Chapter Nine - Meet the Party

“’Tis an interesting idea. I understand your approach. It might be possible. But I would hate to see you waste your life on this over a misunderstanding. Promise to keep this secret?”

I am the biggest fool in history. Queen Idiot. The master of thoughtlessness.

Such were the only words Twilight felt adequate to describe herself as she took her first trembling steps into Luna’s dreamscape. She couldn’t go back now. Luna would either oblige, which would happen eventually anyway and spoil whatever tentative rapport she’d built by accepting Luna’s invitation, or laugh at her helplessness. She had no power here. In her own dream, she felt safe. Nopony could touch her there. Perhaps Luna could when her full strength came free of its shackles, but right now with the greater part of her powers sealed away, she seemed capable of creating bridges between dreamscapes and little else.

But here? In Luna’s own dream? Here, she was an unrivaled goddess. Who knew what she could do to a pony with the universe bending at her every whim. Could she trap a pony’s consciousness here inside her own magic? Could she rewrite memories and loyalties? It only occurred to Twilight after she’d gone through the colorful, swirling portal out of her own dreamscape to consider how dangerous gallivanting off after her number one problem might be.

Twilight used to consider herself a brave pony. Bravery was for overcoming fear. Fear was the natural response to danger. In her early years as the archmage, she’d thrown herself into the work and ended up in at least one life-threatening situation every moon. But time had a way of changing things as experience and skill accrued. Her panicked reaction to Pinkie Pie’s introduction, among other things, should have served as a warning.

She hadn’t needed to be brave in years.

“You coming?”

Twilight forced herself to breathe evenly and cast her mind back to her younger days. She recalled her near brush with death in the struggle for the Alicorn Amulet. She remembered her harrowing experience with the Inspiration Manifestation. Those missions in particular had taught her the value of caution, but when had caution turned into cowardice?

Probably not long after we decided to roll the dice and pursue immortality.

But that wasn’t the point! Her past self would slap her and tell her to get her act together. She was the Archmage of Equestria, not some two-bit hedge mage. When she got in over her head, she stood a little taller. When magic failed her, as sometimes happened, she found another solution. She may have gotten herself into this mess, but she would damn well face it with her head held high.

“Yeah, just got lost in my thoughts.”

Twilight followed after Luna through a short series of doors with ever more specific labels until they came upon the one which contained the world for the campaign they would be playing today. In all honesty, she’d expected something wide, grand, and open from Luna’s dreamscape, but she did admire the level of organization involved. When she commented on it, an explanation soon followed.

“I used to do that,” Luna said, “but eventually there was just so much that the clutter needed sorting. I recall once taking a shortcut from one end of a continent to the other, back through another, then finally took one across an ocean to find a book I’d lost a couple decades before and only vaguely remembered well enough to retrace my steps. It was a tangly web of madness not worth the majesty.”

After a thousand years and however much time Luna had put into her dreamscape before her banishment, Twilight could understand how it could get a little out of hoof. Not that she expected to have such problems herself, but she resolved to keep on top of maintaining her dream’s organization nonetheless.

Luna held a hoof on the last door. “Are you ready to meet everyone?”

Everyone? Interesting. “I’ll be on my very best behavior.”

The door opened to reveal a bustling city. As Twilight had been informed in advance, the tech level looked to be about four hundred years behind modern times with historically accurate dress, architecture, and, when she listened closely, the nonsensical background chatter showed the age of the language. She spoke Old, Middle, and Modern Ponish and put it roughly halfway between the latter two. Spike and Shining would be so jealous if they found out about this. Maybe once the dust had settled after the solstice, she could rearrange her schedule for a little more sleep so they could make this a regular thing.

“Hmm… Ah! There they are. You can tell by the smoke.”

Twilight facehoofed. There was, in fact, a large plume of smoke rising into the sky not far away. That hardly boded well. She’d heard some of her brother’s adventuring stories, and she had a feeling she was going to have more than a few of her own to share before the night was through.

After navigating around a few buildings and flying over a crowd of gawkers blocking the street, Twilight and Luna landed just outside a tavern in the process of burning to the ground. A tavern built principally out of stone, Twilight might add, which typically meant one thing: dragonfire.

A group of four loitered conspicuously right outside the tavern, chatting and watching the flames with company and ale.

The first was a purple earth pony mare who Twilight would swear by having seen before somewhere. Her mane and tail were a darker shade than her coat. She had a bow on her back, which combined with her rugged manner of dress, probably meant she was a ranger. Bows weren’t exactly the best choice of weapons for anything without a horn or hands, but Luna had mentioned some quality of life allowances in the game.

Next came a pegasus stallion with a cerulean coat offsetting the ball of fluff he probably called a cerise mane. Oddly, he had a pair of antennae sticking out of his head, but when Twilight recognized the language of the provocative sounding words coming out of his mouth, she felt confident that he was a breezie in the waking world. He wore a bit of light armor paired with a huge sword, which likely made him a fighter. She couldn’t stop herself from imagining how adorable he would be as a two inch tall warrior wielding a toothpick against a hydra but kept that thought to herself.

The third in the lineup was a cyan dragon with an arm wrapped over the shoulders of the fourth member of the party, who had returned the gesture. She and her robes looked a bit worse for the wear. Twilight assumed she’d gotten into a fight, considering the flaming tavern. That generally didn’t go over well for sorcerers.

But then perhaps she’d been too quick to pronounce judgment, for the last pony was a kirin. She had a mandolin hanging at her side by a strap. Whether she knew how to play it or not probably didn’t matter much here, only that her character knew how. Twilight’s bits were on her being a bard. She also had a light gold coat, grayish green scales, and an orange-brown mane and tail which all looked very familiar.

Luna spoke first and announced their presence to the group. “Behold! I have returned with the fifth member of your party. She has agreed to play a cleric and act as your dedicated healer.” There was a hint of amused scolding to that last part. “Meet Twilight Sparkle.”


The mare in question gave a half-wave in greeting. “Hello, Autumn.” She didn’t exactly feel betrayed to find a familiar face here. They weren’t nearly close enough for that depth of emotion even if Luna had given an honest explanation of her circumstances. It just caught Twilight off guard.

“You are so cute!” Autumn disentangled herself from the dragon to come closer for a better look. “I love the new look.”

“You know each other?” Luna asked, genuine surprise in her voice.

With as much enthusiasm as she put into everything, Autumn wrapped an arm around Twilight, pulled them together side by side, and replied, “We’re cousins!”

Twilight managed to release herself and get her personal space back. “Yes, well, the kirin population is very small. Most of you are some manner of cousin to me.” To answer the spirit of Luna’s question, she added, “I had a mission which brought me to the Peaks of Peril. I stopped by Autumn’s village when I was done to study the Stream of Silence. Things happened.”

“You bet they did. Thanks again for helping me brew the antidote.”

With a shrug, Twilight said, “It’s what I do.” It would have been a lot easier if they’d found a supply of foal’s-breath flowers, but they’d worked around it.

“Right.” Luna clapped her hooves together to get everyone’s attention. “Introductions. Name, where you’re from, and some friendly blackmail material.” When she noticed the look Twilight gave her after requesting both name and origin, she smirked. The sampling would obviously be biased, but she was brazenly giving Twilight character witnesses to interview in the real world.

“Ooh, ooh, ooh! Me first!” No one opposed Autumn’s desire despite the fact that everyone here already knew her. “I’m Autumn Blaze. I’m from the kirin village in the Peaks of Peril.” She lowered her voice and put a hoof to the side of her mouth. “At some times of day, Silhouette Gloom of the Sundown Lands puts on a little weight, but you didn’t hear that from me.”

Twilight facehoofed. As no one else knew what on Equus Autumn was talking about, she just said, “It’s what she named her shadow,” and killed that topic of conversation before it could get started. “I’m Twilight Sparkle. I assume this is a zero formalities group, so just Twilight is fine. I’m from Canterlot in Equestria.” Sighing, she added, “I got expelled from magic kindergarten.” There was much laughter and calls for an explanation, but she kept her mouth shut.

Eventually, the group gave up, and the earth pony went next. “I’m Berry Punch. From Ponyville, Equestria.”

Of course she is. I don’t know what I expected. But that did explain why Twilight thought she looked a little familiar.

“I used to be the town drunk. Like, in the most literal sense. Ponyville is just the right size to have a town drunk and for that to be ‘quaint’ and ‘rustic’. I keep my drinking to my dreams now.”

Berry Punch jabbed the probably a breezie, the next in the circle, with an elbow to get him to take his turn.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going already.” That was a very thick accent, but an understandable one. “I’m Seabreeze. I live in Lochranliesh, and I’m allergic to pollen.”

“What? Really?” Twilight blurted out before she could stop herself.

If Seabreeze took any offense, he didn’t show it. “Yeah, I know. It’s a real pain in the wing.”

And now they came to the dragon. “I am Ember–”

Twilight’s eyes snapped to Luna.

“–daughter of Dragon Lord Torch–”

Luna, clearly, had been waiting for just that reaction.

“–the soon to be winner of the upcoming Dragon Trials–”

That insufferable mare had the gall to wink at Twilight.

“–and the next Lord of the Dragons!” The diplomatic disaster waiting to happen finished her self-introduction by spewing a great column of her magenta flame straight up into the sky.

The most ancient dragons were the size of mountains and spent the vast majority of their days hibernating. The fire they breathed in their sleep created the volcanoes and lava pools of the dragon lands. They were the number one reason Celestia had agreed to sign the Alicorn Accords and permanently retire from warfare. She could defeat them, sure, but at what cost? Twilight didn’t want to think of the consequences if the Dragon Lord’s daughter decided to interfere in Equestria’s internal dispute on behalf of a friend.

“Yeah, yeah,” Seabreeze said with a roll of his eyes. “No one here is impressed, Princess. We have an alicorn, an archmage, a loon, a drunkard, and someone who couldn’t care less.”

Berry Punch raised her hoof. “For the record, I’m impressed.”

With a sage nod, Autumn added, “Your fire is getting much stronger. I actually felt it this round.”

The merry crackling in the background and the sharp snap of a support beam gave that statement a little extra context. Rather flatly, Twilight thought to herself, I guess they both burnt down the tavern, then.

“Don’t encourage her!” Seabreeze said.

Looking a little smug now, Ember finished her introduction. “My embarrassing secret is being friends with you equines.”

For that, however, there was much booing and many claims that it didn’t count. Twilight felt it did. It was kind of sweet, really. From what little she knew of the largely anarchic and highly insular culture of the dragon lands, this sort of palling around – never mind O&O – would be a sign of weakness to pounce on and take advantage of. Luna probably knew that, too, as she stepped in and took her own turn to introduce herself.

“I’m Luna. I’m from…well, Everfree was lost to the forest. The moon, then. When Equestria was young and the land untamed, my sister and I tacitly encouraged our apotheosis to better keep order.” She shrugged. “It served its purpose. Anyway, one evening I was walking past an amphitheater when I heard some preaching. Curious to see what was being said, I found a shady area nearby to listen in, but I was noticed and invited up on stage to help reenact some historical events. Everything went well, and I went home with a warm glow. The next night, I discovered that I’d stolen the lead role in a drama.”

The entire group laughed. Even Twilight found herself smiling and snickering.

“I was mortified. After I apologized to the actress meant to play me, I didn’t dare show my face there again for two decades.” Luna glared down at her friends. “As you miscreants should be. How many of my taverns have you destroyed now?”

“Pretty much every one we’ve been to,” Autumn answered without a hint of shame, and it seemed Ember held a similar opinion bordering on a point of pride.

Twilight slipped under Autumn between her legs and then sidled up to Luna. Lowering her voice, she hissed, “You brought me here to foalsit.”

A little illusion of a floating parchment appeared, one apparently only Twilight could see. It purported to be a private message, which reminded her of the ‘quality of life’ features Luna had yet to explain. She assumed this was one of them and read, ‘Do try to keep them from burning the entire campaign to the ground. There’s a backup I can copy over if I ever need to fix something or want to start fresh, but don’t tell them that. Have fun, and remember the golden rule: if you piss off the white mage, you don’t get healed.’

Twilight tried to zap the note with her magic only to remember reality didn’t work as it should in this part of Luna’s dreamscape. Instead, she flailed her hoof at it in the hope of disrupting the magic at work or at least batting it to the ground. The parchment vanished, thankfully, but now she also had everyone’s attention.

Right… Uh… “Shall we get started?”

Twilight blinked. She was back in the hospital again. And she’d just been about to heal Ember, the squishy dragon sorceress who’d picked a fistfight with something more threatening than a marshmallow. Hopefully that turned out well. She suspected it would. Ember was an evocation specialist and had dedicated her entire character growth to that purpose. Worst case scenario, she should be able to burn anything preventing her from running away to ashes.

In other news, I’m awake. Twilight tried to rise, but her body still protested against the action. And still undergoing repair. But she did manage to roll over and make herself more comfortable this time, so progress had been made. Magic? Making the attempt felt like splitting her head open. Nope. But she did manage to focus a little power in her horn. She could cast a spell if she really needed to.

So… Being awake was no fun. But it did answer a question. I guess my consciousness never actually leaves my body when I dreamwalk with Luna. Good to know. She may still be able to trap me if so inclined, but she at least can’t strand me somewhere. That makes me feel marginally more comfortable about this.

Yet that brought up a more important question. Did she want to keep dreamwalking with Luna? It was nice to see Autumn again now that the kirin was a little more put together. Her cousin hadn’t done well in a village of mutes. And she could certainly see the advantage of getting to know Ember, especially if the princess really would become a queen in the coming years. And in all honesty, Twilight had enjoyed herself. Clobbering monsters whose only purpose was to be evil with a mace had been very therapeutic after the past couple weeks she’d been having.

But was it worth the risk? No, not by a long shot.

Not without an ulterior motive of her own.

For whatever reason, be it a distraction, an honest interest, or something more sinister, Luna had offered her hoof in friendship. But friendship, as Twilight understood it, was a double-edged sword. While Luna tried to win enough of her loyalty to grudgingly tolerate her victory and cooperate, Twilight, in turn, could try to win enough of Luna’s to convince her to go talk to her sister and give Celestia a chance to make everything right. She had borne Loyalty. If that virtue remained to her, the idea might very well work. Assuming they got along, that was.

Considering that the Elements of Harmony were by no means guaranteed to be in working order before the solstice, Twilight considered this a good backup plan. If it worked, great. If not, well, it cost her little to attempt. What would she be doing with her time while everypony else but her slept otherwise? Research? While that sounded lovely, it was, sadly, lower priority right now.

But if Twilight was going to do this, she needed to be smart about it. She was going to put herself at serious risk with this plan, so she wanted as big of a safety net as she could provide herself. It was one thing to brave the chimera’s den with shield and spear at the ready and another entirely to strut in with two legs bound looking to wrestle.

Twilight summoned a nurse. With the small scale of the hospital and the time of night, it was a little while before one arrived, but she was in no hurry. In addition to some water and something light but solid to put into her stomach, she asked for a pen or pencil – she doubted she could use a quill right now – and a sheet of parchment.

‘Sun Wisp,’ Twilight wrote after munching on some crackers, ‘I’ve been dreaming of your sister again. We went traveling to see other ponies. I worried about getting home. Who knows what could happen to me out there? But I made it back safe and sound in the end. I think. I wonder if I remember everything properly. Well anyway, do wake me up when you read this. I’d like to talk. Index. P.S. In case I forget to mention it, your sister and Ember are friends.’

That would do just fine. If anypony but Celestia read the letter, it would come off as private but dreadfully mundane. She, however, would see it as the status report it was and recognize the request for regular screenings against mental tampering. Not all mind magics were strictly speaking reversible, but a second round of brainwashing could always undo the damage. While it wasn’t an ideal solution, Twilight was willing to take the risk.

After placing the letter on the table next to her bed, Twilight braced herself for what she had to do next. She needed to ensure Celestia actually got to read the letter. If Twilight woke up with her loyalties flipped before Celestia came to refresh her polymorph, she would destroy the note and pretend nothing was wrong. She couldn’t leave that opportunity open to Luna.

When will my polymorph wear off? Celestia was last here in the evening. I don’t think she cast it on me again at the time, but I should assume she did anyway. At the very latest, then, she’ll be back… Twilight glanced at a clock. –tonight. I need to put myself under until then.

Twilight rolled over, took a deep breath, and bit down on her pillow. She summoned up her magic and forced herself to weave it into a sleep spell. If the spell hadn’t done it’s job, the agony of its creation certainly would have sufficed.

Back in her own dreamscape, Twilight idly flipped through one of the O&O books Luna had dropped off for her earlier, brushing up on the rules. She wasn’t about to stumble through a field of attacks of opportunity again. That had left her more than a little chagrined. When she was done, she was going to know the system inside and out. When she was done, it would be her laying the clever traps that took advantage of the rules. Who would be laughing then?

Maybe she was trying to distract herself a little too hard. Her befriend Luna plan had one necessary element to it which put her on edge even here in her own dreamscape. She truly didn’t wish to test the extent of Luna’s power over dreams if a fight broke out between them. This dreamscape was, after all, her very magic made manifest. That should give anypony who could overcome her natural advantage a direct means to affect her real self, although she knew not how one would go about doing so. That was the trouble with dreams. What was truly real about them? Nothing? Everything?

A light, pleasant chime filled the tower, letting Twilight know she had a visitor. A quick scrying spell, unnecessary but familiar, showed her that Luna had come without company.

Perfect. Twilight snapped her book shut and replaced it upon its shelf as she left her library. She and I need to have a little chat.

Down only a single flight, Twilight found her way into the tavern and left the door open behind her in invitation. She obtained an order of nonalcoholic cider from the barmare just as Luna walked in. She nodded sharply at their table, drink in her magic, and went to sit down. A few moments later, Luna joined her with what looked like an ale of some variety.

“You’re bigger.”

Indeed, Twilight had aged herself up to her normal size. She’d kept the wings, however. “How did Ember’s recklessness turn out?”

“She lost the fight, but her character survived. I subbed in an NPC for you until the battle ended.”

That was more or less how Twilight had expected that to go. “Sorry about dropping out like that.”

“It happens,” Luna said, shrugging. “One of the disadvantages of playing in dreams. We usually give lost players a few minutes to fall back asleep, then check up on them once in a while after that.”

From the sound of it, Twilight had missed the first deadline and, judging by how long she’d had alone here, possibly the second as well. “Are they waiting on us?” It’d still been the middle of the night when she’d put herself into a magically induced coma.

Luna nodded. “They wanted to come over with dreamwarming presents, but I put them off until next time. Too much of a hassle.”

“Dreamwarming… That’s a thing?”

“Of course,” Luna said as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “It has been for nearly nine centuries now. I thought my sister taught you better manners than that.”

Twilight refused to dignify that with a remark. “We can keep this short, then.” It was time to play her hand. Springing this on Luna at the eleventh hour probably wouldn’t end well for her backup plan.

“Is this about Ember? I do admit her position first drew my attention, but I will not be inviting dragons to rampage across Equestria in my name. I have no interest in becoming the Princess of Ashes.”

“Comforting,” Twilight said dryly, “but not what I wanted to talk about. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t try to bite my head off.”

In response to the warning, Luna tipped her head back and guzzled down the entirety of her drink. “I’m not going to like this conversation, am I?” When Twilight answered that no, she would not, she ordered another round for herself. “Proceed.”

“Very well.” Twilight steeled herself for her task. “Even if we ended up in a whirlwind romance or some such nonsense over the next…twenty-three days, Celestia will be my priority come the solstice.”

“Obviously,” Luna muttered. “Your point?”

“Whether you believe it or not, Celestia resigned herself to your victory years ago.”

Impatient, Luna asked, “And?” with the kind of annoyed indifference that said that, if this even came as a surprise, it was only right and proper in the face of inevitability.

This was far from the first time Twilight had dealt with snippy negotiators, even if the alicorn involved was usually on her side. She kept her cool and continued, “All efforts to ensure her continued freedom are under my own initiative with her reluctant assistance. I am the threat you need to deal with to ensure your freedom.”

Now Twilight had Luna’s attention. Before tempers could rise, she continued, “I want to make a deal.”

That brought Luna up short. Her eyebrows slowly arched up, and much of the fire in her eyes faded into curiosity and amusement with the puny mortal who considered herself a threat. “What manner of bargain do you seek?”

“In the event that you win, first, secure Celestia however you wish, but treat her with respect. Gloat if you must, but don’t torture her, and leave her mind untouched. Mine as well, of course.”

Luna snorted. “You must think me a monster to request such.”

Anypony could be a monster in anger, and Luna, by her own admission, had a lot of anger. Twilight chose not to comment.

“Second, you allow at least me to visit Celestia, whether that be in person or in dreams.” As Luna made no remark beyond an indifferent hum, Twilight continued, “Third, just in case, rule Equestria properly. No eternal night. No rampaging dragons. No rolling our legal system back. No brainwashing. Nothing of the sort.”

Luna rolled her eyes.

“Lastly, you will help me cast a spell in the future.” It might require as little effort as noninterference, but Twilight would feel much better if she had an alicorn overlooking the process to ensure its success. “I’ve not finished designing it yet. It may take centuries for me to do so, but when it’s done, I will call upon you.”

While there was no way Luna didn’t want to know more about that last condition, she merely nursed her ale with a contemplative look in her eyes. “Curious,” she murmured. Then she set her mug down. “And what do you offer in exchange?”

“Should you win, I will continue to serve as the archmage with the same dedication I showed Celestia. I will also be a zealous advocate for your rule. In addition, in either outcome, I will not reimprison you.”

Twilight had expected disbelief, maybe even laughter, but instead she received a dark look. “So I didn’t imagine it. I felt my faint, lingering connection to Honesty snap only a few days ago.” Luna closed her eyes and breathed out through her nose just loud enough to hear. “But not Loyalty or Laughter. Twenty-three days. You have a mere twenty-three days to find appropriate bearers and teach them to harness the Elements’ might. You offer little that you would not regardless.”

“I ask little,” Twilight countered.

“But do you?”

Before Luna could say anything more, Twilight played her last card. “Yes, yes. My little mystery spell. It might interest you to know we’ve rediscovered world magic in the time you’ve been away.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Celestia doesn’t know this, but I’ve taken the concept a bit further than she has. All of Equus’s ambient magic at the tip of my horn.” Eyes narrowing, she added, “Don’t give me a reason to use it.”

A look of shock erupted onto Luna’s face. It quickly morphed into horror. “This is possible.” It wasn’t a question. She was just trying to wrap her head around the concept. “You’re not lying.”

Twilight spread her wings to their full extent. “I am not an alicorn, and yet I have reason to see myself as one, you said.”

“That you would go so far…” Once the shock wore off, Luna spoke with heavy words. “You truly fear I might be worth the cost.” She grasped her mug with her magic, leaned back, and downed its entire contents. Once it was empty, she let it drop back onto the table. “Very well, Twilight. We have a deal.”

The bargain was struck. The two tapped hooves and shook on it.

Twilight slumped over onto the table. There she let out a relieved sigh, making no attempt to hide what it was now that they were back to pretending to be friends. “I have a new respect for the people who negotiated the Alicorn Accords.”

“Yes, I imagine the experience was much akin to how I felt when facing Discord.”

Oh, she was there for that, wasn’t she? While Twilight had known in some superficial sense, she’d not yet really taken the time to update her understanding of history to account for Luna’s presence. She’d need to find the time for that someday soon.

“Out of curiosity,” Luna began, “if you don’t intend to imprison me, why bother with the Elements?”

As it was hardly an admission of anything – Luna would be a fool to not expect a rainbow to the face upon her return – Twilight replied, “I intend to have six ponies bearing the Elements instead of two. That will give me better control over them to use their gentler settings. Apparently, they have a therapy beam. It can force you to let go of your anger and hurt.”

Luna snorted. With some dry amusement, she said, “And you asked me not to brainwash ponies.”

“Yes, well, I expected Nightmare Moon to bring about eternal night after a thousand years of isolation had shattered her sanity. Instead, I got you.” And now that she’d brought it up, Twilight wondered if the Elements would even have much of an effect on Luna. She had plenty of anger to resolve, certainly, but was that the root of her issues with Celestia? But then perhaps it would heal whatever lingering damage Sombra had inflicted upon her. Maybe that would be enough.

“A delight, I’m sure.”

It was better than the alternative, Twilight could admit.

“You know, I once considered approaching you not long after my sister made you her student.”

Twilight couldn’t help but laugh at the idea. “That would not have worked out for you. I was the worst at that age. Celestia was my impossibly wise mentor with all the answers. I would have driven you mad with my obsequious hero worship.”

“Yes,” Luna acknowledged with a nod. “Hence why I decided against it. But it would have been worth it to receive even half of the genuine devotion you’ve shown her this night.” She sighed, “Oh well,” and then rose to her hooves. “Shall we take our leave?”

“Lead the way.”

One by one, Luna’s friends had woken in the real world and dropped out of the dream. Once Berry Punch and Seabreeze had vanished, she’d called an end to the game for the night. They’d then retired to a classy penthouse in a big city to relax and engage in casual conversation as their last hours of rest dwindled away. The view reminded Twilight a lot of Manehattan, as though it had been created from a memory of a memory. It might very well be part of a full-scale model of Equestria.

Autumn was the last to leave. She performed in evening musical theater and late-night comedy for a living, so it came as no surprise, although Ember had vanished less than an hour prior. Dragon princesses got to sleep in, it seemed.

And then they were alone.

“So how did you enjoy your first session?” Luna asked as she draped herself over a couch.

“It was more enjoyable than I was expecting.” It’d certainly helped that Twilight had already known Autumn. Going in without any familiar faces would have made it much harder to get into the game. “Honestly, I think I actually liked working with a dysfunctional party.”

It’d been a great stress relief to turn off her internal filter. In Canterlot, there was a careful dance Twilight had to perform to only anger those she intended to. In Ponyville, she had to bite her tongue and pretend the village wasn’t driving her insane. But here, she could just speak her mind. Everyone had thick enough skins to take it, give it back, and oftentimes even laugh.

“So is this a nightly thing for you five?”

“Certainly not,” Luna replied. “I would kill myself. Have you ever GMed before?”

Twilight shook her head.

“It is a consuming role. Weekly sessions are reasonable. Anything more than that requires sacrifices and, if the stars align, cooperative players.” Luna rolled over onto her back to gaze upside down out at the drifting clouds. “How long can I expect you here?”

Twilight quirked an eyebrow at the mare who held the keys. “If you don’t want me here, you can escort me out.”

“No, no. I ask only because your sleep has been far more erratic than usual lately.”

“Ah.” That was a fair point. “To be honest, I couldn’t say. Life has been a little frustrating lately, and I landed myself in the hospital during a fit of foalish pique.”

Luna broke out into laughter.

Pointedly ignoring the giggling goddess, Twilight went to investigate one of the bookshelves she’d noticed earlier. She recognized most of the titles on display. Most were popular or cult adventure stories, but some other genres had worked their way in as well. There was even the occasional scientific journal. When she selected a book at random and opened it, she discovered, to some surprise, that it wasn’t just for show. She flipped through the pages, skimming the text, and found that it read more or less as she remembered it.

“Gifts from friends.” Luna’s magic mixed with Twilight’s as she approached. Once they’d passed the book off from one to the other, she opened it to the dedication page and smiled fondly down at the inscription.

‘Nothing we could do would ever repay you for the time you’ve given us together, but we thought you would enjoy this long after we’re gone. Pear Delight and Bellflower Apple.’

“Their families hated each other. They carried on their romance here where nopony could interfere.” Luna smiled ever wider as she replaced the book upon its shelf. “Centuries down the line in your parents’ generation, two of their descendants said enough was enough and married. They would have been so proud.”

Now that sounded more in line with Twilight’s approach to such matters. “Do you know who Cadance is?”

“My niece, your sister-in-law?”

Twilight nodded. “Her relationship with her parents has always been strained. Announcing that she intended to marry a commoner, even the beloved unicorn Captain of the Royal Guard, pushed them over the edge. I was displeased when I heard what things they threatened her with, disownment amongst the lesser offenses. Let’s just say they changed their tune overnight. Nopony knows why.”

The story earned an appraising look from Luna. “I think you and I will be very good friends indeed. Tell me, I hear there was an incident with my nephew as well.”

Just the reminder set Twilight’s blood on fire. Never in her life had she felt so objectified! “Short version or long version?”

“Hmm, long.”

“Okay, so I’ve just come of age. I’m new on the job. Years later when I think to read the EIS’s and Royal Guard’s files on me, I find out there was this massive power struggle going on with young, naive me at the epicenter. This is after years of sabotage attempts I never noticed and even a few thwarted assassinations. Celestia is, of course, fanning the flames at this point by offloading more responsibilities she traditionally performed onto me.

“Then along comes Blueblood. He recognizes early on that I’m not going anywhere. He doesn’t like me, but he knows a tiny fraction of what I could do for him with my magic and entertains wild fantasies that are more realistic than he believes. He has a plan to restore the status quo. He wants to ‘take one for the team’. All that power should remain within the royal family – better yet, out of Celestia’s hooves – and there’s one clear and simple solution.”

When Luna suggested, “Marry Cadance to you?” in jest, Twilight paused in her pacing and wild gesticulations to laugh. She might have actually considered it if Shining had never been in the picture if only to not hurt Cadance’s feelings.

“Hardly. Blueblood’s parents summon mine to a meeting. I don’t even hear about it until the day before when it comes up at dinner while I’m visiting. They have no idea what it’s about, so I tag along. I’d already learned to be wary of the nobility at that point. When we get to their manor, they immediately start firing off passive-aggressive remarks about my presence, which naturally has no effect on me. Soon enough, they’re talking about arranging a marriage between me and their son who’s expressed his interest.

“So there I am, confused, kind of flattered, and uninterested. When I politely decline, they tell me it’s not my place to decide such things. Not my place! As if I’m chattel to be traded away. As if, once married, I would become a biddable, pliant creature. As if I would meekly raise my tail and consent to be raped. As if anypony had the leverage over me necessary to make me comply. As if–”

Twilight abruptly awoke coughing and sputtering, frigid and wet. The first sight that met her eyes was Celestia in her Sun Wisp form with her infernal bucket. It’d been the worst mistake of Twilight’s life to unwittingly help her with its design. And it’d already refilled itself as she pulled back for another–

“Wait, wait, wait!” Twilight quickly interjected, forehooves held up in supplication. “I’m calm. I’m calm.” She breathed deeply, turning her thoughts to the far more satisfying conclusion to her story. She watched her white coat fade back into butterscotch. “See?”

Convinced by the evidence, Celestia returned the bucket to her bag of holding. “Even when dreamwalking,” she began, gesturing to the letter Twilight had left her nearby, “you remain a creature of fire. Do keep that temper of yours under control.”

Twilight said nothing as Celestia cast a spell to dry the mess she’d made nor while she repaired the burnt pillow and sheets. When she added a little warming spell, however, Twilight said, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Did Lulu set you off?”

“No,” Twilight said reassuringly. “I was telling her about the Blueblood incident.” In hindsight, that probably hadn’t been a good idea. She knew how she tended to react to that story.

And so did Celestia. “Ooh, did you get to the part where you scream ‘I am magic’ in a fiery rage?”

Twilight cleared her throat, embarrassed, and glanced away. “Uh, no, that was still a ways off.”

“A shame. That’s the best part.” Celestia chuckled, and Twilight chose not to comment. Then her expression softened. “How are you feeling?”

As her body hadn’t screamed in protest at her earlier, Twilight felt confident to say she could walk around as she wished. Indeed, when she experimented, she found she could finally move again with only a little trouble. Her magic still refused to play nice, but attempting a small levitation spell didn’t knock her out. Ultimately, she concluded, “One more night here, I think. Then I’ll be free.”

“Just be careful not to strain yourself,” Celestia said. Her lips parted to continue, but no words came out. Twilight waited patiently until she eventually asked, “How is Luna?”

Twilight didn’t think she’d spent enough time with Luna yet to really know, but she could at least share her first impressions. Although mixed, she expected what positives she could speak of would do Celestia a world of good. “Angry, pent-up, and frustrated, but she seems to be making the best of it. She had entire shelves of books from friends who took the time to transcribe them from reality into the dream world.”

That received an unwarranted indulgent smile with an equally unfair roll of the eyes. It took dedication to faithfully recreate a book hundreds of pages long from memory. If Twilight had the social drive to make friends and they’d given her gifts like that, she would display them prominently in her home as well.

“Please tell me she didn’t steal you away from me with a few books.”

Twilight huffed indignantly.

“And that you did something besides read.”

While she wasn’t sure if she should answer if she was going to face such accusations, Twilight said, “I’ll have you know that we played O&O with her friends. It was fun.” She really couldn’t deny that. “Your sister is a complete nerd.”

The observation put an amused smirk on Celestia’s face.

“Yeah, yeah. I know. Takes one to know one.”

Celestia, in her mercy, chose not to poke fun. Instead, she said, “Tell me about Luna’s friends.”

“Well, there’s Ember, of course. She’s angling to become the next Dragon Lord. She’s…interesting. Brash and reckless, but she seems like the kind of friend who will be there at a call to arms. I doubt we’re going to have a problem with the dragons anytime soon, but Equestria can probably expect better relations with them in the future if Luna is around.” And much worse ones, of course, if Twilight had to banish Luna again or if anything else went wrong.

“Unlike Ember, Berry Punch is a total nopony. A local, actually. Luna apparently helped her with her drinking problem. She woke up first, so I didn’t get that good of a read on her.

“Seabreeze is a breezie. I think he’s kind of frustrated with and about his species. I mean, I don’t blame him. The world isn’t really breezie accessible. He has about as much patience for foolishness as I do but puts up with his friends’ antics and sometimes gets sucked into them.”

Twilight paused a moment. “Then there was Autumn.”

Just as surprised as Twilight had been, Celestia said, “Autumn Blaze? The kirin?”

“Yeah. What are the chances?” Even after some time to consider it, Twilight thought Luna genuinely hadn’t known about their relation or even acquaintance. “Those four are the only people I met, but they seem nice and get on well with Luna.”

Smiling softly, Celestia said, “Tell me about the O&O game you played.”

Twilight felt she should rather tell Celestia that she had more important things to do than listen to tabletop tales, but one look at those longing eyes put paid to any chance of that happening. This would be the first real story of her sister she’d had in nearly a thousand years, after all.

“All right, well, I joined up with the party right after they’d gotten into a bar fight…”

It was near noon the next day when Twilight finally managed to convince her caretakers to allow her to check out against medical advice. In this instance, and partially because she’d withheld information, she was more qualified to judge her own health. Her body felt fine. Her magic responded to her command. She was ready to get back to work. She’d have to take some time later to test if her experiment had been a success, but she’d already lost four days. Even if Celestia made the solstice wait for her, time itself waited for nopony; Luna’s banishment would still run its course.

After she recast her subspace storage, Twilight set about putting her things back into it. Sweetie Belle had, in fact, managed to obtain every last piece of paper, parchment, and even all the loose note cards she generated from day to day with her magic. She’d have to ask her possible protégé to retrieve them for her soon.

As she neared the end of her packing, she checked off the last of the items she kept in her bag of holding – all of them except for two of the Elements of Harmony. Kindness and Generosity were missing. Twilight was, in all honesty, a little peeved. She’d been twice as productive as a lump on a bed than she had been while actively searching for bearers. Sure, she could try to defend herself, saying that she was looking for ponies she could get along with, but she knew how that approach had turned out.

Then again, perhaps Pinkie Pie took them to work on the mission. As that was a little less embarrassing, Twilight chose to believe that until confronted with evidence to the contrary.

On the way out, the hospital staff supplied a full list of everypony they knew of who’d been in Twilight’s ward upon request. If she needed to hunt down the Elements, she’d start with that list. If that failed, then in the worst case scenario, she’d just go to the Old Castle and use Magic to summon them back to her. Then she could run a cutie mark search through the EIS to find out who’d bonded with them. If they weren’t still inert spheres, that was.

Twilight took her first breath of fresh air in days as she stepped out the hospital’s front doors. Ponyville had changed a lot over the few days she’d been out. Construction for the festival proceeded apace as the solstice drew ever nearer. She briefly wondered what the village would look like both when the millennial Summer Sun Celebration went into full swing and after it’d ended. It was sure to leave it’s mark.

All right, what do I need to do first?

There were four people who required interviewing, three whose locations Twilight knew offhoof, but that would keep. Luna’s friends weren’t going anywhere, and no matter what they told her, it wouldn’t really change her own course of action. If Celestia wanted information sooner, something Twilight doubted she had the interest to pursue, she could do so herself.

I could track down the missing Elements. That was important. If they’d obtained bearers, Twilight would need to introduce herself.

There were the documents Sweetie Belle had in her possession. Less important, but quickly done and perhaps higher priority.

Index needed to be seen up, about, and actually doing her job. It was practically of no importance, but Twilight knew she should probably get updates on how the festival was going and see if Ponyville needed any assistance. She hadn’t exactly left an alternative point of contact with the crown when she put herself in the hospital.

Then there was the request Twilight had made of Rarity. She could actually combine that with verifying her experiment’s success. Making thaumic thread was magically taxing and would thus be a good stress test for her. She knew exactly how much magic she was supposed to have. If all had gone well, she should have more now.

Lastly, there was the matter of Sunset Shimmer.

Twilight sighed. She knew what she should do first lest she make excuses to put it off. Finding a shady spot, she dropped her disguise, prepared for what would hopefully not turn into a combat mission, and teleported away.