Chapter Four - A Small Problem
It was a lovely summer night on the edge of the Everfree Forest. Or at least it was as nice as nights get on the edge of the Everfree.
“Okay, calm down, Twilight,” I said, my voice the exact opposite of nice, lovely, serene, and all those other pleasant words. On my horn was an imitation suppressor, one enchanted to be unnoticeable to touch on the inside so I could wear it all night, every night without tearing it off and destroying it. I nervously kicked a rock into one of the craters my flares had made that I hadn’t bothered to clean up yet.
“You’ve put this off for far too many seasons now. You know how to teleport, you’ve extracted your horrible vengeance against your suppressor, Luna’s waiting on standby, you’ve calculated a minuscule probability of flaring if you make a lot of short, quick jumps. And even if you do, you’re so desensitized to the pain that your flare should scare everything off long enough for you recover enough to flee for your presently mortal life.
“You can do this. There’s only horrible pony-eating, magic-resistant beasts of unstoppable terror and impenetrable stealth that tear through shields like butter lurking in these woods. Nothing you can’t manage.”
Oh Luna, what was I doing? I was going to die, and my family wouldn’t even know where my corpse would end up as fertilizer. I didn’t want to become fertilizer! Maybe I should go back. I should go back and reevaluate the necessity of this whole excursion.
No. I shook my head and turned to face the forest again. I couldn’t go back home. This trip to the old castle was too important. I had to do it. Even if I weren’t picking up part of Luna’s Hearth’s Warming present to me two seasons late, I had to follow up on my only real lead on the elements.
If only the Everfree didn’t make my legs quiver at the very thought of entering.
But what did I need legs for? I was going to teleport! I promptly sat myself down on the ground and felt somewhat emboldened for the small victory of steadying my legs.
Riding off that courage, I closed my eyes, cast a light spell on myself, and set off my first teleport. Embarrassingly, I altered my destination at the last second to a mere meter past the tree line. Still, it was another small victory. I was inside the Everfree Forest.
I regretted opening my eyes immediately. The light spell I’d cast on myself was making the most terrifying shadows that falsely hinted at the presence of some terrible beast that’d wandered to the edge of the forest. Thankfully, I had the good fortune to be seated, or I probably would’ve stumbled over my legs fleeing as I sent off another teleport out of the forest.
Okay, new plan. I cast a cloud walking enchantment on myself and ripped a cloud from the sky with my telekinesis, silently apologizing to the Ponyville weather team. I then hopped on top of the cloud, made myself comfortable, and teleported far, far above the trees.
The next step was to cast a warming spell on myself, because it was freezing this high in the sky. I then checked the cloud for any degradation it might have been undergoing from the added heat, but fortunately, I found none.
Sighing, I looked down over the edge of the cloud and found myself more glad that I wasn’t afraid of heights than ever before in my life. Sure, I’d be a lot more vulnerable to the forest’s flying predators, but at least this way I wouldn’t be in the forest. It’d be much easier to dodge if something came at me, too.
Ugh… But what if I flared? I could bring my cloud lower; I could survive a shorter drop with branches to break my fall. But that was just asking for something hungry to notice me.
“Oh my gosh, don’t eat me!” I shouted as I teleported myself and my cloud away from whatever had snuck up on me. I then did what I should’ve done long ago and snuffed out my light spell. I had no need of it in the sky, and it would only draw attention.
Teleporting semi-randomly, I tried to locate whatever was assaulting me.
“Who,” the creature called again. I turned my attention towards the sound and found something I did not expect: an owlet.
I sighed as I let my next teleport spell fizzle, but the owlet had already noticed the glow of my horn and flew to join me. It landed on my back as if it were the most natural thing in the world and made itself comfortable.
“Well, this is…odd.”
Did I just randomly gain a pet?
“Um… Do you want to come visit some ruins with me?” I asked.
Unsurprisingly, the only answer I got was another, “Who.”
“Yeah… Right… I guess I’ll call you… Hmm… How about, Owlowiscious?”
Wow, this was awkward.
Anyway, I had a task to accomplish. If Owlowiscious flew away from teleport shock, then it flew away. Surprisingly feeling braver with the mere presence of the owl, I fired off the first of many teleports tonight. Owlowiscious didn’t fly away or even get up from where it rested.
Huh. Maybe it’d already been domesticated by somepony. Although that raised the question of how it’d ended up with me and who it belonged to. But those were questions for another time. I fired off another teleport.
And another, all in an near endless stream of pink, magical blinks with half-second pauses between. Fortunately, nothing noticed me so high up – or maybe nothing wanted to bother flying so high up to eat me – and I made it to my destination after well over two-hundred teleports and some questionable use of navigational skills.
I wasn’t anywhere near out of magic, but that’d still been exhausting on my horn. I collapsed onto my side on the cloud for some well-earned rest. Owlowiscious fluttered and landed on top of me again, this time nestling on my flank.
I lifted my head briefly to glance at the owlet. “You better not be leading momma owl here to eat me.”
Turning its head around one-hundred-eighty degrees to look at me, Owlowiscious said, “Who.”
Shivers ran through my body. That was creepy. Perhaps the creepiest thing I’d ever seen.
Sighing, I got to my hooves – with Owlowiscious now hitching a ride on my back – and teleported the two of us down to the front gate – if I could even call it that anymore – of the old castle. The large, wooden doors certainly blocked passage, but they were heavily damaged, and the vines growing along the walls had ruined the stonework and wedged the doors together. They’d probably fall down or crumble to pieces before they ever swung open again.
After a precautionary scry on the other side of the doors – I didn’t want to end up inside of a wall or something worse – I teleported inside. Time certainly hadn’t been any kinder inside the castle. The twin tapestries hung in the hall bearing Luna’s and Celestia’s cutie marks were still mostly intact, so they were probably enchanted, but everything else in the entryway gave the distinct impression of a ruin.
Ignoring the fallen sections of roof littering the ground, I took the last of three staircases on my left. It led down into the dark.
I recast my light spell to the slight annoyance of Owlowiscious and prepared a teleport to take me high into the sky at the first sign of anything living. At the end of the stairs, my hoofsteps echoed loudly through the corridor I’d landed in.
The echoes were worrying at first. Who knew what they would attract? But on the other hoof, I should be able to hear anything trying to sneak up on me long before it arrived. Still, there was no point in inviting trouble, so I cast a silencing spell on my hooves. It didn’t prevent the clattering of stray debris I knocked up, but my journey was much quieter for it.
Following Luna’s directions, I slowly made my way down the hallway, occasionally taking a turn when it split. I soon found myself at a second set of stairs leading deeper underground. I ventured down them and entered the second room on the right. The door was long gone along with whatever furniture that’d previously occupied this space.
All that remained were three marble bookcases lined with perfectly preserved books. Passing up the other tomes through sheer force of will, I located the innocent looking journals Luna had gifted me one by one until I had the full set of eleven suspended in my magic.
It was incredibly tempting to simply take all the books with me. Sure, they were all in Old Equestrian, would’ve taken forever to read, and probably didn’t have anything interesting in them that I couldn’t get from a modern book, but they were books. They might even be the last of their kind!
I reached out for one that caught my eye. If I was translating right, it was called The Wonderful Magic of Storm Chaser. A minute or two of reading couldn’t hurt. I’d just read the abstract and the first few pages.
I sighed and put the book back. Owlowiscious was right. I should get back to what I came here to do.
Wait… Did I just pretend Owlowiscious was talking to me?
I strained my head to get a look at the owlet on my back. It was as small and innocent looking as ever. All it did in return was stare at me and offer, “Who.”
“Owls…” I said dismissively.
I forced myself to leave without looking back at the alluring presence behind me and shaped the stone walls shut for good measure. I did leave a note engraved into the stone that read, “This was a door,” in case anypony else ever came down here.
Anyway, now eleven books heavier, I made my way back upstairs to the entryway more quickly and confidently than I’d gone down. From what I’d seen of the castle so far, I doubted there was anything living inside of it. There hadn’t been any signs of an oft-walked path through the dust and debris, or even any disturbances at all. Nor had there been any damage to the castle that clearly wasn’t the work of plants and weather. Both were strong indicators of an empty ruin.
Thankfully, I also hadn’t spotted any bones, nor did I stumble upon anything worse, like a half-eaten pony struggling to reach a door, leaving a trail of blood behind her as she–
Bad imagination! This was not the time for that.
Taking one of Cadance’s trademark, deep, calming breaths, I emerged on top of the original staircase I’d taken and turned away from the main gates. Only a dozen or so steps ahead of me was a grand staircase that lead directly to the throne room where Celestia had last used the elements. If luck held out, their overwhelming magic would’ve left traces of itself in the area.
Well, to be fair, Luna and I weren’t actually holding out for luck. That level of magic almost always left traces. Really, it would be unlucky if I didn’t find something to work with, even after a thousand years.
Skipping the frankly ridiculous number of stairs, I teleported to the doorway at the top. Like most of the internal doors, the ones to the throne room were missing, although I could see what looked like half of one of them inside the throne room, as if somepony a little too eager to see Luna had knocked a bit too hard.
There was also a large boulder blocking most of the door, but I moved it aside easily enough. Looking around inside, the throne room was definitely the site of a battle. There was some strange pedestal…thing…that was remarkably untouched, but everything else had seen serious damage. The floor especially was scorched with missed attacks, and some spots on the carpeting – also intact like the tapestries – had conspicuous stains that were probably from blood.
Now came the long, boring part of tonight. I walked to the very center of the room and made myself comfortable. Even without prodding the ambient magic in detail, it was obvious there was an assortment of random spells present. There was sure to be a lot of background noise, though, like the spells preserving the tapestries. It was going to take a while to filter out all the junk.
At least an hour later, I’d proven myself right. There was so much noise in the background magic. I was even beginning to worry if I’d be able to succeed at all.
When I was a little over halfway done chewing on a vine for a snack – which I’d foolishly discovered I did not need to break out medical spells for – I finally caught a hint of unusual magic. Following it, its source was from above me, right out through the most damaged part of the glass ceiling.
Spotting a free roaming cloud in the sky, I teleported it down and myself up. Life was so much simpler with clouds. I couldn’t remember how I ever got by without them.
I was exposed to the open air now, but I had yet to hear a single hint of an animal while I was in the castle, so I kept my paranoia to an appropriate medium level as I worked.
And finally, finally, I found what I was looking for. Probably.
The magic I was poking at was the strangest mixture of warm and comforting. Of course, that wasn’t a strange mixture all on its own, but magic wasn’t supposed to feel like anything.
But, I thought to myself, if there were anything that would break the rules, it would be the strongest known magical artifacts. Knowing that they were called the Elements of Harmony sort of made it easier to accept that at face value, too. Not that I wouldn’t be experimenting on them once I finally got my hooves on them. This was just one more question to add to the list.
Anyway, I fired off a tracking spell now that I had the appropriate signature to look for. The elements were more than powerful enough for me to pick up on their magic from any reasonable distance, as well as any unreasonable distance.
I sighed when I felt the direction of the pull. Of course Celestia would be rude enough to hide the elements on the opposite side of the world. That wasn’t even within her sphere of control! The minotaurs lived there!
Well actually, that was a pretty good objection. Celestia wouldn’t put the elements somewhere were somepony random could stumble upon them.
I teleported a short ways into the forest on the opposite side of the castle from the throne room. When I’d cast the tracking spell, I’d felt the pull slightly in that direction, though mostly downward, and if my hunch was right, I should get a very different result where I was now.
I cast the spell again and grinned at my cleverness. Celestia had buried the elements beneath the castle!
Within a second I was on the ground and digging out a large corridor, shoving the ground out of the way into densely packed walls like a maddened mole. I’d just cast a fresh air spell – an important precaution Luna gave me back when I dug into the Canterlot mines – when I realized that I needed to be more careful.
Not because of the tunnel’s structural integrity. That was certainly a concern, too, but I knew how to deal with that.
No, the problem was magical. There was no way Celestia would leave the elements lying around without putting her centuries of experience to work protecting them from thieves with the best wards available to her. No doubt including many of her own invention that hadn’t been made public.
Yes, this would have to be a painstakingly slow process.
I spent the next fifteen or so minutes poking at the magic around me, checking, double checking, and triple checking for the slightest trace, the slightest hint, the slightest tiny disturbance of an enchantment or a ward in the immediate vicinity.
I paid special attention to finding teleport wards and made several inspections specifically for uncovering them. Teleport wards were the absolute worst, and I’d be as good as dead if I got caught in one.
Finding nothing, I dug straight towards my target – which was not straight down – another few dozen hooves and repeated the process.
Nothing. I dug some more. Still nothing. Again, and again I repeated the process, each time coming up with nothing.
A cold sweat soaked my coat. Had I missed something? Was Celestia so much better than me at magic that she could stitch her spells into the background magic and not leave a single inkling of their existence? Was she already on her way here with the entire royal guard, Shining included?
My breath turned raspy. I didn’t want to be banished for a thousand years! I didn’t even know if I could survive that!
Or worse, I could be flat out killed and have my entire family condemned for treason along with me!
And Cadance would be banished like Luna. Or – or locked inside a vat of acid forever with a tiny glimmer of hope for escape that would be crushed every time she tried until she was utterly broken inside.
And – and – and–
–and who! Who?
My mind scrambled for answers as to the question of who until I collapsed to the tunnel floor. In a moment of clarity at the point of exhaustion, I remembered Owlowiscious and let out a deep breath.
Now that I was too tired to spin in circles, I recognized my panic attack for what it was. There was no way Celestia could be that good. I was Twilight Sparkle. My special talent was magic. I was the future Alicorn of Magic. If I couldn’t find a hint of a spell at such a snail-like pace, then there was no spell to be found.
Confident, yet still cautious, I continued my descent.
Eventually, my patience was rewarded. I stumbled upon one – no, two spells.
I fell to my haunches. Now that I’d actually found something, I made a point to remove all of the sticky, unpleasant sweat from my body that I’d built up. And while I was at it, I gave myself a quick magical cleaning. Even I was offended by how I smelled after sweating so much and playing in the dirt.
Now then, I was very suspicious that there were only two spells; I’d have thought there would be a lot more. I made an extra long sweep for spells one last time but found nothing new.
I was strangely disappointed, and even a little insulted. This was a pretty flimsy defense that even a moderately competent ward breaker could deal with. Well, at least if she found the second spell first. I had to admit that one had been extraordinarily well-hidden, not that the first had been suspiciously obvious. Rather, the opposite was true; it’d been unsuspiciously difficult to find.
Anyway, first I had to carefully pick apart the second spell. It was set up to send a signal the moment the first spell, a proximity alarm, failed.
It would’ve been better to have the signal be continuous so I would have to trick the second spell into thinking I wasn’t messing with the first, but I could easily imagine listening to it constantly getting old after the first day or two, let alone after a millennium. I couldn’t blame Celestia for that oversight.
But she could have double cast the spell to have both watch the first spell and each other. Simultaneous deconstruction of both would have been a serious challenge that even I might not have been up to.
And really, there was no reason to stop at two. Why not three? Or four? Or a thousand? Well, maybe not a thousand. At some point she wouldn’t have been able to hide them so well, but my point stood. This spellwork was lazy and uninspiring for what it was guarding.
Oh well. I’d just think of this as the elements being gift wrapped and hoofed over to me with a silver bow on top.
With one last æthereal slice of magic, I dispelled the second spell. It wasn’t anywhere near my record time, but that was perfectly okay. I would be more concerned if I were taking this so lightly that I came close to finishing so quickly.
The hard part done, I quickly and easily scrubbed away the proximity alarm and returned to my digging, perhaps proceeding a little too quickly in my anticipation.
And at long last, after a full night of hard work, I broke into a small cavern. At first, I didn’t notice the faint blue glow emanating into my tunnel, since I, myself, was glowing, but that quickly changed.
I almost teleported away on reflex when I finally noticed, but I knew I should be fine. There weren’t any more actual spells inside, and I hadn’t been killed by some mechanical trap yet. If there were poison gases or the like, it’d be filtered out by my fresh air spell, too, so that wasn’t a problem.
Owlowiscious was quite eager to fly inside, but I grabbed it in my magic and pinned it to the ground. It wasn’t that I was jealous and wanted to be the first to see the elements. Definitely not. I just didn’t want it accidentally triggering something.
I cast a shield over myself, knowing that it would deflect anything that might be thrown at me. Then far less cautiously than I probably should’ve been, I stuck my head into the cavern.
On the floor there were some weird, semi-hallow, stalagmite-like, rock things on the ground filled with water. Floating on top of a few were lily pads with pink, glowing blossoms, or maybe they were lotuses. I’d never learned to tell the difference, and neither ever agreed with my stomach, so I didn’t particularly care to.
I also noticed a few stray, large, purple crystals much like the ones found in the mines in Canterlot. It would be interesting to follow up on the connection sometime later, but I let the mystery drop for now.
What I failed to see were the elements. I turned to examine the other half of the room.
My jaw fell to the floor.
It wasn’t the elements, but a glowing, blue tree made entirely of crystal with strange, ornament-like leaves hanging from its branches. The six-pointed star that symbolized magic and adorned my haunch was emblazoned in the center of the branches on the trunk. Below that, the tree bore Luna’s and Celestia’s cutie marks, although those two looked like they’d been carved into the tree, and rather crudely so at that.
On the end of five of the branches were large, blue crystals that practically oozed those spherical leaves, which, now that I looked closer, were glowing as brightly as the main part of tree. On each crystal was a small indentation that reminded me of the rupees dragons used as currency. When they weren’t eating them, that was.
But taking the entire tree in at once, if ever something were to be universally pointed to as beautiful, this tree would be it.
Grabbing myself with telekinesis, I floated down to the floor of the cavern and explored it in more earnest.
The chamber was small and sealed off to the world. Much to my disappointment, there was nothing interesting at the bottom of the pools of water. And the tree was as stunning from the back as it was from the front, although with less decoration.
But there were no Elements of Harmony. The tracking spell consistently pointed to the tree, no matter which direction I cast it from.
Getting pedantic about it, I tried to pinpoint exactly where on the tree I was being pulled to, and the spell sent me to an empty space between branches. If I were to make a hasty guess, I’d say that empty space was the circumcenter of the five rupee-shaped crystals.
Now as interested in investigating the tree as I was, I needed more information. I set an alarm spell for five minutes and cast a sleep spell on myself.
The next instant – from my perspective at least – Luna was standing in front of me.
“Complications?” she asked, to which I nodded my head.
“Everything went smoothly until the end. I found the magical signature of the elements, and I had time to follow it to the source, but all I found was a tree. It had your cutie mark on it, so I figured you’d know something.”
“Hmm, that’s unfortunate,” Luna said. “It seems you’ve been led to the Tree of Harmony. It’s where the elements came from.”
I raised an eyebrow. “So where did the tree come from?”
“Well, somepony must have made it. Magical artifacts with a useful purpose – and multiple purposes, too – don’t just randomly appear. I wonder if we can make another one.”
“Perhaps, but I’d imagine you have a more pressing question right now.”
Oh right. I looked at the non-existent ground of my empty dream with a blush. It was amazing how quickly I could get off-topic.
“So do you have any suggestions for finding the actual elements? Time might be a factor. I had to destroy a couple of spells in the area to get to the tree, and I don’t know how often Celestia checks or recasts them, if ever.”
Luna bit her lip for just an instant, but she soon said, “I think I know how we can solve this problem. The elements are born from the tree, true, but individually, they possess most of the magic. You could think of the elements as the fruit of the tree; they possess an unusually large amount of energy compared to the rest of the tree from whence they spring. If you can filter out the magical signature of just one of those fruits, you should be able to overcome the bias for the tracing spell to fix on the much closer tree.”
That made sense, at least to some degree. Luna had always treated the elements as a set, but they also each had their own name. Maybe it was more appropriate to think of the elements as six artifacts that were designed to work together instead of as six pieces of one artifact.
“If that doesn’t work,” Luna began, a prod of her hoof knocking me out of my train of thought as usual, “you can try tracing the flow of magic between the tree and the elements. That would, however, likely be significantly more difficult.
“Either way, why don’t you call it a night? You can try again tomorrow after taking your mind off it and getting a refreshing morning’s rest.”
It didn’t take me long to agree. It was getting pretty late, and my parents would be waking up soon from the magical sleep I’d put them in. I’d only done that as insurance in case one of them would have woken up for a midnight snack or something and decided to have a chat with me.
And besides, I was tired, and I was probably going to regret waking up in less than a minute.
I moaned as I felt all the stress I’d left behind again. Yep, I was not happy about waking up. I teleported high into the sky, bypassing the tunnel I’d made. Then remembering Owlowiscious, I teleported to my previous location instead of to the ground. I then teleported into the tunnel I’d made and recovered my still bound owlet.
“Sorry about leaving you behind, Owlowiscious. I don’t usually have somepony else with me on this kind of stuff.”
“Now let’s go see what Mom and Dad think of keeping you. Then I think both of us need to go to sleep.”
Frustrated beyond belief, I moved on to the last element: Magic. Every time I tried to attune to one of the others, I felt it squirm out of the way. I didn’t think it was impossible to succeed, it was just…frustrating. It was like trying to work a quill without magic.
I blew my frazzled mane out of my eyes and reached out with my magic.
“Finally!” I huffed. “What a pain in the flank!”
I let out a few angry breaths and tried to calm down with mixed results. At the very least, I had the Element of Magic’s magical signature available. It wasn’t much different from when I was tracking the elements as a whole, but there was definitely subtle quirks to find.
And find them I would! No matter how much it squirmed and protested, the element’s signature was mine now. All mine!
Oh, horseapples. Talk about a textbook example of a mad scientist. For crying out loud, the element wasn’t even alive.
Well…probably. There was a Tree of Harmony, but I didn’t know if was actually alive or not. I would guess not, but it was always a bad idea to make assumptions when dealing with ancient magical artifacts. I didn’t actually have any other experience with such things, but it seemed like one of those prudent common sense things.
Anyway, not wanting to deal with getting the Element of Magic’s signature ever again, I decided to get creative. Hopefully, this would work.
I turned my attention back toward the tunnel I’d walked in from again and pulled out a slab of stone. Another application of the stone sculpting spell, and the slab was crushed into sand.
The next step was rather simple. Just add heat. Lots and lots of heat.
Keeping my project far away from me on the other side of the room, I overloaded a heating charm to extraordinary levels. I had no idea how hot I needed the sand to be to melt it, but a few thousand degrees seemed to do the trick.
Interestingly enough, the molten ball still qualified as stone, so I kept using that specialized spell to save myself from jumping through the mental hoops I’d have to go through with telekinesis.
Utilizing half of the molten glass, I shaped it into a hollow sphere with a shell thick enough to allow it to be dropped without breaking. If I were doing this right. I vaguely remembered some step about…something or other that prevented glass from becoming brittle in the smelting process.
Whatever. If I messed up too badly, I could always copy the spell later onto something nicer.
Finally, I flash cooled the sphere and was rewarded with an ear piercing squeal as it shattered.
Well, that was nothing a quick repair spell couldn’t fix.
After the pieces reassembled back into their sphere shape, I was left with a fine example of the reason why I wasn’t a professional glass maker. The end result was, to put it simply, a mess. Oh, it had the right shape, and it was transparent…ish, but I’d clearly forgotten something important along the way, or I’d used the wrong ingredients, or something.
“Blegh.” I gagged just looking at my finished work up close. “I’ll buy something nice later or learn how to actually do this myself.”
I cast an illusion on the sphere. Even though it naturally looked like trash, that didn’t mean I had to put up with it. It now looked like a proper clear glass ball. For the next two steps, I removed all the air inside it and then teleported a flower petal from one of those glowing plants inside.
Lastly, I made a minor change to the tracking spell to make the pull kinetic instead of mental, and I cast it on the petal.
Satisfied with my work, I stared at the petal as it rose from the bottom with a smile. It settled against the glass mostly upward and a little bit to my left and backward.
It was perfect!
The elements, or at least the Element of Magic, were likely close by, too. Judging from the direction, they were somewhere in the castle.
Noticing the remains of my foray into glass making, I shifted some earth a few hooves beneath me and teleported it all inside where it would never to see the light of night or day again.
Now ready to go, I teleported myself back into my tunnel and eagerly cantered out, closing it behind me as I went. Just because I’d knocked out the spells that’d once been there, it didn’t mean I had to go leaving obvious clues as to my entry. If I were lucky, Celestia would think her spells just failed due to environmental factors. Or even better, she just wouldn’t come here at all between now and Luna’s return.
But those were pretty optimistic thoughts. I certainly wasn’t going to count on her not noticing eventually, and I doubted Luna would either.
Although, successfully stealing the elements would draw far more attention than a missing spell or two. Right now, all I really wanted to do was find them and keep an eye on their location. I wanted to filch them at the last possible moment. That way, Celestia would be distracted by Luna’s imminent return, and I’d have the highest chance of ascending on the spot, thus rendering the elements useless for ‘a while’, where a while meant something along the line of decades.
Anyway, I made it outside and sealed up the tunnel entrance. I frowned at the lack of grass, but it would grow back quickly enough. I was in the Everfree Forest, after all. For now, I just threw some leaves on the bare patch of dirt and looked at my shiny new compass…and frowned.
The petal had had a distressing dearth of movement from when I was right next to the Tree of Harmony.
I suspended the sphere such that my line-of-sight matched up perfectly with the petal.
Yep. I wasn’t crazy. It was pointing straight up into the sky.
That was sort of a neat trick. Get your enemies to search desperately on the ground for the elements, but have them floating around in the upper atmosphere all along. It certainly wouldn’t have been on the top of my list of hiding places to check.
Still, I double checked my tracking spell for problems, just to be sure.
When the spell turned out to be functioning properly, I summoned a cloud to me and hopped on, only to rethink my strategy moments later. The petal itself hadn’t moved despite my having moved a considerable distance. That meant the elements had to be pretty far up there, and I was not going to take the distance a dozen hooves at a time tonight. That would take seasons, and all I wanted to do tonight was to case the joint.
I couldn’t help but giggle. I’d been having a little too much fun with the dictionary recently.
All right, all right. I had my laugh, now back to the math.
“Pft… Heh…” I tried suppressing the second bout of laughter, but I was still too high from the previous one to resist. It was long before I recovered.
Settling into an occasional giggle at my unintentional near-rhyme, I marked the petal’s location with an illusion and teleported myself and my cloud roughly a kilometer toward home in two short jumps.
To my growing horror, when I looked at the compass, the petal hadn’t moved. It probably hadn’t moved even an angstrom.
“That’s – that’s a skinny right triangle. Let’s…um…go a bit farther…”
As I traveled back to Ponyville, I stared at the compass the whole way, paying no heed to the dangers of the Everfree.
“Oh please, oh please, little petal. Please won’t you move?”
I made it home without so much as a change in the petal’s location. I’d disturbed it’s position with every teleport with minor fluxes in my telekinesis, but every time it moved back to the exact same spot.
Abandoning my faithful cloud, I teleported to the front door and ripped it off its hinges. I dashed upstairs to my library and ripped that door off its hinges as well. I forced myself to slow down and focus my magic as I pulled an atlas off the shelves. I opened it to a map of Equestria and pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill at the same time.
I had to blow my mane out of my eyes again as I turned the pages of the atlas and calculated the multiplicative inverse of the tangent of point one degree at the same time. Eventually, I came to the page I needed: a scale map of Equestria.
Ponyville to the old castle was at least one-hundred kilometers.
My quill scribbled more furiously than ever as I turned my full attention back to the math I was doing. I had a number for the tangent. I rounded it off to a solid six-hundred. Then doing the multiplication…
Dear Luna, the elements were at least sixty-thousand kilometers off of the planet’s surface and probably several orders of magnitude farther than even that.
“No, no, no, no. This isn’t fair. This is completely unfair. This is cheating!” My quill snapped. “You can’t put the elements in space!”
I knocked myself out, barely remembering to set a wakeup call.
“Luna!” I shouted, eye twitching. “They’re – the elements–”
“I’m perfectly calm! The el–”
“Twilight Sparkle,” boomed Luna at the traditional royal level, causing me to take a step back from both the intimidation and the intensity. “Calm down.”
“I – they–” I sniffed once or twice and felt tears at the corners of my eyes. This was not how it was supposed to be.
Luna wrapped me in her wings, rubbed my mane, and cooed, “It’s okay, Twilight. Just tell me what’s wrong.”
“H-how…how f-far can Celestia t-teleport?”
“Oh, Twilight,” said Luna, obviously worried, “you didn’t get caught, did you?”
I shook my head. “I-I’m fine. And safe. Just…how f-far?”
“Well, I’m not sure of the exact distance, and we’ve never pushed ourselves to our limits, but we have both made trips from our celestial body to Equus when it was the opposite period of the night-day cycle. So to answer your question, unnecessarily far. Why do–”
Luna’s face turned to a frown in an instant. “Oh,” she said flatly. Then squeezing me tighter, she continued, “Oh, Twilight, I’m sorry for pushing this on you. Now that you mention it, it is a rather obvious hiding place. But all hope is not lost. We merely need to reevaluate our options.”
I looked up at Luna, wanting to believe. She had a small smile like everything would be alright, but it seemed so hopeless.
“First, we should identify the primary concerns. Or just the concern, in this case.”
Luna looked at me expectantly, and I gave a weak smile in return. It was just like her to turn this into a lesson.
“Celestia wants to banish you again with the elements.”
“Not quite,” Luna said.
It was rubbing salt in the wound, but getting a question wrong was a familiar hurt, one I was used to and could bear.
“The problem is not, ‘Sister wants to banish me with the elements,’ but rather, ‘Sister wants to banish me,’ an important distinction to make. I do not believe she could do it alone without the elements, but…”
But what? Who else could possibly wield that kind of power? I certainly wasn’t going to be forcibly ascended and conscripted to the cause.
Trixie? Please. Trixie was a decent enough mage, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
Discord? That – that would just be insane. Even Celestia wouldn’t purposefully release Discord. Then who–
I would’ve facehoofed, but Luna still had me in her wings. “Luna, Cadance is awful at magic. And I mean that in the nicest possible way, but she’s just abysmal. There’s no other word for it.”
“Too true,” Luna chuckled. “But she works perfectly well as an alicorn-grade battery. Keep that in mind for future discussion.”
“So…I just need to keep Cadance out of the way? I might be able to…”
“We do need to keep my sister from ganging up on me two versus one, but you won’t be able to prevent her from abducting my niece when the time comes. You do not have the raw power, and my niece does not have the skill, so it is a fruitless effort.
“This limits our options significantly. We either need the working elements ourselves or a second alicorn.” Luna turned her gentle petting into a gentle noogie. “And the second option sort of makes the first redundant, doesn’t it?”
“So,” I began, “I need to find some other way to ascend? And we ignore the elements?”
“No. Whatever else happens, we cannot ignore the Elements of Harmony. Even if my sister were not the one to wield them, they are what you might call a game breaker. If we are forced to fight against them directly, we will lose. It is as simple as that.
“As for finding another way to ascend, I still highly recommend against that. It is extremely dangerous. I didn’t want to tell you this, but my niece was incredibly lucky. I know of at least fifty other ponies who failed to ascend before her and died in the process.”
A shiver crawled up my body. Ascend only with the elements. Very good to know.
“Then between now and the final confrontation,” I said, getting my mind off self-destructing, “I need to steal the elements, right?”
Luna nodded. “The closer to the fight, the better. I have no doubt you can find a way to make the elements hard for my sister to track while they are in your possession, but that is a risky venture. Ideally, you would simply ascend as soon as you entered their presence. You could then fly away, never so much as touching them. Not that you couldn’t also move them somewhere else and make my sister’s life miserable as she tries to hunt them down.
“So, Twilight, what are your options for obtaining the elements?”
“Hmm… Well, if somepony else can wield them” – I looked up to Luna for a direct answer and got a nod – “then I guess it would be Trixie that would wind up with them. If she had them in her possession for any significant length of time, I could probably steal at least one from her. Assuming Celestia didn’t watch them like a hawk. Stealing one would be enough, right?”
“Not quite, Twilight. But that is a good point to raise. The elements are only truly useful as a whole. However…” Luna trailed off, expecting me to finish. And for once, the answer was obvious to me.
“However the chances of Celestia not watching them like a hawk are essentially zero. And that doesn’t resolve the two alicorn problem.”
Of course, that was all under the assumption that Trixie would wind up with the elements, which seemed unlikely. Anypony else could be substituted into Trixie’s place without changing the argument. Anypony except–
“And if Celestia’s wielding them,” I said, “then she’d no doubt have them constantly at hoof until the battle was over. I’d never get a chance to steal any of them from her. So really, I have to obtain them before Celestia goes to retrieve them if we’re to have any chance at winning.”
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach as what I just said sank in. That was the whole reason I’d run crying to Luna to begin with.
“That is pretty much what it comes down to,” Luna agreed. “The question you need to ask, then, is how.”
How indeed. Luna must have had an idea, or she wouldn’t have led me down this whole train of logic. She must have been railroading me into something. If only I could figure out what.
Well, when in doubt, start with identifying the deadline.
“If Celestia has hidden them this long,” I began, “she’ll probably delay picking them up until the last possible moment.”
“I would agree with that. That means you have a time limit of roughly six-and-a-half years.”
That was a long time. And yet on the astronomical scale, it was so short. What could I possibly do in that amount of time? Think, Twilight. Think.
Despite my command to think, my brain was not producing ideas.
Argh! There had to be an answer! Luna wouldn’t be sitting here comforting me so easily if there weren’t.
Frustrated, I reconsidered the problem from the very beginning.
What resources did I have?
There was myself, the strongest – but semi-unreliable – unicorn in the world. Not exactly a resource I didn’t consider very often in my plans.
I had an essentially unlimited amount of bits from Luna. That translated to any material resources I might need, but it wasn’t much of a solution on its own.
I had lots of contacts through my family and through Luna, as well as the ear of–
That was one more time I had wanted to facehoof but had found myself blocked by Luna’s wings, and for the same reason, too! Still, I had objections.
“Even if I managed to convince or to trick her, Cadance is untalented at magic. She won’t be able to learn teleportation in six years. And if my flares are a valid point of comparison, trying to funnel her power through me would fry my horn long before I made it to the moon or anywhere else.”
Luna just smiled down at me.
What was I missing? Surely she didn’t want me to try tricking Celestia. That had no chance of working. I might be able to fool her for a second, but she was too powerful. She could take care of me with pure brute force if I tried anything. She could probably kill me in the process of ascending, too.
Chuckling, Luna hinted, “I used to have a rather silly nickname: Sailor Moon.”
What? That didn’t make any sense. It was total cryptic nonsense. Well, it was the kind of nonsense a pony would expect from her ancient, wizened, magic teacher. But that wasn’t the point! Cryptic nonsense was…was…
Hmm… Something I’d once told Twinkleshine came back to me. Technically, without gravity holding one down, it wasn’t that far from the Equus to space.
“Luna, how fast do you think I could get a…a spaceship moving with magic?”
“Very fast, Twilight. Very fast indeed.”