• Published 14th Feb 2017
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Sun and Hearth - bookplayer



Princess Celestia and Smart Cookie have watched Equestria rise. They share a dream that’s entwined their hearts for two thousand years, and a love that’s given them the strength to see it realized. Now they face the ultimate test of that love.

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7 - A Light in a Dark Cave

The winds had changed. A warm, spring wind blew through Everfree and the surrounding forest, though the pegasi made note that it was still a month until the Turn of the Seasons, and ponies shouldn’t expect it to last. It made the ponies Cookie spoke to in the streets and shops uneasy; they were glad for the warmth but guarded in their optimism. It was unnatural for the weather to be out of the trusted hooves of the pegasi.

Muddy snow sloshed under the hooves of the six founders as they made their way down into the ravine. They were silent as they walked. Only Clover wanted to be making this trek, and she refused to tell them why until they got there.

Everypony in Everfree knew where the cave was and what had occurred there, but most ponies avoided it out of respect. Smart Cookie and his friends avoided it for another reason: it had nearly been their tomb. It might have also been the site of a miracle, the birth of their friendship and the nation of Equestria, but they could all agree that there was something unsettling about being surrounded by those walls of rock they’d stared at as they contemplated their certain and imminent demise.

As they approached the entrance, Cookie knew they were all expecting something important and probably magical. He’d personally told Clover that if anything less than the fate of Equestria hung in the balance, he’d rather just hear her relay the information.

Clover told him to come.

As he walked out of the daylight and into the dim cave, he could see why. Though the rock walls of the cave looked the same as always, there was no shiver down Cookie’s spine. Instead, the cave radiated the feeling of the Hearth’s Warming fire and the joyful hours it had burned while they bonded and planted the seeds that would become Equestria.

The cause of this was almost certainly the large, crystalline tree that now stood in the cave. It bore five jewels as if they were fruit, and etched on the trunk was a six-pointed star and the cutie marks of the Princesses of Equestria.

“What is it?” Platinum whispered.

“A tree.” Puddinghead tilted her head.

Platinum rolled her eyes. “Of course, Puddinghead. Clearly this is a tree and nothing more, despite growing in a cave, being adorned with crystals, and emitting an eerie glow.”

“You’re right, Platinum. This is no mere tree,” Clover said, nodding. “It’s a magic tree.”

Arching an eyebrow, Platinum gave her a dry stare. “That’s your studied opinion, is it, Lady Mage?”

Clover smirked. “It is. Completely certain of it.”

Cookie chuckled. “I feel as if I’m getting the hang of this magic business.”

Hurricane looked at it and frowned. “Can you explain why you brought me to see a magic tree? Magic and agriculture are very nice in their places, but unless that tree grows weapons I fail to see how it has anything to do with me.”

Clover shrugged. “Well, I thought you might be interested, since it came from us.”

“From us?” Pansy looked at Clover, her eyes wide.

“It would be a rather large coincidence if a magic tree just happened to sprout in the exact spot a powerful spontaneous spell was cast two decades prior.” Clover pointed to the cave entrance and the walls, then to the tree. Sure enough, despite some changes the root of the tree had made to the cave floor, it seemed to be in the exact spot their fire had appeared.

“How about that.” Hurricane nodded and turned to leave. “Good job, ponies. I think the castle is having potato stew tonight, anypony else going?”

Clover rolled her eyes. “Of course, it’s also potentially the most powerful magical weapon in the world.”

Hurricane stopped in his tracks and pivoted, looking straight at Clover. “Explain.”

“Yes, this sound worth hearing about,” Cookie said, staring at Clover with renewed interest.

Nodding, Clover walked in front of them, then turned to face her friends with the glowing tree behind her. “You’re all sworn to secrecy. I’ve already spoken to the princesses, and they want nopony else to know about this, but Princess Celestia suggested we all have a right…”

She took a breath and went on, “The spell that saved us was brought on by the magic of Harmony, one of the most powerful magics we know of. As Cookie and Pansy and I saw beyond our tribes and came to love each other as ponies—”

Puddinghead smirked and wiggled her eyebrows.

Not like that.” Clover rolled her eyes. “Not that Cookie isn’t a very attractive stallion, but I just can’t see myself with a stallion without a beard. And Pansy, well—”

Pansy’s face wore her even military expression as she intently studied the cave wall.

Cookie cleared his throat. “Clover.”

Clover shook her head. “Oh, yes, sorry. As we bonded, we brought some sorely needed Harmony to the world, and with no other outlet the magic came through us—Puddinghead, really!—and melted the ice, drove off the Windigos, and allowed us a future where we were alive and capable of giving bawdy looks while other ponies are trying to explain how the most powerful magic in the world ended up in our shrubbery.”

Clover’s glare at Puddinghead probably could have refrozen the cave, were it not for the magic of the tree. Puddinghead chuckled, and Clover’s face melted into a smile as she shook her head and went on.

“So, you see, this place became an entry point for Harmony in the physical world, and the jewels in this tree are solid Harmony magic. Now, that’s what we know. What I believe is that one could use those jewels to harness the same force we unleashed, the way you can use a lense to direct light. Rather than pushing the Windigos off, you could focus it at them like ants under a magnifying glass.”

“What would that do to them?” Pansy asked, her even expression tinged with caution and concern.

“I have no blasted clue, but nothing they’d like, I’m sure,” Clover said, raising her eyebrows.

Hurricane nodded. “We have to test this. We need to know the capabilities so we can form strategies, and train ponies—”

Clover fixed him with a stern look. “Not unless you can find an empty world we don’t mind accidentally destroying where we can test it. It would be a bad idea to find out the capabilities are that it can blow a magical hole in the world by blowing a magical hole in the world.”

Cookie raised his eyebrows, but Clover only paused a moment before pointing at Hurricane and adding, “And don’t even bother talking to Star Swirl about that, I’ve forbidden him from playing with interdimensional magic after the mirror incident.” She glared off to the side and muttered, “Developing a permanent portal to the realm where he’s been sending evil creatures… some days I think he’s saved the world enough times that he feels he has the right to end it.” She looked up at her friends. “You know what he’s working on now, the daft bugger? Cutie marks. Messing about with destiny.”

Pansy frowned. “That won’t end well.”

“No it will not, and I told him so. But will he listen?” Clover gestured broadly with a hoof, then seemed to notice her audience looking at her strangely. She gave an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, what were we talking about?”

“The magic tree weapon,” Cookie said, nodding towards the tree. “You can tell us about Star Swirl over dinner.”

“Oh, right.” She looked over her shoulder at it. “It would be a bad idea to try to use it unnecessarily, even if we did know exactly what will happen. Right now, it’s casting off a steady supply of Harmony magic, which is no doubt helping to guide Equestria and keep all sorts of minor nasty things at bay. If we take out the stones, that magic would eventually be dispersed, and who knows what might show up.”

Hurricane seemed to weigh the information. “But how will we know how to use them if we do need to?”

“That’s what I’m going to be working on.” Clover smiled. “There’s some good news on that front. I’ve been trying to piece out Harmony magic since the spell, and I think I’ve got it down to some elements based on fairly simple ideas like being kind to other ponies, enjoying life, giving to those in need, and being honest and true to your friends. Those are the bits we managed between us, and I have no doubt Princess Celestia is more than capable, though Princess Luna might need some work on it. I’d imagine controlling these might take some more focused magical power than we had, but we do have two alicorns close at hoof whose cutie marks happen to be on this tree, so we ought to be okay on that front.”

Cookie cast a suspicious glance at the tree. “I think the more important question is, how will we know when to use them if we need to?”

Hurricane tilted his head and stared at Cookie as if he wasn’t sure he was serious. “The same way we know when to use pegasi troops. When a situation logically demands such tactics.”

“But pegasi troops are a power that’s checked on many levels. Celestia must order you, you must agree, your officers and soldiers must spread their wings, and finally one pony must decide to thrust the spear. If a mistake is being made, each of those is a chance for a pony to realize it.” Cookie looked to the cave entrance in the direction of the castle. “If Clover is right, this power is entirely in Celestia’s hooves right now.”

Platinum arched an eyebrow. “You, of all ponies, can’t be saying you don’t trust Princess Celestia.”

Cookie frowned. “I trust Celestia as much as one can trust another pony. I don’t trust princesses.”

“I’m sure Princess Celestia will keep Princess Luna in check,” Puddinghead said, rolling her eyes.

“That’s not what I mean. I mean that Celestia is a pony, and ponies make mistakes. They have emotions and mistaken beliefs, and either of those things can lead ponies with even the best of intentions to do awful things. And we all know well that when magic is involved, it’s entirely possible to destroy the world by accident.” Cookie looked his friends in the eye in turn, and each had the shame to look away. Cookie went on, “But where we tried it with the full support of most of our tribes, now Celestia could potentially wipe out everything we’ve built by herself. I don’t like that.”

“She can already crash the sun into the ground if she wants to,” Clover pointed out.

“She can, of course, but we don’t pretend it’s something she’s supposed to decide. We have the charter and treaties that limit what she’s allowed to do with regards to the celestial bodies.”

Platinum pursed her lips. “And if we didn’t trust her, that would mean nothing.”

“And I trust her. She’s wise and good, a better pony than I am, and you’ll never hear me say otherwise.” He shook his head. “But if she was making a mistake, the charter would protect us from her might and her from being forced to live with the consequences.”

Clover nodded slowly. “I see what you’re saying, Cookie. But we can’t amend the charter without making it public knowledge, and I think we can agree that would be a very bad idea. As much as this magic might help Equestria out of a tight spot, it could also make us a target for powerful ponies or other beings for any number of reasons.”

Puddinghead nodded. “Besides, this is foolishness and Cookie worries too much. I vote that we leave things as they are and let the princesses decide when to use this power.”

“I second,” Hurricane added.

“All in favor?” Puddinghead raised her eyebrows. Her own hoof went up, along with Hurricane’s and Platinum’s. Clover gave Cookie a rueful look and then raised her hoof.

“Pansy?” Cookie asked, looking to the quiet pegasus.

She shook her head and raised a hoof. “I hope we never have to use it, but if we do, it should be up to Princess Celestia.”

“There we have it.” Puddinghead lowered her hoof and turned to the cave entrance. “The magic weapon tree is to be used as the princesses wish. Let’s go get dinner.”

The others followed her out of the cave, but Cookie couldn’t help stopping to look at the tree once more.

Clover hung back with him and offered a nuzzle. “There was nothing we could do anyway.”

“I know.” He swallowed. “But… it’s not only Equestria I worry about. This is yet another power that Celestia must weigh in the balance, and once again we’re leaving her to bear it herself.”

“Then don’t.” She gave him a gentle shove towards the castle. “Talk to her. You’re the pony she trusts most in the world. If you can make her see your points, perhaps she’ll arrange the matter herself.”

Cookie nodded reluctantly. “I suppose. I hope I can make her see reason.”

Clover smirked at him and raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got a better shot at it than I have with Star Swirl, at least.”

***

Celestia was confused and not a little apprehensive as she walked through her throne room to the door on the side. She had been looking forward to having half an hour before dinner to clear her head and perhaps visit with Cookie, but only one of those pursuits would be accomplished today.

The throne room cabinet was Celestia’s least-favorite room in the castle. It was a small study without windows, which guaranteed her and the pony speaking to her the utmost privacy. In the time since the castle had been built, nothing good had ever happened there.

In that room she’d heard more false accusations by ponies against their neighbors than she could count; ones easily debunked, spoken only in hopes of inconveniencing the subject or setting whispers against them. On rare, but worse, occasions she’d heard true ones; the horrific sort that the accuser didn’t want heard on the open hall. She’d been openly offered any number of underhoofed dealings by foreign officials: bribes, secret treaties, and proposals to marry her sister off to some foreign prince or king “to be rid of her.” She usually left feeling in need of a bath, a small cake, and a troop of her finest guards to set somepony straight.

Cookie knew this, and knew how her feathers ruffled whenever she was requested there. Yet she opened the door to find him seated on one of the cushions, studying a painting of Star Swirl befriending Scorpan.

Celestia entered, closing the door behind her, and sat on the other cushion. She took a deep breath. “Cookie, please explain why we’re here.”

Cookie offered a sympathetic look, then drew himself up. “I need to speak to you about the Tree of Harmony. And I need to speak to you as your advisor, not your beloved; I don’t want Puddinghead accusing me of ruling from your bed chambers.”

Celestia smiled. At that moment, she’d have prefered if he tried to rule from her bed chambers; he certainly looked handsome when he was attempting to be stately. “Puddinghead is your friend, Cookie. She would never imply something like that.”

“She certainly would, though only because it wouldn’t matter to her if I was.” He frowned in thought and looked down. “But it would matter to Hurricane and Platinum, and besides that, I can see the argument that discussing these matters when you’ve taken off your crown might lend undue weight to my thoughts. If anything, I expect this meeting will influence you in the opposite direction, so if there’s wisdom in what I say, you’ll see only that.”

“Can’t we discuss it in council?” she asked, eyeing the door.

Cookie shook his head. “I’ve already discussed it with the others, and they disagree. I won’t waste their time. You’re welcome to talk to them yourself, but a fair summary is that they trust you without question and see that as the end of the matter.”

Celestia raised her eyebrows at the sting in the implication. “And you disagree with this.”

“You know that I trust you, Celestia,” Cookie said gently. “And you know just as well that I don’t trust your position.”

She understood what Cookie meant, though a frown still crossed her face. “Should I insist you call me Princess for this?”

He arched an eyebrow, his face otherwise steady. “If you wish to have me thrown in the dungeon, that’s your prerogative.”

They stared at each other for a moment before she looked down at the gold plates that covered her forelegs. “As time goes on, I find it hard to separate myself from my position. My love for Equestria is the focus of my life. I won’t ask that you use my title, but recognize that this love and the duty it gives me are more than a profession. I cannot set down my work when the sun is lowered, and I cannot be trusted as a pony if I’m not trusted as a princess.”

“All the more reason for me to insist.” Cookie frowned. “How many fine qualities do you have as a pony that you cannot display as a princess? How many practical, balanced decisions do you make as a princess that the pony inside fights against? To force that poor pony to endure the judgements and pressures of the crown would break her, and it’s my place to give her strength by directing those where they belong.”

Celestia sighed. “Very well. What is the matter at hoof?”

Cookie leaned forward. “I feel it’s in the best interests of Equestria for you to request an amendment to the charter, requiring the approval of some number of your advisors to remove the crystals from the tree and attempt to use them as a weapon.”

She blinked. “But I would already seek your approval. As I understand it, that’s why I have the council.”

“You aren’t required to.” He glanced at the door to the room. “If you felt strongly enough, you could march down to that cave and remove them right now.”

Searching his face for some piece of logic she was missing, she countered, “If I felt strongly enough, I could do that regardless of what a piece of paper says.”

“But you wouldn’t,” he said firmly. “You wouldn’t breach the charter based on personal feelings.”

“I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t ignore the advice of ponies I trust. Cookie, this is foolishness.” She frowned as a thought crossed her mind. “Is this because you don’t trust Luna?”

He shook his head. “No, not at all. I trust her far less than I trust you, but I know she would never act against your wishes. This is because I don’t believe that much power should rest in the hooves of one pony, regardless of the many wonderful qualities that pony possesses. It’s not fair to ponies who lack that power, and it’s not good for the pony who holds it.”

Knowing Cookie as she did, it was no surprise that his philosophies sometimes outstripped practicality, but it was her place to rein him when it happened. “Ponies have different amounts of power. There’s only so much fairness that can be allotted on that matter.”

He smirked. “You might have guessed by my lack of both wings and horn that I know that well. But we can allow that it’s wrong to use that power to harm ponies or their world without extremely good reason.”

“And I would never do that!” Celestia protested with more stridency than she would have dared with any other pony.

Cookie calmly looked her in the eye. “How can you be sure? Celestia, would you go to the grocer or barber on the corner and trust his judgement on this matter?”

“Of course not.” She studied his face for a sign of where this led. “Explain to me how you are better than him,” he said, leaning back as though awaiting an answer.

Celestia drew herself up and regarded him with a serious expression. “I have experience. I’m not the young mare who took this crown, Cookie. I’ve ruled for fifteen years now.”

He arched an eyebrow. “And in fifteen years you’ve become infallible? Is ruling a kingdom the only profession that works this way?”

“I’m not infallible, and I know that well, which is why I listen to my advisors.”

“Then why is having that made law so offensive to you?”

“Because I must wield this power, no matter what you say,” she snapped.

Instantly she became aware that she had misspoken. Cookie’s eyes narrowed in a way she had never seen, and he moved to rise to his hooves.

“If that’s true, I have no more to say.”

“Cookie, wait. I meant…” She saw him pause, and he looked at her. She still saw anger in his eyes, and an accusation of betrayal, but behind that was guarded hope. She carefully considered her next words.

“This is an ethical consideration to you. I understand. Those concerns are vital to me as well, for I must consider them carefully for my rule to be good and just. And you know that I want nothing more than that, and to see Equestria thrive.” She kept her eyes locked on his, hoping he would take it as a sign of honesty.

He nodded and shifted to a more comfortable position.

Celestia swallowed, trying to give voice to her deepest fears, “But… I meant that I, Celestia, must wield this power. As a pony, with nothing but my own wisdom and my dream for Equestria to guide me. And if I use it, or fail to use it, and it brings another harm… no crown, nor council, nor law will protect my conscience.”

She frowned and looked down at her hooves. “Because of that, when it comes to this issue, those things are worthless to me. Perhaps even dangerous, if I allow another to prevent me from doing what’s right.”

Cookie reached his forehoof across and laid it on hers, and he answered in a strong, gentle voice, “Celestia, that isn’t right either. We can’t ask you to do this to yourself. I know what you bear for Equestria, and I will be by your side to help you in any way I can, as long as I live… but you can allow this weight to rest in part on other ponies.”

She looked up into his eyes. “Could you do that? Could you put Equestria into the hooves of another at its darkest hours?”

He stared at her a moment. Then he took a deep breath and looked at where his hoof lay on top of hers. “I already do. No matter what I say, it is you who wields the power.”

Celestia looked at Cookie, remembering for the first time in many years who he was, that he had seen Equestria born out of despair and darkness. That she might fail at some crucial moment and watch Equestria destroyed... that would be devastating. But being forced to watch it happen, with no power but words that could fall on deaf ears…

“I’m sorry, Cookie,” she whispered.

“We share the same dream. I sleep more soundly for that.” Cookie looked up with a smirk. “If we had a ruler who didn’t, I might try to take the stones from the tree myself.”

Celestia smiled. “I sleep more soundly for that.”

He chuckled. “I don’t see why. I could perhaps throw them at a usurper, though not very hard I expect.”

With the same smile, she raised her eyebrows at him. “You’ve used their magic before.”

He blinked, and then stammered, “I… I had Clover there. I’m sure it was—”

“This is the magic of Harmony. It’s the magic that gave birth to our dream, and holds it together. To be honest, I’m not sure it could harm Equestria, though there are many poor choices that can be made without bringing down a nation.” She stood and crossed the short distance, leaning down to nuzzle him. “I think if something drove you back to that cave, you’d be surprised at the magic you possess.”

Cookie gave a snort, but his cheek remained pressed to hers. “I hope in the courses of the stars that we’re never that desperate.”

“But if we were?”

He was silent for a moment, but he finally whispered, “...I would grasp for the power to protect Equestria, until my last breath.”

Celestia felt her heart warm. Something between them relaxed, and her smile neared a grin as she said, “That’s the power I need to hold. I can’t grant your request.”

Cookie pulled away with a sigh, climbing to his hooves, but something in his eyes seemed brighter. “I understand. I don’t agree—”

Cookie.” Celestia rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t keep the smile from her face.

Cookie smirked. “But I do understand, so I’ll leave it be.”

Celestia looked down into his eyes. “And I promise you, I will keep your council, and our dream, in my mind and heart as long as I rule Equestria.”

They stood for a moment, and Celestia felt she could see so much in his eyes. A desperate pony fighting biting snow and ice, looking for a new land to save his friends and neighbors. The warm glow of a magical hearth, and the laughter and song that nurtured a dream. All of his love and respect for her, and the pride he took in her achievements. The dream they shared, and the desire and drive to see it realized. She knew in that moment that she might live forever, but she would never love another pony as she loved him.

He smiled at her. “Thank you.” Then, after a short pause, he went on, “Could I also ask that we hurry along to dinner? They won’t start until you get there, and I think if we hold it up any longer Hurricane won’t be fit for the company of ponies.”

Celestia chuckled. “I think I may have the power to defend Equestria from Hurricane’s foul mood.”