Chapter Two - A New Normal

Dodge Junction Station

Dodge Junction, Equestria

First Summer Moon 8, 1 LE

The sun shone bright overhead, chasing off the lingering chill of eternal night. The last two days had, in order to return to proper summer weather, stretched inordinately long, but nopony complained, not even those in the dusty, desert town of Dodge Junction at the edge of Equestria. The sun’s warm rays were worthy of celebration on their own, but for one alicorn in disguise, they meant so much more.

Cadance, with the appearance of an ordinary pink pegasus, stepped inside Dodge Junction’s train station. She bought a ticket for Canterlot and picked up yesterday’s issue of The Canterlot Post to pass the time while she waited for her ride home. She’d have much preferred today’s, but she was in the middle of nowhere at a dead end on the rail line. She would take what she could get.

After finding a sunny bench to relax on while she waited for the train, Cadance settled in to catch up on the news. The headline read, ‘Princess Luna Returns!’ which brought a wide smile to her face. Everything had worked out, then. Nightmare Moon was no more. Twilight had finally made friends and taken up responsibility for the Elements of Harmony. Celestia and Luna were reunited. Even better, when she got back to Canterlot, she could finally get the six bits Luna owed her – with over a thousand years of interest, of course.

A chuckle escaped Cadance at the thought. She doubted Luna would find it amusing, at least not at first, but Celestia most certainly would.

‘A thousand years ago,’ the article proper read, ‘Nightmare Moon (yes, she’s real; see bogeymare, page 3) attempted to bring about eternal night. Although she was defeated, it came at a cost. Equestria lost one of its diarchs (see government, page 5) that day. The spell Princess Celestia utilized to banish Nightmare Moon to the moon caught her sister (see Princess Luna, page 2) in the blast.’

A little disingenuous, Auntie, but technically not inaccurate. Cadance could certainly testify to Celestia’s poor aim with banishment spells, so that part of the story certainly held up.

‘Fortunately for Princess Luna, when Nightmare Moon managed to break free, our princess returned with her hot on her tail.’

Cadance frowned. That’s…not right. Perhaps Celestia had decided to really stretch the truth to ensure Luna’s good treatment?

‘In Princess Celestia’s absence, Princess Luna fought Nightmare Moon–’

Cadance’s eyes shifted back to read that again.

‘Princess Luna fought Nightmare Moon–’

That couldn’t possibly be true by any definition of the word, but Cadance pressed on into the article in hope of an explanation.

‘–throughout the recent so-called eternal night. The princess ultimately triumphed over Nightmare Moon with the assistance of the soon-to-be crowned Princess Twilight Sparkle (see Princess Twilight, page 4).’

Stunned, Cadance lost her hold on the newspaper. A strong gust of wind nearly pulled it away from her, but she snapped out of her daze and tightened her grip. She dove back into the story, reading furiously while wondering what bizarre parallel world she’d gotten lost in. At the very least, Twilight was a few years too young to have fully come into her own.

‘Speaking of, when Princess Luna finally resumes her role as Equestria’s Lunar Diarch after her thousand year long absence, Princess Twilight is set to assume the role of Solar Regent. “Why?” I hear you ask. It is this reporter’s solemn duty to inform you that Nightmare Moon banished Princess Celestia to the sun.’

Cadance gasped in horrified realization. She hadn’t thought Nightmare Moon capable of such subterfuge. Worse, Twilight was in terrible danger, and she didn’t even know it.

‘I had the opportunity to speak with Princess Luna, who commented on the matter.

‘“When I returned to Equestria, I expected my sister to be ready for us and immediately incapacitate or banish Nightmare Moon. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Indeed, the tables turned on her with Nightmare Moon banishing her to the sun. I’d hoped she would be able to return after we defeated the pony who cast the spell. Unfortunately, such was not the case, which leaves us with little option but to let the banishment run its course.

‘“Princess Twilight and I will, of course, be attempting to free her early. We, however, expect this to be a fruitless endeavor. My sister did, after all, leave me on the moon for a millennium. I would be very…miffed, I believe is the modern word, to discover that was by choice.”’

Cadance didn’t bother reading the rest of the paper. She didn’t wait for the train. She had no time for either. Instead, she took off into the air and climbed high up into the sky. Once she’d gained the necessary altitude for quick travel, however, she paused to contemplate her course of action.

The Badlands lay to the south, a desolate, inhospitable stretch of land. Beyond it rose a lush, vibrant forest in stark contrast where, unless Cadance was much mistaken, her best potential allies for dethroning Nightmare Moon made their home.

To the north lay Canterlot, Twilight, Shining, and all of Cadance’s friends.

A decision had to be made.

Canterlot Castle

Canterlot, Equestria

First Summer Moon 8, 1 LE

After the chaos of the last few days and the exhausting basic combat training Luna had put Twilight through before then, a nice, mindless, magical task like updating her wards was just what the doctor ordered. A mixed expression settled onto her face as she considered their origin.

Princess Celestia had, so many years ago, insisted upon installing a veritable battery of protective wards upon her new student’s tower in the castle. At the time, Twilight had been grateful to have her own private space at her second home and had thought nothing more of it. As she grew older, she’d pondered their necessity. It wasn’t like she was important, after all.

But then the princess had started indulging her and revealing secrets that validated all of the security. She’d never asked why the princess had been so free with information around her, and that had been her mistake. Now, as she felt her borrowed wings shift at her sides, she understood everything: Princess Celestia had been preparing her for an inevitable role in government.

Just perhaps not the one which she’d fallen into.

“There.” Twilight cut the flow of her magic. “I’ve added you to the wards. You can come and go as you please without having to subvert them.”

Luna turned away from the collection of framed photos she’d been browsing with an approving nod. “We’re able to speak freely here, then?”

“It’s one of the most secure places in the castle. Only family has access.”

“Oh? Why, Twilight, I’m flattered.”

With a roll of her eyes and a slight shake of her head, Twilight muttered, “Every family has a black sheep.” She heaved a sigh. “So what now?”

“Now? Now we begin the most difficult task of all where all our power is meaningless: governing.”

That hardly answered the question, but Twilight let it go. “I can’t believe everypony is buying this farce.”

“Please,” Luna scoffed. “I just defeated the literal embodiment of everypony’s foalhood fears. With my sister’s most faithful student at my side supporting my story, I might add, who happens to be an alicorn herself. Of course they believe it. And why shouldn’t they? They know nothing of me but my heroics, my species, and my command over the heavenly bodies.”

That last part came across with a grumble. Luna had made no secret of her displeasure at being forgotten, warts and all. But Equestria’s core legal framework, the diarchy, remained intact even if its execution had fallen by the wayside. Without any historical baggage, reclaiming her throne had been trivial.

Twilight changed the subject. “You’re really just going to let me loose in the government?”

“Of course.” Luna adopted a sardonic smile and continued, “That’s how a diarchy works, but I understand your confusion. You were my sister’s student, after all. She’s been rather shamelessly ruling as a monarch for the past one thousand years.”

There was little Twilight could say against that, especially when Luna’s first act had been to fill the vacant Solar Throne with a peer instead of a yes-mare. Even so, she’d not expected to be given so much latitude. Really, she shouldn’t. She wanted the opportunity, of course, and she felt she could grow into the role eventually, but she had so little experience. And taking Princess Celestia’s throne felt…sacrilegious.

Luna, naturally, picked up on her reticence. “You have concerns?”

“Yes!” Twilight said. “No,” she quickly revised. “I just…”

Luna summoned a pile of cushions from across the room. As she made herself comfortable, she invited Twilight to do the same. Perhaps it was petty to stand for the mere sake of being contrary, but Twilight was allowed a few moments of irrational pettiness.

To this mild display of defiance, Luna merely shrugged and sank down further into her pillows. “My sister and I were not born into royalty either. We were offered the throne in a time of renewed strife between the pony tribes. It came with the expectation that we would bring balance. In time, we did, and we grew accustomed to our role, but the discomfort of ruling another’s kingdom lasted for years. Decades, honestly. The best advice I can give you is to rule as you see fit. It is…a mistake to attempt otherwise.”

Twilight raised a curious eyebrow. There was a story there for certain, but as Luna didn’t elaborate, she said, “That doesn’t stop me from making my own mistakes.” The thought alone terrified her far more than Nightmare Moon ever had. And it wouldn’t be just her suffering the consequences for them.

“You will err,” Luna allowed. “But you will learn. And therein lies the strength of the diarchy. There is no single point of failure. We will check each other’s missteps. I won’t pretend to be fully acclimated to the modern era anymore than I believe you’re ready to dive headfirst into a position of such responsibility. Together, however, we will successfully steer the ship of state.”

It was a nice thought. It might even be true. But Twilight knew that didn’t encompass the entirety of Luna’s motivation for putting her on the Solar Throne. Nor did neutralizing a potentially powerful enemy. In all honesty, once she’d had the time to truly sit down and think, she’d found she didn’t understand much of this arrangement. But now that she and Luna had a moment to themselves, she could start tearing down the veil of mystery.

“Princess Celestia would serve that role for you much better than I would.”

A dismissive snort met that fact. “Too well,” Luna retorted. “Were I so inclined to tolerate her presence, she would overshadow me. I am not interested in repeating history.”

“Cadance, then.”

“Despite my sister’s bad habit of shoving work off onto her, I would not put a house guest on an Equestrian throne.”

What? A house guest? No, not important. Twilight shook off her confusion. “Fine. But me?”

“Why not you?”

In a moment of perfect self-awareness, Twilight replied, “You…don’t know me very well, do you?” Her anxiety attacks and OCD hardly made her fit for a high stress, high responsibility role in government, let alone the Solar Regent. Throw her perfectionism into the brew, and that made her a simmering cauldron waiting to explode. She’d thought Luna had learned everything about her from Princess Celestia, both the good and the bad, but perhaps there were some significant holes in that information.

“No, nevermind.” Luna would understand in time. “What if I start organizing against you?”

Luna quirked an eyebrow. “Do I need to keep you on a leash?”

Although she hated to admit it, Twilight let out a morose, “No,” and looked away. Their interests were remarkably well aligned when one removed Princess Celestia from consideration. And even when you don’t, whispered a small voice she ruthlessly ignored.

“Then I trust you’ll keep such resistance purely political with sound judgment according to your own beliefs. That’s the entire point of you having the throne.”

It really did frustrate Twilight how confident and at ease Luna was in her victory. If Twilight were in those horseshoes, she knew she’d be a paranoid mess. She had a hard enough time being a mere semi-willing accessory.

“On that note, there is a matter we must discuss.”

Twilight turned her gaze back onto Luna and raised her brow in silent question.

“Scheduling. I must be awake at night to fulfill all of my duties. I dread to see what’s become of the Dream Realm in my absence. And you” – Luna smirked and gestured toward Twilight’s balcony where her telescope sat waiting for the night sky to emerge – “are an infamous burner of the midnight oil.”

Blushing, Twilight defended herself with a simple but effective, “So what?” The stars were beautiful no matter who arranged them, and the night had a quiet peace the day never did.

“My preference is to sleep after raising the sun and begin work in the afternoon rather than sleeping through the afternoon and waking at moonrise.”

That actually sounded like a dream come true. “Sounds nice,” Twilight admitted with a calculated aloofness. Best not to give Luna too much ammunition to use against her.

“Indeed. However, this would require us to shift our government’s hours of operation to sync with our own schedules. How well do you think this will go over?”

“Hmm… Not…great,” Twilight guessed. It would inevitably produce a ripple effect in all other business. Those with government contracts would have to adjust first, and then the ponies they worked with would have to shift their hours of operation, and so on and so forth. Restaurants would perhaps have the hardest time as they tried to cater to shifting meal times and an eventual dramatic change in culture. Perhaps farmers as well, since they worked best in daylight. “We could phase it in over time across several departments to reduce the cultural shock and economic impact. We have direct contact with only a small fraction of our government, so it should be possible to change our own schedules immediately with some careful planning. I’ll get started on the proposal and have it finished before the week ends if I can.”

“Excellent.” Luna rose from her cushion. As she moved to leave, she placed a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder as she passed. “Glad to be working with you, Princess.”

And it was only then that Twilight realized she’d leapt at the chance to reorganize the government with the same eager glee that always accompanied her own personal scheduling and list making. Luna hadn’t asked for her to do it, nor vaguely implied she should, nor even suggested they would even more forward with the idea. She’d just assumed and taken the task for herself. A groan escaped her, and she fell to her rear as she buried her face in both her forehooves. This was it. She’d completely fallen to the darkness.

Luna chuckled as she left. When she was at the door, Twilight called out for her to wait. If Luna wouldn’t answer her original question directly, Twilight would just have to approach it from another angle.

“What would you have done if I’d refused to work with you?”

“What do you think I would have done?” Luna retorted dismissively.

“Kill me?” It was one of the options Luna had given Twilight at the ‘crossroads of her destiny’. Although now that she thought about it, that would’ve been rather difficult what with her being immortal and all. Perhaps a full memory wipe would serve as a viable alternative.

Luna rolled her eyes. “Give me some credit, Twilight.”

“You said you would.”

Nightmare Moon said she would.” Luna leveled an expectant look at Twilight.

“But you are–” The full depth of her failure hit Twilight just then. “Oh. You would have rescued me from yourself and lied to me like everypony else.”

“Precisely. The damage was done either way. I’d already shaken you from the path my sister set out for you.”

Even having come to terms with that fact – or so Twilight liked to pretend – it still came as a heavy blow when brought up so casually.

“In the end, it was only a question of whether I could trust you with the full truth or not.”

And that brought this conversation fully back around to the big mystery. It made no sense for Luna to take that gamble and introduce such a large variable into her plans. “Why did you even bother to find out?” To Twilight, although she couldn’t put her hoof on precisely why, it felt like if she could just answer that one single, solitary question, she would understand everything about Luna’s actions and motivations.

Luna didn’t answer with the promptness Twilight had come to expect from her. Instead, she first mulled over her words. Eventually, she said, “You’ll have to decide that one for yourself. You wouldn’t believe any answer I gave you.”

I certainly don’t believe that. Which, when Twilight considered it, only validated Luna’s response. How frustrating. And, of course, Luna slipped out the door while she considered how to press for a better answer.

With a skip in his step and a letter held aloft in his magic, Shining made his way through the castle. Cadance had returned to Canterlot and wanted to meet up for a picnic date. Sure, she wanted Twilight there as well, but that was understandable. There’d been a lot of changes to their lives recently. It would be good to catch up.

Determining Twilight’s location was easy enough. He did, after all, command the entire Royal Guard from the brass down to the ponies currently assigned to protect her. In this particular instance, she was in her tower. A curious place, isolated from the castle proper but within its walls, the tower suited her needs well. It had room for a small library, the first several floors were fortified for magical experiments and storage, accessible only from the living space above, and the view of the night sky was to die for.

On his way up the stairs to Twilight’s front door, Shining ran into Princess Luna on her way down. He stepped aside and slipped into a salute. “Good evening, Your Highness.”

“Captain Armor.” Princess Luna slowed to a stop and gestured for Shining to be at ease. “You appear to be in an exceptional mood this evening.”

Without knowing if Princess Luna knew he was courting her niece, Shining felt it best to keep his response simple. “I have a date tonight.” He’d let Twilight spring precisely with whom on her in his place some other time.

For now, at least, Princess Luna remained in good cheer with a knowing smile on her face. “I’ll not keep you, then, Captain. Before I depart, however, one question. How often does Twilight overwork herself?”

“Have you forced her to go to bed within the past day?”

“Ah.” Princess Luna understood immediately. “Thank you for the warning. I’ll have to teach her delegation as soon as possible.”

“Heh. We’ve had some success with that already. She has her number one…” A frown slowly emerged on Shining’s face. Now that he brought it up, he hadn’t seen Spike around the castle since Twilight’s return. Had something happened?

Princess Luna cleared her throat. “You were saying, Captain?”

“Ah. Has she told you about Spike?” Upon receiving a shake of the head, Shining said, “You should get the full story from her sometime. In short, she hatched a dragon egg when she was a filly and named him Spike. She’s his guardian now, and he usually helps her out with the little things she’s comfortable delegating to him. Mostly dictation and library work.”

“Very interesting,” Princess Luna mused. After a few moments, she added, “I’d like to meet this Spike. But another day. Enjoy your date, Captain.”

With that, they parted ways. Princess Luna continued down the stairs while Shining climbed the spiral the rest of the way up to Twilight’s door. He knocked only to be told, “Go away!” He rolled his eyes and entered anyway.

Inside, he found Twilight slouched over on one of her tables at work with quill and paper floating in the air. Not a very royal image, but it was very her.

“It’s your prerogative to ignore the world, Your Highness, but–”

Without warning, Twilight teleported into a hug. “Shining!”

Once he recovered from the surprise, Shining wrapped an arm around Twilight’s shoulders. “Hey there, Twily. It’s good to see you too.” They separated, and he looked around the tower. “Where’s Spike?”

Twilight bit her lip.

A cold feeling crept into Shining’s chest. “Did something happen?”

“No! I mean, no, he’s fine. He’s still in Ponyville.” A very quiet and concerning, “Probably,” followed which Shining almost missed.

For the moment, however, Shining would give Twilight the benefit of the doubt and assume she hadn’t completely abandoned her ward. There were some rather extenuating circumstances recently for which she would be forgiven, after all. “Well, you should go bring him back soon. I ran into Princess Luna on her way out and mentioned him. She wanted to meet him sometime.”

Twilight froze in place.

“Come on, Your Highness,” Shining said with a roll of his eyes. “It’s nothing to worry over. We kept telling you to relax around Princess Celestia. Are we going to have to do the same with Princess Luna?”

Twilight, at last, unfroze. “Oh. Meeting Spike. That sounds like a great idea.” She teleported back to her table and made a show of getting back to work. “I’m just so swamped right now. And he really hit it off with…Fluttershy and Rarity, I think it was. I’d hate to take that away from him. He’s had so much trouble making friends here.”

“Pot, meet kettle.”

For not having a book in front of her, Twilight grew unusually still and quiet at Shining’s unimpressed delivery, her head hung low with her back toward him. Shining hadn’t meant that comment to sting so much. Her usual response would be that she simply didn’t have time for friends.

With a sigh, Shining crossed the distance between them and then sat down on the opposite end of the table. It was hard to describe the look Twilight wore. It wasn’t hurt or anger. Regret was a step too far. Perhaps melancholy fit it best? Regardless, he knew just what would cheer her up. He levitated Cadance’s letter in-between them and waved it back and forth.

“Guess who’s back in town?” he sang.

Shining watched life visibly return to Twilight with a smile. She recognized the hoofwriting as he knew she would. “Cadance!” And then, perplexingly, she wilted once more.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Don’t you want to see her?”

“No, no,” Twilight protested half-heartedly. “I want to see her. I do. It’s just, well, like I said, there’s so much that I need to do. There’s some complications with Luna’s duties, and I volunteered myself to optimize the situation. Then there’s the cleanup from eternal night, which, let me tell you, is a huge headache. The injuries. The damages. The weather. My schedule is packed solid with meetings throughout the entire day tomorrow. And of course there’s the backlog of stuff Princess Celestia normally would have addressed that I haven’t even touched yet. I have Luna to split the work with, but even then, it’s overwhelming. I’m not sure if it would be a good idea for me to shirk my new responsibilities. Especially not so early in my tenure.”

Those all sounded an awful lot like excuses. Shining knew without a doubt that Twilight hadn’t told him even nearly everything that had happened over the last eight days. There were some things she probably couldn’t, and he respected that, but it wouldn’t do to let her isolate herself like this and struggle on alone. First Spike, now Cadance. Did she intend to send him away as well? Their parents?

“Twilight, you haven’t even been crowned yet.”

“That’s just a formality,” she countered.

“Perhaps,” Shining allowed, “but you just helped save the entire world. Have you taken any time off to recover?”

Quietly, Twilight replied, “I’m an alicorn. I only need two minutes max to recover from anything.”

Shining rolled his eyes. “Mentally, Twilight. It doesn’t matter what shape your body is in if you’re about to have a breakdown.” It certainly wouldn’t be the first time they’d suffered through one of her episodes. This evasiveness was one of the early warning signs.

After a few moments to absorb Shining’s words, Twilight shot upright, her eyes sparkling as they always did when she had an idea. “Perhaps you’re right. I should write her a letter! You could take it to her for me!”

Shining very slowly raised his brow. “You want me to be a delivery pony.”

A nod met the statement.

“When Cadance is but a teleport away for you.”

This time Twilight hesitated. “It does seem silly when you put it like that.”

“Because you’re being silly.” Without asking permission, as was his prerogative as the elder sibling, Shining picked Twilight up with his magic. “Come on. Cadance is waiting for us.” Despite her squirming, he carried her out the door and down the stairs. He generously placed her on her own hooves once they were at the base of her tower, much to her guards’ silent amusement. “Since you’re still here, I assume you’re coming?”

“I…suppose so. Let me just…” Twilight cast a spell to conceal their destination and then teleported both of them to the middle of Canterlot. “There. Now we won’t have any nosy ponies following us.”

Shining frowned. “Or any protection.”

“I have you, don’t I?”

While he couldn’t argue with that logic, Shining still disapproved. He set them off toward the park where Cadance awaited them and pondered what to say. He couldn’t be direct. The entire family had tried that already to no effect. But perhaps there was another way to make the message stick.

“During the eternal night, Princess Celestia vanished to fight Nightmare Moon on her own without telling anypony. We were left leaderless. Stumbling in the dark trying to determine both what was happening and what to do about it. We lost a lot of time we could have spent trying to help ponies simply because she declined to keep at least one other pony informed.” Shining paused a moment before adding, “Unless you were that pony, in which case poor decision on her part.”

That managed to pull a smile out of Twilight. “No, I was flying blind as well, just with a head start from my own research.”

For a time, they walked in comfortable silence. The ponies around them parted to make way, many stopping entirely to bow or stare at the new Solar Regent. Twilight, deep in thought as always, hardly noticed. Shining had honestly expected the attention to bother her, but he supposed she had more important things to stress out about these days.

“You’re right,” Twilight eventually admitted. “Our lives would look very different if” – she hesitated a moment as though unsure of what word to choose – “we were aware of the situation ahead of time. The next time I get sent to some random village or disappear into the unknown reaches of the archives to hunt down a book, I’ll try to remember to take a moment to tell somepony where I’m going.”

Shining nodded approvingly. With that out of the way, he asked a question he’d wanted to know the answer to for what felt like ages. “So. You’re an alicorn?”

Twilight, eyebrow arched in Shining’s direction, merely extended her wings in answer.

“Right. But how did that happen?” Cadance understandably didn’t like to talk about her early years, what with her being an orphan, but that hadn’t stopped Shining’s curiosity.

“An excellent question,” Twilight said as she prepared herself for a lecture. Wings or not, Twilight was still Twilight. “There are many theories concerning where alicorns come from. Most of them are demonstrably nonsense, but a few come close to the mark. The important question to ask is why are there so few of us? Or, rather, where is the bottleneck? As it happens, we’re born from the intersection of belief and magic.”

“I’m certain Mom would disagree with you on that,” Shining dryly observed. His little sister most certainly had not been conjured from the aether simply by wishing really hard for her. He’d been at the hospital when she’d been born and, left unsupervised at perhaps the worst possible time, had ended up scarred for life.

Twilight rolled her eyes and let out a huff. “I’m trying to spare you the mysticism. It’s all very arcane, and Luna and I have had more important things to do than teach me where baby alicorns come from. Work with me here.”

“Yes, yes, Your Highness.”

“Hmph. Anyway, vastly oversimplified, when we use magic, it doesn’t just vanish into nothing when we’re done. There’s magical residue and usually waste magic as well. Moreover, residual magic retains an impression of its intended use. This is what ultimately makes up the ambient magic of the world.

“Now ambient magic has a tendency to…let’s say clump together over time. This can have interesting spontaneous effects like the Frozen North’s perpetual winter, but of greater concern at the moment is when it binds to a pony of similarly natured magic. Princess Celestia has day magic. Luna, night magic. Cadance, love magic. I got all of the untyped waste magic.”

“So,” Shining began slowly, “are you a pony-shaped lump of magic or a pony with a massive secondary source of magic?” It sounded like the latter, but this was a very esoteric subject far beyond his own studies.

Twilight, after a period of uncertain humming, replied, “To be honest, I’m unsure. A lot of what Luna told me amounted to the alicorn equivalent of ‘if you have to ask, you’re too young to know’.”

Unable to help himself, a grin erupted onto Shining’s face. He wrapped an arm around Twilight’s neck and pulled her close as they walked. “Aww, my little sister is growing up, ruling the nation, and wants to know more about the facts of life.”

“Oh, get off,” Twilight said as she pushed Shining away. He laughed, and she mumbled something he didn’t quite catch. But given the context, he hardly needed to.

“I’m going to tell Cadance you said that.”

A blush immediately lit up Twilight’s face. “You’d better not, or I’ll… Or I’ll smite you.”

“Smite me?” That was adorable. Shining played along with the miniature physical goddess. “Ha! I’m under the protection of a much more powerful alicorn than you. She can send you to your room.”

“What! That is not how this works anymore.”

“Oh, yes it is. You have no power over me.”

Twilight harrumphed and conceded the debate via her silence.

“I’m glad you understand your position, Twily. Now let’s hurry up. I have a goddess of love to worship.”

“Ew! Shining! I didn’t need to hear that!”

Shining just laughed at his little sister’s distress.

Crystal Park

Canterlot, Equestria

First Summer Moon 8, 1 LE

Hmm… There’s Shining and Twilight. A twist of a few knobs caused Cadance’s telescope to zoom out and offer her a wider view of the park below. A little magical cantrip changed it to display magical radiation instead of the more mundane electromagnetic spectrum. It’s definitely them. I’d recognise their magic anywhere. A quick look around determined that they were, relatively speaking, alone. Nightmare Moon doesn’t seem to be following them, although they could be bespelled.

Deciding that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valor, Cadance pulled a set of writing supplies from her saddlebags. After jotting down a short note, she folded it into a paper plane and then enchanted it to fly down to her coltfriend and favorite filly. With a gentle toss, it set off on its mission, curving between buildings and ultimately approaching its destination from an entirely different direction than it’d started.

Cadance went back to her telescope and watched Shining read the letter. Although his expression showed his confusion – he didn’t, after all, know what danger he was in – he acquiesced to check both himself and Twilight for any perfidious spells. He found none, judging by their distinct lack of a reaction, and she supposed that would have to do.

After repacking her belongings into her saddlebags and picking up her picnic basket, Cadance reapplied her pegasus disguise, a simple little illusion any unicorn could cast with enough practice. She then leapt off her perch to glide down into the park. Once there, she landed impolitely close for strangers but then greeted Twilight in the traditional manner.

“Sunshine, sunshine–”

Twilight caught on immediately and joined in on their silly ritual.

“–ladybugs awake. Clap your hooves, and do a little shake.”

And with that, Twilight leapt into a hug with all the desperate need Cadance expected of somepony reunited with a beloved friend who’d been missing for days. After a bit of comforting, she extended a hoof to invite Shining to join in the moment, which he accepted without hesitation.

In Cadance’s ear, Twilight whispered, “You shouldn’t be here.”

Cadance’s eyes widened as her breath caught. Twilight knew?

“Please don’t tell my brother anything.”

This changed the entire situation. They urgently needed to speak in private. As such, when they separated, Cadance held her picnic basket up to Shining. “Would you set this up for us? Twilight and I need to have a princess meeting.”

Shining sent Cadance a questioning look but once more acquiesced to her request. He took the basket in his magic and left to find a nice place to lay down a blanket. Meanwhile, Twilight cast a few temporary spells to prevent eavesdropping.

Alone together, Cadance inspected her favorite filly. Twilight looked, in a word, stressed – and nervous now that Shining had departed. She was too mature now to carry an injury for any length of time, but she didn’t show any other signs of being an abuse victim. Cadance took solace in that. But speaking of, she broke the ice with a simple observation. “Your wings grew in.”

“They haven’t.” Twilight unfurled her wings and gestured to one with a hoof. “These are the result of a species transmogrification. Biologically, I’m still fully a unicorn. Just one also generating some non-unicorn magic.”

“Oh.” Cadance vaguely recalled a spell to the effect, but that was far outside her area of expertise. “It’s been…a while. Doesn’t that require a sample from the target species?”

Twilight nodded.



What an awkward moment this had become – awkward and surprising. This was not nearly the situation Cadance had expected to fly into. Nightmare Moon seemed strangely invested in Twilight, and she had no idea what to make of that.

“Hey.” Twilight pulled Cadance from her thoughts. “Are you the Crystal Princess?”

Well, that’s a perfectly awkward question. A fake chuckle escaped Cadance to fill the silence. “Kind of.”

Twilight narrowed her eyes. “How old are you?”

“Um… It depends on how you’re counting?”

“What does that mean?”

Cadance wished for a distraction, but none appeared. “Let’s just say I’m young enough for your brother and you shouldn’t trust Aunt Celestia’s aim with a banishment spell.”

Hoof raised, Twilight opened her mouth to speak only to find that she didn’t have any words.

Cadance faked a cough. She should probably have this conversation with Shining at some point, but she really didn’t like talking about it. She’d been the Crystal Princess for a grand total of a week before Sombra went off the deep end and made her call in help. Then she’d gotten banished, awakened in the distant future, discovered that her empire was still gone, and finally had to fly through half the Frozen North to get to Equestria. She still had the occasional nightmare about being frozen alive. “Who told you about me?”

“Luna brought the subject up a couple times and later called you a house guest. I put two and two together.”

“Luna?” Oh dear. How to start this conversation… “Twilight, you do know Nightmare Moon is Luna’s evil alter ego, right?”

“Your precise usage is both debatable and none of my concern. I have to deal with the pony on the Lunar Throne. If she identifies as Luna, I am not going to contest her on that.”

Cadance certainly couldn’t fault the pragmatic approach to the situation.

“But yes,” Twilight continued. “I am aware that I just took part in the biggest government conspiracy since–” She came to a full stop, oddly enough, in the middle of an academic reference. “Uh, nevermind.” She bit her lip. “Why are you here? In case it’s not obvious, Luna isn’t afraid to hurt ponies to get what she wants, and you’re a major threat to her rule.”

They would get to that soon enough. For now, Twilight had just raised a major red flag.

“She hasn’t hurt you, has she?”

It took a moment too long for comfort before Twilight replied, “Only when it didn’t count. I was trying to escape with the Elements of Harmony.”

Cadance quickly made a mental note that Nightmare Moon had possession of the Elements, which severely complicated matters.

“What if she finds out you met me?” Cadance already knew the answer to that question, but Twilight needed to realize it herself.

The mare in question bit her lip again, seeming to fight some internal battle. “She wouldn’t,” Twilight said to her hooves.

Gently, Cadance asked, “Who are you trying to convince? Me or you?”


Cadance blinked. That hadn’t been the response she’d expected. It didn’t sound like Twilight meant to make some noble sacrifice, but she didn’t know how else to interpret that. Why was she so sure that Nightmare Moon wouldn’t hurt her? And more importantly, why did she seem so hesitant to admit it? It wasn’t like she’d been seduced and become the nightmare’s consort!

“Cadance,” Twilight solemnly asked once more, “why are you here?”

“Ah.” Cadance’s thoughts slipped away. “I came here to warn you. Or rescue you.”

Her face melting into a smile, Twilight leaned forward into a warm hug and wrapped both arms around the crest of Cadance’s neck. “I appreciate the risk you took coming here,” she began, “but I never needed rescuing.”

“I know. You’re a big, strong alicorn now, not a filly. But everypony needs some help sometimes.”

Twilight laughed silently against Cadance, rising and falling with each breath. She didn’t quite understand the joke, but if it helped Twilight through all this, she didn’t much care even if it was at her expense. She just held Twilight and gently rubbed her back until she moved to separate.

“Feeling better?”

A nod met the question.

“We can make a run for it, if you want. You, me, Shining, Spike, and your parents.”

This time Twilight shook her head. “I can’t. I have too much I need to do here.”

Cadance rolled her eyes. Leave it to Twilight to prioritize bureaucracy over her own personal safety.

“I probably shouldn’t ask, but where will you go?”

If Twilight intended to stay here under Nightmare Moon’s power, it certainly would be better for everypony if Cadance kept quiet, but she didn’t want to keep her favorite filly completely in the dark when Twilight knew so much already. “I’ll fly south. I have a plan to fix everything–”

“You do?” Twilight asked excitedly.

Nodding, Cadance said, “I hope so. There are a few kinks to work out, but I have high hopes. First, I have to meet with, ugh, an old acquaintance to see if she’ll help. And not spark a war in the process.” She could already feel her headache mounting. Without the looming cold death of the world to grease the wheels of diplomacy, this all became much more difficult. “Oh, speaking of, it would help if Your Highness officially endorsed me as an Equestrian diplomat.”

“Huh? But – oh. Right. Foreign princess.” Twilight’s smile slowly turned to a frown. “I don’t know, Cadance. Strictly speaking, Luna and I have to agree on envoys. You might be better off from a legal standpoint petitioning for intervention as an Equestrian ally rather than getting caught up in the tangly web of treason I’d have to spin.”

After thinking about it for a while, Cadance reluctantly admitted Twilight had a point. They had the legal high ground, strictly speaking, but the technicalities and hearsay involved would turn everything into a mess. It’d be best to keep Twilight as uninvolved as possible for as long as possible.

Adopting a playfully petulant tone, Cadance said, “I hate that you’re already better at this than me.”

“I studied many subjects under Princess Celestia,” Twilight said with feigned haughtiness. “Some more enthusiastically than others.” She ruffled her wings and dropped the act. “Although I now see the reasoning behind some of them.”

Cadance heard the unasked question in that voice. “Aunt Celestia felt it would be better for you to experience a relatively normal life before, well, all this.”

“I figured.” Twilight offered up a small smile that Cadance took to mean she understood why she’d been kept in the dark. It didn’t last for long, however. “Cadance, how…how likely is your plan to work?”

“Optimistically, I’d say it’s either a sure thing or certain failure.”

Twilight visibly fought down the urge to press for details. Once she’d won that battle, she said, “Just don’t expose Luna. That’s one genie we can’t put back in the bottle.”

“I’ll try my best.” It sounded like solid advice, all things considered. The public narrative already had both Twilight and Nightmare Moon working on freeing Celestia from banishment. The best case scenario here, as Cadance saw it, only required her to turn fiction into truth.

After a moment’s hesitation, Twilight nodded and wished Cadance good luck. “I’ll try to keep Luna occupied. Enjoy your date, but don’t…tarry.”

As she left the park, Twilight glanced back to witness the end of her brother’s surprising patience when he and Cadance reunited. This might be the last time they could see each other for several moons, so she would buy them as much time as she could for them to be together. She certainly owed the mare at least that much for everything Cadance had done for her over the years. Better yet, Cadance had given her an out to her uneasy alliance with Luna. All she had to do was nothing and everything would go back to normal.

Normal… Twilight imagined a normal day of her life not even two weeks ago. She’d wake up with just enough time to get ready for the day and then hurry off to attend class. If Princess Celestia had some free time, she’d have some private instruction. Once done, she’d continue her own independent studies somewhere nice and quiet until Spike reminded her that she should eat something. Depending on her mood, she’d either eat alone or join some part of her family. Then she would spend the rest of the night reading and maybe take a few moments to observe the heavens. Perhaps she would make an effort to be more social like Princess Celestia had wanted.

A bittersweet sigh escaped on Twilight’s breath. She’d loved that life, but too much had changed to go back to it. Even if Luna fell from power, she would still be a princess. Even if Princess Celestia reclaimed her throne, she’d still have a voice in government. I’ll still be able to move Equestria forward into a new age of progress and discovery. Even if she had to stand up to the princess.

Yes, everything would turn out perfectly.

Back in the center of Canterlot, Twilight made a quick stop at Donut Joe’s to pick up a snack. She doubted either she or Luna would actually get around to eating for a good while yet, especially considering how much time her little unplanned excursion with Shining and Cadance had consumed, and what better pick-me-up could a pony find in Equestria?

With provisions in hoof, Twilight teleported back to the castle gates. The guards posted at either side of the entrance recognised her on sight and granted her access with mirrored salutes. That last part was new and something she would just have to get used to.

Luna had commandeered a room for her own use at the top of one of the castle’s many towers. At this time of day, Twilight imagined she would be up there in comfort while trying to clear the paperwork backlog after-hours. She identified the balcony she wanted and, rather than teleport, chose to fly up. It was more polite with substantially less risk of bouncing off a ward, more akin to knocking on a door with a hoof instead of a battering ram.

Besides, even if she still needed practice – a lot of practice, some ponies said – Twilight had to admit she loved flying. The flowing sensation of air beneath her wings, the mocking defiance of gravity, the soft, fluffy clouds – it all really made the whole ‘was secretly an alicorn’ thing feel real.

“Alright, Twilight, play it cool. You’re just here to share a pre-dinner snack, nothing duplicitous. You just happened to be in town and got something for us both. It’s a chance to make peace. Bury the hatchet.” She touched down on the balcony. “Right. You can do this.”

Walking forward, Twilight called out, “Luna?” and promptly received permission to enter. Only the very basic necessities had been installed so far, but she could already tell that the royal sisters had a very stark difference in decor preferences. Sure, they both stayed on theme – day for Princess Celestia, night for Luna – but the similarities ended there. The princess tended toward open spaces, whereas Luna already showed a desire for cozy corners and privacy. Princess Celestia liked to sleep low to the ground near a warm fireplace, while Luna had a proper bed with blankets.

Luna, hard at work, set aside her quill and turned to face her guest. “What brings you here this evening?”

In answer, Twilight held up her takeout bag. “Doughnut?”

For perhaps the first time since they’d met, Luna actually looked surprised. “From the smell, I’m guessing that’s a pastry.”

“Mm-hmm. I stopped by Donut Joe’s. Best in Equestria.”

“Well, I’m hardly going to say no to free food.”

Twilight rolled her eyes. Opening the bag, she took her favorite for herself and passed off a simple glazed one to Luna. Like ice cream, best to start her on vanilla and then explore from there. And from the sound she made upon her first bite, she enjoyed it enough for there to be plenty of exploration in the future.

“You called this a doughnut?”

“Mhm,” Twilight hummed through a mouthful of her own. “I take it you’ll be wanting more sometime.”

“Most definitely. I admit I’ve been lax in sampling the changes to Equestria’s diet. I was aware sugar and spices have become commonplace, for example, but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to indulge in everything new.”

In hindsight, Twilight probably should have expected such enthusiasm. Luna wasn’t a good pony, but she didn’t exist in a vacuum of misery and evil. She delighted in the simple things like everypony else. Still, sharing sweets with her felt…uncomfortably domestic for their relationship thus far.

“Luna.” After Twilight had her full attention – or at least as much as she could rip away from the quickly vanishing sugar ring in the mare’s magic – she continued, “If this arrangement we have is going to last, we should try to get along.”

“Personally, I much enjoy the time we spend together.”

A small sigh escaped Twilight. “I’ll buy you more doughnuts if you’ll tone down the condescension.”

“Villain! Does this not taste of bribery?” Luna consumed the very last bite of her snack. “But that makes it all the sweeter. I accept.”

That actually worked? Despite herself, Twilight found a smile growing on her face and had to fight down a little laughter.

“I do have centuries more experience than you, but I will attempt to couch my advice in more palatable and direct terms in the future. I suppose I’ve been letting too much of my inner Star Swirl show.”

“Wait.” Twilight could hardly believe it. “You knew Star Swirl the Bearded?” Luna had only ever mentioned being born after him.

Luna appeared perplexed as she replied, “Of course I knew him. He was one of the last unicorns to move the heavens. In fact, he personally instructed me and my sister in magic. Did she never tell you?”

In a hard fought battle, Twilight resisted the urge to squeal and jump around in excitement. Her mentor’s mentor was Star Swirl the Bearded! Today would go down in history as the best day ever. “What was he like? I’ve read all the historical sources we have available, but, well, few of them are contemporary.”

Luna took a few moments to ponder the question. “He was…not what you likely expect,” she began slowly. “Although I have many fond memories of him, he ran hot and cold. Mostly cold to me, as we tended to rub each other the wrong way. He could be eccentric and carefree, but he could also be exceedingly dismissive and held grudges longer than anypony I’ve ever known, myself included.”

That was a remarkable amount of self-awareness, all things considered. Twilight quirked an eyebrow at her, but Luna laughed it off.

“Perhaps it’s not surprising that my sister never spoke of him. Their relationship fell apart one day over some private argument as mine with her did, and we both know how that turned out.”

A silent gasp escaped Twilight. “She didn’t banish him, did she?” Only after the words came out did Twilight frown over how she’d immediately leapt to that conclusion. It made sense in context, but she wouldn’t have so much as thought of the possibility only a couple weeks ago.

“To be honest,” Luna began, “I don’t know. He left, and that was the last anypony heard of him. It’s very unlikely my sister had a hoof in that as we were barely mares by the standards of the time. The more probable culprit is the Pony of Shadows. We later discovered that he disappeared around the same time as Star Swirl but could never find any evidence linking the two events together.”

“The Pony of Shadows?” Twilight vaguely recalled Luna mentioning that old mares’ tale but hadn’t given it any thought since.

“A creature of darkness from before my time,” Luna said with a dismissive wave of her hoof, “and a story for another day. You wanted to know of Star Swirl. Any particular topic?”

Twilight quickly rattled off a half-dozen in answer before being told in clear terms to pick but one. After a lengthy internal debate full of tears, indecision, and fear of messing up the opportunity of a lifetime, she decided upon hearing one of his less well known adventures. She pulled paper from Luna’s desk, stole a quill, and then settled in to take copious notes. If Cadance ever needed a distraction again, she’d volunteer in a heartbeat.

Canterlot Central Station

Canterlot, Equestria

First Summer Moon 8, 1 LE

Sneaking into the city hadn’t been hard, but it had been exhausting. The crystal caves beneath Canterlot, the mines within in complete disrepair, were a nightmare to traverse. They, Cadance had decided, would not be her way out if she had any other option. And with Twilight distracting Nightmare Moon, she felt safe enough taking the overnight train to Appleloosa at Equestria’s southern border. Tomorrow, then, she could begin her long flight over the Badlands with a good night’s rest.

“Must you go?” Shining asked.

She didn’t want to, but she had to. Cadance nodded.

“Will you at least tell me why?”

Cadance placed a gentle hoof upon her love’s cheek and leaned in to steal a kiss. “You’d have to ask Twilight, Shiny.”

Equestria was Twilight’s kingdom now. While that change came many years too early, it left Cadance in a sticky legal situation nonetheless. Twilight wanted her brother, the Captain of the Royal Guard, kept in the dark. To ignore that request without outright refusing to acknowledge her sovereignty – something that would have undesirable long-term consequences no matter what they both wanted – Cadance would have to take steps neither she nor Shining was ready for. Thus she deferred responsibility onto Twilight.

“It’s some hush-hush diplomacy,” Cadance added. Hopefully that would tide Shining over. “I won’t be back for a while, but I promise I’ll write. I’m sure Spike won’t mind delivering a few letters for us.”

Shining breathed deep. “Very well,” he said, drawing it out with an exaggerated sigh.

“Oh, speaking of, I have a letter for Twilight.” Cadance shifted to slide her saddlebags off and rooted around inside them after they’d landed on the floor. “Where… Ah-ha! Here it is.” If she never made it back to Equestria, it would explain exactly where she’d gone and why. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, but better to be safe than sorry. “Give it to her when it’s just you two, and tell her not to open it unless I don’t come back.”

Distinctly unhappy with the task, Shining asked, “This isn’t a will, is it?”

Cadance smiled at the silly question. “Alicorn, love.”

“Oh, right. Immortality. Then it shall be as you command, Your Highness.”

That managed to pull a giggle out of Cadance. After exchanging one last kiss and embrace, she snatched up her saddlebags with a hoof and boarded the train. She found a seat just as the whistle made its last call for passengers. Then with a hiss of steam and a solid jerk, the train’s magically powered engine came to life. The wheels clacked against the rails as it slowly gained speed, and she took this final opportunity to lean out the window and wave goodbye. Shining waved back and sent his love with it.

When the station and Shining were finally out of sight, lost behind the cityscape, Cadance heaved a longing sigh as she settled into her seat. She already missed her friends and the family she’d all but joined. “Oh well. There’s nothing for it.” She’d just have to get used to being alone again for a while.

Reluctantly, Cadance distracted herself with reorganizing her saddlebags. She’d made a mess of them earlier looking for her letter to Twilight and didn’t want to have random objects poking her in the side later.

As Cadance did this, she spied something that didn’t belong to her. Somepony had slipped a letter of their own into her things. The royal blue envelope had no address, sender, or even a wax seal, only her name. A quick magical scan revealed no active spells at work upon it. Shrugging, she opened it and read the contents.

‘Given my recent escape, I felt it prudent to check up on the other problems my sister and I brushed under the rug during our reign. Your empire will return in approximately two years, and Sombra along with it. Make your decisions until then wisely.’

Cadance grew ever paler the further she got. She didn’t need to read the letter’s signature to know who’d written it.

Klugetown, Bone Dry Desert

First Summer Moon 8, 1 LE

“You sold. My! Horn!” Tempest Shadow punctuated each word with a punch to the face. It’d taken her five days to track down this no-name scumbag, half of that through the biting frost of eternal night, and somehow the filth had already found someone to pawn it off on. “Do you know how many years I’ve spent carrying it around looking for someone to reattach it?”

The overgrown hedgehog had the gall to say, “It’s not like it was doing you any good, lady.”

Tempest felt her magic building up in the broken remains of her horn, a sensation not unlike a cracked dam trying to hold back a river. Bits of magic leaked out in crackling bolts that charged the air with her fury.

The hedgehog in her grasp, realizing just how much trouble he was in, tried to deny reality by acting tough. “Ooh, very scary. The hornless unicorn is gonna cast a spell.” He tried to shove Tempest off him, but she slammed him back onto the ground.

“Fun fact.” Tempest drew the words out and laced them with the promise of pain. “Magic has a will of its own. Sure, I can’t cast any fancy, structured spells, but neither can most unicorns. No, they get by just fine letting their innate magic act as it pleases upon command. And me? Well, I’m broken.” She leaned in closer and lowered her aim just shy of striking the hedgehog’s head. “Magic has to do all the work, and all it has to work with is a crude sense of how I’m feeling. It can get…carried away at times.”

Tempest shifted her weight forward further onto the now trembling hedgehog and twisted her hooves down. “So. What do you think Magic thinks I want to do to you?”

Rather than answer the question, the hedgehog, as expected, offered up the pittance he’d made from selling something more precious than his own life. Better yet, he gave up the identity of who he’d sold it to.

That was all Tempest needed. She tossed the scum away and blasted him with her magic for good measure. The world would probably be better off without him in it, but he managed to stumble away around a corner before she could change her mind about letting him live. Still scowling in his direction, she picked up the bag of mixed currencies he’d left behind and inspected its contents. Inside resided a few tiny gems, a pile of stormbucks, some Abyssinian coins, a few she didn’t recognise even after years of wandering the world, and exactly one Equestrian bit, probably the only one actually worth anything. It wasn’t a decoy bag of rocks, which was something, but it might as well have been.

“No matter,” Tempest muttered to herself. She didn’t intend to buy back her own horn anyway. She set out for the bazaar to track down a horn merchant.

Horn merchant – the very existence of the profession made Tempest grind her teeth. How many species channeled magic through their horns? Unicorns and deer, certainly. Centaurs. Alicorns, those sanctimonious, self-centered–

Tempest took a deep breath and forced herself to focus on the task at hoof. It wouldn’t do to be distracted in a place like this. Even for someone as spat upon and well traveled as her, Klugetown was a remarkably vile, faithless place. Part of her was surprised no one had yet been foolish enough to try enslaving her. It’d been a mistake to ever come here despite it being the shortest route to Hippogriffia.

A short while later, Tempest found her mark. A creature that looked something like a large mole had a crude wooden stall open in the bazaar. Atop it, a wide variety of horns from a dozen or more different species sat on display. Not her own, worryingly, but she doubted it would be as a mere matter of supply and demand. Unicorns were exceedingly rare this far from Equestria, so their horns, already beyond value, must have an exorbitant price tag. They weren’t something one would carelessly place where any aspiring thief could steal.

And so Tempest found a shady space to rest and observe her target as just another drifter on the streets. He had enough bulk and size to do business in this wretched place, but nothing about how he moved spoke to any martial training. There were no guards about, and judging by the worn, sun bleached cloak covering him, he didn’t have the wealth to hire any. When the business day was done, she shadowed the mole back to the ramshackle building he called home.

Tempest waited until night fell and donned a hooded cloak. It wouldn’t do to let her target think she had any motivation other than greed.

Breaking in proved easy. The door fell apart with a good kick. In this lawless land, no one cared enough to come stop her or even investigate the disturbance. The horn merchant put up a pathetic fight, doubling over in defeat the moment Tempest landed a single solid strike. She knocked him onto his back and pinned him with a hoof over his neck.

“A hedgehog sold you a unicorn horn,” Tempest plainly stated. “Where is it?”

The mole pointed a trembling claw at a drawer.

Tempest pressed down harder as she said, “Don’t move.” When she was sure he’d gotten the message, she stepped away to investigate. Inside the drawer, she found a pouch. But inside the pouch, she found nothing but sand. She tossed it to the ground and turned her attention back to the dead mole walking.

“I have little patience,” Tempest said with an icy warning in her voice. She stalked forward at a predatory crawl as the mole unconsciously inched away from her. Soon enough, his back bumped up against a wall leaving him with nowhere to go. “If you lie to me again–”

The mole protested in a raspy voice. “I didn’t lie! I ground the horn to dust.”

Tempest froze in place.

“It – it has many magical properties as a powder. Take it. It’s yours.”

The merchant couldn’t have known how accurate those words were or he never would have dared utter them, but Tempest felt something snap in her all the same.

“Just please–”

With a howl of rage, Tempest lunged forward.

The Sky, Amarezonia

Second Summer Moon 4, 1 LE

Cadance regretted taking the land route to the Yucatán Ponynsula. Flying over the Badlands had been brutal and left her perpetually parched. Then she’d had to fly through most of the atrociously humid Amarezonian Jungle to get around the Yucatán Sea. Worse, once when she’d stopped to rest her wings, some gorilla-feline hybrid straight out of a Daring Do book had attacked her. Sure, she’d taken to the air and fled right away, but it was the principle of the matter.

I should have just attempted the flight across the Sparkling Sea like I’d intended to during Nightmare Moon’s eternal night. I could have taken the train to Maretropolis, made the nonstop flight across the sea, and been done with this trip a week ago. I’m an alicorn. I have no excuse. But no. I had to take the ‘easy’ route.

A large boulder with a relatively flat surface caught Cadance’s eye. She arrested her forward momentum with a beat of her wings and dropped to the ground in a controlled fall. This seemed as good a place as any to break for lunch and indulge in a long nap. Neither alicorns nor pegasi were made to fly for as long as she had over the last two weeks. They weren’t even made to fly, really. Glide in favorable conditions, sure, but they needed magic to soar.

And Cadance most certainly felt the strain of pushing her still maturing body’s limits. It’d be another decade before she could make a journey like this at the pace she’d set without wearing herself down. Of course, Twilight could probably do it, but she had absurd amounts of magic at her disposal for her age.

“Well, unicorn magic, at least. Maybe not pegasus magic yet.”

As her thoughts turned to home, Cadance wondered for the hundredth time if she should just return to Equestria. Nightmare Moon seemed reasonable enough so long as nopony crossed her. Then once Cadance had her empire back and dealt with Sombra, she’d be in a much better position politically, militarily, and economically to put pressure on Nightmare Moon if she stepped out of line.

Assuming she isn’t lying about the Crystal Empire’s return. I really should have insisted on investigating when I first got back. But then I suppose I did get a little distracted.

Cadance slowly drifted off to sleep with thoughts of home and dreamt of the unexpected family she’d gathered around her in this day and age. Going back to the Crystal Empire, a duty she’d not refuse when called, would be so bittersweet. But perhaps Shining would come with her. That would be nice. They could have the entire empire all to themselves, no nosy aunts or curious little sisters to get in the way of a little fun.

When she awoke, Cadance quickly packed her things and resumed her flight. She’d turned north this morning to follow the coast. Assuming the intelligence she had was accurate, she should arrive at her destination before sunset.

It didn’t take even half that time before Cadance spotted a hole in the jungle, a barren wasteland without explanation where nothing grew. The desiccated remains of a few trees amidst the rocky land served as a stark reminder of what once was.

When Cadance flew into the affected area, she immediately felt a sharp drain on her magic through her wings. She could still glide. With a bit of experimenting, she found that if she pushed herself, she could still generate enough lift to climb. But nothing else worked as it should. She couldn’t even use levitation, the most basic of basics for a unicorn. Why anypony would want to live in a magical dead zone was beyond her, but–

Wait… A surge of experimental strength ran through Cadance’s limbs unaffected before she let the magic fade. Hmm, my earth pony magic is unaffected. It may have been a bit too hasty for Twilight’s tastes, but Cadance came to a quick conclusion. It must only be external magic that gets drained away here. That’s better than nothing. Worst case scenario, I just barrel my way out of here.

Cadance altered her course to take her to the center of the wasteland where she expected to find her destination. She could see a small, indistinct blob on the horizon. As she drew nearer to it, it grew into a massive jagged spire riddled with holes. A swarm of black dots flittered about it in the air. And they saw her.

“Right. Haven’t done this in a while.” Some customs were better off dead. Cadance pushed magic into her lungs and covered her ears with her hooves. On second thought, she pushed some magic into her ears as well to reinforce them. In the traditional royal voice, she bellowed, “Hey, Lovebug! I’ve come to visit!

The response was almost immediate. A circle of green fire erupted in the air. From it arose Chrysalis, Queen of the Changelings, with a trio of changeling guards in tow. Pure fury was etched upon her face in her narrowed eyes and bared fangs. She snarled, “Who dares–” Then she got a good look at Cadance. “Meal Ticket?”