Chapter Twenty Four - The Elements - Magic

If I were in any fit state to be screaming coherently, I was sure the air would have been filled with obscenities beyond measure. In addition to my generic anger at what had happened and my flare flinging rubble at me and my flare creating another large gash in my hide, the most recent explosion of my unprocessed magic knocked my suppressor out of my hooves and into a pile of sand. That would normally be annoying enough, but the sand was molten in random locations, not all of which, I was sure, were visible.

I leapt right into the sandpit, doing nothing more than wincing when I felt my left hindhoof burn. Time was too precious right now to be careful. I didn’t know exactly how long that magical pulse would take to reach Equus, but Celestia likely already knew what had happened. Luna had said a successful ascension – and that had been far too much magic to be anything but – would take a new alicorn straight to the Æthereal Realm, which apparently any alicorn would notice happening.

Luna had been rather sparse on the details of what the Æthereal Realm was; she’d only said to follow the memories when I got here.

I had an hour, maybe two if Celestia was sloppy.

A scream escaped me as my magic flung me randomly through the air before stopping me dead midair and then throwing me to the ground. Throughout the ride, I just barely managed to keep my eyes on where my suppressor had landed. I might not have been able to find it again if I hadn’t, camouflaged as it were against the sandy backdrop.

Wasting no time, I rose to my hooves and galloped as fast as I could across the treacherous terrain. Before my magic could do anything else to me, I dove onto a patch of molten sand right next to my suppressor, shoving my head down into the sand and sliding my horn through the ring.

I drew blood as I bit my lip to keep myself from screaming. Adrenaline could only do so much, and my everything was in pain as I collapsed. With the last of my physical strength, I rolled over onto my back onto a patch of non-scalding sand, breathing deeply as the suppressor did its work.

Fortunately or otherwise, this left me time to think properly.

And think I would. Losing control to anger now was quite possibly the worst idea imaginable.

My situation looked…pretty terrible. Spike had awoken Generosity – or somepony had awoken something – and Dash had wandered too close to the elements.

Stars, I felt so stupid! This was so easily preventable!

Ascending was deceptively hard, but ascension was easy. It only had two steps. That was one of the very first things Luna had taught me. Be talented enough and have a giant pool of magic to power the ascension. That was it. And Luna and Celestia hadn’t even known how ascension worked when they did it, or even that it existed, so somepony else could accidentally stumble into it, too, just like Cadance had.

I knew that. I’d known that.

And Luna and Celestia had ascended together, so three Elements of Harmony was enough. When I wasn’t working with them, I should have kept the elements in pairs at most and far away from each other. I should have geased myself to do that, even if the elements wouldn’t have liked it. It was only prudent.

It was so obvious in hindsight, for all that it came out of nowhere from the perspective of Pre-disaster Me.

And Dash.

No. I pulled back as hard as I possibly could on my urge to lash out. This was a time for thought. Another of Luna’s very first lessons was how to control anger. If I lost it completely now, I’d be walking into the same trap that had happened to Luna a thousand years ago. I wouldn’t lose my temper now when everything was at stake. I’d learned my lesson about planning ahead long ago, and I was going to think. Think, not rage.

Dash. Even when I’d only first met her on Hearth’s Warming, it’d been obvious that she was extraordinarily talented and dedicated. Even the phrase I’d used to describe her magical abilities was something along the lines of ‘breaking all the rules’.

But Dash’s goals were so alien to me that I hadn’t truly processed that fact or any of the others. The grudging respect I had for her, her quick learning speed, her ability to impress not just me but the very talented pegasus Chamomile as well over and over again, her magical stamina to fly everywhere, the quote legendary sonic rainboom unquote when she was still a prepubescent filly, it all added up to one thing: Dash was my peer, and she shouldn’t have been let anywhere near the elements ever.

I should have paid more attention to her. I shouldn’t have treated her like a side character, like just a friend of my friends.

So what if she was essentially my exact opposite? If anypony alive besides me had mastered her special talent enough to earn ascension, Dash was such a pony. She’d spent her entire life doing her own thing, just like I had, and I would have known I knew that if I’d allowed myself just to notice her, to judge her fairly and without bias.

Stars! The rainboom alone should have been a big, obvious danger sign for me. She’d had enough magic in her as a little filly to send a magical pulse across Equestria, one strong enough to go from Cloudsdale to Canterlot and still set off one of my flares.

What even was she now? The Alicorn of Going Really Fast? I swore, if she became the Alicorn of Pegasus Magic…

I took one last deep breath as my flare finally sputtered out. I was still a fiery maned, white coated fake alicorn, but I didn’t think that spell effect was going to end on its own like normal anytime soon, nor should it. The only question was who I should be most angry with.

Dash, for ruining everything? No. As much as I tended to think otherwise, the world didn’t revolve around me, or Luna, or Celestia, or even Cadance. I was still going to throw Dash into the sun if I could, but she was an innocent bystander caught up in all this during her own story. What had happened had been just as unexpected for her as it had been for me: a miracle for her, and a cruel quirk of fate for me.

If I had a lesson to take away from this, it would be to give ponies the respect they deserved, to never underestimate others again.

So should I be angry with Chrysalis for missing the same information I had? No. She knew a lot about alicorns, but we horded our secrets as much as possible. It wasn’t reasonable, fair, or productive to pin the blame on her.

What about Luna for not warning me? No, not her either. She didn’t know Dash all that well, and I hadn’t talked about Dash much either, because guess what? Half the time I didn’t care to acknowledge her existence outside of my venting in my journal entries. If Luna had seen this disastrous possibility and hadn’t warned me of it…I didn’t even know. I would have words with her for sure. And if she told me ‘it was obvious’, I’d have even more words with her.

Wait. Maybe it didn’t matter where the elements were stored. Maybe to be close enough to be awakened, they also had to be in range to fuel an ascension. No, but then I could’ve just had the unawakened ones kept nearby, which was what an intelligent pony would have done.

In fact, maybe that was why almost all of our plans had failed. They’d failed because the elements and the ponies involved were too far apart. Considering the requirements, I didn’t know how I could ever test that.

But then what was the maximum range of ascension? If I’d stored the elements separately, would they have ascended somepony anyway?

Just based on what I knew of magic, I had a feeling the answer to that last question was yes if they were all on the ship, which was where they’d been convenient to keep. If so, it actually made some sense to store the elements together. If the ascension process didn’t pick the closest pony to the average position of where the power source came from, I had no idea which pony it’d pick. It could be completely random.

But figuring out who the closest pony on the Nebulous to that average position at any given time was grueling and ensuring that it was always me was a far more difficult problem than just anchoring them to one point, even if I’d lugged the elements around all day every day.

And fixing that point on the bridge was actually probably the best location to put the elements, now that I’d thought about the problem for more than five angry seconds. My bedroom was the closest to the bridge, followed directly by Twinkleshine’s. And besides the two of us, nopony ever went to the bridge unless a party was being held there or somepony needed me for something. And Twinkleshine had absolutely no reason to go to the bridge alone, anymore. Our trip was over. If we wanted to go home, all we had to do was travel toward the sun and moon.

And – there were so many ands – I’d spent nearly all my time, both day and night, on the bridge being the closest pony to the elements anyway, so even if I had received an explicit warning, my actions wouldn’t have changed. Daytime Twilight, who knew nothing about what was going on, wouldn’t have understood the importance of moving the elements during parties as a matter of principle, and she certainly wouldn’t have slept with them.

Worse, Daytime Me had already been suspicious that she was under the effects of a geas; any more clues, such as moving the inert elements for no reason or waking up with them for no reason, and she would have done everything in her power to dispel the geas every time I placed it on her.

I breathed out a terribly long sigh as another thought occurred to me.

After spending over a decade under her tutelage starting from my filly years, I behaved a lot like Luna, which was another way of saying Luna behaved a lot like me. I didn’t really notice other ponies; that much was obvious now. Cadance had had to badger me for years before I’d made a single friend.

When Luna gave me the sex talk, she’d said she hadn’t slept with anypony in a long time, and for her and I, that was a matter of pure trust and friendship. How badly had Celestia’s actions a thousand years ago damaged Luna’s ability to trust ponies? Besides myself, did Luna even have friends? She had ponies she talked to, of course, but they were all subjects to her. Would she have even noticed Dash’s abilities herself?

Make note of them, sure. Figure out ways they could be used, sure. But would she have ever placed Dash on equal hoofing with me?

I’d known the answer to that even before I’d put the question into words. No. No, not ever. I couldn’t imagine it. Maybe Luna didn’t even respect Cadance enough to do that for her, and she’d already ascended. I – I knew there were times when I didn’t. Lots of times…

This…was a problem with myself that I needed to fix, a problem I needed to fix badly. This kind of disaster was going to happen all over again if I didn’t. I could see it coming already.

So no, I definitely couldn’t blame Luna. She had the same flaws in her temperament that I had.

And even worse, I was Luna’s friend. I was competent. I was trustworthy. Every single last word she sent to me had to be memorized and repeated exactly and without error by my parents, and the same was true in reverse. The cost of speaking at all was high, and the longer the message, the more quickly the cost grew. Why waste thousands of words asking a friend questions you were sure would result in an ‘I know’, when you could instead use them for a hello, a joke, a reassuring word, an interesting thought?

That just left myself to blame. I might find it in me to yell at Luna later after my emotions had settled down, but the fault was ultimately my own. I was the one who’d authorized a party on the bridge. Instead of going back to Twinkleshine, or to Dash and Pinkie Pie, after the geas on me had lifted for the night and telling her to have a beach party in the greenhouse, I’d gone along with it again without thinking.

It’d been an honest mistake, an honest mistake I hadn’t given the slightest thought to.

And now that I was pointing out problems to myself, it didn’t even have to be Dash who ascended. Chrysalis, Pinkie Pie, Dash, maybe even Twinkleshine – all of them had been potential threats to my ascension, especially Pinkie Pie. Exactly like Dash and I, Pinkie Pie had lived her life following her special talent; more literally in her case, given her Pinkie Sense.

Stars, how blind was I? There were so many extraordinary ponies on this ship. How did that even happen? How did I not notice? I searched for ponies with enough talent to do their jobs, but I never searched beyond Pony…

Chrysalis, I’d deliberately flushed out of the shadows. Even though it was her condition that she came along on the Nebulous, I was the one that had made that happen. I didn’t know if she could ascend, but I didn’t want to find out the hard way.

If I were counting her, I’d plucked Twinkleshine from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and set her to work on doing exactly what her special talent was. And she’d even seen the other side of the universe, which was overflowing with all sorts of things she’d taken pictures of to chart out and to develop her gifts with even further. She didn’t have the same kind of endless determination that Dash, Pinkie Pie, and I had, but she was still very skilled.

Pinkie Pie had found me by literally following the whims of Time. I’d always thought of her as half-insane, and I wasn’t sure exactly what her special talent was, but she was very good at it.

Dash was the odd pony out of the three. She was the extremely talented pony that tagged along with Fluttershy, who I’d met purely by chance. I would love to say that was no more than coincidence, but Time – whatever force was leading Pinkie Pie around and giving her limited knowledge of the future had taken some kind of interest in this quest.

Was it dumb luck that Dash had gotten near the elements first? Did Pinkie Pie chose to steer clear of them with her Pinkie Sense? Did another whim of Time demand that she steer clear of them, maybe even shove Dash into them? Was this supposed to happen to me? To Dash? Were we all just stuck in some cosmic game–

No, I didn’t have the luxury of extra time to travel any further down the mad road of time magic, nor did I trust myself to have the emotional restraint to not lash out at others right now if I talked myself in circles.

If Pinkie Pie didn’t want to ascend for some unimaginable reason, that was her problem. If Time didn’t want her to, that was fine for now, too. And whatever the truth was, Dash was the one that had triggered the ascension, and that was that. Maybe if everything turned out all right, I’d ask Pinkie Pie if she wanted to ascend after the elements recovered. I didn’t see why she would refuse, but I supposed it would be a little rude to make somepony a goddess without asking first.

In fact, now that I’d thought about all this, it was time to apply the lessons I’d told myself I was supposed to learn. It was time to treat others with respect.

There had to be a lot of highly talented ponies in the world, ponies older than I who have been just as focused as myself in their lives. They might be rare or maybe even just uncommon, but they certainly existed. The bottleneck on ascension had to be the power source. If powerful magical artifacts were more commonplace, we would have a lot more alicorns.

Ah. That sounded a little important. If there were plenty of other talented ponies, why bother with raising me up to become one of them? Luna could have just made a deal with somepony already talented, like that Quartz fellow she’d mentioned. He was over two-hundred and thus a talented alchemist.

No, that was a silly question. As Luna, if I were deliberately picking somepony to spend eternity with, I’d want two important character traits in the new alicorn: loyalty and compatibility. I’d start with a young filly, then, and I’d mold her to be extremely loyal and interesting.

Well even if that were the case, and it probably was, I didn’t mind. Luna has been nothing but wonderful to me from the day I’d met her. And it meant I was very interesting to Luna, too. Even now, having lost the three awake Elements of Harmony and fighting down the urge to do horrible things to Dash, that thought managed to bring a smile to my face.

Anyway, did that technically count as murder? That is, did withholding the information needed to ascend from the general population count as killing potential alicorns?

I pondered the thought for a moment as I stared out at the stars. This wasn’t really the appropriate time for this question, but it felt important somehow, like there was some big revelation I was overlooking, even if this was all just educated guesswork.

“No,” I finally decided. No, perhaps it was a kindness.

Once that information was unleashed, it would never be contained. Luna had told me there had been dozens and dozens of potential ascensions during her banishment, and those were only the ones she knew about. If everypony went and tried to ascend off of the nearest magical artifact, all we’d have would be a lot of suicides, not more alicorns.

Cadance herself had been extraordinarily lucky, although she’d likely been initially just as confused and surprised as Dash surely was currently. Whatever…Prismia, was it? Whatever she had really been up to had resulted in an incredibly powerful artifact. I didn’t buy that she was stealing love out of simple jealousy.

But back on topic, this was about more than just not letting the secret out. Back when the elements had still worked, Luna and Celestia could have hoofpicked ponies to ascend and still have kept the secret.

But they hadn’t. Ponies would have caught on eventually. If an alicorn or two appeared once every thousand or so years after emerging victorious from some great battle or grand adventure, that was destiny. That was fate, kismet. That was meant to be.

But if two alicorns appeared every decade like clockwork? Ponies would notice. They’d figure it out.

Sure, you could tell the world that it was still fate, but the smart ponies wouldn’t believe it. And eventually, the secret would be discovered. Ponies would know what to do, and they’d try.

And – and some would succeed. My eyes widened as I connected a couple dots. Luna wanted to ascend somepony she could trust absolutely. Potential selfish reasons aside, there was a good reason for that which trumped all others.

Ponies rightfully respected alicorns, but at the same time, they feared them. Stars, Luna could move the stars all by herself and not even feel winded! Luna and Celestia were sisters. They’d been friends and kept each other happy and peaceful. They should have been able to trust each other.

But they’d fought. They’d fought once for dominance, not to the death, and the modern, dangerous, twisted Everfree Forest had been the result. They could have fought anywhere. They could have fought each other in space and not bothered anypony, but they hadn’t. They were both too stubborn to leave. After all, if one left first, why should the other follow and not lay traps and wards instead?

If there were more alicorns, they would fight. It would happen eventually. And…and ponies would pick sides. Alicorns would pick sides.

A shiver ran through me, and I winced when it reached my barrel. That reminded me, I really needed to heal myself before I lost anymore blood. I was already nearly hysterical from current events, and the blood I’d already lost was making it harder to think straight.

Despite my magical exhaustion, I levitated the suppressor off my horn. Removing the sand from my wounds first was a new painful experience post-flare, but nothing I couldn’t endure. The cuts, gashes, and first degree burns littering my hide were commonplace enough for my flares and required little effort to heal, and I’d picked up how to regrow feathers already.

My body felt numb all over from the healing magic. As I cast a spell to restore my blood, I felt some of the growing madness lift from my mind. Things…still looked pretty terrible, both impending events and future ones, but I was ready for my second shot at divining a solution.

As the world stood now, there was a low enough concentration of sufficiently talented ponies and of sufficiently powerful artifacts that the two species only came into contact every fifty years or so. A good way to put it would be a chemical reaction. The inputs were magic and a pony, and the output was either an alicorn or a dead pony, and the reaction rate was thankfully minuscule for both outputs.

Anyway, the problem of too many alicorns needed to be solved, but that was for after my life wasn’t in danger.

A memory jumped into my mind, and I tried to push it away, but it wouldn’t leave. There was another time there might have been too many alicorns.

Luna had said it was possible that Discord and the elements were a bunch of alicorns. I found that far more plausible now. The previous alicorns probably hadn’t gotten peace and conflict right, and they’d likely done something stupid. Maybe not ‘become Discord’ stupid, but something just as bad. Discord might have just been the punctuation mark to end a long story of foolishness.

I took a deep breath. In and out. This…was important. I knew I was likely overreacting, but it was still important. More important than revenge or who ruled Equestria. Celestia was horrible and needed to be dealt with, but for the right reasons, not for Luna’s or mine. We were…in the wrong too, but we were far less in the wrong. It was only poor judgment for us to storm Canterlot Castle and fight Celestia on Equus for Equestria, our freedom, and our revenge. Luna might know that. In fact, she probably did, but it would be easy to forget when as emotionally wounded as she was.

A second passed in which I managed to think absolutely nothing for once in my life.

I couldn’t explain why, but I felt like crying. It wasn’t because I’d said I was behaving wrongly or even that Luna was. That was a matter of practicality, not morality. It was something else. Something…

There’d be another time for soul searching. This was a time for thought, a time for saving lives and avoiding mistakes.

As long as I was blaming myself for my stupidity and trying to improve, what other big, important, obvious things have I missed in my life? Things that could be important to the immediate future? What could I figure out right here, right now? What were big events in my life that I’d never examined too closely?

There was my first flare, caused by Dash’s sonic rainboom. It was quite the coincidence that my first flare was on my examination day. But then again, maybe there was some correlating factor in Dash’s life. I’d only ever bothered to get the overview of that day from her – her storytelling skills needed less ‘awesome’ and more structure – but maybe that race she was in was actually a national examination held on the same day as all other national exams. Maybe. I wouldn’t know otherwise.

What else was there? Something unlikely to occur but with an obvious explanation I’d missed. Something I’d never thought too deeply about, possibly because of emotional scars.

Ah. When I’d found the book about the elements in the Canterlot Archives, Celestia had walked in on me. That had to have been more than coincidence. Maybe the book had a spell on it to let her know when somepony took it off the shelves.

My eyes narrowed as I recalled the next chain of events in that story.

When I later found the Tree of Harmony and told Luna where the elements where, she…if I remembered correctly, she never explicitly said she hadn’t known the elements were in space. I vaguely remember her saying she didn’t know where the elements went, but that sentence had enough flexibility to be stretched beyond the natural meaning.

And Luna had come up with the idea for the Nebulous awfully fast. And she had a lot of implementation ideas ‘off the top of her head’, as if she’d thought about the problem for a thousand years. I would have completely missed the need to block out cosmic radiation with shields. I hadn’t even known that existed before Luna had pointed it out. Twinkleshine probably would have caught the mistake, but only after I’d drilled enough sense into her to ask those kinds of questions, which would’ve been long after the damage would’ve been done.

Wait. It was too easy to just start heaping suspicious facts onto the fire. Luna had built Luminance on the moon, so she would have had at least some idea already for how to protect the Nebulous. That didn’t invalidate the rest of my reasoning, but…maybe I needed to rethink some of what Luna had told me. She always said that lies were dangerous but sometimes had their uses.

Luna had said she didn’t know what had happened to Sunset Shimmer, but Chrysalis had found out. I would say that made it obvious Luna had lied, but that train of logic worked for Celestia as well. If Chrysalis could find her, then wouldn’t Luna be able to, too? Similarly for Celestia, and with far more resources at her disposal.

So did Chrysalis then have access to some resource alicorns did not?

I shook my head. Other than a hive mind, nothing directly came to mind. The only advantage Chrysalis had over Celestia in this case was her fuller knowledge of what was occurring in Equestria, and the only advantage she had over Luna was her non-banishment. One or both of those factors must have been fundamentally important in the search.

If both of those factors were important, or if only the former were important, that implied Luna – or perhaps just ponies on her side – had arranged for Sunset Shimmer to disappear. If the former weren’t important, then that negated the advantage Chrysalis had over Celestia, which meant Celestia should know, too. And if only the latter factor were important, then by the same reasoning, Celestia was the pony who had arranged for something to happen to Sunset Shimmer. One side had to know what had happened, but which one?

If it were Celestia, all I could do with that information was claim that I’d set it up to be released if I died, which wasn’t a particularly useful threat. Celestia could just deny it, after all, and even if she didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt her position much to say she disposed of an unwanted apprentice.

But Celestia being behind Sunset Shimmer’s disappearance didn’t fit with what Celestia’s plans were. Or at least what we thought her plans were. Why toss aside the star student you’d raised to bear the Element of Magic?

I couldn’t think of any good reason besides Sunset Shimmer betraying Celestia, but she could fix that with a few well placed memory spells and an ‘accident’ that resulted in amnesia.

So Luna had done it. It was just barely possible that her allies had arranged the matter without her permission and had never told her, but that was a tiny, insignificant probability. Luna had done it, and she’d lied to me about it.

Just…why? Why would Luna lie about Sunset Shimmer’s disappearance? Chrysalis had made it sound like Sunset Shimmer was still alive, so Luna hadn’t had her assassinated. If Luna were straight up lying instead of evading the truth, she must have had an important reason to do so. Maybe Luna made a deal with Sunset Shimmer and promised to never reveal her location, or maybe Luna had to do something she thought would reflect badly on my impression of her.

No, I couldn’t imagine what Luna would have been forced to do that would make me think less of her, even when I was a filly. Sunset Shimmer had been a terrible threat to Luna’s freedom, and even though she hadn’t know it at the time, Sunset Shimmer had been a threat to her life. I wouldn’t have batted an eye if Luna had killed Sunset Shimmer herself right in front of me in cold blood.

Wait. There was that orphan filly that Chrysalis had mentioned. Could she be Sunset Shimmer, memory wiped and reverted to her filly years?

No, that couldn’t be it. It sounded right, as if I’d stumbled onto the wrong answer for the right reasons. Sunset Shimmer would still be a Flare, and that would attract Celestia’s attention. Finding a fourth Flare within a century would strain Celestia’s suspension of disbelief too much.

But if that were true, I had to admit that was a little scary. What was the right way to put this? That was how a pony could effectively kill an alicorn. It was very bad when alicorns themselves used that tactic, even against non-alicorns.

Ponies in general would do everything in their power to not die when somepony tried to kill them. If you put alicorns back into that mindset, fearing that every lost battle could be their last… I couldn’t conjure up the right words to describe how bad that would be. There might not even be an Equus afterward, let alone non-alicorn species. And – and Luna was backed into that corner by her sister right now.

Stars, this was not good. Whatever it took, I had to live through tonight long enough to fix everything, even if whatever plan I came up with wouldn’t allow me to ascend.

Struggling to my half-numb hooves, I took a deep breath to calm myself again. Afterward, I started pacing to stretch my legs. If I wanted to do anything useful, I had to get my body fully functioning again.

As I paced, I noticed that my coat had finally returned to purple, and no part of me was on fire anymore, which honestly, was probably for the best; I didn’t like how much I looked like Celestia when I was white and flaming.

I supposed that meant my blind rage toward Dash had been subdued by dread. Well, mostly. Throwing Dash into the sun still sounded extremely appealing. And wouldn’t it just be a shame if Dash reappeared after finishing her ascension in the middle of space with nopony to look after her with unicorn magic as her body died of asphyxiation over and over. Luna and Celestia had ascended on a mostly stationary Equus, after all, and the Nebulous was anything but stationary. Who knew where Dash would first remanifest her body at?

No. Stop. Bad Twilight. This wasn’t the time for that. I was not going to fly into a rage and do something stupid, even if Dash reappeared right next to me. If I was going to hurt Dash at all, I’d do it much later after making a conscious decision to do so, not on impulse.

I stomped on a small little thought that had crept up into my mind. Throwing Dash into the sun wouldn’t hurt her even the slightest bit. It was too quick a death for it to hurt, and she’d be fine afterward. And as much as I loved the creative part of my mind and needed its help right now, that wasn’t helping. I needed to think clearly, not emotionally.

I needed a short break to breathe and focus on nothing but making myself levelheaded.

Alright, I felt…slightly better. I guess. Now back to work.

What constraints did I have on keeping myself alive?

Luna wasn’t on standby with my parents, so I couldn’t send her a letter and expect a reply. Celestia would know we were out here now, so even throwing away the elements and making a run for it wouldn’t work: she would hunt us down. Even if I abandoned everypony to run away myself, I would almost certainly flare and die of asphyxiation myself along the way to either the moon or Equus.

I stopped myself. I was going about this wrong. I was answering the wrong question. What I could do to not lose wasn’t enough right now. What could I do to win?

If Dash returned before Celestia arrived and if she returned to the Nebulous, I might have time to teach her how to supply magic to me. I could burn out my horn and send us rocketing away as fast as possible.

Stars, I hadn’t learned my lesson at all. If I had time to teach Dash how to supply magic to me, I’d be better off teaching her telekinesis to move the ship herself. Let her save us. I didn’t have to be the center of attention. I could manage the gravity spells to keep everypony from splattering against the ship. She could do the pushing.

No, that was too many ifs. If I had time. If Dash could learn. If my horn could take it. If we wouldn’t be followed. Far, far too many ifs. Chrysalis would disown me as a student if she thought I thought that was a good plan – which I didn’t – let alone what Luna would say.

Okay, I needed to take a step back and approach the problem more carefully. Before I did anything else, what resources did I have available, keeping in mind the lesson I was supposed to learn? Other ponies on the ship counted as resources when relevant.

I had a magically exhausted Flare, myself. I still had the strength to cast pretty much any spell, even after the flare, but I wouldn’t be able to overwhelm any of Celestia’s spells with raw power.

I had a vague series of educated guesswork and an even vaguer fledgling philosophy that said it was a really bad idea to set the precedent for killing alicorns, not that Celestia hadn’t effectively already done so. If I were lucky, Celestia might respect me as if I were an alicorn already the same way Luna did.

I was reasonably confident Luna knew where Sunset Shimmer was, but I didn’t. Unfortunately, Chrysalis knew, too, and she was on the ship. Celestia could easily pry the information out of her instead of having to make a deal with me for it.

There were at least three awakened – but drained – Elements of Harmony on the bridge, belonging to Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and probably Spike. I’d scry the bridge to find out for sure, but then I’d feel obligated to sort out the panic I was sure I’d find there. Out of sight, out of mind; I needed to think clearly right now.

Speaking of Pinkie Pie, I had a pony that granted me limited knowledge of the future for specific events, but the only exploitable trigger sequences – such as a door slamming open – gave but a few seconds of foreknowledge.

But on the subject of time magic, I had the time travel spell I’d picked up years ago. The past couldn’t be changed, and I could only use the spell once, but I could pre-commit now to traveling back in time and giving myself any information I needed – within the brief ten second window the spell lasted. Luna had said she’d been terribly disappointed with the spell when she’d first encountered it and tried it herself. Information could spontaneously be created, but Time liked to keep itself as simple as possible.

I summoned a clock from my bedroom and took note of the time. After five seconds of hopeful waiting, I’d concluded that no future version of myself was going to appear and solve all my problems for me. So either I’d solved this problem myself in the future and didn’t need to waste my only chance at time travel or I’d failed completely.

Another way to look at it was whatever solution – if any – there was that would get me out of this mess, it was either insanely difficult or fairly simple. The time travel spell could send me back at least a week, and Luna hadn’t known what the maximum jump length could be. That was a lot of extra thinking time, and if I couldn’t solve the problem in a week, it was likely impossible. And if it were easy, I was going to solve the problem soon and wouldn’t need to time travel.

That was…reassuring.

Alright, what other resources did I have? I should get all of the other pony related resources out of the way, not just Pinkie Pie.

If Dash finished her ascension before Celestia arrived, I had an alicorn. That probably wouldn’t happen, though, since Dash had no idea what to do in the Æthereal Realm to finish ascending and get out of it. She could be wandering in there for days before Celestia picked her up.

Or Cadance. Cadance could be with Dash right now, actually. Hmm…

Anyway, I had Chrysalis, of course, which also meant I had access to a huge network of changelings on Equus, as well as access to the ponies loyal to Luna.

Ah… Chrysalis was probably busy trying to salvage some mess on Equus. Celestia was almost certainly on her way here, but first she’d likely capture Pupa to make sure Chrysalis and Pupa couldn’t simply disappear. It’d cost her little enough time. As a side note, we needed to get everypony that could be a hostage out of harm’s way.

What about Twinkleshine? And I had to respect her and everypony else when I asked this question. Did she have any relevant skills?

No, not that I could see. Astronomy wasn’t terribly useful at the moment. Her illusions in general were solid, but nothing I couldn’t do myself. There was no need to draw undue attention to her by asking her to help.

Fluttershy? No, I didn’t need an animal handler, as well-trained as she was, nor did I need a medic. Wait…I remembered Dash mentioning…something unusual about her… Something magical… Bah, it wasn’t coming to mind. This whole respect thing was a very hard learned lesson indeed. I’d have to ask Fluttershy directly later.

Spike? He was highly resistant to magic, but I wasn’t going to throw him into the line of fire to soak up damage. His flame breath burnt through most spells, but again, I wasn’t going to let him be in harm’s way. If he were fully grown, I’d be far more willing to let him fight beside me.

Berry Pinch? No, she had nothing to offer that I couldn’t bring to the table except her younger age. Celestia wouldn’t kill a foal unless she had no other choice, just as she hadn’t touched me.

Hmm… Well, if I wanted the element of surprise later, it wouldn’t hurt to look like a filly again, particularly one that didn’t look like me. Heh, I would make myself look like a young Sunset Shimmer, except that plan would almost certainly backfire on me spectacularly. Still, I’d keep the idea in the back of my mind.

Berry Punch? No, but that reminded me that, as an earth pony, Pinkie Pie was also strong and not just a time mage. Pinkie Pie could probably get a cheap shot off on even Celestia herself, which could prove to be a critical distraction. However, it would be difficult to get Pinkie Pie to agree to do so and to get her to do it at the right time.

Cherry Berry? Her talents lay in puzzle solving and exploring – and defying family tradition. While she could help plan if she knew the full situation, it would cost too much time to explain everything to her.

And then there was Chamomile. I tried not to flinch away from the thought, but I couldn’t help it. She’d die for me if I asked her to. She was even more stubborn about her job than Shining was. Chrysalis had made it abundantly clear to me that I knew that. I – thinking about it right now, the reason that bothered me so much was probably because I knew I wouldn’t do the same for her. I liked her, but she wasn’t…she wasn’t a friend.

No. No, no, no. I wasn’t going to say ponies were only friends if they’d die for each other. Not ever. That was too much to ask of anypony. Far too much.

Chamomile and I were friends. Just – I just – I hadn’t held up my end of the friendship well enough.

I sighed, stopping my pacing once again. First fluttering to my haunches with my wings, I let myself fall over onto my back.

Chamomile and I weren’t friends. She was my friend, but I wasn’t her friend. I was Luna’s friend. I was Cadance’s friend. I was Spike’s…well, usually I was his mother, not his friend. I was Twinkleshine’s friend. But I wasn’t anypony else’s friend. I hadn’t even spoken to my BBBFF through Pupa in forever. It wouldn’t have made any difference to him, but it would have for me.

Fantastic. I was the one who’d said everypony on the Nebulous was supposed to grow to be like family, and I was the only pony who hadn’t done that. Whenever somepony wanted to do something with me, they always had to fight for it. Sure I always had a good excuse, and I was pretty introverted, but I’d never once said, ‘Yes, Fluttershy, I’d love to hear your choir perform,’ or, ‘Sure, I’ll try to learn how to cook a snack with you, Pinkie Pie.’

Okay, time to face more unpleasant truths. Everypony was friends with the grumpy me who didn’t notice anypony. They probably thought I was cute but needed help.

It wasn’t necessarily bad that I didn’t really reciprocate their affections – there really was a small upper limit on the number of ponies a mare like myself could keep a meaningful relationship with – but I needed to ask myself if I wanted to return the affection. If I didn’t figure this out now and know exactly who was risking what and why, I might do something stupid in the near future and end up getting everypony hurt.

I took a deep breath to prepare myself. Pretty much everypony on this ship drove me some level of crazy, and I knew I was still furious at Dash, even if I’d managed to put that aside for the moment in the name of self-preservation. This could just be the worst possible time to be figuring out who I wanted to be friends with. Not that I had much of a choice.

Alright, easy one first. Berry Pinch. I’d taught her because I’d promised I would, but I would say and had said I enjoyed it. It might be I just enjoyed teaching, but I didn’t think I would enjoy teaching nearly as much if my student were less capable. Berry Pinch wasn’t a prodigy, not even close, but she tried hard and made an actual effort. Maybe that was just because there wasn’t a whole classroom of other foals around to distract her, but I could say I liked her as she was.

What about Berry Punch? Well, as far as motherhood went, she was a good role model for me in a way my own mom could never be: a mother to a child of a different species. Even when she’d kept herself drunk all day, she’d done well enough that nopony in Ponyville thought it prudent to separate her and her daughter. I’d gone to her for advice on more than one occasion and hadn’t regretted it. On an unrelated note, she played a mean game of cards, too. I didn’t know if I wanted to be her friend exactly, but I did look up to her, surprisingly.

Cherry Berry didn’t like to talk about her filly years, but her cutie mark story had traveled down the grapevine to me. She’d been reading a very old foreign mythology story about gods and goddesses, and naturally, she’d gotten a cherry on her flank. I remembered laughing when I first heard. Apparently, there was some cultural significance to cherries that I didn’t quite understand, and Cherry Berry certainly hadn’t either at that age. She’d just thought it was the curse of being in the Cherry family.

Still, she’d done everything she could to make a name for herself as an adventurer. She’d even taught herself how to build and operate a hot air balloon. She hadn’t even been able to explain where the idea had come from. Heh. If I’d only ever left Canterlot at my current age and stumbled onto a balloonist in Ponyville, I’d have been outright confused instead of seeing somepony useful and interesting.

Anyway, I didn’t share Cherry Berry’s passion for ancient history, probably because I’ve always expected to live long enough to be ancient history, but her spirit was admirable and reminded me a bit of myself. My own adventure when I was a filly into the Everfree…well, it was still terrifying and the ending was still a bit scaring, even if I had managed to reach the elements, but I could see myself going on another adventure with company.

Although, sending me along was a lot like using a volcano to destroy an unwanted piece of parchment. Oh well. It could still be fun.

Fluttershy, I wasn’t sure if I had the patience for her. She’d opened up a little bit around everypony, but she still defined timid. I could see why she and Dash were good for each other as a unit – although I would never understand how they manage to not fray at the seams around the other – but what they really needed to do was meet in the middle.

But at the same time, Fluttershy was almost unbearably nice. I supposed that was sort of obvious, given that the Element of Kindness had awoken for her. Anyway, if I needed a second busybody older sister, she’d be a perfect choice. There was quite a bit of debate on whether I needed one, let alone two, but I did like Cadance an awful lot. If I had a bit more patience, maybe Fluttershy wouldn’t be so bad.

Being friends with Chrysalis would be hard. She had a very different set of priorities than I did, although if Luna was going to stick me with a job in politics, I’d probably grow to understand her more. I was fairly sure I’d grown on her, and as frustrating as she could be, Chrysalis had a way of telling me exactly what I needed to hear. Not that I’d always listened to her, even though I should have; she had a way of phrasing everything in the best way to get under my hide.

Of the mother–daughter pair, I thought I liked Pupa more, but that might not be fair. Pupa was easier to get along with, not necessarily somepony I would like more, although I was fairly sure I did like her. She was like the caring older sister everypony dreamed of having.

On the other hoof, Chrysalis was rough around the edges, being both blunt and often terse, yet she brought the kind of raw intelligence to a conversation that few ponies could. And I liked that. Chrysalis was prickly, but she was a good kind of prickly.

Now Chamomile, she was going to be harder; there were a lot of complicating factors between the two of us. Luna was technically her employer, but Luna was also her combat instructor slash sparring partner. And of course, Luna was a princess, too, and so was I. How much of Chamomile’s attention and dedication was muddled with duty? I knew her well enough to know she genuinely cared, but it was hard to judge how much I saw of her was Chamomile and how much was the guard captain.

But maybe I was approaching this wrong. We all wore masks for other ponies in a sense. If Chamomile always wore the mask of a guard captain around me as my friend, then so long as she behaved sincerely and naturally in that role, maybe that wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t like she’d like it if I fired her.

So did I like Captain Chamomile of the night guard? There was certainly physical attraction; she was not unhandsome. But at her core, she was a tea maker who, by a quirk of where she was born, grew up to be a chemist specializing in poisons. She wasn’t Dash-level good with pegasus magic, but she was book smart enough to hold a conversation and was merely hesitant to tell me – a princess to her – when I was wrong. We didn’t have much overlap in our pleasure reading, but there was overlap.

Yes, I could easily see myself as her friend. I kind of wished I hadn’t offloaded most of her Modern Equestrian lessons onto Cherry Berry. That could have been fun.

And that brought me to the…extroverts. The word felt like poison even in my thoughts. To be fair, there were other extroverts on the ship, but these were the hard core extroverts: Pinkie Pie and Dash. I wasn’t going to stop disliking noisy ponies anytime soon, but I could at least imagine myself imagining trying to get along with those two, so I might as well give it a go, even if there were reasons I avoided ponies like them.

Pinkie Pie… It couldn’t all be time magic that made her…her. It was time to admit I didn’t understand her at all, but maybe I could guess from her actions. She behaved like she had a five second attention span, but I knew she planned far into the future, if only for more parties and holidays. I’d seen her do so over and over again. And it was possible to hold a conversation with her or to get her to sit still and watch a movie, or to read a book, or anything else a pony asked of her.

Ugh, I’d probably figured out what the problem was. It wasn’t that Pinkie Pie had a short attention span, because I knew she didn’t. It was that the way she enjoyed living made it look like she did. I’d taken the completely wrong approach in my interactions with Pinkie Pie. Either that, or I would never be able to get along with her ever.

If regular ponies were a sunny day or a light shower, she’d be a tornado. She appeared, did her thing, and then left. That was the heart of Pinkie Pie’s behavior – probably. She enjoyed friendships on a touch and go basis on the scale of minutes, where she might strike up a conversation and move on when it finished.

On the other hoof, I enjoyed longer interactions, less frequently, and more along the lines of ‘let’s sit down and play a game for an entire day’. I doubted I’d ever understand why ponies could enjoy living like Pinkie Pie. It felt so shallow to me. But I could understand how they lived. So far as I could tell right now, this difference in scale was the core difficulty limiting our interactions. If I wanted to do anything with her at all, I’d have to be more willing to face the storm.

Hmm… Maybe it could work. Trixie wasn’t a terribly good parallel – she liked to think and get things done with focus – but she was just as talkative as Pinkie Pie. I had found myself enjoying Trixie’s company when I’d properly met her, as short lasting as my time with her had been. Nightmare Night didn’t count. It’d taken some effort to not walk out on her at first, even with other goals forcing me to stay, but it’d been worth it in the end. Maybe it could work with Pinkie Pie, too.

And then came the pony I didn’t want to think about: Dash. This night was going to scar any attempts I made with talking to her for years, maybe decades. I knew myself well enough to know a developing grudge when I saw one. Even if I made it through this alive, ascended, and everything turned out perfect somehow, tonight was going to hurt. That was no fault of Dash’s or my own. It was just going to happen.

But for just this brief moment, I could pretend everything was alright. Or at least I’d try. Dash was hotheaded, didn’t think before she opened her mouth, infuriated me on nearly every level–

Okay, that was entirely enough of that already. I’d already beaten myself up over not noticing Dash. I didn’t need to test the limits of my emotional control over this as well. I took a slow, deep breath to calm myself back down as well as I could.

Dash was my antithesis in every way that mattered to me. She wasn’t my dark mirror or anything like that – although the term had appeal right now – but if the two of us were locked in a room together, bad things would happen. I might not drive Dash insane, but she’d drive me insane for sure. On my part, I’d probably bore her to death.

No, Dash and I would never be friends, at least not friends in the way I meant the word. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t have something else. When I said I had grudging respect for her, I’d meant it. Now that I’d had the problem shoved in my face, now that I’d recognized it, now that I’d dissected it, I could point out, well, not quite what was happening, but rather what could happen.

Dash and I wouldn’t be friends, but it was taking the entirely wrong approach to try. I’d read enough fiction to know what I was staring at. We weren’t rivals, not yet, but we could be. I knew it would be frustrating and annoying, and it’d only make me like Dash less as a friend, but I could see the appeal.

A huge part of why I’d never talked to anypony as a filly was simply because there was nopony who could compete with me or, failing that, keep pace with me. There were other reasons after my entrance examination, of course, but even before then, I’d never really talked to ponies who weren’t at least a decade older than myself.

But I’d been forced to recognize Dash as my peer tonight, and I was going to take that hard-learned lesson to heart.

So in the end, no, I wasn’t friends with most of the crew. But – I took a deep breath – I’d like to try to be.

The universe seemed to stop for a moment, although I couldn’t see anything moving but me to begin with. For the second time today, it felt like something had unknotted inside of me.

“Alright,” I said, rolling over and then rising to my hooves. I’d been getting a little cramped lying on my back.

So in conclusion if I risked anypony’s life to save us all, I was going to have to do it very carefully. I’d be less sad about losing potential friends than Spike or Twinkleshine, but it was still important to recognize my vulnerabilities for what they were. And as much as I’d like to go…make friends, I had an angry alicorn headed my way, so it was back to facts and logic.

And now I realized I should have written down all of the resources I’d already generated. I summoned some paper from my room along with a vial of ink and a quill. My memory was still fresh enough to write down everything I’d already thought of.

After I finished recording everything, I added Cadance to the list of things at my disposal. She would be very grumpy if she found out I’d died or been harmed in any way. As a subpoint, I added her love magic. I didn’t want to ask her to use it on anypony, but sometimes desperate times called for desperate measures.

What else was there?

The Nebulous itself was available for use as well. I could throw it at Celestia or something.

Oh, Spike had a bunch of partially grown fire rubies left. Those would prove annoying to block with magic if I destabilized them. At least, a magical explosion in the face always ruined my day.

I had a gigantic library stuffed with pretty much every reference I could ask for.

I had the affections of my brother, Captain Shining Armor. I couldn’t expect the entire royal guard to turn against their princess, but maybe there was something I could make happen there. A lot of them knew and liked me from back when I’d spend my time in the archives.

And that was about it. There were plenty of small, little things aboard the ship, too, but nothing terribly important came to mind. It wasn’t like I could just challenge Celestia to a card game, or ask her to watch a movie with me, or share a cup of tea.

No, brain, your creativity was great, but asking Celestia to tea wasn’t a solution, even if she was on record as being a connoisseur. No, Chamomile wouldn’t be able to brew up anything so good, it would make Celestia take off her tiara and put it on my head, regardless of what I thought of Chamomile’s skills.

Anyway, how could I win with these resources? What did it mean to win?

My long-term goals were to free Luna, to ascend, and to defeat Celestia. My short-term goals were to survive and to keep the crew – to keep my friends alive.

Right… Well, the long-term goals were of relatively low priority at the moment, but they generated a few more short-term goals that I had to satisfy now. The first one, freeing Luna, required the Elements of Harmony to be non-functional, or at least mostly non-functional.

We also needed at least the same number of alicorns as Celestia, or she would simply overpower Luna. That was more of a requirement to achieving the third long-term goal rather than a short-term goal itself, but it was still important. It wasn’t impossible for Luna to win two versus one or even three versus one with enough guile and skill, but that was playing a very dangerous game. If Luna messed up once, she’d go down and stay down.

Celestia wouldn’t even have to use the elements if she kept Luna subdued and slowly erased Luna’s memories over time. She’d have to do it very slowly and very carefully, though, or else the new Luna would come out broken and potentially insane on the other end. Large-scale memory tampering was always dangerous work, and the last thing anypony needed was an insane alicorn on the loose.

Also for the first long-term goal, it would be wise to find out where Luna would reappear when her banishment ended. If there were magical traps there or an ambush, I’d need to deal with those before the summer solstice.

But the upside of Dash ascending – some might say the only upside – was the elements were already drained. And even if they still had enough power to one-hit kill, at least three of them were bound to ponies who knew Luna personally but not Celestia. I suspected the elements wouldn’t work under anypony else’s control, so unless Celestia forced them to use the elements, Luna should be safe. And if they weren’t using the elements willingly, the elements would likely not work then either.

But then what would happen if Celestia outright killed the three bearers we had? Would that allow the elements to find new bearers?

Ponyfeathers! That probably was the case. Pinkie Pie could lie to Celestia and convince her she intended to help kill Luna by simply being too confusing to understand. I was fairly sure of that, but Fluttershy and Spike? No, that would never happen. So then in addition to keeping my friends alive, I had the additional constraint that bearers were in extra danger. Wonderful.

Still, one objective down, plenty to go.

Now surviving… How could I go about doing that? There were several general approaches that came to mind.

A huge enough problem could force Celestia to return to Equus – if she found out about it. If Celestia never found us to begin with, that would work. If I had a good enough threat or vital enough information to withhold, I could force Celestia to stay her hoof. Celestia could prove possible to fool, but any attempt would have to be carefully crafted. A surprise attack could prevail in theory, but I’d have to catch Celestia completely by surprise. It’d taken a flare and a little surprise to overpower Cadance on Hearth’s Warming, and she was a civilian for all intents and purposes.

What were the chances I could catch Celestia off guard? Probably zero. She didn’t even have to show up on the ship if she didn’t want to. She could cast spells from out of my range to recover the elements and then blow us up if she felt like it.

Urgh. This would be so much easier if destroying Celestia’s body did anything useful. Anything I did had to temporarily incapacitate her and had to be reapplied constantly, or else she would just regenerate through it.

Hmm, it’s possible that if I could get Celestia onto the ship to begin with, I could ask Chamomile to come up with a colorless, odorless, tasteless inhalant poison to knock her out. It would have to be very fast acting, and Celestia would have to disable any spells she had providing her air.

Well, in the realm of offensive actions, Celestia had once said the elements didn’t like her anymore. Maybe if I threw them at her, they’d burn her or something. If I ignited the fire rubies, too, maybe that would be enough to disrupt any spells protecting her lungs.

But that still required her to be on the ship to begin with. An inhalant poison needed to be in a constrained area to work. And once the magic started flying there was no way I was going to be able to get her to stop to talk before I hit the floor, so I should try some other avenue to victory first.

Wait, no, would that even work? Luna had demonstrated to me that she could use dragon magic, and dragons were insanely resistant to poisons. Horseapples! That wouldn’t work at all. Celestia would just shrug off poisons…except for – what was it Luna had mentioned – ah, unicorn bane. I’d have to ask Chamomile if she had any of that and what it did. Luna had said it was unpleasant; maybe it would be enough for me to break Celestia’s defensive spells.

Now as for finding a way to go unnoticed by Celestia. That wasn’t going to happen. I’d already noted that if I threw away the elements, Celestia would still hunt us down. If we ditched enough of the ship to get away fast enough to not be found, my flares would almost certainly kill us. Any plan with a chance of working would be better than running away, unfortunately. Besides, if we ran away, Dash would be left behind, and then Celestia would have three alicorns on her side.

Similarly, creating a huge mess on Equus wouldn’t work. Celestia would find out about it after she showed up here and defeated us, so that wouldn’t work and would only make her extra upset with me. But then the threat of having something huge happen could stay her hoof if she got close enough for me to give it.

I knew I could give a credible enough delivery of such a threat, but at the same time, I knew I’d never go through with it. Celestia would know it, too; she’d seen and heard about how I acted after…after half of Canterlot fell. She wouldn’t fall for it. If I made such a threat at all, I’d have to offload responsibility for it completely onto Chrysalis or Luna.

No, I couldn’t do that. It went against my morals too much to hold innocents hostage like that. However…the idea had another application. I could set myself up as the villain on the Nebulous. Celestia would likely buy that I’d geased everypony on the ship into helping; that was the plan with Chrysalis, after all. It would let everypony else survive, even if I…didn’t.

It couldn’t be an outright obviously evil geas, like a straight up obey me command: everypony would still have their memories after it was dispelled, so they’d need to be legitimately uncertain if they’d agreed to come with to help me out of their own will or if there were darker magics at work. Something simple was needed, but at the same time, it had to be something non-trivial in case Celestia could somehow figure out what a geas did.

Well…something along the lines of ‘we’re close friends’ would work.

Of course, that was assuming Celestia didn’t indiscriminately blow everypony up, which brought me to the key aspect of any plan I came up with.

How could I get Celestia on the ship to talk – or do something equally immediately non-threatening on the ship?

Well, I could stay on theme. Twinkleshine would tell me to put up a giant illusion in all directions of the word ‘parley’. It was kind of really dumb, but it was very possible Celestia would agree to talk. It was a given that she was going to be furious, but she always behaved civilly, if scarily, and she was intelligent. Talking wouldn’t necessarily get her on the ship, but she likely would stop to listen before slinging spells. It was easier to talk and then fight than to fight and then talk, after all.

And no, interrogation wasn’t the same as talking.

Now if I had anything useful to negotiate with, it had to be something that Celestia couldn’t just take or pry out of me with a geas. It had to be something that I could offer conditional upon my good health.

But before that, were there any other ways to get Celestia talking? Or rather, what circumstances would put her in a talking mood?

I’d already covered a civil parley, and only two options came to mind: diplomacy and intimidation.

The intimidation option was to somehow scare Celestia into not fighting. Well, scare wasn’t the right word. Rather we would want to make fighting an unappealing option for her.

For all that I visually looked like an alicorn, I didn’t have the magical strength to back up any such boast. If Dash returned in time, the two of us might be able to win a high-stakes bluff. Though the problem with that was Celestia likely had a passing familiarity with Dash, given the rainboom in Cloudsdale. It was over a decade ago, but it would be disastrous if she remembered Dash was born a pegasus and thus consequently was not in any position at all to fight an alicorn in space.

A trick of some kind could be a third option. I’d toyed with the idea of making myself look like Sunset Shimmer before. Celestia would almost certainly want to talk to her, but those two had spent a lot of time together. Celestia would figure out I was a fake very quickly, and then she’d be even more upset.

I’d have to ask Chrysalis if it were possible to get into contact with Sunset Shimmer and have her talk to Celestia on our behalf. That sounded unlikely to happen, but it cost little to ask.

Urgh. The more I let them stew in my mind, the more the two non-diplomacy options sounded like really bad ideas.

Alright, so back to diplomacy. Putting aside contacting Sunset Shimmer for the moment, what things did I have that were conditional upon my good health, noting that keeping all of my memories was part of good health?

I had Luna’s affections, of course.

I knew how to find Sunset Shimmer, and I dearly hoped Chrysalis had set it up so she didn’t know where Sunset Shimmer was but could find the mare conditional on her continued good health. It sounded like a thing she would do, considering she said she’d use the information as a last chance effort to save her hive. Presumably, that meant she had a way to hide the information from Celestia.

I could set it up so that ascension instructions became public knowledge if I died. That was a threat I could credibly deliver on. I was a scientist at heart, after all. Sharing knowledge was what I did, even if in this one rare exception I probably wouldn’t.

I could leave instructions for Cadance to learn what happened here should I not intervene otherwise. But then Celestia could just erase Cadance’s memory. If Celestia were feeling particularly ruthless, she could just erase all of Cadance’s memories between now and when I first met Cadance and claim some terrible alicorn disease had caused the damage.

Hmm, it would still be good to make sure Cadance learned of what happened here, but it would have to be done in secret; she had few enough ways to protect herself and her memories, unfortunately.

And…ponyfeathers. I didn’t really have anything else that Celestia couldn’t just take. I really, really hoped that what little I did have would be enough. Or that Sunset Shimmer would talk Celestia down. Or that Celestia wouldn’t risk ascension information becoming public knowledge. Or that I would manage to do the impossible and knockout Celestia…

But even if all four plans failed, Celestia could kill me anytime she wanted; she wouldn’t have to do it right away. I didn’t want to be a hostage, but suggesting it might keep me alive, and another day alive meant another chance to escape. Luna would be hard for Celestia to deal with without the elements, even with two or three alicorns on her side. Celestia would want me kept alive to use, right? Right?

“Oh, Luna. I – I’m going to die, aren’t I?”

“Are you really, really, absolutely sure you can’t contact Sunset Shimmer?” I asked Chrysalis.

After scrying the bridge for less than a second, I’d quickly discovered everypony had scattered and searched the ship for me. I’d have to gather everypony up for a short magic session soon to keep them safe, but I had to applaud whoever was sensible enough to relocate everypony away from anything that might have caused what must have looked like Dash exploding. Chrysalis had been in her room the whole time, so it hadn’t been her.

But for now, talking to Chrysalis took higher priority; she only had so much time to convey orders to Equus unobstructed.

“Yes,” was all Chrysalis said. I had no clue how many conversations she was holding right now, but it was probably in the double digits. “My hive is stretched thin disappearing with potential hostages.”

“But it would just take one pony, wouldn’t it?” I pleaded. Chrysalis said she knew exactly where Sunset Shimmer was, so that information was already lost if Celestia decided she wanted it. There was no reason not to contact Sunset Shimmer.

“Argh!” Chrysalis’s gaze focused on me for the moment. “Listen. I’m working on everything else you asked for. I’d already started on some of it. If you must, say, ‘If I die, Sunset Shimmer dies with me.’ If forced to give a reason, say, ‘It’s been arranged that way.’ I won’t tell you the who, the how, or the why, but it has been, and not by me.”

I immediately stopped my brain from trying to answer those three questions automatically. If Chrysalis thought I shouldn’t know right now, then she was probably right. Even guessing could be a bad idea; potentially being forced to tell the truth, even just truthful guesses, about anything was so unfair in negotiations.

For the same reasoning, I didn’t tell Chrysalis I’d already cast the necessary geases and short memory wipes to protect her. She would know, of course, but she wouldn’t know. Nor would she try to find out.

As for my knowing my intentions in casting the geas and the details of what it commanded…I’d just have to hope Celestia didn’t pry too deeply into the matter. There was no way for me to avoid knowing. If I didn’t know, I’d try to cast a geas again as per my agreement with Chrysalis, only to discover I’d already placed multiple.

“Is – is there anything else you have for me?” ‘I don’t want to die,’ I didn’t add.

“No.” That was it. Short, crisp, definite.

“I…see… Thank you.”

Just before I’d shuffled out the door – not teleporting, since I was already magically exhausted and didn’t need to make the situation any worse – Chrysalis said, “Don’t die.”

I bit my lip. Turning my head back, I gave a small nod, and then departed. Once I was back in the hallways proper, I stopped my knees from buckling and dropping me to the ground. I wasn’t necessarily going to die, but I didn’t like my odds at all. Anything less than perfect certainty of living was a bad gamble in my book, and this was a gamble even by regular pony standards.


I did not scream. I was merely…startled.

“I’ve been looking all over the ship for you,” Pinkie Pie continued, completely unfazed by my reaction. She still had that weird vibration thing going on that she’d had back at the party. Whatever she was predicting hadn’t happened yet. “Fluttershy has been in tears ever since the hum and the blinding light and the kaboom” – Pinkie Pie added some unhelpful gestures with her forelegs – “interrupted Dash’s new trick with the ice and wind and snow, and I haven’t been able to get her to cheer up and laugh or anything, even when I told her Dash was okay, but she didn’t believe me, and I thought she might listen to you since you know so much about magic stuff.”

Okay, Twilight, this was your chance to prove you’d learned your lesson about respect. That might have approximated Pinkie Pie’s usual inane chatter, but that didn’t mean it was all unimportant.

“How do you know Dash is okay?” I asked, trying to sound like I didn’t also know myself.

Pinkie Pie’s smile and general bounciness faded as she said, “Well, my hooves weren’t feeling itchy, so she must be alive.”

There was a Pinkie Sense for ponies dying? Now the socially responsible thing to do was to not pry into whatever death she’d found this out from in the name of science. Instead, I could ask something sensible.

“Are your hooves itchy now?” I asked. I didn’t know how much forewarning Pinkie Pie would have for a death, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

“Nope! So Dash must really be okay, right?”

I didn’t really want to bring Pinkie Pie’s mood back down, but the question had to be asked. “Say somepony lost all of their memories. Would your hooves itch before that? That’s a death of self, if not the body.”

“Um… I don’t know. Maybe? Is that what happened to Dash? Is she–”

“No,” I interrupted.

That was not at all the answer I’d wanted to hear, not that I could blame Pinkie Pie; she was a mystery onto herself. Who knew if her hooves would even itch if Celestia took me really far away from Pinkie Pie to do the deed or if there was just too much time between now and the final blow. Then again, Pinkie Pie crossed Equestria to find me, following her Pinkie Sense, so her range was non-trivial on some events.

Still, Pinkie Pie had given me a little comfort in saying that I probably wouldn’t immediately die. I could be optimistic about that.

“Dash is fine for now,” I clarified, “but I’m in a lot of trouble. We all are, actually. Would you mind holding still for a moment?”

I quickly noticed that holding still didn’t include not talking. I did listen to Pinkie Pie ramble as I did my work, but she hadn’t said anything particularly interesting or insightful.

“–and…what was I saying again?” Pinkie Pie asked, just after I finished erasing her memory of the geas I’d just cast. I was kind of surprised Pinkie Pie was even capable of asking herself that question. And it was thoughts like those that I needed to work on weeding out if I wanted to be nice.

“Nothing too important, Pinkie Pie. Could you tell me what’s up with your” – I waved a forehoof up and down – “vibrating thing?”

“Oh, a doozy is about to happen.” At my raised eyebrow, Pinkie Pie continued, “You know, a doozy. Something crazy huge! Something nopony expected, and everypony will go, ‘Whoa!’ and then we’ll all be amazed at what happened. I love doozies! They’re always great surprises, and you know I’m a mare who loves her surprises.”

Well if it was always a surprise, then there was no sense in asking if Pinkie Pie knew what the ‘doozy’ was. “If I told you what I think the surprise was, would you know if I’m right?”

“Nah uh. I gotta see the doozy with my own eyes before the vibrations stop.” Pinkie Pie sidled up to me and whispered, “Honestly, just between you and me, I kind of hope it happens soon. And not just because I like surprises. My bones are kind of starting to hurt.”

Awkward. It would be rather unfortunate if her Pinkie Sense actually killed her. Still, from what little I knew about Pinkie Pie’s magic, that meant Pinkie Pie would actually get to see her big surprise. That was weak evidence for at least her surviving this or evidence for Dash returning before Celestia arrived. Good news either way, if not great news.

“I’m sorry, Pinkie Pie. If I can later, I’ll see if I can find a spell of some kind to help you out in the future. There are plenty of ponies in Equestria with hooves that won’t stop shaking; I’m sure I can dig up something relevant.”

“Nah, don’t let it bother you, Twilight. I’m usually not kept waiting this long. It’s been, like, hours and hours.”

Now that she’d pointed that out, that did sound extremely uncomfortable, not just mildly painful.

“Anyway, could I ask you to do me a favor?” Before Pinkie Pie could really get rolling in her response, I continued, “I need to talk to everypony, so if you could gather everypony at the bri – at the greenhouse, that’d be very helpful.” Bringing everypony back to the bridge was a recipe for disaster. Even if I told them it was safe, they’d still be uneasy.

“Sure thing, Twilight. I’ll track down everypony faster than you can teleport to the greenhouse.”

Oh, now that was just straight up false. I shook my head. “Anyway, leave Chrysalis to herself, though, and I’ll take care of Chamomile.”

“Can do, Captain Sparkle!” Pinkie Pie saluted me before bouncing and vibrating away.

“Well,” I said to myself, “that wasn’t so bad.” Having some insight into Pinkie Pie’s behavioral patterns had certainly helped me stay in control and not annoyed around her. I’d leave the yay or nay on if I definitely wanted to be her friend until I’d had a chance to talk to her more, but this had been a good first step.

But there was another pony who needed addressing right now.

“Chamomile, I know you’re very good at hiding in shadows, but now isn’t really the time.”

The mare in question stepped out of nowhere, or rather out of the shadows around me. It’d taken a lot of work, but Luna and I had finally managed to teach Chamomile the basics of dark magic. She’d turned out to be particularly adept at shadow spells, but she had to struggle to learn anything else just as most ponies would with new magic.

“My apologies, Princess,” Chamomile said, bowing low and unable to look me in the eyes. “I can only assume you missed your chance to become a true alicorn. I was there, and I could not stop what happened, even as I saw the Elements of Harmony responding. I–”

Before Chamomile could go any further, I said, “Stop,” and then I stopped myself. I’d already concluded this was my fault; I didn’t need somepony to succeed in talking me out of that, or it’d be hard to restrain myself. But at the same time, it was entirely possible I was missing some important detail, or cultural aspect, or something else that I could talk about with Chamomile later.

“Look,” I continued, “I don’t really care if any of this is your fault.”

Chamomile winced.

Okay, how did I mess up this time? Whether she was assigned fault or not, it didn’t change what had happened or what needed to happen. All that changed was…oh. I’d basically told her I didn’t think she could be responsible for anything. For a guard captain – and even worse, for a pony who wanted to be a knight but would never ask – that had to hurt. Whoops.

“Let me rephrase that. At the moment, I just want to survive. We can all play the blame game later.” And I could come with a stacked deck.

As my mind went back to the geases I had to put on Chamomile, I realized that she was in an awfully bad position. I had no clue why Celestia left Luminance alone, but Chamomile had no excuse to be here. Celestia would know for sure that she was on Luna’s and my side.

And then Celestia would go back to the moon and do whatever she felt like, because she’d know everypony there was loyal to Luna. Maybe they’d be hostages. Maybe they’d be prisoners. Maybe they’d just be dead. And the absolute worst part was I couldn’t do anything about that.

Well…the upside of them having nowhere to go was that they were a low priority target. Maybe they would have enough time before Celestia arrived to hide and wait for Luna to rescue them.

But more importantly here and now, what was I going to do with Chamomile? There was no disguising that she was here of her own free will specifically to help overthrow Celestia and free Luna.

Wait. Chamomile had no excuse to be here. That was what I’d said. If I interpreted that more literally, she didn’t have to be here; Celestia would have no idea she was ever here. We could stuff her room with food and water, enough to wait until Luna’s banishment ended, and send it off on its own. I’d have to make sure I expelled absolutely everything from the rest of the ship that mentioned her, but it was possible. The Nebulous hadn’t been originally built to hold her, so her presence here could be concealed.

And Berry Pinch – no, it was a matter of public record that Berry Punch had a daughter. Celestia would look for her, and Celestia didn’t hurt foals.

Oh, ponyfeathers. Chamomile wouldn’t be easy to find. That was just as true for Luna as it would be for Celestia. She could die a long, slow death of thirst or starvation before Luna could find her. It would be easy to find her when starting from the Nebulous – the search radius wasn’t that big – but finding the Nebulous to begin with without the elements on board anymore, that could prove…difficult.

“Princess? Twilight?”

I snapped out of my thoughts when I heard my name. “Sorry. You have a choice to make. Either…”

And that was when I realized Chamomile didn’t have a choice. She wasn’t going to leave, even if it increased her chance of survival. Stars, I shouldn’t have to fight the ponies I was trying to save in order to save them. This was hard enough all by itself without internal complications.

“Nevermind,” I said as I cast a sleeping spell. “I’m sorry for this.”

Chamomile didn’t even flinch as she resisted my spell, which wasn’t terribly surprising. She’d been trained to resist these kinds of spells even without a unicorn’s help, and I was exhausted; she never would have been made captain of the night guard if she couldn’t. So much for making this easy on both of us.

I took a deep breath. “Alright. Chamomile, I’m ordering you to abandon ship for your own safety. I assume you’ve guessed the situation.”

“No disrespect, Princess, but it’s my duty to protect you, even should we face impossible odds. And if you happen to be exhausted and terrified, then so much more the need for me to be here.”

Chamomile, how I hated you right now. You were just as bad as Shining.

“I’m not terrified,” I protested, no comment about exhaustion.

A moment passed as Chamomile sunk into thought, apparently considering her next words carefully.

“Princess, your legs, your eyes, your wings, your tail, they’re all twitching. Everything about your stance screams that you want to jump at anything that so much as surprises you. I saw what you nearly did to Pinkie Pie. She should have known better.”

No!” I shouted. I had to stop and deliberately recompose myself. “No, I won’t have anypony dying or getting hurt because of me if I can help it.” And I wouldn’t have anypony dying with me either. “I’m not just marching off to my end. I…have plans. I might come out of this alive, if not as the winner. Which reminds me, do you happen to have any unicorn bane? And what does it do exactly?”

Chamomile smiled – not much, but enough to tell that she was, in fact, smiling. “No, I regret to say I do not; I did not think it necessary to bring any. However, it would be the poison of choice when fighting an alicorn. Unicorn bane attacks a pony’s magic as it is formed into spells, which is particularly unpleasant for unicorns and alicorns.”


“And yet even if I did possess it,” Chamomile continued, “I do not believe you are in any fit mental state for me to entrust it to your possession, nor to leave you to your own devices. With all due respect, of course.”

Argh! Why couldn’t you stay like when I first met you! You would have just listened to me instead of snarking at me behind politeness.

And I needed to calm down. I made it through Pinkie Pie; I didn’t want to lose to Chamomile’s stubbornness.

“Please don’t make me have to knock you out,” I said.

“It is my own evaluation of the situation that you would waste too much of what magic remains to you should I be forced to protect you from yourself.”

And that was when the screaming began.

I didn’t need to be protected, especially not from myself! I was already screwed! My dreams had been stolen from right under my nose! My life could literally only get worse right now by dying, and Chamomile couldn’t protect me from that.

I didn’t remember a word of what I said. My mind blanked as my frustration returned my anger to the forefront of my mind. I didn’t know what I said, but I knew it was all horrible, and hurtful, and not worth repeating ever. Anything I could say to get Chamomile to leave, I probably had. A lot of it might have just been venting at the situation I was in and not aimed at her at all, maybe not even relevant to the conversation.

What I knew absolutely for sure was where I was when it ended: trying not to cry with Chamomile’s wings wrapped around me in a gentle, but firm, grip.

“Chamomile” – I sniffed – “there’s really not much you can do here. If a fight breaks out at all, we’ve already lost. I’ll try to win. I’ll try as hard as I possibly can. But nopony would bet on me, not even if zero bits paid out a thousand. Please just leave.”

“Hiding behind my princess is not why I agreed to join the night guard.”

Stars, curse you, Chamomile, you stupid, stupid mare! That – that was exactly what Shining would say. It’d taken me years to talk any sense into him. What chance did I have with you in minutes?

None at all. What did I ever do to deserve Chamomile? Or even everypony on this ship? Or anypony at all?

My mind answered my rhetorical question before I could stop it, despite how much I knew I’d only asked it to hurt myself. I’d technically fulfilled several dreams and wishes of the ponies here, but none of that counted. I hadn’t done that for them; I’d done that to recruit them, or at best, it was just something that had incidentally occurred, like visiting the moon.

And now everypony’s life was in real danger, not just generic space danger or danger from me. And Chamomile was just standing there comforting me, all but saying, ‘No, I didn’t want my life anyway. Go ahead and use it however you need it.’

“Are you feeling any better?” Chamomile asked.

“No.” I was going to tell Chamomile how stupid she was being, but the words came out as, “But it helped.”

It had, honestly. Having somepony who wasn’t me to yell at had helped so much. I could actually feel the twitching Chamomile had pointed out now. That had to be a good sign.

“Chamomile,” I began, knowing I was going to regret asking this already, “are you really choosing to di – to risk dying tonight?” Just because Pinkie Pie said nopony was going to die didn’t mean there weren’t ways to cheat her Pinkie Sense. It had rules, and rules could always be circumvented.

Removing her wings and stepping back, Chamomile gave me a funny look. “Have you not read the night guard’s oath? Or the day guard’s?”

I had, or the modern royal guard version, at least. Just as I knew the look on my face gave away my answer.

“Then you know I am, Princess. But I will do everything in my power to ensure that you survive.”

Fine. If Chamomile wasn’t going to listen, I could at least do one definitely intentionally nice thing for her. This might be my only chance.

“I, um… I don’t know if there’s a proper way to do this. Luna said she didn’t mean for me to ask this until later, so she never got around to explaining it to me. Wait, no, that’s not what I wanted to say.”

Knighting ponies was supposed to be a very personal thing. I could at least have the social grace to figure out I shouldn’t say I was just doing this because Luna said it was a good idea.

“Luna suggested this to me, and you specifically as a good choice, but she didn’t tell me to do it. Just that it was an option. And – just, do you want to be my knight?”

“Yes!” Chamomile half-shouted through barely suppressed excitement, no more than an instant after I’d finished my question.

And this was the point where I’d usually try to find out if she said yes simply because she wanted to be a knight or for me – or both – but it didn’t really matter at this, the point of no return. Besides, I was sure Luna wouldn’t stick me with a pony like that, and I trusted Chamomile well enough.

“Ahem, I mean I would be honored to accept.”

Before Chamomile could say anything else, I said, “Sorry we don’t have time for anything more formal. Celestia is on her way here. Chrysalis said she left Equus only minutes after Dash triggered her ascension, so we have little time remaining to prepare. We do not want this to come to a fight, but if it does, this would be the time to put all of your sparring practice against Luna and Dash to work. If you have any means of subduing – not killing – Celestia, this is the time to use it.”

“I…have a few dirty tricks that might work, but I wouldn’t count on them. Princess Luna almost always handicapped herself during training. And I can create a couple poisons quickly that might prove to be strong enough to afflict an alicorn temporarily.”

Well, that was a small comfort. And now that the word ‘handicap’ came up, I realized Celestia was probably out of practice after a thousand years of relative peace – another small comfort. “Just don’t try to do anything in melee range if it comes to a fight; I’m going to create an explosion of raw magic in Celestia’s face, and you won’t want to be near it. It might disrupt Celestia’s defenses long enough for us to do something productive.”

Chamomile paused for a moment but then nodded. “What’s the signal for attack?”

“Well, if we’re under attack, feel free to go at it. Otherwise the word ‘nor’ in any context will work. Or if I can’t talk, then I’ll drop my ears to my forehead. Okay?”

After a quick repetition to make sure she had the signals memorized – and a repetition of my own – Chamomile made a small bow to depart.

“Give me five minutes, and with any luck, I’ll have everything ready.”

“Wait. Where should I meet you?” I didn’t want to be alone in case Celestia showed up earlier than expected.

“The kitchen. Please tell Pinkie Pie to keep out if you see her as well. I don’t need her interfering or complaining about dirtying her equipment.”

The best way to get Pinkie Pie not to do something was to let her remain ignorant to what you didn’t want her to do, but in this rare case, she’d probably listen. Still, if Chamomile was going to be in the kitchens, it wouldn’t hurt to be polite.

“If you have extra time,” I began, “would you prepare the best tea you can in a minute or two? And not poisoned.” I’d find a table and chairs, too. No, we didn’t have any chairs large enough for Celestia, and I wasn’t going to waste magic on making a chair bigger. Cushions would do just fine instead. At any rate, if we wanted to talk to Celestia, it wouldn’t hurt to be polite.

“I shall make the best tea of my life if you think it will help. I’ve had plenty of practice ever since I left the moon.”

Chamomile and I said our short goodbyes, and I briefly considered the problem at hoof.

The bridge would be a good place to set up everything. It was the most expendable location on the ship, its purpose already fulfilled. And it was big, too, so I could sort of hide the fire rubies in plain sight by bringing a bunch of other magical artifacts to the bridge with them. There was Twinkleshine’s projector, a few dozen miscellaneous items in the kitchen that wouldn’t be too out of place at the scene of a party, the elements themselves, the compasses, et cetera. The fire rubies would still stand out as particularly strong artifacts in comparison to everything but the elements, but Celestia probably wouldn’t call me on it this way.

But before any of that, I had a half-dozen ponies that needed geases and memory spells.

“So yes, Pinkie Pie was correct,” I finished explaining for the second time. Everypony had forgotten the first time since I’d explained briefly while geasing ponies, and those memories had needed to be deleted. “Dash is fine. Please wait here until somepony comes to get you so there are no further complications.”

I turned to leave and caught another look at Berry Pinch’s destroyed manepin. The metal part was still okay, but the gems had apparently crumbled to dust, or so she said. They must have been caught up in the ascension process. Honestly, I was a little surprised that nothing bad had happened at all other than that to anypony, but being a Flare biased me quite a bit when it came to lots of magic in one place. Ascension was an orderly process, no matter how much magic powered it.

Still, things could go wrong even with the most tried and true magics. And I’d liked that manepin. I’d put a lot of work into it, even if it was mostly Spike’s gift. It was pretty irking to find it half destroyed, even if what remained was still usable.

Oh well. It was probably for the best. It’d had my magic all over it before, but now it was just a bunch of inert silver and copper – much easier to explain as, say, a family heirloom, and not a gift from the evil Twilight Sparkle and her dread and terrible, but mostly innocent, son.

Leaving Spike there and not hugging him or saying goodbye or anything had been…unpleasant. But he was a foal, and it wasn’t his fault his mother was the enemy. Celestia wouldn’t hurt him, just as she hadn’t hurt me when I was young. I hoped.

But leave I did, and calmly. Chamomile had pointed out what I’d needed to suppress with magic to appear calm, and I’d done so. One sign of fear or worry, and at least Pinkie Pie would come sticking her muzzle in where she shouldn’t be.

Pinkie Pie would be okay, of course. She was always okay in the end. She might even be able to survive being stranded in space. But anypony else she dragged along with her would not be okay.

It might make the ‘I’m evil’ act more convincing if I forced everypony to attack Celestia for me, but at the same time, I was reasonably sure Celestia thought I was smart enough to not do something that pointless. It’d just make her more suspicious of everypony and more tempted to throw them in jail forever or have them executed.

As soon as I was out of sight of the greenhouse, I broke into a gallop through the hallways, stopping at every room but mine and Twinkleshine’s – I kept most of my stuff in the library, and Twinkleshine’s stuff was sort of everywhere but her room – and grabbing any and every magical device that wouldn’t be odd to have at a party. There were quite a few…things, for lack of a better word, in Pinkie Pie’s room next to the kitchen that I couldn’t identify from their strange prickling of my horn, but I took them nonetheless. Hopefully the Pinkie Sense wouldn’t force Pinkie Pie to come stop a thief.

Although to be fair, my horn still ached from the flare, and I was probably off my game when it came to magic right now. Magic was complicated and required concentration, and I was exhausted and twitchy. Every so often when I was galloping around, I thought I felt a magical disturbance, but it was faint and elusive.

Anyway, I was running later than I wanted to be when I finally retrieved the remaining seven fire rubies from where they were contained, murmuring my apologies to Spike. They were all more than half-grown, but none were what Spike would call ripe. But with any luck, they would be enough.

Rushing into the kitchen, I dumped the pile of miscellaneous magical objects onto the floor – but being careful with the fire rubies – and started pulling other items off of shelves and out of cabinets, doing my best to avoid interfering with Chamomile’s work.

“How is everything coming?” I asked.

After adding a very tiny amount of some green fluid into a pot, Chamomile replied, “Well enough for a rush order. I finished a vial of serpere-īs. It’s the slightly brown glass over there.”

It took a moment for the translation to click, even as I glanced at the liquid in question. “Isn’t that the fever medicine dragons use?” When they actually managed to catch an infection that could actually live inside a dragon.

“Probably. That’s what it said in the book back in Luminance. It supposedly also works on ponies with a few orders of magnitude less concentration.” Chamomile lifted the pot she was working with off and away from the stove. She swirled it for a moment before finally setting it down on a counter. “It might work as a sedative on alicorns. Just don’t drink it. It will kill you.”

Alright, so rule number one when Chamomile is in the kitchen: drink and eat nothing she doesn’t give you directly. Simple enough. I’d have to make sure nopony could reach anything that she’d used in this process either. We didn’t have time to clean up safely. The easiest way would probably be to just teleport everything outside.

“What’s that?” I said, gesturing to Chamomile’s latest work.

“If I did it right, it should be a very nasty acid; we don’t have the chemicals here I’d normally use, and you’re low on magic.”

True, unfortunately.

Chamomile continued, “Princess Luna once said ponies rarely ward against simply chemistry tricks, her sister in particular. It won’t kill Celestia or subdue her, but I have it on good authority that it’s very distracting.”

Huh, I wouldn’t have thought of that. A lot could change in a thousand years, but bad habits had a tendency to stick, especially when there’d never been a chance to practice the good version of the habit. Equestria was just too peaceful nowadays to stay in tip-top condition when it came to combat.

“I imagine it would be okay to play the scared tea server,” Chamomile continued. “If you want me to attack, I will ‘accidentally’ trip and spill the acid to begin with.” As I opened my mouth, she added, “And I should probably wear a dress of some kind to hide my figure. I’ve gotten a little squishy on this trip, but it’s kind of obvious I’m not a civilian.”

“Maybe just something with sleeves and something to draw attention away from your legs,” I suggested. “No need to make it obvious, or let Celestia think you might be hiding something underneath your clothes.”

“Fair enough. I’ll go see what everypony has that fits me. When the kettle is ready, please take it off the stove.”

Oh, right. Tea. Yes, I could do that. I made sure to stare intently at the kettle so I wouldn’t be surprised and trigger happy when it went off. While I waited for Chamomile to return, I set about casting a giant illusion of the word parley thousands of hooves in size all around the ship with the light traveling outward only so nopony inside could see it and get worried.

After that, I set about removing anything that looked potentially dangerous to idi – to ponies who liked to lick before thinking, like Pinkie Pie. There wasn’t much, only a few pans and glasses. I carried them over to the kitchen wall and teleported them into space where nopony but Chrysalis or I could retrieve them.

Well, Chamomile could, too, if she were feeling bold and crazy. She could jump into a shadow cast outside the ship, turn back into a pony, grab the pans, and then finally jump back into a shadow inside the ship. But why she might want to was beyond me.

I shook the thought from my head as Chamomile returned wearing one of Fluttershy’s sweaters that did not match Chamomile’s coat very well. It wasn’t so painful as to draw the eye to her, nor to move the eye away to her exposed legs, but…well, it was obviously knitted by hoof, so surely there was some sentimental reason for wearing it, or so I hoped Celestia would think. It left her very non-threatening cutie mark exposed, too, which was a plus.

When the tea was ready and we were at last fully prepared, Chamomile and I gave each other a small nod. Besides the greenhouse, the kitchen was about as far from the bridge as a pony could get on the Nebulous. Every step felt like a mile, but the journey itself was all too short.

And during the trip, I had the strangest nagging feeling in my horn that all the magical artifacts I was holding were getting grumpy just being together. It was as if their enchantments were feeding off one another and trying to break somehow, which was absolutely ridiculous. I was just jumpy and nervous, exactly like I had been before. I’d thought it was just the ship’s enchantments acting up a bit at first, but it wasn’t. I’d checked.

Yes, I was just nervous and seeing shadows around every corner.

And who wouldn’t be? I had a chance of living, but I might as well be marching to my doom. Why even Chamomile stiffened when–

“Pri – Twilight, do you feel that?”

That growing spike in magical energy? Yes. Yes, I felt it. I’d been feeling it since we’d walked past the library, and apparently it wasn’t a hallucination. And it was strong enough now that even Chamomile could feel it.

Celestia didn’t have to travel by teleporting. This was probably some alicorn trick or something from an immortal’s horde of lost knowledge. Luna was banished, so I’d never observed what it felt like magically for an alicorn to manifest somewhere.

It probably felt like this.

“Yes.” That was all I said. What else could I say? I’d hoped to get set up before Celestia arrived, but apparently–

“It’s – it’s happening again!” Chamomile’s eyes were wild with complete and utter joy as she backed off from me.

“What’s…” My mind shut down before it could dare think any further. There was only one magical event like this that Chamomile could say was happening again, and it was far too much to hope for, far to much to even dream of.

“Princess, we have but seconds,” Chamomile said, forcing me to think in Old Equestrian again. “What do you wish done?”

The sudden dramatic increase in magic right next to me and the dazzling light that accompanied it shocked me back into focus. I immediately scryed the bridge and searched as quickly as I could for the Elements of Harmony. They were approximately where I remembered them, but it took some effort to locate them quickly.

Two Elements of Harmony – two distinct artifacts, even if they were designed to work together – wasn’t enough to ascend with, but three was. Three separate artifacts, three Elements of Harmony had worked together to ascend Dash. No, it’d been at least four. Berry Pinch’s manepin was a magical artifact, too, and there were other small artifacts on the bridge that had contributed. My compasses were likely all broken now, although their glass shells would likely remain.

My heart stopped as I connected what I saw on the bridge to what was happening now.

There were three dull necklaces on the bridge. One for Fluttershy, one for Pinkie Pie, and a roughly cut purple gem which I could only assume was for Spike.

But there was only one stone sphere.

A very shiny necklace bearing Chamomile’s flower cutie mark lay with the other three, and for some reason, one of the elements had decided necklaces were overplayed and had chosen to become a tiara with a six-pointed star crowning it.

My six-pointed star. Mine. Me. It was mine. Whatever element it was, it thought I was good enough for it. Even in this moment when I should be planning ahead with every second I had, that was almost too good to be true. A wonderfully welcome pain blossomed in my chest. It was one thing to decide to try to be a better friend, but it was another thing entirely to get this kind of positive reinforcement with the decision.

All the elements were glowing with the same bright light that the artifacts next to me had, and I was just standing there fighting back tears like an idiot.

And yet my thoughts carried on. Besides the fire rubies, the artifacts I’d collected weren’t worth much individually, but together they might be worth a tiny fraction of an element. Two Elements of Harmony wasn’t enough. Three elements with a fully grown fire ruby had been. If approximately two point five elements was sufficient…

I dared to think happy thoughts of a bright and wonderful future again.

The magic all around me spiraling beyond control – but not out of control of itself – snapped me out of my intoxicating daydream. I had to deliver instructions to Chamomile as best as I could before the ascension process took me away.

“Chrysalis. Elements overboard. Run.”

My world was consumed in light, and I let magic beyond magic tear me apart.

As I was disappearing, my mind connected an idiom back on Equus that I would never be caught dead repeating aloud or even in my thoughts. The Elements of Harmony each represented a generally virtuous personality trait, but Magic was the odd element out. Magic wasn’t a personality trait. It didn’t even have anything to do with ponies, really. Magic would go on without ponies around to define it and give it meaning.

But I’d promised to be a better friend, and friendship was magic.

Before I left this realm behind, my disembodied voice cried out, “Oh, that is just stu–”

Prereader – Starlight Nova