by Luminary

First published

Equestria, beset by the changeling invasion, must deal with a dawning golden age. Without Celestia.

Equestria stands at the dawn of a new golden age of harmony and enlightenment. Six normal ponies have taken up the tools of the gods and defeated the greatest evils of history. A bookish unicorn filly is set to usher in a magical revolution. The first new alicorn in a millennium provides the promise of a coming era of peace and love.

Change is rarely peaceful.

In the wake of the Royal Wedding, the nation struggles with a scattered army which feeds upon the very thing that stands to elevate ponykind. However, Equestria's citizens, her heroes and even her gods discover that it is the enemy within that one really needs to fear.

One - Celestia: Supercriticality

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Twilight Sparkle stared at Celestia with undisguised hatred.

There was a long, horrible, drawn-out silence as the Goddess of the Day endured that baleful look. When at last the silence broke, it carried a voice so full of helpless fury and pain that a thousand years of control was no defense, not when it came from those lavender lips. “You want me to talk. To tell you everything. But you killed them. They were everything to me, and you killed them all.”

“After what was done, thou expects us to spare thee sympathy? After all that thee and thine have rent to ruin and ash in thy wake?” Luna’s cold outrage broke the spell. Celestia could always count on her sister to face things head-on. It was uncanny how their roles had become so reversed when compared to a thousand years previous. The sun goddess turned her head away from the sight of her faithful student bound in iron and magelight, and toward the image of her dark sibling, which was infinitely easier to bear. “Thou purchased thy fate with the blood of our subjects.”

Celestia inhaled slowly, until she felt as if her chest would burst from the strain. She focused on that feeling alone, letting it become her whole reality. The slow release of that breath didn’t carry away as much of the deity's heartsickness as she had hoped, but some of her usual control returned. Not for the first time, she wished Cadance was at her side, but it would have been a terrible cruelty to make her face... this.

“It wasn’t all of them.” The sun princess looked back toward her student. Her voice wasn’t so steady as it should have been, hardly like her usual facade of perfect, benevolent calm, but it was an improvement. She’d take what small gains that she could. “We saved some. They’re recovering now.”

“They’re recovering for now,” Luna corrected, her voice filled with dark promise.


The named alicorn rolled her eyes at her sister’s scolding, before giving her an impatient look in return. Celestia weathered that look with far more calm than she did the hateful glare from Twilight. She knew, or at least hoped, that her sister’s threat was a bluff, but it wasn’t the sort of bluff that a princess of Equestria should be attempting. However, speaking against Luna in front of the prisoner was a mistake that she wouldn’t normally have made. Twilight sat a little straighter on her haunches, given some renewed confidence by the sight of the alicorns’ division.

Celestia met the familiar unicorn’s defiant purple eyes. Twilight’s eyes were usually so full of adoration and simple love. They would always light up with joy for the princess as reward for the simple act of walking into the room. Now those same eyes held only disgust and contempt for her. Celestia wanted to look away again, to leave this to Luna. How wonderful it would be, to be able to tearfully flee, like a normal pony could. There was, however, a reserve of bitter resentment that the goddess could call upon in the face of the failure of her usually implacable calm. “Two hundred and six.”

Twilight blinked in confusion.

“Two hundred and six ponies. That’s how many we know that you, and those like you, have killed. How many you’ve murdered.” Some of that old fire flared to life in the sun goddess. It wasn’t an emotion that she allowed herself often. Righteous fury was in her nature, but it rarely served her well. Hard-won wisdom and discipline controlled it, but it was still there, at the core of her being, as fiery and tempestuous as her sun. “And how many more do we not know about? How many families have you really destroyed and broken? That is what I want to know. Keep the rest of your secrets.”

“You act like you’re so innocent! Like your hooves are so clean!” Twilight rose up on all four hooves, rattling the chains connecting them to the walls. The looped strands of the binding spells that wound around her crackled in warning. “With how many of my family you’ve murdered, you’re going to lecture me!?” The unicorn’s voice cracked as it reached the highest registers of an outraged shriek.

“We have murdered none,” Luna cut in with an even, dismissive tone before Celestia could brandish a more passionate retort.

Twilight snorted and turned her muzzle away. “No. Instead you sent your little assassin out into the night. We must keep the blood off those royal hooves, mustn’t we?”

“Ahh, doth Hoofington’s sorceress frighten thee? Our heart breaks for thee, truly. Her actions are no order of ours. Thou hast inspired that bit of heroism thyself. We think we shall see her rewarded, in fact.” The unicorn seemed to be ready to throw herself to the limit of her chains once more, but the Princess of the Night blithely continued on. “But ‘twas not what we spoke of, in any case. We—”

“We didn’t start this war,” Celestia wearily finished the thought for her sister. “Our little ponies are simply defending themselves. That isn’t murder.”

A cruel sneer crept into Twilight’s features. “Yeah. Defending themselves. Because you couldn’t defend them, could you, Princess?”

The white alicorn flinched at the all-too-keenly placed barb. Luna looked over in concern at her reaction, a shod hoof rising to reach out to comfort her. Celestia knew well the reason why her sister was so worried. This wasn’t like her. She had nearly fifteen hundred years of experience to draw from. She had spent those years shepherding a nation, facing dark gods eye-to-eye, and of course, wrestling with the power within her that ever sought to rage explosively out of control. Everypony knew that Celestia of Equestria didn’t flinch. Her voice didn’t waver. She didn’t so much as blink when things went straight down to Tartarus in a saddlebag.

Yet, she was still a pony, for all those years, and all that power. A pony who had to sit across a room, under the malevolent gaze of her most beloved student, who gleefully reminded her that every pony life lost in the last three weeks could be laid squarely at her hooves.

Two hundred and six ponies.

Twenty-eight of them foals.

All because Celestia the Ever-Wise hadn’t believed that an overgrown insect, intent on ruining a wedding, could prove to be a real threat in the face of the glorious power of the sun.

“Enough with this absurd game.” The stones of the dungeon floor trembled as Luna let power creep into her voice. “Wear a different face, creature.”

“Or what?” Twilight’s voice was full of arrogant challenge. There was a downside to Celestia’s reputation for passivity: many assumed that her sister was equally gentle.

They were wrong.

“Or we shall tear thy very soul from thy monstrous form and leave thine empty husk as an example of what we do to those who dare to hurt our Sister,” the lunar mare snarled. The room was overcome with an oppressive gloom, as if the sudden darkness had a weight and mass all its own. Twilight sagged beneath the press of it, legs trembling with strain. Fear replaced the defiance on her face. “And we shall revel in the justice of it, creature. The justice of leaving thee as you leave your victims.”

Celestia reached out a hoof in turn, lightly placing it against her sister’s side. Her coat was glowing with an inner radiance in counterpoint to the surrounding night, pushing it back as it sought to crowd in. The dark lingered stubbornly for a moment, before its mistress allowed it to retreat to the natural shadows that had birthed it. Celestia knew she should be scolding her again for resorting to the fire and brimstone attitude that was so necessary a thousand years ago, when ponies were simpler and more primitive. A small, grateful smile crept onto her lips instead.

“Victims?” Twilight’s voice was little more than a strained, broken sob. Celestia’s attention instinctively snapped back to her upon hearing it. “We’re trying to survive! Trying to stay alive! We didn’t start the war! You ponies did! You forced us out. Guarded the borders.”

Twilight lifted her face to Celestia. Tears were flowing freely down her lavender cheeks. “We are starving,” she pleaded. “Dying. Aren’t you a goddess? Don’t you care?"

“Yes,” Celestia found that her voice was steadier now. Maybe the charade was starting to lose its potency. Maybe grief and heartache had a limit beyond which lay only fatigue. “I care. Once compassion and harmony become watchwords for your people again, instead of power and ease, I’ll be happy to talk about reintegration. Until then, we’ll do what must be done to protect our lives.”

The unicorn’s tears stopped flowing with unnatural suddenness, revealing the lie of them. Twilight’s expression of pained sorrow was replaced once more by sullen, brooding hate. “Yes, that was always the fate you wanted for the changelings. To skulk around in the shadows. Servile. Never satisfied. Always keeping our numbers few. To be just another cog in the machine of your plans for ponykind.” The filly’s purple eyes narrowed. “What fate is that for one of the great races of this world? Queen Aurelia freed us from servitude. She gave us a chance at making our own destiny.”

“She turned you from a folk concerned with making the lives of your fellow ponies better into a throng of monsters and killers!” Celestia stomped a hoof upon the floor. Flame leapt out from the point of impact, dying quickly as it found no fuel upon cold stone. “She condemned your race to the realm of stories meant to terrify foals into good behavior, where you were once an example of all that was good in the pony soul.”

“We are what you made us.” Twilight looked toward Luna once more, then coyly back at Celestia. “But then, you have a habit of ignoring the anguish of those in your care, don’t you, Celestia? Not to worry though, you’re always happy to just banish the problem away until somepony else deals with it, when things go wrong.”

The goddess of the sun let the verbal thrust break over her. As true as it might have been, those false tears earlier had broken the horror of the image of Twilight suffering. The alicorn’s composure crystallized into the steel that was its usual quality. The cool dispassion that came with it was a sweet relief. “I regret that you find mercy to be such a mistake. Others have been happier to accept it. They’ve taken a first step toward repatriation. Within this very room, no less. Not every changeling wants to live a life off of the suffering and death of others, I’m happy to say. If you should change your mind, we’ll be waiting.”

Celestia serenely rose and turned to walk toward the door, making a small motion of her head to her sister, asking her to follow. Though Celestia didn’t turn and watch, she was sure that Luna shot the changeling a withering glare before she left. The thought cut through some of the lingering gloom in the solar regent’s spirit. She wouldn’t change Luna for the world, for all her rough edges.

* * *

The sun goddess sighed into the wispy ether of her sister’s mane. The smaller alicorn responded with a nuzzle to the side of her neck. It was a quiet and unashamed embrace, something to provide shared comfort. The fact that they hadn’t gotten more than a few pony lengths from the door of the changeling’s cell was a testament to the necessity of the gesture. “That one was the worst yet. You’d think I’d be used to their little games by now.”

“Thou wouldst not be my sister without thy empathy and compassion, ‘Tia,” Luna replied, in a gentle tone.

A warmth suffused the elder sister, a kind of happy delirium that had been repeated over and over since Luna’s return. It was the euphoric knowledge that she wasn’t alone anymore. Celestia hoped that the novelty would never fade. “The Celestia you knew a thousand years ago would have bludgeoned the wretched thing until it begged for a chance to serve her.”

“That Celestia was a vain, self-righteous nag.”

A laugh burst from Celestia’s mouth, reflexively. She reached a foreleg up to more firmly embrace the smaller mare. “Yes. Yes, she was.” A brief silence fell over her. “Lulu, what the changeling said in there, about me ignoring things. She was right. I’m—”

Luna pushed herself away from her sister, if only far enough so that she could raise a hoof to lightly place it over Celestia’s mouth. “Thou hast apologized many times. As have I. We made mistakes, both of us. In the end, however, I was the only one to blame for my madness.” A small smile returned to Luna’s lips. “Besides, as we have just agreed, that mare was different from the one before me now. I can only hope to one day share the qualities that thou hast gained.”

Celestia allowed herself to enjoy only a few moments of the contented silence between Equestria’s diarchs before she turned her head to look further down the hallway. “Well, I suppose I had best go reassure the guards that the prisoner didn’t eat us. And I think you were right about rewarding Hoofington’s caped superheroine. I’ll send something off with the next round of missives to General Sunshine.”

Luna wrinkled her nose with a subtle look of distaste. “‘Tis not how it should be. I have no objection to bravery and heroism. They are the very best and most wondrous of qualities. But vigilantism should not be necessary. That one wizard hast done more to keep that city in good order than the thousand mares we have stationed to deter the changelings from leaving their redoubt in the Everfree.”

“You’re just mad that your little crush isn’t getting a chance to show off, since the changelings are still staying clear of Ponyville and Canterlot,” Celestia innocently replied. Well, perhaps her voice carried a mild bit of fillyish, sing-songy teasing. If she couldn’t let her mane down around Luna, who could she do it with?

Luna gave a proper scowl. “Doesn’t thou have a kingdom to go and run, ‘Tia?”

* * *

The affairs of state went on and on. The rhythm of it was as familiar to Celestia as the beat of her own heart: breakfast, dealing with the latest crisis, morning court, patting the aristocracy on the head, lunch. She didn’t begrudge the monotony; familiar patterns were a comfort, really. Nonetheless, she did appreciate the fact that Luna’s return was gradually easing more and more of the burden of rule, as her sister settled in. It meant that Celestia could spare more time to indulge herself by visiting with her student... the real one, this time.

Said visit wasn’t exactly going as she’d planned. Celestia stood unnoticed in the doorway of Twilight’s workshop, at the lowest floor of her ivory tower. She’d intended to simply breeze in, but she’d been struck by an irritating spike of unknown emotion at the threshold, and didn’t plan to move until she’d properly deciphered the unfamiliar feeling.

“There’s no point in thinking about the transmographic function from the Head Light spell, Luna. What’s there to transform?” Twilight reached up and tapped on the complex, swirling drawing that had been affixed, with obvious haste, to the wall in front of her. “You’ve got to think outside the horn! This isn’t unicorn magic we’re dealing with.”

“We bring the air to heel with the power in our wings. Our muscle and bone draws strength from the rich earth of Equestria itself. We embody a small orbiting planet, and can call upon it in time of need.” Luna reached over to the smaller unicorn and gave her horn a gentle tap with a hoofshoe. “We are not in need of a lecture about limiting ourselves to one viewpoint on magic. Love is power. We accept that premise. Changelings feed upon it, and Cadance used it to banish all of them. ‘Tis clearly used in some manner by the Elements of Harmony. Even Discord’s influence was dispersed by thy memory of dear friends. But how doth one use the very fires of friendship to accomplish a task? As thy modern carols say, it burns in our heart. It cannot be seen, nor touched. We simply meant that we clearly need to find a way to change the nature of this power to make it useful, just as a unicorn’s raw magic is turned directly to light with the Head Light spell.”

“Oh.” A sheepish look crossed Twilight’s face. She lightly scraped her hoof against the stone floor. “Yeah, that makes sense. Sorry, Luna.” Twilight turned her attention back to the diagram, squinting a little, as if that would make the idea clearer. “Spike? Take a—” The lavender filly cut herself off, lifting hoof to face as her embarrassment deepened. “Um, I’ll just write that down. Myself.” She levitated over a scroll and quill and set to work.

Celestia left her pondering behind in order to smile, stifling a small laugh. That sort of thing had been happening all week. Spike had been sent back to Ponyville to take care of Twilight’s library. One consequence was that Twilight’s workshop was, naturally, a wreck. Once-neat shelves and tables were cluttered, haphazardly arranged, and covered with scrawled-upon paper. Twilight didn’t trust any of the scribes or assistants Celestia wanted to assign, yet she was used to having one on-hoof at all times. For a unicorn who was obsessed with all the little details, Twilight Sparkle could be terribly forgetful when given a task that consumed her attention.

I think I’ll send one or two clerks to Ponyville instead, to watch the library and get Spike back here, Celestia thought. That was assuming, of course, that the dragon would ever forgive her for interrupting his Twilight-free vacation of minimal chores and checklists, with every meal no doubt being comprised of gems and ice cream.

Twilight’s research was simply too important to the future of ponykind to allow minor inconveniences to slow its progress. The Magic of Friendship, as they had been calling it, had suddenly become a very tangible reality during the tumultuous wedding three weeks ago. Twilight had been deep in study, churning out theories on the power that could be drawn from that most noble connection between pony souls.

“So, we’re right back to the old symbol. It works, and maybe we can figure out a way to apply a transformative function to it.” The unicorn led the way to a well-worn sheet of paper stuck to the wall. After barely a moment of looking at it, however, she threw up a foreleg in frustration. “We just don’t know why it works. Or how. Or where the additional energy comes from when you cast through it. And I’m the one who designed it!”

Luna moved to join her at that far wall, standing at her side. “Give thyself the proper credit, Twilight Sparkle.” The lunar mare extended a wing, lightly gracing Twilight’s back with its midnight feathers. “Thou could not have made the discovery without great insight.”

“And you give me way too much credit.” Twilight didn’t quite snap that rebuttal out, but she came close. It was clearly a conversation they’d had many times. “Sure, I had a hunch. And took some cues from Inner Eye’s theories on emotional magic, and from Cadance. But there weren’t any brilliant moments of understanding. I found something that worked, and I tweaked and tweaked. That’s all there was to it, Luna.”

‘Luna’. Celestia couldn’t get her student to say her name without the ‘Princess’ for more than five minutes at a time. Nor could they disagree on a point without Twilight caving in like a poorly constructed house of cards. It was all terribly... frustrating.

Ahh, Celestia thought, jealousy. That’s the emotion.

It had been a long time since that one had plagued her awareness. As a rule, a God-Princess didn’t want for much that others possessed. There was, perhaps, the intangible closeness of intimate companions and family, the latter of which she had back, after a thousand years. The former problem could be taken into one’s own hooves, so to speak, a solution that had the benefit of avoiding the scandal, endless politicking, and sensationalism of taking an actual lover. No, Celestia hadn’t missed jealousy.

Rationally, Celestia knew that it was a foolish thing to feel. Luna and Twilight were friends. Her faithful student had been the first to really reach out a hoof to Luna on a personal level, since her return. Besides, even if that hadn’t been the case, if wasn’t as if Twilight was Celestia’s to claim. The bookish unicorn had enough trouble with normal friendships, nevermind bitterly political relationships with lonely old sun goddesses.

Luna drew back her wing as if stung by Celestia’s thoughts. She looked toward the doorway her sister stood in. Twilight, in the middle of arguing some new point, didn’t even notice. Luna studied her sister, confused. She looked to Twilight, and then back to Celestia.

There was a certain level of subconscious awareness between the two royals, a sympathy between inseparable, paired opposites. That link had once let them communicate across Equestria with no more effort than it would take to speak face-to-face.

After a thousand years of atrophy, Celestia lamented, she can barely feel me from across the room, even while jealousy is tearing me up inside. And she was always the one with the far greater sensitivity. We’ve lost so much... changed so much.

Given what Luna had known of Celestia a thousand years ago, it wasn’t at all surprising that she was confused by what she felt now. Eventually, she seemed to settle on a private explanation, and her expression became somewhat irritated instead. “One moment, Twilight Sparkle. Our Sister has arrived to abduct thee to lunch, but we wish to speak with Her first.”

Luna still hadn't quite kicked the habit of using Middle Equestrian speech and the royal ‘we’. She could correct it with conscious effort, but truthfully, Celestia hadn’t exactly encouraged her to adapt in that way. The archaic speech gave her sister a certain charming, unique character, even though it sometimes embarrassed the lunar princess herself.

Twilight turned and gave her mentor a dazzling smile. “Hello, Princess!” Twilight cheerfully waved a hoof. Celestia could tell that only a measure of decorum in front of the far less familiar Luna kept her student from dashing in for a nuzzle or embrace. Some of the goddess’s misplaced envy quieted.

After Celestia exchanged a few pleasantries with the unicorn, Luna led her out to one of the small balconies that clung to the side of Twilight’s slender tower. Almost immediately, the dark alicorn snapped at her. “How foalish thou hast become, ‘Tia!” Formality had never really existed between the two of them. “It’s not as if I could replace thee as a mentor in Twilight’s eyes. Thou art her hero. I’m simply her friend.”

Relief flooded through Celestia at Luna’s mistaken conclusion. It didn’t show on her face—little emotion could, without express permission—but it was apparently clear enough to Luna. “Thou aren’t upset over that? It’s not the magic, is it? I may have the instinct for it, but I don’t have the thousand years of experience that thou hath acquired. Nor do I know all the advancements that have come to light, as thou does.”

Celestia hastily closed her mind off behind barriers of will, to prevent further embarrassing insights. The pair had used the technique ages ago, when they needed privacy. It had always made the sisters rather uncomfortable to, say, feel it when the other was with a lover. That was especially true, given that they were once opposites on that front, as well. Celestia hadn’t fallen out of practice with the skill. It paid to make sure that the other magical races were playing fair when negotiating, and the technique had certainly been invaluable when dealing with Discord. Learning that had been an ancient and painful lesson.

Luna reacted to the sudden absence with a start, as if she’d been struck. The hurt was evident in her eyes.

“Lulu, can we talk about this later, please? This is one of those matters to be dealt with over tea, somewhere quiet, not in a hurry on some balcony,” Celestia assured. “It’s silly, honestly. Nothing important, just embarrassing.”

Her younger sister’s expression became less injured and more sly, as Celestia knew it would, once the word ‘embarrassing’ was uttered. “Really, now? I’ll forgive thee, but promise me we’ll speak tonight, when I wake? Thou hast been in a foul mood since the wedding. Thou aren’t about to confess strange urges to make the day last forever, art thou?”

“Yes. You got me. The world is doomed,” Celestia deadpanned. “And yes, I promise. I really do have to hurry now. Lunch is waiting, and I’ve got our newlywed Captain waiting in the Soldier’s Yard to answer Twilight’s inevitable protests. You’ll probably want to sleep with a barrier against sound enspelled on your bed. It’ll get loud.”

* * *

"You need rest, Twilight. I don't want you falling asleep on your hooves again, with your nose quite literally buried in some musty old book."

Even if it was entirely endearing, the monarch thought to herself.

“What’s more, you’ll be having lunch with me before that. Wherein you will eat without making it look like an activity akin to feeding coal into a train’s boiler. This will be happening under threat of a repeat of all those tiresome etiquette lessons. The ones with the three different spoons, and four forks.” Even though her ‘threat’ was delivered in a playful tone, a hint of panic appeared in widening, purple eyes. It was all Celestia could do not to frown or let her wings droop; Twilight would have just laughed it off if Luna had delivered that line.

“I’m sorry, Princess! I—” Twilight rushed right into the profuse apologies that Celestia had expected.

“It was a joke, my faithful student.” She craned her neck down to give the filly a bump on the side with her muzzle. “I’ve been known to flounder my way into them from time to time, as you might have noticed. I’m just worried about you. Just because you swap alicorn study partners doesn’t mean we don’t notice that you’re not taking the time to care for yourself properly. We do talk, you know, and you’re a topic near and dear to both of our hearts.”

A subtle blush appeared on the unicorn’s cheek, complementing a silly, sunny smile that came at the mention of the shared appreciation. Twilight was not a pony who made light of affection. It was probably one of the reasons she was the center of the group of Elements. “I’ll be a bit more careful about it, Princess, I promise. It’s just...” The unicorn looked around her workshop. One purple ear flicked as she took note of the hurricane-struck image of it. “There’s so much. I thought just defining the phenomenon would be half of the job. And I did that for the articles in the Journal of Arcane Energistics, The Canterlot University Quarterly, and The Horn, but that was just the start. There’s no aura to grab, no flow to direct. Cadance has no idea how she does what she does. It’s just like breathing to her. That’s literally how she describes it: breathing in the bad, breathing out the good. So, how do you take hold of a concept when you aren’t an alicorn?”

“It isn’t something completely intangible. It’s not so out of your reach as, say, pegasus magic. It can be felt. Here, I’ll show you.” Celestia moved closer before unfolding her wings. They stretched out to delicately wrap the smaller purple mare in a concealing shroud of white plumage. The alicorn lay her chin just behind Twilight’s horn, atop her dark mane. The mage stiffened in surprise, at first, but she melted into the embrace in short order, burying her muzzle against her teacher’s throat. “So,” Celestia whispered, “what do you feel?”

“Warmth,” the filly murmured in reply. That was surely true, as the alicorn could feel a fiery heat where Twilight’s muzzle pressed against her. For a master magician, she was certainly shy. “Softness.”

Celestia laughed, squeezing Twilight more tightly with her wings. The alicorn had dearly missed this sort of closeness. Luna wasn’t as much of a cuddler anymore, and more was the pity. She endured a millennium’s worth of Celestia’s pent-up nostalgia for their youth with quiet tolerance, at best. “I meant inside, my oh-so-literal student.”

There was a sigh so soft it was barely perceptible, even to one gifted with a pegasus’s uncanny hearing. “Yeah, me too.”

“Mmm.” The solar mare subtly nodded her head against the top of her captive filly’s. “Well, there you have it. Isn’t that a sort of perception? Isn’t it the same with all your friends, when you share a moment of nearness?”

“Yeah... the same.” There was a long pause as the young magus considered her mentor’s words. That was part of the familiar pattern of her education. Celestia wanted considered responses, not quick ones. Then again, perhaps the ‘Want it, Need it’ incident showed that Twilight was falling out of practice with the technique, and was simply enjoying the embrace as much as the princess. “Clover’s First Law of Magic. You can’t direct a flow you can’t perceive. Is an emotional reaction a kind of perception? Maybe.” With a hint of regret, the unicorn nuzzled and squirmed her way out of the cocoon of snowy feathers, which playfully resisted her escape, until she could look around the room once more. The clutter seemed to cause her a greater degree of exasperation than before. Her ears splayed back. “Where my quill? I should write that down.” The unicorn’s horn ignited with magenta light. The glow progressively spread across the room, in preparation for lifting all the small items in search of her favored writing implement.

Celestia casually reached over, even as she folded her wings at her sides, and tapped the unicorn’s horn with a gold-shod hoof. The magically nonreactive metal interrupted the flow of the forming spell, throwing off a loud, crackling, but harmless spark.

“Ahh!” Startled, Twilight raised her own hoof to her horn. She promptly threw her teacher an unamused glare.

The solar mare put on her best expression of angelic innocence. “Lunch first, then sleep. And before you give me the usual excuse about being too worked up to go to bed, I’ve arranged an educational activity to tire you out. The thought will keep.”

Twilight perked up where she sat. “Educational activity?”

* * *

It hadn’t gotten loud yet, as Celestia had promised Luna. Nor was there any activity, as she had promised Twilight. Instead there was perfect silence. Celestia so rarely experienced it. Her subjects were always too eager and on-edge. Her guards were silent only out of stoic duty. Luna had been scarce for the six months before the wedding, having discovered the wonders of Manehatten nightlife, and thus each meeting between the sisters was a rush of updates and new developments. It was much the same with her faithful student.

However, since Celestia had been lucky enough to have both of the most important ponies in her life in Canterlot since the wedding, that manic, eager energy had been allowed to fade. As a result, the princess had once again acquired that most precious of commodities: the quiet enjoyment of another’s company.

Twilight trotted companionably at her side through the bright marble halls of the palace, and Celestia couldn’t have been happier.

Of course, the best part was that the immortal alicorn had no doubts that Twilight shared her mood. She didn’t even have to look to know it. But she did anyway, just to see the perky bounce in her student’s steps, and the cute tilt to her brow that she always acquired when deep in thought. She knew the filly—the mare, Celestia corrected herself—was biting the tip of her tongue, even if it wasn’t apparent. The alicorn fought down the urge to do something to startle her again. She would always accidentally bite down on her tongue, and follow it up with another painfully endearing ‘Ahh!’. It never seemed to occur to Twilight to curb the habit.

But no, it would probably embarrass the unicorn and ruin the moment when she tried to cover it. In any case, it would have been a crime against Equestria to interrupt Twilight’s train of thought these last few weeks. Any abandoned thread of reasoning might lead, one day, to a source of free magical energy, or a bridge between the disparate magics of the three pony tribes. Celestia would have happily settled for a reliable way to recreate the mass-banishment of Equestria’s changeling infestation. That one had at least given them the illusion of peace for a few days, and a few days without hearing about the murder of more of her little ponies would be a lovely reprieve indeed.

Still, there had been one immediate benefit to Twilight’s fits of wearying inspiration. The only way Celestia had been able to calm Twilight’s restless mind enough for the young mage to sleep at night was to tuck her under one of her expansive wings, as she had done when the unicorn was just a foal. That’s nice, Celestia found herself musing, if only for the nostalgia. She found she was having trouble convincing herself that was entirely true.

The quiet. She was supposed to be enjoying the quiet.

After all, the alicorn reminded herself, it’s bound to be a noisy afternoon. Twilight needs to blow off a little steam and get away from her work for a while, and I could certainly use some time off from this changeling business. As odd a choice for recreation as it would seem, Twilight will positively leap at the chance to learn a bit of flashy new magic from her teacher.

* * *

“What!? No! No way! Are you crazy!?” Twilight stomped her hoof down resolutely. The sound of that hoof striking the tile of the walled Soldier’s Yard drew the more direct attention of some of the guards who were pretending, up until now, not to watch from afar. The unicorn’s eyes were hard with anger and indignation. At least, they were until an edge of mortified embarrassment crept in instead. Her ears folded back, and her head ducked down. “I-I mean, I can’t do that...” Her voiced trailed off into almost a squeak. “... Your Highness.”

Centuries of iron control, honed through thousands of tense diplomatic meetings and life-or-death decisions buckled just a little, threatening to crack. It wasn’t under the weight of suffering, as it had been with the changeling. The towering, immortal pony lifted her muzzle into a slight, imperious tilt, one that just so happened to hide the shadow of a smile from lower vantages.

Sweet heavens, no pony should be allowed to be so utterly adorable! Celestia reined in that momentary, foalish bit of glee and crafted the proper tone, something coloured with just the tiniest bit of admonishment. “Twilight Sparkle.”

All too predictably, the unicorn visibly cringed at her name being spoken. The alicorn knew her very well indeed. If the goddess was being unkind, she would say that the premier magus of the age was a soaring tower of magical might balanced upon very precarious emotional foundations. As few would describe Celestia as being unkind, she preferred to think of the filly as simply being a young, sensitive unicorn who longed for the approval of her loved ones. With that comforting thought, she could let her scolding demeanor melt away. She dipped her head downward to give the deflated purple pony a brief, but warm nuzzle on the cheek.

“My faithful student,” she began, her tone just as warm as that touch. “I would never harm any of my little ponies. And that’s doubly true for you, as well as your target. That’s what this lesson is about. You learn it not to harm ponies, but to defend them, and yourself, from harm.” Part of Celestia took inordinate notice of the glimmer in Twilight’s eye at that implied bit of favoritism. That part of her had become particularly loud and irritating in recent times.

Rein it in, Celestia, she scolded herself, far more harshly than she had her pupil. You’re a fifteen hundred-year-old mare, not a lovestruck schoolfilly.

It was almost a relief when the unicorn started to look unsure again. “But Princess, you’re asking me to hurt my brother! I can’t do that!”

No cute hoofstomp this time, the goddess noted with guilty disappointment. But no cowering either, so it’s not a total loss.

“I have complete confidence in Shining Armor. So should you.” Trying to lighten Twilight’s mood, she dipped her head down once more, this time to whisper conspiratorially, “I’ve heard rumors in Court that his family has produced a few quite excellent magicians.”

The unicorn gave her mentor a flat look, though the edges of her lips were threatening to rise. However, even that bit of light-hearted flattery wasn’t enough to convince the filly. She peered across the courtyard to where her brother was curiously looking on, confused at the delay, and obviously close to trotting over to investigate his sister’s distress. “Still. What if things go wrong? What if he gets distracted and his spell fails? What if he hasn’t totally recovered? What if it turns out that I’m really, really good at battle magic? Remember what happened the first time I tried the candle-lighting spell? I could—”

“Twilight,” the goddess invoked the girl’s name again. Just like magic, that runaway panic tripped over itself and stopped dead. The pony blinked up at her teacher, a rosy blush starting to appear on the bridge of her muzzle. “Sit down.” The alicorn allowed herself to apply a portion of the command that she voiced when the Court was being particularly troublesome. With more than a thousand years of practice, it had a way of cutting right through a pony’s consciousness. Twilight was sitting on her haunches before she could even think about it.

Celestia felt a little guilty about it. Still, extreme measures clearly needed to be taken. The sun goddess rose to her full, regal height. She allowed her head to rise proudly, and turned to face Shining Armor, body tilted slightly forward, poised for action. A pose worthy of a new statue, she would guess, judging by the adoring, awestruck look she saw Twilight giving her. The misbehaving parts of her psyche took further delight in that. She pushed such thoughts aside for the moment; vanity was another vice that had never served her well.

In some ways, Celestia’s inner workings were not so different from a mortal pony’s. Taking such a stance of resolute challenge, not unlike the one Twilight had taken earlier, had her body instinctively preparing itself. Strength flooded into lean muscle. Her mind focused upon the task at hand. The captive aurora of her mane billowed as if caught in a sudden gust of wind, flaring out at length behind and around her.

“Shining Armor.” Celestia’s voice was a clear clarion call across the open courtyard. The Canterlot Voice still had its uses in the modern day. Just, perhaps, fewer than she’d allowed her sister to believe when she’d first returned. The stone walls and floor of the courtyard she had chosen for Twilight’s lesson amplified the effect with a returning echo. “Shield yourself!”

To her Captain’s credit, it seemed as if his honeymoon hadn’t dulled his reflexes. The stray thought almost broke her concentration as she whimsically, if briefly, pondered the stamina needed to keep up with the budding Goddess of Love and yet be still able to do one’s duty afterward.

A barrier like a simple bubble of magenta glass flowed into being around the unicorn soldier. It was pretty enough, in the way that severe, almost martial simplicity could be, and to a mortal pony’s eyes, it would have appeared to be little else. To the truth of Celestia’s divine sight, it was a breathtakingly beautiful, shimmering field of complex, exotic energies. Pulsing planes of transparent force to resist and diffuse physical attack. Clouds of glowing, fractal, geometric shapes to deflect and scatter energy. Whirling razorblades of will to sever incoming tendrils of malign enchantment. All of them ever-shifting and placed with false disorder, one gleaming layer upon the other. One could get no more distant from the simple, static web of hardened magic taught to most of the army’s battle-mages. It was a thing of such infinite complexity that not even Celestia herself, with all her years and power, could summon it into being.

Celestia had admittedly worried that Twilight might have been right about Shining Armor’s recovery from the changeling queen’s sorcerous attentions. However, what she saw more than put her fears to rest. If anything, it was by far the best work she had seen her Captain craft.

Thank you, Cadance. Obviously the attentions of her ‘niece’ had done well by the stallion.

Perhaps the reverse was true, as well. Celestia felt an amused, sleepy awareness tickling the back of her mind, as if in answer to her own thoughts. It was something familiar, a nebulous sensation that couldn’t be put into words, but was, somehow, unmistakably Cadance. Despite numerous attempts, and Cadance’s own affinity, the elder alicorns had never been able to share their psychic connection with the youngest alicorn. They had come to conclude that it wasn’t an alicorn trait at all, but one that stemmed from the linked dichotomy of day and night. Perhaps they’d been wrong.

Celestia relished the idea of having some good news to share, for once. The weeks following the changeling attack on Canterlot had been difficult, in ways far more personal to Celestia than the cold, analytical tallies of damage and the military search for the scattered changeling survivors. Intellectually, her defeat at the hooves of Chrysalis had been understandable. The vile creature had been the misaimed target of Shining Armor’s love for weeks. She had fed on Cadance in more direct and, Celestia suspected, more horrible ways before that. The youngest princess wouldn’t talk about it, despite many attempts by the sisters to get her to open up.

Without that stolen power, the queen of the changelings would have been a challenging, if certainly not equal, opponent. The solar princess hadn’t anticipated just how adept the parasite would be with it. She had held back too much, in her fear of harming her nearby friends and subjects, and by the time she had realized her error, there was no stopping the momentum the changeling had gained.

If Chrysalis hadn’t made her own mistake in judging how far she had broken and drained the young couple, Celestia’s error might have led to the rape and slavery of all of her beautiful little ponies. As it was, she got off lightly with just the public humiliation of her defeat and a few days with a burned horn. That more than two hundred pony lives now burdened her conscience was harder to brush aside.

Add one shattered sense of self-confidence too, the alicorn admitted. One which this harmless bit of showing off will help to salve, at least.

She allowed her alicorn magic to extend outward. The feeling was not unlike spreading her wings out to absorb the warmth of her sunlight. It started as just a comfortable, creeping heat. The more she gathered to her, however, the further she could stretch out her power. It was a carefully balanced runaway process, no different from the heart of her star. That gentle energy quickly became a gushing torrent, then a veritable flood. It danced and burned inside of her, just shy of painful, and wholly exhilarating. Reality bent and strained around her, yielding to her whims and strength with all the eager submission of a blushing filly having her first tryst.

Golden light gathered at the tip of her horn in a beacon of visible magic like a tiny, second sun. White light seeped out of her coat in a pearlescent radiance. A few of the soldiers who had been a bit tardy in making room around the Captain certainly did so in a hurry, at that point.

“Princess?” Twilight’s voice was concerned, even scared, but manipulating the fundamental forces of the universe left little room to speak. The alicorn would more than happily spare the time to comfort the filly afterward.

Celestia allowed the pressure of that gathering energy to swell for a few moments longer. She wasn’t near the limits of what she could contain, not by any means. At worst, she held the magic with mild strain. Even so, one of her little ponies was her target, not her sister, or some deserving foe. It was best to restrain her powers to a level where she could keep them on a tight leash. The sun’s aspect was wild power, fury, and boundless energy, after all. She could never keep things quite as well-controlled as Luna could.

The release of the spell was cathartic, even so. Power poured out her in a rush. The air buzzed with a droning hum as a beam of blinding, golden, almost coherent light shot out of her horn and slammed into Shining Armor’s masterful shield. Her aim left something to be desired, however; she caught the bubble off to one side, near the top, at an oblique enough angle that the shield was able to push aside a large fraction of the energy rather than absorb it. The citizens of Canterlot were thus given the dubious privilege of seeing a beam of eye-searing radiance carve into the edge of their mountain, with no apparent resistance, before making its way off into the sky. A tiny correction brought the spell closer to center.

Celestia would have sighed, if she could spare the concentration. Luna isn’t going to let me live down that little ‘redecoration’.

That was a worry for later. For the moment, she allowed herself to enjoy the experience. Celestia so rarely got a chance to simply cut loose, to be a conduit for the limitless energy of her sun. It was intoxicating to feel the ecstasy of something greater than she was pouring through her, and to allow herself to be submerged into her most basic nature as a goddess.

Thanks to Shining Armor, she could let her ponies see their deity! Let them see the strength of what armored their beautiful, fragile lives against the darkness!

She could see guardsmen at the fringes of the courtyard, hunkered down, clinging to the ground against the force of the heated wind that blew out from the continuous fountain of burning sunfire linking her and that unyielding bubble. She noticed them trying to shout to each other, grinning, half-terrified, like foals clinging to the neck of a diving pegasus. The alicorn doubted they could hear the ponies right next to them. The buzz had become a thrumming roar. The vibration of the sound raised a cloud of dust a few inches high across the entire courtyard, one that quickly caught on the wind and blew about in swirling vortices. The waters of the fountains didn’t so much ripple as roil, thousands of little droplets leaping up individually into the heated air, only to steam away and add to the growing fog in the enclosed yard.

As for her Captain of the Guard, he stood in a circle of perfect, serene calm. She was likely the only one who could see through the glare at the epicenter of those two clashing forces. The ground nearby glowed cherry red and actually bubbled and spat where it met the barrier, but just within, not a mote of dust was out of place. The stallion himself, eyes closed and clearly focused, was equally unmoved. Why shouldn’t he be? Despite the power unleashed against him, barely the first few layers of his defenses had been abraded away. He had once kept an entire city safe from an invading army; now all of that magical protection was focused upon a tiny sphere barely larger than a single pony.

Celestia figured she would allow herself just a few more moments of that liberating release. Long enough to get the stone near the barrier up to a proper yellow glow, perhaps, to make for a more striking scene when her ponies could see her target again. Twilight would see just how ably her brother could protect himself, and that he was indeed safe from her first proper delvings into war magic. A few balls of fire or bolts of lightning couldn’t harm a stallion who could shrug off a goddess’s focused will. Seeing, after all, is—

Celestia’s body spasmed with a sharp, sudden pain. It was all she could do to keep her spell centered safely on Shining Armor’s barrier as her head arched back. Something burned within her. It was as if some eddy of fire from that surging channel of solar energy inside her had suddenly flared out and caught on her mortal flesh. The pain was intense, even visceral.

Had her horn not fully healed?

Confused, the goddess began the process of clamping down on the sun’s power within her, to let the energy bleed off into the spell pouring through her horn. It would take only a second to peter out into unsustainability. At least, that was what was supposed to have happened.

Instead, that blazing conduit simply shuddered every bit the way her body did. It flexed and bent outside of her control, seeping from the metaphysical realm to burn and scour into vulnerable material flesh. Her spell frayed, her agonized scream lost in its roar as its energies broke apart barely halfway toward Shining Armor’s shield. The beam appeared to bloom into a dozen loops of tenuously held solar plasma, which spread out as deadly tendrils to slice through stone tile like paper. The fountains to either side of the courtyard’s center exploded in detonations of steam at the mere brush of the filaments. Only the earlier winds pushing the guards toward the walls had saved their lives. The cohesion of the spell continued to loosen, that once beautiful beam of focused radiance unzipping itself into those manifestations of unbound energy, working their way closer and closer to the alicorn as her control continued to slip.

Celestia had no illusions about her dominion over the spell. The pain was too intense to focus and her powers weren’t working as they should have. However, once that instability reached her horn, the spell would undoubtedly end. Until then, she just had to survive.

Twilight! The thought was a hammerblow, even through the torment of the fire consuming her from the inside. The mare was behind her, somewhere. Some part of her could sense the comforting familiarity of her student’s magic at work. Even divine sight couldn’t let her make sense of the riotous energies creeping closer to her along the path of her own spell, but her beloved Twilight’s powers were at work there too, giving the aura a vague magenta tint she hadn’t noticed before in her rapture of pain. The unicorn was doubtlessly trying to help her, trying to hold off the encroaching doom. She would just as doubtlessly fail. Celestia knew to the very core of her soul that the filly was too selfless and brave to worry about shielding herself when she could be saving a foolish old alicorn.

Somehow, Celestia forced muscle locked by agony into motion. She widened her stance toward her right, where she could feel the presence of the youthful magus. Spasming wings were forced to unfurl to their full span. It was a flimsy shield, but one that might mean life or death for the fragile, mortal unicorn behind her. She lowered her head, thrusting her horntip as far away from Twilight as she could.

The long seconds of waiting for her fraying spell’s approach were almost worse than the charring of her insides by her own out-of-control alicorn magic. The superheated plasma of the misfiring spell found her immortal body to be made of sterner stuff than the mere stone of the courtyard. Those loops broke against her chest, forelegs, and wings, burning skin and feathers away from her in great streaks. For the first second or two, there was no pain, a fact that surprised her until it finally struck. The alicorn grit her teeth hard enough that her jaw creaked.

It's just pain. You’ve known pain, she thought, as a mantra. It helped to keep the shriek trapped in her throat instead of bursting from her lips. If these are my last moments, I’ll not have Twilight remember her goddess screaming in terror and agony. Endure, you old bitch.

Silence came abruptly to the courtyard, save for the crackle of fires and the gust of slowing winds. Though the afternoon sun shone overhead, the yard seemed dark when compared to the previous, blinding glare of the goddess’s magic. The peace was short-lived. A crack echoed through the yard, like the bough of a great tree suddenly breaking under a huge weight. Celestia shrieked despite herself as her horn cracked. Flame spilled out of it in an enormous plume that rose toward the heavens, a simple expression of the dispersing energy of the failed war spell.

The blackened goddess toppled, smoke pouring from her scorched body. Her mind longed for the bliss of numb darkness. Reality seemed to fizz and warp in a way that had nothing to do with her powers this time. She clung to that last thread of consciousness with a millennium of discipline and will, lifting her head off of the ruined, burning ground. She struggled to look back over her burnt shoulder. Her relief was instantaneous. All her suffering was inconsequential in the light of one small fact: threads of magenta magic danced along her barrel and back.

Twilight’s magic. The thought was pure euphoria. She’s still alive, and unharmed enough to work a spell.

That knowledge alone gave her the drive to cling to consciousness. She opened her cracked lips to choke out a few words for her doubtlessly panicking student. Something reassuring, if she could manage it. And perhaps... perhaps I’ll even indulge in a bit of selfishness and ask her to stop trying to heal me. Twilight had yet to learn that most complex magical science. It did more harm than good if done without practiced skill.

Except the spell didn’t look at all like a healing spell, not even a poorly planned one. Forming words died upon Celestia’s heat-swollen tongue. It was a metaphysical spell of some unfamiliar kind. Its delicate little tendrils had pierced her in a way deeper than the material. No wonder mundane senses hadn’t noticed; it took a far more vast sight to perceive it. Only with the magical roar of her own spellwork silenced could she sense the effect the magic had within her. Some deviously deft enchantment was adding just the tiniest, almost unnoticeable ripple of turbulence to the river of power that was her link to the sun. The sheer energy that had poured down that path to call her sunfire ensured catastrophe when even a tiny fraction of it was deviated from proper control.

Her mind wheeled in confusion. Who? Why? The tenuous thread of consciousness began to unravel as her iron control faltered. The world spun.

She caught a glimpse of her lovely, timid Twilight. The unicorn hovered upright, nearly a hooflength above the ground. Latent magic ground out as slivers of white lightning that arced between her rear hooves and the buckled stone below her. Her mane billowed upward upon arcane currents. Her eyes shone brightly, each one a single field of pure, pearl light. The air squealed as those tiny magical discharges at her hooves became a raging storm of magical force. Lightning arced up around the filly in all directions, roaring outward as a tidal wave of wild magic, focused in bolts as thick as her legs.


The Glorious and Everbright Goddess of the Sun, Celestia of Equestria, fell into darkness and silence.

Two - Luna: Lucidity

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“Since I won, I’ll be taking my reward.”

Luna felt a shiver radiating upward from the base of her spine. Centuries of divine strength and experience fled from her in the wake of those forward words from her chosen favorite. Although she felt the warmth of the other pony’s breath, she couldn’t find her own. The other mare’s lips came close enough that Luna’s own tingled with electricity in anticipation of that touch, and nervous butterflies danced in the goddess’s stomach. A first kiss never lost the magic inherent to those paired emotions, even after so many centuries. The lunar mare would never allow so perfect a moment to be ruined by fear or doubt, however. She would meet those descending lips with all the eagerness her favorite deserved. There would be no doubt that she had earned the reward she cla—

A gale of shrieking pain tore through Luna’s mind. The shockwave of psychic agony banished all reason and comprehension from her. She tore herself, thrashing, from her favorite’s blissful dream. Anger and confusion sent bolts of sympathetic lightning crashing across the sky of the perpetually beshadowed dreamscape. A litany of curses from the goddess was cut short when her addled mind recognized the origin of that tortured scream.


Without further thought, she flung herself out of that twilight realm of dreams and spirit, snapping back to her resting body in Canterlot with desperate, almost painful haste. She allowed herself only a moment to get her bearings as her eyes shot open into the waking world. It normally took some time to readjust to the differing rules and ways of thinking between the two dimensions. Time was a luxury the alicorn could not afford, yet she found uncoordinated limbs tangled in a wrapping of warm, extravagant bedsheets. They were some priceless diplomatic gift or another from the sheikhs of Saddle Arabia.

Luna’s horn lit with pale blue magic as she called upon the slumbering power of the night. Darkness gathered lovingly around her, shielding her in a cocoon of featureless blackness. The mare rested for no more than a single breath in the embrace of her surrounding aspect, before she allowed it to explode outward as a thousand blades of razor-edged darkness. Her regal bed was shredded to splinters and tatters of cloth. Donated pegasus feathers from the pillows and mattress exploded in every direction to fill the air, dancing in sourceless eddies and whorls, the lingering magic within them following some unseen guide. Sunlight poured in through the remains of her curtains, glinting off the falling shards of glass that were once the windows of her bedroom. She could hear the alarmed shouts of the guards in the hall as her chamber doors burst outward in pieces. Luna paid no attention to them. Freed from the bed and covers, she flung herself through the ruined window, wings spreading almost as an afterthought to catch air beneath them.


Luna’s mental call was a nearly tangible hammerblow of psychic force. The few dreamers sleeping their way through the Canterlot afternoon surely must have bolted awake in confusion. Those ponies nearest to her, within her tower, were likely clutching their heads in their hooves in a bout of seemingly sourceless agony.

The alicorn’s mind searched in a panic for her sister’s familiar presence, but it was nowhere to be found. The idea was chilling, but it turned out to be a moot point. Smoke was pouring upward from the walled courtyard at the south end of the grounds. The air around that whole wing of the palace was filled with dust and debris. Luna marveled that she had slept through whatever had happened. Yet it wasn’t terribly surprising, when she considered it; not only had she followed Celestia’s urging in enspelling a shield to soundproof her bed, but she had pulled her mind far away from her body and insulated it in the dream of another pony. A very diverting dream, one that had included sound, movement, and violence of its own to block out the intrusions of the waking world. Still, a reasonable explanation did little to remove the bitter sting of again being absent as Canterlot descended into chaos.

The Princess of the Night wasted no more precious half-seconds in thought or terror. Exhaustive, careful consideration was more fitting of her sister’s temperament, not her own. She dove toward that courtyard, much as her dream body had leapt from an imagined version of Cloudsdale not too long ago. Mortal eyes were useless in all that dust and smoke, but though her divinity was muddled by the oppressive glare of Celestia’s sun overhead, her powers were still more than potent enough for the simple task of enhancing her awareness.

The courtyard was a swirling vortex of wild magic. Base elemental energies flashed about as lightning and fire, interspersed with roaming enchantments and transmutative bursts. Luna expected to feel a dozen unicorns at the center of it all, but instead there was just one: Twilight Sparkle. An egg of impenetrable, solid magic sat at the molten center of the yard. It didn’t feel so different from Twilight’s spellwork, but nor was it exactly the same. The similarity alone was enough of a clue to name it as Shining Armor’s magic. Traces of Celestia’s magic were so heavy in the air that Luna could feel it as an unpleasant, tingling sensation along her coat as it warred with her own opposing nature. Her sister had clearly done battle here. Had Chrysalis attacked again? There was none of the sickly-sweetness of changeling magic, but it might have simply been hidden by the fog of daytime’s power clouding Luna’s senses.

Her grasp of the situation became clearer as she neared the ground at that breakneck speed. With all that ambient magic, it was difficult to make out smaller presences. There were a few clusters of life around the edges of the yard. No doubt those yet unknown enemies were cowering from Twilight’s magical onslaught.

Celestia must have been within Shining Armor’s peerless barrier, beyond her senses and ability to contact. She was probably railing at the poor stallion for doing his duty by defending her. Her guards had been rather overprotective since her defeat at Chrysalis’s hooves. Luna knew that it chafed her sister badly, but she couldn’t help but take a certain joy in imagining the look on Celestia’s face as she was forced to watch while her student and her little sister routed her enemies for her.

Luna flared her wings to slow her descent after she dropped below the level of the yard’s walls. Her horn glowed as her magic crafted a screen to turn aside the suppressive magic that was pouring out of Twilight in such impressive torrents; there was no need to take any chances. Even as she made her preparations, Luna’s heart swelled with pride at her friend’s display. She would be hard-pressed to match it herself, but match it she would! And what a pair they would make, with fierce magic to make the world tremble! It would be a proper remembrance of older times, when enemies were savage, the world was bitterly deadly, and all she had to count on was Celestia at her side. Her words were raised in the royal voice, coloured with the joy of the coming battle. “FEAR NOT, TWILIGHT SPARKLE. THE BATTLE IS JOINED! LET OUR ENEMIES QUA—”

The alicorn’s call to battle ended with a sudden, strangled sound as the Voice blew away enough of the smoke around her friend to see with mortal eyes. The reason for Twilight’s fury suddenly became clear: the lavender mare was balanced in the air atop an upwelling fountain of magic, hovering protectively over Luna’s sister... her broken, burned sister. She hadn’t seen Celestia with her deeper senses because the solar pony’s presence had been either ended with her death or brought so low by injury that Twilight’s display had hidden it. The dark princess folded her wings and dropped the last two dozen hoofspans like a rock.

Luna heavily struck the ground on all four legs near the prone alicorn. Stone, weakened by intense heat, cracked and shattered underhoof. Immediately, sizzling bolts of uncontrolled magic slammed against her defenses. The unexpected strength of the errant projectiles drove her back a step, forcing her to stubbornly brace her legs to avoid being pushed away from the injured mare. She grit her teeth and fed more power into her screening spells, allowing them to better deflect and decompose the incoming magic.

Though she found that she couldn’t blame the filly in the slightest for her indiscriminate, berserk display, given the feelings she so obviously harbored for Celestia, Luna couldn’t spare the attention to calm or comfort her. The dark alicorn lay a bare hoof upon the scalded redness of her pale counterpart’s chest. The contact allowed her to more easily extend her awareness in that direction, through the wild cacophony of unfocused unicorn magic. Relief poured through Luna, like a swallow of cool water to a mare dying in the desert. She felt a spark of life still struggling within Celestia, in a fluttering heartbeat and the rapid, short breaths of somepony near death.

Some kind of enchantment had been placed upon the solar mare. Delicate threads of familiar magenta magic seemed to be trying to touch her sister’s searing essence. Sparkle was no doubt trying to strengthen her mentor’s connection to her sun, to give her the energy to survive. It was a daring, ingenious idea, but one doomed to failure. A unicorn couldn’t interact with alicorn magic any more than a pegasus could touch an earth pony’s. Though Twilight’s latest research had surprising implications, for the moment the three pony tribes’ magic existed together only within its goddesses.

However, Luna had admittedly been shown startling contradictions to that formerly immutable law in the last few years.

The lunar mare poured magic into her wings and flared them protectively around Celestia, enspelled feathers shearing through the enchantment like a steel blade slicing through a spider’s web. She knew her sister’s nature far better than her student did. While she did an alicorn’s work, let Celestia’s apprentice focus on smashing her enemies to dust!

Luna gathered the day-weakened powers of the night to herself, dispersing her and her sister into a midnight blue mist. She weaved her now-amorphous form around Twilight’s continuing attack and flowed toward Celestia’s tower. The guards and the spells spun around the tower would keep any threats at bay while she worked the uncertain task of saving the fading embers of life within Equestria’s elder goddess.

* * *

The air around Celestia’s tower rippled and distorted as Luna approached. The warding enchantments recognized her and parted in her path, which they most certainly wouldn’t have done for others trying to enter incorporeally. She poured herself and her sister through the tiny cracks in the balcony door and surged toward the center of the room. That midnight blue mist swirled around the sun goddess’s alicorn-sized bed, gathering once more into two distinct shapes. Luna quickly placed Celestia upon the sheets, while the conscious princess appeared on clear ground. It wasn’t a graceful rematerialization; in her haste, Luna fell several inches to the floor, hooves clattering upon the tile as she stumbled.

The guards perpetually stationed outside of Celestia’s door had presumably heard the racket, for the door tentatively opened and a rather nervous looking, white-coated member of the Royal Guard peered in. It was to their credit that they had stayed at their assigned post during the commotion outside. Ponies often had too much curiosity and too little sense of duty. Luna, however, was hardly in the mood to congratulate them.

“Celestia has been gravely injured,” she snapped. “If thou and thy companion in arms care for your princess at all, you will ensure that none disturb us while we save Her.” It was all too easy for Luna to slip into her Middle Equestrian style of royal speech, given the circumstances. She had been trying to curb the habit, against Celestia’s urgings, when she wasn’t in her most official mode. “This work is beyond pony medicine, and we shall be too deep within our magic to suffer gawkers and well-wishers.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation from the guard. Luna could guess why; there was some lingering suspicion, within most ponies, regarding her own motives. She could almost look behind the stallion’s eyes, at how he was weighing the chance that she was the Nightmare again, and that she had done this to her own sister. Normally, she would have been deeply hurt, but at that moment, Luna couldn’t spare the thought to care. She turned back to Celestia and ignited her horn, beginning to weave her spells.

She heard the door close behind her and was thankful for it. The suspicions of the guard would undoubtedly grow if he had stayed to watch what was to come. Threads of inky shadow impinged upon reality all around the bed in an ominous display as Luna called upon the deepest powers of the dark. The sun burning nearly at its height above weakened her works, but she dared not hurry the day along to make way for night. It would strengthen her own magic, but would sap the dying Celestia in turn, and as tenuous as her sister’s grip was, she couldn’t withstand that loss. Into the surrounding darkness the alicorn wove silvery moonlight and the pale starlight-matter of the deeper realms.

Luna was, after all, the Goddess of All the Night. The night was the time of spirits, when all the ghostly things of the world played. Her aspect gave her power over such things, just as Celestia’s connection to the forge of matter that was her sun gave her mastery over the material. With that power, the darker alicorn created a net to hold fast the soul of her sister to her dying flesh. Celestia would protest the use of such magic, if she were able. She had always argued that the soul of any pony was a sacred thing, to be held inviolate. Luna would happily take the scolding, if it meant that Celestia would be there to deliver it.

* * *

The Princess of the Moon didn’t often have to deal with real, physical exhaustion. She had a full measure of earth pony endurance, the ample energy of a pegasus, and an immortal’s constitution besides. Weeks of spending the morning engaged in lengthy discussions with Twilight instead of sleeping had added up to little more than a mild sense of discomfort. It was a testament to her current exertions that, at the moment, every inch of her body ached, and her knees trembled with fatigue. Her reservoir of magic had long since been exhausted. With her moon buried below the horizon, its strength reaching her as but a weak trickle, her own vitality was the only source of power available to her.

There was little point in considering alternatives to spending the stuff of her own life, for there were few unicorns who could provide the strength necessary to make a difference. Twilight Sparkle could, if she still lived, and perhaps her brother, if he could be spared from fighting whatever vile enemy had struck down the embodied sun. Maybe a precious few of the professors from Celestia’s school or the university. The rare archmagi worth the name within the the ranks of the Royal Guard or the Equestrian Army were likely either not in the city, or had talents too focused upon causing harm to lend their magic to healing and preservation. In any case, it would take hours, perhaps days, to properly formulate an array that would allow ordinary unicorns to work in concert with Luna’s exotic spells.

Luna took a few minutes to rest before the next round of spellcraft meant to lend Celestia some measure of vitality. The dark princess was lathered with sweat and her battered counterpart’s blood. Alicorns weren’t invincible, by any measure, but at times, even Luna could be tricked into believing it was so. She had felt the kiss of sword, spear and spell more times than she could count, in wars unnumbered. She’d laughed off injuries that would have been the death of a dozen lesser ponies. She could scarcely imagine how much punishment the now-ancient Sun herself could endure. But immortality had very practical limits. Burns were nearly impossible for magic to heal, even when considering the remarkable recuperative powers of the transcended pony form; the stuff of life was simply too altered by the fire to be reused. Luna hadn’t had the luxury of pondering how a being like Celestia, so aligned with flame, could burn. Instead she’d had to do the gruesome work, playing the butcher to clear the way for her sister’s body to begin to rebuild itself. That was when her entrapping spell had been at its most strained. Celestia hadn’t survived the shock of the treatment, but nor had she been allowed to die.

Luna knew well that most modern ponies wouldn’t have the stomach to do what needed to be done. She didn’t spare a moment fretting over the nauseating, metallic smell of blood on her coat. For her, the ancient times made nearly the whole of her unimprisoned life. In that bygone era peace and harmony had been a rare thing indeed, and death had been all too common. Though Celestia might be more removed, both existent alicorns were no strangers to blood and carnage.

Of course, there were three alicorns now. The thought still caught Luna by surprise, on occasion. The Royal Sisters had ruled alone for so long that it could be difficult to think otherwise, even after several years. Cadance might be able to help. The dark goddess found her thoughts drifting to earlier events, in keeping with that fool’s hope.

* * *

The Realm of Dreams. Several hours previous.

The Hour of Sweet Dreams. To some, it was simply “the Sweet Hour”. Before Luna’s banishment, that is what ponies had called the brightest time of midday. It was the time when ponies took shelter from the heat and napped away early morning exertions before returning to their toils. It had been the moon mare’s very favorite hour of the day or night, and though the tradition had faded over the centuries, that was still the case. It was the time when Luna could be closest to her subjects, the time when both they and she could walk together in the Realm of Dreams, a place of mind and spirit that served as a strange reflection of the material world.

Luna floated high over the mountain of obsidian glass that Canterlot perched upon. The city’s buildings were a gently glowing collection of soft pastel shades, all fey blues, greens, and pinks. Within them slept a scattered starscape of pony minds, each one a pinpoint of glimmering light, in contrast to the blank, starless sky above.

From such heights, Luna was faced with one inescapable truth. Compared to her time, ponies were simply improved. Where their sleeping minds had once felt like clouds of gentle, drowsy fog, there were now those brilliant stars. It was a thing of the greatest wonder and the deepest magic. Celestia had preached to her of the many advances, those social, magical, and technological. She spoke of peace and unity amongst the tribes and with those outside of Equestria. Luna had found that, as usual, her sister missed the point with her intellectualization.

The souls of ponykind shine!

Oh, she had no illusions that her subjects were perfect. A few weeks amongst hostile, petty nobility had her seething and ranting at her sister for letting proper fear of the crown fade. She remained distinctly unconvinced by Celestia’s counterarguments on that topic, in fact. An afternoon with the so-called prince, Blueblood, had provided a revolting bulwark against Celestia’s reasoning. Foals were still as cruel as ever, proving well enough that the most basic nature of ponies remained the same. Grown ponies could be indifferent, or even mean-spirited. Stallions and mares still fought their endless games of dominance amongst themselves. If anything, ponykind had regressed somewhat when it came to surrendering to the instincts inherited from their ancient, panicky prey ancestors. Modern ponies were downright soft and easily spooked. That, at least, Luna could accept as an unavoidable consequence of peace and safety, which was far better than the alternative.

However, even given those flaws, ponies had grown in so many ways. The tribes mixed freely. The ponies that comprised them were intelligent, enlightened, empathetic, and on the whole, benevolent.

Harmonious, to put it simply. Our ancient dream, now over a thousand glorious years in the working.

When the horror of the Nightmare had stalked once more upon the fields of Equestria, after her long exile, she had made a fatal, if understandable error. She had never believed that the Elements of Harmony could be used by anypony other than Celestia, simply because that had most certainly been the case before she was cast upon the moon. Yet, it had come to pass that fragile, short-lived, mortal ponies had taken up the holy talismans of the divine, and smote a dark goddess upon the stones of her own palace. Five young mares, common and unexceptional at first glance, who could add to their number only a single brilliant magus, had mastered the High Virtues and done what even the Goddess of the Day could not: they had freed her from madness.

Luna had since learned that the Bearers of the Elements were far more remarkable than they appeared on the surface. That much was not surprising, after seeing them take up the Elements in the first place. The most startling thing of all was slowly coming to realize that, while exceptional, the Bearers were not unique. One could likely find new Bearers without even leaving the town of Ponyville, ponies who would need only to forge bonds of love and friendship with the others to allow at least some degree of use of the Elements.

Ponyville. That was where her current favorite slept. It was tempting, but Luna had made it a habit to delay her gratifications. Every time she triumphed over her base desires, even in small ways, she could count it as proof that the Nightmare was kept at bay.

Canterlot was often a poor place for her to alight during the daytime hours. Aside from the earth ponies and the occasional unicorn tending a few of the vineyards around the lower slopes of the sunny mountain, there weren’t many farmers. With Ponyville acting as a firebreak for the Everfree’s unregulated weather, and the whole rest of Equestria shielding the capital from other fronts, there were few civilian pegasi to be found who upheld the Sweet Hour. Nor was Canterlot so metropolitan as Manehatten, with its boisterous nightlife. In truth, Luna had been finding herself in that sprawling coastal city at night far more often than she should have, for that very reason. She had even been considering officially moving the Court of the Moon there, despite that meaning she would be away from her sister more often than she’d like.

The dark alicorn felt an irrational rush of shame. 'Did I miss anything?' She would have spat in self-derision at that quotation of her own words, if she had taken the time to form a proper body in the dreamscape of Equestria. Celestia has been all but flagellating Herself for Her defeat at Chrysalis’s hooves, but at least She had been there to stand up and fight for Her subjects! Where were thou, Luna?

She could forgive herself for spending so many nights in Manehatten. It was important for her subjects to see her walk amongst them again, as a princess, as she’d always wanted, rather than as a spectre from their frightful feast day. She certainly felt guilty about not being there when Celestia woke in the mornings. Her beloved sister, however, had changed much since their youth. She had become patient, wise, and forgiving. There was no bitterness in her sun-blessed heart when their shared breakfast had ceased. She had been lovingly teasing, of course, when Luna had returned at sunset instead, the first few times. Since then, Celestia had been unfailingly supportive.

What was unforgivable was abandoning my duties, to go foalishly flitting away to Manehatten to indulge in decadence and celebration while Canterlot was under known threat! Her poor temper was like a rolling clap of thunder across the dreamscape. In its wake, dreams fouled and grew dark. One of our subjects bats her eyelashes, and I go eagerly like a called dog, leaving Sister to fight alone!

The alicorn noticed the gloom that had formed around her with sudden shock. It was so easy to let her mind wander in the dreamscape. She was this realm’s Mistress, and it answered to her whims. However, she wasn’t entirely immune to its effects. Dreaming was a time of emotional release, when secret desires and joys, and hidden and shameful thoughts bubbled to the surface. A nightmare for a normal pony was like a tiny storm in the gentle light of the realm. The dark thoughts of a Goddess of Dreams could stretch across large sections of Equestria. In Canterlot and Ponyville, her subjects whimpered in their sleep.

In dismay, the alicorn’s awareness darted about, moving through the ghostly outlines of the intangible buildings. In each she placed a figurative hoof upon the far more solid, sleeping minds, imparting a blessing of peace and warmth, turning dreams toward pleasant ends. The time of her madness, before her banishment, wasn’t just a time of literal darkness. There was no escape for her ponies even in sleep. The horror there had been worse than in the waking world. She would not darken her subjects’ spirits again.

The formless cloud of her astral presence paused in surprise as it sped through Canterlot, and found brightness where she had expected more nightmares. The dreamers nearer the palace, the night servants and guards, were like candles clustered around a torch. Confusion became understanding. Luna’s spirit coiled around that brightest, purifying light. It radiated gentle warmth and caring and, as it turned out, more than a little amorous heat.

And what do we have here? The moon goddess’s dark mood vanished in a flood of mirth. Is our lovely little Cadance sleeping off a satisfyingly taxing lunchtime visit from her husband?

If Luna had a body here, it would be giggling with fillyish glee. Well, surely there’s no harm if we were to take a small peek? A princess must be allowed a few vices.

Sinking into a pony’s dream was an effortless affair. Exiting one could be a bit more difficult, but hardly a strain for the Goddess of the Night. As it turned out, with Cadance’s napping mind, it was rather the opposite. Melting into that light was like trying to walk against a hurricane. Her awareness was slapped away. She found herself spinning through the starlight-solid shapes of Dream-Canterlot, until she forced herself to create a dream body, just for the solidity it offered.
The familiar weight of wings and limbs helped to orient her, and she stopped tumbling about.

“THOU UNGRATEFUL WENCH!” the angered deity trumpeted at that slumbering luminance at the heart of the palace as she hovered, wings flared in fury. “THOU DARE TO STRIKE A GODDESS?”

Luna dropped several feet with a shriek that was rather at odds with her bellowing, the stars of her mane scattering in all directions, her eyes wide with shock. Something had nibbled at her withers, after nosing through her misty mane. She spun around in the air as she flailed her wings, even though there wasn’t technically any air in the dreamscape for them to beat against. In this place, intent mattered far more than form.

There was a giggling presence in the air behind her. It was a wispy shape of gathered pink starlight, no more tangible than the spectral buildings. The voice was familiar enough to Luna.

“Now, now, Princess,” Cadance said, voice trying to be accusatory through her laughter, “you deserve it for trying to spy on me.”

“W-WE WERE DOING NO SUCH THING!” Luna stammered. She considered letting her dream body fade back toward that formless state, just to rid herself of the heat rising in her cheeks and atop her muzzle. She tried to seem casual, and grasped for a new subject. “Thine empathy is beginning to strengthen thee in the realms of mind and spirit. Thou art growing in solidity and awareness.” The flustered mare blinked as the young alicorn’s outline vanished. Did she lose that conscious thread, or did she move els— “GAH!”

“If you’re craving something solid, Princess, you’ll just have to try to seduce Shiny yourself. No vicarious test runs,” Cadance’s voice whispered huskily in her ear. Luna could swear she could even feel hot breath tickling it. Her wings flared and she spun around to face the budding demigoddess’s new position.

The elder alicorn just stared at her young counterpart, aghast. She didn’t trust herself not to descend into further stammering if she spoke. Surely she didn’t just suggest...

When the ethereal shape of Cadance vanished again, Luna braced herself, if just to keep from leaping about like the spooked foal. It would be unseemly, given her recent, unflattering ruminations about modern pony bravery. Sure enough, she felt the phantom presence of the youngest alicorn tenderly drape itself across her back. Luna just grit her teeth and stoically looked straight ahead.

“Oh! Silly me. I’ve heard the rumors from Manehatten. They say that our Princess of the Moon prefers a more gentle, dare I say, feminine touch?” Luna’s eyes widened in embarrassed horror. Even worse, her fur frizzed in alarm, from withers to dock, when she felt a hoof trailing lovingly along her flank. “Well, since you interrupted a very nice dream, it would be only fitting if you—”

Thunder boomed across the dreamscape in a rolling detonation. Wings beat as the elder goddess flung herself skyward once more. She seemed to grow in size until she looked like she could knock over the spires of Canterlot with an errant hoof. In fact, one of those massive hooves leveled itself toward Cadance to point accusingly. “THOU... THOU WANTON TRICKSTER!” The outraged alicorn’s voice put that earlier thunder to shame. The entire ethereal city seemed to tremble. “THOU ART TRYING TO DISCOMFORT US ON PURPOSE! WE SWEAR THAT THOU ART SIMPLY CELESTIA DYED PINK! WE THINK WE PREFERRED THEE AS AN EVIL IMPOSTER! SHE WAS LESS MALIGN!”

To make matters worse for Luna, Cadance’s only response was more gleeful laughter. If this had been reality, the pink princess would have been plummeting out of the air, holding her sides. Luna growled in reply. She stretched out her will and plucked Cadance out of the sky like a pegasus foal’s doll. She could swear she saw the ephemeral demigoddess wave a hoof at her as she was tossed back into the glow of her own dream at speeds that would make Rainbow Dash die of envy.

The passing thought of the prism-maned pony snapped Luna out of her fury. Cursed succubus. She hath made us forget our earlier indiscretions.

Luna spun in the air and plunged through the eternal twilight toward distant Ponyville.

* * *

The dark alicorn’s cheeks were still warm with embarrassment when she shook herself out of the memory. She tried to rekindle some of the righteous anger she had felt toward her ‘niece’, as any fire lit under her weary spirits would have been helpful, but she quickly found the effort to be fruitless. It was all but impossible to stay mad at that mare. She might still be painfully young, but she was practically an avatar of the better part of the pony soul. As she grew, she would be an irreplaceable boon to her subjects.

Unfortunately, what Luna needed wasn’t a pony with a cheerful temperament, but one with a great deal of the right kind of power.

More and more, she instinctively reaches out to comfort those in distress. Clearly, it has begun to happen even as she sleeps. That was no surprise. One afternoon, Celestia had amused herself by matching several of her bureaucrats’ glowing reports about their apparently effective anti-crime initiatives to Cadance’s travel itinerary. She might be progressing, but her connection to the realm of the spirit is still tenuous when compared to mine own. She may be grown, but as an alicorn, she’s still just a foal.

“And she is not at all tempting,” Luna stated out loud, matter-of-factly. Strangely, it did nothing to lessen the heat in her cheeks, nor the remembered tingle at her withers.

And were there actually rumors?

Luna roughly shook her head, as if to physically dislodge those thoughts. Fatigue was leading her mind down strange paths. There was a time for whimsy, and it wasn’t when the very heart of one’s life lie dying. She gathered her hooves under her and reignited her horn, turning herself back to the work of trying to coax Celestia’s strength back into her scorched flesh.

Besides, the burdensome task helped to keep her mind safely away from the other entity with powers that seemed akin to her own, the one she had encountered not long after meeting Cadance in that ethereal realm.

* * *

The Realm of Dreams. Several hours previous.

Central Ponyville was all but empty of sleepers, unlike the surrounding farms. Those she had visited already, to soothe the disturbed dreams she found therein. Rarity had remained in Canterlot in the weeks following the wedding, and was not one to nap during the afternoon, in any case. Luna counted that as a shame, for the purposes of her current outing. The unicorn had wonderful dreams. They were tales filled with romance and high drama, where mares were beautiful and cunning, and stallions were bold and charming. If the true Court were anything like that pony’s dreams, Luna would never consider leaving Canterlot.

With both unicorn Elements visiting the royal city, the only other Bearer to look in on in the center of Ponyville was—

“Heya Princess!”

Were it not for Cadance’s earlier shocks steeling her nerves, Luna would have jumped or manifested a layer of armor to protect herself. As it was, the moon princess couldn’t quite help but twitch. A very normal pink pony, seemingly as corporeal as the realm’s mistress herself, waved from the door of the only solid building in Ponyville’s dreamscape, perhaps the only one in all of Equestria. The bakery wasn’t some transparent outline of soft light. It stood out with stark pinks and yellows and browns, a glaring imposition into this wispier reality. The very idea was almost as frightening as the pink party pony herself.

“Greetings, Pinkie Pie.” Luna forced normalcy into her tone, fighting against the reflex to slip into the Canterlot Voice to bolster her courage. It had been far easier to deal with the pony when she’d been so foalishly dressed as a chicken. That had made it possible for the alicorn to forget she was dealing with the most existentially terrifying being in Equestria. Luna crafted a friendly expression, with some effort, and trotted forward. Her hooves actually made an audible ‘clop’ when they struck the wood of the building’s floor, without her going through the trouble of producing the effect herself. The alicorn shivered. What made it all the more disturbing was that the pink pony didn’t make a similar sound as she bounced along in that energetic way of hers.

“What are you doing here in Ponyville? If I’d known you were coming, I’d have thrown a party! Celestia let us throw a super-neat tea party the last time she was here for a visit. And it turned into an even neater Kidnapped-Bird Search Party after!” Pinkie Pie bounced clear over the vanguard of ranks of colourful artillery. There were dozens of those cannons, lined up in row after row. They shouldn’t have logically fit into the room. The impossible geometry was actually a comfort to the alicorn; it was something she would expect from this realm. Distance and size were more nebulous concepts here. “The Cakes told me I can’t use my Party Cannon in here anymore, but if you give me ten, no, five minutes, I’ll put up some streamers and blow up some balloons and get out one of the emergency cakes I baked this morning and—”

Luna watched the babbling continue on with stark disbelief. She’d have credited it to a property of this realm if she hadn’t seen the pony perform similar breathless monologues in person. Still, did she not realize that she wasn’t in the waking world? Perhaps she saw no difference? Certainly she seemed to treat the idea of reality as a vague suggestion. Luna had tried to speak to Twilight Sparkle about it, but the mare seemed to be intent upon not thinking about the issue, which seemed to be quite a reversal of her inquisitive nature. All of Ponyville seemed to share the sentiment, in fact. Her sister had shown prudent concern, similar to her own, yet had been quick to reassure her that there was no strange sorcery or malign magic warping the minds of the citizens of Ponyville, or keeping them from noticing the oddity. It had just somehow become normal for them, if such a thing was possible.

The moon goddess blinked as her train of thought was interrupted by a small cupcake being shoved under her muzzle. The party pony was giving her an expectant look. It was the only clue that Luna had as to the topic of the stream of ignored blather that had preceded the offering. Taking the confection in the grasp of her magic seemed to satisfy the filly, which spared Luna the fearful need to have Pinkie repeat herself. She couldn’t bring herself to actually taste it, of course. She was sure that if she bit into it, it would be cloyingly sweet and likely strawberry flavored, judging by the colour. Indeed, it was probably delicious. Food in the dreamscape never, ever had a flavor. It wasn’t real, and the chemistries of taste and smell were too complicated for lesser beings to concentrate upon while they slept. Worse yet, Luna didn’t even want to ponder the implications if she woke up feeling physically full from eating it.

“A-ah, my thanks to thee, Pinkie Pie! I’m sure we shall savor it on our travels.” Luna disliked the lie of it, but what else was there to do? “We were simply passing through, and thought to briefly visit. All is well in fair Ponyville?”

The puffy-maned pony cheerfully bounced in place. Luna looked on in horrified fascination, trying to figure out how she kept her body so perfectly level as she did so. Being an earth pony certainly allowed for a great deal of strength and deftness, but the agility, frantic energy and sheer defiance of such ideas as mass and momentum were more suited to a pegasus. Luna found herself looking for scars on the pony’s side that would account for lost wings, as the confirmed earth pony began to reply. “Oh, that was super-duper nice of you, Princess,” Pinkie gushed, “but nothing bad ever happens in Ponyville!”

Luna was about to retort, but Pinkie beat her to it, sitting down on her haunches and raising a hoof to her chin in a pondering gesture. “Well, except for evil snooty princess attacks." Luna cringed. "Ursa Minors visiting. Parasprites eating everything. Stampedes. Diamond dogs ponynapping fashion ponies. Giant dragons. Giant dragon smoke clouds. Timber wolves and stuff coming from the Everfree. Cerberuses. Cerberi? Spells going all wrong. Potion mishaps. Poison mishaps. Baking mishaps. Meanie griffons being big jerky jerks...”

A raised hoof silenced the filly. “Yes, well, we take it none of those events are happening now?” Pinkie shook her head, and seemed about to continue, but Luna didn’t give her the chance. “Then we must take our leave. Royal duties and... so on. Farewell, Pinkie Pie!”

“Okie dokie loki!” Pinkie Pie waved a hoof, and Luna beat a hasty retreat. She levitated the cupcake up onto the roof of the house, just to keep that solid matter from spreading to the rest of the dreamscape. Who knew what the long-term effects of that would be? Likely nothing good.

Luna took wing and put some distance between herself and the bakery before she was able to breathe easy. She knew it was unfair and unworthy of her. Pinkie Pie was sweet and endearingly foalish. No doubt she had a beautiful heart; she wouldn’t embody one of the Elements otherwise. Certainly she was beloved in her community, and both Celestia and Cadance seemed to quite adore her. However, she unnerved Luna to no end, even moreso here, where there was no mistaking that she wasn’t a normal pony.

Still, Luna had to admit that it would be nearly impossible to find an Element of Laughter even half so suited to the role as Pinkie Pie.

It might not be as difficult as replacing the Element of Magic, of course. Twilight possessed a unique blend of necessary qualifications. She managed to subsume her ego enough to act as the moderating nucleus of the group of Bearers, and still had the will to attain a singular, exceptional mastery over a kind of pony magic—unicorn, in her case. That gave her the experience to direct the energies of the Elements on behalf of the group. Having earned such strength tended to breed a personality that was at odds with Magic’s other requirement. Certainly Rainbow Dash and Applejack had the same skill with their respective tribe’s magic, and their willfulness would make them excellent leaders. Yet, Magic wasn’t necessarily a leader. Magic was love and togetherness, not duty. Magic was the glue that bound the whole with mutual care, not obligation. Dutifulness had a different Virtue: Loyalty.

Loyalty. Luna’s thoughts all but sang that word.

* * *

Luna blinked. Somepony was talking to her.

She’d allowed her mind to drift as she maintained her hold upon Celestia’s soul. At least it had been easy to reach the conclusion that Pinkie Pie could offer no help, and doubly so. She didn’t have a horn, for one, and she couldn’t be trusted with anything serious, for the other. She was off in Ponyville, in any case. By the time she got to Canterlot, things would be decided already, one way or the other.

Luna hadn’t even noticed when the gold-armored guard from earlier had entered the room. Fortunately, she had spared the strength for a small enchantment to clean her coat some time ago. Celestia was always adamant that certain concessions must be made to proper appearance, since their subjects relied so heavily upon their rulers. Seeing the former Nightmare soaked in the blood of Equestria’s beloved-unto-worship sun princess would shatter the calm of anypony.

The lunar mare, with a small motion of her head, cut off the guard, who was saying something about a crowd forming outside the door. “We don’t wish to hear of it. None are to enter, unless it is Twilight Sparkle or the other Elements. We need quiet. Or dost thou think it easy to hold a goddess within this world?”

Luna pointed to the door with one unshod hoof. It took a startling amount of effort to so much as raise her leg. “Out with thee. Do thine duty. We shall call out if we require assistance.”

The alicorn waited for the stallion to leave the room before she settled down onto the ground with a drained sigh. She propped her head up by resting her chin atop the edge of the bed. Keeping her horn ignited to feed her spell, she allowed her mind to drift to more pleasant memories. They helped to keep the discomfort of her dwindling vitality at bay.

* * *

Several hours previous.

“Way to go, Rainbow Crash!”

The taunt came from a burly, brown, not terribly bright-looking stallion. The jeers were picked up by several others standing atop clouds at the sidelines of the practice field near Cloudsdale.

The lean blue pegasus pushed her mane from her eyes. That once rainbow-hued and roguishly unkempt mane was now red and matted with blood. Rainbow Dash dug her hooves into the cloud beneath her and pushed herself up on trembling limbs. She didn’t even get halfway toward standing before her legs gave out again, and she fell back down with a puff of scattering vapor.

“Geez... Dash...” Spitfire, resplendent in her Wonderbolts uniform, landed near the wounded Element Bearer with a few powerful beats of her wings. She kindly offered a hoof to help the other mare to her own.

Dash couldn’t seem to meet her idol’s eyes. “Guess... guess I messed up pretty bad, huh?”

“I’m sorry, Dash. Really, I am. I thought you were way better than this. You’ve got the speed, kid, no doubt.” Spitfire slowly drew away once Dash seemed steadier, and then she too turned her face away. “Listen... it takes more than speed to be a Wonderbolt. Maybe you don’t have it. I—.” The Wonderbolt captain couldn’t seem to find the proper words. She turned and spread her wings. “I’ll see you around, Dash, okay?” Another beat of her wings, and she took off, to return to where the rest of the team had settled themselves, presumably to judge the other prospective candidates.

With Spitfire gone, what little courage Dash had left seemed to fail. Her wings drooped, her head sunk low, and her ears pinned back. Her eyes glistened, even if she was clearly trying her hardest to avoid making a display of it. She turned her head, looking toward her friends with a sense of dread. Fluttershy sat on a nearby cloud; the others were crowded in the basket of a hot air balloon. Not one of them met her eyes. They all wore embarrassed or disappointed looks. Pinkie Pie was wailing and spouting a positively unnatural amount of tears. Without the will to stand, the once-proud pegasus collapsed back onto the cloud. Her barrel heaved with quiet sobs.

A hoof settled under Rainbow’s muzzle, delicately tilting it upward. The pegasus blinked away her tears, only for her eyes to be filled instead with miserable horror. Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worse, it turned out that a princess was there to see her shame.

Luna smiled down at the filly. “We have never seen such foolishness as this.” Dash cringed at what she took as an insult. Royalty or not, Luna probably would have received a hoof to the muzzle on any other day. Today, however, she got to continue uninterrupted. She was even allowed to gently brush tears away from Loyalty’s cheeks with dark, downy feathers. “Celestia’s Wonderbolts turning away Equestria’s savior and unquestionably greatest flyer? Such absurdity.”

“I... I bucked up.” The younger mare firmly shook her head, turning it it away from those soft feathers as she squeezed her eyes shut. “They gave me a chance, and I feathered it all up.”

The alicorn shook her head in turn. “We thought better of thee, Rainbow Dash!” she admonished. “Art thou the sort to let one small error ruin thine dreams? Thou hast laid low Equestria’s greatest enemies with thine fearsome strength. Dark gods lie broken beneath thy hooves. The greatest magic in the history of the pegasus tribe rests in thy wings alone. The loyal fires of thine heart serve as one of the keys to the most holy weapon in all the world. Stand proudly upon thy hooves! Spread thy wings! Thou canst be felled by no foe, least of all thyself!”

Dash blinked as her battered mind tried to absorb such copious, if puzzlingly worded, praise. Heat rose at the base of her muzzle in a blush. “Uh... I guess I’m still pretty awesome?” she ventured, voice scratchy. She did force herself to stand, if slowly. She even lifted her wings, which practically dragged in the clouds. The pegasus’s voice was still uncertain. “But, Princess, all I ever wanted was to join the Wonderbolts.”

Luna dismissively waved a hoof in the Wonderbolts' direction. Her great wings arched outward, and with powerful strokes, carried her into the air, to hover in front of the smaller pegasus. “Any who would reject thee are too foolish to deserve thee!” she bellowed in the full fury of the Canterlot Voice, in the direction of the judges’ booth. Clouds rippled and evaporated in its path, leaving only empty air. The alicorn moderated her tone once her point was made. She looked down upon the bearer of Loyalty. “Thou believeth that thou must be tested to earn thy place, despite thy heroic works? Very well. We shall oblige thee. We shall honor the offer we made in our darkest hour. Thou shalt lead our elite Shadowbolts. A new sisterhood with your strength and your fire. Thou need only to prove thyself as the foremost of pegasi by catching a goddess!”

Before Dash could object, or even think, Luna spun and dove through the clouds. The air rippled before her as her pegasus magic forced its compliance, making it thin in front of her, and thicken underwing. She spared a glance behind her a few seconds into the speed-gaining dive, and noted—with no small satisfaction—a blue speck in the distance, leaving a brilliant rainbow trail behind it as it arrowed after her. The alicorn turned her gaze forward again, a wild grin on her muzzle as she redoubled the rhythm of her wingbeats, forcing herself more quickly into that suicide dive.

Rainbow Dash may be the world’s fastest pegasus, but I am an alicorn! Let nopony ever say that the Goddess of the Night was easy prey!

Luna’s wings ached with the strain when she finally pulled out of her dive, fearfully close to the treetops. A trailing blast of wind from her wake shook branches and rustled leaves in the forest around her, forcing birds in hidden nests to scatter in a panic, chirping their protests. The alicorn laughed aloud from the sheer joy of mad flight as she dropped further, toward a glittering ribbon cutting through the wood. The open space of a winding river let her fly below the treeline, despite her great wingspan. She dared to get so near to the ground, in an attempt to evade her pursuer, that the tips of her outermost primaries cut short-lived silver furrows through the water below.

The Wonderbolt had been right about one thing: there was more to being a premier pegasus than speed alone. There was agility, cunning, boldness, and keen si—

The tumble when Rainbow Dash slammed into Luna’s side should have broken bones and left both ponies bloodied. It was dizzying even in a dream. The world spun violently. Tall grass rustled as the joined pair rolled end over end along the river’s edge. No bones broke, no skin tore. Luna wouldn’t allow such a petty inconvenience to spoil this pleasant fantasy, not after she had spent so long salvaging it. Even the blood that had previously matted Dash's mane was missing. Small details tended to vanish when not focused on by the dreamer.

Luna angled her wings to provide the drag necessary for her to end up atop the smaller pegasus, as was only proper. She was a princess, after all. It was obviously far from Dash’s first time sparring and roughhousing, however. A kick of powerful legs, a deft twist of her body and a wordless shout propelled the pair further back. Azure hooves pressed down upon Luna’s chest. She could suddenly feel grass along her back, and against her wings.

There was a quiet moment of truce, both parties panting and taking stock of things. Dark eyes met bright ones. That small gesture seemed to empower the pegasus. Her wings flared out wide, and her lips curled into a triumphant smirk. “I. Win.”

Luna swallowed, in a rare moment of nervousness. Exactly how an immortal moon goddess could feel helpless, she wasn’t entirely sure. She didn’t exactly hate the sensation. The pegasus was such an intriguing mare, always swinging wildly between fragility and startling boldness. The dream world only brought those qualities to the fore, and that was where Luna knew Dash best, where she was her truest self. The alicorn slowly nodded her head. “Yes. So it seems to us. We... yield.”

“Since I won...” the pegasus answered, her voice lowering ever so slightly. Her muzzle dipped closer. The alicorn below her all but froze. Her own wings itched to flare at her sides like the pegasus’s did, but she dared not move. This was brash even for Loyalty. But then, pegasi weren’t well known for subtlety, and unleashed in dreams, they were bolder still. The flyer was close enough that Luna could feel the warmth of breath against her lips when Dash spoke again, “... I’ll be taking my reward.” Dash’s head drew closer. The prone alicorn’s lips tingled with electricity at the anticipation of the touch.

The memory of pain came instead.

* * *

Luna allowed herself the luxury of a soft sigh. It was almost too much effort to gather extra air in her lungs to allow for it. The straining against her spell was beginning to ebb now. Celestia’s immense spirit had begun to settle, tentatively taking hold of her physical body as it regained the strength needed to house the metaphysical vastness of the sun.

The alicorn’s gaze shifted to the far side of the room. The light creeping in through the windows was orange, as it had been for hours now. The sunset had stalled in place, without Celestia to finish the last of the daily cycle. The fiery colour shining down upon the burnt and broken form of Celestia was a disturbing image. A tiny portion of Luna’s power was diverted to pulling the room’s curtains shut, to extinguish that ominous light.

It had started out as such a wonderful day. She had spent time with Twilight Sparkle, and perchance helped her to overcome another hurdle in the practical use of the Magic of Friendship. She had wheedled the promise of a revealed secret from her sister. Cadance had surprised her yet again, with the blossoming of the powers that defined her purpose. There was, of course, Rainbow Dash, and that kiss that almost was.

But now...

Luna closed her eyes, reveling in the gloom brought by those drawn curtains. She tried to pretend that the sun had set, and that it was instead the birth of a new night, with all the renewing promise that implied.

Three - Rarity: Obligation

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Rarity levitated the last piece of her burgeoning creation over the heads of the raucous and half-panicked crowd. The crowd parked outside of the vaulting gold-shod doors of Celestia’s chambers. Somewhere at the very front, a pair of Royal Guards fought against the jostling demands of the wave of mixed ponies. The white unicorn hummed a working tune happily as she stacked a clerk’s briefcase behind a low pedestal which had recently hosted a large decorative urn, which in turn was behind a table she had levitated from its spot against a nearby wall. Her magic pulled down a set of thick red velvet drapes from the edge of a nearby window, which she hung over the collection of increasingly tall items. A spell transmuted the whole affair into a graceful, flowing covering over the lot, giving the cobbled together items the look of a refined podium with steps leading up to the top.

With a suitable vantage in place, Rarity unhurriedly climbed the makeshift steps and stood on the tabletop, her hooves nearly at the height of tallest stallion. The unicorn furrowed her brow into a look of disapproving anger she’d seen Celestia unleash while visiting the Court of the Sun a week previous. She raised her muzzle to give a further impression of looking down on the crowd from on high. She cleared her throat in a quiet, lady-like manner. It wasn’t even within twenty decibels of the noise of the crowd.

Still, the closest few ponies, a noble, a palace servant and a guard that really should have been helping his comrades, looked back over their shoulders at her. That caught the attention of the ponies near them, who followed their gaze. A wave of quiet rolled over the crowd of hundreds packed into the hallway. Even the pegasi hovering over it turned in the air to look at her.

Behold the power of proper preparation, presentation and poise, ponies! Rarity fought back the urge to break out into mad, maniacal cackling at her suddenly acquired attention. That would be the rather wrong attitude, and she only had a few seconds before focus would drift and the noise would resume. She brought out the big guns, with a calibre that put Pinkie’s Party Cannons to shame.

Her icy eyes looked down her muzzle at the crowd. Her words were cultured, but she made sure they were no warmer. “Do you care nothing for your Princess? She lies injured. Her city is in the grip of panic, and you gather here to howl like wolves outside of her door? For shame! Attend to your duties. Calm your friends and families. We will make Celestia proud of us in this dark hour, or by her name we will die trying.”

She gave no room for quibbling. One or two tried to speak. A mere shifting of cold eyes upon them made words die there, unspoken. She knew she had won when the fringes of the crowd began to drift away. It became an awkwardly slow, shuffling tide away from the doors in short order.

“Please stay behind, Guardsponies,” she added almost as an afterthought, once she saw a few of them creeping away with the crowd.

Within a few minutes she actually had a dozen royal guard lined up in front of her in ranks. She fought down that urge to laugh in a distinctly unladylike way once more. She gave herself the gift of allowing herself to remain on her podium, however.

“Gentle stallions. If you would, I believe you four in the back row should perhaps go help the pair at Her Highness’ door.” She signalled groups with short motions of her hooves. “Then you two a ways down the left hallway. You two the right. The rest for the central one.” She couldn’t enumerate her satisfaction when they all started to move without further word. It only got better when one in front saluted, which seemed to get all the rest of them doing it too.

Her moment of glory was somewhat interrupted by the even, applauding tap of metal shoes against marble. Rarity turned on her pedestal to see a pink alicorn behind her, giving her a flat, questioning look. The guards bobbed their heads in small bow as they passed her.

Rarity gave a weak, nervous laugh. “O-oh. Princess Cadance! How nice to see you. Have you been there long?”

“Long enough to catch the important parts. And to see you ordering the Royal Guard around as if, you know, you had some authority to do so.” Rarity’s perch gave her the proper vantage to see the guards flinch at Cadance’s words. One almost tripped over his own hooves. The unicorn couldn’t blame him for a second. She was nearly about to collapse in gibbering terror when a genuinely bright smile appeared on Cadance’s face. “It was pretty great. A little terrifying, in a ‘changelings can obviously just walk in here posed as anyone and order the guard out so they can replace Celestia’ sort of way. But mostly great!”

* * *

“Twilight! Darling, can you hear me?”

Rarity tapped on the strange glassy surface of the magical bubble that encased her unicorn friend. Twilight floated in the center of it, eyes wide and glowing solid white. Lightning sizzled and crackled against the magenta barrier around her in every direction. Honestly, it looked like a pegasus-magic novelty she had seen once. A tiny, furious storm cloud caught in the center of a glass sphere. It too would unleash lightning in all directions. She almost wished that it would be attracted to her hoof like it had been with that flashy trinket. At least then it would hint at some glimmer of awareness.

With a sigh the white unicorn placed her hoof lightly on the floor, trying her very best not to stir up any of the ash or char that covered nearly the entirety of the courtyard. With light steps she turned to address the equally pale stallion nearby. “I daresay, Captain, that both you and your sister look completely dreadful. Has Princess Luna left her sister’s chambers yet? Apparently Princess Celestia had been able to snap her out of this when she was a foal. Perhaps Princess Luna could do the same.”

There was no response from the rather ragged looking Captain of the Guard for several seconds. Enough for Rarity to think he hadn’t heard her, but eventually he shook his head. “No. She’s been in there for...” The stallion seemed to be at a loss. “... for a long time anyway. Hopefully she’ll come out soon. I don’t know where Twilie gets it. I’ve been having to match her magic to magic for hours, and she’s shown no signs of stopping. If it wasn’t for Cadance...” The stallion shook his head again, far more grimly.

“Yes, say no more. I well understand. Sometimes I believe she should be the one with my name. She truly is a singular example of a unicorn.” The white mare lifted her muzzle, so as to spare a moment to consider the sky. Fiery orange and blood red. Fitting for such a day. The sunset had lingered for hours. She could understand why Shining Armor was having such trouble with the time. “And it’s nearly ten in the evening. The sun has just stopped on the horizon. Rumors had already begun to spread as I was arriving. This will just make it worse.”

Rarity watched the Captain’s brow furrow. The weariness in his eyes was all too clear. It was a wonder the stallion was still standing, let alone containing the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. Word is that he had been Celestia’s living target in practice before that. Such a shame that Twilight hadn’t introduced him to her brother when they first met. She might have had a chance of beating out Cadance. Honestly, there was a stallion like this at Court, and I was chasing Blueblood of all ponies. Rarity was shaken out of her thoughts as Shining Armor spoke again. “Goddess damn it. That’s all we need. I have to do something, I’m surprised there isn’t a panic in the palace already.”

Well, it was clear to Rarity that the stallion wasn’t in any condition to be worrying about anything further. That just wouldn’t do. Well, let it never be said that Rarity is some useless layabout courtier! The unicorn mare stood a little taller, and turned gracefully to face the Captain more fully. “Well, we can’t have that happening, hmm? Captain Armor, I just so happened to share your concern, and have thought to remedy that. I’ve drafted a letter to be sent out, and would like to attach your name to it. A bit of information to cut short the wild speculation. Celestia of Equestria has been injured in an accident, but is alive and recovering under the care of Princess Luna. Once one of the princesses can be spared the time and strength they will resume the turn of days. Etcetera etcetera.”

The weary Captain frowned slightly. “That’s a good idea. But I’m not sure if we should be telling them that Celestia is hurt. We only just managed to keep Celestia’s last injury off the front of the Equestria Daily, and there were too many people there to stop the rumors. Celestia’s been our guardian for a thousand years. Ponies are going to freak out to hear she’s been injured twice in less than a month.”

Rarity arched a brow. She kept the Captain locked in that look until she was sure he was about to start squirming. Judging him sufficiently softened up, she offered her rebuttal. “Honestly dear, you’re too tired to be thinking straight. Ponies could have reached halfway across Equestria, all carrying news that Celestia has fallen. A pegasus at the end of a series of relay messengers could be telling some watch post all the way near Gryphon territory about it as we speak. Trust me, I know. The commandant of Featherlight has a commendable taste for formal wear for a stallion, and I’ve had to rush articles there for diplomatic functions by pegasus before. I would think it’s too late for anything but a properly softened truth.”

The stallion, to his credit, did think about it for a time. But as Rarity knew he would, he eventually nodded his consent. But of course he did. There are more tools in a Lady’s repertoire than the simple flattery everyone considers. An enlightened stallion requires rational discourse. The bone-weariness helps. “Excellent then! I’ll set one of the scribes to polishing and sending the message at once. Honestly, without the Princesses and the Captain of the Guard the whole government just gallops in circles and dithers about. I’ll check in on the Princesses afterward, and see if I can get Princess Luna to spare a moment before you just collapse.”

Shining Armor inclined his head in assent. “Thanks, Rarity.” With that her turned back toward his sister. His horn took on that Sparkle family sheen as he strengthened the shield. Rarity was no expert at the arcane, but she was rather sure the way the magic fizzed around his horn was a very poor sign. He raised a hoof to the side of his head, wincing. “Ugh. And see if you can find Cadance for me?”

* * *

As it turned out, both of Rarity’s post-letter tasks were located in the same spot. Cadance was pacing, like a caged tiger, back and forth in front of the half dozen guards stationed outside of Celestia’s room. Crowding the hallway behind her were a dozen ponies in doctor’s coats or nurse attire and what had to be half a ward’s worth of equipment from Canterlot General Hospital.

“... Ooh, and don’t think that Shining won’t be introducing hoof to dock once I’m done with the lot of you.” Cadance was all but growling at the guards as she prowled in front of them. Their composure in the face of an angry princess was admirable. They were stone-still, excepting the occasional nervous shift of eyes. “Any of you had foals? Yeah, I know you did Steel Crest. Don’t you look away from me! He’s lucky because he’ll get the chance. I swear to Celestia the rest of you are getting gelded. Unfortunately he also knows what its like to deal with a filly. I’m not some age old alicorn with a thousand years of saved up patience. Yeah, I’m a pissed off winged unicorn full of plot-kicking hormones.”

Rarity took a moment to thoughtfully ponder the Princess’ style. Perhaps she would offer some pointers later. Cadance was letting her anger get a little too hot. Proper menace was cold. Like everything about a Lady, a bit of mystery added effect. A glacial stare would have the stallions imagining far worse scenarios than Cadance could paint.

Oh dear. Well, chivalry is not something Rarity simply accepts. She gives, also.

Rarity broke into a perfect two-step trot to enact the guards’ rescue. Perhaps she should have been quicker, to ensure they all had the important bits attached when she arrived, but a certain propriety must be maintained. Besides, it was all sort of funny.

Cadance had herself muzzle to muzzle with one of the younger guards. Her wings were flared in hostility. The team of doctors didn’t dare speak up, but they cheered her on with approving glances. “Yeah, remember flirty, cheery Cadance? The one who brought all you ponies dinner and booze after you when you came off shift with Shiny? She is so far gone that you couldn’t find her with a team of pegasus spotters. Coincidentally they’ll be using those to find your-”

Cadance!” Rarity found her voice raised rather louder than she’d like. She even stomped a hoof for the emphasis the sound provided. The fine white marble that the palace was so painstakingly crafted from made for an acoustically perfect, sharp strike. “Ahem. I mean, Princess Cadance. This is hardly proper for a Lady of your stature.”

The young princess spun in place. She locked Rarity into a look that could kill. If that was what the guards were enduring, the marshmallow unicorn was rather surprised that there were anything more than piles of pony ash covered in bubbling molten armor still left. Perhaps there was something to be said for that more fiery intimidation? Still, the fashionista lifted her muzzle slightly, seemingly impervious to the glare. The Princess showed her age somewhat when that unimpressed look had her scrambling to explain her poor behavior. She pointed an accusing hoof back at the guards. “These... these colts won’t let the doctors in. They won’t let me in.”

“Yes, well, no doubt they’re following some order from Luna to allow nopony in. Am I right, brave sirs?” All six guards nodded with eager relief, seemingly in perfect time. It was all Rarity could do not to laugh. That wouldn’t be right. The poor dears were already having to endure the tirade of an angry young goddess. “There you have it, then. In any case, your husband is in dire need of your skills. I’m afraid there’s not much left in him. I shall take up the charge of intimidating the guards in your stead. Will that do?”

The demigoddess seemed to be ready to argue for a moment. However, some of the tension visibly bled out of her. Her flared wings folded back at her sides with some effort. “Yeah. Yeah, that’ll do. Sisters! I don’t know what got into me. I’ve been taking in way too much fear and panic today. I can’t keep up, but the palace would be a madhouse without it. I’m not even thinking straight anymore.”

Rarity couldn’t say she had any idea what Cadance was talking about, but it hardly seemed like the time for lengthy explanations that could be put off until a later day. “Yes, well, it has been an absolutely horrid day for all involved, I must say. I’m sure all of us will be feeling silly tomorrow about how the lot of us have been acting. One can only imagine what the Princess will say when she recovers.”

Cadance fixed her with a strange look. Nothing disturbing or negative, simply like she was looking deeply, peering into her. It helped to remind Rarity exactly what sort of pony she was dealing with. Celestia had the same quality. Rarity had spent hours in front of the mirror trying to capture the Sun Princess’s knowing smile, to no avail. The smile the pink princess gave her after a moment or two was far more open and brilliant. “Oh, now that’s a lie. You’re an island of calm. You’ve been spreading that wherever you go today. I bet you’ve kept a dozen ponies from tearing out their manes.”

Rarity gave a little toss of her head, which put a bit of spring into her own mane. “Oh, now, really Princess, it isn’t so grandiose.” Rarity affected a suitable amount of modesty. “I’m just a designer. I’d like nothing better than to descend into a nice, comfortable panic myself. However, there’s simply a way a pony of refinement should act. With poise and grace in the face of hardship. As an example.”

The young Princess broke out into gales of unstoppable laughter. At least up until she was laughing so hard she gave a little snort. That made her fall onto her haunches, so she could bring her hooves to cover her muzzle in embarrassment. Rarity wore a distinctly affronted look at the laughter. Before she could express that in words, Cadance removed one of the hooves from her face to wave it apologetically. “Nonono. I’m not laughing at you. Really! If the Sisters let me name a Duchess or something, you’re at the top of the list. But, honestly, have you met the refined ponies in this city? Or any city? They should act like that, but they don’t. If they were half the ponies you are, I would say the Princesses should abdicate and let the aristocracy run things.”

Rarity could feel the heat of a blush creep down her muzzle. She turned her head slightly to try to hide it. It was a fruitless endeavor. Rarity well appreciated her brilliant white coat, but it made her reddening cheeks practically luminescent. "Well, you’ve made my week, Princess, and it was already a wonderful week before today. Thank you. However, you have a handsome, ailing husband to care for, and I have to try to convince the guards to pass a word to Princess Luna.”

Cadance rose back onto her hooves, clearly trying to pretend that her last movement never happened. “Thanks Rarity. I think I needed a bit of sanity really badly today. Twilight has made some really amazing friends.”

Rarity made a shooing motion with one forehoof. “Think nothing of it, Princess. If a cool head is what’s needed, then its the least I could provide.” The white unicorn started toward the guards, prepared to bat her eyelashes outrageously to ask for one teensy, tiny favor in passing a massage. What she found instead was the guards stepping aside. The horns of two of them glowing to open the double doors.

“Princess Luna said to allow only the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony to enter, ma’am.” The one Cadance had called Steel Crest offered, by way of an explanation.

From behind Rarity came the sound of shod hoof striking stone. “WHAT?” Cadance's voice was coloured with outraged disbelief. It also had enough volume to make a passing imitation of the Royal Canterlot voice. “I’m a Princess!

* * *

The smell that poured from Celestia’s chambers was an unpleasant mix of fearful sweat, burned fur and charred meat. To say it made Rarity uneasy to walk toward was rather an understatement. It was like nearing some Tartaran battlefield.

“Cadance? What art thou doing out there? Come in.” Luna’s voice, wearied and lacking its usual vitality ghosted out through the doorway.

“Yeah, what am I doing out here?” Cadance muttered pointedly to the guards after a quick reversal of direction to enter the room. She gave them each a glare until they looked away uncomfortably, each in turn. She seemed satisfied with that, but still mumbled something about ‘extended Windigo patrols in the arctic’ as she passed by. Rarity followed closely behind, though she had to force herself to take each step. She was tense enough that the door closing behind her nearly made her jump.

It was worse than the white pony was expecting. Cadance seemed to share her opinion, judging by how she fell back onto her haunches again.

Celestia was covered with open red wounds and spots of charred black. Before Rarity turned her gaze away and shut her eyes tightly, she could swear she noticed large bits seemingly missing. She didn’t dare look back to confirm it. She could hear the unpleasant sounds of gagging from the Princess beside her as she obviously struggled to hold her stomach. “Oh, dearest Celestia!” Rarity wailed, all thoughts of proper poise lost.

“There’s doctors outside. I have to get them. Oh... oh Celestia, is she even alive?” If anything Cadance sounded even more panicked than Rarity felt. Considering the snow-white unicorn felt like her heart had leaped its way into her mouth, while the rest of her sunk into a pit, it was saying something.

“Peace, little ponies,” Luna reassured, voice haggard but remarkably calm. “Thine Princess looks a fright, and She dwells near death, but She is no mortal thing. Not all of Her is simple blood and flesh. And only that part was grievously wounded. Soon Her flesh shall be turned over to those skilled to heal it.” There was a sound of rustling fabric. “You may look. I have covered Her.”

Rarity seemed to work up the courage to do so before Cadance. Celestia’s body had been covered to the neck with her white sheets. Little droplets of red blood were already beginning to soak through in places. Rarity walked forward, barely sparing so much as a glance for the drooping moon goddess leaning against the bedside nearby. The unicorn climbed up onto the edge of the bed with her forehooves to look upon the broken alicorn.

Her horn was fractured all along its length, and all but missing anywhere beyond halfway up. The edges would have been sharp if they hadn’t been so charred. Much of the fur on her graceful face was burned away to reveal red, scalded skin below. Somehow her mane had remained untouched, but it barely seemed like hers at all. Celestia’s mane was the envy of every filly and mare in Equestria. It had driven fashion for a thousand years, defining long, flowing curves and curls, like Rarity’s own, as the ideal of beauty. It was unmoving, and flat rose pink. Rarity’s eyes blurred with tears. “Oh Celestia.” She reached out, cradling the goddess’ head delicately in her hooves. She might not have been as close to the monarch as Twilight, but like every other pony in Equestria, Celestia had a special place in her heart. She was like the common part of every family. The wise protector and advisor, ever vigilant, ever kind, ever loving.

Rarity had read old letters from her great, great grandmother talking about meeting the monarch. Her great grandfather had the honor to serve high in Her Majesty’s Royal Guard. Her grandmother had served in the palace in her youth. The stories she had told Rarity about the Princess in her foalhood had defined every thought about how a proper Lady should present herself. Rarity knew that she would one day present her own foals to the Princess to meet. Celestia was history and future. She was Equestria. And, upon the bed in front of Rarity, she lay broken. Despair welled up in her, somehow both vastly deep and hot at once. There was no use trying to control it. A sob escaped Rarity with startling suddenness, before she buried her face against what fur there was on Celestia’s cheek.

“We can only hope to one day be worthy of that, dearest Cadance,” Luna said in a subdued voice, as if afraid to cut the thick silence of the room. “Hast thou ever seen more poignant proof of what She hath wrought? But then, thou knowest better than us, does thou not? I can but watch. Thou must feel, also.”

Rarity didn’t see Cadance’s reaction of course, but she could hear a wet sniff, the youngest alicorn’s voice shaky. “I- I can tune it out a bit, if I try.”

“Thou can, as we have endeavored to teach thee. But thou shouldn’t. Instead remember. Never forget what it doth mean to be a true Princess of Equestria.”

* * *

It took Rarity a good while to recompose herself, much to her embarrassment. The two alicorns did seem to actually understand, however, which softened the blow. It was a comfort too, on a level she didn’t want to consider too much. Perhaps Equestria would be in fine hooves even if Celestia were to...

She refused to think about it.

“My apologies for my behavior, Princess Luna, Princess Cadance.” She knew they would forgive her, so she paused and was rewarded with comments about it being a small matter. She allowed the two younger royals a smile. To business then. Rarity might have adored adding a bit of melodrama to life, for spice, but this was neither the time nor the place. “The reason I came was to ask for a moment of your time, Princess Luna. Princess Celestia was able to snap Twilight out of her... state before, when Twilight was a foal. I was hoping you would be able to do the same.”

“Twilight Sparkle’s magic still runs out of control? It has been hours.” Luna seemed annoyed when the topic of time had come up. “It’s unnerving not being able to judge the time, with our moon locked away.” She shook her head. “We simply can’t spare the energy to wrestle with the sun. It would be a great strain even in the best of times to intrude on Celestia’s domain. It takes all of our power and will to hold Celestia’s spirit to Her body to force Her to begin to mend. Simply keeping Her alive as we excised the dead and cooked flesh wa-”

Rarity felt ill. Cadance was clearly no better off. Both of them raised warding hooves almost at the same time. Rarity choked out the words first. “Please, Princess, we can’t take the details.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, within an hour, perhaps less, we shall be ready to turn her over to mortal healers to begin to bolster said flesh. Until then I dare not leave her side, even during my short respite. Spirit is closest to our aspect, though perhaps one day Cadance shall eclipse us in that. For now, however, nopony else could catch and hold Celestia’s soul within her. It has nearly broken us to do as much.”

“Well, Shining Armor is quite near to that point as well, trying to contain his sister,” Rarity interjected. Almost immediately Cadance looked toward the doorway in concern, as if pondering leaving at that moment to tend to her husband in such dire straits. Rarity held up a hoof. “Princess Cadance, darling, that was a poor choice of words. I don’t think it’s that immediately dire. But it’s been almost ten hours. The poor stallion is exhausted. Especially after enduring Celestia before that.”

Luna blinked in confusion once more. Rarity found it both endearing and a little disturbing. Celestia always seemed to know everything. Luna clearly didn’t bother with that mask, and it certainly made her seem more approachable. Rarity had to admit that she could use a bit of reassurance in the infallibility of the divine right now, however. “Our Sister? Did She accidentally strike Captain Armor while battling our mysterious enemies? And certainly Twilight must be down to nearly nothing after such a time. No unicorn could sustain such a fury as we witnessed for long. Once she has exhausted herself, she’ll collapse.”

It was Rarity and Cadance’s turns to look confused. “Enemies?” Rarity ventured. “Well, certainly that’s possible. Something made Celestia’s spell fail horribly, from all reports. And doubtless the same drove poor Twilight into that state. But there wasn’t a battle. Supposedly Celestia and Twilight were to practice war magic. A rather impressive demonstration by Celestia went terribly wrong. Why, I saw some of it myself. I was having a lunch date with Fancy Pants and his charming companion and a beam of golden light carved a swath across the mountainside. I must tell you, it had me heading toward the castle in a hurry, making sure I remembered the way to the Elements!”

Luna was contemplative for a few moments. “It must have been a spell most dark. Something warped Celestia’s access to Her sun. Her own fires are what did the damage. It cooked my Sister from the inside.” She ignored the cringing of the other two. “When we arrived we noticed Twilight had placed her own enchantment, no doubt trying in vain to counter the effects. We wish there had been time to study it more closely, it might have given clues as to the nature of what brave Twilight fought, but there was no time. Celestia was mere breaths from demise. None but an entity of the highest order could do such a thing, or a coven of many of lesser skill. Twisting both Celestia’s power and Twilight’s is beyond the ken of most of our known enemies.”

“If I may, Princess? Perhaps I should check on Discord’s statue? I admit, this isn’t quite chocolate rain and other tacky nonsense like that, but turning a pony’s powers wild does have a certain chaotic flair, no?” Not that Rarity had any particular desire to go near that thing. However, it was too disturbing a thought to ignore outright. Well, at the very least it earned her an approving smile from the weary goddess of the night.

“Well thought, Lady Rarity! Discord would need to be subtle to hide from our senses, but it can’t be ruled out. Thou must remember never to make assumptions about our eldest foe. His face is ever shifting. Though he was grandiose if nonviolent last time, we have seen him subtle and cruel as well.” Luna looked to Cadance. “As for thou, Cadance. Order the guard to scour the courtyard for the residue of outside magics. It may be a lost cause, given the wildness of Twilight’s display, and Celestia’s own powers washing out anything else, but we must not discard any chances. Then have messages sent out across Equestria to stem the surety of panic. Tell all that Celestia is recovering and they must be patient for me to regain the strength to lower the sun, and that all is well otherwise.” Rarity had to admit that Luna had a rather crisp, to-the-point way of ordering ponies about. It was almost militaristic. Doubtless a thousand years in the past it was the best way to get unsophisticated ponies moving. Though it wasn’t really any less effective now. The fashionista had to nearly quell the urge to salute. Luna continued, “we believe we can spare the few moments needed to send Twilight’s familiar a letter to have him gather the remaining Elements. We can’t be too careful. Then thou will tend to Twilight Sparkle, Cadance. Calm her mind, and her magic will follow. Thou art better suited to the task than I. Now go, I must send the message and tend to my sister. Have the doctors prepare.”

“I’ve already had that message drafted and sent, Highness. It has likely already left the palace en masse. I’m afraid I rather overstepped myself, but the palace is in total disarray. Nothing seems to be getting done. It was bound to be far worse in the rest of the kingdom.” Rarity offered meekly, rather hoping the Princess wouldn’t think that she had made too great a faux pas. “As for the other Element Bearers, if they aren’t here in the next few hours I shall be very surprised. They wouldn’t sit on their haunches upon hearing that Princess Celestia had been injured. And if Rainbow Dash isn’t bucking her way through that door...” Rarity waved a hoof in the direction of the red-curtained balcony doors. “... before the rest are halfway here, I think the shock might kill me.”

Thankfully, Luna hardly seemed angry. Perhaps just somewhat incredulous. “And thou art supposedly a fashion designer?” Before Rarity could speak, the dark alicorn raised a weary hoof. “Yes, yes. Thou art a Lady. We find it hard to disagree. If ever we need to appoint a new Duchess, we shall think of thee first. Thou can be sure of that.”

Rarity beamed. Poise, Rarity, poise and grace. “How kind of you to say so as well,” The white unicorn managed, in her very most collected tone. She mentally congratulated herself on holding back her desire to gush or faint or hop around screaming ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ in a very Twilight mode. Princess Cadance apparently didn’t share her mantra of propriety. The pink alicorn had been giggling gleefully ever since Luna had echoed her earlier words.

Briefly, a thought passed through Rarity’s mind. How had she known what I was going to say, about being a Lady? She hadn’t been able to spend much time getting to know the Lunar mare. The only thought she came up with was: It must be a goddess... thing.

Luna gained a flat, if vaguely amused look. “As for the boisterous Rainbow Dash, we shall set a guard out on the balcony to greet her. ‘Tia would not want Her door ruined. At least not without being awake to watch the grand entrance.”

“There’s just one thing, Luna,” Cadance mentioned after she quieted her laughter. That previous humor helped to even out the annoyance that threatened to creep into her tone. “I’m not sure if the guard is exactly going to be snapping to attention if I start giving out orders...”

The dark goddess, who heaved herself up onto tired hooves, gave the younger alicorn another puzzled look. “But, thou art a Princess.”

* * *

“Thank you gentlecolts. It pleases me to no end to see that chivalry is alive and well. To be willing to put yourselves in harm’s way to escort a mare into such danger... it warms a pony’s heart.” Truthfully, the three stallions that had gone with Rarity to check on Discord’s statue had been nearly as scared as she had been. Doubtless it would have been worse if they knew Discord as she did. How could any normal pony not be terrified when potentially walking into the lair of a being that may have struck down a goddess? That everything had been entirely normal had been a relief, to say the least. The statue had just been sitting there, cold and dead. “Especially you, dear Gilded Vine.” Rarity placed a kiss on the young unicorn servant’s cheek. He reddened under his pale yellow coat, a not unattractive look. He had simply been nearby when she had asked the guards for the favor of their escort, and he had insisted he help. “Such bravery and verve! Without so much as the armor or spears of these fine guards. I shan’t forget it, I promise that.” She gave the trio a radiant smile and turned to head toward the Soldier’s Yard. The three watched her go.

Gilded Vine fell back onto his haunches once Rarity had moved safely around a corner, and eyes could be unglued from the sight of her departure. “Wow,” the stallion said, a note of awe in his voice. A forehoof was raised to his cheek, where the remarkable mare had kissed him.

One of the pegasus guards gave the unicorn a good natured, congratulatory rap on the shoulder with a hoof. “No kidding. Lucky kid.”

* * *

“As weak as you can make it, Shiny. Its hard to get anything through it. Its like trying to see through a mountain.” Cadance had a hoof against the magenta bubble holding Twilight Sparkle. Her eyes were closed to block out the distraction as she tried to flex her own tenuous alicorn magic.

Despite the impropriety of it, especially in front of Cadance, Rarity helpfully leaned her shoulder against Shining Armor’s. He gratefully leaned back, allowing the smaller white unicorn to take some of his weight. How he was even on his hooves, the fashionista had no idea. He seemed to practically be an earth pony in his stubborn endurance. “I’ll try. Trust me when I say that Princess Luna’s theory about Twilie nearly being out isn’t exactly rock solid. I don’t know, maybe she’s weaker. But she’s tiring out a low slower than I am, so it’s impossible to tell. If I make the barrier too weak, she’ll just shred it apart.”

Shining Armor’s horn glowed in that familiar hue that Rarity knew so well from her friend. A glowing mist seemed to pour off of the bubble, it grew more translucent. Sound began to bleed through it, albeit as a strange sizzling drone whenever a bolt of Twilight’s magic would slam into the opposite face of the shield. The surface wobbled precariously, but it didn’t crack. Rarity resisted the urge to dive for cover. After all the praise she had received from the Princesses, she would stare down a charging manticore if necessary to show that it was well earned.

Truthfully, that worry was a fine distraction for the Element of Generosity. After the day that he had, Shining Armor could use a bath. The scent of a worked stallion had a certain base appeal, but Rarity was a refined mare, above such things. Even so, the warmth and solidity of his presence was distinctly pleasant. Such an unfabulous, unworthy thought. Rarity promptly squashed said thought down and mentally stomped on it.

“Rarity! Cool it already. I’m trying to concentrate.” Cadance all but growled, without so much as opening her eyes to look back at the unicorn. Rarity froze in sudden mortification. Had Cadance known what she was thinking? If she wasn’t sure Shining Armor would topple, she would have gone to dig herself a grave to fall into and die of shame right at that moment. Well, after finding a suitable casket. Something pristine and white, maybe. Properly bejeweled. She didn’t want to die in the dirt. Her face went as white as the pelt covering it, at first, then turned a rosy scarlet right after. Cadance, for her part, just voiced a wordless sound of exasperation.

Cadance placed her hoof back down on the ground, and seemed to be trying to collect herself as she turned to face the other mare. Shining Armor was about as puzzled as one could manage to be, when as drained as he was. Rarity withered under Cadance’s gaze. “Sorry. This is just, really, really hard. And it’s totally okay, promise!” Cadance reached up to trace an ‘X’ shape across her chest with her hoof. “Trust me when I say I’m the mare best experienced to understand the allure.” She gave a wicked little smirk at that. “But for now just try your best to avoid any strong feelings, okay? When I’m concentrating, they get really loud.”

Rarity, head still held somewhat low, nodded. The embarrassment lingered, but there was a sense of grateful relief too, when the Princess proved to be understanding toward her horrible, uncouth lapse. Cadance gave her a flat look. The unicorn offered a forced, embarrassed little laugh and hurriedly wracked her brain. Eventually she settled on closing her eyes and trying to think of her trips to the spa. Of the mindless relaxation of soaking in warm coat-restoring mud, or getting all the knots worked out of her by Aloe and Lotus. In that little slice of serenity, she barely noticed Cadance murmuring to her husband that the little aside was nothing to be concerned over. The strange reverberation of a metal shod hoof against solid magic heralded the young alicorn’s return to her task.

Rarity, behind her, allowed her eyes to open once she was confident in her peace. She attempted to keep that detachment, but a bit of curiosity creeped in as she watched Cadance work. There wasn’t much to see, but clearly something was going on.

“She’s terrified. Confused. Everything is just going in circles and she can’t break out of it. I’m not even sure she can think.” Cadance’s voice was distant. Clearly she wasn’t sparing any real attention to keeping her husband and Rarity informed. Certainly there was nobody else to speak to. Cadance had the courtyard cleared before she began, except for a trio of Life Flight pegasi mares with their equipment and pony-sling in the far corner, ready to whisk Twilight off to Canterlot General if necessary.

Cadance’s sides expanded as she appeared to take in a deep breath. Her wings spread out, curling somewhat around one side of the bubble, as if to catch something. With that breath, the spells flinging themselves against the barrier slowed and weakened. By the end of the second deep inhale they had stopped completely. A third found Twilight sinking back toward the floor.

Twilight Sparkle collapsed against the cobblestones unmoving, like a marionette with the strings suddenly cut. The purple unicorn’s horn was hot enough that the very tip glowed in a lazy red light, like forge-heated metal. It left a trail of thin smoke as she fell.

A far less dangerous glow from Shining Armor’s horn dismissed his spell, shattering it into glowing motes and sparkling lights. The effort made the stallion sway in disorientation. “Twilie!” Rarity watched helplessly as the stallion made it all of two steps before, predictably, the exhaustion of ten hours of spellcasting caught up with him in a rush. Shining Armor stumbled, fell beside his sister, and didn’t rise.

Four - Trixie: Reinvigoration

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A leaf-green earth pony filly ran through the forest with frantic speed. Thorns and branches slapped against her muzzle and chest, leaving her criss-crossed with tiny bleeding cuts and scrapes. There was no avoiding it, for life crowded in and bitterly fought for every inch of space in the Everfree. It didn’t keep her from barrelling through the densest brush she could find. The buzzing wings of her pursuers sounded closer than ever. The filly screeched as a bolt of emerald light blew apart the trunk of a pine tree in front of her, causing it to topple over into her path. She veered off to one side in a panic. It was getting hard to be sure of the way back to town. Under the trees, barely any of the red light from the unnaturally long sunset reached the ground. She did her best to head toward what light she could see. Home, and hopefully safety, was in the direction of Celestia’s bizarrely stuck sun.


Hope blossomed in the filly’s chest as she heard her herd-mate call her name. She arrowed toward the source of that yell with renewed energy. She couldn’t help but break into relieved tears when she rounded a stand of leafy trees and saw the grey-blue form of Storm Front hovering a short ways above the ground, hooves around her mouth, preparing to call for the filly again. With the ruddy light making all the greens appear black, even her depleted colour stood out. The pegasus mare winged toward her, landing with barely a flutter to slow herself down. She kept her wings flared aggressively, but her eyes wore a look of concern. “Leafy, what happened?”

The younger pony threw herself down at the pegasus’ hooves, wrapping her forelegs around one of her herd-mate’s. Leaf Swirl was so thankful and relieved that she peppered the mare’s hoof with kisses. “Oh thank you thank you thank you!” She breathlessly gushed.

The pegasus gave a slightly embarrassed laugh, though her pale green tail gave a flick. “C’mon now Leaf. Save it for the bedroom. Did you get lost again?”

The earth pony’s eyes went wide as she realized she had neglected to mention the most important part. She shook her head quickly. “Ch-Changelings!”

Leaf Swirl knew better than to expect panic from the daring Storm Front. She was part of the team that kept Everfree weather where it belonged. Breaking apart wild storms and braving the stuff that would wing up out of the forest took a certain unshakeable courage. True to form, the pegasus breathed a dismissive huff, flared her wings, and crouched down to prepare to spring into the air. The green filly couldn't help but beam when the older mare actually spared a moment to nuzzle her and whispered, “No overgrown bug is getting my Leaf. Stay somewhere safe.” Leaf could only credit superior pegasus vision when Storm chose the perfect course, then vaulted up like a shot, to intercept a black changeling drone as it came over the top of a tall pine. Forehooves slammed into the pony-sized monster with an audible thud of impact. The changeling flipped and spun out of sight off behind the trees. Leaf Swirl didn’t wait for it to land. She scrambled away in the opposite direction, heading for the side of the clearing closer to town.

The earth pony anxiously searched the treetops for her favorite herd-mate. With some relief she saw another changeling spin briefly into view, as if propelled by a powerful buck. Her pegasus arced into sight after it to give it a taste of her forehooves as well. Leaf suppressed the urge to cheer the mare on. Those changelings were presumably hitting the ground nearby, and she didn’t want to attract attention.

Storm Front spun in a showy circle and pointed off somewhere out of sight. “Let that be a lesson to y-ACK!” A lance of verdant magic slammed into the pegasus’ side. Thankfully, it was a glancing blow along the barrel and the bolt continued on without exploding. A bit of smoke trailed from Storm Front’s side and she spiralled down into the cover of the pine trees near Leaf.

The younger green mare all but leaped forward, preparing to cushion Storm’s landing with her own far more durable form, if necessary. The pegasus’ wings came through in good shape however, and she fluttered lightly to the ground. “Oh Celestia, Storm!” Leaf nuzzled the mare’s side, near to the injury. She was quick to breathe a sigh of relief. Aside from a bit of burnt fur and a long, thin trail of scalded pink skin, the larger mare seemed all right. Still, the earth pony didn’t count herself as an expert on magical injury. “Maybe we’d better get you to the hospital?”

Storm Front waved the idea off with a hoof. “Barely touched me. You can rub a bit of your herbaly ointment stuff on it later.” The pegasus, standing tall and proud, trotted past Leaf Swirl in the direction of the town. She didn’t ignore the filly, however. Rather once she was past, she gave her a lidded, coy look, and flicked her tailtip against Leaf’s nose. “I also accept repayment in love, kisses and... ahem... favors.”

Storm laughed fondly when Leaf Swirl fell in behind her with a cheerful, prancing trot, a silly, besotted look painted onto her face. “Oh Leafy. I swear you’re my favorite. But sometimes you just make it too eas-AHH!”

For the second time that evening Storm Front had her words interrupted by violence. A sudden flash of blue and violet shot from the bushes to her left. There was a dull thud as the pegasus took her turn being the one introduced to a pair of hooves to the barrel. The younger pony squeaked and fell back onto her rump in shock, gold eyes wide. Not even waiting for the pegasus to get up, an aura of pink light scooped Storm into the air and launched her into a tree twenty paces away. She hit it with a woody crunch.

Leaf Swirl made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob. “S-Storm!” The filly looked from her broken mare to where the attacker had been, but found nothing. She scrambled up onto terror-shaken hooves and took off at a full gallop toward where the pegasus lay. Leaf had never felt so happy in her life as when that seemingly broken collection of grey-blue feathers and fur began to rise up to her hooves.

“Leaf! Run home. Don’t stop or look back!” the ailing pegasus commanded, panting hard as she worked to stretch out her wings. Pegasus wings were tough, and they were likely in better condition than the rest of her. Clearly the older mare intended to get up into the air as quick as possible, and get off the injured foreleg that she held up off of the ground.

The earth pony dug her hooves into the loamy earth to force herself into a stop. “N-no!” she called in denial, even as her body unthinkingly began to obey her lead mare. “I’m not going to leave you here!”

“Buck it. Go, idiot!” Leaf cringed to the side as something screamed past her, trailing a fountain of white sparks. Storm Front had to move far more drastically. She pushed herself off on her good legs and beat her wings to throw herself to the side. The projectile struck the tree behind the pegasus mare and exploded in a bright, flashing detonation of silver stars. It finished the job that the pegasus’ body had started. The tree groaned and fell over, the lower branches burning where those motes of pale flame touched.

Storm wasted no time in bolting up into the air. Her flight was a bit shaky. Clearly something was causing her pain as she flew, but she wasn’t letting it slow her down. That much alone saved her. Several small, dark thunder clouds formed overhead out of nothing. With no more than a second’s warning, bolts of lightning began to strike down from those clouds. The pegasus made for a nimble target, weaving this way and that. Lightning blackened the ground and knocked branches from trees as those bolts directed themselves unerringly toward her. Each bolt spent the energy in its respective cloud, leaving them to puff away in turn.

“Leaf Swirl! Go! I need room to fly, and if you stay, I have to keep close to you!” the pegasus pleaded, when she had a second to spare after the electrical barrage.

The green filly blinked away the frozen horror that kept her in place as she watched the mare dodge those deadly strikes. Tears in her eyes, she nodded her head and began to gallop toward town. Or at least she tried to. A cloud of dense violet smoke erupted in front of her, making her again dig her hooves into the soft, leafy soil to skid to a stop.

The cloud yawned open and out stepped their attacker. Leaf’s first reaction was incredulity. It was a wizard. The very stereotypical picture of every wizard, from every play, from Starswirl on down. Her wide-brimmed purple cap was pointed. Her cape had stars on it. Enormous, garish stars. Everything had stars on it, in fact, including her flank. “I’m afraid not, evil changeling! The rescuee must stay here, to observe the amazing life-saving skills of the Great and Powerful Trrrrixie!” The rather dainty looking azure unicorn wizard struck a pose, throwing open her purple cape, forehooves in the air. A pair of fountain fireworks ignited somewhere in the cloud to either side of her, filling the air with luminous spheres of many colours.

Doubtless the new mare was going to continue, but a sudden anger swelled up in the normally meek Leaf Swirl. She leapt forward and smacked a forehoof right into the showmare’s muzzle. “Stupid unicorn!” The filly shrieked in outrage. Leaf had never exactly been a physically powerful filly, especially not for an earth pony. All she managed was to shut the unicorn up and to make her stumble back onto a more stable stance, with a hoof to her muzzle and a surprised look on her face. “You were trying to kill another pony! She just saved me from the changelings!”

“She... what?” Trixie stammered, edging back from the angry filly. “Surely you’re mistaken? Trixie heard you yelling about changelings. She came to find you with a dull look, following like a zombie-pony, clearly under this one’s spell a moment later.”

That particular description of it made Leaf wilt in sudden embarrassment. Storm Front had no such issues standing in her way. She landed hard in front of Trixie, making the unicorn jump back in alarm. “She’s a fillyfriend, you bucking foal,” the pegasus snapped. “I was out here looking for her when she showed up with changelings snapping at her hooves.”

Trixie raised her hoof back to her face, this time to cover it. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. This has not been Trixie’s day. Here I thought I was going to get a chance to use my new powers to do a good deed. And thus get somepony off my back about charging those colts for my autograph.” The unicorn lowered her head contritely, at which point her horn glowed brightly once more. A battering ram of pink energy took the pegasus dead center in the chest, sending her bouncing and skidding across the forest floor, until she finally came to an abrupt rest in a patch of dense brambles.

Trixie stomped a hoof down in triumph and raised her head high, eyes closed to give the impression of cocky ease. “Behold, unbelievers, the incredible acting talents of Trixie!” she trumpeted in glee. Though in expectation of what followed she peeked open one eye in time to ignite her horn and levitate the pouncing Leaf Swirl to a mid-air stop. The green filly’s legs reached and flailed at air, trying to get at the unicorn.

“Stop! Stop! You’re a pony. She’s a pony!” the filly screamed, stating the obvious, somewhere between rage, terror and sobbing hysterics.

Trixie trotted along toward the fallen, unconscious pegasus, carrying the thrashing filly aloft in the air behind her with ease. “Oh ye of little faith. Your doubt will make Trixie’s victory all the sweeter!” When she neared the pegasus, she lowered her horn, as if to deliver the coup de grace.

At which point a grey-blue hoof slammed hard into the unicorn’s muzzle. Trixie went down like a sack of bricks, groaning.

Somehow the pegasus forced herself to her hooves once more. Her pelt was ragged and bloodied. Even those graceful wings Leaf Swirl so adored were oddly flared, with primaries snapped and bent. She limped toward the filly. Her voice was labored, as if it hurt to draw enough breath to talk. “We... gotta get out... Leaf. C’mon. She must be one of them. Ponies don’t... don’t kill ponies.”

“Oh sweet Sisters. Storm! How are you still walking?” The filly rushed forward to offer her shoulder to lean on. She’d even carry the larger pegasus if she had to. Pegasi didn’t weigh much. She hadn’t even gotten close when red-pink fire engulfed her lead mare. Leaf’s heart seemed to stop in her chest, as she looked on in horror. The fire appeared to burn the pegasus black. Her feathers and mane were consumed in an instant. The flames ate great holes out of her graceful limbs.

Instead of her beloved Storm collapsing in front of her as charred bones, the fires just stopped. Instead of charcoal there was shiny, barely scuffed black chitin. Huge, glassy, blue-green eyes met hers with shock, staring at her from above. The creature was nearly half again as tall as she was.The eye contact lasted only a moment. The wounded creature that was once her Storm bolted for the nearby brush as fast as its apparently less than grievous injuries would allow it. Translucent wings buzzed to carry it over the bushes and out of sight.

Trixie was gathering her hooves under her. “Ugh. Trixie should have been able to capture that one. But you just had to keep loving it, didn’t you? Do you have any idea how tough that makes them?”

“S-she really was a changeling? You saved me?” Leaf Swirl all but fell over her own words. In her shock, her mind didn’t quite seem to be working right.

Trixie brushed off her cape as she stood. “Hmph. Was there ever any doubt?”

* * *

Trixie trotted with a happy enough step through the woods. Her horn was glowing, keeping four battered black Drones levitated up in the air behind her. They were easier to carry than they looked. Changelings didn’t weigh all that much, it turned out. It was unfortunate that the larger, smarter Raider had gotten away. That meant no reward and thus no high-class trip to Las Pegasus for two. The creature wasn’t going to be a threat to anypony for a while, at least. Besides, the best part about being Trixie, besides the Greatness, was the fans.

Leaf Swirl all but pranced beside her, her hooves barely seeming to touch the ground at all. Trixie thought the adoring look on the filly’s face was far less pathetic when it was focused on her rather than a changeling, as it turned out. Odd that.

“You barely even look tired! Couldn’t we stay back there and wait?” The earth pony reared up briefly on her back hooves and boxed her forehooves out some. The aggressive stance looked a bit silly on such a willowy pony. “I bet we could show a few more of ‘em not to try to play a trick on ponies!”

Trixie glanced back more fully. The earth pony was starting to creep her out a little. What was there to be so cheerful about? It wasn’t as if she had glorious victory to savor, like Trixie did. She was just chased by a bunch of changelings in a bid to set her up to have her lover replaced. “No, little hayseed. Trixie thanks you for pointing her to the ones that were playacting fighting your changeling. Also for watching Trixie’s back while she dispatched the ones that came to help them home. But the hive won’t just keep sending tiny trickles of minions to retrieve them. This ridiculously long day has been generally terrible, and being buried under a hundred changelings wouldn’t make it any better.”

“It hasn’t been so bad. If you spend any time in the Everfree, you get used to being chased by scary things.” Turning attention to the lingering sunset had a sobering effect on the filly. At the very least she stopped extravagantly raising her hooves with every step. “Why hasn’t the sun set, anyway?”

“Ahh, yes, Trixie heard you had been out in the forest for a long time. I’m not sure how you survived both the Everfree and the changelings. Since you’re out here to begin with, it obviously isn’t through making good decisions.” Trixie was about to scold herself for falling back on habits of easy cruelty, but decided against it.

Really, how much can I be expected to take? Who enters the Everfree without half the army or the magnificent might of a unicorn like me? With changelings ravaging Equestria no less.

"In any case,” Trixie breezed on, ignoring Leaf Swirl’s frown, “the news is sketchy. Rumors. They say that Celestia has been injured in another attack on Canterlot.” Injured or killed, but Trixie didn’t repeat that part. The Everfree wasn’t the place to nurse a pony through the standard wave of crying that came with the news. “Some are saying that Luna is making some mad grab for power. But then, it would probably be night by now. That one is stupid. Twilight Sparkle has apparently been enspelled into some kind of madness and shredded half of the castle before being contained. Perhaps Trixie will catch the train later, now that she thinks about it. It would be a fitting reunion to breeze in, break the dark enchantment, and save Twilight’s flank.”

There was silence for a minute or two. Trixie didn’t interrupt it. Leaf Swirl’s eyes had gone all misty at the mention of Celestia’s injury and the unicorn had the feeling that if she said anything the filly’s resolve would crack. She’d had more than enough of that back in Hoofington. There had been so much wailing and crying in the streets that the city’s weather team could probably take a few days off from rain duty. The green pony must have been a very pious thing to be harder struck by Celestia’s injury than her fillyfriend’s capture.

“So, you know Twilight Sparkle? What’s she like?” Leaf Swirl ventured, once she had composed herself some, and was willing to talk again.

“She was...” Trixie took a moment to ponder the question. “... modest? Shy? But she was bold when it counted. Some idiots had woken up an Ursa Minor, and Trixie was facing it all alone at the center of Ponyville. Her best spells didn’t do anything other than make it angry. What can anypony do against a beast the size of a barn? It was the end. There was no way to run from that thing. It would have scooped Trixie up after two steps.” The blue unicorn gave her potential fan an encouraging look. “Like you, Trixie seemingly faced a seemingly insurmountable foe! She had to choose between death on her hooves, like a mare, or cowering like a foal. Like you, Trixie was about to leap into action. In your case, you were lucky Trixie wasn’t really a foe after all.” She brought forth the unconscious drones in a line, rocking them back and forth, and let them drift forward, to illustrate her next words. “Twilight Sparkle lifted the monster up, as if it didn’t weigh as much as a train, enspelled it to sleep, and levitated it miles away to its cave, without so much as lifting a hoof.”

Trixie stopped, and turned to face the filly that followed. She reared upward dramatically, telekinesis giving her cape an impressive flourish. Glinting motes of pink light swirled up around her from her hooves. Her voice rose to a grand, sweeping pitch. “You’ve seen a small fraction of the mettle of the Great and Powerful Trixie! Doubtless you heard of her defeating the Beast of Hoofington years past! She carries in her the blood of Starswirl the Bearded, in a line a thousand years unbroken! She is doubtless the most powerful unicorn alive!” Trixie dropped back to all four hooves. The lights went out, save for the gentle aura around the floating changelings, letting gloom creep back in. “Or so Trixie thought. Sparkle made her look like a foal lifting her first teacup. As you began to see, things have changed.”

The unicorn, without another word, began back toward Hoofington once more. Leaf Swirl blinked herself out of her trancelike attention and gave chase to catch up. “Wow. She sounds pretty impressive, I guess. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the newspapers and stuff, when they talk about the Element Bearers. It seems so unreal. Oh! Now that you mention it, I do remember you! I mean, I was just a foal back then. But the monster was eating ponies, right? Dragging them into the sewers?”

Trixie frowned. She couldn’t have been much younger than this filly back then. She didn’t like the implications vis-a-vis her own age. “A foal? I thought you said that changeling took the form of a herd-mate. Aren’t you a little young to be in a herd?”

“No. Aren’t you a little old not to be?” Leaf shot back, defensively.

Trixie sputtered in irritation. The nerve! How did she know that Trixie wasn’t? In the end she decided to raise her muzzle up with lordly disdain. “Trixie has very refined tastes. She won’t be part of anyone’s harem.”

Leaf scowled in return. After a moment she wilted somewhat and raised a forehoof in surrender. “Whatever. I don’t want to fight. I can’t wait to get back to the real Storm Front, and all the rest. Mock if you want. Call it old fashioned. But there’s nothing like knowing that there’s all those ponies who care about me, waiting to welcome me back. To make sure I’m okay. It’s like a family. You’ll like the real Storm Front. I’ll introduce you. The changeling did a great impression. She’s all bold and strong and fearless. You have a lot in common.”

Trixie stopped abruptly in her tracks. Leaf Swirl walked right into her, sending her stumbling forward a step or two. The filly wasn’t much of an earth pony, but even so, she was all but an oncoming landslide compared to a unicorn. Trixie recovered with as much grace as she could.

Oh, sweet Luna, no wonder she wasn’t upset about her lover. How can this girl not know? Why do I always have to break the horrid news?

Trixie considered just letting others deal with it, letting them be the shoulder to cry on. It’s what Old Trixie would have done. If there was one thing that Hoofington had taught her, however, it was that she needed to strive for being a better pony. Also, she didn’t know if she could endure more nagging after the autograph thing. Maybe it was mostly that.

“Little hayseed...” Trixie paused, and started again, reaching up to place a forehoof on the filly’s shoulder. It was awkward, but it wasn’t as if Trixie was well practiced in offering comfort. “Leaf Swirl. Your herd will be in Hoofington, waiting. Storm Front won’t be. We haven’t gotten one of the replaced ones back yet.”

Eyes wide, pupils shrinking quickly to pinpricks, Leaf Swirl stared at Trixie. “D-dead?” She squeaked. Obviously it was all she could manage. The word set tears to gathering in the filly’s eyes.

Almost surely. “Maybe not,” Trixie answered, just a bit angry at herself for the cowardly softening of the truth. She would rather deal with a dozen changelings than one inconsolable, bawling filly. “Raiders, those bigger changelings, don’t have to necessarily kill to rip out a pony’s memories. That one was pretty impressive, even for a Raider. The biggest Trixie has seen. Chances are your Storm Front was more or less intact after the... process.” She didn’t even consider detailing that. “They’ll have shoved her in some pod in the Hive, probably playing out some happy memories of herd and home, so the hive can collect love from her.” Which would wither her down to a soulless husk in a few weeks, or less, depending on how hungry they are.

“Well, why isn’t Princess Luna or the Element Bearers or the Army kicking in the door of the hive to save my Stormy!?” Leaf shouted, a rather poor idea in the Everfree. She shoved her face into Trixie’s, as if blaming her for the whole affair. Trixie flinched away, taking hurried steps back.

“They would if they knew where it was! They think it’s somewhere in the Everfree! They’re searching, but tracking an army of subversive shapeshifting love-eaters wasn’t exactly on the West Hoof syllabus. I’m looking too, but the forest is huge, and thick and deadly,” Trixie whispered, suddenly rather nervous about making noise.

“W-well, do better!” Leaf’s voice broke somewhat, but it was still far too loud for Trixie’s liking. It wouldn’t exactly be tactful to enspell her muzzle shut, but Trixie considered it anyway.

“Doing better seems like all I’m doing these days!” But then, it wasn’t exactly a time to be dipping into the philosophy of self improvement. The unicorn changed tracks quickly. “You’re some kind of forester-pony?” She asked, leaning to one side to inspect the wind-blown leaves of Leaf Swirl’s cutie mark.

The question seemed to knock the younger pony off of her angry rant. She looked puzzled as to where Trixie was going with the question, but she obediently answered. “Um... yes? Sort of. I’m a herbalist. The Everfree is full of all sorts of magical plants with amazing properties. The forest really isn’t so bad if you know what to watch out for, and keep an eye out and don’t let your... guard... down...” The green filly’s words slowed to a stop, she stared over Trixie’s shoulder, eyes returning to that all too common widened state.

“Well, maybe you could offer the Army some advice,” Trixie began, oblivious. “They could surely use a hint of talent and... and there’s something terrible creeping up behind Trixie, isn’t there?”

* * *

General Bright Sunshine shucked her helmet down on the table dominating the center of her tent with a relieved sigh. She turned a small knob on the lantern at the center with her mouth, making the tiny barely-there flame leap up into a far brighter one. The mare set herself in front of her mirror and began to mouth open the straps of her armor. Her attendant, Private White Shield, an unexpectedly beige earth colt, trotted in a moment later, and true to form, immediately started scolding the mare on the very opposite heights of his lowly rank. “General, honestly! Let me do that.”

Sunshine rolled her eyes, albeit good-naturedly, at the familiar pattern that they’d fallen into in the last year. She left off her attack of the straps and rose back up onto all four hooves. With a familiar rattle of hinged steel the general stretched her yellow-orange wings upward to full extension, to get the razor-sharp blades strapped to their leading edge out of the way of Shield’s work. As she often did, she took a bit of satisfaction in how the colt’s eyes followed the display without any input from conscious processes. Seemed like more and more non-pegasi each year were wise to that particular sight. Maybe the last few years of Hearth Warming Eve plays had been really good, and inter-tribal unity was on the rise?

Still, not bad for an old nag, Sunshine thought with playful self-recrimination. She knew it was an exaggeration. She was comfortably middle aged, which entailed rather less years than it did for the other tribes. Pegasi lived fast, but rarely long. One that continued beyond the middle sixties was practically a wizened elder of absurd age.

Sunshine shook out her sunflower-yellow mane a little in the companionable silence of the daily tradition. She was eager to get the armor off, however. Everypony was tired. The lengthened day had all but tricked everyone into working late. Though undoubtedly many, like her, had used that work as an excuse not to think about what the extended hours meant. Still, despite the time, nearly midnight, she knew she wouldn’t sleep until the messenger pegasi she sent to Canterlot returned with solid news. The fact that she hadn’t received any official briefs from the capital was ominous in itself. She had been worried enough that she had sent pegasi scouts on a shorter trip just to spot the mountain and ensure the city still perched on it intact. At least that much had been confirmed.

Once the last of her barding and underpadding had been stripped away, and the girth strap of her wing blade harness was unbuckled, Sunshine herself went to work unsecuring her blades. The first time Shield had tried to do it for her, she had almost cut his throat with a shocked, reflexive twitch. Her first attendant had been a pegasus, and she hadn’t thought to warn the newer earth pony away from taking off that bit of equipment. Apparently education on wings among other tribes went only so far as teaching them how to spot a turned-on pegasus. Which was typical.

Unlimbered of all that steel and bronze, Sunshine took a luxurious moment to roll her shoulders and stretch her wings out until her feathers quivered from the strain. Of course, after removing all armor and weapons of war, that’s when the alarmed shouting started in the camp.

A peek outside of her tent flap had the General covering her face with a stretched wing and groaning in martyred dismay. “Oh Celestia. Why do you test me so? White Shield, bring that letter from the table. The one with the gold seal.” Sunshine steeled herself and left her tent to face her trial.

* * *

Trixie stood in front of the General with a cheery, innocent smile on her face. She had set herself right in the middle of one of the causeways leading toward the center of the camp. A dejected looking young green mare was behind her, her short, ragged tail hanging limply, and her head low. Tents lined the way. Most of the ponies inside were sleeping, but a small crowd of soldiers was starting to gather, curious. They had heard of, or seen, the blue unicorn before. “General Sunshine! What a pleasure to meet you again!”

“Miss Tricky,” the General began.

“Trixie!” The showmare corrected, her smugly cheerful demeanor faltering instantly.

“Apologies, Miss Trixie, Might I ask what the meaning of this is?” The general motioned with a hoof toward the collection of pink auras in the air behind the blue unicorn.

“Ahh, Trixie collected four more Drones while she was taking a casual evening stroll in the Everfree. Or more accurately on a relaxing detour to save a fair filly maiden. She happened to remember there was a bounty should anyone capture a changeling.”

“Not that.” Sunshine could keep her from voice from descending into a growl, but her wings spread with aggression to match her anger.

“Oh! This is a manticore.” Trixie used a tone that one would take with a foal., as if she was going to spell the name out next, educationally. The unicorn levitated the enormous, if limp, winged, stinger-tailed leonine creature forward. “Trixie was going to see if the Hoofington Zoo wanted one. Why, did you want it?”

The General glared, allowing herself a private fantasy wherein the intensity of said glare made the unicorn burst into flames spontaneously.

Said unicorn looked up innocently, her eyes widening as if in sudden realization. She levitated the seven wildly struggling, armored pony soldiers gently down on the ground in various orientations. Coincidentally none of those positions included being gracefully placed on all four hooves. The two placed flat on their backs in the mud seemed particularly vexed. “Trixie would forget her head if it wasn’t the source of so much excellence. Yes, they were worried I was a changeling when I came out of the forest. Since even Chrysalis herself surely can’t match the rapidly increasing magical talents of the Great and Powerful Trixie, she thought to provide a demonstration! But Trixie sometimes forgets the little people. She’s working on that. It’s her one flaw.”

Sunshine made a cutting gesture with a hoof to the recently released mares and stallions, to keep them from pouncing on the spellslinger. A few pointed looks and a moment or two of waiting had dropped the gathering crowd to four. Trixie, Sunshine, Shield and the green filly following the showmare, whom the general addressed next.

“Miss Leaf Swirl, I presume?”

“You remember the name of someone you haven’t even met, but not Trixie’s!?”

Sunshine ignored the unicorn’s outraged shouting. “We’ve had a lot of people worried about you. My patrols have had your description since we started scouting the Everfree.”

The filly’s head lowered all the more, ears flattening. She was obviously nervous. Her words came out in an overly quick stream. “I’m sorry, General, Sir, Ma’am. I’m pretty hard to find when I’m out there. I might have passed by your mares a half dozen times. You don’t investigate noises or anything when you go out there. You hide or go some other way. Nobody was saying anything about the changelings in the Everfree when I left a week ago. I figured, where would be safer from them than the most dangerous place in Equestria, where there’s nopony for them to eat?”

“Safe and Everfree don’t belong in the same sentence. How did you survive out there?”

Leaf Swirl shrugged listlessly. “I’ve been sneaking into the forest since I was a foal. I got my cutie mark out there. The place has a certain sense and rhythm. If you know it, it’s not so bad at all.”

“Earth pony silliness is hardly required to travel the Everfree in safety!” Trixie’s horn ignited, flicking her cape into a dashing ripple. She looked from under the brim of her hat at the General. “One can also employ the talents of the most magical unicorn in all Equestria!” After a few dancing swirls of light erupted from the ground around her, and the chords of her music played, the mage let her cape settle against her back. She closed her eyes serenely. “Starting in the morning. Or eternal-sunset equivalent. Trixie is tired. One hundred bits per hour. Plus danger pay if she’s forced to save quivering soldiers from manticores or such.”

Certainly at least one pony was impressed. Leaf Swirl perked up a little bit. The shadow of a worshipful smile edged onto her lips. “It’s worth it. She hit it with a tree!

“Only three quarters of one, and I think a few termites might have gotten at the trunk a bit,” Trixie offered with false modesty.

Sunshine grit her teeth in frustration. She wore the pained look of someone with a mounting headache. “White Shield. Give Miss Dixie her...”

“Trixie! Trixie just said it like a hundred times!”

“... letter. Then go to Warrant Officer Tipped Scales to get the current bounty for four Drones. All Equestria thanks you for your service, Miss Trixie. Except for, I wager, those that have had to listen to you. Miss Swirl, I’ll have some of my ponies escort you home.”

Trixie ignored the insult magnanimously. She would find some new way to repay it next time. She couldn’t repeat the levitating soldiers thing again. Or announcing herself with an image appearing in every reflecting surface in the camp. (She’d heard she’d even appeared in a few bowls of soup in the mess tent with that spell!) It was a shame that levitating the General’s tent out of the camp to the edge where Trixie had been standing had to be a one shot. It was a lot of effort anyway, with keeping the floor stiff and going slow enough not to wake the general. It would have to be some new amusement. Her fans in the camp would expect no less.

“That won’t be necessary. I’ll escort my rescued damsel myself, thankyouv-” Trixie went silent after she’d levitated the carefully folded letter from the earth pony’s offering lips. She stared with a certain wonder at the gold sunburst sealing it. “The royal seal,” she whispered in awe.

“Probably the last thing to come from Princess Celestia’s desk before this.” Sunshine motioned with a wing in the direction of the motionless sun. “I would ask you to treat it with more respect than you treat those fighting on Her Majesty’s behalf. Now, good day, Miss Trixie.”

Trixie spared no attention for the departing General, though Leaf hurriedly called out her thanks. The unicorn, after making sure there wasn’t mud on her hoof, reverently brushed the thick paper of the letter with it. It was a soft, unbleached yellow. She could see the hint of gold leaf along the inner edges. She even, after making sure only Leaf was really paying attention, brought the letter toward her nose to breathe in the smell of it. Paper, ink and a hint of something warm and summery.

Leaf Swirl was looking over her shoulder curiously, and more than a little impatiently. Nopony could resist getting a peek at anything from Celestia. Trixie savored the moment. She carefully worked her magic under the gold wax, to free the seal without breaking it, and lovingly unfolded the letter to read it by the light of the red sun.

- - - - -

To Beatrix Lulamoon
The Great and Powerful
The Wise
Magus of the Realm
Slayer of the Beast of Hoofington

This is the third letter I’ve found myself writing you in your lifetime, my little pony. Each time your list of accolades and titles grows longer. Soon you’ll be eclipsing Celestia, Sol Invicta, the Lifegiver, Ruler of the Principality of Equestria, Heir to Unicornia, Bearer of the Earthen Scepter, Dictatora of Pegasopolis, Marshal of the Armies, High Seat of the Order of the Sun, Duchess of Everfree, etcetera.

To that effect, I think I will dub you Changelingbane. I’ll have to think up a suitable ceremony, but feel free to amend it to your introductions until then. I think it’s suitably dramatic.

I was surprised to hear that you’ve once more taken up the life of the hero in Hoofington. You must have been barely a filly when you received my first congratulatory letter, along with your diploma and the titles of The Wise and Magus of the Realm for graduating from my school. The next was barely a year after when you slew the Razorbear that had found its way from the Everfree into Hoofington. Unfortunately I missed your time as a travelling performer. I understand the Beast got somewhat remodelled in the telling? It was hardly a necessary change. A Razorbear might not be the size of my palace, but it’s a formidable creature that costs far more Equestrian lives than the sleepy, reclusive Ursas.

Twilight Sparkle tells me that I have a rather compulsive habit of offering lessons, but given what I hear from Hoofington of late, it seems you already learned the one I might offer. Instead I will make a plea. Stay safe, my little pony, while on your worthy quest.

Your Princess thanks you for each of the precious lives you’ve saved. If there were more ponies of your quality, the burden of the Crown would be light indeed.


Princess Celestia of Equestria

Sol Invicta, Ruler of the Principality of Equestria, et al.

PS. Twilight would no doubt like me to tell you that the surviving belongings from your coach are in storage at her library.

PPS. Please go easy on General Sunshine. Pegasi are so short-lived as it is. I’d prefer it if you didn’t give her a stroke. (Though I will remember you if ever Luna sleeps in a tent pavillion.)

- - - - -

Trixie watched the pastel pile of somehow happy yet crying ponies from a distance. She had to admit, it was just disgustingly cute and heartwarming how the group had practically dogpiled Leaf Swirl in relief when she and Trixie were spotted approaching the herd’s home. There were six of them still, counting Leaf and the group’s blue stallion.

It was hard not to smile, but Trixie managed to at least twist it into a look of vague self-satisfaction. That part wasn’t too hard. She allowed herself a well-deserved pat on the back for the rescue. Admittedly she had gone out trying to find Storm Front, whom the herd had worried had gone into the Everfree looking for Leaf. She hadn’t volunteered that information. As far as Trixie was concerned, the more time the filly had before having to face the guilt that she was an indirect cause for the whole tragedy, the better. Getting both back would have been nice. Still, judging by what she saw and was told, Trixie got the feeling that Storm Front would have wanted the innocent filly saved instead of her anyway. She seemed like a good head mare. Protecting the ones they love was the central thing to that old-fashioned type.

Trixie was just about to make a quiet escape when Leaf managed to wiggle out of the technicolour pile to bound toward her. She stopped nearby, and after wiping her tears off on the back of her foreleg, she managed a shaky, if sunny smile for the magician. “Thanks for everything, Trixie. Um... maybe we’ll go out to the Everfree again? I think what you said about helping makes sense. There aren’t exactly many guides for the forest. Stormy would do it for me.”

She did, in fact. Old Trixie might have been cruel enough to say it. The New and More Powerful Trixie reached up to ruffle the filly’s mane fondly. “Trixie is sure of it. She can’t fault your bravery, but be careful little hayseed. If you run into trouble, you do your earth pony thing and blend in, understand? The Great and Powerful Trixie may be able to work feats of battle-craft beyond imagination, but not many others can. If Trixie is not there to protect you next time, you consider your herd first.”

The green filly gave a shy little nod to that. “You’d be a pretty good head mare, know that? I mean, if you ever wanted to be. You could, um... you know...”

Before the filly could offer her the keys to her house, Trixie worked a bit of spellcraft to materialize two faux-gold tickets out of thin air. Or rather, she briefly rendered them invisible, levitated them from under her collar, and released the spell with the appropriate application of sparkly effects to make it seem that way. Teleportation and matter creation were hard. Misdirection was easy. She tucked the tickets in behind one of the filly’s ears and gave her cheek a little nuzzle. “Trixie needs adoring fans more than a gaggle of lovers, my little admirer. She does shows at the amphitheatre on Fridays. Come see her there and offer a cheer if you’re feeling grateful, and up to it. If you feel very grateful, bring the whole group. Trixie only has those two free tickets, and could always use more bits if you’re forced to buy four more.”

* * *

Trixie was humming a happy tune as she turned the key to unlock her house door. It was a sad sign of the recent times that people had actually begun to use them. Not that Trixie herself was worried about changelings, all considered. However, there was still...

“Yeee-aaah!” Came a high-pitched battle cry as Trixie walked into the door. She didn’t bat an eye. She just ignited her horn, wrapping the leaping snow-white pegasus in a pink aura, stopping her dead in the air.

... Sweet Relief to consider. Not every mare could have a Princess dubbing them Changelingbane. Not that Sweet really needed the protection either, truthfully, for various reasons. But appearances had to be maintained.

“Mark my words, Trixie Lulamoon! One of these times I will get the upper hand! Then I’ll be wearing the hat in this relationship, and you won’t be allowed to go out wandering into the Everfree to leave me worrying all n-”

Trixie, not missing a note in her tune, levitated her hat off her pale-maned head and shoved it down onto the pegasus’ yellow-haired one. The hat was somewhat too large for the smaller mare and covered her orange eyes to the muzzle. Before the pegasus could scoop it off, the unicorn flipped her over in the air, so her hooves were above her, and her wings were fluttering uselessly. She kissed the now upside down mare hard enough to practically bruise her lips. White legs kicked, went stock-still and straight, then finally seemed to lose all their strength to a melty, jellyish relaxation. Satisfied, the magus pulled her muzzle away, levitated the pegasus above a nearby couch, and dropped her onto it with a soft ‘pompf’. She let the gold-sealed letter drift down to land under the pale mare’s chin after. Walking out of the room with an unhurried four-beat gait, Trixie resumed her humming as if she hadn’t paused at all.

“What I meant was ‘Welcome home’! OHMYGOSH! Is this a letter from the Princess!? Is she okay?” Came a call in that oh-so-sweet voice from the next room.

Trixie found herself smiling as she came to rest in front of her writing desk. She dripped a quill in ink and set to work, writing a few quick thoughts into the margins of an article from the Equestrian Journal of Arcane Energistics verbosely titled ‘A Study on Practical Use of the Arcane Potential of Interpony Harmonics, by Twilight Sparkle’. Trixie had crossed out that absurd title and penned ‘The Magic of Love’ below to replace it days ago, surrounded by the sappiest heart her peerless artistry could manage. Below it ‘by Trixie Lulamoon’ had been added as an afterthought, after scribbling out Twilight Sparkle’s name.

Sparkle theorized, but Trixie was a worldly mare. Magic was something that needed to be put into practical use, or what was the point? Thus Trixie had her advantage. The ‘why’ of her increasing powers had been a mystery. She owed Sparkle to some small degree for explaining it. That the blossoming of a silly crush, over a mare who had saved her from her ill-fated shortcut through the Everfree, had become her salvation from the mediocrity of second place would have been unthinkable a year before. But it had.

Twilight sat in some library and pretentiously pondered, writing obscure papers that maybe two dozen ponies would read, and fewer would understand. Trixie acted, and Hoofington, and the Goddess of the Sun herself, sang her praises.

The weight of the heavy pouch of bits under her cape was a fine reward, Trixie thought, but better still was the knowledge that it had been so easy. A warm, fuzzy feeling in her heart had turned into a magical fire that could swat aside the feared foe that had invaded the Royal City itself.

The encounter in the forest had been more proof that she wouldn’t long have to labor under the disgusting title of Second.

Leaf had been right. The overlong day hadn’t been terrible. Trixie decided that it had been generally excellent, after all.

Five - Twilight: Recrimination

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Twilight oozed toward wakefulness to the time of a steady, rhythmic beeping. She considered that with glacial, muzzy speed.

Did Spike get one of those pegasus-charged clocks with the artificial buzzer? Or one of those newer ones that plugged into the far steadier electrical current from the dam near Ponyville? Twilight liked her old alarm clock. An earth pony one that wound by mouth or with telekinesis. It lasted nearly as long as the unicorn or pegasus-magic powered ones, was far more reliable, and Spike could wind it with his claws. Celestia had given it to her, ostensibly as a random gift, in her teen years, when she hit a phase of being a little full of herself about her magic. The lesson in the value of other tribes had been subtle, but deep. Besides, that one could be counted on to be loud enough to wake her. This one was practically lulling her back to sleep. It was just too quiet and even, following the beat of her heart.

She wasn’t waking until Spike called her for breakfast. Maybe not even then, if it wasn’t something particularly appetizing. The unicorn felt just too much like when she was wrapped up in Celestia’s wings. Warm, comfortable and perfectly safe. The thought didn’t cause the same flutter in her heart that it normally did though. It kind of twisted up her middle, instead. That was strange.

Rarity must have come over to visit, she could hear the mare somewhere nearby-ish. Odd how she hadn’t noticed before. Well, good, that would keep Spike occupied while she got more sleep.

“I’ve no excuse for it. I can only apologize, but that seems to be a meager thing. I fear I shan’t ever live down the shame of it. After all your kind words to me, no less! I’ve let us both down.”

Rarity’s voice was filled with woe. That alone didn’t exactly get Twilight flinging herself out from under the covers. She a pony that loved histrionics. Upon first meeting Rarity it had seemed a bit absurd to Twilight. That feeling remained, actually. That being said, Twilight wouldn’t change Rarity for anything. For all her passionate swings of mood she was a wise, collected and worldly pony.

Could a pony be both collected and passionate? Normally the question would have Twilight double-checking a copy of the dictionary. At that moment she was still just too warm and cozy. The happy, fuzzy feeling she got from thinking about her friend just fit along too well with that. Rarity was her very best friend for certain.

“...were just thinking! Honestly! I’m not the thought-police, Rarity.” Oh! She missed some of that while she was thinking. The second voice took longer to place. It wasn’t one of her friends, but it was very familiar. Someone from town? “I do, however, get to feel just how much my husband loves me. Can you imagine the confidence boost it is to get a taste of how he heats up a little when I walk into a room? Or to be entirely, one hundred percent sure, that he feels the same way about me as I do about him?”

Twilight tried to follow the conversation, but it all just seemed like too much work. Better to just sort of drift. She never really felt like this when waking up. Maybe she was really tired? Was it still the middle of the night? She certainly felt pretty sleepy.

Rarity was clearly halfway to outright hysterics. So, normal, in other words. “Oh! Please believe me when I say that I never would want to challenge that. That’s why I felt so terrible when I thought it! It was just a moment of foalish, insensitive fancy. Rational, proper parts of me are simply in awe of what you have. Your husband is a stallion of loyalty and fine taste. He would never stray.”

“Shining thinks you’re the most beautiful unicorn that he’s ever seen.” That strange voice again, in an even tone, mentioned Shining? Shining Armor? Her brother? Her very best friend? Twilight tried to focus, but it was just so hard. Her head wasn’t working right. It felt like it was filled with cotton, all soft and fuzzy.

There was a choking sound.

That unplaceable voice laughed lightly. It was a pretty thing, and much easier to follow than the words. That laugh was even more familiar than the voice. Cadance! It was her foalsitter. Her oldest and dearest of friends. Her voice had changed some since her youth, but not so much that she should have had trouble recognizing it. What was she doing in her library in Ponyville anyway? “I wasn’t bragging before. I know how Shiny feels about me. I don’t have to worry if he finds a mare beautiful. I don’t even have to worry that he liked leaning up against you as much as you did. Or that he thought you were pretty inspiring today.” Cadance’s voice softened. “I happen to share that opinion myself.”

“I...” Rarity didn’t get any further.

There was a rustle of pony feathers. The young alicorn’s voice cut Rarity off. “I think she’s awake. She feels diff-”

Oh forget it. Twilight couldn’t keep up with it. The conversation just seemed to be zipping by somehow, like when Pinkie Pie got the idea to use caffeine pills when baking. If it's important they’ll wake me up.

Twilight allowed herself to float back off into warm oblivion.

* * *

There was that beeping again. Just as slow and metronome-even as before. It wasn’t even waking her up. It was the talking again that did that.

“...looks pretty bucked up. Why’s she still out?” That somewhat scratchy voice was one Twilight knew. Rainbow Dash. Her heart blossomed with that contented feeling again. She liked Dash’s voice. It was very cool. Maybe even awesome. It was just very Rainbow Dash. Presumably all those were the same thing.

“Rainbow Dash! Don’t swear. We’re in a hospital. There’s sick ponies here!” That was Fluttershy. Her voice was so cute! Twilight always liked how it got when she was being protective of someone. She was always so much more confident, and you could tell she was trying to be loud, but her voice was still butter-soft and oh-so-kind.

“...burn and exhaustion. The doctors weren’t even sure why her horn didn’t crack from the heat of all that spellcasting.” Oh, the conversation had gone on ahead of her while she was thinking. That wasn’t normal, but Twilight found she couldn’t really conjure up the energy to worry about it. “...part of the brain. That can happen when a unicorn pushes themselves too hard. They don’t think that happened, thank Celes-- Um, thank heavens. But they have her on magic-restoring medicine. It makes ponies tired and really disoriented. So... um... that’s probably why she’s still sleeping. ”

Twilight’s insides twisted up again when Fluttershy started to mention Celestia. The talk of medicine made her forget about it instantly. Her brain churned up a few names out of nowhere. Salvia Magisterum. Atropa Equina. Amanita Lunara. Tabernanthe Etherum from the Zebra lands. Lophophora... something. The cactus they found when settling New Appleloosa. All magic restoring hallucinogens or entheogens that were turned into medicines for unicorns. Twilight briefly wondered what it said about unicorns that the things that restored their powers also made them go crazy. She could go crazy sometimes. When she felt the very opposite of how she felt at that instant.

Well, perchance that pondering of insanity wasn’t so brief. By the time she tried listening for her friends again, everything was silent except for that steady, almost hypnotic beeping. She let herself sink back down, the warmth seeming to reach up and physically swallow her halfway. It was sort of nice. Comfortable. She would have preferred hearing her friends again though.

* * *

The whole world was dead. The landscape of Equestria stretched out around her, all grey and black with ash. Smoke, not clouds, covered the sky.

Twilight was in Celestia’s own garden, in one of the highest courtyards tucked right up against the near vertical slope of the mountain. If it was any place less intimately known to Twilight she would never have picked it out. That heat-crumbled ruin of broken stone was where the Princess trained her in levitation. Her first successful teleportation had once nearly put her inside a cherry tree which was now nothing but a twisted, brittle stick of charcoal. By the pile of ash that used to be a thick, flowering hedge, she and Celestia had once shared a heaping pile of overripe cherries. They’d been unable to get the red out of the fur around their mouths and hooves, and Celestia was forced to go to a meeting with the Cervine ambassador afterward looking like she’d decided to become a carnivore. The diplomatic corps still called it Red Thursday.

Twilight Sparkle spared no real attention to the landscape. Her wide eyes were locked on the horror in front of her, unable to look away. The fire blackened bones of an enormous pony, easily twice the size of the largest stallion, writhed in the ash. It twisted and contorted in apparent agony. Delicate wing bones flailed uselessly at air and the ground. The single-horned skull stared right at her, the deathly rictus breaking as it opened its mouth to silently scream. The undying thing scraped uselessly at the ground, trying to pull itself toward her. Its horn flickered with dying magic. That beautiful, solar-gold magic. Twilight found herself frozen in place, body unmoving except for the wracking shudders that came as a sob tore itself from her throat.

Gracefully long, midnight-blue feathers passed between her and the sight of that writhing thing. Twilight flung herself to the side, burying her face into Luna’s chest, wailing. A hoof shod in strange metal awkwardly embraced her. Those soft, dark feathers enfolded her.

Twilight didn’t know how long she cried in her friend’s forelegs. It could have been minutes or hours. All she knew was that eventually she found herself slumped into the ash, numb, her insides feeling achingly hollow after the release of her sobbing. The ruins of the garden were empty except for her and the dark alicorn. She couldn’t remember why that was important, or why the place filled her with a quiet dread.

“Who did this, Twilight Sparkle? Dost thou remember?” Luna’s voice was brittle, but insistent. She hadn’t heard that tone before from the princess of the night. “Who harmed our Sister? Who didst thou do battle with? The guards reported seeing no enemy, or anything at all, our Sister’s display saw to that. But thou clearly witnessed it.”

Twilight blinked with confusion. “Is there something wrong with the Princess? I was fighting? Are you talking about the wedding?”

“Nay, not then, yesterday. Think. Focus. Who harmed Celestia?”

Twilight’s brow furrowed in concentration. There was no revelation. Her mind seemed sluggish and muddled. “I don’t... the changeling queen? They fought in the throne room, and...” The unicorn lost that thread of thought. She looked up helplessly at the goddess.

Luna huffed in frustration. “Thy mind is lost in either the Moon’s Agaric or injury.” The alicorn breathed a suffering sigh, and unfolded her wings. The tips of her pinions airily touched below the lines of Twilight’s jaw, and with infinite gentleness raised the unicorn's muzzle. “We shall have to wait, as much as it pains us. Let nightmares trouble thee no longer, dear friend. Rest with our blessing.” Luna lowered her head, touching a kiss to the top of Twilight’s nose. A soothing breeze passed, carrying the sweet scent of apple blossoms.

Twilight felt grass, cool with dew, touching her underside where only gritty ash once was. There was a new moment of blinking confusion, but it passed quickly. She was alone, but that wasn’t so unusual. She wasn’t far outside of the main streets of Ponyville, in a field close enough to Sweet Apple Acres to see the rolling hills covered in apple trees just beginning to flower. Warm sunlight shone down on her back. It was the very picture of idyllic peace. The colourful sight of ponies in the distance, in town and upon the roads, didn’t tempt her from moving from the field. Something told her she didn’t deserve to be with them. It was a bitter thought, and one she couldn’t explain, but it felt undoubtedly true. She lowered her chin down onto folded forelegs, her nose close enough to a nearby patch of honeysuckle flowers for them to at least sweeten the air. It didn’t help much, but it was calm, at least.

“Frowny Twilight isn’t much an improvement over Messy-Mane Twilight.”

The lavender filly lifted her gaze from the grass in front of her. She was quickly tempted to look away again, as she beheld a pink so garishly bright that it almost hurt the eyes. “Pinkie Pie?”

The poofy-maned earth pony settled down on her haunches nearby, and craned her neck down to bump Twilight’s cheek with the tip of her nose. “It’s not your fault, silly filly.”

“What isn’t? I...” The young mage felt moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes. She raised a forehood to brush at them in confusion. “I think I did something bad. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“You’re a good pony. That’s all that matters. We all go a bit loco-in-the-coco sometimes. Look on the bright side: At least your mane can’t get any straighter.” Pinkie raised herself to a more upright posture and nodded to herself resolutely. “What you need is some Pinkie-grade cheering up.”

Twilight folded her ears back. “I don’t think a party will fix things, Pinkie.”

“Well, parties fix me right up, when I’m feeling down. But Pinkie isn’t a one-trick pony. In fact, she’s got more tricks than Trixie. And that’s practically her name! What smart cookie librarians...” The party pony trailed off, as is suddenly reminded about something. She turned her head to reach behind her back, returning with a cookie delicately held between her lips. The earth pony placed it down on the back of Twilight’s foreleg and stared at her expectantly until the unicorn lowered her head to take a bite out of it. It was so full of chocolate chips that it fell apart after the first bite. It was sinfully rich and delicious. Pinkie continued on then, as if she had never stopped, apparently satisfied. “What smart cookie librarians need is a story. This is a great one that my Nana Pinkie told me.”

Twilight managed to offer her friend a glass-brittle smile. It was better than Pinkie trying to get her to play Pin the Tail on the Pony.

The earth pony rose up onto her hooves, bracing them far apart in a pose of wary action, looking left and right. “So, there Granny Pie was, not that she was a Granny yet, right on the edge of the balcony outside the palace ballroom. It was supposed to be a party to rub elbows with the other ponies in the Royal Archaeological Society, and meet the princess. There wasn’t supposed to be gryphons involved. Least of all him, the nefarious General Scar.”

Twilight stopped nosing after one of the fallen bits of the cookie. “Pinkie, that’s the opening scene to Daring Do and the Gryphon’s Goblet.”

Pinkie managed to look affronted. “Nuh uh. Mine’s better. And anyway, you love Daring Do, so win-win. Right, so, she knew she was in big trouble. An evening dress wasn’t the best thing to be facing a gryphon and his cronies in. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her, sure as her name was Pinkamena Constance Pie! Now, the thing about gryphons is...”

* * *

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Twilight woke with a start, her whole body jerking upward in place, to try to throw her upright. Her legs, both fore and rear, were abruptly stopped short. She fell back down to the soft, unfamiliar surface.

Beepbeep. Beepbeep. Beepbeep.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Her vision was blurred and washed out. Everything was a strange, ominous red-orange. The air had a chemical bite. Bizarre magi-technologies were complaining in a shrill symphony at her side, as they tracked her distress. Her head hurt so very badly. Her horn felt even worse. It was a sharp enough sensation that it was all she could do not to let out a sob.

Yellow and pink intruded on her unfocused sight. The unicorn tried to jerk herself away, but couldn’t, something that only engendered thrashing against whatever was holding her. Metal creaked discordantly. She hauled in a breath to scream. The familiar smell of grass and wildflowers came with that inhale, and sent instant relief filtering through her. She didn’t so much as twitch when that foreign shape lovingly nuzzled at her. Somehow that soft touch helped her calm, despite her horn.

“Shh. It’s all right,” Fluttershy cooed gently. The purple unicorn vaguely remembered strange, dreamy thoughts pondering how nice that voice was. It still was. It was beautiful, even if it was hard to fully appreciate at the moment.

She tried to talk, but her tongue felt swollen and parched in her mouth. Her words came out as a choked, pained croak that sounded horrible even to her ears.

There was a sound of water in some kind of container being disturbed. It made Twilight aware of a terrible thirst. She couldn’t imagine anything that would be better than a mouthful of water.

Fluttershy’s blurry face and mane came back into her sight again, something white in her mouth. The pegasus delicately placed a cold, wet cloth against her horn. Twilight hissed and nearly jumped again from sizzle of new agony, but a gentle butter-yellow hoof held her in place against the... bed? Floor?...with deceptive strength. After a second or two, the new pain ebbed away, and a share of the old started to numb away with it. Her body started to relax again. “It’s okay. We’re here. We’re taking care of you.”

“Just relax sugarcube. Ain’t no reason for you to be up yet. Close yer eyes,” another less distinct, but still familiar orange blur at the edge of her vision advised in a drawl. Applejack’s advice suddenly felt very, very good. She was so terribly exhausted. With Fluttershy’s hoof stroking her mane oh-so-gently, she allowed sleep to claim her again.

* * *




The monitor seemed to drone on at a snail’s pace. Every sound stretching out.

“Should’a seen her eyes.” Applejack’s richly accented voice was unmistakable, even if she did seem to be talking slowly. “Still glowin’. Shouldn’t they have stopped that by now?”

“Um... the doctors said that there’s some damage. Her eyes were open the whole time that the Princess was using her magic. B-but they don’t know why they’re still all... white. It’s sort of scary.” Twilight could practically hear the pegasus cringing.

“Are you kidding? It’ll actually be sort of normal for me. It’s the first thing I remember seeing, after I got out of that cozy egg.” Spike. A tension that the injured unicorn hadn’t even realized she was feeling suddenly released, upon hearing his voice. She felt the sudden urge to burst into tears, grab him and not let go. “Even after all these years, sometimes a part of me still tells me that it’s what a unicorn is supposed to look like.”

“I’ve never seen a unicorn who could sustain a surge for more than a few minutes. Who knows what the effects will be?” Luna’s voice was a welcome thing too, even if she was obviously trying to sound ‘normal’ again, and it turned her meager focus away from Spike. Twilight tried to struggle toward some measure of real awareness. It was like pulling oneself up a mountain with one weary hoof. The unicorn wasn’t even sure why it was so important. She had something to say? An apology? An admission? About what? “For myself, I consider it a hopeful thing. The greatest risk would be Twilight burning out her magic. Clearly it still flows strongly within her.”

Just the effort of trying to open her eyes or move her lips exhausted Twilight. She lay still for a moment, to gather her strength. Consciousness flitted away in the meanwhile.

* * *

Waking up to the feeling of sharp claws pricking at one’s skin would have been a nightmare for most unicorns. As a rule, ponies didn’t react all that well to predator species. Most especially not in their bed when they’re sleeping, unsurprisingly. For Twilight, it was a happy event. Spike’s scaly snout nosed itself up against her cheek in a very equine gesture of affection.

“Please be okay, Twi,” his voice was a whisper. The reason for his quiet tone was audible enough. Twilight could hear the deep, even breathing of sleep around her from several ponies. One, at least, was Rainbow. That mare spent practically half her life napping in public, and as such everyone in Ponyville was intimately familiar with her sleep habits. When she was on a cloud, she had the cutest, most ladylike little snores. Twilight and Rarity had giggled about it one morning over tea, early on, when they’d both agreed that Rainbow would probably prefer to sound like a badly tuned steam engine than be cute. Well, put that same pegasus on the ground, as she’d found out later, and she belted it out like a rusty sawmill. They didn’t allow clouds in hospitals.

The unicorn blearily opened her eyes. It was harder than it should have been, as the lids of her eyes were unpleasantly gummy and almost glued together. The room wasn’t exactly dark, as a certain amount of orange light filtered through blinds drawn across the window, but it was comfortably gloomy. Her vision didn’t appear to be any better, even if her brain seemed to be functional, for once. Her friends were fuzzy spots of familiar colour, and even Spike, practically right in front of her face, lacked detail. He instantly noticed her eyes opening, which wasn’t surprising. Not even her diminished vision missed the fact that the immediate area lit up as she opened her eyes. The effect was strange, and confusingly impossible. If her eyeballs really were glowing so brightly, she shouldn’t have been able to see a thing. The backscattered glare should have completely dazzled her, not just made things blurry.

“Twilight, you’re awake?” There was a note of excitement and relief in her brotherly assistant’s voice. For all he tried to play things cool and sarcastic, he was such a big softie inside.

The unicorn didn’t even try to talk. Her tongue still felt like a kitchen sponge that had been left in the sun for a week. To make matters worse, she couldn’t seem to get her forelegs to actually do anything. It wasn’t all that much easier to turn her head. The wave of dizziness that followed the small movement was intense. Still, with effort, she managed to give Spike a nuzzle not so different from the one he gave her a minute before. Weariness settled thickly over her, though the way Spike squeezed her tighter made it worth it even so. She hadn’t felt so worn out since running from that hydra in Froggy Bottom Bog.

All from turning my head?

There wasn’t any warning. Twilight's thoughts winked out, as if someone had just flicked off a switch.

* * *

Twilight sat at the center of a great pulsing web. She couldn’t see it, exactly, but she could feel it, stretching out near and far through a great emptiness. It was a thing of endless complexity, overlapping and radiating, thick in places and thin in others. The threads weren’t sticky silk, but things spun of warmth and welcome and need. It was a pleasant web to be captured in, really.

Somewhere off in the distance were entities dark and brooding. They sat in the thickest part of the web and gorged on the strands like bloated, shadowy ticks. The pattern was always so much thinner and colder near them. Their presence made the unicorn quiver in base fear and try to burrow down into the warmth of the strands around her.

Submerged into the embrace of that web, it was easy to forget about those distant, tumorous creatures. Everything was peaceful within, as if the whole world was singing a loving, gentle song to her. Aches, which she only noticed by their sudden absence, melted away, and any sense of time or place went with them.

* * *

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Twilight felt something cold touch her lips. A drop of water struck her tongue. It felt like it might not have been the first. Her tongue felt less like gummy sandpaper than she remembered. The purple unicorn’s eyes fluttered open. The room was still orange-red. Without shock and panic running riot through her, and with her consciousness feeling rather less fragile, she could puzzle out what was happening. She was in a hospital room. In a recovery bed. The light of sunset was streaming in through the windows. Had it been a whole day since she was last awake? She felt too different for it to be just a few minutes after her last foray into wakefulness.

Of course, the fact that there were flowers everywhere was a rather notable difference. There were colourful bouquets and pots scattered on every available surface. More were stacked up against the back wall. There must have been dozens of them. Twilight couldn’t make out many details, but the colours were deliciously vibrant. It sent a pang of hunger through her belly.

Her tongue darted out to collect the moisture on her lips. It encountered a small chip of ice there that didn’t budge when she touched it. She looked down her muzzle as best she could to try and focus on it. It was all still blurry, but the little transparent shape was gripped in a far clearer sky blue aura. That made sense. A unicorn didn’t see magic with sight, exactly, so blurred vision was no impediment. The lack of distraction probably even helped. The familiar aura seemed to show far more fidelity than usual. She could pick out the individual threadlike flows of force holding that ice. She searched the room for white and purple and found it a moment later, sitting to her right. A beacon of magic shone at the apex of that smear of colour: Rarity’s ignited horn.

“Welcome back to the world of the waking, darling. I see the talk of your eyes was no exaggeration.” Rarity’s rich, cultured voice was just as welcome as those of her other friends. Somehow her damaged vision made hearing them that much more important. Rarity made a contemplative humming sound. “It’s very striking. Mysterious, which every mare should strive to be, but perhaps a tad intimidating. In any case, I’m glad you came to when you did. I’m afraid I’ve found myself drafted into work around the palace, I haven’t been able to spend nearly as much time at your side as I might have liked.”

“Rarity,” Twilight began, testing her voice. It sounded a lot better than last time. Hoarse, even raspy, but serviceable. The white unicorn leaned forward to better hear her. “If you try to steal Shining Armor, I’m going to kick your flank so hard.”

There was a certain satisfaction when Twilight heard the noise of a paper cup full of ice chips being dropped. Hasty blue telekinesis stopped the cup’s fall, but ended up crushing the flimsy thing instead, sending blurred ice-chip-shadows fountaining up. “You heard that?” Rarity hissed, voice barely above a whisper. It rose somewhat to a tone of more normal Rarity-esque melodrama. “Oh, sweet Sisters, this has instantly become the most humiliating day of my life. Oh pleasepleaseplease let us talk about this later. It was no small task to shoo the others off to get a meal, since none of us felt it was right to partake of any of the lovely flowers that you’ve been getting from ponies across Canterlot, but they’ll be back soon.”

Twilight tried to raise a hoof about halfway through Rarity’s, well, whining, to make a dismissive gesture, but soft medical restraints were apparently wrapped just above each fetlock. “I wasn’t really serious, Rarity. I know you’d never do anything like that. Honestly, I just figured I misheard.” The purple unicorn found herself giggling. The quality of that sound was less than smooth, but it made her feel worlds better, even factoring the ache the movement caused in her head. “You like Shiny? You are the most unlucky pony with crushes.”

“Twilight, please! This is not the place for it. It wasn’t the place for it when Cadance spoke with me about it either, it seems.”

“Sorry. Could you get these things off my hooves? I can’t see well enough to do it myself.”

“Oh! Certainly dear.” Twilight could feel her friend begin to manipulate the restraints. She levitated a new ice chip over at the same time, which Twilight gratefully accepted. She was still thirsty. It afforded Twilight a moment of silence to admire her fashionista friend’s skill with telekinesis. She was opening all four restraints, while holding a cup and bringing over another ice chip to give her. Rarity might not be ready to lift any Ursa Minors, but the pony could multitask like few others. She even spoke while doing it, offering change of topic for embarrassing questions, no doubt. “Princess Luna herself came to check on you with me this morning. The scene we saw! Let us just say that Rainbow Dash’s heart was very much in the right place, but some things should really be left to unicorns, for dignity’s sake. Imagine walking in to find that the others had somehow convinced Rainbow to feed you ice chips, which, of course, for a pegasus requires lips.”

Twilight’s cheeks heated. Rainbow had been kissing her!? Or at least it had looked like that to Princess Luna? She resisted the urge to use her recently freed forelegs to pull the covers up over her face to hide.

Rarity either didn’t notice her embarrassment, or continued along anyway, voice sing-songy as she gossiped away, “It was all entirely innocent in intent, of course, at least on Rainbow’s part. But the Princess nearly fell over in shock, which I suppose was the final straw for our friends. They were all just in stitches. Poor Princess Luna was so scandalized that she said something about checking on Celestia and positively took wing. Dash has vowed revenge, of course. Let’s hope that this prank war won’t end up with another stern lecture from the local fire marshal.”

Twilight didn’t even hear Rarity’s words after Celestia. The lavender mare felt her stomach drop out from under her at the mention of her mentor. It took several seconds to clear the cobwebs from her mind and wrack her memories trying to figure out exactly where that sinking feeling came from.

Blinding light. Fire. Panic. Magic bursting out of her.

Twilight’s luminous eyes opened wide, she tried to flip over onto her hooves, but just ended up getting tangled in tightly fitted sheets. “Ohnononono! Celestia! Where is she!?”

“Twilight? Well, she’s still in her chambers I suppose. I haven’t heard of Luna allowing her to be...”

Light gathered in Twilight’s horn, and she flashed out of existence a split-second later.

“...moved,” Rarity completed, uselessly. “Oh, horseapples.”

* * *

Twilight came out of nonspace rather disoriented. For one thing, her horn stung like it had been hit by lightning. A sharp, electric kind of pain. For another, she wasn’t where she should be. A spell had tried to catch her and bounce her exit destination elsewhere. At some point in the nontime of the transition, she had noticed and worked to negate it. It was better to not actually think about what went on Outside. The mind had no real way to puzzle it out logically. Obviously it wasn’t entirely successful, since she found herself standing on the small table in an equally small room. Maybe one of the palace servants’ rooms. Twilight got the impression that the pale lilac blob nearby was a pony staring at her in shock. A white object seemed to be balanced on his or her hoof. A cup, probably, judging by the fragrance of tea in the air.

“L-Lady Sparkle?” It was a mare’s voice, but not a familiar one. “Is that you? What are you doing in my room?”

“Twilight is fine. I’m not a Lady.” The response came entirely on automatic. She’d spent her whole early life saying the same thing over and over again. Technically, she supposed, she did warrant a noble’s title of some kind now that her brother was a prince. It still didn’t feel right though. The nobility used their titles like clubs, for the most part. It was just... unfriendly. “It was just a little teleportation accident, sorry!”

Stupidstupidstupid! Celestia’s chambers have a TeleNot enchantment. What was that blasted spellkey? She couldn’t for the life of her recall the sequence Celestia had given her so many years ago. Even Twilight herself knew that if she took a moment to calm down and think rationally, it would come to her. She’d known it during the ‘tardy’ incident too. That didn’t make it any easier to actually accomplish. I can remember the scientific name of a bunch of rare plants while half conscious and drugged, but I can’t remember a simple magical key? I don’t have time for this!

“Sorry again!” she called to the mystery pony whose snack she had interrupted. She gathered power into her horn, structuring the magic into a metaphysical spear. That pain redoubled. It would have been enough to break her concentration, if not for the adrenaline that had been running thickly through her veins. It never occurred to her to simply teleport outside of the room and knock on the door, as she would have for anypony other than Celestia.

Instead Twilight arrowed Outside of proper space with all the unstoppable magical gravitas of the Canterlot train barreling down the mountain.

Twilight exploded into reality in Celestia’s room with a resounding crack. Motes of multicoloured light poured off of her like smoke, the residual magic of a dozen shredded enchantments. The walls crackled with static. It hadn’t been a clean slice through those wards. She had simply brute-forced her way through. The unicorn collapsed almost immediately with a pained cry, forehooves rising to her poor, overstressed horn. Her only comfort was that, while it certainly felt like a none-too-sharp, electrified icepick had been driven into her skull, it didn’t appear as if the tool was an actual, physical object jutting from her forehead.

Some part of her might have noticed the shouts of surprise, and the clank of armored movement, but it certainly wasn’t something that reached her fraying conscious mind.

* * *

It was minutes before Twilight improved to the point of merely groaning and clutching an ice pack to her burning horn. As soon as she could think properly again she threw herself onto her hooves. Her stomach threatened to do a bit of throwing itself, as the world spun from the sudden motion. She filed moving quickly under ‘Poor Idea’, right alongside magic.

“Miss Sparkle, are you feeling better now?” Asked a smear of white to her left. Well, that particular blur was probably the one who spoke, anyway. There was just too much white in the room to be sure. A lot of it was vaguely boxy shapes of medical equipment. Presumably one of them was the princess. There were a lot of ponies in the room too, ambulatory splashes of bright or pastel colours.

“Can you take me to the Princess please? I can barely see.” She was sure her vision should be a concern, but it was one that would wait, just like the formalities of small talk with, presumably, doctors.

There wasn’t any argument. The stallion led her gently, making no rush. He was clearly used to dealing with the injured. Celestia’s bed was easier to make out from a different angle, but Twilight wasn’t up to the task of really picking out anything. The princess was a splotchy white blur. A bit of pink, presumably part of her tricolour mane, helped to single her out. It was enough that Twilight could get her forehooves on the bed and lean in to nuzzle her mentor’s cheek. Emotion seemed to gather in her throat as a lump. She was sure her voice was thick with it when she spoke, “She’s sleeping? Is she okay?”

The doctor moved up closer to her, his voice lowered to the point where she had to swivel her ears toward him to really make out his words. “We’re trying to keep things quiet, Miss Sparkle. But it’s very, very bad.” Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t force herself to speak to inquire further. She didn’t really want him to, but the stallion continued, “I don’t know how she’s alive. Literally, I don’t have any medical clue. The surface burns were bad, but treatable with proper surgery and magic. Her insides...” The doctor trailed off. His own voice was getting somewhat thick, but he gathered his control, and kept a professional tone when he resumed, “I’ll spare you the details, Miss Sparkle, but there isn’t much left. She’s septic, her blood is filling with poison that it can no longer clear. But, she’s still with us, somehow. She’s even healing, slowly. But how long can even a god exist on magic alone? I... just don’t have any idea. Hopefully long enough.”

Twilight was silent as the doctor spoke. She didn’t even dare to take a breath. She can’t die! She’s Celestia! The emotion in her had gone cold. Empty. She couldn’t think. It was like being drugged all over again. She pushed herself off the bed’s surface, hooves going back on the floor. She didn’t dare touch Celestia anymore.

“We wouldn’t even have this much hope without Princess Luna. She’s the one who dug out everything that was destroyed before it could fester. Nopony I know could have brought themselves to do that to the Princess.” Twilight felt sick. It was better and worse than the emptiness. Something must have showed on her face, because the stallion suddenly stopped. Normal ponies were intensely squeamish even at the best of times. Doctors were at least trained and desensitized. “Sorry. Nopony is thinking straight, myself included. Our slim chance isn’t just thanks to her, but to you, as well.” The unicorn filly followed the movements of that white blur with dull disinterest as it sank to the ground. His muzzle touched her hoof. She jerked it back in surprise, to hold it along her body.

He’s bowing to me?

“Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. From me. From every pony in Equestria, for being there to try and protect her. Luna told us about your heroism.”

The wrongness of that statement felt so foul that it almost made her gag. This doctor was thanking her! Luna was touting her courage. Her friends had held a loving vigil at her bedside. Spike... Spike, for whom Celestia was like a mother, had been all but praying for Twilight's recovery.

Couldn’t they see the sin of it? It felt so tangible to her that she couldn’t believe that the rot wasn’t seeping through her skin like tar.

She had gone crazy. She had taken her most wondrous gift and turned it toward murder and violation. She had forced her way inside Celestia with it and shredded her to bits. Everything had been strange and hazy, but the memory strengthened with every second she managed to focus on it. She could recall reaching into that river of glorious, holy light inside of the pony she loved more than life itself. The metaphysical warmth of it had been like nothing else, all purity and cleansing. It was like someone had taken the very feelings she had felt whenever she was around the alicorn and made them into a fundamental force, measurable and quantifiable. Then she tore and clawed, breaking that perfect, flowing energy into something too raging and hot to be simply called fire. Why? She didn’t even know. It didn’t matter.

She had killed the heart of Equestria, and her own with it, and here this pony was grovelling in thankfulness for it.

“Stop it. Get up," Twilight croaked.

“Of course.” There was a warmth to the doctor’s voice, as if he thought she was just being bashful, but he rose to his hooves. “We’re doing what we can. Teams of the very best unicorn doctors we have will be arriving from all over Equestria soon. We’ll be using full six-pony arrays of the most skilled medical spellcasters we can find. All we have to do is keep buying time. When you feel up to it, I know we would be honored to have Equestria’s premier wizard in one of those spots.”

Twilight visibly recoiled. The thought of letting her killing magic so much as touch Celestia was horrifying. She could all but picture Celestia’s perfect, beautiful self shrivelling at the merest brush of that tainted talent of hers.

“I... no... I can’t...” Twilight stammered, tears blurring her vision further.

“It’s all right if you don’t know the spells. Just having access to your raw strength will...”

“NO!” Twilight screamed, voice cracking, “I can’t! I did it!”

“Pardon?” asked that very confused doctor. The room suddenly went still, everyone turning to look toward the strange outburst.

“I did it to her! I wasn’t saving her!” Twilight wailed. If anything, the room became more silent still, all the ponies holding their breath. Only the unfeeling droning of arcane technology beeped on, unaware. Doubtless, to a pony, they were thinking that they misunderstood her.

Twilight’s horn fizzed and flared. A flash of purple light filled the room. When the light faded, she was gone.

* * *

Blood Orange prodded his lunch with a hoof. One of his clan’s namesake fruits rolled lazily on the tabletop in response. The Royal Guard watched it with a certain sorrow. He didn’t want to waste it. It was as sweet and fragrant as any other produced by Equestria’s premier clan of earth pony orange growers. On some level the guard knew he should be hungry, but who could eat at a time like this? Somewhere above him a goddess lay broken. Maybe he should just nibble at it over the next few hours? Maybe it would cheer him up? It wasn’t like there was anything else to do while watching the palace dungeons. It was exceedingly rare that they were actually used. They were certainly empty now, leaving Blood Orange with endless hours to ruin his own mood.

A long sigh was cut off midway by a sudden flash from the cell hallway. The surprise alone powered the stallion to his hooves. Earth pony strength meant his armor didn’t even slow him. Blood Orange stopped himself before charging off, taking a moment to consider things. The dungeons were empty. He was mostly here to make sure tourists didn’t wander in. Then again, there was only one entrance, and nopony could have entered it to be creating any flashes. On any other day, the former points might have outweighed the latter one when determining his course of action. Today he grabbed his spear in his mouth and carefully set off toward the cells. He’d risk scaring some lost noble or pranking filly.

The first cell proved empty. It was easy enough to see that at a glance. Everyone always thought dungeons should be dark and dank. The Palace dungeons were bright, and perhaps some of the most expensive rooms in the palace, primarily because they were plated entirely in rose gold. The copper in the alloy conducted both magic and a potentially pissed off pegasus’s lightning. The gold, supposedly, couldn’t be destroyed with magic. Other than that, there was a soft, clean bed on a raised section of the floor, a sink, and a toilet. Magical white lights shone from behind gold mesh screens. There wasn’t anywhere to hide.

The second cell contained the presumed source of the flash. A lavender-coated unicorn was in the center of the room, settled onto her haunches, a hoof raised to her horn, as if it pained her. Blood Orange had been around the palace long enough to identify the filly as Celestia’s pupil and one of the Elements of Harmony. He immediately spat the spear quietly to the side, so it would lean back against his shoulder. “Miss Sparkle?” He ventured.

The bleak look the filly wore was heartbreaking. Her eyes shone with an odd internal light, not so different from the room’s illumination, but there was no mistaking the hopeless pain in them. Glistening paths of moisture were visible on her cheeks. The Guard immediately started forward, to offer comfort. The events of the last few days were bad enough for everyone else. Supposedly the Princess was like a mother to the filly. She’d been injured trying to protect Celestia, seemingly to no avail. Besides, she was one of his hero second cousin’s friends.

“Close the door.” The filly’s words stopped the stallion in mid-step. They were devoid of any emotion. A shiver traveled along his back from mane to tail. “Let my brother and Luna know. I wasn’t fighting the bad guys. There was nopony to protect the Princess against. It was me. I killed Princess Celestia.”

Six - Luna: Fracture

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“Enough, Twilight Sparkle! We will hear no more of this foolishness.” Luna was on her haunches outside of the cell Twilight had chosen. The door was wide open, but the unicorn was sitting as far from it as possible, tucking herself against one of the corners. The filly looked very, very tired, Luna thought. When she glanced up, her injured, luminous eyes didn’t even seem to bother trying to focus on anything. The goddess felt a pang of guilt at snapping at her friend. She forced her tone in the direction of something more sympathetic and subdued, even if she couldn’t quite match her Sister’s motherly demeanor. Twilight wasn’t great at handling stress at the best of times. The last week had been about as bad as times could get. “Dearest Twilight, thine magic is great, but no fire couldst thou conjure would do more than warm mine Sister. The wild magic that thou were casting about when we approached would have hurt, and might be the cause of the burns ‘pon Her face and chest, but no more. Such wounds are no issue for an alicorn. Be at ease. We will need thee at our side in the days to come. Come and return to thine bed, and to the care of the healers.”

Luna extended a foreleg outward, inviting the unicorn into an embrace. She expected the filly to slink over to be comforted. Instead she was still, those barely working, tear filled eyes conveying a look of such pain that it tore Luna’s heart to bits. “S-stop being nice to m-me.” Twilight tripped over her own words as she clearly tried to keep from dissolving into a new round of sobbing. It had taken almost a quarter-hour for Luna to get any sense out of the filly after she had shown up. “I really did it. I k-” Twilight almost choked on the word. She seemed to force it out with a note of self-punishment. “I killed her. She’s dying because of me.”

Shining Armor pushed past the goddess. She once more raised a hoof to urge him back, but this time he ignored his liege, and the glare Luna shot at his back for it. Twilight seemed no more receptive than she had at the start, when she had used her horn’s magic to push back anyone who tried to enter. Given the fact that the unicorn was still suffering from the aftereffects of such drastic overchannelling, even minor magic use must have been painful. The effort needed to even weakly push on something with the room conducting away her magic certainly would not have been minor. Luna hadn’t been wanting to push the issue.

Matching herself against Twilight, with magic or base physicality wasn’t a hopeful prospect either. It was taking all her will just to keep the appearance of normality. She constantly had to be mindful of her wings to keep them from drooping. Her legs wanted to shake from the effort of keeping her erect. She even had to waste precious magic to keep her mane in its normal, ethereal state. She’d managed to snatch an hour or two of sleep, here and there, but until her moon was in ascendance, real rejuvenation would be lost to her. What strength she regained had to be carefully husbanded to help her sister.

Perhaps Twilight’s poor vision just didn’t spot the stallion soon enough this time, but he managed to get a foreleg around his sister’s shoulders. “Twilie. You would never hurt the Princess. We both know that.” Twilight tried to push her sibling away with her hooves. It didn’t shift the much larger, much more fit stallion. It didn’t even make his voice skip a beat. “You’re just not thinking straight. You’re injured. You’re exhausted. Everything will be clearer in a day or two, okay? Cadance will be here soon. She’s just handling the important stuff at Court for Luna. Talking to her always made you feel better.”

Luna’s thoughts were interrupted by Shining Armor skidding back nearly to the door, magenta magic swirling over him. His broad hooves tried, and failed, to find purchase on the smooth rose-gold metal floors. The goddess enveloped her Captain of the Guard with her own power and pulled him out the rest of the way, just so Twilight wouldn’t feel the need to. The fact that she did it with enough force to nearly send his flank into the far wall, without it being too obviously the intent, was just for her. It was a petty, but satisfying bit of revenge for his earlier defiance. The unicorn filly’s horn was sizzling and popping with fraying magic. Each time it happened Twilight gave a twitch, as if she’d just received a strong shock of static. “Enough with this farce. Desist, both of thee.”

Both siblings stopped and looked to their goddess, which was something, at least. Luna took a slow breath to banish that spike of anger. “Very well, Twilight Sparkle. We shall listen. Tell us why thou believes that thou could hurt mine Sister. Dost thou now remember what happened in the courtyard?”

Twilight miserably laid herself down in her corner. One of her hooves fidgeted, probably wanting to rise to her aching horn. The unicorn didn’t speak right away. She gave the impression of trying to gather her thoughts, and to steady herself. “It was really scary,” she eventually murmured, voice dull. “I’d never seen that much magic used. She was just dumping it at Shiny. If he had gotten distracted for even a second...” She trailed off, but nopony needed her to say anything more. They had all seen the gouge taken out of the side of the mountain. Truthfully, Luna had questioned her Sister’s judgement with that little demonstration.”I was just going to get her attention. Maybe, I don’t know, nudge her head back so that she’d be aiming at the sky. So, I lit my horn, and everything just went crazy. There was so much magic around her. In the air. In her. The second I opened the door by using my own magic it all sort of rushed in.”

Well, that was one mystery solved, anyway. Casting in magic-rich areas could be dangerous. Twilight had taken in a ‘breath’ of magic to cast, expecting to find the usual light and airy flows, and instead gotten something heavier and denser. It had been like a pony unexpectedly getting a lungful of water. When a pony starts to drown, they panic. Celestia really should have known better. Most unicorns couldn’t channel enough to be a threat to themselves in such a magic-rich environment, but most unicorns weren’t Twilight Sparkle. “We don’t blame thee for that, dear friend. T’was our Sister’s fault for not warning thee. But Celestia is no unskilled foal. What small fraction of her power escaped uncontrolled would not be enough to lend thee the strength to do what was done to her. An enemy of great power did so, and those capable are few and far between. Discord could have, but we checked ourselves not long ago to ensure his slumber. Perhaps Chrysalis wove a hex ‘pon my Sister when She was at the changelings’ mercy. One which sat dormant until Celestia’s power was strained. It could ev-”

“I made her kill herself.” Twilight interrupted. There was a scrape of metal-on-metal as the two armored guards in the hallway shifted uncomfortably at the words. Shining Armor held a sudden, indrawn breath.

Luna burst into laughter.

Twilight looked up from her misery in sudden surprise, luminous eyes blinking in confusion. Obviously it wasn’t the response she was expecting. Shining Armor looked at the alicorn warily, as if she had gone crazy, or suddenly grown a second head.

“Oh my!” The alicorn snorted, after a time. She slowly forced her laughter down, with a tinge of regret. It was nice to be able to do that again, despite how morbid the topic was. “We love thee dearly, Twilight Sparkle, but somepony clearly has a rather high opinion of herself! Of my Sister and ourself, t’was ever us that was the weaker. Celestia had a mind of steel and fire a thousand years ago. Imagine now! Discord, who counts reality as his plaything, could find no hold upon Her, yet a unicorn who is barely more than a filly could drive Her to suicide? Thou were drunk with Her power. Thine mind’s eye showed thee a nightmare, nothing more. In truth, we are relieved. Not that we truly believed that thou could do such a thing to Celestia, of all ponies, but 'tis such a mystery that there are few enough threads to grasp.”

Twilight seemed to be almost hopeful, the very image of a pony wanting desperately to believe. The unicorn always wore her emotions plainly. That uncomplicated honesty was one of her best qualities. Before long, however, that look faded into a kind of listless resignation. Even so, she hauled herself to her hooves and walked from the cell, head still low, her dragging hoofbeats loud against the metal. Shining’s worried look finally broke into a relieved smile. He started forward to embrace his sibling again. The stallion was stopped with a shake of his sister’s head.

“I want to believe you. And if you’re right and what I did was just a dream, this won’t work. But I didn’t do anything to her mind to make her want to kill herself. Here, I’ll show you. Don’t channel your powers, okay, Princess? It should be safe that way.” The unicorn didn’t wait to explain. There was a half-second or so as she visibly steeled herself for discomfort, and her horn ignited with a far steadier aura than it had within the cell. A misty, amorphous flow of wispy magic emerged, vanishing from mundane sight within a hoofspan of her horn.

The magic of the spell was clear as day to a goddess’s senses. It was a masterfully unique bit of spellcraft. It took a certain brand of genius to work out how to touch something that couldn’t be seen or quantified. But then, Twilight Sparkle had been deep in research on how to catch love itself, perhaps that had given her some subconscious inspiration. That spell reached for the goddess, skirting across the deeper realms of spirit. Recognition dawned on the alicorn. It was the spell she had seen upon her sister’s fallen body. She flinched back, a charge of disruptive energy gathering in her wings to shear the spell as she had before. She didn’t act in time. The closest tendril gently brushed up against her. She felt a disturbing lurch deep within her. The flow of strength from her still set moon attenuated briefly, sending a chill through her. The darkness of her mane took on an odd luminescence, glinting with escaping, silvery moonlight. It wasn’t a painful sensation, but it was distinctly strange. Unlike Celestia, Luna’s power was something gentle and stable. It didn’t need to be tightly leashed. Still, the sensation had her snapping up one foreleg to her chest, which was foolish, since the feeling was no more in her barrel than any other physical part of her. The goddess, unbalanced from the reflex and already on shaky standing from fatigue, toppled over with a distinct lack of grace.

There was a confusing flurry of motion and activity in the moments that followed. By the time Luna banished the disorientation of the spell and her fall, the tableau in front of her had changed drastically. Shining Armor had his shoulder against the chest of one of the guards, bellowing at his subordinates to stand down. It was impressive enough that he could manage to hold the other stallion back. A unicorn usually has no chance at all in a physical test against an earth pony. The other guard had the comparatively diminutive Twilight under him, a hoof hard against her cheek, forcing her horn painfully down against the ground, an act which, not surprisingly, had the filly squealing in pain. It was certain to be hurting badly after that spell without being forced to near-cracking by a stallion. Shining Armor must have noticed as well, because Luna could sense magic gathering toward the Guard Captain.

“BE STILL!” Luna shouted with the full fury of the Voice. It very nearly sent all of the stallions tumbling away. The entire wing of the palace quaked on its foundations.The whole scene froze, except for the ragged panting of the bookish unicorn.

Luna took a slow breath of her own and rose to a proper, regal posture. If a distasteful task was to be done, she needed to do it as a Princess, with some measure of dignity. “Lock Twilight Sparkle in the cell. Bring a unicorn Guard to activate the suppression spells.”

Shining Armor looked on in shock. He spoke in his sister’s defense, as Luna knew he would. “Princess! I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm! She-”

“Nay!” Luna interrupted, making a sweeping gesture of denial with a hoof. “We do not imprison her for what she just did. T’was foolish to do so with the guards so on edge, but we were not harmed, as strange as it was. If we had been Celestia, in the height of unleashed, near-unbound power? We would not have thought it possible, but we believe it. A mortal has struck down a goddess using her own strength.”

Something appeared to go out of the prone Element of Magic. Hope, perhaps. All the fight left her. Tearful eyes closed tightly. She seemed to gather in on herself without moving.

Shining Armor had the opposite reaction. He shook his head quickly, his voice rising in willful denial. “Even if she did, it wasn’t something she meant to do. Twilight would never knowingly hurt Princess Celestia. The Princess was practically her mother!”

“We are not asking thee to do as we commanded, Captain. Thou shalt remove thyself from involvement with this. Lieutenant Glint shall handle the dungeons, and report to us directly, not thou.”

“I don’t care who handles it. It shouldn’t be done at all!”

“She may have killed Celestia!” Luna snarled back, fragile temper snapping, an unnatural, resonant volume added to her words by the Voice. The alicorn’s eyes shone white with anger. Her wings were flared. She advanced in slow steps upon her Captain of the Guard. Despite his obvious desire to remain resolute, the stallion retreated one half-step at a time. “That she is our dearest friend, and Equestria’s former savior, is the only reason she does not lie broken ‘neath our hooves at this moment!”

The alicorn stopped. The harsh light faded from her eyes. There was silence again in the hallway, broken only by the subdued sobbing of the lavender unicorn.

“Shining Armor,” The alicorn spoke in a more controlled fashion, but there was a hint of glacial coldness below it. “We speak no ill against thy honor or thy duty, but we are not so cruel as to force thee to do what must be done. We know Celestia would forgive her. But Celestia is a better mare than us. Until my Sister recovers to provide that forgiveness, Twilight Sparkle can rot in that cell. Take it as a mercy. Once her crime is known, it will be the safest place for her.” The lunar mare brushed past him, much as he had done to her earlier.

“And if she doesn’t recover?” The tone of Shining Armor’s question made it clear enough that he could guess the answer.

“Pray that She does,” Luna said without slowing or looking back.

* * *

The darker Royal Sister grit her teeth against the burn of poison seeping through her veins. Yet she dared not stop herself from drawing in ever more. It was a sickly foulness that brought weakness and burning fever. It felt like acid eating her from the inside. She swallowed down the urge to retch. She couldn’t show that weakness to her subjects around her. Still, those nearest her were trained to spot such illness. Doubtless it could be seen in the thinner parts of her coat, around her lips, nose and at the corner of her eyes. A pale, greyish pallor against the darkness of her body. She felt the gentle hoof of one of the healers upon her crest.


The alicorn pretended not to hear it. Her horn burned more brightly. The noxious green miasma she was pulling from her dying sister into herself thickened and oozed with renewed haste toward her, as if in malevolent hunger. Luna filled her lungs deeply to try to stave off nausea.

“Princess, please!”

She resisted the urge to snap at the stallion that touched her. That would break her concentration. It took all of her focus to marshal the tattered shreds of her sun-weakened power toward her distasteful task. Purification was Celestia’s domain. She was all illuminating light and cleansing fire. All Luna had was the sympathy and flow of the tides. She couldn’t restore her sister’s poisoned blood, but it was well within her power to share the burden of it. To move it toward herself. It was worth it, to return some meager colour to the practically corpse-grey skin under her sister’s tarnished, ragged coat, if even for a few hours.

“Princess Luna, stop this at once!” A sharper, female voice rang out in the room.

The shock of it drew her attention for a moment, long enough for her spell to lose cohesion and collapse into chaotic uselessness in a silvery flash. Luna tried to recast it, quickly, but it took far more energy to create a spell than to simply sustain one already in existence. Illness and bone-deep weariness took too high a toll. Without that single-minded focus, she found she could barely stand, let alone weave complex magic. She forced her head to stay high, and turned to look toward that familiar voice that interrupted her with a look of injured annoyance. “Rarity. Why didst thou interrupt us? Where is thy loyalty to Celestia?”

Most would have cowered at the merest hint of irritation from Luna. There were at least some benefits to her fearsome legend, if not nearly enough to balance the loneliness of such a reputation. Rarity, however, was unmoved. She was a masterful statue of silent grace and nobility, like a white marble relic of long-dead Unicornia. Luna had thought it rather absurd when Celestia had told her that Rarity had simply expected to breeze into the previous Gala and instantly charm a princely stallion. It seemed less and less silly with each passing day. “Princess, I’m afraid that it’s come to my attention that you have been putting yourself in mortal peril here each, for lack of a better word, night. I was sure I had misheard. After all, if you were to fall ill as well, Equestria would fall to Cadance’s hooves.” Rarity stepped forward unhurriedly. Luna wasn’t sure if she should be insulted that some of the younger guards turned their eyes from their ailing princess to watch that graceful gait. “And while I know you share my opinion that Cadance will make a fine Princess one day, she’s still barely older than a filly herself. Equestria is a rather heavy burden in its current state.”

Don’t I know it, Luna immediately thought to herself.

Luna glanced to the doctor at her side. A small motion of her muzzle dismissed him, and had him finding something very interesting to do on the opposite side of the room. She lowered her voice to speak as privately to the approaching Element as was possible in such an overcrowded space. “There is reason in thy words, Rarity. But this is not a matter for reason. If thine own sister lay dying, wouldst thou not do anything to save her, no matter the cost to thyself?” Rarity blinked her icy eyes, but Luna raised a weary hoof before she could respond. “Thou needn’t answer. We well know the response that Generosity would give.”

Sure enough, there was a moment of quiet, but Rarity had likely never been accused of being overly taciturn. “Yes, of course I would do anything. For any of my friends or family. However, I have the leisure of being a normal, unimportant pony. What’s more, Princess Celestia wouldn’t want you doing...” Rarity made a motion to indicate Luna herself. The alicorn suffered a moment of absurd self-consciousness, knowing she must look terrible, especially in comparison to the perfectly prim white unicorn. “...this to yourself. Not for a second.”

“Of course not. Celestia was the previous holder of Generosity, Kindness and Loyalty. All High Virtues that imply no small degree of selflessness.”

Rarity couldn’t quite keep a raptly curious look from her face. Details of the monarchs in the distant past were hard to come by. “Not Laughter? Really. I hear she’s quite an incorrigible prankster. And, no offense Princess, but rumor was that you didn’t even know the meaning of ‘fun’ on Nightmare Night.”

The princess gave the mare an incredulous look. “We find that we are constantly plagued by rumor. We knew its meaning. How could we not? We simply meant that the festivities and games are different from the entertainments of ponies from our era. In those times, our dearest Sister was terribly serious, whilst we beheld the glories of the world with all the wonder of a foal.”

Luna’s voice dropped further in volume, barely even a whisper. Her formal tongue slipped toward the modern, to ensure she was understood. “But I grew bitter. My thoughts darker. All those I longed to play with, dance with, to trick and laugh with ever slept through the mysteries and magic of the nights I crafted. So Laughter fell on deaf ears. My Honesty became assurances to myself of the eternal continuity of that state. With none to share my Magic with, its power turned toward selfish use. That is what I lived through. That and a thousand years a prisoner in the cold and dark, raging within the worst parts of myself.” She turned to look over her shoulder at the stillness of her Sister’s ashen, diminished form on the bed behind her. “While she beheld a millennium of golden glory. She fostered the best in our subjects. Led them toward fulfillment and prosperity. She basked in the undying love of millions. She heard their prayers whispered in gratefulness. Is it any surprise that she would be a better host for the virtue of joy now? Celestia grew and matured, while I simply continued. Or diminished.”

No small measure of bitterness has crept into Luna’s whispering toward the end. It was no surprise Rarity picked up on it. “You sound as if you’re angry at her for it, Princess.”

“Yesss,” the dark alicorn hissed. The tone made Rarity take a half-step back. “I often find that I hate my Sister. The hatred of the foalish, jealous mare.” Luna turned more fully, to lean over the bed just far enough to nuzzle at the once lustrous coat covering the flawless curve of her Sister’s shoulder. Her normal speech returned as her voice filled with softer, thicker emotion. “We love Her too. More than anything. Our Sister has always been everything to us. We find more to admire in Her now than ever before. Far more. Once She was a vain and domineering thing. She and I were less well suited to the High Virtues than your friends, in many ways. Now, She has wisdom and depth.” Luna settled back, closing her eyes. Despite her tone, she knew the look on her face showed nothing. She wasn’t sure herself what she was feeling, so that suited.

The alicorn almost jumped when the companionable touch of a muzzletip graced her cheek, and a foreleg rose comfortingly to hers. The Princess of the Night suddenly found her emotions finding a center. She swallowed to fight a gathering of tears. The emotion settled thick and heavy in her stomach. “I’ve had to learn the lesson you’re speaking of too, Princess. In jealousy. I’m afraid your issue carries far more history, and is not so easy to solve as mine. All I can offer is to be the proverbial understanding shoulder, if you need it.”

Oh yes, I need it. The poison from Celestia’s blood clearly isn’t the only venom in me.

The princess didn’t speak it, however. She did allow a hoof to settle across Rarity’s back, holding her in a tentative embrace. That small bubble of silence in the crowded room wasn’t awkward, but nor could it be overly close, not with so many others near. Still, the quietly supportive companionship made the dizziness of fever and sickness seem less overwhelming.

Endless Generosity. She is indeed better suited to it than Celestia was. There’s no wonder that Rarity and the others could do what even ‘Tia could not, in freeing me.

Luna drew away after a time, making sure to wear a look of proper composure. She didn’t feel very composed. Perhaps she felt less alone, which was something. All the imperfections in her, however, felt like they had been brought to jagged prominence. She knew Rarity would give everything to smooth those flaws, if given the chance, but now was not the time for that sort of healing. Not when all her energy was needed for a more tangible sort for Celestia.

“Perhaps it would help to lower the sun? Twilight has told me that you’re far more vital at night. You could spend some time in relaxation. Pamper yourself. I happen to know Canterlot has a few excellent spas, but anything would do, even a simple bit of beauty sleep. I just got up, myself. I could fend off the nobles seeking a held hoof for an evening.”

Luna gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “Nay. We would regain our strength far more quickly, yes. Our power is in ascendance at night. But instead Celestia’s is in nadir. We would weaken Her instead. We could better care for Her, but She would be less able to fight for life. Who’s to know if it would be an improvement? We dare not take the chance. In truth it would likely take all of our remaining power. We do not have the thousand years of practice controlling our opposite that Celestia has.”

The princess of the night found herself once more shaking her head, this time as a prelude to changing the topic. “We are surprised that thou did not plead for Twilight’s release.” A corner of Luna’s lips curled upward ever so slightly. “Or has that already occurred? Perhaps Loyalty has subdued my guards? Or Honesty has bucked through the door? Or the wall? Perhaps Laughter simply spirited her through the wards against teleportation?”

Rarity took the change of topic and tone readily enough, she even laughed softly. “Well. The guards are nursing a few bruises. But Twilight herself calmed Dash down. In truth, all those things, and more, certainly were discussed as a possibility. Well, not the Pinkie one. I’m not sure how she’s supposed to do something like that.”

Luna’s look became one of hopeless incredulity. Am I the only one who notices what that pony can do?

“The truth is, Princess, Twilight wouldn’t leave that cell. She’d just teleport back in if we pulled her out by the tail, I feel. She believes she deserves to be in there.”

“And what dost thou think?” Luna asked,

“I... I’m afraid I don’t know what to think.” The mare’s ears went flat with dismayed guilt. “Oh, Celestia help me. I’m almost scared of my own friend. She’s a wonderful mare. You’ve seen that yourself. Caring, modest and faithful. Even charming, in an endearingly awkward sort of way. She always means well, but she can be a tad unstable. I always considered her harmless, even so. But... well... if she can do what she did to a goddess when she’s out of control, what could she do to normal ponies?”

“It is a problem we have been aware of for some time. There is a reason Celestia took personal responsibility for her when she was a foal. No mortal unicorn we have ever known has had to grapple with the power that Twilight holds. Starswirl, Sombra, even Clover could have outmatched Twilight when we first met her, but they had a lifetime to gather and learn to control their strength. She’s barely a mare, not even come into her full flower.” Luna looked to her slumbering sister. “You were a fool, Celestia.”

Rarity winced at the harsh words spoken to the fallen goddess. “For taking Twilight in?”

“Nay. T’was an act of kindness that we would expect from Her. Celestia can’t even bring herself to slay dire enemies. She imprisons them with hope for their eventual redemption. For an innocent foal, She would have only the gentlest touch. We can’t fault it.” Luna glanced back toward the white unicorn. “This tragedy was Celestia’s fault more than anypony’s. She knew the knife’s edge Twilight Sparkle’s control rested upon. Yet She didn’t think to consider how Her student’s fear for her brother would mix with pouring a flood of magic into the air. It was a thoughtless mistake.”

“Then why hold Twilight in a cell?”

“Because we are angry,” Luna spat those words. “Because we keep failing to protect Celestia, and small, petty revenge is all we can have. Not only that, thine thoughts were true. Twilight is a dire threat to everypony around her, especially given her state of mind.” The dark mare sighed, closing her eyes and raising a hoof to rub at them. “And also because we love Twilight dearly. She was our first real friend since our return. Were she free, somepony would inevitably be less kind than we in seeking redress. The appearance of decisive action can only help in keeping a noose from around Twilight’s neck.”

Luna expected some kind of strong reaction from the unicorn. Instead she received a look of puzzlement. “Pardon? I’m afraid I don’t understand the reference.”

“A noose? Gallows?” Nothing. Luna sighed. “They shall hang Twilight Sparkle by the neck with a rope until she dies.”

Rarity gasped, pretty eyes wide, pupils shrinking to tiny, horrified pinpricks. That was more what Luna was expecting. “T-that’s barbaric! Ponies don’t do things like that anymore, Princess! Not for centuries. We aren’t some bunch of bloodthirsty griffons.”

“So one would think. Dost thou know of thy Parliament? Of the few unanimous votes it has cast?”

Rarity was clearly shaken. There was an ill expression upon her face. Clearly her fealty outweighed her own feelings, however. “Y-yes. The first vote Celestia put before the Parliament was for her own removal as sovereign. Every vote that was cast favored retaining her. She did it again eighty years ago, in my great grandsire’s day, on the Parliament’s hundredth anniversary. It gave all of the palace staff a terrible fright, but the vote was unanimously in her favor once more.”

“She’ll likely put a vote forward for the both of us two decades hence, as well. ‘Tis one of the powers she gave the Parliament at its founding. A unanimous vote is above her veto. They could even vote to abolish the crown, should the representatives of all ponykind vote it to be in the best interests of Equestria.” Luna shook her head with a sort of wry amusement, and glanced at her sleeping sister with no small amount of affection. “We could see why She would do so, from a political standpoint. To give the false appearance of choice, when she knew that she would always have her supporters. But we know the intent is genuine. She believes ponykind is strong enough to stand on its own hooves, should they want to. In any case, nay. That wasn’t what we intended to point out. There has only been one other issue that has ever received a unanimous vote in that fractious hall, in its early days. A vote to retain the one crime in Equestria that still warrants death: deicide, or the attempt thereof, as has always been the case, obviously. It is hardly a well-used law, exercised but a handful of times since my banishment, even counting more ‘barbaric’ days. It takes a special breed of nihilistic madness to perchance doom the world to eternal ice or fire by breaking the Cycle of Days.”

Her own breed of madness, as the case may have been.

“Can’t you pardon her?” Came Rarity’s desperate, and expected question.

“Of course we could. It remains our duty to ensure good justice. But that would be... imprudent. The House of Ladies and the Parliament are rather wary of having a former monster upon the throne. I would rather not tempt one of those unanimous decisions myself. Better to wait and stall until Celestia recovers and have her issue the pardon. Nopony will think twice about that.”

Rarity’s own ice-blue eyes went to the comatose alicorn. Luna didn’t need her to speak to know what she was thinking.

“She shall recover. Celestia is vitality and strength itself. Best not to dwell on dark thoughts that will not come to pass.” Especially since Luna would allow Twilight’s trip to the noose if they did. It was too dangerous to allow her to exist, with her ability to threaten the last remaining entity able to keep the Cycle of Days. The secret Celestial Arcana of ancient Unicornia might be rediscovered in time to save the world, if the Sisters were gone, but that would mean an end to Equestrian society in any case. Unicorns had a habit of poorly handling power, from Luna’s experience. Besides, if the worst happened, Twilight would have robbed the world, and Luna, of something too precious for her to forgive. The alicorn dared not speak such thoughts to Rarity, who seemed to take her plans to delay the trial as some kind of promise that she wouldn’t allow Twilight to face her punishment. Luna would carry that shame alone.

The princess rallied her strength and forced herself up onto her hooves with all the appearance of energy. “In any case, to thine original worries. We shall not strain ourself unduly. Fragile mortality is not one of our failings, and Equestria is too great a burden to thrust upon others. We shall be there to guide it as our Sister would. You have duties, Rarity. Be with thine friends. Twilight Sparkle was their center. That is the role of Magic. Without it, it is all the more important that the bonds between thee be strengthened. We may need thee and the Elements, with Celestia laid low. Our enemies will sense weakness. We shall likewise do our own duty for Equestria, and hopefully with some measure of the grace you show.”

* * *

“If thou wishes to have their respect, act the part.” Luna’s tone was clipped and impatient. She’d hoped to slink quietly to Court, preferably through the darker, deserted back halls, where she wouldn’t have to talk to anypony, and she could drag her hooves. She should have known that would be impossible. “Show a bit of spine. Thou art the size of a large stallion, with an earth pony’s strength, the speed of a pegasus, and the magic to break the back of an army of changelings. Force the Guard to respect thee, with thine own hooves if thou must. Thou simply doth not know how to deal with ponies, Cadance.”

I don’t know how to deal with ponies? Me!? This coming from Miss Thou, who spent her first year back from exile hiding in libraries, or under her covers?” Cadance’s violet-tipped wings flared in a sudden burst of anger. The excessive pigment around her eyes, some fashion inherited from Celestia no doubt, exaggerating the narrow-eyed, murderous look upon her face. “I don’t want them to be scared of me. I tried that, and it made me feel like a foal. I want them to listen to me. Celestia never went around kicking flank.”

Luna traded the look with a venomous one of her own. Which was easy, since she was full of poison at the moment, after all. She didn’t dignify the talk of her awkward first year with a response. Besides, it was slightly possible her own foul mood was rubbing off on the demigoddess, through her empathic sense, which made it harder to blame her. “Celestia had the force of a thousand years of history behind Her. She ‘kicked flank’ a great deal in Her younger days. Perhaps the aristocracy wouldn’t be a bunch of squalling, useless children if She had kept Her mettle through the ages. Perhaps Her injury is a boon for that. Mayhap I should remind them of discipline and honor in Her place. With mine hoof, if necessary. It will show thee how it is done.”

Cadance resettled her plumage with obvious effort. Her attentions seemed to become more distant and unfocused, even as her eyes narrowed further. “Yeah. Maybe you shouldn’t be making any policy decisions at this point. You’re a wreck. Here, let me...” The youngest alicorn closed her eyes entirely, and her sides began to swell with indrawn breath. That slow inhale became a squawk as something suddenly struck her side.

Luna’s movement happened quicker than conscious thought. A shock of icy terror shot through her, and she’d simply spun and crossed the distance between herself and her ‘niece’ in a bound almost too quick for mortal eyes. She barely felt the impact when it came, shoulder and chest driving the filly alicorn into the wall, her more solid weight holding Cadance there, pinned to it. She pressed the tip of her muzzle against the younger goddess’ cheek, to hold her head to cold stone, as well. The filly’s eyes were opened wide, looking back at Luna with shock.

Luna scrambled back, her metal shoes making the retreat sound frantic. The elder alicorn stopped only when she was a body length from her counterpart. The unexpected end to the force holding Cadance to the wall made her stumble, her own gold-shod hooves adding their clatter to Luna’s as she caught herself.

There was a long moment of stillness, which held only breathing quickened by fear and anger. For both parties, as it turned out. “Never, niece,” the dark alicorn whispered, breaking that silence. “Thou shalt not use thine powers upon us. We spent a thousand years under the influence of the darkness, scratching in vain upon the walls of our own mind. If we dare not give in to ourself, how do you think we view others stripping our will from us?”

“You’re hurting so badly, Luna. I would never...”

“Indeed, thou shalt never. Never again think to direct us. If we are in pain, then that pain is ours to deal with. We will master it. It won’t be taken from us. We followed the easy path to deal with pain before, and look where it led us.” Luna turned, beginning to walk away from the demigoddess. Her legs trembled under her, despite her posture of false assurance. “We will ever remain Luna, even if it hurts.”

* * *

“THOU DAREST TO USE MINE SISTER’S INJURY FOR THE FURTHERANCE OF THINE AMBITION, ‘NEPHEW’?” Luna roared in the full fury of the Voice. The carpet leading down from her throne rippled in its wake. Marble tile creaked ominously under the assault, likely unheard beneath the din, but ready to split and crack. The decorative torches guttered in the winds.

“Auntie Luna! I wouldn’t...” Blueblood, Crown Prince of Unicornia, stammered after a deep swallow. The dark alicorn felt a sudden kinship with wolves that would set themselves on their prey in a moment of weakness. She allowed herself a deeply satisfying private fantasy in which she leaped down from the throne to knock the ‘prince’ through the nearest stained glass window with a buck. Maybe if she hadn’t been so sure she’d embarrassingly fail to get that distance in front of the whole court, she might have done it.

Luna’s voice lowered to less ear splitting levels and somehow it became all the more terrifying for its hushed tone. It dripped with threat and malign promise. She might not have had the Nightmare’s fangs any longer, but it would be easy to imagine her with them. “Spare us. We are not our Sister. She would give thee a disappointed look and send thee off with a matronly frown. We have no such patience for an overgrown foal. The handlers who pull thy strings have done thee a disservice. We can only imagine the sickness that thou would inflict upon Equestria with the Guard in thy inept hooves.”

“Auntie! Please! I-”

The dark goddess didn’t even let him get as far as last time. “We promise thee, we would rather replace Shining Armor with Discord than with thee! Thou didn’t even have the mind to see that the foals who convinced you to try this idiocy were sending you out as a lamb to the wolves, to test my reaction. If we were tempted to sign Canterlot’s safety over to some noble of dubious morality, we would choose one with at least a passing familiarity with intelligence. Guards! Remove this errant bit of trash as it deserves. If Celestia wishes him to blight Her halls, She can deal with him when She returns to this Court. We do not.”

Blueblood made quite the racket with his grovelling and blubbering. Luna ignored it. Likewise she tuned out the muttering and whispering among the crowd of nobility to either side of the room. Everyone knew Blueblood was an idiot, but she’d discovered how the nobles would herd together to protect even a fool such as he. They took an insult to any one of them as some kind of attack on their glorious heritage. It was absurd, but they could make Luna’s rule difficult. At that point, she didn’t care. The lunar mare rose up off her throne, to stand upon the dais.

The alicorn spoke slowly, to be sure to properly render her words into modern Equestrian. Cadance’s earlier pointing out of her archaic speech still stung. “I speak for the sake of clarity. You have all heard what Twilight Sparkle has done. In my eyes this has no bearing on the honor of Guard Captain Armor. Upon his shoulders rests the triune blessings of the Goddesses of Equestria. He is above reproach. He shall remain at his post, and I shall hear no more of it.” Luna took a brief glance to her right. She could see Shining Armor in profile, at the base of the dais, his face stoic and unreadable, as a Guard’s should be. It didn’t fool Luna for a second. She’d seen him speaking to Cadance before the opening of the Court. She didn’t need her niece’s empathy to feel the sullen resentment pouring off of him in her direction. “There shall be no changes of post or status. Do your duties to Equestria as they were. I will look with ill favor upon any attempt to treat the injury of your goddess as an opportunity.”

Luna sat herself gracefully back down upon the cushion on her throne. She knew she hadn’t made any friends with her speech. Certainly she hadn’t salved any injury over her lashing out at Blueblood. She didn’t have the energy for honeyed words. Coddling a group of spoiled foals was for a time when she wasn’t exhausted, feeling ill and carrying the weight of a nation on her shoulders. “Let us continue.”

The next petitioner walked forward, and already Luna had to swallow a sigh. First impressions of that wheedling stallion that approached were confirmed when he asked that some of the Regular Army be called back to the capital to safeguard the estates from the nobility in case of riot or panic, the rest of Equestria be damned.

This is the longest day of my life, Luna complained to herself, and not just literally.

* * *

“I’ll lower the sun when I can spare the strength from Celestia’s recovery. You know that I’m sympathetic to your cause, Star Chart. I’m always happy that those in the Royal University’s Planetarium enjoy my sky.” Luna spared a pitying smile for the grey unicorn that was at the foot of the dais. The alicorn hoped against hope that speaking a bit more approachably would actually get through to the stallion this time. “But I assure you, there is nothing for you to miss. I keep telling you that there is no secret encoded within my work for you to discover. A few days’ lapse in your observations won’t let some cosmic epiphany sneak by.”

“Well, that’s just what you would say, Your Majesty,” the astronomer replied, with all seriousness, “if you were trying to keep the Secrets from unworthy, unlearned eyes.”

Luna brought her hoof to her face. She couldn’t help it.

* * *

“Yes, I realize that the pause in the cycle of days will ruin the weather schedules. It is rather the least of my concerns. A few days of sunset will do no great harm. You may reassure your colleagues that I am sure it will not render Equestria into a barren desert. The sun is over the western ocean. Perhaps Vanhoover shall see more rain. Having been there, I can say that nopony will notice the difference.”

* * *

“For the third time: Nay.” Luna ground out, lapsing back into her normal speech. She tried to keep the frustration from her voice, but the best she could do was to manage to sound bored. “Now is not the time for a burdensome trial. The changelings skulk in the shadows. Celestia still recovers. Panic over the continuing day haunts our cities. Twilight Sparkle is a matter that can wait. She is held within a palace cell. She isn’t going anywhere.”

* * *

“Nay, Twilight Sparkle is not a changeling. Nor are the other Elements. And nay, we can’t be entirely sure it isn’t the cause of some kind of compulsion. It’s a possibility, if an unlikely one, and is one of the reasons we had to deny the last four ponies pointing out that Twilight Sparkle’s guilt is just so clear that a trial is unnecessary. However, if it did exist, the compulsion has since faded. We have examined her. Twilight Sparkle is beside herself with guilt. Even if all that weren’t the case, a magical compulsion can’t spread to her guards, as thou suggested. Honestly, thou should know as much, as a graduate of Celestia’s School, Lord Fleur!”

* * *


* * *

Lightning flashed. The Canterlot Weather Service planned clear skies over the city throughout the week, and they weren’t wrong. Inside of the throne room, however, was a different story. An oppressive, dark thunderhead shrouded the high ceiling from sight. Luna sat on her throne, still as a statue, in stark contrast to her mane and tail. Those had swirled and billowed out to great volume, forming a tempest of shining stars and midnight sky covering half of the wall behind her. The Court Scribes were huddled together in a protective pile in the far corner. The guardsponies had moved themselves closer to the meager shelter of the pillars at the side of the room. Even Shining Armor’s horn was weakly glowing as he held the spell for a magical shield at the ready. Canterlot’s Police Commissioner, a pale teal stallion, immaculate in his uniform, was wide-eyed, leaning backward slightly, as if ready to bolt.

“Pinkie Pie.” Luna’s voice wasn’t exactly loud. It carried its power in a deep, subsonic rumble that set the whole room trembling, and was felt in the bones of nearby ponies.

“Y-Yes, Majesty.” The stallion flinched subtly, as if surprised by his own shaking voice. He spent a second getting himself back under control, forcing himself into a more dignified, upright posture. “Miss Pinkamena Diane Pie...” Luna’s brow arched. It was a rather absurd name. No wonder the filly shortened it. The officer continued, “...wasn’t the target of our investigation. We were watching a mare named Butter Shade, on suspicion of selling Moon Drops. We were, to put it mildly, surprised when Miss Pie appeared, and purchased Miss Shade’s entire stock.”

Luna grit her teeth, struggling to keep herself still. It was a futile gesture at appearing calm. Even if she didn’t move, the starscape of her mane swelled and swirled more violently, and several decorative sconces on the wall were blackened by stray bolts of lightning. It had to be Moon Drops, Luna seethed, to herself. Of course it couldn’t be something less insulting. It had to be that vile substance made from my poor Moon Lily. My flower. My gift. My memorial. That creature couldn’t have done anything less than the worst, could she?

The commissioner, whose name Luna couldn’t recall, continued on while she raged within herself. “We apprehended Miss Shade, and detailed a team to follow Miss Pie. It was... difficult. I’ll spare you the details, but by the end we had scraped together four teams, with pegasi spotters and unicorns with tracking spells. At best we managed to successfully follow her to perhaps two-thirds of her destinations. Her abilities with stealth and misdirection are incredible.” There was a note of grudging respect in the officer’s voice. Luna didn’t share it, but she could understand it. He thought he was dealing with an earth pony, not... whatever Pinkie Pie was. He made the mistake of ascribing her impossible blasphemies against reality to skill and cunning. “We strongly suspected six of the ponies she met and made purchases from to be players in the drug trade. We thought they constituted essentially the entire illicit market in Canterlot, and we were gathering our evidence. Today we made fifteen arrests by following Miss Pie and witnessing her purchases.”

An admission of actually being wrong. From a unicorn in power. In Canterlot. It was a novelty that nearly threatened to break up the worst of Luna’s mood. It was tempered by the fact that the mistake was in underestimating the size of the insult and heart-sick injury that Equestria’s citizens were producing right under her very nose.

“We estimate somewhere in excess of five hundred Moon Drops were...”

Luna cut the Commissioner off mid-sentence. “Enough. Have Laughter found.” Her voice was just shy of a snarl.

“What do you intend to do?” The voice nearly caused Luna to give a start. It was Shining Armor, not a stallion prone to breaking the Guard’s stoic image when on duty in his most official capacity, at Court. “We can’t very well go and throw another of the Bearers of the Elements in prison.” His words carried a certain spiteful tone, doubtless thinking his sister shouldn’t be there either. “First all this with Celestia, and now Equestria’s heroes? It’ll be a disaster. Besides, this is Pinkie Pie.”

Unfortunately, it seemed to Luna as if she was the only pony who understood exactly what went along with that name. She squashed down the urge to snap at the Guard Captain for his tone. Instead she changed tracks entirely. “Do you think Cadance loves thee? Dearly and wholly?”

The stallion seemed rather taken aback by the question. There was some small flicker of self-consciousness in his eyes, but he nodded firmly, as if daring Luna to say otherwise. “Yes, I’m sure of it.”

“Thou should be. She loves thee with the whole of her heart. A love that is unjaded by cynicism. A pure love. That can only happen once, with our first, before we learn to guard ourselves from pain. She shall never love another as she loves thee, in all her days.” Luna studied the stallion, noting a small measure of surprise. Perhaps the beginnings of a bit of chagrin. The assurance of her villainhood, so carefully cultivated over the last few hours and days, following the incident with Twilight and his conversation with his wife before Court, faltered somewhat in the wake of her newfound kindness. “Thou shalt die, and she will continue. The sweetness of her love will gain a bitter edge, but will never diminish. She will always remember thee.”

The pale stallion’s look was unreadable, except for a hint of confusion. Luna couldn’t really blame him. “I’m not sure what to say to that. What does it have to do with Pinkie Pie?”

“It shall not surprise me if Cadance will feel the need to do something to remember thee throughout the long ages of her life. A memorial, to put into form some tiny shadow of what is in her heart.” Luna’s voice softened, losing some of its haughty formality. “The Moon Lily is my memorial. For Lily White. Into it I poured some small measure of the happiness she brought me.” And Celestia had safeguarded it for her. For a thousand years. That revelation had led to a rather embarrassing night of blubbering wetly in thanks against Celestia’s coat. “‘Tis our gift. When we wish to share that joy.” Luna stomped her forehoof down. The sound echoed sharply around the throne room as the marble under Celestia’s red carpet cracked. The ponies scattered around the large hall jumped. “And what has been done to it? Fiends and ne’er-do-wells take that monument to our love and warp it into something to cloud the mind of foolish ponies! And now we’re forced to wonder: does Laughter play-act her Virtue using stolen happiness? She is to be found. And she will explain.”

“And if that explanation isn’t one you like?” Shining Armor asked, eyes slightly narrowed with no small accusation.

Luna ignored it, even though it stung. “Then there shall be little enough use for laughter,” she answered, darkly, even though she knew it would make the Captain scowl. She wasn’t disappointed. He’d spent far too long around the overly-soft Celestia.

“If I may, Highness?” the Commissioner interjected. Luna flicked an irritated look his way. Didn’t she express her desire to have Pinkie Pie found? At least she had the satisfaction of seeing him properly cringe and bow his head down. Apparently one stallion knew better than to bait an irate goddess. His horn lit with an aura of gold magic. He floated a single gold bit to her.

“We aren’t sure what to make of this, Princess. At first we were expecting a counterfeit. Sometimes a particularly greedy pony will restrike Her Majesty’s coins cut with copper, or silver, or simply coat lead with a thin layer of gold. This one has been restruck, but remains pure. Miss Pie give almost three thousand of them for her... purchases. Where a baker gets that sort of wealth, and why deface it, well...” The Commissioner trailed off, noncommittally, watching as the Princess took the coin with her magic and examined it, slowly rotating it a few inches in front of her nose.

Luna’s pondered the coin. Why indeed would a pony do... that to one of Celestia’s coins? There wasn’t any purpose. Equestria’s money wasn’t a fiat currency, like the gryphons used with their jade beads or bits of dragon bone. A gold coin of any shape, or size, or decoration was worth its weight, technically. Maybe it was just done as a joke? If it was a silver or copper bit, there would be a worry that it was conjured. But creating gold was...

...impossible. Luna’s eyes narrowed. Of course.

“I-In any case, by your leave, Highness, I will see to locating Miss Pie. Do you want us to place her in custody?”

Luna looked past the coin with hard eyes. The commissioner clearly fought the urge to squirm under her gaze. “Nay. We have changed our mind. We shall deal with Pinkie Pie ourself.”

Seven - Luna: Shatter

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Luna’s favorite was gracefully darting through the air not far from the palace, leaving ethereal rainbow ribbons behind her. A half dozen guards, who for their sakes had better have been off duty, were in playful pursuit, trying to get their hooves on her. They had little luck. Only a few moments after Luna began watching, two of the golden-armored figures in the distance went tumbling from the sky, thrown by the cyan mare after her unbelievably quick turns on the wing.

The dark alicorn didn’t spare even the rainbow-maned beauty more than that few seconds of attention. Let her play and spar. It was a very pegasus sort of respite. The princess had business to deal with, and that went before pleasure.

Luna hit the ground at speeds that would been shattering, if not for her earth pony magic strengthening the innate pegasus resistance to falls. Her hooves sank a half inch into dry ground. It didn’t slow her as she immediately stalked forward toward the colourful group of Elements who were watching Rainbow Dash outfly the pegasus guards far overhead. In particular, the poofy-haired pink pony at the center was Luna’s focus. Their eyes met. That pink thing had been watching her since she leapt off the palace balcony, as if tipped off by some strange intuition. Or maybe an itchy hoof, or somesuch nonsense. Following the thump of Luna’s landing she had the whole group’s curious attention. Pale blue magic levitated a rather nondescript, if thick, brown canvas sack in front of the party pony’s face, nearly hitting her. Luna opened the bag, revealing the hundreds of cheerful, tiny, multi-coloured pills inside, each one glowing with a pale white luminescence.

“EXPLAIN THIS!” Luna roared in the Royal Voice. It blew that pink mane and tail backward, and forced the filly back a step. Were she not an earth pony it would have sent her sprawling.

“Wow! Loud!” Pinkie Pie said in an impressed tone. “Heya Princess!” She looked into the sack. Her eyes widened and she bounced in place enthusiastically. “Ooooh! You found more of that candy! That’s like, as much as what I spent ALL DAY getting. Everyone could have two! Are you giving that to me for my party, Princess? Are you? The fun could definitely be doubled.”


“Huh?” Pinkie stopped her bouncing. Those little hops had been carrying her backward each time with the force of Luna’s voice, in any case. “That’s silly Princess.” The pink pony then gasped. “Oh! OH! Why didn’t anypony tell me it was opposite day?” She looked to her friends, her face all disappointment and scolding. “That’s kind of mean, guys.” Pinkie cleared her throat. “I totally didn’t get those not-great candies so I couldn’t give them out at the super-terrible party that isn’t happening tomorrow night to make everyone feel worse about what hasn’t been happening lately! And they’re going to make everyone just miserable! It’s going to be glum!”

“IT IS NOT OPPOSITE DAY, FOAL! EQUESTRIA IS ON THE BRINK, AND ITS HEROES ARE BUSY GATHERING UP THE MOST ILLEGAL, BLASPHEMOUS SUBSTANCE IN THE KINGDOM, INTENDING TO BEGUILE ITS INNOCENT CITIZENS WITH IT!” Luna poured every ounce of frustration in her out into that shout. Grass tore from the ground. Pinkie Pie was blown backward, head-over-tail. Her friends were sent tumbling and rolling to each side.

“Owie,” Pinkie complained, hoof on her head as she sat up onto her haunches. “And the Cakes say I need to learn to use my indoor voice.” The pony looked down at her mane, which had been blown out straight once more. She gave her head a vigorous shake, until her mane popped back into its usual cotton-candy mass. “I think you’ve got the wrong bag, Princess. I didn’t buy anything bad! I got this super-fantabulous candy that makes you really, really happy for hours. The first nice pony gave me one for free to try. He said it’s help me forget all the bad stuff happening lately. And did it ever!” She gathered her legs under her again and hopped forward. “Nothing so great would ever be illegal. Princess Celestia is a super-smart cookie, Twilight-smart, even, and even nicer than she is smart. She’d like stuff that makes ponies happy!”

Luna strode forward to meet the absurd pony. She didn’t stop until her muzzle bumped against the filly’s, stopping her bouncing and knocking back onto her haunches. Pinkie might have been an earth pony, but she was no goddess. The princess loomed over Pinkie. The day grew darker, even though the sky remained clear and the sun still shone ruddily over the western horizon. Luna’s eyes glowed with an angry light in counterpoint. “Thou hath profaned thy Princess! Thou has taken up with thieves and villains who dare to rip the sacred Moon Lily from the embrace of the earth! Thou hast taken the dearest gift that we may bestow upon our ponies, and seek to give it out in tainted, befouled form as foalish party favors!?”

Rarity, who had finally finished dusting herself off after the Canterlot Voice had so unceremoniously sent her tumbling, gasped in affront. “Pinkie Pie! Moon Drops! You were going to give out drugs at your party? I thought better of you!”

“What?” The pink pony shook her head quickly. “Nonono. Drugs are a big no-sirree-Bob for Pinkie Parties! No matter what Vinyl says! I read all those neat posters they put up.” Pinkie Pie lowered her voice into a poor imitation of a stallion, probably trying for a stern sound of authority. “Remember ponies! Real winners don’t... use... Drops. Oh.”

Pinkie folded back her ears. “Oh, wow. I was almost one of those bad ponies you hear about in the super-depressing section of the newspaper! Kingpin Pie, leader of Canterlot’s shadowy underbelly! Grammy Pie would come out of retirement to tan my flank until her wings fell off if she ever heard about that! I’m real sorry Prin-”

“Save thy bleating! If that was thine only transgression, we might forgive, but t’was not! Explain this!” Her telekinesis flicked a coin at the party pony. She took a certain immature satisfaction in the flinch when the golden bit bounced off Pinkie’s nose.

Pinkie Pie looked down at it with innocent curiosity. “It’s a gold bit,” Pinkie identified, proudly, as if she’d just won some game. She raised a hoof to give a little bobbing wave to each of her following words. It was a very Twilight-ish gesture, and the academic tone of voice only strengthened that connection. “You trade them to ponies for goods and services!”

Luna levitated the coin upward to set it hovering in front of Pinkie Pie’s eyes. She made the ‘heads’ side face the smaller earth pony, an embossed portrait of Celestia’s head in profile. “Mine sister’s coin doth not feature a party hat!” And sure enough, instead of the Crown of the Sun, the pony on the coin had a conical party hat over her horn. Luna vaulted into a hover a few feet in the air, so she could point accusingly at Pinkie with one shod hoof. The Goddess’ eyes brightened, and the temperature of the air on the practice field seemed to drop in time with it, until ponies found their breath steaming in the air. Clouds began to swirl into existence thickly enough to begin to block the setting sun, finishing the task of throwing the field into gloomy darkness. “IT WAS THINE DOING, WASN’T IT? THOU WAS NOT CONTENT TO INSULT ME, BUT TO PAY FOR THINE BLASPHEMOUS ACQUISITIONS WITH THESE! THOU DEIGNED TO BREAK NOT ONLY THE LAW OF PONYKIND, BUT THE LAWS OF ALL MAGIC! THOU USED THINE FOUL, UNHOLY POWERS TO SOMEHOW CONJURE THE UNCONJURABLE METAL. DIDN’T THOU!?”

Pinkie Pie actually cowered, flinching back and tripping to land on her side. She stared at Luna, quivering, with wide, watery eyes. That is, until she seemed to find a reserve of will. Upon seeing that familiar look, Rarity galloped forward, throwing decorum to the wind to get between Pinkie and the outraged Princess before the party pony could begin the opening refrain of whatever song was rattling around in her poofy-maned head. Applejack wasn’t far behind. Even Fluttershy crept forward behind the farm pony, head low, though she was clearly trying to remain unnoticed. “Princess, stop! This is all terribly silly. We all know well that it’s impossible to create gold with magic, no matter how tragically fabulous an outfit would look with gold trim or accoutrements. Pinkie isn’t even a unicorn! I do believe the stress of these last few days has...”

“Nay!” Luna bellowed, if at a mercifully less bone-shaking, ear-rupturing volume. That it was Rarity that had spoken up caused some small degree of hesitation. “We had thought you heroes and exemplars of the High Virtues! We thought you friends! Instead we find that the greatest of thee, Magic, is a murderer, and Laughter is as Discord in pony form! We shudder to think what other darkness the Bearers host! This cannot be borne!”

Luna alighted upon the ground once more with slow menace. The ground shook subtly with her anger. The air pulsed with it. The Bearers stood with wide-eyed, unnatural terror, each frozen in place by the weight of her divine presence. We are not Celestia. Not gentle and soft! Let them see the terrible wrath of a scorned goddess unveiled!

“Pinkamena. Diane. Pie.” Luna took no small pleasure in drawing out that name. The party pony whimpered, ears back, shrinking away with each added word. Her hair seemed to lose its gravity-snubbing lift, falling straight, as if crushed down as much as her mind had been with Luna’s magic, will and Voice. No mortal pony upon the field dared to move. Even the pegasi guards hovering to watch the previous sparring found themselves losing altitude as their wings seemed to lose the strength to hold them aloft. Each slow step the goddess took was like thunder, and had the quivering filly sinking lower toward the ground. A dark part of Luna reveled in it. We had feared this little mortal creature? She is a deadly danger, but not to a Goddess. Laughter’s will is crushed in the face of our divine majesty no less than the rest.

In the face of her victory, she could be magnanimous. She towered over the shaking filly, but allowed her Voice to lose some of its dreadful power. “We are not without mercy. Our Sister wouldst think ill of us to be rash. However, without Her at our side, we cannot take the risks with thee that She seemed to favor. There cannot be allowed another who would toy with the nature of this world. Equestria must be safe under my wing. So thou shalt slumber in the peaceful, dreamless sleep of stone, beside the one who shares thy crimes.” Luna gathered her powers, horn igniting, the sleeping moon below the horizon answering her call, if weakly. The cool, steady power of her alicorn aspect filled her. Binding Discord might have required the Elements of Harmony, but this would not. That mindless submission to her will proved that she had acted soon enough for her powers to suffice on this creature. “Sleep, dear Laughter. We shall be gentle with thee, for the favor of freedom thou gave us, even if we cannot risk to return the gift,” she cooed, voice soft, to offer a last bit of comfort as she prepared to release her power. “Close thine eyes. Put aside thy frantic energy. It will not hurt. This we promise thee.”

“S-stop it!” a small voice squeaked to her right. Luna glanced over, finding Kindness, of all ponies, pushing herself up to her hooves one quivering inch at a time. The delicate, demure creature looked as if she was about to break into pieces. The goddess paused in rapt fascination as her powers were defied. That distant interest lasted only until her gaze met the gentle pony’s.

Luna’s world became those lovely blue-green eyes. Her blood suddenly filled with ice, colder than the bite of the moon’s airless surface. A great yawning mass bore down on her soul. Something too great and terrible to name or describe. She was helpless in its dread presence, an insignificant speck batted about by insurmountable, unknowable forces.

Kindness found new strength, surging to her hooves, closing in on the paralyzed goddess. Luna didn’t process any of it. All she knew was those horrible, beautiful eyes. They seemed to grow as the pegasus neared, stretching across the horizon. The weight of their baleful gaze made the once-mighty alicorn’s knees tremble and lock, to keep her from collapsing.

The voice was worse. It wasn’t meek and soft, it was ragged, razor iron. It burst through the god like hurled glass, tearing her will to tatters. “You big bully! You do not, I repeat, do not get to say that about the sweetest, most wonderful pony in all of Equestria! Celestia would be ashamed of you!”

Tears gathered in Luna’s eyes as the emptiness of guilt and shame suddenly swallowed up her insides. She’s right. What have I done? I’m a horrible Princess. Those tears escaped her eyes to pour down her cheeks. A ragged sob escaped her throat for the first time since she was barely a filly herself. She needed her Sister so badly then. But for once, her big Sister wasn’t there to comfort her, to brush her tears away from her cheeks, to fold her in those strong wings and nuzzle her until it was better. Celly, forgive me!

But why should she? She didn’t deserve her Sister’s forgiveness. She had never felt more sure of anything else before, at least since those dark whispers had spoken to her about how much she deserved the dominion that had been ‘stolen’ from her by her Sister.

If anything could freeze her further, it was that flash of memory.

Hot anger and electrifying terror welled up inside of her in equal quantities. Kindness, who had been about to reach out to take the goddess’ head in her hooves, intent on comforting her, was suddenly taken aback by a narrowing of eyes. That tiny movement nearly exhausted the goddess of the night.

We shall not be controlled! We are the mistress of our own will! Never shall it bend again!

Luna stretched out her divinity in a panic. Alicorn powers seized her Sister’s Sun. It burned to the touch, and all but slipped through her hooves with its strange intangibility. Luna poured all her strength down against it in a fury, and drove it down across the horizon even so, while at the same time exercising the effortless raising of her own far more comfortingly cool and solid Moon. Its silvery power poured through her in a rush, helping to cut through the frost in her veins and clearing the fog from her mind.

With that power she took hold of the very underpinnings of reality and tore.

Light and colour rushed out of the field, a mere side effect to the true loss. Meaning left the world as well. Grass, clouds, even other ponies became nothing but inert, inscrutable objects to the senses, blank and confusing. The ambition to even make the attempt at comprehension was impossible to gather, in any case. Pegasi began to listlessly drift downward, settling where they landed. Those that had begun to rise from their bowing, when Fluttershy locked Luna in the Stare and broke her spell, gave up the effort as the light of reason went out of their eyes. Fluttershy’s reaction was the most extreme. She fell from her thankfully low hover, face pressed to the ground, eyes open but staring blankly at nothing.

The Realm of Dreams was a place of spirit. From there the shining souls of ponykind reached to touch upon material reality, tethering themselves to simple, crude flesh. Luna formed the rising moon’s strength into a wall between the two worlds that defined her existence. It was a novel working of spellcraft, but alicorn magic was a thing of instinct and symbol, not study and academics. It was within her domain, so she dictated the new shape reality would take, and it became law. Across that barrier the connection between body and soul became tenuous. The greatest gifts of the soul: magic, reason, and virtue, became impossible. The yard gained a silence it had lacked since Luna’s bombastic entrance. Nothing with a mind more complex than an insect or less willful than a goddess could function normally when barely holding onto its very soul.

As it turned out, however, aggression could still be a fairly viable alternative to intellect in such a situation.

A prismatic flash slammed into Luna’s face and chest like a cannon ball. Her muzzle snapped down painfully. A wet crack echoed through the stillness of the yard as a rib as tough as tempered steel snapped under cyan hooves. For the second time in less than a week Luna found herself bouncing and skidding across the ground at speed. Meaning and thought flooded back into the world as the night princess’s focus broke.

Luna’s body held up to the abuse of the tumble as well as her dream body had. Doubtless the pegasus that clung to her didn’t, but it didn’t seem to matter. The goddess was far more dazed this time, when she found herself on her back. A mild burst of new pain as a hoof slammed into her muzzle startled her.

“What the buck are you thinking, Princess!? You’re supposed to be one of the good guys!” a scratchy voice screamed at her, sounding angry and betrayed. Luna blinked, fixing her bleary attention on the familiar rainbow maned mare above her.

The pain in her chest was a novel thing. Not even her purification by the Elements had hurt, exactly. Her memory had to stretch beyond the millennium of isolation to find pain more serious than vague discomfort. This was piercing, unpleasant and got worse as she took in a breath to refill what had been knocked from her lungs. Somehow that honest discomfort built upon the renewed moon-born vitality thrumming through her, sharpening her focus. Gathering her thoughts from scratch was an illuminating experience. Fresh shame poured through the goddess, far more naturally this time. She hadn’t been thinking at all. Everything had been a haze of anger and pent up despair. She had found an excuse to release her building frustrations, a problem even her then-waning power could solve. Being able to decisively deal with an issue had felt very, very good. Kindness had been right about one thing: Celestia would have been ashamed. She hadn’t been the master of her own will after all. The Nightmare had always been one for quick, final judgements. Ponies had quickly learned to fear her ‘justice’ during the war. Luna felt ill at the thought.

Was that all it took to have her relapse to old ways of thinking? Fatigue, the absence of her night, a few annoying nobles and a healthy dose of fear?

Above her, her savage savior looked like she was getting ready to strike her again. Luna heard the groans of ponies starting to rise, and the clatter of armor as guards noticed the little cyan pegasus atop their fallen goddess and sprung into action. Said goddess didn’t have eyes for such things.

Her horn ignited, taking hold of the mane behind Rainbow Dash’s head. “Thou hast indeed earned thy reward again,” she found herself huskily whispering. She pulled the pegasus down and kissed her lips, hard enough to practically hurt, and with no small measure of gratitude. Rainbow tried to pull away at first, shocked. The pain was intense as a hoof dug against Luna’s broken rib. That Dash could use her hooves at all after striking Luna at that speed was miracle enough to earn a passing moment of awed confusion. Anypony but an earth pony should have shattered their own legs hitting a goddess hard enough to break her bones.

It is distinctly proper that we should have such a remarkable suitor. Luna decided.

Thankfully for Luna’s chest, Rainbow’s tension abated after a few moments. That satisfied the goddess enough to release her. The pegasus’ fierce blush was hot enough to show clearly through her coat. “Ohmygosh!” she breathlessly murmured, bringing a hoof to her mouth. Those magenta eyes were distinctly cute when wide with surprise and confusion, Luna mused. The banality of the thought in this situation nearly made laughter bubble up from the Princess of the Night. Unfortunately the moment was diminished somewhat when a retreating Rainbow smacked her head against the flat of a guard’s leaf-shaped spear blade that Luna held in her horn’s grip. The pegasus flinched and ducked her head down, peering back over her shoulder. Her eyes went wide. That spear was one of nearly a dozen in a cloud around the pegasus, which Luna had turned aside. Some had been thrown with careful accuracy, others belonged to charging guards who had, for the most part, released them when their goddess had taken hold.

Rainbow went pale under her coat when she realized exactly how close to death she had come. The vanishing of the blush as a result made Luna huff in disappointment. She levitated the weapons away, burying their tips into the ground nearby, if only because Dash seemed to be about to throw her hooves into the air in surrender, and seeing the filly give up would ruin some of the magic.

“Peace,” Luna raised a hoof to cover her injured chest at a new flare of pain when she spoke. It wasn’t crippling, just irritating. It took more than a single broken bone to give pause to an alicorn. “Peace, Rainbow Dash. Only thou of all ponies couldst somehow manage to do us a great service by pummeling us. We begin to worry that thine cutie mark will soon change to an image of thee towering over us in victorious dominance. Yon bolt of lightning is far less scandalous.”

Dash squeaked in dismay, wings fluttering as she hopped back off of Luna in a great hurry. She wore an aghast look, at first, one that deepened to embarrassed horror when the implication of Luna’s words became clearer. The goddess could watch the progress of her expression as her mind went back to that dream.

The display was interrupted as a new wave of guards arrived. Most moved to surround Luna in a solid wall of stallion flesh and armor. Others closed in on the Element bearers, especially Rainbow Dash. They weren’t going to be taking any chances with their remaining Goddess, not after Celestia. The thrown spears were proof enough of that. It took the most dire of circumstances to urge any pony toward deadly action, even the drilled and trained Guard.

“ENOUGH!” One word was all Luna managed in the Royal Canterlot Voice. A spike of pain from her chest convinced her that it would have to be sufficient. “Leave them be. Valiant Rainbow Dash was right to chastise her Goddess. Help us up.” The guardstallions hurried to comply, helping to lift her to her hooves, as if she was made of glass. The way she held a leg across her visibly dented chest probably didn’t help matters.

One of the guard lieutenants called for a medic for their Princess. Luna shook her head quickly. It did strange things to her sense of balance. The strike to her head had been no less jarring than the one to her ribs. “Fret not, dear protector.” She wished she could remember the name of that senior soldier. His voice and manner was familiar. Apparently the hoof to the head didn’t magically impart Celestia’s uncanny gift for conjuring up the most obscure names. “Our Sister was struck down in a way most dire. We don’t fear a broken bone. It shall set itself in a few moments.”

The lunar goddess glanced toward the four elements who had endured her fury. It wasn’t a sight that filled her with any measure of the pride she had felt during her high emotions. The straight-maned Laughter was quivering and curled into a tight ball while Honesty awkwardly stroked her back with a hoof, and shot daggers at the Princess with her eyes between comforting words to her friend. Kindness was holding one of her eyes, which had likely struck earth or been scratched by grass when they were so blankly open after Luna forced away the Dream Realm. Drawing so deeply on its powers as Kindness had been during that psychic display, Luna wasn’t surprised that she was hit hardest by its loss. Tears were pouring thickly down those butter-coloured cheeks. Her open eye was haunted, and wouldn’t look toward her tormentor. Rarity wasn’t even sparing glares for Luna, instead she was gently trying to coax Fluttershy into letting her inspect that injured eye.

As for Rainbow Dash, she seemed no more impressed than Luna was at the sight of the others. In fact, she seemed to be getting over her embarrassment with a rising, righteous anger. For the moment, the wall of spears between her and the goddess deterred her, but by the look in her eyes, it might not for long. With all that had happened with Celestia, Luna couldn’t be sure her guards would continue to heed her calls for calm if Dash attacked again.

“Thy adherence to thine Virtue is commendable, fair Rainbow Dash. However, thou need not scold thine ruler further. We know that we... overreacted.” Luna added a contrite lowering of her head and a folding of her ears to try to convince her. The pegasus seemed vaguely suspicious, but at least that killing look in those striking magenta eyes had ebbed to a mere desire to maim.

Stiffly, partly because her injury throbbed unpleasantly with each step and partly because of awkward embarrassment, Luna limped toward the group of recovering Elements. Unsurprisingly, the less injured pair stepped forward. Honesty wore a look of hard anger, Rarity a cool disappointment. The kind that Celestia would level on her. Luna visibly cringed under it, by pure instinct.

“Ah think you’ve done enough damage for one day, Princess,” Honesty drawled in a brutal levelness. “Ah’d reckon that you’ve scared poor Pinkie enough to make yer point. Nightmare Moon didn’t get her half as bad.”

That sick feeling returned when her alter ego was mentioned. Oh, she had been capable of doing things far worse than simply shattering a pony’s will as the Nightmare. But she hadn’t turned anything close to her full powers on the future Elements back then. Since she had assumed they had posed no threat, she’d played with them, like a cat batting at a mouse. Today they had seen an alicorn in fright and anger. There was no giggling away a goddess.

“Applejack is quite right, I’m afraid,” Rarity added, twisting the knife of Honesty’s words. “Threatening to treat Pinkie like that villain, Discord. It was unworthy of you. I don’t know what you did to Fluttershy when things went...” The white unicorn seemed to struggle to find a word to describe the experience of nearly being disconnected from one’s soul. Luna didn’t envy her the task. “...cold? Empty? But you had no right at all to hurt her.”

That, at least, lit a flame within Luna’s chest. It was a refuge from shame, but a thin one. “We will not be controlled again!” she began with that anger, but it burned away too quickly. The goddess breathed a sigh. Her voice lost its fire. “We did not mean to harm her. We meant to stop that invasion of hers in the only sure way we knew. It was too much like the Nightmare when...” Luna trailed off into silence, but she could see pity and some measure of understanding in Rarity’s eyes. It was something both comforting and bitter to the alicorn. With a new breath she looked toward the farm mare. “We seek to do no more harm. As Lady Rarity said, it was unworthy of us to act as we did.”

As she started forward between the two mares, Rarity stepped to the side to make room. It was a sign of trust that the princess was grateful for. Honesty didn’t stop her, at least, but the alicorn had to step around her. She thought to go to Fluttershy, who seemed more aware, if barely, but the filly squeaked and scrambled back in terror, wings so tight to her sides that they shook from the effort. Luna didn’t have the heart to pursue her. Her desire to erase some of her shame was difficult enough as it was. So instead she walked closer to the pink mare, still curled tight into that protective ball, like a terrified foal.

Luna lay herself down a few paces away from the party pony. “Pinkie Pie?” Luna whispered, questioningly. The named pony just curled up all the tighter. The lunar goddess began to reach out with her deeper senses. It was so effortless during the night that it was all but automatic. She stopped herself, in what she knew was cowardice, before she could see any deeper than the mundane. She didn’t want to see the damage she had inflicted on Laughter’s psyche with her brutal lack of care. Mental magics were not something to be used as a cudgel. It was too easy to scar a pony’s mentality, sometimes even permanently. She had gleefully focused all her divine will on crushing this absurd little pony, and she had broken, just as expected. “We... I am sorry. It wasn’t really you that I was angry with. It was all...” Luna stopped, giving her head a shake. “There’s no excuse. I acted unforgivably.”

There was no response at all from the filly. Luna suppressed a cringe. At this rate she would have no choice but to actually inspect the damage she had done. A hopeful thought at the back of her mind pointed out that Cadance’s aspect was far more in line with such a task. But that hope died in the fires of logic quickly enough. Cadance was barely a foal of an alicorn. Her powers were impressive, but very immature. Of course, as Twilight had discovered when facing Discord, there were ways to begin to heal psychic damage that weren’t magical.

“P-perhaps I could make it up to you in part by attending your party?” the dark goddess offered with a measure of awkwardness. It seemed like something that might at least get a response from the catatonic pony. “I could gather a few true Moon Lilies to bestow upon some of your guests?”

The reaction was dramatic. Pinkie Pie shot up into the air with a gasp, her mane positively exploding outward. Luna flinched backward, night-blue mist steaming from her pelt as her body naturally prepared to flee into intangibility.

“A Pinkie Princess Party!?” Somehow the party pony managed to stay up into the air long enough to both gasp and shout those words. Gravity seemed to take a brief holiday at the apex of the jump, only to catch itself and reassert its existence a few seconds later. The sight did little to settle Luna’s nerves, especially given that none of her night-sharpened senses could find any magic being used to produce the effect.

Can’t she avoid appearing as a reality-twisting abomination at least so long as I’m trying to be apologetic? Luna groused to herself, once her heart stopped threatening to take advantage of the weakness in her ribs to escape her chest. How is it that I can still long for the days of the chicken suit?

“We can appear briefly. For only as long as the duties of a troubled state can allow,” Luna clarified, carefully, with all the magnanimous serenity she could muster.

Pinkie didn’t seem to be listening to the caveat. She bounced up and down happily, thankfully not abusing the laws of physics this time. Luna checked to make sure, and found it absurd that she felt she needed to do so. “This is going to be the bestest party ever. I need to go change the flyers. Oh! And the name. And I need Princess Luna decorations. What’s your favorite kind of food? Cupcakes? Cakes? Danishes? Turnovers? Cupcakes?”

And on and on it went. At some point Pinkie, who didn’t actually seem to stop for answers, decided her presence was desperately needed elsewhere. She bounced over to Fluttershy and nudged her with her nose. “Come on, silly filly, I need someone to fly up to take down the old decorations.” A few more bumps seemed to almost miraculously get Fluttershy out of her own near catatonia and up onto steady hooves.

“O-okay,” that pillow-soft voice of the yellow pegasus murmured, almost below hearing. “Um.” Pinkie nudged her forward another step with a nosebump to her haunch. She shied away from the touch. “Pinkie, could you... um... stop doing that? If that’s okay?”

“We gotta move, sister!” the party pony explained brightly. She applied another nudge, and was answered with a surprised little ‘eep’. “No time to waste! I don’t have a party cannon packed with Moony stuff. And I mean, really, I should have. We came to Canterlot and everything. I had a ‘Welcome Back Chrysalis, Be Our Friend Instead of Invading’ cannon all ready. A ‘Tea Party with Celestia’ one too. Even a ‘Congrats on the Engagement to the Pony of your Dreams’ one for Rarity, because you never know. Oh! Have you made up with the animals in the garden yet, because I’ve got...”

Luna watched the whole exchange incredulously, until Pinkie went out of sight with Fluttershy. Applejack started off after them, giving Luna a wary look along the way. One of Luna’s ears flicked as she heard the gentle swish of hooves on grass coming up beside her. The sound was too perfectly even to be anyone but Rarity. Her guess was confirmed when that cultured voice spoke up, “Really? She travels around with an engagement party ready for me? I’m not sure if I should be flattered, but it is sweet. Hardly what one would expect of a villain, is it Princess?”

Luna ignored the ever so slight bite in those final words, though she supposed they weren’t undeserved. “Tell us, Lady Rarity, did Pinkie Pie have any luggage when she arrived?”

“Hmm?” Rarity paused for a moment after that questioning sound, perhaps expecting an explanation for the sudden, unusual inquiry. None was forthcoming. “No, I don’t recall any. Pinkie always travels light, and I don’t doubt that they were rather in a hurry after hearing that Princess Celestia had been injured.”

Luna glanced sidelong at the unicorn. “And yet, despite that, she has decor and artillery with her. We don’t doubt their existence, either. We have seen them, in rank upon rank. Out of reach of this world. Or so they should be.” The alicorn turned and began back toward the palace. She stopped after a few paces, and looked back toward the unicorn. Rarity was clearly deep in thought, undoubtedly dreaming up something to say. “In truth, we believe what you have said, that there is no evil yet in Laughter. It doth not worry us what she intends, only what she already does. ‘Tis our belief that one does not twist the very underpinnings of the world without becoming twisted in turn. Celestia has the will and discipline to resist. Those of free nature? It hath always turned toward disaster. Discord was once an unassuming and mostly-harmless creature too. We failed to act decisively then, and in doing so nearly wrought the end of our world. And then, of course, there was us. Remember what we said of our fae nature in our youth.”

“It’s nothing like that. It’s just Pinkie Pie being Pinkie Pie,” Rarity weakly offered, as Luna began to walk away once more. The alicorn knew the refrain by now. It littered every report of unusual activity in Ponyville. It didn’t even make the Princess pause.

* * *

Sleep was a sweet thing indeed. Luna had been without any real rest for days. She could go without it for longer, but normally she wasn’t keeping her magical reserves near to empty and poisoning herself. And normally the moon rose to fill her with power each night. Still, it was deliciously indulgent to sleep during the night, soaking her in the cool energies of her aspect. The Dream Realm had improved as well, with the raising of the bright, silvery moon over it. The ghost-shapes of buildings were more defined. A starscape of sleeping ponies, grateful for the darkness after days of perpetual sunset, graced the ground as far as the goddess could see, ensuring she could flit around Canterlot with perfect ease. The dreamers crowded into an area, the less difficult it became to travel through, in the Realm. One could move through cities at night in nearly instant flashes. Long, empty stretches of wilderness were like moving through a pool of molasses in comparison.

Her sister slept, but didn’t really dream. At best she dwelt in feverish hallucination. What should have been a radiant, profound presence was little more than an angrily glowing mist within her tower. Luna folded nebulous wings around it, and breathed what peace she could into that spirit. It was an unfamiliar thing, trying to work into that roiling madness, instead of proper dreaming. She couldn’t immerse herself in it, or peer into it. But at least her efforts seemed to calm it toward a more placid state. It would all be so much easier if there was some monster she could pour her anger out upon to save her sister. Instead her target had been a bright pink filly who was only trying to help by lightening the mood in Canterlot.

With that reminder, the alicorn flung her senses widely, a pulse of awareness that surged through the shadow city. Her gaze settled onto a building near the edge of Canterlot. It wasn’t a residence or place in high use by the citizenry. It should have been barely a presence in the Realm. Instead it was more solid than anything else for miles. The cloud of intent that was Luna seeped out through the tower walls. Some of the protection enspelled into stone and mortar would have bled into the Dream World normally, but Twilight had left them in a ragged state and they offered no resistance. It was something else to be remedied upon waking. It would be an irritating problem, given that it was best if few people were exposed to seeing Celestia in her deathly condition, and moving her to allow work on the tower was ill-advised.

It was increasingly tempting to teleport to Hoofington and reduce a few changelings to bits of frozen, shattered chitin. Or at least to return to Manehatten to show the flag in the face of the mobs of changeling-hunting vigilante ponies that had returned to the streets since hearing about Celestia’s injury. She should have been doing it for weeks, but now she dared not go further than a few moments away from her Sister, for fear that she would take a turn for the worse. For a moment the alicorn wondered, with a certain malicious glee, if changelings dreamed. She could make it so that they never awoke, all without leaving her bed in the Palace. It was a cathartic thought, but taking her astral self that far from her physical body would make her next to impossible to rouse. She had torn herself up with guilt when Celestia had received a comparative scratch at Chrysalis’ hooves while she’d been elsewhere. If her Ssister died due to her being off ripping the souls (if the half-witted creatures had them!) of changeling drones from their bodies to make herself feel better, Luna would never recover.

Her destination was far closer. She could wake instantly. As she took tangible form she began to hope that some functionary really would wake her up. She’d rather hear that Blueblood had tried to sell Canterlot to the gryphons than to walk into the building she was forcing herself to enter.

It had all the appearance of a normal warehouse. One like many near the train yard. A plaque with a logo of waving stalks of grain had been partially covered up by a banner adorned with three balloons of familiar placement and colour. That she could make out such detail in a simple physical object in this world made the goddess suppress a shudder.

Physical objects only ever had a tenuous meaning in the realm of thought. What little solidity they gained was due to the feelings and intentions of the ones who interacted with them, lending them form. The builder of a structure, in designing and meticulously constructing it, infused it with a bit of themselves. The love of a family or the focus of employees strengthened that impression. The warehouse was a dry, utilitarian building that likely earned little love or passion, or even hatred. It should have been nigh-invisible. Yet somehow a flighty pink pony, barely more than a filly, had poured enough meaning into the place to make the walls nearly opaque and naturally coloured in a world of ethereal blues and greens.

And my hooves are making sounds again! Ugh! There isn’t even gravity to hold them down!

The thought made Luna pause and make a little hop forward. When she found herself slowing, then falling at the apex of the small jump she wanted to throw her hooves up in the air in dismay. There wasn’t gravity in the Realm of Dreams. But there was here. It was no less disturbing to Luna than the thought of gravity shutting off in the Material Realm.

Luna steeled herself and moved forward, staring straight ahead and trying to ignore the clop of hooves on stone. It didn’t work. Each one made her want to scream that much more.

Finding Pinkie Pie sitting on her haunches at the center of the cavernous space of the warehouse was at least something else to focus on. Her mane and tail were once again in that oddly straight style that Luna had briefly seen during her foalish tantrum. They were quite luxuriantly long like that, almost brushing the ground, but somehow it seemed terribly uncharacteristic. That was until Pinkie turned to look at her as she neared. The tear-reddened eyes, filled with sullen anger, fit well enough with the style.

Luna froze when those eyes locked onto her. “What do you want?” Pinkie Pie bitterly spat out those words. It was a jarring change from her normal demeanor.

The alicorn who had faced down dragons, monsters and gods of chaos took a moment to compose herself before speaking to one of her subjects. “What has become of thou, Pinkie Pie?”

“What became of me?” the filly repeated. She rose up onto her hooves. She stalked forward, brashly shoving her muzzle up in front of Luna’s. The alicorn recoiled. “What became of me? You did!” her screaming was shrill.

“It’s just so easy, huh? A harmless little party pony you can kick around to feel better?” Pinkie made a kicking motion with her front hooves to illustrate. It was hardly anything like a powerful buck of back hooves, but it struck Luna just above the fetlock in a tender spot. When sudden, sharp pain shot up her leg, she yelped. Immediately finding herself unbalanced in that strange gravity, her front pitched down and she fell unceremoniously on her face, rear in the air, in front of the filly. She tried to scramble up to her hooves, but a hoof pressed down on the back of her neck. It felt like a lead weight. She struggled and flailed, wings beating, a useless gesture given there wasn’t really air in the dreamscape. That hoof just seemed to press all the harder, until Luna felt like her bones should be creaking with strain. Somehow her lungs burned, as if the pressure on her throat was actually keeping her from breathing. It was an absurd thought, given that it wasn’t necessary in that realm. Even so, greyness began to impinge on the edges of her vision. Weakness filtered through her muscles.

The goddess tried to rejoin her sleeping form, to flee into wakefulness. She felt tension, but she didn’t move from that spot. Her body likewise wouldn’t shed its artificial solidity. Like the building, she was being held in some kind of material form. Panicked eyes looked up to meet the pink pony’s. Power swelled within her, answering her call. It gathered in her horn, ready to lash out with devastating effect. But instead of calling up blades of cold, deadly light, the alicorn stopped struggling, slumping down limply in surrender. The pressure on her neck eased. She took a gasp and filled her lungs with something that felt like air. Relief came quick and sweet. Pinkie’s voice was a growl from above. “Not fun being scared and helpless, is it?

The prostrate dream goddess shuddered. “N-no,” she croaked, her voice rough, “it isn’t.”

The hoof lifted from the back of her neck. The spot ached fiercely. Luna didn’t rise, but just panted for breath, as strength slowly return to her limbs. She watched Pinkie turn and begin to walk away, dismissively. That long tail nearly batted her across the face. It seemed to carry a greyer tinge to it than normal, almost like a pony in the early stages of being twisted by Discord. In other words, a pony suffering from some measure of spiritual injury. It would manifest far more clearly here. Luna wished she could blame her old nemesis for it, but she knew all too well who was responsible.

Luna coughed, a foreleg rubbing at her throat as she picked herself up unsteadily. Her voice was clearer this time. “We want to make amends to thee.”

Pinkie stopped and looked back. Her eyes were narrowed and sullen once more, but not enraged, at least. “I told you. Come to my party. I’m working my flank off getting it ready. Make a few ponies smile. Seems like nobody has done that for days. That’s all I really want.”

* * *

Canterlot. Several months previous.

Luna trotted to a quick, pounding rhythm, albeit one only she could hear. The beat seemed to have burned itself into her mind, courtesy of a white unicorn with electric blue hair and absurd glasses. Her name had been even stranger. Both of them! Luna still wasn’t sure what Vinyl was, or why one would Scratch it. Likewise she was sure that most ponies didn’t put numbers in their names. Her music had been rather more memorable than her skills in bed. She’d been enthusiastic, at least! But there was only so much that one could expect from a pony who had never been with other mares before. Ponies made all sorts of exceptions when the chance to be with a goddess came up, Luna had found.

Still, it had all been so much easier when mares would wear a sprig of lilies behind their ear to show their leanings. It was a bit too much to expect that some traditions of value wouldn’t get lost after a thousand years.

The sun was near to setting. It cast a warm orange light through the enormous arching windows on Luna’s chosen path toward Celestia’s room. She hadn’t come home last night, and she’d already missed dinner. Still, there was time to have a bit of tea before the raising of the moon and presiding over her own rather sparsely attended Court.

Luna flashed the armored stallions outside of Celestia’s door a bright smile as she came around the corner. Her horn lit, and she beat a specific pattern on her sister’s door before one of the guards could. Two beats, a pause, another beat, then a shorter pause before the last. The code for Luna’s arrival. Truthfully, the moon goddess found it a little contrived. Her own guards knocked once and poked their heads in to announce any guests. It’s not as if the Royal Sisters had to fear some assassin. Discord was imprisoned. The rest of the world trembled at their hooves.

Golden light enveloped the door as Celestia’s magic opened it in welcome. Luna trotted inside to find that her sister had obviously felt her presence approaching. She was daintily pouring tea into a waiting cup, opposite her own. The air carried a lovely, warm, minty smell. Peppermint tea. Celestia didn’t really care for it, but it was Luna’s favorite.

“My wayward sister returns.” The sun goddess’s voice was even warmer and more welcoming than the scent. Luna more than happily made her way over and gave her big sister’s cheek a nuzzle. “And in good spirits too. Have fun in Manehatten?”

“The City that Never Sleeps. They name it well.” Luna settled down on the opposite side of the small, round table from her sister. It was near one of the room’s windows. The moon goddess thoughtfully glanced out of it. “Thou remembers that I loved the shadowed and enchanted places of the world. Our subjects would walk the forests by moonlight to find me.” The dark alicorn looked to her sister, levitating up her teacup. “Now I begin to think they’ll start looking in the meadhalls and festivals of the cities. Hast thou ever been to a celebration called a ‘rave’, ‘Tia?”

Celestia laughed. It was an indescribably wonderful sound. Luna had no idea how something that was sure to have taken a thousand years of practice could sound so genuine. Then again, perhaps that’s because it was. She could feel some hint of the amusement and affection radiating from her sister. “Once. In the guise of a pegasus. It’s a relatively new phenomenon. And it isn’t the sort of place where ponies would expect to see me.”

Luna scrunched up her nose in distaste and shook her head. “I don’t understand this Virgin Goddess image at all. Thou was the head mare of a nation, and thou didst enjoy it. A harem of a dozen stallions waiting upon thy whim. What happened to the bawdy, blood-streaked warrior mare taking her spoils in eager stallions after we brought Pegasopolis in line?”

The memory seemed to bring a wistful look to look to Celestia’s face. Luna could sense the nostalgia there. “Those were simpler times. Somewhere along the way things got... complicated.”

“No. Still easy,” Luna countered, almost boastfully, before taking a demure little sip from her teacup.

“You don’t have a thousand years of expectation to deal with. Or the risk of starting up a new Royal line. I can’t even imagine the mess that would cause with the nobility. They’re still smarting about Cadance, and she isn’t even a blood relation.” Celestia canted her head slightly to one side, in a thoughtful look. “Then again, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions about it being impossible for you to start political trouble with a child? Nightmare Moon seemed a bit more... open minded, during the war. Maybe you’ve seen the light?”

Luna’s face took on a queasy look. “Ugh. Nay, don’t mention that. Ever again. Please. If thou were to ever see me with a stallion again, take it as the most horrible of signs. Thou shouldst go gather the Elements of Harmony with no delay. There’s no better proof that I wasn’t myself. It would be as strange as seeing thee with a mare.”

The dark alicorn missed the enigmatic look that came over Celestia’s features after that last sentence. She was studying the liquid in her cup with all the appearance of studiousness. Mention of Nightmare Moon always put Luna into a subdued, introspective sort of mood.

“Well, I’m glad you could spare me a bit of time between pretty rave ponies.” Celestia leaned over and, with playful scolding, nipped Luna’s ear. It made the younger goddess jump a little, almost dropping her tea.

“It isn’t like that! Nobody could come before thee! I just-”

Celestia laughed and shook her head, holding out a hoof to stop her sister’s quick reassurances. “I know, Lulu. I love you too. You deserve to have a bit of fun. It sounds like you’ve been fitting in better in Manehattan than here. I’m happy for you.” Celestia rose up onto her hooves. “But while I do have you, I want to show you something.”

The white alicorn led her sister in front of a tall mirror, and urged her to sit in front of it. Self-consciously, she lifted a dark hoof to brush at her starry mane. Celestia’s bright, colourful and imposingly large presence made her feel a bit underwhelming. The younger sister was just about to ask what Celestia wanted to show her when the mirror rippled. “A scrying mirror? Why dost thou have one in thy room?” Colour and shapes were starting to leech into the mirror from the edges. A scrying mirror was a tool of divination, allowing a pony to see distant locations by projecting an invisible, magical eye. Their creation was rather strictly regulated, for obvious reasons. Luna looked up over her shoulder. Her tone was flat. “By thine bed. Really, ‘Tia?”

The Sun Princess rolled her eyes. “Even if I did use it for that--which I most certainly do not--it would be the least my subjects could do for me, if they expect me to be chaste and proper for centuries. Now hush.”

The colours in the mirror began to swirl together to construct the image of a pony. A particular pony. The predominant colour seemed to be a garish, screaming pink.

“Laughter? Has some misfortune befallen Ponyville?”

“No. I was just checking to make sure Twilight and her friends hadn’t burned it down, or ensorcelled the townsfolk... again. Now hush, it’s better with sound.” Celestia’s horn glowed, feeding more power into the spell matrix of the mirror. The image of that marching pink pony sharpened. Sound began to emerge from the mirror’s surface. Something rich and musical, in fact.

“ is Pinkie Pie. Hello! And I am here to say...”

“Is she singing? Where is the music coming from, does she have musicians following her?”

“Oh, I didn’t notice that before. I’m getting too used to movies, with their added musical scores. No, I don’t think so. I never saw any.”

“Didst thou know she sang a song that somehow broke one of the Nightmare’s fear spells? Truly. It shattered. And hurt when it did. It was like having Starswirl deliver one of his counterspells via a buck to the nose.” Luna rubbed her nose against the back of a forelimb in memory.

“Twilight transcribed the lyrics, yes. Very tragic for Nightmare Moon. But really Lulu, you’re missing it.”

“Because cheering up my friends is just what Pinkie’s here to do!”

“Did she just throw those foals?”


“Fine, fine.”

“...All I really need’s a smile, smile smile, from these happy friends of mine!”

Luna focused back on the mirror, and was surprised to find that the image had flattened into shades of purple and pink. She blinked and leaned forward to tap a hoof against the frame. It returned to normalcy, showing Pinkie skipping with several other foals. “Ahh, it must have been some kind of interference. We have repaired it.”

Celestia laughed again. The sound had gotten no less sweet, to Luna's ears, in all the times she since her return. “It does that every time, Lulu. This is just a recording of the original scrying. Something was affecting the spell’s sensor at the source.”

“Given the colours, perhaps it was Twilight Sparkle playing with thee. T’was the colours of her mane and coat, if I’m not...” Luna paused and blinked, leaning closer to the image.

“ always Pinkie’s dream! Hoofbump!”

Luna recoiled as hooves suddenly appeared close to the foreground of the image. The puzzling part was that it appeared to be the hooves of Laughter and the bronze coloured pegasus foal currently skipping. “That rope is animating itself. There’s no aura of magical energy around it at all. That’s impossible. We are more sure than ever that your student is making a joke at thine expense. She must have noticed thy mirror’s sensor floating about.”

“...turn that sad frown upside-down!”

Luna pointed a hoof triumphantly as the image twirled around in front of Honesty’s sister. “See, she just spun it about.”

Celestia shook her head. “I try not to underestimate my faithful student’s skills, but I don’t think that’s the case. For one, it isn’t like her to play a trick on me. Not only that, I couldn’t feel any outside magic directly on my spell. I don’t have your natural deftness with magic, Lulu, but there aren’t many that could fool me so well. The mirror was made to pierce illusions, so simply laying out an image for it isn’t likely, either.”

A shiver travelled down Luna’s spine. “Discord?” she ventured, pupils shrinking in fear at the thought. “Our best spells always slipped from him, while he could twist our magic as he willed, even without our notice.”

Celestia once more gave a negative gesture. “No. Thankfully not. The Elements are still holding him well. I think it’s Pinkie Pie herself. Watch this next part closely.”

By all appearances the next image was taken at night. It was dark, and the pink party pony was wearing a sorrowful look.

“It's true, some days are dark and lonely, and maybe you feel sad, but Pinkie will be there to show you that it isn't that bad!”

Luna watched with incredulity as one Pinkie Pie helped a second out of that darkness. “An illusion of a second Laughter? Nay, thou said the mirror was made to pierce illusions.” The younger sister paused. “She made a copy of herself? Is that possible?”

“Well, it could be a time-displaced version of herself too. Or a duplicate from the Mirror Pool, though as far as I know it hasn’t been disturbed in decades. But yes, many things have been discovered in the last thousand years. Both duplication and time travel spells are under lock and key. But she isn’t using unicorn magic, in any case. There’s not one single visible aura to be found.”

"...makes my whole life worthwhile! And that's when I talk to my friends and get them to smile!"

The sisters watched the song in silence. Or rather, Luna watched, and Celestia watched her sister, no doubt delighting in her shock. The image in the mirror randomly jumped between perspectives, giving the overwhelming impression that it was being played with for effect. For purely aesthetic reasons.

“Laughter knows she’s being watched,” Luna concluded, after watching the pink pony pop her head in and out of the viewpoint of the mirror. Not even the fact that the feat would likely require teleportation phased the younger deity at that point. “She’s made a performance out of it. How could she know?” The darker alicorn still visibly recoiled when the rest of the town broke into the refrain for the song. “They’re all doing it? What absurdity is this?”

Celestia raised a prim, shod hoof to cover a small laugh. “Oh? The strangers suddenly breaking into song? That’s been happening with our little ponies for over three centuries now. I was in a panic for months after it started. I don’t think the crowd knows I was watching, but I agree with you otherwise, I think Pinkie Pie was singing to me. Or maybe even to us.”

Luna looked from the mirror to her sister and back again, looking distinctly lost. Her sister must have sensed her indecision on which impossibility to address first, because the taller alicorn leaned down to nuzzle her behind an ear. “It’s Harmony, dear Sister. Maybe music has some special place. Maybe they’ve all just been taking the Hearth’s Warming Eve song’s line about singing to heart. You’d have seen it for yourself if you’d attended the last Gala. The Bearers started quite the catchy tune that gained its own dozen-pony chorus. But even the most humble pony can spark off the effect.”

The younger sister studied Celestia, searching her face for signs that she was performing one of her little pranks. A thousand years ago, staring at her long enough would eventually get her twitching in discomfort and spilling the truth. It didn’t work these days. Celestia had become a thing of iron willpower, with a imperturbable mask to match, but Luna gave it her best anyway, narrowing her eyes.

Celestia playfully tapped the end of her sister’s nose with a hoof. Boop. “No, I’m serious. I’ll show you later. We’ll get one of the servants to burst into song in the marketplace or something. You can even write the lyrics yourself. The others ponies don’t even need to know the words beforehand.” She reached for the mirror next, which had returned to its normal reflection, and tapped on it in turn. “Okay, let’s watch it again, without the interruptions. If you think what you see here is impossible, wait until I tell you about something called the ‘Pinkie Sense’.”

* * *

Luna hung in the air a great distance away from the warehouse. Her wings were tucked at her sides, and her legs curled, as if she was laying upon a cloud, but nothing was below to suspend her. The absence of gravity was a reassurance that she was basking in lavishly, like a foal clinging to their favorite blanket. She watched the changes with patient eyes. Small alterations to the exterior faded into view. A pair of spotlights were added, impinging like a tumor upon reality. The warehouse windows filled with light and colour.

What art thou, Pinkie Pie?

The goddess’ wings rustled as they twitched with quiet unease.

Yes, I’m sorry. No, thou didn’t deserve what was done to thee. ‘Tia was right about holding sacrosanct the souls of ponykind. Such fragile things, they are. But my thoughts have not changed, I find, on any other matter concerning thee.

With a sigh, unheard in the silent realm, Luna willed her mind to release the image of her body, allowing it to sublimate into mist, light and the stuff of spirit. Formless, she flew back toward the palace, to lose herself in somepony’s else’s pleasant dreams. She had only a few hours to rest and regain her equilibrium before she would have to go search the lowlands and slopes for Moon Lilies to bring to Pinkie Pie’s celebration. They would need to be harvested after a few hours of soaking up moonlight, and the party would be happening immediately after the following sunset. No matter what she felt, the honor of a goddess was no trifling thing. She had a promise to keep, and a great deal of new tarnish to remove from the Equestrian Crown.

Eight - Dash: Radicality

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“So it turned out he was a real sport about it, which was cool. There’s nothing as bad as a stallion whining like a foal. I still feel a bit rotten about it, I guess. His leg’s going to be in that cast for a while. Kicker did tell me that Krav Pega stuff being pretty intense. It’s not for playing around. Stuck with Rolling Thunder after that.” Rainbow Dash boxed one of her forehooves into the air above her. She was laying in abject comfort with her back on a particularly fluffy cloud she’d herded up from around the base of one of Canterlot’s waterfalls. Waterfalls always made the thickest clouds. And thick clouds make for the best beds. Hers just happened to be parked outside of Twilight’s cell window for the last two days, about forty feet up along the palace wall. “Still, I warned them about what they were getting into trying to match the Dash. Twice, even.”

“Uh huh.” Twilight’s voice crept from inside. Rainbow knew the tone well enough, it was the I’m-not-really-listening voice that everyone got after a few minutes of Pinkie Pie. It didn’t stop the pegasus any more than it deterred Pinkie.

“But know the best part? The best part?” Rainbow wiggled all four limbs in the air in foalish glee. “One of the guards told me yesterday that Spitfire had been watching the whole thing. She totally saw me outfly a whole squad of Royal Guard pegasi! Then kick the flank of a goddess.”

“That’s cool.” Twilight automatically answered. She currently had her nose in one book, and was writing with a quill in another. It was very Twilighty. Dash had no idea how she was actually reading anything, since she said everything was blurry. Maybe it had to do with the weird way that the letters on the pages were glowing? Whatever. The important thing was that Twilight was acting okay. If you stuck that pony’s nose in a book, she’d perk right up, no matter what. Considering the broken pony in the cell before, it was a huge improvement, in Rainbow Dash’s mind. Even the pegasus knew that it was a fake sort of improvement, but she didn’t really subscribe to touchy-feely pony psychology. Everypony didn’t have to whinge and moan and cry over every problem. Forgetting about it for a while was good too, in her view. That’s why it didn’t really matter if Twilight was listening.

Besides, she was using magic in a magic-blocking cell. All the guards were practically shaking in their armor, she’d heard. Rainbow Dash had the most awesome friends in Equestria, there was no doubt about that.

That’s why I’ll always be there for Twi, or any of my friends. It always helps to know that a pony cares enough to always be there for you.

Applejack had teased her about turning all soft and sappy when she explained why she’d parked her cloud where she had. Dash could imagine what it must be like to be all alone and trapped. She couldn’t take being forced to stay in one place as it was. So she’d been taking her naps where Twilight could look out the window and see a friendly pony curled up, and available to talk to. She’d swapped out with Fluttershy a few times, even though it took a lot of work to remind the yellow pegasus that she could fly, and had no reason to be afraid of heights.

Okay, so it sounds a little sappy. But it takes more than just being fast and great-looking to be the best pegasus in Equestria.

“I already had a few of the guards ask me if I was planning on hitting the training grounds again. I said sure, tomorrow morning. I think that they just want an excuse to blow off some steam. But so do I. So if I can do that while totally impressing the Wonderbolts, win-win for everypony, right?”

“Wait, what? Goddess?” Twilight looked up from her book, toward her barred window. She wore a look of confused concern.

Dash shared that confusion for a moment, at least until she gave a little snort. “I said that, like, thirty seconds ago. Way to pay attention, Twi. Guess you’re not so in the loop in the dungeons, huh? It’s all over the castle.” Twilight gave a nod, some emotion on her face that Dash couldn’t identify. Something distinctly uncool, though.

In a fit of attempted cheer, Dash flew up and began her story. The pegasus posed herself in a triumphant rear at first. “Right. Because I was making the guard look like a bunch of little fillies dressed up in mommy’s armor, I missed the start of it. But here’s how I heard it went down.” She lightly knocked a hoof against the side of her head. “Pinkie somehow got it in her head to go out and buy every Moon Drop in and around Canterlot for her big bash. Apparently they’re made from some flower that Luna is all gushy over. Like, they’re all sacred and stuff. Who knew, right?”

Twilight frowned. “The Moon Lily. Nobody’s been allowed to pick it since, well, forever. Didn’t really make any sense why the Princess had banned it, until Luna came back and started giving it out to ponies whom she wanted to reward.”

Dash rolled her eyes. “Okay, who but you knew? Anyway, someone apparently noticed her buying it. The police didn’t want to go nabbing a national hero, so they go to Princess Luna about it. Luna’s already totally stressed out, from practically killing herself tr...” Rainbow clamped her mouth shut. Bad topic. “Erm, anyway, she hears that Pinkie has been buying drugs, with counterfeit bits, and goes nuts. She started yelling at the others while I was, like, halfway up to the moon, dodging a bunch of the guards. I didn’t even notice until the part where she started talking about Pinkie being the new Discord and wanting to turn her into stone.”

“What.” The word was delivered so flatly, without even a questioning tone, that it made Rainbow’s heart sing a little. It was pure Twilight. The incredulous outburst that followed was just as comfortingly familiar. “But that’s crazy! Pinkie is the least evil pony ever. For Celestia’s sake, she’s practically powered by sugar and smiles!”

“I know! But Luna was pissed off. Apparently she was pulling something off with the Voice that had everyone just frozen and whimpering. Even Applejack. So that’s about when I noticed Luna was there, called time on the sparring, and went to go see what was up. Wasn’t hurrying at first, until I was close enough to see that things were... off. So, anyway, Fluttershy of all ponies manages to get up, and gives Luna the Stare.” The pegasus dropped her voice to an ominous, if overdramatic pitch with that last word, and gave Twilight a mock glare to illustrate.

Twilight brought hoof to face. “Really, on Luna? This sounds really, really bad.” A bit of academic curiosity crept into her tone. After telling the tale a half dozen times, Rainbow knew nopony could resist finding out anything about the mysterious royal sisters. “Did it work?”

“Oh, it totally does. I keep telling you guys that Flutters is the baddest pony around, next to yours truly. Things just have to be really, really bad before she starts to kick flank. So, like I was saying, it works, at least for a few seconds. I dove down to give Luna a piece of my mind when I saw she’d done something to get even Fluttershy mad. Meanwhile, she’s chewing the bucking Princess of the Night out for being a bully. Little Luna’s made from tougher stuff than big, scary dragons though, because she sets the sun and gets with some kind of weird magic that knocks everyone right on their docks. I was going so fast by then that I was only into it for a second. But it was like... I don’t know, having your brain shut off. Anyway, so I gave her the hooves at about a billion miles an hour. Whack! Smash! We both go flying. Honestly, my legs are still all shaky and sore from it. It was like hitting a wall. She got off worse though.”

“Was she okay? Rainbow Dash!” Twilight’s tone became frazzled and scolding. “If Luna ends up in the hospital too, who’ll keep the days going? We’ll all freeze! Or burn! We can’t take that sort of—”

“Hey, hey, cool it. She was fine. I think I got one of her ribs, but she didn’t seem to even really feel it. Word is that it popped right back in a few minutes later. One of the servants puked when she heard it. Great, huh?” Rainbow rolled back onto her cloud. “Anyway, she was okay about it. She was even grateful.”

Really, really grateful. Confusingly grateful.

“For breaking her rib? Really?”

“Yeah.” Rainbow happily provided no further information at all on that. She turned her face away from the cell under the guise of fluffing up her cloud, so Twilight wouldn’t catch her blush. “So, anyway, she just needed a stiff buck upside the head. She knew that. Apologized to Pinkie and everything. Told her she would go to her party. Perked Pinks right up before she started to go all turnip-buckets on us.”

“What?” Twilight wore a look of abject confusion. “Turnip-buckets? Your slang is getting weirder by the day, Rainbow.”

Oops. Dash waved it off with a hoof. No need to be mentioning that little episode in detail. She finally settled with her back to the cloud, looking up at the twinkling stars. It was nice. She had been getting incredibly sick of orange. “Yeah, sorry. So Cadance finally managed to get Luna to go to bed. Though not before yelling at her for, like, an hour, I hear. Me, I think she needs another hoof to the head instead. Deserves one. But hey, maybe the rest’ll help. Guess it’s not just earth pony farmers who go loopy after convincing themselves they don’t need sleep, huh?” Well, and unicorns needing to ‘monitor everything’, but no need to mention that either. She might have the best friends, but they could be a bit... odd under stress.

“Not a problem for you, obviously, Dash.” The cyan pegasus grinned a little at the bookish librarian’s tone. It was more distinctly normal, Twilight-brand sarcasm.

Ha. Take that, Pinkie! If a pony needs cheering up, I can do it in a dash.

“Nope. That’s why pegasi are the smartest kind of pony. We know awesomeness starts with a good night’s sleep.” Dash closed her eyes. She knew she shouldn’t fall asleep, not for long, anyway. Rarity was expecting her in an hour, but the change toward the night was playing havoc with her internal clock.

“Rainbow.” Twilight’s voice came from much closer this time. Dash totally didn’t flinch from it. She was just... readjusting how she was laying down, to get comfy. The purple unicorn was standing up on her rear hooves, forehooves against the wall under her window. Her face was filling up that small, barred portal. “Thanks for coming here to see me. I know I don’t have the right to complain, at all, but most of the guards just glare at me. It’s nice to see a friendly face.”

Well, someone else is getting a broken bone.

“Huh? Oh. No problem. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” Dash made a little waving gesture with a wing. She took a moment to study the unicorn’s face. It might have been an improvement from when she’d tried to get a jailbreak going for Twilight, and she’d been all but dead to the world, but she still looked tired. Really tired. She probably hadn’t been sleeping. It was hard to tell if her eyes were all puffy from that or from crying. The only time when the unicorn had really been able to relax was when Cadance was visiting, and that was due to freaky alicorn mind-control or something. Dash wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that, but she wasn’t going to question it so long as it made Twilight act like, well, Twilight for a while. And not the fragile Twi-shell she was getting.

Can’t blame her. I feel bad about breaking a pony’s leg. Twilight nearly killed Princess Celestia. She almost went nuts enough to send Ponyville into a riot when she thought she was going to disappoint Celestia. Refusing to let me bust her out is practically sane compared to Smarty Pants.

“Think you could wake me up in a half hour or so, Twi? Rares said she’d make me up some kind of awesome training getup. And I want to look my best in case Spitfire is watching again tomorrow.”

Twilight smiled. It wasn’t much of one, Rainbow thought, but at least it was something. “Sure.”

The pegasus took a quick glance around to make sure the guard that was stationed in a nearby turret wasn’t looking. Upon confirming he wasn’t, she leaned toward the window and affectionately rubbed her muzzletip against Twilight’s. It wasn’t exactly her style, but she’d make sacrifices for a friend. Besides, it made the unicorn’s smile a little less fake. “Thanks, Twi.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash couldn’t believe that she’d agreed to this half-hour of horrors. Worse, she’d asked it as a favor. She’d even forked over bits for this torture, because she knew Rarity wouldn’t think of charging for her time and materials if Dash didn’t insist. For all that selflessness, to make the fashion pony feel better, she was trapped, poked, prodded, measured and judged. And to make it worse, Rarity had the audacity to smell good. Not just Rarity-good, with the expensive soap and imported perfumes. Really, really, uncomfortably good. Direct line to the subconscious good. It was a sensation she never wanted rattling around in her head, when directed at her friends. Ever. “Are we done now?” Dash asked, irate and hopelessly hopeful.

It was official, the whole week had been just a cosmic practical joke to make Rainbow feel awkward and embarrassed.

“Really now, Dash. I’ve only pinned up the form. Or did you think I was going to clothe you in beige felt, clothespins and black marker lines?” Rarity finished making one of said dotted lines to show a future cut at the join of rear leg and hip. She levitated that marker up and flicked it against the tip of one of Rainbow’s primary feathers. Certainly not the main body of that fully extended wing. If the filly jumped, Rarity would probably have to start all over. “And fold your wing. I need to see how it sits across the withers.” She tapped the named spot near the base of the pegasus’ colourful mane. “There’s no need to be so tense, dear. I’m making you something to wear, not torturing you for information.”

“Can’t you do some other part first? I don’t think its tight enough around the legs. I don’t want one of the guards getting a cheap grab with their mouth and wrecking my moment of glory.” Dash added the explanation rather weakly.

“My my! Useful criticism? You didn’t once use the word ‘cool’ or ‘awesome’, in any percentages, to describe necessary changes. You’ll spoil me, darling. But, no. No use changing the legs until I know it’s hanging properly from the shoulder. Wings down.”

Dash tried. She really did. She even got them about halfway down before the discomfort made her give up. They snapped back to their full extension. “I... uh... can’t,” she admitted. She added, lamely, “I must have strained something when I was flying...?”

Realization visibly dawned on Rarity’s face. “Rainbow Dash!” She scolded, scandalized. The pegasus felt the sudden urge to escape. Possibly to a remote shack in the far northern glaciers. A quick look around discovered only narrow arrow-slit style windows in Rarity’s tower-room. Too thin to fly out of, which was honestly for the best. With all the tension in her wings, she’d probably drop out of the air and go splat somewhere in the lowlands.

“It’s your fault!” Dash reflexively accused, to shift the blame when escape proved unfeasible. “You smell like a bucking mare in heat! I know I look great, but I signed on for some clothes, not to get felt up by the world’s lustiest unicorn!” The pegasus raised a hoof to her face, to cover it suddenly, as her brain caught up to her mouth. “Notthatmaresturnmeon!” She gushed from behind that hoof, barely coherent.

Rarity jumped back from Rainbow Dash to create some space when she was accused of impropriety. Her gaze snapped around, likely looking for her fainting couch. Her white fur did nothing to hide the fire that suddenly burned on her cheeks and muzzle. “I would never do such a thing. To my friends least of all!”

A terribly awkward silence stretched between the two ponies, who were wearing nearly identical looks of shamed misery.

“I must apologize, darling,” Rarity eventually braved, though she was obviously dragging the words out with great reluctance. “I should have rescheduled your fitting until I was in a better state. I assure you that this isn’t your doing at all.”

Rainbow’s brow furrowed as she considered that. She wasn’t sure if she should be relieved or insulted. She at least played it off as the latter, hoping that a bit of sarcasm would cut through the thick awkwardness of the moment. “Oh, gee, thanks. There’s a boost to the old confidence.”

Rarity dismissively waved a hoof. “Oh, there’s no need for that. You’re a perfectly lovely filly. The very picture of svelte sleekness. I assure you that I would be scrambling for a chance to court you, if I was that way. But I’m afraid my dreams are graced with stallion suitors, not mares.”

The rainbow-maned pegasus gave a forced laugh that sounded hollow even to her own ears. “Yeah. Mine too.” Rarity gave her a rather unconvinced look. “Really!”

“Honestly, Rainbow. Give me a little credit. It’s old news! It’s very literally my job to know what catches a pony’s eye. And I know my friends best of all. Put you in front of a crowd, and you naturally seek out the, shall we say, softer forms within it. I daresay I know the tastes of all my friends better than they do themselves.”

Dash lowered her head, ears pinning back. Embarrassment was even allowing her wings to droop somewhat. She’d take what miniscule favors she could get. “You didn’t tell the others, did you? I don’t want it to be... weird.”

“I hardly need to, dear. I wager the only one who doesn’t know is Twilight. I fear she’s rather oblivious about romance. Certainly you haven’t been open about it. I commend you for realizing that a mare should have discretion. But I would have thought that your reaction...” She motioned toward Dash’s wings with her marker. “... to Pinkie’s little ensemble in that horribly dusty little town was rather telling.”

Dash groaned in dismay, if anything sinking lower in her stance. She muttered something barely audible. “Thelegs.”

“Pardon?” Rarity asked, blinking in confusion.

“Pinkie has incredible legs. Lots of tone. Probably from all the, you know...” The pegasus hopped in place ever so slightly to pantomime Pinkie’s bouncing. Rarity winced and looked to the delicate felt shell covering Dash in concern. “And that outfit really showed them off.”

The pegasus hurried to inject a few more words after a pause. “Not that I’m crushing on Pinks. Just... a pretty pony is a pretty pony, right? Right.”

“Just so,” Rarity answered, agreeably, with a nod. The pegasus had to contain a relieved sigh. If this was a nightmare, then she couldn’t even imagine the fallout of her friends mistakenly thinking she was all sweet on them. “Well, at the very least I’m glad you can appreciate how much the proper clothing can enhance a pony’s beauty. Though suffice to say I would have made rather different choices of style than dear Pinkie.” Rarity tugged upon the sleeve covering Dash’s foreleg with her telekinesis, so she could repin it in place where the delicate temporary fabric had torn. “But really, you needn’t worry about our reaction. It might be a bit... out of fashion, but it’s not as if you’re all alone in Equestria in solely liking mares. There simply aren’t enough stallions to go around. And even if that wasn’t the case, we’re your friends, and we love you. I assure you we’d accept far stranger things happily.”

“Yeah, I know that. You guys’ve got my back. I never really doubted it, but, well, people have a certain image of...” Rainbow Dash hesitated for a moment. She didn’t really want to put a name to herself. Especially one that people tended to use with a certain derision. “... fillyfoolers. That they’re... you know...”

“Soft? Weak? Just scared to indulge in the cut-throat chase for stallions?” Rainbow winced, but nodded glumly at Rarity’s words. The unicorn levitated her marker under her friend’s chin, and used the covered tip to lift it, to make sure she those magenta eyes were meeting hers. “Darling, anyone who has met you, or even just heard of you, would never dare to ascribe those qualities to you. You’re brave. Nay, fearless! And the strongest and most excellent of pegasi. We more boringly mundane-of-desire mares should be thanking you for your preference. How could we compete, if you decided to hunt for stallions?”

Rainbow couldn’t help but laugh. It just bubbled up out of her, at her friend’s drama. She did feel better, though. “Thanks, Rarity. I guess I shouldn’t have worried? Especially with you. But don’t go gossiping about it to the others. Definitely not Applejack. She’s a bit more... old-fashioned.”

The white unicorn smiled reassuringly. She made a small ‘x’ across her chest with the tip of a hoof, and followed it with motion toward her eye. She omitted the words. Anyone from Ponyville knew well that it made it less likely that Pinkie would pop out of anywhere afterward.

The silence persisted for a minute or two, far more comfortably, as Rarity went back to finishing with the mock-up fabric. She stayed back a bit more as her levitation worked, which suited the pegasus just fine, as it kept the mare out from under her nose. Still, curiosity was slowly eating Rainbow up inside. Eventually she had to ask, to avoid exploding, or something. “So, uh, if it wasn’t me, what’s got you so worked up?”

Rarity glanced to either side, as if someone could have gotten into the room without either pony noticing. “I would ask you not to repeat this. Especially to Twilight, for now.” Before Rainbow could move, the unicorn’s magic grabbed hold of her hooves to keep them on the ground. “That sort of promise is not required. Don’t do anything until I’m finished. I have to take in the legs.” The unicorn didn’t wait for any pledge to be spoken. Dash would likely rather throw herself off a cliff with her wings tied than knowingly let down a friend. Apparently Rarity got that, which was pretty cool. “It’s Cadance and Shining Armor.”

Rainbow’s wings flared again, this time in surprise. Unicorn magic kept her hooves glued to the ground, which is all that kept her from rearing back in shock. “What!? Twilight’s brother? And a Princess? I thought you said you didn’t like fillies?”

Rarity lifted her muzzle ever-so-slightly, as if she was preparing to get all snooty about something. “Cadance and I have been spending a lot of time together the last few days. I find that I really like her. Not that way, mind. But enough so that a herd arrangement hasn’t been so distasteful as it might otherwise be. As for Shining Armor, well, he speaks for himself. He’s gallant, virtuous and sweet. Everything a stallion should be.”

Dash gave a quick shake of her head. “I know you can’t exactly choose who you crush on, Rares, but this has ‘best to forget it’ written all over it. It can’t go well.”

Rarity couldn’t contain a very fillyish giggle. It wasn’t something at all cultured or refined. The little hoof-shuffling dance she made when standing there was no better. Rainbow imagined she knew the cause. She felt that wiggly, nervous, happy energy when she had met Spitfire for the first time at the Gala. She couldn’t keep still. “It’s been going along smashingly!”

“Rarity!” Rainbow resisted the urge to raise her voice, but she sure whispered loudly. “You’ve only known them for a few days! They just got married. Now you’re, what, dating them?”

“I know!” Rarity returned, all but gleefully, at the scandal of it. She gave a little wiggle of her haunches, just as an outlet to her excitement. “It’s terrible of me. Cadance is just so... so... convincing.”

“I can’t know these things!” The pegasus complained. She folded her ears back, as if that would block out Rarity’s words. Rainbow closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Celestia! Not looking at the beautiful mare shaking her flank. While being way too close to me again. And telling me how she’s being seduced by a hot young Goddess. Dash’s wings were unconvinced. She felt heat rising in her cheeks as her feathers started to bristle from a similar warmth. The pegasus filly knew she really should demand a change of topics. She was going to talk about the weather. Yeah. Nice, neutral shop talk. “W-well, if things are going that well, shouldn’t you be a gooey pool of super-satisfied pony, instead of... you know?”

Stupid traitor brain.

“Rainbow Dash! Even if things had become so intimate, it isn’t something to be gossiped about. A Lady does not kiss and tell. She certainly doesn’t do more than kiss, then tell.” The unicorn turned her muzzle aside slightly, her tone edging from scolding to serious. “I think no small part of it has been to keep my mind off of everything. You know I have a habit of putting a bit too much on my shoulders, given the opportunity. I was practically headed to a nervous breakdown today trying to spread a bit of calm among the House of Ladies, regarding Princess Luna’s little episode yesterday. Which, as you can imagine, was a bit of a contradiction. Cadance has diffused that quite well by driving me and Shining to such absurd lengths of distraction.”

If anything, Dash was relieved by the introduction of the far more depressing topic. She latched onto it like a drowning mare. “Yeah, I know what you mean. About keeping your mind off of things. It’s all a bit too much. It feels like we should be busting Twi out and going off to find some fix for Celestia or something. Heck, even going to kick some bug flank in the Everfree would be better. We could be off Harmonizing Chrysalis or something. Turning her into stone or making her a good guy. Would she still be a bug as a good guy, you think? Anyway, anything is better than sitting on our docks, tearing each other up.”

There were a few moments of silence as Rarity held some pins between her lips, to free up her levitation to straighten the increasingly form-fitting felt. “I think Luna wants the Elements close. She hasn’t said anything directly, so it’s just a guess, but she told me that I should concern myself with our little group, to keep our Elements strong. I think we’re the last resort. Who knows what would happen if we used them on Celestia? The Elements are so mysterious. But if she takes a turn for the worse, what would there be to lose?”

Dash rolled her eyes. She thought Rarity could be pretty dense sometimes. “They fixed Nightmare Moon, and put everything in Equestria back to normal after Discord. Celestia isn’t just a good pony, she’s the one you compare ponies to when deciding if someone else is good. You gotta ask how much like Celestia that pony is. The Elements aren’t going to throw her off into the moon. Or the sun. Whatever. Luna is just being stupid.” Rainbow cringed a little and looked upward at some random point in the ceiling. “Sorry, Princess. Not the kind of thing someone’s supposed to say about an alicorn, huh?”

"How very prayerful of you,” Rarity commented. Her tone shaded toward something wry after that. “Of course, one really isn’t supposed to break a goddess’ ribs or to kiss them either.”

“Ohmygosh!” Dash recoiled. Rarity watched helplessly as one of the dull-beige legs tore free from the rest of the pattern. “You saw that?”

Rarity sighed and dragged the leg back up, pinning it in place. Dash’s glare dared her to say something about it. “Hardly. I was still recovering from whatever it was Luna did. But the guards do talk. Shining and Cadance both heard separately.”

Dash groaned and brought her wing around to hide her face. She caught a little smile appearing at the edges of Rarity’s lips. The unicorn knew she used a wing instead of a hoof to avoid tearing the mock-up again. The pegasus changed the subject before her friend got all sappy on her. “This is bad. What the buck am I going to do, Rarity?”

“Stop kissing goddesses, I should think.”

Dash lowered her wing enough to glare over it. “She kissed me this time. Or tried to eat my face off. One or the other. She was kind of intense about it.”

“This time?” Rarity airily sang, fluttering her lashes. “Oh! A courtship! How lovely! With a Princess! It must be my birthday.”

Rainbow’s ears splayed, this time with annoyance. “Rarity. You’re apparently dating a Princess and a Prince. You’ve got me beat.”

Rarity scraped a hoof at the ground with an embarrassed motion. “Mine is less a courtship and more a series of horrifyingly embarrassing revelations followed by mane-tingling passion. It’s not something I regret, but nor is it, perhaps, the romance I would have hoped for. Love is ever the goal, not just base attraction.” Rarity bit her lower lip for a moment, before musing, “I suppose a pony must take what light life offers, in dark times.”

“We’ll make a pegasus of you yet. Live the day! Life is short! And all the rest of that. Unicorns worry too much, usually.” Dash’s voice carried a proud note. More proof she had the best friends in Equestria. “Anyway, sounds like things with me and Her Royal Loudness, then. Minus the passion. Luna’s not exactly taking me out for dinner and a show. She’s, umm...”

“Yessss...?” Rarity wheedled, all protest over being lumped with the pegasi forgotten in pursuit of a potential dirty secret.

“I think she’s been visiting me in my dreams. Like, she always seems to show up when I’m having a bad one, and makes it better.”

Rarity breathed a slow, wistful sigh. It didn’t do much to improve Dash’s level of irritation. “Oh! I’m jealous! How wonderful. The goddess of the night laying a protective wing over you at your most vulnerable! The gratitude for cleansing her of darkness growing into affection, then, eventually, love. The wounded Lady and the brash, young rogue who can heal her broken h-RMPH!” Rarity’s gushing was silenced by a cyan hoof shoved over her mouth. A wing wouldn’t do this time.

“Life isn’t a romance novel, Rares.”

“Ew!” Rarity all but jumped back, wiping at her muzzletip with her foreleg, which set Dash to rolling her eyes again. “Kindly never do that again! Yes, well, I doubt any romance novel would really star a goddess, well, you know... being unfashionable.”

“I just came off a cloud. They’re made of water. And I barely walk. I’m not slogging mud all over you.” Dash gave her hoof a covert glance anyway. Not a speck of dirt. “Being unfashionable? What does that have to... oh. You mean being a fillyfooler. That’s kind of lame, Rarity. Anyway, Luna totally is one. Everypony knows that.”

The unicorn at least had the presence of mind to look abashed at Rainbow’s disappointment. Still, she couldn’t let the amateur gossip slide. “Oh, and who, exactly, is everypony? Honestly, these rumors never seem to have a source.”

“Pinkie Pie.”

“Pinkie Pie.” Rarity repeated. “What could Pinkie know about such a topic? She likely thinks a fillyfooler is someone who plays pranks on youthful mares.”

“She heard it from Vinyl. The Princess was totally snogging on her after a rave in Manehatten a while back.”

“DJ-PON3? That Vinyl? Vinyl Scratch?” Rarity made a dismissive turn of her muzzle. “Honestly, she was probably hallucinating. Have you heard her music? One simply can’t make that sort of noise while uninebriated.”

“I like her music,” Dash complained. “You can actually dance to it. Without having to take lessons from ponies with their heads up their plots first.” Which would be doubly uncomfortable, since the ponies she was speaking of were invariably unicorns. Unicorns, the tribe of ponies who were so bad at dancing compared to pegasi that they invented a whole style that sounded like a series of dry directions for the world’s lamest scavenger hunt. Three steps left, quarter turn left, step forward, step back, three steps right, quarter turn right. Repeat until everyone falls asleep on their hooves. Then they pretended it was the superior way to dance until it had frou-frou ponies like Rarity actually convinced of the delusion. “And anyway, there were rumors after that whole mess in Cloudsdale, at the Weather Conference. Cloudchaser told Flitter, who told me, that she overheard Blossomforth and Cloud Kicker talking about Luna visiting her in her sleep.” Dash sighed and gave a martyred look. “I probably should have sort of made the connection about things before now.”

“Oh yes, how could you have missed it based on that rock-solid, fifth-hoof information?” Rarity’s words positively dripped with sarcasm. “I hardly think that Princess Luna would comport herself so openly. Certainly she wouldn’t snog, whatever that is.” The unicorn said with a scoff, all thoughts of tailoring long forgotten. “For all of her bluster, and regrettable lapses, she is a rather fragile thing, I think.”

“Oh, yeah, she was super shy when she was grabbing me, and kissing me in front of everypony and their mothers.” Dash groaned and let her head drop down, ears folding back. “And Spitfire. I just realized. Of course Spitfire. To totally ruin my life.” Dash shook her head. “I mean, I know that’s how all mares were back then, but come on!

“Shall I get my fainting couch for you?” The unicorn offered with faux-innocence, giving a ingenue bat of her eyelashes. Dash’s glare was withering. Rarity crafted a put-upon sigh, as if Dash was the one who was hard to deal with. “In any case, how would you know about what mares were like in ancient times? Did Twilight bolt you down to the ground and torture you with a feather until you read a history book?”

“Nope. It was in Daring Do and the Pegasus Spear. There was that part with the clay statues? The Hundred Stallions of Commander Hurricane’s harem, who were buried alive with her, trapped inside the statues? You don’t get a hundred stallions by acting like Fluttershy.”

Well. That sounds positively ghastly.” Rarity scrunched up her muzzletip in distaste. “You’ve inspired me. I think I shall spend tomorrow in thankful prayer to Celestia, for ensuring those barbaric times are long over. Besides, you do know that Daring Do is a fictional story, correct?”

Rainbow lifted up a felt-covered foreleg and gave it a little wave to remind Rarity of her work. Scissors and pins which had been poised in the air, unmoving, went back to work. “The Pegasus Spear is totally real. I’ll prove it after this.”

“I’m afraid not. I promised to meet Cadance before Pinkie’s soiree to help her figure out something suitable to wear. And...”

Dash interjected, “I don’t think you get to call a party that takes place in a warehouse a soiree anymore.”

Rarity lifted her muzzle haughtily, if only so much as she could while orchestrating the movements of a cloud of sharp objects around her friend. “I’m well aware of what sort of party it is. Thank you. It shall prove to be quite a departure from my usual fashions, but it does an artist good to be forced from her comfort zones, from time to time. And of course, I need to attend to my own grooming, as well. Luckily, I already discharged my promises to Shining Armor before meeting you, else I wouldn’t have any time at all.”

“Discharged your promises? Is that what they call it now?” Dash shot her friend a sly, suggestive look, and was rewarded with a new blush on the white unicorn’s cheeks, and a look of embarrassed anger. “No wonder you were all hot and bothered. Well, geez, if I knew I was interrupting play-ti—” The pegasus flinched as the rubber grip of a pair of dainty scissors stingingly snapped down atop her nose.

“Dash, my dear, don’t let our friendship lead you to believe that I won’t utterly destroy you, if you finish that sentence.” Rarity’s voice had the quality of ground glass as she delivered the threat through gritted teeth.

Rainbow Dash, godslayer, felt assured enough in her martial prowess to allow Rarity the point. She laughed lightly and dipped her head down in a bow of gracious surrender. “Right, sorry.” Okay, so she might have done a better job of actually sounding apologetic. “How about this: I should go check on Fluttershy, because she’ll be working up some excuse not to go the party. You get yourself all prettied up, as if you need it—” Rarity beamed at the compliment. “—and then I’ll steal you away for ten minutes or whatever on your way to Cadance, to prove my point. We don’t have to leave the palace. Not even far out of the way. It’ll be worth it, promise.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash settled down onto her haunches in the doorway of Twilight’s bedroom, within the tower that the unicorn always returned to when in Canterlot. She tried to stay unobtrusive. She didn’t want anything to do with the little scene in there. It took all kinds to run the world, and you wouldn’t find Dash saying otherwise. Everypony should be free to do whatever they want, no matter how weird. At least they had the good sense to keep it in the privacy of a bedroom. But did they have to leave the door open so anypony could walk in on it?

Fluttershy had her wings tight against the sides of the other in the room. Her cheeks carried a warm flush. She breathed a gentle sigh, then took in a slow, almost quivery breath to replace it.

“Hush now, quiet now,” the butter yellow pegasus sang. Her beautiful, gentle voice rose barely above a whisper, yet it filled the expansive stone room. The teary-eyed little dragon she cradled in her forelegs and wings clung more tightly to her. She didn’t so much as flinch in worry of his sharp claws. She was fearless when it came to taking care of something. She nuzzled the tears from his cheeks without breaking the lulling rhythm of her voice. “It’s time to rest your sleepy head.”

“Hush now, quiet now, it’s time to go to bed,” she continued, as Spike burrowed his face against her throat.

“This is stupid,” the dragon sniffed. He was whispering, his voice heavy with misery. Clearly he was trying to be quiet, but he could have been far more so. He was used to dealing with the dull senses of unicorns, not with those of pegasi. “Crying isn’t going to fix anything. I know she’s hurting. Worse than when she was in the hospital. She needs me. She’s always had me there.”

“Shh. It’s okay. It will fix something. When there’s nothing else we can do, it can make you feel better to let it out. Twilight would want that.” It looked to Dash as if Fluttershy was about to start crying too, probably only because Spike was. Her eyes were getting all watery, and a bit of waver had entered her voice. Seriously, Applejack called Dash a sappy pony.

Great. My eyes are doing it too, probably ‘cause I didn’t get enough of a nap, Dash asserted, privately. Or maybe it’s a reaction to that felt Rarity was using. One of those is my story, and I’m sticking to it. Them. Whatever.

Dash sighed and let her wings droop down. It was no use. Fluttershy was just so sweet that it was like an arrow to the chest. It was piercing and got you directly in the heart. It was probably very bad for you, like eating too much candy, or, well, an arrow to the chest.

The young athlete weathered the assault on her heart-strings by daydreaming about flying with the Wonderbolts, and doing her very best not to think about how they might reject her for being some kind of Princess-molesting fillyfooler. Hey, maybe Spitfire was like that too? Stop it. Not even worth thinking about that.

Makes for a good fantasy though. For later, and stuff. Surely she had to be allowed a bit of private daydreaming, regarding her idol. Even if it was probably hopeless. I mean, everypony has to be a fillyfooler for Spitfire, after all!

Movement drew the cyan pegasus’s attention. Fluttershy was carefully lowering the dragon into his basket, her wings beating slowly to let her keep her balance while she used her forelegs. She gently tugged a blanket up over him with her mouth. “Sleep tight, my brave little dragon,” the kind-hearted mare whispered, barely audible even to Dash’s keen ears. The pink-maned mare was wearing the most serene look Rainbow could imagine as she turned to begin prancing toward the door. Her first few steps were so light upon the floor that it was a surprise to find her wings folded in relaxation at her sides, instead of carrying her aloft.

Dash’s heart sank when Fluttershy’s blue-green eyes met her own and widened. The yellow pegasus visibly shrank, her head lowering and tilting to one side to let her hide behind her hair. Her posture slumped, and her previously relaxed wings gained a nervous tension. “O-oh. Rainbow Dash. I didn’t know anypony was there.”

The far braver pegasus made a motion with her head in the direction of the hallway, and started down it herself. Fluttershy meekly followed. At first the butterfly-adorned mare was content to walk several steps behind, but Dash slowed down until she was beside her friend. She companionably extended a cyan wing over the other pegasus’s back. If she could get all mushy with Twilight, it should be easy with Fluttershy. “So, Spike is taking things bad, huh?”

Fluttershy seemed to be in a strange, divided mood. It was probably her nervousness at being touched warring with her tender side. Not that she had any other side, really. “Oh, no. He really is being very, very brave. So much braver than I could be. They won’t let him in to see Twilight, you know? So he’s just been waiting outside those... those...” Fluttershy cringed a little bit, her voice squeaking. “... dungeons. All day, every day. And he’s putting on a strong face. But he’s just a baby dragon. He should be allowed to let things out.”

“If you say so, Flutters.” It wasn’t really something she wanted to debate with Fluttershy, truthfully. Mostly because it was really annoying having any kind of disagreement with the bashful pegasus. She just rolled over on any point, and never put up a fight about it. “So,” Dash began again, aiming for subtlety and predictably failing, “you’re done helping Pinkie with the decorations? What time did she want us to come back for the party, again?”

“E-eight.” That likewise predictable stumble heralded Fluttershy scrambling for an excuse. “Um... I don’t think I’m going to be able to go. Somepony should keep an eye on Spike.”

Here we go, Dash inwardly sighed. She didn’t even say anything, she just steadily looked at Fluttershy out of the corner of her eye.

The other pegasus squirmed under the pressure of that gaze. “And Twilight too? I can take another turn on your cloud. I wouldn’t want her to get lonely in that...” Fluttershy squeezed her eyes shut, just like she always did when talking about the dungeon. “... that horrible place, while everypony is having fun.”

Fluttershy opened her eyes a sliver, looking over at her friend. Rainbow was continuing to look back at her, wordlessly. “A-and I’m kind of tired too. I should probably get some sleep while it’s still night.”

The gentler pegasus stared straight forward down the hallway, presumably so she couldn’t see Dash staring at her. It was easy to tell she could feel it, though. Her head kept lowering further down, and by the time ten steps had passed, she was cringing. “Ohpleaseohplease don’t make me go, Rainbow Dash! There’s going to be hundreds of ponies there!” she wailed, fragile composure collapsing like a poorly-stacked house of cards.

The athlete started a short mental countdown in her head. She generously started at five. She’d gotten to two when Fluttershy’s wings drooped in surrender and her muzzle followed, sulkily, until her nose was nearly touching the floor as she walked. “F-fine. I’ll go. You don’t have to twist my wing so hard about it.”

Dash smiled, well, smirked really. She gave the wilted pony a squeeze with that draping wing, and allowed herself a nod of self-congratulation.

* * *

“There.” Rainbow Dash tapped on the magically hardened glass of the display case in front of her. There hadn’t been any tours running through the palace since Celestia’s... accident. But Dash had managed to convince the Guard outside Celestia’s Trophy Hall to let her in. He was one of the ponies she’d been sparring with yesterday, as it turned out. Her voice carried a note of triumph. “The Pegasus Spear. Told you.”

“Well, I can scarcely believe it, but there it is.” Rarity squinted. “And it must, indeed, be of pegasus manufacture. No other tribe of pony would stray so far from good taste.”

“What do you mean?” Dash complained, her tone edging toward hurt. “I think it looks awesome!” She emphatically gestured with a hoof, as if Rarity’s problem was simply that she hadn’t seen the object on display.

“It’s terrible. What pony would use something like that?” Fluttershy whimpered, barely heard. She was half-hiding behind Rarity.

Rarity lifted her gaze to the ceiling, like a pony asking Celestia for strength. “It’s shooting lightning. Frost is pouring off of it. It’s bright blue. And gold. Presumably to make a pony think of a rainstorm by having their eyes water in irritation just from looking at it. And while I hardly know a thing about such brutish endeavors, I’m fairly certain that being so jagged doesn’t actually help. Where is a pony even to hold it without cutting up their mouth? It looks like a knife factory exploded, and half of it got stuck in a horrifically-coloured stick.”

The cyan pegasus made a show of knocking her forehead against the glass in frustration. She glared balefully at her unicorn comrade out of the corner of her eye. It didn’t have the same effect that it had with Fluttershy. “I’m revoking your honorary pegasus privileges. You couldn’t even keep them for an hour.”

“Yes, yes. Worst, possible, thing, and so on.” Rarity half-heartedly retorted, taking a moment to read the gold plaque below the display. “What’s this?” The fashionista’s perfectly painted eyes narrowed. She lifted her muzzle with an effete, disdainful outrage. “Really, Rainbow. This wasn’t at all the time for foalish pranks by you and Pinkie. You knew I was busy, and I came here in good faith.” Rarity turned and stalked from the room, leaving Rainbow staring after her, wearing a look of confusion. The fashion pony called back, “Come, Fluttershy. It’s painfully obvious that you’ve been crying. We need to bring down the swelling around your eyes. That will take a stop at the kitchens for cucumbers.”

It was no surprise when the yellow pegasus meekly fell into step behind the unicorn, as she did with Dash earlier. She at least gave a sympathetic glance to offset the weather pony’s utterly lost look.

“I just don’t get that pony, at all,” Dash muttered to herself. She focused her attention on the small plate under the display, which had caused the outburst. She read it aloud, like she did everything else. “Pegasus Spear... blah blah blah... Commander Hurricane... yadda yadda... Founding of Equestria...” She skimmed along. “Presented to Princess Celestia in 962NE following its rediscovery by Pinkamena Pie.”

The pegasus promptly applied hoof to face with a groan. “Pinkie, seriously? As if I don’t have enough going on, you gotta set yourself up to drive Luna even more crazy?” She set her hoof’s edge to trying to knock the plaque off. The best she managed was to dent it somewhat. It was well affixed. “Great. Just great. Now I’ve got to get this changed back without Luna knowing about it.”

* * *

“Oh, buck no. You aren’t leaving.” Dash flared her wings across the doorway to the room that Applejack had been given in the palace. She braced her hooves far apart to give the impression of immovability. “You’re just going to ditch us here? Leave Pinkie high and dry? Abandon Twi?”

“Yer Loyalty, not me,” the earth pony gruffly replied, jamming her lasso into the already bulging trunk. “And Ah'm Honesty, so Ah'm bein’ honest. Ain't nothin' more that Ah can do here. Not sure there was anythin' Ah could do in the first place. Twilight's in jail, they won’t even let us non-winged ponies see her, an’ she'll stay there until Luna gets her horn on straight an' decides to let her out. In the meantime, Ah got a family to worry about and a farm to be runnin'.” She lifted her face to the pegasus; the farmer pony's expression was haggard, with deep, dark bags under her eyes. Dash couldn’t figure out what was with ponies and not sleeping these days. “For Celestia's sake, Dash. Before Ah left, Apple Bloom asked me if Twilight was gonna be okay. What in tarnation am Ah supposed to tell her? That everything's gonna be all right? Ah'm not so sure of that anymore.”

“Apple Bloom was probably just worried Twi was going to show up with Smarty Pants, when we heard Twi had gone crazy again.”

“This ain’t the time for jokin’!” the earth pony snapped, slamming the trunk closed. She had to lean her weight on it afterward to get the lock to click. “Luna’s been one wheel short of a wheelbarrow since Celestia got hurt. If you want to do the Loyal thing, you’ll convince the rest of our friends to meet me right on that train platform, ‘fore they all get thrown in jail, or turned to stone, or worse.”

Applejack pushed her hat down more securely with a forehoof, then grabbed the trunk’s strap with her teeth. She began to drag it to the door. Verdant-green eyes drilled into the pegasus in the doorway, daring her to keep herself in the way, and showing no small triumph when Dash stepped to the side, to allow her through.

Rainbow impatiently waited until the farmer was halfway out the door before casually kicking out a rear leg, her hoof connecting with the luggage with a wooden thud. The stressed lock released, and the painstakingly-packed items spilled out across the floor.

“What the hay, Rainbow?!” the orange mare yelled, after spitting out the strap she’d been pulling on.

Dash’s wings beat, carrying her up into the air, her freed forelegs crossed stubbornly across her barrel. “You’re not leaving.”

“Y’all reckon you can stop me?” Applejack angrily retorted, eyes narrowed.

“Yeah, if you’re really going to force me to keep you from regretting acting like a total drama princess, later.” The flyer reached down and contemptuously flicked the brim of Applejack’s hat with a forehoof, knocking it off of her head. She made a show of examining the earth pony’s forehead. “No horn? And I was so sure you and Rarity had switched places. For once she’s acting kinda sensible and you’re a—”

Dash never got to finish. Bellowing with rage, the apple farmer leaped at the hovering pegasus, forelegs outstretched to try to grab her. She took the smaller mare around the middle, doubling her over. There wasn’t any underestimating the sheer, unstoppable mass of a charging earth pony. So long as the pair remained in the air, however, a pegasus had a supreme advantage. Dash reacted with the lightning reflexes befitting her tribe, and martial arts training besides. Even as pegasus magic helped air refill her lungs, after it was so rudely forced out by the impact, she set her hooves behind Applejack’s neck. A few powerful strokes of her wings had her sliding upward over top of the earth pony’s body. She shoved downward as hard as she could. When Applejack met ground again, far sooner than she had anticipated, it was in a graceless tumble, sliding across the polished stone of the floor.

Right. Definitely time for some more Dash-brand healing. The pegasus’ wings carried her in a shallow upward arc. She didn’t try to gain any real speed as she started back down toward the fallen farmer, unlike with Luna. She didn’t want to hurt her friend, just deliver a good sense-restoring hoof to the head. Maybe bruise her a bit, medicinally. She drew back a foreleg as her glide brought her close to her target.

There was a flash of orange, which gave way to an explosion of stars across Dash’s vision.

The pegasus regained some minimal amount of sense within short order. There was no room for long periods of disorientation in a flyer. Rainbow pieced together the fact that she was spinning through the air just before the trip was halted by the fragile bulk of a delicate urn. In the hallway. Over a dozen feet from where the unplanned flight had begun.

Sharp pain blossomed in Dash’s sides as sharp bits of painted, fired clay dug past her fur. Oddly, that was really the only place that hurt. Admittedly, the fact that both the left side of her face and her right shoulder were entirely numb gave ominous promises. Somehow Dash’s mind found the time to churn up some small bit of woozy amusement at the fact that she’d received a pair of hooves in pretty much the same places she’d hit Luna the previous night. It turned out that hitting ponies was more fun than getting hit.

It took the pegasus a long moment to identify the clatter of hooves running across stone toward her. “Ah’m sorry Rainbow! Please don’t be dead!” Applejack cried, in a panic, voice cracking.

Dead, seriously? What does she think I am, a unicorn? Dash flared her wings out. Air gathered and thickened under them, answering the call of her magic. It allowed even a small, awkward beat to lift her into the air in a surge. Shards of pottery fell away from her. The flight was just a short hop, landing her right in front of her earth pony rival. Rolling Thunder was a martial art that relied heavily on the fact that pegasi could free up any of their limbs by flying. It didn’t offer much in the way of brute strength, however, unless a pony could be near enough to use the ground to gain leverage. A second slice of cyan feathers launched Dash back into a low forward arc. She hooked the crook of her left foreleg under the orange pony’s chin, using her momentum, and a well-timed kick of rear hooves against the ground, to flip the earth pony head over tail onto her back. It was nearly impossible to force an earth pony to move in a way they didn’t want to.

Of course, earth ponies also tended to recover quickly if you did actually manage to shift them. Applejack rolled back onto her hooves without so much as a moment of disorientation from being flipped. “Ah ain’t going to fight you, Dash. Bucky and Kicks ought never to be turned on a pony in anger. ‘Specially not a pegasus or a unicorn, y’all break too easy. Granny Sm—”

* * *

Rainbow Dash clung to Applejack’s back, a foreleg tight around her throat, and the other bracing it. Even for an earth pony, a stranglehold was a show-stopper. It was the method every pegasus martial art taught as the definitive way to disable their powerful, landbound cousins. The farmer barely seemed to notice. She hopped and leapt and bucked, trying to throw the pegasus off, showing no signs of slowing despite the probable secession of the flow of air into her lungs. “Get off’a me, ya overgrown buzzard!”

A loud bang echoed through the room. It startled Dash enough for her to lose her hold. She flew up toward the ceiling by reflex, frantically looking for the source of the sound. What she found was a hoofprint in the wall, where Applejack’s wild bucking had caught it. Four of the sizeable stone blocks making up that wall were spiderwebbed with cracks. The masonry had failed, allowing said blocks to be forced an inch or so back. The wall in the hallway outside was probably bulging outward.

Ohmygosh, the pegasus thought, eyes widening, no wonder she thought she’d killed me.

A laugh began to bubble up from the rainbow-maned mare’s throat, as she surveyed that damage. There was only one conclusion to be drawn. “I am so. Bucking. Awesome!” She shouted, triumphantly. Further ruminations on her invincibility were cut short by an orange mouth grabbing her colourful, dangling tail and yanking toward the ground. “Ow! Hey! Tail-pulling is not cool!” The athlete’s wings fluttered, trying to overcome her worrying loss of altitude.

* * *

The brawl found its way to the floor, eventually, as all such fights inevitably did. Traded kicks and forehoof strikes lost their energy as exhaustion set in. Once those could no longer promise sore spots and bruises, both parties began resorting to mare-ish biting, and half-hearted pushing to ward those attempts away. There was no surer way to drain energy than combat. It simply took longer than with most for the two rivals. Both ponies sported puffy eyes, bumps and bruises distorting the colour of covering fur. It was enough that a few bite marks were rather trivial in the grand scheme of things, and both ponies seemed to realize as much at the same time.

In a final show of stubbornness, the pegasus gathered the last reserves of her strength, forced her wings into motion and shoved against the bulk of her distressingly fit rival. She rolled the earth pony onto her side, and placed her forehooves down against the orange mare’s ribs. As a pin it was woefully useless. If so much as token struggle was offered, Dash knew she would just fall off, but Applejack seemed content to just lie there.

It was fortunate, since Dash hated losing and draws weren’t much better.

“Feel...” the pegasus said, between quick, panting breaths, “... better now? Needed... that?”

Applejack didn’t speak, but the grudging nod of her head was enough.

Dash took a deep breath and held it for a moment, feeling strength start to filter back into her body with that air. Her heartbeat slowed. Pegasi tended to bounce back from exertion more quickly than earth ponies or unicorns. “Well, maybe the Princess needed it too. Way worse than you did.” She let Applejack chew on that idea for a bit.

“Ah’m not gonna kiss you.” Applejack stated, finally, once her own breath was under control.

“Oh, come the buck on!” Dash beat her wings, allowing her throw her hooves up into the air in frustration at the unfairness of the universe. She could feel the burn of a dark blush colouring her cheeks and muzzle. It felt especially hot where a bruise was already forming. “She...” Dash made a nebulous waving of her hoof, to indicate Luna, in an arbitrary direction. Though she certainly did it emphatically. “... kissed me, okay? Unicorn magic and mane-pulling was involved. I didn’t sign up to get my tonsils sucked out. I was saving Pinkie.”

“Well, Ah’m right glad to hear that.” Dash suppressed a cringe at the implications of Applejack’s relief. “But that’s more of a sign that Luna just ain’t right. Maybe she did need to blow off some steam, but there’s an awful difference between an honest brawl ‘tween friends, and turnin’ good folk to stone. Then molestin’ a stand-up, reputable-like mare no less.”

“Forget Luna, okay?” The pegasus wished ponies would forget about the Dash-and-Luna combination, in particular. “I’ll buck some more sense into her if I have to. We need to stay here for Twi. She doesn’t have anyone but us. ‘Sides, what if things go bad with Celestia, and we need you to do your Honesty thing with the necklace? There might not be time to go get you from Ponyville. So, yeah, it stinks here, but we’ve just got to tough it out for a little while longer, okay?” Dash had to swallow back her pride to descend to the levels she was plummeting to. “A-and you’re the toughest pony I know, so it should be easy, right?”

Applejack broke into a husky chuckle. “Oh, Ah was so right. Ah’m thinkin’ Ah should offer you a business proposition. We already have rainbow jam, with the Zap Apples. With all that sap comin’ off of you these days, Ah bet we could get some rainbow maple syrup goin’ too.”

“See if I’m ever nice to you again, Applesmack.” Rainbow growled, using her wings to lift herself off of the farmer, to settle on the ground nearer to the door. “Go dust yourself off, the party’s at eight. Pinkie needs us there.”

“Y’all call this bein’ nice? Ah’d hate to see mean.”

* * *

Rainbow Dash fell back onto her haunches, reliving memories of the first time she saw fireworks bursting over Cloudsdale. Celestia’s room was unnaturally dark. The glow of medical monitors, and even a few lit bulbs were visible, but the light seemed muted, and didn’t travel as far as it should. The aurora of flickering magic dancing across the slumbering alicorn had no such restrictions. Magelight in a dozen colours traced lines of liquid power across the sun goddess’s pristine white coat. Through it all, like a swarm of silvery fireflies, was the moonborn power of the Princess of the Night made manifest.

The sorcery in the air was tangible, tingling against Dash’s skin, ignoring her cyan pelt. It was not unlike the threat of a brewing storm cloud underhoof. It was the spellwork of two groups, each of a half dozen ponies, unicorns all. Two esoteric diagrams of precise, steady light, cast onto the floor, each played host to five ponies in a ring around their perimeter. In the center of one, the focus of that thrumming nexus of potential, was an elderly unicorn mare, coat gone grey-blue and mane white with age. In the center of the other was the Princess of the Night herself, her wings flared wide, crackling static leaping between her feathers. Her horn was ignited, those motes of firefly-light gathering most strongly around it, as if attracted to it.

There were others at work, unicorn doctors casting by themselves at Celestia’s bedside. Even a pair of earth ponies were stroking the fallen monarch’s outspread wings. Dash didn’t have attention to spare for them, in the face of the display she witnessed. Not that much would have been missed. The greater part of the experience was in the feel of the room, not the sight. Like her first time seeing fireworks, there was the sense of being swept up in something even greater than herself, in being a tiny part of the interplay of enormous forces.

Minutes, or perhaps hours later, it came to an abrupt finish. The pale power of the moon winked out, and harsh electric light flooded back into the room, as if a curtain had been pulled back. The pegasus flinched, shielding her face with a foreleg. She took a sudden breath, as if she had been scared to so much as fill her lungs until that moment. She couldn’t remember making a conscious choice to do that.

Blinking the last vestiges of the glare from her eyes, the pegasus surveyed the room. Celestia remained as she was before, though the two earth ponies were refolding her wings, for whatever reason. Both groups of unicorns were either lying on the floor, or slumped over, taking greedy breaths of air, as if they had run for miles. They were lathered with sweat, one and all. The elder unicorn, perhaps a senior doctor, who had been at the center of the second circle, seemed hardest hit. A few of the others were ignoring their fatigue to help support her. She seemed barely conscious. The dark goddess, however, folded her wings daintily at her side, and rose with unhindered smoothness to all four shod hooves. “Rest, my little ponies,” It was odd hearing Celestia’s phrase from Luna’s mouth, Dash thought. “We could all use it. We’ll work again in the morning. I thank you for your efforts.”

Rainbow rose to her hooves in turn. Her wings stretched and gave a little flutter, just testing the air without any real conscious command. It was a nervous sign of a pegasus readying for escape into the air. She clamped her rebellious wings down at her sides just about when Luna noticed her.

“Well met, fair Rainbow Dash!” Luna called in greeting, trotting in her direction, still showing none of the fatigue that had so crippled the other ponies. “Thou hast come to check upon thy liege? Thou shalt find no reason to chastise her this time. We are on our very best behavior, to avoid thy wrath!”

Even if it took a bit of work to mentally translate, it was a lot less weird to hear the alicorn speaking normally. Well, normally for Luna. “Yeah. The thing is...” The cyan athlete trailed off, glancing toward the ponies who were all pretending not to listen. “Do you think we could talk somewhere a bit more priv—”

The world entered a nauseating spin. For several long moments everything was an overwhelming blur, as if Dash was caught in a flow of ice-cold rapids, unable to tell up from down.

“—ate,” Dash’s mouth completed, without any conscious intervention. “I think I’m going to be sick.” The pegasus dipped her head and gulped air, trying to stave off an ill twist in her middle. Looking down, she could see a strange midnight blue smoke pouring off of her limbs. A glance back found the same thing happening to the rest of her body, though the effect was diminishing.

That look also revealed the fact that she was in an entirely different room from the one she had been occupying a second before. It was in a huge, cavernous hall of dark stone, cut down the middle with a blue carpet. More hints of subtle colour were granted by starlight pouring through a dozen stained-glass windows, all showing intricate evening scenes. An expansive window, clear and circular, set at one end of the hall, let in the light of a full moon, which in turn fell upon a raised dais. It was there that the Princess of the Moon sat, upon a throne of gilded silver twice as tall as she was.

“Apologies, my dearest suitor, time is short this eve. Soon, we must endure the overdone posturing and grating squawking of the gryphon ‘ambassador’. They are demanding reparations for the ‘attack’ on the natural order brought about by long days and nights. And since the risk of war is not enough to fill our night, we have Laughter’s party to attend shortly after.” The goddess gestured with a metal-clad hoof. “So speak thy mind. And worry not over our complaints. We shall always make time for thee.”

Rainbow tried to think back to her long minutes of pacing the halls before entering Celestia’s chambers. She’d mentally rehearsed, over and over, what she’d wanted to say, with an eye toward diplomacy. Rarity would want her to act like that. Nothing came to her. She drew a complete blank. I am not a clever pony.

The pegasus stomped a hoof down, her posture leaning slightly forward and held aggressively high. “My friends and I are going to be allowed to visit Twi. That’s all there is to it. All the Bearers.” Dash cringed a little. That sounded even worse than she’d planned. This was way easier when she was really mad. “And, um, Spike too. Definitely Spike, actually.”

The corners of Luna’s lips quirked up in wry amusement. “Twilight’s familiar? We suppose it is within our power to grant that request. But what is in it for us?”

Rainbow blinked. She wasn’t expecting that question. It wasn’t a very Princess-y thing to say.

“We jest, fret not. Thy company is all the gift we need.” Dash’s ears folded back. “We did not intend to deprive you of each other. It simply slipped our mind to craft such orders. We dare not threaten the Harmony of the Bearers. And Twilight’s familiar is an able scribe. We meant to do all we could to facilitate Twilight’s studies.”

“That’s where she got those books?” Dash asked. She tried her very best to not think about the mentions of Luna’s affection right now. That dangerous little web could wait.

The pegasus had the distinct impression that the goddess very much realized her discomfort. “Indeed. We wish for Twilight Sparkle to continue her research as best she can. It is doubly important now. Dost thou know what problem she attempts to decipher?”

“She mentioned it to me. Practical something with the interharmony of pony souls, or whatever.” Dash bit her lip lightly. No, that was wrong. It was in that article that Twi had been so proud of. A Study on the Arcane use of Interharmonic Souls? Interpony? Is the ‘souls’ thing right? Okay Dash, you’re blowing it! In the end, to avoid looking even worse in front of a goddess, she rolled her eyes. “The magic of friendship, right? What’s with that pony and trying so hard to sound smart?”

“The greater mystery, we think, is when she manages to sound mundane. Our friend is very much that brilliant. And we know that thou ken as much. However, thine own skill is in cutting to the quick. What thou saw today was the limits of pony magic, as we know it. Six unicorns may work in concert, and no more. Earth ponies don’t work their magic consciously, and only passively. We need not speak to thee of the pegasi. But tell us, how many friends dost thou hold dear to thy heart?”

“Good ones?” Rainbow Dash found it in her to stand proudly again. “You know the answer to that. Six. The six best in all of Equestria.”

The goddess-on-high inclined her head in concession. “‘Tis a powerfully symbolic number, that. Six Virtues. Six Elements. Six mages in a full array. It goes further, of course. Six kinds of magic, six great cities within the ancient world, and so on. It reappears over and over. But that isn’t the point we make.” The goddess was quiet for a moment, seemingly in thought. “Pinkamena. Laughter. How many friends doth she call dear?”

“Pinkie?” Dash extended a wing and made a dismissive flicking gesture with it. “Who knows? What’s the population of Ponyville these days? Lots. Hundreds.”

“Indeed, which is why we chose her as an example. Not six. Love knows no limit. It knows no division by tribe, or even by species. What could that portend in healing Celestia, if Twilight were to stumble upon the methods whereby that power could be worked? Could we gain the assistance of every doctor in all Equestria at once? Every pony? How trivial would it be to banish the changelings if we had a million pairs like Cadance and our frustrating Captain?” Luna stretched out her expansive wings once more. Dash found her eyes instinctively drawn to them, as any pegasus’s would be. The alicorns all had enormous, luxurious wings, all power and grace. A single leisurely beat of them brought the goddess to the base of her dais. She started toward the smaller pegasus in an unhurried walk. “For centuries before my exile, my Sister and I worked. For a thousand years after she continued alone. And perhaps, within thy lifetime, we may see the culmination of that. Ponies in true Harmony, bound together by unbreakable bonds. Peace. An end to suffering. That is why Twilight Sparkle works, even now. In that hope.”

“That sounds pretty awesome and all, but it’s sort of above my pay grade.”

Luna laughed, it was certainly nicer than all of her shouting and speechifying. “‘Tis an unlikely possibility, in any case. Nothing in life is truly so easy, we have found. Yet, thou art a part of it. A very important part. In my time, few, if any mortal ponies could potentially wield Loyalty. Thou art a very special mare, and for more than thine heroism.” The goddess stopped in front of Dash. The pegasus, not really liking having somepony looking down at her, began to beat her wings, hovering easily at a proper eye-level. It was worth it, even if every flex of her flight muscles made her shoulder ache where Applejack had bucked her. Her flying must have been a bit uneven, the pegasus version of a limp, because Luna’s face took on a look of concern. “Thou art injured! We hope it was not something that happened when thou quieted our outburst.”

“No, it—” The pegasus tripped over her words as the tips of feathers brushed lightly against her cheeks. They were soft, feeling more like the down of tertiary pegasus feathers than the load-bearing pinions they were. Those feather tips moved down to the shoulder of her foreleg next, but Rainbow barely noticed that. She was shying slightly away as Luna’s muzzle dipped forward toward hers. It wasn’t a kiss, like she expected. Rather, Luna nuzzled lightly at her bruised cheek. A pleasant, cool sensation filtered through the athlete, not so dissimilar to a night’s cool wind against her coat when at altitude, starting at that point of contact. It radiated out through her body, causing her to shiver. The feeling of tight heat from the battered and swollen parts of her eased, the ache diminishing. Luna’s left eye closed partially, as if some of the puffiness from Dash’s own took root there. “Um... Applejack needed a bit of a shaking up, too. It’s nothing. S’how our friendship works.” Dash spoke entirely on automatic. She shook her head, looking away from the goddess to clear her thoughts for a moment. “Listen. Thanks, for helping me with the bruises. I’m not a talky pony, but I think we need to talk about... this.”

Luna settled back onto her haunches once more, with all the appearance of satisfaction. The bruises she gained were already starting to fade, if slowly. By the time she had folded her expansive wings, both eyes were able to open fully once more. The alicorn didn’t seem at all nervous, quite unlike Dash. Her tone carried a note of amusement, and she even dropped some of the formality from her words. “Must we, now? I wouldn’t expect thee to be the kind to need words, when actions have been clear. I favor thee.”

Dash settled back down to the ground, taking up a mirrored position, sitting upright, rainbow tail curled lazily around her leg. She looked up to meet the goddess’ gaze. “Why me? You don’t know me all that well. You know Twi a lot better.”

Luna’s look became coy. “We know her dreams, too. I’m afraid I’m the wrong divinity for our Twilight. And my heart aches in pity for her, for it. She knows enough of history to have caught the trend of Celestia’s marriages and acquiring of concubines. ‘Tis a hopeless longing, as she lacks the... proper accessories. To say nothing of our Sister being so concerned about the untouchable image forced ‘pon her by her subjects, even if her student were the proper gender.” Dash’s cheeks heated slightly, her ears folding back. She looked away, as if that would distance her from the knowledge. Twilight went for mares too? Maybe just Celestia. She didn’t really feel right hearing about Twilight’s crushes from a third party. Plus it added a whole other layer of ‘sad’ to the mess of injuring Celestia. A hoof touched under Dash’s chin, lightly guiding her to look up at the alicorn once more. The metal covering it was strangely cool to the touch. The touch of that hoof lingered even after the pegasus allowed her gaze to be drawn back. “I know thine deepest and hidden self, fair Loyalty. I have seen thy fears and thy hopes. I know thy manner. My Sister may look to guide and nurture her suitors, but I lack her motherly drive. Twilight is beautiful, and her brilliance is alluring, to be sure, but I want fire, and excitement. I want bravery, and boldness. Thou hast the strength and will to tame a goddess, if thou wishes. And I can trust thee, if I allowed thee to do so. For who is less likely to abuse trust than Loyalty?”

The pegasus stared up at the goddess with magenta eyes. She didn’t at all know what to say, and it showed. She hadn’t really bothered with the whole romance thing, since Cloudsdale. And that was really just going through the motions of what was expected of her. Going out with colts so her parents wouldn’t think she was weird. Even back then she knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, so she never made any real effort to take it seriously. It was just a stupid game, which she’d been happy to ignore after coming to Ponyville. This wasn’t a game anymore. She wasn’t a little filly anymore. All of Equestria was watching her, which was normally pretty cool, but there was one heck of a downside.

Luna seemed to read her thoughts. Either that, or she really did know Dash as well as she said. “Thou worries for thine image. Likely thou art angry with me, for making so public of a display of it. I admit, ‘twas in poor taste, done in the heat of the moment, as all things were that night. Now thou thinks that ponies, and thy friends, will see thee as weak, or deviant.” That hoof left its place under Dash’s chin, to strike the blue carpet. Lightning flashed outside of the windows as it did, and a low rumble of thunder followed. “‘Tis foolishness! Had we not been gone, ponies would not dare to so disparage those like you or I. And damn Celestia for allowing it! Equestria was built upon the strength of the pony heart! It is the height of folly to question where it leads.” That shod hoof rose once more, to rest against Dash’s chest. “And is thine heart weak, Rainbow Dash?”

Yes, Dash thought. She squashed the notion down a moment later. That was Rainbow Crash thinking. “N-no.” She lifted her head a little higher, and marshaled her will, to repeat herself. “No.”

“Of course it isn’t. Nopony would dare to doubt thee. But we understand. Thou needst show them. Very well! I enjoyed playing this game before, and I wager I will again. Prove thine boldness. Do what countless thousands of ponies have dreamt of, but only one other of thy generation has ever done. Court, and win, an alicorn. How could anyone do anything but envy thine courage with a goddess counted as thy conquest?” Luna’s starry mane stretched out, curling around Dash’s smaller body. The touch was incredibly gentle, almost imperceptible, like allowing oneself to fall through a cloud. “Thou may make thine first overtures to seek my favor in the evening following this one. Is that agreeable?”

Rainbow had to admit that there was a certain part of herself that liked the argument of earning the envy of the kingdom. And conquering, or whatever, sounded a whole lot better than what was happening now, which was feeling like a doe stalked by wolves. The problem was that she didn’t exactly want her fame to come from the fact that she was the most successful fillyfooler in Equestria. ‘Rainbow Dash: Princess Plaything’ sounded a lot worse than ‘Rainbow Dash: Wonderbolt Superstar’.

Wait, is she asking me to take her on a date? Tomorrow? The sky-blue pegasus’ mind froze up at the implication. Once again her mouth didn’t seem to suffer the same problem. “Yeah. Okay.” Dash blinked. She distinctly mispronounced ‘No’ there. She meant to turn Luna down, didn’t she?

Luna smiled as radiantly as a goddess of darkness could. “Excellent! I shall wait, breathlessly. I shall see thee tonight, as well, at Laughter’s celebration. And I shall behave myself, so be free of worry.” That starry mane expanded, billowing around the pegasus, until all she could see was the night’s sky. She felt that disorienting, wrenching feeling again, and felt the cool dew of evening grass against her hindquarters instead of carpeting. The pegasus blinked and look around. She was in the gardens outside the palace. Clearly she’d been teleported again. A new wave of that strange nausea informed her that, indeed, Luna wasn’t quite as good at it as Twilight was. That wasn’t the weather pony’s real concern at that moment.

What the heck just happened? she hopelessly wondered.

* * *

Pinkie was staring hard at a midnight-blue paper streamer that had torn down the center, up high amidst the girders of the cavernous space of the empty warehouse, as if her glare alone would make it mend itself. Her bright blue eyes glanced from point to point, clearly plotting out what insane bit of acrobatics would be needed to move between catwalks, scaffolding and hanging pipes to affect the repair of that decoration. That it was a dozen pony-lengths in the air wasn’t going to deter her. The party pony’s impressive focus was broken when the meager weight of a pegasus fell across her back. Forelegs wrapped around her barrel in a tight hug.

“Pinks, it’s been a really weird night.” Dash breathed an exasperated sigh out into the cotton-candy fluff of Pinkie’s mane. Affection was way easier with Pinkie than with anyone. Probably because the baker was so huggy herself. That embrace firmed, and wings beat. The pegasus began to raise her friend up into the air, toward that streamer.

“Heya Dashie-Washie. Thanks for the lift.” She turned her head, trying for a nuzzle, but couldn’t quite reach. She gave up after a second, and instead daintily snatched one end of the streamer with her lips when it came into reach. “Weird’s okay. E’rything would be boring if was always normal.” Pinkie’s words were a little mushy, with the decoration in her mouth. But earth ponies tended to be pretty good at talking while holding things.

“Guess that’s true,” the pegasus conceded. She began to wing toward the other end of the broken streamer. After flinging Applejack around, carrying Pinkie was shockingly easy by comparison. An earth pony that packed in so many sweets should have been forcing Dash to thicken the air under her wings substantially, or maybe push some pegasus magic her way to reduce her weight. Carrying the party pony was like carrying Fluttershy, which was to say, completely effortless. She pondered asking Pinkie if she was on some kind of weird diet, but the sheer absurdity of that thought was actually enough to keep even her recently-out-of-control mouth shut. “So,” Dash changed the subject ham-handedly, “what do you know about the Pegasus Spear?”

Pinkie, with a flurry of hoof motions, somehow tied a bow to connect the broken parts of the streamer. She didn’t even use her mouth. Like with most anything about Pinkie, it made Dash’s head hurt to think about it. “Oh, neat! I get to do this twice. Okay, lemme tell you a story, Dashie, that Nana Pinkie told me. So there Grammy was, hanging on a vine over a pit of crocodiles, again. After spraining her wing, again. And not for the first time, she was wondering how she got there. After all, she thought she would be spending a few weeks brushy-brushing away at dusty old pots and stuff, collecting easy bits from the Cloudsdale Heritage Council, right? In the dry old southern mountains. Not being chased through the jungle by—”

“Pinkie,” Dash wearily interrupted, after setting the party pony down on the ground, “that’s the start to Daring Do and the Pegasus Spear.”

The baker raised a hoof to her chin in a pondering gesture. “You don’t say? Weeeird. Anyway, you love Daring Do, so win-win. Right, so, she was being chased through the jungle by clay statues of ponies. That was strange even for Grammy Pie, so, the first thing she had to do was—”

Nine - Trixie: Entrapment

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Trixie snarled in frustration. She yanked all the cushions off the old, slightly beaten up (but well-loved loved, Sweet insisted) blue sofa nearby into the air with a levitation spell. They began to savagely spin around the room, gaining momentum so that the azure showmare could—

The demure clearing of a throat cut through the sound of whipping cushions.

—so that the showmare could put them gently back in place. Trixie even gave the resettled cushions a little squeeze to daintily fluff them up with her magic.

“Things not working out so much?” asked the white-coated pegasus lazily lying on the floor nearby. She had a hoof on the pages of a trashy gossip magazine, keeping them from blowing over in the wind that the unicorn’s tantrum kicked up.

“Well, look!” The unicorn pointed accusingly at her workshop floor. There, in black marker, two neat designs were drawn: one a chaotic collection of swirling lines, straight edges and sub-diagrams, the other a thing of geometric perfection, angles carefully measured, lines intersecting at precise mathematical points. Over each hovered a small black storm cloud, crackling with static. The precise one played host to a cloud not even two-thirds the size of its counterpart. “It doesn’t make any sense. Trixie’s design is elegant! The flow is ordered and efficient. If Trixie’s old Thaumatology teacher from Celestia’s School saw it he would choke himself, groveling in apology, for saying that it was not her subject! But Twilight Sparkle’s mess is getting better results.”

The pegasus didn’t even look at the designs, instead inspecting the storm clouds with a critical eye. “Maybe you shouldn’t do clouds,” she finally decided, sagaciously. “You unicorns are terrible at it. Leave it to the professionals.”

The unicorn narrowed her eyes. “My clouds are fine,” she snapped, defensively. “It’s the same for any kind of magic. The clouds are just that much worse, for some reason.”

With a long-suffering sigh, the pegasus nudged her magazine closed with a hoof. Trixie didn’t spare much effort feeling sorry for her. Sweet hadn’t turned a page in the last half-hour. She had just been using the magazine as a prop to pretend she wasn’t watching.

As if I mind an audience! Trixie considered it further. Okay, so I’d mind an audience watching me mess up. But it’s different with Sweet.

The smaller white mare pushed herself up onto her haunches for a better view and studied the designs. “Yeah. Makes sense. Miss Sparkle’s is better,” she chirped not five seconds into the study.

“That’s absurd! Twilight’s leaks magic like a sieve. Half of the lines don’t even end back at the main bounding edge.” Trixie desperately pointed to the various parts of the diagram. “These weird sub-designs don’t even do anything! They just pollute the flow! Sparkle may be smart, but that isn’t the way magic works! Glyphs are a way to help visualize the flow of magic, and Trixie’s flows.” The unicorn brought the pointing hoof to her face. “Ugh. Why is Trixie asking a pegasus about magic?”

Sweet rolled her orange eyes. She beat her wings just enough to free her forelimbs. She then brought her hooves close together, as if she was squeezing down on something. “Miss Sparkle’s is right, though. It’s more... squishy.”

“Squishy,” Trixie flatly repeated, wearing the most incredulous look ever seen by ponykind. “Has that become a scientific term that I’m not aware of?”

Sweet nodded happily, which made the unicorn groan. The pegasus ignored the wordless protests and spoke. “Magic is all about pressure.” She brought her hooves still closer together. A bit of light fog gathered between them, slowly forming a tiny cloud the size of a flower petal. “If you want to make a cloud seed, you have to think of the air squeezing down between your hooves, with all the water being pushed to one spot. If you want to fall through a cloud instead of walking on it, you’ve got to think about air pushing it away from you. Bucking a cloud is more like... an explosion you gather on the end of your hooves. A whole lot of pressure squished down, which you release to pop it.” Sweet poked the cloud, dispersing it. It did indeed make a soft pop.

Trixie closed her eyes, as she often did when lecturing. She thought it made her look wise. “I said magic, not simple meteorology. Real magic, unicorn magic...” With her eyes closed, all the azure mare noticed about Sweet’s approach with the whisper-soft swish of beating wings. Those were easy to ignore. “... is all about the flow of energy. To make fire or light you dump it into a point and let it frizz out wildly. To make a sound you grab a bit of air and make a shaky flow to vibrate it. You make light pour around an object to turn it invisible. Magic is more like water. It isn’t something you can squeeze. It’ll just pour out around your hooves if you try.”

Trixie leaped in surprise as a hoof jabbed at her chest. She defensively brought a forelimb up across it. “Gah! Hey!”

Real magic, huh?” The slight-bodied pegasus hovered nose-to-nose with the blue unicorn. Her eyes were narrowed dangerously. “When I’m carrying a stretcher and a pony twice my weight across town a hundred feet in the air, how am I doing that? If I’m keeping someone breathing with my wings, how am I doing that?”

Trixie flinched back. The orange eyes of that little mare could look intimidatingly intense. “Pegasus magic?” the unicorn ventured, in a small voice, hoping it was the right answer.

“Yeah. Pegasus magic. So don’t be a tribalist. It’s not nice, and not attractive at all.” A little flutter of wings had Sweet settling lightly back down on her hooves. “Maybe I was mistaken about you being the most desirable unicorn in all of Equestria?”

Trixie gave a little toss of her head, letting her immaculate mane bounce with the motion. “You were not.” The unicorn dipped her muzzle ever-so-slightly with a small show of contrition. “Sorry.”

Sweet smiled beatifically at her.

Oh, why does that make me give in every time she does it? Trixie complained to herself, if half-heartedly. It makes me feel like a dog that just got bribed with a treat.

Sweet settled in for a lecture of her own, sitting down on her haunches. “Right. Just about every one of us in Life Flight, and almost all the respiratory doctors in Equestria are pegasi. My magic can stretch to make the things I carry lighter, just like it does to me, to let Pegasi fly with these small wings. If you know how to do it, you can use your wings to force air into a pony to keep them breathing. A very few of us can even gather enough lightning to jump-start a pony whose heart stopped.”

Sweet herself couldn’t do that. Trixie knew the limits of her skill there. Still, she could collect enough of a charge to make for a nice, tingly hoof massage. Trixie shamelessly daydreamed that she was getting one of those mane-curlingly excellent treatments instead of a foalish lesson on medical magic. The unicorn wizard knew all of it already. She was a wizard.

The pegasus continued on, oblivious to Trixie’s wandering attention. “Most every other doctor is a unicorn. They have spells to heal, or to diagnose, or even just the fine control with their levitation to do surgery. Almost every nurse is an earth pony. Earth pony magic is passive, but nurturing. Plants, animals, ponies, whatever. They make things grow and recover. Patients statistically improve much faster when there’s an earth pony around trying to take care of them, even if they don’t seem to do anything special. Ponies are magic. All of us.”

Sweet Relief pointed toward Twilight’s chaotic circle, which captured Trixie’s attention once more. “That one’s right for a pegasus. You can feel a difference in the air there. It feels more squeezable and solid, like how a cloud feels.” Her hoof shifted to point to Trixie’s instead. “That one just feels like dead air. Just some scribbles in marker. Might as well be a picture of your face for all the good it does magically for me.”

“Okay. Trixie gets it. It’s a better explanation than ‘squishy.’ You might want to lead with the well-thought-out academic answer next time.” To soothe any ache from her little verbal nip, she leaned forward and warmly nuzzled Sweet’s cheek. “If Trixie was a pegasus,” She fought down the urge to shudder at the thought. “then it would make sense why the cloud spell was better in Sparkle’s glyph. For unicorn magic, Trixie’s is far superior. And Trixie is the one doing all the casting. Sparkle knows something Trixie doesn’t. And Trixie has to fix that.”

“Maybe it works that way because a pegasus looooves youuu,” Sweet musically crooned. Trixie rolled her eyes, extending a hoof to brace it against the pegasus’s chest, holding her at arm’s length as she tried to go in for a kiss. She turned her head away from said reaching attack, at least until Sweet gave up and sat herself back down, grinning. “Was that priest in Luna’s temple a pegasus?”

“No, an earth pony,” Trixie responded, confused. “Why?”

“Well, you calming down that riot was pretty great and—”

“Trixie was just going along her usual Monday routine. That mob just got in her way.” Trixie raised her nose with effete disdain. “And I really can’t abide idiocy. The day stopped, but it stopped while the sun was up. It clearly wasn’t Nightmare Moon’s doing, so why would they go blame Luna?”

“Uh-huh.” The bright-white pegasus seemed less than sold on the excuse. “And the free magic show at the Hearthfire Home for Orphaned Foals last month?”

“It was a charitable event. And thus, a tax write-off.”

“The fire at that apartment building downtown?”

“The smoke was hurting Trixie’s eyes. It had to be put out.”

“That replaced mare last week?” Trixie started to open her mouth to answer, but Sweet spoke back up to cut her off. “And before you say ‘the bounty’, I’m going to go ahead and remind you that there’s no bounty for hugging and comforting that crying filly about her missing mother, like you were when I got there.”

The showmare cultivated an annoyed look. “Is there a point to all of this?”

“Well, it’s just that you’ve gathered a lot of good will in the last few months, from a lot of ponies. That’s love too. Some of them are pegasi, some are earth ponies, and some are unicorns. Maybe that leaves a mark? Lets you be a bit more... pegasus-y?”

“That’s not a word,” Trixie objected, reflexively. After a moment of quiet thought Trixie give her cape a dainty fluff with her levitation. The hat might have been left aside, but she was working. The cape made her feel properly magical. “Still, sappiness and mistaken motives aside, it’s a workable theory.”

The unicorn reared up, as she was prone to doing, and flared her cape. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has been subduing apartment fires, changelings and generals...” Sweet blinked, mouthing the word ‘Generals?’ in confusion. “...for weeks! All she needs to do is explain how, and all the world will know Trixie’s name!” She fell down to her hooves and looked over to the pegasus with lidded eyes. “What I do know is that most of it is thanks to falling in dizzying love with the Sweetest and most Loveable pony in all Equestria!”

Sweet’s eyes softened, even glistened, in a deliriously happy sort of way. Such an absurdly mushy pony. Trixie couldn’t help but needle her for it. “Yes, without the beautiful flower that is the remarkable Leaf Swirl to direct her affections toward, Trixie would have been changeling-food by now.”

“Oh!” Sweet’s lovey-dovey look vanished with proper alacrity. She winced as if someone had smacked her with a hoof. She hopped in place in anger, and stomped down her forehooves. “Oh! You... you... bitch!” Her wings beat to throw her forward at the unicorn. However, capturing leaping fillies and mares had practically become Trixie’s specialty during the last few days. With contemptuous ease she ignited her horn. A pink aura surrounded dainty white hooves and snapped Sweet back to the ground, as if she was attached to it by a giant elastic band. She’d have fallen forward onto her face with the shock of it, if her legs weren’t being kept straight by the wrapping of the unicorn’s spells. “Lemme go so I can kill you!” the pegasus howled, wings all but buzzing as they beat rapidly, trying to overcome the magical grip.

Pegasi were just the most fun tribe to anger.

“Tempting! No.” Trixie unhurriedly placed her magazine and quill in their proper place. She even closed her notes and serenely dusted at the cover with a hoof. Only then did she turn to walk toward Sweet, a swaying, almost prowling gait to her step. “Oh, how ironic. You’re a strong flyer. You might have been able to overpower Trixie a few years ago. But now your own love for Equestria’s most magical unicorn keeps you trapped in place.”

“Second most,” the pegasus taunted in revenge, while putting all her body and wing power in try to trying to pull her right front hoof off the ground. “Oh, and I totally don’t love you anymore.”

With Trixie keeping the smaller mare in a wide stance, she practically towered over her. It let her sneer down at her in mock disdain with no small effect. “Oh, but you do, little cloudseed. It’s all in the wings.”

“Don’t call me that!” the pegasus snapped, a whining hint in her voice. As for her wings, she gave them a glance in confusion. She folded them neatly at her side, once it was clear they wouldn’t allow her to escape. There was nothing amiss with them. That was the case until little swirls of pink light began to dance on the tips of her primaries and secondaries. Her eyes widened. “Nonono! Don’t touch the wiiiiiiings.” She drew out that last word in a wail as the her feathers were pulled on. She tried to resist the tug as best she could, but she didn’t dare put any real strength behind it. If she lost one of her primary feathers, she’d be grounded for weeks, at least. Maybe months, depending on the feather. So she had to let her wings be drawn out to an almost lewdly full span. The look of keen vulnerability on her face was crystal clear to Trixie’s practiced eyes.

“The name is so fitting, Trixie thinks. Like the little wisp of cloud you gathered earlier, you’re a tiny, harmless thing. And also like a cloud, you’re at the mercy of greater forces. To get blown about at their whim, never deciding your own fate.” The unicorn stretched the other mare’s forelegs further apart and forward, and gave a slight tug on her leading primaries. It forced the pegasus to lower her forward half into a bow. Sweet snuck a furtive glance up at the smugly satisfied unicorn. She stood brazenly in front of the pegasus, one hoof raised in a dainty posture, totally unworried about the threat of Sweet’s anger. It was like looking up at one of the Goddesses. The pegasus found herself blushing and averting her eyes.

Trixie’s smirk only widened at that pink shade creeping up on those cheeks. It was such a dramatic thing on a white pony. Perhaps it was one of the reasons she was so... entranced with this one. That and the radiant coat. Those sunset eyes, the angelic wings, her bubbly voice, or the easy challenge her temper provided. Possibly it was the way she listened so unselfishly. Or the adoration in her eyes. Maybe it was the tender personality deep under her playful fire. There surely wasn’t any discounting those toned flanks either, with that saccharine-sweet Cutie Mark of a winged cloud, upon which was the silhouette of a pony curled in rest.

The showmare gave the mentioned mark a little pinch with her magic. Sweet couldn’t jump, but she certainly gave a violent twitch. “So, little cloudseed, you don’t have any objection to Trixie using that terribly accurate name, now do you?” The tiny, meek shake of a yellow-maned head that followed was a sweeter thing for Trixie than the roar of an approving crowd.

Oh yes, it must be love.

The thought itself seemed to get a reaction from the pegasus; a rustling of feathers spoke of a quiver passing through her. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and swallowed.

An azure hoof lifted the white mare’s chin. “Now, my dearest admirer, we go back to Trixie’s research.” The smaller pegasus’s eyes shot open, regained a bit of their previous fire, stoked to outraged disbelief in thinking that Trixie would go back to playing with markers after all that build-up. The showmare allowed herself a brief smirk. Misdirecting expectations was a well-learned skill for any parlor magician. Said magician leaned down to meet the pegasus’s muzzle with a slow, unhurried kiss.

The best part of researching love, Trixie thought, was the hooves-on experimentation.

She doubted Twilight Sparkle, if she was out of the hospital and thus an acceptable target for distant gloating, was having so much fun.

* * *

Trixie gently nuzzled the practically limp pegasus mare after she levitated her down onto the living room couch. “I love you, little cloudseed.”

The snowy-coated mare made a happy little sound of acknowledgement.

“Tell Trixie you love her back,” the showmare whispered, crossly.

Sweet mumbled something noncommittal. The white pegasus squealed as Trixie bit down on the tip of her ear. “Ow! I love you! I love you! Leggo!”

Satisfied, Trixie kissed that ear in apology, causing it to flick under her touch. “Good. I’ll be counting on it in the Everfree. Trixie promises she’ll be back. Know why?”

Sweet dragged over a cushion with a hoof, hugging it to her chest, the very picture of contentment. “Mmm, because you’re just as Great and Powerful as advertised?”

“Well, yes.” How nice of her to notice. “But also because no monster can keep Trixie away from her mare.” The wizard gave a resolute nod. She was rewarded with Sweet making another happy little sound and squeezing that pillow into a tighter hug.

A little flick of magic sent her hat soaring over to her. A look in the entrance mirror after a flare of her cape reassured her that her fireworks were securely hidden under it, just below the base of her mane. She fed a bit of magic into the enchantments on her clothing, to top them up. The collar of her cape reassuringly tickled the back of her neck.

She caught a glance at Sweet on the couch behind her as she passed, in that reflective surface. The pegasus wore a hungry look as her gaze followed the azure mare.

Her normally orange-irised eyes were tinted noticeably green.

Trixie pretended she hadn’t seen a thing as she left through the front doors, to meet the guide that would lead her to her next stunning and inevitable victory.

* * *

It stung Trixie, in a morbid way, to have to overpay for her final meal. Still, since she very likely had only a few minutes to live, it didn’t seem proper to wait for the stall owner to whip up a new batch of hay fries, so she’d just snatched up one on its way to a customer. Since she’d needed both the appearance of normality and a lack of anything that would point to her rising panic, she’d forked over enough bits to pay for a replacement basket and then some. At least the fries were passably good.

Four more changelings had appeared in her awareness. There were, at that moment, over twenty strands of green light, visible to Trixie’s mystic senses as luminous silk threads, stretching out from Trixie’s horn to connect to Equestria’s enemies. More seemed to be passing in and out of the range of her spell. They formed a ring around her, a ring that had been suspiciously constant since the beginning, save for numbers. She was being tracked and surrounded, that much was clear. Presumably once they reached some sort of critical mass to ensure their victory, beyond any reasonable doubt, they would attack.

Honestly, twenty is more than enough, Trixie thought as she munched on a levitated hay fry with all the appearance of normality. It settled into her stomach like lead. Maybe they just don’t want to make their move somewhere so public as the marketplace. Which is exactly why Trixie had headed there directly upon casting her detection spell and figuring out the likely reason for the sudden flood of changelings. It was all she could do not to break into a very obvious gallop.

Thank Luna that the nighttime sky was deceptive. It was five in the evening, technically, and ponies were doing their usual shopping. It was the second full day of night. The newspapers said that Luna would attempt to raise the sun at the normal time tomorrow. Apparently the magic she was expending to heal Princess Celestia allowed for no sooner change. For now, though, ponies were doing the best they could to carry on as usual.

Speaking of Luna.

Leaf Swirl was standing in front of the Moon Goddess’s temple. Or at least standing vaguely near it, as far as could be from the doors while still unquestionably being at the meeting place Trixie had chosen. It wasn’t an uncommon reaction. Celestia had all of her temples converted to civic buildings centuries ago. Trixie had visited a few of the old cathedrals in the older cities to marvel, as many did, at the breathtaking spectacle of them. Her recently returned sister was rather more old fashioned when it came to the idea of open worship. It made a lot of ponies, like Leaf Swirl, uncomfortable.

Luna’s little temple in Hoofington didn’t have anywhere near the presence of one of the bright, soaring old Cathedrals of the Day Mare. It was pretty enough in its own way, but it didn’t take much to stand out in this city. Hoofington wasn’t exactly known for having a hidden soul of artistry. Looking under the industrial surface of the city just found you more steam, smoke, and gears. The grounds of the temple were a refreshing, if small, oasis of green. There was climbing ivy, lovingly tended shrubs, and curving banks of flowers, all deep purple, dark blue, pale yellow, and white. The structure itself was a low building of silver-white marble, artificially aged and weathered to fit pony expectations of what a place of worship was supposed to look like, with all of Princess Celestia’s being so ancient. Of course, Celestia’s tended not to be marred with burn marks and chipped masonry.

“Really, she faced down the whole mob?” Leaf Swirl’s voice was in fanfilly mode. It was a tone that Trixie knew well enough. She was talking to a pony scrubbing the char from a statue of the Moon Princess. Trixie thought it was the temple groundskeeper. Night Flower? Lavender Flower? Something with a Flower anyway. Names weren’t the showmare’s strong suit. Most ponies didn’t take the proper time to make them as grand and memorable as her own.

Act normal.

“It was not, Trixie is sad to say, the only angry mob she has come across in her time. This one was easy, it wasn’t even after her.” She trotted over to the statue and brushed a bit of the ash from the plaque on the statue’s plinth. It had been discoloured by the heat of the fire that had been raised. As if burning a bunch of stone in effigy would have accomplished anything. “Like Trixie has been saying, if Princess Luna really had tried to kill Celestia and take over, it would have been night, not day. Everypony was just scared out of their tiny minds and acting idiotic.”

“Hello again, Miss Trixie.” The stallion groundskeeper gave her a little bow. His own voice carried a different tone than Leaf’s, one less familiar. Respect. Real respect. Trixie privately reveled in it. At least as much as she could when her vision was obscured by those threads, which were thickening as her hunters began to close in. She got her first sight of some of them entering the light of the market square. The lines pointed right to them. A stallion and mare, playing at being a happy couple, a delivery pony carrying a bundle of Hoofington Post newspapers. A new light appeared, tenuous and flickering, pointing to an armored unicorn stallion soldier. A younger, weaker changeling? Someone under a changeling spell?

Act normal.

The temple would make for a defensible enough place to take a stand. It had resisted the mob admirably. The door was iron-shod and thick. The windows were narrow slits, too small to get a hoof into, nevermind a changeling. Trixie didn’t feel any shame in forting up until the city’s police or the nearby soldiers got off of their hindquarters to save her. Life was its own reward. She could make her hiding away sound like a heroic, defiant last stand to the papers later anyway: the great monster-slayer, Trixie the Changelingbane, battling alone against the shapeshifter horde. The ‘alone’ part was another benefit of the temple; there was rarely anypony in it. She wouldn’t have to worry about amateurs getting themselves killed.

Act normal.

“Leaf Swirl, my dearest admirer, do Trixie a favor? I want to go into the temple for a few minutes before we head out to the forest.” She levitated a handful of bits from the pouch under her cape. “But I don’t want to delay. There’s an excellent coffee shop a few blocks south called The—”

“The Magic Bean,” the filly chirped. “I know it, yeah. Starshower, one of my herdmates, works there in the evenings.”

Act normal.

“Ahh, good then. Trixie likes her coffee milky and sweet. Why don’t you go with her, Mister Flower?” The groundskeeper smiled, which told Trixie that she had remembered that part of his name well enough. Thank Celestia for small favors. “Get a drink and a snack on Trixie, for all the hard work you’ve been doing. This place looks much better than it did a few days ago. There should be more than enough for both of you, and for Trixie’s order.”

To forestall any refusals or further attempts at conversation, which would delay their departure from the site of the danger, Trixie turned and started toward the temple entrance. She wanted the pair far enough away that they wouldn’t get it in their heads to try any futile heroics to help her. Pony instincts being what they were, Trixie counted on the strangers to clear out quickly, with all proper panic. One could never be sure with ponies that liked her. Thankfully, the only sound on her way to the door was fading sound of conversation as the pair went off to fetch her fake order.

Act normal.

Trixie took a last glance around, as if examining the building’s damaged surroundings. She lifted a hoof to keep her hat in place as she did it. She didn’t want her horn showing, to reveal that it was ignited in maintaining the spell. She didn’t want to even risk them thinking she was onto them. It would cost her any chance to prepare and barricade herself in.

The threads of light in her vision began to draw to steeper angles. Changelings must have been moving along the rooftops, trusting in the darkness of night to hide them. The enemies she could see were working their way closer, without making it obvious that they were doing so. The collar of her cape tickled the back of her neck as they closed in, the cloth itself moving in fluttering motions. It was host to a simplified version of the detection spell she channelled, suitable for enchanting. It was just enough to tell her if a changeling was nearby. Placing that spell on her cloak a few days after the attack on Canterlot had seemed a little paranoid, even to herself, at first, but it had paid off the first time she had been out on the way to the amphitheatre to give one of her shows, and instead become a local changeling-hunting heroine.

Then, of course, there was her first time visiting Sweet after the enchantment had been placed...

Too normal. Stop reminiscing. More panic.

Trixie slipped into the doors of the temple as quickly as she could while still adhering to her mantra. After that she abandoned subtlety. She spun around and wrapped the thick bar for the door in an aura of pink levitation magic. She slid it into place; it had a comforting heft. She abandoned her detection spell in favor of channelling a quick magical locking spell. She had used it for years for securing her cart before its unfortunate reduction to kindling by a stray Ursa footstep. The spell was woven into place across that the temple door, further reinforcing it. With that done she began to levitate tiny fireworks out from under her cape. She dismissed the enchantment on them, a modification of a standard reduction charm she called the Shrinking Violet spell. They swelled up to full size with an absurd pop. The spell had been her senior project in Advanced Spell Theory in Celestia’s School, and it deserved a far better grade than it had received. For the niggling restriction of only shrinking purple objects it gained a great deal of efficiency. Besides, purple went amazingly well with her coat and eyes, so what loss was it, really?

The restored fireworks were quickly set into a semicircle around the door and adhered in place with a simple gluing spell. It was little more than a version of the bog-standard unicorn levitation spell which could independently maintain power for a short while, to hold an object in place. The door, as formidable as it was, wouldn’t hold for long against determined spellcasters, so it was best to leave a surprise or two behind. The exhaust from the rockets would probably cause some small measure of damage to the moon and stars mosaic on the wall opposite the doorway, but stone artwork could be repaired a great deal more easily than Great and Powerful unicorns.

With that done, she turned and went deeper into the temple, to find the priest and enlist his help in barricading. When she rounded the mosaic wall to enter the main gathering area, she stopped dead, mouth agape.

It wasn’t the structure that was the shock. There was the same altar she was used to, holding a wide bowl of still water. The engraving in the back wall was likewise perfectly intact, the crescent moon with the silhouette of a winged, horned pony in front of it, inlaid with silver, a familiar-yet-different image so similar to Celestia’s symbol. It glowed with a beautiful, otherworldly light from moonlight shining down overhead through an annulus in the ceiling, as it did most nights. There wasn’t a single sign that a mob had been battering at the doors a week before... except that the mob seemed to have moved inside and become prayerful. Where normally Trixie could count on being the only visitor most of the time, now the main hall was crowded by dozens of ponies, in a whole rainbow of colours which impinged on the monochromic serenity of the room.

“Oh, come on! Not even Trixie is this unlucky!” The unicorn accusingly pointed at the symbol above the altar with a hoof. Her voice rose to a shout. “You can’t even cut a break for the Lulamoon clan, you old blue nag!?”

A sea of heads turned to face her. An ancient, dark grey earth pony at the head of that crowd somehow cut through a rising tide of muttered disapproval with his quiet, dusty voice. “Miss Trixie. While I appreciate your earlier aid, I would still ask you not to speak that way of the Mistress of All the Night.”

“In about half a minute this place will be swarmed by Changelings. Luna will have to get in line behind them if she wants a piece of Trixie.” The azure unicorn’s words were met with a rising chorus of panic from the crowd, as would be expected. Prayers were abandoned quickly in the face of crisis.

“We won’t allow it,” the old stallion wheezed. Despite the tired age in the voice, there was steel behind it. The panicked voices quieted, at least enough for the others to begin to listen. “We gathered here to give what aid and comfort we could to the Princess of the Night, as she suffers to save Beloved Celestia. Even those that were once out there with torches and angry shouts. Let them come. This is one bit of Equestria we won’t allow those creatures to defile.”

Trixie admired the stage presence of the stallion. She’d have added some reference to the Hearth Warming Eve play’s events. Too bad the impending doom had distracted her from the possibility of raising a mob. Only momentarily. It would have come to me eventually.

“Fear not, brave residents of Hoofington! The words of... um—” Trixie stumbled over her words. What was that priest’s name? Dusk, something? Cloud? No, that wasn’t an earth pony name. “—your priest are surely true! Stand with the Great and Powerful Trixie, the Celestia-proclaimed Changelingbane, and none will defile this sacred ground! Just... stand sort of far back from the door. It’s the only way in or out, and it will be exploding shortly. Unicorns, grab something to pelt or hit the changelings with.” Trixie barely contained a groan as a few of them missed the point and picked up objects with their mouths. “From a distance!” she added, pretending she had intended to say it all along. Thankfully, most got the hint and took hold of their assorted candle holders and odds and ends with their horns instead.

Honestly! No wonder the changelings just want to get me out of the way, but are ignoring the army. And unicorns are supposed to be the smart tribe.

Trixie was cut short while congratulating herself on her superior intelligence when black chitinous forms began to drop into the crowd from the annulus in the ceiling. The annulus in the ceiling which she hadn’t considered as a point of entrance for the creatures. The creatures who could fly and stick to walls, avoiding the closed, barred door she had so carefully booby-trapped. She didn’t even have time to face-hoof.

Venom-green fire swirled around the falling changelings. Trixie knew what they were doing even before their spells finished. They would clothe themselves in the appearance of normal ponies and cause confusion in the crowd. She’d have to keep the complex detection spell active to sort it out if matters degenerated into a brawl. It would take a few seconds for things to become mixed and chaotic. Seconds were plenty for Changelingbane! The unicorn wizard sprang into a gallop in the direction of the crowd, horn igniting as she prepared to prove, yet again, that she was the most dangerous unicorn in Equestria.

The ground in front of the charging unicorn exploded. A wave of veridian fire and force, heralding sharp shards of rock which bit into flesh, slammed into her and the crowd. Shouts of confusion and fear became cries of pain.

Trixie found herself at the far side of a series of shallow craters in the rough marble floors. She was flat on her underside, broken bits of rock poking into her barrel and belly, which added some spice to the sourceless ache in the rest of her body. Her ears were ringing. That was all she could hear, in fact. Silent green blasts detonated in the crowd, as lances of destructive changeling magic poured down from the ceiling. Trixie looked up, and immediately met the glassy blue eyes of a pair of drones looking through the annulus. The showmare swore they wore identical looks of smug victory on their fanged faces as their horns gathered magic. The magic that would cut short her life with a blast of green fire.

What a Sad and Disappointing end.

An iron candlestick, hurled with an orange-hued levitation aura, struck the rim of the annulus. It startled the changeling pair, making them flinch back momentarily.

Trixie didn’t let her absolute shock at the usefulness of the bystanders paralyze her. She ignited her horn and poured magic into that hole in the ceiling. A dense black storm cloud swirled malevolently into being to fill that gap. She wasted no time in scratching and kicking her way forward with an uncoordinated lack of grace. Her instincts were rewarded, however, when the ground she had been laying upon a moment before exploded under a fusilade of blindly fired spells from the opposite side of the obscuring cloud.

Not that it was a clean getaway. The nerves in her rump filed notes of stern protest at their introduction to more rocky shrapnel as the unicorn tumbled end over the end through the air, propelled by that series of concussions. Her short but eventful flight was interrupted when she struck the sturdy body of a mint green earth pony stallion. True to that tribe’s reputation, she bounced off, barely causing the stallion to stumble. His head swivelled around to face the sprawling unicorn. His mouth opened to voice a very unponylike hiss.

He rocketed up toward the ceiling with startling acceleration, trailing residual pink magic from Trixie’s ignited horn. The shapeshifted changeling flew toward the hole hidden by the storm cloud. A disgusting crunch, barely heard around the ringing in her ears, announced that Trixie’s aim had been a bit off. The sullen storm cloud burst violently from the disruption from Trixie’s changeling projectile. A bright flash and a roar of thunder, felt more than heard, filled the room, followed shortly thereafter by the sharp smell of ozone. She tried not to think about the chances that the changeling she flung was... not okay.

Trixie pushed herself drunkenly to her hooves, swaying, disoriented and wishing that self-levitation wasn’t nearly impossible. Raising her head made her whole world seem to spin, but she gritted her teeth and ignored it. The pair of changelings dangling in the annulus looked shaken and a bit singed around the edges. They would recover quickly, and so the azure wizard couldn’t afford to give them the chance. She wrapped them in her magic, and before they could use their own spells break her hold, Trixie slammed them together, letting them fall through the opening in the ceiling, into the mass of panicked ponies below.

There wasn’t any realistic way to pick out the enemies in the brawl that the center of the temple floor had become. She was sure there were far more groups fighting than there were changelings in the crowd. Though it was difficult for Trixie to gather her concussed thoughts enough for real spellcasting, she ignited her horn. She only needed the detection spell to reach across a single building, so at least there wasn’t any need to focus on holding a great deal of power. After a false start or two, dozens of lines flickered hesitantly across her sight, as if the magic itself begrudged her shoddy use of it. Six of those lines twisted toward the crowd, the rest pointing off toward the front entrance. She didn’t spare attention for the latter. Thankfully, only three of the nearby six pointed to actual, conscious ponies. The other half were sprawled on the floor, unmasked and unconscious.

Well, three she could handle. A unicorn stallion and mare, and an earth pony filly. After a moment of consideration, Trixie released the tracking spell and focused instead on something so familiar even her addled mind could conjure it without worry. Sourceless, colourful light flashed and the notes of her theme played out at blaring volume. The brawl came to a rather abrupt end, ponies and changelings alike blinking dumbly in confusion. “Attention ponies and changelings! Stallions and gentlemares! Yes, you with the red coat too. That’s a real pegasus you’re so coyly sneaking up on. Trixie has something to tell you all!” Raising her voice was making her head pound, but such was the price of proper showponyship. She oh-so-briefly considered rearing up on her hind legs, but that would have likely resulted in her falling over. Striking up a nonchalant pose by sitting on her haunches was likewise out, due to the sharp stone slivers currently doing unpleasant things in her hindquarters. She settled for retrieving her slightly singed hat from the floor and giving her cape a bit of a telekinetic flourish.

With that, Trixie spun four new storm clouds out of thin air over the crowd. A few months before, she would have had to strain to manage two, nevermind when shellshocked. She let the fanfare of the four simultaneous flashes of lightning be the show in themselves. One each for the mock-unicorns. Two for the changeling posing as an earth pony. It was a testament to earth pony magic that while the horned pair collapsed into shocked unconsciousness, charred and exposed, the filly merely stumbled woozily, a few burn marks along her back, green fire flickering as she tried in vain to keep her illusion in order. “Those were the changelings. You may all now silently thank the Sisters for the presence of the Great and Powerful Trixie, who has kept half of you from sending the other half to the hospital.”

A murmur started in the crowd, interrupted only by the leap of several ponies onto the fake earth pony filly, rising toward an inevitable crescendo of raucous, victorious cheering. Trixie raised her voice once more to cut that short. “The ‘silently’ was the important part. Trixie has to compose a plan to lead the other—” She squinted in the direction of the front door as she recalled the tracking spell. The blue unicorn nearly lost her count when there was the dull thud of a battle spell striking the thick temple doorway. She managed to hide the startled jump better than most of the other ponies, and even managed to sound properly unflustered when she continued. “—fourteen changelings away from here in a properly heroic manner.”

Preferably without the inevitable death inherent to those odds. Trixie used her earned silence to its utmost, running one impossible or stupid idea after the next through her mind. Raise the mob again? A mental image of ponies charging out of the door and getting blasted by changeling spells killed that idea quite promptly.

Green light spilled around the mosaic wall when the next blast was heard, the result of the door bowing inward, or the thick boards starting to break and crack, Trixie was sure. When the door failed there would likely be a new rush of changelings, through both that and the annulus, in an overwhelming wave. The only death more inevitable than a mad rush against fourteen-to-one odds was those numbers being delivered from two directions simultaneously. In a situation like that, the lives of the crowd would buy her a few meager seconds, and little else. No pony worth the name would consider a trade like that, no matter how value to Equestria that one pony’s excellence provided.

Trixie steeled herself, starting toward the ailing door. She affected an image of perfect confidence, somehow keeping herself from dragging her hooves like a condemned mare.

No time to plan, then. Excellent! I always did well with improvising.

* * *

Ten - Trixie: Subterfuge

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There was dead silence in the market square as Trixie casually walked out of the much-diminished doorway to face the waiting semicircle of changelings, taking no apparent notice of the dozens of small, bleeding wounds scattered around her body. It would have been properly in theme for your average movie if the only sound had been the clop of her hooves against stone, but it wasn’t to be. Flashes of green light and the low, distant reverb of magical detonations from various directions told the story of a city under siege. Those flashes revealed hints of flying figures, both pegasi and more foreign shapes. Most of it was from the east, in the direction of the military camp. That was an ominous sign, one which explained the complete lack of any rescue or assistance. Trixie had been chalking it up to a distinct lack of Greatness until then.

Trixie scanned the faces of those who hunted her, purple eyes meeting glassy blue ones, most wearing looks of smug victory. She noted those few that showed more wariness. Those would be the smart ones. They would have to go first. The more of those there were, the better the communal instincts of the nearby changelings would be.

A new set of hoofsteps sounded through the square, accompanied by the rustle of plate armor. The way her insectoid foes didn’t react kept her from pinning any hope on it. Her instincts proved true, as the unicorn stallion her detection spell had previously had difficulty pinning down entered the circle of meager, remaining lamplight around the temple’s entrance. Several of the changelings stepped aside for him. He had an ashy teal coat and a darker turquoise mane and tail. He was huge, for a unicorn, large enough to bear earth pony warplate without any great awkwardness. His helm wasn’t a perfect match, being intended for a unicorn, with smoother and more polished in style and made of enchantment-receptive silvered steel at odds with the darker iron of the hulking body armor.

The soldier’s voice was practically low enough to be a tectonic rumble. “Miss Beatrix Lulamoon, we meet again. This time in less favorable circumstances for y—”

“Trixie,” the wounded wizard irately cut in. “It bothered me when Princess Celestia used that name. I won’t have it from somepony else. You’re the changeling that was trying to replace Storm Front in the forest, aren’t you?”

“Indeed I am.” The stallion inclined his head, as if conceding a point. “Your instincts are keen. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected less.”

Trixie raised a hoof to give her mane a self-indulgent toss with it. “It was hardly some great deduction. You said you knew Trixie, but she would remember a unicorn like that. And the others moved respectfully out of your way. They wouldn’t do that for a pony in thrall, or an equal. The earth pony armor is likely the only thing that would still fit if you changed into your true form.” The surrounded mare allowed herself a small smirk. “And the fact that you couldn’t bring yourself to lose the advantage of a horn to get a better disguise told me that you rightfully fear Trixie’s power. Once burned, twice shy.”

“This time I’m not overly concerned with keeping my disguise. You won’t be getting any free hits. The Queen would prefer you alive, but she was quite explicit that we shouldn’t risk changeling lives to achieve that end.” The Raider raised one enormous hoof to motion toward the ground in front of the showmare’s forelegs. “Lay on the ground. You’ll be cocooned and taken with us to see Her Majesty. It won’t hurt. You may even find it pleasant.” The stallion looked to one of his subordinate drones. “Check her for fireworks. She may still be able to conjure enough of a spark inside the cocoon to set one off.”

Trixie’s ears folded back as if she was nervous. She didn’t need to reach far for that bit of acting. “Kindly keep your hooves off Trixie. She can give you the fireworks herself.” She ignited her horn, as if making to activate her telekinesis and hand over her stage effects. Her muscles were tense with electrifying fear. She half expected to feel a burst of lethal heat and force in response, but apparently her tone of fearful compliance stilled their spells, at least for a second or two. Long enough, she hoped. The wizard reached out for the familiar resonance of the tiny slivers of volcanic obsidian at the heart of each of her fireworks. The prepared gemstones needed only a tiny brush of the proper magic to release their stored energy as a spike of heat. The familiar hiss of igniting rockets and short, burning fuses emerged from the temple door, loud for their number alone.

The massive ‘stallion’ was the first to react. His voice bellowed like a horn. “Kill h—”

Trixie didn’t hear the rest. For one thing, it was drowned out by a rising shriek as the rockets started to launch. For the other, even that pyrotechnic cacophony was diminished by a magical shield slamming down over Trixie. It took the form of something more like an upside down glass fishbowl than a delicate magical bubble. It lacked mobility and grace, but more than made up for it in stubborn stability and durability. The former virtue was important, since Trixie had to squeeze her eyes shut to avoid being dazzled by the sudden fountain of bright light pouring into the relative darkness outside of the temple doors. The latter quality meant that the shield weathered over half a dozen reflexively cast battle spells from the changelings, even if each magical explosion against that glassy surface felt like a kick in the horn for the showmare.

Being purely on the defense was a losing proposition. They would just hammer her shield until she was exhausted. Perhaps she could have outlasted the group until their spells ran dry, but that was the problem with changelings. They generally weren’t as proficient with magic as the ponies they imitated, but they were practically miniature alicorns. Once their unicorn magic fizzled out, they could call up an earth pony’s fearsome strength and endurance. When they exhausted themselves physically, they could gather storm clouds and rain down lightning like pegasi. Then there was the raider to consider. She had no idea how much power an elder changeling could bring to bear. He wouldn’t let her simply pound away at him for the sake of keeping his disguise intact this time. He’d explicitly said as much.

Trixie set herself down low, to minimize the target she would provide, and dropped her shield. She had to act quickly, while the changelings were blinded by the sudden light of her fireworks and confused by the sound. She reached her magic out to grab hold of the largest threat, intending to simply fling the raider as she had in the forest, albeit into a nice solid building instead of a tree. She might well have been trying to pick up the building to drop it on the changeling. Her magic could find no purchase at all. It was a trivial affair to brush away another pony’s levitation spell from oneself. It was practically the first thing any unicorn foal learned, right after the actual levitation spell. Presumably that meant that the raider wasn’t so dazzled as his kin.

Trixie didn’t waste seconds checking. She instead grabbed a couple of the smaller drones, trying for those she remembered as as showing some meager illusion of intellect. It wasn’t made any easier by the fact that they were essentially all reeling and stumbling around in an identical manner, trying to avoid the rockets jetting, ricocheting and exploding around the square. Trixie flung them at the false unicorn instead. Their wings buzzed in futility, and their horns ignited with identical emerald light as they tried to shake off Trixie’s hold. Said hold was already gone by then, the force delivered in a single impulse, which was the first lesson during the very first day of Basic Defensive Magic at Celestia’s School. They did succeed quite effectively in keeping their superior from using his own levitation to stop them in midair. The pair impacted the larger changeling, each in turn, and quite unsatisfyingly for Trixie, bounced off without so much as making the huge, armored unicorn shift a hoof.

Well, fine then, Trixie mentally groused.

The wizard gathered power into her horn as her current nemesis began an arrogantly unhurried advance. Certainly he had time on his side. He just had to wait a few seconds, and the other changelings would recover and blast her. Trixie had no such luxury. Her spell burst directly from her horn as a thick bolt of lightning. Omitting the cloud made the spell far less efficient, magically, but calling the bolt directly had the benefit of speed. There was a flash, and a sizzling crack as the stroke of raw energy met the chestplate of the changeling’s armor.

Once Trixie had blinked away the aftereffects of the flash, her heart found itself skipping a beat in her chest. The struck armor was glowing a dull lambent hue just around the site of the impact, visible only for the darkness returning as the fireworks burned out. Tiny, clinging wisps of pegasus-fire gathered at the edges of the armor plates, just like they would around the feathers of a high-flying pegasus on a stormy night. Trixie could see those details clearly for the simple, distressing fact that the unicorn had gotten much, much closer to her than she’d have preferred in the previous second.

The impact was jarring; the false stallion bowled her over with no effort at all. As far as Trixie had been able to discover, changelings could only call the pony tribes’ magic in any great strength when disguised as the appropriate kind of pony, so there wasn’t likely much earth-pony cheating in the collision. It still felt like getting hit by a train.

In the several seconds it took for Trixie’s much-abused self to put things back together, things had become rather... worrying.

Those bizarre hole-filled changeling legs were holding her down on her back and pressing under her chin to painfully hold the tip of her horn against the square’s flagstones. She could see other shiny black insectoid forms closing in around her, but that was secondary to the warmth of a pony presence moving over top of her. Green fire swirled at the extreme edge of her sight, making her heart skip another beat before she realized that no burning pain came with it. Armor-clad, chitinous forelegs settled to either side of her vision. The raider, disguise thrown aside, was looming above her. Trixie gathered her rear legs to buck the offending insect. It would be a futile gesture, but it would make her feel better. To say nothing of the fact that it was disturbing having a creature that ate love and lust, and was a stallion until at least a moment ago, so intimately atop her.

A green tint washed across the magician’s sight, the result of being wrapped in another pony’s levitation aura. It wasn’t something she’d experienced much since getting too big to be picked up and placed on her mother’s back, to ride. She found her head being pulled down, so that she was staring into the eyes of the creature perched over her. Those huge jewel-like things were closer to green than blue. Glassy eyes flashed then, tinting even further toward that unusual hue as they filled with the green magic that its ignited horn shared. Trixie didn’t speculate about that. She just coiled her legs more tightly. Being able to look the creature in the eye just meant that she would get to see the look on its face when her hooves slammed it right in the—

Trixie’s tensed legs twitched, then eased toward relaxation. Wait, why would I want to kick, again? Trixie has too much class to hurt such a lovely vision of—

—of... of... disgusting, equicidal parasitical buggishness? Trixie blinked. What in Celestia’s name was with that thought? The creature above her narrowed its eyes. Its horn shimmered with a more intense light. Trixie slammed power through her horn in turn, to use her magic to—

—to lovingly trace a telekinetic caress down the creature’s back, under its thick armor. She let the pull of the creature’s own levitation magic lift her head toward it, to seek the press of its lips.

Its shiny, probably unfeeling chitiny lips. The ones that didn’t even cover those horrible fangs. The showmare recoiled with enough force that she slammed the back of her head against the ground. The pain was a very welcome sensation. It cut through some of the strange fuzziness afflicting her mind. Her stomach seemed to drop out from under her as panic flooded her awareness. It’s trying to control my thoughts! Nopony controls Trixie but Trixie!

“Stop that!” the raider hissed in frustration. “This is for your own good.”

Trixie most certainly didn’t stop. The mind-shielding spells she’d studied in the panicked days after finding out about Sweet Relief’s identity were called from memory. She began to weave the flows of magic into that familiar pattern. Her efforts were cut short by a hole-filled hoof snapping against her chin, making her head swing back so that her lit horn slammed sharply against the stone beneath her. The aura pouring from her horn snapped like a popped bubble, the spell losing cohesion as the lance of pain from chin and horn distracted the unicorn and allowed its energies to ground out.

When Trixie looked back up, she caught sight of one of the huge forehooves of the raider lifted to strike her. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her head in a wince against the coming blow. It didn’t come. A steady glow shone through the lids of her eyes, and warmth poured through her coat, quite contrary to the chill of the night. When she opened her eyes once more, the first thing she noticed was the sun climbing with absurd rapidity toward zenith. The changelings were looking up at it with worried confusion.

Daybreak wasn’t scheduled for another twelve hours, at least, but questioning it could come later, after survival. The wizard did manage a quiet prayer, in her own fashion. Trixie will never call you a nag ever again, Luna.

Direct attack wouldn’t work well against her tormentor. Not with that warplate, and his inherent toughness. She doubted telekinesis would buy her much, even if she managed to hurl him into a building as hard as she could. That left more indirect methods, even if the thought brought a foul taste to Trixie’s mouth.

The days following the Ursa attack in Ponyville had been dark ones for Trixie. Homeless, with her pride and self-worth in tatters, she had harbored a keen desire for revenge. Revenge against those idiot colts, and against the mare that had made her look so small and helpless. Yet what revenge could she get, being so clearly outmatched? She’d needed some method that Sparkle wouldn’t know how to counter, since a horn-to-horn conflict would have been so pathetically one-sided.

The graduates of Celestia’s School had special dispensation to search the locked wings of the Canterlot Archives. After all, they’d been trained and tested on responsible and ethical uses of magic, and each graduation was given final approval by Celestia herself. She’d made up some need to access the records of the many, many failed or banned studies on anatomical magic, telling the administrator in charge of that part of the library that she was nominally to research methods of magical disguise for her show. The review process for the request had taken all of an hour. Spellthrift, who now oversaw that part of the Archives, had once been her Intermediate Spellcraft teacher, and they’d always gotten along well enough. Some instructors valued her natural talent.

She hadn’t gained any new insights into disguise spells, but she certainly learned quite a bit about banned techniques to alter the pony body. To meld, grow, or even remove living flesh as if it was nothing more than cloth or paper. Even more trivial was the ability to induce a desired sensation, like pain, for example.

Trixie had made it as far as her first revenge fantasy about actually using those spells on her ‘enemies’ before her stomach turned, and enough guilt welled up in her that a week of solid booze and salt hadn’t so much as put a dent into it.

The thing about guilt, however, was that one had to be alive to have the luxury of feeling it. She really had no idea if a changeling could just shapeshift away any drastic alteration to its body, so that narrowed her choices. In the seconds during which the changelings puzzled at the rising sun, Trixie lit her horn and paradoxically called all of her sweet, love-born strength into one of the darkest, most hateful spells that she knew.

The working manifested as a slender, jagged bolt of pink lightning. Unlike the actual electrical bolt earlier, this one ignored the dense layer of metal plate and sunk deep into her target. The results were more dramatic than Trixie had anticipated. The raider shrieked, throwing itself off of Trixie to writhe spastically and contort in unnatural-seeming ways to try to escape a sourceless and all-consuming agony. That much was expected. The fact that the elder changeling’s pain seemed to inspire the same in the rest of the group in some kind of strange sympathy was not. The square was filled with a horrid, nightmarish cacophony of wailing and aimless thrashing. It was a Tartaran image even worse than the thoughts that scared Trixie back into trying to salvage her pre-Ursa life.

I’ll take the bad dreams. Not an unfair price for a world that’s still Trixieful, the unicorn thought as she rolled onto her hooves.

The gathered changelings were quick to begin recovering from her spell, so with her ears folded to try to block out the screams that would follow, she conjured another dose of that pure, undiluted torture and directed it at the raider. The ear-splaying didn’t help. The idea of having to face a third application of the spell twisted the wizard’s stomach, so she beat a hasty retreat, breaking into a painful gallop to remove herself from the square as fast as she could manage. Since that was a disappointing pace indeed, she did what any self-respecting mage would do: she turned to her magic.

She hadn’t had to cast her body-bolstering spells since she settled into Hoofington, leaving her long-travelling, cart-dragging existence behind. Grueling physical effort had seemed like a necessary evil for spreading her reputation back then. That was stupid. It was far better to use one’s head, in proper unicorn fashion, and leave the toil to the earth ponies. As such, she hadn’t had the need to erase the the pains of exertion and feed energy into overstrained muscle in quite some time. Where once the magic would work out some knots and give her the boost of a few cups of coffee, suddenly that same effort expended on the spell had her surging forward, her body feeling like it weighed nothing at all. The ache of cuts, bruises and punctures fell to the wayside.

Despite herself, she found a laugh bubbling up from her throat as she suddenly began clearing a half dozen paces in single effortless hops. The joyous freedom of movement was intoxicating. The simple, breezy euphoria of it even banished much of the gloom and trauma of the last hour, at least temporarily. The sudden swing of mood was startling, but not something Trixie was going to begrudge herself.

This is the only way for a Great and Powerful unicorn to travel! Catch Trixie now, foals!

Trixie gathered her hind legs under her and vaulted up, first onto the top of the abandoned fry-maker’s stall, then to the roof of the building behind it. A few strides took her over the peak of the roof, and to the other side, where a new leap sent her soaring across the narrow street to the top of the next building. It was official, she was never going to stop channelling that spell through every waking hour, for the rest of her life. She had to admit to a distinct spike of jealousy of pegasi, who got to enjoy an even better version of that freedom their whole lives. Not that losing magic would really have been a fair trade.

Alicornhood, Trixie decided, is the only possible solution. But before becoming a goddess, I need to get Leaf Swirl. Then the hospital. Then kicking enough bug flank to make me feel better. Which is a lot. Trixie worked hard to win the adoration of Hoofington. She isn’t letting a bunch of parasites have it.

* * *

A flashing glint of reflected sunlight shot across Trixie’s vision, low and in front of her. Her hooves slid across the roof’s shingles as instinct screamed at her to stop. The speed of her travel suddenly became a negative as momentum reared its unforgiving head. A woody thunk came before a sharp blossom of pain in her front foreleg. A graceless tumble followed, leaving the mage far nearer to the roof’s edge than she’d have cared for, her rear hooves dug into the eaves. She ignored the disorientation of her fall and the agony in her leg. She could guess how bad it was by the feel of blood pouring down her fetlock. She forced her attention to what had tripped her. A Unicorn Sword. The name was a misnomer, to be sure. It was a bladed wheel meant to be wielded with levitation. They covered a range of shapes from simple circles with a sharpened outer edge to elaborate star-shaped weapons. This one was more like the latter, a metal ring with three cruelly hooked blades, each several hoofspans long. One of those blades dripped with a red liquid that had no business being outside of Trixie. Still, Celestia provided small favors. The weapon wasn’t glowing with anypony’s aura. It was probably flung from too long a range to sustain a grip. The wizard took it up in her own magical hold, yanking it out of the shingles with some effort. She sent it whipping around with as much speed as she could muster, with barely a sidelong glance to guide it. The haste was vital, since—

A loud, shrill clang echoed, as metal found metal.

—Unicorn Swords were rarely used singly. Steel shrieked as the sword locked and pushed against its opposite number. Small white sparks leapt from the point of contact as levitation spells, green and pink, interfered with each other at the bounding edges. Trixie couldn’t focus on the aesthetics of that. Her eyes went immediately to a new glinting flash as a third spinning star swooped down toward her with killing intent.

There wasn’t any time for the usual Trixie flair. The simplest of all possible battle spells, little more than a telekinetic fist, swatted the star to the side, sending it spinning away, off-axis, until her attacker regained control. It was a losing proposition in any kind of long run. It was far easier to levitate a real, material object than to throw around base force. There was a reason unicorn soldiers used weapons.

There was nowhere to run. Trixie couldn’t leap to a nearby roof with her foreleg out of commission. So long as her attacker didn’t deign to show his or herself, and could press the attack with impunity with no threat of counterattack, Trixie was at a severe—

A rush of displaced air and a thump of hooves on wood heralded the landing of a pegasus guard on the opposite roof. Well, a pegasus guard sporting a unicorn horn glowing with sickly green light, as the case might have been.

Good news, Trixie’s enemy is an idiot! the showmare thought, with a note of rather refreshing hope. She’d been starting to forget what that felt like.

“You’ve really let yourself go, Princess. You seem to have shrunk and let your coat go grey.” Trixie taunted, as she struggled to three hooves on the sloped roof’s surface. She held her injured foreleg up against her chest. It was doing a worrying amount of dripping and tingling unpleasantly, which was almost worse than the pain. After a few foiling twists of her stolen blade to make sure its counterpart was well locked, she spared a tiny bit of magic to tear off the bottom of her cape, and began to wrap it tightly around her injured foreleg. She would never perform such horrors upon her real cape, but that was presumably still in Ponyville, apparently in Sparkle’s library. For once she was happy to have the knock-off. Trixie bandaged her leg with as much unworried, casual disregard as she could. As if the changeling was barely there at all, trying to kill her. There was always room for a bit of psychological warfare. “Somepony might think you were a changeling getting creative.”

The shapeshifter yanked back the blade that had been tangled with Trixie’s, bringing it to a hover beside the one that had been swatted aside earlier. Green fire poured over its form. In its wake, grey fur and steel armor had given way to polished silver and a rich, midnight blue coat. An enormous black cutie mark, adorned with an almost luminously white image of a crescent moon adorned its flank. Princess Luna, dressed for war. The only flaw in the image was in her mane and tail; they were a flat, pale blue, not a shimmering star field. “Doth thou prefer this, then?”

Imperfect though the transformation was, it made the azure unicorn pause. That voice was honey. Her wings were far larger and more luxuriant than any pegasus could claim. Her legs were long and deliciously graceful. Trixie couldn’t say she spent any great amount of time ogling other ponies, but even the risk of death and some minor spine-chilling agony from that bandage squeezing down on her wound could quite erase the fact that Princess Luna was, almost literally, stunning in person.

Okay, new plan. The trip to Las Pegasus with Sweet is cancelled, we’re going to Canterlot, Trixie wistfully mused. Just one minor, trifling detail first.

‘Luna’ grinned with a very unprincess-like wolfishness. “Well well, little pony...” The changeling stepped off the edge of the roof, those great wings almost lazily pushing her into the air. Trixie found herself edging carefully backward along the slope of the roof. “... if we’d known it was so easy to impress, we’d have sent someone like this for you ages ago. You could have her like this, if you wanted. Or Celestia, maybe? It’s a bit of risque fantasy, I’m sure. But a mare like you deserves no less.” The faux alicorn glanced to her levitating blades. They began to spin where they hovered at the ready. The polished steel caught the dawn sun, sending little motes and flashes of light dancing across the nearby rooftops. Trixie could understand the attempt at showmareship, even if it all was a big cliche. “It’s certainly better than the alternative. You could be our guest until all this calms down. We’ll give you our word to leave you unharmed. Nopony benefits from your death. You can’t escape with that leg. Take the kind offer.”

“A counteroffer! For your generosity. The Great and Powerful Trixie...” The showmare managed her usual hop with only a single foreleg. She threw it out dramatically, giving her somewhat diminished cape a proper flourish. She spared a trickle of magic for some sparkling swirls of light, and the opening notes of her theme. “... will show a feat of magic beyond the grasp of all but the most powerful of unicorns!” She landed harder than she’d intended. Her hoof slipped along the shingles. The azure mare managed to turn the stumble into an aggressive slouch, at least. She brought her captive weapon up over her head. Her horn gathered layers of bright overglow, starting to give her poor scuffed hat a visible illumination from within. The bladed ring sparkled, and a sharp metallic snap was heard as Trixie pulled in two separate directions. Instead of two halves of the unicorn sword, there was a pair of full rings. The spectacle was repeated a second time, then a third, leaving eight of the deadly weapons slowly rotating around her, each glowing with a pink aura. “Matter duplication. Trixie has barely tried it before today. At the risk of being immodest, I would say it’s excellent work. They look sharper than the original. What do you think?”

The changeling stopped her slow advance. Those oh-so-pretty, stolen eyes went wide.

“Trixie understands your speechlessness. Is it not the most beautiful spellcraft ever seen by pony, or changeling, eyes?” All eight rings rose in perfect synchronicity. “Maybe you need a closer look?”

The cloud of steely death swooped down on the false goddess. Panic filled the shapeshifter’s eyes. Her own pair of blades swung upward, angling to deflect as many of the opposing weapons as possible. There was no clang of steel on steel. The green-glowing rings passed through four of their counterparts with no more resistance than air, breaking them apart into puffs of cheerful pink smoke. Three others broke against her chest with similar displays as the illusions collapsed into base magic. The last, thrown low and off to the side, away from the others, found the changeling’s side with a strange thunk. It seemed there was still chitin under that disguise, and it fared poorly against sharpened steel. One of those hooked blades was buried more than a hoofspan into the midnight-coated side. ‘Luna’ immediately pitched forward in the air, heading for an impact with the eaves near Trixie’s hooves. The thought of that triple-bladed wheel getting pushed deeper into the changeling upon impact wasn’t something that the wizard wanted to contemplate. She yanked it out of her enemy’s ribs, loosing a spray of greenish ichor. The blue mare squeezed her eyes shut tightly against the sight. It didn’t do anything to block out the vibration of the impact with the roof’s edge, not the dull sound of the changeling striking the street after the fall. The only reason she couldn’t think of it as the body hitting the ground was the pained wail that followed.

Oh Celestia. Not again. I think I’m going to be sick.

Trixie refused to let go of the offending Sword, but she held it as far away from herself as she dared. She limped on three hooves to the roof’s edge, to peer over it to the street below. The changeling was there, its false form shed. It wasn’t as big as the Raider from the square, not by a long shot, but it was certainly large for a drone. It was also writhing around in a growing puddle of its own gross, green blood. That ill, hollow feeling in Trixie’s stomach didn’t get any better with the sight.

Knocking her enemies senseless and then putting them all the way out with sleep spells was Trixie’s usual way of dealing with changelings. Doubtless the worst had happened a few times. Suspecting herself of being a bit too free with lightning in a life-or-death struggle was very different from plotting out and flawlessly executing the evisceration of her enemy. She never had to see the bodies before. Or the soon-to-be body in this case. Trixie squeezed her eyes shut once more, fighting back tears.

Ponies aren’t meant for this, Trixie thought, hopelessly trying to distract herself. There’s a reason Princess Celestia keeps us out of wars. Ponies don’t kill. And they don’t let others die.

The showmare forced her eyes open, to quickly search the empty street. She chose the awning of a nearby building, a long downslope of striped yellow and white cloth. She ripped it from the building with a great tearing sound. A bit of transmutation magic applied to the cloth, a technique grudgingly copied from the rat-nest unicorn in Ponyville, turned it into a long cloth chute, sloping from the roof’s edge at her foot to the street below as a slide. A gluing spell anchored the ends. With that done, Trixie backed herself down onto her construction, carefully arranging herself so that her short trip downward was done on the side opposite her injured foreleg, and ended with her taking her weight onto her rear hooves.

She tore off a section of that cloth slide as she limped her way over to the fallen changeling, bundling it up in the air. Her once-foe was almost still now, seemingly struggling to take short, wet-sounding breaths. Trixie stopped at the edge of the pool of strange blood. She couldn’t quite bring herself to step out into it. She levitated the collected cloth over and pressed it down against the wound. She didn’t need to think hard to know that applying a bit of pressure wouldn’t do much at that point. The creature wouldn’t make it to a hospital, if they would even take it when there were bound to be real ponies flooding in, and Trixie herself certainly hadn’t spent the years needed to learn medical magic. At best she could manage a few spells to heal scrapes and clean out wounds, the sort of first aid needed when one often travelled across the wilderness.

“Trixie is sorry.” The mare whispered to her fallen foe. “I’m sorry. Maybe a better mare could figure out a way to love her enemies, and save you that way. But while I might be an excellent unicorn, I’m not a very good pony.”

The changeling seemed to quiet, it weakly raised its head to look over toward her. Its eyes, alien as they were, carried a clear message of painful, hopeless desperation. The expression hurt more than the throbbing fire in Trixie’s foreleg. She found herself limping forward, one awkward step at a time, without making any real conscious decision to do so. The tacky feel of blood underhoof made a shudder travel down her spine, but she didn’t stop, not until she was right beside her former attacker. She even went so far as to crane her head down to touch her muzzletip to the changeling’s. Maybe contact would help?

“I don’t know how all this works, exactly. But maybe I can tell you about Sweet Relief. She’s the mare Trixie loves.” The magician winced imperceptibly, as she found herself slipping back into referring to herself in the third pony. It just made it... easier, to talk about things that way. “Trixie has never really had time for it before. Little flings and crushes, sure. But love? Who would be worth it? She is. She—”

Trixie received a moment of surprise, drawing back briefly, when the changeling’s body was wracked with a wet cough, blood spattered against Trixie’s fetlock. “You’re conflicted,” the changeling rasped, “because you suspect she betrayed you.” The creature took another shallow breath. “She did.”

“I—” Trixie tripped over her words as she began to speak. She took a few breaths to collect herself, though the heavy, metallic smell of blood didn’t exactly make that a pleasant experience. “Probably. It doesn’t matter. I’m sure she had reasons. Trixie would be dead, or in a cocoon on her way to death, without the proof that Sweet still loves her.”

Trixie gave the changeling another look, seeing if it would respond. It didn’t. Its breathing was slower now, but not any less shallow. The unicorn had no idea if that was a bad sign or a good one. She breathed a soft sigh, lowering her head to touch the creature’s cheek with her nose. “Idiot. Trying to poison your own medicine? Trixie was coming here. It was probably the only place where some might remember her with fondness, after that thing with the Beast of Hoofington. And Trixie was tired, and hungry, and so sick of grazing on grass that she made the decision to cut through the edge of the Everfree to get here a few days sooner. With a cart, not on hoof. Cue rain. The ground giving out under one of the wheels, and the Celestia-damned contraption dragging Trixie down into a ravine. And pinning her there. The less Trixie says about the giant scorpion in the ravine the better. Suffice to say, by the time the pony who owned the cabbage farm at the edge of the Everfree pulled her out from under the cart and dead bug, Trixie needed a Life Flight team badly. Sweet swooping down was like an angel descending, she...”

Trixie’s words trailed off into silence. The changeling was still. Unnaturally so. There weren’t any of those struggling breaths. No twitches of its limbs as it battled the pain in its side. Trixie swallowed a lump in her throat, squeezing her burning eyes shut again. “R-right.”

The wizard took a shuffling step back, barely feeling the blood sluggishly moving around her hooves. She pulled her cape off with her magic, levitating it over top of her fallen foe, and letting it drift gently down to cover it. It was only after that was done that she gained enough courage to open her glistening eyes once more. “I’m sorry,” she whispered again, for all the good it would do.

The mare turned and fled with an awkward, three-legged canter. It took all of her will to keep her bleary vision locked forward, away from the tragedy of pony suffering she’d wrought behind her.

* * *

“What do you mean they took her!?”

“Just that, Miss Trixie.” The temple’s groundskeeper was holding a towel, one with The Magic Bean’s logo embroidered onto it, against his head with a hoof. It was soaked through in a few places with blood, though thankfully not overly much. The stallion’s side looked like Trixie’s rear end felt: burned and scraped, with small oozing wounds in a dozen places. “Didn’t see much myself. One of them landed right beside me, and exploded, if you’ll believe it. By the time I could see straight, a pair of them were flying Miss Swirl off. Doubt it was ten seconds.”

Trixie’s eye twitched. “Trixie reviles changelings, Mister Flower. She hates them so very, very much more with every one of Celestia’s days.”

“Yes, Miss Trixie.”

The blue-coated magician allowed herself a moment of quiet, using her horn to pull the brim of her hat down over her eyes. Couldn’t this day give her a few minutes to catch her breath? She’d just killed somepony. That was the sort of thing a pony should be allowed to digest and brood over... or at least cry into a sympathetic pony’s shoulder. “F-fine. Trixie can do this. She can do anything.”

The stallion was thankfully silent on the ‘talking to herself like a madmare’ point.

Trixie took a breath, silently promising herself that she would pull up her hat and face things when she was finished with it. When that failed to happen, she revised the promise for the exhale.

A hoof lightly touched her barrel. She jumped, well, hopped with pathetic three-legged ungainliness, and yanked her hat up with enough haste to almost fling it off. It was just the gardener again, reaching out in the sympathetic fashion of a normal pony. Eyes wide, she reflexively looked around in a panic, just to be sure, but noticed nothing black with strange holes in its legs.

Holding her injured leg to her chest, as if that would slow her wildly beating heart, Trixie shot the stallion a nasty look. “What part of The Great and Powerful Trixie’s battle-scarred visage hinted that it was a good idea to scare her today, exactly?” Before the earth pony could say anything, the mare continued on. “Just tell Trixie which direction they went off in, and how long ago.”

The stallion pointed off toward the southeast, toward the forest, but away from the flashes and popping of distant detonations that marked the continuing battle by the army camp. “Fifteen minutes ago, more or less.”

Without a word, the magician started off in that direction with a hopping limp. In fifteen minutes a flyer could have reached the Everfree, and there was no catching anything with wings through there, unless one also had them. What else was she to do, though? She’d asked Leaf Swirl to come and be her guide, and the filly had gotten snatched as a result. It was Trixie’s responsibility to save her, and that was that. It wasn’t as if there was anypony more capable she could turn to for help.

The repetition of single-minded travel was strangely hypnotic, especially if she kept that most excellent bolstering spell on the tip of her horn. She could almost travel at something approaching a normal walking speed with it, which was positively miraculous. Intellectually, the showmare knew it was an incredibly stupid thing to do. By the time she hit The Rows, a district of apartments that was much like the Manehatten streets, blood was once again dripping from her cradled hoof as a result of all the jostling. However, purely intellectual concerns weren’t for a day when her fans were getting foalnapped and bug monsters were making repeated attempts to kill her.

“Trixie!” Came a shout from above, startling the unicorn out of her trance.

The mare looked around from one ugly grid-windowed box to the next. Unlike in Manehatten, there wasn’t a drop of beauty to be found. No embellishments, no decorative arches, no handsome lamps, no concerns for aesthetics at all. Style and Hoofington had a horrible falling out years ago, and still refused to so much as talk to each other.

That particular clash of utilitarian hideousness was familiar to Trixie, however. As her voice found the source of the call, she was beginning to feel that emptiness in the pit of her stomach again; panic and she were becoming intimate companions indeed. Sixth floor, facing the street, sort of in the middle of the building. That one bit of the wall had been blown inward, probably by magic. An orange unicorn mare was standing in the brick-studded hole, a hoof cupped at the side of her muzzle. “Up here!’

Honeydew’s sister. Honey Drop’s aunt. Trixie couldn’t remember her name, but the face was familiar. Trixie reached out with her magic, her pink aura surrounding the other unicorn, who wailed in dismay as she suddenly found nothing but empty air under her hooves.

She was stock-still, with her eyes squeezed shut, shaking like a leaf by the time her hooves touched the ground by Trixie. Her pupils were tiny when her yellow-orange eyes opened, wide and panicked. “Oh Celestia. Please never do that again,” she breathlessly begged.

“Don’t tell Trixie they were taken.”

The expression on the mare’s face said it all, even before she could speak a single word. Her eyes were red and puffy, and clean paths had been cut by tears through the ash and brick dust on her cheeks.

“I just saved them.” The magician’s voice was barely more than a whimper.

It had been the afternoon before the whole mess with Celestia began. Her detection spell had found a changeling, and of course, she’d gone to play hero. The changelings had learned some of their lessons well from Trixie. The city wasn’t a safe feeding ground, so that particular monster, disguised as a herd’s stallion, had worked quickly. By the time Trixie went about oh-so-dramatically kicking down the doors, there wasn’t much left of the herd. A mare and her filly, half-drained to death, sleeping fitfully instead of eternally, unlike those in the home’s other rooms. Two ponies, out of a family with six mares and three little ones. It had taken the creature only two days of gluttony to go through all of them.

To be sure, the love-gorged creature had been fearsome for a drone. It had healed almost as quickly as Trixie could hurt it... for a respectable while, anyway, though certainly not long enough for Trixie to work out all her rage.

“It wasn’t even half an hour ago. They just came right in through the wall of my apartment.” Fresh tears were starting to gather in the orange unicorn’s eyes. “‘Dew and I tried to hold them off so Drop could get away, but it happened so fast. One just looked Honeydew in the eyes, and she froze right up. Another bucked me into a corner and held me at hornpoint while the rest grabbed Drop. They left the second they had them. Like that was all they came for.”

The hollow feeling deep in the unicorn mage’s core was only getting worse, and she began to see the beginnings of a horrible pattern. The tinkerer, Mainspring, had a shop he lived in not too far away. He’d shared it with his wife, Pinion, before she’d been replaced by the changeling destined to be the eighth point on Trixie’s scorecard. That was her next stop.

“Please, Trixie. Try to get them back for me,” the orange mare pleaded. She actually lowered herself down in front of the wizard, holding the uninjured, changeling-blood-soaked forehoof between her own. “I’ll protect them better next time, I promise.”

“There wasn’t anything you could do,” Trixie answered, entirely on automatic. “D-don’t worry, I’ll find them.”

Somehow. Someway.

* * *

“Where is Leaf Swirl?!” Trixie screamed at the changeling in her grasp, over the din of the battle swirling above her. Changelings battled nimble pegasi for dominance of the sky between the two opposing armies, who were lined up along either side of the wizard. The captive insect squirmed and hissed in terror, its wings unable to flutter for the constriction of her magical hold. It lit its curved horn to disperse her levitation spell. Trixie’s own horn flared with overglow, pushing an artless gale of her own magic around the drone to disperse the forming pattern. With such an absurd imbalance of magical power, Trixie could be wasteful. “Where are Honeydew and Honey Drop?!”

A pair of nearby changelings swooped downward to aid their beleaguered hivemate, green fire beginning to pour around them in that dreadful, signature changeling dive. Trixie swatted them out of the air with a hammerblow of force, sending them spinning back into the more cohesive parts of the changeling lines. The bite of overstressed magic clamping down on her horn was handily ignored in her rage. The captive changeling’s huge blue eyes got even wider. The wizard shook her captive violently. “Where is Mainspring?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the drone squealed in the sibilant tone of its kind.

Trixie made a wordless sound of disgust. She flung the drone with sudden violence into one of its kin flying low overhead. The two of them dropped from the sky somewhere into the no-pony’s land between the lines.

The pony lines, which had mostly been locked in place for fear of getting too far from the defensive magic of unicorn mages and becoming vulnerable to massed battle spell fire from the changelings, began to bulge toward Trixie. With her hostage discarded, Trixie had to face the overwhelming magical dominance of Equestria’s insectoid enemies on her own. Bolts of explosive magic converged on her by the dozens in a luminous green cone of destruction. No single pony, save perhaps the famed Captain of the Royal Guard or That Other Unicorn could weather such an assault, so Trixie didn’t bother to try.

She pushed herself Outside. The world whirled away in a dizzying twist. The wizard suffered the seconds or hours within the bright darkness of the nonspace between spaces. It threatened to turn her inside-out, or knot her whole body up, or any number of other spatially impossible things, all at once. In desperation Trixie yanked, or glacially oozed, her way back In. Reality punched its way into her senses in a rush. Colour, light, sound and place assaulted the azure showmare no less savagely than the changelings had intended to. The unicorn unceremoniously fell forward onto her face in the grass, retching, her pelt smoking and singed.

How do some unicorns make teleportation look easy? It’s horrible! Still, if Sparkle could do it, then Trixie could, by Luna. She woozily raised her head above the grass, surveying her position. She was, at least, where she had intended to go, not too far from her original position. She gulped some air back into her lungs and flung herself back up to her hooves, almost pitching forward onto her face once again before catching herself.

Thankfully, the unicorn mare’s magic was less scrambled than her body. She reached out toward the shiny black ranks of the changelings and grabbed another drone, intending to pull it toward her. The magical backlash of a few dozen changelings’ combined, meager attempts to counter her magic gave her a solid shock to the horn. She stumbled back with a start, almost putting weight on her injured foreleg, which would have had her collapsing in short order. A snarl and a second attempt yielded similar results, except with a magical retort strong enough to cause an audible sizzle and drag a yelp from Trixie’s lips.

“It’s not the day to get on The Great and Powerful Trixie’s bad side!” the lone mare screamed at the gathered horde. She shook off her hat, then braced herself as best she could on three legs. A familiar bit of light magic, certainly one of her strong suits, and one that required little effort, wove a hatefully familiar figure into the air in front of her. Not her brilliant glyph array, but Sparkle’s. How often had she drawn it, and studied it, and attempted to refute it, to know it so well? Too often. Yet she needed results, not wishful thinking. So Trixie swallowed her pride and allowed that figure to guide the path of her thoughts, letting a tendril of magic trace the paths of power it implied, preparing her to channel.

Trixie carelessly, even violently slammed power through her horn, keeping the bizarre, exotic feel of the flow permitted by Twilight’s design in mind as she did so. Sparks leapt from her horn, each one making her twitch at the shock of the instability. Layer after layer of pink aura gathered atop her head despite those small flaws in her spell. The inner core of the overglow shone a stark white. The pain of those shocks, and the squirming tingle as magical discharges danced across her coat, were easy to disregard. She was too concerned with the heady, intoxicating, and distinctly novel sensation of her magic rushing through her like a flood-swollen river.

The magician’s conjuring would have been an attractive target if it had still been night. The sunshine washing out the light was likely the only thing that kept her from absorbing a new fusillade of killing spells. Her own spellwork provided enough of a distraction in the seconds that followed to ensure her safety.

Massive clouds, black enough to seem more like coal smoke, impinged upon the cheerful blue of the sky, swirling out of nothing above the changeling army in banks fifty ponylengths wide. Thunder rumbled as they crashed violently together at a roll toward a common center. Shadow fell across the land under them, broken only by surges of lightning leaping across the roiling thunderhead. Black forms, almost invisible in the gloom, began to leap up from the changeling lines. Green flame enveloped them as they took pegasus form, to better use that tribe’s magic to disperse the storm. Clearly they’d had some instruction in dealing with pegasus siegecraft. If it had been a normal storm, they probably would’ve had the ponypower to turn the clouds toward their own ends. However, it wasn’t a slow, natural, pegasus-gathered construct.

Euphoria had fled. Trixie’s body was drained to numbness, all except her horn, which certainly felt like it was about to shatter on her forehead. The heat of her aura was scalding enough that she could smell burning hair, and she could hardly see for the pain behind her eyes, making them water. It felt like all the vitality in her body was pouring out through that one stubby spire atop her head. But it was enough. She didn’t even have to call the lightning after that; she just loosened her control on the forces she’d gathered and flung together. The second that a point of weakness formed, the world in front of Trixie exploded in white light.

She didn’t watch her Greatest pyrotechnic display. She sank down bonelessly into the grass once more, gasping raggedly, desperately, for breath that she couldn’t seem to catch. A curtain of lightning tore across the changelings lines, picking the false-pegasi from the air and ravaging the ones on the ground. The explosive release of energy sent the compressed cloud surging outward in an expanding ring, deafening thunder heralding the wave.

The darkness of the cloud passing overhead made no difference to the showmare’s eyes. The world, to her sight, was already growing too dim to see. She clutched a foreleg to her chest, trying to choke more air down into her lungs, but nothing seemed to want to work properly. The only relief was that the numbness in the rest of her body seemed to have reached her horn.

Trixie, you stupid, moronic, bumbling foal! The mare would have shrieked those words out to the world if she could have, but her lips and tongue seemed just as useless. Was a flashy light show worth overchanneling?

She couldn’t bring herself to append the word ‘terminal’ to her description, because it was completely absurd. No normal unicorn could channel enough magic in so short a space of time to inflict fatal, or even irreparable damage. Normal unicorns would probably have to suffer through a half-hour of agonizing strain before they got to that point, and nopony had the will to endure that length of torture.

But the Great and Powerful Trixie, as she was so fond of reminding everypony, was no normal unicorn.

Well, at least I’ll get to be remembered for saving Hoofington. That’s something. Maybe that’ll let them forget that I’m the first pony stupid enough to pour enough magic out of herself to leave none for living.

The showmare forced her body to relax. What else was there to do? Struggling and thrashing would do nothing but make the the end come more quickly, she would imagine. If she hung on long enough, maybe she’d get to hear General Sunshine call her a hero or something. She’d probably choke while saying it, which would ruin the effect, but would still be very satisfying to see.

Maybe I’ll get a statue.

A low reverberation rumbled through the ground below Trixie, rustling grass and shaking the unicorn’s bones within her, without quite being heard as a sound. At first, she assumed it was the army’s battlemages going on the offense. Lightning probably wouldn’t keep changelings down too long. Pegasus magic and earth pony toughness made it a poor choice for actually killing the little monsters, which is why it was one of Trixie’s weapons of choice. But surely enough of them would be wounded, disabled or stunned for the ponies to make a decisive blow.

However, in the wake of that tremble came a sudden brightening of light, and the return of the warmth of sunlight on Trixie’s back. An indescribable, lovely chiming sound washed over the battlefield, leaving silence in its wake. Feeling returned to Trixie all at once, albeit mostly as an unpleasant, full-body case of pins and needles. The once-dying mare blinked her eyes, looking up at the returned blue sky. The remains of her cloud were breaking up at the crest of a huge, colourful wave of rainbow light, which stretched from one horizon to the other. Nopony in central Equestria could fail to recognize a Rainboom when they saw it. They’d had a habit of cropping up again and again in the last few years, purportedly made by one of the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. None of that really interested Trixie. All she was thinking about was the sweetness of suddenly magic-rich air flooding into her as she pulled in the most wonderful breath of her life.

I don’t even care if it’s Sparkle who makes those. I’d marry that mare right now.

The fallen unicorn’s horn ached, which matched the rest of her head quite well. The remaining tingling was incredibly maddening, and she felt wretched and more worn out than she’d ever been in her life. And yet, she was alive to feel it, and so the sensation was sheer bliss. She’d certainly never considered that she might relish the idea of pain, weakness, and discomfort.

Oh, someone was touching her shoulder too. A hoof was shaking her. She cracked her eyes open again and glanced toward that side. It was an earth pony mare, a soldier in the grey plate of Heavy Infantry barding. It looked a bit ridiculous, since she was both rather slight in build, and eye-searingly lemon yellow, like Sweet’s mane. Trixie probably wouldn’t have been able to move in that armor, despite being larger, but the soldier barely seemed to notice the weight of the steel she wore. “Miss Trixie? Are you okay?”

Not even Trixie’s unenviable state of health could ward off the surge of pride that came with a random stranger knowing her name. Even though the unicorn felt like she could happily avoid moving for the next week, she forced herself to gather her rubbery legs under herself. “Trixie is fine,” she replied, hoping her voice didn’t sound as haggard to others as it did to her own ears. “Not even the most magical unicorn in Equestria can break the back of an army without needing a few moments to recover.”

The magician glanced around quickly to make sure that the opposing army really was in dire straits. It would be embarrassing if she made that boast only to find that the Equestrian Army had fled in terror at the sight of her Greatest spellwork and she was talking to a disguised changeling that was teasing her. She’d normally consider that to be just her luck. Having been saved twice by incidental weirdness originating in Canterlot, assuming Luna and the Elements were still there, Trixie was now quite willing to believe that she led a charmed existence. Maybe Luna secretly blessed those who insulted her in her own places of worship. What Trixie saw nicely supported that happy theory. The army had fiercely pushed forward after Trixie’s modest display, and the black forms of the changelings were beating a fighting retreat back toward the Everfree. The pegasi of the Cavalry were harrying them bitterly, but nopony really wanted to face hundreds of monsters who could each fling explosive spells like a unicorn battlemage.

Trixie struggled to her hooves and began to limp, with the aching slowness and typical awkwardness of a pony holding up one leg, toward one of the dazed changelings struggling toward consciousness under the spear-points of pony soldiers. There was certainly no shortage of them; they littered the ground behind the pony lines, and probably in front of it. Trixie picked out the largest changeling within sight. She probably could have found a more senior one if she went further afield, but she didn’t have the energy for that.

“Miss Trixie?” The lemon-yellow mare easily kept pace with her, even with the soldier’s barding. “I think I’d better get you to the medical tents.”

Trixie answered only with a dismissive flick of her silver tail. She reached out, magically, and yanked her chosen, bulky drone away from the soldiers that guarded it. She didn’t even try to take all of its weight; magic was rich enough in the air that her surroundings could supply some of the magical burden, but Trixie didn’t want to test how much. So her chosen target was dragged unsteadily over the hoof-churned grass. It was conscious enough to hiss in protest, but not quite enough to conjure a spell to break her hold. Using her horn made the magician’s head throb, and her aura was flickering unsteadily, which was worrying. However, it wouldn’t exactly make the proper impression for her to meekly poke the shapeshifter with a hoof and quietly ask for the information she needed, which was probably the best she could actually manage in the wake of her spellstorm.

“Leaf Swirl. Honeydew, and her daughter Honey Drop. Mainspring. Tall Order. Snowgleam. Blue Yonder. Sweetmint and April Shower. All the ponies Trixie saved from you creatures before.” Trixie shoved her muzzle up against the insect’s, her eyes narrowing dangerously. Anger made it all so much easier, as it had when she called the thundercloud. Even her aura grew more solid. “You took them. Where?”

The changeling tried to recoil, but Trixie firmly held it in place. “You’re the wizard,” the drone hissed, fear replacing dizzy confusion. “The Day Mare’s assassin.”

A chill went through Trixie at that latter title. The unwanted image of a broken, ponylike form covered in her tattered cape flashed in her mind’s eye. She didn’t let any pain show on her face; the look she wore must have been quite intimidating, since once quick glance at the pony soldiers coming to reclaim their prisoner made them pause in mid-step. “You grabbed those ponies out of town. Not the ones around them, just them. Why? Where did you take them?”

Comprehension dawned in blue, jewel-like eyes. It was disturbing to Trixie how ponylike the creature’s expressions were. A fangy grin spread across its muzzle, replacing its terror with smug satisfaction. “You escaped, but they didn’t. They’re ours now. Our Queen is wise. Cunning. Devious. You harmed us. You won your victories. Now the Queen will make them nothing but ash in your mouth.” The creature’s voice began to edge toward laughter.

Tell me where the hive is!” the showmare shrieked in response, very nearly hysterical with frustrated anger. Her horn brightened, and the laughing stopped with a dismayed squeak. Chitin flexed strangely under her magical grasp. The creature began to thrash about in panic and pain. An armored hoof touched her on the side, and maybe the yellow soldier tried to talk to her, but all Trixie could hear was the rushing of blood in her ears.

The pink aura around the changeling snapped off, suddenly, letting it sprawl out onto the ground, where it scrambled away from Trixie to the dubious safety of the pair of ponies that had been guarding it before. The magician couldn’t quite be sure why she’d let go. Was it the image of that cape-covered form in the pool of blood that haunted her? Or just a self-serving pause due to the numbness starting to creep up her fetlocks once more? She hoped it was the former. Trixie closed her eyes, turning her head in the direction of the earth pony mare to her side. “Just... take Trixie to General Sunshine, please,” she pleaded, voice barely above a hoarse whisper.

* * *

Trixie lurched toward wakefulness. Since she couldn’t recall ever lying down or going to sleep, her first response was confusion. “Flmblah,” she incomprehensibly mumbled. The pure mushiness of those words made her pause to take stock of things.

For one, she felt strangely disconnected, as if all of her senses were buffered by a thick layer of cotton. She steadfastly hoped that was drugs or a pain-deadening spell, and not a sign that the Rainboom’s rather slipshod transfusion of magic was temporary, which would have meant she was now dying of magic starvation. Again. For the other, she was in a small medical tent. She could see the symbol as a darker shadow woven into the top of the structure. That meant she was probably still in the army camp, something borne out by the metallic sound of armored ponies walking outside. Neither of those things discounted the dying theory, unfortunately, and since she was alone in the tent lying on a cot, there wasn’t anypony immediately available to ask. There was, however, sound of mares talking outside of the tent flap.

Trixie cleared her throat, wiggled her jaw, and ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth, to confirm the working order of everything before she spoke. “Hello?” she called, and sounded passably normal while doing so, thanks to her preparations.

A white face, crowned by a wild mane of sunshine yellow, shoved itself through the flap. “Trixie!” Sweet Relief cried out in clear, well, relief. She threw herself across the room, with a flutter of her wings, and landed all but atop the unicorn to haul her up in a crushing embrace with her forelegs.

The fact that Trixie wasn’t screaming in pain, even with her injured foreleg pressed between herself and her fillyfriend, was something the magician counted as a point in favor of the painkiller theory.

The helmed head of a pink Heavy Infantrymare nosed its way through the flap of the tent. “Ma’am, you’ll have to come back out and get tested by our unicorns. You can’t just fly into a military camp after a battle and—”

“It’s okay, it’s Trixie’s fillyfriend,” the unicorn wheezed. The breathless quality of it made Sweet release her, with a sheepish look, and ease her back down onto the cot. The squeezed mare continued on, as if nothing at all had happened. “If she’s a secret changeling infiltrator, who better than Trixie to find out?”

The irony of the claim wasn’t lost on Trixie, but the soldier seemed to accept it as having the same weight as if Celestia herself had winged down from the heavens to decree it. She even fractionally bowed her helmed head down. “I’ll give you a little space,” the soldier offered. “Just call out if you need me.” She then withdrew from the tent.

“Respect. Definitely worth Trixie—” Killing herself. “—wearing herself out.”

Sweet’s pretty, sunset-orange eyes gave her a skeptical, trained look-over. She promptly hopped off the cot and went to a nearby table. She nosed open a covered clipboard. Perhaps a medical chart?

“Hey, none of that!” Trixie protested. She lit her horn to pull it away from Sweet, but the pegasus snatched it out of the air with her mouth, and gave it a quick whack against the table she’d found it on. The rather pathetic aura around it dissipated with the stress of the violent motion. “H-how dare you!” the magician primly complained, more than a little shaken by the effortless way her magic was defied. Pegasus ponies didn’t casually brush away Trixie’s magic. Dozens of changelings working in concert did, no doubt feeling like gnats trying to stop a rolling boulder. That was the proper order of things.

Trixie was surprised that angry storm clouds didn’t gather around Sweet Relief’s head as she read through the chart, occasionally turning the page with her muzzletip. The look on her pale face made her azure fillyfriend’s ears nervously splay back.

Calling that guard back was becoming an increasingly attractive option.

“You... you...” Sweet turned, wings flaring out at her sides, in that usual pegasus way to aggressively make herself seem larger. She stomped over to Trixie’s bedside and shoved a hoof at her nose. “... stupid, bucking, stubborn, arrogant, self-ab—”

Trixie turned her muzzle away with lordly dismissiveness, which seemed to trip the pegasus up quite readily, as the magician knew it would. “You’re not really angry at Trixie.”

“Oh, you are so bucking wrong. Critical magic exhaustion? It that even a thing? Like, outside a theoretical textbook?” The pegasus energetically waved a hoof over Trixie’s prone body. She seemed to be regaining a bit of steam after that abrupt pause. “How did you do that to yourself!? There’s warning signs ages in adv—”

The wounded mare managed to lift a foreleg, her injured one, as it turned out. There were enough bandages around the hoof and fetlock to practically form a ball at the end of her limb. She accusingly shoved it against Sweet’s chest. “Trixie has been fighting all day. She’s been blown up, twice, hit, cut, singed, mesmerised and then wrung out like a wet rag. And she had to ki—” Trixie practically choked on the word. It was less fun than imagining other ponies stuttering and stammering, as it turned out. She wasn’t going to let herself off that easy, not around Sweet. She couldn’t let herself actually look at the other mare while doing it, however, as much as she tried. She chose a bit of canvas on the opposite side of herself to focus her gaze upon instead. “Trixie killed a pony. Or a person, I suppose, a changeling. Trixie is supposed to be too good to need to do something like that.” She glanced back toward Sweet, out of the corner of her eye. “And you feel bad because you think that’s your fault.”

Trixie looked toward the mare more fully. She reached out again with an accusing hoof, poking it at the pegasus’s chest once more. “Well you should. Because it mostly is,” the mare accused. It sounded a little too petulant to Trixie’s ears, so she quickly added an addendum. “Trixie made her own stupid mistakes. But you put her in that position.”

“W-what?” the pegasus stammered, taking a half-step back.

“Trixie can forgive. She can. You probably told them where I was going. Fine. It was never much of a secret. But the replaced ponies’ families? Where they were moved after Trixie saved them? There were never enough changelings in Hoofington to justify them knowing all that. I saw to that.” The unicorn couldn’t bring herself to try to stand, but she rolled a little more securely onto her side, facing the other mare. “There certainly was one that knew all of it, though. So I want to know why, and more importantly, where.”

“What?” Sweet repeated, numbly, a look of abject horror on her face.

Why did you tell the other changelings? I know you love me. For real, not as an act. Where is the hive, or wherever they took all those ponies?”

“I... how would I know?” The yellow and white mare barely managed even a token measure of indignation. Mostly, she seemed struck with shock.

It only made Trixie bristle with frustration. She lit her horn again, with more force this time, grabbing hold of the pegasus’s mane and pulling her forward. Sweet squealed in surprise and stumbled forward to alleviate the pressure on her scalp. She ended up nose-to-nose with the bedridden unicorn.

“Don’t think I don’t have it in me to rip that pretty little disguise off of you, cloudseed. Trixie has let you wear some poor mare’s stolen shape for a long time, because it was such a cute shape indeed. Trixie is too tired to play dress-up now.” Oh, it was mostly a bluff. She’d had a few hours of rest. She suspected that annoying medic stallion cast a sleep spell on her when her back was turned, despite her forbidding it, for which she would have words with him later. However, she doubted she was up for pitting her magic against another pony’s. She would try anyway, if she had to, to prove the point.

Sweet seemed to believe her. The pale mare wilted, wings dropping down and ears splaying. “Please don’t. You’ll hurt yourself,” she whispered, in a shattered tone that cut into Trixie like a knife, despite the armor of her indignation. “And this isn’t like the city. It’s small enough that there’ll always be somepony watching. They’ll notice if my disguise breaks.”

Oh, horse-apples, the magician swore to herself as her righteous anger evaporated. She’d wanted to hold onto that for a while. She released her hold on the other male’s scalp, letting her slump down at the cot’s side. This wasn’t going at all like how Trixie had visualized this moment. She’d always pictured some great production of herself standing proud, while Sweet weepily grovelled for forgiveness at her hooves. Or perhaps she would casually break the secret with a passing word. She would silence the false mare’s protests with a kiss, and go on with the day as if nothing of any importance at all had happened. It seemed like something a Great pony would do. None of that was really like this mess. The showmare sighed, deciding on sincerity. Sweet liked that sort of thing. “Please, Sweet. Tell me? I need to know.”

The normally fiery pegasus snuck a sullen look up at Trixie from under her riotous mane. She too indulged in a sigh, nodding her head and raising a hoof to rub at her scalp where it had been so cruelly pulled a moment before. “Yeah. Okay. Just, give me a second, okay? I thought— I hoped that I wouldn’t have to do all this.”

She was quiet for a time, and Trixie allowed as much, trying to peek through the cloud of lemon-yellow mane to see her face. “I do love you. You need to know as much. Changelings aren’t so different from ponies. We were ponies, ages ago, and time can’t erase that. Love isn’t a zero sum game, we don’t lose anything by indulging in it.” The mare lifted her chin up, looking at Trixie more squarely. “And I didn’t steal this form. Not like you’re thinking. I didn’t kill anypony. I wear it so I don’t forget, ever, that ponies deserve more than to be food. Surprise, the mare who I sorta look like, was good to me. She was a little filly who loved everypony. Even a wretched, fake pegasus that had failed its mission and was lost and half-delirious with starvation in Cloudsdale. She could just give and give. It was like drinking out of the ocean. You could feed until you exploded, and you’d never notice the loss in her. But preying on her was... it was just wrong. It’d never felt wrong before that.”

Trixie probably should have been annoyed at the continued evasion of her question. She wasn’t. She actually found herself smiling a little. It wasn’t on-topic, sure, but it was important. Pretty flanks couldn’t make up for eating ponies. She allowed herself to stretch herself forward to nuzzle at the white pegasus’s cheek. It seemed like it would be the proper thing for a marefriend to do.

“You’re nothing like her.” The changeling’s tone became somewhat sardonic, more in line with her usual attitude. The nuzzle seemed to have returned some of her usual fire.

Still, Trixie found herself frowning. What was that supposed to mean?

“You don’t love anypony freely. Except maybe those with a blue coat, a silver mane and a purple hat with stars on it.”

“Hey!” Trixie protested. “I’ll have you know that Trixie is very loving. Did you see that nuzzle? You were practically drunk on Trixie this morning!”

Sweet continued on, deliberately oblivious to the interruption. “But that’s okay. You’re brave, and really, truly Great. And not even so deep inside anymore, you want to be a good pony. I can love a pony for being wonderful in ways besides their nutritional content. I was getting a bit pudgy on all the gratitude for saving ponies as a Life Flight medic anyway. I could use a diet.”

Trixie tried for a glare. The kind that burned holes clear through a pony, but Sweet was looking down again, seemingly at a random point on the floor by the cot.

“They sent a myrmidon. One of the Queen’s own royal soldiers. I normally meet with a drone to give my tithe, and I wasn’t expecting anything else...” The white-coated mare looked up again, at least partially. “Um, the tithe is some of the love we collect. Not bits. It all goes back to Queen Nympha’s reign, and the bad times a few centuries back, when the Queen couldn’t provide for her hive. A lot of changelings had to scatter. You can leave the hive if you pay tribute, right? Yeah.” Sweet’s gaze dropped back down without ever quite meeting Trixie’s. She scraped her hoof against the canvas floor. “A drone couldn’t compel me. Not even what you ponies call a raider...”

“... Because you are one.” Trixie cut in with a guess. “Trixie’s cape was barely good at sensing you past the front door. And the real detection spell was almost worse. Before today I figured it was because you were some kind of young or weak changeling, without enough magic to set off my spells. But I had the same problem with the raider in town. He wasn’t weak. At all. Trixie probably has his hoofprint somewhere on her face.”

Sweet’s lips curled up at the edge with a small smile, even if she didn’t raise her head. “Yeah. We get better at the disguise as time goes on, and learn to trap more of our magic inside it. Doubt any normal unicorn would get even a hint without real close study. S’why I can fly right in here without worry. There’s bound to be a few like me, or stronger, around this camp. Should have known not to underestimate the Great and Powerful Trixie.”

Trixie gave a little toss of her head to flourish her mane. The quick motion made her vision fuzz toward grey at the edges, and caused a wave of muddled disorientation, like getting up too quickly from sleep. “There was never any doubt. Continue.”

“Right. Well, myrmidons are old, and they get more than their share of the love in the hive. When they ask, you answer. You can’t not. At least not without half a century of good eating more than I have claim on.” Sweet sighed once more, her smile long forgotten. She laid her chin down on one of Trixie’s fetlocks. “I swear I tried to shut my mouth. But the only way it could have been worse was if the Queen herself had showed up. And with her, she can tell you to go fold your wings and jump off a cliff, and you’ll do it with a stupid, happy smile on your face, right up until the splat. Even an independent changeling is only so free as they’re allowed to be. It’s only ever been just a convenience, to keep those with a dissenting streak from mucking up the groupmind, and the hive’s unity of purpose, while still getting some use out of them. So, I talked. And I kept my mouth shut after, just like I was told, like a good little drone, and hoped, and prayed that you’d be okay.”

Trixie reached up with her injured foreleg, brushing the absurdly swaddled hoof gently over the other mare’s mane.

Sweet miserably buried her face into the blankets piled around Trixie. “Maybe I didn’t even try as hard as I could have.”

The magician’s hoof paused in its stroking. “What? Why?”

For almost the first time since the start of the conversation, the mare lifted her eyes to meet Trixie’s. “Because as long as I’m useful, it seems like I’m part of the plan. Nobody objects to me loving the most hated mare of the changeling race if they think it’s all a cunning charade orchestrated by the Queen.” Sweet craned her head forward, nuzzling it under Trixie’s chin, clearly seeking some measure of comfort in the touch. “I don’t want to get taken away from you. I just got you how I wanted you.”

“Wait, what does that mean?” Trixie hissed, but shook her head right after. “Nevermind. So that’s the why. Fine. Trixie benevolently forgives you. And still loves your for all your weird hole-legged chitininess. It would be unfair to expect ponies to brush off changeling mind control as well as Equestria’s premiere unicorn. Where’s the hive?”

Sweet shrugged, her wings making a feathery rustle with the movement. “Don’t know. I could tell you where it was thirty years ago, when I last saw it. But that wasn’t even in Equestria. Haven’t set foot in one since.”

The azure mare groaned and slumped down into the cot melodramatically. “There goes the charmed life theory, too.” Trixie peeked from under the bandaged foreleg placed swooningly across her brow. “Wait, can you find out?”

“Might be able to draw the information out of the groupmind, if enough changelings were around. To get a clear enough voice to get something so factual and specific, though, I’d probably have to be inside the hive. So that’s pretty useless. Could tell you if we were getting close while searching, probably. But then they’d know that they’d been found out. The sensing process goes both ways.” If Sweet could have dipped her head lower in contrition, she clearly would have. As it was, she winced. “Sorry.”

“Can you just order a drone to tell you?”

Sweet looked positively surprised at the question, which was an answer in itself. “To betray the Queen? Not unless they’re like me. And I doubt they’d have been sent out to where they might get captured if they were. Not at a time like this.”

“Nothing is ever easy, is it, little cloudseed?” Trixie buried her muzzletip in the lemony mane. There wasn’t really much of the usual scent of citrus mane shampoo that she swore Sweet used as a joke. Mostly there was smoke and hard exertion. Life Flight must have been working overtime today. “All this violence and trouble for Trixie. It’s right and proper, and flattering in a twisted way. But it seems idiotic.”

Sweet jerked her head away, her sunset orange eyes giving the azure mare a disbelieving look. “Wow, I was just pissed before, but you really are self-absorbed. Yeah, surely they didn’t grab hundreds of ponies for, you know, food and power. It was all to snub one Greatly and Powerfully arrogant Trixie.”

Trixie ignored the criticism, which was a feat that well illustrated the sudden chill she felt inside her. “H-hundreds? Nopony said anything to Trixie about hundreds. I just checked on a few after Leaf, Honeydew and Honey Drop. Is it as bad as Trixie thinks, for them to have that many ponies to feed from?”

Sweet’s look softened, probably satisfied that Trixie was dismayed to the correct degree. “Probably. It’s an enormous windfall. Even if they just cocoon them all for long-term feeding, and even counting all the ones the army captured, the Hive will be stronger than it ever has been. The attack was just a distraction, to keep the army locked down. They grabbed as many ponies as they could from the north and south parts of town.”

The pegasus lifted her gaze to a section of the tent wall, as if she was looking in the direction of some distant point. “To make matters worse, something is going on in Canterlot. I’m sure you saw Luna raising the sun. But there was a Rainboom right after your stupid cloud, too. Now there’s a shield around the capital again. Maybe the Army here knows more about that, but it’s practically like the end of the world out on the streets since word spread. As if things weren’t nightmarish enough, with the attack.”

Trixie groaned, covering her eyes with a foreleg again. “New rule. No more news. Ever. Isn’t there an alicorn to deal with something like this? Or ancient holy artifacts held by five country bumpkins and Her. Why does Trixie feel like she has to be responsible for this?”

The pegasus smiled sweetly. “Because you’re a good pony.”

No. No Trixie isn’t,” the showmare whined, uncharacteristically, from under her leg. “Ask the lynch mobs. Ask Sparkle. Trixie is vain and self-centered, and only does things to make herself look better. Which isn’t easy, considering how far ahead of the curve she already is.”

“So, just going to sit this one out?”

“Yes!” Trixie ignited her horn, if gently, to pull up her covers. “I’m not moving from this cot until I’m recovered. I’m guessing a week. Maybe two.”

“Uh-huh. Should I go get your hat and cape? For when you ignore the incredibly good idea to actually get some rest, and go out to be all Great and Powerful and Heroic?”

Trixie glared balefully at her marefriend. Sweet stared back, looking quite pleased with herself.

After a few seconds the showmare breathed a martyred sigh, and spoke with a quiet voice. “Yes, please. Just the hat. I’ll need a new cape.”