Chapter Seven - From Bad to Worse
“So this is where you always disappear to.” After a few curious glances and a little poking around the lab, it came time to ask the all-important question. “Why have you brought me here?”
Lyra stared at the necklace draped over her hoof. There was something absolutely wonderful about it, but she had no idea what. Aside from its odd origin, it looked and felt like an ordinary necklace, albeit one with her cutie mark expertly crafted and inset into it. Presumably, Index could tell her more about it, but that vindictive mare had teleported away in a fit.
Just a few steps away, Bon Bon, usually so unflappable even during Ponyville’s regular weekly crisis, had grown visibly agitated. Lyra wanted to ask what had her in such a mood, but her eyes drifted back to the necklace hanging from her hoof. She knew perfectly well not to put on magical artifacts without knowing what they did, especially ones which touched the mind, but common sense had deserted her. After a quick check to see how the clasp worked, she affixed it around her neck.
In an instant, Lyra’s mind cleared of the haze the necklace had put her under. She reeled upon realization of what had happened, but when she went to take the necklace off, she just couldn’t quite summon up the will to follow through. It was hers. She would not be parted from it. But that just magnified the cognitive dissonance running through her head. She’d never encountered something with even half as strong an effect on her during her tenure as the master of waters. Why in the deep depths had Index been carrying around something like this?
Lyra breathed out a long, calming breath, determined not to make herself overwrought. The necklace didn’t seem to be having any negative effects on her other than the overwhelming captivation to retain possession of it. She felt fine. It wasn’t siphoning her magic. In fact, she felt a little stronger, magic leaping slightly more readily to her call. It felt somewhat like the warm, tingly sensation horned species got when drawing power from external sources of magic. Perhaps wearing the necklace until Index returned and pried it from her cold dead hooves would be fine.
Lyra blinked. I need to get the possessiveness this thing induces under control.
But that could wait. Lyra had an anxious marefriend to soothe. She approached slowly and wraped a gentle arm around Bon Bon’s, pulling her into a nuzzle. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“I…” That look in her eyes. Bon Bon wanted to say whatever was on her mind, but something held her back. “It’s nothing.”
A strange feeling surged through Lyra, more of a prickle than a tingle but with no discernible source nor target. It had to be something the necklace did, but what was the trigger and purpose?
“What about you?” Bon Bon deflected. “How are you feeling?”
There was the concerning matter of the necklace, but her personally? Now that she was a unicorn again, she had nothing a complain about. “Fine. Why?”
“Well, you did just spend multiple hours trapped in a bathtub as a seapony.”
Lyra drew in a hiss of breath. “Index told you, didn’t she?” And here she’d thought the mare had some decency in her.
“Oh, go easy on her,” Bon Bon said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s really not that embarrassing. We live in Ponyville. Everypony eventually stumbles over some stray poison joke.”
What? “Poison joke?” What in the unspeakable names of the abyss was that?
“Blue flower? Grows around the Everfree? About…yea high?” Bon Bon held a hoof up just above knee height. “It’s easy to miss if you’re not watching where you’re going. It has a different effect on everypony. Do you remember Pinkie walking through town with a ridiculous, shaggy coat?”
Now that Bon Bon mentioned it, Lyra did. That’d been years ago. She’d written it off as just another one of Pinkie’s antics. “Oh. I think Index used the scientific name for it when she explained what happened to me.”
There came that prickling again. It didn’t hurt. It just felt…indescribably weird for having experienced it only twice.
“That was odd,” Lyra mumbled to herself.
“Well, of course it was odd. It’s poison joke. It always does something strange. So what was being a seapony like?”
“I’d really rather not talk about it,” Lyra replied. That part of her life was over for good so long as she could convince the archmage to let her stay. Then rather sheepishly, knowing she hadn’t exactly been the easiest pony to be around, relatively speaking, for much of the day, she asked, “Is there any dinner left for me?”
The prickling sensation occurred once more, although less intensely than before. Or perhaps it had a different grain?
“Oh. Okay.” Lyra couldn’t complain considering how she’d been today. “I guess I’ll just whip up something quick for myself.”
Bon Bon rolled her eyes. “You look like a kicked puppy.” She ran a hoof up Lyra’s neck until it came to a rest on a cheek. Then tilting Lyra’s head up, she moved in for a quick kiss. “While you’re at it, make extra for me. I haven’t eaten either.”
“You waited?” Lyra said with a silly grin on her face. “You shouldn’t have.”
No denial came from Bon Bon. She said, “Probably not, but eating alone is no fun.”
And again the prickling reared its mildly annoying head. It was the lesser variation as it had been last time. Was the magic causing it running out? The necklace’s tingling didn’t feel any different.
“Is something wrong?”
Lyra furrowed her brows. “I don’t know. This necklace is doing something, and I’m not sure what.”
“It’s probably nothing to worry about. Index said she got the, well, necklace, I guess, from Pinkie, and you know she attracts wacky, disruptive nonsense, not dangerous things.”
There was that lesser prickle again.
It was then that Lyra noticed a little slip of thin paper stuck under her hoof. When she levitated it up off the floor, it had only a single word written on it: Honesty. All at once, she understood and grinned.
“Two plus two equals three.”
The full force of the prickling met that statement.
“I have a pink coat.”
Another wave came.
“Princess Celestia is my mother.”
“I can play the lyre.”
This time no prickling bothered her.
“Who was your first crush?”
Bemused and a little annoyed at being interrupted, Bon Bon said, “Why on Equus are you asking me that right now?”
Because I’ve always suspected you lied about it. Of course, Lyra didn’t say that aloud. She instead went with, “I’m testing something. Just answer.”
Bon Bon sighed but did do as asked. “Octavia, as you well know.”
While Lyra had never doubted that her marefriend had a thing for musicians, the prickling told another story. Bon Bon had an embarrassing secret first crush! Oh, it was going to be such fun wheedling that information out of her. But for now, she had more experiments to perform.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s with all the questions?”
“Come on, Bon Bon. Please?” Lyra bent a little at the knees to make herself shorter than Bon Bon and adopted the cutest little pout. The tactic proved effective.
“Oh, very well. It’s Bon Bon.”
Lyra’s mood immediately cooled as she felt the lesser prickle again. “Is Bon Bon a nickname?” If so, why had it taken a magical necklace she was fairly certain could detect half-truths and lies for her to find out?
“Of course not,” Not Bon Bon replied. The lack of prickling to her words meant they were the truth, yet on the other hoof, her name wasn’t Bon Bon. But it’d been a lesser prickle when she’d said it was, so it also wasn’t not Bon Bon. What did that mean?
Now cautious, Lyra asked, “How long have you been together with me?”
Relief swept through Lyra when her shiny new trinket had no reaction. Whatever was going on here, she at least had the right mare in her life. That would be enough to get them through anything. But before she pried too deeply into her marefriend’s secrets, it was only right to give Not Bon Bon fair warning lest this come back to buck her in the rear.
“All right, I know what this necklace does now. It lets me know when ponies lie or mislead.”
Not Bon Bon made a valiant effort, Lyra was sure, but her face paled beneath her creamy coat.
“So…we should probably talk.”
“I love you,” Not Bon Bon blurted out.
As the necklace didn’t react in the slightest, Lyra didn’t have to wonder in the slightest and easily replied, “I love you too.” Not to her surprise but certainly worth heeding, the necklace also approved of her declaration of affections. “Do you want to tell me what was bothering you after Index left, because it was not nothing?”
“I…” Not Bon Bon’s eyes shifted around the room. “Oh, Celestia, there are regulations for this sort of situation, but I have no idea what they are. The archmage stuffed the book with a bunch of nonsense years ago that nopony ever reads.”
That was, Lyra noted, all true.
“I think any explanation will have to wait until I get my instructions in order. If I’m right, that” – Not Bon Bon thrust a hoof at the necklace – “is way above my pay grade. Like we should expect the archmage or the princess herself to be knocking on our door soon above.”
Oh, that’s not good. The archmage was already unhappy with Lyra, and her faithful minion had just stormed off in anger over this. How doomed am I compared to how doomed I’d be for breaking a Pinkie Promise? Rather reluctantly, Lyra decided she’d probably be best off facing the archmage’s displeasure.
Not Bon Bon eyed the necklace warily. “Could you please take that thing off so I don’t have to watch everything I say?”
A hesitant spark of Lyra’s golden magic found the necklace’s clasp. She played with it, flicking it open and shut, as she gnawed on her lip. She should take it off. It’d only be polite, and she still had no idea what negative side effects the artifact might have beyond the obvious.
“Uh, Not Bon Bon–”
The mare in question facehoofed. “Please just refer to me as you usually do. I like being Bon Bon.” She leveled a significant look at Lyra. “You of all unicorns can understand that, can’t you?”
Uneasy laughter escaped Lyra. “Yeah… Um… So you…”
Rather than listen to Lyra’s failed attempts to ask what Bon Bon meant by that remark, she swept forward and pulled Lyra into a slow, passionate kiss. When it ended, she whispered, “Necklace off, love.”
Lyra, dazed, said, “Sure.”
A few seconds of blissful floating later, Bon Bon arched her eyebrows.
“Oh. Right.” Lyra summoned up her magic to try to remove the necklace again but found no more success than she had before. “This – this isn’t as easy as it looks. Could you do it for me?”
Bon Bon rolled her eyes but spun a hoof in a small circle. Lyra took the hint and turned around for her. When her hooves touched the necklace, however, Lyra took a hasty step forward away from them.
“What are you doing?” Bon Bon asked, her displeasure leaking into her tone.
The very next moment, Bon Bon’s earlier words proved prophetic. Rather than knocking on their door, however, the archmage herself teleported directly into their living room. “Trouble rather the dragon in his lair than part the Element from its mare.” She tilted her head from side to side in judgment of her own words. “Not quite a perfect adaptation of the idiom, but it gets the point across. Tearing myself away from my own Element was…an ordeal. A necessary one in my case whose end I greatly look forward to.”
The archmage sighed and took a seat uninvited. “Honesty is yours for life. The compulsion to keep it close is, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, extraordinarily powerful. The longer you’re parted, the…well, not easier but more bearable its call becomes. The good news, however, is the Elements of Harmony are otherwise fully benign.” She summoned a scroll from nowhere and passed it off to a speechless Lyra. “That covers all of the known details about the Element of Honesty along with a basic primer on the rest of the Elements. Questions?”
Lyra had far too many to count.
Bon Bon found her voice first. “Your Excellency, could I have a private word?”
Although she seemed unsure where the request had come from, the archmage obliged and teleported herself and Bon Bon elsewhere. Lyra, left alone with nothing better to do, sat down and read through the scroll the archmage had given her. She’d already determined Honesty’s primary power, but the miniature manual therein contained fine details about its effective range and some musings on the limits of its powers and how to deceive its ability to perceive subjective truth. Additionally, all of the Elements provided a mild power boost and could be summoned from anywhere, even from behind wards, by their bearer.
It wasn’t that engaging of a read, but it did keep Lyra’s mind off of the fact that Bon Bon had all but confessed to having known what she was for depths knew how long.
Teleportation was something nopony should ever get used to. The archmage’s rendition proved far more pleasant than Sweetie Drops had suffered before, but she still stumbled upon arrival. When she regained her bearing enough to look around, she found that they were now, oddly enough, in Pinkie’s room at Sugarcube Corner. But then she did recall that this was where Index, who worked directly under the archmage, was staying, so perhaps…
“Oh,” Sweetie Drops said in realization. “Index Code isn’t real, is she?”
Although the surprise showed clearly on her face, the archmage took the question in stride. “It depends on what you consider real. She has her own persona, history, and even legal documentation. She lives as much in the memory of the ponies who she’s interacted with as any other. But yes, she’s one of the many identities Celestia and I adopt when we want to pass unnoticed.”
Sweetie Drops took the hint and promised not to say anything to anypony other than Lyra, who they both agreed would know something was up sooner or later with the Element of Honesty around her neck. It hadn’t, after all, taken even half an hour for Lyra to discover that her marefriend wasn’t exactly who she claimed to be.
And on that note, Sweetie Drops said, “I take it you don’t recognize me.”
“I distinctly recall asking if you did any government work,” Archmage Twilight replied, “but beyond a vague sense of familiarity, no, I don’t. Who are you?”
“Former Special Agent Sweetie Drops, now the head of the Anti-Monster Division, Your Excellency.”
The archmage’s eyes widened. “Of course,” she said with a distinctly self-recriminating tone. “We’ve not had a formal introduction yet, have we?”
“My appointment was relatively recent.”
“Well, that makes this much less embarrassing,” Archmage Twilight replied with a sheepish smile. It vanished soon after. “How curious. Why is it that neither Princess Celestia nor I were ever made aware of Lyra’s presence here?”
Sweetie Drops gulped. This was her boss’s boss, the very top of the chain of command besides the princess, and Princess Celestia only rarely involved herself with the EIS these days. The archmage could ruin her on a whim – if she was worth the bother, knowing what the archmage was like – and it wasn’t even just her flank on the line.
“It’s a long story, ma’am.”
The hard look the archmage returned said she had plenty of time.
Nervous, Sweetie Drops recounted her tale. “I found Lyra performing in the lower districts of Canterlot.” They both decoded that as the polite term for the slums which had cropped up on the mountainside technically beyond city limits. “We hit it off and became fast friends. I invited her to move in with me, and, well, roommates learn a lot about each other without ever saying a word. It was a bunch of little things which clued me in. Lyra easily passed as a unicorn even then and has gotten better since, but once in a while, she’d say or do something which most ponies passed off as just Lyra being Lyra like we do with Pinkie.
“When I put together the pieces and realized she was a seapony, I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I made a few quiet inquiries with Immigration Services first to check if she was here legally. She wasn’t, so I called in a few favors” – dozens, really – “to get her classified as a monster under my division’s jurisdiction. And to get me assigned as her watcher, obviously.”
“Obviously,” the archmage echoed flatly.
Sweetie Drops cringed but continued on. “Lyra has never hurt anypony–”
The stony expression the archmage wore twitched into a frown before returning to a blank mask.
What did she do? Sweetie Drops screamed in her head. Outwardly, she carried on as if nothing had happened. “–so I’ve never needed to act. When our feelings for each other took a decidedly romantic turn, I did the right thing and went to the then head of my division. I told him I was too emotionally compromised to do my job. He and I went to speak with Director Incog. It was…” No other moment in her life had ever been filled with such a deluge of shame, betrayal, regret, and yet determination despite all that to keep bending the rules to protect her lover. “–a long night. In the end, Incog gave me the go ahead to date Lyra with the understanding that I’d be personally accountable for everything she did.”
That was the end of the story, but the archmage clearly was waiting for something more.
“And we’ve been happy together ever since.”
Archmage Twilight tapped her hoof impatiently. “And?”
“And…” Sweetie Drops cast her mind out for what she could have forgotten, but nothing important came to mind.
“Unbelievable,” the archmage said. “You never performed a background check. This is why we have rules and regulations. You have no idea who Lyra is, do you?”
Unfortunately, all Sweetie Drops could do was shake her head.
Archmage Twilight, despite her furious snort and the stomp of her hoof, didn’t immediately pronounce judgment. Indeed, she took to pacing back and forth muttering little snippets to the effect of, “It wasn’t supposed to be this complicated,” to herself. At the end of one, she spun on Sweetie Drops and asked, “Given your position, am I right to assume you’ve been briefed on the Nightmare Moon situation?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She hesitated a moment and then asked, “The Element of Honesty is part of the plan to defeat her, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. The Elements of Harmony can strike her down. There’s six in total, they run off of the literal power of friendship, and they bind themselves to their bearers for life.”
Sweetie Drops opened her mouth, but she found herself without words.
“Yes, that was my reaction as well. So good news for you and Lyra, I suppose. She’s become an invaluable asset to Equestria overnight, so she gets to stay. By all rights, I should tear the EIS apart over this scandal, but I can’t have one of my mandatory new best friends preoccupied with her beloved crying in her hooves over the mean archmage enforcing the law.”
“I… I’m sorry for putting you in this position.” Sweetie Drops couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The archmage visibly bit back whatever response first leapt to her tongue. Instead, she went with, “If this ever gets out, I expect you and Lyra to be in such mad, disgustingly sappy bliss with each other that we can sell this as the story of two star-crossed lovers.”
Relief surged through every inch of Sweetie Drops’s frame from her head down to her hooves. “We can do that.” It wouldn’t even be a challenge.
“Good. Now I need to go cool off before I blow something up. Brief Lyra on the situation for me. Feel free to tell her anything pertinent about yourself and your work.”
The archmage’s horn lit up, and Sweetie Drops found herself back in her home before she could even raise a word in question. Lyra was still there, idly reading through the scroll the archmage had given her.
“You’re back!” Lyra rose with a smile on her face but then looked around nervously. “Uh, where’s you know who?”
“She left.” Bon Bon moved forward to nuzzle her love. “Why don’t we sit down. We have a lot to talk about.”
After a rapid fire series of teleports, Twilight appeared high above the clouds in the Frozen North. She had done her duty for the day. It was time and past time to take some personal time away from the town seemingly engineered specifically to drive her insane. If she didn’t, she might just join Luna in the evil alter ego club. She could call herself Eternal Twilight. That sounded like a nice compromise. There’d be enough sunlight that way to not freeze the world without compromising the endless night shtick by actually raising the sun.
But then maybe Nightmare Moon wouldn’t go for even that. Perhaps a better villain name would be Midnight Sparkle. It had a stronger night motif, invoked every sinister connotation associated with midnight, and carried a certain level of class. Moreover, she didn’t really like the thematic idea of being the bridge between the royal sisters. She hardly wished to play mediator for them for the rest of time.
When Twilight realized she’d spent the last few minutes of her journey contemplating her hypothetical evil image, she rolled her eyes at where her mind had wandered to. She needed her own evil plan before she could decide on a villain name. Anything else would just be putting the cart before the pony.
Twilight chuckled as she teleported into her laboratory. Two years ago, she’d scoured the tundra for an underground cavern to repurpose. “Security through obscurity!” she’d cried. The one she’d set up shop in had been the best mix of spacious and stable to serve as a starting point. She’d then spent a few weeks sculpting the natural formation into a state-of-the-art research facility where she could conduct her more dangerous magical experiments. Between the ambient enchanted lighting, the smooth floors and walls, the doors, and the lab equipment, a pony would be hard pressed to believe the place had once featured dripping water, pitch black darkness, stalactites and stalagmites, and an utter lack of breathable air.
The test chamber was the largest room in the complex, placed a full kilometer away from the main lab. It was designed to take any abuse Twilight could subject it to without endangering all of her other work. Along that line of reasoning, only a narrow hallway secured with multiple blast doors connected the two locations as a safety measure in case teleportation should fail for some reason.
It also had a ward scheme better meant for withstanding a siege than scientific rigor. She’d never even come close to overwhelming them after her initial stress test, but someday, she knew, she’d be glad to have installed them. Sure, they were a huge sink on the ambient magic in the area, but it wasn’t like there was anypony else around to complain in this frozen wasteland. Besides, it was the consensus amongst magical scholars that, in addition to the excess magic most creatures radiated into the world’s ambient magic, Equus itself continually produced magic at a scale where civilization would have to go out of its way to deliberately deplete it.
After a quick check to make sure all of the protections were still working as intended, Twilight changed the destination of the emergency teleport system from her tower in Canterlot to Pinkie Pie’s room in Ponyville. It was approximately the same distance, the system had more than enough power stored up, and in the off chance she needed it, she would find help more readily there than in her empty tower.
Twilight lastly polymorphed into Index’s form. Even Pinkie Pie would have a hard time explaining why the archmage suddenly appeared in her room if she had company and if Twilight triggered her emergency teleport. Beyond that, while she doubted she would – or rather could – cause herself any physical harm with the long overdue experiment she wanted to perform, it was always best to have a buffer in place when doing something dangerous.
Now fully prepared, Twilight spoke aloud knowing the room would automatically transcribe every word.
“Before we begin, I would like to state for the record that I am breaking from my prior caution with the following experiment largely because I’ve been having a really stressful week. I desperately need something to go right. If I end up killing myself and some future ambitious pony finds this recording, know that the principle behind the experiment itself is not unsound, only the pony conducting it. If this is Celestia or a member of my family listening, I’ll point out that I’ve written personalized apology letters to each of you. You can find them locked in my desk drawer in the library here.”
With the usual formalities out of the way, Twilight set to her task in earnest.
“The dual nature of ponies is well known and not in dispute. We are at once both flesh and magic. However, conventional wisdom holds that while flesh is mutable, magic is not. This is obviously nonsense. A pony’s magic grows and expands with use and age. Indeed, if our magic were not mutable, then no pony would ever die of magical failure.
“There is a distinction to be made here for the sake of clarity between a pony’s magic and the ordinary magic it generates for spellcasting. There are many informal terms for the former across cultures and disciplines: wellspring, magical core, sea of chi, et cetera. In the absence of a universal scientific term, we will simply use the term magic and let context determine the usage.”
Twilight reached out with her magic to her storage room and teleported a block of solidified magic back to her.
“Just before the Discordian Era at the height of pony civilization, Star Swirl delved into the study of magic modification. By good fortune, what remained of his research notes was discovered during the Key of Unfettered Entrance Incident.” By Twilight herself, of course. “Using them as a jumping off point, we’ve recreated and improved upon the magics involved. The original spells, as we believe them to have been, we suspect would have produced unstable results.
“The goal of this first experiment will be to expand the magical capacity of the test subject, Twilight Sparkle.” She cast a spell to continuously scan and record her biomagical vital statistics for later analysis. “As all signs show she is in good health, we will now begin.”
This was the moment of truth. Twilight lit her horn and latched onto the solidified magic at her hooves. This was no minor spell she was about to attempt, and part of it involved stuffing herself full of more magic than she could currently hold to ensure it stuck. That, by its very nature, required her to utilize an external power source.
With extreme precision, Twilight began constructing her spell. She referenced the spell diagrams she’d created, weaving her magic with pedantic care according to their instructions. There was no room for error here. She was, after all, about to perform surgery on herself, which was exactly as bad of an idea as it sounded like, but she wasn’t about to let anypony else do it for her. The only pony who she trusted and whose magical abilities she trusted enough was Celestia, and that would inevitably open a whole can of worms they didn’t have time for right now.
After a half hour of continuous effort and rigorous double, triple, and even quadruple checking her work, Twilight held her spell ready to cast. This was, far and away, the single most complex piece of sorcery she’d ever attempted. All it took to set it off now was a flux of power so simple a foal could do it.
All right, Twilight. You’ve not yet hit your natural limit. You’re nowhere near your theoretical limit. You’re not challenging the density barrier Celestia has somehow overcome. You’re going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine.
Twilight triggered the spell. It went to work not in a blaze of glory but with the quiet efficiency with which it’d been designed. She didn’t resist as it pulled, and stretched, and filled her in ways few if any ponies ever had been before. The spell and strange sensations ended almost as quickly and without spectacle as they’d begun. If indeed Ponish had the vocabulary to describe the experience in anything but a crude approximation, she’d not had the time necessary to discover the words.
Left with a vaguely off sensation, Twilight swayed in place and just tried to make sense of what she’d gone through. It perhaps should have been a warning sign when she found herself feeling far more than thinking, but instinct took over. The moment she tried to summon up her magic, she knew something was wrong. Her legs went weak and gave out beneath her. She missed a breath. The oncoming rush of adrenaline gave her just enough presence of mind to seek help.
“Fubar!” Twilight cried out.
The test chamber’s emergency teleport activated immediately and whisked Twilight away to Ponyville. As it specified position only, not orientation, it kindly dumped her onto the floor of Pinkie Pie’s room as she’d fallen. Then spotting its stunned resident nearby in bed but not asleep, she gasped out, “Pinkie. Hospital.”