Chapter Twenty One - The Phantom Thief Strikes!
The Alicorn Amulet landed on the table with a heavy thud. She spared it just enough attention to attach a note reading, ‘Eat this. Do not wear.’ Her son would know what to do when he returned home.
In her room upstairs, she stumbled over to her bed. There she curled up into a ball with her tail tucked between her legs and a vacant look in her eyes. She couldn’t find it in herself to move, but somehow she still shook.
She’d almost died. She had died by some definitions. If she hadn’t had a polymorph spell as a buffer to reconstitute her body when it ran out of power–
No, those were bad thoughts. In the moment, she’d pushed everything down and pressed on. Too many ponies would have been hurt had she not. But now that she was alone to process everything, she realized something that should have been obvious all along.
She didn’t want to die.
She didn’t want to die today.
She didn’t want to die three or four centuries from now.
She didn’t want to die ever.
There had to be a way.
As the night wore on and they neared the end of another movie, Cadance found herself trapped in the middle of a potentially explosive situation. On her left sat Celestia. On her right, Sunset.
The former appeared as serene as ever to the uninitiated, but Cadance had spent too much time around Celestia not to notice the intense scrutiny and the growing irritation playing out across her face and in her voice during her polite interrogation. Who was this ghost from Twilight’s past to intrude upon the sacred bond of mentor and protégé without so much as a by your leave?
The latter proudly held the title for ‘most able to frustrate Celestia’ in both meanings of the word. Sunset had made an art of it, honing her skill to unheard of heights in those years before her abrupt departure. She spun the tale of Eventide, an old sorceress nopony had ever heard of who knew too much about everything but not enough about any one topic to not have an excuse for the knowledge. And none of those excuses were the obvious, simple explanation: because Twilight told her.
It was the seventies all over again, the only difference being those two weren’t screaming at each other. Even undercover, Sunset couldn’t resist baiting Celestia.
This time, however, Cadance wasn’t a small filly afraid to stand between two giants. She might not know why they always acted like this, but she could deescalate things before the inevitable shouting started. It was time to change the subject, and she had the perfect idea. “Auntie,” she began, and the pointless conversation stopped as both Celestia and Sunset turned their attention onto her. “I spoke with Twilight earlier, and she told me the most remarkable thing about my heritage. Empress is such a lovely title, isn’t it?”
Celestia blinked, and her head tilted to the side ever so slightly. “Your parents never – no, of course not. Forgive me, Cadance, but it never occurred to me that somepony else would need to inform you.” She paused a moment, her lips pressing into a thin line, before admitting, “Other matters have preoccupied my attention as of late.”
Most ponies didn’t think two or three decades counted as a short amount of time. Even so, Cadance gave her forgiveness for the truly very minor neglect easily enough. Then to banish the specter of Luna from Celestia’s mind, she teased, “After all, we have very different definitions of ‘as of late’, do we not?”
Celestia offered a yet apologetic smile. “What would you like to know?”
“Oh, anything, really.” Cadance hummed in feigned thought. “You’ve been to the Crystal Empire, I assume?” Of course, Celestia had. She’d probably been there at its founding as she had at its fall. “Eventide, any ideas?”
Naturally, Sunset had caught on to Cadance’s attempt to play peacemaker. It was obvious in the knowing smirk she flashed. Even so, she happily took advantage of the opportunity. “I’ve come across some mentions of the empire in my studies. There were some vague references to something called the Crystal Heart. Supposedly, it was the source of the empire’s power, but it was lost. Not destroyed, I suspect, but stolen. Perhaps it would be best to start there? What it is. What it’s used for. Any traditions surrounding it, such as the Crystalling Faire.”
Politely, Celestia said, “Your sources conflated the Crystal Faire and the Crystalling ceremony, two very different events albeit with similar purposes.”
Sunset nodded and accepted the correction to a mistake she’d obviously only made in order to not seem too knowledgeable. “Any information which might lead to its recovery,” she continued, “I think would beneficial for the future empress to hear.”
Oh dear. “This isn’t going to lead to a generations long family quest, is it?” Cadance knew how these sorts of things went.
The tired sigh Celestia let out somewhat belied the answer she gave. “It already has. The first of your line after the empire’s fall searched for longer than I care to recall. In the end, they found nothing but heartache. Were I to guess, the Crystal Heart is likely hidden somewhere in the capital, not somewhere you can currently access.”
“But when it returns?” Cadance pressed on Sunset’s behalf. “Surely the empire needs such an important artifact. Tell me everything you know.”
Celestia spared a glance at Sunset who sat listening with an air of casual interest. “As you wish,” she said. “Perhaps we should begin with the empire’s founding? I think you may see a reflection of your own struggles in its first empress.”
That actually sounded very interesting, and from the look Sunset wore, she’d not heard this story either. As such, Cadance gave the nod.
“It was only the fourth century of what would become known as the Harmonic Era. Civilization had gotten back onto its hooves after Discord’s reign. We survived. We learned. We expanded. Indeed, Equestria’s borders reached nearly to what you know them as today, which brought us into contact with all of our neighbors including the crystal ponies. They existed as a loosely connected collection of tribes on the edge of the Sea of Snow, as the Frozen North was known then. Luna and I intended to slowly integrate them into pony civilization, but events played out beyond our ability to predict.
“As the generations wore on, the crystal tribes formed into a coalition of independent city-states. They were…persistent in asserting their sovereignty.” With no attempt to hide her exasperation, Celestia added, “Both to Equestria and to each other,” and reached for the plate of cake she’d neglected during her earlier interrogation of Sunset.
Speaking of whom, Cadance sent Sunset a glare while Celestia was distracted. They would not be pursuing that line of inquiry just to make Celestia relive a part of history that made her reach for comfort food. Sunset silently pleaded innocent, but Cadance knew perfectly well she’d been on the verge of making her move.
“Regardless,” Celestia continued, unaware of the exchange that had just taken place, “life proceeded as it ever did. We traded. We warred. We intermarried. One day, in a remarkable fluke of genetics, a crystal unicorn was born.”
Cadance didn’t need the significant look Celestia sent her way to see where this was going.
“Her name was Amore, and she had no trace of crystal magic within her. Her people and mine thought her cursed, born as some hybrid monstrosity. The past, I fear, reflects well on few of us who lived there.” No doubt Celestia spoke from personal experience, being an alicorn, and possibly on both sides of the divide. “From what little she ever told me of it, her foalhood left much to be desired.
“At some point, she learned to harness her unicorn magic and set out into the Sea of Snow. She hoped to find the fabled ancestral homeland of the crystal ponies. There, with the remains of her people’s collective wisdom at hoof, she hoped to discover the answer to every question she’d ever had about herself. Instead, she found the Crystal Heart.”
Just before midnight in Princess Celestia’s study, a faint stirring of magic inside an envelope slowly grew in strength.
The clock ticked ever closer to the appointed hour within Princess Celestia’s royal apartment, one of the most secure sections of the entire castle. The Royal Guard, every single pony on duty they could spare and some more besides, stood ready to leap into action throughout the entire wing. Those stationed further out in the castle had been similarly briefed and prepared for action. Minutes turned into moments, and everypony present no doubt internally counted down the last few seconds. Shining certainly did.
It was at times like these that Shining wished he had more than a passing familiarity with dimensional magic.
According to his sister, stealing something from a properly protected bag of holding was nightmarishly difficult without first knocking out its caster, and he was no pushover.
This sort of theft had just never been on his radar before today.
He briefly checked one last time that the shields he’d surrounded Princess Celestia’s crown with remained at full strength.
This was it. He knew the thief was already here as surely as he knew she would make her move at exactly the time she’d specified.
The clock struck midnight. The first of its chimes rang out, a blaring siren in the otherwise utterly silent room.
And then a voice spoke. “Well, well, Captain.” It came from nowhere and everywhere at once, its source indiscernible, but there could be no doubt of its owner. It was at once silky, sophisticated, sultry, and suggestively svelte. By all eyewitness accounts, it could only belong to Eclipse. “I honestly expected your sister at least. She does seem like a mare who enjoys a, shall we say, magical challenge.”
Shining ignored the thief and directed the search for her, barking what few orders he must quickly and efficiently. They were trained for this. It might be a crown they were defending instead of the crown, but the same principles applied: identify the threat, locate the threat, and neutralize the threat. He’d not drop his guard against an opponent of her caliber.
“Oh well.” The voice coalesced from behind where the crown sat!
Shining spun, horn already building with power, and fired at the first and only target to enter his field of view.
It did no good. Eclipse, perched atop the shields protecting Princess Celestia’s crown, tilted her neck with a casual air. The spellbolt missed her by a hair’s breadth.
Slower on the draw, largely due to having to coordinate with one another, the first wave of fire came from the guard. The unicorns’ spells formed the core of the attack, aiming to incapacitate. The pegasi unleashed a barrage of lightning to close the net. The earth ponies stood ready to physically subdue the thief if she somehow made it past all that still standing. It was, in most cases, beyond overkill to capture a single pony.
Eclipse did not stand idle. She dodged and weaved with a nimble grace through the assault in a literally impossible display. There physically wasn’t room for her to do that. When the assault ceased, the room stood stunned.
Oh, horseapples! That little show might have fooled everypony else, but Shining knew how to identify more magics than most anypony alive thanks to his sister’s obsessive studies. He’d drastically underestimated Eclipse. They were dealing with a full-blown sorceress! No wonder no local police force could catch her.
In the lull, Shining took a moment to observe the infamous so-called lady thief. Were he a less disciplined pony, he might have found her beauty disarming. The rumors and witness testimonies truly did her no justice. Waves of inky blackness spilled down across a brilliant orange coat with a figure that would make even Cadance take notice. Her smirk sat on a bewitching muzzle, and her blue eyes drew a pony in and captivated them.
There was no way any of it was natural.
True to form, Eclipse had dressed as impeccably as impractically to highlight her shtick. Granted, she wisely favored a feminine suit that tightly hugged her form over a dress, but the cloak was just dead weight and easy to spot. Moreover, she had the hood down to show off her face.
“Do try to keep up.”
As Eclipse said the words, Shining signaled his ponies to fire a second volley. They couldn’t catch her, not here. Neither he nor anypony else present had the prerequisite knowledge. But they could exhaust her and buy time while he recruited somepony who did.
In the split second that followed, Eclipse’s hoof reached down through Shining’s shields as though they weren’t even there to grasp Princess Celestia’s crown. This she flung like a Frisbee toward the door as the second wave of spellfire barreled toward her. Nopony being quite prepared for such an audacious move, only a few managed to attempt an interception.
All efforts proved pointless. In a fluid motion, Eclipse swirled her cloak about her, somehow vanishing into it with the cloak disappearing into nothing thereafter. The net meant to capture her did nothing, of course, and the crown proved to be a mere illusion when it passed straight through a pegasus in the air. Unless it wasn’t and she’d managed to pull off an intangibility trick.
Shining followed the illusory crown’s arc to Eclipse, who stood waiting patiently for it at the door. It landed perfectly atop her head around her ears. Forged for a mare twice her height, it was comically oversized, but she left it there. It would be easier to recover it with it so unsecured, but that wasn’t the point, now was it? She was showing off.
“Well, you tried,” Eclipse said with a thoroughly disappointed air about her. With an, “Adieu!” she hurried off on her way out of the castle.
The Royal Guard neither stood stunned nor lost its cool. They moved with a hard-earned efficiency to cut off Eclipse’s escape, but it wouldn’t be enough. This wasn’t something the Royal Guard had the expertise to deal with. This was something they passed on to the EIS or the archmage.
But the corridors were still crawling with guards. Eclipse would have to get through them, and that would take precious time. If Shining acted quickly, he might be able to turn this around.
Before he teleported away to seek aid, Shining informed his lieutenants of the true level of skill their quarry possessed. They were dealing with a dimensional mage.
From the corner of her eye, Moon Dancer noticed Twilight rise to acquire more popcorn from the snack room. Quickly and quietly excusing herself from a conversation she was only peripherally part of, she followed after. She wanted a private word before tonight ended, preferably with enough time left over for Twilight to sit down with Princess Celestia and offer her support or something. In perfect frankness, Moon Dancer had no idea how to help the princess with her despondency as Twilight had asked her.
Once on the other side of the theater’s silencing wards, Moon Dancer increased her pace to a trot. She caught up to Twilight in the side room still filled with desserts on display across multiple counters, some magically chilled to remain frozen until taken and others kept warm. The cake, notably, had vanished rather quickly until there was naught left but crumbs.
Moon Dancer spoke over the sound of fresh popcorn popping. “Hey, can we talk for a minute? It’s important.”
Twilight, as her magic set to refilling her drink while she waited for the popcorn machine to finish, offered a shrug and a simple, “Sure. Is this about the job?”
“Well, kind of. But not exactly.” It wasn’t part of the archmage’s duties, but Twilight had partially recruited Moon Dancer for it. “I’ve been trying to cheer up Princess Celestia, but she’s only getting worse.”
Twilight breathed a soft sigh, her shoulders drooping. “Yeah, I know. So long as you’re not letting her do anything too self-destructive, it’s fine.”
It’s fine? “It’s fine? It’s not fine, Twilight.” How could she say that? “She’s hurting, and feeling guilty, and depressed, and – and I don’t know what to do.”
“Neither do I,” Twilight admitted. Her now filled cup floated over to her, and she took a slow sip. “The root cause of it is guilt. The only pony who can absolve her of it isn’t interested in doing so.” After a pause, she added, “In hindsight, I might have made things worse.”
Moon Dancer took a shot in the dark. “By leaving?”
“No.” Twilight paused, reconsidering. “Well, I mean, that probably hasn’t helped, but I’m juggling as many balls as I can. Regardless, there’s something else.” As the theater was already warded against external magical eavesdropping – a necessity Moon Dancer had seen to herself – Twilight merely cast a scrying spell to forewarn her if anypony was about to walk in on them through the door. “Not a word to anyone of this.”
Without hesitation, Moon Dancer nodded her agreement.
“For the sake of brevity, I’ll omit context. Suffice it to say, it turns out, when Celestia banished her, Luna was only experiencing an extreme emotional breakdown. Nightmare Moon and eternal night are just something she said in anger and rolled with to save face.”
Moon Dancer snapped her gaping mouth shut. That changed everything. “That means she… Oh Celestia, a thousand years of banishment over a tantrum!”
“Eh, not quite,” Twilight said. “There’s no telling how things would have played out. Luna might have done some serious damage to the world before she cooled down. You know how bad my anxiety attacks used to get, right?”
Moon Dancer nodded. She’d witnessed one in the archives when they were fillies. Twilight had thought she wouldn’t finish an assignment in time, and the results hadn’t been pretty. So much magical power in the hooves of somepony experiencing an episode like that never ended well. Curious, however, Moon Dancer asked, “Used to?”
“Ah, yeah. Celestia pounced hard on them. It took…longer than I wanted to get them under control. And there’s magic involved. And I hide my other lingering issues.” Twilight faked a cough and then pushed a faux grin onto her face. “But hey! You have a responsible archmage now who won’t fly into a panic and try to invent time travel or something because she forgot to return a library book. Or some such nonsense like that.”
Eyebrows arched, Moon Dancer wondered if Twilight had actually tried that. It was an awfully specific example.
Twilight ignored the silent question and carried on. “So yeah, think that, but blinding rage instead of anxiety. After hearing both sides of the story, I kind of get what Luna went through. It’s not an excuse, of course, but I get it. She still has anger issues to work out, but given her circumstances and how relatively new psychotherapy is, she’s done remarkably well.”
It took less than a second for Moon Dancer to pick up on the implication. She dared to ask, “Have you been…talking to her?”
An answering, “Mhm,” met the question. Twilight then added, “Luna is dreamwalking. It shouldn’t be possible. The banishment should have sealed her away completely. But she is.”
How was Moon Dancer supposed to react to that information? It was huge, but at the same time, she didn’t see how it affected anything she needed to do either personally or as the archmage regent. But if nothing else, that explained why Captain Armor had launched a massive internal investigation on Twilight’s order. If Princess Luna could communicate with the outside world, she could organize anything from a peaceful protest to a violent coup.
“Anyway,” Twilight continued, paying no mind to Moon Dancer’s shock, “I told Celestia right away. She was happy, of course. Her sister was as well as could be expected. But, well, as you said, a thousand years over a tantrum.” She heaved a sigh before bringing her drink to her mouth to wet her throat. “At any rate, I’m doing what little I can to help Celestia stay positive. Let’s just say I may have introduced a new variable into the equation.”
Moon Dancer gladly shoved aside the enormous revelation Twilight had dropped on her for a simpler puzzle. What new variable had Twilight added? The answer seemed obvious. “Sweetie Belle?”
Twilight offered a small smile but made no further reply.
It took more than a few moments for Moon Dancer to process everything. Their immediate goals and tasks hadn’t changed one bit, but the context had shifted radically. The good news, at least, was that the fate of the world likely wasn’t at stake. She could take solace in that.
Abruptly, Moon Dancer asked, “So what is she like? Princess Luna?”
Apparently, while Moon Dancer had been lost in thought, Twilight’s popcorn had finished popping. She paused in the midst of scooping it into her bowl. “She’s…” Eyes close, she bit her lip and sank deep into thought. The seconds passed until what felt like nearly a minute had elapsed. Only then after considering her answer carefully did she respond. “She’s fun. Intelligent. Friendly and forthright. Fierce in battle. Cultured. Studious. Protective.”
That was a surprisingly glowing review for somepony who wanted to take Princess Celestia away from Twilight.
Twilight paused to visibly weigh if she should continue before ultimately deciding to go ahead. “Temperamental. Sly. Opportunistic. Loyal to a fault.”
Now that was more what Moon Dancer had expected. Twilight mumbled something more about loyalty, but she neither caught it nor had time to ask about it before Twilight’s gaze snapped to the door. “Oh great, he’s here.”
Curious, Moon Dancer moved to poke her head out through the doorway into the corridor. There she just spotted Captain Armor headed for the theater before he turned the corner. Oddly, he was dressed for battle in full armor. What was that about? Twilight only muttered something about getting his just desserts when she asked aloud.
Not long later, Captain Armor entered the snack room. Before he could get a single word out, however, Twilight said, “No. I’m still mad at you. Clean up your own mess.”
Not deterred, Captain Armor said, “Twily, it’s important. I really need your help.”
Twilight, in perfect maturity, stuck her tongue out and teleported away to who knew where. Moon Dancer could tell from the amount of power used that she’d vanished to somewhere in the castle, but she’d certainly not gone back out into the theater.
In turn, Captain Armor swore under his breath.
Not being involved in whatever all that was, Moon Dancer said, “Uh, excuse me, Captain Armor, but might I be able to assist?”
“Can you cast dimensional magics in combat?”
Moon Dancer shook her head and offered an apology for her lack of ability. Casting speed had never been a priority of her studies. As she’d told Twilight, she wasn’t the adventuring type. Another pony did come to mind, however. “You could ask Starlight.”
As soon as the name came out, Captain Armor made a sour face. It certainly wasn’t the first time Moon Dancer had noticed his less than warm feelings for the members of the Evening Guard. She supposed it did make sense. He was law enforcement, and even the cleanest record amongst them would still stain everything it touched. Starlight’s in particular was one of the worst of the lot.
Nonetheless, Moon Dancer carried on with her suggestion. “I’m sure she can do what you need.” She’d seen Starlight engaged in a light spar with Tempest to get back into form after her stay in the hospital. She was good.
“Fine,” Captain Armor grumbled, the resignation clear in his voice. Whatever was going on must be urgent if he’d capitulated so quickly.
With a flux of magic, Twilight reappeared with a thick stack of documents. She tossed them at Captain Armor, who only barely caught them before they scattered. “Here,” she said. “I checked the security logs from the castle wards for you. Judging by the blatant doctoring, somepony is going to be in trouble once this is over. Good luck.”
Moon Dancer eyed the pile of paper warily as Twilight all but stomped off back out into the theater with her popcorn in tow floating alongside her. Falsely gaining access to any part of the castle wards should be impossible, let alone the heart of them where they recorded any interactions they had with the castle residents. Then again, if dimensional magic were involved, a pony might be able to slip past any protections with some careful application of spatial warping. It would be beyond difficult, but a sufficiently skilled sorceress could pull it off.
Tomorrow at the inevitable after action report, Moon Dancer would have to recommend adding a full dimensional anchor over the entire castle. It would be massively inconvenient for Princess Celestia, Twilight, and a few others who regularly made use of such conveniences as subspace storage and teleportation, but it would plug that sort of security hole. They could decide if it was worth the cost on their own.
Then again, knowing those two, they probably already had years ago.
Captain Armor cleared his throat, startling Moon Dancer out of her thoughts.
“Er, sorry. Did you still need something?”
“Do you know where Starlight Glimmer is right now?”
“Oh, I think she’s in the archives.” Most of the Evening Guard was out and about, but Starlight and Tempest were stuck in the castle until the former’s medically mandated holiday ended. It was just as well, really. Having those two around made Moon Dancer’s life so much easier. They knew exactly where everything and everypony was as well as who to call upon for any task, which vastly sped up the response time to every major magical emergency in Equestria during her regency. “If not, check the hospital wing.”
Captain Armor uttered a gruff, “Thanks,” before teleporting away.
Right, well…I guess that’s that. Left with little clue as to what the emergency was, Moon Dancer briefly hesitated to rejoin the others in the theater. She wanted to help, but it sounded like a combat situation. If so, she’d just get in the way. As such, she opted to go back to the movie and found a seat beside Twilight at the end of a semicircle consisting of them, Princess Cadance, Princess Celestia, and Eventide. Somehow, the latter two had gotten into a debate about wild weather of all things which had grown a little too heated to be entirely friendly.
It only took moments to find Starlight Glimmer in the archives. All Shining had to do was head straight to the most dangerous and easily misused books on magic outside of the restricted section. For whatever reason Twilight allowed those scoundrels of hers the run of the castle, she at least retained the good sense to bar their entry there without explicit permission from herself.
Shining slammed his forehooves on the table Starlight Glimmer was reading at, although he moderated his force to something more appropriate to a library, so the effect was somewhat ruined. The inkwell didn’t spill. Her stack of books didn’t fall over. Her quill didn’t even smear ink across her notes.
Starlight Glimmer looked up from her work with a curious arch to her brow. She wore a distinctly amused look about her, an unfortunate consequence of Shining’s appropriately subdued approach. She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.
“The crown requires your immediate assistance. We’re to set a thief to catch a thief.”
“I was more of an evil overlord,” Starlight Glimmer replied with far too much light-hearted sarcasm. The smile she wore at her own poor attempt at humor fell under Shining’s utterly unamused glare. “Right,” she muttered as she closed her books and corked her inkwell. “I’m supposed to take it easy on my horn, doctor’s orders, but I’ll do what I can. What’s the situation?”
“Eclipse is in the castle.”
Eyes wide, Starlight Glimmer asked, “The Eclipse?”
Shining nodded. “We have at best a couple minutes before she escapes. She’s a dimensional mage, and she’s tampered with the castle wards in an unknown manner. Ready?”
“No. One moment.”
Without a word more, Starlight Glimmer teleported away. Why Twilight had given her permission for that, he would never know, but it worked to their advantage here considering what they were up against. She returned perhaps fifteen seconds later with another one of the louses in tow.
Fantastic. Shining looked from Tempest Shadow to Starlight Glimmer. “Ready now?”
Nodding, Starlight Glimmer replied, “Lead the way, Captain.”
Why does it always come to this?
Despite her very best efforts, Sunset and Celestia had managed to get into an argument over nothing. Cadance didn’t understand it. Celestia just didn’t do that, not with anypony except Sunset. She could be stern when somepony did wrong. She could be intimidating at the negotiation table. She could be vicious in the defense of those she loved. But this petty, prickly peevishness only ever came out around Sunset.
On the other hoof, Sunset…was Sunset.
“For the last time, who cares! Wild weather follows a predictable pattern if we would just study it. I can write down all the equations that govern it right now.” Just to prove her point, Sunset cast an illusion filled with more mathematical symbols which Cadance didn’t recognize than those she did.
Celestia remained unmoved and unimpressed.
In turn, Sunset pointed to each equation as she listed them off. “The ideal gas law. The equations of motion. The continuity equation. Conservation of mass. The first law of thermodynamics. That’s it.”
“Weather is more complex than what you have here,” Celestia countered, her own magic adding more terms to the equations. “You cannot use the simplified forms and expect accurate predictions further in advance than mere seconds. The boundary conditions rarely behave nicely, and the input into the system due to magical effects is nontrivial.”
Sunset no more backed down than Celestia had. “Obviously,” she replied, the eye roll clear in her voice if one missed it on her face. “That’s why I said we have to study it so we can fill in these terms. The exact integration is painful, if not impossible, but we only need approximate results for, say, a week in advance. There are plenty of satisfactory numerical methods to do that. Then repeat with new data the next day. We could save billions in weather management if we slightly loosened our hold on our environment.”
“A pleasant thought,” Celestia replied dismissively. “But weather prediction is not the same as weather scheduling. Equestria implemented a fully managed weather system for a reason.”
“It would be a close enough approximation that the overwhelming majority of ponies wouldn’t notice the difference,” Sunset protested. “The average pony has no say in the day-to-day weather anyway.”
“And for good cause! Sunny summer skies every day? An endless breezy autumn morning? Pleasantly rainy moons in spring? A fresh blanket of snow throughout winter? Why even have seasons? The average pony has little regard for the common good.”
“Only through lack of education.”
Celestia snorted, her rare cynical side surfacing. “If only I could educate my little ponies on every subject. Not everypony cares to have an informed opinion about everything.” That was definitely a verbal thrust at how ‘Eventide’ knew too much.
Sunset, of course, casually sidestepped explaining herself. “That doesn’t refute my point. It may be bad optics to guide the weather instead of crafting it, but properly done, the majority of ponies won’t actually notice the difference.”
“Having lived through centuries of wild weather, I think you vastly underestimate how volatile it can be. Moreover, this would put tens or even hundreds of thousands of pegasi out of work.”
That last part was certainly true, but Sunset had an equally valid point. “Who cares? They’ll find new jobs. Equestria has the world’s healthiest economy by far. There’s a place for everypony somewhere. Besides, how many of them actually want to be in the weather industry and how many have no choice? For many pegasi, weather is all they know. It’s so institutionalized in our society, it probably sucks up opportunities elsewhere for them.”
Cadance buried her head in her hooves with a groan. That was one of her own arguments for changing pegasus education and their cultural perception. Those two were so consumed with each other that they didn’t even notice her reaction. She needed to find a way to fix this, but they weren’t listening to anypony at this point.
A hoof on her shoulder caught Cadance’s attention. She turned her head and followed it back to Twilight.
Despite her sympathetic look, Twilight leaned closer and quietly said, “Just let them go at it. I doubt it’s Eventide’s intention, but it’s good for Celestia to have a little fire in her blood right now, don’t you think?”
Auntie has seemed a little down lately with the whole Nightmare Moon situation. Even so, Cadance didn’t think it was healthy to cheer her up like this even in the short-term. Maybe, though, it would turn out all right in the end.
It was the first time Flash felt the odd tugging sensation on a part of him he wasn’t able to identify, and it vanished before he had time to explore it. It took him far longer than it should have to figure out what it meant, but once he did, he knew he was needed elsewhere.
Flash tossed aside his cards and scanned the room for something he could use as a weapon. There wasn’t much, seeing as he was playing poker in his off duty friend’s apartment, but eventually his eyes landed on a spear half-buried beneath a pile of blankets. He promptly borrowed it without permission, ignoring the questions his friends in the guard sent his way, and once ready, apologized for his abrupt departure from their poker night.
Concentrating on the pull from Loyalty, its power teleported Flash from downtown Canterlot to where he was needed most. He quickly took in his surroundings and placed himself somewhere in the middle of Canterlot Castle. A few moments longer gave him all the time he needed to recognize the corridor by the paintings on the wall. He was on the ground floor not far from the kitchens.
Unfortunately, that was all the time Flash had before the friend he’d come to support tackled him out of the center of the corridor. Shielded Strike pushed him flat against the wall and then pinned him there. “Your mother’s best recipe?”
“Name it,” Strike pressed.
Once Flash had properly processed the question, only one answer came to mind. “Triple chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.” They were the best, and he never shared them with anypony when his mother sent them.
Strike freed Flash from the hold pinning him to the wall.
Not mincing words, Strike quickly summarized the situation. “We’re pursuing Eclipse. The thief. Disguises. Misdirection. Dimensional magic. We run distraction. Nonlethal only. Do not escalate. Tempest, Starlight, and the captain are the primary combatants. Keep your cool when she levitates you your flank on a silver platter.”
Flash swallowed but gripped his borrowed spear tighter. Somepony who could keep up with those three with the entire Royal Guard harassing her the entire time could probably give the archmage herself a run for her money. Only recalling that Eclipse had never hurt somepony in her heists kept him from quaking at the thought of facing her.
With no more than a shared resolute nod, Strike took to the air and flew through the corridors at a careful but fast pace. Flash followed behind him, and it wasn’t hard to figure out where they needed to go. Eclipse had only just passed through, and the chaos of panicked civilians and the occasional recovering guard left an obvious trail in her wake.
If that weren’t enough, the corridors were littered with random spells that, while they had missed their mark, had struck something nonetheless and played out their intended effects. More than a few ponies peacefully slept on their hooves, unattended shields lingered in the air, and Flash even spotted a vase covered in magical chains. The few oddities he actually noticed as he flew past probably paled in comparison to the number he missed due to his lack of a horn. Most magic wasn’t that flashy.
Then the pair caught up with both the guard still standing and the battle in their midst. Flash had witnessed the archmage turn back the Griffon Kingdom in an overwhelming display of magic. He’d gotten a front row seat to the long slog of a fight she’d had with Trixie. This was like nothing he’d ever seen before.
Captain Armor stood on defense, playing to his strengths. He turned aside whatever spells Eventide threw their way with his shields or teleported the core group of combatants to safety. This was the first time Flash had ever seen the captain fight all-out, and now he understood how somepony so young had risen through the ranks so quickly.
Starlight Glimmer, well, Flash wasn’t sure what she was doing. Her horn glowed a ceaseless, brilliant cyan, however, so he supposed she was doing something important. The strain of whatever it was certainly showed on her face. She might even be hurting herself in the process.
Tempest Shadow was on offense, slinging spells meant to confine and constrain in her attempt to subdue Eventide, which struck him as odd. The Evening Guard and the Royal Guard had few professional interactions, but Flash could have sworn her fighting style favored close-quarters combat via melee spellcasting and mixed martial arts.
It didn’t take long, however, to see why Tempest Shadow wasn’t in close with Eventide. Flash could see it, but he didn’t understand it. His brain required many long seconds for it to even begin to parse what his eyes insisted was happening despite Strike having explicitly informed him already.
Space warped around Eclipse as she danced through the corridors with a confident flair and a smirk on her face while wearing Princess Celestia’s crown of all things upon her head. Physical obstacles proved no hindrance. Attacks that should have struck true instead bent around her and, more often than not in the case of spells and projectiles, went flying off toward a member of the guard. Captain Armor managed to intercept most of them. Some he didn’t. Every time a guard got back to their hooves, another fell victim to friendly fire.
On occasion, a spell from Tempest Shadow would bypass Eclipse’s warping of reality. That, Flash assumed, must have been Starlight Glimmer’s task. The guard was meant to divide Eclipse’s attention. Those two were the true threat.
But it was no good. Eclipse knew more than just dimensional magic. Granted, Flash had no idea what, but she nonetheless blocked, countered, or dodged anything she didn’t redirect.
How could somepony so talented choose a life of mere thievery?
The worst part, Flash realized, was that if she wanted, Eclipse could have escaped already. She was humoring them, playing with them, humiliating them. He could see it in Captain Armor’s scowl.
“What’s the plan?” Flash asked. He got the general gist of it just from watching the battle unfold, but good coordination with everypony else lay in the details.
Strike’s irritation shined through in the glare he directed at Eclipse and the gruffness of his voice. “Wait in line. Get our flanks kicked. Get up. Repeat.” He nodded toward where they should join the ranks above an earth pony detachment. As they moved into position, he added one last instruction. “Hope the captain’s group brings her down before she leaves.”
A snicker escaped Flash. What a plan. But it was better than nothing, even if it depended on Eclipse’s arrogance giving them a chance to capture her. Not that he blamed the captain. They obviously needed Twilight present to have a fair fight.
Flash and Strike joined the rest of their on duty – and not disabled – squad. Strike gave some password and vouched for Flash’s identity. Nopony asked why he was here and barely equipped for battle. Nopony cared. It just didn’t matter right now.
When the time came, they moved as one. Flash built up an electric charge just large enough to incapacitate without causing serious harm. He held his spear, designed specifically for pegasus use, firmly in his hooves and struck, quick and true. The lightning held in him surged through the weapon and unleashed with a great crackle through the tip.
As he should have expected and would from this moment on, Flash’s rigid spear curved away from Eclipse. The shaft remained straight in its own reference plane, no doubt, but the altered space bent it back onto him whereupon, naturally, the lightning struck him instead. The resulting spasm of his muscles, even resistant as pegasi were to such things, made him fall to the floor and drop his spear in a twitching heap.
As he fell, however, Flash saw a brief change in Eclipse’s expression. Her eyes snapped momentarily to his chest, or rather to what lay against it.
I think she recognized Loyalty.
Later, Flash would realize that was an important clue to her real identity. There were few ponies with her level of magical talent and even fewer who knew about the Elements of Harmony. That put her on a very, very short list the captain might be able to narrow down even further.
For now, however, Flash needed to get his legs to stop twitching.
“And just what do you think the Crystal Empress is going to do in the Frozen North, hmm? The Crystal Heart will stabilize the region’s magic, but it won’t manage the weather. Without a massive pegasi population, the best they can manage is to combat the dangerous conditions on the borders of their hinterland.”
“Equestria will be perfectly willing to lend a helping hoof.”
Oh, that was a poor argument to make. With most anypony else, Celestia would have scored a major point, one which would have led into an economics discussion, but this would backfire on her hard even if Sunset didn’t know who was responsible for the empire’s disappearance in the first place.
“And how,” Sunset began derisively, “do you expect the empire to pay for your generosity?”
Were she more clearheaded, Celestia probably would have adapted her argument appropriately to her opponent’s worldview. Instead, she chose perhaps the worst – if most honest – response. “I hold no such expectations. We would do it for free as a gesture of goodwill toward those in need.”
“And as an apology, I imagine?”
And there it was. Celestia flinched ever so slightly. “Yes. And as an apology.”
“Surely not indefinitely?” Before Celestia could decide between the truth or a pleasant fiction – forever was a long time – Sunset continued, “Unless, of course, you intend to make the empire subservient to Equestria?”
“I would never!” To be fair to her, Celestia likely meant that in a local temporal sense. Conditions changed over the centuries, and someday it might be appropriate to absorb the Crystal Empire into Equestria.
Unfortunately, Celestia had given Sunset the perfect counter argument earlier herself.
“You just told us you’d planned to bring the crystal ponies under Equestria. Who’s to say you wouldn’t do them that kindness now under the guise of your so-called helping hoof?”
Perhaps it would have been best not to tell Sunset which Elements Celestia had borne. These were kind of low blows.
Regardless, Sunset carried on. “The Empire can’t afford to surrender so much of its autonomy so soon after its return. It has no place in the world, no allies, no economic arm, barely a military. That’s how you become a vassal state.”
Twilight spared a glance at her sister seated in resignation beside her. Despite Cadance’s best efforts, she’d given up on moderating those two long ago and now merely watched on in case their dispute came to blows. This was, apparently, normal for them. It wasn’t exactly healthy, but at least it kept Celestia in the frame of mind of her being around to make policy decisions, not just Luna. For at least one night, she could cast aside the doom and gloom.
Further down the line, Moon Dancer listened in with horrified fascination. The debate genuinely held her interest, Twilight knew, but this was also a very different side of Celestia which didn’t come out very often. Most ponies probably didn’t think she had any emotions but variations on serenity.
For her part, Twilight tuned out the argument, passively watched the movie playing, and let her thoughts turn inward. She had other domestic problems to consider.
I wonder if I’ve been too harsh with Shining. Yes, he screwed up massively by sending Flash to Ponyville, but I share some of the blame. I could have just called it a night and gone to hang out with Luna. It wasn’t like Pinkie Pie was wrong about Fluttershy bearing Kindness. I could have just tracked down whoever Rainbow Dash is the next day. Surely she left word or a paper trail of where she went.
But I didn’t have the time. If Celestia had just given me more of a heads-up…
That was a fruitless avenue of thought.
I guess I should have at least tried to ID the nonresidents. I had every reason to expect a bunch of lunar cultists wandering into town, and I even kind of got one for Laughter. That was my bad.
But still! He had no right to interfere with my mission. I thought I made that explicitly clear the last time he pulled something like that.
Twilight still remembered Shining’s wildly overprotective freak-out after her near death dealing with the Alicorn Amulet. If he weren’t family and hadn’t been understandably distressed at the time, he wouldn’t still be the Captain of the Royal Guard. His unsanctioned interference in her subsequent missions had nearly caused ponies to die.
And now we’re in the same boat again. If I can’t get the Elements to work because of Flash, we’re going to lose Celestia! He deserves a little comeuppance for that. He can just deal with the fallout of Sunset stealing Celestia’s crown. Twilight harrumphed, satisfied with her conclusion. I doubt she’ll even care considering how resigned she is to Luna’s victory. He’ll suffer some public humiliation at worst until Luna shows up and steals everypony’s attention.
A sigh escaped Twilight’s thoughts into the real world, and her gaze shifted from the movie to Celestia. Speaking of Luna, an idea occurred.
Is Flash even necessary? It’d be better if he were present, sure, but it’s not like the Elements need six ponies to function. Celestia took Luna’s Elements and used all six even though three of them weren’t attuned to her. Worse come to worst, maybe I can just summon Loyalty from Flash and use it myself. It won’t work as well for me, but maybe it’ll be enough.
It was a thought to keep in mind, if nothing else.
A magical poke at her shoulder brought Twilight back to reality. She turned her gaze toward Sunset beside her and hummed in question.
“Show me to the bathroom?” Sunset asked rather tersely while just barely on the right side of a growl.
Twilight glanced at Celestia, who looked to be in an equally foul mood. Well, I guess they’re done arguing for now.
With a shrug, Twilight agreed to Sunset’s request. While she knew Sunset could list every single bathroom in the castle, that wasn’t the point. Technically, Eventide had no idea where to find one as there wasn’t one directly attached to the theater. Beyond that, however, she suspected Sunset either wanted to storm out and cool off or simply needed somepony to vouch for her alibi while she went and sorted out a snare in her heist.
It was probably both.
Regardless, Twilight quickly made their excuses to Celestia, Cadance, and Moon Dancer and then led Sunset out of the theater. The bathroom was only a short walk down the corridor, and they were there in but moments. Sunset, of course, didn’t even bother to pretend to actually need it. Instead, she splashed some cold water onto her face from the sink and relaxed her successful attempt to keep her continuous use of magic concealed. Her horn didn’t glow, as it wasn’t the current conduit of her power, but the flow of magic was unmistakable.
“So,” Twilight began, knowing the castle bathrooms were well warded for privacy for good reason. “That was some row.”
Sunset glanced at Twilight. Her raised eyebrows and scoff said that it was actually fairly tame. When she spoke, the heat in her voice lingered, but it was clearly directed at herself now. “I didn’t mean to pick a fight. I’m lucky she hasn’t realized who I am and called me out.”
She was playing counselor far more frequently than she liked, but Twilight went ahead and asked with as detached an air as she could, “Then why did you?”
“Old habits are easy to fall into, and I’m distracted. Being in two places at once isn’t easy.”
Twilight said, “Fair enough,” knowing how difficult splitting one’s attention like that was. She could duplicate herself once and remain more or less fully functional, twice if she only wanted to hold a conversation with herself, but thrice or more made the magic break down. Pinkie Pie, she suspected, could probably handle the strain of more duplications than herself and Sunset combined, but the world wasn’t ready to test such theories. Sometimes science could go too far.
“It doesn’t help that Loyalty showed up.”
Ah, I probably should have expected that. Flash must have a bunch of friends in the guard going at it with Sunset right now.
“I just…” Sunset sucked in a deep breath and then heaved it out. “I just need a couple minutes away from her. Let me get this done, and then we can go back. I don’t think I can hold a civil conversation with Sunbutt, hide the echoes of my spellcasting from her, and make a convincing escape with the added complication of ensuring whats-his-name doesn’t do anything stupid.”
Leaving Sunset to her own devices, Twilight pulled Luna’s book from her bag of holding and turned it open to where she’d left off. She’d almost finished it in these spare moments she found and hoped to have read it from cover to cover before the solstice. It was only nine days away, but that should give her plenty of time.
A stream of profanity and insults spewed forth from Shining’s mouth as Eclipse finally made it outside the castle wards far beyond the main gate. Princess Celestia’s crown still sat mockingly upon her brow. Worse, she could teleport away now, and judging by the level of skill she’d displayed in the chase, only Twilight or the princess herself would have any hope of tracking her.
But Eclipse didn’t immediately depart with her ill-gotten treasure in tow. No, that would be far too much to ask of a mare of her disposition. Instead, she leapt two stories up onto the roof of a nearby building in a single bound, turned to face her pursuers, and did what she always did after her heists.
“Well, Captain, it was fun. Perhaps next time we meet, you’ll be more prepared to catch me.” It was the middle of the night, and Eclipse’s amplified voice woke everypony around. Already, windows lit up and ponies poked their heads outside to witness this final humiliation. “Do wish your wife well for me, if you would. Your sister, too. I know she’s a fan.”
Shining made a mental note to ask Twilight for a copy of any notes she’d made over the course of a personal investigation into Eclipse.
Turning to her fellow rogues, Eclipse offered a short bow. “A pleasure meeting you, Tempest. Starlight, I apologize for calling upon you when you’re injured. Perhaps when you fully recover, you could pose a minor threat.”
Starlight Glimmer held a hoof in front of Tempest Shadow, preventing her from charging forward. It was a good call, strictly speaking. It was, however unlikely, possible that Eclipse would get caught up in her monologue and leave an opening for them to apprehend her. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened. But if one of them rushed in, she would just leave.
“Captain, please extend my gratitude to the princess for her generosity this evening. This will be, quite literally, the crown jewel of my collection.”
How Shining wished he could wipe that smirk off the mare’s face, but she hadn’t dropped her guard.
“Now, sadly, I must call it a night. I bid you all a fond farewell.”
Without a word more, Eclipse teleported to who knew where.
“Well, horseapples,” Shining muttered. Now he needed to figure out how he was going to tell Princess Celestia he’d lost her crown.
Twilight turned a page in Luna’s book.
I wonder how far Rarity has gotten in the copy I made for her. I can’t imagine her not taking to it with a passion. Her dreamscape would be the perfect place for her to create; she’d be able to give her ideas form with but a thought. Even just lucid dreaming would…
Realizing her thoughts had drifted, Twilight turned her attention back to her reading material. Friends were distracting even when not around, it seemed. Was it any wonder, then, why she’d gotten so much further so much faster in her studies than most anypony else? Granted, she liked the distraction, but she’d need to learn to filter them out.
Not too long later, Sunset said, “Done.” Celestia’s crown teleported into place atop her head to emphasize the point. It was too big for her by far, but it at least matched her coloring better than Luna’s would. “How do I look?”
“Like a filly wearing her mother’s jewelery,” Twilight replied bluntly.
Sunset snorted with a distinctly annoyed air, but she didn’t bother hiding the upturn of her lips.
Just for the fun of it, Twilight pulled Luna’s crown from her bag of holding and placed it on her own head. “And me?”
After first glancing at herself in the mirror, Sunset reluctantly admitted, “Better than me. Luna is closer to your size, it seems. Silver or platinum might suit you better than obsidian, though.”
Twilight rolled her eyes and put Luna’s crown away. “Are we done here?”
“In a moment.” Sunset cast a complex and unknown spell reeking of dimensional magic upon Celestia’s crown before stowing it in her own subspace storage. “Right, let’s go.”
They would in a moment. They had time enough for a quick question. “What was that?”
“Just a spell of my own design to keep Sunbutt from stealing this back. I removed it from Luna’s, considering you intend to return it.”
Twilight hummed in interest. When they had more time, she would most certainly be picking Sunset’s brain for the details. For now, however, they must sadly return to the theater before anypony questioned what they were up to.
Just as they were about to leave the bathroom and the extra protections against eavesdropping it provided, Sunset casually said, “By the way, has Little Cadey mentioned I’m your big sister now?”
“No, she–” Twilight blinked. Surely she’d heard that wrong. But no, that smirk on Sunset’s face spoke only of truth. Incredulous, she squawked, “What!”