• Published 8th Sep 2013
  • 798 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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A Difference of Time

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

Twilight and Star Swirl flashed into being on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea to the west. The sun was already sinking into the mist that obscured the horizon, and its usual brilliant yellow color was tinged orange and red by the mist hanging over the ocean.

Twilight gaped as she took an involuntary step forward. “It's beautiful! But there are no oceans within a thousand miles of...” Her words stumbled to a halt as the feeling beneath her hooves changed. It felt almost as though she was walking on a charged plate that clattered like glass beneath her. She looked down - and screamed.

There was nothing but air beneath her!

Spread out beneath her hooves, the jagged rocks fell away thousands of feet below her, down and to the west where they met the sea at a beach of gravel and boulders. With a desperate effort, she beat her wings and took off in a hover, and only then did she look back.

Behind her, Star Swirl's horn was glowing with a dim white light, creating a nearly invisible platform of transparent glass that protruded over the edge of the cliff face she had just walked off. He cocked his head to the side, and the platform became a staircase from her hooves back down to the rocky ledge.

He chuckled softly. “I'm glad you like the view, though I think your wings arrived just in time.”

After a moment to get her racing heart under control, she settled back onto the platform, blushing beet red, and descended the stairs to rejoin him on the edge of the cliff.

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you,” He added sincerely. “but you gave me quite a start there. It has been some time since I last used that spell.”

Twilight looked down again and shivered, unconsciously stepping closer to him as the cool sea breeze blew through her mane and ruffled his cloak. They stood still, enjoying the view and the salty sea air together for several minutes as the sun set.

She looked up at him. “I thought you were taking me to a restaurant?”

His tone warmed as he responded. “Of course, just follow me and watch your footing.” And with that he set off down the hill and through the meadow of wildflowers toward a modest wooden building that sheltered under a stone ledge. A dark shadow swept past their hooves, and Twilight looked up to see a group of griffons flying in to land outside the building and settle down at a table to order.

“We're in the Griffon Empire?” She asked in amazement. “But that's...”

“Thousands of miles from Ponyville? Yes, it is, actually. If you would like, I can teach you some improvements to the standard teleportation spell that will let you do this, too.”

She nodded numbly, her mind still reeling from the scale of the trip they had just made. “That would be great...”

The restaurant was about half full, and there were a few ponies, mostly pegasi, scattered among the predominantly griffon clientele. They took a seat at an outdoor table a little distance from the nearest customer while Twilight perused the menu. With more than a little trepidation, she noted that the menu contained a pony section with fare she was used to, and a griffon section with food she was not. Looking across the tables, she could see (and smell!) a group of griffons devouring a meal of ham and chicken, ripping the pieces off with their sharp beaks and talons.

She swallowed hard, and glanced at a table of pegasi who didn't seem to care what their neighbors were eating. “I've never been to a griffon restaurant before... Academically I knew what they ate, but seeing it first hand...” There was a loud crunching of bones as a griffon at a nearby table took a bite out of a Cornish game hen as though it were a Popsicle, and Twilight couldn't help but wince.

Star Swirl looked around and seemed to realize what she was feeling. “Oh! My apologies! I assumed from what the princess told me that you had already traveled abroad and were used to different cultures. We don't have to stay if this makes you uncomfortable.”

He made to to get up, but with an effort, Twilight forced a smile and waved him back down. “No, no, I'm sorry. It's not my place to judge, and I have always wanted to travel, but... compared to you I'm still very young. I haven't had the opportunity yet.”

He inclined his head to one side, and she smiled in answer. “I would be happy to eat dinner here. I'll be fine.”

Star Swirl nodded his approval and set down the menu. “Just what I would expect from someone as talented as the princess described.”

The conversation soon worked around to some of his more prominent works, and the waiter took one look at the two of them and smiled before skipping their table and moving on. They worked over the mechanism of time spells, their construction and execution, and the risks of using them as the sun sank below the horizon, and the stars emerged overhead, helped by the soft flickering torch light from the edge of the restaurant. Twilight had just finished up the story of her miss-adventure with a 'back in time' spell she had used one memorable Tuesday morning, and Star Swirl was leaning back in his chair, laughing appreciatively as she lingered over the funny parts.

“I had no idea that spell of mine would cause you so much trouble!” They both chuckled as he continued. “If I had but known, I would have put in a more explicit warning.”

“Oh, it's okay. It worked out all right in the end.”

There was a contented silence between the two of them, and looking up, Twilight was surprised to see how late it had already gotten. She blushed a bit, wondering just how long she had been here with this famous stallion as the waiter arrived and took their orders.

“Just the daisy sandwich for me, thanks.” She said, passing her menu to the waiter.

“The chipped ham for me, thank you.” Star Swirl added.

The griffon nodded and took their menus as she left, leaving a shocked silence in her wake. For the first time, Twilight regarded Star Swirl with something like fear, wondering what he was concealing under his cloak.

“Star Swirl... You're a carnivore?!”

The pony before her sighed, and seemed to slump a little as he responded. “An omnivore actually. I can still eat most of what a normal pony can but, after the treatment, meat now tastes quite good. I was a vegetarian for a couple hundred years afterwards, but eventually I gave in, and now I don't really think much of it.”

Twilight couldn't help the feeling that something was off about this whole exchange, and in a moment of worry, she threw manners to the wind, and asked the question that had been on her mind since they met. “Why do you wear that cloak? Is it something you need to wear now for...medical reasons, or...?”

A couple of heads turned in their direction, and then carefully looked away. Star Swirl slumped forward and hung his head without answering for a long time, almost as though he were fighting back tears, though she heard no such sound. At last he looked up at her and spoke.

“Twilight, I am hideously, monstrously ugly. It is the price I pay for my immortality. I cannot venture outside without this cloak because all who saw me would run screaming for the hills.”

Twilight wasn't sure what to make of that. After the several hours they had spent together, there was no doubt in her mind that she was sitting across the table from Star Swirl the Bearded, one of the greatest unicorns in Equestrian history, but what in the world had happened to his body that he concealed himself so carefully? Looking again she couldn't even see his tail, nor even an inch of his coat. Only his horn emerged from the top of the hood, and even his face was concealed behind the gray veil.

She couldn't help feeling sorry for him as she asked softly. “It couldn't be that bad... Certainly I wouldn't scream or run away-”

His response was immediate and heartfelt. “Yes, you would.” His head inclined sharply, and she could feel his gaze as he scrutinized her closely. “Every single pony and griffon who has ever seen my true face has had exactly the same reaction. You would be no different. My body is hideous, and it is no accident that after nearly a thousand years, only a tiny hoofful of ponies have used my methods to gain their own immortality.”

With some difficulty, Twilight pushed aside her doubts and pressed ahead. “But it does work, you're living proof of that! I know whatever spell you used has side effects, but I still need it to save my friends' lives. They should all still have many years of healthy life left, and maybe with that time I can do something about the side effects, but first I need to know how you did it!”

There was a long silence that stretched on for a minute.

Then two.

The waiter returned with their orders and left again.

“Well?!” she asked in irritation.

Finally he seemed to make up his mind. “Very well, the basic spell is based upon the spell of lingering, but-”

“The spell of lingering? You mean that obscure spell that anchors the soul to the body for a few days, or as long as the body remains intact?”

“Yes, that is the fundamental building block, but before we continue in greater detail, I must ask an uncomfortable price in exchange for this information.”

Twilight swallowed again, but pressed ahead anyway. “And what would that be?”

“One night of your services.” he answered simply.

Her face registered confusion as she stared back at him. She couldn't imagine a stallion like Star Swirl needing help organizing his personal library, though perhaps he was more the absent-minded professor type... wait. Most of her best alphabetization and subject-specific sorting spells, he had developed. This made no sense.

“My services? What are you talking about?”

“Twilight, I have seen something in you I have seen in no other for hundreds and hundreds of years. You have shown me not just kindness, but a brilliant mind that could be the match of my own. Surely you know how tiresome it can be, talking to those who have no understanding of the more complicated magical arts?”

An image of Applejack flashed to mind, and Twilight irritably pushed it aside. “That can be true, but I still don't understand what you're asking for.”

“Well, surely a young lady of your intellect and breeding is one of the most sought-after courtesans in the land, especially being Celestia's prize protegee!”

It took her mind a moment to process what he had just said, but then her eyes went wide and she shoved her chair away from the table, nearly shouting it out before she remembered they were still in a crowded restaurant. She carefully sat back down and leaned in to whisper across the table with considerable indignation. “Mister Swirl, I am not a prostitute!

He seemed honestly surprised by this, sitting up very straight as he realized his mistake and tried to apologize. “Oh... Oh Celestia, I am so sorry!”

Twilight thought back to her history lessons on the time Star Swirl had lived, the Percheron era, and despite herself began to smile at his mistake. It was true, that had they still been living in his time, a beautiful (she blushed as she realized he had meant it,) young mare with her level of education and ability to converse comfortably with stallions as an equal would almost certainly have been exactly what he thought. The only other females who might take an interest in 'masculine' subjects without serious social consequences and ostracization were either little fillies too young to know better, maiden aunts and spinsters who needed something to occupy their time, or, of course, governesses, though their studies were significantly more limited and, if Rarity's romance novels were anything to go by, governesses tended to better their social position not by academic achievement, but by the simple and elegant fix of bedding and marrying their employers' grown sons. Star Swirl wasn't being rude at all, and if he had to mistake her for...one of those, he'd managed to do so in what she had to concede was still a remarkably flattering way. (The fact that she had rather enjoyed some of Rarity's novels featuring mares who weren't governesses or maiden aunts was beside the point.)

As he continued to grovel, she couldn't help but smile and then laugh at this ridiculous comedy of manners she found herself in. He stopped as she laughed, and with some effort she managed: “It's okay, I just forgot what time you were from. It's all right, really. I realize you didn't mean any insult.”

His penitent tone was still clear as he answered. “You are gracious beyond words, my lady. Thank you so much for tolerating a lecherous old stallion's mistake.”

She shook her head as she agreed. “Really, I can see how you might have thought that. But times have changed for the better, and the old rules don't work that way anymore.”

He seemed to consider that for a moment before asking; “Does that mean you would turn down my offer of marriage?”

Her mouth fell open in shock as he pulled out a ring bearing a glowing white stone that pulsed and shown with a brilliant inner light. Even from across the table Twilight could feel the considerable magical power bound up in the ring as it pulsed in time with the light like a living thing. Her mind reeled as she realized what she was looking at.

'A ring of magic like that can increase by an order of magnitude the raw power available to an experienced caster, enabling amazing spells of incredible power to be cast! This is even more powerful than the Alicorn Amulet, and it draws a considerable portion of that power from the love shared between the one who makes it and the one who wears it. The skill to make a ring like this was supposed to be lost to the ages! No one now remembers how to make a ring like this, and here he is, offering to give me one?!'

He remained still, holding the ring in his outstretched hoof.

'Oh Celestia, he's actually serious! One of the most powerful wizards that has ever lived wants me to marry him!'

After a moment she looked up into his face, her eyes wide. “I don't understand! Why are you doing this?!”

He set the ring carefully down on the table before her as he explained.

“Twilight, you don't get to be my age without learning how to take the measure of a pony. Based on what I have seen in your heart, I know you to be a brilliant, intelligent, and loving mare. You are truly a special pony, and it has been a very long time indeed since I have seen anyone like you.” He gestured self deprecatingly to himself. “It has also been a long time... A very long time indeed... since anyone has loved me.” He hung his head in shame. “To be loved by you, and have the chance to love you in return, if only for a night... would mean more to this old stallion than you might believe.”

Twilight was still struggling to find the words. “But if you only want...physical love...”

She could see his body quiver as he gave a long and bitter laugh. “Ha! No, I do not lack for the mere physical.” He reached into a pocket of his robe and removed a small drawstring bag that he levitated under the table, bringing it to rest on her lap. As he let go she could feel it was surprisingly heavy for its size, and like the ring, pulsing with the strength of the spells woven through it.

She looked up at him in deepening confusion, but he had used his magic to levitate the bowl of chipped ham under his cloak at the waist line, tucking it away while he silently waited for her reaction.

Looking down again, Twilight opened the bag to find a very realistic and explicitly ...phallic toy, apparently made of smooth metal that was actually warm to the touch. She blushed despite herself as she quickly realized the design: This was what mares behind closed doors gigglingly refereed to as a 'proxy,' a reproduction that would send back all its feelings and sensations to the unicorn, mare or stallion, who wore the receiver ring that slid over their horn. Truth be told, in the first months after she hit puberty many years ago she had purchased a mail order version of such a toy and performed extensive... experiments on it, and at least to her mind, had gotten to be quite skilled indeed over the years, though she had not yet had any... independent verification. She was at once shocked to think of someone whose work and wisdom she had admired for so long knowing about such a thing, let alone owning one, and at the same time...vaguely fascinated.

She had always thought of Star Swirl the Bearded in the way one thought of Clover the Clever or Smart Cookie, a historical figure whose brilliance shone down through the ages and whom little ponies pretended to be while playing -if they wanted to grow up and be librarians. The idea that Star Swirl was...well...a stallion, with a stallion's desires, hopes and...needs...well...

Blushing bright red she looked back up to see that he had already finished his meal, the empty bowl resting on the table.

“So you use ...magical substitutes to...erm, meet your needs?”

Star Swirl simply nodded. “Yes, but that is no mere toy. From your reaction I can tell this is not the first time you have seen one of these, but it is the first time you have seen the original.”

'He's over a thousand years old and...' She couldn't help but blurt out. “You invented these?!”

He simply nodded.

“But I always thought the stallion who invented these lost …his in a tragic accident! It's history's most memorable 'necessity is the mother of invention' story.”

He chuckled ruefully. “Not an accident I'm afraid, just another side effect of my longevity.” Twilight's eyes widened as he continued. “That particular proxy is bound permanently to me and woven though with at least a dozen major spells of my design, and over a hundred minor ones, all designed to satisfy a mare. Because of that, it has been passed around through some of the best brothels throughout Equestria and beyond.” He looked at her levelly across the table. “So, no, Twilight, I do not merely desire your body.” He added earnestly. “I have plenty of failings, but I would never insult you like that.”

Twilight was having trouble taking all of this in, and she seized upon her meal to buy herself time to think. The sandwich was surprisingly good, and as she ate, she tried to figure out what to do.

'Okay, so he's brilliant and old and charming and famous and he wants to love me. Deep breaths, Twi, deep breaths.'

She took another bite of her sandwich and chewed slowly.

'He's also old enough to be my great grandfather a hundred times over, he's hideously disfigured some how, and he's so out of touch with this century that he mistook me for a high class prostitute.'

The sandwich really was good, the blend of spices and herbs just right to compliment the slight tinge of salt floating on the breeze.

'And he has really good taste in restaurants, and he holds the key to saving my friends, and I could learn so much from him, but he wants me to love him, but if I don't do anything, I'll outlive all my friends, but if I do take him up on this they might not want to be immortal, but if they do and I don't...'

Her thoughts continued to run in circles through her mind as her sandwich rapidly disappeared. Across the table, Star Swirl waited patiently and seeing her state of mind, quietly called the waiter over and had her replace each sandwich as it was devoured.

Twilight was dimly aware of her sandwich changing its flavor as her mind continued to churn. The moon rose over the horizon, the stars moved overhead and the restaurant gradually emptied out. She gradually became aware of a fullness in her stomach and a burning sensation in her mouth. Looking up she saw they were the last patrons left, and that the staff was starting to give them dirty looks. Also, a glass of milk had appeared on the table by her plate while she was distracted. She looked up at Star Swirl and felt a twinge in her gut.

“Oh... That sandwich was bigger than it looked...” She groaned as she looked at the glass. “And what's this for?”

Star Swirl just shook his head in amusement. “Twilight, I've watched you savor seven different sandwiches since we arrived. You've tried their entire pony sandwich menu, and that complimentary glass of milk goes with the habanero pepper sandwich you're so elegantly, sensuously enjoying now. I realized that mares now are more liberated from the tired social conventions of my era, but to see one with a healthy appetite is invigorating after those frivolous fillies who minced and tasted, only nibbling the tiniest little tea affairs that wouldn't satisfy the common rabbit. How I'd love to travel with you and taste the cuisine of empires, knowing that you'd really enjoy it.”

Suddenly she understood why her eyes and mouth were burning. The half-eaten sandwich fell to the plate and she gulped down the entire glass in one go to extinguish the fire in her mouth. As she finished, gasping for breath, Star Swirl called their waiter over and paid the tab, placing a hoof kindly on her shoulder.

“I'm sorry, Twilight, I don't mean to put you under undue stress, but I can't help the feeling I've just met someone very special. You don't have to decide now. I'm planning to stay the night in Ponyville tonight and leave sometime tomorrow.”

Twilight got unsteadily to her hooves, and before she could say anything, Star Swirl stepped in close, the world flashed white, and they were standing at the front door of her home in the deepening shadows as the stars winked into existence overhead. Star Swirl wished her a good night and walked away down the street leaving Twilight standing dumbstruck on her front stoop.

It was only after she stepped inside and closed the door that she noticed she was still carrying the small gray bag.