Chapter Twenty Four - The Many Trials of Moon Dancer
“I know this must sound strange coming from me, but it must be lonely.”
The air filled with the sound of soft, musical laughter. “Strange indeed. But no, it only is if you let it. Times change. Friends come and go as is normal, some faster than others or more quickly than I would like. Nostalgia can be a powerful, captivating force. But life is never not worth living.”
When she thought about it, that made much more sense than the romantic notions of eternal melancholy she’d read about in books. Still, that left one more important question unanswered.
“Why are you the only one?”
A knock came at the door to Moon Dancer’s office. How interesting that she was starting to think of it as her office. Putting that aside, however, a guard entered and announced that she had two pegasi seeking an audience with her, an archaeologist and her assistant. They had all the documentation necessary to prove that they were working on some secret project for the crown directly under Princess Celestia’s orders, which made whatever their problem was a priority. She instructed the guard to let them in and see to it that they weren’t disturbed.
To Moon Dancer’s very great surprise, she soon had the A.K. Yearling, author of the Daring Do series as well as several notable scholastic papers, standing on the opposite side of her desk. From the state of her mane and work clothes, she’d just come fresh from a dig site. Moon Dancer also caught the assistant’s name, Rainbow Dash, which sounded vaguely familiar from somewhere, but who cared. This was the first time she’d gotten to meet A.K. Yearling despite both finding employment at the same university.
Keep calm, Moon Dancer. You’re a professional. Play it cool. She took a long breath to steady herself and then proceeded. “Professor Yearling, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
A.K. Yearling’s gaze wandered first down and then back up to meet Moon Dancer’s eye. A frown tugged at the corners of her lips. After a few more moments, she asked, “Are you a student at Manehattan University?”
“No.” It wasn’t the first time a pony had made that mistake, and it likely wouldn’t be the last. Moon Dancer had pushed through her education faster than most. “I teach ancient magics.”
Surprise entered A.K. Yearling’s eyes. “Really? That’s a tough interdisciplinary field to get into. Then again, I suppose Her Excellency selected you as her regent for a reason.”
“Ah, well, she and I have known each other since we were foals is all.” Truly, Moon Dancer wasn’t covering even half of Twilight’s usual workload. “I read your paper on the fall of Pre-Discordian civilization. I’ve looked over the methodology you used to better date the Great Calamity that created him, but for the life of me I’ve had trouble understanding it.”
A.K. Yearling nodded in understanding. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it works myself. It’s empirically demonstrable that it does, but–”
“Oh. My. Gosh,” Rainbow Dash said. She hovered in place just beside and above A.K. Yearling looking as though she’d just been told she had to do a group project with randomly assigned partners. “This is so not what we’re here for.”
Both academics in the room glared at Rainbow Dash for the interruption, but she was right. They all had actual work to do. There would be another time for scholastic pleasures.
A.K. Yearling faked a cough, and they got down to business. “Right. If you’ve not heard, a spelunker recently went deep into the Crystal Mine below Canterlot. An old natural cave system opened up sometime since the last time somepony went that far down. It leads to one of Star Swirl the Bearded’s labs.”
A gasp escaped Moon Dancer. It couldn’t be! But she knew A.K. Yearling hadn’t lied – wouldn’t have lied about something like that. She couldn’t restrain the squeal of unadulterated glee that next emanated from her. She had to see the site for herself!
“Yes, it’s very exciting,” A.K. Yearling said with far too much restraint for a discovery of such magnitude. “Anyway, we already had a unicorn Princess Celestia recommended strip and document the wards and other such protections, but we encountered a problem.”
“And you want a second sweep,” Moon Dancer concluded. “Yes, I understand. I’ll do it myself.” Sure, she might have been abusing the power temporarily invested into her a little bit here, but she could justify it, and there was no way she would throw away this opportunity. “What happened?”
A.K. Yearling gestured to her assistant, and that was apparently Rainbow Dash’s cue to explain the circumstances of their request. She’d been browsing one of the tomes found at the site, performing an initial sort on them, when a ‘wad of fabric’ hit her in the face out of nowhere. She swatted it away in a horrid but understandable display of disrespect for history to the sound of bells.
At that moment, Moon Dancer could no longer but sit and listen. She breathed deeply, trying to contain her mounting excitement. “You – you found Star Swirl’s hat? The real one?” While they had plenty of sources for images and mountains of fakes, the one true hat had ever eluded discovery.
“As far as I can tell at a distance,” A.K. Yearling confirmed.
This was amazing! “Take me there,” Moon Dancer demanded. She was already on her hooves and mentally rearranging her packed schedule in the back of her mind, never mind the consequences, before her guests moved to follow. She nabbed a notebook and pencil for note-taking, and then they were off.
The journey through the caves was long and treacherous. The mine carts barely held themselves together after so many decades of neglect, and the rail system was in even worse condition. Every other step there was some fissure to trip over or a crevice to get one’s hoof wedged in. It certainly didn’t help that the unmined crystals lining the cavern walls at irregular intervals blinded with reflected light.
The chasms, though, were the worst. The trestle bridges spanning them for the mine carts had broken and rotted, and the rope bridges for hoof travel had long since snapped and fallen to their doom. An unprepared earthbound pony would have to turn back then and there. With two pegasi in the group, however, they only had to take care not to bump into the stalactites growing from the ceiling above the terrifying, bottomless black abysses. As she’d never taken the time to turn herself into a magical powerhouse as Twilight had, Moon Dancer closed her eyes, pretended very hard that her hooves were still on solid ground, and accepted a flight across the chasms to avoid burning through her magic. She didn’t know how much of it she’d need once they arrived at Star Swirl’s lab.
In the deepest depths of the mine at the bottom of the most jagged and terrifying chasm, a crack perhaps two ponies’ height from the ground offered just enough room for a fully grown mare to wiggle through. It wouldn’t offer much opportunity for a hasty escape if A.K. Yearling or Rainbow Dash had to carry Moon Dancer out for some reason. According to them, however, they had to pass through it. Leaving it as it was wouldn’t be safe, but perhaps there was a reason it had been?
“Who did you bring down here last time again?”
A quick explanation followed. A.K. Yearling had asked for a sorceress’s assistance upon receiving her assignment, and Honesty’s bearer just happened to be in town with the head of the Anti-Monster Division. Why Princess Celestia had chosen to send those two in particular, Moon Dancer didn’t know, but she must have had a good reason. Surely they weren’t incompetent.
“How did you get through this hole before?”
Apparently, Lyra Heartstrings had simply teleported them through without a care in the world. Was that a sign of overconfidence, inexperience, or enough skill to just not bother?
Well, the simple solution is to just ask. It would cost a sizeable expenditure of magic given how far away her information source was, but Moon Dancer considered it worth the effort. She needed to know how fully she could trust the magical documentation this Lyra Heartstrings had made of Star Swirl’s lab. Thus she sent a letter off to Twilight asking how much skill the mare had with magic.
A couple minutes later, an answer returned in a burst of flame. It read, ‘I can’t speak to her breadth of knowledge from personal experience, but she could certainly duel on even terms with my brother or Tempest. In her prime, let’s say, she could probably trounce them both working together. If you want to know more, ask the EIS for her file. Her past is complicated.’
It wasn’t nearly the response Moon Dancer had expected – she should really read up on all of the Element bearers – but she supposed it answered her question well enough. Lyra Heartstrings just hadn’t bothered to clear out the tunnel because she hadn’t felt the need. After scanning for any active magics lingering about and finding none, Moon Dancer went ahead and widened the opening to allow two ponies to comfortably walk through it abreast. She did so all the way from one end to another.
The new tunnel led into a large cavern. Moon Dancer didn’t even have to try to feel the lingering traces of powerful magic centuries upon centuries old. This must have been a testing site for Star Swirl’s research! Sadly, the endless years of neglect had turned it into a chaotic mess not entirely unlike the Everfree Forest. Thankfully, however, it lacked the ingrained instinct to lash out that the princesses’ battle had imprinted upon the magic there.
Then Moon Dancer saw it at the back of the cavern. Despite how much she wanted to rush over to the lab entrance built into the stone wall, she approached carefully, horn alight, at the head of their trio. Nothing seemed dangerous. What magics were left to protect and preserve the structure, Lyra Heartstrings had documented properly. Everything seemed to be in order.
They moved inside, and there it sat. The crescent moons and stars were the right sizes in the right locations in the right number. The embroidery had lasted through the test of time. The colors had yet to fade. Even the bells were perfect. That had to be, without a doubt, Star Swirl the Bearded’s hat in all its glory just lying there against the wall.
A piercing squeal of pure joy filled the air.
Far away from Canterlot, a little bubble of calm stood against the fury of the surrounding blizzard at the very heart of the Frozen North. The Element of Magic radiated a feeling of approval from atop Twilight’s head as she examined the banishment spell afflicting the Crystal Empire. She hadn’t lied to Luna. She did think she could dispel the prisons the Elements created, but the longer she studied the magic, the more it looked as though she’d need the entire team to do so.
It didn’t surprise Twilight much. Celestia and Luna would have freed the empire alone if they’d had the ability. She’d thought an extra thousand years of magical development since might have given her an advantage they’d lacked to leverage, but this seemed more akin to lock picking with a hammer. She could either smash the protections – something she didn’t have nearly enough power to do – and hope she didn’t kill everypony inside or she could come back with the key.
“Well, this is a bust,” Twilight reluctantly conceded. But on the other hoof, freeing the empire would be a good dry run before the solstice to see if we can get the Elements working. This sort of delicate work was probably harder to accomplish than just blasting an enemy with magic, but she was aiming to pacify Luna rather than imprison her again. Where to place the respective tasks on the difficulty curve, she was sure, would be a matter of much scholarly debate in the future.
A brief flash of fire drew Twilight’s attention. Another letter from Moon Dancer? Indeed, it was. Curious as to what she wanted to know this time, Twilight unfolded the paper and read through the short message.
A fillyish cry of delight went unheard in the storm.
A letter arrived from Twilight via dragonfire. The amaranth glow of Sunset’s magic snared it from the air before it could flutter to the floor of her cottage.
“Strange,” Sunset drawled with a voice dripping in sarcasm. “I don’t recall giving her my address.” Not that it really mattered. Twilight could have gotten it from Celestia if she hadn’t simply worked it out for herself. It wasn’t that difficult for somepony of her level of skill.
Regardless, Sunset read, ‘Biggest Sister,’ and rolled her eyes. ‘We found Star Swirl’s hat!’
Sunset had to read that again. The words hadn’t changed. A time and a place to meet up tomorrow followed.
Okay, that’s pretty cool. I’d make time for that.
This was apparently the wrong thing to say, as Archmage Twilight looked as though somepony had just told her in perfect seriousness that Equus orbited the sun.
Off to the side, Spike shook his head and radiated thoughts of warning.
Sweetie Belle looked around the rest of the room for help. Nopony else held the same level of interest as Archmage Twilight, at least not from what she could tell, but Lyra and Trixie were both kind enough to silently and quickly inform her of the most basic of basics. Perhaps it was time to change tack.
“Oh!” Sweetie Belle drew out, nice and long. “That Star Swirl. The greatest sorcerer from the Pre-Discordian Era. Who…” She glanced at Trixie in a silent plea for aid. “–invented the amniomorphic spell?” What did that even mean? Trixie smirked, and she had the sinking feeling that she’d just been pranked.
Indeed, Archmage Twilight’s eye twitched. “Dear pupil, I promised your family to provide you with a comprehensive education. I think I know where to begin with history.”
It was then that Sweetie Belle knew she was in trouble. Archmage Twilight picked her up in a firm magical grip and trotted off with her floating along behind. She looked pleadingly back at the other bearers to no avail. Even Pinkie, the most visibly sympathetic, merely waved goodbye and dabbed at an eye with a tissue. Bon Bon turned her head away. Spike hung her out to dry but sent his thanks for her sacrifice, knowing that his mother would be too distracted now to bother pestering him about going to see some ragged old hat.
Traitors, the lot of them!
It was a few minutes before they’d agreed to meet when Twilight teleported into place not but a few steps away. She was alone, oddly enough. Moon Dancer would have thought she’d bring the other bearers along or, failing that, Sweetie Belle. Perhaps they were coming on their own? Then again, she did look a tiny bit disgruntled despite today’s short but exciting itinerary. Had they all turned down the opportunity to witness history?
Thinking better of asking directly, Moon Dancer simply asked, “Are we ready to go?” after they’d exchanged hellos.
“No, Eventide is coming. She should be here–”
A sudden flux of magic deposited the mare in question amongst their small group.
“–right about now,” Twilight finished. She turned to acknowledge the newcomer with an exuberance and passion more appropriate to the occasion than she’d shown but moments ago. “Hey! Are you ready to be transported through history to a more civilized era?” The dramatic hoof movements accompanying the words were unnecessary but appreciated.
Despite the rolling of Eventide’s eyes, she said, “Ease up on the cheesy lines, and you know it. Thanks for the invitation.” She rose one hoof up, bumped it against Twilight’s, and then looked around. “Is nopony else coming?”
Twilight heaved a long sigh. “It’s just us three. No one else understood the significance of this discovery.”
“Not when you told them they can’t read whatever research is there, I bet,” Eventide slyly added.
Had Moon Dancer forgotten to mention the mountain of journals? Oops. Well, perhaps it was better this way.
“Yes, well,” Twilight began in a quiet bluster, “just because I’m obligated to trust them doesn’t mean I do so unconditionally. Lyra didn’t care that much to begin with, but that killed Trixie’s interest. And can you believe Sweetie Belle didn’t even know who Star Swirl is?”
Twin gasps met that blasphemy. No student of magic should ever be so uneducated!
“I corrected that oversight,” Twilight went on to say. “But it’s all the more clear to me how desperately Equestria needs educational reform. I gave up too soon the last time I did battle with the EEA.”
Amused, Eventide said, “Ah, bureaucracy, the downfall of the mighty archmage.”
Twilight harrumphed and muttered something to a similar effect.
“But speaking of, I’m surprised Little Cadey isn’t here. She must be swamped right now.” Seeing the confused look on Twilight’s face, Eventide added, “You did ask her, right?”
A hesitant, “Noooo?” met the question. “Should I have?”
“Yes!” came Eventide’s exasperated response. “She’s a huge fan. I used to read her bedtime stories about Star Swirl’s adventures. How do you not know this?”
A moment passed in silence as Twilight turned inward.
“You know,” Twilight eventually began, “now that you mention it, she helped me learn how to read with those. Be right back.”
And with that, Twilight popped off to the castle.
Moon Dancer, now alone with Eventide, finally had a chance to get a word in edgewise. Not that she really knew what to say. She hadn’t spent much time with the mare during their movie night, and the impression she’d gotten, to put it succinctly, was mixed. Eventide had spent most of the night arguing with Princess Celestia. Twilight and Princess Cadance liked her, of course, and she possessed a brilliant mind without question, but something about her just put Moon Dancer on edge.
Fortunately, Moon Dancer didn’t have to flounder through an attempt to start a conversation.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard how you met Sparkles.”
“Oh, well, I met my doppelgänger in the Canterlot Archives when we were fillies.” A sudden feeling of self-consciousness swept over Moon Dancer as Eventide’s gaze turned scrutinizing. Her head tilted down, and she brought a hoof up to adjust her glasses. “We studied together once in a while after that is all.”
Eventide hummed a little dismissively at the boring explanation. What could she have expected, though? Twilight was the one with a million interesting stories about her life, not the bookworm professor who’d never gone on a proper adventure in her life. The trip through the Crystal Mine had been thoroughly terrifying enough. And maybe just a little exciting.
“So, um, you read Princess Cadance bedtime stories? Did you used to work for her family?”
Eyes narrowing, Eventide said, “Yeah, no.” The hate in the tone came through crystal clear. “I wouldn’t piss on her ‘parents’ if they were on fire, much less bend the knee to them.”
Moon Dancer stuttered out some incomprehensible response. She’d heard the rumors concerning the bad blood between Princess Cadance and her parents, but she hadn’t wanted to ask or known how seriously to take them. If that response served as any metric, they possessed more than a grain of truth.
With a resigned groan, Eventide began casting a series of privacy spells. She muttered, “Why not? It’s not like she doesn’t know already,” as she worked. Then once she finished, she said, “Look, this is probably going to turn into a family outing, so I’m going to read you in on a few secrets, okay?”
Bemused, Moon Dancer dumbly nodded her head. What was she going to do, refuse to hear them? They wouldn’t stop being true, whatever they were.
“Yes, I used to look after Cadey when she was young. We grew very close. I’m sure you can guess why. It’s an open secret that her parents wanted to abandon her to the wolves in some forest at birth. They might have been able to get away with it.”
Moon Dancer grit her teeth. That really painted a picture of Princess Cadance’s early home life, didn’t it?
“Next, Cadey and I just adopted each other as sisters the other day.”
Moon Dancer gaped.
“Lastly, my real name is Sunset Shimmer.”
Moon Dancer’s breath caught. While Eclipse technically ranked higher on the most wanted list right now, Sunset Shimmer had held that position for far longer and would no doubt occupy it long after the thief was dead and buried. This wasn’t a confrontation she had any hope of winning, and right now she wasn’t sure if it was one she was even obligated to start. The whole situation just made her uncomfortable.
“I – you – does Twilight…”
Sunset Shimmer arched an eyebrow. “She knows. Apparently, Sunbutt figured it out as well after we parted ways.”
Sunbutt? Did that refer to who Moon Dancer thought it did? That was so wrong on so many levels. And didn’t Sunset Shimmer also have a solar cutie mark? “I… Okay. I–” What was she supposed to make of this? “Are you a deep cover member of the Evening Guard?” It was the only thing that sort of made sense.
“Pft! Sparkles couldn’t afford me.”
That marked the end of that conversation as Twilight teleported back with Princess Cadance in tow. The princess might as well have teleported herself for how fast she closed in on Sunset Shimmer and wrapped her up in an engulfing embrace.
“Again with the hugging,” Sunset Shimmer complained sans any sincerity as she returned the affection, if with less enthusiasm. “It’s good to see you too.”
Meanwhile, Twilight moved closer to Moon Dancer. “From that expression on your face, I take it you know something.”
“I…” Moon Dancer took a deep breath, adjusted her glasses, and then let the air out. “Sisters. Sunset Shimmer.” This was hardly her at her most eloquent, but she assumed that got the point across.
“Ah. Yeah.” Twilight faked a cough. “I know this might be a little awkward, but if you could keep that to yourself?”
Moon Dancer, without a doubt, knew that she’d lost track of whatever drama was playing out amongst the royal family. If she’d ever even known to begin with. In all honesty, she wanted no part in it and readily agreed to the request. This was Twilight’s responsibility now as far as she was concerned.
Once Sunset Shimmer – Princess Sunset Shimmer? – managed to detangle herself from her adoptive sister, they departed. Moon Dancer had left behind a teleport beacon outside the influence of their destination’s chaotic wild magic on her last visit. With some reluctance, she performed the magic to transport them herself upon Twilight’s, “Take us away, Moon Dancer,” edged with the slightest hint of probably unconscious command. She wouldn’t have given the task any pause under ordinary conditions, but teleporting a group, not just herself, into a cave system so close to a degraded magical testing site made her feel like she was about to give her thesis defense all over again.
But with careful execution that both Twilight and Sunset Shimmer probably overlooked while she focused on her task, Moon Dancer succeeded. They reappeared deep within the Crystal Mines only a short walk from the entrance to Star Swirl’s workshop. The stardust of her teleport signature gently glittered in the faint, lingering light until it floated to the rocky floor below. All three unicorns then lit their horns to provide ample light, and thus they set out at a casual pace, the clip-clop of their hooves echoing all the while.
“So, Middle Sister,” Twilight began. Sunset Shimmer deftly incorporated a facehoof into her stride, and Princess Cadance caught on after a few seconds and turned her attention away from examining her surroundings. “You never–”
“Hold up,” Sunset Shimmer cut in. “If I get the superlative form, shouldn’t Cadey get the comparative?”
“What? No, of course not. What would that make me?” Twilight asked. “The big sister?”
Princess Cadance caught Moon Dancer’s eye and, just between them, arched an amused eyebrow.
Meanwhile, Sunset Shimmer said, “Well if you’re only counting two sisters, then that makes me ‘Bigger Sister’.”
“I mean, I guess…” Twilight allowed with a distinct air of sarcasm. “But from a non-relative perspective, we’re biggest, middle, and littlest.”
“Sure, but we’re not an outside party. Relative terms are expected amongst relatives.”
“You can’t both be my BSBFF,” Twilight countered. “That lacks in specificity.”
Sunset Shimmer paused a moment to try to parse that before giving up and asking, “Your what now?”
Princess Cadance giggled and explained the acronym.
In all honesty, this was kind of a disillusioning conversation. If Moon Dancer hadn’t already known Twilight could get caught up in the littlest things… She shook her head. That would certainly never happen to her.
“You know, Twi, you don’t have to force this.” There came Princess Cadance with the cavalry to save the day from this weird conversation. She wrapped a wing over Sunset Shimmer and pulled her closer into an affectionate nuzzle. “We’ve known each other for years. Why don’t you just try being friends first?”
“Yeah, I know, just…” Twilight tried looking away, but flanked on the left by Moon Dancer and by Princess Cadance on the right, she settled on merely watching where she placed her hooves on the uneven ground more intently. “No offense, but you both kind of dropped this on me out of nowhere as a fait accompli.”
Princess Cadance wore a particularly sheepish smile as she apologized.
“So I’m trying to figure this out,” Twilight went on. “How I fit into it. Reinforce the desired outcome in my mind. I’d hoped for a friend. Sisters is a little…”
Something about how Twilight said that must have clued Princess Cadance in on what she wasn’t saying. “Ooh, you had a crush!”
“No!” came Twilight’s immediate denial. “I just…might have entertained the occasional daydream. It’s normal! Just because my teenage years weren’t a hormonal mess doesn’t mean I can’t comprehend romantic attraction. And I’m just going to shut up now before I embarrass myself any more than I already have.” At a low mutter that Moon Dancer wasn’t sure anypony else heard, she added, “Again.”
Sunset Shimmer took the confession in good humor with a laugh and a very apt, “Awkward.” She then said, “But don’t worry, Sparkles. It really is normal. Royal families inbreed all the time.”
Unable to help herself, Moon Dancer stopped walking to facehoof. Fortunately, Twilight did the same, drawing the entire group to a halt for a few moments until they both recovered.
Princess Cadance had just as bad of a sense of humor, it seemed. “Come now, dear sister,” she began, “you’re not even second cousins. Hardly a good match, that.” She laughed, and then Sunset Shimmer laughed, and they just left Twilight to groan in her mortification.
Privately, Moon Dancer thought herself very lucky that her parents had never saddled her with a sibling.
When Sunset Shimmer eventually stopped laughing, she asked, “Anyway, Sparkles, what were you saying earlier?”
“Hmm?” It took a few moments before Twilight remembered. “Oh.” The conversation descended into idle chatter as she asked Princess Cadance why she’d never mentioned being a fan of Star Swirl. They quickly moved on from that to discussing the stallion himself, a subject to which Moon Dancer finally felt like she could contribute something of value.
A short time later, they came upon the chasm that led down into Star Swirl’s lab. The climb down went far more smoothly this time. When Moon Dancer mentioned having to fly down and back up last time, Twilight went ahead and carved a nice, safe staircase into the rock face. It’d save a lot of time and effort for whatever archaeological team picked up this site after A.K. Yearling had cleared out everything potentially too dangerous to release to the public. Twilight didn’t explain why she had so much apparent skill with stonemasonry, but Moon Dancer was just happy to have all four hooves on solid ground. Regardless, the four of them descended two by two at a relaxed pace, the stone roiling, parting, and reforming before them as they went.
Moon Dancer wasn’t jealous.
Okay, she was somewhat jealous. Maybe she really should start those magical exercises she’d glanced at recently to build up her reserves. There were just so many better things she could be doing than the magical equivalent of lifting weights!
As they passed through the tunnel Moon Dancer had herself carved yesterday, the excitement in the other three grew with their destination so near at hoof. When they made it into the workshop, it exploded. Their eyes darted to an fro, taking in each artifact, both functional and broken, and lingering on the piles of books and tables of mostly broken equipment.
Princess Cadance fluttered in place like a filly a quarter of her age and then flew off to snatch up one of Star Swirl’s adventuring journals. Twilight gaped at just how much knowledge had been squirreled away right below her hooves all her life. Sunset Shimmer, although visibly not unmoved herself, reached up with a hoof and pushed Twilight’s jaw up with an amused smirk.
It did little good. Twilight lasted but seconds before she started hyperventilating, an understandable and most appropriate reaction to such a well preserved cache of Pre-Discordian literature. She went through some sort of breathing exercise that calmed her just enough to sputter out one or two words of sentences before short-circuiting and trying and failing again over and over.
“You know,” Sunset Shimmer began, not even bothering to hide the mischief in her words, “the solstice isn’t even two weeks off. Do you really have time right now to go through all this?”
Twilight teleported in front of Sunset Shimmer. Her forehooves shot up to land upon each side of the mare’s withers. With a manic look in her eyes and a desperation to ignore reality, she cried, “Don’t take this away from me!”
All the noise so far had attracted attention. Rainbow Dash emerged from further within the workshop, flying as was her wont, with a book tucked against her chest. Her first words were, “Hey, those are sorted!” before she realized who she was speaking to, at which point she added an uncharacteristically subdued, “Your Highness.” Then she noticed everypony else in the room. “Oh, you’re all here.”
With the others still slightly preoccupied, Moon Dancer went ahead and made introductions. “You know Princess Cadance, of course, but this is Archmage Twilight Sparkle and…uh, their friend, Eventide.” She didn’t know if those two had cooked up any more elaborate of a backstory for Sunset Shimmer, but that would do for now. “Twilight, Eventide, this is Rainbow Dash, A.K. Yearling’s assistant.”
Rainbow Dash opened her mouth, probably to offer her own greeting, when Twilight cut her off.
“Wait. Rainbow Dash? From Ponyville?”
A moment of confusion passed over the the mare’s face. Before long, however, it turned into a confident grin. “Oh, you’ve heard of me, eh?”
Twilight, rather than address that, went straight to asking, “Where were you thirteen days ago?”
Precisely nopony knew how to respond, and only Rainbow Dash’s uncertain, “Uh…” broke the silence.
Princess Cadance tapped a hoof against her book. “Wasn’t that the day I first called you to the castle?” She got a shrug and shrugged back. “Why does it matter?”
“It doesn’t. Not anymore. Just forget it.” Twilight heaved a heavy sigh and then levitated a book to her from the pile labeled ‘almost certainly crazy dangerous’. Just as she cracked it open and started reading, however, her eyes snapped back up. “Hey! You’re the one who hit me with a door!”
“What! No I didn’t! I think I’d remember if I…” A pair of cerise eyes widened as Rainbow Dash’s face warped into an expression of horror. “Oh, ponyfeathers. That was you?”
As riveting as this strange, unfolding drama no doubt was, Moon Dancer tuned it out in favor of keeping an eye on Sunset Shimmer. She had no idea what the protocol was for this situation. Twilight and Princess Celestia, for some strange reason, hadn’t given her a crash course on security clearance as it pertained to infamous criminals who’d recently joined the royal family. Given what types of ponies filled the Evening Guard’s ranks, though, she was leaning on the side of noninterference.
Moon Dancer brought a hoof up to massage her temple. This whole situation was giving her a headache. And now Sunset Shimmer had picked up a primer on multiverse theory, if she remembered correctly. Sure, Princess Cadance was distracting her with sketches from Star Swirl’s journal – a trio of sirens at the moment, it looked like – but that wouldn’t last forever.
Seeing that Rainbow Dash had left to go fetch A.K. Yearling, Moon Dancer sidled up to Twilight. At a whisper, she asked, “Should we be letting her read those?”
Twilight hummed and followed the furtive nod of Moon Dancer’s head from her book to the mare at issue. “Oh. No reason not to. She became an epic-level sorceress almost before we were born. What is she going to do that she can’t already?”
That was, Moon Dancer admitted, a fair point. As an argument, it had its flaws, but it really cut to the chase. With that, she internally passed off responsibility for Sunset Shimmer’s actions to Twilight and went to find something for herself to read. She had work to get back to now that her duties as a tour guide had finished, but so long as she was here, she might as well take a little break. What harm could there be in a few minutes of indulgence?
An hour later, somepony ripped Moon Dancer’s book from her magic. She looked up, startled and annoyed, and found Twilight only a single step away from her.
“I’d make a joke,” Twilight began before Moon Dancer could get a word in, “but then I’d be opening myself to retaliation.” No truer words had ever been spoken. “Eventide and I want a third opinion. We’ve got something interesting, but I don’t want to bias you with what until you’ve had a look yourself.”
Well, perhaps Moon Dancer could forgive this interruption to her reading time. She adjusted her glasses now that she wasn’t staring into a book and better took in the scene before her.
A few hooves off the ground, Rainbow Dash hovered in place with a book in her hooves that definitely hadn’t been here before. Perhaps Twilight have given it to her? Regardless, her eyes moved back and forth in the telltale sign of a fast and enthusiastic reader, but for reasons unknown, she maintained an otherwise aloof demeanor.
Below, Sunset Shimmer’s horn glowed. Moon Dancer, well familiarized with magical analysis, only needed a casual glance at the notes she was taking to guess what variety of spells she had active. Given that the subject of them appeared to be a living pegasus, that narrowed down the specific possibilities even further.
Scattered around nearby were a few miscellaneous objects of unknown purpose. A few pages of small, dense text sat on the floor. A strange pair of matching…Moon Dancer hesitated to call the grids of color paintings, but she didn’t know a better way to describe them other than as eyesores. It even looked like an improvised memory game had its cards carelessly cast aside.
“Do I get any hints at all about what I’m supposed to be looking at?”
“Nope!” After a moment, Twilight revised her assessment. “Well, Rainbow Dash is the subject of inquiry, if you haven’t figured that out yet. Don’t take this as an excuse to read everything Star Swirl wrote here first, as interesting as it all is.”
That would have been a clever trick if Moon Dancer had thought of it herself.
At any rate, Moon Dancer approached Rainbow Dash and quickly went through the usual consent requests when it came to live experimental subjects. The mare, having clearly been through this once or twice already today, waved her off with a distracted, “Yeah, sure,” whenever the inflection of her voice sounded like a question mark. It was good enough, she supposed, so she went forward with her investigation.
Moon Dancer had expected active flight magic, and that was certainly present, but that hardly even scratched the surface. “What is this mess?” she exclaimed before she could stop herself. That hadn’t been very professional. She quickly composed herself. “My apologies,” she offered first. “I haven’t seen magic this tightly woven outside of Twilight fully outfitted for battle.” Disregarding the trap laid in the Old Castle, of course.
That, very incorrectly, caused Rainbow Dash to puff out her chest a little from pride.
Moon Dancer cut Rainbow Dash off before she could make a fool of herself. “Honestly, it’s a miracle you haven’t developed a medical condition from bits of solidified magic forming inside your body.”
“What?” Alarmed, Rainbow Dash asked, “Can that happen?”
Sunset Shimmer idly answered, “Unlikely. You’ve been this way your whole life,” as she scribbled on whatever her notes were about.
“We did notice a little waste magic as such,” Twilight added when that didn’t prove very reassuring, “but you seem to have adapted to reincorporating it into your spellcasting automatically. A passive magical ability, most likely, rather than anything biological. Regardless, there’s no clear harm in it.”
Eminently curious, Moon Dancer looked for the signs of such in Rainbow Dash and found them almost immediately. The effect was least pronounced in her wings, likely because she was actively expending magic in them to maintain her hover. That would keep the buildup comparatively small in theory. Moon Dancer doubted she would have missed this phenomenon once she continued her examination, but she still felt chagrined. Her poor conduct had forced the others to bias her analysis to calm their test subject.
After a bit of self-chastisement, Moon Dancer carried on with her investigation. It was a fascinating mess to detangle. Rainbow Dash’s magic spread throughout her entire body. Pegasus magic wasn’t anywhere near Moon Dancer’s specialty, but she recognized some of the more common applications: temperature regulation, flight, eye protection, cloudwalking, and such. The rest, though, remained as mysterious as any black box system. And it was a big and dense black box that liked to adapt to changing circumstances. This was an analyst’s worst nightmare. A pony could spend years of dedicated study on it and still end up scratching her head.
But Moon Dancer could make educated guesses. “Well, you have magic running all through you. It’s everywhere: skin, muscles, bones, organs, brain. I’d imagine it’s even affecting itself.”
“Which means…” Rainbow Dash asked.
Considering what little Moon Dancer knew of the mare, she went with, “In laypony’s terms, smarter, stronger, faster. I honestly couldn’t tell you what all it does, but that’s my best guess without bringing you into a lab for a few years of study.”
Rainbow Dash was, naturally, unenthusiastic about that prospect.
“Other than the possible magical buildup, it looks purely beneficial. I don’t think it’d be entirely wrong to make a comparison to the self-reinforcement earth ponies engage in.” Moon Dancer turned to Twilight and Sunset Shimmer to hear their thoughts.
“That’s roughly the same conclusion we reached as well,” Twilight offered. “But there are some interesting effects worth mentioning.” She turned to Rainbow Dash and asked, “What’s the fifty-second word on the seventeenth page of the book you’re reading?”
Rainbow Dash paused for perhaps ten seconds, her eyes seemingly reading nothing, and then replied, “Further.” Remarkably, she then flipped to the page in question to prove that she was right.
Moon Dancer gaped. She knew a few tricks to improve memory, but nothing even approaching the level of perfect recall.
“And the memories stick past deactivation,” Sunset Shimmer said. For the benefit of the two in the room who didn’t understand the implications, she continued, “Long-term memory is mostly stored in our magic, and she’s writing directly to it. That is fascinating all on its own, but the potential applications are innumerable if we could isolate what’s causing it.”
A now very nervous Rainbow Dash, who hadn’t missed the nearly identical look all three unicorn’s wore, asked, “You’re not going to try to turn me into a lab rat, are you?”
Princess Cadance cleared her throat. “Twilight, Eventide, I’ll remind you that I found her first and hired–”
“‘Hired’,” Rainbow Dash groused, not that Princess Cadance paid her any attention.
“–her to teach magic at my school. I expect her to show up to work each day in one piece.”
Rainbow Dash flew higher in the room, creating a pointless amount of distance between them all, and said, “Thanks for nothing, Your Highness.”
Predictably, Princess Cadance just giggled. Moon Dancer was beginning to understand her sense of humor.
“Well, it’ll be a long-term project for another day,” Twilight reluctantly allowed. “It won’t be easy or fast, and we sadly all have more immediately pressing concerns.”
Sunset Shimmer heaved a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, you’re right.” She turned to Twilight. “Still, I think we can afford to goof off for a little bit longer. I found this book about universe hopping via crystal mirrors.”
“Ooh, sightseeing across the multiverse?”
“Sounds like a fun holiday for sometime after the solstice, right?”
“And who knows what we could pick up as souvenirs.”
“Let’s be honest. We’re going to plunder the multiverse for magical knowledge, aren’t we?”
“Well yeah, but you can’t just say it.”
Moon Dancer facehoofed. Was Sunset Shimmer that bad of an influence on Twilight, or had she always been this way and Moon Dancer just hadn’t noticed? At any rate, the pair wandered off together to the corner of the workshop Sunset Shimmer had claimed for her own use and, more importantly, the books piled up within it. However, having skimmed through the research notes on the crystal mirrors herself yesterday, Moon Dancer knew those two were going to be in for disappointment.
The sad truth of reality was that it waited for nopony. The time lost to the pleasures of ancient literature, magic, and artifacts would never return. Alas, for the cruelties of the universe were endless.
Moon Dancer would need to see to fixing that someday.
For now, however, Moon Dancer shuffled from appointment to appointment in a mad scramble. She had a lot to catch up on after how distracted she’d gotten yesterday. As she trotted, she read through the less sensitive documents that found their way onto her desk.
Cloudsdale needed an external inspector to evaluate any lingering magical effects of a lightning leak due to crown regulations? Fine. She’d send one of the less rowdy members of the Evening Guard to take care of that. She’d also make a note to suggest the weather department maintain a national oversight team rather than outsourcing this sort of routine local work. Since Twilight hadn’t already forced that change through, she suspected politics got involved, but that wasn’t her problem.
Ponyville needed some assistance with the traditional magical aspects of the Summer Sun Celebration? There were plenty of nobles with nothing better to do who’d jump at the chance to make that problem go away for free. It wouldn’t cost them much, and having a hoof in the festival, Moon Dancer had discovered during her short time as the archmage regent, gave them something to brag about.
The Wonderbolts sent in another report concerning the Frozen North? Moon Dancer shuffled that one to the back of the pile. No ponies went into that frozen wasteland but Twilight and her guests.
Moon Dancer walked into Princess Celestia’s office all but unannounced, and wasn’t that an odd thing to have gotten used to? Unlike her, the princess had managed to find time for a short respite from the daily grind with a cup of tea. A waltz, though not one she recognized, emanated from a worn phonograph at a volume high enough to be heard but low enough so as to not demand attention. The princess faintly hummed along to the music, eyes closed, in perfect tranquility.
It was a shame to interrupt, but needs must. “You wanted to see me, Princess?”
Princess Celestia raised a hoof and gestured in silence toward the seat opposite her. It was only then, once Moon Dancer had settled, that she truly stirred from her rest. “Tea?” she offered. “It’s chamomile.”
As tempting as that was, Moon Dancer declined. She really didn’t have the time to get comfortable today.
“More for me, then.” At a casual pace, once more humming that background waltz, she poured herself another cup. Only once it met her exacting standards did she raise it to her lips. A long, slow sip then drew a delighted purr from her. “Perfection.” She set the cup down. “It occurs to me, Moon Dancer, that I never asked after your grad students. Are they doing well?”
Moon Dancer winced. “I, uh, don’t actually know, Your Highness.” She’d put her actual job off entirely in favor of Twilight’s. The university hadn’t complained, of course, because this would do more for it than a dozen successful grant proposals, but she probably should try to find a better balance than a hundred percent and zero.
If Princess Celestia found that objectionable, she didn’t show it. “Understandable,” she allowed. “Have any graduated yet under your care?”
“No, this is only the third year I’ve been allowed to be a grad adviser. Strangely enough, no university wanted to give me a faculty position until I was older than the undergrads.”
That earned a chuckle from Princess Celestia. “Twilight experienced similar concerns around that age. Equestria has never had a younger archmage, but she proved herself in time.” She feigned a tired sigh, not bothering to hide the smirk pulling at her lips. “I have nothing but foals refusing to play with the younger children for subjects.”
Moon Dancer doubted she could say anything without walking into a trap, so she wisely remained silent.
As the conversation died down, Princess Celestia sipped from her tea. “Now then,” she said as she replaced it upon its saucer, “this morning I went through several records for my school. I have a very talented student who I strongly suspect is overreaching. However, I fear Twilight has skewed my expectations. I would appreciate your advice on how I should approach this.”
“I… Well, I don’t mind,” a bemused Moon Dancer said, “but university is a very different environment.” She should know. She’d gone through both. “I usually just suggest picking an easier problem and explain why when my grad students do that. Foals are…illogical at the best of times.”
“Nonetheless,” Princess Celestia insisted. “I think you are well qualified in this particular case.”
Then if they were to proceed, Moon Dancer needed more information. “Okay. Without breaking confidentiality, what more can you tell me about the situation?”
Princess Celestia hummed in thought through another sip of tea. “The project involves one of the great unsolved mysteries of magic which I know with certainty has a solution. I recently learned of a breakthrough on the subject. A tentative first step of perhaps thousands toward the answer. The student in question has the talent and tenacity to pursue it further. Any advancement at all would be remarkable and worthy of further inquiry, but I fear the consequences such success would bring. Ponies have wasted their lives on this fool’s errand since before I was born without any such encouragement.”
“Ah.” Moon Dancer understood what was going on now. “Princess, everypony who dreams of magic takes a crack at some subset of those problems at some point in their life. I worked on disproving the Stern Heart Conjecture for years before giving up.”
For a few moments, Princess Celestia furrowed her brow in thought. Then her eyes widened in recognition. “Oh yes, the one about the use of irrational algebraic numbers in spellcasting. I nearly forgot we formalized that notion. Alas, the perils of a long life. Did you take a mathematical or magical approach?”
“Magical,” Moon Dancer replied. “I thought I could bypass the intuitive limitations if I parallelized the spell construction with some metamagic, but I never figured out a useful way to do it.”
“Clever. So your advice, then, is for me to let this run its course?”
Moon Dancer nodded. “Better to let the student get it out of their system than to bottle it up. You probably only need to step in if it becomes an obsession with no results. I, at least, would have driven myself to distraction if I hadn’t gone through my fling with high-hanging fruit.”
That drew a bout of laughter out of Princess Celestia. “I will take your words and hold them close to my heart. Thank you for listening.”
“It was no trouble, Princess. If that was all, though, I should get back to work.”
Princess Celestia held up a hoof, forestalling Moon dancer’s departure. “There was one other matter. I intend to give a public address in two days’ time. Would you see to the security arrangements for me?”
It would take some time, but Moon Dancer didn’t see too many difficulties arising. There was one thing, however. “Isn’t that Captain Armor’s job?”
“Usually, yes,” Princess Celestia replied. “Unfortunately, he left Canterlot early this morning to pursue an unlikely lead on Eclipse. You can delegate much of the work to his vice-captain and the EIS, but please keep an eye on them. With both Twilight and Captain Armor absent, the castle is somewhat short-hooved on unicorns skilled in ward construction.”
Moon Dancer plucked her glasses from her face and rubbed a hoof into the property they’d just vacated. How did Twilight do this job without snapping? She tossed aside both the Wonderbolts report from the Sparkling Sea and the request for assistance from its inhabitants. Both were bad enough to make a mare want to flip the table, storm out, and never return.
Nonetheless, a response needed organizing. Moon Dancer was tied to Canterlot and couldn’t go. Queen Chrysalis had her own hive to look after and probably wouldn’t take the job even if she were a free agent. Twilight didn’t have time with the solstice drawing near. Princess Celestia had a nation to govern. That really only left her with one bad option for something of this magnitude.
Well, on second thought, Moon Dancer could try reaching out to Sunset Shimmer.
No, that was a terrible idea. Life didn’t need to become any more complicated than it already had.
So Moon Dancer asked one of the guards posted at her office door to send for Tempest. It wasn’t a battle mage that she needed, but she would work with the resources she had available and plan accordingly.
It was roughly a quarter of an hour later when Tempest finally arrived. She placed herself right in front of Moon Dancer’s desk and offered a shallow bow – respectful, certainly, but absent of the fervor she showed Twilight. Upon rising, she asked, “How can I be of service, Ma’am?”
“That depends. Is Starlight fit for travel?”
Tempest, rather than answer immediately, searched Moon Dancer’s eyes for who knew what. “Travel,” she eventually said skeptically, “and very little else.”
That might be enough. “Could she do theory work while you performed the practical aspects?”
“Possibly,” Tempest allowed. “What did you have in mind?”
Moon Dancer summoned a globe from across the room and spun it so that the Sparkling Sea faced them both. She’d need it as a visual aid soon enough. Meanwhile, she began briefing Tempest on the situation.
“You’re familiar with the seaponies? The giant monsters they fight for sport?” Saying that out loud almost hurt. Nonetheless, Tempest nodded, so Moon Dancer carried on. “Well, the Storm King decided to go after the Pearl of Transformation.”
Tempest, already knowing where this was going, groaned. “He acted on bad information and went after the actual seaponies, didn’t he?”
“Yeah.” According to the report, the seaponies had barely noticed him. Moon Dancer wouldn’t have even known who it was if not for the description one of them had managed to provide. “But that’s not the problem. He showed up while they were fighting an abyssal horror and interfered with their…” She breathed in deeply, held it, and released it once properly resigned to saying it. “–their, and I quote, ‘certain kill giant vortex maneuver’. It’s less of a mouthful in their language.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
That was probably the correct response. Moon Dancer put that behind them and continued, “Anyway, the magic went wrong. They won the battle, of course, but their final attack spun out of control and became wild magic.”
Tempest’s eyes shifted toward the globe.
In answer to the silent question, Moon Dancer summoned a few pins from one of her desk’s drawers. She placed them according to the coordinates the Wonderbolts’ report had provided, carving out a vast swath of the Sparkling Sea. For reference, she also added an illusion that showed the westward trade winds cutting a large chord through the vortex. Worse, the winds and currents were at odds with each other. A ship could either follow the current to its doom or it could struggle to escape until the crew starved. The massive whirlpool would be the death of thousands if nothing was done.
“The seaponies named it Charybdis after the ancient sea monster. They think it’s ‘neat’.”
Tempest finally tore her eyes away from the globe and shook her head. “Perhaps if you can breathe underwater.”
“Quite,” Moon Dancer uttered crisply. Why did Aquestria have to be their neighbor? “Luckily for us, the seaponies recognize that a giant death vortex is bad for, I presume, international relations. They didn’t specify why they want it gone, only that they can’t figure out how to get rid of it.
“Now I know this sort of assignment isn’t really your area of expertise, but we’re stretched thin, and this is kind of important. Would you escort Starlight and serve as her crutch until she recovers?”
Tempest frowned. “I wouldn’t be here for the solstice?”
“Very likely not.” Moon Dancer didn’t see any quick fix to this problem. It could take days, weeks, moons, or, potentially, even seasons. Large scale disasters didn’t like to go away. “Twilight says she has the Nightmare Moon situation under control, but if she needs you, she’ll have plenty of time to recover you.”
After a few seconds’ thought, Tempest asked, “This is purely a noncombat mission?”
“Mhm. Diplomacy and theory work only.” Neither were particularly Tempest’s strength, but in all honesty, there wasn’t much Moon Dancer could ask her to do right now in good conscience. Her condition made it too risky to send her out alone on dangerous missions, and Starlight was the only other member of the Evening Guard who could keep up with her. “For what it’s worth, the seaponies promised to clean up their mess once they know how. The heavy lifting will be up to them.”
“Have you asked Starlight yet?”
Moon Dancer shook her head. “I didn’t want to bother her until I had an escort lined up first.”
Tempest turned her gaze back to the globe, whereupon she hummed in thought. Her expression changed very little even as she finally said, “Very well. If Starlight agrees, I’ll go with her.”
With how her life had changed in recent weeks, it only occurred now to Moon Dancer that she needed to actually check her mail. Not everything came by dragonfire. Not everything landed in the mailbox of the archmage regent, something which she’d also never checked because all of it got forwarded to her office.
So when Moon Dancer remembered her resolution yesterday to pay a little attention to her actual job, it took her a while to find where the castle staff kept her personal mail. She probably could and should have sent somepony to do that for her, but the act of physically picking up her mail grounded her in a way that she hadn’t been since Twilight had pulled her from Manehattan University. She was just a professor in a field almost nopony studied with papers only a few dozen ponies would ever read whose audience just so happened to include the real Archmage of Equestria. It was a sobering moment.
And then Moon Dancer saw just how many letters she had, and she wished it would all go away. Her grad students were the most frequent – if not most numerous – offenders, taking hundreds of words to get across something that could have easily been pared down to a dozen. She remembered those days and fully intended to respond with the same succinctness her own adviser had used. Maybe then they’d reach enlightenment someday.
The undergrad letters, in contrast, came with a deluge of pointless questions with equally trivial answers and frustrating nonsense about grades. Really, if they would just learn the material they’d paid to learn, they would do fine. It wasn’t that hard! Sadly, Moon Dancer knew she’d have to provide a bit more nuanced of an answer than that if she wanted to have a job come autumn.
Then again, Moon Dancer technically didn’t have to answer any of the undergrad letters. She’d officially gone on sabbatical, if perhaps during the middle of the spring semester. She owed them nothing. She only had a responsibility to her grad students and her upcoming coauthors.
And there were an awful lot of undergrad letters she didn’t want to answer.
And she had a very lovely fireplace in her castle apartment.
And the nights did get oh so very cold in Canterlot.
“Don’t just stand there! Let me through!”
Moon Dancer silently groaned to herself. That sounded like Spitfire’s voice. What now?
“This cannot wait, you worthless palace ornaments!”
Somewhere in the back of her mind, Moon Dancer vaguely recalled that the EIS and the Royal Guard didn’t have the best history together. She wasn’t clear on the details, but she knew tensions had finally boiled over when Twilight rose to power. That had been all over the news until things settled. Perhaps she should intervene before Spitfire reopened old wounds in her haste.
Moon Dancer’s gaze swept across the other ponies gathered around the table with her. They were just discussing the final arrangements for Princess Celestia’s public address tomorrow. Most of the work was already done, and the vice-captain of the guard and the head of EIS’s internal security seemed to have things under control. She didn’t really need to be here. Security wasn’t something she had much experience with. She’d ensure the wards were set up properly later tonight, but for now, she politely excused herself to see to matters better matching her skill set.
Outside the pavilion erected for on-site administrative use, Moon Dancer spotted Spitfire attempting to fly past a small contingent of guards preventing her from interrupting the meeting. It would be hard to miss her between her coloration and the attention she was drawing to herself. In turn, she recognized Moon Dancer leaving the tent almost immediately and called out for her. She ordered the guards to let Spitfire through, and not long later, they’d found a private space to speak.
“Please tell me the seaponies haven’t made things worse,” Moon Dancer said, nearly begged. If they had to expand search and rescue patrols over that vortex or even further across the Sparkling Sea, they’d have to start mobilizing the military proper, and absolutely nopony wanted that.
“No, Ma’am,” Spitfire replied. “It’s another incident in the Frozen North.”
This had to be Twilight’s doing. Moon Dancer was awfully tempted to issue a blanket order to ignore the northern border.
“There are strange waves of light all across the sky. Mostly blues, greens, and purples, if that’s of any help. They possess as yet unknown magical properties. One of my bolts went to investigate but halted his approach when he ‘started to feel tingly all over’. The longer description almost sounded like he’d been drugged.”
Now that was strange. It didn’t sound like the kind of magic Twilight would be interested in, and wild magic usually opted for more physical effects. Unless… Moon Dancer’s eyes widened. “Oh! Has the Crystal Empire returned?” That wasn’t supposed to happen for a few years yet, but maybe Twilight had managed to release it early.
The confused look on Spitfire’s face, however, put paid to such thoughts. Really, it wasn’t that surprising. Moon Dancer had barely known the empire had ever existed before sitting in on Princess Celestia and Sunset Shimmer’s argument during movie night. Spitfire had little greater cause to know about it.
“Perhaps not, then,” Moon Dancer concluded. “I’ll investigate, but I don’t think this is something we need to worry about.”
Twilight surveyed the ponies gathered before her at the long vanished gates of the Crystal Empire. This would be their first test. Honesty, Generosity, Loyalty, and Laughter hung about their bearer’s neck. Magic sat atop her own head. Off to the side, Bon Bon, Spike, and Pinkie Pie, the least problematic bearer, watched on while the latter two shared a bag of popcorn.
Five Elements. Without the sixth, this likely wouldn’t work. Celestia and Luna couldn’t do it with all six between the two of them. But one Element, unfortunately, needed to remain in the Everfree for now. Still, it was worth a try. Maybe five Elements amongst five ponies would be enough. If some good came of this, wonderful. If nothing happened, then all it cost them was less than an hour of their time and a bit of annoyance putting up with Trixie’s generally tetchy nature rubbing off on them through Laughter.
“All right,” Twilight began, “is everypony ready?”
“Whenever,” Trixie grumbled.
Flash offered a mock salute and said, “Yes, Ma’am!”
Lyra and Sweetie Belle broke off their Ponyville gossip and both nodded.
Then Trixie asked the obvious question. “How does this work?”
In all honesty, Twilight didn’t have a clue. She withdrew the notes Celestia had given her at the start of all this from her bag of holding. They weren’t that helpful. It was just a bunch of musings on how the Elements felt to use and external circumstances that made things go wrong.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” Pinkie Pie cried. “Maybe you have to form up and shout your Element to unleash your attack!”
For once, Trixie was on entirely the same page as Twilight. Or maybe that was just Laughter talking. Either way, Trixie flatly said, “If we do, I’m out.”
“Really?” Lyra asked. Despite the bite Laughter put into the words, her genuine surprise and curiosity remained. “Isn’t that sort of thing right up your alley?”
Trixie clicked her tongue. “Amateurs. The Great and Powerful Trixie has no interest in such foalish displays.”
Before this could spiral out of control in a positive feedback loop, Twilight cut in. “That’s not how they work. The way Celestia writes about them, I think the Elements just respond to what you want them to do. At least if we all want them to do it. Sort of. It’s a little vague. If you don’t direct them properly, I think they just do what they want? I don’t know. Regardless, we don’t have to pose or give a corny speech that we don’t mean.”
Twilight waited a few seconds for everypony to absorb that incredibly unhelpful explanation.
“And on that note,” Twilight then continued, “does anypony have any objections to freeing the Crystal Empire? No? Great. None of you are horrible monsters. Now let’s do this.”
Twilight tuned out the rest of the world and focused on her thoughts of friendship toward the other participating bearers. She had no idea what she was doing, but that seemed like the place to start.
Sweetie Belle. She was everything Twilight could want in the protégé she’d never planned to take. Bright. Attentive. Motivated. Perhaps a little too eager, but that would temper with time. Got along well with Spike. She really had nothing to complain about.
Lyra. Twilight honestly couldn’t imagine undergoing the dramatic lifestyle change Lyra had sacrificed everything for. She’d all but cut herself off from magic. She’d left her home. She’d tossed aside her family, friends, and responsibilities. Twilight still struggled to comprehend the decisions she’d made. It was hard to actively dislike her, though. They’d certainly gotten off on the wrong hoof between the fight and the political nightmare she represented, but she otherwise had fairly easygoing personality.
Trixie. Twilight couldn’t claim she didn’t enjoy hearing about Trixie’s shenanigans after the fact. Getting involved in them wasn’t fun, but she wanted to focus on the positives right now. Indeed, Trixie was easily one of the best performers and storytellers she’d ever met. And considering that her mother and sister-in-law were both successful novelists, she hardly had a small sample size. Even disregarding the changelings, she’d met plenty of actors, entertainers, writers, and more over the years. If Trixie only didn’t have a more explosive bundle of issues than Lyra…
Flash. Twilight resisted the urge to groan or grunt. He wasn’t that bad. When he wasn’t constantly trying to get under her tail, he was a perfectly serviceable background pony she had nothing in common with. Really, Rainbow Dash, despite her jock facade, would have been a much better pick for Loyalty. Then they could have had a team consisting of six sorceresses, assuming one counted Sweetie Belle as a budding one, and–
And Twilight had a feeling she’d gone off on an unflattering tangent.
Right. Positive thoughts. Friendship. Twilight breathed in and out, centering herself. All right. Magic, we bearers may not be the best of friends – we’re trying – but the Crystal Empire has suffered enough already. If you can hear me, please lend me your strength and guidance.
It didn’t come as a terrible surprise when Magic responded. The phantom feeling of a sympathetic caress, for lack of a more meaningful way to describe it, swept through Twilight’s own magic. It was such an alien sensation, simultaneously both unsettling and reassuring. It’d happened before in the Everfree, and now she knew she hadn’t imagined it. Compulsive, powerful, ancient, and self-aware in some fashion? If life stayed true to form, she just knew the Elements would unveil their evil master plan thousands of years in the making someday.
Magic flicked Twilight’s magic with an indignant air. It hadn’t hurt, but she still let out a little noise of protest.
Fine, fine. I’m sorry.
The Element didn’t respond directly, but Twilight did feel it shift slightly. She knew, somehow, that it’d readied itself to act whenever she made the call.
This was such a weird experience. Why had nopony brought up their Elements acting this way? Did they not? Was Magic different? Celestia’s notes had described it as the ‘boss Element’, which implied a certain level of increased capabilities. Or was it just self-reflective? Did it only respond because Twilight talked to it? Was it borrowing her own intelligence? That’d be a lot easier to accomplish than creating a fully functional artificial magical intelligence. Surely whoever originally constructed them–
Twilight got the distinct impression of Magic glaring at her and tapping its nonexistent hoof. Perhaps she could theorize later.
And so Twilight pushed through her own growing artificial impatience – an echo of Trixie’s, she knew – and dredged up the feelings of tentative friendship and unity of purpose she’d lost after growing distracted. When she gave Magic the go ahead, it reached out and joined her to the other bearers. It was, she suspected, a meeting of magics not wholly different from how she thought dreamwalking worked.
Power flowed through those connections, cycling, building, and ultimately exploding into something greater than before. Twilight found herself swept away in the magic, in the heightened awareness of her fellow bearers. She felt the give and take. She basked in the exchange of energy. She reveled in absurd pool of mystical might building between them.
Yet something was wrong. Unstable. Lopsided. Kindness was missing. The pillars she stood upon were brittle and drastically uneven. She felt how easily magic flowed between her and her student and how hard she had to push to maintain that pace elsewhere. Little eddy currents formed to equalize the pressure. Pools of magic filled where it had nowhere else to go. Whatever was about to happen, it wouldn’t be what she’d intended. Not with this malformed mess. She barely had the presence of mind to direct all the energy at her disposal toward the Crystal Empire when she released it.
A riotous rainbow of magical might swept across the space the Crystal Empire’s capital should have occupied. Despite it’s lack of coherency, it smashed into the banishment spell. A ripple of magic spread out for leagues upon leagues as the two energies clashed.
And Twilight knew it was not enough.
Sure enough, when the Elements’ power waned and finally faded into nothing, the empire remained banished. The bearers, as one, collapsed the very moment they had to stand upon their own four hooves again. Twilight, at least, didn’t feel drained or exhausted, but she did feel horribly weak. Playing with that level of power would take some getting used to.
Magic sent Twilight a chagrined apology for its failure, and she tried to offer it an understanding mental smile in return. It’d done what it could, no doubt, but couldn’t make up for her own shortcomings. She closed her eyes, let out a little sigh, and then buried her face in the snow. What had she expected, really?
“Oh wow! That’s amazing!”
It really wasn’t, Pinkie Pie.
But then Sweetie Belle gasped. “It’s beautiful.”
Could it be? Twilight almost dared to hope.
“What is it?” Lyra asked.
Not a crystal empire if you have to ask. Reluctantly, Twilight pushed herself to her hooves and looked around. She didn’t immediately spot anything new or interesting, just snow, snow, and more snow. She turned to the others for some clarification and saw that they were all, to a one, looking up to the sky. Curious, she followed their gazes.
High above, waves of color spread out from a shining, central point in every direction. It was a brilliant display of all shades of green, blue, and purple that extended beyond the horizon. It did possess a certain aesthetic appeal, but that didn’t make its appearance a good thing.
“It’s an aurora,” Twilight said. Sunset had mentioned them once. “They form from solar winds under certain conditions which Equus normally doesn’t satisfy. The Crystal Empire had a powerful artifact that spread energy across its lands and kept the eternal winter at bay. Those energies interacted with the solar winds and produced, well, that.” She gestured toward the aurora above. “I think we released some of that magic. Or poked a hole in the banishment spell? Honestly, I have no idea what either would mean for the empire.” And there was still far more snow everywhere than anypony should ever have to suffer, so it wasn’t doing anything useful.
Pinkie Pie pounced from behind, wrapping an arm around Twilight’s neck. “Aw, it’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Would that we all could have such unfailing confidence. It was hard to mope or brood with Laughter, ironically, artificially elevating her mood now, but Twilight did appreciate the support regardless. For the moment, at least, she would take the lack of a certain doom Pinkie Sense of some sort as a positive sign.
For a time, the group watched the changing pattern of the aurora in silence. It really did possess an ethereal sort of beauty.
Twilight tore her eyes away from the shimmering spectacle of light above and cleared her throat. “Right. Good work, team. Not quite what we were aiming for, but better than nothing. We all tolerate each other well enough to not have the Elements backfire on us. Success!”
While Trixie outright scoffed, everypony else either laughed or offered up a smile. Spike looked about to say something snarky, but Sweetie Belle nudged him with an elbow before he could and silenced him. Yes, Twilight would count today as a success. A very minor one for sure, but a success nonetheless.
Better yet, she’d learned a bit about how the Elements functioned. If it truly involved a meeting of magics, a partial merging of the more colloquial and fanciful soul, such an intimate manner of power exchange explained why close bonds were a requirement of the process. That level of vulnerability would require a lot of trust to truly embrace, far more than mere dreamwalking. She had no idea why that was necessary, but foal steps. This was, after all, almost an entirely new field of study with almost nothing known. She and Luna were probably the only ponies alive who’d made even the slightest formal study of it at all.
A burst of flame brought a letter from Moon Dancer.
Oh. Right. Probably should have given her a heads up about this.
A moment passed.
And Sunset, too, come to think of it.
At any rate, all Twilight could do now was apologize and explain.
The time had come. It was a bit after midday, the stage was prepared, all of the dignitaries had found their seat, and those members of the public who intended to listen had gathered into a great mass within Canterlot’s central plaza. The only pony absent was the most important one.
“You’re sure she’s coming?” Moon Dancer asked.
Raven Inkwell, Princess Celestia’s seneschal, said, “Yes, she’ll be here any minute now,” for the third time now. This time, however, she added, “Relax. It’s not unusual for these sorts of things to run a few minutes late. Her Highness also possesses something of a flair for the dramatic. It’s also not unheard of for her to keep an eye on things from afar and teleport in only once it’s time for her to speak. Just give the go ahead to start.”
After getting to know Princess Celestia over the past several weeks, that didn’t sound out of character for her. Still, Moon Dancer asked, “Are you sure?”
Moon Dancer closed her eyes, breathed, and forced herself to calm down. If Raven Inkwell, with well over a decade of experience, thought starting now was appropriate, then what reason did she have to worry? Everything would work out. If it didn’t, well, this was her first and probably last time organizing this sort of event. What did it really matter?
That line of thought didn’t help that much. Even so, Moon Dancer sent the signal to start to the master of ceremonies.
The first few speakers consisted of various nobles and bureaucrats, often both, who’d managed to snag a short amount of time to address the public at this event. They all had their own agenda to advance, none of which Moon Dancer could possibly care less about right now. Certainly, none of it could be any worse than the usual internal machinations required of a functioning government. Not that it mattered. It wasn’t her business either way.
Then it finally happened with perfect timing. Princess Celestia appeared in a brilliant implosion of sunlight. It was not, as far as Moon Dancer could tell, a teleport nor the result of an illusion. An interesting trick, one no doubt worth asking after, but that would come later.
As impressive as Princess Celestia’s entrance was, however, one couldn’t help but notice the stark absence of a crown upon her head. The presence of her other regalia only made the sight more jarring, and a loud buzz of whispers built up in the audience.
The master of ceremonies, having no need to introduce the nation’s immortal sovereign, said a few brief words and then stepped aside. That left Princess Celestia to take center stage. A smile and the raising of a hoof silenced the crowd.
“Good afternoon, my little ponies.” A little magic carried Princess Celestia’s voice across the entire plaza. “Many of you may be wondering why I came to speak with you today. The rest of you, I daresay, think you know. To address the rumors, yes, Eclipse stole into the castle last week. Yes, she made off with my crown while I was enjoying a night off with my family and friends. And yes, it is a great relief not to have to wear that heavy old relic anymore.”
A wave of respectful laughter rippled across the crowd but soon died out.
“But this is not why I called you here today. In truth, I must confess I am tired.”
Suddenly, Moon Dancer had a very bad feeling about where this was headed.
“I can barely remember the last time I took a long holiday. It has been a pleasure serving this country, but I need to take some time for myself.”
Utter silence met those words, and Moon Dancer had no idea how to react. Did she pull Princess Celestia from the stage and ask her to really think about what she was about to do? Did she just let this go on without interference? What would Twilight do in this situation?
Probably something impertinent but loving.
“Equestria was never meant to be ruled by any single pony. We are a diarchy, not a monarchy, and that is a strain I have keenly felt these past thousand years. In this last decade, Archmage Twilight Sparkle has greatly alleviated my burden. For that, she has my eternal gratitude. Yet the Lunar Throne sits empty.”
Those in the know watched on in surprise or shock. The general audience very clearly looked lost. Despite this, nopony had it in them to whisper over their princess. And now that it’d gotten this far, Moon Dancer couldn’t cut her off early without making everything worse.
“I hope to have that very throne filled upon the start of the new year. With the coming solstice, its rightful occupant will return to these lands.”
Here it comes…
“Ponies of Equestria, I have a sister!”