Chapter One - The Archmage
“Where he failed, I will succeed! Mark this day, this hour, this minute, for it will echo in eternity!”
A small burst of green flame erupted from Spike along with a letter. A few nearby guards reflexively ran for their lives before realizing that the castle’s resident dragon had his fiery breath under control this time. They returned to their posts soon enough, but it still irritated him. He hadn’t set anything important on fire in forever.
At any rate, while Spike had planned to hang out with his cousin, Flurry Heart, he figured it was getting late and he should probably deliver the letter. Twilight’s bizarre sleep schedule should have her awake right now and at home in their tower. He could visit his extended family another time.
After trekking through most of Canterlot Castle, stopping only briefly for a snack at the kitchens and small talk with one of the guards posted outside, Flash Sentry, Spike came to the base of the massive staircase that led up to his home. Twenty stories was a long climb made even longer for Spike, who lacked long pony legs. He never made it more than twice a day if he could avoid it, once down and then once back up.
Today seemed to be a bit different, however. Spike wondered if he’d taken a wrong turn towards some other ridiculously long staircase. If not, then some statue appeared to have been erected in the middle of the steps today for no particular reason. It was made of a dark brown stone and depicted a fancy-looking pony climbing the stairs, frozen mid-step.
On second thought, that stone smells an awful lot like–
Spike’s world inverted briefly as the pull of a teleport brought him from the fourth flight all the way up into the vestibule of his home. There Twilight fumed in her own mostly controlled way in the next room over, but he felt he should say something about what he’d just seen even if it upset her further.
“Mom,” Spike began, earning a glare from Twilight. “Err, I know you’re feeling a bit stressed–”
“A bit?” Twilight all but shouted.
“Okay, maybe really stressed. But you went overboard there.”
“Overboard! I’m fed up with those useless nobles bothering me for favors. I’ve barely even been back in the country for a few days, and they’re already banging down my door. I took the archmage position and everything else she offloaded onto me to help Celestia, not so I could help the rabble solve their petty problems in their petty games. I have more important things to do than social calculus.”
Twilight wasn’t even bothering to look at Spike anymore. Now that she’d vented, all was right with her world. Or at least he assumed so. It was sometimes hard to tell with her. She’d already returned to whatever research she’d been working on, at any rate, flipping through pages of books at a speed that disturbed nearly everyone who saw it. That usually meant she’d found some peace of mind.
Not quite ready to drop the subject, however, Spike approached his mother’s desk across the room. “You know, you can just teleport them away before they get here.” It was her typical response when she wanted solitude. “That poor stallion didn’t deserve to be encased in solid chocolate and left there to melt.”
Twilight took a deep breath and then exhaled a moment later while rubbing her cheeks. She didn’t put down her work, but her expression softened. “You’re right, Spike. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you?” Spike knew her last field mission had tired Twilight mentally, if not magically or physically, but he’d not yet managed to get her to tell him why.
“That’s sweet, but I don’t think a good mother should dump her problems on her son. It should be the other way around.”
Spike noticed that Twilight had never actually said no. It was the kind of detail one had to learn to spot with a pony like her raising you. He blamed Princess Celestia for that, who was even worse.
“Do you want to anyways?” Spike asked.
Spike sighed. That was, technically, not the right question to get a proper answer either. He tried again. “Are you going to?”
Spike facepalmed, a habit he’d picked up from his mother. “Fine. I have another letter for you.”
Twilight’s eye twitched, her attention now fully on Spike. “It’s not from my parents, is it?”
“Do you want me to just throw it in the fire?”
“No, I’ll read it. But if it’s more pressure to get married – I mean, they already have a grandfoal from both Shining and I, and I have no problem being a single parent.”
Twilight levitated the letter away from Spike’s grasp and tore it open. Reading through it with superpony speed nearly on par with Princess Celestia, she burnt it to ash within ten seconds, seven of those seconds being composed solely of combusting paper.
“You know what you need right now?” From experience, Spike knew there were only a rare few things which would banish his mother’s irritation completely, but some close substitutes existed.
“A few more chocolate covered nobles? They taste divine.”
“No,” Spike deadpanned. “You need to read a good story!”
A small but knowing smile crept onto Twilight’s face. “I take it you also think I would benefit from reading it aloud.”
“Well,” Spike said, drawing out the word, “it couldn’t hurt.”
Twilight acquiesced without a fight. Operation Win-Win was a resounding success. “All right, Spike, I’ll read to you until your bed time. What story do you want? More dragon tales?”
“Nah. I found an interesting old book in the library earlier.”
“Really? You’re taking an interest in dusty old books now? I’d better watch out. The world is ending.”
“It’s not a dusty old book!” Spike said. Two small puffs of flame emerged from his nose to punctuate his denial. “It’s just filled with old stories that have fallen out of the culture.”
“Oh? Now that does sound interesting.”
Spike and Twilight walked up a set of stairs to the upper floor of the tower where their bedrooms were. Entering Spike’s room, he fetched a large, and very obviously old, book from his desk and gave it to Twilight. She opened it and skimmed through the pages, presumably noting the various titles and glancing at each story at her regular inequine speed.
“Spike,” Twilight began, sitting down with him on his bed, “first, are you sure you want to hear these stories? They’re pretty far afield from your usual fare.”
He wouldn’t have bothered asking if he didn’t, so Spike nodded.
“Okay. Second – well, I suppose this should’ve come first – this book is in Middle Ponish. Did you even understand it when you picked it up?”
Spike nodded again. “It’s not that bad. Besides, you can translate it as you read.”
“Well, I guess that’s true.” Twilight took a second look at the text before nodding to herself. “Third, then. Where exactly did you get this book, when, and why did you pick it up?”
“Huh? Why do you want to know?”
“Please just tell me, Spike. You’re not in any trouble. I’m sure you’ve done nothing wrong. And if you have, well, I could let it slide this time.”
A blank check like that shocked Spike and raised more than a few red flags. Twilight had few rules as a parent. Certainly far, far fewer than Aunt Cadance and Uncle Shining had for Flurry. But what ones she did have were very strictly enforced. That said, Spike rarely found cause to complain. They mostly involved obvious things like not burning down the castle and not playing with the dangerous magical artifacts she brought home.
But this book – Spike wondered what could be so important about it for Twilight to relax her discipline. Not that she would tell him if he asked. She almost never did, and she didn’t seem nearly distracted enough right now to slip over something so obvious. He would, however, have plenty of time to think about it later on his own.
“Well,” Spike began, “like I said, it was in the library. I wanted something different tonight, and that was stuffed in with all the other adventure books.”
“Do you know if this book was normally there? Or if it was shelved differently than usual?”
“Uh, can you show me the spine?” Spike glanced at the listed code and thought for a moment. A few years ago, he’d learned all of the pony-decimal system to help and impress Twilight. Even now, he licked his lips remembering the moment when she’d found out. His reward had been a jewel-encrusted jewel and an almost embarrassing amount of praise and affection. “Yeah, now that I think about it. But not by much. Maybe a few shelves over at most.”
“Thanks,” Twilight said, rubbing Spike’s head. “Now, which story do you want to hear first?”
“The one with the alicorns.” Spike nestled comfortably in between Twilight’s arms against her chest.
“All right. Once upon a time, in the magical land of Equestria, there were two regal sisters…”
Twilight closed the storybook and tucked Spike into bed. He’d only managed to get to the climactic battle between the sun and moon alicorns before he fell asleep, which was rather unfortunate, at least in her opinion. There was nothing worse than an unfinished story, especially one at its climax.
Even so, Twilight had no inclination to wake him up. Despite being a mere eight years younger than her, Spike was barely an elementary schooler by pony standards. A relatively mature and responsible one, sure, but he still needed his sleep.
Really, it was somewhat of a mixed blessing. Dragons aged very slowly and, as far as ponies knew, never died of old age. On one hoof, Spike’s slow aging had given her time to grow up before he did. She’d thus had the privilege to be Spike’s real mother rather than just the pony who hatched him. Her own family hadn’t been happy about that in the beginning, but she’d never regretted that decision, and she never would.
But on the other hoof, while she could easily stretch her own lifespan into Spike’s teenage years and even adulthood, Twilight only had a few centuries in her at best. It was such a tiny fraction of his life expectancy. She’d barely see a fraction of what he would do with it unless she took drastic measures. Of course, she had every intention of taking drastic measures with or without Spike to justify them, but this way she at least had an excuse if she accidentally killed herself in the attempt.
Breaking her attention away from her beloved son, Twilight teleported into the castle’s library with Spike’s book held in her magic. Tonight, she had more important things to do than wallow in such far-off concerns.
Inhaling deeply, the scent of paper and mystery greeted Twilight as she walked through the sprawling Canterlot Archives. Her worries fell away as she came home. Bookshelves towered over her endlessly into the distance, each neatly filled with rows upon rows of books. Rumor had it that the archives were truly endless in their depths. Sadly, this was not true. She’d been to every corner. The archives were simply always exactly as big as they needed to be to contain every book, journal, record, report, and newspaper within them.
Ah, Spike was right. A good story laced with secrets was just what I needed, a legitimate reason to ignore my work and put together the pieces of a puzzle. I’m getting shivers just thinking about it. Still, this is probably the most heavy-hoofed ancient puzzle I’ve ever seen. It’ll probably only be good for tonight. I mean, seriously, this is just lazy.
Twilight entered the history section and tore down the few books she knew about that covered the Discordian Era. The restricted section of the archives held a few more, but the time before and during Discord’s reign might as well not exist with how little remained of it to study.
Hey kids, let’s hear a story about two alicorn sisters. One controls the moon and the other the sun. What’s that? No, of course not. There’s no way the sun alicorn is Celestia. What would even make you think that?
Now in the section on legends and myths – disturbingly close to the history section – Twilight collected any and all books dating before the year three hundred on the modern calendar. She quickly flipped through a copy of Predictions and Prophecies, which she vaguely recalled containing a reference to the Elements of Harmony.
What’s this? A prophecy stating the moon alicorn will return in a thousand years on the summer solstice to bring about night eternal? What’s that? You want to know what year it is? Well, it’s one thousand, of course. Yes, we one-index our calendar. Yeah, the sun alicorn didn’t want to forget when her sister was due home.
Taking nearly a hundred books with her, Twilight headed toward the restricted section to start reading.
Hmm… I wonder if I should just skip this step. Dealing with evil goddesses is usually a high urgency task, and we only have a little more than two moons before the solstice.
It did seem as though Twilight could just bring her concerns straight to Celestia and start demanding answers. The story she’d read to Spike alone was filled with an egregious number of hints and clues just begging for somepony to notice. She could barely imagine a world in which it hadn’t been purposefully planted to get her attention.
But Twilight still remembered the last time she’d jumped to conclusions. It’d been nearly nine years ago now. She’d accused Cadance of being an impostor at her wedding rehearsal. In the end, it’d all come down to a confluence of issues. Twilight had barely settled into her role as the archmage at the time and had desperately needed sleep. Cadance had been stressed beyond the breaking point and experiencing mood swings. And Shining had been occupied with security arrangements. The whole family laughed about it now, but it was a hard learned lesson nonetheless. From that day on, Twilight never made any accusations without solid proof.
Heh. Oh, would I have egg on my face if I barged into Celestia’s room and discovered this was just a foals’ story after all. She would tease me about that forever. Perhaps literally, even.
But still. Just look at this story. It’s so manufactured. Twilight held up a series of books each containing the same story as it evolved over the centuries. These older versions are obviously being steered towards the one I read to Spike. They never take a step backward. They never take a step sideways. Once a change is made, it’s made.
Wow, this one even explicitly names the alicorns as Celestia and Nightmare Moon.
Oh, this one’s interesting. Discord was defeated by Celestia and her sister, Luna. With…the Elements of Harmony? That’s new. How old is this? Twilight flipped to the front page only to be disappointed. No date, eh? Well that’s fine. I can estimate when it was published based on how it compares to the other stories. Here’s one with a date that refers to a Princess Luna.
Twilight paused as a thought occurred to her. You know, now that I think of it, I always took it for granted that Celestia calling herself a diarch meant that the ponies were her co-ruler or something. That or maybe the senate. I mean, she won’t even stand to be addressed as a queen. The whole princess thing is just silly.
Well anyway, I suppose this is enough information to turn my wild accusations into regular accusations. I knew this wouldn’t take that long.
Twilight glanced at a nearby clock in the windowless room. Judging by the time, the sun should have set long ago and wouldn’t be up again for several hours, which meant Celestia was likely snoozing away to get up early to raise the sun.
Cursed short summer nights.
The fact that alicorns slept at all was intriguing, considering how little Twilight herself chose to indulge. Celestia disliked the term, but any way an unbiased pony looked at it, she was a physical goddess far beyond mortal limits. But of greater importance at the moment, Twilight had learned firsthoof that sleeping alicorns should be left as just that. No amount of friendship, or position, or urgency would change that fact. Granted she only had one data point, but she’d assumed for years that there was only one to be had. It had therefore been a proof by exhaustion that all alicorns should not be woken up early. But now, it seemed, there was a second data point to consider.
I suppose ending an evil moon goddess’s banishment early counts as waking her up. That would also be bad.
Now that she was finished with her task, Twilight paused to consider what she should do with the rest of her night. She probably should get back to her regular work as the archmage and the half-dozen other titles she held, but right now she had the perfect opportunity to remain ‘researching’ a threat to Equestria if she could find anything even marginally related.
I think I remember a scroll or two by a Luna in Celestia’s book hoard. What was it called again?
Twilight taxed her magically enhanced memory for the obscure title. She kept telling herself to spend more time with Celestia’s secret stash of books, but between Spike, her duties, and her research, she never got around to it.
Oh, yes. It was Entering the Dream Realm. That sounds very, very sinister. Yes, I’ll just have to give it a read to determine if it’s relevant or not.
Twilight glanced up from Luna’s ancient book – surprisingly a book, not a scroll – and noticed the sun had somehow risen while she’d been reading and was about to set again.
Uttering a curse upon herself, Twilight placed a bookmark and deposited Entering the Dream Realm into her subspace storage, or simply her bag of holding as it was commonly known despite the lack of any kind of bag being involved in the process. Items simply appeared from and disappeared into empty space on demand. She blamed Ogres and Oubliettes for the popular misnomer.
Of course, Twilight had no need for bookmarks, but she liked placing them all the same. There was something deeply satisfying when she looked at a stack of books and could see her progress in them all at once.
As for the book itself, Entering the Dream Realm was fascinating. Although she could imagine Luna’s writing would usually be seen as beyond salvation, Twilight felt a kindred spirit in how succinctly she phrased everything. Instruction manuals should be as short as possible without loss of clarity. Unfortunately, that level of density required a lot more effort to understand and prevented her from rocketing through the text as she normally would. She barely made it through the first three chapters in sixteen hours, and there were five more left unexplored.
There was good news, however. Luna had placed all of the critical information at the front and left all of the applications for the end. Apparently, everypony had their own special world they could enter from their dreams with enough practice. Twilight wasn’t yet sure exactly what made it so special, but she was eager to find out. The first step required her to learn to lucid dream, a task to which the entire second chapter was dedicated. It largely consisted of small habits she could incorporate into her daily life that would help her distinguish dreams from reality, little things she could do – and most assuredly intended to do – without drawing attention to herself.
About to teleport as near to Celestia’s room as she could, Twilight suddenly remembered something important she had completely forgotten.
Twilight altered the destination of her teleport to her tower. Her protective wards recognized her and permitted her entry. From the kitchen, she heard Spike making supper. Based on the crackling noises, he was likely roasting something with his own fire despite her explicitly telling him not to do so at least a hundred times.
Unless he was cooking at Prince Blueblood’s manor. Then he was both permitted and encouraged.
Heading into the kitchen, Twilight came face to face with Spike holding an incriminating, smoking meal on a stick. He glanced back and forth between Twilight and a pile of similar evidence on the counter nearby.
Hesitantly, Spike held forth the latest kebab and asked, “Hungry?”
As she still felt guilty about being gone all day without a word, Twilight took the offered meal and sampled it.
“This is pretty good.”
Spike looked hopefully at Twilight.
“But you’re still in trouble.” She took a few more bites. Having absentmindedly skipped breakfast and lunch, the first bite had made her realize she was starving. “Now tell me why you’re in trouble. Again.”
“Ugh,” Spike groaned. He then droned off the mantra Twilight always hoped would one day become instinctual. “Because even if the castle is fireproof, it’s not dragonfire-proof. But–”
“And how many walls had to be rebuilt the last time the castle caught fire?”
Spike mumbled something incoherent.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“Twenty-seven,” Spike said meekly.
“And how many needed replacing anyway?”
“Argh!” Spike threw his arms up in a huff. “Negative three.”
“Right. We had to build three new walls because someone damaged the foundation.” She didn’t like being so harsh, but Twilight had learned her own hard lessons about dragonfire at his age which she didn’t want him to repeat anymore than absolutely necessary. “Now ask yourself what happens if this tower catches fire.”
“It…falls down and sets everything else on fire.”
“Exactly. Try to remember that right away next time. And no, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to roast food elsewhere in the castle without either me or Celestia supervising.”
Motioning for him to do the same, Twilight took a seat and finished off the kebab Spike had given her. She grabbed another and polished it off in the time it took Spike to get through half of one. Dragon roasted vegetables were delicious, she had to admit, and she really did need the food.
With the short down time to think, Twilight toyed with a hypothesis she’d developed years ago. Spike so rarely broke any of her other rules. Why always this one? Perhaps it was an instinct of some sort to cook with his own flame. Both of them regrettably knew far too little about dragons as they tended to be a diverse and reclusive species with whom ponies had little contact. Even Celestia, with all her experience, wasn’t much help.
Regardless, Twilight didn’t have the time to deal with this right now. She gestured to the dwindling pile of kebabs between her and Spike. “We’ll discuss this more later. I have to eat and run to catch Celestia before she goes to bed. Do you need anything before I go?”
Spike shook his head once he’d taken a few seconds to consider her question.
“All right. I’m sorry I wasn’t around at all today. I got caught up in a research project. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
After a quick hug, Twilight teleported to the base of her tower’s staircase. It was a short walk from there to Celestia’s room through several wards that prevented teleportation. Unlike her tower, where anypony could come and go if one knew the correct magical key to gain access, Celestia’s room was completely locked down from everypony.
Everypony except Celestia herself. Somehow, she managed to completely ignore the teleportation blocks with a modified version of the spell. Twilight had no idea how it worked or how to cast it even after having seen it hundreds of times. All she knew was that it dissolved Celestia into light and that her mentor always evaded giving an explanation.
The former was not particularly unusual. Teleport signatures varied from pony to pony. Twilight’s own had originally been purple and red colored sparkles until she’d eliminated those defects – along with a few others – years ago.
The latter, however, was highly irregular. Celestia had only ever refused to answer two other questions Twilight had posed to her. The first was reasonably understandable. With Twilight’s parents more or less out of the picture during her early teenage years, she’d walked right up to Celestia and asked for an explanation of sex.
Apparently, centuries of life did not dull a pony’s sensitivity to the subject around curious foals.
To this day, Twilight maintained that the entire disaster hadn’t been her fault. She’d tried to find out the answer on her own, but the Canterlot Archives’ librarians had been dead set on preventing her from obtaining any relevant information. It’d clearly been a conspiracy.
The other question was perhaps worse. “Why are you the only alicorn?” In hindsight, Twilight probably should have known that would be a bad question to ask for many, many reasons, but now she knew why. Celestia was not the only alicorn.
The two royal guards posted outside Celestia’s chambers saluted Twilight as she approached.
“Is Princess Celestia in?”
“Not at this time, Archmage Twilight. She’s currently indisposed but will return within a quarter hour.”
“Very well. I shall wait inside then.”
The grand double doors parted to permit Twilight entry. The room was as sparse as usual, reflecting how rarely Celestia used it for anything other than sleeping. A huge cloud bed easily capable of fitting four ponies her size lay in the center of the room. A few other fixtures were spread here and there, most merely decorative. She stored the vast majority of her treasure hoard in the doubly restricted section of the library, which only she and Twilight had access to, in the treasury, or held securely in her own bag of holding.
Passing on the room’s relatively uncomfortable chairs, Twilight fell onto Celestia’s bed, a fluffy haven of pure delight somehow even softer yet more supportive than her own. Celestia had told her on one of the many occasions they’d slept together when she was still a filly that the cloud-walking spell would never – could never – do a cloud bed justice. One had to be a pegasus to truly appreciate them.
This was objectively nonsense. How could a pony be more relaxed than she felt right now? She’d lose herself and become a cloud if that were possible. She should prepare herself for Celestia’s arrival, but surely nopony would be hurt if she indulged herself for a few minutes.
Twilight awoke from a weird nightmare, one more surreal than scary, to the gentle nuzzles of Celestia. The alicorn lay curled up on the bed next to her and, presumably, had been the pony who’d draped a blanket over her and placed a pillow under her head.
“Mmm…” Twilight hummed drowsily, rubbing her eyes with her magic. “What are you doing here?”
“I think I could ask you the very same question. This is highly inappropriate. If you want to spend the night together, you should bring Spike with you.”
A few sleepy moments and blank stares later, Twilight realized that she’d fallen asleep in Celestia’s room rather than her own.
“Oh. That’s not why I’m here.” Although that did sound nice. It’d been some time since their last sleepover.
Celestia sighed and let her head and neck rest on her bed. “Such a shame. I miss the company.” Her horn lit up, and a framed photo floated across the room to her. It depicted a little ball of lavender fluff latched onto her in this very bed. “You were so cute when you were young. You still are, of course, but all that wide-eyed innocence is gone.”
“I’m not cute,” Twilight muttered.
“Yes you are,” Celestia insisted, unabashed. “When was the last time you slept properly?”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at the seemingly random question. Nonetheless, she pulled a watch from her bag of holding. “It’s only been twenty-eight hours. I’m still good for a while yet.”
“Your adorable little snores from only a few moments ago say otherwise.”
Twilight facehoofed. She’d tried so hard to kick the habit over the years, but it never went away. Even Spike had caught the infection.
“Spend the night, Twilight. For old times’ sake.”
“I’m not a filly anymore.”
“Of course not,” Celestia said indulgently as the words passed in one ear and out the other.
In the face of this willing ignorance, Twilight heaved an exasperated sigh. “You’re acting unusually nostalgic this evening. Something you want to tell me?”
“Nothing in particular comes to mind.”
“Really?” Twilight pressed. “Nothing at all?”
Her head cocked to the side, Celestia gave Twilight a curious look.
In response, Twilight summoned Spike’s storybook from her bag of holding. She spoke over Celestia’s surprise. “Let’s start with why you never told me about your sister, Luna. A sister, I might add, who is due to return in about two moons and who, in the very best case scenario, just wants to kill you. In the worst case scenario, she’s completely insane from a thousand years of solitary confinement in banishment and wants to destroy the world. I reluctantly admit I don’t know how long an alicorn can endure isolation, but I’d be willing to bet the crazy sets in just as quickly as it does for any other pony.”
Twilight raised a hoof to keep Celestia from interrupting. “After that you can detail your big plan to me. I know every single magical artifact in the vault by heart, and we do not have these Elements of Harmony. And don’t tell me you plan to fight your sister alone, because it sounds an awful lot like she can kick you to the curb any day of the week without them.
“And then we can discuss why you felt the need to have Spike bring this book to my attention by misshelving it instead of just talking to me directly. Oh, and don’t tell me your grand design is to let your archmage stumble onto this book, go on a random quest, and figure everything out herself, because you’ve had a thousand years to get on this.”
Thus Twilight finished her speech. Celestia had gone from smile to frown nearly instantly, but by its end she wore an expression of weary grief more than any other emotion. On her advice that this would take a while, the two mares made themselves comfortable on the bed.
“That book is easiest to explain. Or rather the story within it. To be perfectly frank,” Celestia said, “the last time I saw or even thought of it must have been…at least a century ago. However you stumbled upon it, my hoof was not at work.”
Twilight eyed Celestia suspiciously. “It would be completely in character for you to plant such a zany scheme.”
Knowing each other as well as they did, Celestia didn’t deny it. She did, however, maintain her position. “I have other plans in the works which are, as you say, in character for me. I confess to guiding the narrative of The Tale of the Royal Pony Sisters in certain directions over the centuries, but my influence ends there.”
“Let’s say I believe you.” And Twilight was leaning toward it since she didn’t see why Celestia would lie to her once called out. “That leaves me all the more concerned. Why didn’t you feel the need to talk to me about this? It’s kind of important.”
It took some more coaxing, but Celestia eventually replied, “Because I felt it best to keep you unaware of the situation.”
That stung. “Why?” Twilight asked. Her entire job description might as well read as the princess’s problem solver.
Celestia looked away and bit her lip. She then mumbled something nearly inaudible even for ponies with magically enhanced hearing.
“Please tell me you didn’t just imply some grand conspiracy to transfer power to your sister.” When no response came, Twilight lost it. “You’re kidding me! You’ve had a thousand years! A thousand! How wasn’t that long enough to think of something?”
“Do you think I’ve not tried?” Celestia fired back. “At first, I tried polishing my martial prowess. I led armies in my sister’s place. I fought on the front lines. In the end, it only brought me the ignominy of my mere presence being classified as a war crime. You know that shame yourself.”
Personally, as much as the designation frustrated her, Twilight considered it a mark of pride to be considered as much of a threat to the world as an alicorn, but she knew better than to say as such to the ‘Sun Tyrant’.
“When that failed, I slaved away guiding civilization ever forward for a thousand years. I thought if I could only advance our magical knowledge past the point of the Discordian Collapse, I would have a chance at victory. You tell me how I did there. How far short have I fallen compared to the last artifacts and ancient tomes you unearthed?”
“We still have at least a few centuries to go,” Twilight reluctantly admitted. If this Luna would sling around spells developed before Discord appeared and destroyed civilization, the best Celestia could do was match her. And even that assumed the sisters had shared whatever knowledge of the past they’d uncovered between them. “What about the Elements?”
“Useless.” Celestia looked away in shame. Before Twilight could press for more details, she continued, “I have tried, Twilight. For so long. I-” She paused to swallow and blinked oddly. “All I can do now is give Lulu what she wanted and–” She sniffed. “–and hope it will be enough. Then maybe someday we can reconcile with one another.” Reaching out with a wing, she pulled Twilight close. “When that day comes, I hope I will find you there.”
“I – what – I…” Faced with a Celestia who wasn’t a beacon of strength and certainty, Twilight’s brain threw errors at her. “No. No, you don’t get to say goodbye like this. We’re going to solve this problem together.”
Celestia pulled Twilight tighter into their hug. “Is that really how you want to spend our remaining time?”
“No.” Twilight put her hoof down, refusing to cry. “That’s how we’re going to spend the next two moons. Then we’re gonna get drunk and do something stupid to celebrate our inevitable triumph.”
With a weak yet genuine chuckle, her chest rumbling against Twilight, Celestia asked, “Have you ever once imbibed?”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
Celestia broke their hug and offered up a smile. “Now that will be a sight worth seeing. I suppose I have no choice now.”
In the back of her mind, Twilight made a mental note to first test her alcohol tolerance in private.
“What do you want to know?” Celestia asked as she recovered her natural poise.
Twilight, having spent most of her time preparing to force a confession, didn’t really have a plan yet. Nonetheless, she had a few ideas to run past Celestia. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we know exactly when your sister’s banishment will end and where she’ll reappear at?” Getting a nod, she continued, “Is there any reason we can’t just banish your sister again? It’s not ideal, certainly, but it would buy us time.”
“Magical banishment is resistible. It requires a direct clash of power. Without the Elements of Harmony to tip the scales, in a pure numbers check like that, neither Luna nor I would emerge victorious.”
“Fair enough.” But along the same plan of attack, Twilight asked, “Can we just blast her with a sleep spell instead?”
Celestia forced a yawn. “Excuse me. I should be in bed.” Never mind that they were in bed. “It sure would be nice if somepony could help me get to sleep.”
Rolling her eyes, Twilight fired off a rapid spell to do just that for whatever demonstration Celestia had in mind. The reaction came just as quickly. Celestia channeled less than a fraction of the absurd amount of power available to her and let it radiate out from her horn. In the overwhelming flux of magic Twilight’s spell had to pass through, it denatured and fell apart.
“That was the most artless, wasteful counterspell I’ve ever seen,” Twilight flatly observed.
“While I agree,” Celestia began, “to quote Luna, ‘Hey, it worked, didn’t it?’”
Twilight facehoofed. Great, we’re dealing with a pragmatic evil goddess.
“Luna and I have dealt with more than our fair share of…shall we say, ill-advised attempts to remove us from power. Good luck slipping any lesser magics past her guard. It’s a reflex for us.”
“Point taken.” Her next idea, Twilight would rather not suggest, but it would be remiss of her not to address it with potentially the entire world’s survival at stake. “Have you considered just, well, killing her? You know, blow her away immediately upon her return? Would that even work?”
By her guilty expression, Twilight knew the thought had crossed Celestia’s mind before. “No. Destroying an alicorn is virtually impossible.”
Twilight logged that little piece of information away to store with everything else she knew about alicorns.
“Even if I had the ability to do so, which I do not, I could never bring myself to execute her. I hate that I’ve even given the notion some thought. If anypony deserves punishment, it should be me. This entire mess is my fault.”
“How so?” That sort of claim usually came from a pony blaming herself for things beyond her control.
Celestia, in all the years they’d known each other, had never looked more uncertain or uneasy. “It was no one thing,” she began slowly, each word chosen with care. “How much do you know about Discord?”
“Uh, preferred title, Spirit of Chaos and Disharmony. Once ruled and ruined the world. Defeated by you and Luna. Decorating the castle garden as a statue. Looks weird. That’s about it.”
“And King Sombra?”
“The Harmonic Era?”
“More than most. Less than I should.” Twilight shrugged. The time between Discord’s fall and Luna’s banishment, which she now knew marked the beginning of the Solar Era, didn’t interest her nearly as much as Pre-Discordian times. “For some unknowable reason, that period of history isn’t well documented.”
Celestia feigned offense. “Not everything is the result of my machinations!” she said, not quite able to keep the smile off her face. “We had to rebuild civilization from nothing. We had no infrastructure. We had no written language. What records we kept were for practical purposes for centuries.”
“Fine, fine,” Twilight graciously allowed. She’d managed to bring Celestia a little cheer, which was all she’d wanted anyway.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. Celestia slipped back into her melancholy soon enough. She sighed as she considered where to start. Once she had, a scowl emerged upon her face. “Discord created a disgusting spell to invert a pony’s personality. He thought it was ‘funny’.”
A deep unease settled into Twilight’s chest as her mind immediately leapt to the inevitable conclusion. If an ambitious ancient king wanted to rid the world of two goddesses, what better way than to have them destroy each other? It would have to be done slowly and subtly lest the game be given away, but it could be done. The younger sister would be the easier mark. Most ponies, especially at the time, experienced some degree of nyctophobia. It would’ve been so easy to destroy the Alicorn of the Night emotionally. Throw in a little magic, and it became foal’s play.
Were she in Sombra’s place, Twilight would have done the same.
Putting that thought aside, Twilight said, “I take it King Sombra repurposed this spell and hit Luna with it to get you two to tear each other apart.”
“As astute as ever,” Celestia said. “He managed to modify the spell so that the altered personality lingered in the background, never noticed. It implanted intrusive thoughts in the victim indistinguishable from their own.”
A shiver crept through Twilight. Mind magic had its place, but she loathed its use on the unwilling. “What happened?”
“Sombra’s patience rivaled my own. He was willing to wait decades for Luna and I to fight, ever anticipating his chance to strike. I should have caught his magic at work upon her mind. She and I watched for that sort of thing in each other. But I failed her. She found it herself eventually, and we worked together to remove it.”
Celestia’s expression, which had warped between anger to self-recrimination as she spoke, finally settled on a rather sheepish blush. “She and I…overreacted. Incidentally, Sombra and the Crystal Empire are due to return to this world in a few years. The Crystal Throne rightfully belongs to Cadance’s line. Once you topple Sombra, I would advise installing her as their princess rather than her parents.”
As if that even needed to be said. However, Twilight did have one correction to make. “I can erase that blight for you, but inheritance law is none of my business. You can deal with that mess yourself.”
Celestia’s lips pressed into a thin line, but she didn’t say a word against it.
“Anyway, do continue. The more I know about how we got to this point, the better.”
“As you wish. Sombra’s magic had further reaching consequences than we expected. Luna had developed some issues, to put it mildly. We worked through them as sisters, and for a time, things were good. We ruled together, and Equestria prospered.” For a brief moment, a warm smile emerged upon Celestia’s face as she drowned in the memory of better days. Then she sobered. “But bureaucracy never sat well with Luna. As Equestria became more and more like what it is today, she and I traded more and more responsibilities until I became the face of the nation while she worked in the background and became ever more isolated.
“I thought she was happy doing what she loved. I thought I was making her happy. And maybe I was at first. But then everything went wrong so quickly. I failed to notice my sister’s paranoia resurface or her resentment grow. It was only after she spiraled out of control when I realized how bad things had become for her. So you see, Twilight, my negligence led us to this point. It was my responsibility as her sister and her fellow diarch to look after her mental well-being, especially when I knew she had a history of magically induced disorders, and yet I failed her.”
While she certainly agreed that Celestia had some of the blame pie to eat, Twilight saw no value in pointing hooves a thousand years after the fact. Lessons had been learned, and it was time to move forward. “What about the Elements of Harmony? How did they play into this?”
“Luna and I wielded them together. We each took three for our own, and although their full strength eluded our grasp, we used them to great effect. We resorted to them more often in our early years when we knew little of magic. In my fight against Luna, I was losing, and I knew it. In desperation, I took all of the Elements for myself, bent them to my will, and overpowered her. I meant to use them to heal her madness, but I should have known better. The Elements have a mind of their own. Two ponies was never enough to wield them properly. What hope did one have?”
“Interesting…” Twilight murmured. Over the course of her tenure as the archmage, she’d developed a deep mistrust of magical artifacts with any semblance of intelligence. Too many cases of magical corruption and cultists trying to bring about the end of the world or revive some ancient monstrosity. Still, if Celestia trusted them, she would too. “So what happened to the elements? I’d be hard pressed to believe you lost them.”
“I left them in the Old Castle in the Everfree Forest under heavy wards. I wanted to bring them here, but…they dislike me now. Considering their power, I felt it better for them to fall into myth and legend.”
Well that made things easy. Twilight had worried Celestia had thrown them into an ocean trench or ordered them buried in an anonymous location even she didn’t know. “All right then. I’ll go pick them up later and see if I can get them working.”
“It won’t even be a day trip, Celestia. It’s worth looking into even if nothing comes of it.”
Celestia, however, disagreed. “It’s not a matter of time. I only want to protect you.”
With a roll of her eyes, Twilight asked, “From what?” This was far from her first rodeo.
“From Luna. If you lay claim to Magic, she might feel the need to execute you.”
Twilight quirked an eyebrow. She needed a bit more explanation than that and said as such.
“Capital m, Twilight. The Element of Magic.”
“Wait, so all I have to do to get Magic to work is lay claim to it?” Celestia confirmed the conclusion, and then before she could raise any objections, Twilight continued, “Great. That’s a sixth of the job done, then. If things don’t work out, I’ll just toss it back into the forest before your sister shows up.”
“No,” Celestia stated plainly, “you won’t.” She shifted on the bed, mulling over her next words. “Bearing an Element is…personal. One does not simply toss it aside. Even a thousand years later, I remember their call.”
“Uh, no offense,” Twilight began, “but these artifacts are sounding really shady.” They had some level of intelligence, they possessed some manner of compulsion to use them, they had immense power, and they had such a pleasant name. In any other situation, she’d have already left for the Old Castle to destroy them.
Nonetheless, the comment elicited some laughter from Celestia. “They’re harmless, I assure you, when on the right end of them.”
“Right…” That didn’t exactly improve Twilight’s impression of them. “Anyway, Magic will work for me?”
“It will,” Celestia said evasively.
Twilight immediately pressed for an explanation. “What’s the catch?”
“The other five likely won’t. You would be best off looking for five other bearers, one each for Honesty, Loyalty, Kindness, Generosity, and Laughter.”
“Doesn’t sound that hard. What’s the problem?” When Celestia continued to prevaricate, Twilight interrupted. “Just say it, whatever it is. I promise not to get mad.” She could take whatever politely worded insult Celestia would no doubt throw at her.
Resigned, Celestia sighed, “Very well,” and then finally addressed the issue at hoof. “From the very moment you first came to my attention, I intended to have you bear Magic. It will leap to your call without question. Your cutie mark all but screams your destiny at anypony willing to listen.”
Twilight glanced back at her cutie mark. At its center resided the six-pointed star, the symbol of magic. Five smaller stars encircled it, likely representing the five other Elements. How thematically on point. That little revelation certainly merited further investigation at some future point in time.
“And then I erred,” Celestia continued. “If only you had been born ten years later. I never should have made you the archmage. The position only exacerbated your worst qualities. But I was selfish. When I should have sent you away to grow, I kept you close. When I realized my mistake, I had to make a decision. Should I attempt to salvage the situation, or should I enjoy what time I had left and ease the transition of power? I chose the latter.”
“That’s…” How was one meant to respond to a confession of that magnitude? “Well, uh, while your priorities flatter me, you never precisely stated what’s wrong with me.”
Rather plainly, Celestia stated, “You have no social skills.”
“That’s not true.” While she might reasonably be labeled asocial, Twilight said, “I have social skills. I’m just…selective in when and where I apply them.”
Celestia rolled her eyes.
“Why does that even matter?”
“Because the catch, as you put it, is that the Elements require their bearers to be friends to function. The closer the better.”
A pregnant silence fell between the two.
And then Twilight admitted, “I see your point.” She’d not expected such a formidable challenge as the literal power of friendship. “Surely there’s somepony else to bear Magic.”
“Yes, I admit several other choices come to mind. But I would no sooner trust them to bear it than…” Celestia, feigning defeat by her own attempt at wordplay, said, “Why, I wouldn’t trust them to do anything at all.”
“You have to be exaggerating.”
“I wish I were,” Celestia said with no small amount of exasperation in her voice. “Something about the life of a powerful mage seems to attract only hermits and ponies with an insatiable thirst for power.”
Twilight made a loud, obnoxious sucking sound. Once her lungs were full, she let out a long, refreshed, “Aaaah…”
The jest managed to get Celestia to chuckle. “You’re the exception that proves the rule. Should you gain power equivalent to an alicorn, or even beyond, I would trust you with it.”
Twilight should have had some elegant words to express her appreciation for the sentiment, but if she did, then they were eluding her completely. Instead, she hesitantly asked, “Really?”
Just as hesitantly, Celestia nodded. “I would.”
“Short temper and snap decisions included?”
“Twilight–” Celestia reached out with a wing, tentatively at first, and then affectionately gently brushed her primaries along Twilight’s jaw. “–if I could, you would need only ask, but I can’t make you an alicorn.”
Twilight’s eyes widened as her breath caught.
“Spike… He already asked. I had to wait moons before he would talk to me again.”
Finding her voice, Twilight said, “Celestia, I – that means so much to me.” If only Celestia could. “But that honestly wasn’t what I…” And then her brain finally processed the last thing Celestia had said. “Did – did he ask you that on his birthday this year?”
“Excuse me!” This needed to be addressed immediately. If Spike was already old enough to understand such things and act on them, Twilight needed to have a heart-to-heart with him about her secret research project. And maybe Celestia, too, given the confessions she’d been making on the alicorn equivalent of her deathbed, but Spike was much higher priority.
Twilight sprang to her hooves and leapt off the bed. Her magic already had a hold on the bedroom door with intent to open it, but Celestia’s magic caught her and brought her back.
“Believe me, Twilight, you do not want to hold a conversation about mortality with your offspring in a rush of emotion.”
The words went in one ear and out the other as Twilight struggled in Celestia’s grasp and searched her memory for an appropriate spell to secure her escape without starting a fight she knew she would lose. Quickly reaching the end of that list and coming up empty, she turned her attention to–
“Twilight Sparkle. Sit and listen.”
Emitting a frightened squeak, Twilight did as commanded out of habit when Celestia released her. The Royal Canterlot Voice always meant she was in trouble. Once she had, Celestia offered her a satisfied nod.
“Calm yourself, Twilight. Remember. In and out.”
Twilight, so prompted, ran through the soothing breathing exercise Cadance had taught her as a filly. It always helped more than it had any right to.
“Better?” Celestia asked soon enough.
Twilight nodded sheepishly.
“Good. Spike will be here tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and so on ad infinitum. Take your time. Now what was it you wanted to ask me?”
“Oh, uh, well, I don’t understand how you manage to, you know, exist. From the amount of power you can emit, you’re too magically dense. By all rights, you should be a lump of superdense, solidified magic at best and, at worst, you should explode and take out all of Canterlot. What’s your secret?”
“Would you believe me if I said I was a higher dimensional eldritch abomination incurring upon this smaller space, thus only seeming more dense than I truly am?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Of course not.”
“Then I have no answer for you. I don’t know how to increase magical density beyond the known limits.”
“You’re no help at all,” Twilight said with the slightest hint of a pout. “Give it some thought, if you would, in your free time. I’m working on an important project that needs it.”
Although she agreed to do so, Celestia offered a warning. “I strongly suspect this will be a fruitless area of research. And I would very much prefer not to become a lab rat.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Twilight dismissed the words with a wave of her hoof. “Putting all that aside, let’s get back to the impending return of the evil moon goddess.”
At a mutter, Celestia said, “Lulu isn’t evil.”
“Uh-huh. Anyway, will you give me a few minutes to absorb everything so far?”
Getting a nod from Celestia, Twilight turned inward and divided her thoughts into the usual three strains to debate the matter before her: Advocate to suggest ideas, Opposition to tear them apart, and Overseer to keep order.
So, Overseer began, Celestia has had a thousand years to come up with solutions. Any new ones we generate either have to hinge on relatively recent information she wouldn’t have had time to dwell upon or depend on things we know or can do but not her. I leave the floor to you two.
First, let’s identify the worst case scenario, said Opposition.
Yes, that’s real creative, Advocate. Now elaborate on that.
Okay. Luna breaks free. Banishes or kills Celestia. Kills us. Subjects the world to eternal night. Freezes it. And then everypony dies. Obviously we have to intervene before the ‘kills us’ portion of that.
What options do we have available?
The Elements of Harmony.
We’re looking for alternative solutions here. If you’re not going to offer meaningful solutions we’ll replace you with a different personality.
Overseer stepped in. No personal attacks, Opposition. We’re all the same pony here.
My point still stands.
Well… Advocate paused for a moment, hesitant to even put her idea up for debate. In the end, she decided that all paths to victory were worth at least some consideration. We could always throw away our life’s ambition and use its power source to banish Luna ourselves.
Opposition immediately rallied the full force of Twilight’s unfettered enmity against the mere notion. I fundamentally object to that unless we are, or are about to be, dead. Please come up with something we won’t regret until the end of a short, miserable life.
While I agree with the sentiment, Advocate began, couldn’t we just redevelop the power source? Solidified magic can be manufactured.
Not at the rate we would need. If we lived to three hundred and shifted the entire economy of Equestria over to producing solidified magic, we might have enough to get by with two alicorns helping and whatever boost the elements provide. Needless to say, that’s a ridiculously bad plan.
All right, point taken. The next option is we take out Luna ourselves.
Celestia is our senior in combat by centuries and far more powerful. If she can’t do it, what hope do we have?
Ah, but we have one big advantage, Advocate said smugly. We’re not her sister. If we earned Luna’s trust, we could catch her by surprise.
Opposition rolled her nonexistent eyes. Do you realize how hard that would be to catch her at the level of vulnerability we’d need? We’d have to–
The details of what exactly that would require filtered through Twilight’s mind.
Absolutely not! Opposition slammed her imaginary hooves onto an equally imaginary desk. We will not marry, seduce, or otherwise engage in intimate relations with the mad moon goddess.
It was only an idea, Advocate mumbled.
The single worst idea I’ve ever heard you suggest! Why would you even–
Overseer banged a gavel and called the other two to attention. I’m ending this tangent here. Advocate, there’s a reason we outsource lipstick missions. Opposition, be nice.
With an exaggerated harrumph, Opposition nodded and turned the conversation back over to Advocate with a simple, What else do you have?
Well, there’s always Celestia’s plan. Let Luna take over. Support her reign. Minimize the damage. Celestia considers it a viable option, and she doesn’t even know we can pose a credible threat to an alicorn. If Luna can be at all reasoned with, we can keep her in check with the threat of banishment.
That’s not optimal, but it’s a decent fallback option. Other ideas?
I’m dry. Excepting getting the Elements working. We could try being…friendly.
All three imaginary personalities shuddered at once with the reaction creeping its way back into reality.
I hate you so much, Advocate. Is that really the only plan you can come up with to work on?
If I randomly think of any at some later point, I’ll let you know. But for now, yes.
Opposition sighed. All right, let’s work out the specifics.
I request more information.
Twilight broke out of her conversation with herself, merging back into one coherent pony without the illusion of multiple trains of thought. She shook off the momentary disorientation she experienced upon exiting the headspace and turned to Celestia to ask for more information about the Elements.
“What in particular do you need to know about them?”
“Well,” Twilight began, not entirely sure herself, “you said they run on friendship. That would be a good place to start. What does that mean?”
“It means precisely what you think it does. The Elements are more effective the deeper the bonds run between the bearers. Any disharmony amongst their bearers disrupts their power.”
“Right… And I really can’t just wield them all myself?”
Celestia shook her head.
“Fine.” That would have made things so much simpler, but Twilight recognized that things hadn’t worked out so well the last time somepony had tried that. “How does a pony…I believe you said ‘lay claim’ to an Element?”
“When Luna and I found them, they bonded with us when we touched them. My best guess is that they will react similarly when they meet a pony they like.” When pressed, Celestia provided the full details of her experience, but as far as Twilight could tell, there really was nothing more to it than that.
“Can the Elements not be loaned or traded?”
“They can,” Celestia replied. “At greatly reduced power.”
Of course. That would have been too easy. “How picky are the Elements for finding a pony they like?”
“Oh, come on. You must have some idea.”
“Forgive me, Twilight, but I fear I’ve lost their user guide.”
Twilight leveled a glare at Celestia.
“There are a few tattered records of pre-Discordian bearers in my personal collection. I can pull them for you, but the most they imply is that the bearers ‘embodied their Element’.”
“And that means…” Twilight needed to know, for example, if whoever ended up with Honesty would ruined this entire scheme if she or he uttered a single lie.
Celestia, after taking a few moments to consider her answer, said, “The key point, I suspect, is a strongly internalized preference for the Element the bearer represents. Luna could lie, and lie well, but she tended to be very direct and expressive. There are reasons she preferred to leave politics to me.” A smile escaped her with a small bout of laughter. “The two of you will either drive each other mad or get on like a house on fire. I’ve never been able to decide which.”
Twilight set that last little comment aside as irrelevant along with the reminder of her horrible, no good, very bad plan to bed and betray Luna. Instead, she said, “All right, last question for now. Define ‘friendship’.”
“Ah, a good question. I imagine any strong, positive relationship will work.”
That helped significantly. She didn’t need to make friends in the classical definition of the word. The ponies involved could be friendly rivals, lovers, student and teacher, or any such thing. Twilight gave Celestia her thanks for the answers and sunk back into her inner world of debate.
So, Advocate began, it seems the other five bearers are a relative nonissue compared to getting us to like them. Are we willing to try behavior altering spells?
No, both Opposition and Overseer said at the same time. The former then added, Besides, that would almost certainly make the elements ‘not like’ us which would ruin the whole plan.
Fair point. So the question then becomes, where can we make friends? Because it certainly isn’t Canterlot.
Nopony objected to that. While there were tolerable ponies in the capital, their density was too low to reliably find them.
Since we’re going to cobble together a group of random ponies and everypony has to like each other, it would be easiest to integrate into an already existing social…group… Advocate facehoofed as the obvious group of five came to mind. Shining, Cadance, Mom, Dad, and Spike are a solid set of five all already friendly with each other and myself. We even have an extra with little Flurry.
That’s brilliant! Opposition exclaimed, for once completely on board. Nonetheless, it was her job to poke holes in ideas. Why wouldn’t Celestia have thought of that? No, that’s not the right question. Of course she thought of that. Why does she think that won’t work? Spike’s not a pony, but again we have Flurry in the unlikely event that matters. We have six of us. I fulfill that pesky Magic role, and…oh.
You think our family isn’t good enough for the elements? How dare you, you–
Overseer banged her imaginary gavel again. I said no personal attacks. It’s not productive.
Fine. But do explain yourself, Opposition.
Look, an Element not liking somepony isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, too much generosity can lead a pony and everypony they love to ruin. As for our family specifically, we don’t really have a case for them. Maybe Loyalty for Spike with our recent…revelation about him, but I think we would all like to keep Spike out of this if we can.
A general feeling of assent came from the other two before Opposition continued. We might also be able to make a case for Cadance with Kindness or Shining with Loyalty, but if we can’t get the complete set, do we really want to complicate things by involving royalty?
No, Advocate admitted. In that case, we might as well just trot around trying everypony and if an Element awakens, proceed to acquire a friend.
Opposition approved of the idea. We’ll want to minimize the work we have to do. Where can we find a large group of ponies that we can pluck out five random Element bearers and expect them to already be friends?
Are you really asking? If you phrase it like that then you should already know the answer.
The gavel came down once more. I will not have you two squabbling like that or you’ll eventually drive us insane. Advocate, it’s your job to come up with the ideas, so do it.
Advocate accepted the rebuke but rolled her eyes regardless. We go to a small town where everypony knows everypony. But large enough that introducing ourselves won’t seem like an intrusion. The closest town to the Old Castle would be…Appleloosa? No, Ponyville is closer on the other side of the Everfree. Problems?
Well…there would certainly be a different culture there than in Canterlot. Not that Opposition made that sound like a good thing. We’d at least have a chance. But farm ponies… I don’t know if we could suffer five farm ponies.
Oh, be nice. Not every pony in Ponyville is a farmer. And besides, we’ve never talked to one. Who knows? We may even decide to give up everything and live the life of a lady farmer.
Silence engulfed all three fragments of Twilight as she processed the preposterous statement her mind had generated. Then all at once, each one burst into laughter at the absurdity. She could see it now. Archmage Twilight Sparkle, the greatest spellcaster since Star Swirl the Bearded, living the life of a farmhoof.
Okay, maybe we won’t become a farmer. My point still stands. And think about it. Do we really want to go to Appleloosa? Rainbow Falls? Windsoar?
No, not at all. Especially Appleloosa. I swear, if we have to ‘round up’ one more ‘bandit’ and throw them in the ‘hoosegow’, we’re going to lose it. Ponyville is fine.
We’re in agreement, then, Overseer declared. The plan for now is to go socializing in Ponyville. She called the session to an end. In parting, she added, And as a bonus, we get to dump all of our responsibilities back onto Celestia.
Twilight recovered her sense of oneness.
“Okay, we’ve – I’ve come to a conclusion. I really wish you would have brought this to my attention years ago. It would have been much easier to make friends with more than two moons to do so.”
“Yes, I suppose it would,” Celestia said quietly. After a few moments, she caught Twilight’s gaze and held it. “Are you truly going to insist upon this folly? The world will need you when I’m gone.”
Twilight felt she should be insulted, but she couldn’t find the energy to care. “Whatever happens, I’ll be fine. I promise. I have secrets of my own, you know.”
Although her curiosity showed so plainly on her face, Celestia didn’t press for details – not yet, at least.
“Anyway, I’m going to dump all of my responsibilities onto you for the next two moons while I take a vacation. Ponyville sounds pretty nice this time of year. Maybe I’ll even make a friend or five while I’m there.”
Celestia shook with mirth at the sudden tone shift. “Very well. But if you expect me to do all of your work, you’re going to take over the Summer Sun Celebration this year.”
“That’s a perfect cover! That’ll give me a legitimate reason to be there.” Sure, it would be annoying, but it wouldn’t take too much of her time. If she sourced everything locally, then she’d even meet much of the town in the process. Now Twilight only needed to decide on what identity to assume while there. “What do you think of using Index Code for a disguise? I don’t fancy my chances if I show up and say, ‘Hey, I’m the archmage. Be my friend so we can save the world.’”
Celestia, a smile poking at the corners of her lips, considered the choice. They’d shared the identity for years, using it for administrative work outside Canterlot when they wanted peace, quiet, and anonymity. “I approve. She’s neither too young nor too old to alienate anypony, and she has enough of a presence in the bureaucracy to throw any curious ponies off your trail. Few ponies will question her appointment as the festival’s overseer.”
Twilight snickered at the word overseer.
“Did I miss a joke?”
“No, no,” Twilight replied with a wave of her hoof. “It’s just a bit of an in-joke with me, myself, and I.” And that proved too good not to laugh outright.
Although she arched an eyebrow, Celestia let the, to her, mystery pass unchallenged. “This will be a good swan song for Index, as well. We’ll need to retire her after this. Too much attention.”
However regrettable, Twilight agreed.
“When do you plan to leave?”
“I’ll retrieve the Elements today, I think, and officially leave tomorrow.” Twilight pulled her watch from her bag of holding to check the time. It was after midnight as she’d suspected. Nodding, she continued, “Then I’ll have Index leave the day after.” A big part of maintaining a cover was leaving an appropriate paper trail. “We’ll take the time before then to redistribute my work. I won’t put it all on you, for I am merciful.”
“How gracious. Do you perchance know somepony who could stand in for you in your absence?”
Well, there was one pony that came to mind. Somehow, however, Twilight suspected Celestia wouldn’t appreciate discovering that she’d been quietly and anonymously covering up a wanted criminal’s tracks for the past seven years, especially not ‘Eventide’s’.
“No, not real… Hmm…” Now that she thought about it, Twilight did know one other pony who might fit the bill. They hadn’t spoken since the last academic conference she’d had time for, but she doubted the mare had changed too much since then. “Actually, I do. An old acquaintance I met in the Archives as a filly.”
“I cannot believe my ears. Did you just suggest you’ve had a friend all these years and I never knew?”
“Oh, no need to tease. And no, not really.” A frown overtook Twilight as she tried to find the right word. “We were…library buddies?”
“Oh my!” Celestia summoned an alicorn sized paper fan from her own bag of holding and made good use of it. “Why, Twilight, for you, that sounds like a steamy romance. Such a lurid affair. Library buddies! And you met as foals? I can only imagine what experiments–”
Twilight cast a spell to silence Celestia, but she just blew it away with her fan and a rousing round of laughter.
“I would expect this from Cadance or my parents, but you?” Twilight practically growled the words at this betrayal. The grin she got in return made her reconsider if she even wanted an answer. “Never mind. I think I’m done here.” Rising to her hooves, she left the bed and then made her way to the door with indignant strides. “I’ll bring her to you later today if I can get her to agree to suffer my job. And you.”
“Please do,” Celestia said. “I’d like to meet the young mare who has my precious student all in a tizzy.”
Twilight opened the doors, shouted, “Good night!” in a huff, and then slammed them behind her. The guards on duty hurriedly moved out of her way as she fumed down the hall and teleported away the moment she crossed the edge of Celestia’s wards.