“I hate you. You know that? I hate you so much.”
A dramatic mural of orange and red was painted over the horizon. Magnificent slivers of morning light slipped past the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the eastern mountains, and punctuated the dark sky with the first signs of a hidden sun. Sunrise was always a beautiful ritual and a glorious work of art. Canterlot, high atop the mountains as it was, was the perfect viewpoint. The sunlight would hit the high towers first, and gradually flow downward like a celestial waterfall, slowly but steadily bathing the whole city in golden light. The vista could be seen from nearly anywhere, and the citizens never tired of it. Cool nighttime air clashed with the sun’s warming rays, resulting in a peace and comfort that only springtime mornings could bring.
Lucky Break had no eye for the glory to the east. He stood still, fixedly concentrated on what was, to him, a work of art that far exceeded the beauty of the morning sun. By comparison, it inspired him to many more times the strength, courage, and fervor than the sun ever could. Would that he could weave it into every proud banner that waved above Canterlot. Would that he could put it into words, and preach its gospel to the streets. Would that he could project it onto the sky, and inspire the minds and souls of the ponies nationwide with the similar zeal.
And yet, for all its splendor, and for all its inspiration, to Lucky, it was a symbol of the utmost unhappiness. It filled him with despair and directionless retrospection, replaying a million what-if scenarios in his mind’s eye. It filled him with the kind of anger that the victim of an unjust punishment felt. It filled him with love, loss, and the terrible ache of longing.
It was, carved into a marble headstone, the simple depiction of a rising sun, a replica of Daylight’s cutie mark.
Lucky’s angry snarl faded into an expression of despair and defeat. “I hate you,” he murmured.
The graveyard was silent, save for the peaceful accompaniment of nature gently playing from the trees and shrubs. It was a pleasant place, perhaps the most tranquil in all of Canterlot, set on a plateau that was both high and distant. It was the largest natural area in the city, the rest having been requisitioned for buildings, walls, and towers. Even then, it was small. Most graves were located outside of the walls; only the honored dead were buried here.
The peace was lost on Lucky. His mind broiled and churned with an erratic turmoil of emotions that left him unsure of how to proceed. The only thing that stayed constant was the hurt.
“I… I…” he stuttered, shifting away from anger. “I brought some flowers.” He craned his head back and retrieved a small bouquet of sunflowers, and dropped them unceremoniously to the ground.
“I know it’s a bit late,” he said, tentatively nudging them forward with his nose. “Given the circumstances, I don’t know if it’s even appropriate, but… but what would they say about the Lieutenant who didn’t grieve his Commander?”
A serene wind blew through the cemetery. The leaves trembled, and whispered tranquilly in response. The unbound flowers were pushed a small ways.
“Or,” Lucky said, after a sad pause, “the pony who did not mourn his friend?”
The sun’s infant light eased onto the edge of the plateau, heedless of the stallion’s mourning. Somewhere, a short distance away in the city proper, the Daybringers stood proudly atop a Canterlot tower, dutifully pulling the sun into the sky. It was a ritual that was born long before them, and that would continue long after they were gone. It was a ritual that happened at precisely the same time, every day, for endless years. It waited for nopony.
The brilliance caught Lucky’s eye. He turned toward the rising sun, and immediately wished it were gone. It seemed sacrilegious to display such beauty in the wake of events so sorrowful.
“Daylight,” Lucky whispered, squinting into the light, and then back to the grave. His throat tightened. To his surprise and acute distaste, he felt moisture begin to condense in his eyes. He hurriedly rubbed it away with one hoof.
“If only you were here, Daylight,” he muttered. Lucky again examined the gravestone. It was very simple. A cutie mark. A name and a date of birth and death. In the place of her rank, it held her legendary title. In the place of an epitaph, it held the immortal battle cry of the Maiden’s Battalion.
The Maid of Canterlot
27au --- 50au
Victoria intra bellum, Armonia postea.
“If only you were here,” Lucky repeated. “If only you still commanded the great ponies of our battalion, and not I. If only our chances of victory had lain somewhere besides mindless sacrifice. If only you had not died. If only those last words had remained unspoken. Daylight, I… I wish…” He choked on the words.
He cleared his throat, and paused, considering his next words.
“If only you were here.”
A sudden gust of wind, stronger than the last, blew through the grounds. It caught the sunflowers and began to carry them off. Caught unaware, Lucky yelped and scrambled to catch them. He was only able to clamp his hoof down on a single one, before the rest were carried away, over and beyond the city. Lucky looked frantically and despairingly after them. They were gone, disappeared into the morning twilight.
He lifted the single flower he had saved, and examined it. In pinning it to the ground, he had crushed the stem, and ripped off a few of the petals. It was now stunted and ugly. He peered at it for another second before throwing it angrily to the ground.
“Oh, this is foolish,” Lucky muttered. “This is foolish. I'm talking to a headstone. Am I some mewling colt, crying for his mother?” His voice was throaty and heavy. “I am Lucky Break, and I will not be held prisoner to pointless emotion. I will lead the Battalion, first to battle, then to victory, and then Harmony, too.”
His voice had lowered to a mournful but venomous growl. “Though I've never been farther from Harmony myself. I have you to thank for that, Daylight. I will do all that is in my power to avenge your death, and nothing more. Justice demands it. I'll apologize to the mare. I'll beg her to aid us. I will put on sackcloth and ashes, and come crawling on my knees if it needs be.”
Lucky paused, not savoring the thought. “But I do not grant favors to traitors and deserters. May your request languish in the uttermost corner of my mind. May it die forgotten.”
He picked up the stunted sunflower, and turned away. “After all, what use is loyalty to the dead?” he bitterly whispered, as if he did not want the gravestone to hear it. The wind blew, and Lucky threw the flower into the air. It sailed away easily into the breeze.
The dream seemed to last forever.
And why shouldn’t it?
There she was again, stuck in the horrible dreamscape that she feared. A million unfamiliar faces came and went. They danced around her, each holding its own unique expression of pity or apathy. Lucky Break appeared, again holding an expression of accusation. She knew it would do no good to speak to them. She was mute, and they were deaf. She knew better than to scream.
She did anyways.
And then, it changed. Something shifted, and somehow, she knew she was elsewhere. In the distance, a shadow flickered to life. It was undoubtedly a living thing that had a paradox quality of both substance and formlessness. She had no idea what, or who, it was, but she knew that she feared it, and absolutely, unequivocally hated it. Its wavering form seemed to crawl towards her. That alone set her heart on fire.
Hatred. Hatred. Hatred.
A voice drew Celestia out of her sleep. Her head ached.
“Hello-oooooo,” the voice persisted in a singsong tone. “Wake u-uuuuuup!” Celestia groaned a soft objection and stirred, sinking deeper into blankets and sheets.
“Don’t be like that, silly.” Celestia felt gentle nudge, poking her in the ribs. “The sun only comes out once a day!”
Celestia responded by turning away, awkwardly flipping to face the other side of the bed. She remembered the other night. The pony trying to rouse her… what was her name again? Oh yes, Cotton.
“Don’t make me get angry,” Cotton threatened. It did not sound very threatening at all. “I can get pretty angry when I’m angry.” Celestia did not respond. The thought of breaking her blissful half-wakefulness seemed impossible.
“Very well. I warned you.” Celestia heard hoofsteps walking slowly away. She gratefully settled into her covers and rested. Strange, though, since the way she had been talking, she had been sure Cotton would do someth-
“Hiiiiii-YA!” Without warning, the bed was hit with the full-bodied force of another pony. Celestia’s eyes shot open in surprise. Removing her head from under the blanket, Celestia saw Cotton standing above her, a menacing glare in her eye. Cotton raised one hoof, ready to strike. She swung her hoof towards Celestia, who cringed in anticipation. It made contact with her ribcage, and Celestia…
…burst into laughter. She laughed and laughed, rolling back and forth, unable to control herself. Her eyes were shut tight, and her mouth was contorted into a hysteric grin. Piercing jabs of sensation pinched at her ribs and stomach. Was Cotton… tickling her?
“No!” Celestia managed to cry in between uncontrollable giggles, “No! Stop! Stop it! That tickles! Cott-oooooon!” She waved her hooves fruitlessly in the air. The barrage remained undeterred. Eventually, Celestia, hopelessly tangled up in sheets, rolled off the bed and crashed to the floor below.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, a residual smile still fading from her lips. Cotton’s face appeared, upside down. It was more serious than a Canterlot guard’s.
“Tsk, tsk. I told you,” she said disapprovingly. “The things I do for other ponies. Yeesh!”
The disoriented Celestia did not respond, still recovering from the surprise attack she had just suffered. A dumb, confused smile was still painted on her face.
After a moment, Cotton’s expression completely changed, as she adopted a jovial grin.
“Well, you’re awake now!” she said. “C’mon, get up! I have a surprise for you!” She skipped out of the room, humming a joyful tune as she went.
“A… surprise?” Celestia sluggishly asked. She was too late. Cotton was already gone. She must have assumed, correctly, that Celestia had been sufficiently awakened, and was too conscious to go back to sleep.
With some effort, Celestia untangled herself and slowly rose to her hooves. Her blankets fell to the floor like loose bandages. She stretched her wings, arched her back, and looked around. The room she had stayed in was much more visible in the light. Furniture lined the walls and knickknacks sat atop dressers. The walls were made of simple, unpainted lumber. Besides the mess of blankets that lay on the floor, it was very clean. Celestia had been expecting something… more, from Cotton’s home. This seemed too normal.
“Hey!” Cotton’s voice came from the adjacent room, “Are you coming? Hurry up, slowpoke!” Her impatience had come from waiting all of thirty seconds. Celestia quickly gathered up the blankets and heaped them on the bed, silently promising to arrange them later. She exited the room.
“You didn’t fall asleep again, did you?” Cotton called. “Don’t make me get angry! I can get pretty angry when I’m ang- Oh!” She spun around to see Celestia standing right behind her. “Good morning, sleepy-head!” she happily greeted.
“Good morning,” Celestia replied cautiously. She shuffled awkwardly, but Cotton seemed perfectly at ease. “That was quite the wake-up call.”
“Mm hmm,” Cotton nodded.
Celestia frowned. “Why did you…?”
“Why did I…?” Cotton repeated, trailing on the same note.
“Er, why did you… do that?” Celestia asked off guard.
“Because you needed to wake up, silly! The sun is out and the day is here!” Cotton rejoiced. “Plus you were tossing and turning, and you looked real grumpy.”
“The, uh… tickling, though? Why not just push me off the bed, or something?”
“Oh!” Cotton exclaimed in realization. “What better way is there to wake up than with a smile?” She giggled and grinned, as if to prove her point.
By not being pounced upon, for one, Celestia thought. She was about to put her thoughts into words, when she was interrupted.
“What is your name?” Cotton suddenly asked.
“What? Oh, it’s Celestia,” she said, realizing she had not actually introduced herself the night before. A sudden feeling of guilt swept through her. A complete stranger, somepony who had yet to even learn her name, had taken her in. She had sheltered a poor, whimpering monster in her own home. Celestia realized she must have slept on the only bed in entire house, if her quick sweep of the main room was accurate. There was a door to the bedroom, a door to a bathroom, and a door to go outside. Sure enough, on the floor in one corner of the room was a pillow and blanket, no doubt the makeshift bed that Cotton had slept in. Celestia ears flattened, and she hung her head in shame.
“Well my name is Cotton!” she exclaimed, leaving no room for Celestia’s despair. “And I am so lucky! Do you know why? Guess. No, I’ll just tell you! It's because I've made a new friend!” She smiled, and put a friendly arm around Celestia’s neck.
“Oh! That friend I just mentioned is you. You’re my new friend,” she whispered into Celestia’s ear. “I don’t know if I said that or not.”
Celestia quickly shook her head, clearing her sadness. “Well, no,” she said, “but I guessed.”
“You guessed?” Cotton said. “Of course you did! You are so smart.”
Celestia allowed a confused but genuine grin creep onto her face. The young mare was so cheerful! Elation practically leaked from her very being. Her happiness was infectious; when Cotton was smiling, and she smiled quite often, it triggered a nearly involuntary impulse to mirror her. When she was laughing, the sound seemed to hit ponies and echo right back, bouncing off of them with twice the strength.
“You said you had a surprise for me?” Celestia asked, seeking to move the conversation along.
“Oh, did I?” Cotton said. “I did, didn’t I! What was it again?” She sat on the floor and squinted at the ceiling in deep thought. Meanwhile Celestia wandered around the small cabin, though there was not much to see. The main room housed a small kitchen, a table with two chairs, and a plush chair that seemed to be the only padded furniture in the house besides the bed. On one wall, there was a full length mirror. The word ‘You!’ was carved into the wooden frame at the top.
Cotton dashed over to a kitchen cupboard. “Let’s see… it wasn’t that… or that…” she mumbled, pulling out an assortment of increasingly random items. Pots, pans, and miscellaneous things that had nothing to do with a kitchen sailed past Celestia, who had to dodge out of the way.
“No… no… heavens, no…” A candlestick, cloth mittens, and an eyepatch bounced to the floor. “Oh! Hey! I’ve been looking for this!” Cotton exclaimed, pulling out flexible rubber chicken. “But it’s not the surprise…” she tossed it away. It flew through an open window.
Celestia walked over to the bathroom door, and peered around the corner. Inside, she saw the most heavenly thing in the world: a basin of clean, hot water. Steam rose in curling wisps that seemed to beckon to her. She looked at herself, and back at the water. She could really use a bath. She almost stepped right in, before realizing it would be impolite to do so without asking.
“Cotton? Ow,” Celestia said as a ball of yarn hit her nose.
“Yes?” Cotton sang distractedly.
“I'm hesitant to ask, but may I use your bath? My coat is quite dirty, and-”
“That’s it!” Cotton cried. “Yes, you can take a bath! Of course you can! That’s the surprise!” Cotton rushed to Celestia, and ushered her to the bathroom.
“I can scarcely believe I forgot. Silly me! Anyways, here’s a towel,” she said, seemingly procuring a towel from nowhere, “and a brush, and a comb, and some shampoo, and a loofah! Loofah. Loofah. Loooooofah. Here’s a bathrobe, and some bath salts, and some bath bubbles, and some bubbly salt, and some food coloring, and of course, a scented candle. Did I give you shampoo already? Here’s some shampoo. Lllllloofah.”
“Th-thank you, Cotton,” Celestia said, her words muffled behind a leaning tower of bath supplies.
“You are welcome, Celestia! That’s what friends are for!” Cotton said, nudging Celestia with a wink. “Would you like any help?”
“No thank you,” Celestia managed. “I am fine for now.” One of the five loofahs fell off the pile. Cotton caught it with her magic, and sent it spinning back to the top.
“Okay! Call for me if you need anything, friend!” Cotton said, smiling. With that, she closed the door, and left Celestia to herself.
With a great sigh, Celestia dropped her pile into a heap on the floor. Without another thought, she slipped into the tub. She hissed in pain as the water touched her wounds, but soon she was comfortably submerged. She could imagine nothing in the world that could compare to the cleansing heat of the bath. For a long time, she forgot about cleaning herself, instead simply allowing herself to soak. Eventually, she forgot about everything: her bad dreams, the ponies at the party, and especially Lucky.
Celestia stepped out of the room, clothed in a dripping, purple bathrobe. Tiny trails of residual steam followed her like smoke on dying fire. Cotton, hearing Celestia from the bedroom, skipped into the main room to see her.
“Did you love it?” Cotton asked eagerly. Celestia smiled, and shook off her bathrobe in response. Her coat, though still somewhat damp, was perfectly clean, shining with a gloss that had hitherto unseen. Her mane was unstuck and freely flowing. Cotton gasped dramatically, though Celestia got the impression she did not think it dramatic.
“You look beautiful!” she said. “Like an angel!”
“Oh, I doubt-” Celestia began modestly, but was cut off.
“Except your mane.”
Celestia blinked. “What?”
“Your mane!” Cotton said, pointing a hoof toward Celestia’s pink, flowing hair. “You forgot to brush it! I could have sworn I gave you a brush.” She made a motion towards the cabinet.
“Yes!” Celestia said, stopping her before she could try to search for it. “You gave me a brush, but it’s made for unicorns. I… can’t properly reach my mane with it.” She produced a brush with a handle that was too short. She could technically reach her whole mane with it using her hooves, but the action was strained and sloppy.
“What do you mean?” Cotton questioned, tilting her head in curiosity. “You have a horn, of course you can reach it.”
Celestia sadly shook her head.
“Oh, I understand,” Cotton said. Celestia nodded. “Your magic must be swirly, just like mine! That’s okay, though! How else do you think I get this manestyle?” She tilted her head forward and brushed through her mane with a hoof, showing off the wild purple and pink curls.
“What? No,” Celestia quickly corrected. “I have never actually used magic. I do not know how.”
“Really? Never?” Cotton asked with wonder. Celestia nodded. “Never ever?” Celestia nodded again. “You don’t know how?” Another nod. “How old are you?” She shrugged.
Cotton pondered for a moment, before clapping her hooves together. “Well, in that case, there is only one solution.”
“You're going to teach me magic?” Celestia said, looking at her in hope.
“What? No, silly!” Cotton giggled, waving a hoof at her. “I’m a terrible magician! I was just going to brush your mane for you!”
“Oh,” Celestia said dejectedly. “Okay.”
They arranged a pair of chairs, the only two in wooden chairs in the house, and Celestia sat while Cotton brushed. There was silence, except for the long pulling strokes of the brush, and Cotton’s merry humming. She occasionally broke into quiet lyrics of the song, but did not sing it all.
“Cotton?” Celestia asked, breaking the peace.
“I heard her voice abroad… Yes?” she said, halting her quiet song for only a moment.
The question never came. Timid fear gripped Celestia, as she struggled with an important inquiry that was on the tip of her tongue, but refused leave. Cotton kept on humming.
“Hmm hmm, hmm hmm… I cheer’d my guest… Did you have a question, Celestia?” Cotton asked.
Celestia shook her head vigorously. “No. Well, yes, I did. But nevermind.”
Cotton continued her song, until a verse was finished. “Hmm hm, hmm hmmm, while I dream’d.” She pulled another stroke through her mane. “There! All done!”
With a quick whirl of pink magic, Celestia’s chair was spun to face the wall. A dizzying second later, Cotton was standing in front. With caution, she balanced the full mirror in between her and Celestia.
“How does that look?” Cotton asked with eager anticipation. After a few seconds of silence, she grinned, and answered her own question. “It looks wonderful, that’s how it looks!”
Celestia’s mane was, in all aspects, save for color, the exact opposite of Cotton’s. The unicorn’s was curly and short; Celestia’s was long and straight, holding an elegant, flowing grace that few mares could match. After the bathing and brushing, the dirt and grime had been completely washed away, replaced with a vibrant, healthy luster of pink.
Now cleaned and groomed, it was not incorrect to say that Celestia indeed looked “wonderful”. She possessed a simple, effortless beauty that was not very common. More than a few mares might be jealous at the sight.
Celestia’s gaze wandered past all of it, and went directly to her flank. Her horribly, excruciatingly blank flank. The pearly white of her coat seemed to accentuate the lack of color. She tried to draw her stare away, but in so doing, she caught her wings and horn. Her eyes flicked back and forth between them. What an unholy, unsightly combination.
“Why am I a monster?” Celestia suddenly blurted, eyes shut tight.
If Cotton heard her, and there was no reason for her not to, she made no sign of showing it, other than slowly retracting the mirror and leaning it against the wall. It was still reflecting Celestia. Cotton stepped forward and looked at Celestia with scrutiny. Then, without warning, her hoof shot forward and poked Celestia in the ribs. The jab was without pain, but seemed to jolt every ticklish nerve on her left side.
“Ah!” Celestia cried. Her eyes shot open and she leapt forward on her seat. That was not what she was expecting.
“Wro-ooooong question, silly,” Cotton said.
“What?” Celestia questioned. She had no idea what to expect from this young mare.
“I said it was the wrong question! It hardly makes any sense, you know. Try again!” Cotton demanded, a sly smile on her face.
“Try again? Why?” Celestia asked. Another hoof blurred through the air, and Celestia squealed as her left side was jolted.
“Wrong question again,” Cotton chimed. “You are not very good at this, are you?”
“But why did-” Celestia began, but was cut off by Cotton’s raised hoof, accompanied by a war face that, in any other circumstance, would have been comical.
“Oh, um, I mean,” Celestia began, quickly revising her words, “Why… why am I…” Cotton raised her eyebrows. Her stare moved closer, and her lips pursed tighter. “Why am I… a beast?”
“Why am I a demon?”
“Even wrong-er!” Jab.
“Why am I an abomination?”
“That’s the wrong-iest of all!” Jab!
Celestia squirmed and gritted her teeth. “Uh, uh… Why am I an alicorn?”
Cotton’s hoof twitched forward, but did not follow through. “Well… it is the wrong question still,” she said slowly and intellectually, “but it is a good question. However, the manner in which you ask implies improper direction. You seek for the wrong answer. I'll give this one a pass. Try again.”
“Why am I…?” Celestia stopped, and pondered. What did that even mean, she that she ‘implied improper direction’? That she ‘sought the wrong answer’? Celestia had no idea what Cotton was looking for.
Suddenly, a memory came to mind, something that Cotton had said the night before. “Don’t you know? You’re not a monster, you’re an alicorn!” Could that be…?
“Why do ponies treat me like a monster?” Celestia ventured, her tone weakly confident.
“Yes!” Cotton exclaimed, a grin spreading across her features. “Ponies treat you like a monster!” She clapped her hooves together in joyous congratulations. Given the phrase, it seemed extremely out of place.
“Is that… a good thing?” Celestia asked, completely unsure of how to judge her reaction.
“Oh, no,” Cotton said, the mirth immediately leaving her. “No, no, no, no, no! Ponies should always treat other ponies with respect and love. Nopony should ever be treated poorly because they are unique.”
“But why do they?”
Cotton tapped a hoof to her chin, considering her next words carefully. Eventually, she walked away from Celestia, and opened another cupboard, rummaging through the disorganized contents.
“For ages,” she called, adopting the tone of a storyteller, “alicorns have been considered bad luck and ill omens.” More items sailed backwards as Cotton looked for some unknown thing. Only her hindquarters were visible, moving back and forth as she dug deeper into what was beginning to seem like an endless space.
“Oh, huh,” Cotton said, withdrawing a red and blue ball. “So that’s where that was.” She bounced it to the ground, and it sprang back to her hoof with a hollow sound.
“But why?” Celestia pursued.
“Because bouncy balls are fun, silly!” Cotton giggled. She bounced the ball towards Celestia, who dodged out of the way.
“No, I mean-” The ball rebounded off of the near wall, and returned to hit the back of Celestia’s head. “Ow. No, I mean, why are alicorns bad luck?”
“Aha!” Cotton exclaimed, bursting out of the cupboard. In her hoof, she held a small book, thrusting it triumphantly in the air.
“What is that?” Celestia asked.
“This,” Cotton said, tapping the small, hardbound book, “is why they treat you so poorly.”
Celestia stared. “A book?”
“No, no, no,” Cotton said, shaking her head. “It’s what’s inside the book, silly.”
She trotted to her cushioned chair and sat down. She took a second to shift around and get comfortable before patting the pillow underneath her, a motion for Celestia to join her. Celestia looked hesitantly at Cotton, who, seeing her reluctance, patted the pillow harder. Finally, Celestia budged, and moved over to the chair, but sat in front of it rather than in it. Cotton rolled her eyes. A twister of magic engulfed Celestia, and she was sent head-over-hooves spiraling forwards. She landed upside down and backwards in the chair, snug against Cotton. The seat was really only meant for one, and their closeness showed for it. She waited for Celestia to adjust herself upright, and for her panicked breathing to slow, before beginning.
Cotton cleared her throat, and opened the first page of the small book. It had four ornate symbols. The first three, Celestia recognized as the coat-of-arms of the earth, pegasi, and unicorn tribes. The fourth was unfamiliar, though judging by its black, twisting design, there was no doubt it was supposed to be evil.
“Long ago, there lived four pony tribes.”
She turned the page. “First, there was the Earth-Tribe! These ponies were hard-working and industrious. With their unmatched strength, they worked day and night to provide all ponies with delicious food. Their farms were the most fertile in the land.” This page showed several happy earth pony farmers, who were all joyously tilling the ground. In the corner was the Earth-Tribe banner, a four-quadrant flag that featured the sun, the sky, a patch of tilled earth, and a field of sunflowers.
She turned the page. “Second, there were the Unicorns! These ponies were intelligent and crafty. With the magic held in their horns, they raised the sun at dawn, and raised the moon at night, providing the whole land with light. Their gemstones were the most brilliant in all the land.” This page showed a group of regal unicorns. One stood atop a ledge, raising the sun, while another was behind him, bearing an armful of precious jewels. In the corner was the Unicorn banner, a diamond-studded background with the head of a proud unicorn set in the center.
She turned the page. “Third, there were the Pegasi! These ponies were fast and nimble. With their wings propelling them through the skies, they controlled the weather, and brought rain and shine to the places they were needed. Their reflexes were the quickest in the land.” This page showed a trio of determined pegasi. One pushed a cloud forward, one seemed to be bending a bolt of lightning with his bare hooves, and another was simply doing a midair maneuver. In the corner was the Pegasus banner, a star-spangled flag that featured the head of pegasus with a strangely quiescent expression. Behind it was flared a pair of majestic wings.
She turned the page. “Fourth, there were the Alicorns. These ponies were wicked and vile. They were naturally lazy, and did nothing to help their fellow ponies. Many times, they even hindered ponies, and brought injury, disease, and disharmony to them. Their evil was the most loathsome in all the land.” In the corner was what Celestia supposed was the Alicorn banner. It was a combination of red and black, with the sneering expression of an alicorn in the center. The illustration seemed to imply untold malevolence.
She turned the page. “One day, a giant blizzard blew throughout all the land. It was very cold. It froze the earth ponies’ crops, blotted out the unicorns’ sun, and made wild the pegasi’s weather.
“The three tribes came together, and tried to think of a solution. The alicorns, however…
“Instead of helping to solve the problem, the alicorns flew away from the storm, and left their fellow ponies to freeze.
“The three pony tribes were glad that the alicorns were gone, though, because they did nothing but hinder. With the alicorns gone, they united to form the holy nation of Equestria!
“Soon after, they discovered Heart’s Fire, and melted away the snow.” On this page was a trio of ponies, one from each tribe. Floating above them was an enormous purple heart made of flames. Celestia thought one of the ponies looked like Clover, but failed to get a closer look before Cotton turned the page.
“Jealous that the pony tribes, now Equestria, were able to solve its problems without them, the alicorns flapped their wicked wings, and threw up a barrier of evil smoke, so that nobody could see their shame.
“Behind their wall of smoke, they plotted against Equestria, seeking revenge. Because they themselves were too scared to fight, they created beasts and monsters, including the fearsome manticores, and the hideous sinisteeds.
“They needed a leader for their horrible army, so pouring all of their evil into a single monster, they created Discord.” A hideous representation of Discord stood over a host of countless beasts. A vein pulsed in Celestia’s temple as she saw the evil, grinning demon. He was not hideous enough.
“They emerged through the smoke, and set straight to attacking Equestria.
“The land had never before seen such wicked beasts, but Equestria would never be defeated.
“Our brave knights charged against them, led by our many glorious heroes.” Leading the charge of a grand Equestrian army was a single mare, whom the page seemed to highlight with a bright golden outline. It was the same effect one might see on the depiction of a holy saint. Strange, Celestia thought, since military figures were not generally regarded with the same reverence.
“On the land and in the air, our knights fight the monsters. Far away, Discord huddles scared in his cave, for he knows he stands no chance.”
“Beyond that, the alicorns sit worried on their thrones, for they know the same thing.
“So long as Equestria stands united, and the army has its brave knights, the evil creatures know that Equestria’s victory is assured.” The book ended on a triad of ponies, one from each race, standing proudly, weapons of choice in hoof.
“The End,” Cotton finished. Her tone was almost melancholy. Almost. She gently shut the book.
Celestia did not know what to say. Neither, it seemed, did Cotton. Finally, Celestia broke the silence.
“I don’t understand,” Celestia said hesitantly. “What is this book?”
Cotton hopped out of the chair, allowing Celestia more room to breathe. “This book,” Cotton said slowly, waving the book gently in the air, “is what we teach our children. It’s a foal’s book.”
“A… foal’s book?” Celestia asked. Cotton nodded, an uncharacteristic seriousness painted on her face.
“I could show you a history. Professionally written theories. I have friends in the archives, I could easily request an in-depth study performed by the most prestigious scholars of Canterlot and beyond. But everything you need to know,” Cotton said, her expression sad, “is right here.”
“But I… I still don’t understand!” Celestia cried, frustrated.
“One part of this is true,” Cotton said. “Many, many years ago, two hundred and fifty years ago, to be precise, alicorns as a race actually existed. It is true that they left the tribes before the time of their unification, and that when Equestria unified and discovered their new home, it was shrouded in smoke. It is also true that beasts emerged from the same smoke.”
“So the alicorns created Discord?” Celestia fearfully questioned.
“Interesting question,” Cotton began. “Have you, Celestia, ever created a monster?”
“What? Why would you say such a thing?”
“Well? Have you?” Cotton pursued.
“Of course not!” Celestia exclaimed indignantly.
“Have you ever seen a monster being created by an alicorn?”
“No!” Celestia said.
“Well, neither have I. Did the alicorns create Discord?” Cotton asked hypothetically. “Well, maybe. But I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. Neither does anypony, anywhere!”
Cotton frowned. “But ponies can be silly sometimes. Fear leads to hate, and ponies needed something to blame all this nasty war business on, so we blamed the alicorns. It’s easy to accuse somepony when they can’t hear you.”
She shook her head. “Alicorns are just an old pony’s tale, but every filly and colt within every mare and stallion still fears them, if just a little. They are the monsters in your closet, the ghosts in the forest. Fables and folktales, obviously, but imagine seeing a fable walk right down the street!” Cotton giggled, motioning to Celestia, who did not find it amusing.
“But I’m nothing like those alicorns in the book,” Celestia mumbled. She was right; the alicorns depicted in the foal’s book had been hideous, menacing creatures. Their coats were black, their manes were crimson, and their eyes had been filled with animal bloodlust.
“Exactly!” Cotton said, smiling. “Those things are monsters. You are not one of them!”
Before Celestia could respond, a small, wall mounted clock sounded with a metallic ring. Cotton looked at it, and jumped.
“Oh my,” Cotton cried, “Look at the time! Oh, dear, this will never do!”
“What is the matter?” Celestia asked, a little worried.
“Oh, I have so much work to do,” Cotton fretted. “I'll never catch up. And then I’ll go out of business. And then I’ll lose my house. And then I’ll be homeless.” She gasped. “And then I’ll die!”
“What work? Can I he-”
“Oh, this is horrible!”
“Is there anything I can-”
“Wait!” Cotton cried, lifting a hoof in inspiration. “I know! Celestia, can you help me?”
Celestia rolled her eyes. “Well, I-”
“Excellent!” Cotton exclaimed, nearly tackling Celestia in a tight hug. “Oh, I knew I could count on you. I knew I it was a good idea to be friends! It always is.”
Celestia could barely respond. Cotton’s hug was choking the life out of her. “Cotton…!” she coughed.
“I know! I’m excited, too!” Cotton said gleefully. She released Celestia, who dropped to the ground panting. Cotton rushed to her bedroom, and returned with two clean white aprons.
“Here, put this on,” Cotton said, throwing an apron at Celestia while securely fastening her own. “Wouldn’t want your beautiful coat to get all stained again!” Celestia struggled with her apron, throwing it over her head. To her frustration, it caught on her horn.
“Actually, it might look kind of neat,” Cotton mumbled after a moment of consideration.
“What are we doing?” Celestia asked, still bucking her head back, trying to untangle the string.
“You’ll seeeee!” Cotton sang. “Oh, and bring the ball!” she said on her way out. She skipped away and exited the house.
“Why?” Celestia asked, finally getting the apron around her neck.
“Because they’re fun!” Cotton called back, saying it as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
Clover the Clever stood on the tower balcony, high above the city. Her neck was arched forward, and one of her eyes was shut. Operating through the Farsight Telescope was not a particularly daunting task, but anything could get strenuous if done for a long enough time. In Clover’s case, that period of time had been all night.
Through the magically modified telescope lens, she could see huge distances, around corners, and even through walls. There was not a thing in Canterlot that could escape her vision, should the Master-Adept wish to see it, though she never abused that power.
The Farsight Telescope was a device of her own invention, and she was incredibly proud of it. Never did the enchantment wear off, and not once had it gone awry. It always completed its function with precision and efficiency.
Until now. Under normal circumstances, Clover had only the need to visualize her target, and the telescope would swing to face their direction. From then on, it was a simple matter of peering through the right amount of wall.
However, to Clover’s frustration and annoyance, the telescope did not seem to work. She had whispered other names in order to make sure it was still working; Lucky Break, who was resting in his suite, Apple Crumble, who was happily greeting his wife who had stayed up the whole night to wait for him. When Clover concentrated on the young Celestia, the telescope frantically turned in every direction, so erratically that once it even hopped out of its fixture and nearly rolled off the balcony.
Clover had no idea what was wrong, but it left her with only one option: to find Celestia manually. It was sure to be a tedious task. The city was very large, after all, and the alicorn could have been anywhere. However, Clover was confident that she could do it. With enough searching, she was bound to be found somewhere. Clover grasped her telescope, and started, beginning in one corner of the city and sweeping to the other.
That was hours ago. The sun was rising, and the exhausted mage was beginning to have second thoughts. She had searched nearly everywhere. When she was not on the streets, she searched the inns. When she was not at any of the inns, she searched the dungeons, thinking it was possible that the guards had arrested her. When she was not there, she searched everywhere else.
The sun caught her eye through the telescope, and she stepped back. It was hopeless. She turned and walked toward the balcony door, intending to retire to her chambers. It was obvious Celestia was nowhere in the city.
Clover froze. Nowhere in the city.
She rushed back to her telescope as fast as her feeble legs would allow. She quickly and deliberately muttered the name of a very specific pony. The telescope swiveled southward. She peered through it, just in time to see a cyan unicorn in midair, pouncing on the bed an unseen guest. Clover zoomed in a little further. The bed’s surprised resident emerged from her covers only a moment she was brutally assaulted by a barrage of nonstop jabs.
Clover stepped back and sighed. Of course she was there. Where else would she be?
She allowed herself a sigh of relief.
“Put the ball down, silly! We have work to do!”
Celestia absentmindedly dropped the ball. It unceremoniously bounced away. She examined the room with awe.
“What is this place?” Celestia asked with wonder.
“It’s my workshop!” Cotton happily replied, a wide smile on her face. “What do you think?”
Celestia was amazed. What Cotton’s house had lacked in flair, her workshop made up for in every way. Once Cotton had helped Celestia tie her apron up, she led them outside and around back. There, she had unlocked a secure pair of cellar doors, and led them down inside. If Celestia had been anxious about descending into the cellar, it was all dashed away by the sight of its contents.
“What is it you do for a living?” Celestia asked.
“Isn't obvious?” Cotton giggled. “I’m a confectioner!”
“I make candy!”
The room looked less like a confectioner’s workshop, and more like a laboratory of mad science. Ovens, furnaces, and stoves lined the walls. Countertops were covered in wooden bowls and glass beakers. They contained every color of the rainbow, and then some. Stacked high against one wall were ingredients of every kind, most of which Celestia had never before seen. For some reason, there seemed to be a large abundance of sugar; nearly half of the saccharine storage consisted of large, appropriately labeled white bags. Curiously shaped tools of unknown function lined a storage rack against another wall.
The walls themselves were painted with a light, teal blue, a slight variation on the unicorn’s cyan coat. Although there were a few shafts that Celestia assumed were for ventilation, there were no windows in the cellar. It would have been pitch black, were it not for the magical lanterns that lit up the room. Upon closer inspection, Celestia saw that while the glass lanterns remained still, the magelight inside each one was spinning, orbiting the center in a tight circle. The light completed one revolution for every one second. With every light in the room doing the same thing, it made for immensely curious, constantly shifting shadows. Celestia wondered if it would eventually give her a headache.
The most interesting thing of all, however, sat in the very center of the room. On a pedestal covered in strange knobs and buttons, was a large bowl. Celestia peered inside. The inside walls of the bowl were covered in a serrated pattern of circles. In the center was an elevated disc with a hollow interior. She had no idea what it was used for. She could not even guess.
“Are you sure you make candy?” Celestia asked.
"Of course I’m sure, silly! I’ve only been doing it for five years!” Cotton’s pleasant laughter echoed through the workshop. “Okay, okay,” she continued excitedly, “watch this.” Cotton approached the strange bowl.
“Boop, boop, boop!” Cotton said, making noises in conjunction with the noiseless button presses and lever throws. “Boop beep, whatcha! Celestia, would you fetch that bag of sugar for me? The one that’s already open?”
Celestia wandered over to a counter, where she saw an open bag. She looked inside. “You mean the one that’s already half empty?”
“No, it’s the one that’s half full,” Cotton replied without looking over, waving her hoof in Celestia’s general direction. Celestia looked back. There was only one open back. She shrugged and hauled it over to the machine.
Cotton nodded in approval. “Okay, pour the sugar into the center disc, but make sure you don’t touch it with your hoof. It will get really, reeeeeally hot.”
Celestia cautiously nodded, and grabbed the bag in both hooves, carefully pouring a small amount of sugar before Cotton stopped her.
“Okay, stand back” Cotton warned, her excited tone and expression completely defeating the seriousness she tried to convey. Nevertheless, Celestia took a few cautious steps back. When she saw Cotton’s horn start to glow, she took a few more.
“So, you just gotta do… this,” she said, her voice straining, “and then heat it up, and… and then… and then whirl it around…”
Cotton stood with all four hooves braced against the floor. To Celestia’s surprise, the device whirred to life. Half a minute went by while Cotton muttered instructions to herself.
“There!” she shouted. She walked up to the bowl and looked over the side, horn still glowing. “Celestia, hand me a stick!”
“Yes, yes, a stick! From right over there! Hurry!”
Heeding the urgency of her tone, Celestia grabbed a small, thin stick from where Cotton had pointed. It was about a foot long. She handed it to Cotton, who smiled her thanks. She dipped the stick into the bowl and slowly stirred it around, even though there was, as far as Celestia knew, nothing to stir.
For another half minute, Cotton continued to stir. Eventually, she stopped, removed the stick.
“Ta-da!” she chimed, presenting her creation to Celestia. Impossibly, on the end of the stick was an enormous wad of pink fluff. It looked almost like wool, or…
“I present to you, my, Cotton’s, very own Cotton Candy!” she brightly announced. “Go on, try some!” she said, enthusiastically pushing the treat into Celestia’s grasp. She looked at it warily.
“Oh, I don’t know…” Celestia mumbled.
“You’ll love it! I promise! Oh please, pleeeeeeeeease!” Cotton begged. Her pleading eyes were less deniable than a kitten’s. Celestia sighed, and bit into the mysterious candy, taking only half a mouthful.
Her eyes widened. It was delicious! Her features changed from reluctance to confused delight, and, as she took another bite, enjoyment.
“That is delicious!” Celestia exclaimed. “Did you create it yourself?”
“I sure did!” Cotton replied, her expression one of immense happiness.
“How?” Celestia asked, her voice muffled behind a mouthful of candy.
“Well,” Cotton began slowly. “I use a special kind of flavored sugar, one specifically engineered to melt at certain temperatures and a crystal size optimized for use with the machine, because, as they are poured into the central disc, the sugar is heated to a temperature at which it melts, causing it to be spun through the central disc’s holes via centrifugal force, or is it centripetal force? I can’t remember, anyways, the strings of molten sugar are frozen in midair and form a glass-like string product that sticks to the serrated walls of the outer bowl-”
She stopped, and took a deep breath.
“-at which point the confection is ready to be spun and served.”
Celestia looked up from her candy, muzzle covered in sticky pink sugar.
Cotton laughed and shrugged. “Science,” she said simply. “I did come up with the idea, but I had some special help building the machine.”
“Where do you sell this?” Celestia inquired.
“At the Canterlot market. I have a stand there. I sell many different treats, but Cotton’s Cotton Candy always sells out the fastest,” Cotton said, with an obvious amount of satisfaction.
“Does the stand have a name?” Celestia asked.
Celestia blinked. “You sell cotton candy… at Cotton’s Candy.”
There was a brief silence. Cotton wore her usual smile.
“Fair enough,” Celestia said, taking another bite, and then scowling at the revelation that her candy was gone. She tossed the stick away.
“So, I know how it works…” Celestia paused. “So, you explained how it works,” she revised, “but how did you discover it?”
“Oh, that’s an excellent question!” she said, hopping with excitement. “It’s how I earned my cutie mark!” She stepped forward and showcased her flank. Celestia had completely failed to notice it before, but sure enough, there was a cone of Cotton Candy.
“But I can’t tell the story right now, because I have to get working. I’m running behind on production, you know.”
“Can you tell me while we work?” Celestia offered.
“Oh! Silly me, of course I can!” Cotton giggled.
After giving Celestia a few odd jobs and teaching her to perform some simple candy making operations, Cotton began her story, sometimes having to shout over the collective din of the stoves and ovens and candy machine in the center.
“When I was just a filly, I loved candy. I loved making candy, especially! My parents owned a cake shop, and I became an apprentice for them. I loved them, and they loved me too, but I was a bit more trouble than I was worth. The problem was my horn, you see?” She motioned to Celestia, who took another look at the unicorn’s strange horn. It was straight and unbent, but the natural spiral was exaggerated. It looked like it was wrapping around itself, giving it a swirled, bumpy appearance.
“I learned magic fairly easily, but it all came out wrong. Everything was all spinny and twirly-whirly. Instead of steady levitation, this happened.” She demonstrated by lifting a wooden spoon into the air. Instead of experiencing normal lift, the spoon seemed to spin around a center of gravity.
“It’s pretty slow now, but when I was younger, things use to spin so fast they were a blur. So fast I couldn’t control them. It was not only levitation, either. I use a fire spell to heat up the Cotton Candy machine,” a small wheel of flame appeared and vanished above them, “and a magelight spell to light up my workshop.” She motioned to the small revolving lights above them.
“And it’s always counter-clockwise, except on Tuesdays. Weird, huh?” Celestia nodded.
“Anyways, I caused problems around the shop. My parents were always very forgiving, but they never let me help with anything. Because they were both unicorns, the method in which they made their cakes involved a levitation magic. Whenever I tried, I always ended up stirring batter everywhere, or spilling an entire bag of flower. Once, I shaved the entire top half of my father’s mane with a spinning knife, just because I was trying to cut a cake. He was bald for a while. Aaaand…” she added with a bashful smile, “I wasn’t allowed to levitate sharp objects after that.
“Ponies treated me very poorly. When I was old enough to go to school, people made fun of my horn, and how bad my magic was. I had a few great teachers and friends that helped me, but… could you hand me that…? Thanks. I had a few great ponies help me, but it never drowned out the dreadful ridicule, and my parents’ love could only extend so far.
“One day, I returned home from school, feeling particularly horrid. At the time, I was a bit older, and had learned to control my magic a little bit better. One of the jobs I was allowed to do in the shop was the stirring. I was supposed to add something else first, but I accidentally spilled a bag of sugar into the circular cake mold. My mother happened to be very stressed and exasperated. This cake had been for an important pony, she told me, and she asked me to just stay out of the way.
“I was so mad, that I took the stirring spoon, and began to just stir the sugar. I stirred it, faster and faster with my magic, until- Oh, not like that Celestia. You have to wait for the caramel to cool a little longer…. Ahem. Um, where was I? Oh! I stirred it, faster and faster until the spoon broke. I just kept going, moving the sugar itself, and throwing a little fire in there, because why not?
“My father walked in, and yelled for me to stop. I did, and sugar went flying everywhere! Except, it wasn’t sugar. It was this!” Cotton held up a strand of pink fluff. “Well not this, exactly, but something like it. I thought my father would be angry, but he just laughed. Can you believe that? He laughed!
“’Why did you do that?’ He asked.
“’Because, all the kids at school make fun of me! They hate me!’ I said. I was on the brink of tears when he told me something I’ll never forget.
“’Do you know to make it better?’ he asked me. ‘Laugh.’”
Celestia was, by now, intensely interested. At this, she looked surprised. “You laugh? How does that make anything better?” she questioned.
“That’s what I asked him. Oh, careful Celly, don’t let them burn! Oh! Oh… too late. Well, anyways, he told me to laugh.
“’How will that make them stop?’ I asked.
“’It won’t make them stop,’ he told me. ‘To do that, you must stand tall, be brave, and you know what else?’”
“What?” Celestia asked, a hint of desperation on the edge of her voice.
Cotton smiled. “You must feel good about you,” she said, nudging Celestia’s chest with a gentle hoof. Celestia looked down at where Cotton touched her. There was a sticky pink glob Cotton’s hoof had left on her apron, but to Celestia, it was a great token of friendship.
“I let them treat me like a monster, Celestia. I believed them, too. I let them tell me about myself, things that were wrong and hurtful and untrue. I’m not saying you should never take counsel from friends when they only want to help, but never,” she said, poking Celestia’s chest again, “let anyone tell you that you are anything less than beautiful.”
Celestia looked up, her eyes wide and teary.
“I took his advice to heart and soul. I laughed, and eventually, ponies laughed along with me. I was so happy, I decided to try and experiment with the fluffy sugar. Eventually, I found how to recreate it. And ponies loved it! Instead of making fun of my horn, the complimented me for what I had accomplished.
“But you know what? I didn’t earn my cutie mark the day I rediscovered my special candy. I earned it before that, the day that I took my father’s advice. Neither my parents nor I had any idea what it was supposed to be, but it didn’t matter. I was happy, and I discovered it later, anyways.
“So laugh! Laugh at everything, and with everypony! I promise, it will lift your spirits, and eventually, those ponies will treat you exactly the way you deserve. It might seem bad. It might be bad. But even in the darkest of times, there’s always hope-”
Cotton was cut off as the cellar doors swung open. A stream of natural light flooded into the workshop. Echoing hoofsteps could be heard as a pony slowly shuffled down the stairs. A wide grin appeared on Cotton’s face, as she saw Clover the Clever step into the workshop light. Cotton turned again to Celestia.
“And there is always a reason to laugh.”
Celestia’s lip trembled as she stepped tentatively towards Cotton. Guessing her intention, she returned the distance, and the two met in a sweet, sugary, sticky, colorful embrace.