Solaria relaxed upon the couch near the window of her room, sipping a warm drink that Smart Cookie called ‘cocoa.’ The drink, along with cake and several other common foods, had become something of a vice for the disguised alicorn over the past few weeks. I merely do this to maintain the appearance of normalcy amongst the mortals, she thought as she drew another long sip from her mug. When the time comes, I will cast these things aside. Now is not that time, however. The faux unicorn savored the warm feeling that the cocoa gave her as she took another sip, before looking over her mug at the other occupant in the room.
Lulu sat on her flank, her body completely obscured by the cloak draped over her body. Her scarred face was mostly hidden in the shadows of her hood, but Solaria could clearly make out the intense look on her face. That intense look evolved into comprehension, then excitement as she said, “Is it--”
The ghost of a grin crossed Solaria’s face as Lulu vanished from the room. She took another sip of her cocoa before glancing back down at the book she had been reading. Starswirl’s work is… surprising. His results are completely preposterous, but there’s a logic to it that’s tempting. Compelling, even.
The sounds of galloping hooves could be heard in the hallway, and the door flew open for Lulu as she barreled in the room. “It’s a teleport--”
Solaria hadn’t even looked up to address the filly as she entered and abruptly vanished again. Her thoughts began to race as she continued to read. Starswirl theorized that the races of this world are capable of influencing it through magic, while also being influenced by the world. He believes that these ‘Elements’ represent the true and honest nature of ponies, and cites this village’s success as proof that they can achieve ‘Harmony’ and become much more.
Before Solaria had come to the hidden community, she would have dismissed the concept instantly. She would likely have had the heretical text burned and the foolish author added as a statue to her garden. Now, though…
The sounds of galloping hooves again could be heard in the hallway and Lulu skidded around through the doorway. “A--”
Starswirl believes that the world is a reflection of its inhabitants, and vice versa As one improves, so does the other, she realised, and the impulse to burn the book was supplanted only by the unspoken question: What if he’s right? The idea of something so monumental escaping Solaria’s notice gave rise to the philosophical implications of the two parties influencing each other. A curious quote about chickens and eggs drifted through her memory, but was interrupted by a knock on the doorframe.
“Good evening, Sunny,” Starswirl said as he stepped just inside of the doorway. “I see that you’re going through my old notes like a mare possessed. I certainly hope this isn’t drawing your attention away from Lulu’s lessons.”
“Don’t be silly, Starswirl. I’m teaching her right now.”
The sound of galloping hooves down the hallway heralded another appearance of the filly. She was panting lightly as she asked, “Why is it--”
“Teaching?” the elder unicorn asked with a suspicious and not entirely unamused look.
“Indeed,” Solaria said as she sipped her cocoa. “She soaks up anything I show her like a sponge, so I figured I would teach her how to identify spell effects without the use of her own magic. Simple observation is all that’s needed, rather than complex formula.”
Lulu skidded past the doorway and shouted, “I--”
“Simple observation?” Starswirl repeated, adopting his ‘I don’t believe you but I’m going to play along’ tone. He brought up a hoof to his chin and he squinted into the room. “I’ll admit your cantrip is cleverly cast, but are you sure she’s going to be able to puzzle out the conditions for activation?”
Solaria turned to the next page of her borrowed book. “I’m actually quite confident that she will work out the parameters. She actually sat still for around fifteen minutes trying to work things out before she triggered it for the first time.” She paused her reading and cast an offended look at the unicorn. “Are you accusing me of having some ulterior motive for this test?”
The sound of hooves could be heard in the hallway again, but they had slowed from a frantic gallop to a slightly more sedated rate. Lulu made it around the corner and asked, “How does it--”
“I would never accuse you of such a thing, Sunny,” Starswirl said, and he looked upwards and to the side. “A lesser pony might think this is revenge for that time that Lulu told you that the fiery mustard was a special kind of cake frosting. Or that time she sprinkled flour into your coat just before your morning bath. You’ve become quite the focus of our resident prankster, so a lesser pony might think that this is retribution.”
“Well, then I should be thankful that you’re a better pony than that, right?” Solaria answered while levelling a glare at the stallion that had made lesser beings cower.
Trotting hooves punctuated by gasping breaths caused the two adults to pause as Lulu rounded the corner and into the room. “I’m getting--”
Starswirl gave a helpless chuckle and angled his head so that his gaze was hidden beneath his hat. “It’s to your credit that you can keep her attention. She hasn’t once complained about the lessons you two have, which is something I couldn’t manage for more than a two day stretch.” He sighed and stepped back into the hallway. “I’ll be downstairs with my research. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”
Solaria nodded to acknowledge the stallion’s offer before turning back to her reading. What I’m feeling is the satisfaction of teaching a valuable lesson, she told herself as she kept a mental tally of the number of times Lulu had fallen into the same trap. Lulu takes great pleasure in teaching me so much about the commoner’s life. Is it so wrong that I enjoy ‘teaching’ her also?
The hours of the evening came and went, and Lulu’s full speed gallops eroded into trots, then sedated walks. It was past midnight before she finally produced a winning answer. “Letters… first word… word count… teleport,” the foal panted before giving Solaria a wide grin.
“Very good!” the disguised alicorn praised. “Now, what did you learn?”
A minute passed as Lulu slowly caught her breath. “That if I’m going to prank somepony, I should make sure there’s no evidence leading back to me?” she asked slowly and without an ounce of remorse.
“Partial credit,” Solaria stated, before closing her book. “You also need to learn how to choose your targets more wisely: Starswirl will not retaliate; Clover will likely speak rather harshly towards you; Smart cookie will take your sweets away for a week.” A vindictive grin crossed her face, and she hoped it carried over to her voice, “I choose to get even. Do we have an understanding?”
“Perfectly! I promise only to get caught by ponies that are too mature for pranks of their own!” Lulu announced, and she burst into giggles when her teacher facehoofed. The giggles faded as she sat on the floor. “Sunny, can I sleep here tonight? I don’t think I can make it back to my room.”
Solaria arched an eyebrow before surrendering with a sigh. “You may. Starswirl’s books are quite enthralling, so I will likely not be sleeping. You may use my bed to rest if-- what are you doing?”
Rather than head for the simple bunk in the corner of the room, Lulu tottered forward to the couch and hopped up. The filly snuggled up beside Solaria, and once she was comfortable she fixed the faux unicorn with a wide-eyed look from beneath her hood. “Swirly used to spend all night reading and I could never go to sleep by myself. Do you mind if I sleep beside you? I promise not to get in your way.”
What spellcraft is this… this compulsion? Solaria asked herself as she found herself a prisoner to those milky-white eyes. No magic is in effect or being directed towards me, but I cannot resist! “Very well… but I must insist that you remove your cloak. Today’s lesson has you sweating dreadfully under it, and to be honest I’m not certain it’s been washed. Ever.”
Hesitation entered Lulu’s expression before she looked down. “O-okay,” she agreed, her voice barely more than a whisper. Magic undid the knotted string from around her neck, and the ragged cloth folded itself in the air before being placed near one of the sofa legs. With the garment no longer a concern, the foal burrowed as deeply as she could into Solaria’s side before her eyes slowly closed.
This is the first time I’ve seen her uncovered, Solaria realised, and a hollow ache slowly grew in her chest the longer she looked at her. The scars on the foal’s face and eyes were the most prominent marks, but they were far from the only ones. The burns continued past her horn to her ears, as well as down the front of her neck and forelegs. The burns couldn’t have been inflicted naturally, as there is no gradient to the scars. The cause was likely a magical burst of… of… Lulu shivered in her sleep, and Solaria had to restrain the impulse to wrap a foreleg around the filly. Confound your compulsions, Lulu! One day you will surrender the secrets of this ability to me!
Despite her best attempts to resume the study of Starswirl’s books, her gaze was continually drawn to the foal at her side. The coat that was unmarked by the scars was a gentle powder blue, and a crescent moon mark adorned her flanks. Her mane and tail were light gray and completely matted down from the weight of the cloak she always wore. A monumental force of will was required to keep from pulling Lulu closer, so she instead chose to focus on the burns.
If the magister that’s responsible for this still lives, I must make it a priority to find him upon my return to power. I wish to personally express my displeasure, Solaria concluded. The disguised alicorn closed the borrowed book before she closed her eyes as well. It had been several weeks since she had devoted any thought to her more creative forms of punishment, and she had every intention of exploring each one in detail… but her thoughts kept drifting back to the foal sleeping at her side.
Solaria gave a small sigh as she opened her eyes and glanced back down to Lulu. My recent lessons have been to prepare Lulu to serve as an agent of my wrath in the future, but she misunderstands my intent. She must become aware of my intended role for her, she concluded. Plans began to coalesce in her mind on just how that could be achieved, but every single one was derailed by the sight of the foal burying her scarred face into the older mare’s barrel. Perhaps… perhaps that can wait for a while, Solaria concluded, and she finally surrendered to the impulse to pull the filly closer.
The pair stayed side by side for some time before Solaria felt the first rays of sunlight arc over the horizon. Warm light began to slowly began to filter into the room, and the disguised alicorn could do little but sit and bask in the morning light as Lulu shifted to make herself more comfortable. Her adjustments were apparently unsuccessful, and the foal rose and stretched. As she reached the apex of her stretch, her eyes grew wide as she slowly turned toward the window and the rising sun.
And then she screamed.
Lulu tumbled from the couch and galloped away from the window, only to collide face first with the wall on the opposite side of the room. The impact caused her to stumble, but she quickly recovered and began banging on the wall with her hooves. Her screaming continued for a few seconds longer until Starswirl entered the room.
The elder unicorn’s teleport was an order of a magnitude louder than those of Solaria’s trap, and the excess force of his magic cracked the window panes and pushed back every piece of furniture by a quarter inch. “Lulu! To me!” Starswirl shouted, and his forelegs swept up the filly as she sprinted in the direction of his voice. The filly’s sobs were muffled slightly by Starswirl’s cape as it pooled around him, and they slowly grew silent as Starswirl hummed a lullaby to her.
The stallion’s expression was unreadable as he glanced towards the open window, then the folded cloak at the foot of the couch. A brief magical tug pulled the curtains around the window closed, and a second spell pulled the folded garment over to him. “Lulu, you’re safe now. I have your cloak ready for you,” he whispered.
“W-what kind of cloak is it?” the filly questioned from somewhere within the depths of Starswirl’s cape.
“It’s a magic cloak,” the elder explained as he backed away slowly and draped the tattered cloth over Lulu. “It’s enchanted to keep you safe. I promise that no harm will come to you so long as you wear it.” Starswirl pulled the filly into a tight hug before setting her down.
“Cross my heart.”
A knock at the door was followed by Cookie’s concerned voice. “Is everypony okay in there?” The concerned mare cracked the door open, and some unspoken message passed between her and Starswirl in the blink of an eye. “Lulu, dear, why don’t you come downstairs to the kitchen? I’ve just finished a loaf of cinnamon bread, and I think we can spare some butter for toast if you like.” Cookie offered, and she favored the filly with a warm smile as she walked out the door.
Starswirl waited for the door to click shut before he spoke, his back still to Solaria. “You have my apologies, Sunny. I had hoped that we would never have to have this conversation, but it seems that it’s unavoidable now.”
The disguised alicorn hadn’t managed to move an inch during the entire exchange, and she let out the breath that she had been holding. “What… what was the reason for that outburst? I cannot recall any cause for such fear.”
Starswirl took in a slow breath before letting it out. “This all started with the Dawnbreaker incident…” The stallion stopped and let out a helpless chuckle. “You’ll have to forgive me. Almost all of the adults here know of what occurred, but you might have been too young to have heard about it.”
“I cannot say that the term ‘Dawnbreaker’ has any meaning for me,” Solaria answered honestly, her indignation at the presumption of her age overridden by curiosity of the topic at hand.
Starswirl nodded, and another moment passed in silence before he spoke again. “Dawnbreaker was a magister who was rising through the ranks with admirable speed considering his age. His skills in management were surpassed only by his magical capacity, and he was considered to be the best candidate to inherit the Grand Magus title from his father. Unfortunately, Dawnbreaker was also a rather… radical member of the magisters when it came to how things should be run.
“He would often have meetings with Commander Typhoon of the enforcers, and rumor has it that he was even meeting in secret with influential members of the labor caste. From what I have been told, Dawnbreaker was planning on instituting sweeping reforms for more lenient treatment with the laborers, and greater oversight and accountability for the magisters and enforcers,” Starswirl explained. An emotion that Solaria had never heard before had entered the stallion’s voice, and it only grew as he continued. “These plans might have earned him censure or lost standing had they come out… before his daughter was born.”
“Lulu?” Solaria asked, and Starswirl could only nod in response.
“You already know how much of a prodigy she is. Minor telekinetics at three, and basic cantrips at four. Four! I could barely manage a lamp spell when I was six! Most of the other magister foals were barely starting their arcane schooling by the age of five, and she was already tackling spells of apprentices twice her age.” The stallion let out a tired laugh. “I remember that some were speculating that at the rate she was progressing, she might just steal away the title of Grand Magus before her father could lay claim to it. Some very powerful ponies wanted to make sure that wouldn’t come to pass.”
“And did Dawnbreaker take issue with this overly ambitious--” the disguised alicorn started to ask, only to recoil at the furious glare that Starswirl gave her.
“Lulu was his daughter, and he loved her with every fiber of his being!” he hissed at Solaria before clenching his teeth and taking another deep breath. He turned back to the doorway before continuing. “Dawnbreaker did nothing but shout his daughter’s praises to anyone who would listen, and he’d often shout them at those who wouldn’t. Unlike the other magisters and their pure bloodlines, Lulu was born to a common earth pony cook working at Dawnbreaker’s estate. Apparently she was the product of one of Dawnbreaker’s ‘youthful indiscretions.’”
“That would explain the reactions of the other magisters lack of enthusiasm for one so gifted…” Solaria said carefully, her eyes searching Starswirl for any sign of the anger he had briefly shown after her last question.
A bit of the heat that had been in Starswirl’s tone returned. “That would be an understatement. At first they had thought a half breed would fail when compared to their chosen heirs. When she didn’t, they assumed some trick perpetrated by Dawnbreaker to support his radical ideas. When that was proven false… they accused Dawnbreaker of laying the groundwork for rebellion with the laborers and took their case to Princess Platinum. The princess believed their every word, and escalated the issue.”
The price of treason is death. If Dawnbreaker was collaborating with the enforcers, then they would likely have sent magisters or the Grand Magus to punish him, Solaria concluded. She opened her mouth to say just that, but the slowly growing ache in her chest gave her pause.
“Princess Platinum brought the reports to the Solar Court, and pled the case of Dawnbreaker’s treachery to Queen Solaria… and she…” Starswirl’s shoulders shook, and he turned to face Solaria fully. Tears ran from his eyes as he sobbed. “I don’t know what spell she cast, but everypony who was within sight of Dawnbreaker’s estate said it was like a shard of the sun itself in its heat and intensity. Dawnbreaker… my son... died in the fire before I could get there. Lulu, my precious granddaughter, was nearly burned to cinders. It was all I could do to save her life! She refuses to go out during the day because she thinks the sun will make her catch fire, and I can’t do anything but lie by telling her that rag she wears is some mystical artifact that will protect her!”
Starswirl continued to rant and plead towards Solaria, but his words fell on deaf ears.
I… did this? Lulu’s scars were caused by me?! she thought, and the pain in her chest increased exponentially. They weren’t obeying the rules of my system! They brought it on themselves! Solaria protested, but the arguments rang hollow. This town I’m in doesn’t obey the rules of my system. Do Clover and Cookie deserve to die? Does their unborn foal deserve to die? Does Starswirl deserve this fate for orchestrating this? Does Lulu for participating in it? No, they’re good, they don’t deserve--
The faces of the ponies she knew in town were replaced by thousands of half-remembered punishments, of creatures pleading for mercy or crying out in terror. Did the others deserve it? Or were all the others like Clover and and Cookie? Like Starswirl and Lulu?
The questions struck her with the force of a physical blow. How many? How many fathers have had to bury sons that I killed? How many foals were maimed and orphaned because of me? The thought of thousands… millions of such things happening during her reign threatened to crush the disguised alicorn. Is the system of order I’m trying to create worth more than their lives? Was it worth scarring Lulu for the rest of her life? She raked her memories for an explanation or some higher reason that might justify what had been done… and found nothing but genocide repeated again and again.
“Sunny?” The question was accompanied by a gentle tap on the shoulder, and Starswirl held up his hooves in a placating gesture when the mare recoiled. “I am sorry. I know you’ve lived a sheltered life, and it was unfair of me to unload all of this onto you.” When no response was immediate, the old stallion closed his eyes. “I’m sorry… I don’t think I’m going to be good company. Why don’t you downstairs and have have breakfast with Lulu and Cookie?” He wrapped one foreleg around her shoulders and slowly guided the stunned mare out of the room and down to the kitchens.
“Sunny! You gotta try this!” Lulu said excitedly, the terror of the sun apparently forgotten in favor of a delicious snack. The filly’s muzzle was covered in breadcrumbs, which multiplied as she stuffed a second slice of toast into her mouth. “It’s delicious when it’s warm! Go on, try some!” Lulu levitated a slice over to the mare. Her good cheer began to fade when her offered treat wasn’t taken immediately. “Don’t you want any? I promise I haven’t done anything to it…”
Anything else that filly might have said was abruptly interrupted when Solaria did the only thing she could think of to ease the pain she was feeling. “I’m so sorry, Lulu,” she sobbed as she scooped the filly into a crushing hug. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know… I didn’t know about any of it.”
Lulu’s flailing and protests about the treatment went unheard. The weight of one thought overshadowed all others. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall casting the spell that destroyed Lulu’s family and scarred her for life. She had far too many similar memories to draw from.