Chapter Five - The Dishonest

Showers of sparkles appeared across the world.

If a unicorn cared two bits to study a field outside magic and their special talent during their education, they would discover the wonderful world of physics. If a unicorn went a bit further, they would find that the most basic tenet of the illusion school of magic was altering the wavelength of photons passing through a magical field according to some predefined rule. If a unicorn actually cared about what they were studying, they would discover the non-visible spectrum and perhaps contemplate its possible applications.

Of course, this meant that less than one percent of unicorns ever got that far. Earth ponies and pegasi typically studied nature in far greater detail than the tribe which could alter aspects of reality they found displeasing with a thought, but it mattered not, for earth ponies and pegasi were blind to the flow of magic.

Index stood far outside the home Bon Bon shared with the supposed Lyra Heartstrings, pretending to search her saddle bags for something with an deep frown on her face. Her horn did not glow, or at least not with any visible light. She had other and better ways to hide her spell casting, but the simplest illusion charm taught as early as magic kindergarten drew only a trickle of power and required almost no concentration to maintain. It was perfect for maintaining a low profile when inspecting a ward system at a distance in public.

What the hay? As Index probed deeper into the suspiciously sophisticated wards surrounding Bon Bon’s house, she only grew more confused. This ‘Lyra Heartstrings’, or whatever her real name is, is watching for…something aquatic? Why? Ponyville is one of the most landlocked municipalities in Equestria. What could she possibly be on the lookout for?

Index shook her vexation off. It was Ponyville. Maybe some lake monster had attacked the town or something. She had a more important question on her mind anyway.

Why are these wards so subtle and elaborate? I thought I was dealing with some run-of-the-mill sorceress with delusions of grandeur, but she must be at least half as skilled as I am. What is this pony doing in – oh, ponyfeathers.

Having accidentally tripped an alarm, Index had a few options. She could lay in wait and observe Lyra Heartstrings’s response. She didn’t like being on the defensive, but it would give her some insight into her target’s character. She could smash the wards outright and advance. It would be in keeping with her usual approach when she didn’t have time to more carefully unravel them. Or, since none of them appeared designed to do harm, she could go knock on the front door and see what happened.

Eh, whatever. Index hoisted her bags back into place and made for the door at a casual pace as she recast the basic enchantments necessary for high-level combat. Worst case scenario, I revert to plan B.

A few moments after Index knocked, Bon Bon opened the door. They exchanged greetings, and the latter invited her inside. Wary, she watched for ambushes and readied herself for trouble. Naturally, she kept her caution from Bon Bon, but the other mare appeared oblivious regardless.

“Minuette couldn’t join us tonight, unfortunately. Sorry about the last minute notice, but I have dinner ready if you’re interested. If you still want to hang out, I could set up the projector for a film or something.”

“That sounds great.” Taking an offered seat in the dining table, Index asked, “And Lyra Heartstrings?”

“She completely forgot to tell me that she was heading out to play a concert tonight. She didn’t say when she’d be back.”

Ah. She ran away.

She went right out the door with her lyre in a huge rush. I hope she wasn’t late. Celestia knows she could use the work.”

“I see.” Index tossed a significant glance at the table set for three. “And how long ago was that?”

“Just a few minutes ago, actually. I hope you’re hungry.”

“I suppose so, although could you tell me where your bathroom is? I’d like to wash up first.”

“Certainly.” Bon Bon extended her hoof towards a small hallway that lead out of the kitchen and further into the house. “Just follow that hall until it turns right. Then it’s the first door on the left.”

Index thanked Bon Bon and headed off. The moment she turned the corner, she abandoned magical stealth and performed a wide area scan for any recent teleports.

Aha! Found you. Let’s see here. The destination is…concealed. Can’t say I wasn’t expecting that. How much power did you put into it? Hmm, maybe enough for a town wide jump, judging by the residue. If you’re even half as good as I think you are, no doubt you’ll have obfuscation on tracking magic as well. So assuming I can find you without breaking out the heavy duty stuff, where are you? Ran away… Short jump…

Index built up power for a teleportation block and held it ready for her arrival.

Train station it is, then.

Twilight dispelled her polymorph. If she was going to engage in a high-level magical duel, she certainly wouldn’t be doing so as Index Code. She briefly considered adopting another disguise to help maintain her cover, but Index already had a connection to her on the grapevine. It wouldn’t be too strange for her pseudo-assistant to summon her for one reason or another. She did polymorph into herself, however, as a standard precaution. If she were to be injured, she’d much rather it be in a form she could easily shed.

A short range teleport brought Twilight above the train station with a partial view below. A second one placed her safely onto the platform itself. A surprised gasp came from behind her, and she whirled, firing her stored teleportation block, only to come face to face with Vinyl Scratch. Neither pony moved. Then a quick but cautious check revealed that it was the real one.

“Uh, hey.” Vinyl gave a half-hearted wave in greeting.

Oh. Right. I know ponies in this town. Horseapples. Twilight awkwardly cleared her throat. “Sorry,” she said as she removed the block from Vinyl, not that it really mattered for somepony who couldn’t teleport. “I’m looking for a pony last seen impersonating Lyra Heartstrings. Any help?”

“Yeah, she–”

Twilight followed Vinyl’s gaze to catch the tail end of a teleport not too far away. It was hastily executed and easy to track. Without another word, she vanished, chasing after her target. When she didn’t find Lyra Heartstrings after one jump, she paused a moment to prepare another block and then continued the chase. With the delay, it took her a few minutes to catch up.

A series of flower pots fell from the sky. They deflected harmlessly off Twilight’s enchanted body, but the nonmagical attack took her completely by surprise. Guard raised, she spun toward the direction they’d come from only for a surge of magic to break a tree branch on her from behind. It didn’t hurt, but it did stagger her.

Casting blindly, Twilight fired off her stored teleport block in the direction the magic had come from. She caught a hint of aquamarine from the corner of her eye, the exact shade of Lyra Heartstrings’s coat, before it blinked out of existence leaving only a few golden bubbles behind floating in the air.

Twilight made careful note of her target’s teleport signature in the unlikely event she needed it. Then with the end point of the teleport emerging right behind her, she bucked hard enough to tear flesh and shatter bones with a little extra magic to pierce barriers. The reward for her effort was a dull splash the sounded more like a gulp as her hind hooves sunk slowly into a viscous liquid. The liquid, whatever it was, burned and started to crush her legs.

Twilight, naturally, reflexively teleported out of the liquid’s grasp and reoriented herself during the trip to face her assailant. Not too far away sat a strange blob of watery tendrils so clear and with such a low index of refraction as to be nearly invisible. Lyra Heartstrings floated at its core, horn glowing a bright gold. She moved her legs with purpose, presumably exerting some kind of control over the conjuration.

Well, that’s different.

There was no time to dissect and disassemble the new magics in front of her. The tendrils lashed out at Twilight from all directions, some with large swooping arcs presumably meant to bludgeon or grasp her while others thrust like spears.

Twilight blinked out of the way, reappearing nearby unharmed and away from any immediate followup attacks. Or at least that had been the plan. Lyra Heartstrings had teleported in the interim to who knew where. With her target out of sight, she relocated herself to a rooftop for a better view on reflex rather than idling in place and waiting for an attack to come or for her opponent to slip away.

But this proved a mistake. Lyra Heartstrings had expected that reaction. Almost immediately, a thick liquid spike pierced Twilight’s enchantments and ran all the way through her leg.

Twilight snapped, her patience utterly spent over the past couple days. Her vision went red. Her coat faded to white. Her mane and tail ignited.

Hissing in pain, Twilight sent a brute force counterspell at the offending tendril in her leg. The affected part vanished into nothing while the remainder retreated and reformed. She did the same to everything else that came her way as she fully enchanted herself for battle. It was a terrible waste of magic, but it never failed to strike terror in her enemies.

Twilight took a step forward. “Surrender. Now.”

This failed to have the desired effect. Lyra Heartstrings, eyes wide, teleported away.

With a hungry grin, Twilight followed after. The moment she reappeared, she launched toward her enemy at a blistering speed. Her scrying spells linked into a heuristic filter filled her head with all relevant information she needed to effectively have a volumetric awareness of her surroundings. She weaved through Lyra Heartstrings’s strange fighting style, dodging attacks coming at her from every direction and more frequently the closer she drew. Once, she blinked out of an attempt to fully engulf her in the liquid and then pressed forward without delay.

Soon enough, Lyra Heartstrings built up her magic and formed it into another teleport. She clearly didn’t like to fight at close range. Twilight fired off a block before she could finish. Unfortunately, it only stopped a tiny portion of the liquid from leaving.

Twilight clicked her tongue. Roughly speaking, most magics affected what their caster identified as a contiguous subject, but it seemed Lyra Heartstrings had managed to create an amorphous spell construct that operated coherently in distinct, independent blobs. If she weren’t so infuriated, she’d call it genius. Punching through it to get to her target would require actual effort.

After successfully making the approach to melee range again, Twilight conjured a spear of ice and thrust it into the blob. Lyra Heartstrings fought her for every inch, forcing her to put distance between them but not breaking her focus on her telekinetic grip.

They then entered into a direct contest of wills and magic, one attempting to dispel or at least melt the spear while the other fought to keep it in existence. As might have been expected from her ability to teleport her blob around, Lyra Heartstrings proved perfectly capable of channeling her magic through her construct without having to open a hole internally to let her magic pass through it.

Even so, Twilight got what she wanted when the spear finally connected with Lyra Heartstrings’s body. It didn’t have even nearly enough energy to pierce unenchanted skin, so of course it did nothing. But then it didn’t need to.

Twilight, protections against heat already in place, took the risk of teleporting in close to her spear. When she wasn’t immediately punished for the momentary delay it took her to regain her bearings, she enacted her plan. Sublimating her spear created a burst of steam and, with it, a hole in the blob which only widened with the sudden pressure.

Lyra Heartstrings realized what had happened a moment too late. Twilight took the shot. She first fired off a quick and dirty piercing spell to poke a temporary hole in any enchantments Lyra Heartstrings had active on her own person. Twilight then followed that up with a lightning spell to render her unconscious. It may have been a bit overkill, but it certainly felt satisfying.

It was also safer to put Lyra Heartstrings down harder, of course. Each subsequent opening would be more difficult to make as she learned and adapted. But it was mostly for the satisfaction.

Twilight breathed deep, wary of a trap but exultant in her victory, as her opponent fell to the ground. The blob had vanished without an active source of magic to sustain it. Then as time was a potential factor, she burned through a ton of magic to brute force dispel any enchantments lingering on Lyra Heartstrings, including the polymorph spell which had originally drawn her attention.

Well, that…explains a lot, actually.

After a quick search for any magical artifacts that would have survived the counterspell she’d used, Twilight reapplied the polymorph for now and then affixed a magic suppressor from her bag of holding onto Lyra Heartstrings’s horn, locking it into place with a spell. To avoid any potential awkward situations, she placed a simple illusion upon it to render it invisible to the naked eye. Then on second thought, she added two more suppressors to be careful. She could overload four herself – five if she really pushed herself and accepted the resulting thaumic burns – and felt three in total was the correct number in this case. With that, the ‘unicorn’ would be helpless and have no way of knowing that the polymorph magic active on her was no longer her own. She would probably assume otherwise, but Twilight first wanted to see how she behaved without knowing her secret was blown.

As the adrenaline coursing through her wore off, Twilight returned to her normal self. It wasn’t something the family spoke of much, but they had some kirin blood in them on their mother’s side. They fortunately didn’t suffer from the full nirik transformation, but, well, they did try to watch their tempers. The moderate fire immunity did help with raising Spike, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

Twilight shifted her weight and immediately regretted it. Right, gaping hole in leg. She’d been doing her best to stay off it during the fight with significant success, one of the many advantages to being a quadruped no matter what Spike claimed about opposable claws. She quickly undid her own polymorph, a relieved sigh escaping her as the wound melted away along with the magic.

With all that done, Twilight took a moment to relax. It’d been an intense few minutes. In all honesty, this had probably been the toughest fight she’d ever had outside of Celestia, Chrysalis, and maybe Shining. She’d not been prepared for it, but now that it was over, she felt foolish for expecting anything less. This was Ponyville, after all.

I am so tempted to order this place razed to the ground after the solstice. I’ve been here for two days. I dread what I’ll have gone through in two weeks, let alone two whole moons. A resigned sigh escaped Twilight. Oh well. That’s Future Me’s problem. I should get back to work. Bon Bon will be expecting me.

Twilight hit Lyra Heartstrings with a spell to bring her around. A pained groan escaped her, and she awoke in a daze almost immediately after. Her first instinct to such, it seemed, was to start casting magic. Admirable and not unexpected, but also not wholly appropriate in this case.

“Ow, my horn,” Lyra Heartstrings moaned. As she sat upright, she asked, “What happened?” Looking around, she completely failed to recognize the scenery. The fight had quickly drifted outside of town into the countryside. “Where in the deep depths am I?” Another – apparently stronger – attempt at magic had similar effects to the last. A string of muttered curses followed.

“That’s what you get for trying to use magic with three suppressors on your horn.”

Lyra Heartstrings jumped to her hooves and spun on Twilight. “You! I remember no – ow! Ow, ow, ow!”

“Let me repeat myself. Three. Suppressors. You won’t be casting anything while they’re on. I was going to be nice about this. I stumbled upon you entirely by accident, after all, but then you had the gall to attack me. Me. Do you know who I am?”

The nervous gulp was answer enough, really, but Lyra Heartstrings said, “Archmage Twilight Sparkle.”

“Quite. Since your judgment is impaired enough to think that was in any way a good idea, we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”

But before Twilight even had to do anything, Lyra Heartstrings broke. “Wait! Wait, please, I’ll cooperate. Just… Please, I have a life here. I don’t want to go home. Don’t send me back there.” She threw herself at Twilight’s hooves. “I beg of you, Your Excellency.”

Twilight watched the breakdown with interest. She hadn’t really known what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t that. “Forgive me if I seem skeptical.”

“What can I–” Lyra Heartstrings took a moment to collect herself and thereby regained a remarkable level of composure. She then adopted what Twilight vaguely recognized as her people’s courtly mannerisms. “What must I do to assure you of my sincerity, Your Excellency?”

It was tempting to just boot the mare out of the country and be done with her. Twilight really didn’t need this complication in her life right now, especially if it entangled her with another nation’s royal court. Yet at the same time, it would free up a lot of time for her in the future if she had an attack dog on a leash. Lyra Heartstrings was no hedge mage or novice sorceress, and Bon Bon had mentioned her need for work. Perhaps they could come to an arrangement similar in nature to the deal Twilight had made with Espionage.

“First, I have little enough patience for ‘civility’ at the best of times. Knock it off.”

There was only a brief moment of hesitation before Lyra Heartstrings relaxed into a more natural stance.

“Second, tell me who you really are.”

“My full name is Lyra Heartstrings. Most ponies just call me Lyra. Less of a mouthful in Ponish.”

Twilight didn’t know the reverse translation, the language being a separate offshoot of Old Ponish, but she could certainly agree with the sentiment. Lyra it was, then.

“I was Queen Aqua’s master of waters.”

Eyes narrowing, Twilight asked, “Culturally speaking, wouldn’t that make you me?”

“Not…exactly,” Lyra replied very unconvincingly.

Twilight pushed an angry burst of air through her nose. “And you want to stay here?” She really didn’t need this right now.

“I’ve been here for six years without issue. I even faked my death when I left.”

Well, that was something. If she kept Lyra out of the public eye, perhaps they could make something work and avoid a diplomatic disaster. “Go home,” Twilight commanded. When Lyra’s eyes widened in horror, she added, “Your home in Ponyville. Index Code will be responsible for you until I come to a decision. If I understand the situation correctly, you’ll find her with Bon Bon, I think it was, upon your return.”

The long walk home was made longer by having to detour to retrieve her lyre from where she’d dropped it in her flight from the archmage. When Lyra finally passed through the front door with it delicately balanced on her back, she let out an exhausted sigh. It was then down to habit after that to deposit it on its stand in the drawing room.

Her labor complete, Lyra stretched her stiff, strained shoulders. As she did, her nose caught the scent of something delicious. She followed it into the kitchen and from there to the dining table where she found Bon Bon and, unless she was very much mistaken, Index Code. The three of them were supposed to have been playing cards tonight with Minuette, but she doubted that would happen now.

“Lyra?” Bon Bon said, surprised. “I thought I heard somepony come in. Did you forget something?”

“Yeah, the date.”

“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. You can be such a scatterbrain sometimes.”

Lyra laughed nervously. “That’s totally what happened.” This rather suspect response, of course, caused Bon Bon to arch her eyebrows at her, but she ignored her marefriend’s silent question. That would probably cost her, but hey, what could she do? “So you’re the new pony in town? Index Code, right?”

“Just Index is fine. Bon Bon here was telling me all sorts of stories about you.”

“Oh. Great.” Lyra hoped they stemmed from simple friendly conversation rather than the beginnings of an investigation into her background. “Bon Bon, I’m not too late for dinner, am I?”

It wasn’t long at all before Lyra found herself with a bowl of Bon Bon’s delicious super spicy curry in front of her. She gave her thanks with a peck on the cheek and then slid into her seat and summoned up her magic–


“You okay?” Bon Bon asked.

Stupid suppressors. “I’m fine.”

Without access to her magic, Lyra knew she would have to use her hooves to eat. That didn’t bode well. She’d never really gotten any good at using those things. Index carried on with her meal across the table as though nothing had happened, but Bon Bon still wore a worried look on her face. That gave Lyra an idea.

“Well, actually, I did hit my horn earlier. It really hurts. Would you feed me?” Lyra did her best to play up her supposed injury, even managing to bring a tear to her eye.

Bon Bon rolled her eyes and shoved a small loaf of bread into Lyra’s mouth. “Use that as a spoon, you big baby.”

Not as fun, but I guess that works. Lyra could at least hold the bread well enough to use it as an edible tool. She had to sit up a little straighter than she liked to make it work, but at least she wouldn’t starve.

“Don’t mind Lyra,” Bon Bon said to Index. The mare in question looked askance at Lyra, although she hid it well once called out on it. “I tell her not to sit like that all the time, but she never listens.”

Lyra glanced down at her posture. She sat on her rear with her hind legs hanging freely over the front of the chair and her back up against her seat. It was comfortable and familiar for her, and it wasn’t as though she’d never seen other ponies sit in a similar manner.

“It is hard on a unicorn’s skeletal structure,” Index said. “We’re not really built for it. But there are some spells which would eliminate any damage as a side effect.”

Oh, horrors. She already knows, doesn’t she? Lyra silently begged Index not to say a word to Bon Bon and changed the subject. “So what were you two planning to do tonight without me?”

“Just make some popcorn and watch some old movies,” Bon Bon replied.

Index nodded in agreement. “I’m still surprised at how many you have. Film reels aren’t cheap. Is your candy shop really so lucrative, or should I be asking the big boss for a raise?”

“Well, the Cakes and I are the only dedicated dessert suppliers in town. We service different needs, too, so you know how that goes.”

“Makes sense,” Index mused between spoonfuls of curry. She stopped just before taking another bite, her brow furrowing, and asked, “What percentage of your revenue is from Pinkie Pie?”

Bon Bon laughed at the question.

Applewood, the city where the stars shone night and day. The city where celebrities were born and where they died. The city where the magic of film made its home. The city where dreams came to life.

“I love you Silver Bell!”

“You’re the greatest!”

“Show me one of your thousand faces!”

“Say the line from Planet of the Humans!”

“Marry me!”

The actress in question walked down the red carpet to the Academy Awards with her costar for her latest film, the ruggedly handsome Star Shadow. She was the biggest thing to hit film since its invention. Her title, the Lady of a Thousand Faces, came from her expert incorporation of magic into her flawless acting, and it had earned her an eternal place in history.

“I’m starting to wonder if I should have agreed to be your date,” Shadow teased. “Nopony ever gets any attention around you.”

Leaning close and eliciting several squeals from the audience – some jealous, some not – Silver Bell laid the charm on extra thick. She whispered in Shadow’s ear as though they were lovers, “Oh, lighten up. They love you too, but you were the villain. Maybe you should fret over the lack of boos.” The crowd ate it up.

Shadow played along, laughing lightly. “Maybe, but I think I’d rather avoid that.”

The inside of Darfur Theater was no quieter than outside. There were less ponies now, it was true, but the enclosed space only amplified their voices. As the two stopped at the coat check for Silver Bell to leave her spring jacket, the call of a traitor came. She would normally either ignore it outright or give it only a fraction of her attention when so preoccupied, but with circumstances being what they were, she had little choice but to disappear for a few moments.

“If you would excuse me for a moment.”

“Where are you going?” Shadow asked. “It won’t be long before the ceremony begins.”

“I know. I’ll rejoin you at our seats before long. I just have to powder my nose.” It was a wildly unbelievable excuse from a mare who made her career off of her ability to change her appearance at will from her coloring to her voice, but a true gentlecolt knew not to pry.

It took little time to acquire some wine and then find a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle where a mare could stare off at the nearly full moon hanging in the night sky with a lot on her mind. Nopony would bother her if she projected the right atmosphere.

So prepared, Chrysalis poked at the unpleasant nuisance in the hive mind who’d sold out their entire species just to get laid. “What do you want, traitor?”

Thorax’s resigned sigh echoed all across the hive, revealing his utter lack of practice. He’d gone fully native, and it showed. “I have Princess Celestia with me, Your Majesty, as you requested.”

Chrysalis made a small harrumph. She could tolerate the coming conversation if the traitor merely intended to play the role of a courier. She did consider, for a moment, routing the traitor’s words through another member of her hive so she wouldn’t have to suffer the sound of his voice but thought better of it in the end. It was her duty to her hive to endure such things, not to pass the ordeal off to one of her changelings.

“Very well. Repeat my words, betrayer.”

As Thorax leaked his well deserved frustration into the hive mind, Chrysalis siphoned off some of the positive emotions directed at her in the theater. She isolated him from the rest of her changelings to keep the peace while she infused her drink with the love she’d gathered. With any luck, it’d help her remain civil around the princess despite the intermediary between them.

“Good evening, Princess.”

“‘Good evening, Queen Chrysalis,’” came the echo of Princess Celestia’s words through Thorax in the hive mind. “‘I apologize for interrupting your awards ceremony.’”

Chrysalis arched one of her currently existing eyebrows. “A little presumptive, don’t you think?”

“‘Oh, please. When have you walked home without one?’”

“When have I ever walked home?”

Thorax informed Chrysalis that Princess Celestia had laughed at the joke.

“Enough pleasantries,” Chrysalis said. They both had more important affairs to tend to than bantering with each other. “We’re here to speak of your sister’s imminent return. Your archmage informed me that the situation is far more dire than I expected.”

There was a long short pause before Princess Celestia replied. With Thorax between them, it was hard to know what meaning to take away from it, if any. “‘I have no doubt that, should it come to it, my sister would, as my archmage put it–”

A sense of incredulity came from Thorax before he got his act together. “Er, sorry, Your Majesty. I, uh, well, I’ll just keep going. ‘My sister would, as my archmage put it, kick my flank to the curb.’”

Chrysalis snorted in a mix of surprise and amusement mid drink, spraying her muzzle with little droplets of wine. It was such a shame Archmage Twilight had such a tiny lifespan. She would certainly miss the mare’s irreverence when she was gone.

“‘To be perfectly frank, the fate of the world is in Archmage Twilight’s hooves. While I prepare for the worst, she assures me she has this crisis, whatever the outcome, well in hoof.’”

Well, that was certainly an interesting bit of information. The archmage had never been prone to optimism or exaggeration in Chrysalis’s experience. “‘How, then, does she intend to manage the lunatic on the throne? Surely she doesn’t expect me to fight her.” While so many years spent in Equestria gorging herself on love and admiration meant exclusively for her had given her the strength to fight an alicorn on even terms, that was hardly unusual. Even Archmage Twilight could do that. There was a maximum amount of magic one could output without disrupting one’s own spells. The question then became how long could she last? The answer, she feared, was maybe a minute or two at best.

“Your Majesty, uh, forgive me, but…‘lunatic’? Are you sure that’s the word you want to use?”

Thorax had a point. There were good reasons that word had entered Equestria’s lexicon but none which would win any points with Princess Celestia. “Madmare, then, filth.”

After a few moments, the conversation finally restarted. “‘Although I must confess to not knowing, I suspect such is either a prerequisite to her plans or a precaution.’”

Now that certainly sounded like the paranoid archmage Chrysalis knew. She’d have to give the matter some thought later on her own time, but that was assurance enough for her for now. “Very well. Archmage Twilight has been nothing but fair and forthright in our dealings, so I’ll place my trust in her as well.”

An unusually long silence for Princess Celestia followed. When prodded for information, Thorax revealed that she appeared caught up in her thoughts with a slight frown marring her usually serene expression. Chrysalis instructed him to bring her back into the here and now.

“‘Shall we set aside our respective titles for a moment?’”

Intrigued at the sudden request, Chrysalis replied, “I see no reason to refuse.” It wasn’t everyday someling got a peek behind the mask.

“‘Thank you. Chrysalis, I owe you an apology for my hypocrisy.’”

Oh, now this is interesting. Preparing for the worst, indeed. It seemed the immortal goddess had a guilty conscious she wanted cleared before her sister locked her away for an indefinite length of time. She probably had a last request as well. Playing along, Chrysalis asked, “How so?”

“‘When Twilight first informed me there were changelings in Equestria, I fully intended to expel your entire hive despite her having already opened negotiations with you. I all but outright commanded her not to trust a child of Discord.’”

“Please,” Chrysalis interrupted with a healthy sneer. “Even my grandmother despised her maker. Those were dark times with little love to go around.”

“‘It was never any loyalty to him which worried me. There are myriad reasons why Equestria is home to so few nonponies. We have a long and troubled history with the griffons, for example.’”

“Ah.” Chrysalis understood where the hypocrisy came from now. All of the chimeric creatures Discord had created in his endless pursuit of entertainment did tend to cause problems. “Yet you maintain a friendship with Queen Novo of the hippogriffs.”

“‘The hippogriffs have been loyal allies for centuries. It both warms my heart and gives an old mare some peace of mind to know Twilight has your support in her coming trials.’”

Silence fell on both ends as that statement propagated through Chrysalis’s mind. The traitor, fool that he was, lacked the necessary skill to read the princess’s emotions with any degree of surety. As such, it proved difficult to gauge Princess Celestia’s true intent. It was so very tempting to portal to Canterlot to continue this discussion face to face.

Chrysalis downed the last of her wine. The hidden vow of a distant retribution if she betrayed the princess’s precious archmage came through clear enough, yet so too did the promise of favorable relations in the future in the other eventuality. But, she supposed, so long as Princess Celestia didn’t force her to pick an alicorn to back to the bitter end, it hardly mattered. She had no reason to stab Archmage Twilight in the back.

“You know, you never actually apologized.”

Thorax utterly failed to reproduce Princess Celestia’s almost musical laughter. “‘I offer my humble apologies for the slight upon your character. If you wish, please join us for our next movie night. Family and family friends only.’”

“I’ll consider it.” Chrysalis then put her metaphorical crown back upon her head. “So what precisely are you asking of my hive until the solstice?”

“‘Only that which you already do. Keep a weather eye out for anything suspicious and coordinate with the EIS.’”

The request was more than fair per the agreement Chrysalis had reached with Equestria. She asked, “Anything in particular you want us to watch for?”

After a few moments, Princess Celestia finally made her reply. “‘Some things have been found which should have remained lost. I had intended to send my archmage after them, but with her occupied and her substitute not up to the task, perhaps you could fill in for her.’”

The chance to have a firsthoof look at artifacts Princess Celestia wanted kept hidden? Chrysalis could hardly say no to that opportunity. “Send me the details. I’ll do what I can. Any priorities my hive can start on immediately?”

“‘Yes. Two. The Night Guardian Staff vanished years ago from where my sister left it.’”

Chrysalis remembered her mother’s stories about that particular magical artifact with a hint of dread. It didn’t grant power. It didn’t grant knowledge. The naive sorcerer would toss it aside as junk. But the most dangerous wielders of magic, the sort who would go to the effort to unearth a lost relic belonging to a vengeful goddess? They knew the value and rarity of a true spellcasting assistant. She understood why Princess Celestia wanted that artifact back in her possession.

“‘Somepony must have found something of hers to know of it, to find it, and to retrieve it. All of my leads went cold, but there may be a paper trail left somewhere or new rumors floating on the wind.

“‘My other priority is to find Sunset Shimmer. She…needs to be found.’”

There Chrysalis paused, taking a moment to reflect and consider her response. She knew where Sunset Shimmer was. Archmage Twilight knew where Sunset Shimmer was. For whatever reason, the archmage had an interest in covering for the mare. She’d been doing it for years with the hive’s support.

Well, if the princess wants my loyalty to extend to her archmage first, then on her head be it. Chrysalis promised to look into both the Night Guardian Staff and Sunset Shimmer while making a mental note to summon Archmage Twilight for a private conversation as soon as reasonably possible.

After dinner, Lyra, Bon Bon, and Index had spent the rest of the night watching movies and chatting. To be fully accurate, Bon Bon had done most of the talking with Index occasionally answering a question or commenting on one of her stories or a particularly interesting scene. Lyra had mostly kept to herself the whole while, waiting for the inevitable.

And then, when Bon Bon had asked for movie requests, Index suggested one that hit far too close to home. Lyra groaned, but Bon Bon loved everything Disneigh, and when Index revealed that she’d never actually seen the film in question, that sealed the deal.

Of course, they were only two heartsongs in when Bon Bon coaxed Lyra into singing along with her. She was such a dork, but she was her dork. Lyra would have no other. When they got to the final short little number, they entwined their hooves, stared deep into the other’s eyes, and sang together.

“Now we can walk. Now we can run. Now we can stay all day in the sun. Just you and me, and I can be–”

Bon Bon placed a hoof on Lyra’s cheek. She leaned into the touch.

“–part of your world.”

There were times when Lyra thought Bon Bon knew – knew and didn’t care. It was such a beautiful dream.

As the credits rolled, Index cut her magic off from the projector and then went to rewind the film. Lyra usually powered it herself when on hoof instead of wasting the accumulated ambient magic stored in its reservoir, but given her current difficulties in that regard, the offer had been made and accepted.

After a brief kiss, Bon Bon broke away and turned to their guest. “So what did you think?”

There was a bit of a clatter over her contemplative hum as Index replaced the film reel back in its protective tin and then returned it to its place on Bon Bon’s movie shelves. “It was interesting,” she finally concluded. “It’s been on my watch list for some time. I try to keep up to date on all of Silver Bell’s work.”

“Oh, a fan, eh?” Bon Bon asked.

Index shrugged and said, “Of sorts,” without any further explanation. “Anyway, the heartsongs were well done, and the anatomy was on point. Silver Bell’s influence, no doubt. But the writers have clearly never met a seapony. Or only met hippogriffs moonlighting as seaponies. Regardless, a more accurate setting would have been an insane mermare – sane by our standards – trying to escape to the surface through marriage or for love. Pick your poison. Still, one of the better films I’ve seen, I suppose. I did enjoy it.”

“Ooh, high praise from the critic,” Bon Bon teased. Then, clearly curious, she asked, “You’ve met seaponies?”

“I’ve had the displeasure. Their idea of a good time, as it happens, is to find some mountain sized abyssal horror to fight to the death.”

Lyra couldn’t deny that.

“While singing merrily, I might add.”

Or that, unfortunately.

“I’ve sat through a traumatized mare’s recollection of the psychopaths toying with her life. Her ship sank in a storm, and they ‘helped’ her get to shore.”

Lyra shifted uncomfortably. She distinctly recalled reading that report about a good deed done in the name of friendship.

“Why do you ask?”

“Er, just curious,” Bon Bon replied. “I’ve heard stories but didn’t know how embellished they were.”

Index shrugged and, as her eyes swept over Bon Bon’s movie collection, said, “For what it’s worth, they’re mostly harmless. We’re too boring to be worth bothering.” Her eyes lit up as she snagged a film with her magic. “I didn’t know there was a Daring Do movie!”

“Eh, the book was better,” Bon Bon said dismissively as she rose to her hooves. “I think I’m going to turn in for the night.”

As much as she didn’t want to, Lyra said, “I’m up for another.”

Lyra exchanged her good nights with Bon Bon, and before long, she was alone with her parole officer. To her mild surprise, Index actually set the Daring Do movie to playing and settled in to watch. She occasionally levitated popcorn into her mouth without a word or comment. Without Bon Bon around to pull them both into conversation, the silence festered until it finally overwhelmed Lyra.

The Little Seapony? Really?”

Without a hint of apology, Index replied, “I was wondering how long it would take you to crack.”

“You’re a jerk.”

“I’m well aware of my abrasiveness.” There was absolutely no shame in those words. “Now I honestly haven’t been able to decide. Have you told her?”

“Of course not,” Lyra muttered. She wanted no part of her old life. “Thanks for not outing me, I guess.”

Index grunted an acknowledgment. “So is she the reason you’re here?”

In the most literal sense, the answer to that question was a big yes. She would still be living in the lower districts of Canterlot as far from the oceans as possible if not for Bon Bon. But to the spirit of the question, Lyra replied, “No. I got sent up onto dry land for a few chores, and I liked it here. I liked being a unicorn. I left Aquestria to get away from the craziness.”

“The flesh shapes the mind, I suppose.”

“I was tired of it all long before then,” Lyra insisted. She’d only needed a place to escape to in order to find the will to act on the desire.

A skeptical hum met the question, but Index didn’t contest Lyra’s claim. “I will, of course, be reporting everything you tell me.”

Lyra had expected as much. She understood both the position she was in and the position she’d put Equestria in now that she’d been discovered. The archmage, she knew, had every right and indeed the responsibility to toss her back into the ocean and let her queen sort her out. She was lucky to still be here on a tentative basis.

Sighing, Lyra reached out for some popcorn with her magic. It didn’t work, but she was getting used to the sharp sting in her horn reminding her not to try after every time she got distracted and forgot. She instead awkwardly put her hooves to the task of feeding her sans any of the dexterity Bon Bon displayed. That was dark earth pony magic infinitely beyond her clumsy attempts to replicate it.

An idea occurred. “Hey. Can you take these off.” Lyra gestured to the still invisible suppressors on her horn.

“You’re a flight risk, so no.”

Lyra pursed her lips. That was fair. She could be anypony anywhere in Equestria in the time it took most ponies to put on a dress. “What if I Pinkie Promised to stay in Ponyville?”

Index rolled her eyes.

“But nopony can break a Pinkie Promise.”

“Don’t be absur–” Slowly, Index turned her head to Lyra and asked for clarification.

Lyra was happy to elucidate. She demonstrated the motions and recited the chant that accompanied the full formal process, after which she explained the consequences to breaking a Pinkie Promise.

“Let me get this straight,” Index said with forced calm, eye twitching. “Pinkie Pie is aware of all promises made in her name?”

That wasn’t exactly how Lyra had phrased it, but it wasn’t incorrect.

“Fine.” It certainly didn’t sound fine. “It has a set phrase to invoke. I understand how I would go about implementing a spell to that effect.”

Lyra, who had no idea where she would even begin with that sort of magic, eyed Index with some suspicion. Exactly how much magical knowledge was the mare hiding under the guise of a simple bureaucrat? Who works directly for the archmage. Hmm…

“But she can somehow parse all of the information necessary to know when a promise is broken and not just find but track the oathbreaker?”

“It’s Pinkie.” What more needed to be said?

Index point-blank rejected that explanation. “No. No, I must be thinking about this backwards. When the vow is invoked, it must place some sort of monitoring spell on the subject. If you distribute the computational load, those little spells could report back to Pinkie Pie when triggered. But how would they know when to do so? Perhaps a geas? Dark magic doesn’t really seem up her alley, even assuming she’s not secretly a unicorn and got somepony else to cast everything for her, but it’s an avenue of approach. That would cause the magic requirement to balloon, however. Eh, whatever. I’ll just assume infinite power and consider feasibility later.”

The muttered musings of a sorceress with an interesting problem tempted Lyra to get involved for old times’ sake, but that wasn’t her life anymore. Nor was it why she’d brought this up at all. “So? Will you remove the suppressors if I make a Pinkie Promise?”

“I’ll look into it. If it’s a real phenomenon and it’s not some spell effect you can easily remove, I’ll consider it. For now, you’ll just have to suffer without magic.”

Fantastic. A disgruntled Lyra went back to struggling to eat popcorn.