Chapter Ten - The Great and Powerful
It was a hard limit no matter how one looked at it, no matter what games one played. There was nothing more to be done. Not without a live research subject.
The massive structure of Gladmane Resort towered in front of Twilight in the heart of Las Pegasus. As she made her way inside, disguised as a nondescript purple unicorn with a changeling at her side guiding her to her destination, she felt a mild tingle in her magic when the resort’s lesser wards descended upon her. They were meant to prevent cheating, theft, and identity fraud, but they could only stop the more run-of-the-mill criminal. She walked through them unfazed, and she knew Sunset Shimmer would barely bother to notice their presence.
It took but minutes to find Sunset on the casino floor. The mare currently had the figure of a model fit to rival even Fleur de Lis, who much of Equestria considered the pinnacle of feminine beauty amongst mortal ponies. She was rather shamelessly schmoozing with the owner of the resort, Gladmane himself, at a craps table with the kind of vapid fawning that made stallions drop their guard around pretty mares for reasons Twilight would never understand. It was kind of impressive, in a way, a feat Twilight knew she’d never be able to replicate. Over the years she’d spent covering for the mare, she’d found Sunset had a real gift for wrapping ponies around her hoof and bending them to her will. It was a darker brand of manipulation than the style Celestia employed, but it remained equally effective nonetheless.
Twilight was half tempted to sit back and watch Sunset work, but she had a lot to do today. Thus she bid goodbye to her guide and approached the table. The crowd was thick enough that she had to push her way forward to get close enough to be heard without using a little magic that the casino might frown heavily upon. It would ruin the clandestine nature of this visit if she had to deal with security.
Sunset, on the other hoof, noticed immediately when Twilight approached. Their eyes met for the first time in over twenty years. Sunset showed no signs of recognition, but she offered an acknowledging nod to a peer in the magical arts. When Twilight jerked her head to the side, a silent request to speak in private, Sunset sunk into thought for a few seconds. The crowd around her erupted into cheers over the latest roll of the dice without her. Perhaps that, to explain her sudden growth of a brain capable of thought as much as anything else, resulted in her excusing herself for a visit to the powder room.
After a few moment’s to not make their departure together too obvious, Twilight left to follow after Sunset at a distance. A quick slip inside a bathroom allowed the latter to change her appearance to a much more subtle and fit look. With that done, Twilight converged with her path and fell into step beside her.
“If we’re going to fight, we should take this outside the city,” were the first words out of Sunset’s mouth.
“I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that,” Twilight replied in full honesty. “But perhaps somewhere we can discuss sensitive matters?”
Without hesitation, Sunset replied, “I don’t take clients.”
“And I’m not asking. I just want to talk.”
“About what?” Sunset shot right back.
While there was some small chance Sunset had stolen Luna’s crown on her behalf, Twilight doubted it. Sunset had authority issues. And she had, after all, just declared that she didn’t take clients. Thus Twilight replied, “The alicorn you stole from.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” If Twilight didn’t know better, she would have believed Sunset. “Only fools and the desperate steal from Celestia.”
“Not her. The other one.”
Sunset paused in her stride. Her mouth pressed into a thin line. “All right. I know a place. Follow me.”
The pair walked through a series of enclosed walkways between casinos in silence, Sunset leading the way. A tram system ran throughout the city, and as it turned out, she took them to one of its stations. It had no wards active over it and almost nopony present. There was a shuttered concession stand on the platform, fully enclosed by walls. She casually picked the lock on the door as she walked toward it, pretended to insert a key once they arrived, and then entered with Twilight right behind her.
Privacy wards went up immediately, and Sunset demanded, “Who sent you?” without missing a beat.
“It’s nice to see you again, too, Eventide.” Twilight wasn’t able to keep the sarcasm entirely out of her voice.
“Twenty-three years ago,” Twilight prompted. “The Summer Sun Celebration in Canterlot. You were probably lying low after stealing something. Remember me? The little lost filly?”
Sunset’s eyes narrowed. She snorted. “Twilight Sparkle. It took you long enough to find me. Sunbutt must have let her standards slip after I left.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. Slowly so as not to provoke Sunset, she pulled out a small pile of evidence from her bag of holding and tossed it onto the counter nearby. “That’s everything the EIS never found that would connect you with the legendary lady thief, Eclipse.”
With no small amount of caution, Sunset moved to inspect the pile. As Twilight had documented everything before putting it into storage, she didn’t have to offer any explanations. It didn’t take long before skepticism turned into self-recrimination for carelessness. Rather unsurprisingly, Sunset chose to destroy the entire collection. Not that it mattered. None of it would have ever seen the light of day.
“Fine. I take back what I said. Now what’s your game?”
“Look,” Twilight began, a little frustrated. She’d known getting Sunset to actually talk to her wouldn’t be easy, but was the hostility absolutely necessary? She thought not. “I know you must not like me anymore and that, well, I’m sort of law enforcement, but can we just… I’m perfectly content to let you run around stealing from rich scum the law can’t prosecute. I only need Luna’s crown back. Her banishment is ending soon, so, you know…”
Sunset wore a distinctly unimpressed look upon her face. “Nightmare Moon doesn’t deserve a crown.”
“Okay, point of order. She’s identifying as Luna right now.” That probably hadn’t helped as much as Twilight had thought it would in her head. “Anyway, I made a deal with her–”
A warning shot fired from Sunset’s horn, sizzling past Twilight’s ear. “You’re plotting against Celestia?”
“No! She–” Twilight couldn’t honestly say she’d told Celestia about the bargain she’d struck with Luna, because that would inevitably involve lying to avoid spilling all of her secrets before she was ready, and she wasn’t nearly good enough at that to fool Celestia of all ponies. “Can I just explain the whole situation without you ready to blast me at a single wrong word?”
After a second or two, the glow of power at the tip of Sunset’s horn dimmed and faded away entirely. “You’d better not try to lie to me.”
Twilight gave the abridged version of the story to Sunset. She certainly didn’t need to know everything, but she obviously knew enough already that Twilight didn’t mind filling in the blanks to get her on the same page. When pressed on the details of her agreement with Luna, Twilight merely summarized it as preventing the worst case scenario and ensuring Celestia would have a lifeline if she failed to defeat Luna.
“A friendship laser,” Sunset muttered to herself. She scoffed. “No wonder Sunbutt was always going on about making friends.”
Amused at the reaction, Twilight asked, “Not for you?”
“Hmph. I have better things to be doing.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling.” Although that did bring up a more serious question. “What are you doing? I mean, the lady thief shtick is sure to get at least a few books, but what’s your endgame? Fame and fortune? Spiting Celestia?”
Sunset considered Twilight with a measuring look. “Eh, why not? You going to keep helping me from the shadows even if I tell you to get lost?”
“Probably,” Twilight admitted.
There again was that calculating look from sharp eyes and a sharper mind that missed nothing. “Why?”
“Gratitude, I suppose.” It was hard to sum up exactly what she felt for her first mentor. Gratitude. Admiration. Disappointment. Loss. Renewed respect. Relief to know she had a peer. Maybe even a hint of infatuation once. “I know you probably don’t want to hear it, but you changed my life forever. Meeting you set me on the path that led me to where I am today. The words you shared with me ultimately gave me my son. Your fallout with Celestia forced her to reflect on her behavior and adopt a drastically different approach with me. It certainly doesn’t hurt that you’re performing invaluable services for the crown even if they’re for personal benefit and not strictly speaking legal.”
Sunset’s face was a mask of stone paired with an icy glare lurking just beneath the surface.
“You asked,” Twilight said rather weakly in her own defense. None of that had been by any means untrue nor delivered with any malice, but she probably couldn’t have rubbed salt in the wound any harder if she’d tried. “I… I won’t pretend I can fix everything or…whatever, but I can mediate between you and Celestia.” That didn’t seem to help one bit. Shoulders slumped, she added, “The offer is there if you ever want it.”
“My relationship with her is none of your business.”
“Right…” sighed Twilight in resignation. She’d always nursed the unlikely hope to have Sunset return to the castle. Celestia was great, but it would be nice to have another mind around with whom she could really talk magic. But as she’d always known, that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, if ever.
Despite her now dark mood, however, Sunset chose to answer the question Twilight had originally posed. “The Crystal Empire will return in a few years. I’m going to boot the usurper king who led them to ruin off his throne and take it for myself. The wealth I’m accumulating I intend to inject into its economy to get the place up and running again.”
The longer Twilight considered it, the more she thought it wasn’t actually that bad of a plan. Since Celestia had suggested giving the throne to Cadance, she figured as far as the empire was concerned, their royal line was either dead or, at best, so far removed from their culture and traditions as to lack legitimacy. But a hero empress? One who’d expended her own vast wealth to restore the empire? That would easily lend itself to a new social contract.
“You know, Cadance’s line are the legitimate heirs,” Twilight said without a hint of reprimand.
Sunset snorted and rolled her eyes. “Little Cadey isn’t going to challenge me for the throne even if she wanted it. She’s long since put down roots here.” A rather bitter and muttered, “With your family,” followed.
Even Twilight knew when not to step on explosive runes. She swiftly said, “No, but her parents probably will.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what I have you for. Keep them from barking too loudly, and they won’t have to find out how hard I bite.” Sunset chuckled rather darkly. “Unless Cadance wants me to. I have been meaning to rob them blind now that she isn’t dependent on them. I could always take it a little further.”
“Uh, I’m sure Cadance appreciates the sentiment, but…”
“Yeah, I know.” Sunset muttered something too quiet to hear. “I need to get back to Gladmane before he starts wondering what I’m up to. He’s at the center of a massive financial scheme, if you’re wondering. Real class act. Nothing strictly illegal, but well deserving of his fate. It should come crumbling down after I empty his coffers.”
“Good to know. And Luna’s crown?”
Sunset pursed her lips. If it had been anything else, any less a prize or any less something to hold over Celestia, perhaps she wouldn’t have been so reluctant to part with it. But then Twilight wouldn’t be asking to begin with.
“You can have the useless thing back,” Sunset finally said. “I’ll retrieve it after I deal with Gladmane and stop by…Ponyville, was it? Maybe we can talk magic or something then.”
Without even a goodbye, much less waiting for a response, Sunset teleported away and took her leave. That hadn’t been a real offer of friendship, Twilight knew. Sunset still understandably hated her for what she represented and probably intended to use her for all she was worth, but she would take the gesture for what it purported to be for now. Maybe someday when Sunset was in a better place emotionally, things would change.
After taking down the privacy wards and locking the door, Twilight, too, teleported away, leaving behind no evidence that either of them had ever been there.
Without fanfare, Twilight appeared in the middle of Ponyville for the first time as herself. She’d just returned from the Peaks of Peril – a relatively minor detour on her way back – where she’d joined Autumn for a late lunch. It hadn’t been at all difficult to nudge Autumn into talking about Luna, although she hadn’t really had anything important to share beyond the names of a few more ponies she’d met in her dreams.
Now it was time to pay Berry Punch a visit and hear her story if she was willing to tell it. Twilight just had to find out where she was without any means of tracking her. Pinkie Pie probably knew and would be much easier to locate, but Twilight really didn’t need a tag along or the trouble of asking her to leave.
Nopony noticed Twilight as she set out, a state of affairs that lasted for about three seconds. There was no shortage of stray ponies wandering around who’d since taken notice of the new face in town. She recognized a few from Pinkie Pie’s rapid fire introductions during her welcome to Ponyville party while all of them recognized her. The hushed whispers between ponies who thought themselves out of earshot, not counting on Twilight’s enhanced hearing, grew in number. As knowledge of her presence swept through the streets, ponies parted before her like she had the plague and feigned disinterest in the least convincing manner possible.
For the first time in her life, Twilight chose to actively listen in on the inane buzz of conversation in the background. Even with Pinkie Pie correcting a misconception she had about the populace, the rumors and pointless nonsense generated from so little information still surprised her.
“See, it is her. Just look at the cutie mark.”
“What’s she doing in Ponyville?”
“Dear Celestia, my brother is going to just die when he hears.”
“Maybe she’s here to find a lover away from Canterlot politics. It could even be me.”
“Do you think we can talk to her?”
“I thought she’d be taller. You know, like the princess.”
“I hear it’s a secret rendezvous.”
“She doesn’t sign autographs. I remember that very distinctly from the last Summer Sun Celebration.”
“She’s here for a tryst? Does Princess Celestia know?”
“That’s what I heard too.”
“Maybe they have one of those…arrangements.”
“There might be room for one more.”
More and more ponies gathered at the periphery as the news spread, all too timid, or nervous, or scared, or something to approach. While that suited Twilight just fine for her purpose, she still facehoofed at the narrative the gossip seemed intent on converging toward.
Why is it that I’m supposedly having a secret love affair while two-timing Celestia, a relationship I also haven’t made public? Honestly! If I were here for a tryst behind an alicorn’s back, I should think it utterly obvious that nopony would ever know I was here.
Shaking her head, Twilight eyed the crowd and then singled out a random earth pony with a point of her hoof before gesturing for him to approach. It seemed the easiest way to actually ask for directions. After he questioningly pointed at himself, he drew near with a mix of concern and possibly excitement, if she were reading him right.
“What can I do for you, Archmage Twilight Sparkle, Your Excellency, Ma’am?”
“I appear to be lost. I’m looking for Berry Punch. Could you give me directions?”
“Rarity! Sweetie Belle! Quit all your froufrou nonsense and get down here already!” called Applejack from the first floor of the Carousel Boutique.
Upstairs in her room, Sweetie Belle was rearranging her favorite saddlebags, the ones with her idol’s cutie mark stitched into the sides. Rarity had made them for her as a birthday present a few years ago, and they’d seen more than their fair share of wear since. At the moment, they contained the sphere she’d borrowed from Index with, she swore, complete intention to return. Also in the bags were a few loose bits, several medical implements in case of intense crusading, two decks of playing cards, and a small selection of assorted sweets. Unfortunately, no matter how she rearranged the contents, she couldn’t find a way to make it any less obvious that she had a big, bulky sphere in her saddlebags.
With a sigh, Sweetie Belle gave up. She just had to accept her current arrangement. Thus she left her room behind and headed downstairs, her saddlebags draped across her back. There she found Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash waiting in various stages of impatience. They were to see one of the more popular entertainers who’d arrived in town early today, and the sneak peek performance started soon.
“Finally!” Rainbow Dash said. “What kept you?”
“I was just packing my bags.”
“What do you need saddlebags for?” Rainbow Dash asked, no less exasperated for the explanation. The two other Crusaders eyed the spherical bulge and looked at each other, sending some silent message between them. “We’re just going to town square to see a show.”
“Well…” Sweetie Belle began, trying to hide her unease as she fumbled for an excuse. “You never know what could happen with us around.”
“You can say that again, sugarcube. Now what’s keeping Rarity?”
Rarity picked that exact moment to appear. “Oh, be patient, you two,” she said as she walked down the stairs. “Just because you choose to look like a country bumpkin doesn’t mean that the rest of us must as well. There is always time to be fashionably late.”
Sweetie Belle turned around to look at her sister. Despite all of the lessons Rarity had drilled into her, beyond the sun hat, she still couldn’t see the difference between Rarity’s current appearance and her usual one – if there was any. The only real change Sweetie Belle had noticed in her sister lately hadn’t been physical at all. After returning from Sweet Apple Acres, Rarity had practically shaken her down for Spike and Flurry’s letter, but once she’d read it, Rarity hadn’t pressed for details, stuck her nose in where it wasn’t wanted, or even commented. It’d been so unlike her, but Sweetie Belle had decided not to risk her escape by pursuing the matter further.
“Well, now that we’re finally all here,” Applejack deadpanned, “let’s get going.”
With impatient assent from the other three non-unicorns, the group of six exited the store and headed out into the outer edge of Ponyville’s commercial district. As usual for this part of town, it being filled with specialty shops, the streets were relatively quiet. Besides the shop owners and those just passing through, only a few ponies would make their way here on any given day when in need. However, as they entered into Ponyville proper, the distinct lack of ponies became troubling.
“All right, something is going on here. I’ll be hog tied and dipped in butter before that Trixie pony draws the entire town to her show.”
Rainbow Dash shot skyward at Applejack’s words leaving only an, “I’ll see what’s up,” behind her.
“I reckon it’s about time we had another disaster,” Applejack mumbled. She watched Rainbow Dash fly off toward the opposite side of town for a few seconds before eying the Crusaders. “There was your last tree sap incident, I suppose, but it’s been a couple weeks since our last infestation or monster attack.”
“Oh, those parasprites were simply dreadful.”
“And so were them vampire fruit bats in my orchard before that,” Applejack added.
Scootaloo chimed in with, “And the ursa minor.”
“Not to mention the dragon,” Apple Bloom added.
Not wanting to be left out, Sweetie Belle said, “Or that incident with Zecora.”
The two adults in their group cringed.
“Right…” Applejack said uneasily. “The point is, we’re due for something soon.”
A rainbow blur slammed onto the ground and kicked up a cloud of dust. This was, of course, nothing unusual, so nopony reacted beyond a brief welcome back for the last member of their group and an inquiry as to what was going on.
“Well, it doesn’t look like trouble,” Rainbow Dash replied. “There’s the crowd waiting for the show, and then there’s another one across town outside Berry Punch’s house.”
Curious, Applejack asked, “Why would anypony be gathering there? Did she dip into her own brew again or something?”
“Doubt it. I couldn’t get a consistent answer out of anypony. Soon as I got one, everypony started shouting over each other with ‘the truth’. My best guess is she’s having a threesome with Minuette and the archmage of all ponies while Berry Pinch watches.”
“Such nonsense,” Rarity mumbled as Applejack said, “Not in front of the foals, Dash!”
Said foals already knew the answer, naturally, as curious children were wont to, but Apple Bloom still asked, “Sis, what’s a threesome?” with far too innocent an expression.
Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle smothered their laughter behind hooves as Applejack shifted her eyes in desperation. Neither Rainbow Dash, who found this equally amusing, nor Rarity came to her rescue. Eventually, she went with, “If you have to ask, you’re not old enough to know.”
While this happened, Rarity mumbled, “Strange. I wonder what she’s doing with Berry Punch.”
Sweetie Belle’s ears perked up. “What do you mean?”
The question attracted Rainbow Dash’s attention. “Huh? You know something about this?”
“Ah… Just a little bit, darling. I’m not sure if Her Excellency would want me to say.”
“Wait, so the archmage is really here in Ponyville?”
Rarity nodded in response to Rainbow Dash’s question. Seeing that, Sweetie Belle bolted off from the rest of the group before anything more could be said.
Although Twilight had already eaten lunch with Autumn, she certainly hadn’t been about to say no to fresh oatmeal cookies. This had been the ideal moment in time to pay a visit to Berry Punch. She might even ask for the recipe on the way out. She might not be much of a cook, but baking was basically chemistry, and Spike’s birthday was coming up in a few moons. Maybe if I added some gemstones to the dough. Hmm…
Berry Punch and her friend – Marefriend? They’re awfully touchy with each other – Minuette sat across the table with Berry Pinch, the former’s unicorn daughter, adjacent to Twilight. She’d subtly scooted her chair closer and closer whenever she reached for another cookie. Twilight had noticed, of course, but hadn’t said anything. Apparently, she was a fan with an adventure streak inherited from her Aunt Cherry Berry.
“You know,” Minuette began, “for the longest time, I thought it was all just a side effect from the withdrawal. I mean, ‘dreaming of a moon goddess’? One nopony had ever heard of, even. Sounds pretty far-fetched.”
Twilight smiled into a bite of her cookie as Berry Punch engaged in what was probably a flirtatious denial. It did sound absurd from that point of view. “Personally,” she said, “I had advance notice of Luna’s existence and basic training in dream magic, and even then I was skeptical. I had to fact check with Celestia before I really believed it was her.”
“Kinda like hearing ‘the archmage’ is in the dining room,” Minuette said.
A frown grew on Twilight’s face as she understood the meaning. “Are impostors of me such a common problem?”
Berry Punch shrugged. “It’s like when you get one of those letters saying Princess Celestia needs your help to settle a new barony.” She paused halfway to a bite of delicious oatmeal. “Er, I suppose they don’t send those sorts of things to you, do they?”
“No, not at all. And besides, that kind of micromanagement isn’t really–”
The front door slammed open a few rooms away. “Berry Pinch!” Then came the pounding sound of little hooves. “Where is she?”
Twilight took the privacy spells she’d erected – she’d drawn far too much attention from nosy ponies not to cast them – down with an inward chuckle. I wonder what took her so long. With the gossip spreading as fast as it was, I expected her a lot sooner.
From Twilight’s side, Berry Pinch giggled and replied, “We’re in the dining room!”
Within seconds, Sweetie Belle thundered into the room, her saddlebags thumping in time to her step against her sides, and locked onto Twilight. It seemed, at first, that she wasn’t entirely prepared for this moment, but then she broke from her timid spell. She pranced in place, saying, “Oh my gosh!” over and over again until she finally mastered her excitement enough to speak words of substance. “I’ve always wanted to meet you! I’m Sweetie Belle, and I’m your number one fan in the whole world and everything beyond it! Was that you at the hospital yesterday? If so, I guess I’ve already met you, but not really met you met you!”
Twilight’s eyebrows rose slightly at the utter lack of poise in Sweetie Belle’s words and her reversion to a more rural accent. Well, Rarity, you tried your best, I guess. The next thing Twilight noticed was her saddlebags. They had Twilight’s starburst on them – which was a little annoying, but she didn’t have her own cutie mark yet, so whatever – and, more importantly, an oddly spherical bulge on one side.
That’s an Element, right? It had to be. Sweetie Belle had even had permission to rummage around in Twilight’s things. But why did she take it if it hasn’t awakened for her? It’s just a rock otherwise with a gem inside it. Strange. A thought occurred. Unless…
“Hello, Sweetie Belle. Sun Wisp wasn’t me in disguise, but I have heard stories about you.” As she said this, Twilight quickly and carefully cast a few illusions, several miscellaneous wards, and conjured a thin, rigid metal shell around the Element of roughly the same weight. At the same time, she teleported the now invisible Element out into the open. A light bump against Sweetie Belle turned it into a necklace much like Honesty. The centerpiece gem had a violet shade and a generic Equestrian cut likely due to its bearer’s lack of a cutie mark.
Twilight sat flabbergasted and howled with laughter inside. She didn’t touch it! She actually didn’t touch it! Days of temptation, and she never once touched it! Just because I told her not to. It took some impressive willpower to resist the call that long. I think I’ll just put this back and watch the fireworks. If Celestia could be a secret prankster, then she could too.
The sudden hesitance Sweetie Belle wore on her face as she tried to find the courage to say or ask something, however, sparked a realization in Twilight.
I just signed up a foal to fight an alicorn, didn’t I? She had. Ponyfeathers. Which Element did she get? Twilight plucked the dropped label from the floor. Double ponyfeathers. Of course it just had to be the most addictive Element.
“Um… I – I have a question. If you wouldn’t mind.”
“Ask away,” Twilight said as she continued silently berating herself.
“How many spells do you know?”
Oh, that’s a tax on the memory. With only one shot to get this right, Twilight thought back to what she’d said to Sweetie Belle when they’d first met. If she remembered correctly, it went something like, “I don’t know. How are you counting spells?”
Seeing Sweetie Belle’s reticent expression bloom into a bright smile, Twilight breathed out a sigh of relief. She’d at least gotten that right. Maybe she could make this mess work. “While you’re here, do you know if your sister will be in her boutique in, say, a half-hour?” They needed to talk.
Clearly confused, Sweetie Belle cocked her head to the side and asked, “My…sister?”
“You are Rarity’s little sister, are you not?”
Now that she’d calmed down a bit, Sweetie Belle’s faux Canterlot accent – still a little grating on the ear for somepony actually from there – snapped back at the reminder of her sister. “Yes, I am. But why do you ask?”
“I commissioned her to make something for me, and I had to leave last we met before she could take my measurements.” Twilight figured she could also take the opportunity to generate some thaumic thread for Rarity to practice with and at the same time verify if she’d succeeded in giving herself a higher magical capacity. “I plan to stop by to address that while I’m in town if she’s available.”
Bringing her jaw – which had nearly detached itself in surprise – back into line with the rest of her face, Sweetie Belle answered, “I-I really don’t know what to say. This will make Rarity’s season – no, year – if not her entire career! She should be…with me…in town square. Oh, ponyfeathers.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at Sweetie Belle’s sudden change in demeanor. “What’s going on in Ponyville’s town square?”
Berry Punch, who had been watching their interaction with amusement, replied, “One of the showponies for the Summer Sun Celebration is putting on a preview performance. I think her name was Trixie.”
“Trixie?” This is what Twilight got for not paying Amethyst Star a visit for updates on the festival before taking care of other business. “She’s the one act that I actively want to see. When does she start?”
“Probably ten minutes ago.”
Nearly instantly building up the power for a teleport, Twilight disappeared from the table only to return a few seconds later after remembering that she had company. “Do any of you want to come with?”
After a moment’s delay at the abruptness of it all, each pony nodded her assent.
Ponyville town square descended into a magical darkness, blotting out the midday sun and blinding everypony in the massive crowd. Slowly, an ominous, blue glow grew from the floor of the stage. The velvet curtains slowly parted to the sides, revealing an inky blackness that seemed to go on forever.
From the streets leading to the square where the crowd had gathered, a thick fog rolled in toward the stage. It hung low to the ground, just high enough to be off-putting but not vision-obstructing. When it reached the stage, the blue lighting became hazy and diluted.
From the sky, a flurry of solid colors streaked towards center stage in wide, graceful arcs, collecting into a swirling pack of colorful wisps. The vortex grew into a blinding white light. Then it abruptly died out only for a wave of chilly air to replace it. The fog blew away and curled up upon itself at the edge of a magical boundary, but it’d already begun to slide back into the audience like an avalanche in slow motion.
Once the tension had built in the silence, a burst of brilliant azure fire erupted from the stage. In its wake, a figure could be seen as a hazy outline. Blue against blue, it stepped forward. If one peered closely through the fog, its pointed hat and cape appeared as though a portion of the night sky had been ripped from the heavens and sewn into their form.
“Ponyville!” Trixie’s voice resounded everywhere at the same volume. “You have called, and I have answered. I am. The Great. And Powerful. Trixie!”
The stage spotlights snapped on, centered on their star. The roar of the crowd entirely drowned out the fireworks in the sky that accompanied the introduction. For a moment, Trixie basked in the adulation. This was what she lived for. But better still were cheers properly earned for her displays of magnificence.
Trixie extended an arm. At its invitation, her trusted companion leapt into her grasp. The long staff assembled itself piece by piece from its component parts into its full form. The silver rods that made up its shaft came first. The decorative pedestal at its upper end followed, and then came the magical core of the artifact. Two sapphires, one cut in the shape of a crescent moon and the other a smaller star hovered at the top of the staff, the star inside the moon. It’d been a long, laborious process to redesign the device to mesh with the image she wanted to present to the world, but it’d been worth it.
“Ready at your command.”
With a nod, Trixie slammed the butt of her staff to the stage floor. A short downburst swept out and chased away the fog for good this time. It was time to begin.
“Are you ready to see some magic?”
The crowd roared its approval.
“Magic that will amaze and astound your mere mortal minds?”
The crowd cried ever louder.
“Magic that would shame even the archmage herself?”
The crowd’s cheers reached their peak without magical assistance. Then, as if summoned, Trixie felt a surge of familiar magic at the back of her audience. A group of ponies teleported in, and in their midst stood Twilight Sparkle. A scrying spell gave Trixie a better view. She had two mares and two fillies with her as well as a small pile of cookies on a plate floating nearby. She looked directly at the scrying spell and rolled her hoof in a circle while casually taking another bite of her snack.
“Twilight Sparkle,” Trixie muttered, forgetting that her magic still cast her voice out across the crowd. A buzz of whispers filled the square as ponies glanced around either confused or focusing their attention on the wrong mare. There was nothing for it now but to pretend she’d meant to head down this route. She pointed a spotlight at Twilight Sparkle at the very back of the crowd and demanded, “What are you doing here?”
Although she sighed, Twilight Sparkle answered, “I’m just here to watch your performance. Nothing more.”
Trixie ground her teeth. “I suppose you think I should feel honored by that?”
“Do you honestly think I would believe that?” Trixie bit back too quickly. She suppressed her rising irritation as best as she could. Making herself out to be petulant or the bad pony wouldn’t help her act.
“Yes? I guess you could say I’m a fan.”
Trixie scoffed. “As if! You never gave me so much as the time of day.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t even remember?”
Twilight Sparkle paused a few moments to think, but then she shook her head. “Can we just get back to you blowing things up?”
“That’s what you remember about me?” Trixie slammed her staff to her stage and growled in frustration. “I challenge you to a duel!”
As she facehoofed, Twilight Sparkle asked, “Are you serious?”
“The Great and Powerful Trixie never backs down from a challenge.”
Twilight Sparkle let out a long sigh. “Fine.” After passing off her cookies to one of the unicorns with her, she teleported up onto the stage but remained a fair distance away. “If we’re going to do this, we need a few rules beyond the standard dueling set.”
“If you intend to give me a handicap–”
“No, that’s not it,” Twilight Sparkle interrupted. She gestured out to the audience with a hoof. “We have an unprotected civilian crowd not ten feet from us. If we start slinging serious magic, somepony is going to get hurt.”
Trixie cringed at her careless misstep. Breaking Twilight Sparkle was all well and good, but hurting her beloved fans was another thing entirely. “You have a point. Name your terms.”
“Other than the standard dueling missile, first year spells only.”
“Do you even know what those are?” Trixie snapped in return.
A long-suffering sigh escaped Twilight Sparkle. “Unfortunately, yes. I know the curriculum well enough to lecture at the school.”
Trixie paid the answer little mind as she considered the offer. It was a good deal for her. There was a disproportionate number of illusion spells in the first year curriculum, which happened to be a specialty of hers. “Fine. Any other restrictions?”
“We dismiss any enchantments we have active other than subspace storage.” Twilight Sparkle eyed Trixie’s staff warily. “And you put that away, whatever it is.”
Trixie squeezed her arm around her faithful companion a little tighter. It’d been years since she’d gotten into a real fight and even longer still since she’d fought without the Night Guardian Staff at her side.
“You can do it.”
Of course I can. I’m the Great and Powerful Trixie. With those words of reassurance echoing in her mind, Trixie levitated her staff backstage and began dispelling the enchantments she wore to make life more convenient. “Anything else?” she asked as she stripped herself of her hat and cloak as well.
“No brute force counters. From how much power you’ve been throwing around, if we allow them, this will quickly descend into a brawl.”
“Good point,” Trixie said with a smirk. Flattery would get a pony anywhere.
“And no telekinesis either,” Twilight Sparkle added. And now she smirked. “Unless you want me to sever your spinal cord and shatter your bones right from the word go?”
“You arrogant little–”
“Look, Trixie, I’m giving you a chance to win here. Now are we going to put on a show, or do you want to lose your audience?”
Twilight Sparkle had invoked the magic words. In answer, Trixie summoned a bit from backstage and held it aloft between them. “First to three. Start when this hits the floor.” She waited only long enough for a nod and then tossed the coin into the air.
With a quiet thump, the coin struck the stage floor.
Trixie wasted no time and fired off a pair of dueling strike spells with an illusion of thousands more, all converging on her enemy. When the light died down, she was disappointed but not surprised to find that neither of the ones that mattered had found their mark while the rest had gone ignored. Looking closer, she saw a thin, shimmering dome that looked much like a weak basic shield around Twilight Sparkle.
“Oh please, Trixie. I don’t cheat.” A downright evil smirk emerged on Twilight Sparkle’s face. “But neither do I play fair. Watch and learn.”
A bone chilling wind swept over the stage, swirling into an ever more frigid vortex. Trixie shivered and cast an illusion in front of her eyes to hide anything – currently her mane – that impaired her vision. Near Twilight Sparkle, tens of thousands of little shards of ice condensed in the air before being swept up into the wind.
She’s making hail with the pressure drop from a breeze spell? That’s absurd! Too absurd, in fact, to be truth. No, it must be an application of the cooling charm. The breeze is just overpowered to control the ice without telekinesis. It was a disgustingly difficult feat of magic, a stark reminder that this was the Archmage of Equestria on the stage.
Trixie stared down her opponent, waiting to counter an attack that never came. She narrowed her eyes. What’s she waiting for? As the two watched the other in the sharp, bitterly cold wind for the slightest of movements, a thought occurred. Perhaps she can only make a defensive form? In that case…
Trixie sent off another barrage of fake and real spells. This time, she added a supercharged heating spell to precede every real attack to pierce through the ice. The vortex of hail managed to whack all but one of the real attacks away, resulting in hissing bursts of steam, while Twilight Sparkle dodged the final one with a quick sidestep.
Then, with a quick flash of her horn, Twilight Sparkle sent off three strike spells of her own that lazily arced towards Trixie. Intending to easily dodge, Trixie tried to jump back but found her hooves frozen to the stage. Fortunately, she fell downward and accidentally ducked under two of the three spells.
Rapidly thawing out her hooves as a second volley came, Trixie jumped backward only to bump up against a wall of ice. She swore under her breath in response, summoned a large volume of water, and then froze it immediately to block all of Twilight Sparkle’s attacks. She thought to reach for it with telekinesis before checking herself. Meanwhile, gravity took hold and slammed the boulder-sized chunk of ice down onto the stage, sending shrapnel flying everywhere. She immediately lit her horn to prevent the audience from getting hit, but a strong downburst knocked the stray wood to the ground before she could. To further upstage her, Trixie felt the sting of another strike spell, one Twilight Sparkle had fired blindly over the ice between them. Dozens more impacted around her. And more were coming.
In a rush, Trixie melted a small cavern inside the ice and sealed the entrance behind her before she suffered another hit. She next carved a thin slit of ice in the direction she thought her opponent would be, all the while cloaking her work in an illusion. This time luck proved to be on her side. She fired off her own volley of spells and managed to hit with one of them. The yelp she got in return ignited a fire inside her.
Trixie melted her way back out into Twilight Sparkle’s freezing wind. As she galloped out into the open, nine other duplicates of her emerged. They shivered in time with the real one, mimicking every action a real pony would take. The group rushed to take flanking positions.
In response, Twilight Sparkled flooded the stage with a massive water conjuration, sweeping away both herself and each of the Trixies, real and illusionary.
As if you could fool my illusions with a cheap trick like – oh ponyfeathers!
Twilight Sparkle lobbed a few hundred compressed chunks of dirt she’d collected from outside the stage into the general area of the Trixies. Those would hurt.
Finding it difficult to run against the wind, Trixie opted to call forth a large amount of earth herself and shelter beneath a protective shell of it. Within a fraction of a second, several heavy thuds came from outside. She reinforced the barrier with her magic, and it held firm.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Trixie compressed her earthen shield into tiny, dense balls and fired them at just below piercing velocity in every direction that wouldn’t head into the crowd. She heard a satisfying eep, even if it didn’t count as a point, from behind her and to the right, thus she spun and fired off a pair of strike spells at Twilight Sparkle. One struck true.
And in return, a boulder fell from above. Trixie sluggishly dodged it with a nervous laugh she hoped nopony heard. But she couldn’t stand still now that her opponent had warmed up, figuratively speaking. She broke into a gallop but slipped only moments later. The entire stage, to her surprise, was covered in a sheet of ice.
Trixie rolled out of the way of a strike spell just in time and scrambled back to her hooves. Not nearly far enough away, Twilight Sparkle slid across the ice at a pace much too fast and with far too much control for the low coefficient of friction. From the way her mane moved, it looked like she was using the wind to push herself along.
The duelists locked eyes for a moment before Twilight Sparkle fired off another shot.
Surprised by her lack of energy, Trixie shaped some of the nearby earth into a shield to block while she struggled to move properly. Yet as she fumbled in place, Twilight Sparkle circled around her shield in a gentle curve, still sliding along with the wind.
This time when Trixie went to shape earth to block, she found herself contesting Twilight Sparkle’s magic directly for control of it. She made the lucky decision to forgo the contest entirely and fell to her barrel, dodging what would have been a victory blow.
Unfortunately, with her legs spread-eagle from her fall, when Trixie tried to get back to her hooves, she found she just didn’t have the strength. She felt numb. Even her horn had grown dull and less responsive than it should. Only now did she noticed how strained her own breath had become.
Twilight Sparkle came to a halt directly in front of Trixie. She cleared away the rubble between them and the audience with a predatory smile, all the better to humiliate her fallen foe. “Oh dear. What have we here? Honestly, I thought you would notice what I was up to.”
Her teeth chattering, Trixie asked, “W-w-what a-are y-you t-t-talking ab-bout?”
“Cold, Trixie, is the silent killer.”
With that taunt, Twilight Sparkle lazily fired off her last strike spell and hit Trixie right between the eyes. Her victory complete, she then canceled all of the ongoing magical effects on the stage, replaced the earth they had used, and repaired the damage they’d caused. Next, she turned her attention elsewhere. Probably to herself, but Trixie couldn’t tell at the moment as she’d let her head hit the ground.
I lost. I lost on my own stage. Trixie grit her teeth. To Twilight Sparkle of all ponies!
All the while, the crowd stood in awed silence, staring in wonder up at their archmage even after the over-the-top duel had ended.
Dammit! Trixie fought against the tears threatening to ruin everything twice over. Always second best.
After Twilight Sparkle finished healing both of them and cast a few spells to give Trixie the energy and warmth to function properly, she pulled Trixie up onto her hooves. It was only then that the cheers and whistling began. Cries of, “Encore,” and, “Bravo,” came continuously along with shouts of both their names.
It didn’t matter. Trixie still lost. She was about to teleport away when Twilight Sparkle put a hoof on her shoulder. Privately, just between them without any spells amplifying their voices, Twilight Sparkle said, “It’s your show, Trixie. Instead of running away to pout, why not take a bow? Somepony has to.” As Twilight Sparkle built up the power for her own teleport, she added, “Thanks for the good fight.”
Twilight Sparkle disappeared without leaving behind a teleport signature as was to be expected of one of her station. That left Trixie alone on stage. She turned to look out at the still cheering crowd. As far as she could tell, they’d not lost any enthusiasm despite the archmage’s departure.
I still lost.
Trixie stared blankly out at the crowd for a few moments longer. Then, horribly awkwardly, she did the only thing that came to mind: she took a bow.
Reclined on the chaise lounge she’d conjured outside of Rarity’s boutique, Twilight contemplated the duel she’d just fought. It’d been a good way to get back on her hooves after a long stay at the hospital. She’d made some unintentional errors putting on a show with Trixie and had paid once or twice for underestimating her opponent, but all in all, she’d enjoyed herself. It almost made her regret apparently ignoring Trixie to the point of forgetting whatever encounters they’d had with one another, especially when she’d at least given Moon Dancer the time of day.
Oh well. No changing the past. Thoughts of Pinkie Pie popped into her head. Well, probably not.
Off in the distance, Twilight heard Sweetie Belle impatiently say, “See? I told you she would be here.”
“Yes, dear, you did,” Rarity replied with some exhaustion seeping into her voice. “Now do try to behave yourself this time.”
Twilight saw no need to rush, so she waited patiently for the pair to arrive and chose to continue basking in the sun with eyes closed. That soon came to an end, however, as an excited Sweetie Belle approached and immediately launched into an only slightly exaggerated recounting of her duel with Trixie.
Rarity eventually managed to settle Sweetie Belle down and then turned her attention onto Twilight. “Good afternoon, Your Excellency. What can we do for you today?”
“Well, for one, it’s still just Twilight unless we’re in a formal setting. I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other in the future.”
“Oh?” Rarity said. There was surprise in her voice but not of an unwelcome variety. Sweetie Belle’s reaction, of course, didn’t need description. “Why don’t you come inside? We can talk there.”
After dispelling the chair she’d made for herself, Twilight followed the sisters inside. Rarity’s store and home, the Carousel Boutique, had a circular design. The entire ground floor was dedicated to displays, changing rooms, racks of dresses, mirrors, and all the other public functions of her business. A set of stairs at the back led up the her private residence and workroom. As they did genuinely need to take Twilight’s measurements, they remained downstairs for the time being.
Rarity, as she gathered the things she would require, said, “Sweetie Belle, could you leave us alone for the moment?” It wasn’t a request, and the look of betrayal Sweetie Belle had on her face let everypony know she knew it. “You can come back down later if you want. Assuming Her – er, Twilight here doesn’t mind.”
“I do need to have a private conversation with your sister,” Twilight said. She gave Sweetie Belle a reassuring look. “We can chat before I leave, I promise.”
That was enough to get Twilight and Rarity some alone time, although Sweetie Belle still stopped to look back every other step of the way upstairs as though she thought Twilight would disappear if left unobserved. And to be perfectly fair, if she were any other foal, Twilight knew herself well enough to know she wouldn’t care to linger once her business was finished.
Then mostly because who knew what divination spells Sweetie Belle knew to eavesdrop with, Twilight set up the usual collection of privacy spells to prevent just that. She would be discussing sensitive information that needed protection anyway, of course, but the primary source of worry was a precocious foal only one story up.
Now that they were alone, Rarity began the measuring process and tried not to channel too much of Sweetie Belle’s energy as Twilight began the process of making thaumic thread from scratch. It wasn’t that difficult, really, when one had a lot of magical power and control. She showed Rarity with only a little hesitance how to form solidified magic, dissolve it into fibers, and then spin it into thread without causing it to explode or produce another random spell effect.
“If anything goes wrong when you try this yourself,” Twilight said, knowing Rarity wouldn’t be able to help herself, “have Sweetie Belle summon me immediately. And make sure she’s around and paying enough attention to actually do so if you can’t ask her yourself.”
Rarity readily promised to take such basic cautionary measures. She then adopted a mysterious, knowing smile. “So she has your” – she faltered for a moment, looking for the right term before defaulting – “mailing address as well, does she? I knew she had your son’s, but your personal one? Is there any special meaning I should take from that?”
“Not exactly. I needed her to practice the flame sending spell, and I was in the same room. But the situation has developed since. I’m going to need to have that talk with your parents sooner than expected.”
“Oh dear,” Rarity mumbled. “That doesn’t sound good. Has Sweetie Belle done something?”
“Well…yes but no. It’s my fault, really.”
From upstairs came a high-pitched shriek, or was it a wail of despair? Rarity had already bolted toward the stairs when Twilight called for her to stop.
“But–” Rarity tried to protest.
“She’s fine,” Twilight said. She’d even scryed the upper floors just to be sure. “And she definitely doesn’t want company right now.”
Hesitantly, Rarity stepped away from the stairs. “Why not?” she asked as she returned to the platform she’d had Twilight climb for measurements.
“I…may have played a little prank on her when she barged in on my afternoon tea with Berry Punch. She just discovered it.”
Rarity directed a stern look at Twilight, one she no doubt used to great effect on her sister.
“Yeah, I know. I feel bad enough about it already. It has…complications.” And they were on a level infinitely removed from good taste.
“Nothing…permanent, I hope.”
Even if Twilight kept Sweetie Belle out of the conflict with Luna and Luna never bothered her, there would still be mixed consequences. Generosity wasn’t, strictly speaking, bad, but according to Celestia, it was addictive and took a lot of getting used to before the bearer could tolerate even small crowds while wearing it.
“Do you happen to know any languages Sweetie Belle doesn’t?”
“A couple, yes.” Rarity’s voice had a sharp edge to it that let Twilight know she’d not been distracted.
“I highly recommend that you make a habit of thinking in one of them around Sweetie Belle from now on.” Twilight, in fact, had already switched over to Old Ponish. It was probably for the best she make more regular use of it, anyway. Luna had a bad habit of slipping into the language when speaking of the distant past. At any rate, it was time to deliver the first bit of news. “She just found herself in possession of a necklace that grants her involuntary telepathy in a radius when worn.”
The tape measure around Twilight’s barrel went a bit past snug.
“The Crusaders have a mind reading necklace? I – you – do you understand how disastrous that is?”
In the larger picture, that had little relevance, but Twilight did understand Rarity’s distress. “If it makes you feel any better, it only works for Sweetie Belle now that she’s bonded to it.” And rather remarkably, she still hadn’t put it on yet, too busy fretting over what she was going to tell Index, no doubt.
“That…helps, darling.” The weakness in Rarity’s voice didn’t really agree with her words. “But why did you give it to her?”
“I didn’t. While I was sleeping in the hospital” – and by this point Twilight felt sure that her experiment had succeeded and her long stay there had been worth it – “she took it from me.”
Shocked, Rarity’s magic failed her. Her tape measure, notes, and pen fell to the ground in a clatter. Then she recovered her voice. “Sweetie Belle stole from you? Oh, dear Celestia, I apologize for–”
Twilight held up a hoof to forestall the oncoming grovelling. “The artifact itself draws suitable bearers to it. The call is very difficult to resist. And I asked a favor of her that put her into its proximity. As I said before, this is my fault. I’m honestly surprised she didn’t bond with it before my ill-conceived prank earlier.”
Her uncertainty written on her face, Rarity chose not to reply to that – not yet, at least.
“Anyway, I have good news, bad news, and worse news. Which would you like to hear first?”
“Bad then worse,” Rarity replied without hesitation. “I’d like to end this on a high note, if you don’t mind.”
Nodding, Twilight took a moment to consider the best choice of words. Perhaps a little context to lead into the bad news would work. “The artifact Sweetie Belle has is called the Element of Generosity. It’s part of a set of six, the Elements of Harmony. Individually, they’re of interest for their magical properties, but together they are absurdly powerful. The Element of Magic bonded with me not too long ago. I’ve left it in Celestia’s care for the time being, so when I say this, understand that I mean it. Parting with an Element is not easy. The call of Magic is always there in the back of my mind. Generosity is the worst of the set. After getting used to it, Celestia says removing it is a lot like making yourself deaf.”
After a few moments to process the information, Rarity said, “I see. That’s not so bad.”
Twilight shrugged. She fully intended to help Sweetie Belle through the transition, so whatever difficulties arose should be minimized. “The worse news is Celestia has a sister.”
Eyes wide in surprise, Rarity only managed a shocked, “What?”
“And unfortunately,” Twilight continued, “she’s due to return to Equestria soon. Luna is more gifted than Celestia in magical combat, and she’s…unhappy with her sister.”
Rarity connected the dots on her own. “You said the Elements of Harmony…” She paled. “You need Sweetie Belle to fight her.”
“I do.” It hadn’t exactly been her finest moment deliberately bonding Sweetie Belle to Generosity. But at the same time, Twilight knew they would get along well enough to power the Elements. “If I fail, I…” And now she realized that her deal with Luna didn’t cover the fate of the other Element bearers. That…had been a terrible mistake on her part. In her defense, at the time, the only other one had been Lyra. “I can shield Sweetie Belle from Luna if I fail.” Surely she could at least do that much. Luna couldn’t keep the Elements from her or stop her from finding replacement bearers, and the spirit of their bargain would prevent her from trying to use them on Luna again anyway.
Rarity fell to her haunches and buried her face in her hooves. “Does it matter if I say no?”
“I’m sorry, but no.”
To Twilight’s surprise, Rarity managed to collect herself remarkably quickly. She was made of stern stuff, it seemed, far sterner than Twilight had expected of a rural, wannabe socialite. If only Generosity had bonded with her instead.
“And the good news?”
“Well, I hope it’s still good news,” Twilight said a little nervously. Sweetie Belle’s family did still have the final call over her education after the solstice. “The Elements of Harmony as a whole are powered by friendship. I was already thinking about this, but Generosity bonding with Sweetie Belle decided me. I’d like to do for her what Celestia did for me.”
That, oddly, shocked Rarity more than the situation with Luna. Perhaps because it’d lacked any lead in, she’d not had the time to prepare herself for revelation. Once she found her voice, she weakly asked, “You want to take her as your apprentice?”
“Well, it wasn’t something so formal for me, but yes, more or less. Celestia kept me near to guide and assist me in my studies. She opened the entire Canterlot Archives to me and even her own personal collection. Some ponies, who will remain nameless, thought I’d never be heard from again. If Sweetie Belle needs something more structured than what I had, I’ll figure something out.”
To Rarity’s continued silence, Twilight added, “Um, assuming she accepts the offer and there are no objections.”
“No!” Rarity shouted before regaining her normal poise. She faked a cough, and then tried again. “No, I have no objections. And I will not allow our parents to interfere with this.”
Now that all the dramatic reveals were finished, Rarity collected the things she’d dropped and went back to work. They finished taking measurements quickly enough and would have then turned to a collaborative design session to decide on a rough outline for the robes Twilight wanted, but Rarity was quite clearly too distracted to properly indulge in the creative process. It only took a little pressing after they sat down at a table for the questions to pour forth from her.
“As a practical matter,” Rarity began, “how will this arrangement work? I know you lived in the castle with Princess Celestia, but what about Sweetie Belle?”
Twilight honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead yet. She had the vague intention of attempting to replicate her experience as Celestia’s protégé, but such things as living arrangements and long-term lesson plans hadn’t even graced her mind. After giving the matter a little thought, she replied, “Until Sweetie Belle builds up her magic enough to teleport around at will, it’d be best for her if she stayed at the castle to have better access to me. Where she goes after is up to her. For now, I could clear out a room in my tower for her. Or we could house her somewhere nearby in the castle if you wanted to move in with her.” It’d certainly been a relief and a comfort to have Shining so close at hoof when she’d been in Sweetie Belle’s shoes.
“The latter would be an easier sell to my parents,” Rarity commented with an energy that failed to hide her own excitement at the possibility. “She would be able to have visitors?”
“As long as the castle is still standing at the end of the day.”
A nervous titter slipped past Rarity’s lips. “Yes, I’m sure she and her friends can rein in their more…”
“Not the word I was going to use, darling, but yes. Perhaps you could make health and safety a particular focus of her studies at first?”
Twilight recalled her early experiments had often ended with her injured even when she’d learned enough to try to shield herself from the fallout. In hindsight, she wished she’d had somepony to teach her proper protective measures early on despite how boring the subject could be. It was an important skill to know how spells could go wrong, how to correct errors at leisure in controlled settings, and how to abandon ship when time was critical and every millisecond counted. Maybe she could incorporate it into a series of lessons designed to help Sweetie Belle learn from failure.
That would actually work well. I could teach her a protective spell, let her get comfortable with it, and then give her a bugged spell later on designed to fail precisely in a manner she can defend against. If she notices the error and corrects it, great. If not, I can tell her to investigate what happened and why. Point her in the direction of some useful resources if she needs the help. That’ll help her learn about the mechanics behind how magic actually works. Hmm… Celestia never did that with me, but then I guess I was already doing it to myself before we ever met. Still, I wonder if that’s asking too much from Sweetie Belle. Even I know not everypony learns best the way I do.
A slightly less than gentle nudge with an accompanying, “Twilight?” brought her out of her thoughts.
“Ah, sorry.” Twilight offered Rarity an apologetic smile. “Teaching and not hating it is new for me. I got a little lost reflecting on how I wanted to go about this.”
“Perfectly all right, darling.”
“You have the right idea, though,” Twilight continued. “If I’m going to give Sweetie Belle access to thousands of spells she can hurt or even kill herself with, I’m gong to need to drill proper caution into her head. Preferably in a way she enjoys so she doesn’t shy away from it.” A little hesitant, she added, “And probably in a manner unpleasant enough for her to learn its value as I did.”
Rarity pursed her lips together. “You mean you’re going to let her hurt herself?”
“Only in a controlled manner so she learns not to let far greater harm befall her in the future. Magic is dangerous.” Twilight wanted there to be no uncertainty in that. “It’s best she learns that early and…viscerally. Through means which don’t leave her afraid of it, of course.”
“Hmm, I’m not sure I approve,” Rarity said, “but magic is your field of expertise. And I do wish she would stop taking years off my life with her stunts.”
Twilight considered if it was best to say anything more before ultimately deciding to go ahead. “If it makes you feel any better, she’ll someday learn the polymorph spell. Anything short of an immediately fatal injury will wash off her. A seapony gouged a hole straight through my arm not too long ago, and as you can see” – she held up the affected limb and waved it around – “no lasting harm done.”
“Your ability to inspire confidence amazes me,” Rarity flatly replied. She did, however, look a little more closely at Twilight’s uninjured arm. “How exactly does that work?”
The precise details and mechanics were ridiculously complicated, but Twilight did her best to summarize it in laypony terms. “The polymorph spell performs a full transmutation on the subject’s body, leaving a copy of sorts of the original form in memory with a magical buffer to provide enough power to fully reverse the process when the spell expires. It’s the most general living transmutation spell known to unicorns, able to affect age, gender, color, and so on and so forth.”
“That sounds like a designer’s dream.” If she hadn’t already had so much dropped on her today, Twilight suspected Rarity would be gushing about it as she had thaumic thread before. “Is that what Silver Bell uses for her work?”
“Yes,” Twilight said simply and without further explanation. She expected Sweetie Belle to find out about changelings someday, but Rarity was another story entirely.
A thought must have struck Rarity then, as she furrowed her brow and fell silent for some time. Once she’d taken a few moments for herself, she asked, “Does that spell affect the brain as well?”
Ah, a mare of philosophy. Twilight had long since fielded all those questions from her mother and had a ready answer. “It does, and yes, that affects behavior to some degree. I particularly don’t enjoy being male, for example. But to answer what you’re really asking, pony brains are too simple to have much of our identity in them. Most of that is in our magic and remains unaffected by the spell.” Which, incidentally, was why Twilight didn’t live life as an alicorn or otherwise change species often. She had unicorn magic. No biological adjustments would change that, and simulating the magic of other species was a taxing chore usually not worth the effort.
Before Rarity could ask another question, Twilight felt somepony step over the boundary of her privacy spells. She turned her gaze toward the stairs, Rarity’s following with, and found Sweetie Belle timidly walking down them with her saddlebags as bulgy as Twilight had last seen them.
The filly in question emitted a startled, “Eep!”
“–we’re not quite done here yet. Do you need something?”
“I… I…do.” Sweetie Belle nervously took a few steps closer to address Twilight. “Could you help me with something?”
Knowing what this was about already, Twilight replied with a noncommittal, “Possibly. What do you need?”
Sweetie Belle slid her saddlebags off her back, unbuttoned them, and pulled out Generosity and the metal sphere Twilight had conjured. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Rarity’s gaze lock onto the Element with the same vacant look Moon Dancer had around Magic. She clicked her tongue. It was too late to change bearers now. Under the table, she kicked Rarity just hard enough to get her to snap back to reality.
Meanwhile, Sweetie Belle spun her story. “When I left home this morning, I had a stone sphere…thing. At some point during the day, it turned into these. I don’t know how or when or why, but it’s very important that I return them to normal.”
Sweetie Belle twitched – nearly pounced – when Twilight took Generosity into her own magic and drew it closer. Sweetie Belle, naturally, followed in its wake. The metal sphere, however, she dispelled without a thought.
“No!” Sweetie Belle cried. “I need that! Index is going to hate meeee!”
Across the table, Rarity directed a pointed look at Twilight which she ignored. She already knew this was her mess to clean up. The question was how. She wanted to ease Sweetie Belle into Index’s true identity in the hope of keeping the rapport they’d already built without muddying the waters with too much idolatry. She could discard that approach to comfort Sweetie Belle now, but that would probably be more trouble than it was worth. She’d just have to go with Celestia’s usual approach to this sort of situation and weave enough half-truths to get by until the time was right for the full truth. Besides, that was what mentors did, wasn’t it? Utter a bunch of cryptic nonsense that only made sense in hindsight?
Twilight lifted Sweetie Belle’s head with a gentle magical push. “Index isn’t going to hate you. I promise. This–” She first looked to Rarity and then nodded to Generosity. Rarity must have gotten the message, as she nodded back. “–is the Element of Generosity. It called to you, and you answered it.” She needed to lecture Sweetie Belle on the dangers of mysterious magical artifacts, especially ones that touched the mind, but that would keep until later. “Index is here looking for a bearer for each Element in her possession. I think she will be very happy to learn one of them chose you.”
“Of course.” Twilight shifted of her seat and lowered herself down onto her barrel. At eye level, she smiled warmly and wrapped Generosity around Sweetie Belle’s neck. The moment she fastened it in place, Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened.
“This – am I–”
Nodding, Twilight leaned a little closer to whisper. “Yes, little telepath, it does exactly what you think it does. I warned Rarity in advance.”
Sweetie Belle wasn’t entirely able to hide the pout threatening to bloom on her face.
Twilight chuckled as she leaned back. “Why don’t you go practice with it and try to find Index. I’ll let her know you’re coming.”
“I… Well…” Sweetie Belle gnawed on her lip until Rarity called her on the unladylike behavior. Still, she glanced uncertainly between Generosity, the door, and Twilight.
“We’ll see each other again another time,” Twilight promised. “Generosity is a priceless national treasure. I’ll be in contact.”
So reassured, Sweetie Belle only somewhat reluctantly departed. Twilight called out, “Steer clear of crowds for now,” after her, having nearly forgotten that warning. Then once she’d fully gone, Twilight found her way back to her seat and noticed Rarity watching her with a look of approval. She arched an eyebrow.
“You’re good with foals.”
Twilight scoffed. “I’m good with precocious foals I like. Others, not so much. I have no more patience for them now than I did when I was that age.”
“And your own?” Rarity asked, a knowing smirk playing at her lips.
“Hmph. I’m a doting mother for every reason that implies.”
A dainty hoof covering her mouth couldn’t hide Rarity’s laughter.
Twilight paid the reaction no mind and pulled a book she’d collected on her trip earlier in the day from her bag of holding. “Here.” She placed it on the table. “This describes the treatment necessary to turn cloth infused with thaumic thread into a proper enchanted artifact. I’ve never done it myself, so do remember what I said about magic being dangerous and start small.”
With a delighted, “Thank you, darling,” Rarity took the thin book in her magic and rapidly flipped through the pages.
“I should get going. We can continue our discussions later. I need to take care of a few more things around town today, and Index needs to actually show up for Sweetie Belle to find.”