into her saddle bags and the final one -- a sickly yellow amber color and circular in shape -- floated in front of Chrysalis. "I bestow upon you, Queen Chrysalis of the Changeling Swarms," Celestia intoned, "The title of Bearer for the Element of Intrigue. The first in the Elements of Tyranny."
Chrysalis had to stop herself from laughing at the names; something told her that to do so would be a very bad idea. To her surprise, the gem before her began to change shape, becoming a stylized changeling drone. It floated towards her, then pressed against her throat. Chrysalis felt searing pain for a moment, letting out a cry, but the feeling soon passed. What remained was astounding.
She had always had mental contact with her drones, but this was at a level that was beyond the pale. She could drill down to the very life-force of each of her brood, sense everything they sensed, and knew instinctively that she could give orders of such precision and complexity as to rival the most intricate clockwork. And she could do this effortlessly; it took no more mental concentration to do that than to move a hoof. It was like the swarm wasn't merely a collective of drones, but true pieces of her body. It was an intoxicating feeling.
Chrysalis marvelled for a moment at the sensations running through her before she looked down. The gem had fused with her barrel, integrating with the chitin as if it had always been there. The Changeling Queen frowned briefly, but then decided she didn't care. This power was worth the price.
"Summon some of your drones," Celestia stated, turning towards her still gasping and prone other self, "Have them carry her back to the Hive and secure her. Make certain that she is undamaged. I'm not through with her yet. We need to withdraw for the moment to prepare the next phase."
With that, Celestia unfurled her wings and took off to the air, heading in the direction of the Hive. Chrysalis watched her go with narrowed eyes before turning her attention to the prone clone. Briefly, she considered killing the Princess, but decided against it and exercised her new powers to bring an honor guard to do as her Celestia wished.
The town was in flames. Gouts of fire poured out from windows and doors in several houses, several others being entirely encased in incandescent inferno. Tia saw shadows silhouetted against the flames, flashing into illumination as they ran back and forth trying to organize some kind of bucket brigade to control the out of control conflagration.
Another flash of light -- bright enough that it made spots appear before her eyes -- caught the filly's attention and her eyes drifted up to the sky. There, they widened as she took in the sight before her.
There was a massive cloud of... something... hanging over the town, like a storm cloud but seeming to exude hostility and destruction. It was dark against the night sky, but Tia could still tell that it was a dark green in color, the roiling, boiling interior occasionally lit up by one of the flashes of light which would then discharge as a sickly green lightening bolt to the ground, occasionally starting a fire where it hit. Tia watched, mouth agape, as several dozen of the adult alicorns fought with the amorphous mass, blasting it with bolts of pure magic from their horns, sweeping down and slicing through it with their wings, and in some cases just batting it with their hooves. Sickly green tendrils oozed from the cloud and slashed at the alicorns fighting it, occasionally managing to hit one and sending the poor soul spiraling to the ground.
Most stood up after a few moments, shook themselves off, then returned skyward to again engage the cloud. A few did not.
"What is it, Tia?" she heard Luna ask behind her, trepidation in her voice, "What do you see?"
"There's a... a battle of some kind," Tia replied, "Everyone is fighting a cloud or something."
"A cloud?" Luna asked, confusion in her voice, "Why would--"
Her voice was cut off by the sudden bang of the door to their room as it burst open. Their mother was there, frazzled mane, with a few bruises and scratches on her body and coat peppered with soot. Her breath heaved as she gasped for breath, the worry in her features settling somewhat as she spied her children.
"Oh, thank the Maker," she murmured to herself before addressing the pair, her voice tight yet projecting a serious calm as she gathered them to her, "Luna, Tia. We-- I-- need you two to do something. It's very important and big responsibility. Do you think you can handle it?"
The two sisters looked askance at each other then turned to their mother and nodded resolutely.
"Good, good," their mother's voice was harried as her eyes flickered to the still-open window, "Candlelight is gathering all the fillies and foals in town downstairs. We need you two to take them out of town. Go to the clearing on the edge by the forest. You both know the place?" Both fillies nodded. "Good. Take everyone there and wait for us."
Luna's brow furrowed, "B-but... why can't you--?"
"We need all of the adults to help the town," their mother interrupted with a shake of her head, "Please, Luna, no more questions. Just do this, okay? It's really important. I need you both to be brave and strong."
Luna frowned faintly but nodded. Tia shifted her weight on her hooves, but otherwise remained quiet.
Their mother smiled a tired but proud smile, gathering both sisters up into her hooves for a tight hug. "No matter what happens, I want you both to know... I'm very, very proud of you. If you believe nothing else, please believe that."
Tia and Luna exchanged worried glances, but returned the fierce hug. It lasted a few moments more before their mother released them. "Okay, let's go." Then she turned and led the way out of the door.
A babble of subdued, fearful voices greeted the twins as they headed downstairs into the main room of their house. As their mother had said, every filly and foal had been gathered here, some already looking quite traumatized, others openly crying. Candlelight flitted between the gaggle of young equines doing her best to calm and reassure them. The golden maned alicorn looked up as the trio stepped into the room proper, letting out a thankful sigh and smiling at them.
"Okay, everyone," Candlelight said, tapping her hooves together to collect the attention of the scared fillies and foals, "You're going on a short little trip. Luna and Tia are in charge."
"A trip? Where?" asked one young filly, frowning suspiciously.
"Just outside town," Candlelight tried to put a little jauntiness in her voice, "Just until the adults can deal with things. It won't take long" Several of the older fillies exchanged worried looks, but luckily no one spoke up. Candlelight clapped her hooves again, "Okay! Everyone get into a line, just like in school. Scarlet Dart, Periwinkle! Carry those foals that are too small. C'mon, c'mon, you all know how to do this." Gradually, the myriad of youthful ponies began to form into a messy line, Tia and Luna stepping into the vanguard.
Luna puffed herself up, standing as tall as she could to present a facade of confidence that she didn't feel. "Okay, everyone," she said to the group, "Let's go. It's not too far. Don't let anyone fall behind. C'mon, one two, one two..." Setting the rhythm of the march, Luna began leading the scraggly line of youthful ponies out the back door, towards the edge of the trees that could be seen in the distance.
Candlelight watched them go then turned to the other alicorn in the room, her face setting hard. "They'll be all right," she said, brushing a comforting wing over the other mare, "We need to get back to the fight. Every single hoof is needed." She turned and moved out the front door, back into the battle. After a few moments more of watching the line of fillies head off towards the wood, Tia and Luna's mother did the same.
The glow from the burning town kept a bizarrely cheerful orange cascading over the area, even as far away from the carnage as the clearing. It had been a bit of a walk, Luna and Tia having to keep the messy line of scared and flighty young equines together through the trek. But they had done it, and once at the clearing at the edge of the woods, Luna let out a weary sigh, "Okay, everypony. We're here."
"Now what?" It was Silverhoof, a light grey colt with an electric blue mane, nervously looking around before turning his attention back to the battle in progress over the town. Although the individuals were indistinct, the beams of magic coming from them and the baleful presence of the dark cloud -- still occasionally flashing with inner light -- could still be easily seen.
"We wait," Tia stated flatly, plunking her flank down on the forest detritus as she peered up at the same point, "Until everypony's parents come and get us."
The young equine crowd exchanged uneasy expressions before, one by one, they all sat down on the ground as well and stared up at the battle in silence. The silence stretched on for several minutes before Luna spoke quietly to her sister, "Kinda beautiful, isn't it?"
Tia threw an incredulous look to Luna in response.
"N-not that I like it!" Luna quickly clarified, holding up her hooves in a gesture of capitulation, "I mean... I m-mean the lights. They're... beautiful. From here it doesn't look like... like..." Luna's voice faded off and tears began to shimmer in her eyes, dancing in the light from the burning town. Tia cast a comforting wing over her sister -- Luna had kept it together during the march over to the clearing, but now that the initial goal had been completed, it was obvious her mind began to take in the full implications of what was happening.
Several more minutes passed as the group continued to watch the battle progress. As the seconds ticked on, the streaks of magic across the sky grew fewer and less intense, while the flashes in the cloud itself began to increase. While no one spoke, everypony knew what it meant: the adults were slowly but surely losing the battle.
Suddenly, Silverhoof stood up, anguish and panic on his features as he turned to the group. "We have to do something!" He cried, pointing to the cloud, "If we don't, our parents will... will..." An uneasy silence again passed over the group.
"What can we possibly do?" Tia spoke first, standing up and moving over to Silverhoof, "If fully grown adults are having trouble, what can a bunch of fillies and colts do? We'd only get in the way. No, we were told to stay here and we'll stay here."
Silverhoof glared at Tia. "We have to do something," he declared resolutely, "I'm not g-going to stand here and let some stupid cloud..." His voice broke for a moment before he collected himself again, "I'm going to help them! Stay here if you want, but I'm going! Who's with me?" He looked over at the collection of young equines. A few shuffled in place and looked away. After a long pause, Violet Star -- appropriately named for her purple coat and black mane -- stood up and stood beside Silverhoof. Soon after, a few of the other ponies did the same. Tia could see from the look on their faces that a few more would join. This was bad. In desperation, Tia looked over to Luna and noted with a twinge of quiet horror that her sister was definitely in the camp considering of joining.
"T... this is a foal's errand!" Tia said to the crowd, trying to regain control, "Luna and I were put in charge. And I say we stay here."
"And what if they don't come back?!" Silverhoof spat with surprising venom, "What if our folks are all hurt? Or... or... k... killed?" The colt seemed surprised that he himself admitted to the fear that nearly all the others had as well; he continued with renewed confidence, "I'd rather go and help and maybe not make a difference than just stand here while my folks fight that thing!" Tia winced as she heard a murmur of agreement from the other ponies. She was in danger of completely losing control.
"And if we go there and we just get in the way?" she countered, "Now our parents have to both fight that thing and worry about us! Why do you think they sent us out here in the first place? So they could deal with the cloud thing without having to protect us as well. We. Can't. Go!" Tia looked around at the crowd and was secretly relieved that her logic seemed to be getting to some of the others... but not everypony.
"I'm still going," Silverhoof stated flatly, "And to Tartarus with anypony who tries to stop me! Anypony else can come along if you want, but don't try to stop me, Tia."
Tia mentally calculated if she could take Silverhoof in a fight. She was reasonably certain she could. With luck, that might get the others to back down. If she lost, however... it would mean whatever amount of her authority remained would be gone and no amount of logic would be enough to keep the whole group from marching back. Tia bent down on her front hooves, ready to fight.
"W-wait!" a voice cried in the back, "I... I think there may be an alternative to going there." All the young equines turned their attention to the speaker. Stardancer. The filly looked somewhat uncomfortable with the attention and swayed in place for a moment, clearing her throat before she spoke up again. "I... I think I can cast a spell that would allow us all to put our magic together for one, big blast. We can move a bit closer, fire it off, then come back here to wait." The filly hesitated, gnawing on her lip for a moment before speaking again, "It's... a complicated spell. I found it in a old book. I've never cast it before and for all I know it won't work or if it does work, it won't make any difference. But if we can cast it, that would mean we can help out our parents and still, technically, be out of harm's way." Stardancer looked expectantly at Tia, "But you're the leader. The choice is yours."
Tia frowned in thought. She could still try to fight Silverhoof, but there was a risk of failure there. This new plan might fail, but if it did it would probably be easier to convince everypony -- even Silverhoof -- that interfering in the fight would create more problems than solve. On the other hoof, if it worked... Tia spared a glance behind her at the still ongoing battle. The magic blasts were much fewer now; in a few more minutes there might not be any point in trying either way. Tia looked over to Luna for guidance; her sister looked unsure for a moment then nodded, her face hardening with determination. Tia sighed and bowed her head. "All right, Stardancer. We'll do things your way."
Stardancer gave a crash-course in the spell on the walk back to the half-way mark between the burning town and the clearing. Technically, only one pony was needed to cast the spell; if it was successful, it would link with the magic of every pony nearby, regardless as to their contribution to the actual spell-casting. But the spell was complex, so having others help shoulder the burden would dramatically increase the chance of success. Unfortunately, the only other ponies who had the understanding and skill to help cast the spell were Tia and Luna.
"Are you certain we need everypony for this?" Tia asked, casting a worried look towards some of the foals being carried, "It's really complicated, Stardancer, and I wouldn't want something to go wrong and hurt one of the foals."
"We need every pony we can get," Stardancer stated with a nod, "The spell remains as complex with one pony as with two dozen, so we're not getting a break on the complexity by having less ponies. The power of the spell, however, is directly proportional to the amount of pony magic used. We only get one shot -- after use, none of us will have the magic reserves to try again for at least a day -- so we need everyone." She hesitated then lowered her voice so only Tia and Luna could hear, "And besides which, if things do go catastrophically wrong... well, it would be better if the foals were involved rather than slowly starving to death with no one to take care of them." Tia grimaced at the grim but logical conclusion and once again had second thoughts. Stardancer seemed to read her mind and offered up a cheery smile, "But don't worry! Even in the worst case, the only thing that's likely to happen is a spell fizzle."
The group of fillies and colts soon reached the mid point between the town and the clearing and Stardancer busied herself gathering all the ponies into a circle around a central point. Stardancer, Tia, and Luna stepped into the center.
"Okay, everyone," Stardancer stated to the assembled ponies, "We're going to start now. Now, the spell will automagically link up with everypony's magic, but it would still be helpful if those of you who have some control over your magic can cast something to prime the pump as it were. It doesn't matter what it is, but something simpler would be better. Just standard telekineses would be fine." She took a deep breath and glanced between Luna and Tia. "Ready?" Both sisters nodded. "Okay, here we go."
The triad of ponies in the middle closed their eyes and began to channel the arcane energies to their horns, which glowed with power. The three points of light at the points of their horns began to grow and throb, streaks of otherworldly lightening cascading across them. Soon, all three merged into a single, startling point of light, a myriad of colors swirling around inside like a rainbow. All three alicorn fillies opened their eyes, now glowing a bright white as chains of energy shot out and linked with the horns of all the other young equines in the circle like a wagon wheel. The energy seemed to have a life of its own, thrashing and squirming as if trying desperately to be freed even as the singular rainbow light-point above them grew in brightness and size. A low hum started, becoming louder and louder until it was a complete cacophony that shook the ground around them and jostled the leaf litter.
With a sudden, piercing shriek, the point of rainbow light burst outward, streaking towards the ominous cloud and leaving behind a wake of sparkling colors. The beam connected with the cloud and a high-pitched scream could be heard as the cloud seemed to solidify before bright cracks appeared over its surface, like mud drying in the sun. The sky exploded with color as the fissures of light in the strangely solid cloud ruptured, sending cascades of rainbow beams pouring out from them. The flashes within the cloud fired angrily and repeatedly as more and more of it was torn asunder, until only a small core remained. With one last high pitched scream composed of rage and pain, the cloud let out another flash -- and a green lightening bolt suddenly arced its way across the beam. It spread fast across the rainbow wake before smacking into the three fillies at the center. Tia, Luna, and Stardancer all screamed in pain, as more of the green lightening spread along the links of light connecting all the other ponies.
And then it was suddenly over.
The silence was deafening.
Tia slowly opened her eyes and discovered she was on the ground, several meters away from what had been the center of the circle. Through her blurry vision, she could see the shapes of other ponies slowly shaking themselves awake, all strewn across the field. She groaned and shakily got to her hooves, shaking her head to clear the ringing in it.
"What happened to my horn?!"
"What happened to my wings?!"
"What happened to my horn and my wings?!"
A babble of confused, shocked, and scared voices greeted Tia and she frowned as her vision became more distinct. Tia gasped, eyes widening in shock as she saw that the other ponies littered around her were missing various parts of their anatomy; some only had wings, some only had horns. Some had neither. With a sick pit in her stomach, Tia quickly felt a hoof up to her forehead and turned her head to look at her sides before letting out a sigh of relief: both horn and wings were still there. It was then that she noted her mane... no longer was it a bright pink. Instead, it had somehow been infused with a rainbow of color that seemed to morph and flow like a river. Tia stared at it in shock in the low light still coming from the burning town before suddenly snapping out of her reverie and looking around in mild panic at the other ponies.
"Luna? Luna, where are you?"
Tia found her sister sitting up and shaking her head to cast the cobwebs in it away. Tia was relieved to see that she, too, had kept all her parts. She, too, had a mane change; instead of the inky black, it was now a dark bluish, almost black, but with points of light speckled across it. Like her own mane, Luna's seemed to flow and shimmer of its own accord. "Did it work?"
"I... I think so," Tia said, looking around some more, "Where's Stardancer?"
A shriek of despair answered that question. Tia trotted over in the direction of the shriek and gasped, prancing backwards in horror and landing unceremoniously on her rump as she stared at her friend.
She had lost both her wings and horn.
Stardancer looked up from where she was discovering her condition, to peer with watering eyes at Tia, mute horror etched on her features. Tia heard Luna gasp beside her. It was then that Tia noticed that the whole world seemed darker somehow.
It took a bit of an effort, but Tia managed to tear her eyes away from the mutilated alicorn before her and to the sky. The battle was clearly over; no cloud and no streaks of magic. But there was something else as well and Tia found the pit of horror in her stomach coming again.
Twilight blinked and looked up at the small dragon in the doorway."Huh?" she asked, the mental gear change after being yanked out of her reading reverie affecting her verbal articulation.
"Outside," Spike repeated, gesturing vaguely to one side, "There's something going on. I heard it when I went downstairs to make breakfast."
Twilight frowned faintly then stood up, stretching a bit to work out the stiffness in her muscles, "What is it?"
"Beats me," Spike replied with a shrug, "I heard thunder and shouting, but I couldn't make any of it out. I came to get you right after."
The frown on Twilight's face deepened and she let out a faint sigh, "Well, I suppose we had better see what's up." She followed Spike out of the study, pausing only to cast a longing look at the diary she was interrupted in reading.
As she and her reptilian assistant walked through the largely empty halls of the castle, Twilight took the opportunity to consider what she had read so far. It had surprised her that at some time in the distant past, alicorns were common -- indeed, the diary seemed to imply that at one time, there were only alicorns and that a magical accident is what resulted in the four different races. What was the spell that Celestia, Luna, and that Stardancer pony had cast to do that? The diary was frustratingly poor on technical details, so Twilight only had the narrative description to try and extrapolate the spell. A cursory examination of all the spells Twilight knew didn't reveal anything that sounded even close to the one detailed in the diary. She let out a mildly frustrated sigh.
Before she could consider further, the pair arrived at the large doors to the castle. Twilight could, indeed, hear pony voices on the other side shouting and what sounded like a storm outside. On opening, they both were accosted by a cacophony of noise and a sheet of wind and rain. Twilight closed her eyes to the maelstrom for a moment before opening them up in slits, peering outward into the dark torrent.
It was as bad a storm as she had ever seen. The rain came down in pounding sheets, lightening flashed brightly in the clouds and seemed to crawl along the sky like reaching electric blue fingers, the wind howled like the worst of experimental music.
"This looks bad," Spike yelled out, shielding his eyes with an arm, "You'd think the weather service would give a bit more warning about something this severe!"
Twilight could see dark pony shapes silhouetted against the crawling lightening, desperately flitting from one place to another. "I don't think this is a weather service storm, Spike," Twilight yelled back to her companion, searching the sky, "Hold on, I'm going to fly up for a closer look." Twilight spread her wings and trudged out into the maelstrom, fighting against the push of the wind.
"Be careful!" Spike called after her, "I'll be making pancakes for when you get back!" Once she was fully outside, Spike pulled the door shut behind her.
After a few false starts, Twilight managed to get herself airborne, though the wind and rain buffeted her and made her path upwards a crazy, serpentine affair. Once gaining a bit of altitude, Twilight stopped (or, at least, tried to -- the driving wind and rain still made her attempts to stay in one piece a bit haphazard) and looked around through the storm. Eventually, she spotted what she was looking for: a streak of bright rainbow colored hair darting back and forth against the darkness of the sky.
"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight called out as she flew up to to the streak during a pause in its zigzag course from one cloud to the next, "What's going on?"
"I don't know," Rainbow called back as another rumble of thunder rolled through the area. Twilight could see that her friend was wearing a pair of goggles to protect her eyes from the rain; the purple alicorn made a mental note to invest in the same. "It's like the weather has a mind of its own! I've never seen anything like this before! Well, except over the Everfree, but still never this bad!"
A pegasus screamed in the background as the wind got the better of her and she began tumbling through the air. Twilight's horn glowed purple and caught the out-of-control weathermare and stabilized her enough until she had her wings about her again and could fly off under her own power to fight against the storm once again.
"I sent Cloud Kicker to Cloudsdale to get some emergency reinforcements," Dash continued, smacking a storm cloud and making it disperse, "As it is, we're fighting a losing battle here. No sooner do we bust a cloud than another one forms! The whole weather team has been at this for hours!"
"Hours?" Twilight asked in surprise, noticing another of the weather ponies was losing its fight against the wind and again used her magic to stabilize the mare, "This has been going on for hours?"
"Well, it wasn't this bad until the last half hour or so," Rainbow Dash admitted, still punching and destroying storm clouds as she spoke, "We had a report of anomalous weather a few hours ago -- just a few storm clouds. It happens sometimes with Ponyville's location close to Everfree. But that quickly escalated into... this." Rainbow stopped her cloud busting just long enough to gesture at the chaos in the sky. A moment later, a pegasus smacked right into Rainbow Dash, sending the two of them tumbling end over end through the sky. Twilight quickly dived and again used her magic to shield the pair until they could de-tangle themselves from each other.
"Cloud Kicker!" Rainbow exclaimed with relief after she got a good look at the pony who ran into her. Her jubilation didn't last though as she frowned, ears flattening back on her head, "Where's... where's the support from Cloudsdale?"
Cloud Kicker shook her head -- she also was sporting a set of goggles along with some kind of poncho that was designed to still allow wing movement. "It's not coming," she called out over the storm, "It's not just us, boss. The weather all over Equestria has gone crazy! The Weather Center in Cloudsdale is running ragged trying to get weather districts under control -- they've declared a Class Five Emergency! Ponyville is pretty far down the list compared to more heavily populated districts."
Rainbow Dash's draw dropped in shock, staring at Cloud Kicker in disbelief. "What's a Class Five Emergency?" Twilight asked as tentatively as she could, still shouting over the raging maelstrom.
"Pretty much the worst thing ever!" Rainbow Dash replied, running a hoof through her wet mane.
Before Twilight could ask for clarification, Cloud kicker spoke up, "Class Five Weather Emergencies are the highest rank of emergency declarations in the weather department. It's for when things are so bad, so out of control that the regular Guard can be drafted for weather work. Normally, Guardponies are exempt from the weather draft if a weather district doesn't have enough wings in the air. Hay, I've never even heard of it being used before! This is on the level of when the Windego forced the three races to leave the Hearthlands!" She turned her attention to Rainbow Dash, shaking her head grimly, "Things are bad, boss. It'll be hours at least -- maybe days -- before Cloudsdale is able to send any help. On the plus side, when help does come, we'll likely be getting some hot, fit ponies in shining gold armor." Cloud Kicker couldn't resist a lopsided lascivious smile at the thought.
Rainbow Dash just rolled her eyes before she responded, "Riiiiight. Before that, we're on our own. We have to beat the storm back or at least keep it from getting worse. Get back to your squad, check the situation, and see if you can't go and find any other pegasi who aren't flying yet to help. Go door-to-door if you have to."
"Ponies are going to start getting exhausted soon, boss," Cloud Kicker quickly pointed out, "We'll need to start taking pegasi off duty to recharge their batteries or they'll just end up as detritus in the storm." As if on cue, another pony flew past, desperately flapping his wings to no avail. Once more, Twilight used her magic to stabilize the stallion who gave a nod and tired smile in response once recovered then immediately flew back into the stormy fray. An idea suddenly came to Twilight and she brightened.
"Rainbow Dash!" she exclaimed, "There are some weather control spells I know of. They're not as fine-tuned or precise as pegasus weather manipulation, but it looks like you're missing raw power, rather than finesse. There are at least some unicorns in Ponyville that could cast the spells. I could make a list of the most likely candidates."
Rainbow Dash blinked once then smiled thankfully at her friend, "That'd be a big help, Twilight. Thanks."
Twilight smiled back and nodded, "No problem. Even unicorns who can't cast any weather spells might be able to help with communication. I mean, not having to yell anytime somepony wants to coordinate might make things easier."
"Command and control has been a bit of an issue, boss," Cloud Kicker piped up with a nod, "Being able to say something without screaming yourself hoarse would be nice."
"Right, new plan," Rainbow stated with a definitive nod, "Twilight, go make that list and give it to Cloud Kicker. In the meantime, Cloudy, go back to your squad and evaluate the situation there. Once Twilight gives to that list, find any pegasi who can deal with the weather and are not currently flying as well as any of the unicorns on that list." Rainbow paused briefly then added, "Coordinating a bunch of grounders who have never done weather work before is going to be a full-time job. Anypony in mind for that kind of organization?"
Twilight was about to volunteer when Cloud Kicker spoke up, "Blossomforth, boss. She was one of the initial emergency responders, so she's probably been out here longer than most and could use a break. Plus, she's pretty good at the nitty-gritty organizational stuff."
Rainbow Dash nodded, "Blossomforth it is." With a quick salute, Cloud Kicker turned and flew off into the storm. Dash turned to Twilight, "Okay, go make that list and get what you need to teach the spell. I'll be in the area, so just find me and I'll deliver the list to Cloud Kicker."
Twilight nodded as she peered down at Ponyville and could see the lights in the windows as the ground bound world awoke. Ponies stood at their windows, gazing out awestruck at the thunder, lightening, and rain. It was then that several facts that had been lightly poking at her brain began to coalesce into something more daunting. Spike was awake, making breakfast... his alarm had gone off. The ponies below were also waking up. The storm had lasted for hours at least. And it was still dark. "Rainbow Dash," Twilight began, her brows furrowing and a frown forming on her features, "What time is it?"
With a blink of surprise, Rainbow Dash paused in thought, rubbing a hoof against her chin, "Um... I was sound asleep when Thunderlane woke me up to deal with the storm. That was about... three in the morning, I think. Maybe a bit later. I've been out here since then, so it's probably... around seven or so. I think."
Twilight's gaze turned away from the ground and towards the horizon. "Where's the sun? Celestia should've risen it by now."
Again, Rainbow Dash blinked, turning her attention to where Twilight was looking, "Well, it's behind the clouds, right? The stuff's so thick here that we just can't see it."
In an instant, Twilight was racing up through the clouds, Rainbow Dash close behind her. The rainbow maned pegasus shouted something, but whatever it was Twilight couldn't hear. She had to see, she had to know. Silently, Twilight wished as hard as she could that Rainbow Dash was right, and it was just the thick and unusual cloud cover that covered the dawn, but dread clawed at her nonetheless. With a puff of grey, the cloud cover finally gave away and Twilight burst forth from the storm into the clear sky. Below her, the storm roiled and boiled like a liquid carpet, bright flashes of light illuminating the insides briefly. The moon and stars had already been removed by Luna.
But there was no sun.
Twilight stared at the black, featureless sky in slack-jawed silence when Rainbow Dash burst up from the stormy carpet. She, too, looked over to where Twilight gazed into the featureless black and blinked.
"Huh. That's... weird."
Twilight snapped out of her reverie and looked to her friend, "This is really bad, Rainbow Dash. The storms, the diary, the fact that Celestia hasn't risen the sun and she came to see me earlier... it's too much to be coincidence."
"Wait, Princess Celestia came to see you? Like, just tonight?"
Twilight ignored Rainbow Dash, instead opting for pacing back and forth on the roiling dark cloud underneath her hooves. "I don't know what it means, but it's definitely bad. Maybe there's something in the diary that could explain it...?" She shook her head quickly, muttering to herself, "No! I have to report this to Princess Luna first. If Celestia hasn't risen the sun, then she might be hurt! Luna will know what to do. I have to go to Canterlot!"
The purple alicorn was already flapping in the direction of the capital when Rainbow Dash popped up in front of her, "Woah, hold on there! What about the storm over Ponyville?"
"Rainbow Dash! I don't have time for that! The future of Equestria could be at stake!"
Rainbow Dash frowned, folding her fore-hooves over her chest, "I'm not saying that this is not important or that you should stay here to help, but you heard Cloud Kicker. This is a Class Five weather emergency! Ponies could be seriously hurt if we don't have some kind of help."
Twilight frowned, chewing her bottom lip before taking a deep breath. "You're right. You're right, Rainbow Dash. I'll... make that list and find the appropriate books with the weather and communication spells. But I have to leave for Canterlot right after that!"
Rainbow Dash smiled and nodded, patting her purple friend on the shoulder with a fore hoof, "No argument here. I just want you to be able to come back to something other than a soggy mud pit once you find out what happened in Canterlot."
Twilight spared a quick smile for her friend before immediately turning and heading back into the maelstrom, making a bee-line for her castle.
The large double doors to the castle burst open and Twilight galloped inside. Her drenched form left a trail of water behind as she raced through the corridors of her castle. She skidded a bit outside her study, her hooves providing a brief hydroplane on the smooth crystal floor before she managed to get her feet under her again and went into the study. In a flurry of purple telekinesis, books began to fly off the shelves and deposited into a saddlebag until it was full to bursting. Twilight paused, then floated a roll of parchment, quill, and inkwell over, quickly scrawling down the names of unicorns she knew who might be able to cast the weather control spells (from most skilled to least). After a bit of a pause, she added to the list, this time for ponies who could help facilitate communication. A brief overlook of the list to check it and Twilight gave a definitive nod, rolling up the scroll and having it join the overstuffed saddle bag.
At the doorway to the study, the purple alicorn paused and looked over her shoulder towards the still-open diary she had been reading. After a moments hesitation, Twilight telekinetically lifted the diary to a separate saddlebag and left with both in tow.
"Oh, there you are, Twilight!" Spike said cheerfully, motioning to the stove, "I've already got some pancakes done. They're being kept warm in the stove." The small dragon was clad in an equally small apron imprinted with a heart on the front.
"No time for breakfast, Spike," Twilight replied, levitating the full-to-bursting saddlebag over to her assistant, "I need you to do something very important while I go to Canterlot."
Spike blinked, grabbing the saddlebags. "You're going to Canterlot? This early? Celestia hasn't even risen the sun yet."
Twilight winced, "That's why I have to go. Spike, something really bad is going on and I need to talk with Princess Luna immediately. But Ponyville needs my help too. I need you to give this list and books to Rainbow Dash."
Spike frowned faintly, looking at the saddlebag briefly before turning his attention back to Twilight, "If things are that bad, shouldn't I come with you to Canterlot? Won't you need your number one assistant?"
Twilight smiled gently and shook her head, "It's too dangerous, Spike. I can fly above the cloud cover and the storm for most of the trip, but if the weather in Canterlot is as bad as it is here, I don't know if I could come in for a safe landing, especially if I had to worry about you as well." Her telekinesis lifted the second saddle bag containing the diary to her back as she trotted over to Spike and laid a hoof on his shoulder. "Please, Spike. This is all very important."
With a nod, Spike puffed out his chest and ripped off the apron in one smooth motion, "You can count on me Twilight."
The purple alicorn smiled and hugged the small dragon, "Good. I know you won't let me down." Releasing him, she stepped back and then turned towards the door, "I'll be back as soon as I can, Spike." With that, she left. A few minutes later, she was airborne, over the clouds, and flying as fast as she could towards the capital.
Thankfully for Twilight, the trip to the capital was fairly uneventful. The storm clouds over Ponyville had lessened as she got further away, eventually becoming a lighter grey and more sparse. The lightening inside had stopped too. The weather improved further as she got to Canterlot proper; it made sense that the Weather Control Bureau would prioritize keeping the skies of the capital cleared over other districts. Twilight could see the shapes of pegasi and the glint of armor of Guardsponies flying between the diminishing clouds.
Below, the city streets of Canterlot had foot traffic, though Twilight could see it was cautious and worried. No doubt with the skies clearer here than probably most of Equestria, the ponies below were quickly becoming aware of the lack of sun. The Guard might be required to keep ponies from panicking if the sun wasn't raised soon... something that would further reduce the ponypower available for sky clearance.
Twilight shook her head, forcing the grim worries that invaded it from her mind. Instead, she dove towards an open terrace on Canterlot Castle.
She had begun thinking that she had acted precipitously in leaving Spike behind; it would've only taken a few seconds to find Rainbow Dash and give her the list and books. Having Spike do it instead made sure that the little dragon was safe. She had started to regret the decision when she saw how much better the weather was in Canterlot compared to Ponyville, but her landing quickly reversed that decision. While the skies were clearer and the driving rain of Ponyville was only a stubborn drizzle here, the wind still came in powerful gusts. Twilight was quite sure she probably would've broken something if she had to land with that wind and worry about Spike.
As it was, her landing on the terrace was an embarrassing combination of cartwheeling, sliding, and finally skidding to a stop. Undignified and Twilight felt she would be sporting a few bruises for a day or so, but no real harm was done. Smoothing herself off, Twilight walked further into the castle. It was then that she hesitated in indecision. Should she head towards Celestia's quarters and see if she could find some sign of the Princess of the Sun, or go directly to Luna?
The sun wasn't raised. Luna needed to know.
With a nod to her own internal logic, Twilight walked through the corridors of the castle towards Luna's quarters. When she got there, she was surprised to find to pairs of Guardsponies on either side of the door, resplendent in their armor and holding long spears. Confused, Twilight trotted up to the door, only to have her progress blocked by a crossing of the spears.
"Halt!" one the Guards immediately barked, "No one is allowed to see Princess Luna until the sun is up!"
Twilight blinked then looked askance at the Guard. "Why? Under whose orders?"
The Guardspony hesitated, shifting his weight on his hooves. "Uhm, Princess Celestia," he eventually replied, looking unsure, "She was... very emphatic."
Twilight couldn't believe it. "Princess Celestia put her sister under house arrest?!"
The Guardspony started looking much more uncomfortable. "She... didn't say it was arrest, specifically, Princess Sparkle," he said in a contrite tone, "Only that no one was to disturb Princess Luna until the sun was up. No one. Not even another Princess. As I said, she was very emphatic that her orders be carried out."
Twilight stared for a moment more, her wings fluttering out in disbelief before she raised herself up in as much of an imposing stature as she could. "You will let me see Princess Luna now."
"But... Princess Celestia's orders--"
"To Tartarus with the orders!" Twilight snapped, causing the Guardpony to flinch a bit, but he stood his ground. Twilight took a deep breath before speaking again. "Equestria is having an emergency. The weather is going nuts and the sun still isn't up. I need to talk with Princess Luna."
The Guardspony hesitated, shifting his weight again before stiffening and shaking his head. "No. I'm sorry, Princess Sparkle. But Princess Celestia's orders supersede your own. She said her orders could not be countermanded."
Twilight glared at the Guards, who all looked away uncomfortably. They didn't budge, however.
"Fine," Twilight said after a while, turning to leave, "I'll be back." Just as the guards were starting to relax, Twilight whirled around, her horn glowing with power. The guards barely had time to raise their spears before their eyes drooped and their bodies began to sag from fatigue. A moment later, they all slumped to the floor, eyes closed and snoring lightly. Twilight grunted and nodded at her handiwork before moving past the guards into Luna's room proper.
As soon as she passed the threshold, darkness and silence enveloped her. Twilight looked behind her; there was no tell-tale light spilling through the doorway, or any doorway visible what-so-ever. This wasn't entirely surprising; no doubt to get some sleep during the bustle of daytime hours, Luna had a spell on her room to cut out light and sound from outside. Still, it meant that Twilight couldn't see or hear anything herself, so she channeled magic into her horn to try and find a counter spell. She didn't get very far before the magical darkness and silence was lifted, leaving her face-to-face with a slightly grumpy looking Princess of the Night.
"Twilight?" she asked, tilting her head and frowning, "Why have you disturbed my slumber?"
"Something is seriously wrong, Princess Luna!" Twilight talked quickly, her words coming faster and faster in a tumble as she spoke, "Princess Celestia came to visit me last night and gave me a diary, but not like the diary you and she kept in the old castle, this one was older and is from when she was a filly, then there are these storms all over Equestria and there's a class five emergency, but also the sun hasn't been risen yet and there were some really stubborn Guardsponies outside who didn't want me -- or anyone -- to see you under Celestia's orders and I'm really worried something happened to your sister!" At the end of the torrent of words, Twilight was breathing heavily, gasping for breath.
For her own part, Luna seemed a bit confused and blind-sighted by the whole thing. Instead, she focused on one part of the run-on statement. "My sister hasn't risen the sun yet?" Luna asked as she trotted over, "That is... most unusual. She wasn't at dinner -- well, breakfast for most ponies -- either. She had seemed a bit tired as of late, so I had thought she merely skipped breakfast to sleep a little longer." Luna frowned then straightened up, moving towards the doorway, "Come, Twilight. We must make haste to my sister's room."
Once in the hallway, Luna took note of the slumbering Guardsponies and their spears. "They're armed?" Luna asked in mild surprise, "How strange."
Twilight nodded, "Like I said, Princess, they refused to let me see you."
Luna frowned again, peering at the Guards. She closed her eyes as her horn glowed with the dark light of her magic. After a moment, the Princess of the Night pulled back in alarm. "These ponies have been magically compelled."
Twilight joined Luna in surprise, looking at the Guards. "Magically compelled? They were brainwashed?"
Shaking her head, Luna pursed her lips, "Not quite. The spell used could not create loyalty where none exists, but what loyalty that was there was strengthened to the point of fanaticism and blind obedience." Luna stared at the sleeping ponies for a while more before turning away, "Very strange. I have seen such spells before, but not for a very long time. They will sleep for some time yet and we will have them gathered by other Guardsponies and given comfortable isolation. The spell is quite powerful and it will take a little time to break. But they should recover once that is accomplished."
The pair of princesses walked through the corridors of the castle silently for a while before Luna frowned faintly. "The Guard seems quite light at present."
"Most are probably dealing with the weather anomalies in Equestria," Twilight replied, "In a Class Five Weather Emergency, Guardsponies can be drafted for weather work."
Luna thought for a moment before responding, "So there was unlikely to be anyone to come across those guards outside my room. If anyone thought to inform me, they were likely alone and turned away."
"And with communication being somewhat of an issue with the emergency going on, it could be hours before enough of the Guard were informed about those outside your room to force their way through," Twilight concluded with a frown, her ears flat against her head, "Seems... planned."
"Yes, indeed," Luna mused, "Though... risky. Relying on a communications problem due to an emergency is hardly iron-clad. Many things could go wrong, even if it's just enough of the Guard being informed quickly. While it might've taken hours to discover, it could've just as easily taken minutes. It hardly seems worth the trouble."
"But the ponies said Princess Celestia gave the order," Twilight noted in frustration, "That doesn't make any sense! Could someone disguise themselves as Celestia or maybe used an illusion?"
"Possibly," Luna replied.
Twilight nodded, but could think of nothing more to add. Eventually, they came across some Earth pony Guard, drenched and looking quite tired. The small group stood to attention once they saw the two princesses approach.
Luna glanced at each of the ponies, moving up to one with a specific insignia on his armor. "Commander," she said, "A status report, if you please."
The commander saluted smartly before replying, "We have the weather in the capital mostly under control at the moment, Your Highness. Guards units in other weather districts are mobilizing to aid local weather teams in control and clean up."
Luna nodded once, "Good. All pegasi Guard in the capital are to get four hours of bunk time and a meal then be redeployed immediately to other weather districts as determined by the Weather Control Bureau. Have the Nightwatch help as well, if they are not already." The Princess hesitated then added, "Princess Celestia may be missing. The sun has not been risen. Organize a search of the capital for her immediately. Princess Twilight and I will conduct the search of my sister's personal quarters."
The commander's eyes widened, but his military discipline quickly reasserted itself, "Understood, Princess. Anything else?"
"Yes," Luna assented, "Four Guardsponies outside my room had been magically compelled to put me under de-facto house arrest. They are to be brought to and isolated in a Guard bunkhouse. Give them whatever aid they need, but they are to remain under guard and isolated until the spell they were under has been analyzed and dispelled. You have your orders, Commander."
Again, the commander's eyes widened, but again his discipline won out over his surprise. He gave a salute then turned to the other Guardsponies to relay orders. Luna and Twilight watched the Commander for a moment more then made their way to Celestia's room.
"My sister isn't here," Luna stated, looking around the room as she and Twilight entered the Royal Suite, "Why hadn't anypony come to find her once the sun failed to rise?"
"The storm was already in full swing by that point," Twilight said, poking around the room idly, "The sky was probably obscured by dense storm clouds. I wouldn't have noticed that the sun wasn't up unless I went above the cloud layer. With the emergency and every pegasus needed for weather control, it probably didn't occur to anyone to check."
Luna let out a displeased grunt at the explanation then continued her search. A moment later, she called out, "Twilight, quickly!"
Twilight trotted over to where Luna stood, in the doorway of the bathroom. The purple alicorn craned her neck and peered inside, noting the area where Luna pointed. A broken glass lay there.
"A broken glass?" Twilight said, tilting her head to one side, "Well, it's unusual, but I don't know if it means anything."
"My sister left in a hurry," Luna stated flatly, "And no pony else has been in here since she left. If it had been a pony-napping or other such skulduggery, there would be much more damage."
"Unless Princess Celestia was overpowered almost immediately," Twilight offered tentatively, "Though I don't know of anypony who could put down Princess Celestia in one blast."
"Discord, perhaps?" Luna offered in thought before frowning, "No. Not Discord. He has the power to possibly do what you suggest, Twilight, but it is... out of character for him to do something as mundane as a pony-napping."
"Well, that and he's reformed now."
"Yes. Reformed." The tone in Luna's voice indicated that she didn't put much stock in the Chaos God's reformation even after all this time. "But the fact remains, that it is unlikely to be him and I know of no other entity who could have the raw power to do what you suggest Twilight yet still keep the room relatively untouched."
"So she did likely leave of her own accord and very quickly," Twilight concluded with a nod before sighing, "I wish she would've said something more when she saw me earlier and gave me the diary. Though I suppose it's a good thing she wasn't taken."
Luna paused again, looking over at Twilight curiously. "Yes, I remember you mentioning that my sister came to see you and gave you a diary. What did she say? And may I see it?"
"I brought it with me," Twilight stated with a smile, happy she had thought of doing so. It was a bit of spur-of-the-moment decision and she was honestly unsure if she should risk the tome considering she was flying through the storm, but Princess Celestia thought the book was important so she felt she should keep it with her. A bit of purple telekinesis later and the tome was floating in front of the Princess of the Night.
Luna stared at the book with an unreadable expression for a very long moment. "I... had thought this lost long ago," she murmured.
"It's... from when you and Celestia were fillies, right?" Twilight offered tentatively, "She got it as a birthday present and you got--"
"A telescope, yes," Luna interrupted, her voice filled with nostalgic longing, "I lost that telescope a very long time ago. I had assumed by sister had lost this as well." Luna closed her eyes, letting out a sigh, "She kept it all this time? My sister was always better taking care of her things than I." Luna opened her eyes and peered at the book, "It hasn't aged a day. It is a very strange thing, Twilight, to have lived as long as my sister and I and come across an artifact from our youth. It's very odd that I can even remember that day when other memories dissolve into the haze of history."
"Princess Celestia seemed to think it was important I read it," Twilight replied, gnawing on her lower lip, "Maybe... maybe there's something in it that explains what the hay is going on?" Twilight hesitated then floated the diary closer to the other princess, "You should read it, Luna. It's your sister's and... well... if there is something important in it, then you're much more likely to see it than I am."
Luna hesitated, idly rubbing one foreleg against the other. "I... it's tempting, Twilight," Luna admitted reluctantly, "There are many things about my sister that I still do not understand even after all this time. To read her innermost thoughts would be... very illuminating." Her pose stiffened, "But no. If my sister had wanted me to read it, she would've given it to me, or told you to deliver it to me. She came to you, specifically, and told you to read it. I... I can't deny that wish."
Twilight blinked and looked at the diary again. She floated it back to her saddlebag and nodded. "All right, Princess Luna. If I come across anything that might shed some light on things, I'll tell you." Twilight stretched her wings out and began to move to the terrace, "First, though, I need to get back to Ponyville and help with the weather."
"Twilight, wait," the dark princess held out a hoof, "I... I don't think that's a good idea. If my sister's private diary does hold the key to the mystery here, it is imperative that we find out as soon as possible. You should stay here and read it."
Twilight frowned, "But... Ponyville needs me. The weather is really bad there, Your Highness, much worse than here. I can't just abandon it and my friends."
Luna paused in consideration before speaking again, "I will personally go to Ponyville, along with a coterie of Nightwatch. We will aid in any way we can."
Twilight still was unsure, her ears flattening back against her head as she gnawed on her lower lip. Luna approached her and set a comforting hoof on her shoulder. "I give you my word, Twilight Sparkle, that nothing will happen to Ponyville or anypony therein. Please... I feel that this assignment is very important."
Twilight hesitated again before letting out a sigh and nodding. "All right."
Luna smiled and nodded, moving to the terrace, "Good. You may use the Royal Suites if you'd like. Of course, the Royal Library is also available should you find that locale more comfortable." Luna spread her wings, "Since my sister is unable, I will raise the sun myself before I gather the coterie of Nightwatch and fly to Ponyville." Luna gave one more smile over her shoulder at the purple alicorn, "I'll see you... when I see you." With that, she jumped off the terrace and flew into the air.
Twilight watched after her for several minutes until she saw the first rays of the sun peek over the horizon. It was wobbly, but it was rising (and doing a much better rise than when she tried her hoof at it during the whole Tirek debacle). With a sigh of relief, Twilight turned back to the room proper and found a comfortable cushion to settle down on, once more opening the diary and beginning to read.
Time ticked by, but how long Tia sat there staring at the empty sky she couldn't tell. All around her were ponies in various stages of shock and horror at their strange mutilations at the hoof of the spell.
Well, technically Stardancer's spell, but Tia was in charge. The final decision had been hers. The responsibility was hers. If she had just refused to go along with the spell...
It was the right decision.
Tia jumped slightly and looked around her in the growing, starless gloom as the fires in the nearby town had finally begun to die down. She looked over to her sister, but Luna seemed just as shocked as every other pony; the normally vivacious and confident filly was fixated with quiet horror, looking over Stardancer's lack of wings and horn. Stardancer herself was too busy crying over her loss to manage anything that might be construed as speech. Nopony else was close enough to say anything without raised voices, especially over the general din of laments and misery that floated through the area. Did Tia imagine the voice?
If you hadn't cast the spell, then at least half of your forces would have deserted and futilely thrown themselves at the enemy.
Again, Tia jumped and looked wildly around her, getting up to her hooves. And again, no source of the voice seemed present. Tia hesitated then let out a quiet, "H-hello?" into the air.
The Voice -- Tia couldn't tell if it was male or female, or even the direction; it seemed to come from everywhere at once -- spoke again, with calm, clinical authority. You must now reassert control. The longer your forces remain in their current state, the more likely they will rebel against your authority.
Tia blinked then cast her eyes over her 'forces'; just a couple dozen fillies and colts, most of whom were now crippled to various extents and traumatized as well.
Reassert control, The Voice insisted, Every moment you delay brings you closer to being deposed. When Tia didn't immediately move to follow the Voice's advice, it spoke again. You can save them, but your ability to do so is closing quickly. Reassert. Control.
Tia started moving. She trotted into a more central location for all the other ponies and cleared her throat. "O-okay, everypony..." she began, only to discover that nopony was listening to her. She squared her shoulders and put a more authoritative tone to her voice, steadying it with an effort and casting a simple spell to increase the volume so that it rang out across the dark plain, "Everypony! Listen!" The sobbing and panicked cries slowly began to stop as individuals began to turn towards Tia; eventually only the foals were still crying. She wasn't sure how, but she could tell that the Voice was pleased.
"We need to take stock of what's going on," Tia stated, "I know that this whole situation is... unusual, but we need to pull together and come up with a plan."
"Your 'plan' sure worked well last time, Tia," Silverhoof snapped out -- Tia winced slightly when she noticed the colt had lost his wings, but at least retained his horn, "I, for one, don't really have much confidence in your 'leadership'." Several other ponies nodded in agreement and murmuring debate began to break out amongst the crowd.
This one is a threat to your authority, the Voice said dispassionately, You must break him or he will be a constant thorn in your side.
Tia wasn't sure exactly what the Voice meant, but she stiffened her pose and stared imperiously at the colt, "I think you'll remember, Silverhoof, that the only reason I agreed to the spell idea in the first place was because you were hoof-bent on doing something."
Silverhoof's ears flattened against his skull, but he retorted, "Yeah, and my idea would've been better!"
"Oh?" Tia asked, a thin smile spreading on her features as she walked up to the colt and began circling him like a predator, "As I recall, your idea was to just run up to the cloud-thing and hope you could do something. Tell me, Silverhoof, do you honestly think that would've accomplished anything? You saw the cloud." She looked over at the crowd, "All of you saw it. Does anypony here seriously think we could've done anything against that thing other than what we did?" Tia saw that several of the ponies who had nodded along with Silverhoof's statement before had lowered their heads.
"Y-yeah, well," Silverhoof stumbled to regain his momentum, "At least my plan wouldn't have crippled us all! Or erased the sky!" Tia winced again and once more saw the crowd shifting perspectives towards the colt.
"We don't know what happened," Tia stated flatly, "We don't know if the spell is the cause of all this or not. It's likely, but not certain. But if it did cause all this, then it's probably reversible, right? Every spell has a counter. I doubt we'd get over whatever that cloud had in store for us any time soon. Especially if we just ran right at it without any further thought!" Tia again turned to the crowd, "Look, until we have more information we need to stick together. Once we get a handle on things, then we can discuss things further. Trying to lay blame on anypony isn't going to help us!" Tia breathed a sigh of relief as she saw the crowd bow their heads in supplication -- some more reluctantly than others, but the wisdom of her words seemed hard to ignore.
Silverhoof, seeing the same thing, glared at Tia then bowed his head as well. "Fine. We'll do things your way. For now."
Tia could sense that the Voice was satisfied; not pleased, but content with the outcome. She straightened up as she addressed the other ponies, "Okay, so. First things first... is any pony hurt? I mean, besides having lost wings or horns?" None of the assembled spoke up and Tia let out a sigh of relief, "Good. Mmn..." Tia looked over towards the dying embers of the burning town and frowned faintly, "Okay, everypony who has a horn, we're going to need to you to cast some light spells. It's going to get really, really dark soon and everypony will need to see." The crowd shuffled and eventually lights of varying colors began to glow in the darkness, casting a kaleidoscope of illumination over the area. Tia nodded, "Right. Now, none of our folks have come to get us, so either they think we're still at the edge of the woods, have gone there and are now searching for us, or they just haven't had time. In this dark, it's going to be difficult for them to find us, so everypony is going to be broken up into groups with at least one unicorn. The light spells will serve as beacons as well as providing light."
The crowd of young ponies murmured amongst themselves at the new word 'unicorn' and began to shuffle into loose, self-organized groups on Tia's orders.
"Heh. 'One horn'," Stardancer remarked, moving up to Tia's side. Worry was still etched on her features and unshorn tears still caused her eyes to water, but the young magically-inclined filly was better than the sobbing mess Tia had seen just a few minutes ago. "Nice name. I'd suggest 'pegasus' for the winged ones. And--" Stardancer's voice faded off with a strangulated croak, a few more tears falling before she managed to get control of herself again, "And 'geo-equine' for... for the ones like me. We're stuck to the earth, after all. Theoretically, a unicorn could fly with a spell."
Tia placed a forehoof on the shoulder of her friend, "We'll find a way to fix this, Stardancer. I'm sure the adults will know how, if nothing else. Like I said: magic is reversible."
"Y-yeah," Stardancer agreed, though her voice sounded hollow and hopeless. Guilt surged up into Tia's heart, but she fought it down with an effort, again turning to the collection of ponies.
"All right, everypony," she said, voice full of authority she didn't feel, "I'm going to need one group to head back to the edge of the forest. If our parents haven't had the chance to look for us yet, they'll probably go there first. I'll also need a group to tend to the foals. The rest of you will follow Luna and I and we'll head into town and try to find out more about what happened."
"I'll take my group to the forest," Silverhoof spoke up, still glaring a bit at Tia. She noticed that many in his group were those who supported him previously; hardly surprising. Tia nodded, "Sounds good." Throwing him a little authority might help smooth over bruised egos. She watched as he and his group turned and began to walk away.
"Uhm, I guess my group will help with the foals," a light yellow unicorn stated, shuffling a bit on her hooves; Tia noted that most of her group seemed to be geo-equines. Tia smiled and nodded, "Right, Dust Mote." She turned to the rest of the ponies and motioned her head towards the dying embers of the town, "The rest of you, come with me." With that, she began to lead the way back to the ruined collection of buildings.
As they walked, Tia noted that Luna and Stardancer were on either side of her, while all the other ponies kept a trepidatious distance behind. Tia was thankful for the company, even if her sister and friend were unusually quiet. "Ducat for your thoughts?" Tia asked Luna with a ghost of smile on her face.
Luna turned her attention to Tia briefly before returning her eyes to the smoldering ruin that was their home just a few brief hours ago. "I'm scared, Tia," Luna finally said in a low voice so no one but their little threesome would hear, "Everything is happening so fast. I... I know I should be brave, but..."
Tia wrapped a wing comfortingly around her sister, "I know, I'm scared too. But the others are relying on us. We can't... we can't just fall apart, y'know?" Luna nodded solemnly. For the normally brazen and aggressively cheerful alicorn to act like... like... well, her, was very off-putting to Tia. Tia hid her worry well, however, and carefully schooled her features before looking over at Stardancer, "How, um... how are you holding up?"
"How do you think?" Stardancer groused, her ears going flat against her skull and a flash of anger drifting across her features, "I've only lost everything that made me who I am. I'm just peachy, Tia." A beat passed before Stardancer spoke again, sighing, "Sorry, sorry. I... it's just a lot to take in, okay?"
Tia nodded, hesitated, then set a wing comfortingly over her friend. To her surprise, Stardancer flinched and stiffened at the touch. Maybe providing a tactile reminder that Stardancer had lost her wings wasn't such a good idea. Quickly, Tia retracted the gesture.
The whole group walked in eerie quiet. Even the night-time sounds of insects seemed to be silenced. The only sounds came from the soft crunch of their hooves on the ground and the occasional whisper of voices as other ponies spoke to one another. The devastation of the town became more visible and disheartening the closer they got; it seemed like none of the buildings were untouched by the disaster and all but a few were nothing more than burnt cinders.
As the group walked through the silent, rubble-strewn, darkened streets with the ruins of their old lives looming over them, one of the ponies broke. A loud wail of despair drifted through the area and all the others stopped to turn and look at the distressed pony. Another geo-equine by the look of it and Tia felt a tinge of unease as she couldn't remember that particular lavender coated pony's name. "Where is everypony?!" she cried out into the empty sky, "Where are our parents?!" The crowd shuffled uneasily as the worrisome words that every one of them had thought were suddenly given form.
"They... they're p-probably out looking for us," Stardancer spoke up, though her voice trembled and lacked any assertiveness.
"The Town Hall," Luna suddenly spoke up, "Let's... let's go there. It's made almost completely of stone, so it should've handled the fires well. It has that tall tower so we can get a better look around the town. And it seems like the best place for our parents to set up a headquarters for the same reasons."
The lavender geo-equine sniffled and nodded, gathering herself up from her broken mental state. The crowd of ponies looked askance at each other, but eventually nodded along with the idea. Without further word, the group headed towards Town Hall.
Despite the debris littering the streets and the sizable grouping of ponies, they had managed to reach the Town Hall in the center of the ruins fairly quickly. As Luna had reasoned, the Hall had escaped a lot of the fire damage, though one of the wings of the large buildings had collapsed, apparently from an impact. Of what, there was no sign. The magical torches which should've illuminated the interior were all snuffed out, making the looming, functional edifice even more intimidating. Thankfully, the collapse of one of the wings hadn't compromised the tall alabaster marble spire jutting out from the center of building into the sky.
There weren't any stairs going up to the tower; why would there be? Everyone had wings and those who couldn't fly due to youth or sickness either could be carried or didn't need to go up there anyway. Tia looked towards her sister then to the crowd. "Okay. Only the pegasi can get up there. You'll still need light to see, so Luna will go with you. It's the best vantage point we'll get around here, so even in the dark it's likely our best bet for seeing where our parents went."
"Wait!" Stardancer spoke up, "I know a spell which might make the searching easier. Luna, if you have a moment..." Luna nodded and the two conferred quietly. While that was happening, Tia turned her attention back to the other ponies, "Okay, any pegasus willing to go up with my sister?" A general uneasy shuffling occurred in the group before the crowd parted to let one of the winged ponies through. A dark blue coat and blonde mane greeted Tia and she recognized the colt as Sky Kicker; it was appropriate for him to retain his wings. He had always been showing off his aerial acrobatics prowess. A twinge of guilt stabbed at Tia as she remembered that Stardancer wasn't as lucky. "Anyone else?" A few more moments passed before a couple more pegasi stepped forward. It was understandable that there was some trepidation for this mission; after all, who knows what they'd find up in the tower and without any magic, they'd be lost in the dark if something happened to Luna. Still, perhaps it was for the best; the observation platform in the Town Hall wasn't all that large so a smaller group would be best.
Stardancer and Luna finished their conversation and walked over to the volunteers. Without preamble, Luna spread her wings and leaped for the sky, the four pegasi following closely after the glow from her horn.
"What spell did you teach her?" Tia asked Stardancer as her eyes followed the light of the horn as it spiraled up the spire and eventually disappeared inside the tower.
"Nothing really complicated," Stardancer replied, "Just a directional light spell, really. A really simple spell matrix combining a standard light spell with a bit of the standard telekinesis all pony--" she caught herself, "--well, all horned ponies use. You can use the telekinesis to shape the light."
Tia blinked. "Wow. I didn't know that."
Stardancer smirked -- it was the first ghost of a smile Tia could remember on her friend since this whole disaster began -- "Few ponies do, actually. Most when trying to come up with something like that just build the whole spell from scratch. It's amazing how more elegant just finding ways to combine simpler components into more complex effects can be. The hardest thing about it is keeping all the spells in mind and the connections to them in a matrix at the same time. It takes a bit more mental discipline than just reflexively casting a single spell."
"I should definitely learn that," Tia remarked before the sky was pierced with a dark energy beaming out from the tower in a cone. Despite it being almost as dark as the night itself, it still seemed to illuminate anywhere it touched, brightening pieces of the town as it weaved through the streets. It didn't take long for the beam to sweep over much of the town. It extended further and widened, spreading out into the area beyond the buildings proper.
"Think she's found anypony?" Stardancer asked uneasily.
"I don't know," Tia responded, "It's hard to tell from this angle. That's why there's four other pairs of eyes up in that tower. Hopefully one of them will see something even if the others miss it."
The beam continued it's slightly drunken but methodical sweeping of the area outside town for several more minutes, the ponies below watching with baited breath. Slowly, however, ponies began turning away -- as the beam got further from the town, the less likely they were to be able to see anything at all.
That all changed in an instant.
With a sudden explosion of light, the sky above was awash in color. Streams of stars glided across the black canvas, in a myriad of colors, illuminating gaseous clouds of nebulae in a gentle but no less spectacular light show. The sky brimmed with light and everypony on the ground stood in awe as it was filled in like the brush strokes of a celestial painter -- no night previously had ever looked so beautiful or crisp and clear. It was pure artistry in motion. Over the horizon a large sphere began to rise -- the semi-smooth surface illuminating a pale white-yellow light that muted and dominated the other cosmic pinpricks and strokes of light. It was the moon, of that there was no doubt, but so large and clear that it looked like a storybook. Its pale light flooded over the area, casting soft shadows from the ruins and the darkened edifice of the Town Hall, chasing away its imposing nature.
The group of ponies on the ground remained spellbound until five figures could be seen approaching -- now easily detectable silhouetted against the pale moonlight. Luna and her coterie landed nearby and trotted up the group -- the four pegasi looked no less awed than any other pony. Even Luna herself looked amazed as she turned to stare up at the sky. Her sky.
"Luna... what happened?" Tia asked her sister, managing to tear her gaze away from the now fully rendered night's sky.
"I... I don't know," Luna said after a moment, still staring up at the sky, "I was adjusting the spell that Stardancer explained to me -- making the beam wider and longer -- when I directed it up to the sky. I... felt something that I never felt before, Tia. I can't describe it. It was like I knew exactly what I had to do and how to do it. I made the adjustments to the spell and did... that." Luna raised a hoof towards the sky again. "It was like the very elements of creation itself were clay I could shape at will."
Tia blinked again, looking from her sister to the sky and back. "Well, you did a great job," she finally said somewhat awkwardly, "I don't think I ever saw a night's sky as wonderful as this."
"That's not all!" Sky Kicker said excitedly, trotting up to the sisters and pointing at Luna's flank, "When she did that there was... I don't know how to describe it... she sort of floated up and these lines of magic came around her and she had this!"
Tia turned her eyes to the place where Sky Kicker was pointing and canted her head. There on her sister's flank was an image like a crescent moon. "Stardancer? What do you make of this?"
Stardancer tore her eyes away from the sky and examined Luna's flank. She hesitated then shrugged helplessly, "It's a cute mark?"
"Did you see anypony?" a member of the crowd suddenly asked. That got the rest to tear their eyes away from the sky and turn towards Luna in hopeful askance.
Luna hesitated then lowered her head. The other pegasi did the same. A choked sob rang out into the night.
"Just because they didn't see anypony doesn't mean they're not out there," Tia said quickly, though she could tell that hope of finding their parents was quickly fading amongst the group. Truth be told, she was of the opinion that they were gone as well, but she didn't want to bring that up as long as the possibility that the adults could still be somewhere was there. "The whole spell thing threw us all around, remember? Maybe the same thing happened to our folks, only since they were closer to the cloud thing, they were pushed farther away." Tia looked desperately to Stardancer for confirmation.
"It's... possible, I guess," she replied without much conviction, "We... w-we should, uhm, we should probably prepare for a few days at least before they find us. Maybe even a couple of weeks."
Tia nodded and turned on her authoritative voice again. "Right. Okay, then. Now that we have light to see, we can send a couple of pegasi off to get the others and lead them back here. The rest of us will start setting up sleeping areas inside the Hall and search around for some food and blankets. There's probably something salvageable around, so a few groups of five as scrounging parties might be good." She paused then turned towards Luna and the four other pegasi, "Let's have each one of you lead the search groups. You've already seen some of the town from above and can scout easily enough to find what places have the greatest likelihood of having something salvageable."
"Books!" Stardancer suddenly interjected as everypony looked towards her. She cleared her throat then spoke again, a faint blush on her features, "Food and blankets are most important of course, but keep an eye out for any books in good enough condition as well. Spellbooks in particular since those may help us find a way to reverse... what happened." Her voice faded for a moment before she continued, "But any books at all would be good. Even children's books could help with keeping the foals entertained and calmer."
Tia nodded to her friend and looked towards the group, "All right, we have a plan. Let's get to it."
Hours passed as Tia organized the makeshift sleeping area inside the Town Hall and took stock of supplied they had on hand. Unsurprisingly, there wasn't much in the way of useful things in the Hall itself, but someone had found a meeting room with chairs and a large table that served well as a central place to give and receive reports. Slowly, the search teams began a steady trickle of resources that Tia meticulously recorded before having them sent out to fulfill various needs or to one of the rooms earmarked for storage. They had even found a surprisingly large amount of books; Tia assigned Stardancer to organizing a library and trying to repair some of the more damaged ones by getting a unicorn to cast cleaning and repair spells or cannibalizing multiple copies. Surprisingly, it was Silverhoof who had volunteered for that duty... though Tia guessed it may have been to get as far away from her as possible.
Tia didn't even look up from her ledger as the door opened. She waved a hoof towards one end of the room where a pile of various odds and ends had ended up as the quill held in her telekinesis scratched continuously on the large scroll in front of her (one of the advantages of the Town Hall was plenty of parchment and stationary), "Just put it over with the others. I'll get to it soon."
"You've been at this for hours," a voice Tia recognized as Luna said, causing the rainbow-maned alicorn to look up, "Have you had anything to eat? Or taken a rest?"
Tia sighed and rubbed her hooves over her eyes, "I can't, Luna. Not yet. I have to make sure everypony else is taken care of first. It's my responsibility."
Luna frowned as she trotted closer, "You won't be helping anypony else if you're fighting your own hunger and fatigue, dear sister. Let me take over for a while."
Tia hesitated, shifting in the chair, "You've... already done so much. I mean, we have a sky again thanks to you. I... I feel like I have to do something. It's... my fault. This whole thing is my fault." Tia's ears flattened against her skull in misery as she looked down at the ledger in front of her.
"I went along with it, too, Tia," Luna stated patiently, "Everypony did. Wanting to do something -- anything -- to help is why we're in this mess in the first place."
Tia sighed and let her quill drop, leaning back in the chair, "I guess you're right. I just... I wish mom and dad were here."
Luna said nothing for a moment then her magic opened up her saddlebag and pulled out a tome slightly blackened by carbon and set it down in front of Tia. Tia's eyes widened in surprised delight, "My diary!"
"I found it in our old house," Luna said with a faint smile, "It's... not looking like it used to, but it seemed to have weathered a lot better than other houses. I'm sure a cleaning or repair spell or two will have it looking just as new."
Tia frowned faintly, looking up at her sister, "What about your telescope?"
Luna hesitated then shook her head, "It, I'm afraid, did not fair so well. I doubt it could be repaired even with magic."
Tia looked down and sighed, clasping her forehooves over her eyes, "Everything just goes wrong with everypony around me, yet I am always mysteriously unhurt."
"It's just a telescope, Tia. It's not important."
"It is!" Tia insisted forcefully, clapping her hooves down on the desk in front of her, "It is important! It's the last present you got from mom and dad! Some ponies lost their horns. Others lost their wings. Stardancer lost both. Yet here I am, without a scratch. I didn't even lose my diary!" Her magic surrounded the tome in question and threw it forcefully across the room -- though Luna caught it with her own telekinesis before it hit anything.
"We've all lost something, Tia," Luna murmured quietly as she floated the diary back to her sister, "We lost our parents, at the very least. Others lost more, yes, but... that doesn't diminish what we lost."
Tia sighed again and slumped in the chair, "Maybe. But it seems so... unfair. Why did someone like Stardancer lose so much, yet you and I lost so little?"
"I don't know," Luna said, "Maybe it was just random chance or maybe there was some purpose to it all. I can't say. But I do know that dwelling on it won't help anypony. You say you want to be there for the others? That you have a responsibility to them? Then the first thing you have to do is stop feeling sorry for yourself."
Tia flinched, her ears flattening against her head as she went silent for several moments. Eventually, the white alicorn sighed and nodded. "You're right, Luna. I... I'm just tired and hungry, I think. I'll go get something to eat and then find a bed in the sleeping area."
Luna nodded with a faint smile, "Good. I'll take over for you with this. Sleep well, Tia."
Tia slipped off the chair and smiled to her sister before throwing her two front hooves around her in a hug, "Thanks."
With that, Tia grabbed the diary with her magic and then walked out. After the meal, she was going to write all of this down so she would never forget.
After waking from her sleep period (nopony was quite sure how long sleeping lasted any more; the sun still hadn't risen so had become 'sleep until you are no longer tired'), Tia did feel a bit better. After securing her diary, the young alicorn decided to check up on Stardancer and Silverhoof in the makeshift library.
Formerly the records room, the books and filing cabinets containing various administrative information that no longer had relevance had been moved off to one of the unused rooms in the Town Hall. This left the towering shelves inside empty to be filled with the more relevant salvaged tomes. Tia was impressed by how well things were going; there were several shelves already filled with books, plus a work area where unicorns magically cleaned and repaired what works they could, then another area where geo-equines labored to repair the more damaged tomes by sacrificing multiple copies to rebind into complete works. Tia noticed that several of the tomes had been set aside; presumably, not all the information therein was complete yet and as more books were found by the search teams, they'd be added to.
Stardancer sat at a reading table, a long scroll in front of her and Silverhoof nearby with a stack of books. The two would talk quietly and then Stardancer would make some notation on the scroll, occasionally shuffling one of the books from the pile over and flipping through it. Tia hesitated, unsure if she should be disturbing the pair, but eventually trotted up to the desk. "How are things coming, Stardancer?"
Both Stardancer and Silverhoof looked up, the latter narrowing his eyes and frowning. Apparently, he was still sore over the small power struggle a few sleep periods prior.
"We are making progress," Stardancer said with a nod, "I think I know what happened, at least in very broad strokes. That cloud thing was some kind of chaos energy. When the spell interacted with it, it caused some kind of feedback which scrambled all the magic being pumped into it. Since the spell we used was connected to everypony at once, that meant all our magic was mixed up as well. Still, there was enough order to the spell that when the whole thing collapsed, it collapsed in specific patterns. That's why we have pegasi, unicorns, and geo-equines rather than things like chimera or ponies with one wing or half a horn or something."
"So what about Luna and I?" Tia asked, tilting her head, "We didn't change."
"Actually, you did," Stardancer stated, motioning with a hoof towards Tia's flowing, rainbow mane, "Since you, Luna, and I were at the focused loci of the spell, all the excess magic that didn't flow into the other ponies flowed into you two. I haven't done a census, but that may be why there's more geo-equines than the other types. The spell didn't just reorder everything, some of the magic was directed into you."
Tia winced. That was just great. Not only did she cripple most of the other fillies and foals in town, she was also some kind of magic vampire. "Why didn't you, um..."
"Why didn't I keep my wings and horn?" Stardancer completed flatly before frowning, "Honestly... I don't know. The only thing I can think of -- and this is pure conjecture on my part, Tia -- is that since you and Luna are twins, you shared the power. Since I was the odd one out on that point, I got the short end of the tail."
"Oh great," Tia groaned, placing a hoof over her face, "How do we fix this?"
Stardancer hesitated, shifting uneasily in her seat. Silverhoof's glare intensified. "I don't know," Stardancer said, a note of contrite desperation in her voice, "All of this is really, really out of my league, Tia. I was good at magic, sure, but I am just a filly. If any of the adults were here, maybe they would know or at least be able to find a starting point, but me?" She shook her head and frowned, peering down at the scroll in front of her, "It'll take years of study, at best."
Tia gasped and took a step back, looking aghast at her friend, "Years?! Everypony will be stuck like this for years?!"
"At least," Stardancer replied miserably, sinking down in her seat, "Tia.... it... it may not even be possible to fix. These chaos energies are notoriously rare and difficult to study. The only things I've been able to find about it never mentioned anything as big as the cloud we saw. And that's with just the books we've salvaged. We lost a lot of knowledge, Tia. The dynamics of the spell alone might take a lifetime to figure out."
Tia's previous better feeling was now just a memory. "W-well, maybe once we find the adults--"
"They're dead," Silverhoof spoke up suddenly, flatly. The ponies working at the tables to repair books all stopped and looked to him.
"They're... lost, not dead, exactly," Stardancer said, her voice low and sotto as the ponies at the tables began to slowly return to their work.
Passing a confused look between the geo-equine and the unicorn, Tia frowned, "What do you mean?"
"Our parents weren't part of the gestalt spell," Stardancer replied quietly, looking at once horrified, miserable, and embarrassed, "So when the spell collapsed, it took everything in the target area with it... the chaos magic and any local sources of pattern magic. Which were our parents. That's also why the magic torches in the Hall weren't lit when we arrived; they were absorbed too."
Tia's hooves gave out from under her and she fell to the floor, staring with quiet horror at her friend, "We... we blew them up?"
"Absorbed them, most likely. They, um... they're literally part of us now."
Tia's eyes brimmed with tears and she found herself hyperventilating.
"Told you we should've just charged the thing," Silverhoof grumbled, still glaring at the heavily breathing alicorn. Stardancer fixed him with a frown and lightly bapped him on the head with a foreleg.
It took several minutes for Tia to recover herself. She had managed to steady her breathing and keep from bawling right in the middle of the makeshift library -- it wouldn't do to have so many ponies see her like that, especially as this crisis was getting worse by the moment. Tia fought back the tears and stood unsteadily on her hooves, taking a deep breath. "Okay. We won't be able to fix this any time soon. What about that... that mark that appeared on Luna? Any idea about that?"
"The cutie mark?" Stardancer asked, "Mm. Again, I'm kinda at a loss here. I suspect it has something to do with the new order imposed by the spell, but what specifically it means or affects, I haven't a clue. From what Luna said, it might have something to do performing acts of spectacular magic, but that's a best guess based on really thin evidence."
Tia frowned at the new information, canting her head to one side. One question bubbled out of her, "'Cutie mark'?"
Stardancer grinned sheepishly and shrugged, "Hay, it was cute and a mark. Seemed an appropriate enough name. I mean, it doesn't have the auspiciousness of 'pegasus', 'unicorn', or 'geo-equine', but having a more down-to-earth name makes the phenomenon more... approachable. Especially since others have started getting them."
Tia blinked at that. "Wait, others have started getting them?"
Stardancer nodded, "Yeah. Seven, that I know of. There might be more. One was the pegasus leader of one of the search parties. A few more on my staff," she motioned to the tables where unicorns and geo-equines still worked, "I saw several from the ponies who were tending to the foals when they came in looking for books to read to their charges."
Tia frowned faintly in thought, "You said they were from acts of spectacular magic, right? Aren't geo-equines without magic entirely? I don't think many non-geo-equines are part of the foal tending group."
"I said that was a best guess," Stardancer replied, "None of this is really well understood." She suddenly brightened, seeming much more happy than Tia had seen her at any time during the crisis, "But! It turns out that geo-equines are not without magic entirely. It just takes a different form. It's not as flexible as unicorn magic, nor as obvious as pegasus, but it is definitely there."
"Oh," Tia replied, arching her eyebrows, "Well, that is good news at least. What can geo-equines do?"
"Well, it varies," Stardancer replied, pursing her lips, "Actually, from my admittedly small sampling, their cutie marks seem much more eclectic than the other two types of ponies. Typically, it has something to do with the physical world. Machinery, growing plants..." She faded off then craned her neck to peer at her own flank, "...rocks."
It took a moment for Tia to register what Stardancer was saying, but when it did the alicorn gasped and ran around to look at Stardancer's flank. Sure enough, there was a pictograph of a gem, some sort of stone, and an ingot of a silvery metal surrounding a six-pointed star burst. "Wow!" Tia said as she stared at it, then suddenly found herself at a loss for words. "Congratulations?" she offered hesitantly.
A beatific smile spread over Stardancer's features. "Thanks!" she replied happily, "It's strange, but... I kinda feel... whole. I know that's a weird thing to say considering I lost my horn and wings, but it's true nonetheless. I know it doesn't look like much, either, but... um..." Stardancer shrugged.
"How did you get it?" Tia asked curiously, trotting around to the front of the table again.
"I was... reading a book on magical gems," Stardancer said, her voice going somewhat dreamy as she recalled, "I thought that maybe magic could be replicated in gemstones for those of us lacking horns. It would never be like having a real horn, but it might be useful for some basic things like telekinesis and the like. Anyway, as I was reading it, I felt like my whole life just clicked into place. Suddenly, I could tell anything at all about any ore, stone, gem, or refined metal just by touching it." Her expression sharpened somewhat, ears pricking up, "For instance... did you know there are exactly two-hundred eighty-six stone tiles making up the floor in this library? I didn't count them; I just sensed it."
Tia arched her brows again. "Impressive."
"There's also a substantial deposit of iron ore right outside the Hall about three fathoms deep."
Stardancer smiled wryly, "As I said, it's a bit too early to be seeing patterns in things, but so far geo-equines seem to have more physical, earthy magic, pegasi seem more to do with meteorological and flight characteristics, and unicorns deal with the more... uhm... ethereal. Abstract concepts, symbolic logic, that sort of thing."
Tia smiled at her friend, happy to see the other filly so animated after the shock of losing her wings and horn. "Well, this is all good to know. It will... it will soften the blow when I explain to everypony that we're unlikely to see our parents again." Her head drooped, ears flattening, "Or be able to fix this whole thing any time soon."
Stardancer's happy smile began to fade, "There's another piece of bad news, though."
Tia winced and sighed, rubbing her forehooves to the sides of her head, "Figures. Okay, what else is wrong?"
"Well, Luna was kind enough to give us a sky again," Stardancer began, shifting her weight on her chair, "But, um... well, as beautiful as it is, it doesn't provide much light. If we're going to be in this for the long haul, we're going to need to start growing food. That's going to be very difficult without the sun. Now, as I said, a few ponies have plant and growth-based cutie mark magics, but its not enough to feed us all. And even with those few ponies, lack of sun makes things much harder. It's possible that some of the unicorns could learn a spell to give off light enough to grow things on a wider scale, but even then... well, you might've noticed that things are getting kinda colder around here. Without the sun, we're facing the very real possibility of both starving and freezing to death. We might've been able to handle one of those, but both at the same time..."
Tia's own good cheer on seeing her friend happy was completely obliterated by this new information. "Of course," she muttered to herself, "Of course it would." She sighed heavily, "Thanks for bringing all of this to my attention, Stardancer. I'll set up a full meeting soon to tell everypony the good and bad news."
"Mostly bad," Silverhoof interjected.
"Yes, thank you," Tia muttered, casting an annoyed look over to the colt before turning her attention back to Stardancer, "In the meantime, keep working at what you're doing. Maybe we'll get lucky and you'll stumble on something that will speed up the process." Stardancer nodded and Tia turned to walk out, frowning faintly.
Tia shivered slightly as she stepped out of the Town Hall; it was getting colder. Tia sighed and looked up at the sky and the wonderful work of celestial art her sister had produced several sleep periods ago. It was still as beautiful now as it was when it first came into being, but it needed to end. Soon.
Sighing again, Tia unfurled her wings and took to the air, spiraling up the central spire. The landing platform was wide and led into a domed interior made of glass. Tia noted with some dismay that a number of the panes were missing or broken. She idly wondered if that happened during the fighting or when the spell had malfunctioned.
Landing on the platform and tucking her wings against her body, Tia strode into the viewing dome. She vaguely remembered when she was much younger and couldn't fly at all that her parents had taken her and her sister on their backs here.
They were gone, now. Forever. Dissolved into that accursed spell. Tia glared angrily down at her own hooves and at the cracked tiles that made up the floor of the viewing dome. "It's not fair!" she cried out in frustration, stamping a hoof on a tile, causing the already fractured stone to shatter even more. Anger soon turned to despair and she just let the tears come. There was no one relying on her now, no one that needed to see the strong, confident filly. Here she could let it all out.
She wasn't sure how long she cried; without any way to keep track of time, it was amazing how one second flowed into the next. All she knew was that eventually the tears stopped; not because she felt any better, but only because she had no more tears left to give. Sniffling, Tia ran a foreleg against her snout, wiping away some of mucus that had leaked out during her blubbering. "Ugh," she said with mild disgust, "I'll have to get a bath soon."
Tia moved over closer to a section of the dome that had miraculously kept its glass and sat down in front of it, staring out of the panes into the night sky. She let her mind wander and found it going over what Stardancer had said about spell matrices. She had known of the technique, but that it could be used in such a way had surprised her. Tia pursed her lips and concentrated -- just a combination of telekinesis and a light spell, right?
To her delight, a beam of bright, yellow light flowed from her horn, cascading down into the town. Tia experimented with moving it back and forth, sweeping the searchlight across the collection of ruined buildings. Undoubtedly, some of the scouting parties would see it. Tia concentrated again, adjusting the spell to increase the size and range of the light beam, then hesitated. It was foalish to think this had any hope of working, really. Not to mention that Tia was uneasy about messing up the beautiful sky that Luna had created. Curiosity and faint hope won out in the end, and Tia directed the energy beam up to into sky.
Tia could feel it. The full glory of the the world -- no, the universe -- around her. It was an amazing, powerful sensation; with a mere thought she could bring into being anything she wanted.
No. Not anything. She would never get her parents back.
But it was as Luna had described it; as if she were holding the very stuff of creation in her hooves. And there was something else... a cloying, tugging sensation. It felt... right. Like being tucked into bed with clean sheets after a long day. Tia concentrated more and then felt it: the sun. It was there! All she had to do was give the lightest tug...
The sky began to lighten, the stars chased away by the brightening blue and golden rays. A large, half-crescent of yellow glowing fire peeked over the horizon, growing larger and brighter with every moment, chasing away the last lingering shadows.
Tia stopped once the sun was fully up; funny, it looked smaller when beside the moon, but it shown so much more brightly.
Tia found herself smiling then curiously turned her head to cast a look at her flank. Sure enough, a bright stylized orange sun was visible there. Tia marvelled for a moment at her cutie mark, then saw movement out of the corner of her eye. She looked over and saw Luna there, staring back with amazement. Tia glanced over the edge of the dome and could see the tiny shapes of ponies slowly walking out of the Hall to look towards the horizon at the sunrise. Tia held out a hoof to her sister, to walked over and sat beside her.
The two of them just stared out at the world, bathed in the warm yellow glow of the sun.
Chrysalis stared out at the blackened, mostly dead landscape made even more bleak by the stormclouds that blocked out the sun with mild distaste. This was an area not fit for pony or changeling. The rather large and imposing fort overlooking the small valley in which she and Celestia were walking did nothing to calm her unease. Again, the Changeling Queen was clad in her Luna disguise, but that provided little comfort as the Element of Tyranny that had fused to her had refused to change with her form. The fact that such a blatant give away as to her true nature was so visible made her changeling instincts screech in dismay and did nothing to help her increasingly foul mood. In the distance she could see their destination that they slowly approached; a small cave entrance with a set of barbed, wrought-iron gates preventing entry and guarded by two Earth-pony guards with spears. With the storm rumbling and the sun only peeking out from behind the dark clouds on occasion, their golden armor looked a lot less pristine and shiny.
"What is it you seek in Tartarus, Celestia?" Chrysalis asked for not the first time since the destination had become clear.
"You will see," her alicorn companion replied evenly, much to Chrysalis' continued annoyance. The Princess -- or whoever she was, for Chrysalis wasn't sure which of the two she had seen was the real one -- had been keeping her plans very close to her chest since this alliance began, only telling the Changeling Queen what was going on in very vague terms and only when her plans were almost to be enacted. The whole cryptic immortal double-talk was really starting to aggravate her; Chrysalis decided that as soon as she was back with the majority of her swarm that this alliance would end. This Princess Celestia was powerful, yes, but with her new abilities and the swarm at her back, she was certain she could force an end to the alliance by sheer numbers if nothing else.
But until she had those numbers, Chrysalis had to play along.
"Won't we be seen by the fort?" Chrysalis asked, motioning with a hoof to the imposing base cresting the valley.
"We're the Princesses of Equestria," Celestia noted with amusement, "Who would stop us? Besides, that fort -- and most other ones in the country -- is currently severely understaffed and operating with only a skeleton force. Most of them are out trying to contain those storms and providing aid to communities. Likely, only administrative staff and those unfit for weather duty are still there. The only ones we have to worry about are the two guards at the entrance and that will be easy."
"And why aren't they gone, too?" Chrysalis asked, eyeing the growing form of the two ponies guarding the entrance.
"After an incident where the primary guard to the Tartarus Prison, Cerberus, managed to get off his chain, there were a few break outs," Celestia explained with the tone of a teacher patiently answering a particularly dull student's question, "We -- that is to say, Luna and I -- decided that more traditional security was needed. That fort is less than a year old. Before this new security measure, there wasn't even a gate or guards on the entrance. The only thing that kept the prisoners inside were their own cells and Cerberus." The white alicorn snorted derisively, "Such a shocking display of poor security, was it any wonder that Tirek escaped?"
Chrysalis looked sidelong at her companion, pursing her lips tightly, "You have some surprisingly harsh words for your own folly."
"I was... different then," Celestia stated, "I didn't understand. It's taken me this long to fully comprehend what it means to rule. That order above all is worth any price and sacrifices must sometimes be made for the greater good. I never was comfortable with that truth of ruling before. I was a coward, unable to fully commit to doing what was necessary."
Chrysalis didn't know how to respond to that strange admission, so she said nothing.
Soon they arrived at the cave entrance and the two guard ponies levelled their spears at the pair. For a moment, Chrysalis thought they had somehow discovered her deception (maybe that accursed jewel in her barrel!), but before she could drop her illusion and prepare for a fight, Celestia stepped forward.
"Halt!" one of the ponies said, "State your identity, your purpose, and the password!"
Celestia smiled down at the guard who spoke, the spear still levelled in a position to pierce her heart at a moment's notice. "I am Princess Celestia with Princess Luna, we are here to see a prisoner. The password..." Celestia paused a moment, rubbing her chin with a hoof before offering a grin and a wink, "I think that today the password is 'cake'. Am I right?"
Both guards raised their spears and bowed before Celestia. "Forgive us, Princess. We have been given strict orders to prevent anyone access unless they knew the password."
"It's quite all right, soldier," Celestia replied, "In fact, I am quite pleased that you followed proper procedure. One never knows if some enemy of Equestria may try to get past with illusion spells or any of the myriad other means of disguise. This is a prison for the most dangerous in Equestria, after all. We can't take any chances." She paused briefly then added, "You may both rise." Both Guards did so.
Celestia nodded towards the iron gate and one of the guards took a keyring off his belt, selected one of the keys, then slid it into the overly large lock on the gate. With a heavy clunk the key was turned and the gate slid slowly open with a creak of protest. Celestia began moving through the open gate with Chrysalis in her Luna form following, then stopped halfway through. She looked over her shoulder at the guards then nodded to the one with the keys. "You there. Accompany us." The guard hesitated, looking over at the his companion who seemed to consider the request before nodding. The three figures entered the darkened cave, the gate closing shut behind them and locking with a final-sounding clunk.
The mouth of the cave quickly began to narrow and a sickly red glow could be seen flickering at the other end. A set of spiral stairs, rough-hewn from the very rock of the cave went down towards the faint red light.
Chrysalis trotted up beside Celestia and whispered in a sotto voice, "Why did you take the guard?"
Celestia smiled wryly, before responding in equally quiet tones, "He had the keys. Besides which, I need a present for when we visit. We wouldn't want to be rude, now, would we?"
Chrysalis was about to ask for clarification, but stifled it with a sigh. It was unlikely Celestia would say anything other than more cryptic words and the answer would reveal itself soon.
After several minutes of walking down the uneven staircase, the trio finally reached a landing. Chrysalis chanced a glance upwards and saw the stairs spiraling dizzily upwards into darkness -- how far down were they? The heat was oppressive and the source of the red glare from above now was obvious: around the landing flowed two lakes of lava, bubbling and churning and tossing hot coals occasionally onto the edges of the stone dais where they stood. A thin walkway of polished obsidian bridged the lava flows and led further out into the cave. Celestia began moving across and the other two followed, the sound of their hooves against the black stone mixing with the general bubble and churn of the lava and echoing otherworldly against the walls of the cave. A large crevice was bored into the wall beside the staircase, four heavy chains bolted to the rock disappearing to the darkness within.
The trio walked in silence down the corridor, still flanked on either side with thinner streams of lava, but also illuminated by magic torches set at regular intervals along the walls. The mix of red and yellow light cast ghastly, mocking shadows of the three figures across the black ground. Occasionally, an additional section of obsidian would trace off in another direction, disappearing into the distance or ending in front of a cell. The occupants -- beings of every possible description --- of the cells glared out with hungry, evil eyes at the ponies who passed, occasionally shouting invectives and rattling their iron cages. The guard pony and Chrysalis were both unnerved, but Celestia seemed to take the cacophonous abuse in easy stride.
Eventually, after what seemed to Chrysalis like hours of walking, they turned off on one of the smaller obsidian walkways. The guard stopped, hesitant to go any further and Celestia looked over her shoulder at him. "Something wrong, soldier?"
The guard hesitated, eyes flickering from the path forward to Celestia and back. "N... no, Your Highness," he eventually said, "But... this corridor leads to--"
"I know where it leads," Celestia cut off the pony with a firm voice, "Are you incapable of following orders and escorting my sister and myself?"
The guard steadied on his hooves, body going taut to attention, "No, Princess."
"Then come along," Celestia turned and continued her path down the obsidian way. The others followed.
They came out onto a dais, raised on stone steps and surrounded by more lava and fire. A large cage of cold-iron lay at the center of the dais, the wizened, four-hooved occupant faced away and towards the blank wall. Celestia, Chrysalis, and the guard approached.
"Celestia," came the somewhat rough voice from the figure, dripping with malice and sneering contempt, "And to what do I owe this visit?"
"I've come to offer you a chance to join me, Tirek."
Cackling laughter echoed through the chamber as the emaciated figure turned around to face the three, his sallow somewhat simian face pulled into a rictus of amusement that held no warmth. "Now that is rich," Tirek wheezed, "I'm afraid I will have to decline. I have no wish to become your puppet like Discord nor to be 'redeemed' by friendship." He spat the last word like a curse. "I'd prefer to rot in this prison for eternity than have your compassion inflicted on me."
"I have not come to redeem you, Tirek," Celestia stated patiently, "I want you as you are."
Tirek narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "You will forgive me if I am less than credulous of your offer."
Celestia chuckled softly, "Of course. That is why--" Celestia's horn glowed and the guard pony let out cry as in one fluid magic motion his spear was ripped from him and tossed in the lava and his body was encased in the bright, harsh white glow and dragged towards the cell, "--I brought you a gift. As a gesture of good faith."
"P-Princess Celestia! What are you doing?!" The guard continued to struggle in the telekinetic grasp, but beyond the rippling of his muscles, he could not break free. He screamed as his jaw was forced open and snout jammed through the bars.
Again, Tirek peered suspiciously at Celestia, his dark eyes drifting lazily from the alicorn to the captive guard and back. After a moment's consideration, Tirek opened his mouth and the tell-tale swirls of magic began to pour forth from the poor guard pony into Tirek. His wizened form began to grow and become less emaciated as the pony's coat drained of hue. A few seconds later, the guard was a feeble rag-doll, moaning piteously in the telekinetic embrace of Celestia. "Better?" she asked.
"Hardly much of a meal," Tirek replied, "But your gesture is... appreciated." His eyes narrowed then moved to Chrysalis then back. "You do keep strange company these days, Celestia. A Changeling? And from the taste of her magic, a Queen at that." He canted his head slightly as he peered at Chrysalis, "Though... something is odd about the magic you possess. I have not felt its like before, yet it feels startlingly familiar..."
Chrysalis took a step back and narrowed her eyes at the creature in the cell, "Watch yourself, leech. You would not find me as easy prey."
Hollow chuckling rose from Tirek, "No, I suspect not." He turned his attention back to Celestia, "What is it you want from me, Celestia?"
"As I said, I want you to join me," Celestia replied before motioning with a hoof towards Chrysalis, "As you said, I keep different company these days. I plan to take over all of Equestria and then beyond. You can be a part of those plans, Tirek."
"Interesting," Tirek replied, black eyes still suspicious, "Though you should know from experience that I do not play well with others. And besides which... are you not undisputed ruler of all Equestria already?"
"Co-ruler," Celestia replied, "And hardly undisputed. There is too much disorder in Equestria for my taste." A slow smile spread on her features, "And I suspect you can learn to work with me if the rewards are sufficient. We both know the value of an alliance only reaches as far as it takes one or the other to gain an advantage." She motioned with a hoof to Chrysalis, "She is already planning to usurp me. Why should you be any different?"
Chrysalis blinked and stared at Celestia, "Princess! I don't know where these thoughts of your come from, but I had no intention--"
Celestia fixed the Changeling Queen with a hard stare and she found her voice dying in her throat. Celestia turned back to Tirek and smiled, "Join me, Tirek, and I promise you more power than you have ever dreamed possible. Enough to make all the magic in Equestria itself pale before its might."
Tirek rubbed his chin thoughtfully with a claw. "I don't know what game you are playing, Celestia," he said slowly, "But I suppose I could play as well. It would be better than rotting in this cell at least."
"Excellent," Celestia replied, her telekinesis dropping the drained guard to the ground with an unceremonious thump as she opened her saddlebag and produced a small dark pinkish-red diamond gem. It floated towards the cell and hovered in front of Tirek, "And finally: another gift. I, Princess Celestia, present to you, Tirek, the Element of Tyranny: Power."
Tirek paused, staring at the gem for a long moment. "I... sense power here," he said cautiously, "But..."
"But what?" Celestia asked, arching an eyebrow, "Are you saying you reject the power I am giving you?" She snorted in scorn, beginning to retract the gem, "Perhaps I was wrong about you. Maybe you are not fit to wield an Element, especially one as special as this. Very well, we will leave." Celestia began to turn away.
"Wait!" Tirek called out, raising a hand and grasping through the bars, "I was merely trying to ascertain the aspect of magic within the gem. I did not say I rejected it."
Celestia looked over her shoulder, eyebrows arched imperiously, "No? You seemed quite willing to walk away from power just now." A thin, mocking smile spread across her lips, "Or perhaps you believe you will be unable to handle the power of the Element? Is cowardice staying your hand, Tirek?"
Tirek glared at the alicorn. "No power is over me!" he roared, "I am power! Give me the gem!"
Celestia paused for a long while, staring calculatingly at Tirek. "Very well," she said finally, floating the gem closer. Greedily, he reached out for the gem through the bars, grasping it with his claws. Shafts of light burst forth from his grip and the ancient magic leech let out a roar of intense pain. In an instant it was gone and Tirek found the gem -- now transformed into the shape of a gripping fist -- infused in his palm.
He looked up at Celestia, "What treachery is this?!"
Pure, harsh white light enveloped the keys on the weakly struggling guard and glided up to the thick lock on Tirek's cell. One by one the keys were tried until a thick clunk was heard and the door to the cell swung open wide. "No treason," Celestia replied, "I gave you exactly what you wished for. Power."
Tirek growled low in his throat as he stepped out of his cage, still staring at the gem embedded in his palm. "I fail to see how this grants me any power, Celestia."
The still prone guard was floated into the cage that Tirek vacated and the door closed and once more locked, the keyring floating towards Celestia's saddlebags. She smiled with mild amusement at Tirek, "Why don't you test it?" She nodded towards the lava surrounding the dais, "Try absorbing the lava."
Tirek blinked at Celestia then frowned, "Are you insane? I take magic, not geological features!"
"All of Equestria is magical in some way," Celestia stated, her voice once more going into a teacheresque lecturing mode, "It touches everything; the earth, the rocks, the plants. Even the lava."
Fixing Celestia with a glare, Tirek trotted over to the edge of the dais and peered into the roiling lava pit. He took a breath then extended his hand with the gem and concentrated. The gem began to glow with a sickly, throbbing light and, much to his surprise, Tirek could feel the magic in the very earth being ripped away and taken into him. More than that, he could feel the very magic of the land, washing over him in details and ways he never experienced before. After a moment as the sensation began to ebb, Tirek opened his eyes and found the cavern mostly pitch black -- the only light being a bright, pure yet harsh white coming from Celestia's horn.
The lava in the cavern had been completely removed -- only a thin layer of volcanic dust remained where once the lava flowed.
Tirek couldn't help but be impressed despite himself.
"Satisfied?" Celestia asked with a smirk.
"Yes," Tirek said, unable to keep the note of wonder from his voice, "That was... most satisfactory."
"Good," Celestia stated and started to walk out of the cavern, "Now come, we have much to do."
The journey back to the landing was an eventful one. The trio would pause at each cell they encountered on the way back and Tirek would absorb the magic that the prisoner contained. Under usual circumstances, Tirek would have to build up to absorbing greater magic, taking smaller and less powerful sources first. Doing otherwise was dangerous; there was a possibility of not being able to handle the larger, more powerful sources in a weakened state.
Now, however, it didn't seem to matter what his own status was: if it was a magic source, he could absorb it, regardless of the power contained.
Tirek was feeling quite powerful indeed by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs that led out of the cave. Indeed, his emaciated form had improved immensely, becoming powerful and fit. Not quite up to his strength when he faced down Twilight Sparkle, but still quite respectable. So busy marveling at his new abilities and fortune was Tirek that he nearly missed the hole in the wall until a large, three-headed dog bounded out of it, stopped only by the four heavy chains. It barred the access to the stairs.
"Well, Tirek?" Celestia said, nodding towards the slavering beast.
Tirek nodded and extended his gem-infused hand to Cerberus. The beast suddenly stopped its straining at its restrained and sniffed the air cautiously, growling at Tirek.
"The beast's magic is... difficult to take," Tirek said, "That is probably why it is tasked with guarding this place."
"You'll be able to do it," Celestia spoke with confidence.
Tirek merely grunted at that, instead pouring his concentration into his task. The beast began to back up, whining and whimpering softly. Then, suddenly, Cerberus let out a yelp as strands of yellow magic flecked with red began to flow out from the creature. It began to shrink and shrivel, it's strong limbs trembling and eventually collapsing under its own weight until the three-headed dog was left as a grey, old, piteous caricature of its former self. Tirek took in a deep breath. "An interesting experience."
The three began to walk up the stairs, towards the cave entrance.
"P-Princess?!" the guard at the top behind the gate stared with surprise at Celestia in the company of Tirek. Celestia smiled and lifted the keys from her saddlebag, unlocking the gate and swinging it open. "Do not worry, soldier. Everything is fine."
"But... but..." the guard was flabbergasted, looking between Celestia, Chrysalis, and Tirek as they exited the cave, "Princess, that is Tirek!" The guard blinked twice then watched as the keys once more floated to Celestia's bag. "Wait, where's Stalwart Heart?"
Celestia paused, frowning at the guard. "You ask too many questions," she stated flatly, grabbing him in her white aura and wrenching the spear from his grasp. She looked towards Chrysalis, "Tirek has been feeding quite well recently, why don't you have this one?"
Chrysalis blinked then smiled nastily, licking her lips as her Luna disguise fell away in a flash of green magic, "Don't mind if I do..." The guard screamed.
Tirek watched the feeding with mild interest for a few moments before turning his attention to Celestia. "You have, indeed, granted me power," he said, a small smile beginning to form on his features, "But now I have that power and my freedom. Tell me, Celestia..." he raised his bejeweled hand towards the alicorn, "... Did your 'plans' include my betrayal so soon after release?"
Celestia turned towards Tirek and fixed him with a mildly amused smirk devoid of any real mirth. "Yes."
Tirek blinked and frowned. That was not the reaction he was expecting. No matter. Tirek reached out with his senses and his power and prepared to absorb Celestia.
Only nothing happened.
He couldn't even sense her.
"Well?" Celestia asked, the smirk replaced with a cold intensity, "Weren't you going to betray me?"
Tirek blinked and looked at his hand then back to the alicorn, "What... what did you do to me?!"
"As I said, I gave you what you wanted," Celestia stated, beginning to slowly circle Tirek like a predatory shark, "Ultimate power. But power always comes with a price. You just didn't know what it was until this moment. You can't use your powers on me, Tirek, nor on any of the other Elements of Tyranny. That is the price of power." She turned away from him and began to walk away, only to pause and look over her shoulder, "Oh, and one more thing..." Her horn glowed and the Alicorn Amulet at her throat glowed in sympathy.
Instantly, Tirek was hit with a wave of pain unlike he had ever experienced. It felt worse than when he had the magic torn out of him from his second defeat. Every single fiber of his body seemed to be at once on fire, prickled with needles, and being pulled to pieces.
He had never felt such relief when the pain stopped. His head swam and his vision was blurred. Disorientated, it took several moments for Tirek to realize he had collapsed on the ground. His breathing was labored and he discovered to his disgust that he had fouled himself in the most messy, embarrassing way possible. He reached up to his face and found it came away wet. At first he thought it was spittle from his mouth, but then realized to his horror that they were tears. Tirek had never cried before. Not once, ever. It was a symbol of pure weakness. The fact that he had just now disturbed him more than the pain itself.
Celestia stared imperiously down at his prone form, her countenance a mask of cold, controlled indifference. "So tell me, Tirek," she said, her voice a deathly quiet that gave Tirek chills, "How long do you think you were subjected to that pain?"
Tirek blinked and heaved in a heavy breath. He tried to think -- it seemed like an eternity when it was happening. "A... a few minutes," he said between his labored gasps.
"Seven seconds," Celestia replied, "It was just seven seconds. Had I let you writhe in pain for another seven, what do you think that would do to you? Could you stand it, Tirek? Would you go mad?" She narrowed her eyes, "Attempt to betray me again, and you will find out."
"I... I understand, Celestia."
"Good," the alicorn said, a faint smile appearing on her features as her horn glowed, "Now let's get you cleaned up."
Chrysalis was enjoying feeding off the pony's love mixed with the nice spiciness of fear when she heard the cry. The Changeling Queen blinked and looked over towards where Tirek and Celestia stood, frowning at the interruption. Her eyes widened as she saw the large brute collapse suddenly and twitch like a dying insect, voiding his bowels and letting out the most pitiful cry of pain and despair she had ever heard. And she had heard some cries before -- usually she rather enjoyed them. Here, though, it was heartbreaking in a way she had never experienced, at least first hand. She felt... sympathy. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
She looked down at the pony in her grasp. Despite the clawing hunger, she had lost her appetite; another unusual sensation that disturbed her. She instead stood and trotted over to the pair.
Tirek had stood up and Celestia had cast a spell to clean him up. She looked over at Chrysalis' approach and smiled, "Satiated?"
"Never," Chrysalis replied, "But I am finished with him."
Celestia's horn glowed again and encompassed the emotionally drained pony in her harsh, white magic, dragging him over to the gate on the cave entrance and throwing him inside. The gate closed shut with a bang and locked.
"Come, we have someone else to add to our merry band," Celestia stated with cheerfulness, "We go North! To the Crystal Empire." She started off at a regal walk.
Chrysalis watched the Princess go before turning to Tirek, a frown on her features. "What happened?"
"It... it was nothing," Tirek replied, wiping his eyes and staring with quiet horror at the salty liquid there. He shook his head quickly, "A... miscalculation on my part, that is all. And a lesson in loyalty." He began to walk off, catching up to Celestia.
Chrysalis watched the two begin to recede in the distance before she started to walk. Perhaps her severing of the alliance would have to wait even longer than she planned.
Tia's announcement went about as was expected. The revelation that their parents were gone and that the remote hope of being returned to their proper forms was crushing to the morale of the fillies and colts that made up her little ponies. Many a tear was shed.
The worst thing, though, were the nightmares. As the reality of their situation took further hold, many a young pony was losing sleep with the fevered imagined last moments of their parents at their own hooves. In something of an irony, Tia had rarely slept better in her life; the terrifying nightmares that had plagued her as long as she could remember had been gone since the night of the spell. Instead, when she slept, she had blissfully dreamless nights.
That is not to say she enjoyed sound sleep, however.
The oppressive nocturnal distress of her little ponies (her ponies? When did Tia start to think of them as 'hers'?) disturbed Tia greatly, making her own sleep restfulness with worry and guilt over the relative ease of it. It was with no small sense of relief a few days later that Luna revealed another of her new powers.
"Sister!" Luna had said excitedly, trotting into the makeshift office that was now where Tia spent the majority of her time, "I have news! Wonderful news!"
Tia looked up from the never ending reams of paperwork (how could a society building from essentially from scratch and composing entirely of young and infant ponies generate so much paperwork?) and blinked at her sister standing in front of her, "Wonderful news? That would be welcome, dear sister."
Luna couldn't help but grin widely as she pranced in place, "You know of the nightmares that the others have been having?" Irritatingly, Luna had paused at the rhetorical question -- of course Tia knew! Regardless, Tia nodded and gestured her sister to continue, tapping down her own annoyance at the few seconds waste. "I can help them!"
Tia blinked, but no more information was forthcoming. The rainbow haired alicorn rubbed her temple with a hoof as she felt a tension headache coming on, "That is, indeed, wonderful news Luna. I'm glad that talking with them has helped." Again, Tia felt irritation that her work had been interrupted for this 'news' -- there were already several ponies comforting the distressed dreamers. It had been enough of a problem that a permanent team had been established to do just that, in addition to their other duties. Again, Tia tamped down the emotion, replacing it with a twinge of guilt -- any help with this problem would be good, and it was unbecoming of her to consider the bureaucratic flow of paper to be more important than the welfare of her little ponies.
"It is no mere speech of which I speak, sister!" Luna exclaimed happily, "I mean that I can -- quite literally -- enter their dreams. I can interact and reshape the dreamscape like I do the night's sky. I can turn nightmares into pleasant slumber."
Now that was something noteworthy. Noteworthy enough that Tia set down her quill in the inkwell, eyebrows raising. "Truly?" she asked with mild surprise, "You have confirmed this?"
Luna let out a cascade of trilling laughter that Tia couldn't help but smile at, even considering her grouchy mood. Seeing her sister so joy-filled was infectious. "Oh, yes, Tia," Luna replied, smiling beatifically, "At first I thought it merely a fancy on my part -- a pleasant waking dream of my own that I could aid the others more directly than by providing a bit of nighttime entertainment. But then I heard Emerald Dust telling Crimson Star about a dream she had with me in it, and I recognized it immediately. After a bit of experimentation--" Luna's smile turned apologetic and sheepish, "--forgive me, sister, that I did not come as soon as I suspected, but I didn't want to disturb your work unless I had news truly worthy of report. Anyway, after a bit of experimentation, I discovered I could target and walk with any slumbering pony I wished. Direct line of sight wasn't needed... I only needed to think of them." Her smile once again turned bright, "I also discovered I could sense the dreamscape, as well as manipulate it. I am able to tell when a pony's sleep is in distress. With some practice, I think I will be able to enter and interact with multiple ponies at once."
Tia leaned back in her seat and thoughtfully stroked her chin with a hoof. "This is great news indeed," she said with a smile, "That will lessen the burden on the caretakers significantly if we can head these problems off at the outset, rather than relying on comforting ponies after the fact."
Luna nodded enthusiastically.
After a moments more thought, Tia peered owlishly at her sister, "Have you discussed this with anypony else?"
"Not directly, no," Luna replied after a moments hesitation, "Though I believe it will be common knowledge -- or, at least, common rumor -- soon enough as enough ponies begin to exchange stories of their dreams being altered and I being in them."
"Mmn," Tia replied, nodding, "Yes. We should make another announcement about this. I know your heart is in the right place, sister, but some ponies might be... uncomfortable... with you being able to enter their slumbering minds so easily. It would be better for us to forthrightly announce your newly discovered ability to ensure that any questions about it can be answered and assurances can be made that you will only go where wanted."
The good humor in Luna's demeanor began to dissolve and her ears went back on her head, hurt showing in her eyes. "I... I didn't think of that," she admitted uneasily, "Considering the problems the nightmares are causing, I thought everyone would rejoice at such a solution."
"They will," Tia assured her sister with a smile, "At least, most will." Tia sighed heavily and again rubbed her temple, "Unfortunately, as I have become distressingly aware since the big announcement regarding our parents and the nature of the spell cast, that some ponies may fear or resent us."
"Fear us?" Luna asked in mild surprise.
Tia cast a tired smile to her sister and shrugged, stretching out her wings, "We are the last of the alicorns, Luna. It was our spell that stripped the others of their very nature. Is it any wonder that resentment and fear may take hold?"
Luna frowned. "I suppose not."
"To further cast aside such fears," Tia stated thoughtfully, "Perhaps you could work with Stardancer? See if she can come up with some magical theory to account for your new ability? Maybe even replicate it with the unicorns at least? Spreading the power around will do much to alleviate any distrust."
Luna's frown deepened and her eyes cast down. "Oh. All right."
Confusion spread over Tia's features and she canted her head to one side, "Something wrong?"
Luna sat down in front of the desk and squirmed uncomfortably in place before a moment before turning her eyes back to her sister and speaking, "It's just that... well, you raise the sun, Tia! It's vitally important, I know that. Not only that, but you are responsible for all the record keeping. Me? I just provide some pretty pictures at night. And the novelty of that is wearing quite thin, especially as work continues." Luna dipped her head, scuffing the floor with a forehoof, "I just... wanted to be more useful."
Tia blinked several times at the revelation. "Oh," she said, at a bit of a loss. She sighed and shook her head, "Truthfully, Luna, I didn't know you felt this way. Sorry. I had been doing all the record keeping because, well, somepony had to and everything is my responsibility. I didn't... I didn't want to burden anypony, especially you." Tia smiled, "And I would never have known about controlling the sun if you hadn't first painted the stars and moon. At the very least, you are appreciated for that."
"I guess," Luna replied sullenly, suddenly seeming much more like the young filly she was supposed to be.
"I'm sure most of the others will gladly accept your nocturnal help, sister," Tia stated, injecting joviality into her words that she didn't really feel to attempt to brighten the spirits of her dark sister, "And if some of the unicorns can learn to do what you do with dreams, then it will also provide a solution for those who don't accept the help. Either way, you will be instrumental in helping to solve the Nightmare Crisis."
Luna merely nodded morosely.
Tia paused, considering her sister for a long moment. "There is... another matter," she said slowly, "The salvage teams are going to run out of stuff to find eventually. Even now, the amount of useful materials we find is slowing. At the same token, I am loathe to disband the teams entirely. So, I am considering reassigning them to a different task. A task which you might be a great asset for."
Luna peered at her sister, curiosity piqued.
Tia smiled, happy to see her sister's interest again focused. "One of the main records we lost during the battle were maps. We know the town easily enough, but the surrounding area is largely not. Furthermore, we don't know if there were other environmental changes because of the spell backlash; and if there are, we need to catalog and evaluate them. Why not solve both problems by assigning the recovery teams to scout and mapping missions. Call it... call it a Long Patrol." Tia's smile widened, "Considering we don't know what we might face out there, and that those ponies without wings would make such expeditions very unwieldy and resource-heavy, having somepony along with both wings and the ability to use magic would be invaluable. Since I am needed to deal with this paperwork--" Tia cast a disgusted glare to the offending material in front of her, "--I can think of no pony better suited for the leadership and responsibility of this task than yourself."
Luna's smile reappeared with full force and she stood up. "Yes! Yes, that sounds great!" After a moment, the dark alicorn caught herself and coughed, returning to a more calm demeanor, "I mean, I will take this task with the utmost austerity and responsibility it requires, sister."
Tia couldn't help but let out an amused chuckle. "Good. I'll do the -- ugh -- paperwork for the new Long Patrol tomorrow and we'll announce it during the same meeting where we reveal your new powers. In the meantime, please go see Stardancer in the library."
Luna's smile faltered just slightly at the request, but she nodded and saluted. "Understood." Then a concerned frown settled over the filly alicorn's features and she peered at her sister, "Speaking of dreams... Tia, how have yours been? Now that I'm in a position to aid you..." She let her statement fade off in silent offering.
For a moment, Tia hesitated before sighing. "Truthfully, Luna, I haven't really had any, either of the pleasant or nightmarish variety." A sardonic smile spread over her features, "How ironic that a great tragedy like this somehow leads to a more restful night for the one pony most responsible?"
"You haven't had any?" Luna asked in surprise, "None at all?"
Tia shook her head.
"How... odd," Luna replied thoughtfully, pursing her lips, "Mmn." The alicorn hesitated then offered up, "If you'd like, we can test my abilities? I confess, I've not had the opportunity to attempt to enter the sleep of somepony not dreaming. It might be interesting to try, at any rate."
Tia considered the offer then nodded, "All right. I suppose if it doesn't work, there isn't any harm done. We can do it tonight, I suppose, after you raise the moon and stars and I head to bed."
"Done," Luna stated with a definitive nod, "Now, if you will excuse me, I will now go see Stardancer. Until this evening, dear sister." The dark pony turned and headed out.
Tia was dead tired when it came time to lower the sun and let Luna raise the night's sky. Despite not being particularly physically draining, doing paperwork was nonetheless fatiguing. Her growling stomach revealed that she had not eaten that day, so despite her weariness, she headed to the communal eating facility.
She smiled and nodded to the ponies she passed, most of whom returned the gesture.
A few, however, glowered at her or watched her with suspicious eyes and flattened ears. Tia sighed at the inevitable result of her announcement. She hoped that the understandable resentment and anger in those ponies would abate in time. Nonetheless, it was a worrying precedent.
As she walked through the halls of the Town Hall, Tia idly noted groups of ponies gathering together. She smiled to herself; it was nice to see her little ponies getting along. Still, something gnawed at her fatigued mind as she saw the various groups, but she couldn't place her hoof on what it was. That was, until she entered the communal eating area.
Occupying the largest table with the largest number of ponies was Silverhoof, all the others arrayed around him and looking to him with pleasant smiles and idle, cheery chatter. The smiles and chatter stopped suddenly as she entered, and the entire table looked towards her, some with outright hostility, others with mild disdain. It was Silverhoof himself who had, by far, the most hostile expression, glaring at Tia with narrowed eyes and a deep frown.
What struck Tia so suddenly was that the rest of Silverhoof's grouping (save one) were all unicorns. As she cast her mind back to her walk down the halls, she recalled that most of the groups were also of majority one pony type -- pegasi with other pegasi, geo-equines with other geo-equines, unicorn with unicorn. This curious stratification worried Tia, though she couldn't put into words exactly why.
Still, there were a few who flitted between the designated groups. One such pony was with Silverhoof's group.
It was Stardancer.
She occupied the seat right next to Silverhoof (from the arrangement of the seats, Tia concluded that particular position was a favored one), and at least wasn't actively glaring at Tia. Instead, she offered a sheepish, fluttery smile and raised a hoof in greeting. Slowly, the nasty looks of the other ponies shifted away and they began to chatter again, this time with much more muted tones.
He is gathering malcontents against you.
Tia jumped as she heard the Voice -- it had been some time since she had last heard it that she had convinced herself it was a figment of her imagination. Now it was back, and no figment.
You have time, yet, to counter his power play, the Voice continued dispassionately, His pieces are not yet in place and he has no answer to the power you wield over the sun. Before he can attempt to usurp your position, he must have the latter.
Tia shook herself out of her shock at hearing the Voice again and turned towards the food preparation area. Taking a tray, she headed up to the (thankfully small) line and waited to be served by the laboring cooking ponies in the kitchen. This area had, thankfully, been a full canteen for the use of public servants before the spell, so all the amenities one would expect for cooking were there. It had proven adequate so far, but it was clearly at its limit. Tia made a mental note to bring up the idea of expanding the kitchens at the next meeting.
Heedless of her thoughts, the Voice continued, He obviously believes that the key to power is magic -- unsurprising, considering he retained his horn. He is building his power-base along those lines.
Tia tried to ignore the Voice, but couldn't help but cast a look over her shoulder at the grouping of unicorns and Stardancer.
But he is not quite the fool he appears, the Voice continued its analysis shrewdly, He is willing to allow others into his group if he can use them. Witness, the geo-equine. Truly, there does not exist in all of your subjects one more versed in the knowledge of magic. She is the key to breaking his power before it becomes truly worrisome.
Tia frowned. Subjects? She didn't think of her little ponies as such; they were her friends and responsibilities.
You will need to turn her against him, the Voice insisted, Without her knowledge, his plans will come to naught. Otherwise, he will attempt to usurp you, eventually. No doubt he is poisoning her mind against you even now, but she yet respects and trusts you; though that respect and trust is weakening. You must act soon. Rend her away from his side. Take control.
Tia worried her lower lip as she stared at the group, her eyes focusing on Stardancer and brows furrowed. A coldness gripped her heart -- she wanted to refute the Voice; not because she was worried for her authority or control, but because she was worried about her friend. Surely, Stardancer would not be so blind as to allow herself to be used by Silverhoof? Tia didn't want to see her hurt or used by anyone.
"Tia? Hey, geo-equine to Tia!"
The rainbow-haired alicorn was snapped out of her worried reverie by a pony waving a hoof in her face behind the counter. "Huh?"
"You okay there, Tia?" the pony asked with a worried expression, her mottled brown coat and darker brown mane a bit mussed from working in the kitchens.
"Y... yes, Brown Betty," Tia replied with a strained smile, "Sorry. Long day, I'm a bit out of it."
A lopsided smile spread on Brown Betty's features and she winked, "Yeah, I guess lifting' all that paper and quill ink really takes it out of someone. You should try working in the kitchens for a day!" Tia winced at the description of her less-than-exerting work, despite the joking tone it was delivered in. "Anyway, what do you want?"
"Just some grilled vegetables would be fine," Tia stated with a tired smile before hesitating and adding, "And... um... I don't suppose you have any cake?"
Her belly satiated (and having a nice bit of vanilla frosted cake had been a pleasant surprise), Tia dragged herself into the communal sleeping chambers. Ponies lounged around in various states of wakefulness and the alicorn quickly settled into an unoccupied pillow. With tired eyes, Tia glanced around at the other ponies and made another mental note to bring up the possibility of actual bedrooms being built. At the very least, some kind of sectioning of the sleeping areas would be nice.
"Tia!" Luna's voice called out and Tia glanced over in the direction of the voice. Trotting over was her sister, accompanied by Stardancer, a stationary kit held in her mouth. Tia blinked at Stardancer uncomprehendingly for a moment, canting her head to one side.
"I'm here to observe," her friend geo-equine stated after setting down the stationery kit and beginning to unpack it, "Luna told me of her fascinating ability. I had heard of Oneiromancy before, but as far as I know the magical field is pretty unexplored. We haven't even recovered any books on the subject yet." Stardancer grinned, "It almost feels like I'm doing original research work! How exciting!"
Tia peered at her friend intently. Stardancer's face flickered and fell, taking on a worried cast, "Tia?" Stardancer's expression was echoed in Luna's.
"Stardancer," Tia said slowly, "I... mmn. How is Silverhoof doing?" Tia grimaced; the question sounded awkward even to her.
"Uh, he's fine," Stardancer replied, looking at Tia oddly, "Why?"
"He, um... he seems a bit... upset about me."
Stardancer hesitated before replying with a shake of her head, "He's just a bit sore over your announcement, is all. Most ponies are. He'll get over it. We all will."
Tia frowned, but before she could say anything more Luna spoke up, "Sister, you are clearly overly tired. Mayhap we should postpone this experiment to a later night?"
Tia shook her head, "No, no, it's fine. I am tired, but answering this question and getting some actual information about the magic involved is important." She smiled wryly, "Besides, being tired is kinda important for this experiment, right? Kinda hard to sleep when one is already well rested."
Luna still looked a little unsure, but Stardancer smiled widely, "Quite right! Now..." she flipped through a few pages of parchment, consideringly, "I don't have any direct means of measuring magic without a horn, but I should still be able to get a feeling of how things work. I would actually prefer to observe a scenario where Luna is certain she can perform Oneiromancy first to work as a baseline, but this is a special circumstance. I can compare to a control later once I have it."
"Would it not be better to postpone as I suggested, then?" Luna asked, canting her head, "If you need other samples first--"
"No, no, no postponement is necessary!" Stardancer stated a bit quicker and more forcefully than could appear casual, "I don't want to run the chance that Tia will begin to dream again and be completely unable to observe this phenomenon."
"Oh, so I'm to be your test animal, am I?" Tia teasingly asked with a lopsided grin.
Stardancer blinked then frowned, brows furrowing, "No, that's... not what I meant, Tia."
Tia sighed as her attempt at levity apparently failed spectacularly, shaking her head, "I know, Stardancer. Sorry. I was making a joke. I'm probably too tired to try doing so." She sighed again then settled down into the cushion, "Let's just do this. I really need some sleep." Tia let her heavy eyelids fall and in short order she was asleep.
Once again, Tia found herself in that grey expanse, surrounded by fog and filled with light with no discernible source. "Oh figures!" she said in a huff, frowning as she sat down on the indistinct floor.
A figure began to approach in shadow from the dark horizon, Tia standing once again and taking a defensive stance. The mists soon parted revealing Luna, looking about her with a bemused expression on her features.
"Luna?" Tia asked hesitantly, unsure if this was her sister or a phantom of her mind.
"Yes, 'tis I," the dark alicorn filly stated, smiling at her sister. An awkward pause followed before she spoke again, motioning with a hoof to the misty expanse, "So, this is your dream world?"
"Apparently," Tia remarked with a sigh, glancing around herself, "Not much to look at, is it?"
"Not really, no," Luna replied, trotting closer and taking a seat next to her sister. "Is it always like... this?"
"My nightmares? Most of the time. Not always, but mostly."
Luna grunted with a nod. "As nightmares go, it doesn't seem all that horrifying."
"I... suppose not," Tia replied with a frown, "Compared to what others have dreamt in their dark places, I guess mine's kinda... uninteresting." She paused then offered up a sheepish smile, "It is usually a bit more lively than this."
"Oh?" Luna asked, canting her head towards her sister.
Tia nodded, "There are sometimes... visions in the dark. Shapes that seem at once familiar yet alien." She shuddered at the memory, her voice dropping to a whisper, "And fire."
Luna blinked then extended a wing around the other alicorn, hugging her sister. "Fear not," she stated, "I'll always be here to protect you from such visions."
Tia smiled wryly and leaned into the winged embrace. "Well, something to look forward to, I guess." The two passed a time in silence before Tia spoke again. "Well, I guess we should test some things, huh? Wanna see if you can manipulate things here like you can in a normal dream?"
"Assuming this isn't one," Luna mused thoughtfully, "Though it would be quite the coincidence if you happened to dream the very night we tried to capture a dreamless state." Luna reached out with a hoof and her horn glowed gently, casting the empty world in a dark light that clashed with the diffuse white. She frowned faintly. "Odd," Luna said, "Your dreamstuff is much harder to manipulate than anything I've experienced prior. It's like hard clay compared to the easy flowing watercolors of others." Her horn glowed more brightly and the area in front of her hoof seemed to warp and shift until, with a pop, a deck of colorful cards appeared. Luna grinned to her sister and quickly offered the deck over, "A small start, but I can at least change things here."
Tia smiled wryly and glanced down at the deck, idly flipping through them. "'Ace of Alicorns', 'Two of Sisters', 'Three of Spells'," Tia read through the cards before chuckling, "Rather on the nose, isn't it, dear sister?"
Luna frowned and leaned closer to peer at the cards, "Actually, those aren't the cards I wished to summon. How... interesting. I know from previous sojourns that the dreamer's subconscious can have an effect on the dreamscape, but usually not on the phantasms I create."
Tia let out a non-committal sound as she continued to flip through the cards. She suddenly stopped when she reached one card in particular: Queen of Order. The young alicorn stared at the card, depicting a stylized large white alicorn sitting on a throne of gold, her horn glowing a harsh white. Groveling before the throne were the prone silhouettes of genuflecting ponies, an indistinct multitude that seemed to grow the longer Tia stared. Tia found the whole thing disquieting, especially the hard, cold, imperious expression on the alicorn's features -- one that spoke of a pitiless, iron will.
"That looks like you, all grown," Luna remarked curiously, peering at the card and snapping Tia out of her reverie.
Blinking, Tia looked at the card again and couldn't repress a shudder, though she let out a trilling cascade of too-cheerful laughter. "I hope not," Tia remarked with a smirk, "Golden throne? I like to think I would have more taste than something so ostentatious, dear sister."
Luna smiled at the statement, but her face still betrayed a bit of worry; no doubt she noticed the shudder and the artificial nature of the laughter. To forestall any questions, Tia quickly shuffled the cards, speaking airily. "I hope Stardancer is getting some good data for her studies."
"She is..." Luna's voice faded off and her eyes became unfocused before a smirk appeared on her features, "... asleep, actually. I think the lateness of the hour affected her as well."
"Asleep?" Tia asked curiously, rubbing her chin with a hoof before an impish smile appeared on the alicorn's features, "Mm. Well. You want to practice a bit more of your abilities, Luna? Let's see if you can enter both her dream and mine at the same time."
Luna's eyebrows arched, but a wide smile appeared on her lips. Her eyes became even more unfocused for several seconds before a distant but audible pop could be heard. A few moments more and through the misty fog stepped Stardancer -- though returned to her alicorn status. She blinked a few times before focusing on the sisters. "Oh. Huh. I'm asleep, then?"
"So it would appear," Tia reported dryly, noting with interest the horn and wings Stardancer was now sporting, "You fell asleep."
Stardancer blushed and rubbed one forehoof with the other sheepishly, "Uhm, yeah. Sorry. It was kinda late." The power blue filly paused then ran a hoof through her white mane, eyes widening when her hoof hit her dream-horn. With a quick jerk of her head, Stardancer looked to her left and right, extending and pulling in her wings. "Oh! Oh, wow!" Her brows furrowed and she again turned her attention to the two sisters, "Wait... if both of you are here... does that mean you're in my dream?"
"I think we're all in mine," Tia replied with a shrug and a wave of her hoof, "Such as it is."
Stardancer blinked before looking to Luna. "I didn't know you could do that."
"I didn't either until this moment," Luna remarked thoughtfully, "I was actually trying to enter two dreams at the same time. It seems that I can bring ponies into the dreamscapes of others. Another aspect of my new powers."
Stardancer canted her head to one side, "Huh. Oneiromancy is a fairly unexplored magic as I said. I don't know if something like that has ever been observed before. Something more to test in the coming weeks, I suppose." An awkward pause ensued before Stardancer rubbed her forelegs together absently. "So, um. What now?"
"We could continue the experiments," Luna offered.
Tia paused then grinned broadly, levitating up the deck of cards, "Or! We could just have a little fun. Who's up for a game of Old Mare?"
Stardancer hesitated, gnawing on her lower lip at the prospect of more experimentation. But she had her horn again, even if only within the dreamscape. Playing cards with mouths and hooves was remarkably difficult. She smiled, her horn glowing as she telekinetically took the dream cards from Tia and began to shuffle, "Let's play."
The next few weeks were fairly uneventful as everypony settled into their respective routines. Stardancer's library had expanded from just the records room to encompass an entire wing of the old Town Hall, though most of that space was reserved for practical experimentation and applied magical research rather than books proper. While official standing policy was that the reversal of the spell and the restoration of alicorn status to the population at large were the primary focus of this research, in practice that research had been almost abandoned in exchange for magic of more immediate, practical use.
As Tia had thought, the scrounging became less and less productive and soon there was barely a trickle of useful materials being brought in for catalog and storage. The Long Patrol started up its function, the pegasi assigned to it being assigned on a rotation to prevent anyone from tiring out -- aside from Luna herself, who always accompanied the patrol in their mapping and reconnaissance missions.
The rubble surrounding the Town Hall had begun to be cleared as well and fields set up by those geo-equines with a knack for growing things. The former fields outside the town limits that had fed the town before the spell had been destroyed during the battle and there didn't seem to be any advantage to replanting them when they were so inconveniently far away from what was now the population center.
Nearly the entire population had their Cute Marks, excepting the foals. A tradition of celebrating each time a pony achieved one had appeared in the interim, ensuring that there was always a fresh cake available for the happy event (Tia had discovered that this new tradition was the reason she had enjoyed the dessert all those weeks ago when last the Voice spoke to her). The new tradition was a welcome respite from the gloomy facts of the community's existence; there had been few reasons to celebrate since the whole mess started, after all, and any occasion to spread a bit of joy was invaluable for morale.
The collapsed wing of the Town Hall had been repaired as well, and more buildings had been commissioned nearby to provide more private sleeping quarters; another quite welcome improvement in the quality of life. Of course, squabbles had started over who should get what quarters and where, with some ponies who already had quarters complaining that others had larger domiciles, but for the most part everyone grudgingly accepted the assignments -- the private areas were a limited resource and their use needed to be doled out judiciously.
For the first time since the whole disaster, Tia felt the burden lessening. Even her paperwork had abated slightly as the scrounging of resources and the need to catalog and distribute them waned. Most of that was replaced with other paperwork, but at least on the whole she came out ahead slightly.
Of course, such things were not to last.
Tia had begun to lower the sun in expectation of her sister's night when she noticed the lack of stars and moon. Tia frowned and stopped her manipulations of the solar sphere, keeping the time dusk as she got up from her desk and trotted out the door. It took her a bit to locate a pegasus Tia recognized as one who had Long Patrol duty the previous day.
"Azure Charger," Tia addressed the red coated pegasus, "Luna has not yet raised the moon and stars. Is she back from patrol yet?"
Azure Charger ran a hoof through his black mane, shaking his head, "No. It worries me. The patrol is usually back well before it is time for the sun to set."
Tia's lips tightened. "Even if they were delayed for some reason, I think my sister would take pause to at least make sure her celestial duties were performed. Where were they headed?"
"Sector forty-two," Azure Charger replied, "It is a bit of a fly away. If they discovered something particularly interesting to catalog, then maybe the lateness of the hour escaped them?"
"Maybe," Tia replied, frowning, "Though I would prefer to know for sure. Azure, I know you already went on patrol yesterday, but could you take a few pegasi out to sector forty-two and see what the problem may be, if any?"
Azure Charger saluted smartly and nodded, "It will be done." He turned quickly and headed off.
Sundown was delayed by several hours; without knowing the status of her sister, Tia had thought it prudent to keep the light up in case she was somehow unable to cast a light spell. A few ponies groused that the light made it difficult to sleep, but the murmurs of discontent were quickly silenced by the withering looks from others; a Long Patrol was way overdue, a worrying and unprecedented event. A little interrupted sleep was hardly worth worrying over.
A pegasus lookout on the tower of the Hall spotted the approaching figures against the golden-red glow of the setting sun and called out. Ponies turned out from the Hall and waited with baited breath for the figures to come into focus. Tia herself stood on the steps of the Hall, watching -- she wanted to unfurl her wings and fly to the approaching figures herself, but held herself in check. Staying with her little ponies was an important gesture.
As the figures approached, it became clear that they were ponies. Unfortunately, it was also abundantly clear that something was wrong. Several carried others on their backs, while others were flying in a distressed, erratic way. Tia watched with growing horror as the ponies got closer and the wounds on their bodies became visible. The group circled over the Hall briefly before coming in for a landing before the steps.
The wounded ponies were covered in bruises, scratches, and burns. The worst of them -- a pink pegasus with a yellow mane named Flitter Wing -- was in dire straights. One of her wings was little more than a burnt cinder and the cuts on her belly were deep and oozing blood onto the back of the pony who carried her. She moaned with pain as she was lowered to the ground, her blood seeping into the stone street. With an effort, Tia managed to tear her eyes away from the horrible sight and look over at the other ponies. To her intense relief, she saw her sister among them, looking bruised and battered, but otherwise unharmed.
"H-healers!" Luna called out, nearly out of breath, "We need healers now! Make way!"
There was a shuffling amongst the crowd as a few ponies stepped forward; two unicorns and a geo-equine. All three stared at the wounds in front of them, immobilized by shock.
"GET TO WORK, HEALERS!" Luna called out, her voice magically enhanced and causing several nearby ponies to wince and shrink away, "YOUR SERVICES ARE NEEDED!" The voice was enough to spur the three ponies into action as they swarmed over the wounded and began to examine the injuries.
"You there!" the geo-equine pointed to a seemingly random member of the crowd, "Go to the magical research wing and retrieve my potion saddlebag! It's the blue canvas one on the third desk to the right. Go, now!" After a moment of surprised pause, the pony in question galloped off back inside the Hall.
Tia wandered, almost dreamlike, down the steps and the crowd parted for her. She took care to step around the healer ponies administrating to the wounded and moved close to her sister. "Luna... what happened?"
Luna turned her head to look at Tia, her expression haunted. "A dragon. There was a dragon."
Hushed murmurs began filtering through the crowd of ponies, mutterings of incredulity and surprise. Tia, herself, found the answer difficult to believe; dragons were extinct as far as anyone knew. That one might be alive in this day and age was unfathomable.
Luna's eyes watered with unshorn tears as she turned back to stare at her beaten and broken patrol. "There was no warning, no chance to retreat. The great wyrm just attacked. It harried us every time we tried to fall back, making an amusement of our attempts. If Azure Charger and his group had not appeared and offered aid when they did, I fear the entire patrol would've been lost. Even then, if Flitter Wing hadn't charged the beast as a distraction, none of us would've made it back. It is through their bravery, valor, and loyalty that we stand here now."
The pony sent inside for the saddlebag came running out of the Hall with the bag in his mouth. The crowd parted to allow him through and he tossed it to the requested healer who caught it in a fairly deft move with her own mouth. She lowered the bag to the ground and began to rummage through it, eventually producing a small bottle with a swirling purple liquid. "Drink this, it will help with the pain," she murmured to the wounded pink pony who opened her mouth and chugged down the contents, coughing weakly.
The crowd watched in silence as the healer ponies worked, potions and magic healing wounds and easing pains.
But there was one pony for which their ministrations were useless.
In the dying light of the sun, Flitter Wing breathed her last, succumbing to her injuries.
More silence reigned as everypony stared at Flitter's corpse. Tia managed to tear her own eyes away and look at the assembled crowd, saw the dismay and horror in their features. The reality of death had hit home. None of them had seen their parents fall to the Cloud or be torn asunder by the spell; that had all remained in their imaginations. Now they had seen death in fact, not just in theory.
Tears began to fall down Luna's features briefly before her face hardened, eyes becoming as hard as steel. "This will not stand," she said in a voice deathly calm, eyes narrowing. In a sudden explosion of fury, her wings unfurled and her eyes took on a bright glow, voice echoing through the entire square, "BY THE MOON AND STARS ABOVE THIS WILL NOT STAND!" Powered by righteous fury and quaking in rage, Luna turned towards the direction in which they had escaped the dragon. "That wyrm will rue the day it thought to tangle with us ponies! I will see it battered and bleeding and rended scale for scale for this atrocity!" She whirled back on the still-shocked crowd and raised her head in a steely motion of confident defiance, "I will go and slay this foul beast. Is there any pegasus who wishes to stand with me?"
The crowd shuffled uncertainly, passing uneasy looks towards the wounded and the corpse of poor Flitter. Luna's countenance darkened. "Not one of you will stand and fight?" she asked tightly, "Not one among you will answer this injustice with the force it requires? Blood calls for blood!"
Again, the crowd shuffled, but a pegasus nudged his way from the crowd. "I'll fly with you," Sky Kicker stated with grim finality.
"I'd like a chance to tangle with the beast again," Azure Charger stated with a wry smile as he too stepped forward, "It got soot all over my feathers after all."
"I'll go too!" came a somewhat squeaky voice belonging to a blonde light brown pegasus known as Puffy Doo.
"Anypony else?" Luna asked, casting her eyes back and forth along the crowd. It was silent. "Very well. We will go and extract retribution."
"Wait!" Tia said, holding up a hoof, "I'll go too."
Luna paused, looking at her sister and suddenly seeming uncomfortable, "That is... not a good idea, Tia. You should stay here with everyone else."
"What?" Tia asked in confusion, her ears flattening against her head, "Why?"
"The task we do is dangerous," Luna explained, "And we two are the last of the alicorns. If the worst happens, then both of us would be lost. For that reason alone, only one of us should go."
Tia frowned and was about to protest further when Stardancer trotted forward, Silverhoof in tow, "Wait, before you go! I think we have a spell that might give you an advantage." She nudged Silverhoof who nodded and closed his eyes to concentrate, horn glowing. The glow encompassed each of the four ponies then slowly faded. Stardancer peered owlishly at them and nodded. "Okay, that was a spell that should give you all a bit of resistance against fire. I don't know if it will do any good against magic fire like a dragon is supposed to have, but at least it's something. Also..." She motioned to the crowd and a few ponies trotted forward and dropped some heavy objects in front of the group with a metallic clunk. "These are some magical weapons. You'd be hard pressed to get through dragon scales without it." Stardancer absently rubbed the back of her head and frowned, "To be honest, I don't know if even with them you'll be able to pierce the scales. I'm going off legends here and a few half-remembered facts about palaeontological studies that found dragon remains. But, again, better than nothing."
Each of the three pegasi picked up one of the weapons; Azure Charger taking a long lance, Puffy Doo taking a set of heavy shoes (experimentally stomping the ground and breaking a great many of the paving stones with a sheepish smile), and Sky Kicker taking up a pair of metallic fittings with sharpened edges that fit over his wings. Luna shook her head, "When I destroy the beast, I will do so with my own magic." She turned and extended her wings, "We will return soon. Tia, keep the sun up until you see the moon. That will be my signal that we have extracted our vengeance." With nothing else said, the dark alicorn flew up into the sky, followed closely by the other three.
Tia watched the figures grow smaller and the crowd began to disperse. Tia turned her eyes towards the cooling body of poor Flitter then motioned to her, "We need a place to store her body until... until funeral rites can be performed."
Stardancer nodded, "There's a section of the research wing we have been using for experiments with cold. We can store her there. She will... keep... for a while at least."
Tia nodded again then frowned as a thought came to her. She was unable to keep the suspicion out of her eyes as she peered at Silverhoof and Stardancer. "Stardancer," Tia said slowly, "Can I have a word with you, please? In private?" She stared pointedly at Silverhoof who stiffened and glared right back.
"O... of course," Stardancer said, blinking and turning to Silverhoof and placing a hoof on his shoulder, "I'll only be a moment. If you can arrange for Flitter to be stored..." Silverhoof sniffed lightly but nodded and headed off. Tia and Stardancer shifted away from the dispersing crowd.
"I find the timing of those weapons quite amazing, Stardancer," Tia said softly, peering owlishly at her friend, "To think you were able to build and enchant them just mere minutes between learning of the dragon and Luna heading off to kill the thing."
Stardancer shifted her stance uncomfortably, "I, uh. We actually... had them before this whole thing."
Tia nodded slowly, suspicions becoming confirmed. "I see. So you've been researching magical weapons? And even building some, no less." She rubbed her chin with a hoof, "How curious that I hadn't seen any reports or requests for it in the miles of paperwork I get. Maybe I just missed it."
Stardancer was unable to meet Tia's gaze, scuffing the paving stones beneath her hoofs shamefully. "W... we, uh... we didn't exactly make any request, Tia."
"Oh, I see," Tia remarked flatly, "That would explain it, then." Uncomfortable silence reigned for a few moments. "Care to elaborate on why you decided not inform me of this, Stardancer?"
The power blue geo-equine was still unable to meet Tia's gaze. "We... we didn't want to bother you with something like that," she said evasively.
"Didn't you," Tia replied dryly, "But there are plenty of other requests you deign deserve my attention. How curious that this one didn't."
Stardancer sighed and finally looked up at Tia, her face pleading as her ears flattened against her skull. "Look, we didn't tell you because we knew you wouldn't approve of it."
"You're bucking right I wouldn't approve!" Tia snapped, a bit more harshly than she intended, "Why are you making magical weapons when there are so many other things we need more?!"
Stardancer frowned and took a defensive posture, "Oh, and you're the one who gets to determine that? Look at what happened here today!" She jammed a hoof in direction of the bloodstained paving stones where Flitter once lay, "We need those weapons! Silverhoof said--"
"Silverhoof said?!" Tia shot back angrily, "Silverhoof doesn't see the big picture! Silverhoof is not the one who is duly appointed to manage the resources we have available! Silverhoof isn't the one who gives you bucking orders!"
"And you are?" Stardancer replied hotly, "Great job you've done so far!" Her voice took on a mocking sing-song tone, "Let's take a listing of what you've accomplished so far, shall we? Let's see, you've managed to cripple nearly everyone except for you and your sister, led to the death of a pegasus, and -- oh yes! -- murdered all our parents!"
Tia stared in shock at Stardancer's words, shrinking back against them, ears flattening against her head.
Assert control. Use your authority. Order her to cease her association with Silverhoof. Threaten her with removal of her status as librarian.
Tia frowned. She was in no mood to entertain the Voice at present. A different tack was called for. She turned a pained look to Stardancer, asking quietly, "Do you really think me a murderer, Stardancer?"
The power blue geo-equine seemed to suddenly take stock at what she said and brought a hoof to her mouth, eyes wide. Slowly, she dropped her hoof and lowered her eyes, her entire posture deflating somewhat, "I'm sorry, Tia. That was... that was way out of line."
Tia let out a sigh and set a comforting hoof on her friend's shoulder, "It's all right. Look, we both said things we shouldn't have here. You're right that I have been... a bit naive regarding our need for security as this event shows. But I can't make proper decisions if everypony keeps things from me, okay? I really need to know when you start these kind of research projects."
"Okay," Stardancer replied glumly.
Tia hesitated then dropped her hoof, her voice becoming tense. "And, as your friend, Silverhoof worries me."
Stardancer looked up at that and frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean that... well, have you noticed that no geo-equine other than you is allowed in his little clique?" Tia shifted, "And then he goes about suggesting that you make weapons without informing me."
What are you doing? Tia ignored the Voice.
The expression on Stardancer's features became a sudden unreadable mask. "What are you saying?" she asked, voice carefully controlled.
Tia sighed heavily, "I mean that I think Silverhoof is using you, Stardancer. He's using your knowledge for his own ends. He doesn't seem to care for any of the other pony types except for unicorns, yet he's fine with you around. It's no secret that you're great at magic." Tia peered deeply into Stardancer's eyes, "I'm worried about you, Stardancer."
This is not the proper way! Tia could feel the cold outrage of the Voice.
Stardancer stared for a very long time back, her body becoming tight and coiled. "You're wrong about him," she replied, voice just as tight as her body, "He's my friend."
"I'm your friend, Stardancer," Tia insisted, "He's just using you. I... I want you to distance yourself from him, okay? I don't want to see you hurt is all."
Stardancer stared for a very long time back. "I don't believe it," she said slowly, voice still tight, "I wouldn't have thought it possible. I thought he was just hurt about everything, that he'd calm down eventually. But now I see he was right."
That was not the reaction Tia was expecting and she blinked in confusion, "Huh?"
You fool! the Voice screeched, You have squandered this chance! Tia's ear flickered, but she still steadfastly ignored the Voice.
"You're jealous of him!" Stardancer exclaimed, pointing an accusatory hoof towards Tia, "And of me! You're jealous because he was right and you can't admit it! You're jealous because I know so much magic, magic that you could perform if only you had that knowledge!" An expression of disgust morphed on her features, "You don't want anypony to disrupt the precious little world you've built here, so you try to keep everypony divided!"
Tia was stunned by the accusations, her jaw dropping. "What? No!" she said quickly, "Stardancer, you're wrong! I'm not jealous of anypony! If anypony is jealous, it's Silverhoof!"
Stardancer glared at Tia. "I thought you were my friend," she remarked coldly, "But you've been trying to keep me under hoof this entire time. How long has your envy boiled, Celestia? Did you plan to cripple me just so you could shine that much brighter?"
Again, Tia was stunned. "Wuh... how... but..." she sputtered, flabbergasted at her friend's accusations, "Stardancer, how could you even think that? You think I planned for that Cloud to attack us? For the spell -- your spell -- to backfire like this? How could I even start to do something like that, even if I were capable? Stardancer, this is madness!"
"A few hours ago, I would've thought so, too," Stardancer replied, glaring coldly, "I admit that you probably didn't plan the events that led us to this state, but once it happened..." She shook her head, "Too much lines up now." Stardancer started pacing back and forth, shooting daggered glanced at Tia as she walked, "You took control once this thing started and haven't let anypony get a word in edgewise. The only one who seems to even able to get through to you is your sister. You've constantly butted heads with Silverhoof because he opposed your plans. He listens to me, Tia! He doesn't just order me around!"
Tia flinched, frowning, "But... I listen to you as well."
"You demand things, Tia," Stardancer accused, "He inspires me. You demand the direction of my research, you make demands of my knowledge, you even make demands on who my friends are!"
Tia, yet again, was at a loss for words. She tried to put a comforting hoof on Stardancer's shoulder, only for the other filly to shrug it violently off. "Don't touch me!" she shouted, eyes swimming with unshed tears, "You never cared about me. You never cared!"
"That's not true! It's because I care that I don't want to see Silverhoof hurt you."
"Silverhoof isn't the one who made me a cripple!" the shout was loud and laced with resentment and buried anger. Stardancer blinked several times at her own voice and the invective it came out with before her face set in a hard line. "Silverhoof hasn't hurt me ever," she replied quietly, her voice a calm, "You took away everything I was or will be."
So there it was. Tia stared at Stardancer for a long while; she had no idea her friend had been harboring such extreme feelings for so long. If anything, Stardancer seemed to be holding up the best out of everypony. "You have every right to be mad at me, Stardancer," Tia replied softly, hanging her head, "It was my decisions that led to this. It is my responsibility." She lifted her head and pleaded with her former friend, "But just because you h-hate me doesn't mean I'm wrong. Silverhoof really is just using you. Whatever you think of me, just take a good look at him and how he acts, okay? See him for the pony he is, not the pony you wish him to be."
Stardancer glared at Tia for a moment more before nodding stiffly. "I'll take your request under advisement. If you'll excuse me, I have some things to attend to. Good day." She turned and walked back towards the Hall. Tia watched her leave sadly then, a few moments later, headed inside herself.
You failed. Tia glared as she walked through the Hall back to her office. "Shut up," she muttered to the Voice.
You let your supposed friendship blind you to the facts. Tia's jaw set. "Shut. Up."
Because of your actions, you not only drove a key resource further into league with your enemies, but also destroyed your trust and authority with that key resource. Had you followed instructions and merely ordered Stardancer away from Silverhoof, she would've continued to bury her resentment and anger and obeyed. By forcing it to the surface, she is now lost to you. Now, even threats to her position won't sway her. Furthermore, attempts to do so can be used against you by Silverhoof. They are worse than useless now.
"SHUT UP!" Tia shouted out in a fit of rage, drawing curious, confused looks from ponies in the hallway. She quickly silenced herself and shuffled to her office. "I did the right thing," she stubbornly insisted as she moved over to her desk and sat on her chair, "I did nothing wrong. She'll calm down in a few days and we can talk about this rationally. She... she wasn't being rational, you heard her. A bunch of conspiracy gibberish, none of it making any sense. Given time to think, she'll see I'm right."
Tia could feel the intense displeasure of the Voice, but it mercifully said nothing. She got down to work; technically she had already been done for the day, but she knew that sleep wouldn't find her with both her friendship to Stardancer in shambles and her sister out hunting a dragon of all things. It was better to be productive.
How long she toiled over her work, Tia didn't know. But she chanced a look upwards and saw that the moon was up through the window. Luna had succeeded.
But instead of the pale white the moon was normally colored, this time it was blood red.
Stardancer was avoiding her.
Tia had tried to talk to her in the library the next day only to discover that she had gone with Silverhoof on a field trip to examine some geological formations found by the Long Patrol previously.
When she returned two days later, she had sequestered herself in the private laboratory with Silverhoof and a few other unicorns with orders that she was not to be disturbed. Tia considered forcing her way inside, but decided against it.
Tia had next seen Stardancer in the communal eating area. The geo-equine had taken one look at her then quickly thrown away her half-eaten lunch before beating a hasty retreat. Tia was getting fed up with her former friend's behavior.
There was, however, an event coming that she would undoubtedly be attending and wouldn't be able to flee from. Unfortunately, that event was Flitter Wing's funeral. Hardly the best time or place to try and repair a friendship, but it would do.
It had taken a while to narrow down the particulars of the funeral, such as where to put the body for its final resting place. A suggestion was made that a funeral pyre and cremation be used, but many had balked at that considering dragonfire was the cause of her death. On the other hand, a burial underground seemed poorly fit for a pegasus. In the end, the decision was made to magically reduce the body to its most base components. Luna would have that task; she felt it important as the pegasus had fallen under her watch.
The affair was solemn as one would expect. Flitter's body, cleaned up and repaired as best as possible and kept free from decomposition via preservation magics, lay in a casket atop a small stone dais constructed in the square outside the Hall. Tia recognized the work on the casket as one of the geo-equines who had a predilection for woodwork; she was invaluable for constructing the housing that was now popping up.
One by one, each of the community went up to the dais and paid their last respects. Tia noted that some ponies had taken to wearing clothes of dark colors for the occasion; she hadn't authorized making any clothes, but this would be an exception. Ponies needed to mourn in their own way. The pegasi who had been with Flitter during the ill-fated Long Patrol had taken to wearing black bands around their right forehooves. Luna was among those who did.
It came at last to Tia's turn to walk up the steps of the dais and peer into the seemingly sleeping face of Flitter for the last time. She felt so alone as she climbed up the dais and peered into the casket. For a long, terrible moment Tia saw every failure, every bad decision since this whole thing began encapsulated in that prone pegasus form. "I'm sorry," she whispered to the corpse, "I'm sorry... for everything." Despite attempting to keep control of her emotions, she was unable to keep the tears from falling. With steps that felt leadened by weights, Tia turned away from the casket and walked away, leaving only Luna as the last pony to step up to the dais.
"Brave heart, little one," Tia heard Luna say softly to Flitter's form, reaching out with a hoof to gently brush the mane of the pegasus. Luna turned around and sat on the dais, looking out at the crowd of mourning ponies. "Was there anyone who wished to say something before we commit this body to its final rest?"
"I have something to say," a voice called out. A sea of heads swung around to gaze at the figure who spoke up. To Tia's surprise, it was Silverhoof. He walked solemnly to the dais and turned around, taking a deep breath. "This is, indeed, a sorrowful day for all of us," he said, "But we must remember that whatever mistakes of the past lead us to this tragic end--" Silverhoof stared pointedly at Tia and everypony's eyes shifted to where he looked. "--they can be corrected. We can try -- neigh, will! -- do better in the future. We must, if not for ourselves, than for Flitter's sake. Thank you."
Tia glared at the white pony as he stepped away from the dais as she felt anger rising up in her. How dare he use this as some kind of political tool to undermine her position! A pony was dead! With an effort, Tia composed herself, taking a deep breath. Blowing up here would sully the event even further and play right into Silverhoof's hooves. She was, however, pleased to see that Luna had fixed the unicorn with an unhappy frown as did the majority of other pegasi.
"Let us now commit this body to its final rest," Luna said turning her way towards the casket. Gentle music rose through the square from a cadre of ponies with musical instruments, some salvaged others home made. Despite the crudeness of the tools, however, the music itself was clear and sweet. More than one pony in the audience began to weep. Luna closed her eyes as her horn began to glow with her dark light, the glow enveloping Flitter's body which began to glitter with a million points of multicolored light. Each one of the lights rose up, taking a tiny portion of Flitter's body with it, swirling around in dazzling patterns before the casket. In a scant few moments, her entire body was gone and only the swirling mass of lights remained.
The lights stopped their swirling and just hovered there in place for a heartbeat before suddenly zooming off with a speed unknown towards a point in the sky. At that point a new star appeared, yellowish in color and glowing brightly. The illumination from Luna's horn faded and she opened her eyes, letting out a heavy sigh as she turned around once more. "Let it forever be known that for her bravery and sacrifice, Flitter Wing has been granted a star in the heavens. Flitter's Star."
The pegasi of the Long Patrol took up position on either side of Luna, drawing themselves up in a tight, surprisingly regimented stance then saluted smartly.
The music faded away and ponies began to shuffle away, towards an area that had been set up with refreshments. Tia had allocated whatever food was requested for this. She'd find a way to make up the difference if a shortfall happened.
Ponies began to split off into groups, chatting quietly and exchanging stories of the departed Flitter. Tia noted to her shame that she had barely interacted with the pegasus in question. She made a note to be more mindful of every one of her little ponies. First, however, she saw Silverhoof and Stardancer a little ways away, talking quietly. Tia approached and cleared her throat.
Stardancer and Silverhoof looked over, the former looking a bit awkward and the latter appearing slightly smug. "Ahh, our glorious leader," the white unicorn stated with false cheer, "How good of you to deign to come down to us little ponies for this occasion. How did you enjoy my little speech?"
Tia fought down her rising anger and forced a smile on her features. "It was... adequate, I suppose."
"I thought you might like it," Silverhoof replied, the smirk on his face deepening.
"I don't think the pegasi did, however," Tia noted coolly. Silverhoof's mask of smugness slipped slightly. "I have something to discuss with Stardancer. Do you mind?"
Silverhoof frowned deeply and looked to the blue geo-equine in question. She offered a sad smile to the unicorn and nodded, "It's all right. Go enjoy the snacks." Silverhoof grunted and cast one last suspicious look to Tia before heading away.
Tia and Stardancer stood in awkward silence for a while. "So..." Tia began uneasily, but found further words didn't come.
"So..." Stardancer repeated, squirming a little in place. More awkward silence followed before the geo-equine took a deep breath and spoke, "I said some unkind things, Tia. Some... really silly things. I am deeply sorry about that."
Tia smiled wryly and nodded, "That's all right. You were upset. We both were."
"It's not..." Stardancer frowned, her words fading off. She took another deep breath and tried again, "I didn't realize how mad I was at you, Tia. It's unfair, I know that, but I can't help what I feel. When you... when you tried to split me from Silverhoof -- using our friendship no less -- I kinda had it all come to the surface. I didn't mean most of what I said. I was just trying to find a way to hurt you. I'm sorry." Tia was about to reply before Stardancer raised a hoof to prevent it, "That said... I meant the feelings behind it. Tia, I... I'm sorry. But I don't think I'm a big enough pony to forgive you. I know it's not your fault. I know it! But whenever I look at you now..." her voice faded off and she looked down at the ground, "...All I see is that night and everything that I lost." Her eyes focused on Tia's horn. "And everything you have."
Tia felt her already heavy heart sink even further, her ears flattening against her head. "You... you mean... you don't want to be friends any more?"
Stardancer offered a small, apologetic smile, "I'm sorry, Tia. I really am. I tried to forgive you -- I really did! I just... can't." She straightened herself, "Which is not to say that I can't work with you in a professional way. I can still maintain the library and direct magical research under your order." She hesitated, then added, "Though if you feel us no longer being friends means that you can't reciprocate, I'll... I'll resign and let someone else take the post."
A cold numbness at the finality of the death of the friendship hit Tia and she found her legs wobbly. With an effort, she managed to steady herself and offered a small, sad smile of her own. "I don't think that'll be necessary. As long as you can perform your duties acceptably, we can work together. Even if we're no longer f... friends." Tia felt tears well in her eyes again but fought them back. "Though I still expect to be informed of all research matters no matter what. No more secret research."
"I think I can handle that," Stardancer replied with a faint upwards twitch of her lips before looking over to where Silverhoof conversed with some other ponies, "But I think I left my associate for long enough. Thank you for the talk, Tia. Good evening."
Tia watched her former friend walk away sadly and slumped in the street. She gazed around the various groups of ponies surrounding her -- all chatting away with friends -- and noted that even Luna was surrounded with pegasi with which whom she conversed.
It suddenly struck Tia that there was something far worse than being all alone by oneself.
Being all alone in a crowd.
Weeks turned into months and months into years. It was astonishing how quickly routine could assert itself and become the clockwork of society. Fillies and colts grew to mares and stallions while foals grew to fillies and colts. Time waited for no pony, not even the two last remaining alicorns.
Her desk which had seemed so large just a few years prior now seemed rather on the small side as Celestia peered at it. Both she and Luna had grown along with the rest of the population, but they had become titans among ponies, easily overshadowing even the most burly of stallions in size. It was something of a minor embarrassment when she went to visit some of the houses that made up the community -- inevitably she would bump her head on some stud or beam.
Everypony had their own housing by now, except for herself and Luna who had elected to remain in the Hall. It was close to where they most needed to be anyway, and it seemed a waste to just let a wing of the Hall lay abandoned. With only two ponies, the cramped conditions had ceased to be an issue and Celestia had managed to secure a few accouterments for their private quarters that made it more comfortable and homey. That said, Luna spent more time out with the Long Patrol in the Cloud Fortress these days; they had mapped everything close to the settlement and performing due diligent scouting now required a mobile base and days away from town.
Celestia was broken out of her desk inspection by the door opening and Stardancer trotting inside. The rainbow-maned alicorn smiled at the powder blue earth-pony (the term 'geo-equine' fell out of fashion over the years -- the word was a bit unwieldy in syllable count, especially for a group which tended to have a much more practical mindset than other ponies). Their friendship had never recovered, but they still enjoyed an easy, mostly friction-free professional relationship. "Stardancer, hello! It's unusual to see you come to see me."
"Hello, First Pony Celestia," Stardancer replied, smiling back. Celestia winced at the title; it had been assigned to her as a means of snidely needling her authority. Celestia had originally tried to stop it's use, but that seemed to just make it spread faster. In the end, she allowed it and it had lost its satiric sting. But that didn't mean she didn't remember its original function. "I have some quite exciting news."
"I think I might have a breakthrough in the Alicorn Project."
Celestia blinked. "Truly?" she asked in surprise. Although still on the books and being classified as the single most important research done, very little attention is paid to it normally. Most ponies had just accepted the fact that alicorn hood is a thing of the past.
Stardancer nodded enthusiastically, "Oh yes! I don't want to say too much right now -- we're going to perform the critical experiment tomorrow, around dawn -- but if it works, it will be an important step towards alicorn hood for normal ponies."
"That is good news!" Celestia exclaimed, her spirits quite high, "You believe we may be able to reverse the spell soon?"
Stardancer hesitated then offered a wan shrug, "Honestly? No. Probably not within my lifetime at least. But each step is important to that goal. With luck, our descendants will once again know the joys of all three pony races."
Celestia's excitement calmed and she smiled wryly, "I guess that's true." She paused then peered at her compatriot curiously, "Was that all? It seems odd to come all the way here to tell me about a potential experiment that might be a breakthrough. Usually you wait for something concrete before talking to me."
Stardancer fidgeted slightly and offered a shy smile. "There, um. There was something else..." Celestia nodded and gestured Stardancer to continue. She took a deep breath and spoke again, "I would like to request a new housing allotment." She hesitated then added, her cheeks flushing, "For two, with expansion possibilities."
Celestia blinked again, canting her head, "You mean...?"
A sappy grin formed on Stardancer's features and she shrugged, "Silverhoof proposed. We, uh... we've been keeping our relationship under wraps -- it might bring up the specter of jealousy considering how we work together -- but yes. We're special someponies."
Celestia's pleasure at seeing her former friend happy and enjoying romance was strained slightly by the pony involved in said romance. She schooled her features to hide those thoughts, though, and smiled widely, "Congratulations! I'm sure a new housing allotment can be provided easily enough."
"Thank you, Celestia," Stardancer replied with a sigh of relief, "It's a weight off my mind."
"Think nothing of it," Celestia responded. In truth, she had known of Stardancer and Silverhoof's relationship for some time. The rumor mill in the settlement was forever churning out gossip. Celestia had tried to be the bigger mare and ignore it, but no matter what one always hears tongues wagging. She did hope that this was one of the cases where the rumor mill was wrong; Silverhoof still grated on her after all these years and his continual needling in the weekly town meeting was tiresome. She was also pretty sure he was responsible for the 'First Pony' title, but couldn't prove it.
"Well, that's all, then," Stardancer stated cheerfully, moving through the door, "I'll contact you tomorrow morning to report how our experiment went." Celestia waved a hoof at Stardancer and smiled to herself. This was a good day.
Celestia awoke the next morning to a surprise.
The sun was already up.
Celestia stared out the window of her suites in confusion, canting her head one way and the other as her sleepy mind tried to jumpstart at the impossibility of what she was seeing.
After staring blankly at the sun didn't reveal it's secrets to her, the alicorn grumbled and struggled to her hooves, trotting out into the foyer of the Hall. Dragging a brush along her messy mane as she walked, Celestia's trot slowed as she looked out from the stairs to the square below. There she saw a set of six unicorns (as well as a powder blue earth-pony taking notes on the sidelines) arranged as points in a chalk outline of a starburst, each arm of the burst covered in glowing runes. Celestia frowned as she trotted out, stepping down the stairs to the group.
Stardancer looked up from her notes and smiled beatifically at Celestia as she approached. "Good news!" she exclaimed, "Our experiment was a complete success! We have raised the sun."
Celestia saw the wicked grin on Silverhoof's features from his position in the starburst.
Celestia kept her face purposefully stoic as she listened to Silverhoof speak to the assembly.
"I'm merely suggesting that we alleviate some of the burden on our illustrious First and Second Pony," he said, motioning a hoof towards the section where Celestia and Luna sat, "We have already proven -- repeatedly -- that a set of properly trained and magically gifted unicorns can raise the sun as well as the moon and stars without the need for their involvement."
"It is still an unnecessary burden for unicorns to take!" Luna shot back, her brow betraying her worry, "I assure you, my sister and I are quite capable of raising the sun and moon without needed to bother anypony else."
"No pony is doubting your abilities, Second Pony Luna," Silverhoof smoothly replied, "We are merely saying that a burden shared is one lessened. Besides which, surely you would agree that we should have some kind of recourse if -- Heavens Forbid -- the worst should happen and one or both of you be unable to perform your sacred duties?"
"Well, yes, but--"
"And the best way to ensure that is have we unicorns aid in this task," Silverhoof smiled and looked to the assembly of ponies, "This is a new magic and we should get practice. The full use of this power is only to be used in case of emergency, of course."
"There's wisdom in what he says," Sky Kicker grumbled out uneasily, "Second Pony Luna... we are often far away from here. The Cloud Fortress does a perilous task and we encounter many strange beasts and dangers. It would be better for everypony if you could retain your strength to aid us, rather than expending it on something the unicorns can do just as well."
"It would be a grave thing indeed," Silverhoof intoned with a sorrowful voice, "If another Flitter Wing happened because you were too tired from raising the moon and stars to prevent another incident."
Luna paled (quite impressive for the dark alicorn) and she flinched as if physically struck. "The... the raising of the moon and stars cause me no great discomfort or drain of energy..."
"Are you willing to risk the lives of others for that, Second Pony?" Silverhoof challenged, "If you feel there really is no possibility of you needing that extra magic -- no matter how small it might be of your reserves -- then I will withdraw the motion."
Luna grimaced and looked pleadingly to her sister for assistance. Celestia remained starkly silent, face a stony mask.
Silverhoof smiled thinly, "This power should not be retained for the grandiose exultation of a single pony's ego, especially considering its difficulty. It is better for everypony if the power is disseminated among many." He looked around at the assembly, "Is there a second for the unicorns accepting this great burden?" There was a shuffling of pony bodies before a hoof went up, followed by several more. Soon the entire room was filled with upraised hooves.
"The motion, I think, is carried."
"And why stay here in the womb when there are wonders and riches out among the lands!" Silverhoof shouted to the assembled ponies, "With the maps provided by the Long Patrol, I say we can forge our own destinies! With the military power of the pegasi, the work ethic of the earth-ponies, and the mastery of the sun, moon, and stars of we unicorns, I say we can bring forth a much greater world for all of pony kind!"
The stomp of hooves in applause filled the assembly hall.
The sound abruptly stopped when the double doors flew open revealing Celestia in all her glory. Eerie silence reigned as she walked down the long way towards where Silverhoof was giving his speech, her eyes searching back and forth among the ponies assembled -- some of which turned away, others which returned her look with one of hostility.
"I see my sister and I have become so unimportant to the running of this settlement that neither of us is to be informed when there is a special meeting," Celestia called out to the crowd.
Silverhoof smiled at Celestia with false sincerity, "First Pony Celestia, you grace us with your presence." He swept a hoof along the assembly hall, "We merely didn't want to disturb you or your sister for something of such insignificance. You both have done so much to -- I mean to say, for -- us that none felt it appropriate to bother you with such quibbles. Your sister is still with the Long Patrol is she not?"
Celestia glared at the unicorn. "That she is. But my personal burdens are not so great as a meeting such as this would cause me undue distress," she replied, "Especially as it seems I no longer raise the sun at all and haven't for some time."
"You should enjoy your newfound freedom from such chores, First Pony," Silverhoof stated with a condescending tone of sarcasm, "Besides, this is a private meeting and not open to every pony in town; only a select few. Unless you plan to reveal yourself for the tyrant you are and force this assembly to disperse."
Celestia scowled at Silverhoof. "I am no tyrant," she spoke in a quiet voice before looking over at the assembled ponies, "And everyone here should know it. If I truly am this villain, I would not have let this demagogue stand." She motioned with a hoof towards Silverhoof. "He speaks of riches and wealth and land, but look at what we've built here. Isn't what we have better than some fanciful chasing of wonders you may not even find?"
"Spoken like a pony who has never had to navigate your labyrinthine bureaucracy, Celestia," Silverhoof snorted in reply, "Every request, every momentary whim must be scanned, searched, catalogued, stamped, folded, and filed by you." He stabbed a hoof in her direction. "When Orange Glad wanted more room for an orchard, how long did it take before he was ultimately denied? When Copper Gear needed permission for a new mill, how many forms did she need to fill out before you were satisfied?" He turned to address the crowd, "I am offering true freedom, Celestia! A chance for every pony to carve out his or her own bit of happiness, rather than having to bow and scrape and beg to you for to relent. Is not a pony entitled to the work of his own horn, wing or hoof?" He spread his forehooves out to the crowd, "What say you all?!"
Another raucous round of hoof-stomps revealed the crowd's attitude.
"We're leaving," Stardancer said uneasily, shifting in place as she watched the wagon loaded with books and papers. It was one of several arrayed out in a long train, pulled by earth-ponies with unicorns riding along.
"So I see," replied Celestia.
"We're heading to the north," Stardancer offered hesitantly, "The Long Patrol reported some interesting gems out in that direction. I think they might have magical properties."
Celestia pursed her lips and nodded. "Well, that's good, I suppose."
Stardancer sighed, running a hoof through her mane, "First Pony Celestia... Tia. I know you think we're doing this in some kind of fit of pique. But... it's just time for us to move on. You've done well with us since the spell -- even Silverhoof will admit it. Grudgingly, but he will. We just... can't stay like this forever. We have to forge our own destiny."
"You have to do what you feel is right, of course."
Stardancer hesitated and offered a faint smile. "Well, not everypony is leaving," she offered hopefully, "There will still be plenty of ponies around for you to... um... do what you do."
Celestia bowed her head and sighed, "I suppose that is true. But with so many leaving... we're going to have trouble with a labor shortage. Especially considering only a handful of unicorns are staying."
Stardancer awkwardly patted her former friend on the shoulder, "It won't be as bad as all that. I'll send word once we're settled."
"Thank you," Celestia replied with a faint smile, "I... I would like to know if my -- if all those little ponies made it."
"It will be done," Stardancer stated, then turned to continue packing up the wagons.
More and more ponies over the ensuing weeks left, some to follow Silverhoof to the north, others to spread out elsewhere. Celestia had seen them all go. The Voice had cried at her to prevent them from leaving with a show of force, but she had ignored it. If those ponies didn't want to stay, she couldn't think of a reason to make them. They might be making a mistake, but it was theirs to make.
One good thing about ponies leaving was a reduction in paperwork. Silverhoof was right in one way -- Celestia was overburdened. It did take her too long to see and respond to requests. She had tried to shoulder that burden alone and ponies had suffered because of it. Now, however, there didn't seem to be a point in trying to reverse it; the work continually slowed as more left. It was no great problem for one pony any more.
With a burst from the door, Luna suddenly entered Celestia's office and slumped down in front of the desk.
Celestia looked up from her meager work and blinked at her sister. "Something wrong?"
Luna crossed her forehooves over her chest in an amusingly childish display of grumpiness. "The Long Patrol is disbanding."
"Oh," Celestia murmured. It was something that gave her sister a much needed purpose. Now that neither of them handled things of a cosmic nature, that was even more sorely missed. "I'm sorry Luna."
"It can't be helped," Luna said with a sigh, "Too many pegasi have left to make the patrol viable. I hear that some are making an entire city out of clouds. I suppose they have gotten used to the Cloud Fortress."
Celestia paused. "Any idea what will happen to the fortress itself?"
Luna waved a hoof idly, "It will fall apart in time. It's only made of cloud, after all."
Celestia looked at her sister and frowned. "Are you going to be okay?"
Luna paused for a long moment before sighing again. "I don't know. Dear sister, it feels like we wronged somewhere, but where I cannot fathom. Everyone and everything is slipping away. I... I thought we had it all fixed; the heavens were secure and all was right in the world. We were making progress to reversing the spell's curse. Then it all fell apart."
Celestia regarded her sister for a long while before offering a smile. "Hey, wanna help me with paperwork? Hardly as exciting as the Long Patrol, but it's something. I could use the help."
Luna paused then offered a smile of her own, moving around to the desk beside her sister, "All right. Teach me."
"...We're thinking of going to the coast," Brown Betty said to Celestia, sheepishly rubbing her forehoof, "Word is there's a settlement there made entirely of earth-ponies. Should be a good place to start." She looked around the mostly abandoned town, the quiet of the place made her shudder as she looked back to the wagon. "We should get there in about three weeks time, if our luck holds."
Celestia and Luna sat as Brown Betty talked to them, both alicorns idly watching the wagon loaded up.
"I'm sorry to leave," Brown Betty said when no response was forthcoming, "It's just... there's not really anything for us here any more. We have to make our own way."
Celestia offered the earth-pony a small, tired smile, "It's all right. We understand." She reached forward and enveloped the mare in a hug, "Take care of yourself and your family."
Brown Betty hugged back, sniffling softly. "I will," she assured the alicorn before releasing the hug. She hesitated then offered a small, twitchy smile, "You... you both can come with if'n you'd like? I'm sure the other ponies would be fine with that."
Celestia and Luna looked at each other than back to the mare, both shaking their heads. "We would be welcomed, perhaps," Luna intoned, "But not for very long. The old resentments would bubble to the surface again and eventually everyone would leave. A repeat of this."
Brown Betty nodded. "Well. The offer's open should you ever consider it." She looked to her family -- her husband, a filly, and two foals, all crawling into the overstuffed wagon. "Well, looks like my family's fixin' to go. Thank you for the food. I don't think we'd rightly make it if you hadn't been so generous."
"There's plenty left in the larder," Celestia replied with a faint smile, "And our magic will allow us to keep farming." Her smile widened, and she winked, "Looks like I'll learn to do an honest days work after all."
Brown Betty let out a string of laughter before nodding to the pair of alicorns and turning to climb on the wagon. With a lurch, it started to go forward, slowly creaking its way down the empty streets of the community.
Luna and Celestia watched them go until they disappeared over the horizon.
"They're the last," Luna said with finality.
"They were," Celestia replied.
Silence reigned between the two sisters before Luna turned to Celestia. "What do we do now?"
Celestia paused before a look of determination spread on her features. "We continue. We keep trying to find a way to reverse that spell. It's all we can do."
Luna nodded once and the pair rose and turned to head back into the Hall, the empty streets a silent witness to the last remaining alicorns in the world.
"Where in Celestia's rainbow mane is Thunderlane?" asked Rainbow Dash, exasperation coloring her tone.
Cloud Kicker shrugged, looking at once annoyed and sheepish. "Donno, boss," she responded, "He and seven other members of the weather team he was with have just disappeared. They were here for the emergency mustering, but during the storm management itself they all just... disappeared. The only reason we noticed now was because we have the storm in hoof. I swear, if that stallion is going AWOL again..."
Rainbow Dash frowned and let out a sigh, "I hope not. I'll do more than just hit him with a fine this time if he had." Her frown deepened, "But even if he flew out on emergency weather duty, I can't imagine all the others would, either. Especially all at the same time."
Cloud Kicker nodded in agreement. "Yeah," she said before hesitating briefly, "The winds were really strong, boss. We constantly had trouble with pegasi spinning out, even with unicorn telekinesis support. It could be that they were blown somewhere and wounded too badly to get back into the air." Cloud Kicker frowned in thought, "It's unlikely, though. Their unit was assigned to the airspace directly over Twilight's castle. Considering that's where the Princess set up the emergency weather control headquarters, you would think somepony would've noticed them being blown away before now."
The thought caused Dash's brow to furrow. "Think we can spare a few wings to search around the outskirts of Ponyville? Y'know, just to be sure?"
"With Princess Luna and the Nightwatch bat-ponies helping, I think we can," Cloud Kicker replied with a wry smile, "They're not weather ponies, but the worst of it seems under control at least."
Rainbow Dash grunted in affirmation. "It might be best to keep our regulars and reservists on what remains of the storm and get the Nightwatch to look for wounded," she mused, "I'll go ask Princess Luna. Search and rescue is probably better for Nightwatch anyway. In the meantime, you and Blossomforth keep working on the storm."
Cloud Kicker saluted smartly then turned to fly off. Rainbow Dash watched her go through the grey clouds, her course a little drunken as she was buffeted by the winds. Thankfully, the rain and heavy storm clouds had mostly been taken care of by this point, but the wind still really was a problem. The heavy overcast skies still made command and control difficult, though the list Twilight had Spike deliver of unicorns and useful spells to help definitely made things better. Even still, it had been touch-and-go with little headway against the storm being made until the Princess of the Night had showed up with badly needed support.
Flying down to Twilight's castle, Dash felt the strong winds for herself. She was no slouch when it came to flying -- in fact, she was one of the best in all of Equestria -- but even she felt a little more wobbliness in her flight at the gales buffeting her. With a less-than-dignified landing on one of the crystalline verandas that poked from the jutting spires of the castle, Dash trotted inside.
Even with the castle being the hub of activity for combating the storm, the whole place was surprisingly empty. In all honesty, Rainbow Dash hadn't really explored much of Twilight's castle; she was mostly familiar with the relatively small areas that her friend and Spike occupied, plus the throne room. Princess Luna had set up the emergency weather headquarters in one of the mid-level rooms -- Dash had to admit, it was a smart idea to do so. She preferred to actually be out directly working with the weather team, but in a situation as dire as this one requiring not only pegasi, but also coordination with unicorns and earth-ponies, having a central hub where everypony could report to and organize really helped.
The room that Princess Luna had commandeered for the task was probably one of the largest rooms in the castle and also mostly unused. Dash didn't know what its normal function would be -- maybe a store room or some kind of ballroom or something? -- but it served the role that the Princess had ordained it well. Even now, the area was buzzing with activity as the leaders of various weather squads would be reporting their tasks to unicorns who would relay messages back and forth among them or sometimes to earth-pony runners out into the field. A much quieter section, split off from the larger part of the room by privacy dividers (donated by Rarity), held a table with food and drink as well as cots for those squads on rest cycles. By far the strangest thing in the room was a large machine that beeped and whirled with multi-colored lights -- a brown earth-pony with an hourglass cutie mark stood nearby, making constant arcane adjustments to the machine. What it did, Dash could only guess, but Princess Luna had thought it useful, so here it was.
In the center of the room was a large round map of Ponyville, not unlike the Cutie Map from the throne room. Dash didn't have any idea where Princess Luna had found that, but it definitely helped in organizing where to put weather resources to best fight the storm. The Princess of the Night herself was hunched over the large map, her face a study in concentration, one of her Nightwatch sitting stoically at her side. Every so often a unicorn or earth-pony runner would walk up to the Princess, speak quietly to her, and her horn would glow as the map magically adjusted itself to the new information.
"Princess Luna," Rainbow Dash saluted the diarch as she stood in front of her and wasted no time in addressing the issue at hoof, "I wonder if you could provide a few of the Nightwatch for a search and rescue operation?"
Luna looked from from the map and blinked at the blue rainbow-maned pegasus. "Search and rescue?" she asked, concern in her voice, "Is somepony injured?"
"Eight pegasi are missing," Dash explained, "Pretty much a whole weather squad. Considering how bad the wind is out there, they might've gotten blown off course and crashed somewhere outside Ponville. If they're too hurt to make it back, then they're probably pretty badly hurt."
Luna nodded curtly and turned towards a member of her Nightwatch at her side, "Commander, see to it immediately." She paused then looked over at Rainbow Dash with a questioning expression, "Where was the last location these ponies were seen?"
"They were assigned to the airspace above the castle, Your Highness."
Luna blinked at that information. "How odd," she mused, "One would think the castle would be one of the least likely for such a thing to go unnoticed."
"Heh, yeah," Rainbow Dash said sheepishly, rubbing one hoof against her leg, "I thought the same thing. I mean, it's possible that they all decided to just fly off somewhere, but that seems much more unlikely. One or two, sure, but the whole squad?"
"Mmn, curiouser and curiouser," Luna murmured before looking to the bat-pony to her side again, "Start your search in the immediate environs surrounding the castle and expand from there." The kestrel guard saluted then immediately walked off, only to be replaced by another a few moments later.
Rainbow Dash was about to leave and head back out into the thick of the weather management before Luna spoke up again, "What ponies are missing?"
Dash stopped and turned back around, frowning faintly as she ran through her mental list of all the ponies assigned to the sector in question. "Thunderlane -- though he is kinda reluctant to do weather work at the best of times, so he might just be shirking as usual. There's also Open Skies, Raindrops, Sunshower, Cloud Chaser, Sunny Smiles, and Clear Skies."
"Clear Skies?" a voice said from nearby; it was Spike, wearing a small apron with a heart on the front and pushing along a silver trolley filled with food and drinks towards the refreshment area, "I think I saw her and couple of other ponies heading downstairs."
"Downstairs?" Luna asked, frowning, "You mean underneath the castle proper? Why were they there?"
Spike shrugged, "Beat's me. The only thing down there is some storage; most of the rooms are empty and too small to be of much use other than as closets. I figured they might've been looking for chairs or something for the break room. I tried calling to them, but they didn't hear me." He rubbed a claw along his forearm absently, "I would've gone after them, but I was busy bringing stuff for the break room myself." He blinked once. "You don't think they got lost down there or something?"
"The entire squad all at once? Unlikely," Luna frowned again, "Something is amiss here. This requires investigation." She looked towards Spike as she stood up from her seated position, "Could you lead us there, young dragon?" Her eyes flickered to Rainbow Dash, "And would you accompany us, Rainbow Dash?"
Spike was about to respond when Dash interrupted in mild confusion, "Me, Princess? I really should get back to managing the teams outside."
A hint of mild amusement spread over Luna's features, "Oh, I think the battle against inclement weather can survive a few minutes without either your or my overwatch. Besides which, out of all of Twilight Sparkle's friends, I confess that I feel as if I know you the least. Your valor this day in fighting against the storm has reminded me that I should most definitely rectify that impression. A few minutes may not be much, but it is a start."
Rainbow Dash couldn't really say anything against that, so just nodded her affirmation.
"I can definitely show you where they were, Princess Luna," Spike piped up, answering the question previously asked, "It's at least a little different from restocking the refreshment table."
Luna turned towards the bat-pony at her side, "Inform your commander of our departure then find us below." The kestrel saluted and disappeared a moment later.
Luna nodded and motioned to the door, "Let us be off, then."
The sound of hooves and dragon claws echoed on the hard crystal-stone floors in the empty catacombs of the castle. Unlike the ground and upper floors, this part of the castle was much less well lit; the glowing crystals in the walls that provided the main light source for the castle proper were fewer and dimmer here, and gave off a more reddish hue. While not low enough to provide a hazard to navigation, the overall effect was one of a much more somber mood.
"This part of the castle creeps me out a bit," Spike admitted as the trio walked, "I mean, I know there's nothing to be scared of, but still. I wish Twilight would find a way to get the crystals to brighten up a bit."
"I suspect these areas would've been meant for dungeons in days past," Luna replied as she turned her head slightly to inspect one of the crystalline doors, "The doors look to be reinforced, compared with those above us."
Rainbow Dash looked askance at Luna, "Dungeons? Twilight wouldn't use dungeons."
"I suppose Twilight should've informed the Tree of Harmony of her wishes before it was constructed, then," Luna replied with a hint of amusement in her voice, "The design was likely meant for somepony much more... versed in the ways of regal command."
Rainbow Dash let out a short chuckle, "I guess that's why it's so big, too?"
"Likely," Luna stated with a nod, "The design was meant for a full Princess. While Twilight Sparkle has earned her title, she did not -- and does not -- have the full range of pomp and circumstance that should surround her station."
Spike frowned slightly. "Who made the design, then?"
Luna blinked, looking towards the young dragon, "What do you mean?"
"Well, you said that the design of the castle was made for a Princess and has dungeons and other stuff meant for someone who understands the whole rigmarole of Princessness, right?" Spike asked, looking over at the dark alicorn, "Well, then... who designed it? I mean, it couldn't have been the Tree of Harmony itself, otherwise it would've made a castle more suited for Twilight, right? So that means someone else made the design and the Tree just built it. I wonder who it was."
Luna peered owlishly at Spike, "I see your long association with Twilight Sparkle has trained you to ask very interesting questions, young dragon."
"Sorry," Spike replied sheepishly.
The dark Princess smiled and shook her head, "Do not be sorry, Spike. 'Tis a great thing to be so curious and to ask those questions. Too often in life one seeks answers when it is the right questions that lead to wisdom."
"Who cares who designed the thing," Dash stated, waving a hoof around, "The place is awesome. That's all that matters."
Luna looked towards Rainbow Dash, frowning, and was about to say something when Spike spoke.
"Okay, here it is," he said motioning to a door, somewhat wider than the others at the end of a long corridor, "It's the biggest room we found down here, so we've been using it to store stuff that doesn't get used often. I really can't think of any other reason why anypony would be down here, so it seems the best place to look for a clue." Luna nodded and bid Spike to open it.
The inside of the room was more brightly lit than the dark corridors beneath the castle, the crystals on the walls returning to the more warm light and higher illumination of the upper floors. Boxes of various types and description lie in neatly organized piles set about the room, providing makeshift corridors throughout the room.
"Hello?" Spike called out into the room, "Anypony here?" Only silence greeted them. "Huh. Guess they're not here."
"Let us investigate to make sure," Luna said, peering at the piles of crates and boxes piled up, "Visibility in this place is poor."
"That's no problem," Dash said confidently, flapping her wings and taking to the air, "I'll give us a heads... up... view..." Her voice began to fade as she blatantly stared with slack-jawed surprise at something further into the room. Luna immediately took flight and settled beside the rainbow pegaus near the ceiling, staring off in the direction. Her brows knitted and her jaw set.
"What? What is it? What do you see?" Spike asked, frowning and beginning to walk through the boxes towards the direction both winged ponies were staring.
"Hold, Spike!" Luna said, gesturing to the dragon with a hoof, "We must away from this place immediately and return with reinforcements."
"Huh?" Spike asked, confusion reigning on his features, "Why?"
Luna continued to stare gravely at the spot in the storeroom. "We are beset by Changelings."
Flanked by a coterie of Nightwatch kestrels and backed up by several unicorn and earth-ponies, Luna marched back down the corridor to the storeroom. Stopping in front of the door, several of her guards took up position on either side, sending silent signals to each other via hoof, ear, and wing movements. In a sudden burst of speed, they burst open the door and flanked either side of the interior, two more flying up and taking an overwatch position on top of a collection of boxes. After a brief scan, one of the kestrels turned and nodded gravely to Luna, who in turn stepped inside with the unicorn and earth-ponies following.
The group quickly made their way over to the corner of the storeroom, the two kestrels atop the boxes shifting to others ahead of Luna's attachment. Soon, their objective came into view: eight perpendicular green pods, the semi-translucent membrane that composed them revealing their contents as ponies. Tough, fibrous excretions kept the pods secure to the floor and to the ceiling, the sickly green goo dripping occasionally to the cold crystalline stone floor. Several of the ponies in attendance grimaced in disgust at the scene.
A white earth-pony with a pillbox cap and a red cross cutie mark trotted carefully up to one of the pods and examined it closely. Gingerly, she set a hoof on the surface and probed the membrane.
"I think they're still alive," Nurse Redheart said with a note of relief in her voice, "They're definitely unconscious."
"Can they be extracted safely?" Luna asked.
"I think so," a brown pony wearing a collar and a tie with an hourglass cutie mark said, walking forward and examining another of the pods, "Since the whole Royal Wedding incident, I've taken a bit of a passing interest in the scientific study of these creatures. There is surprisingly little prior literature on them."
Luna nodded again and stepped back, motioning with a hoof for one of the unicorns to step forward. "We best try with one first. Nurse, be ready to help if anything happens." Her eyes flickered to the unicorn, "Cut him down."
The lavender, pinkish maned unicorn nodded before her horn glowed. A pinpoint line of magic burst from her horn and sliced at the tough membrane, precisely cutting a half-moon incision below the pony contents. Slowly, the grey-coated pegasus began to ooze out of the pod, sliding to the floor with a nauseating squelch. Nurse Redheart quickly raced forward and began to examine the blue-maned pony before rolling him on his side and giving a sharp smack to his back. With a wheezing cough, the pegasus hacked up some more of the greenish ooze and gasped for breath. After a few moments, his eyes fluttered open and he looked around his surroundings wildly before focusing on the good Nurse.
"Why am I sticky and looking at a pretty mare?" he asked, "Did I miss something fun?"
"He's fine," Nurse Redheart stated with a grunt, taking a few steps back and disdainfully shaking some ooze off her hoof.
"You are Thunderlane, correct?" Luna asked, stepping forward and looming over the pegasus who was trying to roll onto his hooves with limited success. Thunderlane stopped his exertions and peered up at Luna, blinking once as his ears flattened against his skull. "Um, y-yes?" he asked, voice breaking slightly.
"Be a peace," Luna said gently, raising a hoof but not touching his slick body, "You are with friends. Time is of the essence, however. I must know: how did you end up down here?"
Thunderlane blinked several times, his brow furrowing in concentration. He absently rubbed his temple with one glistening hoof, a line of the green goop coating him dripping down to splat wetly on the ground beside him. "Um... I don't know," he replied after a moments consideration, "Clear Skies said she needed my help with something. I was on break, so I wasn't too happy, but she said I could have an extended break if I helped so..." The stallion shrugged, "I went with her. She led me into some kind of storeroom and... that's all I remember. The next thing I know I woke up here." He looked down at himself with disgust, "Covered in... what in the hay is this stuff?"
Doc stepped forward, a strange elongated device in the brown pony's mouth. A few deft tongue movements later the device let out a high-pitched whirling noise as the scientist drew it over Thunderlane's form (who looked at once alarmed and annoyed with the invasion of his personal space). "Well, that is most odd," Doc said, frowning as he examined a display on the device, "This pony wasn't fed on by a changeling."
Luna turned to the brown earth-pony, "Explain."
"When a changeling feeds on another being's emotions, they leave a sort of... mental fingerprint," Doc said, "A sort of calling card that can be detected by certain imbalances in neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin. Thunderlane here doesn't have any such imbalances in his brain." Doc frowned faintly, turning his attention to the now empty pod that Thunderlane had oozed out of, "Usually, changelings use pods like these to secure prisoners so they can feed more easily and often. Constructing these things takes quite a bit out of a changeling, so going through the effort to construct one and not feeding even once is highly irregular."
"The mystery deepens," Luna mused unhappily. She turned to the rest of the ponies gathered, "Extract and revive the others. Take statements from them then report your findings to me." She looked towards the four kestrel guards, "Maintain security here. When these ponies have completed their task, escort them to central control." Luna frowned deeply to herself and moved for the exit.
Thunderlane looked around at the various ponies as they began their somewhat unpleasant work. "Can somepony at least get me a towel?"
"...They all said basically the same thing," a small off-white unicorn reported, holding up a shelf of papers, "One of the other ponies in their group asked them for help, brought them down to the storeroom, then cocooned them. None of them appears to have been fed on, either."
Luna considered the papers thoughtfully for a long moment. "I do not like this," she murmured, "Enemies acting outside their patterns is rarely a good sign. Why would they take prisoners of a specific group of pegasi, do nothing with them, then vanish?"
"If they had wanted to infiltrate Ponyville for some reason, it is a strange way to go about it," mused Doc thoughtfully, rubbing his chin with a hoof. After a few more moments of consideration, he spoke again, more slowly. "Everything about this seems to indicate they were pressed for time. Taking only those pegasi that could potentially interrupt them, not stopping to feed until whatever task they were trying to accomplish was complete, then leaving quickly."
Luna considered the explanation, "It does fit the evidence, it would seem. But what could they be after? Presumably, they wanted something that had either the castle or its environs as an important aspect."
"Maybe they were trying to interrupt our weather work against the storm?" offered up the unicorn who had freed the pegasus prisoners.
Luna shook her head, "Had they wished that, then infiltrating the support staff would make more sense. Without the earth-pony runners or unicorns for messaging, combating the storm would be much more difficult. Even taking out the weather teams themselves would be a better use of their time and abilities, especially in those outlining sectors which the storm was its most fierce."
"Maybe Twilight would have some idea?" Spike piped up, "I could send a message to her to ask? Or go to her directly?"
Luna hesitated then shook her head quickly, "Twilight Sparkle is engaged in some critical research at the moment. I do not wish to disturb her unless absolutely necessary."
Spike deflated somewhat, looking down at the weather map of Ponyville; at least the storm was mostly dealt with at this point, with only a few sectors still having any appreciable problems, "Oh, okay. I was just... y'know, kinda hoping I could go see her. It's been almost a full day and if she's researching something, she really needs her number one assistant to help. If only to remind her to eat and drink."
Luna smiled and shook her head, "I am sure she knows of and appreciates the sentiment, young dragon, but she really needs to remain undisturbed if possible. We must puzzle out this mystery ourselves."
Spike unhappily nodded.
Quiet settled over the impromptu meeting before suddenly being disturbed by a kestrel coming up beside Luna and saluting smartly. Luna gave a nod and a wave of her hoof and the bat-pony spoke, "We have a visitor wishing to speak to you, Princess. She says she has urgent news of your sister."
Luna's brows arched and she nodded eagerly, "Please, lieutenant, bid her over."
The kestrel saluted again then motioned to a subordinate nearby, who in turn nodded and stepped out of the way for a cloaked figure to approach. Using a hoof to push away the hood of the cloak to reveal the countenance of a zebra.
"Zecora!" Spike exclaimed with a happy wave of his claw.
The zebra smiled and inclined her head respectfully towards the young dragon. "Greetings to you, my young friend. I am glad to see the storm has not caused you to bend." She turned her attention back to the Princess of the Night, "The storm prevented me from seeing you before now. I hope my delay has not led to something most foul."
Luna's face was blank for a moment as she stared Zecora before offering a smile. "Ah! Yes, of course! Twilight's zebra friend. Forgive me, it took a moment to fully place context with the name."
Much to Luna's surprise (and a little worry that she had offended the striped equine), Zecora's response was to sigh heavily and lower her head. "Then it is as I feared. The Luna who came to me was not who she appeared."
Luna blinked several times, canting her head to one side curiously.
"You and your sister did seek me at night," Zecora explained, "In the Everfree Forest, then took flight." She fixed the dark alicorn with a grim stare, "They took with them an artifact most keen, the Alicorn Amulet it was to have been."
Luna's eyes widened and she slammed her hooves down on the map table in alarm. "The Alicorn Amulet! My sister had told me that Twilight Sparkle had recovered it, but told me not where it lie. She entrusted it to you, then, Zecora?"
Zecora gave a nod. "In Canterlot's vault it might be safe, but also too much of a plum should a thief come by to strafe." The zebra frowned faintly. "The Amulet was secured with powerful magics unknown. Only your sister should've been able to retrieve it alone."
Luna frowned deeply, settling back in her seat, a troubled expression on her brow. "I did not enter the Everfree with my sister anytime recently, so with evidence of changelings here, we can be almost certain that she was one. The identity of the other in the guise of my sister is... more troubling. If it required the casting of magics to retrieve, then I don't think a changeling of any stripe would have the physical ability to replicate that."
"For a changeling to imitate an alicorn is very difficult as far as I've been able to determine," the Doc spoke up thoughtfully, "I'd even say that, reasonably, only a Swarm Queen could do it without the deception being obvious."
Luna's brow furrowed deeply in thought and was silent for some moments. Suddenly, her eyes widened. "If my doppleganger and whatever was in the guise of my sister were after the Alicorn Amulet, perhaps they were looking it for it here as well? Once the amulet was found, they had no reason to continue searching and left, lest they be discovered and the amulet recovered before they could secure it."
The Doc paused thoughtfully, "Plausible." He looked towards Zecora shrewdly, "When did you say they came looking for his amulet? Was it before or after the storm?"
"Before the storm, I do recall," Zecora stated with a definitive nod, "The rain had barely begun to fall."
The brown earth-pony frowned and shook his head, "Then your hypothesis doesn't hold, unfortunately, Princess Luna. The ponies in question were taken sometime during the storm. If they already had the amulet before the storm was in full swing, then there wouldn't be any reason for them to look for it in the castle. How detailed the changeling Hive Mind communications can be is a matter of some speculation, but they are at least good enough that a Queen could immediately tell her drones to retreat to their hive, if nothing more specific. So it wasn't a lag in communication that would explain it." The Doc paused briefly then continued, "Though the idea that they were looking for something specific is not a bad one."
"They were near a storeroom," Luna spoke slowly, "And they kept returning to that destination. It might've just been a convenient, out of the way area to store their snatched pegasi, but it still bears investigating." She turned to Spike and smiled, "Barring Twilight, you would seem to be the most knowledgeable with regards as to the contents of the storeroom in this castle. If you would, Spike, could you check over its contents and see if anything is disturbed or missing?"
Spike let out a leaden sigh, "That will take a few hours at least, Princess. But yes, I could do it."
Luna smiled again at the young dragon, "It would be most helpful, if only to eliminate another possibility as to the strange motive of these changelings." Her eyes flickered to the kestrel beside her, "Assign a security detail to him, at least two of your ponies. While it seems the changeling interlopers have absconded, it would not due to be ambushed by relying on that assumption." After a moment's thought she nodded, "I will also issue a decree that until we can determine that there is no more changeling threat in Ponyville, everypony is to only travel in groups of no less than three." Spike let out another much-put-upon sigh and began to head towards the exit, a couple of bat-ponies falling in line behind him. "In the meantime," Luna continued, "Let us deal with the remains of this storm."
Chrysalis hated the cold. She hated being away from her swarm for this long. And she hated her traveling companions. Regardless of her new abilities, Celestia had proven via Tirek that betrayal held a heavy price. Chrysalis hated not being in control.
As she and the alicorn flew over the snow-covered ground, Tirek in the telekinetic tow of Celestia's harsh white magic (Chrysalis did get some mild amusement at the somewhat ridiculous scene of the brute being carried around like a hoofbag), Chrysalis shifted her thoughts to her current status.
Certainly, the demonstration provided by Tirek was eye-opening. In all honesty, Chrysalis wasn't certain that Celestia could visit such immeasurable pain on her as well, but it seemed a reasonable guess. And one she wasn't keen on testing. A far more interesting question was the statement Celestia had made that none who had her corrupted Elements could harm any of the others -- excepting herself of course. Celestia could be lying about that, and Chrysalis was more than willing to test it; not on Celestia herself, but another corrupted Element bearer. The problem was if she did so, they would undoubtedly report it to Celestia and the Changeling Queen was loathe to give the alicorn any information that might result in her own punishment.
Still, they were traveling to gather another of these bearers. Perhaps whoever that might be would be a willing (or at least, unwilling to tell Celestia) test subject.
Another open question that Chrysalis was pondering was how much information those Elements gave to their master. For a brief, horrifying time Chrysalis wondered if Celestia could read their minds in the same way as she could now read the thoughts of her own brood; during the mostly silent flight to the north, Chrysalis had cautiously tested that with more and more vicious and vile thoughts about what she'd like to do to the alicorn. Celestia had not responded to the increasingly hateful thoughts, so either she could not read the minds of her empowered subordinates or she was just that good at keeping a poker face. If nothing else, it was cathartic.
For the moment, Chrysalis would assume that Celestia could not read her thoughts. If she could then any betrayal was doomed in the first place; without evidence that she could, Chrysalis would assume the opposite. To do otherwise would be to resign herself to kowtowing to this horned witch.
Chrysalis looked down at the snow passing beneath the trio and thought forlornly of her swarm. Chrysalis suspected that Celestia was purposefully keeping her away from them; the Queen was not needed for either retrieving Tirek or whoever they were now heading towards. Although, that in and of itself was interesting information. It may be true that Chrysalis could not harm Celestia or any of the others in their assembling group, but maybe the same was not true of her swarm. Chrysalis smiled inwardly at the thought -- if true, it was quite the chink in Celestia's armor and something that could be exploited to great effect at the proper time. It was another thing worth testing.
A tingling in her brain signaled a message from her hive. Reluctantly, she flew up beside Celestia. "The item you wished for me to procure is secured."
Celestia smiled thinly, "Excellent. We are behind schedule, but not by much." After a pause she looked sidelong at Chrysalis, "How goes the pony battle against the storm?"
"It is contained and weakening," Chrysalis reported, "It is likely the entire storm will be gone from all Equestria by early tomorrow."
Celestia nodded, "It has served its purpose."
Chrysalis regarded the white alicorn for a moment more in silence. There was something that was bothering her and curiosity (as well the desire for more information -- more information was always better) got the better of her. "Celestia," she began curiously, "Why did you mind-control those guards in Canterlot?"
Though she quickly concealed it, Chrysalis was a keen observer by nature; she saw the brief look of confusion on the alicorn's features and the faint tremor in her wings at the question.
A long moment passed before Celestia spoke again. "Of what do you speak?"
"There were four of the Royal Guard mind controlled and set outside Princess Luna's quarters on orders that no one see her," Chrysalis replied, "My agents in the capital reported that they are undergoing treatment and claim that Celestia gave them the order. Since I was not there and I know of no other Changeling Queen operating close to Canterlot, the only one I could think of who might be able to do such a task was you."
Another long moment passed. "It wasn't me," Celestia said slowly, her gaze turning fully towards the changeling, "And I thought that would've been obvious. I wanted Luna with her sister at the Tree of Harmony. Capturing them both would've helped in my plans." The alicorn snorted, "It was likely my counterpart, seeking to prevent Luna from being disturbed before she could face me." Celestia frowned deeply, brow furrowing, "Though mind control? That is... uncommonly willful for her."
Chrysalis absorbed the new information readily. It didn't have any direct use yet, but perhaps in the future. Instead, she cocked her head to one side curiously, "Oh?"
"That Celestia," the white counterpart remarked with disdain, "Has rarely ever done what is necessary. She uses her much-vaunted morality as a shield to hide her cowardice. She considers mind control beneath her." Celestia's eyes narrowed, "Many lives would've been saved in the past if she was more flexible."
"You seek to save lives?" Chrysalis asked, honestly curious.
"I seek to make a better future for all Equestria," Celestia stated with determination, "I will save those I can, but I will not shirk from doing what needs to be done. If some need to be sacrificed so that all may be saved, then so be it. I would not grind my hooves together in worry and wail at the unfairness of the universe while all creation burned. I would do what needs to be done to save it."
Chrysalis regarded Celestia curiously for a moment more before slowly dropping back behind her, once more in silence.
Then she resumed imagining the most painful and humiliating tortures for her Princess.
"The Crystal Mirror is missing?" Luna asked, peering down at the young dragon.
"Yup," Spike reported, looking through the scroll in his claws, "As is the magic book that activates it. I checked the library as soon as I completed the inventory and discovered the mirror missing."
Luna frowned thoughtfully, "So it would seem that the changeling thieves had stolen a magic mirror and the means to activate it."
"Yeah, but why?" Spike asked in confusion, scratching his head, "I mean, the only thing the mirror can do is go to that crazy alternate world that Sunset lives in now, right? Why would anypony want that?"
"Perhaps the changelings plan to invade that world, if Equestria proves too resistant," Luna mused, looking towards the Doc for confirmation.
The Doc thought for a moment then shook his head, "Maybe, but unlikely. Changeling emotional feeding relies on their innate magic, and from what Twilight has told me about that world --" the brown earth-pony smiled slightly and shrugged, "-- I have some experience with alternate realities and she sought my insight -- anyway, from what Twilight said, that world was very magic-poor. In fact, the only magic in it is what leaks in from Equestria itself. There's unlikely to be enough magic there to allow them to feed, at least without some kind of help."
"Help like the Alicorn Amulet?" Spike offered helpfully, "Would that allow them to do feed?"
The Doc hesitated, running a hoof through his messy mane. "Maybe," he allowed, "I confess that my expertise is in science, not magic. Twilight herself might be a better source to ask about the magical bits. That said, the Alicorn Amulet is only one artifact, yes? An invasion of one is hardly much of an invasion."
Spike thought again, tapping his chin with a claw, "Could it be adjusted to affect an entire swarm at once? The amulet, I mean?"
"Perhaps," Luna mused, "Its construction is... difficult and maddeningly complex. It would require a very complete understanding of the magic matrix involved. There are very few ponies who have such knowledge, and even intense study of the artifact would take years if not decades to uncover the full complexity of it."
"Would Princess Celestia be one of the ponies who have that knowledge?" the Doc asked pointedly, but gently.
Luna stared at the brown earth-pony with a look of shock and horror that quickly turned to anger. "My sister would never ally with such fiends! How dare you even suggest it!"
The brown earth-pony's ear flickered under the withering gaze of the dark Princess of the Night, but he held her gaze. "You didn't answer my question," he said, his voice still gentle.
Luna glowered at the much smaller pony for a moment more before breaking into a weary, worried frown. "Yes, she is one," the alicorn replied quietly, "But so am I."
Luna hesitated before bowing her head dejectedly, "None that still live." She paused then added, "That I know of, at least. I could be mistaken and perhaps somepony else did discover its mysteries." Her voice sounded unconvincing even to her own ears.
The Doc frowned deeply, stroking his chin with a hoof before sighing. "Princess Luna, I'm not saying that Princess Celestia has allied with changelings of her own free will. There might be an element of mind control here -- changelings are experts in that sort of thing, after all. We don't know how well an alicorn can fight off mental compulsion like that." He held up a hoof to forestall any protest, "And it may be the case that your sister is not involved beyond being a prisoner. But. We should at least consider the possibility that Princess Celestia truly is involved with this whole matter, at least until we can eliminate that possibility entirely."
Luna scowled faintly before taking a breath and schooling her features. "You are right, of course," she finally intoned, though there was an emptiness in her voice, "We shouldn't eliminate any possibilities that evidence supports." She fixed the brown pony with a piercing gaze, "Though I will not have it said that my sister is a traitor without absolute proof. Is that understood?"
The Doc nodded once, "Perfectly, Princess." He sighed again, and rubbed his forehead with a hoof, "Honestly, we are lacking a lot of information here. We don't know much about changelings, or even about alicorns." He fixed Luna with another stare, "I truly feel we need Twilight's expertise on this. If anyone might be able to come up with a working hypothesis as to how changelings might be able to mind control an alicorn, it is her. We need magical help in this, Princess, and unless you're fully versed in magical theory in the thousand years before your return, Twilight Sparkle is the one most likely to help."
Luna paused then sighed, nodding, "Very well. I will return to Canterlot and ask for aid in this matter."
"I could send a message?" Spike piped up from nearby, "Let her know you're coming at least. I mean, I know talking about magic stuff is kind of awkward to do over scroll, but..."
The dark alicorn considered the dragon for a moment before smiling as she stood, motioning to her back, "Perhaps you would like to accompany me, Spike? If we require Twilight's magical knowledge and expertise, then surely she will require her assistant?"
Spike's face lit up with joy and he clambered atop Luna's back. "Sounds great!"
Luna looked over her shoulder at the dragon and smiled before turning back to the Doc, "I will leave half of my coterie of Nightwatch here to aid in whatever remains of the storm and its clean up. Please extend my apologies to Rainbow Dash for leaving so abruptly and my personal congratulations to all the ponies of Ponyville. Everyone had acquitted themselves admirably during this crisis."
With one more nod, the Princess of the Night headed towards the door.
Celestia didn't know how long she and her sister stood in relative isolation from other ponies. The days seemed to merge together like smeared paint. At first, they held out hope that some of their errant ponies might return or even visit, but eventually that hope dimmed and died. In time, the pair had cannibalized the abandoned buildings surrounding them to build onto the Town Hall -- now not so much like its namesake than the house of the two sisters.
Their magic proved sufficient to keep them both well fed; it seemed though it wasn't particularly obvious, the pair had absorbed the earth-pony knack for growing things. Other materials, when required, were fairly easy to acquire as well; there were enough metal ores within easy reach of their homes that the two alicorns could replace and expand worn out materials fairly easily.
Fortunately, while Stardancer had taken a large portion of books from the library with her wagon train, she had made copies of most before doing so and left them in Celestia's care. Now with little else to do, Celestia spent most of her time in the library and research wing, trying valiantly to find some new answer or clue as to how to fix the Spell that had been cast so many decades ago. Occasionally, she would find some interesting avenue of research, but the work was still slow and painstaking.
Luna had helped at first, but as the days dragged on the dark alicorn began to lose interest in the endeavor. Celestia understood perfectly; it was discouraging to go so long without any real advancement and then, when a spark of interest came along, it took so very long to develop it. Most of the time these tiny lights in the dark sea of ignorance would snuff out, further making the whole enterprise seem pointless. In truth, Celestia suspected that Luna thought there simply was no way to reverse the Spell. In her heart, Celestia felt she was right.
But that didn't mean that Celestia was going to give up. There were always possibilities and until she exhausted them all, she would not be satisfied that the Spell was irreversible.
Still, with her interest in the work waining, Luna required something more to take up her time. The maintenance of their small farm and the Hall of the Two Sisters was fairly rote and didn't take much anyway. It was then that Luna came to Celestia in the laboratory.
"I think I shall take a lengthy trip," Luna declared, "Tomorrow."
Celestia looked up from her work and blinked at her sister, "A trip?"
"Yes," Luna affirmed, "It has been quite some time since I had last explored beyond a day's journey of our home, dear sister. I find my wanderlust is in need of being satiated."
Celestia knitted her brows in concern. "Why?" she asked, "Do we not have everything we need right here?"
Luna shifted uneasily in place before answering. "It is true, dear sister, that we have everything we need. But a pony does not live by carrots alone." Her face scrunched up as she struggled to find words to give to her internal plight, "It is... difficult to stay here, doing the same things night after night. With our needs so easily cared for, I find myself... desperate for a distraction. I feel as if travel will help."
Celestia almost reminded her sister of their Great Work, but thought better of it. It had been some time since Luna had ceased to be an active assistant; not that she refused any request or aid when needed, but Celestia could tell Luna had long since given up hope. It would be unfair to shackle her to the same task she herself had doubts in. Instead, Celestia smiled and nodded, "It sounds like a good idea. Just be sure you take enough supplies with you when you go. Oh! And perhaps some armor and weapons. I doubt there is much out there, but better safe than sorry, right?" Tilting her head, the white alicorn regarded her dark sister curiously, "Any plans on where you're going?"
Luna hesitated before answering, her head dipping slightly. "I... was thinking of, perhaps, visiting one of the pony communities. The ones set up by our errant friends."
Celestia was silent for a long moment, peering intently at her sister. "I see," she said slowly, "Well. That might be a good idea. Catch up on how things are going with them." Celestia hesitated then added cautiously, "Just remember not to wear out your welcome, dear sister."
"I will not tarry long at any one settlement," Luna affirmed with a nod, "Though I hope that any ill-will might've been mitigated with time."
"Let us hope so," Celestia replied with a small, somewhat sad smile. Pausing again briefly, Celestia brought forth a bright smile, "Why don't you go towards the coast where Brown Betty took her family?" If they were to recontact other ponies after so much time, then heading in the direction of one who unequivocally held them no malice would be a good first step.
Luna appeared thoughtful for a moment then nodded with a smile, "Yes, I believe that would be a good first trip."
Almost three lonely weeks passed, the time only made significant by Luna's absence. Celestia continued her solo researches into the arcane, dutifully searching through the beach of ignorance for that one grain of gold among the sand. Celestia almost felt off her work stool in surprise when the door burst open and a very animated Luna strode into the laboratory.
"Sister!" Luna cried excitedly, "I am returned!"
Celestia blinked and couldn't repress a laugh at Luna's obvious good spirits. "So you have!" she said, "I take it your trip was a success?"
"Oh, more than you know, dear sister," Luna replied happily, reaching behind her to the saddlebags she wore and telekinetically pulling out a set of books, "I bring gifts!"
The white alicorn blinked again as the books were deposited in her hooves, Celestia looking at the covers curiously. They were obviously newly printed, but she didn't recognize the titles. "Are these copies of books Stardancer took with her that didn't already have a copy in the library?"
Luna shook her head, "No. These are new books. Books written by our little ponies!" Luna smiled widely as she settled on another stool, "A group of earth-ponies in the town -- a place they have called 'Manehatten', by the way -- have a publishing business. These are reprints from Unicornia." She leaned forward and her smile grew even more, "Look closely, sister, at the author."
Celestia canted her head then did as asked, peering at the books. Her eyes went wide. "Stardancer?!" Celestia exclaimed, "As in, our Stardancer? She wrote these?" The white alicorn scrutinized the cover a bit more, "'Her Majesty Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia'. She has come up in the world."
"Indeed," Luna said, "It seems she and Silverhoof have installed themselves as monarchs."
Celestia stared at the book cover for a long moment before speaking again, her voice giving away her conflicted sentiments, "I'm glad that she's happy, anyway."
Luna's ears went flat against her head, concern flooding her face. "Anyway," Luna said, quickly moving onto a different topic, "Manehatten is quite an interesting place. Although small, it is quite bustling. Most of the population actually exists outside the town limits among a myriad different farms and plantations. It is an eclectic place, full of traders selling things from all over the land."
Celestia brightened at the description. "Did you see Brown Betty?"
Luna's excitement ebbed slightly, though she nodded. "Yes, I did see her. She owns one of the larger farms outside Manehatten proper. Her family has grown significantly and you will be happy to hear that she is as friendly as always." Luna hesitated then spoke again, "Though... she is older."
"Older?" Celestia asked, canting her head curiously.
"Yes," Luna replied, hesitating a bit more before continuing, "She is still hale and hearty, but the... weight of the years is definitely upon her. Her coat is not as lustrous, and skin has, perhaps, a few more wrinkles."
Celestia frowned, "Oh."
"But I assure you she is quite happy," Luna said quickly, "And, as I said, her family is quite large. She has had three more foals since we last saw her, and two of her children also have bred."
"Has it really been that long?" Celestia asked, mildly shocked.
"By my estimation, nearly two and a half decades," Luna said, "Though the calendar is somewhat in flux due to regional differences." Luna returned the smile to her features, "At any rate! Let me regale you with tales of my adventure!"
Celestia smiled and settled into the telling. While she listened, though, her eye caught a distorted reflection of herself in some of the glass work nearby.
She, herself, hadn't aged a day since everyone left.
Luna continued her expeditions out into the world, visiting various pony communities and bringing back books, artifacts, and stories. Occasionally, Luna would help a community with some problem: removing bandits or monsters, helping to find additional water for new wells, or resolving squabbles between ponies.
"Celestia, you should come with me on an excursion," Luna had prompted one day after returning from the cloud city of Cloudsdale, "It would do you well to break from your toils."
Celestia seriously considered it, but eventually shook her head. "No, dear sister," she had said, "It would not be right for me to take a vacation when my little ponies are still counting on me. I will work until I have exhausted all avenues."
Luna had been less than thrilled with that answer, but had accepted it.
Some time later, though, while reading one of the latest tomes Luna had retrieved from her visits, Celestia heard a strange noise. It was clearly pony-made and sounded loud a clear -- a trumpet's clarion. Celestia lifted her head and blinked, confused at the sound. Setting the book away, she stood from the comfy reading chair and headed towards the foyer of the Hall.
Looking out onto the small section of street (most of the rest of the paving stones in town had already been cannibalized by Luna and herself for the Hall), Celestia saw three ponies. All three were unicorns, and two of them were harnessed to a golden carriage while the third stood to one side, a bugle held telekinetically before him.
Both harnessed unicorns were blue, one a mare the other a stallion, with the stallion being a slightly darker shade and their manes where a light purple and striped blue-green respectively. They looked similar enough in build and facial structure to be related; brother and sister, perhaps? While their cutie marks were partially obscured by the harness that connected to the carriage, Celestia could make out a stylized wing on the stallion's rump and a ring of multicolored circles on the mare's.
The third unicorn was a light shade of grey with an equally light peach mane. He held himself with rigidity, his chest and hindquarters draped in a cloth composed of four squares of wildly different colored fabric: one red, one yellow, one orange, and one blue. Crossing the borders of the garish garment was a strange flowing symbol that Celestia recognized as the alchemical symbol for mercury. The same heraldry hung from the trumpet that floated in air, wafting slightly in the faint breeze.
Celestia stared at her three visitors for a moment before deciding to exit her home proper and trot down the stone steps towards them.
"Elder Celestia?" the cloaked pony asked, though it seemed more of a statement, "Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia, does hereby demand you and your sister immediately present yourselves to Her Majesty's home. We are here to convey you to the capital and to our Queen's Grace." Still keeping the trumpet floating in front of him, the herald stepped to the side and opened the door of the carriage, bowing deeply and motioning inside.
Celestia blinked twice at the show before her and couldn't help but let out a string of laughter.
All three unicorns exchanged looks of confusion at this reaction. The herald cleared his throat and spoke again: "Perhaps you misunderstood me, Illustrious Elder Celestia. The Queen--" the stress on the word was quite pronounced, "--demands your presence immediately. Please, retrieve your sister and we will convey you to her."
Celestia laughed harder.
Again, the three unicorns looked at each other in mounting bewilderment with a growing undercurrent of affronted pride.
Before the herald could repeat himself a third time, Celestia held up a hoof. "I'm afraid, Mister... um... what was your name?"
"I am Her Majesty's Royal Herald Clarion Call," the herald stated with a note of pride, lifting his head officiously, "Second heir to the Duchy of Crystal Cove, son of Duchess Clear Call of Her Majesty's Royal Alarum Auxilleries and--"
"Yes, yes, thank you," Celestia said quickly cutting off the unicorn, who seemed at once surprised and annoyed by the sudden dismissal of his titles, "Pleased to meet you, Clarion. Now, then, I'm afraid both my sister and I must decline your invitation. Thank you so much for coming. Goodbye." And then Celestia turned to go back into the Hall.
If the three unicorns were confused before, now they were shocked, staring at Celestia's retreating form in stunned silence with mouths agape. Clarion recovered first, "Wait! Please, Honored Elder Celestia, please wait!"
Celestia paused in her walk back towards the building and looked over her shoulder questioningly at the pony.
Clarion hesitated, seemingly quite at a loss at what to say next. The stallion cleared his throat and again took the rigid posture previously, "Honored Elder Celestia..." his voice faded off for several beats before he spoke again, "... if I may ask, why do you refuse a lawful and generous order given by Her Majesty? If I have given offense in some way, I humbly beg your pardon, but I must not return without you and your sister."
Celestia turned around to face the pony again, a smile cracking at her lips, "Well, since you asked so nicely, Clarion... the fact is that I don't particularly like being ordered to do anything. Really, Stardancer should've known that. Secondly, I can't go with you because I have work to do. And thirdly, my sister can't go because she's not here and I have no idea when she will return. I am sorry for your wasted trip, but I'm afraid I will have to decline." Celestia bowed her head to the herald pony briefly then winked, "Besides, I'm hardly an 'elder'. I'm not any more old than your Queen." Again, Celestia began to turn away to head back inside.
She was surprised when Clarion quickly galloped up beside her, a look of panic on his features; if nothing else, Celestia could admire his persistence. "Honored Eld-- Honored Celestia, please," Clarion said, desperation coloring his tone, "Won't you reconsider. It is, indeed, unfortunate that your sister is elsewhere, but I beg of you, please come with us. The Queen's ord-- The Queens request is most urgent." Clarion hesitated, eyes shifting over to the other two unicorns and he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, leaning closer to the alicorn, "It is not well circulated, but Her Majesty is in dangerously poor health. I beg of you, come with us. There may not be another chance."
Celestia stared at Clarion for a long moment, frowning faintly at this news. After a while, she sighed and bowed her head, "All right. Just let me get my saddlebags, leave a note for Luna, and I'll come with you."
Clarion Call let out a relieved breath, "Thank you, Honored El... Honored Celestia."
Celestia was most impressed with how fast the carriage went, the two harnessed unicorns in front utilizing their magic to speed quickly over the terrain. While she couldn't be sure, she thought that she couldn't even fly as fast. Luna, however, might be able to.
Celestia turned her gaze away from the terrain whisking by so fast and to her carriage companion. Without another alicorn inside, the carriage interior space was quite roomy, and Clarion had decided to make use of that space by being as far away from Celestia as possible. She caught him stealing occasional curious and confused glances her way, though he seemed unwilling to strike up a conversation.
So Celestia did. "You didn't introduce your two companions."
Clarion blinked, jumping slightly at being addressed. He turned his attention directly to Celestia and bowed his head. "Forgive me, Honored Celestia. Someone of your esteem is not usually interested in the identities of simple knights. They are siblings as you might've guessed; both are knights in the service of the Duchy of Crystal Cove. The stallion is Fast Flight -- a curious name, indeed, for one of unicorn stock. The mare is Straight Shot." Clarion smiled in scandalous glee as he scooted a bit closer and again lowered his voice into a sotto tone, "There are rumors that they are both the result of dalliances the Count of Gem Peak, one of the vassals of Crystal Cove."
Celestia blinked. "Oh," she said, uncertain as to the reason why Clarion displayed such joy, "That's... good?"
"It is good for somepony," Clarion stated with a smug nod as he leaned back, "Should the Count ever get ideas above his station, a scandal like that would definitely damage his reputation. My mother was fortunate to have discovered them early. The fact that they are both useful knights to our House is an added bonus."
Celestia stared oddly at Clarion. "Oh. All right, then."
"I am curious, Honored Celestia," Clarion said peering owlishly at the alicorn, "Do you have any ambitions yourself? I'm certain that a county or even a small barony could be yours if you merely asked the right pony."
Celestia's mouth turned into a frown, "I'm not interested in anything like that."
"No?" Clarion asked, tilting his head, "Surely you cannot be content living alone in that hovel? Someone of obvious grace, breeding, and power as yourself--" Clarion's eyes briefly focused on Celestia's horn, "--Deserves to be recognized and wield some degree of control over the world, no?"
"No," Celestia stated flatly, turning her attention back to the outside streaking by, "I have my own research to attend to."
"Ahh, an academic," Clarion replied with an understanding nod. He paused and tapped his chin thoughtfully, "Perhaps you should look into the Royal Academy of Magical Arts, then? Again, someone of your obvious talent and power could rise quickly through the ranks. Maybe even to the Council of Magi. Perhaps even to Archmagus of Unicornia." He smiled genially, "As long as you had the right sponsor and friends, of course."
Celestia narrowed her eyes, but continued staring out the window.
You should consider the offer, the Voice said almost causing her to jump in her seat -- again, it had been so long it had spoken to her that she had almost forgotten it existed.
"I know what power does and I know what power costs," Celestia stated, though in truth it was more for the Voice than for her traveling companion, "The one is never equal to the other."
It took nearly three days of traveling to finally reach the city. As the sun set, the two ponies pulling the carriage would stop and make a small campsite (aided in no small way with the application of magic), the four would sleep, then wake and continue the journey. Clarion had occasionally further breached the subject of aristocratic ambition, though Celestia had only responded in uncommitted noises and eventually he stopped, instead engaging in meaningless but relaxing repartee. Still, there were times when that conversation dried up and the pair had lapsed into silence. Celestia, fortunately, bring a book to read so she wasn't excessively bored; she did wonder how Clarion could've stood the trip to the Hall with no one to talk to and nothing to read.
It was late afternoon when the city first came into sight, part of it carved right out of the mountain it snuggled up against. A wooden palisade stretched along the outer rim of the city with two large iron gates at the front. Even from here, a second (much more sturdy looking) ring of grey stone walls could be seen further inside the city, sitting atop a stepped dais of quarried stone. Peeking above even that was a square, white limestone keep with four spires jutting out at the corners.
"Behold!" Clarion announced, puffing up with pride, "The capital city of Unicornia, Ivory Spire."
"It's very nice."
"Nice? Nice?" Clarion looked to Celestia with an affronted frown, "This is the most wonderful city in all the land, Elder Celestia! It is a city of wonder and magic! Of unicorns. It goes far beyond merely 'nice'."
As they neared the gates, Celestia peered curiously out at the guards checking other carriages before waving them through. "It seems to have a fair number of earth-ponies as well," she observed.
Clarion waved a hoof dismissively, "Of course we need those kind to do the mundane work. It would be a colossal waste to have any unicorn use their magic on such lower pursuits. Not that unicorns couldn't do it, and do it so much better than mere earth-ponies, of course. But why lower ourselves to such common labor when there is a ready pool available?" He smiled, clucking his tongue in pity, "Really, it is a kindness of ours to allow earth-ponies such work within our vaunted city, despite their inefficiency."
Celestia stared skeptically at Clarion but said nothing in return. Instead, an earth-pony guard walked up to the carriage and peered through the window. "Diplomatic courier?"
Clarion passed a tetchy look to the guard, "Yes, yes. Let us through will you? We have business at the palace."
"Right, right," the guard said in a bored tone, "All diplomatic couriers are given first-class treatment, don't you mind. We still need to do a routine inspec--" The guard's voice died as he stared at Celestia. She smiled in return and waved a hoof in greeting. "You have an Elder on board!?" the guard exclaimed in shock.
Looking more than a little smug, Clarion haughtily nodded, "Yes, and as I said we have urgent business at the palace. With the Queen."
"Sorry," the guard quickly said, bowing and hurrying away, "Forgive me, sir and Illustrious Elder. I'll clear the queue at once." The guard hurried off and Celestia heard yelled orders. Clarion looked even more smug.
A few moments later, the carriage was in motion again and entered through the iron gates into the city proper.
One thing that Celestia noted as the carriage trundled through the busy city streets was how the organization of the city changed as they got closer to the palace. The parts of the city closest to the gate and wooden palisade were much how she imagined Manehatten to be when Luna described it to her: eclectic and busy, but streets and housing settled in a ramshackle of blocks and districts. The buildings seemed almost entirely made of wood, except for the foundations that occasionally peeked up from the ground which were made of irregular rocks cemented together in haphazard ways. The streets themselves were little more than depressions in the dirt, stomped flat by the constant tread of hooves and wheels.
Farther from the palisade, things became more organized; streets ceased being organic creations stemming from the islands of buildings into orderly set and paved roads of cobblestone. The buildings themselves started becoming more stylized and ornate, composed mostly of brick or occasionally cut stone. Celestia noted that quite a number of the buildings had signs hanging from them denoting a shop or trade was done within.
Close to the second wall, things changed again with the streets now paved with tightly spaced quarried rocks, obviously set by a master craftspony. The buildings here were taller than in the previous sections, most being three stories and composed almost entirely of cut limestone.
Near the palace, the roads became straight and wide, meeting at precise angles and at regular intervals. The buildings were still three stories tall at least and made of limestone, but here the slabs of white rock were polished to a gleaming shine. A few of the buildings seemed to be predominantly marble. Celestia couldn't help but notice that this section of the city was comprised entirely of unicorns.
As the palace itself came into view, Celestia's eyes were instead taken by a large wall off to the side with another set of iron gates and a large domed building with a golden roof visible through them. Clarion saw the alicorn's interest and smiled. "That is the Royal Academy of Magical Arts," he said, "Someone as interested in academic pursuits as yourself may wish to visit it once the Queen is finished with you."
Celestia nodded absently, "Yes, I am curious about it." She turned away and looked towards the palace proper; the building was large and dominated this entire section. The four spires seen from further below near the gates pierced the sky and Celestia could faintly make out ponies watchfully surveying the area from them. Another wall of stone surrounded the keep, though this one seemed more decorative than functional, being thinner and lower than the inner wall she had already passed. Still, unicorn soldiers walked back and forth on patrol along the battlements, casting a wary eye towards the carriage as it approached. An archway covered by an iron portcullis barred entry to the palace proper and a guard atop the thinned wall called down, "Halt! State your name and business!"
Clarion leaned out of the carriage and called up to the unicorn guard, "I am Clarion Call, Her Majesty's Herald. I come with Honored Elder Celestia, one of the last alicorns, summoned by Her Majesty herself!"
A pause ensued as Celestia vaguely heard the yells of orders and confirmation before there was a metallic clunk and the portcullis began to rise, "Come forth and enter, Clarion Call and Celestia. Her Majesty awaits!"
At the keep, Celestia was ushered out of the carriage and guided by Clarion up a set of shining marble steps to a large arched double doorway. The wooden doors swung open and Celestia entered the keep proper; it was a grand entry hall with high, vaulted ceilings and a set of stone staircases that curved up the sides to a second landing. In front of her was another set of doors and Celestia stepped forward towards them before Clarion stopped her.
"No, Honored Celestia," he said, "That way is the servants quarters, kitchens, and other such unsavory places. The throne room is this way." Clarion Call led the way up the stairs to the second landing. There, another set of large double-doors (these made of iron) awaited, which opened with a strained creak. There was a long hallway leading to another polished marble dais where two thrones made of gold sat.
One held a sleeping, elderly stallion, his white coat greyed and skin wrinkled. He wore a crown of rose gold studded with jewels and a cloak of red velvet about his shoulders. A scepter of gold lied to his side, leaning against the throne.
The other throne was empty.
Courtiers gathered around the base of dais, chatting quietly to each other while at the side of the stallion was a young unicorn mare, her coat a very light lavender with blonde mane. She eyed Clarion and Celestia's arrival with cautious curiosity, and the other courtiers began to turn towards the pair, their own conversations silenced and the crowd parting for them.
Clarion stopped a short distance from the dais and bowed deeply before the two ponies on the dais. "Princess Geode, I bring Honored Illustrious Elder Celestia by order of Her Majesty, Queen Stardancer, Archmagus of Unicornia."
A long silence ensued as everypony except Clarion stared at Celestia. It took her several moments to realize they were expecting something from her. She hesitated, then imitated Clarion's genuflection before the thrones.
Princess Geode smiled faintly and nodded her head, "We bid you both welcome. Rise." Both did so. The Princess stared at Celestia for a while longer before turning to Clarion and speaking again, "Clarion Call, you were sent with instructions to retrieve both Elder Sisters. You have not done this. We would have your explanation."
Clarion winced and again bowed deeply before the Princess, "Forgive my failure, My Liege, but Honored Illustrious Elder Luna was not to be found. She had left and her sister could not tell when she might return."
Princess Geode frowned faintly, but nodded, "This is unfortunate, Herald, but understandable." She looked again towards Celestia and once more offered a faint smile, "We trust your journey was pleasant, Honored Elder?"
"It was pleasant enough, I suppose," Celestia answered honestly.
The unicorn princess blinked once, seeming at a loss from the answer. Before she could formulate a response, there was a loud snort and cough and the aged pony on the throne startled awake.
"Who, what?" he said, looking around himself wildly, "I wasn't sleeping. I was just meditating."
"Of course, dear father," Princess Geode cooed, absently brushing his mane with a hoof.
"I was!" he said like a petulant child, "I can... I can meditate for days. Weeks! I can--" His words were interrupted by a loud flatulent sound that reverberated in the throne room. All the courtiers froze and an uncomfortable silence reigned. "Oh no, not again," the aged pony whined with a frown, looking down at himself.
Princess Geode's poise became a bit stiffer and she motioned to one of the courtiers who quickly marched up the dais with a golden pot and a towel. Everypony politely looked away.
Once the cleanup was complete, the old pony fixed his eyes on Celestia, squinting at her. "I know you," he said after a moment, "I know you... you... you are..." The aged pony frowned, looking confused, "Are you one of my children?"
Celestia blinked and shook her head, "No. I'm... Celestia."
"Celestia," the old stallion repeated, his frown deepening, "I know that name. From... long ago. I think... yes, it had something to do with the stars." His frown slid into a vacuous, wan smile, his eyes becoming unfocused and staring off into the middle distance, "My wife loves the stars. She dances on them. I think. It's been so long since I..." His voice faded off and a string of drool began to ooze down his mouth. Again, awkward silence filled the hall until the aged pony's attention snapped back to Celestia and he peered at her with guileless gaze. "You there. I know you. Are you one of my children?"
At this, Princess Geode set another hoof on the old pony's shoulder, her horn softly glowing and his eyes slid closed, body slumping against the throne. She smiled tightly at Celestia and bowed her head slightly, "You must forgive my father, King Silverhoof. He is... out of sorts."
Celestia couldn't disguise her surprise. "That is Silverhoof?"
"King Silverhoof of Unicornia, yes," Princess Geode replied, her voice a bit curt and frosty. She quickly thawed and offered another smile, "We will conduct you to Her Majesty personally. Please, follow me." Having been dismissed, Clarion bowed to the Princess then turned to mingle with the rest of the courtiers who were quickly returning to their previous murmured conversation.
Princess Geode stepped down from the dais and led Celestia towards an alcove which sported a door. She entered and the pair began to ascend a spiral staircase. Here, Celestia managed to get a good look at the Princess' cutie mark: it was, indeed, a pictograph of a geode sliced in half and filled with six glittering purple gems arranged in a starburst.
"How is Stardancer?" Celestia asked as they continued up the staircase, "I had heard she was ill?"
Princess Geode paused then let out a sigh, "I suppose it wouldn't take long for you to hear the rumors. I had expected it to take longer than five minutes after entering the city, though." She cast a look behind her at Celestia briefly, "Yes, mother is very much ill. I fear it may be her deathbed."
"She's dying?" Celestia asked in surprise and worry. Whatever problems she and her ex-friend may have had, she certainly didn't want her to die.
"That is why she sent for you, I think," the princess said as the pair reached a landing, now moving along a vaulted hallway lined with rooms on either side. Geode paused then turned to favor Celestia with a smile, "She told me stories of you and Luna when I was but a filly. My father was... less than charitable regarding you and your sister, but mother always made you both sound so... interesting."
Celestia hesitated then asked, "What happened to Silv-- King Silverhoof?"
Princess Geode sighed, shaking her head. "Many things," she replied, "Though his current state is, I think, a combination caused by stress at ruling the realm and raising the sun, moon, and stars. He insisted on being part of the magi who performed that task whenever possible. I... I think it might have... damaged him over time." She quieted then let out a short cascade of trilling laughter, "I remember when I was small, he always seemed so huge and intelligent. A giant among ponies, with an intellect to match. To see him so... diminished as he is... fills me with a sorrow you can hardly imagine."
"He's certainly different from the pony I remember," Celestia stated, wincing a bit. As much as she disliked Silverhoof, even as much as being the primary cause for the breaking up of their community, seeing him as an incontinent, addled old pony was disheartening.
"For years, my mother handled the affairs of state," Princess Geode said, "But after her latest bout with illness, I had been named regent. She can no longer hold court and, as you saw, my father is in no condition to." Geode frowned faintly, "I... confess as to not feeling up to role." She paused then let out another short bit of laughter, this one tinged with faint bitterness, "Something my enemies no doubt would pay a handsome price to know, no doubt."
Princess Geode waved a hoof idly as they walked, "The many dukes, counts, and barons underneath me. All of them are constantly wishing to push me off the throne and put themselves onto it. If the raising of celestial bodies did ruin my father's mind, then it was the constant politicking that ruined his spirit."
Celestia frowned faintly, "I'm sorry. If it's any consolation, I understand the pressure involved." She canted her head to one side, "Though I am a bit confused as to why you would tell me all this. We literally met a few minutes ago."
The princess remained silent for some time before speaking again. "In truth, I know not myself. Perhaps because I needed to confide into somepony, and you are an outsider. Perhaps because I feel I know you from the tales my mother told me and I judge you to be an honorable pony. Or maybe just because I'm lonely." She sighed heavily, "It is a sad fact, Honored Elder, that as one accumulates power one also accumulates enemies."
Celestia smiled faintly. "Well. I will happily be a confident for you, Princess Geode, should you need one. I have been... lonely, myself. If you need advice or merely wish to talk, I would be honored to do that."
Princess Geode smiled again, "The stories mother told do you little justice. And thank you. I... I think I'd like that." She stopped before a rather innocuous looking door and motioned to it, "We are here. My mother's private laboratory and study. She insisted on convalescing here rather than in the Royal Suites." She raised a hoof and knocked on the door.
The door opened and a set of three unicorns quickly exited, chased by a string of curses and invectives and finally an earthen pot that smashed against the door frame. "... enough of your pokings and prodings!" The voice floated through, creaky and weathered, the owner quickly collapsing into a fit of hacking coughs.
Princess Geode brightened. "Ah! We're in luck! Mother is in a good mood!"
Celestia peered down at the wizened form of her former friend tucked in the bed. Like Silverhoof, her coat was greying and skin wrinkled, though her emaciated form made her look even worse. The fact that her eyes were now a clouded, milky white and every breath she took sounded like a death rattle made Celestia uncomfortable.
"Leave us, child," Stardancer said to Princess Geode.
The princess nodded and turned to exit the room, leaving Celestia alone with Her Majesty, Queen Stardancer. Celestia took a look around the room and couldn't suppress a smile at the slightly messy, cluttered interior; it reminded her very much of the initial stages of the research wing. Various apparatus lie in piles around the large, circular room, some connected others seemingly set in storage. Books and papers littered nearly every nook and cranny, having long since run out of room on the bookcase that nearly encompassed the wall. A large writing desk sat nearby a stain-glass window, magical gem sending out light from atop a lantern. And then there was the bed itself; luxurious, certainly, but surprisingly simple in design. Just four posters and a gauzy trim.
Stardancer reached out with a trembling hoof and ran it along Celestia's muzzle before letting out a cackling laugh and dropping the hoof to the bed. "So, you don't age, either?"
"It appears not."
"Figured," Stardancer stated with a smirk, "And the same for Luna, right?"
Celestia nodded then realized her old former friend wouldn't be able to see it so said, "Yes."
"Well, at least I had that part of the whole thing confirmed," Stardancer said with a sigh. She rested there for several moments before croaking again, "So how do you like the mighty empire we forged, eh?"
Celestia hesitated then spoke again, "From what I've seen, it's quite... um... majestic."
"It was mostly Silverhoof's doing," Stardancer said, "He was always good at that sort of thing. Before... before his mind slipped away." Stardancer's face twisted into a frown, "You've seen him, I suppose?"
"Yes, in the throne room."
Stardancer snorted derisively. "Even in his current state, he refuses to give up those idiotic thrones. They're not very comfortable, you know? I always hated sitting in them."
Celestia wasn't sure what to say, so she said nothing.
Stardancer's voice softened, "I know you never particularly liked him, Tia, but he was still a good pony. Oh, he had his flaws. He was definitely calculating, manipulative, and arrogant. But you were wrong when you said that he only wanted to use me. I mean, yeah, he did, but he also loved me. Or came to love me." Her voice quieted further, "And I always loved him. Even now with his addled mind, I love him."
Celestia smiled, "I'm glad you both had some measure of happiness with each other." It was an honest statement.
Stardancer let out another cackle of laughter. "I'm not sure Luna would see it that way. She was really hurt when Silverhoof took the task of the moon and stars from her." Stardancer frowned, "Where is Luna, anyway?"
Celestia bowed her head, "I'm sorry, Stardancer. Luna was away when your herald came. I don't know where exactly she went or when she would be back."
A sigh rose from the old earth-pony. "Oh well. I had hoped to see her one last time before the end, but perhaps this is for the best."
Celestia pursed her lips, shaking her head, "Don't say that. You don't know this is the end."
"Oh, yes I do," Stardancer snapped before calming her voice, "I'm tired, Tia. Tired in a way that goes beyond just the physical. I can... I can hear my parents calling for me. Faintly. But it is there. I know my time is up." She sighed again, "But I wanted to make things right between us before the end. I... I was cruel to you, Tia, and I had no cause to be."
"You've already said all this," Celestia said gently.
"Well, I'm going to say it again," Stardancer said stubbornly, "You get to do that when you're old and dying." She cleared her throat, "Sorry. Anyway. I have a lot of regrets in my life. A lot. But the one which harrows me the most is the loss of your friendship. It was petty of me, I knew that then. But knowing is not the same thing as feeling." She quieted for a moment before continuing. "In truth, I think I forgave you in my heart a long time ago, but... pride got in my way of seeking you out to tell you so." She frowned, "No. Not pride. Fear. I was afraid. Afraid that when I forgave you, you'd not forgive me. That it'd all be a waste and that I'd never be able to... to be your friend again."
"That's not true, Stardancer," Celestia replied softly, "I always wanted to be your friend again."
Stardancer snorted in bitter amusement. "Yeah, I thought so, too," she said, "But, unfortunately, that fear got in the way of my head and I waited until now to seek you out. When it's almost too late." A desperate tone entered the earth-pony's voice, "I can't in good conscience ask you to forgive me, Tia, but I want it just the same. I threw away our friendship through bitterness and then, when that bitterness finally ebbed, I was too afraid to seek it back. I don't deserve your forgiveness nor your friendship. I'm... I'm not a good pony."
"Don't say that, Stardancer," Celestia was quick to respond, "You are a good pony. You have flaws, sure, but I would be lying if I said I didn't. I should've sought you out as well. The fault is as much mine as it is yours."
A faint smile winded its way on Stardancer's lips. "You really are too kind, Tia," she said softly, "I wish... I wish a lot of things. But I can't do anything but say how sorry I am, for everything. And to thank you... for being my friend, even though I don't deserve it." Stardancer's unseeing eyes closed and she motioned with a hoof to the desk. "Look in the third drawer down. There's a present for you."
Celestia paused briefly then left the bedside for the desk. She opened up the third drawer and discovered and oversized, dogeared notebook. Curiously tilting her head, she levitated the notebook from the drawer and began to scan over the contents, flipping the pages with widening eyes. "You kept researching the Spell!"
"Yup," Stardancer replied, grinning broadly, "It was quite an interesting conundrum, after all." She waved a hoof, "Everything I've found out about the Spell, chaos magic, and the changes it gave to us. Take it, it's yours."
Celestia hesitated. "Are you sure? You don't want your daughter or the Academy to have this?"
Stardancer snorted derisively. "My daughter will have her hooves full tending to the kingdom. And the Academy, while full of talented ponies, is still a den of politicking that saps the pursuit of knowledge. No, Celestia, my old and dear friend, I can think of nopony more suited to carrying my legacy than you."
Another hesitation settled over Celestia, but she eventually nodded and floated the tome into her saddlebag. "All right," she said gently, returning to the bedside, "Thank you."
"No, Tia. No thanks," Stardancer murmured, "I'm just happy I was able to finally, finally be your friend again after all these years." She quieted again then smiled, "I do have a request, if you'd listen."
"A request? Not an order?" Celestia asked teasingly.
"Bah. I never give orders," Stardancer stated with a wave of her hoof, "But somehow the court always seems to interpret them that way." She cleared her throat, "Anyway. Could you... could you check in on the royal family from time to time? Even just once a generation would be nice. It's the closest thing I can think of to being there myself. Just... be there for them."
"I think I can do that," Celestia replied with a smile.
"Good," Stardancer replied before going quiet again. The wheezing of her breath hung in the air for a long while before Stardancer spoke again. "I'm tired, Tia. I think... you should go now," Stardancer murmured, a smile forming on her features, "Thank you and goodbye, my friend."
Celestia hesitated a few moments more before turning and heading towards the door.
Princess Geode and the three unicorn healers stood talking quietly to each other when Celestia came out of the room. Instantly, the three unicorns rushed back inside. The princess merely looked sadly at Celestia.
"We... became friends again," Celestia said awkwardly, "It's taken a while, but..."
A moment later, the three healers were back in the hall, looking grave and solemn. "The Queen is dead."
Celestia decided to stay for the funeral and coronation of Princess Geode. It seemed the right thing to do. In spite of her protests, the court managed to convince the Princess to hold both ceremonies on the same day, a week after Stardancer's passing.
The funeral proved to be as sad an affair as one might expect, though with the added pomp and circumstance that a state funeral required. A parade carrying the coffin of the late Queen Stardancer was marched through the streets to a disused mine that had been converted into a catacomb for the aristocracy. The Queen would be interned in a specially prepared area just for the Royal Family. The only ones in attendance here were the Royal family, the court, and Celestia.
"I want my Queen," Silverhoof had said as the casket was being set in the stone sarcophagus.
"Father, mother has... gone away," Geode replied to her father.
"I want my Queen!" Silverhoof had said again, petulantly stomping a hoof into the stone floor, his expression floating between lucid understanding and terrified ignorance. Geode comforted him as best as possible.
The coronation was also a much public affair, though clearly meant to be a joyous one. Princess Geode became Queen Geode with stoic poise and grace while her father the King was quietly abdicated. He slumped miserably in his throne, muttering about wanting his queen. Celestia could feel nothing but pity for him.
Celestia stayed in the castle for another week, occasionally visiting the Royal Academy of Magic Arts and learning the institution. Thanks to Queen Geode, she even got her hooves on some new works on magic, direct from the Academy's library.
Eventually, however, it was time to leave. Her saddlebags filled with books and rations, Celestia walked out of the palace for the final time, the Queen in attendance.
"Are you certain you won't stay longer?" Queen Geode asked.
"I have to be getting back," Celestia replied with a laugh, "My sister will no doubt be worried about me."
"If you must go, then please, let the Kingdom offer you a carriage,"
"I appreciate the offer, Queen Geode," Celestia stated with a shake of her head and a smile, "But I want to fly back myself."
Geode sighed and nodded. "Very well, Honored Elder," she murmured, "Please, do visit again soon. You will always have a place here in Ivory Spire." The Queen hesitated then enveloped the larger alicorn in a hug, which Celestia returned with a smile.
With one last wave, Celestia extended her wings and took to the air.
Several days later, Celestia was back home and she landed in front of the Hall. She had no sooner entered the foyer when her sister raced out to meet her.
"Tia!" Luna exclaimed, looking her sister over briefly before gathering up the other alicorn in a fierce hug, "What happened? I saw your note, but it's been so long! Were you injured? Did a monster attack?"
Celestia laughed and hugged her sister back, shaking her head, "Don't worry. Nothing... well, something bad happened, but it was expected." She smiled, "And for once, I have a tale for you, dear sister."
As she began to regale her dark sister the story of her journey, Celestia knew that she would no longer be hiding herself away. Life was too precious to be afraid of going forward.
Fortunately, the snow didn't seem so deep around here as previously; Chrysalis' hooves only sunk in to just below the knee, as opposed to basically sitting atop the snow and having to hover up to get out in an undignified sort of bunny hop through the icy wastes. She did consider just flying along the top of the snow as she did when traveling to this frozen pit, but her wings were already tired after the long flight here. The last thing she needed was to run out of steam on the way back. Especially with the cold sapping her strength, she needed to conserve her energy.
That didn't make the cold, wet stuff any more pleasant to deal with, however. Especially as it got into the gouges peppering her legs -- not a pleasant feeling at all. It was just fortunate that changelings were capable of making their own body heat, despite their insectile appearance. That didn't mean her species liked cold weather, though, just because they could survive it.
Adding to her increasingly foul mood was the closeness of the pony city absolutely filled with love, the top of which could just be barely seen over the horizon; it seemed to be radiating the emotion like a beacon. Being able to sense such a bounty of delectable treats so near yet so far (and without the protection of even a portion of her brood) was maddening and sent the constant, gnawing hunger in her belly to new heights.
Her companions didn't seem to mind any of this, though; Tirek merely barreled through the snow, bodily pushing it out of his way, his crystal embedded hand held out before him. Celestia walked easily on top of the snow, the faint harsh white glow of her horn and a corresponding aura of whiteness around her hooves revealing some kind of snow walking spell being used. Chrysalis didn't know that spell and she didn't want to ask the arrogant alicorn to teach it to her. She still had her pride, even if she had lost some of her freedom.
Suddenly, Tirek stopped and held up his other hand to single the trio to stop. "Here! It is here!" he said, eyes narrowing at a section of snow that looked like just any other patch, "I can sense it."
"Excellent," Celestia stated, her horn's luminosity brightening as a beam of white light burst from the tip and began to melt the snow where Tirek had indicated. A sibilant hiss filled the air and wisps of water vapor curled up from the rapidly expanding pit made by the Sun Monarch's beam, digging deeper and deeper. Chrysalis revised her estimate as to the depth of the snow here; it was clearly much deeper, she had merely encountered a section of snow underneath that was hard-packed enough to bear her weight.
A few moments later the beam of harsh light ceased and a single curved, blackened horn floated up out of the pit. The tip had a distinct reddish hue and still looked quite sharp but the larger end was a jagged, broken mess as if it had been snapped off at the base. Celestia smiled coldly at it before swiveling her eyes towards Tirek and nodding once.
The bestial being shifted his weight slightly in the snow then held out his hand to the floating horn, closing his eyes as if he intended to drain the magic from it. Here, however, magic seemed to flow out of him, into the horn; a sickening mixture of dark purple, green, and black. It coiled around the horn in a lovers embrace, crawling in a serpentine fashion across the surface. Soon the wisps of magic descended lower, gradually forming the outline of a quadruped body becoming more and more distinct. Soon it was a pony, and then a specific pony.
The large dark grey stallion shook his head, causing his wild black mane to shift from the motion. His eyes opened, red and malevolent, backed by a glowing green with purple streams of magic flowing from them.
"Welcome back, King Sombra," Celestia said.
"I... live?" Sombra rumbled to no one, his voice colored in confusion before he looked over at the other three entities sharing his location. His eyes shifted from Tirek to Chrysalis, and then locked on Celestia, a low, rumbling growl rising in his throat as he took a step back and lowered his head to the alicorn.
"Peace, King Sombra," Celestia murmured, raising a hoof to the stallion, "I would not have brought you back from the veil merely to destroy you immediately, would I?"
"What do you want?" Sombra asked, watching the white alicorn warily.
"I want to give you what you most desire," Celestia responded with a smile that did not reach her eyes, "Control. And fear."
Sombra sniffed dismissively, waving a hoof, "I have no need for whatever you can provide."
"Oh, I think you do," Celestia stated flatly, "You are weak, Sombra. Your subjects are no longer afraid of you. They don't even recognize you as their king." The white alicorn motioned to the horizon where the top of the protective dome of the city could just barely be seen, "The Crystal Heart is free and the ones who defeated you have claimed the throne of the Empire. You have nothing, King Sombra. I am offering you a chance to get it all back. All of it."
Sombra frowned deeply, looking briefly over to where Celestia had indicated then back. He looked about to reply when his eyes focused on her chest, widening slightly. "The Alicorn Amulet!" he exclaimed, pointing an accusatory hoof at Celestia, "That is mine! Give it to me!"
"I'm afraid not," Celestia replied with a smirk, "You lost it over a thousand years ago, if you recall. And you also know that it can only be removed by the one who wears it, so no... you are not getting it back." Sombra glared in fury at the white alicorn, though the Princess raised a hoof to forestall any comment, "That said, I can provide you with something almost as powerful. Consider it a gift. A token of my appreciation." Celestia opened her saddlebag and a gem floated out from the confines, stopping in front of King Sombra. Deep, dark blue and shaped like a teardrop, the gem hovered in front of the former monarch as Celestia continued, "I, Princess Celestia, present to you, King Sombra Arch-warlock and Sovereign of the Crystal Empire, Fear the Element of Tyranny."
Sombra peered suspiciously at the gem floating before him, his eyes sliding from it to the other three in attendance. With a snort, he reached out a hoof for the gem, hesitated one last time, then gripped it. With a howl of pain that echoed in the snowy wastes of the north, his entire form glowed with dark, green energy. After the glow faded, King Sombra panted for breath, the gem retaining its teardrop shape and now melded to his flesh at the base of his throat. The dark unicorn glared at Celestia and opened his mouth as if to speak, but paused. A look of mild confusion spread over his features and his ears flattened back against his skull, his head tilting to one side as if listening for a sound. Slowly, he turned around to peer at the just-visible city, his eyes widening.
"Incredible," he rumbled, "I can... I can sense all of them. All of their secret terrors, the things that keep them up at night. Even from here, I can sense them." Sombra took a deep breath, "It is a heady power." Slowly, he turned back to the trio behind him, peering at them curiously before frowning. "But you... I cannot sense the fears of you. None of you." His eyes focused on Celestia, "Explain."
"As I said, I have given you a great gift," the alicorn replied with a cold smile, "And you are now bound to me. Serve me well, Sombra, and you will have everything you desire and more." Celestia drew herself up, "Now we must return to the hive."
Chrysalis peered at Sombra and Tirek before speaking, "Are you certain you can fly with both of them in tow? It was a long journey here and our reserves are low."
Celestia chuckled in response, smiling mirthlessly, "I assure you, my dear Chrysalis, that my reserves are virtually untouched. However, who said anything about flying back? King Sombra! A word, please?" The unicorn glared at the white alicorn briefly, then acquiesced. The pair talked in quiet tones about eldrich things for several minutes before separating.
"By your command, Princess," Sombra murmured, bowing his head and stepping towards the pit in the snow that once held his form. He closed his eyes and concentrated, horn glowing with a sickly green light. The ground beneath the snow seemed to fall away into a deep, dark pit, roughly hewed stones spiraling down into the depths. "It is done," Sombra said after a moment, "This portal will lead to the changeling's hive."
"Excellent," Celestia stated with a nod as she began to move down the steps, "The distance should be much shorter, but it is still a long way. Do hurry." The white alicorn disappeared into the forbidding darkness. Sombra stared after her with a calculating gaze.
A moment later, Chrysalis followed. Tirek moved up next, but paused beside the dark unicorn. "Whatever you're considering, I would advise against it," he said flatly, "These gems bind us to each other and to Celestia in a very real sense. Do not provoke her wrath. It is... unpleasant." Then he, too, descended down the spiral staircase.
For a long moment, King Sombra paused at the edge of his portal, staring down into it. He could, with a thought, dissolve the portal trapping his 'companions' in a limbo from where there was no escape. He would then be free to do whatever he wished. But Tirek's warning sent a shiver through his spine. As assuredly as he could feel the underlining buzz of fear in his former city, he could feel his own just as acutely. Something about trying to betray the hated white alicorn filled him with ice-cold dread and, despite knowing it impossible, the idea that Celestia could somehow escape from the void seemed a very real and present danger in his mind.
With one final look backwards at the city -- his city -- Sombra began to follow the others down into the pit.
Twilight was so absorbed in the journal of her mentor that she almost missed the whumping sound from the veranda. The purple alicorn shifted her gaze away from the words on the page towards the window, watching as Luna walked inside the Royal Suites.
"Princess Luna," Twilight greeted the other alicorn, getting up from the comfortable pillow on which she sat, "You're back." Her eyes lit up as she noticed the green scaly lump slide off of the Princess of the Night, "Spike!"
"Hey, Twilight!" Spike said cheerfully, running over and giving Twilight a quick hug, "We have things mostly handled back in Ponyville, so I came along." He looked around at the luxurious, but tastefully appointed room. "So this is Princess Celestia's room? Nice. I like it."
"Greetings to you, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said, walking up and inclining her head slowly, "How goes your researches?"
Twilight hesitated before responding. "Well, it's really interesting, especially from a historical perspective," she said, "And fascinating to see you and Princess Celestia grow up." A somewhat sad smile spread over Luna's features at that statement. "But so far... I haven't really found anything that seems to pertain to the current situation, no."
Luna sighed, shaking her head. "Unfortunate," she murmured, "And I'm afraid we must interrupt your search again. Some... disquieting facts have been uncovered since we last spoke and I would have your opinion on them."
Twilight nodded and sat back down on the cushion, motioning for Spike and Luna to follow suit.
While Spike rolled in another cushion, Luna shifted her weight uneasily back and forth on hers. "We have discovered changelings in Ponyville. Or, rather, they were there; an investigation is still ongoing to see if the creatures still infest the town."
"Changelings!" Twilight exclaimed in surprise before frowning.
"There's more," Luna continued, "It seems the changelings we uncovered were after an artifact in your care. The magic mirror that links this world with the one Sunset Shimmer now occupies, as well as the means to activate it." The dark alicorn shifted her weight again, "In addition, Zecora informed us that... that my sister and I apparently came to her and retrieved the Alicorn Amulet. It wasn't me, of that I am sure, and with the addition of changelings, the obvious answer is that the two ponies Zecora saw were changelings themselves. Why, then, steal those items? A thought occurred that, perhaps, the changelings were going to invade that different world, using the Alicorn Amulet as a means to bolster their abilities in the wake of such a magic-poor world." She peered at Twilight owlishly, "Your thoughts?"
Twilight's frown deepened as she thought. "It's possible," she said slowly, "But unlikely. Honestly, I didn't get much of a chance to research the Alicorn Amulet before Princess Celestia asked me to give it Zecora for safe keeping, so I don't really know its full capabilities. It certainly is powerful and could conceivably do what you are suggesting." She shook her head quickly, "But it doesn't explain the strange storms. I don't think changelings have any magic like that. What changeling would know enough about the Amulet to adjust it like that?"
"I see," Luna said with a frown. She sighed and looked away uneasily, "There is a... remote possibility that my sister may be working with the changelings. She does have the knowledge to use the Alicorn Amulet as described if it is possible at all, and she alone knew how to retrieve the artifact from Zecora. It was protected with spells that only she knew how to circumvent."
Twilight listened to the reluctant accusation quietly before setting her jaw. "No," she said flatly, "Princess Celestia would never do that."
"I don't want to believe it either, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied sadly, "But, as somepony stated, until we can discount the possibility it should be considered. If my sister is working with changelings, she may not be doing so out of her own free will. Or they may have somehow extracted the information from her and then pretended."
Twilight's gaze lowered to the floor as she thought. "I can't believe Princess Celestia would betray Equestria," she said again. Suddenly, she looked up, eyes wide, "The guards! The guards who were impelled to keep anyone from seeing you! Maybe the analysis of the spell is done and we can get some idea as to who cast it?"
Luna's brows lifted and she smiled, standing up, "An excellent idea. Let us go see, shall we?"
The hospital wing of the barracks was just as spacious as the rest of the palace, though much more functional and spartan. Simple light gems were set in the wall to provide illumination and the white, polished limestone brickwork was free of any embellishments. Ponies of various types wandered back and forth on their appointed duties, checking into rooms occasionally before continuing on their way. The massive storm and the injuries associated with trying to get it under control had transformed the normally sedate pace of the hospital wing (mostly used for treating training accidents or outbreaks of horn rot and wing fever) into a hub of bustling activity; more ponies had been hurt in combating the storm than had been even during the changeling invasion.
Twilight, Luna and Spike walked down the corridor dodging orderlies and doctors as they hurried about, eventually stopping at one of the rooms flanked by two spear-wielding ponies. Both immediately straightened up in attention at their approach.
"Is this the room where the four magically compelled Guardsponies are being held?" Luna asked.
"Yes, Your Highness!" one guard immediately responded.
"And have the doctors analyzed and treated the compulsion spell?"
"I'm afraid I don't know, ma'am," the guard replied after a moments hesitation, "You'll have to ask the doctors."
Luna nodded then motioned to the guards, who immediately parted and allowed access to the door for the two ponies and dragon.
"I'm with them," Spike said to the guards, completely unnecessarily.
Inside were four beds, separated from each other with heavy extendable partitions. The four guardsponies from before lay in the beds, strange beeping devices connected via leads to their foreheads. Several ponies in lab coats stood in an alcove nearby, pouring over sheets of paper and arcane medical devices that whirred and blinked lights at them.
Luna cleared her throat to get the attention of the collection of doctors pouring over the results. They turned towards her before one pulled away from the group -- a light yellow coated unicorn stallion with a short cropped black mane wearing black rimmed glasses, white lab coat, and a black tie -- and stopped before them. "Princess Luna, Princess Twilight. How may we be of assistance?"
"Have you completed your analysis and treatment of the spell these four were exposed to, Doctor..." Luna's voice faded off.
"Fine Line, ma'am," the doctor finished for her.
"Fine Line?" Twilight asked, canting her head, "Any relation to Flat Line?"
The medical pony coughed in minor embarrassment. "Unfortunately, yes. That whole malpractice thing has really tarred all of us Lines with a bad brush. Let me assure you, Princess Twilight, that former doctor Flat Line is an aberration and will not be practicing medicine ever again."
"I'm sure you and your brethren perform their medical tasks ably," Luna said, attempting to smooth over any ruffled egos, "One bad egg does not spoil the lot." The Princess of the Night affected a calm, yet authoritative posture, "Now, if you would be so kind as to answer the question I posed, Doctor Fine Line?"
Adopting a professional attitude himself, the stallion doctor nodded once and presented a clipboard to the two princesses, Luna gathering it up in her magical aura and eyes grazing over the data.
"Yes," Fine Line said, "Analysis and treatment have both been done, and both have been completely successful. The analysis was... difficult. The spell was very complex and, if you look at the fourth page there, you'll see why. We didn't even notice until we used the spectral thaumagraph to chart it."
Luna immediately flipped to the page indicated, her eyes widening slightly.
"Despite how complex the spell was," Fine Line continued, "Once we were able to sort through the matrix, it was easy to see what the spell did and even easier to remove it." The yellow unicorn smiled wryly, adjusting his glasses with one hoof, "If I had to say so, Your Highnesses, it's almost as if the spell was specifically designed to be easily removed with no harm being done to the subject."
Luna flipped back a few pages on the clipboard, frowning deeply as she read. Her eyes flickered to the doctor and she fixed him with a stare, the unicorn shrinking back under the gaze. "And you are sure of these origin results, Doctor Fine Line?"
The medical pony shifted his weight uneasily on his hooves before nodding. "Yes, Princess Luna. We are sure. Mind you, we only have Princess Celestia's yearly physical results to base it off of and there always is some variation in those, but for all intents and purposes, it matches."
"Thank you, Doctor," Luna said with a sigh, floating the clipboard over to Twilight. Fine Line nodded once then broke off to return to the gaggle of other doctors by the whirring machinery. Twilight's purple magic aura surrounded the clipboard as her eyes scanned over the pages, her face a study in varied expressions: from academic interest, to curiosity, to dismay, and finally to surprise.
"What's it say? What's it say?" Spike asked, bouncing up and down on his talons, trying to peek at the clipboard. Twilight sighed and floated the clipboard to the young dragon to gripped it and began flipping through the pages. "I don't get it."
"It is almost assuredly my sister who compelled these ponies," Luna summarized for the young dragon, "But the ease by which is was removed is curious. As is the final page."
Spike flipped to the page in question; it was an exceedingly complex glyph or chart for what purpose he couldn't quite grasp. What he could grasp, though was the image that seemed to form from the mass of lines. "Hey! That looks like--"
"--the Tree of Harmony," Twilight finished with a nod, "Yes, Spike. It seems too much of a coincidence, especially since that image made up the majority of the spell matrix and did nothing for the spell overall. It doesn't make sense."
"So it's like a secret message?" Spike asked, tilting his head.
Twilight paused, looking up to Princess Luna who in turn looked back. Twilight's face broke into a smile which slowly widened, "That's it! Celestia hid this in the spell because she knew that if somepony encountered it, they'd have to unravel the matrix to find the image inside! The only ones most likely to do that--"
"--Would be us," Luna finished with a nod, "Or, at least, somepony who wanted to preserve the lives and minds of those guards. Yes. Yes, it fits. For some reason, my sister couldn't speak in the open and so had to resort to more clandestine means of sending a message."
"Why didn't she just write a message directly in the spell, then?" Spike asked, "Or just draw out the letters like this image?"
"It would've been too easy to analyze, Spike," Twilight said excitedly, "If she just implanted words, then anypony with at least a middling level of experience would be able to see them in the spell. Drawing letters would be harder to discover on a cursory examination, true, but they are also very regular patterns and thus easy to recognize. Princess Celestia must've wanted this message to be virtually invisible unless great pains were taken in the analysis!" The purple alicorn hopped in joy. "Princess Celestia is not a traitor! She's... she's a double agent! This whole thing was a clue!"
"And it would appear that our double agent wants us to look to the Tree of Harmony," Luna stated thoughtfully, "Though I do not understand why my sister has felt the need to keep her infiltration of the changelings to herself." Luna's ears flattened against her head and she frowned faintly, "Though this wouldn't be the first time she had resorted to subterfuge when dealing with the changelings."
"Princess?" Twilight asked, canting her head to one side.
Luna was lost in thought for a moment before shaking her head and offering a smile to Twilight. "It is nothing. In any case, it would seem answers lie at the Tree of Harmony."
Princess Celestia -- the real Princess Celestia, she reminded herself -- lay in the small, dark room, green ichor dripping from the ceiling. The place smelled of musty mushrooms and her back hooves were immobilized by crusty rings of solidified green mucus. Without windows there wasn't any way to tell time, but based on the rumbling in her belly and the sense of thirst that pervaded, she had been there a few days at least. Once again, she tried to summon her magic, her horn managing a brief, sputtering, dim yellow glow before failing. She had lost track of how many times she had tried. Still, things did seem to be improving, slowly. A few hundred tries ago, there was only a small spark. A few hundred before that, no amount of magic manifested. It wasn't much, but it was something.
Celestia was jarred out of her thoughts by the sound of something outside her cell. The sound was faint, the chitinous walls providing excellent sound insulation, but it was there. The Princess of the Sun looked over at the door -- a round, iris like protrusion set into one of the walls -- and struggled to a seating position. A moment later, the iris opened with a squelch and in stepped her doppleganger, looking about the cell with mild curiosity. Her eyes eventually focused on the prisoner and a cold smile spread on her features. "Comfy?"
Celestia said nothing.
"I know that the accoutrements here are very different from the soft pillows and expensive gems you're used to," the other Celestia said, dark amusement in her tone, "But your accommodations could be much worse. Queen Chrysalis wanted you cocooned. You must remember how unpleasant that was."
Again, Celestia said nothing. She just stared balefully at her other self.
That other self smirked at the silence and motioned outside with a hoof. A changeling drone stepped inside, depositing a chitinous bucket filled with fetid water and a bowl full of something green.
"Eat, drink," the other Celestia ordered, "You'll need your strength for later."
Celestia frowned deeply, eyes going to the water and food and then back to her doppleganger. Still she sat in stubborn silence.
With a sigh, the other Celestia shook her head, "You're only hurting yourself, you know. I will do what I will regardless of your health. And besides." Another cold, darkly amused smile graced her features, "If you want to have any hope of escape then you need to be ready. It would be such a pity for your escape time to come and be unable to take advantage because of physical weakness brought on by thirst and starvation, would it not?"
Celestia glared deeply at her double, but then reluctantly bent down and began to drink from the bucket. As bad as the water tasted, it still was surprisingly satisfying. She didn't realize just how parched she was.
Her other self watched with satisfaction. After several moments, she spoke again, "You will be happy to know that your incarceration here won't last much longer. Despite some unfortunate delays, my plan is well on the way to fruition."
Again, Celestia refused to respond, instead moving to munch on the green... something... that was her meal. It tasted like alfalfa. She hated alfalfa. Still, nourishment was nourishment.
The other Celestia watched her eat in silence for a while more before again speaking. "There is something I was curious about, though," she remarked airily, "My good dear friend Chrysalis told me that you had mind controlled some of your own guard to watch over our dear sister -- oh, don't look at me like that, you know that she still has agents in the palace." The cold alicorn's eyes narrowed at her humbled double, "Though that is surprising. You have always been very moralistic when it came to using mind control."
"It wasn't mind control," Celestia replied simply in a pause of her meal.
The other Celestia frowned, peering at the mirror image with narrowed eyes. "That is not what Chrysalis said."
"Then she is mistaken or trying to deceive you," Celestia stated flatly before offering a faint smile of her own, "That is what happens when you try to build an empire on deceit and force."
The cold amusement was absent from the other Celestia as she regarded the imprisoned alicorn with malice. "If it wasn't mind control, then what was--" she cut herself off, understanding lighting in her eyes, "Ahh... you used that spell. Curious. Though I suppose it is understandable that Chrysalis didn't differentiate that from mind control. Only you would split moral hairs about that sort of thing."
Celestia frowned. "I don't think it is only me."
"Regardless," the cold Celestia remarked with a wave of her hoof, "I still find it surprising that you used that spell, considering your moral objection to its use on the Princess of Unicornia." She smirked, "I guess this is tacit agreement that morals and ethics can bend if the stakes are high enough. It is good I have finally gotten you to see the wisdom in pragmatism."
Celestia's frown deepened and she narrowed her eyes, "Bend, perhaps. But not break. There are lines I will never cross."
"No, of course not," the other Celestia stated acidly, rolling her eyes, "You always must have the moral high ground. You never see the world for what it is." She glared angrily at the prisoner alicorn, "And what have your much vaunted morals brought you, hmm? How many enemies have threatened you? How many ponies have suffered or lost their lives so you could feel good about yourself?"
"And how many will suffer or lose their lives for your goals?" Celestia shot back, just as angrily, "I, at least, try to minimize the dangers to my little ponies. You would throw them away whenever it is convenient!"
"I work for the greater good!" the other Celestia thundered in rage, "I bring order and stability to a chaotic universe! You--" the word was said with venom and derision, "--merely treat the disease with useless tinctures and sugar pills while the cancer grows. I would cut it out! Yes, there will be pain and suffering at first, but the end result will be a healthy patient. There will be order. There will be harmony!"
"There will be nothing worth living for!" Celestia yelled, "Even if what you say is true, then you would only have reduced a pony's life to a mechanistic series of events. There isn't any room for creativity or art or even love! There would merely be existing." She shook her head, "You can't force anyone -- pony or not -- to be harmonious. They have to see the benefits for themselves. They have to know there is a better way and choose, of their own free will, to follow it."
The other Celestia glared at her bound self, lips pressed tightly together in anger. She closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath before opening again. "Always the same arguments with you," the cold alicorn stated with a sigh, "I really wish you could see just how much you enable chaos. But no matter. I am right." She straightened up, "I have always been right. Control. Power. Order. These are what matter. Not 'creativity' or 'love'. Those are things of disorder. No matter how prettily you dress them, Celestia, they still remain ugly agents of chaos." A thin smile spread on Celestia's features, "I hope you enjoyed your meal and our little chat. Good day." She turned and left, the iris door sliding shut with a squelch.
A cascade of hooves finding ground rose up from the fissure where the Tree of Harmony lie, now a twisted, withered skeleton of its former self. Twilight and Luna, backed by a full squadron of Nightwatch as well as some Royal Guard, stepped forward to inspect the tree. They had made almost a bee-line flight here, stopping only to set Spike off at Twilight's castle with Celestia's journal (an action which the little dragon had protested most strenuously). They had no idea what to expect on returning to the Tree of Harmony.
But it certainly wasn't this.
"What... happened to it?" Twilight asked, getting over her initial shock as to the state of the Tree.
"I know not," Luna said, frowning and cautiously moving around the tree, "It looks like the foulest warlockry is afoot." Her frown deepened, "Have the changelings managed to tap into such a fell power? That may be reason why my sister wished to falsely ingratiate herself to them -- to learn where they had discovered such eldrich secrets."
"Dark magic did this?" Twilight asked, motioning to the tree.
Luna nodded grimly, "Likely, yes, Twilight Sparkle. But this is not just any dark magic; this is powerful, ancient devilry." Luna hesitated then spoke again, "Starswirl was responsible for the Tree. It is created with some of the most powerful magics he had known. To twist and pervert it like this would require warlockry that only a hoofful of ponies have ever discovered."
Twilight inspected the withered form curiously. She blinked. "The Elements of Harmony are missing."
Luna's attention jerked back to Twilight and she raced to the area where the other alicorn was peering at the tree. "By the Great Maker, you are right!" she exclaimed, stumbling back, "The Elements of Harmony are gone!" The Princess of the Night's eyes darted back and forth as her mind raced. "I think this may be what my sister wanted us to know," she said, her voice hurried by her thoughts, "The Elements have been... been corrupted by some ancient, foul dark magic and taken. For what purpose I know not, but undoubtedly the theft of the Alicorn Amulet -- itself an item of dark magic -- and the magic mirror also factor into whatever dread plan is ahoof."
Twilight gnawed on her lower lip in worry. "I don't know what it could be," she said uneasily, "There are a lot of things here to consider, but I don't really see much in the way of pattern between them. Dark magic, stolen artifacts, Princess Celestia missing then seemingly working with changelings only to be a double agent. We're still missing too many pieces, I think."
"I think you are right, Twilight Sparkle," Luna replied with a nod, "We are missing too much information. I think... I think if there is an answer, it again lies in the journal my sister entrusted to you."
Twilight hesitated then nodded, "Yes, Princess. I have the same feeling. Should I get back to it?"
"Yes," Luna replied, turning her attention back to the Tree of Harmony, "Return to your castle and continue your study of the journal. I will remain here and attempt to discern what has been done to the Tree of Harmony to warp it in so foul a fashion." She paused briefly then added, "I will also be assigning to you half a cadre of Nightwatch." Twilight opened her mouth to protest, but the Princess raised a hoof to silence her, "Only as a precaution. We don't know what moves our opponents will take as we haven't seen the measure of their work in its entirety. I would not have you kidnapped or worse due to forgone caution."
Twilight sighed and nodded. "All right, Princess Luna." The Princess quickly denoted several of the Nightwatch to follow her and Twilight took off into the sky, heading back towards her castle and the mysterious journal within.
Touring the myriad disparate communities that had sprung up in the decades since the initial diaspora was fascinating for Celestia. Luna would often be her guide through the many places ponies now called home, having visited the majority of them herself before.
She still continued her research into the Spell that had caused all this, of course, but that research took a backseat to exploring the new world that had bloomed in the wake of pony hooves. It was exhilarating and liberating.
From the bustling, cosmopolitan cities of the earth ponies, to the austere castle-keeps of unicorn lords and ladies, to the drifting, mobile cloud cities of pegasi, the two sisters traveled, occasionally rendering some small aid or taking home trinkets and gifts from their fellow ponies. Much to Celestia's relief, few ponies took umbrage at the alicorn sister's presence in their communities; it would seem that even those places founded by Silverhoof's followers did not bear a grudge against herself or Luna.
To Celestia's surprise, there was one city that Luna had never set hoof in: the Unicornia capitol of Ivory Spire. This fact was revealed just a scant three years after Queen Geode's coronation as word arrived that, at last, King Silverhoof was dead. At the request of the Queen, the two alicorns were requested to attend the state funeral.
"Must we go?" Luna asked her sister uncomfortably.
Celestia was surprised by the question, "I think it would do well to honor this request. Queen Geode is a fine pony and you were elsewhere when Stardancer passed. All of our old friends are passing beyond the veil, Luna. We should say goodbye to them when we are able."
"Silverhoof was no friend of mine or yours," Luna replied with a vindictive that took Celestia back, "He took the stars, moon, and sun from us."
Celestia knew her sister was still upset by that fact, but it nonetheless surprised her how raw the wound remained decades later. "Yes, he did," Celestia allowed, "And be shattered our community." Luna's ears flattened back against her skull, a frown forming on her face. "But," Celestia continued, "Without that, would we have so many fine pony communities? His motives and actions might have been suspect, but the result has been a rich tapestry weaved of pony lives! Surely you'd like to see the glittering spires and limestone edifices of Ivory Spires again, if nothing else, dear sister?"
Luna shifted uneasily in place, her eyes casting down to the ground in mild embarrassment. "I have... never actually seen them," she replied hesitantly, "Knowing as I did that place being the center of Silverhoof's power, I avoided entering the environs."
Celestia blinked once then flashed a wide grin. "All the more reason for you to come!" she exclaimed, wrapping a wing comfortingly around her sister, "You have shown me most of the wonders our little ponies have created in the world. Let me show you the one I know."
Luna paused for a long time, but reluctantly bowed her head and agreed.
The ride to the palace was uneventful, the pair of alicorns again escorted by a herald and two unicorns in a golden coach. It was a different herald this time; Clarion Call had apparently ascended to the head of his family and now his third daughter, Trumpet Blast, was sent for them. To Celestia's relief, Trumpet Blast (while still quite chatty) did not seem as interested as her father had been in politics. The trip to the capitol of Unicornia was a pleasant ride filled with idle chatter about nothing in particular.
Ivory Spire had changed a lot in the three years since Celestia had last visited. The wooden palisade was gone, replaced with brickwork walls sealed covered in white plaster. The streets leading up to the more affluent areas, too, had been paved with brick. Still, this part of the city retained its somewhat disorganized charm, with a host of different building styles and types set along the spidery, confusing web of streets.
It never ceased to amaze Celestia how much her little ponies could change so quickly if they had a mind to. Luna had told her that Manehatten had completely changed its layout and makeup no less than three times since she had first visited; Celestia had yet to see such drastic alterations herself, but she did not doubt it possible, especially with the natural industriousness of earth-ponies.
As Celestia's mind turned to her hornless, wingless brethren, the white alicorn took note of the earth-ponies present in the glittering unicorn city; there seemed to be even more than previously, but they were ever more regulated to the areas around the walls. It was a detail that caused her to frown slightly.
Still, as the carriage ventured into the mid-heights of the city, Celestia couldn't help but smile. As much as the city had changed around the outer walls, here things were much more stable. The shops had changed and some of the buildings were taller and more ornate, but the crawling, baffling mess of streets started to become more organized and straighter.
The inner wall hadn't changed at all, it seemed, as far as Celestia could tell. Neither had the upper-class buildings beyond it. The further one approached to the palace, the more orderly and static the city seemed to become.
Except when it came to the Academy and the Palace proper.
Both of those buildings had changed dramatically. A whole other keep -- larger than the original -- had been added to the palace, tall enough to overshadow its twin below. Four more additional spires jutted out from the corners of the keep, larger curved edifices than what had come before. In addition, a section of the wall had been removed and Celestia could see crafts-ponies and work-ponies extending it as well as what looked like an expansive military training yard beyond.
Likewise, as they passed by the large iron gates of the Academy, Celestia noticed that several more buildings had been added to the campus. The central, domed structure still remained the largest by far, but numerous smaller buildings had sprung up along organized, curving paths cutting through the immaculately curated grounds. Several tall towers capped with pointed, mushroom-like roofs dotted the landscape of the Academy, the darkened windows occasionally brightening or flashing inexplicably. The Academy also seemed much more dynamic than she remembered it; rather than the occasional, austere researcher or academic wandering into or out of the gates, now entire herds of ponies -- ranging in age from the ancient to barely into fillyhood -- wandered along the paths, chatting and laughing and occasionally arguing.
"This city is certainly... grand," Luna reluctantly admitted as she watched the streets tumble by.
"Oh it is, it is!" cheered Trumpet Blast, her shortly cropped pink mane jangling around her as she gestured to to the windows, "I daresay it's the grandest city in all of the world! All those other unicorn cities are just pale imitations of Ivory Spire."
Luna grunted noncommittally before asking, "And what of non-unicorn cities?"
"I'm sure they have their charms," Trumpet Blast replied diplomatically. Luna grunted again.
Soon enough, the carriage was ushered through the gates of the palace and stopped at the entrance to the smaller keep that Celestia remembered. Stepping out of the carriage and ascending the steps, both she and Luna were soon greeted by none other than Queen Geode herself.
"Celestia!" the Queen exclaimed happily, moving forward and embracing the white unicorn, nuzzling her cheek, "It is so good to see you."
Celestia laughed and returned the hug gladly, "And you, my friend! I see you've made some improvements to your city. Your letters mentioned that you planned on doing so, but I never expected what I saw on the way. Especially the changes to the Academy and palace itself!"
Trilling, easy laughter bubbled up from the unicorn, "You are the one who suggested I not do things by half-measures." Queen Geode smiled beatifically, "And I trust the changes meet with your approval, Grand Elder Celestia?"
"Oho, I'm 'Grand Elder' now?" Celestia asked rhetorically with an amused smirk, "When will I stop acquiring ever more bizarre and unflattering titles?" The alicorn sighed dramatically before looking around, "As for the changes, I must admit I like them." Her expression darkened slightly, "Well. Except for the expanded martial field."
"An unfortunate necessity of ruling a queendom, I'm afraid," Queen Geode replied with a wan smile, "We have to be able to defend ourselves. Regardless! I'm far more proud of the outer wall and paving the streets for the Lower Trellis. And the Academy, of course."
Celestia glanced over her shoulder, in the direction of the Academy, "I saw on the way. Quite expansive changes. And it seems far more lively than it was when I last visited."
Queen Geode smiled brightly again, "Indeed. I opened up applications and scholarships for anypony with the talent to attend. I think mother would have approved. Father had always insisted that only the children of noble families should have access to such higher learning." The Queen's face fell and her brows furrowed at the sudden reminder of the reason why Celestia had returned. Quickly, Geode shook her head and instead focused on Luna who had been watching the exchange silently, "Ah! And you must be Elder Luna." Queen Geode bowed her head reverently to the dark alicorn, "A distinct honor to meet you, Elder. I am Queen Geode of Unicornia."
Luna watched the unicorn warily, but offered a tentative smile of her own, "The honor is mine. My sister has told me of you." She paused then offered somewhat awkwardly, "Also, accept my condolences on the passing of your father."
If Queen Geode noticed the awkward nature of the sentiment, she betrayed no hint of it, instead bowing reverently. "Thank you, Honored Elder Luna." She rose, then, and took a step back from the two alicorns, "Please, come with me. I know you must be tired after your long journey. I will have my attendants guide you to the quarters I have prepared while you are my guests. After you have had a chance to relax and freshen up, I have arranged a hearty meal. We can talk more then."
Left in the capable hooves of the attendant -- who, Celestia noted, was actually an earth-pony -- the two alicorn sisters were led through the back of the smaller keep into the larger. A long hallway led to twin half-spiral staircases at the end, the walls polished marble and the floor covered with rich red carpeting. As they walked through, Celestia noted two large portraits hung up on the left side of the hall. She slowed to a stop to examine them closely
One was of Stardancer, in her younger days. She sat at a desk, surrounded by arcane instruments and texts, glancing at the viewer with an expectant expression on her features, her hoof holding a quill over a piece of parchment filled with magical symbols and formula. She wore a circlet of green jade and a flowing blue gown that nicely complimented her coat color. A brass plaque underneath stated: "Queen Stardancer, First Queen of Unicornia."
The second was of Silverhoof. Here, he was depicted as being somewhat older, perhaps middle-aged, but not the decrepit, pitiable creature that Celestia had seen on her last visit. Here, the white unicorn was seated atop his golden throne, glaring imperiously down at the viewer, his head lifted just slightly to give him a commanding air. Over his head and around the top edge of the throne was a melding of a star-field, the moon, and the sun. An ornate golden crown sat on his head, with a red cape with white edging set about his shoulders. Held aloft by magic radiating from his horn was a golden scepter with a large red gem set at the top. The brass plaque read: "King Silverhoof, First King of Unicornia."
"Queen Geode had these commissioned in honor of her parents passing," the earth-pony attendant said as the two alicorns paused to look at the paintings, "I suspect she, too, will grace this hall one day."
Luna's snout curled in mild distaste at Silverhoof's painting, but said nothing. Celestia was also silent, though stared for a long moment at Stardancer's portrait. "Sleep well, old friend," she murmured quietly before they resumed their trek into the keep.
The suites that Celestia and Luna had been granted were, indeed, quite luxurious. In their travels, the pair of the sisters had slept in everything from barns with barely enough hay to make an improvised mattress to ornate castle keeps, but even by those latter standards what they were in was lavish. Rich hardwood carved with reliefs covered in gold leaf covered the walls, the marble floors polished to a mirror shine, gems had been set in the ceiling of the bedrooms to give the impression of a starry night. There were two bathrooms as well, both with flowing water coming from silver faucets of both hot and cold varieties and large inset tubs, almost deep and large enough for the average pony to swim, albeit briefly. Wide windows covered in silk blinds opened up onto a veranda that gave a breathtaking view of the tiered city sloping down the mountain. The beds were huge, comfy things, four poster and lined with purple silks and sheets of white satin.
It was quite a place to relax for a few hours before dinner.
When the attendant came to retrieve them for the meal, the pair of alicorns were guided down to a surprisingly cozy dining room. The roof was high arched and set with magical chandeliers that glittered with a gentle light from the inset enchanted gemstones. A long rectangular table -- enough to seat at least eight ponies -- dominated the center of the room, with a sideboard off behind the leading edge of the table. Only four places were set, facing each other, though with a bewilderingly large amount of utensils made of polished silver.
Queen Geode greeted the two alicorns with a wide smile and beside her was a youngish, butter-yellow stallion with a red mane. He was tall and thin, almost gangly, and possessed of a nervous energy that caused him to constantly shift and fidget in place. His cutie mark was an open book crossed with a shooting star, rainbow streaks flying from the star in an arc.
"Welcome, Honored Elders," Queen Geode said, still smiling broadly, "I hope you don't mind the somewhat smaller dining room. It's somewhat of a faux pas for me to entertain ponies of your station in such a place, but I rather detest those formal dinners. We'll have plenty of time for them after the funeral." Her face fell at that, but she quickly shook her head and looked towards the squirming stallion, "Allow me to introduce Astral Tome, my magical adviser and--" the Queen hesitated briefly, a blush appearing on her features, "--my consort."
Both Luna and Celestia blinked at that, the yellow unicorn stallion smiling sheepishly. "Um, h-hello there," he said, raising a hoof and waving before hesitating and frowning. He looked away and started muttering to himself, "No, no, no. You have to be more respectful than that to an Elder! Think, Tome, think! What would be appropriate..."
"I think that's fine enough," Celestia remarked with an easy smile, "And good to meet you, too, Astral Tome."
For his own part, Astral Tome jolted slightly on being addressed, staring with his mouth slightly ajar in awe. His expression suddenly changed to one of sheepishness again. "Oh, right. I said that out loud, didn't I? Sorry. For a moment there, I thought you might be able to read my mind."
Celestia couldn't resist. She grinned widely and winked at the nervous stallion, "Oh, but I can, Astral Tome! And that's a very flattering thing of you to think, but I'm old enough to be your grandmother. Besides, I think the Queen would be rather cross with you."
"I... uh... what?!" Astral Tome sputtered in confused panic, "But I wasn't-- I didn't--!"
For her own part, the Queen in question watched the interplay with amusement before speaking. "Oh, I don't know, Elder Celestia," Geode said in mock thoughtfulness, "With any other mare I might object, but for you? I think I'd make an exception."
Astral Tome's jaw fell in astonishment and he let out a strangulated croak, face flushed.
"Oh, that's very kind of you, Queen Geode," Celestia responded, grinning broadly, "Actually, I wouldn't mind if you joined in. Share and share alike!"
An incomprehensible gibber was the response from the stallion. Silence fell for a brief second before both Celestia and Queen Geode erupted in hearty laughter, leaving the still stunned stallion to gawk at the pair of mares. Through the guffaws, Celestia managed to beam brightly and wink at the stallion, "Gotcha." Astral Tome still looked perplexed.
"I think they do jest with you, Astral Tome," Luna said by way of explanation, a small amused smile on her features as well.
"Huh?" Astral Tome asked, looking towards Luna and blinking. Another beat passed before the yellow stallion let out a string of weak laughter himself, a sheepish smile gracing his features. "Oh. Oh! Y-yes, yes of course. Okay, yes, that makes sense. A joke. Whew."
"Oh, you're so fun to tease, Tomey dear," Queen Geode said to the still rather nervous stallion, nudging him lightly, "But come, we should eat! As good as a bit of laughter is, I am quite a bit peckish."
The meal was exquisite and the courses kept coming. Servant ponies kept bringing in dish after dish to the four diners, as well as exotic wines from all over the land. Celestia found herself eying the sideboard filled with a myriad example of promising desserts -- including a particularly scrumptious looking cake.
The conversation was also pleasant, light and chatty without seemingly meaningless. Celestia noticed with a smile that the wary unhappiness that had been Luna's mood since before they even left for Ivory Spire had elevated somewhat as her sister relaxed in the company of Queen Geode and her consort. Whatever she imagined Silverhoof's home to be, this was apparently not it.
Sadly, the pleasant atmosphere and conversation came to an abrupt end with a loud shout and a crash from outside. All four ponies froze and looked to the door. The sound of stomping hooves resonated as they approached. Celestia was about to get up and investigate when Geode sighed and put her head in her hooves, "Oh, not again."
Celestia had barely opened her mouth to speak when the door burst open, a light purple pegasus stallion with a wild, almost white mane framing the egress. Four ponies -- two unicorn guards, resplendent in golden armor, their horns glowing and a mix of their magic pulled tight around the pegasus, and two earth-ponies each wrapped around a hind leg -- held onto the interloper, trying to drag him back out. "Queen Geode!" the pegasus stallion boomed, "This is intolerable! How long is a duly appointed ambassador of Pegasopolis to be made to wait?!"
"Sir... the Queen is in conference..." one the guards gritted out between her teeth, still pulling with all her telekinetic might on the stallion to no avail, "She cannot be disturbed!"
Queen Geode sighed in exasperation and waved a hoof at the four ponies, "Release him." Reluctantly, all four did so, the earth-pony servants moving back outside the room, though the two guards remained close by. The Queen looked over at the light purple pegasus and intoned rather placidly, "As I told you, Ambassador Swift Wing, Unicornia has taken your request under advisement and is currently debating the merits of intervention."
"A month!" the pegasus -- Swift Wing, apparently, and an ambassador no less -- cried out in stentorian volume, making the walls of the small dining room shake and the crystal chandeliers above tremble and tinkle, "You have be 'debating' this issue for a full month! Enough, Queen Geode! I demand an answer!"
With visible effort, Queen Geode kept herself calm, though the thin line her lips pressed revealed her internal consternation. "What you propose will put many unicorns at risk. It must be carefully considered--"
"Considered?!" Swift Wing thundered, standing up straighter with offended sensibilities, "Your 'consideration' does not amount to much, Queen Geode. When you are supposed to be considering our proposal, where do I find you? Having a lovely little cozy meal. Hardly the intense debate you so love to use as a delay." He sniffed and motioned over to Celestia and Luna, "And these ponies! What do they have to do with... with..." Swift Wing's voice faltered and gradually died, the pegasus freezing in place. With ratcheted slowness, his head slowly swiveled to regard the two alicorns, eyes widening as if seeing them for the first time. In an instant, his wings flared with surprise before suddenly folding in on themselves and the pegasus standing at attention, saluting.
"H-Honored Elder!" Swift Wing said in surprise, his eyes flickering between Luna and Celestia, "Honored Elders! Forgive the interruption, I didn't know--"
Luna glowered authoritatively at Swift Wing, "That much is obvious." Swift Wing winced, but his stiff military posture became even stiffer at the slight admonishment.
"As I said, Ambassador Swift Wing," Geode said, her voice still a practiced calm, but now there was a small smirk in place of the tight line on her mouth, "Your proposal is under consideration." The Pegasopolis ambassador frowned, but otherwise remained ramrod straight in salute and silent.
"What proposal?" Celestia asked, curious.
Queen Geode squirmed uneasily in her seat, idly poking a morsel of food with a telekinetically motivated fork before sighing heavily. "There has been a... problem near the earth-pony frontier, where Pegasopolis claims sovereignty," she explained, "I had hoped to delay dealing with the issue until after the funeral, but..."
"So you admit to purposeful delay!" Swift Wing accused, his posture relaxing.
"We do have a state funeral to attend to," Queen Geode snapped, her patience finally breaking. She recovered quickly, however, schooling her features into an impassive mask, "My father is dead, Ambassador. The king. I'm sure you can understand how that might preoccupy affairs of state."
Swift Wing sniffed derisively, "The affairs of unicorn royalty are not of concern or interest to Pegasopolis, Your Highness, only the extent of your military aid."
Before Geode could retort, Celestia spoke up again, "I still haven't heard an explanation as to what this crisis is supposed to be?"
Uncomfortable silence reigned for several moments before a voice spoke. "Dragons," Astral Tome finally said, his previous laconic lapse at the interruption broken, "There are dragons causing trouble in the area."
"Dragons," Luna hissed, her eyes growing hard and mouth twisting into a frown.
"One dragon," Swift Wing corrected, his eyes flickering to Luna briefly, "Though a powerful and ancient one. That is why we have sent an official request for unicorn military support. While the legions of Pegasopolis are up to the task of taking down this drake, it would be easier and safer for all involved with some skilled magical backup."
Luna's eyes narrowed at the pegasus ambassador, "And why did you not send for me or my sister? If the need is truly as grave as you say, surely it would've been prudent to seek our aid."
"I am not privy to the reasoning of the Euphorate," Swift Wing replied, but quickly amended when Luna's eyes narrowed further at him, "Though if I had to guess, I would assume you either could not be found or the matter was considered unworthy of your attention."
"Unworthy of us, but worthy of the military intervention of Unicornia?" Celestia asked pointedly.
Swift Wing hesitated before responding. "As I said, I am not privy to the reasoning of the Euphorate of Pegasopolis."
"Well, we know now," Celestia mused, looking towards her sister, "I think it seems only right that we look into this matter, don't you agree?"
"It is as you say, dear sister," Luna stated with a curt nod.
"That... isn't necessary, is it?" Queen Geode said tentatively, "Surely you two are far too busy with your own affairs to intervene in such an internal matter?"
Celestia smiled beatifically, "We are never too busy to help our little ponies." The sentiment was echoed by Luna with a curt nod.
Queen Geode glanced between the two alicorns and let out another sigh, her eyes lowering to her plate and the abandoned, half-eaten foodstuffs there. "It was not my intention to have your visit, grim as it is, marred further by the vagrancies of state," she said softly, "But if you both are intent on going... I can delay the funeral for a few days." She looked up, "And I will send a company of my finest battlemages. Pegasopolis will have its support."
This brought a grim, satisfied smile to Swift Wing.
"Very well," Luna stated, her earlier relaxation gone replaced now with hard, forceful authority, "We will march on the morrow, at first light."
"Tomorrow!" Queen Geode exclaimed in surprise, "That... that's too soon! I need time to prepare--"
"Tomorrow, at dawn," Luna repeated, and her tone would brook no argument.
Queen Geode stared at the dark alicorn for a moment before turning pleading eyes to Celestia then turned them downcast. "Very well. Tomorrow."
"Good luck to you, Elder Celestia," Queen Geode stated, giving the larger pony a tight hug as Luna oversaw the march of the mages and the accompanying logistics crews. It had been a surprisingly fast and smooth mobilization, considering the sudden nature of the order. Truthfully, Celestia had been privately skeptical that the Queen would deliver on her promise to be ready by the dawn. Luna knew much more about military matters overall, but Celestia knew logistics. Luna was far too used to the always-ready battle practices of the pegasi; the winged ponies were always ready to fly out at moment's notice. It was difficult to arrange such an undertaking in just a few hours for unicorns or earth-ponies; Celestia had been expecting to have to wait at least another day before moving out (likely much to Luna's annoyance).
"You needn't worry," Celestia replied, hugging the Queen back, her large wings wrapping around the smaller mare, "Luna has dealt with dragons before and, in addition to your mages, we will have an army of pegasi at our back. We will defeat this monster."
Queen Geode was silent, her eyes downcast. Celestia frowned slightly, pulling back from the embrace and peering at the unicorn monarch with knitted brows. "Geode?" she asked softly, not bothering with her title, "What's wrong? What is it?"
A long pause ensued, Queen Geode's eyes still downcast. "There have been... rumors," she intoned softly, reluctantly, "Dark whispers that... that it isn't a dragon raiding the earth-pony communities." She looked up, worry and doubt plain on her features, "It is Pegasopolis itself performing the raids."
Celestia was taken slightly aback by the suggestion. "Surely you don't believe such rumors?"
Again, Queen Geode hesitated. "I'm not sure," she finally said, "It... doesn't seem likely. If the Pegasopolians themselves are raiding those earth-pony communities that they are charged to protect, why would they come to Unicornia for aid? One would think that they would want to keep the area isolated, to keep their secret. And yet... the rumors remain and I can not help but feel there is an element of truth to them. They are too consistent, too persistent to be mere idle gossip." She sighed heavily. "It's why I tried to delay sending military aid. I wanted a chance to try and confirm the truth of the matter. But now my hoof has been forced."
The realization that Celestia and her sister had been the political fulcrum on which this military adventure turned hit her like a lightening bolt. By insisting on looking into the problem, the 'honored elders' would shame Queen Geode among her peers if she failed to answer the call. The Queen had written in her letters about the trying nature of keeping power-hungry nobles from undermining her position. Why hadn't Celestia seen it before? It was too late now to do anything about it. The white alicorn winced.
"It's all right," Queen Geode replied with a wry smile, "As you saw, the Ambassador was being quite insistent. As it was, I couldn't delay much longer anyway and retain my honor. And in this, there wouldn't be much of a choice." Her eyes turned to watch the unicorn battlemages march through the portcullis that demarcated the walls of the palace.
Celestia's eyes widened in realization. "That is why you were able to mobilize so quickly! You already had everything prepared."
Queen Geode nodded and sighed again, "I knew I would have to send troops soon. If I have to send them anyway, then I should send them as quickly as possible. A delay at that stage would be just as politically damaging as not sending any at all." She frowned faintly, "Although, I had hoped to rally the levy vassal troops of my fiefs. Unfortunately, I didn't expect to be marching until after the funeral, so none of that was in place in time. You will have to make due with a hundred battlemages under my personal authority. I could send regular ground troops as well, but they'd be slaughtered by a dragon, if there is one."
"It will be enough," Celestia murmured quietly, still disturbed by how such a spur-of-the-moment on her part decision had altered the political landscape for her friend. She gave one last hug to the Queen of Unicornia and smiled, "We will return in a few days."
A long, hard march followed as the army moved inexorably towards the edge of pony-explored land and the unicorn battlemages linked up with armies led by four of the Pegasolopis Euphorate themselves.
It was a sight to behold.
Four thousand, one hundred soldiers plus the associated logistical and support staff marched and flew across the gently rolling hills of the countryside. Celestia wasn't sure there had ever been so grand a military presence before this. It also strangely put her mind at ease; surely the pegasi would not have gone to this much trouble if the threat were not real.
"The dragon lies here," Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker said, pointing to a valley on a map spread out on a table in the command tent, "Just another three miles distance away." The valley in question was visible from camp and there was a tell-tale stream of black smoke drifting up from the direction.
A white male unicorn with a neatly cropped, dark blue mane gazed over the topographical map, running a hoof down one side of the valley. "The walls are steep," he said, "And unusually curved to make both sides an overhang. It will be difficult to get a good angle to rain spells down on the beast."
The dark grey, red maned Kicker Commander canted her head to one side, "What do you propose, Captain Star Gazer?"
The military unicorn squinted at the map thoughtfully. "We can split our battlemages between both entrances to the valley and create a crossfire. We'll give up the elevated ground, but that would be of limited use against a dragon anyway. With the unusual geographical features here, I think that would be the most tactically sound. The biggest problem is the approach. We'll be vulnerable and out in the open when marching and our shield spells can't be brought to bear on a unit-level until our positions are set up."
"We can provide a screen and distraction until your forces can be in place," another pegasi with a bright blue coat and wavy, forest green mane replied, "Our main concern is bottling up the beast in the valley until your crossfire can hit. If it breaks through and takes to the air, we'll be in for a much worse fight."
Celestia and Luna sat on slightly elevated chairs, presiding over the meeting. Luna watched with intensity, nodding in approval as the pegsai and unicorn leaders discussed strategy and tactics for the upcoming battle. For her own part, Celestia listened, but much of the jargon and finer points went over her head. Instead, she found herself staring at the map.
"Excuse me," she suddenly spoke up, the conversation around the meeting table suddenly stopping as all eyes turned towards the white alicorn. "Those three markings there," Celestia motioned with a hoof to the map at an area just south to the dragon valley, "Those are earth-pony villages, yes?"
"They are," Euphor-Commander Kicker confirmed.
"Have they been evacuated?"
A silence descended over the tent for a moment. "No," Kicker responded after a while, "There hasn't been time and to do so would mean risking the dragon being alerted to our presence." The Euphor-Commander paused briefly then added, "They are in minimal danger, Honored Elder. They are far enough away that, while they may see and hear the battle, they will not be harmed. In addition, we will endeavor to keep the dragon occupied away from the villages. If they possess even a modicum of intelligence, they will keep well away from the fight."
Celestia frowned faintly. "Why are the villages there at all?" she wondered aloud, "If they're within view of the dragon's lair, surely they would've left of their own accord by now?"
The four members of the pegasus Ephorate glanced uneasily at each other before Quick Kicker responded. "Earth-ponies are stubborn," she explained, "They sometimes refuse even the most obvious and clear warnings."
The frown on Celestia's face deepened, "Even in the face of destruction? And speaking of that, why hasn't the dragon destroyed those towns in its own territory?"
"None of us are privy to the thoughts of dragons, Honored Elder," Quick Kicker replied dryly, "But we will be certain to ask the drake should there be opportunity in the battle."
Celestia quieted then and the meeting continued, but her frown persisted. She continued to stare at the map and the three little impossible villages right in the heart of a dragon's territory.
It just didn't make any sense.
Celestia and Luna flew with the pegasi into the valley. She watched the unicorns as they marched through the grass below, their army suddenly splitting in twain and going in opposite directions like water around a rock. She focused her eyes on the black cloud that drifted up from the valley, though her thoughts remained troubled.
It was a dragon. It had to be.
But the strangely intact villages nearby and the rumors Geode had told her about niggled on her mind. Nothing felt quite right. Something was terribly, terribly wrong about this whole situation. Celestia looked over at her sister.
Luna looked to be in her element, her face hard and set, she watched the movements of the pegasi and the unicorns below with a keen tactical eye.
Celestia again turned her attention to the valley, slowly getting closer as the massive army approached. Celestia squinted, peering into the shadowed area in the valley, trying to see the dragon.
And there it was. A green and purple monstrosity. It was huge. Titanic, even; it was the biggest dragon Celestia had ever read about, much less seen. Even in the shadow of the overhanging valley, the purple scales covering its back were sparkling with iridescent shimmers. The scales of its belly were a bright, jade green, and it had matching spears of green all along its massive back and tail, two massive green wings folded on its sides. Despite it's size, it didn't seem to have a bulk to match; it was thin and lithe, more snakelike than lizard, despite the large limbs with wickedly sharp black claws. Its narrow neck and head were down, curled around itself with puffs of black smoke occasionally venting from its nostrils. For a moment, Celestia thought it asleep, but then she noticed the slitted, amber eyes, very much open and alert.
It must see the mass of pegasi in the sky, even if it didn't see the ponies marching through the grass. And yet, it appeared unperturbed by the sight; not angry or annoyed at the noise or approaching army, or afraid, or even amused. It just seemed to be watching with placid interest. A mad idea seized Celestia's mind.
"I want to talk to it," she said.
This earned a double-take from both Luna and Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker.
"Sister, surely you jest!" Luna exclaimed, "That is a dragon! A dragon that has hurt ponies! We are poised to begin battle! Now is not a time for parley with a beast!"
"Please, Luna," Celestia implored her dark sister, "I'm not much of a military mare, but I can talk. Let me try. If I can just convince it to leave, maybe we can resolve this without bloodshed."
Luna seemed conflicted, but Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker wasn't. "I categorically refuse to allow you to speak with that monster!" she shouted, frowning, "We are here to destroy it, not engage it in idle prattle!"
Luna frowned deeply at Quick Kicker and responded sharply with harsh admonishment. "Watch your tongue, Commander! Neither my sister nor I are some young recruit barely out of flight training. You will address my sister with the same respect you show me, is that clear?"
Quick Kicker stiffened and gave a stark salute to Luna. "Y-yes, Elder Luna," she hastily said, worrying her lower lip, "I meant no disrespect. My words were carried only by my deep concern for the Honored Elder if she engaged in such a folly of an enterprise."
This mollified Luna somewhat, who nodded before turning back to Celestia. "I must agree with the Commander, dear sister," she said somewhat reluctantly, "It is too dangerous for you to attempt to speak with the creature." Her eyes narrowed as she turned towards the still seemingly unconcerned dragon some distance away, "You don't know these monsters as I do, Tia. They are vicious, greedy, sadistic creatures with no thoughts in their heads but their own wealth and lusts. They ought to be exterminated to the last."
Celestia shifted away in the air from her sister, her brows furrowing even as her eyes widened at the... well, there was no other way to describe it... hateful words Luna spoke. "Everypon-- everyone should have a chance to prove they are not the monsters others see them as," Celestia said softly, "I am not easily broken, Luna. If I raise the dragon's ire or fail in my negotiations, I will fall back and we can commence the battle. But this is a chance, Luna. A chance to end this without fighting. Any lives that have been lost previously can't be given back, but at least we can stop new ones from being taken. Please, Luna."
Luna mulled the proposal over again silently. Again, Quick Kicker intervened, "Elder Luna, I must object in the strongest way possible to this action."
After a moment, Luna reached a decision. "My sister will not go to speak to the dragon."
Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker sighed in relief.
"We will both go," Luna continued with a nod, "I will accompany her. In the meantime, order the army to stand down, but be on alert. There is to be no attack until I return."
"W-what?!" Quick Kicker stated in shock, "Honored Elder Luna, this is most irregular! The beast is unaware now, if we strike hard before it has a chance to gather itself--"
"I have made my decision, Commander," Luna said sharply, "You will comply with my orders!"
Again, Quick Kicker stiffened in mid-air and saluted, "Yes, Honored Elder."
Luna peered at the Eupor-Commander for a moment then nodded with satisfaction. "Come, sister," she said, "Let us parley."
Four sets of hooves set cautiously on the sparse, shady grass covered by the overhanging valley. Up close, the dragon looked even larger; Celestia could see one of the fangs of the beast was longer than she was! A moment of doubt as to the wisdom of this decision entered her mind, but she dismissed it with an effort. She had to try. Luna stood nearby, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, body like a coiled spring and ready to move at a moment's notice.
Celestia approached, stopping a respectful distance away from the dragon. She opened her mouth to speak, but found herself lacking words to say. After a moment's consternation, the white alicorn cleared her throat and said: "Lovely day, isn't it?" She winced. Not probably the best opening line for trying to get a dragon to leave.
The dragon's scaled, purple lips curled backwards revealing more rows of large, razor-sharp pointed teeth and Celestia felt her pulse quicken. It took her a moment to realize that the action was a smile, not a bearing of fangs. "I suppose so," the dragon replied, a voice feminine, but echoing with ancient power as it rumbled from her lips.
Awkward silence reigned for a few more moments, the dragon seemingly content to wait for Celestia to speak. Again, the alicorn cleared her throat. "My name is Celestia. May I ask yours?"
The dragon rumbled in her throat. "You may call me 'Caldera'."
"Caldera, right," Celestia said with a nod. She cleared her throat a third time, "Well, Caldera. It seems there is a bit of a problem here."
"Oh?" Caldera asked curiously, lifting her head slightly and tilting it.
"We have come to ask you to please vacate the valley," Celestia stated as politely as she could, "And to stop raiding all communities. Please."
The amber slitted eyes of the dragon peered intensely at Celestia and the alicorn shifted uneasily in place. It reminded her uncomfortably of when she would examine some interesting sample in her laboratory.
"I will not vacate the valley," the dragon finally said, "And I have not raided any community in thousands of years."
Celestia blinked. "If you have not raided any of the towns or villages around here, why won't you leave the valley?"
Caldera tilted her head first one way and then the other, peering at Celestia as if unsure what to make of her. "I... have a contract," she said after a moment, "And I do not break my contracts."
"Contract?" Celestia frowned, "With whom? And what about?"
"I will answer the second question first, young one," Caldera said and Celestia couldn't help but be bemused by the label -- she was over a hundred years old now, and yet she really was the young one compared to this ancient drake, "It is a contract for protection. In exchange for protection, I get treasure. It is that simple. As for who the contract is with..." The dragon's voice faded off as she lifted her head and peered towards where the three villages lie, just barely visible dots on the horizon.
"You lie!" Luna exclaimed, her wings flaring out and eyes glowing with pure, white moonlight, "Those villages could not possibly have the wealth to make a dragon your size interested!"
For the first time, Caldera focused on Luna, her scaled lips curling downwards into a frown as her amber slitted eyes narrowed. "I am no liar, dark alicorn," she rumbled in offense, "And it is not material wealth I receive from the villages. They provide me with more... ephemeral treasure."
The glow in Luna's eyes slowly faded, and her wings tucked back against her body, though the suspicious, wary expression remained. "Such as?"
"Knowledge, for one," Caldera said simply, "I am old and my horde is large. More gold or jewels would not avail me much. But knowledge and wisdom! Ah, that is a treasure worth my attention." Her gaze turned wistful for a moment, "Even as a young dragon, I preferred knowledge to gold."
"Where is your horde?" Celestia asked curiously, glancing around the valley walls. Everything she had read about dragons (which was, admittedly, very sparse) had mentioned that they keep their hordes close at claw; there was no indication that anything was here.
Caldera's eyes narrowed and her head reared up threateningly. Celestia let out a gasp and took a stumbling step backwards. "My horde is safe, little pony," the she-dragon growled, "Safe in a place no pony or any other creature will get to it... and survive." Her lips curled into a humorless smile, "Understood, young one?"
"U-understood," Celestia stammered out, "I only was wondering as it isn't here, that's all."
Caldera stared at Celestia for a moment before lowering her head again. "Very well. Forgive my outburst."
"What possible knowledge could some farm ponies on the frontier have that so interests you?" Luna asked, distrust and skepticism plain in her voice.
The ground trembled lightly from the rumbling chuckle that rolled from the massive drake. "Oh, you'd be surprised what simple farm ponies know," Caldera responded, "I was. But knowledge is only one of the things I receive for my protection. Another is... friendship." This last was spoken as if the great wyrm could not believe it herself.
Luna narrowed her eyes further. "Dragons do not have friends."
"Normally, you are correct," Caldera allowed, looking at the dark alicorn, "We dragons are a mostly solitary species. We speak, obviously, and some even build... but we do not have a society as you understand it. When I was approached with the notion, I had thought to dismiss it. Now, though...? A treasure that is virtually non-existent with my kind? The value of that is... beyond calculation."
Luna still looked skeptical, but remained quiet for the moment.
Celestia hesitated. There was one question she now needed to ask. A question she wasn't sure she wanted the answer to. She asked anyway. "What are you protecting those villages from?"
"All kinds of things, really," Caldera replied, "The odd monster, brigands..." She turned to look at the sky where the pegasus army flew, "... and those you came with. Primarily them, actually."
"What?!" Luna exclaimed in alarm, wings flaring out again.
"I am no liar," Caldera stated again though Luna hadn't repeated the accusation, "As I understand it, there was a bad harvest one year and the earth-ponies did not have the normal reparations to spare. They offered what they could to the pegasi, but not everything promised. The pegasi... took offense and started simply taking what they wanted. When one village resisted... well, that is why there are three villages in this valley, instead of four." She peered owlishly at the two alicorns, "This year has also proven to be a bad harvest. So they sought me out."
Taking a moment to get over her shock at the dragon's statement, Celestia asked, "If all that is true, why haven't you attacked yet?"
"The terms of my contract are quite explicit," Caldera stated matter-of-factly, "I am not to fight unless either personally threatened or if the villages or any of the ponies therein are. When the winged ones came to demand the yearly tribute, I repulsed them. I tried to be as gentle as possible; I don't think any were killed or even maimed. Just a few toasty feathers."
Luna stalked up to the titanic wyrm, glaring at her, "My little ponies would never do what you suggest! They protect these villages, they don't raid them!"
Caldera stared back at Luna, one massive eye lowering to peer directly at the alicorn's face. "Are you certain," she rumbled, but it was soft (or as soft as the giant dragon could make it), "Are you absolutely certain?"
"Y-yes," Luna replied, though her voice now sounded less than sure, "Their honor would demand they protect these ponies."
Caldera said nothing for a long time before finally turning away. "There all the honor lies."
Confusion replaced offense in Luna's countenance, "What does that mean?"
"It is a line from a very old story," Caldera replied slowly, "A story about an honorable being who believed the same of the rest of their kind. This Honorable One discovered that there is honor and then there is honor." Seeing the uncomprehending look in Luna's eyes, Caldera elaborated, "There was a civil war over a matter of honor. At the end of the final battle, this Honorable One discovered they were the only survivor of their people. All around them, in the piles of bodies and drenched in death and suffering, there... there all the honor lies."
Luna was stunned silent.
"If cannot convince you of the facts of the matter," Caldera continued, "Then ask the ponies of the three villages. Or return to your army and attack. Whichever would most satisfy your honor, young one." Caldera shifted and lowered her head to the ground, her huge eyes sliding closed.
"She has to be lying. She has to be!" Luna paced back and forth a short distance from the valley. The sun was just beginning to set now, casting an orange glow over the land, shadows lengthening and deepening.
"We asked the in the villages," Celestia said softly, "They all said the same thing: they have been attacked by the pegasi and they are under contract with the dragon for her protection."
"She could be threatening them to stick to this story about a contract!" Luna retorted.
"Then we can ask the Euphors here if there is any truth to it," Celestia suggested.
"The questioning alone would be an affront to their honor," Luna groused, scowling, "That I -- or anyone! -- would question their comportment in this way would be an insult of the highest order!" She frowned as an even greater -- and uncomfortable -- problem reared its head to her, "And... they could simply lie if asked."
Celestia grimaced. "So we attack?"
"We can't!" Luna cried, throwing her hooves up, "If she is right... if my little ponies have, indeed, abandoned their honor-bound task to protect these earth-pony villages and turned into a band of raiders..." She shook her head and turned a haunted look to her sister, "Oh, Tia. What are we to do? These doubts play on my mind and we cannot attack in good conscience, but to besmirch the honor of the pegasi and accuse them would break their trust in me! Dear sister, advice me! What am I to do?"
Celestia frowned, gnawing on her lower lip. She didn't have a simple answer.
Attack, the Voice said suddenly, Attack and you will earn the loyalty of all of Pegasopolis. In addition, Queen Geode will be in your debt for removing a troublesome political problem.
Celestia blinked. "But what if it's true?" she whispered to herself, "What if they really were sending raids to the earth-ponies?"
Irrelevant, the Voice stated coldly, The lives or livelihoods of a few small villages is not worth the entirety of Pegasopolis. Even if true, these villages have sealed their own fate by resisting the order brought by the pegasi. If, instead, you give cause with these villages, it will encourage rebellion in others. Other villages will make deals with unsavory things for protection from the pegasi, some of whom will no doubt be malevolent. The chaos will spread like plague across the frontier, the disorder will mount. Kill the dragon, bring these usurping villages under hoof. Order must be maintained.
Celestia frowned even deeper. It... made sense, didn't it? A small... sacrifice needed to secure a greater prize, a greater victory, a greater... harmony. A sacrifice of ponies to the coming battle. A sacrifice of villages to Pegasopolis. A sacrifice of honor. A sacrifice of truth for an easier fiction, if a truth there was to the accusations. It was the right thing. The logical thing. The pragmatic thing.
Celestia's face hardened. No.
"No," she said, resolute, "No, we don't just ignore this. We take our concerns to the Euphorate and lay them bare. Truth has to come before political expediency, Luna, or our little ponies will be forever looking over their shoulders for the knife in the back. If we become complicit in this -- if we give up truth -- then how many small sacrifices must be made to maintain the lie? How many ponies, how many villages, how many deeds would need to be destroyed or covered to keep this secret? Not just now, but forever. If they truly are ponies of honor -- if they are truly loyal to you, to themselves, and to the ideas they claim to embody -- then they will understand and forgive."
Luna stared at her sister for a long moment before smiling and nodding. "You are right, dear sister," she said, her earlier uncertainty and torment gone, "We will go and confront the Euphorate." Her eyes narrowed, "And the heavens help them if I discover these things to be true."
Luna and Celestia flew back to the still waiting pegasus army. Most of the pegasi had retired to either the ground to to makeshift cloud bivouacs and the battlemages below had also set their tents. Euphor-Commander Quick Kicker flew up to greet the pair of alicorns, her movements pensive but her face stoic.
"Elders," she said by way of greeting, bowing her head slightly.
Celestia realized that she must suspect that she and Luna knew -- from here, they no doubt saw their figures head towards the villages.
"Commander Quick Kicker," Luna stated authoritatively, "We have received some troubling reports."
"Do the words of a dragon hold such sway with you, Elder Luna?" she asked cautiously.
"They do not," Luna replied flatly, "The words of the ponies in the villages nearby, however, do. They accuse Pegasopolis of some grave crimes."
Quick Kicker's mouth pressed into a thin line, her brow furrowing. "Do they?"
Silence fell over the three as the last rays of the sun fell away and the moon began to rise up, sending its pale light over the land, the stars winking down from above. "Is there any truth to it?" Luna finally asked once the silence stretched into minutes.
"Without knowing the precise nature of these crimes, I am unable to say," Quick Kicker replied evenly.
Luna's jaw set. "Very well, I will be plain: did the Euphorate of Pegasopolis approve raids against those three villages?"
Again, Quick Kicker was silent for a long time. When she finally spoke, her voice was soft and eyes downcast. "The Euphorate of Pegasopolis approved no raids."
Relief and hope began to flood over Luna's features, but Celestia could see the lies that were not lies in the statement given. "Did the Euphorate of Pegasopolis approve of any military action against those villages, either now or previously?"
Here, Quick Kicker did not reply, her lips tightly sealing. Luna noticed and she frowned deeply. "Answer the question, Commander."
"Honored Elder," the dark pegasi said tightly to Luna, though her eyes remained staring at Celestia, "I am not under any obligation to explain military decisions to civilians outside the normal chain of command."
"Outside the-- I was given the title 'Honored Elder' by your ancestors! By my friend and your Great Leader himself Azure Charger! By your very ancestor, Sky Kicker! You will not sully their memories by your dishonor! Answer the question!" Luna roared, "Her questions are my questions for the duration!"
Quick Kicker stiffened in mid-air, her body going mostly rigid other than her wings, raising a foreleg in salute, "Yes, Elder Luna! There were some military actions taken against those villages in the past." Her eyes flickered back and forth before she quickly followed up, "But they were military actions. Not raids!"
Luna's body quaked with rage, causing Quick Kicker to swallow nervously, but the dark alicorn took a deep breath and calmed herself. "Very well. My sister and I will investigate these claims more thoroughly. Have all your units return to Cloudsdale. I and my sister will follow shortly."
"Immediately, Euphor!" Luna commanded.
Quick Kicker hesitated then nodded before turning and moving amongst the army.
After seeing the somewhat confused battlemage company off back to Ivory Spire, Luna and Celestia left for Cloudsdale.
Luna had been there many times, but Celestia only once and briefly during their tours of the pony settlements. The cloud city was certainly the most expansive and populace of the cloud cities inhabited by pegasi, truly worthy of being the capitol of Pegasopolis. Ionic and Corinthian columns made of cloudstuff made more solid than the ephemeral natural clouds by pegasus hooves held up great halls, houses, and lightening forges. The whole city was awash in white, as one would expect, with the only color being banners for the various Great Clans of the Pegasi.
What was so surprising for Celestia was how easy it was to gather evidence. Luna and she interviewed hundreds of pegasi, some who knew nothing, some who were reluctant to talk, and yet many more who reported their orders with matter-of-fact transparency. There were even some who gleefully told of their attacks on the villages.
It took Celestia several dozen to finally realize why these ponies were so willing to divulge information: they well and truly believed they did nothing wrong. They were following lawful orders given by their superiors and that was that. It was orderly and efficient.
It was horrific.
Eventually, there could be little doubt. Pegasopolis had attacked and stolen food and sundries from the very ponies they had sworn to protect. Luna called a closed meeting of the Euphorate.
But this was not just a meeting.
It was a court-martial.
The five pegasi who made up the military council of the Euphorate that led the nation of Pegasopolis filed solemnly into the grand cloud amphitheater that served as their house for debate. Four Celestia recognized -- they had been in the tent planning strategy for the attack on the dragon -- but the last was new. A large, bulky yellow stallion with striped off-white and blue hair, he had remained behind in Cloudsdale while the others had lead the armies.
Celestia sat in one of the stands of the amphitheater, behind her sister and facing the five ponies. Luna stood in the center of the room, staring imperiously at the ponies.
The five ponies settled before Luna, sitting down on the cloud but nonetheless at attention.
Luna continued staring in silence for a long, long while. Eventually she spoke. "I would know one thing: why?"
The five ponies looked at each other before Quick Kicker stood and moved forward, apparently the spokespony of the group. "The earth-ponies were hiding supplies from us. We required more."
Luna's eyes narrowed, "More lies?"
"We have never lied," Quick Kicker said, stiffening slightly.
"But you didn't volunteer this important information," Luna replied, "I was told that neither I nor my sister could be found to assist. That is a lie, isn't it? You never sent word at all."
"We never sent word," Quick Kicker confirmed stiffly, "But whoever told you that was either mistaken or didn't know and conjectured. Had you asked us directly, we would have answered."
"Semantic wordplay is beneath you," Luna stated flatly.
"And condescending moralizing is beneath yours, Honored Elder," Quick Kicker replied, her voice laden with venom, "We protect ponies. You are the one who convinced our ancestors to do just that, are you not? But that protection comes with a price. We cannot afford to keep these earth-pony rabble safe without the food they bring!" Quick Kicker jabbed a hoof in the direction of the ground, "They broke this contract first, Elder Luna! They didn't abide by the rules in place. We merely enforced them."
"You conducted raids and destroyed a defenseless village!"
"We kept the natural order! Nopony was hurt badly in that village -- we took pains to make sure of that. We merely destroyed those precious items they hold so dear! An example had to be made!" Quick Kicker was trembling with anger and took a moment to calm herself before continuing. "You don't know these earth-ponies like we do, Elder Luna. They are greedy and secretive and concern themselves with the acquisition of trinkets. They have no honor. They are beneath us pegasi in more ways than just the one. They are beneath the unicorn as well. They belong scrabbling in the mud while we are vaunted into the sky itself!"
"Enough!" Luna exclaimed, her wings flaring outwards and her eyes aglow with moonlight, "Your words are nothing more than mere rationalization for your dishonor! You knew it in your heart to be wrong, that is why you did not attempt to contact me or inform me of what happened once the battle was to commence!" The glow in her eyes faded and she shook her head sadly, her wings folding against her body again. "I am so disappointed."
The pegasi shifted uneasily.
"For your crimes," Luna began, "I sentence you all to exile. Once, there was the Long Patrol, a group of pegasi and myself who scoured the countryside for threats and exploration. The Long Patrol will live again, and you five will accompany me until such time as I determine that you have served enough time or done enough brave, honorable deeds to make up for your... indiscretions. Naturally, you must all resign from any position of authority within Pegasopolis to accompany me." She looked imperiously at the five ponies, "Unless, of course, one of you wishes to challenge me?"
None of the pegasi did.
Celestia hugged her sister goodbye. "How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"A few years," Luna said hesitantly, "Perhaps a decade. They are good ponies, Celestia, I know it. I just need to remind them of that." She bowed her head, worried expression marring her features, "The hurt done to those earth-ponies on their orders cannot be undone, but perhaps some good can come from the tragedy regardless. Once that is done, I will return."
Celestia sighed and nodded, "All right. I'll... continue to visit our little ponies elsewhere."
"See it done," Luna stated with a nod, before hesitating. "I... will be taking the Long Patrol back to Caldera first. Not to harm her, of course," the dark alicorn stated quickly, "But to... thank her. I had misjudged her from the start and I should apologize. I can hardly ask the new Long Patrol to turn over a new leaf if I am not able to do so myself."
Celestia smiled gently and nodded, "Sounds good. I think... I think I'll also visit her, from time to time."
"I'm sure she'll appreciate that," Luna said with a smile.
Celestia returned to Ivory Spire alone and this time without escort. She circled the palace in a slow arc, letting the guards on the walls easily see her presence there, before spiraling down to a landing outside the main gate.
She only waited a few minutes before allowed entry, both Queen Geode and her consort Astral Tome coming out to greet her. The queen embraced the alicorn tightly, "I'm glad you've returned. But it's strange... my battlemages inform me that no war was wrought against the dragon and that you sent them home without them firing a shot. Some were quite confused and cross."
"The problem has been solved, I think," Celestia responded with a smile, "Though, I'm afraid it means that my sister will not be attending the funeral. She now has other duties for the foreseeable future."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that," Queen Geode said softly. She paused then looked towards Astral Tome briefly before turning back to the white alicorn, "There is another matter."
Celestia grimaced, "Oh no, not more dragons?"
Queen Geode let out a trilling cascade of laughter, shaking her head, "No, my friend. This is not an affair of state. Well, actually, I suppose it is, but it is a happy one." Geode smiled beatifically, "I am with child."
Celestia's eyes widened and she pulled back from the Queen of Unicornia, looking her up and down. Astral Tome smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head with a hoof. "Congratulations!" Celestia exclaimed, honestly happy for the couple.
"And... we would like you to be the godmother," Queen Geode said, her voice hesitant.
Celestia blinked once before a gentle smile rose on her features, "It would be my honor."
Chrysalis barely had time to relax before she was summoned. Just a few hours of peace amid her sprawling hive was all she wished after spending so much time vulnerable and away from her place of power. Silently, the Queen of the Changeling cursed Celestia as she entered the room built specifically to house the magic mirror she stole.
Celestia was already there, of course, along with both Tirek and Sombra. She knew what was happening before she even entered; her enhanced connection to her drones gave her impeccable awareness anywhere they went and there were many of her children buzzing around the high-roofed chamber.
Two scrolls, wrapped in cold white magic floated in front of Tirek and Sombra respectively. "Your assignments," Celestia stated as the pair grabbed the scrolls -- one in hand, the other in black, green flecked magic and unfurled them -- "I expect preliminary results once I return." The white alicorn glanced between the two, arching an imperious brow, "I trust that won't be a problem?"
Tirek frowned deeply as he read through the contents of the scroll. "I don't know if I can do what you ask," he finally said, cautiously.
Celestia smiled warmly (though Chrysalis noted that it still failed to reach her eyes) and nodded understandingly, "That is why I want you to practice. I have... contingencies should you fail." Everyone in the room got the impression that these 'contingencies' would be unpleasant and that failure wasn't to be tolerated. Tirek grunted and bowed his head.
"I will need test subjects," Sombra stated cautiously, lifting his eyes from the scroll, "As well as staff to produce a prototype. I assume you already have the requisite materials and tools?"
"Chrysalis will supply them," Celestia stated matter-of-factly, glancing over her shoulder as the changeling approached.
"I have procured a sampling of pure crystals and built an appropriate space for manufacture and testing," Chrysalis replied, struggling to keep the grudging tone from her voice, "Equipment is installed as well. As for test subjects... we have a handful of captured ponies in stasis. Most are nearly completely drained of love and so are no further use to us. You may have your choice of those." A sizable group of the buzzing drones suddenly descended and lined up behind the Changeling Queen. "Here are your staff," she stated, motioning to the drones, "You will find they take instruction well, as long as you are clear and precise in your direction. They will guide you to the area in question."
Sombra bowed his head and strode off to the group of changelings, following behind his drones as they led him further into the Hive. Tirek wandered off as well. Chrysalis knew the route he was going; he was heading towards his private quarters. Chrysalis turned to watch Celestia as the white alicorn brought forth a thick magic tome from her saddlebags, settling it in a notch that connected a whirling, sparking contraption to the magic mirror. Instantly, indicator lights on the front of the device began to flash as the image in the mirror swirled and shimmered, revealing the hazy image of a relatively mundane, blocky white building beyond.
"What... is this place?" Chrysalis asked, trotting forward and peering into the image, "It is no place in Equestria I recognize."
"It's not in Equestria," Celestia replied, a small, cold smile on her features, "It's an entirely other world. A place where Starswirl the Bearded would sometimes throw beings too dangerous to be allowed to remain here. Beings that even Tartarus could not hold."
A strange, awkward bipedal creature ran up a series of steps and opened large doors that provided entry into the building. Chrysalis wrinkled her nose in mild distaste, "What was that? It's too thin and ropey to be a minotaur."
"They're called 'humans'," Celestia stated, watching the scene curiously, "Omnivorous bipeds. You'd be surprised how similar they are to ponies in many aspects." She chuckled softly then motioned a hoof forward, "After you, Chrysalis."
Chrysalis blinked, taking a step back, "W-what?"
"Enter the mirror," Celestia said levelly, "We are going to this world."
The changeling Queen's jaw dropped, "You can't be serious!" Celestia continued staring levelly at her. "You are serious." Chrysalis frowned deeply then buzzed her wings rapidly, "I don't know if I can imitate those... things. We would be instantly exposed!"
Celestia's mirthless smile returned, "Have faith in the workings of Starswirl."
With a gasp, Chrysalis tumbled out of the portal, ending up in an undignified heap of gangly limbs. The trip hadn't been... unpleasant, exactly... but she could tell that her form was being altered by magics inherent in the portal. Instinctively, she had tried to resist the change, but quickly found that the portal intended to keep her stuck in the limbo between worlds until she acquiesced.
Now sprawled beneath a statue of a rearing pony (or perhaps one of their larger cousins), Chrysalis tried to shift her form again, just to test that everything was working.
To her mounting horror, Chrysalis discovered that her ability to shift was completely immobilized. Not gone -- she could still feel the magic inside her -- but it was distant and weak. She was stuck in one form!
Reeling from that realization, another followed quickly on its heel: she could barely feel her Hive any more. Again, they were there in the back of her mind, but the enhanced sense she enjoyed since donning that horrible Element of Tyranny was gone -- reduced to a level far below she enjoyed even before being given that cursed bit of jewelry.
Horror turned to panic and Chrysalis began to detangle herself and tried to stand, only to discover the world vaunting upwards far more than it should have. It took her hysterical mind a moment to process that she was actually standing on her hind hooves -- no, not hooves, something else; weird little flat platforms that jutted out awkwardly from where hooves should be -- and that her hind legs were longer than her forelegs. More to the point, the ends of her forelegs how housed bizarre, five fingered hands -- a truly alien configuration, considering even minotaurs only had four. What could one possibly use an extra finger for?! Especially one so tiny and weak compared to the others?
Concentrating on the phenotypical alterations calmed her mind and slowed her thoughts as she tested the dexterity of the five fingers, wiggling them on each hand as she stared with a mix of grimacing revulsion and wide-eyed fascination.
Taking a shuddering breath and looking down more critically at herself, the changeling queen noted that she was also wearing clothing. This was especially strange as she wasn't wearing any when she went through the portal -- no doubt another magical effect of the portal supplied by Starswirl. The clothing itself was... odd. She wore a dark green t-shirt that barely made its way down her midriff and over top that was a fine black mesh that reached down to her elbow. Dark green hose covered her legs, pockmarked with holes that showed the lighter green skin underneath. A miniskirt of a lighter green was worn around her waist, and large, chunky black boots with raised heels were worn over her feet.
At least the color scheme was good.
Of note was a seeming lack of her Element of Tyranny. Chrysalis grinned broadly as she ran a hand along her torso, searching for any sign of it, only to feel a hard tell-tale bump around her mid-section. Her grin immediately fell and the now humanoid changeling lifted up her shirt and discovered the changeling-shaped jewel implanted just above her belly button. Of course. With a sigh, Chrysalis dropped her shirt and ran a hand through her dark green hair... only to stop short.
Her horn. Her horn was gone!
She stumbled forward (noting with some surprise that walking was not as much of a chore as she suspected it to be) and looked over her shoulders. Wings, too, were absent!
The panic from before threatened to reassert itself when the marble platform holding the equine statue rippled and out stepped Celestia. Or, at least, Chrysalis assumed it was Celestia.
She was also humanoid now, and wearing clothes. Her tell-tale rainbow mane hung lifelessly around her, though, lacking any of the natural movement it normally had. She was still pale, and still towered over Chrysalis, though her wings and horn had also disappeared. She wore a cream colored pantsuit with an open collar, white flats covering her feet. The Alicorn Amulet still hung around her neck, the blood red of the inset jewel peeking out from the open collar. Clenched in one hand was a small satchel. Celestia looked over herself with mild distaste. "Interesting," she said dryly.
"I've been mutilated," Chrysalis stated acidly to Celestia, "You had better know how to reverse this, Princess, or so help me I'll--"
"You'll what?" Celestia sharply asked, cutting the changeling off with a narrow-eyed glare. Chrysalis held the gaze for a moment before looking away, jaw set and hands clenching. The white alicorn -- human now -- clucked her tongue softly, "I know this is a bit scary, especially for someone like you who is used to being able to change forms at will, but there is no need for alarm. Once we return through the portal everything will return to how it was."
Chrysalis grunted, folding her arms over her chest but still not looking at her companion, "Why are we even here, anyway?"
"We are picking up a few things," Celestia remarked airily as she closed her eyes. She remained silent for several moments until the jewel in the Alicorn Amulet began to glow. It only lasted for a few seconds before fading, Celestia opening her eyes and nodding twice. "It is a bit harder to access here, but it does work," she noted with approval before turning and walking down the street, "Our quarry is this way, Chrysalis."
Frowning deeply, Chrysalis followed along, though she couldn't help but look back at the portal they left behind.
Adagio sat slumped on the corner by the Fiesta Taco Hut, her face buried in her hands. Her two former partners in crime -- now partners in life and employment -- were nearby, munching on the discount food from their work.
"Are you gonna eat that?" Sonata asked, her mouth still half-full of burrito, pointing at the abandoned platter next to Adagio. The orange haired Siren lifted her head to peer balefully at her sprightly companion before sighing heavily and shoving the try towards her. "Have at it," she mumbled before returning to her self-pitying brood.
Not for the first time, Adagio wondered to herself what had gone wrong in her life. Being trapped in a magically-poor world was bad enough, but now she and the others banished here were without any access to magic. With that meant having to sustain themselves on actual food as opposed to conflict and negative emotions. Not only that, but she was pretty sure that they would age now as well -- so much for immortality.
It was small consolation that when they had infiltrated Canterlot High School that Adagio had the forethought to acquire legitimate identification. With their powers it hadn't been too difficult; just entrancing some minor bureaucrat in the government and moving up the chain until their records could be inserted into the government machine like they had always been there. At the time, the others had thought it a pointless waste of their abilities (and, secretly, Adagio almost believed that herself), but the possibility that someone might notice that the three didn't technically exist and use that against them before their plans could come to fruition had to be accounted for.
So after their humiliating defeat at the hands of the Rainbooms, at least the three sirens had the requisite records to rent an apartment (before, they had simply charmed their way into homes whenever they needed it) and get jobs. Not good jobs, of course -- their records stated they were high-school students after all -- but enough that the three of them working together could just barely afford the low-rent apartment and occasionally food. Usually only the food available at their place of work because of the employee discount.
Again, Adagio looked up from her misery and glared at her two companions. Both were clad in the same stupid red-and-yellow striped uniform that she was. Aria was just sullenly eating her lunch -- she actually hadn't talked much since their defeat, barely even sniping at Sonata. It was like the fire in her had been completely snuffed out. Sonata dealt with the circumstances the best out of all of them; she had whined and cried (sobbed, really) for a good three days after their harmony gems had shattered, but had bounced back after they got their jobs better than any of them. It astounded and annoyed Adagio how oblivious yet flexible Sonata could be. Did she even realize just how terrible their lives were now? Adagio honestly wasn't sure.
Adagio didn't cry. She never cried. It was a sign of weakness, and one she particularly despised. Still, the depressing future she could see stretching out before her did test her fortitude a bit. She barely noticed when a pair of shadows loomed over the trio.
Someone cleared their throat and, with an effort, Adagio lifted her head to peer blearily at the owner.
She immediately wished she hadn't.
"Principal Celestia," she hissed in displeasure before her eyes shifted over to a younger human -- likely another student at Canterlot High, but one Adagio didn't recognize -- standing beside the tall administrator.
Aria merely glared at the pair, but remained silent and sullen. Sonata seemed entirely unperturbed by the presence of the two new people, instead regarding the pair curiously as she continued to graze on her lunch from the Taco Hut.
Celestia raised a thin eyebrow and gazed imperiously down at the trio, eventually focusing on Adagio. "Princess Celestia," she corrected, earning a somewhat less muted reaction from Aria whose eyes actually widened in surprise.
"Princess...?" Adagio asked, frowning faintly before her expression turned suspicious, "You're Celestia from Equestria? And you've come here, to this magic-forsaken pit... why? To talk to us?" She snorted derisively, waving a hand, "You can save the chat about friendship, Princess. We've heard it before and it's just as empty now as it was then."
"I haven't come here to sell you on friendship," Celestia stated with surprising gentleness, "I'm actually here to recruit you and offer you a chance to return home." A smile spread on her features and Adagio felt it seemed... off... but couldn't quite put her finger on why, "With some new powers for the bargain."
Adagio saw a hopeful glimmer in Aria's eyes at the offer, and heard the excited squeal from Sonata; she, however, was less than convinced. Another derisive snort burst from the orange-haired siren, "Yeah, right. And let me guess, we only have to give in to the power of friendship and harmony, be 'reformed' and be good little sirens?"
"On the contrary," Celestia retorted, "I expect you to be nothing more than what you are. No need for friendship."
Adagio was still suspicious, but before she could say something sarcastic, Aria had jumped up and approached the alicorn-in-human form. "For real?" she asked, her voice cautious but full of desperate hope (another thing which disgusted Adagio), "You'll give us back our powers and let us come home?"
"I'll give you something better than your powers," Celestia replied, another smile gracing her features -- though, again, there was something wrong with it, "You'll be even more powerful than before."
"It sounds too good to be true," Adagio stated, still suspicious. She had been with the other two for long enough to realize that Aria was near folding anyway. Sonata, surprisingly, seemed much more guarded as she continued to eat her meal.
"Possibly it is," Celestia stated with a shrug, "But what is the alternative? Are you really happy here, bereft of power, forced to debase yourself with food preparation when you should be entrancing minds?"
"Hey!" Sonata suddenly piped up, waving her half-eaten burrito, "Being a Taco Technician is a perfectly viable career choice!"
"Shut up, Sonata," Aria growled out, "You may want to spend your life face-deep in meat, but I want something more." The purple haired siren looked to Celestia, "What do I have to do?"
Celestia smiled -- and again Adagio couldn't shake the feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong with it -- and set a satchel down. With a few deft motions, she unhitched the latches and opened it, revealing three jewels placed protectively in black foam. She plucked a blood red, heart shaped jewel from its nestled position and held it out for Aria, "I, Princess Celestia, present to you, Aria Blaze, the Element of Tyranny: Devotion."
"Aria," Adagio said, warningly. She didn't like this at all. But she wasn't going to stop the purple-haired siren, either; Adagio was curious as to what the jewel would do, if anything. She had no problem with Aria being the canary in the mine shaft.
Aria did hesitate briefly, gnawing on her lower lip before she finally snatched the jewel from Celestia's grasp. For a beat, nothing happened, then the jewel began to glow brightly in her hand and Aria gasped, stumbling backwards. The glow intensified until it encompassed her entire body, flaring brightly for a moment before fading away again. The heart jewel was now implanted in her skin like a piercing at the hollow of her throat and thrummed with obvious power; surprisingly, no one but their little group seemed to have noticed. Aria gasped and looked around with wide eyes. "Oh, wow," she breathed, "That is amazing. She isn't lying; this is much better than our harmony necklaces." Her eyes settled on a couple seated away from the Taco Hut on a bench, staring into each other's eyes,"I can... I can sort of feel their devotion to each other. It's dim, but it is there."
"You can do far more than that," Celestia said with amusement, "Why don't you try it out on them?"
"Try what out?"
Celestia grinned, and suddenly Adagio realized what was so strange about Celestia's smiles -- they were lacking in warmth and predatory. "Anything you want."
Aria paused, canting her head curiously at Celestia before turning and moving over to the couple. Adagio watched with shrewd curiosity as she spoke with the couple, her hands idly running along the cheeks and chins of both the male and the female. She couldn't hear what was spoken, but by the flushed faces of the couple and the love-lights shining in both their eyes, Adagio could guess that she was entrancing them -- on her own, without singing. Just by talking. The young man reached into his pocket and fumbled with a wallet before handing over a large wad of cash. The young woman squirmed in place, reaching out to paw at the siren. Aria snatched the cash and gave a wink to the pair before turning and walking away, smug, satisfied smile on her features.
"It's never been that easy," Aria stated with a laugh once back in speaking distance with the group, "Even when we had the harmony gems, it was never that easy!"
"Blind, mindless devotion," the green, younger companion to Celestia suddenly spoke with a hint of dismissal in her voice, "Hardly very tasty. It will fade... look, it's fading already." True enough, a look at the couple suddenly had them look confused then at each other with shock mixed with disdain. They shuffled away from each other in a huff.
"I didn't even feel any magic being used," Aria continued, heedless of the green girl's deep frown, "It was effortless!"
"Good," Celestia purred before turning to Adagio, canting her head to one side, "And what say you? Are you willing to also join? Or do I find someone to replace you and let you get back to your life? Such as it is."
Adagio flinched and frowned, peering down at her wretched uniform. She couldn't stay like this. She couldn't! Even if it was ultimately a trick, even if it was ultimately some sort of cruel joke... she had to take the chance. Anything was better than this half-life she now lived. She deserved to be served by multitudes! Her face set and she nodded, looking to Celestia, "All right. You have a deal, Princess."
"Excellent," Celestia stated, nodding again and plucking another jewel from the case, this one a deep purple arrowhead-shaped gem and presenting it to the orange-haired siren, "I, Princess Celestia, present to you, Adagio Dazzle, the Element of Tyranny: Ambition." Her path now set, Adagio didn't hesitate, she took the gem.
Again, there was a pause before her body was consumed in purple fire. She gasped and arched her body as the burning pain ran through her. In an instant, though, it was gone, replaced with a different sensation. Adagio couldn't quite place it at first, but then she saw once she concentrated: a mass spectral spider-web of lines connecting people and things. She knew, instinctively, that this web of opportunity could be plucked and severed at will -- and she could get anything she wanted. Anything at all. A maniacal laugh rose from the orange-haired siren, her face splitting into an all-too-wide grin. "Amazing!"
"I'm glad you approve," Celestia stated with a small smile and nod.
"Ooh, ooh, me next!" Sonata stood up and waved her arms at Celestia before reaching into the case. She let out a yelp and yanked back her hand as Celestia closed the satchel. "Hey! What gives?"
"This is not for you," Celestia snapped, turning and motioning to Adagio and Aria, "And you're not coming with us."
"What?!" Sonata exclaimed, looking wildly between all four of the others, "I'm not?!"
"No," Celestia stated flatly as she began to walk away, "I only want those two."
Tears welled up in Sonata's eyes as she watched Aria and Adagio look to each other, shrug, then fall in step behind Celestia. They only got a few steps before the blue pony-tailed siren launched herself at her two companions, wrapping an arm around on of each of their legs. "You can't leave me!" she whined, tears spilling out from her eyes, "What about the rent? What about our jobs? What about the Netflix account we share?! We've always been together! We'll always be together!"
Anger flashed in Adagio's eyes as she saw her former companion begin to cry and she roughly kicked Sonata away from her. "Not anymore," she stated icily before turning and hurrying after Celestia and her companion.
Aria hesitated a bit more before a nasty smile crossed her features and she, too, kicked Sonata away. "Think of it this way," she said with a mean-spirited chortle, "Now you can have all the discounts to yourself."
Sonata reached a hand after the retreating group, tears spilling freely and staining her work uniform.
"Stay here and guard the portal," Celestia ordered once the group had once more returned to the statue outside Canterlot High, "I have business inside."
"Inside there?" Aria asked, pointing to the school edifice with more than a little hostility, "What do you need in there?"
"The final component," Celestia replied musingly, looking to the three others, "Stay here and keep everypony away from that portal." She turned and quickly walked up the steps and inside the school.
Several minutes passed in awkward silence while the two sirens and one changeling loitered around the statue. "So, what's up with you?" Aria suddenly asked of Chrysalis, "Why are you here... uh..."
"Chrysalis," the changeling replied flatly, "Queen Chrysalis."
"Oh, a queen," Aria stated sarcastically, "Color me impressed."
Chrysalis narrowed her eyes and glared at the siren, but said nothing more.
"You're a pony?" Adagio asked cautiously.
"I'm a changeling," Chrysalis informed them, again in flat tone.
"One of those emotivores?" Adagio asked in mild surprise. Chrysalis merely grunted in reply, her eyes focused on the doors to the high school.
"That's a stupid name," Aria said. Chrysalis' hands clenched at her sides and she desperately wished Celestia would hurry up.
Derpy sat slumped in one of the chairs set outside Principal Celestia's office and sighed. She didn't mean for all those trays in the lunch room to somehow end up on floor... and the ceiling... and embedded in the walls. She just didn't know what went wrong! It seemed so unfair to blame her for it. The wall-eyed girl tensed as she saw Principal Celestia stride up the hallway; it was time.
"Principal Celestia," Derpy said by way of greeting, "I know that you must think... I... am..." The blonde girl blinked as the Principal ignored her and walked on by, turning a corner and heading off. Confusion settled on her features and she frowned faintly when the door to the Principal's Office opened, revealing Celestia there. "Ms. Doo," she said with an incline of her head, "I'm ready for you now. Please come in."
Derpy blinked, looking from the Principal to the hallway and back. "Wow!" she suddenly gushed, smiling brightly, "I didn't know you were a magician, Principal Celestia! I'm sure even Trixie would be impressed with that!"
Principal Celestia stared at the wall-eyed girl in complete bafflement.
Sunset Shimmer let her fingers deftly move along the length of the guitar, the notes she produced mixing with those of her friends. It was good to take a break from trying to figure out how exactly magic worked in this new world; it was different than in Equestria, that much was certain, and somewhat unpredictable. A part of her longed for the precision and control she had back in her homeland, rather than the wild nature of magic here -- here, where it seemed to defy investigation just to test her.
The set ended and Rainbow Dash let out a whoop of elation. They hadn't "ponied up" during this particular practice -- yet another vexing unpredictability about the magic she studied here -- but the music still flowed fairly well. It amazed her how adaptable these humans could be; just a scant few weeks ago none of them had even believed magic was real. Now the whole school not only knew it existed and experienced it first hand, but took it in stride. She remembered when she first got to this strange world how long it took her to adjust to the weird technological contrivances that mimicked many magical functions.
"That was great, girls!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, raising a fist in triumph, "But we all gotta remember to keep practicing. Especially you, Sunset. Since you're, y'know, new to the whole guitar thing."
Sunset Shimmer couldn't help but smirk. Technically it was true, but she was reasonably certain she was better at the guitar than Rainbow. She'd just never admit it. "You got it, Dash."
"So, um," Fluttershy's soft voice said, "Have you heard back from Twilight about the, um, magic stuff yet?"
Sunset Shimmer frowned and sighed. "Not yet," she said, "But Twilight is a Princess, so probably is really busy." The flamed-haired pony-turned-girl smiled with a confidence she honestly didn't feel, "But don't worry. I'll figure it out. It's just taking a little longer than I first thought, that's all."
"Darn tootin', sugarcube," Applejack said with an encouraging nod, adjusting her stetson, "We all know you'll get this whole magic thing licked." Sunset smiled at her friend, appreciative of the confidence in her.
"Speaking of magic," Rarity said with a lilt, "I know it's been a few weeks but... should we really just let those ghastly Dazzlings go? They could still be dangerous."
"No, I think they're entirely harmless now," Sunset said before pausing and adding, "Mostly harmless, anyway."
"That's right!" Pinkie Pie piped up, idly twirling a drumstick in one hand, "I told you all that they're working at the Taco Hut downtown. Now their only crimes will be against good food!"
"I thought you liked the Taco Hut," Applejack asked, looking sidelong at the puffy haired pink drummer.
"Oh yeah!" Pinkie Pie stated, smiling brilliantly and giggling.
"Besides which," Sunset stated with a shrug, "What are we supposed to even do with them? It's not like we can go to the authorities and say that they're emotion manipulating sirens from another world, right? The only other thing we could do is send them through the portal, but then they'll have their powers back. Even with warning Princess Twilight and having a contingent of guards waiting to take them to Tartarus, I'm not sure it would be enough. The whole reason they were sent to this world was to limit them after all -- they were that dangerous that Equestria couldn't contain them. It's probably best if they remain trapped here."
"That doesn't make me feel any better," Fluttershy murmured.
"Yeah, no kidding," Rainbow Dash agreed with a grimace, "If they're that powerful, it's kinda uncomfortable to have them handling burritos down the street."
Sunset sighed, reaching up to run a hand through her hair, "It might not be the perfect solution, but it's the best we have for now. We'll keep monitoring them and if they get up to something shady... well, we can deal with it then."
"Hey!" Pinkie Pie suddenly said, pointing a drumstick at Sunset, "I just now realized! Your hair looks a lot like ketchup and mustard!" She giggled. "I bet we could call you 'condiment head'!"
All the other Rainbooms just stared blankly at Pinkie in silence. "I'd... really rather you not," Sunset said slowly.
"Oh, okay," Pinkie replied with a shrug, suddenly busying herself with tapping out a rhythm on her drum set.
"... Be that as it may," Applejack said, slowly getting the train of conversation back on track after the sudden derailment, "Maybe you can figure out a more permanent solution once you understand all our magic."
"Yeah," Sunset replied, a tight smile on her features, "Once."
Any further conversation was cut off by the door to the practice room opening and Principal Celestia entering. She stood before the Rainbooms for a moment before offering a smile and moving towards Sunset.
"Principal Celestia!" Sunset greeted the tall woman as she rolled the guitar off her shoulders, "I wasn't expecting you today. I know you and Vice-Principal Luna want more information on how magic works, but--"
The woman held up a hand, "Be at peace, Sunset Shimmer. I am not your beloved principal."
The Rainbooms exchanged confused looks.
The pale woman smiled more widely, "Oh, come now, Sunset Shimmer. Surely you have not forgotten your once and future teacher after all this time?"
Sunset's eyes widened in realization. "P... Princess Celestia?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"In the flesh," the transformed alicorn Princess replied with a bow of her head, still smiling, "I am very pleased with your progress, my faithful student. I have come to retrieve you and bestow upon you one of the Elements. Specifically, the Element of Magic. It is time for you to come home."
Sunset was shocked into silence. It took her several beats before she responded. "B-but... what about Twilight?"
"Princess Twilight has other duties to perform now," Celestia stated airily, "I have chosen you as the new Element of Magic."
"Wow!" Pinkie exclaimed, jumping up from her drumset, "Congratulations, Sunset!"
Still somewhat stunned, Sunset looked over her shoulder at her human friends then slowly turned back to Celestia. This was everything she wanted when she first came to the human world. Could this really be happening?
Celestia glanced over at her friends, her expression turning cold and imperious for a moment -- a fact that caused Sunset to crinkle her brow faintly when she noticed -- before returning to its normal beatific smile. "Ahh, and you must be the... Rainbooms, yes? Humanoid copies of the Elements of Harmony on this world."
"Hey!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed, mild offense in her voice, "We're not 'copies'! We're our own people!"
Celestia stared at the rainbow haired blue girl for a moment before smiling and nodding curtly, "Of course." She lifted a small satchel and set it on a counter nearby, opening it and bringing out a deep magenta gem, shaped like a starburst. She held it up and offered it to Sunset, "I, Princess Celestia, do ordain you, Sunset Shimmer, the Element of Magic." Celestia smiled again, "You need only take it."
With a look of wonder on her features, Sunset reached out for the gem... then hesitated. Her brows furrowed again as her mind raced. Something... something wasn't right. This was everything she ever wanted. But to have it fall right on her lap like this... the flamed haired girl looked over her shoulder at her friends, who were all looking on with a mix of sadness and pride. They knew that if she accepted this, she would be leaving probably forever. Yet none of them wanted to stop her. They had congratulated her on this achievement.
But was it an achievement? It didn't feel like it. In the past few weeks, Sunset had learned that she still had a lot of learning to do. This seemed... wrong. Like a shortcut. Like the shortcut she took back then, to try and force Princess Celestia to accept her.
No. No, this was wrong. She didn't feel ready. She couldn't go back to Equestria and abandon her friends -- especially with potentially more dangerous magic awakening in this world. She wasn't even sure she wanted to go back to Equestria.
Sunset let her hand fall and took a step back, smiling apologetically at her former mentor. "I'm sorry, Princess Celestia," she said with a shake of her head, "I... I don't feel like I can accept this honor. I'm sorry."
Celestia's smile faded to be replaced with a blank look, though Sunset could see the anger begin to well in her eyes. "You... refuse the power I'm offering you, Sunset Shimmer?" she said, voice quiet.
Sunset frowned. Something was even more wrong with this than just abandoning her friends. She had seen Celestia angry before, but never like this. Not this... cold, fury. And certainly not for a simple refusal of responsibility that somepony felt they weren't ready for. And the smile she had previously... Sunset hadn't noticed at the time, but there was something off about it, like it didn't reach her eyes. Narrowing her eyes, the flamed haired girl peered more closely at Celestia... and she noticed it. There it was, nestled at her throat: the Alicorn Amulet.
Sunset had tried to track it down long ago before she had left Celestia's charge, before she had found the portal. She was looking for something to prove to her mentor that she was the best, the most worthy, the most talented of her students. The Alicorn Amulet seemed like the thing, but as she researched it she had realized it was not what she needed. She wanted acceptance from her mentor and acknowledgement of her abilities; the Alicorn Amulet was an artifact of dark magic that twisted the mentality of the bearer. It would not have given her what she wanted, so she abandoned that avenue of research.
"Princess Celestia," Sunset said, taking another step back, interposing herself between the transformed alicorn and her friends, "I think... I think you should go now." Her mind raced; would the Amulet work here in this world? Did it still amplify magic abilities? What would it do to somepony who was an Alicorn already? She needed to warn Princess Twilight -- her journal was in her bag, on the floor at the other end of the room, but it might as well be on the moon for all the good it did right at this moment.
The cold fury that Sunset saw in Celestia's eyes grew as the princess narrowed her eyes at her fellow transformed pony. "Unfortunately for you," she said softly, though the voice was hard and lacked any warmth, "I cannot allow you to refuse. Finding another bearer would disrupt my time table too much. You must take the Element and return with me."
"No!" Sunset retorted, setting her jaw, "I'm not going to do that!"
"Sugarcube, what's going on?" Applejack's worried voice sounded from behind, but Sunset didn't look back. Cold sweat began to percolate on her brow, but she kept her eyes focused on her former mentor.
"You will accept the Element!" Celestia roared, all mask of civility ripping away as she took a step forward.
"I will not!" Sunset shouted back and made a dive for her guitar. If she could just tap into the magic she felt when the Rainbooms had defeated the Dazzlings -- even a small fraction -- then maybe she could force this corrupted vision of her teacher to back off, at least long enough to warn Princess Twilight and organize a greater defense.
"Sunset Shimmer!" Celestia exclaimed, still holding out the jewel, "You will obey me! Obey!"
"NO!" Sunset screamed back, lifting the guitar and beginning to play. She was desperate. Magic in this world had proven to be maddeningly unpredictable, but it just had to work this time. It had to! Sunset grimaced and closed her eyes as her hands worked along the instrument, strumming out a tune. She felt the first, faint stirrings of magic -- yes! It was working! Now she just had to--
"Sunset Shimmer," it was Celestia's voice again, calmer now, but imperious, "Open your eyes. Look behind you."
Sunset ignored her old teacher, instead concentrating on building up the magic. Almost there. Almost enough to release...
"Look, Sunset Shimmer," again Celestia's voice, "Look at your friends."
Against her own judgment, Sunset opened her eyes and chanced a look at her friends. She knew it was a foolish thing to do, that she should just continue to play without distraction, but she couldn't help it. She had to know, she had to see.
And what was there caused her to gasp and the notes on her guitar to falter.
All of her friends were floating, encased in harsh white glows. Rainbow Dash flailed in the magical grasp like a puppet, but the others seemed too surprised to do much more than float there. Sunset whirled around to look at Celestia, the transformed alicorn standing impassively in front of her, the Alicorn Amulet glowing a dull red.
"If you resist me," she said, voice quiet again, but still hard and unyielding, "They will die. Before the end, they will know pain. And they will know fear. And then they will die." The glow from the Amulet brightened and Sunset heard a sound like crackling electricity and then the gasps and screams of her friends in pain.
Sunset's hands were still moving along the guitar, gathering power. She licked her lips, trying to calculate how much power she could deliver in one blow. Would it be enough? If she failed... would her friends pay the price? ... Would this corrupted Celestia kill them before she the magic could reach her? The doubts began to coalesce in her mind and her playing fumbled, the magic began to slip away. Before long it sputtered and died.
Sunset stopped playing. Celestia smiled coldly and again lifted the gem. "Take it. Accept being the Element of Magic." Sunset took a hesitant step forward, then another. She lifted a hand and let it hover over the jewel. "If I take this," she said, "You promise to release my friends and cause no more harm here?"
"I give you my word," Celestia replied, bowing her head curtly, "They will be released after we return to Equestria."
"Don't do it, Sunset!" Rainbow Dash called out, still flailing in midair.
"Yeah," Pinkie joined in, "Anyone that mean isn't going to abide by a promise. Even a Pinke Pie promise!"
"Don't worry about us, sugarcube," Applejack called out, "A little pain never hurt nobody."
"And, really, that jewelry she is wearing is so gauche," Rarity piped up, "Can you really trust someone with such abysmal taste?"
"Quiet!" Celestia ordered, the glow from the amulet brightening again and causing another chorus of tormented screams to erupt from the Rainbooms. The alicorn princess turned her eyes back to Sunset, "Last chance. Take the Element."
Sunset Shimmer bit her lower lip and took one more glance behind her at her friends. With a sigh, she squared her shoulders and set her features, clamping her fingers around the magenta starburst gem. Sunset gasped as she felt her entire form begin to burn -- and it was then she recognized the feeling. It was the same as back then, when she took the crown from Twilight; she heard the whispering voices in the dark, the entreaties to power and satiating desires, the cloying promises.
It was dark magic, undoubtedly.
But she had been privy to this before and she shielded her mind from it, pulled away from the corrupted whispers and promises of revealed secrets. She knew what path accepting those things led, and she wanted no part of it.
In a flash, the whole experience was over, Sunset stumbling and having to grasp a music stand for support. With an effort, the flamed haired girl straightened up, her body still trembling and took a deep breath. It was then she noticed the starburst gem implanted in her chest.
Celestia was staring at her with a faint frown. "This wasn't like the others," she muttered to herself, "But it will do for now." Celestia retrieved the now empty satchel, setting the latches in place and turned towards the door, "Come, Sunset. I grow weary of this form and this place."
Sunset Shimmer cast one last look over her shoulder at her still-floating friends, grabbed her backpack from the ground and hurried after her mad mentor.
Chrysalis found herself growing increasingly irritated at her two companions. The purple haired one -- Aria -- was especially vexing. She seemed to take perverse pleasure in needling others. Ordinarily, Chrysalis wouldn't have cared; in fact, she rather liked a good gloat over helpless victims herself. The difference here was that Aria's barbs were directed at her and they were nominally allies.
Chrysalis made a mental note to use Aria as a test case to see if her drones could injure one of the Elements of Tyranny even if she could not.
Again, Chrysalis wasn't sure why Celestia had even brought her to this bizarre place. She wasn't needed for the 'recruitment' of Adagio and Aria, nor for whatever Celestia had gone to retrieve in the building. More than ever, Chrysalis suspected that Celestia was trying to keep her isolated away from her brood. That, in itself, was interesting.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the door to the school opening and Celestia exiting, being followed closely by a girl with flame red and yellow hair. She didn't look particularly happy to be there, either. Chrysalis narrowed her eyes, observing the girl.
"What is she doing here?" Adagio and Aria asked in unison as Celestia and her companion approached.
"You guys," the girl said flatly as she regarded the pair with equal disdain. The fact that she didn't like the two sirens instantly made her better in Chrysalis' book.
"May I present Sunset Shimmer," Celestia said by way of introduction, "My former student and now the Element of Magic." Celestia motioned to the three others, "You already know Adagio and Aria; they are the Elements of Ambition and Devotion, respectively. And this is Queen Chrysalis. She is the Element of Intrigue."
Sunset frowned, canting her head to one side, "Those aren't the Elements of Harmony."
"Correct, my faithful student," Celestia stated with a small smirk, "They are the Elements of Tyranny."
Chrysalis still had to stifle a laugh at the ridiculous name. Sunset, however, didn't find it funny; she regarded her former teacher with horror, "You... you corrupted the Elements of Harmony?"
"I perfected them," Celestia replied with a faint frown, "They are far more powerful tools than they used to be. Far more in service of order and control."
"Harmony cannot be forced on ponies," Sunset said, her voice sounding somewhat distant and mechanistic, "They must decide to work together of their own will."
The frown on Celestia's face deepened. "I see you remember your lessons well, Sunset," she said slowly, "I have... revised the curriculum."
"So it would seem," Sunset remarked dryly, causing Celestia to arch an eyebrow.
Chrysalis made sure to keep her expression carefully neutral, but inside she was grinning.
"Come, let us return to Equestria. A glorious new dawn awaits!" Celestia turned and entered through the portal, her form shimmering as she went. One by one, the others entered as well, Chrysalis taking up the last spot.
Once back in the confines of the Hive where the mirror was set, Celestia wasted no time in levitating the activation book from the contraption and sliding it into her saddlebag. Chrysalis noted with genuine relief that both her and Celestia had reverted to their normal forms and that her heightened contact with her drones had returned. Sunset was now a small yellow unicorn with a red and yellow mane and a phoenix as a cutie mark, and the two sirens had reverted to their hippocampoi forms. They didn't have legs, but they floated slightly above the ground as if underwater just the same. Chrysalis presumed that the purple one was Aria and the orange one was Adagio.
Both Tirek and Sombra were waiting for them. Celestia made introductions then looked towards the two Elements left behind expectantly.
"I believe I can do what you ask," Tirek rumbled, "Not all magic will be dampened, but any type of magical communication should be disrupted."
"Excellent," Celestia stated with a pleased smile, "You have done well. How large an area of disruption can you provide?"
"I am... unsure," Tirek replied uneasily, "But I am confident I can provide a screen for at least a mile. Perhaps as many as five. The effect will lessen gradually, but I am not certain how far or effective the disruption will be."
"It will do," Celestia stated with a nod before turning to Sombra, "And you, Lord Sombra?"
"The prototype is not yet completed, Your Majesty," Sombra replied with a deep, obsequious bow, "However, I have tested the principle of the device and am certain that a prototype will be available in a few hours' time for full testing. After that, depending on materials and workforce, I believe we can produce as many as required."
"Good," Celestia purred, a smile alighting on her features, "Everything is proceeding well. Now all the pieces are in place. We can finally begin to bring true order to Equestria and beyond."
Chrysalis was barely paying attention to Celestia and the others, however. Her focus was on the unicorn looking around her surroundings in disgust.
Sunset Shimmer. She was exactly what Chrysalis needed. She was the key to freedom from the mad Princess.