“The first thing you should know is that my name’s not actually Starswirl,” the imposter said. “It’s Magik Tome. Though, I think you had the first part figured out already.”
He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up on the floor. Magik grabbed the washbasin from under the bed and splashed some water on his face.
His mane dripping, he looked at us with eyes that were now wide open and alert.
“So how exactly do you two plan to make me a hero again?”
Twilight stepped forward. “We’re going to fight.”
“Haven’t you had enough already?” Magik took a step back. “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but you’ve already done enough with your fighting, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but this time it will be different,” Twilight said.
“This time, I will lose and you’ll be the big hero.”
Magik leaned against the bed and kept a skeptical look on his face. The same kind of look I had seen on Charm a thousand times: he wanted to know what was in it for us.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s say this isn’t some sort of trap and you’re actually being nice to me: exactly why do you want me to be a hero again?”
Twilight paused and held a hoof to her chin. Finally, she answered, “Because Princess Celestia believes it’s the best thing for Equestria, and I agree with her. The ponies around here need you to be their champion, but you can’t until you defeat me in front of them.”
“But do you believe that?” Magik smirked. “Judging from the scars, the tattered cape, and the way you used your magic, you don’t seem like a mare that’s still young enough to be taking schoolyard lessons from anypony, even if that specific pony is the Princess.”
“I am simply inclined to agree with Princess Celestia,” Twilight said with a gleam in her eye. “It just so happens that even in my current state, she still has more experience and wisdom than I.”
“Well isn’t that perfect.”
Magik lay back on the bed, his eyes locked onto the ceiling and forehooves splayed across his chest. His eyes seemed to glaze over and he remained motionless for some time.
“You know, I think it was a good thing that you defeated me,” he said finally.
Twilight cocked her head. “And why is that?”
“I’d gotten too . . . reckless. I forgot what my shows were supposed to be about, and had made myself into my own hero. In this case, I should really be thanking you; you are the one who reminded me that I’m not actually Starswirl the Bearded.”
Twilight bit her lip and looked at me. I shrugged to inform her that I didn’t know how she was supposed to respond, so she walked a little closer to the bed to look down on Magik.
“Well, uh, how did a pony like you start imitating Starswirl the Bearded in the first place?” she said.
He smiled a little. “That’s an easy one.”
Magik waved his hoof in the air and his horn began to glow, painting a picture with his magic of a verdant valley with lush, green trees and a sparkling blue lake in the center of it. There was a castle that sat on the marshy land next to the lake, and walls even went down into the water.
“I was part of Starswirl’s team of unicorn magicians. We were given to him by the Princesses to help stop a conflict in the old pony lands between the earth ponies and the unicorns.”
There was a large army that surrounded the castle’s high walls and laid siege to the main gate. In the foreground, a contingent of gold-armored guards marched behind Starswirl’s group to the castle.
“We hoped to solve the situation without violence, but, well . . .” The image in the air faded away like the twinkling of stardust. “When all was said and done, we had used some powerful magic, and a lot of ponies lay dead or dying. They cried out at night . . . I think that’s what got Starswirl. He disappeared a few nights after the siege ended, and we didn’t hear from him after that.”
“So then how did you start pretending you were him?” Twilight said.
Magik held up a hoof. “I was getting to that. Anyway, that was when The Troubles began between the two sisters and ponies started learning about what we had done. So when they asked about it, I’d just tell them about Starswirl . . . about the good things he’d done.
“It started with me just telling his stories, but then ponies unfamiliar started thinking I was the hero in all my tales. Then I stopped correcting them . . . and it just kind did a downward spiral into what it is now: a sham.”
“So now you’re just going to lie there until you rot?” Twilight said.
“That was the plan, unless you can give me a better reason than doing what your Princess tells you to do.”
Twilight stood aways a bit while Magik continued to lay on the bed, his eyes slowly starting to drift closed. If he wanted us to stay, he was doing a poor job of showing it.
Twilight for her part bit her lip and didn’t reply to him. I got the sickening feeling that, in her devotion to the actual Starswirl, she didn’t really have a good reason for him to be impersonated.
Luckily for Magik, I did.
I walked over to the bed and stuck my head over it so that Magik was looking up directly into my eyes.
“Hi,” I said quickly. “My name is Tinker and you two seemed to forget I’m in the room too.”
“Uh, well, sorry-”
“No, no, that’s alright.” I stuck my face even closer to his. “Because, you see, I have the solution to your problem. You want motivation? I”ll give you one.”
“You see this mare, the one that beat you? She dragged me across time and space from home against my will! And you know what? She’s so powerful that there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Not a thing!” I tapped him in the chest. “But that’s not true for you. You are being given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really rough up this mare.”
Magik shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I know what you’re trying to do, and it isn’t working. I would not feel right sullying Starswirl’s good name any more than I already have.”
“Oh, but you see, this isn’t about you.” I leered down at him, and watched as he began to squirm a little. “This is all about me. Because you are going to beat the living hell out of this mare because I want to see somepony do it. And if you don’t, I’ll take every last bit of what I want to see done to her and use that on you. Get me?”
Our noses were almost touching now and his eyes were locked on to mine in a terrified gaze. He gave one curt nod of his head before I moved off him and stood by Twilight once again.
“Good,” I said. “Put the costume on and meet us downstairs. We’ll be waiting.”
Twilight and I left the still-blubbering Magik alone in his room and gathered in the hall outside once again. Twilight glowered at me.
“Did you mean all that you said in there?” she said.
I shrugged. “I was about as serious as Discord was earlier.”
Twilight rolled her eyes while Discord popped up from her side and clapped his tiny paw and talon together. “Oh bravo, I really like this one! Oh please can we keep her, mommy?”
I snickered a little while Twilight only huffed and led me downstairs to wait for Magik to come out. The ponies who still remained on the ground floor cast us sour looks when we dared to sit at a table, and the bar refused to serve us any food. Twilight didn’t seem bothered by that fact, but my stomach grumbled mightily.
The whispers in the room directed toward us stopped abruptly as everypony’s attention was pulled to a figure at the top of the stairs.
Magik Tome was dressed in full Starswirl the Bearded regalia. Standing at his full height with his back erect, he again took on the impressive stance that had swooned so many ponies before. In just a few minutes, he had changed from a defeated husk to a confident stallion.
Or, on the outside anyway. The way he looked at Twilight and I and shook ever so slightly, it was obvious that he was still nervous. Still, he did his best to hide it as he strode down the stairs, taking them two at a time.
A few ponies approached him, but were stopped with an outstretched hoof. He only stopped briefly by our table and gave Twilight a knowing look before heading outside. A moment later, Twilight followed him, leaving me alone in the bar.
“What was that about?” was the general question.
All eyes turned to me.
“They had a, uh, discussion,” I stammered. “Starswirl the Bearded has challenged his new nemesis to a rematch for his honor in just a short while. You should go see!” I added.
The burly stallions nodded to each other and began to smile at the suggestion. There was a hunger in their eyes: a hunger for their hero to be redeemed, and the new upstart put in her place.
Before any of them could make the obvious link between me and said upstart, I scurried out of the inn and back into the city.
* * *
Twilight and Magik had already left a trail of confused ponies in their wake, and as I walked along I took the time to tell each of them about the upcoming rematch between the two.
Some of the ponies were indifferent to the idea, but many had the same smiles of vengeance that those back at the inn had displayed. And the more ponies I told, the more followed me toward the town’s square.
“Starswirl’s back!” some cried.
“He’s going to give that mare what she deserves!” said some more.
Somepony had managed to get word to the pegasi, and they began to swoop down toward us and whoop and holler just as loud as anypony else.
By the time I had reached the now-empty square, a variable mob of ponies was gathered behind me and followed me closely out into the square and back to the wooden stage.
The curtain was re-erected and the stage set for the performance. The only thing missing were the actors. Upon that sight, the crowd grew visibly anxious.
Ignoring the thumping in my heart, I scrambled on stage and looked out at the sea of ponies. Seeing some action onstage, the chattering stopped for the most part.
“Ponies!” I said. “The rematch will begin in just a few minutes: please be patient!”
With my words of reassurance spoken, I scrambled past the curtain and backstage to find out just what was going on.
Between rope pulleys and barrels was Twilight, standing next to Magik who had his rump planted on top of a wooden crate and his head and his hooves.
“What’s going on?” I said. “You two are supposed to be out there!”
Twilight sighed. “This one got cold hooves right after we got here.”
“Is that true?” I walked up next to Magik. “Do I need you to remind you of our agreement?”
“No, no you don’t.”
He took the cape patterned after the constellations in the night sky in his hooves and bunched it up as he clutched it to his chest. Magik looked down at it, then up to me without a word.
I got the message.
“You really don’t feel right doing this, do you?” I said.
“Starswirl was . . . he was just such a hero to me. I feel like I’ll be betraying him if I go out there.”
I looked at Twilight, but she remained resolutely silent. Great, I was going to have to do something on my own.
“You know, you’re not the only one who looked up to Starswirl,” I said.
Magik sighed. “Yes, I know, but-”
“But nothing,” I said. “There is a crowd of ponies out there who came here today to watch their greatest hero reclaim his greatness. Sure, the hero they want isn’t the real one, but does that really matter? Can’t the legend of Starswirl the Bearded be greater than a single pony? Can’t it just be an idea of a hero?”
“Mother of Luna, I think Tinker said something smart,” Discord gasped. Twilight shushed him.
Magik looked up at me. “So why does it matter if I go out on stage?”
“It doesn’t.” I pointed to his cape and hat with the bells. “But right now you are the pony wearing the silly hat, and it’s time you started acting like it.”
Magik was silent for a moment, and I was afraid that I had overstepped my boundaries. But, at last, he stood up and rearranged his cape.
“Alright,” he said, “I’ll do it. It’s . . . it’s what Starswirl would have wanted.”
Twilight nodded her approval. “When we’re out there, just follow my lead and you won’t get hurt. My blasts are going to have to be real to make this authentic, so pay attention. Tinker, go tell them we’re ready.”
“Right,” I said.
I scrambled out from behind the curtain and back onto the stage to soothe the restless crowd. I had expected the group to had shrunk, but there looked to be more ponies in the square than ever, and they all watched me closely. I gulped.
“Mares and gentlecolts!” I said as loudly as I could, “I present to you the rematch of Starswirl the Bearded and . . . a Madmare with a tattoo!”
The crowd cheered and roared as I hopped off the stage and the curtain parted to reveal the two combatants. Magik was quick to fall back into his routine and waved to the crowd while giving them a cheeky smile.
“Are you ready to relinquish your title?” he boomed.
Twilight growled, though I knew not whether it was real or fake. “No words . . . let’s just do this.”
“As you wish.”
His statement was still hanging in the air when a golden bolt of magic cut through it on its way for Twilight. She made sure to dodge, but the bolt still grazed past her close enough that a few ponies held their breath for the impact.
Magik had a ghost of a smile as he watched Twilight send a beam his way in return that sparked and flashed a deep violet as it cut across the stage towards her combatant.
I watched as, subtly, Magik watched Twilight’s eyes and was able to step out of the way with plenty of time with a show of bravado. Many of the crowd remained watching, but silent.
The fight continued on much the same, with both Twilight and Magik exchanging blows at an even pace, but neither placing an attack that landed on the other. Whenever it looked like Twilight would finally take a blow and end it, she would dodge out of the way.
It made for a good watch for a little while, but the crowd started to grow bored as their hero did not seem able to regain his title.
Magik noticed, too. After swinging a lance of magic to swing around Twilight’s left—which missed, of course—he chanced a look out into the crowd, and was obviously disappointed by what he saw.
Ponies looked up at him, not with defeat, but with boredom in their eyes. Their hero was failing.
Magik was so entrance, so shocked by what he saw, that he missed the signal for Twilight’s next attack, a rumbling wave of magic that crashed across the surface of the stage and struck him across his midsection.
He was sent tumbling across the stage and nearly fell of the far side. Twilight watched in shock at the results of her spell while the crowd gasped.
For them, they’d just seen their hero defeated again by the same opponent. Some of the ponies even started to walk away.
But when I saw Magik weakly begin to get to his feet, I knew I had to do something. Today was turning out to be a proactive day for me, apparently.
“Don’t despair!” I said. “Starswirl the Bearded is not down yet, but he needs us to help! If he sees that he’s still a hero to all of us, then he can conquer anything!”
I felt like one of those foal’s show hosts trying to get a bunch of little colts and filly to mindlessly chant whatever word of the day was on the vidscreen. But, well, there was a lot to say for crowd mentality.
My little speech—if it could even be called that—got a few ponies near me to start chanting Starswirl’s name just like before, and the ponies near them took up the action as well. Before long, Starswirl’s name filled the air in a roaring blast coming from the crowd and washing across the stage.
And it had a real, tangible effect on Magik, too. A great big grin broke out across his face as he watched the crowd urge him on, then turned to face Twilight.
When she let her next attack fly, he didn’t even both to wait for a signal of where to dodge it. Instead, Magik bolted across the stage, rolled underneath the wave of malevolent magic, and found himself face to face with Twilight.
Taking no time, a blast of golden sparks flushed out from his horn and sent Twilight sprawling on the far side of the stage, curls of smoke rising from her mane.
The crowd screamed in ecstasy at “Starswirl’s” sudden and bold move, and at his victory over the evil and cruel Madmare with a tattoo. And, again, as much as the crowd loved him, Magik loved them back and bathed in their adulations.
He looked right at me one last time and mouthed, “Thank you,” before being whisked away on the shoulders of ponies happy to have their heroes back.
* * *
In the uproar following Magik’s victory, Twilight had slunk backstage and I had followed. She grunted about her mane’s new condition and Magik’s cheap shot. I did my best not to smile a little.
Twilight glowered at me. “What are you so happy about?”
“You did a good thing out there,” I said. “You gave these ponies their hero back.”
“But is that really such a good thing? I mean, you’re the one with the whole ‘a hero is bigger than one pony thing’, not me.”
“Oh, I’d like to think it’s quite a fine idea,” a voice said. “As long as the message remains the same, the bearer doesn’t really matter, don’t you think?”
Twilight and I whirled around to see a familiar gardener with his blue face and pink beard stuck beneath a calm smile. I was happy to see a familiar face, but Twilight’s reaction was quite a bit . . . more.
With as much reverance as I had shown to the Empress—being the pious pony I am—Twilight bowed her head to the gardener.
“Starswirl, it is an honor to see you again,” she said.
I gaped at both them. “Starswirl the Bearded is a gardener?”
“What are you talking about?” Twilight said.
Starswirl himself laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about her,” he said, “Tinker and I met outside the city earlier today. She even helped me plant a few flowers she had stepped on.”
Now that I knew who he was, I felt a burning embarassent at so carelessly messing up the great Starswirl the Bearded’s flower bed.
“So, um, what brings you here?”
“I heard an old friend from my younger days was in town, and I wanted to see her before she disappeared again.” He smiled. “Isn’t that right, Twilight?”
Twilight, so help me, smiled like a little foal. “It is wonderful to see you again, Starswirl,” she said, “though I do think we are due to leave.”
From Twilight’s side came Discord’s voice, “Right-O; not even enough time for a quickie.”
Starswirl turned to me. “But, visiting old friends was not the only reason I came here.”
“And, uh, what other reason could there be?” I asked nervously.
Starswirl reached down into his beard and produced a small band made of what looked to be a combination of rubber and stone, colored aqua blue.
“I also came to give you this,” he said.
“What is it?”
“This is a little something I whipped up after you landed. It’s got a spell in it that should lock you a little closer to Twilight so you don’t have a repeat of our flower incident . . . unless you two have it together.” He passed it to me. “Also doubles as a nifty hair-band.”
I hesitantly took the band in one hoof and pulled my curly mane back in the other, and quickly gave myself a rough ponytail with the band as the center. My hair felt . . . bouncy. An improvement, in my opinion.
“Oh, I get it!” Discord said. “They’re called ponytails because they look just like a pony’s tail. I feel so dumb now.”
As if on a signal, Twilight and I began to glow white and I knew our time to leave was near. Starswirl, it seemed, did too.
He waved to us and grinned. “Good luck!”
And with that we were gone, lost in an entire universe of white.