• Published 26th May 2020
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Tales from Everfree City - LoyalLiar

Princess Platinum and Celestia's first student face changelings, a magical curse, the specter of war with the griffons, and the threat of arranged marriage in early Equestria.

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I - XI

The Party

The court herald announced in his most powerful voice “Announcing the Lady Celestia, and… oh goddesses…

“You can keep it short this time,” Celestia whispered.

The herald swallowed and whispered back “Thank you, merciful one,” before picking up again “The Mage Coil the Immortal of the Crystal Union.”

If the vinyl record had been invented on that day, I am certain one would have audibly scratched. As it was, in reverence to ‘her holiness’’ arrival, the lutists and psalterists and the hurdy-gurdian (along with the other, less amusingly titled musicians) ceased their performance of elevator music, and the more-or-less abrupt silence led heads to turn. Most of the room had the decency at least to feign their looks of confusion or disbelief as reverent glances to the living goddess who had entered the chamber, but from her place at the head of the room, Queen Platinum I could have stopped a lesser pony’s heart with the glare she shot me.

For those picturing the ballroom of Canterlot from familiarity with events like the Grand Equestrian Gala, I can say that the size of the Everfree Palace’s ballroom put that chamber to shame. This is likely largely owed to the fact that the architects of the latter structure had the advantage of building on flat ground, instead of projecting out of the side of a mountain. To make up for the lack of such a notable location, Everfree’s ballroom was host to a number of interesting decisions. Firstly, the room occupied three floors of the palace, with galleries overhead where those too old, infirm, or quadruply left-hooved to feel comfortable cutting a rug on the marble floor could nonetheless participate in high society. Despite being called a ballroom, the chamber had further been built with dining space and decoration in mind—the latter emphasized by a massive stone orrery whose depictions of the planets and the stars would one day be replaced by a set of six immensely powerful magical artifacts… but that’s neither a story about me, nor my story to tell. At the time of Gale’s birthday party, the orbs were glass, enchanted by some half-baked wizard or other to glow with an inner sparkle, the memory of which would one day inspire the invention of the disco ball following a period of ill-advised drinking and reflection on ages past. At the time, however, rather than gauche they could only be called avante-garde, and therefore utterly symbolic of the party itself: matching Queen Platinum’s taste over her daughter’s, and frankly, disgusting the younger royal.

Celestia delicately lit her horn, and seven notes rang out on one of the lutes hidden among the bandponies; apparently, that was enough of a sign to start the music back up, and soon the party had gone back to the discussions they were already having. She must have sensed my curiosity, as she whispered to me “You must have heard that some of Gale’s suitors belong to noble houses, right?”

I nodded. “I think I heard one or two. Spicy—” Celestia shot me a disapproving frown for using Gale’s nickname. “—is from the ‘House of Three’ or something?”

Celestia nodded. “Legend has it that Queen Platinum’s bloodline is descended from my foals, hence their name: ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ That song is in their honor.” Then her voice jumped about a dozen decibels and an octave as she lifted her head. “Ah, good day Luna.”

“Sister,” Luna replied with a nod of her head, before her tone turned a touch icier. “Coil.”

“Lady Luna.” I offered my best elaborate bow, only for Luna to yank me up by my collar.

“Save yourself the embarrassment and just be rude passively, colt; whatever overblown self-origami that was will not impress anypony here.” Then she chuckled. “Though I am curious how many bridges you even have left to burn.”

“Says the mare who accused me of murder.”

“I believe I already explained myself,” Luna answered. “And further, did I not aid you in your final battle?”

“Fair enough.” I nodded. “Thank you.”

“Do not forget that you still owe me a geas,” Luna answered, before turning back to her sister. “I’m curious, sister; do you intend to wait in line to greet Gale, like a mortal, or are you at least going to exert your authority to skip the line and walk up to her side?” Luna gestured with a wing to where a rather offensively long line of ponies had queued up the steps to a dais at the head of the room. There, Gale slowly shook hooves, made small talk, and visibly contemplated suicide beside her parents—Queen Platinum I and Commander Hurricane, for anypony who has forgotten—each flanked by a small cluster of hangers-on.

I had eyes for none of them. For all Gale’s complaints about the effort it took to appease her mother with her appearance, the effect was startling. She wore just a touch of makeup—a faint gloss on her lips and two arcs of a purple eyeshadow to add tone and depth to her lilac coat. I’m certain she had to fight to keep the effects at that, given that for all her beauty in her age, Queen Platinum was nearly caked in the stuff. Still, it added just the right touches to compliment her regal silver dress, scaled like dragonskin and glittering up to a metallic rose on her left shoulder, sitting on the only strap the garment had. Though the trail covered her tail (since in our adventures, she had cropped it far too short to be seen in ‘polite’ society), it was with a slimming fabric and no petticoat, in an almost Cirran style which alluded to her paternal parentage and also scandalously alluded to the fact that she did, in fact, possess hind fetlocks.

Society in those days could sometimes be astoundingly prudish.

I only caught the trail end of Celestia’s comments when my ears caught my name. “...for Morty’s benefit, I can survive mingling in line for a bit. If you’d be so kind, though, do send one of the ponies with the horse d'oeuvres trays over; that should tide me over until the cake, at least.”

Luna chuckled. “Never was there a greater evidence of our immortality, Sister dearest, than that you haven’t yet died of a heart attack.” Walking away, she waved a wing back toward us. “Fear not, big sister; you shan’t starve on my watch.”

“Shan’t?” I asked, incredulously. “Mareistotle would like her vocabulary back.”

“Luna thinks she’s a poet,” Celestia answered. “Morty, do my flanks look wide to you?”

Now, I should remind the reader that Gale was my first and only real romance, save a sort of ‘arch-nemeses-with-purely-theoretical-benefits’ relationship with the commander of the crystal guard. Hence, I had no idea just what sort of a bear trap had been set in front of my poor, unguarded sensitive parts when I heard that question.

Fortunately, by the sheer blind luck of a newborn foal at a construction site in a slapstick comedy, I managed to evade what might otherwise have been certain death when I answered “Um… Proportionally, no?”

“It’s refreshing to be around somepony so direct,” Celestia replied, patting me on the back. “Come on; let’s go meet Gale.”

However good Celestia’s intentions may have been, the reverence of the other ponies at the party was greater. “Please, your holiness, go ahead.” “Oh, I couldn’t dream of making you wait in line, Lady Celestia.” “I couldn’t live with myself if I stood in your way.” “Thank fuck you finally got up here; I want to die.”

In case it wasn’t obvious, that last one was Gale when we reached her at the end of the line.

Language,” snapped Queen Platinum at a volume that Celestia and I could both hear quite clearly over the music, but which at least I have to imagine the rest of the room could not. “Lady Celestia. I see you’ve taken the liberty of inviting Coil.” I don’t know if I could have fit so much derision into the last few of those words. It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Queen looked in my direction, but she certainly addressed me from out of the corner of her eye, where her practiced smile seemed all the more malevolent. “May I have a word in private, Mortal?”

Coil, your Highness.” I tried to match her smile, calm and forced and porcelain, though I suspect the hint of teeth at the edge of my cheek showed I was an amateur up against a practiced master.

As I stepped past the Queen further up onto the dais and away from the line behind us, she corrected “Majesty” into my ear. “I don’t take offense, Coil, but if you intend to be around Gale and I for any length of time, you ought to know: Majesty is for the seated monarch, while Highness is for other members of her family.” By the time she stopped us walking, I was more than comfortably able to lean up against one of the marbled cloudstone pillars supporting the chamber. “And that is precisely what I wish to speak to you about.”

“Being around Gale?” I clarified.

Platinum nodded. “The crown apologizes for wrongly accusing you of Wintershimmer’s crimes, and we would like to reward you on another day in the near future: some funds, help settling yourself permanently in Everfree if that is your final plan, perhaps even a boon. That being said, I cannot encourage you enough to consider taking up Queen Jade’s offer and returning to the Crystal Union to serve as their court mage.”

“Are the rumors that bad?” I asked jokingly.

Silver nostrils flared as they sucked in a harsh gasp of air, covering over what might otherwise have been a very harsh response. “You will recall that when Lady Luna was making her case in court that you were guilty of Wintershimmer’s crimes, it was my daughter’s intercession that bought you another day to plead your case?”

“Well, apart from the fact that I ran off and actually fought Wintershimmer instead of coming back to court… but yes.”

“I am curious what spell you cast to be in two places at once. And why your substitute seemed so intent on eating the furniture and scratching itself like a dog…” The Queen shrugged; apparently, nopony had explained that I had a young changeling in my services to Her Majesty. I tucked that thought into the back of my mind as she continued. “But my point is moreso that by a means of distraction, the Princess took the liberty of… shall we delicately say romancing your horn in full view of an open court?”

“Ah…” The experience—my first real encounter between my horn and the inside of another pony’s mouth—would have been hard to forget even without the unusual and extremely public circumstances. “Yes, I can see how that would give the wrong impression…”

“I want this to be clear, Coil. I know you have not grown up around the subtleties of court, and if I speak to you in that way, you may not understand my meaning. So forgive my bluntness. First, you have done nothing to earn my ire, and I do not want to be a tyrant of a mother who tells my daughter whom she can and cannot befriend. But I must be the Queen first, just as she will one day have to be. And right now, your presence around my daughter is swirling with unpleasant, unwanted implications. So I wanted to make my stance clear.”

She drew in another slow breath, and then leaned forward, placing a hoof against my chest as she did so. “You are the sort of pony who sucks the air from every room he enters. But your hero’s story ended with Wintershimmer. I may not have your former teacher’s magical prowess, but do not make the mistake of thinking that means I am impotent. This is the most important day of my daughter’s life. If you pull the eyes of Equestria away from her in this critical time, I will treat you like any other enemy of our nation.”

“I…” I lifted my hoof to push hers away, only to feel the tingle of magic as her horn restrained my leg from doing just that. The force was trivial—as I may have mentioned, I was by no means a physically powerful young stallion—and after a moment I caught the Queen panting as my muscle strength overcame her telekinesis; I didn’t even have to push her hoof away in the end, as she lowered it to the floor to support herself. “Right. Queen Platinum, let’s not kid ourselves; you can’t even put up enough strength to stop my hoof. I know you mean to be threatening me with some kind of vague ‘political power’ warning and not blunt magic, but frankly, you’re not going to get far with that. I don’t really answer to you. And as we’ve already established, Celestia is on my side. I’m not going to pick a fight with you, so please, don’t humiliate yourself trying to threaten me.” I grinned. “I don’t mind keeping out of the spotlight tonight; you could have saved a lot of breath and just said that.” Then, when she kept panting, I offered her my foreleg as a brace. “Do you need a hoof? Or a doctor?

The Queen massaged her temple with the same hoof that had moments before been pressed against my chest. “I appreciate the offer, but no. I’m just not as young as I used to be.” Then she nodded. “Let it not be said, young stallion, that I did not give you fair warning.”

When we returned to Gale’s little entourage, we found Hurricane and Celestia sharing some humor which, judging by Gale’s blush, was at her expense.

“It was better when it was short! I—Right, Morty?”

“When what was short?”

“My daughter is asking for your opinions about her tail length,” clarified Commander Hurricane. “So I suggest you choose your next words very carefully.

“I…” I swallowed as I stared at Hurricane and, once more, my brain struggled to reconcile the aging scarred pegasus with the monster under my bed as a foal. Hurricane had not led the Equestrian armies in decades, having yielded his command to his eldest daughter Typhoon since before I was even born. However, growing up in the Crystal Union, I interacted with no small number of ponies who had stood on the opposite line from this dreaded stallion on the battlefields of a thousand tiny wars. It was no small testament to how badly he had beaten back the crystals that ponies called him ‘the Butcher’ in the north.

Thus, while I had (foolishly) brushed off the Queen’s warning, the former Commander’s threat left me with a surprisingly large knot in the apple of my throat. “I… like braids?”

Hurricane chuckled, nodding. “Well played, Morty.”

“Fuckin’ pussy,” Gale muttered under her breath. “I know you liked it when we were hiking to River Rock.”

After a moment to still my quivering legs, I addressed Hurricane. “For the record, sir, I’m sorry for lying to you about Gale being in danger.”

Hurricane shrugged (it always looked awkward when he did that, since pegasi usually use the base of their wings in lieu of their fore-shoulders, and one of his was completely missing). “You were right. I should have given you more credit. I suppose I’m sorry for our argument about your magic.”

Celestia patted me on the back with her wing. “Using necromancy, you mean?” When Hurricane nodded, she smiled softly, and rather sadly. “Your experience was… unique, Hurricane; I promise Morty isn’t doing anything so… drastic.”

“Wait… are you dead, Dad?” Gale looked briefly between Celestia and Hurricane. Celestia muffled a chuckle with her wing, while Hurricane’s reaction was to bury his entire face in his one remaining blue-black feathered limb.

“No ‘e’, Gale. I’m just Dad.” Hurricane chuckled, before the humor abruptly fell from his face. “I am not dead. And we won’t be discussing that further.”

“That’s exactly what somepony dead would say,” Gale teased.

I shook my head. “Undead are usually cannibalistic and almost always cold-blooded.” I reached out a hoof toward Hurricane, before realizing just who I was nearly touching. He rolled his eyes, and then extended a foreleg, which I dared to briefly touch. “Besides, with the apparent exception of Luna, I’m pretty sure I’m the only pony alive who could make an undead that could talk—and I’m not exactly inclined.”

Hurricane closed his eyes as he shook his head, and I watched a little knot build up on his back, just above his one wing—a common tell of disgruntlement in pegasi, though I didn’t know that at the time. “Is pulling somepony’s soul away from their eternal rest to pester them with questions better?”

“Hurricane, there’s no need to be so blunt,” Celestia chided. Then she turned to me. “You should know, Morty, that while I happen to know that Hurricane’s perspective is justified, there are also a lot of ponies in Equestria who look down on necromancy for less personal reasons; you might want to use a lighter touch when discussing it.”

I shrugged. “To be fair, it’s not something I do lightly. Seancing somepony is like walking into their bedroom without knocking; it’s rude, but if it’s important or you know the pony very well, it’s acceptable. Dragging their soul back to create an undead is like breaking into somepony’s bedroom, locking them in manacles, and dragging them out of their home, and forcing them to work for you.”

“Kinky,” Gale ‘helpfully’ added.

I rubbed a hoof across my face. “You know, I’m beginning to think Spicy’s weird mud-maids might be part of some complex all nobles have, and it’s not just her.”

“I assure you, Coil,” said the Queen, who had finally caught up to us and was doing an impressive job not looking worn out by whatever signs of age were showing under her makeup, “that it’s a product of age, and not birth. Now, with respect to our conversation, you have my daughter’s ear any other day of the year; those in line behind you cannot say the same.” She nodded. “If you need somepony to socialize with, I believe you’ve already met all of Gale’s meaningful suitors; I understand they’re in the drawing room there on the second floor above the bandstand, enjoying some sort of party game or other. Lady Celestia, if you would do us the honor of staying for a moment, we have some things I would like to discuss with you.”

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

The seven suitors always seemed an odd sight to me; even dressed their best, their respective ideas of ‘best’ were so dramatically, culturally disparate that they might well have been different species altogether. High Castle and Spice Menage seemed to be holding some sort of fiercely petty discussion in the finest unicorn fashions, all clad in lace and threaded metals and gemstone jewelry. Both also held drinks in thin-stemmed glasses, hovering aloft in their respective magical grips, though I suspect Spicy’s just may have been some sort of alchemical creation rather than alcohol, given its unnatural purple color and the way it visibly fizzed, well before the invention of modern carbonation. Count Halo spoke closely with the two much younger ponies, and from what I could see under his armor, he was attired similarly. The weapons and shield he wore were obviously some sort of formal uniform for a knight, covered as they were in sashes and ribbons, but I still found myself surprised he had been allowed into a party of any kind with that many weapons on his back and sides.

The next group, consisting of Caporegime Coral and Secretary Peanut, could not have been more foreign to their appearance. While Peanut was clad in a modest brown leather tunic with puffy green frills at the shoulders, the animation of his limbs certainly offset any restraint in his outfit; he could not have been further from the subdued business stallion I had met the prior day if he tried. And evidently Caporegime would have far preferred the former; dressed in a Cirran tunic, all dark gray with a pattern of lines that would, in more modern days, have been identified as pinstripes, the pegasus seemed to be completely interested in whatever small ball of cheese and vegetables was resting on the plate he had balanced on his right wing, and not whatsoever in the topic of Peanut’s interest.

Finally, whether confident enough in their value to society or just clueless enough not to know better, Gray Rain and Archmage Grayscale proudly kept to themselves as they fought for the apparently enviable title of worst-dressed suitors at the party. Gray wore what I would later learn was a Cirran dress uniform: steel segmented armor over a Cirran tunic. Unlike Count Halo, however, his armor was not further decorated with ribbons or sashes or medals of any kind; apart from a pair of cloth strips on his shoulders marking his rank, his torso was nearly dominated by the color of cold skysteel. Even worse, as a Cirran Praefectus Faborum (basically, an army engineer), the color marking his rank was also gray. The result was a dull monochrome stain on a lively, colorful party.

Archmage Grayscale at least provided contrast to his discussion partner. Really, that is the highest compliment I can pay the appearance of that sniveling excuse for an overblown hedge mage; he had enchanted his pajama-length robes to swirl in a whirl of colors all across the spectrum of the rainbow, unrestrained by order, or artistic inspiration, or good taste. Tie-dye would not be invented for literal centuries, and yet in the single figure of Grayscale, it was already ruined.

In short, the ponies assembled were dressed to the nines, for better or for worse. They should, therefore, have known to show me some respect, as I was a ten naked, and when dressed up formally, got dizzyingly close to the legendary heights of a twelve. Alas, with the exception of Peanut Gallery (who knew a proper stallion when he saw one… probably in an ancient religious text sense), the suitors were hapless as to matters of decorum, or taste, or when they were simply outmatched.

“Ah, Coil! Everypony, have you met her highness’ newest pet?” I gritted my teeth as that introduction from High Castle got the other stallions—and one mare—to look up from their focus on an as-yet-unformed slab of ice and toward my direction.


High Castle wagged a hoof back and forth in front of his chest. “I believe I told you it was Lord Castle to you, Colt.”

To my surprise, it was Count Halo who came to my defense. “Duke Castle, Lord Coil is Her Radiance’s chosen; if anything, Her Highness is lucky to have him as her confidante.” Then, perhaps slightly deferentially, the knight covered in swords added “Not that he is not a bit rough around the edges, but such things are to be expected when one is raised amongst barbarians. Come, join us; we’re just about to play a round of Ice Castles; do you know the game?”

I scratched a hoof to my brow. “Build a castle out of ice with your magic and see whose looks best?” I’d played a game of that sort with Wintershimmer when I was a foal; for teenage unicorns who have regular access to ice as we did in the Crystal Union, it was a common way to teach telekinetic control. With the curious case of my horn, prone as it was to bursts of uncontrollable power that would often drain me into unconsciousness from overuse, it was instead an exercise in seeing how cleverly I could achieve an abstract goal in as few spells as possible.

Spicy answered as if speaking to the worst bred dog at a dog show. “Well, there are points to be had, for things like height and number of spires and so forth, but yes; that’s the gist of it. Secretary Gallery has volunteered to judge for us.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I told her, “but I’m afraid I’m on doctor’s orders not to use my horn right now unless there’s some sort of actual emergency; I could do permanent damage to it.”

“That’s no trouble at all,” offered Peanut, grinning ear-to-ear. “You can sit over here with me and judge.” In what I’m sure he felt was an inviting gesture, he patted the ground next to his flank.

“Well, that works.” I nodded, and though I didn’t sit quite as close as Peanut clearly wanted, I did take the offered seat. “Gray, Capo, will you two also be judging since you aren’t unicorns?”

Caporegime clicked his tongue. “Ice is one of the elements of pegasus magic, Coil. If anything, we’ve got ourselves an unfair advantage. Though since ice isn’t my strong suit, it probably evens out.”

Gray Rain nodded. “Commander Typhoon—who is largely considered the strongest ice empath in the Legion—is said to have once bested Archmage Diadem at such a game. I similarly lack a strength in the element, but we shall manage.”

I won’t bore you describing the slow and laborious process of building six castles out of blocks of ice, dear reader; despite sounding like a fun party game, it is really just about as fun as anything else that nobles do at dinner parties. That is to say, I would rather have had my old ‘Schroedingallop’s ex’ from the Crystal Union rip out the back of my neck again.

The one notable development in the process of about an hour, as spires and battlements and crenellations emerged from frigid pale ice, was when High Castle produced from inside his dinner jacket a small spindly vial, and from it released a thick layer of fog that coalesced into a rather dense cloud floating at about head-level in the room. His castle, just beside it, was unique amongst the shapes present for the fact that instead of leaving the base of his block of ice untouched, Castle had whittled it down into almost a wine glass stem, concerningly thin to support the weight of the bulk ice above it. Using his magic (since unicorn hooves tend to be useless for that sort of thing) he wrapped the bottled cloud around the underside of his tapered structure, and then with a show of magical force, snapped the ‘stem’ completely. Everypony turned at the sudden sound, but to all of our surprise, his creation floated in midair, suspended safely atop the cloud.

Caporegime was the first to acknowledge the trick with a short and muffled clap of his hooves. “Bellissimo, Lord Castle. Did you have that planned in advance to win our little game, or—”

Castle chuckled, grinning in pride at himself. “Sort of, pegasus.” I think my expression may have soured more than Capo’s at how haughtily the young unicorn raised himself up through that particular expression of blatant racism. “I arranged the ice to be here for the game in the first place, but I assure you it wasn’t out of any particular desire to overshadow anypony. But you see, Her Highness made a particularly difficult request of me for a birthday gift.”

“You too?” Spice Menage shook her head in frustration.

“I surmise that was her real challenge to all of us.” When Gray Rain’s monotone observation was done, he turned to me. “You accompanied her yesterday, Coil; am I correct?”

I shrugged. “Well… If I’m being honest, I don’t think she actually wanted most of what she asked for. ‘A crossbow bolt through the eye’ doesn’t seem like a real birthday wish to me.”

Grayscale sighed. “She should be careful what she wishes for.”

“Oh please; she’s going to be Queen some day, Archmage.” High Castle shook her head. “This isn’t some cautionary story about a fairy or a genie; it’s obviously a test of us as suitors. One I intend to pass.” He gestured to his visibly floating castle. “What do you think, Coil? It’s inarguably a castle in the clouds—and with less than a day to prepare I think she’ll be hard pressed to argue I failed her wish.” Then he turned back to his structure. “I assume the rest of you are keeping your particular challenges to yourselves? Certainly, I won’t blame anyone for saving face that they could not satisfy Her Highness’ whims.”

As the other suitors grumbled, I reflected on how satisfying it would have been to break High Castle’s nose. Peanut at least made for better company; despite how unsubtle he tended to be with his motions and body language (a fault shared by many party ponies, in my experience… though they tend to be surprisingly good at cards regardless), he was restrained enough in his dialogue that, if I took my eyes off of him, it was easy to forget he was hitting on me.

“So Gale told everypony she could find all about your adventures,” Peanut began as soon as the other suitors had started sculpting. “But I only know the story as far as River Rock, and what little I picked up from the gossip around town. Did you really fight an army of golems at Platinum’s Landing?”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “Well, I don’t know if it was an ‘army’; there were only a few dozen. But when they’re twenty feet tall…” I shrugged. “You tell me. I imagine I’m going to have to start earlier in the story, though…”

We talked for some time about my journey, interrupted by some waiters with plates and tiny cups of exotic juices—dragonfruit and starfruit and pomegranate (which at the time was an unheard of delicacy in temperate Equestria)—and finally, after my story was done and I looked up, I saw in front of us a half dozen mostly formed castles.

“So… how does this scoring work? I’ve never built an ice castle competitively.”

Peanut shrugged slightly. “There are competition rules, but between us, I don’t really know how they work. I just know what’s worth awards. In short, anything tall and narrow is to be awarded. Architecture is a must of course, and creativity. Color is a plus, but most especially if it isn’t from magic. I probably won’t give any points for Castle’s cloud thing, since he had the advantage of planning.”

“Anything for motion?” I asked.

The question earned me a raised brow from not just Peanut, but also Count Halo and Caporegime. It was the latter who spoke up. “Coil, it’s ice. I don’t know what you’re imagining, but I don’t think most of us can manage to make it move without actually having our wings or horns on it.”

I shook my head. “Sorry; I have no idea if pegasus magic can make something move on its own like that. But… Grayscale, you know what I mean, right? That it’s not that hard to make the ice move on its own?”

Grayscale huffed. “If you’re implying I would cheat by bringing a carved golem core into a perfectly fair competition, then the morals you learned from Wintershimmer are showing. Even if I had wanted to cheat, as Lord Castle already said, he was the only pony who knew we’d have the ice for a game set up in advance.”

“Of course not!” I rolled my eyes. “I apologize; I was assuming you were good enough to make the ice itself into a simple golem. But I forget you’re inept at necromancy.”

There was, suddenly, the loud clang of steel cutting through ice, as in a burst of surprised force, Count Halo drove one of his blades through the walls of his frozen redoubt and decapitated the keep into shards of snowcone base. Unlike Castle’s stem snapping, it was transparent simply from the volume of the noise that the blow had not been intentional. “Lord Coil, please! I knew you came from a dark past, but surely Her Radiance has taught you the error of such dark magic!”

“Necromancy isn’t—” I caught myself as my discussion with Celestia and Hurricane came to mind. I slowly bit my tongue and did my best to heed them. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Count. In my defense that is the magic I used to save Celestia, but—”

“And now you besmirch Her Radiance’s honor again?” If the shattering of the ice sculpture hadn’t gathered the room’s attention, then the increasing volume of Halo’s shouting did.

I held up my hooves to try and calm down the stallion. “Look, Halo… I’m not trying to besmirch anything.”

“Very good,” the stallion nodded. “Then if perhaps the Goddess has not yet seen your practice of the black arts, I shall educate you: such things are forbidden in her faith. If you are to be her chosen, you will renounce their practice forthwith.”

Peanut gently tapped me on the shoulder. “That seems like a nice way to settle things down, and—”

“It’s my special talent,” I interrupted, feeling my ears slowly flatten against my meticulous mane. “You want me to give up my mark?” I reached back with a hoof and patted my flank.

“Surely you’ve misinterpreted it, then,” replied Halo. “Her Radiance would never willingly accept somepony so fundamentally evil—”

“You’re wrong,” I interrupted, my voice trembling as I held back the urge to shout. “But even if you were right, even if I stood here, the greatest living necromancer in the entire world, the pale master, younger than anypony who ever held that title before—even if I were somehow wrong, Halo, what happens to your idea of your supposed goddess when I tell you she uses the same spells I do?”

Halo’s face turned a startling shade of red. “You would blaspheme Her Radiance with an accusation of the ultimate sin?”

“Ask her yourself,” I answered, gesturing a hoof toward the door out of the room, where Celestia surely stood.

This, in retrospect, was very much the wrong move.

“Hmph,” Halo scoffed. “I know she speaks to the dead when she judges them; she is a goddess, and it is her right. She does not make corpses walk as you do, Coil.”

“The only corpse I’ve ever made walk is my own,” I snapped back. What I had meant to imply was that I had never forced a soul to act against its own will with my magic.

As it is said, however, implications make an imp out of lies… or something. Maybe that was about assumptions?

Regardless, when Halo drew all his blades in his telekinetic grip and pointed them toward me, along with a shout of “Abomination! For assaulting Her Radiance’s honor and her law, I will destroy you. Duel me, or yield your unnatural existence.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, I’m not undead; I meant—”

“I will hear no more of your lies!” Halo shouted to cut me off. “Serpent-tongued deceiver!”

“Can we not do this now?” I asked. When a sword cut through the air toward me and I had to hop back, skidding my shod hooves on the drawing room’s polished wooden floor, that answer was made painfully clear. “Well… alright. Can we call it a duel to unconsciousness, then? Or first blood? Something—” I rolled backwards when a thrust shot forward, aimed for my throat. “—sporting? And possibly more formal?”

As Halo swung his blades, the suitors scattered backwards. From somewhere on his outfit, Caporegime produced a small knife that he held in his teeth, but the rest were unarmed, and most did not even move as much as to light their horns. I was left to hop behind Spicy’s ice castle, and then wince as a shower of icy shards covered my face and chest—the result of the artwork exploding from a powerful blow from Halo’s swords. Without so much as a pant of exertion, the foppish knight suddenly seemed much more terrifying. His exorbitant moustache was the only part of his body that seemed to twitch.

“Count Halo, you need to stop,” Gray Rain ordered.

The knight merely scoffed as he thrust at me from two separate directions. I narrowly avoided the blades, falling backwards on my back and slightly twisting my hind right hoof in the process. When another sword slashed down from above, I was left with no choice but to roll over as fast as I could to get out of the way. I still felt the blade kiss my shoulder, and I heard the fabric of my new outfit torn open, along with the cold bite of frigid steel in my skin. The blow wasn’t deep, but it filled me with a nervousness, a fear for survival.

And so, taking the fight to Halo, I grabbed a hunk of ice off the floor and flung it at his face. Focused as he was on manipulating so many blades in midair, and I had to assume wary of my magic, he wasn’t prepared for an attack flung from my hoof. The sound of ice breaking on his muzzle was quite satisfying although it didn’t immediately do any meaningful damage. What the blow did buy me was enough time to scamper back to my hooves and throw myself away from his further slashes.

“Halo, stop this!” Grayscale hazarded a blast of magic from his horn—a simple stunning spell any idiot could have managed. In retrospect, it was an absolutely pathetic choice for somepony who called himself ‘archmage’ with a straight face, though I was hardly thinking so critically in the moment.

It hardly mattered; with a surprising display of speed, Halo literally slashed the spell out of the air. Either his swords were coated in a thin layer of a pure metal like silver that would insulate against magic, or the stallion had spent so much time polishing them to a mirror shine that they truly reflected enough of the light in the bolt to turn it away. Regardless, I realized I had underestimated the stallion.

Fortunately, I found myself with an opening when he turned to shoot a glare in Grayscale’s direction. “He has blasphemed Her Radiance; are you not a noble, mage? Where is your honor? You ought to join me?”

“In fighting Coil? I don’t have a…”

The drawing off of Grayscale’s answer was my fault. As he had been talking, I gritted my teeth and lit my horn, in spite of Meadowbrook’s orders. After all, I had to imagine a bit of damage to my horn would be easier for her to heal than my death by impalement. And with my horn lit, I let my magic build up into a surge.

My horn, you may recall from my first volume, had a peculiar defect: its grooves were too tightly placed together. Whereas the groove on a normal unicorn’s horn wraps around the horn three or four times from base to tip, mine wrapped something closer to a dozen. If you aren’t a unicorn, this might simply mean I had a subtle, unusual appearance, but in fact it had a far more tangible effect. When a unicorn casts a spell, they first saturate the grooves of their horn with magical energy, called mana; since magic is inductive to itself (like the relationship between electrical current and magnetism), this results in a powerful magical aura (the glow you see around the horn) emitting out the direction the horn is pointing. The more raw mana, the stronger the aura, which is what most ponies would actually think of as ‘magic’, such as speaking to a dead pony or turning somepony into a newt or a pair of socks, or in one particularly situational example, telekinesis.

Young unicorn foals, whose grooves occupy more of the surface area of their horns than adults, tend to exhibit magic by huge surges of brute power that can sometimes cast powerful, if basic, versions of a mage’s spells like teleportation or the inversion of gravity. These spells are vastly more powerful than a pony of that age ought to be able to wield, but they are also tiring; the blood only contains so much mana at a time, and using up too much begins to deplete calories one needs for tasks like staying conscious. Due to my unique horn condition, I never grew out of that phase; my spells were brutally powerful, easily the rival of Star Swirl the Bearded’s might in brute force (though even I won’t pretend I was his equal in complexity or education, at least at the time). The cost, however, was that I could cast only two spells without considerable rest—usually, a night’s sleep. A third spell would most often find me passed out unconscious as my body was drained of all the energy it could muster. This also delightfully came accompanied the following morning by a ‘sober hangover’, as Gale would term it.

I stressed this for two reasons, and the first one was that with a sudden surge of telekinesis, I removed Halo from the drawing room completely. I will emphasize that the previous sentence said telekinesis and not teleportation, because Halo left through the door. I will emphasize that the previous sentence said door and not doorway, because I did not use any form of mental control. I will emphasize that the previous sentence did not specify mental control of Halo, because the room into which I threw him, in a cloud of splinters and shattered drywall, was the massively occupied ballroom where any manner of music or small talk stopped with all the grace of a harp string snapping.

“...deathwish,” Archmage Grayscale finished, turning to me with a noticeably paler tone to his face than usual.

“Did you kill Count Halo?” Peanut asked hesitantly.

I shook my head. “He’ll be fine. At worst, maybe I broke a rib or two. But in my defense… well, it was self-defense.”

High Castle shook his head, disbelieving. “Coil, you threw him through the wall!”

Caporegime, who had a slightly better perspective out the hole in the wall I had created added “And straight through one of the cloudstone pillars in the ballroom. And then off the balcony and down a story of open air onto a marble dance floor. I mean, I could walk that off, but it’d hurt. And he’s not…” As the pegasus gesticulated and his words failed, more of his peculiar accent slipped into his speech. “Yanno, he ain’t no spring chicken.”

“I was holding him with telekinesis, so my magic would have blunted a lot of the wounds,” I explained to the assembled suitors. “Trust me; I used to hurl guardsponies through walls in the Crystal Union all the time.” This was not, in retrospect, the most helpful addition. Gray Rain, in a particular show of self-awareness, took a single step back.

I took a moment with my hooves to settle my outfit on my neck and shoulders. “Well… I should make sure that calmed his temper. Gentlestallions. Spicy. It’s been a pleasure.” Halfway out the hole that had formerly been a door, I glanced back and added “Oh, and… Caporegime, I think it was part of your castle I broke on his face, so for helping save my life, I vote that you won the contest.”

As I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the ballroom, all eyes were either on me or on Count Halo, who was slowly stirring in the quite visible crater his weight and my somewhat brute force ‘spike’ of his body had left in the ballroom dance floor. More than a few guardsponies had gathered around him, though when I appeared I saw their swords quickly aimed in my direction.

Halo flicked out a hoof. “No; he’s mine.” When the soldiers held their ground, he bellowed with a force that sent his blazing orange moustache bouncing like as much fire. “All of you; that is an order. I am Sir Halo, Knight of the Platinum Throne! Stand down!”

To my amusement, the guardsponies settled back, though a quick glance toward the head of the ballroom suggested Commander Typhoon and Queen Platinum were both on the verge of intervening themselves.

“Had enough, Count?” I called out. “I understand this isn’t how a duel to the death usually ends, but now you’ve got to realize you’re out of your league.”

“Coil!” Queen Platinum shouted. “What is the meaning of this?!”

“He’s an abomination, my Queen!” Count Halo helpfully explained in the form of a spiteful shout. “A walking corpse, in violation of Her Radiance’s will and all natural order, and—”

“No. For the last time, I died, but that doesn’t mean I am dead.” I shook my head as the old knight responded not with words, but by lifting his armaments with a glow on his horn. I had the foresight, at least, to realize that most of them had not come with him from the room behind me, and to roll to the side as they came flying, points-first, through the theoretical Morty-shaped outline in the air where I had just been standing.

“Stop this, both of you!” Celestia shouted, rushing forward from the crowd with wings flared wide and horn lit. “There’s no need for violence!”

“My Lady, my oath is clear.” Halo lifted his swords toward me and readied his shield. “Not only is he an abomination and a deceiver, but he blasphemes your power! I cannot stand idly by such sins! This can only end when one of us lies dead.”

“Don’t be so stubborn!” Celestia snapped, her teeth practically gnashing.

“I would rather die than betray your honor, my lady. My faith holds strong through any test. And he admits his own mark is heresy.”

Somepony in the crowd gave Halo a bit of applause. Celestia actually turned her glowing horn toward him, her brow furrowed and her wings raised. “Count Halo—”

“He’s too stubborn to listen and too stupid to see he’s outclassed,” I called out to Celestia. My own rage at his comments still seethed in my blood, but I managed to force it down enough at least to make a promise. “Let me finish this. I promise I won’t do anything permanent.”

Halo shook his head and nickered, scraping at the marble ballroom floor. “Do not think you can best me now that I know to expect your spells, necromancer.”

I made a show of letting out a sigh loud enough that most of the room could hear it, and turned fully away from Halo to raise a brow at Celestia. She sighed, shrugged her wings, and gave a single fateful nod. Then it was my turn to face Halo. “Last chance,” I told him. “You absolutely insist on this being to the death? You won’t give up even if I stun you and you wake up the day after tomorrow?”

Remember that I could only cast two spells in a day without passing out; that was the primary concern in my warning. Were I in possession of a normal horn like most wizards, and not on the mend from a far more dangerous battle only a short time earlier, I could have easily defeated a pompous imbecile like Halo blindfolded. It wasn’t fear of the stallion, but my concern for my dwindling supply of mana that prompted my warning.

Halo drew his shield. “Your spells are no match for my mirrored shield, Coil. You won’t take me by surprise again. I—”

And then he collapsed. Because I ripped out his soul. Six blades clattered on the marbled floor along with a mirrored shield (which, judging by the lack of shattering glass, must have been enchanted). I also let out a small scream as my horn burned like it had been dipped in molten skysteel, protesting the use of my magic. Most notably, though, the ethereal, faintly blue-tinged and partially translucent soul of the late Count Halo hung in the air above the room.

Several ponies screamed. One especially dramatic mare fainted. I just rubbed my forehead, both in physical agony and emotional irritation.

“There you go, Halo. You’re dead. Congratulations.” I turned to Gale and sarcastically added “Happy Birthday, for what it’s worth.” That comment earned me a lot more astonished, offended gasps than I had intended; in my pain, I had largely forgotten about my audience.

With some sheepishness, I turned back to the soul I had in my magical grip. As I spoke to Halo’s personality and will and consciousness, severed as it was from his more… meaty existence, I paced along the balcony and toward the stairs down to the dance floor. “Now, you’ve got two choices. If I let go, your soul goes… well, I guess right over there to Celestia, and she judges you. Presumably she lets you carry on into the Summer Lands, you get your eternal reward. That would mean you’re actually dead like I was, even though your body right there below you is still alive; comatose, but very much still breathing. If that’s what you want, I’ll smother your body with a pillow or snap its neck or something to put it out of its misery, and your family or whoever cares about your stubborn, puffed-up obsession with honor buries you. But if you agree to stop trying to murder me, and that your soul being out of your body counts as being dead, like I tried to explain while you were trying to stab me, then I can still undo this spell and put your soul back into your—and let me repeat myself—still very much living, breathing body right there on the floor.” I nodded down to the comatose stallion in question. “Which is exactly what I did to save my own life. So to reiterate, I’m not undead, and you won’t be either.” I sighed and gritted my teeth against the pain of my horn. “I am going to need you to make a decision soon, though; my horn still isn’t healed from the last time I had a magic duel, and it’s starting to get very sore.”

Halo—meaning his disembodied soul—looked down at his own ghostly hooves. “Unhand me with your dark magic, you—”

“Celestia, do you want to try and get it through his thick skull, or should I actually let go? My grip really is failing...”

“Please put him back, Morty.” Celestia outright flew down to his side. “Count Halo, I want you to listen to me very closely.”

“Hold on,” I interrupted her. “Getting his ears back will be a little disorienting. At least, it was for me.”

With a sort of slurping noise, I returned Halo to life. He immediately gasped, and then massaged his body as if checking for open wounds, or perhaps loose change.

“Let me make myself clear,” said Celestia, looming over him. “In the past you have insisted that I was ‘testing your faith’ when I disagreed with you, and then ignored my wishes and did things in my name I did not approve of. The truth is, I am not interested in testing your faith. I humored you because nopony was getting hurt until today, but you tried to kill Morty for being completely honest with you, and I cannot abide that. If he had been somepony weaker, you would have killed an innocent pony in my name, and if he had been less forgiving, you might have died. So I must insist that you never, ever again try to use violence to defend my honor. If I truly feel offended, I’m quite capable of defending myself, as Morty and Princess Gale can both attest.”

“I…” Halo hung his head. “Forgive me, Your Radiance.”

“Celestia,” the alicorn corrected. “Please.”

Halo swallowed, as if the simple name were like broccoli or asparagus to a young foal’s palette. “Yes, Celestia.” Then he lifted his head. “I must beg your mercy, Lord Coil; you have bested me in a fair knight’s duel. What recompense can I offer?”

I glanced up to Gale and winked. “Stop trying to pursue Gale’s hoof.”

“Her Highness…” Halo swallowed. “Very well.” Bowing his head, the forty-something knight turned toward Gale, standing above us in the ballroom. “Your Highness, Your Majesty, as a Knight, I must regretfully yield my suitorship. May you find worthy love with another in Her R—in Celestia’s grace.”

Queen Platinum took a bold step forward. “Count Halo, please wait—”

“Mother,” interrupted Gale, donning her ‘royal’ voice. “We cannot dishonor a knight of our own court by trying to tempt him into breaking his word, can we?”

Queen Platinum fumed, first at her daughter, and then very briefly in my direction. However, despite her irritation, her voice rang out over the room as clear as crystal (and as hard as iron). “Very well. Everypony, as I see this party has gotten… rowdy… I will request that we skip the continued pleasantries and gather in the throne room. The Princess and I have something to discuss with you all as our honored guests.”

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