• Published 13th Feb 2016
  • 1,602 Views, 40 Comments

Through the Snow - Ice Star



Onyx is a young crystal pony with a twisted mind. Starswirl the Bearded whisked him away from his home with promises of being his apprentice. Sombra is a strange creature who never wanted to be remembered. However, we don't always get what we want...

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Part One: Starswirl and the Crystal City

Starswirl had bought a map. Well, he hadn't actually bought it, instead he had purchased a cheap bit of parchment to replace his dwindling supply and then swiped the antique map of a country that may-or-may-not exist that just so happened to catch his eye. Then, he left the store before the merchant could have realized he had cut the parchment price in half as well. After all, he knew the young 'Unicorn' who ran the tome store had a drop of pegasus blood in his family line mixed in from an old war — there were always wars raging in these lands — where a pegasus raider stallion would have had his way with some lower-class Unicorn mare, and she wouldn't be able to get rid of the foal. This tradespony was one such specimen. Therefore that 'Unicorn' wasn't worthy of such a valuable object, especially since Starswirl wanted it.

This was one of the few trips the wizard made into the large river valley that was the entire country — and the whole world to the three tribes of ponies who dwelled within it. They stirred up endless wars since before anypony could remember, everything about them festering in a yawning basin split into three by a river and surrounded by mountains. Other than that, he lived in a small valley somewhere below the mud pony and Unicorn border. It was tucked to the side of all the war and famine of ponykind and was what one thought of when they envisioned the constraints of a conventional valley.

Nopony except those pesky navigators knew the technical names for directions, and few in each tribe measured things in ways that deviated from using the positions of landmarks alone or folk methods passed down by illiterate ancestors among the many serfs. Of course, Starswirl wouldn't tell anypony that, he would not ever would with the uneducated so much as he would exploit them for all his wants and needs. He also wouldn't tell anypony that if they followed the setting sun under the barbaric floating cloud-city of pegasi (and remained unmolested by such a savage race), went over the frigid mountains that most all thought was the world's border, then they would find a boundless body of blue water whose surface was as changeable as the mood of Princess Platinum. Nor would he tell a single pony that if the mud ponies were to ah... 'lend' you one of the large river-boats they used to send the tithes of food to the other races that had them live as hostages to their whim, you could bob along this stormy surface for many a day and night. These numbers would grow greater than the number of hooves of a Unicorn household and a pony's typical lifespan combined until you were swept to a land other than the Known Valley.

This strange new land was also filled with ponies, and those ponies spoke of all things Starswirl knew to be utter nonsense as he shuffled among them: equality among races and sexes, hidden gods, and enlightenment. All of which Starswirl safely knew to be shit. That expression was a good curse of his nation, and the summary of what mud ponies lived in and fashioned their every hut out of in these three nations of squalor. He took time to learn enough of their tongue, which was not unlike the fragments that made it into the speech of the Unicorn Tribe, who passed down what Starswirl knew to be a superior version of the tongue, one that even his ancestors spoke. Their stories were treasures not shared outside of the family, and contained made-up lands with names like the Visgothic League of Survivors, the Burgundian Remenants, the Frisian Clans, Alamaneia, Germaneigh, and the Western Herds. They spoke of strife and disaster no mystical heritage-tongue could capture preceding the formation of these groups, and here was a struggling nation where Unicorns walked among their lesser that called itself Prancia — this could not have been the true origin of his family's gift to him. Starswirl did not think this just because he decided that this wretched land spoke the language wrong compared to his forebearers, but also because of the evident depravity and instabilities he observed. (Yet, it remained the only place where he found leonine-tailed unicorns like himself outside of those who kept a similar heritage tongue in the Unicorn Court.)

No, not a single soul from the Known Valley could ever hope to learn of any of this journey taken before Starswirl ever became 'the Bearded' and came to live in his little wintery valley. When he returned from his journey, he had stronger convictions of the superiority of Unicorns than ever before. Though he saw no evident limit to the land Prancia — and he did not care to look for one — he left that inferior place and returned to his beloved court. There, he told tales of battling sea serpents — which he did, on his journey there — and endless storms across water that went on forever. Anything to reaffirm what the three tribes needed to hear — that theirs was not just the only land in the world, but the one where natural laws had room to play out to their fullest extent. For his lies, young Starswirl was showered with admiration for braving what was being proclaimed as the 'ends of the world' and riches beyond what his clan already carried. All of the fame and glory made forsaking his place as heir to the family house worth it to the then-adolescent.

That journey did not stop the almost worship-like reverence that he held for the Unicorns, whom he declared the race above races. This young stallion was born to one of the noble families, and yet he discarded almost all association of them to travel beyond the Known Valley — a feat believed to take much power indeed, for he was the only one who made a show of doing so and the only one to return alive on the boat he had enchanted and modified according to ideas books in the family library gave him. To survive the Unlivable Nothing was no small feat! To the Unicorn Court Starswirl was clearly a master of magics and the workings of the universe to pull off such a feat! Of course, there were always his mystic powers to assure him recognition as well; how he could have ponies travel to events that occurred within the previous sun's cycle, scramble thoughts like storm-winds, teleport long-distances, levitate living creatures without crushing or suffocating them, conjuration of all kinds, and his unparalleled skill in casting wards. Yet, none of those compared to Starswirl's true talent, and the one his flank marked him for: the ability to swirl the mind of its sense of direction, certainty, and clarity. He could also sway those who disagreed with him, particularly if they were weak-minded in some way. Through this method, he managed to have many a young Unicorn Court mare warm his bed with the glow of his horn, and he received many an item for free by that same light of magic. It was as though Starswirl could command anything with that spiraling touch to his aura, that flicker, and extract the words and actions he wanted from any with nothing but the light of his horn.

Although, what would he have needed this map for? Could it be more than a petty conquest? Was it not he who reinforced the generations-old beliefs that the Known Valley was the Known World? After all, who could travel to a place that most likely doesn't exist? Starswirl was entirely sure he could, after all, since he was the closest thing these ponies had to a god in his mind. Not only would he never let them forget that, but he knew that none could ever unravel all of these numerous small inconsistencies in his life, and were anypony to observe a mere fraction of them, they would not be believed. Even without his magic, he was well-worshipped and in constant favor through both his work, his bribes, and his magical might alike. He wasn't constrained by their laws and limits; already, he had lived way past the age countless had perished at, and he had a beard to prove it! His face was without the scars of any pox, but there was a harshness to his voice that came from his own nature and an old cough alike.

Why if he had faith in any god or unseen force, he would indeed declare himself one — if of course, he didn't already subconsciously believe he was above that nonsense. In that way, he was like everypony else around him.

It was pretty safe to say that Starswirl the Bearded did not think he was able to die. After all, dying was for peasants.

...

Once he returned to his personal valley, Starswirl pored over the map he had swiped and tried to figure out how the location depicted would fit into the mostly unknown world by drawing countless maps on that newly bought parchment that he had actually paid for. These roughly drafted maps to connect the Known Lands and this strange country he now saw were quite terrible considering how Starswirl not only had no navigation skills, but that a pony who thought the world was flat would have produced results that were a bit more... readable. That wasn't to say that Starswirl wasn't educated at a young age as any noble youth would have been — all the finest tutors that money could buy taught a young Starswirl that the world — the Known Valley was indeed flat. His trip to Prancia had not changed that. So, it was through the patterns of ice, stone, and other geographical features that Starswirl managed to deduce that he must head across the Known Valley's mountains and travel eastward.

But what was it that the map depicted, and why was it so important?

Its importance was less than a bard's verse to most ponies and was about as easy to come by as cheerful tax collectors. Starswirl heard the first tidbit in a back alley-type tavern outside of the austere and unwelcoming stone capital city of the Unicorns on a bleak winter's day. It was the type of tale that had most sorts crowded into any ale-dispensing location, since nopony had much worth doing if you thought about it hard enough — all daily toils went towards fueling the latest wars. Those who could not shiver in stone buildings built barely any different from tombs naturally sought something to drink and the crowding of company if they lacked the means to heat their dwelling with mud pony peat and Unicorn-mined coal. However, plenty still froze in the streets. It was the pony way.

It was there on one of those rare frequents outside of his home — if memory served, he was probably on crown-sanctioned business, swindling or harassing any poverty-stricken flea-ridden peasant, or offering another round of actively drilling how he believed and how he knew that he was just better than everypony else (Unicorn or not) because he simply was, obviously. That was when Starswirl's creaky recollection sprung. There was also the possibility that he was laughing at grieving Unicorns hunched miserably over a tankard of watered-down mead, for it was never uncommon to see those whose relatives had perished in the raising and lowering of the sun and moon, for the celestial cycles could only happen through deadly ritual if the world was to be held in any balance at all. The Unicorns had the perfect death lottery to keep the world alive — a world that didn't know them, or how grateful and horrified it should be, anymore than those in the Known Valley knew of the world.

None of this mattered to him after he heard those words:

"... ol' story me da used to tell me and my sister... somethin' 'bout a city made 'o crystals? Yeah, that's it, I ain't no bard though so why're ya asking me ta tell it to ya?"

Clearly, the words of a peasant that was likely to be as thick in their skull as he was in his accent.

Immediately, Starswirl found the speaker over all the songs, gusts of cold wind, drunken shouts, and routine sobs of the bar. In fact, Starswirl practically materialized next to him — a thin and rugged-looking Unicorn stallion clad in rusted armor, who had a splinted leg bound in bloody rags. There was a spear propped next to him. The stallion was clearly a border guard who must have been injured in some sort of skirmish and couldn't afford a proper healer, but those were reserved for the rich with how rare they were, and his accent was that of the rural landowners, who were lowly among the nobles. The pony that this stranger was talking to was another Unicorn, a jolly-looking tavern maid levitating a tray holding a hodgepodge assortment of bottles, goblets, and other mugs. Starswirl paused to look her over, letting his eyes roam and rest upon her like an uncomfortable weight until her smile vanished entirely. She tried to mask a nervous swallow, shifting on her hooves, and trying to make how she held a forehoof to cover the drinks look natural.

"A city made of crystals," Starswirl roared, "how absurd!"

Starswirl glared into the stallion's eyes, frowning even more deeply into the wrinkles of his muzzle. He noticed that the stranger's eyes seemed to have a rather unusual shine to them, although Starswirl couldn't understand why such a luster was present, especially on such a sorry figure.

The maid sighed in a manner suggesting annoyance and muttered something along the lines of 'he's always like this, don't take it personally' to the guard before being called away by some bloke demanding more to drink. Starswirl almost found himself surprised, since he knew the mares in this establishment very well. Either this one was new or so awed by his reputation that he wouldn't even need to use his magic to compel her to do anything for him.

The stallion stood up, hobbling a bit on his broken leg; he was pretty tall with an unwashed white coat, green eyes, and a mane and tail the color of hay.

"Am I 'earing this right? You callin' my pa a liar, ya bloke?"

Starswirl waved his hoof in a dismissive gesture at the young stallion. "With that uneducated dialect of yours, it would be easy to say that not only is your father a liar, but that your whole family is nothing but mud pony beggars who fumbled with pottery until they had horns to put on their heads. You're lucky to be a Unicorn at all."

His opponent gritted his teeth. "Oh? Well yer jest a bumblin' sot who pritends to be reading them scrolls an' has pro'lly never done two solar hours worth o' work in yer life. Weakness makes mud ponies more than any amount o' horns does."

Starswirl's nostrils flared and some of the other tavern-goers began to turn over and watch what was likely the seventh outbreak of some sort of violence that day. What else would there be to break up the constant knowledge that they were all freezing to death?

"Ah, but I am better than you, peasant, because I do not even have to look at mud ponies and stab at them with a crude stick such as that for my line of work," he sneered, "You shall find I am far nobler with my actions and my pedigree, and have safely sold out a ward of mine into the war effort, while your own father clearly sells you the way a slave should be handled. Young wards are more fitting in dealing with such ghastly things than adults or Unicorns of respectful lines. Do you know nothing of the dark creature who has become known as Starswirl's Monster that I have lent so graciously to the troops years ago? I also have no need of a healer, as I can heal myself like a proper and true Unicorn. Even my ward is capable of healing herself — and without even tiring, like a pony does!"

"So what if I ain't got much magics? I've heard quite a bit o'bout ya since I've been stayin' in these parts an' it seems you have the power to vanish into the unknown and bend wills like th' smithy bends iron by their magics. Which, I should say, ya should try doin' more often. Not a soul will miss ya, Starswirl of House Glimmer, if it's much of a House at all, with a cripple-filly and a sot like you as their only excuse for heirs! In a thous' years, nopony in the whole Valley will remember your family!"

Starswirl only sniffed. "And where are you from, little hick? I bet one thousand is the biggest number you know"

The glistening-eyed stallion fixed his gaze on Starswirl, though he flinched slightly at the second part — it was clearly a barb that hit at a shameful truth, though not an uncommon one, even among country nobility. "My name is Duke Sigurd Goldenrod an' I'm eleven days away from the Earth pony border and th' mountains ranges where I hear you've been livin'. An' if I was you, I wouldn't be callin' names in a place like this, we tavern-goin' types can be awful rowdy — you're a stranger here."

A mocking laugh escaped Starswirl. "Pish-posh! Now I know for sure that you are no hick — you're lower than that! Even the frost-bitten beggars outside are above border-pony excuses for 'nobility' like you! Those who bear our pure crown only threw your clans there because they could not stand to keep them among the well-bred in the court!"

Goldenrod lunged at Starswirl as best as one could in his state, his emerald eyes afire. Instead, he landed in a heap where Starswirl had stood only a moment before with both sober and not-so-sober occupants casting looks of sympathy in his direction.

That was the first Starswirl the Bearded heard of this unknown land, and that got his brain going in ways that did not line up with his words. From then on he went from tavern to tavern, bard to bard, any out-of-the-way place he could to find out more he could about the city that piqued his interest so much — not that he would say so to those he only repaid with mockery and threats. But his favorite part may have been the insults he gave each 'Goldenrod' he met, each word slung like a stone from a sling, how he would watch many shamed from a place they thought some pathetic illusion of 'acceptance' might be. Sometimes, they even left limping from a magical attack or with new bruises laid out from the hilt of the sword Starswirl the former Glimmer usually kept upon him, not wanting to dirty his hooves with by contact with their flesh.

From all the bits whispered in Unicorn Territory he pieced together quite a tale.

A tale of a city made of crystals, inhabited by ponies with twinkling eyes and coats, whose craftsmanship exceeded anything known to Tribesponies and who curiously enough, knew some sort of magic. And they lived in a land with multiple seasons. Yet, they seemed like something out of another time to Starswirl, although he scoffed at the idea. There was nothing but the Tribes, nothing before the Tribes, and there will never be anything except the Tribes... and maybe, just maybe this shining city that could never be as disappointing as Prancia was.

If all went as he wanted, the Tribes would have to bow to the one thing above all... him. Or so his thoughts went as Starswirl packed the last bit of supplies for his journey.

Nothing could defeat him, he would never die.

And so he left his three apprentices — without any farewells from either side — trapped in the prison that was both apprenticeship, wardship, and then of course actual wards. Clover, Solara, and Selene would fare without him, the spells that swirled the senses and caged them keeping them from the world — and escape.

...

It took one year of journeying across an endless wasteland of nothing but snow and ice dragging at least three years worth of provisions with him via the largest travois that he could fashion. Starswirl may have lived in snow, but he hated it. In the land of the Tribes, there were two months of a sort of summer that the harvest season had to be wrangled into, one month of some sort of fragile excuse for spring, and six months what was without a doubt winter — autumn was no more than summer's abrupt end. Starswirl hated winter and summer, and the brief interlude that was spring. If he knew what autumn was, he'd hate that too.

Nevertheless, he made it. Or at least he thought so. After a year of that stupid snow he finally came to some mountains against the white of the world. He found them to be very strange mountains that glistened faintly and were almost purple in coloration in the sunlight, as opposed to being nothing but jagged gray snow-colored masses that could just be viewed as nothing but big roadblocks if you wanted to think like Starswirl did. The mountains around the Known Valley were foreboding, and that kept out the worst of the cold so that the ponies who settled there could eke out a living.

When he looked up at the sky he noticed that while indistinct silver-white snow-laden clouds drifted on this side — you almost couldn't tell the ground from the sky — just over the mountains. The sky was bright, clear blue with swirling vibrant clouds floating lazily and there was not a speck of snow he could see.

Starswirl went to find a pass of some sort as quickly as he could.

...

It took a little while but Starswirl was eventually able to locate such a pass before the sun began to set. The camp was really just an old wood cabin that could only be lit by a bit of torch-light. The sparse and impersonal interior suggested that the inhabitant would only reside here seasonally, as the furniture was no more than a single-size bed with red sheets, a double chest, and a rather nondescript craftspony's work table. Scattered on the floor were bits of rough gem and crystal leftover from some sort of work. One modestly sized fireplace was unlit and evidently had not been used in some time.

Starswirl lugged all his supplies into the humble abode, mumbling how much he loathed the wooden plank cabin. There was only a tiny window on its flimsy wooden door to hear him. His cobblestone tower was so much better, he thought. Besides, who slept in the same room where their door was? It was a perfect way to get killed if some madpony or monster were to rush in with a sword and stab you. Oh, and steal all your things. Even as Starswirl sorted through his supplies he just knew his tower-home was better. That he was better than anything in this supposed utopia.

Utopia...

The word hung in the air for a moment like undesirable food lingering on a table. This word had no meaning to Starswirl or any other pony born of the three Tribes. Despite its existence in his language, the meaning of such a concept could not be more useless.

By magical means, he lit the torches and fell asleep in a house that was not his own, in a land far from his home. Despite this, he didn't miss anything except the reverence given to him by many. A year alone had given him no supply to feast on such intangible luxuries. Starswirl didn't even think the Unicorn Court would be lost without him because Starswirl never thought about anything outside of his almighty self... and perhaps he never would.

...

A small beam of sunlight shone through the glass-less window forcing in a slight mountain breeze untainted by the smell of pestilence, taverns, and others' things which may be generally be considered impure when in contact with the air. The wizard was not from a city that managed its sewage well — even if his tribe managed it best, neither dropping their waste to the ground below or living in their own filth like a mud pony. Starswirl arose, cursing so hard any drunkard, criminal sort, and other lowlifes would have been like the manifestation of Pure Good and 'What You Should Aspire To Become' in comparison with him.

He continued to make such a ruckus as he moved that down a little lower in the pass, a pony native to the mountain-enclosed land on a morning walk thought that a whole group of gem-miners had encountered some working hazard over in one of the quarries close by an old cabin.

Starswirl did not entirely know what to expect from the ponies who lived here as he was too busy with already knowing what he wanted to find. He was somewhat collected now, and was busy staring at the 'visitor' in the doorway, a shiny stallion with a glistening mane and tail of amber and shimmering coat of amethyst. Hie ears were pricked forward with cautious curiosity — he was the stallion who had heard the commotion — and his eyes were wide with a tinge of anxiety at the presence of a stranger. Just like the peasant-duke who had mocked him in the tavern, there was something curious about his eyes: they were as radiant as gems and shone like big blue sapphires no matter what emotion flickered in them. On his flank was the mark of two scales of clear crystal.

But all Starswirl saw was the lack of a horn or any wings. The first marked him as inferior to the old wizard, and the second marked this stranger as perplexing. Yet, this clearly wasn't a mud pony... so what was he?

The strange stallion looked Starswirl over warily.

"Let's begin with the simple stuff: My name is Tanzanite—" he pointed to his chest as he said this, and Starswirl came to the conclusion that this feeble, and inferior... rock pony... was insulting him by suggesting the Superior and Educated Starswirl the Bearded, God-being Conjurer of the Unicorn Tribe was unable to hear anything past his accent.

"—now who are you, eh?" the rock pony concluded gesturing his hoof right at the esteemed Starswirl. What nerve!

Starswirl adjusted his hat and flared his star-patterned cloak as if he had prepared for something important, when he really appeared to present himself somewhere between flamboyant and foolish to any actual onlookers. His belled garments jangled noisily with the gesture.

"I AM STARSWIRL THE BEARDED, YOU INSIGNIFICANT PEASANT! I STRIKE FEAR IN THE UNWORTHY! TAKE ME TO YOUR LEADER!"

Tanzanite stared blankly at him. Sure this stranger was a bit funny looking for a sight as rare as a unicorn, and he clearly wasn't Crystalline. Instead, he bore some resemblance to ponies that were said to have passed through the area many centuries ago. Those were the ones that added wings and horns — which were traits unheard of except on the reigning Alicorns that preceded the current Queen and the small population of cross-breeds — to the gene pool. When some of those strangers had stayed and assimilated into the population, they lent those permanent signs of their presence to a fraction of the population. He presumed that this bearded stallion must have gotten some sort of madness from the snow, or quite possibly was a drunkard who just so happened to be very, very, lost.

Very.

Thankfully, he didn't seem to be much of a threat. Tanzanite asked the foreign-accented stallion if he would care to leave this mountain and what his name was.

This pony — Starswirl — nodded. Tanzanite was relieved, this way he might be able to observe if this stallion was sick, or perhaps a bit mad by how he behaved in larger crowds of ponies. His new company didn't seem like a loner either, not with how he introduced himself or with how he was lugging all those supplies around and being so willing to talk. This led Tanzanite to rationalize that he must want something if not from here, from somewhere.

It wouldn't hurt to bring this guy into the city since the Empire was so well-defended, despite all the issues under the new Queen. After all, it wasn't as if he'd do anything important, this Starswirl was just another rare visitor whose actions would fade away to a half-remembered market tale, like the kind shared by Tanzanite's grandparents.

Tanzanite felt himself give a slight nod of reassurance, as if to assure himself even more that his conclusion was sound than the stallion in front of him. Even an unusual-looking fellow like Starswirl the Stranger, Tanzanite thought, couldn't have much impact on others. He was too silly. It would be safe to bring him into the city and surrounding area, even if they were spots that lacked the immediate presence of the nation's Heart. If he were to leave the stranger here he would've found his way into the city eventually but at least Tanzanite could keep an eye on him this way.

There was a slight chuckle as Tanzanite led Starswirl the Stranger outside, ignoring the constant cursing remarks of how he had to levitate so much and how why couldn't somepony else take care of it, along with some rambling about 'mud ponies' that Tanzanite couldn't understand.

Still, it was not this annoying behavior that was the cause of the chuckle.

The Empire without the Crystal Heart, Tanzanite thought again, almost laughing at the idea on the inside. How could that truly be possible? It would be like having a sky without stars at night — and it was thanks to both the natural geography of the land and the powers of the Crystal Heart that there were more nights that the crystal ponies could see the stars at all.

The Crystal ponies 'thought' more with their hearts than their heads in many areas.

...

Starswirl hated this place. He hated the ponies in this place - excluding himself. He hated the way they did things.

It was all wrong.

This place — 'The Crystal Empire' — was even more backward then mud ponies or Prancia! Their buildings were made of shining crystal with a raw and unsculpted look instead of stone bricks, some wood, and thatch. Prancia was a nation built on or away from obvious ruins but at least they knew what ponies were supposed to live in. Of course, Starswirl despised them instantly, scoffing at the attempts; how could something less than mud ponies be expected to run a country, after all? Why, even the roads were unlike anything he had ever known — stranger, straighter, and stronger than any stone of the Unicorn cities and mining communities. Even the rural communities of unicorns knew how to fashion stone so that they didn't have the untraversable muck that mud ponies passed off as their best highways.

Starswirl still had some hope there was a decent social order — the stuff of the Unicorn way.

Please let there be a Unicorn to lord over them, he thought as he continued to ignore Tanzanite's babbling. Please let the patriarchs and matriarchs of their clan know their places and order everypony else's with the strictness needed. Let them not have some rock pony nonsense.

Tanzanite stopped and pointed to a building in front of them — a two-story thing made of gleaming purple crystal that almost appeared to be sunning itself. "Like I said, with the recent crop failures there's been a recession, so the food might cost you more than you would like, but plenty of ponies more patient than I come here. They've got the best stuff for your shards in the whole of the Crystal Empire."

The sign swinging next to the door stated that the building was some sort of diner. Starswirl immediately concluded that this country was so backward that they probably didn't even have a decent source of ale. None of the ponies that they passed on the street smelled as strongly of the brews that Starswirl knew too well the way that ponies smelt of alcohol back home. All he heard was talk of strangeness like 'wine' and 'vodka' more than anything else. Horrible. Prancia had wine, and they were horrid — the other drink would be just as vile.

Tanzanite walked away muttering about how much he hoped the next crazy pony he found in the mountains was not an unpleasant xenophobe who mumbled everything under his breath and held his head so high that he slammed into lampposts repeatedly, including the same one twice.

Starswirl headed down a different street; he didn't trust that rock pony. The lampposts were starting to annoy him with their inferiority, even though they didn't even have lampposts back home. There was no need for them — not when enough Unicorns knew some spell that could light their way with their horn. No pegasus had lampposts — and mud ponies certainly didn't either.

...

It was a secret to all but Starswirl that he wanted to be above everything. Especially, death. He was afraid of death like he was afraid of nothing else — well, mainly since he wasn't afraid of anything else. The god complex he had didn't allow it. Starswirl would do anything to cheat death and ironically to do this he needed time. Three apprentices were a pain, but since Clover would be tossed to the Unicorn Court under Platinum's hoof, that would be okay, right?

No, because Clover 'the Clever' — or as he usually called her 'You-with-the-ugly-mane' — did a good deal of the labor. She was more 'servant' and her 'apprenticeship' was just her being taught to read and do a few pages' worth of spells that were generally above average, at their best. With her gone, that work would fall on him, which was utterly unacceptable. This would distract him from not dying, of course, and his brief time travel spell just wasn't adequate.

Ergo, the work would get done. Just not by him.

...

It was no secret, at least to Onyx, why his parents got rid of him. Or why everypony stared at him, why none of them wanted him. It was especially obvious why nopony really bothered to talk to him. Even if he wasn't that clever, or even remotely intelligent, it was hard to ignore the absence of crystallokinesis followed by an utter lack of a few other things. Oh, but they were just itty-bitty little things really, not things you needed. Just empathy, regret, mercy, and remorse. Or so it seemed.

Anypony who knew Onyx well enough knew that he also didn't have much of any foresight either. He barely planned anything out, and if he did bother to formulate any kind of plan at all it had as many holes as an amnesiac's memory. He rarely could remember when he ate a meal — and he liked to eat more than his fair share of rations out of spite. His impulse held control of much of him. He was incorrigible to the utmost degree and loved others’ suffering more than anything else, even more so if he was the cause of it. To him, that was the closest thing to joy.

But nopony knew Onyx well enough. He never really hid much from anypony — and not necessarily because he thought to conceal anything — but it was hard to piece him together, even for a foal his age. Despite his extroversion, he normally placed himself near the sidelines or was alone, and sometimes gone entirely. He had to be so in order to do what he wished, to avoid scolding, and because none of the other fillies and colts liked him. The years had taught them that to be normal and to try and bring them along or join in was to be rejected for all the parts of him that he liked best — and for what he did to the other children (which was fueled by those parts).

You would only see him in fragments: unrestrained laughter in another room when somepony got hurt, a bratty nature, or tantrums and similar outbursts thrown past the age when other foals outgrew them. He had numerous absurd amounts of attempted — and always failed — manipulation and swindling towards the other foals that never succeeded. It was not just because they learned why he was to be avoided, but some part of him almost always underestimated the naivete and mere presence of others.

Of course, things also got worse: a missing knife from the kitchens one day, and bloodstains around the bird feeder or animal bones found in the bushes. All these were fragments of the seemingly nonsensical puzzle that was Onyx, the more you tried to piece it together the less sense it made: Where did the abnormalities start? When did it start? What was the trigger? How could somepony who enjoyed mutilating other creatures possibly turn out as an adult? A pony who ate meat, had feathers clinging between the teeth of his wide grin, and a fondness for others' tears and breaking things was sick, sadistic, and warped. A truly bad seed.

He also never told anypony about his anger, even though everypony saw it burst in sparks like the sparky bite of an out-of-control fire. Nopony would usually ever see him angry except in flashes — you might see him irritated, seething, and oddly helpless. The last one obviously was a bruising realization to the child that he did try to hide — but was apparent to anypony who looked at him in those moments. Frustration was as plentiful as boredom. Perhaps there were times were a pony would see him look a bit glum, since that usually followed his boredom, but never would they see prolonged anger. Mostly he smiled, leering at all unaware of his own misfit creepiness, and even though genuine anger his smiles would persist. Vile thoughts were nurtured properly behind it as those temper tantrums faded — but even the bones and blood preceded those.

He did not get what he wanted — the other colts wouldn't let him play with them even if he clearly sought to ruin their game... and cried anyway at their rejection, even on the days when he knew it was coming. All sympathies for him faded when his disturbances were made known, or his deliberate antagonism came out — hitting, hair-pulling, shoving, and the like, for no reason other than that he could — and the pain brought him delight. The fillies knew that he would tug at their braids and could not be given sweet candies, small creatures, or stolen kisses. He complained that his lessons were too hard. He didn't see why he needed to read, and only begrudgingly kept up. Baking pies for the Crystal Faire wasn't fun, nor did he understand the purpose of similar charity work done by his orphanage. Storytime was boring and he couldn't sit still through it. His new toy could only be broken once — and that bothered him, so he turned to breaking other foals' toys when he could. Nopony talked to him enough. His new manecut wasn't to his liking, even though others tried to give him exactly what he asked for. He wanted to go outside and play, until the idea left his head the moment he stepped out or couldn't spot a suitable, instantaneous distraction. He wanted to talk to strangers who were put off by something that came out in his grin the way a grandmother is put off by broken flowers. He had no friends, despite only attempting to make them because he wanted to hurt them. He was in desperate want to hurt others, it pumped like blood under his skin. He wanted somepony to pay attention to him on every event where another needed the affection of the caretakers... or stern correction — both which were reluctantly offered to him with muttered prayers to the gods in hopes of improvement... before steadily being given less and less over the years.

He knew that nopony liked him. He knew his parents abandoned him due to the unexplainable lack of magical ability because that is what he concluded, and he just knew it was true because one day the feeling washed over him and wouldn't let go. From that day forward, he voiced his new 'realization' of deliberate abandonment to anypony who would listen and rebuked every correction with the insistence of his emotional truth. It gripped him like a strangling fixation — one he welcomed and fed with all the care and eagerness he'd never shown any creature before.

Sometimes Onyx's most subtle trait would emerge despite the utter lack thereof surrounding the rest of his nature: a hatred for authority that was as confusing as the rest of him. Nopony ever gave him anything but the most basic of orders, even when he was held as an unspoken outcast.

You would think somepony would take a closer look and properly analyze him — as if there was anypony with the specialty in the whole Crystal Empire, or anypony who knew just how bad things really were.

Nopony ever did. If life was a painting, Onyx was less visible than a muted background color that nopony ever thought was capable of too much trouble.

Why?

Because on the day Starswirl entered the Crystal Empire, Onyx was no more than a vaguely disturbing — for he really was just a child — an eight-year-old who never knew the world was bigger than the city in which he was born, even if it was all he knew. He would get his wish however gruesome and obsessive it was.

He could do magic somehow, there would have to be a power waiting for him — he was as obsessed with that as he was with his fantasies and obsessions of the circumstances that landed him in the orphanage. There had to be more than crystallokinesis out there.

Onyx actively lived for the day when he could make everypony in his small, minuscule, world suffer — where nopony would have the power to stop him and he would never kill another bird again.

...

The thing about wandering about in a city you know nothing about and in a place you know nothing about is that it's confusing. The smart thing to do is generally to stand still somewhere quiet and create a logical street layout in your head by calculating things based on the probability of the logical layout in general, then consider how terrain affects possible architectural variations of that layout, what could appear next, and all the data you should have been collecting to create a pattern of this unique location to increase the success of not wandering in circles. Starswirl did none of these things, and instead, he preferred to run through the streets still carrying his luggage on some sort of mental breakdown shouting half-garbled slurs. All the while, he was occasionally slipping into the language of arcane magic, which in turn was the active language of the Unicorn Court, having been carried with them from the time of the first settlers.

As expected, his head hit another lamppost.

Furious, Starswirl stared at the lamppost up and down yelling that it should remember to move aside for a noble, who was also a wizard, who was also superior in species. He continued to lecture this lamppost for a few minutes until he noticed that part of the crystals were wrapped around the edges of a parchment flyer of some sort, holding it open for all to see.

Clarity & Light's Orphanage is looking for donations!

Even in these tough times, the Crystal Faire still goes on.

As many of you know, we want the foals in our care to be able to open a pie stand like in years past.
Unfortunately, we barely have enough funds for this extra treat. All our other fundraisers to support the happiness and wholesome lifestyle of our wards had to be canceled due to the recent financial trouble we have been experiencing.
We do not ask for the funds themselves, we ask only for the supplies listed below. Please consider donating and remember the charity, love, and kindness our empire values.
Sincerely,
Clarity Alms & Light Seeker

He continued to stare at the paper, skipping over the list written, and instead peering at the bottom third of the paper: it had an address.

A land experiencing some economic woes.

A land filled with inferior ponies who cannot perform magic like Unicorns, being less than mud ponies.

An orphanage looking for supplies or financial aid.

An orphanage filled with inferior orphans who cannot use magic run by two desperate ponies who live in a...

Starswirl scowled even harder than normal — he never smiled, he only scowled unpleasantly — and all the pieces began to fit together in his head.

All he had to do was lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate those who were suffering.

He re-read the address and peered at the street signs.

All he had to tell them was that he wanted an apprentice, to do just enough to get him a new slave, and to give them whatever they could possibly want to take an extra mouth to feed off their hooves. He had at least a year's worth of provisions to spare — and only needed to convince them it was in the foal's best interest.

The madness had only just begun, machinations resembling a twisted game of cards.

A wizard, a killer, a leader, and a dreamer.

The secret card in this game, however, was a wild card. An illegal fifth ace.

A demon.

Author's Note:

[Revised for print on 8/31/2023]