Chapter Twelve - The Great Bearer Hunt

It’d been the perfect distraction. As far as anypony knew, she’d never stepped foot in the empire during the battle.

The dreamwarming party was in full swing, if a small, quiet gathering of six people could be termed as such. They’d ended up playing a homebrew version of a diplomacy and conquest board game which, although it’d turned into a six hour long waste of time they didn’t even finish before Berry Punch woke up but would continue the next night if Twilight had anything to say about it, had nonetheless managed to suck her into analyzing her every move and overall strategy. People who didn’t play to win were filth.

Down one member, the group had set the game aside and descended into casual chatting. Twilight just sat quietly and listened for the most part, politely answering whatever questions came her way and then effortlessly deflecting conversation back onto someone else. She had a lot of experience enforcing her wallflower status and happily continued her craft.

Or she had until Autumn had insisted on playing charades. Twilight glared at the card held in her magic with a gaze that could set it on fire if she wanted. She knew someone – probably Autumn, maybe Luna – had stacked the deck. This could not be coincidence. “Absolutely not,” she said as she put the card down.

Ember, of course, threw her hand over the deck when Twilight attempted to draw a new card. “Hey! I didn’t object when I got pronking, and I’m physically incapable of it.”

“Fair’s fair,” Seabreeze said, a smirk crawling up his face.

A glance at Luna and Autumn revealed equally eager expressions, neither giving away who’d put this trial before her. Unless they conspired together. Sighing, Twilight trudged out away from the group to take her turn. She lit up her horn, taking her entire body in her magical grasp.

“No magic!” Autumn protested. “We all agreed on that.”

Twilight couldn’t help the irritated snort that slipped out of her, but that only made her audience more determined. Thus resigned to her fate, she proceeded to humiliate herself. After thirty seconds of increasingly embarrassing guesses ranging from swimming to hypnotism, time ran out. No one got a point. She went back to her seat to sulk.

“Well, what was it?” Seabreeze asked.

Twilight didn’t answer and instead flung the card at him. Being a flimsy piece of laminated paper, it didn’t fly very well, and a stray fluctuation of air sent it careening toward Luna instead. She picked it up, read it, and then snickered. “Really, Twilight, surely my sister arranged for you to learn–”

“That’s none of your business.”

Autumn leaned over to read the card. “Oh. When you told me you don’t–”

“I’m magically coordinated, okay?” Twilight interjected. “I don’t need – dexterity is my dump stat.” Those were terms this group could understand.

“Let me see already.” Ember plucked the card from Autumn’s magic. “Dancing? You call that dancing?”

Twilight said nothing, which may have been a mistake, because Autumn answered for her. “I always thought she was just making excuses when she told me her dancing is a hazard to herself and others.”

With a harrumph, Twilight turned to lean into her seat so she could stare into the fascinating embroidered pattern of the cloth in its corner. She did recall saying something to that effect all those years ago.

The game continued until only Twilight and Luna remained asleep, as had already become routine. Luna never woke, it seemed, and Twilight went to bed later than everyone else.

“What?” Twilight asked when she noticed Luna staring at her with a smirk.

“Your dancing.”

Of course she’s still on about that. Twilight didn’t know what she’d expected. She’d heard little snickers and had been on the receiving end of amused looks ever since. “If you’re just going to make fun of me, you can leave.”

“Well,” Luna began with drawl, “there shall certainly be some teasing from time to time. It is irresistible, truly. But if all you need is a more–” She snickered. “–durable partner, I would volunteer to teach you.”

Twilight flatly refused with a, “No thanks.” She’d suffered enough indignities for one night already. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you tell me your story instead?”

“My story?” By the reluctant tone of her voice, Luna knew exactly what Twilight meant. Nonetheless, she waited for clarification.

“Yes, your story. How you got here. You and Celestia obviously stopped talking to each other at some point, so I want to compare notes with her side of the story.”

Luna scoffed at the request. “What point is there? You’ll not believe a word I say which runs counter to my all-knowing and infinitely benevolent sister’s.”

“Probably,” Twilight admitted openly and without hesitation. It was true, after all, and they both knew it. “But that doesn’t make what you believe any less important.”

Luna regarded Twilight warily. “I’m quite certain I already told you I went through therapy.”


Neither said a word. While Luna scrutinized Twilight, now more alert than she had been the entire night, Twilight merely sat in place with conjured parchment and a quill made from her own feather at the ready. She held no delusions of being able to convince Luna to abandon her plans. That wasn’t the point of Twilight’s own backup plan. She was merely the bridge. If she could only get the sisters to talk to each other again – to, not just at – then perhaps this entire conflict could end amicably. Knowing Luna’s story was the first step to making that happen.

Luna finally relented. “Very well,” she said as she rose to her hooves. “I shall return shortly.” With those parting words, she trotted to the exit and left the dream behind. She returned a few minutes later with a book wrapped up in an arm and held tight against her chest. “Your word, Twilight Sparkle, that you will not read this without permission if you awaken before I return it to my own dreamscape.”

As far as temptations went, a likely centuries old book penned by a lost princess rated pretty high. Nonetheless, Twilight said, “Of course.”

Luna relaxed a little and let the book fall into her magic. It split open, and as she took the seat across from Twilight, the pages turned until she found whatever entry she wanted. “Alicorn memory is exceptional,” she began, “but even we are not immune to…reimaginings. Where do you wish to start?”

“Hmm…” If Twilight remembered correctly, Celestia had started with what Sombra did to Luna but had kind of glossed over the details. That could use some elaboration. “Tell me about Sombra.”

“A unicorn stallion with a brilliant mind he doesn’t deserve. He dabbled in the vilest of ancient magics and used them to wrest control of the Crystal Empire from my niece’s line through dubiously legal methods. By all accounts, he was a fair and just ruler on the surface. It wasn’t until near his fall that we learned of his true nature. He possesses a minor form of immortality. Although he still ages, presumably, he’s able to survive the destruction, for lack of a better word, of his body. Due to this, my sister and I banished him until we could better learn how to contain or execute him. We unfortunately never found his research notes, and the cumberworld managed to take the empire with him.”

While all that was interesting information, Twilight was distinctly unimpressed with the evasion and let Luna know it. She also made a note to research Sombra’s secrets if she had the chance. She didn’t expect them to advance her own pursuits, but one never knew what might help in the end.

Luna kept her face carefully blank as she flipped through her book. “I ask that you not judge me overly harshly. Sombra’s machinations against me were meticulous and crafted with care to avoid the Elements’ interference.”

“If what Celestia told me is true,” Twilight began, “I hardly hold you accountable for whatever you did.”

A tired sigh slipped past Luna’s lips. “It’s not so much what I did as what I intended to do.” She managed a weak smile. “But thank you. I doubt our accounts of this affair shall differ in anything but perspective.”

After a quick read through of several passages in her book, Luna nodded her head and returned back to where she’d begun. “I will not go into how, but Sombra managed to cast a bastardized version of a spell Discord was overly fond of on me. His intention, as we later learned, was to incite a conflict between my sister and I so he could appear when we’d worn each other out to ‘save’ the world from us and claim Equestria for himself.”

Twilight gagged. “Villains with good publicity are the worst.”

“Agreed. The enchantment he laid upon me caused me to grow more aggressive with Equestrian expansion. All the better for him in the end. It was a slow process, but it was only a matter of time before Sister and I butted heads. Equestria’s velvet glove could not abide its iron hoof acting unchecked. Nor would she have been wrong to stand in my way. It was a different time when Tartarus lay empty and might too often made right, yet even then, my policies were hard to justify and approaching inexcusable.

“Fortunately, an unrelated encounter with a magical artifact led me to ask Sister to perform a full examination of myself. The sort you bring snacks to. I imagine she still believes I found Sombra’s spell rather than it being a happy accident.” Luna narrowed her eyes and peered over the top of her book. “You’ll not correct that belief, I trust.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. As telling Celestia wouldn’t absolve her of whatever guilt she felt over the matter, Twilight merely made a small note to add it to her collection of friendly blackmail material.

“After we removed the spell, we moved to dispose of Sombra. You already know how that turned out.” Luna flipped forward past a good number of pages. “Once we returned home, I voluntarily ceded my throne to a trustworthy regent for a few years to rehabilitate myself.” Her eyes stared at nothing as nostalgia took her. “That was a fun time. Sister was most jealous.”

But Luna’s good mood soon darkened. “When I returned to Everfree and retook my throne, Sister had changed. I didn’t realize until it was too late, but she’d enjoyed her time as a monarch too much. She pushed me into the background while she basked in the love of our nation.”

Twilight briefly paused in her note-taking. This, she suspected, was the root of the royal sisters’ problems, the most fundamental misunderstanding between them. It wouldn’t be hard to explain Luna’s point of view to Celestia, but getting Luna to believe Celestia’s would be a far greater feat.

“I did all of the hard work while she sat behind a desk upon her cushions, received all the adulation, and left me to be forgotten,” Luna continued with rising passion. “We used to hold court together. We used to attend meetings together. We used to do everything together. But no longer! We held separate courts. Nearly all business went through hers. We went to separate appointments. She got foreign relations and fluff while I had to figure out how to–”

That, Twilight assumed, has to be the worst time I could have awoken. She sighed and snuggled tighter into her blankets. If she wanted to, she could put herself back to sleep. She’d gotten what she needed from that conversation, more or less, but she’d hoped to obtain more details. Alas, she had a job to do and an ever shrinking window of time in which to do it. She’d just have to hear the rest of Luna’s side of the story the next time they were alone together.

“Pinkie, you there?”

As might be expected for somepony who had a job with presumably regular hours, Pinkie Pie didn’t answer. But perhaps something more ridiculous might work.

“Pinkamena Diane Pie, I summon thee by thy true name.”

Twilight clicked her tongue. She hadn’t honestly expected that to work, but some little part of her had hoped. While she was tempted to just use magic to divine Pinkie Pie’s location, that would involve an awful lot of invasion of privacy for basically no reason. Indeed, after she got ready for the day and made her way downstairs, she found the subject of her inquiry baking cupcakes in Sugarcube Corner’s kitchen.

“Good morning, Pinkie.” Twilight glanced at Kindness around her neck but didn’t comment. When offered a spoonful of batter, however enticing it sounded, she declined but accepted a properly cooked cupcake in its place. Huh. This is actually really good. In another life, perhaps Pinkie would have been a full-time baker.

After Twilight swallowed the last of her breakfast and, in her weakness, began an early second breakfast, she said, “Hey, Pinkie, don’t start…” No, that’s not the right way to approach this. Never mind that Pinkie Pie technically worked for her way down the governmental hierarchy, friends didn’t demand things of each other. “I would appreciate your help today searching for a bearer for Laughter and Loyalty. You have a much better memory for ponies than I do.”

“Oh my gosh! Really? That sounds super fun!” In a blink, Pinkie Pie went from excited to contemplative, tapping a hoof against her jaw. “But I’m, like, waaaay behind on my parties with all these new ponies flooding into Ponyville lately. I don’t know if I can give you the whole day. Ooh! Unless you can magic up some way for me to be in more than one place at once, because that would solve so many of my problems. Can you do that?”

It was technically possible. And Pinkie Pie might actually have the brainpower necessary to divide her attention the way Twilight did when – No, one Pinkie Pie is enough for this world. Twilight evaded answering the question with an observation. “If you’re already behind on parties, it’s only going to get worse as the influx increases. And they are coming here specifically to party on the solstice, you know.”

“I guess…” was Pinkie Pie’s unenthused response.

Twilight considered making a joke about getting to spend all day with her instead as a consolation prize, but it stung a little too hard.

“We’ll just have to find bearers as fast as we can, then!”

Shrugging, Twilight said, “Whatever you want to do with your day once we finish.” She doubted she would be good company after such a long, tedious day of work. She would assemble all six bearers tomorrow after she’d had a night to, well, not relax, precisely, but she didn’t hate or even dislike the nights she spent with Luna and her friends. She just normally had more important things to be doing than playing games.

Pinkie Pie hummed in thought as the alien thought process in her mind turned. “Let’s see… I can take Laughter, and we can give Loyalty to Rainbow Dash. I’m sure it’ll like her. Her story is all about loyalty to ponies she takes under her wing.”

For a moment, Twilight just stared. Then she blinked. “You can take Laughter?”

“That’s what I said. Don’t tell me you have cupcake in your ears.” Pinkie Pie reached over the counter and, in an impressive display of sleight of hoof, withdrew one from behind Twilight’s ear. “There. All better now.”

Disregarding that, Twilight let out a relieved sigh. She’d really dodged a spell there. It’s a good thing Pinkie Pie is too weird for the call to affect her properly. “So I have no idea who Rainbow Dash is” – although the name did evoke images of her encounter at the local library – “but I want one Element per pony to achieve their maximum strength. Which means no Laughter for you.”

“Hmm…” Pinkie Pie stared at Twilight with narrowed eyes. She ran a hoof under her jaw with exaggerated motions and varied her humming, all while she continued to finish whatever baking project she was engaged in.

A little perturbed under the scrutiny, Twilight said nothing.

Pinkie Pie then returned to her usual overly energetic self. “Okie dokie! Then I met this Cheese Sandwich pony once, and let me tell you, he was a character. We could give it to him instead.”

Twilight quirked an eyebrow. Pinkie Pie was in no position to throw stones. Regardless, she said, “I’d like to give the Elements to ponies living in Ponyville if possible, then visitors, then we can expand the search. We can start with a list of preferred locals, but if they don’t work out, we’ll just brute force awaken the Elements. I’d like to get this done today. Just give me a heads up if any of our current bearers are at odds with anypony we intend to test.” On the off chance Pinkie Pie didn’t already know the general social dynamics of the entire village, Kindness would fill in the gaps for her.

“Yes, Ma’am!” Pinkie Pie saluted with a wooden spoon covered in oozing batter.

As much as Twilight wanted to start right away and just get this labor done and over with, she refrained from pushing and instead asked, “How much longer until you’re free?”

“Don’t shift that one yet, Big Mac!”

The stallion in question froze at Apple Bloom’s cry and glanced over toward a pile of rubble that used to be the remains of the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse. “Eeyup,” he said, nodding. Then, finding a safer beam to remove first, he returned to his work.

Apple Bloom let out a sigh of relief. “Be more careful, Big Mac. I know the weight wouldn’t of hurt ya, but the wreckage is awful sharp.”

“Hey now, don’t be scolding your brother like that, ya hear?”

Apple Bloom grit her teeth but didn’t otherwise respond to her sister’s rebuke. Sure, her family could scold her all they wanted whenever she did something even the tiniest bit wrong, and all would be right in the world, but the moment she opened her mouth, it became unacceptable. Grown-ups weren’t fair.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to say life wasn’t fair. As Apple Bloom hauled off some more of the wreckage herself, she spotted Scootaloo lazing around on a small cloud in the sky. From the look of it, she’d fallen asleep on the job when she was supposed to be removing debris from the branches of their clubhouse’s tree.

Setting down her load, Apple Bloom bucked a nearby tree and received an apple for her effort, the perfect ammunition for waking a lazy sack of bones. But she noticed, just as she was about to throw it, that Scootaloo’s cloud had moved despite an utter lack of wind. She stopped to watch it for a few seconds, and its drift gained a little speed.

That can’t be natural. Curious, Apple Bloom’s eyes followed the cloud’s direction of travel out into the orchard. She caught a glint of pale green light amongst the trees. Sweetie Belle. Whatever was up must be important if she was sneaking around like this instead of just coming out into the open. Maybe Index caught her and she ran away?

Whatever was wrong, the Cutie Mark Crusaders stuck together. Apple Bloom snuck off when she had the chance, dodging the eyes of every Apple helping to haul off the ruined clubhouse to slip behind a tree. She carefully moved through the orchard unseen toward Sweetie Belle. When she got closer, she noticed a well-fitted necklace wrapped around her friend’s neck with a familiar purple gem inset. She had so many questions now.

As Apple Bloom approached, she opened her mouth to unleash her first question, but Sweetie Belle spoke first.

“It’s called the Element of Generosity. Yes, it came from the sphere. Yes, Index knows it bonded with me. We spoke already. She gave me a potion recipe and a few already brewed doses to help me tolerate its side effects. I would appreciate your help learning to prepare it myself. As for the secrecy, it has to do with the side effects of Generosity. My brain is still in the process of adapting to it. And yes, I am reading your mind.”

Apple Bloom blinked. Her mouth hung open.

“A lot happened yesterday,” Sweetie Belle added.

“I’ll say.”

By mutual agreement, once they had Scootaloo safely down from her cloud, they carried her off draped across both their backs without waking her. They discussed what prank they should play on her to repay her hard work on their clubhouse, but she unfortunately woke up in the middle of their planning to pretend she’d slipped into an alternate dimension where everypony was evil. She had tried to feign sleep, but Sweetie Belle could read minds now, apparently, and there wasn’t much a pony could do to hide from that.

Soon enough, the trio found a quiet, out of the way corner of Sweet Apple Acres where they wouldn’t be disturbed.

“I have news!” Sweetie Belle, far too excited to stand still, hopped in place. With her pitch an octave or two higher than it should be, she revealed, “Index made me her protégé!”

“Whoa!” Apple Bloom sure hadn’t seen that coming. Honestly, she’d expected Sweetie Belle to go on about how she’d met the archmage.

“Get out!” Scootaloo hoof bumped with Sweetie Belle. “That’s awesome!”

Breaking the actual news hadn’t done much to calm Sweetie Belle down, but she at least managed to not act like Winona with a new chew toy anymore. “I’m going to learn so much! And I’m going to get to meet Spike, Flurry, and Ocellus in person!”

Scootaloo asked the obvious question. “Who’s Ocellus?”

“Oh! I forgot to – oh, I just have so much to tell you two!” Sweetie Belle stopped to take a moment to just breathe and calm down a smidge. “I had a favor to ask Spike and Flurry for an assignment Index gave me. They sent me the information I asked for along with another letter introducing me to Ocellus. They met her recently. She’s a foreign princess living in Equestria.”

With that being the second princess they knew now, Apple Bloom reacted more sedately than the situation probably warranted. “Where from?”

Sweetie Belle frowned slightly. “I don’t know. They forgot to mention, and Rarity didn’t know either.”

Rarity didn’t know?” Scootaloo said. “Must be from somewhere nopony has ever heard of.”

“Scoots!” Apple Bloom swatted Scootaloo’s arm with a hoof. “That ain’t polite.”

As she rubbed her arm, Scootaloo muttered, “Yeah, yeah. Still true.”

Apple Bloom gave Scootaloo a pointed look before turning her attention back to Sweetie Belle. “So any chance Scoots and I can meet Spike and the princesses too?”

“Of course! Rarity said that I–” A sudden sadness swept over Sweetie Belle. Where she once had been all smiles and full of energy, eager to share, now she was reticent and pensive. “Oh. I’ve not yet told you. Girls, for my magical studies, I…” Her gaze fell to her hooves. “Rarity and I are moving to Canterlot after the Summer Sun Celebration.”

Well, wasn’t that just a sour apple in a barrel?

“Wait. You’re moving to Canterlot as well?”

Scootaloo, as confused as Apple Bloom, uttered a simple, “Huh?”

“You said…” Sweetie Belle’s eyes widened. “Oh dear. I’m sorry. Sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between thoughts and spoken words.”

Although she was still shocked to learn that both of her friends were moving away – together, she might add – Apple Bloom filled in the confused party. “Sweetie Belle gained the power to read minds sometime between now and last afternoon.”

Scootaloo turned to Sweetie Belle, who nodded.

“But it’s true, ain’t it, what she said?”

After a moment, Scootaloo said, “Yeah, I… Maybe. I don’t know.” She ran one hoof along its opposite arm. “I think so. There’s this new school for gifted pegasi Flurry’s mom is forcing Rainbow Dash to teach at. I’m invited to attend, and if I want to keep learning from her…”

“You should go,” Apple Bloom insisted. Scootaloo needed the lessons Rainbow Dash provided her in ways Sweetie Belle didn’t need Index’s. There really was no decision to be made.

“I know. I know.” Scootaloo bit her lip. “It’s just… Look at me!” She spread her dwarf wings wide. “I’m not exactly a gifted pegasus, now am I? I can’t even fly.”

Sweetie Belle stepped forward. She placed a hoof on Scootaloo’s shoulder and waited until their eyes met. “Scootaloo,” she said earnestly, “you’re awesome.”

The filly in question managed a weak smirk.

“You’re not just a bribe to get Rainbow Dash to accept the position,” Sweetie Belle continued. “You can do things most pegasi never even think to try. Not because they don’t ‘need the crutch’ but because they’re dreadfully boring and uninspired.”

Whatever response Scootaloo had cooking in her head, it clearly didn’t satisfy Sweetie Belle.

“Hmph. You know that’s not true. Do you believe Index took me on as her protégé just because she needs me to defeat Nightmare Moon?”

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo fell dead silent. The latter hesitantly replied, “No?” She drew the word out and laced it with the same level of confusion and caution that Apple Bloom felt. With all of the changes going on lately, it didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility for Nightmare Moon herself to show up.

“Oops. I was supposed to get you to Pinkie Promise not to tell anypony before I told you about that.”

As there was no way they would be left out of the loop on something so monumental, both Apple Bloom and Scootaloo so swore not to tell anypony anything. With that out of the way, Sweetie Belle told them about the Elements of Harmony and Generosity. Then she explained that Nightmare Moon was actually Princess Celestia’s sister, due to return to Equestria after a thousand years of banishment. By the time she finished fully recounting her conversations with both Index and Rarity about the subject while fielding questions, at least an hour had passed.

“And that’s everything I know,” Sweetie Belle finished. “Index said I have the day free, but after that, I’ll need to spend much of my time with the other bearers.”

While Apple Bloom was feeling more than a mite uncomfortable that her friends were moving on to bigger and better things without her, she kept her thoughts from straying. “I reckon we should make today count, then.” If it were to be the last proper day they had together for only Celestia knew how long, they had to make the most of it. “So what are we going to do?”

“We should–” Scootaloo started, but then her excitement dipped as she fumbled for an answer. “You know, I’ve been so busy with what’s happening with Rainbow Dash that I kinda forgot to even give it a thought.”

“And Rarity and Index have kept me busy.”

With regret, Apple Bloom added, “And I’ve been seeing to the clubhouse…” Not that that was really important anymore with the ponies she shared it with moving away.

“What a downer.” Scootaloo’s low spirits were easy for anypony to hear in her voice.

“We could exchange letters with our friends in Canterlot,” Sweetie Belle suggested. After a moment, she added a very poignant, “Together.”

Soon it would be their friend in Ponyville. Apple Bloom pushed the thought from her mind, but by the sad look Sweetie Belle gave her, she knew it hadn’t passed unnoticed. “I like the idea,” she said, and she did.

“Sounds good,” Scootaloo agreed.

Sweetie Belle nodded. “Shall we?”

“All right then, on three,” Scootaloo said. “One.”

“Two,” Sweetie Belle counted.


“Cutie Mark Crusaders, letter writers! Yay!”

“Pinkie…how much of Ponyville have we covered?”

From her position as their untested pony spotter on the roof just behind where Twilight sat, Pinkie Pie replied, “Five hundred and sixty-three ponies down. Only one thousand and forty-one left.”

Twilight heaved an exhausted sigh. This was just as agonizingly tedious as she’d expected. Invisible and undetected to all but each other, she bumped the similarly concealed Laughter and Loyalty up against the next pony Pinkie Pie pointed out. They’d not found Rainbow Dash in Ponyville, and none of the other ponies on either of their lists of possibilities and preferences had panned out, unfortunately. And neither did the latest stallion she’d tested.

“Plus one, minus one,” Pinkie Pie unhelpfully said.

“Yes, thank you. I got that.”

“And seven with your mane style,” Pinkie Pie added with a giggle.

“Yes, thank you, Pinkie. I got that.”

Rainbow Dash stood at the Canterlot train station, her one small bag having already been sent ahead to the castle by the train attendants. It would have been faster to fly to Canterlot, but how often did a mare get a chance to ride in the royal car and mooch off the princess trying – and succeeding – to ruin her life?

The capital was a lot more impressive flying through it than looking up on it from Ponyville or down from Cloudsdale whenever the city drew near. With the altitude and the cooler temperatures that came with it, it even felt a little like home. Not that she could ignore the glaring differences. Everything was make of glass, stone, and metal instead of mostly cloud, for one. Then there was how stationary and landbound it all was. And the ponies were all stuck-up unicorns who wouldn’t give a mare the time of day unless she had more bits than she knew what to do with or a fancy title.

On her way through the city, a place where nopony knew her, Rainbow Dash had been sorely tempted to stop by a bookstore and see which of her favorite authors had a new book out. The Golden Oak Library, small town library that it was, always lagged behind on new releases. The only exceptions were the most popular series like Daring Do and the junk Rhyme the librarian liked to read.

But that was part of why she was here to begin with. To avoid tempting fate, Rainbow Dash flew straight for the castle. If she made the detour, she’d probably bump into a friend or an old rival. Maybe Gilda. She hadn’t heard from her griffon friend in forever, not since that ridiculous ‘war’ the archmage had put a quick end to. She didn’t need that drama on top of whatever Princess Cadance had in store for her.

At the castle gate, as instructed, Rainbow Dash gave her name to one of the guards. He led her inside and passed her off to another, who then led her deeper into the castle. Attempts at small talk with her guide were met with short, gruff answers, and they soon fell into silence as they walked. The palace was more or less everything Rarity had ever droned on about, or at least the parts of what she’d said that Rainbow Dash could remember were. Lots of art and ritzy stuff decorated the corridors, but nothing really all that interesting. She’d have to get used to it, though. She was going to be around it all the time soon enough.

After a long walk through the busy castle corridors, they finally arrived at a quieter area with less hoof traffic. Two guards stood sentry outside a door, and it was to them that Rainbow Dash was being led. A couple terse nods passed between the three guards, after which they opened the door for her to pass through. Once inside, they closed it behind her.

The room itself was a relatively modestly decorated meeting room with a fancy table surrounded by a half-dozen chairs in the middle. Rainbow Dash had seen more elaborate and overt displays of wealth in her life, but then a princess didn’t need to show off for everypony to know she was both loaded and powerful.

But perhaps this was all a mistake. On the opposite end of the room sat a pink pegasus filly and a purple baby dragon, both looking a little younger than Scootaloo. They sat atop cushions on their chairs to be able to actually peer over the top of the table without looking completely ridiculous.

“I think I’m in the wrong room,” Rainbow Dash said as she turned to leave.

“I don’t think so,” the pink filly said. “You are Rainbow Dash, correct?”

Said mare turned back from the door to eye the filly questioningly. “Yes?”

“Then I’m glad you could make it. We have much to speak of.”

Sure they did. “I’m here to see Princess Cadance, kid.”

“Yes,” the filly said, “and as I said, we have much to speak of.”

Rainbow Dash hesitated before turning back to face what was apparently Princess Cadance. “Aren’t you supposed be older?” There were a lot of things wrong with this situation, but that detail stuck out the most.

The supposed Princess Cadance cleared her throat. “Yes, well, Shiny and I” – she gestured to the dragon next to her – “played a little prank on Twi. She got us back by swapping our appearances with the next generation. Without his horn, Shiny can’t turn us back, so we have to wait for the spell to wear off. But it was totally worth it. Right, honey?”

The dragon, apparently Prince Shining, laughed. Slowly at first and then explosively. “Totally worth it, Cadance.”

Princess Cadance leaned over and gave Prince Shining a peck on the cheek. He reacted strongly, hastily retreating from his wife with a huge blush. “Don’t do that!” he cried, wiping his cheek dry.

“Just showing my love, dear. What’s wrong with that?”

Prince Shining seemed at a loss for words before pointing and saying, “You look just like our filly. It’s weird!”

Princess Cadance just giggled elegantly like, well, a princess.

“So is this good enough counter blackmail material to get me off the hook?” Rainbow Dash asked.

After a thoughtful hum, Princess Cadance replied, “Nope, ’fraid not. This would only be endearing if it got out.”

“Horseapples,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

“Language, young filly.”

Rainbow Dash stared stupefied at the pair for a moment before rubbing her forehead with her wings. This was going to be one of those days. She’d already known that, but this really drove it home. “Can we just get on with this?”

“Yes, of course,” Princess Cadance said. “So…what are your credentials?”

What are my – “I think you’ve made it perfectly clear you already know.” This was an involuntary interview. Rainbow Dash refused to sit through the whole regular process.

“Oh! Yes. Of course. Just checking. We wouldn’t want a changeling taking your job after all.”

Prince Shining hissed something into Princess Cadance’s ear.

“Whoops. Forget what I just said.”

“Oh?” It seemed fortune might yet be on Rainbow Dash’s side. “Well, I might be persuaded to keep my silence.” She buffed a hoof against her chest, then held it out nonchalantly to gaze upon its polished shine. “For a price.”

For a moment, Princess Cadance’s eyes showed pure panic and worry, but then they regained their confident, playful gaze. “I see. Well, if you really feel that way, we can call Twi or Princess Celestia here to erase your memory and start this interview over.”

They can do that! Alarmed, Rainbow Dash said, “No, no need. It’s okay. I’ll keep whatever it was secret.”

Just then, the door opened to admit a normal sized and properly colored Princess Cadance with a weary expression plastered on her face. By what the miniature version had said, this would be her daughter, Princess Flurry Heart, aged up and having to deal with, to say nothing of the hormones, all the boring stuff adults had to suffer through.

“Oh no,” Princess Cadance said in muted horror.

“So,” Princess Flurry Heart began, “what state secret have you two given away this time?”

Princess Cadance winced. “Changelings…”

“I see.” Princess Flurry Heart glanced at Rainbow Dash with a calculating eye. “Well, I suppose if your new friend intends to keep visiting, she would have found out through Scootaloo eventually anyway.” Turning back to Rainbow Dash, she said, “The existence of changelings is a classified matter until they’re ready to reveal themselves publicly. I expect you to not to breathe a word on the matter to anypony.”

It clicked, then, that those two foals had pulled a successful switcheroo. Well, two could play at that game. “I understand, Princess. I’m good at keeping secrets. Like how these two just kissed a few minutes ago.”

“You kissed!” the real Princess Cadance squealed.

Not the reaction I expected.

Across the room on the opposite side of the table, the two foals cringed and protested that, “It wasn’t like that!” to their mother slash aunt.

But effective.

“You two are going to have to tell me all about it tonight!

“Mom!” Princess Flurry Heart whined. “It’s not like that!”

“Really, it’s not!” Spike added.

Princess Cadance sighed, “Ah, young love.” A silly grin crept onto her face. “So innocent. I remember my first date with Shiny. He had such a coltish cuteness about him, and he was so nervous.” She emitted a giggle more befitting a mare half her age. “Oh, I can’t wait to tell Twi the good news! She’ll be so happy for you two.”

The moment was interrupted when Spike coughed up a letter of all things with a burst of emerald fire. Despite the oddness of it, Rainbow Dash figured from what Scootaloo had told her that it came from the Crusaders.

“Oh, look, Flurry, we got a letter.” Spike swept it up in his claws and then leapt from his chair. “Gotta go. See ya, Aunt Cadance!”

“Later, Mom!”

And like that, they were out the door.

“Well,” Princess Cadance said with just the slightest hint of a huff. She crossed the room to take the seat abdicated to her. “That was my daughter, Flurry Heart, and my nephew, Spike. I hope whatever they were up to didn’t trouble you.”

“Nah. They pulled a good prank. I got them back in the end.”

Princess Cadance arched an eyebrow. “Oh dear, so it’s treason, then. Well, I had high hopes for you.”

“Yeah, not falling for that.”

A click of the tongue met the answer. “Very well. I doubt introductions are necessary, but I’m Princess Cadance. Just Cadance, please. I only use my ridiculous full name when I absolutely must. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Rainbow Dash.”

“Wish I could say the same, Princess.” Barring yesterday’s letter, everything Rainbow Dash had ever heard about her was good.

Princess Cadance offered a slightly apologetic smile. “I regret the need for such a heavy-hoofed approach, but do cheer up. In a decade or two, even the Wonderbolts will find it an honor to fly with you. And this isn’t forever if you don’t want it to be.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “This is where you stick me in a dress, tie up my mane, and expect me to have an apple on my desk every day.”

“That wouldn’t be very practical. Well, except maybe the mane part, but I don’t really care about that.”

Confused, Rainbow Dash’s first response was a simple, “Huh?”

“You did read my letter, right?”

“Some of it,” Rainbow Dash admitted. She’d never gone back to read through the more threatening sections she’d skipped over.

Princess Cadance shook her head. “The entire point of this is to rethink how we teach our pegasi. Regular classwork and book learning works well for unicorns and, to a reasonable extent, earth ponies, but pegasi need more hooves-on experience.” She hesitated a moment, seemed to mull over what she was about to say, and then added, “Well, my dear little sister would quibble about the benefits of unicorn experimentation, but her foalhood years were…unorthodox.

“Regardless, I digress. My intention is to shift away from unicorn paradigms to one better suited for our tribe. If that means regular flying, throwing lightning around, and sculpting clouds into immature images as foals are wont to do, then so be it.”

That’s…actually kind of awesome. Cautious of revealing too much too soon, Rainbow Dash said, “I always hated school because it kept me from doing all that. Real learning, you know?”

“That’s not entirely fair,” Princess Cadance replied. “There’s a place for history, math, and such in the classroom as well. But I understand your meaning. Before my aunt took her under her wing, Twilight actually withdrew from the school system entirely to pursue her studies on her own terms. Few ponies can do what she did or, I hear, you did when you could, but there are lessons to be learned from you two and applied elsewhere nonetheless.

“And that experience combined with your gifts is precisely why I went to such lengths to summon you here. I’m not an educator. I’m not a prodigy. I have no idea what I’m doing. But you do. You won’t be working alone, of course. I’ve called upon some of the best teachers in Equestria to help make this project a success. What I’m ultimately asking of you is to lead the development of the experimental curriculum and teach the advanced classes. That can be whatever you think is important, within reason, and you can do it however you want so long as it’s safe and you document what you’re doing for future reference. Class sizes will be small at first, so you shouldn’t be overwhelmed.”

Rainbow Dash had to force herself to play it cool. The idea of getting paid to show off all day and teach foals how to be awesome just like her actually had some serious appeal to it. They wouldn’t be the roaring crowds the Wonderbolts drew or even the cheers and gratitude Ponyville sent her way for her heroics, but neither was it the bland deskwork she’d expected. Thus she leaned forward into the table, casually taping a hoof against it’s edge in consideration. “I suppose I might not die of boredom if you’re going to let me just fly around all day.”

Princess Cadance hid a bit of light laughter behind a hoof. “It’s not quite that simple. You’re expected to get results from your lessons. If you don’t, you will have to try a new approach. Not everypony learns in precisely the same way. And do remember that this is a new experiment. We have a lot of upfront work to take care of, and even once that’s out of the way, teachers have a surprising amount of behind the scenes work. Moreover, I can’t tell you what to do because nopony really knows what to do. All I can tell you is what not to do when I see it not working.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Rainbow Dash said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “But you know all about how well Scootaloo has been doing. My methods work just fine.”

“I can only hope so. At any rate, we may ask you to help out with some of the more elementary magic classes–”

“Yeah, sure. Basics are important. Gotta drill that stuff into their heads right when they’re young. No probs there.”

“–but,” Princess Cadance continued, “you can rest assured that we won’t ask you to teach anything else. I’ve seen your transcript.”

Not sure how to respond to the favor and slight wrapped up in one package, Rainbow Dash merely said, “Uh, thanks. I guess.”

“Good. Now I think that takes care of official business for the moment, so we can spend some time just getting to know one another better. Would you care to join the foals and I for dinner? I have this sneaking suspicion that you’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future. Maybe we could go for a flight afterward to speak some more in private?”

With a shrug, Rainbow Dash said, “Yeah, sure. Sounds fun.”

Twilight and Pinkie Pie stood in the middle of somepony’s home, one which they’d just teleported into more out of convenience than actual need. A family of five were eating an early dinner – or a late lunch – and remained blissfully unaware of the two intruders standing only a room away.

Sighing as neither element reacted to either of the adults in the room, Twilight levitated her map of Ponyville between the two of them once more. “Where to next?”

Pinkie Pie put her hoof on a building two to the west and across the street.

The day was wearing on Twilight both mentally and magically, and she didn’t even want to think of how difficult this would have been without somepony who not only knew everypony in town but also knew where they lived and could remember everypony they’d already tested. At that point, it would have been easier to just open up a pavilion in the center of town and pay everypony a bit to touch the mystery spheres and discover if ‘they’re the chosen one’. As such, she felt it appropriate to say, “You are a treasure.”

“Aw, shucks.” Pinkie Pie kicked a hoof on nothing and knew better than anypony else ever could thanks to Kindness that Twilight really did mean that.

They teleported away, off to commit yet another minor crime that Twilight had no intention of ever telling Celestia about.

Twilight finished testing what she sincerely hoped, by the sheer number of ponies already present, was the entire Apple family minus the foals. Neither Loyalty nor Laughter had reacted to anyone there. They seemed to be rather picky elements. Thus she returned to where Pinkie Pie had sprawled out on her back on the ground. She held the map above her, turning it randomly back and forth. The simple illumination spell Twilight had placed upon it after sunset made it streak about, although only the two of them could see it.

“So?” Twilight asked. “Who’s left?”

With finality, Pinkie Pie pronounced, “Nopony.”

While the job wasn’t over – they’d not found bearers for Loyalty and Laughter – Twilight nearly collapsed with relief that they’d at least exhausted Ponyville’s residents. She’d been beginning to think, though not with any seriousness, that Celestia just wasn’t worth it.

“Except Ponyvillians not currently in Ponyville,” Pinkie Pie added. “That still makes them Ponyvillians, right? Hey, now that I think about it, that word’s pretty weird. Ponyvillians. Pony villians. Pony villains. Just swap the a and the i. Crazy, huh?”

Twilight declined to engage in that tangential conversation. “Just to confirm, we’ve tested every pony from Ponyville currently in town?”


“And we haven’t found either bearer.” After a moment, Twilight politely added, “Other than you for Laughter.”


“Great.” Twilight heaved a tired sigh. “Well, I guess it’s time to start testing other ponies. That should be easy enough. At this time of night they should all be in the new inns or taverns, especially with a storm scheduled.”

“Ooh, that’s perfect!”

Twilight, prepared to handle a heavy dose of Pinkie Logic, asked, “What is?”

“What better place to find adventurers to take part in our epic quest? Maybe you’ll even meet a wizened old stallion with a huge, long, gray beard that will give us some sort of side quest that actually turns out to be important to our main one because we get some magical quest item that–”

Filtering Pinkie Pie out with a bit of magic, Twilight pulled the updated dossier she’d gotten from Amethyst Star earlier today from her bag of holding and opened it up to the pages listing temporary residencies for ponies from out-of-town. It seemed that, with a few notable exceptions, everypony not from Ponyville was indeed crammed into the few inns the village had managed to finish and furnish early.

“I’ll take you home,” Twilight said, barely looking up from the folder as she dispelled her Pinkie Filter. Hmm… I wonder how mad Celestia would be if I cast the trademark spell on ‘Pinkie Filter’. Probably very.

Putting that idea to the back of her mind with a shake of her head, Twilight continued, “I can finish up on my own. Get a good night’s sleep. We’re going to do some group bonding tomorrow, even if it’s just the four of us sitting around at a cafe in Manehattan while I bump Elements against ponies walking past.” It would be the first time she spoke to the seapony in over a week, too. That wasn’t going to be fun. “Be prepared.”

“I’m always prepared for group bonding! Should I make a picnic tonight to bring with us?”

“Yeah, sure,” Twilight idly replied. “Whatever is fine.”

Flash trudged through Ponyville, helmet carried under his wing, toward the Prancing Pony. Rumor had it the tavern had managed to conjure up a few barrels of Apple cider out of season, the brew so good even Princess Celestia went out of her way to acquire it. He really needed a drink after today, never mind the expense. It hearkened back to a simpler time when he’d just been admitted to the guard and the captain didn’t send him on impossible missions.

Really, in the half-day he’d been in town, Flash had already discovered that Archmage Twilight had managed to put herself in the hospital for nearly five days. Putting her down for an entire week was the kind of babbling nonsense one expected from a drunken madpony, not reality. Worse, nopony knew where she was and had seen neither hide nor hair of her either as herself or as Index Code since yesterday.

And worst of all, everypony in this town was ready to be shipped off to an asylum! He and the first wave of Royal Guards to arrive with him today had helped send a stray cockatrice back into the Everfree Forest. Sure, there had been some mild panic in the moment in the vicinity of the attack, but once the incident had ended, those not counted amongst the dozens turned to stone just returned to their business without a word. Hardly anypony had even batted an eyelash! If something like that had happened in Canterlot, there would be cordons, investigations, reporters, demands for an explanation. But here? Nothing!

After he stepped through the tavern doors, Flash quickly located the purple earth pony barmare behind the main counter. He pushed his way through the crowd and took what must have been the only available stool in the entire building. It seemed he wasn’t the only pony in town who needed a drink after today.

“What’s your poison?” the barmare asked.

Flash shucked off his armor and then slumped against the counter with both arms atop it. “Just some Apple cider.”

“You sure about that? That stuff is practically worth its weight in magic right now.”

“Yeah. How much?”

“Right now, the going rate is a thousand bits a pint–”

Flash’s jaw fought to drop through his arms to hit the counter.

“–but I seem to be in a generous mood with all this business, and you look like a stallion way down in the dumps. I suppose I could let a pint go for half that if you tell me your story.”

“Really?” It was still an absurdly expensive but much less painful hit to the bit bag. “Thanks a lot! That’s the first good thing that’s happened all day.”

“Oh dear, that doesn’t sound good at all. Give me a moment, and then we’ll talk your troubles away.”

The mare returned with a frothing cup of what might as well have been that ambrosia drink everypony said Princess Celestia consumed with how appealing it appeared. She set it down in front of him, far more careful not to spill a drop than he imagined she usually would be given the stains on the counter. When Flash reached for his saddlebags to pay, she waved him off and said she’d put it on his tab.

“So what’s bothering you?” the barmare asked as she turned to washing a pile of dirty mugs nearby.

After taking a greedy drink, Flash took his hoof off his mug to resist the temptation to polish it off in two or three gos. The brew was as amazing as he remembered from the last time he’d had it, and he had every intention of nursing it the entire night. Only then did he finally reply, “It’s a lot of things, I guess. This town isn’t helping.”

“Ah,” the mare said, obviously sympathetic. “This is your first visit to Ponyville, eh?”

Flash just nodded weakly.

“Well, I suppose I can only say you get used to it. You didn’t have a run in with Pinkie, did you?”


“That’s a no. The Crusaders, perhaps?”

Flash’s blank stare answered for him. Honestly, it was obvious he was with the Royal Guard, and how did she not know about the cockatrice attack this afternoon?

“Hmm, well, never mind, then. What besides the village is on your mind?”

After another sip of cider to hide his indecision, Flash decided, What the hay, and spilled hits guts. “There’s this mare…”

“Ooh, do tell.”

“It’s not like that.” Flash blushed as his thoughts, so prompted, took a turn toward fantasy. “Well, I mean, it is, but she barely acknowledges I exist, and that’s not really the issue at hoof. I – well, it’s classified. I’m part of the Royal Guard, and I can’t reveal everything.”

“Uh-huh. I’ve heard that before.”

Despite the teasing tone, Flash couldn’t help feel a bit flustered. He leaned over to pick up his helmet and mimicked slamming it onto the counter.

“Pff. Anypony can buy one of those from a costume shop.”

Flash leaned over to dig through his saddlebags, intent on pulling out his identification.

“Hey, I’m just messing with you. I never said I don’t believe you. It’s not like we’ve never seen Royal Guards here in Ponyville before, so you see, I have heard that before.”

“Very funny,” Flash said flatly with a roll of his eyes. “Anyway, there’s this mare that I’m supposed to be looking after while I’m in town, but I can’t find her anywhere, and she’s…more of a trouble hunter than a trouble magnet.”

The barmare laughed easily as she wiped down a mug with a dishcloth, an expertly executed, classic bartender pose in Flash’s opinion. “Well then she could be anywhere in Ponyville.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.” Flash indulged in another sip of his cider. “I have no idea what to do.”

Rather than offer some sympathy, the barmare gave some actual advice. “You could try asking Rarity or Pinkie Pie. They live at the Carousel Boutique and Sugarcube Corner respectively. Rarity usually has a good feel on the village’s pulse, and Pinkie knows everypony.”

Flash recognized Sugarcube Corner as the place where the archmage was supposed to be staying. Maybe he could just show up there. He was supposed to coordinate the Royal Guard’s presence here with Index Code, after all, not just the mayor. It wouldn’t help him keep track of her when she went out and about, but at least he’d have made contact. “I think I’ll take your advice. Thank you.”

“No problem at all. I sort of feel like I owe you anyway. This huge boom in business is all from the festival and from Twilight paying me such a public visit. Gotta do my part to help Equestria in return, you know. Return the favor and all.”

It took a few moments for Flash’s mind to process what he’d just heard. “Whoa, what? You’re friends with the archmage?”

An evil smile grew on the mare as she said, “I would say more acquaintances, really. Maybe friends eventually if she continues to loosen up when we hang out. Turns out that’s enough to double your bar’s popularity. But I wouldn’t have pegged you as the type to have a crush on her.”

The closest Flash came to a dignified response was to bury his head in his hooves and wings. Then he stumbled over something the barmare had said. “Wait, what do you mean ‘loosen up’? Since when does she do that?”

Suddenly with a more serious tone, the mare said, “You should hurry up and make your move, or you’ll never have a chance.”

Flash swallowed a gasp. “What do you mean?”

“Ah, well, I’m not sure how much I should say.” The barmare set aside the mug she’d been cleaning. “She showed up yesterday and subtly asked about a mutual friend of ours. So another friend of mine she also spoke with and I got to talking, and we’re pretty sure she has a crush. Not sure if it’s requited, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it’d be a good idea either even if it is. Both mares in question have some serious baggage.” She shrugged. “But if it’s meant to be, love finds a way. Same with you, I imagine.”

Flash chugged down more of his cider than he really wanted to, but he’d definitely needed it. It would certainly soothe his ego and yet sting all the same if it turned out he’d gotten nowhere with the archmage because he had the wrong gender. But really, what did that even matter to a mare who could turn a pony into whatever she wanted on a whim? “Who is this mutual friend of yours?”

“I really shouldn’t say.”

“Please tell me,” Flash begged. “Please.”

“I’m sorry,” the barmare said. “It really isn’t my place to say. For a number of reasons.”

Flash sighed in resignation. “Well, thanks for the warning, at least.”

“You’re welcome. I can really see why having a crush on her would be difficult. I take it you actually get to see her once in a while, right?”

Crossing another sigh with a laugh, Flash said, “Fleetingly. I actually know her older brother much, much better.”

“Oh? Is that an in or a burden?”

“Eh.” Flash shrugged. “He’s the scary older brother, but he doesn’t actually interfere. Or help, but that’s fine.”

A weird, fleeting feeling interrupted the conversation. Were he not a trained guard, he probably would have dismissed it if he’d ever even noticed it. It felt as if he’d been bumped with something both smooth and hard. It hadn’t been an elbow despite the crowd or anything of the sort. He turned in his seat to look around for the source of the feeling and, quite unexpectedly, his eyes landed on the archmage herself disguised as Index Code. She was staring right at him with a look of relief on her face.

That was new.

And it didn’t last.

Archmage Twilight’s eyes widened a second later as they flared with recognition that soon sailed on straight into some awful mixture of horror and anger.

“Oh, come on!” The tavern fell silent, everypony staring at Archmage Twilight as she stomped her hoof. She turned her head slightly to nopony in particular and screamed, “You think this is real funny, don’t you?”

A very nervous stallion, the closest pony to the archmage’s line of sight, nervously shifted away from her. “N-no? Look, I don’t want any–”

Archmage Twilight ignored the stallion and marched across the room. The crowd parted for her. Even disguised, it seemed, she remained a force of nature who unconsciously commanded respect. When she neared, she pointed straight at Flash. “You. You’re coming with me.” It clearly wasn’t a request. It was just a fact.

Gulping, Flash nodded. He glanced back at the barmare.

“I’ll keep your cider cold for you. Nice to meet you…”

“Flash. Flash Sentry.”

“Berry Punch,” the barmare returned.

With that out of the way, a very impatient and visibly angry archmage marched Flash out of the tavern. He knew better than to try something when she was like this, so as soon as they were outside, he hazarded, “Your brother sent me–”

“Oh, fantastic, you know who I am,” Archmage Twilight interrupted. “When I next see him, he and I are going to have some serious words.” And now that she knew her disguise was useless, she teleported them away to some remote field in the middle of nowhere as soon as they stepped out of sight behind a building.

Once the disorientation faded, Flash straightened his posture and slipped into a formal salute. He had a job to do, after all. “Sergeant Flash Sentry, reporting for duty, Your Excellency. Captain Armor assigned me to lead the Summer Sun Celebration’s guard detachment.”

“Not anymore.”

The words were bitter, and Archmage Twilight flung a golden necklace with a red gem shaped like shield at Flash. It matched the outline of his cutie mark, surprisingly. He managed to catch it with a hoof after it slammed into his chest with enough force to probably bruise a little. While he usually wasn’t one for jewelry – on himself or mares – he had to admit there was something about the necklace that made him want to put it on and never take it off.

As if reading Flash’s thoughts, the archmage said, “Put it on. That’s Loyalty. It’s yours until you die.”

“R-right.” Flash didn’t dare question the word choice and did as bidden. He felt oddly invigorated as soon as the clasp snapped closed.

“You have a new mission as of tomorrow, so listen up. I’ll make this quick. Princess Celestia’s sister, Princess Luna, also known as Nightmare Moon–”

Flash’s eyes widened in surprise and not a little fear, but he stayed silent and otherwise stoic as he’d been trained to do.

“–is due to return to Equestria on the solstice. She’s mad at her sister. The only way to stop her from booting our princess off the Solar Throne is through use of the Elements of Harmony. There are six in total. They run off of friendship. You have Loyalty. It has a few neat abilities beyond a small magical boost and the ability to summon it to you on command. If you focus on a pony you care about, it can lead you to them. If you focus a little harder, it will teleport you to said pony. It also has a passive danger sense for those ponies. Be aware that this operates under their perception of danger only. Questions?”

Flash had so many. He opened his mouth.

“No? Good. You will refer to me as Index when I’m in disguise and treat me as such. Generosity’s bearer doesn’t know who I am yet, so do not spoil the surprise for her. Her name is Sweetie Belle, and she can read minds but only knows Modern Ponish. She’s white, pink, purple, and adorable all over with a few less years on her than Spike.”

It was probably a bad time to mention that Flash only knew Modern Ponish as well. He’d just have to be careful with his thoughts, he supposed.

“Starting tomorrow, the hopefully six of us will meet up and try not to kill each other. As I mentioned earlier, the Elements of Harmony run off of the power of friendship. I will try to enjoy your company, but I want to make one thing perfectly clear up front.”

The archmage teleported right into Flash’s face. He jumped back, startled, finally breaking his stance after everything that had been dropped on him.

“I. Am not. Dating you.” Each pause was punctuated with a poke to the chest from a hoof. “Understood?”

“Crystal.” Flash could set his own desires aside for the moment. Never mind that this was the chance to get his hoof in the door regardless, romance had no place in a situation this grave. He wasn’t going to bet Princess Celestia’s well-being, if he understood the situation properly, on his ability to woo the archmage in barely more than a moon.

The archmage finally relaxed slightly as she stepped back. “That all said, do you have any quick questions?”

“Just one…Twilight?”

Said mare’s ears pinned to the back of her head as her eye twitched, but she made no comment beyond a tiny nod of acceptance.

“So…awkward question, but do you actually know my name?”

At a mutter too loud for Twilight to not have intended for it to be heard, she said, “I have several unflattering guesses.”

Despite knowing to expect that, Flash still sighed from the disappointment. He’d kind of hoped he’d at least gotten her to glance at his file, but it seemed that had been too much to ask. “It’s Flash Sentry,” he said. “I prefer to go by Flash.”

“Fine. I’ll remember it.” Twilight raised a hoof toward the horizon and said, “If you can’t get Loyalty to work for whatever reason, Ponyville is that way. Don’t teleport to me.”

And then Twilight teleported away, leaving Flash, if not stranded, then certainly abandoned. He could fly back if he needed to, but it was probably best to figure out how to get the Element of Loyalty to work before tomorrow.

Just don’t think about it, Twilight. You have a bearer for Loyalty? Don’t be silly. There’s no Element of Loyalty. There are only five Elements of Harmony. What kind of messed up universe do you think you live in where there’s six? Because there’s totally only five. Yep.

Oh, Twilight was going to have very strong words with Shining when they next spoke. She could imagine why that overprotective brother of hers had sent Flash of all possible qualified guards down here, and if that decision to have somepony hover over her in the background cost her Celestia’s freedom… Well, she didn’t know what she would do, but she knew Shining wouldn’t like it.

Argh! You’re thinking about it, Twilight. Stop already!

And to do so, Twilight focused on finishing her task for the night. She only had one pony left to test as far as she knew, and then she could go to bed and waste time with Luna and the others. They had a game to finish, and she still wanted to hear the remainder of Luna’s story.

Now if only the last pony Twilight had to test for Laughter wasn’t an illusionist who hated her.

She paused for a moment, considering that last thought.

Maaaaybe I should just skip Trixie. I mean, I like her on a superficial level, but perhaps it’s best not to go looking for more drama to add to our dysfunctional little team.

Just as Twilight was about to turn and leave, something bounced harmlessly off her passive shields and broke on the ground. Suppressing the urge to reflexively teleport away to safety, she followed the object back to its source. There she found a hatted but cloakless Trixie wobbling down the stairs from the wagon in which she both traveled and lived. In her magic, she held a mostly full bottle of wine, one matching the broken shards of glass on the ground.

Underneath the incredibly drunken slur, Trixie said, “What are you doing here, Sparkle?”

Twilight took a casual glance at her foreleg to ensure her polymorph hadn’t fallen. She was, indeed, still Index.

“Come to rub it in that she was right all along?”

Who is ‘she’? Twilight pushed the thought aside. It hardly mattered. “No, not at all. I–”

“No! Trixie’s not falling for it!” After nearly literally falling over and then taking another swig of wine, Trixie continued, “Why else would you show up other than to humiliate Trixie again? Well, two can play at that game!”

In perhaps the worst but somehow successful display of spellcasting Twilight had ever seen, Trixie managed to polymorph herself while drunk into a crude version of Twilight while also managing to preserve her inebriation. In all honesty, it was a rather impressive feat.

“Ooh, I’m Twilight Sparkle,” Trixie began. The polymorph hadn’t even come close to Twilight’s true voice, but it at least sounded different. “I’m the high and mighty student of Princess… Um… No, not that jerk. Uh, Celestia! Yeah, Princess Celestia. I’m way too good at everything to even acknowledge when a pony speaks to me.”

That had slivers of truth to it, although Twilight had no idea why Trixie would mention it. Not that she would take drunken ramblings very seriously to begin with. “Fine, I’ll play along.” It wasn’t likely Trixie would remember tonight anyway. “You caught me. I had a hot air balloon ready with twenty zebras in it for an elaborate practical joke on you, but you’re just too smart for me.”

“Ah ha!” Trixie cried as she reverted to her base form. “You admit it! You can’t fool the Great and Powerful Trixie!”

Twilight facehoofed. Maybe I should just knock her out for both our sakes.

Predictably, the Drunk and Unbalanced Trixie fell over onto her back on the road when she tried to pose dramatically on her hindlegs.

After Trixie hadn’t moved for a few seconds, Twilight asked, “Would you like some help?”

“Trixie doesn’t want any help from you! Trixie would never be able to forgive herself!” Groaning, she rolled over and eventually managed to teeter back to her hooves. “And what’s that thing you’ve been hiding?” She reached out with her magic and, with only a token level of opposition, snagged the invisible Laughter from Twilight. She truly did have an impressive gift for illusions and transmutation to be able to do so much while five minutes shy of passing out from an alcohol overdose. “Better not be something to humiliate Trixie with.”

After countering the spells on Laughter, Trixie squinted her eyes to get a better look at its revealed form. “What? It’s just a big rock. Why are you carrying around a big rock?” And then her eyes widened in misunderstanding. “Oh, I see. It wasn’t enough for you to humiliate Trixie yesterday. You missed her last time, so you came to hit her properly. Well, it won’t work!”

Twilight rolled her eyes.

Meanwhile, Trixie threw Laughter down into the ground hard enough to shatter the cobblestone road and bury it up to a quarter of its height. “Ha! Your plan has been foiled by the All-Knowing and Omniscient Trixie!”

This time, Twilight went for a full facehoof, the second for this conversation already. “Trixie, you – I don’t even know. You’re so drunk. You know what? Fine. You’ve defeated me. Oh, woe is me. I’ll just have to go back to my tower to scheme another day. I’ll just take that rock back and–”

“No!” Trixie shouted. At the same time, she stomped on Laughter, only to topple over into a graceless face plant when her hoof suddenly lost its support. “Argh! Trixie’s blind! Curse you, Sparkle! Trixie will have her reven–”

Trixie choose that exact moment to vomit. Fortunately for them both, she managed to miss the now awakened Laughter before passing out entirely.

Well… Mission accomplished, I guess. I’ve got the liar, the thief, the anomaly, the stalker, the narcissist, and the shut-in.

It was a far cry from the collection of bearers Twilight had expected. In some ways, that was good. In many others, however, it was a disaster. She could only hope the Elements knew what they were doing.