Chapter Twenty Six - The Æthereal Realm


A faint hum of music just on the other side of perception reached my ears. It was fleeting, elusive, always changing, and yet a welcoming constant. My ears perked up in anticipation of knowing that ghostly melody, but it was always moving to somewhere new, somewhere it could not be known.

Eyes, I had eyes. I could see if only they were open.

A flash of yellow disappeared the moment I had sight once more, leaving nothing behind but myself in its wake. Slowly, ever so slowly, the world around me grew into existence.

Blues of all colors, like great clouds emerged from the void, a stark contrast to the black nothing where they were not. And everywhere, one by one, small wisps of light faded into being. Some were impossibly far away as if they were stars, but others drifted nearby.

I reached out a hoof to touch a wisp that came within reach, but I found myself too far from it. Whether I moved or it moved, I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. There was no reference plane to judge by. There was simply nothing but the blues, the wisps, and the void.

“Hello?”

I jumped when my hooves connected with…nothing. But I felt something. Even now, I stood. I did not float, I stood. There was something approximating gravity, and there was something unseen I stood upon.

“Where am I?” escaped my lips. This place seemed so ephemeral, so æthereal, as if one wrong move could bring it all crashing down.

I blinked. My mind caught up with what I’d said. This was the Æthereal Realm. I – I did it! I was almost there. ‘Just follow the memories,’ Luna had said. I was so close to being an alicorn!

But…what memories? There was nothing here, nothing but those wisps of light. Were they memories?

Slowly, I put my right forehoof in front of the other. I would not walk off an invisible floor into a bottomless pit right now, even if the idea seemed a little preposterous.

As my hoof came down, dozens of the wisps raced to meet it. I froze for a second, waiting for anything else to happen. When nothing did, I tested my weight on the…ground. It seemed solid enough.

Another step forward, and a few dozen more wisps swarmed below it.

Freezing once more, I took a deep breath, and then strode forward. With each step, the little lights came forward to meet me, but they always waited for the last moment, as if it were a crime to move but not be beneath my hoof.

I stopped mid-step once, but no lights waited in anticipation of my hoof. I turned my head around and found the previous wisps still behind me. They resembled the short path I’d taken, but they’d taken to drifting once more.

“This place is so weir–”

Out of nowhere, I was seized by a blur of pink slightly larger than myself, knocking us both to the ground and tumbling head over hooves once. Throughout the roll, hundreds, if not thousands of wisps found their places beneath us. At the end of our tumble and after my vision had refocused, I found myself atop a pink alicorn who was intent on hugging me to death.

“It’s you this time! It’s really you!”

I tried doing what I always did in this situation, namely teleporting out of Cadance’s reach, but my horn was unresponsive. It wasn’t just injury, or lack of magic, I couldn’t even tell if I had magic. For all that it could do right now, my horn might as well be nothing more than a protruding bone.

Just before I defaulted to my backup plan – complaining of pain and the need for air – I realized that neither were a problem. It wasn’t that Cadance hadn’t gone as overboard as she usually did, because she had. Rather, I just didn’t seem to need to breathe. In fact, now that it was brought to my attention, I wasn’t breathing.

And yet I found myself able to speak. “It’s me, Cadance.” I knew I should be upset with that other pony Cadance had alluded to, but I just couldn’t work up the effort here and now. Locked in a hug, alicorn to alicorn, in the Æthereal Realm, it just seemed…unimportant.

Cadance pulled out of her nuzzle, sniffed, and then nodded. “When she told me she was with you – you don’t know how much this means to me, Twilight. I… I…”

“Let me guess,” I began, a smile creeping up onto my face. “You’ve never regretted becoming an alicorn, but you’ve always felt an impending sense of aloneness, that you’d have to face eternity without your family? Especially your little sister?”

Face going from smiles and tears to a pout at my teasing, Cadance said, “Not you specifically, my little ladybug.”

For a moment, Cadance stopped moving, but then her hooves started exploring the two appendages she didn’t know I already had.

“It’s a spell,” I clarified for her. “I made a couple changes to myself long before I triggered the ascension process. The wings didn’t let me fly, at least not without additional magical help, but they had other uses.”

“Twi…Twilight, you’re self-taught, aren’t you? Just – how? Pupa? Um…Ch…Chrysalis? Wait, you said you had a tutor a long time ago, and I never found out who. Was she a changeling? That would explain why you’d never told me. Wait, but Pupa said she met you after that. And then we started talking again after you’d run away, and I already knew about changelings then too, so you could have just told me.”

I squeezed Cadance a little tighter and whispered, “Please calm down, Cadance. I’m not going anywhere. Well, I do need to finish my ascension, but I can spare a little time for this, I think.”

“Sorry. I – I’m just – I’m so happy you’re here. How did this even happen?”

“The same way as any other ascension.” Smirking, I added, “Well, except I did it on purpose, unlike everypony else.”

“You what?”

Oh dear. Celestia had never explained how ascension worked to Cadance. Not that I couldn’t see why. Cadance was too careless with her words.

“So are you two going to make out or what?”

Ugh. I looked up from Cadance and spotted the second to last pony in the universe I wanted to see right now. I took one deep not-a-breath. I wished it’d helped more.

“Hello, Dash.”

When Dash took a step backward, I made a deliberate effort to reset my face to neutral. I was so happy but moments ago, and I wanted that back.

“This isn’t what it looks like,” Cadance said all at once.

I gave Cadance a kiss on the cheek.

“T-Twilight!”

Heh. I took the opportunity to escape Cadance while she was flustered and sputtering nonsense, giggling the whole time. There was nothing quite like teasing an older sister.

“For the record,” I said, turning my gaze toward Dash, “I know it wasn’t your fault that you ascended first, that you nearly got me killed and everypony on the Nebulous with me, but I am upset. I’m trying not to think about it right now, but please keep that in mind.”

“Wait, what? Time out, Twi.” Dash flapped her wings to no effect, grumbling to herself soon after. It was nice to see I wasn’t the only pony having trouble with her magic here. “What happened to everypony? Is Flutters okay?”

I bit down on my urge to start shouting accusations immediately; I’d had a lot of practice recently, but it wasn’t getting much easier.

“Cadance,” I began, “did you see Celestia before you came here?”

From the look on her face, the answer was yes, and instructions had been given.

Sighing, I continued, “Let me guess. She said to keep whoever you found here occupied for as long as possible?”

“What does that have–”

“Dash, for once in your life just listen and think,” I blurted out without thinking. I rubbed my forehead, my wings substituting for my magic. “Sorry. That wasn’t fair. Just – Cadance, Celestia is coming to pick us” – I gestured to Dash and myself – “up, right?”

Cadance nodded. “But you have to believe Auntie won’t hurt you, Twilight. I told you she promised–”

“I don’t care what she promised!” I interrupted. “If she’s headed in my direction, that’s all the reason I need to run away as fast as I can. Speaking of which, Dash, let’s go.”

I trotted off toward Dash, which must have been the direction she’d come from. I would have gone faster, but I didn’t quite trust my coordination enough to gallop – or even canter – on an invisible surface.

“Um…” Dash looked between me and Cadance. “Twi, are you sure we shouldn’t wait or anything? Isn’t Princess Celestia picking us up, like, the best protection we could have from whatever danger–”

“She is the danger, Dash.” I managed not to scream, but just barely. “Now let’s go. Cadance, if you want to talk – and I would like to – you’ll have to walk with us.”

I sighed to myself. I was already regretting every word I’d said. Well, not the words exactly, but how I’d said them.

Stopping right next to Dash, I pulled together as much inner peace as I could, which while not much considering the circumstances, was still better than zero. “I’m sorry, Dash.” I turned toward Cadance who’d returned to her hooves. “Same to you, but I really have to go, and I cannot afford to leave Dash here, even if I have to drag her out by hoof.”

“Pft. Please. You drag me? Never gonna happen, Egghead.”

Charming, Dash. Simply charming. So this is what I have to spend eternity with, eh? Maybe she’d mellow out with time.

Sigh. No, not likely. I needed to find an unused mountain to stick her under.

I shook my head free of that thought and then trotted off, calling back, “Are you two coming or not?”

“Yeah, wait up, Twi. I don’t want to get lost in this place.”

Oh, fantastic. Please, oh please, strange Æthereal Realm, don’t make me require a guide to get out of here quickly. I didn’t want to have to chastise Luna for not giving me real directions.

“Twilight,” Cadance said, cantering into step on my right. Maybe if I walked just so, I could let her lead without realizing it. “Auntie really won’t hurt you. Not – not when she can help it, at least.”

I was going to tell Cadance she should take some debate lessons; that was the absolutely worst reassuring argument I’d ever heard. But then I remembered that Celestia horded information, not even just secrets, and Cadance probably didn’t know where I’d been and what I’d done these past several years.

“Did Celestia tell you where I – we,” I corrected myself, “are back in the…real world?”

“Well, no. Um, Auntie calls it the Physical Realm. But why does it matter? You didn’t take over her old castle or something like that, did you?”

I sighed. Not because of anything Cadance had said, but because I was going to have to start telling her full truths if I wanted to keep this conversation going. And I did. Cadance deserved to have somepony tell her what’s been happening in Equestria, and I was tired of not being that pony. And it’d be better for everypony if I were the pony who told her, not Celestia.

Besides, even if Celestia hadn’t already figured out what was going on, she probably had a clear enough idea now that it wouldn’t matter if I fed her information through Cadance. She’d always known Luna would be coming after her, so it wasn’t like I would be giving away that Luna was only a season-and-a-half away from being free.

“Something like that,” I mumbled. Then more clearly, I added, “Cadance, I’ve told you a lot of half-truths, and I’ve kept a lot of secrets from you too. Some of them mine, some of them the diarchy’s. I’m really sorry for that, but I didn’t have much choice before now.”

Sighing again, I turned toward Dash. “I suppose I owe you a minor apology in the same category. It wasn’t supposed to affect you much; you were pretty much a civilian, and I’d intended to keep it that way for everypony on the Nebulous for their own safety. But now you’re about to become an alicorn, so there are some state secrets you’ll need to know.”

“What’s a nebulous?” Cadance asked.

“Ah, well,” I began before Dash could just blurt out the answer, “it was sort of a new – no, an emerging subgenre when I last checked, but Twinkleshine still brought hundreds of such books with her. Have you ever read a science fiction story set in space?”

After a very distinct silence, Cadance ventured a hesitant, “Yes.”

“It’s been a while since I’ve been on Equus.”

“Are you joking?” Cadance shouted.

“Nope,” Dash said, taking over and trotting backward in front of Cadance. “It’s pretty sweet, and flying in space is all kinds of awesome. Well, when Twi will let me. But you can do all kinds of crazy stuff you can’t back on Equus without gravity getting in your way and without worrying about crashing into something. And have you ever seen a blizzard frozen in place? It’s like…uh, what did she call it? Um…I can’t remember, but it had something to do with poetry! I made one of those for Flutters’s birthday last year.”

Cadance put a hoof very calmly on Dash’s mouth, stopping all three of us in our tracks, and said, “Yes, that’s very nice, Rainbow Dash, but please wait for a moment.” Then, ever so slowly, she turned toward me. “Are you out of your mind! What were you even thinking? How are you not dead? Did you at least talk to a grown – a professional about this? You risked not only your life, but Rainbow Dash’s, and Fluttershy’s, and who knows who else’s too. Just – just – argh! What were you thinking?”

“That I was a very careful and responsible filly with the best possible pony overseeing my work and a princess’s horde of resources and contacts at my disposal. And I had a very important reason to.”

Before Cadance could reply, Dash asked, “Hey, Twi, didn’t you say we weren’t supposed to tell Princess Cadance about this?”

“You remember that?” I said, taken completely by surprise.

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I? You said it was important. Probably should’ve remembered it sooner before I started talking though.”

A moment passed.

Huh. I needed to update how responsible I thought Dash could be. Granted she’d remembered it too late, but that she remembered it at all after years of it being moot was more than I’d expected.

“Oh no, not this time Twilight Sparkle.” I reflexively dodged Cadance’s attempt to grab my ear with her wings. “You’re going to explain exactly what you were thinking, and you’re going to do it right now.”

“I intend to, if you’ll just–” Well, asking her to calm down wasn’t really going to help. Of course, there was a roundabout way to do that. “Just breath, Cadance.” I gave her the same advice she’d given me so long ago with the accompanying gestures. “In and out. In and out.”

It took a while, but Cadance eventually joined me in the exercise. It wasn’t exactly effective in a place without air, but Cadance’s face suggested the familiar motions were soothing enough by mere conditioning.

“Feeling better?” I asked. I was barely tall enough to put a wing over her, but it worked.

Cadance mumbled, “A little.”

I nudged Cadance forward, and the three of us started walking again. It only took us a few steps before the wisps – for whatever reason – apparently got tired of just following our hoofsteps and made a wide walkway in front of us. I’d say it stretched off to infinity, but that was probably just a visual trick of this place. The Æthereal Realm was so strange, and I had a growing itch to run off and investigate everything. I really wished Luna had explained more of this place to me.

Still, Luna was probably right not to. Coming here for the first time with absolutely no idea what to expect was pretty interesting, and I was likely having a more ‘magical’ experience than I otherwise would have. It’d be nice if it were under better circumstances though. I could have spent days in here if I and the cr – my friends weren’t in trouble.

“So you want to know why I left Equus?” I asked, picking up the old thread of conversation. “Just to make sure you know I’m not just making stuff up on the spot, Dash, what was our goal?”

“Well, to retrieve The Elements of Harmony. Although I’m kinda thinking that wasn’t really it right now.”

Cadance took a few seconds to fumble for words before finally settling on something to say. “Did Auntie pressure you into doing this? No, of course she did. I – are you doing this to prove you’re…”

“Not useless?” I suggested.

“I would’ve said, ‘a better choice than Trixie,’” Cadance mumbled.

Dash asked, “Who’s Trixie?”

It wasn’t terribly surprising that Dash didn’t know her. I’d heard Trixie was becoming a bit of a celebrity back on Equus – not counting her fame as Celestia’s protégé – but there was no reason to expect Dash to know anything about her. Trixie mostly had only had local fame in Canterlot when we left, but rumor had it she was quite the stage performer. Pupa said she usually reenacted assignments Celestia had sent her on.

“Trixie is Celestia’s student.” Dash really only needed to hear the short version of this explanation right now. “I was originally supposed to be in her spot, but… Well, anyway, Trixie was supposed to bear the Element of Magic, but–”

Oh my. I – I couldn’t stop laughing. Now that I’d pointed it out, this was just about the best…the best… Well, it wasn’t dramatic irony, or a brick joke, and it wasn’t quite laypony irony either. At any rate, whatever it was, the Element of Magic was mine now, just as Celestia had originally intended.

Chrysalis always told me I needed to put more flexibility into my plans, because plans had a tendency to go astray, but this was just too much. Celestia had aborted her plan for me, and yet it’d happened anyway.

Well, mostly. I wasn’t going to banish or kill Luna anytime soon, which would be part two of Celestia’s plan, but that wouldn’t have been funny. And even if I wanted to or was forced to, the elements were broken, so I couldn’t.

Still, good times.

“Twilight, are you okay?” Cadance asked.

At the same time, Dash asked, “You okay, Twi?”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” I managed to say. First recovering as best I could, I continued, “The Element of Magic ended up awakening for me, and if I get the chance, I really, really want to throw it at Celestia’s hooves and say, ‘There. Happy now?’”

Oh, I could just imagine it now. I’d imagined telling Celestia off as an alicorn before – not that I was foolish enough to let myself get that distracted when I was actually in front of her – but having the Element of Magic as a prop was a huge step up in the fantasy. Between that and natural alicorn wings, I didn’t know what could possibly make it any better.

Sigh. Oh well. Gloating in front of Celestia was probably one dream that wasn’t going to come true, but – well, actually, maybe I could find a way to dreamwalk like Luna, or Luna could link me into Celestia’s dream somehow. There I could talk and talk and talk all I wanted without worry.

“By the way, Cadance,” I said, “as its current bearer, I’m officially renaming the Element of Magic to the Element of Friendship. Seriously, that is the dumbest misnomer I’ve ever heard of, and it has to go. Please pass that on to Celestia for me.”

“I’ll – I’ll try to remember. But you didn’t really answer my question.” Cadance’s wing pushed mine off of her. She then pulled me into her with her wing. “Twilight, I’m happy you’re – ehem – happy about this–”

“More like laughing mad,” Dash snarked, only to receive a sharp look from Cadance.

“As I was saying, I’m happy everything seems to have worked out for you. I really am. I assume your ascension has something to do with your…trip, and that’s wonderful, but that doesn’t mean taking ponies off planet wasn’t incredibly irresponsible. You don’t have to prove anything to Auntie or anypony else.”

I sighed. This was quickly devolving into one of those conversations. “Cadance, I really don’t want to argue about responsibility and self-worth right now, so can we please put this conversation off?”

“I suppose so,” Cadance mumbled. “But how did you even do it? And why? What I really want to know is why.”

“It’s complicated, and – what is that?”

Along the edge of the path just a little way in front of us, two giant stained glass windows shimmered into existence out of nowhere, suspended by nothing and fixed in place. As I cantered forward to get a better look, another pair appeared a ways past the first, and when I finally arrived in front of the first two windows, a third pair appeared about the same distance away from the second as the second pair was from the first.

The latter windows could wait; the first pair were strange enough already. On my left was a painstakingly detailed replica of my first flare. No, if the opposing window were even the slightest bit relevant, it was depicting my cutie mark story, which just happened to involve my first flare. I was in the middle of the exam room, mid-flare, with Celestia bearing down on me. I just had to touch it, and–

I snapped my gaze away. Something about the window had felt…inviting. Like I could dive right into the story somehow. On the other window, there was a young Dash entering a sonic rainboom above Cloudsdale, the pulse of magic accompanying it spreading out in a ring behind her.

“Touch it,” Dash said from right next to me, causing me to jump and bump into Cadance. “Heh. You know you want to. Who wouldn’t want to, after all?”

“What is it?” I asked Cadance, not Dash.

“Ah, it’s a memory. Auntie said the first memories are always your cutie mark stories.”

Well, that explained what Luna meant when she said to follow the memories. And then I realized the really important question I should be asking that could change everything.

“If you lost any memories,” I began, “to magic, or to physical trauma, or just from simply forgetting them, would they show up here?”

Cadance’s frown fell even deeper. “I don’t know. I – after…certain events, I ended up back here and tried to recover a memory, but I couldn’t. Auntie told me later that this” – Cadance gestured to the window – “only happens once, during your ascension.”

Alright, this place just went from strange to completely random. Sure, there was probably some explanation for why ascension would open up all of our memories and put them on public display, but I didn’t see why. Thematically, I would guess that most of the memories were somehow relevant to the ascender’s growth in their special talent, but that didn’t answer why they were here to begin with.

I shook my head. I really wanted to investigate, but I had no time, no idea how to do anything in this realm, and no information to start from, since Luna hadn’t told me much of anything about this place. Hopefully when the next alicorn ascended, I’d be in a better position explore and poke things.

Still, there was one thing I could ask right now and expect an answer to. “What happens when I touch it?”

“Just do it,” Dash said, pushing me forward and into it. “It has to be experienced!”

I didn’t know why Dash was shouting, not until my muzzle bumped into the window and my senses failed me.


Heh. This was gonna be so easy. These two jerks would think twice before they messed with Fluttershy again after how badly I was gonna beat them. I’d show them who was the best flier here once and for all.

I snorted and turned my attention back toward Fluttershy. Nopony was ever gonna call me Rainbow Crash ever again either. I just needed to go a bit slower. Just a little bit.

Fluttershy raised the start flag, and I saw Dumb-Bell and Hoops take the same ready stance as myself out of the corner of my eye.

I narrowed my vision, focusing on nothing but the flag. I wasn’t gonna let these idiots get an early lead over some dumb distraction.

The flag dropped, and I shot forward, my opponents following closely in my wake, taking advantage of the lower pressure just to keep pace with me. I thought I heard a small squeak as we flew, but it was probably nothing important.

I flew through the first hoop of the track, angling just perfectly to maximize my speed toward the next hoop I had to fly through, my fore and hindlegs extended straight to minimize my air resistance. For some reason, I thought I saw a pink earth pony on a stray cloud as I went by, but I must have been seeing things. What kind of unicorn would cast a cloud walking spell on somepony and then put them on a cloud to drift helplessly?

The next hoop required a hairpin turn. I checked my flank to make sure I wouldn’t blast the jerks with my winds. I wanted to win this fair and square.

Finding everything clear, I pulled myself into the turn. The strain on my wings was amazing, and I was sure I looked awesome doing it too!

I heard a single muted crash behind me. Apparently somepony hadn’t made the turn himself. So much for all his boasting. What a loser.

The next several hoops were practically a straight line. I put on as much speed as possible, flapping my wings as hard as I could and putting all the magic I had into simply moving faster, and faster, and faster still. My rainbow contrail followed me in my wake, and I broke into a giant smile.

This. This was what life should be like: an open sky, a pony’s wings, the wind you couldn’t redirect in your mane, and a chance to push your magic to its limits.

And then out of nowhere, Hoops rammed into me and shoved me out of the way. All of air flow I’d had going broke and crashed into me, halving my speed at least and putting me miles behind that stupid cheater.

“Ha! Later, Rainbow Crash!”

“Hey!”

No way. He didn’t get to say that to me. Not now. Not like this.

I dove toward the last hoop placed near the ground in a nosedive. Faster and faster, wingbeat after wingbeat, my sweat chilling me at such speeds.

I blasted past Hoops, blowing him away with my winds. Ha! Served that jerk right for cheating first.

But now I had no competition. If I didn’t do something awesome, there was no point in winning.

How fast could I take the turn to avoid splatting on the ground?

Wait, what was I thinking? I was Rainbow Danger Dash. I’d just take a straight path and blast myself back skyward when I reached the hoop. I could totally do it!

I moved more and more air out of my way, more that I’d ever done before. I was in my groove, absolute perfection in every way with my form.

No, not absolute perfection. I could do better. I just needed to move less air out of the way. I needed to get the most out of my magic. I was wasting way too much effort on air I didn’t need to move.

A weird layer of what looked like water or ice or something grew in front of me. I had no idea what it was, but it helped me visualize what I needed to fix to go faster.

As the watery thing shrunk smaller and smaller, it got harder and harder to breathe, but who cared. I could hold my breath for a little while, even if I was getting light headed. Whatever.

And now I was at the hoop. This was it. I just needed a huge updraft.

I was in the hoop, moving at a dizzying speed. With all my might and with perfect timing, I put every last trick I knew into getting myself to change direction.

My vision returned to me. I wasn’t a pancake on the ground. That was good.

And I was going fast. That was great.

I turned to look behind me; something was strange.

A rainbow trailed all the way from me back to where I’d been near the ground, and a wave of pure rainbow – or something – was spreading out below me.

That. Was. Awesome!

I’d done a Sonic Rainboom! I was living the legend! I was the legend!

I tore through the finish line before I even knew it. Who could even care about some dumb race at a time like this?

Higher and higher I climbed, so high that frost developed on my coat. I blew it away with my magic, but I was still freezing.

Ha! As if a little cold would stop me. This was the best day of my life!

Why did my flank itch?


I blinked. Looking down, I made sure that I was still purple and not blue, which I was.

“So?” Dash said, poking me in the wing. “Was I awesome or what?”

I had no words to say. Was I happy to have lived as Dash for a few minutes? No. But the feelings, the sensations, they’d been so intense, so exhilarating. Just – wow.

“Speechless, I see,” Dash continued. “A lot of ponies get like that just being around The Dash, but you got to be me. Do you need a doctor?”

Facehoof, that was the only appropriate response. Although facehoofing Dash was also an appealing option.

The up side of this was I’d learned something new. Dash was faster than every other pegasus not because she had more thrust – although she did – but because she had good technique. She didn’t fly like anything approximating a bird the way normal pegasi did. Instead, while she did use her wings for thrust normally, she also made a strong wind and pulled the air out of the way before it ever hit her, vastly decreasing the drag she had to overcome. I begrudgingly had to admit that was pretty ingenious, even if Dash’s memory made it feel…easy? Natural?

But just how hard was it? If Dash had ever tried to tutor another pegasus, she’d probably failed horribly. Creating winds while flying was not standard flying procedure. It couldn’t be anywhere approaching easy if Dash was one of the few – if not only – pegasus doing that trick. Well, that’d be another bit of pegasus magic to put on the list of things I was going to have to learn. And I still had no idea how she flew upside down.

And another thought occurred to me. Ponies quite simply did not remember things as accurately as what I’d just experienced. We had difficulty just remembering a color, and that memory was rich in detail. It certainly fit to call it a memory given shape in the Æthereal Realm, but I doubted it was an accurate description.

Oh, ponyfeathers. “How long was I out?” I asked. That memory had lasted several minutes at least.

“Only a few seconds,” Cadance replied. “It’s just reliving a memory in your mind. Kind of like a movie or a book but…more.”

Wait. I had another idea, a grand, glorious idea. I had to learn how these memory window things worked. I could revolutionize education if I could figure it out. It wouldn’t do to simply dump a lifetime of knowledge into a filly’s head, but the applications were limitless. And it’d be a good way to recover lost memories too, if I could find some way to bind the memory…window…things to a book, or a necklace, or something.

Ah, and speaking of applications. “Cadance, I don’t think I’m going to answer your questions. I think my memories can do a better job than I ever could. I’ll try to find the relevant ones as we – wait, these windows do go on for a while, right? There’s not just three?”

“Well, yes,” Cadance said, frowning. “You’re not going to say none of them are relevant and sneak off at the end of your ascension, are you?”

I rolled my eyes, even if that did sound like the kind of trick I’d pull. “No, I won’t, Cadance. I promise. But how long does it take to walk to the end of this path?”

“Um… Well, I was sixteen and alone, and Auntie and I talked along the way while looking at my memories and poking things.” Turning to Dash, Cadance asked, “You’re older than Twi, right? Are you…twenty-two, maybe?”

“Twenty-one,” Dash corrected.

“Sorry.” Cadance sunk into thought, likely doing some simple math. “Well, I guess it’ll take us roughly a half-hour to walk all the way to the end.”

Ponyfeathers!

“You’re not lying, are you?” I asked. It wasn’t likely, but I still needed to know. If it was going to take that long walking, there was no way I could count on Celestia not finding at least the elements before I reached the end. Even galloping, and I was sure that would involve a lot of falling on my face, I probably wouldn’t reach the end quick enough to get out of here before Celestia reached the elements.

“Of course not,” Cadance half-shouted. Recovering her composure, she continued, “Twilight, I – I don’t think you should run away from Auntie, but I can at least understand why you want to. I won’t stand in the way of that and force you to run away from me right now, especially not if you run off and this is the last time I get to see you.”

I flexed my wings to point out the ridiculousness of that concern.

Blushing, Cadance said, “Oh, right. Immortal. You can’t get yourself killed. That’ll take some getting used to.”

Not as much for some ponies as others. But anyway, how long had it been between Dash’s ascension and mine? It had to have been at least fifty minutes by now, probably more. And if I made good time here and got out in, say, fifteen minutes, it would be wildly unrealistically optimistic to assume Celestia wouldn’t already be in pursuit of the Nebulous.

This was bad. We were supposed to have a lot of time to escape, a lot of time for me to get used to alicorn-level magic and teleport away without leaving a trace. Then we could have fled with Chrysalis powering the ship; Celestia wouldn’t be able to recognize any lingering remnants of Chrysalis’s magic for a tracking spell, which would help ensure our escape.

Well, that plan was out. Fantastic. Thank you so much, Dash, for this wonderfully difficult constraint added to this problem. It would be ridiculous to leave here without a plan for escaping from Celestia while she was nearby.

At least I had the element of surprise – sort of. Celestia wouldn’t know exactly when I would finish my ascension, but she probably knew where I’d reappear. There were only three locations that made sense, after all: the Nebulous; the absolute position of where I’d ascended; and wherever the elements currently were, plus or minus a little linear interpolation between them and the other minor artifacts that went into my ascension.

Yes, Celestia would be waiting for me. I could expect nothing else. And she’d have teleport wards placed for sure, and who knew what other traps.

Only three solutions came to mind. The first was to flee immediately and without hesitation. The element of surprise was powerful, and it might just get me away if I overcame the initial ambush. The second was to default back to one of the old plans. Since Celestia wouldn’t be able to flatten me instantly anymore, I could at least guarantee being able to deliver a request to talk.

And lastly, there was the third option to stall until Celestia finally decided to come here herself. I suspected she couldn’t do anything to me here, and if I were lucky, I could leave here and then run away before Celestia could leave as well.

Well, I’d give those ideas a little bit of thought and refine them while we walked. None of the options were mutually exclusive, so I could try them all sequentially.

In the meanwhile, I walked over to my own cutie mark story and touched it with a hoof, getting lost in the memory as I had with Dash’s.

And when I came back, I was shivering. I’d gotten used to pain and had forgotten just how much that first flare had hurt eight-year-old me. It ended long before I met Luna, so there was no point in subjecting Cadance to it.

“Should I be watching this memory?” Cadance asked from just behind me. When I turned around, her face was the picture of concern.

“No,” I whispered. Then more strongly, I continued, “No. This – it’s only painful. Flares hurt, Cadance.”

I turned away and trotted on toward the next pair of stained glass windows containing my next memories, saying nothing more. Cadance was nice enough to say nothing too.

“I think I’m gonna watch this one again,” Dash said, approaching the window with her own memory. I was pretty sure it was of her wedding. But so long as she stayed out of my way right now, I didn’t really care.

Now my next window had a picture of me lying in sand with molten blobs everywhere, staring up at the stars. That was probably a long memory, and I had no interest in reliving it. Nor would I subject Cadance to it. And even if most of what I’d been thinking about then was just guesswork, it might reveal secrets I’d promised Luna not to talk about with Cadance.

Next window it was then. And just like I’d feared, it was out of order with the previous two chronologically. It depicted when I’d first gotten my wings, and to my humiliation, it depicted the eyesore version of me.

“Who’s this?” Cadance asked, the distaste evident in her voice. “A friend?”

“Ugh. Just – I’ll take a look first.” I touched my hoof to the window, and when it was done replaying, I said, “Go ahead and watch it. It doesn’t explain much, but it’ll give you a look into my daily life – my real life. And please don’t laugh. Even I mess up spells sometimes.”

“Of course I won’t laugh. We all make mistakes.”

Cadance touched the window and zoned out completely. I didn’t know what I’d expected, but I was disappointed that nothing else happened while Cadance was experiencing my memory. There should have been some fancy illusions, or a feeling of power, or something, but apparently the Æthereal Realm only sometimes gave in to theatrics. When she was done, she stepped back and looked up at the window, scrutinizing it with a keen eye.

And then she snickered.

“Hey! You said you wouldn’t laugh.”

“Sorry, sorry. But did you really stay like that for the rest of day.”

“Yep,” Dash said from behind me. “She totally screwed it up again, like, a dozen times until she got it right. We’re kind of used to her doing crazy stuff though. It wasn’t that funny.”

The look Cadance directed toward Dash was the worst kind of understanding gaze. “Crazy stuff like taking you into space?”

“Pft, that’s the least of it. Did you know there are ponies on the moon?”

Cadance turned toward me. “Twilight, I’m trying very hard to be understanding here, but can you at least tell me how many times you’ve put yourself in danger?”

“Every waking moment of every day. I’m a Flare, Cadance. Using magic at all is dangerous. But I have dozens of safety nets set up, both for myself and for the Nebulous. Like I said, I had the best pony possible helping me with this.”

I preemptively held a wing up to stop Dash from answering Cadance’s next question.

“Who?”

“It’ll be a surprise. I’d bet we’ll stumble onto a memory of her soon. I have a lot of memories of my tutor, after all.”

“So I’m finally going to find out who your tutor is, eh? I’m pretty excited about that, at least.”

I wondered how long that would last. I really hoped the first memory of Luna we stumbled upon was a warm and cuddly one, not a bad one. I’d love to show Cadance my memory of Hearth’s Warming Eve on the moon with Luna. That would be the perfect way to introduce Cadance to her. Luna had been completely non-threatening in any possible misconstrued way that night and had behaved pretty much like a normal mare trying to forget her problems for a little while.

Of course, knowing my luck, we’d stumble upon the memory of when I’d told Luna exactly what Celestia’s plan was. Well, feathers crossed.

The next set of windows didn’t feature Dash on either one for some reason, not that I was complaining, but neither had Luna either. On the left…

Maybe it was better I didn’t watch that memory. I was only six; I didn’t know any better back then. The Summer Sun Celebration was fun and exciting for fillies. And I hadn’t known Celestia at all. That dawn had been inspirational at the time, but now I just wanted to forget it.

Anyway, on the right was…Celestia and Sunset Shimmer on a balcony watching the dawn? That was who that mare was, wasn’t it? Smallish build, yellow coat, red and yellow mane and tail, and curled up with Celestia. Yes, that had to be her. Why on Equus would I see any of Sunset Shimmer’s memories here? Unless…she was mid-ascension.

Gulping, I fruitlessly looked behind the window and everywhere else I could see. I didn’t really expect to see Sunset Shimmer anywhere, but I had to look. Was she lost in here? Did she fail to ascend and get locked in here somehow? Is that what happened to ponies in failed ascensions? Or did Sunset Shimmer just happen to ascend at the same time without anypony noticing? Was it timed to happen like this for some reason? Did we just get three new alicorns?

But then if the answer to any of these questions were yes, then how did Chrysalis find Sunset Shimmer? Or maybe, how did Chrysalis find out what had happened to her, if Sunset Shimmer was stuck here? And how was Luna involved?

Although, if Sunset Shimmer were ascending while I was or if she was trapped here, that would certainly would explain why Chrysalis couldn’t contact her when I’d asked.

“I’ll be back!” Cadance shouted after several seconds of perfect silence between us. She bolted off back in the direction we’d come from.

Well, Cadance would come back soon with or without Sunset Shimmer. Either way, it’d narrow down the number of possibilities considerably.

“Hey, Twi,” Dash began, holding a hoof toward the window. “Who is that?”

“That’s Sunset Shimmer. She was Celestia’s apprentice before Trixie Lulamoon. I suppose while Cadance is gone, I might as well tell you a secret.”

“Is it one of those bazillion state secrets you have? Does Princess Cadance know?”

I sighed inwardly, as much as I wanted to just sigh normally. I really didn’t want to deal with treating her like an equal for a while. Maybe I could convince Dash to hide her horn later and pretend she was just a pegasus. But then she’d probably give herself away with her earth pony magic, which never turned off without invasive measures.

Ugh, whatever. I’d just have to deal with it for now.

“Yes it is, but Cadance knows this one. You know how Luna commissioned our trip to Mona?”

Dash nodded.

“This isn’t the secret, although it is a secret, but the truth is, Celestia wasn’t in on that. She didn’t even know about it, because she’s our – that is, Luna’s and my – enemy.”

“Princess Celestia?” Dash asked, completely stupefied. “Her? Really?”

I nodded. “Celestia is a good ruler, but that doesn’t make her a good pony.” I pointed to Sunset Shimmer on the window. “It was supposed to be her job to kill Luna with The Elements of Harmony, or at least to banish Luna for another thousand years, but she disappeared, and the task was passed on to Trixie.”

“Are you serious? That is not cool.” Dash punctuated the last two words for even more emphasis that she’d already put on them. “Wait, what about Princess Cadance? Aren’t you two, like, sisters or something? Whose side is she on?”

“She’s been under the care of Celestia for half her life, and she’s never met Luna. It’s not her fault she believes Celestia is in the right. I’m hoping to correct that belief while we’re here, or at least to sow doubts.”

“Wait, wait. Hold up again.” A look of dawning horror came onto Dash’s face. “You two said Princess Celestia was coming for us.”

I didn’t want to have to clean up any other messes Dash made today, so I interjected before she could do anything stupid like run off to try and save Fluttershy from a foe she couldn’t possibly defeat.

“Dash, I already tried as best as I could to protect everypony on the Nebulous from Celestia. If that wasn’t enough, it will almost certainly be too late by the time we can leave here anyway, so we don’t need to rush. Not that we should delay unnecessarily either. Please” – I gave Dash a firm look – “do not run off without me, or you will get yourself and our friends into more trouble. Understand?”

Dash took a step back, gulped, and then nodded.

Satisfied that I’d successfully headed off trouble, I relaxed my stance back into something more neutral.

“Thank you. I know delicacy and discretion isn’t really your style. Anyway, the reason we went to retrieve the elements is, as you said a while ago, not to recover them. We went to break them so that they couldn’t be used against Luna. That is, of course, something Cadance doesn’t know. And no, they weren’t broken when we first picked them up; they were just…sleeping.”

“So did you?”

I was going to assume Dash was asking if I broke the elements, so I nodded.

“Well, that’s good,” Dash mumbled to herself, her ears folding down onto her head. Even quieter than before, she asked, “Is it my fault we’re in trouble?”

Yes.” Then thinking better of that answer, I said, “Sort of. It’s not your fault, but you are the cause.”

“Oh. Sor–”

I slammed a hoof into Dash’s muzzle, cutting her off before she could finish that horrible word. It wasn’t quite a punch, but it might as well have been with how quickly I’d had to move to silence her without magic. If nothing else, it’d been hard enough to send Dash stumbling backward, flailing her wings and trying to balance herself.

“I don’t want to hear that word from you! You–”

No, I needed to stop. This wasn’t who I wanted to be. I didn’t want to lose it here.

I grit my teeth before deciding to just scream.

When I finally stopped, Dash complained, “What the buck was that for, Twi?”

I stood perfectly still as I worked my temper back down into something I could talk at.

“Dash, I told you I’m upset, and with you specifically. I’m trying to ignore that, but it’s not easy. You nearly took away all of my hopes and dreams forever and almost got me killed. And you did it by accident!”

My eye twitched. Bad news, but at least I noticed it.

“If the previous three ascensions weren’t also accidental, I – I don’t even know. I probably would’ve tried to kill you. Permanently. Not just tossing you into the sun. It’s not your fault, but if you dare try to apologize for it, you’re going to break the part of my brain that understands that.”

After a few seconds, Dash opened her mouth several times, but no words came out. Eventually, she just said, “Oh.”

“Wait for Cadance here,” I muttered, practically stomping off further along the path. “I’m going to go find a happy memory.”

As I walked down the path, I took note of a few windows that featured Luna. They appeared to feature only random magic lessons and conversations, nothing I’d want to introduce Cadance to Luna with – although they would be good for establishing Luna’s baseline personality – nor anything that would get me back into a good mood.

I couldn’t speak of the windows I glanced at from Dash or from Sunset Shimmer, but I couldn’t come up with a sane ordering for mine. They weren’t chronological or reverse chronological. They weren’t part of a common story like the Lunar Palace’s walls were. They weren’t even all that significant. A few memories I couldn’t even place the time and location until I’d watched them. And after each time, I’d thought something along the lines of, ‘Oh, right. I vaguely remember this event.’

It was like somepony had taken a random sampling of my life, shuffled the results around, moved one or two memories to the front of the line, and claimed that they’d created art. I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted, pitying, or just confused. Maybe Luna’s own ascension had inspired her to to better with her own art after she’d started building Luminance.

Oh. Oh my. Now this was a good memory. I hadn’t expected this kind of memory to appear here, but I wasn’t going to say no to reliving my first night in bed with Twinkleshine. I touched a hoof to the window.

And when I was done with the memory, I had the same blissful smile on my face that I’d had after the night in question. Maybe…maybe just one more time. I touched the window again.

Stars, I could get addicted to this. This might as well be a pleasure button.

Oh, ponyfeathers. I could feel saliva in my mouth, which meant I had at least one bodily fluid. The rest of my body was probably behaving normally too. I should stop before I really did get addicted – or started smelling. There may or may not be air here, but smell probably still worked. It would be just my luck.

Alright, was I in a good mood again? Well, the mere thought of Dash was still unpleasant, but I didn’t feel like lashing out again. I would call that a mission accomplished.

So then, should I go back and meet up with Dash and Cadance, or should I move on and look for the right introductory memory? Hmm…

I should head back. Even if Cadance didn’t figure out that Luna was my mentor – and she’d have to be pretty thick not to – from the memories she passed by, she would at least notice something wrong, comment on it, and Dash would spoil everything since I hadn’t left instructions otherwise.

Yes, I should head back. I made the trip much slower this time and actually paid attention to my surroundings properly. I stopped briefly at every window I knew was mine and reviewed the memory for later viewing. They were all fairly innocuous, although one contained a discussion of ascension. It would probably be wise not to show Cadance that one.

And as tempted as I was otherwise, I only glanced at Sunset Shimmer’s memories as I passed by them. If she really was here, it would be polite to ask permission first. It was possible she was on our side, after all, and I wouldn’t want to damage or break a potentially tenuous alliance with petty invasion of privacy.

Many of Dash’s memories I was at least vaguely familiar with. I usually couldn’t point to the exact event they depicted, but I often had a good guess. Fluttershy was, of course, the most common pony depicted in them other than Dash, but I was in a lot of them too.

And I passed no small number of stained glass windows which I simply could not tell who they belonged to; those I didn’t touch. When Dash and I appeared together, the viewpoint was usually obvious based on the context, but sometimes Dash and I were shown as roughly the same size, with roughly the same…what was the way to put it…presence? Maybe I should read up on art terminology later.

Well anyway, even if it was sometimes hard to tell Dash’s and my memories apparent, Sunset Shimmer’s were easy to spot. We were separated by a generation; I couldn’t recognize any of the ponies that appeared with her beyond Celestia.

Except for one.

I hadn’t noticed this image the first time I went by.

No, that was wrong. I had, but I hadn’t processed it. It wasn’t an obviously happy memory, so I hadn’t paid it any mind.

Unlike nearly every other window I’d seen, this one was completely abstract, and I had absolutely no idea what it was supposed to mean. On the left, Sunset Shimmer was depicted upside down, eyes closed, as if falling and asleep somehow. And on the right, there was a very young version of myself, upright, almost as if I were a biped, and with my eyes half-lidded, as if I were waking up.

The rest of the design was very minimal. The left side had reds, and oranges, and yellows, and the right side had dark blues, purples, and pinks, all of which faded seamlessly into each other. For what little shape the colors had, the design was fairly intricate and regular. If I inspected the window in more detail, I suspected I’d find a fractal.

All that remained of note was the very center of the window, where our two cutie marks merged together. Their union looked…wrong. It wasn’t a proper cutie mark. And yet somehow, the artist had managed to make them fit together naturally, both overlapping and bleeding into the other.

I stepped forward, hoof extended. It didn’t matter whose memory this was: Sunset Shimmer’s, mine, Dash’s, Cadance’s, or somepony else’s. I had to know what this was supposed to mean.


Prereader – Starlight Nova