Chapter Fifteen - The Wayward Students

“The experiment was a disaster. It worked, technically speaking, but the test subject is dead. It likely wouldn’t have been fatal for a larger animal, such as a pony, but the consequences… I would like to take a moment to thank my mentor for her scoldings and my own student for sticking her nose in where it doesn’t belong.”

And that brought the experiment to a close. It might become necessary to reopen it in the future, but for now, there were other possible avenues to explore.

By mutual unspoken consent, neither Twilight nor Luna brought up last night as the remainder of the former’s dreamwarming party finally played out. When the group finished their interrupted game of diplomacy and conquest, Twilight took a respectable second place while Berry Punch, the last person she’d expected, won the game.

Once they’d then put all the pieces back into the box, Twilight duplicated the game. It took her but a few minutes to add a game closet to her tower, where she put the copy. Alone on the shelves, it looked rather lonely. She’d need to fill the room out sometime soon. It’d certainly be a lot easier to accomplish than her library.

Time passed, and Twilight made the mistake of reminding Ember and Autumn that she’d installed a tavern upstairs. She felt Luna’s pain as she realized too late that letting them go pick up drinks alone had only one outcome. When she teleported up there after them, she found them already in the process of burning it down while fighting each other. She conjured up a pair of windows in the bar just so she could fling them out of her tower properly. As she did, she shrieked, “Take it outside!” at the grinning and laughing duo.

It was a mild blessing that the tavern hadn’t been completely destroyed. It seemed Ember and Autumn had kept their scuffle more on the wrestling and fire end of the spectrum this time, rather than using chairs and tables as improvised weapons. That likely had more to do with the continued presence of pain in this dreamscape rather than any courtesy, but Twilight would take what she could get. She repaired what she needed to and left the autonomous staff to put everything back in its proper place.

Soon enough, as had become routine, her guests dropped out one by one until Twilight found herself with only Luna for company while she slept. She had no idea what to say after last night, so it was fortunate that Luna took the lead. Once they’d holed themselves up in the repaired tavern at their usual table with mugs of delicious cider, Luna broached a very different subject than she’d expected.

“I fully lost Loyalty and then Laughter last night.”

Twilight blinked, surprised, and then, however unnecessarily, slowly nodded.

“Did you at least hoof them out to worthy successors?” When Twilight’s eye twitched, Luna’s narrowed in turn. “What vagabonds did you give my Elements to?”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

It was somewhat ironic that Luna was the only pony she could complain to. Twilight had to keep a strong front up in the waking world when around the bearers, her family, and especially Celestia. Sunset wanted nothing to do with her. Moon Dancer might lend a sympathetic ear, but she had enough trouble managing Celestia. Who did that leave? Just Luna.

“I think there might be something wrong with the Elements,” Twilight admitted. It’d been a worry she’d dismissed at first, but now she had a full set of misfits, herself included. “Honesty went to a pony who faked her own death, snuck into the country, and has lived her life since under an assumed identity and species.”

Luna had nothing to say to that and, visibly stunned, made no attempt to stop Twilight from continuing.

“Loyalty went to a persistent pest.” Saying much more than that, unfortunately, would probably reveal Flash’s identity with a little digging. “Laughter went to the biggest narcissist I’ve ever met. I will admit, however, she’s also the best showpony I’ve ever met, so that one sort of makes sense.”

For the longest time, Luna said nothing. Brief glimpses of her turning thoughts played across her face in frowns and furrowed brows rather than the expected laughter and gleeful smiles.

That worried Twilight far more. “What is it?” she pressed.

Luna hummed lowly and with worry. She then went on to say, “This is most troubling. It is not solely my banishment that the Elements of Harmony maintain.”

A tiny little piece of information Twilight had stumbled upon at the beginning of all this leapt to the forefront of her mind. “Discord.” The name escaped her lips as a whisper of dread. Civilization hadn’t yet fully recovered from his last advent.

“Indeed,” Luna said solemnly. “As his new keeper, I highly suggest you examine his seal as soon as possible. If my sister’s misuse of the Elements permanently damaged them, we may have a larger problem than our own issues.”

Deep down, some part of Twilight hoped that was the case, because that would get Luna and Celestia to work together, but the sane and thankfully dominate majority of her mind thought otherwise. “I don’t suppose you or I can wake me right now?”

“Unfortunately not. I currently lack the power, and teaching you the greater secrets of dreamwalking to enable such a feat would take far longer than simply allowing you to awaken naturally.”

Unfortunate indeed, yet Twilight’s eyes shined bright with interest. Whether that had been an intentional slip or not hardly mattered. “That can be taught?” She’d assumed not since she’d never heard of dreamwalking, an absurdly useful skill, before discovering Luna’s existence.

Luna’s pensive frown was an answer in and of itself, but she said, “In theory, yes. I’ve had no success doing so in the past, but I’ve not tried in centuries, and science marches on. ’Tis not something to learn whilst dreaming, however.”

“Trying to tempt me?”

“Nay. We have already made our wager.” With unshakable confidence, Luna added, “I have no need of such tricks.”

Twilight wished she felt such surety. But that did bring to mind something she needed to ask about. “Speaking of our wager, we forgot to address what happens to the Elements and their bearers.”

Surprisingly, after a long sip of her cider, Luna said, “Nothing. I have no reasonable way to keep them from you, and they are an invaluable tool that has long lain unused.”

“You’re just going to trust me with them?” Twilight found that very hard to believe even if Luna had a point. She had Magic; there was no keeping the Elements from her while she yet lived.

“Are you not a mare of your word?”

Twilight bristled as she replied, “I am.”

“Then when I triumph over you and my sister, I needn’t worry about the Elements.”

“That’s it?”

Luna nodded. “That’s it.”

Although Twilight eyed Luna suspiciously, Luna just smirked and knocked back her mug of cider. There had to be something more to it than that, but for the life of her – or maybe five others – Twilight couldn’t think of what. Luna certainly wasn’t telling and indeed only looked more amused for the distrust she received like she was in on some great joke that had flown over Twilight’s head.

Cautiously, Twilight asked, “Would you be willing to add that as an official term of our bargain?”

“On one condition. I doubt you would stoop to such methods, but neither of us will bring harm upon a bearer without just cause nor allow it to occur if reasonably preventable.”

“In other words,” Twilight began, “I have to make do with who I have?”

Luna nodded.

She’d not given it any serious consideration, but Twilight did have to admit the thought of rolling the dice again with Loyalty had crossed her mind. With all the others, she could at least envisage what a friendship with them extending past the solstice might look like, but with Flash, she had no idea. Still, she would find a way. Even if she was willing to kill a pony who’d merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time, Celestia wouldn’t want such sacrifices made in her name. Magic would probably disown Twilight, too, if she followed through, and the other bearers wouldn’t ever trust her again. Not that it would matter if she lost Magic, but still.

Besides, if there was even the slightest chance that something was wrong with the Elements, it would hardly do to put them through that sort of stress test. The last thing the world needed was Discord unleashed.

Twilight extended a hoof. “Deal.”

Nodding, Luna tapped her own hoof to Twilight’s, and they shook on it.

“You do realize I am a bearer as well, right?”

“Of course,” Luna replied. “If Equestria’s archmage somehow got in over her head, I would, naturally, leap to her defense regardless. It would be a heavy blow for my kingdom and my reign if she were hurt.”

That was a fair point, Twilight had to admit.

“Twilight, my sister may put us at odds, but what other reason do we have to quarrel?”

After a few moments, Twilight reluctantly replied, “None in particular,” last night notwithstanding. “Policy, perhaps, but we’ve yet to speak on such matters.”

“Is it not your policy to smash everything my sister points you at?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “It’s a little more nuanced than that.”

“Aha! You do not deny the thrust of it. What I would have given to have you at my disposal a thousand years ago.”

Unable to help herself, Twilight rolled her eyes again and turned her attention to the cider she’d barely touched since she’d first sat down. Finding it warm, she cast a spell to chill it once more and then took a long drink. There would be another time to discuss such things.

For now, Twilight had a minor revelation she felt best to get out of the way. “You should know my protégé has Generosity.” She didn’t see any need to hide that information now that the deal had been struck. If the withholding of information was going to upset Luna, better to let her get over it now while she couldn’t hurt Sweetie Belle.

But Luna merely chuckled. “The one you threatened to destroy me over? Given the timing and your history, I imagined it was that or Kindness.”

While that didn’t do Sweetie Belle’s magical talents proper justice, Twilight couldn’t fault the guesswork or the conclusion.

“But if we’re to make such confessions, would the bearer of Laughter happen to be the Great and Powerful Trixie?”

Twilight froze, and a moment later, she realized that was all the answer Luna needed. “How?”

“A clue here and a whisper there. She may have cast me aside in a fit of pique, but I still like to keep tabs on my own student. Certainly, if she got into a fight with the archmage, word would get back to me.”

It took a full second for that information to parse in its entirety.

Twilight banged her head against the table.

“I should ask Celestia for advice. But I can’t do that! If she finds out about this, she’ll know just how badly I screwed up and recall me back to Canterlot. I’m not going to let her give up like that. There’s always mind magic. A few – no, I can’t do that either. The Elements would object. And it’d be wrong. I made a deal, and I have to live with it. I just have to make this work. I’m sure I can. She’s not even on good terms with her right now. Granted, neither am I, but how hard could fixing that be? It’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine.”

Despite trying and burying his head under his pillow, Spike couldn’t get back to sleep with Twilight pacing and rambling on about whatever in the background. He sat up and cried, “Some people are trying to–”

“Oh, good, you’re awake,” Twilight said. It seemed she didn’t understand why that was so. “I’m heading out to run a few errands. Do you need me to pick up anything while I’m at it?”

“A vacuum flask filled from the Stream of Silence,” Spike muttered.

Then just to prove Twilight wasn’t really listening, she said, “Sure, no problem. You’re in charge while I’m gone.” She then left without missing a beat, practically slamming the door behind her in her haste.

The noise finally managed to rouse Sweetie Belle. She groaned and rolled to hang partially over the side of the cloud she was using as a makeshift bed. One hoof came up to rub at her eyes while the other covered a yawn. “What’s going on?” she asked drowsily.

“I’m not sure.” Even as the fog covering his own thoughts subsided, Spike found no answers. He did recall one thing, however. “But did you hear? She left me in charge.”

“Okay.” Sweetie Belle yawned and rolled fully back into bed.

Spike harrumphed. No respect. Still, he was tired, too, and made the executive decision to pursue more sleep as well.

In one of the many anecdotes Princess Celestia had delivered during the time they’d spent alone together, Moon Dancer had learned that the Royal Guard traditionally consisted of two distinct divisions. Its current incarnation consisted entirely of the Day Guard, those ponies whose loyalty began and ended with the princess herself. In theory, a Night Guard existed as well, but buried under more bureaucracy than a mare could shake a stick at, it’d become defunct in every way that mattered not long after their princess’s banishment.

Regardless, there was, it should be noted, no such thing as the Evening Guard.

Two mares stumbled into Twilight’s office, clearly freshly returned from some harrowing experience. One of them bore a vague resemblance to Twilight through her coloration. The other was as tall as any stallion and looked physically stronger than a unicorn had any right to be. Moon Dancer did her best not to stare at the mare’s broken horn nor the scar over her eye.

“Evening Guard reporting in, Your Excellency,” the tall mare said. “Mission accomplished.”

After a few seconds to process what she was staring at, Moon Dancer simply nodded slowly. She’d seen stranger things while filling in for Twilight.

“Starlight has some thaumic burns, and I obviously need another polymorph.”

Oh, that was brilliant! If the tall mare could still channel magic, then a unicorn to unicorn transformation could provide her with an intact horn for spellcasting. A full polymorph was a bit overkill, but Moon Dancer supposed it did come with other benefits.

“I think I can do that.” It’d been a while since Moon Dancer had cast anything that complex, but she should only need to brush up on her memory of the spell. She knew Twilight had a book with it somewhere in her office. It took her a little while to find it, but find it she did. “Right, then. Hold still. This will take a moment.”

Moon Dancer cast the unfamiliar magic with care. If she did something wrong, the tall mare had a fair chance of dying. When she finished constructing the spellform, she checked her work over thrice before nodding to herself. So satisfied, she let it take effect. The mare in front of her underwent nearly an identity transformation, the only change being the now complete horn upon her head. It lit up immediately, proving its functionality.

And then Moon Dancer flew into the air and hung there. Her racing heart skipped when she felt a warning pressure on her horn.

“You’re the worst impostor I’ve ever dealt with,” the tall mare said.

This was just like when Moon Dancer had first met Twilight but a thousand times worse. She’d told Twilight she wasn’t the adventuring type, and now she knew it for sure.

“Where is the real Twilight Sparkle?”

The other mare – Starlight, if Moon Dancer recalled correctly – had already moved to the door. The room had too many security wards for sound to pass through it, but now any avenue of escape was blocked as well.

Somehow, Moon Dancer managed to coherently answer the question posed to her. “I don’t know. She never told me where she went. I’m just filling in for her. Everypony knows that.”

By some unspoken communication, Starlight slipped out the door.

“Do you know what happened to the last pony I caught trying to harm Her Excellency?”

Moon Dancer was sure it was something suitably terrible and really didn’t need an answer. She did her best not to pay attention to what her captor said and spent her time imagining scolding Twilight for not telling her about whoever these two mares were.

Eventually, Starlight returned. She walked casually through the door with a faint glow at the tip of her horn but used a hoof to close it behind her. “Put her down,” she said. Whatever magic she’d been channeling – probably an identification spellform – faded away. “She checks out.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I found Esp. Twilight is out on business until the solstice. Oh, and apparently, she just looks like that.”

“Huh.” The tall mare set Moon Dancer down gently, her posture becoming much more formal in the process. “Sorry about that, Ma’am. I owe Her Excellency a lot.”

Although she’d appreciated none of that experience, Moon Dancer gingerly sat herself back down on her chair and said, “It’s fine. No harm done.” Or she hoped not, at least. She still felt the phantom grip of magic on her horn. “Now who are you two?”

“Tempest Shadow,” the tall mare said. “Captain of the Evening Guard.”

Starlight rolled her eyes. “I’m Starlight Glimmer.” With a wince, she lit her horn just long enough to pull a very thick folder from one of Twilight’s cabinets. She let it land onto the desk in front of Moon Dancer with a loud thump. “That’s my file.”

Skimming over it, Moon Dancer found it hard to believe the sheer number of crimes that could be brought against Starlight. It was almost laughable how long she’d be in jail if anypony ever pressed charges. If rumor were true, she might even warrant a place in the castle gardens as a statue.

A little embarrassed now, Starlight continued, “Twilight gave me a second chance, and I promised not to blow it. All of us are like that, the ‘captain’ here included.”

Tempest snorted but said nothing.

“It’s kind of like our oath of service,” Starlight continued. “We call ourselves the Evening Guard. Some of us take it more seriously than others.” She nudged Tempest with an elbow, who made no response. “Twilight usually delegates through the two of us. We handle the ‘small stuff’ for her.”

Everypony heard those air quotes. All things considered, the Archmage of Equestria, personal student of the Alicorn of the Sun, may have some somewhat understandable misconceptions about scale.

“Oh! Wait a second, I think Twilight told me about you. She, uh, didn’t use the term Evening Guard.”

“Part of why we immediately suspected you,” Tempest said. “We do not recognize Her Excellency by something so deceptive as appearance.”

Starlight added her own two bits at that. “Meaning sometimes she forgets to cancel a spell that changes her appearance. She’s forgetful like that.”

Moon Dancer buried a smile beneath a hoof while Tempest glared at Starlight. She certainly sympathized with Twilight, having made such mistakes herself, but it was still amusing. “I thought you weren’t due to return for at least another moon.”

“A fortunate turn allowed us to finish our mission early,” Tempest explained. “We returned first to report in and then seek medical treatment.”

That reminded Moon Dancer that Starlight, at least, had thaumic burns that needed care. “Of course,” she said. That kind of injury only came from pushing too much magic through one’s horn. Starlight must be exhausted. “I’ll not keep you. I’m glad you’re here, however. I could really use a reliable, specialized task force for magical disturbances.”

“And you shall have it.”

With that parting remark from Tempest, Moon Dancer waved them off to go visit the hospital. It was more than a little frustrating when, not more than a few minutes later instead of a few minutes prior, Twilight teleported straight into the room without warning.

“Ah, good, you’re here,” Twilight said. “I need you to keep Celestia away from the garden for…an hour should do it. Don’t tell her I’m here. Thanks.”

And then Twilight teleported out of the room before Moon Dancer had a chance to say a word in response.

Shining gulped. Not two steps away, his sister glared at him without saying a word. She’d hadn’t said a word since she’d teleported right in front of him out of nowhere. The only hope he had was the lack of a blazing fire indicative of her fury instead of mere anger.

“Twily, do you remember how I got my cutie mark?”

She remained in absolute silence, unmoved.

“When you were really little, our family went out on a picnic. Mom and Dad left you under my protection. Suddenly, forty moon cultists from the future leapt out of the trees.”

Rather flatly, the humor doing nothing to improve her mood, Twilight said, “That’s even less believable than the last time you tried to tell that story.”

Shining nervously ran a hoof through his mane. “I just want to protect you, Twily.” Internally, he swore he would find a way to put Flash on latrine duty for the rest of his career for only lasting a single day before getting caught.

The silence that fell stifled all who landed within its reach. Even the onlookers in the corridor watched them with a wary eye and not a word of gossip.

“You are very lucky you married Cadance.”

Yes, Shining was, but the way Twilight said that made him markedly terrified for his stallionhood’s well-being.

“Keep everyone out of the garden for the next hour. And do try to be subtle about it.”

Shining gulped, and Twilight teleported away before he could promise to do so. As far as revenge went, he’d gotten off very lightly. He hoped. Maybe the worst was yet to come. Perhaps he should practice his shield spells a little longer each day.

Regardless, Shining had to make up some story quick. Had one of the menagerie’s more skittish and evasive animals got loose and escaped into the garden? How terrible! They needed to catch it quickly, and having a bunch of uninvolved ponies milling about would just get in the way.

Observing from a cloud above, Twilight waited until the gardens had emptied to teleport back down to the ground. She doubted this would take long, which was a shame, really, because it so obligingly distracted her from the matter of Trixie. As much as she had the ability to multitask, so too did she have the ability to focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

Discord was a complicated mess of body parts in the vague shape of a serpent, practically the textbook definition of a transformation spell gone wrong. No two pieces came from the same species. One arm was a lion’s, the opposite, a griffon’s. One leg, a lizard’s, the other, a goat’s. Even his wings operated differently. Using them to fly must have been a nightmare. As a statue, he’d curled his long tail around a pillar from who knew where and posed dramatically as though he were about to sing.

I really need to ask Celestia how she and Luna managed to petrify Discord like this. Was he even trying to defend himself? That had troubling implications, if not, unless he’d really been just that mad or arrogant.

Nevertheless, Twilight approached Discord with her horn at the ready. She’d done this once years ago out of curiosity and made no progress, but where before she’d found resistance and rejection, she now slipped past the protections against magical intrusion with welcomed ease. The Elements kept him imprisoned and, just as importantly, isolated. However, it seemed they also recognized her as his new chief warden and allowed her to inspect the oubliette they’d constructed about him.

Twilight almost laughed at how simple it was. It really is just a petrification spell. No more special than what a cockatrice could inflict. Granted, the Elements had layered enough protections around it and supplied such sheer, raw, continuous power that Celestia felt comfortable leaving Discord out in the open as a decoration, but at its core, he might as well have lost to one of his least chimeric creations.

So how well is everything holding up…

Starting from the petrification, Twilight worked outward, examining the network of spells keeping Discord sealed away from the world. As far as she knew, everything looked in order. The flow of power maintaining them remained constant. None of the protections had degraded in construction. She didn’t know how they all worked nor even what they all were, but identifying faulty spells was an art she’d long mastered. If some had already vanished or if the energy supplying them had diminished, only Celestia or Luna would have the knowledge necessary to tell her. As she hadn’t gone to the trouble of keeping Celestia out of the loop only to bring her in now, it would have to be Luna Twilight compared notes with.

Fortunately, duplicating a spell was far easier than understanding it. After a thorough examination of the magics surrounding Discord to, with a little magical assistance, commit them to memory, Twilight cast a spell to wake her shortly. She then put herself to sleep in the hope that Luna would notice her dreaming.

The bite of the Frozen North nipped at Sweetie Belle beneath her coat. Only now noticing that her warming magic had faded away, she recast it. She could see why the archmage had chosen this place to build her secret lab. Nopony would ever find it. Who would ever want to come out here to search for it? The empty tundra spanned nearly as much space as half of Equestria!

Not far away, Trixie practiced the great spells she used as stage magic to amuse ponies. She mostly stuck with transmutations and grand illusions, although other schools of magic made their appearances from time to time. Regardless of any other deficiencies of her character, nopony could deny that she had talent.

Sweetie Belle watched on, trying to divine some understanding of the showpony. She knew Trixie had attended Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. She knew Trixie had once tried to form some manner of connection with Archmage Twilight and felt wronged over the rejection. She suspected Trixie had found few, if any, lasting friends on her travels. She knew Trixie had a reputation for explosions.

A frown tugged at the corners of Sweetie Belle’s mouth. She’d not yet seen anything blow up, but she relocated a few steps further away anyway, just in case, and constructed a small shield made of snow to settle behind.

Now, what else did she know? She knew Trixie liked to boast. She knew Trixie loved adoration. She didn’t know why, but she could guess Trixie wanted attention. Really, Trixie kind of reminded her of Rainbow Dash. If the latter hadn’t decided to settle down in Ponyville, nevermind recent developments, she’d even be an entertainer as well as part of the Wonderbolts. That at least gave Sweetie Belle somepony to ask for advice if needed.

“The least you could do is applaud.”

Sweetie Belle’s head snapped toward the voice, but she only found snow. A hoof tapped her opposite shoulder, but nopony was there. She jumped to her hooves with a muted shriek.

“Or do you, too, believe yourself above common courtesies?”

While she’d suspected, that confirmed it. Sweetie Belle stamped her hoof on the snow and said, “Trixie–” This, as it happened, proved unwise. The fresh powder of last night’s snowfall had yet to settle, and she sank in far enough to tumble over in a graceless display despite the water walking enchantment Lyra had placed on her earlier. At least she wasn’t covered in tree sap. Remembering the trick Inde – the archmage had used during the stampede, she turned her telekinesis onto herself to lift herself back onto her hooves.

Trixie appeared as a swirl of snow on the wind. In no more time than it took to blink, her form dissolved in the distance from head to hooves and rebuilt itself in reverse on the opposite side of Sweetie Belle’s little shelter. If nothing else could be said about her, she was a true master of illusions.

“Twilight Sparkle must be a worse teacher than I thought. Did you honestly expect me not to notice you? Before or after you built…” Trixie cast an askance glance down at the impromptu cover between them. “–whatever this is suppose to be.”

“Not particularly,” Sweetie Belle replied with as much dignity as she could muster after embarrassing herself. As she brushed snow off her coat, she was delighted to discover the water walking spell let it slide right off of her without any lingering meltwater from her body heat. “I just needed a buffer against the wind.” It was a lie, but the truth would only give offense.

Trixie harrumphed regardless. “Well?” Both voice and body revealed how short her patience was. “What do you want?”

“Why do you hate Archmage Twilight?”

“Lots of reasons. Why do you like her?”

“Lots of reasons,” Sweetie Belle retorted with as little bite or sarcasm as she could manage. “She helps ponies everywhere. She even saved me personally. She’s really nice. She came from nowhere with nothing but hard work. She’s the greatest spellcaster in modern history. She–”

Sweetie Belle could have gone on, but Trixie cut her off. “Enough. You know nothing about Twilight Sparkle. She helps Princess Celestia help ponies she couldn’t care less about. If she’s ever been nice in her life, I’ve never seen it. And she most certainly didn’t come from nowhere. She had the royal family’s attention long before she could read.”

However tempting it was to ask after that last point, Sweetie Belle smirked and smugly sung, “You didn’t deny that she’s the greatest spellcaster.”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie has not yet settled that question with her! Our duel in Ponyville proved nothing. When we fight with our full powers, I will prove who the more capable sorceress really is.”

Sweetie Belle made a long, “Oh,” of understanding. Rarity had told her stories of courtly drama with ponies like this. “You’re jealous.”

Hackles raised immediately. “Trixie is not jealous. She is betrayed. Passed over!”

“By who?”

“Who is none of your concern.”

Nonetheless, Sweetie Belle pressed, “Princess Celestia?”

“Of course not,” Trixie replied with no less heat than before. “What was there to betray? Before yesterday, the only words she had for me were admonishments for causing the same damage her precious Twilight Sparkle did.”

Okay, maybe this is more complicated than a little jealousy. But Sweetie Belle hadn’t mediated dozens of Apple Bloom and Scootaloo’s spats without learning a thing or two. This one might be a bit more complex, but the basic principles were the same. “I do recall Archmage Twilight mentioning her experiments tended to, well, explode when she was young. But she learned–”

“–because she had everything levitated to her on a silver platter!” A harsh sound more akin to a bray than a neigh passed Trixie’s lips. “That Twilight Sparkle lived a privileged life free of real consequences is not news. Trixie does not care.”

Sweetie Belle wondered if Honesty would even bother responding to that one if Lyra were here.

Trixie worked for everything she has. Trixie had nothing given to her which she didn’t earn. Trixie doesn’t even know who her father is, much less have a princess to foalsit her. Then when Trixie finally proved herself through tireless dedication, she found out that she was only ever a spare. A spare! Do not try to convince Trixie the world is fair, you naive foal, especially not when it has seen fit to grant you the next silver spoon.”

To top off the rant, Trixie conjured a silver spoon and stuck it into Sweetie Belle’s mouth. Only her warming enchantment kept it from freezing to her lips or tongue.

Sweetie Belle took the spoon in her magic and carefully dispelled it once she’d, just in case, moved it a few hooves away. She knew Trixie could have layered another spell underneath the conjuration if she felt particularly spiteful and didn’t want that anywhere near her.

“So,” Sweetie Belle began, “that’s why you hate Archmage Twilight?” It was certainly a far murkier matter to sort through than the petty arguments her friends got into.

Surprisingly, Trixie said, “No,” with a far more even temperament than she had any right to after all that. She then added, “That’s why I resent her.”

“Oh…” What precisely was the difference? Sweetie Belle wasn’t entirely sure she had the life experiences necessary to understand. Not that she lacked the will to try. “Then why do you hate her?” She’d asked the question before, but maybe now that Trixie had opened up a little, she’d get a proper answer.

“’Tis a long and bitter tale. There was a time in her life when Princess Celestia actively arranged for her to make friends.” Trixie’s eyes dropped to Generosity. “For obvious reasons, now. Somehow I wound up here still.” Her frown deepened. “Regardless, all she remembers about me are my worst failures. That should suffice to inform you of the quality of our interactions.”

Despite the unflattering image that painted, it did sound similar to how the archmage had described herself as a foal. Sweetie Belle couldn’t argue that particular point, but neither did she need to. The past was the past. Trixie and the archmage were different mares now than the fillies they must have been when they’d known each other.

What would Rarity say in this situation? Sweetie Belle did her best to channel her sister in both poise and speech. “Never look to the past, darling. It’s full of embarrassments. Simply dreadful rags, those.”

Trixie slowly arched an eyebrow in silence.

A weak chuckle escaped Sweetie Belle alongside a blush nopony could miss beneath her coat. “That’s what my sister would say, I think. Maybe. Then again, she did have that thing about the derby.”

“The derby? You had those too?”

It was off topic, and Sweetie Belle suspected it was an excuse to talk about literally anything else, but Trixie had an actual glint of interest in her eye for the first time ever. Sweetie Belle would give her a reprieve for now to cool down. “Uh-huh. We had a few, let’s say, technical difficulties, but my cart won the ribbon for most traditional!”

“Most traditional? That’s not a prize we had in Canterlot. We had first place, a technical award, and–” Trixie snickered with a dark look about her. “–Pink Hearts.”

Hesitantly, Sweetie Belle asked, “Pink Hearts of Courage?”

“Let the Great and Powerful Trixie regale you with the tale of how she achieved victory through spectacular feats of magic.”

Trixie’s horn lit up, and an illusion of what Sweetie Belle really hoped wasn’t her derby cart appeared between them. The admittedly sleek vehicle looked like it could cut through air as easily as it could the competition. The front mounted cannons would fry anything in the way while what looked like an oil slick or possibly caltrops protected the rear. The spikes attached to the wheels were just overkill. And those were just the readily apparent features! Who knew what other enchantments it had on it.

“The race from Canterlot to the base of Mount Canterhorn is long and treacherous. Perils both mundane and magical await all those who dare compete. Only the most daring and bold survive. This is the tale of Trixie and the Phantom Fire.”

Luna probed every layer of Discord’s prison in exacting detail. Each and every fragment she checked against her own ancient notes. She left no spellform unexamined, no flux of power unanalyzed. Twilight had done her absolute best to recreate it in its entirety inside her dreamscape. While she was confident she’d implemented the full suite of spells within a reasonable margin of error, they worked only because she believed they would. This was her world. If she wanted two plus two to equal five, she could make that happen.

But despite Twilight’s incomplete understanding of Discord’s prison, Luna could still potentially diagnose any problems. The magics involved didn’t have to correspond to any real physical process to study them. Experiments would be worthless, sure, but they weren’t here to reverse engineer the Elements. They just wanted to check if the magic holding Discord retained the correct form.

Even so, Twilight couldn’t bury the worry making her chest feel slightly tighter than normal. What if she’d over or underestimated how much power went into each spell? What if she’d made a mistake? What if she’d made a mistake by not making a mistake? A false positive on one of Luna’s error inspections they could laugh off later over drinks, but a false negative could let disaster creep up on them unnoticed.

“Well,” Luna began as the glow of her horn faded, “if I’d ever doubted your ability to imprison me if provided with enough power, this would dash such sentiments.”

Twilight held back her sigh of relief. It was too soon for that. “It’s working properly?”

This is cast as I recorded it.” Luna snapped her notebook shut. “Properly? Who could say? I understand it no better than I do banishment, which is to say nearly not at all. Furthermore, I would need to examine Discord myself to know if you’ve unconsciously corrected anything. I, at least, find it much more difficult to recreate an incorrect spell than a correct one.”

Indeed, that was what had Twilight worried.

“That said, you are his gaoler now, and you are not the archmage without reason. If you again find nothing amiss once you awaken, then I doubt his prison will fail while the Elements endure. Do not abuse them, and all should be well.”

This time Twilight did allow herself to breathe out and let the tension flow from her with the air. Those were the words she’d needed to hear. In all honesty, she hadn’t expected any others, but it was Discord. A little tying herself up into knots was both expected and appropriate.

Now she could get back to freaking out about Trixie.

“Your Majesty, we found a Lulamoon.”

Already? It was only the next day. Chrysalis hadn’t even left Princess Luna’s workshop yet! Her hive worked fast, naturally. They had the numbers and networking necessary for such distributed tasks. But this was too easy. She reached out over the hive mind back to the changeling who, in eagerness, had leapt through protocol to inform her directly. “How sure are you it’s not a trap?”

Chrysalis first received a vague feeling of uncertainty in answer before a verbal reply. “There’s a Trixie Lulamoon scheduled to perform a magic act at the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville.”

Coincidence was an old enemy Chrysalis watched with a wary eye and never let out of sight. “Continue your investigations with caution. If this Trixie is the real thing” – as close as one could get to it in Princess Luna’s absence – “she’ll be able to give me a good fight.” Sensing that the warning had properly sunk in, she continued, “Inform me directly the moment you find anything. And warn the archmage.”

“Yes, Your Majesty!”

Another mental voice chimed in a few moments later once her orders had spread. “Trixie and the archmage formally dueled publicly two days ago during a performance. They seem to have a history together. The archmage won and departed amicably.”

A third changeling, the last one in Ponyville, added, “Trixie spent most of the next day at the Prancing Pony performing tricks for drink.” Beneath the words in the hive mind was the understanding that she’d spent most of said day watching those tricks.

After acknowledging the information, the connections faded from Chrysalis’s conscious awareness back into the faint buzz of the hive mind. The relative silence left her free to ponder this development. At a glance, three primary possibilities came to mind.

First, somepony could have thought Lulamoon made for a good name – or stage name, perhaps. It wasn’t fully in keeping with current pony naming tradition, but nopony who heard it would pay it a second glance, the archmage included, it seemed. Only Princess Celestia and perhaps a few very niche scholars would recognize its meaning.

Second, the pretender was there for her princess’s return. Ponyville was close to the old capital of Everfree. If the nightmare intended to head straight for Canterlot, she would fly right over the village.

Third, this Lulamoon was there for the archmage. With the Night Guardian Staff in her possession, she might actually stand a chance. Chrysalis highly doubted Archmage Twilight would let herself be assassinated, abducted, or otherwise inconvenienced, but the possibility existed.

Of the three, Chrysalis believed the second most likely. She gave no credence to coincidence, especially when two of the principle actors had an apparent history of conflict. Moreover, as far as anyone should know, the archmage was out on another one of her long-term missions, popping about Equestria to wherever duty called. Even Chrysalis didn’t know precisely what her plans involved. Credible reports had already placed her in Manehattan, Haywaii, Ponyville, Canterlot, and the Peaks of Peril of all places. The hive had also mentioned her trip to Las Pegasus to meet with Sunset Shimmer, and who knew how many other rumors of her appearances were true. Lying in wait for her in Ponyville made little sense. When she next appeared there officially, if at all, it would be after the nightmare’s return and defeat.

“Your Majesty, we found the Lulamoon’s wagon. It’s empty, and there are no wards, but there’s a lot of magic inside it.”

Chrysalis commanded it to be left alone. “Let’s leave this to the archmage’s discretion.”

A more hesitant voice said, “We haven’t been able to find her. No one we’ve spoken to has seen her since she left the Prancing Pony last night.”

“And Trixie?”

The uneasy silence of her three changelings in the village was answer enough. Chrysalis uttered a few choice words no pony could hope to replicate. She tossed aside the magical artifact she’d been playing with and made for the exit. “Stay alert. I’ll arrive soon to see to this myself.”

A somewhat bemused Amethyst Star gathered a copy of all the records for the upcoming festival and assembled them into the usual file for Index’s use. When she returned with them, she asked, “So what made you lose the dossier in less than an hour?”

Index, who had no idea what Amethyst Star was talking about, offered a blank look in return. Unless she’d orchestrated some complicated scheme that required her to modify her own memory, she’d not been in Ponyville at all until a few minutes ago. But then who would go to the trouble of impersonating a bureaucrat to acquire some basically worthless information about a relatively unimportant farming village? One of the local changelings, perhaps? Why? Then again, it could have been Celestia filling in for her.

Not seeing any good reason to expose the deception, Index shrugged. “Pinkie Pie and a Crusader were in the same room.”

Amethyst Star made a long, “Ah,” before wishing Index a good day.

Once outside, Twilight dropped all pretenses of remaining in character. The five minutes she’d managed to hold it in place were all she could muster right now. Really, what did it even matter? She was done with Ponyville. She’d found a bearer for each Element of Harmony, and she’d screwed up with each of them. They all knew who she was. The only purpose her disguise served anymore was to give her a little anonymity.

So, an impostor, is it? Twilight was looking for distractions, she knew, but a distraction had found her. It would be downright rude not to follow up on it.

“There you are.”

Twilight turned toward the voice and found…herself? It was almost like looking in a mirror. All of the physical details were a perfect match right down to the cut and color of her mane, but the mare held herself differently. A certain magnetic presence hung about her, an air of self-confidence bordering on supercilious, perhaps, something Twilight didn’t ordinarily concern herself enough with other ponies to project. The tiny corner of her mind concerned with physical beauty was a little irritated that this other mare pulled off her own look far better than she did.

From the other mare’s subspace storage appeared an obsidian crown, simple and unadorned but no less a symbol of power for the lack of ornamentation.

Twilight smiled and accepted Luna’s crown into her own magic with her thanks for its safe return. She took a brief moment to examine it in detail. Aside from a little wear and tear over the centuries, it perfectly matched what Luna wore in the Dream Realm. She doubted Sunset would have tried to pass a fake off to her, but as the old adage went, she would trust, but verify.

Glad to have something going right, Twilight tucked Luna’s crown away into her own bag of holding and offered, “Lunch? On the crown?”

Sunset rolled her eyes at the poor attempt at humor but accepted nonetheless. As there wasn’t anything in the way of fine dining in Ponyville and neither felt like a long trip just to eat, they settled on Café Hay and simply ignored the crowd of gawkers and gossipers that swelled around them. Despite how appropriate Sunset’s choice of disguise was, for they were naught but a bureaucrat and her boss meeting over lunch, it lacked subtlety. Still, it was nothing a few privacy spells couldn’t fix once they found their seats.

“So how did the Gladmane heist go?” Twilight asked.

A smirk on her face, Sunset let out an amused, triumphant snort. “The fool was only half as clever as he thought he was. I cleaned him out and managed to turn all of his employees against him in a single night.”

Twilight knew how that usually went. “Monologue?”

“Yep. I weaved a little magic to broadcast it across the resort. He never suspected a thing. During the chaos, I made off with everything.”

“Impressive.” It actually sounded rather exciting. It reminded her of her early years as the archmage when her wits mattered more than her power and experience. “Will anypony even believe he was robbed?”

“Unfortunately,” Sunset muttered. “If I’d had more time, I would have cooked the books. He kept detailed records, and after last night, the police would have believed anything I put in them. But opportunity presented itself…” She shrugged and sipped from her drink. “Still, I can’t wait to read about the fallout.”

“It’s always a pleasure trying to puzzle out your work.”

They were interrupted for a brief moment when their lunch arrived. Twilight had ordered a simple daffodil sandwich while Sunset had favored a large bowl of potato soup. Soon enough, they were alone once more – relatively speaking, of course.

“So how’s the love and friendship business going?” Sunset asked.

Although Twilight had expected the question, she’d vainly hoped to avoid it. She fought back an exasperated sigh and replied, “Not well. I’m hoping I can talk Luna into reconciling with Celestia, but that hasn’t gone well either.”

“Could you just have Sunbutt take you to the moon to reinforce her seal?”

It was a good idea, Twilight admitted, one she hadn’t thought of, but it wouldn’t work. “No. I wish I’d thought of it first, but no. I promised I wouldn’t do that to her.”

Sunset clicked her tongue and muttered something Twilight couldn’t hear.

“Besides,” Twilight continued, unfazed, “I just got back from checking on Discord’s seal. The Elements were ancient and mysterious even in the Classical Era, and it shows. I think the Elements will allow me to make manual modifications to their work. I’ll grant you that. But Luna’s prison isn’t weakening. It’s designed to fail. I’d need to modify it without disrupting it to keep her contained. At that point, I might as well take a hammer to a black box and hope it resets.”

“Fair point,” Sunset admitted. She wore a thoughtful look for a few spoonfuls of soup before she spoke again. “Could we apply Singer’s layered spell method to reapply the banishment without releasing Luna?”

Twilight shook her head. “Two problems. First, Celestia would have to cast it. The Elements provide an absurd amount of power to maintain these seals, and they actively reject her. Second” – the reason why she’d never bothered to consider it herself – “the magic would solidify in the transition from the doubled density.” And there was, of course, the deal she’d made with Luna as well.

The pair ate in silence after that for some time, each lost in their own thoughts.

Halfway to her mouth, Twilight paused and then lowered her sandwich. “Hey. Hypothetical question. What would it take to get you to stab Celestia in the back?”

Sunset arched an eyebrow.

“I’m not jumping ship. Just… I don’t want to say until you answer the question.”

Sunset eyed Twilight for a few moments before breaking the tension with a slurp of soup. “Well,” she began, “we could spend five minutes alone in a room together.”

Despite the poor taste, Twilight laughed. “Come on. Seriously. It’s important.”

“I don’t know,” Sunset replied with a little extra force. “Context matters with this sort of thing. Why don’t you tell me what you’re really asking.”

Twilight, rather than answer, shoved her sandwich into her mouth. She really didn’t want to let anypony know how badly she’d failed with the Elements.

“There you are.”

Ah, déjà vu.

A unicorn mare who had a very official look about her, from her orderly mane to her time-themed cutie mark, approached the table. She glanced first at Sunset, then Twilight, and finally asked, “Who betrayed the hive?”

Twilight cast a little privacy spell that Sunset could easily – but obviously – circumvent to keep her answer secret. “Thorax.” As she dispelled that last, flimsy layer of security, she invited the likely changeling to sit while Chrysalis conducted her business.

“‘It’s a relief to see you well,’” Chrysalis said through her changeling now that Twilight had confirmed her identity. “‘We have a situation here.’”

I leave for one day. “What is it?”

The changeling’s eyes flicked toward the other pony at the table.

“Oh! This is Sunset Shimmer. She knows about the situation with Nightmare Moon.” Twilight put the slightest emphasis on the name. Hopefully, Sunset picked up on the fact that Chrysalis didn’t know about Luna’s dreamwalking yet. “Sunset, this is…complicated. And with your future plans, you should probably know.” Twilight politely looked to the changeling for approval.

“‘Queen Chrysalis,’” the changeling said. She added, “In person.”

That took Twilight aback. Whatever trouble had arrived in Ponyville was serious if Chrysalis had come herself.

“I rule the changeling hive in Equestria.”

“Changelings?” Sunset echoed. “No offense, but the bug ponies who eat love? You’re real?”

Twilight stepped in to offer a little elucidation. “They came to Equestria a decade ago, and we worked out a residency agreement with them a few years later. If you truly intend to take the Crystal Empire” – Chrysalis directed a questioning look her way but said nothing – “you two will want to take tea sometime.”

“Huh. Well, this is an unexpected pleasure, Your…Majesty?”

Nodding, Chrysalis said, “Likewise. My mother spoke of the Crystal Heart with great reverence.”

It took a few moments before understanding – whatever the Crystal Heart was – dawned on Sunset’s face. “You can feed off the energy it emits?”

“It was no changeling’s preferred meal, but when in need, it was there. We will speak more later, I’m sure. For now” – Chrysalis turned back to Twilight – “what do you know of the Lulamoons?”

Twilight had a feeling fate had just played a cruel prank on her. “Do you mean Trixie’s family?” Ponies didn’t usually pass names down, but it happened. Her own mother’s family held the tradition.

But Chrysalis replied, “No, not at all. Lulamoon is a title. It literally means ‘famous moon warrior’.”

Face met hoof as Twilight groaned. “I could have used that information earlier.”

Sunset, already primed for the conclusion, put the pieces together first. “That’s why you were asking!” she cried incredulously. “What the hay! Don’t tell me you gave her Loyalty.”

An exasperated sigh escaped Twilight as she buried her head in her hooves. “She has Laughter. I didn’t know her loyalties until this morning.”

“Ah. The Elements of Harmony?” Chrysalis asked. After Twilight nodded, she said, “Well, I hope you have another plan. My hive has no idea where she is, and if she’s smart, she’ll not show herself in civilization until after the solstice.”

Twilight knew what Chrysalis was implicitly suggesting as a solution. She needed to put an end to that line of thought. “I know where she is, but we can’t kill her. The Elements are in too questionable a state to risk such a shock to their system. Discord would be worse than Nightmare Moon by far.” Sighing, she sat back upright. “But yes, I have other plans in the works. I may be able to win over Trixie. If not, so be it. If all else fails and Nightmare Moon can’t be reasoned with, I’ll cheat and banish her again.”

“Cheat how?” Sunset asked, a question Chrysalis no doubt shared.

“That,” Twilight began, “is my secret.” She blew a raspberry at the other two. Foalish? Yes. But it made her feel a little lighter. It also probably did more than anything else she could have said to get them to believe she actually had a secret magic of last resort capable of striking down gods which she jealously guarded.

Ignoring how put out Sunset looked, Chrysalis said, “Fair enough. Princess Celestia asked me to locate the missing Night Guardian Staff. Should I assume Trixie has it?”

Twilight opened her mouth to ask what on Equus the Night Guardian Staff was, but a recent memory surfaced of Trixie wielding a staff with a night motif on stage. She’d been particularly wary of it. The thing had all but screamed, “I’m a major magical artifact!” yet she’d had no idea what it did. There were usually clues in design, in idle function, or in rumor by which she could prepare a defense. But the staff? A silent mystery.

“Probably,” Twilight finally replied. “And I don’t think I’ll win any points with her by taking it. What does it do?”

“It’s a spellcasting assistant.”

Sunset whistled appreciatively, but Twilight felt her lips pull back as she sucked in a hiss of air. A shudder ran through her whole body. The last two ponies with spellcasting assistants she’d fought against had nearly killed her. She’d been younger then, true, but they also hadn’t possessed even half of Trixie’s own skill. “It’s not corruptive, is it?” Both the Alicorn Amulet and the Inspiration Manifestation had been.

“No,” came Chrysalis’s merciful reply. “Princess Luna made regular use of it for centuries without ill effect.”

“Good. You can tell Princess Celestia you found it and left it in my care, then.”

Chrysalis’s gaze drifted toward Sunset. “And the crown?”

“Maybe just keep quiet on that one.” A quick glance at Sunset got a nod in return.

“Very well. I’ll take my leave of you, then. Don’t let the Lulamoon integrate into your hive.”

After Chrysalis had left through a portal of green flame, easily explained by the ‘archmage’s’ presence, Twilight said, “Changeling expression. More or less means watch your back.”

Sunset quite obviously didn’t care.

“So…yeah.” Twilight twiddled the remains of her sandwich between her hooves. “Trixie is basically you, but with Luna.”

“I see.” Sunset’s dour frown abated somewhat. “What drove her away, then?”

With too little to go on, Twilight said, “I have no idea. Luna mentioned tripping over the ‘chief failing of her character’, I think it was. Pride, maybe?” Her current impression of Trixie largely came from their duel, and Trixie hadn’t taken her loss well. “I still don’t know what it was for you, either. Celestia was pretty vague about it.”

“As I said before, my relationship with her is none of your business.”

Twilight held up her hooves in silent surrender. She didn’t think that was entirely true, but pushing would do no good.

Glare relenting, Sunset said, “My advice? Don’t try to insert yourself between Trixie and Luna. Trying to push them apart won’t help whatever relationship they have, but it’ll certainly make them close ranks.”

“That’s not as helpful as I was hoping for.”

“Hey, you can’t expect me to change your life every time we meet, Sparkles.”

Sparkles? Twilight shrugged and went with it. It was a better nickname than Sunbutt, at least.