Somewhere, hidden in a secret place, there is a lonely room. Blanketed in stillness, its furnishings sit frozen, its drapings cloak a single, stirring form.
The body’s muscles are gone lean and wiry with the neglect that heralds a general lack of concern for self. It stirs, wrestling with its own dreams in its sparse bed. Lost in a thing that is not quite sleep, its eyes remain cracked. Its mouth forms soundless words, rhythmic and slow.
It is a song, half-hatched and ancient. The words themselves seem suited for dusty old libraries and crumbling ruin. They are phantoms of times long gone.
The body writhes in its restless slumber. Its hand twitches and flails, feeling for its own face, its own mouth. The words keep coming. Breath quickens, sweat drips, and on the song goes, no longer so pleasant, but as a painful groan. Fingers hook onto lips to seal them shut. The body jolts awake.
Starshot woke up screaming… again.
By now he was used to it. The dream was one of his usuals: Cricket’s sweet face increasingly growing ravished by madness and self-loathing as she called out to him for help. Three wicked sisters, always more beautiful with each recurring dream, loomed over his wife’s trembling form, appearing as grand, shining things not of his world. Their eyes, cold and cruel, did nothing but stare as their refrain dragged on. At some point, those beautiful sounds would always drown out Kit’s crying. Worse yet was the moment Starshot found himself singing along, choosing to listen to the undying melody rather than attempting to battle the trio and risk losing the song. By the end of the dream, Kit was nothing more than a dead husk amidst evil. And when they saw that there was nothing left of her, the sisters always turned their eye upon him next. They would bid him to approach, and gleefully he would obey, even as their soft flesh turned to armored scales, their gleaming white teeth into fangs. And still, he smiled and sang with them, on and on until...
Starshot swiped a hand over his head, drawing away the moisture that lingered there. He took a steadying breath before shooting out of bed. Something wet and metallic crunched underfoot. Wincing as he remembered what he had been doing before falling asleep, he glanced down to find the crushed remnants of a large, metallic ring scattered about the floor beside the tools he had been using to build it. “Damn,” he sighed.
Taking another step, he realized that his muscles were feeling rather stiff. Lifting his right arm as fast as he could manage—which wasn't very fast at all—he looked at his elaborate wristwatch. The second counting hand was ticking far too slowly for any increment that might resemble an actual second.
“So soon?” he muttered, rolling his jaw when the words came belabored. He charged his magic, reached for the winding mechanism that sat atop the watch’s face, and gave it two full turns. As the watch’s golden glow faded away and the mage moved his arms and legs about, he found them more sprightly. The second hand on its face was making good time again, as it should. For the millionth time, the wizard warned himself about going too long without casting that spell. The last time he had forgotten, he’d been stuck frozen face down in bed for two whole days whilst his hand strained to charge its own magic.
Pushing a second button, the watch’s face flipped open and slid to the left, revealing three more. All of them were clicking and ticking at different speeds, releasing sparks of gold from their innards. Satisfied that the contraption would be able to serve its purpose, he clipped it back shut.
In his makeshift shower—shadow spells casted just beyond a cistern that hung in midair—the water emptied out whilst soap was still in his eyes. “Superb.” That was his last cistern. He would need to collect more water from Equestria before doing anything else he had scheduled for the next twelve ‘hours’. Clearly, it was shaping up to be one of those ‘days’.
An unremarkable shirt went over an unremarkable pair of jeans, both black. The color had become habit by now, living in a place like this, and moving from world to world the way he did. Black was ageless, and for the most part universal. It all muddled together into a formless mass to those who might have been looking at him from far away. Hardly anyone questioned his attire for fear that their eyes were deceiving them. They'd be wrong, of course, but it barely mattered. Starshot didn't plan on making too many trips to the human world anyway.
A leather strap went about one shoulder. It was fitted with a chain connected to a roundish holster made for something the size of a dessert plate. Up from his nightstand the mage lifted a glass disk, already sizzling and sparking gold. He fitted the disk into the round holster, then reached for his jacket. Its hood was worn out and its body had been scuffed during his ventures. After clipping the plate into the interior of the jacket, he checked its hidden compartments to ensure that all of his daggers were still in place. They were weighted and heavy, but traversing through worlds where one risked losing one’s magic deemed the weapons a necessary nuisance.
Heaving a loud sigh, Starshot gazed longingly toward an array of pistols, rifles, and other elaborate forms of antiquated and futuristic firearm where they had been ‘mounted’ upon the inky blackness near his bed. What extraordinary devices these tendril-wielding, furless creatures were inclined to create in order to make up for their lack of magic. For a moment he considered the ease of carrying one along with him, then ripped the notion from his mind. He had learned his lesson about that after experiencing the heightened terror wrought by four squad cars, all on alarm. He had recently rid the city’s PD of a few rotten Ad Vice detectives who had broken bad, and was celebrating with the most lackluster street vendor mush possible when they all rolled up on him at once, guns drawn. After having spent so many decades completing tasks of this nature, it took all of his dwindling shreds of social understanding to remember why some less informed creatures might have recognized vigilantism as wrong. He couldn’t blame them. Regardless, Starshot had learned something about guns that day. Namely, that ancient firearms were gaudy and weak; modern ones had serial numbers and ballistic experts hawk eyeing them from any point on the planet, and none of these qualities worked to his advantage.
It had taken the mage a temporal count of three weeks to straighten out that entire ‘fugitive’ mess in its timeline, and by that time, he had decided to remain free of such extraordinary weapons. It was much easier that way. Still, they did make for great ornaments for an often troubled mind to ponder over.
Shoving on his boots, Starshot made his way through walls of shadow toward his cluttered desk. Using magic to flip through the pages of his enormous tome, he read what tasks he had laid out for himself then frowned when he remembered the extra chores he was now obliged to tend to. First would come the cisterns and then the parts for ring repair which he would need to fetch from both Equestria and the human world. “Well, the faster I begin…” he muttered, tapping his watch and heading off toward the mirror room. Three large, emptied water reservoirs bobbed up and down through the air, following close behind.
“What is that thing on your foreleg, Mister?”
A purple pegasus filly sniffed at Starshot’s watch as she huddled by his side. The Stockstein rivershore was lovely that day, but her eyes were glued only to the contraption upon his foreleg as if it were a piece of candy.
Starshot grimaced without looking toward her. His horn glowed in gold as he levitated one of the three cisterns he had brought with him. “It's nothing. Go away.”
In the distance, smoke billowed from black spouts stabbing into a hazy sky. That beautiful image of rolling, Equestrian green had mostly wilted into a more sickly yellow around the city of Hackleshire. How times had changed the once lush and lazy little town. In a mere four hundred years, it had managed to transform into the very definition of everything that was wrong with Equestria’s industrial age.
Starshot hated this age, but it was probably fair to say that anypony would, even the ones born of it. And yet somehow this foul place had managed to offer up the cleanest available drinking water free for the taking. Thus, tolerating the time was a burden the mage would simply have to learn to live with.
Starshot wasn't hesitant to admit that he had only walked through the now sprawling city twice, and just when it was absolutely necessary. The only useful things that would come from the half realized, twisted metal jungle were the two decades of Equestrian prosperity that would follow soon after. This, of course, would arrive in tandem with the nation-wide recognition of working class pony rights at the behest of a pair of too old, too fed up Princesses. At least Celestia had made things somewhat tolerable in the meantime by sending her most powerful unicorn mages out across the land to purify the kingdom’s slowly toxifying water sources. Great news for fishes and Starshot, bad news for the once sizeable collection of pony entrepreneurs who had been hedging their bets on selling potable water to the destitute. Those greedy ones were cut down and cut off with ferocity by the Princesses, and Starshot could not say that he wasn't gladdened by it. What kind of monster would put a price on the right to live?
“Sure don't look like ‘nothing’,” the foal tittered, scratching her nose to hide the fact that she was planning on reaching for the watch. “Sure looks like something amazing. What is it?”
“It's dangerous. So don't touch it,” Starshot replied, unmoved. “And I'll save you the trouble of trying to steal it by telling you that your vendor will only pay you two bits for it before accidentally freezing himself forever. It isn’t worth the effort or the trouble. Now begone.” Starshot needn't look at the child’s face to know that she was reeling with suspicion. He lifted his filled cistern out of the river, and replaced it with the final one.
“H… how did ya know… Who…” the filly stammered, flitting around to the stallion’s other side.
“Isn’t pickpocketing an automatic jail sentence in Equestria nowadays? Hm, Little Dipper?” Starshot inquired, reaching into his black saddlebags to fetch what looked like a stick of gum. Unwrapping it with magic, he popped it into his mouth.
Little Dipper panicked. “Please, Mister, I didn't mean no harm! I promise if you forget me, I won't trouble you again!” she cried, hopping again to his other side in hopes of making some form of meaningful eye contact. The wizard’s gaze remained steadfast upon the Stockstein. Even when the filly began to cry.
“Please?” She hunkered down into the grass and whimpered. “I was only going to take it for my sister. She's littler than me and don't get paid at the mill. They only give her a bed and we don't make enough to eat so very much, Mister. Please don't tell!”
Starshot rolled his eyes and flicked his tail. Celestia damn this bleeding heart of his. One would think that the shadow of these emotions would have rotted away long ago. Alas, punishing a hungry child for stealing didn't seem like the right thing to do on any plane.
As the last filled cistern clunked onto dry land, the unicorn stallion’s saddlebags began to glow. Out from one fold flew a small satchel filled with gold bits. It twirled through the space between the two ponies before landing near the filly’s hooves. “It is for food, do you hear me? Not games, not gambling, not extras on the hard cider I know they feed you young workhooves to shut you up at night. Understand?”
“M… Mister?” Little Dipper gasped, blinking at the satchel.
Starshot lifted all three cisterns into his powerful magic and turned to walk away. “If I see you anywhere spending that money on something frivolous I will call the city guard,” he said, flicking his sky blue tail at the filly. “Now, if you are quite finished gawking, I would like to ask you a few questions. Your type knows this city well enough, don't they?”
“Golly! I mean, thanks, Mister! I mean, sure I do, Mister!” the filly beamed, snatching the satchel up between her teeth only to drop it again.
“Good. Would you happen to know the names of the oldest potion maker and magical metalworker in this place?”
“Yea! I think so!” Dipper shouted, flapping her little wings. “Witch Hazel’s down on Fritterfling, near the square. Miss Holly is really nice to the factory foals. Visits all the time to patch us up. Foals always breaking something or other down at—”
“Yes, yes, I'm aware. And what about the smithy?” Starshot interrupted, not wanting to hear anymore of the child’s sad tales lest he be inspired to take action against this miserable age of smoke and gears that had preyed upon her.
“Oh, right!” the filly said, scratching at her soot darkened mane. “Sparth’s, I think. It's a bit farther out, near the eastside mines. Go straight down Fritterfling from Hazel’s to the end and ya can't miss it. I get sent there all the time to make deliveries. That mare, Bellower, is always talking about how that smithy’s been there four hundred fifty years. But Miss Holly’s place is much nicer, and been there longer, and smells good.” She snickered to herself. “Don’t stop them from fighting about it, though. You should have seent the scrap they got into last week; right in the middle of the market even!”
“Alright, alright. Very good,” Starshot said, looking off toward the mounds of smoke and metal in the distance with no intention of approaching it. His horn glowed bright. This time the glow consumed his entire body as his hooves lifted off of the wilted grass. His brow furrowed when he caught sight of Dipper’s grimey, little, awestruck face one more time. Sighing loudly, he allowed his magic to fade. His hooves and the cisterns again hit the ground. “What did you say your Supervisor’s name was, Little Dipper? I think perhaps I’d like to pay him a quick visit.”
The filly cocked a brow. “Why? You ain't gonna tell him you saw me here, are ya?” She gasped. “You can't tell him, okay? I'll get in big, big trouble! It'll be a whipping for me, for sure!”
Starshot worked his jaw. There was an ache inside of his chest; one he didn't want to admit was still possible. “No, Little Dipper. I shan't tell him anything.” His mouth wouldn't need to utter a single word once his hooves were through talking.
Damn this bleeding heart of his. If only he could rip it out.
Witch Hazel’s was a quaint little townhouse built in the style reminiscent of Starshot’s own time. No doubt that in his day it had been a multi-level home of gentry before being split up into a commoner’s flat above a stuffy, little potions shop.
Upon his entering the establishment two things happened: a powerful odor of herbs nearly knocked him flat onto his rear, and water began to drip down onto his head.
“Coming! Coming!” an old stallion’s voice called from a back room behind the counter. When he appeared around the doorway, Starshot held back a laugh. The old one was an earth stallion, which wasn't too surprising, and was an entire two heads shorter than him. His hide was gnarled like the roots of an ancient tree. How he managed to get around so fast and speak with such pep, the time mage could only speculate.
“My apologies for the, er, rain. The filly left the entire house covered in watergilly yesterday evening, and they’ve all begun to wilt. Floor’s practically a wading pool up there!” he exclaimed, climbing up onto a wooden box so that he might be able to look his surly, gray customer in the eye. “There! And how might I be of service to you today, young stallion?”
“Yes, I'd like to speak to Miss Holly Thorn, the owner. I was told that she knew how to make—”
“Who is that? Only owners of this shop are me, and my filly, Hazel,” the old one crowed, cleaning some water out of one of his droopy ears with a free hoof. “Can you speak a bit louder, colt? My hearing isn't quite what it once was, and that coastal accent of yours is running a bit deep.”
Starshot ran a hoof down the center of his face. Of course Holly wasn’t here. He had opted into visiting the shop about five hundred years before she was born. “Apologies, sir. Bit of a long morning. Had to have a word with a stallion about his questionable business practices,” he said, shaking out his sore right hoof. “Also, I'm from Canterlot, thank you very much. I don't intend to take up too much of your time. Only wished to know if you carried distilled staunchroot juice. I've used the last bit of my own.”
The old one’s brow furrowed. His hunched shoulders straightened out and squared themselves. “No, I don't carry staunchroot juice. Only the raw herb.” He leaned forward. “Now, why might you be searching for staunchroot, colt? It's powerful stuff. Only thing that’s used for is unicorn deterrent.”
“Well, I'm a unicorn, aren’t I?” Starshot quipped. “It is for a study I happen to be conducting in Canterlot. I was passing through your fine town and heard a great deal about your establishment, sir. Thought I might pay a visit, tout your shop to my peers if things went well.”
The elder’s jaw worked about in that way jaws did when one was doing their best to hold their tongue. “Flattery earns you very little with me I'm afraid,” he said. “But if you have your permit to purchase staunchroot, that might work.”
“A permit? In Canterlot I can purchase all of the—” Starshot bit his tongue. Sure, he could purchase all of the magical ingredients he required in Canterlot three hundred years ago. He was a famous mage, and restrictions on magic deterrents had not yet been implemented throughout the kingdom. Still, he did not necessarily feel up to wasting more time, traveling back further or out farther toward a different shop. “Sir, I am willing to pay you your asking price if you are willing to forget the permit.”
“Afraid I cannot, young stallion. The Princess has expressly forbidden the—”
“Name a price. Any price,” Starshot insisted pounding a hoof upon the counter.
The old stallion must have noticed the sincerity in the mage’s eyes as well as the size of the bit satchel he pulled from his saddlebags. For not a moment later did he rush off down to his cellar, old joints creaking and crackling all the way.
Starshot stood in silence, glancing about the dusty shop, the dried herbs that hung like thick foliage from its ceiling, the rows upon rows of unmarked bottles lining the aged walls. “Quaint,” he said, recalling how homey it appeared when he was studying the place through his viewing spell. It was a shame what was about to happen to it. He checked his watch. “Five, four, three, two…”
An explosion rocked the room. It belched out from the left wall, and extended its reach to the right in front of Starshot’s face. As all havoc broke loose around him, he eyed the dried herbs carpeting the ceiling. They would all go up in flames any second now, ruining the shop for good. He eyed the foundations inside of the walling where the explosion was born. They remained completely undamaged, just as he had foreseen. Fortunately, the building would not be collapsing today, nor would the upstairs apartments suffer any damage considering the far too coincidental spread of watergilly upon the floor. “How very fortunate indeed,” he muttered to himself, rolling his eyes. His horn began to glow.
The old shopkeep, apparently too deaf to have heard the explosion from the cellar, chose that moment to casually trot back into the room, two bundles of staunchroot hanging from his teeth by a string. Upon seeing the state of destruction within his shop, the herbs fell onto the smoking floor with a ‘crunch’. “Oh, dear Celestia, no. We shall all of us perish!” he screamed, taking the opportunity to begin a mad dash about the room, leaping for herbs yet to burn from the roofing, and potion bottles yet to boil upon the shelves. “Spirits save us!”
The room glowed in gold. Everything save for the old shopkeep and Starshot was rendered frozen in time. Even the fingers of the inferno that raged all about them remained still.
“What in Sombra's horn…” the old stallion murmured, looking about mystified.
“Just a moment,” Starshot said, charging his magic again. One by one, each loosened herb leaf and every misplaced vial of potion began a slow trek back to their original positions. After everything had again found its rightful place, the flames receded across the shop and back into the walling from whence they came. When the room was fire-free, the blasted wall’s wood chips lifted themselves off of the floor and latched onto each other to make the structure whole again.
“Wonders,” the shopkeep breathed, his glazed eyes planted upon Starshot.
“Not entirely,” the mage replied.
Not a moment later did a dark magenta mare a few years younger than Starshot rush through the door, flailing her forelegs. A pair of spectacles fastened to a fine link chain dangled about her neck. “Mercy me! Get away, father! Mother! I shall… save…” Her eyes scanned the innards of the shop as it stood as quaint and untouched by Tartarus fire as ever. “...you?”
Her gaze landed upon Starshot whose horn was dimming down to nothing. Their eyes met briefly. In that instant, it was clear that she hated him, and that he couldn’t care less.
“Father, what in dirt’s name is going on?” the mare bleated, looking quite confused.
“Hazel! A real miracle has been bestowed upon us!” the shopkeep cried, rounding about the counter to her side. “This unicorn, a mage of the highest caliber, has just saved our shop!” Without waiting for a reply, the old stallion raced off toward the wall from where the explosion had emerged. He poked around the wood with a hoof, looking for any cracks, dents, or burn marks.
Hazel’s eyes cut toward Starshot. “Has he? And how did he manage such a thing?”
The old stallion shrugged, and made his way back toward the young pair. “Couldn’t tell you. But it was a blessing, certainly! For a moment I could have sworn the smoke smelled of dragon’s blood petals. We would have never been able to put that out! And your entire inheritance would have gone up in smoke!” He eyed his daughter. “Hazel, you should thank this stallion for saving our livelihood!”
Hazel huffed, pushing her spectacles onto her nose. “Well! Thank you, sir,” she griped, forcing the words through her teeth.
The old stallion turned to face Starshot. “How could we ever repay you?”
“Well, if it isn’t too much trouble,” the mage said, his eyes on Hazel, “the staunchroot would suffice.”
“Staunchroot?” Hazel asked, her face contorting.
“Mercy me! I nearly forgot!” the shopkeep exclaimed, waving a foreleg toward the back of the counter where he had dropped Starshot’s purchase. “Hazel, filly, use those good legs of yours and hurry over to retrieve this kind stallion’s items, won’t you?”
Hazel blinked and nodded her head. Bewilderment had finally begun to set in. On her way toward the staunchroot and back, she glanced over her shoulder at the unicorn mage. How very out of place he seemed.
When she stood before him, and dropped the root at his hooves, their eyes met again. “There. Now, I suppose you should be on your way then, sir,” she said. “I'm sure a unicorn with powers of your magnitude would have more pressing matters to attend to. Thus, I will bid you good day!”
“What of payment?” Starshot asked, wearing a mischievous smirk. His horn began to glow as did the lip of his left saddlebag.
“Oh, no. We wouldn’t dream of it! Strictly complimentary, my colt!” the old earth stallion tittered, running about behind the counter to retrieve a large parcel tied with strong twine. “As a matter of fact, here is a little extra, and I threw in some zap apple ale as well. Very good. Very potent. Could keep a stallion your size running for two—no—three days straight I'd wager.”
Hazel smirked at this remark, flipping her yellow mane out of her face. “Oh, good. That should be enough to give him a quick start. Again, I bid you good day and safe travels!”
Before Starshot could finish levitating all of his valuables into his saddlebag, the earth mare was already shoving him toward the door.
“Hold on just one moment there!” the old stallion bellowed, startling his daughter to a halt. He scratched at his mane. “B… before you run off, young stallion, would you allow me to repay your good deed in a better way?”
“No, thank you,” Starshot said, frowning at Hazel as he straightened out his fur. “You've already done more than enough.” He turned away to leave.
“Are you certain I couldn't tempt you with anything else? A hot meal perhaps? We’re a family of humble means, but the wife makes a glorious pot pie!”
Starshot paused in his tracks. His stomach took a perfect tumble. How long had it been since he'd eaten an actual home cooked meal?
“Most of our children have flown the coop save for our lovely Hazel, here, and she'd very much enjoy the company of youth, methinks!” the old stallion insisted. “Isn’t that right, filly?”
Caught off guard, Hazel stammered and shoved her glasses back into place. She lowered her head. “Father! Don't be ridiculous! I am perfectly capable of getting on without—”
“Why don't you spend the night, traveler?” the shopkeep offered, ignoring his daughter. “I'm sure the rest will do you some good.”
The mage huffed, wrestling with his own frivolous desires. There were more important things to take care of other than a selfish belly, and staying any longer could prove dangerous. He had not observed this far into this particular thread of time, and had not the reserved magic to spare to do so now. If he remained, he would be left totally at fate’s mercy. Besides, he had already been gone from the Nowhere for far too long. Even now he could feel every second of passing time washing over his bones. “I'm sorry. I simply cannot…”
His attention was drawn away by a stomping sound coming from the flat above them. A moment later, an old mare’s voice called down from the stairwell.
“Buckeeee! Buckthorn!” she called.
“What is it Rosethorn?” the old stallion bellowed.
“Just where have you stashed the milk from this morning?” she replied. “I need it for the bread pudding!” Hooves could be heard stomping further away, and then suddenly back again. “Hazel, get a move on! You must start on this bread pudding!”
“Coming, mother!” Hazel called, never moving an inch.
“Aw, Celestia help me, Rosethorn. How do you always manage to lose the milk?” Buckthorn replied.
This time, the growl of Starshot’s stomach was audible enough for both earth ponies to hear it. The mage licked his lips hungrily. On second thought, perhaps an evening of rest would be good for him. It might toughen him up, remind him what it felt like to grow older, even if it was just for a day. “Would you have a place where I might store three large cisterns for the night?” he inquired.
“Excellent!” Buckthorn cried, straightening out his crooked back so that he might perform a quick two step. “You may utilize the yard right next door to your liking, my colt!”
“What?” Hazel yelped. “But, Father, that is Mister Dillweed’s yard!”
“Pishaw, filly,” Buckthorn clucked, waving the mare away. “By the time that old coot could make it downstairs to complain, it would already be morning. Now, come along!”
“Buckeee!” Rosethorn called again from the top of the stairs. “Are we having a guest for dinner? What have I told you about inviting ponies on such short notice? Mercy me, I haven't had the chance to tidy up!”
“Rosey, I'm quite certain he wouldn’t care. He looks as if he'd fit right in!” Buckthorn replied, heading up the stairs.
Starshot faltered. Discreetly, he lowered his snout to sniff at his fur. “What’s he on about? Celestia, I don't still smell of factory smoke, do I?” Shrugging this off, he made to move toward the stairwell when a firm, magenta hoof shoved him in the chest, stopping him in his tracks.
“Just who are you, stranger?” Hazel inquired. The spectacles fell off of her nose to dangle about her neck. “What has brought you to Witch Hazel’s on today of all days?”
Starshot kept his cool demeanor. “I'm certain I don't know what you're on about.” He moved to walk around her, and was stopped again when she shoved her entire body between him and the stairwell.
“My parents might be too old to sense trouble, but you don't fool me for a second, whoever you are,” she hissed. Her gaze trailed down toward Starshot’s fetlock where his elaborate watch was attached. She licked her lips, and reached out to grab at it. Her foreleg was halted by a crushing glow of gold. Eyes now filled with regret, she let forth a small squeak of pain.
Starshot remained unmoved. “You, meddling mare, shall stay away from me, and we’ll get along just fine. Do you understand?” he asked calmly.
“You’re hurting me,” Hazel hissed, attempting to pull away.
Starshot did not budge. “Pardon me, Miss. I do not wish to hurt anypony. So, I implore you to heed my warning.” He brought his face in close, and passed the mare a knowing smile. “You smell of dragon’s blood blossoms.”
Hazel was left at a loss for words as Starshot abruptly released her, and rounded about to head up the stairs.
In hindsight, he should have known that such homey comforts would only fill him with melancholy. The cozy flat was awash in warm candlelight when the four of them—including Buckthorn, his wife Rosethorn, and their daughter Hazel—sat down to eat. In the soft glow, the shadows beneath Hazel’s eyes were striking. She seemed far too forlorn for a pony her age.
As Starshot chewed voraciously upon his meal, he tried to ignore how much the setting reminded him of a home he once shared with a beautiful earth mare all his own. It wasn’t helping his efforts that Hazel refused to take her eyes off of him for the entire painful ordeal. He continued to remind himself that she was probably just wishing him dead.
“A unicorn from Canterlot, you say?” Rosethorn asked. “We don't receive such lofty guests very often in this town. What was it that you said brought you here, young stallion?”
“I'm not quite so young anymore, mum,” Starshot mumbled through a mouthful of pot pie. “And like I told your husband, I was on a journey home from the coast. Needed a few supplies for an experiment that I'm conducting. I heard about your shop and decided to pay a visit.”
“Pay a visit? To Hackleshire? Why?” Rosethorn snorted before spooning out an unnecessary extra helping of pie onto her daughter’s plate. Some of it splashed onto the younger mare’s cheek. “This place will never amount to anything.”
Starshot fought down a knowing laugh as he recalled the bustling streets and smoggy smoke stacks he had witnessed beyond the town’s river five hundred years into the future. “Oh, these things are very difficult to predict. I think Hackleshire might have some greatness in it yet.” His horn glowed as he levitated another bite of supper into his mouth.
Rosethorn gasped for what was probably the thousandth time that evening, and clapped her hooves together. “My, would you look at that, Hazel? It is so very interesting to see a unicorn do that. Do you know we don’t get many around here? Have I told you that, young stallion?”
“Only a thousand times, mother,” Hazel muttered into her meal.
Starshot made a mental note to take fewer bites of greater proportion from that moment on.
“And thank Celestia he did show up at any rate,”Buckthorn added. “I don't know what we would’ve done had our shop burned down. We’ve been having terrible luck as of late, sir, but you most certainly have broken that trend. Did you know that only one month ago, some big pegasus brute stormed in with the sharpest wingtips I've ever seen, and robbed Hazel of an entire bushel of invisavine?” He nudged his chin in his daughter's direction. “Hazel, here tends to the shop usually. Isn't so easy by myself anymore.”
“Oh, it was a nightmare!” Rosethorn cried, pressing her hooves against her cheeks. “I don't know what we would’ve done if he’d taken our entire inventory, or done something terrible to our dearest daughter!”
“Mother, it wasn’t so terrifying. I'm perfectly fine,” Hazel tittered, bearing down into her pie to take another bite. “And I know what he would’ve done with the invisavine. He would’ve eaten the entire lot, and gone on a robbing spree through town. They would have never found him.”
“You're probably right. That's what I would do,” Buckthorn mused.
“Stop encouraging her, Buckee!” Rosethorn hissed, nudging a hind leg into her husband’s flank. She waved an admonishing hoof at her daughter. “Zee, do try to keep pleasant conversation this evening. We have a guest. Wouldn't want to scare him off, would you? Like all the other good ones?”
“Mother! For Celestia’s sake!” Hazel gasped, hiding her blushing face in her hooves.
Rosethorn turned toward a bored-looking Starshot and beamed. “You have to forgive Hazel. She's always been the bookish type, you see. Has a brilliant head on her shoulders for herb cataloging and potion-making.”
“Does she?” Starshot asked, his eyes cutting in Hazel’s direction. “Such a brilliant mare might have been of some tremendous help with preventing your shop’s unfortunate accident, if it was an herb-related accident, that is.” He smiled when Hazel shot him a poisonous glare.
Rosethorn eyed her husband. “What accident, Buckee?”
“Never you mind, Rosey. It's nothing to worry yourself over,” the old stallion coughed.
Hazel snorted back a weary laugh. Her head shook from side to side.
“Witch-hazel!” Rosethorn hissed, pounding her hoof upon the table. “Manners! This stallion has just paid you a compliment. Will you not thank him?”
Starshot smiled into his plate, enjoying every moment of Hazel’s humiliation. The younger mare eyed her mother petulantly. Her spoon clattered onto clayware as she cleared her throat and sat up straight. “Thank you for your kind words, sir,” she spat at him, her expression wholly unamused. “I’m sure I do not deserve them.”
“Why would you be sure of something like that?” Starshot quipped, just to add to her misery.
Rosethorn sighed loudly, rolling her eyes. “Our Hazel is brilliant indeed, but it isn’t worth a thing when it comes to manners in the presence of well-to-do company, I’m afraid.” The old mare’s punishing glare cut toward her daughter whose forehead was now bent down upon the table.
“Spirits…” Hazel groaned into wood.
Starshot chuckled. It was only an innocent thing, a common sound at any pleasant dinner table. Therein lay the problem.
A hovering lump of food dropped unceremoniously back down onto his plate. Stew splashed everywhere as the mage gazed off into his painful memories long past. The entire table went quiet.
“Sir? Are you alright?” Rosethorn inquired cautiously. “Is it the pie?”
Starshot’s eye twitched. His lips had drawn tight.
Delight was a dangerous thing. Fondness for anypony or anything was a trap, a handle to be used by one’s enemies. It was a lesson that he had learned the hard way, and was most certainly not willing to endure learning again. In that moment, his deciding to stay for comfort's sake did indeed seem like a grave mistake. It was time to cut supper short.
He forced down his unchewed mouthful of pie, and rose to his hooves, appetite now gone. “May I be excused? My apologies, but I've had a very long day and would like to retire for the evening.”
He could still hear Hazel and Rosethorn hissing angry words at each other as he quickly splashed across the watergilly-strewn floor, and rounded the corner toward his room.
It was the middle of the night and silent as death when Starshot heard a light tapping upon his door. He halted the writing he had been completing in a smaller, more portable tome in order to answer the knock. His stomach leapt into his throat when he saw Hazel standing there in the pitch black hallway, the hem of a rather old fashioned sleeping gown twisting about in her jittery front hooves, and a plate of bread pudding held between her teeth.
They both stared at one another in silence before the mare gently placed her platter on the floor, and cleared her throat. “Well? Will you invite me in or not?” she asked, sounding gentler than usual.
“That depends,” Starshot replied, narrowing his eyes at her.
The mare frowned, picked the plate up again, and barged her way through. “Yr ought to shpeak up a bit more. Can barely hear yr.” Placing the plate down on a stand beside the door, she turned toward the mage. “You left early. Never had a chance to try my pudding. I was quite offended, you know.”
“Really? I would have never guessed it was possible for such a lowly pony as myself to offend you, Miss,” Starshot scoffed. “Nevertheless, it was not my intention.”
The quiet consumed them again. Eventually, Starshot rolled his eyes, and made his way back toward his writing desk. Meddling in the unimportant affairs of common ponies was something he no longer held a taste for. “I'll eat it when I have the time. I'm a bit busy presently.”
“It will get cold,” the mare monotoned behind him.
Starshot tapped a hoof against his horn without ever looking up from his page. “I imagine a bit of fire wouldn't be too difficult for me to conjure up. You managed it just fine.”
Hazel growled, picked up the plate and made her way over toward his desk where she promptly plopped it down before him. The mage barely had time to draw his book out of the way of flying specks of nutmeg and sugar. Glancing in Hazel’s direction, he was astonished to see her peering down at his tome and the loose herbs scattered about his desk with deep interest.
“What is it that you are writing there, sir?” the mare inquired, popping her glasses onto her nose to take a better look. “‘Staunchroot stored within ring compartment delivered to host in micro increments perhaps by elec… e-lec-tronic pulse?’” she read off of the page.
Starshot snatched the book out of her sight. “Madame, do you mind?”
“What is elec… electronic?” she inquired, ignoring his temper. “Is it a unicorn technique?”
“I don't see how that is any of your business,” the stallion growled, levitating his book into the air, turning his back toward her, and again beginning to write.
“Oh, stop being a grump, won't you?” Hazel pressed with no luck. She sighed when he did not respond. “At least try the pudding, then. Perhaps it might even put a smile on that grim face of yours.” The mage still did not seem amused. “I'll leave if you try it,” she insisted.
Starshot eyed the plate and then Hazel. His eyes narrowed. Without looking away, his horn began to glow, and the entire chunk of bread pudding levitated itself off of the clayware and into his mouth. “Vere. Arf you satishfied?” he mumbled out of one side of his cheek.
Hazel remained quiet. The tiny, trembling smile on her face now bordered on humiliated. “Very much so,” she croaked, unable to look at him. Her hooves were shaking again. The spectacles slipped from her face. “Pardon me, sir. I only wanted… to…”
Catching hold of her emotions, she straightened out her back, set her jaw, and furrowed her brow. Rounding about the mage, she stubbornly plopped herself down onto a nearby sitting cushion.
Starshot rolled his eyes and swallowed his mouthful of pudding. “Oh, come now. Be a mare of your word, and leave me be,” he groaned.
“Sir, I am beginning to believe that you do not fancy my company,” Hazel tittered, adjusting the cloth about her haunches and flipping her mane.
Starshot growled. He had absolutely no time for such frivolous conversation. “Well, then, it would seem you are as smart as your mother and father have led me to believe. How would they feel if they were to find you here at this hour?”
Hazel’s eyes sparked. “Do not allow my mother to persuade you into believing that I am a child. You aren’t the only scholarly pony in this house who has license to study and travel and see all of Equestria.” Her resolve cracked. With a defeated breath, she leaned her back against the wall and gazed off to some far corner. “The only reason I am here now is because none of my siblings wished to take over this silly shop. And since I have a penchant for herbs and potions, my life was decided for me.”
Starshot remained quiet. He had gone back to scribbling in his book.
Hazel’s gaze went soft when she looked at him. “Go on then. You pretend like my words don’t matter. That isn’t new to me anymore.” She took a deep breath. “I was invited to study potions in Canterlot once, you know. Received a letter and everything. Signed by Celestia herself. Mother and father made a big to-do about it. They seemed so excited for me until my brother Hawthorn, that whiny foal, decided he would rather not inherit the shop at all.” She scoffed. “Next thing you know, Red Hawthorn’s potion shop was promptly renamed Witch Hazel’s, and my invitation to Canterlot was put aside and forgotten. Mother and Father would no longer give me their blessing to leave, you see.”
“Shame,” Starshot muttered, flipping a page in his book, and continuing to write.
“It was,” Hazel sighed.
“Is that why you attempted to destroy it all?” The mage turned away from his page to eye her.
Thick silence descended upon them. Hazel’s eyes went glassy and red. She looked down into her lap. “Yes. To free myself.”
“It was an irresponsible thing to do. And quite brash,” the wizard scolded her. “Somepony could have been hurt.
Hazel scoffed. “My measurements are always precise. I’d placed the watergilly exactly so that our home would remain. Everypony would have been just fine.”
“You sound like a very selfish mare, Witch-hazel,” Starshot said.
“How dare you?” she hissed, sitting up in her seat. “You don’t know anything about my life. I've given up almost all of my dreams for my parents’ short-sighted desires.” She straightened her hems. “Maybe it is time that I be a bit selfish. Haven’t you done a selfish thing in hopes that it might quell your soul? Even if just a little bit?”
Yes, Starshot had. But he wasn’t about to let her know that.
“The only thing I could not account for was you. Why did you have to show up and ruin everything? On today of all days?” She swiped a hoof across her muzzle. “Just my luck, I suppose. Must be fate letting me know that it has no intention of letting me have peace or happiness.”
Starshot remained pensive even though the ache in the mare’s voice made his ear twitch. When she sniffled, he sighed and gazed at her out of the corner of his eye. “Things might not always go according to plan when we hope it might, Miss Hazel. But that doesn’t mean they can’t still end up alright in the end. Give it time.”
Yes, time. Time was good at revealing all well-hidden truths.
“Maybe you’re right,” the mare replied, running a stray hoof over the grainy wood of his desk. “The entire royal invitation incident was just a great disappointment to me, is all. Probably the greatest in my life. This town is small; only an in between place between Trotchester and the uncharted southwest. There’s nothing to do here but sell trinkets and hot meals to adventurers, make foals, and die.” She turned her face toward Starshot. Her eyes remained lowered. “I have to apologize for my mother’s behavior today, by the way. She can be aggressive when it comes to guests like… well, you. Thinks I'm a spinster that will never give her grandchildren. I think that would serve her right if I didn’t, actually.”
Starshot choked and sputtered upon nothing. He buried his muzzle into his book, scribbling much harder with his quill.
Hazel giggled at him. “I’d had my heart set on meeting so many new ponies, making so many new friends, some that would even be able to help with our shop’s acclaim. But alas, it was not meant to be.” She passed him a sad smile. “You know you’re the first visitor we’ve had in months? The last one was my aunt, Henna. So annoying, that mare. Always eats us out of house and home whenever she stays over.”
The room was quiet save for the sound of Starshot’s writing. Eventually, Hazel sighed, rose up to her hooves, and straightened her gown. “I’m sorry for bothering you this evening. Please don’t think the worst of me. I only desired the company, perhaps a story or two about your adventures. But I can see now that you do not wish to be disturbed.” She moved toward the door. “Goodnight, sir.”
“What do you know of staunchroot?” Starshot inquired casually, his eyes still upon the page.
Hazel stopped in her tracks. Her head turned about. The stallion could feel her coy grin burning into the side of his face. He grimaced. “Well?”
“I know that anypony who purchases it is up to no good, even if they are on official business,” she replied, crossing her front hooves. “I hesitated to ask what your purchase was intended for, fearing that your visit might turn into one not so pleasant.”
“Good,” the stallion said, turning away from his page to return her smile. “Then we’ll just skip that part of the conversation, and you can tell me how one might utilize the plant’s properties to act on another’s magical will instead of its own… perhaps?”
Hazel’s brow furrowed. “Y… you wish to control the ability for another to use magic. Not completely staunch it, is what you’re saying?”
“Well, put simply, yes,” Starshot replied.
“I suppose I could help you figure such a thing, but I don't know. I’m not very good with applying potions onto inanimate objects as variables, either. And I don't wish to disturb you any more than I already have. And it might take a while,” Hazel warned him, narrowing her eyes. “Could take all night.”
Starshot arched a brow. “I’m counting on it.”
The mare guffawed. “You cheeky thing!” Her muzzle lowered down beneath the neckline of her gown, rooted about for a bit, and eventually appeared again clasping onto her spectacles. Gingerly, she wrestled them onto her nose and grinned brightly, the most genuine smile she had given Starshot since he’d arrived. “Well, if we are to expand the books on magical knowledge in a single night, I would suggest that we not do it on empty stomachs. I’ll go fetch the rest of the pudding!”
“Who knows why that mousey filly, Prickly Pear, is always complaining?” The large, muscular stallion brought his steel-shoed hoof down again and again upon the curve of molten metal laying on his anvil. He took a step back to regard his work, wiped the sweat from his brow, and bore down again. “Always going on about that ghastly patch of weeds out back my smithy. Swears they’re important.”
Starshot nosed about the stallion’s metal-strewn workroom. It was dark save for the orange glow coming from the hearth. Everything, even down to the fine wares dashed carelessly into a corner pile, was covered in soot. Above the hearth and bellows—strangely the only clean thing in the cramped room—hung a crooked sign that said ‘Sparths by Iron Jack’.
“Well, if this Miss Pear is the caretaker of Witch Hazel’s, I would assume that she knows what she’s talking about when it came to those ‘weeds’ as you put them.” Starshot’s hoof stroked against some lengths of loose chain before he sheepishly hid the offending appendage at his side.
The large smith stallion let off a laugh so loud, the metal ware hanging upon the walls clicked and clanged together. “My friend, those weeds aren’t important. They're only sentimental to her. She claims her grandmother, some Hazel or something, planted them before my shop was ever built. Said the soil was perfect. Full of mineral. Which, obviously, is why a smith belongs here instead.” Eyeing the thick molten ring that he had finished molding, the stallion gave a decisive huff and nod of his head. Picking up a pair of iron tongs into his teeth he clasped the hot metal and dunked it into a nearby bucket to cool.
He spun about to face Starshot just as the mage was preparing to poke at a fine silver helmet balancing precariously atop a wooden rod. “Poor thing thinks her weeds is in danger cause of all the runoff out my shop as well as the mines down below. I haven't the heart to tell her that she should get down on her knees and thank me; the reason them bushes keep so lush this long is cause I been taking my afternoon piss in them going on fifteen years now.” Laughing again, Jack pulled the fresh, brass ring out of its bucket and flung it with expert precision onto a rack just a hair to the left of Starshot’s head. It clanked against another loop just like it.
Starshot recoiled in shock, not sure if the cause of it was the stallion’s words or his carelessness with the handling of searing hot metal. “That’s… that’s… hm,” he grunted, knowing that the next thing out of his mouth would probably be far from polite.
“Oh, Celestia help me,” Jack sighed, wiping a tear off of—and a hooful of grime onto—his left eye. “Well, that's it for the rings. Are you certain that's all you wanted? Couldn’t I tempt you with a sword or something? Battle axe? A nice silverware dish set, perhaps?”
“No, no. I really must be on my way,” Starshot said, reaching out with one hoof to touch the perfectly smooth and shiny brass rings. He retracted his limb when one of them hissed in protest. “I don't think these are cooled as yet.”
“‘Course they aren’t. Iron family technique. I'd explain it to ye’ but,” the smith scrutinized Starshot and smirked, “you probably wouldn't understand. What with your… er… condition.”
Starshot blinked. “By ‘condition,’ would you be referring to my being a unicorn?” he crowed, only to be cut short by a strong, hefty foreleg wrapping itself about his shoulders.
“We can't all have magic like that to use as a crutch, can we? Some of us needs our brawn,” Jack laughed nearly choking Starshot into unconsciousness, “and some of us needs… well, y’know. Whatever it is you lot do.” He gave the mage one firm thump on the back and walked away to remove his apron.
Starshot looked himself over and frowned when he realized he was now covered in splotches of soot. “Well, then exactly how long do you suppose it will take before the rings are cooled?”
“Oh, they'll be at their best in two hours or so,” said the smith.
“What?” Starshot groaned.
“Now, now. It isn’t all that bad, friend! That leaves us just enough time to get a couple of drinks in you. Just enough for you to tell me what that fine work of craftsponyship is about your foreleg.” He pointed a hoof towards Starshot’s watch.
“I cannot,” the mage protested, drawing one of the rings off of its hook with magic. His neck was wrenched backward before the loop could budge an inch.
“It's decided then!” Jack exclaimed ruffling Starshot’s blue mane.
The grating sound of hoof upon fur wasn’t enough to drown out the wizard’s growling.
Starshot glared down at the packed plastic bag he was carrying with disgust. “Absolutely ridiculous,” he grumbled around an orange lollipop.
A pistol. Another collectible, as if that were at all something a person like him needed at a time like this. And not just any collectible, but a brand new Colt, bought directly in-shop somewhere in 1882… or something. Could have been 1982 for all he knew.
The wizard rubbed his throbbing temples, adjusted his shades, and pulled the hood lower upon his head just to keep it all encapsulated within comforting darkness. This would teach him a lesson about going cider guzzling with an earth pony named Iron Jack. Hopefully, this current stop, the last on his list, would only take a few minutes. Then, he could scurry back to his bed in the Nowhere for some much needed rest before getting back to his work.
It was a shame that he didn’t feel up to handling those three horrible sisters immediately, but their rings still needed some tweaking, and being away from the Nowhere for too long proved quite exhausting. He'd only been gone from his home for a little over three days, and still he felt aged a proper thirty years.
The wizard sighed loudly, and checked his watch. Where was that damned shop girl with his damned wires, anyway?
“Is that a genuine Colt? In-box?”
The orange lollipop had rolled around in his mouth twice before he realized that the curly-haired woman practically breathing down the side of his neck was talking to him. When he managed to turn his throbbing eyes in her direction, his jaw dropped.
How could he have possibly missed such a glorious moment in all of his daily viewing spells?
“What's wrong with you? Cat got your tongue?” Cookie Dough asked him, leaning her elbow against the glass counter stocked with enough wires, clippers, and other metallic bits and bobs to make even Dr. Frankensteed uneasy.
“I… uh…” Starshot stammered, dropping his candy onto the floor. He licked his lips. “Aren't you Cookie Dough?” He didn't have to see her eyes beneath that cloud-like mop to tell that she was scrutinizing him.
“It depends on who’s asking,” she said, motioning again toward Starshot’s plastic bag, filled with odds and ends, “and why he's got an 1873 Colt Peacemaker in his bag.”
Having momentarily forgotten that he was, indeed, toting around a vintage gun case like a box of chocolates, Starshot passed the woman a big smile. “Oh, this? It's a collectors item. I just picked it up from the shop a few minutes ago.” At least he wasn't lying. He did, however, neglect to mention the fact that said shop had only been in business between 1880 and 1892.
Cookie smiled. “Ah, a collector. It’s old then, right? I've got an old one lying around somewhere as well, though not in as nice shape as yours. Family heirloom or something. A silly one.” She leaned in toward him. “Mind telling me how you know my name, again?”
Starshot did not hesitate, instead recollecting the evening he had spied on Aria and Cookie at her home. “You used to be in a band, right? Can't remember the name anymore, but I definitely remember that hair.”
“Couldn’t be tasked with remembering any of our songs, huh?” Cookie monotoned, sweeping her locks away just so she could narrow her eyes at him. “You remember ‘Vicious’? ‘Deadbeat’? ‘Darla’?”
Starshot’s smile faded. “I'm afraid not. It's rather embarrassing, but my attentions were more focused upon you, you see. For all of the obvious reasons.”
Cookie missed the lapse in his smile. Blinking a few times, she took a small step back and scratched her head. “Oh, I get it,” she laughed. “Well, flattery can get you pretty damn far with me, hon.” She stuck out her hand for a shake. “What's your name, stranger?”
Starshot took her hand, savoring the sensation of being so close to one who would soon learn to fear him. He had to curl his lips inward to keep from bursting out into laughter. “Joe.”
Cookie’s nose crinkled. “That's it? Joe? Not—I don't know—Tanner Hide or Dusty Trails or something?”
Starshot smirked. “No. It’s just Joe.”
“Huh. Interesting,” Cookie replied. “Okay then, Joe. In that case, I am Cookie Dough, and yea I was in Stew Pot for a couple years. You saying you were a fan?”
Starshot’s head nodded as if attached to a rusty lever. His smile was forced. “Right. Stew Pot. What a name.” He cleared his throat. “Like, I said, I just had an innocent crush on you at the time. You know how it is. Owned one album of yours, and about four posters. Got them all from a friend.” His eyes flickered toward the date listed upon his watch. Posters—bands still made those in this timeframe, right? “Never did make it to a show of yours. I was always busy. Something would always come up. It’s all rather pathetic, but there it is.”
Cookie looked at him through her haze of hair, the only clue to her emotions being the voracious chewing she was doing upon her bottom lip. She hummed to herself, stroking her chin. “I see. Well, that's adorable. I remember what it was like to be a teenager with a new crush every week.”
“Four years ago, I was twenty-nine,” Starshot quipped. He neglected to account for his ‘traveling’ by leaving an extra nine hundred years unmentioned.
Cookie balked. She rapped her knuckles against the glass counter at her side. “Err… okay. Little more awkward now, but I guess I can't fault you for that. Well, then Joe in a hoodie and sunglasses… at night... who is—” She closed her eyes and did some quick mental arithmetic “—thirty-three, and likes to collect vintage guns. What brings you to Red Wire’s today?”
Starshot grimaced whilst listening to her. She was making him sound creepy. He was being creepy again, wasn’t he? That was an issue that he had not needed to worry himself over whilst fraternizing with the three sea witches. He would have to be a bit more careful with this Cookie person. “Oh, I'm just picking up some—I forget what they're called—pots?”
“Potentiometers,” Cookie said, nodding. “What for?”
“An… er… electric violin, interestingly enough.” At his own reply, Starshot resisted slapping a palm against his forehead.
“Oh! You play the violin?”
“Actually, they're for a friend. I know nothing about it.”
“Hm. Does your buddy need an expert to put ‘em in?” Cookie asked, looking hopeful. “You know, I have this instrument repair shop near that bar, Bubbles. Always looking for more business in there. I mean, I personally don't know much about electric violin repair, but if you've soldered one pot, you've soldered them all, am I right?” She giggled.
The sound faded when Starshot did not appear as humored. Instead, he had gone near catatonic. A hunch, that sting of deja vu was burning in his brain. He looked through the glass of the shop’s front door and out into the early evening. He peered closely at the brand of bags Cookie was carrying as well as her choice of clothing.
He had seen this all before.
Closing his eyes behind his shades he ran through memory after memory of his daily viewing spells over the course of the past two months. An image flashed across his mind: Aria repairing a guitar named ‘Beauty’. Cookie and the witch playing guitars together in her shop. A bar. The tense twitch in Cookie’s shoulders over a horrible game of poker. Her paranoia and frustration as she pondered deeply over her wretch of a Siren companion, perhaps for the first time ever.
‘Hey! I saw that look! The look that you make when you're going to just make something up. I don't do that with you, Aria. So, don't do it with me. Just tell me the truth.’
‘How old are you? Like, exact number, Aria. Where were you born?’
‘I can't believe I've never asked you all this before. This is what I wanted to chat about. How do you manage to draw all the talking out of me? Me of all people, when I barely know a damn thing about you?’
That night… this night, Cookie had prodded the Siren for personal information for the first time since they had met. A sudden distrust and suspicion had been born within her. This was the night that had led to an unfortunate happenstance upon Cookie’s couch; the night that had ultimately brought Aria to him for the first time, in the middle of some lonely woods, atop a dark mountain.
The wizard bit his lip to keep from grinning. In that moment, he rejoiced that, again, his foolish uncle had been proved wrong. Good things could come from some recreational time tweaking.
He snapped out of his trance just in time to catch Cookie waving a hand before his eyes. “You work with another woman, yes?” he blurted, his tone more pressed than usual.
Cookie blinked. “I… yea, but how did you know that?”
“I’ve passed by your shop after all, actually. Never went in, but I saw her standing outside with one of those… ” He motioned his fingers in the action of smoking.
“Cigarettes?” Cookie snorted, craning her neck in his direction.
“Yes. Cigarettes.” One of these days he would remember that blasted word. “I know of that woman.”
At that moment, a shop attendant made her way out from the backroom and toward Cookie, a small, brown box in hand. As it shook with each step, the jingle of countless electrical components could be heard from within. She placed it upon the counter near Cookie’s hand, and reached below its surface for a plastic tote. “Here are the diodes you wanted, ma’am, but I'm afraid we’re out of the proper resistors.”
Cookie, far too preoccupied with Starshot, turned only her lips toward the attendant. “Fine, honey. Whatever. Just bag ‘em up, will ya?” She blinked at the wizard. “So what? W… why do you mention Ari—... her?”
She leaned in closer as if preparing herself to recall everything about Starshot’s appearance in case she should need to later on, but by that time the wizard was already retreating toward the door. He took a deep breath as his back pressed against glass. Cookie carelessly tossed a few bills onto the counter, reaching to retrieve her supplies. “Hey, now you hold on just one second,” she said. “What about her?”
Starshot licked his lips. His fingers pressed back against the door. He squared his jaw in an attempt to look disquieted. “Whatever you do,” he said as the doorbell jingled. “Do not trust Aria Blaze. She isn’t what you think she is.”
He turned and ran, even as Cookie raced across the storeroom floor. There was a bright flash of gold as she pushed against the door and raced out into the dark street.
No one was there.
Starshot re-entered the Nowhere laughing.
A glowing orb of dancing, vibrant light was suspended between his raised hands. Checking his watch again, he rushed over to his work desk and flung open his tome of records. “What are the odds? Why hadn’t I ever noticed this before?” With one twisting hand, he rolled back the projection of time in the viewing spell until it was set to the moment just prior, in the electronics shop. His eyes glistened with intrigue. He must have rolled over that moment in this timeline a thousand times within the past few months, never even suspecting that the hooded, black-clad figure in the shop that night was himself. But to be fair, he was very heavily cloaked. That figure could have been anybody, and what would have been his incentive to ever look closer whilst Cookie was all by herself? She wasn't the one who interested him.
Picking up a pen, he began to scribble upon the page the date and time he had just seen Cookie at Red Wires.
Once again, it appears that Uncle was wrong. Perhaps Star Swirl the Bearded was neither shrewd nor intuitive enough to understand the full potential of temporal alterations. In fact, with every passing moment (or at least the illusion of it) I become more convinced this is so.
His chipper mood endured as he upended one of his freshly filled cisterns and suspended it in black space where it could be magically siphoned and ejected from the void as needed. After washing off three days worth of temporal stink, he was humming with wicked delight. By the time he fell back onto his pillow in exhaustion, he wore a smile. His bed was littered with brass, wire, and stopped potions in various stages of breakdown. One of the rings, the only one finished, was gripped tightly within his fist. As sleep encompassed him, he reached for the winding crown on his watch, giving it three full turns. The band sparked gold as his eyelids drooped.
Twelve hours could not pass quickly enough.