Twilight Sparkle was and is one of the greatest Archmages known, but nopony gets -that- good without some development. What does it take to make a regular unicorn into the greatest of her era? And more, to become a Princess?
((Spoilers ahead. If you haven't read the prequel, you may want to do so before coming to this one. However, the other two sequels (Archmage: Beyond the Crystal Mirror and Archmage: Square One) are not required reading before stepping into this one. Enjoy!))
The Archmage is the authority on all things magic. For them, each school is their mastery, their calling, their domain. But how does one pony become so powerful that they can be called the absolute grandmaster of any given school of magic? We know that Twilight Sparkle has become the most powerful and influential Archmage in a long line of illustrious careers. But how did she get there? What developments caused her to be so strong, so powerful, that even the Princesses deferred to her judgement?
Archmage: Ascendancy explores the years of Twilight's life between her realization as the Archmage and her Ascendance to near-godhood. Before she joined Luna and Celestia and became the Princess of Magic, the Archmage incarnate, many things had to go right that went wrong, many spells had to be cast.
The unspoken years of Twilight's life may not have been as terrible as her upbringing, but they certainly weren't ideal either.
This is the story of Twilight Sparkle's ascendancy.
Archmage: Ascendancy is an exploration of Twilight's lifestyle while she was Archmage, but before she ascended to being a Princess. There was about 170 years of life that was skipped over, and left plenty of possibilities dead and gone. This is my attempt at writing Twilight as a regular unicorn, fighting and overcoming obstacles without her admittedly over-powered magical capability in other subsequent stories.
Chapter 1: The Vow, The Words, The Legend - Part 1
Twilight Sparkle, Archmage of Canterlot, was awoke in the most interesting of ways by the most devious of souls.
“Lunaaaa~” She moaned, feeling the soft pressure on her body kindle a heat that was not entirely unwelcome. For most ponies, it’d be an unpleasant and unwelcome way to be awoken, particularly after the nights Twilight was prone to having. The nightmares of her recent endeavors and the things she had seen still plagued her, despite her ward’s best efforts to bury the proverbial ghosts Twilight’s over-active subconscious conjured for itself. Still, the dark pony laying her lips along Twilight’s neck demanded attention, and Twilight was nothing if not forthcoming.
“Good morning, Archmage.” Luna’s voice was husky and low, the sort that Twilight had learned to attribute to the princess’ ever-present carnal desire. Perhaps the princess’ lust wasn’t pervasive or dominating, but it was certainly present; and at times such as this, painfully debilitating. Twilight wanted nothing more than to surrender to the dark passions in the mind of her lover. Instead, she focused on her title, and the last whispered word she had heard thus far this pre-dawn morning.
“Please tell me you’re not going to make a habit out of calling me by title rather than by name.” Twilight awoke fully, chasing the last tendrils of sleep away with a small morning exercise of three complex math problems designed to promote cerebral growth, flexibility, alertness, and alacrity. She opened her eyes to look down - no, up - at Princess Luna.
“Only when I feel like getting a rise out of you.” Luna returned Twilight’s begrudging moan with a wonderfully playful smile and another warm kiss. “Thus far, I’ve yet to fail.”
“And that record shall remain unbroken. Now get offa me, I’m not clean.”
“That has never stopped me before.” Luna released Twilight with one last teasing nip to her neck, eliciting and shudder and a severe desire to say ‘buck it all’ and throw herself into what was bound to be another wondrous romp between the sheets. Instead, Twilight rolled out from underneath her lover and off the bed, landing deftly on her hooves. She cracked several joints in her legs and spine before shaking her mane out as best she could.
“Good morning, Twilight.” Luna’s second greeting came much more soberly, accompanied by a soft kiss of tender passion and love, not hot and insistent desire. For that, Twilight was immediately thankful, though she knew she would pay for delaying Luna her dalliance later on. Hopefully in the form of another shower. Instead, she greeted Luna warmly, drawing the princess close for a tender hug.
“Good morning to you too, Luna. I’m sorry, any other morning you know I’d be good for at least one decent roll in the sheets before we met with Celestia, but-“
“But you need to pack. I know.” Luna rolled her eyes patronizingly, her slender horn alighting with a scintillating sound. From the wall nearby came Twilight’s calendar, bedecked with horn-written appointments, meetings, tasks, and delegations that Twilight had sidled herself with. Considering she knew the miniature text packing the small white boxes to capacity by heart, she left Luna to scan her schedule and instead moved to the window.
“Aah,” She sighed, opening the wide glass doors to the pre-dawn Canterlot air. Beneath her, the city slumbered on, the blanket of early-risers and night-owls’ lights matching the mantle of stars overhead, surrendering only to the faint, amethyst tinge of the day’s first light hiding just beyond the reach of the horizon.
Twilight Sparkle was the Archmage of Canterlot, a prestigious title offered only to the most skilled and knowledgeable of unicorns. Traditionally, the Archmage studied under their predecessor for many years before accepting the responsibilities of that all-important unicorn. Traditionally, the Archmage was a paragon of power and wisdom, known across the entirety of Equestria as the foremost in any given field of magic.
Traditionally, the Archmage wasn’t destined to be the Archmage by the vicissitudes of fate, on pain of catastrophic magical failure resulting in explosions of cataclysmic proportions or worse.
Twilight had come into her position with more than a fair bit of strife, bloodshed, tears, and fear. Even now, the mental scars of Silver Crest’s violent reckoning, Regal’s assassination attempt, and Harbinger’s failed uprising brought Twilight to a sweat-soaked, panting midnight awakening. Sometimes, she cried in those moments, afraid and alone.
But more often than not, Twilight was comforted by a pony whose immeasurable understanding and compassion matched only one other in the entirety of Equestria.
“You slept rather well last night.” Luna drew Twilight from her momentary reverie with a soft touch, laying her wing across Twilight’s back.
“Were you with me?”
“I was indeed. I came in maybe a half hour after you fell asleep, if the candles were any indication.”
“Then you know why I slept so well.” Twilight turned to Luna, feeling the weight of her pendant leave her chest, snapping together with Luna’s in a magnetic, magical embrace. She looked down at the two stylized pendants, each a solid bit of metal stylized into a teardrop, emblazoned with their partner’s cutie mark and coat coloration. Twilight wore a midnight-blue pendant with a black inkspot, marred only by the crescent slash of a waning moon. Luna’s pendant was violet, with an amethyst-and-pink starburst, wreathed by five white stars.
To Twilight, the pendants she and Luna shared were more than cosmetic jewelry. She remembered the myriad of trials and tribulations she had faced with that necklace serving as the only reminder that there was another pony counting on her to come home alive. The creatures in the sand of the Valley of Knowledge, whispers of memory as they might have been, still chilled Twilight. The arduous journey to and from the library of lost knowledge had tested Twilight in so many ways, and she had persisted, sometimes thanks only to the promise that Luna waited for her back in Canterlot.
But more than that, the necklaces were a promise to one another, a promise that was very soon to come to fruition.
“I should get started packing…”
“I’ll help. You always take too many books.” Luna gave her a patronizing smile as she turned away, the magnetic hold of their pendants breaking so that the weight impacted Twilight’s chest. The gesture was as familiar to her as the beating of her own heart by now. But she couldn’t focus on it just then. She was too busy thinking of some indignant reproach to Luna’s teasing.
“But what if I need ‘Major Ellipsi of the Seventeenth Arch in Bi-Fractured Nodes?’ What then?”
“I’m sure the library in Ponyville has been restocked and has a spare copy.” Luna padded towards Twilight’s bed, withdrawing two pieces of luggage. For a seven-day trip, that would have been plenty.
“But what if it doesn’t? Please, let me take it?”
“No, Twilight. You can’t weigh yourself down with books. And besides, this week is meant to be spent doing much more than reading.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Twilight sighed, trudging after Luna towards her vanity and dresser. “Time spent with friends before the wedding.”
“You make it sound like some prison sentence.” Luna flicked at Twilight with her ephemeral tail, making the purple unicorn lean in to inhale her scent almost on reflex.
“I know it’s not, I’m just-“
“Aren’t you?” Twilight stood beside Luna, helping to open drawers and pack laundry. “I mean, we’re-“
“Getting married. I know.” Luna pursed her lips at a scanty pair of negligee courtesy of Rarity that had been gifted to her on her last birthday, just three months prior. The princess thankfully elected not to pack it, considering Twilight would be spending this time with her friends and not with Luna herself. “I’m excited, Twilight. Not nervous. It’s easy to mistake the two; many of the symptoms are the same.”
“’Symptoms.’ Ha.” Twilight rolled her eyes, shoveling a scarf and boots into one of the suitcases unceremoniously. “I’m just… Does it have to be a whole seven days?”
“Don’t you think you owe it to them?” Luna’s voice turned marginally more serious, injected with a compassionate undertone that made Twilight feel a little guilty.
“I do, I know I do, it’s just…”
“Seven days is a long time to be away from your duties?”
“Not just my duties.” Twilight gave a thin whimper, feeling the first tendrils of melancholy ease into her chest. “I don’t want to be away from you for that long.”
“Aww,” Luna turned to her with a soft smile, leaning in to press her muzzle tenderly to Twilight’s. “You know what they say about absence and its relationship with the heart.”
“Yeah but I don’t have to like it.” Twilight pouted at Luna, giving her a quick kiss before turning back to the packing. “I’m just being foalish, Luna. Ignore me.”
“It’s difficult to ignore you when you’re so darned cute.” Luna pressed more insistently against Twilight, though this time her wings entered the fray, dancing over Twilight’s flanks in a staccato pattern.
“Aah! Luna, no- no tickling! You pr-promised, never in the m-morning! PFF-AAH!” Twilight shuddered and jumped, trying to spin away from Luna, to escape the vicious tickling barrage. She was unsuccessful, and the torment continued as she writhed. After a few minutes and more than a few meaningful kisses, the two lay spread-eagle on the bed, breathing heavily. They had ended up laying face-to-face, their necklaces hugging intimately between them. Twilight looked deep into Luna’s eyes, marveling at the mysterious beauty and depth.
“I love you, Luna.”
“And I love you, Twilight. Seven days of absence is nothing. And think about it, when you come back, we can finally be wed.”
“I can hardly wait.” Twilight closed the short distance between them, her eyes sliding closed as their lips met for what could easily have been the twentieth time that morning. When the kiss ended, they lay together for a minute longer, savoring the moments before they had to depart Twilight’s quarters and face the world.
Somehow, knowing Luna was waiting for her to come back, facing that world didn’t seem such a daunting task anymore.
“Twilight! Over here, darling!”
“There she is.” Twilight pointed across the crowded train platform to Rarity’s hoof waving her down above the milling heads of ponies moving to and from the hissing locomotive. “This is goodbye, then, yeah?”
“For now.” Luna purred, pulling Twilight close for one last kiss. She surrendered to it, drawing it out as long as she dared in the middle of the public. Luna broke first, smiling down at her as their necklaces detached. “The week will be gone before you know it, Twilight. When you step off of that train and onto this platform again, it’ll be to bells and trumpets.”
“Small comfort.” Twilight deadpanned, hoisting her moderate luggage with a grim smile. “Goodbye, Luna.”
“Goodbye, Twilight. Until next we meet.” Luna spread her wings and flapped once, ruffling coats and manes of ponies close enough, but not hitting any as she took off into the sky. In the immediate vicinity, ponies turned their heads skyward to watch the princess fly away. Immediately after, they turned to Twilight, as if on instinct. Twilight smiled at them all before turning her attention to Rarity.
“So good to see you again, darling.”
“And you, Rarity.” Twilight beamed as she embraced her good friend warmly. “How did the move go over?” Rarity was just as warm and friendly as she had ever been. But as the embrace broke, Twilight couldn’t help but let her eyes flicker to her friend’s side, and the three knotted cords of flesh still visible against it. Rarity had received those scars helping Twilight make it to the library in the sands, the Valley of Knowledge. As the white mare stood and made for the luggage cart, accompanying Twilight as she stowed her suitcases, she still had a slight limp. A twinge of sympathy and regret struck her, but Twilight forgot it as soon as Rarity gave an over-dramatic fainting motion.
“Oh, it was awful, darling! Do you have any idea how long the train ride to Trottingham is? Dreadful!” Rarity swooned on the platform, swaying dangerously close to the edge and what was easily an eight-foot drop onto the rough ground around the tracks. Twilight lurched forwards to stop her, only to be cut off by a large stallion.
"Honestly, love." Cross Stitch's deep voice eased Twilight's immediate fear as the stallion scooped Rarity into his forelegs with the same ease a mother would cradle a foal. He smiled down at her, and Rarity smiled up at him. "We don't have any chaise lounges nearby for you to fall onto. I'd hate for you to break your spine one week before the wedding."
"Oh, that's right! Twilight, dear, I do hope you're not feeling too anxious?" Rarity shrugged out of Cross Stitch's embrace, though Twilight spared a moment to nod warmly at her old friend before Rarity rushed forth to fret over her. "Being a budding young bride such as yourself, you must be concerned for the ceremony!"
"Excited is the term I'd be more inclined to use," Twilight made for the nearest caboose door as the train let loose a shrill whistle, and the conductor began calling all aboard. "Luna's very good at relieving concerns, no matter how big or small."
"I should imagine so!" Rarity and Cross Stitch followed Twilight onto the train, drawing a few curious looks here and there as they took an open pair of benches near the middle of the car. "Our Princess of the Night has defended nightmares and dreamscapes for... well, who knows how long? I'm actually rather envious of you. The only thing this one's good for in the middle of the night is snoring." She bumped Cross Stitch indignantly, but only got a slight shift out of the bulky stallion.
"You've never complained before." Cross Stitch said wisely, sitting beside Rarity while Twilight took the bench opposite them.
"I never had any reason to! You were just fine when we lived in Canterlot and Ponyville! Whatever it is about Trottingham's air that caused you to start snoring, I want it fixed." She looked to Twilight pleadingly.
"Well... I suppose there might be a scientific reason for the sudden snoring habit. Perhaps a change in barometric air pressures at such a high altitude?" Twilight began hypothesizing and theorizing, mumbling half to herself, half to the other two ponies sharing the train ride. "I should put a letter in to the Trottingham weather team to take some readings and compare them to Canterlot's... Maybe conduct a study on breathing habits of ponies at different altitudes with different climate-"
"And there she goes." Cross Stitch rolled his eyes patronizingly, and Rarity hid a chuckle behind a hoof.
"You always do that when something catches your attention." Rarity explained, still smiling at her. "You go off on a tangent, darling. It's difficult to get you to focus on a different topic when one gets you so distracted."
"I blame you." Twilight narrowed her eyes at her friend. "You brought up his sudden change of sleeping habits."
"Yes, well, moving on now-"
"But seriously, I wonder if it's something to do with the telluric resonances in-"
"I hear Pinkie Pie will be back from Baltimare as well." Cross Stitch offered helpfully. Twilight shook herself and blinked at the cream-coated stallion.
"Really? I heard she was incredibly busy this time of year. How did she find time to take a week off to come back to Ponyville?"
"Nopony knows." Rarity offered with a shrug. "That mare is a mystery in her own right."
"Ugh. Don't even get me started." Twilight recalled one particular experiment she had conducted not too long after her move to Ponyville and the subsequent introduction to everypony's favorite party planner. Pinkie Pie defied all reason, and did it on such a regular basis that Twilight began to fear for the safety of the universe should a prophecy ever be made about her.
Her fears were unfounded, of course. No seer in their right mind would ever turn their inner eye on that enigma. Pinkie was just fine as she was, and helped more than she hurt by a leaps and bounds. Save that one fiasco with the mirror pond; that had almost made them lose their good friend permanently.
"So, wait, with Pinkie in attendance-"
"We'll be together again." Rarity nodded warmly. "The six of us all in one place. It's exciting, isn't it?"
"You forget, the six of us are a catalyst for the craziest of occurrences." Twilight deadpanned, remembering the myriad of troubles she and her friends had gotten into in her earlier years living in Ponyville. "I hope nothing bad happens."
"Well with that attitude, it's bound to." Rarity scoffed and peered out of the window as the train began to pull out of the station. Giving one last shrill whistle of goodbye to Canterlot, they began the descent out of the mountains and onto the plains surrounding Ponyville's farmland. Yet as they pulled away, Twilight could have sworn she saw Luna circling the train station, watching her depart. She sent a prayer and a smile up to the Princess, knowing neither had a chance of reception, but it was the thought that counted.
Ahead of her was one whole week of relaxation, socializing, and catching up.
"Oh it has been far too long." Twilight sighed as she departed the train, stretching her legs with a soft groan. "I had forgotten the smells. Or how quiet it is here."
"Even Trottingham isn't this quiet." Cross Stitch added, following Twilight with a languorous stretch of his own. "It's good to be back. How are you holding up back there?"
"Just fine, darling, thank you for asking." Rarity grumbled, her horn burning bright as she hefted her ever-present entourage of baggage. Twilight had counted on Rarity not packing heavily for their journey to the Valley of Knowledge, and was surprised to find her friend had pulled through. But today, Rarity had thrown caution (and probably sensibility) to the wind. She lugged easily a dozen stylish suitcases and bags out of the train's storage car, her coat breaking out in sweat with the effort. Rolling her eyes, Twilight's horn glimmered to life, taking the load from the alabaster unicorn with relative ease.
"Oh, thank you, Twilight." Rarity sighed, wiping sweat off of her brow. "You see, Cross Stitch? Some of us have sensibility."
"Only so much I can carry with hooves, love." Twilight could have sworn she heard the earth pony give a patronizing sigh before leading them into town. Rarity followed after with her mild limp, and Twilight brought up the rear, hovering the massive boulder of luggage behind them and drawing more than a few curious looks.
As they entered Ponyville proper, the looks grew into whispers, and soon after that came excited greetings and proposals.
"It's the Archmage! Twilight's back!"
"Good Afternoon, Archmage!"
"Can I have your autograph?!"
"Twilight! Smile for the camera!"
She had grown used to crowds accosting her wherever she went. In Canterlot, she was still relatively new to her position, having only been a fully-realized Archmage for less than a year. Everywhere she went were tabloids and clamoring ponies, each trying to get pictures or interviews with her, asking requests or advice, and generally just being a bother, if not a welcome one.
Here, even though the town was much smaller than Canterlot, the effect was the same. She put on a brave smile, greeting old faces and acquaintances eagerly. There were many hooves to shake, a few hastily-offered parchments and books to sign, and even one inquisitive young foal who humbly asked for an hour of her time to answer several magic-related questions whenever she was free. Twilight happily agreed to meet the pony after lunch the following day, making a mental note to update her travel calendar as soon as she put their luggage down.
All along the way into town was spent as such, greeting, smiling, and chatting briefly with the ponies whose names and faces she had very nearly forgotten in her time spent in Canterlot. But as they all came rushing forth, their memories came rushing back, and Twilight remembered them fondly. Even the friendly gardener who had caught her eye and she had fancied prior to becoming Archmage. Not unsurprisingly, he paid her only a little more attention than he had when she lived there.
After a good half an hour of stopping every fifty feet for photographs and well-wishers, they finally made it to Twilight's old library home. The sign next to the short walk still read 'Golden Oaks Library' but had her personal address taken off in favor of a more professional P.O. box. Twilight wondered if they still had any effects in here at all, either for her replacement librarian or visiting unicorns studying here.
Her fears were put to rest as Rarity pushed open the door, inviting them all into the quiet, paper-smell-filled air of a tranquil library.
"Oh man." Twilight closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of dust and paperback, her memories flooding back readily. "I missed this place."
"They converted it into a retreat for studying unicorns in addition to a traditional library." Rarity explained, making for the kitchen nearby. "There are several rooms with beds, though I think there's only one bathroom. We'll have to share."
"Don't worry." Cross Stitch bumped Twilight's flank with his own as he stepped in behind her. "We sleep and shower together."
"Good to know." Twilight scrunched her nose at the prospect of sharing a tub with the two of them, even after they had used it. "Though I'm glad to hear they didn't get rid of everything and outright convert it."
"It's more of a rental, now." Rarity explained. "A librarian tends it three days a week, but the town hall rents it out to visitors, study groups, committees, or anything like that. I wrote ahead requesting seven days, and the mayor offered to let us stay here for free."
"That's generous of her." Twilight smiled as she hefted their luggage. "Shall I go put your things in a room, then?"
"The one with the biggest bed." Cross Stitch affirmed with a nod and a grin. Twilight just rolled her eyes and went to find their quarters, and her own for the duration of her trip.
She came back downstairs to the smell of a delicious dinner. Peppers, unless she was mistaken. With a hint of garlic and... rosemary? Twilight's stomach growled at the absence of food, and she joined Rarity in the kitchen to help prepare.
"He went to go let the others know we've arrived. He said he'd be back with some or all of them, so I'm making enough for us seven." Rarity stood before the stove, pushing sizzling peppers around while a pot of pasta boiled beside her.
"Speak of the devil." Twilight smiled as she heard the front door open, the wayward voices of her friends coming to her ears. She entered the main library at the same time as the four other mares and one smiling stallion, and for half a heartbeat, the world seemed to freeze.
Pandemonium erupted, and Twilight was in the epicenter of the maelstrom. Much to her surprise, Fluttershy was the first to jet forwards, using her wings to propel herself into a hybrid tackle/hug that had Twilight on the floor in an instant. She was just about to defend herself when Fluttershy's forelegs wrapped around her neck, and the poor little filly began crying her heart out.
So followed the others, each of them crowding around Twilight, laying their hooves on her, all talking at once. Tears were shed, words were said, and none of it made any sense to Twilight, but damn it all if she didn't feel as happy in that moment as she did in Luna's embrace.
"I missed you too, girls."
"So hold on a gol'-darn minute, now. Ya mean to tell me that hunka guard pony, Warden, hooked up with Night Dancer?" Rainbow Dash tilted backwards in her chair, almost tumbling out of it as she broke into laughter. The other girls chimed in, the dishes from dinner clattering on the table as they pounded it with hooves. They had spent the meal in relative silence, but the moment she was done, a barrage of questions came her way. Twilight answered each in order, giving away juicy bits of gossip and telling stories of her exploits.
"S-so, I'm walking down the hall, right? And of course I know they've been together for a while... But I'm walking down the hall and I figure, 'hey, might as well step outside for a breath of air, right?' And just outside, I swear, she's on her back and he's-"
"No way!" Pinkie cut them off with a raucous laugh, spurring everypony into giggles once again. She elected not to tell them of Rainbow Dash and Archer's exploits, but still, it was a funny moment to share with her friends. The only pony missing from the equation, in her mind, was Luna. Having her lover here might put the other girls on eggshells at first, but she knew Luna would love regaling them with her own stories of Canterlot mayhem.
"Oh, that is too funny." Rainbow Dash wiped tears away as the laughter died down, though Fluttershy was too busy trying to disappear into her mane. Twilight knew from experience the shy little filly was actually enjoying herself, but hated anypony else to see her blush as she was so prone to doing. Rather than press, she let Fluttershy stay concealed, focusing instead on the other ponies sitting at the table.
"So what is everypony else up to? Applejack, how's the farm?"
"Aw shoot, you know us." Applejack leaned back in her chair, sighing contentedly. "Jes' stayin' busy with th' harvest. It's a little harder, considerin' Big Macintosh has to walk across town t' make it t' work."
"It's nothin' to apologize fer, sugarcube." Applejack beamed at Fluttershy. "After all, I'm enjoyin' my time alone. If you catch my meaning."
"I think Thunderlane's enjoying your time 'alone.'" Rainbow Dash snarked, getting a playful swipe from Applejack as Pinkie Pie snorted into her drink.
"Wait, what about your sister? Applebloom?"
"Huh? Oh, she moved into town a while ago, along with her marefriend. That orange pegasus that had the hots fer you, Dash. Scootaloo."
"Oh. I see. She's got to be, what, close to eighteen now?"
"Twenty." Applejack nodded sagely. "She an' her friends, as it were. They're happy together, and she helps out on the farm plenty, too. Soon enough, she'll be old enough to inherit it and live there."
"Then what will you do?" Twilight asked, arching an eyebrow. Applejack drew in a deep breath, her expression turning serious for a moment.
"T' be honest, sugarcube, ah ain't thought of that jes yet... Ah'm considerin' goin' to Dodge Junction again, checkin' in with Cherry Jubilee. Maybe movin' to Appleoosa to help Braeburn out some more." She lifted her hooves indifferently. "Ah figger ah'll tackle that problem when it comes."
"Well if you feel like planting an orchard in Canterlot, you let me know." Twilight teased, getting a scrunched nose from the farmpony in return.
"Soil's too hard up in them mountains; nothin' would take."
"Ah huh. What about you, Pinkie? It's been, what, a year and a half since you moved to Manehattan?"
"Eeyup! We've got bakeries in a lot of towns now! Horseshoe Bay, Trottingham, Stalliongrad, Baltimare, Manehattan, and we're planning on opening in Dodge Junction and Appleoosa here soon, too! As luck would have it." She cast a quick look to Applejack, getting a smile in return. "Ponies just love our cakes and pies and muffins! Oh, and bagels, and crullers, and cupcakes and-" Rainbow Dash reached out to put a hoof over Pinkie's mouth experimentally. She continued on, her voice muffled beyond recognition. Dash removed her hoof. "- baguettes, and ice cream cakes, and scones, and..." She paused to look around at the six pairs of eyes staring at her.
"You get the point. Anywho, I'm just working hard trying to get all those bakeries going. It's tough work finding ponies who are as happy as I am!"
"I think you mean 'impossible.'" Twilight teased, getting another round of laughter. Normally, Pinkie Pie would have rambled on for another fifteen minutes or so about various and assorted baked goods. It was actually kind of refreshing to see she had learned a modicum of restraint and consideration for the nerves of her friends. She was still boisterous and bubbly, but in a more sensible way. One that Twilight was inherently thankful for.
"Dash? Want to weigh in here?"
"Oh, I'm not doing anything important." Dash waved a hoof nonchalantly. "Weather work in Canterlot is super easy. We get maybe two major storms a year, with a few showers inbetween. Then every other day, orders from Celestia 'make sure it's cloudless today and tonight. Don't want the stars or the sun to be unable to shine.' I swear, it's more boring than weather in Ponyville. At least out here we got to tackle clouds from the Everfree now and again."
"You're not telling everything~" Twilight insisted with a low singsong voice. Dash's cheeks heated up immediately, and she suddenly became interested in the tablecloth's embroidery.
"What? That's all there is. It's not like I'm flying with the wonderbolts every day; we only practice in-season. How else did you think I got permission to come to Ponyville for a whole week?"
"I mean there's something else you're not telling everypony."
"Alright, sugarcube, y'all best spill. Twilight wouldn't be callin' you out iffen it weren't important or funny."
"More like embarrassing." Dash grumbled under her breath before closing her eyes and inhaling deeply. Everypony leaned in as she let it all out as quickly as she could.
"I... I'm seeing somepony."
"There it is."
"NO WAY." Applejack stood from the table with a wide, shocked expression. "Y'all told me you weren't gonna be with nopony s' long as you weren't part of the Wonderbolts!"
"And I AM part of the wonderbolts now!" Rainbow Dash returned defensively. "He's really cool, and a way-awesome magic-user, and oh, did I mention he's learning under Twilight?!"
"You don't say..." Rarity smiled at Twilight deviously. "You didn't mention any student of yours was seeing Rainbow Dash."
"I'm mentioning it now." Twilight rubbed a hoof on her chest, as if polishing it. "Or rather, Rainbow Dash is mentioning it."
"Yeah, well, no big surprise there." Rainbow Dash shrugged. "It's nice, y'know? When I lived out here, I didn't want anything or anypony getting in the way of me being a Wonderbolt. Now, I'm on my way, so I don't see any reason I can't have something on the side. You know, nothing serious or anything like that."
"Y'all aren't sleeping around, are ya?" Applejack intoned seriously. Twilight remembered in a flash Applejack's element of honesty, and about how well any infidelity might sit with her.
"Of course not!" Rainbow Dash appeared offended. "Archer's the first pony I've allowed myself to feel close to. I wouldn't want to ruin it by taking away any feelings like that..." Rainbow Dash sunk into her chair, acting uncharacteristically shy all of a sudden. "I just really like him, okay?"
"I think it's sweet, darling." Rarity chimed in, laying her hoof over Rainbow's. "You must enjoy your time with him. How long have you two been together now?"
"About three years? Maybe?"
"That sounds about right." Twilight nodded. "He's been my student for at least that long."
"Three years, huh." Applejack sniffed. "And y'all couldn't even write to tell me. Pinkie, didja know anything about this?"
"Of course!" The pink pony leapt up, displaying several curious twitches that Twilight wasn't entirely unfamiliar with. "Ear flop, eye twitch, and stomach grumble means a good friend's getting plowed!"
"Honestly, Rarity, y'all need to learn not to drink when Pinkie's talking." Applejack passed a napkin off to Fluttershy, who had been unceremoniously doused with whatever Rarity had been drinking. It looked like tea.
"'Getting plowed?'" Twilight scrunched her nose at Pinkie, who was helping Fluttershy clean her mane. "I know I asked him to lose his virginity, but-"
"Okay, Applejack, learn to take your own advice." Twilight groaned and began wiping her own face clean, this time suffering whatever Applejack had taken a swig of. It tasted like cider.
"Y'all did WHAT now?!"
"It's... a requirement to learn shadow magic." Twilight explained, shaking her mane out. She'd have to shower later, but for now she settled into 'lecture' mode. "There are two forces in the world that could be called deities. The Day, whom Celestia embodies and controls the magic of love, friendship, and the sun, and The Night, whom Luna embodies and controls the magics of hatred, shadow, and the night. The night's power is free to anypony who wants to use it, but hers is the magic of procreation and passion. Thusly, for anypony to be truly masterful in her school of magic, they need to understand the bond two ponies share when they make love.
"She has plenty of spells and abilities that ponies can use if they're innocent, but why limit oneself to just a hoof-full of spells and abilities? When I first accepted the position of Archmage, I came to learn that I was too unbalanced as far as which side I was aligned with. I knew too much about the magic of the day and friendship, and not enough about the night. So, just to start, Luna tasked me with... Well, losing my virginity. You all remember that night, right?"
"Sure do." Pinkie rolled her eyes. "I was in the middle of baking the next day's pies when Cross Stitch came by and told me you were bawling your eyes out on Rarity's dining room table."
"Well, what else was I supposed to tell you? That she smelled like a rutting mare ready for a good 'plowing?'"
"Ow, what?!" Stitch rubbed his foreleg after Rarity swiped at him, looking indignantly at her.
"Mind your manners. That was a very difficult night for Twilight."
"Well I wouldn't have gotten through it if it weren't for you girls." Twilight nodded thankfully at the three mares who had been in attendance that night. Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Pinkie Pie.
"Honestly!" Applejack laid her hoof on the table hard enough to clatter the plates again. "Y'all never write or nothin'! Ah swear, it's like ah'm hearin' about all this three years after it's happened!"
"Three and a half, roughly." Twilight chuckled. "But, to get to the point, I can't teach Archer the full potential of shadow if he hadn't had lost his virginity. Even I didn't learn it was Rainbow Dash who had done the deed until almost six months after it had happened."
"Huh. So, wait, y'all mean to say you hadn't 'done the deed' until after you moved to Canterlot?"
"Eer, yeah." Twilight blushed. "I was a virgin right up until then."
"No shoot. Ah thought you'd done it before movin' here."
"What gave you that impression?"
"Well, it seems everypony's buckin' in Canterlot. Ah'm lucky enough Thunderlane's around to plow my fields."
"You too, Dash?"
The night wound down after that, with the group of six friends promising to spend more time together before the wedding. Rarity made Twilight promise they would spend some time alone to fit her for the dress, Pinkie Pie wanted to learn if there was a way to imbue her cooking utensils with enchantments that helped her baked goods last longer, Applejack had some 'magical mumbo-jumbo' going on at the farm that was messing with one of the creeks on her property, Rainbow Dash needed help retrieving her old cloud home and preparing it to move back to Canterlot, and even Fluttershy admitted that there was a poor animal with a magical injury she couldn't quite treat herself.
Twilight retired to bed early that night, her mind buzzing with all that was planned, all that she had talked about, and indeed the entire week ahead of her. The dusty smell of old paper chased her into the smaller of the two bedrooms the library offered, replaced by the cool scent of fresh laundry, wood, and flowery night air. She elected to read one short essay before sleep, but soon after curled up under the new sheets, feeling only slightly uncomfortable being away from her own quarters and Luna's tender ministrations. Sighing mostly out of tiredness, she closed her eyes...
"Stitch, stop..." Rarity's plaintive voice drifted past her ears, and Twilight's eyes snapped open.
"Come on, just a little..."
"Aah! No, Stitch, not there! Uhn!"
Grimacing, Twilight cast a soundproofing spell over the room.
It was going to be a long week.
Chapter 2: The Vow, The Words, The Legend - Part 2
Twilight woke to the sound of knocking. It was a not-unfamiliar sound to her in this particular establishment, one she was familiar with. Shaking her mane out and plodding downstairs, she opened the door with as much of a smile as she could manage.
"Good morning and welcome to the Golden Oaks library."
Just on the other side of the door was a young filly, wide-eyed and clutching a book in her weak aura of magic. Twilight blinked, trying to make sense of the scene and indeed the whole morning.
This wasn't her library anymore, and she wasn't this library's librarian. She was the Archmage, and this poor little filly was probably meeting her for the first time. Twilight paused for a few more moments, blinking down at the young filly before cracking a wide smile.
"How can I help you?"
"I-I-I, uuh. I came to... return this?" The poor young filly stuttered helplessly, looking up at Twilight with a mixture of amazement and shock. Twilight stood aside, sweeping a hoof across the dusty interior of the mid-morning library.
"I can handle returns, I should think. What were you reading?"
"U-uum, 'Daring Do and the Mummy's Voice'? I-It's a kid book, I know, but I really like it and-"
"Here you go." Twilight pulled another book from a shelf nearby, passing it to the young filly while she took the other one. "This is the next in the series. 'Daring Do and the Mighty Dragon,' it's one of my favorites, you know."
The little filly lit up like a bright new day dawning, and Twilight found herself smiling to mirror her. "Thank you, Twili- eer, Archmage!"
"You can call me Twilight." She smiled and leaned in to nuzzle the young pony affectionately. "All my friends do."
"Thank you!" She squealed and dashed off, not even bothering to give her name. Twilight honestly didn't mind. She stood in the doorway, watching the young pony jet off down the street, her head held high and her eyes bright with wonder.
'I wonder how many of her friends she's going to go tell. I probably made her day, giving her that book... She'll say 'the Archmage checked out my book this morning!' and it'll be the most wonderful thing to happen to her.' Twilight sighed as she shut the door, right at the same time the young pony turned a corner out of sight.
"That was... cute."
"Well good morning, Cross Stitch." Twilight blinked at the stallion standing on the steps leading up to the library's second floor. She pulled the card from the inside cover and began filling in the details of its return, taking note that the young pony's name had been 'Flower Glow.' Pursing her lips thoughtfully, she replaced the book on its shelf and smiled up at Cross Stitch. "Sleep well?"
"Like a foal." He nodded warmly, yawning as he descended the stairs. "Sorry if we were too loud last night."
"No worries." Twilight shrugged. "These walls are paper-thin. You'd never believe the things I've heard Spike say to himself when he still lived here." A brief flash of melancholy struck Twilight, and she found herself looking down at the floor, scuffing a hoof dejectedly. She shook herself, beaming up at the stallion warmly. "Soundproofing spells make for restful night's sleep."
"Well I'm still sorry. Rarity can be a hoof-full when she gets going."
"Eugh." Twilight blanched at the thought, and Cross Stitch's reactionary chuckle proved infectious. She smiled and retreated to the kitchen. "Do you drink coffee?"
"Black, if you'd please." He affirmed, moving towards one of the nearby book shelves. Twilight set about to brewing a pot of coffee, just the way Luna did. Minus the cinnamon; apparently the library's kitchen wasn't as well-stocked as she had left it. Still, the heady aroma of coffee filled the library, and Twilight opened windows to help move the scent around and upstairs, where Rarity was either sleeping off last night's endeavors or preparing for her day.
As she looked out at the quiet street, Twilight couldn't help but think 'and what a wonderful day it's going to be.'
"APPLEJAAAAAAAACK!" Twilight cried out as she whipped through the air, spinning around in a disorienting, dizzying circle.
"Hold on there, sugarcube!" Applejack dashed across the grass, her hooves thundering into the dirt as she flung herself across the open air. Twilight grunted as the enchanted water constricted tighter around her chest, whipping her in another dizzying circle. She collided with the farm pony, breaking the water's bonds and sending them both flying downstream. They skidded through the shallows together, kicking up sprays of water and dirt in equal measure. Twilight managed to land mostly on her hooves, though Applejack skidded through the last four feet or so on her face.
"Alright, enough playing around." Twilight huffed at the roiling mass of water upstream, shaking her mane out before her horn blazed to life. The water lurched forward, sensing the immediate imbalance in magical energy. She grunted with the effort, seeking her calm center.
To an untrained magician, Twilight was trying to lift the water wholly out of the creek, exposing the muddy bed and keeping the whole thing a good six feet off of the ground. But Twilight was doing that and more. Her horn's light grew in intensity, probing into the soil around the riverbed, right where the roiling water was the most intense.
"Applejack!" Twilight growled at her friend as the orange farmpony picked herself up from the mud. "Mind telling me why you have a Class-A magical corruption in your soil?!"
"A what now?" Applejack cocked her head, swiping mud off of the brim of her hat. Twilight rolled her eyes and felt out the corruption in the soil, pulling it towards her with telekinesis. The result was a rainbow-colored, mud-covered, snarling ball of electric energy. The crater it left in the creek glowed ominously, but faded the further the howling ball of energy grew to her.
"This," She dropped the water back into the creek with a thunderous splash, the water swelling up and onto the banks for a few moments before rushing past their hooves. "Is a sentient energy made when nature magic meets certain household cooking ingredients." The rainbow-colored ball whirled in her grip, spitting bright yellow sparks that hissed into the water.
"Is that what it is, now?" Applejack rolled her eyes, peering back upstream. "Looks like that nasty bit o' water's calmed down, though. Is that there what was causing it?"
"Applejack." Twilight face-hoofed. "Did you dump zap apple jam into your creek?"
"O' course! We always dump it when it goes bad." Twilight could have slapped her.
"'Goes bad.' Ah huh. Well, this was causing that 'little problem' you were having with your creek." Twilight focused on the glowing ball, picking through the separate energies until they came unwound like a ball of string. The snarling corruption crackled a few more times before hissing away into two separate balls held in her telekinesis, one of mud and the other of off-color zap apple jam. She dropped the mud on Applejack's back, making the farm pony yelp and shiver. The other, she kept until they'd find a suitable glass container to put it in for regular disposal.
"Well thanks fer helpin' me out, Twi. That creek's been actin' up fer... Shoot, six months now."
"A.J., you can't dump inherently magical fruit by-products into natural water features. There's magical energies that don't coincide with the ingredients and nature of processed magics." Twilight hauled herself out of the creek, feeling muddy, wet, and a little sore from being unceremoniously grasped by a bit of angry water.
"Well that'd explain the problems we've been havin'." Applejack followed, shaking herself off. "Ah appreciate you comin' out here to take a look, though. Sorry you had t' get all dirty." Applejack snarked, flinging a bit of mud onto Twilight's flank. Twilight lifted a load of water from the creek and dumped it on Applejack's head as recompense. They shared a laugh and walked back towards the farmhouse.
"So what else y'all got planned today?"
"After a shower?" Twilight stuck her tongue out. "We've got lunch with the girls, then I promised a young unicorn on my way into town yesterday that I'd help them out with a few things. This afternoon, I was going to get fit for the dress. Rarity says she'll need at least five days to get it done."
"That filly. Ah swear." Appjeack shook her head with a warm smile. Twilight mirrored her.
"She works hard."
"Ah ain't sayin' she don't. Ah'm happy fer her, Twi. Nevermind what ah heard."
"Oh. Right." Twilight grimaced as she remembered Rarity's less-than-honest history. "Look, ponies are foolish by nature. None of us are without our mistakes. I think Rarity's suffered enough."
"Oh trust me, she an' I had a good long talk when I found out." Applejack said sagely, lifting her head a little. "Ah might not know everythin' that goes on up there in Canterlot, but there's a few things ah can tell 'bout my friends that they don' have the mind to tell me." Applejack's words sounded a little ominous, and as they entered the quiet farmhouse, Twilight squared up with her.
"And about me?"
"Hmm." Applejack turned to face her, fixing those brilliant emerald eyes on her. Twilight didn't let her gaze waver for a moment, staring at Applejack just as intently as she was stared at. After a few long, tense moments, Applejack finally spoke.
"Ah get the feelin' you ain't tellin' us everything going on in Canterlot, even if it might concern us. Ah know you've told lies, and you've used yer friends to tell them. Ah know you can hardly sleep at night, and yer not tellin' anypony that ain't Luna herself. Ah know you've got some skeletons in that there closet of yers, Twi." Applejack sighed, closing her eyes. "But ah ain't in no position to tell the Archmage what she's doin' wrong. What ya did, what yer doin', and what yer gonna do ain't no business of mine." Applejack turned away, opening one of the hallway closets to fetch them towels. Twilight looked at the mare's flank intently for a few long moments, thinking hard. When Applejack offered her a towel, Twilight responded.
"Do all of you feel that way?"
"We ain't got no choice, Twi." Applejack chuckled. "You aren't around anymore. We've all got our own lives t' live. Ah got the farm an' Thunderlane. Rarity's got Cross Stitch and Trottingham. Pinkie's got her bakeries. Dash's got Archer an' the Wonderbolts; an even Fluttershy has got Big Macintosh." Applejack's rough hoof reached out, lifting Twilight's chin until their eyes met once more.
"An' you've got all of Equestria to worry about."
"Pfft!" Applejack shoved the towel into Twilight's face, rubbing her mane vigorously.
"None of us hold it against you, Twi. We're still good friends an' all, we jus'... Have our own priorities." Twilight emerged from the fluffy cover of the towel to look at Applejack, a sad smile on her lips.
"Thank you, Applejack."
"You know me, sugarcube." Applejack started toweling herself off. "Ah weren't the Element of Honesty fer nothin', even if I hafta be brutal about it sometimes."
"Yeah, but, you're not sad or anything, are you?" Twilight started toweling herself off, though Applejack gave pause in her own ministrations. She looked intently at the fluffy fabric of her towel for a few long moments before drawing a deep breath in through her nose.
"Ah'd be lyin' if ah said ah didn't miss what we had, darlin'. But jes like Granny Smith, the best things in life don' last forever." As if on cue, a pegasus stallion descended from upstairs, freezing on the steps as he spotted two sodden mares toweling themselves off on the threshold. "Sometimes," Applejack beamed up at him. "Ya hafta let somethin' die so you can make room fer somethin' else."
"Applejack said she wasn't going to make it for lunch today." Twilight smiled at the other five ponies waiting at the table for her. "She said she'd be busy at the farm today, especially after I helped her out with that creek."
"What was the matter, darling?" Rarity inquired. She sat next to Cross Stitch at the cafe in town, with Rainbow Dash, Pinkie, and Fluttershy sitting with them.
"I'd say 'nothing major,' but it kind of was. To spare you all the details, I'll just say it was a high-level magical corruption that was messing with the elemental balance of one of the creeks on her property. It'd have taken at least three other unicorns a few days to work it out."
"And it took you... Thirty minutes?" Rarity's jaw was open, to mirror the others. Except Pinkie. She just shrugged and said 'meh' before turning her attention back to the menu before her. Twilight blushed as she took the sixth and final seat at the table, smiling at the ponies around her. Save Cross Stitch, it felt exactly like she was just meeting her friends for lunch so many years ago. With the chaotic events earlier that day, it wasn't a far cry from her life back then as well.
"Well then." Rarity cleared her throat and shook her mane out before smiling at Twilight. "Are you ready for our fitting this afternoon?"
"Of course. I just need to shower is all; I had to beat a hasty retreat from Applejack's house."
"So that's what the ear flop, eye twitch, stomach grumble was for." Pinkie mused from behind her menu. Fluttershy snorted in a very uncharacteristic manner. Twilight smiled at her, as the shy pegasus' return to character came in the form of a ferocious blush. She retreated behind her mane, but at least she didn't disappear underneath the table. Leaps and bounds.
"Oh you don't need to worry much, darling." Rarity returned them to the matter at-hoof with a nonchalant scoff. "It's just a fitting. Though if you want to leave a poor impression on that young colt from earlier, then you can skip it."
"Ooh, I had almost forgotten." Twilight grimaced. She had picked her menu up and was browsing daffodil sandwiches when Rarity reminded her of her promise to the young unicorn from earlier. "Thank you for reminding me."
"Any time, darling."
"I'm torn, girls." Pinkie Pie laid her menu down with force. "Do I get a daffodil sandwich, a salad, hay fries, or a lettuce wrap?"
"Why not all of them?" Dash offered. Her head was turning methodically, as if she were scanning each option and seriously considering her own advice.
"Eew, no. I'm on a diet, thank you." Pinkie muttered, sounding not unlike Rarity, save the high-class undertone to her accent. It wasn't her inflection that now had everypony at the table staring at her unabashedly, but rather the words she had uttered.
"A... A diet?" Fluttershy broke the silence - and character - once again.
"Well, duh! I'm a busy pony; I can't haul all this extra poundage around Equestria. I've got bakeries to open! Trust me, I -want- all of those things." She licked her lips lasciviously, as Twilight was wont to do when looking at Luna. In a way, she guessed food would be Pinkie's parallel for Twilight's love of the princess. "But I don't want to put on any more weight. Losing it's hard enough." She let her gaze fix on one particular item before sighing. "I guess a salad would suffice. Maybe dessert if I'm feeling scandalous."
"Speaking of scandal." Rarity moved onto the next topic with the sort of practiced social ease Twilight rather envied her for. "How are you and Archer getting along, Dash?"
"Huh?" The rainbow-maned pegasus looked up from her menu with a confused blink. "Whaddya mean 'getting along?' We're doing just fine."
"Yes, but for the brave and ever-bored Rainbow Dash, things would get stale after some time, no? This is your first serious relationship, isn't it? Haven't you two run into any... stagnation? You know," Rarity leaned in to whisper, though everypony at the table to hear her. "... in the bedroom?"
"Psh." Dash scoffed, though Twilight didn't miss the faint blush coloring her cheeks. "Archer's great in the sack. Like I said, we're doing just fine."
"You're not telling everything again, Dash." Twilight cut in with a devious smile. She and Rarity shared a quick glance, their eyes glimmering mischievously. "Or do I need to regale the girls-"
"... and Cross Stitch with the laundry reports from the guard's quarters?"
"Oh you evil little..." Dash bristled at her, staring daggers across the table. Twilight covered her smile with a coquettish hoof. In the end, the brash pegasus gave in with a sigh. "He's... really, really good at eating me out. He can do it for hours."
"Oh my. Cross Stitch could learn a thing or two from him, I think." Rarity purred, nudging her stallion. Cross Stitch just lifted an indifferent shoulder at the peering gazes he was getting.
"Ah huh. Go on, Dash."
"Whaaat, come on!" She pleaded, flopping onto the table. "This is my first relationship! It's not like we're breaking out whips and chains or anything; sheesh, it's pretty... Vanilla. You know, nothing fancy. We don't even do it dolphin-style."
"Ooh, you should." Pinkie intoned. "It's really nice. You can kiss him without hurting your neck, and it's easy to roll over and ride him if you want."
"Right. Maybe later." Dash gnawed on her lower lip, as if seriously considering the thought. "Anyways, we're fine. Just, you know... Enjoying life. We keep pretty busy. I mean, he's due to become Commander in, what, six months?"
"Eer, eight if I remember right." Twilight mused, thinking ahead in her ever-changing schedule. It had been a major reason she wanted to get married this summer, since next spring would be his induction. Plenty of time for her and Luna to grow acclimated to the married life.
"Right, and I'm so close to getting a permanent spot on the touring team. It's not like we even see each other every day. Unlike some ponies here."
"Eep." Fluttershy instinctually retreated behind her mane, one wide, fearful eye peeking out at the rest of them. Respectuflly, Twilight turned her attention to the menu, listening but not looking at the shy filly.
"How are you and Big Macintosh doing, darling?" Rarity's sweet voice coaxed the pegasus out of her shy little world. Twilight smiled as she listened to her.
"I-it's nice, living alone. He helps out a lot with the animals, and we're not really... Eer, well, you know." Twilight glanced at her furious blush. "We're not that... active... in the b-bedroom."
"Any particular reason?" Pinkie Pie casually lofted the question out, but Twilight could sense Fluttershy tensing up. After a few moments, though, she seemed to unwind.
"W-we're just okay with spending time together. He loves to read, and I've picked up knitting. We don't have to m-make love every day to know we love eachother." She sat up, seeming to hit her stride, getting comfortable talking about it. "He told me he used to see a lot of mares in town back when Twilight lived here, and a little before... He slept around quite a bit, but couldn't find a mare who was... Well, I guess okay with him being so quiet. They wanted to change him, to make him suit their wants. I love him because of who he is, not because of who I want him to be.
"He told me once he considered giving it up for good. But, I mean, he is a stallion in a town full of mares. He told me he tried once, and made it six months before giving in." Her blush intensified to all-new levels. "It was my first time."
"Oh wow." Rarity fanned herself with a hoof. "So you were his first after so long, that you changed his mind after giving up something like that. That's..." Rarity swooned, leaning heavily against Cross Stitch. "That's so romantic."
"He was so traditional about it." Fluttershy smiled. "He brought me pink lilies, the same color as my mane, and wrote to Las Pegasus to get my dad's approval. He was a true gentlestallion, and when it happened it was..." She inhaled through her nose, closing her eyes. "It was everything I'd ever dreamed of. Since then, we've been living together."
"That's really nice, Fluttershy." Twilight smiled at her friend. "I'm happy for you two."
"What about foals?" Rainbow Dash came in like a wrecking ball, changing the tone of the conversation with three short words. She earned glares from everyone, even Cross Stitch. Save Fluttershy, who retreated behind her mane once more. Dash grumbled and settled down to mope over her mistake while Rarity slid around the table to rub Fluttershy's neck soothingly. It took a few minutes and the waitress came over for their orders in that time, but Fluttershy emerged with a soft whimper.
"W-we, uuh... It's... It's kind of sensitive, and-"
"You don't tell us if you don't want to. Especially if it's personal." Twilight offered. She had a feeling it'd be something serious, given Fluttershy's reaction. She couldn't quite tell if it was just the pegasus being herself, or if it truly was something worrisome. Fluttershy nodded quietly, gnawing on her lower lip as she seemed to teeter on the edge of telling them. She took a deep breath and let it out.
"... Oh." Rainbow Dash sunk lower in her chair. Rarity rose her hooves to her mouth, and even Pinkie seemed to take that little revelation rather seriously. Twilight was shocked, to say the least. "Which, you know..." Fluttershy continued. "Would explain why he doesn't have any foals with all of the other mares he has been with. We've tried, and the doctors helped a little, but to make it happen, it'd take a lot of medicine, some therapy, and a very specific ovulation cycle monitoring process... All for something we're not even sure we want right now." She took another steadying breath, offering a brave smile to them.
"We've decided if it happens, it happens. If not, then we're happy to have our lives together. I love him for who he is, flaws and all. Besides," She blushed a little, looking down the street. "There's always adoption."
Lunch was a moderately sober affair. Fluttershy and Rarity were quiet, and Pinkie Pie said she needed to send a letter to one of her bakeries that had opened just a few weeks ago. Cross Stitch wanted to go for a walk to meet up with some old friends of his, and Rarity needed to prepare for the fitting. Fluttershy went to meet Big Macintosh after his work at the farm was done so they could walk home together. Twilight was alone on her walk to the library and her afternoon appointment with the inquisitive young colt.
The meeting itself was rather intriguing, as the young unicorn had a dozen questions about very obscure and particular branches of magic; none of which seemed to have any correlation. Apparently he had just come across them in his studies, and wanted to round out his knowledge. He confessed to studying at Twilight's library often, and meeting her face-to-face was one of his goals. Twilight had finished the meeting with an offer to tutor the pony herself, sending letters to and from Canterlot. With her address in-hoof, the young colt dashed home just before three, meeting Rarity on her way in.
"He looked awfully happy." Rarity mused, depositing several wrapped bolts of cloth inside the door. "Did you kiss him?"
"Hardly!" Twilight swatted at her friend playfully. "I just offered to tutor him."
"I figured it would be something like that." Rarity cooed, ushering Twilight upstairs with a nudge. "That little filly this morning, that colt... The ponies around here like you, Twilight. And you're making them awfully happy."
"I'm just doing what I can." Twilight blushed, leading Rarity up to where her old bedroom had been, but was now Rarity and Cross Stitch's temporary lodging. Rarity had a small stand set up for Twilight to stand on, and the various utensils for measuring her body were all set out and ready.
"Well, you're doing a lot of it." Rarity ushered her up onto the stand, a length of measuring tape already floating in her magical aura. "And don't think you won't be rewarded for your efforts."
"Huh? What do you mean?" Twilight inquired, standing still. She was no stranger to fittings anymore, not after her numerous run-ins with not just Rarity, but other dress-makers in Canterlot.
"Well, think about it, darling. You come to Ponyville for a week, and all you do is help everypony out. You work the library like you used to, take on another student, even if just by proxy... Goodness, you stopped a grade-A corruption in Sweet Apple Acres. The headlines will be all about you for weeks to come, about your kindness and benevolence. How selfless you are."
"I don't see how it's any different from what I did when I lived here-"
"You mean aside from the fact that you're the Archmage now?" Rarity cut her off, peering over the edge of her glasses. Twilight hadn't even noticed her put them on, but Rarity's words struck her like a hammer to hot iron. "Twilight, your actions have consequences now. Not just small ones, but consequences that will be heard Equestria-wide. Hide all you like from the limelight, there are things you're going to do that will reach the public, one way or another. If it isn't fixing national problems, then it's fixing local problems." She smiled up at Twilight before focusing on the tape.
"You're the Archmage now, darling; not some mousy librarian from a backwoods town. Like it or not, you're a celebrity."
The following day, Twilight caught up with Pinkie Pie during breakfast at the original Sugarcube Corner. Pinkie's name had already reached enough ponies nationwide that they were coming from all around to visit her home. Pinkie was a celebrity in her own right, and would only continue the meteoric rise as her signature bakeries filled more and more cities. Twilight had to wait in line for her pastry before meeting the energetic pink pony at a table of her own.
"Things are busy today, aren't they?"
"They usually are when I open a new bakery." Pinkie beamed at a couple of young foals who passed their table. "The new city hears about the original, and there's usually at least a dozen or so who make the trip out here. Remember, Baltimare's at least a hundred times bigger than Ponyville. Even a little word-of-mouth goes a long way. You should have seen this place after I opened the Manehattan one!"
"Fantastic." Twilight chuckled, diving into her muffin. It was delightfully fluffy, with just the right amount of almonds interspersed in the still-moist center. Pinkie might not have been a unicorn, but there was magic in her work. "But how busy are you staying?"
"You know," Pinkie sighed, a rare sign of melancholy from her. "It's tough sometimes."
"I can imagine. You travel a lot; I hardly see you in Canterlot anymore, and each time I ask about you it's always 'oh, she's in Trottingham this week,' or 'Baltimare had a party emergency, so she's out there handling it.' I never even expected you to move to Canterlot with me, but... Here we are, eh?"
"Yeah..." Pinkie inhaled a deep breath before letting it out with a smile. "But it's good. I'm making a lot of bits, and that means more bakeries and more smiles. I may have left my friends in Ponyville behind, but... Well..." She smiled as a particular orange-maned pony came up for a warm hug. "Some friends never go away. How are you, Carrot Top?"
"Oh I'm doing just fine, Pinkie. It's so good to see you again. It's been, what, two months?"
"Two months, two weeks, four days, and sixteen hours." Pinkie ticked each one off with a bob of her hoof, somehow materializing four forelegs. As soon as Twilight tried to focus on it, they were gone and Pinkie was beaming at her mischievously.
"Well that's two months, two wee... Too long!" Carrot Top chuckled. "We missed you, Pinkie. Ooh, Roseluck said she wanted to say hello, but she's at market all day. Should I tell her you'll be by?"
"Only if I can get one of her candied roses! How are she and Bon Bon getting along, by the way."
"Oh those two fillies, I swear." Carrot Top rolled her eyes patronizingly. "One week they're having it out in the street and the guard adjunct needs to get involved, and the next you catch them going at it in the fountain and the mayor needs to ticket them for indecent exposure."
Twilight snorted into her coffee. A terrible experience, if she had ever had one related to coffee. She rubbed at her burning nose while Carrot Top and Pinkie laughed.
"Anyways, I didn't mean to interrupt your breakfast. You enjoy yourself, Pinkie, and don't be a stranger."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a cupcake in my eye." Pinkie waved a goodbye to Carrot Top before turning back to Twilight.
"See? You never really leave your friends behind. Even if you're a busy baker," She pointed to Twilight with a glimmer in her eyes. "Or the Archmage."
"I suppose that's true." Twilight muttered, staring into the dregs of her coffee. "I suppose that's true..."
"Oh wow, I never thought a chicken could catch Scale Itch..." Twilight blinked in shock at one of Fluttershy's chickens who had come down with a mysterious illness. She curled up in a basket on the floor of the shy mare's cottage, being tended on by a considerate family of mice and one surprisingly punctual squirrel. "This is so strange... I'm sorry, Fluttershy, but you've stumped me. I'm going to have to do some research to help this poor thing."
"Oh, it's nothing that bad." Fluttershy leaned in to nuzzle the chicken lovingly. "It's just an inconvenience. Mr. Cluckers is fine, he's just itchy is all." When Fluttershy stood back up, she smiled warmly at Twilight. "Thank you for your help, though. I didn't know what he had."
"It's nothing, really... I'm just glad I read that book on dragon physiology."
"There's a book on dragon physiology?" Fluttershy cast a glance over her shoulder as she stepped into the kitchen, setting a kettle on the stove for tea. Twilight nodded and took a seat at the kitchen table.
"I brought it back from the Valley of Knowledge."
"Oh, when you and Rarity went to that library? Goodness, how could you think to bring anything back after what happened to you two?"
"You know..." Twilight sighed, looking down at the table. "I honestly wonder how I thought to do anything out there. I was more scared than I've ever been... Not just because it was such a daunting task, but..." She felt a chill run up her spine. "We almost lost Rarity."
"But we didn't. I've seen her scars, Twilight; she wears them proudly." Fluttershy's words struck a chord in her, making Twilight furrow her brow.
"How do you mean?"
"I mean it's not unlike a pregnant mare's stretch marks, or a young pony's cutie mark. Rarity doesn't begrudge you for her injury. I hope you know that."
"No, I know she doesn't hold it against me at all, but... How can she be proud of her scars? I was there with her, Fluttershy. Even when I found her, she nearly died. It took everything I was worth to bring her back." The memory of finding Rarity, of casting all the spells she had in desperation right there on the steps in that underground passage. The blood had been everywhere. "We almost lost her."
"But we didn't." Fluttershy returned obstinately. "Instead, Rarity shared a moment with you, one of the most haunting and visceral moments we ponies can. You brought her back from the brink of death. I wouldn't say she owes you, but the two of you have a connection now, Twilight. Something you can't ignore or walk away from; and neither can she." Fluttershy's words, softly spoken as they were, cut into Twilight. She blinked at the unexpected outbreak from her friend, unsure how to take what she was saying. Before she could reply, Fluttershy continued, stepping forward to lay a hoof over her own.
"In a way, I'm jealous of her."
"What? How?" Twilight recoiled at the thought. "She nearly died! How could you-"
"Not that she almost died. That she's so much closer to you than the rest of us are." Fluttershy's words cut even deeper this time, and Twilight felt a twinge of regret take hold of her heart. She sat back in the chair, stunned beyond words. Again, Fluttershy continued.
"We've grown further apart since you've moved away, Twilight. Applejack and I stayed behind, but Pinkie, Rarity, and Dash followed you to Canterlot. I'd hate to be so rude in saying this, but it hurt our friendship. I'm not angry or upset with you, Twilight, I'll say that right now. But I am sad that we're not as close as we could have been."
"... Why are you saying this just now? It's been over three years, Fluttershy..."
"Because," The poor pegasus looked up at Twilight with watery eyes. "How could I ask you to give up on everything you wanted to be just so you could stay in Ponyville? What kind of friend - no, what kind of pony would that make me? To ask somepony else to give up their hopes and dreams, indeed their destiny, just so I can stay comfortable?" She shook her head solemnly, stepping back to pull the kettle off of the stove. She spoke with her back turned to Twilight, her voice low and intense.
"Just because I cherish what we had doesn't mean I want it back. We've moved on, Twilight. Found things... Maybe not better things, but different things. Love, and different friendships, comfort and hobbies of our own. I may not be that much of a different mare than I was when you left us," She turned back to Twilight, her expression genuinely happy. "But you are."
"You've matured so much in just three years, Twilight. You went from a shy librarian to the Archmage. You've thwarted uprisings, assassinations, opened a long-lost treasure trove of knowledge... And you're going to accomplish so much more; I can feel it." She stepped forwards again, this time wrapping Twilight in a tender hug.
"I can't hold that against you. And if anypony does, you tell them to come talk to me. Understood?"
Twilight tried to talk through her tears, and failed. She choked one word.
"So it seems to me the five of you have some thoughts on me being Archmage..." Twilight sat at the table in the library, surrounded by her old friends. They all cast shifty looks at one another before nodding. Twilight inhaled through her nose, letting it out slowly. "I'd say I'm sorry, but-"
"Poor form, darling." Rarity teased, drawing a faint chuckle from the gathered ponies.
"Right. I know we did so much together, and we were the best of friends..."
"All good things must come to an end." Rainbow Dash intoned, sounding surprisingly more mature than Twilight had attributed her for.
"I guess that sums it up pretty well."
"Well it's not like we're done being friends, silly! We still have each other!"
"That's true." Twilight smiled at the other ponies, though she still felt the melancholy in her chest. "We're just not... best friends anymore." Their smiles wilted, but none of them raised any objections. Applejack stepped forwards, pulling her hat off of her head.
"We had a good run, girls. But real life don't wait for nopony."
"Yeah." Rainbow Dash rubbed the back of her neck, stepping forward as well. "It's kind of like we've grown up, y'know? Pinkie's expanding, Fluttershy's settled down, Applejack's just about ready to pass the farm down, Rarity's living in Trottingham... Even I'm moving away from Ponyville for good." She grimaced at her own words, as if they hurt her. In a way, Twilight supposed the element of Loyalty would be hurt by leaving friends and former homes behind.
"But that's not a bad thing." Pinkie added helpfully. "We're moving on to bigger and better things! And we're still around. We know we can count on each other if things get hard. Right?" She leveled a serious eye at the other five. "Right?!"
"Right." Rarity stepped in. "I know I'm willing to drop everything to help anypony; especially one of my good friends. Just because we're not all six together anymore doesn't mean we're not friends. Just a different caliber of friendship, is all."
"Agreed." Fluttershy nodded. "We're still here, even if we're not doing something as amazing as being a Wonderbolt or... or being the Archmage."
Twilight looked at the five ponies smiling at her, their hooves reaching out to touch in the middle. All they were missing was her. Shedding a tear, she laid her hoof on top of the pile.
"Dash!" Twilight caught up with the pegasi in the late-evening sun. Rainbow Dash flapped to a halt, dropping down to land heavily in front of her.
"What's up, Twi?"
"I wanted to talk to you. One way or another, I've spoken to the others alone... Everypony except you." She sighed faintly, looking into the pegasus' lavender eyes. "What do you think about all this? About us moving apart?"
Dash looked at her seriously for a long time, the silence between them so thick Twilight could have sworn it slowed down time. She held Dash's intent gaze for what felt like an eternity before her friend spoke again.
"It hurts, Twilight." Her voice was low and quiet, not like her at all. Twilight watched the tears leak out of her eyes, falling to the dirt path under their hooves. "It's like a knife, right here..." She sniffed, raising a hoof to her breast. "I think I was putting on a face, saying all that stuff earlier... I don't want us to grow apart. I don't want to leave Ponyville. I don't want things to change."
"But they're going to." Dash sighed, wiping a hoof across her eyes. "It's just part of growing up. Ponies grow apart. Friendships die, or at least dim, ponies pass on, jobs come and go." She shook her head, but the tears came back, streaking out of her eyes. "I just have to get over that. I'm not some little filly anymore. I'm an adult, and I'm in love. I can't let things like this - natural things - bring me down. It's not like I can change any of that, and even if I could, why would I want to? That'd only hurt you guys, my friends, in the long run. We've got our lives to live. Be it as a Wonderbolt, a veterinarian, a farmer, a baker, a dress-maker..." She looked Twilight in the eye once more.
"The Archmage... It doesn't matter what we do, we're going to grow apart. It's our destiny."
"But it hurts, Dash, I don't want-"
"Shut up, Twilight." Rainbow sighed, shaking her head. Twilight paused, her mouth still hanging open. "Don't feel sorry for me. This is just part of who I am, and I've always been like this. It took every ounce of strength I had to leave Cloudsdale behind. And you don't know how hard it was for me to move to Canterlot, leaving Fluttershy and AJ behind... And, and..." She sniffled again, her chest shaking. "How hard it is to realize I might not be in love with Archer for the rest of my life." The tears came in force then, streaming from her eyes.
"That's just the way it is, Twilight. Rainbow Dash: Loyal to a fault."
"Dash... I never knew how hard it was for you..." Twilight stepped forward, laying her hoof on the pegasus' cheek. They locked eyes once again, Twilight's compassionate and warm, Rainbow Dash's wet and leaking. Slowly, Twilight pulled her into a hug. "I don't want this to hurt as much as it does; nopony deserves this pain. And I admire you, for shouldering it in your own way. You're a strong pony, Rainbow Dash. Stronger than I am."
"Don't say that, Twilight. You're the strongest, most powerful, intelligent, beautiful pony I know."
"Strength has many forms, Dash. In a way, I think yours is a lot better than mine. I have my magic and my wit, but if there's one thing I know I lack..." She pulled back, laying a hoof on Dash's breast.
"It's the level of compassion you have."
"... Fuck you, Twi. Making me cry like this." Dash gave a nervous laugh, and it proved infectious. Twilight joined in, the two of them hugging as they laughed and cried in equal measure. When they pulled away, their eyes were puffy but there were no more tears to be shed. Dash punched her foreleg playfully.
"We're gonna have to enjoy ourselves. Who knows if the six of us will be together like this again?"
"True." Twilight smiled. "We've got four more days until the wedding. I know we're all busy doing our own thing, running around Ponyville. You're moving your home to Canterlot tomorrow, right?"
"Yeah, and Applejack said she has to run some things out to Dodge Junction day after tomorrow. Oh, and Pinkie just told me this morning she's gotta run to Manehattan for a day."
"Then let's put a pin in that fun, yeah?" Twilight grinned at Rainbow Dash. "We'll have to do it on the wedding."
"Sounds like a plan to me, Twilight. But that day won't be about just us. It's your wedding, after all..."
"True..." Twilight grinned. "But I get the feeling with you girls by my side... It'll be the best night ever."
Luna stood at the open windows, inhaling a deep breath of the melancholy night air. The sun had just sunk beneath the Western horizon, painting the sky a sultry shade of cinnamon that lent a highlighted feature to the rest of the purple-mantled vista. She stared in wide wonder at the sky before her, a mixture of day and night that felt like home to her. It was the start of a new night, with new mysteries and wonders to behold. She had no appointments, no courts, no necessary meeting to attend; it was just her and the stars.
Like so many thousands of nights before, she stood watching as the dusky red faded from the West, yielding at long last to a royal purple, and then pure blackness bedecked with a million glimmering, flickering pinpricks of light that she was oh so familiar with. It felt not unlike an old friend’s face, smiling and warm as they moved to embrace in greeting. It was a comfortable night, with no chill in the air, only the passing breeze serving to remind her that she was, indeed, still on Equestria and not wheeling among the constellations in a free flight of fancy.
But even the best things weren’t designed to last. It was some time around midnight when a solemn visitor entered her chambers. Typically, a messenger or aide would knock before entering. There were only three ponies in all of Equestria who would deign to open that door unannounced. One was asleep, one was in the Crystal Kingdom, and one was in Ponyville.
At least, she would have thought as much.
“You’re back early.”
“I missed you that much.” Twilight’s voice whispered across her ear, and not unlike the glimmering stars above, the sensation was a welcome one to behold. Luna tore her gaze away from the magisterial night to look at Twilight’s beautiful face. She looked just the same as Luna had remembered her. But there was one thing missing; one intrinsic detail that nagged at Luna.
“Where is your pendant?”
“Oh, Rarity said it needed cleaning, and she wanted to design the veil to match it.” Twilight muttered, raising a hoof to her breast, where the missing pendant would have hung normally. There was a compassion in her eyes, like she was missing a close friend or a part of herself. But it faded quickly as her amethyst gaze rose to meet Luna’s. The worry and tension melted from her in those cyan irises, and Luna felt a similar wave of relief flood through her. She would miss the way their necklaces snapped together, but she didn’t have to miss embracing Twilight.
“Five days seems like such a long time to go without you.” Luna nuzzled into Twilight’s mane as the smaller unicorn wound her hooves around the princess’ neck, inhaling the scent of her deeply. She smelled of paper and ink, a faint wisp of conservative perfume, and the utilitarian shampoo she used frequently. It was a comforting smell, very ‘Twilight’ in its essence. Luna truly had missed it dearly.
“I couldn’t wait any longer, and the girls were all busy with their own things. I saw no need in staying in Ponyville any longer. It’s not like it’ll be the last time I’ll see them anyways.” Twilight buried her muzzled into Luna’s mane, inhaling her scent as well. She knew Twilight loved the smell of her enchanted hair, and rather liked the way she nuzzled into the ephemeral strands like a young filly holding their parent close, or more accurately, a lover trying to memorize every nuance of their partner. Luna slowly sat on her haunches, looping her forelegs around Twilight and pulling the smaller pony into a more tender, heartfelt embrace. The lack of their necklaces pressed together seemed a touch wrong to Luna, but not in a worrying manner. It sounded like Rarity had a gorgeous plan for the veil, and Twilight would be nothing if not forthcoming with help. That might also explain why she was back so early. Without the necklace, Twilight effectively was without Luna herself.
The thought of being alone send a shudder down her spine. She had spent a millennium alone. She didn’t want Twilight to feel the same; even if for a paltry two days.
“I do hope you’re not planning anything untoward between now and the ceremony.” Luna’s voice turned from heartfelt to devious in a moment. Some small part of her psyche was seriously considering letting Twilight do what she would, or maybe taking some pleasure of her own. But she did love teasing Twilight, and knew that not making love between now and the ceremony would mean much to the younger pony. She could handle two more nights without the ravenous bookworm between her thighs; even if she did tease her about it.
“I hadn’t, but you’re making me consider it.” Twilight moaned, giving Luna the lightest of kisses on the back of her neck. That small touch sent an electric shock through the princess, making her haunches contract and her tail swish across the floor.
’Thousands of years of experience under my belt, and I’m still reduced to a puddle by the gentlest of kisses… Twilight truly knows me like no other. Oh how I love her.’ The thought echoed through Luna’s body, triggering a response that drew Twilight ever-closer, until she could feel almost every curve of her lover.
“I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t allow you to… To think, five days without you and I’m reduced to a pining young filly once more.” Twilight breathed, sending another electric shock through Luna’s body with a tender kiss, even more passionate and needy than the last. Luna felt the haze of desire descend around her consciousness, muddling her thoughts and increasing her heartbeat.
’She’s right here in your hooves, Luna… Just let it happen. Nothing wrong with partaking; we’ve made love dozens… Nay, hundreds of times before now. What’s the harm in one more good romp before we make it official?’
“Luna…” Twilight panted, her lips tracing along her jawline. Her thoughts plunged into the downright dirty as those kisses proceeded, working their way up to her own slightly-parted lips. Twilight hovered there, her hot, breathy pants mingling with Luna’s own. “I want you so badly.”
“And I you, Twilight.” Luna moaned, clutching Twilight ever-closer. She indulged in one quick, ravenous kiss, her tongue darting out to tease Twilight’s before she pulled away. “Take me. One last time before we’re together forever.” She laid back, pulling the smaller unicorn with her until Twilight straddled her. Luna’s wings splayed out on the floor of their shared bedroom, her haunches open wide.
“I love you, Twilight.”
There was a flash of green, and above Luna stood… Luna.
“I know you do.”
Chapter 3: The Vow, The Words, The Legend - Part 3
Twilight laid a hoof on her pendant, looking out at the pre-dawn town just beginning to stir from its slumber. Birds were chirping happily, a few farmers had already begun to make their way out to the fields, and the ovens at Sugarcube Corner were coating the town with a hearty promise of delicious morning confectioneries. She inhaled the scents of dirt and earth, muffins, flowers, and a gentle late-night rainfall that had stirred up the most relaxing of aromas.
Today was the day.
A gentle knock came from her door, preceding an inquisitive Rarity.
“Twilight, are you awake?”
“I am indeed, Rarity.” She turned away from the window to greet her friend, who entered the bedroom with a warm smile. They embraced, holding the hug for a few long seconds. “Did you sleep well?”
“Like a foal. What about you, darling? Did you sleep well?” Rarity returned, pulling back with a ghost of worry on her face. Given their antics yesterday, she guessed it was a due bit of concern.
“You know, I actually did.” Twilight chuckled faintly. “Considering how anxious I was, it’s a miracle, isn’t it?”
“That poor tree. I do hope Applejack doesn’t hold it against you. You were only trying to help, after all.”
“Well, that’s what she gets for asking a bride-to-be to help with the harvest.” Twilight blushed as she remembered uprooting a twenty-some-odd-year-old apple tree the previous day. “I told her I’d replace the tree… I hope she forgives me.”
“It was an honest mistake, darling.” Rarity soothed her with a gentle hoof through her mane. “Don’t fret about it. Instead, think ahead to the day! It’s your wedding!”
“I know!” Twilight allowed herself a feminine squeal of delight, the fluttering anticipation sending her stomach into flips. “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited! It’s going to be the best day ever!”
“That it is, Twilight. And the best day ever starts with the best breakfast ever! Cross Stitch has started, so I must go help him before he ruins our meal. Why don’t you go to Sugarcube Corner for some muffins?”
“That sounds like a wonderful idea. I’ll be back soon.” Twilight and Rarity left her room together, though at the bottom of the stairs leading into the library, they parted ways; Rarity to the kitchen to stop whatever culinary disaster Cross Stitch was inadvertently brewing, and Twilight to fetch them some delicious muffins.
The reason for her return visit to Ponyville had made itself known over the past couple of days, and the ponies of her old home were anxiously excited for what was going to happen later that afternoon. Many of them had expressed their desire to attend the ceremony, and while it pained Twilight to deny them, she had to explain that it was set to be a relatively small, intimate affair. There would only be the princesses, family, and a few of her closest colleagues and co-workers in actual attendance; not to mention her friends, but there simply wouldn’t be enough room at the ceremony for the whole town of Ponyville, let alone whatever Canterlot attendants there would be.
She had, however, promised them all a spot at the reception, and the town was busy preparing to leave that morning. She passed many ponies on the street with luggage or small bags of clothes to be changed into once they arrived. They were intent on the train station, to catch the first locomotive bound for Canterlot that morning. She was on the receiving end of many well-wishes and fawning compliments; despite not having even showered that morning. Her gratitude skyrocketed when the cute mare behind the counter gave her a double helping of muffins for free, to commemorate the wondrous occasion.
In truth, Twilight supposed it was a large happening. It wasn’t every day the Archmage got married to one of the Princesses. Feeling bubbly and giddy, she made her way back to the library, emerging into a cloud of heavenly, mouth-watering scents. “Oh my gosh, Rarity, is that a Hay Fry Omelet?”
“You remembered! The last time I cooked one of these was… Oh my gosh, almost four years ago!”
“You never make them for me.” Cross Stitch grumbled, setting out the silverware for their breakfast. He appeared to have been exiled from the kitchen while Rarity worked her magic - literally. Twilight had just set the box of muffins down when Rarity emerged with three steaming plates, heaped high with delicious-looking fluffy eggs, crispy hay fries, cilantro, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and all manner of other delights. Twilight wondered if she’d have room for all of it.
Her growling stomach quelled all fears as they dug in.
Following breakfast was the preparatory period. Rarity stressed about it, as they’d have to move from the library to the train, then from the train onto a carriage and to the wedding venue; which was, coincidentally, the same chamber Shining Armor and Cadance’s wedding had taken place in. The memory of that fateful day almost ten years ago was but a ghost to Twilight now, and the dramatic changeling invasion had been forgotten behind a night of laughing, dancing, singing, and merry-making.
She took a long, hot shower with Rarity in attendance, scrubbing and paying attention to her mane and tail. She knew it was tradition that the bride be accompanied by her Best Mare, though she didn’t know it was customary to be fawned over to such a degree. Rarity had worked her hooves to the bone making the dress in time, and now she was busying herself with cleaning Twilight so thoroughly she doubted she’d ever be dirty again. Rarity showed no mercy, even scrubbing at Twilight’s crotch as thoroughly as anypony had.
She’d earned a fair bit of blushes and stammering, but Rarity assured Twilight up and down it was tradition. Twilight sincerely doubted that, but knew she’d thank the alabaster unicorn for it on her honeymoon. She remembered fondly how much Luna liked her to be clean down there. And thankfully enough, Rarity moved past that portion with haste, moving on to scrubbing Twilight’s back, legs, barrel, stomach, neck, and horn. When the two mares emerged from the shower to dry off, Twilight felt radiant.
Next came the makeup. It wasn’t a windy day in Ponyville (thanks largely in part to Rainbow Dash’s pull with the local weather team) so they’d handle her makeup now, and touch it up should they need to on the train. Rarity explained that eyeliner and mascara were difficult enough to apply without jostling and bumping around in a rattling train car. Twilight wouldn’t know, as she seldom wore makeup. But Rarity insisted on giving her the full treatment. The fretful unicorn spent almost an entire hour applying, harrumphing, and tsk-ing at Twilight’s face before they were finished. Right on time, it would seem, as Fluttershy came to check on them. A timid knock preceded the shy pegasus.
“Uum, I’m sorry, but everypony says it’s almost time to go- oh! Twilight!” Fluttershy abandoned the meek veneer as she dashed forward, standing mouth agape before her. “You look absolutely gorgeous! Oh, Rarity, you’ve done such an amazing job!”
“Why thank you, darling.” Rarity blew her bangs out of her eyes, the amethyst strands having come undone from Rarity’s conservative bun over the course of the makeup application. “I dare say it’s my best job yet;to say nothing of the dress.”
“Oh I can’t wait to see that…” Fluttershy fawned, walking a slow circle around Twilight. “But… Shouldn’t you have styled her mane as well?”
“Nonsense! Twilight’s mane and tail have always suited her perfectly well. Just like designing a dress, one should highlight rather than conceal the important details.” Rarity waved a hoof over Twilight’s mane, her eyes glimmering. “She’s the picture of conservation. A modest mane style suits her, and would appeal to Luna, the most.”
“You’re right.” Fluttershy beamed between them. “But anyways, we need to leave. Applejack said she can hold up the conductor for at least another fifteen minutes.”
“Oh, and he refuses to wait for the Archmage?!” Rarity flustered, throwing her makeup tools into the bag she had withdrawn them from. Cross Stitch had already taken their luggage to be loaded. “The nerve of some ponies. Come now, Twilight, let’s go!” The three mares departed the library, making sure to lock it and deposit the key in the box by the door before leaving. Twilight cast a glance over her haunches at the dwindling leaves of her former home. She knew there stood a good chance she’d return here someday, but in some small way, it felt like saying ‘goodbye’ for the last time.
They turned a corner, and the library left her sight. In front of her was the train, hissing and whistling its encouragement. Fluttershy flew ahead, and Twilight hurried as much as she dared to catch up with the bustling Rarity. Even with her moderate limp, the white unicorn could move when there was a deadline to keep. They arrived on the platform before long, earning a chagrined look from the conductor but otherwise boarding unmolested. They were a little breathy from walking quickly, but the two mares joined up with the rest of their friends, already bubbling and happy.
The joy of the past few days was not forgotten to Twilight. She remembered fondly the time they had spent conversing, eating, socializing, and even playing games in the park. It reminded Twilight of her life in the sleepy little town before being named Archmage. That seemed like so many years and an entire world ago. Before she had learned all these different schools of magic. Before she had shouldered so much responsibility. Before she became one of the most influential ponies in the history of Equestria.
Even over the impending ceremony that day, where she’d swear her loyalty and undying love to Luna in front of everypony, that responsibility loomed. In the back of her mind, the buzzing thought of the things she had to do, of all the responsibilities that waited for her to be married.
’At least I’ll have the honeymoon after all this… I hope Night Dancer and Warden forgive me for taking such a long time away from them.’
“Twilight,” Rarity’s soft voice broke her from her reverie. She shook her head, looking to the alabaster unicorn with an open expression.
“You’re not focusing on what’s important.” Rarity’s tone chided her, making Twilight blanch a little.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean today is your wedding, dear. You look so focused on something else. Focus on the here and now, Twilight.”
“You’re right.” Twilight admonished herself, grinning at her gathered friends. “No sense in focusing on what’s to come. Let’s get changed.” They made their way to the caboose car; right in front of the luggage. They drew a few curious looks from ponies who had joined them, but that last car had been reserved for the bridal party, and all six mares made their way back in the company of one solemn Cross Stitch. Twilight idly wondered how well he’d handle being in a rattling train car with six dressing mares, but her fears were put to rest as they transitioned into the second-to-last car.
“What- hey!” A blindfold descended over her eyes, fully blocking out the sight of what was around her. Almost as if on reflex, her magic reached out, giving her a telluric picture of everything in the car. She was idly aware of two ponies moving towards the luggage car, while four other pairs of hooves rested on her back and chest, keeping her from moving.
“You know, I’ve enough decency to close my eyes if you wanted to surprise me.” She deadpanned as a faint bit of telekinesis disrupted the aura she had summoned, indicating it was Rarity at the back of the car, and she was lifting something out of the luggage.
“But where’s the fun in that?” Rainbow Dash scoffed, nudging her playfully. “Besides, Luna told us you’re kind of into blindf-MMF!”
“What Rainbow Dash is trying to say,” Fluttershy cut her off as Pinkie’s hoof reached out to collide with Dash’s mouth. The pegasi rubbed her lips with a hurt expression. It was honestly a little spooky how well Twilight could see with just her magic. “… is that we wanted to make extra sure this was as big of a surprise as could be.”
“Eeyup! We didn’t want you peeking to ruin it, even if on accident. Who knows what could happen to jostle you on the rails!” As if on cue, Pinkie’s premonition came true in the form of a faint jostle as the train began to round a bend, and their car caught up with the others in the motion. Twilight grimaced and relaxed back, relieving the pressure from four pairs of hooves.
"Well I can't blame you for taking extra steps to make it a surprise." She sighed, closing her eyes behind the blindfold. Her magic sought out the rear of the car, cutting through the hazy interference of Rarity's telekinesis to touch at the package. It was a boxed-up model pony, where she was sure the dress hung off of its artificial frame. Behind the wooden slats, though, she couldn't tell the specifics. The whole dress seemed fuzzy to her, indicating it had been enchanted. Whether those enchantments were to stop peeping eyes or cosmetic, she couldn't quite tell.
"Just another moment..." Applejack muttered as the wooden slats cracked and broke. Rarity was removing them one at a time. Why she went to the trouble of crating it in the first place was beyond her; though maybe it was to keep prying eyes from peeking at it on the way to the train. It was honestly a little overblown in Twilight's mind. She knew Rarity had a flair for the dramatic, but this was just too much. She heaved an impatient sigh as the other mares let loose a torrent of 'ooh's and 'aah's. Fluttershy squeaked at the sight of it, her hooves leaving Twilight's body. She was idly aware of the shy pegasus fluttering off to go sit down, the sound of her heavy breathing indicating a mild panic attack.
Whatever it was, it was gorgeous. Now if only Twilight could see the damned thing.
"Alright, sugarcube." Applejack finally stepped back, indicating it was fine for Twilight to look. Impatiently, she pulled the blindfold off and opened her eyes.
She understood why Fluttershy felt the need to go sit down.
Rich crimson fabric flowed like a waterfall down the model pony's haunches, the hem of the delicate skirt brushing the floor of the caboose ever so slightly. The deep color of the fabric gave it an almost burgundy coloration, but as the train turned and the mid-morning sun poured into the cab, it lit into a glorious, royal crimson color. Golden embroidery glimmered in the sunlight, lining the hem of the skirt all the way up to a stylish and moderate collar. The torso of the dress was framed in white satin, positively glowing with the lighting, and giving the red-white-and-gold dress a truly regal, mystifying appearance. The white veil draped across the face of the model, stopping just short of where the pendant of her necklace would rest.
As Twilight hesitantly stepped forwards, the dress was enveloped in a blue aura, and seemed to come alive before her eyes. The enchantments she had sensed earlier were indeed cosmetic, and the fabric around the legs began to ripple like the surface of a pond after a single pebble had been dropped into it. The skirt flowed like a river of blood, the folds coming back to cast black shadows on the rich fabric, and the white torso glimmered like roiling clouds on a bright, sunny day. The veil was attached to a delicate golden-wire crown stylized to hold both her and Luna's cutie marks in intricate patterns.
In short, it looked like nothing Twilight had ever seen. The design was modest enough to suit her perfectly, but crafted with such care and excellence, and such exquisite materials, that Twilight felt guilty wearing it down the aisle. It must have cost a veritable fortune. She was just about to reach a tenuous hoof out to touch it when Rarity's horn glowed brighter, fetching five smaller bags from the back of the cart. As Twilight watched, Rarity extracted the bridesmaids dresses from them, all of them a similar fashion of red, gold, and white. The skirts were shorter and not enchanted, but the chestpiece was similarly fashioned. On the flank of each dress was emblazoned the owner's cutie mark, done in golden filigree and hoof-stitched embroidery. They were even enchanted so that Pinkie's balloons bobbed faintly, Fluttershy's butterflies flapped lazily, and even Rainbow Dash's thunderbolt struck out of the white-lace cloud.
"I made the others' before yours," Rarity admitted guiltily. "... it was a struggle making them all on time, but you know me. I work best under pressure." She strode around the piece de resistance with pride in her eyes, looking up and down at the delicate work she had wrought. "But this one... It's one of my proudest accomplishments to-date." Her eyes turned back to Twilight, glimmering with tears of joy. "I owe many things to you, Twilight. My life included. This is my small way of making amends to you, for all of the effort you've put into not just our friendships, but saving Equestria and serving it as a whole."
"It's got a little somethin' from all of us, too, Twi." Applejack intoned solemnly. "Tell 'er, Rarity."
"That's right! I had nearly forgotten. Your dress has gifts from all of us in it. From Applejack, the red satin."
"Granny Smith had been savin' it fer somethin' special. She made Applebloom's Cutecinera dress outta that, but had plenty leftover. It's somethin' special to the whole family."
"And the veil..."
"Was mine." Fluttershy peeped up, having finally joined the others with her breathing under control. "B-big Macintosh and I had a... a small ceremony. The veil was my mother's, and mine, and now it's yours."
"The crown of the veil-"
"Used to be the Best Young Fliers competition crown." Rainbow Dash stepped in, her tone markedly more solemn than Twilight had attributed to the brash pegasus. "You were all there when I won it, and it's just been gatherin' dust on the shelf of my home. I figured, 'why not put it to use?' It means a lot to me, even if it's just been sitting there these last few years. Rarity melted it down and re-forged it for you and Luna."
"Was miiiiine!" Pinkie Pie burst out. Twilight hadn't noticed it, but the poor pony was jiggling with excitement. She had probably been holding it in for as long as they had been on the train. "It's been cleaned and saved ever since the very first party I threw for you, way back when you first moved to Ponyville! They were on the doilies where you drank that hot sauce right before bolting out! I didn't want them to go to waste, and after our fight with Nightmare Moon, I knew you were a special pony. And special ponies deserve special doilies!"
"Oh my gosh..." Twilight breathed, her mind reeling with all of the implications. Her best friends had put up some of their most prized possessions, giving her pieces of their lives that meant the absolute most to them. Her haunches hit the floor, and she felt tears welling in her eyes. "Girls, I... I don't know what to say."
"You don' have to say a thing, sugarcube."
"You've still got your vows to say." Rarity stepped forwards, laying a tender hoof on Twilight's cheek. "Now let's get dressed. Remember, this is supposed to be the best day ever."
"Right." Twilight blinked away her tears, grinning widely at the other ponies. "Let's do this."
The train ride to Canterlot wasn't a very long one, and after the reveal of the dress, they were hard-pressed to change in time. Twilight ran through the plans they had been arranging via letters back-and-forth the past week. Shining Armor was to meet them at the train platform and ride with Twilight in her carriage to the castle. Once there, she would be pulled aside to give the other girls enough time to get into place before walking the aisle with her brother. Following the ceremony, the reception would be held on the castle grounds, with Rainbow Dash and the Wonderbolts providing an aerial show, followed by music and dancing through the night.
Everything was going according to plan as they pulled into station. Shining Armor looked absolutely stunning in his regalia, but all eyes were on Twilight as she stepped off of the train. The ponies who had come with them were sequestered to their portion of the platform by a wall of guards, but their curious eyes couldn't be helped as they peeked around burly pegasi and unicorns. Twilight blushed furiously as the whispers of shock and awe radiated outwards, further compounded by Shining's open mouth.
"Twilight." He managed to close his jaw respectfully, though his eyes still stood wide in his head. "By Starswirl's beard, you look amazing..."
"It's all the dress, I assure you..." Twilight blushed, feeling a little self-conscious as her brother and all of the other ponies ogled her. She wasn't drawing half as many looks as the other ponies, even if she did think Rarity looked more beautiful than her. Cross Stitch wasn't half-bad in his stylish suit, either. He wouldn't stand with her on the podium, so he slipped off to catch a different carriage to the castle, and help assure that everything was going according to plan. The rattling wheels of his departure shook Shining Armor out of his stupor, and he offered a hoof to her. Twilight graciously took it, the seven of them making their way towards a line of carriages drawn by strong-looking colts of the guard, each of them standing stone-still.
Anticipation and anxiety began to grow in Twilight's gut as they boarded. Shining sat beside her, his back straight and tall, yet she knew he could hardly outshine her, no matter how low she slumped or well-hidden she tried to be. The dress wouldn't allow it. Her skirts flowed like water, and the radiant fabric made her shine like her own sun. As the carriages made their way down the main drag of Canterlot, ponies lined the roads on either side. A roaring cheer swelled up, urging her along towards the castle on a wave of sound.
"Smile and wave." Shining urged, nudging her faintly as he lifted his hoof. "This is your day, and they're all so happy for you."
"True." Twilight bolstered her strength, waving a hoof out at the cheering crowd, held back by a line of guards. She hadn't wanted to enlist their help, but Shining Armor and Bastion both insisted. This was her day, after all. She had relented, and was glad for that much. It wasn't just Canterlot ponies in attendance today, but there were dignitaries from all over Equestria here to witness the joyous occasion. She saw dress from Trottingham and Stalliongrad, stylish ponies from Manehattan and Baltimare, and the rustic touches of old-fashioned attire from Ponyville, Dodge Junction, and Appleoosa. This was a national event, and it showed with the sheer number of ponies lining the road.
"What about security?"
"We've got the entire Canterlot guard contingent on-duty, both undercover and in-uniform." Shining spoke quietly, though he still smiled and waved at the crowd. "I got a report just before your train arrived, our sleuthing spells have detected nothing wrong. We've checked everything, even changeling magic. Trust me, sis, nothing will go wrong."
"Alright." Twilight smiled, some minor fears that had been bugging at the back of her mind having been put to rest. She felt the anxiousness abate a little, the undertone of national security no longer highlighting the larger fear of 'Oh bucking stars, I'm getting MARRIED today!' The carriages continued on towards the castle, with everypony in attendance shouting wild encouragement to her. Roses and coins rained in from the crowd, to be picked up by attendants. Per tradition, ponies often tossed gifts and well-wishing cards into the path of the bride on her way to the venue. A rain of bits and letters, roses, lilies, and other gifts fell to the cobblestone street, picking up hastily by several unicorns guards leading the procession. Twilight caught one particularly bright-looking rose, lifting it to her nose and waving at the foreign stallion who had thrown it. Another ripple of cheers followed the act, and she tucked the rose protectively behind her ear. It matched the golden crown perfectly well.
"Alright. Showtime." Shining Armor beamed at her, opening the door and disembarking first to offer her a hoof down. She took it gratefully, still blushing from the onlookers and the anxiety. Her heart galloped in her chest, making her feel not unlike she was floating on a cloud. She clutched Shining's hoof close, leaning on him for support as her friends gathered around for a brief moment.
"We'll see you up there, Twi." Rainbow Dash beamed.
"Do try to relax, Twilight. Take deep breaths, and remember, you love Luna. I promise, that will help you through this day." Rarity fretted over her mane, tucking small wayward strands behind the rose.
"I'm so nervous. And excited." Fluttershy dashed forth for a quick hug, earning a reproachful look from Rarity as she ruffled the white chest piece.
"Y'all are gonna be fine, Twilight. B'fore you know it, you'll be back on the train to Diamond Bay. with Luna at yer side."
"But not before the PARTY!" Pinkie bubbled, bouncing backwards up the steps. "Come on! Come on, come on, come on! Let's go!"
"Thank you, girls. Let's not keep Luna waiting any longer." Twilight smiled at her friends confidently, finding the strength in her legs once again. She still felt nervous, but underneath the roiling sea of last-minute doubts and anxiety, there was a calmness in her. A sort of resolve that she hadn't felt in a long while. With one last parting smile, her friends turned and made their way into the castle. Shining Armor waited until they were inside before leading Twilight up the steps.
"Nervous?" He broke the tenuous silence with a soft word.
"Of course. But you gotta remember, you love that pony in there. Just like I loved Cadance. Like Rarity said, that one fact is going to help you through this day more than anything else. In here." He turned off of the main hallway and into what looked like a miniature study. The far door was closed, but beyond it Twilight could hear soft music and conversation. She knew it led into the hallway just outside of the ceremony chamber, with the wide double doors. Ponies were filing in at the last minute, ushered on by a boisterous Pinkie Pie. Luna was likely in the chamber already, waiting for her, right out that door, down the carpet, up the steps...
"Oh man." Twilight sighed, pacing now.
"Hey, relax." Shining smiled, nuzzling her once more. "I'll be just outside, making sure only the ponies who are supposed to come and visit. You'll get to talk to a few of them before you take the walk, alright? Don't come out until you're absolutely ready."
"Right." She offered him a brave smile and a return nuzzle as he slipped out of the door. It shut behind him, but opened again almost immediately. Into the small study emerged one pony Twilight was so glad to see again, it almost hurt as they rushed together.
"Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake! Clap your hooves and do a little shake!"
Princess Cadance laughed as she threw her hooves around Twilight, and into that embrace, Twilight felt all of her fears and doubts escape. It was such a lovely feeling, singing their little song and just being with her close friend once again.
"So this is it, huh?" Cadance bubbled, smoothing the ruffles she had put into the dress. "You look incredible, by the way... Oh, I wish I'd have had some say in my own dress. The red suits you very well."
"Rarity certainly did a wonderful job with it." Twilight beamed, turning a circle for Cadance. "I'm so thankful I have such good friends... And a good sister."
"We're going to be even closer, now. You're marrying one-half of our diarchy, after all. This gives you a better claim to the throne than even Bluebood has."
"Come on, Cadance." Twilight scoffed. "I'm the Archmage. I serve the crowns, not covet them. Mine is a life term, and I'll be Luna's Archmage first, and her wife second."
"I'm glad to hear that." A third voice preceded another of the Princesses, this time in the form of Celestia. She looked positively regal that day, her accoutrements glimmering as if in some unseen sunlight, and she wore a flowing dress of white silk that made her look even more ephemeral than usual.
"I have to go; I'm presiding, after all. Be strong, Twilight. I'll see you in a moment." Cadance gave Twilight a parting nuzzle, smiling at Celestia as she passed. The taller princess returned the smile with a warm touch to Cadance's side before turning her gaze onto Twilight.
"You truly do look radiant today, Twilight." Celestia moved forward to embrace her gently. "Luna is going to be so happy when she sees you."
"Thank you, Celestia. You look amazing today as well."
"I get the feeling that just this once," Celestia chuckled, pulling away and smiling down at her. "... I'm not going to be the brightest pony in the room."
"Just once." Twilight gave a nervous titter. "I don't think I'd be able to handle it after today."
"Well, allow me to be the first to say I'm glad this arrangement isn't muddling your priorities." Celestia's voice turned marginally more serious as she stepped back, resting on her haunches as she leveled with Twilight. "I know we've spoken about this extensively in the weeks before your trip to Ponyville, but I wanted to cement it before the ceremony: You are the Archmage first, and Luna's bride second. Your duty is to Equestria and her citiziens, myself, Luna, Cadance, and all of the other constituents you're familiar with."
"I know, Celestia-"
"-and," Celestia cut her off with a raised hoof. "I want you to know that for the next few days, those duties are to be switched."
"... What?" Twilight blinked up at her. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, it's not every day I get to see my sister married. Seeing Cadance wed was enough of a blessing, but seeing her fall in love with someone so close to the both of us..." Celestia's eyes watered for a moment, and she took a deep, shaky breath. "It means the world to me, Twilight. So, for the next few days, I want you to be Luna's bride. I have already made arrangements with Warden, Night Dancer, Bastion, and the rest of the council to allow... Well..." She blushed a little, scuffing the carpet with a hoof. "To allow me to take your place as Archmage."
"I... Celestia. I-" Twilight's head spun, and she spread her hooves to keep from toppling over. "You mean..."
"I mean you're freed from your duties until you return from your honeymoon." Celestia nodded warmly, smiling down at her. "No raising the sun and moon with us, no tending to the shields, no attending council meetings... Equestria will govern itself for the next week or so - however long it takes until your return - without either the Archmage or Princess Luna." Celestia did something Twilight had never expected the princess to do.
"Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a cupcake in my eye." She finished the customary series of gestures by laying her hoof over her eye, a devious smile on her face. "Pinkie Pie taught me that one."
"It, uuh... It's supposed to be 'hope to fly.'" Twilight blushed, still in shock at seeing such a display. Celestia scrunched her nose.
"That seems a touch silly to me. 'Hope to die' carries more weight, don't you think? Besides, that's what she taught me it ought to be. Neither of us are fillies anymore, and we know the promises we make to others carry more than just the weight of words." Celestia reached out to smooth the fabric of Twilight's dress fretfully. "We know our promises mean the world. So, on pain of whatever punishments the heavens deem fit, I will hold myself to your duties until you return." She sat back, smiling warmly at Twilight once more.
"Enjoy yourself, Twilight. Today is your day, and Luna's as well. Be married, have fun at the reception, make love to her on your honeymoon, and return to Canterlot a happy, fulfilled mare." She stood then, making for the door leading into the hallway. Before opening it, she cast a look over her haunches at Twilight. "Then, and only then, will I let you be the Archmage again."
She was gone, and in her wake, Twilight felt stunned. For the next few days, she wasn't the Archmage.
'No, scratch that. I AM the Archmage. If not in name, then in spirit. Celestia cannot take that from me or relieve my solemn duty. I might not be serving the crown, but I am still the Archmage, and should Equestria or the crowns need me, I will answer the call.' A grimace crossed her face. 'Even if it's in the middle of a shower with Luna.'
"Twilight, are you ready?" Shining had poked his head into the room. Twilight shook her head, clearing the stupor from her mind. A thought crossed the consciousness, and she gave pause.
"One more minute. I have another visitor."
"Do you? There isn't anypony out he- oh." He balked, as Twilight felt a familiar presence appear behind her. Shining Armor paled, but gave a slight nod. Twilight took a deep breath as he closed the door behind himself, and turned to face Eternity.
"Today is a monumental day." The Night spoke quietly, though her voice reverberated in Twilight's chest and mind.
"It is indeed. I do hope this development is to your liking?"
"Of course it is, child. I wish nothing more than to see Luna happy. Our relationship has been a source of pain for her in the past, but she still draws fulfillment from my presence. And, much like she and I, the two of you have a history as well." The Night's endless eyes pierced into Twilight, but in them she felt a warmth; a comforting sensation of acceptance and happiness that resonated with her on a level much deeper than any she could have imagined. It was the same feeling she felt when kissing Luna, or finding herself awake in the princess' embrace.
"You have not forgotten or forsaken your duty to Equestria, either. I find that noble, and admirable. You step into this union with my blessing, Twilight Sparkle. And know too that my brother smiles on this day with as much happiness as I. Seeing her sister prosper is at the heart of Princess Celestia's desires, and as such, the Day's. Your namesake is surprisingly fitting, that you be the one to bridge the gap between the Night and Day, by making Equestria and its regents happy. Now if you'll excuse me," The mysterious mare reared back, fading away into the dark ceiling of the study. The last whisper of her voice drifted past Twilight's ear.
"I have a wedding to attend."
The double doors opened smoothly, and the music swelled to silence even the heartiest of murmurs from the small audience of ponies. Twilight and Shining Armor stood at the threshold of the ceremony room, all heads turned towards them. Twilight spared the quickest of glances around at the gathered ponies before her eyes were drawn to the top of the steps. All five of her friends stood in a line, and in front of them was Princess Cadance, smiling warmly.
But past them, Twilight saw one thing and one thing only:
The princess was stunning that day. She didn't know who had designed that dress, but she sensed Rarity's ever-present hoof in the matter. A couple to Twilight's, the silken skirt of Luna's dress was a glimmering white, with a crimson bodice of warm satin. She looked the opposite of Twilight, even if her dark, dusky coat stood in stark contrast to the rich colors of the dress she wore. Her own veil, fashioned of the same material as Twilight's, did little to diminish the glimmering of her cyan irises, the joy dancing in them at the sight of Twilight.
Shining Armor gave her a gentle push, sending them on an easy walk down the aisle. Twilight walked as if on a cloud (something she was rather familiar with) down the carpeted aisle, completely unaware of the looks she was getting, the music playing in time with their muffled hoof falls, or even Princess Celestia standing just behind Luna.
The only thing occupying Twilight's mind at that moment was the beautiful Princess Luna, her confidant and lover, her solid foundation, her tower, her stronghold against the terrors of her own dreams and the long, sleepless nights they brought along with them.
The stairs glided under their hooves until Twilight stood before Luna, still in awe of her mysterious and entrancing beauty. She didn't even hear Shining Armor proclaim that he was handing her over, or Luna swear she would defend Twilight's honor. Only when her brother had left to join the audience and Cadance's hoof gingerly lifted her own did she finally hear anything else.
"Friends and family, colleagues, acquaintances, and loved ones... We've come together today to witness an event so rare in occurrence; so transcendent in beauty that even we Princesses have been blessed by it only a hoof-full of times in our lives." Cadance brought her hoof forward, joining it with Luna's.
"True love." Cadance's voice seemed to drop in volume, so that only Twilight and Luna could hear her. She leaned in, finally breaking Twilight's attention long enough that she could glance at the youngest princess. "Do you have your own vows?"
"I- I do." Twilight stuttered, the blush returning in force.
'Focus, girlie. You've practiced these words a hundred times over. It's not any different than a speech. You've stood up to the Greater Canterlot Council, and even the Night itself for pony's sake! You can do this!'
The lump in her throat vanished as Twilight spoke calmly and loudly.
"Luna, you've been my teacher, my friend, and even my guardian for a long, long time. You and I have shared many things together, be it a mutual love for our mysterious Night or a passion for literature. When we discovered our love for one another, I was still a foal in many aspects, and living through the most tumultuous time I've ever known.
"It was thanks to you that I emerged from such a trying period of my life, not just as the Archmage, but as a mare fully grown. You held me close and guarded my secrets, you comforted me and stood by my side through the worst of it. Your love and passion has seen me through the worst nightmares of my life, and helped me emerge from the other side a stronger, more beautiful, more confident pony than I could ever have hoped to be on my own.
"I owe my life to you, Luna. And in light of our friends, our family, and those we spend the most of our time around, I swear the very same life to you. From now until the day I die, until I am no longer able to draw breath..." She choked for half a moment, tears welling in her eyes. Two leaked out, falling to the tile at their hooves.
"Until I am no longer the Archmage... I will love and cherish you. I will share my every secret and shame with you. I will share in my triumphs and my failures, and share yours as well. This I swear before you, and before all of Equestria. Princess Luna, I am yours."
"That should do."
A blinding flash of green light filled Twilight's mind, and the last thing she remembered was the scintillating sound of magic roaring to life.
Chapter 4: The Vow, The Words, The Legend - Finale
The world came to her slowly at first, ushered in on the howling sound of rushing magic and panicked cries. Her body felt whole, undamaged, but dazed. She felt sluggish, like she were coated in cold molasses.
"Mmf... what...?" Her voice sounded hollow, and rang back to her on a faint echo. The afterimage of bright green light still filled her mind, making her head spin wildly. She tried to move her legs, to stumble around at least until she fell over. At least then she'd be able to orient herself properly. But she was unable, her legs encased in something hard. Panic set in, and she thrashed at her bonds. Her wrenching only gave her pain, and the faint sound of fabric tearing.
"What is happening?"
"That's what I'd like to know!" Celestia's voice rang out, sounding doubly more hollow than Twilight's own. But it was a voice, and pierced through the faint buzz of magic and panicked cries, which had incidentally died down a little.
"Twilight, you're okay! Thank the stars... Luna, she's a-"
"AAH!" Another crashing wave of magic shook the floor (if it could be called that) beneath Twilight's hooves. Celestia gave a clipped cry before her voice cut out once more, and the green light swelled to new intensities.
"Let us GO!" Another voice cut through the cacophony, making Twilight wonder if this wasn't all a dream.
"It's Luna, Twilight! She's a changeling!"
"WHAT?! Lucidity returned to Twilight in an instant, snapping her back to reality like a light switch flicking on. All around her was a translucent, pale-green orb, distorting and twisting the vision of the ceremony room beyond. Her legs were encased in the same material as that orb, which would explain why she was unable to move. But around her head and upper torso was a bubble of air, further explaining the hollow quality of her voice. She could breathe just as easily, which might also explain why she could hear the others. Similar orbs dotted the area around her, a total of eight that she could immediately count. Celestia's face emerged from the bubble immediately opposite Twilight, and Cadance still stood off to her left. There were four out in the audience containing indistinguishable faces, and if she craned her neck as far around as possible, she could see two more behind her, and one out in the audience on her side of the chamber.
But more frightening than that development was outside of the windows, where green flashes erupted upwards from the city below. Black dots filled the sky, zipping by the windows to erupt in ever-more lights. And before her stood the face of a nightmare, the changeling queen, her horn glowing brightly with the same sickly aura that encompassed her friends and loved ones.
"Chrysalis!" Twilight snarled, throwing herself against the crystallized goo covering her legs.
"Oh my dear, sweet 'wife.'" The queen cooed, turning her face towards Twilight. Her lips split in a devious grin, and she lifted her hooves to the translucent surface of her prison. "You couldn't be further from the truth."
"What?! Who else could impersonate Luna so convincingly?! You felt the exact same as her! Down to the way her mane looks, and even her EYES!" Twilight snarled, rage and anger filling her body at the creature before her. How DARE the changelings interrupt this day?! She would show them all. She would-
A wave of exhaustion washed over her, draining all the strength from her muscles. She groaned, her head spinning as she collapsed against her bonds. Through one half-lidded eye, she saw the changeling queen's horn glow brighter, a thread of energy trailing from it to caress the surface of the translucent crystal that made her captive.
"Yes, who, I wonder, could impersonate a Princess so convincingly?" The queen chuckled again, running her hole-filled hooves over the surface of the bubble surrounding Twilight's head. Her piercing green eyes never left Twilight's, holding them captive every bit as much as the stuff around her legs. Twilight wanted to fight and rage against the changeling, she wanted to break free and incinerate them all. She wanted to make sure the entire insectoid race knew better than the mess with the Archmage.
"My drones are busy taking over your city, so allow me a monologue, would you? I know it's dreadfully cliché, but I just can't help myself." The queen continued to stare at Twilight, even as her hooves caressed the orb holding her prisoner. "You see, I am indeed a Queen. But I am not Chrysalis. She was... Hmm, 'replaced' some years ago." The new Queen sat back, throwing her teal mane over her black-carapace shoulder.
"You may call me Liliana, the new Queen of the Changelings."
"So Chrysalis is..." Twilight managed to whimper.
"Gone. Dead, for lack of a better term. Though you could say we as a race 'absorbed' her. It's a complex bit of magic, and I'm not about to spill all my secrets to you, but let's just say we inherited all of Chrysalis. Her memories, her plans, her schemes, her failures and retrospective improvements... And we've improved, Twilight. Grown smarter. Faster. More powerful. You see," She glanced first to her right, at the green orb holding Cadance, and then out into the audience, close to where Shining Armor had gone to stand. "These two made some trouble for us last time with their 'true' love. What's more, Chrysalis was wildly unprepared to invade Canterlot." The queen's eyes strayed back to Twilight, fixing on her own once more.
"She made many amateur mistakes. Sending a threat to the crown before her own invasion? Her biggest mistake. Keeping the horde outside of the city? Even worse. Not subduing the competition as soon as she was able?" Those lips split into another dark grin, her white teeth glistening. "Her biggest downfall."
"Luna..." Twilight groaned. "What did you do to Luna?"
"Oh, she's not in the caverns beneath Canterlot, if that's what you're thinking." Liliana muttered, her voice cooing not unlike a dove's. Twilight felt sickened. "I've kept her close this whole time... Intimately close." Around the queen's neck was Luna's pendant, and she lifted a hoof to caress the metallic surface covetously. "It took some powerful magic, but with her love for you, I managed... Luna is in her own little prison, deep inside this very pendant."
"My, my, Twilight! Such a vulgar selection of words for such a pristine young bride." Liliana chuckled. She reached a hoof through the surface of the orb, snatching the veil off of Twilight's head. She pulled it out, the surface returning to its unblemished self once more. "To think, I was going to let you kiss me to seal the deal. But my oh my, that vow... Ooh." Liliana closed her eyes and shuddered visibly, like a mare at the heights of orgasmic bliss. "So much love and compassion in those words... Why, I've never felt so powerful in all my life."
"Not... Meant for you..." Twilight panted, struggling with the effort of feeling so exhausted. "That was my vow to Luna. Not you."
"Wasn't it, though? You said it yourself," Liliana vanished in a wreath of green-tinted flame. In her place was Luna, still wearing the dress, but a devious grin split her lips. "Nothing could impersonate her so convincingly. As far as you're concerned, Twilight, I am your Luna. And you are going to love me."
She hated to admit it, but Liliana was right. Even seeing Luna after such a revelation, and knowing the evil black creature that lurked behind that visage, Twilight couldn't help but feel a surge of love. That was Luna out there, just a hoof's length away, warm and alive and REAL.
'No! Not it's not! Snap out of it, Twilight!' Her admonishment fell on deaf ears, as energy surged into her muscles once more. She lifted her head to look into her lover's eyes, only to have another wave of exhaustion wash over her. The sensation of energy vanished as soon as it came, stolen on another wisp of green energy.
"Hmm, delicious." Luna licked her lips lasciviously, smiling into the orb at Twilight. "I think I've given you and yours enough time. I'm not like some storybook villain, Twilight. I know when to wait for you to tip your king over in check," Luna leaned in, her face breaking through the surface of the orb until it emerged in front of her. She could feel Luna's breath fill the space between them, her cyan eyes wide and bright and oh so beautiful.
"... and when to knock your king over to win the game."
The kiss happened before Twilight could stop it. Luna's lips were as soft as ever, and even her scent was the same. That deep, earthy, metallic aroma of magic and night time filled her nostrils, flooding her senses with Luna's glorious presence. She felt whole again, after being gone for so long in Ponyville. Six nights and seven days without Luna, with the nightmares hovering over her. All of the preparations and red-eyed mornings, the whimpered prayers she whispered to her pillow, the heartache and anticipation for this very day; no, this very moment.
Gone, as Liliana sucked the strength from her wholly, her horn glowing green instead of Luna's dark, royal purple. Twilight felt those hopes and dreams sapped out of her, draining away as the changeling queen stole them all, made them hers, and would turn on Equestria with them.
"Oh yes, that was divine." Luna's voice filled her ears, and even that soft resurgence of love was sapped away as well. "You really do love her. More so than Shining Armor did for dear, sweet Cadance. It's a shame, really." Liliana purred, disappearing in a flash. She returned to her normal form, the black insectoid creature with slitted eyes looking straight into Twilight's. In the absence of Luna, Twilight felt completely devoid of hope. She sagged down, though her head was wrenched upwards as the queen pushed a hoof into her prison, using her horn for leverage to push Twilight's head up.
"I don't feel like draining you dry, dear Twilight. But you're one of my greatest threats. Well, second to your brother, of course... Don't you worry, I'm about to go handle that as well. But once I'm done with him and dear Princess Cadance, I'm coming back for you. And I am going to sap every last morsel of love from your shriveled body until your heart gives out, and you shuffle off this mortal coil. Just like my predecessor, just like the dozens of ponies I've had to remove to get to Luna... And just like your love, when I'm done with everything." Liliana's eyes danced with glee, her voice shaking as she giggled.
"And then I'm going to take Equestria."
Twilight wasn't sure how long it had been. Maybe one minute. Maybe fifteen. But Liliana had left her to sag into the bonds of her prison, her muscles aching and even her magic feeling weak and depleted. The queen had put them all in check by taking one key piece off of the board and putting herself in that place. Unlike targeting Cadance like Chrysalis had done, Liliana had moved for Luna. Using her love for Twilight, Liliana had subdued her greatest threat, and was now draining them of even their ability to fight back.
'Come on, Twilight, THINK! Shining Armor and Cadance have beaten her before, using true love... But she's got them apart, and probably feeding off of either of them right now. Not to mention, she said she's stronger now. Better... She'd have to be, to get past Shining Armor's sleuthing spells. And her horde is out there in the city right now, draining everypony of their love. How many years has she planned this? How much preparation did she get into? How did she know the right time and place to move?' Those questions and more poured into Twilight's brain, and brought with them no answers. Twilight focused hard on Luna, trying to summon more strength from her love of the princess, but it was drained from her the moment she tried.
'This isn't Chrysalis, Twilight.' She found herself snarling in her mind. 'It's a whole new changeling, an entirely different horde. Chrysalis made mistakes. She put me in the same prison as Cadance. She didn't subdue the six elements of harmony when she had the chance. She didn't even subdue Celestia until they had fought horn-to-horn. This one, she's put us all out-of-commission with this... this... Whatever this is.' Twilight focused on her prison, trying to dissect its composition. It felt like pushing a boulder uphill, but the faintest flicker of her magic came back, giving her a chance to survey the makeup of the stuff holding her legs.
It seemed to be a physical manifestation of love magic, congealed until it had crystallized. It acted as a sort of conductor, a sponge of sorts, to the magic that resided within everypony. Whenever Twilight felt love for Luna, this prison sapped that from her and fed it directly back to the caster. Liliana. What's more, there was a faint trace of her own magic in the prison.
"I see," Twilight panted. "You've tailored each of these to the pony that holds them."
"Oh, that's good, Twilight." Liliana's voice caused her to flinch, though she summoned just enough strength to look up at the queen. She was crackling with green energy now, and an icy touch of dread ran down her spine. Who had she just fed off of? Which one of her friends and loved ones had just been sapped so that there was nothing but a husk of them left? Her own magic flickered and gave out, the introspection she had paid to her prison fading away like smoke on a breeze. She was a prisoner again, weak and sapped of energy.
"You've figured it out. It took me three years to formulate these prisons. And I couldn't cast them without an immense well of energy. You see, everypony here loves something else, and that love gives them strength. That's what helped Cadance and Shining Armor break free of the spell Chrysalis had placed on them all those years ago. Cadance loved Shining Armor, and Shining Armor loved Cadance. Rather than trap that love, as I have, Chrysalis merely fed off of it. I have managed to do both with these prisons. Look around you." A faint surge of energy shot into Twilight, enough to lift her head more and look around.
"Cadance, no..." The prison to her left was dim, looking like a dark green shadow. She couldn't even see inside of it.
"Ah yes, she gave me more love than I've felt in a long time. Just as much as Luna had given me, actually..." Liliana chuckled. "She loves Shining Armor so. It was her downfall. Your friends behind you? They've got loves of their own. Weaker loves than the one you and Luna share, but powerful in their own right. Rainbow Dash, she cares so much for her friends. Loyal to a fault. Applejack, her family and her farm. Pinkie Pie the smiles she spread on other ponies' faces... Dear Fluttershy and her oh so vanilla love for Big Macintosh. Say what you will, I do love the classics. Aah, and Rarity..." Liliana chuckled and tapped the surface of Twilight's orb.
"One would think your alabaster friend cares most for dear Cross Stitch over there, yes?"
"You mean... she doesn't?" Twilight felt dread in her heart once more. Liliana wouldn't be able to hold her if she didn't sap the thing Rarity loved most.
"Oh no, dear Twilight. Miss Rarity doesn't love him - or any stallion - that much." Her hoof reached into the orb, pulling Twilight's eyes up. In horror, she watched as Liliana shifted into Rarity, her friend emerging before her in a flash.
"She loves you."
Twilight didn't even need to think about it for a moment before she knew it to be true. Of course she cared for Cross Stitch, that much was certain. But Rarity had followed Twilight to the edge of oblivion and back. They had been through more together than even the other elements of harmony. Twilight had given Rarity her life, and even helped her find the love she shared with Cross Stitch. Maybe Rarity didn't have romantic or erotic feelings for Twilight, but there were deeper and stronger bonds of love than those. She knew, she shared those bonds with Luna. The feeling she got knowing her partner was happy, knowing they were fulfilled. The sensation of seeing a smile on their lips, and a laugh in their very eyes, lighting up their whole existence like daybreak on a dark and cold world.
Rarity might not have been married to Twilight, but she was most certainly in love with her.
And that love was what would kill her.
Twilight didn't need to be exhausted to slump over this time. The impostor Rarity's hoof fell away, and in its wake, Twilight had never felt more desolate. The tears came then, fast and free, pooling in the bottom of her own prison of love.
Her thoughts ran wild. At a million miles an hour, they flitted through her mind, questions and answers blending into one never-ending drone of misery and hopelessness. She despaired as Liliana moved around the room, systematically draining the translucent spheres until they were as dark and cold as Cadance's. Twilight couldn't help but blame herself for this mistake. If only she had noticed Luna was actually a changeling, or begged to see her before the ceremony as the nagging doubts in her mind had told her to. If only she had done something to stop this. In the end, it was a fruitless bout of blame, but the guilt still remained. She was trapped, and she was probably going to die.
'Is this my destiny? Is this what the prophecy in that book said about me? "Sucked dry of all love by the heartless Queen of Changelings?" What a way to die...' The tears continued to trickle from her eyes, most certainly ruining her makeup and staining the neck of her dress where it melted into her prison. That despair continued to mount on her as she realized Liliana was going to conquer not just Canterlot, but all of Equestria. And who could oppose her? The gryphons would probably turn a blind eye, as long as the changelings didn't come into their territory. The Crystal Kingdom would be defenseless without Cadance and Shining Armor. Saddle Arabia might be the next target, but they were so far away that Liliana would be hard-pressed to go to them. And to the South, the dragons likely would leave them be. There was little love to be had there anyways. No, Liliana would be content lording her powerful magic over Equestria, feeding off of its imprisoned citizens for... who knew how long?
Equestria was doomed, and it was at her wedding.
'What does Celestia love the most that Liliana could use to imprison her?!'
The thought lanced into Twilight's mind, jolting her awake. She looked across at Celestia's orb, the surface darkening slowly. She could see the princess' face inside, tears staining her muzzle as she watched Liliana. The two of them made eye contact after a moment, and the tears doubled. Liliana was across the room, so she dared speak to Twilight.
"I'm so sorry, Twilight... I should have known something was wrong."
"Was Luna acting strangely the past few days?"
"Yes," Celestia nodded solemnly. "But I figured it was because of her anxiousness to be wed to you. I had no idea it was because... because of this."
"Don't blame yourself, Celestia." Twilight sobbed, feeling empathetic towards the crying princess. "She's bested all of us. She's smarter than Chrysalis was, and with Luna's love, even more powerful."
"She's a worthy foe, indeed." Celestia sobbed, her head sagging as a thin thread of green energy slid off of her prison to shoot across the room to Liliana. "But you know what I always say..."
"What?" Twilight choked, blinking the last wave of tears from her eyes. Celestia looked up at her, a sad smile on her face.
"Woe to the pony who thinks they can best the Archmage."
"HEY!" Liliana's insect voice thundered through the room, shocking Twilight enough that her exhausted body couldn't handle it. She slumped down once more, though she could hear the angry hoof-beats of the changeling queen drawing closer. "What did you say to her?! What did you tell Twilight?!"
"None of your business, fiend." Celestia gasped. Twilight could tell she was having difficulty speaking. "Leave her be."
"Oh, that was not very nice." Liliana growled. "I thought as much from you. One last-ditch effort to subdue me... But I know of your power, I learned it from Chrysalis before I devoured her and ascended to the top. And I know that which you love the most, Celestia. I think it's time I removed your threat. Watch me, Twilight." Liliana glanced at her, and another shock of energy filled her, just enough to raise her head. "Watch me as I drain your mentor of that which she cherishes most."
"And what would that be..." Twilight growled, putting a token bit of strain against her bonds.
"Why, the one thing a princess loves the most." Liliana's horn blazed to life, and Twilight watched in horror as the surface of Celestia's prison darkened. The last thing she saw was the princess' face, her eyes ablaze with defiance, before the last bit of her love was taken from her.
"And now, Twilight." Liliana turned on her. The changeling queen hummed with power, the love of all of the other ponies having filled her with so much energy. She could feel it in the air, even if the faintest spark of her own magic had been dwindled so much that she could hardly lift a feather with her telekinesis, she could still tell that Liliana commanded a great amount of power. Equal to all of the princesses of Equestria combined, and with plenty to spare. The green energy lanced from her hooves into the floor, crackled from her horn, and danced in her eyes.
"Say goodbye to the one you love the most."
Twilight felt stripped. The last morsel of energy left her body, sucked out through her horn. It felt like a high-powered vacuum was pulling at her face, sucking the very fur off of her body. Instead, it took her strength, her will, her very life essence.
"The one thing a princess loves the most."
Twilight's own thoughts came to her in her dying moments.
'I AM the Archmage. If not in name, then in spirit. Celestia cannot take that from me or relieve my solemn duty. I might not be serving the crown, but I am still the Archmage, and should Equestria or the crowns need me, I will answer the call.'
Twilight's head rose, with a frown of determination on her lips.
'Even if it's in the middle of my wedding to Luna.'
A blinding flash of light. A scream. The mortal sound of magic erupting into existence, powerful and absolute and deadly. Twilight surged to her hooves, standing tall and bright amidst a wave of light the likes of which not even Liliana could summon in her state.
"What are you- WHAT IS THIS?!" Liliana shrieked, stumbling backwards with wide, fearful eyes. "I had you! You were sapped of everything you had! Your love for Luna, for your friends, for Celestia and Rarity and all of your colleagues! You had nothing! I HAD EVERYTHING!"
"You've overlooked one major point." Twilight's voice shook into existence, reverberating loud enough to send dust sifting from the ceiling. She strode forward, her dress igniting from the intense heat of the day, hissing and melting away into nothingness as the night wreathed itself around her. The air grew dry as droplets of moisture condensed. A gusting wind blew in the windows, shattering glass and sending a wave of shards cascading down around them. Fire ignited into existence, swirling around her as roots took hold in the cracks in the tile. Pure, purple arcane energy crackled from her horn, and Twilight's eyes lit with a blaze of glorious energy and life.
"I am the Archmage of Canterlot. And nothing," She narrowed her gaze at Liliana.
"Not even my love of Luna,"
The crackling intensified to all-new levels. Liliana's eyes went wide with shock and mortal fear. Twilight stood over her, commanding a maelstrom of power.
"IS GREATER THAN MY LOVE FOR EQUESTRIA!"
Twilight stood in the middle of the fallout of her last spell, panting and feeling shaky. This exhaustion was different from the one she had just been subject to at the queen's machinations. It was one of having spent too much magical energy, of having pushed herself to her limits and maybe even a little beyond. Her horn ached so much that it throbbed into her head, and a vicious migraine began to thud at her temples.
Liliana's prisons were gone. Inside, her friends were unconscious. Each of them had been sapped to their last, devoid of any love magic until it had begun to tax their bodies. None of them would walk away from this without repercussions. But Twilight had saved them, and indeed all of Equestria, in the past few minutes.
But one prison remained, glowing green and crackling energy directly in front of Twilight. She squared up with it, looking through the translucent surface at the visage of Liliana inside. She snarled at Twilight, lunging and twisting about as best she could. Twilight sighed as she forced a spark of magic into her horn, focusing it on the prison before her.
"WHAT?!" A thin wisp of energy flowed off of the prison and into Twilight. It surged into her muscles, soothed the ache in her horn, and fed her the energy she had just expended. "NO!" Liliana raged, snarling at her. "THAT IS MY SPELL! MINE!"
"And now it's mine." Twilight groaned, popping the joints in her back and legs. "Man, that took a lot out of me to cast... And I had to do it without the love of anypony else surging into me." She leveled her gaze at Liliana through the surface of the prison, glowering angrily at her. "You changelings have some incredible magic. Hurtful as it is."
"How could you possibly have done this?" Liliana growled, having stilled her thrashing. Twilight had made sure to enforce the changeling queen's spell with her own flair, adding arcs of earth and fire to the casting so that it was more structurally sound.
"It was hard, let me tell you... And I don't feel so good feeding off of this love, either." Twilight blanched as she took another green wisp of energy from the prison. Liliana flinched inside, her own energy leeched off of her. "But I need it to wake my friends up." Twilight turned from the prison to the scattered forms of the ponies Liliana had imprisoned. She imparted some of the energy from the spell into them, smiling as they all moaned and came awake. They looked around, confused and scared, at the devastation around them. Twilight's realization had shattered the windows, and the nature magic she'd summoned had accelerated the growth of the plants around the castle, breaking through minute cracks and into the ceremony room.
Like waking from a collective dream, everypony rose to their hooves. They made their way towards her, some with questioning frowns, others with relief, and most of them with disbelief and shock on their faces. Celestia was the first to speak, and she was the only one with a warm smile on her lips.
"I told you. 'Woe to the pony who thinks they can best the Archmage.' How did you do it, Twilight?"
"It's funny," Twilight looked at the defeated queen. "She told me the solution herself."
"Well, when she fed off of you just before turning to me." Twilight chuckled. "She said 'the one thing a princess loves the most.' And it made me wonder, what is it that you, Celestia, could love more than anything?" She opened her hooves, indicating the room around them, and indeed everypony gathered.
"It's Equestria. You've always put your constituency first, even before your own sister. You banished Luna to the moon to save the land you love most. And when I realized that was what was poisoning you," Twilight inhaled deeply, dropping her hooves and closing her eyes.
"... It became my strength. I love Equestria just as much as you, Celestia. Even more than I love Luna, or my friends, or anypony and anything. And I think anypony here can find that strength as well." She smiled at the gathered faces all around her. Cadance, Shining Armor, Celestia, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Cross Stitch, Fluttershy, Rarity, Bastion, Warden, Night Dancer, Green Gable, Archer, and all of the other ponies who had been trapped by Liliana. "As long as that love isn't what's being used against us, then we can use that love to triumph over anything."
"Oh good." Liliana's low voice cut her off, and everypony's eyes turned to her. "Now I know what to trap you all for next time."
"Hah." Twilight pulled another thick wisp of energy off of the prison, watching as Liliana groaned and sagged in her binds. "I don't think there's going to be a next time, Liliana." Twilight reached through the translucent surface of the orb, and just as she had thought, it yielded to her. She pulled the pendant off of the changeling's head, smiling faintly at the sight of Luna's necklace. "We're going to put an end to the changeling threat once and for all. With you in this prison, we have the changeling horde under our control. Or more specifically, my control."
"So, wait a moment..." Bastion interjected, his brow furrowed. "You mean you control this prison of hers?"
"In a fashion, yes." Twilight nodded, pulling Luna's necklace over her head. The pendant snapped against her own necklace, the reassuring sound making her sigh happily. "She designed this prison to feed off of the most intense love she knew in any of us. For instance, she keyed Shining Armor's prison to feed off of his love for Cadance. Celestia's love for Equestria. My love for Luna. You get the point." She gleaned past Rarity's most intense love with a faint blush.
"So... What are you using her love for?" Celestia sobered them all with a simple question. Twilight sighed once more, looking into Liliana's eyes sadly.
"Her love for her changelings."
"That doesn't seem right..."
"She's a queen." Twilight silenced them all with a shrug. "Whatever she does, she's done it out of love for her constituents. Just like Celestia's most powerful love was for Equestria, hers is for her changelings."
"Please," Liliana sobbed, trying hard to lift her head inside the prison. "Please, don't hurt them."
"See?" Twilight lifted a hoof to her, feeling rather sad for the sight. To think, just a few minutes ago, this creature had been intent on the destruction of Equestria as she knew it, and now was begging Twilight. "She knows her priorities, and I know her. If she has a greater love than that, she could break free of this prison, just as I broke free of hers with my love for Equestria. Isn't that right, Liliana?"
"It is." The queen choked, still crying in her prison. "I... I thought I had you, using your love for Luna. This whole nation has been abuzz for months about the wedding. Everywhere I've been had talked about it. It's all that seemed to possess your minds... I was wrong. I was foolish! You don't love Luna, you love the very ground you walk upon; the air you breathe, and the ponies who share this land with you." Liliana looked to Twilight again, tears streaming from her eyes.
"Please, I beg of you, don't hurt my changelings! Please!"
Twilight looked to Celestia, the two of them sharing an intense look for a long, long while. After almost a full minute, Celestia heaved a sigh.
"We will do no harm to your changelings, Liliana. But we must reach an accord. I can't allow them to terrorize my land any longer." As she spoke, another flash of green light erupted outside, followed by a panicked scream. They all turned towards the source, and Twilight felt her heart beat inside of her chest harder. There were ponies out there that were still in trouble! She glared at Liliana, her ears laid back against her head.
"Stop them. Stop them right now."
"I... I can't!" Liliana panicked, writhing against the prison again. "I can't reach out to them! My magic is blocked by this prison!"
"Damnit!" Twilight whirled to Celestia, her eyes bright with anger and frustration. "We have to let her out of the prison!"
"Not yet." Celestia glowered. "I want your promise, Liliana. No more open hostilities against Equestria or her citizens."
"No more feeding off of our love for one another."
"No more killing, and I fully expect you to answer for those crimes as well!"
"We- we didn't kill anypony! We've still got them, they're just in their own spells like this one. We keep them to feed off of!" Liliana was thrashing now, and Twilight could tell she was hurting herself in a fever pitch.
"You will release them all." Celestia stepped forward, looking intently into the prison.
"Of course! Princess, I promise you, release me now and I will do as you please! JUST LET ME GO TO MY CHANGELINGS!"
"... Very well. Twilight, release her."
"As you wish." Twilight focused on the spell, dissipating the energies that had restrained the queen. Liliana blinked as the energy dissipated around her, gently setting her back on her hooves. Twilight still stood at guard, ready to blast the queen if she tried anything. But the changeling took one look at her, bristling with energy, and Celestia as well, before closing her eyes. A ripple of magic washed over them, echoing out from the palace and into Canterlot.
Night Dancer broke away from the group, dashing over to one of the shattered windows. Her hooves sent shards of glass skittering across the floor, but she reached the aperture unharmed, throwing her hooves up onto the sill to look outside.
"They're... They're leaving! The changelings, they're leaving!"
"I see." Celestia relaxed, and even Twilight felt a wave of relief wash over her. All eyes turned to the queen, and Liliana cowered beneath their piercing gazes. "Now." Celestia stepped forward, towering over the cowed queen. "We must reach an accord. I do not wish to kill you or your changelings, but so help me Liliana, if I don't feel you're being sincere in any promises you make, or have made, I will end you and your pathetic race right here and now." The promise was not a hollow one. Twilight knew Celestia to be immensely powerful, particularly if she wasn't caught off-guard, as she had been by the changelings before. Indeed, the changelings might have been the one thing Celestia could be bested by. Not even Regal's spell, which was designed to kill a princess, could harm Celestia. With a threat directly in front of her, Celestia was as dangerous as she could ever be. Twilight felt a faint hum from Bastion as he began preparing a barrier to protect the group, should Celestia act on her promise.
All for naught, it would seem. Liliana looked up into Celestia's eyes, her own still brimming with tears.
"Please, don't. That won't be necessary, I promise! I'll do whatever you say. What... Whatever she says." Liliana's eyes flitted to Twilight for a brief second. Celestia noticed that, and smiled faintly.
"Good. I have just a few questions for you, then. What brands of love can your changelings feed off of?"
"What?" Liliana choked, blinking up at Celestia. "What do you mean?"
"I mean friendship, lust, and camaraderie. There are many types of love in this world. Some of them are more strong than others, but what kinds can you and yours exist off of?"
"Uum..." Liliana blinked, obviously taken aback by the question. "I don't... I don't know."
"Then we will consider it a continuing study. For now, can you survive without feeding on the love you have been up until now?"
"For a while," Liliana admitted. "We were running short on ponies to feed off of before now. Chrysalis had it worse than I; which may have been part of the reason she attacked when she did. But I suppose we can live for another few months on what we have...?" Liliana sounded sure enough, at least for Celestia, who nodded firmly.
"Alright, then. Here are my conditions for your survival. First: Release Luna from her prison."
"I can do that." Liliana nodded to Twilight. Loathe as she was to remove the pendant, Twilight unclasped it and pulled the two apart, passing Luna's necklace over to the changeling queen. Liliana focused on the pendant, her horn glowing green. As she watched, the aura wrapped around the metal teardrop with Twilight's cutie mark emblazoned on it, growing brighter and brighter until a second aura detached from it, roughly the same size and shape as the pendant. Liliana turned to an open portion of the floor and set the aura down. It shimmered and crackled a little, but began to grow in size. The coloration shifted as it grew, going from green to red, darkening into a deep mauve, and then to purple and finally blue. Twilight watched with a sigh of relief as Luna emerged from the spell, curled up peacefully on the floor, her nose tucked under her wing as if she were asleep. Indeed, her chest rose and fell peacefully.
"She will wake in a few minutes," Liliana groaned, sagging down once her magic died away. Twilight snatched the pendant from her, going to stand over Luna protectively. Celestia squared up with Liliana once more, her expression still serious.
"My second condition is for you to release and stop feeding off of all the ponies you are currently using."
"That will take time." Liliana muttered, glancing away from Celestia. "There are quite a few, and they are all over. Many of them in Trottingham, since we needed the libraries there. Here in Canterlot, there are only four. Guards, mostly, who grew suspicious of me. And a few elsewhere. Ponyville, Stalliongrad, one in Horseshoe Bay..."
"We will do what we can to accomdoate your travel to these places so you may release those ponies, but this command is absolute. You will release them."
"O-of course!" Liliana raised her hooves defensively. "I'll release them all. I-is there anything else?"
"Thirdly, you will stop open aggressions against Equestria. Twice in the past ten years, you and your changelings have disrupted the balance of power and very nearly overthrown a peaceful way of life for we ponies. I will not stand for any further aggression." Celestia stomped a hoof, snorting at Liliana angrily. "This ends NOW, Liliana!"
"Of course! Of course!" Liliana cowered into a ball, throwing her hooves over her head. "B-but, we'd starve if we d-don't feed! You cannot let us starve!"
"I know," Celestia sighed, calming herself with a breath. She looked down at Liliana with a serious expression. "Which is why my fourth promise isn't one I request from you, but rather one I give to you. If you release all of the other ponies and promise to never attack us again, I will personally see to it that your kind is given another form of sustenance. There MUST be some way that you can live without imprisoning and harming us so! Should such a way exist, then I promise you." Celestia offered a hoof to Liliana, a kind smile on her lips. "I will find it and share it with you. Even if it means extending a hoof of friendship to your kind."
"So, I guess the wedding is postponed?" Pinkie Pie asked, the train rattling back towards Ponyville. They were all out of their dresses, though Rarity still mourned the loss of her masterpiece after Twilight had accidentally burned it away.
"I don't think we're going to have a big wedding again." Twilight chuckled, looking out of the window at the dwindling city of Canterlot. "But I'm sure Luna and I will want to exchange our vows for real. I promise you all, when that day comes, I'll invite you."
"Yes, Liliana, and you as well." Twilight smiled at the changeling queen, who was disguised meekly as a shy earth pony with an ash-grey coat. Her cutie mark was a crossed hammer and wrench.
"Ah still don't see why she had to come with." Applejack growled, glaring daggers at the disguised queen.
"She said there were ponies in Ponyville that she had imprisoned. I'm escorting her so she can release them, per her agreement with Celestia." Twilight propped an elbow on the windowsill, setting her chin in her hoof as she watched Canterlot disappear around a bend in the tracks. "Then maybe when we get back, Celestia would have found a way to keep the changelings alive."
"Oh, uuh..." Liliana muttered, a blush rising to her ashy cheeks. "We think she may have, uuh... Found a way already."
"Really?" Twilight mused, arching an eyebrow at her. "She didn't tell me. Then again, we've only spoken through letters since she took Luna beneath the palace." Indeed, her wife-to-be hadn't awoken from her slumber as Liliana had said she would. Celestia said it was due to her own magic having been drained, and there was thankfully a hearty deposit of it nearby in the caverns beneath Canterlot. She had taken Luna down to the shield battery to help recharge the princess, at least enough that she could wake up and replenish her own energy. Twilight had agreed to escort Liliana while Bastion took over as Regent, helping run the minutiae of Canterlot in their absence, with Cadance and Shining Armor providing a healthy check to his balance.
"W-well, it's not exactly conventional, and-"
"It's not bucking, is it?" Rainbow Dash deadpanned.
"N-no! It isn't!" Liliana sputtered. "I swear, it's... Well, you'll think me silly..."
"You can tell us." Twilight coaxed, smiling at her. Liliana returned the smile before looking down at her hooves shyly.
"It's... Well... Drinking."
"Drinking. Like, alcohol." Liliana shrugged. "We were talking, and she offered me a drink, and jokingly I said cider... Well, she managed to get me some and... Here we are."
"Huh." Applejack grunted, peering at Liliana searchingly. "So y'all mean to tell me you changelings cin survive jes' by... drinkin' cider?"
"Well, drinking communally. I don't know what it is, but when she and I toasted, I just... Felt it. Like when I feed off of a pony-" She cast a furtive glance around, but Twilight nodded encouragingly. "I just felt it, okay? We're going to try this. And I won't... Well, I won't try to take over Equestria anymore."
"Great." Applejack groaned, leaning back in her seat. "As if ah thought demand fer cider weren't enough, now we've got a whole race of bugs who're gonna need it ta live."
There was a moment of silence before they all burst into laughter.
The train hissed as it pulled into Ponyville, feeling to Twilight not unlike she had just slipped into a comfortable, worn set of boots. She loved Canterlot and Luna fiercely, but some part of her heart still called the sleepy little town home. Coming to each time, be it after a few days or a few years, felt like stepping through the door of an old home. The seven ponies disembarked with tired yawns and heavy heads. Following the hectic events in Canterlot, the Elements of Harmony had set to assisting with the clean-up while Celestia and Liliana discussed terms and conditions. Following that, the changeling queen had been delivered into Twilight's care at the train platform, and they had disembarked for Ponyville immediately.
Now, having arrived in the late-evening, Twilight felt her strength begin to flag. Her friends mirrored her sentiment, and even Liliana appeared to be lagging.
"Ah've got a long walk home, and prolly some work to do b'fore ah catch mah forty winks." Applejack yawned widely, setting her gaze on the far end of town. "Y'all are gonna hafta excuse me. But we're meetin' fer lunch tomorrow, right?"
"Not me, girls." Pinkie Pie sighed softly, hanging her head rather uncharacteristically. "I need to get back to Baltimare as soon as possible, and then Manehattan a week after that. Taking this time off put me in a bind, and I've got a lot more smiles to spread to catch up. I'm catching the first train out of here tomorrow morning."
"Well then, lemme say my goodbye now darlin'." Applejack went to give Pinkie Pie a warm hug, followed by the rest of them. Even Liliana embraced the pink party pony after a bit of hesitation. Pinkie smiled warmly at her before trotting off to Sugarcube Corner, likely to commandeer a bed for the night. Rainbow Dash hung listlessly in the air, and Fluttershy's mane hung limp around her face. Rarity and Cross Stitch looked haggard, and Twilight's horn was still aching faintly.
"Tomorrow for lunch, right?"
"Right." Rarity echoed, and everypony else nodded their acquiescence. Fluttershy flapped off in the opposite direction Applejack had went, and Rainbow Dash muttered something about borrowing a cloud from the local weather team. That left Twilight, Rarity, Cross Stitch, and Liliana to find their own place to sleep.
"Hmm, it's late, but if the key is still there then I can pull it back out with magic." Twilight mused, turning towards the towering oak tree a short ways away. "Here's hoping nopony's come to collect it yet, and they'll allow us another night."
"Just one night?" Rarity fell in step behind Twilight, but her voice betrayed a growing concern. Twilight cast a glance over her withers at the alabaster unicorn, her heavy eyes feeling cold and heartless.
"There are ponies who need us. We can't stay around visiting forever. If I had my way, I'd be in Canterlot right now, trying to resuscitate Luna and finishing with the clean-up. Instead,"
"Eep." Liliana had opened her mouth to say something, but a hard look from Twilight silenced her.
"We need to leave for wherever's next as soon as possible. Sleep first, then lunch to say goodbye, and then we're back on the road."
Cross Stitch silenced Rarity, who had opened her mouth (presumably to protest) but let it close without a sound. The four of them made their way to the library in silence. Luckily enough, the key had been left in the drop box, and Twilight fished it out with a tricky bit of telekinesis. After sweeping inside and locking the door behind them, Twilight turned to Liliana, though she spoke to Rarity.
"You two can take the upstairs bedroom again. I actually wanted to have a talk with Liliana before we turned in."
"Okay, darling." Rarity yawned, leaning heavily on Cross Stitch as they made their way towards the staircase. "We'll see you in the morning."
"Come on," Twilight turned to a nearby door, leading down into the basement area. "There's an extra bed and sheets in storage. Help me pull them out."
"Okay." Liliana followed Twilight, looking doubly as tired as the Archmage felt. Inside the door and down the staircase was the storage area, which in the past had held things like cleaning supplies, book repair tools, extra paper and bindings, boxes with personal belongings and those sorts of things. It had even housed a makeshift laboratory for researching Pinkie Pie's eerie capabilities at predicting future events. Now, it was bare, populated only by cobwebs and dust.
"There isn't a-" Liliana's voice was cut short as the door shut behind them, Twilight's lavender glow enveloping the entire subterranean space. Wide-eyed with fear, Liliana turned to face Twilight, only to cry out as the first bolt of magic impacted her torso.
"Thank the stars," Twilight grimaced as she watched Liliana tumble down the staircase, a cacophany of thumping limbs and clipped cries of pain filling the space. "For soundproofing spells."
"What?! What are you doing?!" Liliana sprawled at the bottom of the stairs, looking mostly undamaged, save a growing bruise on her chest.
"Call me petty," Twilight cast another bolt that caught Liliana on her rear leg, wrenching it out behind her and sending the disguised queen skidding across the floor with another screech of pain. "But I can't trust Celestia to punish you fittingly."
"What?!" Liliana panted, rising to her hooves shakily. She favored her back hoof, but didn't indicate any major pains. "I've paid my dues, you've bested me! My horde is scattered, weaker than ever, and beaten! What cause could you possibly have to-"
"SHUT UP!" Twilight roared, this time surging forward. She lowered her head, catching Liliana's shoulder with her own, bowling the stockier pony over on virtue of explosiveness and shock. She stood over Liliana, her nostrils flaring wide and her eyes ablaze with anger. The queen, in her shapeshifted form, quivered beneath Twilight, her own eyes wide with fear. Twilight spoke again, her voice low and dangerous this time.
"You threatened Equestria, stole my wedding day from me, and even imprisoned my friends. The three things I love most, and you've acted against them all. Don't you dare think for even a second I wouldn't take my punishment from you." Twilight's horn glowed as she leaned in, hovering over the shaking pony beneath her. Their eyes met, one pair intense, the other fearful. Twilight held that gaze as her magic took form, slithering over Liliana's body, touching her, feeling her, probing her. Twilight found the point she wanted, and glowered down at Liliana.
"This is going to hurt. And I want the memory of this pain to follow you, no matter where you go. No matter what you do. This is part and parcel, one half for having done all those things I've mentioned," Twilight's magic solidified against Liliana's side, right around the base of her ribcage.
"And half as a warning, to never cross me again."
Twilight's magic drove into Liliana's side, driving into her torso with enough force to crack two ribs and hit the changeling's liver. For one split second, Liliana's eyes widened before turning beady and small.
Then the screams began.
Twilight stepped back, keeping the soundproofing spell intact around the room, even as Liliana writhed on the floor. Her hooves scraped across the worn, dusty wood, sending her scooting around in a tight circle. She clutched at the dark, garish bruise on her torso, inhaling deeply and letting each exhalation out in a piercing, gut-wrenching scream. Twilight stood vigil, watching Liliana scream and writhe for a good, long while. She didn't know exactly how long it was, or what time it was when she finally intervened, but Liliana would not forget those painful hours for as long as she lived.
"Enough." Twilight's horn sparked as she subdued Liliana with an anesthetic spell, stopping the pain impulses from reaching her brain. The screams stopped immediately, and Twilight set to work on healing the damage she had done. Both ribs mended together slowly, and the dark bruise faded away until only a faint red mark remained on the queen's ashy-grey coat. Liliana laid on the dirty floor, her eyes red from crying, her chest rising and falling with ragged, gulping breaths. Twilight stood over her, ensuring she hadn't been permanently damaged, save any psychological scars.
"You're going to live." Twilight announced at last, letting the anesthetic spell fade away. The changeling groaned, but didn't scream again. She rolled onto her side, curling into a small ball, shaking with sobs. "I want you to remember what you just went through. And should you ever try anything like what you did at the wedding again, I'll see to it you're locked somewhere dark and cold, well away from your changelings, with a pain much more intense than that love-tap I just gave you. Do you understand?"
Liliana didn't reply, but sobbed and curled up tighter. Twilight growled, striding forward and prying her hold apart, wrenching her face around so their eyes could meet yet again.
"Do you understand?!"
"Yes!" Liliana cried, tears still streaming from her face. "I already promised Celestia, I wouldn't do anything again!"
"Promise ME." Twilight shook her.
"I promise!" Liliana wailed, sagging in Twilight's hold. "I swear it, on my life and the life of my changelings, we'll never do anything like that again!"
"Good." Twilight then did something even she hadn't been expecting.
She wrapped her hooves around Liliana, pulling the changeling queen into a ginger hug.
"I hope someday you'll come to forgive me for doing what I just did, and maybe even see why I did it. In a way, if I had threatened your changelings, I get the feeling I'd be suffering the same thing."
"I... I..." Liliana stammered, caught completely off-guard, but Twilight stroked her mane tenderly.
"Shh. Hate me if you will, but right now we both need to rest." Twilight let the soundproofing spell die from the room, and helped Liliana to her hooves. "Can I trust you to go to sleep, and not to attack me when you wake up?"
"I... I don't-"
"Liliana," Twilight sighed. "I'm exhausted. And I really don't feel like restraining you for the entire night just so I can sleep soundly. Can I trust you to not attack me?"
"O-of course, I... That would go against my promise." Liliana whimpered, raising one hoof to the faint bruise on her side. "As much as I'd like to, I won't harm you. On pain of death, I'll not attack you."
"Oh good." Twilight let a breath out, the room spinning around her. "Because I'm about to-"
The world became blackness, and Twilight fell to the floor.
She was warm and comfortable. 'Small miracles.' Her thoughts chased her into the light, drawing Twilight out of a deep and restful sleep. She inhaled softly and blinked at the strange sight around her. Well, perhaps not completely strange, as it was hauntingly familiar. And rather welcoming, after the nightmare of her wedding. She began to wonder which dream she was waking out of, the one where she was swimming underwater with Luna, or the one where she was the Archmage and her wedding had just been ruined by Changelings.
The library's guest bedroom was stuffy and warm, lit by what she would guess was a mid-afternoon sun. Dust motes filtered down through the air, wafting back-and-forth lazily on the minute currents of a delightful spring day. Twilight yawned deeply and slid out of the bed, shaking her frumpy mane out and stretching langurously. Her joints popped, and lucidity returned to her at last. She padded over to the vanity she had used the past several days, absent her toiletries she had brought with her from Canterlot. Groaning faintly, she willed her sore horn to fetch them from the nearby luggage, pulling her brush out. She set to work on her mane, tugging out the tangles and returning it to normal.
She paused mid-brush as she got a look at the bed behind her, and the lump still under the covers. The lump that was moving. The lump that was Liliana.
"Woah!" Twilight spun around, her chest heaving with shock. Liliana peered at her curiously, having dropped her disguise and now appearing as the black-carapaced Changeling Queen from Twilight's more recent nightmares.
"What?" The insectoid pony yawned, her wings flickering as she stretched. "There wasn't anywhere else to sleep."
"Yeah, but did you have to sleep with me?!"
"It was that or the floor." Liliana groaned, rolling her neck in a circle. "I know you like breaking ribs, but I wouldn't expect you to ask me to sleep on the floor."
Twilight balked at that. She had been half-asleep last night, but the memory of what she had done to torture the queen came back readily, in the rare moments of lucidity her rage had offered her. She opened her mouth and closed it several times, searching for the words to say. Liliana spoke for her.
"If you're going to say you're sorry, you can save your breath." The queen slid out of bed, standing before Twilight with a faint frown on her lips. "I may be angry with you for what you've done, but what you said last night holds true. Had I been in your position, I'd have done the same. Worse, even. And for much longer. I don't blame you for doing what you did to me, Twilight." A faint smile crossed her lips, and the queen bowed her head, low enough that her long green mane brushed the floor at her hooves.
"Okay, you can stop that now." Twilight whimpered, feeling thoroughly uncomfortable. "You don't have to bow or anything, it's fine..." She blushed, rubbing a fetlock with her hoof. "Just, you know; well, we both know, I guess... what the other is about now."
"True." Liliana chuckled, raising her head at last. The visage of the queen disappeared, replaced by the red-maned, grey-coated mare from their train trip just yesterday. Liliana stepped towards Twilight, holding a hoof out. "In a way, I respect what you did. It means you have conviction, and you're not afraid to act on it. I'm no stranger to pain, but lately I've been absent its touch." Liliana's eyes danced gleefully. "In a way, you've reminded me I'm still just a changeling."
"Right." Twilight grimaced, but shook hooves with the queen anyways. "Well, I guess I don't have to watch my back every minute now..."
"And I won't have to worry about the well-being of my internal organs, will I?"
"No." Twilight chuckled, nudging Liliana. "I promise you won't. Come on, I don't know how late it is, but we have to free some ponies, and more importantly," Her stomach growled, making her grimace stretch ever-thinner. "I think we missed lunch."
They had indeed missed lunch, but Rarity was in the library, reading a book on embroidery patterns that had showed up since her exodus from the sleepy town. She explained that they had checked in on the two of them, but their snores assured the friends Twilight and Liliana were resting peacefully, and would do best not to disturb them. Pinkie Pie had left that morning, Rainbow Dash was flying back to Canterlot, Fluttershy and Big Mac were catching up, and Applejack had work to do. Rarity and Cross Stitch's train was leaving in two hours, but Liliana informed Twilight it'd take them longer than that to get to and release the ponies she had imprisoned in Ponyville.
"We do need to get going on that," Twilight sighed, looking to Rarity sadly. "So I guess this is goodbye for us as well."
"Well, it's not like we won't see each other again, darling." Rarity beamed, wrapping Twilight in a warm hug. "I'll write as soon as we get back to Trottingham. I guess you'll be going there as well, unless I heard wrong?"
"We have several ponies there, too." Liliana sighed, hanging her head. "As well as Stalliongrad and Horseshoe Bay. I've already released the ones in Canterlot."
"See? I'm sure we'll see you then." Rarity kissed Twilight's cheek tenderly, her eyes glimmering with tears nevertheless. "Just as long as you stop by when you get in."
"I'll be sure to ask about you as soon as we arrive, though I don't know when we'll make it out there. It could be as long as a week, maybe even two."
"Ah, well, there you have it. Plenty of time for me to finish your next dress."
"Well, your last one was destroyed, wasn't it?" Rarity winked teasingly at Liliana. "I can't expect you to share your vows with Luna naked, now, can I?"
"Thank you, Rarity." Twilight knew better than to press her luck with the generous unicorn, and she'd be just as well off accepting the dress. "We'll see you in Trottingham, then."
"Until then. Good luck, Twilight. And be safe."
"You too, Rarity." Twilight embraced her friend warmly. "You too."
"How much further?" Twilight asked, finally voicing the growing doubt in her mind. Liliana had led Twilight onto a path out of town, and they had been hiking for almost an hour by then. They shared a comfortable silence, Twilight enjoying the light exercise and the sights of Ponyville's outlying farms in Spring. But the sun was sinking lower in the sky, and she felt less-than-comfortable staying outside alone at night with the queen. They may have reached an accord, but Twilight would just as soon not trust their tenuous friendship.
"We found several travellers camping in an abandoned farmhouse, not much further ahead." Liliana explained, turning off of the path and onto a lesser, more overgrown dirt drive. Ahead of them, hunched against the edge of the Whitetail Woods, sat a dilapidated farmhouse. Several signs along the way explained the property was condemned, due to be torn down, but likely had been ignored during the long winter. Knowing Ponyville politics, they were just dragging their hooves in tearing it down. Industrious as farm ponies tended to be, they could also be awfully lazy when the inclination suited them.
Liliana followed the weed-choked drive up to the farmhouse, slipping through a gap in the boards criss-crossing the front door. Twilight followed after, her horn illuminating the interior.
"We wanted to hide them from any prying ponies, so they're in the basement." Liliana gestured towards a nearby door. "I understand if you don't trust me, so how do you suggest we handle this?"
"I'll go first. Don't follow me until I say so." Twilight's jaw was set, and she fixed Liliana with an intense look. "If it's a trap, I'd just as soon not have you on my tail."
"Well, I can assure you it isn't. Hollow a promise that may seem, it's the truth. Would you like me to wait outside?"
"No. I'll place a shield behind me. Come down when it disappears." Twilight made for the door, keeping a careful eye on Liliana until she was inside and behind it. She cast a quick, strong shield and turned her light down the dusty staircase, into the basement of the old farm house. It appeared nondescript, with a few moth-eaten rags sitting idle on some of the shelving, and an old lantern with no oil or wick leftover hanging on a nail. Whoever had lived here last took most everything with them, leaving Twilight with nothing to investigate. She was moments away from leaving the basement when her eyes passed over a portion of the cobblestone wall. She narrowed her gaze at the portion, seeing something off about it.
"Oh I see." Realization came to her, and Twilight's horn sparked. The wall shimmered and shifted before the image melted away, leaving behind three glowing green pods, mirror copies to the one she and her friends had found themselves imprisoned in at the wedding. Sensing no threat, Twilight dropped the shield from the top of the stairs. Liliana descended a few moments later, smiling at her.
"See? No traps."
"Forgive me for being cautious." Twilight chuckled, nodding towards the three green pods. "Go ahead and release them. I've got a memory modification spell to make them think they hiked to the border of the dragon lands and back in their time under."
"Good plan." Liliana's visage shifted back to that of the queen, her jagged horn glowing intently. The prisons melted and dissipated, dissolving into pinpricks of green light that floated up to the cieling before disappearing completely. Inside of the orbs were three of them, a unicorn mare and two earth ponies, male and female respectively. They laid curled on the floor, their chests rising and falling smoothly. Behind the three pods was a small pile of packs and saddlebags, complete with a miniature tent and cooking utensils. Twilight gingerly carried the three upstairs and into the main room of the farm house. Carefully, she set them out around the stone hearth, lit a blaze inside, and cast the memory spells on them in turn.
When they awoke, they would find their gear restocked with fresh water and food, and a few magically-conjured photographs of the three standing at key points in Equestria, smiling happily. Twilight banked logs into the fire, and turned to a smiling Liliana with a nod.
Following the saving of the three ponies outside of Ponyville, Twilight and Liliana had several other cities to visit. Twilight was actually tentatively excited for the whole ordeal, considering she had never really visited anywhere in Equestria other than Canterlot, Ponyville, and her brief stop in Horseshoe Bay before travelling over to the griffin territories. They were travelling to Horseshoe Bay now to save approximately twelve ponies, then on to Trottingham before hiking to Stalliongrad and back on a train to Baltimare. Following that was the longest trek far to the south to save a few ponies in Dodge Junction, but Liliana assured Twilight if they could meet some other changelings, the drones could handle that, which would save the two of them the need to go that far out of their way.
Twilight was equally eager to travel back to Dodge Junction (since she had been there searching for Applejack once before) and worried about the well-being of those ponies. Now, sitting on the train opposite Liliana, Twilight was quizzing the queen on changeling physiology.
“So you mean to tell me that, instead of gluten or carbohydrates, your bodies literally convert magic into sustenance?”
“I mean, we can eat food, if the fancy strikes us, but it doesn’t do much for us. We pass it without digesting it. We’re actually quite dependent on that energy to live.” She gave a weak smile, and indeed her shifted countenance appeared rather tired. “We’re on our last legs, as it were. Only those ponies we have left are keeping us alive. Even releasing those three in Ponyville is taxing us.”
“And if you run out of energy?” Twilight asked, dreading the answer. The look she got from Liliana was grim.
“We die.” She said simply. “It’s not unlike losing your soul. The light fades from our eyes, and we just… fall over. Dry up. Waste away.”
“That’s… not good.” Twilight grimaced. This whole ‘drinking to survive’ ordeal was bound to wear on the changelings. She wasn’t even sure how it worked, but Liliana had explained it to her a dozen times over in the short journey already. According to her, all she had to do was share a drink with another pony; a toast, or a cheer, or some communal event. Twilight was waiting to reach the next stop with bated breath.
The train pulled back into Canterlot, a brief stop on their way into Horseshoe Bay. Liliana started when Twilight jumped from her seat and opened the door to their cabin.
“Where are you going?” She asked, following hesitantly. “Aren’t we on the next train to Horseshoe Bay?”
“Which is why we need to move quickly.” Twilight wasn’t looking forward to this particular portion of their trip, but needs must else they wind up with a horde of dead changelings on their hooves. She trotted off of the platform while the train sat idly hissing, taking the first left down the nearest street. Nearby sat a greasy watering hole, well removed from the communal byways of Canterlot’s prestigious shopping district or government buildings. It being just before eleven in the morning, the bar was open but deserted, tended by a grousing stallion pushing a dirty rag across a worn wooden bar.
“Grill ain’t warm.” He grunted, hardly paying attention to them. “’s gonna be at least half an hour ‘fore I can make anything.”
“That’s fine.” Twilight stopped short of one of the stools, beaming at the stallion. “I’m about to buy all of your alcohol anyways.”
That gave the stallion pause. He blinked at Twilight, finally recognizing her.
“A-Archmage! I- you- what?” He let the rag sit still, a wary glance cast at Liliana, still shifted into her disguise. “All of it?”
“Well, as much as the two of us can carry. I assure you,” she borrowed a quill and a scrap of paper from beside the register. “… I’m good for it. Do you have some saddlebags we can borrow?”
“Sure, one moment…” He trotted towards the back room and emerged a moment later with two worn-looking saddlebags. “My old ones, from when I worked the rail yard.” He explained, poking at a hole in one. “Should do ‘til you get some new ones. Want me to just pack ‘em up?” He still seemed slightly bewildered, but Twilight had finished writing down a series of numbers and a small note. She cast a quick spell on the note, embedding it with her watermark.
“As many as you can fit, but note each one. Take this to the bank, and they’ll pay you for each one.” Twilight explained, setting the dimly-glowing note on the counter. “You can add the saddlebags on there as well.” The stallion nodded and began packing bottles into the ratty bags, while Twilight grasped one and pulled it across the counter along with two shot glasses.
“Cheers.” She poured both herself and Lily a shot, taking hers right away. Lily followed suit after a few moments, even while the stallion warily watched two mares start drinking well before the noon hour.
“Let me guess.” Lily grimaced as Twilight poured another shot. “We’re going to spend this whole trip sauced to our eyeballs?”
“You know it.” Twilight sighed, tossing back the second shot.
It was going to be a long few weeks.
The train limped into Horseshoe Bay by mid-evening, bringing a thoroughly drunk Twilight and changeling queen with it. Thankfully enough, they had managed to avoid tossing up any time before pulling into the station, but not afterwards.
“Does it always do this?” Lily gasped, pawing strands of her mane away from her mouth. Twilight retched beside her, thankfully away from any thoroughfare.
“Only if you have too much.” She gasped, grimacing at the strands of her own mane that had been caught in the upchuck. “Let’s find a place to sleep it off; no sense in trying to find these ponies drunk.” Despite the cloud of inebriation hovering over her mind, Twilight still felt relatively lucid and coordinated. Her muscles just weren’t listening to her brain. She threw a hoof over Lily’s withers, steadying herself, but the imbalance just ended up sprawling the two of them across the brick street.
It took them a few minutes to orient themselves after that, much to the chagrin of some passersby. Thankfully, no guards were alerted, else they likely would have confiscated the alcohol from them. Twilight wasn’t sure if the bank in Horseshoe Bay would honor her standing as Archmage as much as any of the ones in Canterlot. Not to mention a drunk mare claiming to be the Archmage would probably go over as well as any other pony making the same claim.
“We gotta get some place to sleep.” Twilight focused her gaze across the street, and like some divine providence, an inn sat across from them. “That’s convenient.” She slurred, dragging herself and Liliana towards the promise of food and rest. Thankfully, the pony running the place had been in Canterlot the day she had been named Archmage. She agreed to give them both room and board, and charge the banks in Canterlot in her name. She even promised them some quality breakfast after they slept it off.
Twilight knew she’d just fueled local gossip for months to come. ‘The Archmage herself stumbled through my door, drunk as a doornail, hauling some other poor sob up to her room. You know, I think she’s cheating on Luna, that Twilight… Why else would she be all the way out here, looking for a place to stay?’ She’d have to deal with that further down the road, she was sure. But all that mattered then was finding a bed and passing out.
Providence came in the form of a large queen-sized mattress away from the noisy bar downstairs, and their clinking, sloshing saddlebags were finally shed. Twilight resigned herself to a quick shower to wash her mane out, and relinquished the bathroom to a rather pale-looking Liliana shortly after. She was asleep by the time her head hit the pillow, and didn’t even feel the changeling crawl into bed beside her.
Morning came with a vicious headache intent on beating her brain out of her ears. Twilight wanted nothing more than to lay in bed and wait for whatever spiteful deity had taken hold of her to finish its wrath. The scent of breakfast wafting up from downstairs promised blessed relief, however. Not even bothering with her wild mane, Twilight stumbled downstairs to fetch them food.
It took a few hours for both ponies to sort themselves out, and the sun was well into the sky by the time they were feeling brave enough to venture outdoors. “So where are the ponies you’ve captured?” Twilight asked just outside of the inn.
“That’s the thing, I don’t know…” Liliana mused, frowning confusedly at the surrounding street. “I know it was near the edge of the city, but I have no idea where we are… Horseshoe Bay is no small place.” She closed her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose with an exasperated sigh. “I remember it being somewhere near a shipping warehouse. Maybe the bay? Saltwater. There was saltwater in the air.”
“Oh thank the stars.” Twilight groaned. “I know the area. Or at least the general area…” She glanced at the sun once more before turning south-east, towards the docks where she and Rarity had chartered a ship almost two years ago. “Do you have a way of finding them once we get close?”
“There are tendrils of magic coming off of them. Most unicorns are oblivious to it, wrapped up as they are in their own love and friendship. Others, destitute and barren, will feel attracted to it. The poor, the downtrodden, the depressed…”
“So follow the poor unfortunate souls, and find the trapped ones.” Twilight surmised. She picked up to a slow trot, stretching her muscles, taxed as they were. Walking through Horseshoe Bay was a journey in and of itself. She told herself she’d have time to sightsee after all of this was finished, but all of the goings-on kept her preoccupied. Twilight felt anxious away from Canterlot. Luna was still unconscious, near as she could tell, and the council was wrapped up keeping tabs on everything while Celestia did her best to bring Luna back.
There were a dozen ponies in charge of her duty once again, and here she was trying to enjoy the local culture.
She picked up to a canter almost subconsciously.
So went the next six days of travelling. Twilight was either too drunk keeping Liliana alive, or too stressed worrying about Canterlot to even pay much attention to anything other than their destination. There were several times Liliana grew short with Twilight, and even more times Twilight snapped at her new changeling friend.
And they were becoming friends, that much was true. Twilight was feeling more and more connected to the changeling queen as their travels went on, even if they had been mortal enemies a short time ago. The more time Twilight spent talking to her, learning the minutiae of a typical changeling’s life, or their physiology, or even their dependency on magic to live, the more she empathized with both Liliana’s and Chrysalis’ methodology. If she felt like her very life were slipping away the more time went on, she’d have tried to invade Canterlot as well…
Now that another path was laid out before them, though, Twilight felt all the more justified in each new shot she took. They had drank their way through seven of their sixteen by the time their train rolled into Baltimare, and both of them were growing accustomed to the prevalent inebriation. Thankfully, the guard adjunct in Stalliongrad was able to recognize her, even if they did have to spend a day sobering up in the local jail cell. They’d at least kept their alcohol, and while Liliana groaned each time Twilight made them drink, she looked less taxed than she did leaving Ponyville.
Concerns surfaced on the last leg of their journey, however. Twilight voiced them as they made their way outside of the sleepy city of Baltimare on an unusually balmy night. The road was wet, but the ever-present rain clouds over the city had given way. Twilight and Liliana were nearing the abandoned home when Twilight spoke. “How have the other changelings been getting along? Do they know about the whole communal drinking thing?”
“They know about it.” Lily nodded, picking up on the sober tone. “I wouldn’t say I can converse with them directly, but there’s an… empathetic link between us all. They feel what I feel, and many of them picked up on it around the time we got to Trottingham. I assure you, they’ve been feeding off of what they can here and there. It’s… difficult. Many of us cannot keep our disguises up when inebriated. There have been slip-ups, at least I think; moments of panic and desperation, followed by a long sensation of despair and loneliness.”
“Celestia’s memo should have gotten out. Are any of them still feeling that way?”
“No, they’ve been released, I think. Again, I can’t understand, I can only feel what they feel…” Liliana sighed, though it was with a smile. “We’re surviving.”
“That’s good, then. It sounds like we’ve averted disaster.”
“If for the moment, yes… I’m sure a long-term solution is in order.” Liliana grimaced at the road beneath their hooves. “I just don’t know how any of us can handle it. I told you we don’t process food the way that normal ponies do, but for whatever reason alcohol affects us just the same. Granted, if we have too much all we vomit up is the excess liquid, but still… It’s unpleasant, and I feel nauseous almost all the time.”
“I’m sure there’s a more permanent solution, Liliana.” Twilight stepped closer to the changeling, giving her rump a reassuring bump. Even shifted as she was, Twilight could sense the magical power inside the queen, and the warm smile she got was reflected in that energy. It was reassuring to Twilight, like the presence of any one of the other elements of harmony, or Cadance, or even Celestia at times. Perhaps it was all the time she’d spent talking about and quizzing Liliana on changeling magic, but she could sense those sensations easier now than she ever had. What was more interesting to Twilight was the love she felt for Luna. It stretched away from her, off and to the South, where Canterlot lay. Every now and then, that strand of magic stretching between the two of them would swell and change, growing thicker or more solid than at other times. But it was always there, never fully going away. When she focused on it, it felt as if Luna was in it, but so very far away that it hurt.
It felt as if her heart was all those miles away.
“This is the place.” Liliana nodded to a darkened drive stretching off of the road. Twilight gave a thin smile and followed the queen off of the beaten path, up a small dirt driveway that hadn’t seen use in many, many months. Cobwebs stretched across their path, catching on their faces and manes every few dozen feet. Twilight brushed them off as best she could, feeling more tired now than she had in a long while. The constant alcohol abuse was wearing on her. Nevertheless, a squat, darkened house awaited them, set well enough away from the main road that nopony would bother ignoring the signs saying ‘condemned’ or ‘abandoned’ lining the way. Sure enough, just like there had been in many of the other cities, five small glowing pods waited behind a simple illusion spell. There was the typical signs of juvenile presence; candy wrappers and bottles of alcohol littered about from younger ponies, along with a dirty, used mattress in the corner.
But she wasn’t here to judge adolescent ponies on their escapism or love-making habits. Instead, she watched as Liliana freed these five ponies, then cast the memory modification spells on them. When they awoke, they’d remember travelling here for a wild party. Outside of the home, Twilight and Liliana were met by three other ponies, as if they had been expecting them.
“Yours?” Twilight asked, her defenses rising nevertheless.
“These are mine.” Liliana shifted into her changeling form, suddenly towering over Twilight. The other three ponies followed suit, shifting into the drones Twilight had seen twice before. “What news?” Liliana accosted them.
“We felt your urgency to free the ponies in Dodge Junction, and have done so, my queen.” One of the changelings bowed low. “We sensed you nearby and came to see if you needed help.”
“We’re done, then.” Liliana seemed rather shocked by that little premonition. “There’s… nopony else we’re feeding off of.”
“So drinking it is.” Twilight grimaced. “How do you feel?”
“Different.” Liliana answered after a short pause. “I feel strange. Almost like I’m not a changeling anymore. Clearly, I am, but… it just goes against everything I’ve known thus far.” She shivered slightly, looking to Twilight with a serious expression. “I feel like a different creature than I was three weeks ago.”
“That’s a good thing, then.” Twilight floated one of the bottles out. “This calls for a celebratory shot. Care to join us?” She offered the bottle to the three changelings, who readily stepped forward. As they all took turns pulling drinks from the bottle, Twilight noticed something… something magical happening.
The sensation she had from Lily, the same one she felt from her friends from Ponyville, had spread between the other three changelings. She hadn’t had it when they approached, but now, it was there. The four other changelings, Liliana and the drones, all smiled between themselves and Twilight afterwards.
“That was… good.” Liliana muttered. “It felt stronger. Much more stronger than any I’d felt thus far.”
“You haven’t drunk with more than one other pony until now.” Twilight connected the dots. “It must be more powerful the more of you there are.”
“That would make things much easier, that’s for sure…” Liliana grinned. “And it gives me an idea…”
“I think I’m right there with you on that one.” Twilight turned back towards the road, a little sway in her step from the alcohol, but a determination burning in her gut.
“Let’s get back to Canterlot.”
Celestia was waiting for them as the train pulled into the station. Twilight grinned at the princess, half because she was buzzed from the ride out here, but mainly because she was glad to see her friend and mentor once more.
“It’s done, then?”
“Unless Liliana’s lying about keeping more ponies waiting in the wings, then yes, we're finished.” Twilight turned to the queen, who shook her head sternly.
“I was truthful. There are no more ponies being held captive.”
“That settles it, then. You’ve held up on your half of the bargain, and now it’s my turn. Twilight, have you discovered anything about changelings in your time with Liliana?”
“Have I ever.” Twilight grinned, turning towards the nearest street, and the same bar they had ransacked of all their liquor two weeks prior. “I think it’s best described over a drink.”
Liliana’s wings twitched as she stood beside Twilight, her eyes dancing back and forth. She was obviously nervous, but a gentle touch from the Archmage stilled her.
“Relax.” Twilight smiled at her. “It’s not every day you open your own business; enjoy it, while the moment lasts.”
“It’s not that.” Lily groaned, dancing from hoof to hoof. “I’m anxious. We’re desperately low. Personally, I’m fine, but there are some drones that aren’t faring so well.” She looked out at the audience once more, and as Twilight followed her gaze, she could tell the lack of magic was wearing thin. Among the tenuous party-goers were a myriad of changeling drones, all disguised so as to remain anonymous. These ponies in particular were putting on a brave show, but their eyes appeared sunken and hollow. They were wearing thin.
“Well, no reason to hesitate, then.” Twilight strode forward, mounting a small stage set up just outside of the newly-completed business. “Mares and Gentlecolts, may I have your attention?” The sorted crowd stilled their murmurs and turned their eyes to Twilight, expectant smiles on their faces. “It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Lily to our city, and thank her for opening our new bar! As thanks for her patronage, all drinks tonight will be free,“ she lifted a hoof, a wry grin on her face. “Within reason.” A ripple of laughter went out, and she knew there were likely to be a few in attendance who abused the privilege, but that was to be expected.
“I see no reason to delay any longer, and I’m sure I speak for both of us when I welcome you to Lily’s Bar and Grill!”
Lily snipped the red ribbon spanning the door, ushering in a wave of bright-eyed and eager changelings mingled alongside curious ponies and other eager members. There were even a few griffons in attendance that evening. Pre-mixed cocktails and drinks were waiting on tables and all along the bar, quickly snatched up by eager changelings and other lushes. Upbeat music began to thump through the bar, coaxing everyone in out of the warm spring night, promising dancing, drinks, and excitement.
As soon as the majority of ponies had left the street to make it inside of the bar, Twilight and Lily stood at the threshold, both of them wearing a smile.
“Better?” Twilight asked.
“Oh yes. We’re already feeling much better…” She closed her eyes, giving a deep sigh from the very bottom of her lungs. If Twilight were being honest, she hadn’t seen Liliana this relieved in all the time she’d known the fledgling queen. “Are you joining us?”
“For some food, sure… but I think I’ve had my fill of drinking for the next decade.” Indeed, the mere thought of drinking made her feel queasy. She and Lily had been on a bender ever since discovering the properties of toasts and their relationship with Changeling magic. Lily looked none the worse for the wear, but Twilight needed a few weeks to detox. Already, the music was wearing on her nerves. It’d be a long night, but she owed it to her new friend to stay for at least a while.
“No problem; I understand completely. Come on, I’ll cook my lettuce wraps.”
“Ooh, yes please!” Twilight followed after Lily into the warm bar, the two of them meandering through the crowd towards a roped-off VIP area. Lily’s Bar and Grill took root on the Commercial side of Canterlot, amidst it’s modest shopping district and upbeat restaurants. It wasn’t a seedy establishment, but rather, warm and welcoming; promising good food and better drinks. The Canterlot Elite might not indulge, but there were plenty of working-class ponies who would love nothing more than to indulge in a night full of good music and stiff alcohol.
All of this was a convenient cover, of course… the real purpose behind the bar was to give wayward changelings a place to come and sustain themselves off of the camaraderie and cheer that came alongside a good toast. Even as Twilight made her way into the VIP section, the bartender lifted a shot and so did everyone else in the bar. The tingle of changeling magic rustled over Twilight’s horn, insuring that every drone that had just taken a drink would live to see another day.
Free drinks brought a large crowd; they were still charging for food, but already there were ponies dancing and laughing, talking, getting to know any one of the myriad changeling in disguise in the crowd. They remained that way thanks largely in part to Twilight and Lily’s planning. Ushering in a veritable horde of the black insect-like creatures would inevitably upset the already-shaken members of Canterlot high society. Over time, Twilight would begin educating citizens about the new form of magic these changelings fed off of, and revealing them to society bit by bit. Over the course of about two years, she had planned to introduce pamphlets and classes, as well as a few radio programs and advertisements to stop demonizing changelings and start accepting them. In fact, Trottingham had already accepted several changelings into their supplementary guard, giving them quarters and a daily ration of alcohol for life-sustaining toasts. She’d be keeping a close eye on the situation out there, but she felt certain things would work out in the end.
Indeed, things did seem to reach a natural conclusion. Liliy’s horde, weak and broken as it had been, was now flourishing with the introduction of this new brand of feeding. Twilight had simultaneously avoided genocide, and made a fast friend to boot.
“With soy sauce and chili powder; just the way you like it.” Lily beamed, shuffling a heaping plate of diced vegetables, sautéed to perfection and dripping with goodness. Twilight shoveled a small pile into one of the leaves of lettuce and rolled it all up, biting into the delicious delicacy with gusto.
“I swear, you’d beat the castle’s chefs any given day.”
“You’re flattering me.” Lily blushed, mirroring Twilight. The two of them ate in silence for a few moments, taking time between bites to look out at the bustling floor of the bar. Conversation was in abundance, and there were several pairs truly tearing up the dance floor; earning cheers of approval and admiration from the onlookers.
“So, how is Luna?” Lily asked timidly. Twilight’s mood sobered a bit.
“It’s difficult to reverse-engineer your spell. She’s still weak, but recovering. It’s a process; day to day.” Twilight nudged a small chunk of veggies back into the rest of the roll and finished it off, savoring the juice and spicy seasoning. “I’m sorry, Lily, but she’s still not feeling well.”
“I just feel terrible about the whole ordeal,” Lily whined. “I’m the one that caused her such agony, I just- I… I wish I could do something to help.”
“I promise, I’ll let you know the moment I think of something.” Twilight laid her hoof across Lily’s with a warm smile. They had discussed this extensively the past few weeks, debating what could have put Luna in such a state, and what the best course of action to restore her to her former strength would be. Liliana’s imprisonment spell, despite only lasting for a few short days, had nevertheless all but killed Luna by sapping her love for Twilight inch by slow inch. Furthermore, she’d been trapped inside a very intricate prison, designed to lock her away from the world at large. She was stuck inside a mirror of the pendant Twilight wore, the same one she had given to the princess before her trip to the library near Saddle Arabia.
Following Lily’s downfall, Luna had been released, but the time in that prison had sapped her of her strength. Celestia had spent much time with her sister in the caverns beneath Canterlot, using the incumbent energy there to help rejuvenate Luna, but still, there was only so much that could be done.
Now, almost a month later, Luna was getting stronger day by day. Twilight and Lily had spent two weeks travelling all across Equestria, saving ponies captured by changelings and spreading the word of their new source of sustenance. Another two weeks after that, Twilight and Celestia had worked hard at preparing this new bar, so that Lily had a place to feed her horde. It had taken quite a few bits and more than a few twisted hooves, but they had managed to rush the development of the building for the promise of a repayment. They were taking a solid two percent of all the bar’s profits, and given that changelings had to drink with others in order to remain alive, they stood to make a fair bit of money from this investment.
The party was in full-swing by the time Twilight and Lily finished their food. The changeling queen slipped away to join her drones. Twilight remained alone in the roped-off VIP area alongside a few other well-to-do faces, who had reserved seats in advance upon hearing about the bar’s foundation. Even they were enjoying themselves, sharing drinks with what Twilight assumed were disguised changeling waiters and waitresses. Another plate of lettuce rolls made their way to her table, courtesy of Lily, and Twilight happily ate her fill. She declined drinks, but sat in the relative dark, watching the dancing, drinking, merrymaking ponies enjoying themselves.
It was a peace she hoped would last.
It was close to midnight when Twilight took her leave. She’d bid Lily goodbye with a friendly hug and a promise to visit soon, making her way back to the castle by moonlight. It was indeed a beautiful night, the near-full orb of light illuminating the streets beautifully. She took her time pacing the quiet streets, leaving the music and conversation behind in favor of quiet, broken only by crickets and the wayward hoot of an owl hunting in the night.
It was nights like that night Twilight wished Luna was at her side. The glimmering stars seemed lackluster when it wasn’t her hoof that painted them, and even the moon’s silvery light lacked the same brilliant glow Luna could coax from it. More than that, though, Twilight missed the warm body by her side. She missed Luna’s lips on her neck, or the way she’d nibble the edge of her ear. She missed making love to the princess, sleeping through the night with a dark wing draped over her, an eager kiss waking her up before the next day’s first light.
“Soon, Twilight. Soon.” She picked up her pace through the dark streets towards the castle. Tonight was the night she was to return to work as the Archmage, ensuring her constituency was taken care of. First order of business was a meeting with the Midnight Committee, followed by assisting Celestia with raising the sun. Given Luna’s weakened state, their cycling had taken much longer to do, since Celestia had to manage both as she had during Luna’s millennium-long exile. It was a taxing process, leaving Twilight alone to handle matters for a solid four or five hours while Celestia recuperated.
Following that, Twilight needed to return to the cavern and ensure their shields were re-done. The changeling shield was still uncomfortable for their new allies to pass through, so over the course of the next few weeks, Twilight had resolved to extinguishing it. Some part of her mind regretted doing so, as the shield was one of her predecessor’s greatest accomplishments. Nocturnal Glow had done much for the kingdom in his time, and she sorely regretting not getting to know him before his passing. Taking down his shield felt not unlike killing a mentor; someone to be honored and respected.
As she arrived in the castle, Twilight steeled herself. It was bound to be a long few days.
It had been a week since Twilight had returned to her duties, much to the appreciation of Night Dancer and Warden. The hour was late, well after they had risen the moon and Celestia had gone to sleep. Thankfully, it was a Sunday, and the throne was closed for council. She had the evening to herself, but there were notes to compile and reports to draft. It was boring work, but some small part of Twilight delighted in the monotony. It was a part of her life now, and she took to it with gusto.
Tonight was a different sort of night, however. She didn’t have any need to knock, and indeed, as she flew in through the window, she did it as if it were her right.
“Good evening, Luna.” Twilight smiled, hardly looking up from her documents.
“Is that any way to greet your wife?” Luna purred, advancing to lay her wing over Twilight’s back. She drew the unicorn’s ear between her teeth, eliciting a faint moan and a whimper. “It’s been almost a month since we’ve had a night to ourselves.”
“Shame, that.” Twilight shivered, nevertheless running a quick field of magic over the princess’ flanks. It wasn’t Liliana posing as her lover, and that made her smile. Her Luna, the real Luna, stood right beside her. She finished the clause she’d been working on and left the quill in the inkwell, turning to Luna with a warm smile. “I’ve missed you.”
“Not nearly as much as I.” Luna closed the distance between them eagerly, her lips plastered to Twilight’s. She surrendered into the kiss, all the stress and worry that had built up pouring out through her lips. Twilight felt great joy fill her chest as their pendants snapped together, the magnetic hold keeping the two stones tight as their kiss lingered. As soon as it ended, Luna rested her forehead to Twilight’s, the base of their horns hugging close.
“I feel much better, having you by my side.”
“I’m assuming Celestia’s finished, then?”
“Only just now. I think I’m finally cured.” Luna inhaled through her nose, stretching her wings out to feel the air. “It feels as I ever have… Powerful, ready, eager.” She looked down to Twilight, a hunger in her eyes the poor unicorn had missed. She drew a lip between her teeth, still looking up at her lover.
“Are you… ready?”
“As I’ll ever be.” Luna’s horn glowed densely, picking Twilight from her hooves with the sort of ease a mother would a foal. Twilight went along without a complaint, the thought of leaving her work behind hardly making a mark on her mind. The only thing she felt just then was the dire need to feel Luna under her hooves once more.
As they impacted the sheets, Luna’s lips already laying a withering assault along the length of Twilight’s neck, she closed her eyes and thought to herself, ’I’m finally Home.’
Celestia was probably the most relieved that Luna was finally back (aside from Twilight herself, of course.) The next morning, Luna had put her blessed night to sleep and helped usher in Celestia’s bright day without any trouble whatsoever. Twilight was thankful for the help as well, since Celestia could now handle court in the mornings. That left her time to catch up with other constituents, chiefly Bastion.
“Good morning, Twilight.” Bastion seemed awfully cheery for a Monday. “Sleep well last night?”
“Hardly.” Twilight yawned, sipping from her coffee. “Luna was ravenous.”
“Aww, poor you.” Bastion teased as his hoof ruffled her mane playfully. Twilight glowered and batted at his flank, making the big unicorn yelp at the impact. “Now that’s just mean.”
“Come off it; I’m exhausted. Let’s just get this over with, yeah?”
“Yeah, yeah…” Bastion poked his tongue out and led the two of them down into the caverns by way of a winding stairwell. By now, the path was as familiar to her as any, and the two of them walked it confidently. Their first stop was the very first shield that Bastion had shown Twilight almost two years ago, when teaching her about the magic of shielding. The shield that Nocturnal Glow had cast to repel changelings.
“Did you bring your notes?”
“Yeah, I caught up with Lily yesterday afternoon to finalize them. We’ve got everything we need to know to take it down without hurting any changeling inside. Thankfully for us, their entire magical field appears to be different from what it was.”
“Fascinating.” Bastion’s voice echoed off of the vast cavern’s walls, coming back to them on an echo. Twilight finished her coffee and left the mug by the end of the staircase, to be taken back up when they were finished. “I’m actually kind of intrigued by Changeling physiology… Do you think…?”
“I can ask if she’d be willing to meet with you. She’s been awfully forthcoming with information whenever I ask about it, so I’m sure she’d be willing to chat.”
“Oh good, because, you’ll never guess, but I think one of her drones was in the Officer’s Club last night.”
“No way.” Twilight arched an eyebrow. “How’d they manage that?”
“They came as a guest, that one smarmy lieutenant in the cavalry, what’s his name… Aah, crap. Spearhead?”
“The name rings a bell.”
“Well, he brought a date with him. She was a pretty little thing, nice flanks, but her laugh was obnoxious. Anywho, I swear she was giving him bedroom eyes the whole time. But she had that same feel about her, you know, that emanating aura?”
“I know the feel.” Twilight pursed her lips. Each changeling had about them a slight field of magic. Most unicorns had it as well, but changeling couldn’t disguise theirs very well. It’d be lost in a crowd, but any individual could easily be identified as a changeling, provided the unicorn focusing on them was familiar with their energy . Both Bastion and Twilight had been studying their magic the past week, working at bringing down Nocturnal Glow’s old shield. While Liliana’s changelings were markedly more different than Chrysalis’, the shield was still uncomfortable for them to pass through. It could be done, as they had during Twilight’s wedding, but not without making them shift into their original form, and with the added effect of making them incredibly dizzy.
“Anyway,” Bastion continued. “She was laughing and drinking all night long. I even toasted with her once. Hardly felt a thing.”
“It’s a pretty surreptitious event. I can only feel it if I’m really focusing, and half the time the shot’s too much for me to handle. I’d like to think almost ninety-nine percent of the unicorns in Equestria wouldn’t have the slightest clue what’s going on if they’re feeding a changeling. Really, it’s just you, me, the princesses, and maybe Warden or Night Dancer.”
“Hrm. Don’t forget Shining. How’s he holding up, by the way?”
“Expecting.” Twilight bubbled with joy. She’d just received a letter a short while ago that Cadance was giving birth to a second foal sometime soon. “He’s coming to visit soon. Would you want to join us for dinner, maybe?”
“That’d be swell, thanks. Ah, here we are.” Bastion pulled up short as he and Twilight arrived at the pulsing, living shield that Nocturnal Glow had cast several long years ago. It reacted to their presence, drawing close as if welcoming an old friend. Much like changelings were alive and could change, so too this shield had to as well. It was a living creature born of magic, its beating heart being the core of energy that Twilight and Bastion fed on a weekly basis. It couldn’t exactly speak, and didn’t have any distinguishing features, but the shield was nevertheless alive.
Twilight smiled as her magic leapt to life, reaching out to caress the shield’s battery. The spell-form leapt to life before her, the skittering lines of magic as familiar to her as the back of her hoof. Bastion stood beside her, the two of them surveying the myriad arches and formulas.
“So, unless I’m mistaken, if we keep the fourth anterior arch intact, but channel its result into the second node, we’ll unravel the Major Arc while preserving the fourteenth fractured arch and the seventh binaural node.”
“Close, but it’s actually the sixteenth whole arch, and the eight binaural node. If we go fourteen and seven, we’ll collapse the second leg, and kill every changeling inside.”
“Lemme see those notes.” Bastion gestured, and Twilight passed off a sheaf of papers she had in her saddlebags. Bastion flipped through them, but grunted as he came across the formula. “Alright, I see… Think you’re ready?”
“Yeah,” Twilight sighed, her expression sobering. She’d tried to avoid thinking about it too much, but this shield had been forged by Nocturnal Glow. He’d poured part of his energy; a portion of his very soul, into this shield. And here they were, about to snuff it out and dissipate that energy into nothingness, all to save a few changelings some dizziness. “Oh the times, how they are ‘a changin’.” Twilight glanced to Bastion and gave him a slight nod. Together, they executed their plan, the same one they’d been discussing the whole past week.
Slowly, the shield around them began to pulse. As Twiilght’s magic gripped key points in the arches and nodes of the magical formula, it felt the change. Its heart began to cower in fear, but Twilight kept it close, keeping it from withdrawing to another part of the caverns. It began to pulse faster as it sensed what was happening.
Sadly, Twilight couldn’t let it go. As she finished her changes, she cast a field over the entire formula, solidifying her changes and forcing the spell formula to get back to work. But with the new changes, the shield couldn’t keep itself running anymore. Energy from the battery began to leak into the air around them, the silvery magic scintillating as it arced through the air. Bastion threw up a mild shield to keep them safe, and Twilight watched the battery deplete. All around them, the heart of the shield began to dwindle, its movements growing more sluggish and weak. Twilight spared a glance to her side, and saw Bastion’s jaw was clenched.
“Hey,” She said, laying a hoof on his side. “Nocturnal Glow was a damn fine Archmage.”
“I know he was.” Bastion sighed. “He was the Archmage first and my grandfather second. I’m not sentimental.” He grimaced. “If anything, I’m kinda glad… It’s kind of like putting him to rest.”
“Still.” Twilight sniffed. “He did a lot for Equestria. This shield is no exception.”
They fell silent after that, watching the last life leave the shield. The arcs and formulas around them flickered out, fading away into nothingness; just raw energy dissipating into the air. Twilight watched the last silvery light fade away, leaving only Bastion’s shield illuminating the walls around them. Twilight replaced it with a soft orb of her own. Where once a battery of raw magic had fueled a massive invisible shield around Canterlot, now sat nothing, the crystals and other dormant spells glimmering faintly in the light of her magic.
“Well,” she groaned, cracking her neck. “I’m gonna go check on Lily, make sure we didn’t hurt anyone.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna get some rest.” Bastion groaned. “I’m on fire watch the next few nights. Keep me posted on when Shining gets back, yeah?”
“Absolutely. I’m sure he’s eager to see you again. You two were friends, right?”
“’Bout as close as we could be. We didn’t hang out outside of our duties, but we were always joking and laughing whenever we worked on something together. It’d be nice to see what he’s like when he’s not in uniform.”
“Hehe. He’s kind of a dork.” Twilight giggled. “He used to play Orcs and Oubliettes.”
“You’re joking.” Bastion arched an eyebrow.
“No, seriously! I actually used his paladin in a campaign I tried to organize back in Ponyville. Pinkie Pie ate his character sheet.”
“Huh.” Bastion shook his head. “Never would a guessed. Anyways, let’s get out of here.”
“Shall we?” Twilight let Bastion lead the way up and out of the caverns. They bid farewell back in the castle proper, with Twilight making her way to the throne room. Luna and Celestia were both handling court, though they seemed to be on recess as Twilight poked her head in.
“Twilight, how are you?” Celestia asked warmly.
“Fine, we’ve just finished taking down Nocturnal Glow’s shield.” She glanced about, but none of the guards seemed to be worried. “I’m assuming everything went over well?”
“Some minor discomfort, but none of the changelings seemed to have dropped disguises; at least, we haven’t had any reports yet.”
“I think I’ll stick around, just in case.” Twilight smiled, taking up a spot near the princess’ dais. Luna glanced down at her with a warm smile.
“You don’t have to, Twilight. We can handle anything that comes our way.”
“Eeh, gives me time to relax.” Twilight shrugged. “And an excuse to be away from reports.”
“Do you have many?”
“Come on, Luna.” Twilight gave the princess a teasing wink. “The Archmage’s job is never finished.”