What could have happened if key events in "A Canterlot Wedding" had gone slightly differen
Things ended well in "A Canterlot Wedding", but the characters didn't always act as rationally as they might have! How might Queen Chrysalis's schemes have gone differently if she or Twilight had made other choices? This story is a three-part exploration of what might have happened in the season finale if...
* ...instead of making a scene at rehearsal, Twilight had gone back to Spike for ideas. * ...when Luna said "Stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle," Twilight had actually listened! * ...Queen Chrysalis had decided to maintain her cover for Twilight.
For Twilight Sparkle In the key of “A Canterlot Wedding”
Interior: Guest tower. Eve of the wedding of Princess Mi Amore Cadenza and Shining Armor.
Twilight stood in the entrance of the guest tower, astonished by what her friends were wearing. A single idea was pulsing ever stronger in her head: Something here is very wrong.
Fluttershy zipped over, hovering giddily. “Can you believe it?” she gushed. “We're going to be Princess Mi Amore Cadenza's new bridesmaids!”
“New bridesmaids? What happened to her old bridesmaids?” protested Twilight.
“She didn't say,” interjected Applejack. “But she did tell us that she would love, love, love it if we'd fill in for them.”
“Seeing as we've been working so hard and everything!” Rarity chimed in.
“And you had your doubts about her,” Applejack went on.
Twilight stared, horrified. After what she'd witnessed Cadence doing, this had to be a trick.
“Told you she was an absolute gem!” said Rarity, only to be interrupted by Rainbow Dash.
“You sure this is what I should wear?” complained the speedster, kicking at her dress. “...Doesn't seem all that aerodynamic.”
“Mmm... I'll see what I can do,” replied Rarity.
As the two left, Twilight felt adrenalin rising. It was happening again. Just like during Discord's return, she was being turned against her own friends. They'd been manipulated with pretty dresses and positions of honor. If they hadn't listened to her before, there was no way they would listen now.
Fine, thought Twilight. I've coped with threats on my own before... I can do it again. While Applejack, Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie exchanged excited chirps and giggles, Twilight spurned the bright room and returned to the night.
“Looks like I really am on my own,” she muttered.
Then a comforting thought came to her, and a gleam touched her eyes. There was still Spike. He would always have her back; Twilight couldn't ask for a more loyal assistant and companion. Together, they'd be sure to come up with something.
MOVEMENT 1: Stalling the Stallion
The darkening shades of bubble-pink dusk kept cascading through Twilight's peripheral vision as she crossed the terrace and trod down the white granite stairs. She wondered where Spike would be―probably in his room, she reflected, playing around with those figurines from the cake or fiddling with his outfit. Twilight smiled to herself―he was such an adorable child.
The guest cottage near the train station was empty. Sure enough, the figurines of the bride and groom were lying on the floor, edged by moonlight from the window. But where was Spike?
Clack. Twilight heard wood on wood; she hurried outside and around the guest cottage to investigate.
There he was. “Spike! What are you doing outside at this hour?”
The diminutive dragon, dressed in his ringbearer duds, looked up from measuring the distance between two wooden balls with a piece of sewing tape, no doubt purloined from Rarity. “Oh, hi Twilight! I was just trying out my new bachelor set! I've got to make sure it's well balanced and everything.”
“You know... for the party!”
Twilight blinked again.
Spike stared back. “The bachelor party?”
“Oh! I'd... forgotten about that. But... isn't it a little late for the bachelor party? The wedding is tomorrow!”
Now it was Spike's turn to blink. “Uhh... but... doesn't the bachelor party come after the wedding?”
Despite all her worries, Twilight was tempted to laugh. “I'm... pretty sure it comes before, Spike.”
For the fact that Spike wasn't even in her biological class, Twilight could read his emotions amazingly well. First he was surprised, then downcast and disappointed, and then agitated. “Oh, but Twilight!” Spike started hurrying around the lawn behind the guest cottage, picking up scattered wooden balls. “That means we've got to hold it in the morning! And I haven't had time to copy out the rulebooks, and I've still got to sleep!”
Twilight seized the remaining balls with her magic and gathered them up, depositing them in the guest cottage. “Spike! We can't hold a party in the morning―there's rehearsal! We're strapped for time as it is.”
Again, the baby dragon's face filled with disappointment. “But... but then... you mean we can't have the bachelor party?”
Twilight shook her head. “I don't think so, Spike.”
Spike fell to his knees on the lawn. “Then I screwed up. Again! I'm really sorry, Twi.”
She hurried over to offer a nuzzle. “It's all right! I don't think Cadence and Shining Armor were really counting on you to do it, if it's any consolation. So you were planning on playing lawn games?”
Spike looked up at her, uncomprehending. “Well, that's what bachelor is, isn't it? It's a lawn game!”
“Uhh...” A lawn game? Twilight blinked several times more. “Oh! You're thinking of bocceball, Spike!”
“Bocceball is a lawn game,” clarified Twilight. “A bachelor is an available male! The bachelor party would be Shining Armor's last chance to live it up before getting married. So now you see why it's too late.”
Confusion mingled with disappointment in the young dragon's face. “Yeah, I guess.”
Twilight followed him into the guest cottage. “But that's not what we should be worried about,” she pressed. “Spike, do you remember our conversation from earlier? When we and the others talked over drinks?”
Spike was already gathering up the figurines off the floor, ready for play. “Uh... only sort of. I was kinda distracted.” He brought Little Shining Armor over to Little Cadence, pursing his lips. “Love me forever and ever?” he mimicked playfully. “Oh, I will! Forever and ever and―”
He dropped the figurines and put his hands behind his back. “Y―yes, Twilight?”
“As you may recall, I was concerned about Princess Cadence's behavior! She was rude to everypony and didn't even seem to remember me! But no one would listen―everyone just brushed it off as the behavior of a nervous bride! Remember!?”
“Yeah! But―well, aren't they right? And anyway, what can you do? It's not like they can call off the wedding just because Cadence is a little rude... right?”
“Well... yes, that's true. But Spike, what I've just seen proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Princess Cadence isn't just rude, but evil!” Realizing that anypony might be listening in, Twilight slammed the door magically shut and lowered her voice. “I saw her cast a spell on my brother that made his eyes go all...” She mimicked his woozy rattle for the wide-eyed Spike. “And then it was as if he'd forgotten everything they were just arguing about!”
Spike had his fingers clasped tightly now, which Twilight knew meant he was scared. “Really? She... enchanted him?”
“That's what it looked like, Spike! And it felt like it, too. I was standing right outside the door, and it felt like a powerful progressive enchantment was washing over me! That's the kind that you have to cast over and over, stronger every time.”
“So...” Her assistant suddenly broke into pacing around the room. “So what do you think she was doing? Casting a forgetting spell?”
“Maybe. I'm not sure. But what I suspect is that the spell was meant to put him under her control! Think about it, Spike. Why else would he be so gung-ho to marry somepony who's treating him and everyone else so badly? She wouldn't even let him wear Uncle Strongspark's coat and breastplate!”
Spike stopped pacing as abruptly as he'd started. “Can she even do that? Does Cadence have that kind of magic?”
“She's a princess, Spike! Who knows what kind of magic she might have learned over the years!”
He wiggled a finger in his ear. “Well, what kind of magic did she know when you were my age?”
Twilight froze. The weighty implications came pounding over her. “She knew how to make ponies forgive each other. Whether they wanted to or not.”
“What!?” Spike clutched at her side. “But―but that's unfair!”
It certainly was. “Yes, I see that now. At the time, it seemed so lovable―making couples fall in love again, instead of fighting. But now I realize that that kind of emotional manipulation is dangerous! Oh my gosh, Spike, it all fits!”
Twilight turned dramatically. “It's not just Shining Armor! It's my friends, too! Cadence has everypony under her hoof! Why else would Rarity and Applejack be so blasé about her behavior?!”
Spike backed up. “But... but if that's true, then what about Celestia? Has Princess Cadence enchanted her, too?”
This hadn't occurred to Twilight. “You could be right. She may very well have! That would explain why she didn't meet us when we arrived. And why she hasn't even met us yet! Did you see, Spike? She was just up on that watchtower all day, looking through a telescope!”
Spike paused. “You do that sometimes, Twilight.”
“Well... yes, but. I'm not a princess, with royal responsibilities! And I know for a fact that Princess Celestia doesn't just spend her days standing on a tower!”
“But what about the threat? Didn't you say there was a threat against Canterlot?”
Twilight paused to mull this over, rolling a discarded bocceball under her hoof. “I wonder... whether that entire 'threat' thing might not be nothing more than a ploy from Cadence!”
“A trick! What if there is no threat? Maybe she sent a scary note or something, and now everypony's on edge, waiting for an attack on Canterlot, when the real threat is going to strike from within!”
Spike seemed stricken with fear again. “But... but if that's true... what can we do?”
It was Twilight's turn to pace. “Whatever we do, we need help! We can't save Canterlot on our own. Normally I would go to Princess Celestia in this kind of situation! But she may already be against us.”
Spike hurried along behind Twilight until she lifted him and put him on her back. “What about the guards?”
“No good. My brother is captain of the guard! The rest of them will probably follow his lead, and even if some of them want to help us, they won't have any power and we'd be asking them to risk their careers! Besides, for all we know, Cadence has them all enchanted by now. She may even have enchanted everypony in the city!”
Twilight was trotting briskly around the perimeter of the guest cottage now. The windows blew open and shut as she passed them from the fluctuations of air pressure she was stirring up. Spike tugged on her mane, presumably to get her to slow down, but Twilight kept marching.
“What about us, then? Why hasn't she enchanted us?”
“I don't know! It could be she's afraid of my magic, although in that case I wouldn't think she'd be brave enough to enchant Celestia. Maybe we just haven't been here long enough yet.”
“Then what about our friends? Can't we ask them for help?”
“Spike, weren't you listening this evening? They've fallen for her, hook, line and sinker! She's already gotten them!”
Twilight picked up her pace until all the windows blew open and the room started to swirl with wind. Spike curled his fingers through her mane and shouted into her ear: “What about Rainbow Dash?!”
“What about Rainb―” protested Twilight as she coursed about the room. But then she realized. “Spike, you're right! When we talked over drinks, the others defended Cadence, but Rainbow just said she'd been too busy to be worried about the bride's bad attitude!”
“Exactly!” yelled Spike, dangling desperately from Twilight's mane.
“Rainbow's only duty at the wedding is to perform a Sonic Rainboom,” reasoned Twilight. “And that's a duty that doesn't bring her into contact with Cadence! In fact, it's possible she hasn't even met Princess Cadence yet!”
“Uh huh!” agreed Spike, slipping away as Twilight's pace rose to a full gallop.
“And when I saw them just now... Rainbow was complaining to Rarity that her dress wasn't aerodynamic enough! And Rarity promised to do something to fix it! So that means...” Twilight glanced out an open window as she dashed by. “...that Rainbow Dash should be trying out Rarity's new designs at any moment!”
“YyyyeeeEEAAhH!” shouted Spike. Twilight felt his grip failing. She dug in her hooves and braked, and the centrifugal force sent him flying out the window!
Twilight teleported outside and looked around for Spike, only to have something strike her suddenly from above! For a moment she panicked that Cadence had sent someone to neutralize her―but no. Only Spike, who'd happened to land on her.
“Ooof!” he said. “Oh! Heh―that was a pretty neat trick, Twi!”
“Yeah,” she replied, narrowing her eyes and casting her gaze through the skies. “And if we watch carefully, we should spot another neat trick going down.” She glanced around to make sure they weren't being watched before cantering toward the palace. “Spike, let me know if you see Rainbow Dash.”
When the battlements loomed, Twilight veered off―she knew they were guarded, and moreover wanted to keep most of the sky in her field of vision. The occasional helmet plume or gleam of armor caught her eye, but for the most part things were quiet. Twilight approached the guest quarters from behind a low wall under a line of trees some distance away.
The chaotic majesty of Canterlot Palace loomed before her, structure upon―or in some cases within―structure. Princess Luna now stood vigil from the high watchtower, as did royal guards from lower levels. The chambers where Twilight's friends were quartered were well guarded―she'd taken this at first as a sign of the princesses' concern for their safety, but now it seemed more like a measure to prevent them from talking to each other unobserved.
“Look!” said Spike, pointing.
Twilight followed his gaze. High over the rooftops soared a figure with rainbow contrail that could only be Rainbow Dash. Presumably, Rarity had modified her dress to be more aerodynamic. But was Rarity watching from below in order to see the results of her efforts?
“It's at times like this I really wish I could fly,” mumbled Twilight.
“You've got that wing spell,” Spike pointed out.
“I don't know it from memory, and besides, it's exhausting! And it's extremely difficult for a unicorn to levitate herself. Law of nature! No, we really have no choice. You're going to have to get Rainbow's attention.”
Twilight couldn't see Spike's face, but she could feel his whole bearing shift. “Me?!”
She levitated the baby dragon from her back and set him before her. “I'll teleport you up into the sky near her, so the guards won't see you on the way up. Then I'll do my best to levitate you from here. Your job is to convince Rainbow Dash that the others can't be trusted, and that she has to join me behind this wall.”
Spike gulped. “But... but I don't know how to fly! And I'm not great at arguing! How am I supposed to do both at the same time?”
“You don't have to fly, Spike, just float! And you just need to tell Rainbow that you think Cadence may have cast a spell on everypony else, but not her, since she hasn't had any business with her! You can do that, right?”
Spike tensed up, but nodded tensely.
“Good dragon! I know I can count on you.” Twilight stepped forward and gave Spike a nuzzle. “Ready? One... two... three!”
“Wait!” he cried. “Are you go―”
But before he could finish his question, Twilight had teleported him. Oops! Well, too late now! She spun toward the sky above the guest quarters and caught sight of the quickly plummeting Spike. She swiftly set about hoisting him up... but to her surprise, there was no need: Rainbow Dash had already caught him. Wow, that mare was quick.
Twilight watched as the pegasus started to soar downward, then curved upward and flew high. She penetrated a cloud and went out of sight. Twilight stared at the cloud, wondering what she should do now.
Half a minute later, she was startled by a voice behind her. “Twilight. This better be good.”
It was Rainbow, all right. Twilight spun around to see Spike safe on her back, hugging the curves of a newly streamlined bridesmaid's dress. All right―now it was up to Twilight. “Rainbow!”
The pegasus leaned forward. “Rarity's gonna be wondering where I am. Everypony's gonna be wondering where I am! And now you're trying to tell me they can't be trusted?!”
“It adds up, Rainbow! Listen to me.”
Twilight related to Rainbow Dash an account of her ill-fated meeting with her brother and the spell she'd seen Cadence use on him. “And when I tried to tell everyone back at the palace,” she concluded, “you didn't want to hear it! It was all, 'Oh, I'm so excited that Princess Cadence made us her bridesmaids! And you had your doubts!' Unngghh! Couldn't any of you see that she was just bribing you to keep you complacent?!”
“Complacent?” asked Spike and Rainbow together.
“To keep you from getting suspicious!” screeched Twilight. All their heads turned toward the guard towers―there was motion. Twilight dashed back into a cove of trees, and the others followed.
“For Pete's sake, Twilight!” said Rainbow, her voice muffled. “Are you trying to stay quiet, or aren't you?”
“Sorry. I'm just hugely stressed. But Rainbow, do you see what I'm saying?”
Rainbow Dash seemed unsure. “Yeah, I guess. But I mean... are you sure? Couldn't it just be that something really did happen to her bridesmaids and she really did need replacements?”
“Well, I suppose Colgate might have been constantly brushing her teeth and neglecting her duties, or something like that. But even so, Cadence saw an opportunity to butter you up, and took it! You do believe me about the spell, don't you?”
Rainbow took a deep breath and swallowed. “Yeah. I believe you. You wouldn't lie to me.”
Twilight stepped forward in the shadow of the pear trees and cuddled her friend. “Thanks for being loyal, Rainbow.”
“Yeah, no problem. But... but Twilight. What are we supposed to do about it, even if it all is true?”
“Well, I don't think we can trust the princesses, or any of the palace staff, or the royal guards. In fact, I can't think of anypony I can trust, aside from you and Spike! So... I think we may be on our own.”
Both Rainbow and Spike looked highly anxious. “But how can we stop the wedding?” asked Spike.
Twilight paced around the trunk of a pear tree. “We probably don't have the power to fight Princess Cadence,” she thought aloud. “She's obviously gone bad since we were little. It's possible that she's only been enchanted herself―but then I don't know who's responsible, and we don't have time to find out. The wedding is tomorrow!”
“Is it really that important to stop the wedding?” asked Rainbow. “I mean, what do you think she's planning, anyway?”
“I don't know, but I'm sure it has something to do with marrying my brother... and I don't want him married to someone evil! Even if we defeat her afterwards, they'll still be married! So we have to stop the wedding!”
“Well,” reasoned Rainbow, quirking up her face. “If we can't stop Cadence directly, maybe we can take Shining Armor out of the picture. I mean, no groom, no wedding, right?”
Twilight lit up in a grin. “That's it! Rainbow, you've got it! We kidnap my brother and then get away from Canterlot. We can work on reversing his enchantment somewhere else, and then, once he's on our side, we'll contemplate our next step.” She looked at her two companions. “Are you with me?”
Spike and Rainbow nodded in unison.
“Right. Then we'll need a plan. I know that Cadence and Shining Armor are spending the night apart, but that doesn't mean she isn't keeping an eye on things. Luckily, we have one of the fastest pegasi in Equestria on our side, and speed is just what we need!”
Rainbow stepped forward. “One of the fastest?”
“All right, the fastest. You see that building over there? That's where Shining Armor is sleeping. Now let's make a plan!”
\\ o/` \\
The plan wound up being simple, brash, and effective―to a point. Spike went up to distract the two guards keeping watch over Shining Armor's quarters. He fed them a story about some evil omen he'd seen in a fountain some distance deeper into the royal complex, and one of them went with him while the other looked after, eyes not on his job. At that point, Twilight magically forced open her brother's window and Rainbow Dash zipped inside, Twilight on her back.
Twilight had prepared a thin but strong magical baggie―soundproof and nearly spellproof. Shining Armor had barely woken up before Twilight forced it over him and sealed the end. Twilight levitated the struggling bag and hopped back onto Rainbow's back. Rainbow didn't find it easy flying with a passenger, but she was able to make it out the window and back to the treeline, Twilight locked in concentration all the way.
Their escape did not go unnoticed, however. A guard watching from above sounded an alarm, and Princess Luna, on the high watchtower, sounded a louder alarm. A dozen guards were already on the move before Rainbow was able to set down.
“There's no way we can make the rendezvous point safely now!” shouted Twilight.”Spike'll have to be on his own!”
“No way!” said Rainbow. “We don't leave anydragon behind!”
“'Anydragon' isn't a word!” protested Twilight. “Besides, he shouldn't be in any real trouble―no more than Fluttershy or Rarity or anypony else Cadence has in her thrall! He can just tell everyone I made him do it.”
Grimacing, Rainbow veered upward. Her instincts turned out to be sharp: Even with Twilight levitating Shining Armor from her back, the speedster managed to make it out of the palace grounds and some distance down the mountain while evading immediate pursuit. The guards were out of sight for now, but they wouldn't remain so for long.
And there was still the pink bubble to contend with.
At last, Rainbow fluttered to a halt in a steep tuft of grass and weeds just yards above where the mountain met the bubble. “Do... do you think it works both ways?” she wondered aloud. “Or is it just for keeping bad guys out?”
“I don't know,” answered Twilight. “We'd better perform a test.” Trying to calm her heart, she levitated Shining Armor, who was getting dangerously close to breaking free from Twilight's reinforced bag, to a level spot on the hill. Closing her eyes, she sent a surge of sleeping magic his way. She repeated the spell until he was finally slumbering and she was woozy with exhaustion.
“I don't think it's gonna go away if you knock him out,” opined Rainbow.
“No, but we can't let him escape now. Rainbow? Could you try... flying up close, but not quite touching it?”
Rainbow hovered just over the lower curve of pink. “Feels sort of... I dunno. Magical!”
“It ought to! But not painful, or hot?”
“Then... touch it. Just with a wingtip.”
“Right, like my wingtip is the least precious part of me?” Rainbow reached out a hoof to gingerly touch the dome. It stopped her just like any solid object would. She glanced back inquisitively at Twilight.
Twilight nodded, taking a nervous breath. “Try breaking through. But bear in mind―it may be like flying into a wall!”
“Like I never did that before,” retorted Rainbow. She soared up some distance―still out of sight from anyone above―and zoomed down, smashing into the pink bubble. Her face was distorted from the impact, but she shook it off and returned to Twilight. “No good. It's too strong!”
That was what Twilight had feared. “We'll have to find a place to hunker down, then.”
Rainbow seemed conflicted. “You're sure we can't just go back and see what happens?”
“I'm sorry, Rainbow. The stakes are too great.”
Rainbow noncommittally hoofed the now-unconscious captain of the guard. “All right, Twilight. If you say so. In that case, we'd better make ourselves a cave.”
Rainbow followed the cliffside until she reached a soft underhang, chose her trajectory carefully, and swiftly followed the curve of the pink shield before striking the earth from underneath. A wave of rainbow-colored wind washed over Twilight, and when the dust had settled, there was a cave hidden under the sloping grass, only yards from the edge of the bubble.
Rainbow gave Twilight a lift inside. With the last of her magic, she hovered in her brother―still in his baggie―and settled him at the dark pinch at the cave's end. There wasn't much space for any of them. Twilight settled down beside Shining Armor, and Rainbow settled next to her.
“What now?” asked Rainbow nervously.
“Now, I sleep. Sorry, Dash―I'm exhausted. If he starts to wake up... make sure it doesn't happen. We'll watch him in shifts.”
“Well, okay,” said Dash. “But... for how long?”
“For as long as it takes for Cadence's enchantment to wear off,” said Twilight. She lay down her head and closed her eyes. “I won't lose my brother.”
Twilight couldn't tell how Rainbow reacted. She didn't hear or feel anything more before falling asleep.
\\ o/` \\
When day came, Twilight woke and Rainbow slept. The sunlight was faint, as they weren't on the eastern face of the hill and the pink shield dimmed Celestia's orb in any case. Twilight lay next to Rainbow, unable to keep their coats from touching in the confined space, and watched her brother stir.
Before going to sleep, Rainbow had reported getting rough a couple of times in order to keep their captive under. Twilight regretted that, but she knew Shining Armor wouldn't be easy to keep captive. He was trained in combat magic; in a fair fight, she wouldn't stand much of a chance against him. They'd only taken him successfully since he was asleep, and with Twilight's anti-magic baggie disintegrating, she had to somehow maintain her edge without doing lasting harm, physical or emotional.
“Twilie,” he groaned after perhaps an hour. “What happened?”
“Shhh,” she said. “Relax, big brother. We're hiding.”
This seemed to agitate him. Twilight had a sleeping spell prepared―a barely visible web that she lowered toward her brother. But she didn't release.
“What are we... what are we hiding from?” he mumbled.
“From an evil enchantress,” Twilight said. “Do you feel normal? Or... do you feel enchanted?”
Shining Armor wiggled on the grassy bed Rainbow had made for him, her discarded, wadded-up bridesmaid's dress serving as a pillow. “I feel strange.”
Of course he does, reflected Twilight. How could he not? “That's okay, big brother. Go to sleep.”
Twilight released the net, and he slept.
She wouldn't be able to safely rely on his reported feelings, she now realized. She would need to cast a magic detection spell, and that would be difficult, especially without any books and while maintaining control. Rainbow Dash would be of help, but the speed-flier also needed her rest, and this operation would surely take at least another day, probably two.
Twilight shuddered and indulged in a few minutes of calm breathing, eyes closed, before she set herself to work.
\\ o/` \\
There was mobility on the surface. Twilight could hear it. The guards had been mobilized, no doubt, and Celestia was looking for them. Maybe there was something more going on, too. Twilight and Rainbow lay there as afternoon moved toward evening, their ears perked and heads tilted to pick up every sound. They traded speculations on what further disasters might have struck―ideas related to the mysterious threat that had prompted Canterlot's precautions in the first place. The two mares flipped back and forth on whether they thought an attack had occurred. Eventually, the sounds of marching, bugles and commotion became so great that Rainbow expressed the belief it couldn't possibly all be about them. And for a minute, Twilight agreed, but in the following minute, she doubted it again.
Rainbow flew out cautiously at dusk to check on the state of the pink bubble. She reported back that it was fading in strength but still intact, and she didn't think she could break through. Twilight took in this information stoically, wondering how much longer they could escape detection and how much longer Cadence's enchantment could possibly last.
\\ o/` \\
As Rainbow slept again that night, Twilight again allowed Shining Armor to wake. Her spell wasn't ready yet, but she knew it wasn't healthy to keep her brother unconscious in perpetuity... aside from which, she felt bad for him. She carefully maintained a force field between them and kept the web of sleep in easy reach.
“Ohhh... Twilight. I don't feel good.”
“Neither do I, big brother. We haven't had anything but grass to eat or dew to drink for almost thirty hours. But you should eat what you can.”
He nibbled on the moss that had tumbled into the cave when Rainbow had created it, and ate the dewy grass she'd later brought in. His focus increased in short order.
“Twilight... what are we doing here? I had the strangest dreams... I don't know anymore what's really happened!”
“I don't want you to worry, BBBFF. I'd be lying if I said that everything was all right... but you have to sleep again.”
“So soon?” He looked claustrophically around their dirty little prison. “But I just woke up!”
“I'm sorry, brother. But you're under a spell and... and I can't trust you just now, as much as I'd love to.” Twilight hung her head. “I need you to trust me, instead.”
She could hear the doubt in his voice as he replied: “All right... I'll trust you, Twilight. If you say I should go to sleep...”
She brought the web closer only gradually. When it was done, she told herself that sleep had come to him naturally... or at least close enough that he hadn't known the difference.
\\ o/` \\
On the second day, Twilight suffered from confinement. Parts of her body were sore; she could only imagine how her brother felt. With Rainbow, she didn't have to imagine―the pegasus had taken to frequent complaints about how bored, weary and trapped she felt. She went out to gather grass and check on the bubble more than Twilight was comfortable with, given that the sounds of military presence and activity had only intensified above. The sounds of explosions were unmistakable―sometimes clods of dirt even fell within their cave, spurring momentary sensations of panic. Twice, the voices of guards passed dangerously close. She and Rainbow held each other. Twilight remembered tears, but not whose they were.
Her spell was just about ready. In good conditions, she might have finished it in six hours without books―with the right books, she might have had it within minutes. But these were terrible conditions. Two days was the best she could manage.
\\ o/` \\
Night fell and passed. The sun would be up soon. Rainbow's gentle snores were like miniature ocean waves beside her―at least the pegasus had fallen asleep facing the wall this time. Twilight's web of sleep was wearing thin, and Shining Armor was stirring; it was time. He had to be awake for it.
Twilight drew back the web and rustled her brother's body, deep in the cave. His eyes opened almost immediately.
“Oh,” he breathed. “What now? Are we in trouble? What can we do, Twilight?”
His fear was heartbreaking. “Shining Armor, I need to cast a spell on you. It's going to tell me whether you're still under an enchantment or not.”
“An... an enchantment?”
“That's right. Your fiancée, Cadence... she was casting a spell on you to keep you obedient. I think she cast it on my friends and quite possibly on Princess Celestia, herself! But it's been fifty-six hours since you saw Cadence, and I'm hoping that's long enough...”
“Cadence?!” He tried to sit up and bumped his head against the semi-soft earth, causing a drizzle of dirt to fall. “Ungh―Twilie, she would never do this to me! I had migraines... she was... she was only casting spells on me to heal me!”
Twilight set her jaw. “That's what I need to find out. Please... don't resist. Let me cast this spell on you.”
She saw how hard it was for him to lie down again, but he lay as flat as the cave floor allowed, watching Twilight with soft but frightened eyes. Twilight took a deep breath, drew the ideas from within herself, and forged her spell according to the plans she'd conceived over the last two days.
A violet flash lit the cave, startling Twilight and waking Rainbow. Twilight strained to regain control. Shining Armor lay there, half mesmerized and half terrified, and Twilight saw clearly that he bore no enchantment... and that he never had.
No enchantments. Except for her own sleeping spell.
Twilight felt bile in her throat. She heaved sobs and tried desperately to sort her thoughts from her fears. The deluge only lasted a minute.
“Twilight?” asked Rainbow.
Shining Armor wiggled forward, his legs brushing against Twilight's. “Does that mean I'm all right?”
Twilight took one more deep breath. “Yes. You're fine. And apparently I was mistaken about all of this.” She shut her eyes. “I thought your fiancée was a dark magician, an evil creature. I was wrong. ...And yesterday was your wedding day.”
“My... my wedding day?! I've missed it?”
“Well, I guarantee she didn't get married without you,” Twilight murmured.
“TWILIGHT!” shouted Rainbow. “Are you... are you seriously telling me we've been cooped up here for two and a half days for no reason?!”
Twilight wanted to cry, but instead she crept toward the exit. “I'm sorry, Rainbow. And I'm sorry, Shining Armor. You can yell at me later.”
“Are we going?! Just like that?”
“You keep saying how you want to stretch your wings, Rainbow. Go ahead. Fly us out of here.”
It was worse than Twilight had imagined. When they reached the surface and crested the hill, she saw in the predawn light that the land had been excavated in strips and craters as far as she could see. The nearest buildings she remembered were now only white granite walls, tumbled to the earth. The only ponies she saw were guards, but a whole team of them stood not far away, and it wasn't ten seconds before they were spotted.
“It's her! It's them!” Twilight heard faintly, followed by: “Halt! In the name of Princess Celestia!”
Twilight had been moving toward the guardpost, but fell still. So did Rainbow Dash and Shining Armor. The guards came swiftly.
“I'm so sorry,” said Twilight, her eyes barely open. “It was all my doing. Rainbow Dash was only following my orders.”
“We're to bring you to Her Majesty,” declared the guard, and that was all.
\\ o/` \\
They waited on a path of debris that had once been the royal promenade. Twilight could hardly believe what had become of this place. She remembered it vividly from the Grand Galloping Gala―now it was reduced to stray bricks and heaps of uneven dirt, with chunks of bedrock mixed in. To make things worse, in the early light of dawn Twilight could hardly recognize the royal palace in the distance. Spires were sitting disjoined on the ground against buttresses; whole stretches of structure had been dismantled and were gaping open like unfinished basements. Not many ponies aside from royal guards were out―even fewer than Twilight recalled was typical for this hour. She hadn't seen much of Canterlot on the way over, but it hadn't looked much better―the buildings were in disarray and the cobbled streets undone. Even the homesteads seemed to have been gutted from within.
Twilight couldn't keep wondering what had happened when she saw Princess Celestia walking towards her. There she was, flanked by her elite Sun Guard, countenance grim as a meteor, coat glimmering blue-white in the dawning light. Twilight wondered whether the sparkle on her flank was due to quartz dust. She sat back involuntarily as the princess approached.
Twilight had been so distracted by the destruction that she'd missed the tears in Celestia's eyes. The monarch's voice made them crystal clear, however.
“Captain Armor. I am immensely relieved to see you alive and whole. You must be exhausted.”
Beside her, Twilight saw her brother shift. “I... you know, I feel like I've been sleeping forever, Princess. But...” He shook his head. “I think you're right.”
“Then be still for now. And Rainbow Dash―our time to talk will be later. Twilight Sparkle.”
Twilight swallowed and held back sobs as Celestia turned her way. “I'm so sorry,” she whimpered. “So, so sorry. I thought he was under an enchantment.”
Celestia raised a terrible eyebrow. “An enchantment? And that's the reason you kidnapped your own brother?”
Twilight nodded, silent.
There was a pause from the great sovereign. “Twilight, I tore apart Canterlot looking for you.” Twilight heard herself gasp―she'd guessed that, but to hear it confirmed was a shock. “And all the while,” continued Celestia, “I was so incredibly angry at you. And that led to anger at myself. Anger for believing in you. For personally sponsoring you. For thinking of you as my greatest student. I berated myself for hours upon hours.”
“I'm so sorry,” repeated Twilight in a whisper. “I'll accept any punishment.”
“I asked myself: What would we do with you? Kidnapping a captain of the royal guard on the day before his wedding... it's no light matter! Could we put you in civic service in perpetuity? Would I be forced to banish you? Could I possibly sweep all of it under the rug, and did I even want to?”
Twilight couldn't bring herself to stare, but her eyes were filled with tears. “I don't know what I can say,” she rasped. “I've never made a mistake like this. I'm so, so sorry.”
“That was how I felt, Twilight, until two o'clock this morning,” said Celestia.
Twilight was at a loss. “Wh... what happened at two o'clock this morning?”
The princess shifted forward. “In my fervor to find you, I tore up the floor of Canterlot Palace itself. I knew that you couldn't have escaped Shining Armor's protective shield, and I was running out of places to look. There is a crystal mine underneath the palace, Twilight, abandoned for generations, and it was there, at two o'clock this morning, that I discovered the real Princess Cadence.”
Twilight felt her pupils dilate. Rainbow moved beside her, but it was Shining Armor's voice that protested: “You what?!”
“Needless to say, I was shocked to find a haggard mare claiming to be Princess Cadence underneath the palace when I knew that Cadence was currently pacing the floors of her bridal suite. A few careful questions, however, convinced me that this was the genuine article, and that the being we had known as Mi Amore Cadenza for the last several months was an imposter. A changeling, to be exact.”
Twilight couldn't speak, but Rainbow could. “You mean Twilight was right?!”
Celestia favored them with a complicated look. “I can't say what motivated you exactly, Twilight... but your instincts were certainly right. You realized there was something wrong with Cadence, when the rest of us were too quick to forgive. And so, thanks to you... Shining Armor was saved from marrying a changeling queen.”
Twilight was simultaneously aghast and relieved. “Did... did you capture her?”
Celestia nodded. “She had been pretending to mourn the abduction of her fiancé... a sentiment to which I had been very sympathetic. Warned as to her true nature, however, I was able to take her by surprise. She put up a surprisingly robust fight, but I defeated her in the end. We now have her safely in custody.”
This was insane. “But if there was no enchantment... if it really was just a healing spell I saw... then why was everyone else so quick to ignore her behavior?”
Rainbow Dash shrugged. Shining Armor swallowed and said nothing. Celestia looked far away and only spoke after a few seconds. “Have you ever been part of a wedding before, Twilight?”
“...No. No, never.”
“Well, some of us have,” said a new voice. It was Rarity―headed their way from a single-story building surrounded by black dirt. The others were behind her―Fluttershy, Applejack, Pinkie Pie and Spike.
Twilight broke into a grin. “It's so good to see you guys!”
Spike hurried from the back to be the first to hug her. “You left me behind!”
“I'm sorry, Spike. I didn't know what else to do! I hope they didn't treat you too badly.”
“Nah, I've got a bunch more interrogation techniques now, so I'm fine.”
“That's... good to hear,” said Twilight. She looked back to Rarity. “But what did you mean about weddings?”
“Why, darling, I simply mean that bumps in the road are to be expected! The bride can't be expected to have on her best face for the entire process, especially with her groom-to-be preoccupied.”
“You ain't kiddin',” agreed Applejack. “My cousin Caramel Apple was a real firebrand for weeks 'afore she got hitched. And I had to talk sense into her!”
Fluttershy nodded and spoke softly. “It was kind of like that when my mother remarried. It was like she wasn't herself for a while.”
“Well, I've helped cater a bunch of weddings!” added Pinkie Pie. “You wouldn't believe some of the chaos that goes down behind the scenes! And in front of the scenes! And sometimes even in the scenes!”
“Whereas I,” concluded Rarity, “assisted at numerous weddings as a decorator in fashion school. I can tell you, meltdowns and changes of temper were hardly uncommon. Mi Amore Cadenza may have turned out to be an ill-tempered queen of the changelings... but honestly speaking? As brides go, she wasn't all that bad.”
Pinkie and Applejack laughed a little at that, and Twilight found herself doing the same. “So that's all? The only reason I was convinced something was wrong was that I'm the only one who hadn't been involved in a wedding before?”
“Well, hopefully there was more to it than that,” said Rainbow. “But to be fair, I've never even been to a wedding before. I probably would've been just as dumb about it as you were.”
Twilight grimaced oddly. “So I did a horrible thing, but I'm forgiven because I got lucky?”
Celestia was beside her now, her voice softer than before. “You did a good thing, Twilight. You followed your heart, and your heart steered you well. Only... next time, please come to me first, all right?”
Twilight's grimace broke into a grin, and then a chuckle. “All right, princess. I promise.”
Shining Armor stood at Twilight's other side now. “Good. Because if Cadence is still willing... the real Cadence...” He pulled up his head and grinned, despite his exhaustion. “...then we've got a wedding to plan!”
\\ o/` \\
They did indeed. And even if it suffered from a shortage of walls, and a complete deficiency of floors, it was a spectacular event. Rainbow Dash performed a sonic rainboom that cleared away numerous buildings destined for demolition. Pinkie invented a game in which the reception guests stacked loose bricks into towers and archways, and the DJ spun records from a crumbled bower that had until recently been a storage wing. And Twilight, still flooded with emotion, sang her heart out.
Afterwards, once the honeymoon carriage was out of sight, Twilight stood alone with Celestia in the twilight. Things were easier between them now.
“I think this one may go down in the history books as the Dirt Floor Wedding,” remarked Celestia lightly. “Would you agree?”
Twilight laughed. “I suppose, if that's the only way immortal princesses can remember it,” she joked.
“Well, weddings come and weddings go,” mused Celestia. “Every little detail helps to set them apart.”
Twilight nodded, looking over Equestria's capital city. It was true―Celestia, with Luna's help, had gone manically from place to place, excavating practically everything she found. She'd since told Twilight that making good with the residents and landowners was going to be very expensive.
“Were we really worth it?” wondered Twilight. “I mean... some of these buildings had stood for ages. Me and my brother... was it really worth destroying that much history, over us?”
Celestia stood silent for a few seconds. When she finally faced Twilight, her expression was deep, her eyes aglow. “I don't choose to feed your ego just now, Twilight Sparkle. Enjoy the reception.”
With that, the ruler of Equestria walked away, and Twilight was left alone with her amazed reflections, and with ruined Canterlot.
END OF MOVEMENT 1
Celestia was beside her now, her voice softer than before. “You did a good thing, Twilight. You followed your heart, and your heart steered you well. Only... next time, please come to me first, all right?”
Twilight's grimace broke into a grin, and then a chuckle. “All right, princess. I promise.”
Interior: Bridal suite. Eve of the wedding of Princess Cadence and Shining Armor.
...yet the temptation was too great, the issue too dire. Against her better judgment, Twilight cracked the door and listened.
“I thought I made it perfectly clear I didn't want you to wear that!” groused Cadence.
“This... was my favorite uncle's,” replied Shining Armor. Twilight peeked in―it was Uncle Strongspark's red service coat and breastplate, complete with the six-pointed star both Twilight and her brother had inherited.
“And, I think I should wear it!”
“Are you disagreeing with me?” Twilight blinked―had Cadence actually said that?
Shining Armor drew himself up, giving Twilight a twinge of sisterly pride. “I... guess I am!” he declared. But then a twinge of something sinister seemed to strike him, and he winced in pain.
“Oh, dear,” snarked Cadence. “Are you getting another one of your headaches?”
Shining Armor cramped and grunted on the floor, and not a moment later Cadence engulfed him in a green magical aura. Twilight could feel the spell's strength―it was formidable, all right. Worthy of a princess, though maybe not a good one! Twilight's eyes stayed on her brother's face. His eyes rattled and he rose in a daze.
“Feeling better?” asked Cadence.
“Mmhm,” Shining Armor replied listlessly. Twilight gasped. Her brother was one of the most willful ponies she knew―but everything about this moment suggested that the will had been sucked right out of him. “She isn't just unpleasant and rude!” she exclaimed. “She's downright evil!”
With that, fearing discovery, Twilight fled the bridal suite.
“Twilight!” called her brother behind her. But Twilight wasn't going back. She didn't know what to think, and had to regroup.
She galloped for the guest chambers where her friends were staying. They had to hear about this!
“Who goes there!?” bellowed a sudden voice on high. “Stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle.”
Luna. Princess Luna. Twilight spun about to behold her watching from a towering spire. Twilight's mind swam, intentions scrambled. She wanted to see her friends, but how could she ignore a reigning princess of Equestria?
In the end, her dutiful side won out. “...What was that, Princess Luna?”
MOVEMENT 2: Wending a Wedding
Luna's expression was strident. “I warned you to stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle. Dire things are afoot tonight.”
Twilight stumbled to a halt at the foot of the tower. She cast a longing glance back to the open, glowing doors where her friends could surely be found... but for now, Luna was more important.
“What things? Isn't there a protection spell over the whole city?”
“Yes,” said Luna, “but we are not the only wielders of magic in this world, Twilight Sparkle. Were a single shield sufficient to secure us from all danger, our troubles would be mild indeed.”
The night princess's royal voice was forceful, even employed calmly at a distance. Twilight was getting worried their conversation would alert Cadence to her feelings, so she put her forehooves on the tower door. Celestia herself had kept watch from this tower during the day... but for what?
“Will you let me inside, your highness? I feel like we should talk.”
The princess seemed surprised. “In the tower?”
“Well, you did say I should stay indoors....”
The door creaked open with a shimmer of magic. When Twilight walked inside, it snapped shut. Within sat barrels, reams of cloth, carpentry tools, and lumber―this tower was stocked for a siege!
A winding staircase took Twilight up from the clutter. In her ascent, she passed smaller floors filled with papers and charts and maps of places she recognized vaguely from her readings... but their forms looked somehow different here. These were military maps, she realized.
“Well met, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna suddenly from five steps up. Twilight leapt and stumbled down a few stairs before catching herself.
“Oooph!! I... I beg your pardon,” she managed. “But you startled me! And why do you keep saying my name in every sentence?”
Luna curled a wing back. “Is it not portentous?”
“Um... well, I guess so, if that's what you're going for.”
Luna shuffled her front feet back so that all four were on the same stair. “Does it upset you when I address you by name, Twil―” But she cut herself off.
Twilight bowed, smiling a little. “Every fifth or sixth sentence would be fine, princess.”
Luna regained her composure with a sweep of her wings. “Very well. Welcome to the High Watchtower, Tw―my friend.”
Twilight resumed her upward walk, and Luna stepped backward up the stairs obligingly as she did, two legs at a time. “Thank you! I saw Princess Celestia watching from the roof during the day... can you tell me what she was watching for?”
“That I cannot,” said Luna.
“You can't? Is it a secret?”
“It is a secret of state when threats manifest against Equestria's capitol. The fact of the threat cannot be disguised, but its nature is not for me to divulge without my sister's permission.”
“I see. Well, maybe we should ask her permission, then. Because I feel like I know something she doesn't, and I want to be part of the solution.” Twilight internally congratulated herself for how calmly she was handling the situation.
Luna stopped hoisting herself up the stairs. “What information can you offer?”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “It's Princess Cadence. What would you say, Princess, if I told you that I'd just seen her bewitching my brother?”
Luna sat wide-eyed for a moment. Then she concentrated for a split second and their surroundings went white. Twilight found herself teleported to what must be the top of the tower, the sprawl of Canterlot Castle and the mountain's edge visible before them. In other directions, the city of Canterlot sat still under tense cover of evening, and everywhere the night sky was pink, not black, thanks to Shining Armor's magical dome.
“Good Element of Magic,” intoned Luna. “The pinnacle of the High Watchtower is the proper place for high considerations. Art thou accusing our―I mean, are you accusing our beloved Princess Mi Amore Cadenza of treason?”
“Treason?” Twilight hadn't thought of it so starkly. “I―no, I just think she's bad for him! She's using him somehow.”
The night princess loomed close, somehow darkening more of Twilight's field of vision than her body had any right to. “And you feel that 'using' the captain of the royal guard badly is not treasonous?”
“Um... well, I hadn't thought of it that way...”
“What manner of bewitchment have you witnessed, Twilight Sparkle?!” Her question asked, Luna drew back a smidgeon, smiling sheepishly. “Did I wait long enough that time?”
“Er...” Twilight screwed a forehoof around in her ear as if to clean it. “I'll tell you exactly what happened, Your Highness. I was speaking with my brother when Princess Cadence took him behind a closed door, and I went to listen. They―”
“You would eavesdrop on an Equestrian princess?!?” roared Luna, unfurling shadows from her wings.
“I―well, I was suspicious! She'd been acting strange all day!”
“We are royal and eternal! Do we not enjoy the privilege of oddity?” bristled Luna.
“Well... it wasn't that kind of strange. It wasn't like, eccentric strange. It was more, she'd forgotten who she was supposed to be, strange.”
Luna grew still. “Go on.”
“Right. They had an argument over what Shining Armor should wear, and he suddenly gasped in pain. He fell to his knees, and Cadence... cast some kind of spell that surrounded his head with a green aura, and made his eyes rattle! It felt like a progressive enchantment. She said something about him feeling headaches and how she'd make him feel better.”
Luna shifted her pose austerely, one hind leg askew. “Then shall we not conclude that she was indeed soothing his pain? Our good captain has been maintaining his shield for our entire capitol, and this effort has kindled migraine headaches.” “Well... ” Twilight hadn't really tried to put a legitimate face on what she'd witnessed, since it had felt so utterly wrong. She thought back. “But princess! His eyes didn't rattle until after she cast her spell!”
Luna was still. “Are you sure of this, Twilight Sparkle?”
“Positive. I remember it clearly.”
“It is still probable that she was correcting his infirmity. Healing spells can themselves be disorienting. Still, I will relay what you have reported to my sister, that we might leave this matter to her judgment. I will be just a minute.”
Luna closed her eyes and lifted her head, no doubt speaking with Celestia at a distance. Twilight nodded, her nerves tense. She was cooling down in the night air, the amazing architecture of Canterlot around her on all sides. And she was starting to doubt her instinctive reaction. Could Cadence really have been helping her brother? It hadn't just been the spell that put Twilight on edge―it was Cadence's attitude! The very idea of Shining Armor arguing back had seemed to offend her, and his headache had come at an awfully convenient moment....
“Twilight Sparkle. Oh―it's acceptable to use your name now, is it not? I reason that my telepathic conversation with my sister reset the counter, as it were.”
Twilight nodded. “What did she say?”
“Princess Celestia wishes to have audience with you immediately.” Luna inclined her great, midnight blue head. “Art thee amenable? Sorry, are you? Are you amenable?”
“I'm amenable,” said Twilight.
“In that case, good luck!” Luna clapped her wings, and Twilight again felt the rush of unexpected teleportation. When her environment stabilized, she was standing before a concerned Princess Celestia in her firelit bedchamber.
\\ o/` \\
“Princess.” Twilight lowered herself to the floor.
“My student.” Celestia's muzzle felt nourishing and silky against her cheek.
Twilight looked up at her mentor. “I'm sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Not at all, Twilight,” said Celestia. “Luna has told me everything you told her. Since your concerns are genuine, you have no need to apologize. In fact, I'm glad that you chose to bring this matter up privately, rather than confronting Cadence directly.”
This warmed Twilight's heart. “Well, it wasn't like I was going to just storm into rehearsal and start calling her 'evil'.” At least, that hadn't been her plan for more than about sixty seconds.
Celestia brought her face close... so close that Twilight thought she might touch it again to her own. But the princess stopped, the curves of her cheek and nose catching the pink moonlight through a stained window.
“Twilight... it occurs to me that there are certain lessons about love you have yet to learn,” said the princess.
Twilight blinked. What was Celestia trying to say? “Well... of course! I mean, I should hope so. I don't think I've ever even been in love!”
Celestia's eyes were cloudy one moment and clear the next. “Precisely. You are at a wedding, Twilight... the supreme public expression of love, a subject on which you are no expert. I would hope, my pupil, that in such a situation you would forbear from trying to shape the course of events... unless it were absolutely necessary.”
Twilight was lost for words. “Uh―but I... I mean, I realize that I'm...”
But Celestia softened and her knowing smile returned. “What you are not is a creature of instinct, Twilight Sparkle. I mean you no disrespect when I say that any of your friends would find it easier, and more fruitful, to follow their instincts than you.”
This was dismaying. “So you think I'm wrong?”
“I hope you are, my faithful one! For the sake of all. But please, Twilight, don't be upset.” Kneeling, Celestia stroked a wing against Twilight's shoulder. “I mean only that you're a creature of intellect. You thrive on reason and procedure... yet here, now, you find yourself making an important judgment based chiefly on your instincts. It must feel confusing.”
“It does,” admitted Twilight. “It really does! My friends... they wouldn't even take me seriously when I told them how Cadence was behaving. It was... it was like that time when I was so scared you were going to send me back to magic kindergarten if I didn't send you a report on time, and they wouldn't believe me!”
“And Twilight. Who was right on that occasion?” Celestia held her neck low to meet Twilight's eyes.
“They were,” Twilight whispered. “But... but just the same, they were wrong not to take me seriously!”
“Indeed,” replied Celestia. “And that, Twilight Sparkle,” is the only reason I haven't yet dismissed you with a laugh and a suggestion to relax and enjoy yourself. As much as the notion tempts me.”
Twilight blinked, as did the princess. But she had to explain herself. “Princess... I know I don't know much about love. I know it's one of those things you can't learn properly out of a book. But... this isn't about love! It's about... just basic decency. Princess Cadence isn't acting like a good bride ought to act, or... or a good anyone, for that matter!”
Celestia positioned her eyes mere inches from Twilight's. “Can you begin to imagine the way she feels?” she asked. “About to commit herself fully to another? To bring a new family―yours―into the royal fold? Can you really claim to comprehend the weight of that decision... and on top of it, all the nits and trimmings of organizing a major event?”
“Listen to me, Twilight! The more you distrust her, the more reason you give her to second-guess herself for making you royal!”
This hit Twilight hard. “Wait. ...For what?”
Celestia drew back. “Do you mean to say it hasn't crossed your mind?”
But Twilight could only stare, and repeat: “Royal?”
The princess lidded her eyes. “In the days before Equestria, the sister of a prince was typically styled 'princess' herself. In this age, royal siblings by marriage are more often granted noble titles. …I had meant to discuss with you what yours would be.”
This new angle flustered Twilight. “A title? Is that really... I mean, I'm already your personal student!”
“And for that reason,” said Celestia, “I was inclined toward the simple 'Lady'. In some quarters, you are already referred to as Lady Twilight Sparkle. Would you care to make it official?”
“All I want is for the right thing to happen!” erupted Twilight. “I just want my brother to be happy! I want him to see that he's being mistreated!”
Princess Celestia sat on the floor opposite Twilight. The fire behind her revealed little of her face, but even as she spoke, the princess's horn blazed up and lit the span between them. “Then you may be about to learn one of those lessons I mentioned. Even if you are right about Princess Cadence, and her ill temper truly is more than a temporary flare born from stress... you'll most likely never get your brother to see it.”
“Because love, once built, does not die easily.” Celestia closed her eyes for a moment and inclined her head. “It lingers and burns on, even after relations have gone sour. It takes tremendous force to break a truly strong bond. If Shining Armor even once knew true bliss in the presence of Mi Amore Cadenza, he will strive forever to regain that moment. Harsh words and subtle actions won't even come close to ending his love.”
“But it's... it's not safe for him!!” yelled Twilight, rising. “I'm scared for him! I mean, it's... it's his life, and if he wants to make a big mistake... I can't stop him, so long as he knows what he's doing.... But―but he doesn't, Princess. He doesn't know! It's like... I remember Cadence, and this isn't... this isn't even her!”
Celestia opened her mouth again, but froze on the cusp of speech. Twilight could sense something going through her head as she drew back. “Twilight... let's make the issue very clear. Are you, in fact, literally saying that you believe... that the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza currently residing in the bridal suite... is not the same pony as the Cadence you and I once knew?”
The princess's sudden urgent tone frightened Twilight on a new level. “Um... well, she's―I don't know! I only meant that she wasn't acting like herself... but are you saying that she could be an imposter?”
“Are you?” demanded Celestia, straightening and standing tall.
“I don't know!” cried Twilight. “Possibly! But who has the magic to impersonate a princess??”
For several seconds, Celestia was silent. And then:
“Twilight. What I am about to say is meant for your ears only, and the ears of one other: your brother. He doesn't know the nature of the threat against Canterlot any more than you do, because he hasn't needed to know. Only a few do know―my sister, my chancellor, a foreign ambassador.”
So the mysterious threat against Canterlot was somehow tied up in this. “Princess?”
“My faithful student. Do you recall from your studies of exotic magical creatures... what a changeling is?”
Twilight's brain flailed... and then she realized. Her heart felt like stone. “Yes. I do.”
“The land of the changelings and their cousins, the other Tricky Folk, is several kingdoms distant from Equestria,” Celestia explained. “Yet they have been gathering in our mountains. Some forty miles northeast of Canterlot, a horde has been gathering, and I have reason to believe they are led by a queen. Their intentions I don't know.”
Twilight fell to her haunches. “Are you saying that... Princess Cadence... could be a changeling?”
The glow of Celestia's horn dimmed as she looked away. “She would have to be their queen, or another nearly as powerful. It seems quite unlikely, Twilight. In all likelihood... what you're experiencing is the combination of a foalhood friend who changed over time, the stresses of a wedding weighing upon her, and the ordinary protective feelings you have toward your brother... not to mention your dismay at not receiving advance notice. This situation is naturally confusing for you, my beloved student... and I really shouldn't be surprised that you're acting as you are. Yet, on the chance... the slim chance....” She turned away and shut her eyes.
“What should we do?” asked Twilight. “Should we tell my friends about this?”
Celestia's eyes opened narrowly. “No... your friends will not adopt an even-hoofed point of view. They have been appointed as Mi Amore Cadenza's new bridesmaids. Apparently her previous bridesmaids were hungry only for fame, and she dismissed them.”
Twilight gasped. “Her new bridesmaids!?”
Celestia nodded. “They will be all too willing to justify her misbehavior. No, Twilight. Go directly to Shining Armor. Tell him what you've told me, and tell him that the changelings have been gathering. Let him draw his own conclusions. He has known Cadence more intimately than any of us, and if she is being impersonated, he will be most likely to know.”
“But Princess, what about the bond you mentioned? The bond that doesn't break?”
Celestia lifted her head. “If Shining Armor comes to believe this is not the true Cadence, that bond will be irrelevant. He is the Captain of my Guard, Twilight... he may be young and even a little foolish, but he will not trifle with the safety of our capitol. If he suspects, he is to come to me. Do you understand, Twilight?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“Then go to him. And if your brother says that your fears are unfounded, then I beg you... please. Trust him. Trust also in the instincts of your friends, and let your fears go, if you possibly can.”
Twilight wanted to agree to this, but she wasn't entirely sure she knew how to let her fears go. “I'll talk to him,” she promised.
Celestia went to sit by the fire, her horn dark and her head low. “I'm sorry if I come across as stern,” she confided. “I only want to help Cadence's dreams come true... without hurting yours.”
“I understand,” said Twilight. She waited half a minute for a response... and when none came, she slipped away.
\\ o/` \\
It was just as well Celestia hadn't teleported Twilight straight to her brother. For one thing, such an abrupt appearance might startle him, which wouldn't mesh well with her task of convincing him that something was wrong. For another thing, Twilight wanted to get her thoughts in order before attempting what might be one of the most difficult and important conversations of her life. She therefore found her way out of the castle and headed for the guest cottage where she and Spike were staying.
Each passing minute felt like another chance lost, but Twilight knew it didn't really matter when she confronted Shining Armor so long as it was before the next morning's rehearsal. There weren't many ponies out and about, but Twilight avoided those she saw. Her thoughts swirled as she tried to reconcile what she'd witnessed of Mi Amore Cadenza that day with what she remembered from her foalhood. What kind of life could change such sweetness into callous cruelty, and in so few years? Twilight found herself actually hoping that Cadence was a changeling, rather than have to grapple with such a personal tragedy.
She trotted down to the guest cottage and was somewhat surprised to hear Spike's voice mumbling from within. She'd expected him to be there, but who was he talking to?
“...So banker draws on a four... unless the player's third card is less than two, or more than seven. But what if the player has no third card? Then... the bank stands. No, on a four they draw, but on a six they―”
Twilight peeked inside. “Spike? Is there somepony in there with you?”
“Gaah!!” Spike jerked reflexively, hurling dozens of cards into the air. There was no one else there. He whirled around, looking upset and embarrassed at once. “Twilight! You startled me!!”
“Sorry, Spike. What are you doing in here?”
He held up a slim leather-bound book. “What do you think I'm doing? I'm learning how to play Bachelor!”
Twilight opened her mouth, but no words found their way.
Spike stared back defensively. “You know! Bachelor? Game of chance where the players bet on which hand of cards'll end up closer to nine?”
Twilight blinked, and a few seconds later, the sweet juice of elocution returned to her lips. “Baccarat, Spike! You're thinking of baccarat! A bachelor is a single male!”
Spike's embarrassment visibly compounded, and he twiddled the book between his fingers. “Bachelor isn't a card game?”
“No, Spike. Shining Armor is a bachelor... for one more day!”
Spike glanced at the book again before setting it on the table. “No wonder they kept spelling it so weird. Well, that's just great!” He pounded the table, sending more cards airborne. “I spent hours getting this book from the royal library and tracking down a palace steward so I could get the cards! What am I going to do with forty-eight decks of cards??” He gestured to a precarious stack in the corner.
Twilight sighed. “We have bigger problems, Spike. I've been talking to the princesses, and it turns out that Princess Cadence may actually be... er...” She paused. Celestia had said the secret was for her and Shining Armor only, hadn't she?
“May be what?” asked Spike, clambering over.
Twilight weighed how much it was okay to tell her assistant. “...May be something other than what she seems. She may be an imposter, Spike!”
He drew in sudden breath. “Really? You mean a fake?”
“That's right.” She walked briskly inside and started gathering up spilled cards with her magic. “I'd thought she was a changed pony. But maybe... maybe she's not! Maybe she's just not here! Come to think of it, she didn't seem to remember me at all when I greeted her! She didn't even recognize our 'Sunshine, Sunshine' dance!”
“Gosh!” Spike stood aside to let Twilight do the work of cleaning up. “Do you suppose the real Cadence got kidnapped?”
“That could very well be, Spike. I certainly hope she's all right.”
“But who could do that to a princess? For that matter―who would want to?!”
Twilight didn't like keeping things from her number one assistant, but she had to. “I don't know, Spike. I mean, the princesses had some ideas, but... well, anyone who would kidnap someone on the verge on their wedding must be a pretty horrible person!” Twilight felt a sudden spasm, as if she'd been struck by an otherworldly bolt of irony... but she shook it off. “In any case, we need to work out whether the Cadence about to marry my brother is really who she says she is. And that's why I came to you! Unlike my pony friends, you actually knew her!”
“Well, kinda,” said Spike. “I was pretty young when she stopped foalsitting you.”
“But she stayed in touch! For a while, anyway. I know you have memories of her, Spike.”
Spike sat down on a hassock. “Yeah, I guess. She was sweet.”
“That she was! But more specifically, what was she like? What do you remember about Cadence that could never change?”
“She gave me candy,” said Spike, reminiscing with his hands on his belly.
Twilight lowered her eyebrows and shot Spike a dim look. “Is that how you remember Cadence? As a candy dispenser?”
Spike barely paid attention, his pupils shaped like yellow hearts. “Cherry sours... licorice pops... powder rocks... those little triangular mint things... ”
“I can't believe it,” said Twilight. “She wasn't supposed to be giving you anything! You were supposed to be on a diet!”
“Well, it wasn't like she gave me gems!” protested Spike. “Except that one time. Mmmm... yellow citrine....”
“Enough, Spike. Do you remember anything else about Cadence? Anything that might give us a clue if this is really her?”
The dragon let his hands fall to his sides. Suddenly, the room seemed very bleak and still.
“Well, I mean... if the fact she used to be nice, and now she's not, isn't enough... then I don't know what is,” said Spike.
“You may have a point,” Twilight conceded.
“I mean, if that can change, what can't?”
“Abilities! Do you remember how she to used to spread love, everywhere she went?”
“Kind of? Not really.”
He waved his hands. “I was, like, six the last time we saw her! And that was just for a few minutes!”
“Why would she come over for just a few minutes?”
“I think she was―” Spike gasped, and then rasped: “She was visiting your brother.”
Twilight felt her mouth hanging open; it took an effort to close it. “They were dating even back then?”
“I remember her saying she liked Shiny and she wanted to... I don't know, get to know him better?”
“And I didn't even realize,” said Twilight, half to herself. “Well, my brother can ask her questions, then. Things she should know the answer to!”
“If he's willing to be sensible about it,” Spike pointed out.
“Right. But what if he's not? I still need to know, Spike! What can I ask her that an imposter wouldn't know?”
“You could... you could ask her what kind of gem she gave me that one time. It was a lemon yellow citrine.”
“She'll say she doesn't remember! And maybe she really won't! If I can forget that she was already dating my brother when you were six, who's to say what she might have forgotten!?”
“I don't know, Twilight! Isn't there anything that stays the same about a person when they grow up??”
“Well, sure! ...Most things. But... maybe sometimes, there isn't.” Twilight sat down, dispirited.
Spike straightened up the pile of cards and sat down with her. They were silent for a minute. Twilight couldn't decide whether the moment felt timeless, or whether every heartbeat felt like a distant deluge.
“Twilight?” asked Spike eventually. “Am I a bachelor?”
Leave it to Spike to lighten the mood. “No, Spike. You're too young to be a bachelor.”
“That's... that's kind of what I thought.” A few moments later, he produced another question. “Twilight? Why does anyone ever get married?”
“I just don't get it. It's like... you're promising to be with them forever, right? But if people can change... if there's nothing about a person that can't change... then why would you want to make that promise? What if... whatever you love about them changes? Then you're stuck with someone that you don't love!”
Wow. So much for her assistant being a mood-lightener. “I... Spike, you're asking the wrong unicorn. What do I know about love?”
“So... you've never been in love?” Spike seemed downright nervous about asking.
Twilight had to reflect. “No... I guess I haven't. I mean... I think I love Celestia. But...”
Spike shifted forward. “You love Celestia?”
“As a mentor, Spike! As... as someone to look up to. I...” She sighed. “I may understand a little, tiny sliver of what love is. I... I've felt love. But I've never been in love,” she decided.
“Then if neither of us really understands love... how are we supposed to know if your brother's doing the right thing?” asked Spike.
Twilight didn't answer for some time.
“Just a little while ago,” she murmured, “I would have said it was up to him. That he could marry whomever he wants, even if she's a total shrew! Just so long as she's not an imposter.”
“But now?” prodded Spike.
“But now... I know that one way or another, this isn't the Cadence he fell in love with. She can't be! Either she's been replaced by someone else, or she's changed into someone else. I just have to make him see.” Stirred by emotions she didn't fully recognize, Twilight stood. “Thanks for your help, Spike. If you'll excuse me.”
Spike stood to the side, looking worried, and Twilight turned and left the cottage.
\\ o/` \\
There were guards about, but they either delivered soft greetings or passed by with cursory acknowledgment. It felt strange, just as it had when she'd broken into the Canterlot Library, to think that she wasn't actually breaking any rules. Twilight felt like an enemy of the state.
It was strange... but despite the darkness of the night, and despite all her concerns about her brother's future and the safety of the realm... what scared Twilight most was the possibility that Cadence might appear suddenly, just like she'd been doing all day. Twilight simply wasn't ready for that conversation. As she made her way to the guard barracks, she feared seeing that pink face around every corner. She even kept herself from saying the name Cadence under her breath, just in case the suspect princess could somehow hear.
But she made it unaccosted to the barracks where her brother spent his nights.
Twilight didn't know whether he would be awake, but if he could sleep before midnight on the eve of his wedding, with a threat against his city at large... well, she'd be jealous, to say the least. She asked the guard on duty whether she might see her brother in private, and sure enough, her request was granted. He hadn't even gone to bed yet.
Shining Armor's shining armor lay at the foot of his bed. His hair was combed straight with no sign of his ordinarily wild locks. His eyelids seemed heavy, as did his head, but the sight of his sister enabled him to muster up energy. “Hi, Twilie,” he said, quick to make eye contact. “I'm glad you came back! I was worried when you ran off earlier.”
Twilight wanted to do nothing but nuzzle and comfort him, but she had a job to do. “Sorry about that. I have a confession, big brother.”
“I... I eavesdropped on you and Cadence, when she pulled you into the bedroom. I watched through a crack in the door.”
His eyebrows were high, as was the surprise in his voice. “What? But why?! That conversation was private, Twilie.”
“And our conversation was private! Before she interrupted it! It felt only fair, and besides... I was worried about you.”
“Worried? But Twilie―tomorrow's going to be the greatest day of my life!”
Twilight felt a wave of sickness as she looked her brother over. “Then why don't you look happy?” It was true―he was alert but weary, strained and sleepy-looking. He didn't seem unhappy, but neither did he look like a happy groom about to marry his true love.
“I guess it's this threat against the city,” he finally said. “I've been so busy keeping up the protection spell that I haven't had any time to help Cadence plan the wedding! So she's had to make all the decisions and do all the planning, and it's stressing her out.”
Twilight was sympathetic. “Listen, big brother... I don't think the way your bride-to-be is acting is just stress. I think it's something more!”
His eyebrows lowered. “What do you mean?”
Twilight spoke carefully. “I mean that... I don't think this is the mare you fell in love with.”
Now his blue eyebrows just looked weird. “Not... not the mare I... I don't get it, Twilie.”
“She's not Cadence! Not as we used to know her, anyway. She's different now, and she may not even be the same pony at all!”
“Different how? What are you talking about?”
Twilight drew a huge breath. “Okay. Case in point number one. When I first saw her, I tried to do the old 'Sunshine, Sunshine' dance with her. She didn't seem to even know who I was, let alone remember the dance! When I said 'It's me, Twilight Sparkle', she blew me off. And then a few seconds later, when you were holding her, she shot me an evil grin! I did not imagine it! Point two. Applejack created a great new hors d'oeuvre for her, and she tried one and said she liked, it, but then when Applejack gave her a bag to munch on? She threw it straight in the trash!” Shining Armor's brows were getting lower and lower, his attitude shifting from receptive to hostile, but Twilight persisted. “Point three. Rarity put all this work into a wedding dress for her, but she just stood there coldly and said “...more beading and a longer train.” And her bridemaids loved the dresses Rarity made, but she told Rarity to make them a different color anyway! Point four. She told Pinkie Pie the reception she'd planned was worthy of a six-year-old's birthday party! And it wasn't a compliment! Point five! She yelled at one of Fluttershy's birds for singing off key! And as if all that wasn't enough... she barged in when I was talking to you, demanded your attention, argued with you about Uncle Strongspark's coat, and then―” She waved her forelegs wildly. “While I was watching through the door, she cast a spell on you! And yes, I know Luna said you've been having migraines and she was only trying to help, but it seemed like she was trying to shut you up and win the argument! The spell made your eyes go funny like a goofy mailmare we have back home. It didn't feel like a healing spell to me!”
“Are you kidding me, Twilight? You have a laundry list against my fiancée?”
“It's... but... this isn't your fiancée, Shining Armor! You wouldn't have fallen in love with this Cadence! This is someone else!”
“Now you're just being ridiculous! Who else could it be?”
Twilight stepped closer, just inches from her brother. She was shaking with the fear of not getting through. “I wondered that too... and then Princess Celestia told me. She never let you know just what you're protecting the city against, did she?”
“She said I didn't have to know.”
“That was then. This is now. Big brother... do you know what a changeling is?”
He was about to answer, but his eyes got bigger and his neck got stiffer, and he pulled up. “No. No!”
“Yes! Cadence could very well be a changeling! Celestia said a horde is gathering in the mountains, as if they're waiting to strike!”
“But...” He lowered his head and wiped away a tear. “But I thought they were just fairy tales!”
“I thought so too, but you never really know. True, Celestia thinks it's unlikely that Cadence is a changeling, but to me, it all fits. The imposter would have sneaked in a few weeks or months ago, snatched the real Princess Cadence, and put her somewhere where it could draw from her emotional pool! Since you're head over hocks in love, it figured you wouldn't put things together, but I have a fresh perspective, and she's not like I remember her! She doesn't have the same facial expressions, she doesn't treat ponies the same way... her voice doesn't even have the right... the right cadence!”
“I don't know, Twilie. It's true, she's been acting funny, but this feels like one of your wild goose chases. You remember how stressed you used to get over your homework?”
“Yes... and you were a saint to calm me down so often. But this isn't that! This time... I know what I'm feeling.”
Twilight shut her eyes over her nascent tears and found herself starting to sing:
“You think that I'm mistaken When I say you've been taken By somepony who's got it in for you.
But I swear I've seen the signs, And I've read between the lines: This mare is not the Cadence we both knew!
She's neither kind nor caring; I'm giving you my guarantee!”
“But how can I believe you?” protested Shining Armor.
“Because you're my Big Brother... Best Friend Forever!” replied Twilight. “Like two peas in a pod, we did everything together. I never told a single lie!”
“(Best friend forever,)” an ethereal counterpoint seemed to echo.
“How could I even think to try?” sang Twilight.
“(We did everything together!)” replied the ineffable harmony.
“We shared our childhood... We shared our youth... Wouldn't you know if I weren't telling you... the honest truth?”
Twilight stood breathing hard, looking for some sign of comprehension in her brother. To her surprise, he sang back to her:
“You're my Kid Sister... Best Friend Forever! And it's true that you've always been exceptionally clever.”
Twilight drew close. “I know the stakes are high, so please look me in the eye...”
She saw his shoulders tense. He crouched slightly, eye-level with Twilight, and stared.
Twilight sang: “If you marry her, you'll regret it... forever.”
His chin wavered. “Forever?”
“Forever!” warbled Twilight, carrying the note into the reaches of urgency.
Shining Armor's eyes squinched tight. Tears flowed. Abruptly, he drew back his sternum, tightened his shoulders, and cried out in anguish. Little sizzling blue curls flew from his horn, and Twilight hastened to shield herself.
“Big brother?!” she squeaked.
“I was going to be happy, Twilight! I was so close to being happy!!” Shining Armor let his head fall, blue mane flopping down.
“Then... then you believe me?”
“I trust you, Twilie. I know you wouldn't steer me wrong on something like this. And... I mean, it's true... she isn't the way she used to be. But I thought it was just nerves...”
“The spell she cast notwithstanding, I'm pretty sure nerves can't account for all these changes. But what do you mean, you were so close to being happy? Aren't you already happy? As Captain of the Guard?”
He whickered, lifting his head. “I know I always dreamed of being the Captain of the Guard. Just joining the guard in the first place was amazing. But leading... it's a lot on my back, Twilie.”
“You can handle it!” said Twilight cheerfully. “You have a great back.”
“You know, Celestia only promoted me because she likes you so much.” He peered. “Did you know that?”
Twilight hadn't. Was it true? She had no idea. “I... are you sure?”
“Of course I'm sure.” Shining Armor sat, deflated. “I wasn't the best in the company, let alone in the whole battalion. There were Frostcap... Short Sward... Candela... I mean, I had spirit and ethics and I work hard, but Captain? I just haven't earned it. I get distracted too easily. I make mistakes.”
“Everypony makes mistakes.” Twilight sat close, wishing she could nuzzle her brother but knowing he wasn't ready. “Maybe Celestia saw something in you that you didn't.”
“Maybe.” He obviously didn't believe it. “But I think it's pretty clear she saw how great you were at magic and decided I must be just as great at military leadership. Or maybe she just wanted to set you up with a high-ranking brother.”
Twilight made a mental note to ask Celestia about this. But for now, Cadence was the top priority. “Be that as it may... you can still be happy, even if the real Cadence doesn't turn up. Don't you enjoy your work?”
He sighed again. “Yeah... but it's only part of the dream, Twilie. It's only ever just been part of the dream.”
Now Twilight leaned forward and nuzzled Shining Armor. “I'm sorry, BBBFF. I don't know what to say.”
He didn't say anything. He just shuddered and stayed by his sister for some time, until eventually he stood up. “We have to find out if she really is a changeling,” he said weakly. “Does Celestia have a plan?”
“You should go to her and tell her you think it could be true.”
“All right. Stay here until I come back, Twilight. I'll have the guards keep you safe, just in case.”
Twilight nodded. “Okay. See you soon.”
Shining Armor mumbled to the guards on his way out. Twilight sat down and tried to make herself comfortable. The worst was probably over... she'd done her duty, and now the truth would come out. Celestia would make sure everything would turn out all right, somehow. And if Cadence tried to get back at Twilight, at least the guards would warn her before she could―
“Were you just talking about me?!”
Twilight whipped around to find Princess Mi Amore Cadenza standing behind her. The connecting door to the guard barracks was open, no guards to be seen.
How had she--?
A plethora of half-baked spell ideas, offensive and defensive, sped through Twilight's mind. But how could she think of defeating a princess? ...Wait, she thought. Cadence didn't necessarily know that Twilight suspected. She might be hostile, but they were still both on the same side for now. Still allegedly both good ponies.
“I... yes, we were.”
The pink menace stepped forward, her eyes growing pointy―Twilight was attuned now to that kind of eye-related detail. “And what, exactly, were you saying?”
Her voice was so haughty! Twilight tried to imagine speaking in a haughtier voice, and couldn't. “We were talking about his life together with you! How you're going to be so happy, and what plans you've made...”
“Did he seem troubled by anything?” asked Cadence.
“Uh... no, not really. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” She turned her head to one side. “It's just that, on my way in, I saw him running for the palace! I asked him to stop and tell me what was wrong, but he wouldn't!”
Twilight stood in shock. She deliberately closed her mouth.
“What kind of a bridegroom refuses to speak with his bride on the night before their wedding?!”
Twilight knew she had to answer, but had no idea what to say. “I don't know.”
“You don't know?” Cadence turned on her and stepped closer, neck outstretched and crown gleaming. “Do you mean to say you were in conversation with my fiancé, and yet have no idea what could have upset him?”
Twilight stepped back. Where were the guards? “I guess...” She scrambled for an excuse. “He said he had a surprise for you, and he went to run and get it! That's probably why he didn't stop―he didn't want to spoil the surprise!”
Cadence's eyebrows spread and her face grew furious. “That is absurd! He was upset!! You are telling LIES!” Flashes of pink-white magical fire sizzled from her horn; more came from the floor where she stamped her hooves. Twilight readied a shield spell and stumbled back. “What are you doing?!”
“YOU have turned him AGAINST ME!!” accused Cadence.
“I―and what if I did?!” retorted Twilight, shifting to an aggressive stance.
The princess was only startled for a split second. “If you did, you'll regret it!!” she yelled.
The need to change tracks surfaced in Twilight, and so before she could think it through, she'd asked: “Do you remember me?!”
“Do I WHAT?”
“Do. You. Remember me! From when I was a foal, and you were growing up?”
“Of course I do! What does that have to do with anything, you deceitful―”
“Prove it!” demanded Twilight, standing firm.
“What?! What are you on about?”
“Prove that you remember me! Tell me something we did when I was little.”
More sparks flew, but Twilight ignored them. “Why should I?! What does it matter to me what you think of me?”
“Of course it matters! You're marrying my brother! And you used to be my favorite foalsitter!”
There was a look of surprise. In the next moment, the pink alicorn raged on, stamping and shouting about Twilight's insolence. But that look. That momentary baffled look in the instant after Twilight had identified their relationship―sitter and sittee. Cadence hadn't known. She hadn't even remembered that.
“You will tell me what you said to Shining Armor,” blustered Cadence, “and you will tell me now!”
There was no reason for any further conversation. No reason to bring up lemon yellow citrines. Cadence was an imposter. It was that simple.
“I told him that I don't like the way you were acting today,” said Twilight with an edge in her voice. “You were treating everyone like you're the queen of the world and acting like a shrew! I was telling my brother that if I were him, I'd think twice about marrying you!!” She recalled something she'd read in How to Convince Others of Anything, Anywhere, Anytime―lying was much easier to do convincingly if you based it on truth.
“You dared spread such gossip about me?? Queen of the world? I am a princess of Equestria!!” Cadence, or Not-Cadence, spread her wings and raised her head so imperiously that Twilight feared she was about to strike.
“You're right, you're right,” she backpedaled, while at the same time she physically backpedaled toward the door. “I was being disrespectful―I'm sorry. Sorry! I can go tell Shining Armor to forget it all, if you want―I'll make it all better....”
“That will not be necessary.” Not-Cadence's anger was already dying down. “You have damaged our relationship enough already. But you will stay out of the way until our wedding is complete. Is that understood?”
Twilight wondered how she was supposed to stay out of the way as the Best Mare. But she nodded and kept backing away. “I will! I will.”
“In that case, you are forgiven―for now.” Not-Cadence marched past Twilight toward the door. “I must seek out my love and console him. Pray that you have not done any damage that can't be undone.” This was punctuated by an unsettling backward stare.
Twilight nodded frenetically. “Yep! Sure. I'll pray!” Was she, or anyone else, supposed to seriously believe Not-Cadence was a good pony after a display like this?
The crowned head slowly, suspiciously pulled away from Twilight, and at last, Not-Cadence stepped through the door and flew majestically away. The guards timidly peered in from either side, retaking their posts.
It turned out they'd been afraid of Cadence as well―perhaps she'd been treating them to similarly sociopathic behavior over the last few weeks. Twilight had to wonder whether anyone would have discovered the truth in time if this imposter had only been a bit more circumspect. The guards did want to make sure Twilight was all right, however.
“I'm unharmed,” she told them. “But I have to get to Celestia.”
\\ o/` \\
The guards were glad to escort Twilight back to the palace and up to Celestia's chambers. They didn't even quail at Twilight's request to keep a wary eye out for “Cadence”. Apparently the idea that Mi Amore Cadzena was less than benevolent was all too easy for Shining Armor's colleagues to believe.
Everyone was on edge, which meant a couple of false scares along the way. The constant recoloration of the pink dome made it feel like something was always moving at the edge of one's vision―it made Twilight all the more thankful for the normal tranquility of Luna's night sky. But they reached Celestia―not in her personal suite, but in the war chamber. She was conferring there with Luna and Shining Armor.
Celestia was speaking as Twilight entered. “...that someday she'll be able to laugh at the idea that we were scheming to contain her on the night before her nuptials?” she asked Luna.
Luna frowned, and Shining Armor, who hadn't yet seen Twilight, responded: “There aren't going to be any nuptials. I'm sorry, Your Highness―the wedding's off!”
“I'm sorry,” said Celestia. “Somehow, I can't seem―”
“Hark, sister,” said Luna, staring across the room at Twilight. “We are joined in our plotting.”
Twilight said goodbye to the guards and slipped anxiously into the room. The heavy stone door thudded shut behind her.
“Twilie!” Her brother's face was even more strained than before. “I thought you were going to let the company keep you safe!”
“She got through,” reported Twilight. “I talked with her, big brother. Your Highnesses.” Twilight bowed to the princesses. “She challenged me and threatened me―saying I was turning Shining Armor against her.”
“Which, of course, you were,” said Celestia.
“With everything I had!” agreed Twilight. “But now I know. It isn't Cadence. She didn't remember sitting me as a filly―she didn't even know that's how I knew her.”
Luna rose from her sideways seat. “You are sure she is an imposter?”
“A changeling. I'm certain.”
Shining Armor first swallowed a lump, then opened his mouth. To Twilight, he looked hopeful.
Luna and Celestia were looking into each others' eyes. Luna's face was long and baleful, Celestia's accepting. “And we can trust this assessment?” murmured Luna very softly.
“I think so,” replied Celestia in kind. She too now rose and moved to a place at the table where maps were spread.
“Then Cadence!” exclaimed Shining Armor. “She's out there somewhere!”
“She may be,” replied Celestia as she pored over the map.
“What do you mean, she may?”
Luna spoke. “My sister means that the changeling race take their power from our emotions. They often choose to imprison those beings they mimic, as an enduring source of sustenance. But then again... sometimes they do not.”
“They don't? Then what...?”
Celestia interrupted Shining Armor. “We need to contain the imposter as soon as possible, before she suspects that we know. And until we have evidence to the contrary, we will assume we're dealing with the queen of the horde. We must therefore proceed with caution. Twilight, did you last see her in the guard barracks?”
Twilight blinked. “She flew out the barracks door... I think she might have veered left.” She examined the map.
“Could she have been heading for the bridal suite?” asked Celestia.
Twilight revisited her memory, envisioned the path of the departing 'princess' out the door... and swallowed.
She pointed to the map. “More likely, she was headed to the guest tower!”
Shining Armor gasped. “That's where your friends are, Twilie!”
The significance was lost on no one. “It's tempting to strike immediately,” said Celestia.
“We should strike immediately,” said Luna.
“We cannot,” Celestia emphasized. “The imposter has spent time with Twilight's friends already. She has done nothing to them but win them over. And if we go immediately, dear sister, we may be defeated!”
Luna was aghast, momentarily speechless. “Defeated? By an insect queen?!”
“By one of the Tricky Folk, Luna. Speaking with Twilight earlier gave me cause to reflect. A changeling thrives on emotions, the purest of which is love. Naturally she chose a beloved bride-to-be as her quarry. She was feeding off of all of us, but most of all you, Captain!”
Shining Armor didn't quite gasp, as Twilight expected. Instead, he winced and hung his head.
“If she's that powerful,” asked Twilight, “what can we do?”
“There is a plant,” said Celestia, “called Heart's Desire. It is toxic to changelings.”
Twilight looked up. “Heart's Desire! I know what that is... more or less. Applejack's sister overdosed on it last spring!”
“Did she?” The princesses both inclined their heads.
“It gave her the Cutie Pox. She went crazy, acting out one special talent after another! She couldn't stop until Zecora cured her with the Seeds of Truth.”
Celestia smiled distantly. “That sounds like many an eager foal I've known. In fact, I seem to recall receiving a letter from her, if it's the one I'm thinking of! Was she obsessed with getting a cutie mark, by any chance?”
Twilight smiled, too. “She still is.”
“Heart's Desire brings out one's true nature,” continued Celestia to all present. “In excess, it exaggerates the truth. A small dose will drop a changeling's disguise; a larger dose will hamper its ability to convert false love into power.”
“Why is that?” asked Twilight.
“Think of it this way, my pupil. If you were praised for an accomplishment you didn't really achieve... would you feel proud?”
“I... well, maybe for a while,” reflected Twilight. “But if... if someone else did the job I was supposed to do, I think I'd feel pretty guilty.”
Celestia and Luna exchanged a look. “Exactly,” said Celestia. “A changeling normally has no such sense of guilt. Praise is praise, whether earned or not. A changeling drugged with Heart's Desire, however, cannot spend love for Cadence as though it were love meant for itself. Its pride is too true for its own good.”
“I see,” said Twilight. “So your plan is to give the fake Cadence Heart's Desire?”
Celestia nodded. “It seems wiser than a direct confrontation. Rehearsal is scheduled shortly... I wonder whether we might convince our false Cadence to partake in any cake, under the guise of sampling its quality?”
“You want us to cut the cake before the wedding?” objected Shining Armor.
“It's okay,” said Twilight. “My friend Pinkie has experience with salvaging partly eaten cakes.”
“Indeed!” said Celestia, licking her lips. “If we're thinking of the same incident, her command of doughnut geometry is masterful.”
\\ o/` \\
Shining Armor stayed at Twilight's side as they wound their way through the palace. Instead of approaching the bridal suite directly, they took the long way through narrow, high-ceilinged corridors with stained molding. Now and then they passed by servants, and eventually Shining Armor asked one of them to go to the bridal suite and fetch Applejack and Pinkie Pie. Twilight and her brother then slipped into a multi-purpose room furnished in blues and greens. It wasn't long before the two bakers showed up in bridesmaid's dresses―fortunately without “Cadence” in tow.
“What's goin' on, Twilight?”
“Yeah! Are we having a secret pre-rehearsal before the rehearsal, just to rehearse the rehearsal? Because I haven't rehearsed for that!”
Twilight faced her friends while her brother shut the door. “It's something far grimmer, I'm afraid. Long story short... we need you two to drug the cake.”
\\ o/` \\
They were both appalled at first. Applejack had an ingrained standard of quality to uphold, and Pinkie was devastated by the very idea that delicious food could actually be bad for you. (Twilight would have to talk with her eventually.) But when Shining Armor promised that it was Celestia's idea, and Twilight explained in detail why it was necessary... they eventually came around. The group hustled to the kitchen, where a courier in black delivered a package containing a bottle of fresh extract of Heart's Desire. Luna's couriers had worked quickly! Applejack and Pinkie then hurried to mask the taste of the extract and inject it into one layer of the wedding cake. They replaced and repaired it just in time for the scheduled rehearsal.
There, in the grand hall, the conspirators milled quietly among those who hadn't been told, having judged that it wasn't worth the risk of a frantic conversation when Cadence could arrive at any moment. Celestia stood at the hall's head, peering at the main doors with her gaze distant at the same time. Twilight knew she was communicating with her sister.
Twilight overheard Fluttershy asking Applejack in a whisper why the servant had summoned them away. Applejack wasn't doing a very good job of deflecting her inquiries, so Twilight went over and looked Fluttershy straight in the eyes. “We'll discuss it later. All right?”
The doors unlatched. Mi Amore Cadenza was striding up the carpet, her expression haughty as ever.
“Cadence,” said Celestia, smiling warmly.
“Celestia.” The nostrils flared, and a wing unfurled toward Twilight. “We will not have this mare present at our wedding. She has admitted to meddling and promised to stay out of the way.” Now her eyes turned directly toward Twilight. “What is she doing here?!”
“She's my sister,” declared Shining Armor, rescuing Twilight from having to explain. “She won't be here for the wedding, but she gets to watch.”
Cadence seemed to be containing some sort of internal combustion. “Oh, does she? And if I say otherwise?”
Shining Armor winced. With that, Twilight knew that he wasn't just suffering from migraines―she was helping trigger them. “If you do, then―”
Twilight cut her brother off. “It's okay. I'll go.” She just wanted this to be over with, no matter how much pride she had to sacrifice or how much deception she needed to resort to. This imposter deserved every iota.
“Twilie! I invited you all the way here. You don't have to―”
But Twilight was already on her way out. She looked back just once, from the door. Rarity and Rainbow were aghast, verging on protest. Fluttershy and Spike just looked small. Applejack and Pinkie Pie looked stalwart, Shining Armor was in pain, and Celestia was calm.
Twilight pushed through the double doors and walked away.
\\ o/` \\
She wasn't the sort to let things go. She never was. All the most inspiring books from her foalhood had ingrained in Twilight Sparkle the habits of being prepared and of never letting control of anything important slip away. Yet now, she walked slowly back to the guest cottage without another backward glance. She rested on her low bed, surrounded by decks of cards, and closed her eyes.
She'd done her part. She would have done more, but there were few things that turned Twilight off and shut her down like sheer hatred. “Cadence” had been oozing it toward her, and Twilight was ready for the imposter not to exist anymore. She sobbed a few times into the mattress, but shed no tears. Twilight had discovered that there was a state beyond hatred. If anger was the impassioned desire to change someone, and hatred was the desire to be rid of them, then Twilight had reached a new plateau where she didn't even want the burden of hating. She let a vague sadness shield her mind and fell asleep.
\\ o/` \\
Before it was light, she woke to the sound of mortar cracking. From the cottage window, Twilight could see a chunk of Canterlot's great hall tumbling down the hillside. She actually entertained the notion of returning to sleep―a fact for which she castigated herself as she dashed for the hall.
A corner of the building was demolished. Guards already teemed outside when Twilight arrived. She heard distant cracks and scratches; looking up, she beheld indistinct black forms scrabbling at the pink bubble, which flickered intermittently. Twilight hurried in and found both Celestia and Luna standing over a horrible dark equinoid creature she could only assume was Not-Cadence trapped in a ball of silver and blue energy. Their magic flowed into the prison sphere while Shining Armor's was devoted to reinforcing the larger pink force field. Far behind them, Applejack stood jauntily near the partially eaten cake. Fluttershy, inexplicably, was prone on the floor, combing an ebullient Pinkie Pie's tail. Rainbow Dash was yelling at Not-Cadence as Twilight entered.
“You knew about this, Twilight?!” she demanded.
“Yes, I pieced it together. I didn't have time to convince everyone, so we pulled in Applejack and Pinkie, figuring it would be easier.” She looked to Celestia. “So the plan worked?”
“It is surprisingly difficult to get this creature to enjoy a piece of cake,” said Luna, still concentrating on keeping her enclosed.
“She didn't want to eat it at first,” said Fluttershy, combing carefully. “So we each had to take a bite to prove it was okay. It... hit some of us harder than others.”
“Y'all can say that again!” shouted Applejack, posed against the distant pulpit.
“Why are you shouting from all the way over there?” asked Twilight.
“Y'want I should come an' shout atcha up close?!” replied Applejack.
Twilight sputtered and looked around. “Where's Rarity?”
“Oh... she's... decorating,” murmured Fluttershy, engrossed in a particularly difficult tail snarl.” A―a lot. And Spike went with her.”
“Of course he did,” muttered Twilight. “So, what? The Heart's Desire made you want to do nothing but comb Pinkie's hair?”
“They say it affects everypony differently,” conceded Fluttershy.
“My body is made of candy,” said Pinkie Pie, legs stock straight and voice as trippy as anything Twilight had ever heard. Her eyes were swirling kaleidoscopes. “The only question is―for whom?!”
“...Right. And Rainbow is...”
“Not about to let this flea-bitten, shambling, trash-faced jerk of a changeling off the hook for a moment!” She peered into the bubble and made a threatening gesture. “Do you hear me, scum?”
The changeling swung around to face Rainbow and hissed. “I am a Queen!”
“You'll be Queen Inkblot if you don't tell us pronto what you've done with Cadence! Where is she?!”
“Release me and I'll tell,” retorted the prisoner in a voice that somehow sounded... segmented.
“As you can see,” said Celestia, “the changeling queen refuses to reveal Cadence's location. She has drained her of her magic, making her impossible to trace. She could be leagues away or ensconced in this very palace―we have no way of knowing.”
“She just said 'Release me and I'll tell!'” yelled Applejack from across the room. “Seems to me that's a way of knowin', even if it's a plumb moronic one!”
“So the Heart's Desire is making Applejack yell out annoying truths at the top of her lungs,” surmised Twilight.
“It suuuure is!” agreed Applejack.
“What about you?” Twilight asked the princesses. “Is it having any effect?”
“We are inoculated against the effects of personality-altering brews,” said Luna, furrowed in concentration. “Still, you do not know the effort it takes for us not to break into showtunes at this very moment.”
“You totally shooould!” sang Pinkie. “Any word you don't siiinng is a word half waaaa-steeeeed!”
Twilight squatted before the changeling queen. “If she won't tell where Cadence is, what are we going to do with her?”
“Stomp her flat and use her guts for paint!” suggested Rainbow.
“Ooh!” said Pinkie. “Now that's taking paint to the next level!”
“This is Equestria,” grunted Shining Armor, clearly under a lot of strain. “We don't kill prisoners, and we don't torture!”
Luna glanced sharply at her sister. “Is that true?”
Celestia sighed, not looking up. “Yes. But we do have ways. Continue to drain her until she falls, Luna, and then leave her to me.”
“Too bad about the not torturin',” hollered Applejack, “or y'all could probably make use of them showtunes!”
“Oh, I'm not ruling that out,” said Celestia, even as the changeling collapsed to the floor.
\\ o/` \\
The wedding was canceled. Instead, the guests enjoyed cake and hors d'oeuvres and spent the day in a fantabulously overdecorated reception hall playing baccarat. Spike donned a top hat and took the microphone while Twilight's friends worked out their Heart's Desire overdoses and the princesses worked their magic on the changeling queen behind closed doors.
The guests departed, mumbling uncertainties. Twilight spent the night in the palace, moving from room to room and seeking out the chancellor for news as often as she could. She watched from the High Watchtower as the changeling horde finally withdrew from her brother's gigantic dome and vanished into the night.
Come morning, Celestia's only update was, “She's softening.” And over the next day, Celestia had little to say about the process of interrogating the changeling queen except that it was proceeding apace and that she expected it to take no more than another week... or two at the outside.
Twilight and her friends went home. There was nothing more for them to do. Once the effects of Heart's Desire wore off, they tried to resume their normal lives... but their hearts, simply put, weren't in it. For hours each day Twilight watched Spike, waiting for him to cough up a scroll, only for him to catch her staring and shrug helplessly. Every day, two or more of her friends got together and didn't say much.
Five days after their return home, the Ponyville Gazette reported that the protective pink dome over Canterlot was gone. Shining Armor had his long-deserved rest.
Then, finally, word came. The changeling queen had succumbed to Princess Celestia's 'techniques'. She had reported Cadence's location in the crystal mines beneath the palace. Cadence had been found starving and ill, but had stared into her impersonator's eyes for a full minute before going to her meal and bath. The changeling queen, drained and loveless, had been released to rejoin her horde, by now far away to the northeast.
“What about the wedding?” asked Spike, leapfrogging over the back of a chair while Twilight finished reading the letter. “Are we going back to Canterlot for the real wedding?”
Twilight scanned the text again. “It doesn't say. Should I... write back and ask?”
Spike nodded enthusiastically. Twilight wondered what had happened to change his attitude toward marriage so much. Unless he was just looking forward to the cake.
Their reply arrived three hours later. To Twilight's surprise, the scroll Spike gave her wasn't from Celestia. It was from Shining Armor.
Twilight's heart sank as she read it. “Spike... they're not getting married. Not yet, anyway.”
“What?” exclaimed Spike.
Twilight nodded. “Shining Armor says he... he feels like a fool that he didn't realize his bride to be was an imposter. 'I owe you so much, Twilight,'” she read aloud. “'If you hadn't put the clues together and realized she was a fake, I'd be married to a changeling now. It took someone who hadn't seen her in years to pull the curtains down and save the real Cadence.
“'I should have known better than anyone, but I didn't. I should have recognized that the love of my life was gone, and I should have realized that the threat to Canterlot was much closer than any of us knew. I didn't.
“'I've tendered my resignation to Celestia as captain of the guard. She deserves better, and so does Cadence. If Cadence stays with me anyhow, then maybe... maybe, someday, wedding bells will ring. Until then, your brother is just a single lieutenant.
“'Sincerely, 1st Lieutenant Shining Armor.'”
Spike stood stunned on the chair. “They don't love each other anymore?”
Twilight was stricken by echoes of a time when Spike had trekked out into the Everfree, believing himself unloved and forgotten. “I think Cadence still loves him. She must! And I think on some level... he must still love her, too.”
Spike looked at Twilight admiringly, as if she'd somehow become an expert. “So... what do we do?”
Twilight smiled wanly. “We pack our bags, Spike. We're going to pay my brother a visit.”
The little dragon nodded three times and was upstairs packing in less than half a minute.
END OF MOVEMENT 2
The guards timidly peered in from either side, retaking their posts. It turned out they'd been afraid of Cadence as well―perhaps she'd been treating them to similarly sociopathic behavior over the last few weeks. Twilight had to wonder whether anyone would have discovered the truth in time if this imposter had only been a bit more circumspect...
Interior: Wedding hall. Just before the dawn of Cadence and Shining Armor's wedding day.
Twilight grinned sheepishly at her brother, but he struck back at her with anger.
“You want to know why my eyes went all―?!” He thrust his head forward and rattled them. “Because ever since I started having to perform my protection spell, I've been getting terrible migraines. Cadence hasn't been casting spells on me; she's been using her magic... to heal me!” He pointed at his own head, grimacing. Twilight gasped―could it really all have been nothing but migraines?
“And she decided to replace her bridesmaids,” Shining Armor continued, “because she found out the only reason they wanted to be in the wedding was so they could meet Canterlot royalty! And if she hasn't been on her best behavior with her friends―” Here he stamped his forehoof and Twilight winced. “―it's because with me being so busy, she's had to make all the decisions about the wedding!!”
Realizing in a flush just how wrong she'd been, Twilight slipped automatically into obeisance. “I... I was just trying to―”
“She's completely stressed out because it's really important to her that our big day be perfect!” A double stomp this time, and Twilight's brother shoved his face into hers. “Something that obviously wasn't important...to you.”
Suddenly, it was Shining Armor's turn to wince. Hopeful for a moment that she might yet be able to help, Twilight reached out, but her brother recovered his wits and rebuffed her. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and comfort my bride.” He walked past Twilight toward the door. “And you can forget about being my best mare!” he shot back. “In fact, if I were you? I wouldn't show up to the wedding at all.”
With that, Shining Armor left, leaving Twilight hunched in remorse. Applejack broke the stunned silence: “Come on, y'all. Let's go check on the princess.”
Twilight stood with urgency, but her friends hustled past her wearing hostile expressions. Pinkie even had the nerve to bounce, as if rubbing in the fact that this wedding would be a happy occasion no what matter what Twilight might do or think. Even Spike ran after with the ringbearer's pillow, probably conflicted but caring more at that moment about Cadence's feelings than Twilight's, which were careening between astonishment and shame.
Princess Celestia was the last to leave. She interrupted Twilight's half-formed plea with the tersest words Twilight had ever heard her speak: “You have a lot to think about.” Twilight gaped in horror as the princess quit the hall with her guards, leaving her completely alone.
The need to reflect washed over Twilight, as it had in troubled times throughout her life. A lot to think about? That was an understatement. “Maybe I was being overprotective,” she lamented, struggling to make sense of her horrible situation as she collapsed on the stairs. “I could have gained a sister! But instead...I just lost a brother.”
The true darkness of what had happened enveloped Twilight as she realized just what this meant. It wasn't just a wedding derailed or her reputation stained. It was a literally lifelong relationship she'd ruined. Twilight sprawled over the stairs, crying, and sang:
He was my Big Brother Best Friend...Forever! And now we'll never do anything...together.
She pictured herself as a filly, dismayed and alone without her only sibling. But her wallowing was broken by hoofsteps.
Not alone after all. Twilight felt a consoling hoof against her mane and looked up tearfully to see...
Cadence's smiling face.
The strength it would take for someone innocent to forgive a barrage of accusations like what Twilight had leveled... so soon... that was unthinkable. But Cadence was a princess, after all. And princesses were strong!
Twilight welled over with emotion. “I'm sorry!” she cried.
Cadence's face was benevolent, her amethyst eyes, above all... accepting. “It's all right, Twilight,” she said softly. “I forgive you.”
And Twilight knew it was true. There was hope in the darkest pits, and Cadence was a true princess.
MOVEMENT 3: Crushing a Changeling
Twilight gazed into the smiling face of Princess Mi Amore―no. Princess Cadence. She closed her eyes and tears streaked down her cheeks, plopping onto the red carpet. “But... but I was so unfair to you just now! I... I did what I keep telling myself not to do, and... jumped to all kinds of conclusions!”
“Whereas I... haven't been myself lately,” replied Cadence. Her voice was soft and understanding and almost... almost the Cadence Twilight remembered from her fillyhood. “I know you only meant the best for your brother. Once I had a few moments to calm down, I realized... well, that I hadn't really given you any reason to trust me. Had I?”
Twilight opened her eyes. Cadence was like an angel sent to purge her of wickedness. She felt herself stirring with hope. “Well... no, not really. But that doesn't excuse what I did. I'm so sorry, Cadence!”
Again the hoof stroked her mane, and Twilight found herself flashing back to the day so long ago when she'd skinned her cannon, and Cadence had bandaged and consoled her. The old Cadence was still there after all, just buried under wedding stress―how could she have doubted it?
“Twilight... I don't blame you for being cruel. I mean, I was unkind to your friends. I realize that now. And I was unkind to you, wasn't I? I didn't greet you the way I should have. What was that chant, again? Sunshine, sunshine, something or other?”
Twilight felt like sunshine was flooding back into her. “Ladybugs awake,” she said, still looking up into those magical eyes. “Clap your hooves... and do a little shake!”
“Yes, of course!” echoed Cadence, her voice full of joy. “Ladybugs awake! Oh, Twilight. It's been so long... at first I didn't even recognize you. Will you forgive me?”
Twilight's forelegs were already clutching the princess's neck. “I forgive you,” she promised. There were more tears to follow.
\\ o/` \\
The wedding went off without a hitch. It was a slightly somber affair, true. DJ P0N-3 didn't get to spin. The newlyweds took the dance floor briefly to an air for piano and violin, and Twilight thought the moment was breathtaking. But then they retired to a private suite while the night was still young. Pinkie Pie led those guests she could corral in a series of foal's board games, and Applejack cut the cake, but for the most part, things centered on Canterlot elites like Hoity-Toity and Fancypants whether they liked it or not, just as Canterlot events always did. Twilight had no trouble remembering why she'd never enjoyed parties as a filly.
Luna joined the party as evening fell, but she hadn't really missed anything. Rarity and Applejack's sisters, along with their friend Scootaloo, had come out with Rarity's parents to serve as flower fillies, and they found childish ways of entertaining themselves. The happy couple emerged some hours later and went straight for their honeymoon carriage, loitering just long enough for Cadence to throw the bridal bouquet, which was claimed by Rarity. Otherwise, Twilight spent the reception keeping largely to herself. Her parents were glad to see her, of course, but even they couldn't extract her true feelings.
“You don't seem as happy as I'd expect,” observed her mother. “Is something wrong?”
Twilight smiled ruefully. “I'm not being a very good best mare, huh?” She sighed, wondering how to put it. “I guess I just had a little trouble accepting that Cadence is Mi Amore Cadenza now.”
“Ohhh. Did you have a tiff with her, Twilight?”
Twilight shrugged. “Something like that. But it's okay now.”
Her father spoke up. “You know, I think she's going to make your brother very happy. Which is something he's needed for a long time.”
“Is it?” Twilight was struck with extra guilt as she recalled how long it had been since she'd seen her brother before the previous afternoon―almost two years. She hadn't even made time to visit on her birthday, when she'd been in Canterlot. True, it had been an unplanned visit and a brief one, but she at least could have checked his schedule. And when she'd visited town only weeks ago for the National Dessert Competition, he hadn't even crossed her mind.
Twilight's father was nuzzling her. “You know Shiny takes his work very seriously. Any time he makes a mistake, even a small one, he imagines how it might have been worse. He beats himself up over it.”
“He needs a kind voice around,” contributed Twilight's mother.
“Maybe I should visit more often,” said Twilight, a little surprised. She wondered whether her mother had witnessed the side of Cadence she'd seen yesterday. Probably not―that had just been an aberration due to stress, hadn't it?
“Sweetie, that'd be wonderful,” said Twilight's mother, giving her a reacharound hug.
She knew it was something she'd have to do. Wonderful, though? That might be a stretch.
\\ o/` \\
Twilight woke up from confused dreams. It didn't help that she was still in the small guest cottage she'd been assigned, awaiting the morning train home. The stone walls and low ceiling disoriented her, even though her bedroom at home―her first home, not her arboreal Ponyville home―was much the same. How quickly one readjusts, Twilight reflected. After the initial shock, how easily the creature of habit trades one norm for another.
One enduring question remained from her dream, so she asked it of the only other creature present. “Spike.”
“Mmmp?” The dragon turned all the way over in his bed, an arm outflung. When Spike was happy, he slept like the baby he technically was, but in turbulent times he could sleep more noisily than anyone else Twilight knew.
“Spike. I know you're already five-sixths awake, so you can't complain if I wake you up the rest of the way.”
“Mmm?” Now he rolled onto his side and muttered something about fractions.
Twilight smiled wickedly. “You know, Spike, Rarity caught the bouquet at the wedding last night. You know what that means?”
Spike gasped suddenly. He lay silent on his back, muscles tensed, for some time before slowly bringing his arm up to his mouth. Deliberately and solemnly he began to suck his thumb. “Rari... Rari...”
Twilight couldn't take it anymore. “Spike, wake up!” She peeled back his blanket magically.
“Whuhuaa??” He shook and sat up. “What happened? Oh.” The unfamiliar cottage seemed to sober him just as it had Twilight. “It was a dream. What―what is it, Twilight?”
She was seriously tempted to ask what he'd been dreaming, but felt bad enough about waking him up. “Spike... with Shining Armor away on honeymoon, what's going to happen to the shield around the city? Won't it disappear?”
Spike lay thinking for a while, his face troubled and his blanket at his feet. Eventually he shrugged.
“But what about the threat against Canterlot?” Twilight persisted. “Isn't it still something to worry about?”
“I dunno, Twilight. Maybe the threat was just against the wedding, and now that the wedding's done, it's not a problem anymore.”
Huh. “That's possible... but it doesn't seem to fit. If the threat was just against my brother's wedding, why didn't he explain it that way?”
“No idea.” Spike pulled up his blanket and settled back, apparently not too disturbed by his dream to risk returning to it.
“Well, I'm going to ask Princess Celestia about it in the morning,” Twilight decided. “And if she needs my help, I may just offer to stick around.”
“Here in Canterlot?”
“That's right. If I do, you can stay with me or go home with the others. I wouldn't want to bore you.”
“Aw, Twilight. You don't bore me! I'll go where you go. Besides, I wouldn't mind a few more days in Canterlot. I've got some catching up to do!”
Twilight thought she saw a sliver of dragon tongue. “Would that catching up involve donuts, by any chance?”
Spike smiled sheepishly and rolled over, shutting his eyes. “Well, someone's gotta keep Donut Joe company.”
He wasn't the only one who appreciated company. “Good night, Number One Assistant. We'll see what Celestia says.”
She was answered only with a snore.
\\ o/` \\
It turned out that Twilight had stumbled onto a very good question. And Celestia's answer was less than encouraging.
“Yes, the threat persists. And yes, it's risky to let Shining Armor leave the city. But it's his honeymoon, Twilight. His honeymoon! You only get one. He and Princess Cadence begged for the time off, and... they were so earnest that I couldn't deny it.” The princess smiled.
“They're off to Sorraia, aren't they?” Sorraia was a small, humid region in western Equestria with a rich history. It was a sensible, if distant place for a princess and her groom to take their honeymoon.
“That's right. They wanted a week, but four days was all Luna and I were willing to spare. While Shining Armor is away, we will have to fortify his shield personally.”
This startled Twilight. “You're able to do that?”
“It isn't easy to work with the product of another's magic, but yes, we can do it.” Celestia looked a little mournful as she smiled and met Twilight's eyes. “Neither Luna nor myself will be getting much sleep over the next four days, I expect.”
“But―but your royal duties!”
“It's all right, Twilight. We've made sacrifices for our subjects before. The sun and moon will continue to rise and set, and all other business we can't delegate can easily wait four days. I care about the happiness of my cousin and the captain of my guard.”
Twilight nodded. “That's very noble of you, Princess. Would... would you like me and Spike to stick around? Just in case you need some help?”
Celestia's smile seemed involuntary and genuine. “Twilight! That would be delightful!”
Twilight chuckled uneasily. She'd been hoping to return to her library. Then again, it had gotten by completely untended for almost three years before she arrived in Ponyville, with only minor discrepancies between the inventory and ledger. It could handle a four day respite.
Knowing her student, Celestia gave her work as reminiscent of the library as possible. Twilight was assigned a nice little office full of filtered correspondence to the palace and asked to send it to the appropriate department. Scrolls and letters to the princesses were to be set aside. Twilight was given an audience with either Celestia or Luna every few hours during which she could ask their council on whether or how to respond.
She found that while the princesses were cordial enough during these times, they were invariably distracted and seldom made eye contact. Whereas Shining Armor had been able to maintain his dome by reinforcing it every hour or so, the princesses could only do so through nearly constant effort. When one was maintaining the shield, conducting lookout and speaking with Twilight at the same time, the other was usually off who-knew-where frantically conducting essential business. Twilight got the impression that sleep was very low on the priority list.
On the third day, Twilight was reassigned. Celestia's steward led her to the palace's upper spellcasting chamber, where she joined a team of mages from the Canterlot Academy in helping the princesses directly uphold the shield's integrity.
“I'm sorry to ask this of you,” said Princess Celestia, speaking to Twilight privately in a side room. “But the threat is greater now, and I'm simply under so much strain.” She looked it, too. “You're a very adaptable mage―even without formal training, I suspect you'll do better than many of the academics. And the spell was cast by your brother, after all. It should be relatively easy for you to grasp it on a gut level.”
Celestia wasn't speaking with her normal eloquence, and Twilight could see she had a headache. Even though she was worried for her own safety, Twilight couldn't say no. “If I can make things easier for you, Princess, I'll be glad to help. But please―can you tell me what's threatening the city?”
Celestia nodded as she looked far away, through walls. “An army, gathered in the mountains to the northeast.”
“An army? From where?”
“From the Tricky Lands. A host of changelings. Led by one of their queens.”
Twilight flipped through her mental index. Changelings were dangerous, yes, from what she recalled reading―especially the queens. But their greatest skill was impersonation. “Changelings? Could they... could they have spies in the city?”
“It is possible. But whenever we lift the spell at Canterlot's points of entry, we check everyone who enters for disguises. If there are changelings in the city, they must have been here before I had Shining Armor raise the shield, and that was seven weeks ago. So I suspect Canterlot is still free of changelings... for now.”
Twilight's mind started tumbling, but with no immediate fruits, she excused herself to learn the ropes. It turned out that Celestia was right―once she got the hang of strengthening the shield spell, she was good at it. It also turned out to be excruciatingly boring. The other mages accepted her once they saw she was capable, but they showed no signs of friendliness―not that there was much opportunity for chatting. Instead, Twilight spent hours at a time churning out reinforcement magic while staring out a window as she watched the shield shift gradually from her brother's pink to an oozing miasma of color. She could identify Luna's blue, Celestia's yellow, and her own magenta, along with streaks and pools of the magic from the unicorns working alongside her. It would have been hypnotic, if the labor hadn't been such a strain on her mind.
\\ o/` \\
Day four. Twilight's head was starting to ache. She could only imagine what Celestia was going through, but it wasn't terribly hard, given the way every word out of the princess's mouth sounded pained and almost every gesture of her head led to a wince and closed eyes. Luna wasn't much better―she'd begun humming quiet, half-recognizable tunes intermittently, and seemed to have trouble focusing. Twilight, however, was starting to feel the relief that comes at the end of a large assignment. Shining Armor and Mi Amore Cadenza were due back the following morning. Just sixteen hours left to go!
She returned from a brief consultation with the steward and reoriented herself toward the window. The dome seemed faint in places but reassuringly strong in others. There were eight unicorns in the room, all concentrating on keeping the spell up, and four more in reserve. Things were going to be all right again, and Twilight knew she could take pride for the rest of her life in assisting the princesses in their time of need. At least, that was what she kept telling herself to keep from collapsing with fatigue.
There were a surprising number of shifting black spots on the upper part of the dome, near the deep green part. Whose magic was black and shifting? Twilight glanced between her colleagues to figure out who was responsible for―
“Attack! We're being attacked!” yelled a diminutive stallion who'd proven overly nervous in the past.
“Oh cripes, cripes, you're right!” echoed a cream-colored mare. “Those blots on the upper dome, straight ahead!”
“Is it changelings?”
“It's changelings. It's the horde!!”
The exclamations just got more confusing from there. Twilight redoubled her efforts upon the part of the dome where the invaders were massing. Someone was sent to fetch Celestia, and someone else went to fetch Luna, assuming she was awake. A bunch of staffers Twilight didn't even remember seeing before flooded through the room in a panic. She and the academics had nothing better than to keep strengthening the dome, so they kept at it with extra focus.
After a while, the palace steward came by and instructed half the mages to relocate to a solarium with a full view of the dome so that they could focus on a second area being attacked on the opposite side. Twilight was one of these. She shuffled through the palace, following one pony after another, catching glimpses of a very groggy-looking Luna and, at one point, Spike, yelling her name. She could only spare a few seconds to assure him that she was where she needed to be and that the princesses were on the job.
She knew they could repel the attack. They'd made sure their intelligence on the size of the horde was current. And they wouldn't have let things get to the point where a full-out attack would succeed, would they? If necessary,they would have called in mages from the guilds or even off the streets, wouldn't they? Yet even so, the army was mobilized and stationed on the streets of Canterlot. Twilight could see them from the solarium. She could see the citizens, quaking and dashing and hiding in their homes, or raking the soldiers for answers she expected wouldn't satisfy them.
Bolts of magic appeared from outside the luminescent sphere. The princesses were launching a preemptive attack! Down skittered one changeable black blob after another. Whole groups of them leapt from their places on the dome in an attempt to smother Celestia and Luna, and for a moment it looked like they might succeed. The mages exchanged tense suggestions for what they might do; drop the shield and start fortifying the princesses the moment they had a clear shot? I know how to focus on them without line of sight, said someone. Never mind that, said someone else―we can drop the changelings where they stand.
But it wasn't necessary. The shield persevered. The changelings were hurled upward by smaller domes of yellow and blue light and crashed to the ground. Twilight could see them scattering, those that survived, and could see Celestia's glowing form, back arched, in the distance. The horde was driven off. Her judgment in the alicorns had been sound, if barely.
Ten minutes later, a swaying Princess Celestia rejoined them in the Solarium. She gave them a quick update: “We have scattered the changelings. They are regrouping and may be preparing for another attack come morning. I need to... I need to set the sun. I'm late. I need to set the sun and take a nap. Be vigilant.”
She then called Twilight out to the balcony with her. Princess Celestia leaned on her favorite student as she channeled her celestial magic and lowered the sun from the sky. It was amazing; Twilight could feel the force of warmth and love the princess used to perform her duty seeping into her, flank to flank. She did her best to bolster her mentor, who seemed liable to collapse at any moment.
Then the sun was gone and the moon was in sight. Celestia walked unsteadily into one of her private rooms and went straight for the bed, leaping and folding herself in with a single motion. By the time Twilight tucked her in, she was already slumbering.
Twilight returned to the Solarium until she was relieved at midnight. Her mind was a morass of recent feelings yet to be shaped into memories.
\\ o/` \\
Thank goodness for the restorative powers of sleep. And thank goodness for Shining Armor, who returned that morning, true to his schedule. He immediately gave the shield an infusion of pink, and was then led to the inner sanctum, where he met with Celestia and Luna. Twilight tried to grab a few minutes with him, but she wasn't able. She was already back on duty in the upper spellcasting chamber. Her impression of the newlyweds was that Cadence seemed refreshed and in high spirits, as one would expect after a honeymoon, but Shining Armor just seemed drained.
Twilight felt likewise. She was immensely relieved when, an hour later, the palace steward announced to the room of mages that their services had been immensely appreciated and would no longer be required. Shining Armor, the original caster of the spell, was back on the job.
Twilight mumbled some goodbyes to the group of unicorns she'd met two days before, though they hadn't had the chance to form many bonds. She stumbled out of the palace and to her guest cottage, where she found Spike already asleep. She joined him gladly.
\\ o/` \\
This time it was Spike who roused Twilight, and for better reason. “Wake up! Please wake up!”
She was already getting used to the low stone ceiling, and to panic. “What―what is it?”
“Changelings!!” Spike wailed. “Everywhere!”
“What? But we beat them!” protested Twilight. She peered out the window and saw that he wasn't mistaken. They were rampaging up and down the street, chasing ponies and invading homes. Hoof fights were plentiful, but more plentiful were groups of changelings standing over prone ponies, triumphantly sucking their emotional sustenance from them. The air was filled with shouting and crying.
It was unjust. Twilight had worked harder than ever in her life, barring a final exam or two. The princesses had exhausted themselves, too. How could the changelings still have ended up victorious, after―
The princesses had exhausted themselves.
It had been a trick, Twilight realized. Shining Armor had gone away and the changelings had attacked on the last day of his absence, the worst possible time from the princesses' point of view. Then... then, with Celestia and Luna ailing and slumbering, the spies already inside the city had struck. It all made sense.
But... but they weren't the only princesses in Canterlot, thank goodness. Was Cadence fighting back? Why wasn't she doing anything? She'd looked downright hale, when Twilight had seen her.
Oh. OH! Oh NO!
“Twilight?” asked Spike timidly, tugging on her shoulder. She looked up to see a squad of ferocious changelings bearing down on them. Twilight grabbed Spike, plopped him onto her back, and ran.
She had spells that could deal with these creatures, but not all of them at once. And Twilight didn't intend to get caught in the open. She sprinted down the street, eying the knots of swift black limbs and sharp teeth in hopes of finding a clear route. Her legs did their own thinking while Twilight reviewed her arsenal. Force field. No, it would keep her from attacking outward. Power blasts. Tiring, and only good for a few attackers at a time. Levitation attacks. Might work, if she had enough uniform objects, but not for long. Hair growth. Huh? Why would she even think that? Teleportation. Yes! That was her best bet.
“Twilight! That way!”
Twilight let Spike do her thinking now, veering to the right when he tugged her right ear. It was further from the palace, and Twilight didn't know whether that was good or bad. She heard a shrieking peal approaching from behind and decided to teleport. A row of shops sat ahead, too many for changelings to guess between. The desire to relocate swelled and burst in the way Twilight now found familiar, and she was abruptly surrounded by canvas. Pink canvas. And tables laid with glass and crystal. Prisms hanging from the ceiling. Frames and helices and balls of glass. Twilight hadn't known the pink tent she'd selected was a glass shop, but she wasn't surprised―Canterlot was famous for that particular industry.
“Whoa,” said Spike.
“It's okay,” Twilight told him. For now. So long as the proprietor didn't give them away and the changelings didn't decide to search every single tent in the row. As for the proprietor, she was out of sight, but Twilight saw a shadow just past a shelf. Mentally composing a plea for clemency, she stepped around the corner and found herself facing―
She and Spike had said it at the same moment. Pinkie, who was wearing a gypsy turban marked with waves and stars, got up from her seat and gaped at Twilight over the table in amazement. But she didn't say a word.
“Pinkie? Are you...” Twilight waved a hoof in front of her friend. “Are you okay?”
In reply, Pinkie only leaned forward in exasperation and waved her forelegs. She pointed repeatedly at her mouth.
“Whoa,” said Spike. “You can't talk?”
Twilight's eyes grew wide. “I have to say, I never thought I'd see the day a magical spell could stop Pinkie Pie from talking! I'm impressed!” She was met with an impatient scowl. “...Im...im...pressed with the urgency of the situation!” she amended. “Um... let's see if I have anything that can help!”
Pinkie stood behind the cloth-draped counter looking skittish and nervous. At one point she almost seemed ready to spring over and pounce Twilight, but she twitched back when Twilight glared. “Calm down, Pinkie! All right... I know a fair number of restoration spells, but I don't know what's been done to you. I'll start with a general diagnostic. Hold still.”
But Pinkie did anything but hold still, waving her forelegs wildly and even jumping onto the table. Spike jerked back with a gasp, but Twilight cast her spell... and the result was nothing like what she expected.
“CHANGELING!” she yelled, letting loose with a blast of power and leaping behind a display rack. Spike cried out in fear.
Twilight cringed, awaiting a counterattack, but it turned out there was no duel to fight. Her preemptive beam had knocked the changeling out. It lay sprawled across the table, surrounded by toppled mobiles and half-slagged glass. Only now did Twilight think to ask herself what Pinkie Pie would have been doing keeping shop as a Canterlot merchant. This changeling had probably taken advantage of a recently vacated tent, drawn to it perhaps because it was pink, the same color as its victim...
“Pinkie Pie! The real Pinkie Pie! She must be here, in Canterlot!”
“Uggh,” said Spike, standing up and rubbing his head. “What happened?”
“That Pinkie was a fake Pinkie!”
“Really?” The dragon blinked twice. “Hah! I knew she was too quiet!” he declared with a snap of his fingers.
“But the changeling must have seen her in order to copy her! She must be nearby.”
“Can we find her?” asked Spike, climbing back on board.
Twilight crept toward the front flap of the tent, cautiously peeking out. There were changelings wreaking havoc here, albeit fewer than on the major streets. “I don't have a spell for locating particular ponies. I don't suppose you can taste her, can you?”
Spike extended his supple tongue and tasted the air with increasing fervor. His grip on Twilight tensed until he burst out suddenly with a yell: “Piinnnkie Piiiie!!”
Instantly, those changelings marauding nearby came scuttling toward them, screeching. “SPIKE!” cried Twilight. “What are you thinking?!” She dashed along the boulevard just long enough to spot a new safe haven, and teleported.
Souvenir shop. Chittering all around. Shivering ponies clinging to each other on the floor. Twilight sent a single blast into the approaching changelings, saw that it was insufficient, and teleported again.
Decorative archway. On top of it. Were they high enough? No, changelings had wings, darn it. Teleport again.
“Hi, Twilight!” She heard the voice just before the teleport engulfed her and she was in a geological museum. Changelings roosting on all the hanging exhibits. Teleport!
“Hi, Spike! Did you call for me? Because―”
How had Pinkie popped up just half a second before the spell took effect? Nut and seed store. Changelings at the windows, merchandise overturned. Teleport!
“―with so many mes running around, I can't tell whether―”
Notary's office. Rattling doors and windows. Teleport!
“―you're talking to me, or to some other me, since we haven't had time to work out―”
“Twi, stop teleporting!” shrieked Spike. They were in a bank, and the vault door―was that the vault door?―was opening―
“―nicknames for everyone!” concluded Pinkie Pie, emerging excitedly from the vault. “Oh! You stopped blinking away! Too bad, that was a fun game! Did I win?”
Twilight stood and caught her breath, observing that at last they were in a place with no changelings. “How―how did you―?”
“Pinkie!” interrupted Spike. “It is the real you, right?”
“Is what the real me?” The pink earth pony felt herself over, chest to knees. “This? Yep! This is the real me! Good job, Spike! I was wondering where I left that!”
Twilight didn't think a changeling could mimic that in a million years. “It's good to see you, Pinkie. Do you know what's happening?”
“ChHAaAAooOOSsS!!” roared Pinkie, rattling the bank's foundations. “That's what's happening!”
“Pinkie, please! We don't want more changelings rushing in here―I've already done six teleports and I'm almost out of power!”
“Okie-dokey-loki!” agreed Pinkie, dropping back to all fours. “But seriously Twilight, it's chaos! I was just about to eat lunch when the dome went down, and then a whole army of changelings skitter-scattered in, and then the dome went up again! And I offered to share my sandwiches but I guess they only eat love and not cucumber sandwiches, so I told them the cucumber sandwiches were made with love but that still wasn't good enough for them so I had to run! And they started copying the way I look and act and I just got so self-conscious I couldn't decide what to do, but then one of them leaped on me and I had to shake it off so I pretended I was that big muscle-pegasus with the tiny wings instead of me and I went all, “YYYYEEEEAAAAHHH!!” and ran away, and I guess they were confused about who I was because I got away, and then I heard you call my name, Spike, so I came to see what was up and―” She glanced back at the vault door. “...you know, this bank could really use more security.”
“How did you even get in there?”
“I have no idea! That's my point! It's all a blur and thank goodness I found you two! Where did they all come from, Twilight?!”
Twilight did her best to explain her theory, even while she scoped out the bank for hidden threats. “...and then I realized why Princess Cadence acted the way she did before the wedding! It's because she wasn't really Cadence! I was right all along!”
“Except for when you weren't right,” Spike pointed out.
“Right, except for that part,” acknowledged Twilight.
Pinkie looked dubious. “You really think Cadence is behind this? Even after she said that nice thing about my reception games and she pretended to like the h'ors doeuvres and did the bare minimum amount of dancing and left her own wedding without talking to anyone?” Pinkie froze, shocked by her own words. “Huh! You're right! She is behind this!”
“Well I mean, are you sure?” asked Spike.
Twilight nodded solemnly. “It all fits, Spike. She was healthy and refreshed when she came back with my brother, but he looked more tired than ever! I'll bet she was draining his emotional energy while they were away. In fact, I bet they never even went to Sorraia! They probably just hid out somewhere in town―that's how she was able to avoid getting caught on re-entry!”
“And that's not all!” added Pinkie, who had somehow managed to produce her deerstalker hat and bubble pipe. “You weren't the only one who was suspicious of this wedding.” Her eyes went narrow and flitted from side to side.
“Really? What do you mean?” asked Twilight.
“I mean, where was the food?! Where was the fun?! Where were all the flowers, and the streamers, and that one green top hat I saw? And why was Cadence singing some creepy melody to herself on the morning of the wedding? I heard it through the window! It sounded like it was a duet, but who was she singing with, Twilight? Who was she singing with??”
“Uh―I don't know, Pinkie! I'm sure a lot of ponies feel like singing for joy on their wedding day.”
“In a minor key, Twilight? Who sings for joy in a minor key?? It started in a major key but ended in its own relative minor and do you know what they call that, Twilight?!?” Pinkie's face was smack up against Twilight's. “A deceptive cadence!!”
Twilight swallowed, backing up. “Assuming you didn't just make that up on the spot, it does seem like pretty compelling evidence.”
“So when the other girls went back to Ponyville, I decided to hang around! See if I could piece together the mystery of how what should have been a super-terrific splendifiwedding turned into an ordinary humdrum wedding!”
“I was wondering what you were still doing in Canterlot.”
Pinkie blew a stream of bubbles. “And do you know what I found, Twilight? Cakes!! All over the royal kitchens! Uneaten cakes they didn't even bother to bring out! We got only one cake when we could have had seven! And so I asked, why would they be setting aside all these perfectly edible cakes? And the combat baker in me answered: There's only one possible reason.” She leapt into a wide fighting stance, breath heaving. “They must be planning to assault us with cakes!!”
Twilight was momentarily speechless. “I don't care what kind of pastry-based martial arts you've studied, Pinkie! No one would ever use a wedding cake as a weapon. The very idea is utterly repugnant!” As soon as she spoke these words, Twilight found herself accosted by a wave of inexplicable irony... which she shrugged off, given the circumstances.
“Well, I knew something was fishy,” Pinkie continued with a fish-shaped burst of bubbles. “And now, so do you! So what do we do about it?!”
“With things this bad, there's only one thing that can save us,” said Twilight grimly.
“Ooh! I know! A bag of flour!”
“A bag... of flour?”
Pinkie strutted past along a counter, singing, “Nothing is beyond your power... when you use a bag of flour! Need a friend at any hour? Hang out with a bag of flour! Little babies acting sour? Give yourself a flour shower! Wish you had more cosmic power? Just ung―” The floor was beginning to rumble. “Pinkie!” yelled Twilight. “I've warned you before... we have to be QUIET!!”
With that the ceiling shook, dappling loose plaster over everyone. “Hey!” objected Pinkie, tasting it. “This flour is defective! You'd need a lot more than a cup of this for my cupcake recipe, let me tell you...!”
Twilight seized Pinkie magically and pulled her out of the way as a murder of changelings―Twilight was fairly sure that was the proper collective noun―came tumbling down through the ceiling and crashed onto the counter. They reoriented themselves and focused on Twilight, eyes glowing.
“All right, I've got one more good teleport in me. Stay close!”
The changelings seemed to be homing in on Twilight in particular. Then, one after another, their bodies shimmered and were replaced with that of Twilight herself. Eight identical Twilight Sparkles scowled and prepared to leap―!
Bzzap! At the last moment, Twilight teleported herself, Pinkie and Spike as far as she could in the direction she knew they had to go―toward the Relic Wing of the palace where she knew the Elements of Harmony were kept.
It wasn't an easy jump. Twilight had been there before only a few times, and she was nearly out of juice and hauling an extra pony and a baby dragon besides. She concentrated as well as she could on the majestic stained glass windows she remembered, but somehow the three of them reappeared in a tiny little wooden structure filled with tools and sacks. Twilight's forehoof landed on the base of a hoe that sprang up to conk her in the face.
Pinkie was sprawled over several sacks of grass seed. “What happened? Where are we, Twilight?”
Spike cracked open the door and peeked out. “We're in a tool shed! And there's the palace!”
Twilight set the hoe in place, though she could tell her magic was greatly diminished. “This shed must belong to Celestia's gardener. Are there any changelings out there, Spike?”
“Wow, are there ever.” He peered out further before retracting his head and shutting the door. “The garden's filled with changelings! And the courtyard, too! Lucky we ended up in here.”
“Well, I was concentrating on teleporting somewhere indoors. But maybe it's not so lucky. Now we're trapped!”
Pinkie was rummaging through the supplies at their disposal. “Iii found a wheeelbaarrow!!” she singsonged. “Maybe I can dress up in a big long fireproof robe that covers the wheelbarrow and pretend to be a bunch taller than I really am and Spike can set me on fire and we'll scare all those meanies off!”
“Uh, except we don't have a fireproof robe, Pinkie! But...” Twilight looked at Spike. “But you have given me an idea,” she continued grimly. “I don't have enough magic left to teleport again... but Spike does.”
“Huh?” said Spike. “I can't teleport!”
“You teleport things all the time! Mainly scrolls and letters, admittedly...”
“And only to Princess Celestia!”
“Which is where we want to go,” said Twilight. “If she's still alive at all, she's probably in the palace.” She squatted and narrowed her eyes. “You're going to have to mail me to the princess.”
Spike backed away and waved his hands. “Oh, nooo way. You're way too big, Twilight! It's not safe!”
Twilight gestured to the tiny space containing them. They could hear the chittering of changelings outside. “What choice do we have? I can't replenish my magic until I sleep, and it's only a matter of time before they find us here. And as for being too big... well.” She grimaced, knowing Spike wouldn't like this. “Maybe it's really a matter of you being too small.”
Spike blinked. Pinkie stared, and then started bouncing. She got it.
“What are you...” asked Spike, turning to Pinkie Pie.
She was holding several gardening implements in her pasterns. “Spikey! I heard it was only a hundred and eighteen days until your birthday! That's practically today! I got you this rake! And this hose! And this spiff garden weasel!”
Spike seemed to be blanching as much as you can through purple scales. “No! Pinkie, I thought we decided I'd never have another birthday!”
“Well then, let's call it your hatchday! Or we can have a party to celebrate how great a ringbearer you were! Or better yet, let's have a party to celebrate that time you saved Canterlot by mailing Twilight to Princess Celestia!”
Spike backed into a wall and fell, sitting, onto a barrel. “But that's now!”
“It is?!” Pinkie leapt excitedly against the ceiling and bounced manically around the tiny shed. “Then this is the perfect time to hold a party for it! Spike, I got you these garden edgers! And these shears! Careful, not the tail! And here's a watering can I picked out just for you!”
The more items Pinkie piled into Spike's arms, the more he seemed to shake. His tongue flicked out, and it was more forked than usual. “Pinkie, stop!”
“But she's absolutely right!” said Twilight. “Here! A sack of sunflower seeds, all for you! And a slightly used hoe. Happy Saving Canterlot Day, number one assistant!”
Spike's knees jerked, one at a time, and his legs stretched. Soon his feet had reached the floor and his growing tail had broken the lid of the barrel. “But... but how am I going to change back?!” he wailed, his voice already deepening.
“You managed it last time!” Twilight pointed out. “You'll work something out... and if you don't, I promise we will. But for now―would you like some garden wire? I have a whole spool of it, just for you!”
Spike took the spool of garden wire and turned it about in his long fingers. “Heh. Well, it is pretty cool garden wire. Think of all the stuff I could wrap in it!”
“That's the spirit!” exclaimed Pinkie, hurrying around the shed and loading everything she could into Spike's now sizable lap. “I don't know why anyone would use a machine to mow their lawn instead of just eating it, but here's a pushy-push lawn mower! And a wheelbarrow! And some rock salt! And some bug spray! And I don't even know what's in this tub, but I know it's just perfect for you! Because you're the bestest, Spike! You can take anything you want, and it'll be just fine, because who better to own things than Spike, the adorable, faithful, grabby-grabby ten-foot-tall dragon!?”
Spike's head pressed against the roof of the shed. He slid onto his knees, arms laden with more than they could carry, and looked around in a panic. “Twilight!” he boomed. “Now?”
“Just one more gift, Spike. You know all those changelings outside?” She gestured all around. “They're yours. Every one of them! I'm giving them to you because you're worth it!”
As Twilight stood there beaming, Spike's eyes went fiendish. Opening his monstrous mouth, he let fly a huge green spray of magical dragonfire... and Twilight felt herself dissolving, simultaneously chilly and seared. Before she could grapple with the implications, she was back, tumbling through the air! Ground struck, leaving Twilight momentarily winded.
It was a dungeon. A well-appointed dungeon, all browns and grays with accents of red. The walls and lintels were made of horn-cut stone, and the stone floor gleamed with polish.
Once Twilight had her breath back, she stood... and was startled but not surprised. Two large green ovaloid shapes―cocoons―hung from hooks in the dungeon ceiling. She paced around them in wonder as if they were museum pieces. Luna. Celestia. Preserved. Imprisoned. Reposed, yet aggressive. Luna had apparently been in the act of smashing a changeling down when... someone. The queen? ...had gotten her. Celestia's face was even more furious, but her pose was gentle.
Twilight could have stood there examining them for a good hour if she hadn't remembered her haste. Spike and Pinkie were in danger, as was everypony, and even she might find herself fighting off enemies at any moment. She examined the cocoons carefully to identify any traps laid on them. Nothing. Good. With a series of little magical tugs, she dropped both cocoons to the stone floor. So far, so good.
But breaking them proved impossible. Twilight tried wielding her magic like a knife, and then tried using her horn likewise, but she couldn't rend the changeling silk. She collapsed at last on Celestia's breast, enervated and desperate.
There was movement beneath her. Twilight opened her eyes wide and watched as Celestia's face shifted as if against tremendous constraints. The visible eye was wide open and stunned, but the eyelid struggled. The princess's lips moved, though they couldn't fully close or open. It was painful to witness, but Twilight watched every motion.
“Celestia,” she whispered. An eyelid twitched. “Does it hurt? Can you... is there anything you can do without pain?”
Twilight saw a tremor in the princess's jaw. She nodded. “Time for an old standby I've read about. All right, Princess. If you can, twitch your jaw once for yes and twice for no...”
\\ o/` \\
There was no help for it―Twilight had to sleep in order to regain her strength. So she would sleep here, in the darkest corner, after first rehanging the cocoons to avert suspicion. The changeling queen, whom Celestia confirmed had done this in the guise of Cadence, might return.
Twilight now faced the daunting task of finding slumber with so much uncertain. She'd half expected Pinkie Pie to follow after her, 'mailed' by Spike―the party pony's company would be relished now. But it was probably for the best. Spike would need someone to guide and take care of him, and if it couldn't be Rarity or Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie was the best choice. Unfortunately that left Twilight alone here, shivering in a pile of stale hay, seeking sleep.
But she wasn't alone. Luna had yet to show any signs of consciousness, but Celestia was there, even if she could only communicate through slight facial motions. Twilight was clever and Celestia was kind, and through diligent use of these traits Twilight was able to extract a bedtime story from the incapacitated sun princess. It was a simple tale, of course, and without nuance, but it put Twilight into a state of cogitation and reverie.
Celestia told Twilight how in the days before Equestria her ancestors had come to invent day and night, and to realize the necessity for a sun to control the rhythm of life on earth. She made no mention of the moon. That omission was enough to lead Twilight into dreamland, as she wondered whence the moon had come, and why, and how. As she slept, she imagined worlds governed by moonlight and starlight, where the only living things were fungi and nightplants, and where the light of a sun would cause havoc and doom. In her dream, Twilight fought to keep the sun at bay. She teamed up with a team of intergalactic travelers to shield these worlds with canopies made from space dust, and in the end even strove to destroy the nearest stars lest they destroy things far more delicate and beautiful. There was nothing about her dream that didn't feel strange and forbidden, yet Twilight found it difficult to wake when the time came.
Celestia was still cogent and trapped, and Twilight, though refreshed, still couldn't free her. So, following Celestia's silent directions, she popped open the dungeon door and followed a series of corridors, avoiding changelings through stealth when she had to, until she arrived at a small but potent treasure chamber. Through twitches and blinks, Celestia had told Twilight the spell to get inside. From this ancient chamber Twilight took an amulet that made her invisible, unsmellable, and undetectable to the likes of changeling magic. She took also a runestone marked with a symbol of the sun, laden with a stored reservoir of Celestia's magic. It was this, two hours of sneaking later, that Twilight used to unlock the door behind which lay the Elements of Harmony.
At no point did Twilight encounter the false Cadence, nor so many changelings that she couldn't hide from them. That was as it should be. She did want to know whether her brother was okay, but suspected that the changeling queen kept him locked up even more securely than the princesses. None of the familiar figures of the palace were anywhere to be found―it was a changeling-infested wasteland. Once, Twilight thought she'd spotted the palace steward, but based on the fact that he didn't speak and was cavorting with changelings, he was almost surely a changeling, too.
She slipped out a servant's entrance and looked around. The Elements of Harmony were in their case, which she carried in her mouth so that the amulet would hide them as well. There were still changelings in the courtyard, but now some of them were bloated and sleeping. The sound of crying came to Twilight from far away, but it appeared that in this vicinity, the fighting was done. Changelings had taken Canterlot and were living off the emotions of its denizens. She didn't know whether that would mean their death, and was afraid to find out.
Twilight spied the remains of the tool shed, now splintered, and decided to follow the giant footprints leading away. At times she had to take a roundabout route in order to avoid bumping into changelings, but her amulet kept her safely hidden. The footprints led to a strip of the city through which the greed-addled dragon had apparently stomped a swath flat. Had he also trampled any innocents in the way? She couldn't guess.
After an hour of tracking, Twilight arrived at the mountainous edge of the city, where the magical shield created by her brother still stood fast. Or rather, stood fast again. Somewhere in Pinkie's babbling, she'd mentioned the shield going down and returning, which meant that the false Cadence had a tight hold on her brother's powers. And Twilight could see that her brother's pink magic was once again the strongest influence by far in the shield. There were only small regions and streaks of other colors―a place where the pink was cut by translucent purple, a washed out patch of amber.
Well, they would have to escape somehow. It occurred to Twilight that some of her own magic was probably still integral to the shield, and while she couldn't simply retract it, she might find it easier to break through at such a spot. Twilight therefore located a stretch of border free of changelings and tested her strength against the dome. It held staunchly, even when she aimed for a patch more magenta than pink. And it was teleport-proof. This might be a serious issue, she realized.
Back to tracking, then. How long had she slept? Shouldn't it be evening by now? Oh. Oh. No, it shouldn't. With Celestia and Luna imprisoned and nearly comatose, it would never be evening, or night, again. Had the false Cadence thought of that? Maybe she was planning on subduing and controlling Celestia and Luna once everything else was under control. Twilight hoped so, because the queen was mad as well as evil if she thought the world could survive for long in constant sunshine.
The draconic footprints had only grown larger and larger over the course of Twilight's trek, but then, as she'd half hoped and half feared, they abruptly ended. There was architecture destroyed here, but no further sign of struggle. Had Spike managed to revert? If so, what had happened to him?
There were changelings here, but the horde was thin and indolent, as it was elsewhere. Twilight could smell ponies nearby, but none were in sight. Most likely they'd been made prisoners in their own homes, or each others' homes. Was everypony in Canterlot in a cocoon like those of the princesses?
Twilight passed by the broken remains of a counting shack in search of a sign of what had happened to her friends. She'd been watching the ground, but also keeping an eye on passing changelings in order to keep her distance, and now she took in a strange sight: A small crowd of Spikes, milling about and chortling in affected voices. Some were like the Spike she knew; others were Spike in his lanky, grabby form, but none were much bigger than the ordinary Spike. Twilight stifled a giggle―apparently the changelings had issues with size adjustments.
She crept around their periphery, passing by a waffle hut and, of all things, a jewelry store. The fact that neither of these were wrecked meant that Spike probably hadn't been this way as a monster... but had he been this way as a child?
Twilight knew that he and Pinkie were probably hiding (like anypony else not already captured by the horde), and that with her invisible, it would be hard for them to find each other. But she kept seeing changelings that looked like Spike, so she trailed them from street to street. Eventually a smattering of Pinkies showed up, stretching and posing and bouncing about silently. Twilight mused on how the changelings decided whom to copy, and whether Pinkie Pie was embraced as a especially challenging role. She suspected their true mindset would be alien to her.
Now, passing by a music store, Twilight happened to notice a large harp inside... with a blue balloon tied to it. The balloon was inflated with air, not helium, and sagged mournfully from its perch on the harp's neck... yet somehow, Twilight recognized it as unmistakably Pinkie's hoofwork. Excited, she slipped furtively into the store and closed the door. There were no changelings in sight.
Setting down her case, she faced up toward the loft and called cautiously: “Pinkie?”
A weight dropped her to the ground and rolled off in the moment after. “Twilight!” Pinkie pronked around Twilight in a circle, constantly facing her. “I'm so glad you're okay! Except you're invisible! And I can't smell you! Did you lose your, your, your appearance? And your scent? Those horrible changelings! At least they left your voice and the way it feels when I pounce on you! That's two senses out of five. Hold on, I'm gonna try tasting you.”
But as Pinkie darted in, Twilight took off her amulet and was visible again. Pinkie stopped short and gasped.
“That won't be necessary, Pinkie. I'm safe and sound! I have magic again, and even better...” She gestured to the case before them. “I've got the Elements of Harmony! Where's Spike? Is he okay?”
Pinkie leapt straight up and returned twenty seconds later with a sleepy-looking Spike in tow. “Oh, gosh, Twilight. Hi!”
Twilight rushed to hug her assistant dearly, followed by hugging Pinkie. “I forgot to be as worried about you two as I should have been,” she admitted. “I had my hooves full getting the Elements. But I'm really relieved you're both all right. How did you manage to change back, Spike?”
Normally the dragon would be proud to tell a story like this, but he'd apparently been sleeping. “Uh... well, I...”
Pinkie jumped in, punctuating her account liberally with impersonations and gestures. “First he broke the whole tool shed, BWACCK! and then he went stomping all over and I followed him, and the changelings attacked but they couldn't stop him, and he just threw them aside like, fweee! Fwheee! And he stomped down the streets punching holes in stores and taking everything like a big meaniepants only without pants, and all the while I was shouting, Spike! Spiiiike! Come back and get little again! But he was all SPIIIKE WAAANT and that was pretty much all he said! I was worried Queen Meanie the Sequel was gonna show up and attack him herself, so I asked myself, Pinkie? Yeees? I answered. Pinkie, how did Spike get little again before? Oh! I said. He was holding Rarity and she had a jewel on that he'd given her a week before and he remembered being generous to her and all the generosity juices, like, counteracted his greed gremlins, and he went back to normal! So then I started thinking of whether Spike had ever done something nice for me, and then I remembered that time we were out in Appleoosa and I sang that song for all the settlers and buffalos that went “You gotta shaaaaare” and “You gotta caaaaare” and he played the piano for me! And even though no one else liked the song, Spike cheered me up afterwards when he said that he liked it! So I looked around for a piano, but I guess that's not really a Canterlot instrument because I didn't see any! But then I saw that harp out there and I remembered that a piano has a secret harp inside, kind of like how a pea pod has secret peas inside it or those little chocolate crunchies Mrs. Cake makes have secret peanuts! So I figured it must be good enough, and I started playing the Share and Care song on the harp, and he picked up the harp because he wanted it but I guess eventually I got through to him because he started crying, and then he put down the harp and hugged me! Then he started sharing all his stuff with me, and I was so touched by that I started crying too, and the more stuff he gave away, the smaller and smaller he got! So then we hid in here and he fell asleep and I tucked him in and tied the balloon to the harp because I knew you'd see it and say, 'Hey! That must be where Pinkie Pie is!' And you did! and then Spike woke up and then I told you the whole story of what happened and then you told us your story and then we snuck out of the city together back to Ponyville so we could meet up with the others and then―oh, whoops! That part hasn't happened yet! Sorry!”
Twilight's ears twisted in consternation, but otherwise she was beaming. “Well done, you two! And you're right, Pinkie―we've got to get back to Ponyville. But there's a problem! My brother's shield spell is still up, and I don't know if I can break through!”
“Really? But he's your brother! You don't know all his tricks?”
“I know a smaller version of his spell, and that means I know how hard it is to break! But the princesses had me and a bunch of others reinforcing the dome while I was away, and some of our magic is still in there. I'm hoping to find a weak spot.”
“Any chance I could help?” asked Spike.
“With your fire? I don't think so. If you were still monstrous, you might be able to punch your way through... but if we go with physical force, we'll need a lot more than what we can muster.”
Spike smirked and flexed an arm, displaying a tiny bulge. “Oh, yeah?”
Twilight smirked back. “Sorry, Spike. But you're not a mighty dragon yet.”
“Maybe not, but I still might be able to help. Can you get us there without the changelings seeing us?”
That was an issue. “I only have one amulet, and I don't know any invisibility spells. Oh! So long as I was carrying the case, it was invisible. If you ride on my back, it should hide you too.”
“Swell,” said Spike, clambering on. Twilight tried the amulet, and sure enough, both unicorn and dragon were concealed.
“What about mee?” asked Pinkie. “Can I ride, too?”
Twilight gritted her teeth. “I don't think I can carry you both, Pinkie! Maybe... maybe if I levitate you just enough to make you lighter?”
“Worth a try!” Pinkie stood on one of her forehooves, looking as though she were already being levitated. Twilight exerted some magic and Pinkie nearly floated away, like a pony-shaped balloon tethered by one leg to the floor.
“Whee! We should do this more often, Twi! Okay, I'm getting on now.” Pinkie let herself sink slowly to the floor, crouched, and pounced. She tumbled slowly through the air and eventually reached out a front hoof to touch Twilight's rump. With a little work, she'd gained her balance. But...
“Am I invisible, Twilight? Can you see me?”
“Uh... I can still see you, yes! You seem to be half-invisible!”
Pinkie looked at her own leg, then back at her body. “I'm see-through!! This is so terrific! One step closer to being a living balloon!”
Twilight heard Spike slap his forehead. “If we can see you, Pinkie, so can the changelings!”
“He's right,” Twilight concurred. “The amulet must only partially work on things I'm only partially carrying. We need a better plan.”
Pinkie sprang into the air again and flipped five times before coming to a graceful landing. “I've got it! I'll pretend to be a changeling pretending to be me! How hard can it be?”
Twilight released Pinkie from her magic. “I guess that could work. If they realize you're faking, I could just teleport us all away.”
Pinkie found a reflective pair of cymbals and started posing. Before long, her repertoire of grimaces, silent melodramatic poses, and fake-looking tail swirls was complete. The trio headed out, and Spike directed them by tugging on Twilight's ear when he wanted to turn. Twilight wasn't sure how Pinkie knew which way they were going, but she managed somehow.
Sure enough, Pinkie pulled it off. She passed one set of changelings with her forelegs extended out in front as if stalking prey, and fooled another set by whirling up her tail and throwing her hooves out with an excited grin. A simple trot and smile got her down a street full of changelings disguised as locals, some of whom Twilight recognized. At last, they left the east side of town and were faced with descending rocky bluffs. The dome's variegated pinks filled the sky ahead.
“All right, Spike,” Twilight whispered. “Where are we headed?”
“Just around that hill over there,” he whispered back. “You said you needed something strong to help get through the shield. I figured we could use the bachelor I built!”
Twilight froze for a moment, one invisible hoof raised. “Excuse me?”
“I built a bachelor! I wanted it to be a surprise, but I guess there won't be any bachelor party now.”
“You... built a bachelor.”
“Well, what did you think I was doing that whole time you were in the palace? Princess Celestia put me in charge of the bachelor party, and there were all these guards in the streets without any orders! I just recruited a few of them to help.”
By now, Pinkie Pie had noticed them talking and was huddled with them. “But Spike, you can't just build a bachelor! A bachelor is made! Out of a colt!”
Spike sounded puzzled. “Out of a colt? That's horrible!”
Twilight decided to end the suspense and hurried past the hill. She was startled by the sheer size of what she saw, sitting unattended on the sparsely grassed plain. “Spike? You built this?!”
Spike hopped off, becoming visible, and crossed his arms with pride. “I oversaw it. I was the overseer! I told them things like, 'Make the swingy bit longer' or 'let's pull back the pouch so the sling opens sooner.' It took three days of hard work, but now we have our very own bachelor!”
Twilight gaped in admiration. “Spike, this is a trebuchet!”
“Is... is that a compliment?”
“It's what this is called, Spike. I can't imagine how you got bachelors and trebuchets mixed up―they don't even start with the same letter! Though I suppose they do have several letters in common...”
“I'm more interested in how he was planning to build a party around it!” chimed Pinkie.
Spike looked stunned. “It's... it's not a bachelor?”
Twilight gave Spike a kiss on the top of his head. “It's perfect. We'll need to find some ammunition, and then we'll wheel it to a vulnerable spot in the shield.” Twilight felt like she was in her element... which was odd, given how far they were from a library. “Since we're relying on physical force, we'll want to look for green spots. There was a mage in our group whose specialty was magic resistance, but physical attacks were his weakness, and his magic was green.”
“Gotcha,” said Spike. “We look for green spots. But what if the changelings spot us?”
“We'd better go invisible again, and hurry! I don't want them spotting the trebuchet before we're ready. Pinkie, do you think you can find some good rocks for us to launch?”
“Do I think I can find some good rocks?” echoed Pinkie. She dashed to a small boulder and plowed it upright out of the ground. “I think I can... turn something up!” She giggled for a while, plopping onto her rump. “Get it? Turning rocks?” She laughed a little more. “Ahh, I guess you had to be there.”
“Be where?” asked Spike.
“My childhood! I even had an imaginary friend called Mr. Turn-Up, and he was a turnip! But anyway, yeah I can find some rocks for you! Just promise you won't throw them too hard.”
“But that's the whole point!” objected Twilight.
“The whole point is throwing them too hard? Well, you should have said so!” Pinkie went back to her work.
“Right,” said Twilight. “Spike, let's find a good place to break down this wall!”
But as soon as they passed a craggy spire at the end of Canterlot's mountainous eastern edge, Twilight and Spike were in for a surprise. On the sloping ground before them, outside the shield, ponies were gathered. There were Canterlot-style tents and a few hardier ones meant for the wilderness. A dozen ponies were gathered around what looked like a trove of treasure or perhaps an armory. Another score or so were gathered on blankets laid around an empty fire pit. With the sun eternally up, they might never have to light it. But what were they all doing there?
Some were watching the city. Twilight decided it couldn't hurt to show herself. She stood before a rock shielding herself from the sight of any changelings and removed her amulet.
The reaction was immediate. Two sentries, a pegasus and an earth pony, hurried over, first alarmed, then delighted. Twilight could barely hear their voices, but she thought she saw her name being mouthed. She didn't even know these ponies―how did they know her? Oh, of course―who in Canterlot didn't know Twilight after Celestia publicly recognized her for defeating Discord? She blushed, still unused to fame.
But it was more than her stardom that was exciting the sentries. They called to others, and those called to others in turn, and before a minute was out, none other than Rainbow Dash was hovering before the shield with an amazed grin. Fluttershy, Applejack and Rarity soon appeared as well.
“This is wonderful!” exclaimed Twilight. “You're all here!”
“You'd better better believe we are!” replied Rainbow, still hovering. Her voice was muffled but her words were clearly audible.
“Oh, Twilight, surely you couldn't imagine we'd stay at home for something like this!” said Rarity. “When rumors started to trickle in about an attack on Canterlot, the four of us met at the boutique. We discussed what to do for some time, but when the news became official, we knew we would simply have to trek out and see how we could help.”
“And as it turned out, our help wasn't too shabby,” added Applejack. “This here camp started with the ponies who were just outside the city when the shield popped back up. Some were skedaddlin' from the attack, and some were travelers, and then there was the trainload of passengers that couldn't get in.” She gestured back toward the horizon. “We ain't seen another train since then, so ah s'pose they shut down the line. Anyhow, we shared what we'd brought and got 'em going gathering weapons, food, water, an' firewood.” She glanced up at the sun. “Though at this rate, ah doubt we'll be needin' much firewood anytime soon.”
“It's getting hot,” murmured Fluttershy. “The sun should have set seven hours ago. The longer it stays up, the hotter the air will get, and the more uncomfortable all the plants and creatures will become.”
“Then let's do something about it,” decided Twilight. “Guess who was able to infiltrate the palace and obtain the Elements of Harmony!”
They were uncertain. “Uhh... was it Pinkie?” ventured Applejack.
Rainbow hovered doubtfully. “Do we get three guesses, or...”
“It was me!” snapped Twilight. “I got them!” She felt a tug from Spike on her ear. “...With a little help from Spike, that is, and Celestia, and, yes, Pinkie is with us too.” Again the silent dragon tugged. “What, Spike? Am I forgetting someone else?”
“Yes!” cried Spike, shifting around on Twilight's back. “Cadence!!”
“What? I didn't get any help from Cadence, Spike! She's the villain, remem―” But then Twilight turned around and saw Cadence―no, Mi Amore Cad―no, the changeling queen, sailing nearer over the Canterlot rooftops. Her eyes were green and glowing.
“Cripes, you're right!” shouted Rainbow. “Is she headed this way?”
“Reckon so,” said Applejack. “But Twi, how are we gonna use the Elements with this shield in our faces?”
“We'll have to take it down! You have weapons, right? Are there any strong unicorns out there?”
“A few,” answered Rarity. “Adventurers brave and bold, or so they would have it. Most ponies, after hearing about our capital being attacked, feared for their safety.” She glanced back at the 'armory'. “But a few brave souls came to tender their aid.”
“Great.” Twilight put her amulet back on. “We have to scatter! She can't know I'm here. Try to find a green spot in the shield! And tell everypony it's time to take this thing down!”
Rainbow nodded and zoomed off. Twilight didn't wait to see what the others did. She dashed along the edge of the shield, keeping one eye out for a weak spot and one on false Cadence. “Keep me updated, Spike!”
“She looks really angry, Twilight! But she's not attacking. I think she's looking for something.”
Twilight's magical senses were on alert. She felt tendrils probing, some of which brushed her legs and chest. “It's me, Spike! She's looking for me. She took out my brother and the Princesses early on, and she knows I'm the next biggest threat!”
“What do we do!?” panicked the dragon.
Twilight didn't know. She had lots of choices and none of them seemed appealing. Then a thought struck her suddenly: she'd failed to see through the changeling queen because she hadn't trusted her instincts. Twilight chose to trust them now. She ducked behind a rock and removed the amulet. She then ran to the dome and banged against it.
“TWILIGHT, what are you doing?!” shouted Spike. “She sees us! She's coming!!”
But so were the ponies on the other side. Doubt was on their faces, but they were armed and ready for action, and some of them had horns. “Find Pinkie Pie and have her meet up with the others on your side of the dome, right here!” she screamed at them, winking. They cringed. “And if you find a green spot,” she added more quietly, “signal us!” As soon as they seemed to show comprehension, Twilight dashed away. She leapt into a trench, put on her amulet, and sped away in the opposite direction.
When she looked up, she was stunned by how close the false princess was. The changeling queen was angry all right, and driven, but she'd lost her quarry. Twilight conjured a light, invisible force field just in time to deflect the probing tendrils as they returned. It pushed them aside lightly enough that her location wasn't obvious, but she didn't doubt the changeling queen could still feel it.
Spike tugged her ear again. “How are they supposed to find Pinkie Pie when she's on our side of the dome?” he whispered.
“They can't. I was bluffing. If the evil queen heard me, she'll think Pinkie is out there, not in here!”
But it wouldn't be so clever if the false Cadence followed Twilight straight to Pinkie and the trebuchet. She was running through trenches and valleys some distance from the shield now, but the tendrils were still coming and false Cadence was still aloft not far away. Hopefully the ponies on the other side would come up with some kind of distraction!
Suddenly, a tendril bounced too hard off Twilight's force field and the queen spun in mid-air, locking on. A beam of raw magic shot toward Twilight and fractured her field; Spike shrieked. Just then, an orange streak―no, red and yellow―shot through the intervening space. Twilight saw fire in her peripheral vision. She didn't dare glance back, but Spike leaned forward and murmured: “She's caught in a blaze in the sky! I think someone just saved our purple tails!”
“Philomena!” said Twilight, smiling. “Thank Celestia she's on our side. I think we may have time, now...”
There it was. The trebuchet, sheltered by a rock wall now, with Pinkie loading it. And... a half dozen changelings helping her? Twilight stopped short. “What's going on? Is that the real Pinkie?”
“Beats me,” whispered Spike. “Maybe they captured the bach―I mean trebuchet!”
But as they watched, Pinkie leapt emphatically once in place, smiled at the changelings, and waved to them, one hoof now on the trigger. They marched or flew off, some of them waving back to her.
Twilight was flabbergasted. Once they'd all gone, she ran up to the rock and slipped off the amulet. Pinkie just turned and smiled at her.
“Yep! That's me. Are you the real Twilight and the real Spike? Ooh! And did you see my new friends?”
Twilight rubbed her head. “I did! You tricked them into helping you?”
“That's right! I did a bunch of evil hoof rubbing and cackling―” Pinkie demonstrated what she meant. “―and that was enough to convince them I was just getting ready to attack all those ponies out there in case they get through the shield!” She pointed, and Twilight saw that a few of the ponies outside Canterlot had spread this far up the mountain.
“That's wonderful, Pinkie! And I see you have some payloads stacked up.” Indeed, there was a pile of flattish boulders just the right size to be launched.
“Why do they call it a payload?” asked Pinkie, veering in fiercely and lifting Twilight by the forelegs. “Are we paying them back for taking our princesseses away?!”
“I suppose? We need to watch out for a signal, Pinkie, somewhere over to the left! Can we get this thing ready to―”
And there it was. Just past the edge of their shelter, Twilight saw a sizzling blue beam of magic strike the shield. The false Cadence, along with just about every changeling in the sky, immediately veered toward it. It was followed by a thicker beam of green. Then by a thin line Twilight guessed was a spear. The ponies outside were attacking the dome with everything they had.
“They must have found a weak point! Do you see it, Pinkie?”
Pinkie was already adjusting the swing arm and fine-tuning the sling release. “I see it! How does this look, Spike?”
Spike hopped off and helped her orient the siege engine. “Perfect! Let her fly!”
The stone went sailing toward the dome, clipped a changeling on the wing, and tumbled to the ground. “Drat!” swore Twilight.
“It's okay!” chimed Pinkie. “If at first you don't blow a hole in something, fling, fling again!” She loaded up for a second shot.
Twilight replaced her amulet and levitated a set of large stones. “I'm going in to finish this. You two keep shooting!”
“Good luck!” they called together. Twilight dashed directly for the spot where beams, sound waves and weapons continued to strike the shield. This meant running in the open, but she was invisible and the horde was distracted. Of course, the rocks she was carrying weren't invisible... at least not very. Still, her exact location was still a mystery.
But that didn't keep changelings from spotting her weapons and swarming toward her. She restored her force field, but her magic was running thin and they were getting persistent. They cried out to their neighbors and more flocked downward. Twilight swung some of her rocks at them, knocking them aside. One changeling sailed straight for her face, but an unexpected boulder threw it to the ground. Score one for the trebuchet!
Forming a phalanx with her rocks, Twilight managed to barrel through to within thirty yards of where the siege was taking place. She saw the changeling queen hovering before the attackers, releasing pulse after pulse of blinding light. It was the only weapon she had that would permeate the shield, Twilight realized. She hovered all her boulders further and ducked into a cranny, and thankfully the changelings followed the rocks. Now, one at a time, she slammed her rocks into the green stretch of dome she could now see amid the pink. It vibrated on impact―was it really weakening?
To Twilight's right, she saw Fluttershy passing by. Twilight leapt from the cranny and ran up to the shield. Following her instincts again, she sang a few notes of Fluttershy's favorite song. It was too quiet for the changelings to take notice, but Fluttershy heard her even through the dome. She flew back to Twilight and peered through hopefully.
“I'm right here, Fluttershy, just invisible! Fluttershy, get the others and tell them to come here!”
“Oh! But what about the other meeting place?”
“That was a bluff! Please, hurry!”
Fluttershy didn't need to be told again. She sped off, and Twilight continued to assail the green spot with rocks, over and over, reusing the ones that didn't shatter on impact. It was hard to keep this up from a distance, but she still had the runestone disk charged with Celestia's magic, and it was sustaining her. Pieces of green magic started to flake from the shield.
“FOOLS!” roared the changeling queen at the determined battalion outside. “If you burst this shield, I will destroy you all, and then erect another, purer shield! Shining Armor is under my complete control! Do you wish to be destroyed?!”
Yet the mages, fighters and heroes outside kept assailing the weak point. Twilight knew not all of them had come to defend Canterlot, of course. Some of them were only there because their train hadn't gone through or because they'd fled the city early on. But if they were still attacking at this point, they were heroes regardless in Twilight's book.
A wreath of flame encircled the green spot, now visibly cracked, and the pink parts surrounding it began to melt. Philomena had joined the siege. Twilight heard a boom to her right and found Rainbow smashing herself repeatedly into the barrier. Grimacing, Twilight continued to pummel it with her last surviving rocks.
Then, from behind, at tremendous speed, a boulder whizzed straight into the heart of the fiery wreath. There was a reverberation so loud it hurt Twilight's ears. A blue patch of sky finally shone through the pink shield, the green spot destroyed. Immediately, the false Cadence leapt forward, just as pegasi on the other side did the same. Her horn flared and sent beams barreling into them; the pegasi fell, one by one. Twilight didn't know whether they were dead, and she tried not to wonder. She turned to her right. Applejack, Fluttershy, and Rarity were there.
Twilight focused on the edge of the hole, far to her left but slowly spreading. Concentrating, she helped it spread. Cracks permeated the pink until, yard by yard, it crumbled. She saw Rainbow Dash, quick as a slingshot, whip around the leading edge too fast for the changeling queen to react. Now the cruel queen was outside the dome, wreaking vengeance everywhere. Ponies and equipment were hurled in every direction... until she turned and spotted Twilight. Her pink form fell away, leaving her a gaunt black thing, riddled with holes, thin and fanged and fierce. Her huge green eyes roiled with fury.
Fluttershy quaked and backed up against the shield. Twilight tore off her amulet and burst open the case with the Elements of Harmony. She donned her tiara and sped the necklaces around toward the crumbling edge, watching while the changeling queen flew closer. Behind her, Rainbow Dash returned with Pinkie, and Twilight thrust their Elements at them. There they were, three and three, still separated by a pink wall with destruction about to rain.
Applejack turned and bellowed “FOR EQUESTRIA!!” Her back hooves slammed into the already cracked shield, and that was enough. With a tumultuous tinkle it came tumbling down, pieces blowing everywhere. Twilight threw up her lightweight force field just in time to keep herself and her friends protected. The evil queen was distracted for a moment, and Twilight sped the remaining necklaces to Rarity, Applejack, Fluttershy. They all came together without conscious thought and arrayed themselves as one.
“For Princess Cadence!!” shouted Twilight. Her heart was warmed beyond memory as magic seeped from and through her. A sextet of rainbows entwined and lifted them all, and as the queen of the changelings regained her bearings and released a thick green beam of force toward them, she and her beam were caught in the rainbow's might and dissolved. A column of white erupted from the ground toward the sky, with Twilight and her friends captive to it even as they fueled it.
Then they fell. The light scattered; the heat dispersed; the shield's remnants vanished. Twilight lay on the rocks with her friends, aching in at least three ways but smoothed by the presence of friendship in its primal form. She climbed slowly to her hooves and looked around.
The ponies were cheering. Without their queen, all the changelings were fleeing the city, speeding away in a panic. A few were caught by magical attacks before they could get away. The sun was rolling swiftly through the sky, hundreds of times more swiftly than Twilight had ever seen it. Fluttershy was hugging her, and now so were Pinkie Pie's stretchy legs. Twilight watched the sky alone.
There was Celestia, rising over everything, as majestic as she'd been the first time Twilight had ever seen her. The last few changelings fled the city and disappeared into the rapidly darkening sky. And there was Luna, coming from the other direction, stern. Twilight returned her friends' hug and stood before them. The princesses were headed their way.
But Luna turned aside. She went to a changeling, struggling on the ground in the magical hold of a blue unicorn stallion whose face was filled with controlled anger. “Thank you, subject,” said Luna. “I will take it from here.”
Celestia landed and stood by Twilight, offering her a nuzzle as together they watched Luna seize the changeling in her magical aura, constricting it by the neck. “~Tell me where Cadence is, and I will let you live,~” she bellowed in what was clearly the royal Canterlot voice.
The changeling squealed. It chittered with difficulty, waving its wings in a frenzy. Luna frowned.
“If Cadence is dead, how did her imposter hope to maintain her charade indefinitely?” asked Luna, her tone quieter but very serious. Twilight felt Celestia's wing against her back. Inwardly, she was chilled.
Again the changeling chittered and flailed.
“You are lying. Deliver me Cadence, and I will let you live,” commanded Luna. But the changeling only made a short noise, and then let itself hang limp.
Luna and Celestia exchanged a long look. Behind them, Twilight saw Shining Armor working his way through the bluffs. He was wearing the same clothes as when he'd left for his honeymoon, and looked half-dazed.
“Sister,” he called wearily. “I don't know what's happened.” He raised his head with a surge of purpose. “I just know it wasn't Cadence. She tricked me. She was a changeling and she tricked me.” When he saw Celestia, his head fell again. “I'm sorry, Your Highness.”
Celestia stepped away from Twilight and over to Shining Armor. Twilight couldn't see her face, but she could see his looking into hers. His mouth was open, his eyes wide.
“Captain, you were taken in,” said Celestia, more seriously than warmly. “We all were. I don't blame you for anything that happened.”
He twitched. “But?”
“But your fiancée is missing. And she may be gone forever.”
He squinched his eyes shut and went down to his knees. “No.” Celestia knelt with him and gave him physical comfort. Luna, meanwhile, made her changeling disappear in a blast of indigo light.
“The changeling claims that Cadence is dead. It claims that its ruler, Queen Chrysalis, believed she could subsist on Captain Armor's love alone, and would therefore not need Cadence to feed on. I have transported it to the palace for further interrogation. Unfortunately, Chrysalis herself is gone. The Elements of Harmony destroyed her utterly.”
“What?” asked Rainbow. “But that's not what they did to Discord! Or... or to you.” She landed softly.
“Discord and I had other states to return to. He, to stone, and I...” She gestured to her royal self. “But the changeling queen reverted to her primal form just before the Elements claimed her, did she not? She left herself nothing else to become.”
Fluttershy sobbed suddenly. “She could have lived, couldn't she? She could have seen the light. And we killed her!”
“Whether the changeling queen could ever have turned to the side of good is doubtful,” said Celestia. “We might have interrogated her and perhaps used her as a bargaining chip. But I suspect her minion spoke the truth. I'm so sorry, Shining Armor. I believe Cadence is probably with us no longer.”
Twilight ran to her brother and held him. She felt other touches on her coat but ignored them. He wept, and it shook her. She absorbed his vibrations. She didn't know how long it lasted, but when she came to her senses, she was in bed, and it was morning.
\\ o/` \\
“Porridge, Twilight?” She was at the breakfast table. A long wooden table she remembered eating at during ceremonies in Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. The room had been full then, and now it was just Twilight and Rarity, and the sun lighting up the beautiful wood through six dozen windows.
“It's such a bright morning,” she whispered to herself.
“What's that? Oh. Yes, beautiful, isn't it? Princess Luna said that last night was the shortest night she's overseen for over eighteen hundred years. Can you imagine?” Rarity paused, waiting for Twilight to respond, or take porridge, or something. “Well, I can try to imagine what happened eighteen centuries ago, but it's only an exercise in whimsy, isn't it? I do hope the extra sun we got doesn't disrupt anything important. I was beginning to feel somewhat flushed, myself, but it doesn't show in my coat, does it?”
Twilight looked slowly at Rarity. “Where's my brother? Is he okay?”
The beautician's expression grew tender. “Your parents are with him, as is Spike. I have no doubt he'll recover.”
“He was really in love with Cadence, wasn't he? It wasn't... it wasn't the imposter the whole time, was it?”
The shock in Rarity's face revealed that she didn't know any better than Twilight did. Yet she only said, “I'm sure he loved her, Twilight. You don't imagine that despicable creature could have charmed and won him over on her own, do you?”
Twilight slowly drew the bowl of porridge over, not looking up. She added nuts and raisins and ate, trying to ignore the rays of sun all around, trying not to think of... to think of...
“I believed her,” she spat, disgusted with herself. “I believed my brother's explanations, and I believed the changeling queen. I fell for everything, and now my brother's... now he's...”
A stool slid against wood and Rarity seated herself next to Twilight. “Please don't cry, Twilight. It isn't your fault. None of us realized the true danger.”
“But I'm the one who knew something was wrong!!” wailed Twilight, looking up. The sunlight from six dozen windows was too dazzling for her. “I'm the one who used to know Cadence. The rest of you... just believed her, but I...”
“I saw right through her, and I... and I still did nothing.”
Twilight dipped her head and let Rarity hold her. She could smell her porridge, but her eyes were shut. Her brother frolicked in her mind; Cadence appeared and made him happy. The shadow that was black, slim-necked Chrysalis appeared, eyes innocent and wings spread. Little Twilight watched her crush Cadence with an eager hoof. Shining Armor fell under a spell; Twilight did nothing.
“Twilight,” said Rarity. “She was a wicked creature of deception! She could have fooled anypony. Please... eat your breakfast.”
Twilight took a bite. It felt good to eat, so she ate. Rarity stroked her hair for a while before reseating herself. Clouds tempered the sun, but no one else came; this part of the palace was silent.
There was orange juice, something Twilight couldn't get in Ponyville. Maybe she should learn how to conjure up oranges. She drank deeply and sat, staring at the cloudy skies.
“I do hope you'll forgive me,” said Rarity, watching alongside her. “But your brother is a very... dashing stallion. For someone so noble as him to suffer so greatly...”
Twilight turned her head toward Rarity, puzzled.
Rarity looked embarrassed. “Well, he shouldn't have to be alone, is all I mean,” she said dryly.
The gears in Twilight's head turned all too slowly. “Are... are you saying you fancy my brother?”
Rarity shrank in her seat. “I'm sorry, Twilight. It was too soon to bring it up. Please, forget I said anything.”
Twilight shook her head slowly. She sighed. Eventually, she spoke. “If you like him, Rarity, you should tell him. Get to know him. Maybe once you know him better than I do, you could be very happy together.”
Rarity's face was like a second sun at the edge of Twilight's vision. “Oh, Twilight, do you really think so? You don't object?”
Twilight shook her head and said, “You and he may well be perfect for each other.” But what she thought to herself was: Better the devil you know.
After all, Rarity had caught the bouquet.
\\ o/` \\
Seven weeks later, Cadence's body was found in the abandoned crystal mines beneath the palace. She had died of starvation. It was not easy for an alicorn princess to starve, said Luna, who had kept herself alive for a thousand years on the moon and ought to know. But Cadence had been young―as young as a mortal. She hadn't yet learned how to cope with privation. And on top of the lack of food and water, there had been another kind of privation―the lack of love. She had feared her fiancé would wed a monster, and she had been right. Who could fault a young princess for perishing under circumstances like that?
Her funeral had been held weeks before, and tens of thousands of ponies from all over Equestria had come. Twilight had spoken, though now she didn't remember her eulogy. It had felt like a festival of sadness, and now it was done, and there were no more memories left to honor. Princess Celestia, who had studied the body, said that Cadence had probably still been alive at the time.
END OF MOVEMENT 3
Spike makes a suggestion. Luna deigns to listen. Chrysalis is caring. Maybe these were missing!
Twilight stalls a stallion. Twilight wends a wedding. Twilight crushes changelings; Where is all this heading?
Spike, Woona, Chrysalis. Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. Mighta wound up worsa. Mighta gone more gooda.
Just ask Lady Rarity As she pursues her plan: Can we change our destinies? Sure! We! Can!