The sky was cacophonous, and the air was filled with the sound of yellow.
The Self floated through a maze of lights, utterly lost and yet completely present. It knew the direction it must go; its path was lit with the scent of destiny. And so it drifted along, dodging and weaving and turning corners of its own accord, growing ever closer to its goal.
Dimly, it remembered being a pony, once. A tall, handsome stallion with a white coat, turquoise eyes, and a golden mane. Or was it a frail, weak colt made of wisps of gray cloud, empty and insubstantial? Both were true. Both were gone. The Self was only an idea now, a pair of stars overlaid, one silver and one gold, encompassing the universe and smaller than the eye could see.
It drifted through what passed for reality, only dimly aware that the shapes around it resembled trees and mountains. Monstrous phantasms leapt out at it, but it brushed them aside easily and continued on. On the other side of infinity, voices called the name that once belonged to the Self, shadows passing before the sun. It did not believe them real, and so it continued on in silence.
As eternities passed, it began to recall more of its former existence. Blueblood, its name used to be. A sad, pathetic creature with a core of potential buried away beneath endless layers of waste. It had grown up apart from others, knowing only an immortal goddess as a friend. It had lived in the shadow of that eternal, perfect beauty, and it saw all others as inferior and flawed in comparison, itself most of all.
As it had matured, so to speak, the shallowness and emptiness of the world around it asserted itself constantly. Nopony cared for the Self, only for the title attached to the name. Young fillies would attempt to charm it; young colts would attempt to conspire with it. But it never saw them as equals, as friends; it only ever saw them as shallow, pathetic imitations of Celestia's perfection. They were not worth knowing. And the Self was not worth sharing.
Except for her. Except for the one who shared Celestia's image. She was beautiful, staggeringly so, possessed of that same elegance of form and spirit that the Self so admired. But it had stood in the shadows so long that it could not see itself worthy of such grace. It knew it could never compare to her. And so its love turned to fear, and that fear turned to resentment, and that resentment grew and festered in the Self and made it less and less perfect, less and less like Celestia, less and less worthy of her love.
It ached when it thought of her. And it thought of her constantly. And it hated itself for its weakness. And then he came along, the heroic knight, somehow believing himself worthy of her. He was too stupid to realize how pathetic he was. Too self-centered to realize that no matter how brave and loyal and courageous he might be, he would never deserve even an ounce of her affection. Cadance was perfection. Cadance was the very goddess of love.
"I am standing on a cliff," the Self heard itself remark.
That was an odd thing to think, it observed. I wonder why I thought that?
And suddenly, reality snapped back into place.
"I am standing on a cliff!" Prince Blueblood shouted in surprise. He reeled back from the edge, the world spinning dizzily around him in a kaleidoscope of green, brown, white and gray. Utterly disoriented, the prince decided the only reasonable course of action was to vomit. He did so, not particularly noticing or caring where it went, and immediately felt the world begin to stabilize. He lay still for a long time, eyes closed, steadying his breathing as reality began to make sense again.
He was very cold. There was a sharp wind blowing, sinking right past his bare fur. Wait, bare fur? Why was he naked? He always wore clothes. He was a civilized pony.
He was particularly cold where his body was making contact with the ground, and dimly, he also realized that his fur there seemed to be wet. This was likely related to the small, cold puffs of water that kept blowing into his face. Snow. He was lying, naked, in the snow.
He opened his eyes. The world began to spin again, but not before he could make out a few more details. There was, in fact, quite a lot of snow around him. There also seemed to be a lot of bare, brown rock, and some sparse vegetation. The sky was overcast with gray clouds, from which flurries of snowflakes were billowing in a constant downpour.
This was odd. When he'd left Zecora's hut, it had been a rather warm, spring afternoon. Had he been in a haze for months? No, that couldn't be right. The zebra had only prepared him for a journey of a few days.
"Think, Blueblood," the prince told himself. It was cold and snowy. There was a lot of rock. And, oh yes, there was a cliff.
"...I'm on a mountain?!"
He opened his eyes again, and this time the world hardly wobbled. He was, indeed, lying prone on a mountainside. Far below, the endless expanse of the Everfree Forest stretched to the horizon. If he squinted, Blueblood thought he could just make out the distant spires of Canterlot on a peak dozens of miles away.
"Okay. I'm on a mountain," he observed. He took some comfort from the sound of his own voice. "Why am I on a mountain?"
"Eat but a spoonful of this special paste," called a voice from his memory, "and it shall guide you to your fate."
"Oh, right. I let the crazy zebra lady drug me. Fantastic."
Blueblood groggily pushed himself to his hooves and took stock of himself. His coat was dirty and he'd suffered a few cuts and scratches, but he seemed to have made the journey intact. He noted a chip on his right front hoof with dismay; he hated getting them filed, if only because hooficure specialists could never seem to just shut up and work. Well, that wasn't currently occupying a top slot on his List of Things to Be Concerned About. Being naked and freezing on top of a mountain seemed somehow more pressing.
He took a look around, trying to get a sense of why this place was so important to his "destiny." There wasn't much to see; almost everything was covered in layers of snow and ice. He noted curiously that the path he'd apparently taken up here was actually a long series of wide, carved steps, worn smooth by time and nature. They continued on further, rounding the side of the mountain and likely continuing on to the peak. Without much else to go on, Blueblood followed them up.
The stairs wound their way along the edge of the surprisingly wide mountain, rising only very gradually. As he walked, the prince began to notice small niches carved into the cliffside along the path, just deep enough for a pony to take some shelter from the wind. In one, he found a bouquet of some strange flowers he didn't recognize, preserved under a layer of permanent frost. In another, a few round bits, so tarnished that he almost mistook them for flat rocks, were scattered here and there.
"Some sort of offering?" he mused. "Or memorial?"
The wind didn't seem inclined to answer, so he continued on. Finally, the stairs wound around a blind corner to end abruptly at a stone archway. Blueblood took it for a natural formation at first, but a moment's examination revealed it to be stone-and-mortar, undoubtedly of pony make. A wall, then, one stretching across across the mountain's peak, its edges lost in the constant, billowing snowfall. Two heaps of fallen rubble flanked the opening from above, once guard towers and now little more than frost-coated mounds of rock. The prince's hoof clopped off something wooden as he passed under the arch; the frozen remnants of an iron-bound gate, battered into shards by wind and time.
Past the gatehouse was the ghost of a city. Blueblood was surprised at its size; it seemed that the inhabitants had simply sheared away the top portion of the mountain and put up buildings in its place. The rime-crusted ruins of stone buildings spread as far as he could see, arrayed in rigid lines along ancient boulevards now hidden beneath snow.
The wind shrieked at Blueblood as it whistled through the gaps in a half-fallen wall. The ghostly sound sent a chill up his spine with even more vigor than the temperature.
"Is... is anypony here?" the prince asked aloud. He hardly heard his own voice as the wind whipped the words back at him. "Hello?"
There was no response beyond the continued wail.
"Clearly, this place is just brimming with destiny," Blueblood observed. "Well, I think that's about enough of the creepy mountain ruins. I need to get to warmer climes before I freeze to... "
Well, may as well keep looking, then.
A particularly strong gust of wind cleared the air long enough for Blueblood to spot a larger and more seemingly intact structure towards the center of the ruined town. The castle, he supposed. That seemed like a promising enough place to start searching. Steadying himself against the gale, the prince trotted onward.
The castle—or keep, he supposed, he wasn't entirely sure of the distinction—was only slightly more intact than the city around it. The walls circling it had likely once stood thirty or forty feet high, but had tumbled in so badly that the tallest segment barely rose to half that. The square bases of watch towers hunkered on each corner of the walls, in no better shape. An ancient portcullis, crooked and rusted but still solid, blocked entry through the old gatehouse; instead, Blueblood just climbed a slope of fallen stone and slid into the courtyard on the other side.
There, he found what had likely once been a wonderful garden; the frozen skeletons of trees and shrubs still reached out to him like clawed hands. He also saw his first real sign of life, so to speak: the snow-stripped remains of a long-dead unicorn, lying on its side among the petrified flora. No scrap of clothing remained on it, save a small, tarnished silver medallion depicting a silhouetted yet fiercely scowling unicorn's head, though with a spiraling ram's horn instead of a typical straight one.
The prince examined it without touching it. "I've seen that symbol before. In one of the books on pre-Equestrian history. This place... " He looked around again, his eyes wide with sudden appreciation. "This place must be thousands of years old. How is anything still standing?"
"Magic, of course."
Blueblood nearly leapt out of his skin. He whirled around, forgetting in his surprise all of the defense lessons he had largely ignored, his eyes darting around for the source of the voice. It took a moment before he spotted an old, gray-hided unicorn with a mane of faded gold looking at him calmly from beneath the hood of a burgundy robe.
"Who- Who are you?!"
The unicorn smiled; Blueblood detected a bit of mockery in it. "Just an old stallion, wondering who his young visitor he is, why he's talking to himself, and why he didn't dress a bit more warmly."
"I... " The prince eyed the stranger, trying to sense any hostile intent. "I am Prince Blueblood of Canterlot. So don't try anything."
"I've never heard of you. Or this... 'Canterlot.'"
Blueblood quirked his head, and then jerked it back up in surprise as his mind registered something his eyes had been trying to tell him. "The snow! It's passing right through you!"
The stranger glanced at the flakes dancing merrily through his shoulder, and shrugged. "One of the side effects of being dead, I'm afraid."
"Wait, you're... a ghost?"
The robed unicorn shrugged again. "Technically, I think I'm a spectre. I still have free will, you see. Ghosts are mostly mindless, tied to a specific location and essentially reliving the same events over and over. As a spectre, while I too am bound to a location, I maintain my ability to reason and communicate with the living. I... studied such things in my youth."
Blueblood shook his head. "So you've been here for... what, thousands of years?"
The spectre rolled his eyes. "That would be another side effect of being dead, yes. Thank you for not stealing my pendant, by the way. You likely would have popped my head right off. It's bad enough having to see my own corpse every day without having it decapitated."
"That skeleton is you?"
The spectre covered his eyes and sighed. "Couldn't have gotten a bright one, could I?"
Blueblood glowered at him. His surprise was quickly being replaced by annoyance towards this patronizing old goat. "Who are you, exactly?"
"You may address me as King Azure Throne, ruler of Castle Arctus and the unicorns of the Greatspire Mountains," he replied, puffing his chest and drawing himself up into a more regal pose.
"Yes, quite the lovely domain you've got, here."
It was Azure's turn to glower. "Yes, well, you should've seen it in its prime. Ours was the most wondrous and prosperous of unicorn lands. We produced feats of magical engineering unrivaled by any; our armies cowed even the brash pegasi, and earth ponies kept our tables filled in exchange for our protection and knowledge. Celestia herself feared to cross us!"
"You knew Au- er, Princess Celestia?"
"Princess?" the dead king asked. "She took a throne? After all her talk of uniting the races and living as equals, she deigned to rule over our people when the opportunity presented itself?" He barked out a laugh. "And everypony was worried Luna was the treacherous one."
"Treachery? Auntie Celestia would never... "
Blueblood cleared his throat in embarrassment. "Well, sort of. I mean, yes! In a spiritual sense, at least. I... Look, Celestia is kindness and benevolence incarnate, she would never betray anypony!"
Azure stared at the prince for a long moment, then burst out laughing. Blueblood glared at him in smoky silence while the dead king's mirth gradually played itself out. "Oh, my dear boy. What has she had written in the history books, I wonder? What lies has she filled your head with? Kindness and benevolence? She was never anything more than a freak and a revolutionary, willing to do whatever was needed to further her ambitions."
"I don't believe that."
"Oh, of course not. Not yet." Azure passed a ghostly hoof through Blueblood's shoulder, eliciting another chill, and began walking into the castle proper. "Come, boy. My old quarters are still intact. I'm sure you can find enough wood to start a fire and get warm. In the meantime, I'll tell you the true history of your beloved 'princess.'"
"Did you have to use my old armoire? I was rather fond of that thing. An earth pony woodcrafter made it for me in exchange for saving his wife."
Blueblood ignored the plaintive king, using a combination of telekinesis and old-fashioned hoofwork to break the rotting old wood down and shove it into the low-burning flames. He smiled grimly as a piece of the armoire's door took flame and began spreading it to the rest.
"Well, I'm in no danger of freezing to death now, ghost. Go on, tell me your version of history."
"That's 'spectre,' boy, and very well. How much do you know of Celestia's origins?"
The prince considered the question. "Not much. It's said that she and Luna were created at the dawn of time, to govern and sun and moon respectively."
"Really," Azure said with a mocking grin. "How strange. Haven't you heard that unicorns used to be responsible for raising the sun and moon?"
"I... believe I have heard that, yes." Blueblood frowned as he considered, for the first time, some of the implications of the traditional Hearth's Warming Eve story.
The dead king nodded. "As long as anypony could remember, it was the responsibility of a unicorn king and his court to take charge of the cycle of days throughout their kingdom. It was part of a delicate balance of power; without us, there would be no sun; without the pegasi, there would be no rain; without the sun and rain, the earth ponies could not grow food. This was the way of things since before ponies began recording history.
"But then, a freak was born. Two earth ponies, both with unicorn and pegasi bloodlines in their past, gave birth to a mutant who had both wings and horn. Some more... radical ponies took this as some sort of religious sign, and began claiming that this young filly, 'Celestial Light,' would become the great leader of all pony races. The fact that a second freak was born just a few years later did little to deter them. These poor, deluded girls grew up surrounded by those who convinced them that they were special, that they had a divine mandate to rule. Little surprise that they grew up so twisted."
Azure paced back and forth in front of the fire as he spoke, the flames dancing through his translucent form. "As I'm sure you've seen, Celestial Light—'Celestia,' as she began calling herself—received an image of the sun as a cutie mark. Her sister, Lunar Sky, received a moon. So, obviously, their followers began claiming that fate clearly wanted them to take charge of raising the sun and moon for the entire planet. This led to arguments, later to conflicts, and eventually to several outright wars. The sisters were rather popular among the earth ponies, and were ready and willing to whip up sentiments against us. They would send their peasant armies against our strongholds, and we would crush them and send them scurrying for cover.
"Eventually, it became apparent that in addition to their obvious physical defects, the sisters were functionally immortal. Neither aged past a certain point. And so they and their radical followers engineered war after war and coup after coup to further their ambitions. This went on for centuries, boy. The loss of life was... staggering. But then, one day, the sisters vanished. Their followers claimed that they'd left to deal with some great, malevolent threat. I was new to my throne at the time, but I knew better than to believe it. And I was right; within a year, the wendigos had arrived."
Blueblood looked up. "You knew what they were?"
The king shook his head. "Not at the time. You're familiar with this part of the story?"
"Yes. The wendigos led to the unification of the pony races and the founding... of... Equestria... "
Azure flashed a sharkish grin. "Ah. You begin to see."
"But... I can't... " Blueblood ran a hoof over his mane. "I mean, surely... "
"Keep listening, boy. As the famine worsened, we received word that a new land, a paradise, had been found. But in order to protect it from the wendigos, everypony would have to unite under a single banner and live in harmony." He chuckled darkly. "Oh, it was tempting. We were starving. We were dying. But as I pondered the decision, Celestia and Luna came. They said that they would help us evacuate, that they would bring their pegasi and earth pony followers to help us relocate, but we would have to swear subservience to them.
"I allowed my people to make their own decisions. Many of them, including my wife and daughter, left. For my part, I refused. I believed that once the sisters had their little empire, they would call off their wendigos and let the rest of us live in peace. I underestimated their ruthlessness.
"And so, we died," he sighed, sweeping a hoof to encompass the castle and city around them. "Slowly. Horribly. Clinging to hope that this would pass. I was the last to go. My loyal subjects refused to let me starve before them. I knelt out in what had once been my mother's beautiful garden, and I waited for death to take me. Imagine my surprise when it didn't last."
Blueblood stared at the dead king, and through him, into the crackling flames. This couldn't be right. He knew Celestia. She was, perhaps, the only pony in the world who loved him. She was perfect, beautiful, kind, gentle... But then, why wouldn't she be, if she had won? If she had everything she wanted? After all, she'd banished her own sister to the moon for a thousand years. Sure, Luna had been under the influence of Nightmare Moon, had been a danger to everypony... or so the story went. But a millenium was a long time. Nopony who'd been alive back then was around to refute Celestia's claims.
No... it couldn't be true.
No. That wasn't right. It was plausible. Understandable. Blueblood just didn't want it to be true.
"And now, it's your turn to tell a story, boy," Azure said, placing a chilly hoof on the prince's shoulder. "How did you come to be here? Why did you seek out this time-lost ruin?"
"I... I was on a vision quest," he answered, shaking his head free of his ruminations. "A mystic sent me here. Sort of. She said I would find my purpose... my destiny."
"Indeed?" the ghost asked, sounding genuinely surprised. "What destiny could you hope to find here?"
"I don't know."
"Hm." The dead king resumed pacing in front of the fire, a hoof under his chin. "There is something at work here. You are the first to find this place since my kingdom died. And you say you are a prince?"
"Technically," Blueblood said with a shrug. "I don't have any real power. I'm supposedly descended from the ruler of an ancient unicorn... oh."
The two met eachother's eyes. "Ah," said Azure. "There we are, then."
"This is insane. I can't possibly be your descendant."
"And why not? This mystic sent you here, did she not?"
"Yes, but... " Blueblood shook his head. "I just... I suppose I didn't really believe anything would come of this. I didn't think I'd really find anything here. Or even that I'd end up here."
"Magic has always been something of a mystery. Even Starswirl admitted such."
The prince just stared blankly into the fire. A brief look of sympathy crossed Azure's face as he looked at his young descendant. "Take heart, young one. You came seeking purpose. You found it."
Blueblood glanced up at him and laughed. "What purpose? All I've found is a dead kingdom and a dead king, a king who says that the only pony I've ever really loved is actually a liar and a monster. If anything, I've got less to live for than I did before."
"Then don't live for yourself. A king never does." Azure stopped in front of the prince, putting both hooves on—and partly through—his shoulders. "Live for your people, Blueblood."
"My 'people' are dead."
"They needn't be for long."
Blueblood tilted his head, looking up at his undead grandfather skeptically.
"I told you before, boy. I studied the nature of death. I even apprenticed under Starswirl the Bearded for a time. With your help, our people can live again. Our kingdom can thrive. You can lead them to a glorious new age. You can provide a haven for those who will no longer bow to Celestia's tyranny. Please, Blueblood." He paused, looking deep into the prince's eyes. "Please, my grandson."
"... What must I do?"
Azure's face split into a wide grin. "Just listen."
"Blueblood?" called an achingly familiar voice. It was high and sweet, and it pierced the howling wind like a velvet knife. "Blueblood, are you here?"
The prince stared towards the voice in shock. "... Cadance?"
[Author's Note: I don't know how many readers I've lost because they bailed at the slightest hint of "Tyrantestia." Let me just say, without spoilers, that it is generally never a good idea to take undead kings in creepy, millenia-old castles completely at their word.]