• Published 23rd Feb 2015
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Celestia - Arad



There are many secrets that Celestia would prefer nopony ever know...

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Confusion

It took far more willpower than Solaria was willing to admit not to scream as her magic continued its stubborn refusal to function as she intended. Through countless days and nights, she continued to force her magic to operate, and with each failed experiment her frustration grew. The mountains were not torn asunder, the seas did not freeze solid, and the cities did not burn to the ground before her hooves. As though to add insult to injury, she could not even eviscerate the small rabbit that was looking up at her. One armored hoof rose into the air above the rodent, only to halt mid-strike. This time, Solaria did give voice to her frustration, which caused the rabbit to flee for its life.

It is not just my magic, but my body as well? What did you do, fiend? What did you do to me? Solaria fumed. My magic still functions in some form, but in a way that is so haphazard that I cannot rely upon it. Why would the Traveller place such a curse upon me? What value does he see in these mortals, that exist and expire in the fastest blink of our eyes?

A quiet snap of a branch in the forest around her brought the alicorn on guard, and a quick scan revealed two unicorns warily approaching her position, though they were still some distance away. Solaria’s first thought was to announce herself and demand their obedience and aid, but that unpleasant emotion she had first experienced back in her throne room gripped her. Without my full powers, what have I to support my demands? They would seek to disobey me at every juncture without the threat of force. I need… a different approach. If I approach them as I am now, I cannot command their obedience. The commoners have always been more accepting of members of their own tribes. If these unicorns can lead me to an enclave that can undo the Traveller’s curse, I may yet again be able to salvage this situation.

After checking briefly to confirm the approaching pair’s location, Solaria began to alter her physical form. Her wings vanished and her stature began to diminish into a more common size. Her mane and coat also adjusted their hue, the former a shade of pink while the latter faded to pure white. As an added touch, her unadorned flanks were graced with marks representing the sun to complete the illusion. Once Solaria was satisfied with her disguise, she began her trot towards the two unicorns.

“Halt, and declare yourself!” shouted a voice from the depths of the forest, and a bright light temporarily blinded the faux unicorn. While her eyes adjusted to the light level, her other senses clearly identified one of the approaching ponies lurking in the darkness nearby while the other waited further away.

Solaria stood tall and drew a breath to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. How do I introduce myself? The simplicity of the question made a mockery of her as she began to flounder for a response. I have heralds to introduce me! And I can’t name myself as Solaria, since that would defeat the purpose of this disguise! An increasingly uncomfortable feeling began to take hold as she struggled to recall any point of reference on just how the commoners proceeded with this type of interaction.

The light in front of her winked out, but one remained near the unicorn stallion that stepped out from behind the trees. He was mostly hidden beneath a ragged cloak that dragged against the snow, and a wide-brimmed hat hid most of his features save for his snout and the modest beard that hung from it. “I apologize, child, I did not mean to startle you,” he said as he surveyed the area around them. “How did you get here? You don’t have a stitch of clothing to protect you from the cold, nor any provisions to survive in the wilderness.”

“I--” Solaria started before floundering again. Cease your questions until I can fabricate a name! she wanted to command. And who are you calling ‘child’? I was ancient before your species existed!

The hat tilted sideways and she finally caught sight of the unicorn’s wary gaze. “You must have just escaped the capital. I had heard rumors that the city had been taken by the rebels, but I thought the Magister’s Terrace still stood. I imagine it was just a matter of time before it fell as well. Are you alone?”

“Yes, I am alone,” Solaria finally answered, but her mind was abuzz with what the stallion had said. Rebels have captured the capital? How long have I been away?

The stallion surveyed his surroundings one last time before nodding. “My companion and I were returning to a safe haven. If you would like to join us, I will speak on your behalf.” When Solaria nodded, he turned back the way he had come and raised one hoof from within his cloak. Wrapped around it was a strap lined with bells, which jingled merrily as he shook his hoof twice in the air.

Almost immediately a foal-sized figure wrapped in a cloak bolted out of its hiding place and sprinted through the snow towards them… only to trip and faceplant into the snow spectacularly.

The stallion chuckled before he spoke. “Lulu, did you cast the detection spell we have been practicing?”

“I forgot!” the foal answered immediately as she rose just as quickly to resume her sprint. She skidded to a halt before the pair, and her hooded head alternated between the two of them. “Oh, who’s this, a new friend? Oh, it’s a unicorn! And it’s a mare! This is going to be great! I hope we can be friends, and you can teach me magic! Clover is too grouchy and Swirly is too boring--”

“I’m standing right here…” the stallion said with a tired smile, but he didn’t interrupt any further.

“--so it would be really awesome to learn magic from you! Would you teach me all sorts of magic pleeeeeeaaaaaaaassssse?”

An increasing amount of frustration was beginning to build in Solaria as she was given yet another social situation to deal with. The elder seems tolerant of the child, I may be able to curry favor by agreeing… “I’m sure something can be arranged…” Solaria answered, and the foal’s response was not what she expected.

“You will? Yes! Yesyesyesyesyesyes--” the foal leapt up into the air and screamed with what Solaria assumed was joy. The foal began to circle Solaria while jumping, only to trip and fall onto her face again. “Ouch, that one really hurt.” She sat down and her hooded head turned towards the stallion, who obligingly sat down beside her.

“My name is Starswirl, and this is my granddaughter, Lunar Lullaby. She prefers to be called Lulu though,” the stallion introduced himself and the child as he retrieved a finely woven washcloth from his bags. He slowly pulled back Lulu’s hood before asking, “I don’t believe I have gotten your name yet, Miss…?”

Solaria barely heard the question as Lulu’s face was revealed. Most of the coat on her face had been burned away, and the flesh that remained was puckered and wrinkled. Unblinking, milky-white eyes stared blankly at Starswirl as the washcloth began to wipe away the snow and dirt from her face.

“Sunny Sky,” Solaria was finally able to say, the alliteration finally coming to her after she heard the introductions of the other two ponies. “My name is Sunny Sky.”

“Is that so?” the stallion asked, and Solaria once again got the smallest glimpse of Starswirl’s eyes from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. She did not know facial expressions enough to classify what that look meant, but it seemed akin to suspicion and that made the matriarch-in-hiding more than a little tense. The moment came and went, and the stallion replaced the washcloth before giving the foal a pat on the head. “We should return to our camp soon. The cold is dangerous in this forest at night, but it’s not the only thing that can kill here.”

“Indeed. Let us proceed to your camp. I suspect we have much to discuss,” Solaria said as her gaze moved away from the now hidden features of the foal to the stallion’s. “Why do we delay?”

Again, Solaria found herself under the watchful eye of Starswirl, and the silence began to stretch uncomfortably before he spoke. “Aren’t you cold? I’ve seen stallions and mares come down with frostbite from just a few hours exposure in these elements. Here, child. This will suffice until we can make it to the camp.” A simple heavy cloak appeared in a flash of the unicorn’s magic and draped itself over her back, and after a few brief moments Starswirl asked incredulously, “Do you need me to tie that for you?”

“No, you do not,” Solaria replied stiffly, the drawstrings already moving with her magic to secure it around her neck. You should not offer such things without me demanding it, she thought, and her annoyance at the unicorn’s tone was tempered by an emotion that Solaria rarely felt: confusion. Why would any of these mortals waste their efforts on another who does not demand it? It makes no sense to squander what little time and energy they have before they expire. Any further contemplation of Starswirl’s motives were lost as she saw the two unicorns moving deeper into the forest. A quick trot was all that she needed to catch up.

------

Darkness was rapidly approaching as Starswirl brought the trio to a halt. He let out a small sigh before turning back to Solaria. “We are almost to our destination, my dear, and there are a few things that I must share with you. Calling our destination a ‘camp’ may have been a small understatement, as there are entire families that live there and they are simply trying to stay safe and warm. You are welcome to stay as long as you contribute to the community, but I would understand if you feel the need to leave. If you grew up in the capital then there are things in this village that might not make sense, but--”

Any further explanation was interrupted by a brilliant flash of light and a tremendous shout from all around the little group. Neither distraction was enough to do more than inconvenience Solaria, and she doubted anything in this forest might prove to be a threat to her. Still…

“Clover! Cease this nonsense at once!” Starswirl snapped, and the distractions abruptly stopped. A quick glance to the older unicorn showed no small amount of annoyance even as he glared out into the surrounding forest. A unicorn stallion in robes that Solaria vaguely placed with the Magister Guard stepped out from behind one of the larger trees and levelled an equal glare at Starswirl.

“We cannot be lax in our security, sir. Your optimism will not defend us against raiders. Plus, you’re returning past your appointed hour and I could not leave the wards down at night,” the newcomer explained. “We were also expecting only two, but I see you have a third with you. Are you certain that you were not followed?”

The annoyance on Starswirl’s face melted into an expression that Solaria had never seen before as the elder unicorn glanced her way. “I found this young one wandering in the forest without so much as a cloak on her back, Clover. If she were bait for some nefarious plot or an infiltrator seeking to compromise our refuge, then I’m afraid she’s somewhat lacking when it comes to planning her scheme.”

Discomfort at Starswirl’s too-close guess at her duplicity immediately crashed into the annoyance she felt at the implication that she was incompetent at anything. Before she could voice her objection at the characterization, the other stallion spoke up again.

“Ignorance and ineptitude can be just as destructive as nefarious intent, Starswirl. This powderpuff…” Clover said harshly, “...might not be a spy, but she has all the markings of a capital softhoof if I’ve ever seen one. We can’t have deadweight, sir. We’re stretched too thin as it is.”

“I won’t argue that point, Clover, but I would argue that your wife would turn nopony away. If she had, we would both be dead right now,” Starswirl said with a simple smile, and the glare that Clover shot the elder unicorn seemed to indicate that this was a conversation the pair had explored many times in the past. “Besides, I suspect this young one will have much to offer us. I will explain in greater detail once we are out of this terrible cold.”

Clover snorted with annoyance as he cast a glare at Solaria before turning to lead the trio deeper into the trees. “The place you enter now is a place of equals, princess,” he said, and Solaria felt a spike of annoyance at being addressed so rudely. “Nopony here is your servant, and if you intend to stay here then you will work alongside the ponies that you no doubt considered beneath you. Or you can leave and freeze. Perhaps if you beg, then Queen Solaria will end your suffering quickly.”

“Don’t let grumpy Clover get to you,” Lulu said cheerfully as she interrupted Clover’s rant. “He acts that way around almost everypony. He never wants to play, or teach me any magic, or laugh at my pranks or anything!” The stallion in question did not rise to the bait, but he did look back to glare at the filly. Lulu’s response was to stick her tongue out at him.

The treeline began to recede and flickering lights from several buildings could be seen. Clover led the group right up to the door of the largest building before he hesitated. One hoof rose to knock but the door flew open with a bang!

It was then that Solaria was convinced that the world no longer made sense.

“Do you know how worried I was? You jump up and teleport away from supper without so much as a word why!” an earth pony mare bellowed from the doorway. “I’ve been worried sick, that’s how much! Don’t think you can just canter back in here without an extremely good explanation, Clover!”

“Someone’s gonna be in the doghouse,” Lulu whispered just loudly enough for everyone to hear, and she feigned innocence as Clover shot a glare at her.

“The outer wards were tripped by the those two,” the stallion explained quickly while indicating towards the elder and younger unicorns before turning his attention to Solaria. “They were delayed by a mare that escaped the capital.”

“Oh, you poor dear. Are you alright? That place simply isn’t safe anymore for an innocent young mare like yourself,” the earth pony said, her tone switching from outraged indignation to gentle concern in a heartbeat. “Come on inside, we’ll get you warmed up and some food to eat, alright?”

Solaria was so stunned by the scene she saw that she offered no resistance as she was herded inside the large building, and she barely noticed when the earth pony kicked the door shut while Clover was still outside. The interior of the building was dominated by what was likely a primitive banquet hall, with large tables and unadorned wooden benches packed onto the crowded floor. Roaring flames filled the fireplaces and filled the room with both light and warmth, and nearly every place a pony could sit was already taken. Earth ponies, pegasi and a few unicorns of nearly every age could be seen eating at the tables or sharing stories around the fireplaces.

The earth pony mare said something, but Solaria didn’t hear the words. It took every ounce of her concentration to try and comprehend the… impossibility of the three tribes socializing before her. It was chaos. It was mayhem. It should not exist.