• Published 24th Feb 2016
  • 3,524 Views, 273 Comments

Phantasmare - Emperor

The Alicorn Amulet tainted Trixie. Over time, she recovered, yet it haunts her still. Exploring Equestria, Trixie is determined to finally achieve Greatness and true power, no matter what. In Phantasia, a mare shall defy destiny.

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Stasis: The North

Trixie, in her life, had been a rather egotistical mare. She had been brought low twice, fighting back and pulling herself up the cliff she had fallen off one hoofgrip at a time to recover, before her path had been interrupted for two years and change.

In both those cases, she had been humiliated by another mare. This time, however, Trixie felt humbled by a single magical dome. The sheer scale of the dome that engulfed the Crystal Empire was beyond Trixie’s belief. She had heard that a lone pony had created a barrier over Canterlot a few years ago, but that had apparently been a non-discriminatory shield that kept out anypony who wasn’t keyed in to the barrier or allowed in by guardsponies.

The dome over the Crystal Empire was apparently warded merely to stop out entities with questionable motives, and was singularly responsible for climate control within the vast area underneath the dome. The tracks leading into the Crystal Empire had taken a curious zig-zag when it could have gone straight north into the city proper, leaving it driving at a parallel to the dome. Trixie suspected it was to give ponies in the cabins a chance to look out the windows.

It was a design decision Trixie mentally praised. Right in front of the train, she could still see the falling snow and the frozen river, but if she looked up and ahead just a little bit, she could see the slight tint where the dome began, and beyond that, greens and blues of such a bright shade that it almost hurt to see after hours of white, and finally the grand architecture of a majestic city lost to time itself.

Then the train passed through to the inside of the dome.

The temperature immediately went up, but more than that, Trixie felt warm. There was a tiny sensation of constant euphoria, niggling at her background senses. She tried to grasp it, only for it always slip out of her mental hooves.

“You feel it as well,” Noire said, having looked over at Trixie’s face only to see her blanked out, lost in thought.

“Yes. I wonder if the Crystal Ponies feel this all the time. If so, does anypony here ever even suffer from depression?”

“Given they’re a thousand years behind the rest of us and suffered under a witch king, I should expect so,” Noire said. “Sorry. Sarcasm aside, I do know the castle signed off to pay for mental therapists to relocate to the Crystal Empire, so I expect they do. Maybe not as at high rates in normal times, but they’re still ponies, just like you and I.”

The train began to slow down as it approached its final destination, the great train station that the travel brochure stated had been constructed over the last few years to receive tourists and businessponies alike from all across Equestria. Already, Trixie and Noire could see ponies scattered about on the station dock, many of them no doubt there to catch the train going back the other way. “Ponies who also get a crystalline sheen to their coats,” Trixie remarked. She had seen a few Crystallised ponies getting onto the train in Fillydelphia and then Vanhoofer, no doubt returning home, but seeing the many Crystal ponies out on the station was enough to leave her breathless.

“They lose them if they’re away from home for some time,” Noire said. “For the long-time residents it’s a few months. Though, there are a lot of regular ponies who will come here several times a year to get a crystal coat which takes a couple of weeks to completely fade away after going back south.”

“Vanity,” Trixie said, snorting.

“Yes, that’s usually the general consensus,” Noire said. By this time, the train had come to a complete stop, but it would be several minutes before the passengers would be let out. Noire stepped out from her seat in the meantime, spreading out her wings and stretching her limbs. The batpony let out a cross between a yawn and a content moan, flexing muscles that had seen little use since their stopover in Vanhoofer.

As Noire returned to the chair, Trixie said, “Celestia hasn’t quite lowered the sun yet. I don’t quite know where the library is, but in all honesty I’m exhausted.”

“Find a hotel, tour tomorrow?” Noire asked, eyebrows raised.

The train’s intercom system turned on, announcing that the train was fully docked and unloaded, and all passengers were allowed to leave. Fortunately, their car wasn’t too packed, so ponies standing up were quickly able to clear out.

“Yes,” Trixie said, “I think that. It is rather fortunate we only had our carry-ons, I shudder to think of how long the line-up to get full luggage would have been.”

“It took five minutes to put the luggage on at Fillydelphia,” Noire deadpanned.

Trixie chuckled, and said, “Yes, well, a fair mare needs to find time for her beauty sleep and grooming from elsewhere, and those are five minutes not wasted elsewhere.”

Noire rolled her eyes, and gently punched Trixie in the shoulder, “You’re incorrigible.” Traffic in the aisles was thinning out. “C’mon, let’s go.”

It didn’t take the two mares long to find a place to stay. The Empire had returned just a little over three years ago, but more industrial ponies had already put up new hotels on the southern end nearest the train station, with room capacity to spare.

Noire opened up the blinds, exposing light into their third-story unit. “Oh, wow,” she said, provoking Trixie into looking over and out the window. The unicorn had to admit she was impressed. The hotel towered over most of the single-story flats sprinkled throughout the city, giving the two a direct line-of-sight to the Crystal Palace at the centre of the city.

“It’s pretty,” Trixie said to Noire, more sophisticated language failing her at the moment.

Noire brought a hoof up to her forehead, shielding her eyes from the bright rays of the sun on the western horizon only just beginning to dip out of sight. With her view, Noire surveyed the city below further. The Crystal Palace at the city’s heart had multiple roads branching out that all extended to the city’s outskirts, rather like the spokes of a wheel. The community’s many buildings were bunched in between each of these roads, the effect making it so that if Noire wished, she could walk downstairs and head straight north to the Palace, with no detours or winding roads in between.

“Trixie, why don’t we go and check out the Crystal Heart tonight?” Noire suggested, pointing her other front hoof at the Crystal Palace. “I can’t see from this far, especially not with the sun in my face, but the brochure did say the Crystal Heart is usually on display in the plaza under the palace.”

Trixie looked at the clock on the wall, then out the window, before she said, “Sure.” That was one of two items on their bucket list, and the easier one to knock off.

The two trotted down the stairs, the modern hotel beginning to feel out of place compared to the crystalline architecture they had just witnessed, before leaving their place of stay and onto the long road to the city centre.

“So, the Crystal Empire,” Noire said, making conversation. “We’re finally here. I’ve been wanting to come north for a while. I just never imagined it would be under these circumstances.”

“I wonder what the effect would be to be on one of the eastern roads right now, with the sun setting behind the palace,” Trixie said.

“I’ve seen the Summer Sun Celebration a few times and even the Winter Solstice once. Maybe something like that, where the sun shines around the crystal and presents a unique light show?” Noire guessed. “That’s actually something I’d like to see, now that you mention it. The brochure doesn’t mention any such thing, but perhaps one of the Crystal Ponies here would know?”

“Yeah, wherever they are,” Trixie said, noting the absence of crystalline coats, though there were a few other obvious tourists on the path to the Palace. She took in a deep breath and exhaled in a soft sigh. She had charted an unknown number of leagues on her travels across Equestria in the past, and had even just walked from Whinnychester to Fillydelphia in under a day, but seeing the long walk still ahead of her, Trixie was finally sick of it. What she would give for wings at this moment. Heck, even self-levitation sounded good, and that was more reasonably within her grasp. If only teleportation didn’t consume so much energy.

Noire correctly picked up on the source of her sigh. “Hey, cheer up!,” the batpony said with gusto, her good mood ever since her transformation seemingly irrevocable. “I have wings and I could fly, but I’m walking and keeping you company!”

It was an infectious sort of good cheer, which Trixie couldn’t help but smile at. “And for that, I thank you,” she said. With the slip in Trixie’s dismal mood, her mental barriers were down, and the tiny constant euphoria radiating from the Crystal Heart gave her a boost and a spring to her trot. The distant span of the tall palace was coming in closer with every hoofstep.

They continued walking for a few more minutes, only the clopping of their hooves against the tiles overcoming the light, white noise that permeated the city reborn, until Trixie got fed up with the silence. Searching for a topic to talk about, the unicorn seized upon an oddity that Noire might be able to explain away. “Say, Noire. Wasn’t this city originally independent from Equestria before it disappeared?”

Noire perked up, and she answered, “It was, ruled by a Princess Amore before the tyrant Sombra took over. I’m obviously not privy to the behind-the-scene details, but supposedly Princess Mi Amore Cadenza, y’know, Princess Cadence, is a descendent of the old royal family, sharing the Amore name.” The batpony shrugged helplessly. “Rumour says Princess Cadence was an orphan raised by two Earth ponies which I find suspicious, but what do I know? When the Empire returned, she was instrumental in defeating Sombra, so I guess the Crystal Ponies acquiesced to her becoming their ruler and being absorbed into Equestria.”

Trixie wrinkled her snout at that. “Still seems a little odd.”

“Well, Sombra did kill off their entire royal family, aside from one who supposedly fled and managed to have a descendant a thousand years later, and from the sounds of it he disbanded their civil service and enslaved everypony,” Noire said, trying to impress the point on her friend before Trixie could say something tactless in front of a crowd.

“Ah. Sorry,” Trixie said, quickly shutting up.

“It’s alright. Just try to, you know, be a bit more understanding of their history. The Crystal Ponies have gone through a tough time.”

As Trixie and Noire began to finally approach the Crystal Palace, the density of ponies on the streets sharply increased, ponies with normal coats and ponies with crystalline coats alike. Many appeared to have a purpose with the Crystal Palace itself, entering and exiting the doors that lead into the great towering structure that served as the city’s command centre.

Still, there were a sizeable number of ponies and even a few other creatures, such as the odd griffon, surrounding the Crystal Heart. The Heart itself sat on a column at a height about the reach of a fully-grown pony standing up and stretching her front limbs. Four Crystal Ponies stood around the Heart spread evenly apart, while four more Crystal Ponies were in the air, constantly searching the crowd. All eight ponies held a spear in a limb and a shield on their back.

The tourists and patrons were barely fazed by the military presence, and through the thick crowd a line had formed. Ponies, one single or couple or family at a time, approached the Heart close up. The occasional unicorn or Earth pony stood up to brush the Crystal Heart, while the Pegasi by advantage of their wings were more consistent in touching a hoof against the Crystal Heart. A few had pictures taken of them standing by the artifact.

Trixie and Noire traded looks.

“What do you think?” Noire asked. “Think it should be safe to give it a try?”

Over the space of a few seconds, Trixie hemmed and hawed. It might give her a significant boost in energy, even beyond the full reserves Trixie was running with. It might not do anything. It might provoke a magical backlash, throwing her back and exposing her as somepony not quite fully a pony. The potential risks scared her more than the possible benefits.

Who dares, wins.

“Let’s do it,” Trixie said. Noire appeared to be in agreement, as she moved to line up at the back of the line.

The two shut up as the line in front of them whittled down slowly. While they had been able to talk in relative private on the train and the walk down to the Palace, there were simply too many ponies to risk somepony else even accidentally overhearing them. A guard might not understand what Noire or Trixie meant when they talked about ‘absorbing energy’, but he would be hard-pressed to let it pass, especially after the centaur who had rampaged through Equestria a few years before.

As Trixie began to get to the front of the line, she could feel the assessing eyes of the guardsponies, just daring her to appear to be a threat. Fortunately, they mostly passed over her form, appearing to reserve their scrutiny for Noire. At a guess, Trixie assumed they could see some of Noire’s military training shine through in her fit form and rigid posture, always only a few seconds away from turning her own body into a weapon.

It felt like no time at all before at last the two got to the front of the line, with a family getting a picture taken in front of them. It was then a thought occurred to Trixie.

Which one of us should go first?

“I’ll go first.”

Trixie blinked, turning to Noire, who had just spoken, seemingly having read Trixie’s mind. “OK,” Trixie said, assenting to the batpony.

The family ahead finally scattered, their vacation scrapbooking done, and Noire stepped forward. Flapping her wings, she hovered above the air, and brushed the Crystal Heart.

Trixie sucked in a deep breath.

Nothing happened.

Noire rubbed the Crystal Heart for a few seconds longer, then turned around, a neutral expression on her face. Noire flew off to the side before landing, waiting for Trixie.

Trixie exhaled, then moved forward. Approaching the stone pillar supporting the Heart, she stood up on her back hooves. Leaning on one of her front limbs as support, she stretched and reached out for the Crystal Heart.

The Heart was cool to the touch on her hoof. As she touched it, Trixie could feel that tiny background euphoria increase, but the result was negligible. Dropping down to the ground, she walked away, letting the next set of ponies in line walk up.

The two mares slowly moved away from the Heart, cantering down the road south back to their hotel. “Well, that was a bust,” Trixie said once the crowd had cleared out and there were no ponies around for several dozen metres.

“It was,” Noire agreed. “At a guess, I think a ‘ling might be able to live here full-time. But actually doing more than surviving on that amount of energy? No, impossible.”

“Well, I guess you were right about the Crystal Heart after all,” Trixie said. She sighed, “Hopefully the libraries around here provide something new. At the least they’ll certainly be a lot larger than the shed in Whinnychester.”

“Trixie, do you think…do you think you could teach me magic?”

Trixie blinked, turning head to look over at Noire. “Magic? You mean like unicorn magic?”

Noire nodded, “Yes.”

“Are you sure? I mean, it’s doable, but you’d have to dig deep into your energy reserves to do any significant spellwork.”

Noire scrunched her nose at that, and said, “That’s true, but I’ve kept a large reserve myself over the years.” As the daughter of a pony and a changeling, Noire had the capacity to use magic from all three tribes. However, each tribe had its own separate pool of magic. As a winged batpony, Noire was competent at flight and weather manipulation. She had helped knock around clouds from time to time in Whinnychester, though the town was too small to justify a full-time position in weather control.

When it came to attempting unicorn or Earth pony powers, Noire would be much more limited, with her access to magical power far lesser. She, along with Trixie, both maintained small pools of reserve magic that was their hereditary gifts from their fathers that could be used in all types of pony magic, but it could deplete surprisingly quick.

“Did your father teach you anything?” Trixie asked.

“Some, but not very much. He was never personally trained himself beyond the basics in the hive, and he never made it a priority to learn from the other aunts and uncles when they occasionally visited. I managed to push a bit beyond him, but it was a lot of trial-and-error since it’s not like a pegasus could ask for help with unicorn magic.”

“Well, I may not be the Princess of Magic,” and here Trixie snorted in disdain, old, unpleasant memories bubbling up to the surface before she relentlessly pushed them back down, and said, “But I know a decent amount of spells. More importantly, I’ve refined my casting over the last few years for efficiency, which will be doubly important for you. Telekinesis?”

“Levitation and light lateral movements. I’ve occasionally used my magic to get bolts on and in place when doing it by hoof becomes a nuisance,” Noire admitted, before she gave her wings a flap. “These wings of mine might be useful at picking up and holding objects, but using them to run a screwdriver or a hammer is not a pleasant thing to do.”

“I can only imagine,” Trixie said, before she sighed. Wings were a pipe dream for her. The unicorn mare opened her mouth to speak, only to inadvertently take a deep breath, tension pressing down on her chest before she let it all back out in a near-roaring yawn. “Oh, excuse me,” Trixie said, before taking a look behind her. Only a tiny sliver of the sun could be seen over the western horizon. Meanwhile, the moon was just beginning to peak above the mountains to the east, seeking to make its big entrance. In a way, Trixie had always felt at one with the moon.

Noire didn’t even attempt to keep the amusement out of her voice. “That’s alright. But beyond basic telekinesis, let’s see, I toyed around a little bit with heating and cooling spells, useful for summer day shifts and winter night shifts. Not too much beyond that, again, there wasn’t really anypony I could’ve learned from. Oh! I did learn one spell to help hide my smell, I used it when fleeing Canterlot. I don’t know if that helped or not, though. I like to think it did at least.”

Trixie whistled in appreciation. “A scent-masking spell? That’s honestly an intermediate level. I’d be impressed if you learned it entirely out of a book with no guidance.” The blue mare frowned, suddenly struck by an epiphany, “Say, when you actively use magic, you, well, you don’t have a horn. Does your body radiate luminescence anywhere like a unicorn’s horn does? I’ve never actually seen you use magic, at least, I don’t think I have.”

“No, I don’t. Though, father warned me though that if I used strong enough magic my entire body might glow.”

“Hmm…” Trixie thought aloud. “Tell you what, let’s use that pool the hotel has, and I’ll see what I can do for you.”

“Oh Princesses, that was the most divine sensation I’ve ever felt!”

“You truly haven’t been to a hot spring or a heated pool in, well, ever, have you?”

“Can you blame Trixie? I mean, she’s been on the roa—“

“You’re doing your third-pony speech again.”

“Oh, sorry. I still slip into it from time to time. Um, can you blame me? I was on the road travelling for several years, staying in my wagon, and then in Whinnychester for another two and a half years. I never had to spring money for a hotel, and what natural hot springs there are in Equestria have almost all been commercialised.”

“You had your giant bathtub at home, though,” Noire pointed out.

“Yeah, but even for its size, it was nowhere near as spacious as that heated pool was,” Trixie said as she approached their hotel room door. She put her horn to the lock, opening it up with her magic. The locks in the new hotels were truly state-of-the-art. “Natural hotsprings are even better since they’re always being being heated geothermally which gives it that authentic vibe.”

“Unless they happen to be releasing a lot of sulfur gases with it,” said Noire as she entered their room.

Trixie scrunched her noise, following Noire inside and closing the door behind her, then laughed aloud, “When did we become so, I guess for lack of a better word, snarky towards one another, Noire?”

“We’ve always been that way, even when we were young. I think you just forgot that when we fell apart for several years,” Noire pointed out. Bat-like wings flapped open, grabbing a hold of a fresh towel to continue drying her fur off.

Trixie thought on that as she cast to grab her own extra towel, making sure to keep her mane and tail from getting too tousled from her drying job. Noire was correct. “Yeah,” Trixie said, before falling silent. Those had been the good days, when both of them were fillies and Trixie had moved to the big city, attending Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns in Canterlot. Trixie studied hard at the school, constantly attempting to improve her talent at magic that she had discovered under a cloudless night sky.

Then the colour of her magical aura had changed, something that was supposed to be impossible, and her life had all gone downhill from there.

“Memories, huh?” Noire asked.

“You’re good at that. At reading minds, that is.”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t realised,” Noire said mischievously, “That’s my new talent. It’s not really a crescent moon, it’s a stylised eye that I can look to peer into your eyes and read your deepest, darkest secrets.”

“OK, now you’re just being creepy,” Trixie deadpanned.

“Hah!” Noire laughed. “But no seriously, I hope mind magic isn’t something you intend for me to learn. I might not be a guardspony, but I still have my morals.”

A shiver passed through Trixie’s spine. No, not mind magic! She screamed at herself. The Alicorn Amulet had been a strong enough lesson that she didn’t think she could even ever turn that kind of magic on somepony else. Even the mere thought of revolted her, chunks of train food threatening to leave the way they had entered her body through. “I—I don’t th-think we’ll be doing that.”

Noire was easily able to read her friend’s expression, “Sorry! Sorry! Trixie, what’s wrong?!”

Trixie waved it off with a hoof, “It’s nothing, nothing really.” She looked up into an iron gaze, and knew she wouldn’t be getting off that easily. “Sorry, it’s just, what you said reminded me of the Alicorn Amulet. I had enough of mind magic with that to last me a lifetime.”

“Oh,” Silence. Then, “Sorry.”

“That’s the third time you’ve apologised,” said Trixie. “Methinks you doth apologiseth too much.”

“For a performer, you sure aren’t good at old Equish,” Noire mused.

“Critics, all of you. But enough of that, tomorrow’s a big day,” Trixie said, peering out the window. The moon was finally out, showing off its splendor to the civilisations below. It had taken the two almost a week to get their affairs settled in Whinnychester following the black moon, and then a few more days to make it here, so the moon was in its waxing gibbous phase. “We’re foreigners here so we won’t exactly be allowed to borrow top-secret spellbooks, or even borrow a book for that matter, but we should be able to look at what’s available in the library itself.”

“Oh, I can’t wait! This is going to be so exciting,” Noire said, wings flapping erratically as she tossed her towel aside, successfully getting it to land on a drying rack.

“Heh,” Trixie chuckled to herself, pulling out a toothbrush and toothpaste. Trixie liked magic as much as the next pony, slowly gaining her joy for it over the last few years after her incidence of abusing her talent with the Amulet, but it had been quite some time since she had actually hopped around out of sheer excitement.

Who knew? She had come here hoping the Crystal Heart could fill that growing hole in her heart, that acute thirst to feel power again, and had flopped. But if there was something half-decent in the libraries lost to history for a thousand years, then maybe this trip would turn out for the better after all.

“I’m actually amazed,” Trixie said as she dropped another book onto the table. She and Noire had awoken as morning broke with the raising of the sun, inquiring at the front desk about libraries, and slowly drifted over to the closest one after a quick breakfast. “Most scholars are barely able to read anything from two thousand years ago, yet there seems to be almost no linguistic drift between us and the Crystal Empire.”

“Uh-huh,” was all that the unicorn got in response, as Noire was busy absorbed in a book that Trixie had pointed out for her. The library was an odd mishmash of thousand year old texts and far more modern works, yet another symptom of being in stasis for a thousand years.

Trixie grinned at her friend’s nonchalance. Noire’s mood had been on-and-off in Whinnychester, feeling confined by the falsehoods she had to spin. Being able to break out and wander with a permanent new identity seemed to have done Noire a world of good. Trixie hoped to keep it that way. Moving back to the shelf, she skimmed through the shelf, hoping to find something good for herself.

Fortunately, the library was sparsely populated, thus why Trixie and Noire had a whole table to themselves. Idle gossip that the two had overheard at the pool the night before led Trixie to believe most Crystal ponies who wanted to acquaint themselves with this brave new world went on trips down south to experience the Equestria of the present first-hoof, rather than read what new volumes their libraries had acquired. Similarly, the initial bout of scholastic tourism had died down, with most intellectuals already having journeyed north two years ago with the Empire’s reappearance. In any case, Trixie was also free to mumble aloud without getting dirty looks as she read the spines of the books one by one.

“Hmm, let’s see…Meadowbrook’s theories on teleportation…nope, disproved several centuries later. Bark Maxwell’s work relating magic and magnetism? Interesting, but not quite what I’m looking for. Oooh, an in-depth study on Clawsius’ treatise on magically-generated thermodynamic cycles? This would’ve been useful years ago. Seriously, what is with the mixing of old and new here, and the organisation, most librarians would’ve had a fit by now—ah!”

Trixie carefully grasped the book with her hoof. Most patrons looked down on a pony using her teeth to pull reading material around, and she just didn’t feel like using her magic right now. Putting it on her back, she trotted back to the table, getting ready to read

Noire looked up, finally having broken off from her engrossing read. “Find something good?” She asked.

Trixie nodded, “Yes! This place has some of the works of the ancient Griffon sorcerer Blackbeak, who was one of the early predecessors of the field of illusion magic. A lot of his essays have vanished into obscurity over time, making it incredibly difficult to read his material.” Laying her book onto the table, she turned it around for Noire to read.

A Treatise on Our Perception v. Reality, by Blackbeak,” Noire read, even going to so far as to pronounce the title with the shortened form of 'v' instead. Using her nose to flip open the book to a random page, she assessed the size of the hand-written notes against the thickness of the book before she whistled, “Looks like that’ll consume most of the day for you.”

“I know!” Trixie was practically gushing, only library etiquette keeping the volume of her voice low. Sitting down on her haunches, she had to keep her back legs from bouncing with excitement. Perhaps she had been too quick to believe last night that she had gotten past irrational bouts of filly-like exuberance.

Turning the book back around, Trixie turned to the front page. Slowly, she began reading, hoping to excavate a treasure trove of new, old knowledge.

A sudden thud sound brought Noire out of her reading reverie, the batpony clearing the floor by several centimeters with her jump. “Hu-wha?” Noire darted her head around, only to turn back and face the mare right in front of her.

“Nothing!” Trixie hissed, “There’s absolutely nothing of use in here!”


“I wasted several hours reading a document that underpinned the works of several of Blackbeak’s successors, and there wasn’t a single useful thing in here. Most if it’s been dissected and done better since, in easier-to-read language as well.”

“Isn’t that sort of the point of research and essays?” Noire asked. “To build off works done by other ponies and advance our understanding of the way things are, usually at an incremental rate?”

“Blackbeak was a griffon,” Trixie said with a snort. “But besides that, usually when building off earlier works, some stuff gets left behind. Either it’s because it’s proven incorrect or it’s less efficient, but I’ve seen everything written here in far more modern texts, those written in the last century.” She pawed at the floor with a hoof, wrinkling her nose, “The only thing new here is Blackbeak going off-topic for several pages in a pseudo-philosophical tract. I suppose that might be why I’ve never seen this book before.”

“Pseudo-philosophic?” Noire raised her eyebrows in amusement. “Like what? The whole ‘I think, therefore I am’ spiel?”

“That was Reneigh Haycartes who said that,” Trixie said, ignoring that the comment had been made in jest. “But no, Blackbeak goes and talks about how reality might not even exist, and that we’re all technically in one grand, shared illusion that each one of us can manipulate from a low-level state. More powerful beings, such as the princesses, have higher-level states, and the deities above even higher-level states.”

“That…I don’t get it,” Noire admitted. “Well actually, I kind of understand it a bit, but I can see what you mean by it being bunk.”

Trixie nodded. “Yes, and what’s more—“

“Hmph, is that bitch still up north?”


“You know, her. The one who the Witch King sent up.”

“Oh, her. Yeah, she’s still up there.”

“Hmmph, and good riddance to her.”

“I wouldn’t say that, dude, definitely not out loud. Who knows what freaky powers she has that he sent her north?”

“Well, there’s not much she can do up at the fort. I hope she never comes back.”

By this time, the conversation had gotten loud enough that what few ponies there were in the library almost simultaneously let out out a giant shush, “Shhhh!”

Noire and Trixie exchanged confused looks, then looked over to where the chatty ponies stood.

They were two crystalline stallions. Going off what their mentions of Sombra, Trixie surmised they had been part of those frozen in stasis, which gave her an ineffable feeling of vertigo at one of them using the rather modern slang of ‘dude’. Despite the sheen of their coats, the two stallions were still able to blush, apparently embarrassed over having raised their voices in a library. Quickly dropping the level of their voices back to normal, the one Crystal pony said, “Well, you’re in luck. From the reports DD writes, she doesn’t plan on coming back. She feels she has an obligation to stay up there.”

The other stallion snorted, and he said, “Obligation? More like she knows she screwed up and doesn’t want to face us. I bet the Prince and Princess never got told about her, I can’t think of any other reason she hasn’t been thrown in a dungeon to rot yet. I wonder if she was one of his concubines or something.”

The first stallion’s face went from red to white in an instant. Trixie marveled at how, where other ponies were said to ‘turn red’ with anger or embarrassment or ‘turn white’ with fear, Crystal ponies could do it literally. She could only wonder if they turned green with envy as well. Said stallion grabbed his friend’s shoulder, and hissed to him, “Dude, public place!” He turned the other pony’s head around, showing him the glares of several reading ponies.

His friend seemed to take the message more keenly this time around.

“Sorry, sorry folks, we’ll leave you be,” the first stallion said, dragging his friend behind him and out the library. The other pony looked reluctant, but another glance at the library patrons convinced him to gallop after his comrade.

“Well, that happened,” Noire commented after the two stallions left.

“It did.”

“I wonder what, or who rather, they were talking about,” Noire said. “They mentioned a mare and a fort up north.”

“It sounded like they were all over a thousand years old. Huh, that’s really weird to say and think, no matter how many times it gets brought up.”

“I can only imagine,” Noire grimaced. “There were a few nobles who made jokes about the Princess’ age along with the Crystal ponies. They made sure neither of the Princesses heard their jokes, and they fizzled out fairly quickly. There was one idiot who made the mistake of comparing Princess Luna’s exile to the Crystal ponies within earshot of Princess Luna, though.” Noire shivered, even in the warm conditions of the library. “You don’t want to know what happened to her.”

“Then I won’t ask,” Trixie said drolly, “But I am rather curious about that fort they mentioned. I wasn’t aware there was even anything further north than the Everhoof Mountain Range.”

“There is the yak nation, but that’s more far to the west and a little bit north rather than straight north,” Noire said, recalling her geography. “Maybe there was something north of the Crystal Empire back before it went into stasis? But I don’t understand, though. Did this fort get caught up in whatever time spell that Sombra used?”

“We could, I guess, ask the librarian? Given the circumstances of the Empire’s disappearance, maybe Crystal ponies are used to having to explain things to outsiders who are unfamiliar with their history? I dunno, it might be worth a try, I hope it doesn’t sound too rude if we did that.”

Noire shrugged. “Never hurts to try. Let’s go ask her, I’m just about done with this book anyways.”

Having come to an agreement, the two rose as one, striding over to the front counter.

“May I help you mares?,” asked the Crystal mare sitting at the desk. She appeared to be a little on the older side, with a light purple coat and a rich, curly purple mane and tail. An odd, crystallised green-and-hat adorned her head. Only her archaic wide-rimmed eyeglasses and her Cutie Mark of a scroll really gave off the impression she was a librarian.

“Yes, but not with books,” Trixie said. “We overheard those two oafs earlier, and were curious about what they were talking about.”

The librarian narrowed her eyes, before she removed her eyeglasses, peering at the unicorn and batpony that stood before her. She sighed, presumably coming to a decision about something, before she said, “When the Witch King cast his spell, it didn’t just ensnare the city proper. The Crystal Empire was more than just this, after all. There were several small villages and forts. When he took over, he pressed most of us into service to work in the mines and on the farms.”

“And the fort, or forts, to the north?” Trixie asked in as delicate a manner as possible. For some reason, this appeared to be a subject the librarian was touchy about, and Trixie didn’t want her to clam up early. “What were they for, a thousand years ago?”

The librarian suddenly shivered, as if a cold had swept through the room. “Windigos.”

Trixie recoiled at that word. She was certain shock was clear on her face.

The purple-coated librarian continued as Noire and Trixie traded looks of disbelief, “When the Empire returned and the Witch King was defeated, it was a confusing time for us all. Our happiest moment, even more than a descendant of Princess Amore returning to us, was finding out that the Windigos had vanished in the last thousand years. He enslaved most of us, but others he threatened, sending them up north to fend off the Windigos. Most of them froze to death up there. Once the Empire returned and he was defeated, all but a hoofful of ponies sent up there returned.”

“But a few did,” Noire said. “This mare was one of them?”

It was Noire’s turn to recoil as the librarian’s expression suddenly turned vicious. “That one is no mare. She practically volunteered, and the Witch King made her the commander up there! I hope the Princess stripped her of her title, I shudder to think of her as the third-highest authority in the land.”

This is getting stranger and stranger, Trixie thought to herself. Well, curiosity may have killed the cat, but there was no equivalent saying for ponies. She asked, “What did she do, exactly?”

“No! No more,” the librarian shook her head. “I’ve told you tourists enough.” Frowning, she looked over the table the two had occupied for most of the morning and part of the afternoon. “If you don’t have any more use of our fair library, then please leave. I’ll put your books away.”

Trixie and Noire traded looks yet again, surprised at the sudden icy attitude of the librarian. “Let’s go, Noire,” Trixie said. She didn’t care to be in a hostile environment like this. Neither did Noire, as the batpony was quick to follow behind her.

“What do you think, Trixie?”

“I think I’m glad there’s more than one library in this city. That librarian definitely didn’t look happy.”

After being pressed into leaving the library, Trixie and Noire found themselves wandering around, looking for a restaurant. In the meantime, they had started talking about what had just happened.

“There is that,” Noire admitted, “But I was talking about this fort they’re talking about. Did you listen, Trixie? They were terrified to say Sombra’s name, always calling him the ‘Witch King’. But he’s dead now. Whoever this mare is they’re talking about, they never called her by her name either.”

“That’s, huh. Now that you mention it, that is weird. Well, Sombra I guess I can understand, from the sounds of it was he an absolute tyrant, but this other pony? What did she do?” Trixie asked, scrunching her snout in confusion.

“I don’t think it could’ve been anything too horrible,” said Noire. “Nothing like, I don’t know, participating in Sombra’s slavery? Otherwise Princess Cadance would have had her removed if she was an awful pony. I think she may have simply had a special talent for running a fort and doing whatever it is they did to defend against Windigos.”

“But she, whoever she is, also has a bad reputation among ponies here,” Trixie pointed out.

Noire shrugged, and she said, “Again, I’m guessing here, but I would bet they think she got off easy. Ponies today don’t have an appreciation for the number and intensity of skirmishes the Border Guards get into with dragons and changelings or even the Arimaspi, and the number of missions into places like the Flame Geyser Swamp to temporarily pacify the monsters there. Heck, there was even an attack just outside Canterlot a few years ago by a creature called a bugbear, and most of the civilians didn’t even notice.”

“What’s your point, exactly?”

“Look, the Empire is protected by this dome here, right? But it doesn’t extend out to the forts. Maybe most Crystal ponies didn’t realise how terrifying Windigos could be, and thought this, this pony Sombra sent up got a plum cushion job sitting around compared to the rest of them, who had to work hard, menial labour on the farms or in the mines.”

“That’s probably true,” Trixie said. “But it feels like there’s still something more to it.”

Noire narrowed her eyes, and said, “Why are you talking like that, Trixie? It almost sounds like you’re thinking about going up there.”

“I am,” admitted Trixie.

Noire curled her wings in around herself. “You’re going to have to do a good job upselling me, Trix. I came along with you to the Crystal Empire because there was value in coming here, and a nice tourist spot beside, and I felt like I owed you my loyalty. Freezing my dock off to go explore some fort whose purpose seems to have passed, which we might not even be able to get into, is something different.”

Trixie stopped trotting, and she looked around behind her, then to her sides, and even up. There was a nice restaurant in the distance that appeared to serve local cuisine, but it would have to wait a few minutes. Turning around to meet Noire vis-à-vis, she whispered, “Changelings and Windigos were anathema to one another for the longest time. Her hive is in the Badlands, way at the other end of Equestria. It might put her in a good mood if we were able to bring observations of them having disappeared.”

Noire raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that? I would think the lack of any Windigos in several centuries would clue her in to that.”

“Yes, well, these are ponies who actively fought them,” Trixie argued. “They may have missed out on a lot of history, but they might have some insight into why the Windigos disappeared. That, and they have actual experience with dealing with them, which is more than any Changeling alive can say.”

The batpony made to speak, then hesitated. Finally, Noire spoke again, “That’s not entirely true, you know.”

“Wh—really? I thought she was just a legend papa made up. No, never mind that.” Trixie rolled her eyes. “If she’s real, then she’s no doubt too fragile to actually fight now. I doubt she would have been fighting them hoof-to-hoof anyways, most likely she stayed behind and governed.”

Noire really had no argument for that. She sighed, looked wistfully at the restaurant that was a mere hundred hoofsteps away from them, then turned back to Trixie. “Fine. Give me lunch and let’s get back to the hotel, and I’ll give you my decision.”

“It’s a deal,” Trixie agreed.

“Ah, those Crystal Berries were delish,” Noire said, making a slurping sound in imitation of having actual food right in front of her.

“Well, you know what they say about birds and bats. If they overeat, they get all bloated and will never be able to fly again,” Trixie teased.

Noire let out a ‘hmmph’ sound, flapping her wings to achieve liftoff, hovering nearly a metre above the ground before dropping back down. “That’s just an urban myth.”

“Quite,” Trixie said. She had had more than her own fair share of food, though. The Crystal Berries had been succulent, having an off-flavour taste Trixie couldn’t quite describe in terms her tongue would recognise, being cool and juicy without quite every tilting strongly to any extreme of the five main gustatory senses. The snow lettuce had had that perfect level of crispiness, literally melting in her mouth. The cinnamon Crystal Apple however, as sweet as it was, was just too far out of Trixie’s comfort zone for her to enjoy, and that was with having a large palate developed over her extensive travels.

She would definitely need to do some pony-paddling in the pool later.

Noire spun around suddenly, and said, “Now, about visiting that fort.”

Trixie tensed up.

“I’m curious, Trixie. Your reasons make sense, but there seems to be something more than that still, or else you wouldn’t seem so desperate. What’s going on there?”

The unicorn mare grimaced, and then she sighed. Well, she might have had to explain it eventually, “I had a, I guess you could call it a feeling, that something important might be up north. That, and I can’t help but feel a sort of connection with whoever this mare is.”

“Like how she’s an apparent outcast, you mean?”

Trixie looked up, blinking, and said, “That’s precisely what I mean.”

“I thought as much,” Noire said. “You know, the Equestrian military has never been the nicest place to work. I mean, that’s obvious given it’s the military, but it seems every decade they attempt to crack down on hazing in the Guard, then once the brass is satisfied that they’ve done a token public job, they move on.”

That was a total non-sequitur, Trixie thought to herself, Or maybe not. I kind of see a link here. “So you think she’s being hazed or something? Seems unlikely to me, if she’s the one leading the ponies at the fort.”

Noire shook her head, and she said, “Not quite what I mean. Rather, Prince Shining Armor, before he became a Prince, was formerly Captain of the Royal Guard in Canterlot. When it was his turn to clean up the ranks, he was as ineffective as past captains were.” Noire let out a long, energy-sapping sigh, and said, “What you said about She Who Must Not Be Named reminded me of that. I suspect the Prince and Princess are so busy with reforming everything in the city proper that anypony who is in one of those villages and forts simply gets ignored. At the same time, as I said earlier, if she was some sort of filly-eating monster, I can’t imagine she would still be running a fort.”

“So you do agree with me!” Trixie said.

“I’m not quite sure why you want to go up there, to learn something for when we attend the Changeling hive, or to meet this mysterious mare.”

That actually got Trixie thinking about her answer, but it didn’t take long for her to come up with one. “Both, I think,” Trixie said.

“Well, me too,” Noire said. “Glad to see we’re both on the same page.”

Trixie raised an eyebrow. Noire had seemed rather argumentative earlier about heading up north, and the unicorn wasn’t sure if her friend had came over to her side completely or was merely going along out of begrudging acceptance. Trixie sighed, deciding to let it go for now, and said, “Well, before we do, we’ll need to get some supplies, and find out where exactly this fort is located. Oh, but even before that, show me how you do your warming spell, I think you’ll want to work on it for when we leave the Empire’s protective dome. And then, if we can’t find a good pair of shaded eyewear, a spell to counter snow-blindness is definitely the second-most important spell to have…”

Trixie and Noire were up and out early the next morning, paying off their room fees. Trixie, having negotiated a lower fee their first night with her silver tongue, managed to lock-in a continued cheap rate for when they returned, in however many days it might be, perhaps even returning within the day. The manager had looked perplexed, seeming to wonder where these two mares would be wondering off to for a day or two before returning, but had bid them good grace, keeping their deposit until they were finally done in the Crystal Empire.

“Last chance if you decide not to go,” Noire warned, shifting her saddlebags around and making sure her goods were secure. She gave her wings an experimental flap, making sure for the hundredth time that morning that, underneath the cloth wing warmers she had purchased and donned, she still had the capacity of flight.

After searching around some more the previous day, the two had located some guardsponies, inquiring about the fort. While they had been similarly mum about the commander of the fort, they appeared far more open about the location of the fort. In contravention of everything Noire’s training had taught her, it was apparently even possible for citizens to visit, though they usually needed a bribe. And thus the two had purchased several kilograms of Crystal Empire delicacies to bring north.

“We’ve gotten this far from Whinnychester, what’s a few steps more?” Trixie asked rhetorically, using her magic to tie together some of the straps on the bright orange outfit around her torso.

“Yeah, sure, maybe just not so, yawn, so early in the morning.”

“This coming from the pony who had to be up at all times of the day depending on her shift in the Guard.”

Noire grimaced as they finally approached the northern gate leading out of the Crystal Empire, “Don’t remind me.”

Two sets of two guardsponies were amassed at the gate, one pair facing inwards, the other out. “Oh? It’s not common to see somepony coming out this way,” one of the Crystal Ponies, a female unicorn, remarked.

“We intend to do a little bit of camping out this way,” Noire said, taking the lead, leaving out the whereabouts of the precise spot they intended to camp out at. “Don’t worry, we’re experienced at this, we have plenty of backup supplies. Worse comes to worse, we have our flares.”

The Crystal unicorn blinked, briefly looking back at her partner before turning back to Noire and Trixie. “Well, it’s hardly unprecedented, just that we usually get larger groups for safety in numbers. Very well, but if there’s only two of you, please don’t partake in spelunking or ice climbing.”

The other Crystal pony, an Earth pony stallion, chimed in, “If you see a yeti, try to run away. If it corners you, feel free to use your flares and we’ll attempt to pursue.”

“I see. Thank you,” Noire said, giving the two guards a brief bow. Trixie, seeing her bow, copied the action a few minutes later.

The two ponies marched out of the gates, trotting north towards where the Crystal Empire’s dome finally stopped protecting the city against the harsh climes of the frozen north. Soon, they would be beyond the crystal city.

Author's Note:

It's surprising sometimes how much banter my characters trade.

Amending Fences calls the Descartes expy 'Haycart', but I much prefer Hayscartes, and I even extended the horsepun as Hayscartes.

Extended delay for the next pair of chapters. I definitely need to write those two together before releasing either of them. Plus I have a few government-mandated exams to write. I dunno. Can I ask you guys for a comment or a dozen in the meantime?