“Ha! That’s a cute trick, missy, but it isn’t going to help you any here. The Ice Queen is long gone, and there’s nothing to fear from her! I’ll admit that I find the thought of taking a mare that looks like her to bed by force has some appeal. Of course, if you put up too much of a fight I’ll have to kill you like the last one. Oy, why haven’t you dispelled this illusion yet?”
“Eh? It’s not what?”
“It’s not. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, itsnot itsnot itsnot!”
“For the sun’s sake, it’s just some mare disguising herself. Why are you freaking out?”
“IT’S NOT AN ILLUSION!”
All activity in the alleyway halted and the raiders all looked in the direction of the shout. The former magister had collapsed onto his flank and could do little more than stare with wide-eyed horror, but the enforcer stallion was having none of it.
“You choose now of all times to lose your bloody mind? I swear, if I have to—” Anything else the stallion might have said was interrupted when he noticed a curious thing; his breath was fogging with every word he spoke. “What’s this...oh—” His head whipped around just in time to see the frosted alicorn speak.
“It is proper to bow to royalty.”
Telekinetic force lashed out and forced every one of the bandits to the ground. Outraged shouts from the unsuspecting stallions quickly broke down into panicked screaming and begging as they finally realized the full extent of the situation they now found themselves in. Queen Solaria, in all of her terrible glory, stood above them.
With deliberate slowness, Sunny approached the captive bandits. Ice blossomed out from her every hooffall and coated the alleyway. The only sounds that could be heard was the crunch of her hooves, and the now wordless and incoherent mewling of the stallions. “Bandits. Thieves. Murderers. Slavers...” Solaria rattled off a crime with each step, before bowing low to hiss in the ear of the pegasus stallion. “Rapists.” She didn’t wait to listen to the blubbered excuses as she rose again to her full height. “You have all admitted to these things in my presence. Your lives are now forfeit.”
It was well within her rights to render judgement, and Sunny was more than willing to execute their punishment… but nothing worked. Even the ice that radiated from her in waves parted around the bandits, leaving them chilled and frosted, but frustratingly healthy. Had she less self-control, she would have screamed and pounded her hooves against the ground. She nearly did just that but a small detail caught her attention.
As with the bandits, the frost and ice had failed to approach another spot: where Lulu’s broken body had come to rest.
She...she’s alive! I have to help her! A spark of hope took hold, and she took one step towards the crumpled form before remembering her situation. I cannot help her while these… mongrels are present. I cannot kill them, and the curse seems to be preventing me from teleporting them somewhere since I know of no location that would not harm them… think! Think of something!
As Sunny’s mind raced, it stumbled upon a half-forgotten conversation with Starswirl regarding a laughable theory about Solaria. A desperate plan began to form in her mind but it nearly withered on the vine. They thought Solaria was a Windigo… but how can I solidify that in their minds if I don’t remember what they’re like? I’m the last living soul to have encountered them! The answer struck her the moment the question was asked. It doesn’t have to be accurate… it just has to be believable. Sunny began to laugh as sinisterly as she could fake while making her way to the far end of the alley. All eyes had been turned towards her when she had dropped her shield and disguise, which now meant that nopony had direct line of sight on what she was doing. All she needed from them was for them to listen.
“Yes… I think I will start with… this one,” Sunny declared loudly, nearly stumbling over the line as tried to recall what the villain had said from Lulu’s book. She hastily cast a cantrip and the begging of the bandits was quickly overwhelmed by screaming from somepony Sunny only vaguely remembered. As the scream worked its way up to the climax, she conjured up a sculpture of ice in the shape of a pony… and let it drop to the ground. The cantrip cut off the moment the sculpture shattered, and she levitated the head of the sculpture before her as she walked back among the bandits. “Hmm, plenty of anger, greed, and hate… but not nearly enough fear. Pride is lacking, too.
Sunny gave an over-exaggerated ‘tut’ before letting the ice sculpture head drop right in front of the bandit magister, and she was rewarded with a renewed round of sobbing from the stallions who couldn’t help but see what lay on the ground before them.
“Rejoice, my little ponies,” Sunny sneered as she imagined the book villain did while quoting word for word. “It seems that now is not the time for me to feed upon you. The more you steal, burn, and murder, the more misery and fear you will produce. When you have spread enough of it, I will find you and drain you dry. Your agony will be… delicious. Go and spread word of my return, and know despair. Winter is returning!” The telekinesis lifted from the bandits, but none moved. Several seconds passed before Sunny growled impatiently. She raised one hoof and brought it down with enough force to crack all of the ice in the alleyway and send cascades of ice shards from the building walls. “FLEE!” she roared, and the bandits scattered as quickly as they could. The moment she was certain she was alone, she galloped to where Lulu had fallen.
The young filly’s cloak had settled over where she had come to rest, and ice had built up around her resting place in a perfect ring. The smallest of movements could be seen under that cloak, and in the silence of the now deserted alleyway, Sunny could hear Lulu struggling to breathe.
The spark of hope was nearly drowned by a wave of panic. I… I know that the magisters developed spells to mend wounds, but I don’t know them! Sunny thought as she tore through her memories for any sort of hint as to how the process worked. If it were any kind of offensive spell I could guess at the mechanics or create a simulacrum of it. If the end result of a spell is fire, it is unimportant how it ignites. But mending flesh and bone and body… I don’t think I can even guess as to how that works! Sunny had nearly given in to despair when she remembered that she wasn’t alone in the alleyway. She whirled about to plead for help from the one stallion she knew would have the answer.
The quick move gave her enough time to raise her shields.
A stream of raw arcane power the likes of which Sunny had never seen broke against her hasty defenses like a raging river against a boulder. The building behind her vanished in an instant from the torrent of energy that wrapped around her defenses. Just as quickly as it had started, it ended. The spot in which Sunny stood over Lulu was an island in a trough of melted stone. A cascade of building collapses could be heard from the scores of buildings that had been caught in the blast, but all of Sunny’s attention was focused on the stallion that the attack had come from.
“YOU!!!” Starswirl roared, his rage apparently enough to shrug off the head wound that the bandits had inflicted. “I was such a fool to have trusted so easily! Solaria would never train a student who might challenge her rule!” His horn flared again and three hair-thin lines of energy scythed through the air towards Sunny. The beams deflected off of her shields in random directions and cut through ruins around them, causing further collapses. One of the deflected beams came perilously close to Starswirl himself, shearing part of the hat off of his head. If he even noticed the near miss, he made no note of it.
“Starswirl, you have to help—” Sunny pleaded, but the rest of her request was lost as Starswirl launched his next attack.
A minor spire, likely belonging to a unicorn noble’s family that had been slashed near the second floor by the deflected beams, halted mid-fall. The entire structure levitated before spinning and launching itself at Sunny like a spear. “Was this all according to plan!? Are you going to burn down the village once you’re done with me?” Starswirl accused as the building-sized projectile crashed into Sunny’s shield. He did not bat an eye as Sunny telekinetically pushed the stone, wood and glass with ease.
What did give him pause was when his next attack was completely cancelled by Solaria and he was forcefully teleported beside her.
“Listen to me! Lulu’s hurt really bad and I don’t know how to save her. Please Starswirl!” Sunny all but begged as she used her telekinetics to force the stallion to look towards the filly. “You can heal her, right? Tell me you can save her, please!”
The fury on Starswirl’s face melted into despair at the crumpled form, then to suspicion… then to careful neutrality. He drew in a breath, then another. Tears fell from his face as he placed a hoof gently on the cloaked form. The stallion’s shoulders shook as he said one word.
It took a moment for the word and its meaning to fully register with Sunny. “Why?!” she screamed the disbelieving question as her last hope seemed to vanish before her eyes.
“Her injuries are severe, fatal even. Regular healing will not work on her… and I will not save her only to deliver her to you! You’ve already robbed her of the normal childhood, and I won’t let her be one of your tools for the rest of her life!” Starswirl snapped back.
The denial that Sunny nearly launched caught in her throat. Before I found out the source of her scars… I had been preparing her for just such a thing. Everything I’ve done has only hurt her in the end. The realisation came with another burst of heart-wrenching pain, and she gave Starswirl a pleading look. “But she’s your granddaughter!” When Starswirl’s expression didn’t budge, Sunny nearly broke. “She’s my friend, too,” she sobbed.
The admission caused Starswirl to slowly look towards Sunny, his expression suspicious and searching for any sign of deception. “Do you mean that? Do you mean what you just said? And what you said back in the village… did you mean any of it, or were you lying to me?!”
The stallion’s tone went from barely a whisper to shouting so quickly that it shocked Sunny enough to make her recoil. She couldn’t meet Starswirl’s gaze, instead looking towards Lulu again. “I don’t want her to go. I want her to keep teaching me about cake, and books, and pranks, and everything else that I never knew about. I don’t want her to go!”
The fury in Starswirl’s eyes melted away, only to be replaced with a blank stare. He drew in a breath as he closed his eyes. “Worry not, Little Light,” he whispered as he bent over Lulu. “Soon the pain will be gone. I will see you again in the next life, and I hope you’ll forgive me for what I’m going to do,” he whispered as he placed one hoof gently onto the cloaked filly. And just like that, the moment passed as the elderly stallion galloped from the scene.
If… if Starswirl will not do it, then I must, Sunny realised, but her resolve once again smacked against her ignorance of any spell that could help. That old stallion isn’t going to help, but his books might. If Starswirl will not help, then I will take his books by force. Brittle anger filled Sunny as she slowly rose and turned in the direction that the stallion had fled.
“Gather her up as gently as you can, and be quick about it!” Starswirl growled from further down the alley. His hooves were nearly a blur in gathering the contents of his saddlebags that the bandits had scattered. Once everything was packed away, he cast a withering glare at Sunny. “I don’t trust you one whit to lead us to the ‘place of power’ you hinted at, so there is only one place left where we might save Lulu. Of course it won’t matter if you don’t stop dragging your hooves!”
The shock of Starswirl’s apparent change of heart lasted for only a moment as Sunny enveloped the dying filly in a bubble of telekinesis and cantered over. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“To where I found the arcanite in the first place.”
A teleport spell pulled the trio from the wreckage of the capital to someplace that Sunny was not familiar with. Their immediate surroundings appeared to be a dry gulch or small canyon, though any further observations were delayed as Starswirl galloped into a nearby cave. Sunny’s longer strides allowed her to catch up easily, and her mouth dropped open as the cave widened into a large chamber. Lavender and purple crystals were embedded in in the stone walls of the cave, and while Sunny could not put her hoof on it, some deep-seated instinct screamed at her to keep her distance from them.
“Bring her here, we don’t have much time!” Starswirl ordered as he unceremoniously emptied his saddlebags onto the ground. His spellbooks, his supplies… everything was pushed aside in favor of the six crystals that Sunny recalled from their talk in the village. After giving each a brief inspection, he plucked a piece of chalk from the things that had been dumped from his bags and drew a small circle. “Place her there!” the stallion indicated to where he had marked before drawing a larger circle in the center of the chamber.
Sunny followed the command before stepping back. “Is there any way I can help?” she asked, taking her eyes off of Lulu to look towards the stallion..
“No. Just stay back or you’ll corrupt the process,” Starswirl growled as he carried and placed each arcanite shard with his hooves rather than magic. He paused for just a moment to look at Sunny before resuming his preparations. “If I am to do this then I want you to promise me three things, Solaria. Three things, or I bring the cavern down on all of us.”
“Anything! I’ll do anything!” Sunny answered desperately.
“First, if you’ve learned anything while we were at the village, I want you to use that knowledge to make things better for everypony. No more castes, or slavery, or stacked courts. Am I clear?” Starswirl again stopped in his preparations to glare at Sunny, and he only relented when she nodded. “Second, Lulu can never know what happened here. Never.”
“And the last condition?”
Starswirl nudged the last of the shards into place before making his way to where Lulu was. After a moment he took his hat off and placed it beside her, then turned to take his place at the center of the circle. “I want you to treat Lulu as though she was your own flesh and blood. As time goes on, you’ll be all she’ll have left… Sunny.” The stallion’s pensive tone became exasperated as he turned to face the alicorn, “And for the sun’s sake, change your appearance. If Lulu wakes up to you looking like that then she’ll never trust you again.”
Sunny nodded in agreement, though something with that last request struck her as odd. “I will, but aren’t you going to help?”
“No. It falls to me to do what is necessary.”
The statement held a tone of finality to it that immediately set off a warning in Sunny’s mind, but before she could question it, Starswirl cast his spell. His magic touched each of the crystal shards in sequence, and they slowly rose to positions around him. Starswirl himself began to rise into the air as he made himself the nexus of the most wildly complicated spell array that Sunny had ever seen. Light began to emanate from the array, and it poured toward the cloaked filly. The array began to pulse in time with the crystals of the cavern, and several began to reach up almost organically to the floating stallion.
If he keeps channeling the spell, then he’ll… Sunny thought in a panic, and she tried to approach but was pushed back by the power emanating from the array. “Starswirl, stop! The spell will destroy you!” she shouted over the roar of arcane energy.
The elder stallion’s eyes had been closed in concentration, but they opened at the shout. His now glowing gaze looked down at Sunny, and he said two words.
As the light increased, so to did the crystals; to the point where Sunny could watch no longer.
The first thing that she became aware of was the full-body muscle ache that hammered every inch of her body, from her snout to her hooves. She stretched as much as she could before she became aware of something else: The rag covering her was quite possibly the stinkiest thing that might ever exist. Ever.
A sound was next… a voice. Female, and really worried, judging by the tone. Blinding light was next as the rag was yanked off with no warning. Warmth was next, wrapping around her completely and shielding her from the light. It was… comfortable.
Gradually her eyes adjusted to the light enough to open them fully… and she found herself wrapped in a tight hug by the most beautiful mare that she had ever seen. A pristine white coat covered her body, and her mane was a gentle pink. Tear streaks were the only thing that marred her appearance, and she somehow knew that things would be better if she returned the hug.
“Lulu… I was so worried. I thought that you were lost,” the mare said, hugging all the tighter with each word.
“Momma…?” the word slipped out involuntarily, but she dearly wanted it to be true. Any mare this gentle and kind would make the best family...
The mare jolted at the word, and cast a wide-eyed, fearful look at her. “No, I’m… Lulu, it’s me. It’s Sunny. Don’t you recognize my voice?”
Answering that question would have to wait as she caught sight of the dazzling crystals that lined the cavern. Her wandering gaze finally settled on the pile of assorted junk that was scattered nearby, including a curious wide-brimmed hat and the bangle of bells before turning completely around.
It looked like a tree… if trees could ever be made out of crystal. The roots started at a deep purple, and slowly lightened in shade the further she looked. There were many limbs that sprouted from the trunk, but the five largest each bore a crystal shard, each a different color. She was certain that she had never seen such a tree before in her life, but the sight of it felt strangely reassuring.
“Lulu?” ‘Sunny’ asked again, concern clearly apparent in both her body posture and voice.
“Lulu?” she repeated, and she wracked her memories for… anything, only to come up blank. “Is that my name? Where are we?” The mare’s earlier statement finally clicked, and a small pang of disappointment struck her. “If… you’re not my mom, then are you my sister?” The hope, the need for some connection with this mare was her only wish right at that moment.
A fresh set of tears rolled down Sunny’s face. “Yes, Lulu. We’re sisters,” she said, and she pulled Lulu in close for another hug with both her forelegs and wings.
“Don’t cry, Sunny. Everything will be fine as long as we have each other,” Lulu replied, saying what she thought sounded best while wrestling with her apparently unfamiliar name. With nothing else to say, she basked in the warmth of the hug and returned it with her own forelegs and wings.