Chapter Twenty Seven - The Solstice (Part One)

Naught but the scritch-scratch of a quill on paper broke the silence in her far too barren library. She penned the final words of her journal, pleased for just one moment, and then let out a heavy sigh.

It was time.

She passed through the corridors of her manor at just shy of a trot. The works of art – paintings, sculptures, ceramics, weapons, and more – on display had not the slightest claim upon her mind. She needed to go deeper.

She wound her way down stairs, past mundane traps, and into the wards that protected her true treasure hoard. They were a subtle beast, not intended to drive anypony away. Even the greatest magics could be circumvented with enough care or, more importantly, sheer raw power. Everything before now kept the rabble out. These wards were meant to summon her in secret should somepony intrude. Nopony who could make their way this far deserved anything less than her full attention.

The final set of doors were an ostentatious display of pure gold, enchanted for durability and studded with gems. She’d constructed them during her vainer years. If they didn’t play into the final defense against the greedy so perfectly, she would have melted them down ages ago.

There she paused to reflect.

What was she doing here?

This wasn’t her responsibility.

Did she really want to do this?

It would be a massive drain on her resources.

What did she gain?

A clean conscience.

She swore under her breath and threw open the vault doors.

A literal mountain of gold, jewels, and artifacts sprawled out below her in the expansive cavern. Racks of paintings coated the rough, rock walls. Artifacts hung on display. Historical relics sat securely in their containers. Suits of armor rested upon their stands. Every manner of treasure the world had ever produced lay within. It made her the envy of every dragon in want of a larger hoard.

It was also the last defense against those who could be tempted away from true power. Rather than descend the stone stairs jutting out from the cavern wall to the floor below, she sought out the small chamber somewhere just below the treasure heap with her magic. Once she found it, she teleported straight inside.

The room contained nothing more than a crude elevator consisting of a platform attached to a rope slung over a pulley hanging above a pit that led down into darkness. There was no magic here to give away its existence. There was no magic here that what laid below might potentially disrupt.

She stepped aboard the elevator and lowered herself into the shaft.

After nearly a minute of steady descent, the narrow passage down opened into a massive emptiness that dwarfed even the treasury above. Great columns of stone supported the ceiling. Although she could only see the nearest ones by the light of her horn, she knew they went on and on.

Below, however, she could sense the power that dwelt here. It was too simple to be called her magnum opus, merely a basic component of any artifact blown up to an enormous scale that could hold a modestly sized city inside it. All the same, it was the work of an ordinary lifetime.

The wooden thud of the elevator upon reaching her destination echoed throughout the cavern. At her hooves was not bedrock but magic. Pure, raw magic taken from the surrounding ambient magic of Equus, solidified and continuously added to at a steady rate for decades, filled the great hall like an ocean.

Sunset expanded the volume of her subspace storage.

It was time.

The hive had prepared. In the absolute worst-case scenario, they could retreat to the badlands south of Equestria. There, they’d secured a hideaway deep enough underground to avoid freezing to death. The only thing they lacked for their survival was a herd of ponies, not that it would be hard to convince a city’s worth to move in with them after the summer frost set in.

But Chrysalis trusted Twilight perhaps more than anyone else outside the hive. Since she said she had the situation under control, at least to the point of avoiding any end of the world scenarios, Chrysalis felt confident she would deliver on that promise. She’d never failed to keep her word before.

Thus with nothing better to do, Chrysalis languidly strolled about Princess Cadance’s manor in the form of a stray cat and kept an eye on the nymphs. If something went horribly wrong, she would personally grab Ocellus and lead the hive in their exodus.

For now, however, Chrysalis wished Archmage Twilight luck.

It was time.

In her mind, Moon Dancer read Twilight’s letter over and over as she made her way toward Captain Armor’s office.

‘Moon Dancer, come to the Old Castle as soon as possible. Bring Celestia, my brother, and some of his underlings, preferably earth ponies. Also, grab Tempest. Starlight won’t do unless she’s recovered. Twilight.’

That would be all well and good normally, except Moon Dancer didn’t know where any of them were!

Captain Armor would be the easiest to track down. He hadn’t left Equestria on his hunt for Eclipse, so he should be able to make it to the Everfree if he hurried. She’d already sent a letter via flame sending recalling him, in any case. He’d not yet posted a reply, but she presumed he would follow orders if able.

Starlight and Tempest were out at sea. Moon Dancer suspected the former still had trouble with her horn, and the latter probably couldn’t get them back to Equestria quickly enough. That normally wouldn’t constitute a problem. While Twilight was probably too busy to spare the time to fetch them, they had a powerhouse that spent most every day lounging around the castle not using her magic.

But Princess Celestia was gone! Moon Dancer hadn’t the slightest idea of when she’d left nor to where she’d gone. Moreover, wherever she was, letters couldn’t reach her!

And that left Moon Dancer with little option but to speak with the vice-captain of the guard to acquire ‘underlings’. That one request, at least, she could fulfill. She even had a good idea for getting earth ponies safely through the forest. If they couldn’t walk through it, she’d just have to drop them from far enough above to be outside the influence of the forest’s chaotic magic.

With parachutes, of course. And maybe a magical bubble of breathable air.

It was time.

It’d been a long while since Sweetie Drops had sat down for a proper meeting as the head of the Anti-Monster Division. Incog had called everypony together for one last group briefing before Princess Luna returned from banishment. As the one who’d spent the past several weeks hanging out with the archmage, one might be forgiven for thinking she had the most to share.

She did not. Most of what Sweetie Drops knew consisted of private information that had little bearing on the current situation. Half of what wasn’t were things few ponies needed to know, and the other half consisted of basic mission details everypony either already knew or didn’t need to know. Indeed, it was even still a secret, apparently, that Princess Luna had been dreamwalking for the past thousand years, so everypony still thought that they were dealing with the return of Nightmare Moon despite Princess Celestia’s little surprise announcement the other day.

But even if Sweetie Drops had shared everything she knew, the overwhelming majority of the discussion still would have revolved around how they would react to a regime change should the worst come to pass. The general consensus seemed to be that they would follow their archmage’s lead.

In hindsight, Princess Celestia had obviously been preparing for this since Twilight first ascended to power. She’d given her hoofpicked archmage, her first student in centuries, more and more of her own power. The Royal Guard had fallen into line from the start, and eventually the EIS had gotten the message as well. Archmage Twilight Sparkle, clearly, was meant to rule in her stead in all but name.

As Incog droned on with matters of policy going forward that, however boring, needed to be covered, Sweetie Drops found her thoughts drifting south to the sprawling Everfree Forest.

Stay safe, Lyra.

It was time.

Apple Bloom had slept late into the afternoon to have the energy to be awake all night as most ponies did just before the solstice. The party lasted until sunrise, after all. But this year she’d have to skip out on attending the Summer Sun Celebration. She had better places to be.

As such, Apple Bloom trekked her way through the Everfree to Zecora’s home. Every door and window was locked. Most likely, she’d headed into town to enjoy the festivities, and that suited Apple Bloom just fine. She grabbed a spare key from beneath a nearby rock and made her way inside.

Downstairs in the secret sub-basement, Apple Bloom found the caged timberwolf just as she’d left it. It took some doing, but she managed to safely snap a twig off of it for her own use and put it in a jar. She didn’t think she would need it, but better to be safe than dead. Once that was secured, she wrestled free another bit of wood and ate it now. That would get her through the Everfree. Now all she needed was Scootaloo.

That proved more difficult than expected. Scootaloo wasn’t anywhere in the sky – always the first place to look for a pegasus to avoid a long, embarrassing, frustrating, and fruitless task that could have been easily avoided – at the orphanage, the ruins of their clubhouse, or any of her usual haunts. That left Apple Bloom needing to search for her amongst the densely packed crowds of the festival, something she’d vainly hoped to avoid.

Strangely enough, Trixie was in town, on stage, and putting on a show greater than all of her prior ones put together. She should be at the castle in the Everfree preparing to face Princess Luna. Apple Bloom would have gone up to her and made a fuss, but after yesterday, who knew if the pony on stage was even the real her? Maybe she could be in two places at once like Archmage Twilight.

Apple Bloom, after wasting time watching an entire iteration of Trixie’s performance, went back to her search. In the end, she found Scootaloo in perhaps the most predictable place possible. Rainbow Dash had apparently made it back to town and had occupied herself with performing tricks for her adoring audience, Scootaloo amongst them.

It wasn’t without protest when Apple Bloom dragged her friend out of the crowd, but she got the job done. Once they were alone enough not to be heard above the tumult of thousands of ponies, more than reasonably fit in Ponyville, all doing their own thing, she said, “I know where Sweetie Belle is gonna confront Princess Luna.”

Scootaloo’s eyes immediately sharpened from annoyed to serious. “Where?”

“There’s an old castle in the Everfree. Princess Celestia said it used to be the capital of Equestria.”

“Huh. That makes–” Realization set in, and Scootaloo’s eyes widened. “Wait, you met the princess!”

Apple Bloom shushed her and said, “Focus, Scoots. Sweetie Belle. Moon princess. Tonight.”

“Right. Right.” Scootaloo wore an appropriately chastised look and then redeemed herself by immediately asking, “How are we going to get there? I mean, I can move through the forest no problem, but you…”

“Don’t worry,” Apple Bloom replied, “I’ve got it covered. I’ll get us both there.”

It was time.

More than that, it was strange being back in Canterlot. Spike had spent a good four weeks in the Frozen North with the bearers and getting caught up in their shenanigans. He’d participated in the greatest snowball fight in history, watched Twilight and Trixie level a good chunk of land, helped in the attempt to save Princess Celestia from her angry sister, and even traveled to another universe!

Now what did he do?

Twilight might not like her adventures because they took away from her research time, but now that he’d had a taste, how could he just sit here and play foals’ games with Flurry and Ocellus? It was fun, sure. They were fun. But in comparison? Maybe it was time to start thinking about how to convince Twilight he was old enough to start helping with her work beyond as a simple assistant.

“You look like you’re thinking deep thoughts there.”

Spike jumped in surprise. “Aunt Cadance? Aren’t you supposed to be at the festival?” Just because the main site had moved to Ponyville this year didn’t mean Canterlot had forgone the celebration. Cadance usually organized such things locally when Princess Celestia and Twilight were out of town.

“They’re better off without me,” Cadance replied dismissively. “If I need to step up and sit on the throne for a few minutes, it’s no secret where I am. Otherwise, I’m more hindrance than help right now.”

That told Spike basically everything he needed to know. “Mom will be fine. When has she ever not been?”

“Hey, that’s my line! I’m the responsible adult here, I’ll have you know.” Cadance even spread her wings in mock indignation.

Spike smirked.

A few moments later, Cadance abandoned her act and sighed. “You’re not wrong. She’s resourceful. And the pony who throws herself into harm’s way, not the pony in danger. I’m far more worried Auntie won’t be coming home.”

Yeah, there was that. Spike couldn’t say he knew which way the cards were going to fall either.

“Anyway,” Cadance sighed before she forced a thin smile back onto her face. “The fillies want to send a letter to Sweetie Belle to wish her luck. Your mother, too, but it’s probably best not to disturb her.”

That was a massive understatement. Spike was fairly certain he’d seen her making a checklist this morning before she’d sent him off. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have a relapse. As far as he knew, she’d been clean for years.

It was time.

There was so much to do to prepare for Luna’s imminent arrival. Twilight had no time to spare for anything except checking off the boxes on the list. Her OCDs had openly gotten the better of her for the first time in years, and for that reason alone, she was glad she’d already checked off the ‘send Spike home’ item. She didn’t need his snarky comments.

Trixie would take care of herself. She was probably performing in Ponyville, and that was probably for the best. That gave her less of a chance to brood and get cold hooves.

Lyra had already left with Bon Bon. Twilight had considered asking the latter to watch over the foals in Canterlot but had ultimately decided against it. They had plenty of protection already.

Flash would jump over to the Old Castle after taking care of a few things in Canterlot.

That left Pinkie Pie and Sweetie Belle both in need of a lift. The former could make the journey herself somehow. Twilight had no doubt about that. But the less variables involved in this operation, the better.

Those two both needed a polymorph, too, just in case things went horribly wrong. There was no need to risk their real bodies when such simple preventative measures were available. Flash had one already to deal with his broken wing, and Trixie and Lyra could take care of themselves.

Thus Twilight tracked down the mare in question and, after a quick bit of magic, asked, “Pinkie Pie, my seer, what can you tell me about the future?” The answer, she found, proved less than useful.

“Somepony I know is going to get their cutie mark!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Pinkie Pie knew hundreds of ponies, if not thousands. Even if the information were relevant, which it was not, it hardly told her anything useful. She made a parting request to keep her informed if any data about tonight’s confrontation cropped up and then went back to her other tasks with one more box on her list checked.

What else did she have to do? Twilight had already sent a request for backup to Moon Dancer. If she managed to push Luna into the human world, that would prove useful. She needed to recharge the mirror’s battery.

That took her less than a minute.

She also needed to get the mirror to the Old Castle, but that was just one more passenger.

Sunset had blocked incoming mail, probably from everyone but at the very least from her. She went ahead and tried to send another request for assistance anyway, long shot that it was even if it got through, and only received the same disappointing results. The magic failed to latch on to Sunset’s own. Thus was she left with nothing but a pile of ash.

At any rate, that meant she needed to find a replacement to wield the mirror. She’d asked Moon Dancer to bring Tempest for that very reason just in case, so she supposed that would work itself out if Sunset kept being difficult. Worse case scenario, she could just have Moon Dancer do it. All the task really required was dropping the mirror on top of Luna while she was distracted with reveling in her victory if the Elements didn’t do anything useful.

Then again, maybe Shining would be a better pick for that. It might be better to have somepony combat capable in charge of it in case the first attempt failed. Twilight would really much rather have him waiting with a contingent of guards on the other side to pounce on Luna immediately. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust them to do their job unsupervised, but this operation was kind of incredibly important, the sort of thing she would normally see to personally. Worse, they all still needed to learn how to walk on two legs. She’d have to think about this some more.

And this was, of course, all predicated upon the idea that Sparky wouldn’t stab them in the back. Sunny wasn’t around right now to interfere on Luna’s behalf, but even just an evening spent chatting with Sparky was enough to tell how close those two were. It kind of made Twilight jealous, in all honesty, for how much she’d missed out on with her own Sunset.

Now that was a weird feeling she’d need to sort out some other time.

Other than that, she supposed she should probably have a quick chat with Mayor Mare to make sure the Summer Sun Celebration hadn’t caught fire or something. That would be more or less in line with the very mixed luck she’d experienced since leaving Canterlot and the weirdness Ponyville attracted. It was on her list, at any rate, so that meant she had to do it if she wanted to gaze upon a beautiful, completed column of boxes at the end of the day.

And she did. Obviously. Who wouldn’t?

Twilight tried one last time to send Sunset a letter, felt the magic fizzle, and gave up. After tracking down Sweetie Belle and Pinkie Pie, she grabbed ahold of the crystal mirror, some spare solidified magic just in case, and then teleported them out of her lab.

It was time.

As much as she tried, she couldn’t hide her distraction. She was quite simply too worried about Sweetie Belle and Twilight. Her companion had long since noticed her state of distress, of course, but had politely declined to comment. However, this time she’d surely made too much of a spectacle of herself.

“I’m sorry, Fleur, dear. What was it you said?”

And sure enough, Fleur sent a silent stare Rarity’s way that seemed to say so much all at once. “I was asking what you thought of Princess Celestia’s announcement a few days ago.”

“Oh, yes. Quite a surprise to learn she has a sister. Princess Luna, I believe it was?”

“Indeed,” Fleur said. “Normally something you would be happy to discuss with me unto the end of time, surely.” There came that knowing look once more. “What has you so preoccupied this evening? Is she old news to you?”

Rarity shook her head. “No, of course not.”

“Then is the festival itself not to your liking? Ponyville, I think, has done surprisingly well for itself, has it not?”

“No, no,” Rarity replied reassuringly. “It has. It’s marvelous, really. I just…” What could she say without parting with secrets not her own? “There is a matter of some great import about to occur. And do forgive me, but I can say no more on the subject.”

Naturally, no pony of Fleur’s wit or position would fail to connect this information to what she already knew about who it came from. Rarity could see it in her eyes. Nonetheless, rather than pressing the matter, she offered a small nod of acceptance. “Well then, shall we see if there’s some entertainment nearby which might distract you with the here and now? You mentioned having played a part in the decorations at town hall, I believe. Show me them?”

“Ah.” Yes, she had said something to that effect, hadn’t she? It’d been somewhat of a last minute thing since Pinkie currently had more important things to occupy her time. Rarity pulled her gaze away from where it’d drifted over Fleur’s shoulder to the Everfree. “Of course. It’s right this way.”

As they departed, Rarity found her eyes drawn one last time toward the forest. She breathed deep and did her best to focus on who was currently with her. She did, however, allow herself a parting remark.

Sweetie Belle, I doubt you can hear me at this moment, but do take care of yourself. If Twilight is there, remind her that she simply must return you to me unharmed. She’ll answer to me if she doesn’t.

As much as she wished she could say otherwise, a dozen earth ponies parachuting into the Old Castle from the skies far, far above the Everfree was not the strangest sight Twilight had ever seen. Pinkie Pie, somewhat surprisingly, hadn’t quite taken that coveted award yet, but she had a feeling it was only a matter of time there.

Regardless, with Magic atop her brow, Twilight flew out of the castle to go collect her reinforcements from the Royal Guard. The wild wind over the Everfree had blown most of them pretty far off target. One of them, as it turned out, was Moon Dancer. Given the unusual arrival, she’d expected that, but it did leave her with two important questions.

“Where is Celestia?” Twilight asked as she popped another guard off to the Old Castle. “And why didn’t she just teleport you here?” And on second thought, she had a third question. “Actually, did I miss anypony?”

Moon Dancer nodded. “There’s one more not far from here.” After first reorienting herself against the castle just visible in the distance, she swept her hoof out in a vaguely northward direction. “That way, I think.”

And they set off. Anypony this close to the Old Castle could make their way there safely on their own, Twilight was sure, but it would put her mind slightly more at ease to just pick them all up. It barely qualified as anything more taxing than busywork anyway.

As they walked, Moon Dancer answered Twilight’s other question. “I’m not sure where Princess Celestia is. I haven’t seen her since last evening.”

That complicated matters somewhat, but Twilight could work around her absence. She’d only been meant to provide power to the mirror if the Elements failed and they missed the first attempt. This might even be for the best. If she were here, Twilight would have to wrestle with distracting feelings of guilt that she didn’t have the time for. And now she was thinking about how she’d lied through her teeth to Celestia’s face, and–

No. Not right now. You can feel like worthless garbage later.

And just to make things even more complicated, Moon Dancer continued, “I don’t know where your brother is, either, but I sent out a recall order to him. Tempest and Starlight are also out dealing with a major problem at sea.”

Of course they were.

Where else would they be?

Twilight screamed her frustration to the heavens.

And then, just because she clearly needed one more thing to deal with, Twilight spotted a bit of orange, a splash of yellow, and a big red bow moving through the forest in haste.

This was not the day Scootaloo had expected to have. Sure, she’d kind of always wanted to go traipsing through the Everfree for the thrill of it, but when the alternative was free food and entertainment back at home, it lost some of the appeal. She was pretty sure she’d be having nightmares for a while, too, after some huge, ugly flower had tried to eat her.

But Apple Bloom was as good as her word. They’d made it. They’d spotted the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters in the distance not too long ago. Moreover, they’d have to be blind and deaf not to notice all the activity going on here. Ponies were parachuting in from the sky – the Crusaders would have to try that later – the archmage had sprouted butterfly wings to fly about despite being in the Everfree, and plenty of light sources lit up the fading evening light within the castle.

And all of this came with one really big problem. Apple Bloom led Scootaloo to a bush with plenty of room inside it to hide themselves. Concealed, they turned their attention to their final task.

“So how are we going to get in without getting caught?” Scootaloo pushed a branch down just far enough to let her see the castle up ahead. A couple of guards had taken up a post at the gate, and she caught the occasional glimpse of a few more patrolling. More kept showing up as the archmage teleported them in, too, so time was a factor.

“I don’t know. I didn’t expect guards.”

Scootaloo hadn’t either. “We crossed a river to get here a little ways back. I could try to make a fog cover.”

“Nah, the archmage would just blow it away.”

Since said archmage had apparently figured out how to perform magic in the Everfree, Scootaloo conceded the point. “If we think really, really hard, maybe Sweetie Belle could hear us?”

Apple Bloom shrugged. “It’s worth a try.”

It didn’t work.

“Okay, new plan,” Apple Bloom said. “Trixie is in Ponyville right now, so there should only be two ponies in there who can send us away easily. If we kick up enough fuss, either Sweetie Belle will find us or Princess Celestia or Archmage Twilight will show up to send us home. They’ll let us talk to her if we ask nicely.”

“Are you kidding me? If they don’t just have somepony escort us out, they’ll take one look at us and magic us back to Ponyville.” Even if she hadn’t wanted to, Scootaloo had heard all the stories about the archmage from Sweetie Belle. And the princess was supposed to be crazy stronger than even her!

Apple Bloom shook her head, rustling the bush in the process as little twigs got caught in her mane. Such was one of many reasons why short styles like Scootaloo’s own were far superior to bold adventurers such as them. Apple Bloom muttered curses as she freed herself but still managed to get out, “They’ll listen. They’re nice,” in the process.

“You say that as though you know them.”

A moment passed. Scootaloo’s eyes shifted to her friend standing beside her.

“Oh, hay!” The words came with a little stomp of Apple Bloom’s hoof. “I knew there was something I was forgetting.”

“Wait, you’ve met both of them!” Scootaloo asked perhaps a bit too loudly. “And you didn’t tell me?”

Apple Bloom said, “It was only recently,” in her own defense. “Things have been complicated, okay? But it turns out Index was the archmage in disguise all along.”

Index was… But that means… Scootaloo’s mind was blown. “That’s awesome!” she breathed.

“Yeah, yeah. Anyhow, Crusaders charge forward?”

Once Scootaloo finally snapped out of her daze, she stretched and cracked the bones in her legs. “Totally. You ready?”

“Ready as a spring hare.”

They counted down from three and then burst out from the bush at a full gallop. Apple Bloom winced in pain but kept moving. Apparently, whatever she’d done that let her wander the Everfree didn’t protect her if her magic started acting up. But that was all the more reason to get to the safety of the castle as soon as possible.

A cry of frustration erupted from some distance away, oddly enough, but they paid it no mind. The pair crashed out of the woods side by side and pressed themselves even harder as they cleared the open ground between the forest’s edge and the castle gate. The guards stationed there moved to bar the way with their bodies. But they thought they were dealing with regular foals! The Crusaders had made it through tougher challenges than a pair of adults who weren’t taking them seriously.

But a grumpy archmage was another story entirely. She, wearing a crown of all things, poofed into existence in front of their charge without warning and picked them up with her magic, leaving their legs flailing back and forth uselessly in the air.

Oh, that’s just unfair.

Scootaloo would have tried escaping with her wings, but this was technically what they’d wanted, so mission accomplished, she supposed.

The archmage leveled a firm glare at the both of them. It then shifted to Apple Bloom in particular. “I’m not even going to ask how you got here. I expect this of you three by now.”

Wasn’t that actually a really big compliment coming from an archmage? Scootaloo couldn’t help but grin even though she knew it wouldn’t help their case. And then she registered that the archmage had said three, not two. She shifted to look past the mare and the guards behind her and spotted a tuft of pink and purple headed their way at a gallop from deeper within the castle.

With a sigh, the archmage unceremoniously dropped them back onto their hooves. “Sweetie Belle,” she began as their missing Crusader drew near.

Sweetie Belle almost ignored the archmage and leapt into a group hug. Scootaloo could tell. She’d seen that look before. But instead Sweetie Belle settled for a wide grin and a wave for the moment.

“Keep your friends out of trouble and they can stay for now. Absolutely no crusading tonight. Understood?”

Without hesitation, Sweetie Belle so promised.

“Good.” And with that out of the way, Archmage Twilight turned her attention back to the other Crusaders. She offered an exasperated sigh to Apple Bloom rather than any proper greeting, and then her gaze fell onto Scootaloo. “I don’t believe we’ve met yet. Once everything is settled, we’ll have to fix that. For now, however, I have other matters to attend to. I’ll be in the throne room if you need me.”

The archmage then teleported away without a word of warning.

Seeing the looks on their faces, or perhaps just reading Scootaloo’s mind in particular, Sweetie Belle said, “Yeah, she does that. But come here! It’s been so long!”

All three Crusaders, reunited, came together in a group hug.

An unknowable time later, they finally broke apart. Sweetie Belle was the first to break the silence, and by how quickly and enthusiastically she spoke, she had a lot to say.

“Oh, I have so much to tell you two! So much has happened while I’ve been away. I found out that Index was actually Archmage Twilight!” Sweetie Belle squeed at that, apparently still not over it, and danced excitedly in place on her hooves.

Apple Bloom and Scootaloo chorused, “We know,” not that Sweetie Belle even heard them.

“I met Spike and even got to see him grow wings. I fought a great snowball war in the Frozen North. I went to a movie night in Canterlot with the royal family. I met Archmage Twilight’s secret first mentor. Oh, and I got an up-close view of a battle between two of the greatest sorceresses in the world! That was, well, a bit of a mess, but it worked out in the end. Oh, oh, oh! And! And I got to go to another universe!”

What? “Another universe?” Was Sweetie Belle serious? And why did Apple Bloom look like that wasn’t a huge surprise? Did she already know?

“Apple Bloom, you would have loved it there. Their whole society is structured around electricity. Magic is new to them, you see. They have these strange devices called computers that are kind of like illusions spells that perform a lot of automatic number crunching to play films and music and–” Sweetie Belle had to stop to suck in some fresh air.

Finally. Scootaloo had begun to wonder if Sweetie Belle had learned how to not need to breathe from the archmage.

Meanwhile, Apple Bloom got that look in her eye when she had a brilliant idea. “How do I get there?” she asked.

“Oh, there’s this crystal mirror. We brought it with us, actually. You just walk right through. The portal takes a lot of magic to force open, but that hasn’t been the barrier one might expect.”

“Hey,” Scootaloo said. She gave Apple Bloom a bit of a shove to knock her out of whatever path her thoughts had been headed down. “Don’t do anything not awesome.”

It was one serious glare Apple Bloom sent Scootaloo in return. She cooled off quickly, of course, but it was plain there was something going on there. And Sweetie Belle had noticed too, obviously. With that necklace of hers, she could hardly miss it. She wore a conflicted look that Apple Bloom missed entirely and managed to school her expression before that could change. Neither said a word more about whatever all that was, leaving Scootaloo to guess on her own.

Instead, Sweetie Belle elaborated on some of the more memorable events of her last few weeks. Despite the festival, Ponyville hadn’t changed much, so she ended up doing most of the talking.

Eventually, a letter from Spike, Flurry, and Ocellus arrived and interrupted them.

Flash could hardly claim to be an expert or of much use, but they had nopony better qualified to teach quadrupeds how to move on two legs. Things were proceeding as well as he could expect, to be honest. His students wobbled as they moved about, a bad look for any member of the Royal Guard, but at least they’d developed a good enough sense of balance to not fall over. In another hour or two, they could probably manage to reliably sprint across a room, which was all they needed. The plan was to dog-pile atop Princess Luna if she came through the portal. Simple and effective. Their sheer weight would hold her in place until somepony drugged her.

Observing from one of her desks was the other Twilight Sparkle. Twilight had taken to calling her Sparky, and most everyone else had as well. She sat with her legs curled up atop a swivel chair, gently rotating herself from side to side as one hand and then the other came into contact with her desk. The other Sunset Shimmer, who had apparently not become an infamous criminal in this world but rather a world-renowned scientist, was somewhere in Equestria doing only Celestia knew what.

“Hey,” Sparky said, drawing Flash’s attention away from what could generously be called his fellow guards’ training. “I got the impression Sparkles doesn’t like you. Any particular reason? You seem nice enough.”

This hardly seemed like the time to go down that rabbit hole, but Flash couldn’t stop himself from letting out a rueful chuckle. “If only I could get the other you to see that.”

“Oh.” By the flat tone, Sparky understood the situation from just that alone. “You’re trying to get under her skirt.” She folded her arms. “That’s not going to work.”

That wasn’t exactly what he was trying to do, but curious now, Flash turned his full attention onto Sparky with a questioning look. It was very fortunate that human expressions were remarkably similar to pony ones.

“I had a very…limited interest in friendship until after I met Sunny. Relationships?” Sparky scoffed. “The result of a biological imperative I don’t have.”

“What changed?” Flash assumed something had from her tone.

“I learned to decouple sex and romance in my head. Romance for me is like…friendship plus plus.”

There was almost certainly a cultural reference in there that had gone right over Flash’s head, but he got the gist of Sparky’s meaning. “So I should be her friend?” He’d been doing that. Every time they spoke, despite that, she still looked like she was forcing herself to give him the time of day.

Sparky shook her head. “No, you should give up.” When Flash went to protest, she held up a hand. A moment later, she lowered all but two fingers. “You have two massive barriers to overcome. She’s like Athena. She has no time for Aphrodite’s shenanigans.”

“Who and who?”

“Right,” Sparky mumbled. “You have a literal sun goddess. No cultural analogue.” Her vague musings, increasingly indistinct, eventually coalesced into, “Basically, romantic love is a waste of her time. From what I can tell, she’s only just coming around to the idea of friendship. Love? Why bother? Believe me, she’s perfectly happy alone. People can do that. That’s a thing. Moreover, she seems even busier than I am. When do you think she’ll have the time to do otherwise? Relationships don’t just happen.”

As much as Flash hated to admit it, Sparky had a point. Part of what he admired most about Twilight was how she made the best of not just every day but every moment. No second went to waste around her. She was always in motion, figuratively speaking, far beyond what should be equinely possible.

And that, however contradictory, was also a large part of what Flash felt he could offer her. She needed help to learn how to slow down from time to time, to find the ability to unwind, relax, and just take comfort in the moment. The opportunity to really get to know her had only reinforced that notion. Even with ponies she actively liked, she didn’t seem to know how to just hang out. She always had to be doing something or, as Sparky had put it, she felt like she was wasting her time. But he could show her a better way.

“Beyond that,” Sparky continued, “our worlds are parallel, and, well…”

“You had no idea who I am,” Flash finished for her, saving her the trouble.

“Bluntly put. But yes.”

That didn’t make it impossible. There were irreconcilable differences between their worlds, and it wasn’t like Twilight had really known who he was until a few weeks ago either.

“So what’s the other problem?” Flash bit out more sharply than he’d intended. “She knows I exist now.”

“Well,” Sparky, unfazed, began, “that’s the thing. Even if she develops an interest, she’s going to go looking for love amongst those closest to her. If she doesn’t find somepony, she’s not going to broaden her search. As this pertains to you, she has you marked, justly or not, as a time waster. That’s not going to change so long as you keep reinforcing it with even the littlest things. And so long as it lasts, she’s going to keep you at arm’s length. Honestly, the only winning move you can make is not to play.”

Flash grit his teeth as Sparky went on. He’d heard words similar enough plenty of times from plenty of ponies. Not that they’d ever before come from so authoritative a source.

“And I mean that both as a warning against wasting your own time and as genuine advice to get her to let you in.”

Such contradictory advice was as far from helpful as possible. They shouldn’t even be talking about this. The last thing Flash needed right now was a broken heart to nurse just when they needed the Elements to work, and that seemed to be all this Twilight Sparkle had to offer him.

Fortunately, the genuine article chose this moment to fire up the portal and step through. Captain Armor had finally turned up and followed right behind her. After that, Sparky seemed too distracted with meeting the Equestrian version of her brother to bother with Flash again.

Twilight glared at her checklist. Several boxes weren’t checked and wouldn’t be checked, and all of them taunted her with those facts. She felt her eye twitch at the sight. How dare it mock her like this! She’d teach it what happened to those who so disrespected her.

The checklist burst into flames. It burned hot and bright far above its ignition temperature until nothing but ashes remained.

That would show it!

A heavy breath, one held far too long, escaped Twilight, and she felt just the slightest bit of her stress go with it. Right. Well, that was a marginally better resolution to how I used to react to unfinished checklists.


The mare in question silently begged that this would not be more problems.

“I finished checking the spellwork Princess Celestia laid here.” Moon Dancer passed off the documentation for all of the magical traps that would, with any luck, hold Luna in place just long enough for them to blast her with the Elements. “At a glance, I don’t think she’s added anything behind our backs.”

That was good news for once. Twilight had worried. She didn’t entirely trust Celestia to look after her own well-being right now. A little self-sabotage wouldn’t be beyond question.

“Thank you,” Twilight said from the bottom of her heart. “I know bug hunting isn’t fun or glorious, but I really needed somepony competent and trustworthy to do it.”

Moon Dancer offered a thin smile in return. “It was no trouble,” she said. “I have nothing better to do. I’m not exactly here as a combatant, you know.”

“Yeah, about that.”

Naturally, such words immediately had Moon Dancer on her guard.

“I was kind of counting on Celestia to show up at some point. Obviously, she hasn’t. I brought some extra solidified magic just in case to power the portal if it needs more juice, and I need somepony to be in charge of feeding that magic to it.”

Moon Dancer wore a distinct frown as she asked, “Weren’t you going to pull your brother back from the human world to wield the mirror.”

“Yes, but he’s going to be preoccupied with getting Luna through it. It’s kind of a two pony job. The mirror wasn’t meant to be used as an improvised weapon.”

“Then…I suppose that’s fine,” Moon Dancer replied. “You’ll need to teach me how, though. It’s obvious that thing you built around it is a custom job.”

Twilight did her best to fight down a chagrined chuckle. “Yes. Quite.” She faked a cough. “It’s fairly simple, really, once you–”

A wave of unbelievable power crashed against Twilight’s horn and left her gasping for air. The only time she’d felt anything even close to it was when Celestia had teleported her to the moon and back. Her eyes snapped to the clock she’d set up and enlarged to keep track of time. They should still have over an hour left! Their deadline was supposed to be midnight!

But there was no denying the truth.

Luna was early.