Chapter Fourteen - Coming Together

“Prithee tell me why I should not unleash my wrath upon him personally?” It was a fair question, just as restraint was understandably a lot to ask of her. Everything that had gone wrong in her life could be traced back to that stallion’s lust for power.

Luckily, an excellent answer existed. “Because if you don’t, I may be able to coax the mare who would be your number one problem into becoming an ally.”

Trixie groaned as she awoke. Her eyes squeezed shut tight against the infernal sun. She had a hangover worthy of being locked away in Tartarus. Flailing about blindly with a hoof, she searched for the cure to what ailed her. To her disappointment, it seemed to be avoiding her. “Niian, where are you?”

The Night Guardian Staff, which Trixie affectionately shortened to Niian despite its lack of personhood, reached out to answer its master’s call. The little spark of it establishing mental contact never failed to make her jump. “Other side. On the wall mount.”

With some effort, Trixie vaguely recalled putting Niian there. Yesterday was such a blur. Her hoof found her staff. A little dexterous bump knocked it off its hooks to land perfectly on top of her barrel. She curled all of her legs around it and snuggled back into bed. “Hangover cure, Niian. Use your own reservoir.” If she had to supply the magic for this, she knew her horn wouldn’t ever let her forget the cost. She’d just have to top the staff off again once she felt better.

At its usual rapid pace, the Night Guardian Staff did as directed and constructed the spell. It then applied it in short order, and Trixie sighed at the relief that swept through her. “Thanks, Niian.” Why had she ever thought it was a good idea to drink so much? So what if life liked to buck her at every turn? So what if everything she ever reached for always amounted to nothing? She was the Great and Powerful Trixie! Nopony could take that from her.

Maybe someday that would be enough.

As Trixie lay in bed, the longer she went undistracted, the more she noticed something tugging on her mind. Niian, a relic from civilization at its height just before the Discordian Collapse, knew how to shield her from such effects, yet it still managed to pierce those protections. That had never happened before.

“Niian, is there a big scary monster nearby?”

After a quick scan, it replied, Results inconclusive.

“What do you mean results inconclusive?” Trixie mumbled sleepily. Reluctantly, she flung the covers off her over Niian and sat up in her bed. She paid no mind to the cool morning air and scanned the room. “So where is the…” Her eyes landed on a fantastic necklace sitting atop her wardrobe. It most certainly wasn’t hers, but as the saying went, finders keepers. “What is that?” she asked as she rolled out of bed.

Surprisingly, she got an answer. “The Element of Laughter, one of six artifacts collectively known as the Elements of Harmony. Last known bearer: Luna.”

Trixie withdrew her hoof from the necklace as though she’d been burned. “The Great and Powerful Trixie doesn’t need your charity,” she said to nopony who could hear her. It didn’t work with her color scheme, anyway. Gold would clash with her colors and ruin her stage presence, and the blue gem would…

The gem was nearly the same color as her coat, and it was cut to form the layered stars found on her cutie mark.

“That’s a nice touch, Trixie admits,” she said, again speaking to nopony present, “but you’ll have to do a lot better than hoof-me-downs. Niian, did you see who left this here?”

“Standby mode,” it replied simply by way of explanation.

Trixie clicked her tongue. She recalled now, if only hazily, telling it to stop chiding her for drinking and to go to sleep. When her gaze returned to the necklace, this time she noticed a letter placed beside it amongst the clutter atop her wardrobe. She debated just throwing both straight into the trash, but her curiosity got the better of her.

‘Trixie, the necklace is called the Element of Laughter. You took it from me last night and bonded with it, so…yeah. Kind of my fault for letting my guard down while you were inebriated. I’ll be by in the morning to discuss what this means for you.

‘As for Laughter itself, don’t mind the compulsion to wear it. It’s harmless. In fact, it has a few abilities. Like the other Elements of Harmony (there are six in total), it will give you a modest magical boost, and you can summon it back to you from anywhere. It’s primary function is to make your own mood infectious in a radius centered around you. Think “reverse empath”. For example, if you’re enjoying one of your performances, so will your audience. If you’re feeling down, misery loves company.

‘Twilight Sparkle’

Of course it would be her. Granted, Trixie hadn’t expected somepony so deep in the sun princess’s pocket, but it’d been about time for life to slap her again. She’d been beginning to get feeling back in her cheeks. And what bigger insult could there be than this? “Trixie does not need a performance enhancer. There is no greater showpony in Equestria already.”

Trixie unceremoniously dumped both the letter and Laughter in the trash with her nose held high.

“Warning: improper artifact disposal detected.”

Leveling a glare on Niian, still covered in blankets, Trixie said, “Don’t you start.” Honestly, she didn’t know where it got its penchant for snippy remarks. It barely even spoke Modern Ponish.

A knock came at the door to Trixie’s wagon. While the sun was up, it was far too early in the morning for Twilight Sparkle to come pester her, so it was probably a fan. She could use a visit from her adoring public right about now.

But behind the door awaited not a foal looking up with starry-eyed wonder nor a grown pony with an interest in the mystic arts. Instead, it was the ‘big scary monster’. For a moment, the two stared at each other. Then the monster opened her mouth, which snapped Trixie from her stupor just enough to slam the door in Princess Celestia’s face. And that, in hindsight, probably just made the situation worse.

Panic set in. Princess Celestia was at her door. Princess Celestia was at her door alone. Anything that happened would pass unwitnessed. She could try running, but she doubted she could get very far even with Niian’s assistance. It would have to be guile and sleight of hoof, then. She’d talked her way out of less dangerous situations with more reasonable ponies, and if she didn’t think about it too hard, that gave her confidence.

When the next knock came on her door, Trixie nervously glanced at all of the artifacts in her wagon whose possession would be heavily frowned upon at best. She didn’t exactly have a contingency plan for Princess Celestia herself getting off the throne and paying her a surprise visit. Niian was already as well hidden as it could be once she hissed at it to enter standby mode. That was, of course, after she quietly shrieked at it for not warning her that the ‘inconclusive big scary monster nearby’ was a physical goddess at her doorstep.

Trixie gave herself one last pep talk to bolster her resolve, slipped deep into her stage character, and at last flung open the door. “So even the Princess of Equestria herself has heard of the Great and Powerful Trixie’s magnificence! What astounding feat of magic can Trixie assist you with?”

The princess’s small smile and warm, light laughter came as an unexpected reaction. “Good morning, Trixie. I thought we might have a chat over breakfast. My treat?”

There was no such thing as a free lunch – or breakfast, as the case may be. Trixie suspected this was going to be about Twilight Sparkle but wasn’t in any position to refuse, so she mentally grit her teeth and replied, “An excellent idea. Ponyville would benefit from the opportunity to bask in my presence. Truly, you are a wise and benevolent diarch.” At least it would get them away from her wagon.

Walking with an alicorn certain had a way of making a pony feel small and insignificant. The ponies of Ponyville who had only last night greeted her and asked for her to perform tricks barely even noticed she existed, and those were the observant ones. Bitterly, the thought, I bet Twilight Sparkle never has to put up with this, crept into her mind. Worse, it was probably true.

“Ah, Sugarcube Corner,” Princess Celestia said. “I have it on good authority that the cake here is extraordinary.”

Whether or not the cake could be termed as such, the service certainly could. Within seconds, they had a private table, more attention than they knew what to do with from the proprietors, and their food arrived fresh out of the oven in record time. It all probably had more to do with there being an alicorn in their party than any normal standards, but Trixie didn’t bother complaining.

When they finally got a little bit of actual privacy upon request, Princess Celestia said, “How have you been, Trixie? I usually keep an ear up for any news about my students, but the last I heard of you must have been…”

“Since you tossed Trixie out like used bathwater?”

Princess Celestia’s smile waned as she offered a little sigh. “My dear little pony, certain allowances are made at my school for magic gone wrong, but you recklessly exceeded them time and again despite every attempt we made to caution you. At some point, we had to consider the other students’ safety and your effect upon the learning environment.”

Trixie mutely harrumphed and turned away. The effect was somewhat lessened by the large bite of doughnut she ate, but what was she supposed to do? It was good.

Without warning, a very pink earth pony was sitting at their table. “Stand back, Your Highness,” the mare said. “I’ve got this. Now let’s turn that sad frown upside down.”

“Do you mind?” Trixie said. “This conversation has nothing to do with…” It was then that she noticed the mare had a golden necklace much like Laughter around her neck. Its pink gem, however, was cut in the shape of a balloon.

“If I may,” Princess Celestia began, “this is Pinkie Pie.”

Pinkie Pie gasped in far too much shock for such a simple thing. “You know my name? Can you read minds too?”

It was subtle, almost unnoticeable, but a hurt look flashed over Princess Celestia’s face. “Once, but no longer. Regardless, Pinkie Pie here bears the Element of Kindness. Pinkie Pie, may I introduce you to Trixie, the bearer for the Element of Laughter.”

“Ooh! Hello, Trixie. Nice to meet you. I’m Pinkie Pie, but I guess you already knew that. My friends call me Pinkie, and we’re going to be the very best from now on. I was going to ask for Laughter, you know, but then I ended up with Kindness first, and Twilight said only one Element per pony, and I just realized I should have called her Index because I don’t know if you know yet, but she did say that you saw through her disguise after a little too much partying, so I guess it doesn’t matter since you’d know right away anyway.”

By the stars, did that mare ever breathe? All Trixie had gotten out of that was the vague impression that she’d been not just an accidental choice for Laughter but not even the first accidental choice. She felt even more vindicated now for throwing it in the trash. Without Niian shielding her mind, however, the urge to go retrieve it had grown strong and stronger still now that it’d been brought up in conversation. Twilight Sparkle’s letter had mentioned she could summon it, in fact. She wouldn’t even have to leave the table. She probably just had to focus really hard on–

With a complete lack of fanfare, Laughter was around Trixie’s neck. The urge to summon it was gone, replaced by a strong desire to get rid of it again, but when she went to actually make the attempt, she found she couldn’t quite summon the will to remove it. Maybe she’d been a little hasty to throw it away. After all, if she had it, then nopony else could. That was the way these sorts of artifacts usually worked. It might be petty of her, but sometimes petty revenge felt best. She’d have to electroplate it later with silver or platinum, but for now – she lit her horn – a simple illusion spell would do. That looked much better.

Pinkie Pie let out a long sigh of relief for some reason. “We need to work on those mopey feelings of yours.”

“What? Trixie is not moping.”

“You totally are,” Pinkie Pie retorted. “Oh. And I’m just mixing in annoyance. Hmm… I’ll need a different approach with you.”

“What on Equus are you even talking about?”

Princess Celestia cleared her throat. “Kindness bestows empathic powers, Trixie, just as Laughter grants you inverse empathic abilities.”

“Oh yes, Trixie forgot about that.” She frowned down at Laughter. While she normally maintained a positive mood in circumstances other than whatever mess she’d been thrown into here, she didn’t want to go about infecting other ponies with her nice, dignified, sullen mood. That seemed like a good way to get everypony to hate her. She’d need to–

“Wait.” A wave of dread rushed through Trixie as she recalled something Pinkie Pie had said. Now that she had a little context, it sounded a lot less nonsensical and out of place. “Did you say ‘read minds too’?”

A very cheerful, “Yep!” met the question, completely unaware of the weight of what it meant.

I have to get out of town as soon as possible. The contract she’d signed hardly mattered. She’d take the hit to her reputation.

“Sweetie Belle has Generosity,” Pinkie Pie continued, thereafter proceeding to drone on about nothing about the, apparently, schoolfilly who had the mind reading Element.

Meanwhile, Princess Celestia leaned toward Trixie and whispered, “Generosity lacks a translation ability and only picks up language-based thought.” She then turned her full attention back to whatever drivel the pink one was spewing with an interest that had to be feigned.

Still, assuming the advice wasn’t a trap – and really, why should the princess deceive a completely innocent mare? – it removed the urgency to flee town at full gallop. Trixie knew Ponish well enough to freely flow between all of its past and modern incarnations while performing. She doubted a schoolfilly knew anything but the vernacular.

A few moments later, an earth pony and probably a unicorn entered Sugarcube Corner. The possible unicorn had a golden necklace just like Laughter and Kindness. Both mares froze upon spotting Princess Celestia. Their relatively good moods while under Laughter’s influence immediately plummeted as far as they could. While they appeared more nervous than terrified, that said plenty all on its own.

Trixie was beginning to see a pattern. She had enough self-awareness to realize that Twilight Sparkle had somehow managed to collect a bunch of weirdos and suspicious characters to bear whatever the Elements of Harmony were supposed to be.

As Pinkie Pie rose to greet the new arrivals and usher them over to the table, Princess Celestia said, “Bon Bon and Lyra Heartstrings. The latter is the bearer of the Element of Honesty.”

Trixie couldn’t help but snort in amusement at that. “Who is she really?”

“Ah.” It seemed Princess Celestia hadn’t expected Trixie to spot the active polymorph spell. “Those two will tell you their secrets when they choose to do so.”

The two new mares approached and, once near, dipped into a very low bow beyond what even those ignorant of royal protocol sometimes resorted to. The princess commanded them to rise, and Lyra Heartstrings spoke first once they had. “Your Majesty–”

Bon Bon elbowed Lyra Heartstrings sharply and hissed, “It’s ‘Your Highness’, Lyra!” That was a fairly big faux pas in Equestria. Most natives never made it.

“Oh! Sorry. Your Highness, I’m so sorry for the trouble I caused. Thank you for letting me stay.”

Well, that was interesting. Trixie wondered what that was about.

“While I would prefer you to have taken a different approach,” Princess Celestia replied, “both of you” – Bon Bon stared down at her hooves – “I understand how each decision you made led to worse ones.”

A long display of gratitude for the understanding followed, one largely unnecessary in Trixie’s opinion, before Bon Bon and Lyra Heartstrings sat down at the table. From how the pair leaned into each other, they were obviously a couple and probably a particularly sappy one without Laughter around.

“Hello, I’m Bon Bon, and this is Lyra. You’re Trixie, right?”

“The Great and Powerful,” Trixie added. She very deliberately turned her gaze onto Lyra and, after a moment to observe her more closely, slowly arched an eyebrow.

Lyra chuckled uneasily, leaning a little more closely into her marefriend. “I saw your duel with Twilight. You’re very good.”

“Hmph.” If that wasn’t a deflection, Trixie didn’t know what was. She could have pressed, but she would politely allow Lyra to retain whatever secret she kept. “Trixie is pleased to know some ponies recognize talent.”

The next pony to join the group came a few minutes later. He was an orange pegasus who slipped into a formal salute when he approached. The Element about his neck, like all the others, matched his cutie mark.

“At rest, Sergeant,” Princess Celestia commanded. “Congratulations on your promotion, by the way. I doubt Twilight realizes, but she informed me of it last night.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.”

Continuing with a light scolding tone, Princess Celestia said, “I do hope you will remember that now is not the time to chase a certain tail.”

“Yes, well…” The stallion looked properly chastised. “The arch – Twilight made her position on such very clear last night. I understand the severity of the situation.”

Situation? “What situation?” Trixie asked.

Princess Celestia hummed curiously. “Did Twilight not inform you?”

She had not. And that was likely because Trixie had passed out. Hoping to preserve her dignity, she opted not to say a word more about that and merely shook her head.

“I see. In short, my sister is returning to Equestria.”

Trixie really hoped nopony, Princess Celestia especially, noticed her pale. Had she just been inducted into an anti-Luna task force?

Like most days, this was an excellent morning to lie in bed and relax in that blissful state between dreams and the waking world. She knew she should really get up and get back to her homework, and she certainly wanted to, but she’d already studied herself to exhaustion far past her regular bedtime. She deserved this.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to wake her?” came Rarity’s echoed words.

Sweetie Belle knew in some vague sense that Index and her sister were downstairs doing something together, but most of what she heard from them was gibberish. They shared a common language in Modern Ponish to communicate, and those spoken words echoed in their minds, but they’d both chosen a different language to do the remainder of their thinking in to preserve their privacy, which was no fun at all.

“No, I can wait a while still.”

A few moments passed, and then Rarity observed, “You certainly don’t look eager to meet up with the other bearers.”

While Sweetie Belle didn’t get a direct response to that, she imagined Index didn’t ignore Rarity’s pointed words entirely.

“Besides,” Index then said, “I’m happy to assist with your experiment. I’ve never made an artifact from scratch before. This is so exciting!”

Rarity was studying to become an artificer? Permanent enchantment was cutting edge magic! From what little Sweetie Belle had heard, that line of work required skill, precision, and dedication – which, upon reflection, she supposed her sister had.

“I know, dear, but do be careful with those chemicals. They stain. Everything.”

“Ahhhh, so that’s what that illusion–”

“Twilight Sparkle! One does not comment upon a lady’s beauty spells.”

Sweetie Belle froze in her bed.

“Here, let me get that for you.”

“Oh. Oh! Thank you. Could you teach me how to do that?”

It was such a mundane conversation for a secret of such magnitude to be revealed.

“Well… For skin and hair, I’d rather not. But fibers? Probably. You have an abnormal level of exactness with magic.”

“Darling, you simply must work on your delivery when it comes to compliments.”

Sweetie Belle jumped out of bed and set about making herself look as presentable as possible as fast as possible.

“You’re two or three standard deviations above average?”

“Now you’re just teasing.”

She was the protégé of the Archmage of Equestria! There mustn’t be a single hair out of place. Ever.

“Oh dear. You’re not teasing, are you?”

“Maybe a little. But my meaning is clear and precise!”

Did she need to take a bath? She’d taken one last night, but did she need another? She didn’t think so. She hoped she wasn’t mistaken.

“Yes, of course, dear,” Rarity said indulgently. “Now this won’t explode or anything when we remove it from its fastenings, will it?”

“Well, in theory–” After a moment of relative silence, the archmage continued, “Yes, well, no. The topology supports a few dangerous spells, but I don’t think you could fold the cloth into them even on purpose. But it won’t work, either, once you exceed the magics’ margin of error. It’ll just uselessly cycle ambient magic through it.”

Was a dress too much? It was too much, wasn’t it? The Archmage liked practicality.

“That’s why spatial magic is so core to this field. You need to map a variable surface into a complicated, rigid mesh in three-space. An introductory study of topology wouldn’t hurt you, either.”

“That’s what I have you for, darling. I don’t suppose you’d like to quit your job and go into business together?”

Sweetie Belle imagined her sister batting her eyelashes at the archmage. She knew she probably wasn’t far off the mark.

“Hmm… Relatively safe. Challenging. Lucrative. We’d have a near monopoly on the market. Tempting, Rarity. Very tempting. However, I’m afraid I’m otherwise tied up at the moment, what with that pesky matter of a possible regime change.”

“Oh that. Such a dreadful bore, really.”

Generosity didn’t pick up sounds like laughter, but those two were probably indulging heartily while Sweetie Belle was busy filing and polishing her hooves.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t mind doing some consulting work. This is an interesting field I wish I had more time for. I can mark up a spell diagram if you tell me what you’re trying to do. Within reason. That kind of stuff usually only takes a few minutes for me. If you want to make a transforming combat dress or something, you’ll need to learn the magic on your own.”

That sounded like an excellent activity for the Crusaders! Or it would have been had life not decided to send them their separate ways.

“Really? I’ll hold you to that promise, then. But that brings us back to where we were before we got onto this tangent. Are you sure you want to tell Sweetie Belle who you are? I know you were hoping to ease her into it so she wouldn’t be so…excitable.”

Sweetie Belle ground to a halt.

“Yeah. I remember what I was like with Celestia at that age. She still teases me about it from time to time. I treated her like the sun rose and set with her. Metaphorically speaking. She has dozens of embarrassing stories about me and hundreds of pictures. In my defense, she’s Celestia.”

“And you’re Twilight Sparkle. You may be fighting an uphill battle.”

“Ponies aren’t raised to almost-but-not-quite worship me.”

“Hero worship is much the same, darling.”

“I know. But I thought about it on the way over. All of the other bearers know who I really am, as it turns out, so somepony is going to slip up sooner rather than later. It’ll be less difficult for everypony if she knows. I already like her, anyway, which is the important part for the Elements. If Celestia could endure me, I’m sure I can endure her.”

Well. That changed things. Sweetie Belle looked in the mirror at all the extra effort she’d put into her appearance. If the archmage – no, if her teacher wanted her to just be herself, she could do that. Probably. She hoped. But wasn’t being herself because she was told to be herself a little contradictory? If she did, then being herself would be not being herself being not being herself by being herself. And that thought made her head hurt a little.

“Besides, it’s a little late to change my mind. From the pitter-patter of tiny hooves I’ve been hearing, she’s awake and eavesdropping.”


“But how? I’ve kept my thoughts in Prench.”

“Spoken words echo across minds when ponies listen to and process them. It’s part of what makes Generosity so overwhelming at first. Celestia warned me about that, but I underestimated how bad it could get. I’m hoping Sweetie Belle’s mind learns to filter the noise before I have to return to Canterlot.”

“Yes, that certainly would make living in the castle difficult.”

Sweetie Belle frowned. She hadn’t considered that. While she could just take Generosity off as Index – no, as the archmage had reminded her yesterday, she really didn’t want to.

“Speaking of, I hope you don’t mind if I take her on a retreat of sorts. I planned to head out to my lab in the middle of nowhere with her and the other Element bearers.”

Through sheer force of will, Sweetie Belle managed to keep her excited squeal of delight to an appropriate minimum. Sure, they already knew she was listening in, but it wouldn’t do to be obvious about it without joining the conversation outright. Which she should do. Right now. She just needed to head downstairs first.

“There are already a bunch of us in the group, and I’d rather keep the risk of any extra stress on her mind at bay.”

“Please do. I’ll sort out our parents when they get back into town. If I might make a suggestion, you may wish to bring somepony her own age with.”

“Well, I do need to introduce her to Spike.”

“Oh hardly, darling. Those two have exchanged quite the number of letters already.”

“I figured, but letters aren’t the same.”

“True. And now, at last, we come to the moment of truth. Are you ready?”

Sweetie Belle arrived in Rarity’s workshop just in time to see them put the finishing touches on their joint project, a tiny piece of cloth stretched flat and fastened in place with pins. It flashed once along the magic sewn into it as it activated. Then above it, a tiny point of white light shined with about half the intensity of a lamp. It was the most basic of basic spells, in some ways simpler than telekinesis, but from the expressions on Rarity’s and the archmage’s faces, they might as well have just teleported to the moon.

“It works,” Rarity said first in a stunned whisper and then with unrestrained glee. “It works! Magnifique!”

The archmage, no less pleased in her manner, lit her horn to inspect the new artifact. “It does! And it looks fully stable, too! Should we try the hello world illusion next?”

Sweetie Belle stood stunned. It hadn’t really occurred to her that even the archmage would know that beginner’s exercise.

“Ooh, let’s!”

As they set about replacing all of their used materials with new ones, the archmage fell from exuberance into a pensive state. “You know,” she said, “I’m glad I got Sweetie Belle, no offense, but you would have been a good bearer for Generosity.”

Had the archmage really just said what Sweetie Belle thought she did? Rarity could have borne Generosity?

“I sort of feel like I’m missing out on something special.”

And that felt like a punch to the barrel. But then the archmage had said she was glad she had Sweetie Belle instead. But on the other hoof, she knew Sweetie Belle was listening in on their conversation. But then again, why would she even say it if it weren’t true? The Elements didn’t have room for that sort of doubt, right? And from what Sweetie Belle understood, Honesty could tell her the truth. Perhaps she was just way overthinking this.

Rarity looked up from her work. “Thank you, Twilight,” she said with a knowing smirk. “I’d very much like to be your friend as well.”

After a few moments of genuine shock, the archmage’s eyes softened, and her lips relaxed back into a smile. Too quietly for Sweetie Belle to hear via ears from the door, she said, “I think I’d like that.”

“Then it’s a good thing we’ll be neighbors soon, isn’t it?”

The archmage offered a nod, and nothing more was said on the subject.

“Well then,” Rarity began, “shall we get to it?”

“In a moment.” The archmage then, in all her glory without disguise, turned to look straight at Sweetie Belle. “Perhaps my protégé would be interested in a crash course on the subject beforehoof?”

Being the center of attention and with the weight of everything she’d heard since she woke on her shoulders, Sweetie Belle approached. Her stomach did flips with butterflies invited to watch the performance.

Then before she summoned the courage to meet her mentor’s eyes, the archmage spoke. “I did say I have secrets.”

So she had. Sweetie Belle made a few attempts at speech, but what did a filly say in this situation? The emotions welling up within her threatened to boil over out of her control, which was hardly the way the archmage wanted her to behave nor the way Rarity said a lady should.

The archmage sighed a little. “Do you want to know another secret?”

Rather than letting Sweetie Belle answer as was no doubt intended, Rarity let out a delighted, “Ooh! Do tell!” An askance glance from the archmage made her sheepishly clear her throat and turn away, pretending that she’d not said a word.

That little interruption aside, the archmage continued, “Celestia extended her offer to teach me in writing. I fainted outright when I read it. Until I finally met her and got it all out of my system–” She looked suddenly rather reluctant to continue. “–over a few…days. Yes. Days.”

In the background, unseen by the archmage, Rarity covered a smile and her silent laughter with a hoof.

“I didn’t accomplish anything useful until then. I’m not expecting any better from you. I believe I promised you an opportunity to talk with me anyway, so hit me with your best shot.”

Well, if she was going to be given explicit permission like that, Sweetie Belle opened her mouth.

It was a normal spring day in Canterlot. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and all good foals were playing. Such was the case for Flurry, Spike, and their new friend, Ocellus.

Flurry knew fully incorporating Ocellus into their little duo, now trio, would take time. The nymph was more self-conscious than anyone she’d ever met. But it would be worth it. Spike was great – the best cousin she could ask for, really – but having another member in their group who could fly couldn’t be beat. It opened up so many more possibilities! Pegasi had all sorts of games which only they could play. Sure, Aunt Twilight said Spike should grow wings someday, but who knew when that would happen.

Speaking of whom, Flurry caught a flash of emerald fire from below. Spike, the acting referee for their match, held a small slip of paper between his claws. After reading it, he waved his hands in the air and called for a time out. “Hey, Ocellus, can you magic some words onto paper or something?”

Not long after Ocellus flew down to help Spike out, Flurry decided she’d best take the opportunity for a rest presented to her if she wanted to keep dominating the match. Spike sent off a message of his own as she landed nearby.

“What was that about?” Flurry asked. “Another relay for Aunt Twilight?”

“Nah, she just wanted to know where–”

In a blink, Aunt Twilight appeared in their midst. Flurry yelped and took to the air, Ocellus reflexively took the form of a large rock, and Spike, used to such things, merely exchanged salutations with his mother. Flurry swore she did that on purpose just to get a reaction.

“Would you like to spend a few days in crazy land with me?”

Spike answered the question with a decidedly noncommittal hum.

“I could really use my number one assistant to help me out.”

Like a complete sucker, Spike latched onto the parental affection and said, “All right.”

“Great!” Aunt Twilight then finally turned her attention to the other ponies present – well, pony and rock, but the point remained. “Sorry to steal him away from you, girls. Nice to see you again, Ocellus.”

And like that, Aunt Twilight vanished with Spike in tow.

“Well, that happened,” Flurry said. She looked down at Ocellus. When nothing happened after a few seconds, she gave the rock a nudge with her hoof. “Hey, she’s gone. Let’s get back to our game.”

When the world stopped flashing by in a series of images, Spike found himself in what looked like a lab of some sort. He put a hand to his head. He hated long distance teleportation chains. Blinks and even short trips he could handle, but the long ones always made him feel sick on the other end even when he closed his eyes. How Twilight managed to endure them without even a bit of dizziness, he would never know.

“Where are we?” Spike asked. Looking around, if he had to describe it succinctly, he’d say one of Twilight’s dreams had managed to intrude upon the real world. There were chalkboards filled with equations, bubbling beakers with unidentified fluids dripping through tubes to other flasks until they ended up in separatory funnels, books piled neatly row by row upon their shelves, stray notes scattered about tables, devices of unknown purpose he couldn’t even begin to guess at, and more besides.

Twilight hummed uncertainly at first. “Well, we’re in my secret laboratory.”

It only took Spike a few moments to realize that of course Twilight had a secret lab hidden away somewhere in the world. Why would he have ever thought otherwise? That would be silly. It didn’t answer his real question, however, so he posed it again a little more pointedly.

This time Twilight replied, “We’re somewhere underground in the Frozen North. I honestly couldn’t tell you where we are on a map in anything but an approximate sense. I use landmarks to get here.”

“Right… And what are we doing here?”

“At the moment, I need to…” Twilight summoned a list from nowhere. “Unload a delivery of snacks. Clear out space for any potential sleepovers. Upgrade the bathroom a bit. Clean the labs. Check that the emergency teleport back to Ponyville is up and running so ponies can leave without me holding their hooves. Make backup backup copies of all documents here. And most importantly, relocate all of my important research so I don’t get scooped.”

“I can help with that,” Spike said. Well, except for the part about upgrading the bathroom, but that sort of went without saying.

Twilight pulled Spike into a short hug and gave her thanks. “Sweetie Belle should be around here somewhere. Why don’t you go find her and work together.” She then headed out toward the test chambers after dumping a massive pile of food out of her bag of holding.

Right. Sweetie Belle. It kind of stung that she’d found out about this place first, even if it’d probably only been by a few hours at most. And that she’d been the one to tell him about her apprenticeship, not Twilight.

Nonetheless, Spike set out to track down his new friend and his mother’s unexpected student. As it turned out, lab stood for labyrinth. Twilight had meticulously labeled every room according to its function, of course, but the corridors wound around haphazardly and often looped back into themselves. Worse, she had no maps posted anywhere. It occurred to him after some time wandering that she’d probably built this place in a natural cave system and added some extra tunnels just to make things even more confusing.

“Ladybug Room?” Spike scratched a claw along his jaw in confusion. Did that have something to do with that weird dance Twilight and Cadance did on occasion? He reached up to the doorknob and then peeked inside. The interior was smaller than he’d expected, but it wasn’t lacking in magical formulae complicated enough to make his head spin. Judging by the other equipment in the room, there was a biological component to whatever experiment was set up in there.

Hoofsteps approached, and with them came a high-pitched voice with an accent that offended the ear for being just subtly off. “As far as I could tell, she wants to kill ladybugs. Like, all of them.”

“What?” Spike took one last peek inside before shutting the door with a shake of his head. Perhaps Twilight should add hiding this room to her to-do list. “Why would she want to do that?”

Sweetie Belle shrugged.

“Weird.” Not that it was the strangest thing Spike had ever seen her get up to. The world was very lucky Twilight usually didn’t proceed from the planning stage to actual implementation when it came to that kind of stuff.

Spike turned his full attention then onto the filly just a few steps away. “So you’re Sweetie Belle?” She matched the description that the EIS had given him and Flurry. Her coat was a royal white as pure as snow, and the twin colors curling through her mane and tail added just the right flair. She had more of an active bookworm’s figure than Twilight, likely from the crazy exploits he’d read about in her file. For a filly on the cusp of marehood who probably spent too much time reading and spellcasting, she was inordinately pretty.

A blush erupted onto Sweetie Belle’s face. Realizing he’d probably been staring too long and that his eyes had slipped down to the absolutely delicious looking necklace she wore, he said, “I’m Spike. Nice to meet you in person.”

“L-likewise.” Sweetie Belle quickly spun on her hooves back toward the way she’d come from and gestured for him to follow. “I should get back to tidying the labs. I would welcome your help.”

Thus they traveled together through the maze to where Sweetie Belle had left off. Along the way, she explained that Twilight just wanted the labs to look presentable for her guests. She kept their tower clean by virtue of letting the castle staff maintain it for her, at least insofar as they dared. After all, one never knew when one of the archmage’s quills or pillows might turn out to be an evil enchanted artifact. Here, however, she was on her own, and it showed in buildup of dust and the general disarray she left some of the rooms in.

Once they finished cleaning the room dedicated to the study of Mage Meadowbrook’s Enchanted Cauldron, Sweetie Belle retrieved the list Twilight had given to her upon her arrival and placed a check mark next to the item in question. There were still an awful lot left on the list, in Spike’s opinion, but she’d made good progress already on her own.

“So is this what you imagined doing after becoming Mom’s student?” Spike asked as they walked to the next room.

“Well… Yes and no.” Sweetie Belle zapped a pile of dust she’d been sweeping up in the corridor, banishing it from reality. “My daydreams were a little unrealistic. I never thought I would actually be here. This is all so exciting!” A bit of a prance crept into her step before she visibly restrained herself. “Sorry, I know this must be normal for you, but–”

“Hey, I get it,” Spike said. He remembered Twilight acting like a complete excited, nervous wreck around Princess Celestia when he was younger. It took her more than a decade to grow out of it. “I can tell you all sorts of disillusioning things about her if you want.” There were her OCDs, her anxiety issues, her paranoia, her social indifference. The list went on and on. She had a lot more success at hiding them now, but that mostly came from covering them up one way or another with magic or being so blatant about them that nopony noticed.

Sweetie Belle, seemingly caught between wanting to defend Twilight and knowing that Spike really just knew her better, settled for a simple, “No thank you.” Her pale green magic latched onto the next lab door’s handle, but when she tried to turn it, it only clicked in place. “It’s locked.”

“Is it on the list?”

Said list floated in front of Sweetie Belle. “What room is this?”

“Project Apotheosis.” Spike read off the door. What does that mean?

Not a moment later, Sweetie Belle said, “I have no idea.”

“If it’s on the list?” Spike asked, confused.

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “No, I don’t know what the word means. I don’t think it’s Ponish. Or at least not Modern Ponish.”

“Ah.” Although that did leave Spike to wonder how Sweetie Belle had learned to read draconic expressions well enough to know what he was thinking.

“Oh. Did Archmage Twilight not tell you that I’m a telepath?”

Spike arched an eyebrow at Sweetie Belle.

“That’s what the Element of Generosity does.” Sweetie Belle tapped her mouthwatering necklace for emphasis. “Um… Please don’t eat it?”

The request, posed as an uncertain question, snapped Spike out of staring at it again. “Sorry. I guess it’s been a while since I got to eat a major magical artifact.”

Sweetie Belle stared at Spike like he’d just set her favorite book on fire.

“What? I’m a dragon. And Mom was just going to destroy them anyway. They were evil.”

After a few moments, Sweetie Belle said, “This is just something I’m going to have to get used to, isn’t it?”


It seemed Sweetie Belle had nothing more to say about that. She turned back to her list and skimmed through it. “Well, this room doesn’t need attention. Let’s move on.”

With much reluctance, Twilight forced herself to approach Sugarcube Corner on hoof and in disguise for the moment as Index. This was going to be a disaster. Trixie hated her. She strongly disliked Lyra and wished Flash didn’t exist. Sweetie Belle would probably not take kindly to Trixie for obvious reasons, nor vice versa. That was a powder keg just waiting for a spark, one Spike would no doubt help provide. Hopefully, Flash would keep his mouth shut and not add fuel to the fire. What a dysfunctional mess. The only pony she had no worries about whatsoever at this point was Pinkie Pie.

But Twilight had to make it work. She would make it work. Celestia’s freedom for who knew how many years, decades, centuries, or possibly even millennia depended on it. With any luck, their time kept waiting for her arrival at Sugarcube Corner unsupervised had given them a chance to break the ice and bond without her there to screw everything up even more than she already had.

Oh, who am I kidding? This is going to be a disaster. I’ll be lucky if I only kill half of–

Twilight froze in place and blinked at the unusually sudden downward spiral of her thoughts. That usually indicated magic at work. She took a few steps back, and after a few moments, the world seemed that much brighter for no particular reason.

Fantastic. Trixie is wearing Laughter and is… Twilight took a step forward, judging the weight placed upon her emotions. –scared, perhaps? Anxious? Worried? Whatever it was, it didn’t exactly bode well. She honestly hadn’t taken Trixie for the kind of pony who would succumb to such feelings before she’d first tried her best. Shows what I know, I guess.

Twilight took a step back again. She had plenty of practice crushing her emotions beneath an uncaring hoof while she finished a mission. She could do it here against artificially induced ones as well. She just needed a moment to collect herself and decide on a course of action.

Once ready, Twilight mumbled, “Right then. Once more unto the breach,” and then advanced.

Sugarcube Corner was less busy than usual at this time of day, likely owing to Laughter’s negative influence. It took no time at all to spot the group of four bearers plus Bon Bon gathered around a table overflowing with more than enough dishware to make up for whatever business had been lost to the gloom Laughter projected. Twilight even spotted an extra large plate that she suspected had once held a multi-layered cake. If Twilight didn’t know better, she’d suspect Celestia of having been here.


Pinkie Pie held Trixie’s mouth closed. With a bright cheeriness completely unreflective of her current state, she said, “Index! Good morning.”

By now, Trixie had shoved Pinkie Pie off of her. “You’re late.” The accusation had a bit of bite to it and came with a spike in annoyance from Laughter.

Once upon a time, that would have really bothered Twilight, but Celestia had sat her down not long after becoming the archmage and explained that punctuality for them was, in fact, a courtesy, not something to which they should try to rigidly hold themselves. Now it only regularly bothered her. “I know. I’m sorry. I got caught up with Rarity.”

Lyra arched an eyebrow at her, and Twilight ignored it. It wasn’t not the truth.

“Anyway, is there any chance I could talk you out of wearing Laughter?” Twilight could force the matter, of course, but that wouldn’t do anything to endear her to Trixie.

Surprisingly, however, Trixie said, “Trixie will return shortly,” and teleported away. With her departure, Laughter’s influence thankfully went with her.

“So,” Twilight began, “has she been indulging in illeism the whole time?” As far as she could recall, Trixie had done so while drunk but not on stage. When she only got confused looks in return, she clarified, “Speaking in the third person.”

That got some recognition, chuckles, and brought some cheer back to what had been a somewhat gloomy gathering. Even Pinkie Pie had looked a little strained in her own way until Trixie had left. Twilight herself was happy to fade into the background at the table as the other four chatted and amused themselves.

I wonder what’s keeping Trixie?

With Niian shielding her mind again, Trixie threw Laughter into the very bottom of her wardrobe with only mild reluctance. The Element’s compulsion somehow still had its hooves deep inside of her, but it was manageable now, something she could tolerate like a bad itch during a performance.

That still left her with a few really very minor problems. Trixie summoned her staff from beneath her blankets, brought it to her workbench, and commanded its disassembly. Distance didn’t stop Laughter’s call from reaching her, so she needed Niian in a form she could keep on her person at all times. An amulet would do just fine. Functional, yet also a decisive slap in the face. Or gem. Whatever part of a necklace one slapped. At any rate, it wouldn’t take too long to turn the Night Guardian Staff into a superior necklace. She’d done this sort of sweeping overhaul work before after first retrieving it. With any luck, even Luna herself wouldn’t recognize it once she finished, much less Princess Celestia.

But that brought up the larger question of what to do. Trixie doubted she could find a hole deep enough to hide in if she ran. Over the course of breakfast, Princess Celestia had made it clear Laughter was hers for life. If she refused to cooperate, she could simply be removed from the equation. Really, she should cooperate. It would put her at the heart of everything. It would make her the princessmaker. Once the solstice had passed, whoever sat on the throne would have her to thank.

Yet that meant working with her worst rival. And a stallion who had an obvious infatuation with the mare. And a filly who, from what Trixie had heard, worshiped her the way most ponies worshiped Princess Celestia. Moreover, Trixie didn’t know if the Elements would actually do anything to Luna. Princess Celestia had only gone on about Nightmare Moon. It would be just her luck if the friendship beam had no or too little of an effect to matter.

And beyond that, in all honesty, Trixie still felt slighted thrice over, but only just. She didn’t want proper revenge, just petty revenge.

An idea sparked in Trixie’s mind. If she played this right, perhaps she could have exactly that. On the off chance the Elements actually did anything, such would probably be for the best. But if they didn’t, then Luna got a smack to the face and maybe a minor attitude adjustment while Twilight Sparkle would have no recourse but to cry over what a failure she was. It was the perfect plan!

It was a shame Princess Celestia would be collateral damage. Trixie didn’t want even nearly that much revenge on her. But it wasn’t like an alicorn wouldn’t live through whatever Luna had planned.

As she worked, Trixie began drafting what she would say when she finally got one up on Twilight Sparkle. Such a glorious moment couldn’t be experienced off the cuff.

Well, it’s probably nothing to worry about.

Twilight resisted the urge to keep watch over Trixie with some divination magic. When she’d left, she’d said she would return shortly, and Lyra had neither said a word to contradict that nor given her an odd look. She would be back soon enough.

“So, Index,” Bon Bon began, “where is Sweetie Belle? I thought she’d be coming with you.”

“I already took her up to my lab with Spike. There’s nopony else even remotely nearby who’s not invited, so Generosity shouldn’t bother her much when we’re all gathered.”

Lyra, probably the only pony present who didn’t know, asked, “Who’s Spike?”

“My son.” Twilight ignored the shock that produced. To be fair, she was young, unmarried, lacked any of the signs of a past pregnancy, and Lyra well knew how busy her position could keep her. Still, she decided to leave his species as a further surprise. Perhaps she should find a camera. “Rarity suggested I bring him, and I took her advice. Most novels skip over the fluff involved in creating and maintaining friendships, so I have no idea what I’m doing. Luckily, I have an expert on hoof.”

Pinkie Pie gave her thanks for the acknowledgment and suggested they start with a picnic with everyone present. Twilight shrugged. Lunch drew near, she’d skipped breakfast, and it seemed like as good an idea as any.

Looking over the crowd, Twilight had three government employees and Lyra, who rarely had employment. Taking these four and Trixie more or less out of civilization until the solstice wouldn’t be a problem. There were already procedures in place to have somepony cover for Bon Bon at her confectionery. Shining could deal with finding a replacement for Flash. Maybe he’d pick better this time now that she’d be out of Ponyville most of the time. Pinkie Pie…well, nopony else could really perform at her level, but Twilight was sure Mayor Mare would find an adequate substitute. Unless they’d completely ignored the instructions she’d sent to them last night, they would be ready to vanish at least for a few days as soon as Trixie returned.

At the proper entrance to Archmage Twilight’s lab, Sweetie Belle sat waiting with Spike for the rest of the bearers to arrive. They’d found a deck of cards in one of the labs and appropriated it for their own use. Roughly half of all card games were meant for unicorns on account of their magic, but dragon claws worked just as well in most cases.

To be honest, Sweetie Belle wasn’t sure what to make of Spike. He seemed nice in his letters. He was polite and eager to help. He certainly respected her abilities. He even thought she was pretty! A slight, crimson flush crept back onto her face as she recalled that, and she cursed the misfortune of being born with a white coat. Everypony noticed when she blushed.

But on the other hoof, they would slip into long silences every so often, moments when he frowned at her and imagined far more than he put into unspoken words. She wasn’t even sure if he realized he was doing it. It felt like he had a problem with her, but his thoughts never suggested as such. Sure, there were a few things she’d really have rather not overheard. Did she really sound so bad to a Canterlot native, for example? But she knew better than to take such things to heart. Everypony had those rude, meaningless thoughts pop into their heads from time to time. She didn’t need Generosity to tell her that he had them too. Even so, something just felt slightly off.

A surge of magic brought Archmage Twilight into the lab with a pair of earth ponies at her side. Sweetie Belle recognized them as Bon Bon, Lyra’s marefriend, and Pinkie Pie, Kindness’s bearer. The three quickly stepped forward and got out of the designated entrance to the lab. As far as Sweetie Belle knew, there were no wards explicitly preventing entry elsewhere, but around so many experimental magics, it was a matter of safety.

Lyra arrived next. Although it could be mistaken as mere tiredness, her sluggish movements and diminished presence, for lack of a more scientific term, indicated a mild case of magical exhaustion. “Whew. Haven’t made a trip that long in a while.” She fell into the waiting hooves of her marefriend. “I’m gonna need a few minutes and some snuggles to recharge.”

Although she rolled her eyes, Bon Bon stepped forward to take on that burden.

“Snuggles?” Spike mumbled. “Is she a changeling?”

“What’s a changeling?” The entire room stopped to look at her, half of it as obviously confused as Sweetie Belle was.

To the archmage, Bon Bon said, “She’s a real little security vulnerability, isn’t she?”

Although Sweetie Belle didn’t understand the language, she knew Lyra and the cadence of her thoughts well enough to know she’d wanted to say something snarky at Bon Bon.

“Spike or I will tell you later, Sweetie Belle,” Archmage Twilight said, although that left the question of why Bon Bon knew about whatever they were.

Pinkie Pie, then, of course wanted to know what changelings were as well, and one didn’t need to read minds to know Lyra, too, wanted to hear an explanation.

And so Archmage Twilight sighed. “They’re shapeshifting ponies who feed off love. They’re usually harmless, and you probably know a few. Don’t tell anypony about them.”

A stallion Sweetie Belle didn’t recognize popped into the room next. He was a pegasus, however, and had an Element around his neck, so she assumed he was Flash Sentry, the bearer of Loyalty. She would do her best to keep an open mind despite the archmage’s obvious dislike of him. They all needed to be friends come the solstice, after all.

That resolve had Sweetie Belle gritting her teeth as the last member of their group arrived. Trixie had made no mystery of her hatred for all things Twilight Sparkle. While the only pony – person present whose thoughts she could understand was Spike – Pinkie Pie’s were oddly silent – she overheard enough keywords that didn’t translate to know Trixie was thinking unkind thoughts about her mentor.

“Well then, everypony,” Archmage Twilight began, “welcome to my secret lab in the Frozen North. Feel free to use the facilities as you wish while you’re here, but if you’re unsure how something works, please ask. The exit, for those who need it, is in the test chamber. It’ll send you back to Ponyville. To Pinkie Pie’s room, to be exact. Just cry out ‘fubar’ to trigger the system.”

Sweetie Belle didn’t know what that meant, but she assumed it was suitably appropriate from the amused reactions it got from most of the group.

“This is built in an old cave system, so I apologize in advance if you get lost. The site is structurally stable at the expense of sensible organization. As Sweetie Belle and Spike helped me clear out a few old labs I wasn’t using anymore, there’s some space you can claim for yourself if you want it. Pinkie Pie assures me that sleepovers are essential friendship building activities, but the value of privacy cannot be overstated.”

With the introduction over, Archmage Twilight then said, “On another note, I believe Pinkie intended to host a picnic for us.”

Now that was interesting. Sweetie Belle had never been to a proper Pinkie party. They were always held past her curfew or even bedtime. She wasn’t sure if a picnic counted, but she was sure it would be fun nonetheless.

It was quiet. There was no wind, no snowstorm, no hail to break the silence, only the occasional quiet chatter between pairs. Pinkie Pie made a few attempts to start up a larger conversation, but they invariably descended into snippy, snarky, sarcastic comments from somepony, and then they all just stopped talking before a real argument could break out.

Twilight sighed to herself. Roughly half of the subsets of this group were functional, but the full set just didn’t work. She’d expected that, yet confronting it in reality still felt like a slap to the face. To distract herself, she pulled another lump of earth out from beneath the snow outside their protective bubble of warmth and extracted the carbon from it. That she compressed into a diamond easily twice the size of Spike’s fist. After inspecting it for any significant impurities, she levitated it over to him, still hot out of the oven as he liked them.

Spike, of course, happily dug in. He slowed as he ate, and halfway through, he collapsed onto his back. The diamond, still hot enough to burn, perched precariously atop his scaly stomach. Twilight flicked it safely out into the snow with a hoof and then rubbed his belly comfortingly, paying no mind to the sharp hiss of the rapidly cooling gem.

“I don’t ever want to see a diamond again,” Spike moaned.

Seeing the concerned look Sweetie Belle was giving her, Twilight said, So he says, but he never learns. But don’t worry. He’ll be fine in a little bit.

That got a weak smile but nothing more. Rather, Sweetie Belle asked, “Didn’t that burn?”

“Hmm?” Why would it – “oh. No. Dragon blood.”

“Dragon blood?” Lyra set down her sandwich as her thoughts played out across her face and connections formed. “When we – that fire – you’re a kirin, and you’re giving me a hard time?”

That slip up raised more than a few eyebrows.

Twilight shot back, “Kirin are harmless unless angered.” Or at least they were as harmless as any other spellcasting species. “And you’ve obviously never seen one. My draconic heritage is so diluted, it’s barely worth mentioning.”

A second later, Sweetie Belle spoke up. “Wait. Kirin are pony-dragon hybrids? Don’t dragons lay eggs? How does that work?”

Now that was an intellectual conversation Twilight could sink her teeth into to abate the endless silence that kept them all prisoner. “It’s fascinating, really. The hybridization only occurs between a unicorn mare and–”

Pinkie Pie pressed a hoof against Twilight’s muzzle from below, keeping her quiet. “When a mama unicorn and a papa dragon love each other veeeery much–”

After batting away Pinkie Pie’s hoof with one of her own, Twilight said, “She’s more than old enough to know how reproduction works.”

“Well, duh, but you can’t be so clinical about it, silly.”

“It’s far too romanticized as is,” Twilight said in her own defense. “You only make it more difficult to talk about when you dance around the subject. Do you know how frustrating it was to educate myself on the subject?” What a disaster that became. “Besides, this is the perfect opportunity to teach her about DNA and hybrid vigor.”

Trixie snorted loudly enough to interrupt the debate. “‘Hybrid vigor,’ says the hybrid.”

“If it weren’t for the nirik transformation, kirin would be a strictly better species than unicorns,” Twilight countered. “And even then, the ready access to draconic magic is arguably worth–”

“Regular foaling,” Spike interjected calmly and without embarrassment. However rude, it proved Twilight’s earlier point. She’d taught him everything he needed to know, leaving him well equipped for whatever life threw at him. “Only works when the female is a pony for obvious reasons. Only unicorns and kirin work. Not sure why. Probably something to do with chromosomes or magic. Viable offspring thereafter can come from any pony tribe after a pony-pony generation.”

That promptly ground the argument to a halt when Sweetie Belle simply nodded and said, “Oh.” How much of that she actually understood would need investigating later, but enough of it clearly got through to answer her question.

And so descended the silence once more in all its terrible glory.

Twilight, well experienced at waiting out awkward silences, joined Spike in lying on her back. The Frozen North’s aurora was out in full force, a brilliant streak of greens dancing across the sky in the solar wind. Even if the company had its flaws, this was a great place for picnics and outdoor work. If she had the time, maybe she’d install an illusion hooked into a scrying spell to simulate the sky in real time on the ceilings of her lab.

It could be a collaborative project with Sweetie Belle to introduce her properly to the divination and illusion schools of magic. Given her magical history, Twilight suspected she learned best through application rather than experiment. The metamagic necessary to tie the two components together might go over her head this early into her education, but it wouldn’t hurt to hoof wave that for now. If they could pull Trixie into the project, so much the better. Nothing brought ponies together quite like magic!

“So…” Flash drawled out uncertainly. After a long delay with many blank stares, he asked, “Kind of a personal question, I guess, but what species are you exactly?”

Lyra said, “I’m a unicorn,” and then buried her face in her sandwich.

Obvious lies are obvious, and there goes another failed attempt at conversation. Twilight sighed. Friendship wasn’t supposed to be this hard, was it? Maybe they should all just go back to fighting with each other.

Twilight blinked once, then twice, then finally fought off the urge to facehoof as she sat upright.

This has to be the worst idea I’ve ever come up with. Switching to Modern Equestrian for the moment, Twilight thought, Sweetie Belle, don’t respond to this. Just throw a snowball at Lyra.

Out of the corner of her eye, Twilight saw Sweetie Belle hesitate, an unsure look upon her face. Fortunately, in some sense of the word, the expression drew no notice in the current atmosphere.

Please, Sweetie Belle. I can’t be the one to start this. It would just make Lyra and probably Trixie mad.

It only took a few moments after that. Without so much as a nod, Sweetie Belle landed the first blow, pelting Lyra in her side with a small snowball. Once the initial shock had passed, bookended by Pinkie’s gasp, Twilight followed up with her own pair of snowballs. One hit Lyra dead on, but Trixie caught the one aimed at her.

With seven snowballs rotating ominously in her magic, ready to fire, Twilight smirked at the two principle threats sitting across from her. “Round two?”

Trixie responded first, beating out Pinkie shouting, “Snowball Fight!” by a fraction of a second. Twilight laughed as the snowball deflected off her shield and nailed Flash hard enough to knock him over.

“That’s definitely cheating this time, Twilight Sparkle.”

As she shed her coat of snow, Lyra muttered, “Says the pony who caught her snowball.”

“Playground rules, then?” Six blank looks – Pinkie Pie had already vanished – greeted Trixie’s question. “Are you all serious? Am I the only one with a foalhood around here?”

Sweetie Belle glumly admitted, “Miss Cheerilee forbids us from having snowball fights.”

“Sunshine was the same way before her,” Bon Bon agreed, annoyed in equal measure.

“Never mind the teachers. Few ponies at my school want to play, much less with me.” A suggestive flexing of Spike’s claws accompanied the remark.

Twilight mumbled, “Expelled,” and left it at that.

“Grew up on the coast,” Flash added. “Only had snow on special occasions.”

After a moment, Lyra said, “Also wrong climate.”

Trixie looked at each of them in turn as they made their excuses, her eyebrows only climbing higher with every moment. “You all have failed at foalhood. Allow the Great and Powerful Trixie to educate your ignorant minds.”

Twilight knew who she would be targeting first, and she had a feeling she wasn’t alone in that assessment.

“Telekinesis only, on snow only, and within arm’s reach only. And no catching snowballs, I suppose. We’re all a little more magically coordinated than most foals.”

Half the group looked first to each other and then came to some silent consensus.

“What about us?” Bon Bon asked on behalf of the non-unicorns present.

Trixie dismissed them with a wave of a hoof and an, “Eh, whatever.”

“What about forts?” Twilight asked. She was fairly certain they were an integral part of the sport.

After a few moments to consider the matter, Lyra spoke first. “How about ten minutes to go crazy and build whatever however we want. Snow only. No enchantments.”

Twilight clicked her tongue. Still, that gave her a lot of leeway even if she lacked formal training as a structural engineer, and field repairs would be easier than constructing fortifications on the fly.

“What about teams?” Flash asked. “If we’re allowing fortresses, there’s a bit of a power imbalance here.”

Without waiting, before Flash even finished speaking, Twilight wrapped Spike and Sweetie Belle up in her hooves. They were young, undisciplined, and less powerful than the other choices, of course, but she’d take the fire-breathing dragon with good range and fair accuracy any day in this sort of situation. That utility had no compare. Sweetie Belle was just a bit of bias on her part.

Besides, Twilight had already fought both Trixie and Lyra and had come out on top. It seemed only fair she take the least experienced members of the party. Everypony else but Pinkie Pie – who didn’t count because it was Pinkie Pie – had some level of combat training.

“Thus we need a larger budget for this year’s gala. We cannot allow Equestria to have anything less than the most extravagant, most anticipated social event in the world lest our reputation suffer.”

Moon Dancer shuffled through the papers presented to her in written form, fact-checking against what Lemon Hearts had said and what little she knew about both the Grand Galloping Gala and international politics. Although Raven Inkwell, Princess Celestia’s seneschal, stood nearby taking notes for both her and the princess, she took little comfort from it. She couldn’t just ask Raven to make a decision for her without undermining the authority temporarily invested into her and maybe even having that come back to bite Twilight in the rear someday. There was really only one good decision she could make right now.

“The crown has heard your petition and will deliberate over the matter,” Moon Dancer replied. Sure, it was a lame excuse to avoid making a choice, but she didn’t have Princess Celestia’s massive cache of political and financial knowledge to fall back on. “We’ll send word when we’ve reached a decision.”

Lemon Hearts bowed – probably the most genuine one Moon Dancer had received all day – and departed. With that business done, she called for a brief recess and then retired to the private audience chamber behind the throne room. She dumped the documents she’d received since this whole ordeal had started onto a table and found a comfortable chair to collapse into.

Raven automatically set about organizing the discarded papers. “You’re doing well,” she said encouragingly.

“I guess.”

“Objectively better than Her Excellency,” Raven added.

Moon Dancer rolled her eyes. The princess had told her that story. Considering that Twilight had purposefully terrified half of the ponies in line and sent them running for their lives, that hardly meant anything. “When Princess Celestia asked me to cover for her, I thought it would be for one or two petitions at most, not the entirety of today’s open court.” This wasn’t what she’d signed up for. Not that she would refuse to help at this point.

“I’m sure whatever is keeping Her Highness is important.”

A knock on the back door, not the one leading into the throne room, made Moon Dancer groan. How did Twilight ever find time to do all her research, raise a foal, and finish the work she’d passed off to Princess Celestia with a schedule this busy? Raven, of course, promptly invited their guest to enter. Moon Dancer immediately recognized her as Spitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts. The very same Wonderbolts who were currently fully active in their military role. This couldn’t be good news.

“Archmage Regent,” Spitfire began, “we have a report of an unusual weather disturbance in the Frozen North.”

Moon Dancer arched her eyebrows. “The Frozen North is filled with wild weather and untamed ice magic.”

“Hence the keyword unusual.” And that was a fair point. “One of my Wonderbolts flew closer, and… Well, you’d best read it for yourself.” Spitfire passed off the letter she had tucked under her wing.

As Moon Dancer read, her brows furrowed together into a deep valley. This couldn’t possibly be right. The Frozen North had more treacherous weather than the Everfree Forest in many ways, but even its worst blizzards were just long, heavy storms.

At this moment, Princess Celestia walked into the room, returned at long last from wherever she’d been and chatting with Princess Cadance at her side about the new pegasus school the latter had been working on. The subject had noticeably caused Spitfire’s ears to perk up, but her professionalism, Moon Dancer assumed, prevented her from prying into state affairs which were none of her business.

Once Princess Celestia noticed the room’s other occupants, she broke off her conversation with Princess Cadance. “Ah, a recess, I take it? Excellent timing. Please catch me up.”

As a potential magical weather crisis had a far greater urgency, Moon Dancer put it first on the docket. “Can you verify this report for me?” It fell firmly under her purview to resolve as the archmage regent, but she lacked the level of power necessary to scry a location so far away or teleport there in minutes as Twilight would. Chained teleports sadly only worked for those who recovered magic fast enough to keep them up, and such stamina had never been something she’d possessed much interest in building. She’d never had a need for it, after all.

Princess Celestia had barely even agreed before she completed the spell with a flick of her horn. “Oh my. That is a very localized storm. Of snowballs. While certainly artificial, I doubt anypony loyal to my sister would…” Her smile thinned for a moment. “No, this is most certainly something my sister would arrange for, but not as a threat. I doubt she…” And this time she broke into melodic laughter. “Oh, Twilight.”


Princess Cadance didn’t need to ask the obvious question on everypony’s mind. With no further prompting, Princess Celestia tied an illusion spell into her scrying to show the scene to everypony present. It was certainly not what Moon Dancer had been expecting from the report she’d read. Nor, as she stared, mouth hung open, did she expect the sound of popcorn popping in Princess Celestia’s magic while Princess Cadance rearranged the room’s seating for a better view.

“Above you!” Bon Bon shouted.

Trixie’s and Lyra’s heads snapped up together. Their magic flew out and pressed against the snow, stopping the imminent collapse of the ceiling.

Lyra breathed a sigh of relief. She offered a brief, “Thanks, Bon Bon,” before returning to digging forward through the snow with Trixie. As far into the Frozen North as they were, the landscape might as well be a lake of the horrid stuff. It made traversal treacherous but perfect for sneaking around.

“Curse that Flash Sentry,” Trixie grumbled. “How did he manage to whip up this weird blizzard so fast?”

While Lyra had a few ideas herself, Bon Bon answered first. “Probably commandeered a wild blizzard in a joint effort with Pinkie. It’d be hard, but not impossible. Especially with her help.”

“Bah! I still don’t believe what you’ve told me about her.”

Lyra sympathized. She’d not really appreciated how unusual Pinkie was until after she’d lived with Bon Bon for a while, but she’d known enough about earth ponies to be confused even when they’d first met. “I think Twilight made a big fuss about it, too. I heard a rumor about her observing Pinkie a while ago.”

“Hmph. No sense of priorities. No sense of fair play, either.”

“No kidding,” Lyra muttered. “I can’t believe that cheap shot she made on our fort.”

“At least we got out uninjured,” Bon Bon said.

Lyra twisted her neck in time with Trixie to glare at her marefriend.

“Er… At least we got out without being disqualified?”

Trixie gave Bon Bon a satisfied nod. “Lyra, you got a good look at the damage to Twilight Sparkle’s fort, right? Thoughts?”

“It’s in bad shape, and the snowball blizzard will tear it apart eventually. She’s going to be busy just keeping it upright. If she doesn’t abandon it, that is.”

An downright evil grin grew on Trixie’s face. “So she’ll never see us coming. Excellent.”

Lyra greatly approved despite her seapony side’s disapproval.

“Not quite,” Bon Bon said, ruining the moment. She then simply said, “Sweetie Belle.”

Generosity’s range was long enough to give a decent warning. That could be a problem. “What if we infiltrated without thinking? It only picks up actual words, right?”

“A single stray thought would cost us our element of surprise,” Trixie began, but her frown turned thoughtful as she then mused, “But there’s no doubt that’s what they’re counting on.”

“Rightly so,” Bon Bon commented.

Trixie, however, shook her head. “Oh ye of little faith. Do not doubt the Great and Powerful Trixie! But you two, especially together, I’m not so sure of.”

Lyra felt a light blush settle onto her face. Guilty as charged. “Bon Bon and I will wait here, then.” She turned to her love. “This level of…play” – and didn’t that bring up unpleasant memories of home – “is too dangerous for you to storm Twilight’s base anyway, and I’d rather not leave you alone underneath all this snow for obvious reasons.”

Although begrudgingly and with a few muttered words too indistinct to parse, Bon Bon acquiesced to the course of action with the assistance of a few reassuring sweet nothings. She was still Lyra’s secret scary monster hunter even if she backed down from whatever tricks and traps Twilight had ready for them.

Trixie, utterly failing to read the mood, gave out further instructions as she continued digging. “You two set up a bunker and give me what artillery support you can to distract the enemy.”

Lyra sighed, and Bon Bon looked more than a little miffed at the interruption herself.

“Give me five minutes before you open fire. I still need to find Twilight Sparkle’s fort under all this snow.”

Twilight stood atop a platform of floating snow, all of which was most certainly within arm’s reach. Her job at this point consisted solely of emergency repairs. The fight with Trixie and Lyra had left it crippled, and the blizzard Flash had cooked up wasn’t helping. The added snowfall would make the tower collapse under its own weight sooner or later if she wasn’t careful. Abandoning the fort was the best course of action at this point, but she’d been outvoted by Spike and Sweetie Belle’s adamant determination to defend it to their dying breath.

Foals. Twilight shook her head in fond disapproval. But this game will never end if we can’t find each other under the snow, so I suppose it’s fine. Hopefully, Sweetie Belle can snipe Flash while I deal with any infiltrators. In truth, her chief worry was if somepony punched a hole in the foundations. The whole tower would come crashing down, and her team would lose by default when she had to teleport them out. She didn’t think that would satisfy Trixie, but Lyra and Bon Bon might outvote her on the choice of tactics.

A snowball whizzed by only a few steps in front of Twilight. It blew a sizable hole through one of the support columns.

Well. What more could be said? Hopefully, Sweetie Belle knocked Flash out soon. Lyra, Trixie, or both were getting more precise. Twilight needed this blizzard to stop so she had the time to return fire.

On that note, Twilight patched up what damage she could fix with the supply of snow available to her and then headed down to the ground floor to pick up another load, inspecting the damage to the fort along the way.

One of these walls is going to give soon. And if one did, it would all be over. I’m going to need to step outside again to perform external work.

Halfway down the last staircase, Twilight was blown into a wall by a barrage of snowballs.

“Argh! Come on! Why! Can I not! Hit! You!” Sweetie Belle flung snowball after snowball to punctuate her cries. The target of her fury, Flash Sentry, dipped in and out of cloud cover. Every shot she sent his way utterly failed to hit him. If the blizzard didn’t send them wildly off course, he dodged with a mocking ease. From time to time, he would hover in place, and although it was hard to tell, it looked a lot like he yawned when he did.

“Hey, Sweetie Belle,” Spike said. “Calm down.”

Turning on Spike, her partner, her comrade in arms, Sweetie Belle wailed, “But he’s taunting me!” much as her sister would if somepony purposefully got dirt on her hooves. “And – and – argh!”

Spike draped a comforting arm across Sweetie Belle’s shoulders. “Look, I get that you’re Mom’s student, and that’s cool and all, but trust me. Her temper is not something you want to pick up on.”

That was probably good advice. Sweetie Belle forced herself to take a step back and breathe deeply, pushing Flash Sentry from her mind. When she calmed a little, she said, “Sorry, Spike. Today has just been…very up and down.” If nothing else, a group of eight people, herself included, was really pushing how much she could tolerate from Generosity right now.

“No worries. Mom has those days all the time. Comes with the territory.”

Territory? “You mean being a kirin?”

Spike shook his head. “Nah. For one, she’s a unicorn in basically every way. Besides, kirin aren’t any more prone to anger. It’s just a lot more explosive. It’s the job. Way too much stress in her life.”

“Huh.” After a moment to absorb that, Sweetie Belle asked, “Being the archmage isn’t very fun, is it?”

“Eh, it has its moments. I know she – oh! I found Pinkie!”

Sweetie Belle rushed to follow Spike’s claw out into the tundra. They’d been looking for her since the game began. “Where?”

“See that ball of snow moving out there?”

“I don’t… Oh!” Through the blizzard and the narrow arrowslit, it was nearly impossible to spot her, but Sweetie Belle found the tiny patch of pink moving against the endless sea of white. “Keep an eye on Flash Sentry for me.”

“Sure thing.”

Sweetie Belle fired shot after shot in the general direction of her new target, her aim improving with every try. There was no risk of running out of ammo with the storm outside constantly raining more down at her. But once she started hitting in the correct neighborhood, the futility of her attempts became clear. Pinkie simply dipped out of sight whenever a snowball should have hit her.

Doesn’t Pinkie have a Pinkie Sense for falling objects? Upon reflection, Sweetie Belle felt certain she did. “Spike, I think Pinkie is a lost cause. Keep an eye on her for Archmage Twilight. I’ll focus on Flash Sentry.”

“Hmm… All right, sounds good.” Spike pointed up into the sky this time. “Flash hasn’t moved much. He’s still hovering under the bare patch of sky in the storm.”

“That seems suspicious.” Sweetie Belle gnawed on her lip as she resumed fire on Flash. She got a small smile when she tore the tiny cloud he had been resting on to pieces. It didn’t hit him, but it was about sending a message.

Spike promptly agreed. “If anything Uncle Shining has taught me is accurate, he’s obviously a distraction for Pinkie. He might just be hoping we get into a melee with his team in the eye of the storm, but I’ll try to figure out what they’re up to.”

Stomping a hoof to the floor, Sweetie Belle let out another frustrated scream. “I almost had him that time!” Then she processed what Spike had said. “Sure. Just signal Archmage Twilight if needed.”

“You know, you can just call her Twilight.”

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “I couldn’t do that.” She’d not even come close to earning that level of familiarity. Rarity would – well, Rarity had taken to doing so, but who knew what that was about.

Spike slapped a hand to his head. “Wow, déjà vu.” He made no further explanation than that even when asked, merely returning his full focus to the game.

Sometime later, Spike asked an odd question. “Hey, Sweetie Belle? How strong is Pinkie?”

“How strong?” Sweetie Belle turned her attention away from Flash momentarily. “Well, she is an earth pony, so very strong. Why do you ask?”

“Well, it’s just, she’s rolling that huge ball of snow around like it’s nothing.”

Spike had a point, even if Sweetie Belle didn’t see the point of it. “And?”

“Yeah, that’s the thing. What’s she going to do with it?”

Sweetie Belle froze. What is she going to do with it? “Do you think–”

“She’s going to throw it at us,” Spike finished in his thoughts. A moment later, he realized what he’d done and continued, “Yeah, pretty sure. And she’s been missing the entire game before I spotted her. How many do you think she has?”

An uneasy feeling crawled up Sweetie Belle’s spine. “Maybe Archmage Twilight had a point about leaving – oh no!”

“What’s up?”

“Trixie just took her out!”

“What?” Spike cried, spinning in place toward Sweetie Belle. “How did she sneak up on you?”

“I have no idea, but we need to brainstorm now. What do we do? Trixie is heading up here.”

“The tower’s linear. We can ambush her like she did Mom.”

“Ehem.” Trixie faked a cough in her thoughts. “Sweetie Belle, the Great and Powerful Trixie has slain Twilight Sparkle. You have two choices before you. You may join me and perhaps have a small chance at victory, or you can perish here. I have no need of this fortress…” The suggestion was clear.


Spike faked a scandalized gasp.

“Oh, ha ha,” Sweetie Belle said dryly. “Trixie just threatened to destroy the tower. She wants us to join her.”

“You have one minute. Send Spike down alone to discuss the terms.”

“And apparently we only have a minute for you to go down alone,” Sweetie Belle added.

Eyes widening, Spike bolted for the stairs. It was a long climb down, and the snow made for treacherous footing.


Spike halted at the top step and turned back to Sweetie Belle.

“We’re probably going to lose either way.” However disappointing to think, it was the truth. “But we can make sure Trixie loses, too.”

Lips curling into a smirk, Spike said, “Revenge. I like it. How?”

It was simple. “Keep her here.”

Spike needed no further prompting. One name ran through his thoughts. “Pinkie.”

Lyra’s jaw dropped. She rubbed her eyes. She pinched herself with her magic.

No, she was not dreaming.

A giant snowball, easily three ponies in diameter – and thus mostly not within arm’s reach – flew through the air from off in the distance. When it collided with Twilight’s fort, it ripped a gaping hole open in its side, causing irreparable damage to the structure. The tower fell in on itself in slow motion, crumbling piece by piece, but that was not enough for the mystery assailant.

Another giant snowball impacted the fort. And another. And another.

One hit near the very top of the tower and sailed onward right through it, a small patch of blue plastered against the near side when it emerged from the structure. Two small dots, one purple and one white, fell out of the tower in its wake on a collision course with the ground. Lyra prepared to teleport to their rescue, but it appeared Twilight had everything well in hoof.

Lyra turned her attention back to the skies. Her mission had long since changed from dealing structural damage to joining the sniping attempt on Flash. However, he was no longer anywhere to be seen.

But he was somewhere to be heard.

“Hello, friend.”