The result was always the same. It was to be expected, and Crozea found she could not begrudge them for their reaction. They were afraid of her. She was Seventh of Thirteen, the seventh member of a group of irredeemable souls chosen for both their skill and their cruelty. She wore a mask to invoke that reaction, because, in a way, she enjoyed their fear, as she was meant to- -although it was not the only reason. Yet, every time she saw weaker ponies stiffen and recoiled, she wondered if it was because of her role, or if it was because she was not like them. If they would fear her even without the robes, bones, chains of potions and strange herbs. If she appeared before them naked, she wondered if they would recoil in fright at the mere sight of her stripes.
The reaction of the servants was no different. The moment she entered the room, the leader of the group stiffened and shivered. She bowed, of course, as she had been trained to do. The behavior of these servants was impeccable. They were not like the crystal ponies who lived in the city; they were clean and neatly kept, not disheveled and downtrodden. Their eyes were alert and awake, and wracked with the guilt of their fortune while their friends and families starved in the streets and toiled in the mines.
“Lady Crozea. Welcome. Is there anything you require?”
“I bear no needs, you churl; I have only come to take the girl.”
The servant raised her head and smiled. It was a strange smile indeed. Part of it was happy, perhaps even proud, but the rest bore a distinct sadness. “Yes of course. We were nearly finished dressing her. Right this way, milady.”
Crozea followed the pony into one of the next rooms. The suite was large, but not well appointed. The walls were bare, and there was nearly no furniture. What purpose this room served originally had been lost to time, but it could have been a place of beauty. Instead, like all rooms of the Crystal Palace, it was sterile and empty. Crozea shivered. It reminded her of the laboratories allocated to many of her comrades.
In the next room, several crystal ponies surrounded a small stool, preparing the princess. When Crozea saw her, something twisted deep within her heart. The sight was something she had seen before, though rarely- -but she had never grown used to it.
The girl was three months old. She should have been a mere foal, clad in diapers and smiling and giggling at the new sights and sounds of the new world. A foal raised, perhaps, by parents who loved her. Instead, her body was thin and tall. Though she was small, she bore the characteristic indescribable age of one whose growth had been markedly accelerated. She could have been mistaken for being five, or eight, or ten. It was impossible to tell.
The worst, though, was her eyes. They stared forward blankly, seeing everything but correlating it to nothing. She was a creature without context or memory, and the potion had already taken more from her than she would ever know.
She sat perfectly still as her servants dressed her. They gave her boots of dark iron, like those of her father, and a matching collar that covered her long gray-pink neck. One affixed the skirt of a dress to the rear of her armor, while another combed back her hair and placed a ruby-studded tiara. While the girl had been born with multicolored hair, it had since been died black to at least give the semblance of normality.
“She is a beautiful girl,” said the head hoofmaiden. “So thin and soft, and with such large eyes. But...”
The hoofmaiden shook her head. “Never mind.” She stepped forward and bowed to the girl. “My princess. Lady Crozea has come to accompany you.”
The girl’s expression did not change, but she stood and faced Crozea.
“Lady Crozea,” she said, bowing. Disturbingly, her voice was not totally flat and neutral. It was perfectly cultured, the epitome of etiquette.
“You look well, I think.” Crozea reached into one of the bandoleers beneath her robes and produced a small vial. “So now it is time you had your drink.”
The girl took the small vial in one of her hooves and swallowed the contents in a single gulp. Crozea knew that the potion tasted disgusting; any normal pony should have been retching as their body attempted to reject it. This girl, though, did not react. She was not aware it tasted bad. As Crozea had learned recently, it was the only thing in her life that she had ever been permitted to taste.
“I have come today with a need to talk. If you would, princess, proceed to walk.”
The princess obeyed, falling in step with Crozea, although slightly behind. Her motion was measured and exact, and her metal-clad hooves clicked across the crystal floor. As they walked past the girl’s bed, Crozea noticed that it was perfectly made- -and laid out exactly as it had been since she had got it.
“You do not seem quite at your best. Tell me, child, how well did you rest?”
The girl stared straight ahead. “I was...cold.”
“I will not leave it unsaid, but we can always make changes to your bed.”
The girl blinked. “Bed?”
“You are just a filly. We can add more blankets if you grow chilly.”
Crozea stopped walking. She pointed at the perfectly made bed. “Child, you require a clear head! Tell me now if you require a better bed!”
The girl stared at the bed, somewhat astounded. “Is...is that what that is?”
“It sits empty during the day, but at night it is where you go to lay.”
“Oh. I did not know that. I have been sleeping on the floor.”
The pang in Crozea’s heart grew. The child could speak, indeed, but not of her own volition. Crozea herself had done her best to move along the girl’s growth, examining her closely for symmetrical bone formation and signs of potential toxicity. The process had been going flawlessly. Her mind, though, was still that of an infant. Things had been done to her, and processes applied; speech had been written into her mind. She could think and reason- -and yet she knew nothing.
“We can discuss your misbehavior in turn. We will have a long conversation once we return.”
“Yes, Lady Crozea.”
The princess assumed walking beside Crozea, as she often did. They had passed through the halls of the Citadel many times, with no eyes on them but the thralls and the servantry. The thralls did not react in any way, as usual, but the servants recoiled in horror. From both of them. The witchdoctor and the cursed child, the foal born in the form of the Great Enemies. It should have been hurtful to the girl, but she did not notice. Or she simply did not have the context to care.
Crozea once again found herself waiting, as she had been for months. For the girl to ask the question, the one that should have been obvious. Yet for three months, she had been quiet, only speaking when provoked. Otherwise, she did nothing but sit quietly and grow.
It did not come on this day either. The question that should have burned within her, that Crozea burned to hear. For on this day, she finally had an answer.
Yet the question never came. The girl did not speak. She did not ask why she had been given no name, or to ask what she was called. She simply stayed nameless, an anonymous princess devoid of identity.
Crozea could bear it no longer. “I tire of this game. Your father has finally given you a name.”
“A name?” the girl looked up. “That is good to know.”
She fell back into silence. Even given the chance, she did not ask. She did not even seem to realize that she ought to.
“Are you truly that broken?” snapped Crozea. “Do you not desire to know how it is spoken?”
“No. I desire nothing currently. Thank you for inquiring, Lady Crozea.”
Crozea sighed and stopped the girl, putting a hoof on the filly’s shoulder. “Remember this well, for this is the name you shall take. Your father has decided your moniker is now Penumbra Heartbreak.”
“Penumbra Heartbreak. This name has been committed to memory.”
Penumbra continued walking, nonplussed by the news. Crozea had expected at least a glimmer of happiness, but in truth the girl saw no reason to care. This was a potential side-effect of the process. Crozea only prayed that it was not permanent.
“Are we going to the westmost hallway today?” asked Penumbra. “I like that hallway. There is a window there. The outside world is so big.”
The window, of course, faced a wall. There was not even a view of the sky. Penumbra had not been permitted to leave the Citadel or even witness the outside world since her crystalling. Crozea had convinced herself that it was not unreasonable, and that all ponies were raised that way.
“No. Today I shall give you more. I will take you to a place you have never been before.”
The room was the largest that Penumbra had ever seen, as well as the darkest. It gave her pause, although she did not understand why. The black-dyed hairs on the back of her neck stood on end as she stared into the expanse. All she could see was a strange red fog, drifting and swirling slowly across the floor. The only light of the room seemed to come from the singular gas.
Crozea entered the room as well, and from beneath her robes produced a small glass vial containing a single flash-bee. She uncorked the cap and took the been in her hooves, holding it close to her mouth and speaking in a strange melodious language. Thin yellow lines traced themselves down her hooves and into the bee, and as her magic touched it the bee sparked and ignited, its body shimmering and glowing. A circle of light surrounded the alicorn and the zebra, and the fog writhed and retreated at its touch.
“The fog is a byproduct of her cursed existence,” explained Crozea. “Even this dilute, breathing it can induce a deadly trance.”
“Who is cursed? I do not understand, Lady Crozea.”
“You will soon wish you did not know. But for now, to her we shall go. Leave not the glow of my enchanted wasp; wander into the mist, and you will be forever lost.”
“And that was barely even a rhyme.”
The crimson fog began to move, swirling and parting from Crozea and Penumbra. Penumbra had never seen anything like it before, and watched with detached amusement as it condensed and hardened, assuming the appearance walls and a floor, complete with ornate paneling and delicate, stone-like tiles. Within moments, she found herself standing in a hall that had previously not existed, surrounded entirely by shades of red and black.
In the center of this hall stood a pony. She was clad in red, though the parts of her skin that were still visible showed fur that might once have been blue. When Penumbra saw her face, though, she took a step back. Something was wrong, but she did not understand what. She wanted to turn away and go- -but there no longer was a door. Only a seemingly endless hallway.
The pony wore a mask. It was angular, harsh, and terrible. In a way, it was like the masks that Penumbra saw on the ponies that Crozea said worked for her father- -but different, both in construction and in color. The eyes were the same, though. Two empty, luminescent slits.
“Ugh. She even looks like him.” The masked pony moved forward. “Of all the indignities. Does it have a name?”
“I have been designated as Penumbra Heartbreak.”
“How prosaic.” Scarlet Mist looked up at Crozea. “You. Leave. You are disrupting my effluvium.”
“Does Lady Crozea truly need to go?” Penumbra leaned against Crozea’s leg. Crozea kicked her away.
“She disturbs me. That, and her incessant rhyming. Everything she says takes so very long.”
“Though my speech may be much more demanding, it derives from a cultural impetus beyond your understanding. Though I do not trust you, mask-wraith, in this instance to our king I owe my faith.” Crozea leaned down. She placed the enchanted flash-bee on Penumbra’s tiara. “Do not fear, as it will not attack, and know that at the end of the day, I will be back. There are things I must attend to, and I hope that the company of Scarlet Mist will do.”
Penumbra frowned, but only slightly. “Yes, Lady Crozea. I understand.” She turned toward Scarlet Mist and bowed. “Hello, Lady Mist. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“It talks. Why must everything in this kingdom be so unnatural?”
“Like a mask disguising a leech, striving for a union forever beyond her reach?”
“Which I suppose makes the two of us, then.”
Crozea frowned through her own mask. So Scarlet Mist knew.
Without another word, she turned and left, departing through a red door that opened to greet her. Penumbra watched her go, and felt strange as she did. As if she did not want to see her depart. Crozea was the one who came to her every day and brought her medicine, and the only one who was willing to talk to her. Seeing her go hurt.
Yet the door closed, and Penumbra was left alone and in silence, her only company a parasite attached to a rapidly depleting host.
“Know this,” said Scarlet Mist. “I do not begrudge her for being a zebra. I have even considered taking her body at one point, at least until I knew about her curse.”
“She is cursed?” Penumbra frowned. “What is a zebra?”
“A type of striped donkey. Never mind, it is irrelevant. But you must understand. Prejudice is a luxury. A zebra will betray you just as fast as a unicorn. They are all your enemies. They all want to hurt you.”
“Crozea...wants to hurt me?”
“She would not hesitate to do so. You would not be the first filly her magic has ruined.” Scarlet Mist turned sharply. “Follow.”
“Yes, Lady Mist.”
“Have you met your father, abomination?”
“No, Lady Mist. I have not. But Lady Crozea says that he is very handsome and powerful, and that he works very hard to make sure everyone in the whole kingdom is kept safe.” She paused. “Except she said it in rhyme.”
“Of course she did. Some of those things are correct.”
“Will I ever get to meet him?”
“If I can do an adequate job preparing you, maybe. Right now you would only be a disappointment.”
“Oh.” Penumbra looked at the floor. “I see.”
“Your father tasked me with teaching you how to use magic. Satin knows why.”
“Yes. Or did you think the horn on your forehead is for decoration only?”
“No.” Scarlet Mist pointed to her own horn- -or, rather, the horn of her host. “It is the organ which provides the only true separation of the races. Neither of us are unicorns, but we are both able to use magic.” Scarlet Mist’s horn glowed, and a plume of light formed around a nearby red flower. It levitated from the vase it sat in, and she held it out to Penumbra. Penumbra stared in awe, unable to understand how it was being held up.
“It was unicorns who built civilization.” The tone of the magic shifted, and the flower withered and died as the spell surrounding it consumed it. “And it is unicorns who will one day end it. Unless your kind beat them to it.”
“The alicorns. Cursed beings of the highest order.”
“Yes. Just like the rest of us.”
The room reconfigured itself. The hall vanished, and was replaced with a different assembly, one consisting of a single flat floor and a number of doors lining either side. Masks hung from the walls in various stages of assembly. Though the configuration was still changing, Scarlet Mist began to walk. Penumbra followed, desperate to not be left behind and trapped as the room shifted.
“Wait.” Penumbra ran to catch up. “You said I need to learn magic. How do I do that?”
“Most likely? You can’t. Most children demonstrate magical skill almost immediately after birth. You have never once shown any implication that you can. Crozea informed me in an especially long-winded rhyme that your horn does indeed contain marrow, but it is possible that you will never use magic.”
“Then I will never see my father.”
“That would be the least of your worries. I will not mince words, abomination. He does not love you. He intends you to be a weapon, to serve the kingdom of the field of battle. I was not assigned to train a student, or even a soldier. Like always, I was tasked with building a weapon.”
“Then I will be the best weapon he has ever seen. If that means he will be happy.”
“Happiness is a pointless illusion. It serves no purpose in the Crystal Empire.”
Penumbra paused. “You do not feel happy, Lady Mist?”
Scarlet Missed did not speak for a moment. “No. I do not feel happiness. It is something entirely different.” She turned to face Penumbra. “Happiness serves no purpose. What truly motivates ponies is FEAR.”
One of the walls parted and opened, revealing a small room. Penumbra entered beside Scarlet Mist to find that the large room contained a circular pen. Inside, a crystal pony had been changed to the wall. Upon seeing Scarlet Mist- -and the hideous abomination beside her- -he screamed and tried to flee, only to choke himself as his chain ran out.
“He is afraid?”
“Of me, yes. Because he knows what his role in life is. But also you, because you are a monstrosity. Not that either matter. He will only serve as a demonstration today.”
Part of the wall shifted, and it formed a red box. Scarlet Mist took it in her magic and walked to the edge of the pen. She opened the box and produced a small, white rabbit.
Penumbra gasped, her eyes widening in amazement. Something inside her felt different than any emotion she had ever known. “It is so fuzzy!” she exclaimed. “And it looks so soft!”
“It is both. It is a rabbit. We normally raise them for food. Also fur. Here. Hold it.”
Scarlet Mist shoved the rabbit into Penumbra’s grasp. Penumbra nearly squealed when she found that not only was it both fuzzy AND soft, but it was also WARM. The creature nuzzled her face and licked her chin.
“I want a thousand of these,” she whispered. “And then I want to lay in them...”
“I find them abhorrent personally. But the point is, this creature is utterly harmless. Now watch.”
Scarlet Mist placed the rabbit in the pen with the chained pony. He blinked, surprised that he was not being administered the first of his daily beatings, and stared at the creature. “A...bunny?”
As the crystal pony stared at the rabbit, he did not initially see the red gas escaping from Scarlet Mist’s person. When he saw it, though, he cried out and tried to flee.
“No! Mistress, please! Not again! NOT AGAIN- -”
His cries were cut off as he choked and gasped. The gas entered him, and his demeanor immediately changed. The stallion stared at the rabbit, blinked, and then began screaming in abject terror.
“No! NO! Not the Caerbannog! ANYTHING BUT THAT!” He retreated to the far side of his pen where the chain was attached and curled into a shivering ball. “Please! PLEASE SAVE ME!”
“All things a pony see are magnified by fear. Reality itself has little meaning to them, not objectively. They only know the reality we give them.” She prodded the rabbit, goading it to hop forward.
The crystal pony shrieked in terror. “NO! Somepony HELP!”
“In this state, a pony will do anything to escape it. To make the fear stop. Freedom? Happiness? The lives of their friends and family? They will give these things up in an instant, all in the name of security. For freedom from fear.”
Scarlet Mist cast a spell, and a red cage appeared around the rabbit. The Crystal Pony burst out in tears of joy.
“Thank you mistress! Oh thank you!” He pulled his shaking body forward and groveled. “You are my savior, my god! Thank you! THANK YOU!”
“Do you have a wife, slave?”
A look of fear crossed the pony’s face, but only for a moment. “Y...yes.”
“Tell me where she is. I will make her a test subject. Like you. But not for me. For the dark one. Do it, or I will release the Caerbannog.”
“The east district, in the red house! On the third floor! There is a secret panel on the ceiling! She will be hiding there! My brother’s family is hiding them! Take them! Take them all, just please, PLEASE let me live!”
“He is correct,” said a high voice in Penumbra’s head. “There were spells in place to hide them. How interesting. Troops have been dispatched. Oop. Looks like one guy is resisting. This should be fun. I hope he likes mining.”
“See?” said Scarlet Mist, turning to Penumbra. “Fear is the main driver of ponies subservience and obedience. It is their single, sole motivation. You are lucky. As an alicorn, your race is synonymous with fear and destruction.”
“And in that regard, you are mistaken. Watch.”
Scarlet Mist released the rabbit, and then threw it at the Crystal Pony.
His eyes widened and the highest, most terrible shriek Penumbra had ever heard escaped his lips. He ran, fleeing the rabbit, all the way to the end of his chain. It yanked and joked him, but he kept pulling. In an instant, it snapped, and with its remains still dragging behind him he leapt over the edge of his pen and into a ventilation duct. His feet kicked for a moment, and then he was gone, save for the echoes of his terrified screams.
“Fear can motivate a pony to do great things. Impossible things. This can be a blessing, but it can also turn back on you. Press too hard, and you will crush them and yourself along with you. This is the nature of fear, and of magic in turn.”
“But it is only a bunny. You said it was not dangerous...so is fear not real at all?”
“Of course. But not when you feel it. Then it is more real than anything in the whole world.”
“I do not understand, Lady Mist. I am sorry.”
“You do not understand because you fear nothing. Not quite yet. If I used my power, what would I find? You are too young to have true fear, but Crozea’s work has stripped you of the fears of a child. Not that it matters. Your fear will be how I control you. But you will inspire fear in ponies, as your father does, and use that fear to rule them. When your magic is fully developed, you will be the Princess of Fear.”
“The Princess of Fear...yes, Lady Mist. If you say that is what is required of me, then I am glad to help.”
“How charming. Then let us begin.”