• Published 24th Feb 2016
  • 3,512 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.

  • ...
5
 273
 3,512

Stasis: Beyond

The cold set in as soon as they left the protective confines of the shield created by the Crystal Heart. It was a bitter cold, one that leached through their heavy clothing, through their fur and skin layers and blood to settle in their bones, as if the cold were a living, sentient entity that sought to make up for its inability to bypass the barrier. Knowing the legends of the Windigos, Trixie thought that might actually be true.

Even worse was the wind. At times, the world was calm, the landscape and the sky white as far as the eye could see, with Trixie and Noire the only two bits of colour in a colourless world. Then the wind would kick up all at once, going from still air to a howling gale that threatened to turn them deaf, attempting to sweep the two ponies off their hooves and pushing against them when they trotted uphill.

“H-how many h-hooflengths did they say the fort was from the city?,” Noire asked, teeth occasionally chattering even through the enchanted clothing and warming spells. They had found strong sunglasses to protect against the albedo of the snowpack, and so did not need a third layer of cantrips to deal with the sun’s harsh rays.

“Twenty thousand or so,” Trixie said, chancing a look back to see the pale glow of the dome around the Crystal Empire, made more difficult with the tinted sunglasses she wore to protect against sun-blindness. Making a rough estimate in her head on the distance they had already travelled, she added, “I would say we’re about three-quarters of the way there.”

“I’m be-beginning to wish they gave us m-military conditioning for this now,” Noire said, having to tense her jaw muscles to keep from chattering again.

“It’s why as soon as we decided to leave to the Crystal Empire I started letting my coat grow out,” Trixie said. “I did recommend you do the same.”

“Yeah, but I thought we were going to stay under the dome the entire time. Oh Celestia not another one,” Noire said. By this time, the two had approached another hill. Even with their light steps, their limbs still occasionally would sink almost up to their knees in soft snow, and without her wings to lessen the weight of her step, Noire found herself in yet another trough.

“I doubt invoking Celestia’s name will get you much up here,” Trixie remarked, looking up at the sky. Several hours had passed since the two had left the Empire just past sunrise. The sun itself was nearing its overhead zenith. Soon, noon would pass, and it would begin to fall into the endless chasm of the abyssal sky over yonder.

Noire snorted as she continued on, making good pacing up the hill. “Perhaps I should have been a bigger rebel as a teenager and joined an anarchist group or, better yet, a Discordian cult.”

“Were you much of a rabble-rouser then?” Trixie asked, managing to keep her spirits up through the cold. Considering Noire had joined the Royal Guard, she didn’t expect anything the batpony had done to compare to what Trixie herself did, touring the country as a performing showmare.

“Not…really…” Said Noire, stopping to catch her breath as the two hit a particularly steep portion of the climb. Trixie, following right behind her, found herself taking in deep gulps of air as her legs strained to make the climb.

Trixie paused. “Wait, why am I climbing this anyways? Hold on, Noire.”

“Hold on? What do you mean-WHOA!”

Where before Noire had eyed the top of the hill with a grimace, she was now surveying a field of flat ice plains. It didn’t take long to clue in what had occurred. Turning around, she said, “Warn me a little bit better than ‘hold on’ the next time you do that.”

“I did. I said ‘hold on, Noire’, not ‘hold on’.”

Noire let out another snort, briefly watching the wisp of moisture that had erupted from her nostrils disappear into the brutal arctic air, before turning back around. “Cheeky,” she mumbled. Noire looked up at the sky again, only to pause as she spotted something in the distance. “Hey, Trix. It seems we’re close.”

“Huh? What do you mean? Oh! Oh,” Trixie said as she followed Noire’s gaze off into the distance and up a little.

Trixie’s first thought was one of surprise, at the fort being a bright, crystalline red. After mulling it over for a few seconds, it made sense. After all, the fort would have had minimal benefit trying to blend into the background of white and grey, as its enemies relied on other-worldly senses. Meanwhile, to ponies marching to the base to relieve soldiers or deliver supplies, the fort was practically a beacon in this cold, desolate world. After that, Trixie’s surprise and introspection switched to amazement. Whatever material it was made of, the fort had presumably been built in the untamed beyond, and not under the aegis of the Crystal Empire’s dome.

“Looks like an hour, hour and a quarter,” Noire estimated, following the contours of the ice plains up to the fort. There only remained a gentle slope from where they were currently at, as opposed to the steeper hills they had already climbed or, in the case of this last one, teleported past.

“That’s good. Trixie may have been the one to suggest coming out here, but she’s certainly getting sick of this cold.”

Noire didn’t have the energy to point out her friend’s speech patterns again, merely rolling her eyes as she attempted to blink away bits of ice in her eyelashes.


The sun was on its way down. To Trixie, that was actually a good thing. The intense reflection of the sunlight off the snowpack had left her struggling, even through sunglasses. When she looked up, it was to peer at the radiant red castle that marked the endpoint of their journey, which was perhaps even worse than the snow. As the sun dropped, the temperature was guaranteed to plunge with it, but at least their eyes would have a chance to rest.

The two had been extraordinarily lucky, with only a minimal amount of wind since they scaled the last steep hill. From there, it had been relatively easy-going. As they got within a mere few hundred hoof-steps of what appeared to be an entrance, Trixie could pick out individual features on the fort, such as a rampart here, a bridge there, and a watchtower there.

“At least one of those watchtowers must still be used,” Noire remarked. “There was nobody there earlier, but now there’s a guardpony waiting for us.”

Trixie had to strain her eyes, not having as good a sight as Noire, but she could pick out the pony after a little bit of searching. Whether it was a mare or a stallion, the guardspony in question was camouflaged well against the snow, with either a white or a very light-shaded coat and mane. As the two approached the castle, she began to pick up greater detail on the pony: it was a stallion, and he had a crystallised white coat and light-blue mane, only slightly darker than her own. Perhaps the greatest oddity was that he didn’t actually wear any clothing, though his coat was grown out thick enough that he might not have needed any.

“This is a Crystal Empire military installation,” the stallion stated, and Trixie noted he was a unicorn, though he carried a spear at his side rather than with a magical grip. It was only now that she realised just how few Crystal unicorns she had seen before. “State your purpose here.”

“We’re here on an investigation,” Trixie said, working her silver tongue as best she could. “We’ve been doing research on the history of Windigos and heard that this fort was used to defend against them a millennium ago. My partner and I were interested in being able to hear first-hoof accounts of those ponies who guarded against them.” She would attempt to ease this guard into the idea of letting them in before actually suggesting it.

Said guardspony furrowed his brows, as if that wasn’t an answer he had expected. It was then that the possibility occurred to Trixie that he might not even have yet returned to the reformed Crystal Empire. It wasn’t unheard of for some ponies to be stationed at a base for several years, even one that was relatively close to a city like this. “That…sounds possible,” he grudgingly conceded, but it seemed he wasn’t going to let them in as easily as that. “And what have you learned about Windigos so far?”

“They’re parasitic spirits who feed off of negative emotions, especially hatred,” Noire said. “Where they appear, they also consume the ambient energy of the environment, causing the temperature to drop, inducing winter-like conditions. It’s been suggested that this creates more discord in the hearts of ponies as a result, but we don’t know if it’s cause or correlation. They disappeared only a few hundred years after the Crystal Empire.”

The stallion snorted. “Pah, that’s it? What else have you southerners forgotten in the absence of adversity? Warm temperatures and peace has made equines like you weak.”

Noire bit her tongue. She had trained in Equestria’s military. While she was certain she could come out on top in a fight with this Crystal unicorn, she didn’t want to get into one in the first place.

The unicorn guard moved his eyes over the two, before lingering on their saddlebags. “On the other hand, you two wouldn’t be the first ponies to have come here in the last few years. I suppose it comes down to what you have—“

“Lieutenant Diamond Dust, what are you doing?”

Trixie had done only a cursory investigation into self-levitation using unicorn magic. By the way the unicorn guard in front of her jumped, she could have easily started by interviewing him.

“C-Commander!” The stallion, Diamond Dust was his name if Trixie was inferring correctly, turned around to face the new speaker. “Th-these ponies showed up wanting to get in. They claim to be doing research on Windigos.”

Commander? Trixie thought to herself, No, we couldn’t have found her that quickly, could we have? She turned her head to look past Diamond Dust at the apparent commander of the fort.

Trixie had thought all Crystal ponies were crystalline in appearance. She had to revise that belief. The commander of the fort, an Earth pony mare, shared the same sheen as her fellow countryponies, with a pale purple coat and white mane. However, that was where the similarities ended. Even beyond their odd coats, Crystal ponies seemed just like regular ponies, if a little bit out of touch with history. This mare did not. It was as if an artist had taken an ice block, chiselling off bits and pieces of extraneous material, and the commander was the resulting sculpture-come-to-life. Her Cutie Mark resembled the Crystal Heart in shape and style, with a few snowflakes surrounding the heart on her flank.

“I see,” said the commander, her tone clipped and to-the-point. Even her face was as if it were forged from ice as she looked over Trixie and Noire, her gaze hanging on Noire for a few seconds. Finally, her blue eyes still locked on Noire, she said, “You are a part of the Equestrian military, are you not?”

“You can tell?,” Noire asked, not too surprised. This place was isolated from civilisation enough that she didn’t bother to deny it. It would have to take an extremely bad turn of luck for Equestria to hear about a batpony visiting this fort, find out she had military training, and somehow link it to New Moon, runaway guard.

“You have a strong body tone, one that army ponies usually have as opposed to labourers. The Prince-consort has been reforming our military to Equestrian standards, and every new pony sent out here has the exact same stance as yours. I may be out of the loop, but I doubt very many batponies have moved to the Empire in the last two years, so you cannot be one of ours.”

Noire raised her eyebrows. This commander was good.

The commander looked up, then over to the sun beginning to set in the western sky, before looking back to the Crystal Empire, visible in the distance to the south from the fort’s higher ground. Finally, she looked back at Trixie and Noire, looking over their saddlebags, finally saying, “You wouldn’t be the first ponies to come around here, though none of them have been military. Well, the unicorn appears to be a civilian, a labourer too. While you appear to have supplies, it would be remiss of me to send you back when it would be dark before you could return.”

“We brought chocolate and fresh fruit with us,” Noire said. “It was our understanding we should bring some supplies when we visited. I know when I was out on patrol, fresh food and treats deliveries were always valued.”

The commander raised her muzzle slightly in acknowledgement. For the first time in their conversation, Trixie thought she saw emotion on the purple-coated mare’s face, a brief glint of excitement crossing through her blue eyes. “My ponies will enjoy that tonight, then,” she said, before finally introducing herself, “I am Commander Iceheart. Welcome to our fort.”

“My name is Trixie.”

“And I am Noire,” said Noire, making sure not to mention which division of the Equestrian military she had been part of.

Iceheart lowered her head back down. “It is well to meet you two. Diamond Dust, take these two ponies to the commons. Get Powder Blue to check their supplies for poison. Make sure they realise they’re to be under escort at all times. Answer any questions they have, within reason.”

With that, Iceheart turned around, striding back into the fort. With some surprise, Trixie noted that not only did Iceheart not have any clothes over top of her coat, but her hair was also more shortly cut than even Diamond Dust’s was.

“Er-hem,” Diamond Dust said, drawing the attention of the two mares back to him, “You heard Commander Iceheart. Come in, please.”

Trixie and Noire followed him into the fort proper at last. The entryway held a large lobby with several doors leading in different directions and a large staircase set in the middle. Unlike the city under the dome, the fort was built of an odd red stone that matched its colour on the outside, the walls and floor glowing a pale red that served to light the room. It was obvious, however, that the fort was all substance and no style, with not a single decoration to be seen.

“Excuse me, ladies,” Diamond Dust said, as he began to close the gate behind them, the large frame barely making a squeal as it shut in place. Trixie noted with a little bit of confusion that he chose to use his limbs and mouth to seal the door close. Any adult unicorn worth her salt could at least use telekinesis, so why wasn’t he using his magic?

Nevertheless, the effect was noticeable. Although visibility dropped inside the entrance room with the lack of visible light coming in and no apparent windows, Trixie’s eyes adjusted soon enough for the dimmer radiant red. More importantly, the room began to warm up, heat no longer escaping outside, and within mere seconds Trixie could already feel a difference.

“That’s good enough,” observed Diamond Dust as he looked over the gate, before turning back to Trixie and Noire. “If you can see enough now, follow me, I’ll take you to our quarters.” With that, he began to walk, making his way up the stairs. For once, the unicorn stallion finally used his magic, lifting his spear up and gripping it close to his body, but freeing up all four limbs.

The two friends followed him up the stairs, turning around to head up another flight of stairs to the second floor, continuing to keep pace with Diamond Dust. Only the clopping of their hooves against the stone could be heard for the next few minutes; the world was quiet here. Finally, Noire worked up the courage to take advantage of what the commander had mentioned to Diamond Dust about answering their questions. “Excuse me, um, Diamond Dust, I believe?”

“That is correct,” he said, not turning around to look at her as they made their way down a long hallway.

“I’m curious. When you came outside, why weren’t you wearing coverings? I would have thought this far north that it would be standard protocol.”

Diamond Dust finally stopped, and Trixie and Noire halted behind him a few steps after. Diamond Dust appeared to be contemplating something for a few seconds, before he finally turned around, and asked, “Do you know what the main qualification for a pony being sent up north here by King Sombra was?”

Noire’s eyes widened. He said Sombra’s name?

Diamond Dust continued on, ignorant of Noire’s self-revelation, “Us Crystal Ponies are a hardy folk. We learned and adapted over time to the harsh climes of the north and beyond, even as the Crystal Heart protected the main city. You ponies who live in Equestria, you might be able to survive in a northern winter, but we can thrive in it.”

The stallion lowered his spear, turning it around so the spearpoint was underneath his muzzle. His eyes lost focus, and Noire knew that for all the training he may have had to be on guard at all times, he was no longer there in the fort with her and Trixie. “A few of us, however, we were even beyond that, we didn’t tolerate cold, we were at one with it. Before Sombra took over, Powder Blue and I took ice baths for fun, Snowpeak scaled the mountain ranges with few supplies, Polaris would go camping out on the flats.”

Trixie gulped. In the state he was in now, Diamond Dust was a valuable source of information, but she would have to be delicate so as not to put him on guard. “And what of Iceheart?,” she carefully asked, modulating her tone so as not to sound too inquisitive.

Diamond Dust inhaled, then let out a deep sigh, his clenched barrel visible relaxing and sagging several inches. “Iceheart was beyond all of us. It was like she was born to fight the Windigos. She was the only pony I knew who could go out into the elements and never have to come inside or put on gear. When Sombra killed the former Princess, he made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.”

Trixie and Noire traded glances. Trixie knew she couldn’t push any further here.

Diamond Dust’s eyes suddenly widened, seeming to finally realise what he been talking about. Shaking his head, the stallion looked back up from his spear to face Noire and Trixie again, and said, “Enough of that. We’re almost to the kitchen. I’m certain you will want to be able take off those saddlebags and clothes. I'll show you to the barracks right after where you can leave them, but you can leave the food supplies you've brought here first.” With that, he turned around, taking off at a regimented trot once more.

Well, he’s not wrong about the clothes, I’m beginning to really sweat here, Trixie thought to herself, taking off after him. The gear had been useful for retaining body heat, but as soon as she had gotten indoors, her body had begun to swelter. It was only a matter of time before her eyes stung with liberal amounts of sweat.

At last, Trixie and Noire spotted open double doors near the end of the hallway, and their destination was confirmed as Diamond Dust turned around in front of the door to face inwards. “Powder Blue, I’ve brought two guests with me.”

Trixie managed to round the corner just in time to see the pony inside speak, “Oh, really? More tourists, or new recruits?”

Trixie blinked. It wasn’t quite like looking into a mirror, but it was close. Powder Blue was a Crystal Pony unicorn with a coat of blue a few shades lighter than Trixie’s own, and a pale-silver mane. If it weren’t for her more feminine figure, shorter height and the crystalline coat, Powder Blue might have been able to pass as Trixie herself at a distance.

Noire seemed to have gotten the same idea, briefly looking back at Trixie before facing Powder Blue again.

“Researchers, apparently, though one of them is serving, or has served with the Equestrian military. I never did find that out. Current or former?” Diamond Dust asked Noire as he set his spear down, leaning it against a wall.

“Former,” Noire confirmed. It wasn’t entirely true, but given the circumstances it may as well be.

“Well, come in, come in, you’ll be seeing this area for the next few days anyways,” Powder Blue said, inviting the three ponies outside in.

Trixie walked in, taking the time to cast a look around the room. The large space was obviously a kitchen, with several large fireplaces built into a wall, though only one was currently active with a magically-stoked fire, with what Trixie knew to be several baking stones placed above a metal rack. The smell of freshly-baked bread wafted from the oven.

Other parts of the room were alien to her, some of it from being a thousand years out of date, and some of it perhaps being unique to Crystal Empire architecture. Trixie could only guess at the function of some of the items in the room, and one wall seemed to have been built around a standing column of ice, with several items buried inside the ice, doubtlessly being preserved.

“This is Trixie, and this is Noire,” Diamond Dust said, pointing out each of the two adventurers in turn. “This is Powder Blue. Bluey, they said they brought chocolate and fresh fruit with them for the fort.”

“Oh, is that so? That’s good to hear, it’s rare we get shipments of anything other than preservatives and wheat,” Powder Blue said, immediately fishing through Trixie’s saddlebags. Trixie wanted to protest the invasion of her personal space, but decided against it. Given that they had gotten into a military installation, she didn’t want to push her luck too far.

Instead, Trixie cast her horn, taking her saddlebags off. “Here,” Trixie said, pulling out the bags of chocolate and fruit she had brought. “Chocolate, I don’t know how sweet you guys had before the stasis spell.”

“Not very, but the bits and pieces we’ve gotten since the return were, and we’ve acquired a taste for it going by the way everypony here gobbles it down,” said Powder Blue as she sifted through the fruits, taking note of what was there. “Tomatoes, apples, oranges, yes, yes, I can work with this. Oh sure we have heat and lighting here, never mind the fact that soil conditions are completely unsuitable in here and that the Crystal Heart makes farming under the dome easier, I’m sure we can survive on lettuce and berries for the rest of our tour!”

“Um,” Noire said. She could sense Powder Blue had some pent-up issues to vent about. Noire didn’t really care to interrupt and risk getting ranted at in turn, but it would probably do everyone a favour if she could put the presumed cook in a good mood. “I have kiwis and lemons in my own bags.”

Powder Blue stopped her rant at those words, just about leaping into Noire’s saddlebags. Pawing through the supplies Noire had brought along, she quickly found the fruits in question. “Mmm, the lemons will be really good. Polaris will be especially happy, it’s been a while since we’ve gotten citrines.”

“Do you normally not get shipments of food in?” Noire asked, feeling this was an easy subject to talk about, even if Powder Blue appeared to be a little twitchy.

“We do, but they’re typically staples,” Diamond Dust spoke up. “Grains, sugar and yeast for baking, dried fruits and spices, butter for what fish we catch. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a lot rarer to come by. We’re not that far from the Empire, but with the terrain and the wind very few ponies are willing to make a delivery run out here.”

“I assume even when they do, the amount of ponies out here will probably devour it within a few days,” Trixie said.

“When it comes to food requirements, two ponies can deliver in one trip enough grains and sugar for a month, but for fruits and vegetables it’ll last us a few days,” Powder Blue said as she levitated the food Trixie and Noire had brought, putting it together with bags of other foodstuffs littered across several different counters. The unicorn’s horn glowed, her magic a light red. Trixie didn’t know what spell Powder Blue was using, but given that a similar red glow enveloped every item they had brought, Trixie could guess that it was something to scan the food.

This is rather surreal, Trixie thought. Here she was, discussing and listening to a conversation about food supplies for an isolated northern fort. Fortunately, Trixie saw an opportunity to move the topic to something she wanted to learn about, without doing so in a cackhoofedly way. “I get the impression the Crystal Empire doesn’t think too much about this fort. I understand back in the day it was used to guard against a potential Windigo invasion, but what about now?”

“The Windigos may be gone, but that doesn’t mean they’ll never return,” Diamond Dust said. “In recorded history, they’ve disappeared and then come back once already. Most Crystal Ponies have been negligent, thinking that because Sombra is gone that they’ll never have to deal with another crisis again. They’re absolute fools, but even enough of the ponies here were foolish enough to run away the first chance they could get.”

The kitchen had been a warm place, filled with artificial light in addition to the luminescent glow of the walls and floors, but it was as if in one fell blow Diamond Dust had managed to kill the feeling of belonging that existed here.

“Diamond,” Powder Blue said. Her tone was calm, but it was clear that she was scolding him. For his part, Diamond Dust sagged, and in that moment Trixie realised the two of them were likely a couple. Diamond Dust had, after all, mentioned that he and Powder Blue had enjoyed ice baths before Sombra’s rise, and the inference had been that they had taken them together. Powder Blue turned to face Trixie and Noire, and said, “I’m sorry for Diamond, he gets a little passionate sometimes. Mind you, I don’t disagree with what he said, but he needs to be able to hold his tongue a little better.”

“Sorry, dear,” Diamond Dust replied.

“That’s alright. Now, I’ve checked the food these two ponies have brought. All the food is good, no rotting or poison, though the apples and tomatoes should be eaten sooner than later, I’ll incorporate some into dinner tonight. Now, is everypony currently in the castle?”

The stallion shook his head, and he said, "Neigh, Snowpeak is still out on patrol. He will not be getting back until tomorrow morning, I think."

"In that case, I'll scratch off his portion."

Diamond Dust rose, casting his magic to grab his spear once more. “Very well. In that case, I’ll show the two of you to our quarters next.”


“So Powder Blue is the cook here, then?” Noire asked, wiping some sweat off her forehead with a hoof as she trotted after Diamond Dust down another long hallway.

“Unofficially. All of us here are guards, but we all have secondary duties. We’re technically supposed to rotate around, but since we’re on a skeleton crew now, we found it easier to each stick with what we do best.”

“And you double down on guard duties and patrol, then?” Noire asked. “You leave your coat grown out, so I assume you don’t do too much indoors.”

Diamond Dust grunted, and he said, “Iceheart wasn’t wrong. You are a military pony.”

Noire was glad that even with her changed form she still had dark enough fur to hide her blush. “I learned what I could,” she said, and left it at that.

“Powder Blue mentioned something about soil in the castle and lighting and heat,” Trixie said. “Does that mean you have a greenhouse set up here?”

This time, Diamond Dust snorted. “Not quite a greenhouse like what the smaller villages outside the city use, but in essence, yes. However, there’s only a few crops that will grow inside the castle. No, you won’t be allowed to see them. I apologise if that sounds rude, but you have to understand that even if there are no Windigos around, the commander still demands operational security.”

Well, that explained why Powder Blue had checked for poison in the food that they had brought, though Trixie had already deduced as much already. She wasn’t too heartbroken about not being able to see their indoor farms, so Trixie instead decided to tackle a different subject, “You mentioned there not being any Windigos around. The yaks are further to the west, so I assume there are other creatures prowling around directly north of here?”

“Ah, the yaks. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them. Unfortunately, all those I knew will be dead by now, but if they’ve stayed true to their character, it’ll be nice to meet one again,” Diamond Dust said before he sighed, his shoulders bowed by a thousand years of history. “We don’t get anything more than the occasional creature this far north, yetis, polar bears, seals, a few others. Ah, here we are.”

The stallion had stopped in front of another door, opening it up with his magic this time, revealing another large room. This time, the insides were filled with several modest beds lined up against the side walls, with windows on the far wall, with a single pony standing next to them and looking outside. Trixie gauged her internal compass and decided that the windows were on the north-facing wall. While the beds were all made up, weapons, tools and saddlebags were littered across the room, on the floor, against the walls and on some of the beds.

“We used to have twenty of these rooms filled to the brim. Since our return, almost everypony left and now this is the only quarters in active use,” Diamond Dust said.

Trixie quickly scanned the room, doing a quick estimate of the number of beds. That meant there were perhaps thirty ponies in the castle, as opposed to half a thousand before. With that large a garrison, this was probably one of the key, if not the largest fort the Crystal Empire had.

“Aurora, Aurora, we have guests,” Diamond Dust called out to the pony at the end of the room, as he trotted towards the windows, Trixie and Noire following.

The Crystal pony, Aurora, turned around. She was a pegasus with a vivid green coat not unlike the colour of the aurora borealis she was no doubt named after, and a blue mane of a medium shade. At first, Trixie thought she had purple eyes, but as she got closer to the windows, she realised Aurora had heterochromia, one eye red, the other purple.

“Lieutenant,” Aurora saluted with a hoof.

“How goes it, Aurora?”

“Visibility is better than normal today, the fossils were dormant for a short period earlier. I saw a yeti hanging around, but it has moved away since.”

“Good, good,” Diamond Dust said as he stared out the window, and Trixie followed his gaze. The sky was already beginning to darken, the sun beginning its descent in the western sky. To the north, there were mountains, mountains, and more mountains, each threatening to poke at the heavens above, and a floor of snow below. Closer to the fort, Trixie could see the odd tree that somehow managed to survive in the eternal cold. Off in the distance, a mist of powder snow pervaded the air, blocking sight for a good distance before it cleared up again.

“And these two are?” Aurora asked, nodding her head at Trixie and Noire.

“Ah, right. These two are Trixie, and Noire. The commander has allowed them to stay for a little while. They’re here to do some research on Windigos.”

Aurora bowed her head. “I see. Well, they aren’t here anymore, even if their legacy remains.”

“Legacy? What legacy?” Noire asked.

Aurora looked out the window, and pointed a hoof north, “Do you see where there is a snowstorm out there?”

“Yeah, what about it?” Noire asked again. The snowstorm over the northern ice flats was fairly obvious.

“I’m not surprised Equestrians have forgotten this, but when a Windigo dies, it doesn’t have flesh to rot away. It’s more ethereal than corporeal. Despite that, at its moment of death a Windigo becomes fully manifest in our world,” Aurora said. “The remains of a Windigo fossilise into a magical ice, incapable of being destroyed by just about any known magic.”

“Wait, really?” Trixie asked. “I’ve never heard of this before. That seems highly unlikely.”

“Unlikely it may seem, but that is the truth.”

Diamond Dust and Aurora immediately turned around, each of them saluting Commander Iceheart, who had just walked into the room. Diamond Dust kept his spear rigid at his side, deferring to the commander.

Iceheart continued, “That ice is capable of lasting for several thousand years, at least as far as we know from records. It’s more than just mere ice, however. Where the Windigo fossils exist, it induces its own weather system around it, creating nonstop snowstorms for tens of thousands of hoofsteps around, and an everlasting polar vortex in the immediate area. Around the castle, going outside is tolerable, but as you approach the ice, the temperature drops. The closer you get, the worse it becomes. Even I cannot get within more than a few thousand hoofsteps of it.”

Trixie took a few seconds to absorb that. Windigo remains being capable of creating conditions even harsher than the already tough conditions of the barren north sounded fantastical, but these ponies had no reason to tell tall tales. “No wonder all of you stay around still. How long has that been around for? Wait, Aurora said they can’t be destroyed by ‘just about’ any known magic, does that mean there’s something that can?”

“The ice was not actually there when we went into stasis. Multiple Windigos have been known to die together in formation to create a larger fossil ice formation. By the size of the snowstorms that exist, I would guess around ten to twelve of them died. They did not appear to know where the Crystal Empire was located when it disappeared. We are fortunate. The Empire would have fallen upon its return if the Windigos had decided to fossilise right over where the Palace is.”

Multiple ponies shivered as they realised the implications of what Iceheart was talking about.

Iceheart sat down on her haunches, staying propped up on her front hooves. From what Trixie had seen of her already, she wasn’t one for gesturing with a limb when she talked. In fact, the inflection of her tone barely changed. Trixie could only wish she had that kind of poker face when she had negotiated wages as a performer. “As for magic, well, the alicorn princesses back in the day very rarely visited us, and we never asked them to try, so it is possible they knew something that could destroy the fossils. Back in the day, we would harness the power of the Crystal Heart to destroy a fossil, but it always would take the Heart several days after to recharge. Then, the unicorns would have to hold up a shield to protect against the weather and the Windigos until the dome was reactivated.”

Noire frowned at that, spotting an inconsistency, and she said, “Well, there aren’t any Windigos around now. Why hasn’t the Empire destroyed this one, then?”

“Because the last time we freely chose to use the Crystal Heart to destroy Windigo fossils, King Sombra took over,” Diamond Dust interjected. “He used it a few more times after, but always kept it hidden away. I returned to the Empire once to ask for use of the Heart to partially destroy this ice block, it would take multiple uses to completely demolish it.” The Crystal unicorn sighed, his head drooping., “I was practically chased away for merely suggesting it to the Princess.”

Noire wrinkled her nose. So she had been at least partially right for the Prince and Princess not caring too much about what happened out here.

“It is what it is,” Iceheart said, standing up on all four hooves again, walking to the window and looking outside. By now, nightfall was on its way, the sky noticeably darkening every few minutes. “We do what we can, and we will continue to watch out for the signs of their imminent return.” She turned around. Despite her neutral words and hard attitude, Trixie saw a gentleness in Iceheart’s blue eyes.

Iceheart lead a garrison of ponies, perhaps as many as a half a thousand at one point, against the frozen spirits of the north. Even still, she seemed to be a gentle spirit at heart. Trixie could only wonder what the mare was capable of when angered.

“Enough of that though, I am hungry. How goes Powder Blue’s efforts, Diamond Dust?”

By now, Diamond Dust had relaxed, lazily sitting on a bed. They made a show of appearing formal at first, but now that I think about it, they’re really quite informal after they’ve greeted one another. Perhaps because they’ve been reduced to such a tiny garrison? Trixie thought to herself.

“She’ll be around an hour. She had to clean out the fish a little bit first.”

“Ah. Please round up the guards for dinner, then. Polaris and Octantis are to cover the north and south towers for now. I’ll choose who to replace them after the meal. I assume you two are acceptable with eating fish? I do not know if Powder Blue already asked you or not, and we should let her know before she starts cooking,” Iceheart asked Noire and Trixie, tilting her head towards the two.

“Equestrian military protocol dictates we at least get used to seafood in the event we get shuffled into a naval operation,” Noire murmured.

“I’ve eaten grass on the road multiple times,” Trixie said, memories of the bitter taste clinging to her tongue for hours at a time souring her mood. “I’ve only occasionally had fish but yes, I am fine with it. Powder Blue never did ask us, I think.”

“Very well. Once it gets too dark to see outside from here, Aurora and I shall escort you to our mess.”


Trixie wasn’t quite sure how Powder Blue did it. Perhaps she used magic? Or maybe it was the spices themselves that were magical. In any event, the unicorn who could pass for Trixie’s doppelganger at a distance had managed to bring flavour to life in the food she had prepared, both what Trixie and Noire had brought as well as what was apparently produced or locally caught.

“Powder Blue is our de facto chef,” Iceheart said, walking the two of them away from the kitchen. “She has done a splendid job in lieu of the ponies who were supposed to be serving, and left upon the return and King Sombra’s vanquishing.”

“They seem to be quite fond of you,” Noire noted. It had been rather obvious to see at the sup. Each pony there was disciplined, but they still all doted on Iceheart.

“Yes. In the past, Sombra appointed me as the commander of the fort here. I did not think I was worthy at the time, but while the Witch King was many bad things, he was not foolish. I believe he saw something in me,” Iceheart said.

Trixie wrinkled her nose. Throughout their first few meetings, and through the idle chatter she had shared at supper, Iceheart’s speech bothered her. It wasn’t that the Crystal Earth pony sounded fake, far from it. Even though her tone and pitch was always controlled, Iceheart always seemed sincere. Rather, it was the way she allowed no emotion to leave her tongue. Even the way she walked, stood, and lightly smiled meant nothing. Only her eyes occasionally betrayed her.

There was something to this mare, but Trixie decided to leave it for another time. Trixie had her own problems, and she hesitated to poke at another pony’s issues. New Moon had been one case, but a stranger like Iceheart? So far, nothing she had seen indicated that Iceheart was weak of heart. If she felt hurt by the actions of the Crystal ponies, she didn’t seem the type to crumble as a result. The near-adoration of those who had stayed behind in the fort was practically radiant. Had Trixie been able to command that type of obedience, she might never have left Whinnychester. Had the Changelings been able to exude the simultaneous confidence, toughness and gentleness that Iceheart did, they might have never become so estranged from the ponies.

Instead, Trixie asked, “What do you think he saw?”

“The way I was able to rally ponies around me, perhaps. No doubt he could have enslaved me as easy as he had any other, but I was different in one way: among the Crystal ponies, I have the highest known resistance to the cold, both natural and magical. Even Sombra was unable to do much more than ward the Windigos off, so he sent, exiled me to the fort. I regret not being able to share solidarity with my fellow Crystal ponies, but to protect my people, this was the best choice.”

Trixie took a few seconds to read into that as far as she could. That sort of statement almost sounded like something a coward in a novel might say, but this was real life. And for as much as her expression was sculpted from ice, Iceheart seemed genuinely remorseful in that instant that she could not fully sympathise with her fellow Crystal ponies, who had been downtrodden under King Sombra’s rule. It was difficult for Trixie to judge, but between being a slave under the dome and a free pony who had to fight Windigos and go out into the bitter cold every day, she thought all Crystal ponies had had a terrible few years of life under King Sombra.

“King Sombra ruled over the Crystal Empire for about two years, and it’s already been more than three years since the stasis ended. Five years total then, a little over in fact. You haven’t thought about retiring from your position?” Noire asked.

“No,” Iceheart said, continuing to trot through several hallways and up several flights of stairs during the entire conversation. “Truthfully, I could have left had I so desired. The Windigos have disappeared after all, and new ponies would eventually take my place. But they wouldn’t have the experience that I have, or the capacity to resist the cold that I do. So I will stay here so long as that block of ice still exists.”

“That sounds…lonely,” Noire confessed.

“Perhaps,” Iceheart conceded, finally stopping her climb up the stairs. She took the opportunity to look out the window, this one facing north. Outside, a red light strayed randomly across the surface of the ice flats. From what Trixie and Noire had learned over supper, the light was directed from one of the towers, the result of a massive focus lens that redirected the glow of the castle’s red stone into a giant light the night shift used to keep an eye on the flats at night. “But I have my own personal code and sense of duty, and I choose to follow it. I may not have chosen to live here, but I choose to die here.”

Trixie wasn’t sure how to take that comment. She was saved from having to think about it, as at that moment Diamond Dust came into view from around the corner.

“Ah, there you are,” Iceheart said, getting his attention. “When did you wake up today?”

“Just before lunchtime,” Diamond Dust answered.

“Good, good. Please escort Trixie and Noire to their quarters. I’ll have somepony relieve you at midnight.”

“Alright, then,” Diamond Dust said, and the two guardponies traded salutes before Iceheart trotted away past the corner where Diamond Dust had come from. The stallion turned to Trixie and Noire and said, “Follow me, please, it shouldn’t be too long a walk.”

“You don’t keep somepony on guard during the night in your actual quarters?” Noire asked as she was being escorted.

“Oh, we do, but separating you from everypony else reduces the damage you could do if you were a saboteur,” Diamond Dust said, leading them through more doors still.

“The commander really takes operational security seriously, huh?” Noire said, attempting to make idle conversation. “You guys really seem to adore her.”

Diamond Dust paused, before turning his around to face her. “As we should. If it weren’t for Iceheart, the Windigos might have overrun us during Sombra’s reign.”

“The ponies in the city really don’t seem to value her, though,” Trixie said.

Diamond Dust curled his lip up, flaring his nostrils as he growled, and said, “Of course not. They look at her and think she got off easy, not having to labour directly under Sombra. It’s because she did such a good job that the friends and family we left behind don’t realise just how threatening the Windigos were.”

He started walking again, his pace noticeably picking up, and Trixie and Noire hastened to follow after him. In short time, they found themselves outside of a pair of double doors. Casting a spell, Diamond Dust swung the doors open, revealing a room noticeably smaller than the quarters downstairs, with only a few beds instead of the thirty-odd for the garrison. A few windows opened out onto the ice plains.

“Bathroom is to the side, we do get running water even this high up,” Diamond Dust said. “We’ll see you in the morning."


It didn’t take long for Trixie and Noire to settle in the room, having brought along the clothes and saddlebags they had removed earlier prior to dining. It also didn’t take long to discover the presence of a bath in the bathroom. Though the water was cold, Trixie guided Noire through using a heating spell to heat the water up for practice, and in short order the two of them had both bathed, washing off the sweat they had amassed throughout the day.

“What do you think?” Trixie asked after she had lighted up the fireplace. Unfortunately, the partial moon was blocked out by cloud cover, so she couldn't curl up gazing at the moon, but she could still sit next to a source of heat, allowing it to chase away the last drops of water clinging to her coat.

“They seem to be functioning well,” Noire conceded. “They’re definitely shunned by the rest of the Empire, but the ponies here have found solidarity with one another.”

“Diamond Dust and Powder Blue definitely seem to be a thing,” Trixie mused, feeling the need to gossip.

“A few of them at the dinner appeared to be like that. I find it curious that they all bunk together in a single room, Equestrian policy in a fort with multiple quarters is to separate by gender. I wonder what they get down to down there,” Noire said. “Though, given there’s at least three ponies on the night shift and a fourth one out on patrol, Iceheart might deliberately keep couples separated from sleeping at the same time.”

“She seems to be doing a good job here, at least as far as I can tell. They definitely adore her. It seems like the Empire is humouring the ponies here instead of requiring this fort to be manned, or else they wouldn’t have so few ponies here.”

Noire wrinkled her nose at that assessment, and the batpony said, “That seems to be poor planning. They must know more information than I do though, so I can’t really say. Somepony is still authorising food shipments up here, and ponies in the Empire seem to be generally aware there are ponies here still. Not a conspiracy though, if you were getting that in your head. Just...I don't know.”

"Well, maybe there's something about the Windigo fossils that we don't know that the Crystal Ponies do?" Trixie suggested. "I've travelled a lot and heard lots of folklore, but this is the first time I've ever heard anything about Windigos turning into ice when they die."

"They have no real reason to be pulling one over us. That weather system out there looks more localised too. You saw how it seems almost circular, right? Like there's an epicenter to the storm," Noire said, sighing. "I don't know. When I joined the military, I did it with idealism, wishing to help my fellow pony. Even if they're also ponies who became part of their army, most of them were likely forced to come out here by King Sombra, and were shunned for it by the rest of the Crystal ponies, Iceheart especially. I just feel sort of, like, you were able to help me in my darkest hour, surely we should be able to figure a way to help them? They seem to be stuck in a hard place. I'm not sounding weird, am I?"

“Of course not,” Trixie said. “But we should be able to spend a few days here before we run out of goodwill from the food we brought. We’ll sleep on it for now, and try to figure out something later.”


Trixie dreamed that night.

This time, it wasn’t a nightmare, and there was no Alicorn Amulet. Instead, she sat across from the full moon, shrunk down to the size of a pony and brought to the planet below.

This…is bizarre, Trixie thought. She was able to acknowledge this was a dream, but had no control of her dream self beyond that.

Her body moved forward, reaching a hoof out to the moon. The celestial body shimmered as she touched it, waves of light rippling outwards. Her hoof recoiled, hesitant as the full moon continue to shimmer.

The waves stopped. Then the moon disappeared.

Trixie’s eyes widened. What was going o—


The sound of thunder woke Trixie up.

It took her a few seconds as she shook her sleepiness to realise the issue with that. Thunder was incredibly rare in winter conditions, and this far north it should have been unheard of.

Noire was already up, peering out the window. “What’s going on?” Trixie asked, glancing outside as well. It was definitely morning, the sky beginning to brighten. There was a significant break in the cloud cover above, exposing the first hints of blue Trixie had seen in days.

“I think somepony saw something out in the flats,” Noire said. “The snowstorm from the Windigo fossils has expanded since yesterday, so I can’t see if there really is anything out there.”

Trixie was about to ask another question, only for clarity to settle in. That wasn’t thunder she had heard. It was the sound of several sets of hooves stomping. Even though they were separated by what had to be a few floors, she could still feel the tiny castle garrison bustle into motion to answer whatever had appeared outside.

Noire turned around, and said, “Perhaps we should ask whoever’s on guard, if he or she is already out there?” Not really waiting for an answer, Noire turned around, striding towards the door and swinging one of them open with a hoof.

“Yes-yes, yes, I saw him as well. He still has some distance, but it’s definitely pursuing him. If he keeps his pace they’ll meet up in less than ten minutes.”

Whoever was on guard wasn’t in sight, but a quick trot over and they spotted Aurora, the green-coated Crystal pegasus, looking out another north-facing window. She had an ear up against an acoustic voicepipe, a feature Noire had noted the day before but hadn’t commented on. The castle truly was over a thousand years old.

Aurora’s face darkened, before she spoke back into the voicepipe, “Well, I hope she makes it in time.” Stepping away from the voicepipe, she spotted Noire and Trixie. “You two picked an awful time to come out. They should be able to handle it without me, but Amore damnit, I wish I was down there to help!”

“What’s going on?” Noire asked. “I thought I saw something outside earlier, but the snow is obscuring whatever it was.”

“One of our ponies, Snowpeak, was out on patrol for several days. He was due to return this morning. The northern watch spotted him, but he’s being pursued by a yeti,” Aurora said, grimacing. “Yetis are terrifying creatures. I can only hope that—oh, there they are!”

Trixie and Noire crowded the window on either side of Aurora, peering outside. A small creature, just barely identifiable as a pony from a distance, was dashing along the ice flats, having just escaped the zone of the snowstorm. He was making good pace, potentially able to get to the castle within a quarter-hour if he didn’t encounter any obstacles in that time period.

Unfortunately, there was something pursuing him, and it was significantly larger than the pony, Snowpeak. It was a little bit easier to notice the features of the creature, which was decorated in long, thick white hair. That was the yeti, and it seemed to alternate between running on all fours and running on its hind legs.

“Ooooh, I hope they make it in t-time—it’s the commander!” Aurora said, pointing.

Noire followed the skittish pegasus’s hoof, frowning as she scanned the ground, seeing nothing. With a start, she realised Aurora wasn’t pointing at the ground, and Noire instead looked up. Her jaw dropped. Flying through the air, a pegasus was carrying the Commander, airlifting her to intercept Snowpeak and the yeti.

“That’s, what is she doing?!” Noire yelped, her normal composure subjugated by her surprise.

“Something special. Just you watch,” Aurora said. In contrast to Noire, she had settled down, coolly regarding the scene.

The pegasus carrying Iceheart zoomed in closer and closer, and Snowpeak seemed to notice them, slightly changing the path of his mad dash to meet them. Within the minute, the pegasus lowered herself to the ice flats below. Now grounded, Iceheart rushed ahead to meet the yeti.

“Wait, you can’t be serious,” Noire said. Trixie echoed the sentiment, but was unable to even speak the words.

“She is,” Aurora muttered.

It seemed too unreal to actually be happening, but it was. As Iceheart charged forward, the yeti that had been pursuing Snowpeak slowed down, apparently baffled by a creature only a fraction its size running at it instead of away from it. Only seconds before the impact did the yeti think to actually block the forthcoming attack, standing up its hind legs and crossing its front legs over its barrel.

Trixie had seen strong Earth ponies before, but only a few stood out, such as one pony whom she had worked on the rock farm with. Iceheart was definitely on the upper echelon, as the Crystal Earth pony struck the yeti’s crossed legs, smashing into it with enough force to send the creature of the barren north stumbling and falling onto its back.

Iceheart didn’t stop, as she quickly grabbed one of the yeti’s feet, wrapping her front hooves and legs around the larger creature’s appendage. Suddenly, she swung her hips and upper barrel skywards. It took nearly a full second, but that second seemed to crawl for an eternity, as the yeti’s body moved in slow-motion, before it achieved liftoff.

Before Trixie and Noire knew it, Iceheart swung the yeti’s entire bulk over her head, before slamming it back down into the ground again.

“What the—“ Trixie broke off, as a snow cloud enveloped the area, reducing visibility to zero. Maud Pie was stronger, but seeing any Earth pony lift a creature severalfold her own weight was a feat of strength that nevertheless left Trixie breathless.

The air seemed still, no pony daring to even breathe as the kicked-up powder hung in the air. This close, the snow cloud was beautiful, the rays of the sun bouncing off and illuminating every individual snowflake, even as it was unable to penetrate the depths. At last the visibility improved, the snow either settling or being carried away on light winds.

Iceheart and the yeti were both standing on four hooves, looking at one another.

They were too far away for Trixie to see their faces, but she imagined Iceheart had a resolute expression, something where her eyes were just a little bit harder and her lips curled just a little tighter than her normal expression. Even imagining it left Trixie a little bit nervous. That look could as easily be turned on Trixie and Noire if Iceheart took a disliking to them.

Iceheart took a step forward.

The yeti didn’t move.

Iceheart stepped forward again.

The yeti’s front hooves moved back, curling in on itself.

Iceheart moved once more.

The yeti quickly turned around, running north, back into the snowstorm induced by the Windigo fossils.

“Occasionally, a creature wanders in from the north. Most of them leave after a while, but a few of them stick around, testing their limits, coming in closer and closer to the castle,” Aurora said.

Trixie took a look over at the pegasus, and blinked. She’s crying? Why is she crying?

Possibly ignorant of her own tears, Aurora continued on, “In the past, we lost a few good ponies to the carnivores. Iceheart was heartbroken by each death. She felt each of them could be averted. That’s when we decided to chase away every monster that gets close, before they can harm somepony. I should have taken that yeti I saw yesterday more seriously, it must have gotten closer than I realised.”

“This was before the stasis, right?” Noire asked, watching as Iceheart turned around, interacting with Snowpeak and the pegasus pony briefly before the three of them started moving back towards the castle. “Wouldn’t the Windigos have been a danger then as well?”

“It was. That’s why Iceheart insisted in going out personally on every mission,” Aurora said, sighing. “She has the greatest resistance to the cold of all of us. She and she alone can head outdoors with a fully trimmed coat. Iceheart did her utmost to keep the rest of us safe. When we returned, most ponies left for home. They might have nothing but nice words to say about her, but their opinions would never change the minds of everypony else at home.”

Aurora took a deep breath, and exhaled an even deeper breath, her shoulders sagging. “I don’t blame my family. They had to suffer under King Sombra. I’ve seen the scars on their bodies they incurred from his rule, and here I am, physically unmarked as a result of being up here. They see the commander as, I don’t know, perhaps that she enabled his rule by not attempting to rise up against him, or that she should have suffered. But they don’t really know what it was like up here.”

All three ponies in the area were silent again for several minutes, as at last Iceheart and the two ponies she had in tow entered the gates at the northern foot of the castle. Finally, Aurora said, “Hey.”

“Hmm? What?” Noire asked.

“You’re not really here for research on Windigos, are you?”

There wasn’t much point in denying it if Aurora had seen through them with her red-and-purple eyes, but Trixie felt she had to defend herself and Noire at least a little bit. “It was part of why we came up here. But no, it wasn’t the only reason,” she conceded.

Aurora narrowed her eyes, and she said, “I see. I don’t know what these other reasons are that you came here for, but as you can see, we’re practically a family here. You know, all of us have occasionally returned to the Empire to visit friends and family, all of us except Iceheart. She has accepted her status as an outcast. It’s like she might have mentioned, she intends to die here.”

Trixie felt as if she was being lectured, but she held her tongue. This was somepony opening up and giving them information, and Aurora was continuing to do that, as she said, “But Iceheart allows almost anypony who comes up north here to stay. Some of them are extreme tourists, some of them were researchers just like you two say you are, and some of them have other purposes, even some other Equestrian military ponies who once checked the place out. Every time, Iceheart asks them to share with us stories of the outside world, of how Equestria has changed over the last thousand years, and she’ll no doubt ask you at tonight’s dinner, or maybe tomorrow night’s. She enjoys hearing them, because they’re the only way she’ll ever experience this brave new world.”

“So, please, don’t take advantage of her generosity. We would have to make your stay uncomfortable if you did.”

Aurora let the threat hang in the air. Trixie marveled at the strength of will Iceheart was able to inspire in the pegasus pony. Whether Iceheart had embraced her choice to stay in this fort with gusto or felt pushed into it, her subordinates didn’t lack for loyalty.

Chancing another look out the castle, Aurora said, “Come on, I’ll take you downstairs. You can meet Snowpeak, and we’ll have breakfast.”

Author's Note:

Considering I originally estimated each arc would be about 15,000 words (New Moon clocked in at just under 17,000), this arc got out of hand. Next chapter should be shorter.

Windigos leaving remains that fossilise into a magical ice that's capable of inducing localised weather conditions (extreme cold, snowstorms) is an idea I've had on my mind. It's not implausible in a magical setting, and I thought it was a nifty enough concept to incorporate.

When it comes to Crystal ponies, I tend to write their coat, mane, and eye colours as being combinations of cold colours: green, blue, purple, and white. The exception to this is Aurora who gets a little bit of a mix of both with eye and mane colors, though her coat is green, to match the aurora borealis/australis, which is normally green but can vary from red to blue to purple.

I do proof-read my own work, and I re-read stuff a lot and catch wonky lines in addition to occasional poor spelling. However, there'll occasionally be a logic or inconsistency snafu that I overlook and isn't meant to be a set-up for plot later, so if you see one, please point it out! I'd be especially grateful.