Chapter Twenty Nine - The Solstice (Part Three)
Held aloft in her magic, the finished journal levitated over to a place of dishonor at the front of her library. It would be the first volume, Apotheosis, of a matched set. All of the magic involved too dangerous to leave lying around, she would place into an appendix on some other occasion. That information, she would store in the restricted section of her library. It was too precious to risk losing to time despite everything.
Sweetie Belle swallowed. The entire weight of the situation fell squarely upon her shoulders. Her friends were watching. Her mentor wore a look of worry, shock, and perhaps the slightest glimmer of hope. The princesses, Luna above and Celestia below, bore unreadable expressions.
Luna’s heartsong still held Sweetie Belle firmly under its sway. She couldn’t escape it, but she had a very strong feeling that there were rules. She might not know them, and she might not know why she felt so certain they existed, but she could influence the song so long as she didn’t break any of them.
Sweetie Belle forced herself not to swallow again as she dissected Luna’s heartsong. Ballad meter. Only minor variations from iambic feet. Rhyme second lines of the couplets. Subject matter is her dysfunctional relationship with her sister. So long as she stayed within those lines, she should be fine.
Sweetie Belle wet her lips, took a deep breath, stepped before Princess Luna, and then did her best to string words together on the fly.
“It’s clear to me that you’re upset,
“Enough to stage a coup.”
There were dozens of simple words that rhymed with coup, but Sweetie Belle needed to stay on subject and get across what she wanted to say. She bit her lip, doing her best to plan ahead, and then haltingly produced the next two lines.
“If even half of that is true
“Then so you should be too.”
That worked well enough as a start, she supposed. She still had a grip on the heartsong, at least, however she was doing that. But she needed to segue into something useful. Right now, though, she just needed something to say. The heartsong was allowing her to set her own pace and sing a cappella at the moment, but she didn’t want to test its patience with her. Maybe she could establish some rapport with a quick stanza? It wasn’t like she didn’t get where Princess Luna was coming from.
“I cannot say how often my
“Own sister does the same.
“Sometimes I want to throttle her.
“It’s all part of the name.”
Sweetie Belle suppressed a cringe. That wasn’t the best rhyme of her life, but it got the job done. And now that she’d gotten it out, she had a rough idea on where to go next. She just needed time to work out the details, which made now the perfect time to cobble together a chorus she could mindlessly repeat.
“Yes, older sisters are the worst,
“As all of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
That would do. Now she only needed to rag on everypony’s elder sisters a bit for being good big sisters in ways that drove little sisters crazy. Then she could make the comparison between them and the princesses. She had plenty of little sisters gathered here and more material than she knew what to do with.
But before Sweetie Belle could start, the heartsong suddenly twisted, for lack of a better word in her vocabulary, and wrested control away from her. It wasn’t Luna who sang the next verse, however. Pinkie hopped into place beside Sweetie Belle with a bounce in her step and a bubbly voice.
“My eldest sister is a grump.
“She treats me like a chore.
“And when she tried to cheer me up,
“She always was a bore.”
Sweetie Belle blinked. Was that what she thought it was? A grin pulled at her lips as she felt the heartsong pull at her to sing the chorus with Pinkie. It was running itself now!
“Yes, older sisters are the worst,
“As all of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
Archmage Twilight shambled over next from where she’d stood beside Celestia’s throne. This was really happening!
“My sister hovers over me.
“She’s always there to help.
“It’s like I can’t do things myself
“As though I’m just a whelp.”
With the heartsong on automatic, at least for the moment, Sweetie Belle allowed herself to slip fully back into the current of its magic. As she sang the chorus with Pinkie and now Archmage Twilight as well, she made a note to tell her mentor that she had a lovely singing voice and could have it outside heartsongs as well with a bit of practice despite her reservations.
“Yes, older sisters are the worst,
“As all of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
Next came Apple Bloom galloping up the dais steps into place beside the rest of the oh so terribly mistreated little sisters.
“My sister is a hypocrite
“Who thinks she knows what’s best.
“She says, ‘Do this,’ when she did that.
“She’s such an unfair pest.”
Sweetie Belle had a feeling she knew what that was about, but they’d have to talk about it later. The chorus came again, this time with Apple Bloom joining in.
“As all of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
And now at last came Sweetie Belle’s turn. She wasn’t sure if the urge came from the heartsong or her own conscious desire, but she took the opportunity to vent.
“My sister lets my parents leave
“Upon their merest whim.
“She never tries to tell them no.
“It’s really very grim.”
It wasn’t much of a secret that Sweetie Belle wished her parents were around more often, but she hoped all the same that nopony mentioned this to them. Besides, she had Rarity to look after her, and that was what this song was really all about.
“As all of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
The next voice to add her gripes was Scootaloo’s. There was a sudden odd feeling of incongruence about the heartsong, but Sweetie Belle didn’t know what it meant or a better way to describe it, not until she heard the new verse.
“My sister figure is sublime
“And never has to try.
“She taught me magic, these despite–”
Scootaloo held out her stunted wings and then hopped onto a few tufts of clouds to move about the air.
“–And even how to fly!”
Everypony who’d sung so far turned a frown at best onto Scootaloo. Even the princesses looked unimpressed.
The heartsong allowed the filly who couldn’t read a room to save her life enough agency to ask, “What?”
The question went ignored. Sweetie Belle could feel the annoyed charge in the air. She wouldn’t even have to try to force a change upon the chorus despite Scootaloo joining in now. The vast majority were in visceral agreement on what had to be done, and the heartsong reflected that.
“Yes, older sisters are the worst,
“As most of us attest.
“They understand so little of
“The burden we detest.”
And now, to Sweetie Belle’s surprise, when she’d intended to wrest control of the heartsong back to spell out the takeaway to Princess Luna, Archmage Twilight stepped forward once more for another verse.
“My other sister is a thief,
“The best I’ve ever known.
“I shouldn’t trust her with a thing.”
Archmage Twilight very deliberately turned a warm smile upon Sunset Shimmer waiting off to the side and out of the way.
“I’ve reaped what I have sown.”
Sweetie Belle was very confused, but there was no time for that lest she miss the beat. She reached out for the heartsong as she had before and took what nominal control it allowed her to alter the chorus again with everypony singing along.
“Yes, older sisters are the best,
“As all of us attest.
“They always give so much despite
“The burden we detest.”
And now they came upon the moment of truth. This was the first time Sweetie Belle had met Princess Luna, but anypony could tell that her murderous rage had cooled into something just shy of an explosive fury as she humored them. Maybe this would work. With all the time the choruses had given her to compose, Sweetie Belle was prepared to deliver her final verse.
“So there you see they have their faults.
“Nopony is exempt.
“Sometimes they anger us so much
“We hold them in contempt.”
The group of little sisters parted to make way for Princess Celestia to approach her own little sister.
“And yet we love them all the same.
“That bond will never break.
“Now maybe you should listen up
“If just for your own sake.”
Sweetie Belle swallowed and, with nervous, shaking legs, released her control over the heartsong. The musical accompaniment slowed from the upbeat, bouncy tune in time with their griping into a solemn, flowing sound. It was up to the princesses now to sort out their differences.
Princess Celestia opened her mouth and sang with the most beautiful, broken voice.
“My dearest little sister~
“I never meant to hurt you~
“I know you’re mad, and I’m to blame.
“I don’t know what to do~”
Princess Luna snorted but, thankfully, didn’t interrupt.
“Your happiness is all I want.
“It’s always been my goal.
“And though I’ve erred along the way,
“I want to keep that role.”
Princess Celestia attempted to step closer, but the warning glare she received in turn made her wilt in place. She recovered quickly, however, and pressed on.
“I know you cannot trust me now,
“Not like you did before,
“But let me prove my love for you
“Ere slamming shut this door.”
A deep, rumbling growl that might as well have been a snarl came from Princess Luna. They could all but see her grinding her teeth together.
“I truly wish to mend our bond.
“I know it will be hard.
“Please take a chance. I know we’ll last.
“We need not be so scarred~”
As Princess Celestia’s voice faded away, they endured a stanza’s worth of silence as Princess Luna slowly grew more visibly agitated. She made no indication of what she was struggling with, but Sweetie Belle hoped it was her heart trying to convince her head to grant forgiveness. In the midst of a heartsong, nopony could deny the pure, unfiltered emotions in the air. Even she had to admit Princess Celestia spoke from the heart without the slightest hint of deception.
And then the heartsong began once more, just as slow and solemn as it’d been under Princess Celestia. When Princess Luna sang, her words lacked energy and spirit. One could easily mistake them for spoken verse.
“Yes, older sisters are the worst.
“They spoil everything.
“Revenge like this ’tis hardly fun.
“’Twould barely take a swing.”
Princess Luna closed her eyes, each and every pony present held in suspense. Princess Celestia wore a look of cautious hope about her. Sweetie Belle wondered it she’d actually done it. Surely it couldn’t be, could it?
It was not.
Princess Luna’s fury came crashing down upon them. The moment of peace fled before the swell of only barely restrained rage.
“Just go! Be gone! Get to the moon!
“I’ll keep mine eye on thee!
“The moment thou step out of line
“Shall end this small mercy~”
Princess Celestia’s face twisted into the very picture of agony as she visibly forced down sobs. She offered one last weak smile for Archmage Twilight and a small nod for Sunset Shimmer before she dissolved into light.
The very moment Princess Celestia departed, Princess Luna finished her final note.
The heartsong was over.
Everypony had lost.
Princess Luna turned to Archmage Twilight and sharply asked, “Our bargain?”
Outside, the full moon hung high in the sky, now without the visage of the Mare in the Moon. It took a few moments before Archmage Twilight managed to wrest her gaze and attention from the throne room’s windows and the moon beyond. Even then, it was a slow process as she battled the shock of it all.
“I… Oh. Yes, of course.” Her voice lacked any emotion, and Archmage Twilight carried on almost like a golem. “We’re not due in Ponyville until an hour before sunrise. Go cool off if you want to make a good impression.”
Sweetie Belle still didn’t know what that was about, but the response seemed to satisfy Equestria’s new ruling princess. And wasn’t that a thought? So much was about to change that hadn’t in generations – no, centuries. It was the end of the Solar Era and the beginning of the Lunar Era.
“If my sister misbehaves,” began Princess Luna, “I expect you to clean up after her.”
Archmage Twilight’s lips pressed into a thin line, but she nodded.
“If she takes a single step out of line, I will ensure she can’t again.”
“I’d expect nothing less.”
“So long as you understand.” Princess Luna then heaved a heavy sigh that spoke to the mess of emotions roiling around inside of her. “Now I think I’ll take your advice. Maybe I can dig up some Apple cider from my stores and drink Sunny under the table. Hmm… Autumn and Ember are awake as well, as is…”
And with that strange comment, Princess Luna dispersed into soft light much as Princess Celestia had before her. That wasn’t the exit Sweetie Belle had expected, but, well, she supposed she might do the same if she were a little older and in Princess Luna’s place. Today had been a roller coaster of emotions for everypony.
A few moments passed as everypony just processed everything.
Soon enough, Archmage Twilight approached Sweetie Belle while actively rejecting Pinkie’s assistance, her face unreadable. She reached out with an arm and scooped Sweetie Belle up into a tight, fierce hug. When she spoke, it was with a wet voice that had finally broken.
“Thank you. I don’t know how you did it, but thank you.”
Sweetie Belle flushed at the praise and gratitude and mumbled back, “I don’t really know either.” How did she explain this? “It was like I knew things I don’t, but… It was like instinct, but more…solid?” That sounded like gibberish.
Yet a knowing smile, as much of one as she could manage right now, grew on Archmage Twilight’s face.
A new voice joined the exchange. “I have an idea,” Sunset Shimmer said. “Cadey showed us something like this. From Star Swirl’s research, remember?”
Archmage Twilight finally released Sweetie Belle as her gaze shifted to Sunset Shimmer, who gave nothing away, and her brow furrowed in thought. There was nothing like a good puzzle to distract somepony, was there?
Then the spark of realization lit Archmage Twilight’s still wet eyes. “The Sirens!” She turned back to Sweetie Belle. “You’re a spellsinger!”
Sweetie Belle cocked her head to the side. “A what?” The name said it all, most likely, but she’d never heard of the term before.
“A spellsinger. You sing spells. It’s old magic.” Archmage Twilight smirked and added, “Cutie mark magic.”
“What!” Could it be? Was it possible? Sweetie Belle twisted her neck to inspect herself. There, in place of her familiar blank flank, was an eighth note over the six-pointed star of magic.
Sweetie Belle squealed in delight.
It was at this point that Flash released his silencing hold on the other two Crusaders, who immediately swarmed so they could celebrate together.
Twilight stepped far aside to let the Crusaders have their moment together without her bringing the mood down. A weak chortle slipped past her lips as she thought about the events leading up to it. And I thought I had a good cutie mark story. She hijacked a heartsong of all things from a goddess.
And that was going to become just another problem, wasn’t it? Twilight rubbed a hoof into her mane and leaned heavily against a column supporting the repaired roof. What was she going to do about Sweetie Belle now?
The question hung in her mind as Twilight watched Pinkie enthusiastically join in the fillies’ celebration. She could tell from the sad looks that the mare wanted to console her after how this all had ended, but Pinkie had apparently learned her moods well enough to know now wasn’t the time for that sort of thing.
Twilight heaved a quiet sigh. Well, this could have gone worse. Exile is…okay. I guess.
It didn’t feel real yet. It hadn’t sunken in.
Celestia can send mail. Maybe build up that moon colony Luna wanted to establish when they were young. Luna said she’d try to teach me dreamwalking, so someday I’ll be able to go visit whenever I want. This is fine.
She just needed to get through the transitional period.
Might as well consider it a long holiday. It’s not like Celestia isn’t overdue for…
Something sticky coated Twilight’s chest. She brought a hoof up to scrape it off, but it just made the toe sticky too. What is this? Tree sap? She looked back over at Sweetie Belle, who, upon inspection, appeared to be coated in the stuff judging by the matted hair of her coat. How did that even happen?
Twilight did her best to quickly wipe the sap off onto a clean part of her coat. The last thing she needed was her hoof sticking to the ground as she shambled around. Once she’d valiantly failed at that, too, she returned the greeting. “Hey, Sunset.”
The mare in question approached with Moon Dancer and Flash following right behind her. Without prompting or, strangely enough, any hesitation when its mere presence unconsciously drew Moon Dancer’s eye, she returned Magic to Twilight’s head. “I need to go unload my subspace storage. Are you going to be okay here?”
Twilight managed a smirk at the question. “Well, look at you. Coming to the rescue and now this? You’re secretly a big softie underneath that surly facade, aren’t you?”
“I can just leave, you know,” Sunset replied flatly.
Moon Dancer cleared her throat before that could go any further. “I think we’re going to need a lift.”
Oh. Right. She’d done her best to suppress the feeling, but now that Twilight’s attention went back to her magic, she felt more than a little nauseous again. She wasn’t going to be useful anytime soon. Everypony else who could teleport the group out of the Everfree quickly had already left. Loyalty, the finicky little thing, could carry luggage, but it wouldn’t accept magical passengers even though it transported mundane animals and magical artifacts just fine.
Then again, that gave Twilight an idea. “If you really need to go, we can just send everypony through the mirror and have Flash take it to Ponyville.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Flash asked. He conspicuously eyed the way Twilight leaned heavily against her pillar.
“That…” It was something Twilight hadn’t thought about. “–is a good point.” Who knew how her injured magic would react to that horrible reality. “Would you give at least me a ride out?”
“Sure, Sparkles. Maybe we can take tea. You look like you’re about to keel over.”
Yeah, that felt about right. Twilight couldn’t help but chuckle at her own helplessness. “Tea sounds good.” She turned to Moon Dancer and said, “If something goes inexplicably, horribly wrong in the next few minutes, I’m leaving you in charge.” With all three Crusaders together, she didn’t discount the possibility. “Pull Shining out of the mirror and boss him around if you need to.”
The subject of conversation upon everypony’s mind was the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the Mare in the Moon. Rarity, who strongly suspected if perhaps not outright knew the cause, found herself more often than not opting to remain silent rather than trying to contribute some far-fetched but plausible sounding theory. She certainly hoped Princess Luna never heard some of the more inane ideas.
A very pointed clearing of a throat from behind Rarity stole her attention from one such hypothesis about moon ponies planning to terraform their home or some such nonsense. To be certain, she’d not known who or what she’d expected to find when she turned in place, but this sight was new even for Ponyville. At first, she mistook the pony for Twilight, but closer inspection revealed that it was her regent, Moon Dancer. Large, scattered patches of her coat glowed with an eerie green light in the night like something out of a horror story.
Rarity cleared her own throat. “Er, Your Excellency, are you aware that you seem to be, well, glowing?” The unamused glare she received in return made her promptly add, “Yes, silly question. My apologies. How can I help you?”
“I believe one of these belongs to you.” Moon Dancer levitated a trio of guilt-ridden fillies forward, each similarly glowing in odd places, one of whom indeed fit the bill. Rarity felt her eye drawn to Generosity, whose gem had curiously changed shape, briefly before she shook off the strange, magnetic charm it always exuded.
“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity stepped forward to reclaim her younger sister and carefully scooped her up into a hug, doing her best to avoid the unidentified substance covering her. “But if you’re here, where is Index?” She looked back and forth between her sister and Moon Dancer. “Is it all over?”
Neither of the two jumped to answer the question, nor did the other two Crusaders, although Rarity wasn’t quite sure how they’d gotten involved.
“Index isn’t hurt, is she?” Or worse!
After a few moments, Moon Dancer went with, “She’s currently resting. Things could have gone better.”
Rarity strangled her gasp to avoid attracting attention. “But then…”
This time Sweetie Belle spoke. “Things could have gone worse, but we lost.”
Oh no! Oh, poor Princess Celestia. Oh, and Twilight, the poor dear. She must be absolutely inconsolable!
“But! But look at this!” Sweetie Belle shifted to show off her flank. There, instead of a pure coat of snow white hair, sat the six-pointed star symbolizing magic with an eighth note laid over top it. “I’m a spellsinger!”
A wide smile now split Rarity’s lips. “Congratulations!” It was nice to know some good had come out of the royal family drama even if she wasn’t precisely sure what a spellsinger was beyond what the name implied. “We simply must do something to celebrate.” She turned back to the mare who’d been politely pretending not to eavesdrop and asked, “Fleur, darling, would you mind terribly if I left early?”
“Non, a pony only gets their cutie mark once. Someday, though, you must remember to introduce us properly.”
“Of course. Of course.” With that out of the way, Rarity turned her attention back to the others. To Moon Dancer, she said, “I can take all three of them if you have somewhere you need to be.”
The mare in question offered a gruff, “Thank you,” before stalking off while shaking her head and no doubt muttering curses upon the spirit of youth under her breath.
Rarity eyed all of the Crusaders with a practiced eye to make them squirm. “You three fillies have some explaining to do.” And that included, if her suspicions were correct, how the two very much not bearing an Element had gotten involved in the battle against Princess Luna. Once they’d suffered long enough, she let them off the hook for now. “But that can wait. As can your baths. You can tell me all the details over…”
“Ice cream!” Sweetie Belle filled in once she clued in on that it was her choice.
“Over ice cream, then,” Rarity said. A perfect comfort food as well. I couldn’t have chosen better myself. “Now let’s be off.”
As eager as Rarity was to hear everything that had happened with Princess Luna, which she doubted it would take much coaxing to get the Crusaders to share, they needed to find some privacy first for that to happen. Since it seemed Sweetie Belle was tolerating crowds much more easily now, that gave them several nearby options without forcing her to remove Generosity.
An almost silent clink-click drew Twilight back into wakefulness from the hazy border of sleep. In front of her, she found a fresh, steaming cup of tea with a bendy straw that looked to be trying its best to escape from its too small container.
“I noticed you haven’t been using your magic,” Sunset explained. “Not even for the smallest things.”
Twilight sent Sunset a weak smile and a grateful nod. A straw wasn’t exactly the easiest or most refined way to drink tea, but it was better than risking scalding herself or letting Sunset treat her like a foal. But no matter how it happened, she was just happy to get some caffeine in her. The exhaustion, physical and emotional, was catching up with her. She eagerly blew on it and then sipped from the cooler surface.
It tasted almost exactly like something Celestia would have brewed.
“Are the Elements that magically taxing or did Luna do something when she–” Sunset mimed the chopping motion Luna had used to deflect the Elements.
With a shake of her head, Twilight replied, “It’s tiring to use them, but whatever Luna did sent a backlash straight at my magic.”
Sunset made a face.
“I’ll get better,” Twilight hastily added, not needing the pity. “I’ve done something similar to myself before. It’s not as bad this time, I think. If I lay off the magic, I should be able to function well enough to…” She breathed deep, in and then out, and forced down all of the bad feelings swelling in her chest. “–to work through the transition of power.”
“That’s good.” Sunset’s expression was unreadable. “Still. Ouch.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
While Sunset went to pour a cup of tea for herself, notably with a conspicuously large amount of sugar hovering nearby, Twilight turned to inspecting her surroundings. She’d been half dead when Sunset had carried her in here, and now that she was kind of awake again, her curiosity got the better of her as it usually did.
From what little Twilight recalled of the rest of the manor Sunset called home, the sunroom was modest by comparison. It had a bust and a vase that she suspected came with a very large price tag, but most of the considerable free space went to exotic plants. She recognized a cactus that only grew in the badlands south of Equestria. The plum lily in the corner she was almost sure was a rare species from the jungle. And that blue flower was poison joke! How did Sunset manage to make that grow this far from the Everfree?
Sunset soon noticed Twilight’s wandering eyes. “If you think this is interesting, you should see my basement.”
“Can I!” If she could cast spells right now, Twilight would have made her eyes sparkle.
Regrettably, Sunset replied, “Maybe some other time. You do have somewhere to be this morning.”
“Spoilsport. I’ll hold you to that promise someday.” Beyond the bulk of the vast riches Sunset had acquired over her life, Twilight assumed that was where she stored and produced the absurd amount of magic she’d brought to fight Luna. Part of Twilight wanted to ask how many years of production she’d burnt through tonight, but the greater whole knew it’d be about as crass to inquire after as it would be to ask how much a gift cost.
“Sure, whatever. Just don’t make me regret bringing you here.”
The words came without any true heat, but Twilight couldn’t resist the chance to tease. “After you heroically came to the rescue tonight? Perish the thought.”
Sunset turned away and sipped from her tea.
“The role really does suit you. If that was a dry run for the Crystal Empire, I think you’ll do just fine as a hero empress.”
“Of course I will,” Sunset said just above a mumble. “Who do you think I am?” She heaved a sigh as she set her cup down. “You know, with Sunbutt around, I wasn’t ever going to invite you here.”
Twilight’s smile faded at the reminder of Celestia’s exile. “I can understand that.” She hadn’t exactly been subtle in her attempts to bring Sunset back into the fold. It was hard to say what she’d have done with the information in the long run. “But now it’s Luna on the throne.”
“Yeah. I doubt you’ll sell me out to her despite that weird frenemies thing you two have going on.”
“It’s just friends now, I guess,” Twilight said somberly. “I already hate my job. I don’t need to deal with hating my boss as well. It won’t make my life any easier.”
“You know that’s bunk, right?”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at Sunset. Of course she knew. That wasn’t the point.
After a sip of tea, Sunset changed the subject. “So you made a working crystal mirror?”
“Oh. Um, no. I sort of, well, borrowed it without permission from Luna.”
Sunset snickered as she concluded, “So you stole it.”
“You totally did.” There was no attempt to hide her amusement on Sunset’s end. “Look, Sparkles, I know you look up to me, but don’t take it too far.”
Twilight managed no more intelligent response than a groan. Of all ponies, Sunset was the absolute last one who needed more friendly blackmail material on her.
“So what’s the other side of the mirror like?”
Oh, that question deserved a proper answer for somepony who could truly appreciate it. “Imagine ripping out your cutie mark and replacing it with a special talent for vulnerability and emptiness.”
“Yikes. Makes me glad to have missed it. And you sent your brother over there?”
“Well, he probably won’t mind as much.” That said, perhaps Twilight would let him off the hook now for the whole Flash fiasco. “The magic system on the other side is similar enough that we don’t die, but its different enough that you can’t feel that part of you. Shining is a powerful mage, but the core of his being doesn’t revolve entirely around it. Not like us.”
“Ah. Was it at least worth the trip?”
Twilight shrugged. She hadn’t seen much of the other world, but everypony else who’d gone over the second time seemed to have enjoyed themselves. “These are all secondhoof stories, but it’s all I have right now.” She then proceeded to share what she’d heard from the others.
A while later, Sunset was the first person to have a proper reaction. “Wait, a parallel world? In the literary sense? Are you serious? That’s ridiculous. Do you know how unlikely that is to occur by chance?”
“Vindication!” Twilight cried to nopony. She took a sip of tea while Sunset’s eyes rolled. Afterward, she added, “But it’s true. I’ve met our counterparts. They’re lab partners.” She went ahead, then, and told the whole story of what she knew about those two.
When Twilight finished, Sunset admitted, “Sounds like a nice life.” It was far from ruling a nation or a potential ascension, but the everlasting fame of being what amounted to Star Swirl’s Star Swirl had an undeniable appeal. She then eyed Twilight with a scrutinizing look. “‘Sparky’, eh? Hmm… Yeah, I can see it.”
Twilight wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know what Sunset was imagining in that head of hers, so she didn’t ask. She reached out for her straw and found herself sucking on air as she drained her cup down to its dregs.
In answer, Twilight nodded and made a token effort to push her cup and saucer toward Sunset.
The cup lit up in the amaranth glow of Sunset’s magic and flew off toward the supplies she’d brought into the sunroom. This time, without doing battle against exhaustion, Twilight watched the brewing process. It was uncanny how much she moved like Celestia in the act. She didn’t even bring the water to an instant boil, instead slowly warming it back up to temperature, just like Celestia would. Even the mere act of pouring the water had a certain grace about it that reminded Twilight of Celestia.
Sunset placed a new cup of tea in front of Twilight, straw included.
“Thank you,” Twilight said, her voice just above a whisper and her eyes fixed upon the liquid. If she drank it, she knew it’d taste just like something Celestia would have made.
A chair floated into place beside Twilight, and Sunset sat herself upon it.
A moment passed before Sunset spoke. “The first time I saw Celestia,” she led, “I was only a little older than you were. It was the Hearth’s Warming Eve pageant for me. I pretended to be one of the extras’ foals and slipped in backstage.”
The ends of Twilight’s lips curled up into a small smile. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Hey, you and I both know brilliance shows from a young age.”
Twilight chuckled but opted not to make a snarky remark.
“Anyway, I hid between some crates as she walked right past. Once the coast was clear, I followed after, because obviously. Everypony got out of her way. Everypony followed her orders. Everypony looked upon her with admiration. To a poor little orphan filly in a city where status meant everything, she might as well have been a living dream.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow at Sunset. “Are you blaming her for your megalomania?”
“Shush. This is going somewhere.”
Twilight settled into a more comfortable position to listen on her chair. Sunset, in turn, took that as compliance and carried on with her story.
“Soon, Celestia went to raise the moon in privacy. I managed to get into her room first to watch and hid myself away, and you know Hearth’s Warming, the winter solstice, is Luna’s holiday, right? Well, Celestia started talking to the moon.”
A facehoof was the only appropriate response to that. “How much did you learn?” Twilight asked.
“Enough that it might as well have been full disclosure.”
Twilight shook her head. She knew how this story ended, but this was the first time anypony had told her any of the details. “And what did you do with this information?”
“Oh, I sat on it for years. The next time I met Celestia was at her school. For some reason, she came to speak with me before personally delivering my acceptance letter. She never explained what that was about.” Sunset turned a questioning look onto Twilight.
In turn, Twilight shrugged. “I can pull your records and see if anypony from your admissions committee is still alive.”
“Don’t go to too much trouble,” Sunset said with a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Anyway, at that point, I was eight, still impressionable, and kind of terrified out of my mind that the Princess Celestia, Goddess of the Sun, the immortal ruler of Equestria, had taken a personal interest in me. What was I going to do? Say I was sorry to hear about her sister?”
Twilight chortled at the thought. “Oh, I would love to have seen her reaction to that.”
After a moment of reflection, Sunset said, “Yeah, me too.”
The two shared a mischievous smirk before Sunset moved on.
“Celestia showed up from time to time. Never for very long, mind. Just enough to suck me into her mystique. Of course, I was a nopony. I needed an in, so I threw myself into my studies. Learning was the only thing I was good at.”
“Arguably, the best thing to be good at,” Twilight commented. “Through education, all doors open.”
Sunset understood. “Yeah, pretty much. It wasn’t just magic I studied, either. I picked up anything and everything the world had to offer me. But it wasn’t enough. If I wanted to move forward, I had to make an opportunity for myself.”
“Cadance?” Twilight asked. She already knew the answer, but it never hurt to make sure.
“Eventually,” Sunset replied. “I tried a few other things first, but that’s a different story.” She shook her head at whatever her younger self had gotten up to. “Celestia was not happy with the games I played with Cadance. Oh, she was subtle about it at first, but her message came across loud and clear. The more we butted heads, the more I learned from her. To make a long story short, it became easier in the end to welcome me to the team than to get rid of me.
“After that, life was everything I’d ever wanted. I was well-educated, wealthy, magically powerful, influential, and best of all, Celestia warmed up to me once I broached the subject of her sister. I mean, she knew what I was about. We both knew exactly what I was doing. But she needed somepony to talk to so much that she didn’t care, and I…”
Sunset paused to brush a tear from her eye. “Twilight, you’re probably the only pony who understands. I took everything she would give me, even when it was just suspicion or anger. I love her as much as I hate her. She’s the mother I never had.”
Despite her best attempt, Twilight couldn’t blink her own tears away. “I…” She swallowed. “I love my mother, but you’re right. I get it. Celestia is always who I went to for advice, for comfort, for…mom stuff.”
“You got her administrative skills.”
Twilight laughed. “Yeah? You got her social skills.”
“You got her obnoxious sense of responsibility.”
“You got her mischievous side,” Twilight fired back.
Sunset went with, “You got her workaholic attitude.”
“And you got her – her…” Twilight’s breath hitched. “–her…” Her vision grew blurry.
When had her laughter turned into sobs?
Sunset wrapped an arm around Twilight’s barrel, and they leaned into each other.
Cadance had known the moment her other aunt returned to Equus by the disappearance of the Mare in the Moon. She’d turned her gaze toward Ponyville and the Everfree only a short flight from home. She hadn’t expected to see anything, but the magical light show occurring deep within the forest could only come from one source: her aunts were fighting. She dearly hoped anypony else who noticed shrugged it off as some weird magic of the Everfree.
The foals, even though they’d known what was happening tonight, hadn’t caught on until much later after the battle had ended one way or another. She’d given it away with her fidgeting and fretting. Worse, she didn’t have any answers for them. As far as she was concerned, no news was bad news, but she kept that to herself.
And then Shining came home. She got wind of it first thanks to one of the staff and managed to slip away from the foals. If she had to deliver news of Celestia’s defeat and banishment or worse, then best she get her own devastation under control first.
Shining was a sight. Physically, he looked well, but something had heavily taxed his spirit. He wore an almost angry look about him combined with a defeated slump to his posture. He didn’t need to say a word for Cadance to know that Celestia had lost. When their eyes met, he turned away. Had that been shame she saw there?
Without hesitation, Cadance drew close. She placed a hoof on Shining’s cheek and gently guided him to look her in the eyes once more. “What happened?”
Cadance felt her jaw tighten. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t already expected, but it still hit hard. There was no time to grieve just yet, however. Her love needed her to be strong for just a few moments longer.
“Twily called me in, and I didn’t get to do anything.”
That happened around Twilight. It was nothing new. Cadance knew there must be something deeper troubling Shining. “It was never the plan for you to,” she said comfortingly.
“Nothing went to plan,” Shining retorted. “She should have pulled me out of the mirror to wield it.”
The mirror? Cadance shook her head. It sounded familiar for some reason, but she could ask about that later. “Okay. So why didn’t she?”
Through gritted teeth, Shining bit out, “She didn’t trust me to do my job.”
Cadance winced. There was the matter with Flash, as she understood it, but Twilight was no stranger to Shining’s brotherly protectiveness. Surely she could have seen past that in an emergency. “I’ll talk with her later. She–”
“No, don’t.” Once again, Shining turned his eyes away from Cadance’s. “I get why she did it. First Flash. Then I let a mere thief humiliate me and the entire guard.”
Without giving anything away, Cadance said, “Eclipse is no mere thief.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Shining said dismissively. “You know why she didn’t trust me?”
Cadance cautiously shook her head.
“Because Sunset bucking Shimmer showed up out of nowhere to be the big damn hero and she thought she’d have to waste time browbeating me into working with the…” Shining trailed off when he noticed the unimpressed look Cadance sent his way. “–er, the morally compromised sorceress.”
Given the state of things, Cadance supposed that would do. She needed to find a good opportunity sometime soon to let him know she’d adopted Sunset into the family without him making the connection between her and Eclipse. Maybe tonight’s events could make for a good excuse once she heard the details.
“You know what the worst part is?” Shining went on once he realized Cadance was giving him a pass. “Some no name, untrained filly from the middle of nowhere saved the day in the end.”
Cadance gasped. Had she misread the entire situation? “Then Auntie…”
Shining swore under his breath. “I’m sorry. I misspoke. The princess is in exile on the moon.”
Oh. Oh, that hurt to have her hopes raised and then shattered so completely. Cadance swallowed the empty, twisting sensation threatening to devour her for the moment. “Would that filly happen to be Sweetie Belle, your dear sister’s protégé?”
It took a few seconds before Shining slammed his head against both of his forehooves. “I’m an idiot.”
Cadance offered Shining a weak smile, not that he could see it, and said, “Yes, but you’re our lovable idiot.”
“I got shuffled through the mirror so fast after I arrived, and then there was this other Twilight. I didn’t even think…”
Okay, now Cadance officially needed a real explanation of exactly what had gone down in the Everfree Forest tonight. When she pressed for details, however, she didn’t get them.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have the time right now. I only stopped by to give you the news. I need to get control of the castle before this mess of a regime change unfolds.”
“Then you can tell me on the way,” Cadance countered. “I…” She breathed deep as she’d taught Twilight so long ago. Getting through today would be rough, but she could do it. “I should be there to welcome my other aunt, shouldn’t I?”
This was, quite obviously, an argument Shining wasn’t going to win, so he didn’t even try. They briefly debated whether they should tell the foals before heading out and ultimately decided to wait until at least one of them had the time to stay with them afterward.
As Twilight slowly and reluctantly found her way back to the waking world, she first noticed the sheets. She didn’t usually go for silk, but she had enough familiarity with the material to tell its high quality. After that, the mattress felt strange. She’d grown so used to sleeping on clouds. This was a featherbed, she suspected. The whole arrangement was also quite a bit larger than usual, judging by how the tension in the sheets distributed under her weight.
In conclusion, this was not her bed.
What was she even doing in a bed? Wasn’t she supposed to be doing something kind of important? What day even was it?
With a groan, Twilight rolled into a semi-upright ball. Her magic felt wrong, so she avoided using it at least until her brain woke up enough to let her think properly. As such, she rubbed the rheum from her eyes with just a hoof.
There was no sunlight to burn Twilight’s eyes once she finally opened them, only the soft glow of moonlight peeking in through the windows of, upon inspection, what looked like a guest bedroom in some noble’s manor. She shuffled out of bed to get a better look at her surroundings. The view outside of rolling plains made it obvious she wasn’t in Canterlot, however, so that meant she had to be in some countryside estate.
And then Twilight’s gaze drew up to the moon, a shining pale orb in the sky with only a few craters visible to the naked eye. Against the backdrop of a starry sky unafflicted with light pollution, it made for a beautiful sight. She wished she had her telescope close at hoof, but she suppose she could just gaze upon the constellations and the Mare in the…
Where was the Mare in the Moon?
Twilight blinked, lost for a moment, and then it all came rushing back: the Elements, the mirror, the heartsong. Celestia was gone, exiled to the moon. She’d cried herself to sleep in Sunset’s embrace, mourning the loss of a pony who’d been as much of a mother to her as her own. It’d all been too much. Even if Celestia wasn’t gone forever, she was still gone.
With a heavy sigh, Twilight tore her eyes back to the here and now. What was done was done. She could only move forward.
For now, that meant finding Sunset. Twilight set to wandering the corridors of the manor. The moon was full tonight, so unless she’d slept longer than she thought or Luna’s freedom had changed everything she knew about the lunar cycle, she needed to get to the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville.
Twilight stopped a few times during her journey to examine the artwork on display. She didn’t have a good eye for paintings and the like, but a few gave her a vague sense of familiarity. None of them were from one of Eclipse’s heists, it seemed, which meant they weren’t trophies. Did that mean Sunset actually had a taste for fine art or were they just the expected decorations meant to impress? It could be both, she supposed.
Eventually, Twilight found Sunset in a study sitting on a rug beside a roaring fireplace. At her side was a scroll with its wax seal still unbroken. Another, this one unrolled, levitated in front of her for a moment before she tossed it into the fire.
“Do your nefarious plans proceed according to your design?”
Sunset chuckled. “It wasn’t that kind of letter.” She held up the other as Twilight approached and said, “Here. This arrived for you while you were asleep.”
After checking the reflexive impulse to pluck the scroll from the air with her injured magic, Twilight sat down beside Sunset and said, “Would you mind? I’m not feeling very dexterous right now.”
“Ah. Right. Sure.” However distracted Sunset seemed, she still broke the seal and unrolled the scroll for Twilight before passing it along.
Twilight’s heart skipped a beat when she saw the flowing script and instantly recognized the mare behind it.
‘I apologize for how long it took to send this, but I needed some time to compose myself. Not to put too fine a point on it, but seeing my sister again was difficult. Even now, I have yet to get my thoughts in order.
‘But I write not to burden you with my problems. Rather, I only wanted to assure you of my well being. The moon is not the most inviting of places, but I will make the most of it. I can conjure what I need for the most part, although I would appreciate it if you could find a way to send me a collection of seeds to work with. I confess that I did not think to bring any. The moon could certainly use some grass at the very least. Perhaps some tastefully sculpted hedges as well.
‘Luna has yet to visit. I doubt she will anytime soon, but she’ll be ready someday. Take care of her for me until then. I know you two can rule well together.
Twilight set the letter down after reading it for the third time. It curled at the ends, and she gently, carefully, delicately rolled it back into a scroll. She then set it aside far away from the fire in front of her. And speaking of, she eyed the shriveling, crumbling remains of the scroll Sunset had thrown into the fire earlier. Beside her, the mare in question had lain her head down on the rug curled away from her, her letter, and the fire.
Sunset must have sensed the attention. “You look a lot better now than when I first brought you in.” Not that she could see that at this precise moment, of course.
It was a deflection, but Twilight went along with it. “Yeah. The rest helped, as did…” Maybe it was best not to reopen that wound too soon. “Thanks for earlier.”
Sunset made a grunt that served as a rough approximation of recognition and acceptance. “I thought about dumping you on Cadance.”
“I wasn’t that bad,” Twilight protested.
Yet Sunset simply said, “No, you were.” A few moments later, as though uncertain, she revealed, “That’s why I kept you.”
Twilight hardly needed to ask, “What do you mean?” for Sunset to know she wanted an explanation.
“You were going all numb. I wasn’t sure if she could break you out of it before it really set in. Celestia buried herself in her work for centuries. The last thing anypony needs is you following her example.”
“Oh.” In hindsight, Twilight could recognize the signs of that in herself. She’d just wanted to get through the night, get through the Summer Sun Celebration, get Luna’s reign up and running smoothly, get everypony’s lives back in order, get on with things. “I see your point. Thanks again.” It couldn’t have been easy for Sunset to open up to her of all ponies.
“What else are sisters for?”
Sisters? Did Sunset mean that? Did she truly mean it not just as adoptive sisters-in-law? It was a big change over the course of a few weeks from virtual strangers to family. “Is that what we are?”
Sunset shrugged. “I think that’s up to you. You’re the one who had the hots for me.”
A fierce blush erupted onto Twilight’s face. She sputtered out half-formed words that sounded more like clarifications in her mind than denials. Her attraction had been purely intellectual, after all!
“Is ‘lab partners’ a euphemism for something?”
It took Twilight a moment or two to understand where that question had come from. “Oh,” she said once she did. “I, um, well, maybe? I didn’t ask. I don’t think I want to. Spoilers, you know? Um, but our age difference is really obvious on that side, so probably not? Or not yet?” That would matter a lot less once they hit their first century. “I don’t know. I mean, if there’s a deterministic algorithm across parallel universes for that sort of thing–”
Sunset’s laughter prompted Twilight to snap her mouth shut and stop letting every rambling word that entered her head out of it. She really was terrible at this sort of thing.
“Okay, okay. Safe topic,” Sunset said, still laughing. “Are you going to be okay with that student of yours?”
“Hey! No poaching! She’s mine.” After what Sweetie Belle had done, even if it’d only given them a more graceful loss, there was no way Twilight would pass her education off to anypony else, not even Sunset, or Celestia, or Luna.
“Not interested,” Sunset replied. “But you looked worried earlier. What gives?”
“Ah, well…” Twilight ran a hoof through her mane. “I can’t sing to save my life. I know almost nothing about music theory. I know it’s mostly applied mathematics, but I don’t have the…spark of creativity, I guess.”
Sunset made a long, “Ah,” of understanding. “Were you expecting her to have completely unbound magic like us?”
“No. I just didn’t expect it to be tied up in a subject I have zero skill in.” That was just her luck lately, wasn’t it? Twilight heaved a sigh. “I’m still going to teach her theory, obviously, but I’m not going to neglect what she can do with cutie mark assistance. I’m acquainted with a musician who might be able to help. If not, I guess I’ll go shopping for a tutor.”
“Just don’t screw her up. We don’t need a modern siren waltzing around like she owns the place.”
Twilight suppressed a shudder at the thought. It was a very good thing she’d found Sweetie Belle before somepony with ill intent had. The Sirens, the greatest spellsingers of the Classical Era around whom all modern myths had likely evolved – in some ways, they’d been more dangerous than even an alicorn. According to Star Swirl, they’d become a walking heartsong, unstoppable and irresistible. The world had reordered itself around them with but a verse to suit their desires, and they’d enslaved everypony within their reach to fulfill their every whim.
“She’ll be fine,” Twilight said. “She’s a good filly. I’d be more worried about her and those friends of hers finding a way to accidentally release Discord.”
Sunset facehoofed. “You’re joking. All of the stories I heard in Ponyville are actually true?”
“Probably, yeah.” As it happened, there was rarely a need to exaggerate the Crusaders’ escapades to draw an audience. “Those three are a little bundle of wandering chaos.”
With a snort, Sunset said, “Good luck, then.”
“Thanks. I’ll need it.”
The sudden chiming of a grandfather clock reminded them of the time.
“Are you ready to face the future?” Sunset asked.
Twilight sighed. “As I’ll ever be.”