Chapter Thirty Four - Among Friends - Part Two


“Argh!” I whispered as Spike pulled a broken feather from my wing. Volleyball could be fun, but it wasn’t exactly the best way to learn to fly in the real world.

“Sorry, Mom.”

I mumbled, “It’s fine,” as I sank back into my beach towel below me and Twinkleshine curled up next to me, where she dozed in the afternoon sun. I felt like I needed a bath, and I probably had a half-dozen feathers to preen still, but Spike had probably gotten most of the ones that needed to be out immediately.

No doubt demanifesting and remanifesting would fix both those problems, not to mention the physical exhaustion, but…it just wasn’t worth it. I’d miss out on snuggles, and I was enjoying this time quietly chatting with Spike, even if he was a little too heavy in too small of a package to be resting on my barrel comfortably.

Picking up where we’d left off, Spike asked me, “So what color is your flame?”

“Hmm… Probably the same as my magic. Why don’t you walk me through it, and we can find out together?”

Not that I couldn’t figure it out for myself. I’d taught Spike about his dragon magic as best as I could. There was little doubt I could breathe some fire with a little experimentation.

Spike rubbed two of his claws up and down his jaw thoughtfully. He had the most adorable little expression as the tip of his tongue stuck out and his eyes tried in vain to look at his mouth.

“Well,” Spike began slowly, grasping for each word, “there’s a fiery pit in your stomach, but actually a little higher?”

I was pretty sure Spike didn’t actually possess some sort of organic fire pit inside of him, but I most certainly didn’t. That was a little too vague of a description for me to work with.

“Could you elaborate a little more?”

“Hmm… It helps if… Ah! It helps to take a deep breath first and then blow fire with a huff. Yeah, actually, the fire comes from your lungs. You know when you hold your breath too long and your chest feels like it’s burning?”

“Mhm.”

“Well, it kind of feels like that. Maybe doing that flaming mane thing you do when you get really mad would help with the whole breathing fire thing.”

One of my wings came up and wrapped around Spike. With it, I guided him off my barrel and onto his feet. I rolled over afterward, being very careful not to disturb Twinkleshine’s rest.

“Sorry, Spike, but I never figured out the whole fire pony thing. It only ever happened when I got really mad.”

And without Flares to set it off as a random spell effect anymore, it might never happen again. Well, I supposed it wasn’t exactly a random spell effect. If I flared and was angry, I was white-coated, red-eyed, and on fire. There was nothing random about literally burning with righteous fury.

Anyway, I asked, “Why don’t you go ahead and demonstrate for me? I’ll just watch and see what goes on in there.” I poked Spike with a hoof between his lungs for emphasis.

“Yeah, alright. Welp, here goes.”

Spike went through the motions he’d described at exaggerated levels, but I was paying far more attention to what was happening to the magic inside him. The warm little pool of magic that inhabited him grew sharp, and quite appropriately, fiery at the edges as it invaded his lungs. A little explosive pop would go off every once in a while, which only stoked the spell Spike was forming. The little sparks of magic would launch out and set off another explosive pop elsewhere in an exponential chain reaction.

Then when the magic looked ready to explode out of him, Spike finally let out his breath. The magic came with it, fading away and bursting into an even, controlled fire while it was still inside his throat.

That…seemed kind of painful for a pony to try. But Luna had done it in a dream. Maybe part of the spell endowed a natural magical protection from fire. It was true that Spike didn’t have any problems with fire, lava, and such things himself, and there was no chemical explanation for the lava at the very least. Worst case scenario, I supposed, all I’d have to do was wait a second or two to regenerate.

Now that Spike was done, he turned to look at me with almost impatient eagerness. Regardless of any safety concerns, it was my turn to try, for who could say no to that face?

I inhaled just as Spike had. Within my lungs, I focused on sparking the magic inside of me the same way it had inside Spike. The concept wasn’t all that different from earth pony magic, just…more volatile.

Just as I began to crave another breath, a little fire sparked inside me. I fed magic into it, providing it with all the fuel it could ever need and then some. It almost felt like somepony were filling my lungs up with more and more air until I burst.

And burst I did. I ungracefully hacked up a raspberry fireball that should have singed my coat as it passed by. Fortunately, I still had the presence of mind to shield Twinkleshine from the heat and explosive noise.

Intermittently coughing up small bursts of fire, I said, “I think I put a little too much into that.” My hoof came down with a slight wince on a little piece of beach towel that had caught fire, smothering the flame instantly.

“I’ll say,” Spike said in chorus with Chamomile, who had jumped into my shadow just moments before I’d exhaled.

I coughed up what I suspected was the last of the fire trapped in me. “Good afternoon.”

“Could I beg a minute of your time, Princess?”

I almost felt like facehoofing. Chamomile knew since day one not to do that. “Please just call me Twilight. But sure. What is it?”

Chamomile let out a little cough as she emerged from my shadow. “In private?”

“Oh. Do you mind if I take off for a little while, Spike?”

“Nah. Pinch and I were going to build a sandcastle anyway.”

“Sounds fun. I’ll have to see what you two come up with later.” Between Berry Pinch’s magic and Spike’s opposable claws, I was sure they’d have something impressive.

Once Spike had sufficiently wandered away and I’d checked that Twinkleshine was still napping, I asked, “Where to? Is here fine, or should we go to the library?”

“The bridge, please.”

I nodded, and a simple teleport brought the two of us to our destination.

“So what’s up?” I asked.

In response, Chamomile held out a hoof to my left. My eyes followed it, and – oh. Well this was rather embarrassing. The statue of Luna that Celestia had dug out of Mona was still here.

“Why didn’t Chrysalis take care of this while I was out?”

Surely there was some reason. Although the statue was decidedly not magical – I would know otherwise – and although I doubted Celestia would be rude enough to place a chemical bomb or something similar inside, it really would be better to get rid of the statue.

“Chrysalis examined it and said it was just a normal statue,” Chamomile explained.

“Solid metal all the way through? No cavities?”

Chamomile nodded. “So it would seem. We didn’t know if you’d kept it for a reason. Chrysalis thought you wanted to give it to Princess Luna as a gift, so we just left it here and kept everypony off the bridge.”

“Good work,” I went out of my way to say, even though it really went without saying. Honestly, I didn’t think Chamomile understood the concept of bad work. Then I asked, “But do you really think Luna would like this?”

I turned back toward Chamomile just in time to catch a shrug. “It might hold some special significance for her. And even if not, it is a piece of her past that, from my understanding, has been all but erased from Equus. I could certainly see her placing sentimental value in it.”

There was an unspoken but there. Chamomile’s face always gave her away when there was. A quick magical rap on the statue confirmed that the statue at least sounded solid.

“Makes sense.” But Chamomile wouldn’t have brought me up here for this if there weren’t something more to it. “So then what has you worried?”

“Well, it’s just, I asked Chrysalis to do the investigation.”

Ah, of course. Conventional wisdom said to always double check a changeling queen’s word or deed, and it’d be really embarrassing if there was such an obvious problem that my knight hadn’t thought to mention to me. Still, by this point, unless Chrysalis were under one of Celestia’s spells, I doubted she’d betray us.

Well, she’d probably kept her options open enough to still be able to, but I’d imagine that would take some doing. And besides, there was always Pupa. She took after her mother in many ways, but she tended to try harder when things got rough instead of considering cutting her losses. She’d proven that to me several times over. I could count on Pupa to keep Chrysalis in line if she somehow got it in her head to switch sides.

But I might as well double check for Chamomile’s sake anyway. First I shifted my attention toward Chrysalis’s magic off on the other side of the ship. So far as I could tell, there weren’t any spells on her. Probably. Her magic – and definitely not Celestia’s – was buzzing around wildly in her head. That was probably the hive mind at work.

Then near her stomach area, a pool of fuzzy magic that made me think the word pink was – what in Tartarus! Shivers ran down my spine as I imagined the acidic hisses of magical digestion. A hoof came up to my mouth as I resisted the urge to vomit and turned my attention away…for about two seconds.

Stars, why was watching love literally dying so fascinatingly horrifying? Oh gosh, I’d wanted to know what it meant to eat love, but this was just – just revolting. Ugh, and I’d promised to feed Pupa myself for the rest of her life, so I’d have to watch this all the time and watch whatever happened in the extraction phase.

And I was only seeing the magical side of the process. What must Cadance think?

No, no, no, no. Focus on something else, Twilight. The statue! Yes! Focus on that.

I sent off a few scrying spells into the statue along with an accompanying illumination spell. As could be expected of early Equestrian metallurgy, there were small little marble-sized air pockets in the metal. No doubt the trip past the sun had caused the holes to expand as the air pressure increased and the metal softened.

Other than that, I didn’t pick up any significant cavities, and those air pockets were too small to hold anything actually dangerous. Although I did note that the inscription was remarkably well preserved, almost like new.

In this life or the next, we will always be together.

Wow. Ominous. Was this made before or after Luna’s banishment?

Oh well. It didn’t really matter either way. I turned back to Chamomile, my inspection complete.

“My second opinion is there’s nothing wrong with this statue. I don’t see any harm in keeping it, so we might as well. Put a bow on it, and we can give it to Luna as a gift. Although it is in pretty poor condition.”

I kind of wished I’d left the elements on Mona so I could find the comet again. There were probably more relics inside it that I could excavate. Oh well. I supposed that was a missed opportunity.

“There are several artisans in Luminance who could restore it if you wished,” Chamomile suggested.

Hmm… Well, I’d have to make sure the city wasn’t trapped first, but I didn’t see any harm in a visit. I’d imagine Chamomile was pretty homesick, too. Although in all honesty, it would be better to evacuate everypony there rather than visit. There was no sense in leaving them unprotected, ceasefire agreement or no ceasefire agreement.

But at the same time, I highly doubted it was an urgent matter. Celestia wouldn’t agree to my terms and then immediately break them two days later. There wouldn’t have been any reason not to simply bring me back to Canterlot as a souvenir if she did. Luminance wasn’t exactly a high priority target in and of itself, either.

Speaking of Celestia, though, I should give the Nebulous a once-over to make sure she hadn’t left any small, mundane-looking spells behind. I couldn’t imagine what she would have found cause to enchant, but it was better to be safe than sorry.

But that would have to wait until tomorrow. Since Chamomile hadn’t been to the beach party yet, there was still something I needed to say to her.

I began, “We’ll stop by Luminance for a while. I’m sure everypony there will be happy to see you and I safe and in pony, and I’d also imagine there are ponies there you want to see again.”

Chamomile blushed. “I – I didn’t suggest that because I was homesick. I just thought it’d be easier to use ponies loyal to you. That’s all. Really.”

Uh-huh. Sure. I believed you.

“It’s my duty to keep you safe wherever you go,” Chamomile continued, trying desperately to save face as she rambled. “But if we’re returning to civilization, the moon might be safer than Equus. Although the sun princess mentioned she’d been there without alerting anypony, so perhaps not. It might be best if nopony was there.

“If so, I don’t think anypony would mind if we evacuated Luminance to Equus if you felt it was necessary. Bookkeeper was looking forward to maybe visiting our ancestral home someday. And Turn A Phrase wanted to see a modern printing press. He tried to build one but couldn’t get it to work. Oh, a-and I know Astral has always wanted to see a film in an amphitheater.”

Oh my gosh, this was so cute, especially how Chamomile’s flush doubled on the last name. I’d just discovered her taste in stallions, if I remembered correctly.

I interrupted, “They’re just called theaters, actually, or movie theaters.”

“O-oh. Right. Apolog–”

“But if you want to go,” I interrupted again, “you can just ask. I’m not going to try to monopolize your life. And I’m always willing to help a friend in need.”

I tried to give Chamomile a smile, but it just wasn’t coming. Sure, I’d been more amiable to Chamomile than to, say, Fluttershy, but she’d made is so easy for me to do so. Even if it hadn’t been official, she’d acted like a loyal knight the whole time. That more or less meant doing whatever I asked of her without complaint and asking for almost nothing in return.

A sigh escaped me. Still, however unpleasant this was, the second time around came much easier.

“Well, I haven’t exactly been much of a friend. I’ve ignored and yelled at ponies, and I haven’t given anypony the respect they deserve, yourself included. But I’d like to do better. I’ll try to set aside…”

The right words to summarize exactly what I wanted were elusive, but one kept coming up. It was accurate, and it fit perfectly. For better or worse, it described exactly what Luna had molded me to be.

“At least when we’re in private like on the Nebulous, I’ll be Twilight first. I’ll try to set the princess aside and just be…whoever I am underneath.”

Really, without all the responsibilities I’d collected over the years, who even knew who I was?

“Ehem.” Chamomile cleared her throat.

I shook the thought out of my head before it could sink its claws in too deep. There would be plenty of time for self-discovery later. And perhaps I was being a little melodramatic.

Once I’d given my attention to Chamomile properly, she asked, “May I speak freely?”

I didn’t know how many times I’d already told Chamomile this, but the message just didn’t stick. “You’ve never needed permission. And either way, that would be a part – even a big part – of being Twilight first.”

“Right…” Chamomile’s wings twitched and stretched at her sides. “You… I… That is, I think this is something important to you…”

After a silence that stretched several seconds at least, I prompted, “But…”

Another moment of hesitation passed, but then Chamomile said, “But I like my princess, and I’m proud to be her knight.”

One second passed, then two, and then I facehoofed. What else could I have expected from Dame Chamomile?

“Princess?”

“Please, Chamomile, just Twilight.”

“Princess” – Chamomile failed to correct herself despite my disappointed look – “we do not speak of such things, but…well, I’m sure you know that I wanted to be a knight. I know it’s improper, and I should–”

“Chamomile, it’s fine. I know your heart is in the right place, and that’s all that matters to me. Cultural sensitivity doesn’t extend to me making myself be upset with you.”

Despite the frown that had crept onto her face, Chamomile said, “Fair enough. But before the idea was given to me, I never would have thought of it. I remember telling you that being a guard wasn’t my first career choice.”

“If I remember correctly, it was your fourth. Or was it fifth?”

Chamomile looked rather mortified. Tripping over her own tongue, she said, “I-I-I fully intend to put my – my everything into this job. I d-didn’t mean–”

I cut Chamomile off with a giggle. “I’m just teasing.”

“R-right. Um…okay. But – but as I was saying, even after Princess Luna trained me and offered me the position of Captain of the Night Guard, being a knight hadn’t even entered into my mind. I didn’t even know it was still an official position. Princess Luna hadn’t had a knight in nearly a thousand years. It was a huge surprise when she asked if I’d be open to the idea.”

I did remember Luna mentioning that a certain mare had swooned at the time. Calling it a surprise was no doubt a bit of an understatement. And yet for all the excitement that had been swelling up in her, Chamomile suddenly shrunk into herself.

“I took a few days to think it over. When I gave Princess Luna my answer…it wasn’t…I’d gotten the wrong idea.”

Oh dear. “You didn’t know about me yet?” I tried to put on the most encouraging and sympathetic smile I possessed.

“No, not as a princess. But Princess Luna would often speak of you. As much as she tries to hide it, she has such a soft spot for foals. I didn’t imagine – no, I suppose in hindsight, it was obvious she was raising you as royalty. The questions she asked me about how she was rearing you should have told me that.”

“And she went to you?” I asked, head cocked to the side. Had I taken Chamomile away from her own foals and she’d never thought to mention it? “Are you a mother?”

“No, no, no, no, no,” Chamomile shot off in rapid fire. “I wasn’t nearly of mating age yet the last time we started a new generation.” Blushing she continued, “But I did help raise a foal or two or six. And I’ve accepted I probably won’t have a chance to foal with my job. Er, my old job and my new one. Please don’t worry about that. I made some adjustments to what I want out of life ages ago.”

Well so long as Chamomile was happy, that was fine. Not every mare had to be a mother to feel fulfilled. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of Spike and all the warm fuzzies that came with him. And judging by her face and tone, Chamomile had obviously enjoyed helping with Luminance’s foals.

“Just so you know, I have no problem with you having a foal. Luminance won’t need to be careful with births anymore, either, so don’t feel constrained to the traditional schedule. If worst comes to worst, I’ll ferry food from Equus to the moon for everypony.”

Realizing who I was to Chamomile, I quickly added, “Not that you have to. It’s not a command or suggestion. Honestly, no pressure either way. I meant it when I said I don’t plan to monopolize your time. Just, you know, enjoy life.”

I snapped my mouth shut before it could add, “Because it’s short.” That would be more than a little rude coming from the immortal goddess.

But my hypothetical rudeness aside, Chamomile had the strangest smile on her face.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just…nothing.” Her smile finally faded as she picked up her story. “But as I was saying, I’d gotten the wrong idea. I’d thought Princess Luna wanted me to be her knight, and when she didn’t actually ask, I…well, there’s no hiding it. I was furious. She plainly told me she didn’t need anypony else looking after her.”

Eyebrow raised, I echoed the words, “Anypony else?”

Chamomile shrugged. “I can only assume she was talking about you. You were, will, and have rescued her from certain doom, after all.”

Hmm, I supposed that was a fair point.

“And rather than calming me down, she decided it was a better idea to outright confuse me. She told me that being open to the idea isn’t the same as agreeing to it.”

Ah, yes, I would imagine that would be confusing for Chamomile. Without centuries of romanticizing knighthood in Luminance’s culture, it’d probably seem more like a very important job from the past than a two-way relationship.

“Let me guess,” I began. “Princesses need to be able to trust their knights, and that only works if their knights fully trust their princess, right? Being a knight is a lifestyle, but being a particular princess’s knight is personal.”

Nodding, Chamomile said, “More or less. Princess Luna told me to think long and hard about what I’d need to see in a princess to pledge my fealty. To make a long story short, I decided that my princess would have to be a princess.”

Oh. Now I understood exactly how this related to what I’d said earlier. I opened my mouth to respond, but Chamomile interrupted me.

“Please hear me out, Princess.”

“I…” I sighed, “Alright.”

“Please forgive me if this comes out wrong, but I think Princess Luna molded you to take the sun princess’s place.”

A little blood made its way onto my tongue as I kept myself from yelling at Chamomile. I said I’d hear her out, and I would.

“I mean no disrespect to Princess Luna,” Chamomile continued. “She’s a wonderful princess, and I know she cares about us. Er, that is the ponies at Luminance, not the ponies here on the Nebulous. Not that she doesn’t care about us, too.”

Chamomile collapsed to her haunches, blushing furiously. “Oh, this is coming out all wrong. Princess Luna does care about us. She wouldn’t have bored herself to death over the centuries learning about agricultural advances on Equus for us if she didn’t, let alone everything else she’s done for us and ponies and Equus. But I think she has to remind herself of that over and over. It’s not natural for her.”

“Chamomile,” was as far as I got before I reconsidered what I was about to say. Luna wouldn’t want me spreading her past around without permission. “How much has Luna told you about the events leading up to her banishment?”

“Some. Why?”

“It’s just,” I said slowly, trying to find the right words one by one, “Luna has emotional scars. They’ve…festered. I’ve been noticing recently that she’s – she’s limping.”

Stupid nose. A small sniff escaped me.

“But please don’t hold that against her,” I added. “She’s trying. And something happened recently that I think will be good for her.”

“Should I not inquire?”

I nodded. It wasn’t my place to tell anypony that Luna had finally given up on her sister. I was pretty sure most of her pain and anger was knotted around Celestia. If she could let it go as well, I suspected she would feel much better.

“But she’s opened up to me. I think I’ll be able to help her. It’s just going to take a while.”

“I see… Please let me know if there is ever anything I can do to aid her recovery.”

“Of course.” Then remembering what we were talking about, I said, “But I’m not…that. I don’t have a natural altruistic impulse. Cadance is… We never did the official ceremony. I’ll pretend you never said yes to being my knight if you want. I’m not – Cadance is the princess you want for that. Maybe in a couple decades, but–”

Chamomile’s hoof muffled the rest of what I’d been about to say.

“Princess, I’m sure Princess Cadance is wonderful and well worth my time, too, but I wouldn’t have said yes if I wasn’t sure I was right about you. I know you didn't mean to imply otherwise, but I am taking this job seriously.” A shiver ran through Chamomile. “Princess Luna would throw me into an oubliette to rot with every other false knight if I committed such treasonous negligence. She knows I know better than to accept an offer of knighthood without carefully considering it.”

A shiver crept through my own spine as I recalled some of the darker fantasy books on knights. Apparently those bad endings had a more solid foundation in historical fact than I’d thought. But…life imprisonment was a relatively nice punishment for high treason historically. It was probably just standard policy nowadays, though.

But still…an oubliette…

“You do know I’m the only pony with authority over you, right?” I managed to ask.

Chamomile simply said, “Yes,” before moving on. “Princess Luna told me so much about you, and after watching you these past years, I know one thing for sure: you’re efficient.”

Three things happened. First, my ears and brain got into a fight over what exactly I’d heard. Second, my jaw moved strangely, trying to form words that didn’t exist. And third, I made some sort of sound vaguely reminiscent of, “Huh?”

Turning to Old Equestrian, Chamomile said, “Stars, was that not the right word? What I meant was you possess an inclination toward optimization. If there’s a problem, you’ll try to fix it without even thinking about it.”

“I…suppose?” A hoof found its way to massaging my forehead as I tried to parse what Chamomile had said. “So I…do good for ponies because…I don’t like to see inefficient government?”

“Yes!” Chamomile hooves and wings came up with her exclamation. “Unlike Princess Luna, you’ll help anypony that comes along with a problem – er, a real problem – because it fundamentally bothers you when everything isn’t perfect or fair.”

A second hoof found it’s way up next to the previous one. “No, I don’t – that – I don’t even – that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Just…I need to introduce you to Cadance.”

Chamomile made her own little exasperated groan. “You’re missing my point. I’m saying I see a princess who cares about her subjects in her own way, but she doesn’t realize it because she thinks caring is all about kind words and warm feelings.”

“Okay.” I could admit Chamomile had a bit of a point about that, even if I felt compelled to argue semantics. “But we were originally talking about friendships, not subjects. You and me, specifically…”

“Ah.” Visibly deflating, Chamomile said, “Right. Sorry, Princess. I got a little worked up there.”

“It’s alright.”

“What I was trying to get at is everypony shows their affection in different ways. You show your affection by helping others with their problems. Unlike Princess Luna, you’re a princess all the way down to here.” Chamomile poked me over my heart with a hoof. “Please don’t try to be anypony else. If you want to be warm and fuzzy in your affections, that’s fine, but please make sure that’s what you want, not what you think is necessary.

“And don’t let it bother you too much either way. Even if you’re prickly at times, everypony here is your friend. You know that, right?”

Yes. I did. If I hadn’t known it before, I certainly knew it after today.

Almost as an afterthought, Chamomile awkwardly rubbed her mane with the hoof that’d been on my chest and added, “But I’m honored you count me as a friend, Princess. That means a lot to me.”

“I… I… I don’t know what to say.” No matter what Chamomile or anypony else said, I knew I needed to work on respecting others, but… “Am I really not that bad?”

Chamomile suspiciously looked away from my eyes.

“What is it? Please be honest, Chamomile.”

“Well…you did say you can be rude and dismissive. I think it’s just you have too much focus on whatever you’re working on, and you’re a little impatient with ponies who aren’t as smart as you. Which is pretty much everypony, actually.”

That got a small giggle out of me despite how seriously Chamomile had said it.

“I choose to take that as a compliment.”

Although she clearly tried, Chamomile couldn’t resist an eye roll.

“But seriously, though,” I continued, “thank you. I still think I need to change–”

Chamomile interrupted, “Nopony is perfect.”

“Yes, well, between your words and everypony else’s response, maybe I’m not as bad as I thought. But I still have some changes I want to see in myself.”

I could still feel the warmth of that group hug spreading through me. Even with years’ worth of Sunset’s memories in my head in addition to my own, that’d been a wonderful new experience for me. I’d like to be the kind of pony that could bring out that kind of feeling in her friends, too.

And being honest with myself, I couldn’t afford another Dash. That was just as big a part of this as anything else. I could’ve prevented her ascension if I’d just paid attention and given her the proper respect. I still found it hard to believe that Celestia just let me go in exchange for information after that fiasco. It was almost a miracle.

“Yes, thank you, Chamomile. You’ve been very helpful.” My smile turned to a frown as I asked, “But what exactly did you mean when you said you think Luna wants me to take Celestia’s place?”

“Hmm? Oh, well like I mentioned before, I think Princess Luna struggles to rule. I believe deep down she knows that and knows she needs somepony to help her shine. What you said on the subject only makes me more certain of it. Princess Luna’s sister may have fulfilled that role at one time, but those days are long past.”

And that left me as the only pony who could make Luna shine. It was a reasonable enough idea, but I’d much rather see Luna shining on her own. And I would. Not that Luna didn’t already shine, but she and I both knew she could do better.

Well anyway, that was for some other time. “Thanks for clarifying. So now that we have all that out of the way and this” – I gestured toward the nearly forgotten statue of Luna – “sorted out, I heard Spike and Berry Pinch were making a sandcastle. They have a lot more experience, but do you want to go show them what a princess and her knight can do?”

Smirking, Chamomile said, “Those two are awfully competitive. You don’t have your own castle yet either. Are you and Pinch going to bring everything to life again?”

“It wouldn’t be a day at the beach without a war, now would it?”

“Certainly not, Princess.”

And with that, we were off. To honor, to glory, and most likely to epic-scale silliness. Sometimes I regretted teaching Berry Pinch the come to life spell, but other times, it was worth the headaches.


I giggled as Luna nipped at my neck atop me. I tried to squirm out from under her, but the cloud beneath me wasn’t responding to my magic.

“Luna, stop,” I said between giggles. “I said I remembered something important to ask you.”

“More important than my ministrations?” Luna looked up just long enough to teasingly ask that question.

“Yes. Yes,” I managed.

“Oh fine.” One last nip, this time at my ear, drew a small moan from me, but Luna finally stopped afterward. Not that she got off me. That would be asking for entirely too much. “I suppose I can resist for now, my adorable little star.”

I blushed as I rolled Luna onto her back and off to my left by hoof.

Once she’d settled, Luna quietly asked, “Is this about putting me through therapy?”

And just like that the mood plummeted. “No. We’ll put that off until we’re both rested and actually ready. And it’s not really therapy. It’s more…”

“Rehabilitation?”

No. Luna, everypony has problems. Yours are just really old and have stagnated. And you’re an alicorn and a princess, so they get magnified and look worse than they really are. We need to talk them out is all.”

“So therapy.” I could almost hear Luna roll her eyes. “It’s fine, Twilight. It’s not as if I’ve never tried before.”

I raised an eyebrow to the starry sky above us for all the good it did. “Really?”

“Well…sort of. Psychotherapy as you know it is a fairly recent development.”

“Hmm… Fair enough. Did–” No, it obviously didn’t work, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Or maybe it did, but not enough. Instead of asking that, I said, “What brought that mood on?”

Luna rolled back over and wrapped a pair of legs around my barrel.

“A millennium can’t go by without feeling depressed and hopeless at least once. I’d entertained begging for forgiveness more than once, but fortunately I never did.”

“Luna…you’re not the pony who needs to apologize.”

“I know. But time does strange things to ponies.”

A small wheeze escaped me as Luna squeezed me like a teddy bear with enough force to snap non-alicorns in half. As it was, I was just a little uncomfortable.

“The first year was especially bad,” Luna continued, her voice weaker. “I was an absolute wreck with wild mood swings. As much as I hate to admit it, I can barely remember that year. It’s mostly a blur now, but I was probably responsible for…”

Luna trailed off into silence, and I squeezed the forehoof that I had access to on my barrel.

“Luna, we don’t have to do this now. Honestly.”

I really didn’t know if I was ready for this yet, intellectually or emotionally, let alone Luna. My only experience with therapy was short lived and when I was eight, and I’d never helped somepony like this before. I really, really didn’t want to screw this up.

After a few seconds of hesitation, Luna sighed a quiet, “Thank you.” She then asked, “So what was on your mind?”

“Oh.” Right. I’d kind of forgotten about that for a moment there. “There was something I wanted to ask you about. Is there such a thing as possession magic?”

“Hmm? Of course there is. A geas is a type of possession.”

Well, okay, but that wasn’t what I’d meant. A geas only overrode a pony’s ability to think naturally…which was more or less what a possession was, I supposed.

I clarified, “I meant more a magical intelligence controlling somepony else.”

Luna groaned as she struggled to get to her haunches, taking her warmth and fuzzy softness with her, denying me snuggles.

“Yes, Twilight. There are three main types. A sufficiently complicated geas would effectively be its own intelligence. I’ve also mentioned golems to you before. Those require a spell to make decisions for the construct. The come to life spell is a very simple golem spell. Of course I expect you’re most interested in the last type, which more fits the idea of a ‘spirit’, a ‘ghost’, or a ‘demon’.”

I hummed in agreement.

“The short answer is there’s no such thing. So far as I know, nopony has ever created a spell that creates something I would call a new person.”

Luna tapped a hoof against her cheek while humming thoughtfully.

“Well,” Luna continued, “some spells simply create a biological person or work off of an existing personality. As an example of the former, an alchemical duplication spell can duplicate a pony. However, doing so is rather irresponsible. The spell can’t duplicate the pony’s magical core, which tends to leave the copy a bit…off.”

“Not to mentioned the philosophical and ethical issues of creating a duplicate,” I added for Luna, who had left that out.

“Yes, yes,” Luna said far more dismissively than I’d have liked. “But anyway, there’s a magical pool in the Everfree somewhere… Hmm… Well, I can’t remember where the cave entrance is to it, but it’s enchanted to duplicate any organic material that enters it. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that it’s one of Discord’s enchantments.”

No, that didn’t surprise me at all. That sounded like it’d cause all kinds of chaotic problems if it were just left lying around for hapless ponies to wander into. Just imagine if Pinkie Pie fell into it!

“I never did get to finish analyzing that spell,” Luna mused.

After Luna had been lost in her thoughts for a sufficiently overly long time, I nudged her out of them with a hoof.

“Ah, sorry. As terrible as he was, and ironically despite his chaos shtick, Discord’s magic has always been surprisingly complex and worth studying. I’ll have to dig out a few of his artifacts for us to look at together once we’re settled into Equestria.”

I suppressed a gulp. As I’d told Cadance, I really didn’t care if my Luna was the original Luna or not, but everything would be so much more complicated if she weren’t.

“Like the Alicorn Amulet?” I asked perfectly normally.

“Hmm? No, I threw that into the sun when I was done with it.”

Ha! Take that, Cadance. Whether or not it was ‘cursed’, Luna had disposed of the amulet responsibly.

Still, it was kind of hard to prove that something was destroyed and not simply hidden really well. Cadance would have to trust my word, Luna’s word, and that Luna’s memory hadn’t been affected. That was probably too much to ask for.

But then I hadn’t given Luna any prompting to lie. Or at least not much anyway. And she’d promised me she’d be open and honest, too. Maybe Cadance would simply trust–

“Or at least I think I did,” Luna continued, casually destroying my conclusion that she’d responsibly disposed of a potentially cursed artifact. “That was so long ago. It might have been the artifact I hoofed over as payment for my larger armor. Hmm…”

Er…okay. At least Luna had sent it from her presence in some manner. And I supposed if she hadn’t destroyed it, I could find it and show it to Cadance. Maybe it would be for the best if it still existed somewhere.

“Well regardless,” Luna said, “I’m fairly certain I left the Inspiration Manifestation somewhere in the old castle. Then there’s the mirror pool, of course. A season before my banishment, I found plundervines below the Everfree, too. Those are on my priority to-destroy list, so we should look at them first.”

“Why? What’s a plundervine?”

Luna shrugged. “The elements were keeping them in check, but after my banishment, they started growing and draining magic from the Everfree Forest area. That said, I don’t know what they’re actually for. They appeared to be spreading, which could’ve been potentially catastrophic, given that they drain magic. Ever since, I’ve had a number of ponies stunting their growth over the centuries. I’m glad I didn’t forget about them. They probably would’ve destroyed several cities and towns if I had.”

Yikes. It kind of went without saying, but what on Equus was wrong with Discord? Who made that kind of crap?

“But back to your question, the person who’s come closest to creating a ‘spirit’ is Discord. But honestly, the spell is more of a nasty virus than a possession. I don’t know if he ever gave a name to the spell, but ponies under its influence were usually referred to as ‘discordified’. The fundamental idea is it would alter its host’s decision making process.”

Oh fun. So when I got around to talking to Cadance, I had to deal with the fact that the general possession idea she’d brought up was real. Fantastic.

“Permanently?” I asked.

Luna shook a hoof back and forth. “Sort of. The effects were permanent, but…well, let me explain what the spell does first. In essence, the spell sends invasive thoughts into its victim’s brain and conditions the victim to generate those thoughts on their own. Worse, the more the victim listens to and acts on the thoughts, the more the process accelerates. You know, probably.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“The last pony with the spell on them died before I knew what a neuron was and long before I knew what conditioning was.”

“Okay, that’s fair.” At least that meant Cadance couldn’t claim Celestia had any additional insight into the spell.

“Anyway, the ultimate goal of the spell was more or less to ‘invert’ the host’s personality, although it’s hard to say what the inversion of a personality is. Still, the effects were usually predictable, ironically. A loyal pony would typically become treacherous. An energetic and cheerful pony would typically become grumpy. An honest pony would only tell the truth enough to make it hard to know if they were lying.”

I interjected with, “Discord knew statistics?” which elicited a chuckle from Luna.

“How else would he know if he’s being random?”

That…was an excellent point. I couldn’t argue with that.

Luna’s playful smile turned to a frown. “Sadly, sometimes the changes were improvements. A miserly mare might suddenly find herself with a heart of gold. A cruel mare might, for no reason at all, decide to apologize to everypony she’s wronged and then proceed to distribute cookies to foals.”

Wait a second. All five of those examples had one big thing in common.

“Did the spell only affect traits associated with the Elements of Harmony?”

“No, no,” Luna said with a wave of her hoof. “It affected most every aspect of a pony’s personality given enough time. I have no idea how to actually cast the spell, but I could tell you every last detail about how it worked. I was never short of victims to study, after all, which brings me back to your question of permanency.

“When the elements petrified Discord, the vast majority of the reality warping magics and miscellaneous enchantments he’d placed on Equus were dispelled and reversed. Discordification was not among them, or not entirely at least. The spell itself was lifted, but its effects lingered.”

That was strange… Hmm… If Cadance thought Luna was discordified, why would she think the elements would help if they only removed the spell? Luna couldn’t even be lying about that since she was able to study the spell effects in detail who knew how many years after the spell was removed. It sounded rather optimistic to hope for a deus ex machina, even by Cadance’s standards.

Had Celestia simply omitted information from her ‘explanation’? That wouldn’t surprise me, and it’d be the simplest answer.

“The preferred cure was straightforward and expeditious,” Luna continued. “In hindsight, it likely worked under similar principles as the discordification spell itself. You simply had to force the victim to remember how they used to behave. In the best case, that meant showing the victim an illusion of their past while blocking out other sights and sounds.”

“That sounds…complicated.” And it sounded like something few ponies could do, especially at the end of the Discordian Era.

“Indeed, and reportedly it was a terribly intense experience.”

I’d imagine so. It sounded rather morally questionable, too. Granted Discord’s spell was monstrous and shouldn’t have been used to begin with, but reversing its effects were questionable at best as well. It really depended on where ‘changing for the better’ ended and where ‘killing the pony’ began.

Ugh… But if I were geased to be so generous that I left myself all but destitute, I’d definitely want the geas removed. But from the perspective of Geased Twilight, she might not want to change back. We’d both have a right to exist, but were we really different ponies? Did we need more differences to be distinct? Was I killing myself by trying to change?

No. No, that wasn’t a useful definition of death. Ponies changed all the time, and especially as we grew up. Even if I said I’ve died several times already…not counting Mother…it didn’t possess any meaning beyond the definition. That kind of death didn’t bother me, which meant the definition was too weak.

Luna nudged me with a hoof. “Twilight?”

“Huh?”

“Are you alright?”

“I…yes. I’m just…you know…struggling with the philosophical question of what constitutes death.”

Luna was snickering. It was quite obvious she was really trying to hold it back, but the occasional giggle still managed to escape her.

I glared at Luna in return.

“Sorry, sorry,” Luna weakly said between laughs. “I forget how young you are sometimes.”

“Hmph. Should I throw you in a dungeon for molesting a minor, then?”

“If you do, be sure to throw yourself in there, too,” Luna countered. “Twinkleshine is mentally a lot younger than you, with or without Sunset Shimmer’s memories.”

I supposed Luna had me there. No dungeons for either of us, apparently.

You two are the worst,” Mother commented.

Perhaps, but we were the worst together. That was all that really mattered.

“So if you’re calling me a foal,” I began, “you must have a definition of death. And it better be a good one.”

“Hmm, yes, I suppose I do.”

Oh great, here came the but.

“But–”

Yep. I was going to have to fight for this answer, wasn’t I?

“–I think you should come up with your own first. We can discuss it together after.”

“Luna, it’s not like I don’t already have thoughts on the matter. I just want some direction, another opinion, a place to start.”

With a shake of her head, Luna said, “Nope. You are young, and this is one of those things that will help you grow.”

Luna had a big expectant smile on. While that normally would’ve ended the conversation as homework, her eyes were twitching.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing? Why do you–”

Luna cut herself off and took a few seconds to think, or to prepare herself, or something. I had no idea what was running through her mind yet.

Sighing first, Luna said, “Twilight, you want me to be open with you, right?”

“Yes!” I said a little too excitedly.

“Even with things better forgotten?”

Oh stars. What was Luna remembering?

“Yes,” I said again.

Luna sighed once more. “Alright. I’d prefer if you came to understand death without me. My relationship with it has always been intimate.”

My stomach turned as a question I’d never asked popped into my head. I knew more about Luna’s past than anypony but Celestia, but I’d never bothered to…count.

“Luna, how many people have you killed?”

“I have no idea,” Luna deadpanned. “As a princess in charge of a government, there are certainly countless deaths I’ve indirectly caused, although I don’t know how fair it would be to claim responsibility for them.”

Incredibly unfair. If Luna had a choice between letting one pony starve to death or two as a result of how Equestria ran, for example, she shouldn’t be held accountable for any of them. Not unless she was deliberately not trying to improve Equestria to save those lives in the future.

“However, the number of lives ended by my own magic or by my direct command likely exceeds one-million, if not ten-million or more.”

As Luna’s hoof gently pushed my jaw back up, she gave me a sad smile.

“What do you think happens in war?” Luna asked. “I am very good at it now, but I didn’t used to be. All the magic of an alicorn means little if you only know a dozen crude spells. Other nations adapted to avoiding me, and I usually ended up putting down armies at a time as Equestria’s own army scrambled to deal with ever increasingly sophisticated raids and guerrilla tactics. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Discord’s little toys didn’t pop up once in a while. I nearly died more than once from reckless overconfidence.”

“Luna–”

Luna’s hoof pressed against my lips and cut me off.

“Before you say anything, I’ve long since made my peace with my early years. I grew more skilled faster than Equestria’s enemies, and the body count dropped. Eventually.”

What was I supposed to say? Luna would do what she’d done again without regrets, and I wouldn’t blame her. She couldn’t just let her subjects die. Although maybe she should’ve just conquered the world for everypony’s sake. But then that probably wouldn’t have ended all the fighting. It would’ve just driven it further underground.

“I’m sorry the world isn’t prefect,” I eventually decided on.

Luna guffawed at my sentiment, which upon reflection, I supposed was kind of useless and cheesy.

“Now what fun would it be if there was no room left to improve?” Luna asked. “Perfect worlds are so dreadfully boring.”

After but a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “I guess so.”

“Yes, but I fear we’ve gone off on quite the tangent. To finish what we were discussing before, if a discordified pony didn’t have a close unicorn talented in illusions – which most didn’t – the fall back was the dedicated support of their friends and family over several years. It was fairly similar to what we would call therapy today, but with more hugs and personal anecdotes.”

My mind shifted gears back to…two topics ago?

“And that worked?” I finally asked.

Luna shrugged. “Sometimes. Sometimes the changes were never undone, and ponies would just have to accept them.”

Wow. That was…pretty brutal. And Discord inflicted that spell on ponies for fun? No wonder Luna wanted him locked up ‘unto the end of time’.

“Well…” I faltered as I tried to think of words that would be less pointless than apologizing for an imperfect universe. “It was just for one generation, right?” After that, the spell would be just a bad memory to be told as a ghost story.

“Yes. Once Discord was sealed away for good, very few ponies ever suffered from his magics after the last ponies born during his reign died out.”

A loud cracking sound met my ears as Luna stretched her back. A few more followed shortly after from her wings. And once she was stretched out, Luna walked very close to me, our muzzles barely separated.

“Now with all that said, do you want to ask the question that started all of this?”

Huh? “You mean ‘is there such a thing as possession magic?’”

“Honesty is a two-way street, my little star.” Luna’s hoof came up to caress my face, eliciting a blush from me. “I meant the question that prompted you to ask that. No doubt it was my niece who gave you the idea.”

Oh, stars. So Luna had known what we were really talking about the whole time. Well, maybe not the whole time, but a significant chunk of it. I couldn’t say I was surprised.

“I personally don’t care,” I began, awkwardly pawing at the cloud below me in embarrassment, “but if I’m going to get through to Cadance, I need to know. Have you been under the influence of possession magic? Are you Luna?”

“Yes, and” – Luna paused just long enough to chuckle – “yes, that is the name you’ve been screaming lately, is it not?”

Oh my gosh! Way too much blood was rushing to my head!

“To be more clear, I’ve been under several harmless geases, but to the extent of my knowledge, nothing else.”

An unwanted sigh of relief escaped me, but was quickly interrupted by a kiss.

“That makes it easier for me to talk to Cadance,” I explained once Luna finally let me breathe. “I mean, I got her to admit you have a right to exist either way, just like I do, but this will be a lot easier.”

Luna leaned forward and pushed me down. Our muzzles met through the whole trip.

Breaking away, Luna said, “Glad I could help. Now then, was that all that was on your mind?”

“Mhm,” I hummed.

“Good.”

Mid-kiss, another thought invaded my mind, and it just wouldn’t go away. It was too important.

After some technical issues, I eventually managed, “Luna, hold up.”

Luna let out an amazingly long sigh and just let herself flump down on top of me.

“I weep for Twinkleshine if this is your idea of pillow talk.”

“Sorry…”

“I’m just teasing,” Luna said. One of her hooves found its way to my mane and idly swirled around within.

“I know we probably shouldn’t, but I’d like to ascend another alicorn.”

Luna kept perfectly quiet for some time as we stared into each other’s eyes.

“Who?”

Well, it didn’t really matter who. “Maybe Twinkleshine or Shining? I – I think Shining would probably be better. I’d hate for Cadance to lose him, and he’s older.” And Cadance might hate me for decades to come. I wouldn’t want her to be alone…and scared, probably, through all those years.

Luna’s head rose up properly to regard me with a more intense expression. “You have my undivided attention now.”

She said that, but her hooves and wings were still getting up to mischief.

“Why do we need another alicorn?” Luna asked.

“Ascensions propagate through space normally, but I can’t see all of mine. And I’m the youngest alicorn, so I can’t study anypony else’s either.”

Luna blinked.

“Um… Since it keeps going at FTL speeds, it’s probably an infinitely self-sustaining spell. If I tweak it a little, I can probably make it use up magic faster than it generates it, which would miniaturize the effects.”

Seeing as Luna was still silent, I continued, “And we could probably replicate it with less magic. And we could have more alicorns. And we wouldn’t have to say goodbye to anypony. And…it might be possible to make the affected space move with the pony and make pony-sized alicorns. Um… And – Mpfh.”

I was going to suggest we could start a golden age of gods, but apparently Luna thought kissing was a better idea. Which upon reflection, it was.

“Twilight, this could be the most important thing we do ever. This is the kind of thing that writes your name into eternity.”

“So I have your permission?”

“No, you have my full support. Just…let’s make sure we don’t destroy the universe, okay?”

Somehow I giggled at that, but it was a completely reasonable concern. Neither of us had any idea what kind of magic we were tampering with.

Luna hummed thoughtfully, to which I hummed, “Hmm?” in return.

“Oh, it’s just a silly little joke.”

“You can’t tell me that and not share.”

“Weeeeell, alright.” Luna cleared her throat. Then to the boom of thunder and the flash of lightning, she shouted, “First Equestria, then the universe. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ah ha ha ah ah ah ahhhhh.

I gave Luna a much deserved kiss.

“That was very evil of you.”

“Mmm, it’s all in the laugh. So many evil spirits ignore the laugh, and that’s about standards.”

“Heh. It certainly is.”

Luna pouted and gave me a disapproving glare. “What was that? We need to work on your maniacal laugh and your cackle. That wasn’t even up to accompanying minion levels.”

I rolled my eyes. The last thing I needed was a good evil laugh.


“No, it’s not like that,” I replied, doing my best not to focus on Chrysalis’s magical digestive system. “I passively know where magic is and where it’s going, but I still have to comprehend the spell myself.”

“So it’s like investigating manually with your own magic as per normal?”

“Well…not really. Using your horn is like a blind mare running her hooves over something to see it, where I can just use my eyes, so to speak.”

Chrysalis hummed thoughtfully as we fell into silence. So far we hadn’t picked up any unusual magic or foreign objects aboard the Nebulous, but we still had about half the ship left to investigate.

“But as I was saying before, I’m still new to this. If anypony could fool my senses, it’d be Luna or Celestia. I just wanted you to sweep as well to double check.”

“It doesn’t hurt as a show of trust from one ruler to another, either.”

After a few seconds of quiet hesitation, I agreed, “I suppose so.”

“No offense taken, Sparkle. That I’m still here now instead of relaxing on Equus after bartering a ride home says much the same.”

That was true, too. Chrysalis and her hive had little left to offer me or Luna except their company and opinions. Luna and I couldn’t even claim them as our subjects, since we were technically separate nations.

But then Chrysalis wouldn’t be here to begin with if she didn’t trust us to keep our word. She would’ve betrayed us a long time ago and left with Celestia if she didn’t.

We spent some number of minutes in a comfortable silence as we worked. The tedium of the task was apparent on Chrysalis’s face, and I was getting pretty bored myself. This wasn’t exactly the most difficult job in the world, and neither of us expected to find anything.

“Hey, Chrysalis?”

“Hmm?”

“What are we going to do after all this? Ponies and changelings, I mean.”

Without even thinking about it, Chrysalis said, “You could leave us alone again.”

“To what end?”

It wasn’t until Chrysalis had finished her latest salvo of spells that she said, “Just say what you want.”

“Nothing, really.” I waited until the library door had closed behind us to continue. “But I would miss your and Pupa’s company.”

Chrysalis cast the few dozen detections spells she’d been checking the ship with on me, as well as a few additional ones.

“Hey! I’m being serious here.”

“Yes, that’s nice, now where did you hit your head?”

I facehoofed, which was a rather unfortunate choice.

“Ah, I see. Well, your muzzle isn’t broken, your teeth are all still there, and I don’t think your cranium is fractured. Still, you should go see a doctor.”

At this point, I just decided to wait out Chrysalis. She’d say something less sarcastic on her own eventually, no doubt. I had a much higher tolerance for awkward silences.

My patience was rewarded after I’d reached my third bookcase and had flipped through nearly half the books for hidden non-magical surprises.

“So what is it that you want us to do? Give up our culture and integrate into Equestria?”

Not exactly, although I knew the changeling culture would experience a bigger change than ours if we joined together. I couldn’t deny that.

“It’s not like you don’t already abide by our laws.”

For the most part, at least. If nothing else, replacing stillborn ponies with newborn changelings was…probably illegal. And I didn’t know a whole lot about what happened with changelings internally. For all I knew, ninety-percent of them could all be slaves for the queen. The world would look the same to me.

“And pony culture has certainly seeped into yours already, and has for centuries, no doubt. You can’t live somewhere without its culture at least touching your own. And that goes double for changelings, since you pretend to be ponies instead of just being different-looking people.”

Chrysalis apparently didn’t have a response to this, sarcastic or otherwise, so I said, “Just think about it.” Then as an afterthought, I added, “And besides, I promised I’d feed Pupa myself, which is a lot easier if she stays close by, so you might as well stick around, too.”

A fiery green portal opened near me – without burning my books – and a small stack of folded papers dropped out of it. I caught them in my magic before whatever it was that Chrysalis had teleported here hit the ground.

“What’s this?”

“A distraction.”

I rolled my eyes. This was had to be pretty good if Chrysalis thought she could get away with openly telling me it was a distraction.

The papers unfolded before my eyes. I scanned over them with a frown, as they contained nothing but a slew of random gibberish. Although from the arrangement of the text, it was formatted as a letter.

“Would you mind giving me an unencrypted version?” I asked.

“Ha!” Chrysalis laughed dryly. “You have no idea how many changeling hours I’ve put into cracking that. It’s your problem now.”

“Oooookaaaaay.”

I gave the papers a once-over again, counting the number of letters in the first two words, which was no doubt the name of the pony this was addressed to. I came to eight for the first word, and seven for the second. Then glancing at the very last word, probably the signature, I counted eight letters.

“Alright, since you’ve given this to me, I’m going to assume the first two words are Twilight Sparkle.”

“Congratulations.” The sarcasm was just dripping off Chrysalis’s every word. “Now you just need to figure out what encryption scheme this is using and what the key is, and you’ll be done in no time. Have fun.”

I rolled my eyes again. Anyway, who did I know with an eight letter name?

Well, there was Twilight, of course. It could be from me in the future, or a past me who had wiped her memory. I was just going to set those ideas aside as unlikely.

Ugh… But it could also be Twilight, as in Aurora. Chrysalis had found her, after all. But then I didn’t see why she’d send me an encrypted letter. That probably wasn’t it either.

There was also Twilight as in Twilight Velvet, namely Mom. But she never signed anything as Twilight. She always went by Velvet.

Who else… Shining was seven letters. So was Cadance. Spike was five, and his full name was way too long. The Berrys on the Nebulous were all too long.

Heh. Nebulous was eight letters, but somehow I doubted my ship was the writer.

Chrysalis was nine, and Pupa was four. Pinkie Pie was nine, as was Chamomile, and Twinkleshine was eleven. Fluttershy and Dash didn’t fit either.

Luna, was, of course four, but I didn’t see why she’d send me a letter like this to begin with. Unless maybe it was an apology or confession of some kind for if everything went wrong, she died, and I got away safely. Or maybe it was a list of things I’d need to know and take care of in her place, like those plundervines.

But still, Luna’s name was the wrong length. Even Nightmare Moon wouldn’t fit. Although I supposed it was possible Luna was a nickname, and she never used a formal, longer name.

“Alright, I give up. Who is this from?”

“Celestia.”

What?” I caught the letter in my magic after the surprise had worn off, then repeated myself without the unintentional traditional royal voice. “What? Did she give this to you while she was here?”

Completely lacking any sense of urgency or guilt, Chrysalis said, “No, I’ve had that for years.”

“And you never told me about this why?” Ugh. This whole extreme, magical lung power was going to take some getting used to.

“Because you didn’t need the distraction, because I didn’t need suspicious attention from Princess Luna, and because I had more than enough changelings working on decoding it.”

I took a deep breath.

Okay. That was fair. I probably would’ve done the same in Chrysalis’s position. Who knew what was written in this? Maybe it had hundreds of Luna’s secrets that would make her look bad to an innocent, young bookworm. Giving that to me would certainly look like collusion with the enemy.

“So why did Celestia give this to you? What purpose does it serve?”

Chrysalis shrugged. “As a return favor for letting Pupa feed off of the Princess of Food, Celestia gave her the original copy of that letter–”

I opened my mouth, but Chrysalis interrupted my interruption. “It was non-magical and had no hidden elements.”

Well alright, then.

“Anyway, her instructions were to put this somewhere she wouldn’t be able to find it, but where you could retrieve it.”

My brows scrunched up. “So why are you giving me this now?”

“I told you it’s a distraction.”

No. No, that couldn’t be it. “You got permission, didn’t you.”

“Not exactly, but Celestia did ask if I still had it.”

“I see…” It wasn’t like I could fault Chrysalis for this in any way. I had my own letter to write to Celestia, after all. We did what we had to.

But this letter. If Chrysalis, with all her resources, couldn’t crack it, then I probably wasn’t going to be able to read it until Celestia wanted me to. How annoying.

What did Celestia even gain from this? If she wanted to send me a letter at a specific time, she could’ve just sent it then. And if it was some sort of gambit for after she was defeated, why go through the trouble of giving it to me like this? If she expected me to accidentally stumble onto the key, she could just put the unencrypted letter there instead.

So if that wasn’t it, then I was thinking about this the wrong way. Whatever the letter was actually for, what did sending it out early accomplish? Chrysalis said it was supposed to be hidden somewhere Celestia wouldn’t be able to find it. That had to be significant.

Or…this could all be a red herring and a time waster, but assuming this had a real solution, why send a letter somewhere you couldn’t find it? If I were doing that, it would be either because I didn’t want to read it, or I wanted to be able to say I hadn’t altered it since it was written. Ponies did the latter all the time in engineering and science, although on a much less serious level.

For the moment, assume the former. If I didn’t want to read something…well, that was a silly notion, but what would be the point of writing something I wouldn’t ever read?

I idly flipped through a few hundred books in my library as I tried to think of any real answer to that question. The best I came up with, that is the least insane idea which could actually work that I came up with was that I wanted to forget something forever myself, but I didn’t want the knowledge permanently lost.

But that…seemed pretty weak as an explanation. There were a million better ways to do that than what Celestia had done, and there was a very real chance I would’ve just burnt this letter to ash when it was given to me.

So that idea was right out. Reductio ad absurdum.

Then that most likely meant Celestia wanted to establish that she’d written this years ago and hadn’t altered it since.

“Can I assume that if I asked every single changeling, they’d all tell me that you got this at the same time, with the same story, and that this is the original text?”

Getting no response, I repeated myself a little louder. This time Chrysalis heard me halfway across the library.

“I can’t vouch for one-hundred-percent, but certainly every last one that worked on it for years would love to regale you with stories of their frustrations.”

Yeah, no thanks. It would be the nice thing to do to let them vent at me, all things considered, but I didn’t have to be that nice to everyone to be a good friend or a good princess. I’d drive myself insane.

She knew.” Mother suggested.

Knew what?” I asked hesitantly, but we both knew what Mother meant.

She knew who you were. She knew you were sun-blessed, she used you somehow, and this is her proof if she needs it.

Pft. If so, then she obviously didn’t use me very well, considering where the two of us now stood. Celestia wasn’t that incompetent, therefore she hadn’t known.

You’re just dredging up irrational fears,” I retorted.

She was awfully calm when we met her, you know. Well, at least until we pushed her buttons. And Cadance said Celestia was pretty upset when she first left for Mona. One of those was an act.

Or Cadance straight up lied to my face for Celestia,” slipped out of me before I thought about what I was thinking. Sorry, Cadance, I didn’t mean that. And I knew you couldn’t tell a lie to save your life, too.

Anyway, there was another possibility. “Maybe Celestia just has a really good backup plan and she calmed herself down.

After I’d thought about that for a while, Mother said, “Fair enough. It’s a good thing you asked her to share her new plan, isn’t it?

Indeed it was.

But as for this letter… It was probably best I didn’t feed my paranoia right now. Some other time, perhaps. I’d mention it to Luna, but there wasn’t much else I could actually do with it. Sigh…

I waited until I heard the thud of books returning to their shelves, then called out in the general direction the noise had come from.

“But seriously, Chrysalis, I do consider you a friend. Or at the very least a mentor figure. If nothing else, please come to visit once in a while, alright?”

Eventually, Chrysalis shouted back, “I’ll think about it.”


With a sci-fi vhroosh sound, the door to bridge opened automatically to admit Chrysalis and myself. To this day, I still felt like facehoofing for letting Twinkleshine talk me into adding that sound effect to otherwise silent doors.

Well anyway, after exchanging hellos with most of the crew, I locked onto the pony I needed to talk to at the moment.

“Berry Pinch, Spike, could you two leave us alone for a few minutes?”

The two foals looked to each other, then Berry Pinch asked, “Are we in trouble?”

I raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t, but you might be now. What makes you think you are?”

“What? Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.”

As explicitly nonchalant as possible, Spike added, “We didn’t do anything. We’ve just been minding our own business.”

Right. Like I believed any of that. I supposed we’d just have to wait and see what they’d gotten up to.

“Okay. But please run along, you two. I need to speak with Berry Punch alone.”

And with that, Spike and Berry Pinch went off suspiciously quick.

“Foals, right?” I said to Berry Punch.

“I’m sure it’s nothing bad. They probably just set a book on fire again.”

I sighed. Not even my magic could bring a book back from a dragonfire pyre. It was always such a tragedy when we lost one, and nopony really understood that but me.

“Anyway, what did you want to talk about?”

“Well…two things, I guess.” One of my forehooves awkwardly rubbed up and down my opposite leg. “First, I really want to thank you for foalsitting Spike as much as you have over the years. I know you didn’t sign up for that, but it’s been a huge help.”

“Oh, no worries. Spike is such a dear, and he and Pinch get along so well. It’s been no trouble at all.”

“Still, thank you. And the other thing…” I really should have asked this years ago, and I was a horrible pony for not doing so. “How – how are you doing?”

Berry Punch emitted a confused sounding, “Fine?”

That she’d completely missed my point was a good sign. Still, I had to make sure.

“I meant with your past. Noteworthy, and the Everfree Forest, and all that.”

“I… I’m okay.” A few seconds passed before Berry Punch relaxed and readopted a normal stance. “Yes. Yes, I’m okay.”

“Are you sure? If you need anything, or if you just need somepony to talk to, you can come to me.”

Berry Punch shook her head. “Thank you for asking, but I’ll be fine. Cherry Berry helped me a lot already, and watching Pinch grow up and doing so well…” She turned to watch our foals running around and doing whatever it was that normal foals did. “It’s healed the wound.”

I studied the warm smile sprouting on Berry Punch’s face. So far as I could tell, it appeared to be completely real.

Excellent. My neglecting her emotional scars, as bad as that’d been, at least hadn’t made things worse. That was more than a little relieving. I’d taken responsibility for her recovery when I’d recruited her, and I’d just left her to drift alone. I swore, sometimes I just didn’t know what I’d been thinking.

It was kind of sad that I’d missed my chance to help Berry Punch, but…well, the important thing was that she’d gotten better. I didn’t have to be the pony who did that for her, especially not when I had somepony even worse off to help already.

“Alright, well, that’s all I wanted. Thank you.” I turned to address the crowd in general, which had grown while the two of us had talked. “And now that everypony is here, we need to decide what we want to do.”

It took a minute or so for the chatter to die down and for everypony to gather. Once that was done, however, Chrysalis spoke up first.

“Whatever we do, I want to retrieve my daughter. We’ve been apart too long.”

I nodded to Chrysalis. I could certainly make that happen.

“Any other thoughts?”

Twinkleshine was the next to speak. “How far can you teleport?”

Oh, I knew where this was going. And I had to admit I liked it.

“I have no idea. But presumably anywhere worth visiting.”

“Oh my gosh!”

In a frenzy of flying papers, a scroll crossed the room to come to a rest in the center of our circle. It unrolled in midair suspended in Twinkleshine’s magic to reveal a star chart. An illusory arrow appeared over one particular part before Twinkleshine simply magnified the chart instead for all of us to see clearly.

“This star has a planet in the habitable region, and it’s supposed to have an atmosphere.”

“A breathable atmosphere?” Cherry Berry asked.

“That’s entirely beside the point,” Twinkleshine replied.

I was pretty sure that it was not beside the point, but who was I to trample over Twinkleshine’s enthusiasm?

And who knew? If we got lucky, maybe we’d stumble upon another civilization that an ancient alicorn had started tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe we’d find some bizarre world where everypony walked on two legs and didn’t know how to use magic, or a world where everypony had evolved into a sentient energy field.

“I’m fine with a little space exploration to pass the time,” I said. “But keep in mind that I’m only free for a few days. I have things that I absolutely need to get done and ponies that I must meet with.”

Dash added, “Flutters and I are down with that, too.”

A general chorus of agreement of varying enthusiasm continued on until everypony was on board.

“Alright, then. We’ll make a quick stop at Equus to pick up Pupa and any supplies we might want, then we can go visit some planets.”

Dancing on her hooves in excitement, Twinkleshine asked, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Can I say it, Twilight?”

Ugh. “Alright, go ahead.” It wasn’t like she really needed permission.

“Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Nebulous. It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no pony has gone before.”

And on that note, I teleported us back toward Equus, where many a pony has gone before.


Prereaders – Starlight Nova, Strange Reasoning, The Great Eater

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