Chapter Two - Preparations
The world shook.
Twilight appeared in the cool night sky above Manehattan. Although the strong winds didn’t blow her around, they did bite and encourage her to finish her string of teleports. A pegasus’s natural ability to passively resist temperature extrema would be wonderful right now. It was such a hassle to cast little miscellaneous spells of the like to deal with such all the time.
Eying the city below, Twilight identified the general direction of her destination and blinked toward it, bringing her journey one step closer to completion.
Really, in some ways, pegasi had the best luck of the pony tribes. Unicorns had almost no passive magic. Everything they did required care, thought, and practice. Even the magic a unicorn naturally attuned to through their special talent tended to misbehave without discipline. In contrast, earth ponies had almost no active magic. They had to accept that their magic would do whatever it would do whenever it was supposed to do it. But pegasi? They had both. They could naturally walk on clouds just as they could throw around lightning on demand with enough training.
Twilight spotted the university campus packed into the throng of buildings. In all likelihood, she would find her substitute archmage there burning the midnight oil much as she herself did.
For the average pony, being a pegasus was probably ideal. Their magic was flexible and accessible. Twilight personally didn’t know how anypony could survive without telekinesis, but ponies got by one way or another.
Identifying the correct building on campus, Twilight teleported to its front doors. She found them unlocked despite the late hour and made her entrance. Unless the department had shuffled offices around since she last stopped by, she needed to climb up to the third floor.
All that said, unicorns had the most potential. Sure, perhaps only one in ten thousand might unlock even a fraction of it, but a unicorn could, in theory, do anything. Their horns were precision instruments meant to make magic dance to their whims. Twilight wouldn’t trade hers for anything.
The little placard beside the office door read Sorceress Moon Dancer, Professor of Ancient Magics. Her crescent moon and stars cutie mark was displayed at the end. As this was an official visit, Twilight adjusted her torc of office so that it sat centered around her neck and lay flat against her chest. A quick spell straightened her mane and tail, blown into disarray during her trip, and a second flattened her coat.
With a hoof rather than magic, Twilight knocked. She felt the curious scrying of the office’s occupant a moment later, and then the door opened. Moon Dancer sat behind her desk all but buried in a mountain of books surrounding her on all sides. Most, upon inspection, had pieces of paper covered in notes jutting out of them. It was like looking in a mirror. Take away the glasses and apply a color changing spell, and a pony would be hard pressed to tell them apart except by their cutie marks.
Moon Dancer’s eyes first met Twilight’s and then drifted downward. They stayed there a moment, absorbing what the torc meant, and then came back up. “Archmage.” The slight nod of her head in place of a bow acknowledged that this wasn’t a meeting between academic peers.
“Sorceress,” Twilight said, returning the greeting with the title appropriate to the context. She let a slight grin grow on her face. “I would apologize for the late visit, but I hardly think it necessary.”
“The night is young,” Moon Dancer replied. Her smile betrayed how well aware she was that they were the odd ponies out when it came to such matters. Her horn lit up, and she shifted around some of her piles of books to form a makeshift chair. After adding a thick quilt over the top for padding, she offered it as an alternative to standing.
Shrugging, Twilight sat. She could just pull a chair out of her bag of holding or even conjure one, but that would be rude, and there was something deeply satisfying about using books as a construction material. Perhaps when she got home she should build a book fort with Spike before she left for Ponyville.
“So what brings you here?” Moon Dancer asked, her curiosity thick in her voice.
As much as Twilight would find amusement in being completely upfront about the situation, she decided to lead into it a little. “Would you perchance have any interest in working with me and Princess Celestia on a…well, not project so much as cleaning up one of her thousand year old messes?”
The sparkle in Moon Dancer’s eyes said everything for her long before she expressed her interest with words. “Are you sure I’m qualified? I’m not really the adventuring type.”
“There won’t be any dungeon crawling or combat expected of you, I promise. To be frank, I just need you to foalsit the princess and take a bit of my work off her hooves.”
Moon Dancer had no idea how to respond to that, and it showed in the blank look on her face. She tried to form words a few times but met with little to no success on each attempt. Twilight tried her best not to laugh.
“Without throwing classified information” – as of about three seconds ago – “at you before you agree, I need to take an extended leave of absence to deal with a major threat to Equestria. You’d officially be filling in for me as the Archmage. The actual job description is considerably less than the sum total of what I do for the country. Mostly just coordinating responses to magical problems that crop up on a national scale.”
“I’m aware,” Moon Dancer managed to get out coherently. “And Princess Celestia?”
“That’s…complicated. And classified. Suffice it to say she’s going through some personal issues right now. I’d appreciate it if you kept an eye on her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything too…impulsive.” If she could afford to, it was something Twilight would much prefer to do herself. Unfortunately, she imagined this Elements of Harmony business would be taking up most of her time between now and Luna’s return.
Rather hesitantly, Moon Dancer said, “I suppose I could do that.” She pushed her glasses back into proper position after all the gaping and staring she’d been doing. “How long would I be gone, and starting when?”
“I’ll be back immediately after the solstice.”
Moon Dancer paled.
Twilight swore under her breath. “You’ve read Predictions and Prophecies, haven’t you?”
“The Mare in the Moon isn’t just an old ponies’ tale?”
“I’ll do it,” Moon Dancer declared. She looked nervous and a little fearful, yes, but her voice was firm.
A good mix, Twilight decided. Worried enough to take this seriously but not so much as to panic. With a nod, she said, “Welcome aboard. You should pack whatever you need and make arrangements for your absence. You can tell the administration you’ve been drafted if needed. I’ll teleport you wherever you need to go to speed things along.”
Moon Dancer nodded, grabbed quill and paper, and set to writing a letter. “Need to notify the chair, my grad students, my TAs,” she mumbled. “What about my classes? Hmm, Astral can cover them for me. What else? Need to pay the rent in advance. Utilities… Food is going to spoil… Argh, I’ll just leave my keys and a sack of bits with Daisy next door.”
Politely tuning out Moon Dancer as she spoke aloud to herself, Twilight pulled Luna’s book from her bag of holding. She had nothing better to do while waiting, after all, and Moon Dancer’s briefing would wait until they got behind privacy wards in Canterlot.
Spike awoke shortly after dawn broke. If Twilight were on her regular schedule, she would be somewhere nearby to wish him a good morning. He figured she’d still be on a research binge with that book he found, however, but it wouldn’t hurt to search the tower for her anyway. He started with the sitting room which her mess of books and spell diagrams dominated, but she wasn’t there today. Nor was she in the tower’s – for her – small library, the bathroom, or the study.
Unsurprisingly, when he checked the kitchen, he didn’t find his mother there either. She never cooked for herself if she could avoid it and had absolutely no skill in the art anyway. Not that it really mattered. The best chefs in Equestria worked day and night just downstairs. They had no dragons on staff, however, so anything Spike ordered gem encrusted tasted second rate compared to his own creations.
Grumbling about dragonfire infused gems, Spike checked the last place he expected to find Twilight. He opened the door to her bedroom and was surprised to find somepony in her bed – somepony who wasn’t her! The implications ran through his mind despite how hard he tried not to think about them.
Almost slamming the door shut but stopping at the last second, Spike ran back downstairs into the sitting room, red ear to ear. Despite growing much slower than ponies, Twilight hadn’t felt the need to keep the adult world a big mystery from him.
But beyond the awkwardness of so abruptly discovering his mother had a special somepony lay confusion and worry. She’d always been so academic and detached about the subject. Spike wasn’t sure of the details, but it’d also even become somewhat of a sticking point in her relationship with his grandparents as well. Between her disinterest and stubbornness, he’d never imagined she’d actually find a coltfriend – or marefriend, as it turned out. He’d heard stories from Flurry’s friends in school of parents getting remarried and losing interest in their children. Twilight was already overworked. Would she even remember he existed now?
Then there were the ponies who were the youngest in the family, showered with love and attention until a new foal came. Spike didn’t doubt that Twilight could find a way to have foals with another mare if she wanted, and there were certainly times when he felt the strain between them that came with being different species. This was bad. He just knew he’d be completely abandoned if he didn’t break this up now before she got attached to whoever she’d brought home.
But how to do it? Spike’s first instinct was to hatch some sort of cunning plan to drive the offender out, but he knew that would just make Twilight upset. In fact, any sort of scheme would probably just make her angry. Perhaps it would be best to just tell her how he felt. Sure, it might be awkward and make him look selfish, but honesty was a virtue.
Spike unconsciously went through the motions of making himself breakfast while he planned what to say.
Soon came the sound of hoofsteps descending the stairs. Spike braced himself. If it was Twilight, this was his chance to speak with her alone. If not…
Before Spike was ready, the source of the noise walked into kitchen. It was Twilight, except not Twilight. First off, she wouldn’t wear glasses even if she needed them unless they were some sort of magical artifact. Next, her colors were all wrong, and the stripes in her main and tail were on the wrong side. There were a few other subtle differences to spot as well if one looked hard enough.
Despite all this, Spike breathed a sigh of relief. This was just another of Twilight’s magical experiments gone wrong, he was sure. And now that the shock had settled, he knew he’d jumped to conclusions. This would hardly be the first time he’d seen her polymorphed into a different appearance or even species. And she did tend to cast and forget when her mind was occupied.
“Morning, Mom. You left an illusion or transfiguration on again.”
After the initial look of surprise faded, Twilight said, “You must be Spike. I’m Moon Dancer.”
“Yes, I know I look like Twilight. I get that a lot.”
“I… Okay.” Sometimes it was best to just go with the flow, especially around Twilight. “Why are you here?”
Moon Dancer hesitated a moment, likely choosing her words with care, and said, “Your mother asked for my assistance with one of her adventures. She gave me the details here behind her wards.”
While it was unusual for Twilight to invite anypony into their home for such things, it wasn’t entirely unheard of, so Spike nodded along with the explanation. And if they’d been up as late as he expected, that also explained why she’d just given Moon Dancer her bed for the night instead of troubling the castle staff to prepare a guest room.
That was, of course, assuming Princess Celestia hadn’t put Twilight up to a very strange prank. That happened on occasion.
So like a good host, Spike offered, “Tea? Or coffee? We have orange juice, too, or we can head down to the kitchens for something else.”
“Coffee would be celestial.”
Spike nodded and went to work with a deft hand. “Word of warning if you’re gonna be working with Mom and Princess Celestia. They probably won’t show it, but they both get uncomfortable when you use her as an expression like that.”
“Oh. That’s fair. Sorry.”
Spike waved off the faux pas. He understood. Twilight was more of a peer with Princess Celestia than anypony he’d ever heard of, so the whole physical goddess thing no longer properly registered with her, but not everypony could be like that.
“Speaking of whom, Twilight said I should ask you to take me to the council chambers after I rose for a meeting with those two.”
“After breakfast,” Spike insisted.
Moon Dancer nodded. “After breakfast.”
There were only two things a pony needed to know about the Royal Guard.
First, it was a great honor to join the guard. It had an impressive history of performing great deeds and completing noble quests. Only the best of the best could hope to join, and only merit could keep a pony there. They were the shining shield who protected the princess and the flaming sword who smote her enemies.
Second, it was, by and large, a very boring profession. All of that impressive history was just that: history. The Equestrian Intelligence Service and its subdivisions had largely supplanted most of the Royal Guard’s field work over the past century, and nopony had been stupid enough to attack Princess Celestia in centuries.
There had been a brief and glorious period where the guard had worked their tails off to keep a young Twilight Sparkle safe. The poor filly had attracted enemies both foreign and domestic from all walks of life, most through no fault of her own. But as was the natural course of things, she’d come into her own and grown nearly as strong as the princess herself. The archmage required no protection.
The last time the Royal Guard had seen action, if one could call it that, was during the relatively recent ‘war’ with the Griffon Kingdom. That entire fiasco had ended within a week leaving little time for valor and a petrified world in its wake. It was what had cemented the archmage’s reputation as a force of nature if perhaps not on par with the princess then close enough as to make no difference to mere mortals.
By Celestia, she was bewitching.
Flash Sentry snapped out of his thoughts with a start. Scanning the room, his gaze eventually landed on his partner. Shielded Strike eyed him with a hint of reprimand from the other side of the doors they were guarding. Guilty but not willing to admit it so easily, he asked, “What makes you say that?”
“You had that dreamy look about you again.”
With a click of his tongue, Flash said, “All right, you got me. Some days I wonder why we’re even here.”
“We keep order, Flash. That’s our job. The princess can’t be everywhere at once.”
“I suppose…” Although if anypony could be, then it would be the archmage. She probably knew a duplication spell, or a way to create golem guards, or something like that. She casually flung around spells the likes of which most unicorns could only dream of. Certainly, she–
Strike whacked Flash with the shaft of his spear. It made a loud clang against his armor and pulled him back out of his thoughts. “Dear Celestia, let her go,” Strike said. “The princess may know the name of everypony in her castle, but the archmage probably doesn’t even know you exist.”
“That’s not true. She clearly recognized me the last time she threw me out a window. I’m making progress.”
“That is the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard.” Strike shoot Flash a mixed look of pity and scorn and then shook his head. “How has Captain Armor not thrown you out by now?”
“Simple, Strike. Simple. I do my job, and that’s all he cares about.” Of course, there had been an off the books meeting in which many brotherly threats had been made. They mostly involved what the captain would do to whatever the archmage left of him if Flash ever laid a hoof on her without permission.
“Why do you even like her?” Strike asked. “I remember her as the awkward but adorable little filly with her nose forever in a book, but young blood like you has no excuse.”
Well, the easy answer was that the archmage had a natural bookish beauty about her and would probably throw herself into the bedroom with the same dedication she brought to everything else. Most recruits developed a crush to that extent before she disillusioned them with her public personality. But behind the thorns, there was so much more to discover.
“Because she’s a spiteful, dismissive, temperamental mare–”
“You know there are at best two sets of doors between her and us right now, right?”
Flash ignored the interruption. “–but beneath all that, she’s one of the most caring, dedicated, and brilliant ponies you’d ever have the pleasure to meet when amongst the people she cares about.”
“I guess I can see that,” Strike admitted. “It’s no secret she hates most everything she does for the princess.”
One of the many facts which, incidentally, made her immensely popular amongst the populace, especially those who lived outside Canterlot.
“Then there’s what she went through to adopt that fire hazard of hers,” Strike added.
Flash chuckled. Most of the old guard had a completely irrational and involuntary fear of Spike. The poor dragon didn’t deserve any of it in his opinion, but he’d heard enough exaggerated stories of dragonfire, blood, and valor from before his time not to judge.
At a whisper, Strike said, “Speak of the Nightmare, and it shall appear to you.”
Flash followed Strike’s eyes to find the dragon in question at the end of the corridor. It wasn’t unusual to bump into him. He had free run of the castle and liked to wander and chat with the ponies therein. More interestingly, however, an unfamiliar familiar unicorn walked at his side. She looked an awful lot like the archmage, but her coloring was off and she held herself all wrong.
As the pair approached the door that led to the council chambers and a number of other important rooms, Flash and Strike looked to each other uncertainly. By mutual silent agreement, they crossed their spears and barred entry.
“Err…halt?” Flash requested in what he thought was perhaps the worst example of taking initiative he had ever seen.
Spike covered his mouth with a hand, laughing. “Really, Flash? Where was the please?”
“Oh, har har. The princess and the archmage are currently in a meeting. I think.”
“This is Moon Dancer,” Spike said, gesturing towards the unicorn. “She’s Mom’s guest. I’m supposed to take her to the council chambers.”
This was a perfect opportunity to talk to the archmage, so Flash said, “I’ll go see if they’re ready for you.” As he turned in place, Flash found Strike’s spear blocking his path.
“I’ll go check,” Strike said, looking between the door, Flash, and Spike. “For many reasons.”
Flash rolled his eyes but agreed to let his shell-shocked friend run away from his fear. He then turned his attention to the new unicorn in the castle. “So, what do you do that you’ve been invited into the privy council?”
“Uh, magical research, mostly. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say right now.”
That was fair enough, so Flash didn’t press.
Strike came back through the doors a few moments later. “Her Highness and Her Excellency will see you now. The room you want is the third door on the left.”
The relatively small – but still large enough for Princess Celestia – and unadorned door opened to reveal the council chambers. Rather than the typical example of good taste mixed with wealth and important looking ponies going about the affairs of state Moon Dancer had come to expect from her walk through the castle, cramped described it best. Only a large round table and accompanying chairs waited inside. There were no windows, and oil lanterns cast the only light.
As Moon Dancer stepped inside, she felt as if some part of her had been wrenched away. When she tried to summon up her magic, it slipped away from her. Spike, who’d entered first, seemed unaffected, as did the two ponies at the far side of the room. Wards, she concluded. Lots and lots of wards.
“The first time is always the worst,” Twilight said as she approached. “It’s a little overkill, but there’s nowhere more secure in the entire castle. Need a hoof?”
Moon Dancer appreciated the offer but declined. Although she felt a little woozy, she steadied herself enough to at least get by. Princess Celestia approached next and inspected her with a critical eye. It bore the weight of centuries and made her breath freeze under its intensity.
And then Princess Celestia let out a distinctly amused snort. “Twilight, you narcissist.” She shook her head with a warm smile. “Good morning, Moon Dancer. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to getting to know you. This is the first time Twilight has brought home a friend.”
When Moon Dancer realized that it’d become expected for her to reply, she started and nearly squeaked. Then she pushed her glasses back into place. “Y-yes, Your Highness. Good morning.”
“Would you indulge an old mare’s curiosity and share how you and Twilight met? She only informed me that you were ‘library buddies’.”
“Old? I – well, yes.” That was an accurate enough way to put it. They were more occasional colleagues now than anything, but it got the point across. “We bumped into each other in the Canterlot Archives when we were young. Literally. We, uh…” Moon Dancer fought not to blush. “With our resemblance, we may have leapt to an incorrect conclusion or two at first.”
In the background, Twilight vigorously indicated that Moon Dancer should stop talking, but the damage had already been done. Princess Celestia shifted the focus of her attention to Twilight and, with the tone of a mare who’d just been given ammunition, said, “Oh really?”
Twilight cleared her throat and pointedly ignored her princess. “Now that we’re all here, we should get started. Moon Dancer, take whatever place you want.” She moved off at a pace slightly faster than a walk but not quite a trot and took the chair to the right of the oversized one clearly reserved for Princess Celestia.
Meanwhile, the princess said, “Some other time.” She winked and then went to join Twilight.
By this time, Spike had already found a place beside his mother. Moon Dancer, not really wanting to walk much under the current wards, took a nearby chair across from the trio.
“Now then,” Twilight said, “before we begin, welcome to the Chambers of the Privy Council™, where most matters of policy are decided.”
Moon Dancer’s ears stood fully erect, trying to decide whether the strange not-quite-sound they’d heard was real. As Princess Celestia brought a hoof to her head and sighed, something must have happened.
“What was that…” The appropriate word eluded Moon Dancer.
“Must you do this with every guest?” Princess Celestia asked.
Twilight shot the princess a look that spoke of some sort of revenge. “Of course I must. It is the name of this room, after all.”
“To answer your question,” Princess Celestia said, paying Twilight no mind for the moment, “What you heard was the result of a joke spell I created centuries ago and cast upon the world. Twilight heard it once and begged for days for me to teach it to her. She put the enchantment on no less than four phrases before I told her to stop.”
Moon Dancer looked between Twilight, who seemed both unaccountably proud and unashamed, and Princess Celestia, who just appeared abashed. “So you mean, anytime anypony anywhere says any specific sequence of words…”
“The phrase gets an inaudible yet perceptible trademark added to the end of it. The magic is so comprehensive, it works even in here. It was both my and Twilight’s first experience with world magic. My own casting of the spell was on the phrase the Hoarded Lore of Celestia Herself™. I was…a younger pony at the time.”
“Not that young,” Twilight mumbled just loud enough for everypony to hear.
Princess Celestia casually pushed Twilight off balance with a wing, almost resulting in her chair toppling over and her falling to the ground. Spike laughed, and despite both herself and the titanic presences in the room with her, a few silent laughs escaped Moon Dancer at their antics as well. Was this what Princess Celestia was like behind closed doors, or was she just trying to make her guest feel comfortable?
More importantly, Moon Dancer asked, “How does it work?” She’d never heard of world magic before despite all of her studies. It must be something understandably kept hidden from the public. She could only imagine the level of chaos this sort of spellwork would unleash upon the world if left unchecked.
“Ah, I should have expected as much from Twilight’s friend,” Princess Celestia said, eyes shining. “This is perfect. She rarely lets me be a proper teacher anymore. To begin with–”
“It draws power from the world’s ambient magic like many public works, only on a larger scale,” Twilight interrupted, drawing frowns from her fellow academics and a thankful look from Spike. “It’s finicky, complicated, and my time is extremely valuable right now. Perhaps you two can discuss this later?”
However irritating, Moon Dancer admitted Twilight had a point. Princess Celestia relented as well.
“Excellent. Now then, I’ve already informed you of the broad strokes of where and what I’ll be doing. The purpose of this meeting is to divvy up my regular work between you two. Spike, are you okay with taking notes for us?”
Since Spike already had a quill twirling about in his dexterous claws with paper at the ready, it surprised nopony when he agreed to do so. It seemed a little odd to read him in on a bunch of likely classified information for the purpose, but then Twilight hadn’t exactly kept anything under lock and key in her tower. He probably stumbled upon a half-dozen national secrets before breakfast most days.
Regardless, they went forward with the rather tedious bureaucratic task.
It was midday when Twilight appeared south of the most dangerous location in Equestria, if not the entire world. The twisted, chaotic magic that surged through the Everfree Forest scorched her horn even from where she stood nearly a kilometer away as it ate away at the lingering magic of her teleport. The enchantments she always kept active upon herself began malfunctioning, forcing her to dispel them before they could fail spectacularly. With no further spells under her control nor artifacts in her possession, the wrath of the forest receded. It didn’t vanish but instead stood waiting and watching for the slightest hint of magic to lash out against.
This was the reason the Everfree Forest struck fear into the hearts of nearly every single being on Equus. Magic could be used within it with great difficulty, but there was no telling what the forest would morph the magic into. Simple telekinesis was as likely to summon a glass of water as it was to turn the caster into a penguin or simply explode.
And it wasn’t just unicorns who had trouble. Pegasi couldn’t fly reliably or even stand on a cloud near the Everfree. Earth ponies had it the worst. Unable to turn off their magic in its entirety, the forest would slowly tear them apart until there was nothing left but carrion for the predatory species born in the chaos.
But there was one major exception: the Elements of Harmony. They brought order from chaos, harmony from discord. Once Twilight reached the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, she would have her magic back. The cost, of course, would be facing off against the protections Celestia had laid down there centuries ago. There were no quick ways to nor from the castle for anypony except her. If only the Elements didn’t hate her, then she could have picked them up herself in less than the time it took to invoke her name. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to send her in first to disable the wards – that would allow Twilight to teleport in after – but it would take longer, and time was more important right now than inconvenience.
Thus it was with great trepidation that Twilight Sparkle, the archmage who lived and breathed magic, ventured into the Everfree.
The old highway from the southern reaches of Equestria to the Old Castle through the forest still existed. The brick road cut a wide path through the trees. Not even a single blade of grass had managed to split the stonework over the past thousand years. Despite the ravages of time and the chaotic magic of the forest, it endured and protected. On the path, at least, the forest’s wrath retreated – not vanished, but lay lingering in wait for its next meal.
How curious. This road seems to have acquired a mild anti-magic field of some sort. That’s not unheard of, but they’re not supposed to be stable enough to last days, much less centuries. Hmm… I probably can’t teleport these bricks, unfortunately. I’ll have to come back later for a sample to study and have it physically shipped to Canterlot.
Twilight briefly wondered if she could replicate and amplify an anti-magic field on command. She wouldn’t need to faff about with the Elements of Harmony if it were possible. But then she supposed that if it were that easy, Celestia would have thought of it ages ago. Still, she made a mental note to mention it when she stopped by Canterlot later and then pressed on deeper into the Everfree.
Fortunately, and somewhat surprisingly, the journey was relatively peaceful. It seemed, from the lack of any of the usual signs, that the forest’s fauna didn’t normally approach the road. While she wasn’t completely helpless without magic, Twilight doubted she could win a scuffle with anything bigger than a timberwolf and didn’t relish the thought of a long gallop to escape.
That said, it still was a long trot to the Old Castle. Twilight was in better shape than most bookworms, so she made reasonable time, but she didn’t possess even half of her brother’s stamina, that fitness junkie. By the time she reached the stone arch bridge that signaled the beginning of the end of her journey, she wanted to curl up and die.
In fact, getting through the wards at the Old Castle would require her legs to stop shaking when she stood still, so Twilight thought better of pressing on just yet. She found a comfortable looking tree adjacent to the road to lean against and slumped over onto the ground.
“Urgh… How do ponies live without enhancement enchantments?”
Probably the same way they live without being able to reshape reality whenever they so much as mildly object to it.
Twilight chuckled as she fought against the urge to nod off in a dangerous forest filled with pony eating predators. Maybe she should have gotten a full night’s rest before attempting this trip. Without magic, the denial of her body’s natural biorhythm was starting to catch up with her.
Once her hooves stopped screaming in protest, Twilight stretched, rose, stretched again, and then carried on with the last leg of her journey. Cresting a hill not far past the bridge, she finally saw her destination.
The Old Castle was a magnificent structure, remarkably well preserved even after more than half of its towers had collapsed in on itself. Time hadn’t been kind, but neither had it been brutal. Unlike the road, the forest had made some inroads into the masonry here. There was an abrupt and obvious line where the wards began and the reclamation ended, but it was progress of sorts nonetheless.
Twilight approached the castle’s main gate, a massive portal long since deprived of a door. The moment she stepped over the ward line, the eager hunger of the forest fell away without a trace – the influence of the Elements at work, no doubt. The prickling of her horn ceased, and her magic flowed through her without fear once more. And, of course, the wards studied her, wary but not yet hostile. They would give her a chance to prove herself a friend. If she failed, they would reprimand her and send her on her way. If she persisted, then they became dangerous.
Celestia had mentioned fire and acid as the lesser perils and worked her way up to esoteric dimensional magic which she’d simply described as ‘enough’ when explaining what it did. Twilight hadn’t inquired further. She was, after all, a friend. The wards wouldn’t hurt her provided she gave them no reason to.
Right, then. Let’s do this.
With all of the instructions Celestia had given her held at the forefront of her mind, Twilight stepped forward into the castle. From her horn, she radiated a useless spellform that flagged her as friendly. She moved through the castle with specific gestures and steps, careful not to deviate. When required, she gave a verbal password or altered the magic she held about her to conform to some new requirement. She silently cursed Celestia when forced to recite a nonsense song in Old Ponish. There were reasons she didn’t sing except when caught up in a heartsong, and she was very glad nopony was around to hear them.
It was altogether a different experience than the norm for her. Twilight’s usual approach to problematic ward systems was to carefully unravel or outright smash them. Infiltration wasn’t part of her job description. She had ponies for that. Well, not ponies, exactly, but the point was she’d gone out of her way specifically so she didn’t have to do this sort of thing herself.
It was only once Twilight reached the throne room that the wards relented in their examination of her. Finally accepted and allowed to act as she saw fit, she quickly recast a few of her more useful enchantments upon herself and then took a look around.
Of all the corridors, halls, and chambers she’d passed through on her way here, the throne room was by far the most intact. Scattered fallen bricks littered the floor and let in beams of light, but no gaping holes marred the ceiling or walls. The windows, preserved by magic, were merely broken instead of missing. Although they no longer functioned as intended, the doors remained on their hinges. Many of the tapestries, even, had survived the centuries almost entirely intact and still hung from the walls.
At the far side of the hall stood two alicorn sized thrones, one with a solar motif and the other with a lunar design. In front of the thrones in the center of the chamber stood a large pedestal with five outcroppings. Upon each rested a gray sphere approximately as wide as Twilight. Atop the pedestal itself at the center, a larger stone sphere lay in wait. As Celestia had promised, these were the Elements of Harmony.
And Twilight felt the call of Magic. It was the allure of power. It was the soft song humming beneath her thoughts. It was the potential for new love. It was the promise of reunion with a long lost friend. It was all these things at once and more.
Twilight suddenly froze halfway to Magic. Her eyes snapped open, and she took deep breaths slowly one after another as she beat back the call and reclaimed full control. It helped to avert her eyes, but the temptation lingered no matter what she did.
“What the hay!” That’s…not normal. Compulsions on cursed artifacts had never been that intrusive to Twilight nor as subtle yet blatant. And Celestia doesn’t think these things are evil? I mean, I guess she and Luna bore them for centuries without ill effect, but yeesh.
With a wary and suspicious eye, Twilight approached the Elements. She plucked the nearest from the pedestal with her magic to get a better look at it. Upon closer inspection, the sphere was hollow and had a few glassy openings that allowed her to see inside. After shifting it around, she identified a dull blue gemstone with a simple cut suspended in the center and oriented upright with respect to the sphere’s frame of reference rather than the world’s.
Twilight glanced back up at the outcropping she’d taken the Element from. In Old Ponish was inscribed an approximate translation for Laughter. She quickly conjured some paper, wrapped it around the Element, and labeled it appropriately before stuffing it away in her recast and otherwise empty bag of holding.
Going from Element to Element, Twilight repeated the process. Each held a similar cut but a distinct color. They were all obviously magical, but none particularly radiated power the way she’d expected of something that could strike down a goddess. Perhaps they were merely the interface to a greater system and had an external power supply which they tapped into when needed. It bore looking into once the Luna situation was resolved one way or another.
Right. Now all that’s left is you. Twilight levitated Magic down to her. With the proximity and her magic on it, the call grew in strength. It was to be hers anyway, she figured, so she might as well get it over with. She reached out with a hoof and touched the sphere.
Twilight threw an arm over her eyes to shield herself. Magic shone with a blinding light like a star descended to Equus. When it finally faded, she blinked. The spots slowly cleared from her vision. Looking down, she found the Element she’d dropped. The stone encasing was gone, but Magic had transformed into a tiara with a six-pointed star inlaid as its centerpiece in the exact shape and shade of pink as her cutie mark.
“Well, that was…unexpected.” Twilight floated the tiara up to eye level and narrowed her eyes at it. It was hers. She felt that with every part of her being. Why are you a crown? You weren’t a crown five seconds ago. Wearing you in public is going to be so…troublesome. It would be a lie to say she didn’t understand the symbolism. She didn’t want Celestia’s job or to be a princess. That wasn’t at all what it was about. But it was the meaning most ponies would take away.
Sighing, Twilight floated the tiara up onto her head. Immediately, all other thoughts fled her as a rush of power flowed from it down to her every extremity. Her magic bubbled up inside her, eager and ready to leap to her command. The sudden flux of energy left her giddy and giggling.
This… Wow! This is – I – I can’t – this is amazing! At a rough guess, Twilight felt an order of magnitude more powerful. There was so much she could do with the absurd amount of magic she had at the tip of her horn. She could–
No, bad Twilight, she scolded herself. There were more important things that needed doing than indulging her own desires. You have an insane, evil goddess to deal with. That must take priority.
But regardless of what she did next, Twilight needed to get out of the Everfree. She strolled out of the castle without a care. Even if the wards hadn’t accepted her presence, she hardly cared. She felt capable of smacking them down if they lashed out at her. Impulsive, she knew, but so what?
As soon as she’d walked far enough to remove the Old Castle from the Elements’ protection, a harsh whine and crackle filled the air. The forest had set in on the wards, eager for the feast. Parts of the castle crumbled away as their magic finally failed, leaving the once magnificent structure the ruin it should have always been. Soon enough, the forest fell silent once more.
But that did give Twilight an idea. She had the protection of the Elements. She had the power.
Experimentally, she teleported a stick at her hooves a short distance away from her. It came out the other end unharmed. She repeated the feat, this time teleporting a large branch from the castle to the forest outside the influence of the Elements. A little vision sharpening spell let her see that it’d arrived at its destination unharmed. Trying to teleport it back resulted in it remaining where it was but now distinctly made of cotton candy, but that had just been a mild curiosity. Her first two experiments told her everything she needed to know.
Twilight built up power in her horn, sheer raw power on a scale she’d never had to manage internally before. Sparks of solidified magic flew off from her control as the aura surrounding her horn grew ever brighter. Perhaps not as slowly or carefully as she should have, she forged the magic into a teleport and, with unrestrained glee, made the journey out of the forest back to Canterlot in a single jump.
Moon Dancer sat across from Princess Celestia at a table overloaded with paperwork. The princess and the archmage had rescheduled all of their individual meetings for the next couple days to ease the transition for Moon Dancer, something she was very grateful for, but the paperwork they would be working on instead was nearly as dreadfully tedious as writing a grant application.
More importantly, she was working with Princess Celestia! Most ponies never had so much as the opportunity to speak with her, and yet here Moon Dancer was getting a peek behind the veil. Even with all the work they had to do, she barely resisted the temptation to bombard the princess with questions ranging from magic to history.
As the day dragged on, Moon Dancer found more and more that Princess Celestia wasn’t what most ponies expected. Was she intelligent? Of course. Did she have hundreds of lifetimes of experience dwarfing Moon Dancer’s own? Absolutely. Would a poet describe her as beautiful? By definition. Had she the grace and sophistication expected of a sovereign? Without question.
But behind closed doors, the veneer of the perfect princess peeled away. While none of the aforementioned traits left her, Princess Celestia complained, chatted, joked, and gossiped in her own way just like any other pony. Perhaps this was just another mask, her true face reserved only for her beloved pupil, but to Moon Dancer, it felt more genuine.
And with it came an endless stream of embarrassing stories about Twilight.
“It may surprise you to discover that she never completed magic kindergarten.”
“No way,” Moon Dancer said in pure disbelief.
Nonetheless, Princess Celestia persisted with a solemn air about her. “It’s true. She was expelled and never reentered the education system.”
“I don’t believe it. How does the archmage – no, any pony get themselves expelled from magic kindergarten?”
The quill held in Princess Celestia’s magic paused in its writing to tap in place. After a few moments’ thought, she answered the question. “Twilight learned a valuable lesson about escalation. I think it best not to say more than that.”
Well, that doesn’t sound ominous. Moon Dancer knew not to push, however. Instead, she asked, “How does that tie in to her, eh, indiscretion I witnessed in the Archives?”
Princess Celestia chuckled. “What does a teacher do to a pony who fails in school?”
That had never been a concern on Moon Dancer’s radar, so it took her a few moments to come up with an actual answer. Once she did, however, she understood where this story was headed. “Send them back a grade?”
“Precisely. And what was the last grade she attended?”
A snicker slipped past Moon Dancer’s lips. “Did she really think you were going to send her back to magic kindergarten?” She and Twilight had been in their late teens at the time.
“Nopony questions that Twilight is one of Equestria’s brightest minds, but there are times when one recalls that the line between genius and madness is often thin and easily crossed.”
This was, perhaps, not the best moment for Twilight to appear without warning, laughing maniacally, from a teleport that had enough power behind it to cross half the country. The thunderclap that announced her presence to anypony magically blind blew paperwork everywhere until Princess Celestia caught them all and held them in place. The purple and red sparkles, Moon Dancer presumed, were her teleport signature, which meant that it hadn’t been executed with her usual level of expertise.
Oh, and at some point she’d acquired a crown, which was a separate issue entirely.
A very interesting crown, actually. It would certainly be worth a closer look sometime soon.
“Is she okay?” Moon Dancer asked. “She seems a bit…”
Twilight spun in place and thrust a hoof in Moon Dancer’s direction. “I’ll have you know I’m perfectly in control.” She lowered the hoof. “At any rate, mission accomplished. You’re looking at the proud new bearer of Magic. All hail.”
Eyes drawn back up to the crown – not that they’d left it for long – Moon Dancer understood what she was looking at now. She’d expected something less ostentatious than a jewel-studded, glittering golden tiara, but ancient magical artifacts of untold power would do what they wanted.
Apparently amused by Twilight’s antics, Princess Celestia echoed, “All hail.”
Twilight nodded at the ‘proper’ show of respect. “Question. Magic is an additive boost, right?”
A small collection of documents appeared nearby Princess Celestia. She passed them off from her magic to Twilight’s. “I’ve taken the liberty of writing down everything I know about each Element’s powers for you.”
Twilight flipped through papers until she found the one she wanted. A few moments later, she nodded, satisfied. “Right, so Luna kicked your flank to the curb fair and square. I’m not dealing with somepony so skilled she can win a fight drastically outside her weight class. Good.” She tossed the documents aside, and they vanished as they fell.
A part of Moon Dancer was jealous of the casual indifference with which both the princess and Twilight used subspace storage. She could cast the spell, sure, but she couldn’t put much into it. Those two, on the other hoof, used it for anything and everything they wanted. It must be nice to have the strength required to toss around magic like that. Maybe if she had Magic, she could–
Twilight performed the magical equivalent of a slap and knocked Moon Dancer’s telekinetic grip from Magic. She spun with a glare and looked about to utter some biting words when she suddenly stopped. Her brows furrowed. She stepped to the left and then to the right. And then, after whatever that had been, she spun on the princess with a cry of, “Celestia!” She thrust her hoof out back at Moon Dancer. “Just look at her. She obviously feels the call.”
“You never told me you had a clone!” Princess Celestia protested.
“Well, can I pass it off to her? She’d be better at this than me. I think.”
“The only way I know how to unbond with an Element would involve fighting your brother to the death.”
“Hmm… Maybe if I only thought that’s what I was doing?”
Moon Dancer loudly cleared her throat to get their attention before they devolved into a royal spat. When they looked her way, she asked, “What exactly are you talking about?” It apparently involved her, so she felt she deserved to know.
With a sigh, Twilight pointed to her crown. “You want this, don’t you? Your eyes are drawn to it whenever your attention wanders, aren’t they? You feel it. The call. If I hadn’t gotten to it first, Magic could have been yours.”
“Oh.” She tried to imagine it. Moon Dancer, hero of Equestria. She’d wander the land solving problems, averting disasters, and generally putting things to rights. It was the life Twilight lived. It certainly had its appeal, but it wasn’t her life. Her adventures were best experienced via text. “Well, this is probably for the best. I prefer the support role to the front lines.”
Even so, it was an awfully nice crown…
With that out of the way, Twilight said, “All right, I should head out. I need to get to Haywaii and back.”
“One more thing,” Princess Celestia said. She pulled another pile of papers from her subspace storage. “This is the spellwork I intended to lay over where Luna should return to when her banishment expires. Would you optimize it for me? I recall you’ve been dabbling in dense magic.”
A significant look passed between the princess and her archmage, although Moon Dancer lacked the context to understand what it meant.
“Sure.” Twilight took the papers and stored them away. “I’ll give it a look and see how many more spells we can cram in there. I assume this is just to slow Luna down while we fire up the Elements?”
Princess Celestia shrugged. “If it works, wonderful. If not, then perhaps the second it buys you will make the difference.”
“Fair enough. I’ll be off, then. Later.”
As Twilight lit her horn, a teleport spell building in power frighteningly quickly, Princess Celestia called for her to wait with a distinctly parental edge to her voice. It reminded Moon Dancer of her own mother’s gentle exasperation when she would track mud into the house the day after a storm, blind to the world with her nose in a book.
“Magic,” Princess Celestia said simply. “Recall that I will need it to ward off the deleterious effects of the Everfree Forest.”
The stricken look on Twilight’s face said everything for her.
Princess Celestia adopted a sad smile. Softly, she said, “Not so easy to toss it back into the forest, is it?”
Judging by Twilight’s reaction, she must have made some claim to that effect. She only proved the princess’s point when she said, “I think I’ll just hold on to it for a little longer. You don’t need it for a while, and it’ll speed up my trip to Haywaii. Later.”
Unlike her entrance, Twilight vanished with a short range teleport and no doubt made her escape good with a longer one thereafter.
“Well, that happened,” Moon Dancer observed. She felt like she should have something smart to say, but she had nothing. At least Magic was gone. She only now realized how distracting it had been for her.
“Yes,” Princess Celestia agreed. “I apologize for her shortness. She seems to be on a power high. It should wear off when she acclimates to Magic.”
That was understandable. Moon Dancer had heard of far worse reactions to donning ancient magical artifacts. Even so, she asked, “Should we be worried? I mean, is she dangerous right now?”
“Less so than normal, I should think. She may be more inclined to turn somepony into a smear on the wall on impulse or ruffle some feathers, but a clouded mind dulls her wit, which is the true source of her power.”
Rather flatly, Moon Dancer said, “Your Highness, forgive me, but I think you may be evaluating maxima instead of integrating.”
That elicited a titter from Princess Celestia. “I may also be watching over her. If need be, I will intervene.”
“Oh.” I guess that works. And now that she really looked, Moon Dancer did see a very faint glow at the tip of Princess Celestia’s horn. “Is she always so troublesome?” The past day had offered her a very different look at her sometimes colleague.
With no hesitation, Princess Celestia replied, “I sometimes suspect her greatest delight in life is found in causing me headaches. I’m very lucky to have her.”
Moon Dancer raised her eyebrows at the contradictory statements, but Princess Celestia seemed too lost in some happy memory to take notice.
“Have you heard what happened when I made the mistake of asking her to hold court for me?”
Twilight appeared outside Shining and Cadance’s home in the upper reaches of Canterlot. It wasn’t exactly the cleanest getaway, but if Celestia wanted Magic, she could pry it from Twilight’s cold, dead hooves – or at least wait a few more hours.
At any rate, Twilight’s brother and sister-in-law lived in a large house overlooking the city that might charitably be called a small manor. In the power struggle between their own preferences and Cadance’s parents’ delicate sensibilities, this had been the result. It offered them the retreat they’d wanted from public life to raise a family in private while still remaining an overt display of wealth and fashionable modesty.
With a nod to the guards posted at the gate – one of the many inescapable trappings of belonging to the extended royal family – Twilight entered the grounds. She walked through the garden Cadance maintained as a hobby and made her way to the front door. As she raised her hoof to knock, however, it swung open to reveal an enthusiastic pink blur on the other side. Cadance swept her up into a tight embrace involving both wings and hooves.
Once the more commonplace greetings were out of the way, Cadance released Twilight. Smiling, she said, “And here Shining and I thought you weren’t going to stop by before you left. Spike told us you were heading out of town until the solstice.”
“Oh, he has, has he?”
“Go easy on him, Twi. We already scolded him for it. Flurry, too, for pressing.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at Cadance and stared silently at her.
Unmoved, Twilight made no response.
Already cracking, Cadance amended her testimony to, “A little bit.”
Twilight remained unconvinced.
“Okay, barely at all,” Cadance finally confessed. “But we’re family. And royalty. And you don’t exactly set the best example for him yourself. How much classified information do you leave sitting around your tower?”
In her victory, Twilight allowed that as a fair point. “Relax, Cadance,” she said. “I’m not mad. I planned to tell you anyway, but–” Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted her prey spying on her from behind a hedge. “One moment, please. I need to remind the foals of the importance of information control.”
Twilight jerked her head toward Spike and Flurry, her gaze falling right on them. They froze in place, and she used all of her years of motherly experience to silently convey that they were in trouble.
The pair fled in a panicked haste.
With a sigh, Cadance said, “I’ll meet you in the conservatory when you’re done. Please don’t tear up my garden.”
“You did ask me to go easy on them,” Twilight said, stretching and cracking her joints. After her miserable journey through the Everfree, she was going to enjoy moving again as magic intended. “Wanna bet how long they’ll last?”
“However long you intend to play with them.”
Twilight’s smile turned predatory. “You know me too well.”
And with that, Twilight leapt into pursuit.
“Run!” Flurry whispered. “Run! Run! Run!”
Intellectually, Spike saw no point in trying to flee or hide from his mother when their capture was inevitable, but that wasn’t the part of his head he was listening to right now. Using their small size to their advantage, they cut through the hedges, ducking and weaving through narrow openings Twilight couldn’t easily follow through. They kept away from wide open spaces that would allow her to teleport on top of them, and surprisingly, they hadn’t seen a trace of her on their tail. Perhaps she’d decided not to pursue them.
But then they heard the characteristic crackle of a magical discharge. That only happened when a unicorn put far too much power into a spell, and by how loud it sounded, there was only one unicorn around with that much magic to burn on a whim.
They were so doomed.
“Come on!” Flurry said. She grabbed Spike’s arm with one of her own and pulled him back into a sprint. “We’ll lose her at the drop off. She can’t fly.”
Spike opened his mouth to correct that misconception but snapped it shut when he saw a lavender blur appear from around a corner in the distance. It bounced off a magical shield, redirecting its momentum in their general direction.
They were so doomed, but he hardly had a better idea.
Together, they moved forward in stealth but haste while Twilight searched every possible hiding spot behind them. The longer she spent at it, the more she zeroed in on the trail they’d left.
All they had left was one last sprint to the cliffside. Spike eyed the open field warily.
“She’s going to catch us if we try to make it.”
“Just go,” Flurry insisted. “As fast as you can. Jump, and I’ll catch you. I promise.”
It was a bold plan. Perhaps too bold. But what was the worst that could happen? Even if Flurry didn’t catch him, Spike would be fine. It was only a few stories down, and Dragons were tough.
“Right… On the count of three, then.” Spike put one foot forward, ready to dash, as Flurry prepared to take flight. “One. Two. Three!”
Without looking back, they burst forward. Spike ran for the edge, cursing his short, stubby legs. Flurry flew up, preparing to gain speed with a sharp dive. Much to his surprise, he managed to make it over the cliff without being snagged with telekinesis or otherwise detained. Flurry caught him as promised only a second into his fall, and they were off into the skies above Canterlot.
Spike twisted his head to look behind them. Sure enough, Twilight leapt off the cliff much as he had only with far more speed and height. At the apex of her arc, large butterfly wings sprouted from her back and sustained her flight.
“Uh, Flurry, we have a problem.”
The moment Flurry turned to look, she muttered, “Ponyfeathers.” With some careful aerial acrobatics, she managed to spin Spike around without dropping him. “Aim for the wings, fire lizard!”
Spike snorted. It wasn’t the worst idea he’d ever heard, but hocking fireballs mid-flight wasn’t exactly something he had practice at. Still, he could try. He built up some flame.
And then all three of them were back on the ground just outside Flurry’s home. Twilight glared down at him, wings banished, and commanded, “Swallow it.”
Spike did as ordered.
“There is a time and a place for that sort of game,” Twilight continued, “and just above a densely populated city is not one of them without extenuating circumstances. Understood?”
When Twilight’s gaze shifted to Flurry, she nodded too.
“Good.” Her expression softening, Twilight added, “But you had the right idea. My wings were held together with water and magic. Dragonfire would have evaporated the former and burned away the latter. Now then” – her eyes narrowed on Spike once more, not angrily, just with disappointment – “how much did you spill about where I’ll be and what I’ll be doing?”
Yep, busted. As there was no avoiding it, Spike admitted, “Just the basics.” He didn’t really know the details, although he could probably give a good guess.
“And you, Princess?”
Flurry winced at the title as much as the disappointed tone.
“Cadance mentioned some prying.”
“I guess…” Flurry looked away and rubbed a hoof along its opposite arm.
“Then you both know what you did wrong, yes?”
“Yes, Mom,” Spike said in time with Flurry’s, “Yes, Aunt Twilight.”
Bending at the knees to be at eye level, Twilight asked, “Then I can trust you both to keep what information you do have to yourselves?”
Spike nodded. He wouldn’t have told anypony else but family anyway.
Beside him, Flurry promised to keep silent.
“Wonderful. I really didn’t want to erase your memories or bind your tongues.”
Spike rolled his eyes even as Flurry emitted a high-pitched eep he wasn’t sure ponies could even hear. Twilight could do that, but he knew she wouldn’t on family.
“Now run along, you two. I need to speak with Cadance. Spike, I plan to leave you under her supervision while I’m gone. Be good for her, okay?”
Once he agreed, Twilight pulled Spike in for a short hug goodbye. When they parted, she went inside the house and left them to their own devices, surprisingly without any further punishment than a light scolding. She must really be distracted or pressed for time.
Cadance sat waiting in her home’s conservatory with tea and snacks for two laid out on the table. Here she grew fruits, flowers, and berries which refused to grow outside in the often chilly Canterlot climate. It wasn’t much, but the hobby gave her some peace of mind away from the stress of politics, motherhood, and deadlines.
“Well,” Twilight began as she finally reappeared, “that should keep those two quiet for the next two moons.”
Cadance eyed Twilight suspiciously. “What did you do?”
“Nothing much. Danger. Excitement. A heart-pounding chase. When I caught them, I just performed that awful I’m not angry, just disappointed routine Celestia used to pull on me.”
“Oof. You really pulled no punches.”
Twilight laughed as she sat down at her designated spot. “Where’s Shining?” she asked.
“He stepped out a little bit ago. Bad timing, I’m afraid.”
“Oh well.” Upon taking a sip of her tea, as Cadance had expected, Twilight’s eyes widened in surprised delight. She then uttered only one word. “How?”
“The secret, as it turns out, is a careful infusion of pegasus magic into the brewing process. Aunt Celestia taught it to me a few days ago.”
Cadance wasn’t sure what reaction she expected, but it wasn’t the dark frown and narrowed eyes that came over her sister’s face. “Twilight? What is it?”
“It’s nothing. Just an old mare being silly.” Twilight forcibly ended the conversation by asking, “So how’s the novel shaping up?”
Although curious, Cadance let the matter of Celestia’s secret tea recipe go and answered the question. “Not well. I’ve not had the time to write lately, although your mother and I have been bouncing ideas off each other.” It was decidedly strange having a supportive mother figure in her life. To be perfectly frank, she would have been fine merely with one who wasn’t ashamed of having a pegasus in the family via some strange biological quirk, but so much the better. “That reminds me. I was supposed to invite you to a family dinner, but if you plan to be gone until the solstice, I suppose that plan is bust.”
Cadance waved the apology off. “I understand. You’re busy saving Equestria.” As she bit into a teacake, her eyes wandered up to something she’d been meaning to ask about. “Nice crown, by the way. Any special meaning?” One in particular stood out. Did Auntie finally bring you into the family officially?
“Sort of. It’s a magical artifact. Part of a set of six. They, uh…” Twilight let out a resigned sigh. “They run off of the power of friendship.”
“Pull the other one.”
Twilight assured Cadance that it was true. She then went on to explain the current crisis facing not just Equestria but potentially the entire world. She painted an optimistic picture, her ego out in full force, but Cadance doubted she actually believed even half of what she said. No doubt that was Celestia’s influence at work. Even when things were at their worst, a princess must remain strong for her ponies.
Still, Twilight needed encouragement and support far more than fatalistic doom and gloom, so Cadance wished her luck in her quest. “Let me know if you need any help. I’ll drop everything and come right away.”
“Noted. I was actually hoping you would watch Spike for me again.”
“Of course.” It was no trouble at all, and having a playmate around the house for Flurry never hurt. “Anything else?”
There was. Twilight’s hesitation gave it away, a glimpse beneath the veneer of confidence and invincibility. Her arms shifted slightly, and Cadance would bet she’d taken to stroking her tail with her hooves beneath the table. It was an old nervous tic she’d never been able to entirely rid herself of as much as she’d tried. It took no more prompting than a little pregnant silence to get her to speak.
“If anything happens to me, Spike will need somewhere to go. Nothing will, naturally, but if something does, you and Shining will take him in, won’t you?”
“Oh, Twilight, of course we would. Just like we know you would Flurry.”
“Good. Good.” Strength returned to Twilight’s voice. “Thank you, Cadance. I don’t know how I ever would have managed without you all these years.”
“But that would just–” A look of realization dawned on Twilight, and she fell into a fit of laughter. “I think you meant binary fission.”
Cadance shrugged. Parthenogenesis sounded better, but Twilight was probably right. She knew enough about the sciences to be scientifically literate but hadn’t ever had the passion to pursue her own studies much further.
Regardless, as far as Cadance was concerned, Spike was as much her responsibility as Twilight’s. She’d been the only pony supportive of her beloved little sister’s desire to adopt him at the time and had promised herself to watch over them. Parenthood was hard enough, after all, without flying solo and all the other baggage Twilight brought into it with her.
As she finally recovered, Twilight said, “I suppose I could look into a duplication spell, but I’m not sure if the world is ready for two of me.”
“Hmm, perhaps so. Your fights might level the city.”
“That’s…probably true.” Whatever strange thought had popped into Twilight’s mind was banished just as quickly as it came. She downed the last of her drink and stood. “I should get going. Thank you for tea. Give Shining my regards.”
With a nod, Cadance rose as well and walked Twilight out. It was a symbolic gesture more than anything, a few last moments for conversation between family before duty called once more. Twilight teleported away just a little before she passed through the front gates and fully left the wards that protected the grounds. If there were any question that she’d wanted to linger, that would have shattered all doubts.
Cadance heaved a slight sigh on the walk back to the house now that she was alone. “Nightmare Moon, eh?”
Eternal night didn’t worry her. Even if the worst should come to pass, her family was well equipped to survive without the sun. Between her and Shining, they could sustain a habitable bubble of paradise in a dying world with a little help from the earth ponies on staff. It wouldn’t be the life they were used to, but they would have each other, and that would be enough.
No, what worried her was the mare who’d just left to throw herself into more danger than ever before. “Be careful, Twi.”
Sandy beaches, the warm sun, the sound of waves, a cool drink, and a beautiful mare who loved him – all these things did a proper holiday make. Or at least Espionage thought it did. He’d lived in Equestria for years now, fully and happily immersed in pony culture to the point where he’d even taken a pony name, but the little things did sometimes still trip him up. As this was his first experience with anything of the sort, he felt he’d be forgiven if he’d misunderstood what a holiday was.
And then came a flash of red and purple in the distance.
Espionage raised a hoof to push his sunglasses up to get a better look. Sure enough, that ominous light flared again, only closer this time.
“If I pretend I didn’t see her, she’ll go away.”
Leaning back into his lounge chair, eyes closed, Espionage basked in the sun. Nothing but rest and relaxation lay in wait in his near future.
“I wonder what’s keeping Tavi?”
He’d only been gone for three days. This was his honeymoon!
“Maybe I should head back inside to find her.”
A distressingly large flux of magic above caught Espionage’s attention. It hardly needed any skill or focus to identify the tracking spell forming. This close, there would be no evading it.
And then she was there in front of him in a shower of purple and red sparkles. Espionage wasn’t sure what was up with that, but there was no doubt that it was the archmage herself who’d come to ruin his day. After a few moments, he noticed the new addition to her apparel.
Oh, by all the mothers, she’s wearing a crown now. “Uh, good afternoon, Your Excellency. What brings you here?” Please nothing important. Please nothing important.
“We have an existential crisis brewing. I need the hive’s assistance.”
Ponyfeathers! Hope dying, Espionage said, “All right. Let me just leave a note for Tavi that you’ll be borrowing me for a few hours.”
The archmage held up a hoof, silently shooting down that idea. “This isn’t going to be a short job, Esp.”
“Your Excellency, please, I just got married. I’ve never asked for time off before.”
“Evil waits for no one. If you want someone to blame, blame your queen for not appointing a substitute ambassador.”
Like that would ever happen. Everyling knew he had the job only because the queen despised him and wanted him out of her sight. It was only the protection of the Equestrian crown that had stayed her wrath.
“Look, I get it. The work we do is invasive to our personal lives,” the archmage said in an unusual display of empathy. Whatever crisis loomed really must be big. “But this is nonnegotiable. Reschedule. Someone wearing a crown will reimburse you for the trouble.”
Espionage, unsure of where the urge came from, sarcastically asked, “Like you?”
The archmage snorted, radiating a strange mixture of amusement, longing, and loathing. “Not likely,” she replied. “Go pack. Find Octavia.” Pulling out a watch from nowhere, she checked the time. “I’ll meet you two in your hotel’s lobby at the top of the hour to bring you back to the mainland.”
And with that, Espionage was alone again. The archmage vanished, whisked away in one of her teleports.
Espionage sighed in resignation. He packed up what he’d brought with him and wished the beach farewell. Hopefully Tavi wouldn’t be too mad about ending their holiday early.