• Published 5th Aug 2014
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CoH (Book One) : Of Magic and Masquerades - Diespitris

It is up to Twilight Sparkle to find a way to protect the Crystal Empire on her own. Yet, when its former king offers her a helping hoof, she has two choices: befriend him, or reveal him. Despite her choice, there will be consequences to face.

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Chapter One : Snow and Shadows

Twilight wasn't sure if she was prepared for this. When she honed her knowledge in preparation for the test that Princess Celestia planned for her, she had no idea this was the test! Only a mere six months passed since she was face-to-face with the changelings, but now she was to face something much, much greater.

After a millennium, the mysterious Crystal Empire suddenly popped back into existence. Not even her teacher knew what triggered its reappearance, but it mattered little. The empire's magic was powerful. If it was filled with hope and love, then all of Equestria would benefit from it. If hatred and fear took hold... Well, it chilled the young pupil to the bone to contemplate the consequences, for she knew nothing about the nature of hate and fear incarnate. She didn't want to find out, either, especially after Princess Celestia's demonstration.

The fiery green orbs that replaced her once-gentle eyes flared with violet smoke. Her body was rigid, her wings extended, all while her horn seethed with the corrupted radiance of dark magic...

How in Equestria could she possibly find a way to protect it, all of it, without any help from anypony?

Sighing, Twilight rested her forehead against the window's cool surface. The vibrations caused by the moving train helped her drain out the voices of the others. All of them were blissfully unaware of her fears as they happily chatted various speculations about their destination, though she was too caught up in her thoughts to make out what was said.

It wasn't until a certain fashionista spoke up that she realized just how much time had passed. “Twilight, darling,” she said, placing a hoof on her shoulder. “Come now, time to snap out of it. We're arrived.” Smiling, she reached into one of her saddlebags and she produced a navy-blue scarf. “Here,” she added, using her magic to carefully wrap it around the other unicorn's neck. “The others poked fun at me for packing so many of these, but—ha!—I'm the only one here who came prepared! Just take a gander outside. The weather is absolutely horrid!”

“Well, Rarity, we are in the Arctic North,” replied Twilight. As her friend trotted towards the door, she looked down at the given accessory and was pinched by a pang of guilt. In her haste, she neglected to bring warmer clothing. She hadn't brought any clothing at all, in fact. “Thank you for the scarf,” she quickly added, jumping from her seat to follow after her.

“Oh, don't worry about it, darling. I would never let my friends freeze and I have more than plenty to go around.”

Behind them, Spike snorted as he struggled to keep the massive mound of Rarity's luggage from toppling off his back. “You got that right,” he grumbled. Despite the weight he carried on his narrow shoulders, he was able to make it off the train shortly after Twilight. The moment the howling wind struck him, however, he had to fight to keep his balance. “Yikes!” he exclaimed, shuddering.

The mares also braced themselves against the frigid gale. “Whoa, nelly!” gasped Applejack, holding her hat tightly against the top of her head. “It's colder than an open icebox in February out here!”

“Ugh, no kidding,” groaned Rainbow Dash. “Where's this empire supposed to be, anyway?”

That was an excellent question. As Twilight surveyed their surroundings, she was surprised to see that there was only a seemingly endless blanket of snow all around them. If there was anything out there, there was no seeing it past the blizzard. “Well, it has to be around here somewhere,” she said loudly.

Fluttershy pressed herself against Applejack as another gust of wind struck them. “We... We better find it s-soon,” she whimpered, relishing the brief warmth from the scarf that Rarity draped around her neck. “It's s-so c-c-cold!”

Biting down on her lip, Twilight stepped off the wooden platform as she continued to regard the area. She even lit up her horn, hoping it would help. It did not. Her heart-rate nearly skyrocketed as it sunk into her barrel. At least, that's how it felt. They had no map, no directional guidance, and she began to fear that they would have to wait out the storm in order to safely locate their destination.

That is, until a voice called out to her. “Hey, Twily, over here!”

Through the fury of the falling snow, a dark figure slowly came into view. Squinting, Twilight raised a foreleg to shield her eyes so that she could get a better look. It was a stallion. That was all she could make out, at least until he came closer. She then smiled widely once she caught sight of his white coat and two-toned blue mane. “Shining Armor?” she called. “Is that you?”

Sure enough, it was her big brother. He was clad in a protective set of goggles, as well as a scarf that appeared tightly wrapped around his muzzle. As he approached them, he removed both; the goggles were moved to the secure spot behind his horn, and his scarf was lowered to the base of his neck. “The one and only!” he chuckled, opening his forelegs. He then shared a quick hug with Twilight before he motioned for them to follow. “Princess Celestia messaged us that you and your friends were on the way,” he added, “and I sure as hay wasn't going to let you get yourselves lost out here. I don't think this snowstorm is going to let up anytime soon.”

“We're grateful for your help, Shining Armor,” chimed Rarity.

“I doubt we would've found our way, otherwise,” added Applejack.

Pinkie Pie butted in with an energetic, “Yeah! Thanks a whole bunch!” as she bounced a circle around the siblings.

The unicorn stallion glanced over his shoulder, smiling. “It's no trouble at all, especially for my little sister and her friends.”

Twilight felt the heat rise in her cheeks. She cleared her throat. “So, Shining, have there been any signs of trouble since you and Cadance got here?” she inquired.

“Actually, no,” he replied.


“Yeah. I mean, we're more than ready to deal with anything hostile, but we haven't seen anything like that yet.” He stopped for a moment, holding up a forehoof to shield his eyes. “There!” he then exclaimed, pointing.

Even through the blizzard, something bright and round could be seen. Immediately, Twilight could tell that it was a shield. It was pink, and reminiscent of the barrier that her brother conjured to cover Canterlot months before. The empire was... safe? “Wait a minute,” she said. “Princess Celestia sent me to help find a way to protect the empire. How can I do that if it's already protected?”

“It's not permanent solution, Twily.” Chuckling, he walked up to the edge of the shield. “Go on ahead! Mares and dragons first.”

Without hesitation, Twilight lead her friends through the magical wall. In an instant, the scenery changed, and it took their breath away. No wonder it was called the “Crystal” Empire. Pinkie Pie described it as, “Sparklerific,” which was an accurate description. Everything appeared constructed of crystal, down to the welcoming archway they now stood under. Oh, wow, thought Twilight as she took another few steps forward. It's so beautiful.

Soon, Shining Armor was on the other side of the shield. He then proceeded to lead them through the streets towards the palace. There was silence as they walked, for his fellow ponies were silent with awe. “Quite a sight, isn't it?” he asked. “You should have seen Cadance when we first got here. The sight of his place almost had her in tears.”

“I don't blame her!” replied Rarity. “It's gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous!”

“Easy, Rarity,” warned Applejack. “We're here to help Twilight, not admire the scenery.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow at them before her eyes darted around the underside of the towering construct. She didn't look as thrilled to be there as her unicorn companion. “Eh, I don't see what the big deal is,” she said, shrugging. “Just looks like another old castle to me.”

Rarity's eyes grew wide and she scoffed in disbelief. “Another old—? Have you lost your mind?” she gasped. Daring to violate Rainbow Dash's personal space, she got so close to her face that their muzzles touched. “Look at the magni—"

The rainbow-maned pegasus suddenly burst into laughter, which left Rarity bewildered. Only when Applejack joined her and bumped hooves, did she realize that she had merely been teased. Disbelief and confusion transformed into embarrassment in the blink of an eye. “Very funny, you two,” she muttered as she followed everypony inside.

The interior was just as breathtaking as the exterior. Every smooth surface sparkled radiantly, though it was hard to believe that even the furniture was carved from crystal. “That can't possibly be comfortable,” Twilight thought aloud. Then again, each sofa and chair was covered with a plush lining, so perhaps they were tolerable after all. When they arrived, though, she observed that the same couldn't be said about the throne.

It was bare, save for the alicorn who sat upon it. Princess Cadance was slightly hunched over and the blue aura around her horn was more than enough to inform Twilight that she was the one responsible for the shield around the Crystal Empire. “Cadance!” she exclaimed, trotting down the center of the room.

The Princess of Love looked up from the floor with a start. As soon as she spotted her sister-in-law, her eyes lit up. Smiling, she leaped to her hooves in a newfound burst of energy and she met Twilight halfway. As was their ritual, they chanted, “Sunshine, sunshine, ladybugs awake! Clap your hooves and do a little shake!” and went through the motions—breaking into laughter once it was finished. “It's so good to see you and your friends again, Twilight,” said the older mare. “It's been too long.”

“I know, right?”

Shining Armor loudly cleared his throat. “Sorry, ladies,” he said. “I hate to interrupt you, but...”

Cadance's smile slowly faded. “I know, I know,” she replied with an understanding nod.

Her husband gently nuzzled her neck, which made her smile again, then he turned to face his sister. “As I said before, the shield is only a temporary means of defense,” he said. “Cadance and I have been on shifts since we arrived, but we can't keep this up forever. In fact, we've been so preoccupied with the barrier that we haven't had the chance to question the crystal ponies who live here.”

Everypony flinched as Rarity let out a high-pitched squeal. “Crystal ponies?” she exclaimed delightfully, tugging on her mane. “There are crystal ponies!?” A few silent seconds passed before she realized that everypony was staring at her. Her cheeks turned pink as she fixed her hair. “Please, continue,” she chuckled sheepishly.

Twilight grinned as she looked up at her brother. “Don't worry, Shining Armor. Just leave it to my friends and I. Together, I'm sure we'll find something!” she replied. She looked over her shoulder as the voices of her friends rang out in a chorus of positivity. Their optimism earned them looks of appreciation from both Cadance and Shining Armor as, together, they escorted themselves out.

~ *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~

If there was something to be found, however, Twilight and Spike were in the unfortunate position continuously hitting dead ends. The crystal ponies remembered little to nothing of their lives before King Sombra's rule. Though she knew nothing of the curse that was placed on them so long ago, Twilight suspected that it was to blame for their collective amnesia, as well as their lack of crystalline coats. Or maybe it was a combination of simply not... existing for a millennium and the curse itself?

Either way, they were getting nowhere.

To her delight, however, the ponies in question were more than willing to point her in the direction of the local library, since they had no information to give her themselves. It set a few city blocks from the palace, and was easily identified by the crystal gryphon statues that sat in vigilance on both sides of the entrance. “Holy cow, Twilight,” breathed Spike as his eyes wandered over the building. “It's so... shiny!”

With a warm chuckle, his caretaker ushered him inside. “C'mon, let's see what's inside,” she said, her excitement growing.

As soon as they were through the doors, they were greeted with rows upon rows of dusty tomes and antique literature. Twilight's eyes widened as she basked in the light that bounced off the towering and reflective walls. “Oh, wow,” she breathed. Of course, it didn't come as a surprise that a library would be stocked to the brim with books, but these were ancient books that hadn't been touched in a thousand years. She could compare the collection only to Canterlot's Royal Library, though she dared to imagine that the countless pages before her were far older.

A twinkle shone in her eyes as she clapped her front hooves together. “This is it, Spike!” she exclaimed. “The answer we need has to be here!”

Spike glanced skeptically over the shelves. “Well, yeah, but how are we going to find it?” he asked. “There must be thousands of books to go through!”

“May I help you two?” inquired a soft, tired voice.

Twilight and Spike turned to face the source of the voice: an elderly mare with round, gilded glasses. Like the other crystal ponies, she possessed no horn or wings, and she had her mane and tail tied up with shimmering ribbons. The piece of parchment that served as her cutie mark lead Twilight to believe that she was the librarian. “Hello!” she greeted as she approached the earth pony. “Sorry to barge in like this, but we're looking for a book.”

Nonchalantly, the older mare gestured to the shelves. “We have plenty of those.”

You do, you really do, the unicorn mentally cheered as she happily looked over the interior once more. She then shook her head and cleared her throat. “A history book,” she retorted simply. “We're looking for a history book. Something that might tell us how the Empire protected itself from danger back in the day.”

“Yes, of course.” The aged pony's brow furrowed and she began to rub her chin in thought. “History... History,” she grumbled. A few seconds passed before her eyes lit up. “Ah, yes! I think I know exactly what you're looking for!” She turned her back to the duo and she trotted to the large set of books that was farthest from them. Of course, they followed after her, only to watch as she struggled to reach one of the highest shelves.

It was awkward, and a little sad. “Uh, may I help you with that?” inquired Twilight.

The librarian glanced at her, nodding. “Oh, yes, so sorry,” she chuckled. She pointed the tip of her hoof at the second-to-top row. “I-I think that brown book there is the one. Do you see it? It's the one with the two golden bands on the spine.”

Twilight had no trouble spotting it. It stood out amongst the dull colors of its neighbors and, sure enough, was exactly how the elderly mare described. A levitation spell brought the book down to them. She then blew the dust off its cover, revealing three vibrant crystals and the title, “History of the Crystal Empire.” Her smile grew upon reading it. “Yes, this is exactly what we were looking for!” she exclaimed cheerfully. “I just hope that it has the answers we need...” Keeping the book level with her eyes, she turned to the first page as she then made her way towards the front entrance. When she was halfway there, however, she paused. “Thank you so much!” she said, looking at the librarian.

“No problem, dearie! Have fun with... whatever it is you are doing!”

Both the unicorn and her assistant waved her farewell as they left the library. “She was nice,” the dragon said.

Twilight nodded. “And helpful!” she replied. She again lowered her eyes to the pages of the book as she made her way down the smooth steps. She hoped to get some reading in as they made their way back to the palace. When she was a filly, she learned through her love of literature that it was optimal to multitask. If there was anything to be done, then it could be done as she read. No exceptions.

Though she was now a mare, however, she didn't have it down to a science. She finished only the first half of the first page, and her rear left hoof barely lifted off the final step, when she collided with the stiff body of another pony. She gasped as the book was nearly knocked out of her arcane grasp. It fumbled between her hooves, before she clutched it to her chest with a sigh of relief.

The book had been saved from hitting the ground, but the same couldn't be said for the pony who now sat on his rear before her. “Oh, my gosh!” she blurted, moving to help him up. “I'm so, so sorry! I was in such a big hurry and—” She was taken aback when the stallion, who she just then realized was clad in a large cloak, suddenly stood and trotted past her. She barely heard him say, “It's all right,” as he vanished into a nearby alleyway.

Raising a brow, Spike slowly climbed onto Twilight's back. “Well, that was interesting,” he muttered. “You should really watch where you're going, Twilight.”

“Yeah,” she replied in a whisper, her eyes never leaving the spot where she lost sight of the stallion. He was a strange one to run into, given his choice of attire. It wasn't an everyday article of clothing; it was something somepony wore when they wanted to hide their appearance, keep a low profile, or both. All possibilities were undeniably suspicious, but, sadly, she didn't have time to track the stallion down and press him for answers.

She had a book that she desperately needed to read.

~ *~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~* ~

“A Crystal Faire. According to this book, it was established by their first queen and became their most important tradition. The faire was held every year to 'renew the spirit of love and unity in the empire so they could protect it from harm.'” Twilight smiled as she looked up from the book. Before her, Cadance and Shining Armor were visibly happy to hear the information. Her sister-in-law had relinquished the shield to Shining Armor's care long before her arrival, though neither of them appeared in the best of shape.

No matter who kept the barrier running, it was clear that neither of them had slept in quite some time.

“My friends and I can put the faire together,” she added. “Everything we need to know is in the book.”

“That sounds pretty promising,” her brother replied, earning a nod of approval from Cadance.

“We'll get started right away, but...” Her ears folded against her head as she frowned.

Sensing her hesitation, Cadance descended from the throne. “What is it, Twilight?” she asked, placing a gentle hoof on her shoulder. “Is something wrong?”

“Well, it's the book, I'm afraid.” Biting down on her bottom lip, Twilight flipped the pages until there were no more pages to turn. At the back of the book, there was a sliver of jagged, torn paper jutting from the center. “There's a page missing,” she added solemnly. It was a discovery she made just before reaching the palace. Upon making it, she had half a mind to return to the library, but it was due to Spike's urging that she continued forward.

“It's just one page, Twily,” said Shining Armor. “I'm sure it's not important.”

Twilight winced. “At a time like this, can we really take that chance?” she whispered. A single page—a single scrap of missing information—could be the line between success and failure! She couldn't let Princess Celestia down, not after all of the trust that was so generously placed in her. I don't want to do anything that will lead her to doubt me again... Never again.

One of Cadance's forelegs wrapped around her shoulders. “You have all that you need to prepare the Crystal Faire, including your friends,” she said comfortingly. “Don't let one stray page get you down, okay?”

The young mare managed a small smile. “Okay,” she quietly replied. Her confidence benefited well from the princess' words and, puffing out her chest, she spun around and headed for the door. “Come on, Spike, we've got a Crystal Faire to put together!” And I will pass my test!

Spike grunted as he lowered the book. Stupid thing was heavier than he thought, but he didn't complain as he followed after the determined unicorn. Soon, the married couple were left to themselves, and the Princess of Love returned to her spot atop the throne. “Poor thing,” she said. “She must be scared.”

Shining bobbed his head, rubbing his glowing horn. “Well, you know how seriously she takes her tests,” he replied. “Although, she's handling it rather well.”

His wife frowned. “You really think so?”

“Yeah.” His eyes narrowed. “It just bugs me that we can't do more to help her and her friends.”

“I know, Love, but she'll be all right.” Her smile slowly returned as she shifted her attention to the doorway. “I can feel it in my heart, Shining.” And her heart was no liar. With a soft sigh, she leaned to the side and she nuzzled her stallion affectionately. “All of them are going to be all right.”

Author's Note:

As much as I love the Crystal Empire episodes, it always bothered me that Twilight never noticed the missing page until the very last minute. You would think that someone who loves books as much as she does would notice something like, especially since it's implied that she read the entire thing.