Chapter Eleven - Shifting Dynamics

“The specimen possesses an equally curious and frustrating ability to survive the destruction of its ‘body’. Indeed, its body, for lack of a better term, seems to be nothing more than a particularly dense concentration of its magic. This amorphous nature makes for some truly remarkable properties worthy of study, but as a creature lacking a physical form, it also displays a number of unique vulnerabilities. An intriguing attempt at expanded power and immortality, no doubt, but ultimately a flawed one.”

Index appeared in the midst of Pinkie Pie’s room. She had too much to do right now and little desire to track down every single pony who’d visited her in the hospital to find out who’d taken the other missing Element. She’d pass that task off to the pony who actually liked socializing and had uncanny magical powers to assist in the effort. Unfortunately, and a little surprisingly, Pinkie Pie wasn’t in her room in the middle of the afternoon. Giving the suite of known abilities available to her, Index had kind of expected she’d just be there on demand for guests. Perhaps the Cakes would know where she’d gone off to.

On her way out of the room, Index ran into a ‘note’ left out for her dangling from a string connected to a balloon just in front of the door. Huh. Maybe Pinkie Pie did know I was going to drop by looking for her here. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but like most things Pinkie Pie, she shoved those uncertain emotions down for later analysis after the solstice. It probably wasn’t the healthiest approach to take, but she’d already had multiple blow ups on this mission and didn’t need to actively pursue more trouble.

The note, if one could call it that, was a sheet of pink construction paper folded into a remarkable likeness of Pinkie Pie on a roughly thirty to one scale. There were even little googly eyes attached to the face with a speech bubble popping out. ‘To Index,’ it read in white crayon. The overly artistic eyesore came loose with a light tug of magic and unfolded with little difficulty.

‘Totally took Kindness while you were asleep. Super sorry. At Fluttershy’s.’

Index calmly set the note down, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.

And then Twilight incinerated the letter. For good measure, she threw the ashes onto the carpeting, stomped on them with her hoof, and then rubbed them in as hard as she could, all while grinding her teeth together. She might have resolved to give friendship a try with Pinkie Pie, but that didn’t mean she was going to let the anomaly ruin everything. Lyra having Honesty was bad enough, and then she’d tossed Sweetie Belle under a carriage. Now this. If Kindness didn’t destroy the strange little fantasy world Pinkie Pie lived in where everything was sunshine and rainbows, then it most certainly would make her exponentially more unbearable.

You better have taken Kindness for Fluttershy and not yourself.

In a blink, Twilight teleported back to the Carousel Boutique. Rarity hadn’t moved in the short time she’d been alone, content to either read or pretend to read her new book.


The mare in question jumped with a shriek of surprise.

“–I need directions to Fluttershy’s house.”

After a visibly very nervous once-over, Rarity steeled herself and rose from her seat. “You need nothing of the sort in your state. You shall see neither hide nor hair of her if you go storming in ready for a fight, I promise you that.”

“It’s not her I’m after,” Twilight growled.

“Oh dear.” Her tone softening, Rarity asked, “What did Pinkie do?”

“She took Kindness.”

It took a few moments before Rarity caught on to Twilight’s meaning. “Isn’t that a good thing?” she asked once she had. “Pinkie is one of friendliest, most welcoming ponies in town.”

“Abrasively friendly,” Twilight replied. “And Kindness is the empathic Element.”

Rarity slowly frowned. “I see how that might worry you. Pinkie can be a little…grating in large doses. But there’s no point in being mad, now is there? From what you told Sweetie Belle, she could hardly help herself.” Her gaze grew a little distant, no doubt recalling the lesser influence Generosity, already bonded, had exerted over her. “You’ll simply have to make the best of it. Give her a chance. She’s really very nice. And do remember that this isn’t all about you. There will be four other ponies on your team to split her attention.”

“Fine,” Twilight grumbled. She hated that she couldn’t deny the logic in any of that. “Can I have directions now?”

With a thoughtful hum, Rarity said, “In time, darling. First, I think you would benefit from a few moments to relax.”

“I don’t have time for a spa trip,” Twilight deadpanned.

Rarity chuckled. “As pleasant as that sounds, I was thinking of something more traditional. Join me for tea?”

“I…suppose.” It probably was a better idea not to go in with magic flaring and her temper on a hair-trigger. With some reluctance, she acceded to follow Rarity upstairs to her kitchen.

As they climbed the stairs, Rarity said, “Now if you’re going to visit Fluttershy, you should keep in mind that she’s the quintessential introvert. The poor dear is ever so shy. Hence the name, I suppose. But I wonder… Does your polymorph spell allow you to change species?”

A little brown sparrow hopped back and forth on a nearby roof in what passed for a reasonable facsimile of pacing. It’d been doing that for the last five minutes now, occasionally glancing down toward the family before returning to its strange task. Oddly, another pair of sparrows not too far away seemed almost exasperated with the other one’s behavior, at times shaking their heads or covering their face with a wing.

“Spike? Are you paying attention?”


Cadance raised her eyebrows in question when Spike failed to deliver even an attempt at pretending he had been.

“Oh, uh, sorry…” Spike scratched the back of his head and returned his gaze to the birds on the roof. They were still there and still just as strange in their behavior. He pointed a claw at them. “There’s something weird about those sparrows.”

Both Cadance and Flurry looked up from the board game they were playing. All three of them staring at said birds resulted in the two who had been standing back and watching flying up to the nervous one. They pushed it over the edge, and mutual glares were exchanged between the two parties.

“I see your point,” Cadance dryly commented over Flurry’s snickers. She raised her voice to be heard and called out, “You can come down now. I’m afraid you’re not fooling anyone.”

Spike had never seen a sparrow show embarrassment before, but he felt certain he had now as it glided down toward them. It landed on an empty space of their picnic blanket and then, in a rush of ice blue fire, it transformed into a young, distinctly female changeling. Unlike the few undisguised ones Spike had seen, this one had a ruby coloring to her chitin around her abdomen and a lighter tint to her wings alongside generally more defined features. She kind of looked like a young Queen Chrysalis who’d undergone a palette swap.

“Um, hello,” the changeling said as much to her hooves as anyone else. “I’m, well, I came from Ponyville, and Archmage Twilight said I could come visit?”

Cadance adopted a soft, disarming smile and took initiative. “Of course you can. Do you like Dragon Pit?”

“I’ve never played.” The changeling looked even more nervous for the admission, but Cadance just waved the worry away.

“It’s very self-explanatory. We take turns rolling the dice and moving our piece, and then we take whatever action the space we land on says. The goal is to be the last dragon standing. Simple, no?”

Although the nod remained uncertain, the changeling sat down and accepted the dragon piece Spike handed her from the box. Resetting the game took no time at all. As they did so, they ran through their probably unnecessary introductions and then waited on the changeling’s.

“I’m Ocellus. I’m from Chrysalis’s hive.”

Spike felt certain they’d all assumed that already, but it did open Ocellus up to a follow-up question. “Why do you look so different from every other changeling I’ve met?” He noticed Cadance direct a mildly disapproving glare his way, most likely at the brusque nature of his wording, but he still felt it was fair to ask.

“Oh! Uh, I’m a young queen. I’m sorry I forgot to mention that.”

“Really?” Cadance asked with perhaps a little more surprise than she should. “No one ever bothered to tell me Chrysalis had a…well, daughter, but I’m unsure what the proper term is.”

A tiny smile – just an upturning at the corners of her mouth, really – grew on Ocellus. “Daughter or heiress is fine.”

Flurry, with a scrutinizing eye, asked, “How old are you?”

When Ocellus replied that she’d recently turned ten, Cadance observed, “Then you hatched not long after your hive moved to Equestria.”

If changelings could blush untransformed, Spike was sure Ocellus would be. “I’m told we made the journey specifically to feed me.”

That, rather predictably, earned a sappy comment about Queen Chrysalis from Cadance that went largely ignored. At the same time, Flurry asked, “So what’s being princess of the hive like?”

“Oh, well…” After some time to think about it, Ocellus replied, “It was…different before Thorax, well, you know. I don’t remember much from back then, but I don’t think it’s all that dissimilar from your life. Mother teaches me about being queen, but I don’t really have many other responsibilities. I’m a little…sheltered.”

The feeling had been building, but Spike now had the distinct impression that he and Flurry were going to be a bad influence on Ocellus in all the best ways possible. He and Flurry, who appeared to be on exactly the same page, traded mischievous smirks while Cadance and Ocellus weren’t looking. They were going to teach this shy, sheltered princess how to have fun. And if the letters they’d been swapping with the Cutie Mark Crusaders held even the slightest grain of truth, life might be about to get very interesting.

Index walked down the path to Fluttershy’s home on the far, far outskirts of town and far too close to the Everfree for her liking. Had she not had two unawakened Elements in her possession, she no doubt would have felt the forest’s magic prickle at her horn – not strong enough to contest her own power, of course, but certainly not blind to her presence. She found herself at a loss for why anypony would want to live out here. Sure, it was isolated, but there were far better ways to obtain a little peace and quiet away from other ponies.

At any rate, the cottage at the end of the path stood at the top of a small hill with a creek surrounding nearly three-quarters of the structure. A single bridge spanned the stream. Unlike the preferred thatched roofing Ponyville proper preferred, Fluttershy’s home had a thick covering of moss. The most distinct feature, however, was the abundance of animals. They were everywhere. Beavers, otters, birds, hedgehogs, rabbits, raccoons, eagles, falcons, flamingos, and more. Index even thought she saw a bear slip into the less deadly fringe of the Everfree Forest.

“That’s a lot of animals.” Index had no more intelligent comment at the ready as she took the sight in. The closest she’d ever come to owning a pet herself was looking after Philomena, the largely self-reliant phoenix, for Celestia when she had to leave the country. That was trouble enough.

And speaking of trouble, Pinkie Pie came out of nowhere and glomped Index. Having expected something along that line, she didn’t didn’t even freeze up, much less fling Pinkie Pie into the sky. But she kind of wanted to anyway when Pinkie Pie commenced babbling.

“Oh my gosh, Index! Long time no see! For you, I mean, not for me. How are you feeling? Those hospital beds didn’t look very comfy. I tried one, and it was terrible, but at least you got some real sleep. Sure, it was feverish sleep, but fever dreams can be pretty cool! Oh, and sorry again for taking Kindness without asking, but it was just sitting there when I came in on top of a whoooole bunch of other stuff, and I figured you wouldn’t mind anyways, so I just went ahead and snuck it out before the nurses or anypony else noticed your stuff!”

Index breathed deeply, and then pried Pinkie Pie off of her. She set the mare down on all four hooves a meter away, took an extra step back herself, and even then she found that she hadn’t quite gotten her personal space back. Still, it would do for now.

“Pinkie Pie, where is Kindness?”


Index sealed Pinkie Pie’s mouth shut with magic before she could ramble off another hundred paragraph in a single breath. “Let me try that again. Do you have Kindness?”

Without the ability to produce words – and thankfully, that did seem to be the case – Pinkie Pie shook her head.

“Does Fluttershy have Kindness?”

This time Pinkie Pie nodded.

“Wonderful,” Index said, genuinely pleased. She released the seal on Pinkie Pie’s mouth. “Thank you for the concise answers. Will you introduce us?” Better that than suffer the indignity of Rarity’s suggestion. She refused to polymorph into a fluffy bunny unless it became absolutely necessary.

“Of course! I’ll just head back in and get her warmed up for you. Give me a few minutes.”

And like that, Pinkie Pie pranced back up the path to the cottage on top of the hill. Index followed after at a much more sedate pace and waited just outside the open door out of sight.

“Pinkie,” said what was presumably Fluttershy in a diminutive voice, “I know you really wanted me to get this to work, but it just won’t.”

Well, I suppose I wasn’t at all invested in Fluttershy yet anyway. There were other ponies who could bear Kindness.

“I’m so sorry,” Fluttershy continued, “but I just don’t think I’m cut out for it. Even if it is a really nice necklace.”

Index’s eyes narrowed. If Kindness had already awakened, its bearer should have no trouble getting it to function. That meant it didn’t belong to Fluttershy, which in turn meant somepony else had bonded with it, and the only other pony who’d had a chance was the one trying to pass it off to her.

“Nonsense! My friend Index is right behind me. She’ll have you ready and able in two shakes of your tail.”

A heavy, resigned sigh rushed past Index’s lips. She cast a scrying spell to verify that, although Fluttershy did have Kindness around her neck, the gem it bore matched perfectly with Pinkie Pie’s cutie mark. I’ll need to thank Rarity again later for detaining me at her place until I calmed down.

“A new pony?” Fluttershy asked, her voice quavering. Index didn’t need to scry her to know that she’d sunk into herself. “I don’t know…”

Best put an end to this. Lightly rapping on the door with her magic, Index stepped into view. She politely ignored the startled eep she got in return and Fluttershy’s futile attempts to hide behind her own mane. “Excuse me. I need to borrow Pinkie Pie for a few moments.”

Without waiting for an answer, Index magically snagged Pinkie Pie by the ear and marched her out of the cottage. Once they had the illusion of privacy, Index plainly stated, “You can’t lend Kindness out. We need it at full strength, which means–”

A quiet eep emitted from the cottage as Kindness teleported into Index’s waiting hoof. She paid it no mind as she unhooked the necklace, resigned herself to the inevitable, and finally wrapped it around Pinkie Pie’s neck.

“–this is yours. If you didn’t want it, you shouldn’t have touched it.”

“But it was meant for Fluttershy!” Pinkie Pie protested. She casually removed Kindness from her neck, apparently entirely unfazed by the call. While that was odd and a little enviable, it was Pinkie Pie. Who knew what went on in her head.

Index refused to take Kindness back and stood between Pinkie Pie and the cottage door. “Elements aren’t meant for any one pony. I can name three ponies suited to bear Generosity” – counting Celestia – “four for Magic” – assuming Sunset could – “two for Honesty” – including Luna – “and now three for Kindness. Yes, I heard the longing in Fluttershy’s voice just now, but that doesn’t change the simple fact that it already bonded with you.”

“But I don’t… When I wear Kindness…” Pinkie Pie visibly wilted with her mood. Even her mane and tail became a little less bouncy. “I’m not meant for it.”

Index breathed in deep, and Twilight let it out. “Pinkie Pie… Pinkie, put on Kindness. Please. For me.”

And because Kindness had chosen to bond with her, of course Pinkie Pie did so.

“I don’t like you.”

The bluntness made Pinkie Pie wince, but it certainly got her to sit quietly and listen.

“I like to be left alone. You need constant attention. You terrify, confuse, annoy, and fascinate me all at the same time. If you’d shown up at any other point in my life, we wouldn’t even be talking.” Twilight paused to bring Pinkie Pie’s drooping eyes back up to hers. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends now. If you can try to appreciate my jade-colored glasses, I can try to appreciate your rose-tinted world.”

Pinkie Pie carefully said, “You mean that,” playing with the words aloud as she fidgeted with Kindness around her neck.

Twilight gave Pinkie Pie a weak smile. “It’s probably not what you deserve, but it’s all a sour, prickly mare like me has to offer. Friends?”

“Of course! I–” Pinkie Pie abruptly stopped halfway to another crushing hug. “Oh. Sorry, I–”

With a little sigh, Twilight stepped forward and wrapped an arm around Pinkie Pie’s neck. She usually drew a wide line concerning that sort of physical contact with mere acquaintances, but a simple hug felt like the least she could do for what she was asking. “Just give me some warning and some space when I need it, okay?”

Pinkie Pie nodded into Twilight’s neck.

“I’m sorry I’m not going to make this easy for you,” Twilight said as they broke apart, “but thank you. I would say you have no idea how much this means to me, but you probably do.”

“Of course I do, silly!” Pinkie Pie laughed as she said that and tapped Kindness. “That’s what this is for.”

Twilight smiled a little more warmly at that. While Kindness took it to a much higher level, she was well used to that particular violation of privacy from the changelings.

“That was so sweet.”

Oh, right. Twilight had forgotten they had an audience. The moment Fluttershy realized she’d been heard, she let out a sheepish squeak and pulled her head back inside her cottage. Well…Pinkie Pie can deal with that. I need to go let Sweetie Belle finally find me. “Can I trust you to swear Fluttershy to secrecy?”

With a ridiculously inaccurate salute, Pinkie Pie replied, “You can count on me!” and then hopped off back into the cottage after her friend.

Three knocks came at the door, and then Derpy called out, “Rainbow Dash, I’ve got some mail for you!”

From her dining room, Rainbow Dash groaned. She quickly took the first bite of her fresh, delectable, overdue dinner and then left the cloud holding her fork in place with a huff. “Go ahead and start without me, Squirt,” she said to Scootaloo. “Remember, no wings or hooves.”

“I wasn’t going to!”

Rainbow Dash arched her eyebrows at Scootaloo’s fidgeting arms and the shaking spoon suspended in a cloud awkwardly trying to find her mouth without spilling. They were still working on her ability to effect smooth, precise movements. She was doing a lot better than when she’d started, but Rainbow Dash was glad she lived in a cloud house and only rarely had to clean up the mess.

Whatever. She either practices or she doesn’t. Not my problem.

Except she’d kind of made the squirt her problem just like she had the last pegasus who had trouble flying, but Rainbow Dash paid that thought no mind. Instead, she impatiently – but at heart lazily – suppressed her body’s natural magic and sank through the clouds of her house until she broke her fall on the lowest floor. Following that shortcut, it was only a short few steps to the front door. When she opened it, her usual mailmare greeted her.

“You know I have a mailbox, right?”

Digging around in her mailbag, Derpy replied, “I know, but the boss said I have to absolutely make sure you one-hundred percent get your mail today, no excuses.” Sticking her tongue out, she shifted her bag to let her stick her head inside of it for a closer look. “I know they’re in here somewhere…”

“Hmph. You can tell our esteemed postmaster I’m perfectly happy with my mailmare.” Celestia, but Rainbow Dash hated the postal system in earth pony towns. Derpy was the best thing to ever happen to the service even if it sometimes required her to hunt down or trade mail with other ponies. “So what’s so important that he’s bothering you?”

A muffled, “Found one!” came from the bag of mail. Derpy, despite the poor light, her eye condition, and her dyslexia, none of which made her job any easier, emerged from her bag with an envelope hanging from her mouth. Rainbow Dash took it with a hoof, only for her to disappear back into her bag again.

This is from the Wonderbolts. Even if she weren’t a fan, Rainbow Dash would have recognized the seal by now. With a silent sigh, she let the wind carry that one up to her office where Scootaloo wouldn’t find it. The squirt knew not to go in there, and weather management was boring, anyway.

“Aha! Here you go.” Derpy held out another letter, this one bearing the royal seal of the sun and moon. Anypony with a government job would recognize it.

Stunned, Rainbow Dash asked, “What? But…why?”

“Don’t know,” Derpy mumbled through a corner of her mouth. She waved the letter insistently, and Rainbow Dash mechanically reached out for it. “See ya later.”

Rainbow Dash, now alone, turned the envelope over to see which member of the royal family had sent it to her. The return address read as Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, the one and only pegasus princess – well, until she’d given birth, but that wasn’t the point. Practically every pegasus looked up to her!

Conjuring a bit of cloud from the water vapor in the air, unwilling to wait, Rainbow Dash channeled enough of her magic through it to turn it into a passable paper knife. After she broke the wax seal, she tossed the envelope onto a table nearby in case she needed it later and then made her way back upstairs. As she climbed, she repurposed the cloud she’d formed to hold the letter open in front of her. Unicorns had their fancy-schmancy telekinesis; she had clouds.

‘Dear Rainbow Dash,

‘I hope this letter finds you well and in good humor. There will be a few major changes coming to Equestria with the turning of the millennium, and I hope to bring about one of them. Let me first explain what I want to accomplish, and then I’ll share what major role I want you to play in it.’

Rainbow Dash was already excited. It was going to suck turning the princess down.

‘A pegasus can learn any branch of our magic with a little practice, even those magics outside their field of specialty (if they even have one). Some might come more easily to us than others, but such is the nature of ponies. Some find it easier to ride a bike than a scooter. Some find it easier to bake than to brew. In addition, pegasus magic has few set forms. We give our magic intention and direction and let it do the heavy lifting.

‘This is in stark contrast to unicorns. They struggle to master any spell not related to their own special talent. It’s not a limitation of their tribe so much as it is how difficult their magic is to perform without a helping hoof (if my sister ever tries to tell you otherwise, do not believe her). Moreover, every single spell they cast requires discipline and structure, even telekinesis to some extent.

‘In these ways, unicorns and pegasi are very different. Unfortunately, Equestria’s educational system is largely structured around what the former built for themselves centuries ago. Yes, shocking, I know. Regardless, nowhere is this concern more prevalent and problematic than in the way we teach pegasi to use their magic. I want to put an end to this.

‘As such, I have begun construction on a new school for gifted pegasi. I intend to take the best and brightest of our tribe and experiment with their education to find the best way to help them reach their full potential. Once I determine what that is, I plan to take it to the Department of Education for implementation across the nation.

‘This is where you come in. According to my extensive research, you are Equestria’s leading expert on pegasus magic. I need you to help me develop a curriculum and stay on as a professor.’

“What?” Rainbow Dash had been on board with everything Princess Cadenza had said up until that point. “But – but that’s egghead stuff!”

“What’s egghead stuff?”

Rainbow Dash blinked. When she looked up from the letter, her eyes fell on the guest she’d entirely forgotten had been in her house, at her table, eating just across where she’d unconsciously returned as she’d read. “Uh… It’s nothing, Squirt. Just let me finish this.”

Although obviously unhappy to have her curiosity denied, Scootaloo fell silent and returned to what remained of her dinner.

‘Now then,’ the letter continued, ‘as I have heard how stubborn you can be, follow the instructions below.

‘You plan on accepting my offer – turn to page two

‘You plan on resisting – turn to page three’

What the… ‘Resisting’? Muttering under her breath, Rainbow Dash said, “What is this, a Choose Your Own Adventure?” A little nervously – she was dealing with royalty here – she turned to page three.

‘The walls close in around you. Within moments, you run out of air. You die.’

Rainbow Dash gaped at the page’s contents, but as there was more text to follow, she continued reading.

‘Just kidding. I bet your first reaction was something along the lines of, “Is this a Choose Your Own Adventure letter?”’

“What? But how?” Rainbow Dash mumbled aloud.

‘That’s right. I know your secret. You, Rainbow Dash, are an ‘egghead’.’

Rainbow Dash slammed her forehooves onto the table and cried, “No! That’s not true!” And, naturally, that made Scootaloo pause midbite to stare at her. “I, uh – I just – well – um…” She gave up. “I don’t even know how to lie my way out of this. Just be patient with me, Squirt.”

“Uh-huh…” Scootaloo hummed skeptically. Nonetheless, she didn’t ask any questions yet.

Now very wary of the deceptively innocent princess’s letter, Rainbow Dash read, ‘You have nothing to be ashamed of, Reading Rainbow.’ She groaned at the second most mortifying name she’d hoped to never hear again, just after Rainbow Crash. ‘Some of the most interesting and powerful ponies in the world absolutely adore reading. Ponies like Archmage Twilight Sparkle, Princess Celestia, and Prince Consort (that still cracks me up) Shining Armor, to name a few of the most obvious ones. Even I maintain a hobby as an author. Of course, while I have little doubt none of your friends would think less of you if they found out, a secret kept for so long has power.

‘You plan on accepting my offer – turn to page two

‘You brave my displeasure – turn to page four’

Rainbow Dash gulped and turned to the fourth – and worse, not final – page in the letter. A doodle of Princess Cadenza sighing served there as a drop cap.

‘While I cannot say I’m surprised to see you here, I had held out hope that the Wonderbolts were just trying to prevent me from poaching fresh talent from them. From what my agents tell me–’

She has agents? Oh Celestia, of course she does. Everypony knew the archmage and the princess got on well with her. All Princess Cadenza had to do was ask one of them.

‘–you have a couple reasons for staying in Ponyville by the names of Fluttershy and Scootaloo. We investigated, naturally, and I intend to offer the latter a place at my new school. I also happened to hear a juicy piece of gossip about one of her friends that will make the move very appealing to her.

‘As for Fluttershy, it might surprise you how few ponies there are with her particular field of expertise. The royal menagerie’s current caretaker, Mr Greenhooves, is looking to take on an apprentice so he can retire. It’s a quiet job. Lots of time to yourself. The menagerie isn’t open to the public, you see. I may have dropped her name to him.

‘You now understand that resistance is futile – turn to page two

‘You tempt fate – turn to page five’

Rainbow Dash took a hesitant peek at page five.

‘You know, as a government employee, I can transfer you anywhere I want. Your only options would be to quit, comply, or hope that, with enough public grovelling in open court, my aunt will overrule my decision.’

And that was enough for Rainbow Dash. Out of morbid curiosity, she flipped to the end of the letter. The only option at the bottom was to turn to the second page, so she did so without further resistance, for it was, indeed, futile.

‘Excellent choice! Enclosed, you will find a ticket for a private carriage on the line to Canterlot. You may bring anypony you like with you to the meeting, within reason, should you wish for company or advice. When you arrive, give your name to the guards at the main gate of the castle. They will escort you to me.

‘This early in the project, I doubt I will take too much of your time. Mostly, I want a chance to get to know you a little better and answer any questions you might have. We can make this a day trip if you wish. If not, I can offer accommodations at the castle for you and any guests you bring.

‘See you tomorrow,

‘Princess Cadance’

Rainbow Dash leaned forward until her chest bumped against the table, whereupon she let her head droop in defeat. Princess Cadance, she supposed it was, had politely uprooted her life in one fell swoop, and there wasn’t much she could do without ruining the opportunities Fluttershy and Scootaloo had in front of them now.

“What is it? What’s wrong? How can I help?”

“It’s nothing you need to worry about, Squirt.” Rainbow Dash folded up the letter and tucked it under her leg for now. “I’ve just been drafted, is all.”

“What? Why? I thought they haven’t done that for centuries. Can they even do that anymore?”

If Rainbow Dash correctly remembered the government course she’d had to take to become Ponyville’s weather manager, Princess Celestia still could in certain circumstances. Not that it really mattered. “It’s just a figure of speech. Though I see Cheerilee has been teaching you well.”

Scootaloo blushed and averted her eyes. “We just had a history test at the end of the spring term.”

“Hey, it’s cool. Knowledge is power and all that.”

Turning back and more confused than before, Scootaloo uttered a mere, “Huh?”

“Our princess drafted me into teaching. Might as well start playing the part.” At a mutter, Rainbow Dash added, “Not like I don’t do it already.”

Stunned, Scootaloo took a few moments to recover. Once she had, she said, “That’s not fair! She can’t do that to you.”

Rainbow Dash eyed the pages of increasing levels of royal prerogative still floating in the air next to her. “No, she totally can. I mean, she can’t absolutely force me to, but…”

The table fell silent.

“Does this mean you’re going away?” Scootaloo asked at a whisper.

Nodding, Rainbow Dash said, “From Ponyville, probably.” It’d be a hassle to commute even if she could make the flight in far less than an hour. “From you, not necessarily.”

“What do you mean?”

Rainbow Dash really, truly hoped that little spark of hope in Scootaloo’s eyes wasn’t about adoption. She was not ready to have that level of responsibility in her life, and she knew it. “Princess Cadenza wrote that she’s got a place for you in the fancy magic school she’s opening for pegasi. If you want to come.”

“Of course I do! Ponyville would be so boring without you.”

“What about the Crusaders?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Won’t you miss them?”

Scootaloo wore guilt far too poorly for somepony who’d caused so much trouble in her short life. “Well, yeah… But Sweetie Belle has this super cool new spell that lets her send letters to anypony. We have pen pals in Canterlot I can hang out with, and they send letters back the same way, so, you know, it’s something.”

Huh. Guess that explains what the princess meant about one of Scootaloo’s friend. “So who are these pen pals of yours?”

“You’re not going to believe this. They’re Spike and Flurry, a dragon and a princess.”

The table fell silent once more.

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth, but no words came out.

“I know! So awesome, right!”

Shaking her head, Rainbow Dash pushed away the first concerns that came to mind. She didn’t want to think about what the Crusaders could get up to with the ear of royalty. Nor did she want to know how they’d met a dragon of all creatures. She was sure there was a long and convoluted story for that one which she’d regret hearing as soon as it finished. What she didn’t know, she couldn’t be held responsible for. Instead, she just said, “You realize Princess Flurry Heart is Princess Cadance’s daughter, right?”

That took the wind right out of Scootaloo’s wings. “Well, yeah, but…”

Rainbow Dash grinned. “It’s cool, Squirt. I’m just messing with you.”

“Oh. Right! So we met after Index needed to send off a secret message to HQ but couldn’t because of the whole hospitalized thing, so she taught Sweetie Belle the… What did she call it? Flame sending spell? Whatever. She taught her how to send things to herself and then Spike, who happens to be the archmage’s son.”

How Rainbow Dash managed not to choke on her dinner, she would never know. After forcing it down, she said, “Wait, time out. You mean when you were going on about Index being a secret agent this morning, you had actual proof?”

“Yeah, duh!” A moment passed. “I suppose I probably should have mentioned that earlier.”

“You probably shouldn’t have said anything at all,” Rainbow Dash countered. Secrecy was in the name. “But go on.” She might offer to help when she got back to Ponyville the day after tomorrow. How cool would that be? One last hurrah before she got stuck in a boring teaching position. Not that weather management was all that interesting, but it did give a mare of her talents an enormous amount of free time. And if nothing else, it’d be perfect counter blackmail material if she tries to tell anypony about the library.

It was with no small amount of hesitation that Flash knocked on the office door for the Captain of the Royal Guard. Captain Armor rarely jumped over the chain of command to speak directly, one-on-one, face-to-face like this with his ponies. Twilight Sparkle’s protective big brother, Shining Armor, was a different story, but rank never played into those intimidation sessions.

The door swung open without warning to reveal a furiously pacing Captain Armor on the other side. He stopped only momentarily a few moments later to order Flash to, “Get in already.” He all but slammed the door closed once Flash had entered.

“Er, Captain, is something wrong?”

For a few seconds, Flash wondered if Captain Armor had even heard the question, because, in hindsight, it was a stupid one, but then he stopped pacing. His brow furrowed ever more deeply. He tilted his head up to stare at some blank spot on the wall. “Secrets, secrets, and more secrets. To top it all off, something has my sister spooked.”

Oh, that’s not good. It took an awful lot to scare the invincible archmage.

“Not that it’s any concern of yours. You’re fired.”

“What?” Flash said, shocked. That had been so sudden.

Captain Armor continued on without an clarification or explanation. “Pack your things and be gone by sunrise tomorrow.”

“But, Sir, why?”

A sheet of paper flew from the captain’s desk in the light pink of his magic. He didn’t reveal its contents, but Flash recognized the standard form from having to fill out a couple himself on behalf of other staff in the castle.

“You pushed the wrong buttons one time too many,” Captain Armor said. As his eyes swept back and forth across the paper, they stopped on something interesting. He snorted with an amused smirk. “Still doesn’t know your name.” He returned the document from whence it came. “Ah well. Sorry, Flash. You’re a good guard, but such is life. I’m sure the police or the army will take you in.”

As if that would be any substitute! Flash stood a little straighter. “Captain, I have done nothing that would raise to the level of a formal complaint. I wish to protest this decision.”

Captain Armor pursed his lips. “Everything has to be difficult,” he muttered. Then to Flash, he said, “Okay, I’m going to level with you. We both know who submitted the complaint. We both know how much power and latitude the Princess has given her over the years. We both know that if she wants you gone, you’re gone. She doesn’t need a reason.” He locked eyes with Flash. “You want to make this go away?”

While he didn’t want to make it go away so much as have it never have happened, Flash nodded.

“Then it’s easy. Just stop jogging her memory. She identified you as ‘that pegasus I throw out the window’. Didn’t even know what color your coat is. She’ll forget all about you. I won’t say anything. The odds she’ll remember she even bothered to halfway fill out a complaint are nearly zero. Life carries on. All you have to do is stop pursuing her.”

As simple as that sounded on paper, it wouldn’t stop his heart from fluttering when she passed nor help his impulse control when it came to her. Flash did so wish to have even the chance to defrost Equestria’s ice queen, to help her learn to truly let other ponies in. Some of the things Spike said, too young to have the kind of filter the rest of her family possessed or the perspective to know what was normal, were distinctly worrying. Like, who turned down the chance to relax and celebrate the successful end of a long, difficult case in favor of locking herself away from the world to do even more work?

“I don’t think I can do that,” Flash said, not so long as she remained unattached, at least.

“Then this is the end of you career here. As a professional, I’m sorry to see you go.”

Flash managed a weak smile. “And as a brother?”

“Oh, as a brother, I’d be happy to personally kick you out the door. My sister is a precious flower who will forever bloom alone untouched, admired only from afar.” Captain Armor laughed. “Honestly, I thought she would have scared off all her suitors by now, but I suppose there will always be ponies like you with no sense of self-preservation. Not a day goes by when our parents don’t tell me somepony new has shown up at their door to harass them. None nearly as bad as Blueblood, but still. I at least respect you for not going down that route.”

A shiver washed over Flash. He’d been around to see the aftermath of that debacle. The little petty displays of annoyance the archmage directed at him were nothing compared when somepony actually made her angry.

“Anyway, last chance to change your decision. You taking it?”

Flash shook his head. He knew himself too well. How could he ever not find himself fascinated with the most interesting mare in Equestria? “It’s not so bad.” If he told himself that enough, maybe it would be true. “Worse come to worst, I have an in to come visit from time to time.” Although he did wonder how Spike would react if the archmage ever actually took a lover. Probably wouldn’t be with more laughter.

While Captain Armor arched an eyebrow at the claim, he didn’t inquire. “Take care of yourself, Flash. The Royal Guard will be happy to give you a reference.”

Flash gave his thanks, such as they were, and left the office. He didn’t want to linger another night in the barracks, so he gathered what few physical possessions he had there and headed out. He could commiserate with his friends amongst the guard over drinks some other time. One of the side exits, he decided, would serve him best: better he blend in a little on his departure than make a show of it flying away or trudging through the main gate.

Once he was outside the castle, Flash stopped to consider where he would go from there. He didn’t have family in town, so he’d probably have to rent a room at an inn for now. Then he supposed he could take the advice given to him and see if the Canterlot Police Department would take him. He knew the law well enough to do the job and was good enough in a scrape to take down the average unicorn. It would be a living.

With one last sigh and glance back at the castle, Flash adjusted the load on his back and set off.

“Huh. You’re really gonna do it.”

What? Isn’t that–

Before Flash had time to process what was happening, he found himself both back in Captain Armor’s office and very thankful that he tolerated teleportation better than most ponies. Nothing really had changed in perhaps the half hour since he’d left, although the captain himself now wore a slightly less stern expression.

“You’re an idiot,” Captain Armor deadpanned, “but congratulations on your promotion, Sergeant.”

A moment passed.

What? “This was a test?” Flash asked, the strain in his voice obvious.

“Yeah, sorry about that.” Captain Armor at least had the decency to actually look a little apologetic. “But when I said something has Twily spooked, I meant it. She already had me rake Incog over the coals for an unrelated matter and sound out her loyalties.”

Incog? Director of the EIS, Incog?”

Captain Armor nodded with a grave, tired expression. “She wants everypony vetted. And I mean everypony, not just the scoundrels she picks up and puts to work.”

Well, that certainly shed a different light on the ridiculous test of character Flash had just undergone. It still annoyed him without question, but– “Wait.” He just realized something more important. “Then that complaint–”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, she deals with problems a thousand times bigger than you on a daily basis. You’re not even on her radar.”

That came simultaneously as a relief, a strange disappointment, and an annoyance for how smugly satisfied the captain looked when he said that. Then Flash finally processed the other bit of news.

“Hang on, promotion? You’re making me sergeant?”

Whilst humming an affirmative, Captain Armor opened a drawer of his desk. He removed a file from it and passed it off to Flash. “I’m putting you in charge of security for the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville. All the information you’ll need is in there. You’ll head out tomorrow morning. I would say it shouldn’t be a very difficult first assignment, but, well, try to keep at least part of the town intact.”

Flash arched his eyebrows.

“You’ll understand when you get there. It’s a strange place.”

Skipping over any proper explanation, Captain Armor’s horn lit up. A small illusion of a rather bookish looking mare appeared atop his desk. Flash, as he was trained to do, quickly noted the three primary means of identifying ponies – mane, coat, and cutie mark – and then turned his gaze back up.

“This is Index Code. She’s in change of the festival preparations.”

She certainly looked the type for administrative work. “What’s the catch?” Flash asked. Surely Captain Armor wouldn’t have put him through such a drawn out test just for a routine, annual holiday.

“I want you to keep an eye on her whenever you can. And for both our sakes, don’t let her notice you doing so.”

“I see.” Flash scrutinized the image closer. She looked harmless, hardly fit for treachery, but things weren’t always as they appeared. “What has she done to make you suspicious of her?”

Captain Armor laughed. “I think you have the wrong impression. Her real name is Twilight Sparkle.”

Oh. That certainly changed things.

“I’m sending you because you’re too pathetically, hopelessly smitten to work against her.”

With a huff, Flash said, “Rude.”

“But true nonetheless,” Captain Armor retorted. “Whatever reason she suddenly has to be worried about traitors, I trust you’re not going to be the one to stick a knife her back.”

As if that even needed to be said.

“Now then, there’s something else you’re going to need to know. This year’s celebration has a major complication. Princess Celestia has a sister…”

A loud crash of who knew what falling to the ground filled the alley. A stray cat let out a displeased hiss over the disturbance. If anypony saw what had happened, nothing came of it. Sweetie Belle, heedless to anything in her way, stumbled forward with her vision swimming away from the heart of Ponyville as fast as she could. She couldn’t take it anymore. She should have better heeded the archmage’s warning. It was too much, too overwhelming. It felt like her ears were bleeding, but she couldn’t numb the pain. She’d tried.

A stack of crates moved into Sweetie Belle’s path and rudely pushed her to the ground. As much as she wanted to curl up into a little ball and cry, she hurriedly got to her hooves, apologized to the inanimate objects, and pressed on. The voices wouldn’t stop if she stayed here.

“–hay, bread, almonds–”

“–was the archmage really–”

“–book is overdue. I need to–”

“–what those blank flanks–”

“–cannot believe how amazing–”

Sweetie Belle wanted to scream. If it was just a swarm of ponies endlessly chattering about nothing, she might be able to tune them out. But everything echoed. Every sound, every word, every sneeze, every cough, once unleashed, spread across every mind nearby, none in sync with each other. It all hit her at once, digging into her skull, demanding attention and overtaxing her poor brain. She couldn’t process even a fraction of the chaos, and even her own thoughts were drowned out in the cacophony.

“–know, right? What was she–”

“–I never thought she would–”

“–wundrung æt−hwega hit hê–”

“–he ever stop talking–”

“–no, I needed to replace the–”

A mud puddle from last night’s rain, so very uncouth by nature, crossed Sweetie Belle’s path. She put one hoof on it, and it knocked her completely off balance. She ended up tumbling into it. Now wet, filthy, and even more frustrated, she rose back to her hooves and pressed on, trying not to cry.

And then, as though her perseverance had been rewarded, there was sweet, blissful silence. Sweetie Belle didn’t care how. It didn’t matter. She was finally alone in her head again. She collapsed forward flat onto the ground, not even bothering to tuck her legs in against her barrel. She had peace at last.

An eternity passed before Sweetie Belle finally cared to open her eyes and determine what had brought an end to her suffering. Somehow, it seemed, she’d managed to jump from the center of Ponyville to an empty field near Saddle Lake. Any other day, that might alarm her or even excite her. Who knew? Perhaps she’d spontaneously learned to teleport! Maybe that would earn her a cutie mark at long last! But such was her exhaustion that she didn’t even check her blank flank.

Huh? As she slowly surveyed the area around her, Sweetie Belle’s eyes landed on a mare sitting alone atop a picnic blanket a fair distance off. It seemed like she was brewing tea while simultaneously preparing a potion. Apple Bloom had a taste for Zebrican alchemy, and it at least looked like a similar setup to hers. Upon closer inspection, the mare looked familiar. Is that Index? It has to be. If nothing else, it certainly explained how Sweetie Belle had ended up out here in the middle of nowhere. Index must have come to rescue her from her own poor decisions.

Chagrined, now both a thief and a failure, Sweetie Belle began the walk of shame toward Index as she magically cleaned herself up as best as she could with all the practice she had from crusading. What must Index think of her now? Archmage Twilight had said she wouldn’t be mad, but that was before Sweetie Belle had failed so spectacularly in the task set out before her. And wasn’t that a sobering, dream shattering thought? She’d failed the one simple test her idol had given her. It was vain of her to even dare imagine she could one day be like the archmage.

Sweetie Belle slowed as she neared the strange picnic. Generosity had long since picked up Index’s thoughts, but they were in a language she didn’t recognize. From how they flittered about as Index worked, fragmented and half-formed, they felt less like real thoughts than flashes of instructions she’d long since learned to follow with an idle horn without conscious attention.

Far too quickly for her liking, Sweetie Belle stood at the edge of the picnic blanket. Her gaze fell to her hooves, and she dared not cross that final threshold uninvited. She shook but gathered what courage she had left. “Index.”

Index’s thoughts suspended for a moment. Then she turned to look at the one who’d disturbed her work. “Oh, Sweetie Belle. Obviously. How are you feeling? Give me a moment, please. I need to finish this.”

The string of short sentences had come in a flurry. Sweetie Belle managed to catch them all, but only barely. Thankfully, they didn’t echo either, which she supposed made sense. Only words spoken aloud, her own included, would do that.

So Sweetie Belle waited. Index had asked a question, but she’d also said not to bother her, and if that forestalled her coming judgment, then so be it.

It was a few minutes before Index finally finished whatever she was doing. She let out an accomplished sigh once she had. Then after pouring a single cup of tea, she added a small dose of the potion in her cauldron, thereafter stirring the mixture together. “Do you like sugar?”

“Ah! Oh, um, yes.”

Index pulled some sugar lumps from nowhere and threw them into the tea as well. Then as she cleaned up, her brewing equipment vanishing presumably to wherever the sugar had come from, she held the teacup out invitingly. “Here. Princess Celestia swore by this recipe back when she bore Generosity. It should ease the pain.”

“I… Thank you.” Sweetie Belle took the drink and sipped at it cautiously. To her surprise, it didn’t have the usual nasty potion taste she’d expected. It certainly wasn’t good by any metric, but neither was it so awful that she needed something else to wash it down with. And as she swallowed more and more of it, she felt the fatigue and strain on her mind lessen.

Yet this act of kindness and generosity only brought into sharp relief how much Sweetie Belle had done wrong. “Index,” she whispered, her voice cracking, “I’m – I’m s-so sorry. I stole the E – Element of Generosity.”

“No apology necessary, but you’re forgiven nonetheless. I forgot that what I’d asked of you would put you in the proximity of four Elements. That was my fault.”

Sweetie Belle tried to tell Index that she didn’t need to apologize, but it didn’t work.

“Even if I was a bit out of it at the time, I was negligent. There’s an assumption of responsibility for carrying around magical artifacts, and however well it turned out in the end, I failed in my duty there. That’s something you need to understand if you want to continue walking the path of magic. But more importantly, I failed in my responsibility to you. I hope you can accept my apology. It won’t happen again.”

“But – but you don’t need to…” Under the look Index leveled on Sweetie Belle, as though she’d not heard a single word, she trailed off and changed tack. “Um… No apology necessary, but you’re forgiven nonetheless?”

Index rolled her eyes. “Very well. On another note, from what I’m told, Generosity didn’t awaken for you until recently, which means you never physically touched it until then. That’s an impressive level of mental discipline. Especially for your age.” She paused a moment, likely for effect the way Rarity would on occasion. “Why didn’t you just take Generosity off earlier?”

A few moments passed in silence.


Despite the context, Index still smiled and indulged in a smothered, guilty laugh or two. “I understand,” she said. “Taking an Element off isn’t easy, and Generosity is supposedly the most addictive of the entire set.”

That made Sweetie Belle feel slightly better about such an obvious mistake.

“At any rate, we need to talk about where we’re to go from here. Generosity is yours for life, and we need the Elements of Harmony in the near future.” Index held up a hoof to forestall Sweetie Belle’s questions. “This is classified information, so I need you to–” She hesitated a second before letting out a small sigh. “–Pinkie Promise not to share any of it without permission.”

As requested, Sweetie Belle ran through the motions. “Can I at least tell my friends?”

After another longer moment of hesitation, Index replied, “Only the Crusaders, and only if they first Pinkie Promise as well.”

“And Rarity?”

“She knows the broad strokes already,” Index replied. “Archmage Twilight spoke with her earlier today after she found Generosity in your possession.”

Sweetie Belle nodded. That seemed more than fair enough, all things considered. Thus did Index then inform her about Princess Luna, Princess Celestia’s sister, whose alias happened to be the Nightmare Moon of legend and who might not be as evil as expected but certainly had a familial grudge to settle.

“I’ll help!” Sweetie Belle volunteered immediately long before Index even asked. That was obviously what she was leading up to, and the Elements must play a crucial role in defeating Nightmare Moon.

Index huffed, clearly a little put out at her lecture being short-circuited. “In the interest of full disclosure so an antagonistic dramatic reveal can’t ruin everything, I have a lot of secrets. You’ll learn a few soon. Some, later. Many, never. One secret you need to know up front is that the Elements of Harmony, which is what the full set of the Elements is called, are powered by friendship.”

That seems a little…

“Yes, I know,” Index said as though she could read Sweetie Belle’s mind. “Regardless, I want you to know that I was considering this before I found out you had Generosity. Would you like to become my official protégé?”

Sweetie Belle fell into silent shock.

“This really is a genuine offer, not just because of the Elements. You have real talent I’d like to help nurture. Honesty can detect subjective truth, so you can verify that later if you wish. I’ve never really taught before, so I’ll understand if–”

No longer able to contain herself, Sweetie Belle let out an excited shriek of delight. She pranced in place in the futile hope of expending some of the energy swelling up within her. “Yes, please!” She finally had a teacher! And not just any teacher, but one of the most amazing unicorns in Equestria! One who worked closely with the archmage, even! She couldn’t help but squeal again. “I’m so excited I could burst!” How could such a nightmarish day turn into the best one of her life so quickly?

Index, so insouciant to such a monumental event, said, “Well, I’m glad you’re happy. While you burn off a bit of that passion, where did you hide my papers?”

“Huh? Oh, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and I buried them by the zap apple grove on Sweet Apple Acres.”

With a nod, Index said, “I’ll be right back. This won’t take long.”

Index teleported away, leaving Sweetie Belle alone. With the privacy given to her, she didn’t feel embarrassed to dance about and sing her glee to the sky without any real direction or intention. This was like every Hearth’s Warming and birthday for the rest of her life come early! The only thing that could make today better was if she got her cutie mark and Index revealed that she’d secretly been Archmage Twilight all along.

Without fanfare, Index returned in a blink. That remained as amazing as it had been when Sweetie Belle had seen Sun Wisp do it. She couldn’t wait to learn how to do it herself!

“By the way,” Index began, “I should probably mention that learning under me is going to be a lot different than you’re used to from school. You’re going to need a lot of self-motivation to get much out of me.”

Sweetie Belle had that in spades. All of the Crusaders did. “What’s my first lesson?”

“Did you finish your last one?”

In all the excitement, Sweetie Belle had entirely forgotten about that. She’d chosen Rarity’s gem-finding spell and had an entire list back at home, but she did her best to rattle off everything she could remember writing down. “And the last one I can recall is using it as an improvised tracking spell. You would only need to stick a small gem – a sliver, really – onto something to make it work.”

“Good enough,” Index said. “The exercise is what mattered, not the submission. Your next assignment will be somewhat similar. Do you remember the duel between Trixie and the archmage?”

Sweetie Belle nodded her head excitedly. How could she forget such a spectacle?

“Excellent. Figure out how they did everything. And do recall that they only used first year spells from Princess Celestia’s school.”

Sweetie Belle raised a hoof. After being told that she didn’t have to do that, she asked the obvious question. “What spells does the curriculum consist of?”

“Who knows?” Index replied with a grin that said she knew. “You already have all the tools you need to complete this assignment without me giving you that information. You’re free to ask for help from anyone you wish otherwise, however.”

Her face scrunched into a thoughtful frown, Sweetie Belle considered how to approach the problem. She ultimately just needed to talk to somepony who’d been to the school to find out what spells she had to work with. No, even simpler than that, she only needed to get her hooves on a copy of the textbooks the school used – particularly the ones used during the time when Trixie attended the school. She doubted the Golden Oak Library had them, and she didn’t know how old Trixie was either. She supposed she could just ask Trixie, but that felt too much like just asking Index and obviating the point of the exercise. What she really needed was a contact in Canterlot.

Except she had one of those, didn’t she? Two, actually, both of whom were probably capable of getting her the information she needed. It would be a pain to write it all down, but perhaps they wouldn’t have to. “Index? Can the flame sending spell send more than letters?”

Index kept her face carefully blank. “Before I answer that, I want to point out two things. First, ‘can I do X’ is always a good question to ask. Second, when you don’t know, the next question to ask should usually be ‘is it safe to do X’. Magic is very dangerous if mishandled. Do you understand?”

Sweetie Belle nodded. She’d never hurt herself or her friends with it, but she could easily imagine ways in which she could.

“Then to answer your question, the flame sending spell can send anything dragonfire can burn. That does not include magic in general. I want to be very clear on this, because you would not be the first clever student to try it. The flame sending spell is not a clunky way to teleport. If you cast it on something living and magical, the subject will die. This includes, as far as I’m aware, everything that can talk. Understood?”

Nodding solemnly, Sweetie Belle tried not to think about the first clever student who’d not had that warning or who’d disregarded it. The beginnings of a Pinkie Promise had just passed her lips when Index snapped her mouth closed.

“Don’t.” Index pursed her lips, her thoughts galloping in another language. “Sweetie Belle, this… This isn’t something I wanted to mention so soon, but I have enemies beyond Princess Luna. There are less harmful and more efficient ways to defend yourself, but if you’re desperate…”

Sweetie Belle swallowed. She understood Index perfectly. Rather than letting either of them dwell on it, she nodded her head with all the weight the moment deserved and then pressed on. She’d already gotten the information she’d needed for her assignment anyway. “So who are the other bearers?”

Their names flashed through Index’s mind in an instant. In addition to the two of them, Pinkie and Lyra had an Element as well.

“Pinkie Pie has Kindness. Lyra has Honesty,” Index clarified. “I haven’t found bearers for Laughter and Loyalty yet.”

When Sweetie Belle asked why not, Index briefly summarized her time in Ponyville and how she’d spent it looking for suitable bearers. It was, by and large, the tale of a mare who felt out of place and was far outside her comfort zone.

“Can’t you just nudge everypony with the Elements and take whoever you get?”

Index didn’t respond for a few seconds, although her thoughts were not silent. “The idea had occurred to me when this all started, but I think I’ve been so overwhelmed by the social aspect of this that I forgot. I might just try my preferences first tomorrow and then brute force Laughter’s and Loyalty’s awakenings if that doesn’t work.”

“Ooh! You could try–”

“No foals,” Index said. “It’s bad enough I put you in the line of fire.”

Sweetie Belle pouted but didn’t argue. Grown ups were always like that, and they never changed their minds. Then as her own thoughts wandered back to her assignment while Index’s likely considered who to test tomorrow, she recalled something she’d forgotten to ask. “Hey, Index? What Element do you have?”

A smirk grew on Index’s face. “Why, the best one for a sorceress such as myself, of course: Magic.”

Oh, that was so not fair!

Moon Dancer’s head snapped toward the pull of a rare magic so powerful and ancient, it swept past all of the castle’s defenses and even the extra ones Twilight had layered upon her tower. Her grip on the documents she’d been looking for faded away. Her hooves led her toward the stairs. Her chest felt heavy, each breath coming with more effort, and silent tears fell from her eyes.

As she climbed, Moon Dancer felt the magic’s grip on her strengthen. It clawed at her heart, drowning her under the dizzying weight of feelings not her own. When she reached the highest floor, she trudged her way to a window to stare soulfully up at the moon. The faint sound of music carried on the wind, a haunting melody of strings.

Moon Dancer rose her own voice to the sky and joined the heartsong in full. Despite the lump in her throat, despite her utter lack of training, it sounded out pitch-perfect and crystal clear. The words came unbidden but known as surely as she knew her own name, and she knew at once who was at the center of this heartsong. Who else but Princess Celestia would sing a soul-crushing lullaby to Princess Luna in Old Ponish?

The song carried on for ages long past when Moon Dancer’s trembling legs should have given out on her. But at long last, the song ended. The music faded. She collapsed onto her barrel. She’d never been caught up in a heartsong before, but they weren’t supposed to be so raw, were they? If so, her books had not prepared her for them.

Moon Dancer turned her tired body up to scan the sky. A tiny speck of white moving too fast against the night’s darkness to be a star stuck out to her. It slowed until it ultimately came to a rest behind a cloud.

Groaning as she did, Moon Dancer rose to her hooves. This is the real reason Twilight brought you here, she reminded herself. Get moving.

The cloudwalking spell required little power or training, but getting to Princess Celestia’s elevation without wings would be more of a challenge. Moon Dancer didn’t often have cause to push herself so far, but it should be well within her capabilities. After adding a few extra spells to protect her from the wind and temperature, she summoned up her magic and teleported into the sky. Her aim was a little off, but a slightly startled Princess Celestia caught her and deposited her on the same cloud before she started to fall.

Princess Celestia said nothing, but she offered a soft, apologetic smile before returning her gaze to the moon.

“Are you…okay?”

“Of course.” It was an obvious lie, but Princess Celestia didn’t really seem to be entirely here right now.

Moon Dancer hesitated to push. What was she supposed to say to somepony older than she could trace her own ancestry back? What would Twilight do in this situation? The major trouble with that question, however, was she imagined Twilight asked herself a similar one in these sorts of situations.

“Princess,” Moon Dancer hesitantly began, “that song…”

“Hmm?” A blink, then another, a third, and then finally Princess Celestia’s attention returned to this world. “Oh yes. Call it a bout of nostalgia. I used to sing to her.”

Moon Dancer didn’t need to ask who she was, just as she knew very well that such passive emotions never gave birth to heartsongs so wrought with grief and regret. “According to–”

“Your concern does you credit, my little pony, but it was merely an old song I remembered. Nothing more.”

There may have been politer ways to tell Moon Dancer to mind her own business, but she had trouble thinking of any right now. Maybe that hadn’t been the right approach to take. Twilight could probably get away with it and even make it work, but not her. She didn’t have the prerequisite bond with the princess or even the most basic knowledge of what it was like to have a sibling.

Moon Dancer settled onto her rear with her arms extended to prop up the rest of her body. What good was she doing here? She should just call Twilight back to Canterlot for the night. Or maybe Princess Cadance could serve as a substitute? She and Princess Celestia did seem to be on very good terms with one another.

“It’s time I turn in for the night,” Princess Celestia suddenly declared. “Do try to get to bed yourself at a somewhat decent hour. You never know what surprises await you in your dreams.”

That last remark felt like it had a deeper significance to it, but Moon Dancer didn’t have the chance to ask before Princess Celestia allowed herself to sink through the cloud. The telltale heavy sound of air meeting wings came soon after. When she leaned over the edge of the cloud, Moon Dancer found the princess gliding down toward the balcony of her chambers at a sluggish pace that would barely keep her airborne.

Twilight, this isn’t working. I can do paperwork and keep her mind off of other things during the day, but I can’t pull her out of a depression that deep. She needs you, not some two-bit stand-in.

Moon Dancer silently turned her eyes up to the moon and wondered how, even if Twilight succeeded in her task, this story would have a happy ending.

In the library of her dreams, Twilight hummed a cheery little song whose words she couldn’t remember as she worked on a long-term lesson plan for Sweetie Belle. They wouldn’t have much time before the solstice for much of anything, but it always paid to be prepared. Afterward, she would need to find a way to make more free time for herself to give Sweetie Belle the attention she deserved.

Perhaps even with Honesty in play and the bargaining power it gave her, Lyra could still be convinced to take on some work. She had the necessary experience, and Bon Bon – Sweetie Drops – whatever she wanted to go by, had all but said Lyra needed the income, never mind the relationship between those two which Twilight was totally not thinking about right now because it would ruin her mood. She could send Lyra out with some of the other misfits who’d sincerely asked for a second chance over the years as an elite team in her place whenever Sweetie Belle needed her. And maybe a few times when she just wanted some extra time to herself as well.

“You seem unusually merry tonight,” Luna observed as she entered the library. “Did something good happen?”

Twilight finished the last of a list she’d been making with a flourish of her quill. “I acquired a brilliant little protégé for myself,” she all but sang. “And if you touch her, I will destroy you.”

Luna laughed, but Twilight had meant every word, and she probably knew that as well. She certainly knew Twilight could follow through on the threat, at least. “You needn’t worry. I understand the feeling. Although I never took you for the teaching type.”

“It depends on who you’re teaching,” Twilight countered.

“Verily so.” Luna’s tone was bittersweet. “My last student wished for more than I could give. A misstep of mine, I fear, for I knew the chief failing of her character yet tripped over it regardless. I hope to reconcile with her upon my return, but…”

Twilight snorted, more amused than she probably should be. Sounds like Luna has a Sunset of her own. “You and Celestia…” was all she said, shaking her head. I swear, if I unleash a third Sunset into the world…

“Yes, Sunset Shimmer. I’ve heard her tale and cannot say I don’t sympathize.”

Then you should have no problem letting her have the Crystal Empire. Twilight kept that to herself for now, of course. She wasn’t yet sure how she felt about that prospect. Sunset would be a competent ruler, she knew, and at worst a nominal ally regardless of whether Luna won or lost. It would keep Cadance, Shining, and Flurry in Equestria as well, which would likely be a better division of pony resources regardless of her own personal desires. She really shouldn’t make that sort of decision unilaterally, but Celestia had more or less ceded Equestria to her over the past few weeks. Technicalities, sure, and selfish, undoubtedly, but she wanted to keep her family close. Besides, it wasn’t like they were likely to want to go rule over some place they’d never heard of anyway.

“Let us not dwell on such things,” Luna said as she emerged from her own thoughts first. “Everyone is downstairs waiting for you to join your dreamwarming party.”

Oh yeah, that’s a thing. Twilight was in too good a mood to care. “Lead on, then.”