The sound that woke Sunny wasn’t hooves galloping down the hallways, or the birds chirping outside, or even the conversations from the common hall leaking through the floorboards. It was the sound of a page turning beside her bed that enticed her from the dreamless sleep she had been experiencing. Her waking mind took in everything that her senses save sight could tell her, from the breeze from the open window on her face to the warmth of the bedding that held her… to the inexplicable weight on her chest.
One eyelid cracked open to reveal Lulu sprawled out on top of Sunny, apparently deep in sleep with her face buried in the comforter. Opening her eyes further revealed Starswirl in the chair beside the bed, his use-worn tome in his hooves and his face buried in the pages. Sunny did not know how long the strange scene lasted, but it was only a temporary comfort as Lulu stirred. The small movement of the filly drew Starswirl’s attention, which in turn brought his attention to Sunny.
“The chains we place upon ourselves are never easy to remove,” Starswirl said, and for the first time that Sunny could remember, he looked away first after meeting her gaze. “The chains forged by guilt are by far the hardest. I wish I could say that the circumstances of our last visit were accidental, but I would be lying.”
“What do you mean?” Sunny asked, still dumbfounded at the events that had unfolded and her mind still clouded with the remnants of sleep.
“Smart Cookie was right, you know. I am a manipulative old spider, spinning threads to make ponies dance like puppets,” the elderly unicorn explained, and he elaborated when he caught the look on Sunny’s face. “I’ve done a terrible disservice to you by being dishonest, and if I am going to ask so great a sacrifice from you, then I have to start correcting that now. As I said, I had long suspected your true identity, and I had engineered the circumstances of our last conversation to ensure you would be as off balance and on the back hoof as possible. After your reaction to finding out about Lulu’s past, I knew that you would feel guilty by association with Solaria, and I had intended to use that as leverage to undermine any reluctance you would have felt. Sunny, I owe you the greatest of apologies for trying to sabotage your judgement on this, but I cannot overstate enough the importance of your role in what comes next.”
Why is he apologizing for doing what’s necessary? Starswirl was correct when he postulated the theory that this world would die if Sola-- if I were to lose control of the sun or push it out of orbit. Is there anything that cannot be justified in that circumstance? Sunny thought before managing a whisper. “What comes next?”
“According to my calculations, the sun is now the closest it has ever been to our world. If we are to wrestle control of it from Solaria, then now is the best time,” Starswirl said, and he levitated a set of saddlebags up high enough for Sunny to see before placing them beside the bed. “There’s a place of power somewhere within the ruins of the capital, but we’ll have to move quickly to avoid being caught out at night.”
“I… I may know of a place in the capital that would suit your needs,” Sunny stammered as she struggled with the lie. I have to tell him the truth… but I can’t do it here. There are far too many ponies who might… misunderstand if they were to overhear.
“I suspected as much,” Starswirl nodded as he stepped from his chair. His magic engulfed the sleeping Lulu and moved her to the side of the bed enough for Sunny to slip out from beneath the covers. He placed one hoof gently on the filly’s head and whispered something to her before stepping out of the room with Sunny immediately behind.
The only obstruction the pair encountered was Clover, who was dressed not only for a journey but for battle as well. Rugged armor covered his limbs and core, and a quartet of kine blades rested at his flanks on either side of a backpack. He gave Starswirl a stubborn glare as the pair approached. “You’re going to need my help, Starswirl. The only ponies who are left in the capital are bandits and brigands. You’ll need somepony watching your back.”
“I’ve already accounted for that, Clover,” the elder stallion started to explain. “We’ll be heading out of the village before teleporting to ensure this place isn’t compromised, and we won’t be using any magic until we’ve located the place of power. Once we’re there, it’ll be too late for anyone to stop us. And besides, I’m not sure you’ve accounted for the dangers--”
“Not accounted for the dangers?” Clover snapped, and he emphasized his point by stomping a hoof. “You’re going into one of the most dangerous places in this world without backup and I’m the one not accounting for the dangers?”
“If we’re discovered before reaching the place of power, then our mission will likely fail anyway. The sounds of fighting carry quite far, if you recall, and will attract others looking for prey,” Starswirl explained patiently, before giving the other stallion a tired smile. “You’re an expecting father, Clover. I don’t want to be responsible for any more orphans…” He paused and looked around for several moments before adding, “Plus, even if our plans succeeded, Cookie would beat me within an inch of my life if I let you come with.”
Clover opened and closed his mouth several times as he tried to formulate an appropriate rebuttal before surrendering the point. “One day, Starswirl. If you haven’t returned by this time tomorrow, I’ll head to the capital myself. That’s all I will allow.” He turned and stomped off towards the home he shared with his wife without waiting for a reply.
Starswirl let out a helpless chuckle as he slipped the wide-brimmed hat on over his head. His gaze dropped just enough to disappear beneath the hat as he spoke, “The pride of stallions is a fragile thing… Come, Sunny. Daylight’s burning and I don’t want to delay any more.” He didn’t look behind to confirm if she was following as he trotted out of the village and into the dense forest beyond.
The pair had trotted for several hours into the late afternoon before finally stopping at a clearing. The trees surrounding the clearing were heavy with foliage and made a near impenetrable wall around them, and the area itself was covered in long grass that brushed against Sunny’s barrel as the two followed an almost invisible path beaten through the underbrush. The sun immediately began to warm Sunny’s coat as they left the protective canopy of foliage.
He must be sweating under that cloak… why doesn’t he leave it? Sunny thought as she glanced towards the stallion. Focus, Sunny! You’ve got more important things to worry about than that! “Starswirl…” she started, and all of her willpower to tell the truth of who she really was vanished when she met his gaze.
“Yes, Sunny?” Starswirl asked as he inclined his head to eye the mare, and he turned to address her directly a moment later. “Sunny, you seem… uncertain. Are you reconsidering your decision?”
“No. Not exactly…” Tell him! He deserves to know, and now is as good a time as any! Sunny railed against her hesitation, before another thought occurred to her. Does he really have to know? I could just let him cast the spell and then ‘transform,’ and nopony would be the wiser. The dishonesty of that option smacked against her desire to confess and unburden herself of the secret that had been eating at Sunny. A moment passed, and the decision was made for her.
The sound of a twig breaking underhoof seemingly had the volume of an explosion in the quiet clearing, and Starswirl reacted almost instantly. “EAVESDROPPERS!” he roared as his horn flared, and a mighty gust of wind flattened all of the grass in the clearing while nearly bending the trees to the ground. Only one thing resisted the sudden burst. A powder blue shield broke the gust of wind like a wave against the rocks, and the cloaked filly behind it didn’t move an inch.
The wind died down the instant Starswirl recognized the pony behind the shield. “Sun above, Lulu! You should not be here! It’s dangerous and we’ve no time to play!” he scolded, his voice filled with equal parts relief and anger.
“I’m not here to play!” Lulu screamed back, and her tone caused both Starswirl and Sunny to recoil from it. “I’m not some stupid filly, Starswirl! I know that when you sent me off to return that book, you took Sunny to have a talk with Clover in the main hall, and every time that’s happened in the past, that pony leaves forever!” Her expression was hidden underneath the hood, but the anger in her voice was more than enough to convey what she was feeling.
“Lulu, that’s not what’s happening here,” Starswirl said, and the outrage that had been previously present was replaced with something far softer. He took several steps toward the filly, and didn’t stop as she continued to yell.
“You’re lying! I don’t want Sunny to leave, ever! She’s smart, and nice, and she always tells me the truth!” the filly yelled, her blind eyes unable to spot the wince that both of the adults couldn’t suppress. “She listens to me, and she never scolds me for my pranks! She plays her own pranks instead! And she’s--let me go!” Despite her screaming, Starswirl had continued his approach and swept the filly into a hug as soon as he was close enough. She flailed her legs to strike the stallion, and he weathered the blows without complaint.
Through the entire scene, Sunny remained removed from it. The ache that had been eating at her reached new heights, and some unknown instinct told her that the only way to ease it would be to join the two. Despite the possibility of relief, she couldn’t muster the willpower to approach. “Lulu, I’m not going to leave. I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me,” Sunny promised.
Lulu’s struggles slowly ceased, and she eventually returned Starswirl’s hug. Her unblinking eyes peeked over Starswirl’s shoulder to stare in Sunny’s direction. “Forever and ever?” she asked timidly, the question barely more than a whisper.
Sunny nearly agreed, but another awful truth assailed her. What is forever to her is nothing to me. How long might she live? Seventy years? Eighty? Eighty years is nothing. Eighty years is a lifetime. The realisation robbed her of her words, and all she could do was nod in response.
“I’m afraid Lulu being here has put us in a bit of a bind,” Starswirl said as he finally released his granddaughter and lowered her back to the ground. “If we return to the town, then the day will have passed and our opportunity with it. I will not risk pinpointing the village by teleporting her either…” He chewed his lip before leaning down. “Lulu, we’re going someplace that’s filled with ponies that aren’t very nice. The only game they like to play is hide and seek, so if we’re going to beat the mean ponies, you’ll need to be very quiet and not use your magic. You can follow the bells, remember?
Lulu nodded excitedly but didn’t speak as Starswirl turned back to Sunny. “I do believe you were interrupted earlier, Sunny,” he stated, and he cast a world-weary expression towards the mare. “If you have anything to say, then now would be the time. We will have to be swift and silent once we enter the capital.”
“No… it isn’t so important anymore,” Sunny lied, and she cast another glance towards Lulu. The memories of the filly screaming in mortal terror merged with her most recent declarations, and they smacked against the truth of who and what she really was. I can’t tell him now… not while Lulu is here. I don’t want to hurt her any more!
Starswirl held Sunny’s gaze for a moment longer before letting his own fall under the brim of his hat. “I understand. Brace yourself, we’ll be teleporting from here to the capital.”
The capital had changed since Sunny had last been present. When she had last been in attendance, it had been filled with shining spires of polished stone and glass attended to by ponies dedicated to its maintenance and advancement. The capital had shown like a beacon of the order that Solaria had aspired to maintain for the whole world.
What remained of the capital in her absence was the rotting husk of her ideal. Only a few of the towers still stood, and all of the shining glass she remembered had been broken to pieces. Fire damage was also prevalent on several structures, and the only indication that anypony still remained in the dying city was the occasional scream or yell in the distance.
Seeing her greatest achievement in such a state shook Sunny to her core. She kept her surprise in check as she followed the others through the ruins, their only stops being when Starswirl paused to give Sunny a questioning look. When this had first happened, it had taken a moment for Sunny to realise what the elder stallion had been waiting for. She had raised one timid hoof in the direction of Solaria’s fortress atop the hill, and Starswirl took point for the trio as they picked their way from cover to cover.
I’ll have to convince Starswirl that his spell worked and I was transformed… but I have no idea how the spell works! Does it activate in stages or is it instantaneous? Did he include any sort of success indicator in the spell’s design or is he intending to use visual verification that it was complete? A thousand more questions hammered at Sunny’s mind as they came closer and closer to the base of the plateau that Solaria’s castle sat on. With each unanswered question, her panic increased, and drove her to distraction. By the time she regained her focus, it was too late.
Starswirl snuck around the corner of a building and cast a wary eye down the main boulevard before freezing in place. He held the pose for more than a minute before turning back to where Lulu and Sunny hid, and he gave the small bangle of bells a small shake. Lulu dashed out of cover in the direction of the sound while the still distracted Sunny stayed behind.
With Starswirl’s back turned, Lulu unable to see, and Sunny not paying attention, there was no defense offered as a hoof-sized stone flew out from one of the buildings and struck the elder stallion on the back of the head. The sound brought Sunny’s attention to the here and now just in time to jerk backwards as a similar rock flew towards her, only to ricochet off of a hastily generated shield.
“Oy, you didn’t get both of them, Buckshot!” came a rough shout from above the alleyway. “Yer slippin’!” A pegasus wearing the battered remains of an enforcer captain’s livery dropped into the alleyway behind the still running Lulu and put one hoof on the tail of her cloak. The filly could only let out a strangled squeak as the caught cloak yanked her off of her hooves, which elicited a laugh from the pegasus and others as more ponies appeared from the ruins around them.
“I do believe we’ve struck the jackpot. A unicorn mare and a foal? They’ll both sell well at the market,” another stallion, a unicorn in torn magister's robes, said as he approached the struggling Lulu. Greenish magic reached out and encased the struggling filly, and lifted her up for the stallion to inspect. “Well, perhaps not as lucky as I thought. This one’s damaged goods, fit only for birthing livestock when she’s older. More of an investment than immediate payout.”
“Your face is damaged goods, now let me go!” Lulu yelled in response, and one hoof kicked out to catch the stallion square on the snout.
The magic holding Lulu aloft cut off immediately and dropped her to the ground, but any attempts to escape weren’t meant to be as the unicorn turned and planted one of his rear hooves squarely into the filly’s face and sent her flying into the stone wall of one of the buildings lining the boulevard. The sound of bone breaking from the impact was clear, and a smear of blood marked the impact as Lulu fell to the ground.
More stallions appeared from the ruins around them, but Sunny scarcely noticed them. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Lulu’s limp form, and a chilling thought struck her. If I had told the truth… Lulu would still be alive. I… I killed her. The irony of that realisation, that she would come full circle to where this had all started and indirectly achieve what she had originally intended all those months before, wasn’t lost on her. It struck her mind like a hammer and she nearly shattered beneath it.
Another emotion welled up in her as she finally looked away from Lulu’s broken body and to the bandits in the alley. The pegasus stallion was leering at her from the other side of her shield while the magister hurled magic to try and dispel the protection. The other attackers, mostly earth ponies and pegasi, emptied out Starswirl’s bags onto the ground but not before giving the dazed elder stallion a kick in his barrel as he attempted to rise.
The emotion that gripped her then wasn’t the stabbing pains or the slow burns that had troubled her so much over the past few weeks, or the annoyance she felt after falling victim to one of Lulu’s pranks, or anything else she was familiar with. The new emotion consumed her mind and filled her every muscle with a need that demanded satisfaction.
That satisfaction wouldn’t come from behind a shield, so she dispelled it.
The illusion of Sunny Skies disappeared with it.