Chapter Nineteen - The Molt
“Just before the Discordian Era at the height of pony civilization, Star Swirl delved into the study of magic modification. By good fortune, what remained of his research notes was discovered during the Key of Unfettered Entrance Incident.” By herself, of course. “Using them as a jumping off point, we’ve recreated and improved upon the magics involved. The original spells, as we believe them to have been, we suspect would have produced unstable results.
“The goal of this first experiment will be to expand the magical capacity of the test subject.”
“Oh, give me that,” Twilight said as she snatched the Player’s Handbook for O&O back from Luna. She flipped through it until she found the example in the text she wished to cite. “See? This passage clearly sets a precedent that organic matter – alive, dead, or undead – does not by itself specify a distinct ‘target’. If I were to, say, cast an invisibility spell on myself, Ember and Autumn could fall under its effects counting against my encumbrance limit. There’s no reason why I can’t target them together as one organic mass to split my healing spell’s effects to top off their HP.”
“That is so clearly not the intent of the rules,” Luna retorted.
Twilight snapped the handbook closed and stowed it back in her saddlebags. “Nonetheless, such is more true to life.”
“Realism must be weighed against game balance and good design.”
“Agreed,” Twilight allowed, “but is this not a game of cooperative storytelling? My son and brother have played paperless O&O. The rules thus, clearly, are mere guidelines to ease the experience along.”
Luna, finding no easy retort to that, grew flustered. “If I let you get away with this, you’re going to keep finding exploits to abuse.”
“Obviously,” Twilight admitted freely. “That’s kind of my thing. Tricks, creativity, and lateral thought.” Then she reached for the ultimate player argument. “That’s how I enjoy the game.”
“Fine!” Wings flared, Luna stomped a hoof. “You can cast your spell as you wish.” As she turned to return to wherever she went to perform her GM duties, she grumbled, “One extra spell. Never miss it.”
Victory was sweet.
Now that the true epic battle had finished, Twilight could get back to healing her party from the much lesser battle they’d gotten into with a float of cragadiles. They’d started setting up camp not far from a river to rest inside a forest glade, and of course Autumn and Ember had gone off on their own to collect firewood and had come galloping back with a dozen giant, angry monsters nipping at their tails. Somehow.
Twilight stood by the accusation she’d made to Luna what felt like ages ago: she was here to foalsit.
An arm on each side curled its way around Twilight’s neck. Autumn stood to her left while Ember took her right, and the two squished her between them.
“Ha! Rules lawyering for the party! I love it.”
Autumn held up a hoof, and Twilight reluctantly bumped hers against it. This was all a bit too much enthusiasm for her. Still, she didn’t want to kill the mood, so she said simply, “I’ve been studying.”
On Twilight’s other side, Ember barked a laugh. “You know, you’re not bad. Thought you had a bit of a stick up your plot, and you totally do, but I guess sometimes it’s good for something.”
Twilight, the sarcasm within unwilling to remain leashed, rolled her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks.” She managed to extricate herself and pushed Ember and Autumn together. “Let’s get this over with before Luna changes her mind. You’d best stay in physical contact. You know she’ll nitpick and laugh at us if you’re not.”
Thankfully, those two behaved and did as asked without any antics or protests. Ember draped an arm around Autumn’s shoulders, and Twilight cast her healing spell. An aura of sparkling green magic passed over them, and their remaining bite and scratch wounds, if they could truly be termed as such here, knit together and disappeared as their HP refilled. Injury in this campaign was entirely for show. A severed limb hurt as much as a paper cut and only that much just to remind and notify that the wound was still there.
“There,” Twilight said when her spell finished. “Now what have you two learned today?” If they were going to act like foals, she would treat them like foals.
“Test the waters before you jump off a cliff?” Autumn suggested.
It was a good lesson with legitimate real life application, but not the one Twilight had in mind. This time, at least, the river had been just deep enough to get away with that.
Ember tried a different approach. “Always thank your white mage?”
“That’s a step in the right direction,” Twilight allowed.
Now finished setting up camp after combat had interrupted them, Seabreeze flew in and knocked both troublemakers upside the head. “How about don’t jump into a cragadile nest!”
“Thank you, Seabreeze.” As fun as the antics of this dysfunctional party could be, not that Twilight would ever admit that to any of them, sometimes she wondered how they made any progress at all with the overarching campaign.
“You know,” Berry Punch began as she approached, “I’m not sure if cragadiles have nests. Don’t they just kind of float there and bury their eggs?”
That wasn’t the point, and Twilight ignored it entirely to continue her lecturing. Seabreeze had kindly provided them with a few logs to sit on inside their camp, as it happened, so she dragged Autumn and Ember next to the fire and sat them down for a proper scolding. When she finished, the sun had set.
Time was a strange thing in this world. The day-night cycle proceeded in proper order normally, but by mutual agreement of all concerned, they could speed things up if they wanted to get to a certain part of the day. No sane adventurer traveled at night through a forest crawling with monsters without due cause, thus they went about their usual ritual to skip past it and awaited the return of the sun so they could actually see where they were going and what wanted to eat them.
Luna assured them she took no offense, but her tendency to spring nighttime ambushes left Twilight wondering.
While they waited around the fire’s warmth and kept watch, they used the downtime to catch up with each other. With the exception of Twilight, none of them could easily visit one another, after all.
“So you seem a bit more…cantankerous than usual,” Autumn said to Twilight, who couldn’t help but snort in amusement at the particular adjective used. Despite her griping, she did enjoy how free she felt amongst these people to be herself. They had no expectations of her and thick skin. “Anything bad happen?”
That reminded Twilight she needed some medical advice. She’d set it aside when they’d first gathered since there wasn’t anything she could do until she awoke, but now seemed like a good time to bring it up. “It’s been a long day.”
“Coming from you of all ponies,” Berry Punch said, “it must have been brutal.”
“Eh, it was more like putting out a lot of little fires.” The bearers weren’t walking on eggshells around one another, precisely, but a tension undeniably lingered in the air. It certainly didn’t help when new problems kept cropping up every day. “Yesterday was getting the band back together, metaphorically speaking, but there were reasons why we split. Today was just…long. But thank you for bringing it up.” Twilight turned to Ember. “Could I ask you a question about dragon health?”
Ember shrugged. “I’m not an expert, but fire away. Something wrong with Spike?”
“Yeah. He broke out into the worst case of stone scale I’ve ever seen.”
That must have rung a bell, as Ember hummed in understanding. “Is it all over his body? Crazy itchy? Painful to touch? Bad smell? Problems with volume control? Uncontrollable fire burps?” When Twilight answered yes to every question, she said, “Congratulations. He’s going through what we call the molt. He’s about to grow wings.”
“Oh!” Twilight had strongly suspected that would happen eventually. She’d never encountered or even heard of an adult dragon without wings – barring injuries, of course – but no one had ever made the when and how of the process clear to her. “So he’s a teenager now, basically?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Ember smirked and added, “Have fun with that.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. Her teenage years had been entirely without incident, at least as regarded hormones, and she’d raised Spike to be a kind and gentle dragon, if with a bit more of her snarky side than she wanted. She had no worries.
“From the sound of it,” Ember continued, “he’ll pop sometime tomorrow morning. Maybe in the afternoon. He’ll start glowing, the itchiness will fade, and then he’ll turn to stone. Give him, like, a minute, and it’ll be over. He shouldn’t feel a thing. Best keep him inside until then, though. The molt stench attracts predators.”
Were they not in a dream, Twilight would have been taking notes. Sadly, she would just have to make do with her memory. “Is there anything that can go wrong that I should watch for?”
Ember hummed something approximating an, “I don’t know.”
However disappointing, presumably a dragon as old as Ember would know of any common ailments simply by having bumped into them at some point. Twilight took solace in that and promised herself not to fret. “Anything I should keep in mind when teaching him to fly?”
“Yeah, find someone with wings to…” The sarcastic remark died on Ember’s tongue when Twilight ruffled her own pair which she’d demonstrated her proficiency with on several occasions. “Right. Well, I’d still probably find a bat pony or another dragon if you can. No feathers and all.”
“Hmm…” Twilight tapped a hoof to her jaw. That sparked an idea. “Hey, Luna.”
The mare in question faded into view upon her summons. “Would you like to take a break or leave early?” It would seem they were of one mind on this matter.
“Maybe we could just duck out real quick while we’re waiting for daylight?” Twilight turned her gaze back to Ember. “That is if you’d be willing to teach me to fly like a dragon? I’m a quick study, and this would be my fourth pair of wings.”
Curious, Seabreeze asked, “Fourth?”
“In order, butterfly, pegasus, and breezie.” The butterfly wings spell technically operated largely independently of its subject, but it still counted. Alicorn wings might even be distinct enough to count as an extra pair.
Ember considered the proposition for a few moments before agreeing to teach the basics.
Much later in the night, or arguably early morning, the group had once again dwindled down to just Luna and Twilight. As had become tradition, the two retreated to Twilight’s dreamscape for drinks after a long gaming session. Twilight, as soon as they’d arrived, turned herself back into an alicorn. She’d gotten a lot of experience as a dragon, but she wouldn’t recommend it to anypony. Digits were weird and impossible to coordinate, and bipedalism was not for her.
Luna, of course, chose to comment. “You made for an entertaining dragon, you know.”
“Yes, yes,” Twilight said dismissively. She teleported her saddlebags to her library to shelve the rulebooks they contained later. “I should mention I’ll be heading to bed late tonight and probably getting up early, so plan accordingly.”
“Tiring of me already? I’m hurt.”
“Hardly,” Twilight replied offhoofedly. She moved toward the stairs up to the second floor tavern. “I’d spend every night with you, but today is movie night.” Really, it was just everypony’s day off from being a bearer. Trixie had a performance scheduled in Ponyville, and everypony else had something personal that needed doing. Such things did tend to accumulate when spending weeks out of contact with civilization in the middle of nowhere. After a few more steps, Twilight noticed that Luna had stopped following her. She turned around, noting Luna’s bemused expression, and asked, “What is it?”
The question snapped Luna out of her daze. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m merely somewhat surprised and unsure how to take that.”
“Ah. A friend of mine gave me some good advice. Aside from Celestia and Sunset, you’re the only pony I know who I can really call an equal. It’s okay for me to enjoy your company.” As they moved past the pantry, Twilight snagged some Apple cider for herself while Luna opted for an alcoholic drink she called moonshine. “Doesn’t mean I won’t be furious with you if you hurt Celestia, but that’s what compartmentalization is for.”
Luna uttered a contemplative, “I see,” as they sat at their regular table. “An interesting perspective. Do you really feel so alone?”
“Eh, yes and no. I’m asocial, so loneliness doesn’t really bother me, but I don’t not enjoy good company either.” After sipping from her cider, Twilight added, “I must admit it’s nice to have somepony other than Celestia who can really keep up with me.”
Luna hummed thoughtfully into her mug, taking a long, slow drink. “I can understand that.” She set her cup down but let a hoof idly play with the handle. “In turn, I must admit much of that is nothing more than age and experience. I do greatly enjoy the study of magic, but I don’t share the same spark of genius you have for it.”
Twilight shrugged. That didn’t much matter to her. She likely wouldn’t even notice the difference for at least half a millennium. And there was, of course, always Sunset. Their relationship had its own baggage, but if she needed somepony specifically with the same intuitive grasp of magic in its entirety as herself, she had the option available.
“Perhaps not,” Twilight said, “but it changes nothing. Honestly, my primary concern at this point, besides Celestia, is you’re going to end up the boring, broody sister after the solstice whatever the outcome.”
“Ha!” The confident smirk Luna wore said everything for her. “That would make me the fun sister now, no?”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “If Celestia had as much free time as you…” A frown forced its way onto her lips as she considered what Celestia actually did purely for enjoyment’s sake. She guest lectured at her school, of course, and liked to make mischief on a harmless scale. She dabbled in cooking, Twilight knew, and had once confessed an interest in theater. “Well…”
“Ah ha! Thou admits it!”
No matter how long she searched her memory nor how hard she tried to deny it, Twilight could only come to one conclusion. She knocked back a longer drink and then set her mug down on the table with a bit more force than necessary. “Yeah, okay. Celestia is kind of a workaholic. I must get that from her.”
“One wonders what she’ll do with her time once I claim my victory.”
Twilight said nothing, not rising to the bait if Luna’s words were meant as such. It did sound like genuine curiosity, but one never knew. Instead, she asked a far more relevant question. “What did you two used to do for fun?”
“Ah, that was a long time ago,” Luna said with a nostalgic air as she slipped into Old Ponish. “Much was different back then. Sister and I shared a common interest in pranks, but our roles tended to send us in different directions. I fought on the front lines against both enemy nations and the monsters which freely roamed our untamed world. Nightmares as well when I could. The slower pace of the arts and sciences called to me when it came time to relax. Sister, in turn, spearheaded most of our domestic battles. She so desperately wanted out of the castle. It’s not well known now, but she became a notorious thrill seeker.”
“Really?” Twilight asked, intent on prodding the spark of Luna’s nostalgia into a roaring blaze. Beyond her own curiosity, it might help the sisters reconnect. “I have a hard time picturing that.”
“Aye, but ’tis true. Such a lust for adventure she had. Who knows what a thousand years stuck in a castle has done to her.” Luna shook her head in what looked like disappointment. Switching back to Modern Ponish, she asked, “Speaking of adventurers, how is Trixie?”
Hmm… Twilight eyed Luna. She could keep pushing, but any more might very well backfire on her. I think I’ll just call tonight progress. Thus she answered the question. “She’s well enough as far as I can tell. Sunset knocked some sense into her.”
Luna arched an eyebrow. “Sunset Shimmer?”
“Yeah. She and I go way back. Anyway, Trixie–”
“No, no.” Luna would not have her curiosity left unsatisfied. “You and Sunset Shimmer? How? When?”
Seeing the determined look in Luna’s eye, Twilight figured there would be no getting out of an explanation, so she told the story as best as she remembered it. Meeting Sunset was one of the few vivid memories she had left of her early foalhood, but some of the details were nonetheless frayed and hazy. Luna listened with obvious interest, enthralled, and even her hoof and magic never once touched her drink throughout.
“And then she saw me off back to Cadance,” Twilight finished. It wasn’t a particularly long story, but it had too much significance to brush over. “That’s how we met. I didn’t see her again until recently.”
“Fascinating.” Luna reached for her drink as she mulled over the story. Something about it, though Twilight knew not what, had captured her attention beyond the surface level. Soon, she said, “This does explain much, actually. Usually my sister’s students turn out more like sunnan ċild.”
Taking the literal translation, Twilight asked, “Sun children?”
“Ah, an older expression. I’m unsure if it still exists. More or less, it’s an accusation of being ostentatiously virtuous in seeking to follow my sister’s oh so perfect example.”
Twilight snorted. “Trixie said much the same to me.” She’d heard enough stories from Celestia to know she didn’t exactly live up to her predecessors in some key ways.
Although Luna laughed, she claimed, “Yes, but I meant it as a compliment. You dragged me to the negotiation table. None of them would have had the courage, the leverage, or the pragmatism to do that. Of all my sister’s students, I find you the most interesting and impressive by far.” The amusement gained the slightest edge of bitterness as Luna added, “I suspect she agrees given the trust and warmth she shows you.”
“Well, thank you. I guess.” Twilight felt it best to move the conversation along and not give Luna time to brood. “Anyway, as I was saying before we got off topic, Trixie is all right. She’s declared herself neutral but minimally cooperative. She’s convinced I’ll find something worse to do to you if she forces me to give up on the Elements.”
“See?” Luna said with a light laugh. “It pays to have a reputation.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and pretended she hadn’t heard anything. “I still don’t know what her problem is with you, but for what it’s worth, she obviously still cares on some level.”
“Yes, I know she does.” Luna heaved a sigh and then swallowed the remainder of her moonshine. “How are things with your own pupil?”
“A bit of a rocky start, but good overall. Sweetie Belle can be a bit too eager to help.” Twilight paused as she was about to sip from her cider. “I suppose that’s why she has Generosity.”
Luna shrugged with nothing to offer.
Setting that idle thought aside, Twilight decided to ask something she’d been curious about now for days. “So how does Trixie’s explosion work? The magical cost was high, but to generate so much energy from so little magic, relatively speaking, there must be some trick to it.”
“Have you not asked her?” The question was tinged with disapproval.
“Please,” Twilight scoffed. “You know she’s just going to say, ‘A magician never reveals her secrets.’”
Luna’s lips curled despite her obvious attempt to remain stern. “It uses a property of physics our time has yet to publicly rediscover.” She stopped there and called for the barmare to refill her drink.
Across the table, Twilight glared and briefly considered altering her dream to allow looks to kill. “Oh, you insufferable tease. Is that really all you’re going to tell me?”
“Why yes,” Luna replied with feigned innocence. “Are you not aware that a magician never reveals her secrets?”
Maybe Ember and Autumn have the right idea with their tavern brawls.
That she awoke last didn’t surprise Twilight. Both of her roommates had the abominable constitution of a morning pony, and while Spike did like to sleep in, he also went to bed much earlier. The abrupt manner of her awakening today, however, left much to be desired.
“Oh Celestia, what is that smell!” Over the noise of sharp claws scratching hard scales, a cringeworthy sound Twilight promptly cast a spell to filter out, she heard Sweetie Belle sniff and then immediately gag. “It’s like…sulfur, and sweat, and rotten apples.”
It took only the slightest whiff for Twilight to agree. She added a second spell to purify the air entering her nose. For a moment, she considered extending the same courtesy to Sweetie Belle, but upon reflection, this seemed like good motivation for her to learn a few new spells she’d need in a lab setting in the future. She lazily sat up in bed and mumbled, “Lab Safety for the Arcane by Vial Veil.”
Sweetie Belle rushed from their shared bedroom with the promise to return soon.
“Check the library,” Twilight finished through a yawn, not that Sweetie Belle likely heard her or needed the direction. She then turned her attention to the undulating mass of blankets atop the other occupied cloud bed in the room. “Sleep well, Spike?” Her voice was not unsympathetic, but she had been in the midst of an interesting conversation with Luna about educational reform. Was a few more minutes before his restlessness woke Sweetie Belle too much to ask for?
“I can’t stop itching!” Spike whined with just the hint of a sob entering his words at the end.
Twilight’s heart went out to him. This was worse than she’d imagined it would get. But what could she do? Who knew how her magic might interfere with the molt’s? The last thing she wanted was to accidentally cripple her son trying to ease his suffering. Maybe she could find an anti-itching cream without any magical properties, but by Ember’s estimate, by the time she did, the molt would likely have already ended.
“I’m sorry, Spike. But I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”
“Good news, please.”
Twilight snared Spike’s blankets in her magic and pulled them off of him so she could properly talk to him. His stone scale had been bad yesterday, but now he looked like nothing more than a collection of angry red sores from his face down to the tip of his tail. It was as though, were he a pony, he was experiencing every zit of his teenage years all condensed into the course of a couple days. Furthermore, he’d made everything worse with his relentless scratching. Some areas had become particularly inflamed, and he’d left several clear claw marks across his scales from itching with too much force.
“Okay. Good news.” Twilight took a moment to steady herself. This indeed was worse than she’d imagined. “This is a normal part of growing up dragon. It’s called the molt, and it should end sometime this morning.”
Spike heaved a great sigh of not relief so much as solace. He still had a long road ahead of him, after all.
“When you start glowing, you’ll know the end is near. You’ll turn to stone, and when you break out, you’ll finally have your wings.”
Eyes widening, Spike gasped. The surprise and delight at the news practically radiated from him. “No way! Are you sure?”
Twilight nodded and watched on with an indulgent smile as Spike whooped and jumped in bed in celebration. He did, unfortunately, redouble his scratching once he finally calmed, but it was nice to see him so happy nonetheless.
“What’s the bad news?”
“Ah, well, dragon biology isn’t well studied, so I won’t feel comfortable providing any magical relief for you during this ordeal in case it causes interference.”
Spike took that well. Despite his obvious disappointment, he said, “Yeah, okay. I don’t want to end up with one wing upside down or something.”
Glad that Spike had shown the maturity not to make a fuss, Twilight added, “I would offer you a sedative, but I don’t want to risk being unable to wake you. I’m not sure whether or not you can suffocate during the whole ‘turn to stone’ phase.”
“Yeah, no to accidental suffocation, please.”
A small smile pulled at Twilight’s lips. At least Spike still had his sense of humor.
“Can I just hide in here until this is over?”
“If that’s what you want.” Given how strong his symptoms had become, that was probably for the best anyway. Between the stench and the itching, nopony would enjoy him being out and about right now, not even himself. “Would you like me to stay with you?”
“I…” Despite Spike’s conflicted expression – he knew this was a very inconvenient time for this to happen – the desire for either company or distraction won out. “Yeah. Would you tell me a story? I don’t think I could even flip through my comics right now.”
Twilight, of course, agreed.
When Sweetie Belle returned to her bedroom, her nose now magically protected, she found Archmage Twilight reading the unabridged story of Gusty the Great to Spike. She vaguely recalled hearing somewhere that it was the oldest known work of literature in existence, even older than the tale of Hearth’s Warming. After a quick explanation of the molt to soothe her concern for Spike, they both invited her to join them if she wanted. Spike technically made more of a grunt of acceptance than an actual offer, but she doubted she would be any more articulate were she suffering from the molt symptoms.
A deaf mare could tell this was far from Archmage Twilight’s first time reading a story aloud. While she lacked Trixie’s flair for spinning tales, she had a strong voice and apparently knew Gusty’s legend well enough to bring it to life with magic. She favored conjured props and puppets over illusions, likely because they were faster to create, but it made the performance no less engaging.
Archmage Twilight made for a good mother.
The day dragged on toward noon. Archmage Twilight teleported a light brunch for them from the pantry. Some bread and fruit wasn’t much of a meal, but Spike obviously had a hard enough time keeping even that down. He even burnt his first attempt to ashes with some accidental dragonfire.
Eventually, a warm red glow enveloped Spike. His building panic lasted only until Archmage Twilight set her book aside and reminded him that it was normal and a sign that the molt would soon be over. She invited him onto her larger bed and curled up beside him, heedless to the occasional bursts of flame he emitted. It took a few seconds before Sweetie Belle recalled that her dragon blood made her more or less fireproof.
The molt symptoms rapidly grew worse to the point where Spike looked to be on the edge of tears. His voice somewhat shaky, he asked, “I’m really going to get wings?”
Archmage Twilight smiled, nodded, and gently said, “You will. And when you look back on this morning, you’ll say, ‘It was worth it.’”
Spike offered up a strained smile. “Will you teach me to fly?”
“Of course I will,” Archmage Twilight replied without hesitation. “I even took lessons.” Her magic latched onto one of his claws and held it up between them for just long enough for her to ask, “How do you manage these things? They’re all…wiggly.”
The claw went straight back to scratching the moment Archmage Twilight released it, but Spike did manage to laugh. “Were you a good dragon?”
“Ehhhh, let’s focus on you right now.”
Spike laughed even harder at the evasion.
Sweetie Belle smiled softly in the background, but she couldn’t help but feel as though she were intruding upon an intensely private moment between mother and son. Moreover, a small inward pressure built within her barrel. She took a mental step back to examine the feeling, poking and prodding it until its secrets revealed themselves. It came as less of a shock than she would have liked when she realized the sensation stemmed from envy.
Envy of having a parent who, despite her work, was always available for her child.
Envy of having a parent who cared enough to provide the best education for her child.
Envy of having a parent who did ridiculous things like changing her species so she could better help her child.
Envy of having a parent who took the time to ask what her child wanted, trusted he would choose wisely, and would be there to catch him if he didn’t.
Envy of having a parent who would drop everything in the midst of a crisis just to comfort her child.
Sweetie Belle surreptitiously brushed a tear from her eye onto her pillow. She’d just described Rarity, hadn’t she? But Rarity was her sister. It wasn’t the same no matter how much she wished it were.
Figuring it was best to leave those two alone, Sweetie Belle quietly snuck out of the room. Archmage Twilight noticed her, of course, and quirked a silent eyebrow at her when she turned to close the door behind her. It was an invitation to stay, she knew, but she politely shook her head and left. This was a moment for family, and regardless of whatever worries Spike entertained, that wasn’t her.
Sweetie Belle sighed as she pushed her jealousy away. It wasn’t like she didn’t have parents or didn’t love them. She just wished they were a bit more–
Sweetie Belle shrieked and reared back onto her hind legs. Somehow, Pinkie Pie had snuck up on her in a linear corridor.
“How is Spike? My Pinkie Sense told me he’s about in need of a party, but I’m not sure what kind yet. Is it a get well soon party, a congratulations on recovering party, or something else? It’s driving me crazy. The decorations and activities are so different. Can you solve this mystery?”
“Oh. I, uh, well, I’m not sure if he’ll have the energy for much. Perhaps something quiet and flight themed?”
Pinkie Pie, as was her nature, gasped for far longer than she should have space for air in her lungs. “Of course!” she cried at an almost indoor volume. Either she didn’t want to disturb Spike and Archmage Twilight, or she wanted to keep the party a surprise. “I should have known. He is about that age, isn’t he?”
“I guess?” Had Pinkie Pie made friends with some dragons during her life? It was the only explanation that made sense to Sweetie Belle even if it seemed unlikely at first blush. Then again, perhaps she’d just taken the news in and decided to roll with it.
Without missing a beat, Pinkie Pie asked, “Would you like to help set up the party?”
Sweetie Belle bit her lip. She was hardly in a celebratory mood. She didn’t want to make this about her, but she also didn’t want to drag everypony down with her. “I’m not sure if I–” It occurred to her then that Pinkie Pie knew how she felt. Kindness hung about her neck for all to see. The offer was genuine and in full knowledge of how gloomy she felt. Maybe this was what she needed to cheer herself up. “Well, if you’re sure?”
“Of course I am, silly!” Pinkie Pie snaked an arm around Sweetie Belle’s barrel and, with a shriek from the filly in question, managed to flip her up through the air to land perfectly on her back. “Now let’s away! There’s work to be done, and we’re just the ponies to do it.”
Evening had come to Equestria. Ponyville, normally a sleepy little village at this time of day, carried on with its festival preparations as ever as the solstice drew near. Amongst this crowd walked Index Code and Sweetie Belle with nopony paying them any attention. Rumor spread quickly in Ponyville, and everypony knew those two had settled into an apprenticeship. If they perhaps looked up with a frequency more commonly associated with pegasi, nopony noticed or commented.
Far above both pegasus traffic and the low cloud base, a purple dot buzzed about the sky. Spike had taken quickly to his flying lessons with a childish glee Twilight didn’t get to see from him too often anymore as he grew older. The first thing he’d said after his first proper flight was, “It was worth it.”
It was good to see him happy. Twilight knew Spike had been a bit off lately, although she’d not yet been able to pinpoint how or why. He hadn’t come to talk to her nor had he grown surly, so she’d left well enough alone, but this was more like it.
A brief flux of divination magic passed over the town, its intent being to find somepony, and a few moments after that, another surge brought Sunset riding in on a teleport. After spending so much time together, Twilight had learned to recognize the feel and pattern of her magic. She was in disguise, of course, but this time she’d chosen the more discreet appearance of a unicorn mare with a darker shade of magenta for her coat and a lighter purple bordering on pink for her mane and tail. For her cutie mark, however, she’d thrown subtlety aside and picked a cloudy sunset.
“Sparkles, tell me your kid didn’t spontaneously ascend to become some kind of dragon god.”
Twilight couldn’t help herself as she fell into a fit of laughter. “No, no. I – oh my, no.” She recovered, mostly, and added, “This is just how the dragon life cycle works, apparently. They call it the molt. It’s a fast process.”
“That’s weird,” Sunset unceremoniously replied, her interest in the subject clearly already gone. Then her attention shifted to the little filly standing at Twilight’s side. “Is this Sweetie Belle, then?”
“It is! Isn’t she adorable?”
Sweetie Belle, naturally, flushed and averted her eyes. At a mumble, she greeted Sunset and asked, “Who are you?”
“Eventide. I’m one of your grandmentors.”
Sweetie Belle’s gaze snapped to Twilight, the question obvious in her eyes. “It’s true,” Twilight said. “I met Eventide when I was less than half your age. Remember the advice I gave you when we first met?” She nodded toward Sunset. “It originally came from her.”
That stunned Sweetie Belle, but only for a moment. An excited ball of energy soon closed the gap between them and started rambling off every question that came to mind. To her credit, Sunset was a good sport about it and answered most of them. There were more than a few outright lies interspersed into those replies, but such was unavoidable.
Once Sweetie Belle exhausted her curiosity – for the moment only, Twilight knew – it came time to ask one of her own. “So are you just hanging out in Ponyville?”
“I’m taking some time off from my usual work,” Sunset replied. They both knew what she meant. “Chrysalis and I have been talking, and you know negotiations take forever even when both sides basically agree on what they want. This seemed like a good place to reside for the time being.”
Twilight knew it’d been a good idea to introduce those two to one another. “I take it things are going well, then?”
“Well enough. I’ve also been doing a bit of consulting. She’s still filling in for you, you know.”
Technically, Chrysalis got to go on the engaging missions while Moon Dancer got stuck with the boring bureaucratic work and the minor stuff.
Twilight had seen that question coming a league away, and she’d already decided to answer honestly. Sweetie Belle did, after all, already know the big secret. After casting a crude but reasonably effective spell to prevent casual eavesdropping, she replied, “She’s the queen of the changelings. Or the Equestrian hive, at least.”
“Oh.” Sweetie Belle nodded to herself and surprisingly had no further questions. Perhaps Spike had already filled her in on some of the details while they’d been left unsupervised.
To Sunset, Twilight then said, “I’m glad this is working out for you. To be perfectly frank, letting you have the Crystal Empire will be a huge load off my mind.”
“Glad to be of service, Your Excellency.” Sunset paired the sarcasm with a mock bow.
Sweetie Belle, meanwhile, asked, “The crystal what?” to which Twilight replied that she would explain later.
“Now as I understand it,” Sunset continued, “there’s to be a movie night in Canterlot tonight?”
Twilight wondered how Sunset had discovered that, but then she recalled that Celestia had invited Chrysalis. Careful not to get the wrong idea, she asked, “Would you like to come?” It was very unlikely, but it could give Sunset and Celestia the chance to reconnect without one of them being behind bars, either metaphorical ones or literal.
Nonplussed, a moment passed as Twilight collected herself. It was too good to be true for Sunset to want to make amends, which meant she had something else in mind. It wouldn’t be anything too malicious, no doubt, and one mare could only do so much damage inside the most heavily defended structure in Equestria while both its archmage and its princess were in residence. Really, she could just ask for most anything, and Twilight would oblige. Only a few objects of interest came to mind within Canterlot Castle which she wouldn’t happily part with or loan out.
“I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”
Sunset made no attempt to hide her mischievous grin. “I figured I would grab a replacement souvenir for the one I gave you.”
Yeah, I figured. Twilight rubbed her temples with her magic, weighing the possible but improbable good outcomes against the odds of Sunset actually succeeding in stealing Celestia’s crown. Luna would take the loss of her own as a personal slight, the logic being Celestia thought she mattered so little as to regard her regalia with careless indifference. Hers had been important to retrieve. Celestia, on the other hoof, would likely just replace hers until she recovered the original.
Twilight sighed. It was a sucker’s bet, but she would roll the dice anyway. Someday they would land in her favor. “Fine.”
With a nod, Twilight said, “I’ll get you into the castle.”
Sunset let out a bark of laughter and held up a hoof for a hoof bump. “You’re not even half the saint the papers make you out to be, are you?”
“I don’t read them, so I wouldn’t know.” Twilight brought her own hoof up but stopped short of Sunset’s. “I have a condition.”
“Yeah, I figured.” The moment over, Sunset set her hoof back down. “What is it?”
“I won’t interfere with whatever you do unless I have to, but you have to actually spend the night with us. If you get caught, you’ll have to bail yourself out.”
Surprisingly, Sunset agreed without protest. She merely said, “Okay, but I reserve the right to leave if your taste in movies is trash.”
“Deal.” They bumped hooves on it. “By the way, did you know Chrysalis is Silver Bell?”
Judging by the wide eyes, Sunset did not. “No way!”
“’Tis true.” A moment later, Twilight just barely resisted the urge to facehoof. I’ve been spending too much time with Luna. I’m picking up her anachronisms.
Hesitant to interrupt after that largely impenetrable back and forth, Sweetie Belle shyly asked, “Are you talking about the actress?”
Sweetie Belle opened her mouth, paused, and then closed it. Her lips thinned into a slight frown. Then she asked, “Is this what every day is like for you?”
“Not quite,” Twilight said with laughter in her voice. “But the next year or so will probably come with a lot of surprises. I’m not going to pretend I can hide confidential or classified information from you.” Her own secrets were another matter, of course, but then that went without saying. “Just try to roll with the punches.”
Sweetie Belle promised to try her best with little confidence.
With that settled, Sunset asked, “So when do we leave?”
“Soon,” Twilight said. “I just need to extend one more invite. You’re welcome to come with.”
So it was that the three of them made their way to the Carousel Boutique. Before they entered, Twilight double checked that the spells she had monitoring Spike were functioning properly and then checked again for good measure. He’d done well in his practice flights, but she still worried. Unlike pegasi, dragons had zero magical impact resistance. They were physically durable and could take heavy blows, but an impact from terminal velocity couldn’t be good for him.
Sunset noticed, obviously, and rolled her eyes at Twilight’s fretting. She’d not be added to the foalsitting list, then.
Inside, there were a lot more boxes than Twilight remembered. But Rarity was preparing to move to Canterlot regardless of whatever her parents thought, so that made sense. At any rate, Twilight asked Sweetie Belle to go let her sister know they were there, and she was off like a shot.
“She seems nice,” Sunset observed once they were alone. She’d switched to Old Ponish so they could speak in privacy without Sweetie Belle understanding the echoes of their conversation.
Without denying it – who could? – Twilight said, “I’m sorry she badgered you with so many questions.”
“No worries. That curiosity is a good base for you to mold.”
Indeed it was. The more time she spent with the filly, the more Twilight suspected Sweetie Belle would blossom in an unstructured learning environment once she truly got started.
“I’ve heard a few stories around town…”
Twilight chuckled. “Yes, she’s a magnet for trouble but so genuine and earnest about it. You can’t hate her for it or even blame her. Half of the trouble she gets into stems from trying to help somepony.”
“Sounds like exactly what Sunbutt wanted from us.”
A pregnant silence fell. Neither said a word more on the subject.
From upstairs came a shrill cry of, “Silver Bell!”
Twilight chuckled. Chrysalis would eat well tonight.
“Hey, Sparkles? Who else is going to be at this thing?”
“Well, it’s usually just family, but we’re opening it up to close friends tonight.” Twilight knew who she was bringing, and she could guess who would be coming from Canterlot. “Most likely it’ll be the half of the extended royal family that we won’t set on fire–”
“Always good for a healthy social dynamic,” Sunset dryly observed.
“–Rarity and Sweetie Belle, Chrysalis and her heiress, and probably Moon Dancer. Cadance and Shining might bring one or two of their friends, but I doubt it.” It was a lot of ponies, but Sweetie Belle had started developing a tolerance for Generosity. She should be able to make it through the night without distress.
“Have I met Chrysalis’s heiress?”
Twilight shook her head. “Not likely. Her name is Ocellus, if that rings any bells.” It apparently did not. “She’s nothing like her mother, so be gentle.”
“Me? Gentle? Sparkles, would I ever harm a fly?”
Twilight arched a skeptical eyebrow.
Sunset merely chuckled.
When it became clear that Rarity would be Rarity and just had to make herself properly presentable, Twilight heaved a sigh. This could take a while. At least they were in no rush. She’d been sure to budget extra time for this even before Sweetie Belle had warned her that Rarity could take forever to get ready to go out. With that extra time, she might as well get something she’d been meaning to bring up out of the way.
“Sunset,” Twilight began solemnly, “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but it’d be remiss of me not to bring it up. This could be your last real opportunity to mend fences with Celestia for the foreseeable future. You know, whether she’s occupied with her sister or…” She had no idea what Luna intended to do with Celestia, and she didn’t really want to consider it further. “Anyway, my offer to mediate still stands if you want it.”
“And it’s still none of your business.”
Twilight said nothing. She’d not expected any other answer, but when she stopped trying, it would likely never happen. If it wouldn’t be a betrayal of trust, she’d sic Cadance on Sunset. Those two had a longer history and had parted on good terms. If anypony could bring Sunset back into the fold, it would be ‘Little Cadey’.
“So how do you plan to steal Celestia’s crown?”
It was a fascinating look inside the mind of the legendary thief, Eclipse, when Sunset actually chose to divulge her scheme. She’d learned long ago that no plan survived contact with the enemy and thus detailed a full graph of possibilities rather than a mere chain of desired events. There would be no winging it if something went wrong, and with how well she knew the castle, preventing her from escaping with or without her prize would be nigh on impossible. Celestia could overpower Sunset with sheer brute force and bring the chase to a prompt end, of course, but that would require her to first find her target. The rank and file guards could only do so much, and Twilight had no doubt Sunset knew well how to conceal herself from all known forms of divination magic short of whatever Loyalty did to locate ponies.
At long last, Rarity descended from her residence upstairs and joined Twilight and Sunset with Sweetie Belle leading the charge. She’d somewhat surprisingly restrained herself from going all out and wore a casual sundress aimed more at comfort than fanfare, although she’d certainly put her best effort into the rest of her appearance. Twilight didn’t really understand the point of using so much time for such a marginal gain over her usual look, but beauty and artistry was her thing, so whatever.
“Twilight, darling, oh, I’m so excited! Is it too much or not enough? I somewhat misstepped last time, you know, and I’d hate to commit another faux pas. I fear the dress code for private gatherings at the castle is not quite what I thought it was. At least not amongst your half of the royal family.”
“Rarity,” Twilight interjected, “you’re fine.”
“Are you sure? I have another version with embroidery, or perhaps I should stick to a hat and a light sweater?”
With patience she never knew she had for this sort of thing, Twilight once again reassured Rarity that she was fine. Twilight then introduced Rarity to ‘Eventide’ and left them to chat while she headed outside and called down Spike to come join them. His little purple dot in the sky stopped zipping around and arced into a sharp dive. He picked up speed quickly, and Twilight held a spell on the tip of her horn in case she needed to save him, but he pulled up as he neared the ground and arrested his speed with a loud, excited whoop at the top of his lungs.
As Twilight had a feeling that her expressing her concerns would only backfire on her, she didn’t ask Spike not to do that again without proper supervision. He needed to get all his energy out of his system, and throwing a parental wet blanket atop him wouldn’t help settle him down. She’d just have to watch him more closely for a while until she felt confident he knew his limits well enough not to do anything too reckless. He’d probably enjoy the extra attention anyway.
Spike opted to land on Twilight’s back to hitch a ride. With his new wings, she hardly needed to carry him anymore to let him keep up with long pony legs, but she merely rolled her eyes and indulged him. “Having fun?”
“You have no idea! This is amazing!”
“Uh-huh. I have flown before, you know.”
“Well…” It seemed Spike had no counter to that. “Was it as much fun for you the first time?”
Twilight thought back to the first time she’d used the gossamer wings spell to give herself a pair of butterfly wings made of morning dew. She’d ended up flying too close to the sun and had nearly fallen to her death. Luckily, Celestia had been there to save her, and more importantly, Spike had been too young to remember that embarrassing episode or develop a fear of flight. “Sure,” she finally replied. “Let’s go with that.”
“Uh-huh,” Spike said skeptically.
“Shush, you. I have a couple ponies for you to meet. You kind of missed the long introductions, but in short, Rarity is Sweetie Belle’s older sister. The resemblance is unmistakable. Eventide is a very old friend. She was my mentor of sorts before Celestia and had a big influence on me.”
Twilight promised to answer Spike’s questions tomorrow if he didn’t get them tonight from casual conversation. When she went back inside, she heard Spike dreamily utter perhaps the last thing she’d expected.
Oh dear. How do I deal with this? Rarity, in the statistically unlikely chance she would entertain a draconic suitor, would be equally unlikely to find herself interested in someone so much younger than her. But on the other hoof, Twilight had noticed the occasional blush from Sweetie Belle around Spike. She suspected they’d come from flattering thoughts on his end rather than any true crush on either’s part, but maybe she could nip this in the bud and provide a safe, trusted first romance for both of them.
Nonchalantly – and indeed, this was merely a fact which she was observing – Twilight commented, “Yes, she is. From the resemblance, Sweetie Belle will be as well at that age.”
Twilight didn’t need to look back to see how Spike took that, for she had a telepath across the room giving her a real-time analysis through the expressions on her face. There was surprise when they’d first entered that faded into a slightly annoyed look lacking any jealousy as far as Twilight could tell. Odd, yes, but it didn’t warrant further consideration. Then she showed bashful pride when Twilight spoke, but that changed soon enough. Suddenly shy, she blushed and tried to hide herself behind Rarity’s legs.
Oh, it was going to be so much fun teasing those two.
Soon enough, proper introductions were made. Spike was adorably flustered when he introduced himself to Rarity, and the whole event only made Sweetie Belle flush more fiercely and stay out of his line of sight. It seemed someone had outright forgotten what Generosity did. Perhaps it was time to finally sit Spike down and teach him another language now that he had the proper motivation.
Sunset’s introduction passed with much less silent amusement, but judging by her smirk, she’d caught on to the little drama playing out in front of her. She didn’t comment – not in front of those involved, at least – but Twilight suspected she would be joining in on the gossip amongst the family tonight.
And with that, they were off to Canterlot.