Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

First published

Twilight makes a new spell and starts the gears of fate with her ascension to alicornhood. (Writing started before Season 3.)

A different take on alicorn ascension. Sixteen years after arriving in Ponyville, Twilight Sparkle is excited to have invented a brand-new kind of spell, but it will come with consequences she cannot possibly anticipate. Meanwhile, threats in shadows around the world conspire to overthrow the Solar Throne. With her world turned upside down, she will have to come to terms with the role that fate has dealt her while straining to keep Celestia in power.

Now with a TVTropes page! Please show it some love! Also check out the official side stories, Designing Intrigue, and Love and Barriers! (With even more in my stories page!)

(Please Note: This story was started before any season three information was available. All episodes in season three and later are non-canon for this story, which also means there's no Crystal Empire in this one. In addition, the promotional map released close to the beginning of season three was also not available and is not compatible with this story. While the OC tag is active because there are OCs in the story, they're really just supporting characters. The focus is on Twilight.)

Also be sure to check out the Rites of Ascension Expanded Universe Group! We're working to develop the resources needed for other authors to try their hand at writing stories set in the Rites Universe!

The Book Two cover art was created by the amazing Silfoe! The original cover art can still be found at Violet Squiggle's deviantArt page.

Author's Notes, including proofreader's credits, can be found here!

"This is 100% Approved by Twilight's Library!"

Book One - Prologue: The Shadows That Keep

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“Hey, boss, isn’t it—?”

The toll of the town’s clock tower interrupted Swordrunner’s subordinate, each chime causing a slight twitch in his eyebrow. “Nine o’clock.” He held himself still, laying in the alleyway behind a confectioner’s that smelled of sugar so strongly he could feel the cavities form in his teeth.

“Think he got lost? Our maps are out of date. The town’s much bigger than we thought.”

“It’s not that big. I don’t like this.”

A snort barely muffled itself inside Swordrunner’s nose. They were right, of course, but their words were laughably late. The question isn’t whether or not he’s caught. The question is: who gave us up to whom? He pulled out the picture of their target, the paper soaked in sweat from the hot summer day. The image and the biographical data had already been burned into the back of his mind: short unicorn mare, purple coat, dark flat mane with purple stripe, starburst cutie mark. Just below the image, the name was spelled out in bold: Twilight Sparkle. Even heroes can have enemies, eh, little miss?

A hushed shuffle sounded from around the corner behind him, and his team swung around to point their blades at an alley cat rustling through garbage.

Amateurs. They’re scared stiff. He grunted and lifted himself off the ground, looking one last time at the picture in his telekinesis. “Twenty-five million isn’t worth this.”

“Sir?”

He turned around to his team. “Get ready, all of you. We’re leaving. Don’t leave anything on the ground, no alley dust or garbage smear on your armor. No physical evidence.”

One of the earth ponies next to him raised an eyebrow. “Why the extra effort?”

Swordrunner curled his lip. “You think she’s being protected by a bunch of San Palomino thugs? The Royal Guard gets wind of this and they’ll comb over every inch and every lead to hunt us down and turn us into statues. Get that dirt off your breastplate, now!”

The small group started picking up anything left on the ground and cleaning themselves off, Swordrunner included. Every nook and cranny of his armor was washed over with his magic, picking up the most minute traces and removing them, even in the large gem core that gave him his shield.

It wasn’t until he progressed to his boots that he’d realized that none of his “comrades” were moving. Instead, they are all staring at him, or rather, something behind him.

Silver-colored steel swung through the air like the scythe of death itself. Arcs of magic and fire ripped the town’s quiet asunder as Swordrunner’s blade raced to his enemy. All the might and fury he could bring to the ambush behind him, though, was hushed like an infant as he struck a barrier that may as well have been a mountain.

There, before him, stood the Princess of the Night herself, as tall as Celestia and as black as the void. This was not the Luna in the newspapers that ridiculed her or her sister’s weakness. It was something more, something stronger, older, and vastly more terrifying.

He furrowed his brow and took a step back.

Panicked, stomping, galloping hooves exploded in a frenzy behind them as his team ran for their very lives.

Swordrunner rolled his eyes. “Idiots.”

As certain as the cycle of day and night, several muffled, blunt impacts reached his ears as they rounded the corner.

He spread out his hind legs into a defensive position and backed away from the alicorn, never once letting her leave his sight. “That was just to scare them into the trap, wasn’t it? Maybe it’s true, then. About you alicorns being weaker than you look.”

The Nightmare smiled and spread her wings. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Trap or no, I am more than a match for a foal such as yourself. Still, it would appear there is some, tiny, infinitesimal iota of wisdom and experience in you. I am… happy that you stayed. It will give us a chance to talk.”

Swordrunner swallowed. There was something there, something about her voice. He couldn’t put a hoof on it, but it still sent a chill down his sweat-drenched spine. “Definitely not an awkward little princess… I didn’t realize the Nightmare was back.”

The laughter from the alicorn sent thunder and lightning crackling through the sky, and her smile felt like it had frozen the alleyway better than any blizzard could ever hope. “Oh, who said I ever left? Not that it matters what title you give me; I’ve acquired so many these past millennia. No, what matters right now is: You’ve been offered a reward to harm somepony dear to me, and I intend to find out who’s behind it.”

Swordrunner’s eyes went wide. We weren’t sold out to the Royal Guard! We were sold out to the Night Guard! He turned slowly, blade at the ready as he checked behind him.

There was no alley. There was no town or sky. Behind him was a lone dumpster and the corner of the bakery, and behind that, there was naught but darkness.

“Now then,” Nightmare said, one corner of her mouth stretching into a smile. “Come, tell me who is paying you to hurt my Twilight.”

Damn, can’t fight her, can’t run, what am I—? Ice and pain shot up his hind leg, and he slashed behind him, cutting a tendril of a shadow creeping up his fetlock. Still the blackness advanced, reaching up, clawing, grabbing at him as he slashed and retreated from something that wasn’t there, that couldn’t be there.

His flank ran into something.

He turned around.

There was the Alicorn of the Night, ethereal mane whipping around him like a hurricane and stretching out into the infinite void.

“You, my little pony…”

Her icy, piercing eyes stared through him, a current of power and grace washing past his mental defenses like a tide. There was nothing but those eyes…

“You are going to tell me everything.”

His sword dropped from his grasp, falling into nothingness.

Stars… Stars! They’re so… beautiful…

Horseshoes Toward A Mountain Path

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“Twilight! We’re going to be late for the dinner!”

Twilight’s head jerked up, the words ringing through her skull like an unexpected explosion. She rubbed her head while glancing over to Spike, her ever-faithful assistant.

The dragon crossed his arms, giving her a little glare. “You know AJ is going to be pissed if we miss this one.”

“In a minute, Spike.” She levitated a quill and put the finishing touches to her document, his yell still echoing in her head. I knew dragons could be loud. I guess I never expected it to happen to my little Spike

“And just when are you going to tell me what the heck you’re working on, anyway? You’ve been up for four days. I’d think that if the Princess needed you to do something this badly, she’d tell me.” Spike scratched his head.

Twilight chuckled, arranging the papers on her desk. “Actually this is meant to be a bit of a surprise for her, too. I’ve been thinking about the mechanics for a long time, but just this week, I discovered a way to actually pull it off. This is going to be a doozy, Spike.” She stood with a stretch and a yawn. “I’ll tell you more about it on the way to the dinner.”

Spike smirked. “Does this mean we’re ready? And are you sure your stomach won’t just explode from not having eaten anything for ages?” He looked over to the barely touched dinners he’d prepared for her during the study spree.

Twilight’s ears went back against her head. “Uh, heh heh. Sorry, I’ve just been wanting to get this done so badly… I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

Spike shrugged. “Fair enough, but you know I’ll hold you to it. Should we get going?”

Twilight arched her back in a stretch and shook her head. “Not quite yet.”

Spike stood in front of her and raised an eyebrow, his gaze traveling slightly downwards to meet her in the eyes.

I am never going to get used to him being taller than me—even if it’s not by much… “Just need to do one quick thing first, Spike. Care to take a letter to Princess Celestia?”

He sighed and deflated a little, but Twilight caught the smile he tried to suppress. “Okay. Let me get a piece of paper.”

You’re always happy to do that, and you know it, Twilight thought, smiling as Spike dipped a quill in ink.

She cleared her throat.

“Dear Princess Celestia,

I’m writing to let you know that I've completed the first version of my latest spell. With luck, it will be the first unicorn spell ever created capable of being cast through one’s hooves, instead of through the horn. I’m very excited by the possibilities this presents! I’m including a copy of the spell script. Let me know what you think!

Your faithful student,

Twilight Sparkle

P.S. Thanks again for being at Fluttershy and Big Macintosh’s wedding last month. It meant the world to them. I’m going to their first dinner back from their honeymoon now.”

Spike quickly caught up to the words then grinned as he added another line.

“P.P.S. Spike here. She’s got that look in her eyes again. If you find any new craters in Ponyville, you know what happened to us.”

Twilight rolled her eyes and laughed. “Smart-alecky dragon.”

“You make me late for Apple family food, you get snark in your letter to Celestia.” Spike stuck out his tongue.

“Fair enough. I suppose I deserve a little ribbing after ignoring you like this.” Twilight lifted up the copy of her research and tied a string around it. “Here, send this with the letter.”

Spike took the package in his hands and rolled it up with the letter then stepped over to an open window. Taking a deep breath, he held out the package and brought forth his flames, their bright green light vaporizing the papers and sending them on their way in his spell. “Done and done. Heh. Big package like that? I’m just glad she thought that time with the typewriter was funny.”

“I wouldn’t worry. She adjusted her receiving spell to prevent anything else landing directly on top of her.” Twilight’s hooves clip-clopped as she made her way down the stairs to the library entrance and strapped her saddlebags to her back. Leftovers. There’s always leftovers. “Ready to go?”

“Been ready for an hour now.” Spike jumped from the top of the stairs, landing in a squat. “If we hurry, we might get there in time for the main course.”

Twilight flipped the library’s sign to “closed” and trotted out the door with Spike close behind.


They made their way down the road to Sweet Apple Acres as the final vestiges of the day bled away into the moonlit, starry night. The warmth and humidity of late summer lingered on in the air while the fireflies danced over the fields of corn, wheat, and alfalfa.

Spike stretched, then ran for a moment to catch up to Twilight. He might have been taller than her now, but four legs beat two for walking speed every time. “So,” he started, yawning. “Are you going to share the details of this ‘casting a spell through your hooves’ thing, or leave your number one assistant in the dark?”

Twilight smirked, lowering her tired head a little. “Yeah. Sorry for keeping it from you, Spike, but I wasn’t sure it was going to work at first. I think I’ve got it nailed, though.”

“Nailed, huh?” Spike raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t casting stuff through your hooves, like, impossible?”

Twilight nodded, examining her hoof. “That’s the prevailing theory, yes. I’m aiming to prove it wrong.”

“Are you sure you want to try the impossible again so soon?” Spike shook his head, cringing a little and bracing himself. Twilight trying the impossible wasn't unheard of, but when she wasn't being forced to do it by some disaster, it usually created a disaster itself. “Remember that time you tried to invent a perpetual motion machine?”

Twilight scoffed, waving off the protest with a hoof. “Spike, that was years ago! I’ve learned a lot since then!”

“Soooo much flooding…” He grabbed his arms, the humidity in the air providing a choking reminder of ‘the incident.’

“Besides, this isn’t impossible!”

“That's what you said about the machine.”

“I’ve already tested this spell! Albeit on a small scale, but it works!”

“You said that too.”

Twilight clenched her teeth and rubbed her head, the bags under her eyes becoming more and more clear under the soft light of the moon. “Okay, fine, Mr. Doubtful. I’ll just show you. Here, race me to the farm.”

Spike blinked a few times. “Uh, Twi?”

She grimaced and lit her horn, sparks and lights dancing and bursting to life.

“Look, Twi, I believe you! Are you sure you want to—?”

“Too late! I’ve already started…” Bits of magic popped in the air as the ground started to smoke. “Can’t shut it down now. Get going, Spike! You need to get clear!”

Spike clenched his teeth and ran backwards. Little bits of dirt kicked up from the ground as he kept an eye on Twilight. His pace ground to a halt when the earth underneath her erupted in magical fire.

This is either going to end in a crash or an atomizing explosion. Or Both. Twice. Again!


Twilight relaxed her breathing, letting the air into her lungs more and more slowly as the spell increased its pace. A purple field of ambient magic glowed around her in a circle on the ground, flaring to an inferno as an image of her parents as potted plants invaded her mind. No. No, that won’t happen. It can’t happen. I’m in control. I’m calm. I can do this. I just need to keep… focus

Another burst of flashes and ash roared to life around her, the soot stinging her nose. Calm. Controlled. Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and is under my command.

The fire died down, coalescing near her hooves as the magic changed direction, exiting from her hooves. All the fury and combustion retreated directly under her, condensing into four glowing, white-hot horseshoes affixed to her hooves. She quickly checked the rest of her body, finding only slight traces of soot and ash. I was right! Flames from combusting mana can’t harm their source, only what’s around the source!

“Uh, Twilight?”

She picked up her hoof and looked at the horseshoe under it. It still glowed white hot, and as she hovered it over a blade of grass, it incinerated instantly. “Ha! See, Spike? It worked perfectly!”

He scratched his head. “You… made magic shoes? Couldn’t you just have visited Rarity’s boutique in Canterlot or something?”

“Oh, these are way more than just shoes. Remember when I said I’d race you to the farm? Well…” She laughed and ducked down, preparing her next test. “On your mark…”

“Aw, man.” Spike bent over and put his hands on the ground. “I don’t care if I have gotten a lot stronger lately. Four legs against two just isn’t fair.”

“Get set…” Twilight’s tail twitched as a warm breeze washed over the field around them.

“And all the way to the farm? I’m going to need a nap after this.”

“Go!” Twilight pushed off the ground with a carefully placed and calculated kick, sending her flying into the air like a boulder out of a Cutie Mark Crusader Catapult.

“Waiiiit uuuuppp!”

Spike’s cry faded into the background as she soared, bouncing higher and higher with each successive landing. The glow of fireflies became streaks of light over the fields, and the wind knocked away the sweat from the humid night air. Halfway to the farm, she soared higher than the treetops at the apex of her bounds, though the birds in them most certainly heard her laughter. “Captain Dash, eat your heart out!”


“Crap oh crap oh crap…” Spike huffed and puffed, pushing his mere two legs to try and keep up. With each jump, Twilight put more and more distance between them. Crap! Come on, Spike! You’re a dragon! You can do better than this!

Spike’s vision blurred out, save for one thing: the fast-moving Twilight. Grays and blacks replaced the green and amber of the farmland fields, yet his mentor only grew brighter. Fire licked out from his nostrils, and the magic of the gems he consumed coursed through his arteries all the way down to his legs. On the next step, he leaned forward.

Things became even more blurry.

The heat in the air was irrelevant. The rocks in the road couldn’t hope to damage the scales on his feet. There was only gravity, traction, and draconic strength. A cloud of dust and dirt kicked up behind him as a new pace took over his legs that even Applejack would have been proud of.

Yet, Twilight was still putting distance between them.

Hang on, Twilight! I’m coming


“Woohoo!” Twilight spun around in the air, doing little stunts between jumps. “‘Impossible’, eat my dust!” She could see the study she’d submit to Canterlot University already. It had six different colors of paper, logically organized and arranged, and several proofs aimed at a specific subset of her prior professors.

“Ah, there’s the farmhouse!” She pushed off the ground again, watching as her friend’s home grew closer and closer. “Now I just have to… stop… oh horseapples…”

The singular flaw in her brilliant plan exposed, Twilight flailed her hooves around in midair. The next bounce was the last she had. The next would send her into the orchard, and the ones after that she didn’t have time to think about. Avoiding the ground’s eager desire to meet her and preventing becoming a red and purple splotch on Sweet Apple Acre’s welcome sign took a somewhat higher priority.

Turn around and reverse the impact angle? No, I'd just go tumbling. Turn the ground into water? No, that'd need too much power and would take an age to cast. Maybe… Eeeep!

Time was up, the ground was here, and it was very interested to see how she thought she was going to get out of their intimate encounter.

As with so many bad situations, Twilight had only one answer. She closed her eyes, charged her horn, and braced herself for the teleportation shock.

Light and pressure overwhelmed her senses, and air rushed out her lungs as if she were in deep space. She could feel the energy of her spell explode outwards, but it wasn’t until an instant later that the true sound of thunder pounded her ears, the air rushing back as in a lightning strike.

She coughed and heaved, waving a hoof to try and clear the air of dust while trying to think of why and how she remained alive. When her vision finally returned, she froze. Around her was a six-meter-wide crater with her rump dead in the center of it all.

“Twiiiliiight!” A voice cried out, fighting through the ringing in her ears.

“Spike?” She coughed again, spattering some blood on the ground. “Is that you?”

A scaly hand reach down under her chest, helping her stand. “Twilight, are you okay?”

Her vision slowly returned to normal, along with her other senses, as her legs shook and trembled. Little white sparkles popped and fizzled in the ground, vanishing as an idea crept its way into her mind.

“Hey, Twilight, talk to me!” Spike flopped on the ground, rubbing his leg. “Are you alright?”

“S… Spike?”

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me. Looks like you’re okay. Whew.” He lay down, curling and stretching his legs. “Ow! Ttttthhhhh… Ouch. Don’t do that to me, Twilight. You know I can’t run like that for long!”

“That… that…” The new idea grew and grew inside Twilight’s thoughts, formulas and magic script racing and filling dozens of mental blackboards. Being covered in dirt could barely even find a square centimeter to spare as a grin took over her face by force. “That… was… amazing! Spike! Did you see that? The teleportation must have tried to compress the bounding-mass spell down to the point where it caused a criticality event! Oh, do you know what this means?! I could completely rewrite the rules for creating solidified magic! Tell me we brought paper! I need to start writing this down! Wait, no paper, I’ll just write it here.” She lit her horn and started moving around the soil, scribbling in an arcane sequence of symbols.

Twilight! Just what in the hay is going on out here?”

Twilight swung her head around just in time for Applejack’s expression to go from one of anger to one of shock. The farmer’s hooves pounded on dirt as she raced towards Twilight and the crater where she sat.

“Landsakes, girl! What in tarnat—”

“Applejack! Did you see? I was casting magic through my hooves! I beat Spike here! There was this most amazing thing when I tried to land. You see, I—”

Applejack grabbed her by the shoulder with one hoof and used the other to muffle her. “Twilight, I’m gonna need ya t’ slow down a mite. First, are you okay?”

Twilight nodded her head, the grin on her face growing ever larger.

“Good. Now, is there any part of my orchard blasted to bits other than the windows and this here crater?”

Twilight looked around a bit at the scene. The windows on the house were all blown out, but for all the ferocity of the blast, the house itself stood strong. Even the new barn in the distance seemed untouched. “I don’t think so…”

Applejack lowered her hooves and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Turning around, she waved at the small crowd of Apple family relatives gathering just outside the front door of the house, including the newly added Fluttershy and the small grouping of animals around her. “It’s okay, everypony!” Applejack yelled. “False alarm, no disaster this time! We can go back inside!”

“No disaster…” Spike groaned, still lying on the ground. “Speak for yourselves.”

“I’m just glad yer both alright. We can talk about the windows after dinner.” Applejack winked at Twilight, who cringed and rubbed the back of her head.

“Heh. Yeah, sorry about that. You too, Spike. I guess I got a little carried away. I’m sure Celestia will be okay with replacing them after I show her what I’ve been working on.” Or when I win some kind of prize for coming up with it.

She opened her mouth to speak again but stopped as her vision was blanketed in a pure, warm, white light so intense she had to cover her eyes. A serene feeling welling up her in stomach followed, but was squelched as soon as she heard the voice accompanying it.

“Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight didn’t wait for her eyesight to adjust. She could see the tall, white alicorn standing in front of her all too clearly. “P-P-Princess Celestia!” she yelped far more loudly than she’d expected, jolting her back to sit up like she was in a witness stand about to be sentenced to magic kindergarten. A dawning realization that she was still in the middle of a crater hit her, and her nervousness reached new heights as she bit her hoof in a last-ditch attempt to think straight.

“Twilight, my student, what happened here? I didn’t expect Spike’s comment about a crater to be literal.”

Spike groaned and kept rubbing his legs. “Neither did I… Ooowww…”

Applejack tilted her hat. “Heh. I think our little genius here was messin’ with ‘powers beyond her control’ again. Doesn’t look like it worked too well.”

“It worked perfectly!” Twilight said, stomping a hoof. “My work was flawless! I just, well, didn’t think of a way to stop myself is all.”

Celestia looked at her two subjects and sighed as her wings drooped. Even her gaze was off, like she was looking at something far away instead of the student in front of her.

“You told her?” the Princess asked, wincing and wiping away the formula Twilight wrote in the ground with a hoof. “Does anypony else know about the spell being through your hooves? Anypony at all?”

Twilight looked around, recounting the events of her research. “Just you, AJ, and Spike. Why? I mean, I know this could be big, but it’s not like it’s that… I did something wrong, didn’t I?” Her voice squeaked at the last two words.

Her mentor shook her head. “No, not really. However, despite that, I’m afraid there will be consequences. I’m going to have to ask the three of you to accompany me to the castle. Nopony must know of the nature of this spell.”

“The castle? Fer how long? I mean, it’s just a spell. High-falutin’, maybe, but—”

“I’m afraid, my little pony, that this will take at least a few months.”

“Months!?” all three cried out in unison.

“But the farm! I can’t just leave it! There are windows broke, and the first of the harvest is coming, and it’s not like Fluttershy can work too hard, bein’… Oh, oh ponyfeathers… I done spoiled the secret…” Applejack looked down at her hooves.

“Being what, Applejack? Is she sick?” Spike asked through a yawn as he tried to stand.

Celestia looked up at the farmhouse for a moment. “She’s pregnant, I’d imagine. And that utterance is all the more evidence you must come with me. I’m sorry, Applejack. This isn't a request. I’ll send expert farmhooves and a stipend to help; you needn’t worry about the farm. Or the library. All will be taken care of. But we must go, and now.”

None of them had time to protest before the light came again, whisking them away.


Even closing her eyes and covering them with her hooves didn’t help them any. Celestia’s teleportation spell was so bright this time the light still hurt her retinas like staring into a camera flashbulb that didn’t want to turn off. Must be because she’s moving all of us at once

When it finally subsided, she found herself and her friends in front of the castle gates. An armored Day Guard was already bowing to the Princess.

Celestia held out a hoof with her command. “Soldier, rise. I have orders.”

“My liege,” he said as he stood up. “What is your command?”

“Take these two and arrange quarters for them. In addition, provide some gems and a painkiller for Spike; it looks like he overexerted his legs.”

“Yeah.” Spike leaned against Applejack. “Yeah. Ow. I’m going to feel this for a while…”

Celestia lit her horn and weaved a spell around the dragon. “It will pass in time, and the painkiller will help, as should this. Now, both of you are to stay in the secured areas of the castle and speak of what happened to nopony. I cannot stress that enough. Nopony.” The Princess leaned in close, looking as if her stare alone could set them on fire. “Am I understood?”

Applejack and Spike nodded, crouching down more in fear than in a bow.

“At once, Your Highness.” The soldier waved and pointed to the main doors. “Miss, Sir, if you would follow me.”

The two followed the guard, looking nervously back to Twilight and Celestia as they walked away.

Twilight swallowed, her dry throat protesting with pain as her friends left her sight. “Um, Princess? If we aren’t following them, then where—?”

Celestia was silent as a scroll appeared out of thin air in front of her. Faster than even Twilight could read, words etched themselves in the parchment without so much as a quill to guide them.

All that Twilight could make out before it was rolled up, sealed, and sent on its way was that there was an official order on it.

I guess I’m not meant to know

The light from Celestia’s teleportation overtook them both once more.


Somewhere high above a desert, a small, purple unicorn mare quietly muttered to herself.

“It is a commonly accepted fact that very high places are not especially friendly environments for a unicorn. However, when a unicorn finds him or herself in such an environment, there are any number of helpful actions to take. Screaming like a little filly and flailing one’s legs about is not one of them, however natural it seems.”

“Twilight?”

“Yes, Princess?”

“Are you done?” Celestia said, her tone as calm and unreadable as ever.

Twilight shivered and shifted over from on her back to her belly, forcing her hooves against the cold cloud to stand up. “Sorry, I’m just embarrassed. You taught me better than that. I should’ve cast those butterfly wings for myself again or something. Thanks for the cloud-walking spell.”

Celestia looked back at her student from the edge of the stratus cloud and smiled. “I could never let you fall, Twilight. Now, look out here. I want you to see this.”

Twilight approached the edge of the cloud to join her mentor, moving cautiously as her hooves sunk slightly into the strangely supportive water vapor. The brilliant light of Luna’s moon seemed especially strong; it was about half as bright as day with nothing but a full moon. When she reached the end of the cloud, she peered over the side and saw why: the solid ground far below reflected the light like a mirror in a dazzling spectacle.

“Do you know where we are, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded. “The Glass Desert… I’ve read about this, but never seen it before. The book said pegasi can’t fly here during the day; they get blinded. Supposedly, at some point, a meteor exploded in the air, melting the sand and cooking it to glass. Incredible!”

The desert stretched out to the horizon, even from the vantage of the cloud. It twisted Twilight’s sense of scale nearly to its breaking point. Giant glass mountains to the north, flat, glazed desert in the south. Every bit of it sparkled and reflected the moon’s light back into her eyes.

Celestia nodded. “Very good, Twilight. But, I’m afraid the books are wrong. It wasn’t a meteor.”

Twilight started to tilt her head before catching herself and righting it. She’d become somewhat self-conscious of the habit after Celestia called it “adorkable” during a Pinkie party.

“Four thousand years or so ago, Discord made his first appearance to our world. He seemed an odd curiosity at first; certainly, we didn’t think him a threat. Then, when we tried to put a stop to his toying with our subjects, we found out just how wrong we were.

“He absolutely ravaged our world. Our civilizations were utterly annihilated, their history wiped clean from the planet. Some remnants can still be found from time to time, but he was quite thorough. Not to say we didn’t try to stop him. Luna and a dozen other alicorns… We all fought to save our ponies in a conflict that spanned centuries. Eventually, we gained the upper hoof, but it wouldn’t last.

“To split us up, Discord did something utterly inconceivable. He increased the size of our world, of Equus itself, blowing it up like a balloon and increasing its diameter by an order of magnitude. Towns and cities were splintered and scattered across the landscape by hundreds or thousands of kilometers, the connections between them pulled apart and snapped like string. Everywhere was isolated, and our nations’ supply lines were cut off. Luna and I were flung thousands and thousands of kilometers away from each other.”

The scientist in Twilight demanded she speak up. “He grew the size of the world? But I have globes that—”

Celestia snorted, almost laughing at the idea. “Our globes and maps are a reasonable guess at the amount of the world we actually know. After all, Luna and I made them. Yet, everypony knows that at their edges, their accuracy is a joke at best. Worse, Discord’s work was more damaging than that. Equus still bears the scars of that day. There are pockets of chaos magic scattered everywhere, many of which are impossible to remove. Even now, deep in the oceans, beyond any point which our ponies have dared yet explore, there are permanent, stationary squalls of chaotic storms that encircle the known lands and bar sea and air travel. To even attempt to sail through them is to invite being whisked away to some other, far-flung corner of the world where there are no maps, no civilizations, nothing but wilderness.

“I imagine ponies will find out about this soon enough. They’re finally back to a point where their ships and explorers can reach these places, and perhaps someday, they’ll find a way to navigate the storms. Luna and I can teleport past them, but that isn’t a thing our subjects can imitate. Until then, our globes will do to help ponies navigate what was left after the Chaos War. I wish they were better and more complete, but there were barely enough resources to keep everything from falling apart, let alone map such a huge expanse.”

Her voice cracked a little as she explained, giving hints as to the depth of the history being summarized.

Twilight covered her mouth with her hoof, taking everything in as it was told to her. “Expanded the world by an order of magnitude… is that what made the Glass Desert?”

Celestia cringed and whispered, “No. That was me.” She swallowed, turning her face from the land below.

“I was with a small scouting force when it happened. Two hundred thirty-five of the bravest ponies I’ve ever known. Since I was the second youngest alicorn with such a small force, Discord must have decided I would be easy pickings, even though he was drastically weakened from altering the world. He marched an army of one hundred thousand discordant ponies, griffons, and all other manner of creatures on us.” The Princess cringed, clenching her teeth and looking out to the mountains. “I can still hear his laughter echoing in the valley. He must have thought forcing our ponies to fight each other some kind of sick joke.”

Celestia paused a moment, taking a few deep breaths. “We couldn’t outrun them. We didn’t even know where we could run to. Before long, they were upon us. We knew they would wipe us out and move on to Luna or some other alicorn. To prevent that, my ponies made the ultimate sacrifice. They told me to fight with my full strength… even though they’d never escape my flames in time.

“So I fought. On that day, in that battle… I created my most destructive spell: Sol Invictus.

“I summoned every ounce of my power in that spell, completely incinerating an entire legion, along with my brave ponies who willingly faced that fate so I could ‘win.’ Their ashes were fused with the sands below them and melted to glass as an eternal monument to my sins. What you see before you is the result of that battle. One hundred thousand lives lost, and all I managed to do was hurt Discord and make him retreat.”

Celestia stopped, wiping away some tears as Twilight continued to soak in the information she’d heard along with the sight before her. It had beauty enough to be a natural wonder, instead of a warning of what the Unconquered Sun was capable of. It seemed inconceivable that the very same loving being now hugging her with a wing was capable of, let alone responsible for, such an act.

“Later, the alicorns split up to defend their own civilizations even though Luna and I pointed out how we’d be vulnerable. They were worried about their ponies—we understood that—but we were right all the same. We fell, one at a time. Nation after nation, our institutions and infrastructure was demolished and burned to the ground. After each, he toyed with the ponies left until he was bored and left them, mad, to die from exposure. Eventually, ours was the sole civilization that remained, ruled by the last two living alicorns, plus one other that retreated to join us, Lord Glacien.

“When it came to be our turn, we nearly lost our civilization, too. In many ways, we did. Almost everything was destroyed, but Glacien stalled Discord long enough for us to summon and connect to the Elements. They were legends back then too, their origins unknown even to us. But our summoning techniques were sloppy and our information on the Elements extremely limited. We had no idea what we were really doing; we were just desperate. It was a true miracle that Luna and I hit on the right ideas and brought them forth to us.

“When we finally sealed Discord away, we saw our friend, the last alicorn other than us, finally succumb to his wounds. Just like dragons, our magic burns when we die; the flames shoot dozens of kilometers into the sky. There’s nothing left when it’s over.”

Celestia sighed slowly, seemingly releasing some of her tension only to have it tighten back up as her lower lip quivered and her eyes poured out a river of soundless tears. “I’ve been alive a long time, Twilight. Few ponies know just how long, so know how much I trust you when I tell you I’m almost ten thousand years old. And every single day I see the faces of those brave ponies and millions of others I’ve either killed directly, sent to die, or seen die because of my mistakes. Their memories are with me every waking moment. It’s the burden of the alicorn. We push forward. We must push forward for those still alive and those yet to live. Yet they all die, and we keep going on while an ever increasing line of ghosts follow us to remind us of every major mistake in our long lives to help us learn from them.”

“It’s allowed me to grow so strong, and so useless. I can’t fight anymore, Twilight. I’ve become far too much like the sun I represent. I can guide my ponies from afar, but when I get too close… it all just burns. Especially if I try to use my magic to fight, and that pains me more than anything. Thank the Heavens you redeemed Luna so she can help me.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. Why mention Luna like that? “Umm… Princess?” Twilight nudged her mentor again, this time with a specific motion. It had been a little sign they knew about and had built with each other through experience. Roughly translated, it meant ‘Hey, can I interrupt to ask a question I’m kinda sure is rude without you adding me to the statue garden?’

“Yes, Twilight?” The translated reply there was ‘Of course, I’ll tell the pigeon firing squad to stand down,’ or so Twilight felt. It was hard to tell through her mentor’s tears.

“If your magic causes… that, wouldn’t Luna’s do something similar?” she asked, motioning to the Glass Desert below.

“No, actually. She’s mostly as strong as me, true, but she doesn’t have any spells as destructive as Sol Invictus. She has much finer control, too. She can still fight without collateral costs. Heavens, it sounds awful to call my ponies that… Still, a little colt could be right next to her enemy, and he’d escape unharmed. She’s a true master on the battlefield, Twilight, and perhaps the only one still living. Even if an enemy was twice my strength, I’d still advise betting on Luna to win that fight. I’ve seen her halt an army’s—actually, my army’s—advance and make them turn in terror just from her arrival. I’ve seen her use spells I still cannot prove are actually possible. I’ve even seen her rally forces to march against enemies ten times their number and emerge victorious.”

A wistful smile slowly formed on Celestia’s face as the tears subsided. “And more recently, she’s taken to teaching archeology to an earth pony named Pip. What did I tell you about the bookish ones becoming powerful? You’re certainly becoming a good example of that too, Twilight.”

Twilight took a step back into Celestia’s wing. Something’s not right… She’s praising me, yeah, and that’s awesome, but why mention my power? I should ask—No, if I do, she’ll… she’ll… She’ll talk about what she wants to no matter what I do… Twilight ducked her head down. “Princess, I’m a librarian, not a general. I’m not that powerful.”

“Yes, you are, Twilight. In terms of the depth of your wellspring, the amount of magic you have? You are most powerful unicorn in existence by a wide margin.”

Twilight would have fallen over backwards if not for Celestia’s wing. “What? That’s just not possible, Princess. I mean, Shining can shield all of Canterlot—”

“And he has only roughly a quarter of your wellspring size—although to be fair, he is in a comfortable second place.”

Twilight focused in on Celestia’s face and her newly calm, neutral demeanor. Somewhere in this conversation there was a ton of bricks with Twilight’s name written all over it, but she could only make a rough guess as to what form it would take.

Celestia quickly continued, “It’s quite an achievement, what you’ve done. You should be proud. Hundreds and hundreds of unicorns could band together and not be able to boast of having such magic.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped as the metaphorical bricks landed on her head. “Hundreds? Princess, you can’t be—”

Celestia stood up, her new tone curt and cutting. “I’m completely serious, Twilight. You’ve achieved a level very few dream of, let alone live to see. And now, what you’ve accomplished today with this new spell of yours will mark a turning point in your life.”

Celestia walked in front of her student and sat again with Twilight between her and the edge, the alicorn’s gaze gaze piercing her very soul. Though her eyes saw no light, she felt as if she was mere glass in front of a sun, as though everything about her was being laid bare.

I can’t take it… “Princess,” she began, stomping her hoof in a demand. “Please, tell me what’s really going on! You tear me and my friends from our homes, lock us in the castle, and then whisk me thousands of kilometers away. None of that is something you’d do on a whim. You’re trying to tell me something. Just please, say it!”

Celestia lowered her ears as if she was hurt. “Twilight, you have to understand, no unicorn can cast magic through their hooves. At least, not in a controlled manner. It simply cannot be done.”

Twilight shook her head and stood up in a defensive stance, legs wide apart. “But… I did it… I mean, it didn’t work as well as I wanted, but it worked, mostly. And it took a lot of practice. But I did it, and… I… thought you would be proud…”

“Oh, Twilight, my Twilight. I am infinitely proud of you!” Celestia said, standing up and spreading her wings. “I told you, you’ve done nothing wrong. It’s wonderful that you have performed that spell! It’s just that the fact that you have does not contradict my earlier statement. No unicorn, no matter how talented, can cast magic through her hooves.”

“But I did it! What’s wrong with that? Why all the fuss? So I cast through my hooves, and I'm a unicorn! Why is this such a huge deal?”

Celestia broke her gaze, looking down at the cloud as she began breathing more heavily. “Not anymore…”

Twilight just looked up at her in confusion, watching as the Princess’ face became more and more pained.

”I… how do I…?” The Princess took in a deep breath and sighed, her gaze returning to her pupil as she spoke with more calm and conviction than Twilight had ever heard before.

“Twilight Sparkle, welcome to the alicorn race.”

‘Ton of bricks’ ceased to be an apt metaphor. This was a bombshell, one that knocked her back on her flank then collapsed her front legs too, forcing her all the way down on the cloud. “A-alicorn? No, I— Princess, look at me! Look at you! I can’t be an alicorn! I don’t have the billowy mane or the huge wings. I’m tiny, my mane is definitely not glowing, and I’m—”

“Standing on a stratus cloud without a cloud-walking spell,” Celestia said, her voice as smooth as glass as she turned away from her student. “I never put one on you, Twilight. You didn’t need it.”

Panic hit in an instant as her mind rushed to think of what to do while her jaw did its best to reach the ground. In an impossible moment of clarity, she responded by checking herself and her hooves with magic, her horn alight with a cancel spell, which fizzled instantly when it found nothing to cancel.

Twilight looked back up at her mentor, pupils shrunk, eye twitching, and jaw completely unresponsive to neural commands. Her mind couldn’t form a coherent thought, but the message seemed to get through loud and clear: “Help!

Celestia closed her eyes and raised her horn. “I suppose, once again, it is better to see and experience.”

Celestia’s words barely registered with Twilight before the coronal glow around Celestia flashed into existence, bathing the sky with light that began to rush towards her. For a split second, she worried about being witness to Sol Invictus, but the magic didn’t burn. Instead, it flowed into and through her.

The sheer amount of magic penetrating her was incomprehensible. She’d just been told she had the power of a thousand unicorns; that was a trifle compared to this. She could feel it warm her as her world warped and her breathing stopped, the flow focusing in her heart and rushing out her limbs and horn. Her back ached, her eyes saw nothing but light, and then her mind expanded.

Blinded by the light, she forced her eyes closed, but that only opened her to a new world of sight, seeing things clear as crystal in a way she never had before. An unreal amount of magic flowed in bright ribbons from Celestia into her body, transforming it into something completely different. Her legs were even longer than her brother’s, her horn as great as Celestia’s, and a new coat of hair more luxurious than anything she’d ever felt. On her back, two great wings with primary feathers the size of most pegasus’ wingspans. While her body glowed and burned, her ears heard a whole symphony as her mentor again began to speak.

“This is you, Twilight, in perhaps ten years’ time. Observe. Reach out with your senses and experience the world for the first time.”

Her mind stretched out as if on instinct and took in more data than should be possible. The intricate structure of the spell her mentor was using appeared in front of her, etching itself into the very fabric of reality. Farther her mind stretched, feeling the exact composition of the air as it expanded around her. Even the rough, worn glass of the desert below could be felt as if she was there on the ground, and the flow of magic in the sky and stars became obvious at once as the very pulse of the planet below lit up the ground with magic currents. She shouldn’t be able to think and feel all this at once, yet her mind moved through it all with effortless ease.

“Alicorns are not born. We ascend. We that reach this level of power are changed, forever. Unable to survive as unicorns any further due to the immense power of our own magic, we take on the aspects of the other races in addition to our own.”

She was telling the truth. Power flowed from her mentor to her, and in turn through her body. Her heart radiated with the warmth of the planet, strengthening her and everything around her. Her spine sent massive amounts of energy out through her hooves and wings. Her horn couldn’t keep up with the amount of power in it, expelling excess energy at random into the sky as she frantically turned about to look at herself and everywhere else.

“We gain new insight and instincts. We lose our age and our ability to have children. And we remove all the limits on our power.”

Once she remembered she had lungs, her breathing resumed at a frantic pace as she looked into her much, much longer mane. She could see the sky though it. Not Equestria’s sky, her sky. A view of a perfect night, deep in space.

“We are not immortal. We can be killed, just not by old age. And we are not gods. Gods are beyond even this. We must never be worshipped, for it drives us mad and makes our worshippers dependent. But we are the guardians of our ponies, a duty our minds and bodies compel us to fulfill.”

The magic subsided, and her form and senses returned to normal. She didn’t feel herself shrink or lose limbs. It was as if the senses she had before just went silent, leaving her cold, scared, and overwhelmed in her tiny frame, thin coat of hair, wingless back, and supremely frazzled but non-luminous mane.

“You’ve only just started this journey, my student. It may take years to reach your first summit, but that in and of itself is a record pace. It took me a millennium to fully ascend.”

Twilight couldn’t remain sitting anymore as her legs gave out and she flopped into the cloud, straining to get her breathing under control as her body screamed in agony over having the entire universe torn out from her.

The world faded with the pain, and the sweet release of sleep washed over her a moment later.

Call to a Brighter Night

View Online

"I can't believe I'm not scheduled for three shows!"

"What kind of captain barely trains?"

"I thought you said I'D get to lead that formation!"

Rainbow Dash didn't know where it had all gone wrong. She had worked hard and persevered, pushed her body and flying abilities far beyond what she'd ever dreamed possible. She had gone to boot camp, the Wonderbolts tryouts, her first show, her fiftieth show, and now wore the captain's rank on her shoulder. It was a dream come true: the undisputed best flier in all of Equestria and beyond.

"You can't just ignore us!"

"Don't tell the Captain what to do!"

"Quit brown-nosing, this is important!"

So why was she repeating "Bravo Mike Lima" over and over in her head to drown out the buzzing? Maybe she should've kept repeating the names of the Elements instead of the military euphemism, but somehow the venerated Elements didn't seem appropriately cuss-worthy enough. It didn’t take long for the last vestiges of professionalism in her to quickly wear away and she started thinking the phrase “Buck My Life” properly. Profane, but more soothing.

Oh, wait, that wasn't buzzing she was trying to drown out, it was her "team" whining at her. The Wonderbolts were supposed to be disciplined and professional, but the truth was that the they were filled with the same kind of ponies as her. Prima donnas, showoffs, and glory seekers; all with a spirit boot camp couldn't break.

Soarin' was the first to leave after she joined. She took it personally at first, until he came to visit her in her cloud home. And her bed. And her couch. And her ceiling. It didn't last, but it was fun, and they were still friends.

"Why are you always trying to change the routine?"

"If we don't keep it fresh, ponies will stop coming!"

"It's about tradition, not ticket sales!"

Rainbow took another drink of her cider and gagged. This wasn't cider, it was swill. Not like Sweet Apple Acres' cider. Not even like Flim-Flam cider. She didn't even recognize the label, it just... tasted like she felt. She popped the collar on her brown flyer's jacket and tried to pretend she couldn't see or hear the annoyances around her, crowding her in this false sanctuary.

She thought that, with such a high-end bar, she could get away from such madness here. She had newbies proclaiming themselves to be the best thing to ever happen to flying and then asking her how their flight suits worked. There were no less than three different ponies trying to badmouth her to military command to steal her job. One accused her of sexual harassment, and only failed because he was an idiot who couldn’t keep his story straight. Even the “friendly” veterans she looked up to seemed to have their own hidden agendas.

She let out a loud sigh and tried to give obvious nonverbal hints to let everypony know she didn’t want to be bothered. It wouldn’t work, but damned if she wasn’t going to try. As she looked around, the disharmony between the light, fancy decor and the attitudes of the ponies in it became abundantly apparent. The cloud walls and floor were compacted enough to let anything stand on them, enchanted or not. The iced bar-top, the fancy windows, even the bottles stayed in place without falling through the vapor. Rainbow mused that because they spent so much on the decor they couldn't afford a decent mug of cider. It was a complete bait and switch in her mind, just like the dream she had chased all this time.

"Every pony in this bar is crazy!"

"Well, then welcome to the loony bin, toots."

"Call me toots again..."

It all fell apart after she became captain when Spitfire retired. Rainbow was the best flier, after all. It only made sense for her to step up. They all looked up to her... well, her fans did. The others? Not so much. They all had chips on their shoulders just like she did. She wanted to step down at the first sign of trouble, but the bits that came with the job were mighty enticing. It was only later that she realized she had nowhere to spend them. Everything she owned she carried with her from show to show, and it could all fit in the extensive pockets of her captain's jacket, which doubled as saddlebags. “Listen to your instincts, they're usually right,” her boot camp drill sergeant had said, all that time ago. He was right, and so was that little voice in her head screaming, “told you so.”

Now, she flew less than she did as a weather pony in Ponyville. She spent her days managing rosters, listening to whining from her fliers wanting more show time or more prominent spots or solos, managing back office drama, and generally trying to keep the whole damn thing from going down in flames. She had no idea how Spitfire had put up with it. Or rather, how she’d stomped it out without it coming back a second later. For now, though, she just wanted a tiny piece of quiet.

"Enough! All of you, back to the barracks! That's an order!" Rainbow yelled at the top of her lungs, pointing at the door. She might not yet know how to deal with this, but by Celestia that didn't mean she had to put up with it while drinking her ever-so-lovely cider. She watched as her disgruntled, potentially mutinous 'team' filed out the door. It wasn't until her next drink came that she noticed that one of them was standing behind her and on the other side, still there, not leaving. Staring at her. Standing in the Wonderbolts' flight suit, just looking at her. Still not leaving. She didn't want to look at him because he might- oh now she saw him and yep, there was that smug grin on his face that she hated with all the passion of all the stars in Luna's sky twinkling in the windows.

"What do you want, Lieutenant?" The disgust in her voice was as pointed and sharp as she could make.

"Now, is that anyway to talk to the best flier in Equestria?" The grin on his face spoke volumes; he was up to something.

Rainbow found herself looking at his obnoxious blond hair to avoid having to look at his obnoxious eyes or his obnoxious mouth. "Of course not, but if I was talking to myself I'd be committed. Now, why aren't you grumbling off out the door like the rest? Was 'buck off' not clear enough?"

"Oh, I don't recall you saying that."

"You must be deaf, I just did. And I'll do it again. Buck. Off."

"Why, so you can make me leave and then hump me in your bed?"

"What did you just say?" Oh, it was on now. A lieutenant talking to a captain like that? There was friendly banter and teasing, but this...she was going to make him hurt for this insubordination. Maybe ten thousand laps around the track. As a warm-up to pulling the trailer to Appleloosa.

"Well, I just thought that's what you always did when your charming voice makes somepony clear out of the unit."

Rainbow's teeth were starting to grind. He didn't deserve to wear that flight suit. If she had any chips she could cash in at all with Celestia, she would gladly trade them all so that this pony would be a statue on her lawn by the end of the night. If she had a lawn. Okay, revenge plan fail, but this couldn't stand. "Lieutenant, you are about to enter a whole new world of hurt. The beasts of Tartarus are going to fear me after what I do to you."

"No, Captain, they aren't." The son-of-a-mule pulled out a scroll with an official military seal on it, and unfurled it. "I'm here to deliver an official communique from HQ."

"What?" This day just kept getting better. Another chew-out about the state of her unit and it was getting delivered by him? Forget fearing her; the beasts behind the Gates were going to be her new best friends after she fed some ponies to them.

"Yuh-huh. Ahem! Da-da-da-da-da!"

Oh, the smugness. It was overwhelming. Even the fake little horn sounds were mocking her and her uniform. Could her jacket catch fire? She was almost certain her rage was burning that hot.

"Captain Rainbow Danger Dash... Really? Danger is your actual middle name?"

"Keep talking to find out why," she said through her grinding teeth.

"Uh-huh.... Captain Rainbow Danger Dash, by decree of her Royal Majesty Princess Celestia, because of your service blah blah blah, blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah, you are hereby transferred to the duty of Royal Guard, effective immediately. Report to the Castle Canterlot gates for blah blah blah. Blah blah, Princess Celestia."

Rainbow Dash was never known as the smartest mare in Equestria, but what she lacked in book smarts she made up for in street smarts: the ability to think on her hooves and know her trade. She was almost never caught speechless or flat-hooved. This, however, took her several moments to fully appreciate. The princess had just saved her. She had no idea why she was being pulled into the Guard, she definitely wasn't the type for it, but knowing that the princess knew her personally she must have something fitting in mind. Even if she didn't, anything had to be better than this.

"Uh, Captain? You there?"

Rainbow Dash just blinked. Once. Slowly.

"So, anyway, Captain, I don't take orders from you anymore. Which means I can say whatever I want. And I say you always sucked as a captain."

Rainbow Dash blinked again, and smiled. She smiled so wide she couldn't remember being this happy since she first performed the Rainboom and gotten her cutie mark. "You know what, Lieutenant? You're right!"

Well, that wiped the smug look off his face. Now it was just stunned surprise. "I am?"

"Yup. I may be the best flier, but I'm a lousy Captain."

The wide eyes just got wider. "... You are?"

"You bet!" Rainbow Dash's face now wore a friendly smile, with just a tiny hint of deviousness, not that he was smart enough to detect it. She reached into her jacket's considerable pocket and pulled out a bag of bits with her mouth and poured its contents on the bar-top, showering it in valuable coins. Not the ones, fives, and tens normal ponies carried. These were hundreds and two hundreds pouring out of the bag, sure, but most of them were five hundreds. There was likely a comfortable year’s salary for most ponies right on the table.

"Wow!" The bartender was eyeing them deeply, like he'd never seen that much from one pony. He probably hadn’t. "Are you buying everypony one round or fifty?"

Rainbow Dash let out a laugh. Oh, no, they weren't getting alcohol from her. "Nope, not buying rounds. That’s for the windows."

"Windows?" The bartender pony asked, clearly utterly confused.

"You bet! And hey, Lieutenant, do you know what else you're right about?"

" ... What?"

Oh, he was probably scared now. Good. "You don't have to listen to me anymore! We're in different branches. No more chain of command here."

"I'm right?"

"You're right."

"Oh... right. I'm right! Well, I'm glad you sa—" Crack!

The stallion's body moved in an unnatural tilt as Rainbow's hoof impacted into the side of his face. The sheer force left him completely dazed and with a probable concussion and possible broken jaw. She quickly stuffed the decree scroll into her jacket’s pocket and bent over to lift the dazed flank-hole. With her powerful legs, she started spinning him around until she could feel the inertia pulling at her arms, begging her to release him, and she did, right at one of the fancy design-laden windows the bar had chosen to buy instead of Sweet Apple Acres’ cider. The nearly-unconscious colt turned over once in mid-air before hitting the glass and blasting right through it with a tremendous crash. They might try to arrest her for this on her way to Canterlot, but they'd have to catch her first.

The rest of the bar stood frozen, stunned at the unexpected violence. Rainbow ate it up. It might not have been the admiration she lived for, but it was still some good old fashioned attention, and a type that wasn't whiny. This was a meal she truly missed.

"Looks like the princesses need my help, everypony! Sorry I can't stay and sort through the drama, but I gotta go save the world! Later!" She bent down and spread her wings, looking out the broken window. In an instant, her mind processed some nostalgia. It had been many years since she had helped get water to Cloudsdale and set her 16.0 wing power “record”.

The small crowd that had formed stood speechless as she called upon her primary feathers, and they separated and buzzed, vibrating faster than the eye could see and crackling with the Wonderbolts’ signature lightning. She felt the air and magic around her, and used her pegasus abilities to push it out her wings, creating a massive air current which sent her flying off and out the broken window with precise aim. Her wake tossed glasses and lighter ponies like toys as her rainbow-colored lightning and dark smoke arced behind her and across the night. The takeoff speed was something familiar yet all too uncommon as of late as she aimed for a modest yet steady climb. She had gotten clear of the buildings in less than a second, rocketing higher and higher into the atmosphere.

Sixteen wing-power. Pfft. She understood now why she wasn't allowed into the Wonderbolts back then, or back in the Best Young Flyer's competition. She hadn't been ready yet. She didn't have the strength, and more importantly, she didn't have the magic, which is how the Wonderbolts measured wing power. Back then, she probably had what equated to less than ten wing-power by their standards. Now? Now she would give herself mandatory drills if she fell below one hundred wing-power, and she was going to leave while making certain everypony in that bar... no, everypony in Cloudsdale knew why she was the best as she kept flying upwards, never arcing down.

The patrons of the bar didn't have long to collect themselves before being knocked on their rears again. Less than six seconds after the cyan pegasus blasted off through the window, a mesmerizing blaze of colors seared into their retinas. Every imaginable hue shined forth, and a second later the shock wave hit: the "boom" part of the Sonic Rainboom. The concussive force had all the ponies covering their heads and ears as every window in the bar shattered into splinters.


“I’m sorry if it was painful. I wanted you to truly know what was ahead for you.”

Words, Twilight recognized what those were. She could feel her thoughts slowly coalesce into something resembling “normal”.

“If it’s any consolation, you’ll have two alicorns to guide you, and an abundance of loyal friends to support you. Alicorns need friends even more than normal ponies. They keep us grounded, and remind us why we exist.”

Meanings were starting to fall into place and nerve signals were reaching her extremities again as her hooves began to twitch a little. Progress toward sentience! Now to try moving a limb for real. Success was reported back as her blurry vision started to focus itself and a foreleg moved a bit to get under her.

Her vision shook as she forced herself back up. Focus returned to her and she saw Celestia facing her fireplace, laying down on the ground, her regalia stashed in a corner. Realizing the significance of this would have to wait for another time; she was still too out of it.

Taking a step forward caused the ground to give more than she expected. Waking up more, she looked down to find herself standing on Celestia’s alicorn-sized bed. Her back straightened as a jolt of nerves shot up to her brain and forced her out of it in a jump as her mind started screaming at itself.

Celestia’s bed! I stood on it! Oh no she’s going to-

A telekinetic grip of magic lifted her up and her legs locked below her as the magic placed her back on the bed, laying her down and wrapping the blanket over her again.

“Lay down, Twilight. You’ve just had a lot revealed to you, and there’s much more to come.”

Some relief came to her at first. She’d never actually been in Celestia’s bed before. She’d seen it, but never got to lay down in it. It was practically lulling her to sleep already. Her body then jolted awake when a memory sparked back to life in her mind, rushing to the foreground. “A- Alicorn!?”

“I see you remember now. And yes, it’s true.”

Twilight began shaking again as Celestia got up off the ground next to the fireplace and turned around to approach and face her student. She lay back down at Twilight’s eye level, the soon-to-be alicorn raised ever so slightly on the bed, shaking from nerves and looking down at the blanket. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Celestia as she broke down crying.

Seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, centuries… Alicorns could live forever. Maybe she could cry forever, too. Time certainly seemed to stop having meaning for a while as the tears flowed. After a while, she almost forgot why she was upset, but the tears kept flowing over that. It wasn’t until a pure white cloth moved over her eyes and nose, cleaning her, that she realized Celestia had lain down next to her, and was stroking her back with a wing.

“The emotions are intense, aren’t they? At first you don’t even know where they come from.”

Twilight nodded, pulling as much comfort as she could from her mentor’s voice and presence.

“When the enigma of the alicorn mind realizes itself, a battle begins in the core of your soul. The mere knowledge of what’s happening to your magic and your body causes your emotions and instincts to shift and intensify as the mind tries to reconfigure itself to that of an alicorn. It’s natural that you’ll be scared and confused for a bit, and even experience quick changes in mood, but eventually your alicorn-self will be stronger for it. Oh, you should have seen Luna and I panic when we found out. She flew straight into a wall, she was so distracted.”

One lone laugh came from her before she silenced herself; she didn’t really feel much like laughing. “How did this happen?” she wondered aloud, not expecting an answer. She got one anyway.

“As I said, it’s basically a matter of power. A unicorn that has enough begins to change, and you’ve crossed that threshold. You may have done it a while ago, and your spell was proof. I know it’s scary, but do not feel alone or threatened. When Luna and I ascended, we were looked on as rivals and upstarts by other alicorns; now, for you, the only two alicorns in existence are welcoming you with open wings and hearts as a beloved family member.”

Twilight was almost back asleep, resting her head on the warm super-sized pony next to her and focusing exclusively on the words and her rhythmic breath for a long time before her mind let her actually think on her situation again. This did not provide much comfort, only speculation, which quickly started to drive itself into dark territory. She shook her head and stopped herself before it got out of hoof.

“I still feel so lost here,” she said. “There’s so much I don’t know.”

“It is understandable to have many questions, my dear student. After all, ascendancy is rare and hasn’t been seen in countless lifetimes. Nor has it been documented or explained to the public; it’s always been a thing shrouded in mystery.”

The nod she used was just enough to overcome the shaking and answer affirmatively as Celestia’s naked hoof was placed on her back.

“You can relax, Twilight, I will answer any questions you have of me. In fact…”

Twilight’s gaze went up to meet her mentor’s, her gentle smile putting her slightly more at ease.

“You know I’ve always encouraged you to ask me questions. I’ve loved answering them as much as you loved learning, but if you’ll recall there were certain questions I’ve refused to answer. That ends now. Any question you ever have of me, I will answer. Truthfully and fully. You may not always like the answers, and I may have to delay the answer until I can tell you in private, but anything you ever wish to know from me will be told. On my crown, this I promise you.”

Twilight Sparkle’s precious little world just broke. She was exhausted, scared, nervous, and shy, but also ecstatic. The words that had just been spoken to her were akin to having her library spontaneously quadruple in size, with a fresh shipment of boxed-up ultra-rare books to fill it all. Knowledge, vast sums of it just sitting before her, begging to be read and categorized. It wasn’t just books though, oh no. There were secrets in this world that were privy to Celestia and Celestia alone. Secrets she had just promised to tell her, all she needed to do was ask. The possibilities were endless and were filling her consciousness faster than she could consider them. She sat there, lost in her own mind, eyes wide as dinner plates, contemplating what vast mysteries of the cosmos she might solve with a few simple words. Then, a new voice derailed her train of thought hard enough for the wreckage to skip postal codes.

Quick! Ask her how much she weighs!”

Twilight’s and Celestia’s heads both turned with enough speed to make the air whoosh as they spied a smiling, pointing Luna standing next to the conspicuously unopened door to Celestia’s chambers.

The princess of the night stood in contrast to her sister in more ways than one. Celestia, from Twilight’s perspective, was as unchanging as a mountain. She always looked and dressed the same. Luna, on the other hoof, had been re-growing ever since being defeated by the Elements. It had been a bit of a shock seeing a new form that Nightmare Night so long ago, but she had kept growing even after that. She now stood taller than ever, though still shorter than Celestia, and her coat had become a mix of dark blue and deep gray. Her ethereal mane had become much larger, and it was darker, too, with more stars visible. Her black regalia had been replaced with a light gray set; a similar color to that of the moon. It was hard to believe this was the same mare as the Princess Luna that was welcomed back so long ago. Even her wings were larger, rivaling those of the sister now giving her a bit of a scowl.

Luna! That is not appropriate!” Celestia snapped.

Twilight shrunk herself again. She had been about to laugh, too.

Luna rolled her eyes. “Oh, Tia, lighten up. You deserve it for not telling me we were finally bringing her into the fold tonight!”

Twilight backed up just a bit as Luna trotted up to her and stared her in the eyes from a distance so uncomfortably close she couldn’t see the grin on Luna’s face. Nor could she see the forelegs that had snapped around her and brought her into a hug tight enough to conclusively confirm to Twilight that alicorns did indeed possess crazy earth pony strength.

“EEEEEEEEEEE! Finally! I have a new alicorn to talk to! Oh, it’s been too long!”

“Luna?”

“Yes, Sister?”

“You’re crushing my student.”

Luna looked down at the not-breathing, extra-purple mare in her limbs.

Twilight gasped for breath as the night princess released her, lungs thankful for the gift of air rushing in.

“I apologize, Twilight Sparkle. We ... do not know our own strength. Pray, forgive us.”

After a few deep breaths, her vocal cords starting responding again. “It’s… fine…” Responding, but only just. The words were still much weaker than she wanted.

Either way, Luna shook her head in response. “No, it was careless of me. You’re still starting this journey. For what it’s worth, Twilight, I'm here to help you through this, now and forever. I can't begin to repay you for what you've done for me: saving me, giving me friends and hope, even teaching me how to speak in a modern tongue... most of the time. But I'll always try. Whether you need me to explain something or poke fun at Tia, you can count on me.” She paused for a moment, then grinned mischievously. “Especially for poking fun at Tia. We're sisters. Pushing each other's buttons is our mandatory hobby."

Twilight giggled at this, remembering her brother. Oh, her brother. There was a fun little thought. His dorky little sister was about to show him up by becoming an alicorn. That's just about the ultimate trump card. "Hey, bro, what did you do with your life?" "Well, I became the youngest Captain of the Royal Guard ever and married the most loving princess in the world with an amazing happily ever after! How about you?" "Well, I cooped myself up in a library, didn't learn about friendship until too late in life, and oh yeah, became an ageless prin—" That was when another realization hit her so hard she almost became ill from the mental impact.

"Um... Princess?" she said, choking through the words.

"Yes, Twilight?" Celestia's voice was instantly calm and motherly again, completely recovered from Luna's jokes.

"I'm not going to have to become a princess too, am I?"

The two princesses looked at each other with a strange worry, unspoken in words but clearly communicated. Celestia hesitantly answered, "Not if you don't want to, but..."

"I know it’s customary, but if you two both rule Equestria, can't you change the rules? Make it so alicorns don't have to become royalty?"

Luna lay down to face Twilight, her face hinting at nerves that Celestia may have been better at hiding.

Celestia took a deep breath. "My student, the problem isn't so much that alicorns must become royalty. There is no such law. If you truly wanted, we would be happy to let you live your life, long though it may be, free from such things."

"Really?" Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow and tilting her head while failing to stop herself from looking ‘adorkable’.

“Truly. Think about it. Once you become a full alicorn, there will be precious little that anypony will be able to force you to do.”

Luna picked up the thread. “But ponies have an internal instinct to revere and respect alicorns while in their presence. It’s suppressible, and only works in their direct presence, but can still be potent. Sometimes ponies even experience it while near winged unicorns like Cadence, though she isn’t a true alicorn. And since you’re starting to become like us...”

"… they'll start bowing to me inside of a few years whether I like it or not." Twilight facehooved, discouraged. "Still, I can live with that. Don't get me wrong, Princess, in many ways being at your side as an equal would be a dream come true for me. I know I felt that way as a filly, seeing you raise the sun for the first time. But I don't want to leave my friends! And I really don't think I have the wisdom or experience I need to rule the country!"

Celestia’s response was so fast it must have been practiced. “True. But we’re also worried about what might happen in an emergency if we weren’t available for some reason. Ponies would look to you instinctively. You would become a de facto leader unless you exiled yourself permanently, which would be extremely ill-advised.”

Twilight’s despondency stoked a desire to bang her head on something, but the ultra-soft cushion Celestia used as a bed would’ve made a poor candidate. “So I’m stuck. Either I become a princess for real, or the second something goes wrong everypony will make me one.”

“No, we think there’s a way we can keep a balance here.” Celestia’s calm helped reassure her a little bit.

That was certainly welcome news. “There is?”

Luna’s playful smile was again in full effect. “Indeed! There have been others, in the past, that began an ascension under our guidance. You already know who they are, Twilight. The Grand Mages Starswirl the Bearded, Crimson Spectre, and Stellar Horizon.”

Hummingbirds had nothing on Twilight’s heart as it beat in excitement as she sat up and bounced just a little. “Starswirl!?” Her heartbeat then started racing for an entirely different reason: fear. “Wait... they all died. Crimson Spectre in battle... against...”

Luna’s playful smile retreated instantly. “Me, yes. Nopony said this would be easy, Twilight Sparkle. A Grand Mage’s job is dangerous, but it will prepare you for the trials that we alicorns inevitably face. Important events have a disturbing way of... gravitating towards us during ascension, even more than what you’ve already been through. This could help us guide you to challenges you’re more suited to.”

“More importantly,” Celestia hurriedly interjected before Twilight could speak, “the position will give you our authority, but keep you enough of an outsider that you may stay with your friends while not on missions. It will also shield you from the more dreary aspects of our job. No court sessions.”

Now things were getting confusing. “Your ‘authority’?”

Celestia smiled warmly at her student. “Quite nearly full authority of the Solar Throne - as if you were me or Luna. You can do anything you need to do, as long as you can justify it to us.”

“But that would still make me...” Twilight looked down at her hooves. Her little, purple hooves. She thought back to when she first became Celestia's pupil. The sheer awe she felt when she approached Celestia for her first lesson. The terror, the trepidation, and the idolization. Princess Celestia, Procer Celestia Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, was asking her to step into shoes her little hooves felt they could never fill. "Princess, " she said. "You are my idol. My hero. And the hero of millions of other ponies. You are the sun, larger than life itself, the beacon which the world follows! You're asking me to become like you. How can I? I'm just—"

Luna cut her off. "Twilight Sparkle, you are not giving yourself the credit you deserve. You lie there afraid of your possible failure, but in less than two decades you have saved both me and the world from the tyranny of Nightmare Moon, sealed Discord, a god of chaos, in stone, saved your village countless times, saved this nation countless times, travelled through time, quelled an Ursa Minor rampage, sent both my sister and the allegedly most learned unicorns in the country scrambling to comprehend your research, and gained more magical power in your short life than any other unicorn has ever amassed in such a time, ever."

Twilight stifled a grin at this. She couldn't help it. She loved praise. She lived for it. This time however, it only made her more scared. She backed up and tried to make herself even smaller, while trying to turn the grin into a bit of a shameful smile, lowering her head.

Luna focused her gaze hard into Twilight's eyes. "Name me one living pony on this great, large world with a better list of achievements. Name me just one, and I shall force my sister to send you home to your library. You'll never worry of this again."

Twilight looked into Luna's eyes, and thought. Really, really thought. It was an enlightening question, to say the least. Try as she might, she couldn't rise to Luna's challenge.

Twilight closed her eyes, laid her head down, and took a deep, long breath. Her inner voice snickered to itself. "Welcome to a larger world, little filly."

Steeling herself, she stood up with her eyes closed, but opened them with a newfound resolve that she prayed she could keep up. "What do I need to do?" she asked.

Celestia smiled with pride. "What you've always done, my brilliant young apprentice: Learn."

Drums of a Distant March

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Twilight lay down on the stone of Celestia’s balcony, watching the morning sky. The Princess had given her time to gather her thoughts, but in truth they were still running around like a bunch of squirrels on a sugar rush. The consequences of her coming transformation touched on so many aspects of her life it was hard to think properly. Even her beloved lists were failing her, as priorities shifted the instant something new popped into her head.

Despite the reminder of her circumstances, it was still a relief to have Celestia lie down next to her again with another comforting wing draped over her back. The warmth of her mentor was a welcome contrast to the cold stone and marble underneath them.

Looking up at the white figure revealed something unusual indeed. In place of Celestia’s typical billowy mane was a mostly normal one. Pink hair flowed from her head like a waterfall that transitioned to blonde about halfway down.

“It’s been awhile since I had my mane like this. I sort of doubt anypony alive has ever seen it. I don’t find it to be that comfortable, truthfully.”

“I think it’s beautiful, princess!” She actually thought it looked better than her normal hair, despite the sudden craving for strawberries.

“I’m glad you think so. It’s always an untamed mess when I shut off its power. Hehe, look at me, I’ve got split ends everywhere!”

Twilight giggled in relief. “It’s not so bad!”

Celestia chuckled. “Oh, but it is! Princess Celestia’s hair a national eyesore! Scandal! Fleur ds Lis distances herself from Canterlot elite; Rarity sees it and sets new record for consecutive dramatic faintings!”

That got a full laugh. The Princess could be quite the sarcastic card when she figuratively, and literally, let her mane down.

“It’s good to hear you laugh, Twilight. I know this isn’t an ideal situation for you.”

Her thoughts from moments ago came rushing back. “Yeah. It’s going to take some getting used to,” Twilight said, lowering her head.

“If it’s any consolation, the physical changes aren’t much to worry about just yet. It’s doubtful, though not impossible, that any will be seriously noticeable in the immediate future. It will be even longer before any are complete. Luna and I have called the completion of these aspects ‘summits’, representing an arrival at a new high point of our ascendancy. These include physical growth, horn growth, the ethereal mane, and the appearance of wings.

“The first three will start to develop gradually and can grow simultaneously during ascension, but which order they’ll start forming and complete themselves in will be random. Some may start happening soon and complete quickly, or drag on throughout your ascendancy while the other properties finish first, despite having started later. The last property, wings, can come at any time, and will happen instantly, and it will most likely be a while. Years, even. Though, I would try to be away from other ponies when any of the summits happen, or at least be outdoors. The completion of a summit tends to be accompanied by a large burst of magic.”

This was comforting. It meant it wasn’t likely for her to suddenly sprout wings or grow taller in an instant tomorrow, and she could still be seen as a unicorn, at least for a while.

“Also, it’s been seven hundred years since there has been a Grand Mage. I doubt civilian ponies will know how to really respond to you at first. I’d imagine that for the time being, they’ll treat you as a normal high-ranking noblepony, which should help since you should already be accustomed to it.”

Twilight sat up a little straighter. “I just realized that I don’t even know how a Grand Mage is supposed to be treated. I can’t recall it in any of the nobility protocol books.”

Celestia nodded. “That’s expected, really. I purposefully suppressed Crimson’s history. And Luna’s, for that matter.” Celestia raised a hoof and touched her student's shoulder. “It sounds odd, I know, but I knew Luna would return someday. When she did, I didn’t want ponies to know about the history, or at least not believe it. I wanted her to have a clean slate. Now that she’s back, we’ve been re-releasing the history, slowly.”

Twilight looked down at the ground. It seemed a little unbelievable that her mentor would actually suppress knowledge, but then, they were sisters.

“So that’s why I didn’t hear about Crimson until a few years ago,” she said.

“Exactly, Twilight. Stellar wasn’t Grand Mage for long, so it’s normal that he wasn’t remembered as much. Starswirl held the title long, long before the Lunar Rebellions. Before Discord, even. Time, as ever, clouds history. It didn’t help that he was very reclusive.

“Anyway, each of them had their own idea of ‘protocol.’ They sort of chose their own in that regard. Starswirl wanted to be bowed to and called ‘master’. Crimson was ever the soldier, wanting to be saluted. I think Stellar might be the most like you, really. He always wanted to go by unnoticed, until he had something important to contribute. He had a hard time with that since his ethereal mane came in almost right away.”

“I didn’t realize Starswirl had an ego like that,” Twilight said, cringing a bit.

“Hmm. I know he was an important role model for you, Twilight, but he was not a gentle stallion. Nor was he... entirely balanced, looking back. An unmatched mind to be sure, but at the cost of emotional stability.”

“I’m not that bad, am I?” Twilight cringed a little more. She remembered her own past “episodes.”

“Are you obsessing over doorknobs and experimenting with temporal mechanics in order to change the color of your owl?”

“No…”

“Then you’re fine. Come talk to me when you’re seeing eyes follow you around.”

“Whoa.”

“Indeed. It’s still hard, though. I still miss him.” Some genuine sadness showed through to Celestia’s face. Twilight could tell that this was the real her, not the face she put forward for all her subjects.

The significance of this revelation about Starswirl didn’t move her like it should. It was the Princess’ last sentence that weighed on her.

“Do you miss everypony you’ve met?” she asked.

“All the time. But the pony heart is a curious thing. Its room isn’t finite. We miss those we’ve lost, yet we still have room for the new ponies that come into our lives. Alicorns even more so. For all we lose, we see what we have, and we can’t trade it for anything.”

“But what happens when you make a mistake? When it’s your fault?”

“The same as when anypony makes a mistake. I learn from it, and try to help as many ponies as I can with that new knowledge. I know it sounds simple and harsh, but if I’m to be any kind of leader, that’s the only thing I can do. No matter how much it hurts.”

Twilight looked back out at the sky for a moment. “Does it ever stop hurting? When you make a mistake and somepony gets hurt?”

Celestia exhaled sharply. “If it ever does, I’ll toss my crown to Luna and abdicate the throne. It’s not about experiencing loss without hurting, Twilight. It’s about having enough of a connection to what you have to be able to overcome it.”

Twilight looked back down at the floor. She’d heard this lesson before, but this provided it a darker context. “I guess having friends really is the key, isn’t it? Is that why you sent me to Ponyville?”

Celestia nodded.

“I suppose I can understand that. It’s just… now I feel like I’m being torn again. The first few nights in Ponyville I felt like I was a part of two worlds. One, this world here in the castle, the other one in that small town of crazy ponies. I’m getting that feeling again now.”

Celestia’s gaze moved away from Twilight and into the sky. “Hmmm. Well, I can understand that. I don’t think it’s about the town, though. Towns come and go, some grow large, some stay small. With new technologies, Ponyville could boom into a metropolis and lose its charm, or bust into just a few farms and become a ghost town. It all changes.

“What matters isn’t the place, it’s the ponies you connect to, that understand you. But there needn’t be just one group or one area you ‘belong’ to. You have your friends in Ponyville, so you feel you ‘belong’ there. If you had another group of friends in Manehatten, you could ‘belong’ there too at the same time. Even if the exact feeling you get from them is different, the friendship can be just as strong. Don’t discount the power of friendship, especially from friends you haven’t yet met.”

Twilight unleashed a melancholy sigh. “I’m still not looking forward to losing the ones I have now. I’m going to watch them die.”

“That would’ve been likely anyway, my student. Powerful unicorns live a long time, powerful unicorn mares even more so.”

“I know,” Twilight groaned. “But at least I would’ve gotten to join them. It wouldn’t have to hurt for as long.”

“Twilight. Loss is a part of life, whether it’s as long as ours or as relatively short as a normal pony’s. Coping with loss is also a part of life. We have to do it for longer, but having a death wish to avoid it is not healthy.”

“I know…”

“I mean it, Twilight. If you ever truly feel this way, seek out me or Luna. We’ll help you, ok? Promise me.”

She looked up into Celestia eyes. The tone implied scolding, but the eyes held nothing but worry.

“I promise.” Twilight crossed her heart. Anything to assuage those worrying eyes.

Celestia gave her a small nuzzle, though Twilight couldn’t quite return it as she began a long yawn, which merely reminded her how tired she was.

“Are you alright, Twilight?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit tired,” she lied. She was very tired, but that wasn’t something she had ever let stop her before.

“Hmm.”

The huge alicorn stood up over Twilight, triggering an appreciation of just how large her mentor really was compared to her. Am I really going to grow? Am I going to be that... huge?

“Come then,” Celestia said, re-igniting her mane. “I have something important to show you.”

Twilight got up and followed her mentor towards the door, the warmth they shared quickly fading in the cold morning air. Even the stone under her hooves seemed much colder now. After exiting through the large double doors, Luna stood up from her waiting place and began to follow them as a book floated itself down next to a small table near the doors.

It didn’t take long for the longer legs of the alicorns to force Twilight to move her pace up to a trot to keep up with their casual stride as they moved through the castle and down the large flight of steps. This early in the morning very few other ponies were around, and the castle's empty halls seemed to take on a new, but familiar atmosphere.

"Princess," she began. "May I ask another question?"

Celestia turned her head and smiled at her, displaying her uncanny ability to not look where she was going down steep steps and not fall, a skill no doubt honed from centuries of repeating the same path. "Of course, Twilight."

"I know that a new…" Twilight paused as she looked around for anypony that might overhear, but chose to be discrete despite not seeing any. "I know that a new you-know-what is a big deal, but why does that mean I have to stay in the castle for so long?"

"Ah, slightly ahead of me, Twilight. We’re going to the basement to answer that very question."

Twilight cringed in panic a little. The castle guards usually said “basement” when they meant dungeon.

Celestia seemed to pick up on the implication and recovered quickly. "I'm not sending you to the dungeon, Twilight, I meant the War Room."

If there was a way to be simultaneously relieved and thoroughly embarrassed, Twilight had just determined the perfect face to make to express the combination. "Oh, of course, I… okay, I didn't know that. But wasn't that one of the rooms that I'm not allowed in?"

Celestia seemed to increase her pace a little through the halls, but if she was nervous, she didn’t show it. "Ah yes, I do recall saying that, when I first took you as a student. Excellent memory as always, Twilight, but things have changed since then."

"Sister," Luna interrupted. "Speaking of government issues, Lieutenant-Commander Sunsail wanted to talk to me about our little project, and I have a new unicorn to orient and integrate into my Night Guard." Luna swung around to Celestia's other side and bent down to speak into Twilight's ear. "I’ll be back later. If she gets too serious, ask her about the diet she had to go on last year."

"Luna!"

"I'm going, I'm going." The blue alicorn used her wings to fly forward, turning around corners and gracefully avoiding all obstacles. It gave Twilight another measure of comfort to once again see the two acting like true sisters.

Celestia sighed, but it was more in relief than exasperation. “She’s gotten a lot more sociable now that ponies are attending her Night Court regularly. Though the cases she handles are different.”

"Different?" Twilight asked, increasing her pace to move alongside Celestia instead of slightly behind.

"Yes, Luna tends to not suffer fools lightly. If both sides are being deceptive, she'll likely come up with a solution that neither side likes. Since deception is part of her domain, the night, she's usually excellent at seeing through it. The ponies have learned this and want to avoid her if that's their aim, but her schedule is relatively free, so if either side requests her instead of me, they'll almost always get her despite whatever protests the other lodges. It's been rather freeing for me."

Twilight had to duck a little as Celestia spread her wings on the word “freeing”. She could easily imagine flight and freedom being connected. Once she got them, wings would definitely be on her “top ten alicorn benefits” list. Maybe Rainbow could even teach her to fly.

Celestia continued, "Since any truthful party could request her and be reasonably assured a victory, it didn’t take long for all the clear-cut cases with an obvious ‘correct’ party to fall to Luna, leaving me for the 'real' ones." Twilight noticed that there was a slight amount of not-quite-disgust in the word "real". "Then, one time Luna took over for my Court while I was off on an emergency diplomatic mission. Halfway through the first day, she made a new decree that anypony that lied to her in court would get arrested."

"Isn't that already the law?" she asked. “I mean, I can’t think of a better example of perjury.”

Celestia’s new grin was almost sly; Twilight felt it was honestly somewhat unnerving on someone so powerful, and she put some lateral distance between them. "Yes, but you see my dear, I have a gentler touch. I usually expose the lie and get them to repent and reach an agreement with the other side more easily. Luna... Luna has the liar arrested and either reschedules the case at the end of the queue or declares the other party victorious. As if by magic, about two-thirds of my cases for the next three months had decided to negotiate between themselves!"

The teacher and student shared a laugh at that as they arrived at the door to the war room and sat down. "Oh, but that isn't even the best part!" the Princess continued. "After that, Luna and I started randomly switching shifts every so often. Our ponies never truly know if they're going to get me or her. It's done wonders to discourage frivolous cases."

The chuckles calmed down a bit as Twilight pondered a different interpretation of the events. "Wait, would that mean that ponies are still afraid of her?"

Celestia nodded. "I'm glad you can see that, and that is the case with some. However, the honest ones have found a true champion, and that has done much to improve her reputation. I remember one case a few months ago where a mining company had tried to buy the land of a small town outside Fillydelphia, but was deceptive in the contract. Luna saw through it immediately and gave the town the money and the land. They have statues of her all over the town now. Anyway, to your question about why you need to stay here."

Celestia knocked in a peculiar pattern on the door, and its opening revealed something Twilight did not expect: a shimmering field of magical energy that could only mean a portal.

"Come, stay close."

Twilight did as she was told, and stepped into the portal directly beside Celestia. She knew all too well what kind of security must be in place for the portal, and kept as close as she could to be shielded by her mentor.

Everything went dark and her heart skipped a beat, then she gasped as the light came back in an instant. She found herself in the middle of an impressively large room, far larger than what should have been possible in the castle. The room was long and about twice as wide as the castle's main corridors, with many alcoves lining the side, each with their own map table and multitude of documents and images on the walls. She looked up, and saw pegasi in military uniforms moving between upper alcoves high above the lower floor, while unicorns and earth ponies all moved about and talked over their respective assignments. Many of them were carrying weapons with them.

The visual aesthetics were different, too. Gone was the marble and the stained glass, except the peach marble tiling on the floor. Dense, dark wood formed the structure, while clear glass and chalkboards lined the walls. Each alcove was abuzz with at least two or three ponies going over features on the textured maps or discussing clusters of papers, pictures, and diagrams on the walls. Some were arguing amongst themselves loudly, others were chatting over coffee, the smell of which permeated the air along with the scent of wood and paper.

"Welcome, Twilight, to the War Room." Twilight jumped a little at the voice. It felt like Celestia hadn't been there until that moment. Depending on how the portal worked, she might not have been.

"This is where Luna and I really run the country. All the known threats to my beloved ponies, foreign and domestic, are tracked and thwarted in this room. It's what occupies the majority of our time, and it signifies the reason you must remain here."

Twilight was still taking it all in. With a cursory glance, she saw pictures of griffons, dragons, ponies, even the princesses on the walls.

"Royalty arrived! Atten-tion!” The booming voice screamed behind her and right in her ears with a sound wave so intense she could swear there was a new tunnel in her head connecting her ears.

In an instant, every single pony in the room stopped what they were doing and bowed to the princess in uncanny synchronization. A split second later, every pegasus in the air hit the ground with a resounding crash of hooves and they too went into a bow.

Celestia responded unfazed, and Twilight wondered if alicorns were supposed to be immune from absurdly loud yelling as well. "At ease, everypony. I'm sure most of you know my student, Twilight Sparkle. As of this moment, I'm giving her full security clearance. She may be here or anywhere else without an escort. Please show her the respect she is due for her service to this country and her new title. That will be all."

The ponies all got back to their work, with some still gazing at their new arrival. She could swear she had seen some of them before, but couldn't match any names.

Celestia interrupted her before she could finish her thoughts. "Now, Twilight, come here. I want to show you something."

She followed Celestia down the hall, and discovered the end of the hall was split into two directions that had yet more halls and alcoves. She wasn't sure entirely how big this facility was. "We're actually inside the mountain, not the castle, if you're wondering. The halls go in a large loop, with an elevator in the back side that leads to half a dozen more levels. We built it after the changeling incident."

Celestia knew her too well.

"Now, here, look in this alcove." She turned right again to a particularly large alcove with three ponies stepping off to the side in silence. Two of them were identical-looking earth stallions large enough to plow Sweet Apple Acres' fields, but otherwise looked very much like they belonged here in their military uniforms. The third was a unicorn mare with a short, blonde mane and looked every bit as military as the stallions, but they were far more nervous than they should have been. Even taking Celestia into account. What really caught her attention was the pictures in the center-back wall of the alcove: they were of herself! Some in her home, some around Ponyville, others in Canterlot or other places she had visited.

Quickly, she glanced at the table, and saw a map that traced out her movements perfectly for the last several years. Every little side trip. There were other ponies' paths marked, too, but she didn't know whose.

Her mind quickly demanded more information, and she turned to the left side of the alcove, and saw images of ponies and dragons and griffins and other species she'd never met before, with lines going in between them on the underlying chalkboard. Some of the pictures had a giant red "X" on them, others a blue "X", others none at all.

Celestia finally explained. "These are pictures of those that have made plans to bring you harm, my student. The ones with a blue 'X' have been captured."

Twilight quickly turned to face her princess, her eyes watering. “Then… what do the red…”

Celestia nodded. "I'm afraid those are less fortunate. We always try to capture when we can, but the ones with a red mark had to be terminated during the course of their investigation. The others are still at large."

Twilight's breathing pace picked up and she began to cry a little. She looked up at Celestia, almost begging to make sense of her world again. "What did I do?"

Sadness and obvious love returned to break the Princess' composure again. "You became important to me. That's all the justification these… despicable beings need. We have ten ponies in the war room alone working in shifts around the clock just on you to analyze and thwart their plans before they ever get close. If they find out about your ascent, well, maybe you should finish that, Intelligentsia.”

The mare with gray fur stood up ramrod straight in a jolt. "Yes, of course Your Majesty. We estimate that roughly a third would abandon their plans for her altogether, but the others would either try to halt her ascent by assassination, or bring her to their side. Her psychological profile indicates…” Intelligentsia looked into Twilight's eyes with a stark hesitation and surprising fear, but Celestia's face demanded a continuation. “… her devotion to you would render any such attempts to get her to betray us utterly futile.”

When Intelligentsia finished, Twilight was shaking, her knees knocking together before she fell on the ground. She couldn't believe so many were trying to harm her, and didn't know what hurt more, that she had so many brushes with death that she didn't know about or that there were some in ponydom that were that cruel.

"And once she completes her ascension?" Celestia asked.

Intelligentsia coughed. "Well, ma'am, we can't fully simulate actions out that far, but if she attains full alicornhood, then only the most powerful of dragons could ever bring her direct harm. And, I know it isn't my place to say this, but, Ms. Sparkle, when you do ascend, we'll still be here for you, no matter what you need us for."

Twilight attempted to breathe in, but only managed a sniffle through her tears. "You will?" she asked, unable to look the unicorn in the eyes and unsure why such a statement from a stranger brought her so much comfort.

"Absolutely," came the reply, confident and strong.

The other two, both earth ponies with brown coats of fur and gray hair and looking uncannily similar, relaxed and spoke up with distinctive accents that Twilight couldn't quite place. "Aye, she's a right kind one, jist as we've always known."

The other chuckled and picked up the line with an eerie smoothness. "And yea know what they say aboot th’ kind ones."

"Hell have mercy on their enemies, 'coz they'll suffer enough when their friends get ahauld of 'em. We're ‘ere for yea, lass. We've ne’er let harm come to ye yit, and if we have our way, it ne’er will."

"And we will have our way."

She looked up at them through her tears and felt safe; just as safe as she did under Celestia's wing. "Thank you. All of you."

That got smiles all around, even from Celestia, and although Twilight couldn't see it from her position, she could feel it.

"All right, enough ah' thes mooshy stuff," the one on Twilight's right said. "Come on then!"

The two earth ponies walked up to either side of her and lifted her up. "Up ye go!" the other said, supporting her adrenaline-crashing body.

Twilight giggled a bit, pleased that these military ponies were far more personable than Celestia's stoic honor guard. "Are you one pony or two?" she asked, jokingly and through a deep yawn.

"Aye, we're two. Yer not seein' double, lass," the one on her left said.

The one on her right picked up the conversation. She was starting to notice a pattern and she wasn't yet sure if it was endearing or annoying. "And before ye ask, nae, we're not brothers, though no one believes us. Tha's Double Blind ower there, and nae, he's not blind, althoogh some here might disagree with that."

Sure enough, the left continued. "And tha's Feint Indication. Feint as in ruse, althoogh don't use ‘at phrase aroond th’ real Ruse or she'll burst ye wit ‘at nasty telekinesis ah hers. Lest time we sparred ‘er TK sent me right throogh a wall!"

Feint gave two short, hard laughs at that. “An’ intae th’ mares’ locker room!”

“Wasn’t mah fault! And Ah was too concussed tae remember anythin’ anyways.”

"How do I tell you two apart?" Twilight asked while giggling, finally recovering from her shock.

"Tha's simple," Feint answered. "Ah'm th’ good looking one!"

"Says whit now? Yea look like a dragon rearranged yer face!"

"Och aye, but Ah've got a mighty fine arse."

Double Blind's eyes widened in panic as he leapt to cover Feint's mouth with a hoof. "FEINT! Nae in front ay th’ princess!"

Celestia chuckled a bit. "It's ok, I don't mind."

Intelligentsia regained her professional composure after face-hoofing at the jokes. "So it's confirmed that our charge has begun her ascension?"

"Yes, it is. We'll proceed mostly as planned, but there's an earth pony in the castle's mess hall that knows too much to let loose for now. I'd like a security detail placed on her to keep her safe and in secured areas. She's an Element of Harmony, Honesty in this case, hence the extra measures. Also, let's see if we can't get her farm some help since she won't be there for it. We can go ahead and tell her family that she's safe and doing something for me, but leave out that she's at the castle."

Intelligentsia bowed. "Understood.”

“Princess, I need to ask you something.” Twilight’s stance was unusually straight, even challenging, though she didn’t feel it happening and Celestia didn’t react.

“Of course, Twilight.”

“How is publicizing my power going to make me less of a target? I mean, I appreciate that you feel I’m ready for this, but I’m going to feel like Rainbow put a ‘kick me’ sign on my back again. If any of these so-called assassins have any clue that unicorns can ascend, they’re going to know what’s up the instant this is announced.

“And that’s another thing. I can defend myself reasonably usually but I’m not good enough to fight like my predecessors. Ponies will see through this façade in an instant. Even if they’re exceptionally thick, all they’d need to do is ask somepony that knows me. My telekinesis is strong, but that’s about it. This all feels like a really bad idea.”

"Och, she's standin' up tae th’ Princess now. She'll be a real alicorn before yea know it," Feint said through somehow accented laughter.

The sound Twilight emitted at that statement was somewhere between an embarrassed squeak and a terrified shriek, and she ducked back down again to make herself tiny, closed her eyes and covered her head with her hooves. "Oh heavens, I really was disrespecting the princess! And she was trying to honor me! I'm going to get banished for sure now. And​what​if​she​doesn't​banish​me​to​the​moon​what​if​it's​farther​away!​Wait​what​if​it​isn't​even​in​Equestria!?​What​if​it's​a​new​plane​of​existence!?"

Somewhere in the back of Twilight’s mind, she could tell that Celestia was looking at her with a strange curiosity that at first bordered on incredulity and eventually turned into an exhausted humor. That thought was too far away from her to be paid any due attention, however. She also didn't quite fully grasp that she was using her internal voice externally as she continued to ramble onward to more and more implausible destinations.

Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight found a way to cringe down even harder, steeling herself for being sent to the eternal plane of shellfish, which she wasn't sure really existed but she suspected Celestia might make just to send her there.

“You slept a little after our meeting. Before that, how long were you up working on this new spell of yours?”

“Oh, not that long, I—”

“Twilight.”

“I’m getting used to going without sleep, so, four days, give or take.” Twilight didn’t think she could shrink herself down any further.

“I assume, during that time, you had little food or water?”

“Well, I did have those hay fries and a few cherrychongas...” She was wrong, she got smaller, which also seemed to make her voice get higher.

“Over the course of four days?”

Twilight couldn’t help but think that squeaking wasn’t really becoming of the Grand Mage; she’d have to stop that.

Celestia sighed. “Twilight, it’s ok.”

It wasn’t until now that she noticed the war room didn’t seem to exist anymore. The ground didn’t exist anymore. All around her was just a wall of glowing light, mostly gold with some areas of pink. It kept getting brighter, and it was nothing but comforting. Maybe nopony heard the squeaks.

Twilight and tried to regain her composure. “I’m sorry, Princess. I was just—”

“I know, I know. If it’s any consolation, in the future this won’t matter so much. Alicorns, once fully grown, do not need sleep or food. Nor water or air, for that matter. Right now, though, I need you to be at your best. That means real sleep, real food. Once we’ve taken care of that, Luna can train you.”

“Luna, Princess?”

“Yes, Luna. I know being a Grand Mage makes you a tempting target, so Luna will show you how to truly defend yourself. Like I said, there is no more fearsome fighter. I wish she had been able to be there for your brother’s wedding. Queen Chrysalis would have learned that day exactly why my Luna was once called ‘Nightmare Moon’.”

Sleep was quickly reclaiming Twilight, as her eyelids weakened and dropped a little. Maybe rest was a good idea. “I understand, but they’ll still come after me!” A yawn interrupted her. “Do you really think this is safe?”

“Little about a Grand Mage’s job is safe, Twilight, but I do believe you will be able to handle it. Moreover, most should relent and leave you be once they see what my new Grand Mage can do. Few among even these groups have a death wish. Intelligentsia will deal with the rest. Now, go back to sleep, and get a meal when you wake.”

The light shined brighter and a sleep spell hit her like a freight train, sending her to dreamland so fast that Luna would probably hear the 'thud' of her arrival, and if there had been ground under her, a regular thud might have also applied.


There was something different and special about wild weather. It was bigger, with stronger winds and magnificent formations only brought about by random chance. Between the more distant towns and cities of Equestria, giant anvil-shaped thunderstorms roamed the plains whenever the conditions were just right.

These large types of wild storms were extremely dangerous, however. Ponies almost always sought to avoid them, whether on the ground or in the skies. The few that did approach were either trained to destroy them before they arrived in populated areas or were daredevil thrillseekers with a bit of a deathwish. Or, in Rainbow Dash’s case, both.

Even miles away the storm she had been watching looked like a true monster, soaring over 21,000 meters into the air with an updraft punching a semi-spherical dome into the tropopause. Very few ponies ever attempted flying that high, and fewer still survived it. Oxygen becomes limited beyond even what pegasi could tolerate, and the wind shear is incredible. Standing on top of an anvilhead was impossible; one only got dragged along it with the wind.

In comparison, the small puffy cloud Rainbow was sitting on was just bigger than a bed, and perfect for stretching out on. Cloudsdale was a distant memory at this point, with Canterlot a few hours’ journey ahead. If the thunderstorm hadn’t been on track to miss the capital, it’d likely have been torn down already. Such a shame really, it was one of the few natural sources of beauty Rainbow could slow down and appreciate for what it was. Very, very few ponies could build them as well as nature.

Rainbow fished into her pocket and pulled out the decree. It was certainly official, the Celestial seal and everything. She wondered what rank she’d have once the transfer was made. It was doubtful a hot dog like her would keep the rank of “captain”, which, unlike the rest of the military, was the highest rank in both the Wonderbolts and the Guard.

“You there! This airspace is restricted!”

Rainbow blinked in slow motion again at the disturbance, then sat up and peered over the cloud to see two military pegasi in gray armor.

“At ease, fellas!” she yelled back, sitting up over the cloud and showing off the emblems on her jacket. “I’m military too, and I’m here on official business.”

The two strange ponies looked at each other. “He didn’t say anything about her being here…” the right one said.

The other flew up above her and pointed. “You’re coming with us.”

Rainbow held up the transfer decree. “Sorry, boys, I got higher orders. This is from Princess Celestia herself, so unless you-hey!”

The high flying pegasus fired lightning from his wings and destroyed her transfer decree with barely enough time for Rainbow to leap up out of the way and into a hover.

“Do you have any idea what you just did!? That was an official decree from the Princess! You don’t just up and destr-hey!” She dodged another bolt, this one aimed at her head. “Oh you wanna play this game? Fine!”

Rainbow Dash spread her wings fully and sent magic down her feathers, taking flight with a rushing boom towards the thunderstorm as the two gave chase. Okay, so these two know how to fly, and the lightning means they have military training. Let’s see how brave they are.

She amped up the power in her wings to boost her speed, and looked back to find the surprise that not only were they keeping up but one was closing the distance like a bullet. A Wonderbolt trick saved her at the last instant as she altered the air currents around her to jolt herself to the left and dodged the grasp of the impossibly-fast pony. As she watched him fly by, she noticed a magic blue field emanating from his armor. He’s not faster than me - he’s cheating! Alright Rainbow, let’s show’em how a Wonderbolt flies!

She corrected her flight back to the thunderstorm and turned on her own lightning as smoke and rainbow-colored cracks of light spread out behind her. The other pegasus made another attempt to grab her by using that strange blue light, but she deftly dodged it and sent him into her stream of smoke and lightning. An unexpectedly bright blue light erupted behind her, and she made a sharp turn in case the other one was trying to grab her. Instead, she saw the pegasus that was attacking her falling right out of the sky leaving his own trail of smoke behind him. He must have been hit by her lightning trail.

She was about to ponder whether to save him when the other pegasus rushed towards her with the same blue magic. Dodging again but missing him with her lightning, she broke away and put even more power into her wings. Reaching the storm, she circled around and up its edge in a spiral, feeling the tip of her wing cut into the towering cloud as she climbed ever higher into Celestia’s sky.

She watched as the other pegasus circled around in a huge arc for another pass. Clearly, whatever trick they had gave them speed, but at the cost of not being able to turn quickly. She might be able to simply outrace them with a sharp turn and a rainboom, but that wouldn’t be fitting enough for this one.

It was then that she realized could probably just fry him in an instant with a bolt of her own; the lightning they were using was vastly inferior to what she and the other Wonderbolts could summon. It was originally meant to be a weapon instead of a spectacle, and most military pegasi could use it along with cutting wings, but it was still a somewhat strange thought to use it as a weapon so casually. This was in spite of all her training. In truth, she could probably take on a dozen of these guys easily, and if she was actually facing a dozen of them she probably would have used her lightning from the start. That having been noted, these two weren’t really much of a true threat. Plus, firing at the Captain of the Wonderbolts and frying a royal decree needed a special level of humiliation. Zapping them with lightning just wouldn’t do for that.

As the pegasus made another grab for her, she shifted the wind patterns again and dove right into the storm. Rain and hail started to pelt her as the extreme winds within the storm boosted them through her own magic currents, and her coat was soaked almost instantly. She quickly silenced her lightning trail as the sky around her rapidly changed from gray to dark blue with wild lightning crackling all around her. Deeper into the storm she plunged, changing her direction every so often to fool the idiot behind her. She could see the blue light from his armor streak wildly in the wrong direction, right towards the downdraft of the storm where he would no doubt be slammed into the ground in the storm’s rain shadow. Turning away from her attacker, she pushed herself towards the strongest upward winds as she hunted for the storm’s powerful updraft.

Punching through to the center of the storm, she felt a relatively warm and extremely strong blast of air from underneath her wings, and she shot straight up the center of the storm like a rocket as she spread out her primary feathers and brought all of her power to bear. Wind, wings, and magic combined to launch her up and out of the top of the storm in the largest rainboom she’d made to date.

Fierce winds stronger than any she could hope to counter knocked her out of her climb and she began to fall. This was alright, though, as it was all part of the plan. She angled herself towards Canterlot and breathed deeply to keep up her oxygen as she used the wind and gravity to enter a new phase of acceleration.

The downward pull plus her magic not only quickly got her to safe breathing altitude but also sent her rocketing towards Canterlot and well away from any jerkwad pursuers. No more breaks this time. She was now on a nonstop flight to the castle, with a rainboom scheduled to mark the arrival of the most awesome pegasus in Equestria.

Shattered Doorway, Opened Mirror

View Online

Twilight Sparkle's vision was excellent, despite what most ponies would believe of a mare who spends whole nights reading in the dark. She had no need for corrective glasses, even though Rarity insisted she should start wearing them as a fashion accessory. When she last had her eyes tested, the nurse had to ask if she had pegasus in her lineage, to which she insisted she was a pure unicorn.

She truly hated the term "pure unicorn", though. Many of the Canterlot elites put a lot of stock in being purebred unicorn, as if having earth pony or pegasus blood would make them somehow inferior. It was the same kind of isolationist attitude that the Hearth's Warming Tale warned against. Regardless, the fact remained that as far back as her family could trace, she was indeed a pure unicorn, with no hint of the other races. At least, until now.

Moreover, alicorns had all the best attributes of all the races, so it stood to reason that her eyes were not failing her, and that the extreme darkness she was currently seeing was, in fact, an accurate representation of the world around her. Even lighting her horn produced no illumination, as if the very air existed to extinguish all light.

Even more curious was the voice in the darkness. This voice wasn't arriving in her mind through her ears. She could hear it just like her own internal monologue, but she had no control over it. It was talking of a dead pony and blood on bricks, along with a solemn monologue on the futility of life. The prose was alarmingly horrific, but well written. Yet, despite the disturbing imagery now dancing in her head, her ears themselves said there was as little to hear as there was to see.

Two of her other senses were reporting completely contradictory things to what her hearing and sight were sensing. Her nose was actively calling her ears and eyes crazy, because it was able to detect nothing but the smell of old books, which was quite plainly the most comforting and awesome smell in all of existence. Therefore, her sense of sight and hearing were plainly just not doing their jobs. In addition, touch was going on and on about the smooth cloth on her body, mainly how it was restricting her movements to subtle turns. So logically, there had to be something there, her eyes were damn liars, and her ears were no better.

Adding all of this up to explain her current circumstance was a challenge, but remembering the last thing she saw before her sleep let her put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Insulting the princess, the loud voice she used at her, the utter darkness, the maddening words in her mind, the constricted movements and smell of old books. Yes, there was an obvious solution here.

Clearly, Princess Celestia had been so angry at her for her outburst that she took away her eyesight, bound her up, and banished her to a dimension of lost, unholy books and ancient demons where she would be feasted upon every night as a sacrifice to an entity of such horror that it was beyond her feeble comprehension. If there was ever a justified time to have a screaming freakout, this was it. Ready, voice? Ready, limbs? OK!

Twilight Sparkle jolted awake and gave a scream that seemed far beyond the capabilities of such a small mare. Lungs depleted, she filled them again and resumed screaming while her limbs did their thing trying to free her from whatever ingenious torture trap Celestia must have ensnared her in, giving no thought to the process because obviously she was doomed and would never escape. The odd voice talking ominously in her head must have known her, because it was now calling her name over and over, probably to boast of her eternal damnation.

After what seemed like an eternity wrapped into a mere moment, her eyes started reporting back in as a blue light lit up her senses, revealing an unfamiliar room and a very familiar face telling her something also familiar instead of a thousand mind-destroying blasphemies in a daemonic tongue. It was Princess Luna, illogically trying to calm her down. Couldn't she see she was busy being banished in a realm of pure evil? Now wasn't the time to calm down! It was perfectly appropriate to panic when in an alternate dimension of purest, unknowable terror.

Oh, now she was shaking her with magic. That's just rude to do to somepony freaking out for a legitimate reason! The best thing to do for this is to scream louder! Wait, now her mouth was closed with magic. Wonderful. Well, maybe she should at least give Luna a moment of quiet to explain why she was trying to put the brakes on her carefully thought out and totally reasonable plan of action.

"Twilight Sparkle, thou art hale! We- I'm doing it again- I took you to my room. You are in my room! Safe!"

Now that definitely didn't make any sense. How could Princess Luna's room be another dimen—Oh, well, now she just felt silly. Fortunately Luna was loosening the grip on her mouth so she could explain this in a calm and logical manner.

"OhLunaI'msorryIthoughtIwasbanishedtoanotherdimensionwithdemonsandthingsweregoingtoeatmeandIdidn'tknowpleasedon'tactuallysnnnmm—"

Whoops, muzzle again. Now she was really going to get it.

"Twilight Sparkle, it's okay! We're not mad at you. Relax. I brought you here because Tia was worried your tower might not be secure enough. You're safe. Now, have you calmed down?"

Twilight genuinely reflected on the question. Limbs? Not flailing. Horn? Not glowing with uncontrolled magic. Breathing? Heart rate? Steadily decreasing. Could she answer yes? What if she was wrong, and she wasn't calm, and that would only make it worse and she'd be banished for Oh stop doing that to me brain! she screamed in what she hoped was her head.

Taking two more deep breaths, she finally nodded, and Luna released her magic hold on her.

Luna exhaled deeply, too. "I'm glad. Please, stay here a moment. I need to make sure the guards aren't telling Celestia that Nightmare Moon is back or some such nonsense. I'll just be a minute, okay?"

Twilight nodded, not trusting her mouth to not scream again. If she had any other mouths to use it might be given a stern talking to. For now, she was content to breathe a little and look around the room while Luna ran out the door after the guards. She had never seen the inside of Luna's room. It was even more private for Luna than Celestia's room was for her. She felt honored just to be here, but at the same time felt some unease at what her eyes were reporting.

The interior design of the room was completely different from the rest of the palace. There was no gold or silver or bright colors. All the furniture was jet black, but far more ornate than she would have first guessed. The black color hid the sharp corners, spikes, and intricate designs carved into the wood. While not exactly homey, the artistic talent behind it was indisputable, especially highlighted in the moonlight. There was even a drape-covered archway to what she guessed was the closet, with a surrounding façade that made it seem more like the entrance to some underground cult meeting place.

The bed was strange, too. It was higher, firmer, and larger than Celestia's overglorified (but extremely comfortable) cushion, and the sheets underneath the dark purple blanket were the only white things in the entire room. Well, that wasn't quite true. There were eerie blue-white candles in the room that made it hard to tell for certain, but what little she could see of the walls was white, as was the ceiling. The walls, though, were almost entirely covered in bookshelves and other furniture, and each shelf was filled to overflowing with books. OK, maybe she could like this room after all. Luna was obviously as much a fan of books as she was.

Even the balcony and floor were different, with a dark gray stone making up their entirety. There was no paint or intricacy there, just flat gray stone. She could almost feel its chill without touching it. Near the balcony was a large black desk she wouldn't dare touch, though it was overflowing with papers that just cried out to be organized. It had an artistic design it shared with the rest of the furniture, but didn't look especially comfortable. Other items crowded the desk too. Ancient inkwells, a drawing compass, balls of string and rubber bands, even an abacus sat on the desk in a manner looking as if it had all been deliberately placed there to look as haphazard as possible. Her eye twitched a bit as she battled a nearly overwhelming need to organize.

The last piece of furniture was a pair of nightstands by the circular bed. The one on her right had a blown-out candle and an open book. Wait, not a candle… She sniffed at it to test its scent and confirm her suspicion. It was indeed an anti-candle! It would figure that the Princess of the Night would use something meant to siphon the light and sound from a room. How she could read with it was another matter, but at least it explained why she wasn't able to see or hear. Luna must've been using a projection spell to read to her, hence the "voices" in her head.

Speaking of, just what unholy thing was the princess reading? She turned her attention to the book laid open next to her, lifting it in a telekinetic grasp and turning it over to peek at the cover. Was Luna harboring some dark secret of favors owed to unspeakable deities for—oh, it was a noir crime novel. She chastised herself aloud for even thinking of such absurdities.

"Dear Princess Celestia,

Today I learned that I cannot stop imagining sinister motives. Clearly, I need to be institutionalized. Please have the nice ponies in white coats waiting for me at the door.

Your crazed student,

Twilight Sparkle"

"You're not crazed, Twilight Sparkle. Just overtired."

Twilight's head snapped to the left in the panic. Either Luna had managed to enter the room completely silently, even when closing the door behind her, or her ears were indeed damn liars. "Sorry, Princess. This whole thing is just… sorry."

Luna moved to the side of her bed to stand over her guest. "Its fine, Twilight. Tia and I can both understand what you're going through. We ascended too, after all.”

“Thanks, Princess.”

“Please, call me ‘Luna’. We aren’t so different anymore, are we?”

The mare twitched a bit under the covers. Luna had insisted on this before, but it was still hard to drop the honorific. What was even more uncomfortable, though, was not lowering Luna’s status, but dropping the honorific to elevate her own.

“Okay… Luna. That’s going to take getting used to. And I really can’t believe I slept an entire day…”

Luna smiled, showing a hint of the same kind of pride Celestia expressed. "Ah, that. My balcony always looks thus. It's really only eleven in the morning, which is after my normal bedtime, but it matters not. Alicorns have no need for sleep."

“Celestia told me. That’s honestly something about this I’m not going to mind. She also said you would be training me?”

“Indeed! I’m betting that my sister is also rather jealous about me getting to teach you your first alicorn spells, which only makes me happier to oblige.”

Twilight managed to choke and cough despite not having anything in her throat. “Alicorn magic!?”

Luna laughed. “Of course! Were this unicorn magic, you could probably figure it out with a book. But I’m going to teach you spells only we alicorns can do, and that includes battle magic. The spells at my command have sent Celestia's armies stampeding over themselves in retreat! When we're done, we— I promise, you will not fear the assailants Celestia showed you any longer. They will fear you."

"But... I don't want anypony to fear me... I'm not..."

"A monster?"

Twilight hadn't said it, and somehow she still wished she hadn't, but somehow Luna knew what she was going to say and it was a mistake all the same.

"Twilight, look," Luna said, dejected. "If my sister and I were to fight, really fight, without holding anything back... Tia would win. She always would have. Nightmare Moon wasn't even a match for her. Yet the ponies adore her, and fear Nightmare Moon. Luna is winning them over, slowly, but it should be plain to see that having power and being feared need not go hand in hand, as long as you use your power responsibly. Do you understand?"

Twilight nodded, not wanting to interrupt again as another hoof might occupy her mouth, and it was already crowded in there.

"Now, to your next inevitable question. 'If she's stronger, why doesn't she train me?'"

"Actually," Twilight interrupted, and then again yelled at herself in her head to stop doing that. "I was wondering how you were able to read while using an anti-candle."

"…Oh. As the alicorn of the night, I can see perfectly even in pure darkness. I also find darkness comforting. You weren't thinking I wasn't good enough to teach you because my sister is stronger?"

"No, of course not! I'd be honored to be your student!"

"Hmm… Well, that ruins the conversation plan I had. Could you… ask it anyway?"

If Twilight's head tilted anymore she'd be sideways, it would also be an accurate representation of what her nerves were doing to her stomach. "You want me to insult you with that question?"

The grin on Luna's face was almost surreal. "Please!"

She really didn't want to, but it was still a request from a Princess. "OK. Luna, wouldn't it be better for Princess Celestia to teach me if she's stronger than you?" Her voice had just a hint of her signature squeak at the end.

Luna clapped her hooves a little and answered with volume just short of the Royal Canterlot Voice. "AHA! But you see, Twilight Sparkle! It is I who have the skills you need! Power is not everything! … Too loud?"

"A little." She was definitely squeaking there.

"Ah, sorry. You see, Twilight, my sister is a bit of a one-trick pony when it comes to fighting. She only knows one move, and that's overwhelming force. I have nothing that can match her Sol Invictus spell in power, but that spell tends to vaporize everything in an extremely wide radius, even our beloved ponies.

"My spells, however, can wound or disable without killing, or can render armies asunder, or anything in between. I'm more flexible, you could say. It's something you'll need as Grand Mage. Which leads us to the other part of our plan. You recall how we said you need more experience to be able to take on the crown if need be, correct?"

Twilight nodded. No interrupting this time, mouth! I mean it!

"Well, that's what being Grand Mage is for. To give you experience, but in a more controlled manner than just waiting for something to happen. And trust me, if we just wait, something will happen. It’s the nature of ascendancy. Rather, we'll be picking specific missions for you. Ones that we feel will push your limits, but not be beyond you either. At the same time, this will also get ponies used to you having the authority of the throne. And, I know this must be disturbing for you, but this includes the use of lethal force. If you really feel it's needed, we permit you to use it. Sadly, there will be times where you may need it."

Twilight couldn’t quite comprehend that. She had a means of attack with her magic, sure, but lethal force? “Is that really necessary? I really don’t want to do that, Princess. It goes against everything Celestia taught me. There ought to be a way to—”

This time Luna interrupted. “I understand your concern, Twilight. Believe me. But, we trust you. We know you’d never do it unless you had absolutely no other choice. If we didn’t feel this way, we wouldn’t be giving you this responsibility.”

A connection clicked in Twilight’s mind. “No choice. One hundred thousand…”

“Hm?”

“Princess Celestia told me she had to kill a hundred thousand in her battles with Discord. She said her own ponies sacrificed themselves. If we have that instinct—”

“It’s very hard, Twilight. And the overall death toll was far, far greater. But these are the decisions that fate thrusts upon us. Kill some so that others may live, or hold back and watch more die later. I wish you would never have to make this choice, but I know you will. When you do, go to your friends, or to us. Trust me.”

“That’s rather foreboding.”

“As it should be, but I’ll do my best to give you all the tools I can to avoid it as much as possible. So will Tia. Oh! That reminds me.” Twilight’s neck practically got sore from the mood whiplash thanks to Luna’s reappearing smile. “The next time it’s just we alicorns, call Celestia ‘Tia’ or ‘Celly’. I really want to see her reaction!”

Twilight’s brain was screaming at all the world-bending ideas being thrown at her. “I can’t do that! She’s the princess! I’d get banish—”

“She’s not going to banish you, Twilight. She loves you like a daughter. So no more of this talk.”

It was comforting to hear that, even if she’d always sort of known it. “I understand, Pri— Luna.”

“Good!” The pri— Luna took a few steps towards her with another huge grin, until she was right in her face.

“I’m going to get hugged again, aren’t I?”

She was.


Just being clean from a shower was a remarkably refreshing experience after all the emotion of the previous night. With any luck, food will prove equally restoring. She accompanied Luna into the mess hall, where lunch was already beginning by the smell of things.

The sight of the mess hall was always a bit jarring, since it was much more spartan than the dining room or even the rest of the castle. It was meant to serve everypony working in the castle rather than the princesses, but Twilight usually found it a better option to get food. When one ordered food with the princess, it took forever while the chefs made sure everything was “just right”. When she went to the mess hall, she could get what everypony else was eating in less than three minutes. Since she hadn’t eaten in well over a day, food in three minutes was definitely preferable.

“Howdy Twilight! Howdy Princess!” a familiar voice rang out.

“Applejack! There you are! I was worried about you!” Twilight lied. She’d never, ever admit it, but with all that had happened she hadn’t been thinking much about Applejack.

“Aww, shoot Twi. No need ta worry ‘bout little ol’ me! I got a nice little gig here in the kitchens ta keep me busy. What’cha need?”

“How about another food fight?” Luna interjected with a smile.

“Another food fight? Applejack, what did you do?” Twilight glared at her.

“Nothin’!” Applejack was still the worst liar ever.

“Ugh! Fine! I don’t want to know, just—” she levitated a tray over to her. “—put edibles on this. lots of them.”

“… Okay.” Applejack began loading the tray, weighing it down in steps with additional foodstuffs. A pair of apple fritters. A daffodil sandwich. An orange. When Applejack looked at her in a pause, her stomach did the talking for her in a loud growl.

Three donuts. An alicorn-sized glass of iced tea. A walnut salad. Four carrots.

She raised her right eyebrow. Not cutting it, AJ.

Applejack looked around nervously before diving under the counter and pulling out a veggie pot pie, complete with hay bacon strips. Twilight hit the whole assortment of foodstuffs with a telekinetic field and levitated it all around. “Now we’re talkin’!”

“Uh, Twi, are you okay?”

“No, I’m hungry. I’m going to go ‘borrow’ the Princess’s dining room; she doesn’t usually eat there anyway. Have the guards get Spike, then I want the three of you to meet me in there. We need to talk. After I ingest at least seventy percent of this.”

Applejack looked over to Luna, who simply nodded with her trademark playful smile. “Okay then. You sure yer okay, other than the hungry?”

Twilight was already walking right out of the mess hall while eating an apple fritter noisily. “Mm okey! Dn-ng rmm!”

For the first time in a good long while, Applejack’s face showed a hint of real fear. “Is she gonna eat me if I go in there?”

Luna winked at her. “Bring a dessert offering, just in case.”



Prince Shining Armor, Captain of the Royal Guard, stared at the giant map on the back wall of the War Room, eyes going over the troop movements again for the fiftieth time. The gryphons to the North seemed to be getting antsy, moving their soldiers around faster than the scout pegasi could keep pace. Worse, one division of troops seemed to be getting lost lately and deploying in the wrong areas. Some drift was always expected, but this was too much to be coincidence.

Shining sighed, looking down at the ground. “General Towers, what are your soldiers doing? Such a lack of discipline in your ranks isn’t like you.”

“Interesting times, Your Majesty.” Shining turned to see Intelligentsia with a bundle of papers in telekinetic tow.

“Very interesting,” he replied. “None of this seems right. We’re missing something huge here, I just know it.”

“I’ve been trying to figure it out, too. Can I show you something on the table?” She waggled the bundle of parchment behind her in her magic.

“Of course.”

The two moved over to a large, long, backlit table in the center of the corridor, and Intelligentsia unfurled the documents all over it. Included in the bundle was a single, large map.

“I’ve been going over the troop movement reports and other sets of data. There are some definite irregularities I need to point out.” She put her forehooves on the map and traced out a path from troop cluster to troop cluster. “What do you find odd about these groups?”

Shining eyed the map carefully, looking for any irregularity without success. Intelligentsia was an expert here, so if she saw something, he must be missing it. “Well, they aren’t quite where they’re supposed to be, but I knew that already. Towers is losing his touch.”

“I’m not so sure the rich old coot is senile just yet.”

A nervous new voice joined the conversation. “Excuse me, Prince Armor?”

The two turned to see a young-looking pegasus stallion in private’s armor.

“This had better be important, Private.” Intelligentsia’s curt manner was justified. Privates didn’t just barge into a conversation between a prince and a lieutenant without a very good reason.

“It is, ma’am. At least I think it is, I mean—”

“Private!”

“Yes ma’am! The Bellerophon is requesting permission to dock at Canterlot’s civilian airship pier!”

The Prince and Lieutenant turned to each other quickly before turning back.

“Care to repeat that, private?” Shining asked.

“Er, yes sir! The Bellerophon is requesting—”

“Permission to dock at Canterlot’s civilian airship pier. That’s what I thought.” Shining said, finishing the sentence for the private. “What in the name of Celestia is it doing out? It’s top secret and not even scheduled for completion for another four months! I know I didn’t sign an order for an engine shakedown; did the princesses?”

“Not that I know of, Your Majesty. That why the dockmaster sent me to get you,” the private replied.

“How far out is it?” Shining asked, his voice starting to show real worry despite his royal training to keep it steady for his subjects.

“Er, about fifteen minutes by now. Maybe less.”

“Sir!” Intelligentsia interjected. “We should have them keep their distance for now. Something really isn’t right here.”

“Agreed.” Shining’s voice grew deeper as his worries escalated. “Relay that order on the double, private. Don’t let it close yet. Make up something if they ask why. I’ll be there in a bit. That’s a Royal Order, understood?”

“Yes sir!” The pegasus saluted and sped off with his wings spread.

“There’s more, sir,” Intelligentsia continued. “The troop stations, look at this.” She picked up a pen with her magic and drew lines in between them. “Take a closer look at the distances between Towers’ troops.”

Shining examined the map for a moment to be sure of his conclusion. “They’re the same. Perfectly evenly spread out.”

“Now in what universe should troop movements in regions with inaccurate maps causing natural drift would you expect sixteen different troop stations to be flawlessly evenly spread? There should be some variation here.”

“You’re right, this is strange.”

“It gets worse.” She levitated additional papers over and in front of him, hanging in the air. “I catalogued the variances for all our troops in the field. For every report for the last six weeks I wrote down the distance between their intended destination and where they reported ending up. Notice anything?”

Shining pored over the numbers, but no pattern in the huge dataset was revealed to his eyes. “Sorry, Gen, nothing that I can see.”

“Oh?” Another paper levitated over. “Take a look at the numbers with only Towers’ soldiers reporting.”

The difference was immediately obvious. “They’re all even numbers! Every single one!”

“I asked one of our math whiz guys downstairs what the odds of this were. He said it’d be more likely for Celestia to sprout tentacles and ban all sweets from Equestria. It’s utterly impossible.”

“Towers fed us bad information? I’d like to think this is just rounding, but… wait a moment.” Shining put his front hooves up on the edge of the map table and used his magic to clear all the marks of Towers’ troops off the map. “Gen, do you have the data on the gryphons’ movements over the last six weeks?”

“Right here,” she said, lifting a new paper over.

Shining’s head moved back and forth between the paper and the map. He couldn’t read as fast as his sister, but he wasn’t a slouch either. Dots appeared on the map in different colors representing gryphon movements, but he didn’t even need to finish plotting the data before he realized what was going on and collapsed down to his haunches.

“The gryphons weren’t responding oddly to our deployments. They were moving around and in because our troops weren’t there at all!” He shot to his hooves like a stallion possessed and ran down the corridor to get a bit closer to the other ponies. He’d only practiced the Royal Canterlot Voice a few times before; he never thought he’d truly need it.

“Attention! Code black! The castle is under attack! All personnel, scramble! Defend the castle and the princesses at all costs! Code black! Scramble, scram—!”

A muffled rumble and momentary rocking motion interrupted him and had all the non-airborne ponies focusing on their balance for a moment before dutifully carrying out the scramble, rushing outside the war room to protect the castle.

Intelligentsia ran up behind Shining Armor, fear now in her eyes. “Was that…”

Prince Armor’s deep voice reverberated through the officer’s ears.

“It’s a coup.”


"Ugh.... So.... Full..."

"I was wondering whether a fast growing alicorn would need more calories. Looks like I was at least a little right."

Luna's scientific observations were not helping the groaning alicorn newbie. Twilight rolled over on the large cushion where Celestia usually sat and struggled to contain her stomach's contents. What she ate might've been hard even for Celestia to down, but by Heavens she had managed to pull it off. Whether it would stay there or whether she'd be able to look at food the same ever again was another matter entirely. She couldn't even open her eyes without her stomach complaining.

"Who's up fer dessert?!" a resounding country voice rang out.

Twilight answered in the only way her body would allow at the moment: a groaning wail.

"Wow Twilight! You managed to eat all this?! I'm impressed! Are you sure you're not part dragon?"

It appeared Spike was here to see her in this state too. Fan-freaking-tastic.

"Okay, that's enough, I think you've learned your lesson."

Twilight felt a wave of magic with Luna's voice, starting at her back hooves and washing over the rest of her in a tingly wave, wiping away the discomfort in a seamless spell. Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked upside down at three beings staring at her with grins. Her efforts to right herself went surprisingly smoothly and with nary a stomach comment from either her body or her friends.

"Sorry, everypony. I guess I overdid it. I was just really hungry."

"Tweren't nothin', Twi. Ya should see Big Macintosh after a harvest. It's like we need half the trees just to power that ol' lug. Now, ya did say we need to talk, and I'm guessin’ it's about why we're stuck here. But don't worry about it, y’can take yer time, we won't rush ya. I know I'd be out of it after eatin' all that."

Twilight carefully stood up, then thought better of it and sat back down. Her stomach might have been calmed, but she still felt heavy. "Thanks Applejack, but I think I'm ready. In fact think I feel better now than I have since I got here… Feels like ages ago at this point."

Applejack and Spike walked closer and sat down facing her. The positioning felt somewhat awkward, but Twilight couldn't identify why. She only knew it was alleviated when Luna sat next to her.

"Spike, Applejack... The spell I used yesterday was one I cast through my hooves. I thought it would be a breakthrough, but... I've found out that unicorns can't do this. The Princesses have told me that I’m not a unicorn anymore. Not strictly, anyway. I'm an alicorn. Or, I will be in time. So far all I can do is stand on clouds and cast a sloppy spell through my hooves."

Her sheepish grin deepened as the two gazed at her in silence, Applejack with wide eyes and Spike with an uncharacteristic tear or two. She was wondering if she could go deaf from the sheer lack of sound when Applejack mercifully broke the silence.

"So, uh, yer telling us that yer like Princess Celestia, Luna, and Cadence now?"

“Luna and Celestia, yes. Cadence is a winged unicorn, not the same.”

“It ain’t?”

“No, they have unicorn and pegasus abilities; they’re rare but not as rare or powerful as alicorns, and they age normally. Alicorns have earth pony abilities along with the other two.”

“So... yer an alicorn.”

“Becoming one, at least.”

“Like Princess Celestia.”

“And Luna.”

“…”

Twilight had anticipated any number of possible responses from her friends when given this news. This was not quite one of them, and it was all the more uncomfortable for it as she squirmed just a little on her oversized cushion while Applejack’s mind looked like it was trying to absorb all this.

“Whoa…” the orange farmer simply said.

“Yeah,” Twilight replied.

“Fluttershy was right…”

“It’s been a shock to me too, I-—Wait, Fluttershy knew?!”

Everyone in the room other than Applejack had wide eyes and open jaws.

“Well, not really, but she said that Princess Celestia was groomin’ ya ta be a princess too! She thought that ‘cause we were gallopin’ all over Equestria, dealing with dragons ‘n’ such, like you were bein’ prepared. She said that maybe Celestia would even give ya... wings...”

Luna greatly brightened at hearing this. “Ha! Well, it seems my dear sister wasn’t as subtle as she thought! Bravo, fair Fluttershy! She didn’t get it all right, since we can’t just give somepony wings, they’re a part of ascension. Still, she truly has hidden depths!”

“Luna! Are you serious? All this time Celestia knew I was an alicorn!?” Twilight’s mouth went dry. She felt like a horned equivalent to Ditzy Doo. “Did anypony else? Am I really the last to know about this?”

Luna shook her head. “No, Twilight. But we knew that you might someday become one. It was never a sure thing, so we didn’t want to get your hopes up. So she subtly tried to put you in situations to think on your hooves to make being a Grand Mage, and possibly, yes, a princess, easier.”

“Subtle like a brick! I can’t believe I didn’t see this sooner! What else has she been—”

“Twilight.” Spike finally said something. Said it while very close. She hadn’t seen him get right in front of her, but two desperate green eyes were now looking at her through what was a layer of either water or mild sulfuric acid.

“Y-yes Spike?” Her words shook from the unexpected shift in attitude in the room, his voice hitting her like an anvil despite being extra soft.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Spike?”

Don’t lie to me!” Unexpected dragon claws dug into her shoulder blades as Spike grabbed her near the neck and shook her. Spike’s eyes got even more flushed as a smell confirmed their acidic content. “Are you really an alicorn? An actual alicorn?”

The reasons for Spike behavior came into her mind with a sudden explosion, the topic they’d always danced around but never confronted now front and center for both to see and confront. Two hundred twenty years was the longest a female unicorn had ever lived, and stood as a record for non-alicorn ponydom. No one even knew if dragons died of old age, but they had gathered that a dragon wasn’t considered an adult until one thousand.

Now, she might outlive him. No small thing to ponder, and in truth she didn’t quite believe the situation completely herself. For now, it was true enough for a giant hug as she embraced him. “Yes, Spike. I don’t have the wings or the mane yet, but now you’ll always get to be my number one assistant.”

The hug was long, deep, and comforting even as Twilight’s lungs complained about the tears and her back complained about the burning from the sulfuric acid. None of it mattered. She couldn’t imagine a scenario where it mattered less.

So the world decided to show her one instead.

A powerful explosion from just outside the castle rocked the large glass windows to near their breaking point as screams poured in from the outside world. The atmosphere of panic solidified around them as they rushed to the window to see the fighting below.

“No, Heavens above, not now!” Luna’s normally calm, playful voice showing true alarm didn’t do anything to help matters.

“Not now? Princess, what’s gong on?” Applejack’s voiced echoed the panic down below.

“No time!” Luna turned to Twilight and used her magic to hold her in place. “Twilight, heed me well. Go back to my chambers. Check the ceiling, it’s an illusion. It’s actually a cloud, one meter thick. Teleport thyself and thy friends above the cloud. Thou shalt find a set of armor in the corner; it is thine. Don it and hide there. It’s the safest part of the castle with the strongest wards. If the attackers get in, escape. No matter what it takes, escape! There’s an entrance to the caves in the mountain behind one of the waterfalls. Use it if thou must. Dost thou understand?”

Much to Twilight’s frustration, Luna vanished the instant she began to nod. “Guess there’s no time to argue. Follow me, everypony!” With that, they dashed off at top speed towards Luna’s unique chambers.


“Land sakes… Why is it night in here?”

“Whoa, this place is kinda spooky. And I’m saying this as a dragon!”

“Luna does have unique tastes. Everypony gather around, this is going to be tricky since I can’t see where I’m going.” Twilight’s horn was already aglow with magic to probe the air above her. A tendril of magic moved through the ceiling, dispelling a piece of the illusion to see the cloud overhead, but repaired itself when the magic pulled back. “Wow, Luna knows her spells. It’s nearly flawless! OK everypony, I think I’ve got this. First, cloud walking spell.”

She hated casting this one; it always made her horn feel charged with static for a while. Still, it had to be done, so she charged the spell and casted it as her horn sent out a shower of sparks along with a moderately loud crack.

“Next, teleportation. This one might be rough, so watch it.”

The short range hops like this were much easier on the body and stomach than longer range attempts. Either way, however, moving without seeing where one was going could be dangerous. Worse, there were anti-teleportation wards throughout the castle. Anyone other than Celestia and Luna moving any farther than a meter or so could set them off and cause them to give a careless spellcaster an extremely bad day.

Fortunately, fate seemed to think there was enough bad luck going around for now and they teleported without much of an incident. Much more interesting, however, were the contents of the small upper room. Paintings of ponies Twilight had never seen nor known, weapons of times long past, and stacks of books and notes everywhere. This was Luna’s study, and as she had said there was a suit of armor in the corner. Well, not exactly a suit of armor. Rather, it was an mannequin with a deep purple torc, far darker than her own coat of hair.

“This is it?” she asked herself.

“Oof,” Spike replied, standing up. “That? Well, maybe it’s enchanted or something.”

“Hmm… could be. Well, I guess I’ll try putting—“

CRACK!

When she tried levitating it, a spark came from her horn that knocked her back a couple meters, the now obviously-enchanted torc rejecting the telekinesis harshly and landing her on her head.

Twilight!” the other two screamed out, the domed ceiling bouncing their voices around the room, which was the last thing Twilight’s brand-new headache needed.

“I’m okay, just, ow.” She righted herself again and walked back to the armor. “Looks like this has to go on manually. Lend me a hoof with this.”

The piece was a true masterwork of ornate details, with a gem in the center so dark she swore it was black unless the light hit it just right to reveal its purple luster. Twilight could even see little runes engraved in the strange metal if she looked close enough.

Her friends helped lift the heavy metal over her head, and then slowly lowered it on her. It fit perfectly, and looked quite regal on her. She questioned its protective properties, however.

“Well, it fits at least. Are you sure we’re not missing something?” Spike asked.

“It does seem ta leave ya a bit exposed there, Twi,” Applejack concurred.

“Yeah, somehow I feel more naked with this thing on than off. It feels… strange. Like it’s pulling on my horn somehow. I… ow ow ow ow OW!

Yelling was about the only thing she could do as she felt the armor start to pull an enormous amount of magic right out of her horn like a pump on a well. The burning heat on her horn was a painful counterpart to the incredible cold the rest of her body was feeling. A dip in a pool of liquid nitrogen might seem like a refreshingly warm sensation compared to the agony firing her nerves. It was several moments into the sensation before she even noticed that her vision had once again been overtaken by bright white light.

By the time it was over, it felt like she had just woken up from an unsatisfactory nap; drowsy and dizzy. Slowly she stood up on her hooves, slightly before her friends. They must have been knocked down too. A yawn certainly seemed appropriate now, and she indulged.

“Whoa… Twilight…”

Hearing Spike’s astonished tone, she forced her eyes open as the yawn retreated, and saw her heavily armored hoof. Quickly she glanced at herself, examining all over. A full suit of armor had grown on her with her magic, covering almost her entire body. The torc’s size had been reduced, but was still present. Almost every square centimeter of her body below it was covered in thick armor. Thinner, flexible pieces were present at strategic spots that put small gaps and joints in the armor, allowing full range of motion.

It was remarkably comfortable. For as heavy as it looked, it didn’t encumber her any as she did a few test motions.

“This has… by far the most advanced enchantments I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even know this kind of thing was possible! Must’ve been astronomically expensive.” Forgetting the dire circumstances outside, Twilight allowed herself a little smile. She might actually look the part of a Grand Mage in this.

“How expensive are we talkin’ ‘bout here, sugar cube?”

Twilight blinked as she ran some guesses in her head. “I think I could use this to buy Ponyville a few times.”

“Whoa.”

Spike was right, this definitely inspired awe. Even the gem was glowing now. Did Celestia’s torc do this? Did Luna’s? Either way, it was some heavy protection; they clearly expected Twilight to run into serious trouble in her new occupation.

A blast of light shone up from the clouds in every imaginable color, reminding her that trouble had already found her; it was waiting in the castle grounds. Shortly thereafter, a deafening boom rattled the walls. The three friends spoke in unison, as this could only mean one thing. “Rainbow!”

“What in tarnation is she doin’ here? Isn’t she supposed ta be off in Cloudsdale or something?”

Twilight shook her head, a single hoof raised slightly in anxiety. “I don’t know, but I’m going down there to help her and the Princesses.”

“But—” they both said, only to be cut off.

“I’m the most powerful unicorn in existence, an alicorn in the making, the Grand Mage of Equestria, and Canterlot is under attack from something. I can’t just sit idle. You two stay here if you want, I’ve got an attack to crush,” she said, vanishing in a burst of light.

Hooves, Scales, and Wings

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Twilight leapt off the moonlit balcony and out of the illusion into the day. She quickly picked up speed as her eyes scanned for an overhead cloud. Finding one instantly, she teleported onto it and felt her hooves sink into the wet vapor.

“Now to find the Princess.” She opened her eyes wide as she peered over the edge, seeing the chaos below. Multiple skirmishes were unfolding between the guard and the unknown attackers, all ponies. She cursed her luck, wishing that it had been something other than her fellow ponies doing this as she noticed more and more dead on the ground. Most were attackers, but some wore guard uniforms.

Smoke in the distance was a telltale indicator of what had exploded earlier: her tower. It was completely destroyed, crumbled into dust, flame, and smoke. This hadn’t just been an attack on the castle; they had intended to eliminate her in the first shot.

All those lives lost to protect her and the Princesses, who were the last ponies who should need protection. The emotions running through her mind were reasonable to her, but foreign and hugely intense at the same time. There was anger at insolence, fear that more could be hurt, and an overwhelming urge to see this end by any means necessary.

Thunderbolts and shockwaves erupted in the distance, with two sources being much more destructive than the others. One was more powerful than all the others combined. She prayed that one was Luna, averting her eyes to continue the search as wind moved her cloud along. After a moment, another cloud below her moved away and she saw a pinkish-purple dot surrounded by gray dots, with a wall behind it and a giant stairway to its left. Cadence. Celestia would have to wait.

“I sure as Tartarus hope I know what I’m doing.” Twilight stood up straight on the cloud, waiting for the perfect time to drop straight down as she summoned the bounding spell through her hooves again. The flames burned brightly and depleted her cloud as the horseshoes formed on her hooves. The cloud evaporated at just the right time as the spell completed and she arrived directly over her target. She let gravity take hold as her body twisted and turned in the incredible rushing wind. Faster and faster the dots grew, until she could see the hairs on the manes of the attackers immediately below her, right as she teleported again.

She recovered her senses in the middle of another fresh crater, with gray-armored ponies scattered all about on the ground and more slowly appearing as the dust cleared.


“Well, I’m going down to help. You comin’?”

Applejack stood up straight to look the dragon in the eyes, then broke into a grin. “I thought you’d never ask!” She turned around to go out the door, and promptly realized there wasn’t one. “Aw, shoot. We can’t get down.”

Ahem!” Now it was Spike’s turn to stand up straight with a smile. He took in a deep breath and exhaled white-green fire on the cloud below him. In less than a second under the stream of fire, a series of blue symbols illuminated in the clouds and promptly evaporated, followed shortly thereafter by the cloud itself.

“A dragon’s fire can break enchantments and evaporate clouds. Pretty cool, huh?”

“Well I’ll be. Where’d ya learn ta do that?”

“You really think Twilight didn’t use me as a magic guinea pig from time to time?” Considering what he just admitted to, there was a strangely large amount of pride in Spike’s voice and demeanor.

“Heh. Good point.” She didn’t need any further explanation and promptly jumped down, landing evenly on all four hooves. Spike quickly followed in a tumble.

Nothing further needed to be said as they raced out of the door and down the stairs towards the castle entrance.


Six hostiles. Four. One. Zero.

Most ponies assumed that barriers were only good for defense. Once you mastered them, however, they could be powerful offensive weapons. They could crush or bludgeon, or even bat large swaths of attackers away as toys; just like six unfortunate soldiers had recently found out as they were sent dozens of meters back into a few of their friends.

The attack on the castle was a complete surprise to Prince Armor and his forces. Worse, it was hardly a masterpiece of cunning and subtlety. In hindsight, the indications of the attack were obvious. They simply hadn’t seen them in time.

He looked at the battleground that was his home as smoke and the sounds of battle filled the air. He had snuck out a back exit and fought through to the main entrance to try to circle around the enemy, but that left the castle itself still infested. Worse, he still had no idea where Cadence was or if she was safe, and he still had to warn the pier. He greatly regretted Twilight never finishing her long-distance teleportation spell; it would’ve been perfect for this had she taught it to him. Hesitating for a moment on where to search, he turned to the entrance and ran up to the giant double doors.

It was as if the doors were waiting for this, because they then exploded outwards on cue. However, it was not a sense of dramatic timing but a large group of attackers that poured out, completely ignoring him in their mad rush to get out of the castle.

“And don’t come back, ya hear!”

Standing just inside the castle was an orange mare apparently armed with a purple dragon with small green flames coming out of his nostrils.

“Applejack? Spike?” he stated in an oddly flat, surprised tone.

The orange mare and the dragon turned to him, their faces brightening. “Whew! Thank Celestia yer here, Yer Majesty. These guys barely know when to quit.”

“I dunno about that, AJ. They sure seemed to know to run when a dragon breathes fire. Heh,” Spike said, rubbing his chest a little.

“Yeah, ‘spose they do.” Applejack had to give him that one.

Shining shook his head to regain control of his thoughts. This could be the bit of luck he needed to turn things around. “Applejack, Spike, listen to me. I need you to do something for me; it’s critically important.”

Applejack and Spike looked at each other with a quick grin. “Sure ‘nuff sugarcube. Watcha need?”

Focusing his power on the emblem affixed to his chest, he broke off the miniature shield piece from the straps and floated it to Spike. “Take this, and run to the pier as quick as you can. There’s a ship coming in trying to dock, a huge ship. It’s got a false flag! If that ship docks they’ll get reinforcements, and we can’t let that happen. Tell the dockmaster to open fire on that ship and get every pegasus they have to take it down! Understand?”

Spike rubbed his fist. “One barbequed blimp, coming up! Come on AJ!”

“Right behind ya. Let’s go!”

The two ran off like a shot. Shining turned away from the castle as flashes of magic blasted all around. The real fights were happening on the grounds, and he finally decided that’s where he was needed.

“Cadence,” he said. “Please be ok, and forgive me if you aren’t.”


“Cadence! Are you ok?” Twilight rushed over as soon as she got her bearings back and saw the pink winged unicorn next to the wall.

Cadence clumsily forced herself back up on her hooves and rubbed her head. “Twilight? Oh, thank Celestia it’s you. I thought an artillery piece hit me.”

Twilight backed up a bit and averted her eyes, giving a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, that was kinda my fault. Sorry if I hurt you.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry, I’m fine. They nearly had me captured. Here.” A bright blue light emanated from her horn and a blast of energy shot behind and to the side of Twilight. The Grand Mage turned her head just in time to see the blast hit the horn of a hostile unicorn sneaking up on them, blowing out his horn and sending him to the ground twitching. He’d be completely disabled for several hours with that kind of impact.

Turning back, Twilight saw Cadence nearly collapse again and rushed to support her, bracing her sister-in-law’s shoulder. “How much have you been fighting?” she asked.

Winged unicorns were extremely rare, and most were nobility of some level. Every single one of them was capable of using a terrifying amount of magic at once; far more than most unicorns ever dreamt of. In turn, however, most didn’t have much more magic total than a regular unicorn. Cadence was much stronger than most, but if she exhausted her supply of magic, she’d wind up just like the unfortunate soul she blasted.

“Too much,” came the reply. “I’m not going to be much use anymore. Find Celestia. She’s trying to fight some old guy near the mountain. I didn’t get a look at his face, but I’m pretty sure he’s important.”

“Celestia’s fighting!?” she yelled. Images of the Glass Desert flashed in her mind. It was large enough to easily stretch from Canterlot to Ponyville and back again. If she used Sol Invictus...

“I need to get there. Get out of here, hide, or… something! Just don’t fight anymore!”

“I can handle it from here, Twilight. Thanks.”

A short smile was exchanged between the two before Twilight ran off.


Canterlot’s airship pier was a massive open-air structure. Situated on the opposite side of the mountain with a convenient tunnel for easy access, it had been under constant construction over the last few years to accommodate more and ever larger airships. Though mainly the means of transport of those without wings, the military had become more and more interested in them with the advent of new weapons and engine technologies. Most of the port had effectively come under its control, with more funds being pledged but not delivered to expand the civilian side.

It was through this that Commander Lofty Breeze was given charge of the pier. It was the perfect place to wind down towards retirement. A busy pier, lots of friendly faces... he could find himself settling in easily here among the start of a whole new industry.

Now, the castle was under attack, a ship was coming into dock despite orders to stay back, and an orange mare with an actual bucking dragon were telling him to open fire on it. Today had proven to be most interesting.

“And how do I know you two are telling the truth?”

The dragon grabbed the mare’s head and pulled it over to him. “See this? Element of Honesty. And you have Prince Armor’s little shield thingy. What more do you need?”

His teeth began to grind from nerves. “Proof this isn’t all some huge trick!”

He wasn’t being entirely unreasonable, really. There was a coup going on, and deception was a part of warfare. The problem was, if the ship was hostile, they were dead if it docked. If it was friendly, they would be halting reinforcements.

“Commander! We have incoming!” a voice from high in the watchtower screamed out as the whole bay turned to see the ship’s side open up and a few dozen pegasi fly out of it at speed.

“Are you happy now?”

“There’s still no proof! Those could be—” All doubt in the Commander’s mind got erased as the military pegasi launched their assault on the dock. Bolts of lightning began firing from their wings, tearing up the facility and sending his own pegasi scrambling.

The four cannons mounted on the pier began firing on the ship without his orders, blasts of energy from the unicorns manning them striking harmlessly on a purple barrier around the dirigible.

He’d been wrong. He should’ve listened. Turning around to apologize was a futile move as the orange mare and her friend had already run off towards the observation tower, a little platform much like a crow’s nest. Lightning struck behind him and knocked him forward, making him tumble over a few times on the wood desk below him. Two more impacts right in front of him sounded; impacts he recognized as pegasi in a flawlessly executed hard landing with all four hooves of each pony landing at the exact same time.

This was it. They’d finish him here, and Canterlot would fall thanks to his hesitation. He braced for the end, but it didn’t come. Instead, the sounds of fighting retreated from the docks to skies again, and he opened his eyes to look up.

His vision saw two leather flyer’s jackets, but no faces. He didn’t need to see the faces. He only needed to see the name tags with their golden lettering burning into his retinas.

WONDERBOLTS WONDERBOLTS

CAPTAIN (RET.) COMMANDER (RET.)

SPITFIRE SOARIN

The sound of a voice forced his head to move up enough to see their faces.

“Well, looks like you were right, Soarin. Those guys that attacked us were a part of something larger. I owe you a drink.” The bit of gray in her mane and the dry steeliness of her eyes showed her experience.

“Yeah, you can pay up when these guys finish buying me rounds. This one looks like he’s going to owe me a lot.” Soarin even had some tiny hints of gray, but his relatively soft features kept him looking young. Young-looking or no, his voice took on a hidden depth while in a fight.

Spitfire’s wings flapped open in an instant and launched twin lightning bolts behind the dockmaster. He turned his face just in time to witness a fireball engulfing several hostile pegasi where the two bolts met. Spitfire’s signature move.

“You crack that monster’s shield, I’ll thin their numbers.” Spitfire might’ve been retired, but she still gave orders like a captain.

“On it.” Soarin’s voice somehow got even deeper as he spread his own wings, and a golden, crackling field surrounded them and extended out from his feathers. Their takeoff speed was nearly incomprehensible, and just as fast as they had arrived they were off to join the fight. It was only then that Lofty Breeze realized that he’d sat there dumbfounded the entire time. He hadn’t just almost caused Canterlot to fall, he’d stared at two of the greatest Wonderbolts the world had ever known like some newborn foal while his dock got destroyed. His career was going to be over a lot faster than he’d ever thought.


Twilight ran around the outside gardens of the castle, trying to follow the flashes and pulses of magic in the distance to find Celestia. As she ran, the magical blasts of energy became all the more vague, going from a series of powerful concussive blasts to a simmer with an occasional muffled sound wave.

She slowed her speed to a trot and started looking around. What was behind her was the same as what was in front, and where the mountain should be to her right she only found more garden. Each direction she turned, it looked much the same.

“Okay, Twilight, get a grip,” she told herself. “This is obviously an illusion spell, you just have to find a way to break it.”

“Hahahahahaha.... oh, if only it were so simple a spell, Twilight Sparkle. But an illusion spell can’t keep you where I need you.”

That voice. She recognized that voice echoing around her. A voice that would be so friendly-sounding if she didn’t know exactly the horror it came from.

“Ah, you remember me. How touching. And you should be thanking me, really. I’m using all the power I can push out of this stone just to protect you! After all, it’d be a shame if you were to be in the conflagration, too. Dear Celestia always did go overboard.”

She turned and turned but the draconequus was nowhere to be seen. “Stone? So you’re still sealed,” she answered back. “Which means I can still get out. Where are you!?” Her yell was accompanied with a lighting of her horn and a grinding of teeth. She really didn’t have time for this. “Maybe I can put another seal on you.”

“You? Oh, I doubt that. Still, I’m surprised! You don’t want my hospitality? Alright, I’ll let you burn, but I think I should have you stay and chat a while anyway. It’ll be fun! We’ll share stories! What have you been up to, Little Miss Alicorn?”

“Oh crap.” She thought, spinning around again. “You know? How could you possibly know?”

“How could I not? When you feel the magic of three types of ponies in one body, there can only be one answer. I’m happy for you, really. After all, that means we’ll get to see so much more of each other! And who wouldn’t want to see more of little old me?”

“Try all of Equestria.”

“Yes, well, I’ll be sure to change that name once I’m out again. But you must be so excited! I mean, this is a big deal for you! What do your friends think?”

Oh no, he wasn’t going to get into her head that easily. “The ones that know are happy for me. I’d imagine the others will be too.”

“I’m sure they will be.” A lion’s paw rubbed her head and she leapt back. “Jumpy today, aren’t we?” the abomination asked.

Twilight looked at the demon carefully, and then slightly to her right where a familiar statue stood. “How did—”

“I’ll save you the trouble. This is a projection, one that takes quite a lot of power, so appreciate it and my… stunning visage. I’m still in the stone, at least for now.”

The way he squiggled through the air churned Twilight’s stomach. Sealed or not, this was going to be a major problem.

“Now then, let’s you and I talk.”

No deals, Discord!” Her voice cracked a little with the yell.

“Deals? I’m not here to make a deal. You don’t have anything I want, and that’s obviously a goat behind door number three! I’m just here to help you.”

A couch that looked and felt strangely like one of Rarity’s appeared below her, knocking her over and laying her down on it.

The chaos spirit adjusted the thick glasses he was suddenly wearing and flipped through his notepad. “I mean, let’s face it, what’s happened to you recently is more worthy of one of these than anything Rarity’s ever used them for. But you’re never going to accept things if you keep lying to yourself about what your problems are.”

Twilight jumped off the couch and leveled an accusatory hoof at the draconequus. “Accept things? How the buck do you know anything about what I’ve been going through? And for that matter, why do you even care?”

Discord’s laugh was as sinister as ever. “Hehhehheh... Little pony, do you know how many alicorns I’ve killed? How many of their minds I’ve waltzed my way into and twisted beyond recognition? I know you all too well, even without trying. You are an open book to me, Twilight Sparkle. Don’t ever pretend otherwise. As for helping, well, I’m just a generous soul is all.”

“Gee, I don’t see any reason to distrust such a generous soul. By all means, tear my mind to pieces, you hideous freak of nature.”

Discord swooped down and pinched her cheek a little. “Oh, she can be flatly sarcastic! So cute! But we’re getting off topic, and much as I normally might like that, I need you to focus here. What actually scares you about becoming an alicorn? I mean, other than me of course. Is it being forced to be a princess? Hardly.”

Twilight blasted his hand off her face with some magic and shot a few more blasts at him that he unfortunately dodged. “And what would you know about being a princess? All you do is destroy. I’ve been at her side for years, I’ve seen what she has to do. It’s…” a stunning revelation cracked through her mind. “… awful.”

“Isn’t it though? On a pedestal, all alone, only a sister and a sycophantic brat to open up to.”

The mare sat back down. “Why didn’t she…”

“Tell you? She did, in her own way. Still, that’s neither what you are nor what you should be afraid of. Alicorns don’t have to answer to anything. Again, other than me, eventually. If you don’t want her life, you can tell her to shove it and go find a nice tropical beach to lay back on. Maybe make the locals wait on you knee and hoof. I think that’d be fun, at least for a while. Then when it got boring, you could turn them into lemurs.”

A few more blasts zipped past his head.

“Okay, okay! No dominating inferior species, I get it. Party pooper. Still, that’s not the issue here. The physical changes bother you a little, but I honestly can’t understand why. So you’re tall instead of short, and you get wings. You can give yourself wings these days. You don’t need some mystical metamorphosis to do it for you, though granted the butterfly ones aren’t as… majestic.

“Your friends dying is a scary thought, too, but as sad you already are about that you and I both know that you’ll deal with it. It’s not like other ponies don’t deal with loss of elders and friends over time, after all. So what’s really bothering you?”

“The fact that breaking your statue would probably just let you out instead of hurt you,” she responded through grinding teeth.

The God of Chaos gave her a horseapple-eating grin. “I know, delicious irony isn’t it? Frozen but untouchable? Anyway, that’s not quite it either. There are two things in the back of your mind eating at you, one a trifle, one that’s already swallowing your soul without you even knowing it yet. I bet it’s tasty, too. Such a shame that I never got a sample when I had the chance.”

Twilight got up and ran off, her horn alight and a draconequus floating behind her.

“And just where do you think you’re going young lady?”

She fired a few more blasts at him. “I’m going to find a weakness in this spell and get out of here before you drive me crazy!”

“Fine, go on, see if I care. I’ll just be here. Alone. By myself. Oh, boo-hoo.”

Twilight wasn’t about to argue, even if Discord’s response was ominously sarcastic. She just felt the need to run. Turn after turn she ran, probing everywhere with her magic to find some semblance of a weakness to exploit. After making far too many turns to make sense, she saw something that made her stop in her tracks: that same statue.

The voice started up again behind her. “I told you, I’m not letting you leave. Right now, nothing can enter or leave this place without my say so. No such path exists. Do we understand now?”

Twilight nodded, lying. She didn’t really understand, but she didn’t feel the need to. She was far too busy being terrified. Then, just as she was about to scream, that fear that so quickly welled in her mind vanished. She realized all she had to do was trick Discord into letting her out. It wasn’t one of her normal plans, and she couldn’t quite believe she had the stomach to try it, but there it was: a plan.

“Okay, Discord. You win. What am I afraid of, if you think you know me so well?” The confidence in her voice was unexpected, she had tried to sound scared. She simply couldn’t bring herself to.

“Yourself. Oh sure, there’s a little part of you that’s afraid your friends and others will treat you differently, but the truth is you’ve already settled that. You said it yourself, they’re happy for you, and the way you said it tells me things are alright there. As for others, well, you’ve already been a princess within Canterlot. Just because no one called you that directly doesn’t mean that disobeying you wouldn’t have been like disrespecting Celestia. In all but title, in Canterlot you already are Princess Twilight. You’re used to it, you know how to deal with it.

“What you fear more than anything is yourself. You fear you’ll change. You fear what you could become. You fear that you’ll fail. You fear that it will alter your mind and destroy who you are or worse, become a true Nightmare. Am I right?”

He was. She hadn’t quite realized it until it was explained so clearly, not that she’d had much time to think about it at all, but he was right, or at the very least, she was certainly worried about it now. The fact that she was sitting down again should be signal enough for a response, but she nodded anyway.

“Then look. All you need to do is keep calm. If you let your emotions get the better of you, then I get to see a great show! If you don’t, then you’ll treat it just like any other challenge, and it’ll lead to personal growth and… I don’t know, muffins or something. It’s that simple.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Wait, why am I listening to you?” It was a valid question. Listening to Discord was generally considered fairly high on her “list of things to never do under any circumstances ever.”

“Because I’m making sense? Not that it matters. The point is that you know I’m right. Or you could not listen to me and go nuts! It would certainly be more entertaining than what I normally see around here.”

Now she was just getting frustrated. “Whatever. You’ve said what you wanted to say. Just, let me out!”

Discord stood up straight and took an uncharacteristic and clearly mocking bow. “But of course, Your Highness! Just turn around and go straight, left, right, and left to find your beloved Princess, and do tell her I said hello when you get there, won’t you?”

Twilight took a few more shots at him with her magic. He was strangely good at dodging those. “Oh, I’ll tell her,” she said, using a tone that could be easily construed as threatening. “I’ll tell her everything.”

“Please do! I’d love for her to come by and have a nice chat!” The joy in his words wasn’t even sarcastic, which was just worrying. No time for that, though. The spell was obviously lifted as sounds of battle around the castle resumed for her again, and Celestia’s heat could be felt in the distance.

“Since when does Discord help ponies?” she said to herself.

“Hmph. The answer to that should be obvious, my dear,” the voice responded, stopping Twilight in her tracks. “When it’s in my best interest! Heh. Heh heh. Hehehehehehahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!”


Applejack just barely managed to lose to Spike in their race up the dock’s watchtower. “Told ya the elevator was faster,” he said.

“And I told ya I wouldn’t even be winded! So there!”

Thunder cracked overhead to remind them of what was going on. Military pegasi of all colors fought each other with lightning and cutting wings. The ship stayed clear of the docks, its own cannons silent. It was clear they were going for a capture instead of bombardment.

A lightning attack hit the rocks above them and debris narrowly avoided crushing their watchtower. Applejack and Spike looked at each other with a clear thought shared between them: they had no idea what they were doing.

“I really hope I live through this so Granny Smith can kill me somethin’ proper when I get back. Spike!”

“Yeah?”

“Lure one o’ them pegasi in. I’ve got an idea.” Applejack tumbled to the edge of the crow’s-nest-style watchtower and ducked next to the concealing railing.

“Is it a good idea?” Spike asked, scratching his head.

“Not in the least. Got any better plans?”

“Nope. Hey, you!” An enemy pegasus in flight turned to see the dragon. “Come get me, you fat feathered freak!”

The tensed look on Spike’s face communicated that the pegasus took the bait. Applejack figured that she wouldn’t have been able to pull that off as a mere earth pony; they wouldn’t think her a threat. A dragon on the other hand, even a small one, could be trouble with fire breath, as she had already seen.

She waited patiently for a figure to zoom above her, and she didn’t have to wait long. The instant the front hooves came into view, she leapt up with all her might and grabbed on. A mere fraction of an instant later she felt Spike do the same as the pegasus dipped again. Wind rushed past them as the pegasus shook and rolled and climbed and dove trying to get her to loosen her grip. He obviously didn’t know what kind of rodeo pony had just latched on, and it looked as if dragons had fairly good grip with their claws as well.

“Let go!” the pegasus yelled through his furiously flapping wings.

“You let go!” she yelled back. Her mind really wasn’t into snappy quips at the moment as she was trying to wrestle him, only to realize there was no ground to wrestle him down towards. Well, there was, but it was a great distance below them. With a hard pull, she forced him to angle towards the ship. He fought her as best as he could, but it was useless for all but the most athletic of pegasi to resist the strength of an earth pony farmer and iron athlete.

Despite the fierce grip, she only knew how to control his direction. Speed was entirely another matter. The pegasus was drastically increasing his velocity as they dove towards the massive gray airship. A blue pegasus with what seemed to be giant, yellow-colored wings of pure electrical light dove past them, his wings impacting on the shimmering purple barrier around it and putting a crack in it.

The incredibly long ship had massive twin balloons, wrapped together in some kind of armor layer while carrying a huge crew area integrated right into the balloons themselves. The armor seemed to have big holes in it though, and there was not a speck of paint to be found anywhere on the surface. One of the huge engines jutting out from the side was belching smoke, and as she got closer she was relieved that the line of imposing guns along the hull were silent. Getting closer was one of the problems, though.

As an impact seemed inevitable, Applejack screamed and pulled hard on the pegasus to line up with the large doors on the side of the craft that were exposed by the pegasus strike, and prayed for a soft landing in the bay.

Her prayers were partially answered as they all soared into the large hangar, just barely managing to get in through the shield’s opening as it quickly closed after them. Her relief was short-lived, however, as they crashed onto the metal floor immediately thereafter with a resounding “crunch” coming from the pegasus she landed on. Spike and Applejack were both thrown clear after the first hit as they bounced down the bay and skidded towards an open lift. From Applejack’s perspective, said open lift was approaching both of them with no indication of quitting this dastardly behavior.

Tumbling over each other into the open maw of the lift, Applejack instinctively grabbed onto the large chain in the center of it, but couldn’t maintain a full grip as she slid down it, Spike following behind. A moment later, they hit the bottom of the ship with a nice, enemy-alerting “thum” sound. Six armored ponies quickly turned their heads to notice in confusion the strange orange earth pony that seemed to fall from the hangar deck. Their confusion only seemed to increase when a small purple dragon landed next to her with a similar sound. Applejack for her part was every bit as shocked, although not quite as confused.

One of the ponies hit a button and the floor beneath Applejack and Spike began to part to reveal an extremely large drop below them. Spike didn’t hesitate for a moment as he grabbed and tossed her into the pony that hit the button while breathing fire at the rest of them on the other side of the open floor. Seeing a chance to run, Applejack didn’t need further encouragement as the two jumped through doorway after doorway, strangely none with actual doors, towards the aft of the ship.

“Do we know where we’re going?” she yelled at her companion.

“Wherever we can cause the most damage!” he yelled back.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Applejack replied, her mind finding a potentially fatal flaw in this plan. “Where’s that?”

“I dunno, but it’s not where a bunch of ponies like that can get us!”

The dragon had a point.

The two rushed through one more doorway, this one with an actual door, and used some kind of lever that caused the door to close with the sound of a large, heavy lock clicking into place. The two leaned against the door to catch their breath, but froze as they looked behind them, finding a half dozen unicorns and pegasi looking at them in a very large, mostly metal room with two huge, humming cylindrical machines.

She looked around at the confused and somewhat irritated ponies staring at her, and saw that there were more up above her as metal stairs to her right lead up to a second level. Underneath the stairs was a large bin of white-glowing metal spike-like objects. Her powers of observation were good, but her ability to come up with a believable lie was as bad as ever.

“I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this,” Applejack bluffed, not that anypony would believe her. “Spike, would you be so kind as to do the honors?”

“I’d be glad to, m’lady.” Spike had a curiously good Canterlot accent when he wanted one. It was unlikely to help here, but grabbing one of the white metal spike thingamabobs and unleashing a draconic roar just might do the trick.

It almost did, as all the non-unicorns in the room dashed off in a frenzy, stumbling over each other. The two unicorns stood their ground and lit their horns. Spike’s reactions proved a bit faster, however, as a quick intake of breath and some fire later provided a very interesting result. His flame shot right through the metal spike, reacting with it and sending a dramatically larger than normal flame right into the two unicorns.

The two interlopers stood wide-eyed and frozen as the unicorns ran screaming up the stairs, sounds of fire extinguishers coming from the upstairs door.

“What in the hay was that?” Applejack asked.

Spike seemed less confused all of a sudden. “Huh! Solidified magic! I can’t believe I didn’t recognize it! Twilight got a small chunk home before to experiment on it, but this is a way bigger piece. Who knew dragon’s fire would do that? I wond—”

He didn’t get a chance to finish as the piece of magic popped and shook out of his hands. More and much louder pops and bright flashes came from the piece in a faster pace as it scattered around the floor, eventually starting to jump about. It was literally bouncing off the metal walls and denting them when a new, unknown voice from up the stairs shouted, “Containment breach! Abandon ship!” followed by a new siren sounding in their ears.

“Run like the dickens?” Applejack asked.

“Oh yeah,” Spike answered, pulling the lever next to him to unlock the door and scrambling through, Applejack just behind him.

The loud explosions behind them made running difficult as they stepped through doorway after doorway. The two desperately kept looking for a way off the ship as the moved towards the bay doors they had escaped earlier. The gaping hole in the floor technically offered a way off the ship, but little in the way of comfort. Between explosions and empty sky, they chose empty sky and jumped right through the opening.

It turned out to not be that huge an improvement.

Applejack and Spike flailed their limbs around in a screaming panic as the ground below them zoomed in for an eager meeting. Their mouths seemed to be as in sync as their legs.

Catch me Catch me Catch me—”

Two soft impacts knocked the breath out of both of them as they looked up to find a blue pegasus with darker blue hair and a brown fliers’ jacket lifting them back up towards the docks. A quick look back revealed two pegasus wings in a giant envelope of electric yellow light and a smoke and lightning trail behind them.

“Hey, that was a bit dangerous, don’t you think? Storming an enemy ship and then jumping out of it?” a familiar voice asked.

“Hey hey, Soarin! Long time no see, buddy! Thanks for the catch!”

How Spike could say anything right now was utterly beyond Applejack.

“Haha! Not a problem! Couldn’t let Rainbow’s buddies go splat now, could I?”

They landed on what was left of the docks just in time to get knocked on their flanks by a giant explosion from the inside of the ship that tore its rear half asunder. Listing and falling, several subsequent detonations ripped most of the rest of the ship apart and set it alight. Mere moments later, what was left crashed into the base of the extremely steep mountain with a thunderous kaboom.

Applejack, Spike, and Soarin walked up and looked down over the docks at the wreckage as smoke rose from the ship’s new gravesite.

"What in blazes did you two do in there?!” Soarin asked.

“Oh you know, boarded the ship, found their stash of solidified magic, set it on fire, ran like hell out a random door. Nothing too amazing.”

“Are you kiddin’ me!?” Applejack finally regained the ability to speak. “That was downright suicidal!”

“It was your idea!” Spike shot back.

Spitfire’s voice came from behind them as she fluttered down to land. “Damn, I oughta give you two medals or something. That was incredible!”

Her landing effectively signaled the battle’s end as a triumphant cheer came from the soldiers and dockworkers. The enemies were all either dead, captured, or retreating into the sky in a vast panic.

Sore, bruised, exhausted, and half-choked by smoke billowing up from the burning wreck at the bottom of the mountain, Applejack and Spike were both overwhelmed by a feeling of relief and elation as they started laughing and cheering with the dockworkers in spite of their condition. This battle, at least, had been won.

Searing Heights

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Sure enough, Discord’s directions saw Twilight quickly catching up to Celestia’s tormentors, approaching them from behind. She stopped at the stairs leading up to the fight and caught her breath while hiding around the end of the stairwell. The atmosphere was uncomfortably hot, and the plants around her were beginning to burn. The grass at Celestia’s hooves was already consumed by flame. Step by step Celestia backed away from her attackers with her wings spread and rage barely contained in her eyes; the tips of her mane resembled fire more than an aurora. Another step saw one of her wing’s primary feathers barely make contact with a tree. The resulting flames and heat were so intense that the entire thing was consumed into nothing but ash in mere seconds. Her golden shoes and torc were so hot they were glowing. It looked as if they could literally melt off her at any second.

Twilight fretted as she pondered what to do. She didn’t have many spells entirely meant to attack things. Her armor would shield her from telekinetic lifts and attacks, and probably had all kinds of other abilities, but she didn’t know about them and didn’t have a chance to learn about them. Worse, soldiers got training to resist the very same telekinetic attacks. They wouldn’t need fancy armor to defend themselves against that. Even with complete surprise, simple blasts of energy would work at most once, and then she’d have the others on her.

She reached out with her mind, and could feel the charged magic of the unicorns around the corner. There were one, four, six regular unicorns, but they were hard to make out against the incomprehensible magical force that was Celestia. One other, though, was clearly stronger than the regular soldiers, if still dwarfed by the alicorn.

Peeking around the corner she confirmed what her horn was telling her. Seven soldiers, and one of them looked much older and quite strong. In fact, the regular soldiers looked nervous and scared and were taking defensive postures despite having the Princess against a wall. The one, though, was clearly looking for an opening. However, he was also standing much closer to Celestia than the others, so if she could figure out some way to get the others out of the picture they’d at least have a numbers advantage again.

An idea popped into her head. I’m really going to have to learn some new combat spells. I can’t keep relying on this.

She looked up above the battleground, but found no clouds to dive off of. The heat from Celestia must have evaporated them. She was going to have to pull this off while in free-fall. The question was, could she teleport high enough?

A unicorn’s magic could be measured in a lot of ways, but the kinds that most often mattered in a fight were how much they had, how much they could output at once, and how much they could control without it exploding before a spell could be cast. Twilight had good properties on all three, but still couldn’t output more at once than Cadence. She knew this would likely change as she grew, but right now she’d have to rely more on capacity and control.

She hid back around the corner of the stairwell and started summoning her magic. She always had a tendency to hold back when grasping huge quantities of it; this was a natural reaction to the thought of having a powerful spell explode during failure. If she wasn’t holding a lot of power, it couldn’t hurt her. Now wasn’t the time, however, and she struggled with her mind to allow her to build up as much power as she could before being noticed.

Brighter and brighter her horn glowed as she pushed more magic into it. Meanwhile, the atmosphere around her grew hotter and hotter. Princess Celestia must have been shielding her; increasing her own power to mask Twilight’s but also risking a real disaster. Still, this meant that the Princess trusted her; she couldn’t let her down now. With a final summons she reached deep into her soul and broke her mental limits in a bright flash of purple.

She didn’t have much time to hope they hadn’t seen that as she found herself well over two kilometers above the castle.

Her legs flailed as she tried to right herself. This had to be done right, and strangely, panic never entered her mind. Slowly, she started forming the white horseshoes on her hooves. This was made harder by the need to be on target. She had to form the horseshoes, steer herself towards the enemies, and prepare the teleportation spell again all at once.

The wind this high up above a mountain was fierce and repeatedly tried to throw her off course. If she had wings this would be much, much easier. The air buffeted her from different directions as she fell, twisting and turning her body to try to stay on a target she was too high up to fully see. Pieces of the horseshoes peeled off as she fell, and it took even more concentration to repair them.

About five hundred meters up she finally got sight of her target again and completed the spell. Leaning forward, she felt the air shift her course right for her target. The dots had all gathered in a circle, possibly to not be surprised by wherever she had been teleported to. One hundred meters up, it became clear to her that this would be the best favor they could have done her.

With a direct impact in the middle of the circle, she teleported at the last possible second and sent the enemies flying. Her ears rattled with the sound of thunder as the air came rushing back into where she wound up, soon followed by the tinkling sound of falling glass from shattered windows. She stood up slowly, finding herself in a crater larger than the last two, and took her time to pick her way out of it as the dust cleared.

When she pulled herself up, she recognized two sources of magic, one much more powerful than the other. As the dust cleared, one particular and very large gray pony was revealed as Celestia’s light shown behind him. Somehow, the big one had survived.

“Good show, Ms. Sparkle!” the traitor spoke. “I’d expect nothing less from somepony who’s supposed to be the next alicorn.”

Buck me, her internal voice yelled as confirmation that her enemies knew what was happening to her rolled across the lips of this towering hostile. Wait… That’s General Towers! The military is in on this?! No, not the whole military, or the attack would be much larger and we’d definitely have seen it coming. He must just have his own division, maybe even less than that.”

The General turned towards her and walked forward slowly but confidently. Twilight steeled herself to confront this thing that now threatened her. It was surprisingly easy. Her whole body called out for her to just attack, but she quelled it. There was still a chance to end this peacefully.

“General Towers, I recognize you. Fifth in a line of generals, hailed as a master of defensive tactics. Ruining your legacy to start a coup? Did Discord put you up to this?” The possibility was there but didn’t seem likely to her for some reason.

His laugh was almost as powerful as Luna’s, and strangely warm for a traitor. “No, no, nothing of the sort. I simply felt that it is time for stronger leadership. Leaders who can actually protect our citizens, rather than supposedly all-powerful alicorns that fail at it time and again. Many others have felt the same way, and a few have asked me to facilitate the transition. This has been coming for years. I just saw an opportunity to strike first.

“Now, that all said, it is a shame you weren’t in your tower, my dear. Unfortunately this means I have to perform this dreadful business myself.”

Twilight’s rage struggled to break free from her containment. She’d never felt anything like this before. The guards being killed today were ponies she knew. She was always kind to them and her majesty’s servants, and in turn they were kind to her. They liked her, she liked them, and this monster was killing them for his own ends.

Right then and there, her boiling rage and need to protect her ponies took over, and she decided that this monster wasn’t a pony anymore.

“Now then, it’d be a shame for one such as yourself to suffer. Please lie down. This will be over quickly.” General Towers was apparently a wordy one, not that Twilight was one to talk.

“I was about to say something similar to you, General.” Celestia startled both with her words, spoken in a perfectly calm, flat tone as the fire around her increased. “Twilight’s in her armor, and Luna is on the attack. Either one spells your doom; both just means it’ll be over much faster.”

“I’m immune to your mind control, Celestia. I would have thought that should be obvious by now. Moreover, since you haven’t attacked yet, it’s plain and obvious you realize I have the upper hoof. I intend to make use of that.” There might have been other words from Towers’ mouth after that, but Twilight didn’t hear it as a powerful explosive spell sent from his horn hit her on her side and shot her back and beyond the stairwell she was hiding behind. It felt like dying, despite whatever the armor might have done to lessen the blow.

She laid there, limp. Her body was reporting all manner of problems. She might even have had internal bleeding. Then, as quickly as the blast came, her vision became purple and the pain vanished as a flame enveloped her whole body. Slowly, she commanded her body to ignore the prior hit and rose to her hooves one at a time as her lungs heaved air in and out of her body.

At first, she thought the flames were the attack spell being dispersed, but now she knew. These were her emotions, expressed as the magic around her resonated with her heart and ignited the atmosphere. The waves of rage and devotion were more intense than anything she’d ever felt, save for her admiration of Celestia, and they were all coming to one final conclusion: Towers had just made his last mistake.

One hoof in front of the other, she turned. Hoof in front of hoof, she moved slowly up the stairs and back to the battle. As she did so, she could see out of the corner of her eyes that Celestia’s visage was calm and gazing at her, while Towers’ was slowly turning to her, his own face that of fear. A primal, natural fear. One that could only be seen when facing an angry alicorn, possibly even only while facing an angry alicorn that was on fire. Whatever technique he was using to resist Celestia, it clearly wasn’t working with her.

She hadn’t yet ascended, but her magic was much greater than Towers’. She could see that now. Her vision had changed into something else entirely. The ground was lit with damaged and eroded symbols, the wards of the castle eroded from the sheer pressure of Celestia’s magic. Lines of energy flowed around Towers as they sought out attacks; an impressive magical shield, but still far inferior to her brother’s. Strands of light and magic rushed into the air in the distance as magical attacks were set off by others in battle. Finally, just to the left of Towers was nothing but the burning, all-encompassing light; a luminary force beyond anything she’d ever witnessed. It was right there, but didn’t blind her or make her flinch. It only served as notice to the differences between alicorns and unicorns, or, at the very least, the difference between Celestia and Towers.

Her vision returned to normal as she pulled the magic back into her hooves, compressing and banishing the flames around her yet again with a modified spell to increase their effective mass instead of decrease it, all the while rushing towards the one causing her ponies so much pain. Towers levitated a spear toward her, but she knocked it away with an enchanted hoof. The spell activated at the moment of impact, and for an instant it gave her hoof as much mass as a large boulder, cracking the spear in two and sending the pieces flying.

She kept pressing the advantage of surprise and shock. The next hit came as she swung around to face the other direction and sent both rear hooves into his side. She barely even felt the resistance as her attack flew through it; the field had shattered the instant she made contact. Even his enchanted armor cracked and buckled from the blow, allowing almost all of the kinetic energy to be transferred right into Towers’ side. The strike sent the elder pony flying horizontally into the wall to force him to absorb a second impact on his opposite side, cracking not only his armor but the stone in the wall as well.

She quickly strode over to the body, only to realize the old coot was still breathing. “Time to fix that,” she thought, stomping her front left hoof on his shoulder, burning it with her spell and lighting her horn. She focused more and more power into it, making sure her next attack would work.

“Twily! Twily, what are you doing!?”

The voice was familiar but couldn’t be that important. Still, there was time to answer. “Ending this creature,” she replied with a voice she wasn’t quite sure was hers.

“Don’t do it, Twily! Please!”

A blue field appeared around the traitor as she stepped back. It was strong, and familiar, but she could get through it. Then she noticed the shape it was taking. A deep blue shield, with a purple star burst center.

“Shining?” she turned and felt the emotions die down, new ones taking their place. There he was, Prince Shining Armor, her brother, with eyes begging her to stop. She stopped her spell in its tracks, letting it fade safely.

“Yeah, it’s me, Twily! Calm down, you got him. We got ’em. They’re retreating. We won.”

She looked back down at the broken general and nearly lost a substantial portion of her lunch. She was about to utterly annihilate him. There wouldn’t have been anything left from that blast.

Her knees shook, and her constitution failed her as she dropped to the ground and started to cry, only noticing the warm aura of her mentor, accompanied by her even warmer voice.

“Yes, Twilight. That’s what I felt too. What all alicorns feel in such situations. Our ponies are precious to us, always. Things that try to hurt them, even when they are ponies themselves, get the focus of our unrivaled ire. I have to keep it in check more than anypony; it’s what summons my flames.”

Her response was whisper quiet, her vocal cords refusing anything greater. “I was going to kill him. I was going to kill them all.”

Her brother snapped her up in a warm embrace. She didn’t feel like she deserved it, but, at the same time, she couldn’t refuse it. She needed it, the nerves in her body were threatening to reject her stomach’s contents unless she took the comforting affection. “Hey, hey it’s ok Twily,” the most comforting non-princess being in the world said.

“How do you do it? How do you manage to keep your calm in the face of… of… all this? How can do you not go insane from it?” she asked through sobs.

Celestia took tentative steps towards her student. Though her regalia had stopped glowing, Twilight could still feel her radiant heat increase with each second she was getting closer. Even the air around her was distorted from the temperature. “Practice. Meditation. Now that you’ve experienced it, I promise you’ll find it easier to control from here on out.”

“Easier to control?!” She broke the hug and turned to her in a mix of anger and fear. “I don’t want to ‘control’ it! I don’t want it to happen at all! I almost killed somepony! How can anypony trust me? How could you trust me?!”

Celestia laid down in the charred grass, spreading ash into the air. “Because I’ve been there before. I know what it was like, what I was like, and I know you. I know you’ll be able to control it now that you know what you’re up against, and unlike me, you won’t burn everything just from feeling it. That’s a challenge only I am burdened with. Trust me, we will help you.”

Twilight stared at her intently. She was looking for something, but she wasn’t sure what. She gazed desperately into Celestia’s eyes, face, wings, body, anything that might give her the feeling of security she needed.

“Okay, I’ll trust you,” she finally said, while her mind kept worrying to itself. But is that just the submission instinct?

Celestia stood back up. “I know this is hard for you. After things settle I’ll give you a few days to simply rest and recuperate. I’m sorry for putting you through so much, but believe me when I say that encountering these emotions with experience can make a world of difference. Better yet, they won’t happen all the time for you until much later.”

An unpleasant and recent memory sprang to life in Twilight’s mind. “Princess! Discord! After I saved Cadence he talked to me in the gardens, trapped me in some kind of spell!”

Shining raised a hoof to his head. “Discord!? Please tell me you’re joking…”

“Heavens Above! Did he hurt you?” the sun mare asked.

“He said he wanted to help me. Told me to keep calm, then let me out. Even gave me directions here.”

The white alicorn sat down and lit up her horn while spreading her wings. Twilight could feel a pulse of magic spread out from the Princess’ horn, and after a moment she could see Celestia exhale in relief as her wings folded back up.

“It’s ok, he’s still sealed. The wards around him just weakened a little, probably from the fighting. I’ll deal with it later.”

“That’s kinda what he said you would do,” Twilight said without thinking.

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he said to tell you so you and he could have a ‘chat.’”

Celestia raised a hoof to her mouth for a moment, then put it back down and stood up. “Then I’ll send Luna instead, but later. We have other things to worry about.”

“Tell me about it,” Shining said. “He went right for Twily’s tower. He must’ve known about the ascension. We need to find out how far this has spread.”

“He did,” Twilight said, solemnly, before blinking in realization. “Wait, you know about that too?”

Shining pulled her into another hug, causing her to lean over a bit uncomfortably. “Who do you think created the team in charge of protecting you? Of course I knew.”

That was right; the ponies in the war room knew, and her brother was Captain of the Royal Guard. He’d have the highest security clearance. She started to shed tears of happiness as he released her. Shining Armor, always there for her.

“Everypony okay over here?” That voice could only belong to the Captain of the Wonderbolts herself, which was confirmed when the source got out of the sun and landed. “I saw some magic flash over here and—Twilight?” The cyan pegasus took in the scene. “Whoa. Damn. Good job, Princess! This guy is a wall booger.”

Twilight’s lunch was now storming the gates of her esophagus, and it was a minor miracle it didn’t break through.

“Rainbow, that was Twilight,” Celestia said, flatly.

A loud whistle emanated from Rainbow just after her eyes moved back over to Twilight. “Remind me never to get in a fight with you, Twi.”

Another voice joined in as Luna arrived, flanked by six of her honor guard. “Sister! They broke into our private library! The first few bookcases near the front are empty!”

Celestia facehooved a little. “Did they get any others?”

“No, we caught them before they could get away with more. Two are still trapped inside, we’ve got them cornered.”

“At least they didn’t get the most dangerous documents in the back. Unfortunate though this is, we have other concerns right now. Luna, I need you to have two of your guards take that—” she pointed towards the still-breathing general, “—to the infirmary. I want him alive. Send the rest to find and protect Cadence. We can’t afford to lose her.”

She motioned at them and they went right to work. “Well, um, there was something else…” The tone of her voice had everypony looking at her in an instant. “The Elements of Harmony have been stolen!”

What?!” The reply was universal.


The most powerful magical artifacts in history, locked away in the most secure and sturdy of vaults. Only once had it been penetrated, and that was by the god of chaos himself. Yet here the vault lay, crumbled to pieces by some unknown force, and its contents had been completely raided. This remained as a mystery to the two alicorns, the alicorn-to-be, the pegasus, and the unicorn.

“How could they have breached the vault? Nothing short of Discord could even get into this room, let alone just break it like this! This just isn’t possible!”

“I share your frustration, Twily, but right now those aren’t the questions we need to be asking ourselves.” Shining said.

Twilight stood silent for a moment, thinking with her jaw still dropped open at the destruction in front of her.

“Yeah, right now we need to be asking who I ought to be frying to get them back,” Rainbow concurred.

Celestia authoritatively strode from the side to the center of the room. “I believe, Rainbow, you mean to ask who took them and where, and maybe even why. Three more questions on top of a mountain of others.”

“‘Why’ is an excellent question.” Prince Armor’s voice was nearly as commanding as the Princess’s. “The Elements can only be used by their bearers, and even then don’t activate unless the situation is dire. If they were stolen, we have to consider and assume that whoever did take them had a need for them beyond merely depriving us of their availability.”

Celestia nodded in agreement. “This is true, and I’m certain we’ll find that out eventually. For now, though, we have other worries. Prince Armor, get the castle secured and capture any hostiles you can, then let the ponies of Canterlot know the situation is under control and get your shield up on the city. Call up military reserves while we’re at it.”

“On it, your highness.”

Shining always did have impressive speed with his long legs, but the quickness with which he ran off still surprised Twilight.

“Luna, send more guards to Ponyville, make sure all of Twilight’s friends are safe, and pay a visit to Discord. He had a little ‘chat’ with Twilight. Fix his seal.”

“Discord’s seal is weak?!”

Luna didn’t even run; she just disappeared. No flash, no smoke, not even the magical disturbance normally brought on by teleportation. I need to find out how she does that, Twilight thought.

“Captain Rainbow Dash?”

“Yes, Princess?”

“Kneel.”

“Huh? Oh, right.”

That caught Twilight off guard, too. Why is she having her kneel? For that matter, shouldn’t Rainbow have arrived with her whole unit? How’d she even know to come?

With a snap, Celestia spread out her wings. “I need you to repeat after me. ‘For my life I hereby swear…’”

“For my life I hereby swear…”

This sounds familiar somehow… Twilight thought.

“‘My Sovereign’s will shall bind me’…”

“My Sovereign’s will shall bind me…”

This is the Honor Guard’s oath! Is she inducting Rainbow Dash into her Honor Guard? This doesn’t sound right…

“‘Through strength of body, will of mind, depth of soul…’”

“Through strength of body, will of mind, depth of soul…”

She can’t just rip Rainbow away from the job she loves! I’m going to have to protest this…

“‘For eternity I pledge all this to thee…’”

“For eternity I pledge all this to thee…”

Come on, Princess! Stop! Don’t make me argue with you at a time like this…

“‘Twilight Sparkle.’”

“Twilight Sparkle.”

“Wait, what!?” The exclamation flowed from both mares, and the Princess didn’t miss a beat.

“Congratulations, Rainbow Dash. You are now the first member of our new Grand Mage’s Honor Guard. Traditionally, they get two, but you’re the only one I can think of that would be suited for her for now. Whenever she leaves this castle, you will go where she goes, do as she orders, and protect her with your life. Understand?”

Rainbow looked at Twilight and back at the Princess. “Umm… no?”

“Doesn’t matter. Twilight, fill her in and head to our private library once it’s clear. Go to the back wall. On a podium on the right, you will find three large books: one blue, one red, one green. Take them to Luna’s room and read them; they’ll be a, shall we say, abridged training of sorts for you until we have time to do it directly. Then, go to the War Room and ask your brother to fill you in. He’ll know what you’re talking about. I have to go and make sure civilization doesn’t collapse tonight.”

The white alicorn vanished in a burst of light, leaving two very confused ponies.

“What just happened?” asked the rainbow maned one.

“I think I know, but… I’ll explain on the way. Come on, we need to get to the Princesses’ library.”


“Foul creature. Can you hear me?”

Nothing. The statue stood still.

“Fine, that will make resealing you easier.”

“Oh, so it’s going to be like that? No lovely chat with Celestia? I’m disappointed.”

Ah, so it could indeed speak. Luna started the spell as she talked, walking slowly around the statue. “No, you get me this time. Honestly, I’ve been eager to finally speak to you behind your cage. You killed an awful lot of my ponies. Seems only fitting to taunt you a little.”

“Aha! Well, maybe this will be more fun than I thought. I always figured you for the stuffy type.”

Luna raised a hoof to her chest. “You insult me! I am the alicorn of the night! Romance, intrigue, mystery! I’m all the things too exciting for the day. Just because you have a hard time reading alicorn minds directly doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think harder about your master, demon.”

“Master? Oh, that is rich! You are no master, my dear. Not like I know.”

“Hmm… ‘Not like you know.’ So you're saying you do have a master!”

“… You’re no fun anymore.”

“Ah, but it’s only now getting interesting. Celly really should have had me do your interrogation last time. This is certainly more information than we had before. So tell me, who is this master of yours, so I might trap him too?”

“Beyond your feeble understanding.”

“I suppose that’s enough of that topic for now. I’m much more concerned about what you told Twilight.” Luna turned her gaze back down to the ground, looking again at the forming seal and the purple symbols on the ground, arranged in a growing half circle.

“That little thing? I don’t know what you see in her, but I just gave her some friendly advice, that’s all.”

“It had better be just ‘friendly advice,’ or when I’m through with you, you’ll be begging me to put you back in this prison.”

“You? With me? Did we forget who we’re talking to?”

Luna chuckled a bit and added a few new symbols to the seal. “Did you forget what happened last time you got out? You were so weak you could barely take over Ponyville, and then some young mares shoved you right back in your cage like a lost little bird. The only reason Celestia didn’t incinerate you was because it’d hurt her ponies, and the only reason I didn’t destroy you was because I was still recovering from getting hit with the Elements myself. Had I been at full strength as I am now, I would’ve made you my plaything before crushing your head like a particularly distasteful melon. Remember that.”

“Ha! What’s to remember? You’re an amateur at this! Don’t try to get me angry enough to slip up, you miserable little brat. You got lucky once, but that will be it. Remember, I’m the only true immortal here.”

Drat, he saw through her attempt. Oh well, she could still insult him a bit. “Oh, you sound so angry, but your face looks so scared. Why, it looks like you might just be able to serve as a drinking fountain if we installed a little water pump.”

Silence answered her.

“What’s the matter? Silly little ageless mortal make you at a loss for words with her barbs?”

Still no response.

“Awww, and I was having such fun.” A bright flash at the ground and a complete circle signaled the completion of the spell.

“That’s it?” the voice returned. “One layer? Really? That’s what you’re putting me behind? Looks like you did forget who you’re talking to. Now it’s my turn to be insulted.”

“You and I never interacted much beyond fighting and sending armies at each other, so it makes sense you don’t know me well.” Luna got up to leave. “And Celestia was always the one guarding your seal. She would never dream of letting anypony else near you. I’m happy she let me do this, finally; it shows her trust.”

At a calm walk, Luna turned away from the statue as the sky went black and an almost evil grin surfaced on her face. “But it also means you’ve never been subjected to one of my seals.”

At her statement, the circle began to ripple outward, until thirteen glowing rings enveloped Discord. They repeated themselves into the sky again and again, growing every brighter and more powerful with each passing second. At last, they all came rushing down onto the statue. As the day came slowly creeping back into the blue canvas overhead, they connected together.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Luna put a small dance into her step. “Ah, sweet music.”

State of the Union

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“So why do they need their own library anyway?”

The two mares walked down a very steep circular staircase with a magical cylinder of light in the center. The walls, ceiling, steps and floors were old, creaky wood; a clear indication of the incredible age of the steps. Two flights down, they had come across an old, ransacked desk next to a broken wooden door leading into the library. Twilight had only been in here twice before, both under escort by the Princess herself.

“This isn’t a normal library, Rainbow. Every text in here contains knowledge that is either forbidden or classified. Some of it impossibly old and very, very dangerous. Only a scant few ponies have ever been allowed in here. It’s a great honor!”

The reports had been right. As they stepped into the long, wide corridor into the mountain, it was plain to see the books nearest the door were rifled through or missing. Somepony was looking for something. Hooves and boots clopped on stone floors as the surrounding environment became gray stone lit by enchanted torches. Four columns of bookcases stretched dozens of rows deep.

“Yeah, the Grand Mage thing. Care to explain this again? Because I’m having a bit of trouble comprehending everything you just told me. Alicorn, seriously?”

Twilight stopped and sat down, the cold of the stone floor muted by her armor. “I had trouble believing it myself. I stood on a cloud without a cloud-walking spell, Rainbow. I never knew that could be so…”

“Awesome?”

“Scary!”

“Oh,” Rainbow said, looking dejected.

“Don’t take it personally, Rainbow. This has just been all very trying for me. Well, sort of. Oh, this is just so frustrating!” It was fortunate hooves couldn’t grip hair too well, or she might’ve pulled some of her mane out. Instead, she just pressed them against her head in a vain attempt to use pressure to ease the headache. Rainbow’s gentle hoof on her back did a much better job.

“Hey now, it’ll be fine. If the Princess says it’ll be ok, I have faith in her.”

Twilight sighed. “I know, it’s just… this whole ‘alicorn’ thing is completely screwing with my emotions. Things that should shock or terrify me are just making me feel more resolute. The next moment, some little thing goes wrong and I panic. It’s like I’m feeling things more than ever, but some of what I should be feeling is over-ridden by a different feeling. And now I’m saying ‘feeling’ too much and it’s making me angry!”

“Relax! I’m here now, so things can only get more awesome. And I’ll be here as long as you need me.”

Twilight shook her head. “Rainbow, I can’t possibly pull you away from the Wonderbolts. Don’t worry, I’ll talk with the Princess and—”

“No, honestly, don’t worry about that. I’m here for you.”

“But you loved—”

“Being a Wonderbolt. Best job ever. Wonderbolts’ Captain? Worst job ever. I’d rather pluck out my feathers and take Rarity’s job.”

Twilight stared at Rainbow with her mouth hanging open. “Worst job ever? But you wanted that job! It was your dream to make Captain! The best flier in Equestria, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember. And do you know what being Captain means? It means I went from being a flier to being a manager. I barely used my wings at all. I did nothing but listen to whining about flight time, fill out mountains of paperwork, attend meetings, it was… ugh. No, that wasn’t my dream. My dream was to be the best, and I made it. Now, you need the best, and that’s me, so I’m here.”

“Rainbow… are you really sure? This has already gotten very dangerous. I mean, lethally dangerous. Neither of us might survive this, and I don’t know if I could forgive myself if something happened to you.”

Rainbow sighed exasperatedly and facehooved. “Look. See these?” Rainbow spread out her wings to their fullest, and small bits of smoke and rainbow lightning crackled between the feathers.

“… Yes?” Twilight tilted her head for a moment and caught herself again, un-tilting it.

“Ever really think about what these mean to pegasi? The whole meaning? Why we tend to be aggressive and live in the moment? Fluttershy not included?”

Twilight looked Rainbow up and down with her eyes very quickly while her mind drew a blank. “You can control air currents?”

Rainbow shook her head.

“You can survive big falls by magically bracing yourself? Shape and disperse clouds?”

Rainbow raised an eyebrow and began to look impatient.

“Yoooouuuuu can dispense and project lightning by manipulating micro-air currents and static electricity around your primary feathers and dynamically create thick but short-lived clouds using magically enhanced contrails thanks to advanced military training?” Twilight said, sheepishly shrinking herself down.

“Ugh.” Rainbow facehooved again. “Alicorns are immortal. Pegasi…”

Oh…” The stark reality was staring her right in the face the entire time. Pegasi had fast metabolisms and generally died sooner than unicorns or earth ponies, even when they weren’t killed by flying accidents. A unicorn mare might live to be a hundred sixty, or more if they were exceptionally powerful, while a pegasus stallion would be lucky to see ninety.

“Look, Twi. I’m not going to live very long, that’s just what happens to pegasi like me. The daredevils. If I don’t go out in a blaze of glory, I’ll either die from a mid-air cramp in my seventies, or wither away on a cloud somewhere. I realized this as a filly and nearly lost it. Then one of the instructors took me aside and told me that it doesn’t matter if your life is going to be short, as long as you make it that much brighter. So that’s what I’ve done, and that’s why no matter what’s ahead, I’m ready for it.”

“Rainbow… Thank you.” Twilight gripped Rainbow in a hug the pegasus clearly wasn’t ready for as she stiffened up.

“Don’t mention it. Seriously, I don’t want ponies finding out I’m all philosophical. It’d ruin my reputation.”

Rainbow tried to push her away, but Twilight just held on tighter. “Rainbow, I need you to promise me something.”

“Uuuhhhh you aren’t about to ask me out or something are you? ‘Cause you’re great and all, but—”

That got Twilight to give up the hug. “What? No! No, I meant…” she sighed. “Look, Wonderbolts have military training, right?”

Rainbow nodded. “Full boot camp, then Bolts combat training, then show training. Why do you think I can keep my cool after being told my friend is an alicorn? I mean, that’s kinda freaky!” she said, chuckling. “Anyway, only the few that get through it all actually make into the division. Most don’t get through the first week of the Bolts combat camp.” A not very subtle hint of ego was in her voice.

“So you’re trained to stay calm when you fight, right? And you’ve been trained to know when to use lethal force and when not to?”

“Of course.”

Twilight looked down at the ground as her mane fell over her shoulder in a sag. “Rainbow, I nearly killed that pony earlier.”

Rainbow nodded again in a smile, patting her on the shoulder. “I know! That looked like a serious beating, and against a general! I’m impressed!”

No!” Twilight put Rainbow’s hoof down with her magic instinctively. “Rainbow, I mean after that! I was going to execute him with enough magic to destroy half the gardens! I didn’t even know I could summon or control that much power, and I couldn’t stop myself! If Shining hadn’t been there to talk sense into me, you'd have followed a mushroom cloud instead of a flash of magic!”

Rainbow eyes got wide but she said nothing as Twilight put both her front hooves on Rainbow’s shoulders. “I need you to promise me to keep me under control, no matter how bad things get. If I’m about to do something like that again, you have to stop me. No matter what.”

Moments passed as Rainbow looked into her eyes, and Twilight’s mind raged with all kinds of possible negative outcomes. Rainbow running, yelling at her, not wanting to be friends. It was absolutely insane to expect that of Loyalty herself, but Twilight’s high-strung and distressed mind couldn’t help it.

It was Twilight’s turn to stiffen on instinct as Rainbow took her into a hug, and she heard the words “You can count on me. Always.”

Twilight relaxed and shared the hug, shedding a few tears. When they finally broke it, no thank yous were even needed as they recovered, stood up, and starting walking again towards the back of the library. “Come on, let’s go find these books. I need to get back to Luna’s room anyway, Spike and Applejack were hiding up there when the coup started.”

Rainbow took a sharp breath in realization. “That’s right! I get to rub it in AJ’s face that me and Fluttershy were right!”

“Rainbow… you thought that too? That Celestia had a destiny for me?”

“Yup! She always knew the Princess had some big plan for ya. Wouldn’t make sense otherwise, really. Whoa, I think we’re here.”

Just as the Princess had said, there were three books laying on a wood podium. Bright torch light illuminated the small alcove, and above the podium hung three paintings: one of each of the former Grand Mages.

Twilight quickly levitated the books over to her and split them open, randomly and quickly switching between them as she read.

“Anything interesting, oh Grand Mage of Equestria?”

“Rainbow, these are the personal memoirs of the Grand Mages! Uncensored! All their travels and missions… There’s even spells here! Spells they wrote!

“So this is what she meant by ‘training.’”

“I guess so.” She pulled all three into a bundle with her magic. “Alright, mission accomplished. Let’s get to Luna’s chambers. AJ and Spike should still be there, safe and sound.”


“Whoa. This place is—”

“Spooky, yeah, I know.” Twilight rather unceremoniously dropped the books on the bed and brightened the surrounding candles with magic.

Applejack! Spike! Are you guys okay?”

Twilight’s yells up at the ceiling were met with no response. “This doesn’t make sense, I told them to… oh, I told them to wait if they wanted to.”

“Uh, Twi? Where and why are you yelling?” Rainbow looked very confused.

“Oh, sorry, the ceiling is an illusion. It’s really a cloud. I put a cloudwalking spell on them and teleported them up there,” Twilight explained.

“Oh. So they’re still stuck up there.”

“Nah, we got out.”

Twilight exhaled in relief. “Oh, thank goodne—”

Twilight’s mind had its transmission skip a gear as she realized the voice came from behind her and turned around to see a bruised and slightly burned Applejack next to a nervous-looking Spike and a third figure behind them.

“Soarin? What are you doing here?” Rainbow asked as the three beings walked into the room.

“Well, Spitfire and I were just coming in to save the day when we spotted these two falling from an exploding airship. Seems they blew it up from the inside. Without an escape path.” Twilight noted that Soarin, apparently, had a prideful streak much like Rainbow Dash.

“Uhh heh heh. Yeah, Soarin kind of saved our hides,” Spike said. “Still, it was awesome, there was this huge battle at the dockyard, and Applejack and I rode a bad guy onto this huge blimp and then—”

“Wait, wait, wait… let’s start at the beginning.” Twilight didn’t want to hear something like this. It meant the battle on the grounds was even larger than she thought. “In fact, much as I want to crawl back into that bed, I think we all need to get caught up on everything first. Let’s get to the War Room. The books can come later.” Twilight really never liked saying that phrase, but felt that in this case it was the truth. She teleported the books up to the study for safekeeping and led her ‘team’ out the door.


Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Spike, Soarin, and the ever-fearless Rainbow Dash moved through the portal into the War Room, where it almost looked as if an actual war was taking place. Papers and ponies were everywhere, as was the incessant noise. In the center of it, a prince with an obviously strained voice was barking orders in the Royal Canterlot fashion. Once he saw the group, he motioned for them to follow him rather than yell more.

After moving down the corridors to the opposite side of the floor, he opened a door at the rear and held it for them with magic as they filed in. The noise didn’t stop until the door slammed shut.

The room was large and connected to the rest of the war room by a several-meter long hallway. Facing the doorway was a desk with Shining’s name on a placard, and behind that was a huge map table with a giant map of all of Equestria on the wall behind it. The large map had most of the major population centers labelled with different colors and some numbers next to each city name.

“Oh, it’s a disaster out there, Twily. But thank you for saving Cadence. She’s eventually going to be mad at me for not rushing to her rescue right away, but the truth is we were all caught off guard with this,” he finally said once he could talk normally.

“She’ll come around, I’m sure. She handled herself pretty well, considering.” Twilight’s calm voice was almost a lie. She too was relieved to hear Cadence had managed to escape harm, but somehow she knew the winged unicorn would make it.

“Intelligentsia has finally pieced together what’s happened in general but we’re left running damage control and specific reports are still coming in. We’re going to lose territory to the griffons over this, I just know it. At least Canterlot is safe for now.”

Twilight nodded in agreement. “It certainly is chaotic out there. How did this even happen? I mean, what kind of general attacks his own leaders?”

Shining looked around the room for a moment and sighed. “Look, I’ll be happy to explain, but first know that everything you’re about to hear is absolutely top secret. Nothing leaves this room, and I mean that, Applejack.”

The entire room’s eyes turned to the suddenly very self-conscious mare. “What?” she said. “I can keep a secret, dangit!”

“Alright, but Celestia might want to put a charm on you just in case. Fair warning.”

Applejack folded her forelegs and grumbled.

“Okay, here it is. Right now, the government—Celestia’s government—is about five years from total collapse.”

For the next few small moments, the entire room stood in stunned silence.

“It started with Nightmare Moon, when Celestia disappeared. Discord made things worse, and after the changelings, we started having towns on the border between the griffons and Equestria actively consider defecting to griffon control. They’re worried Celestia can’t protect them, that she’s too weak.”

“That’s crazy!” Applejack interjected.

“They’re half right.” Twilight interjected right back. “Celestia can’t protect them, but that’s because she’s too strong. I was there when Towers confronted her. Everything around her was on fire, and she wasn’t even using any magic. If she fights, absolutely everything anywhere even near her burns. Plants, ponies, friends, enemies; everything.” She turned back to Shining. “But why lead a coup over it?”

Shining sighed. “Because she’s weak. Or at least looks weak. Ponies look for strong leadership, and if it’s lacking, those that think themselves strong will try to fill what they see as a power vacuum, usually to benefit only themselves. That’s what happened here. We’ve already identified three nobles that helped bankroll Towers, and they’re on the run but we really, really doubt they’re the true leaders. Stuff like this happens, the ones in control look for fall stallions. Other groups we’re already aware of have similar goals, and we’ve been keeping them suppressed for ages. Towers, or rather, whoever was giving him orders, was the first to get this far without us noticing.”

“Nobility. It makes sense; anypony trying something this huge would have to have an awful lot of money to piss away,” Soarin said.

“It gets worse. If Towers was in on it, they had vast access to our military secrets. Some of his men had magic armaments that we’re still not ready to roll out.”

“Oh!” Rainbow interrupted. “That reminds me! On the way here, I got jumped by a couple pegasi with weird armor. It glowed blue and gave them a lot of speed. Heh, not that it did them any good.”

“You too?” Soarin asked. “Spitfire and I both got jumped like that. Looks like they underestimated the Wonderbolts.”

Shining chuckled a bit. “I’m glad they did. Wonderbolts are among the most dangerous regular combatants we have, outside of Luna. We can’t afford to lose any, especially after losing the Bellerophon.”

“Bellerophon?” Spike asked.

“That big ship you two blew up. Good job on that, by the way. You too, Applejack. I would’ve liked to take it back, but better rubble than being used against us.”

“That thing was a monster,” Soarin said. “I hit it with my wings again and again and just made it glow more. What the hell was shielding it?”

“A shield generator designed to mimic the barrier I use for Canterlot. The whole thing was meant to be a show of force against the gryphons, and be able to transport Celestia around. We’re guessing they wanted to capture the dock intact, otherwise they would’ve vaporized it well before you two got there to warn them.” Noise penetrated into the room for a moment as the door opened and closed. “Fifty million bits down the bucking drain.”

“Maybe not.” Intelligentsia nearly pranced into the room. “We just got a report in from Spitfire. The Bellerophon is still in its dock. Its engines aren’t even done yet. Guess what that means!”

The eyes on Twilight and Shining Armor went wide for a moment.

Shining went first. “Towers must have stolen the plans! They didn’t steal the ship, they copied it! Must’ve been a hell of a rush job, and cost them a huge amount of money. They’d have had to have built a dock and the ship, all while handing out enough bribes to keep it quiet. It also means that this is deeper than we thought, with more money behind it.”

Twilight continued. “A large portion of which is now a giant flaming wreck, though, right? That kind of effort is also hard to hide; they might have screwed up. We can use materials purchases and money transfers to track that! And we still have the real ship!”

Intelligentsia grinned. “You’re a natural at this. I already got ponies on the tracking. Finally, some good news, right? But it gets better. Seems this whole thing was a rush job; they weren’t supposed to try this for months. Towers only attacked because he knew our Twilight here was ascending. He’s left us more than a few clues, and, more good news, he survived, albeit barely.”

Twilight exhaled a massive a sigh of relief.

“Yup, he’s going to be in intensive care for a while, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a statue shortly after that, but he made it.”

“Wait.” Rainbow interrupted. “That statue thing. That’s a joke… right?”

“Of course, Rainbow! The Princess would never do that, well, except for Discord. Right, Shiny?” Twilight looked at her brother who just put on a nervous face.

“Shining. Shining Armor. That IS just a rumor, right?”

Nervous looks were being worn by half the ponies in the room, with shock from most of the rest. Twilight just had a very large twinge of irritation. “Shining Armor, answer me!

Shining took a dry swallow. “Sorry, Twily. Some of those statues are…”

The rest of the words didn’t need to be said.

“I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Whoa,” Spike added. “Frozen forever as a statue…”

“I had a feeling, but, I have to say I’m still surprised. I trust the Princesses, though.” Soarin’s words seemed to be the final authority as the others nodded silently.

Shining continued, “It’s only used in extreme cases; believe me, it isn’t something done without careful consideration. I don’t even think it’s been done in a few generations. She normally even gets the Inner Council’s permission first, though that would be complicated in this case.”

Twilight shook her head. “Doesn’t make it any easier. I wonder if she’s going to expect me to learn that spell.”

“Twilight…” Shining approached his sister. “I know dozens of attack spells. Any one of which could kill outright. Is that really any better?”

“… no, no it isn’t. But it does put things in perspective, I suppose.”

A long uncomfortable silence of contemplations was finally interrupted by Intelligentsia. “Well, the other piece of good news is that it’s probable our Grand Mage here just sent more than a few of these other groups scrambling. We don’t know if the whole secret’s been blown yet, but the way she beat one of the most powerful generals we have so easily means that more than a few will think twice about trying this again, even if it was probably luck. It’ll likely put a few of the weaker groups on the run directly, but we need to be very careful if any of them think we’re vulnerable now.”

“Yeah, let’s keep the pressure up. We can’t just let this stand. The press is going to eat us alive at this rate, and we can’t afford to lose many more cities,” Shining said.

“Lose cities?” Twilight and Rainbow said in perfect synchronization.

“Well, not lose them in combat. I mean in support. Look at the map on the wall.”

The group moved over to the giant map adorning the wall.

“This map shows how much support we have in various towns and cities,” Shining explained. “Manehatten, Fillydelphia, and most of the other large ones in the core of the country are in green. So’s Ponyville. We’ve got big support there. Yellow is borderline, where we’re near 50/50 supportive and unsupportive. Red has active unrest, regardless of support rating. Thank goodness that’s been extremely rare, at least, up until today.”

“And black?” Twilight asked. There was an unsettling amount of black on the edges of the maps, with the largest cluster near the Gryphon Kingdom’s borders.

Shining’s voice cracked a little as the door opened for a moment again. “Black means that they’ve effectively cut ties, officially or not.”

“I had no idea it was that bad,” Twilight said.

“It seems unreal. How can they just do this?” Rainbow was clearly very angry at this. Fitting for Loyalty, really, Twilight thought as she closed her eyes.

“‘Leaders only have the power their followers give them. Without a flock, a shepherd is merely a wanderer.’” Twilight’s words were spoken with a spot-on impression of the Princess herself, although she didn’t realize she was doing it. “Celestia told me that when I was a filly.”

She also didn’t realize the real Princess was the one that had just entered the room, followed by a very windswept-looking Spitfire.

“True words, my student. Words that now guide what’s happening here, as beings in the shadows work to undermine everything we have, so that they may possess some tiny piece of the grand cosmos for a flicker of time.”

Twilight’s eyes shot open and she saw that the rest of the room was already bowing. She tried to bow too but her spine felt utterly paralyzed.

“You may all rise. Applejack, Spike, I understand you two destroyed the fake Bellerophon from the inside. I’d like for you to talk with Intelligentsia about what you saw. It may help unravel some of our mysteries.”

“You got it.” Spike seemed to be taking the whole thing better than any of them. Applejack just nodded.

“Twilight, until we get new quarters for you I want you to stay in Luna’s.”

“Are demons going to eat her in her sleep?” Rainbow asked. Twilight gave her a slight punch to the shoulder for even saying something like that.

Celestia turned to her left towards the golden Wonderbolt. “Spitfire?”

She stood up at attention at the mention of her name.

“I’ve pulled Rainbow away from her duties to protect Twilight. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to resume your old post.”

“On one condition: I get Soarin back as my next in command.”

“Done.”

“Awww, I was happy being retired.” Soarin hadn’t gotten a chance to protest before Celestia’s response; nor did he get much chance to dodge Rainbow’s hoof and mean glare as the wind got knocked out of him. “I mean,” he wheezed. “Once more into the blue for Princess and country.”

“Shining, Cadence wants to talk to you when you get a chance.”

Shining rolled his eyes nearly back into his head. “Here we go, I’m doomed.”

“I’m sure she’s just worried about you.” Celestia had a warm smile when saying that. For an entity representing the sun, she was a superb liar; Twilight genuinely couldn’t tell if her brother was about to get in very hot water or not.

“Oh, and Twilight?”

She stood up as straight as she could, anticipating the important actions she’d need her for. As Grand Mage, it could be a task to deal with anything.

“Try not to worry about what you’ve seen in this room too much just yet. I’ll need your help with these matters soon enough, but for now, I need you to read those books, ok?”

Ah, book reading. Although it was a comforting idea, it was nonetheless tremendously embarrassing to get caught disobeying orders; especially orders to read books.

She lowered her head appropriately before responding. “Yes, Princess. I’m sorry I disobeyed your orders. I’m—”

“Going to stop worrying and get to reading. I’m not mad, Twilight. Wanting to know what’s going on is natural and taking the initiative to find out is the sign of a good leader. I’ll make sure Shining sends messengers with updates…” A warm smile crossed her face before continuing. “Provided Cadence lets him live.”

Shining sighed. “Knew it.”

Celestia raised her voice just a bit to address everypony at once. “I’m sorry for giving orders and running, but things are still tense and I’m needed elsewhere. Thank you all for what you’ve done today, especially you Twilight. I’m sure I’ll have more to ask of you all soon.”

As Celestia walked out of the room, the friends exchanged glances and began to file out as well. Intelligentsia had Spike and Applejack follow her after a small goodbye to Twilight, while Spitfire and Soarin even started to argue as they walked out.

Shining was left to his work at his desk (even though half of that work was now likely classifiable as “avoiding winged unicorn wrath”) as Twilight and Rainbow exited out into the busy war room as well.

“Hey.” Rainbow nudged Twilight a bit in the shoulder. “I don’t suppose Luna’s room has anything interesting for me to read on those shelves. You know, stuff not filled with dark secrets and horrors.”

“Hmmm. Well, I know she has noir crime novels.”

“No-are what now?”

“Noir. You know, trenchcoats, detectives, gritty murders, shady backroom backstabbings, that kind of thing.”

Rainbow blinked slowly. “Actually that does sound kinda cool. Are we going to get to do anything like that in this gig?”

Twilight laughed a little at that. For all that had happened, and for all she’d been thinking about the distant future, she’d thought remarkably little about what a Grand Mage’s job would actually be like. For some weird reason, she actually got a little excited at the prospect. She’d already gotten to see a lot of Equestria in her adventures with her friends, and now she might well see all the rest of it and even beyond. “From what little I’ve seen so far, Rainbow, I’d say we’re going to have to be ready for anything.”


Last autumn in Canterlot…

“Oh, what a day!” Rarity said to herself. “Seventeen new dress designs, all critically important works, completely ruined!”

Despite her frustration and need to vent, she couldn’t blame the intern too much; the additions she put on some of them would likely have made little sense to anypony but herself. Still, she had made it clear to him and everypony she’d hired: her exquisite designs were to be executed to the most exacting detail with no exceptions. Consistency was important in a business, she’d say, although there were other reasons as well.

She pulled a decorative scarf off with her magic as she approached the brand-new penthouse, revealing a broach with a deep purple gem securing her cloak, cursing herself for choosing a light blue scarf on such a gloomy day. She’d read the weather plans and completely ignored them when choosing her clothes, a dark sweater and beret. It even clashed with the rest of her clothes; she just grabbed it when she felt the chill in the fall mountain air. It was an amateur mistake, which is something she simply could not afford in this line of work.

Without thought, she opened the door to her penthouse and quickly ducked inside. It wasn’t as big a place as she could afford now, but then it didn’t need to be. She’d even considered downgrading, since she spent almost all of her time either at work or travelling. Such was the life of one of the world’s top fashionistas.

Still, it was a nice enough place. The entrance was particularly stunning. After a short hallway, there were a couple of steps going down on the right into a lowered living room. It had giant floor-to-ceiling windows looking out, away from Canterlot and towards the little town where she got her start. In the center of the windows was a nice, magically-regulated fireplace that was always on and had no smoke emissions in order to comply with Canterlot ordinances. There was even a well-stocked bar filled with her favorite wines and liquors, especially her high-end bottles of gin.

She tossed the scarf down on the floor and stopped in her tracks when she heard a sealing spell being cast on the door behind her. Turning to her right, towards the windows, she saw a pony in a black suit resting on the couch by the windows and a sword on the table.

She had just walked into her penthouse without needing to unlock it. Stupid, stupid amateur mistake.


Read the thrilling conclusion in Designing Intrigue, the new Rites of Ascension Side Story from CvBrony!

Poetic Revelations

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Although Canterlot was located on the side of a mountain, it never got especially cold in the city itself. Special wards were placed throughout the city to prevent it from getting overly chilly. Moreover, the best weather pegasi outside of Cloudsdale were stationed here. The environment was kept tightly controlled for the elite of pony society.

This made the fog rolling down the stairs leading to the princesses’ private chambers especially odd, and it sent the hairs on the back of Twilight’s neck up on end. Normally she would never think of being tardy willingly, but given all that had happened as of late, the strangeness of the sight allowed her to consider being late to grab her armor. However, she quickly dismissed the idea, remembering that both her lesson and torc were awaiting her in the same place: the chambers up beyond the fog-drenched stairway.

The light filtering in from the floor-to-ceiling windows was a deep orange as the sun set, and as the hues got deeper, the fog began to shimmer; little pinpricks of light dancing in the clouds like stars in the night sky. She inhaled to gather her resolve, which also let her taste the moisture now filling the air. It was not musty as the castle could sometimes be; rather, it was quite crisp. It might’ve been refreshing if she could have appreciated it in the moment.

When she came to the first small landing in the large stairway, more evidence of the special nature of what she was experiencing surfaced. The fog began to sing.

The time has come, and now we stand

Ready, and forever here;

Light burned in the tower's watch,

Striking blind the mystic seer…

Each word, each note sent a burst of light spreading through the speck-sized stars in the fog like a waterfall cascading down the stairs, while the sound itself welled up from the cloud to fill the marble room. Though there was only a voice, the lack of instrumental accompaniment wasn’t missed; rather, the voice was so entrancing that any attempt to add more sound might have only marred its quality. The calm yet forceful mezzo-soprano even rivaled Sweetie Belle, who had taken the world by storm as the superstar singer “Crystal Belle” in recent years.

The deep orange light of the sunset gave the song an almost ominous tone, and forced her to swallow before continuing up the steps.

Silver light, in fallen pyres,

Stoke the hearth and relieve the land;

Break the light, yet do not waste

The path of time that fate demands.

The light faded out slowly as she made her way up the stairs, and although it never became totally dark, it was enough to see the mist begin to shimmer.

When she came to the fork near the top of the stairs, it was clear that the mist was coming from Luna’s room on the left, rather than Celestia’s, which was straight ahead.

Pauseless in our sacred truth,

Faultless we between our horns;

Duty high and ever held,

As the call eternal warns…

The light dimmed even more as she slowly approached Luna’s doors with her head down low. While Luna had, long ago, almost begged Twilight to dispense with protocol around her, she was about to approach her as a student, and that couldn’t help but make her feel a little more intimidated. Celestia had said that Luna possessed unrivaled skill in battle; such a pony would naturally be intimidating to learn battle magic from, although this was tempered somewhat by the fact that said pony had already hugged her while squealing like a schoolfilly. Twice.

With another deep breath to further reinforce her ever-waning resolve, she pulled open the door just a tiny bit and poked her head in. The singing was louder now, and it was plainly clear why; Luna was standing on her balcony in a bathrobe, singing loudly amidst a small pile of books with her horn alight, a thick mist surrounding her, pouring off of her mane and onto the floor.

Crescent form, dreams sustain,

'Til the breach comes 'round again.

As the song ended, the mist stopped flowing from her, and Twilight couldn’t help but clap her hooves together. “That was amazing, Luna! I didn’t know you could sing like that!”

A small, slightly embarrassed smile formed on Luna’s lips. “Thank you, Twilight. Although, I do not like that version so much.”

“Version?” Twilight scratched her head.

“Yes, the lyrics are a very rough translation from it’s original form. It loses so much meaning…”

Celestia’s voice sprang to life in her memory. “I’ve been alive a long time, Twilight. Few ponies know just how long, so know how much I trust you when I tell you I’m almost ten thousand years old.”

“Twilight?” Luna asked.

She shook off her slight trance. “Sorry, I was just thinking. Princess Celestia said you two were nearly ten thousand years old, and that there were other civilizations, other alicorns, in your time. Princess, how old is that song? Was it supposed to be sung in your original language?”

Luna smiled. “Ah, you gathered that this tongue we use today is not our native one. Very astute. However, this song was considered ancient even when I was your age. The language it was originally written in equally so, and it was not what we grew up speaking.” She nervously held one foreleg with her other. “Would you care to hear it with the original lyrics?”

She couldn’t help it, and dove into a fast, deep bow. “I’d be honored!”

Luna smiles with pride and motioned to a clear spot next to her. “Come, sit down and listen.”

Twilight obeyed and quickly trotted over to Luna and laid down. The princess took off her robe, spread her wings slightly, and lit her horn again, repeating the song. The mist resumed flowing from her mane, practically glowing with power. It had only been five days since the coup attempt, and the lingering unease the whole city felt afterwards had still been at the forefront of her mind, until now. It had simply melted under the influence of Luna’s spectacular voice.

When the song finally ended, the face behind the voice told Twilight that Luna did not share her sense of ease.

“I’ll be honest, Twilight. I’m rather nervous about this.”

That was not the statement she had expected to hear, and the wide array of possible reasons didn’t make her own nerves any easier.

“You see,” she continued, “I am unlike my sister in many ways. Our understanding of modern magic script is one of them. I have a firm enough grasp, mind you. I can hold my own. But, I am unsure of how to teach someone so used to these ways of scientific magic. None of my spells have been written down as such.”

This was unexpected, but not entirely surprising to Twilight. “It’s okay, princess,” she said. “I’m reasonably good at copying spells from sight.”

This got a small and only slightly hopeful chuckle from the princess. “I know this, Twilight. But these spells are alicorn spells. They have elements in them from the other races and can’t be copied visually.”

“Oh.” Once again, unexpected but entirely logical.

“There is still a way, but I need you to be open minded. Before spell scripts, there was another method which was used to pass spells from master to apprentice: incantations.”

A red flag went up in the scientist’s mind. “I thought incantations were proven to be ineffective.”

“I appreciate the euphemism, Twilight, but we both know you meant to say the word ‘bunk.’”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. She actually didn’t mean that word specifically but it was remarkably close to the way she actually felt.

Another sigh left the princess. “The scientist mages did come up with a more effective script for passing magical knowledge; this is without question. That does not change the fact that they completely missed the point of incantations.” Luna stood up and assumed a firm, almost defiant stance against the sky as she walked to the edge of the balcony. “They weren’t a simple prayer or a sleight-of-hoof magician’s magic words. They were poems! Words meant to ignite the soul! The magic wasn’t in simply saying the words or the name of the spell, it was in understanding the meaning in the depths of the stanza! This was my domain, Twilight. The world of artists, poets, philosophers, lovers… the world of dreamers! I fear that it is all but lost.” She laid back down as she said that last word, and slowly turned her head to look back at the nascent alicorn.

“But you are a genius as well as an alicorn. In this, we are lucky. It is my hope that you will be able to feel the emotions in my art, and use them to drive the spells.”

Twilight nodded. This was starting to make a bit more sense. “I’ve heard of emotional states having effects on spell performance. Are you saying that the words are clues as to how to move the magical energies?”

Luna brightened considerably, standing and pointing at her. “Yes! Exactly! By the heavens, I might be able to teach you yet.” She cleared away some of the books around her, but her demeanor quickly shifted back to somber. “There is, however, one more thing I need to be clear with you about. In order to guide your magic and teach you, I have to be able to have access to more of my magic.”

This just made her confused again, and such a back and forth was proving frustrating. “Am I blocking you somehow?”

Luna looked over to something that wasn’t there for a moment. “In a way, yes. Well, sister is right, I should just show you. Please, promise not to be scared or run away.”

Twilight nodded, confident but no less confused.

In a moment, Luna’s body was enveloped in light and grew. Seconds later, a familiar and terrifying figure stood before her: Nightmare Moon. For many moments, neither pony moved nor spoke; they merely stared at each other. After all, this was Nightmare Moon, the self-proclaimed Queen of Darkness, at one time the greatest threat to all of Equestria. A being whose very sight always instilled fear in her, even in pictures or when Luna temporarily took the form as a “disguise”.

A possibility occurred to her, and she began to reason it out. Alicorns are supposed to grow larger as they ascend. Luna was much smaller than Celestia right after we first defeated her. She was barely any bigger than a normal stallion! Then, she was larger on her return to Ponyville, and then grew even taller later.

Her head jolted up as the connection was made. Her mouth moved and spoke even though her brain demanded it to be silent, but the only concession it would make was to shout at a whisper.

Luna is the disguise!”

“I see you have figured it out.” Even her voice was that of Nightmare Moon’s, although somehow a little less intimidating. In fact, it sounded as if it was Nightmare that was scared. Even her exact look was a little different. For instance, her colors had changed; she was a very dark shade of blue or even indigo rather than black. Her wing shape had changed, too, and the fangs were normal teeth. Still, if anypony on the street had seen her, they’d most certainly have identified this as the Nightmare herself. “Yes, this is the real me. It’s Luna here, not the insanity. I have to seal about two-thirds of my power to keep my, well, more approachable form.”

Inside Twilight's mind, a small war was in progress over what to do; logic and reason fighting on whether to be reassuring or nonchalant. There was an even louder voice demanding that she run, but it sounded farther away than it should have. While the voices were arguing, her body did the leading as she simply got up on four hooves, walked over to the dark mare, and gave her a hug. There was no fear in her eyes or in her legs, only caring.

That most terrified of voices in her mind was still screaming out to her What are you doing? This is Nightmare Moon! The embodiment of death and darkness! Bow down or beg for mercy or run away or something!

Her response to this chatter came from a new, vastly powerful internal voice. It simply told the other, Shut up, and amazingly, fear’s unwelcome voice was gone, just like that.

When the hug was finally over, she looked up to see a sight that maybe no one had ever seen before: Nightmare Moon crying. No, not the Nightmare. Twilight reminded herself. Luna. This is Luna.

“Thank you, Twilight. It is gratifying to be accepted as I truly am by somepony such as yourself. I normally only use this form when I have to scare enemy soldiers.”

Twilight giggled. “Or little foals on Nightmare Night.”

“Oh! Well, yes, there is that too.” Luna’s soft laugh, even in this form, was more mischievous than threatening now. “Now, come, it is time for your first lesson.”

The sky-like mist that extended from Luna’s mane and tail whisked around her, and as it left she found they were very high up on a cloud. The teleportation was completely unlike that of Celestia’s spell or her own; there was no warmth or churning of the stomach. She was merely somewhere else in an instant.

“You and your sister both seem to like giving me lessons on clouds.” Twilight said. “Celestia put me on one earlier.”

Luna paced a bit on the cloud, re-orienting herself. “Oh? Well, it makes sense when you think about it. There is more privacy here. I’ve taken us far outside Canterlot for this so we don’t have any spies, and if something goes wrong we won’t harm anypony. Tell me, how did my sister break the news to you? I know it must’ve been a shock.”

The question brought up memories she couldn’t quite entirely process, along with a headache. “She, kind of forced magic into my body and made me change. I had wings, and I could feel so much. I’m not sure how she did it, really.”

“Nightmare Moon”’s eyes went wide as if the Elements were being aimed at her. “Ouch. That must have been painful, especially when you changed back.”

“Honestly, I was just in a state of shock. I passed out right after it ended.”

The indignation on Luna’s face was definitely reminiscent of the Nightmare herself. “And here she was chiding me to be gentle with you! I’m sorry you had to go through that. Remind me to put an ice spell on her shower faucet again.”

The two shared a laugh before a somewhat awkward moment overcame them again. After some nervous waiting, Luna broke the cycle.

“Okay, time for lesson one!” She stomped once on the cloud, and a magic circle appeared below them. There were even a few symbols written into it already. “I’m sure you know what this is.”

Twilight nodded. “Magic circles are made and used for advanced spells to help guide the flow of magic or store it temporarily. Sometimes they even appear as a consequence of the creation or use of powerful spells. But I’ve never seen somepony create such a large one with just a stomp of their hoof!”

“It gets easier with practice, but for now don’t worry about it. You’re just going to focus on the casting. Ready?”

Twilight nodded and was almost shaking she was so happy. A magic circle this large meant they were about to try something really special.

“Then sit in front of me and face where I’m facing.”

Twilight complied, and quickly felt the other alicorn standing over her.

“Do not be alarmed, I need to be close to help guide your magic if need be. Now, remember what I told you about incantations? I need you to listen to my words and repeat them, think about them, and most importantly, lose yourself in them. Let them guide your heart and your magic into the proper movements. Now, open your stream of magic into the circle and don’t worry about having to hold back. This one needs a lot of power.”

Lighting her horn, she started to push power into the circle, only to feel it practically leap up at her and demand more. She increased the power in intervals, but each time the circle just kept demanding more and more magic.

“Remember what I said about not holding back? I’ve built a limiter into the circle so you don’t need to worry about overloading it. Just let it all flow.”

It was very rare for Twilight to be able to really push all of her magic out to her fullest extent. Even when she did, she didn’t feel it was as impressive as some other ponies she’d seen, which was one of the reasons being told she was so powerful was a surprise. Though her recent battles proved that getting used to it would become necessary, there was always a desire to hold back to prevent disaster, since spells one lost control of had a nasty habit of exploding in front of one’s horn. However, if she could really let loose here… She strained her back a little and drastically increased the flow of magic to her horn. It still wasn’t enough. A couple of minutes passed, and by the end the amount of power being stored by the circle would be enough to demolish a large portion of Ponyville. It was beyond anything she’d ever had to use in a single spell before.

It wasn’t until a large majority of her magic reserves had been used by the spell that the circle finally seemed to have enough power.

“Very good. Close your eyes, and repeat my words. Do not worry what the spell should do, let it tell you what it’s doing instead. Do not merely speak, feel. Listen to the meanings, hidden or otherwise, and let them guide your spell. Remember, this is important. You must let your emotions guide you to cast this spell or any other spell recorded with incantations—especially those meant for alicorns.”

Twilight blinked in confusion. “Um, but that’s not how magic works. It’s focus and concentration that—”

Unicorns cast magic with focus and concentration. Do not be deceived by the fact that you’re using mostly unicorn magic. Pegasi and earth ponies use their emotions to control their magic, and this is an alicorn spell. Here, you must have both. For alicorn spells, it is absolutely critical that the correct emotions be used. Now, close your eyes.”

Twilight closed her eyes, but the light from the circle was leaking through her eyelids. She forced herself to ignore it as she listened to the words.

Standing on the edge of endless darkness,

Thirteen paths in heaven’s dance;

Echoes in the sky show perfect starkness,

Right the path of mother’s lance.

Despite her best efforts and her great care to repeat the words exactly as spoken, Twilight could feel Luna completely hijacking her spell and correcting it. The feedback from the correction was so extreme it started to twist her horn. Feeling as if she just got an exam back covered in red ink, her chest tightened and her mouth dried up in the cold air. Swallowing, she tried her best to shake it off and keep up with her fellow alicorn’s pace as the cadence of the incantation shifted to something new.

Mountains, valleys, and plains alike,

Carved by geology’s merciless scythe;

Seas and oceans and lakes alike,

Crests cut the land with a ravaging knife!

Twilight nearly lost control. Not of the spell, but of her thoughts. Luna’s voice wasn’t just speaking the words anymore, it was shouting them. No, not even that. The words were pouring out of her mouth and washing over her ears, striking her back and shaking her hooves. Each new syllable pounded harder than before, and then Twilight finally… let… go…

Oh grant me the strength to raise the oceans,

The grace to dance in the shadow's place,

A poise to repeat unending motions,

And rhythm to keep unceasing pace!

The younger alicorn’s mind gave up. Her mouth was repeating words that made no sense, yet she was belting them out like a life’s creed, or a battle cry. Her legs were bouncing her up and down in the ever rushing tempo, tossing all logic somewhere in the direction of the Everfree. As her brain surrendered, her heart rejoiced, dancing with Luna’s infectious rhythm.

Stars await for fury tempered,

Comets soar through heaven’s sight;

So for all that is remembered,

Bow and tremble, join aright

For thy beacon of the night!

Luna didn’t even say the last line; she stopped just short of it. It didn’t matter. Twilight continued the chant alone, bellowing the final words all on her own, knowing just what to say from the very depth of her power. Lightning cracked through her horn, sparking the spell to complete its destiny. Violent light and power blasted up from the magic circle, knocking her back and choking her lungs. Mouth open and gasping, she struggled and grasped at the cloud underneath her to keep herself in the right position to watch the light rocketing up into the sky. Flipping onto her back, she saw the spell split into innumerable smaller beams before rejoining and arcing across the sky, down over the horizon. A couple of seconds later, she scrambled to her hooves to race to the edge of the cloud in time to see an arc of white light rippling in an ever-expanding shock wave across the heavens.

As a disc of pale light peaked over the horizon, her heart danced and raced with overwhelming joy as she saw the spell was exactly what she had both suspected and prayed.

“Congratulations, Twilight Sparkle,” the smaller, more familiar Luna said. “You just raised the moon.”


In the center of Princess Celestia’s dining room stood a perfectly still Twilight Sparkle. Her eyes were as big as dinner plates, and her smile as wide as the sea. Around her, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Spike, and Princess Luna stood watching, plainly worried for their friend. Applejack walked up and waved a hoof in front of Twilight to no avail.

“I think I broke her,” the princess said. “Does anypony know how to snap her out of it?”

“What exactly did you do?” Spike asked, scratching his head.

“I had her raise the moon. She did a good job, but then smiled and froze up like this… I broke her, didn’t I?”

The three friends shared wide-eyed looks before Rainbow gave out a loud sigh. “Alright, stand back everypony. I’ll get her out of this.”

She strode right up to the catatonic mare, stuck out her tongue and planted it in Twilight’s ear. Four awkward seconds later, she pulled back out only to receive the strangest looks she’d ever gotten.

“That worked last time, I swear!”

Applejack flailed her forelegs about. “And just how in the hay did ya manage to find that out? Fer that matter, what in tarnation would possess you to—”

“I don’t even want to know,” Spike interrupted, covering his ears.

“We aren’t like that! Really! There was this—”

“Don’t. Want. To. Know,” both Applejack and Spike said in sync.

The night princess broke out into laughing so hard the windows were rattling, only speaking after the rest of the room stood silent for a few moments. “Oh, Gods! Hehe. Okay, I’m done now. Hehehehehehe. Really. I’m going to get Tia, she’ll know what to do. Hehehehehe…”

The three others were almost as frozen as Twilight as Luna strode out of the room laughing.

“Did I just do something embarrassing in front of somepony that will remember it for a few eons?” Rainbow asked.

“Eeyup,” Spike answered. Applejack responded to that with a bop to the back of the head.

Slowly, Twilight began to give signs of breaking out of her frozen state with a small laugh; one that progressively got bigger and bigger. When she was using nearly a third of her lungs per laugh she stopped laughing and started jumping around the room screaming “Yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes!!!”

Applejack stepped in front of her and lightly held her with her front legs, trying to stop her jumping but only managing to make her bounce a little in place. “You okay, sugarcube?”

“Hehe, more than okay! I just raised the bucking moon! Me! I did it! Hahahahahaha! Oh, I can’t tell you how awesome this feels! Actually I feel rather tired. That spell takes a lot of power. But I did it! I could see the magic move over the horizon and yank the moon up! You wouldn’t believe the kind of power the princesses wield like nothing! I knew they were strong, but they do this every single day without even feeling winded! I know I’m not that strong yet but I still just raised the bucking moon! Eeeeehehehehehe!”

Twilight resumed jumping with full force, but after two more leaps her right front knee gave into exhaustion and sent her tumbling into the ground face first. “Oww,” she said in a moan.

“You okay?” Spike asked.

Twilight rolled over on her back. “Yeah. Whew, that… That took a lot out of me. I’m shaking a little. Hehe, look at me, the next alicorn ascendant, falling right on my face like a school filly.”

Applejack chuckled a bit. "Eeyup, kinda big contrast compared to the papers."

Twilight's head tilted while upside down. "Papers?"

"You didn't see!?" Rainbow exclaimed. "You're all over the news, Twilight."

Twilight was on her hooves in an instant. "What!?"

"Ahem!" Spike strode into the group waving a copy of a newspaper. "Secret Hero of the Battle of Canterlot. Twi—"

The purple mare tore the newspaper away from him with her magic and read it aloud.

Twilight Sparkle, long known as the personal student of Princess Celestia, has been named by an anonymous source as the true hero of the Battle of Canterlot. This source states that she both defeated dozens of enemy soldiers and personally sent the coup's leader, General Towers, into the hospital in critical condition. Additional sources have informed us that Twilight Sparkle is also under consideration to be the first pony to carry the title of Grand Mage since Stellar Horizon held it over seven hundred years ago.

"How did they find out about this? It was supposed to be classified! Tell me they never mention the word 'alicorn.’”

Spike shook his head. "No, but you should see the editorial section. They're all about you."

"Editorials!?" Twilight flipped through the paper in a scramble. "Oh, why do they always forget to list the editorial columns in the table of contents… Aha!"

Twilight’s eyes moved at an incredible pace as she took in the editorial at her highest reading speed.

"Super soldier?! Ultra-unicorn?! 'Celestia's secret weapon on the battlefield!?’" She tossed the paper down with magic. "They're making me sound like some kind of bloodthirsty, all-powerful, trigger-happy battle mage!"

"Isn't that what yer supposed to be training for here?" Applejack asked, and everyone looked at her in shock. “Er, I mean just the battle mage part.”

"Well, sort of, but not really, I mean, grah! I'm not just a walking weapon! And I'm definitely not—" Twilight lifted the paper back up to read it again. "'A dark, lethal shadow cast over the towers of Canterlot and ponydom.' What does that even mean!?"

"Now calm down, Twi, we both know that these papers can take things a bit out of proportion. And it's the alicorn thing that's important ta keep secret, right? You bein' Grand Mage and all was gonna be announced in a couple months anyway, no big deal." Applejack was doing her best, even giving her a small hug, but Twilight still felt like she was being unfairly judged. Even if some of what they were saying had a bit of truth.

"Yeah, don't pay attention to those wannabes!” Rainbow strode up to her, flying just a bit. “I mean, how many of them have, and I quote from Twilight Sparkle, Faithful Student of Princess Celestia, Lady of the Solar Court, Element of Magic, Grand Mage of Equestria, Alicorn Ascendant, and librarian extraordinaire, 'raised the bucking moon'?"

Twilight couldn't help but cringe at the list of titles, yet she chuckled at the quoting of her own profanity. "You're right, Rainbow. I did just raise the moon. Excuse me, the bucking moon. I've no reason to let this stop me now. Hehehehe… This is just so awesome!" She felt an intense desire to move and jump with joy as she remembered seeing the moonrise. Her body took her mind's yearning to leap and pushed it one step further, completing an in-place and flawless backflip to a momentarily stunned stunned audience.

“Whoa, talk about channelling me! How’d you do that?”

“Do what?” Twilight’s grin hadn’t subsided in the least.

"That backflip! I didn't know you could do that, sugarcube!"

“No, not that,” Rainbow said to curious looks. “You used an air current to boost yourself, like a pegasus would. Here, watch.” Rainbow did a perfect execution of Twilight’s backflip, even while keeping her wings locked. “Did you all feel that? The slight breeze?”

Applejack blinked in realization. “Actually, yeah! I think I felt it with Twilight too.”

“Wow, cool!” Spike said. “Hey Twi, try it again!”

“Ah, repeat an experiment. Okay, let’s give this a shot.”

Twilight jumped up a couple times, only to find gravity relentlessly pulling her down without any hope of a backflip. She wasn’t exactly the most athletic mare in existence, and though she kept her shape reasonable, a backflip would normally be beyond her. As her hooves hit the plush carpet again, frustration began to set in and she struck the carpet before realizing whose carpet it was and trying to make it look like she didn’t just do that.

Rainbow sighed. “You’re not doing it right. Try it again.”

“Just how is she supposed to do it, Rainbow? I know I’d be tryin’ to jump if I were her.”

Rainbow blew a raspberry at Applejack and strode up to Twilight. “It’s not about jumping, it’s pegasus magic. You need to want to be in the air, just like you want, I dunno, your trees to grow or something. Here Twi, jump again, but this time don’t want ‘to do a backflip’. Want ‘to be in the sky’. Really think about it, it’s the first lesson any pegasus learning to fly needs.”

Twilight nodded. “Okay, here goes.”

She closed her eyes and thought of the sky. She’d never flown before, but she’d experienced falling, flying in a hot air balloon, chariot riding, and even walking on clouds. Putting her experiences together, she thought of flight, of being in the sky as part of it. Her imagination took over and she felt the rush of air around her, wind whipping in all directions as it roared. Filling her lungs with fresh air, she took a leap. It wasn’t until the last possible moment that she opened her eyes and found her face right next to the very top of the very, very high ceiling in the dining room.

“Ahhh!” She let out a slight scream as she acted on intuition, turning and placing her hooves on the ceiling for another jump, this time straight towards the floor. With red carpeting fast approaching, she swung her legs back under her and landed with a ground-shaking thud powerful enough to knock over her friends.

Silence draped the room for a solid minute as her friends all looked around and found their footing again. Meanwhile, she stood with her legs locked and upright, stunned both at having been on the ceiling and that she managed to get through such a landing completely unharmed.

“Rainbow?”

“Oooffff.” she said, getting to her hooves.

“That air current I imagined, was it real?”

“You practically summoned a small dust devil.”

Twilight looked around and realized that the room was utterly trashed.

"Uugh, I'm going to get it now. Look at this place!"

"Oh, she won't care." Spike's reassuring words were ineffective. "I mean, you can summon wind! That's gotta have something to do with pegasus powers, right? You'll be as powerful as the Princesses in no time at this rate!"

Twilight sighed and shook her head. "Pegasus powers maybe, but I'm still nothing compared to the princesses, even at a thousand times the average for unicorns."

“Whoa, hold on.” Rainbow came back into the conversation with an incredulous sounding voice. “A thousand times the average? You’re that powerful? The Princesses are that powerful?”

“Makes sense to me,” Spike said. “I mean, we’re talking about ponies that can toss around the sun.”

“It does sound kinda out there, sugarcube. Are you sure?”

Twilight nodded. “Well, think about it. Before the Princesses took control of the sun and moon, hundreds of unicorns were needed to raise and lower them. That’s all they did because it exhausted them, and only strong ones were chosen for the task. The princesses raise and lower the sun and moon each day, and Celestia did both for a thousand years every single day without fail. They aren’t even tired afterwards! A far cry from me. I just raised the moon, and I’m a bit out of it even with Luna helping me.”

Despite the analysis of her own limits, things felt better somehow. "A thousand times an average unicorn… Raising the moon… Maybe it will be okay in the end."

Twilight had just enough time to finish that sentence before the source of a familiar voice ran in, with an equally familiar sister behind her.

“What happened here? Twilight? Are you ok?”

The sight of Celestia running into the room was exactly what Twilight needed to break out of her locked stance, and scrunch down into a small ball.

Spike ran right up to her. “It was so awesome! Twilight can summon wind! She jumped clear to the ceiling!”

Twilight squeaked and got even smaller.

The Princess of the night bellowed. “Ha! I told you she was farther along than you thought, Tia. She’s bound to randomly discover all kinds of things at this rate.”

Applejack came forward and placed herself in front and to the side of Twilight. “We’re powerful sorry about this, Yer Majesty. We pushed her to try.”

Luna just kept giggling. “Oh, Tia’s always hated this room anyway. Maybe we could get rid of this ugly bright red and get something darker. Perhaps—”

Celestia sighed and interrupted. “You aren’t redecorating my dining room, Luna.”

“Foo.” Luna’s expression soured.

The elder princess went up to her pupil and knelt down with a welcoming face. If she was trying to calm her down, it worked; she could feel herself more relaxed by the second.

“I’ve been feeling tense lately as well, my student. Come, I have something special to show you. I assume everypony could excuse us for a little while?”

The group all bowed, save Luna, as the two mares walked out of the room with Twilight dutifully following her mentor out the door, but stopping just before exiting through it.

“Wait,” Twilight asked. “Why is my ear wet?”

Brand New Heights, Same Old Lows

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This chapter is dedicated to my friend Jon, who recently passed away from a rare form of cancer. He was the kind of person who would grace our role-playing group with a true Paladin, for when he left the table, he didn't leave high ideals behind: kindness, laughter, and understanding. He will be truly missed. This one’s for you, Jon. Rest in Peace.

“Well then,” Luna said, stretching casually. “It seems my lesson for Twilight has ended for the evening. ‘Tis just as well, I’m afraid raising the moon sapped much of her wellspring.”

“Yeah, no kidding. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.” Spike threw his hands in the air in mock defeat.

Rainbow nodded, and stretched out as if she was just waking up from one of her signature power naps. “Doing the work of a few hundred ponies? I can’t say I’ve done that much at once, only a few dozen. But yeah, I get it. Our little egghead is something else.”

Applejack looked at her two friends, then scuffed the ground with a forehoof.

“Is something wrong, Applejack?” Luna asked, a pleasant, welcome smile not unlike her sister’s inviting her inquiry.

“Uh, wellspring, Princess?” Applejack asked.

Rainbow nearly snorted. “It’s a pony’s magic source. Like a battery. Come on, even I know that.”

“Oh! That makes sense, I suppose. Must be mighty drainin’. Didn’t know unicorns were batteries.”

Luna shook her head. “You misunderstand, Applejack. All ponies have wellsprings which produce magic. The different tribes simply have different types of magic, which are pushed to different parts of their bodies by their leylines.”

Applejack gave the Princess a blank stare.

“You may think of leylines like arteries of magic. I am surprised they did not teach this to you in school.”

The farm pony lowered her head in deference, and perhaps a little shame. “No ‘fense, Princess, but I was homeschooled. There weren’t no school in Ponyville when I was a filly. Applebloom was the first to get a real education.”

“Really?” Spike scratched his head. “What about Rarity? I thought she got her cutie mark making costumes for a school play.”

“Nu-uh.” Rainbow interjected. “Rarity won’t tell you this unless you ask her point-blank, but she’s not from Ponyville. She moved there after I did. Her family is from a town that could just barely be called a ‘far-off Whinnyapolis suburb’. She only moved to Ponyville ‘cause she couldn’t afford Canterlot back then. Her parents moved a little closer later on.”

Spike snapped his fingers in realization. “That explains her parents’ accent!”

“Not just theirs,” Rainbow leaned in, grabbing the dragon with a foreleg. “If you really get her angry, like when I replaced all her fabrics with light green bedsheets, Rarity will slip into it. Her ‘normal’ accent is fake. She learned it trying to get into the Canterlot marketplace. Heh. That’s how I found out. Good ol’ epic prank number eighty-seven.”

“Sad to say, I feel that shedding her old accent in favor of a Canterlot one was a prudent measure. Some ponies in this city are, well, I shan’t go on, or I might not stop.” Luna shook her head. “Well then, in lieu of a rant, shall we all have dinner together in the Gardens? Their beauty goes so unnoticed at night, and I would love for you all to see it under my, or should I say, Twilight’s moon?”

“Heh. Like you need to convince me to eat dinner.” Spike chuckled.

“I’m with the dragon.” Rainbow started a hover. “You comin’, AJ?”

The farm pony slowly walked up into the now-moving group. “Um, yeah, I suppose I could eat. Wouldn’t be polite to turn down an invite from the Princess, now would it?”


“I have to admit, this is really nice! Reminds me of th’ orchard.” Applejack pranced just a tad as she made her way around the gardens with her friends, letting the grass scrunch under her hooves. It was the only place in the castle where she could feel like herself.

“Ah, here we are.” The Princess rounded a corner, leading them to a clearing already set up with a picnic blanket. “Gentlecolts, if you would be so kind.”

The few butlers that had been following them went to work quickly, refreshing the blanket and lighting a few candles. They even pulled out a couple bottles of wine and quickly served them each a glass. The next things they brought out were a bit odd, however, as an easel and an unfinished painting were set up, along with a brush and palette.

“Princess, you paint?” Applejack asked.

“Indeed! You see, dear Applejack, we alicorns like to take on certain talents and aspects that we feel fit with our titles. I am not merely the mistress of the moon, stars, and night, but of art as well. That includes painting, poetry, all kinds of art.” She took a long sip of wine, resting the glass on her lips for a moment. “Of course, being an alicorn also lets me drink like a fiend. I’m honestly surprised my drinking didn’t get me before I gained earth pony magic to heal from it.”

Applejack blinked.

“Um, Equestria to AJ? You there?” A cyan hoof waved in front of her eyes.

“Sorry ‘bout that.” The farmer swallowed. “I suppose I just never really thought of Yer Majesties bein’ earth ponies too.”

Luna put on a warm smile. “Indeed. We embody the properties of all three tribes. In fact, come here, and look closely.”

The Princess got up and put a hoof in the grass, just off of the blanket. Applejack scratched her head in response.

“Look closely at the grass around my hoof.”

Rainbow and Spike got up and leaned down with Applejack, to which the earth pony breathed an internal sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t look silly on her own. She looked, but it didn’t seem to be any different from plain old grass.

“It just looks like grass,” Spike blissfully said so she wouldn’t have to.

“Keep looking,” Luna replied, and a very faint glow enveloped the ground around her hoof.

Then, Applejack saw it. The grass was growing! Right before her eyes, she could see it actually grow! Heh. Watching grass grow. Never thought that’d be exciting. Earth pony farmers like herself used the same magic; it was what allowed them to harvest apples multiple times per year instead of just once. This, though, was very far beyond a few extra harvests. If they wanted it, the Princesses could be the best farmers in history.

“Whoa!” Rainbow hovered a bit over the spot. “I knew earth ponies could grow plants by like, caring about them, but I’ve never watched it happen!”

“Alicorns are, by their very definition, the embodiment of all three races. Although both Tia and I were born unicorns, ascension graced us with the other tribal aspects, giving us insight into their existence.”

She took a long sip of wine. “When we finally defeated Discord after centuries of fighting, we were left with a broken, shattered world. Think of it. No homes, no clean running water. Roads were dirt paths trodden by our ponies, and the lingering chaos magic meant they sometimes literally changed where they led, if they led anywhere at all. We were living wild again.”

“Over years, decades, and even centuries, we searched for and gathered our scattered ponies into the nation you see before you. We did all we could to care for all our ponies, and we will continue to do so for all our lives. In you all, we see your ancestors. What we - and more importantly, they - had to go through, no matter their tribe.”

Applejack gave a slight bow. “I never heard about all that. Thanks, Princess. I know some of us earth ponies don’t really get all that you do for us, but the Apples do. It means a lot.”

“No thanks are needed, but I shall accept nonetheless.”

Rainbow opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, then closed it, going back into a ponderous posture. She looked quite concerned.

“Is something wrong, Rainbow?” Spike asked.

“Yes, I’ve not seen you make that face before, Rainbow.” Luna began to look concerned too. “Tell us, what is troubling you?”

Rainbow tapped a forehoof on her chin, then sighed. “Luna, Princess…” she trailed off for a second.

“Come now, Rainbow! I can assure you, I am not nearly as easy to anger as rumors suggest. Feel free to speak your mind.”

The pegasus gritted her teeth, breathing through them. “Princess, are you faster than me?”

A pin dropping could’ve sounded like an explosion in the moment following the question. Yet Rainbow didn’t let up.

“If you’re some super-powered earth pony, wouldn’t that make you a super-powered pegasus too?” Rainbow reasoned. Applejack had to admit, it made sense.

Luna bowed her head. “Yes, Rainbow. I am faster than you. Much faster. Tia is faster still.”

Rainbow dropped her head in what looked like a half bow and half being stabbed in the chest.

Luna shrunk down a little. “I am sorry, Rainbow Dash. Please, I wish to continue being your friend. I could not lie to you!”

Rainbow held up a hoof. “I’m alright. I appreciate the honesty. It’s just… damn hard to hear that. I’ve always been the ‘fastest pegasus’. Turns out it’s a bucking lie.”

“Rainbow!” Applejack yelled under her breath. “Watch that tongue!”

“I forgive her,” Luna quickly interceded. “Truly.”

“Yeah,” Spike agreed. “I mean, it’s gotta be rough after all that work, going from first to fourth like that.”

“Third.” Rainbow snapped. “Nopony else is faster! Only the Princesses! I can at least live with that.”

Spike shook his head. “Remember what Twi did in the dining room?”

Rainbow froze in shock for a second, twitched first her eye, then a hoof.

Spike sighed, then elaborated. “Since pegasus magic comes out via the spine and wings, that’s just with what magic her spine could use. As soon as she gets wings…”

Now her feathers were twitching (or perhaps buzzing). Applejack wasn’t aware that they could do that.

Luna swooped in, stretching forelegs and wings around the pegasus. “It will be okay.” Her words were almost echoing, but in an astonishingly soothing manner. “Neither Tia nor I speak much about our speed or true power. We cannot. It must be hidden, so our ponies will not become dependent on us. It is our wish, our joy for them to strive for their own excellence, as you have. As I know you will continue to. Please, do not be upset. If it is some comfort, know that you are still the fastest ‘true’ pegasus. I—”

Rainbow started to struggle and freed herself from the Princess’ grasp, or rather, was released. “I know, I know all that,” she stammered, somewhat inelegantly rushing away from Luna. “I’ll be fine, really. I just… I just need to get some air time. I’ll talk to you all later.”

“Rainbow!” Luna yelled, but it was too late. The pegasus was already up and away. The Princess looked forlornly at Applejack. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

“I wouldn’t sweat it too much, Princess.” Applejack kept her head down a bit on instinct, but tried to make her voice as reassuring as she could. “Rainbow always bounces back from stuff like this. It just takes her time is all, and I know she’d never blame ya.”

“I pray you are right, Applejack. Truly.”

A flurry of activity emerged from the hedges as a few butlers rushed in with sandwiches and other small edibles. Applejack mused at how the kitchens must have panicked over something a princess would expect to be served quickly, even if it was something so simple. At least she wasn’t with them this time!

“Well, it seems our dinner has arrived. A bit less delicious than it would have been with another friend, but here all the same. Shall we?”

Luna was right. It would’ve been better with Rainbow there, and it seemed like there was a figurative cloud hanging over the alicorn’s head.

“Applejack.”

The orange mare stood up straight at the mention of her name, though her nerves made her muscles shake ever so slightly from the Princess’ tone.

“I have something to ask of you, but before I do, know that you are completely free to refuse. In fact, I will not be upset if you say no. Nor will there be any repercussions, and I won’t think less of you.”

Luna paused, and took in a long, deep breath; one great enough for Applejack to realize that the Princess made even Big Mac’s freakishly-large lungs look downright reasonable.

“I would like you to be Twilight’s second Honor Guard. I know you don’t have military experience, but you are strong and we can give you some training and advanced armor to aid you. I think having you along would help Twilight tremendously.”

Applejack twitched and squirmed nervously. She was being put on the spot in the most uncomfortable manner possible. She prided herself on being dependable, but here there were two groups she had to be dependable to, and they were mutually exclusive. Going with Twilight meant abandoning her family at their most vulnerable, seeing as their newest member was pregnant. On the other hoof, staying home with them meant leaving a fledgling goddess to fend for herself in her darkest hours.

Applejack reached for the only answer that had served her well throughout her life: family.

“I’m sorry, Princess, but I can’t just leave my family. With Granny gone, I can’t just take off. One season like this would be one thing, but ten years? No, I… I just can’t do that to them. ‘Specially Fluttershy.”

Luna’s sad look was almost unbearable, but a short nod indicated acceptance.

“I’ll do it.”

The two mares slowly turned to look at their purple friend.

“What? I said I’ll do it. She needs me, she always has.” Spike rose to his feet, his greater height and strength giving him a more mature look than either were used to. He was normally always so relaxed in how he carried himself, but now he looked almost… formidable. “If Twilight’s in trouble, I’ll be there to help. No matter what.”

Luna tilted her head much like Twilight when in thought. “Hmmm… I appreciate the offer, Spike, but I don’t think Twilight is going to much care for me sending her baby dragon into battle.”

“Baby dragon, adult pony.” Spike replied, defiantly crossing his arms.

Luna’s eyebrow raised up. “True, you would be old enough for military service as a pony. That’s actually a compelling argument, but I still don’t think Twilight would… like…” Luna turned her head with a snap and squinted, scratching her chin a little before a devious grin started to creep onto her face.

“Spike, it occurs to me that a Grand Mage will be quite busy, and as such she will need someone to assist her. Someone that knows their quirks and needs inside and out, and can follow them wherever they go. I can think of no other better suited than you.”

“Well well!” Spike grinned and took a bow. “Happy to be of service!”

“What made ya change yer mind, Princess?” Applejack asked.

“Dragon mail!” she exclaimed. “Spike’s ability to send messages to Celestia over vast distances will be an unimaginable help for keeping in touch. There are limitations to the spell, but it would be immensely helpful regardless. Also, Spike, you might need to stay behind the scenes or hide for missions needing discretion, since a dragon would attract attention, but otherwise you would be a monumental asset to the team.”

“Glad to be aboard!” Spike raised his hand up to Applejack and she gave it a bump with her hoof. He really was growing up.

“Don’t celebrate just yet,” Luna warned. “It’s ultimately Twilight’s decision, and she’s going to be protective of you. Very protective. We’ll need to be careful with how we word the request, but I think she can be convinced.

“Also, we should get you some armor. That’ll have to be custom made; last I checked there aren’t any standard suits of armor for young dragons. This might require some political finesse, too, but I can handle it. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

Spike just folded his arms and shot her a confident look.

Luna’s grin widened. “Okay, fair enough!”


Rainbow Dash flapped her wings as she kept up the beat with her fellow fliers. A Wonderbolts formation was directly below her. Spitfire was leading the formation; Rainbow was really only tagging along. Granted, most of the time any pegasus attempting to do this would be either arrested or left in the dust, but being a former Captain had its perks. Perks which she fully intended to take advantage of, especially after this night’s revelations.

“Oh yeah,” she cooed. This was bliss. The wind blew its way around her body, peeling off her troubles with its soothing force. With perfect memorization, she pulled up and kicked her rear hooves out, then pushed with magic in the other direction to execute a perfect pinpoint turn. A shiver rattled its way from the very tips of her ears and went all the way down to her tail. “This is more like it.”

Yaw left, right, roll and pull up. She knew all these moves by heart, and they weren’t even show moves. Not these ones, anyway. Shows for the foreseeable future were cancelled as the Wonderbolts were called into active duty. At least she’d get to practice military drills with them a bit in this glorious night air.

Through one of the barrel rolls she spotted a lone Wonderbolt sitting on a cloud watching them: Soarin. She banked hard out of the formation - she was just tagging along anyway - and dove down to join him. It felt kind of surreal seeing him back in the flight suit while she was only in a retired captain’s jacket.

“Hey,” she greeted him.

“Hey,” he replied.

This was going to be awkward for a while.

“Whatever you do, girl, don’t think about that trick he can do while flying. You’ll fall off the cloud laughing,” she thought to herself.

“So…” she said.

“Yeah,” he said.

If Twilight ever invented a device that could calculate levels of awkward, she could probably set its maximum to this right here.

“Wait a minute,” thought Rainbow. “I’m Rainbow Danger Dash. I don’t do awkward!”

“So what’s the deal with you being ‘happy’ with retirement? I thought you went off to do private shows in the tropics or something,” Rainbow demanded.

“Um, yeah, I went to the tropics for private shows…”

The awkward was still off the scales, but this time it was decidedly on one end. Rainbow had an idea on how to pull out the source.

“Private shows for who?” she asked, deliberately leaving the question open ended. Soarin was famous within the Wonderbolts for finding outs both in the sky and in conversation. Making him provide details would leave him less able to maneuver.

“Well… ponies I’d meet. The ones that looked interesting.”

Bingo, Rainbow knew exactly what was up now.

“You mean the ones with sweet flanks?”

“… yes.”

“Ha! I knew it! You weren’t just ‘putting on private shows’, you were chasing tail!”

Soarin looked down at his hooves, dejected. “… sorry.”

Something here did not entirely compute for Rainbow, which in turn further did not compute because she thought she knew Soarin fairly well at this point.

“Um? What? Why sorry? Sounds like you had a great time! Hell of a way to retire. I suppose I can see why you wanted to stay with that.”

Soarin lifted his head a little toward his left. “You’re not mad?”

“Why would I be?”

Soarin gave an uncharacteristic flop on the cloud and laid down. “Thank Celestia. I thought you’d hate me.”

“Um, hello? We broke it off! I wouldn’t be mad at you even if you were chasing mares all over Equestria! ‘Former Wonderbolt’ does wonders for finding bedmates… or so I’ve been told.”

Soarin let out one soft chuckle. “I should’ve known I was just being worrisome. I’m like that.”

“Yeah, yeah you are. I’m really not mad, Soarin. I’m glad you had a good time. Wait…”

Soarin looked back up at her.

“You aren’t still, you know, in love with me, were you?” Rainbow winced a little as she said it. They’d broken it off, so she was morally in the clear, but she still didn’t like being disloyal.

“I thought so. Celestia, I thought so for the longest time. But I don’t think I ever was, and that left me feeling more guilty than anything. I’m so, so sorry.”

Rainbow thought this over for an instant, but ultimately couldn’t find anything to object over. “Meh!” she yelled, laying down on her back to stare at the sky. “So it didn’t work out. Big deal. At least we had some fun.”

A genuine laugh of relief poured out of Soarin’s lips. “That we did. I owe you so much, Rainbow.”

Rainbow went wide-eyed and rolled over on her side. “Owe me? If anything, I owe you. Your recommendation for the captaincy, even if I hated it. All those private lessons. Heh. All those private lessons. And I did find out about your recommendation for letting me join the Wonderbolts in the first place. Secrets in the unit don’t stay secret long from the Captain, you know.”

“Even less so their second-in-command and his closeness to the unit. And no, I owe you. Without you, without us, I never would’ve figured this out.”

Rainbow rolled back over and sat up. “Figured what out?”

Soarin chuckled. “That I’m a lousy womanizer. It’s not for me. Losing you meant figuring out that I needed somepony, just one somepony, to be with. Yes, you may laugh now.”

Rainbow Dash did laugh, but only a little. “So that’s the big revelation? One of the biggest smooth-talkers in the ‘Bolts needs a ‘special somepony’ to feel complete?”

“Yeah, yeah, big ol’ ego pie, eat it up. Random mares just aren’t the same after you.” Soarin closed his eyes and braced himself a little.

Rainbow couldn’t help herself as she put her head right in front of Soarin’s and gave him her best seductive leer as he re-opened his eyes. “So you wanna find a cloud somewhere and do it?” she asked.

Rainbow expected him to either run or pounce her. He surprised her with his irritated face. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry, Dash, but I’m over you.”

While unexpected, she wasn’t about done teasing him. Rainbow leapt back and laid down on her back with a “poof” as cloud bits erupted and covered her. “That’s fine. I’ve already sworn my life to Twilight anyway.”

That seemed to get his attention. She didn’t even need to open her eyes as she laid back; she could hear it in his voice.

“What? You married her? Just like that?”

Rainbow tossed a ball of cloud at Soarin’s face. He didn’t even try to dodge.

“I didn’t marry her, Soarin. I’m her Honor Guard. The next decade or so, or really as long as she needs me, I’m hers.”

Soarin just looked at her confused for a moment.

“I meant militarily.”

“Oooohhh…” The ever-so-slight grin on Soarin’ face betrayed his understanding, and Rainbow pelted him with another bit of cloud.

Rainbow laid down on her back with her hooves in the air and relaxed. This was why she loved Soarin as a friend. This perfect banter and the level of understanding that could only be forged by fighting alongside someone. This knowing that you’re exposing your most ticklish of spots to someone and not caring as he forces you to empty the air from your lungs in giggles.

“My my, what do we have here? Shirking one’s duty to go play with a mare? This isn’t like you, Soarin… What am I saying, it’s exactly like you.”

Soarin stopped tickling her as they turned to look at Spitfire. Instinct and training told Rainbow to stand at attention, but her recovering lungs and knowledge of not being in the unit anymore let her muscles relax. She answered only to Twilight now, much like Luna’s Night Guard or Celestia’s Day Guard.

“Why, wanna join in?” Rainbow asked. That would’ve been insubordination when she was in the unit, and it felt good to let loose without the threat of rank over her.

Spitfire gave her a sultry glance that genuinely stunned Rainbow for a moment. Rainbow had forgotten just how aggressive and carefree Spitfire could be with her sexuality. “Don’t offer if you don’t mean it. Come on, Soarin, we’ve got a lot of work to do tonight.”

“Hey Spitfire,” Rainbow said before they had a chance to leave. Spitfire turned back to face her. “Sorry about the mess I left you.”

Spitfire smiled a bit and turned the rest of the way around, approaching her. “I’m assuming you didn’t mean just your desk,” she said.

“Yeah,” Rainbow replied, letting herself look sullen. “I can’t believe I didn’t realize how much harder leading the team was. Being the best flyer wasn’t enough.”

Spitfire smiled. “Don’t worry about it, it took me a long time to find my wings there too. Besides, Celestia’s expanding the size of the team so much it’s going to be filled with newbies anyway. Whole new bunch to train for military Wonderbolt service. Oh, one more thing.”

Spitfire grabbed her by the shoulders and smashed her lips against Rainbow’s, plunging her uncomfortably long tongue down Dash’s throat for a moment. When she broke it and left her, Rainbow was genuinely gagging a little.

“Until I’m dead and gone, you’re still second best. Remember that, Dashie!”

The force of their takeoff knocked Rainbow clean off the cloud.

Mages of Times Past and Present

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One teleportation later and they arrived in a forest clearing which was unnervingly familiar. They were deep in the Everfree, and the cries of unknown entities were clearly advertising the threats of the forest.

“Um, Princess? Is this it?” Twilight asked.

Celestia shook her head. “No, of course not, my student. But, I’m afraid teleporting us further into the forest isn’t possible. There’s too much corrupting magic. I could still perform very short range teleportation for us if need be, but any farther is too dangerous without some kind of powerful magic anchor or waypoint.”

Twilight swallowed a little. “So we walk?”

Celestia nodded. “Correct. There should be a path nearby. Also, do not worry about the creatures of the forest. While I might not be able to fight them with magic, few things even in the Everfree would dare approach an alicorn. Fewer still would stay long when I began to gather my power."

The two walked out of the clearing and into the thick of the infamous forest. As they got deeper in, even the light from Luna’s, or for tonight, Twilight’s moon, was being completely blocked out. Twilight lit her horn to provide light, but then extinguished it as a new source overwhelmed it. She turned toward her mentor and saw that her entire body was glowing radiantly, not just her horn. Streams of white magic flowed from her body and out into the forest, not only providing illumination, but causing certain plants, particularly flowers, to glow as well.

“Whoa…”

Celestia looked slightly away from Twilight with a hint of sadness. “Mmm. The last time I did this, I stumbled across a subject who had become lost in the woods. After rescuing and teleporting her back to Canterlot, she pledged to worship me for eternity, and ran off down the street screaming my praises. It was immensely awkward chasing her down to try to explain to her how I wasn’t a god.”

“I might’ve too, after that. You look beautiful!”

“Thank you for saying so, Twilight, but we must be mindful of the consequences of believing ourselves to be more than we are. Ah, here’s the path.”

Celestia used her larger body to power through the thick brush and onto a path, shaking off the leaves that had collected on her body. The brush was a bit taller than Twilight herself, and too thick for her to just push through as her mentor had. “Hmm…” She took a couple of steps back, and raced for the brush. Just before plowing into it, she jumped and tried to give herself a boost with pegasus magic. A fleeting sense of elation came and went as she soared over it and right into the brush on the other side of the path. Groaning in frustration, she pulled herself out and to where she had intended to be in the first place.

“It’s an awful lot like being a foal again, isn’t it? So many new things to learn.”

“So much awkwardness to relive…”

Celestia gave a polite laugh. “Yes, well, it can’t be helped, I’m afraid. Come, our destination shouldn’t be terribly far. While we walk, why don’t you tell me a bit about what you’ve learned from the books. Let’s start with Star Swirl’s.”

Ah, a test! If there was something Twilight could be completely confident in, it was her ability to talk about something she’d read. Maybe saving some grace would be possible here after all. Twilight started walking with her mentor, moving at a trot to keep pace with her longer legs.

“Well, I knew he was a brilliant mage with a wide range of abilities, and the book reinforces that, but I had no idea he had made such drastic discoveries in dimensional magic. It seemed to be his real specialty; I found magic in there I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. Before finding out about the alicorn thing, I mean. But…”

“But?” Celestia glanced down at her after waiting a moment.

“He really was crazy, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, although I didn’t realize how much until it was too late. I’m curious, though, what exactly made you realize this?”

Her gait wavered a little as she prepared a response.

“It just came to me somewhere around page, well, three. He was obsessive, and I know I’m not one to talk, but he went so far and thought nothing of it. I have no idea what the rules were back then, but if I had done these same experiments today, I’d be arrested! Temporal paradoxes, high-risk spells being created in populated areas… He had a singular purpose at any given time, and nothing else mattered to him. Worse, he never explained anything! There were whole, complex spells in that book with absolutely no explanation. I can figure some of them out, like the half-dozen banishing spells to places with names like ‘The Hallows’ and ‘The Dark.’ But a lot of the others are using really antiquated magical script. It makes sense, since he practically invented it, but it still makes things vastly more difficult. So far I don’t know if some of them will light a candle or blow up Manehatten.”

Celestia nodded. “He did overuse that naming convention, didn’t he? And if it helps any, he hated explaining himself to me, too.”

“I wish he had explained himself better. Then maybe I could understand more than half of his ramblings at the end about how he’s going to get to ‘The After.’ He never said why he wanted to go there or what it was! I have a few guesses I really don’t want to believe, but they’re still just guesses because he never actually came out and said it! He just had a huge series of incomplete spell fragments scribbled all over the book. I’m… disillusioned. I knew history books glossed over some truths, but to read first-hoof about all the awful things he’s done…”

Celestia paused for a moment with a blank expression on her face before replying. “He was an important figure, Twilight, but you have to remember that a pony’s mental health and their intelligence aren’t the same thing. Had I been wiser during his life, I would have watched him more closely. With more warning, I might have been able to save him.”

Twilight shuddered. “What really, really scares me is how alike we are. We’re both single minded, we both get lost in our work, and if something goes wrong I collapse into a mess, and—”

“Twilight.”

She looked up at her mentor and melted a bit in the light of her kind expression, not to mention the light of her whole body, but still felt anxiety keeping hold of her shaking lungs.

“Trust me, my student. I knew him better than anypony else, and I know you as well. You have a good heart. I’ve long been grateful to the heavens for that. For all your nerves, they’re always about whether you’ve done well and been a good pony, and you’re always willing to admit a fault and learn from it. That’s an important lesson, and one that is difficult for many. Nopony is infallible.”

“Thanks, Princess. It gives me a bit of comfort to hear that coming from you.”

“I’m glad.” The two stopped just before entering an extremely dark area of the forest. Even Celestia’s light was getting drowned out by the oppressive darkness ahead, almost as if the shadows were able to feed on the light. “Pardon me a moment.”

Celestia dipped her head down and charged her horn, gathering golden light from the air around her. Little sparks that looked like ethereal gems danced around her horn in a helix, then flew out ahead of her, still spinning. The light dissolved areas of the shadow, but left some completely intact.

Twilight felt a wing brush down her back. “Do not worry about touching these shadows. More than one pony has become permanently lost in the forest thanks to these entities, but I have cleared our path. They cannot hurt you directly, only obscure what is within them. ”

Twilight obeyed, hopping a bit to keep up at first. Absentmindedly, she focused on the Princess while walking, and put one leg into an area of gloom. It was chilled, almost reminding her of wet mildew. More than that, the shadow wasn’t coming ‘from’ anything. There was nothing to block the light coming from Celestia. No objects to project the shadow, and no anti-candle to eat at the light. It was merely there.

She lit her horn and started to probe it with a little telekinesis, and found nothing. This is not to say that she found the space to be empty, but rather, she didn’t get any report at all from her magic.

A gentle but large hoof tapped her on the shoulder. “Come, Twilight. I shall give you a book on these creatures later if you desire.”

Her head ducked down, followed by her ears as she added the subject to her mental “to do” list. “Sorry, Princess.”

“No need to be, Twilight, I should have been more clear. Tell me, did you notice anything else about your predecessor’s magic?”

She nodded. "Yes, I did. With a few exceptions, it was all unicorn magic. Highly advanced, complicated, usually specialized, and often beyond my current practical skill level, but still. Only a few spells in there were marked as being alicorn magic, and none of them were something I could sight read no matter how much skill I had. It was abstract. Same with the other Grand Mages, too."

"That is because no pony has ever managed to create magical script that could ’record’ alicorn magic. Starswirl tried, as did Stellar. Neither succeeded. It is difficult to properly express what is needed for it when a large component of such magic is based on emotions, like the magic of earth ponies and pegasi. Often, saying ’cast this while angry’ isn’t enough."

Twilight jumped over a log that Celestia barely had to alter her gait to cross. "And that’s why Luna’s poems are better for alicorn magic, right?"

"Quite so! However, if you believe you can succeed where they failed, feel free to tackle the problem in your spare time."

Twilight stopped and sat for a second, scratching her chin.

"Twilight?"

She shook off her distraction. "Sorry, Princess. I was just considering what you said. I think it would be an amazing challenge, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet."

The Princess laughed a bit. "I didn’t mean to imply that you were, my student! Take it on your own time. No rush."

She rubbed the back of her head, then resumed walking. "Oh. Ah heh heh. Right. Sorry."

"Quit apologizing so much, Twilight! I’m not angry. Now, tell me about Crimson Spectre. What do you think of him?" She pushed a branch out of Twilight’s way with a wing.

“He’s a brute.”

Celestia laughed, nearly losing control of the branch before Twilight could pass. “Okay, I can see that, but I was looking for more detail.”

Twilight dropped her head down and fell back slightly behind her mentor. “I admit his combat spells are beyond me right now. I might be able to cast them with a lot of undisturbed time, but there’s no way I could do it in a fight. I have no idea how anypony could focus that well in a battle.”

“It can be a great challenge. However, I’m fairly confident that isn’t the reason you used that word to describe him.”

Celestia could still read her, it seemed. “Yeah. I feel as if he might have gone too far going after Nightmare Moon. I had no idea she had so much support during the Lunar Rebellion, but he made it sound like those ponies all deserved death. He’d be a war criminal in the modern age.”

Twilight stopped walking, and sat down, unable to continue just yet. Her heart crushed inward on it’s next beat over the idea of what she was about to do. It was wrong; she shouldn’t even think of it, but this beyond-wrong idea just couldn’t be ignored. She subtly licked her lips to moisten them, and stopped again over the internal fight, delaying her words even more with a dry swallow before Celestia’s past words echoed in her mind.

~~Any question you ever have of me, I will answer. Truthfully and fully.~~

She inhaled through her nose, and exhaled just a little before finally, at long last speaking. “Why didn’t you stop him, Princess?”

Celestia had long since stopped walking, watching her for those moments and sighed before answering. “My little Twilight, in many ways you are more wise now than I was at nearly nine thousand. I suppose I could hide behind the idea of independence. My past Grand Mages were more or less free to act as they chose. Especially Crimson Spectre. But the truth is, I willingly turned a blind eye to their actions, and as such I am culpable.

“We were at war, and the Lunar Rebellions were not as quick or as simple as the history books make it sound. It was long, brutal, utterly destructive, and unimaginably bloody. We were so desperate, both sides, that we forgot about our ponies, and they paid a most horrible price for our negligence and pride. This is a mistake Luna and I shall regret for the rest of our lives, no matter how long they may be. Mountains may erode to plains, seas may boil away, and the tundras may become rainforest. As long as we live, we shall weep waterfalls of tears for our beloved ponies, and it will still never be enough.”

Twilight staggered, despite being seated. Her left knee shook, and eventually it crumbled her down to the ground, rear hoof twitching. She didn’t even notice that Celestia had gone over to her, and placed some of her primary feathers on her back.

“Not all knowledge is pleasant to know, my student, but this is the truth I promised you. Are you feeling okay?”

Twilight nodded, not saying anything, or rather, unable to say anything.

“I do not believe you, yet, so take your time.”

Twilight inhaled and exhaled, focusing on nothing but breathing for quite some time. It was the only thing preventing her from breaking down into tears. It wasn’t until and well after she felt Celestia’s hoof press against her back, keeping her laying down, that she began to calm. Her mentor had done this to her when she was a panicky filly, but she hadn’t needed it in some time. It still felt as calming as ever.

“Are you feeling better now?” Her voice had a slight bit of lightness to it this time; one Twilight knew signaled that Celestia might just believe her response.

“Yeah, I think I’m feeling better now. Wow, though.”

Celestia stood, and motioned for Twilight to do so as well. “Perhaps talking about Horizon’s book would make things easier. Shall we continue our journey?”

She exhaled once again, this time in relief. “Yeah. I like him. He’s calm and collected. I didn’t get a feel for any specialization like the other two, but he really seemed to be good at getting to the heart of matters. He was rather eloquent, as well. The fact that he stressed negotiation over fighting, and succeeded at both, is encouraging. It shows that it’s, well, possible.”

Twilight felt pressure lift off of her and a smile return to her face. Celestia was smiling, too.

“He was, without a doubt, one of the most insightful ponies I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Beautiful singing voice, too. What did you think of his magic?”

The newest Grand Mage could feel a slight headache coming on from that question. “Stunningly complex. Almost needlessly complex, like he was showing off. I’m honestly wondering what happened to him, because history doesn’t mention him much and his book just abruptly ends.”

They paused right before the crest of a hill, and Celestia closed her eyes. “I share some blame there, too. I should have been far more wary when the gryphons cried out for our help.”

“Gryphons? Ask for our help? Aren’t they rather—”

“Prideful? Stubborn? Some might say that of ponies as well, particularly alicorns. However, the situation was far more dire than I thought. A strange type of destructive magic began spreading throughout Gryphonia, and later I found out it likely would have spread to Equestria as well had it not been for Stellar’s courageous sacrifice. Although I doubt the gryphons would have been the aggressors in any war with us even then, his actions earned us vastly improved relations for centuries. He’s remembered better there than here in Equestria, in fact.”

“I see.” Twilight looked down at her hooves. If I had to, could I do that?

“I do not intend to ever put you in that position, Twilight, although I have every confidence in your bravery when it counts.”

A little shiver went up and then back down Twilight’s spine. “I appreciate your confidence, Princess, but—”

“It’s not very comforting, I know,” Celestia finished for her. “I wish I could give you more than words for assurance, but that is why Luna will help prepare you. Ah, here. I believe we are close to our destination, just over that hill.”

Twilight exhaled and resumed her march upwards with her mentor by her side. A short walk later, she recognized where they were going.

“The Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters!” She had to stop herself to reflect for an instant. This was where it all began nearly sixteen years ago.

Celestia, however, didn’t stop. She just kept walking towards the palace in silence, her glowing spell fading as the moonlight broke through the trees. Twilight mused briefly on what memories must be hidden there for her to have a sullen face like that as she galloped to catch up. Many more moments passed in silence as she rushed to keep up with her mentor through the corridors of the ruins.

Each turn led them deeper, and each step raised the hairs on the back of Twilight’s neck another degree. Although the forest wasn’t present within the castle and the moonlight plentiful, the very air seemed to whisper of darkness to her mind. Something was wrong here, she just didn’t quite know what. It was exactly as it looked last time. Ruined tapestries adorns the walls, windows, stained glass and clear alike, were broken horribly, some walls had crumbled, and little of the roof remained intact. Nopony but those in the most dire of circumstances could hope to call this ‘shelter’.

Eventually, they exited what seemed to be the other side of the ruins, and Celestia stopped walking. This was far deeper than she’d gone when fighting Nightmare Moon. The stone of the ground ended a few dozen meters in front of her, just before a steep drop off which contained extremely tall, dense, and dark trees. The entire section of forest seemed to be surrounded by the ruins. It took her several moments to realize that the drop off was, in fact, a crater at least a few kilometers in diameter. A shudder went through her as she realized that the ruins weren’t just a castle, but an entire town or possibly even a whole city.

Sighing, Celestia lay down on the ground in a hurry, closing her eyes and folding her legs under her. Twilight cautiously approached and laid down next to her, looking up in slight shock to see a few small tears flowing down her mentor’s muzzle.

“Princess?”

“Forgive me, my student. There is simply… a lot of pain here.”

She nodded and lowered her head, her ears falling back. Slowly, the unnerving surroundings forced her to inch closer to the comfort provided by her teacher. The castle was foreboding when facing Nightmare Moon, but this was something else altogether. The woods in front of her seemed to pulse with dark power, sending vibrations down her horn and back. The smell of moss and fungi wafted up from the pit in front of her, and the air had a corrosive chill. The only thing she could do to block it out was to close her eyes.

A slight shiver went through her back as she felt Celestia’s long primary feathers poke through her coat, but was quickly vanquished by the warm feeling of the hug from the alabaster wing.

“What you’re seeing before us, Twilight, is the consequence of my inattention to Starswirl the Bearded. The palace and the city around it was not destroyed by Luna, nor was it Discord. Starswirl laid waste to my home some few years before we first encountered Discord.”

Her eyes shot open again. “Star… Bu-wha… How?”

“Indeed. Some few decades before Discord’s emergence, we determined that his magical growth had stopped. He would never have completed his ascension. When he learned of this, he started obsessing over ‘The After,’ which was his term for the afterlife. He was convinced that there was a way to arrive at an afterlife without having to suffer the pain of death. This is the result of the spell he used in his attempt.

“The spell did indeed create a portal, though where it really led is anypony’s guess. All I knew was that it was expanding rapidly, consuming more of the castle every second. I tried to close it, and when that failed I tried to put a shield over it. The shield was simply stretched, or pushed outward by the portal like a balloon being pumped full of air. I panicked, so I did the next thing that came to mind: I tried to teleport the entire thing into orbit.”

A stuttering sigh left her lips as she visibly fought back tears. “I didn’t think any of it through, but that didn’t matter, as what happened next I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams. Somehow, the spells reacted, and destroyed each other violently. The blast was enormous, but would have been much larger were it not for the shield I cast. Regardless, the damage was done. My home was destroyed, countless ponies lost their lives from the spell’s detonation or were consumed by the portal, and the magical contamination twisted the once-peaceful forest into the corrupt Everfree.”

Twilight whimpered quietly. This was almost too much to take in. The fact that he could cause such widespread destruction meant she could do it too, if she wasn’t careful.

“I brought Crimson and Stellar here, to this very spot, at the start of their terms as Grand Mages. I wanted to show them the dire result of an alicorn ascendent gone mad. Now, you are here, too, yet under much different circumstances.”

“Hmm?”

Celestia had regained much of her poise, and turned again to look at her. Twilight looked deep into her eyes, and saw that the sadness was still there, in spite of the clear attempts to hide the sorrow.

“I am quite confident that you will be able to weather such trials thanks to your wonderful friends. As such, this place serves a different purpose. It is to show you that I, too, make mistakes.”

Twilight blinked. “I’m not sure I follow.”

“Compared to the other Grand Mages, you and I share a very different relationship. I did not help raise them; only you received that attention. However, going forward, the nature of our bond must change. Awful though it sounds, and though it does not diminish the fondness and love I later grew for you, from the moment I met you, I carefully crafted our interactions so you would grow attached to me. So that you would trust me.”

“Was there a reason I shouldn’t have?”

Celestia started back, pain-stricken, but clearly not at Twilight’s words specifically. “No, not really. I just couldn’t afford to fail at that, and I was cynical about it at first, so I was extra careful. I’m a politician, Twilight. By necessity or not, my initial approach towards you is a source of shame for me.”

“It sounds like you’re trying to make wanting to be my friend sound sinister.” She shrugged.

“I… suppose I am. But it’s something I had to confess. I’m grateful to the heavens that we have grown truly close over the years. Nothing about that has been a lie. Yet, as I said, the nature of our relationship must change once again. I can’t help you become my equal by keeping you so far beneath me.”

“I’ve never felt it was like that. I always felt like…” She turned and looked at the wing over her back. “Like I was just under your wing. Sure, I was in your shadow, but you’re the princess. I’m just the faithful student.”

“And that’s exactly what must change.”

Her heart twisted and raced at the comment. “I can’t be your student anymore?”

“You cannot be ‘just’ my student anymore. I do not wish to grow distant from you, Twilight, please do not misunderstand. And I certainly do not wish to stop teaching you, nor shall I ever. I will always be your teacher when you need me to be. Yet, for your sake, Equestria’s, and my own, you must eventually become far more than that: a fully ascended alicorn princess. A pony not in my shadow, but at my side.” The Princess closed her eyes and clenched her teeth for a moment.

“Princess!?” Twilight choked. “But I thought I would just be a Grand Mage!?”

A stern look on Celestia’s face emerged, yet Twilight did not feel it was for her. “If I was being truly fair to you, I would have crowned you as a princess a decade ago. For all you’ve done for everypony, you deserve to be rewarded thus. Yet, I could not bring myself to tear you so easily away from your adoptive home in Ponyville.”

“Princess—” A tug from the wing over her stopped her short.

“It’s the truth, Twilight. However, if you’re still apprehensive about taking on the full weight of royalty, I understand. I truly do. Your current position is yours for as long as you want it. Centuries, even millennia if you truly wish. Whenever you’re ready, though, your crown has already been made.” Celestia leaned in close. “I had it forged the day you got your cutie mark.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. “All this time, you’ve known?”

“I prepared!” Celestia smiled, sitting up straight again. “I’ve gotten kind of good at that over the years. Honestly I would have done it even sooner had I not been angry at the Director of the Royal Forge at the time. So I waited for him to retire. That’s one of the perks of agelessness. Still, it could have been earlier. Shortly after a certain small lavender unicorn was born, a young pink princess brought my attention to a talented colt in a middle class Canterlot family. A family I had my eye on from then on out.”

Twilight froze, uncertain of what to say.

Celestia leaned back in. “I told you, Twilight. No more secrets.”

“P-Princess…” Words still wouldn’t come.

Celestia sighed. “But that’s another thing, too. I didn’t do this with the others, but your situation is unique. I need you to stop calling me ‘Princess’ in public.”

“What?” Twilight shot up in reaction, only to lay down again from the weight and resistance of her mentor’s massive wing. “I-I can’t do that! It’s extremely disrespectful! Not to mention that the nobility—”

“Needs a demonstration of your authority with the crown,” Celestia interrupted. “Nopony has been grand mage in several lifetimes, Twilight. Your authority will be challenged by them. They might even try to subvert it. We cannot allow this. If they see you speaking to me as an equal, and then see me speak to you as the same, your own power and presence will be bolstered. What’s more, I—” Celestia stopped speaking, slowly closed her eyes, and began breathing more heavily.

“Pri—, I mean, your ma—…” Twilight looked around nervously as she struggled to find a way to address her.

“‘Tia.’ Call me ‘Tia.’ ‘Celly’ would work just as well, really, but I’ve always preferred ‘Tia.’”

“Ti—” She choked on the name, literally. Her lungs seized up to stop the second syllable. I can’t do it! she desperately thought to herself, growing more nervous as Celestia’s face turned away from her in pain.

What do I do? The very idea of calling her that is revolting. Sure, I could do that for Luna, but that’s because— Twilight Sparkle’s eyes went wide. Because she’s been holding back almost all of her power to appear as Luna! The instinct isn’t as strong with her! On top of that, Luna said that Celestia is far more powerful than even Nightmare Moon at her greatest, and if that’s the case…

She ended her internal monologue and set about trying her idea. Very carefully, she summoned forth some magic into her horn, and directed it back into her body instead of out into a spell. Normally, this would simply be a way to waste perfectly good magic, but here it might just help, even without a direct spell being cast. If an alicorn with greater power has a greater local influence on other ponies’ minds, then buffering my body and mind with more magic might dampen the effect.

She filled her lungs and paced her breathing out to be deep and relaxed, letting the warm, clear magic from her horn push against the panic of being close to the Princess. Tia… Tia… Tia… Her imagination replayed just the scene of her speaking the one word, becoming more comfortable with each try. Panic fled her body like sweat from her pores, and after several attempts to continue the conversation in her mind, she opened her eyes and stood up, partially uncovering herself from the wing.

“Tia,” she spoke, fluidly.

The diarch turned back to her with a hopeful visage.

“I’m going to do my best to be what you—” She stopped herself for just a moment, but not in hesitation. Rather, it was from realization. Celestia was not speaking as a mere mentor or friend this time. They were from Celestia as the Princess. “What Equestria needs me to be.”

She only had time to show her a second of a confident smile before getting dragged into a ribcage-crushing alicorn hug. It felt good, but Twilight couldn’t help noticing Celestia’s distant gaze towards the crater.

“Thank you, Twilight. I must admit, that must have been as difficult for you as it was me.”

She coughed a bit before responding. “How come?” Her voice cracked.

Celestia nodded. “As I said, I’m a politician. I practice living, acting, and even existing within an untouchable and unreachable pedestal. I have to be the image of Equestria itself. I’ve done it so much it has blended into who I am. I’ve only ever been able to confide in and be my ‘true’ self with a scarce few ponies, and you were not among them. You couldn’t be. I needed to be a brighter beacon to you than to any other.”

“Is that what you meant before by a changing relationship?”

“Yes. I need to drop the mask with you, but it’s going to be every bit as hard for me to do that as it is for you to use my name casually. Maybe even harder. I have to stop being the deity you see me to be, and for that I’m terribly, terribly sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? I don’t mind, really. I’d be honored to be one of the ponies you confide in.”

Celestia turned away again. “Because you will be ashamed of me.”

“Tia…” This time she said it without effort or build-up. It merely came. “I already know you’ve had to sacrifice for us. I can’t even begin to imagine what you’ve had to go through. But a long time ago I learned that we don’t have to go through it alone. I think it was one of my first friendship reports, remember?”

“Yes, I know…” She winced slowly. “But it’s not something I can just… This is unlike anything else you’ve experienced. I can’t honestly expect you to carry— “

“The burden of the alicorn, right? You carried it by yourself for a thousand years. Let me help!”

Celestia shook her head. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Twilight summoned more energy into her horn and through her body to try to continue the effect, then jumped over to Celestia’s other side. I sure hope I know what I’m doing. She gently lifted her hoof up to the bottom of her chin to get her to pay attention as Celestia had done to her so many times.

“You told me that you would reveal anything you knew, any secrets you’ve kept from me. Things you couldn’t tell me before. ‘On my crown, this I promise you,’ you said. Tia, I’m asking now. Please, tell me anything you need somepony, anypony to hear.”

Celestia opened her eyes and looked at her. Twilight had never felt such pain from another pony. It was as if she could feel her mentor’s heart being ripped out and put on display. Twilight nearly felt physically ill from it, and Celestia certainly looked it, from the waterfall of tears streaming down her face.

Celestia closed her eyes again, and began to cry, lifting her head up towards the velvet night sky, then lowering it down to the ground, muffling sobs.

Okay, Twilight, here’s the situation. Your mentor is on the ground, sobbing, and you have no idea why or what to do or say. So, what do we do? I have no idea, I just told myself that! Okay, stay calm, filly, there must be a logical solution here. The ground, yes, look at the ground! It’s all… gray cobblestone and such. Extremely interesting. I wonder why there isn’t any grass growing in between the oh what am I doing?

She only had just enough time to flinch at herself before getting dragged into another crushing alicorn hug. Celestia pulled her in tight, nearly smothering her in her soft, ivory coat.

Getting crushed in a hug by somepony with more earth pony magic than an Apple Family reunion. Definitely the logical course of action, she thought, twisting her body to try to find a position that she could breathe in. Settling on a spot, she waited while the tears flowed. Eventually, she started to cry too, although her anxiety prevented it from sounding as genuine as she’d like.

She wasn’t entirely certain how long this lasted, but it was long enough to lose focus on most of the conversation they had before, and simply exist in the raw emotion of it all, even through the alicorn’s loosening grip. Sleep was threatening to take her when Celestia broke the silence.

“I’m so, so sorry about this, Twilight. I never intended for you to see me so weak. Some part of me is glad you said those words, though I know you have no idea what they mean to me.”

Twilight swallowed a little. “I meant every word.”

“I know you did, but that is not what I meant. Just then, you sounded like him. Whenever he knew somepony was suffering, my son would say something just like that.”

Twilight’s brain skipped a gear. “Son!? But alicorns can’t—”

“No, we can’t. But unicorns can. I led a long life before my ascension, Twilight. It wasn’t like yours. I was an old mare; ancient even. Awaiting the grip of the reaper every day, so that I might be able to see my fallen husband and child once more.” Celestia took a pained, stuttering breath in, fighting more tears. “Then,” she swallowed. “The color began to return to my mane. In a year’s time, Luna and I were back in our prime, and chased out of our village for using banned magics.”

“You had a husband too…”

“A big goofball, and so kind. A masterful musician and a hopeless flirt to his last days. I miss them both so much. I don’t even know where their graves are anymore! And now I’m asking you to—”

“No!”

“Twilight, I—”

Twilight squirmed, interrupting her, and pushed out of the grip with a small kick to the ground. Stumbling, she hopped up and turned back to Celestia.

“You aren’t asking me to do anything. If ascension is as ‘eventful’ as you made it sound, then this isn’t your fault. I don’t think it’s my fault either. I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but I’m willing to accept that if I don’t get involved, and soon, I’ll regret it. My ponies need me. They…”

Twilight stopped, her mind catching up with what she was saying. “I… I…”

Celestia moved back next to her student. “Lulu is right. You are advancing faster than I thought. In a way, that’s comforting. But it also means we need to get you trained as much as we can, and soon. It won’t be quiet for long, and I can’t protect you personally anymore.”

Twilight swallowed roughly, thinking back a few days. “Yeah, the flames. Does it happen every time you fight?”

She paused for a moment. “There was a time when I thought I had a means to be able to do something despite the flames. Then, the one time I tried it, the one time I needed it, I had to hold back too much and a changeling queen scored a direct hit on my horn. You’ll have to watch that; we share the same weakness as unicorns. For all our power, a direct hit there can still render us helpless.” Twilight cringed a little as Celestia’s face registered two very different types of disgust at the same time. “And then we find ourselves in a cocoon.”

“I never realized how important that day was. I never thought I could underestimate its importance.”

“It could be argued that I suffered one of my greatest failures on that day, looking back. I’m also ashamed to say that it was the second most disgusting experience in my long life.”

Twilight blinked for a second. “Second most? Then what was—” She halted her speech when a sudden shudder came from her mentor. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

“That day proved that I wasn’t able to fight. My little spell was far too weak. Worse, do you remember that rage you felt confronting Towers?”

Twilight nodded. “I don’t think I could ever forget. That was awful.”

“It’s worse for me.”

Twilight swung her head to look at her more closely.

“It’s hard for me to gauge personally, but both Luna and Lord Glacien, my old friend from the pre-Discord era, have both told me about their experience with it. Luna may lay claim to the title ‘alicorn of passion,’ but even she thinks that nopony feels that instinct more than I do,” she sighed. “Remember when I said I have become too much like the sun I represent? Alicorns can influence the environment, sometimes greatly, with their emotions. When I feel the instinct to protect my ponies, to destroy anything that may harm them, it fuels the fire. It takes every iota of my not inconsiderable will to quell the feeling. If I slip up, even for an instant, or worse, actually engage in fighting…”

“You summon the flames,” Twilight concluded. “How bad does it get?”

Celestia paused for a long time. "Canterlot in ashes."

Twilight swallowed, hard. “But what about my flames? When I was hurt by Towers, I—”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.”

“You wouldn’t?”

Celestia shook her head. “No, Twilight, as strange as it is to say, that’s normal for a young alicorn. Your magic is relatively unstable and unbalanced right now, and may remain so for a while. Once you ascend, you will find that you have your own way of affecting the environment.”

“Really? How?”

“I can’t say yet, Twilight,” she said with a small laugh. “There are many abilities that alicorns get that are unique to the individual. That’s one of them. It’s like asking what your cutie mark will be. I highly doubt you will have flames like mine.”

Twilight exhaled hard, flopping down to the ground. “That’s a relief.”

“Indeed. Two defenseless alicorns would be a true disaster.”

“What!?” Twilight stood back up. “Princess! Don’t say that!”

“I know, Twilight. I’m just venting a little. It’s frustrating, having power and being unable to use it for my ponies. Now I understand a bit how Luna must feel.” Celestia sighed. “After the changeling attack, I tried to pretend everything was alright. That things weren’t falling apart around my fetlocks. Looking back, I feel ashamed at my willful ignorance.”

“But that wasn’t your fault, it—”

“The attack was not my fault. That is solely on Chrysalis. My denial of reality, however, falls squarely on my shoulders, and it was a poor example for a leader to set. Fortunately, your brother reacted in a more mature and productive manner. He led where I failed.”

“What did Shiny do?”

“He started undergoing special training to steel his mind against further attacks, along with key members of his staff. He’s progressed quite a bit with it, actually, and he’s still working on it. It’s not perfect, but he now has means to give himself considerable resistance to brainwashing and mind-altering magic. Luna can still break through into his dreams, though.”

“That sounds like Shiny. Whenever anypony found a weakness in him, he didn’t stop until he removed it.” Twilight looked up at the stars, trying to think back to her foalhood. “He was always there for me, you know? Before I became your student, my parents were always so busy, I didn’t see them much.”

“I seem to recall that you didn’t see them much even after I accepted you as my protégé. I had to encourage you to visit them.”

Her cheeks started to burn. “True. I didn’t want to say anything bad about them to you, but a lot of the time I didn’t because they weren’t there to be visited. Shiny was, though, and he came to see me.”

“I remember. It’s rare for a colt to take such an interest in his little sister’s well being. It speaks to his character, which is why I chose him to be my next Captain of the Royal Guard, in spite of the Council’s protests over selecting a non-noble.”

She scratched the back of her head with a nervous smile and a slight chuckle. “He really did take care of me. I think I was raised more by him than by mom, to tell the truth. Even when I moved to Ponyville, it turns out he was still looking out for me, creating a whole team to protect me. I feel like such a burden. He’s got a hard enough job as it is, and I know Cadence wants to have foals on top of it.”

Her words forced a connection in her mind, and Twilight realized a certain incontrovertible fact that was simply heretofore inconceivable to her. It was a simple truth that froze her body up completely; a revelation that knocked her over on her side while the rest of her body went utterly rigid and left a particular pony princess pretty perplexed.

“Twilight, are you okay?” she asked.

The notion in her brain was rattling around and hitting every emotional center she had like a pinball and the machine was registering a tilt. Desperate, she searched for some kind of clause that would allow for an escape, but her efforts were futile. It was true, and for some reason it shook her to the core. If Princess Celestia had, at one point, a husband and a son, there was no getting around it and her mouth belted it out without heeding any kind of societal safety checks, not even the ones only in place while around the diarch.

“You’ve had sex!?” Her mouth wouldn’t close after finishing the question, it just hung there as a perfectly still contrast to her twitching eyes. Another moment passed between them, with awkwardness that would have been legendary if anypony else had been there to see it. Twilight’s insides twisted in on themselves and her muscles would have refused to acknowledge any and all input if she could bring herself to give them any. The moment abruptly ended with Celestia laughing harder than she’d ever seen her laugh before.

“What? I mean, you’ve… how could… I mean, I know I shouldn’t have assumed, but…”

A hoof on the shoulder silenced only a part of her worries, since Celestia was still laughing.

“I’m sorry, Princess.”

A few more seconds passed before Celestia could regain control of her lungs to speak. “It’s quite alright, Twilight. It honestly never occurred to me that you might have raised me to the level of a…” The Princess’ words paused as she fought back more laughs. “A vestal virgin!”

Twilight groaned and buried her face in Celestia’s side. Just how many more times am I going to embarrass myself?

“Hehe, oh Twilight. It’s fine! Truly, it’s fine. I needed that laugh. And yes, I’m a mare. I’ve done all kinds of things normal for a pony, including marriage and sex.” Celestia gave a calming exhale. “Ah, thank you, Twilight. This wasn’t near as bad as I thought it would be. I’m so, so sorry for not dropping this blasted mask earlier. I hope we can share more moments like this. As friends, not master and student.”

Twilight took a step back and bowed. “Of course, Princess. Er, Tia. It would be an honor.”

The words were automatic, but still rang true to her feelings. It relieved Twilight deeply to see a genuine, even motherly smile from the Princess. However, her relief was short lived. Slowly, Celestia’s face changed, first to a smirk and then a mischievous grin, which started to grow as well. Twilight twisted her hoof inwards a little as she realized what was coming. She was about to be teased.

“Well, now that we’ve settled that, have you had any romantic flings?”

“No, of course not!”

Even if she knew it was teasing, this was thoroughly embarrassing. The surface of the sun had nothing on the burning in her cheeks.

“‘Of course not’? Why, my dear, you are a beautiful mare. Surely you’ve had at least one roll in the hay.”

“I’m not hearing this, not from the Princess, nope, not actually happening!”

“Oh, and I’m still a mare, Twilight. Why, just a few weeks ago I had both Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis up in my chambers for—”

Twilight ducked and put her hooves over her ears. “No! Not possible! Not going to entertain the possibility! Bad thoughts will not reside in my head!”

The Princess clearly didn’t have any mercy today, because she tore Twilight’s hooves from her ears with a strong telekinetic grasp that Twilight couldn’t seem to break, though it should’ve been trivial for her to do so. “Bad thoughts? Why, Twilight, there’s nothing wrong with, shall we say, intimacy. I bet you’ll get asked out more than a few times in your future journeys. Some stallions are attracted to power, after all. Why, I’m surprised your treehouse door hasn’t been banged down by suitors already! Or perhaps it’s because you’re into mares?”

“What? No! At least, I don’t think so, I mean—”

“It’s alright, Twilight, I’ve had a few in my—”

Twilight finally managed to disrupt Celestia’s grip with her own and recovered her ears. “NO! I mean, grah, why is this so much more difficult to explain to you than to Rarity!?” Answered your own question there, filly. “And if you have done all this, why isn’t it in the news or something?! It’s kind of a big deal!”

“Well, my relations need to be discreet, but that’s because of my political position. You aren’t a princess, not yet anyway, so if you find somepony special, you should pursue it! Of course, if you just need a fling, let me know. I know a number of skilled stallions, especially Fancy Pants, that can be quite—”

Twilight put her hooves over her ears again. “No, no, bad thoughts!”

Celestia broke out into another wave of roaring laughter. “Oh, Twilight, you’re too easy to tease! Okay, I promise, no more for a while.”

Twilight flopped over on the ground and breathed in relief. “Ugh.”

“You’ll have to get used to some prodding from us eventually, Twilight. Luna is quite fond of such teasing and pranks, though I dare say it may be awhile before she tries any on you.”

Twilight rolled over on her back and exhaled. “Huh. She did say the next time it was just us, I should call you ‘Tia’ so she could see your reaction. Heh. Guess I kind of blew that one.”

Celestia blinked too, and then smiled. “Oh did she now? Well, I’m afraid I beat her to the punch, as it were. I hope she’s not losing her touch, that truly wouldn’t have bothered me at all. Surprised, maybe, but not bothered. Although the other day she did replace my shampoo with mayonnaise. So I suppose I shouldn’t worry too much.”

Twilight giggled. Yeah, they really are sisters.

“I think we’ve been here long enough now, Twilight. We should start heading back.”

Twilight nodded, getting back up on her hooves. She trotted slowly, taking in the history of the ancient palace and observing the details that had managed to survive the destruction and weathering of time. Some of the walls had ancient script inscribed on them with arrows giving directions, though the letters were too worn or moss-covered to read easily. At a point midway through the castle, she stopped when her hoof fell on an odd spot on the ground. It felt as if there was something sticky and heavy there, but it was visibly smooth stone and didn’t impede her hoof at all as she hovered it over the area.

“Something is wrong here,” she whispered.

“Hmm?”

“Celestia, I… I can’t quite explain it. But here, this exact spot, it’s not right. Somehow. Like the stone is made out of dread… or sorrow.”

“Ah, so you can sense it already!”

“Sense what?”

Celestia put her larger hoof on the wall next to her student’s. “Alicorns gain extra senses during our ascension. One of them is the ability to tell where our ponies have been killed. Normally, we can only sense recent deaths, but the more violent and unfair the loss, and the larger the number, the longer the feeling in a spot may linger.”

Twilight shuddered. Somepony had died, right at that spot. “If I can sense that, then what about in Canterlot? Will I start to sense the attack there?”

“For a little while, at least. Areas with exceptionally high hoof traffic like the castle will see the effect fade much more quickly. It shouldn’t be as intense as here, since this place has been abandoned for millennia, save for a brief time when Luna used it as a covert base in the Lunar Rebellion. I also think it possible that the corruption of the forest may be preserving these tainted areas.”

Celestia motioned for them to keep moving. “Tell me, Twilight, have you had any other extrasensory experiences yet? There’s one more that would be useful for you to have.”

“Yes, actually,” she said, following. “When you transformed me I could see magic with my eyes closed. Not just a little glow, I could see how the spell was put together, even if I can’t remember the details. I also saw it when fighting Towers. Is that something?”

Celestia exhaled in relief, and her wings went limp just a little. “Thank the heavens. None of the other Grand Mages developed our magic sight in their service. I don’t know how to force it out, but keep trying to control it if you can. It would be a huge, huge benefit to you if you can master this.”

“I don’t even know how I did it. It just sort of happened. One of the times my eyes were closed. Does it just happen randomly?”

“No, we can control it and use it with our eyes open. Like now, for instance.”

Twilight’s hair started standing up on end. She could feel her mentor use the ability on her body. It was like a ghost was going through her, or perhaps more like all of Ponyville watching her do something humiliating. She curled up and shivered a bit.

“Wow, that feels creepy!”

The Princess’s eyes went wide. “You can feel it?”

Twilight shuddered again, gripping one foreleg with the other. “Yeah, can’t you? It’s like I’m exposed somehow.”

Just as quickly as the feeling came, it vanished again.

“That is… different,” Celestia said. “I’ve never known anypony who could feel it. Neither Luna nor I can tell when we use it on each other. I’m really not sure what to make of this yet. When did you notice it?”

“When you looked at me on the cloud is when I really felt it first, but looking back, I can see how I might’ve felt it a tiny bit even before that.”

“Hmmm. This could be better than I’d hoped! Each alicorn develops abilities unique to them, and one of yours might be an extremely fine sense of magic. It would make sense for the Element of Magic, I think, and could prove to be unimaginably useful.”

“Hmm… Yeah, if I could determine its accuracy, I might be able to adapt it for experimental use! Although if its accuracy varies depending on my condition and ascendency completion I’d have to find a way to calibrate it.”

Celestia began a laugh. “I meant in your duty as Grand Mage, but yes, I can see that too.”

Twilight smiled sheepishly, and quieted herself as they moved through the castle. Celestia spoke up again when they exited.

“There, I think we’re far enough now. Teleporting out is quite a bit easier than trying to get in. The last time I came here, the Elements’ activation made it easier to teleport directly to the castle. The twisted magic of the Everfree has had ample time to overtake the castle once again. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Princess,” she replied.

The diarch raised an eyebrow.

“I mean, Tia.”

“That’s more like it, although I won’t blame you if we need to work on it over time. I can see how it would be a big adjustment for you. Now then, are you ready?”

Twilight nodded.

A small, royal smile and a burst of magic later, they left the spooky confines of the forest and arrived back in the Canterlot castle gardens. Or rather, what looked like the gardens, only upside down.

“Oof!” A bit of wind knocked out of Twilight from landing on her head and back. The headache was already there from the teleportation.

“Looks like there was still some interference. Are you hurt, Twilight?”

“Ugh,” she said, turning over on her belly. Her stomach didn’t seem to want to follow suit. “I think I’ll be okay.”

“This is a rather undignified position for me, wouldn’t you say?” the Princess said, smiling whilst on her back and legs in the air.

“Hehe. Well, it’s no worse than what Rainbow would be stuck in after a new trick.”

A loud crash sounded behind Twilight, who turned to see a young, peach-colored earth pony mare and a broken clay pot on a nearby stone path.

The newcomer quickly turned around. “I’m so sorry, Princess! I didn’t mean to be spying!”

“You weren’t. I never thought this to be private. Me being upside down is hardly a significant scandal compared to recent events,” she said, righting herself and shaking grass out of her wings.

Twilight got up to her hooves, against her stomach’s protests, and went over towards the earth pony. “Yeah, I suppose when you look at it that way, this is nothing. Doesn’t make the other stuff any more pleasant, though.” Her trot forward came to a premature halt and she felt the ground under her hooves. “Princess, this ground…”

“Yes, it appears this was a place where we lost some ponies.”

Twilight’s heart began to race as she felt around on the ground. “There’s more here.”

“There… there was a major fight here during the coup attempt. I saw it. I hid over there, back behind the bushes,” the peach mare said, pointing. “I had only just started a week ago, and I’m still part-time. I got changed to night work when Hayseed was…”

Although Twilight could hear her mentor moving, she paid no heed to it as she walked around, feeling the stone path on the ground. Something changed as she dragged her hoof along the ground, but she wasn’t quite sure what. The same dark feelings she felt at the castle persisted, but over a certain area, it was weaker. Slowly, she moved her hooves over the grass, feeling it, and then over the stone path.

“There’s a drop in the intensity, I— Ow!” She squinted at the pain on her head above her horn, and her vision was once again overtaken by her other sight. Soft clouds of sparkling magic and blazing hues arcing through the air revealed some intricacies of the magic all around her. The grass itself even had a faint, blurry glow to it. Underneath her, some parts of the stone path was steeped in darkness akin to bubbling molasses despite the bright castle lights. Cutting across the dark area was a path where it was weaker; more morose than sorrowful. “I can see it now! Ha! This is incredible!”

Whatever eerie feeling the black marks on the ground had been giving her was utterly overtaken by her raw curiosity. She couldn’t help but smile as she ran through the possibilities in her head again. The thrill of discovery was completely overtaking the eerie feeling she got from the magic embedded in the stone, and she had a smile nearly as big as the one she held after raising the moon. Her eyes followed the lighter path in the darkness on the ground, and eventually she found herself looking back up at the two other ponies. Celestia was there, bright as ever. Her form was engulfed in power glowing bright enough to make her appear as a pony-shaped star. Moreover, vast undercurrents of power were flowing out of her like coronal mass ejections, spreading out into the environment and back into her in a cycle similar to that of a magnetic field. This wasn’t like the magic of a telekinetic field. It was going through things without any direct observable effects outside of this vision.

~~Alicorns can influence the environment, sometimes greatly, with their emotions. When I feel the instinct to protect my ponies, to destroy anything that may harm them, it fuels the fire.~~

I didn’t see this the last time I used this vision on her. Did I miss it? Was she suppressing it? Or was I unable to see it? And what’s that?

An extremely faint pony form with a tiny star-like point of light in the center was next to the Princess. Although infinitesimal compared to the diarch, it was still brighter than she expected.

Hmmm… Which direction did she come from again? She looked around at where the earth pony was, and thought of her likely paths. No matter which she chose, it was the same. The dark blotches on the ground were lightest where the gardener had been working. More importantly, those closest to Celestia were fading away right before her very eyes.

With a blink, her vision turned back to normal, and a possibility entered into her mind when she saw the earth pony mare where the star had been.

Twilight cleared her throat and addressed the earth pony. “What did you say your name was?”

"Um, Peach Blossom, miss."

“You said you were part-time?”

“Yes, miss.”

“Hmmm…” Twilight put her hoof to her chin in thought. Technically, what she was doing wasn’t outside her authority, but it she still felt a little odd about it. “Congratulations, you’re full-time now. I want you to talk to security right away, find out where the battles in the gardens were, and start tending those areas first. Can you do that for me?”

Celestia might’ve been a sun in magic sense, but the young mare’s new smile was almost as bright, even when bowing. “Yes! Oh, thank you so much! I can quit working at that hotel now, and stop living in that awful— just, thank you!”

The Princess laughed a bit, and bent down to her. “Incidentally, everything our Grand Mage just said other than the promotion is classified. I’d advise getting to work.”

Peach Blossom jolted up and started running. “Yes! Of course! Right away! Thank yooooouuu!”

Twilight smiled a bit, and started walking back to the castle with Celestia beside her under the night sky.

“She is quite a powerful earth pony, isn’t she?” her teacher asked.

“Yeah. I think her power might help break down whatever’s giving us these feelings from the battle.”

“You’re right! Earth pony magic erodes it much faster than if it was left on its own. It is fitting that their magic, the magic of life, washes away the stain of death. Sharp as ever, my student!”

Twilight laughed a bit and smiled, looking down a bit while the magic sight dropped out. “Happy as I am about that, I’m happier we can remove the battle scars a bit faster.”

Celestia’s smile was replaced with a small frown. “The scars? Yes.” A lone tear fell down her right cheek as she exhaled and spoke softly.

“But the ghosts will linger forever.”

Industrial Revolution, Revised

View Online

It was a field so wide it seemed to stretch forever in all directions, flowing out with fresh grasses and crystal clear streams while a distant but loud, thunderous rumble resounded throughout the grasslands. The sun’s bright warmth saturated Twilight’s vision, blurring everything a little as she squinted, yet that didn’t stop her from taking in all that was around her. Her legs pumped as she ran through the wide-open space, but they only barely touched the ground. She was more hovering than galloping, which made the feeling all the more invigorating.

“Excellent, my student! Come, keep up with us!” Celestia shouted, running alongside her. On the other side, Luna ran, too, laughing and smiling. The three rushed through the grasses, leaping whole bodies of water as they came. With a blink, she noticed something very briefly in the corner of her eye, and then suddenly they were everywhere. Millions, if not billions, of her little ponies, keeping perfect pace. The roar of hooves and beating of wings filled the air, drowning out all other sounds as if they were underwater. She could see them, or rather their forms, all around her, but their colors and cutie marks were all smudged together. Although they surrounded her, the ponies never got too close, giving her plenty of room. Only the two Princesses ran next to her.

With a small smile, she got an idea and quickly changed her direction, speeding up.

The ponies matched her, following precisely, even the Princesses.

Each quick, little change she made, the whole herd made the exact same turn. It was glorious, liberating even. Her smile grew wide and open as she laughed and hollered, happier than she could ever remember being while the light bloomed to fill her vision…

Twilight Sparkle groaned and opened her eyes just a bit, slamming them shut an instant later from the shock of having woken up.

As far as she was concerned, there were three types of sleep. The most common type was when it was either too short or too light to achieve any level of real rest. The second most common type, even if it was sadly all too rare, left her refreshed and ready to face a day. Finally, there was the deepest, most entrancing form of sleep. This kind was where various factors managed to align themselves in a manner as to create such comfort that it rendered her body unable to do much of anything except long for a return to this state.

It was this third type that Twilight awoke from on this glorious day, deep in the sheets of Celestia’s bed. She could still feel her mentor’s wing over her despite her fellow alicorn not being present, a fact which she felt broke the sacred contract of supreme sleep she felt the universe had given her for the night. The incredibly intense morning sun was also breaking this most holy of contracts as it utterly bathed Celestia’s chambers in the purest light, leaking through her eyelids.

“When I become a princess… If. If I become a princess, because I’m definitely not resigning to that yet, nope, no way, still a big ‘If’… could I make a law that states the sun isn’t allowed to be bright until 10AM? Because that’s awfully tempting right now.”

She turned over a full three hundred sixty degrees as she further wrapped herself in Celestia’s fine silk sheets and attempted to return to the most blessed dreamland she’d ever visited. Her body, however, seemed to have other plans entirely. A vibration moved through her back for exactly two seconds. The frequency was very fast and tickled like a bunch of parasprites rolling up her spine.

This traitorous movement from her backside did not go unnoticed, but it did go ignored as she cuddled deeper into Celestia’s bed. She was utterly bound and determined to get back to sleep.

Until the vibration came back and actually did tickle her.

She grimaced as she stifled a laugh and opened her eyes back up. This was hopeless. “Alright, body, I’m up! I’m up!” she said to nopony, forcing herself out of the cocoon she’d made in the sheets. Slowly, she stretched out all her muscles to get ready for the day. Celestia had to work long into the night, so Twilight had used her more comfortable bed. Groggily, she stepped into the Princess’s bathroom, which was adjacent to the main room.

It was a little awkward maneuvering, truthfully, and brought what was happening to Twilight back into her main focus. The white porcelain and gold-laden, well, everything in the room was barely a distraction from the other overwhelming feature; every single piece in it was sized specifically for Celestia’s massive body type. To brush her teeth, she had to put her forehooves way up on the sink to just barely see herself in the mirror. To shower, she teleported herself into the tub rather than risk awkwardly stepping over the high rim. The tub itself was also easily wide enough for Celestia to lie down in: it was practically a swimming pool to Twilight. She wasn’t even about to contemplate the toilet. That could be solved with any of the public restrooms in the castle.

Yet, all that just constantly reminded her of one simple fact: it was highly likely she’d wind up just as huge in less than ten years. All the bright, reflective gold-leaf trim in the world couldn’t overcome the nerves she felt from her future staring her in her face. She’d never felt so relieved to be done with her morning routine.

As she stepped back out into the light beaming into the main room, the drowsy remnants of the night drained away with record speed, her energy returning. She breathed in deeply, and the air itself felt charged as it filled her lungs. She could even feel power warming her hooves as she felt the floor below. Whatever this new wind was, she liked it a lot. Nothing could even slow her down as she confidently took her first steps towards the giant double doors. Well, nothing except getting tickled again by her own body.

Her nose fell just short of kissing the floor below as her knees buckled from the sensation. Whatever this was, it was annoying beyond all reason and had to be stopped. She lifted herself back up and away from the compromising position and resumed her movement towards the door. Just before she got there, she noticed a piece of parchment stuck on the handle. Parchment on the outside of the door would be from a servant; since it was on the inside of the chambers, this must be from Celestia herself.

Twilight,

I moved your torc to my closet. When you wake, put it on and go meet your brother in his office. I want you to be at the general’s security briefing today. It will help you get up to speed.

Also, I want you to wear your torc anytime when you’re outside of our chambers, just in case anypony tries anything again. You can make it stay in torc form by being careful not to put any power into the gem in the center. That may take some getting used to.

— Celestia

The note struck Twilight as oddly informal for the Princess, but considering her new status and what Celestia had shared with her, it made a bit more sense. Regardless, orders were orders. She turned with a trot towards Celestia’s closet and then froze.

“Celestia’s closet.” She had to say the words out loud because they were just that important. The little room behind the door in front of her was perhaps one of the castle’s biggest secrets. For all she knew at this instance, it could be a portal to a place the size of Ponyville, holding a multi-millennial lifetime accumulation of clothing. Feelings from her first lesson with Celestia came rushing back to her as she gingerly opened and walked through the door to who-knew-where.

Torches lit automatically as she tip-hooved into… a walk-in closet. A few dresses were hung up, but there was nothing particularly special here; it was just a closet with a few large shelves and drawers. Two more steps into the closet and more torches lit the end of it. Now there was something special.

At the end of the closet was a magnificent golden dress arranged on a ponyquin so large it could only be modelling an alicorn. It shone so brightly in the torchlight Twilight had to avert her eyes or be blinded. A few steps closer let her see, through shielded eyes, that the reason it was so reflective was that the entire thing was made out of gold leaf. She couldn’t have even guessed as to its weight, there were so many layers. Enchantments and runes were etched directly into the metal. She hazarded a guess they were to increase durability, since gold leaf was notoriously fragile.

Rarity would either have a field day gushing over this thing or faint at the mere sight of it, and Twilight wasn’t sure which because it reflected too much light to get a good enough look at it.

She shook her head a little and focused on the much smaller ponyquin in front of her that held her torc. She really, really hated this part despite only having done it once before. Carefully, she lifted it up with her hooves so it wouldn’t send her flying and placed it gently around her neck. The cold, dark metal warmed a bit at the contact with her body, and the gem in the bottom center began to glow.

She yanked back on her magic and tried to completely stifle it, but the gem wasn’t having that. It actively pulled on her power, and before long, Twilight gave in and submitted to her unfortunate fate. The gem quickly absorbed magic from her body, and the wave of power she was already intimately familiar with washed over her body with its extreme chill and gut-wrenching nausea. She dropped her stance to get close to the ground and avoid a huge fall.

Panting, her muscles finally relaxed as the process completed. Whew. At least this time wasn’t quite as bad. She stood up in her full armor, trying to stretch in it. As before, its great weight and stiffness was completely overcome by its built-in magics, encumbering her very little and offering her nearly the full range of her movement. Annoying and even painful though it was to put on, once done, it was quite comfortable. The tickling in her back wasn’t, though, and it not only came back but did so under the armor which seemed to just make it worse.

Twilight shook it off and left, pausing only to realize that she just gotten to see in Princess Celestia’s personal closet. When she got to the chamber exit, she was smiling so wide she thought her grin might hit both sides of the door on the way out.

Trotting at a comfortable pace, she flung open the right of the double doors and exited the chambers, getting about halfway out before the powerful vibrations returned, painful instead of playful this time.

Dammit, would you stop that!” she yelled to nopony in particular. Nopony in particular, this time, took the form of three construction unicorns working on the wall to her left that were now staring right at her.

“Oh, sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean… Wait, what are you ponies doing? This is a secure area. Or it should be.”

The blue one off to the side of the other two spoke. He was clearly a supervisor based on his dress and demeanor. “Um, construction orders, ma’am. We’re supposed to be here.” He floated a document over to Twilight, which she picked up with her own magic.

The security certificate checked out, but these three were still far too nervous, and Twilight gave them a bit of a glare looking them over. She had a right to be nervous, given recent events.

“Looks like this checks out, but I’m still going to ask about it downstairs. That okay with you?”

The three nervously nodded under Twilight’s watchful gaze before returning to work. A spell blazed from one of the unicorns’ horn, drilling into the wall and destroying the ward on the large concrete-like brick. As the spell worked, Twilight stood frozen as a shot of pain ripped through her back. Just as the pony finished, the pain left her, and Twilight made the connection. It’s the spell they’re using! I can feel it! She spun around to face the ponies.

“What the hay are you three doing?!” she yelled.

The unicorns stopped and turned around, more nervous than before. The supervisor even swallowed before answering.

“The construction order said the wall needs to be removed. We need to break the wards on it before we can do that.”

“Wall removal? That’s fairly extreme. What for?”

“We don’t know. Different groups do small pieces of work in the castle. We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to know the whole plan! Honest!”

Twilight raised an accusatory hoof at them. “Then why are you three so nervous?” She blinked once and then looked at her armored hoof. “Oh. Angry, yelling, heavily-armored Grand Mage walking out of the Princess’s chamber. Right. Sorry, carry on, but I will be checking with the Guard anyway.”

She quickly turned away so they wouldn’t see her blush. Looks like that paper already solidified my reputation. My parents must be worried sick, she thought, running down the stairs of the tower. Whenever I’m in this armor, I’m going to have to remember that, in most respects, I’ve got the same authority as Celestia herself, not to mention the fact that I look prepared for a fight. It’s bound to make ponies nervous.

Even reaching the war room was proving to be a nerve-racking experience. Although the sensation in her spine faded and disappeared as she got farther from the ward-breaking ponies, the others still gave her nervous looks. She could almost feel them staring at her. That alone wasn’t enough to unnerve her, though. Ponies stared at Celestia’s pupil all the time. It wasn’t the same here. This was fear.

What’s going through their minds? she wondered. ‘Look out, here comes the prodigy of Celestia. Who knows what she’ll do?’ At least the normal castle ponies weren’t looking at her like that. They knew her well enough; it was only the temporary help that was so nervous.

As she rounded the corner towards the war room, oddly eager to be surrounded by military ponies, an urgent need sprang to mind. Something she absolutely had to do before going any farther.

She went around another corner and ducked in a public restroom.


Shining Armor was late. That wasn’t entirely unlike him, but most of the memories Twilight drew from came from before he joined the military. It was enough to make her restless and start rooting around his desk for spare paper. Twenty minutes later and she had finally completed the new spell formulation for the creation of solidified magic that crossed her mind after breaking half of Sweet Apple Acres’ windows.

She was about to roll it into a scroll and send it to the Princess when she remembered that Spike wasn’t there at the moment. Chuckling at her mistake, she went back to triple-check her work, yet found herself thinking more about its implications than the accuracy. This wasn’t some minor discovery, after all.

She sighed and slumped down in Shining’s chair. For a Guard Captain, he still kept his office spartan. His chair didn’t even have wheels or cushioning. Frustrated, she kicked it away and took a spot on the hardwood floor instead.

Papers laid out around her, she redoubled her efforts to triple-check, but again had her thoughts drift. Currently, solidified magic was used as fuel in large-scale generators and engines for airships in particular along with other industrial applications. It had to be stored carefully, or it could destabilize and detonate. More importantly, it was hugely expensive. To make a single rod of it took days of work from several unicorns, each of whom needed to have significant control over their magic.

This new method could be as much as ten times faster and drastically easier. This was the kind of thing that could send Equestria’s current Industrial Revolution into overdrive. The consequences to the economy and the entire nation would be drastic, and it was all in her hooves.

“This is way over my head. I need guidance from Celestia.” Resigned, she picked up the papers and poked her head out of her brother’s office. She looked around a little bit, her head low, and and finally walked out, convinced that there wasn’t a random guard that was going to yell “Royalty Arrived” in her ear again.

She kept low to the ground, moving around more like a cat than a pony. She managed to get in silently only by asking a castle guard to go in first and ask the war room door guard not to yell. Ducking around a corner, she found her second attempt to be less than successful as she came nose to nose with another guard.

Time slowed down, and the rest of the world waited as she watched his lungs fill up. Without even thinking, she rushed her hoof up and put it in front of his mouth. She shrunk a little lower and pleaded with her eyes, even putting her ears back on her head. His eyes darted around the room, leaving Twilight to wonder what he was thinking and whether training would win out.

Somehow, someone must have been looking out for her, as he relaxed his shoulders and nodded. Twilight practically flopped to the ground in relief. She still wasn’t used to the idea of ponies bowing to her, and her legs quivered in relief from not having to go through the entire floor of the war room doing it at once. She even gave him a small hug! Leaving the guard and his appreciative, yet goofy, grin behind, she set about searching for her brother, Celestia, or somepony else who could help.

She stood up sharply when she came to ‘her’ area, one of the most unnerving places in the whole world. The place where, for the last several years, probably since the war room was built after the changeling invasion, threats to her person were tracked and thwarted.

And the mare leading the team, Intelligentsia, just spotted her.

“Your majesty,” she said, bowing and causing the other two soldiers around the table to bow as well.

Damn, almost got away with it, she thought. “Please don’t bow, guys. I’m not comfortable with it. Or with being called ‘majesty.’”

Intelligentsia smiled. “Then you should probably issue a decree about how to address you. Grand Mages get to set their own addressing protocol until their final ascension. At that point, though, I’m afraid you may have to get used to it.”

She sighed again. “I have ten years before that happens. Let’s… go slow, please?”

The analyst smirked a bit. “You don’t have to ask. You outrank everypony in this room. To us, your word is a command that must be followed. For the Royal Guard, your rank is equivalent to ‘Captain,’ and in the regular military, it’s akin to ‘Grand General.’ The Day Guard will probably react about the same, but the Night Guard’s a different story, so be careful with them. They won’t be disrespectful… Well, probably anyway. They’re a rough lot, and they answer only to Princess Luna. Not even Celestia can give them orders.”

“I know all that.” She nodded, swallowing. “And it’s amazingly nerve wracking. I have no trouble leading my friends, but they want to follow me because I’m their friend. And on top of that, you’re all military ponies. If I give an order and screw up, ponies could get hurt.”

“Aye, ‘tis a risk,” one of the two Scotsponies spoke up. Twilight wasn’t sure if it was Double Blind or Feint Indication, but the other continued.

“An’ we already know all ‘at. We’d dae it anyway. It’s part ‘n’ parcel of th’ job.”

Twilight shook her head. “Still. I have to consider so much more now. Even fighting Discord, it was… It was like a pass-or-fail test. If I failed, then Equestria fell. What Celestia does is so much more complex. Even successes could lead to deaths. The decisions she has to make on a day-to-day basis, it’s just unreal.”

Intelligentsia walked up to Twilight and put a hoof on her shoulder. “Try analysing thousands of intelligence sources to find subtle clues hinting at threats to Princess Celestia’s prized student and devising ways to thwart them without said student ever finding out.”

Twilight cringed a bit. “I guess I’m preaching to the choir a little bit.”

“It’s honestly just a relief to know I don’t have to hide it from you anymore. But I’m sure you’re not here to just blow off steam. Was there anything we could help you with?”

Twilight perked up a bit. Help, that’s exactly what she needed. “Yes, actually!” She floated her new spell sheets over to her. “I need to know if it’s a good idea to publish this or not.”

“What is it?” one of the Scotsponies asked.

“It’s…” Twilight blinked. “Sorry, but which one are you?”

The two laughed together.

“I’m Double Blind,” one said.

“I’m Feint,” continued the other.

“Lying to the Grand Mage is an offense punishable by court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and imprisonment,” Intelligentsia quipped without even looking.

The two blinked. “Haw did ye know we were lying?” Feint asked.

“You just told me,” she deadpanned.

Both of them folded their ears back against their heads. “Sorry, ma’am,” they said in unison.

Twilight just rolled her eyes. “Eh, it’s not like anypony other than Intelligentsia could tell.”

The Lieutenant flipped a page in the bundle of papers. “Call me ‘Gen’ if you like. The Captain does.”

“That would actually bring me a lot of comfort, Gen. And thank you. For protecting me all these years.”

“It’s what we do, lass!” Feint smiled.

“Aye! Bein’ in th’ military is about protectin’ those ‘at need it. An’ ye needed it.”

Twilight lifted up a bit as if a weight had been taken from her. “I can’t believe I had ten ponies dedicated just to protecting me. It’s an honor, really.”

“Well, ten analysts.” Double motioned to the paper-covered walls. “The actual team in Ponyville protectin’ th’ Elements is a lot larger.”

“Wait, wait.” Twilight held a hoof up. “Hold on. There are more than ten ponies, ten Royal Guard, in Ponyville, right now?”

“Well,” Feint hesitated. “If ye really want tae know, there are one hundred fifty undercover Royal Guard stationed in Ponyville at this time, up from one hundred forty-five last year.”

“It takes a hundred and fifty ponies to protect us in Ponyville!?”

“Now, aye.” Double Blind pulled out a map of Ponyville and laid it out on the table. “They aren’t jist guards, though. They’re monitors. They go undercover an’ really watch th’ populace, looking for things ‘at are out of place. Each one looks like an ordinary citizen, but they’re checkin’ for things loch keywords in conversations, gaits, strangers, all sorts of things.”

Feint picked up the thread. “Each one is situated at a key location tae be able tae monitor an’ intercept potential threats. Many are pegasi,” he noted, pointing at various blue dots scattered about. “But we dae fae unicorns an’ earth ponies present as well. It started out with a much smaller team, but as th’ town’s grown, we’ve needed tae add more. It doesn’t look like it, but Ponyville’s honestly a more secure place tae live right noo than Canterlot, except for th’ castle itself.”

“But what about Pinkie Pie! She’s in Manehatten! And Rarity! She travels all over the world!”

Feint rushed over to her. “Hey, hey, relax. We’ve got it. There’s anither team of analysts dedicated tae th’ other Bearers, and let me tell ya, they aren’t in anywhere near th’ same level of danger. There’s anither field squad that follows Pinkie, an’ Ah hear that’s a huge challenge in an’ of itself.”

“And Rarity?” Twilight voice had far more force in it than she had anticipated.

“Her fencin’ skills aside, Rarity contracts out tae a reputable private security firm for protection. She’s in good hooves, Ah can promise ye.”

Twilight’s teeth ground together while her mind almost desperately searched for some kind of flaw, some avenue of vulnerability to her friends. Several seconds later, she relented and sighed, dropping her shoulders. “Alright, I trust you. I’m just, you know, worried about them.”

“Completely understandable, lass. Th’ last few weeks notwithstanding, we’ve got a good track record sae far. They’ll all be jist fi—”

A loud thump coming from Intelligentsia’s hoof hitting the table interrupted Double Blind, and the other three ponies looked at her with not a small amount of worry, especially Twilight. She was straining to keep herself upright by leaning on it but failing just a bit. Even the orange glow of her magic was flickering.

“Lieutenant? Are ye alright?” asked Feint, walking up to her.

“Twilight.” She coughed and swallowed, shaking the papers a little and turning the page to face their author. “Are these estimates accurate?”

Twilight blinked. “Well, I haven’t run a full analysis yet, and there are a lot of variables that can affect things, but I’d say it’s within at least one point five sigma.”

The color ran right out of Intelligentsia’s face.

“Um, what’s a sigma?” Feint asked.

“Pfft. Ye ne’er studied, did ye?” Double Blind groaned.

“What? Ye two are th’ math ponies. I’m psy-ops. Sae what’s a sigma?”

“What she means,” Double said, reaching over and putting on some glasses, “is ‘at whatever she’s estimatin’ in those papers will be within er guesses at least eighty-six percent of th’ time.”

“Oh come on,” he snorted. “There’s nae way under Celestia’s sun ye jist knew ‘at number off th’ top of yer head.”

“‘Course Ah did. I know how tae do math. You’re th’ one who couldn’t calculate yer way out of a paper bag.”

Enough!” Intelligentsia screamed then straightened and composed herself. “Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t advise you on your discovery in terms of whether to publicly release it. If you weren’t the Grand Mage and this was a more casual conversation, I’d advise you to start up your own company. You’d be rich beyond your wildest dreams in weeks. As it stands, I have to recommend you pass this on to the Princess.”

Twilight sighed. “I was afraid of that. Does anypony know where she is?”

“Aye,” Double replied. “She’s in a cooncil hearing with yer brother. They’re investigatin’ th’ coup attempt.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, crap. That explains where Shiny was at instead of at our scheduled meeting. And I suppose I’m now legally able to wander into that, but it would be kind of rude to do for something like this.”

Intelligentsia smiled. “Now that I can help you with. Just give me a few seconds…”

An orange light swirled around her horn and the bundle of papers, now wrapped into a tube. Twilight recognized it as a weak seal with a built-in magical ‘signature.’ It would keep the bundle together, but it wasn’t meant as a lock. Rather, the signature was meant to be complex enough to be exceedingly difficult to forge. If anypony got ahold of the papers, they could easily open it but wouldn’t be able to restore the seal in a way that would have anypony that knew Intelligentsia’s seal believe it.

“There. Now then.” She picked up the bundle and walked out of the alcove, waving towards the exit.

“Smuka la dolat! Shimmel!”

Twilight scratched her head. “That doesn’t sound like any language I know…”

“Tha’s ‘cuz it isn’t!” Double interjected.

“Yeah, there’s spells on each alcove here for privacy,” Feint continued. “A lot of stuff that we work on is need-to-know, sae if you’re to far out of th’ alcove you can’t tell what we’re sayin’, or vice versa. It all jist sounds like background noise, or scrambled speech if it’s tay loud. Only thin’ ‘at gets through is th’ room guards’ yell ‘cause of a spell on ‘em. In fact, we gab about your ascension here from time ta time, but of all th’ war room ponies, only th’ ten of us know about it.”

“Hmmm… What about when I came here right after the attack?”

Double smiled. “Gud question! Th’ spells can be shut doon for disasters sae we can all communicate easier. Other things took priority ‘at day, I’m afraid.”

Intelligentsia stepped back in, an armored pegasus guard member in tow. “Officer, introduce yourself.”

His wing snapped into a salute. “Ma’am! Straight Shot, officer second class, ma’am!”

“Very good! Now then.” She put Twilight’s notes into a small compartment in the guard’s armor. “Straight Shot, here are your orders: you are to take these to the Princess’ chambers, and wait there for her until she returns to them. When she does, you are to deliver these papers to the Princess and state that they are from our Grand Mage and they need to be reviewed at her earliest convenience.”

“Actually.” Twilight put a hoof up. “Just when she has the free time. I don’t think it’s important enough for her to drop other things for, given what’s going on.”

“Fair enough,” Intelligentsia replied. “Now then. You are not to make any detours. You are not to show the papers to anypony, no matter what, and you are not to discuss what your mission is with anypony else. Is that clear?”

His wing snapped into another salute.

“Very good. Get moving.”

After he left the alcove, Twilight couldn’t help but ask, “Why all the strictness?”

Intelligentsia shook her head. “You just outlined a way to make solidified magic a couple orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than current methods, Twilight. That’s explosive stuff, even if it’s made of paper. We’re talking about taking an expensive source of magical power storage and making it cheap. Airships will be able to operate at a fifth the current cost if not less.”

The two stallions in the room stumbled back.

“Bloody heel!” Feint choked. “So, what, our Grand Mage upends civilization in ‘er spare time?”

“It sure seems that way.” Gen smirked. “Imagine what she’ll do once Luna trains her.”

Double’s jaw was just hanging open while his doppelganger kept going. “Buck me. Tha’s it, I’m gettin’ outta th’ stock market for good.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “That still doesn’t quite answer my question, though. You were abnormally specific to Straight, far more so than I would have thought.”

The analyst took off her uniform hat and stretched. “Have you ever gotten caught for breaking a rule, even though everypony around you was doing the same thing?”

The ascendant shuddered. “Oh, yes. Definitely. I remember this one time back when I was a filly at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. They had just put in this new cafeteria, and it had one set of doors you were only supposed to use to enter and one set for an exit. But, there weren’t any signs, so I didn’t know. This one group of older fillies, teenagers, walked right in the cafeteria through the exit doors, saying hello to the vice principal as they did it. He waved at them and said hello back. When I tried to go in after them, I got yelled at, saying I couldn’t break the rules just because I was the Princess’ student. I mean, come on! I’m smart, not psychic!”

“Just the kind of example I’m talking about!” Gen smiled. “Straight Shot is like that, only taken to an extreme. Whenever he breaks the rules, even slightly, he’s always caught in one way or another. So his personality is as by-the-book as you get. Your papers are in excellent hooves, Twilight.”

Feint chuckled. “If those fillies were ‘at much older, Ah can think of a reason he let them in.”

Twilight could feel her eyes go wide at the realization. “Ugh! EW! I didn’t even think of— That just makes it worse!”

“Perverts are everywhere, lass,” Double laughed. “Best git used to it.”

“Perverts, you mean males, right?” Gen quipped.

“Hey now!” Feint protested, grappling Double by the shoulders. “It’s not fair ta judge all stallions based jist on Dub ‘ere.”

“Whit!?” He slapped his forehooves off of him. “Two words, Feint. Mint. Toothpaste.”

“That’s jist an unfounded rumor!”

“Yeah, ‘cause I know ye use cinnamon toothpaste!”

Ahem!” Intelligentsia barked, silencing them then dropping into a bow at something behind Twilight. “I am sorry about them, Your Highness.”

Twilight froze and slowly turned around. Princess Luna had indeed stepped into the alcove along with a rather large, older stallion she didn’t recognize at first. His uniform, however, told her exactly who he was. The white shirt with red stash, gold tassels on his shoulders, five gold stars on the left side of his chest, and the scimitar on his side could only add up to one thing: this was Grand General Blueblood, grandfather to the Prince, a Count of Canterlot, and the supreme commander of all the Equestrian military, answering only to Princess Celestia herself.

She took a cautious step back, uncertain of exactly what to say to him. His grandson had made it extremely clear that he thought she was undeserving of being Celestia’s student along with other feelings of indignation based on her family’s nonexistent nobility status. This stallion, however, was more of a mystery. She knew he was old, at over a century, but was still an immensely powerful mage. She also knew his somewhat-long facial hair was kind of silly with his sideburns meeting his mustache in a curve. His white coat and totally grey mane gave him the true appearance of an aged noble, but the few times they had interacted was when she was a filly, and that was barely even small talk and only a couple of sentences at that.

Fortunately, Luna broke her concentration with a laugh.

“Ha! ‘Tis quite alright, Lieutenant. I got a good laugh from it, and—”

“Is that a bonded artifact!?”

Twilight’s jaw dropped open. Grand General Blueblood had just interrupted Princess Luna, and she did not look pleased. She was so stunned it took her several seconds to realize the general wasn’t talking to the Princess, he was talking to her!

“Oh, um.” She coughed, trying to catch up to the actual question. He was plainly looking at the gem embedded in her armor, and something clicked. “Yeah, it might be…”

Luna swatted the general upside his head with a forehoof. “We wanted her to figure it out on her own!

Twilight swallowed. Bonded artifacts were among the rarest and most powerful of magical artifacts. Before, she had assumed it was a cored artifact with extensive enhancements, given the gem power source, but bonded artifacts also used ultra-high-quality gems as a core. “Wait.” She held up a hoof. “I thought bonded artifacts were empathic with their owners, and had to be made using their owner’s own magic. That’s how the bond is formed.”

“You are correct,” Luna said, rubbing her temple. “That torc was created for you when you first became Celestia’s student. She took samples of your magic as you slept. It’s been in storage ever since, although, over the course of time, both Sister and myself have been adding extra enchantments. The time spent apart from you meant it would take a while for the connection to really establish itself, but we hoped it would happen faster and more naturally if you discovered it on your own. A luxury which we don’t have anymore.” She glared at Blueblood, who was still intently staring at the gem.

“My apologies,” he replied, not even turning his head. “My great-grandfather owned a bonded blade. I still have it. It’s extremely rare to see a new one.”

Twilight covered the gem with her hoof to get him to stop staring. “I’m not surprised. They tend to be powerful and kept out of sight by their owners unless they need them. I’ve read about them, but never seen one before. Not even in a museum. Or at least, I thought I hadn’t seen one before. It’s hard to believe I’ve ‘had’ one all this time. And I wish I knew how to make it stop deploying whenever I put it on.”

“Well,” Luna coughed. “Technically you’ve seen another before. My torc is, indeed, a piece of bonded armor, made to replace the armor you shattered with the Elements of Harmony. And, since the secret is out, I suppose I can let you in on another secret. Your torc will grow and change as you do, and your connection with it, as it develops, will let you command it more easily. For now, though, you can force it into dormancy by yanking back hard on the power it takes from you.”

“Wait, what?!” Twilight protested. “Wouldn’t that just break the gem?”

“Bonded artifacts are considerably more durable than mere cored weapons.” The general was still staring a bit. “Cored artifacts are physical things housing pre-made spells with a trigger and a power source. Powerful, but rudimentary compared to what you’re wearing. It will take a lot more than that to break your torc. I’m honestly surprised they gave you yours already, given how little the Princesses use theirs. Luna’s is real, but Celestia only rarely dons her real torc.”

That, General,” Luna sneered at him, “is because when Tia deploys her armor, even accidentally, she vaporizes everything nearby.”

Twilight swallowed. “Everything? But then will—”

“No, your torc is perfectly safe for those around you, Twilight. You do not yet possess enough power to be so passively destructive. In fact, there’s no way to even tell if it will ever be destructive at all. It is utterly unique to you. As for the matter of it deploying automatically, that is odd, but also fixable. Here, allow me.” Luna knelt down and pointed her horn at the deployed torc’s gem and started siphoning some power out of it.

Twilight jumped a little at the light and the cold feeling as if her armor had turned to glowing ice water and was flowing back into her torc. Just a couple of seconds later, it was over, and her torc rested undeployed on her shoulders while a strand of purple magic spat out of the gem before fizzling into nothingness. She got the feeling the torc didn’t much like that, but she didn’t care. She was finally able to wear it without looking like she was ready to walk into a war zone.

She dipped into a quick bow. “Thank you, Luna!”

“Huzzah! She called me Luna!” the Princess said with a laugh, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “We’ll make an alicorn of you yet!”

Twilight smiled and then jolted a bit in shock, remembering Blueblood was within the alcove’s borders.

Luna looked up at Blueblood for a moment and then turned back to Twilight. “Yes, he knows. The other generals do not nor does most of the council. More to the point, though, he’s here because your brother is going to be extremely busy in the near future. The council has launched a thorough and aggressive inquisition into the attack on Canterlot, and I’m afraid Shining Armor is going to have to devote nearly all of his time to that. As such, Grand General Blueblood here will be temporarily taking over the Royal Guard so Shining Armor can focus. While we train, I will be providing the briefings he was to give you, summarized to save time.”

“Oh. Okay. I hadn’t realized things were getting that serious.” She squirmed a little in place over worry for her brother.

“I’m afraid so. As I understand it, he was the first non-noble to lead the Guard in hundreds of years. I hear it caused quite a bit of an uproar when sister chose him.”

“That is an understatement!” Blueblood stomped a hoof. “Celestia defied the Council to have him installed. Regardless of his marriage to a princess, I’m afraid they will not be gentle.”

Luna nodded. “Perhaps. Sister is confident in him, though, and she should be able to shield him politically.”

“Um,” Twilight scuffed a hoof on the floor. “Aren’t you confident in him, too?”

“Indeed I am!” the Princess yelled. “However, I do not have any vote nor any say with the council in military matters. Also, if you were seeking endorsements, I would imagine that getting a cheese sandwich to vouch for him would do more good than Us. We are only a nine-thousand-year-old alicorn with incomparable combat experience. The pampered council of hedonists does not consider Us to be a worthy source of consult. Nay, they cower before Us like mewling foals, demanding that We have no military command, save our meager Night Guard! Tell us, how are We supposed to protected Our beloved ponies in the nighttime with a pittance of fifty soldiers!?”

The Grand Mage chuckled nervously. “Sorry. I forgot about your… status.”

Luna’s wings went a little limp. “Forgive me, Twilight. You do not deserve such, most of all from me. I am merely frustrated, nothing more.”

She nodded. “I understand. It’s never simple, I guess.”

“No, never,” both the Princess and the General said in unison, looking briefly at each other afterward.

Blueblood broke the awkwardness first by turning to leave. “I shall see you later, then, Grand Mage. I look forward to seeing how you perform as a leader.”

Careful, General.” Luna warned. “You’re going to be bowing to her and calling her ‘Majesty’ within a decade.”

“Indeed,” he said, walking away.

A few more seconds passed before anypony said anything more.

“Who went an’ stuck a bug up his butt?” Double Blind asked.

Blind!” Gen snapped while Luna laughed.

“Proper context is required, I suppose. When I returned as Nightmare Moon, one of my first actions was to humiliate him in front of his troops. Classified though the event is, he’s never quite forgiven me. Still, we are wasting time here. Twilight, if you would accompany me? You have much to learn and little time to do it in.”

Twilight chuckled a little. “Luna, you just basically described my whole life.”

Tours and Tests

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“Not that way, Twilight. This way. I want to show you something.”

Twilight stopped mid-step and turned left to follow Luna, still shaking off the daze the portal to the war room seemed to leave her with recently. “Okay, but, what? After the war room, I’ve seen basically all of the castle.”

Luna smiled. “You didn’t know we’ve been quietly adding on over the past few months, did you?”

“Really?”

“Indeed! The recent attack did enough damage, however, that we have decided to expand more seriously. Up until now, these recent additions have been small and easily missed. Also, easier to pass in the budget.”

“Ah, so that’s what those construction ponies by Celestia’s chambers were doing!”

Luna hopped a little around a corner. “Indeed! Tia wants to do something with that wall. I’m glad the construction ponies are already there. It means things are, for once, on schedule.”

Twilight allowed herself a little chuckle as they rounded a corner. Further off to her left was indeed a new doorway with sunlight pouring through its glass center. They ducked in, and she saw it was a hallway that, instead of walls, had floor-to-ceiling windows. The “outside” of the hall had a very splendid view of the gardens, though there was still a crater that had yet to be filled in. The “inside” of the hall, to her right, had a small courtyard with some fancy plants and flowers. Ahead of her, the hall made a turn to the right to close the courtyard in.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Luna said, approaching the turn of the hall, her pace slowing before coming to a stop at a corner. “This was actually one of the earlier additions, before the battle. Not only is it a shortcut to the administration offices, it gives a much nicer view.”

“It is nice,” Twilight said, wincing a little. Something’s off here. It does look nice, so why does Luna sound so nervous?

Long seconds passed while Luna’s grin slowly faded, never turning away from the garden view. After it had been gone some time, the Princess finally turned back to Twilight.

“I’m afraid I have some troublesome news, Twilight. I didn’t want to tell you this right after you raised the moon. You just looked so happy. And, well, to be fair you were also catatonic. But I didn’t let you borrow my moon simply for enjoyment. It was an evaluation.”

Twilight’s body froze, and her heart stopped for exactly two seconds, then raced northward of a hundred thirty beats per minute. In all of her life, she had never failed a test. Not once did she ever get a paper returned to her with an “F” on it, nor anything less than an “A-”, and that black mark on her record was an accident that left her traumatized for a month. Even on things that weren’t on paper, she’d never, ever, come back with anything less than flying colors.

Technically, the Princess didn’t say the t-word, nor the f-word, but “evaluation” and “troublesome news” were clear enough.

Luna sunk her head down a little. “Tia warned me about using the word ‘test.’ I guess I didn’t change it enough.”

One hundred forty beats per minute.

Two silver-clad hooves gripped her shoulders, and the hairs on the back of her neck shot up straight. Luna was using her magic sight.

“Twilight, listen to me. Our alicorn senses provide us with tremendous insight into the magic of our world. I can tell that you now have the magic of all three tribes within you, and that all of them are growing. When you first arrived here at the castle, it was so faint I was worried I was imagining it. Now, it’s clear your wellspring is birthing unicorn, pegasus, and earth pony magic. Your body’s leylines are growing, too. They are brightest for the ones carrying unicorn magic to your horn, but I can see that there are new leylines now. They are carrying your new earth pony and pegasus magic to your skin, hooves, and spine. I can see the very core of your wellspring shining far brighter than that of other ponies, even far beyond that of your friend Rainbow Dash, and of your brother. Yet there are many things these senses cannot do.”

Luna shut off the sight and the hairs on the back of her neck collapsed right in sync with the rest of her, slumping down to the ground. The Princess laid down next to her to look her in the eye.

“The sight cannot tell me how much control you have over your magic. It cannot tell me how well you can understand my poems. And, it cannot tell me how fast you can draw from your wellspring at once. These things I had to see for myself, so I gave you the greatest challenge I could without endangering you: I had you raise the moon.”

The smaller mare swallowed. “Is… is that what you were—” She swallowed again. “Testing me on?”

Luna nodded. “Indeed. I must admit, in the first two fields, control and interpretation, you exceeded all my expectations.”

“But…” she squeaked.

However,” she replied, softening her voice. “I have drastically overestimated the rate at which you are able to pull magic from your wellspring. I honestly did not expect you to take so long to fill that magic circle. I was guessing thirty seconds, at most. Instead, it was over three and a half minutes. This is my fault, not yours. I used your brother, a soldier, as a baseline.”

“Oh.” Her voice was soft, but her heart was pounding. “I’ve hardly ever let myself use my wellspring like that. When I was a filly, I had an… I had an accident, and temporarily turned my parents into plants. So I always held back. I practiced limiting myself. Tried to get things done with the smallest amount of magic possible. I…” She trailed off for a moment, sniffling and rubbing her stiff, aching neck. “How bad? How behind am I?”

“The truth?” Luna asked.

Twilight tried to nod, but failed from her neck being just that seized up. “The truth,” she whispered.

Luna sighed, her wings drooping a little. “Thou art a fire hose. Respectable in any reasonable sense. Thy brother, on the other hoof, is a hydroelectric dam outflow during a flood.”

Twilight laid her head down on her forelegs, her strength waning.

“Again, this is not your fault, Twilight. I should have realized that a scientist and, in Celly’s words, ‘a ravenous bookworm,’ would be used to taking her time with smaller quantities of magic. Control over power. I forgot that even though you two are as close as any siblings I’ve ever met, your worlds are totally different.”

Twilight tried to stand again, but just slid back down. “So… you can’t teach me?” she asked, fighting back her tears.

Luna sat up and lifted Twilight head with her silver-clad hooves. “Twilight, on my crown, I promise you: I will teach you. You are going to learn more in these three months than you had ever thought possible. The only thing this changes is what I’m going to teach you.”

Luna’s words helped, but only just. Twilight locked her gaze on the Princess’s kind eyes. Only when she saw no hint of anger or disappointment did she managed to calm her shaking.

“The difference here, Twilight, is that you are simply not ready to use my alicorn spells in a combat situation. Since we have a limited amount of time to get you ready, I am going to be teaching you more contemporary unicorn battle magic, and working in alicorn powers when I can. I will also be focusing quite a bit on a rather accelerated program of combat basics. One can know all the spells in the world, but in a battle it’s useless when you don’t understand the timing, the rhythm of battle.”

Twilight put her ears back on her head and looked down at her hooves. “So I’m not going to get to learn your spells.”

The Princess shook her head. “Not yet, I am afraid. However, I am not opposed to teaching you them when the time comes. Be patient.” Luna paused a moment, her body going temporarily rigid. “Ye Gods does it sound awkward for me to be saying that to somepony.”

“You know,” her voice cracked, desperately trying to stay steady in an attempt to save face. “I once lifted an Ursa Minor. Sent it back home.”

That only earned a smirk. “I heard. I also heard that it took every ounce of your might to pull it off.”

“Well, yeah.” She scratched the back of her neck with a hoof. “I mean, it was an Ursa.”

“Ursas are dangerous and nigh-indestructible, yes, but they’re also… What was that delightful phrase Applejack once used? Ah yes, ‘dumber than a sack of hammers.’ But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you were using that much magic in a spell while in combat.” Luna leaned down, putting her muzzle right in front of Twilight’s. “How tempting a target do you think you would be while standing there defenseless, casting away? What if an enemy soldier rushed you, and tried to run a spear through your skull? What if he merely bopped your horn? What would happen?”

She bit her lip. “Well, I’d either be killed, or the spell would fail and, probably, explode.”

Luna kept looking at her.

“Explode, right on the tip of my horn,” she finished.

“Correct!”

Luna raised her neck and Twilight exhaled, grateful for the personal space back.

“In truth, an inexperienced unicorn can only expect a small portion of their might to be available for spells in a battle. This can be increased with experience, but one needs to be able to cast while moving and fighting. Most soldiers are smarter than ursas. They will go after you and look for openings, especially if you’re fully absorbed in casting a spell.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”

“To wit, I have been discussing the matter with your brother, and we have come up with a training plan that should work for our purposes.”

Uh-oh. Twilight had teased him about his drills in the past. Not maliciously, really, but she had still done it. When he was getting in shape to join the military academy, she had made it a point to bring a cold drink and slurp it while reading near him. A part of it was simply wanting to be with her brother before he left, but the fact remained, she still teased him about it a bit. There could be no doubt in her mind. This was going to be excruciating.

“The good news is that even when only looking at you as a unicorn apprentice, you are still quite strong. The bad news is, spells alone will not be enough, though spells you will learn.”

Yeah, I’m in for it now.

“In fact, I’ve invited—”

Luna’s words were cut off by the sound of a door opening down the hall, followed by a mare with her nose in the air, leading a whole herd of foals. Twilight quickly sat up before they could get close enough to catch her lying down.

“Come quickly, children. Keep up.”

The foals didn’t listen to her teacher at all. The moment they spotted Princess Luna, the ones in the front stopped walking and dropped into a deep bow. The rest of the group quickly followed suit once they could see her, too.

“I said, keep u—” The mare leading them finally opened her eyes and saw what the foals were doing, then snapped back to look in front of her with a sickly, terrified look on her face. Sure enough, a split second later, she was on the ground, too.

“A thousand pardons, your majesty. I didn’t see you there.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. Your eyes were closed. I’ve never understood that, really.” She turned to Twilight. “When did it become in vogue to walk around and bump into things because one is too self-important to watch where they are going? It’s a wonder we don’t lose dozens from tripping off the edge of the city.”

“Well, don’t look at me!” Twilight laughed. “I walk around bumping into things because my head’s buried in a book.”

“Ha ha! Fair enough. Everypony, you may rise. I apologize for making you bow for so long. Tell me, does this mean my sister has seen fit to restart the school tours of the castle?”

“Er, yes, Your Majesty,” the mare who appeared to be the foals’ teacher replied. “We’re from PS 47 in Manehatten.”

“Manehatten?” Twilight tilted her head. “Your accent is definitely a Canterlot one.”

“I grew up here, yes, but moved a few years ago when my husband was transferred. As Her Majesty said, we’re doing field trips for the classes to see the castle.”

“Well then!” Luna stood up and walked up to the foals, and to the side of the teacher. “Hello, everypony! My name is Princess Luna. Welcome to my home. Before you ask, yes, I am an alicorn. Yes, I was banished to the moon at one point. No, it was not pleasant, and yes, I am thousands of years old.”

Twilight chuckled a little. Clearly, the Princess had done this a million times before.

“And the pony next to me is Twilight Sparkle. She is my sister’s personal student and the next candidate to be Grand Mage. Would anypony like to ask her a question?”

She, however, had not.

A half-dozen hooves went up into the air.

Oh, Tartarus.

“Yes, you in the back!” Luna said, pointing to a unicorn colt.

Princess, why are you doing this to me?

“What’s a Grand Mage?” the foal asked.

Twilight swallowed. It was a simple, but excellent question. She’d yet to really condense the public version of her new title down to a short answer, and telling them that she was an alicorn ascendant was right out.

“Well, that’s a good question,” she stammered. “In a manner of speaking, I’m a sort of agent or proxy for the Princesses. But I suppose that’s a little obtuse, heh heh.” Hurry up and think of something they can understand!

Luna giggled. “It’s like this, children.”

Oh thank you Luna!

“When a pony has proven themselves worthy in heart, mind, and soul, we make them what we call a ‘Grand Mage.’ A Grand Mage has most of the legal power of the crown, except for two important things: they do not get a vote in the Council, and they may not declare war. Although incidentally, if she were to declare war on cauliflower, I’d be behind her one hundred percent.”

Twilight stared at her flatly while the foals all laughed.

“What?” The Princess raised a hoof to her chest. “I hate cauliflower. It is a vegetable most foul, with a bland taste and a texture that only wishes it could be broccoli!”

“I’m not declaring war on a vegetable, Luna. For one, I like cauliflower!”

“Foo. I’ve been waiting for a tie-breaking vote on that with Tia for millennia.”

Twilight sighed and walked up to speak to the chuckling foals more directly. “More or less, kids, a Grand Mage is somepony the Princesses can turn to when very nasty problems pop up. Starswirl was a trusted advisor on matters of the highest forms of magic. Crimson served Celestia in the Lunar Rebellions as a fierce warrior—”

Pfft. Fierce.” Luna rolled her eyes. “I was there, and I’ve had cats more fierce than he.”

The foals giggled more. I thought Princess Celestia was supposed to be the maternal one!

“And Stellar Horizon was a skilled negotiator and diplomat. I’m not sure what the Princesses have in mind for me yet, but I’m eager to help in any way I can. Next question?” A bunch of them put up their hooves, and Luna pointed to one near the wall. “Yes, you?”

The little foal lowered her hoof. “We saw a big stack of papers in the throne room. Are you going to have to help them with their paperwork?”

“Well…” Twilight trailed off. She hadn’t actually considered that. Would she have to do that?

Luna cut in. “Only if she’s been bad. Then we’ll make her do paperwork!”

Even the teacher giggled at that one. Somepony shoot me.

“Okay, everypony, I think we’ve bothered their highnesses enough. Let’s move along, we have more to see!”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief as the foals all started to follow their teacher out the other end of the hall. One foal, however, was still sitting, looking up at the ceiling with his wings twitching slightly. Huh. Odd. If I recall right, the other foals were all unicorns and earth ponies.

“Come along, Sky Painter!” The colt got up and started to walk. “Don’t stare like that around the Princesses! It’s rude!”

“Halt!” Luna yelled, making Twilight jump back a little. The tone wasn’t pleasant like the one a mere moment before. This was sharp, commanding. Almost angry, and certainly enough to get not only the colt but the entire tour group to stop dead in their tracks.

The diarch’s eyes opened and she glared at the teacher. “You walk with your nose in the air. Yet, when you see your young pegasus charge looking up, you fail to even check what he is looking at. Pitiful.”

Wait. I didn’t check what he was looking at, either.

Twilight, the teacher, and all the foals all turned their heads skywards, and gasped.

Painted on the ceiling was a winding mural, covering the surface all the way to both ends of the hall. There were small ponies everywhere, painted with exquisite detail for images so tiny. On the left was Cloudsdale in sunny daylight, with a blue sky, puffy white clouds, and rainbow falls showering down. On the right was Canterlot, steeped in night yet awash with the moon’s light casting shadows from the towers.

How did I miss this!?

Luna motioned with a hoof towards the mural. “It is a most curious thing, but true all the same. Simply put, few earth ponies and unicorns ever bother to look up. They miss so much that pegasi—and alicorns—see, notice, and appreciate.” She moved her hoof around in a little swirl-like pattern as she spoke, then stepped up to the colt.

Twilight gulped.

“You should not scold him for finding something that you could not will yourself to notice. Something that, I hope, you will include in your tour in the future.”

The teacher bowed so deep she was practically laying flat on the floor. “Of course, your highness. Please, forgive me.”

“It is done,” the Princess assured in a flat, matter-of-fact tone, just before the little foal tapped her on the knee. “Yes? Didst thou have a question?”

“Um,” the colt squeaked. “Miss Luna, did you paint that?”

The teacher jumped in. “I’m so, so sorry, your highness. He doesn’t know how rude he’s being. I’ll—”

The Princess’s hoof shot up faster than Twilight’s eye could see, stopping itself right in front of the teacher’s instantly hushed lips. “Stifle.” It was a single word in a simple command, but it was spoken with such force and authority it felt as though the world itself would obey. The teacher silenced, the Princess lowered her head all the way down to the colt’s eye level. “Be not afraid, young one. I shall not hurt thee. You are safe, and I am not mad at you. But, before I answer your question, I must ask you one of my own. Why do you think I was the one to paint this mural?”

The little colt scooted away a bit, his head down and his back arched in fear. “Um, well, it’s just when you waved your hoof around, there’s a little swirl just like it in the painting. Also, there’s a big pony with your color on that one cloud in Cloudsdale, sleeping in the day. So I kinda thought it was supposed to be you, but as a pegasus.”

A few more seconds passed while Luna just stared at him, then finally, she smiled and lifted her head, and the tension just evaporated.

“Well, Sky Painter, I must say, you are very observant. And yes, I did indeed paint this mural! I am also quite impressed that you could see such detail! I was able to add many touches during the slow nights of my Court, and it warms my heart to know that somepony appreciates it as you do. If you are ever in Canterlot again, find one of my Night Guard. If I am available, I would love to give you a tour myself. I promise, my stories of these hallowed halls are far more interesting than what your teacher is telling you.”

“Yes, ma’am!” The colt rebounded almost right away at the praise, smiling and practically bouncing up to his hooves.

“Wonderful! I look forward to it! Now, go along with your teacher. I’ve kept you long enough.” Luna scooted him along a bit with a hoof, and he galloped off towards the group that shortly left the hall and went out of earshot.

“Let me guess,” Twilight started with a grin. “You’ve had foals too?”

Luna snorted. “Heavens no. I couldn’t stand it. I mean, first there’s foalbirth in and of itself, but then, diapers? The crying? No, no no no no. I could never. Tia was always the nurturing one. I’ve just picked up a few things along the way, that’s all.”

Twilight blinked. “Huh. Were you ever married?”

“No again, Twilight Sparkle. It is not in my nature, I’m afraid. I am not a loyal lover. I do not take on a mate for a long period of time. I find somepony I like, I couple, and I move on.”

The ascendant shuddered. “When you say couple, you mean—”

“Intercourse, yes. And yes, I still do it. And no, I won’t tell you who. Even Tia doesn’t know. Well, at least I don’t think she does. I do make quite an effort to be discrete. Open relations with a Princess tends to bring it’s own set of troubles, and if I like a pony enough to be intimate with them, I like them enough to not wish such things on them.”

“I can imagine.” Twilight brought her hooves to her head as a very explicit image popped into her mind. “Unfortunately.”

Luna latched onto that immediately. “Oh my! Having naughty thoughts about thy princess, are we?”

“Gah! No! Well, yes, but not intentionally!”

The Princess just laughed. “Oh, Tia is right! You are easily flustered! Be at ease, Twilight! If it was a crime to have lewd thoughts about a princess, I’d imagine at least a third of Equestria would be behind bars! Perhaps nine-tenths if you count Cadence.”

An equally unfortunate image of Cadence ran through Twilight’s mind as she groaned, giving up. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I know I am, but I shall spare you further thoughts. Come, I have a lesson to teach, and you,” she poked a hoof in Twilight’s chest, “have much to learn.”

The Trials of Heart and Stone

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Twilight stumbled forward a bit from the teleportation shock; this transition hadn’t been quite as smooth as Luna’s normal work. When she recovered, she found herself with Luna in the middle of a rather idyllic prairie. Tall green grasses covered its small hills and extended out for miles on end, with mountains she couldn’t recognize barely visible in the far distance. Slow-moving rivers gently flowed and criss-crossed the whole thing, with random small clusters of dense trees providing extra greenery in spots. Even the weather was a perfect late spring warm with a nice brisk breeze and partly cloudy skies. If she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought Luna had hired several pegasus weather teams to arrange it.

“Where are we, exactly?” she asked.

Luna smiled. “Far, far away, Twilight Sparkle. We are literally tens of thousands of kilometers away from the farthest vestiges of civilization. How far exactly is impossible to determine thanks to Discord’s damage to the world, but to put things in perspective, we are far enough that if Celestia were to perform Sol Invictus here, none of our ponies would feel it.”

“Whoa. No wonder I’m dizzy.”

“I apologize if you felt any discomfort. ‘Twas not my intent. Rather, I brought you here because it is ideal for our first combat lesson. For today, we will be focusing on the basics, which means we should keep matters simple. No complicated use of cover or fighting in close quarters. That the weather is pleasant is just a bonus.”

Twilight stood and walked a few steps up to the top of the nearby hill. “Well, at least it’s a nice bonus. I have to say, this place is something else. What other places do you and Celestia have tucked away in your teleportation spells?”

Luna laughed and covered her mouth with her silver-clad hoof. “Oh Twilight, that’s not how our teleportation works at all. This is simply an easy to find locale along the leylines. It’s just after a major locus, or intersection of several different paths.”

“Leylines? Why do those matter?” she asked, correcting her head tilt just before Luna looked at her.

“First, why don’t you tell me what you know of them?”

Twilight sat down, thinking back to her books while the wind blew through her mane. “They’re currents of magic that run just underneath the ground and form a kind of lattice around the world. I once tried to find a way to tap into them to jumpstart a… project. Eh, heh, heh.” she sighed. “I found out the hard way that my professor was right when he said they’re too powerful and unruly to be controlled.”

The purple mare took a step back upon seeing Luna’s grin.

“That’s not exactly true, Twilight. Alicorns can use them. It’s what Tia and I use to travel around the world with teleportation.”

Wind blew through the scattered trees and grasses underneath her hooves, catching her slightly overgrown mane and wafting it in front of her eyes as her mind ran through a revolution of spell formulas.

Luna broke into a another fit of giggles. “Don’t worry, we’ll show you how we do it after you ascend. Without a complete or near-complete ascension, one cannot hope to control oneself in the flow. That being said, someone else you know uses them regularly.”

“Somepo— wait, you said someone.

“Indeed I did! Whenever Spike posts a message, it travels through the leylines to us. If Spike is too far from a leyline, I’d imagine the spell would not work.” Luna stepped up to Twilight, and put a wing around her. “You should be able to see them now. Calm your heart, and pull your focus back. Try to see with your magic. Focus with your eyes, but think about your horn.”

She closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath and holding it. There was a bright flash of light as her vision shifted, allowing her sight of that magical plane of reality that overlays the waking world.

“Over there, about a kilometer away. It’s like a… river. A river of magic.” Although she could feel the source as being underneath the ground, the light coming from the surface was bright enough that it really did appear as some kind of a rushing river. Yet, it was unlike anything she had ever seen before. Green light pulsed and tore along the line with phenomenal speed, and sparks and shockwaves rushed out from it at random points.

She turned back to Luna, and opened her mouth just a little. When she had looked at Celestia with her magic sight, she had appeared as a massive star that was so bright it washed away any other details on her body. Luna’s star shone as if it was under a dark lens meant to look at the sun with detail. Though it was still bright, she could look at her plainly, with its blue surface boiling under pressure. Even the air around her seemed to compress and shake from her power, causing Twilight to blink to get her vision to return to normal.

Luna continued. “It is like a river, although one with ‘water’ moving faster than even our rainbow-maned friend could ever comprehend. We move at that speed in the teleportation. It’s so fast that our spells have to speed up our minds, and even then without some kind of anchor, such as a concentration of magic, it can be tricky to go into an unfamiliar area precisely. So, we use close-range teleportation immediately after exiting the stream to get a precise landing. But, this has a limitation.”

Twilight gulped. “It means you can’t come help me if I’m too far from a leyline.”

“This is correct. I would advise you to always check if you are near a leyline before commencing a mission. If you are not, extra caution would be very much recommended. But, to business.”

Luna raised her horn and sent multiple arcs of lightning crackling from it into the ground. Quickly, mounds of dirt and grass raised themselves from the earth and took on the shape of ponies.

Twilight instantly recognized what they were. “Golems!”

“Indeed, but mine are quite a bit more advanced than what you would normally see. These five here are semi-autonomous and have similar traits to earth ponies. I can also make unicorns, gryphons, and even pegasi.”

More lightning spread out from her horn and struck the ground behind her, forming more earth pony golems. They were remarkably detailed for being made out of dirt and grass, with individual features being easily distinguishable. Their similarity to some of the statues in the garden was unnerving to say the least, but they were all uniform in how they appeared, each a mirror of the other.

“I’m going to have them attack you, and you shall fight them. They’ll be slow at first, but will get smarter and faster as you improve.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. But remember, they have many of the same abilities as earth ponies. Do you know what that means?”

Twilight nodded. “They’re stronger than me and can take more damage than me, and telekinesis probably won’t work, and their hits might crack any shields I put up,” she replied. But they should have all the same vulnerabilities as golems made of dirt.

“Good! Now, fight!”

The small army of golems began a slow march toward her. Twilight started backing away, charging a spell. It took several seconds to fully complete, which was longer than she would have liked. The golems, meanwhile, jumped into a full run, roaring and spitting gravel, moving ever closer together.

Perfect. She grinned as her horn fired a mass of purple and blue magic dead in the center of the golems, triggering the spell. An eruption of water jets splashed up from the ground, slicing many of the golems into pieces and dissolving even more.

“Sender’s Shower, hmm?” Luna chuckled. “Not bad. How about this?” Lightning struck where her spell had felled her foes, and more golems rose from the ground. These, however, were made of solid granite.

“Hey!” Twilight yelled at Luna.

Luna took to the air, laughing. “Our enemies will not give you quarter, Twilight Sparkle, so do not expect such from me!”

Crap! She broke into a gallop to get some distance.

“I’d advise not turning your back!” Luna’s voice rang out.

Pain lanced through Twilight’s side as airborne stone hooves crashed into her and knocked her over. Adrenaline wouldn’t let her stay down for long as she forced herself back up and saw three more pegasus golems flying overhead.

“Eep!”

Lightning cracked from the golem’s wing, blasting the ground next to her and leaving a black scorch mark on the grass.

Of course they shoot lightning. All military pegasi can shoot lightning. Why wouldn’t she know how to do that. Dammit, quit talking to yourself, filly, and run! Twilight pushed herself even harder, running down into the valley. Pegasi are resistant to blunt impacts, but I bet these golems can’t hold themselves together that easily! If I can—

Her thoughts were cut short by a shadow growing beneath her. She rolled to the side as a golem slammed into the ground, shattering on impact and showering her in a plume of rock and dirt. She picked herself back up and kept running, racing towards some tall grass and trees in the distance for cover.

Another shadow appeared, and she dodged again, running clear from the plume. By the time she’d noticed that a shadow was still over her, it was too late. Rock and dust crashed into her armor like a missile, and another blow came from hitting the ground at a full gallop. The scenery rolled by like a chariot’s wheel before landing yet again, sliding to a halt by the edge of the woods.

Coughing, Twilight looked up to see two more pegasi closing fast. She dropped down and covered her head, ready for the worst. It never came. Instead, a familiar yell resounded in the glade, followed by the sound of metal smashing against stone. When she opened her eyes and looked up, she saw Spike wearing a set of armor. He was also holding a halberd and standing amongst a pile of stones.

“Jeez, Twi! Couldn’t you have held out for just a little bit longer? I just lost a bet with Rainbow!” Spike reached down and held out a hand.

“Spike?”

“Who else?” The dragon turned around and helped her back up on her hooves. She stumbled, putting for more weight on him than she intended, but he held her up without so much as a grunt. “Luna teleported me here earlier and said she’d lead you to me. Didn’t think I’d have to save your flank, too.”

Twilight pushed herself up, wincing from the pain in her hind leg. “You… You crushed the golem!?”

Spike twirled the halberd a little. “Like I said, I’m always going to be your number one assistant.”

Luna flew in for a landing next to them. “And now, he is the newest member of your Guard.”

“What!?”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “I asked Applejack, but she declined, which is understandable. Given that, I feel it a natural choice.”

“No! No no no! Luna, what are you thinking! He’s too young!”

“He’s older than most military recruits,” Luna deadpanned.

Twilight moved in between Spike and Luna, spreading her forelegs. “No. I won’t allow it. His age and ours aren’t the same thing. He’s a dragon.”

“Saying someone is vulnerable because they are a dragon is a poor argument, Twilight Sparkle.”

“He’s my responsibi—” A claw poked at her shoulder, and she froze, smelling sulfur. She slowly turned her head around, coming face to face with the saddest dragon she’d ever seen. The sulfur wasn’t just coming from his eyes, but also as wisps of smoke from his nostrils.

“So that’s it?” he choked. “You’re sending me away?”

No… Her heart jumped into her throat. “Spike, that’s not what I meant. You’re way too important to me to risk losing you like this. What I’m going to be doing is dangerous! Not to mention I’m the one that’s supposed to protect you!

“So, what, I’m just supposed to stay in the castle? Is that it?” He wiped away the tears with his arm, but more quickly took their place.

She put a hoof on his shoulder, careful to choose the arm not covered in acid. “It would be much, much safer for you. But you can still stay in Ponyville! The library is going to need a full-time librarian after all, and you know the job.”

He practically punched her foreleg off of him, and Twilight jumped back a little from the force. That hurt!

“You just don’t get it, do you!?” Each strained huff of his lungs caused his nose to release more and more smoke. “All these years and you don’t get it! All my life, Twilight! You’ve been there with me all my life! But ever since I found out how long dragons live I’ve known that I’m going to outlive you by thousand of years! Thousands of years, Twilight! Maybe tens of thousands! I thought I’d have to miss you that long! And now you’re saying I have to start missing you now…”

He was yelling enough his breath began to smoke with brimstone. She backed up not just from the smell but from being genuinely ashamed and even fearful of him. Twilight couldn’t go far, though. She backed right into Luna, and looked up at her just for a second before Spike grabbed her head and pulled her back down to face him.

“I finally, finally find out that I’m not going to lose you like the rest, and now you’re sending me away!?”

She was pushing herself back hard enough that if Luna hadn’t been behind her, she’d be falling over backwards. She tried to speak, but her tongue wouldn’t move. Her lungs seemed to be giving her just enough air to stay alive; staying conscious would be decided in a few minutes.

“Ahem.”

She didn’t dare look away from Spike and up at Luna until he did first, and to her great relief, that’s exactly what he did. She looked up a lot faster, though, desperate for advice or somepony to help her.

“Twilight Sparkle, may I interject?”

From her angle and closeness, looking up at the Princess was like looking up at the night sky, as if the alicorn’s face was just a fixture of it.

“I understand your feelings, Twilight. Truly, I do.”

Twilight still couldn’t quite speak. She was lucky she stayed sitting up when the Princess pushed her back onto her haunches.

“However,” the diarch continued, “you must understand that alicorn instincts and dragon instincts are not the same. Alicorns form looser bonds with a multitude of ponies and are driven to protect them. A core few we attach to strongly.”

Luna turned to the dragon, and softened her voice. “Spike, whatever your species, Twilight here views you as ‘her’ pony, and that means she has a powerful protective instinct towards you, even beyond what she would feel as a unicorn. That’s very important for you to understand.”

The Princess’s voice got lower and stronger as she once more addressed the now blushing Twilight, gazing into her with a maternal look that rivaled Celestia. “What you must understand as well, Twilight, is that dragons tend to form such bonds far more rarely, and their protective instincts could be said to be stronger still. As you have near-maternal responsibility for him, we have reached this impasse. As such, I propose a temporary compromise.”

Twilight wanted to object. Her instincts screamed for it. There was no way she wanted to ever risk her little Spike getting hurt. At the same time, her heart wouldn’t let her. She could see Spike crying; he was already being hurt. So, she merely listened.

“Here is my idea. Twilight, allow Spike to stay here and train as your Guard. While I cannot promise that he will be left… unscathed by it, he will survive and be stronger for it. If, at the end of the training, you feel he has not progressed enough to be at your side, he will agree to stand down. If, however, his skills become sharp enough to serve as a Guard, you will allow him to accompany you.”

She stood up in a jolt, but found a silver hoof covering her mouth.

“This does not mean we have to put him in a traditional Guard role. He can be more a kind of seneschal, or assistant if you will, but would be prepared to fight if things go sour. Is this acceptable?”

She looked back and forth between them, torn. On the one hoof, Luna’s proposal was considerably more reasonable than the alternative. On the other, he’d still be in danger. While she was looking at Spike, a large muzzle dropped down by her ear.

“A word of warning, Twilight,” the Princess whispered. “Dragons can carry grudges for an extremely long time. Gryphonic aeries are forgiving compared to them.”

Years flashed before her as she imagined countless lifetimes of a friend lost and hurt. The tears, the sadness. The unrivaled weight of regret. Yet it was nothing compared to the pain of the pleading eye before her.

“Alright,” she whispered, throat as dry and rough as sun-baked sand. “We’ll give it a try.”

Spike leaped up to her and wrapped her in a hug, and she couldn’t help but return it. It seemed fate would have them sticking together for quite some time. She sighed and gave him a nuzzle, just before a burning sensation from a dragon tear seared itself into her foreleg.

“Gah! Ow, ow ow ow ow ow!” She leaped out of the hug and started running, which did absolutely nothing to make the pain go away. She eventually saw the burn on her leg and tried wiping the liquid on it away with her hoof to no avail.

“Hold still, Twilight Sparkle!”

She didn’t really have to hold still. By the time she looked up to find the sounds of the yell, it was too late. She had only the tiniest amount of time to see Luna’s horn alight before the spell hit the ground under her. A ball of water the size of a large boulder erupted from the ground like it had been there all along, waiting and intangible to the dirt. Even though it had phased through the dirt, it knocked her back like it was far more solid than water had any right to be. To add injury to insult, the water didn’t stay airborne long; it just got caught by gravity and did what any normal object under gravity’s influence did: turn around and fall right back to the earth. Where she just happened to be sitting.

She coughed and heaved and spewed, forcefully pushing the water out of her lungs. The dirt under her had already become mud from soaking in the deluge.

“Are you alright, Twilight!?”

She used a hoof to wipe water from her eyes while still coughing. Spike was running down the hill with Luna gliding above.

“Ugh.” Twilight coughed a few more times, then shook to get the water off of her. “Jeez! When did your tears get this concentrated? Thanks for the wash, Luna, but did you really have to go that far?”

It was always a little strange to see the Princess of the Night giggle, but that she did. “It’s quite alright, Twilight. Though they are oddly strong for his age, this is expected. Dragons with green bellies eventually gain powerful acid in their tears, saliva, and even flame.” She smirked a little. “Perhaps we should simply read him a sad story and then have him embrace our enemies.”

“Grah! It still burns!” She kept wiping but it wasn’t helping. The acid had already done its damage.

Luna tapped the gem in the center of her torc. “Push some magic into your bonded armor. It grants regenerative properties.”

Twilight did so, sparking her horn to life and sending her power right into the gem. The armor flared to life, eagerly pulling the power into itself and spreading over her body. Compared to its past deployments, the cold of the process was soothing and cooling rather than shocking and debilitating. When it was over, and she was wrapped in her plating, she could feel it go to work. The burning quickly ebbed, leaving nothing but a tingling sensation.

“Oh, whew. That feels so much better. Thank Celestia!” Twilight’s eyes went wide. Open mouth, insert hoof. “Sorry, force of habit. I mean, thank you, Luna!”

Spike and Luna both shared a laugh.

“‘Tis quite alright, Twilight. I am used to such things after being absent for so long. It is natural ponies would use my sister’s name in such ways.”

She nodded in response. “It’s all I’ve ever been really used to all these years. I—” A little connection went live in the back of her mind. “Princess?”

The night alicorn’s wing twitched a little. “We’ve been over this, Twilight. Call me Luna.”

“Okay then.” She swallowed. “Luna, am I going to have ponies exclaiming ‘Thank Twilight’ around me?”

Spike grabbed his head in realization. “Whoa. Yeah, I forgot about that. Freaky.

Luna gave her a gentle smile. “It is very possible, Twilight. My sister and I strongly discourage the ponies from worshipping us, and although we’ve been successful at that the vast majority of the time, there are a few habits we’ve never figured out how to break them of. That’s one of them. I suggest you let it slide. In a few centuries, it’ll seem natural.”

Twilight shuddered. “No. No, I’m sorry, that’s never going to seem natural. Nor is the idea of waiting a few centuries.”

A cold shock went through her body, starting from her chin. Slowly, her head lifted up against her will, and she found herself staring deep into a pair of teal eyes with the Princess’s hoof under her head.

Oh Tartarus, did I really just say that in front of somepony that spent a millenium on the moon!?

“We ageless perceive things differently, Twilight Sparkle. You have not truly grasped this yet, but you will, with time. Let it happen.” She almost seemed to dissolve into mist, flowing around her and reforming with a wing lightly over her. “I shall be there to guide both you and Spike in this. Tia shall help, too. Come, it’s time to meet the rest of your training team.”

“Training team?” Twilight asked.

In a blink, Luna disappeared. Before she really had any time to think about it, she reappeared with three new ponies. Two were obscured behind Luna’s wings, while the other was instantly recognizable.

“Whew! Was wondering when we’d get started.” A pegasus with a multi-hued mane lept into the sky and did a few somersaults. “Hey, Twi! Why is your mane soaked? I mean, this time. Which totally isn’t my fault for once.”

“Long story, Rainbow.” She wringed out her bangs with her magic. “So you’re going to be training with me?”

“Hay yeah! Why wouldn’t I? I mean, we’re only going to be fighting side by side. Makes sense to train together.”

“Heh. Good point. And honestly, it’s a relief. You have no idea how good it is to see you.” Twilight held out a hoof and Rainbow gave it a bump. “So who are the others?”

Luna lowered her wings one by one. “Twilight, may I introduce you to two of my Night Guard who will be assisting with your training. To my left is Arcane Edge. He is an Acolyte in my Night Guard, which is the lowest rank. He is skilled with both the creation and use of magical weapons.”

A unicorn stepped forward, clad in the standard armor of the Night. His demeanor instantly struck Twilight as odd, however. Rather than the standard, almost belligerent stoicism of typical Guard, he had his head lowered. He almost looked nervous.

“It… It’s an honor to meet you, Grand Mage Sparkle. I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive my inadequacies.”

Okay, that’s just weird. “Um, I’m sure I will?” Twilight said. Please tell me the those newspapers aren’t going to make everypony act like this toward me.

Luna chuckled a little. “Do not be so shy, my Acolyte. I can assure you, Twilight is an excellent friend. To continue our introductions, here to my right is Crusader Starward.”

A rather large, solidly built earth pony stepped forward this time, and he didn’t seem nervous at all. Rather, he simply bowed quickly, his armor clinking a little. “Grand Mage, it is an honor to aid you. Our Sovereign has spoken highly of you.”

Twilight forced out a small, polite smile. One of the things that always struck Twilight as a little intimidating was how Luna’s Night Guard always referred to the Princess as “Sovereign.” While the Day Guard was known to be loyal, professional, and devoted, the Night Guard was widely and correctly seen as fanatical. Like the Day Guard, they were also completely separate from all other military units, answering solely to Luna. On top of that, and unlike the Day Guard, they had a reputation for being ruthless and conducting unauthorized missions, despite the fact that they were legally only supposed to protect their Princess or perform simple tasks for her. Nopony had ever produced proof, but it was still whispered amongst the populace.

“The honor is mine.” She bowed back. “I look forward to working together.”

“And work you shall!” Luna boomed, waving a hoof in the air. “Though they will not be with you on your journeys, they shall help train you. I brought them here because you must know how to fight with not only pegasi and a certain young dragon, but earth ponies and unicorns as well. From ponies and zebras, to diamond dogs, gryphons, and even minotaurs, each race has their strengths and weaknesses. Learning how to use and cover for them is very important in battle. Now then. Fall in!”

Rainbow, Starward, and Arcane Edge jumped and snapped into a line next to Twilight. Spike got the idea a second later and joined in on the end before Luna resumed speaking.

“For the next three months, I am going to teach you lot all I can. I am not soft like my sister and her plump, cake-engorged rear end.”

That earned a few snickers from the Night Guards, but Twilight just faked a smile and flattened her ears.

“This will be a harrowing experience for all of you, but I do not apologize for it. It will teach you more than you could ever expect, and even then it will not be enough to make being a Grand Mage easy. I fear that even with three months, you shall only learn what I consider to be the most basic of skills.

“We shall start here, in this field. Later, we will change locations. We shall fight and train in fields, mountains, shores, clouds, even urban environments. You will have to learn a multitude of skills. These include, but are not limited to, martial arts, weapons training, covert observations, and spells for those of you who are able to cast them. Although you will spar against each other, for the most part you will be fighting my golems. However!”

Lightning arced and cracked from her horn, striking the ground and forging it into a golem. Once it was complete, blue flames engulfed it for a second before fading to reveal a something that looked exactly like somepony Twilight hadn’t seen in ages: Trixie Lulamoon.

“Whoa! That’s incredible!” Spike broke ranks and ran up to the golem. “Check it out, Twi! It looks just like her!”

“Bleck!” Rainbow stuck out her tongue. “Last I heard about that bitch was a few years ago when she got panned in the Canterlot Times for calling Twi ‘Celestia’s harlot’ and then vanished. Guess nopony wanted to see her crappy shows anymore. Why her?”

Twilight leaned forward a bit to study the golem. The illusion was as flawless as that of a changeling.

“You do not approve?” Luna huffed. “Then how about this?”

The blue flame changed the image in a flash, and before them stood a second Rainbow Dash.

The real Dash leapt back. “Oh. Oh horseapples.”

“What?” Spike shrugged. “It’s a great trick!”

Rainbow held her head, obviously already getting a headache. “Duh! She’s going to make more that look like us to screw with us in battle!”

Spike covered his mouth. “Oh horseapples.”

Luna nodded. “Of course! Do not presume that the enemies will always be obvious. Some golems may act as friendlies. Others may seem friendly but actually be hostile. And always remember, I control them, which means they’ll know things none of you do. The only rule here is to not attack me. If you try, you will regret it.

“I will be devious. I will ambush. I will deceive. I will surprise. Never, ever assume you are safe. I can assure you, thou art not!” Luna stomped her hoof, and a bolt of lightning arced across the sky, shattering the peace of the meadow.

She continued. “The one and only exception to this is just before each training session. I will give you all a short breather and the opportunity to ask questions. I will accept any relevant questions, and I encourage you to ask them, even if you are embarrassed for their simplicity. There is no shame in not knowing; there is only shame in remaining willfully ignorant. In addition, although I have higher standards for my Night Guard…” She shot a look at the two stallions. “You may ask questions as well.”

Spike raised his hand.

The Princess strode to him. “Yes, Spike?”

“Can I ask a question now?”

Luna smiled, becoming a bit more friendly looking. “Of course! What do you wish to know?”

“Well,” he said, rocking back and forth on his feet. “Twilight’s always had really good telekinesis, but I heard from a guard it’s not good to use that in battle. Why?”

One of the Night Guards laughed a bit, his bass voice reverberating into the ground.

Luna patted him on the head. “A very basic question, but I will be glad to oblige as this is all new to you. Although, perhaps we should have our Grand Mage answer instead?”

Twilight stepped forward, starting to pace. “I can do that. Well, for one thing, anti-telekinesis spells are pretty easy to enchant into things. It’s been in military armor forever, and police uniforms usually have them, too. Also, a lot of ponies put security spells on their personal weapons that’ll shock unauthorized ponies if they try to pick them up, whether it’s by magic, hoof, or mouth. I’d imagine our enemies will have all these things as well.”

Luna clapped her hooves together. “Truth! But, there are more reasons. Keep going!”

Twilight continued. “Earth pony magic is very good at breaking telekinetic fields, too. Levitating Pinkie Pie when she’s on her way to a party or something is basically impossible. Pegasi can be hard to catch in a field when they’re moving. Oh, and it’s easy for a unicorn to keep a TK field off of their body, and can sometimes disrupt another unicorn’s TK field around unenchanted objects.”

Luna waved a hoof at Arcane Edge. “For instance, observe.” Her horn lit with magic, and a field first surrounded the two Night Guard’s armor, and then the ponies themselves, lifting them up. “I can disable their armor’s security, but that’s because I know the spell’s code, which is sort of spell that acts as a key. Now, if you two would be so kind as to demonstrate.”

Starward twisted and bucked around, quickly shattering the field and dropping back down to the ground. Arcane took even less time, dissolving the field with his own in an instant.

“See?” Luna asked. “The amount of magic necessary to levitate those two whilst they resist would be severely disproportionate compared to the effort they would need to escape. I could hold them, but only by using levels of power well beyond that of Arcane here. There is a possibility that Twilight could manage to hold one of them, but only by focusing all of her effort and magic to the task, leaving her vulnerable.”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Spike threw his arms up in defeat. “It’s not enough to just have good telekinesis.”

Luna flapped her wings a little in place. “Indeed! There is, however, one basic telekinetic tool that will be very important. Tell me, Twilight, have you ever used a telekinetic blade?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, I have. I tried making one as part of an experiment a few years ago. The experiment didn’t work out so I dropped it. I haven’t tried to summon a blade since.”

Luna stared at her.

“I suppose you want me to try pulling one out now anyway,” Twilight half-squeaked.

“Please!” Luna signaled with her hoof to have the other ponies move away a little, giving her room.

“Alright, here goes nothing.” Twilight summoned her magic and funneled it into the blade shape, casting the spells to hold it together. It wasn’t an especially difficult process, but like anything, one could become rusty without practice. Still, it seemed to work. A thin purple beam of light formed in front of her, slowly seething power while white-hot sparks dripped down from it.

“Whoa.” Rainbow trotted up and looked closely at it, the hairs on her nose almost close enough to get trimmed. “No wonder they put inhibitor rings on unicorns under arrest.”

“As long as they can access their magic, any pony with a horn can be dangerous, even if they’re otherwise tied up.” Twilight stood up, and started another back-and-forth lecture pacing. “Telekinetic blades are basically telekinetic energy suspended in a beam that can cut things if it’s thin enough, or bludgeon if it’s not. I’ve heard that the military teaches unicorns to use them only as a last resort since they can’t usually stand up to enchanted weapons. Some of them can do more than cut, though. Rarity’s, for instance, can freeze things as well as cut.”

“Very good, Twilight, but I want you to practice at this more. You have to be able to draw it out much, much faster. Any more than half a second and you’ll put yourself in grave—”

Luna stopped talking as Twilight’s blade crackled and popped loudly, like a firework with too much powder, calling the entire group’s undivided attention with crackling electricity. White, sparking arcs of power jumped across the purple blade in an excited dance.

“Everypony, get down!”

She didn’t have time to. Nopony did. The blade detonated right in front of them, sending Twilight flying back. She could tell she was still moving, but couldn’t hear from her ears ringing. The blows kept coming as she tumbled end over end, falling clear down the hill and finally coming to a rest at the bottom, the wind completely knocked out of her.

“Report! Is everypony okay?!” That was one of the stallions. Twilight wasn’t sure which. The world was spinning far too much to pay attention to such matters, so she closed her eyes.

“Rainbow One, optimal! Er, sorry, force of habit. I’m fine!” That was clearly Rainbow Dash.

“Spi—” The dragon coughed a bit. “Spike here. Lungs full o’ dust, otherwise fine.”

“Arcane. Ready to serve.”

Okay, that pony is starting to get a bit creepy.

“Starward. Ready to serve.”

… I guess it’s just a Night Guard thing.

“Twilight? Are you okay?”

Twilight let her eyes open up, but quickly closed them when all she saw was a spinning, worried-looking Luna. “I’m sorry, but the world is rotating much too fast to talk right now. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

A sliver of blue magic pulsed over her eyelids, followed by a slight buzzing in her left ear, causing it to twitch.

“How about now?”

Twilight tentatively opened her eyes again, and found the world had decided to stop dancing. “Was that healing magic?” she asked.

“Indeed.” Luna admitted. “My sister is far better at it than I, but it’s not something we talk about. As a general rule, we never heal our subjects. It makes them dependent, and we could never heal all of them. That being said, I am afraid we do not have the luxury of time here, so I shall make an exception for our training. Are you feeling better?”

Twilight twisted her body a bit and got back up. “Much. What in Tartarus happened there? The spell completed okay, I can confirm that much, but a telekinetic blade isn’t supposed to just explode like that. No spell is supposed to explode like that! Well, except for the ones explicitly meant to explode. Which this is not.”

Luna sat down and regarded her with a somewhat uncomfortable gaze, clearly thinking. “Twilight, could you raise your hoof up so I can see it?”

Twilight lifted her hoof up and held it towards Luna. “Um, okay.”

Then, the gaze got literally uncomfortable as Twilight felt Luna activate her magic sight.

“Um, Princess, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but could you please not use your magic sight on me? It feels really creepy.”

The sensation went away, but now she had a rather stunned-looking Princess to deal with. “Wait a minute. Twilight, are you telling me you can feel it?”

“Feel what?” Spike asked, the first of the group reconverging around her.

“Celestia said it’s an ability alicorns have. It’s like we can switch between normal vision and, well, something else. We still see everything you do, but we can also see magic. Not just the glow from our horns, either. I still don’t have it completely under control. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it just happens on its own.”

Rainbow came in and hovered a bit nearby. “Huh. Weeeird.”

Starward snorted in response to that, and Luna held up a hoof to calm him. “That’s all true, Twilight, but you didn’t answer my question. You said you can actually feel it?”

The ascendant nodded. “Yeah, I can. It feels like, well, being called to the chalkboard in a class of a million fillies, and not knowing the answer.”

Spike chuckled and took a bow. “Fillies and gentlecolts, the nightmares of Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight gave him a light bop on the head.

Luna tilted her head a bit. “Well, that’s… unexpected. In any event, I have a theory as to why the blade self-destructed. Can you use the sight on your hoof?"

"I think so." She stared at her hoof and pulled back on her sight, trying to ’see’ its magic, but only got some eye strain. "Or maybe not. Hold on." She put her head next to the hoof and strained a bit more.

"It’s fine if you can’t control it completely yet," Luna interrupted. "What I’m looking at are your body’s leylines. Your unicorn and pegasus leylines seem fine, but your earth pony leylines are twisted and diverted. A few have even collapsed here, near your hoof."

"Collapsed?" Twilight jerked her hoof away and started looking at it fruitlessly. "Is it okay!? Am I okay!?"

"Well, you are alive."

Twilight, Rainbow, and Spike all just looked at her.

Luna shrugged. "It appears to be similar to the effect of a horn blowout, albeit more severe. But I’ve never heard of an earth pony doing such a thing to themselves. They always tire physically before magically. I think that you shall heal, in time. Until then, your earth pony magic may be unstable or unreliable. In fact…"

The Princess started examining Twilight even more, moving her gaze from right to left and back and forth over her body again and again. All the while, the subject of the examination twisted and squirmed under the magical prodding.

"Ah, yes, that would explain it."

Twilight twisted her body a bit to escape the feeling, but it didn’t help. "Explain what?"

Luna placed her hoof on Twilight and traced it down from her horn to her hoof. "I think, when you performed that spell through your hooves, you forced unicorn magic down through your earth pony leylines. This allowed the spell to work, but damaged them in the process. You now have small amounts of earth pony magic leaking into your unicorn leylines, which may destabilize certain types of spells, particularly ones which require large amounts of telekinesis. I’d avoid lifting large objects until you heal."

Twilight sighed and let herself flop down onto the ground. "Great. Today’s just been setback after setback."

Luna continued, "Your own rapid growth should force things back to normal eventually. Give it time, Twilight Sparkle. In the meantime, dispel and refresh your telekinetic blade every so often during a fight. That should stave off detonation."

Twilight cringed a bit. “And if it doesn’t?”

“Oh, that’s simple!” Rainbow came in for a landing. “Just toss the blade at the enemy!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Twice. “That’s not a solution, Rainbow!”

“Actually, that’s exactly what I was going to suggest, Twilight,” Luna deadpanned.

Twilight just stared at her, eye twitching.

“What?” Luna shrugged. “I think it’s a fairly effective solution. Although, we should get you a better weapon as well. Arcane, do you think you could find a cored weapon for our Grand Mage?”

He bowed all the way to the ground. “Of course, Sovereign. Was there a particular style you desire?”

Luna cut in before Twilight could say anything. “Nothing too fancy, please. A sword should suffice. I want Twilight to use her wits for offense, and not rely on a weapon to do it for her.”

“Is that why I only have a bonded artifact for armor, and not a sword?” the Grand Mage asked.

“Whoa! Time out, wait a minute, hold the airship!” Rainbow leaped into the air in a summersault. “Are you telling me that Twilight’s torc is bonded armor!?”

“Wait a minute yourself. You know about them?” She pointed a purple, accusatory hoof in the the pegasus’ direction.

“Duh! They were in The Trial of Veritas! Only the second-best book ever!”

Twilight snorted. “Pfft. No where near as good as Gene—”

A rainbow blur zoomed in and Rainbow’s head was suddenly invading her personal space.

“You. Take. That. Back.”

Girls!

The two jumped back and apart at Luna’s thunderous interruption.

Luna sighed and her wings drooped. “To answer your question, yes, Twilight, that is one reason we haven’t made a bonded blade for you. There is another reason, however. The gems needed are so rare and high quality that no new ones have been found in nearly twenty years. Before that, we found one every five years or so, but we’ve hit a dry spell. I took the last one for my new armor years ago.” She tapped the gem in her torc. “We honestly thought we would’ve found another by now. We’ve even reached out to some of the more reputable Diamond Dog packs in the north near Stalliongrad to look, but to no avail.”

Rainbow chimed in again. “Can’t we find one that’s already made and have her bond with that? The story said that if you find one that’s not being used, somepony else can bond with it.”

Luna’s reply was terse. “Yes, if we had one whose owner had died, and whose magic was similar to Twilight’s, and whose latent empathic sentience agreed to bond with her. We don’t have the luxury of a stockroom of bonded blades, Rainbow. There is a silver lining, at least. It should help her begin to hear her armor a bit sooner. Being pulled by two bonds can be straining. And, well, there’s a reason nopony ever tries bonding with three artifacts. It’s virtually guaranteed to drive all parties insane. Next question?”

The field fell silent.

“Really? That’s it?” Luna asked. “I’m about to attack you all with a small army of golems. You don’t have any others?”

Twilight raised a hoof. “Will you be offering advice while we fight?”

“Of course. So will my Night Guard.” Another moment of silence passed between them. “Any other questions?”

Everyone stayed silent.

“Huh. Well, alright then.” The Princess shrugged. “Everypony, get ready!”

Everypony nodded and moved into a formation around Twilight. She felt a bit relieved that she wasn’t alone, and was more comfortable standing confidently. Maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to pull this off after all.

“Let’s get started,” Luna yelled, flying up into the air and striking the ground far behind her with her magic, summoning dozens of new golems.

Twilight crouched down slightly, ready to run. She wasn’t looking to flee, though. Her aim was to go right into the middle of it, lack of a plan be damned for once.

“Fight!”

Her legs pushed her forward, and her heart raced as she felt the hoof-falls of those at her side. The golems raced forward too, but not an ounce of nervousness was to be found in Twilight’s mind. This time was going to be different. This time, she was ready.

This time, she would fight.

And it didn’t bother her a bit that she started to feel like this might be fun.


“I don’t exactly understand why I gotta do this. I promised I won’t tell nopony about Twilight!”

Intelligentsia facehooved. “It’s not that we do not trust your intentions, Applejack. You have to understand, our enemies are sneaky.”

With a huff the farmer pony leaned back in the chair and crossed her forelegs. “I don’t give a hoot how sneaky they are! I ain’t gonna blab about this to no one!”

Intelligentsia leaned back in her chair. “Will your hat?”

“My hat?” Applejack blinked and pointed an accusatory hoof at her. “Now yer just talkin’ crazy.”

“Hardly.” She smacked Applejack’s hoof away with far more force than the farm pony would have ever expected to come from her, then started pacing around her. “You, Applejack, are honest to a fault. Even your body is honest. In the short time I’ve known you, I’ve detected and catalogued eighteen different body movements you repeat when put in particular situations. From crossing your forelegs, to tipping your hat, you are an open book. All I would need to do to get all the intel I need from you is put a few agents near you and have them say a few key phrases in earshot. Your reactions would give me all I need.”

Applejack choked a little as magic pulled her right in front of the unicorn’s face.

“If you do not get these under control, you could wind up killing Twilight just as if you’d shouted it from the mountaintops.”

Intelligentsia pushed her away, and a desperate grab for the table was the only thing stopped her from falling over.

“The other bearers I’m not worried about. Fluttershy is timid no matter what, Rarity is already known for her amateur acting, and Pinkie can’t act against her own promises. Lastly, Rainbow Dash has security clearance and is already in the Guard, and will be with Twilight for the duration of her ascension. Since you will not be with them to have somepony to keep you quiet, we need to erase your body’s tells, and more importantly, give you control over them. Should you find yourself in a suspicious situation, with an awful lot of luck, you can even use these tells to misinform them.”

“Tells? What in the hay are you talkin’ ‘bout?” Dawning realization struck her like a blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil. “Wait, wait wait… Are you tellin’ me, that I’d be able to fool these creeps by, like, a twitch of my hoof? Like some ponies do when they’re playin’ poker? If I do this ‘training,’ would I be able to beat Rainbow Dash?”

Intelligentsia rolled her eyes. “Though oversimplified, yes, the connection is valid. This could be used at a card game. Although I am dismayed at your lack of concer—”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Applejack pushed her back down into her seat with a wild grin. “Git to the part where I learn how to win back every bit that pegasus has ever taken from me.”

Broken

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“Sever.”

The gem in the sword began to glow blue and purple. Runes and enchantments in the crystal directed the energy through the working of its preset spell in the blink of an eye. The energy rushed forward, arcing through and down the runes on the flat of the blade as the cored weapon itself slashed through the air.

At the apex of the slash, a burst of energy in the shape of an ultra-thin barrier launched forth, flying through the air and striking the golem with the projectiles edge, cutting into the stone and detonating. Ash, pebbles, and dust rained down on Twilight, plinking off of her helmet as she shielded her eyes from hard rain.

Twilight Sparkle twirled the sword in her magical grasp, gazing at her reflection on the polished gemstone set in the hilt. I think I’ve finally figured you out now.

“Twilight!”

Her head snapped upward, and she locked her gaze at the source of the outcry. Spike was tangling with no fewer than three golems on the ridge above her. She pulled her sword back again, focusing her glare at the pegasus golem in the air, and swung. As the blade arced around, her horn shot a spark of power directly into the gem.

Another bolt of magic slammed into the new target, crumbling it. A unicorn golem joined it a second later, crushed under the weight of Spike’s halberd. Twilight ran up the slope, hooves pounding on the loose volcanic soil. Her coat was full of dust and dirt, and her tongue tasted salt from sweat and tropical sea air that filled her lungs.

Behind you!”

The earth pony golem turned in reaction Twilight's facsimile of the Royal Canterlot Voice, jumping out of the way of her sword swing, leaving her open. This was okay. After all, the golem was open, too.

Spike’s halberd came down once again, its gleaming edge slicing clean through the golem’s neck. Both pieces were sent down the side of the volcano, tumbling and falling apart.

The dragon lifted his blade back up and rested it on his shoulder. “Glad to see you’ve finally figured out that sword. Took you long enough.”

Twilight pushed him to the side and sent another wave of energy down behind him, smashing another golem. “This one is a bit trickier than the others. I shouldn’t need the voice commands anymore, though. The top should be just over the next ridge. You ready to do this?”

“Hey, dragon, remember?” As he spun his polearm a little in his fingers, the weapon began to glow. He slapped the bottom of the pole, and the lower half of it disappeared, collapsing down into more of a small, fancy war axe than a halberd. When it finished, he put it on his back, and it stuck there with a magnetic ‘clang.’ “Not like the lava can hurt me anyway.”

“Yeah, but if this thing blows, the shockwave might. Just, be careful.”

“You bet. Watch my back.” Spike dashed up the side of the volcano, digging his claws into the side and going straight up the edge instead of around the long way on the spiral path.

Twilight, meanwhile, pulled at her horn and refocused her eyes, calling upon and activating her magic sight. One more swing of her sword sent a bolt up the mountain, past Spike, and into a buried golem hiding in the rocks.

“Ha!” Twilight reared up on her hind legs. Spike’s going to make it! She quickly checked around her and did a short pair of teleports up to the ridge to be at his side.

“Really, Twilight?” Spike asked, panting a bit. “Remember what Luna did the last time you tried to teleport?”

She waved a hoof around to fan away the brimstone fumes and smoke from the caldera while her vision returned to normal. “I checked for traps this time, and I’m here, right? Just hurry up and toss that thing in already!”

He pulled out the artifact from his pocket; a gold disk with an extremely large blue gem in the center. The whole thing was roughly the size and shape of a frisbee. His claws danced on the gem, poking it in a few key areas, lighting them up.

“It’s ready. Here goes!” With a great heave, he threw it into the smoldering volcano, where it promptly sank like a rock in the ocean. “Man that thing was heavy!”

Twilight turned away from the caldera. “Well, objective complete. Let’s get going!” She jumped just a bit, landing on the side and sliding down on her hind hooves. Spike followed right after her, and they stopped at the first ledge of the spiral path they came to.

“Say, Twi, anything about that feel too easy to you?”

She scoffed. “Easy? We just took out about twenty of those golems.”

Spike rubbed his upper arms like he was cold. “Yeah, I know. But last time, it was forty. I counted.”

She blinked. “Then, what, she’s going easy on us?”

“You know we’re talking about Princess Luna, right?”

Twilight was about to argue the point, hoof already raised, but lowered it. “You’re right. We need to get the hay out of here.”

Luna’s voice rang in their ears as if there were a million Lunas all around them, speaking at the exact same time. “An excellent idea, novice.”

The ground under their feet rumbled and started to frost over. The sky above them began to boil with dark, lightning-filled clouds, blocking out the sun and casting the entire island in an unnaturally dim light. The birds in the trees in the far distance all took off into the air at once, vacating for someplace unknown.

Twilight’s ears went flat. “We’re bucked, aren’t we?”

Spike nodded. “E-yeah.”

They both leapt off the side, sliding down the mountain, running where the land was stable enough. On one relatively flat point, Twilight grabbed onto Spike and charged for a teleport, sending them down to the next level of the path in a series of three short flashes before stopping. Her legs started to wobble, and the world in her vision flickered in and out of her sight while spinning around. “Ugh, my head! I don’t think we’re going to make it!”

Spike hopped on her back, his weight bringing her butt down to the ground. “Less talky, more sparky!”

Twilight gritted her teeth, pushing another charge into her horn. Two hops this time brought them down to the next level, but Twilight’s legs were giving out under her strained center of balance. “No good! If I teleport again that fast I’ll vomit!”

“Look!” The dragon grabbed her head and turned it back towards the mountain.

The black smoke from the caldera had stopped, but it was replaced by an even greater volume of white smoke. It looked as through a cumulonimbus cloud was being pushed through the volcano with tremendous force. Moreover, the very top of the volcano was covered with ice.

“How in the world…”

Before she could move, the volcano rumbled and finally blew its top. Slush, water, snow, frost, ice, and all manner of things cold started to blast both up into the sky and down the mountain, right at them.

“Ice!? That thing made it spew ice!? That disk barely had any magic in it! There’s no way that could happen!”

“Twilight!” Spike grabbed her shoulders. “Twilight we need to get going!”

She stomped her hooves. “But that shouldn’t be physically possible! There’s just no way! Dammit Luna, stop breaking the laws of magic and physics!”

“Twilight!”

“I know, I know.” The Grand Mage grabbed onto Spike and did another two hops, but the rumble of the approaching liquified glacier just kept getting louder, and Twilight’s head was in no shape to absorb another teleportation shock.

“Come on, we need to keep going!”

“No.” Twilight stomped her hoof, pushing it into the sand and turning to face the onslaught.

Spike leapt in front of her. “Are you crazy!? You can’t stop that!”

She pushed him to the side. “I can. It just requires a sacrifice.” Twilight took the sword in her magic, tossed it into the air a couple times, caught it, then slammed it into the ground, driving it into the soil all the way up to the hilt.

Spike slapped his forehead. “What!? Here!? We’ll never survive that blast! And even if you do, Luna’s going to kill you if you keep blowing up her swords!”

Twilight’s horn flared to life, sending magenta sparks all over and around her, putting up a thin shield around them, leaving the sword just outside. “Oh ye of little faith, number one assistant. Give me a count.”

Spike groaned, but it was almost entirely drowned out by the roar of the coming ice. “Another explosion isn’t what’s needed here!”

The dragon exhaled and began counting while Twilight continued to push magic into her horn, kicking up wind and dust from the sheer pressure of the magic. “Count, Spike! I’m not used to using this much magic yet!”

“One, two, three…”

The Grand Mage watched the oncoming wall of water until count three, then shifted her gaze to the sword.

“Four, five, six…”

Technically she was well beyond six. With Spike’s help counting, she could reasonably figure out how much magic she had summoned into her horn without wasting time thinking about it. It left her free to concentrate.

“Seven… eight… hurry-up-nine!”

Her eyes fixated right on the gem in the sword. The fire blade she blew up earlier shot lava, sulphur, and other flammables over an area the size of half a hoofball field in its detonation. The lightning blade caused a small, short-lived lightning storm.

“Ten! Eleve—”

Twilight cut him off and let loose all the magic she had pulled into her horn. The shield didn’t so much as shimmer as the beam phased right through it and into the center of the gem which blazed with light, crackling and hissing under the strain. Horn empty, she dove on top of Spike, pushing him down to the ground and covering him with her body.

Raging purple and blue light blasted right through her eyelids as the blade detonated just before the ice hit, and Twilight knew what was coming. She didn’t let up for a second, and in fact hunkered down even harder from the sheer sound of the cored weapon exploding.

It was one thing when a cored weapon was rendered inert by cutting its leylines or warping the gem as to be unusable. This, however, was overpowering it and then letting loose all of its magic in one single destructive instant, generating a sound blast akin to a huge bomb. Wind, heat, and a thunderous, near-deafening BOOM roared into and past them, covering them in ambient magic and kicked-up dirt and dust.

Then, just like that, it was all over.

When Twilight finally let herself look up, there was a cracking mass of barriers all around her, redirecting the cryoclastic flow around them. The multi-colored barriers towered into the sky in a titanic cylinder. There was no rhyme or reason as to how they were laid out. Rather, the hundreds of shields intersected each other all over the place, like a honeycomb warped by chaos magic. Instead of blasting the pair apart or cutting them to pieces, the barriers that struck Twilight’s shield merged into it, never penetrating.

Shortly after the ice passed, the shields crumbled and shattered into pieces, splintering and dissolving as they fell to the earth.

Twilight tapped her own barrier, shattering it, too. “A shield made solely with magic meant to link with other barriers. Shiny taught me that trick. Guess we’re lucky it worked on such a huge scale.”

Spike groaned again and slowly got to his feet. “Okay, so, I guess another explosion was what was called for here. Ugh.”


“My, my, my. Another sword, Twilight? What am I going to do with you?” Luna rested her chin on the edge of the cloud, looking down at the scene unfolding.

“Hey, she stopped it, didn’t she?”

Luna turned and looked at the bound pegasus beside her on the cloud. Rainbow Dash was still struggling against the magical restraints, if fruitlessly. The barrier shards wrapped around her glittered and shone with each new twitch. “True, she did. But I don’t think I’ll give her a replacement this time. She needs to learn more strategies outside of huge explosions, despite that fact that I’m quite the fan of them myself.”

Rainbow struggled a bit more. “You know, you didn’t need to trap me.”

Luna ruffled her wings a bit. “Of course I did! I ordered my soldiers to stay back on the island and let those two deal with things on their own. I trust in their loyalty to me. But, such orders to you would have been irrelevant. By personality and oath, you are loyal to Twilight, even over me. Hence, I restrained you. Although if you were to stop struggling, it wouldn’t be quite so uncomfortable.”

“I can’t help it!” She thrashed a bit more. “I hate being trapped! I’m a pegasus! We aren’t supposed to be tied down like this!”

“True,” Luna conceded, sitting up and turning back to watch the scene below. “But I am afraid you shall have to deal with it a little while longer. There are more lessons I must teach her without your aid.”

“Hmph.”

Luna stifled a laugh at the pegasus’ pouting. Oh, this all takes me back to those coliseum days. What was it that my master always said? Other than ‘Give me stronger wine or I’ll toss your head to the crowd as a party favor.’ Heh. Then there was that ti—”

Luna’s mind went to another place for just an instant, her vision getting darker, but lurched back when her left leg gave out completely, dropping her to the cloud. No, heavens above, not now! Please!

“Luna?”

The Princess could only barely tell who was speaking. The cyan pegasus sounded, as if she were being smothered, or was underwater. Her left eyelid started to close of its own accord, and her vision got even darker, like it was turning to night already. No, no, no! I thought I was done with this!

“Luna! Hey! What’s wrong!?”

The alicorn’s other left leg gave out, forcing her to list to her side. Grunting and fighting what was coming with her good legs, she twisted her body for a clear look at Rainbow, then charged her horn as much she could in her state. She fired a beam at the shards holding the pegasus down, shattering them. With her last breath, she tried to speak and give her a command.

Yet she heard nothing, and the pegasus vanished into the distance while the world bled away to black.


Rainbow Dash dove, desperate to catch up. The wind wasn’t what was fighting her. Wind was something she was used to. Something she was a part of. This was something altogether different. Luna’s limp body had fallen right off the cloud after destroying her restraints, yet she couldn’t catch the Princess no matter how hard she tried.

But it wasn’t from the wind.

Luna’s body wasn’t just falling. It was enveloped in crackling lightning, raging magic streams, and white and black bursts of light. Each one lashed out like it was looking for her. If even one of them hit, she was toast.

“Twilight! Twilight!” Rainbow yelled as loud as she could, but it was no use. Her friend was much, much too far away to hear her. She could only hope she noticed in time.


“Well, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, how about you?” Spike cracked his knuckles.

“Yeah,” Twilight agreed. “It’s not like Luna to keep us waiting this long. Ow!” Twilight held up her hooves, recoiling as something seared her skin like a hot frying pan. When it didn’t last more than a second, she froze in place and cracked open an eye, finding no burns on her at all. “What in the world…”

“Twilight! Look!”

She turned her gaze upwards towards where Spike was pointing, and gasped.

A hot, blazing ball of magic with crackling lightning was falling right towards the side of the volcano, with a rainbow-streaked pegasus chasing after it but backing up each time she got close.

“Luna… Spike, stay back!”

“But—”

Twilight took off like a cheetah, letting her legs do the talking and rushing into the ice, mush, and snow the “volcano” left behind. Her hooves slipped and slid, twisting her barrel around, but onward she pressed towards the falling comet.

She was too late.

The Princess of the Night plowed into the ground like a meteorite, sending smoke, dust, ice, and snow flying with a thunderous *CRASH* and knocking Twilight back on her rear.

“Luna!? Luna!” Frigid, choking smoke and ice filled her lungs as she yelled, forcing her to cough and hack while the sound and light died down. Slipping on the snow, she brought herself back to her hooves and pushed forward. Though she couldn’t see anything yet, she could feel the upwards slope of a recently formed crater. “Luna, are you okay!?”

“Twilight!” A strong wind came from above, clearing out a lot of the particulate matter in the air near them. In its place, a rainbow-maned pegasus flew around in circles, searching. “Twilight! There you are! Where’s Luna!? What in the hay happened!?”

“I have no idea!” Twilight jumped up, climbing up and over into the crater’s depression. “We’ve got to make sure she’s alright! We’re Celestia-only-knows how far away from civilization. Without her to teleport us, we’ll never get home!”

“Wait up, guys!” Spike called out.

Twilight could hear his footsteps march up behind her, but she pressed forward, sliding down towards the center of the mess while Rainbow overhead kept clearing out the sky with her magic. It didn’t take her long to find what she was looking for.

“Whoa, what the hell is that!?”

“Rainbow!” Twilight snapped despite herself. The outburst was justified. There, in front of them, was an unsealed Princess Luna, unconscious on the ground. Covering her was some kind of black mesh netting. It glistened a little, but still looked burned and twisted.

“Is she alright?” Spike asked.

Rainbow flew down and put her ear on the Princess’s chest. “Well, she’s breathing, so there’s that. Doesn’t even look like she was hurt. Except, she kind of looks like—”

“Don’t say it, Rainbow.” Twilight cut her off while examining the substance on the night alicorn. I don’t know if Luna would want me sharing this secret, but at this point, it’s already out. “She’s not the Nightmare. This is Luna. The real Luna. She seals away her power so she can look smaller and more approachable. The seal must’ve broke when, well, all this happened. Whatever ‘this’ is.”

Rainbow landed and sat down next to them, and just stared. “Whoa.”

Spike leaned over and pulled off a piece of whatever was on her coat. “I suppose that makes sense. I can see how looking like this could make ponies nervous.” His voice cracked a little. “I mean, I’m fine, but who knows what others would think.” His voice cracked even more before picking up a piece of the black substance. “Anypony know what this stuff is?”

Twilight shook her head, picking up a piece of it in her magic. “No clue, honestly. I wish I could get it back to my lab and… Hey!”

The ‘stuff,’ whatever it was, defied Twilight’s need for knowledge by spontaneously dissolving into the air.

“Oh, that’s just not fair!” She stomped a hoof. “That was our only clue, and now it’s just up and dissolving away like magic!”

Spike started to try to lift the Princess up. “I’m guessing that’s ‘cause it’s magic.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“What? It’s the truth!” Spike was still trying to push the unconscious alicorn into a standing position. “Give me a hoof, will ya?”

Twilight didn’t even have time to try it before the comatose body flopped to the ground with a ‘flomp,’ limp wings sprawled out to the sides.

“Crap,” Spike shrugged, giving up.

Rainbow took to the air again, hovering over them. “Okay, let me get this straight. We’ve got a princess who has spontaneously knocked herself out, crashed into a mountain, is our only way home, we have no idea when or if she’ll wake up, and the only clue Twilight had to solving this just disappeared into the ether like Pinkie Pie when… well, like Pinkie Pie.”

Twilight sighed and sat down. “That about covers it.”

“So what do we do?” Spike asked.

She opened her mouth and stalled. “I… I don’t know.” The sounds of two more ponies galloping came from behind them, and Twilight continued. “But they might!”

“Sovereign!”

Twilight wasn’t quite sure which one that was, but regardless both of them soon leapt over the crater’s edge and slid right down to their Princess’s side.

Rainbow zoomed in near them. “We didn’t do anything, I swear!”

The two stallions ignored her, going to examine the Princess. After just a couple of seconds, Starward spoke. “What are you three doing just sitting here? Help us get our Sovereign out of this hole! We need to get her someplace comfortable!”

Twilight narrowed her focus on the stallion. “So you do know what’s going on. Care to share?”

He charged right up at her. “Later. Right now we need to take care of her!”

Twilight thought for a moment, not letting her face so much as flinch in front of him, but could find no alternative. “Very well.”


Several hours later, Luna had long since been laid on a makeshift bed of sand and leaves while she slept off the mysterious affliction, watched over at each side by her Night Guards. The sun was starting to get low in the sky, and the warm tropical air was replaced with a cold chill thanks to the eruption of ice. The ponies all sat near the fire, with the dragon even closer, warming his hands.

“Any messages, Spike?” Twilight asked.

“Nothin’,” he said, poking the fire with a stick.

“Doesn’t Princess Celestia normally respond to your letters a lot faster?” Rainbow scratched her head.

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, she does. Usually. Sometimes she can’t, though, and we know she’s been very busy lately. It’s not time to panic just yet. Although I’d be a lot more comfortable if Starward here would tell us what’s going on.”

The stallion sighed, half growling. “I told you. My oath prevents me from sharing details. All I can tell you is that the Sovereign is healthy and will wake soon.”

“You said ‘soon’ hours ago.” Rainbow groaned, rolling over. “You mind telling us what ‘soon’ means?”

The entire group froze in shock as the Princess finally began to stir, groaning a little.

“When she is ready. Arcane, aid me.” Starward got up and put his hoof under the Princess, while Arcane Edge did the same, both of them helping her up and supporting her with their shoulders.

“Ugh. NNnnnnngggg… What…” Luna’s wings twitched but otherwise stayed limp. She was clearly trying to lift her head, but all of her standing force was being supplied by her two Night Guard soldiers lifting her with more care than Twilight thought they were capable of.

She inched closer to the Princess, followed shortly by her own guards. “Princess Luna? Are you okay?”

“Wha? Whossa…” Luna lifted her head with a flop, her ethereal mane in the way of one of her eyes. The other opened and its pupil flailed open and closed, until finally settling down. “Twilight?”

She bowed, and signaled her friends to do so, too, at the behest of her old habits. “Yes, Princess.”

Her leg lifted up again and again, each time falling back to Starward’s shoulder, and eventually slipped off and to the ground. “No, no bowing, no…” The rest of the alicorn followed the leg, causing the two Guardsponies to rush to try and pull her back up.

“Princess?” Twilight lifted a hoof.

“No!” Luna’s legs flailed upside-down, struggling to roll her over onto her belly. “No bowing! Don’t… Don’t help me up. I’ll—” Her own yawn interrupted her. “I’ll be okay. Just... Give me a few minutes.”

Twilight’s ears went flat against the back of her head. A glance over at Rainbow revealed she was doing her best to look at everything not Luna, and failing. “Um, okay. We’ll wait for you.”

The next several minutes Twilight and the others sat in silence as Luna twitched and borderline-convulsed, flexing limbs seemingly at random. Eventually, the Princess was finally in a tenable position, laying down but with her legs under her and her head held high. “I think… I think I’m okay now.”

Twilight could see the lump in Luna’s throat being swallowed down. “You don’t have to rush, Princess.”

The night alicorn deflated a bit. “Don’t call me that, Twilight. I much prefer ‘Luna,’ especially coming from you. I don’t like that distance between us.”

She lowered her head. “Sorry. Old Canterlot habits. When a superior noble is sick, you’re supposed to lower yourself to not look above them.”

“Then do not consider me superior!”

Twilight’s neck lurched back from the sheer force of Luna’s voice.

Luna was frozen in place for a second, jaw grinding her teeth, before she opened her eyes and stared at her nervously.

“Um,” Twilight began.

Luna collapsed to the ground and covered her ears with her hooves. “Ugh. Forgive me, Twilight. These episodes always leave me a bit… Well, I think my sister used the term ‘wonky.’”

“Uh, about that.” Rainbow held up a hoof. “What exactly happened back there? You kinda passed out.”

Luna drearily looked over at Rainbow, and then back at her own body, and then to Spike, then back to her own body, and finally back to Twilight. “Damn. I suppose you explained about my seal?”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t know if you would have wanted me to tell them, but since they saw…”

“Right. Well, at least I don’t have to explain that part.” She sighed and laid down, gazing into the fire. “Twilight, Rainbow, Spike, how much do you three really know about what the Elements did to me?”

Twilight looked over to Rainbow, who now looked every bit as nervous as Twilight felt. “Well, um, Celestia said they, erm, cleansed you?”

Luna snorted. “‘Cleansed’ is a far, far more gentle term than I would use. That makes it sound like a bath. The Elements are not so gentle. They all but destroyed me.”

Twilight looked over at Rainbow again, who was biting her hoof.

“This is not to say that I am not grateful for what you have done,” Luna continued as her two guards moved closer to lay at her sides, supporting her physically once again. “I am eternally indebted to you and your friends for your actions. But I didn’t emerge from that a whole mare. The Elements did more than just break my armor. They broke my mind, and nearly blew out my wellspring. A shattered mess, only barely able to remember who and what I was, I clung to my sister like a foal to a teat because the only memories I had were of her. She took care of me, helped put my mind back together, and forgave me.”

A lone tear fell to the sand under the diarch. “I owe her more than I can ever repay. She fought tooth and hoof to give me my small Night Guard because she knew my secret. I did not hide away in my chambers because I was shy before the Council and the nobles. I could not care less about what they think of me. I hid because I was weak, not in resolve, but in mind and body. Little things I would experience brought back so many memories. Thousands of years to relive and remember, all locked away and hidden in the back of my own mind. Sometimes, they come so fast, it overwhelms me. So I fall asleep, and dream. When I wake, I feel different. More whole, sometimes, but different, always. Like I’m a somewhat different mare, living many years in but a night.”

The Princess lifted her wings, placing them on her two stallions, and stretching them out. “Do you want to know why I wasn’t at your brother’s wedding, Twilight? The real reason I couldn’t be there to help? I was asleep. Not by choice, but all the same. Napping. Dreaming of things I once knew long ago, and physically locked away by my meager Night Guard to protect me at my most vulnerable hour.”

Twilight swallowed in her dry throat. “Celestia told me you were investigating a threat in Manehattan. She… She lied to me.”

Luna shook her head. “Probably not, actually. Although she would not have have told you this full truth regardless, I did go to Manehattan to do that very thing, but something triggered a memory. This triggered another, and another, until I was overwhelmed by my own mind, entering REM sleep in mere seconds. As here.”

Twilight stood up, stretching her back. “That, honestly makes me feel a little better. At least in some ways. I think I understand why you don’t go to the 'front lines' much, though.”

Luna sneered a bit, but Twilight could tell it wasn’t at her. The Princess was more directing it to herself.

“Yes. Falling asleep in a battle is not how I plan to die. Of course, as an alicorn, that isn’t something I do much planning on, but if I must go, that would not be the way I desire.”

Spike sat up, rotating his shoulder. “Yeah, I can understand the feeling. Still doesn’t explain what that black stuff was, though.”

Luna blinked. “Black stuff?”

“Yeah, there was this weird, black, web-netting stuff on you after you landed in the crater. Sorry about not catching you, by the way.” Rainbow flapped her wings. “You were, like, going crazy with magic and I couldn’t get close.”

Luna blinked again. “‘Weird, black, web-netting stuff.’ I’m not sure what you mean.”

Twilight cleared her throat and started to explain. “It looked like black, burned plastic, but was more brittle, and the surface was smoother than I would have thought. Somewhat reflective, and it dissolved about a minute after impact.”

Luna clopped a hoof on the ground. “Oh! That must have been Lumina deploying a little to protect me.”

“Lumina?” Twilight and Spike asked at the same time.

The Princess tapped the blue gem in the center of her gray-white torc. “My torc. My bonded armor, Lumina.”

“That’s its name?” Rainbow flew up a little for a closer look at the torc.

Luna nodded. “Yes. Each bonded artifact has a name. Often they choose it themselves. Twilight, has your torc contacted you yet?”

Twilight shook her head. “Not yet. Should it have?”

Luna shrugged. “Probably, but there’s no helping it. For all we know it may just have a shy personality. Keep trying.” She looked up at the sky, and the sun setting through the frigid volcanic ‘smoke.’ “I believe it’s time I raised the moon.”

Rainbow flew back into a hover. “Whoa, um, is that a good idea? I mean, in your state—”

“I have been raising the moon for nearly nine thousand years, Rainbow.” Luna stood up and spread her wings, flaring out the smooth, nearly-black feathers.

“Yes, but I’ve raised the moon, too,” Twilight protested. “I know I would not be in any state to use that spell just yet given what I’ve seen.”

Luna smirked a little. “That is not my spell for raising the moon. That was a heavily-modified version of the original spell unicorns used to use, altered so that a single ascendant would be enough. Mine is more… instinctive, at this point. I will be fine. For afterwards, I suggest you all prepare yourselves. We are not yet done today.”

Rainbow, Spike, and Twilight all shared a shudder, but the dragon hunched over as well, gripping his stomach. With a loud burp, a scroll formed from the flames he belched.

“From the Princess?” Twilight asked. “It’s been a while since we sent the message. What’s it say?”

Spike unfurled the scroll and coughed a bit. “Ugh. That one kinda hurt. Ahem. Basically, it’s saying that Luna will be fine, just watch over her, and that not to worry about taking care of the moon. Princess Celestia says she’ll do it.”

The Lunar Princess sighed. “I hate it when I have to lean on her for this. I feel like some kind of coward, hiding behind my soldiers and letting others do the work I should be. Oh well, can’t be helped.”

Spike raised a hand. “Um, she also says that Trail Blazer didn’t check in when he was supposed to and wants to know if she should dispatch a... Wonderbolt SAR. What’s an SAR?”

“Search And Rescue,” Rainbow answered. “If she’s going right for that, they’re either in deep trouble or crazy far away.”

Luna tapped her silver-clad hoof on her lip. “Hmmm…”


“Alright, Pipsqueak! This is it!”

The earth pony bit his lip as they dangled high in the air on a rickety rope bridge. Rumbling Steel had him cornered. In the unicorn’s magic was the object of three months of searching: a lost artifact of gold and rubies made before Discord ravaged the world. A lost, magical, highly unstable and explosive artifact. Worse, Steel also had a cored cannon aimed right at him.

“Here’s what’s going to happen!” Rumbling Steel shouted in his native Trottingham accent, the same type he left behind so long ago. “You’re going to message the Princess—”

“I can’t do that! We’re out of range! It’s limited by—”

“Don’t lie to me, earth pony, I can see through your games!”

He rolled his eyes. This guy wasn’t going to listen. His flare was one-time-use only, and he was way too far away from a leyline for it to reach his mentor.

“You will message Princess Luna and tell her that if she doesn’t hand over her torc, I’m going to turn this into an unparalleled bomb and set it off in downtown Manehatten! If you don’t, I’ll start sending her pieces of you instead!”

Wait, you’re going to try to hold hostages? Against Princess Luna?” He laughed deep from his belly. This guy is completely off his rocker! The earth pony lifted his sword with his mouth, and cut one of the ropes on the bridge.

“What are you doing?”

He spit the sword out. “Hey, if we’ve got to go, this way’s a lot more pleasant than what Luna would do to you! And by the way, the name’s Trail Blazer!” He picked up the sword again, and sliced through the remaining ropes.


“I’m sure he’s fine.” Luna reassured Spike with a pat on his head. “My little Pip is quite resourceful.”

Rainbow threw up her hooves. “Wait, time out! Pip!? As in, the little earth pony colt!?”

The Princess let out a belly laugh, her jovial voice rattling the heavens themselves. “Oh my, yes. ‘Little earth pony colt.’ He calls himself ‘Trail Blazer’ now. If only you could see him, Rainbow Dash. He has grown into a most impressive earth pony stallion.”

Twilight tilted her head. “Really? I haven’t seen him in ages.”

Luna peered right into Twilight’s eyes with a piercing, knowing glare. “I daresay he might even stir you a little, ascendant. He is, well, I believe the mare travelling with him described him as ‘a chiseled god.’”

“Heh. Sounds like quite the fan-filly,” Rainbow mused, stretching herself out.

Luna nodded. “Indeed, but she is good for him, I think. Her name is Scootaloo.”

An iceberg worth of silence dropped right on the heads of Twilight, Rainbow, and Spike. Mouths open, eyes wide, and Rainbow even fell over on her side.

Luna put her ears back. “Oh my. It seems I forgot something important.”

Silence still reigned over the trio as if a mad Celestia had stolen everypony’s voice, along with their ability to move.

“Huh.” Luna smirked a bit. “Starward, it appears our Grand Mage has stopped breathing. Please go give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.”

Twilight instantly snapped out of it. “Scootaloo said that!?”

“Wait, you said Scootaloo...” Spike held his hands out and then pointed off to his side like there was a past version of Ponyville there. “As in the same Scootaloo that tore through Ponyville on a scooter on a regular basis desperate to find her cutie mark and, more often than not, wound up covered in tree sap?”

Luna shrugged. “I have heard some tales of these exploits, yes. I am afraid I forgot that she had wanted me to not reveal her whereabouts to you all. A promise I have now broken. These memory dreams always mix me up a little. I shall have to make it up to her.”

“Scootaloo’s in trouble!?” Rainbow finally snapped out of it and flew right up to Luna. “Why didn’t you say so!? I need to go after her! She’s—”

“Rainbow!” Twilight yelled before running over and pulling her down. “Relax! She’s an adult by now. I doubt she’s in that much trouble.”

Tears started flowing down the pegasus’ face like someone turned on a faucet. “You don’t understand, Twi! I finally know where she is! Well, sort of. I need to talk to her! I—”

“Rainbow Dash.” Luna’s deeper voice cut through the conversation like death’s scythe, ending the former Wonderbolt’s words as the alicorn stood over them. “Give her time. Allow her to come to you. I know this mare, this filly, and she knows me. She knows she could see you anytime she’s ready. I am aware there is some level of heartache for her in regards to Ponyville, and she needs to heal from it before that will happen. In the meantime, as she is... infatuated with the pony who is, at this moment, my student, she is under my protection, and will be as long as she is so connected to my Pip. Understand?”

Rainbow was looking right into Luna’s eyes, and Twilight couldn’t help but look, too. The Princess’s eyes weren’t quite the vertical slits of the Nightmare, but there was a determination and cutting presence to them that sent chills up her spine all the same.

The pegasus wiped her eyes, leaned into Twilight, and nodded.

Twilight sighed, embracing her friend in a hug before pressing Luna on something she had said. “Princess, you said something about Pip being your student? I think Celestia told me something about you teaching him archeology.”

Luna looked off into the distance. “Mmm. Yes. I secretly took him on as a student long ago. Secret because I did not wish to deal with the Council and their blathering about him not being a noble. They eventually found out anyway, but it was still hushed. I decided to teach him history because he loved my stories so. He’s on an archaeological expedition for me. I managed to find evidence of some ruins that predate Discord’s reign.”

Pre-Discordian ruins!? Pre-Discordian ruins! Do they have intact magic samples? I bet I could learn a lot from the architecture of— Twilight shook her head quickly, shoving the thought off to the side, although a large part of her didn’t want to. After all, Pre-Discordian Ruins! No, bad Twilight. Something else is important here.

“Princess,” Twilight started, staring at her. “You said ‘at this moment.’ Does taking me as a student mean you have to drop him?”

Luna looked back at her, seemingly only half paying attention. “Drop? What, oh! No! No, Twilight. I’m not ‘dropping’ him, he’s graduating.”

Twilight jolted back a bit, dragging a stressed Rainbow Dash with her a little. “Graduating? I thought you two took students for their whole lives. Well, I suppose not if they turn into alicorns, but still. Has he really learned all he can from you?”

Luna shook her head. “I could still teach him, true, but he’s going to learn more on his own. I will still guide him and give him ‘assignments’ of sorts, but they will instead be official commissions as an archeologist of the crown. Also, I am not like my sister, Twilight. You should not assume. Celestia takes students for their whole life. I do not. Besides, this move will change little for him. He is still my Pip, no matter what he calls himself, and he’s mostly been on his own lately anyway. Thus, this is necessary, as it is a recognition he deserves. Understand?”

Twilight nodded, smiling. “Yeah, that makes sense I suppose. Are you sure you don’t want to send a rescue party though? Maybe to make Rainbow feel better?”

She couldn’t help but notice her friend look up at the Princess with doe eyes. Heh. Maybe she actually did learn a few things from being friends with Rarity.

Luna sighed. “Very well, I shall send out a pair of my Night Guards. I do not wish to embarrass him with a full rescue. Honestly, you all should feel more worry for anything that’s trying to give him trouble.”


“Aaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrggggghhhhhh!”

Trail Blazer rolled his eyes. Always so dramatic. He chuckled and put his hooves up to his mouth, taking in a deep breath from the air rushing past them as they fell. “Hey, Steel!”

He watched him carefully as the old stallion turned and flopped around in the free-fall to look at him, and just as he made eye contact, Trail Blazer gave the curmudgeon a wave. A second later, a pair of orange hooves grabbed him, halting his descent almost entirely.

“Ooof! Celestia, you’re heavy!” His savior grunted, losing some of her breath. “And when are you going to learn that someday I might not be able to catch your sorry flank!”

He gave Scootaloo a smile. “Oh come on, you’ve never let anything stop you before. I don’t expect you ever will. Hey, you think that artifact will survive?”

Light, fire, and the thunder of a dozen storms ripped through the air, knocking over many of the tropical trees below them and nearly causing Scootaloo to lose her grip.

“Heh. Guess not.” He grabbed onto her back just below the shoulders. “Think you can set us down over that way?”

“Not on your life!” she grunted in reply. “I can barely keep us in the air. Stunted wings, remember? Fight gravity, or go forward. Not both.”

“Alright, alright. Just keep us out of the fire, and we’ll make a run for your scooter.”


Luna’s warm smile grew, though it looked somewhat odd on her unsealed self. “I’m honestly not worried about them. They’ll be fine.”

Rainbow wiped away another tear. “I just…”

Twilight held her friend close. “Princess, Scootaloo was... is... special to Rainbow. She ran away from Ponyville before she even got her cutie mark. We’d heard she was still alive. She sent letters from time to time, but they never said where she was. Could you give us, or at least Rainbow, some time here? It’s a bit much to absorb.”

Luna pointed at Twilight with a wing. “And yet, you seem to be handling it admirably. That is good. It speaks of your ascension. However, there will be times when you do not get such a reprieve. Hence, I shall give you ten minutes. After that, however…”

The Princess of the Night leaned in close. “You’re mine.”

Brothers and Sisters in The Tides of Time

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Spike trudged up the towering, mountainous staircase leading to the Princesses’ private chambers. It had been months since he started training with Twilight and Rainbow Dash. During that time, they’d been teleported all over Equestria and beyond. Princess Luna was an utterly brutal trainer. When they thought they were safe, they were ambushed in surprise attacks. When they failed to look up, they were bombed by pegasus golems. Even lunch wasn’t safe! A fateful plate of sandwiches had been sabotaged with a laxative. While the team suffered the effects, Luna simply asked them what they would have done had it been poison. The worst part, though? Luna had kept that little playful smirk the entire time, never getting angry once.

It was fun for her.

Figures that the Princess of the Night is a sadist, he thought, finally getting to the top of the stairs and halting to catch his breath. Climbing hills and stairs wasn’t that hard for ponies, even when they didn’t have wings. For bipeds like himself, though, it was another story. Going from the general dorms for the workers on the ground level to the highest towers in Canterlot was a serious trek. Normally Twilight came downstairs to see him, but this time she had specifically asked him to join her in Celestia’s room.

Stretching and arching his back, which was tonight blissfully free of his armor, he trod heavily down the hall. A few more steps and he’d be past the hall to Luna’s chambers and at the golden double doors to the elder alicorn’s quarters.

“Hey, Spike!”

He stopped in his tracks and stood for a moment while his mind caught up to what was happening. Somepony had called his name. He felt he should probably do something about this, starting with looking at them. Whether or not he’d be able to do anything more remained to be seen.

Looking over, he spotted a rather stressed-looking Shining Armor. Even his uniform looked unkempt, which was quite unlike him.

Spike stared at him for a moment in silence. Then, his mind caught up a little. Oh, right. I need to respond. “Hey, Shining. What’s up?”

The unicorn raised an eyebrow. “You look like crap. Luna must have really run you guys ragged.”

“Goes both ways, man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen bags under your eyes like that before.”

He sighed. “Yeah. I’d rather go back to boot than deal with these politicians. That’s not important, though. Can I talk to you real quick? Over here. I need to ask you something.”

Spike shrugged and followed him down the hall to Luna’s room a little before stopping at a tiny door off to the side. It definitely wasn’t one of the royal chambers. What is this? Some kind of secret bedroom for— Oh. Janitorial closet. Right.

Shining shut the door behind them and put some sort of spell over it. “Alright. I know Twilight asked you up, so I’m not going to keep you too long. I just need you to promise you’ll do something for me.”

He scratched his head. “What do you need?”

“Look. I’m a very powerful unicorn. But Twilight? She’s… She’s beyond me in ways I can barely even imagine. Her mind? She—” He started to laugh and chuckle even as he wiped away a tear. “She was reading college-level stuff by the time she was seven. Might’ve been even earlier had we put it in front of her soon enough.” He sighed. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m rambling.”

He stopped, frozen in place for a few second before grabbing Spike by the shoulders and taking a deep breath. “If, somehow, miraculously, everything went perfectly from here on out, I’d have a hundred years left. Of that, maybe seventy I’d be healthy enough to protect her. That’s it. Even if she never gets to a single summit, she’ll never age again. And I’m not going to be able to be there to protect her like she needs to be. Rainbow won’t either. But you will!”

He leaned in close, looking Spike right in the eyes. “She needs someone to keep an eye on her. I need you to promise me that you’ll be there for her. Look after her, keep her safe.”

Spike rotated and fidgeted with his foot. “Technically, I’m not in her Guard yet. This was a trial period. I was hoping she’d be telling me one way or another tonight.”

Shining shook his head. “Don’t worry about that. I know her better than even Celestia. She’ll never leave you behind. She’s going to tell you about all kinds of precautions and how she doesn’t want you to have to fight, but ultimately, she’ll want you nearby. What I need from you is that promise.”

Spike gave the stallion a long, hard look. Shining wasn’t the kind of pony to reveal everything on his mind. He was straightforward with what he wanted to say and guarded everything else under the strictest confidence. All Spike could gather was that there was an excruciatingly heavy weight on Shining’s mind. Everything else was left to the wildest of guesses.

Despite all that, there was only one answer he could have given to such a request. “I’m surprised you even thought you had to ask. On my honor, I’ll protect her, ‘til my dying breath.” He crossed his heart as he finished repeating one of the Royal Guard’s creeds.

Shining relaxed almost to the point of melting. “Thank you. I needed to hear that. I won’t keep you any longer. I think we both need some sleep. I know I have a hell of a day coming tomorrow.”

Spike patted him on the shoulder while they left. “Yeah. Can’t say I envy you. At least our training with Luna is supposed to end tomorrow. Politics goes on forever.”

“You have no idea. Oh, and Spike?”

“Yeah?”

Shining deflated a little more and lowered his voice. “Please, don’t tell Twilight what we talked about.”

“Not a problem,” Spike whispered back.

A tiny smile grew on the stallion’s face. “Well, goodnight. I’m beat.”

“‘Night!” Spike waved goodbye to Shining as the stallion walked down the tairs, then turned back to walk down the little hall to the doors of Celestia’s chambers. Well, here’s hoping he’s right. He reached out to knock, but the door opened with a purple shimmer before he even had a chance.

“Come on in, Spike,” he heard Twilight say through the slightly open door.

He had gotten Shining’s assurances and mostly believed them, but that didn’t mean his heart would stop pounding. Making matters worse, each step caused another jolt of pain in his feet, but he kept moving forward towards her. She was sitting down on the balcony overlooking the Duchy, with a light blanket over her body and a cup of tea next to her books.

When he finally got there and sat down, his feet rejoiced like they’d just won freedom after a long prison sentence. Sometimes ponies really don’t know how good they have it with their hooves.

Twilight carefully set down the book she was reading on top of the neatly organized stack then scribbled some notes on parchment. How she still managed to have energy after all that had happened that day, Spike would never know. Several long moments passed between them in silence, dissolving into the slightly breezy mountain air.

She took another drink of her tea and finally spoke. “I’ve decided to welcome you into my Honor Guard.”

Spike did a remarkable impression of Shining Armor from a minute ago, exhaling and melting into the ground. “Whew…”

“There will, however, be some caveats,” she said over another sip.

“Yeah. I figured.” He leaned back into the pillar at the edge of the balcony, letting his back relax. Shining really does know her. “Hit me.”

“Careful, Spike. You never know when Luna is listening!” She winked at him.

“Don’t remind me.” Oh, he’d learned that lesson the hard way. They all had.

Twilight laughed politely. “It was a good lesson—if painful. Then again, it appears all of her lessons are painful. I’m grateful to her, truly, but I feel it will be a long time before I ask her to teach me anything involving fighting ever again.”

Spike rubbed his ankles. “Yeah. I’m about ready to cut off my feet. Put them out of their misery.”

“Well, don’t get too relieved. We still have one more day.”

“Once again, don’t remind me.”

They shared a small chuckle but quickly gave way to silence again. Time passed, and Luna’s stars began to peek out from the velvet void. It wasn’t until at least two constellations were visible that Spike decided to break the silence.

“Can I ask why you decided to let me stay?”

“Hmmm.”

Twilight’s non-answer wasn’t especially encouraging, but at least he already knew he’d be welcome. That was the hard part, blissfully already done.

Twilight got up and gingerly stepped to the edge of the balcony, resting her forelegs on the rail. “Come here, Spike.”

It took him an extra try, but he managed to force himself up and waddle up to her, also leaning on the railing.

“Take a look out there. Can you see the ponies down in the marketplace? Or the lights of the town in the distance?”

Spike squinted a bit. His eyesight wasn’t as good as a pony’s. Evolution had granted him the ability to see movement better, as well as bright, shiny objects, but distance was another story. Still, there was enough light from the town that he could just barely make it out. “Yeah, I think I see it.”

“We’re pretty high up. Tallest towers of Canterlot. This here? This is how Celestia and Luna see things.”

Spike scratched his head. “What do you mean? This is Celestia’s room! Of course she sees this all the time!”

“I mean metaphorically. I’m talking a matter of perspective.”

“Perspective? Like, being this high up?”

Twilight shook her head. “Not quite. Neither of us are this high up. Only the Princesses are.”

“I’m starting to get confused.”

“It’s like this.” She dropped her head, resting it on her forelegs and looking down. “Imagine that this was a tower that went all the way to the base of the mountain. Ponies spend their lives at the base and, every now and then, enter the tower through a door and climb up a little. As they get older, they climb higher. You and I, we’re really not that far apart from each other in height. Up until now, you’ve been on the same balcony as the rest of us, but you’ve been entering a different door and climbing a different set of stairs.”

Spike was thoroughly lost at this point but let her continue speaking.

“Celestia and Luna are at the top of the tower, up here. They’re so high up I wonder if they ever truly go back down. Luna might. I’m not so sure about Celestia. I honestly never really realized all this until just recently, and for that, I’m so, so sorry Spike. I really am. I can’t believe how insensitive I was to just ignore it all and dismiss it. I should’ve talked to you about it.”

He put a hand on her foreleg. “Hey, I don’t really know what you mean yet, but it’s alright. Really. I’m here, aren’t I?”

Twilight blinked, and he saw some tears roll out of her eyes. “You are. And that’s the whole point, Spike. Now, I’m going in the same door you use. I’m using the same stairs. And someday, we might both be standing on top of the tower. Together.”

“Oh.” The whole meaning hit him like a locomotive, one of the solidified magic-powered ones, too, not the ones drawn by earth ponies. The perspective she was talking about was one of experience, of lifetimes. Up until now, he’d been with other ponies and was very young. There were many ponies older than he was. Yet, he was able to reasonably expect that he would keep going long after they had all passed on. More than that, he had continued on that way essentially by himself. He didn’t think anypony other than Celestia and Luna would still be there with him in the long run. They’d be the only ones able to look out over the same balconies he did.

Moreover, Twilight had been with all the other ponies. She’d had no inkling that she would eventually ascend and join Celestia and Luna at the top of the towers. She probably felt she had left him out in the cold. There was a level of loneliness, but Spike couldn’t blame her for that. For him, it was an inevitable, biological fact. For her, though, it was something else entirely.

Before he could think on it further, she had wrapped her forelegs around him and pulled him in tight. He even could feel a couple of tears rolling down his back.

“I’m so sorry for leaving you to climb those stairs alone. I’m not going to do that again. I can’t. We’re the only two in all of Equestria going in that lonely door. We have to stay together. Can you forgive me?”

He hugged her back. “There’s nothing to forgive. Like I said, I’m always going to be your number one assistant.”

“Thank you.”

By the time the hug finally broke, Spike fell back down on his rump again. He was still exceedingly tired. Yet, he couldn’t help but notice the appearance of a set of colored scrolls. “What are these?” he asked.

“These—” she sniffed “—are important pieces of your new job.”

He picked up the red scroll. It was like thin construction paper. He slid off the black tie, noticing there wasn’t any security spell on them. The reason was obvious when he unfurled it. “It’s blank.”

“That’s the idea. Spike, remember when I described how your mail works?”

He nodded. “Sure. Leylines, magic, that sort of thing.”

She re-rolled the red one in her magic. “Right. Well, the Princesses actually use leylines for teleportation, too. I’m not completely certain, but I’m guessing the range for both is similar. The spells probably use similar principles. But, this means they both have a similar limitation.”

“Let me guess. Since leylines aren’t everywhere, if we’re too far, no help’s coming?”

Twilight beamed with some pride. “Exactly! We won’t be able to call for help, and even if we could, it’d be some time before they arrived. Spike, when we’re on a mission and close to a leyline, I want you to hang back, out of sight.”

He started to deflate a bit at this, but she lifted his chin with a hoof.

“You are going to be my lifeline. Take a look at this.” She raised her horn and lit it up, sending a few sparks from it. These sparks were a different color from her normal magic and didn’t fade away. Instead, they scattered on the ground, one for each color scroll, plus a purple one.

Twilight continued, “When you’re hiding out of sight, I want you to have a clear view of the sky. When I send up a flare, you’re to immediately send the matching scroll. Don’t bother with writing anything, just send them.”

Spike snapped his fingers. “This is so you can get help as fast as possible, isn’t it?”

“Precisely! Although, only two are a call for help. Yellow actually means we’ve encountered a complication and need more time, rather than aid. Green means we’re ‘mission complete’ and heading home. Purple means I need you personally where I’m at; that’s why there’s no scroll for it.”

“So, why the two different colors for getting help?” He lifted the black one to check, and it too was blank. “Seems superfluous.”

Twilight grinned. “Excellent vocabulary use, Spike, but it’s not superfluous. I was talking with Luna and realized that we might one day find that not only am I in over my head but that there could be a lot of ponies that need help. Too many for just myself or even Luna to protect. If things are really that dire, I’ll send up a black flare. If that happens, Spike, I need you to follow rule number one of being in an Honor Guard.”

She leaned in close, her eyes suddenly serious. “First and foremost, if you want to be in my Guard, you have to follow all of my orders without hesitation. I feel you’re ready for that, but this one might be hard. Spike, if I fire a black flare, you need to send the scroll right away and then do one more thing. Run.

Spike opened his mouth but was cut off before he could speak.

“I know you probably don’t like this, Spike, but—”

“Twilight—”

He was cut off again. “Let me finish. This is important. It took a lot for me to even admit to myself how much I’m going to need you on this journey. I really don’t want to see you hurt, but I also recognized that leaving you would leave you deeply hurt emotionally, and—”

“Twilight—”

Spike bopped her lightly on the head with the black scroll.

Twilight stopped and blinked a few times, one hoof slightly raised in the air in disbelief. “Did you seriously just bop me on the head with a scroll?”

“Twilight, I get it!” He twirled the black one in his hand. “You’re telling me that if you fire a black flare, I should send this thing and get the heck out of Dodge Junction. I get it. I agree with it.”

Twilight opened her mouth to say something, clearly about to argue with him, but then stopped. “You agree?

Spike rolled his eyes. “Come on, Twi! This thing means you’ve found something so awful that you need Luna and a ton of Royal Guards to save your flank. What exactly am I going to do against something like that?”

He obviously hit a logic nerve in her. “Well, I thought that, um…”

Wow. Twilight speechless. Wish I had a camera. He continued, “Look, the way I see it, I’d just get in Luna’s way. There’s really not much I can do in that situation other than summon help and keep my head down. Maybe send a follow-up scroll later.”

Twilight’s eye twitched a little. “Spike! That is— That’s really mature of you! I’m impressed!”

“Come on, Twi.” He allowed himself a little smirk. “I’m not a hatchling anymore!”

She shook her head. “No, you are not. I guess I have to remind myself of that sometimes. Well, this went smoother than I thought it would.”

Spike stood up and started gathering the scrolls. It was a force of habit to do so at this point. “Yep. And, shoot, worst case scenario, I figure, if you fall, I’ll get sucked into a depression for a few decades, get really super strong, learn some dark draconic magic, and go on a roaring revenge rampage! It’ll be fun!”

She playfully bopped him on the head with the scroll. “You little smart-flank.”

“I know you are, but what am I!?” There was a beat, and the full meaning of what he said hit him. “Oh, wait, I… Nuts.”

“Kinda backfired on you there, didn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he yawned. “But then, I’m exhausted.”

Twilight stood up. “I hear that. I hear that loud and clear. Why don’t you get to bed, Spike. Knowing Luna, she’s got a hell of a day coming for our last lesson.”

“You don’t need to tell me twice.” He forced himself up and pushed himself mentally to walk to the door as quick as he could. Sleep was coming! “‘Night Twilight. Thanks for letting me be in your Honor Guard.”

Just before he closed the door behind him, he heard her whisper, “Of course, little bro. Sleep well.”


A little while after Spike left, Twilight winced over and over as she slowly made her way to Celestia’s large bed. Each time one of her hooves pressed against the marble tile, it hurt. Oh, sweet Celestia, did it hurt. At least Spike is lucky enough to only have two feet to worry about.

Shining once described his boot camp, and Twilight hadn’t quite believed they’d run ponies so ragged. There was no doubt in her mind now: he was telling the truth. After all, Luna did say he’d helped influence her ‘lesson plan.’ Only somepony subjected to such tortures would be warped enough to want to put others through it too. At this point, Twilight felt an overwhelming desire to use her new status to advocate for more physical education classes in school.

What was worse was that, throughout their training, Luna was cheating, and she admitted it! She kept changing what the golems were made of, making new ones where Twilight wasn’t looking… The absolute worst part, though, was when she made them look and sound like normal ponies. That was just mean, even if she did understand the reasoning behind it.

On her fifth yawn, she finally made it to the bed and flopped over. For once, she knew this night she shouldn’t be forced out of bed by a foghorn or teleported away and dropped in a lake. The reason behind her confidence was simple; Luna was finally restarting her Night Court. To the best of Twilight’s knowledge, the Princesses couldn’t actually be in two places at once, so she might finally be safe.

Seventeen seconds after crawling into the bed, she jolted awake. At least, she thought she was awake. After another yawn, she sat up and looked around.

Overhead was the night sky or, rather, a night sky. She wasn’t sure which, but it wasn’t Equestria’s. The stars took on every imaginable hue and packed the sky in patterns she’d never seen before. Even the “dim” areas were filled with stars.

Something even more remarkable, though, was the cloud she was on. It was huge. Overcast skies were one thing, but this stretched on as far as she could see. Not only was it enormous, it was blue and sparkly. It positively shimmered in the sun, which was unique too, seeing as the rest of the sky was night. Yet, there was the sun, more than three-quarters of the way under the horizon and looking oddly pinkish-purple.

She watched it hang on the horizon for a moment, bobbing up and down slightly from the shifting surface under her, when she realized something. She was on a sparkling, wavy, blue cloud.

“There is no way at all that I can possibly be awake,” she deadpanned.

“Huzzah! Got it in one! You are, in fact, asleep, Twilight Sparkle!”

Twilight went tumbling forward from the sudden volume of the pony that had appeared behind her. With a twist, she righted herself and sat back up. “Hey, Luna. Come to torture me some more?”

Luna held a hoof to her chest in shock. “Twilight, you wound me. I know our training has been vigorous, but ‘tis a necessity! And I thought you might like a chance to just talk instead of getting the runaround from my golems.”

Talk?” she stressed. “Just talk, no crazy training?”

“Just talk,” the Princess reassured.

She exhaled. “Good to know. Yes, I would be fine with talking. What I would really like to know is: one, where are we exactly, and two, didn’t you have Night Court?”

Luna breathed in through her teeth nervously. “I should answer the latter first. Since the coup, rumors have been flying of my involvement. As in, saying I was behind the whole thing.”

Twilight groaned. Of course ponies would start a rumor like that. “Let me guess, nopony showed up in Court?”

“Not a soul. They all rescheduled. ‘Tis most distressing, but they will calm down eventually. Since it left me with some time, I decided to use dream magic to talk to you. This is one of my dream realms, albeit with one addition.” She pointed a hoof at the sun. “Since you are a guest here, I thought it appropriate to add a special something just for you.”

She put it under the horizon… after my name. “It’s beautiful, Luna.”

The Princess flapped her wings a little. “I’m very glad you like it. After all, it’s probably one of the last dream realms in existence, seeing as this school of magic has died out.”

Twilight’s sleep-deprived mind took a moment to catch up with that statement. She was witnessing a form of magic that nopony had seen in ages.

She started to smile, very slowly.

“Let me guess. You want me to teach you dream magic now, too.” Luna smirked.

Twilight rubbed her hooves together a little bit. “It would be nice…”

“Very well. I shall, but later, after you ascend. It takes a long time to master this, even for one as talented as you, and our focus must be elsewhere. For now…” Luna whipped up a lump of cloud, making it more solid. Then, she made another. “Lie down, on your back, then look up at the stars.”

Twilight shrugged and did as she was told. It was certainly no trouble; after all, she found it quite lovely. The little pinpricks of light were flickering in and out, changing color, even vanishing.

Luna flopped down next to her. “These stars, Twilight, are our ponies. All of them that are dreaming.”

Twilight blinked. “All of them? As in, all ponies, everywhere?”

“Well,” the Princess hesitated. “It is true that my reach only extends so far. Yet, most of Equestria is within that, so, yes, all of them. Although, there is no way of knowing who is who without entering the dreams. Unless they are right upstairs.” She winked. “There was a time, though, when that wasn’t an issue. My ponies rejoiced knowing that I might be able to find them in their nightmares and sooth their minds. I dare not do so now. It would only spark more scandal.”

“Wait wait wait,” Twilight interrupted. “You’re telling me that you can spy on ponies’ dreams? As in, all of Equestria?”

“That is so, yet as I said, I dare not anymore. It is easily possible to know I am there, and my ponies are still frightened of me. Should my enemies ever find out, the rumors they would spread could ruin what little reputation I have for decades to come. Instead, I merely watch this sky. I see the nightmares grow, and it terrifies me. Each time I visit, I can sense it getting worse, yet to what end, I dare not contemplate.”

“And you can’t do anything?”

Luna shook her head. “Not directly. I have my ways. I’m sure you have gleaned that my Night Guard doesn’t exactly limit themselves as the Council wishes. It hurts too much to sit completely idle. Yet I am fully aware that getting caught or doing too much would hurt rather than help, so instead, here I sit. A caged princess, but one that shall never turn a blind eye to her ponies again.” She wiped a tear from her face. “I apologize, Twilight. I thought this would be a happy, interesting thing to share.”

“Hey,” she said, getting Luna to look at her. “You’re my friend. I’m sorry I was a little standoffish. I’m just under a lot of stress. We all are. And this? This is gorgeous. I’m very grateful that you showed it to me.”

Her face brightened a little. “I’m very happy to hear that, Twilight Sparkle. However,” she dimmed again. “Do not take this the wrong way, but I was hoping for more.”

“More?” Twilight did not like the sound of that. More than friends? Please tell me that’s not what I think it means. Celestia would kill me for even thinking it. Not to mention, how do I turn down somepony like this? What if she—

“Please, Twilight, allow me to finish before panicking.”

She shrunk herself a bit. I guess she knows me better than I thought.

“As Celestia has no doubt told you, we have been alive for a very long time. For the last several thousand years, we have been alone as alicorns. I did not and could not befriend the few that took up the mantle as Grand Mage in the past. Do not be confused; I love my ponies and love being among them. Seeing them be born and grow and live their lives. Yet, there is something missing from all these relationships. Something that only my sister has been able to provide for me.”

Although the Princess paused, perhaps for Twilight to speak, she dared not interrupt, and Luna continued.

Understanding. My ponies can appreciate me and love me, but truly understand me? Impossible. I am isolated, on an island with only one other, and I desperately need for somepony else to understand me. I do not want mere friendship from you, Twilight. I want your understanding. I want for you to be my sister.”

And then it all dawned on her, falling down in front of her like an avalanche. Luna wasn’t interested in romance (at least, not with her). She was looking for somepony with the ability to really get her, not just be her friend. She experienced thousands of years going by with only one other to truly open up to. Now, Twilight was faced with the exact same prospect, being alive for millennia on end with very few who could understand the same perspective.

What Luna was offering was quite simple and beneficial, though quite profound. On the surface, it felt like she’d be crazy to say no. At the same time, it was far more complex than that.

“Twilight, I know this isn’t a small thing.”

And she was way ahead of her.

“But we have a lot of time to get there. Bonds like this are forged, slowly, over the fires of shared experience. I would be honored if you would be willing to look forward to the day where we could call each other ‘sister.’”

Luna lifted a silver-clad hoof to her, and Twilight pushed hers against it. “Deal. But in return, I’m going to hold you to that promise to teach me dream magic someday.”

That brought her smile right back out. “All of my knowledge shall be yours, Twilight, this I promise you. In fact, why don’t we start now?”

“Now? I can’t imagine that it’s safe to try to cast magic in my sleep. I am asleep, right?”

“You are indeed fully asleep, with all the benefits that entails. And you are also correct, it wouldn’t be a good idea to practice your magic here. But surely there is some other knowledge I can impart. Celestia has done so for you in the past, correct? I can answer questions just as well as she. Well, maybe not just as well, but certainly I can share something with you. Sisters do that, yes? Share?”

“That they do,” she said, turning back to the stars. “I’m just not quite sure what to ask. Celestia always led our conversations. It’s like going into a library the size of a city. Where do I start?”

“Well, how about the beginning?”

A rumble under the cloud shook it like an earthquake, making her jump to her hooves, only to be barely able to stand. In the distance, the clouds began to bubble and erupt into the sky, spraying cloud, water, and ice in a twisting motion like a tornado leading up into the stars.

And it was heading towards them.

Twilight turned to Luna for an explanation, but the Princess merely smiled. She started to run, but Twilight found her efforts futile as her hooves couldn’t get stable traction in the trembling cloud, and she fell face-first into the sparkles. Before she could get up, Luna was standing over her, smile still in place.

“Be not afraid, Twilight. Remember, we are merely in a dream. As for what you are about to experience…”

The roar of water and wind extinguished Luna’s words, sweeping her up into who-knew where. When Twilight could finally open her eyes again, she found herself underwater. Well, sort of. The water was filled with as many stars as the sky, and she could breathe normally. Moreover, despite being underwater, it looked as if she was in a large field of rolling hills filled with grain. It might’ve looked more like a late afternoon if not for the slight blue tint.

Luna walked up beside her. “Behold— The Tides of Time.”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but stopped again for a moment, expecting a mouthful of water. The little star-like specks did tickle a bit, but she otherwise became satisfied it was safe to breathe and continued. “Where are we now?”

“A better question to ask is ‘when.’ If you must know, we’re still technically when we were, and we’re still in the dream realm, but this is no dream. This is a memory. More specifically—”

“Luna! What are you still doing here!?”

Twilight turned around to see who else was there, but the stars got a bit too bright, shimmering and flashing in front of her eyes. When it stopped and her eyes refocused, they were underneath the lone tree in the field. With her bearings regained, Twilight could now see who was speaking. “It can’t be…”

A tall, white unicorn with a pink and gold mane was strolling up to the tree. She wore white and gold robes and carried a large tome in a saddlebag. She looked like Fleur de Lis would if she didn’t starve herself half the time.

“Princess!? Is that you!?”

Princess Luna snickered a bit as the pony ignored her. Instead, the young-looking Celestia walked up to the shade of the tree, seemingly intent on talking to a small blue unicorn about Twilight’s height, lying down in front of a book.

“Luna! What are you still doing here? You’re going to be late! I swear, first you were late for your own graduation, and now you’re late for your first day!?”

The smaller unicorn looked over at the sun for a moment. “Oh come on, Tia, I’ve got at least an hour and a half!”

“This… This is…” Twilight swallowed her words.

“One of my memories from before my ascension. I’m not surprised you’re always afraid of being late. She was always a stickler for timeliness.”

Celestia stomped her hoof. “Lunacea Umbra Astralis!”

“Meimeimeimei Meimei Meimeimei!” The younger Luna teased in a mocking voice.

Twilight had to stifle a laugh.

“Oh, you little—”

Twilight’s jaw dropped as Celestia’s hoof raised up like she was actually going to hit Luna! Then, a burst of heat and light crackled in the field, and a new hooded and robed pony stood before all of them.

“Celestia Caelum Astralis! I know I’m not witnessing you raising a hoof to strike your little sister!”

The young Celestia backed down sheepishly. “I was only trying to close her book…”

“For your sake, I hope so.” The pony took off her hood, revealing a deep golden mane, pure white coat, and golden eyes that looked as if they may as well have been on fire. “But that is not the way we behave. Honestly, you two are adults now. I shouldn’t have to threaten to ground you.”

“Sorry, Mom,” they both said.

“No. Way.” The real Celestia herself couldn’t lift Twilight’s jaw up at this point.

The motion of the scene stopped, and the ‘real’ Luna stepped up next to her. “Indeed, this is our mother, Incendia. And Celestia actually was going to hit me, and me her, and we probably would have rolled around on the ground giving each other some bruises. We tended to squabble and roughhouse a lot. Ponies often wondered if we should’ve been colts!”

“Ah. Ahahahaha. I don’t believe it!” Twilight rejoiced. “I heard Celestia say she was a ‘regular unicorn mare.’ I heard both of you tell me you were once unicorns. But, this! This! Oh, I wish I could take a picture.”

“I would be willing to bet that there are dragons out there who would love proof of our foalhood. However, this exists only in memory. Whether Tia remembers it, I do not know. But this day is rather special to me.”

Twilight nodded. “She said something about your first day?”

“Indeed. Watch.”

The ‘water’ around them shimmered and clouded, becoming opaque and then clearing again, showing a completely different scene. They were on a cumulus cloud high above the fields, with two towns below. Each was like a reflection of the other and arranged to form a perfect circle. Far in the distance, a gigantic stadium loomed in front of a line of storms.

In between the two towns was a smaller, well, Twilight wasn’t sure. Kind of an amphitheatre, maybe? Also, there was a much wider circle surrounding both towns with a wall-like structure.

Luna lay down on the cloud, crossing her hooves and laying her chin on them. “This, Twilight, is Concordia. It was my home as a unicorn— and as a Moonraiser.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. “You were one of the unicorns that raised the moon before Discord!?”

“Yes, along with nearly five hundred other powerful mages. Tia and mother were Sunraisers, naturally. In fact, I was the first Moonraiser in a long line of Sunraisers. This whole city was completely separate from the other alicorns’ nations. It was decided that ponies wanted a neutral body to take control of the sun and moon, and so, the city of Concordia was built. It owed allegiance to no other nation and had no alicorn directly leading it. Their influence could still be felt, but it was more distant. The town’s size was also carefully limited.” She sighed wistfully. “This was my first day as an Acolyte Moonraiser.”

“Hmmm,” Twilight scratched her chin with her hoof. “Acolyte? Like Arcane Edge? Did you name your Night Guard ranks after the Moonraisers?”

“Ever perceptive, Twilight.” With a slight groan, Luna got back up, suddenly moving like a very old mare. “Speaking of, I must attend to the moon. I’ll return in a moment. The tides will disrupt and dissolve. Do not be alarmed; this is expected and perfectly safe.”

Rather than a normal, stark teleportation, the Princess simply faded out. It wasn’t long before the ‘water’ around her started to fade away, too, being replaced with the prior dream realm. Twilight took the quiet moment to lay back on the cloud and stare at the stars. They really were beautiful but also fewer in number now.

“Twilight!”

When she regained her bearings, Twilight was upside down with her back leaning on a ‘hill’ of cloud and stardust with her hind legs dangling near her chin.

“Luna, was that really necessary?” She muttered. The Princess seemed to have this unnerving habit of surprising ponies with the Voice and sending them flying.

“Twilight, I apologize, but there’s no time.” Luna reached out with forehooves, picked her up, and set her right. “I’m going to void the realm; that should wake you up. We cannot waste any time. Make yourself presentable as fast as you can, and meet me in the Empyreal Hall. Ready?”

“Hey, wait!” Twilight grabbed her by the shoulders, pressing down a bit to try to get her to stop. “No, not ready! Luna, what’s going on?!”

“It’s your brother! Your brother’s in trouble!”

No Good Deed

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Twilight Sparkle hadn’t gotten herself presentable or anything remotely resembling it. Crazy bed mane, unbrushed teeth, and even her slightly tangled tail hairs didn’t matter in the slightest. All she had needed to hear was that her brother was in trouble. After that, she had bolted out of the bed and took off running at a full-steam gallop to the Empyreal Hall, the meeting place of the Inner Council of Equestria.

Canterlot was larger than it appeared, even more so in recent years thanks to expansion efforts. The castle hadn’t seen quite as much growth up until just recently, but its halls were convoluted enough already. Spending her formative years in the castle didn’t make the paths any less winding or tedious.

Moreover, with her small tower destroyed, she had been sleeping in a room at the very top of the tallest tower in the entire city. This meant that she had to go all the way down many, many flights of stairs in order to get to the deep, secure areas where the Empyreal Hall awaited. She’d been running for several minutes and was finally getting close after blowing past another set of guards before they could even get their hooves up to salute.

Come on, pick up the pace! Shining’s in trouble, she kept repeating to herself. Each turn down a new hall brought with it a new flight of stairs. When she finally got to a small straightaway, she pushed hard into the floor with her hooves, kicking out with her hind legs into a full gallop on the slippery marble while using her horn to tear at the fabric of space. No, wait! Can’t teleport! Security wards will get me! Come on, earth pony magic!

Railings and decorations blurred in her vision as she poured on the speed to dangerous levels. Even after Luna’s training, her earth pony magic remained unpredictable at best. When she arrived at the next set of stairs, she locked her legs into a braking position, sliding forward on all four hooves as the staircase rushed towards her all too quickly.

“Nononononono—!” On instinct, she curled up to brace herself for what would have been a harmless tumble on a flat surface. However, this was decidedly not a flat surface.

Hard corners tried to crunch their way into her muscles and bones on each tumble, threatening to break a leg, her ribs, or worse. These impacts should’ve left anypony who wasn’t a pegasus in need of a trip to the hospital. The world whirled around each time, a sunlit skylight and shiny steps trading places in her field of vision, accentuated by painful hits. She hit the bottom of the stairs splayed on the ground, bruised, and with the coppery taste of blood on her tongue.

Tenderly, she picked up one leg, ignoring the pain and putting it under her. She followed with two more, hissing and wincing as she pushed herself up. The spill should have had her crying out for a guard or medics, but it wasn’t hurting as much as she suspected. She glanced over her back and body, moving each joint in turn. Some of her muscles were extremely unhappy at the moment, but they were still functional and nothing appeared to be broken. She’d certainly wind up with a number of bruises, but a hospital stay was not in her immediate future.

“Tsk tsk. I had a feeling this would happen.”

Violet rage and power whirled into a ball, revolving around with the Grand Mage as she prepared an attack for whatever was behind her.

Until she saw it was Princess Luna with her forehooves up.

“Easy, Twilight! Easy! This is not part of your training!”

Twilight halted the spell, waving her hooves in the ambient magic to get it to disperse quicker. “I’m so, so, sorry, Princess! I just fell down the stairs, and I’m so used to getting ambushed that—”

“Twilight Sparkle! Calm thyself!”

She took a sharp breath in and held it, giving herself credit for not completely panicking yet.

Luna raised an eyebrow and stared.

Time passed, and they stood there. Twilight looked around a bit. The council chambers were still a few hallways down. Maybe I should just get going. At her first twitch, Luna moved to block her path, maintaining her stare. Or not.

Some more time passed, Twilight walking in place like a filly who needed to use the restroom before her lungs finally gave out and forced her to exhale.

“Feel better?” Luna asked.

“Not really,” she coughed.

The Princess walked up and used her hooves to turn Twilight around to face away from her. “Honestly, you didn’t even put on your torc. What were you thinking?”

“You said Shiny’s in trouble! In fact, I really can’t stay here! I have to go and—”

“You will stay put until I am done with you!” she commanded, a silver-clad hoof clanking on the tile.

Twilight’s haunches shot to the ground like they were suddenly made of lead.

Luna lit her horn for a spell, creating a light-blue ring of magic in the air that very slowly descended over Twilight’s head. “Your brother is in front of the Inner Council. He is not in mortal danger. He is in political danger.”

“All the more reason I should be there!” She tried to stand up, but Luna held her down with a hoof. “I could help him!”

“Yes, a semi-delirious, bed-headed, supremely frazzled mare busting down the doors is sure to win the day in a political argument and sway the minds of the highest nobility of Canterlot.”

“I… I see your point.” Her ears went flat against her head, and Luna gently nudged her to stand while the ring kept moving. “I’m sorry, Princess. I rushed in. You’ve taught me better than that.” The ring of magic passed around her face, making her squint from the glow. As it moved, it tidied and cleaned her face and mane.

“An alicorn’s protective instinct can be powerful. I imagine that there is no pony on this world whom you are more protective of than your brother. Save myself and Celestia, I’ve honestly never seen a pair of siblings with a closer bond. As such, I forgive you, but we must be mindful of our position.”

“Our position?”

A hoof pressed down against her in between her withers. “Twilight, listen to me carefully and do thy best to remain calm. The Council is currently deliberating whether or not to pass a vote of no confidence against your brother. If they succeed, Celestia will be forced to discharge him from the military.”

“What!?”

“I need you to stay calm, because I’m afraid it only gets worse.”

“Worse!? How in Tartarus can it get worse!? Shiny loves his job!”

The ring was in the middle of her barrel now, and Luna leaned in to whisper. “After this, they’re going to try and take away his crown.”

Twilight froze. At that moment, no force could have moved her. Not an invading army, being struck by lightning, not even Luna’s magic. She simply couldn’t.

Luna continued, “I know. It’s unprecedented. I could scarcely believe it myself. That’s a separate item in their docket, though. The vote on his military position will happen very shortly, which is why we need to get you cleaned up. Even if we can’t do anything, I feel you have the right to be present.”

Twilight’s lip trembled as she held back the tears. Strong. I need to be strong, like Shiny. She tried to swallow but failed. Her throat was too dry. “You’ll vote in his favor, right?”

Luna shook her head. “Remember, I have no vote in the Council on military matters. Moreover, they like me even less than your brother. I’m afraid my efforts would be naught but a hindrance. At this point, it’s up to Celestia and Cadence.”

A gust of wind washed over her as the ring progressed, and Twilight turned her head to face the Princess. “Why didn’t Celestia tell me? Why didn’t Shiny? Or Cadence?”

Luna sighed. “A better question would be ‘why didn’t Celestia tell her own sister?’ I imagine they wanted the both of us to focus on your training. Or perhaps they merely wished to spare you the pain for a time. I know that my sister would expect me to barge in there with you just behind.”

“Isn’t that what we’re about to do?”

Luna gave her a wry little smile. “I never said she wasn’t right.” A snap went through the air from the spell finishing. “There, all better. Don’t rely on this spell for grooming, Twilight. In fact, it’s better if you just forget it.”

“Why?”

“Because if you overuse it, your coat, mane, and potentially even your cutie mark will be bleached pure white. Come, we must make haste.”

Twilight followed Luna in the direction of the council chambers, moving at a much more leisurely trot than her earlier full-throttle gallop. Twilight’s mind raced ahead down the halls, starkly contrasting their walking pace. Calm, Twilight. Keep calm. You can’t help Shiny if you don’t stay calm. She took a deep breath then let it out slowly. Calm.

“Princess?” Twilight asked.

“Luna,” came the admonishing reply.

She was still not quite used to that. “Luna, what are we going to do? Do you have a plan? Maybe incriminating evidence we can use to lean on the Council?”

Luna snorted so hard her ethereal mane rippled. “If I had something like that, Twilight, the entire Council would already be in irons. No, I’m afraid this is something that has become inevitable.”

Twilight jumped ahead of her, pleading. “Then what can I do!?”

The Princess leaned down and put her muzzle so close to Twilight’s that she could feel her breath on her face. The teal irises were utterly alien and cold compared to the comforting magenta pools of Celestia’s eyes. “When the time comes and he has surrendered his uniform in dismissal, you run up to him and give him a hug. Understand?”

She shook her head. “No—”

“You will,” Luna assured her, moving past her and around the corner to the doors to the Empyreal Hall.

Twilight followed suit and nearly ran right into the Princess’s rump. When she looked around, she saw why Luna had stopped: three members of Celestia’s elite Day Guard stood watch in front of the locked and magically-sealed council doors.

“Why are we stopping? Aren’t we allowed in?” she asked, lowering one of her ears.

“Look at their numbers and armor. Three guards, not two, and Day Guards at that!” Luna raised her voice, “I’m fairly confident that this is a message from my sister not to interfere. Am I correct, gentlecolts?”

“Correct. Her Great Majesty has given us orders to bar you both from entry.” The Day Guard stood motionless aside from his lips.

Twilight practically jumped back at Luna’s reaction to her sister’s snubbing; she giggled!

And snubbing you, too, don’t forget, she reminded herself. Shining Armor was in trouble behind those doors, and there wasn’t much time. Or, she didn’t think she had time, at any rate. Now, how to get past that seal…?

“Oh, there! You see!” Luna pranced up to the guards, flicking one of them with her ethereal tail. “Don’t you see it? That look on her face? She’s already trying to figure out how to break down the seal!”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Well, yes, but—”

The Princess flopped down on one of the guards, putting both forelegs over his back. “And do you know what that means?” She put her lips right up to his ear and whispered with a disturbingly delightful tone, “It means that she doesn’t consider you three a threat.” She pushed in a bit closer to them. “Not.” Closer. “At.” Closer. “All.”

The guards stood perfectly still, but the hairs of their manes bristled ever so slightly.

Still giggling, Luna pranced around in front of them like a schoolgirl teasing her classmates. “How would it feel to be the first to fall to our Grand Mage’s wrath? Are you truly willing to risk it all to keep the world’s most powerful unicorn from protecting her brother?”

“Luna!” Twilight yelled. “That’s enough. Quit teasing them.”

“Oh?” Luna smiled. “Do you not wish to get past the shield?”

She shook her head. “I want to get through, but if you’re taking the time to tease them like this instead of knocking them out yourself, that means we have at least a little bit of time. Moreover, Celestia would know that this would not stop us were we truly determined, which I am. I also don’t think she’d carelessly put her Day Guard in harm’s way like this. Which could only mean one thing.” Twilight stepped forward and looked the princess directly in the eyes, daring her to deny the logic. “You know an alternate way I can get in.”

Generally speaking, when confronting somepony in such a manner, especially a princess, a hug is not the anticipated response. Yet, here she was, buried deep in the Lunar Diarch’s embrace.

“And here I was worried that I couldn’t teach you nearly as much as I wanted. I was wrong. You’ll do just fine. Come.”

Although she couldn’t see anything other than dark blue hair and feathers, she could feel a slight teleportation shock around her. Luna had definitely taken them somewhere.

When the wings let her go, she had to rub her eyes. Wherever she was, it looked very old. The fact that there was moonlight coming in from the small windows in the late morning almost certainly meant that it had some connection to the princess, but what was more surprising was how bright it was. The ancient stones around her were illuminated as if it was the afternoon sun. She could even see tiny bits of dust hanging in the air, and they were sparkling. An alicorn-sized vanity mirror and drawers lay behind her, and it looked every bit as ancient as the dull grey stone. It was as if it had been plucked from another era of history altogether.

“Where are we?” she asked, coughing a bit.

Luna shook her body and wings, kicking off some dust. “This is my private ready-room for the council chambers. As you can see, I do not use it much. It is the only way to teleport into the council, and even then, only alicorns can gain access. We’ve put special protections into the wards here to ensure that.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “This— I can’t be here! It’s like sitting on the throne! It’s tantamount to treason!”

“Alicorns do as we must, Twilight.” Silver-clad hooves clicked and scraped on the dusty floor, turning their owner around to tower over the ascendant. The humor from Luna’s face was completely gone, replaced by a seriousness that sent Twilight back to the cloud over the Glass Desert.

~~“I’ve seen her halt an army’s— actually, my army’s advance and make them turn in terror just from her arrival.”~~

“Twilight Sparkle, do you remember when I told you that Celestia loves you as a daughter?”

Her ears went back flat against her head, and she nodded in a half-bow.

“That was not hyperbole. I have never been a mother, but I knew my nephew well. I also know my sister, and I can say with absolute certainty that the way Celestia looks at you is the same as she looked at him. She loves you, Twilight. She put those guards on the door as a message to me, saying to not do that which I am about to. She does not want you to endure the pain of seeing your brother so hurt nor does she want you to struggle uselessly in a vain attempt to shield him.

“More importantly, she does not wish for you to see what she must do. I understand her feelings, but this is a part of being a ruler. I feel you must bear witness to what will transpire. Ultimately, however, the choice is yours.”

Twilight raised a hoof to her chest, expecting to fidget with her torc until she remembered she wasn’t wearing it.

“I cannot force you to enter. If you wish, I will take you back, and you can wait for the session to end. As leaders, we must make such decisions for ourselves. As alicorns, we must live with their consequences— for however long fate decrees it.”

Luna pointed around a corner and into a very dark hallway. When Twilight stuck her head out to look, she noticed none of the omnipresent glow of twinkling lights present in the rest of the room. Instead, there was just a short hall and a large, heavy-looking door at the end.

“One more thing.”

Luna’s voice had gotten more conciliatory, but it wasn’t helping. Twilight was still nervously looking back and forth between the door and the magic circle on the ground where they had arrived.

The Princess continued, “If we enter, I must hide us. We must stay completely silent for the spell to hold, and we must remain so until the end. Were we to reveal ourselves, both Celestia and I will suffer substantial political blowback for sneaking you in. We will be observers only. Do you understand?”

Twilight was barely listening.

I must get through that door. Shining Armor needs my help!

Princess Celestia raised you. She trusts you. You should heed her advice.

Her forehoof fell to the floor and started pushing her forward.

No! You need to listen to the Princess! She’ll be mad at you!

Shining Armor has spent his entire life protecting me. It’s time I acted like an alicorn and returned the favor.

She stepped completely into the hallway’s darkness, making for the door.

You won’t even be able to do anything! Luna said you have to be silent!

Then at least I’ll know which council members to remove.

She was about to open the door herself when a silver hoof pushed against it to keep it closed.

“Remember,” Luna admonished. “Absolute silence.”

A black cloud of magic and ephemeral matter swirled around them, encasing them in a sphere of evanescent darkness. When Twilight let her focus falter, it appeared as if the entire world would be subsumed, yet as long as she paid attention, she could still see out of the field.

A faint click sounded from the lock on the door, and the princess began to open it so slowly it was nearly painful. The care with which she moved and the look on her face reminded Twilight of a naughty foal sneaking out during the night, trying not to wake her parents.

“Sssshhhh,” Luna re-emphasized, stepping through the door with such grace she may as well have been a ghost. Judging by the properties of the spell she was using, they both may have been just that: ghosts.

Quietly, Luna escorted them down another small hall and out an archway directly behind something Twilight hadn’t actually seen in ages: Luna’s throne. As of late, it had gotten a little unnerving seeing the thrones themselves, as they were reminders of her so-called ‘destiny.’

Still, there were other matters to attend to. She quickly stepped around the massive chair and looked out and down into the council chambers. They were four stories if not taller in height. The center of the room was brightly illuminated by an overhead light along with the back and bottom of the room, where there were some dark wooden seats for guests, witnesses, and others approved to be present. These were parted by a purple carpet leading from the main entryway.

The seating for the council and royalty, meanwhile, sat was cloaked in an oppressive, magical darkness. Seeing through it to the ponies in the seats of power was impossible, which lent the entire room as much foreboding as was possible. In the middle of it all, and the very center of the room, was a lone podium with a microphone. This was where Shining Armor sat in his full ceremonial uniform, alone, isolated, and facing the greatest political powers in Equestria. It was as she’d feared; Shining Armor was facing a true inquisition rather than an investigation.

“Stay close,” Luna whispered, nudging Twilight to keep pace with her as they descended a set of exceedingly steep stairs around the outskirt of the large, circular room.

In the center of the chambers, in front of Shining Armor, a single unicorn stood with a deep sky-blue coat and jet black mane. He wore a rather eccentric outfit resembling almost a mix of contemporary Canterlot fashion and Roan Renneighsance wear. Although his mane was slightly more unkempt than most city ponies, the natural way it folded over gave him an effortless air of aggression. There was no doubt in her mind; this was Charlemane, Duke of Roan and Chairpony of the Inner Council of the Equestrian Nobility. The stallion facing her brother had more political power than anypony that didn’t have “Princess” in front of their name.

Behind said stallion was the utter and complete blackness of the Umbra, a special spell obscuring the ponies of the Council.

She’d only been there a few times before, but she knew the layout. There were five levels of seating, with each row towering even higher than its predecessor. The bottom three rows held all twelve of the Dukes and Duchesses of Equestria, which ruled twelve of the thirteen Duchies that made up the nation.

Above them, Prince Blueblood presided over the Duchy of Canterlot, which included the surrounding towns such as Ponyville. Should Blueblood ever become charming enough to take a wife, they would have two representatives. Princess Cadence, meanwhile, cared for the Duchy of the Lost. She was the champion of orphans, the infirm, towns outside of official Duchy borders, and all of those ponies that need an advocate and a voice yet lack one. If this particular meeting hadn’t been specifically about him, Shining Armor himself would be sitting next to her. From what he’d told Twilight, though, he rarely did. Running the Guard was beyond a full-time job.

At the top, the Eternal Sisters presided over the nation of Equestria. At either end sat their thrones in front of their private entrances, each mirroring the other perfectly with Celestia’s throne on the far left and Luna’s on the far right.

Twilight finally arrived on the bottom of the stairs, her last step causing enough noise that she worried about Luna’s spell breaking. Fortunately, it held, and they quietly ducked into the visitors’ seats, the Princess barely fitting in them.

“We are waiting for your answer, Captain.” Charlemane’s voice had a significant Roan accent, and that didn’t do anything to shake the raw intimidation dripping from his very being.

Twilight shuddered a bit. She wasn’t used to the political side of Celestia’s life at all. She was aware of it, and she had extensive knowledge of Equestrian law and protocols. That, however, wasn’t the true nature of it. The politics of Canterlot was about knowing ponies, owing favors, making deals, the projection of political will, and how many bits one had. Overall, it simply wasn’t a game she was used to. She’d never been part of that world; the Princess had made certain of that. Until recently, there had been little in her life but friendship and studies, barring the occasional world-saving adventure.

“I find the question to be insulting, Chairpony.” Shining retorted. “I’m simply attempting to determine an appropriate answer.”

“If this is how long you take in battle—”

“Do not question my combat capabilities, Chairpony.” Shining pounded the podium with a forehoof. “I am the only GR10-ranked unicorn in the past seven hundred years. If you so wish to question what I can do in a battlefield, I could invite the entire Council out to a field to test me!”

A beam of light came on near the top of the chambers, illuminating Princess Celestia, who spoke with her usual calm. “Captain, please do mind your temper. I understand that the question is difficult for you, but this Council requests an answer.”

Shining snapped to a standing attention then bowed. “Yes, Princess. Forgive me.”

“Of course, Captain.”

Twilight caught the tiniest glimpse of Celestia’s eyes before the darkness overtook the Princess’s seat once again.

“Then answer the question.”

A new light had appeared over one of the council members, this one on the middle level, revealing a gray unicorn mare with an even grayer mane: Duchess Bismare of Germane.

“Stand down, Duchess!” Charlemane snapped, charging up his horn. “I will not tolerate usurpation of this Council!”

Thunder echoed in the hall along with a bright blue-green flash which forced Twilight to hold up her forehooves for an instant. When she put them down, Charlemane was up three rows and staring down a shocked-looking Bismare.

He deflected the security wards! That’s impossible! Well, okay, clearly not, but still!

Charlemane slammed his hoof on a little panel on Bismare’s desk, switching off the light over her and returning the space to darkness before trotting back to the center of the room.

Luna whispered next to Twilight’s ear, “If nothing else, I will give Charlemane this: he is fearless. Ponies of power tend to tip-hoof around other ponies of power, yet he commands this chamber without need of such elegant dance. Also, for the life of me I can’t seem to fix the wards so they can stop him.”

“Now then, Captain, I will repeat.” Charlemane cleared his throat. His stare was burning into Twilight, even though he wasn’t looking at her. “Were you complicit in the Summer Revolt?”

“W—!” Luna’s hoof caught Twilight’s mouth just in time, silencing her outburst.

“No, I was not, Chairpony.” Shining said through clenched teeth.

“Then would you mind explaining how the vaunted Royal Guard Intelligence Service, which you oversaw the expansion of, missed all the evidence forewarning of the attack?”

Shining cleared his throat. “You’re going to have to be more specific than that, Chairpony. Which evidence are you referring to?”

Oh Celestia! Shining, why did you have to word it like that? Twilight whimpered under her breath. The longer she sat, the more she could feel the magic not only in the chambers in general but also surrounding her and Luna. It was almost as if they were surrounded by a heat haze that slightly distorted their view.

“Very well, Captain, I shall indulge you. Let’s start with the troop movement reports from the disgraced General Towers. Not only are they faked in a manner that is quite clear, but they also report advances from the Gryphonic Empire. That last fact alone should have been enough to summon the Council, yet your report stated that you only realized a problem just before the attack. Care to explain?”

Shining cleared his throat again. “Gladly, Chairpony. Firstly, we had no prior reason to suspect treachery from the ranks of the Generals. Each of their number and near subordinates was thoroughly vetted for loyalty, and there hasn’t been a defection from within the ranks since the Lunar Rebellions.”

Luna visibly winced.

“What’s more, the Gryphonic Empire’s movements are anything but unusual. Not only do gryphons help provide security in numerous northern villages—”

Shining was cut off by a few barely-audible grumbles and murmured sentences from the Councilponies in the shadow.

“As I was saying, gryphon traffic has only increased in recent years thanks to our newest villages being close enough for easier trade. Our scouts are still occasionally erroneously reporting civilian trade traffic as military movements, thanks to the fact that all gryphons tend to be armed, military or otherwise.”

Charlemane stomped his hoof on a panel on the floor, sending a cacophonous crack through the room and tossing up sparks. “Come now, Captain. Do you really expect this Council to believe that the sheer number of gryphons that were reported were all just ‘civilian trade traffic?’”

Shining shook his head, almost grinning. “Chairpony, their numbers are far short of that of a full invasion. Mounting any kind of campaign against our nation would require nothing less than the full brunt of their military might to have any hope of long-term sustainability. Gryphons aren’t stupid. They’re a military culture. They have to know this. Jumping to action over what are, at worst, a few scouts would be extremely unwise.”

Duchess Bismare’s light turned on again. “Then when should we take action, Captain?” She scowled down at him.

Charlemane’s neck swung around so fast Twilight could hear one of his neck vertebrae pop. “The use of gryphons in border town police forces are not within the scope of this hearing, Duchess! I will not let you hijack these proceedings with your personal pet issue!”

“No Chairpony, I’m fine answering a few of her questions,” Shining interrupted with a smile. “First off, Duchess, the gryphons aiding in those towns arrived as civilians. We’ve no cause to turn them away as per the Stalliongrad treaties.”

“No gryphon is a civilian, Captain.” The Duchess sneered. “They all enter their military.”

Shining shook his head. “Only the latter is true. Many of them leave their military formally after a time. Just as in Equestria, those who have left are regarded as civilians by both civilizations. Just because they can fight doesn’t mean every little flock is considered a military force.”

“Yes they are!” Bismare pounded a hoof on her desk, sending a crackling noise reverberating through the Hall. “This council has repeatedly advised the Guard that the non-pony law enforcement members in towns near the Gryphonia border are subverting the edicts lawfully placed upon our towns by the Duchy! The same is happening in Prance! We have effectively lost governance over—”

Shining Armor snorted. “The towns are peaceful, have reasonably low crime, and most of them are at least generally responsive to direct orders from the Crown. They are not truly following Gryphonic law. If they were, your tax collectors would be more than chased out. They’d be dead— or at least scarred for life.”

“A government cannot function without income, Captain! How do you think we pay for—?”

Shining stomped the floor with his hoof, its metal shoe cracking the tile and making the Duchess’ earlier outburst sound like a light cough. “I’ve met your agents, Duchess. My wife has seen how much the Duchy of Germane’s outer colonies have to pay for ‘protective services.’ Fancy Pants pays a lower rate on his income, even before his charity deductions. I’m not surprised they turned to the Gryphons for help and told your officers to go kiss a hydra.”

“How dare you!” She pounded her desk again in response, but it was like a foal in a tantrum compared to the Captain’s thundering hoof. “Those ponies chose to live in the untamed borders! They pay those taxes so I can send forces there to keep them safe!”

Enough!” Charlemane’s voice cracked, his Roan accent breaking through even more than before. “This hearing is not so you two can—”

“I’m not finished!” Shining roared, appearing right next to Charlemane in a white blur.

Twilight blinked. That wasn’t teleportation. It wasn’t quite what Luna does, either. I think he literally just jumped. Has he always been that fast?

The Chairpony rolled his eyes and waved at Shining to continue.

“Odd,” Luna whispered in her ear. “Charlemane never allows outbursts like this. What is his game?”

Shining turned with a sharp twist and began pacing about the room. “‘Keep them safe,’ Duchess? Who do you think you’re fooling? Up until three months ago, we had two divisions along the border! And you think it’s your so-called ‘police forces’ doing the safekeeping? Even without Towers’ troops, do you really think anything up there is capable of tangling with General Blaze and living to tell the tale?”

Twilight swallowed. His movements were like her own when pacing, but somehow more menacing. Each tap of a hoof on the floor felt like he’d shatter another tile effortlessly.

“Speaking of living, these frontiersponies we’re talking about are mostly earth ponies. They met the call of the North and, together, built communities that can withstand the environment. And they’re thriving! They don’t need soldiers and protectors as much as they need infrastructure and help with building schools. Roads and rail to trade centers. Things you can provide with a wave of your hoof, yet you sit on your haunches! And when they understandably rebel and get pissed, you deem them traitors! It’s no wonder they’re trying to break away!”

Twilight was far enough away that she could barely tell what color Bismare’s eyes were, but she could swear she saw a vein bulging next to the mare’s horn. “You will watch your tone, low-born! I am the only reason those ponies were able to settle those lands in the first place!”

“Granting permission doesn’t give you the right to take credit, Duchess!”

Luna whispered just loud enough for Twilight to hear, “Good job, Shining, don’t let her distract you with rank. Go in for the kill…”

“Furthermore, those ponies know more about being Equestrian than you ever will! I’d have any one of them be a Duchess before you! You’re one of the reasons the situation is bucked to begin with!”

The Chairpony growled. “That language is not—”

“Shove it, Charlemane!” Shining yelled into the hall, his voice bouncing off and echoing over and over. “We tax them into oblivion and give almost nothing in return! We mark the towns as black on our map, but I bet that if they were treated fairly there wouldn’t be any of this! I’ve been to some of these places, Duchess! I went there on my own and wearing my crown! I didn’t get run out of town, spat on, or yelled at like you do! The only thing thrown at me was a hoofball! Those ponies are generous to their neighbors, kind to their visitors, and honest in their needs! They aren’t the traitors!” He turned around and thrust a hoof up at the pony sitting in the light and smoldering in rage. “You are!”

“I will not be compared to mud ponies, you insole—”

All the lights in the room shut off with an audible chunk, dropping darkness unto the entire chambers as they went completely silent. Seconds passed with no sound at all, not even a peep.

When the light finally returned, it was nearly blinding. A searing, radiant aura burst into life near Shining’s normal Princely seat, burning away the entirety of the Umbra and illuminating the entire chambers in glorious light. It even completely drowned out the sun’s light from the skylights and stained glass at the top and back of the Hall above the Council. In the center of it all, the core of the blaze, was the source: Celestia herself, looking down on the Duchess from Germaney.

Twilight blinked and rubbed her eyes, slowing getting used to the brightness.

“Duchess Bismare.” Despite the display, Celestia’s voice was calm and controlled. “I do not yet believe my own ears. Please, clarify for this Council. What was it that you just said?”

Duchess Bismare looked as if she was terrified for her very life. She had already turned towards Celestia, and was cowering so low to the ground she could barely be seen behind her desk. Twilight had only ever seen the Princess’s face like this once before, when she had put all of Ponyville under a “want-it, need-it” spell.

No, wait, Twilight thought as she watched the scene. This is worse. Much worse.

As Luna had shown her, there was a time when some ponies believed that words alone could cast spells. If this had been true, Twilight felt that the tone of Celestia’s question would have been lethal by itself. Yet, Bismare looked as if she had only become a small filly.

“Um, Your Highness, I meant to say that—”

“I did not ask what you meant to say, Duchess Bismare,” Celestia interrupted, her voice echoing throughout the room. “I asked what you did say.”

Silence took the hall for a few moments, reigning over the chambers as even time seemed to pause to wait for her answer, frozen in the light.

Bismare coughed, lifting her water glass with her magic. The water sloshed around as she lifted it to her face, not unlike a foal just learning telekinesis. She took a long drink, a lot longer than what was proper.

“I’m waiting, Duchess.”

The mare bowed so low Twilight couldn’t see her behind her desk anymore. “I’m truly sorry for my hurtful words, Your Majesty. I shan’t repeat them in these most high chambers.”

Celestia’s expression softened a bit, easing the hard lines on her forehead. “That is the correct response, my little pony. However, I will not have anypony use such language in my most prized city. You will pay a sum of two hundred thousand bits to Princess Cadence’s earth pony orphanage network and personally spend a total of two hundred hours of community service to the same network. Only then will you be allowed to return to my home and resume your duties. Do you understand?”

“I… Yes, Your Highness,” came a bodiless reply from behind the desk.

Celestia banged her gavel from across the hall. “Then leave this city at once. This, I command.”

The old mare slinked away from the Princess, head down, ears flat, and tail literally between her legs. The room was silent except for the sounds of her hoofsteps moving down the stairs and then across the center of the chambers towards the main doors. Twilight’s eyes stayed locked on her the entire time.

As Bismare passed by Charlemane and Shining, Twilight’s peripheral vision made out the barest hint of a smile from the Chairpony. Her brother, however, had a grin on his face that a salamander would be proud of.

“So, they were cooperating all along,” Luna mumbled through her own smile. “Well played, Captain.”

The main doors opened and closed with a meek click, and the all-encompassing light faded in seconds as the Umbra reasserted control over the Hall. The lights over Celestia’s usual spot and the center floor were still on, and the Princess had reassumed her position on her throne.

“I apologize for the outbursts, Your Highness.” Charlemane bowed, no longer hiding his smile.

“Somehow I doubt your sincerity, Chairpony,” Celestia countered. “I know you too well. Regardless, please continue the hearing.”

“As you wish. Captain, if you would humor this Council, we had questions regarding the Intelligence Services’ expenditures.”

Shining’s face returned to the stone-like sternness that was the de facto standard for Guardsponies. “And?”

A little stack of papers floated out of the shadows, being held aloft by a strikingly shimmering, sea-blue telekinetic field. “According to its last report, an outlandish ten percent of the entire RGIS budget was being spent on one mare living in a town with a tiny fraction of the population of Canterlot.”

Shining shook his head. “What is your question, Chairpony?”

The stallion shrugged. “Very well, I’ll be direct. Why are you spying on the citizens of Ponyville?”

“Hmph. I suppose it could look like that.”

“It is that!” Charlemane yelled, tossing the papers down with enough force to scatter them all over the floor.

Twilight winced a split-second later as the Chairpony’s horn flashed with light from a spell being cast with stunning speed. Some of the papers rushed up like they were being carried by a tornado, then stopped as they arranged themselves. It was as though they were being pasted on a giant wall only barely made visible by a faint blue-green glow of magic.

One of the papers then ballooned in size so much it blocked the view of the others, and the text on it became clear.

“Secret searches of all postal mail and packages mailed to, from, or carried through Ponyville.”

Shining shook his head again. “All searches were carried out within the confines of the RGIS Charter and only when there was an imminent threat warranting it.”

The page shrank, and was quickly replaced with another as Charlemane continued. “Clandestine recordings of residents—”

Shining interrupted, his expression still solid as granite. “Taken from public areas with no expectation of privacy and destroyed on a regular schedule when no meaningfulness is presented.”

Yet another page. “Over one hundred covert agents stationed in Ponyville—”

Shining interrupted again. “Every single one there is to protect—”

Your sister!” Charlemane shouted, finally breaking Shining’s expression.

Twilight squeaked a little when Luna’s wing pressed down on her, but she quickly came to welcome its protection from the hostility of the room.

“Captain, believe me when I say I understand the desire to protect one’s loved ones. But this… This has to be the most stunning display of nepotism in the history of Equestria!”

“Clearly he hasn’t met Blueblood,” Luna whispered.

Twilight ignored her. She wasn’t in the mood. This pony was hurting her brother. Not physically, but it was an assault all the same.

“No!” Shining arched his back a little, pushing his head forward in a slight lean. “No, Chairpony, that’s not what’s stunning here. What’s stunning is the sheer number of ponies out there trying to hurt her!”

Grinding his teeth, Shining’s horn lit up and blazed with light. First, it was purple, the same color as both Twilight and their mother. Then, it shifted to a new color: light blue.

Twilight chewed her tongue. Shining’s magic had always been powerful. For that matter, hers had been too, but in different ways. When they were little, their wellsprings were around the same size, or at least comparable to each other. Apparently, she had passed him long ago in that respect, but her brother had always had one thing over her, which was the sheer rate he could output at. Whenever he got serious and really pushed his magic, it always changed color like this to the same shade as his eyes. Cadence even once said he could use more magic at once than her, and she was a winged unicorn, which were known for their ability to expel tremendous amounts of magic in the blink of an eye.

What’s he doing? Wait, his magic is going into the display…

Shining’s horn crackled with power, sending arcs of electric blue magic into the wall that displayed the papers. Within seconds, the wall went from blue-green in color to a light blue.

He took over his spell! Shining… Brother, how did you do that?

A page from the floor flew up and expanded to cover the wall. “Starting six months after Princess Luna’s return, the Nightmare Cult attempted to murder my sister! They tried it seven times over the span of just four weeks!”

Twilight gagged, her shoulders lurching forward like somepony had stomped on her back, but in reality, there was no such impact. It was just Luna brushing her primaries over her calmingly.

“Though I had nothing to do with that, I feel responsible all the same.” Luna whispered. “I truly apologize, Twilight.”

Shining broke into a trot, pacing back and forth. “The only reason they were stopped was because somepony in their ranks grew an actual conscience and warned us.”

“That doesn’t justify all th—”

Shining cut him off again. “Oh, I’m not near finished, Chairpony.” Another page from the floor replaced the one on the wall. “A week after she saved us from Discord, Stalliongrad revolutionaries made an attempt on her life. We learned of that one just in time thanks to some of the covert guards listening in on one of their conversations.”

Charlemane opened his mouth, but Shining barreled onward.

“Thirteen years ago, an earth pony nativist cell decided to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. We found out about it thanks to our ‘outlandish’ Ponyville budget and exhaustive intelligence networks. When they smuggled in weapons to accomplish the task, it was the searches that caught them!”

“Ten years ago!” He didn’t even give the Chairpony an opening this time, kicking up many of the remaining papers on the ground. “A unicorn-supremacist group went after Luna’s student! If not for the intelligence network we put up around Twilight and the use of the word ‘student,’ we might’ve never caught them!”

“I wish Celestia had allowed my Night Guard to conduct the raid,” Luna muttered. “If she had, other would-be kidnappers would have made themselves sick over the merest thought of hurting my little Pip.”

“And you! You!” Shining strode directly up to the Chairpony, each hoofstep a casual utterance of authority, indignation, and rage made all the more potent by his still-glowing horn violating the politician’s personal space. “Twilight has saved this Council, this nation, this world a half-dozen times already. Take that sum we’ve spent, multiply it by a thousand, and we’d still owe her. Yet you stand before me and say that my efforts to protect my sister are nepotism? Look around, Charlemane! Her tower, her sanctuary, the place she called ‘home’ for years under Celestia’s wing is a smoking pile of rubble! Not Celestia’s chambers, not mine, not Blueblood’s, nor this very room! It’s her home that was destroyed! They attacked her first!”

Shining snapped away from the stunned stallion, slowly plodding away back to his podium before turning to speak once more. “And don’t you dare suggest that I don’t feel any responsibility for it. They almost killed my sister! The filly I got my cutie mark for wanting to protect!” He breathed in, holding the air and filling it with his burden before exhaling. “I’m never going to be able to forgive myself for my failure.”

“I never knew…” Twilight sniffed, wiping tears off her face with a fetlock. “I had heard he was protecting me. I never knew just how bad it was.”

“Sssshhh.” Luna’s wing was holding her much like Celestia’s had in the past. It felt different, though. Celestia’s wing was soft and warm, almost like a blanket made out of motherly love. Luna’s was a hard plate of armor, with stiff, oily feathers. Something meant to bear the brunt of any storm. “Thy brother loves you, truly. He didn’t want you to know for fear that you would be too worried about him to learn what you needed.”

Charlemane had regained his composure somewhat, along with control over his spell, which he cleaned up and reorganized.

Luna continued, hushing her voice ever softer. “For a pony of this age, Shining Armor’s resolve is impressive. I’ve never seen Charlemane so flustered. That alone is a feat.”

Twilight jumped a tiny bit in place, twice, at the sound of the Princess’s gavel striking its base.

“Chairpony, this line of questioning has been exhausted, I believe. Further, some of these precautions were approved by my own quill. If you wish to question their usefulness, I request that you direct your inquiries to me. Understand?”

Twilight took a few rapid, deep breaths, then calmed down. It was okay. Celestia was there. She’d protect him.

“Yes, your majesty.” His words were as smooth as glass, his bow equally effortless. “Captain, how many enemy combatants were captured during the Summer Revolt?”

Shining raised an eyebrow in an expression perfectly mirroring Twilight’s own. Where’s he going with this?

“We estimate that approximately two thousand hostiles participated in the Summer Revolt directly,” he replied.

“I asked you how many were captured, Captain.”

“I’m getting to that. Of these two thousand, about a hundred were operating the hostile airship, while the remaining nineteen hundred were engaged in fighting over or near the city. Of these, around a thousand were KIA. Most of the remaining hostiles fled, but we did manage to capture about one hundred of them.”

Another page took over the display, expanding to show a list of names, ranks, and numbers. “The ponies on this list?” the Chairpony inquired.

Shining nodded. “Just so. Most of the assailants were pegasi. I imagine that was needed in order to return to Canterlot as fast as they did. The day after my sister returned.”

Twilight lurched again from the sting. The attack… The whole thing was—

“Not your fault, Twilight,” Luna chimed in with a stern whisper.

The smaller mare deflated a bit. “Am I that obvious?”

“You are you, Twilight. There is no shame in that.”

She nodded and forced herself to pay attention to the hearing again, even though a large part of her didn’t want to.

“What have your learned from your interrogations, Captain?”

Shining closed his eyes with a sigh. “Precious little, although what tiny bits we have discovered have been eye-opening. Most of the captured abandoned the false Bellerophon before it exploded. The rest were from Towers’s command.”

The duke shuffled some of the papers in the stack around, looking at them instead of the captain. “Then let’s start with the ship workers. What have you learned from them?”

“Almost nothing.”

Charlemane looked up. “Do you mean to say that you haven’t interrogated them? Help me understand that response.”

Shining inhaled as if he had gotten a large papercut. “It’s not an easy thing to explain. I’ve done interrogations before. I’ve seen them done. They’ve been not only uncooperative but incredibly resistant to even our best techniques and methods.”

“Perhaps these ‘interrogators’ you use need better training?” Charlemane deadpanned.

Shining snorted. “Well, I requested Council permission to turn them over to the Night Guard, but the motion was denied.”

Twilight looked up at Luna, who was smirking in a rather self-satisfactory manner.

“Quite. It seems that they’re quite a set of believers, then,” the Duke postulated. “Ponies don’t shrug off interrogations so easily without a cause.”

“That’s not what scares me most, honestly,” Shining agreed. “The captured ship workers weren’t soldiers. They don’t have the build real training gets you. The actual soldiers we caught were more forthcoming, but it still hasn’t meant much.”

Charlemane lifted a page up and glanced at the one under it, giving off a little smile. “But your words were carefully chosen there, it seems. You said ‘almost nothing’. So what did you discover?”

“Be careful, Captain,” Luna whispered aloud.

“A number of things. For one, we believe the pseudo-organization that orchestrated the attack to have access to approximately seven billion bits worth of resources.”

The page that he was lifting up floated right back down as the magic field sputtered. “Seven billion? This wasn’t in the report. How do you know this?”

Shining pulled out his own tack of documents from his podium. “I just received an update from RGIS before arriving. We’ve been able to identify a few orphaned ‘shell’ companies that have mysteriously ceased to exist in the past few months. Most of the paperwork we have on them is, to be blunt, useless and often fraudulent, but the numbers they used in their bank accounts before emptying them are real. Based on their activities, the capabilities of the equipment used against us, and the state of their unfinished airship, we’ve come to this estimation.”

Charlemane rubbed his face with a hoof while murmurs came from the Council members shrouded in the darkness. “When were you going to share this information with us, Captain?”

Shining smiled. “I already submitted copies to your seneschals, but you were already in the chambers when that happened, and this meeting is top-secret.”

“You could have opened your mouth and told us,” a random voice from the darkness shouted.

“I just did!” Shining shouted back. “Besides, the beginning of the hearing made things exceptionally clear. I’m only to respond to questions asked, correct?”

Charlemane groaned. “Bismare and her arbitrary rules. Very well, Captain, is there anything else you feel the need to inform us of right away? Like, for instance, how the RGIS missed an organization with seven billion bits in the bank?”

Shining shook his head. “Actually, not bits, Chairpony. Resources. We’re thinking they keep much of their ‘wealth’ in capital. Minerals, real estate, magic artifacts, and other things. We’ve given them the name ‘Robber Barons.’ Of course, some bits are always needed by any organization, which is why we were able to find these companies at all.”

Charlemane shot a glance up and back behind him to the still shrouded council, causing the murmurs to stop like someone pulled a needle off a record. “Indeed. Then, you mentioned the captured soldiers being more forthcoming? What did you learn from them?”

Shining shrugged. “Not much, but there were some things that were at least somewhat helpful. We know most of Towers’ troops had no idea what was going on. They simply followed what they thought were legitimate orders to pull away from the border, and eventually the signal was given for the conspirators to race for Canterlot. The ones not in the know were just left in the North, wondering what was going on.”

“But that doesn’t answer the most important question.” Charlemane shook his head and walked directly up to the Captain. “Why did the conspirators follow Towers?”

Shining glared into him with a stern stoicness before answering. “Money.”

“Money? That’s all?”

He nodded, eyes closed. “About twice the normal salary for the average soldier in the regular military.”

Charlemane turned his back on Shining and enunciated to the darkness. “A salary which has been frozen for how many of the years you have been Captain of the Royal Guard, the pony responsible for setting military expenditure priorities?”

Shining lowered his head. “Eight of the seventeen fiscal years I oversaw have seen frozen salaries. This is truth.”

“And did it not occur to you that perhaps this might be the result of your fiscal policies?”

“I should ask you the same question, Chairpony.”

The Duke turned around, incredulous. “Excuse me?”

Shining sneered, “I set priorities, but it’s this Council that determines my budget. When I first took command of the Guard, we couldn’t have protected a clown from a bunch of disgruntled foals. Even if they had the discipline, they didn’t have the tools.”

“This Council has Sent you hundreds of millions of bits specially marked for new equipment! Where in Equestria do you get off?” Charlemane screamed at Shining’s face, his Roan accent once again completely overtaking his speech.

The Captain’s horn flashed for an instant and sent the duke back on his haunches. “‘Specially marked’ for specific projects that benefit companies owned by Council members or their families. Little fancy baubles so they can trumpet job creation. You know what I spent my money on? Things for my soldiers.

“When I did my first Guard Tour of Facilities, I found veterans’ hospitals in Stalliongrad where the rooms hadn’t been cleaned in years. Another so-called military hospital in Marelaysia was so ill-equipped they were breaking open coconuts and using the water for IV fluid since that was the only clean liquid they could get ahold of. The soldiers under Generals Blaze, Quartz, and Stone were required to purchase their own weapons and armor. We were so short on space in Canterlot Central HQ I had to give up my quarters to expand it. Yet every time my predecessor or even the Princess tried to negotiate for additional funds, all you ponies saw was a way to make yourselves richer, not solve the actual problems.”

Shining pulled his microphone in closer. “So that’s what I did. I solved problems. If you think that’s what caused all this, fine. Fire me. But ask yourselves this question: Who is it that really protects this room? I do,” he said before any of them could answer. “Who is it that protected Canterlot as best he could even while being under the spell of a Changeling Queen? I did,” he answered again. “Somepony or something is out there. Out to destroy and take over this country. What do you think will happen when we get placed in check again? Do you really think that if they’re willing to kill Celestia, they’ll spare you?

“And when that time comes, who do you think will protect you? The mare or stallion cowering in the shadows next to you? Or the second most powerful unicorn of the last seven hundred years, eclipsed only by the very mare you fools think isn’t worth protecting to the best of our ability?”

More murmurs and whispers came from the darkness, and Shining slowly sat back down on the pillow behind the podium.

“Chairpony Charlemane,” Shining spoke sounding exactly like a Captain should. “Call your vote. I’m done with this nonsense.”

Luna shook her head. “While it appears I have underestimated you as a politician, Shining, I’m afraid that still isn’t good enough. You might give a couple of them some nightmares, but that just wasn’t enough.”

Twilight swallowed. “Are they going to fire him? Can they actually do that?”

Charlemane stood back up. “Very well, Captain. Your Highness Princess Celestia, it has been submitted that the Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria has No Confidence in the abilities of Captain Shining Armor to fulfill his duties to the Crown. In accordance with law and tradition, we will now proceed to poll our members for your Eternal Sight.”

Celestia nodded and banged her gavel once. “Very well, Chairpony. Proceed.”

Twilight’s heart skipped a beat then ran the next dozen in two seconds. “Already? I thought there was more time…”

Luna wrapped a wing around her, holding her tightly, but it wasn’t enough to stop Twilight from shivering in worry. “I warned you this would not be easy, Twilight Sparkle. Be strong.”

“Can’t you do anything? Please!” she pleaded, tears welling up. “My brother is in trouble!”

“Hush!” Luna admonished. “Any louder and the spell will break. Let the tears fall if you must, but do so softly. Maintain your calm.”

She twitched left and right, trying to see anything that might help, but there was only darkness. Darkness and a sole, distinctive pony in the other side’s observer’s area. Grand General Blueblood? When did… What’s he doing here?

Her mind didn’t take long to formulate a plan. “Psst! Luna! General Blueblood is here! He can speak for Shining’s defense! Can you stall the vote?”

Luna shook her head. “He’s already spoken to the Council at length in your brother’s favor. The ship has sailed, Twilight. All that is left is for the gavel to fall. Be at ease; he will need your strength very soon.”

“Official Vote of the Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria, Docket Number 1986530. Chairpony Charlemane presiding. How does the Chamber vote?”

A light appeared over the noble in the upper-left. “The Duchy of Marelaysia has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Celestia, no, please…

The light disappeared, only for a new one to take its place. “The Duchy of Manehatten has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Down the row the light went. “The Duchy of Neighpon has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of the Bittish Isles has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

The light shifted and moved up to the next row, washing across noble after noble faster than Twilight could come up with an excuse to stop it. Her lungs pushed air in and out through a pant only tempered by the tightness of Luna’s wing and its cage-bar-like feathers pressing against her.

“The Duchy of Stalliongrad has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of Shanghay has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of The Hinterlands has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

“The Duchy of San Palomino has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

Her forehooves danced in place, looking for somewhere to go, something to do to help, and finding nothing as the lights moved to the third and final row of dukes and duchesses.

“The Duchy of Cloudsdale has No Confidence in Captain Shining Armor’s abilities.”

The light over Bismare’s spot shown briefly for just a moment, letting a gasp of air escape from Twilight’s mouth when the rhythm interrupted. This was it. There were only two Dukes left. The last one would’ve been Charlemane himself, but he didn’t vote except in ties. The light lingered longer than normal for the empty seat, then settled on Naponion, the Duke of Prance. The plump unicorn stood up somewhat less than gracefully and cleared his throat.

“The Duchy of Prance respectfully abstains from voting in this matter, Chairpony.”

Charlemane sighed in annoyance. “Very well, so noted. Also noted is the Duchess of Germane’s absence. The Council now requests the votes of the Royal Quarter.”

A teeny, tiny glimmer of hope still remained. The Royal Quarter referred to the maximum possible four ponies with the title of “Prince” or “Princess” that were not alicorns. Right now, there were only three, as Blueblood had no wife. Although Shining couldn’t vote on something directly pertaining to him, that still left Cadence and Blueblood. If they both voted in his favor, there was an incredibly small chance that Celestia would have enough justification to be able to save her brother.

The realization of who the lone Prince up there actually was crushed that tiny bit of hope she had left.

No…

A light appeared above a pink winged unicorn whose mascara was running from tears. After some straining, she weakly announced her vote. “Due to familial ties, the Princess of the Lost must recuse herself from voting. Forgive me.”

“Cady…” Shining whimpered, losing his stoicism.

No… Not even Cadence?

“Have you all gone and lost your minds!?” A light blazed to life over Prince Blueblood’s seat, illuminating him even before Cadence’s went out.

“Please, Your Highness,” Charlemane said. “The hearing is over. We only require your vote as the Prince of Canterlot.”

“Canterlot wouldn’t exist if not for that stallion!” Blueblood raged, slamming his hoof into his desk like he was playing piano with a hammer. “You lot wouldn’t just have lost your damn seats; you’d’ve lost your heads! You sleep safe and sound in your beds each night because this officer spends every waking moment thwarting plots on your hides!

“That’s quite enough, Your Highness!” Charlemane yelled back, pointing a hoof. “We just need your—”

“You all want my vote, you corrupt sacks of horn-rot!?” Little bits of spittle were raining down on Naponion. “The Duchy of Canterlot has Full Confidence in Captain Shining Armor and the shield he puts over this city every single rutting time one of you imbeciles mistake your damned servants’ green horn aura for a changeling’s! Put that in your docket and smo—”

“Blueblood,” Celestia interrupted, voice as calm as could be.

“Yes, Auntie?” Blueblood stopped his rant and turned around in an instant, looking a bit like a kicked puppy.

“That will be quite enough, nephew.” Celestia smiled slightly, the same motherly glow that she showed to Twilight so many times over the years.

“Yes, Auntie.” He bowed. “The Duchy of Canterlot votes in Full Confidence for Shining Armor.”

Twilight’s jaw was just about ready to wiggle out of its socket to try and get away from the roof of her mouth. Prince Blueblood voted in Shiny’s favor?! He was the only vote!? The same pony that thinks I’m not worthy to be the princess’ student because I wasn’t born a noble!?

“Princess Celestia,” Charlemane began, pausing ever so slightly before continuing. “The Inner Council of the Nobility of Equestria has polled itself and found that Equestria has No Confidence in Shining Armor’s abilities as Captain of the Royal Guard. We hereby formally issue a demand as Representatives of the Ponies of Equestria that he be stripped of his position effective immediately.”

This was it. The Council had substantial political power, but ultimately Celestia had the final say on matters. The rest was a calculation. She could reject their demand, but doing so would have a huge political cost.

Please, Princess… Don’t do it…

Shining Armor turned to the princess, exhaled, and stood up straight and proud. Celestia sighed and lifted her gavel with a neutral expression. “Very well, Chairpony. I have heard the evidence placed before this Council, and the pleas of the ponies.”

Twilight twisted her barrel about, trying to shake loose of Luna’s wing. No, Princess…

“Although I disagree with this Council’s recommendation, I understand their position.”

Twilight lifted her forehooves up and pushed against the powerful alicorn wing.

“Twilight! No!” Luna’s plea went unheeded as the smaller mare broke out of the hold.

“I wish I had another option, Captain, but—”

“Tia! Don’t!” Twilight yelled, shattering the invisibility spell and leaving the entire chamber stunned and slack-jawed.

The entire chamber, that is, except Princess Celestia.

“Twily?” Shining’s voice cracked, a tear already in his eye as he turned to look at his sister. Twilight had her forehooves on the bannister, desperately pleading with her mentor through watering eyes.

“Damn…” Luna whispered behind her.

Princess Celestia’s face grew ever so slightly more sad, but her eyes stayed glued to the stallion before her, never once looking in Twilight’s direction. “I am very sorry, my student. But I do not have a choice. Shining Armor, I hereby strip you of your military rank, duties, and position, and discharge you from the Royal Guard and my armed forces, immediately and permanently.”

Her gavel came down twice, with both Twilight and Shining jolting slightly as if being struck down by the very sound.

Shining turned away from Celestia and slowly walked down from his podium as all the lights in the chamber slowly turned on, lifting the dark ambiance but leaving the dour atmosphere.

Twilight’s mind froze, completely unable to think of what to do as he started walking by, his head held mostly high but lowered ever so slightly from his normal military-style gait. Two soldiers from the main doors walked up to him.

“I’m very sorry sir, but we have to confiscate your uniform,” one said.

“I know,” he replied, unsnapping the buckles with his magic. With a single movement, he took of the jacket, then folded it in his telekinetic field before giving it to them. In the end, he stood naked, watching as they carried it off to parts unknown in the castle.

“Now.” Luna’s single word was accompanied by a hoof to the back, and Twilight finally knew what she had to do. She leapt right over the railing and grabbed him in an embrace that was quickly returned. A blur of pink feathers and forelegs wrapped around the both of them a second later.

Faith and Duty

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“Your Highness, the Council requests a few hours’ recess before we begin deliberation on the next docket item,” Charlemane said flatly, without even a hint of remorse.

“So granted, Chairpony.”

The sound of Celestia’s gavel striking its base made Twilight wince, each impact another wound in her heart. Shining must have noticed because he pulled her and Cadence even closer. She could hear Cadence weep softly, and from the sound of Shining’s breathing, he too was on the verge of breaking down.

I’m so sorry, brother. This wasn’t your failure; it was mine. I couldn’t do anything…

She held on to him like a vice, tears streaming down her face. The Council may have been filing out of the room, even passing right by them, but that didn’t matter. Right now, they were only worthy to be ignored, and that’s exactly what she did as time ticked onwards. All that mattered was providing some level of comfort for her brother who so thoroughly deserved it.

“What on Equestria would make you think bringing her here now would be a good idea?”

Twilight twitched. After such a long time, all the others should have been gone. Charlemane, though, seemed to still be here.

“You think keeping us both in the dark a better option?”

Luna as well, apparently. Twilight buried her muzzle further in Shining’s chest, her tears soaking into his coat.

“Of course! Do you have any clue as to how traumatic this is!?”

Twilight could hear Luna’s wings flaring out, her voice dripping with indignation. “There are some things in life we must face, Councilpony. Things we have the right to know, to see, even if it is hard.”

“Try explaining that to her!

A few seconds later, the doors slammed shut, and they were left alone. Luna walked slowly over to them, head low.

“I don’t blame you.” Twilight lifted her head. “I blame him and the Council. Maybe even Celestia a little bit.”

“It’s not Charlemane’s fault,” Shining interjected, sniffing a bit.

I’ve never seen my brother even come close to crying before…

Cadence put a hoof up to his lips. “Hush, darling. Allow me.”

Shining nodded and placed his chin on her shoulder while she talked.

“Shining struck a deal with Charlemane. If he could—”

Luna placed a hoof on Cadence’s back. “I would advise taking this conversation somewhere more private. Let’s use one of the refreshment rooms.”

Cadence lowered her head in a slight bow. “Of course, Auntie Luna. Come on, sweetie.”

Shining moved to get up, but his hoof slipped back down, and he lowered his head, sighing.

No, come on, Shiny! It’ll be okay! We’ll figure something out! Twilight grabbed onto him, pushing up on his chest to get him to stand up, but he just sat there.

“Allow me.” Cadence stepped over to her, and put a hoof under him as well before a small, subtle rush of wind blew through their manes.

Twilight lifted a hoof in surprise. That’s pegasus magic! How did she use it with just her hoof?

Though he was wobbly, he slowly rose to his hooves, and Cadence used a wing to help him balance. Slowly, they left the chamber, Shining’s heavy, plodding hooves barely making a sound thanks to Cadence’s magic. The group made their way around the corner and entered a small side room.

Luna brought up the rear, and stopped just after passing through the doorway to turn around and call out down the hall. “Acolyte Arcane Edge, Paladin Silhouette, to me!”

Two Night Guards appeared from around a corner, one the stallion she’d known from her training, and one female she’d never seen before. They silently stooped to a deep, supplicating bow, and spoke in unison. “Sovereign, what is your will?”

Luna walked backed into the room and started closing the doors. “Keep guard. My sister, should she deign to show herself, is allowed inside. Should a member of the Council wish to enter, you have my permission to be more forceful in your duties.”

“Yes, Sovereign.” Twilight could see a smile on one of them just before the door closed.

The moment they clacked shut, Shining flopped down on a large cushion, daintily followed by his wife. The sun streamed in through the windows, blanketing their coats in a soft, warm glow.

Twilight took in a deep breath then let it out slowly, releasing some of the tension that had built up in her chest. As the adrenaline drained, she let her muscles relax and dropped down next to her brother, leaning against him.

“I never really thought this would be how it would all end,” Shining half-whispered, his voice cracking. “You know, my career. My crown.”

“Hush, darling.” Cadence squeezed him with a wing. “It’s not over yet. Charlemane keeps his promises. He’ll try to stop them from taking your crown.”

Twilight shuddered. “Can they really do that? Can they force the Princess to take away his nobility?”

Luna scoffed. “In theory,” she said, wandering over and behind a large bar that looked well stocked with liquor. “The Council is supposed to be the voice of the citizens, as Equestria is far, far too large for us to rule on our own. How much they truly are this is neither here nor there on this matter. If they vote in unison on a topic that our ponies are so riled up about, there’s little they cannot get Celestia to concede. And make no mistake, our ponies are quite upset over how weak Canterlot seems due to the attack. Small riots have broken out in Manehatten, Shanghay, Marelaysia—even Cloudsdale has had a disturbance. Naturally, firing the one in charge of Canterlot’s defense is an easy way for the Council to calm things down, even if that decision could later prove short-sighted.

“However, regardless of the future consequences, once the charge was laid and the demand given, had Celestia not acted, the whole thing might have turned into small rebellions rather than just unfocused anger. There is already an organized resistance in Stalliongrad; we cannot risk that spreading.”

Shining deflated even more. “I was trying to do right by our military; right by our soldiers. I never thought—”

“No good deed goes unpunished, Prince,” Luna said, looking around the cabinets behind the bar. “The silver lining is that your wife is correct. Charlemane, politician though he is, will keep his word. In addition, unlike discharging you from the military, the task of taking your crown from you is fraught with danger. Like so many other things the Council may wish to do, this is extremely likely to blow up in their faces, allowing my sister to pick up the pieces and gain an advantage.”

Twilight’s ears perked up at this, though they were sore for having been flat against her head for such a long time. “Why is it so much more difficult? This seems like nothing more than a changeling hunt to me.”

Various objects banged and clattered behind the counter Luna was looking at. “Oh, it is, but you have to understand the precedent here. The reason Charlemane asked Shining if he was complicit in the attack and even tried that angle at all was because the Council wanted him to be guilty of more than merely not seeing the attack coming. If he was somehow involved, there could be a criminal trial, and taking the crown would be easy.”

“Hold on!” Twilight lifted up her hooves, stopping Luna’s explanation. “You said Charlemane was working with Shiny.”

“He is,” Cadence chimed in. “But remember, as Chairpony, he has to represent the Council in official hearings no matter what his personal views are. The position gives him power, but also ties his hooves. Most of his influence lies in the political back channels.”

“Which is why the real fight has yet to come.” Luna pulled out a set of bartending tools and arranged them on the countertop. “Fortunately, issues of nobility are a civilian matter, which means I have a say in the final outcome. For Shining’s sake, however, I shall keep my big mouth shut until the final vote. Any push I make privately is likely to backfire.”

Cadence stood up and stretched out her wings. “Speaking of, I should get going and get to work. Your efforts might backfire, but mine won’t.” She leaned down to give Shining a gentle kiss, which he returned. “Stay here, sweetie. Let me fight for you for a change.”

He silently mouthed some words of thanks, tears welling up in his eyes.

Luna rustled around in some drawers. “I’d clean up a bit first, Cadence. You look like a disaster. Well, all three of you do, honestly.”

Cadence bowed and left the room, the Night Guard closing the doors behind her.

Twilight sighed, shifting her weight so Shining could lean on her a little.

Luna grumbled. “Where is the…? Ah, here it is.” A cocktail shaker floated through the air and landed on the bartop. “Cadence is an effective negotiator, and can read ponies better than anypony save perhaps Celestia. Because of her, there is yet hope.”

“Princess.” Twilight stared at her directly in the eyes. “How bad is it? Give me the truth.”

Luna’s shoulders slumped a bit. “The truth? The truth is that it’s difficult to be certain. If the Council was ignoring all the consequences of what such a decision would do, your brother would already have his title stripped from him.”

“But that’s not what’s going on here, so that’s not what I want to know,” Twilight asserted, pointing a hoof.

“Correct!” Luna started tossing bar implements and liquors around, making them dance and spin in her magic. “Since they failed to convict Shining of any deliberate wrongdoing, and only held a vote of no confidence, this makes things more complicated.”

“Basically, they convicted me of incompetence.” Shining groaned. “And since there are so many there with family members that are actually, factually incompetent, taking the title of ‘Prince’ away from me means that it becomes much, much easier for lesser titles to be taken away under even less pretense. At that point, it would only take one angry Duke to turn the nobility into a circular firing squad.”

Twilight clopped a hoof on the ground. “Which means that if they take away your title, suddenly every single member of the nobility is fair game for almost anything.”

“Just so,” Luna said right before shaking her cocktail vigorously. “I honestly wonder what Celestia has planned for this. I wish she’d share more with me. Still, disaster though this is, either outcome could wind up backfiring on the Council. Either Prince Shining gets more time to dedicate to rebuilding his image and giving the Dukes hell on the civilian stage, or they remove his noble rank too and the Council potentially destroys itself from within. I can’t say I agree with either outcome. He’s been too valuable a military leader to just let go in times like this; even with my restricted military intelligence access I can see that much.” When she was finally done, she poured her drink into a maretini glass and garnished it with a sliver of lime zest.

“Hmph. Or, his effectiveness is exactly why they let him go.” Twilight mused. Yet, despite her anger, she couldn’t help but observe the drink Luna had made. To just casually start making it before lunch like that was like a beacon to her curiosity. There had to be a reason. “What are you making?”

“A cocktail, obviously” Luna replied, grinning. “Almost done.” She placed the bottom of both of her forehooves together, one on top of another, and then separated them. In between them, and resting on the lower hoof, appeared a blue bottle. It was fat and round at the bottom with a long, thin neck. With a slight twist, she pulled out the cork and poured a small amount of the liquid.

The clear liquid in the glass started to change color rapidly, going from clear, to sea green, to dark blue, and finally clear once again. Twilight could hear fizzing, but there were no bubbles. Curiosity getting the better of her, she got up and wandered over to the glass only to find her brother was right beside her.

“It’s still fizzing. Is it fizzing?” he asked, his tears drying up.

“Did it fizz?” Twilight added. Welcome back, brother. It’s good to see that curious side of you again.

“Sort of. Shining, go ahead and take a whiff. Don’t drink. Just smell. Twilight, keep your distance.”

The siblings looked at each other with mirrored expressions, both with one eyebrow up and half a frown. Even their verbal response was the same. “Oooookaaaayyy…”

Twilight looked at it, but didn’t quite keep her distance. Instead, she put her ear up to it. Can’t smell it like this, at least. She didn’t hear fizzing anymore, though. “What the…?”

She heard the ocean. Waves crashing, wind roaring, and under that she could swear she even heard seagulls crying.

“Now, Twilight, give your brother room.” Luna winked.

Shining leaned forward and placed his nose right over the glass. His nostrils flared as he inhaled the air over the drink, followed by jolting backwards right on his side in a coughing fit.

“Shiny! Are you okay?!” Twilight rushed over and used her hooves to stabilize him and get him to stop flailing then lifted him back up on his haunches. “Come on, say something!”

“I’m—” he coughed, “—trying!” He coughed again. “Ugh. Whoa.”

Shining listed and leaned right into Twilight hard enough that she had to push hard to keep him from crushing her. I keep forgetting how heavy he is! So much muscle he might as well be an earth pony!

“Uaaagh. UGH!” He finally readjusted himself and sat balanced on his haunches. “What in Tartarus was in that? Feels like I just downed a couple of ales.”

“Tidewater!” Luna replied, snickering like a schoolgirl. “‘Tis a most potent drink devised by alicorns, for alicorns. Even breathing the vapors can lead a normal pony to become intoxicated. And, it is just about the only drink currently in existence that can get a full alicorn completely drunk. I could imbibe the entire cabinet behind me and only get ever so slightly tipsy. But this!” She held up the bottle. “This divine distillation of magic is the exception. I am the only keeper of the recipe left, though dear sister wishes I had forgotten it. She even tries to destroy my hidden stockpiles! Hmph. Just because her vice of cake and sweets only plumps out her rump and mine makes me intoxicated does not give her the right to judge.”

“That’s not an excuse to get my brother drunk!” She put a foreleg around him. “Look at him!”

Shining shook his head harshly. “I think… I think I’m okay. Wow, though. What would happen if I drank that?”

Luna shrugged and took a sip. “You’d be severely intoxicated to the point of hospitalization, rather than merely a little relaxed.”

“Still!” Twilight protested. “Princess, neither of us drink!”

Luna blinked. “You don’t… drink. I do not comprehend what you are saying.”

Twilight groaned and rolled her eyes. “We. Don’t. Drink. Neither of us!”

“Ever?” Luna asked, sounding a bit like a filly.

“Well,” Shining interjected, “I have an ale or two occasionally, but never any more than that. Ever. This is fading quick, but it might be the most I’ve ever ‘had,’ so to speak.”

Luna blinked again. “I still don’t quite understand this. How can you just not drink?”

“Because we’re powerful!” Twilight yelled then stopped when she realized who she was talking to. “Ugh. I mean, when I was a filly, I had a huge surge of magic. Since Shining’s wellspring was also rather huge, even if not as big as mine, we both swore off getting drunk so we wouldn’t put anypony in danger.”

Her brother raised a hoof. “Eventually, I also had to be ‘on call’ all the time to deploy my shield, so there’s also that. Pheh. They just fired me, but I bet they’ll still expect me to use it.” He sighed and groaned at the same time. “And they’re right. I’d still do it if I needed to. If Canterlot needed me to.”

“That’s because you’re more of a noble than they’ll ever be,” Luna quipped. “And to hold both of yourselves to such a high standard is quite commendable. But, I can assure you, there is no need to deprive yourself of relaxation. In fact, after all this is over, Shining, I might recommend you take a long vacation. Perhaps accompany Cadence on one of her national tours.”

Shining shook his head. “No. Not when Canterlot is this vulnerable. Who would raise a shield in her defense?”

Luna raised her eyebrow. “Ahem. I will.”

“You?” both siblings responded, mouths open.

“I was creating magical barriers thousands of years before either of you even existed. I can shield Canterlot. And just imagine how the Council is going to feel about relying on their shunned Princess for defense. I wonder if they considered that when another attack happens I’m the only other pony capable of that. Hmm.” She swirled the glass and raised it to her lips for a sip.

The brother and sister smirked at each other. “You planned that, didn’t you?”

“Hehe, nay. I just thought of it. But it’s delicious nonetheless. The drink and the idea.”

Even though Shining laughed, Twilight could tell it was forced. “Yeah, but I’d still rather raise the shield myself. I mean, getting to laugh at the Council would be fun for a bit, but… It just wouldn’t be the same as getting to do my…” He swallowed. “Job.”

Luna smiled and came out from behind the bar then placed a hoof on his shoulder. “Thou hast served the crown for many years, Shining Armor. Who knows, in time, they may see their folly, and you may yet serve again. For now, think of this as a vacation, and relax. Enjoy the time with your wife.”

Twilight nodded. “She’s right, Shiny. I bet they’ll come crawling back eventually.”

Luna laughed and raised her drink in the air. “Cowardice often does.” She then proceeded to down the entire concoction in one large gulp before lightly slamming the glass on the bar. “Ahhh…”

Twilight patted his shoulder. “I mean, think about it, Shiny. You’ve always been there for Canterlot, and everypony else too. I honestly can’t believe all the things I’ve been hearing lately about what you’ve done for me. But, I’ve been training with Luna for months now. Let me handle some of this. I’m not a filly anymore.”

Luna laughed and danced back behind the bar. “Ha! Ye art both fillies compared to me!”

Shining raised an eyebrow and scratched the back of his head with his hoof. “Umm…”

Luna opened her mouth, paused, and then continued. “Eh, ‘tis still true. All of it.”

Twilight clenched her teeth and worried about whether she should ask, but threw caution to the wind and decided to anyway. “Um, Luna, are you…?”

“Pbbbt. No! I am not a real stallion, Twilight Sparkle, and I thought that obvious.”

“Ha!” Shining snickered before breaking out in laughter, slamming his hoof on the ground a few times.

“Ugh, no, Luna!”

“Huzzah! Twilight called me ‘Luna’ again! I win!”

Twilight facehooved as Shining laughed even more. “No! Princess, I meant, ‘are you drunk?’”

“Hehe, oh Twilight.” Her wings fluttered around a bit. “Of course not. I’m just a tiny bit tipsy, and I tend to get a little loopy and happy when I have tidewater.”

Shining snickered, his face brightening at the exchange. “Thanks, Princess. I needed that laugh.”

Luna’s grin went from happy to devious. “My pleasure, Prince. Speaking of, you aren’t in the military anymore. You’re free to call me ‘Auntie’ now. There’s no need to be so formal. As I said, you’ve done much for us, especially for one your age. In fact, I recall the day I met you.”

Shining’s pupils retracted to pinpricks, and Luna’s mischievous grin only widened.

“Although perhaps you should tell the tale, since you no doubt remember it better than I do, seeing as I had just been blasted with the world’s most powerful magical weapons.”

Shining looked over to his sister. “Well, you see…”

Twilight giggled. “Well, now I have to hear about this. What were you doing that day, Shiny? You never did tell me, saying it was all ‘classified.’ Well, I have clearance now, and we’re in a private room.”

Shining slumped back down to the ground. “I’m not getting out of this, am I,” he said rather than asked.

“Nope,” came the reply from both mares anyway.

He sighed. “Alright, get comfy, everypony. Might as well get this over with.”


"What? That’s it?!"

"Ye-yes, sir!" an extremely scared officer replied.

Shining Armor, the newly-minted Captain of the Royal Guard, facehooved. "That’s not a professional report, soldier!"

"It’s all we know!"

"Then get out there, and find out more!" Shining yelled, chasing the subordinate back out of the closet that might, if one squinted and was being very generous, be called a captain’s office. "I swear, this is what happens when you give the captaincy to a noble like some kind of trophy."

"I think you’re being a little harsh on him, Captain. At the very least, we know the Princess is safe now, and the casualty reports have been minimal," came a neutral tone from Intelligentsia, who was sitting on a box with her back against a sharp corner of a free-standing locker. Almost every single spot on the floor of the cramped, beige-wallpapered room was being taken up by some kind of box, filing cabinet, or storage locker filled to bursting with documents and office supplies. Aside from a small tile path to his seat the entire room was packed to the withers.

"Nopony is more thankful everypony is okay, trust me on that! But, Celestia help me, it’s going to take a decade to reform the guard back to where it needs to be. This is my fourth day, and I already have the worst track record in history. Did you know we had three flights of pegasi that are only now launching? Like the emergency orders were just optional. I swear, heads will roll over this."

Intelligentsia sighed. "Ours if we’re not careful."

"Oh, I’m already anticipating that. Come on, we need to get to the Royal Chariot Bay."

The two moved towards the narrow corridor before the door, only to enter at the same time and get stuck.

"Oh, this is just balls."

As if the office was in on the joke, the lights overhead flickered and failed.

"That’s it!" Shining flared his horn and pushed Intelligentsia forward and out of their stuck position. "I swear, I’m not going to rest until we have a proper war room. This is insanity."

"You have my full support, sir," Intelligentsia said as they finally got out of the office.

Shining stopped alongside Intelligentsia. “Did you hear the door click?” he asked.

“I don’t think so—”

He whipped back around and yanked the door open, slamming it shut again and again without success.

"What the hell? It doesn’t even lock!"

"Figures," Intelligentsia groaned. "Just leave it. We—"

The doorframe creaked and groaned, the sound of metal scraping on metal as the screws keeping the door in place popped out or broke from the force of Shining’s telekinetic field. Yanked out of it’s place, the door itself started to screech, squealing under its punishment until it resembled a giant playing card folded in half. Even the door handle popped out of its place like a champagne cork.

"Somepony get me a new door!" he yelled down the narrow hall then turned to a random passing soldier. The Captain hurled the door of steel down the hall just as a guard rounded a corner, making the hapless pony dive for the ground. The half-ton of steel crashed into the hardwood floor, sending a shower of splinters into the air. "And get those pegasi in the sky!"

Shining’s mood only soured as the pony in front of him, whom he’d nearly turned into a pancake, lay there motionless. With a slight, subconscious growl he stomped up to him, not even caring that his hapless subordinate looked ready to wet himself.

"Go!" He yelled right in the subordinate’s face, managing to get him to scramble to his hooves and run down the narrow hallway. Shining gave chase, nipping at his fetlocks and not letting up until they were back in the castle proper and had to go in a different direction.

"I do think you’re being a bit hard on them, sir. We’re used to things being more casual here."

"This is the Royal Guard, Officer. ’Casual’ shouldn’t be in our vocabulary."

"You won’t win friends with that attitude."

Shining stopped and stood by a set of large, open double doors leading to the Chariot Bay. "I’m much more interested in the safety of Canterlot. For instance, this should be closed right now. I’d also like them to be redone in steel rather than wood."

"It’s a design choice," Intelligentsia quipped.

"It’s a security weakness! If you want it to look like wood, fine, but make it a steel core with enchantments." Shining rubbed his forehead. "No, getting distracted won’t help. Let’s focus on the issue at hoof."

The two walked through the doors and into the chariot bay, which was more or less a hollowed-out piece of Canterlot Mountain. At the far end was an opening to the sky with a small runway, while inside the bay itself were a dozen or so slots for official royal chariots. Most of the vehicles were in their place, sitting unused, as their pilots were up in the sky. Well, most of the pilots were up in the sky. Some were standing idle in the bay.

"You four, on me! Celestia is arriving with my sister and a new Princess! Honor Guard formation at the landing site, now!"

The pegasi just stared at him, one with his mouth slightly open.

Intelligentsia spoke up. "In their defense, sir, you did just say ’new Princess,’ and that does sound rather, well, insane."

"Trust me, I know, and I’m going to look like a damn foal if this is inaccurate. Doesn’t excuse anything though. What are you all doing!? I gave an order! Hop to it! Go, go, go!"

The pegasus group scrambled to the landing strip, assembling into formation and snapping to an attentive stance.

"Well at least they can look professional," Shining sighed. "Now, we wait."

They didn’t have to wait long. Shortly thereafter, the chariot descended from the sky, flanked by a dozen more exhausted guards.

"ROYALTY ARRIVED! ATTEN-TION!" Shining’s voice cracked as he yelled, the strain on his own body beginning to become apparent. All the soldiers snapped to and saluted, save for Shining and Intelligentsia, who bowed.

"Arise and be at ease, my ponies," the Princess said while stepping off the chariot, her voice just barely hinting that, perhaps, she too was exhausted.

Upon lifting from his bow, he caught a glimpse of what he assumed was the new royalty. But it was only that, a glimpse of her light blue hair. She seemed to be doing her best at hiding by staying behind Celestia’s flowing mane.

"Do not be afraid, sister. My guards are your guards now."

The pony cautiously stepped out from her hiding place and sat down. Though there was no flowing mane, she clearly possessed a large horn, wings, and was taller than he despite her visage of youth. There could be no doubt; this pony was an alicorn.

"Captain Armor, I’d like you to meet my sister, Princess Luna. She has been redeemed and has agreed to peacefully resume her role at my side."

"Huh," Intelligentsia blurted out. Shining gave her a quick, mean look, and she went back to attention. With a deep breath, Shining approached the smaller alicorn and dropped into a bow once again.

Time passed as he held his head low, the seconds each adding an additional burning sensation in his tired legs. When he finally looked ever so slightly back up at her, he found her staring at him as well, though for what reason he could not discern. She merely looked, with neither malice nor joy nor any other expression in her wide, icy-blue eyes.

After many more uncomfortable heartbeats, the smaller alicorn turned to her sister and spoke.

"He’s strong," she said.

"He is indeed, but it is still rude to keep him kneeling for so long." Celestia winked at her.

The alicorn turned back to him and nodded, allowing him to exit the bow.

Shining cleared his throat. The next few moments would have to be handled delicately. “Your Highness, it is good to see you return safe and unharmed. Forgive my soldiers their failures, as my command is clearly not worthy of your grace. I offer my immediate resignation and surrender for punishment as you see fit.”

Surprisingly, it was the smaller alicorn that reacted first. Her eyes went wide again, and she stepped away from her sister and looked up at her. Celestia gave her only a small glance before responding with the calm, sweet voice she was known for.

“Please, Shining. Such things are unnecessary. I could not, in good conscience, punish you or your soldiers for failing to hold back the assault of an alicorn, especially my own sister. I may as well ask you to move a mountain or halt a river.”

Luna seemed to calm with that and moved back under the shadow of her elder sister. Whatever her reaction, though, the political dance wasn’t yet done. “Nonetheless, this was my failure, and I believe I do have a barrier spell that could halt a small river. I must ask for your judgement of me.”

Celestia didn’t miss a beat. “Then I will give it, and I find you innocent and worthy of your station. Now, no more of this.”

“Of course, your highness,” he said, smiling in a short bow. That was the cover he needed. He’d still have to face calls for his head, but they’d be much quieter now. "If I may, communications have been lackluster since your disappearance. We are uncertain as to the entirety of what has transpired."

"What have you been told?"

Shining looked over to the smaller alicorn for just a moment, trying and failing to determine a polite way of proceeding. "That your sister, Nightmare Moon, imprisoned you in an attempt to usurp the throne but was thwarted by Ponyville mares finding rare magical artifacts and defeating her. We then heard reports that she had surrendered to you."

He had to keep his legs from shaking when he saw the sad look on the younger alicorn’s face. That felt even worse than I thought it would.

"That is close, Captain, although missing crucial details," Celestia replied with a calm, even tone. "My sister was cleansed of malice by the Elements of Harmony. I can assure you, she is no longer a threat. She is truly my sister once more, and shall be treated as such. I trust that is not a problem?"

Shining shook his head. "Of course not, your majesty. The Guard shall serve. Unfortunately, that is all whom I can speak for."

“You refer to the nobility.”

“You have to admit, this is a major political event.”

Celestia’s horn began to glow, and a case from the chariot floated next to her. “I thank you for using restraint in your description, Captain, but I ask that you leave such matters to me.”

A quick look into the rest of the chariot brought something to Shining’s attention. “Of course, Princess, but, if you would forgive my asking, where is my sister? Shouldn’t she have arrived with you?”

Celestia looked genuinely taken aback at the question. “Oh my, forgive me! I thought you had heard!”

Shining’s heart stopped. “Heard what?”

“She decided to stay in Ponyville with her new friends! I’ve honestly never seen her so happy.”

Shining’s heart beat twenty times in rapid succession then stopped again. “Friends!?

“Indeed! She seems quite taken with them and the town. In fact, she—”

The smaller alicorn interrupted her sister with light tapping on her shoulder. “His sister, is that the one on approach to the summits?”

Celestia looked at her and then back at him before responding. “Yes, but that is personal information.”

Luna snapped back to look at the others and shrunk down with embarrassment. “Oh,” she whispered. “She’s very strong.”

“That’s enough, I think. Captain, my sister and I desire to spend time with each other, privately, as we have much to discuss. If you would be so kind as to clear the halls for us.”

Shining’s heart and other biological functions shocked back into operation. “Friends!?

Celestia’s tone got just a bit heavier. “Captain?”

A jolt of pain went down his spine from a light punch from Intelligentsia, and he jumped to attention. “Oh, right! Guards! Clear the halls! No one will so much as lay eyes on our princess… er, princesses! Move!”

Smooth, Shining, let force of habit put you on the new alicorn’s “I can’t wait to outlive these ponies” list.

The group moved out back into the castle, with the guards in front clearing out everypony they found and Shining and Intelligentsia just ahead of the princesses.

“Hey, Captain,” Intelligentsia whispered. “I thought your sister wasn’t exactly the social type.”

“She doesn’t make friends that aren’t in hardback. I’m going to have to find out what’s really going on when I get a chance, but at least I know she isn’t hurt… probably.”

“I think you might be worrying a bit much.”

“That’s my job, Officer.”

“Sorry, Captain.”

Awkward silence reigned in the halls as ponies were herded out of sight. Shortly, they reached Celestia’s tower and the double doors to her personal chambers, and Luna quickly moved inside. Celestia levitated the case in with her and turned to face the two Guardsponies.

“Captain, I do not want any interruptions for one week.”

“A week? But, your highness, the Inner Council will—”

“Will heed my commands, my little pony.” She smiled at him. “I am officially declaring the Council and national government on holiday as a celebration of my sister’s return. The Astral Court, Council matters, and all non-essential services are to be closed for the duration of my absence. I apologize for being so brief, but a thousand years is a long time to go without seeing one’s sister, so I must end things here. As for national security, I will leave that in your capable hooves, Captain.”

As the doors began to close, gold arcs of electricity and magic sparked across the entryway, filling the air with the scent of ozone. At the moment they shut, a field of leylines sprang to life within them, generating a shield that easily rivaled any of Shining’s best. Nothing short of another alicorn is going to be able to get through that.

“Well, that went well.”

“Intelligentsia, today has been a disaster, and this just makes it worse! How am I supposed to guard Canterlot with a completely dysfunctional and exhausted force? Not to mention field questions from the ponies about a new Princess?”

She shrugged. “Don’t ask me. I mean, I saw the Nightmare coming, not Princess Luna. Thanks for listening to me on that, by the way.”

“You don’t get to rub it in until you help me figure this all out.” He poked her on the shoulder.

“Why me?”

He smirked. “Because you were the one who saw the Nightmare coming.”

“Your sister saw her coming as well, I might add.” She smirked back.

“Don’t remind me. Somehow, in all of this, I need to find a way to check up on her personally.”

“Why not just send somepony else? You’re as exhausted as the rest of us.”

“No, it has to be me.”

“No it—”

“It has to be me,” he asserted with a glare.

Intelligentsia backed up a little and kept a hoof up. “Okay, okay, it has to be you. Loud and clear.”

Shining backed off a little. “Good. Now I just need to figure out where I’m going to find a few hundred fresh soldiers.”

“Wait!” Intelligentsia interrupted. “You hear that?”

Shining tilted his head a bit, wondering what she was talking about, but then he heard it too. Hoofsteps. Lots of them, marching perfectly in synchronization.

“Either you just got your reinforcements, or we’re being invaded.”

The two peered over the stairwell, awaiting the arrival of whatever was coming. Images of the worst possible scenario danced in his head, as his mind was wont to do, while his heart beat in tempo with the marching.

Intelligentsia must have spotted them first. “Hey, that’s—”

Shining clopped a hoof on the tile in triumph. Long, flowing gold mane, lanky physique, powder-white coat that everypony thinks is dyed, a flower behind the ear, and last but not least a blue, white, and rose-colored, customized uniform that’s so robe-like there’s no way in Equestria it conforms to regs. Yeah, there’s only one stallion that could possibly be. “General Gemstone Quartz! Now there’s a sight for sore eyes!”

The General himself marched at the lead of what must have been three dozen soldiers leading and flanking him, moving to take up position at the doors to Her Majesty’s chambers.

“Captain Armor! Explain yourself!”

“General?” he asked.

“I said, explain yourself!”

Shining’s mouth hung open a little as he looked around a bit nervously. It was unlike Gemstone to be so aggressive. The soft features of his face were hardened and angry. Even his long, wavy, blond mane was tied back in a more in-code manner.

Technically, the General had no authority over him. The Captain of the Royal Guard answered only to the full Inner Council and Princess Celestia herself. Still, he could understand the need for answers.

“General, our princess is safe, and her sister has been redeemed. They have retreated to their chambers and have given orders not to be disturbed for a whole week, during which time the government is on holiday. I was just about to start organizing watches for the city.”

Quartz looked up at the double doors of the entrance. “Open the door, Shining, I need to speak with her.”

“Excuse me, General?” he replied, laughing.

“Princess Celestia? Your Highness? Your Grace?” The General boomed towards the doors then swung around. “Shining, I told you to get this door open!”

Shining took a step back in shock before gathering himself. “General, I’m a master of barrier magic, yes, but that’s Celestia’s spell, and I’m fairly sure it was meant to work with the enchantments already in the doors.”

“I’m well aware of that, Armor. Do it anyway. I must see her!” He snapped around to the door and pounded on it like a snare drum. “Your Highness! Can you hear me? It’s Gemstone! Could you open the door? Please? For me?”

Shining looked up at the door and back at the General. “Go grab all the other generals and fire everything you have at it. Then, maybe, just maybe, they’ll hear the knock.”

Light blazed out from the General’s horn so quickly even Shining Armor didn’t have time to react. By the time his eyes adjusted, he found his hooves encased in crystal and sealed to the floor.

“I’m not interested in excuses, Armor! You will open this door immediately!”

It’s going to be like that, huh?

“Back off, General. Even you don’t get to order me around. That’s not the way it works.”

The General waved at one of his stallions, and they approached him with a scroll. “Captain Shining Armor, by order of the Inner Council, you are hereby relieved of duty and will surrender Canterlot’s defenses to me, immediately.”

Intelligentsia jumped in. “The Princess just ordered the Council on holiday! You can’t just—”

“Yes! I! Can! And you just joined him, Miss…”

“Intelligentsia, you—”

Shining interrupted her this time. “I’m guessing those were drafted and signed before Celestia gave the order. Am I correct, General?”

“Just so. Since you will not open the doors, you may remain here next to them until our princess returns to us. Think long on your failures.”

Shining merely snickered a little at first, but ultimately couldn’t hold back anymore, and broke down into a fit of laughter. At points he laughed so hard the crystal on his hooves was the only thing preventing him from falling over.

“I take it you find something funny, Captain?” General Quartz sneered.

Shining laughed hard a few final times before regaining his composure. “Yeah, yeah, I do. It’s damned hilarious, actually. You and the whole bucking Inner Council just played right into my hooves.” He laughed some more. “And I wasn’t even trying to play you!”

Shining maintained his smile even as the General got right into his face. “Perhaps a few days here without food or water will teach you some humility.”

“Yeah, about that,” he said, powering his own horn and casting a spell. Six beams of purple light shot out from each of his hooves, splitting and shattering the crystals and freeing his limbs. “Relieved of duty or not, you have zero authority over me. Try to trap me again, and I’ll geld your sorry flank right in front of your troops and then gift-wrap your stallionhood for General Blaze as a Hearth’s Warming present!” Shining grinned. “Or at least I would if anyone could find it. Come on, Intelligentsia, we have a chariot to catch. Leave this damn fool to his fate.”

Shining took off at a trot down the stairs and paused just before getting out of eyesight of the top. With another grin, he turned around and yelled up. “By the way, I bet the nobility is just dying to know that Princess Luna will be joining her sister as their ruler, not to mention all the press is probably lined up at the castle gates already, just dying to ask questions of the pony in charge! Have fun with that!” It’s probably the last fun you’ll get to have for a few years.

Shining continued his laugh and even danced a bit as he led his assistant back down the stairs.

“You enjoyed that,” she was laughing too.

“You’re bucking right I enjoyed that! Did that moron actually think he could just seal me? I just got my GR-7 certification!” Shining shook his head. “General Quartz is usually a lot more level-headed.”

Intelligentsia rolled her eyes. “Anytime something comes up that directly threatens the Princess’s safety, he tends to act a bit rashly.”

Shining tilted his head in thought. “Really? Wonder why.”

“Yeah, it’s a mystery,” she deadpanned.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing. So where are we going? You said something about a chariot? Wait, we aren’t…?”

“Yes we are!” Shining said as they arrived back at the chariot bay. Fortunately, there were still three pegasi there that didn’t look especially exhausted. In fact, they were lounging about as much as one could in royal guard armor. “You three! Get a chariot ready ASAP!”

The pegasi looked at him. “Um, sir, General Quartz has ordered all chariots grounded. You need an order from a princess, Prince Blueblood, or the Inner Council to get clearance.”

“What—?”

Shining put a hoof over Intelligentsia’s mouth. “That’s exactly what we have.”

“You do?” the pegasus asked.

“We do?” Intelligentsia asked as well, and Shining pressed harder on her mouth.

“I do. Princess Mi Amore Cadenza has given me clearance and a command to check up on my little sister, Twilight Sparkle, in Ponyville.”

“Oh!” The pegasus took a step back in surprise. “But I thought you were relieved of command.”

Wow. Juicy gossip? Everypony knows it in five seconds. Actual intel reports? Takes two days. “I hardly think I need to be on duty to check on my little sister, guys. I helped raise her for crying out loud. Just get the chariot ready, and let’s go. I want to be back by sundown.”

“Um, alright. Hey Feathers, go run the clearance for us.”

“On it,” the lone female pegasus replied, flying off to verify the orders.

“It’ll just be a few moments,” the third pegasus said.

Shining chuckled. “Guys, seriously. I’m the Captain of the Royal Guard. Let’s get going here.”

The two remaining pegasi looked at each other nervously. “Well, if you say so, sir.”

“Awesome!” Shining hopped on a nearby chariot. “Come on, Gen!”

Intelligentsia nervously climbed on board while the pegasi hitched themselves on. “Gen? And are you sure you know what you’re doing?” she whispered.

“‘Intelligentsia’ is a mouthful, we’re both off duty, and yes. Yes I do.”

She fell back on her haunches as the soldiers began a rough takeoff out of the bay. A few seconds later they were in the air, flying down the mountain, and being shot at by pegasi.

“What the hell!?” one of the chariot pegasi screamed.

“I know, these guys are lousy shots. I really need to get them better training when I get back.”

“Get back!?” the mare next to him yelled. “When we get back, we’re going to get turned into statues!”

“Five bits says otherwise. Ten bits says Quartz will be bowing to me in apology.”

Gen latched onto the safety bar for dear life as the chariot bucked and weaved to dodge the lightning attacks. “Thirty bits says we’re about to get killed by a dozen angry pegasi enforcing a no fly zone!”

“Meh, don’t worry about them.” With a smile, Shining turned around and lit his horn. Purple energy flowed out like water, gushing and surrounding the chariot in a haze of lavender. As soon as the spell was complete, the lightning started bouncing off the newly formed shield, unable to find a path to the chariot.

“You see, most unicorns just put up a shell of a force field and rely on the spherical shape of the barrier to reinforce its hardness. That just makes it brittle to really hard hits.” He sounded a lot like he was delivering a weather plan. “I, on the other hand, fill the inside space with enough magic that the force is dissipated by the full volume rather than just the outside shell. It takes more energy to set up, but it makes for a much, much more durable shield. Doesn’t work with really huge shields, though. Taxes the wellspring too much.”

“Yeah well that’s great and all, but they’re still going to catch up to us and kill us!

Shining looked into Intelligentsia’s furious, seething eyes and smiled. “Oh, have some faith. This is nothing.” With a light step, he turned around and relit his horn. There were at least two dozen pegasi making passes at the chariot, firing lightning to try and take them down. If they were yelling anything, the sound was muffled by the shielding.

Shining took a deep breath and poured power into his horn. He had to be calm and careful for this, as he’d wind up hurting his own soldiers if he lost even the slightest bit of control. The spell whizzed around his horn, spiraling into a complex formula dancing and interacting with the shield already around them. Several seconds later, a spark cracked in the air, and a shockwave blasted out from the shield. The purple wave slammed into the pursuing pegasi, knocking them back and locking their momentum so that they’d have no choice but to fly away from the chariot. By the time the spell would wear off, they’d be too far away to give chase.

“Unreal… But we’re still going to be hunted like fugitives!”

Oof!

Intelligentsia punched him hard in the chest, knocking the wind out of him.

One of the chariot pegasi spoke up. “She’s right! What’s stopping us from landing right now and turning you in?”

“Relax, you three. We’re going to be just fine. Cadence will back me up.”

“Who?” all three asked.

Princess Mi Amore Cadenza. She’s an old friend; I’ve known her since foalhood.”

“Like a princess is going to stick her neck out for a stunt like this!” Intelligentsia kept yelling. “And even if she did, it wouldn’t change anything!”

“Oh, she will. Wouldn’t be the first time! And I’m surprised at you, Gen!”

“At me?”

“Yeah, you of all ponies should be able to see a larger picture. Here, look at it this way. What would happen if Cadence did go ahead and say she gave that order.”

Intelligentsia stared at him, huffing and angry.

“Come on, think it through.” Shining was smiling like a fiend.

“Well, the treason charges… Oh sweet Celestia, we’re going to be statues—”

“Gen! Focus!”

After a few more calming breaths, she continued. “The charges would be dropped and, most likely, they’d start an ‘investigation’ as to why her orders weren’t followed.”

“You’re sure she’ll come through?” the left pegasus asked.

“Completely, and even if she doesn’t, I’ll take the blame fully. You guys are in the clear. But, still not done.”

“Not done?” Gen asked.

“Nope!” Shining beamed, still unable to contain his grin. “Keep thinking it through!”

He could practically see the gears turning in her head. “Well, odds are the investigation will find the communications deficiencies in the guard and… You! You planned all this, didn’t you?”

Shining let out a huge laugh. “Yup! Well, kind of.”

Kind of?

“Some of it was spur of the moment, but I knew we’d be okay pretty early on.”

Intelligentsia leaned over the side of the vehicle. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“Aw, come on, Gen! Think about how great this is! Quartz is going to have to tell the Princess and the Council one of two things. If he tries to avoid responsibility for letting us get away by saying the Guard is a mess, then he has to side with me in asking for reforms, funding, additional authority, etcetera. If he says everything in the Guard is fine and we’re continuing to uphold a proud tradition, blah blah blah, he looks like a complete blowhard, because we got away. He’s trapped!”

“And if your girlfriend sells us down the river?”

Shining chuckled a little. “She’s not my girlfriend, Gen. She’s just a friend from my foalhood, and I seriously doubt she’ll hang me out to dry. All she’ll need to hear is ‘Twilight Sparkle’ and ‘Shining Armor.’ I’m certain she’ll want me to beg forgiveness after all is said and done, maybe even have me do something for her in exchange, but she’ll help. Trust me.”

The mare seemed to calm down a little and sat back in the chariot. “For somepony who is easily one of the largest worry-worts in Canterlot, you’re awfully calm about what might happen to us after this!”

His smile became a little less cocky and a little more wistful at that. “Well, I always worry more about my family than myself. Anything can happen to me. I’m expendable. Twilight, though? She’s far, far more important than I am.”

“So it’s an inferiority complex then.”

“Tch.” He slumped down next to her hard, his fatigue starting to show. “It’s not an inferiority complex, Intelligentsia. It’s the truth. She’s the Princess’s personal protégé.”

“And you’re the Captain of the Royal Guard. Like it or not, you are a more important piece on the board than she is,” she declared, poking at his chest.

Shining closed his eyes. “You only say that because you haven’t met her. She’s a genius, Gen. Give her some time, and she’ll make discoveries that’ll change the world.”

Several moments passed with nothing but the sound of beating wings, as even the wooshing of the air was blocked by the shielding.

“Um,” one of the pegasi spoke up. “Are we going to get arrested when we land at Ponyville? Why are we still going there? For that matter, why are we still listening to you two?”

“Yes, we’re going to Ponyville.” He sat up with a grunt. “No, we won’t be arrested. They won’t have a clue as to what’s going on. And like I said, I’ll take all the blame if it comes down to it. For all they’ll know, I forced or tricked you guys to do this.”

“You did trick us into doing this!” the other yelled.

“Oh, right!” He chuckled. “Well, that just makes it easier then, doesn’t it? If you could, set us down outside the village.”

“Why are we landing outside the town if they don’t know about our ‘daring escape?’” Intelligentsia asked.

He cleared his throat before responding. “I want to make sure Twilight is okay, and I want to do it without her knowing I’m there. If she sees me, she’ll just say she’s fine even if she’s not.”

“And if she's fine like the Princess says?”

Shining turned to Intelligentsia and gave her a stern look. “Then we’ll leave, and she’ll never be the wiser. Let her stay without thinking I’m worried about her. If she’s really happy, then I want her to stay that way.”

“So you’re going to spy on her.”

“I’m not going to spy on her, Gen.”

She stared at him.

“Okay, I’m going to spy on her. But quit giving me that glare. You look like I’m going to do something lewd.”

“You just lied to our fellow comrades and made them accomplices to violating a no-fly edict so you could see your sister, you dragged me along for the ride, and now you’re telling me you don’t actually want to see her when you get there! I think I’ve earned the right to stare at you like you’re a bucking lunatic!”

Shining shrugged. “Fair enough.”


Intelligentsia stretched her legs, thankful to be off of the rocky chariot and once again on solid, safe, unyielding ground. “Okay, so, what exactly is the plan here? We stalk your sister until, when, exactly?”

Shining rolled his eyes. “It’s not stalking, Gen. We’re going to just observe for a bit. If she’s happy, we can leave.”

“And then get arrested.”

“And then get arrested, yes.” His hooves kept a quick pace on the gravel road leading into town. They had circled around to the southeast and landed far enough outside as to not be so easily noticed.

“And I take it you’ve never served in the intelligence corps.”

Shining blinked. “No, but what does that have to do with anything?”

Intelligentsia stopped and spun around in front of him, jabbing his chest with her hoof. “Because we’re about to enter town and try to be stealthy while wearing our uniforms.”

“Oh! Right, that’s a… That’s a problem there.”

“Take it off, and fold it up. I’ll stash them in the bushes over there, put a spell on them. Then, we’ll split up. Try not to do anything stupid.”

Shining took off his cap. “Which of us is the one leading this again?”

“This isn’t a military op, so there’s no ‘official’ leader,” she flatly said, taking off her own uniform.

“Uh-huh.” Shining smiled, taking his off too. She can’t be that mad if she’s being so matter-of-fact.

“Wait!” Gen raised a hoof, getting Shining to stop mid-strip.

“Um, what?” he asked.

Gen strode up to him and started weaving a spell. “You’re likely to be recognized by the townsponies if you just walk in. You don’t want to have to explain to your sister later on how you snooped on her, do you?”

Shining resumed taking off the uniform. “Ah, right, good point. I suppose that’s a glamour spell?”

“My illusions are too crude for that. Just because it’s an earth pony town doesn’t mean there aren’t unicorns here that can see through it. I’m going to change your coat and mane color instead.”

Shining’s mouth popped open for a moment. “Wait, what? You can—?”

A blast of magic cut him off along with a purple cloud of quickly-dissipating magic fog. Waitaminute… Purple!? As he feared, his coat was now a brilliant, regal shade of purple.

“Oh, Celestia, no! You are not dressing me up in this color!”

Gen waved a dismissive hoof. “It’s fine. No one will know it’s you this way.”

Shining looked himself over again. His mane was now much, much darker. Nearly black. “Are you kidding!? I look like my sister as a guy!”

“Um, you are your sister’s brother, you know that, right?”

Shining towered over her then leaned down to put his face right in front of hers. “And do we want these ponies associating me with her!?”

Gen looked down at him and then back up. “Good point. Hold still.”

He sat back down and sighed. “Make it fast, Gen, before somepony sees us.”

One more spell later and he was dissipating cyan fog this time. Gazing around at his body, he looked as if he should be a pegasus instead of a unicorn, but it would do. “Hmmm, grey and black for the mane? I suppose that works. Give me more warning next time, though.”

The two of them got up and started towards the village.

“Sir, with all due respect, I hope there isn’t a next time we have to do something like this.”

“Same here, Gen. Same here.”

Lost Connections

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The two split up and went their separate ways, Shining to find his sister and Intelligentsia to find out more information on what, exactly, happened in this town.

“Now then,” Gen whispered to herself, trotting down the main road and eyeing the quaint buildings. “I suppose the easiest thing to do is ask the local authorities. And that means I find the town hall.”

She paused for a moment. Most of these buildings are relatively small. They’d have to pick the largest one to hold the celebration in. That’s where I’ll start my hunt for evidence. Her eyes scanned the rooftops, spotting one building near the center of town that easily dwarfed the rest, and started making her way towards it. “Well, this isn’t taking long. Something to be said for small towns, I suppose.”

The main road led Intelligentsia where she needed to be, the town hall. There were still plenty of ponies in the streets celebrating, though they didn’t seem to pay her much attention. Probably helps that I’m not wearing saddlebags or a purse. No money, no reason for a vendor to bug me.

A couple short minutes later, she strode up to the doors of her destination. It was certainly large for such a small town, although it’s design also lent it to other functions as well. There were several burn marks and torn banners on the outside, along with a hole in the roof, but it was the inside that really caught her attention.

“Wow. Something happened here.” Gingerly, she stepped over the police tape and tip-hoofed her way into the middle of the auditorium, trying carefully to avoid stepping on and thus disturbing any evidence, but gave up about eight steps in. “More like, some tornado happened here.”

Everywhere she turned there was confetti, streamers, plastic cups, spilled refreshments, and every other manner of party paraphernalia a pony could ponder. Hoofprints of every conceivable size were present and going in every possible direction.

“Hello, hello, what’s this?” She swept away some of the debris, revealing a bunch of scorch marks underneath. They were large and jagged, spreading out a few meters into the hardwood floor. “Okay, so we know either pegasus or unicorn lightning was used here. That’s a start, at least.”

“Can I help you?”

Intelligentsia lifted her head up to find a brown-coated earth pony mare, likely a civilian, flanked by two Royal Guard stallions. Her legs tensed, ready to run, but she stopped short. Wait, keep calm. There’s no way they know what happened just yet, and Princess Cadenza may have already called off the search. Just do what you came here to do.

The guardsmare cleared her throat. “Yes. My name is Intelligentsia, and I’m with the Royal Intelligence Services. Communication has been lackluster since last night’s incident, and although we’re relieved everypony is okay, we were hoping you could help us shed some light on the series of events.”

The mare shared a glance with her guards for a moment. “I see. And your credentials?”

“Right he—” She looked down at her chest when she realized her magic couldn’t find a pocket. “Oh. Right. I kind of… hid them, with the uniform, and… Put a spell on them so nopony could find them, and…”

Oh, buck.


Shining took a deep breath and turned the corner, keeping a sharp watch out for his sister. There weren’t any purple bookworms to be found, but there were plenty of other ponies. Though many looked dead tired from being up all night, they didn’t look like they were in the mood to stop celebrating any time soon. A small band was playing at a gazebo for a bunch of dancing locals, and a couple at a cherry stand waved at him, pointing out their wares. Some bottlerockets and other small fireworks were going off from time to time, giving the air a true sense of jubilance. It was almost infectious. Almost.

“Okay, focus,” he said while yawning, “Let’s think this through. Celestia said she’s staying at the library. I can assume she’s still there. Which means…”

He rounded a corner, his legs just itching to break into a gallop, but froze in his place midway down the next street. I have absolutely no idea where the library is, and even if I did, almost every house in this town looks the same. He looked around at the ponies near him and spotted a large, red earth pony pulling a cart.

“Um, excuse me, sir? Sir?”

The red pony with a green apple for a cutie mark ignored him, keeping on his path.

Okay, hard way I guess. Shining strode up and got directly in his path. “Sir? Could you help me?”

The straw in his mouth shifted position. “Oh, you were talkin’ ta me? Don’t reckon’ nopony’s called me ‘sir’ before.”

He nodded. “Yes, right, um, well, I’m terribly sorry, but could you tell me where the library is?”

“You ‘nother Canterlot type?”

Shining blinked. “How did you know?”

“Th’ way ya talk. Library’s on th’ north end of th’ market. Be nice ta Miss Sparkle, now. She saved us.”

So I hear. Guess you’re becoming a bit of a celebrity, Twily. “Of course. Thank you, sir.” He bowed slightly and ran off.


“Ow, hey, watch the rocks!” They don’t even have paved roads here.

Gen was being dragged along the ground by the two large stallions, despite her insistence that she was who she said. They wouldn’t even let her go get her uniform! Apparently the Guard was still on high alert for suspicious characters. Worse, they were dragging her along in a rather undignified manner, and they’d slapped a magic inhibitor ring on her horn.

She sighed and slumped down, letting them carry her. If I have to be arrested, at least I can make them carry me.

As she looked around, more and more ponies gathered to gawk at the mare being carried off to the sheriff’s office in shackles. Oh wonderful! An audience! Maybe they think I worked for Nightmare Moon. One pink mare in particular was walking right beside her, staring intently.

“Can I help you?” Intelligentsia asked, her voice overflowing with sarcasm.

The pink mare jumped in the air, gasped in shock, then ran off.

Huh. Well, it worked, but, still. That was odd.


“Okay, library, library, where is…?” Shining Armor stopped and looked to his left at a sign he wasn’t entirely sure he saw in his peripheral vision. Yet, there it was. It read, plain as day, ”Golden Oaks Library.”

“You have got to be kidding me. They have a living tree building!? And one large enough to be a library!? I thought the last pony that made those died fifty years ago! Oh, this I have to see.”

His march to the front door stopped abruptly several paces away. Hold it. I can’t let her see me. So, how do I go about this… Wait a minute, there’s a note on the door. Actually, two notes.

He glanced left, right, behind him, and even leaned a little to try to peek in the darkened windows before striding up to the tree.

I am currently on lunch break, and will be back in one hour!

-Twilight.

“Well, at least she’s eating, so there’s that. How about the next one…”

I also just realized that it’s a holiday, so the library is supposed to be closed. Hence, I will be away for the rest of the day.

-Twilight

He took in a large breath and let out a sigh. “Back to square one. If she’s still out to lunch, then… Hmm. Given he was probably up all night, Spike’s likely too exhausted to cook, and Twilight’s culinary efforts usually involve smoke and firefighter ponies. So, she’s probably at a restaurant. Time to head to the town square.”


The metal bars swung closed and locked with a reverberating clang. Ponyville only had three cells, and she was the only one in any of them. It was probably a peaceful enough town they only needed that many.

“Hey, guards!” she yelled out. “If you’re gonna lock me away, can I at least get a piece of chalk?!”

A little white stick flew through the air at her, and she caught it deftly in her lips. Benefit of not being able to control magic until late in adolescence, I guess.

Ponies in cells were usually allowed writing implements, and chalk was allowed because even if they marked up the walls, a single unicorn could erase it all in seconds.

Ugh, this is going to suck without magic. Still, might as well be productive. She repositioned the chalk in her lips and started drawing, annoying herself at her lack of precision compared to her hornwriting. First, she created a five-pointed star on the wall large enough to cover most of the available surface area. Then, she put “Nightmare Moon” on one corner, “Celestia” on another, the “Inner Council” on the third, the “Nightmare Cult” on the fourth, and finally, on the last point, she wrote in “Gryphonia.”

“Now then,” she mumbled with the chalk still in her mouth. “Let’s see where the connections are.”


Shining strode through the market, stumbling through the crowd. The square was filled with ponies celebrating the return of the sun, buying and downing vast quantities of food and beverages.

“You there! Don’t forget to buy your official Summer Sun Celebration t-shirt!”

“Wha—?” Shining turned his head only to find a white t-shirt being dropped over his face with somepony trying to get it on the rest of the way. He jumped back, struggling as the fabric caught on his horn. “I don’t even have any money with me!”

The shirt flew off.

“Well, how about you there! Yes, you!”

Shining backed away while the vendor descended on another poor pony, forcibly clothing him. Sorry, buddy, but I don’t have time to save you. Shining dashed off into the crowded market, trying to get his bearings again. Hmmm… Can’t get a good view down here. Going to need to get closer to the restaurants and start a search pattern.

One by one he went to the cluster of restaurants, poking his head in their windows. The foods looked fresh and delicious, but his stomach was still far too worried about his sister to consider stopping to eat.

“Nope, nope, and nope. Damn. She’s not here. This is not looking good.”


“This is not looking good.” Intelligentsia took a few steps back to look at her creation. Her special talent was making these connection grids, looking for commonalities and relations. “Connecting the dots,” as it were, just as the constellation on her cutie mark had lines drawn in. Yet, this one was not going as planned.

There were a few lines connecting things together, but the only two leading to Nightmare Moon were one from Celestia and one from the Nightmare Cult. There were dozens of smaller entities on the wall now, so there should’ve been far more connections.

“So, what is it that I’m miss—?”

“Hiya!”

Intelligentsia spat out her chalk, breaking it on the concrete wall in front of her. Who in the world… She whipped her head around to say something but failed when the pink mare from earlier started talking first.

“I’m Pinkie Pie! I haven’t seen you around before, and that means you’re new! So I started talking to ponies to put together an official ‘Welcome to Ponyville Party’ for you! And then nopony knew who you were and didn’t want to come celebrate with me ‘cause you’re in jail, so I was sad. And I said to myself, ‘Pinkie, you need to help this pony!’ And then I said, ‘But how can I? She’s probably all sad-face in jail!’ But after that I was all, ‘And that’s why you have to help her and cheer her up!’ I was so sad, ‘cause I was thinking, ‘But how do I do that if nopony wants to come to my party!?’ So then I told myself, ‘You just party extra hard for her and bring her lots of cupcakes, and when she gets out of jail, introduce her to every pony in town! That way, she’ll have lots of friends and won’t need to do things to be in jail anymore!’ Isn’t that neat!?”

The hyperactive blur had stopped talking and held her forelegs in the air excitedly. Five seconds later, Intelligentsia realized the mare might have said something in there that asked for a response.

“Umm… What?”

Not missing a beat, the other mare inhaled a deep breath and started talking again. “Hiya! I’m Pinkie Pie! I haven’t seen you around before, and that means you’re new! So I started talking to ponies to put together an official ‘Welcome to Ponyville Party’ for you! And then…”

Intelligentsia groaned.


“Excuse me, miss?” Shining waved over to a yellow mare with an interesting, curly, orange mane. “I was wondering if you could tell me if you know where Twilight Sparkle is?”

Kinda risky mentioning her by name, but if I can get a lead quickly, it might be worth it.

The mare stopped and looked him up and down then grew an alluring smile. “Well hello, handsome! I haven’t seen her around, no, but wouldn’t you rather have some fun with me?”

Shining lost a bit of strength in his hind legs. “Umm… What?”

She gave him a light nuzzle on his neck, brushing against his side a little before abandoning the pretense and graduating to rubbing against his side instead. “Twilight’s nice and all, but we earth ponies have, heh, stamina.”

“Ummmm… What?

The mare draped a foreleg around his neck, giving him a curiously strong and immensely inappropriate hug. "So handsome, I bet you get offers all the time."

Shining lowered his head, stumbling over her hooves as he backed up in an attempt to shake the offending pony. He began twisting himself in awkward positions, while she matched his movements every step of the way. What, does she do this for a living or something?

"Stamina," she let out a hot breath into his ear, "and I just so happen to have this little spot where we could test out that claim…"

“Ummmmmmmm…” Shining’s face flushed as he lit his horn. Please let this spell of Twilight’s work

There was a flash and a powerful crack of thunder, and then he found himself half a hoofball field away along with a bit of a headache. Ow. Well, it worked. Is she okay?

Shining turned around and looked into the distance, seeing her slowly get to her hooves. She’s fine. Run! He blitzed down the road out of town before other ponies showed up to check out the noise, not looking back.


Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. Ugh.

It had taken some time, but Intelligentsia had finally determined that banging her head on the wall was not going to get the living sugar rush in front of her to stop talking. Closing her muzzle with magic wouldn’t work either, as not only would the earth pony break out of it but her magic was sealed anyway.

Thus, a more conventional approach was therefore needed.

She jumped off the wall that had so recently been the target of her aggression and landed directly in front of the bars, all four hooves connecting with the ground in a single, loud, clop. Her face hardened into determination and implacability. Then, Intelligentsia pointed a hoof towards the exit.

Leave,” she commanded in her harshest, most authoritative tone.

The other mare’s eyes welled up with tears. It was quite possibly the saddest, most pathetic thing Intelligentsia had ever seen, yet her expression held firm.

Not because she was cruel, but rather, she was stunned beyond words.

She can do something other than smile?

The pink pony, whom Intelligentsia had just now remembered was named “Pinkie Pie,” sniffled and wiped away a tear.

“O… okie-dokie. Lokie,” she muttered, crying. Just like that, she was gone.

All before the guardspony could show remorse or apologize.

Damnit, I’m such a bitch.


Shining had to keep up the pace for some time before finally being certain that the mare couldn’t follow him. He even left the road so his hoofprints wouldn’t give him away. Now, he was in an open field just outside of town. Though not out of breath, as this was nothing compared to his military exercises, he still found himself thirsty and winding down from adrenaline.

He let himself stop on the short grass and took a break to stretch his body out to prevent cramping. Can’t stay here long, but I need a moment to regroup my thoughts. I have to get back in town without anypony hitting on me. Worst case, I’ll just wait for Twily to return and watch her from somewhere.

With the rush of adrenaline finally gone, he was able to take a look at the scenery. The hills were lush and green, the surrounding mountains were gorgeous and still snow-capped, and the breeze was brilliant. Summer might have officially started, but spring was still hanging on. Nowhere was this more evident than right before him in the hundreds of rows of apple trees in late bloom.

“This little town really is quite beautiful. It’s not Canterlot, but still. Gorgeous. Heh. It’s hard to believe a place that looks this peaceful could have a crazy mare like that living in it. I hope they’re not all that nu—”

“Excuse me!”

Shining looked over towards the orchard, finding a couple of mares having a picnic under the trees, one of whom was waving at him.

“Could you come here please?”

Uh-oh. Play it cool. See what they want first, maybe tweak your voice a little. He trotted up to them, doing his best to look nonchalant but feeling more awkward than anything. “Can I help you ladies?”

One of the mares, sporting a white coat and violet mane, fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Would you please be so kind as to stand right over there for me, darling?”

Shining raised an eyebrow. The spot was in front of and between the two mares, and covered in harmless-looking grass. There was no hint of any magical trap or other device or ambush, but he still got a chill down his spine as he stepped over to where she pointed.

“Now then, how about this one?”

“Nope.” The rainbow-maned pegasus replied, leaning back on the tree.

“Why not? Rainbow, these are the very colors you said you liked! And he looks so dashing!”

Thanks, I suppose?

“Rainbow” rolled her eyes. “Well, for one, he’s a unicorn.”

Tribalists? Here? And she’s a pegasus? I didn’t expect that.

The other mare huffed. “And just’s what’s wrong with unicorns?”

“Nothing’s wrong with them, Rarity. I just don’t date them. Look.” She fanned out her wings and pointed at the sky. “I spend almost all my time in the air! I don’t want to date a guy that can’t go where I go.”

I suppose one could argue that’s just being practical, not tribalist…

Rainbow continued, “Besides, a draft pony? Look at me! Look at him! He’d probably break me in two!”

He swallowed a lump in his throat. “Um…”

“Hmph.” Rarity lifted a roll of measuring tape out of her bag and started taking the measurements of her ‘guest.’ “Well, I for one find him quite lovely looking. I’ve always liked the form of a draft stallion. So strong and sturdy. Perfect to lean against on a date. Not too many stallions in this town looking for fashionable attire, though.”

“Ummm…” He scratched the back of his head.

Rainbow snickered. “Well, if he’s your type, why don’t you date him?”

Shining slowly started to back away.

“Surely not! We’ve only just met! And besides, my heart is set on… him!” Rarity looked as if she was ready to melt, clasping her hooves together while her eyes focused on something far, far away.

“Him?” Rainbow and Shining asked simultaneously.

She flopped down on the picnic cloth, resting her head on her hooves. “My Prince! Celestia’s nephew, Prince Blueblood!”

He and Rainbow shared a glance and a barely-stifled snicker.

“You’re trying to go after a Prince!?” Rainbow guffawed. “Come on, there’s no way! He’s probably got his pick of any mare he wants! Why’d anypony want to date somepony like that?”

I’m willing to bet a month’s salary that this rainbow-maned mare has absolutely, positively no real experience with Blueblood and yet she’s still absolutely right.

“Oh, hush.” Rarity dismissed Rainbow’s words with a hoof. “It’s meant to be. One day we’ll finally meet, and he’ll sweep me off my hooves. You’ll see.”

Shining, against every last instinct in his body, remained completely still. Ma’am, if I didn’t need to keep my cover, I would save you. I really, really would. There is no way in all Celestia’s heavens that you could possibly be so awful a pony as to deserve a life with that stallion. I wish, I truly wish to all the heavens that I could warn you. I pray you wake up before it’s too late, you poor, poor thing.

Rainbow was still laughing a little. “Yeah, well, send us a postcard when you get with your dreamboat there, Rares.”

“I shall have you know I intend to take very good care of all of my friends when I enter high society. After all, I—”

Her words were cut short by a few loud tolls of a distant bell in the town’s clocktower ringing back in the square.

Rainbow jumped into the air. “Oh, crap, is it time already? Sorry, Rarity, I promised AJ and Twi that I’d do this thing with them. I gotta jet. Later!” Another second later, and she was gone, rocketing into the sky.

Huh. She moves a bit like a Wonderbolt.

“Well, it appears that I am without company. Would you care to share a conversation?” Rarity fluttered her eyelashes again.

I really don’t have time for this. I need to find Twi— Wait! Did that pegasus say somepony and “Twi’”? Could that be—? Shining shook his head, and started to go into a bow but stopped himself. Don’t bow, she’ll figure out you’re from Canterlot! Just, make up something! “Sorry, I’m late, too. Gotta run!”

He didn’t even wait for a response before taking off down the hill, following the pegasus deeper into the farmland.


Intelligentsia sighed. Her shorter piece of chalk was harder to work with, but even if she had her magic, she knew this wasn’t going to work.

What am I missing? She put her hoof up to the wall and traced the connections one more time. “Princess Celestia and Luna are sisters. The Nightmare Cult has been worshipping Luna for centuries and trying to bring her back. She’s back now, but she lost. And the cult has been quiet for decades!”

She slumped down against the wall and covered her eyes in defeat. “If there is a connection here, I can’t see it. Or I’m missing something.”

“Oooooooooh, I am the genie of the light pink hair!”

I do not want to uncover my eyes. Maybe if I don’t look at her, she’ll give up.

She slowly, carefully uncovered an eye, bracing for the worst, and there was Pinkie, dancing on the other side of the bars in a ridiculous genie costume.

Nope, I should not have done that.

“Hehe! You have found my lamp! I shall grant you three extra-special wishes!”

Intelligentsia raised an eyebrow. “Um, I never found any lamp.”

Pinkie just giggled. “Sure you did! It’s right there!”

She looked down, and there was, in fact, a bronze lamp next to her hoof. She lifted it up, staring at it, mouth agape. “How did you do that?”

“Aww, never mind that, silly! You get three wishes now! What do you want? A cupcake? Oh, two cupcakes!? Or an ice cream cake!? Oh, I know! How about a friend! That’s easy! Pick me!”

Intelligentsia rolled her eyes. This mare just doesn’t quit! “Weren’t you running off crying earlier?”

Pinkie smiled. “I got better.”

“… You got better?”

“Yup! ‘Cause I have friends! And as long as they’re with me, I know I’ll never have to stay all sad-facey! Now, hurry up, and make your next wish!”

Intelligentsia slumped back down even further. I do not want to do this, but I really need time to focus. She flopped over on her side and pushed herself up then went over to meet her by the bars. “I know what my wish is.” Pinkie’s eyes were as wide as dinner plates. Intelligentsia could practically see rainbows in them. “I wish…”

“Yeeeees?” Pinkie squealed.

“I wish for you…”

“Eeeeeee?!”

Intelligentsia resisted the urge to smile. This was going to be mean. “Pinkie, I wish for you to not grant me my wish.”

Pinkie froze in place. “Huh?”

“I wish for you to not grant me my wish. Now, run along and get to work.” She shooed her away, and Pinkie complied, her face wildly switching between all sorts of different and conflicting emotions. It went from incredible joy to sadness to confusion to silly to even what Intelligentsia might call “pensive” then looped back around and did them all again while she slowly walked away.

When the exit door finally closed, she went back to her connection grid. I really hated to do that, but I need to get back to work. Maybe I should try a temporal predictive matrix. It’s going to be a pain in the flank to do without magic and nowhere near as reliable, but it might give me a clue or two


Shining slunk up towards the barn, creeping from bush to apple tree to entirely too skinny fence post, and generally staying behind any object he could find. It’s not going to be hard to spot me. There’s almost no cover here. Despite the wide open space, there didn’t really seem to be witnesses around other than a few random farm animals. The trees weren’t quite ready to make apples yet, and there was a serene quiet over the land that, in truth, did little to calm Shining’s nerves. The military had taught him that “quiet” usually meant “ambush.”

He pressed his side against the barn, limiting the number of angles he was exposed from. Okay, I need to either find a way to locate Twilight directly, or I need to come up with a more concrete search pattern. All without either her or that “Rainbow” spotting me. Hiding from Twilight should be easy; she always did have a bit of tunnel vision. The pegasus, though, she could be trouble. I wish I had a layout of this place; I could make a search pattern. Hmm… I wonder if there’s a ladder in this barn I could use.

He carefully rounded the outside corner of the building, peering left and right to make certain no one was watching him as he entered. The last thing he needed was to be spotted breaking and entering. Okay, breach the door, check corners. This is a civilian structure, though. No lethal magic, knockouts only.

Shining quickly eyed the latch. It was a simple piece built around a padlock loop that didn’t even have a lock at the moment. Peaceful place. No need to keep things locked up. He took a breath, and counted. One, two, three!

The door swung open and he jumped in, not even needing to check to his sides, as there was already a pony right in front of him. It was the large, red, draft stallion from before, sitting at a table with a drink in his hoof.

Crap! Shining dropped into a defensive stance, and readied a base barrier spell in his horn, flaring it to life. There he stood, crouched and ready. Ready for anything that might happen, like a charge or an earth pony buck. When this stallion attacked, he’d never know what hit him. In fact, he…

“Can I help you?” the farmer pony asked.

Shining blinked. Why isn’t he attacking? I’m trespassing! In Canterlot that’d get you a scream and a fight for sure. His eyes darted around the room, looking for some other explanation. A trap, another pony ready to pounce on him, something.

“Are ya’ll alright? Ya seem to be a bit, well, unhinged.”

Shining raised an eyebrow. “So, you aren’t going to attack me?”

The stallion shook his head. “Wasn’t plannin’ on it. Why?”

Shining cancelled the spell in his horn, rubbing his forehead. “Um, well…”

“Just what were ya expectin’ fer me ta do? Bum rush ya?”

The Captain winced. “Well, yeah, sorta… Kinda… More or less I was expecting you to attack me on sight so I could justify knocking you out and wiping your memory so I could climb up this barn and get a good look at your farm so I could see where Twilight went… Eh heh heh wow I sound crazy…”

The farm pony looked him up and down. “Ya’ll’re one of those military types?”

He nodded.

“Know what ya’ll need?”

Shining raised an eyebrow. “What?”

The stallion chuckled and smiled a bit. “An off switch! Most of th’ time, when a pony comes into my barn, I assume they’re lookin’ fer either me or my little sister Applejack, an’ I assume they gots a good reason. Now, since yer expectin’ a fight, I’m guessin’ yer reason is either really good, or really bad.”

The hairs on Shining’s back stood straight up on end.

“Looks like I’m right, ain’t I? So, which is it?”

Shining sighed and sat down. “The former, but I can’t really say why. The whole point of all this was to not get seen. Especially by Twilight.”

“Well, that’s a shame.” He leaned forward and crossed his forelegs over the table. “I could help ya’ll out. I know where they are. But I’m not about to help ya if’n I can’t be sure you’re not gonna hurt her.”

Shining looked the pony square in the eyes. One of the Summer Sun Celebration’s traditions is to stay up not only all night, but for all of the next day as well. He looks like he’s fully taking part, so he’s probably damn tired, but so am I. I can’t guarantee I won’t slip up and hurt him; which would violate my oath. Even if I succeeded in just knocking him out, that pegasus might spot me. Maybe, if I just— No. No, I can’t. I’ve done enough damage for my own selfishness today.

The Captain stood up and took a deep breath. “You mentioned this ‘Applejack’ is your little sister? Well, Twilight Sparkle is my little sister. I heard she’d moved here suddenly and permanently, and I came here to make sure she isn’t being coerced. I wanted to make sure she’s really happy here.”

The farm pony nodded. “And ya’ll wanted to do it quiet-like so you knew the truth, an’ that she’s safe and sound.”

Shining nodded. “One big brother to another, can you blame me? I got my cutie mark for wanting to protect her. I can’t just let this go. I have to know she’s alright.”

“Ya can’t be her protector forever, ya know. She needs ta be able ta have ‘er own life.”

“I am… aware, of that. And I want to let her stay here as long as she wants, but only if I know she’s safe. Please, help me.” Shining pleaded with his eyes. If he was a fellow big brother, there was a chance he would understand.

The pony shrugged. “Alright, I’ll help ya. AJ, Rainbow, and Twilight are down in the main orchard. Head out the door and hang left down th’ path ’til ya see ‘em.”

“Thank you,” he bowed, deep to the ground. “But please, don’t tell them I was here. Especially not Twilight. She’ll just be worried about me, and I don’t want that. If she’s happy here, I want her to stay that way.”

The stallion got up, and sauntered over to him. “On mah honor as an Apple. I’m Big Macintosh, and this here is our farm.” He held out a hoof, and Shining gave it a bump.

“Captain Shining Armor, Royal Guard. I’d love to stay and chat, but I really need to check on her.” He started to back out of the barn, giving one last bow. “And thank you, for helping me.”

Big Macintosh smiled at him. “Eeyup.”


“Hmmm. Well, this is a bust. Maybe the connections just really aren’t there this time.”

“I’m done!”

Intelligentsia spat her chalk out and spun around to find that, yes, Pinkie was back once again. This mare just doesn’t give up! “Didn’t I send you away with an unresolvable paradox?”

“Nope! I resolved it!”

“You… what?”

She started to bounce up and down while explaining. “Yup! I’m all done not granting your wish! Which means you still have two wishes left!”

Intelligentsia reached for the chalk, ready to ignore her completely, but stopped midway. “Let me guess. You aren’t going to give up no matter what I do.”

She giggled. “Nope! We’re gonna be friends!”

“Why me?”

Pinkie stopped bouncing for a moment and tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

Intelligentsia sighed and walked over to the bars. “I mean, why me? I’m some random pony who, upon entering town, was arrested. Why would you want to be friends with somepony like that?”

“Are you guilty?” Pinkie asked, blinking.

“Am I? Well, no, although I see why they think I’m suspicious. But no, I’m not a criminal. Honest.”

Pinkie shrugged. “Then I can’t think of anypony else who needs a friend more.”

Intelligentsia opened her mouth to argue, but stopped. Try as she might, she just couldn’t find a way to argue against that. “Well then, Pinkie, I suppose thanks are in order.”

She jumped up and screamed “Yay!” and then reached behind her back and pulled out something. “Cupcake?”

“How did you—?” The guardspony eyed the confection, and it looked like a normal cupcake. “Never mind, I don’t think I should be asking.”

“Hehe! Now you’re getting it!”

Intelligentsia took the cupcake in her hooves. “Thank you, Pinkie.” She leaned her back against the bars, off to the side of Pinkie, and started eating. “Actually, this is a really good cupcake.”

“Aww, thankies! Say, whatcha drawin’?”

She swallowed. “I call it a ‘connection grid.’ I draw circles representing ponies or organizations and then add other, smaller circles around them representing ponies related to them. Then, I draw lines wherever I know there’s some kind of meaningful connection or interaction.”

“Huh. How’d’ya know what’s related and what’s not?”

Intelligentsia chuckled with a mouthful of cupcake. “Good m’mry.” She swallowed it. “Excuse me. Good memory. I also have some magic that helps me. I’ve always been good at ‘connecting the dots.’ Hence the cutie mark.”

“Neat-o! That sounds like a super-duper-riffic special talent! You must remember everypony’s birthdays!”

Intelligentsia snorted. “Well, I try to make it a bit more useful than that, but yes. It can be frustrating, though.”

“Like how?”

She slumped down against the bars. “Ponies sometimes don’t believe you when you find well-hidden connections. Like crimes, backroom deals, conspiracies. Nopony believes me about the Cloudsdale Seventeen.”

“Aww, that’s so sad! I thought everypony knew about the Cloudsdale Seventeen!”

Intelligentsia froze and slowly turned around, her left eye twitching. “You know about it?”

“Spluh! Why else would they still say they hoof-carve snowflakes?”

Intelligentsia mulled this over for a moment, then grinned and extended a forehoof. “Alright Pinkie, I give. My name’s Intelligentsia.”

Pinkie gave it a bump. “Hi! My name’s Pinkie Pie! Or I guess you already know that, huh. Well, I’m a baker and party pony over at Sugarcube Corner! Oh! And just a while ago, I became an Element of Harmony! Neat huh?!”

The guardspony’s jaw just about hit the floor. “What did you say?”

Pinkie giggled. “And I thought you said you have a good memory! Hi! My name’s Pinkie Pie! Or I guess you already know that, huh. Well, I’m a baker and party pony over at Sugarcube Corner! Oh! And just a while ago, I became an Element of Harmony! Neat huh?!”

Gen leapt forward and grabbed Pinkie by the shoulders. “You were there to fight Nightmare Moon!?”

“Hehe! Yup!”

“… I think I know what I want for my second wish.”


“Ah still can’t believe y’all haven’t been on a hay ride before, Twilight!”

Twilight hopped up into the large wagon stuffed with hay, and then kept bouncing with excitement. “Nope! I’ve heard about them, though!”

“Yeah,” Rainbow laughed, doing a backstroke in midair. “Let me guess. In a book!”

“Yup!” She put her forehooves up on the front edge of the wagon, looking out and up at the pegasus. “The History of Rural Pastimes and Celebrations!”

Applejack turned a wrench, tightening up a bolt on a hitch, then wiped the sweat off her forehead. “Well, it’s one thing to read about stuff. It’s another thing to actually get out and do it! Haven’t y’all been outside Canterlot before comin’ here?”

“Well, yeah. I’ve been on a couple of class field trips to major cities before, but that’s about it. Fillydelphia and Whinnyapolis, mainly.”

Rainbow swooped around in a circle and landed next to the wagon. “You really need to get out more, Twi!”

“Well, that’s what I’m doing now!” She levitated her cutie-mark embroidered notebook out of her bag. “I even brought my notebook to make sure to take detailed— hey!

Rainbow snatched it from her telekinetic grasp and flew up, zooming off to the farmhouse.

“Atta girl!” Applejack yelled. “Y’all can have your book back after we’re done here, Twilight. The point of this is to have fun, not take notes!”

“I can take notes on having fun!” Twilight insisted.

A multi-hued blur zoomed back over them and came to a landing at the front of the wagon.

“Y’all can’t take notes on havin’ fun while havin’ fun, sugarcube! If yer takin’ notes, yer not doin’ it right. Rainbow, it’s all set fer ya!”

“Roger!” Rainbow trotted up to the hitch, bopped it into the air with her muzzle, and let it land on her back. Applejack then put a couple of ropes on the pegasus.

Twilight’s hoof went into the air. “Wait, wait! The book said that earth ponies—”

Applejack cut her off. “Ah could pull it, Twi, but it wouldn’t be near as much fun as a pegasus doin it!” She then hopped into the wagon next to Twilight, knocking them both down into the pile of hay inside.

“Yeah!” Rainbow yelled. “No way it’s as fun on the ground as it is in the air! Hang on tight!’

Twilight’s heartbeat took off almost as fast as Rainbow did. “Waaaaaaaait!” In just a couple of seconds, they were in the air, low over the treetops, and zooming around the whole orchard in wide laps. Wind was rushing through and messing up her mane, little bits of hay were flying right out of the cart. The wagon was creaking and groaning, and it sure sounded like the whole thing was about to fall to pieces, literally.

Yet she didn’t care.

“Wooooooohhhhhooooooooo!”


Some distance from the mares, there was a lone stallion hiding in the bushes, watching the whole thing as they zoomed across the farm. He had tears in his eyes, a spell disguising his coat color, was severely short on sleep…

… and he was getting up to leave.


“That’s quite a story, Pinkie. Thank you for telling me that.”

Pinkie giggled more and jumped up and down. “Of course! It’s always fun meeting new friends!”

Intelligentsia sighed. She knew what she was going to have to do, but once again, she didn’t want to do it. “Pinkie,” she whispered, holding out a hoof to stop her bouncing. “I need to make my third wish. Okay?”

Pinkie nodded. “Okie dokie lokie! Whatcha need?”

“I need you…” She stopped for a moment and considered. Was there a way out? There were all kinds of possibilities in the future. It was cruel to deny somepony a friend this way, yet… No. She’s friends with Twilight. There’s no other way. “Pinkie, I need you to promise me you’ll not tell anypony I was here.”

She instantly deflated, waterworks already going. “What? But why!? Everypony will be super-happy to meet you once the mayor realizes it was all a mistake! We can throw a party and—”

“Pinkie!” She yelled, cringing at the same time from what she was doing to the poor mare. She put another hoof on her shoulder. “Listen, Pinkie, the reason I’m here is that my commanding officer wanted to make certain Twilight was here of her own free will. We weren’t supposed to be noticed by her. If she finds out we were here, it’ll upset her and violate my orders. Please, Pinkie, don’t tell a soul. Especially not Twilight.”

The party pony sniffled then nodded. “Okie dokie lokie. For you.”

“For Twilight,” Intelligentsia emphasized.

“Yeah. Her too. Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.” She sniffed again. “Oh! We were supposed to be having a hay ride today!”

The guardspony shooed her away. “Go. Make sure she’s happy here in Ponyville.”

“Roger-doger!” She saluted and—in a puff of dust—was out the door like a rocket.

The now-alone mare stretched her forelegs out then stood up and stretched her hind legs too. Concrete floors are not fun for sitting down on. Or standing on, for that matter. She looked back up at her chalk grid and then lay down on the marginally more comfortable wooden bench. “Well, mission success, I guess.”


A loud clank from the exit door made Intelligentsia’s ear twitch and jolt her awake. The bright light pouring in from down the hall told her that it was still day outside. Must’ve not been asleep for long. Is Pinkie back?

The slow, strong, sturdy clop of large hooves and a male gait told her otherwise. By the time he finally got into view, she didn’t even need to see him to know who it was. “Hello, Captain.”

He looked down at her without an ounce of levity then floated a key into the lock and opened her door. “Cadence came through. Get up. We’re going home. Now.”

“You found her, I take it. Care to get this off of me?” She tapped the inhibitor ring on her horn.

A second, smaller ring floated over to her horn and slipped on. When it made contact with the larger ring, both of them broke into two pieces and fell off.

She got up off the bed and onto the floor then gave him a salute. “Thank you, Captain.”

Purple light blared from his horn in an extremely wide angle, covering the entire back wall for a few seconds. When it was gone, so too was her drawing. The entire thing had disintegrated into a cloud of chalk dust. “No physical evidence.”

She nodded. “It’s all taken care of on my end.”

The barest of smiles creased his lips. “Then let’s go home.”


“Aaaahhhhh… that’s more like it!”

Shining Armor leaned back in a beach chair in the royal gardens, nestled in a corner next to the castle with a cooler holding ice and a couple bottles of ale. It had taken a few hours to get over the shock, but now he could finally let himself admit it: Twilight was safe and, more importantly, happy. On top of that, the castle’s safety was now General Quartz’ responsibility, so now all he had to do was relax and let the political ramifications play out under the soon-to-set sun.

“Drinking on the job?”

Shining turned to his side to spot Cadence approaching with a rather critical look on her face. Still, he couldn’t help but relax at seeing his old friend.

“Nah, I’m off right now. And, you know me. Two drink max. Besides, since I got ‘relieved of duty’ just after Celestia shut down the whole government and locked herself in her room, this is Gemstone’s mess now. By the way, the sunset really brings out your mane’s colors.”

He couldn’t help but smirk a little with her.

“My my, Shining Armor. Buttering me up for a favor, are we?”

“You could say that!” He chuckled, taking a drink of ale. “You know me, though. When it’s important, sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Shining Armor, alright,” she admitted, pulling out another chair for herself with her magic and lying back on it. “Give me one of those, will you?”

He smiled more and lifted the other bottle over to her with his magic, opening the top.

Delicately, she took a few sips from it. “You know, I never did much care for ale,” she said.

“It is an acquired taste. Hard to be a soldier and not have it grow on you.”

“As much as it pains me to fit the stereotype, I much prefer champagne.”

“And that sounds like Mi Amore Cadenza! But, seriously, thanks Cadence. I really had to check on Twilight. I would’ve gone crazy worrying about her.”

“Let me get this straight. You risked life and limb, treason charges, the wrath of a general, and potentially not one but two alicorns, one of whom you know nothing about, just to check on Twilight?”

Shining blinked. “Yes.”

“And you did all this without any fear at all, because you knew that I would be there for you?”

“That’s right!”

“Hmm…” She was staring right at him.

“What?” Shining asked, lowering his head a bit.

“Oh, nothing, just wondering what kind of penance I should exact from you.”

He gulped. “That doesn’t sound entirely pleasant.”

“Neither is explaining to the Council that a renegade captain was actually following your orders.”

“Touché. So I guess I should be expecting my first captain’s paycheck to be forfeited?”

Cadence had an almost evil smile. “First few. As I recall, there’s a little, well, actually very large restaurant on La Rue D’Argent.”

He gulped again. “That place that takes a year to get into and costs more than a private’s yearly salary?”

“The Gilded Hoof. I wouldn’t worry about the wait time. Tomorrow, you are going to take me there and let me order whatever I want.”

“Aren’t you a princess? Doesn’t the royal treasury pay for all your meals?”

Cadence looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Sorry,” he said.

“And all the while you’re going to compliment me on how wonderful I look and whisper sweet nothings to me whenever you have a chance.”

“Um, okay.”

“Dress nice, and bring roses. Lots of roses. And chocolates.”

“Dress uniform, roses, chocolates. Got it.”

Cadence rubbed her head with her hoof while her left wing twitched.

“What?” the captain asked.

“Dress nice, Shining. I don’t mean a uniform, I mean formal attire.”

His eyes darted around in confusion. “That is my formal attire.”

“I mean a tuxedo or a suit.”

He looked away nervously and started gulping down the ale from his bottle while Cadence looked at him.

“Shining Armor, I’ve known you entirely too long to not know you’re hiding something.”

“I don’t actually own any civilian clothes.”

Cadence’s mouth hung open. “No tux?”

“No.”

“Not even a suit?”

“Cadence, I’m a soldier stationed in the castle. I own two dress uniforms, three casual uniforms, a set of armor, and a picture of my family. I really don’t have anything else. I’m lucky I managed to get my own private room in the armory.”

She looked genuinely taken aback and even set down her ale. “You’re serious. That’s all you own?”

Shining thought real hard about his tiny room they so generously bestowed on him, trying to think of anything else. “Actually, I take that back. My sister bought me a very nice fountain pen as a gift when I got my promotion. But, yeah, everything else is government-issued.”

“Huh.”

This was new. Cadence at a loss for words. He’d have to tread real carefully in this undiscovered territory.

“Um, but I suppose I could rent a tux!”

“Without a reservation? Doubtful. I suppose a formal uniform will do. This time.”

“This time?” Wow, was it unbecoming of a Captain of the Royal Guard to squeak nervously.

“This time.”

A slight shudder went through his muscles as he thanked Celestia he had the wisdom to avoid wasting away all his paychecks. “Well, I guess that’s a fair trade for making sure my sister is safe. You should have seen her, Cadence. I don’t think she’s ever looked so happy.”

Cadence was looking at him. Exactly what look she was giving him, he wasn’t certain, but she was looking directly into his eyes.

“What?” he asked, frowning.

“You’re jealous!”

“What!?”

“You’re jealous because she replaced you!”

“She didn’t replace me; she found…”

“She found some friends! You should be happy!”

“I am!” he insisted. “It’s great that she’s found some ponies that accept her! It means I don’t have to be the one to… to…”

“And there it is,” she said, taking a drink. “She doesn’t need you to lean on anymore. The tears make it plain to see, Shining.”

He turned away and wiped his eyes. “Sorry, I don’t normally do this.” When he turned back, she had gotten up off the chair and was mere millimeters from his face. I forgot how quiet she could move. Freaking pegasus genes.

She raised a hoof and rubbed him a little on his cheek. “You really are something else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a big brother care so much for his little sister.”

“I had to,” he exhaled. “It’s not as if you were available as a foal-sitter full time.”

“I can remember a few weeks where I practically was, especially as she was getting older.” She sat back down and took a tiny sip. “If she hadn’t been such a sweet filly to sit for, I wouldn’t have done it.”

“Yeah, she’s really special.” He took a very long drink. “But if you’ll recall, you were mostly there when I couldn’t be. Mom always wanted to be a noble socialite, and getting you to babysit her daughter while she went to a party was a coup. And dad was always busy with work at his practice, being somnologist to the Canterlot elite. When Twily became Celestia’s student, that just made it all worse. I was already a teenager, so I didn’t need the supervision, but Twily… I hate to badmouth my mother, but I stepped in when my parents stepped out. Literally.”

“I remember. Poor thing. I’m glad she’s able to make connections again.”

“Amen to that.” He raised his bottle with magic, and the two clinked a toast. “If there’s anypony in the world that deserves some friends, it’s her.”

“That’s the truth.”

“And we learned about the Elements of Harmony.” He stretched out and yawned. “It’s good we found out about them before her majesty finishes her ‘sabbatical.’ Means we can actually explain things to ponies when they ask.”

“Elements of Harmony?”

“Long, crazy story, I’ll tell you about it later.”

She giggled a little. “You know, this all reminds me of the time you protected Twily from those bullies. You frightened them so bad even Twilight was scared to talk to you for a few days.”

“Yeah, well, they deserved it.” He blushed. “I was always protecting her from… from…”

His pupils shrank to pinpricks.

“Uh, Shiny? Are you okay?”

All his combined efforts to answer her just resulted in a twitch of his eye.

“Shiny?”

Crap!” He leapt up from the chair and got his hind leg stuck in its straps, causing him to tumble over and land on his jaw before finally shaking it off and getting to his hooves.

“Shiny, what’s wrong!?”

While it was normally a bad idea to ignore a princess, his mind had other priorities at the moment. “Intelligentsia!” Every ounce of his strength was being pumped into his legs to move him through the castle’s halls. He’d have teleported if not for the wards. Rounding another corner, he galloped down the stairs to the war room and opened its door.

“Intelligentsimmmm—!”

An angry limb clamped his mouth shut. It was Intelligentsia. Her left foreleg was completely wrapped around his muzzle and a small mountain of papers were fluttering down to the ground.

“I’m right here, dammit. What the hell is it this time?”

Shining pushed her off his muzzle, falling to his haunches.

“Who is this, Shiny?”

He turned back and saw Cadence right behind him, landing. “This is my aide-de-camp, Intelligentsia.”

“Your Majesty.” She bowed. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Cadence draped a foreleg over him and gave him a little squeeze. “Just following this idiot.”

“Yeah, well, we got a problem, Gen. Huge problem! We just let my little sister, Celestia’s student, stay in Ponyville without a Guard escort.”

Intelligentsia smiled. “Already ahead of you. I talked to Quartz, and he’s pretty shaken. It didn’t take much for him to agree to send some more guards out for her.”

“No! Gen! We can’t just send armored—”

“Unarmored, undercover guard,” she interrupted. “I’m not stupid. I know you want her to be able to live there without tripping over protectors all the time.”

Shining relaxed, exhaling most of his worries along with his breath. “Thank Celestia. I’m sorry for doubting you, Gen.”

Intelligentsia shrugged. “It’s what I’m here for.”

Cadence tapped the two on the shoulder with a pile of papers then all but shoved them under their noses. “Covert, public eavesdropping? Gait analysis? Threat prediction algorithms? Shining, what is this?”

“I…” Shining paused, flipping through the notes himself. “I have no idea.”

“They’re mine.” Intelligentsia started looking about the floor, collecting the scattered pages. “It’s a… kind of proposal, really. You know my connection grids?”

Shining nodded. “What about them?”

The guardsmare swallowed. “I wasn’t sure what to make of my grids in Ponyville, so I tried again here with my magic. And this time, I… added in your sister, and I have to apologize.”

Shining gave her an icy glare. “I don’t like where this is going…” A lone paper floated over to him, and he caught it, finding a large connection grid written down in magic ink. In the very center was Twilight, connected almost everywhere.

She continued, “Your sister is within one degree of separation of, well, almost everything. Strong links, too, not trivial ones. To correct my earlier analogy, she’s the biggest, most important piece on the chessboard other than Celestia herself. These proposals I have? They’re for her.”

“Spying proposals?” Cadence asked, jaw open. “What would spying on Twilight do? She’s not an enemy agent!”

“Not to spy on her.” Intelligentsia shook her head. “To spy on anything looking to hurt her. To find the threats before they act. Before she ever has to find out about them.”

“Gen.” Shining glared at her. “There’s no way you came up with all of this in a couple of hours. Come clean.”

She ducked down, her cheeks red as roses. “I may have thought these up while going after the Cloudsdale Seventeen conspiracy before joining the Guard. I’ve been looking for a way to legitimize the science behind them.”

Shining’s expression grew colder.

Intelligentsia hugged her papers as if she was protecting her foal. “But they’ll work, I swear it! It’ll take some time to get everything in place, but they’ll work! I just need the resources!”

Shining sighed, giving back the paper with the connection grid. “Get a full proposal together. I’ll set up a meeting with Celestia as soon as she’s done with her vacation.”

Cadence leaned in closer to him. “Are you sure about this, Shining?”

“No, I’m not,” he replied. “But I’m too tired to make a rational decision on this now, and there’s little harm in talking about it. And besides,” he gave Intelligentsia a small smile, “I’d prefer paranoid security to lax when it comes to my sister. You’ll get your half-hour, Third Lieutenant.”

Intelligenstia bowed all the way to the ground. “Thank you! I promise I won’t let you…” her head lifted back up in surprise. “Third Lieutenant?”

“Your proposal, your responsibility, your operation.” Shining laughed. “Also, nopony with the rank of ‘Officer First Class’ is going to get to propose a military plan to the Princess.”

“I can’t say I’m completely comfortable with the proposals yet,” Cadence interjected. “But I’ll leave it to Celestia’s wisdom to decide what to do, and make sure the promotion goes through.”

“You will?” Intelligentsia asked.

“If nothing else I’d say you deserve it for putting up with him this long!”

Ouch. “Cadence!”

“Speaking of,” she said, leaning into him and bringing her lips to his ears. “Remember the dinner you owe me.” She planted a heavy kiss on his cheek. “See you tomorrow.”

Shining’s mind ran through a few possibilities as she walked out of the room but dismissed them all as utterly and completely ridiculous. There was only one option left: ask the intelligence expert in the room possibly the most pertinent question he’d ever asked. “Why did she kiss me?”

Intelligentsia groaned, burying her face in both of her hooves. “Stallions…”

A Bright Light in a Dark Place, Part 1/3

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“And there we have it,” Luna said, new cocktail in tow.

Twilight had been crying for half an hour now. She had no idea the lengths to which Shining had already gone to protect her. He even had a few tears in his eyes, though she suspected they were just from seeing her cry. She sat up and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “You are crazy!”

“Runs in the family, little miss Smartypants.” He chuckled and gave her a light noogie.

“Thank you, Shining.” She flopped down onto him and threw her hooves around his neck. “Thank you so, so much.”

“Please don’t, Twily,” he whispered back. “I still failed you. I still failed Canterlot.”

She clung to him, squeezing him as tight as she could. “I don’t buy that. I’m alive, and Celestia is still princess. Both of those things are only true because of you.”

“She is correct, nephew.” Luna sipped her maretini. “Wallowing in regret isn’t becoming of you.”

“Luna, be nice.” Twilight rubbed her brother’s shoulder. “Don’t you realize how hard this has to be on him?”

Luna lifted a hoof up to her chest, eyes wide, then dropped down into an apologetic bow. “Forgive me, Prince. It is sometimes easy to forget that just because I have suffered greatly in my life, it does not mean other pony’s hardships do not wound the mind and soul.”

He shook his head. “I’m not in a position to be forgiving you of anything, Highness.”

“No! Shiny!” Twilight grabbed his head with her hooves and made him look at her. “You’re never like this! As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always fought for what you thought was right, no matter the consequences! Don’t give up now! Cadence will help you! We can win this!”

He slunk farther down to the ground, letting his weight pull him out of his sister’s grip. “Twily… You don’t get it. They’ve been after me for ages. I just don’t have any rabbits left to pull out of my hat.”

“Then join me!” she yelled in his face. “I’ll accept you into my honor guard. Spike’s not even in the military, and he’s in it! They can’t turn stop you from joining me!”

“Absolutely out of the question!” Luna slammed her empty maretini glass on the bartop. “I forbid it, and Tia will as well!”

The blood drained from Twilight’s face. “What? But why!? That doesn’t make any sense!”

“It makes perfect sense,” Shining replied.

Twilight’s ears went flat against her head. “Shiny?”

Her brother sighed. “Think about it, Twily. Even if they take away my crown, I’m still married to Cadence. No matter what the Council would like, in the public eye, I’m royalty.

“Now, suppose something bad happened. One of us dying would be a tragedy. What would happen if somepony managed to succeed in killing the both of us?”

Luna replied first. “Only Cadence and Blueblood would be left to stand in the way of these conspirators. And do not be fooled by his recent bravado. Blueblood is a spineless worm. On top of that, there would be ever more powerful shouts about my sister’s ‘ineffective leadership’ and ‘inability to keep ponies safe.’ It would be a catastrophic, politically fatal loss; one that would even be far worse than the airship accident that took the lives of Cadence and Blueblood’s parents.”

“And if we’re physically together in an unsecured area,” Shining continued, “then we’re a target that may be too tempting to pass up. While we’re in Canterlot, it’s no issue, but until you finish your ascension, Twily, we need to avoid being in the same place at the same time. It’s just too big a risk.”

Twilight whimpered a little, resting her chin on his foreleg. “I’m so sorry. I failed…”

“Not your fault, Twily, although I appreciate the sentiment.”

Luna turned away from them, staring out the window. “There is one other reason, but it is not something I expect you to accept. We told you that ascension is always an eventful time. We are not exaggerating. Each alicorn we talked to had a similarly dramatic tale during the conquering of their summits. It is very important that you face these challenges yourself. Should you allow Shining to take them on for you, you may find yourself underprepared for whatever ascension decides to test you with. Even if you don’t accept the idea of having a destiny, you will be tested, and you will need every ounce of power and experience you can get.”

Luna craned her neck back towards them. “Twilight Sparkle, the Rites of Ascension are yours and yours alone to endure. Anypony else that tries will be ground to dust by the gears of fate.”

“I don’t like the idea of fate, honestly,” Twilight mumbled. “I like being able to decide my own destiny.”

“Then brace yourself, young one,” Luna warned. “For we are in dangerous times, and very soon, many eyes will be watching to see what you do.”

“Right now, what I want to do is figure out a way to stop this insanity!” Twilight grabbed her head, trying to massage away her headache. “My brother is the best soldier in the entire army! What in Tartarus are we doing throwing that away?”

“I wish I could say something to comfort you.” Luna lay down next to them. “This is my sister’s arena. Sometimes I feel I am just another piece on the board to her, and the chess player rarely talks to her pieces. If I had insight to share, I would do so gladly.”

“Honestly, it’s not even getting fired or stripped of my crown that bothers me the most.” Shining shifted his body a little and gave Twilight a small hug. “It’s also not what they did and said to fire me. It’s how badly this is going to shackle my hooves. Even if I stay a prince, every option I’ll have to continue my investigation on who’s behind this will have to go through the Council, and I’m pretty sure they’ll try to stop me or slow me down just on the basis of who I am. And if I lose my crown, all I get to do is sit on my hooves and wait for something to happen. I was so close to figuring something out… And then all this kicked into high gear, and I fell behind.”

Twilight hugged him as hard as she could. “You’ve been watching over me for a long time now, Shiny. It’s time I returned the favor and showed them just who they’re messing with when they hurt my big brother.”

“Spoken well, ascendant.” Luna smiled. “We’ll make you a princess yet.”

“I appreciate it, Twily.” He smiled a little in turn, giving her another hug. “But I’m the one with the cutie mark for wanting to protect. In all honesty, I’d give up my crown right now if it meant I could continue my investigation. I’d even spit-shine it for the Council if it meant having the ability to protect you, to protect everypony again.”

Luna’s head jerked up, her eyes wide. “Dost thou mean that? You would honestly give up almost everything you have just to keep looking into these ‘Robber Barons?’”

“In a heartbeat.” He exhaled. “And yes, I truly mean that.”

“Shining didn’t even go to a normal high school.” Twilight leaned herself into him a little. “He went to Canterlot Military Academy, got early college credits, a physics degree at age twenty, was fast-tracked into the officer ranks… All so he could join the Guard as soon as possible.”

“So I’ve heard. The question is, Shining Armor, just how badly do you want to keep going?”

The siblings looked at each other before looking back at the Princess.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “You sound like you’ve thought of something, but you don’t want to share it that easily.”

Luna looked away. “I’ve… thought of the option once or twice before. Until Shining said those words, I dismissed it. But if he’s truly that willing to do what’s necessary, then yes, there is a way. It will allow him to keep his crown and, in a manner, allow him to continue his investigation. There is, however, a price to be paid.”

Shining stood up, meeting the princess face to face. “Your Highness, the last I checked, your Night Guard was full.”

The Night Guard! Twilight’s eyes widened. It’s so simple… If he could join them, all disciplinary actions are reserved for Luna herself! But wait, he said it’s full…

“Fifty soldiers, including your newest one,” Shining continued. “That’s the maximum allowed under your compact with the Council, and for that matter, they aren’t supposed to do anything other than protect you, not conduct investigations.”

And there’s that, too…

Luna smirked, looking at him from the corner of her eye. “Come now, Shining Armor. You led the Royal Guard Intelligence Service for sixteen years. Did you not suspect at all that I do not consider myself bound by the Council’s wishes?”

“Hmph,” he grunted. “I did suspect. And some of our intel was a little too easy to get. But Princess Celestia said to trust you, so I directed my operatives to stay away. It’s a little disconcerting to hear, though. If I had caught you, even on accident, that would be it. You’d lose whatever authority you had left, and Celestia’s reputation would be ruined by extension.”

Her smirk grew to a grin, and her head lowered a bit closer to his level. “Please, Captain. I train my guards better than that. That’s no longer the question, however. Now, we must ask: can you be that subtle?”

“No, that’s not the question,” Shining countered. “The question is: do I even want to join your Guard? And more importantly, who would you fire? Your Guard is full.”

“Not quite.” Luna stretched out a wing. “I have forty-nine in my Guard.”

“Your payroll showed fifty,” Shining argued. “I saw it myself!”

“Heh heh. Oh, I know.” Her horn lit up, and one of the doors to the outside hall opened. “Pulsar, would you please come here?”

“Pulsar?” Twilight asked, tilting her head. “Who’s Pulsar?”

A moment later a dark grey-coated unicorn stallion marched through the door, dropping deep into a bow. “You called, Your Highness?”

Twilight eyed him up and down. He’s… surprisingly short. Like, as short as me short. Wait, did he just say “Your Highness?”

“Indeed I did.” Luna bowed slightly in return. “You may rise, my sénéchal.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped open. Princess Luna has a sénéchal!? I thought she just winged everything!

Shining raised an eyebrow. “He called you ‘Highness’…”

Luna’s smirk returned. “Indeed. Though he is on my payroll within the Night Guard, he is legally a civilian. He’s never had to take the Night Guard oath.”

“Make no mistake,” Pulsar said, standing up and looking fairly strong for such a short stallion. “I am loyal to Her Highness as much as the Guard is. But no, I am not her protector. If anything, she is mine.”

“But if there’s no oath…” Shining started.

“Then he’s not legally part of the Guard,” Twilight finished. Although you could have fooled me. He’s wearing light armor with a Night Guard glamor spell, and those eyes look every bit as fierce as a guardspony.

“Precisely. He only appears as though he is in my Guard to keep him safe. There is one spot left, Prince. I offer you the ability to continue your investigation in absolute secret, even as Twilight will undoubtedly be conducting hers. She, the public face of Celestia and justice, and you, the unseen hoof working behind the scenes.”

Shining took in a deep breath. “I am uncertain, Your Highness.”

“You have every reason to be,” Pulsar said, a stray hair from his copper-colored mane dropping in front of his face. “This is not a decision to take lightly.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “True, but Prince, did you not say you would pay most any price to continue your work?”

“It’s not that,” Shining replied. “One thing hasn’t changed. If we get caught, it’s still over. Everything.”

“If we do nothing, it’s all over anyway,” Twilight grumbled. “We’re in a downward spiral as it is. I say go for it, Shining. We aren’t going to win this without knowing who we’re fighting. I saw what Luna’s Guard is capable of during my training. I still don’t understand how they hide like they do. If there are any ponies that can pull this off, it’s them.”

Luna spread her wing out and pointed its feathers at Twilight. “Thy sister speaks truth, Prince. Art thou willing to join me?”

Twilight followed her brother’s eyes as they scanned the room, giving her a rare glimpse of the sheer speed of his thoughts. Years back, when she still lived in Canterlot, he was one of the few ponies that could follow her technical speech flawlessly. Everypony said that she was the prodigy, but that always felt like selling Shining short.

“I’ve come this far,” he finally said. “It’d be a shame to start over again in the ranks, but I cannot let fear or pride get in the way for a chance to save Equestria. I’ll do it. I’ll join your Guard—if you’ll have me. I know I’m not like your normal candidates.”

Luna nodded. “I understand, and I accept you, but you’ve made one critical flaw in your reasoning.”

Shining blinked. “What flaw?”

“In a bit.” Luna turned to her sénéchal with a smirk. “Would you please have the pegasi guards standing outside go and get something from my storage area? It’s a large chest labeled ‘H.P.A. 0047.’”

Pulsar took a step back in shock. “‘H.P.A. 0’— That’s…” He froze and turned to look at Shining, his piercing eyes looking like they were pondering something. Slowly, he turned back towards his employer but kept glancing at Shining. “Very well, Your Majesty. I will comply.”

“It’s not as if you had a choice in the matter,” Luna chuckled. “Still, tell them to be quick. No, that is not strong enough. The tide of souls be at your hooves! As soon as that box is touched, I have no doubt somepony will think to inform my sister.”

Pulsar sprinted out the door without another word, slamming it behind him.

“Well, I’m stumped. What’s ‘H.P.A. 0047?’” Twilight asked, scratching her head.

“Got me.” Shining shrugged. “There’s a mountain of stuff in that storage compartment. I’m pretty sure if you removed something, the rest would fall out like an avalanche.”

Luna waved a dismissive hoof. “They can clean it up later. Right now, I need that chest, and if we are to do this, we must do so quickly. I have no idea exactly how my sister will react, but I shan’t think it will be well. I know this possibility must have occurred to her, but she never mentioned it to me, which tells me she did not wish it to happen.”

Twilight recoiled as if she’d been kicked. “Then should we do this? What if she has other plans?”

“Then she should have shared them with me!” Luna growled.

Twilight lowered her head down and flattened her ears. “Sorry…”

“I do not mean to take out my frustrations on you, ascendant, but I have too long not been a true princess, locked away in this gilded cage! My sister promised me upon my return such would never happen! I shall not tolerate it any further! If I must be outcast or lose my nation, if I must fail, then I shall do it as an alicorn with my head held high and my spirit fighting, not cowering in front of ponies who are but foals to me!”

Shining laughed a bit. “I suppose that’s something I can get behind. I am sick and tired of playing nice for appearance’s sake. After that grilling, I want to return the favor.”

Twilight put a hoof on his shoulder. “You did, at least to Bismare, but I get what you mean, and I understand it. I kind of want to buck Bismare right in the stomach for saying those things about earth ponies.”

“That’s the alicorn instinct,” Luna replied. “We are alicorns of all of our ponies, not just unicorns. Although I’m afraid she’s built enough experience in the Council to prevent even such an outburst from damaging her overall standing. She’s still going to be the third highest-ranked pony in the Council.”

Twilight furrowed her brow. “How in the world did somepony like that climb so high?”

“Don’t underestimate her,” Shining said, half-whispering in Twilight’s ear. “The rest of the Germane noble houses wet themselves in fear when she so much as glances at them. She’s smart, rich beyond reason, and vicious.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not one of the Germane nobles.” Twilight grumbled, folding her forelegs.

Luna dropped her head down next to Twilight’s. “Just so you know, ascendant, once the secret of your ascendancy is out, you can respond to statements like that with the words ‘and mortal,’ especially if the pony is bragging about themselves. Some of these high-and-mighty ponies get wonderfully terrified faces when you remind them that in a couple hundred years, you will be here, and they will not.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Not what I want to think about right now. “You mentioned a flaw in Shining’s reasoning?”

Luna looked over at the door, and the hairs on Twilight’s back stood up on end for a moment. “A few more seconds…”

The doors blasted open and two Night Guard pegasi carrying a large, heavy-looking black chest like something out of a horror tale. It had a large, light blue gem on the side that appeared to be a very elaborate magical lock and silver trimmings along the edges.

“Finally!” Luna tapped a place on the ground. “Put it down over here, and go back to the doors. Do your best to stall anypony that tries to get in, even my sister!”

The two dropped it at her hooves and soared back outside, slamming the doors shut.

“‘Stall’ them?” Twilight asked.

Luna sat down in front of the chest and lit her horn, sending arcs of magic into the gem. “If my sister finds out I pulled this out of storage, she’ll send a dozen Day Guard to clear out my mere two guards if she must. They’ll be no match for so many, but if they talk and stall, they may be more productive.” She looked over to her. “Maybe.”

“Okay, that’s it.” Shining barked. “You’ve dragged this out enough now, Highness. What did you mean when you said there’s a flaw in my logic?”

Luna smiled, gazing at her work. “Shining, there was a time when my Guard was known by a phrase that would be best translated as ‘The Moonlight Brigade.’ They patrolled my night, yes, but they were not the terrifying face of a would-be usurper princess. They were feared by my enemies not because the whispers said they made ponies vanish, but rather because they found evil and brought it into the bright light of the Full Moon. Those with wickedness in their hearts would have to worry each night as they crawled into the bed if this would be the evening they awoke to find all their terrible secrets laid bare to the world.”

Her hoof slammed into the side of the chest. “Yet now I am forced to sit here on my rump like one of these so-called nobles? No! No more! I started a rebellion over less! Yet I will not now nor ever again wage war on my sister for what are not her own faults. No, this time will be different. I shall not wage war on my sister but on her enemies. I will no longer stand by idle while Celestia fights her battles alone! As she protects me in the Court, so shall I protect her in the field of battle even if she rejects my help!”

The gem flashed white, and Twilight had to shield her eyes. When the light subsided, the top of the chest had vanished completely. Inside was a jet-black set of armor covered in a thin layer of dust.

Luna reached in and picked up the helmet with her hooves and presented it to Shining. “It’s time once again for these mortal demons to gaze into the shadows and forevermore and under every phase of my beacon wonder, ‘what lurks there!’”

“What is this?” He asked, taking the helmet in his own hooves.

Luna leaned in. “The start of a new era, and the return of an old one.”

Twilight blew the dust off the helmet, clearing the air with a hoof and gazing into the armor’s glossy surface. “This is not an acolyte’s armor.”

Shining moved the helmet around as to put it on but stopped. “Not an acolyte… then what?”

Luna blew away the rest of the dust, revealing a subtle purple sheen on its surface. “I am not so foolish as to take a general and ask him to be a private again. This, Prince, is the armor of a High Cardinal of the Night Guard. I do not ask you to merely join my Guard. I ask you to lead them.”

Twilight smiled.

“Lead them? Highness…” Shining put down the helmet. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am not a pony that’s… Well, what I mean to say is that I rather doubt I’m going to fit in… with…”

“What you are trying to say is that my Night Guard is some collection of blackguard rabble and filth that will no doubt have zero respect for you?” Luna knelt down to him, narrowing her eyes as the light in the room began to fade away. “Leave that to me.”

The sounds of hoofsteps started to build outside the door, growing in number and intensity.

Luna’s horn flared to life, projecting a shield spell over the doors. “The time for a decision has come, Prince. If you do not join me now, it is highly probable you will not be able to. If that is what I think it is, my sister will try to bar you from this if we do not act.”

“Shining,” Twilight put her hoof on his side. “I know you. You helped raise me. If you don’t take this opportunity, you’ll regret it. You shouldn’t be on the sidelines when Equestria is at stake. It isn’t right. And more importantly, I need your help.”

That was it. Twilight watched as her brother’s eyes changed along with his thoughts. Gone was the trepidation, the nervousness and uncertainty. In its place was his unique determination and caring concern for his family.

He reached out and lifted the helmet with his hooves. “Sovereign…” He turned it around, closing his eyes, and slowly lowered it onto his head. A dark purple aura grew from underneath it, pulsing faster and faster as the helmet made contact. A whirlwind of magic rushed out of it, growling and roaring as it enveloped the stallion in a dark hue.

His coat shifted color, from a white on par with Celestia to a deep gray. The color drained from his mane and tail, and the blackened, fuse-like strands left over lit and burned with a smoldering purple glow at the end of the hairs. His hooves started smoking, embers taking and burning away the blue in them until they were pitch black. Spikes of energy jutted out from the helmet in a line down the middle, a barrier-like field linking each one to form a Night Guard crest.

The whirlwind intensified, and Twilight had to shield her eyes with a hoof before her magic sight took over. One by one, she could see the other pieces of armor vanish and reappear on her brother, covering him from horn to hoof.

When the final piece secured itself, the magic ceased. A ethereal cloak on Shining’s back slowly formed into being, obscuring most of his body but fading to a smoky transparency near the floor.

“Sovereign…”

Twilight jumped back a little. The voice came from Shining, but, that was not his voice.

“Sovereign…” His eyes opened, irises burning like melted gold, their feline pupils focused with predatory rage. “I will guard your night!”

Luna’s wings flared open to their fullest, and her body began to glow.

“Luna! Luna open this door right now!” Cracking, intense pounding came from the doors, damaging even the shield put up to reinforce them.

“Um, guys…” Twilight said, lifting a hoof.

Luna’s body shined ever brighter, accompanied by a gust of wind as she returned to her true, unsealed form. She towered over the stallion, who knelt down to the ground.

“Luna, dammit, I know you’re in there!” More hits came, making the shield’s cracks look like a spiderweb, doubling in number again and again.

The Princess of the Night placed her hoof on his back. “I welcome you into my Night Guard. In accordance with our laws, I strip you of your very name. No longer art thou Shining Armor. Rise, Obsidian Armor, High Cardinal of the Night Guard and Hero of the Moon.”

A small smile creased Obsidian Armor’s lips as the shield shattered and the doors flew open.

“Luna, Sister, don’t you dare—!” Celestia stopped, frozen still, eyes darting around the scene in front of her.

Luna turned to her sibling, a Cheshire’s grin growing on her face. Her eyes glimmered with mischievous glory, and her gait striding up to Celestia was smoother than polished ice.

The two sisters locked stares at each other. Each had been alive for longer than any mortal pony’s memory. Each had seen and conquered countless horrors, risen to challenges the likes of which even Twilight could only imagine. Their very presences felt larger than life not only to her, but to ponies around the world. Hundreds of lifetimes of feelings, rivalry, and sisterhood were being laid bare in this single moment of pure, unrivaled honesty as Luna spoke first.

“Too late!” And then the “Nightmare” blew a giant raspberry at the Diarch of the Sun.


Obsidian Armor, the newly minted leader of the Night Guard, was completely flummoxed. His new role was taken on in a remarkably abrupt manner, yet that was fine. Battlefield training and experience demanded he be adaptable. However, there were certain things in life that, no matter what reasonable amount of training and planning one had, simply could not be addressed in a way that felt anywhere near confident and correct.

Seeing his new ‘Sovereign,’ Princess Luna, clad in her rarely-seen true form, shake her rump in her sister’s face was one of these things.

“Luna…” Celestia said through a facehoof.

“What’s wrong, Tia?” Her voice was cheerful and fluttered like a song, but its innate qualities made her sound utterly sinister, even if the visual accompanied by the voice was thoroughly and resolutely ridiculous. “Angry I stole him away from you?”

“Sister, I cannot believe you. Do you not trust me?”

Luna froze mid-shake and tilted her head while looking backwards. “Trust you?” She turned around to face her older sister, nearly at eye level given her larger form. “I ponder, Sister, whatever made you think trust was an issue between us?”

Celestia’s mane flared up and blew like it was in a hurricane, and her halo-like aura from the Empyreal Hall returned. “The fate of Equestria is at stake, and you pick now to have this argument?! Lunacea Umbra Astralis, what in the Heavens were you thinking!?”

Luna’s mane matched her sister’s, bathing the room in stars and mist. “I was thinking that maybe, just maybe, for once my sister of ten thousand years would have shared her plans with me! Since she didn’t, I had to act on my own, again!”

Celestia stomped her hoof, cracking the marble tile. “You want to know about my plans! Fine! Here’s an update, Sister: You may have just cost us everything!”

“Me?!” Luna reared up on her hind legs. “And what about you, Sister? You were the one in charge this past half-century while things collapsed around your fetlocks! I come back to you to find my idea of the Representative Council in place, true, but it’s a corrupt mockery of its ideals! And instead of using my talents and inspiration to help, you let those foals shackle me! I will not stand by and do nothing while you fail, Sister!”

“If that is how you feel, dear sister,” She paused as she made her way around Luna and towards Twilight, who put down her ears. “Then take him. And you two can be the ones to tell the Council.”

The warm, familiar light of Celestia’s teleportation spell began to overtake both the Princess and the Grand Mage.

“I wash my hooves of this.”


A Bright Light in a Dark Place, Part 2/3

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“I am so bucked.”

Luna, once again looking more like her public self and less like the Nightmare, rolled her eyes. “Would you calm down? Most mares would be happy their stallion found a new job so quickly.”

Obsidian shuddered. “You don’t have a princess for a wife. Money isn’t a problem for her. The problem is I didn’t talk to her about this!”

The Princess placed a hoof on the door to a gathering room where the Council usually met during recesses. “You’re worrying over nothing. She loves you and fights for you. She wants you to be happy, first and foremost. Now come, we’re wasting time.”

“Wait!” Shining pulled the door shut with his magic and whispered, “You realize I haven’t actually said the Night Guard oath yet either, right?”

Luna smiled. “They need not know that,” she whispered back. “Besides, that comes after your integration, not before. Now, ready yourself.”

With a light push, the door opened, and the two stepped in.

Murmurs and talking echoing in the room slowly ceased as they made their way to its middle. Eventually, the only sound was their hoofsteps muffled by the blue and white carpet leading them to the ponies in the center of it all: Duke Charlemane and Princess Cadence. The rest was pure silence.

The Duke put down his glass and raised an eyebrow. “Your Highness? Unusual to see you in here. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Luna cleared her throat. “It is quite simple. I am here to demand that you cease all further disciplinary actions against Shining Armor.”

The murmurs resumed, this time in high gear.

Charlemane stepped forward. “Excuse me? You demand? Your Highness, you have no such authority over this Council.”

Luna’s nostrils flared. “And you have no such authority over—”

“Shiny?” Cadence interrupted, her eyes instantly growing moist. “Shiny, is that you?”

Obsidian opened his mouth, letting his new, deeper voice reverberate through the room despite its dryness. “Yes, beloved. It’s me, your Armor,” he said, twisting the pronunciation of his name to sound more like ‘Amore.'

“Shining!” She all but plowed into him in her embrace, running her hooves over the small amount of his coat that was exposed before continuing to the glossy, black-and-silver armor. “Shining! What happened to you?!”

“Luna offered me a job,” he chuckled weakly, and the murmurs in the room all but exploded. He paid them no heed.

She pulled him in tight. “Shiny, why didn’t you tell me?”

“We sort of wanted to get it done before the Council caught wind.”

“Indeed, you would,” Charlemane interrupted. “Yet this is not an acceptable outcome. Princess, Prince Armor, this Council cannot tolerate efforts to circumvent its authority. We have a job to do.”

“Ha! Job!?” Luna roared. “You mean that perversion of justice I bore witness to? You dare to accuse a Prince, one of your own, to conspire against the Eternal Sisters?”

Charlemane waved a dismissive hoof. “One of our most decorated generals betrayed us in the attack, Princess. Surely, you do not mean to suggest he did not have help from the inside?”

Luna’s wings flared. “And just how many of them were using weapons made by your companies!? I find it every bit as likely that one of you could have helped him!”

The Duke’s face suddenly became rather smug, enough that it caused the tips of Obsidian’s new, smoldering mane to flare in place of bristling.

“We have extensive evidence that select elements of the regular military and even some Guard members aided Towers in his assault. Do you have evidence that one of our members acted in bad faith?”

Luna ground her teeth and lowered her head to the other pony’s level. “I should think my status would be enough.”

Obsidian grunted and was taken aback by how low and loud his voice was. Not good, not good at all. Walk it back, Luna. I know we’re frustrated, but he’s going to win at this rate.

Charlemane shook his head and smirked. “Your status is a generous gift by this Council, Highness, or did you forget your own attempted coup?”

No! Obsidian jolted forward and out of the grip of his wife then lifted his foreleg to hold his Sovereign back. As he stood between them, ice ran down his spine. Luna looked offended already, and Cadence’s jaw was open not only because she had to suddenly balance herself but because he had let her go.

Damn! “Sovereign, beloved, I ask both of you for your forgiveness for my outburst. But I cannot allow this conversation to continue as it is. If I may, I wish to speak on Luna’s behalf.”

“You?” Charlemane asked. “You do realize that by donning that armor, you have all but forfeited your crown?”

His gaze swung around and locked onto Charlemane’s eyes as he tried to burn a hole in the Chairpony’s head with just his glare. “You are incorrect,” he said with an even deeper voice than before. “My crown is not at risk. According to the compact between the Council and Celestia that restored Luna’s crown, her Night Guard can only be disciplined by Luna herself. This applies for all failures and infractions, past and present. Further disciplinary action taken by this Council against me would be in violation of that, which would result in Princess Celestia dissolving the compact and impeaching every one of your sorry hides for acting in ‘Bad Faith.’”

Charlemane didn’t flinch. “Ponies are looking for punishment for the failure to protect them, Captain.”

“It’s High Cardinal now,” he corrected to even more background discussion. Even Charlemane was taken aback. Looks like they don’t like that. Good.

“So she gave you wholesale command.” He chuckled. “Amusing. Doesn’t change the fact that ponies will be very upset at this. They wanted consequences, not a title change.”

“Interesting. This Council has spent years campaigning against Luna’s restoration and influence and shaping public opinion to this fact. Yet you contend this new position will be viewed as anything but a punishment?”

“Hmph. You forget, Cardinal. The positions granting control of the forces protecting our Princesses are ones of prestige. Disgraced—”

“Save it, Chairpony,” he said, voice booming. “You and I both know such a position elevates Luna’s position and weakens your own, not to mention makes the Council look like liars and hypocrites.” Now that got his attention.

“Regardless, Shin—”

“Obsidian. High Cardinal Obsidian Armor.” Obsidian grinned and showed off his new fangs. “Get it right, Chairpony Charlemane.”

The Chairpony furrowed his brow. “High Cardinal Obsidian Armor, this still leaves you open to political assault. Favoritism and softness in the face of failure? Such nepotism also leaves your sister politically vulnerable, inviting questions about her authority and legitimacy.”

He took a step forward, slamming his hoof down. “You will leave her alone, Chairpony. I know you’re trying to speak for the Council as a whole here rather than yourself, but I don’t care. You will leave her alone, period!

Charlemane met his gaze evenly. “Or you’ll what?”

No, hold back. I can’t threaten him outright. But what can I do? He twitched a bit at a cold hoof being placed on an exposed part of his coat. He flinched slightly, looking at his wife touching and examining him at random spots. What is she— Wait, that’s it!

“Chairpony, you seem to misunderstand your position. If you attempt to wage a political war against me or Twilight, you expose yourself to counterattack from Cadence.”

The other stallion flopped down to his haunches in laughter. “Ha! Surely, you jest—”

“I am entirely serious. Her full, official title is ‘Princess of the Lost,’ and she lives up to it brilliantly. Hence, she is also immensely popular, the perfect pony to represent a mere student of magic new to political power, who is under assault from forces out to get her from her first days and through no fault of her own. Or perhaps a Captain, discharged despite his best efforts to serve his Princess, now relegated to command of a mere few dozen ponies and being hounded by politicians on a crusade? You see, Chairpony. The optics and spin can work both ways.”

Charlemane waved this off. “Pathetic, Cardinal. Taking such a position weakens your sister’s standing and reduces her authority to an innocent pawn, not a commander in her own right. There is no way this ends well for you, or her.”

Damn. Obsidian furrowed his brow, glaring daggers at his opponent. This is not good. He caught me. Think, Armor, think! You can’t just let him get away with this! There has to be a way to turn this around and protect Twily. Just do what Celestia taught you. Rethink this from the beginning.

He took in a deep, but subtle, breath and focused. Time itself seemed to slow down for him as his mind went into high gear.

First, we know that he can’t go after me or Princess Luna very well right now. I’m protected by her compact, and there’s little he can do to further tarnish Luna’s reputation. It can only go so low, and the few that remain on her side are die-hards. So, why is he talking about going after Twilight to get to me?

…The Council is afraid of Twilight! But why? I know Charlemane is already aware of Twily’s ascension. We had to tell him in order to convince him to go along with helping Twilight become Grand Mage and get the Council deals in place for it. The others should all be in the dark, though, and the Princess gave up a lot of ground in those deals, even considering the massive penalties for the Council if they renege. But he’s known about it for years. That can’t be what he’s afraid of all of a sudden.

Think! What’s different now? Even as Grand Mage, Twilight’s authority in the Council is basically zip. Sure, she’s been trained by Luna, but that’s only three months’ worth, and before that—!

…They aren’t afraid of her because she’s been trained by Luna. They’re afraid of her because she’s been trained by Celestia! But Twily being the Princess’s student isn’t news. It’s been that way all along, including when those deals were signed. So what’s different? What changed when I came through those doo—!?

His eyes snapped all the way open and his jaw dropped open before he could stop it. The whole room could see him sitting there, stunned and eyes wide.

“I see you’ve finally realized it,” Charlemane said with a smug look. “This was a bad move for you, Armor. I honestly can’t believe you willingly stumbled into it.”

The corners of Obsidian’s mouth creased into a grin then grew into an devious Cheshire smile. “Oh, I realized it alright, Chairpony. I realized that I don’t need to worry about Twily. Your threats against her were a distraction.”

The Chairpony raised an eyebrow. “Hardly. She’s in a very vulnerable position right now.”

Obsidian leaned in next to his ear and in his lowest voice rumbled, “Then why are you so afraid of her?”

There were a few gasps in the audience to confirm his theory.

“Excuse me?” Charlemane jerked back and laughed. “Why would we be—?”

“Because she’s smarter than you,” Obsidian interrupted. “And she’s going to have all the tools she needs to be your undoing the instant any of you step out of line again. This isn’t about me becoming High Cardinal. It’s about Luna sneaking Twilight into the Chambers when you went after me in an over-elaborate changeling-hunt. She saw it first-hoof. She had to watch as you passed a vote of no confidence against me and forced her mentor to strip me of my rank, all so you could quietly shut me up and get me out of your mane. What’s the matter? Afraid my anti-corruption investigations will find something damning?”

Charlemane stomped his hoof. “That’s over the line, Card—”

“And now!” Shining yelled over the Chairpony. “Now every single one of you knows that you have a hyper-intelligent Grand Mage out for revenge for her brother. Or, as she’s called me since she was little, ‘Big Brother Best Friend Forever.’ You’re desperate to hobble her, but you know that if you revoke her title without far more ample cause than you used against me, you’ll lose everything.”

He got up with a chuckle and started trotting around him in a rant. “So instead, you’re trying to say you’re going after her for revenge on me? Weak, Charlemane,” he taunted, his grin growing ever wider. “She’ll turn that around so fast your head will spin. She’s going to destroy you all on her own, and you know it. That’s why you’re threatening her. Well, guess what, Chairpony. This is the mare that purged Nightmare Moon, juggled an Ursa Minor, took her friends to face off against a dragon, exposed Chrysalis, crushed General Towers’ coup, and put Discord back in his prison.”

He stopped behind him and put his mouth right next to Charlemane’s ear, but spoke loud enough so the whole room could hear him. “And you think you’re going to be able to stop her?” He laughed, letting his new bass voice vibrate the air before sneering and stepping forward, putting his head right next to the Duke’s. “If you thought Luna training her was bad news, you haven’t seen anything yet. I’ve spent more than sixteen years fighting this Council, and now I’m going to be whispering advice in Twilight’s ear for her entire career. Tactics, magic, politics… I’m at her complete disposal, and I’m willing to tell her absolutely anything she wants to know. She’s the smartest pony alive, Chairpony, and to borrow from a Gryphon expression, you just put a big, red bull’s-eye on your flank and declared it open season. Good. Luck.”

He turned around with a snap, and started striding out of the room. “You’re going to need it.”

The absolute, deafening silence of the room behind him brought a smile to his face, even as he heard Cadence’s and Luna’s hoofsteps behind him.

When the trio was finally around the corner and out of earshot, Luna positively giggled in delight. “Oh, that felt so good! I am going to enjoy having a High Cardinal again!”

“I wouldn’t celebrate just yet, Sovereign,” he warned. “Charlemane won’t take that lightly.”

“Let him take it however he pleases! I may not have any say with them, but that’s also true in reverse! I, or rather, we, are beholden to nopony in there.”

“Mmhmm,” Cadence mumbled, never looking away from her husband, yet not making eye contact with him either.

“Cady, are you alright?” Obsidian asked, stopping and turning to her. “I appreciate the fact that you aren’t beating me into a bloodstain on the floor, but you’re starting to scare me a little.”

“What?” She looked up at him and blinked. “Yes, I’m… I’m fine.”

Luna cut into the conversation. “You most certainly are not. What’s gotten into you?”

“Hmmm,” she murmured.

“Cady?” Obsidian’s voice went higher, almost back to normal.

“What?” Cadence looked up. “Oh, right. Auntie, I’m afraid he can’t join your Night Guard just yet.”

Obsidian raised an eyebrow while his wife started pulling on his foreleg, seemingly trying to get him to move.

“And why is that?” Luna asked with a smirk.

Cadence pulled him even harder, making him walk. “He needs to do… things. To me.”

Luna started to laugh and, just before they rounded a corner, called out, “Just so you know, the glamour spell stays even if you take off the armor! I bet it’ll be a bit more comfortable!”

“Not on your life!” she called back.

A Bright Light in a Dark Place, Part 3/3

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Twilight Sparkle wasn’t normally a fan of sherbet. She had been when she was a filly, along with ice cream. Of course, all fillies are fans of ice cream and sherbet. These days, however, her tastes were more aligned with spicy things, thanks to a fateful encounter with a bottle of hot sauce.

All this having been said, Celestia’s private, carefully hidden stash of sherbet was the best sherbet in the universe. This could likely even be proven by science.

She scooped another spoonful of green-apple-blueberry-raspberry and watched her mentor as she tackled the lemon-strawberry. Seeing her with her muzzle half in a large, half-eaten bucket of it somehow made her seem more, for lack of a better word, mortal, even while in her luxurious chambers.

Twilight put a hoof to her forehead, gently massaging against the incoming ice cream headache; something apparently alicorns could still have. “So, I take it things didn’t go as planned?”

Celestia stopped eating and froze, causing Twilight to instantly regret her choice of words.

Argh. No, bad Twilight. We do not take that kind of tone with the Princess!

A sigh echoed in the bucket before Celestia gently lowered it to the floor. “That is a mild way of putting it. But, you are correct. Although first and foremost, I must apologize to you. What you see here is more or less pure frustration. It’s wrong to include you in a squabble between me and my sister, but I’m afraid you’re inexorably tied to the situation now.”

Twilight set her own bucket down along with the spoon. “I take it that’s what you tried to prevent by not telling us about the Council.”

Celestia nodded. “I wanted to spare you the pain and perhaps prevent you from becoming too angry with me. I also needed you to be able to focus on your training. Yet, what is done is done. I shall have to simply adapt.”

“Princess, Tia, you’re stalling. Adapt to what?”

The larger alicorn flexed her wings a little and sighed. Twilight gave her a raised eyebrow just in time for Celestia to quickly look at her and away again.

“When the attack on Canterlot came, I knew that even though it would almost certainly be repelled, Shining Armor would lose his position as a result. He was the single most vulnerable major supporter I—” Celestia stopped, her mouth frozen in place.

Several seconds passed while Celestia seemed to merely sit there, transfixed on something Twilight simply couldn’t see.

“Princess?”

Celestia blinked and shook her head. “Forgive me, Twilight. I should come clean better than that. The truth is, I suspected Shining’s days as a Captain were numbered far sooner than this. The sharks have been circling for some time. The attack just poured blood into the water. However, during that time, I laid a trap for the Council. One that my sister, in a childish fit, just thwarted.”

“A trap? So, Shining getting fired was a good thing?” Twilight crossed her forelegs and laid her head down on them. “I have to say, Tia, you’re losing me here.”

Celestia stole a look at Twilight from the corner of her eye, lurching back like she’d been hurt. “I understand and empathize with your feelings, Twilight. Yet, he would have found new purpose in time. Just as I molded you as a filly, so have I been molding him. You saw Shining defend himself in the Empyreal Hall? Ten years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. They would have destroyed him. Now? If they had tried this four months ago, I’d imagine he would have received a split vote in the Council.”

Twilight nodded. “Okay. You’re saying you’ve been teaching him political skills. But Shining’s cutie mark is a shield. He’s been a soldier since entering adulthood, and that’s been his dream since before I was born. How is allowing his discharge from the Royal Guard fair to him?”

“His cutie mark is a shield because he wanted to protect you. Protecting others need not be done with a magic barrier or through use of warfare. Every single day, as Princess of the Lost, Cadence, protects millions of ponies with her words alone. And your brother? His passion makes him a natural speaker and leader. With my help along with advice from my niece, he would have been an unreal force on the political battlefield. Even Charlemane would fear him.”

Twilight sighed. “Hmmm, I think I get it. You were trying to turn an inevitable loss into a long-term victory, and give him the opportunity to do something his cutie mark calls for. A mercy in the face of certain defeat. But, Shining joining the Night Guard precludes this possibility, because Luna and her soldiers are so feared. Now he looks more like a villain than a protector, figuratively and literally.”

Celestia sighed. “I’m afraid it gets worse.”

She tilted her head, jaw open a bit. “How can it get worse?”

“I’m fully aware that my sister does not and has never limited her Night Guard’s actions as demanded by the Council. She would rather have tea with Discord. Well, that last statement may be hyperbole, but the one before is not. However, Luna trains her soldiers well. They are the epitome of stealth, and I know Luna did limit her activities to much less than she would have liked to lower the risk and keep me happy. Your brother, on the other hoof, is… bombastic in most everything he does. I am not only worried but almost certain he will eventually be caught. If that happens…”

“Ah.” Twilight shuddered. “I think I see what you mean.”

A sherbet bucket twirled in the air a little, Celestia looking down at it. “I love my sister dearly, but she doesn’t think like us. It’s taken me millennia, but I’ve become reasonably adept at political maneuvering and anticipating scenarios. Luna has never mastered that. Political strategy is simply… beyond her bailiwick.”

Twilight shook her head and put a hoof on her mentor’s foreleg. “I don’t think you’re giving her enough credit. She seemed to have a good grasp of what was going on in the Council and what was going to happen. She even knew you’d be upset, although not exactly why.”

Celestia sighed and lit her horn, opening her closet.

Twilight could hear the sound of a drawer opening, and a painting floated into the room, landing before them. She looked over it and gasped.

“It’s beautiful…”

The colors of the night were awash over the whole thing. Blues and grays and purples danced across the features of a cityscape, the details present in the realistic style making it seem more photograph than oil painting.

Celestia smiled, humming slightly. “One of her many works she’s too shy to show the public for fear of rejection. Do not misunderstand, Twilight. Luna is not stupid. Far from it. In fact, in some ways, she’s a genius. Her intelligence is merely different. She does not analyze things objectively like you do. Rather, she uses her intuition, feelings, and most importantly, passion. This allows her some abilities in the political arena, like giving speeches, and she can intuit motives, lies, and initial reactions very well. But, long-term planning simply isn’t something she’s good at.

“If and when Shining is caught, I severely doubt either myself or Luna will be able to counter it politically. At the very least, Luna could lose her crown completely. Even if I refused to give it up and suffer the inevitable insurrection, ponies would no longer wish to follow her authority or mine. They would actively resist it.”

Twilight swallowed. “And then, your only choices are to be a tyrant or lose everything. Best case, return in a few hundred years, try again. If there’s anything left.”

Celestia nodded. “Exactly. Now you understand.”

Twilight blinked and thought, tapping her hoof on her chin. “No, there’re still some things I don’t understand.”

The Princess closed her eyes. “Then ask, and I will answer.”

The student swallowed. Normally, asking questions of her mentor was no big deal. This, however, was an exceptionally touchy subject. “If you’re sure…”

“I take my vow seriously, Twilight.” A large wing unfolded and draped over her. “If you have questions, I wish to answer them.”

Then why aren’t you looking at me? Twilight thought. But, she’ll insist if I back out now, so… She took a deep breath and continued. “If all this is the case, why didn’t you talk to Luna? She’s your sister.”

“Ha!” A laugh exploded form Celestia’s lungs before being muffled by a closed mouth. One of the buckets of sherbet lifted back up into the air and another scoop found itself in the Diarch’s mouth.

Twilight lowered her head. “I don’t see what’s funny…” Crap, did I say that out loud!?

Celestia swallowed her frozen treat. “Ugh. In truth, it is not at all funny. But, the simple reality is that whenever I try to include her in making my plans, we wind up fighting while she desperately tries to put some of her own unworkable ideas in them. It always ends in an argument. One time, we were shouting at each other so loud I’m fairly confident most of the castle heard. Not surprisingly, those plans were ruined.”

“So… it’s a difference of opinion?” Twilight chuckled nervously, scratching the back of her head.

Celestia squeezed her with her wing. “We are of different minds, she and I. I’d make the obvious ‘night and day’ comparison, but it’s been done. Ultimately, I simply do not have the time to consult her on all my plans anymore, so… I stopped. I… Well, that’s not entirely true either. I also do not wish to deal with the heartache.”

“Hmmm. Even when it causes more heartache down the line?”

The Princess cringed, lurching like she’d been struck.

“Sorry…” Twilight squeaked, ducking down again.

“No. No, don’t be.” She lowered her head down to Twilight’s level, looking her right in the eyes. “I deserved that. Thoroughly.”

I always forget how much larger she is than me… Twilight exhaled and leaned on her mentor a little, relaxing. “My other question, then, is why not tell Shining? Or me? About your plans, I mean.”

“My reasoning for you is relatively simple, honestly.” Celestia contorted her body a bit, shifting her position. “You needed to be completely focused on your training. Had you learned of any of this sooner, your mind would have been elsewhere. In such a state, you would have been in grave peril in your training, to say nothing of in a real fight later on if you did not learn all you could. I couldn’t allow that. As for Shining…”

A few moments passed in silence, Celestia looking off into the distance.

“Tia?” Twilight asked.

The Princess winced, shedding a lone tear. “Forgive me, my student, but I do not think you will like my response. Shining knew I was training him; he was the one to ask me for advice, after all. But my future plans? The reason I couldn’t tell him was because I needed his reaction in the Empyreal Hall to be absolutely perfect.”

“I’m… not sure I follow, Princess. How could that reaction be ‘perfect?’ He was devastated.” Twilight took in a deep breath. “I’ve never seen him shed a tear before…”

“It was perfect because it would have thrown Charlemane off track.” Celestia levitated a small case in the corner over to them, unpacking it to reveal a marble chess set with glass pieces and a small piece of paper. The pieces all lifted up from their resting place and arranged themselves on the board to match a diagram on the parchment. “Charlemane and I are of different minds politically. Our priorities are different, our methodologies and ideologies are different… but he is not truly an ‘enemy.’ He is an adversary, but we both want Equestria to prosper. We merely have different ideas about how to do that.”

Twilight nodded and tipped over a queen on the board. “So you wanted Charlemane to think Shining no longer a piece on the board. One that had been taken.”

“Yes. I wanted him to think that Shining was politically gelded. Of course, I know Charlemane is not stupid. In fact, he is astoundingly smart. Quite possibly the best politician I’ve met in many generations. We’ve been playing chess for a few decades now. He’s beaten me a number of times. Thus, I knew he would have figured this all out eventually, but all I needed was a little time to catch him off balance. If your brother had given even the slightest flinch to hint at a future plan, my advantage would have been lost. But that’s all moot now.”

Celestia spread out her wings, and wrapped them around Twilight, bringing them close together. “Twilight, understand me, please. I took no pleasure in what I had to do. I did not want it. I didn’t want any of this to happen. I am in the fight of my life, and I don’t even know who all my opponents are.”

Twilight backed up a little, her back brushing up against the primary feathers as Celestia looked ever more pained.

“I know it hurts, but your brother is strong. He’ll recover, and I will help him as much as I can…”

Twilight huffed and sighed. “I’m… I am angry with you, but I… I recognize the odd circumstances. But I want a promise from you that you’ll talk to us more. Me, Shining, Luna, Cadence. We might be pieces on the board to you, but we’re playing the game too. If you don’t talk to us, we’re going to make assumptions based on what we know, not on what you know. We’re more effective working together.”

Celestia slumped to the ground, her wings going limp. “I… I’ve been alone too long. It’s not something I do, anymore.”

Twilight shook her head. “If I ascend and become a princess, I’m going to be involved with this stuff. I’m going to have to make some of the same decisions you do, and I need you to help me with that. What am I supposed to do if you don’t talk to me? We’re going to be back here, doing this whole thing again.”

Celestia sighed, her lip quivering. “You’re right, of course. I know this, logically. Doesn’t make it any easier. ‘Old habits’ are even worse when they’re reinforced over a millennium… or longer, really.”

Twilight slumped back, resting on the oversized pillow. “I know, but…” A chill ran down her spine as she went over what she’d been saying. “I’m sorry, Princess, I shouldn’t be lecturing you. I guess I overstepped my—“

Celestia picked up Twilight’s hoof. “No. You are absolutely right. About everything.”

“So does this mean you’ll talk with her? With Luna? About your plans?”

Celestia looked away, towards her desk. “I…”

She gave the Princess a small poke on the shoulder. “Tia?”

‘Tia’ kept gazing outward, her eyes all but burning holes in the wall. “I… I want to tell you that I will. I know it may end in tears, but I will talk to her… It’s just… I’m afraid that, at the moment, most of my plans have gone up in smoke.”

“Oh! Oh…” Twilight fidgeted with her hooves a little. “So, you don’t have any plans to share anymore.”

“I have… some plans. But, they are doors, windows, and fixtures. Alone, they are salvageable, but the framework of the house has been demolished.”

Twilight buried her head in her forelegs. “Ah. I’m… sorry. I didn’t realize.” Several moments of silence passed, each one amping up Twilight’s nerves a little more. She was shaking by the time she was able to speak again. “What… What are we going to do now?”

“Now?” Celestia stood up, glancing at the cluttered paperwork strewn over her desk. “Now I do something I probably should have done ages ago.” Her horn lit up, and the entire desk floated up and tipped over. All but one of the drawers flew open, dumping paper after paper, scroll after scroll onto the floor.

“Right now, everypony is completely off balance.” Celestia smirked. “I’m reeling from the loss of my next populist politician. I have no doubt that the Council is going to ‘freak out’ over the idea of Shining Armor with the ability to command Luna’s stealthy troops. The conspiracy, whoever is behind it, is going to scramble at finding both of the Sparkle siblings hunting them down. This means that whoever acts first is going to be at an advantage. Which means I need new plans from a clean perspective.”

“So, you’re trashing all your old plans?” Twilight pointed a hoof at the pile. “What’s that going to do?”

“Outside of cathartic relief?” Celestia turned, putting herself in between Twilight and the pile while her teleportation spell bloomed again. “It will force me to think outside the box I’ve put myself in. Come, Twilight. It’s time I showed you Caballo Verde.”


Twilight’s body twisted and flailed in the light, gut wrenching itself into knots before finally getting deposited onto hot, desert soil. She rolled to her hooves, heaving and coughing, tasting some of the sherbet returning for round two.

“I apologize, Twilight. It’s never easy to navigate the leyline stream here.”

She clenched her teeth, breathing slowly to get control of herself again under the dark, sunless sky. “What… Where are we? Why is it already night?”

“As I said,” Celestia flared out her wings, “the city of Caballo Verde. Or rather, what little remains of a once lush canyon. And it is always night here, or at least appears to be.”

A few more heavy breaths and Twilight finally regained most of her composure. At the very least, it was enough to finally gaze at her surroundings. Crimson desert sand was under her hooves, and the night sky all but burned overhead with blood-red stars. Towering mesas dotted the landscape, and there was a path forward leading into a canyon in the center of a particularly large one.

“Come,” Celestia beaconed with a wing. “You have to see this for yourself.”

Twilight shakily nodded, nervous about what was ahead. The last time Celestia had taken her somewhere, it was the crater in the Everfree, which was eerie enough on its own. This time, her nerves were even worse, and it went beyond the fact that it should be daytime or the red stars. Something was very wrong here, and she needed only the sign in front of her to tell her what.

WARNING!! DO NOT ENTER!!

—BY ORDER OF THE ARMY OF THE LUNAR REPUBLIC—

DANGER!! DANGER!! DANGER!!

EVACUATION ORDER #84

CATASTROPHIC THAUMATIC CONTAMINATION AHEAD!!

258X LETHAL LEVELS!!

TURN BACK NOW!!

There were two important revelatory things within the sign. One, despite how important it seemed, was completely overshadowed by the other.

“Th-th-thaumatic contamination!?” Twilight yelled, her voice echoing off the mesa. “We can’t be here! We’re dead if we stay any longer!”

Celestia shook her head and picked up the pile of papers from her room that had accompanied them through the teleport. “No, alicorns do not suffer the effects of this normally mortal danger. In fact, even some exceptionally strong unicorns, those halfway or more to the ascendancy threshold, are resistant to it as well. Just as the pressure of our wellsprings prevents us from bearing foals, it also keeps the contamination out of our bodies, much like how a positive-pressure room will not have airborne pathogens enter it. You and I could wade through ten thousand times this and emerge unharmed.”

Twilight took in a deep breath and exhaled. It would be okay. Still, this left one other point of discussion untouched. Twilight slowly began her march next to her mentor, watching as the alicorn’s telekinesis glowed ever brighter around the papers and allowing some time to pass before asking her question. “The sign says ‘Army of the Lunar Republic.’ This was from the Lunar Rebellions?”

Celestia nodded, leaving her head a little low as they entered the canyon proper. “Yes, that is correct. The Rebellions were, in truth, an all-out civil war that raged for years on end, and this was the site of an epic battle. We are deep in the San Palomino desert, and this was one of my sister’s greatest strongholds. After it fell, the city was abandoned for obvious reasons. The contamination is so thick it blocks out the sunlight, creating a realm of perpetual night.”

The San Palomino Desert, Twilight thought. Some areas are so inundated with flame magic that water literally cannot stay on the surface. It evaporates instantly.

They kept up their walk, passing through the narrow path bordered by wind-eroded, wavy sandstone. Twilight dropped her head down as walls around them closed in more and more. “I can see why it was a stronghold. It’s using the mesas here as natural defenses; that would make this place a fortress. You could only assault openly from the air, and they’d no doubt be ready for it.”

“Quite so, Twilight. This was a costly battle, although for reasons you’ve not yet seen.” Celestia’s voice choked and hushed a little at the last few words, enough that Twilight didn’t want to push any further until her mentor was ready to discuss it.

It didn’t take long for Twilight to see that it wasn’t going to be as long a walk as their last outing, as she could already see an entrance to the center. It also didn’t take long for her to see why the sign was posted. The general feeling of unease in the Everfree was nothing compared to this. Her skin was crawling all over her like it was made out of spiders. Each step forward made her wobble around more like a drunk than a scared mare. The dark red lights from the stars seem to boil down to the ground, overcoming her in a red mist before, at last, a bright white light flooded through her senses, burning away the miasma.

“Curious. You appear to be unharmed, but the contamination still seems to affect you,” the light said, fading softly until Celestia’s form was once again revealed.

Twilight shuddered and shook her whole body, finally able to jettison the feelings the air was giving her. “I think… I think you’re probably right. Thanks for clearing it out.”

Her mentor smiled warmly. “Oh, it’s no trouble, my student. Come, we are nearly there.”

Twilight leapt up to follow directly next to her, staying in the pressure of Celestia’s magic. The miasma burned and rolled away at its edge, creating a safe region for her to walk in.

Now safe, she was able to look around again. They were fast approaching the center of a small city—or at least the remains of one. A few metal cranes jutting out of the rock walls were still recognizable, but the rest was rubble. Only the bottoms of walls remained in most cases, and they didn’t even look like they were made out of anything Twilight recognized.

As they passed nearby one, she reached out with a hoof and gave it a poke. The merest touch set half the remaining wall cracking and crumbling into a brown dust. In fact, all of the walls looked like that slightly compacted brown dust. Not a single one appeared to be anything more substantial.

The red mist began to encroach on her again, and she jumped to get away from it and back into Celestia’s light. A few short city blocks later and they were directly in the center of it all.

“There’s almost nothing left,” Twilight commented. “What happened here?”

“I happened.” Celestia answered, flopping to the ground and kicking up some sand. The papers, too, fluttered down to the ground. “Or rather, I did something to enable it. But just as surely as if I’d used Sol Invictus, I destroyed this city. We’re standing in the battlefield that marked a major turning point in the war.”

She lifted up a wing, signaling for Twilight to approach. Ears ducked down, she complied. Each step closer, though, made the pain on Celestia’s face that much easier to see. She wasn’t hiding as much as she was before. The mask again had cracks.

Celestia’s wing draped over her, holding her tight against her mentor’s side.

“Tia,” she whispered. “Tell me. I can feel your pain already. Please, tell me.”

Celestia inhaled and slowly let the breath go, whimpering. “You are correct, my student,” she whispered back, clearing her throat. “After the Rebellions, I swore a sacred oath to myself. Luna also agreed to it wholeheartedly upon her return. We promised we would never again merely give new magical or technological knowledge to our ponies. They would have to learn it for themselves, always.”

Twilight shuddered with her mentor. The meaning behind her words was all around them. “You gave your ponies something. A weapon, or spell. Something to give them an edge over Luna. And this… This happened?”

Celestia snorted. “Technology. Magically based, but technology. A science, something Luna was never well versed in and wouldn’t be able to reproduce easily. In my arrogance, I thought that Luna would have no means of fighting back, and that it would shock her so thoroughly that she would surrender.”

A tear fell down from her face and evaporated instantly upon touching the sand. “I could not have been more painfully mistaken. She countered by teaching her ponies magic I didn’t even know she remembered. Magic from before Discord.”

Twilight tilted her head. “Is that different from magic today? I thought magic was magic. There are many different kinds, sure, but ultimately it all follows the same rules.”

Celestia pulled her in tighter. “You are correct, but you must understand, Discord destroyed everything. By the end of the Chaos War, we were back to straw huts and nomadic herds. Our ‘brightest minds’ that could have once brought us back quickly had been driven permanently mad, and the rest of our ponies weren’t in much better shape. Only Luna and I kept our minds fully intact. We had to wait for the next generation of ponies to truly begin rebuilding from scratch.”

“Oh,” she breathed. “So before Discord, you were more advanced than we are now. And when you gave your ponies hidden knowledge to fight in the civil war…”

“It was like giving a foal a stick of dynamite and a match,” the Princess sobbed. “They didn’t just use them in combat; they turned on each other in their own petty squabbles, and we both ignored it, carrying on with our stupid, frivolous war. Millions upon millions died while our egos stretched to proportions only an alicorn can have. We were so cocksure, so certain in our righteousness. And when I finally used the Elements, Luna was gone, and my eyes were opened.”

She sniffed and sobbed, steam hissing from the ground as the tears rained. “My ponies… My little ponies… The Elements were not content to simply let me win. A price had to be paid. They made me see; made me watch. I was forced to relive every event leading up to and through Luna’s banishment, now fully aware of the sins I was committing but unable to alter my actions. When the light from the Elements subsided and I caught up to the world, all of my ponies that were left were celebrating. There was this one colt, he…” She reached out with a hoof, stretching to touch the ghost. “He was in a soldier’s uniform. He couldn’t have been older than fourteen. He looked at me with his remaining eye and said, ‘Why are you sad, Princess? We won! We won!’”

Celestia cringed, her teeth grinding as she struggled to breathe. “And they were all so happy. Rejoicing next to the bodies… So happy that their Princess…” She choked on her tears. “No, at that point, Luna wasn’t the only one being worshipped. They were so happy their goddess had emerged victorious…” A creaking sob escaped her lips. “I asked about that colt’s sister lying dead on the ground next to him. He said, ‘It’s okay, Princess. She died for you.’

“‘It’s never okay,’” she barely squeaked. “That’s what I told him. ‘It’s never okay.’ She didn’t have to… My ponies… All my ponies…” Her head reared up to the sky, inhaling deep. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, my ponies! I’m so sorry…”

She collapsed with a flop and an almighty sob, pawing at the ground, wailing in regret.

Twilight did the only thing she could think to, wrap her forelegs around the Princess’s neck, embracing her in a hug. “It’s okay, Tia. I’m here. I’m still here.”

The sob slowly faded to a cry and then a whimper. “It turns out Discord isn’t the only one able to destroy a civilization. In our own petty feud, my sister and I, we… I had to spend centuries to undo the damage. Confiscating books, parchments, anything that held knowledge of the accursed weapons or magic we had used. I even spread rumors of the dangers of the spells to those who used them, some true, others not. And to cap it all off, I turned my sister into a fairytale in a vain hope she might be accepted upon her return.”

“It was so easy at first; my ponies worshipped me, after all. And without their goddess, even most of those who followed my sister gave up in a few short years, willingly having the knowledge locked away by magic in exchange for clemency. I was relentless, and at long last, successful… But by the time I was ‘done,’ we had gone back so far…”

Celestia swallowed, her voice shaking from barely hidden agony. “Looking back now, it was the war itself that did the bulk of the damage, destroying our infrastructure and pushing us back technologically, but none of it could not have happened without my participation. I am still culpable. And after my efforts to wipe away knowledge of those terrible things were done, I kept advancement and reconstruction slow for a while as we rebuilt and otherwise withdrew myself from many state affairs. Although it seemed like it took ages, this eventually did allow my ponies to finally stop worshipping me once and for all. After some time, things stabilized, and Equestria survived, but regardless, it was still the second time I had failed and been left with ruins. First against Discord, and then against my own sister.”

Celestia sniffed and coughed a little, plainly still holding back the tears. “Thus, whenever my plans fail, I like to come here,” she breathed. “I come here to remind myself. I am not infallible. I have failed and been defeated so much already. Despite the contamination, this is, to me, a place of… cleansing.”

Her horn sparked to life again, brightly flaring to reshape the pile of papers and pull one dirty set of them out, floating them over to Twilight.

“Keep a hold of those,” Celestia said, a new fire in her eye. “And stand back.”

Twilight felt a searing heat on her side from her mentor’s body, and she scrambled backwards, the small bundle of papers in tow, though it took far more effort to hold them than it should have.

When she couldn’t feel the heat anymore, she spun around in the miasma, looking back at the Princess, and found her mumbling something under her breath.

“Princess?” she asked, ears back against her head. The corrosive magic around her wasn’t moving anymore. It was rumbling and bubbling but not shifting around like it had been. “Princess, are you okay?”

The mumbling continued, this time louder, and Twilight took a nervous step back followed quickly by another. The words were something completely foreign, but she could feel the power within them.

Alicorn magic!

A last few words all but came in a growl, and she could see the literal fire in Celestia’s eyes.

“Incendus!”

An eruption of white-hot fire blasted into the air from underneath the documents, creating a vortex that vaporized anything that was dragged in, even the miasma. Twilight gripped her own papers in a vice-like hug as they struggled to get away. Smaller explosions and pops danced through the air with little bursts of magic catching light in the flames, the spells being destroyed and turning into what looked like fireworks.

There must have been security spells on the papers. She had to destroy them and the parchment… She’s literally burning magic!

Bits of ash and tiny embers began to rain down on them as the fire subsided. A wave of heat roared past Twilight as her mentor turned to face her, the alicorn’s very hooves burning and melting the sand beneath them.

“I seem to have overdone it a bit,” Celestia sniffed. “Come, let’s leave this dark place and find somewhere I can cool off. Do you still have your papers?”

Twilight nodded, still grasping them with her forelegs.

“Then we should run. I feel… I do not wish to be in this place anymore.” Celestia reared up on her hind legs and took off at a gallop.

Twilight followed, placing the papers in a telekinetic field. They began to fall, and she redoubled her efforts. The miasma must be so strong it’s disrupting my magic…

The documents flapped in the wind as they ran, Twilight only barely able to keep pace with her mentor’s long stride while avoiding the melted glass the Princess’s hoofprints left. Left and right she dodged, landing her hooves on the rough, uneven sandstone. Wind and red mist swept past them, the latter dying out quickly as they left the canyon and mesa behind. Even then, they just kept running, and with the miasma behind them, Twilight’s grip on the papers become far more solid. Despite the oppressive heat, she couldn’t help but smile. Running with her teacher and mentor like this was somehow, for lack of a better word, fun.

Their run continued for some time, going much farther than where they had arived. More signs flew past them as their speed increased, and the stars’ redness overhead faded away while sunlight started to force through the miasma. As they kept going and the mesas in the background started to get larger, Celestia’s light returned.


One teleportation later and Twilight braked hard, bringing her hooves to a skidding halt and tumbling forward, getting a mouthful of beach sand. Princess Celestia, however, kept right on going, right into the huge body of water ahead of them. It hissed and bubbled, her body so unimaginably hot that the water couldn’t actually touch her as she rolled around in the water with her wings flared out. Eventually, she cooled enough for that effect to fade, and the water met her skin, sending a huge cloud of steam into the air.

Twilight couldn’t help but smirk in the tropical sun while watching her teacher splash about like a foal on summer vacation. That’s one way to cool off when your body is the temperature of white-hot steel. Run into an ocean. She took in a breath of the salty air and turned her attention to the few remaining papers. They were tattered, filthy, and slightly singed, although she couldn’t tell if it was from the spell Celestia used or if it had been like that for a while.

Wait a minute… She squinted at the text. This is my hornwriting! Flipping to the next page confirmed it; this was the research from her bounding mass spell she’d written in Shining’s office.

“What the hell!?” she yelled, eye twitching as the sound of wet hoofsteps approached from behind her.

“I was wondering why you did not find better paper, my student.” Celestia chuckled. “If you needed some, any of my guards or servants would have gladly provided it.”

“It was perfect when I wrote it!” She kept flipping through pages, making sure all the notes were intact. “It was good paper! I got it from Shiny’s desk! What in Tartarus happened to it?”

“Hmm. It appears I need to have words with Officer Straight Shot. But, Intelligentsia's seal was intact on it, and I thought you would want to discuss it with me.”

Twilight sighed. “Yeah, I did. And I—” her words stopped and her heart skipped a beat before pounding like thunder, her mind putting together what just happened in the desert with the information here. “You… You’re not going to let me publish it, are you? I know too much, so… so you showed me why I can’t...” She looked up at her in with a quiver.

Celestia smiled. “Actually, because you were able to understand the basis of it before you were made aware of your alicornhood, I shall allow you to publish it as you see fit. However, after this, I’m afraid you’ve read too much of the prior Grand Mages’ books. You are… unfairly ahead of our ponies.”

Twilight looked back down at her papers, watching all of her research in her life flash before her eyes. All the discovery, all the secrets being unlocked passed by in a heartbeat. “But, but…” Twilight sniffed. “That isn't… I mean, that isn't what I wanted! I wanted to learn! I wanted to learn everything! From you! So I could share it! What you do! What I thought you did…"

Celestia leaned in close to her. “That is indeed what I do, Twilight. I know things. I learn them. And I find students and share with them what they are ready to hear. I am not telling you that you cannot continue to learn. I imagine it would be easier to get Discord to reform than to get you to stop learning. What it means is that you must keep what you learn between us until it is time to reveal it to a ready world. Then, when our ponies figure it out for themselves, you may discuss it openly and to your heart’s content.”

Twilight started to calm down and breathe more steady as she realized what was being said. “By teaching a student?”

Celestia gave her a slight nuzzle. “By teaching a student. A wonderful student, deserving of everything you can help her learn.”

The student leaned back into her mentor while she felt her own muscles relax again, her hooves shifting in the sand. “That’s why you only had me read the books and train with Luna instead of just read your library. If I didn’t take the time to learn everything in there correctly, it would’ve been even more dangerous than sending me out unprepared. Even most of Starswirl’s magic, of what I could understand, was obviously dangerous and practically unusable. I might not be able to wield Crimson’s spells in battle yet, but at least they don’t tear holes in reality.”

Celestia stroked Twilight’s back with her wet wing. “Precisely. You see, my student? You have wisdom too. That will serve you very well in the future, I think.”

Twilight inhaled deeply and then slowly let the air out, relaxing as she did so. “Okay. I think I get it. I’m not entirely happy about a lot of it, but I get it.”

Celestia let out a light chuckle. “I think you would be surprised indeed to understand just how many times I’ve had to say something like that either out loud or to myself, Twilight. Life is merely like that oftentimes. It speaks to your maturity that you react in such a manner.”

Twilight thought back to their ‘pre-lunch’ and snickered. “Yeah. Maturity. Say the mares that went through two tubs of sherbet a few hours ago.”

Celestia blushed a little. “You’re never too old for sherbet. Ever. And I’m the Princess, so I’m right.”

The Grand Mage smirked. “Yuh-huh.”

“Although, thinking back to my ponies, I’m reminded of something that, for your sake, I need to ask you to do.”

Twilight grabbed her papers again. “I don’t like the sound of this…”

Celestia leaned her head down to her student’s level. “Since you’re staying in Canterlot and finally trained, I want you to visit your parents. Tell them what’s happening to you. Everything.”

Twilight shuddered. Not what I was expecting, but still. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Princess. My mother and I… aren’t on the best of terms, and to be frank, she’s a bigger gossip than Rarity.”

“Luna has already set up some precautions for them on that.” She wrapped a wing around her. “I know it may be hard, but I miss my own mother and father terribly. It’s been millenia for me, Twilight. You want to build good memories while you can. Trust me on that.”

She sighed. Ten thousand years of wisdom, staring me in the face. “Okay, Princess. I’ll…” She gagged a bit. “I’ll try. But you should talk to Luna, too. She’s probably just as hurt as you are.”

Celestia nodded. “I agree. I know she’ll be waiting for me when we get back. Probably. Whether it’s with a battleaxe in hoof or not remains to be seen.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Battleaxe? Really?”

“The last time we had a tiff like this, our ensuing fight blew up part of a mountain. Granted, nopony was on it at the time, and we hugged and forgave each other afterwards, but it was still quite an argument.” Celestia gave her another hug with her wing. “And I suppose we should have a real lunch after we get back. That is, if you haven’t spoiled your appetite with sherbet.”

“Hehe. Look who’s talking! You ate half that bucket!”

Celestia stood up. “Yes, but you went through a quarter of yours, and I’m four times your size, so you ate twice as much as me.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow in protest. “It doesn’t work that way, and you know it!”

“It does if the Princess says it does! And I’m a Princess. Hence, it does. So there.”

The Grand Mage sighed and shook her head while the teleportation spell began to envelope them again. “I’m going to live for thousands of years, and in every single one of them, you’re going to tease the stuffing out of me, aren’t you?”

“Of course! What’s agelessness if you can’t have a little fun with it?”


“Hello, Tia.” The ‘Nightmare’ Luna growled even before the spell’s light faded.

When she could see again, Twilight found herself and her mentor face to face with the Princess of the Night, who was lying in Celestia’s bed with her forelegs crossed.

Luna continued, “The meeting with the Council was… satisfactory. My new Cardinal is unexpectedly talented in that arena. Your doing, I presume.”

Celestia shook her body, sending water droplets flying all over the room and onto both Luna and Twilight.

“Cute, Sister,” Luna grumbled.

“I’m glad it went well for you, Sister, I truly am. I also presume you’re here to talk about things.”

“Just so.” Luna nodded before turning to Twilight. “However, there’s been another development you should know about first. The treasonous Ex-General Towers is finally awake and has agreed to talk. But only to Twilight.”

Celestia and Twilight looked at each other.

“Trap?” Twilight asked.

Celestia shook her head. “While he’s in an iron lung and his magic is restrained? Doubtful. Go, Twilight. See what you can learn. This could be a valuable opportunity.”

“I agree,” Luna said, standing up. “I would ignore his request and interrogate him myself, but to be frank, he looks so frail he might die just from the sight of me. Twilight’s more gentle touch may be what’s needed to get information out of him. I caution you, though, ascendant. Do not push him too hard. His life hangs by a thread as it is.”

Twilight swallowed. “I guess I hurt him more than I realized.”

“He attacked you,” Luna sneered at the doors behind her. “Had he faced me in battle, his head would have been liberated from his shoulders already. He should be grateful for your mercy.”

“Enough, Sister.” Celestia grabbed Twilight by the shoulders and brought her into an embrace before continuing. “You have done nothing wrong. You protected your ponies from an aggressor, just as an alicorn should. But, Towers is a patsy. A pawn. I’m more convinced of this than ever. Now, though, we may have a chance to learn about the masterminds that are still out there.”

Twilight nodded, swallowing. “Yeah. Any advice?” I don’t think any of Luna’s interrogation techniques are going to work on a pony in an iron lung…

Celestia scratched her chin. “Yes. Intelligence has been worried about Towers knowing about your ascension. Leaking that secret early would be a wonderful way to sow dissent and distrust between the crown and our ponies, but so far, these Robber Barons haven’t done it. We need to know why. Other than any information on who is behind this, that’s the most important thing to find out. Focus on those two things. I shall remain here with my sister while we… discuss what must be discussed.”

“On it.” The Grand Mage bowed out of the embrace and started out the door. Time for my first real test.

Last Act of a Traitor

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Twilight stood in the heavy doorway of the dark hospital room, knocking on the heavy metal door. “Hello? What’s taking so long?”

“Sorry about the wait. I just finished. He’s ready to see you. Page me when you’re ready to leave.” The nurse bowed, exiting the room and closing the door behind Twilight.

Twilight approached the bed, glaring at the disgraced pony in the iron lung. A raspy noise permeated the room each time he strained to take in a breath and an IV slowly dripped fluids and healing medicines into his body. Small head movements from the traitor indicated that she should come closer, and she slowly did. A few final steps brought her into the light of Luna’s moon, which also illuminated Towers’ face.

“How are you faring, young alicorn?”

Twilight turned her head away from the little puddle of drool forming on his pillow. “My initial training is complete if that’s what you’re asking. Yet I doubt you asked me here to make small talk. But, that leads me to my first question. I was told you didn’t spill about my ascension to anypony else. Why?”

“Because I didn’t believe it until you told me.”

Twilight’s eyes went wide. “What!?”

“Was a hunch. Putting together pieces. Here and there. Thought it possible, but… I was about to order… my most loyal soldiers to turn traitor. Couldn’t break… their trust, make them think I’m mad… I needed confirmation… before I said anything to them… Or especially anything to my benefactors…” He breathed in again. The sound was already grating on Twilight’s nerves. “They were already… Questioning my competence… They were right. You surprised them, probably. By surviving.”

“‘Them?’ Who, exactly?”

“Who indeed… Ponies ‘in charge’ of me… middle ponies? Maybe fall ponies, now. Can’t say for sure…”

“Who!?” Twilight glared at him, stomping a hoof.

“Very smart ponies. Used memory wipe spells. Can’t remember names, faces.” Another breath. “Thought their plans good for Equestria. Still do. But, are those their true intentions? I don’t know now.”

Twilight facehooved. Memory-altering spells! Damnit, that’s why nopony knows who they are. You meet them, but you never remember anything! “You mention ‘plans,’ but you sound uncertain now. Do you think they told you what you wanted to hear?”

He nodded with another raspy inhalation. “I think, attack was never meant to work. They wanted you dead, Celestia off balance. I was expendable.”

“Yeah, well, I’m still here.”

“I know.” His facial muscles moved with slow twitches for several seconds before giving up. “Smiling has become difficult for me.”

Twilight’s nose flared. “Somehow, I’m not terribly sympathetic. You killed ponies I know.”

“Indeed. Indeed I did. I regret that, now.”

Twilight growled and stomped a hoof on the floor, cracking the tile underneath. “It’s a little late for apologies! I don’t know what Celestia sentenced you to, but I’m not about to try to change her mind.”

“Would mean nothing. Wish to atone for my deeds. However little I can.”

She slammed her forehooves on the bed. “And you thought I would be a sympathetic ear? You. Tried. To. Kill. Me.”

“Not sympathy. Needed to give you a warning: do not trust the Inner Council.”

“And I should trust you instead?”

“Council has been… pulling power away from Celestia. If she resists, they steal more. If she relents, they take more anyway.” He coughed and gasped, spitting out mucus. “Been like this for decades. At least one councilp-p-pony… with the coup.”

A slight shiver ran down her spine, and her mouth went dry. “Who?” Even if I don’t believe him, he might reveal something worthwhile.

“If I knew… I would tell you.” He shifted around, breathing faster. “All I know… at least one. So can’t trust any.” He hacked and coughed. “Celestia does trust some… her undoing.”

“I’ve known Celestia since I got my cutie mark. She’s a good judge of character.”

He coughed violently, and the machine made a grinding sound. “No. No, she isn’t. These ponies… know her too well. Inside source… If right… She is involved with one…”

“Involved with? What do you—!” She spun around to look right in the old stallion’s eyes. “Celestia would neve—!” Brief images of Celestia having sex flashed in her mind but were quickly replaced with her words earlier. Whether that was a mercy or not, she didn’t know. “If she does, that’s her business, not mine. She’s not stupid. She’d never compromise her secrets like that. Plus, I trust her. That’s what counts most.”

“Foolish girl. She is in… over her head. Celestia alone cannot win. Luna isn’t enough either, though she does stall them.” He gasped and coughed, cringing. “She… Luna cheats. She lies, spies, and sabotages. Your enemies get frustrated. She uses their tactics… Not the rules they have with Celestia. But Celestia holds her sister back. She has to.” He coughed and twitched more, straining to breathe outside the rhythm of the machine. “Unrestrained, her deviousness would ruin… what little trust is left… between the diarchy… and the ponies. Neither are able to win. It has to be you.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “And what do you think I should do?”

“Restore the ponies’ trust in Celestia… Drive a wedge in the Council.” Towers spasmed a little, coughing up more mucus. “Drive it… between the right ponies. Some of them… on your side. Just, disagree on policy. But some of them… behind this. Or helping it. You must divide the latter. Make them fight… each other. Split them wrong way, you hurt yourself.” He took in a deep breath against the iron lung. “You’ll never win if they stay together.”

Another wave of spasms went through his body, shaking the bed and the machine.

Something’s wrong. “Are you alright? I shouldn’t be straining you like this. Calm down and breathe.” She lifted the chart and looked at it before realizing that although she understood the vast majority of the information it held, she didn’t have the medical training needed to do anything about it in context.

After a few more coughs, Towers responded. “No… Breathing not a worry for me anymore… Nurse put… angel extract… poison… in my IV.”

The chart clattered on the tile.

“Shocked… it took them this long… to kill me. I’m glad we… we could talk.”

“I’ll call a doctor. That poison has an antidote! They have to have some!” She started to the door.

“Not when… it’s intravenous. No antidote, then.”

His words stopped her in her tracks. “I… I can try a healing spell!”

He shook and spasmed, coughing up blood. “Angel extract cannot be--” He turned his head, hacking mucus and blood onto the floor. “Cannot be healed away. Poison… works too quickly. It’s too late now.” Another spasm tore through his body, straining his body against his restraints.

She grabbed him with magic to try and still his movements, even going so far as to add her hooves to the mix. “What do I do?” She shivered.

A few more coughs and the wave settled down, leaving the stallion sagging. “Training… can’t prepare you… for everything… girl… If you… have kindness… left… morphine… in table… use it…”

She rushed to the table next to the bed and rummaged through various medical supplies before finding a bottle labelled ‘morphine’ and some empty syringes, picking one of the latter up. “How much do I use?”

“Dying… as much as… you like…”

She dropped the syringe and picked up a much larger one from the drawer then froze. Am I really going to… She looked back to Towers, wincing at the dark trail of blood oozing from his nose. Her ears went flat against her head, and she picked up the morphine.

Twilight’s telekinetic field shook and flickered, shaking the bottle. Sucking on her upper lip, she lined up the needle and slipped it into the bottle. She pulled back on the stopper, the clear liquid slowly filling the syringe. She took a deep breath and unscrewed the needle. When the syringe’s open tip met the catheter in the IV, her heart started pounding like a series of bombs going off. Her legs shook she buckled to the floor, tears welling up in her eyes. Brushing them out with a forehoof, she connected the syringe to the drip.

Towers shook and convulsed again, coughing and throwing up off to the other side. “Hurry, girl! I can’t… I—”

Her teeth were ready to crumble from her tightly clenched jaw and her forelegs pushed her back up then locked tight. Closing her eyes with the force of a vice, tears fell all the way down her chin as the plunger began to push forward. Twenty-five percent. Dose equivalent, seven hundred fifty milligrams.

Twilight peeked with one eye to make sure she still had hold of the needle and ground her teeth even more as she pushed the plunger in more. Sixty percent. One-point-eight grams. That could be a lethal dose… I… How do I…?

The iron lung began to clatter and grind again as Towers shook and jolted.

Twilight pushed the plunger almost all the way down in one swift motion, trying to swallow, but her throat was completely dry. Two-point-seven grams.

Tower finally began to calm down, his muscles slowing along with his lungs. A puddle of mucus, pus, blood, and vomit lay on the floor next to the bed. She looked at the last ten percent of the drug in the syringe and pushed it in with a slight exhale.

“Thank you… kind girl… merciful ascendant… Don’t lose that spark…” He began to sing ever so softly, a whisper. “Angels from above… sweep thee to rest… Sing the judgement… of the highest…”

“W-what are you singing? Towers?” She pressed her hoof against him, shaking him gently. No… I couldn’t…

She sat there, crying and watching the moon move across the window for some time, water streaming down her face. “I… I…” Every word she tried died in her mouth. Time ticked on in silence. Every breath was a reminder that the pony before her wasn’t breathing, nor moving. Her eyes, still filled with tears, blinked, and she saw him with her magic sight.

His wellspring was gone.

She ran out the door at a full gallop.


Wind tore at Twilight’s eyes, but not from the weather. It was just the air moving past her as she rocketed through the castle on nothing but her four hooves, her limbs propelling her fast enough to streak the tears from her eyes and fling them behind her. A small trail of salt water marked her path through the halls.

She had been heading back to Celestia’s chambers, her path being followed on habit and instinct. She didn’t need to get that far. A white blob topped with wavy pastel colors passed into her water-obscured vision, and she changed direction to run right at it. When she stopped, she didn’t slow. She just put all of her hooves on the ground and sat down, sliding right into the mass of luxurious white hair.

“Twilight?” Celestia asked. “Twilight, what’s wrong?”

Twilight panted, in and out, over and over while she fought back the tears, but it was like trying to fight the tide.

“Something’s not right. I wouldn’t have expected Towers to be able to break her.” She couldn’t see her clearly, but Luna sounded like her ‘public’ self again.

“Twilight, please. Steel yourself. What happened?” Celestia’s wings draped over her.

“Princess… Princess, I had no choice…” She sniffled. “I killed him!”

What!?” The Princesses asked in unison.

“He was poisoned! I had to!” She cringed and yelled at once, her face drenched in tears. “He was convulsing and there was blood everywhere and… and… I used the morphine…”

Celestia stomped her hoof. “Luna, investigate this. You have the Day Guard’s authority on this matter.”

Luna gave a small bow. “Of course, Sister.” Her mane whipped into a frenzy, and just like that, she was gone.

A gold-clad hoof embraced her as a teleportation spell swallowed them both. “Come, Twilight. It will be okay. Tell me everything.”


“And then he stopped moving, and I ran. I ran like a coward.” Twilight finished her story for the tenth time. A pile of tissues surrounded them, along with more buckets of sherbet and a half-eaten cake.

Celestia’s ethereal mane shifted direction, wafting over Twilight along with her giant wing. “Taking a life is never an easy thing. It never feels ‘good.’ It should never feel good. I know Luna tried to prepare you, but that’s not something anyone is ever truly ready for.”

Twilight nodded. “I think that’s why she used the illusion spell on the golems. Made them look like ‘real’ ponies. But this…”

“Is different, I know. Although Towers was once an enemy combatant, here he was utterly helpless. It would be more surprising, and troubling, if you didn’t experience such turmoil. Given his state, it’s natural for your instinct to want to be his protector even though you might have also hated him for what he did.”

Twilight put her hooves on top of her head. “Sometimes it’s amazing how well you understand…” Warm, white feathers stroked along her back.

“It’s something else when you have to take the life of a pony that is threatening you or loved ones. The same alicorn instinct that compels us to protect our ponies provides a type of psychological cover for times when our ponies are in trouble. The thing you must be careful of is not being unable to fight for your ponies sake but rather falling down a slippery slope of justifications to kill when you need not. I will help you with that. Luna will, too. We, sadly, have experience that will help you.”

“Ugh…” Twilight flopped her head down on the pillow. “I did not want to hear that. Me? A Nightmare? I couldn’t stop myself with Towers. I even wound up killing him even if it was a ‘mercy’ as you say. How am I supposed to calm myself after all of this?”

“Hmm…” Celestia scratched her chin with a primary feather.

“I mean, what if I kill somepony in a fight, and then I freeze up?”

Celestia nodded. “Well, normally adrenaline can help keep you—“

“And then there’s the fact that I thought of that first instead of worrying about the fact that I might have to kill in the first place. What if I start and I can’t stop myself? What if I become a monster?”

The wing hugged her again. “Oh, Twilight, I don’t think—“

“I know that some soldiers have difficulty differentiating between civilian life and the battlefield after traumatic experiences when they’re under stress. What if that happens to me? Or worse, you know how my head is. I can’t unlearn things, and they really like to stick with me. If I really do become proficient at fighting, what if that’s what I try to do all the time?”

“Twilight…”

Twilight buried her head in between her forelegs. “Luna’s always so aggressive. What if I become like her? I mean, she seems to be well restrained most of the time, but the way she talks? It’s like she doesn’t even care about who she’s hurting, even though I know that makes me sound silly when they’re trying to kill her as well. Why do ponies even do this?”

“Twilight…”

She groaned and ducked her head even farther down. “What if I lose all feeling when I fight and just go on a rampage and wind up hurting somepony innocent? What if I start to enjoy it? What if I wind up becoming a Nightmare?”

Twilight…

Twilight gasped. “What if I figure out a way to become immune from the Elements!? What if I’m an unstoppable monster that locks the world in a perpetual sunset!? What if I send you to the sun and Luna to the moon in a fit of illogical rage and maniacal laughter and enslave everypony for a thousand years!? What if I—“

A gold glow surrounded her muzzle, locking it open just in time for a large slice of vanilla cake to shove itself into her mouth.

Twilight looked up at her mentor, who was wearing a skeptically raised eyebrow and an ever so slight grin. Lowering her ears, she chewed on the cake and swallowed it, leaving an aftertaste of lemon and vanilla.

“Sorry… I was freaking out again, wasn’t I?” She curled her tail around to grab and stroke it with her forehooves. “Sorry…”

“As I said, it’s normal to be distraught, Twilight.” Celestia leaned down and gave her a slight nuzzle. “But yes, you were freaking out a little more than was, shall we say, logical.”

Twilight blinked. “So… you shoved some cake in my mouth?”

“Well, it always helps me.” Celestia winked. “Although that does usually lead to Luna teasing me a little over it. Truth be told, though, I think she’s just jealous. She couldn’t gain weight if she tried. But, that’s getting off topic. You want reassurance that you won’t become a monster.”

Twilight nodded and put her head back down, shivering.

The wing gripped her tight. “Twilight, you will not become a monster. You are a kind, wonderful pony, and the fact that you’re worried about it at all means just that. Trust me.”

“I do trust you.” Twilight sighed, leaning into her mentor. “I just wish I trusted myself more.”

Celestia looked off towards her closet. “It is in your nature to be worried about things, but I have confidence in you. Yet I gather you’re looking for something more than those words, and I may have something that can help. While the world and I recovered from the Lunar Rebellions, a Zebrican ambassador gave me a gift. Well, several gifts, but the most important one was this.” She lit her horn, and something ruffled in her closet before a small necklace floated over and landed in front of Twilight.

The necklace itself was mere string, but the jewel on it was anything but ordinary. A large, cylindrical emerald coiled over and over in a spiral, and a faint glow ran outward from its center.

“It looks like something Zecora would use to hypnotize somepony.” Twilight deadpanned. “Wait, something else…” She squinted, and the leylines within the object became visible.

“Oh ho, I see you’re beginning to see it now.” Celestia chuckled.

“It’s a core! A cored artifact! A small one, and the tiny bit of gold on it is the least amount of magically conductive material I’ve ever seen on something like this, but it’s definitely a core. What’s it used for?”

“Meditation,” Celestia said, giving her a small nuzzle. “It helps the mind focus. Normally such things are a mere placebo, but this, I can assure you, is authentic.”

Twilight sighed. “Then it’s useless for me. You know I can’t meditate. I’ve never been able to do that. I have to focus on something, even if it’s trivial. I’m just not capable of ‘emptying my mind.’”

“Give it—”

“Give it a try, I know, I know.” Twilight rolled her eyes. “It’s what you always say. And I always try, and I always fail.” She sighed. “But, here I go again anyway.”

Twilight put the gem down and stared at it. She stared at it like it was the only thing in the room, despite the wing over her back, the bed under her, and the slight wind from the balcony and all the other things distracting her. Naturally, this was a process that needed the utmost of focus. …And there’s no way this is going to work. “Sorry, Princess,” she said, lowering her ears.

Celestia leaned down to her. “Hold it in your magic, and try again.”

Twilight sighed. “Okay, here goes.” She did as she was told, lifting it up in front of her face with her magic. The little, glowing sparks in the gem sped up, swirling around. That’s an interesting reaction… She focused in on the gem, following its reaction as it swirled around, carefully monitoring each… little… change…


Twilight yawned, twitching her ears at the strange “whooshing” sound going through them, but elected to keep her eyes shut as she tried to find a more comfortable position on the… whatever it was she was lying on.

You’re not supposed to be here yet. I’m not ready for you.

Her eye popped open at the sound of the voice. It was a familiar one, but she couldn’t place it. This, however, radically dropped in priority to what she saw.

She was in the air or, perhaps more accurately, the sky. That is to say, she was very, very high up in the sky. She was also screaming and flailing her limbs about, flapping her legs like they were wings and getting nowhere. In particular, this last truth was slowly starting to creep into her mind. She was going nowhere, which meant that she was actually not falling to her high-velocity, splatter-filled doom.

Once she realized this, she blinked exactly three times and then stopped moving, followed by looking down. She was still very, very high up in the air and was most certainly not on anything soft, fluffy, and supportive like a cloud. The fact that she now thought of clouds as supportive didn’t enter her mind. Far more important was where she was and why she wasn’t falling.

With a little grunt, Twilight flipped herself over and stood up… on nothing. She was literally standing in midair. Far below her was a small patch of ground visible through a modest hole in the clouds. She could see the greenery in the sunlight, though the trees were mere specks.

The noise of the air was creeping back into the forefront of her mind now. She felt little wind on her face, but this place sounded like a hurricane, and she was in the eye. It wasn’t anything so simple as a thunderstorm or a hurricane. A torrent of wind swirled around her as if she was in the center of a tornado that reached all the way to the stars. The clouds had patches of white, dark blue, and everything in between, yet no black. She watched as it circled her, drifting to the very top of the funnel to make another realization.

There was no sun in the sky.

Sure, the ground below her was bathed in sunlight, and the clouds around her screamed ‘daytime,’ but the opening at the top of this place was all night. A black and dark purple heaven hung above her with little violet stars dotted through. Yet she could only see a maybe twenty degrees worth from the opening of the funnel.

“So…” she muttered to herself. “Just what happened? This isn’t meditation. It’s more like, hypnosis? No, that’s not quite right either.” Perhaps it’s more like a psychotic episode.

The thoughts in her head yelled out into the air rather than stayed put, echoing across the entire skyscape.

Oooookay, guess nothing’s private here, her mind announced to the world.

The wind raged, but there wasn’t anything else happening. The ground below her didn’t appear to move, so she and the funnel were stationary.

A couple more moments passed with nothing but her suspended in midair surrounded by the wind.

“Well, this is boring. Hmm…” She pondered at her position. “The air is surprisingly soft. Is it influenced by the fact that I was on Celestia’s bed? Could I be in some kind of strange, reflective mental state? If that’s true, can I move around in here, maybe fffffffflllllllyyyyyyyyyiiiiiiiieeeeeeeeee!?”

She flailed her legs, dropping like a stone towards the ground. “Badideabadideabadideabadideaveryverybadidea!”

Revisualize the surface underneath you! the voice from before yelled.

Twilight was not in the habit of hearing, much less listening to strange, disembodied voices. This one odd instance, however, was extreme enough to break both of those rules.

“Pleaseohpleaseohpleaseohpleaseohplease…” She quickly thought of the air itself as a cloud or bed or something, anything.

Her fall came to a sudden stop as a cloud materialized under her, miraculously cushioning her fall enough to avoid broken legs. Twilight decided to take this in the best way possible.

She hugged the cloud and started kissing it. “Yes! Mwuah! Yes! Oh, thank you, little cloud! Thank you for being illogically solid in the face of all physics! And thank you, pegasus magic! Thank you!”

You cannot be injured here except by yourself. Please don’t do that.

Twilight frowned a little. Hearing voices was very much not something she wanted to add to her list of abilities she kept in her diary. However, as long as it was being obviously helpful, she chose to ignore this inconvenient fact as she grumbled and sat up on her newfound surface.

“Okay, let’s stop dawdling. Why am I here again? Oh, right, Towers, meditation, that stuff.”

The sky around her grew darker.

“Ugh!” She grabbed her head with her hooves. “Stupid Towers. Stupid rebellion. Stupid everything. Why’d he have to go and get poisoned in front of me? Couldn’t he have waited a few moments!?” She gritted her teeth and slowly inhaled. Okay, now I’m just being unreasonable.

She sighed and flopped on her cloud. Tears fell from her eyes as the surroundings grew ever more somber. “What would it have taken to see what that nurse was doing… No, I can’t think like that. I can’t think I’m supposed to be perfect. Celestia’s already taught me that. And I can’t just be suspicious of everypony. That’s not what she taught me, either. It’s just…”

She sighed again and let the feelings flow. If there was anypony below her, they might’ve felt her tears as rain. Even the clouds around her looked like a storm now, and the day was fading. Her heart sat there with her, sobbing.

It will be okay…

“Thank you, strange voice.” Twilight chuckled. “I guess I do feel better… and… rested, I suppose. I can’t bring Towers back, but I can still try to figure out what’s really going on.”

Thunder rumbled in the background.

“And hopefully keep more from being hurt. Hopefully.”

Although she couldn’t see a sun, she could feel its warmth growing stronger, and the light overwhelmed her.


Twilight stretched out and yawned, pushing her hooves against Celestia’s bed.

Celestia’s bed! She snapped open her eyes and quickly looked around, and everything was as it had been when she tried ‘meditation.’ However, there was a critical difference. There were now a couple of tables filled with mostly eaten food, save for one large salad in front of her that hadn’t been touched.

“Aha, you’re awake! Well, technically you were never asleep, but I do find the gem’s meditation to be restful. How are you feeling?”

Twilight turned her head to see Celestia dining on some vanilla cake and smiling at her.

“I feel… better,” Twilight said, feeling the cues from her body. “A little sore, a little tired. But also rested and… calmer? What was that?”

Celestia bit down on another piece of cake. “It is said that the jewel is a mirror for the mind’s eye. What each pony sees in it is unique, personal. I myself find it to be a wonderful stress-reliever. Keep it. You may just find it useful in the future.”

“I heard voices,” Twilight deadpanned. “Not what I would normally classify as ‘stress-relieving.’”

Celetia laughed, covering her mouth with a napkin. “Well, that must have been interesting. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though. Again, each pony is unique. You should reflect on it on your own, however. I shouldn’t taint your interpretation with my own ideas. This is all up to you.”

Twilight sighed. “I was afraid of that. Well, I suppose I should get up and—” She glanced out the window, seeing the sun already almost completely under the horizon. “How long was I out?”

“Several hours, my student. Such is natural, and in each instance you use it, the timespan should decrease. I actually left and performed more duties in the Council, lowered the sun, and returned to find you still entranced. Then, I ordered us dinner. And, well, ate mine.”

Twilight glanced at the salad in front of her, and her stomach grumbled. “Okay, I guess I could eat.”

“Good plan.” Celestia winked. “Although I’m afraid I have to get back to the Empyreal Hall. They’re all panicking over what to do now that they can’t strip Shining, or Obsidian, of his crown anymore. They’ve tried every parliamentary trick in the book at this point, but the compact is absolute. I think they’re finally giving up and going on to new business. After that I have to visit the war room to discuss these memory wipe spells. That’s a possibility we hadn’t considered yet.”

“Ah.” She poked at her salad. “What about Luna?”

Celestia froze for a moment. “We… talked. It went better than I expected, but there are still raw feelings there. We came to an agreement that I would include her more in planning but that she should trust my judgement on them.”

“And what are your plans?” Twilight instantly regretted asking it. “Sorry, sorry! I know that’s not for—”

“No,” Celestia interrupted. “You may know if you like. I don’t have much time to go into details, but Luna made a very astute observation, even if she didn’t realize it at the time. Certain members of the Council have been attacking my strengths in the court of public opinion, and politics is different from a physical battle. In Luna’s fights, she looks for vulnerabilities. My political adversaries, however, have been diminishing my strengths so that ponies perceive only weaknesses. It’s an ingenious ploy, one I intend to use myself, now, along with a few other tricks. Most important is to again try to rebuild Luna’s reputation. Turn a weakness into a strength.”

“And you think my brother might help with that?” Twilight asked. “Since he’s a ‘politician’ you molded?”

“Correct.” Celestia redonned her shoes and decorative torc. “I still think this idea of inducting him into the Night Guard is a mistake, but I believe I have something I can work with now. I can only hope Luna trains him even more thoroughly than she did you.”

“Heh. Poor BBBFF. At least he’s in shape already.” Twilight took a deep breath and sighed.

“Is there something wrong, Twilight?” Celestia stretched her back. “You look like there’s something else on your mind.”

Twilight shook her head. “No, I’m fine. I—” Her ears went flat against her head. Fool. You know she can read you better than that. “Actually, there is one thing, but…”

Celestia’s smile was so warm it practically glowed. “You can ask me, Twilight. Anything you wish to know, remember?”

Twilight nodded. “I know. This just isn’t easy to ask. Princess, do you…” She shuddered, swallowing her words. “I mean, Towers, he… He said you were compromised.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Compromised? If he means we have leaks, I already know that. We’re still looking for them.”

“No, not that…” Twilight clenched her teeth. “I mean… He meant…” She swallowed again. Damnit, filly, spit it out! “He said you had sex with a council member!”

Twilight slapped her mouth shut with both hooves, holding him there and ducking down to prepare for Celestia’s seemingly inevitable, harsh reaction.

Instead, Celestia did something Twilight had never seen her do before. She blushed.

“Oh my.” Celestia blinked and lowered her own head. “It appears I was not as discreet as I thought.”

There was no flash, nor thunder, nor smell of ozone, but Twilight still flinched as though struck by lightning. “So it’s true…”

Celestia sighed and nodded. “There is indeed a pony on the Council I have… occasional relations with. But we have a strict rule to never talk about work. It’s little more than stress relief and endorphins for the both of us. I can assure you, I am not ‘compromised.’ If anything, I try my best to make his life, politically, a living hell for it just to ensure otherwise.”

Twilight clenched her eyes shut. “Tia…”

Celestia took a step forward. “Yes, Twilight?”

“That entire room voted against my brother. Whoever you’re seeing, they voted against him.” Twilight opened her eyes, staring directly into Celestia’s pupils. “I’m not going to forget that. Not now, not ever.”

Celestia’s wings dropped a little. “I understand. Truly, I do. If you find conclusive evidence of wrongdoing by any of them, I will impeach them myself, no matter who it is, and I won’t think less of you for it. I promise.”

Twilight stood up and strode over to her. “Are you sure? I don’t want this to come between us in the future. I know you’re the one giving me my missions, but I can’t help but feel Towers was right. Somepony in the Empyreal Hall is behind this. Or at least complicit in it. I am going to go after them.”

“Twilight…” Celestia sat down, bringing herself to Twilight’s level. “I promise you. If you find out that any of the Council is behind this, I won’t care who it is. I will bring the full weight of the crown’s justice upon them, and I won’t hold you back. I am up against a wall, and you are my secret weapon. When I find an opening, I will turn you loose on them such that they will all learn the fury of the alicorns first-hoof.”

Twilight’s gaze locked onto Celestia’s magenta eyes, looking for one all-important thing. No mask. She’s telling the truth. She reached up and gave her mentor a hug. “Thank you. I needed to hear that.”

Celestia’s wings unfurled and wrapped around Twilight as the hug was returned. “I am on your side, Twilight. Always. We can’t allow these ponies to divide us. We can only win working together.”

A lone tear rolled down Twilight face. Work together. Divide the conspirators. Towers was right about that, at least. “I know. I’m sorry, I just had to know. Thank you for being honest with me.”

The two broke the hug, sharing warm smiles.

“You should probably get going to the Council before they try to pass a law or something without you. If you’re leaving, though, I guess I’m eating alone,” Twilight said, contemplating her salad.

“You may take it with you to your friends if you like.” She donned the last piece of regalia: her crown. “Speaking of, I have some good news I’ve been meaning to share! While you were in training, we began construction on a new fort in Ponyville, equipped with a royal residence just for you. It’s getting close to finished already.”

Twilight blinked. “A royal re— You mean I’m moving out of the library? Although, I suppose a Grand Mage living in a tree isn’t the most normal thing…”

Celestia nodded. “Your tree is also unsecured, unlike the fort. This way, you may live either here or there at the fort as you please when you aren’t out and about. My, or rather our, servants have already started moving your things. The fort itself was actually supposed to be started sooner, but General Blueblood raised a fuss over its design in light of the attack. I half expected him to quibble over the bits, but he actually wanted to expand it. The new design has a catastrophe bunker for the whole town populace now, and he plans to install anti-airship cannons.”

“Aaaahhh, in case another fake Bellerophon comes around, they can try to shoot it down before it even gets to Canterlot. I’m guessing he’s putting in similar forts in the other towns in the area so they can catch things at any angle.” Twilight smiled. “I think I may have misjudged him. He’s just so…”

“Serious? Yes, he is.” Celestia opened her chamber doors and stepped into the archway. “But his heart is in the right place. Anyway, relax for tonight, see your friends, tell them what happened. Shed more tears if you must, for you will need your strength for your coming mission. I’ll make sure the Council can’t pull anymore surprises today. Tomorrow, you and Obsidian can both go visit your parents, and we’ll go through the final ceremony to formally install you as Grand Mage.”

Twilight fell backwards onto the bed. “I do not want to do that. The parents thing, I mean.”

“We had a deal, Twilight. I talk with Luna, and you talk with your parents.” Celestia chuckled.

“I know, I know. I’ll do it. Doesn’t mean it’s not going to suck.”

Ancestry and Legacies

View Online

“You realize this is going to suck, right?”

Twilight Sparkle nodded, keeping close to her brother as they made their way through an open-air market in Canterlot’s wealthy upper level. “Yeah. Yeah I do.” She took in a breath and sighed, taking in the scene on the market street. The white marble avenues and open sky overhead spoke of a peace she’d not known in ages, but they were drowned out by the stares of the ponies around her. Everywhere she looked, it seemed there was another pony pretending they hadn’t just been caught. “Ugh. We’re sticking out like a sore hoof. ‘Why is Twilight Sparkle being followed by a Night Guard? Is she in league with Nightmare Moon?’”

Obsidian chuckled, sounding like a subwoofer at one of Vinyl’s performances.

It’s going to take a while to get used to that new voice of yours, Brother.

“Don’t forget you’re wearing a torc with a giant gem in the center. Even the Duchesses don’t wear something so similar to the Princesses’ regalia.”

She glanced around at the ponies looking at them and grumbled. Dangit. I think he’s right… There are more staring at me. Oh well. It’ll all be announced tonight, and ponies probably just assume the rumors about me being given the title of Grand Mage are true.

They rounded a corner and headed down a series of ramps, each level seeming slightly less ostentation and more within a sensible upper-class budget.

“Do you know what happened to the nurse who—?”

“Not here, Twily. Not secure,” he reminded her.

“Right. Right, sorry. It’s just, I can’t believe I—”

“Not secure. But I completely understand. I’m sorry you had to do that. I think it was the right thing, though. I wouldn’t wish that poison on my worst enemy.” Obsidian’s brow furrowed while his vertical pupils narrowed. “Probably.”

They stopped well before the bottom, turning off at an indoor area with a large number of condos. Though the decor had none of the gold trim and marble of the Rue d’Argent or the fanciest parts of the city, the area was adorned in warm colors and antique touches. There was even a familiar, slightly musty smell that filled her heart with memories: this was home, with all it entailed, good and bad.

“I am really not looking forward to this,” Obsidian mumbled, his head low.

Twilight snorted, deftly avoiding a carelessly placed cord. “What are you complaining about? You’re her favorite!”

“Me!? News flash, Twily, you’re the one Mom brags about!”

Brags?” Twilight punched him in the shoulder, resulting in a clang as the shallow hit scraped against his armor. She rounded on her brother, and placed a forehoof against his chestplate. “Shiny, she doesn’t brag about me! You’re the son who became prince! I’m the one who can’t do anything right!”

He shook his head and draped an armored leg over her in a light hug. “Hey. You know that’s not true. She talks about you all the time. Element of Harmony, savior of Equestria? She can’t shut up about you.”

Twilights grimaced. “Oh, please. Remember your birthday? When she got you a variety case of ales? Later, when we went out to eat, I ordered a single glass of wine. One. What I always order and never go beyond. Do you remember what she called me?”

Obsidian’s stare went as vacant as one could get when having vertical pupils, obviously struggling to call up the memory.

Twilight leaned in near his ear. “An alcoholic! Me! Fluttershy drinks more than me!”

“Okay! Yeah, I remember now…” He held up his hooves in defeat. “But her standards for you are higher than they are for me, Twily.”

“Her standards are impossible!” She stomped a hoof. “Watch! We’re going to go around that corner, go inside, and after hearing all I have to say she still won’t be happy!”

Obsidian threw his forelegs around her. “And I’ll be on your side.”

Twilight froze then went all but limp. “I’m sorry, Shining. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. It’s not your fault.”

“Hey, I understand.” He gave her a light elbow. “She’s my mother too, after all.”

Twilight sighed. “Sorry. I’m just so… Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Obsidian nodded, before leading the way. Doors, hallway radiators, and lamps passed by as Twilight felt a warm, nostalgic rush go up her spine. The walls, though plain, were decorated by master artisans, and it showed. After one last turn they arrived at the very same set of numbers she’d seen time and again: condo 643.

“Here, let me get that.”

She raised her eyebrow as a key floated past her and into the lock. “You still have a key!?”

Obsidian blinked. “Um, yeah. Why?”

“They made me give up my key when I left for Ponyville!”

Obsidian blinked then put away the key. “Okay, so we knock, then.”

Twilight lifted a hoof, but her brother was faster, and the door shook like it was about to break from its hinges.

There was a scramble of hoofsteps behind the door, followed by a few locks clicking and clacking.

Did they install additional locks?

It swung open, and a unicorn mare with a striped white and purple mane poked her head out. “Twilight!”

“Hi, Mom,” the younger Twilight said, ducking her head down.

“Come in, come in! Celestia’s messenger said you’d be stopping by, and… Oh, my!”

The two siblings gracefully made their way into the condo. Twilight always felt it was a lot more cozy than most of the “showy” places in the city, making the most of a relatively small place. Warm, deep red walls and old, plush couches on deep carpet added to the ambiance.

Never taking her eyes off of Obsidian, Twilight Velvet’s hoof knocked the door closed. “Well, when I heard you were coming, I didn’t expect this! Not only do you look like a star athlete, but this stallion you brought with you…”

Twilight Sparkle’s ears went back against her head. “Um, yeah, it’s a bit of a long story.”

Obsidian turned around and lit his horn, swathing the door and walls in his magic. As the walls were covered the subtle dings and noises of the outside radiators faded away. As he finished, the only trace of magic left was a slight shimmer over the door. Twilight shuddered at seeing his dark violet magic; the changed color a reminder of his new “self.”

Her mother pulled a glass of wine over with her magic and took a sip. “So, when were you going to tell us you had a boyfriend?”

Twilight’s heart leapt into her throat. “Boyfriend!?”

“Lucid, dear!” Her mother yelled out. “Come in here and meet your potential future son-in-law!”

“Vhat!?” came a distant reply.

“Wait, no, you, you don’t understand!”

“Heh heh heh.”

Twilight felt the blood drain from her face. Even through the glamour spell, she could tell he had that look, and even though his voice had changed, she knew that laugh. It had been permanently burned into her mind as a filly and would forever be the bane of her existence.

“Well, what can I say?” He reached out with a foreleg and pulled her close. “She’s quite a catch.”

“Damnit, Mother!” She squirmed and pushed her way out of his grasp. “This is your son!”

The elder Twilight nearly dropped her wine. “Son!?”

“Yes!” the younger mare stomped both forehooves on the ground.

“You…” A tear started in her eye. “You married already!?”

“We thought it best to just go through with it and tell everypony later,” Obsidian chuckled.

The wine spilled on the floor. “You… Twilight, what were you thinking!?”

“That somepony was supposed to be on my side.” She growled.

Hoofsteps muffled on carpet sounded from around the corner as Lucid Dream, Twilight’s father, strode into the room. “Vat was this about a future son-in-laaaaa—?” His words ended the second he laid eyes on Obsidian, and a couple short seconds later, his rear fell straight to the ground. “Celestia im Himmel…”

Velvet cleared her throat. “Dear, meet your new son-in-law.”

“He’s not my husband, damnit!” Twilight grabbed onto Obsidian’s forelegs and pulled, yanking him down and causing him to hit his head on the carpet. She glared white-hot daggers through his stunned feline pupils. “Either you tell them the truth or I’m going to go tell Cadence what you’re doing, and I swear to Celestia, I will use the biggest, saddest puppy dog eyes Canterlot has ever seen!”

Obsidian looked at his parents for a brief second. “You wouldn’t.”

Her own voice dropped a register even through the hiss. “Try. Me.”

He looked over again then wilted in defeat. “Okay, okay, you got me.”

Twilight backed away to let him stand then punched him in the shoulder, her hoof clanking against the armor.

Velvet started using some magic to clean the wine stain while pouring some more in the glass.“Twilight, dear, what’s going on?”

Lucid rubbed his head. “I am confused too. You are not married?”

Obsidian sighed and took off his helmet, shaking his mane around enough to cause some bits of purple fire to fling into the air. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to actually be able to set anything alight. “No, we’re not. I was just being silly. Mom, Dad, it’s me. Shining Armor.”

The wine fell again.


Twilight had been lying on the couch for well over an hour. It was astonishingly rare to see her parents and Shining, or rather, Obsidian, have a legitimate argument, but despite his unfair teasing during their arrival, she had no interest in participating.

“I understand you didn’t want to just be a kept stallion, but the Night Guard!? Really?”

Oh, Mom. We both know what you really mean. Twilight yawned.

“Come on, Mom. It’s more than that. I can’t just let it end like it did. You and I both know that this ‘trial’ was a changeling hunt, and—”

“And so, what, you’re going to go out for revenge on the Council!?” Velvet grabbed him with her forelegs and shook him. “Are you nuts!?”

“She does have a schmal point zere, son.”

Careful, brother, they aren’t meant to know this. Twilight chuckled at herself. Not meant to know? A few short months ago, that would’ve been me, too.

Obsidian stepped out of his mother’s grip. “No, it’s a… Well, I can’t tell you that exactly. But this isn’t some game or some way to save face. I—”

“Of course it wasn’t a way to save face!” Velvet interrupted. “You’ve completely changed it!”

Obsidian shook his head. “Now you’re just being absurd. I’m still me.”

“Ze Nacht Garde isn’t known for being, shall ve say, kindly.”

“That’s putting it mildly!” Velvet downed an entire glass of wine in a single go. “I’m going to be the laughing stock of the garden club!”

And there we are. It’s all about your reputation, isn’t it, Mom? Twilight quipped and stretched out, staring at her hooves. You’re not going to be able to delay forever, filly. Get in that conversation and tell them.

Twilight rolled her eyes. As if that’s something one could call “conversation.” Even Charlemane was more polite.

She buried her face in the couch cushion. Twilight had always been quiet and reserved. While she steered clear of trouble, however, her brother did not. Fighting was his forte, but always with the purpose of defending something. Well intentioned or not, he frequently got punished for it. He even took responsibility for a few of her mistakes, innocent though they were. Such a history made this kind of scene all too common.

“Mom, Dad, I have news, too.” Words left her mouth, but they didn’t feel like her own. Her mind was numb as if she were outside in the dark looking into the warm room through a window. The fact that nopony was responding only reinforced this.

“I’m an alicorn.” She turned her head and glanced at the privacy seal on the wall. “I’m an alicorn,” she whispered.

This would be a lot easier if I had the wings or ethereal mane already. You guys hearing me back there? Her magic sight flickered to life for an instant, allowing her to see her leylines. They sat unchanged and without even the slightest hint of a single feather.

“I’m an alicorn.” Twilight curled up and tucked her tail next to her. She took it in her hooves and stroked it, an old habit returning from its grave. There wasn't as much room as there would have been in a condo in a city with more land to use, but Twilight actually preferred it this way. It was cozy and intimate, which normally made her feel more included. This, however, was not always a good thing, particularly in the midst of a heated argument. The yelling just became that much louder.

She pondered what she would do in this situation if she had already ascended; maybe if she’d just sprouted wings one day while sleeping in her treehome. Such a thought was preposterous, though. Had it happened like that, this conversation would have been very different.

In the past she would slink off to her room and curl up in her blanket with a book—after all, it almost never involved her directly. This time, however, was different. She needed to break through this. The Royal Canterlot Voice would have been perfect, but she hadn’t looked up that magic yet.

“I’m an alicorn.” The third time hadn’t been the charm, and this fourth attempt wasn’t looking so good either. Twilight clearly wasn’t having any success relying on sayings or calm assertiveness. Nopony was listening to her, so she’d have to find a creative way of making herself the center of attention.

Center of attention. I suppose I’d best get used to it at some point. I mean, I suppose I already am in some ways. But more so. As in, never leaving the spotlight. Ever. She grumbled and sighed then sat back up. Spotlight…

The idea was simple and intuitive—if a bit rude. Still, it was unlikely she was going to break through this argument without being at least a little rude. She just didn’t want to yell over them all, as it would only lead to more yelling, and that was not what she wanted right now. Hence, Plan Rudeness was a go.

She closed her eyes, reached out with her magic, and plunged the entire room into darkness.

“Vat ze…? Twilight?”

She opened her eyes, finding only the light of her horn and Obsidian’s dim, flaming mane providing any illumination. Yet, it was just enough to see what she needed to see. She finally had her parents’ attention. Their eyes were on her.

<<What are you doing, my night light? This isn’t like you.>>

A tiny smile creased her lips. It had been a long time since she’d heard her father call her by that nickname. She’d stay up so late reading (despite his best efforts) that when he got up to use the bathroom, he said that he could find his way from the light of her horn; hence, she was his “night light.”

Along with her father’s horn light, the tingle on her own horn told her that he was trying to wrest control of the light switches. She just shook her head then spoke in the same Germane dialect her father had taught her. <<I’m sorry, father, but this is important. I need you three to stop yelling at each other and listen to what I have to say.>>

“I hate it when they speak in Germane.” Velvet facehooved. “Could you two please use a language the rest of us can understand?”

The subtle glow of Obsidian’s mane moved closer to Velvet. <<Mother, you should pay attention. Twilight has something important to tell us.>>

Velvet rubbed her head. “And Roan, really Shining?”

“It’s the language my wife speaks, Mother.”

Velvet switched into her own special language. <<Why don’t you ever practice that Prench I taught you? You had such a wonderful accent.>>

Enough!” It wasn’t technically the Royal Canterlot Voice, but she still shook the room with it. When they were finally focused on her again, she turned on some of the lights. “I really need you two to listen to me. This is important. Starting tonight, I’m going to be taking a new position. Their Highnesses Princess Celestia and Princess Luna have seen fit to bestow upon me the title of Grand Mage.”

“Twilight, everypony already knows that!” Velvet protested. “I’m glad for you, really, but you shouldn’t just interrupt us.”

Twilight shook her head. “The implications of being Grand Mage are much greater than you know. It means that—”

“Wait a second, Twily!” Obsidian interrupted, reaching into a small compartment in his armor. “Princess Luna wanted me to do something before we told them this part. Here.” A pair of stone slabs floated out of his pocket, cradled in the stallion's magic. From what Twilight could see they both featured several inlaid gems, which pulsed in various hues of orange and green. As Obsidian placed them on the ground they rang with a light hum before sliding in front of their parents. “I need you to each put a hoof on these.”

“Shiny, what are those?” Twilight asked, examining one more closely while her mother put her hoof on it.

“They’re insurance—of a sort. You two ready?”

Their parents looked at each other. “I think so,” Lucid said weakly. “But you didn’t answer Twilight’s question. Vat are these?”

Obsidian held up a hoof and charged his horn. “Just, hold still. You’re going to see some small clouds form around your hooves. They’re completely harmless.”

Their parents nodded, and the gems in the stones began to glow. A fog formed around them that slowly crept up the two ponies’ legs. Eventually this mist became a ring of green fog that gathered around their fetlocks.

What is he doing? I don’t recognize this spell. Twilight squinted, trying to call on her magic sight, but to no avail.

Obsidian cleared his throat. “Twilight Velvet, Lucid Dream… The information you are about to hear is considered top secret. Do you swear to reveal this information only to those already privy to it?”

Their parents looked at each other once more and nodded.

The High Cardinal stood up straight. “I need you to speak your response.”

“We do,” they both said, and the mist glowed and solidified on their fetlocks, leaving a thin green band that slowly faded from sight.

“What was that, Shiny?” Twilight gave him a bit of a poke.

Obsidian took the slabs back and packed them into his armor. “That was a trigger spell. It’s a little like a geas.”

“Geas!?” the other three ponies yelled.

Twilight grabbed him with her hooves. “Shiny, those have been illegal since, since, well, forever!”

Somehow, a pony in Night Guard armor could look flustered. “Hey, wait, no, I used the wrong word. It’s not mind control. There’s no forcing you to do anything. All it does is send Princess Luna a signal if you break the promise. Which, by the way, would make you guilty of at least a Class-B felony, so I suggest you not repeat this to anypony. And yes, that means your noble friends, mother.”

“I didn’t—”

“You were thinking it.” Obsidian turned to his sister. “Twilight? It’s all yours.”

Twilight relaxed a little. “Twilight Velvet” was infamous for being one of the single biggest gossips in Canterlot. She made Rarity look like somepony who had taken a vow of silence. Now, though, she would have a degree of protection.

“Thanks, Shining. I appreciate it. Mom, Dad, being promoted to Grand Mage is a wonderful honor for me, but there is much more to the position than is known to the public. It’s not just being favored by the Princesses or excelling at spellcasting. It’s much, much more.”

She got up and began to pace using a particular path in the room that she used to trot back and forth as a filly while talking about what she had learned in her studies. “The day before the attack on the castle, I completed a new type of spell: one that simply isn’t possible for unicorns to cast. When Princess Celestia found out, she moved me back into the castle and told me—” The words died in her mouth as she choked on her tongue. Come on, filly, just like we practiced.

She swallowed, the back of her throat feeling like sandpaper. “She told me that… that I had just started to become like her. An alicorn.”

Silence. She couldn’t quite tell if this was better or worse than the arguing.

Her speech almost ended, she stopped pacing and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she saw two dumbfounded and confused ponies staring at her. She could sympathize fairly easily with that; after all, it was happening to her. Worse, she could see the problems in the conundrum of how to respond to a speech from a daughter that was essentially “Hey! I’m a pseudo-divine entity of crazy power now! Isn’t that neat?”

Her forelegs shook as she forced the rest of the words out of her mouth. “I know this wasn’t what you were expecting today, but it’s the truth. She… Princess Celestia said I’d be a true alicorn in ten years. I’ve already started to exhibit some pegasus magic. In time, I’ll be getting wings, too. I know it’s confusing, even overwhelming, but… but…”

She clenched her eyes shut, angling her head down so that just in case she betrayed herself, she’d only see her hooves.

Their eventual response was one that she hadn’t predicted in the slightest. Her father stepped up to her first, and embraced her in a giant hug. Her mother came next, and then Obsidian embraced them all. She was in the center of one of the best group hugs in history.

So why couldn’t she feel any comfort?

She pushed herself out of the hug as gently as she could. “Ex, excuse me, I— I— I need to get to the bathroom!” Crying already, she ducked and pushed herself out of the group and ran.


“Did we do something wrong?”

Obsidian shook his head. “I don’t think so, Mom. This has all been extremely difficult for her lately. She’s already had to do some things before she was ready, and it’s probably just taking its toll. Let’s give her some time. Better to work through it now while she’s with family.”

Lucid looked off in the direction of the bathroom. “Ya, I suppose… But, my daughter? An alicorn? Shining, ponies don’t just change tribes. Zis doesn’t seem possible.”

Velvet gave him a glare. “I swear, Shining, Princess or not, if she’s stringing my daughter along in a lie for some hair-brained political—“

“Three months ago, mother—“ Shining said, his voice all but roaring “—She used pegasus magic for the first time. Literally leapt three stories from the floor of Celestia’s private dining room clear to the ceiling. All from the wind she could summon. And that’s just the beginning. She might not have the wings yet, but she absolutely has the magic. Magic she didn’t have a year ago. This. Is. Real.”

Velvet’s face twisted into a half sneer. “The Obliege family is going to shun me from everything. They’ve been spouting nonsense about ‘breeding’ the next alicorn for centuries. I swear I’m going to get swarmed with jealous backstabbers because of this.”

Obsidian shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s not a question of genetics. It’s a question of wellspring depth. Twilight… Twilight is so far beyond everypony else… She makes a normal unicorn look like a puddle next to an ocean. Me? The Generals? Honestly, I think if you put us all together, then and only then would we be in the same league. Twilight is the first pony in ages to be powerful enough to start the change.”

“Doesn’t matter to the families.” Velvet mumbled, lifting her glass, ready to fill it again. As the liquid neared the spout, she stopped, and put the bottle down with a sigh.

“Dear, really.” Lucid draped a foreleg over her shoulders. “We should be happy for her! This is a dream come true for Twilight!” Lucid looked off towards the bathroom, lifting a worrisome hoof to his chest. “At least, I think it is…”


Twilight slammed the door behind her and locked it in a panic . She scrambled to the mirror, rearing up to place her forehooves on the sink to get a better view of the mare looking back at her. Her mane was frazzled and long, and her bangs were hanging over her eyes. The split ends she so frequently battled had made a triumphant return. She turned on the hot water, filled a bowl made of her magic, and splashed it on her face.

“What’s wrong with me?”


“Dad, you remember how you got involved with that Council panel on euthanasia for the terminally ill?”

Lucid nodded. “Ya, zat I do. Years ago. Bit of a waste of time, ya? I’m a somnologist. I knew ven they started talking about near-death experiences and dreams they veren’t being serious.”

Obsidian gritted his teeth a bit. “Well, we had a pony in custody, but somepony slipped angel extract into his IV.”

The doctor’s blue coat went nearly white.

He continued, “Twilight was the only other pony there. He started to, well… Twilight pushed a few grams of morphine into him just before the worst came.”

“A few… grams!?” His haunches hit the floor with a thud. “Celestia have mercy…”

Obsidian sighed. “It was a mercy. Preliminary toxicology suggests he had twice that amount of angel extract in him, all directly injected by IV. He must have been in absolute, unrivaled agony the entire time he was talking to her. You should be proud of her, Dad.”

Lucid’s lip trembled. “I am, absolutely. I vould have done ze same thing, but… it’s just a shock… My poor little filly…”

“Hmph.” Velvet sneered. “From what my friends have told me, I bet it’s that old coot, Towers. Serves him right for trying to hurt my daughter.”

Obsidian kept his face as still as granite. I am going to have words with General Blueblood. Either the Guard or the Council is still leaking like a sieve.


Twilight was fighting tears in her bloodshot eyes, even though she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to. She opened her mouth and checked it along with her ears and nose. She stuck out her tongue and looked at it’s color, and even ran a telekinetic field into her throat to see if anything was amiss. They were just motions, really—things she did when she thought she was sick or there was something wrong with her. She wasn’t even really running comparisons or anything, just doing what came naturally.

What came naturally. Ha! What an awkward phrase that was to her now. Her definition of “natural” was being violently changed as of late.

It should have been something intimate and precious: a feeling of closeness and inclusion only a family could make. She’d felt it before. Even as a filly with no friends or inclination to make them, she loved her parents and brother dearly and would always be overjoyed when they were all together and happy. But that wasn’t the emotion she felt just then.

She gathered up a large ball of water and splashed it on her head…


“And that’s the long and short of it. Twilight’s going to be the Princess’s right hoof for a while. I pray Luna’s prepared her enough.”

“I’m not sure I vant our daughter to be doing this, son. Ve already have one child in the military. Und she’s already had to kill a pony? This is Twilight! My Night Light! She isn’t the type to be able to deal with this!”

Obsidian stood up to match his father’s aggressive stance. It was almost silly to do, since a part of him agreed, but he had to push back a little on this for Twily’s sake. Fortunately, he towered over his father.

“Believe me, Dad, I’m aware of this. All of it. Every. Little. Detail! If I wasn’t, I’d be fighting it tooth, horn, and hoof. But—” he paused and drew a slow breath “—I trust that the Princesses know what they’re doing even if it sounds a little extreme. They had to ascend too, after all.”

“Wait!” Velvet yelled, jumping in between the stallions. “You’re telling me that Princess Celestia and Princess Luna—”

He nodded. “Were both once unicorns. That, by the way, is also top secret. Keep it to yourselves. The tribalists will have a field day if that gets out.”


A wave of water washed over her face, soaking her head thoroughly as she coughed from some of the water going down into her lungs. As she turned and looked to the closet for a towel, her hoof slipped on the wet tile underneath, sending her to the floor. Both her torc and her head hit with a clunk. With a groan, she pushed herself up in the midst of her own mess. Slowly, and with a slight limp, she walked the three steps over to the radiator and flopped back down next to it.

As a filly, it had been a favorite spot of hers. Whenever the condo had gotten too drafty, she’d grab a book and find a hot radiator to lie next to or even lean on if it wasn’t hot enough to burn her. Wearily, she lay down next to it.

No warmth.

She put her ear next to it to confirm that it was on and leaned directly on it. Still nothing. Rubbing against the metal, she started to scratch her shoulder, but froze as still as a statue instead. Her coat was different. It was softer and thicker. Much less like a unicorn’s coat and more like a pegasus or an—

“Alicorn.”

Earth ponies and unicorns normally had coarse coats of hair. It could be made softer with the right shampoos, but even then, no amount of product could get them to be as soft, thick, and comfortable as a that of a weatherproof pegasus coat. It was closer to fur than hair, enough that it let them survive extreme temperatures even when wet, and she had just put her wet coat against a hot radiator and felt not one iota of heat.

In a panic, she rushed to the toilet and started dry heaving over and over. She wanted to throw up so badly, to do something that would give her some kind of release, but her body wasn’t complying. All it did was make her stomach hurt worse when she stopped and lay back down on the wet floor.


“Look, I’m not entirely happy with the situation, either. Every bone in my body wants me to follow her everywhere while she’s in danger, but it’s been made patently clear to me I can’t do that. You want to know the real reason I took this job? It’s so I could keep my ear to the ground and maybe help her out behind the scenes. I promise, I’ll always have her back.”

“And what is it, exactly, that Luna is going to have you do to protect her?” Velvet demanded.

Obsidian narrowed his eyes at her. “Whatever my Sovereign needs of me shall be done.”


There. Her mane was at least presentable again. She hated using her mother’s scratchy brush, but it somehow felt wrong to wear a regal torc and let her mane get bad enough to invite fussing from Rarity.

She sat down and purposefully hit her head on the wall, leaving a small hole from her horn. A mere hug was causing her to panic more than Discord ever could, and it wasn’t just a lack of warmth. She did feel warmth, but it wasn’t the same feeling she was used to. She didn’t feel, “It would all be okay,” from the hug.

She felt, “You need to protect them.”

It terrified her.


“I suppose we could have taken this news better.”

“No, Dad, believe me, this went about as well as could be expected. This is not the kind of thing you expect a daughter to come home and announce. Honestly, this isn’t the kind of thing you ever expect to hear from anypony.”

“True,” his mother said. “It’s not like she’d said she was getting married after all.”

Crap, Obsidian thought. This is going to get really ugly in a few seconds.

“Velvet, dear, you did not just say that.”

He knew his parents extremely well. His mother was about to sit up a little on that tiny, black couch, put her hoof to her chest, and feign innocence.

“What? I didn’t mean anything by it.”

Then, his father was going to point a hoof at her and give a comment that makes his mother drop the act.

“Our daughter is becoming an alicorn, Velvet! I can’t believe you’d think to pressure her into a relationship right now. Stallions and foals are going to be the furthest thing from her mind!”

Sometimes it was awful to be right.

“Well, then I need to remind her! Or don’t you want grandfoals of your own? Being an alicorn doesn’t mean she can’t give us them!”

“Actually, it does.” The very instant the words left his mouth, he regretted it. Now, he had two distressed and concerned parents staring at him instead of each other. His father wasn’t that bad, but his mother… “Alicorns can’t have children,” he said, wincing.

“Who made that stupid rule!? I am going right to Celestia, and I’m going to tell her that just because she hasn’t had anything in between her flanks in a thousand years doesn’t mean that she can tell my daughter—

The bathroom door swung open. “It’s not a rule, Mom.”

Obsidian’s neck turned so fast it would’ve snapped had he done it any quicker. Oh thank Luna, Twilight’s finally back!

His relief was short lived as he started mentally kicking himself for thinking like that. She was plainly still worried and nervous as she slowly made her way back into the room to rejoin the conversation.

“Mother, it’s not a rule. It’s a biological fact.”

Twilight Velvet’s eye was twitching. “You mean I have to rely on him for grandfoals now!? It’s been over a decade! He’s probably never even touched her!”

“I have sex with Cadence all the ti— I cannot believe I just said that to my parents.”

“Darling, we’ve been over this.” Lucid rubbed his wife’s shoulders. “Ze Princess is a winged unicorn. Zey always have a hard time with pregnancy. It’s natural, ya?”

She knocked his forelegs away. “No it’s not! None of this is natural! What am I supposed to do now!? All of my friends are talking about their grandfoals! When they ask where mine are, am I going to just say, ‘Oh, my daughter is a barren alicorn, and my daughter in law a half-barren love goddess?’ This is insanity! There’s no way I’ll get into the nobility at this rate! Who’s going to sign an elevation petition when my family can’t even make grandfoals!? Let alone form a whole house!”

Twilight growled, her bangs hanging in front of her eyes.

Obsidian winced. Oh Tartarus. Mother, why did you have to?

Twilight all but stomped up to Velvet. “I always suspected, but there it is, isn’t it? That’s really all we are to you. Some means of making your way into the nobility. Newsflash, Mother dear, nobility only applies to family lines going down. Descendants, not parents or ancestors. We’re not your bucking meal ticket!

“Twily…” Obsidian whispered. “Hey, come on, she didn’t—”

She damn well meant it! She meant every word. The only way she can become a Countess is if she gets a bunch of Dukes to sign the petition, and she wants to use our titles to justify it! That’s been her plan all this time!” His sister snap-turned to the door like a soldier in a formation, phasing through and dissolving the ephemeral privacy shield. “I’m not going to listen to another word of this. I’m leaving. Don’t bother following. Oh, and Mom?”

Obsidian recoiled as Twilight turned back towards them, her glare at their mother making the meager indignation the nobility normally exuded look welcoming.

“As Grand Mage, I’m going to make damn certain you never get an elevation petition. Ever.”

The door swung closed and slammed with enough force to crack the frame.

Good for the Goose

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“And then I ran straight here.” Twilight drank the last of her after-dinner tea at Celestia’s dining table, sitting next to both the Princess and a small bundle of tissues. “At this point, I kind of wish I had stayed. If I run from that, how can I face—?”

“No, I believe you did the right thing.” Celestia took another bite of her alicorn-sized portion of cake. “It’s important to have a clear head in tense situations, and family can bring about intense emotions, alicorn or not. Retreating to cool off was a wise course of action.”

Twilight stretched out and sighed, letting her longer than normal mane flow out onto the carpet. “I suppose. I just wish this was… unique. I mean, yes, this was exceptionally bad, but it’s not the first time I’ve slammed that door and ran out. Still, she’s my mother. I can’t avoid her forever.”

“Hmmm…” Celestia lifted a cup to her lips, pausing before drinking. “Well, the ball is in her court now. Give her some time before trying to talk to her again. Let things calm down before you try to make amends.”

“I’ve been trying to ‘make amends’ for my entire adult life… I don’t know what it’s going to take to get through to her. But, I suppose you’re right. I’ll wait, and try again. I’m still ticked at her for now.”

“Hmm…” Celestia put another piece of cake in her mouth, swallowing delicately with the grace demanded of a princess. “Perhaps we should—” She paused as she glanced over to the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. “Oh my. We appear to be late.”

“Late?” Twilight tilted her head. “For what?” A little grin surfaced on her lips from remembering a foalhood lesson. “And didn’t you once tell me that a Princess can’t be late?”

“I did say that. But we are not where others anticipated us to be at this time.” Celestia said, quickly looking around her room, even checking under stacks of books.

“What are you looking for?” Twilight got up and stretched. “If we’re late, shouldn’t we get going?”

“Yes, yes we should.” She ducked her head under the table. “And I’m looking for Luna. You never, ever know where she could be hiding.”

“Why Luna?”

Celestia’s horn lit up and lifted the dinner fork from the table, stabbed the piece of cake, lifted it up to her head, and then stuck the entire thing in her mouth in one giant bite.

Twilight’s mouth hung open, eye twitching, and her pupils were the size of pinpricks.

“What?” Celestia said, with her mouth full. “I’m not going to waste good cake.” After a few massive chews, she swallowed it down and daintily wiped her lips with an embroidered napkin afterward. “Now come. I have a surprise for you. Well, the first of several, actually.”

Twilight shook her head hard enough to rattle her brain inside her skull. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to top that one, Tia. Then again, each time I think that…”

Celestia giggled. “Never underestimate the abilities of a ten-thousand-year-old alicorn when it comes to messing with her subjects. Now, to the banquet hall.”


“Let me guess. It’s a party.”

“Why, Twilight, however did you know?” Celestia asked with a grin.

“Well, let’s see. You’re leading me to the banquet hall for something, and there’s very little light coming from under the door. All I’m seeing is what’s from the sunset. I’m guessing you have the other Elements in there and had Pinkie arrange a surprise party.”

“Observant as always, my student. Inviting Pinkie to a party to celebrate your new title and role was, as they say, a no-brainer.”

“True, but you know it’s hardly a surprise party if I know what’s coming, right?”

“You misunderstand, Twilight!” a new voice shouted from next to her ear.

Twilight spun around so hard she slipped on the tile, nearly bringing her chin to an unfortunate rendezvous with the floor. “Gah! Don’t do that, Luna!”

Luna stepped out of the shadows with a laugh. “Oh, but ‘tis such fun! Now hush, it’s time for the surprise.”

“Surprise? But I know it’s—”

Luna put a hoof to her lips. “This surprise is not for you. It is for them.”

The Princess of the Night lifted head up high, her mane growing dark. Wind rushed through the antechamber and pushed open the doors to the hall, bringing the dark cloud of her ethereal mane with it. The chandeliers and windows in the next room dimmed to nothing, their light extinguished entirely. All was darkness, save for one special, exceptionally bright spotlight pointed at in the very center of the room.

A hoof gave Twilight a gentle shove, telling her exactly what she needed to do. With her ears flat against her head, Twilight strode into the room, her hoofsteps barely making a sound.

Whispers chattered in the darkness as she approached, and for a brief moment her magic sight flickered to life. In front of her, beyond the spotlight, were six wellsprings lined up in a row. No, Twilight thought. Not six wellsprings. Seven. Fluttershy has an extra. That must be how Celestia knew…

She took in a little breath and let it out, pausing for a small moment in front of the light. She lifted her head high and put a single hoof into the light. The moment in time froze as small specks of dust danced in the air, and the hairs on her back stood up on end.

Three months of training… Luna never said how to handle this. No, I can’t think like that. These are my friends. That’s all that matters now.

Ducking her head slightly, she stepped into the light.

“Hello, girls…”

Twilight closed her eyes and puffed out her chest a little, letting her torc shine in the light.

“Twilight… You’re…”

Through brightening light and tears, she could see her friends standing in front of her. Rarity’s mouth hung open mid-sentence, Fluttershy looked awed, and Pinkie’s face was completely unreadable.

“It is pretty crazy.” Twilight wiped her eyes. “I’m—”

“Buff!”

Pinkie’s outburst forced all the ambiance out the window, along with the remaining darkness and maybe a few of the curtains as a chorus of snickers erupted from some of the others.

“What?” Twilight raised an eyebrow.

“Darling, have you looked at yourself?” Rarity trotted up to her. “I mean, my word, dear! Rainbow said you’ve been training, but I thought she just meant magic! Clearly, I was mistaken. You do not have a librarian’s figure anymore!”


Rainbow flexed her foreleg. “Hay, yeah! We’ve been putting her through the wringer. You don’t do what we’ve been doing for three months and not build some muscle!”

“Rainbow!” Twilight rolled her eyes and chuckled a bit before lifting her head in shock at how similar the muscle tone of their bodies’ were. Rainbow was in even better shape than she was, but Twilight hadn’t quite realized how much the gap had closed.

Pinkie clapped her hooves and bounced a little. “Yay! This means I can add ‘and got totally buff’ to the ‘Hey wow you’re Grand Mage now’ party banner I hid under the table!”

Applejack rubbed her head. “Pinkie, how in blazes did ya manage to sneak that in?”

Twilight giggled and smirked. “Don’t ask, Applejack. She’s Manehatten’s premier party planner pony for a reason. Hard to believe it’s been, what, eleven years now?”

“Yup!” Pinkie pulled out a cupcake with an “11” on it and scarfed it down. “Eleven years of awesome parties in Manehatten! Oh, Twilight, you shoulda been there for this one I did last winter! There must’ve been three thousand ponies all partying like it was a new year!”

“Wait.” Rainbow held up her hooves. “You mean that party that spread into Times Square on New Year’s was you?”

“Oh yeah! It was New Year’s! I forgot. I guess even I can’t handle that much alcohol anymore!”

The chorus of laughter was like a dose of hydrocodone to Twilight’s muscles, melting the tension in seconds. Oh Celestia, thank you. You too, Pinkie.

The conversation drifted from topic to topic, the group’s memories churning to the surface. Sixteen years of laughter and antics played back like a photo reel. From Rarity starting her Canterlot studio, to Rainbow’s first days in Basic Training, all the way to a relatively recent incident involving Twilight, a leyline, and an experiment that flooded a not-insignificant portion of the Ponyville.

Twilight let them talk, soaking in the joy in front of her. Rarity had grown into quite the successful businessmare and was wearing something that Twilight assumed must be from her fall line. Fluttershy was as quiet as ever, though her hair was shorter now. She was also showing a bit in her belly.

Pinkie had arguably changed the most. Her mane was just a bit less poofy, and she was wearing a business suit, something that could easily have been found on any executive in Canterlot. Even her voice was about an octave lower than before, though it still carried every last bit of cheerfulness it always had.

Twilight smiled, thinking, I guess we’ve all grown up, in a way.

Pinkie waves her forelegs about. “Oh! Oh! Hey, Dashie! Remember that time we followed Mayor Mare around while belching the Equestrian National Anthem?”

Well, sort of…

Rainbow laughed. “Yeah, and then we spent the afternoon trying to get Twilight here to help us fill her office with kumquats. We need to do that again, but with kiwis this time!”

“Oooh, oh! Great idea! But how are we going to catch that many kiwis?”

Twilight chuckled. “And yet, some things stay the same.”

“What stays the same?” Pinkie scratched her head.

“Er, things, but that’s not important right now.” Twilight said, standing and moving towards the center of the group. “As fun as this is, Celestia didn’t invite you all here just for a chat—though I definitely needed it.”

“I imagine this has something to do with the aforementioned training, n’est-ce pas?” Rarity took a sip of her gin and tonic. “Although, word is abuzz that you’ve been named the next Grand Mage of Equestria. I suppose there must be some truth to the rumor, then.”

Twilight nodded. “Yeah, it’s true, but… it’s also not the whole truth.”

Rarity jerked her head back and blinked. “Well, now, things are getting interesting.”

“You could say that.” Twilight shrugged. “Applejack, Spike, and Rainbow already know everything I’m about to say since they’ve been here for it all. But, the thing is, being a Grand Mage isn’t just about being an extremely learned or skilled unicorn. It’s not even about being the most powerful unicorn.”

“Wait wait wait.” Rarity held up a hoof in protest. “Are you saying that you are the most powerful unicorn?”

Twilight cringed. “Kind of, but…”

“Pfft. Like any of us doubted it!”

“Rainbow!” Twilight glowered.

“Right, sorry, your thing.” She sat back down, scratching the back of her head with an uneasy grin.

Twilight squeezed her foreleg. “Anyway, Rarity, that’s partially true. I am the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. Or, at least, I was.”

“Um, somepony beat you?” Fluttershy ducked her head, her soft voice barely audible.

“No, not that either.” Twilight stood back up, straightening her back and lifting her head. “Unicorns whose wellsprings get to a certain depth start to undergo a change. Over the course of time, we begin to grow taller, our horns get longer, our manes become an expression of our power, and… we get wings.”

An uneasy calm washed over them as the three friends receiving the news for the first time all dropped their jaws. It was only finally broken from the slightest of astonished squeaks from Rarity.

“Twilight,” she whispered, her voice as soft as Fluttershy’s. “Are you saying that…?”

“Yes.” Twilight nodded. “Celestia and Luna project that within a decade’s time, give or take a year or so, I will become a full alicorn. I already have some pegasus magic. I can walk freely on clouds without the aid of enchantments or a cloud-walking spell. I have some earth pony magic, too, and, Applejack, I finally, truly understand what you mean when you say you can feel the ground help you run.”

The room stood in silence while Rarity’s grin grew wider and wider. Her eyes were lit up like a chandelier at night. The only sound was the rubbing of her fore hooves together.

“Um, Rares?” Applejack poked her with a hoof.

Rarity bolted forward and grabbed Twilight by her shoulders. “I’m friends with the next alicorn!?”

“Um… yes?” Twilight forced a smile. To her great relief, she had managed to avoid squeaking.

Rarity cleared her throat and resumed her poise, pulling out a brush from her purse and stroking her curls. “You know, Twilight, darling…”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. This was not an expected tone of voice. “Yes, Rarity?”

The fashionista fluttered her eyelashes. “I would be willing to, shall we say, switch teams, if the right princess swept me off my—”

A pair of orange hooves pulled Rarity back to the rest of her friends.

“Hold on there, Rares. Twilight’s our friend, not one of your storybook weddin’ prospects. Go on, Twi. You were sayin’?”

Twilight breathed a sigh of relief and gave Applejack a look of thanks. “Yes. Sorry, Rarity, but honestly, romance is the thing farthest from my mind right now.”

“As normal, then, hmm? Oh well, I suppose I’ll have to make do with my new boyfriend.”

“Rarity, let Twilight talk.” Spike shot her a glare.

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Please, continue.” Rarity put away her brush and sat down next to Applejack.

“Anyway.” Twilight sighed. “Three months ago, I completed a new type of spell, one that I didn’t realize could only be cast by alicorns. When I sent Celestia the notes, she pulled me, Spike and—since I had told her about it—Applejack away from Ponyville and kept us in the castle to keep word from getting out… well, prematurely.”

“Change means somepony loses something.” Spike folded his arms. “Big changes means some ponies are going to lose a lot. There’s no way a new alicorn is going to go over smoothly.”

“Exactly, Spike.” Twilight took a few steps towards her friends. “To help protect me, Luna gave Spike and me combat training in her unique styles, but we’re still trying to keep this as quiet as possible, so you can’t tell anypony. And I mean anypony. It’s not for forever, as I’m not going to be able to hide it indefinitely, but if we can keep it under wraps long enough for me to get the Princess's magical durability, it’ll hopefully be too late for any of these organizations to hurt me.

“I’m telling you all this because you’re my friends, and I’m going to need your support and friendship now more than ever. Most of all, though, I need your absolute promise that you will not tell a single soul about any of this.”

Applejack and Fluttershy both nodded, doing the motions of a Pinkie Promise. Pinkie herself was strangely quiet and wide-eyed, and Rarity was… staring at Twilight’s hooves.

“Um… Rarity?”

“Hmm?”

Twilight glanced over to Applejack, who was busy scratching her head, and Spike, who shrugged. Twilight straightened her foreleg and slowly lifted it up to her face, her friend’s lost gaze following until they made eye contact.

“Oh! Twilight! I am sorry, dear! I was just thinking, since they gave you that lovely torc that compliments your colors, why not get some matching shoes! I don’t think something as grandiose as what the princesses have would suit you, truly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have something that—”

“Rarity!”

“Yes, Twilight?”

“This is serious! I need you to promise me—”

Rarity waves her hoof. “Yes, yes, no gossip about the whole ‘becoming a goddess’ thing. I’m in business, darling, and my business skills aren’t as narrow as they used to be. Certain secrets have to be kept to stay competitive. At least until you’re ready to use it to crush your rivals underhoof.”

A cold silence fell over the room while Rarity shifted her examination to various parts of Twilight, no doubt thinking up any number of possible creations.

I’m not sure what’s worse: Rarity dressing me with her eyes or the way she worded that…

Twilight swallowed. “Anyway, that’s another thing I’ve learned. Alicorns are not gods. They’re…” She stopped herself. “We’re ponies. More powerful, sure, but still ponies. We aren’t omniscient, we do make mistakes, we learn, laugh, cry, and… we still need friends…” She played a bit with her mane.

Applejack approached her slowly. “And we’re going to be there fer ya, sugarcube! Ain’t that right, girls?”

Nods followed from all the girls, even a slight one from Rarity while in the midst of her mental designing spree, with two exceptions. Pinkie Pie had been entirely still the whole time, but it was Fluttershy’s response that got Twilight’s attention.

She was bowing.

Twilight leaned forward and gently tapped her shoulder, shaking her head, and Fluttershy looked up. “Please, don’t.”

Fluttershy ducked down further, backing away before standing.

“Girls, listen to me. I know it’s ‘normal’ to bow to an alicorn, but not you. Not any of you.” She flopped over on Fluttershy, being extra careful to be gentle. “I don’t want any of you to. You’re my friends. Not my subjects.”

“Um, Twi?” Spike poked her in the back with a claw. “You do realize me and Rainbow are your guard, right? We’re going to have to sometimes.”

Twilight nodded. “If it’s a formal thing where you have to, fine. Anytime else, I don’t want you to. Okay?”

Fluttershy squeaked and nodded. “Um, okay. If that’s alright. I mean, you’re…”

Twilight looked Fluttershy in the eyes. “It’s more than alright. It’s what I need. Please…”

“Then it’s what we shall provide, dear.” Rarity assured with a wave of a hoof. “No bowing, I promise. Even if you are wearing a royal torc. You know, you really should accessorize a little more. Maybe a saddlebag, but what kind of strap…?”

“Rarity…” At least four of them deadpanned, possibly including Spike.

“Oh, hush. It’s not like I… Iiiiiideeeeeaaaa!!”

Four different groans rumbled through the room.

The fashionista pulled out a notebook. “I’ll have advance knowledge of when the next princess is going to be crowned! I can design and make an entire line of themed dresses and outfits and keep them hidden then, when the time comes, have them out the door before any other designer even has a chance to get to a drawing board!”

“Right, well, anyway, that about sums things up I suppose. I just—” Twilight stopped for a moment. Four of them groaning meant there were three that weren’t. One was obviously Rarity, and Fluttershy wouldn’t make that much noise, which left the other…

“Pinkie? Are you with us?” Twilight approached her, but her friend didn’t move. She was as still as the statues in the gardens. “Pinkie?” Twilight waved a hoof in front of her face.

“Twilight…” Pinkie spoke softer than any of them had ever heard before.

“Yes, Pinkie?”

“Alicorn… Twilight…”

A nervous look passed between the rest of the girls before Twilight spoke again. “Right. That’s what I’m becoming. Is something the matter?”

“Can’t… tell anyone…”

Twilight blinked a few times and looked closely at Pinkie. She was shaking. It was hard to see and very subtle, but the conclusion was unmistakable, seeing as she was blurry.

“Um, yeah. That’s the gist. This knowledge is kind of dangerous right now. That’s not a problem, right?”

“Not… a problem…”

Twilight backed away as the Pinkie got more blurry. “Good?”

“Not… a problem… a huge problem!” Although she was moving again, it was the “flailing forelegs” type of movement. “This is the most… The biggest, hugest news of all time! It. Needs. A. Party!”

A few more seconds passed with Pinkie hyperventilating before Applejack spoke up.

“Uh, isn’t that what we’re doin’ now?”

Pinkie was all over her in a split second, her voice rising to its old higher pitch. “No! We’re having a ‘Congrats on becoming Grand Mage’ party! That’s not what we should be doing! We need a ‘Holy Smokes Twilight Is Becoming An Alicorn’ Jubilee Celebration Extrrrrrravaganza. It. Should. Be. Huge!”

Somehow, “hyperventilating” ceased to be a sufficient description for what Pinkie was doing. Each breath seemed to double in volume.

Spike scratched his head. “Um, a ‘Holy Smokes Twilight Is Becoming An Alicorn’ Jubilee Celebration Extravaganza?”

Pinkie was in his face without having the common decency to actually traverse the distance in between them. “No! A ‘Holy Smokes Twilight Is Becoming An Alicorn’ Jubilee Celebration Extrrrrrravaganza’! There has to be a roll in the ‘r’! Has! To! That’s what makes it work!”

“Let me handle this, sugarcube.” Applejack sauntered up to the panicking party pony and put a foreleg across her back. “Pinkie, I think yer goin’ ‘bout this all wrong.”

“I am?”

“Ya are.”

“I don’t think so!” Pinkie rushed out of the room and rushed right back in with a chalkboard on wheels and started writing on it. “I mean, big events need big parties, and it doesn’t really get bigger than ‘Twilight becoming an alicorn.’ Therefore, this needs the biggest party ever!” She double-underlined the solution to her equation of drawings, which was Canterlot buried in confetti, then nodded like a professor.

“Yer right, Pinkie, but you’re missin’ somethin’ too. Somethin’ real important. What’s the only thing better than a big party?”

“Uuuhhh… Two big parties?”

Applejack shook her head. “A big surprise party!”

“That’s right!” Pinkie clapped her hooves together. “We need a big surprise party!”

“Now hold on, sugarcube, yer still missin’ the important part! If this is a secret, Twilight becoming an alicorn is gonna be one big surprise, right?”

Twilight’s eyes lit up as she realized where Applejack was going. “You know, Pinkie, Grand Mages get authority on par with the princesses. I could order up one heck of a party. I mean, I’d be the first new alicorn in ten thousand years. I think I’d be able to justify it. Of course, to give a surprise party to all of Equestria, this needs to stay a secret.”

Pinkie froze up and got quiet again. “All… of Equestria…”

Giving Pinkie the closest thing to a seductive leer she’d ever have, Twilight whispered in her ear. “All of Equestria… simultaneously…” Pinkie’s smile grew so wide she looked like she would’ve been able to swallow a small manticore. “You have less than ten years to plan it. Think you can pull it off, Pinkie?”

Pinkie grew a diabolical grin and cackled under her breath. “Abso-poso-tivo-luet-ly!”

Yet another moment of silence passed, broken this time by Rainbow Dash. “Okay, am I the only pony more scared of Pinkie Pie than I am of some conspiracy with enough political pull to build a war zeppelin?”

“Would our foes only know what they would bring upon themselves for trying to halt the Grand Mage’s ascension and, by extension, the world’s largest Pinkie Pie party, they would run and flee in despair.”

The group all turned and looked up at the two alicorns finally making their entrance.

Celestia gave her sister a smirk. “Luna, you’ve been getting into General Nocturne’s poetry again, haven’t you?”

Luna flapped her wings. “What can I say? It sings to me, Sister!”

“Are you going to join us?” Twilight motioned to her friends.

Celestia smiled at her. “We’d be delighted to, Twilight!”

Luna trotted toward the group, bouncing in her step with a little wing flap. “An understatement, Sister! You couldn’t keep me away!”

“Oh, Your Highness!” Rarity called out. “There was something I had to ask you. Could I—?”

“No, Rarity, I still won’t allow it.” Celestia cut her off.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Won’t allow what?”

Rarity sighed and put away her notebook. “A little business proposal, is all. A bit too much to ask, I guess. Not to worry, business is still booming.”

Twilight raised her eyebrow even more. “Riiiiiight. Well, while we’re here, it’d be a shame to let a good party go to waste!”


“And then I said, ‘Wait, you don’t have a license for that!’”

The room burst with laughter at the joke from the seriously tipsy Pinkie while Luna started drinking or, rather, chugging an entire bottle of Chateau Blueblood 947.

“Ah! While I may not approve of my nephew’s antics, I must admit his family does make decent wine.” She tossed the bottle over her head and let it crash on the ground, shattering into shards. “Decent. But not great.”

Twilight sighed and leaned back a bit. “I still can’t believe he’s the only one in the Council that voted in favor of my brother.”

Celestia waved a hoof. “Oh, he did that because I told him to.”

Twilight and Rarity both blinked. “What?”

Luna smiled. “In the Council, Sister has that stallion wrapped around her hoof. His mouth, but her words.”

“Well, I certainly didn’t tell him to add the part about the ‘corrupt sacks of horn-rot—’”

Luna chuckled and pulled out another bottle of wine. “Okay then, credit where due, that was funny!”

“But yes, I did tell him to make a vigorous statement in Shining’s defense. I couldn’t let the vote be unanimous.”

Twilight exhaled. “Okay, mystery solved. Still, thank you. It helped to have somepony on my side in there.”

Celestia frowned. If one looked carefully, she might have even looked sullen. “This is why I didn’t want you to see it, even if I am sorry for not giving you the choice to be there or not. Being royalty often means being forced by duty to do things we do not enjoy.”

Twilight looked down at her hooves. “I know that, intellectually. It still hurts, but I chose to be there, and…”

“And you must live with that choice. As alicorns, such decisions are a burden we must endure.” Luna shook her head and put away the bottle in favor of another, pulling out it’s cork. “However, I must say, Sister, I am disappointed in you. Only two hundred thousand bits fined to that serpent in the Council? Hardly a weighty sum for one such as Bismare. Did you not update the tribalism law to account for the billionaire class?”

Celestia carefully lifted a glass of champagne to her lips. “In all honesty, though I do recognize that tribalism remains a serious issue, it’s been a long, long time since anypony has been foolish enough to openly speak such words within the castle walls. Changing the penalty scale just slipped my mind as I faced other challenges.”

“Perhaps an adjustment is due, then. Remind ponies of where we stand.”

“Agreed, but it can wait for the morning, I think.”

“Hey, Twilight!” Rainbow called out from the end of the room by the doors, hovering halfway between the ceiling and the floor. “There’s a guard out here asking for you!”

“Ummm… Okay… Send him over here, Rainbow!” Twilight waved her hoof over her head, and the Guard trotted over, his armor clanking on the tile.

“Your Highnesses,” he said, bowing.

“Ugh.” Twilight facehooved. “I really need to figure out how I want to be addressed.”

Luna laughed and danced in place a bit. “I think, perhaps, he was referring to us as well, Twilight.”

“I know, just getting reminded of it is all.” She turned to the guard. “What did you need?”

“My lady, your mother is here, and is insisting she speak with you and Princess Celestia.”

The hair on her neck stood up on end. “Both of us? Uh-oh.”

Celestia stood up and shook her wings. “I suppose we could oblige her.”

Twilight moved in between them. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Princess. This soon? I don’t know if I’m ready. I doubt she’s really ready.”

Celestia began a walk towards the door. “This may be true, Twilight, but we must sometimes take on problems we are not ready for. In addition, if we wait and deny her an audience, it could get worse.”

Twilight took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’re right. Let's go. It’s just… I have a bad feeling about this.”


Twilight’s hoofsteps sounded strange to her. It was as if they had been drained of the emotion they should otherwise have. The hall chandeliers were dimmed for the evening, leaving only a soft orange glow mixed with the cold moonlight. As she rounded a corner with the Princess close behind, her voice took on the same muffled, neutral tone. “Hello, mother.”

Velvet’s head spun around, mouth open and inhaling, readying to say something. Instead, she froze and looked up at the Princess towering over her, ears flat against her head.

Twilight raised an eyebrow. If she meant to rant to me, it was a mistake to bring Celestia here. Maybe she’ll behave herself, given that instinct. “It’s rude to keep the Princess waiting, Mother.”

Velvet blinked then shook her head. “Waiting? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how rude I was being! Certainly, though, nowhere near as rude to play political games with somepony else’s daughter!”

Celestia sat down on the tile right in front of Velvet, lowering her head to bring it her to eye level with the other mare. A sweet smile graced her lips, and Twilight could see the years of experience in her eyes. Velvet posed no threat, and Celestia knew it.

“My li—”

“Don’t you ‘my little pony’ me!” She thrust a hoof in the Princess’s face. “What have you done to my daughter? I want her back, right…” Her words sputtered and failed, her face carrying a multitude of expressions as she tried to stare defiantly into the diarch’s serene, unflinching visage. “Now,” she said, this time sounding far less confident.

“Mother! Listen to yourself! You do not interrupt the Princess! And what exactly do you mean you ‘want me back?’ I’m not anypony’s to trade around.”

“But she took you from me!” Velvet yelled, eyes bloodshot and watering. “Me! The one who gave birth to you! The one who raised you! She took you away from me, and— and— and forced you to go to that po-dunk, backwater mud pony town and—”

Celestia stomped a hoof on the tile, sending a crack through the air. Whatever light that came from the windows before was extinguished in favor of Celestia’s aura and utter silence. Seemingly in slow motion, the Princess inhaled, her lips ready to impart a judgement.

Twilight stepped in between them. “You damn fool.”

What? Me, the foo—”

Twilight cut her off. “Yes, you, the fool, Mother. Are you really that stupid?”

Velvet opened her mouth again, and Twilight lurched forward to keep her quiet. “You don’t even realize who you’re talking about. Think, Mom. What is Princess Celestia? What are alicorns? They’re the embodiment of the three pony tribes. Celestia considers herself to be all of them in a very real fashion. All alicorns do.”

Velvet recoiled as if struck. “Twilight… No, I didn’t mean it like that. I just wanted my little filly back, that’s all.”

Twilight snorted. “‘Your little filly?’ Mom, let me tell you a little story.”

She began a lecture pace, walking back and forth. “Two years after I became Princess Celestia’s student, one of the other fillies at the school gave me a newspaper. It was a lousy gossip rag, but I was excited nonetheless. You know what it said? That I was secretly the daughter of Celestia, conceived in a forbidden tryst with a nameless stallion.”

Her mother’s mouth hung open, tears of her own starting to flow, but Twilight kept going. “I ran and ran until I could talk to her to ask her if it was true. She told me it wasn’t, and you know what I did, Mom?” She leaned in close. “I begged her to say it was true instead.”

“Twilight,” Celestia interrupted. “Do you think this wise?”

Twilight shook her head. “At this point, Tia, there’s no stopping it, and right now, I don’t really care.”

“‘Tia!?’” Her mother gasped.

Twilight rolled her eyes and kept going. “I remember Tia telling me ‘I could never take away the honor of being your mother from another pony.’ But all I could think of was how much I wanted it to be true. I wanted the mare raising me to tell me I was special to my face instead of just her friends. I wanted her to congratulate and celebrate with me when I did something good or right and only then challenge and encourage me with something new.”

Tears rolled down both of their cheeks, and Twilight’s breathing made speaking more laborious, but she continued. “I wanted that instead of a contemptuous ‘about time’ followed by being told to do something else now. When I was sad, I wanted somepony to hear my sadness and support me instead of a ‘You’re young; it’ll be alright’ followed by leaving for another ‘networking’ party! I wanted all that and so much more from the ponies that raised me! And you know what, Mother? I got it.”

She forced her eyes shut, squeezing another wave of tears down her cheek. “But I didn’t get it from you.”

“Twi—”

“Let me finish!” she yelled, not letting her mother get a word in edgewise for perhaps the first time in her memory. “I didn’t get it from you, but I got it from her!” Twilight pointed a hoof at Celestia. “And you know what? I got it from Shining, from Dad, Cadence! Even Doughnut Joe was there for me more than you ever were! And don’t you give me that ‘Oh, I was trying to make connections to get you more opportunities’ garbage! I was Celestia’s student, Mom! Every single door I ever needed open was unlocked for me the instant I started learning from her, and you know it! It was never about me—it was about you!”

Velvet lowered her head so much she was supplicating herself before her daughter, and her ears were flat against her head. Twilight only had time to pant a little before she saw Velvet lift her head to say something, and potentially dig herself an even deeper hole.

“I—”

“No, Mother.” Twilight’s breathing had calmed, and the tears were drying. “No. You don’t realize how bad this is, so I’m going to explain it to you. Just before Shining was stripped of his rank, Duchess Bismare made a similar comment about earth ponies. Celestia fined her two hundred thousand bits and two hundred hours of community service.”

The color all but drained from Velvet’s coat. “Two hundred thousand bits!? We can’t afford that! Twilight, we’d lose our home, everything!”

Celestia leaned forward and a scowl flashed briefly across her face. “And that is why, the vast majority of the time, nopony is stupid enough to use such horrific language in my home, my little pony. Tribalist slurs are strictly forbidden in my presence and in my castle without exception for anypony. The only reason I didn’t make it two hundred million bits was because there is a legal maximum I can demand."

She fixed Velvet with a hard stare for a long moment. "Your fine will not be quite so steep." She paused briefly, and a tight smile crossed her muzzle. "I am not a tyrant, after all.”

Twilight thrust out a hoof in between Celestia and her mother and turned her head to gaze at her mentor out of one tear-drenched eye. “No, Tia. Her words, her actions… they’re deplorable, but she’s my mother. Even if she was never there for me, I’ll be there for her.”

The Princess shook her head. “I’m sorry, Twilight, but I’m afraid I cannot allow this infraction to go unpunished. Even for you.”

Twilight fully turned to face her. “I’m not asking you to let it go, Princess. I’m asking you to allow me to determine the punishment.”

Celestia's expression was inscrutable as her eyes searched Twilight’s face. Twilight looked back levelly, but her heart pounded and her mind rampaged over alternate plans. The typical punishments for this were famously harsh.

“Very well.” Celestia motioned with a hoof. “Proceed, Grand Mage. Know, however, that I possess veto power over your decision.”

“Thank you,” Twilight whispered before turning back to her mother. “Mom… No, Twilight Velvet. What you’ve done to me is…”

She stopped and ground her teeth. It was right here: an opportunity she might never have again. A chance to unload every last injustice off her back and list them in grandiose fashion. But she’s still my pony…

“Mother.” Her throat went dry. “That you have expressed such hatred of your fellow ponies in this place where all ponies are supposed to be represented is inexcusable.” She took a deep breath, her ears going flat against her head while she stopped herself from pawing at the ground. “Hence, I see no choice. I hereby banish you from Canterlot, effective tonight.”

Her mother recoiled as if struck, scrambling backwards. “B-b-banished?”

Twilight took in more air and nodded. “Correct. You will relocate to Ponyville. I have already moved out of the Golden Oaks Library in favor of the new fort being built there, so you will move in and take over for me as librarian. You will interact with the ponies there, who, do not forget, are mostly earth ponies. You will be kind to them. You will befriend them. And you will send me weekly updates on what you have learned. I expect each letter to be postmarked by the end of every Tuesday.”

“Twilight, please!” Her mother threw herself at Twilight’s small, purple hooves. “I’ll be the laughingstock of the nobility! I don’t even know anypony there!”

Twilight shot her head forward and met her gaze bare centimeters away. “That’s the point, Mother. If, and only if, you truly learn of the full nature of your misdeeds, will I allow you to return to Canterlot. This, I command.”

Velvet looked behind Twilight, presumably at Celestia.

“I approve of and uphold my Grand Mage’s decision and add an additional requirement that your stay not be any shorter than three years. Nor may you leave the town for vacations for more than three weeks during any given year. As you are serving a public post, you will be afforded the same salary and free board as my student once held, but you will be expected to fulfill the duties to which it is attached.”

Twilight watched her mother all but lose her lunch at Celestia’s words.

The Princess stood up. “Go to your condominium and gather your things, Mrs. Velvet. It is high time you learned the lessons your daughter did ages ago.”

“Twilight—”

The Grand Mage pointed at the door. “Go.”

Slowly, she walked out of the hallway and around the corner, her soft hoofsteps bleeding out into nothingness.

When Twilight was sure she was out of earshot, she finally allowed herself to collapse on the ground into soft sobs.

Celestia’s wing once again gripped Twilight, clutching her close. “I am proud of you, Twilight. But I am so, so sorry…”

“Same here.” The deep, male voice from behind startled her enough to try to jump, but she was held back by the strong primary feathers of Celestia’s wing as a figure stepped out from the shadows.

“I can’t say I am happy about this, but she brought this on herself. You did what you could, Twily. I’m proud of you too.”

She craned her head around, trying to see the source of the voice through her watery vision. “Shiny?”

The dark stallion smiled at her. “Yeah. Although come to think of it, you might need a new nickname for me, now.”

Twilight shook her head, sending drops of water flying. “No! I refuse! Luna can have you in her Guard, but to me, you’re always going to be Shiny! I need something normal in all of this…”

Celestia squeezed her a bit tighter. “I think this is understandable, Cardinal. I severely doubt Luna would have any objections.”

He shrugged. “I can’t argue with that. ‘Shiny’ it is.” With a gentle hoof, he wiped away some of his sister’s tears. “I knew a blow-up would be unavoidable, but a tribalist slur? Right in front of Princess Celestia?” He huffed. “She needs to thank her lucky stars you’re Grand Mage. Though, I have to admit,” a smirked started to pull at the corners of Obsidian’s mouth, “I never would have thought of sending her to Ponyville to learn the magic of friendship. I think it’ll be good for her.”

Twilight nodded. “It was for me. No, that’s too much of an understatement. It was a blessing greater than anything I can think of. As far as I was concerned, a season ago I was completely content to spend my days being a librarian there. I don’t know if she’ll like being a librarian, but I think the ponies there can help her.”

“It pains me to think of going there as a punishment,” Celestia said, letting go of Twilight. “I hope that’s not how you thought of it.”

Twilight chuckled. “I did. For about twenty hours. Then I spent sixteen years there, thinking it was the best, if weirdest, place in the world.”

“If you believe Ponyville to be ‘weird,’ my student, it merely means you haven’t traveled far enough yet. But don’t worry.” Celestia leaned close to Twilight and winked. “You will.”

Twilight gulped.

“Heh. Well, I’m going to go help Mom and Dad move, maybe get some of my new subordinates to help, get to know them.” Obsidian smiled at her. “If I were you, Twilight, I’d get back to your friends.”

Twilight stood up, using Celestia to help her balance. “Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right. Thanks, Shiny.”

“Always, Twily.”

Celestia led Twilight back to the party, letting her lean against her as she needed through the empty hallways that now felt far too d