• Published 8th Sep 2013
  • 799 Views, 20 Comments

At what price? - Cozy Mark IV



Only Star Swirl the Bearded knows how to save her friends from the reaper, but he has a dark secret of his own. Twilight knows something he doesn't, but could it be enough? And why did Princess Celestia just send a new Guard Captain to Ponyville

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Behind the veil

Disclaimer: This is a non-profit fan-made work of prose. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is the property of Hasbro. Please support the official release.

By Cozy Mark IV

It had been one month now since the coronation, and twenty-four hours since Twilight had discovered her new status as an immortal princess. When Luna first explained it, her thoughts had leaped ahead to all the study and research she could do with no limit on her time, and the parchment list of projects was already more than ten feet long by the time the train pulled into Ponyville Station that evening. She had said goodnight to her friends, and gone home where she tucked Spike into bed before the realization hit her: As an immortal, she would outlive everyone she had ever met. They would grow old and she would have to stay behind to bury them, one by one as they succumbed to the inexorable march of time.

Between the worries that kept her awake and the nightmares that stalked her slumber, Twilight didn't get much sleep that night.

The next morning she did the only thing she could think of; she wrote a letter to the Princess asking for advice. After all, if anyone knew how to deal with this, it would be her. The chariot from the castle arrived an hour later and whisked her off to an old cemetery south of the city.

The graves climbed the gentle slope up the side of the hill to the top where a single huge tree cast its cool shade across the hillside below. The green grass rustled in the gentle breeze and she could see a mother bird feeding her children in a nest far out on a branch of the tree. Around her, the graves showed signs of their great age, many of them broken or illegible after hundreds of years of weather.
With a rustle of wings, the Princess landed softly beside her, careful not to disturb the silence.

Twilight looked up at her in confusion. “This is how you cope with the loss? By visiting the graves of those who were once your friends?”

Celestia smiled down at her. “Do not despair, my faithful student. There is a bit more to it then that.” She extended a wing over Twilight's shoulders in a gesture of comfort. “Come. Walk with me. There is someone I would like you to meet.”

The pair walked through the soft grass, past countless headstones whose markings had long since faded. The princess seemed to know exactly where she was going however, and they soon stood before a stone indistinguishable from any other. Celestia's horn lit up, and the jewel in her necklace glowed in response as a shimmering figure of a pony began to take shape over the grave before them. The outline slowly solidified into a translucent white mare with a bright orange mane and a cutie mark of dancing instructions consisting of two hoof prints with arrows. She seemed to be sleeping on the grass, her eyes closed and her breathing slow, but as they watched, her eyes opened a crack and she picked her head up and yawned sleepily.

Celestia knelt down next to the ethereal form and gently nuzzled her. “Good morning, Sundancer.”

Twilight looked on in astonishment as Sundancer slowly tried to waken and return Celestia's affection, her body passing right through the Princess.

“It's been a long time, old friend.” she smiled. “Do you still remember that dance step from your third Grand Gala?”

Sundancer tried to get to her hooves, and with some effort made it on the third try. She danced out a complicated step, but never quite shed the profoundly tired look she wore. After a bit she yawned again and laid down in the soft grass.
“That was a good one... Took those ponies months to learn it properly...” She smiled at the memory. “It's good to see you again dear... You do know that I love you.”

“I love you too, Sundancer. Sleep well.”

The translucent pony laid her head down and faded away as a tear ran down Celestia's face.
Twilight looked on in shock.
The princess sniffled and wiped away her tears before getting shakily to her hooves.
“You asked me how one copes with immortality... I admit it is hard, but with time one learns... to accept it.”

At length she walked slowly down the hill, Twilight trailing behind her. After a long silence, Celestia answered the unasked question.
“Several hundred years ago, a group of powerful nobles were plotting my downfall and I needed something to distract them. Sundancer was just a foal, young enough to be without her cutie mark, and it was she who idly wished she could teach them all to dance so they wouldn't bother me. The idea was brilliant, and with her help, I started an elaborate series of regular dances that changed from week to week, growing more intricate and complicated each time and robbing the nobles of either their prestige or their plotting time.”
She smiled at the memory. “That's how she earned her cutie mark, and I appointed her the court dance planner shortly thereafter. She loved the job, and over time, we grew... closer. Very close indeed...”

She sighed as she hung her head. “But all good things must end. Only one of us could grow old together, but she didn't mind. She just reveled in the time we had together...”

“Princess, I had no idea! I'm so sorry.” Twilight stood up and hugged her mentor as she sniffled.

Celestia let herself be comforted for a moment before drying her eyes and standing up.

“Thank you, Twilight. As you can see, there are ways to talk to those who have moved on, but the result is usually similar to what you saw here today. The very magic in the air records the life essence of each of us, so no pony is ever really gone, but rather they wait, sleeping peacefully until some future need calls upon them.”

Twilight was still shaken from these new revelations, but even now she could see the problem. With some trepidation she asked. “Are they all that... sleepy?”

“Yes. If I were more upset, she might have been able to stay awake longer to help me through it, but only by a few minutes more. You will soon be strong enough to craft a jewel of your own and perform this spell. With any luck it will still be many, many years before you need to use it.”

A cold wind seemed to blow right through her, and Twilight shuddered. “But there must be some other way! You granted me my immortality, can't we do the same for others?”

The Princess smiled down at her as they walked. “No, Twilight, your hard work and determination did that. I just was just there to help. In all my years, only a tiny number of ponies ever manage what you have.”

Images of Applejack in Sundancer's condition flitted unbidden through her mind and Twilight cringed.

“But there has to be another way! Ponies beyond count must have studied this problem; you're saying that not one ever came up with a way out??” she ended in a pleading tone.

Celestia came to a stop and seemed to be wrestling with some internal conflict. After a moment she seemed to reach a conclusion and her serious expression softened into a smile.

“There is one who managed it. A crotchety old ...colleague of mine from a long, long time ago.” Her smile spread into a troll's grin. “Why, he must be over a thousand years old by now...”

Twilight waited expectantly for a moment, then blurted it out.

“Well?!”

“I think you're actually rather familiar with his work. He should still be living in the icy mountains to the north... You would know him as Star Swirl the Bearded.”

The sound of mental gears grinding was clearly audible in the quiet meadow. “You mean the Star Swirl the Bearded? Inventor of the amniomorphic spell?! He's alive?!”

Celestia just chuckled.

“As far as I know, yes. It's been a long time since I've spoken to him, but if you like I could send him an invitation to come see you.”

Twilight was hyperventilating now as the implications of this sank in. “The most talented unicorn in Equestrian history is alive and he might be willing to talk to me?!”

Celestia just nodded, and for the first time in many years, the old graveyard knew a squeal of delight and glee.

With a flurry of sparks and soot, the Princess's message materialized out of the fireplace and flew across the room, striking the sleeping unicorn in the head. With a groan he slowly woke, grumbling as he pulled his back hooves out of the cedar chest and up onto the bed he had gone to sleep in. His horn glowed as a simple spell banished the cold ache from his old bones, and with a sweep of his magic, he set the water to boiling and got up to pour himself a pan of coffee.

'Nearly out of coffee again... Have to pick more up the next time I go into town...'

He looked out across beautiful snow-capped mountains visible through the window of his small kitchen and grumbled as the bright sunlight assaulted his eyes, but soon the coffee spread through him, and he gradually woke up and noticed the scroll waiting for him on the floor.

'Mail for me? No one has sent me anything in ages now... Who would even know I'm still up here?'

He unrolled the scroll and pushed it across the floor to where he could see it better.

“Ha! Celestia, you old goat, I should have known it was you.” He laughed as he scanned the letter. However as he read further, his good humor melted away. There was another pony who wanted immortality, not for themselves this time, but for their friends...

“Hmmm... That's certainly different...”

He read on. This time it was a very gifted unicorn who had long studied his work and who had just earned the rank of Princess.

“Wait... Princess?? It's a mare?!”

He read on in mounting astonishment as Celestia detailed the many accomplishments of Ms. Twilight Sparkle, and her impressive aptitude for learning and now writing new spells. Celestia made a point to include the spell that had earned Twilight her new rank, and Star Swirl sprayed coffee all over himself as he read the last section.

“She cracked that spell?!” He shouted as he sputtered and choked. “And as a mare?!”

He finished the letter which ended with a simple invitation to meet this 'Twilight Sparkle' at her home in Ponyville should he decide to offer his help.

Star Swirl remained still for a long time thinking it over, but was brought back to the present as the coffee in his coat gradually cooled until he began to shiver. With a grumble of irritation he grabbed a towel from across the room and pulled it over himself so he could use it to dry off that which he couldn't shake out.

'So... Celestia has a new protegee, a girl no less, and she wants to save her friends... What's more, she has the foresight to deal with the issues now while there is still time... Perhaps I should go and meet this one... If she's half the mare Celestia describes, this could be very interesting indeed.'

With a thought he pulled himself together and plucked his traveling clothes from their pegs by the door. It took a few minutes to pull the sleeves all the way down to his hooves, and get the cloak and veil to hang right over his head, but soon he was ready. With an effort his horn glowed, he pooled his magic and disappeared in a flash of brilliant white light, teleporting the considerable distance to the distant town of Ponyville.

Back at the library, Twilight was seated before a small mountain of books, frantically trying to read three at once when Spike came down the stairs. He paused to feed their little bird guest, Peewee, then seemed to notice Twilight's agitated expression.

He sighed.

“Twilight, you know you're not supposed to read more than one book at once. Remember what happened the last time you tried to do that?”

Her response was clipped and spoken at such a speed that all the words ran together.

“Yes! The last time I tried to read more than one book at once, I used a spell to read one book with each eye and I wound up nearly blind and had to go to the hospital and the doctor made me wear a blindfold for a week and eventually my eyes healed and Rainbow Dash stayed with me the whole time and she read a book out loud so I wouldn't go crazy and I was so happy to have her there and I said I would never try to read two books at once again!”

There was a moment's silence as Spike's brain caught up with her tirade.

“Uh, yeah... The 'Reading Rainbow' incident.” He looked at her again. “And now you're doing what exactly?”

“I'm not reading two books at once, I'm reading three books at once!” She said as her head whipped rapidly from one to the next and back again at a speed that made Spike dizzy. As an afterthought she added. “Also, my neck is really hurting for some reason.”

Spike walked around in front of her and grabbed her head in his claws, forcing her to look at him. Her eyes kept bouncing left and right for a moment before slowing to a stop and settling on the dragon before her.

“Twilight,” he asked patiently, “what is going on?”

“I'm studying all the works of magic that Star Swirl the Bearded ever wrote, because he's not dead, and he's over a thousand years old, and Princess Celestia sent him an invitation, and he might be knocking on our front door any minute!”

Spike gave her a long skeptical look.

“So an unknown alicorn prince is going to be knocking on our door for dinner tonight?”

That seemed to finally break her out of her train of thought. “No Spike, he's a powerful unicorn who's figured out his own way to immortality.”

Spike suddenly looked concerned. “You mean he's a zombie pony?!”

For the first time in several days, Twilight laughed, a smile spreading across her face.

“No, Spike, I don't know all the details yet, but he's not a zombie. Star Swirl the Bearded was one of the greatest unicorns of all time! And now-”

She was interrupted by a loud knocking.

Her voice fell to a whispered squeak. “He's knocking on my front door!

Spike looked suspiciously at the door for a moment before apparently deciding that zombies didn't knock. He walked to the door and, with a last glance over his shoulder at Twilight, opened it with a flourish. “Good afternoon. And who might I say is call-”

He never finished the sentence. Before him stood a unicorn stallion wearing, not the costume of bells and tassels Twilight had worn for Nightmare Night, but a simple dark blue robe that covered him completely, unadorned but for a single lonely bell near the ground. Where his hooves emerged from the bottom, gray sleeves were pulled all the way down to the top of each hoof and secured with a drawstring. A hood shrouded his head, and a gray veil was sewn across the opening of the hood, giving no hint of what lay beneath. The only part of him that showed besides his hooves was his horn, emerging from the top of the hood and secured with a drawstring as well.

“Is this the home of the famous witch, Twilight Sparkle?”

His voice was masculine, but formal and tinged with age, reminding Spike sharply of some professors Twilight had met during her schooling. He puffed himself up before answering. “Hey, Twilight's not a witch! And who are you anyway?”

He seemed mildly annoyed. “I am Star Swirl, a great wizard in my day, and I have come to this town to meet with a famous witch of some renown. Do you know where she may be found?”

Twilight walked up behind Spike and gently pushed him aside as she willed herself calm. “I am Twilight Sparkle. It's nice to meet-”

She too trailed off as she took in his appearance, but he didn't seem to notice, and if anything, perked up at the sight of her. “So you are the protegee...” He extended a hoof and shook hers as he continued. “The famous witch of this land who mastered that spell that even I could not?”

Twilight felt like Fluttershy as she meekly shook the hoof of one of Equestria's greatest wizards. “Um... Yes, that would be me...” She replied, blushing.

“And you accomplished all that as a mare! You must be very proud.”

Twilight and Spike both felt like they had been slapped.

“Excuse me?!” Twilight asked, raising her voice and stepping forward.

The figure before them cocked his head to one side. “Is something wrong?”

Spike put himself between the two of them. “Did you just call Twilight a girl?!”

There was a moment's pause, and when he spoke again, his voice carried a note of confusion.

“I am merely trying to compliment you on overcoming the inherent inferiority of your gender. I have lived a long life, and while I have seen many great wizards come and go, witches are much more special. Between the burdens of caring for a husband and the children, very few mares find the time for serious study.”

Spike looked like he was about to roast their visitor's hooves, but Twilight put a hoof on his shoulder and closed her eyes as she silently counted to ten. 'It was a different time. I hadn't thought of this, but if he really has been living in a hermit's cottage for hundreds of years, he wouldn't know any better.' she thought.
After a moment she opened her eyes and smiled icily at him.

“Well, yes, I am rather proud, and I thank you for the compliment. By that same token, I won't hold the inherent chauvinism of your generation against you. You can't be expected to know any better.”

The figure looked from one to the other, and apparently decided they weren't joking. When he answered, his tone was oddly hopeful.

“I... appreciate that. It seems some things have changed since I have been gone. I almost did not answer your request, but it has been so long since I met a mare I could talk to about anything of substance...”

Across the street, Rarity caught sight of the trio and as she saw the figure in robes, she promptly dropped all the bags she was carrying and feigned a fainting spell.

“Rarity!”

As Spike ran to help his lady, Twilight mentally face hoofed and tried to think of a way to take their conversation somewhere else that would save them from the impending arrival of the fashion police.
“Uh, hey, would you like to join me for an early dinner this afternoon? I know some good restaurants in town.”

There was silence for a moment, broken only by Spike frantically fanning Rarity with a ostrich feather fan she 'just happened' to have dropped beside her.
It had been a very long time since Star Swirl was taken by surprise, but being asked out to dinner by an attractive and brilliant young mare... An unthinkable breach of decorum in the world he had left behind... Perhaps he had been away from Equestria too long after all.

He closed the distance between them, and she could feel the silky gray fabric brush against her coat as he took up a place beside her. “I would like that very much, but if I might chose the venue?”

She felt uncomfortable at this unexpected invasion of her personal space, but she nodded her approval as she stepped back.
“I know a place where the sunset is just brilliant at this hour.” He added, gesturing to the sun, still sitting half way up the dome of the sky. Before she could ask, he once more closed the distance and lit his horn surrounding them in a brilliant bubble of white light, and with a quiet 'Pop' they were gone, his long distance teleport leaving a small burn mark on the grass were they had stood.