• 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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4-5

IV - V

The Dread Diagnosis

I didn’t get much sleep with what was left of the night after I finished cleaning up from my seance of King Lapis; that throbbing in the core of my horn never really settled, and whenever I seemed to be on the verge of sleep, I was dragged back to groggy consciousness by a shooting pain in my brow. The ghost of Wintershimmer, as I had increasingly let myself think of the figment (mostly so I could pretend I wasn’t losing my mind) observed that I had cast a full three spells that day—albeit with enough hours between the second and third that I hadn’t passed out from the flare , and I’d been holding the seance for a not insubstantial few minutes. It was really no surprise I was in pain.

Unfortunately, there also wasn’t much I could do about the feeling; Hurricane wasn’t an alchemist or even an apothecary, and even if he were I would have been hesitant to wake him after such an unpleasant parting asking for medicine. And while even my meagre talents with alchemical practice could produce a simple painkiller, that called for ingredients and equipment I didn’t have—I made a mental note to retrieve Wintershimmer’s elaborate and priceless set from our lab in the Crystal Union.

Wintershimmer’s ghost observed that I was now quite entitled to call it ‘my’ lab, which left me feeling very strange indeed… at least until such a nuanced emotion fell away in the face of a new spike of pain.

Ultimately, I knew by the time shops opened in the morning, I could just ask Mage Meadowbrook for a salve or some willow bark tea. Until then, I resolved to try the suggestion Solemn Vow’s more real ghost had given me: to ice my horn from his—or rather, as Wintershimmer again corrected me, my—home’s icebox. So at some forsaken hour in the morning I dare not hesitate to even guess at, I took to the streets of Everfree City en route for my private home again.

To be certain, even in those days there were parts of Everfree City that did not sleep, but the streets I followed between the riverside district and the Ridge were certainly what one expects of an orderly and peaceful night. A few guardsponies in Legion armor on unenviable patrols flew overhead or passed me on the streets—far more the former than the latter—but none bothered to interrupt me. Whether that was a matter of good faith or that I had already built up a reputation, even I cannot say. Regardless, by the time I reached my home, I was more than content to stumble into the kitchen, rip open cabinet doors until I found the icebox, and then plunge my face in like a bear diving for salmon. And while the experience was not as totally refreshing as I had imagined, what with the force of smashing my own face into a pile of ice cubes leading to some not insubstantial discomfort, the fact that it was still a net positive perhaps reflects on the quality of the morning I was having.

I left my home when the sun was just coming up—quite early, it being the tail end of summer—with no particular directions for Mage Meadowbrook’s personal quarters, but an obvious awareness of where the palace was, since it was one of a very few buildings in the city more than three stories tall, and so could be located nearly anywhere in Everfree simply by inclining one’s chin.

The palace guards were helpful enough once I arrived, pointing me to Meadowbrook’s chambers not far from Celestia’s bedchamber where I had spent so much time under her care recovering from my duel. Just the thought of Celestia put a scowl on my face (I’m certain sleep deprivation didn’t help either, but at eighteen one tends not to be quite so metacognitive) and I was grateful not to be returning to that room in the interest of my own attention.

Neither Meadowbrook’s door nor her quarters were terribly remarkable from the exterior. Apparently, she lived behind just another door in a long line of identical wooden doors punctuated by ponyquins clad in decorative armor; there wasn’t even a plaque with her name. Wintershimmer would have been disappointed, if not disgusted. Thankfully, that idle thought was not enough to summon the figment of my imagination once more. I knocked three times, and announced myself. “Mage Meadowbrook, it’s Morty. Sorry if I’m early, but...”

I let my voice trail off when the door opened with a visible glow of golden magic, which perhaps should have concerned me, given Meadowbrook was an earth pony.

Inside, I first set my eyes on Meadowbrook, present in her usual bronze collar and green dress, just as I had expected. She was in the process of turning away from a rather large cauldron set into a hearth in the wall to address me as I stepped inside. Beside her, resting in a seat he had presumably transmuted from the floor of the room itself, was perhaps Equestria’s most famous wizard, Star Swirl the Bearded. The old grouch was regal and well postured despite his centennial age, and the staggering volume of hair covering his face—not just the namesake beard, but his puffy eyebrows and overflowing mane as well—made any read on his face impossible.

“Archmage Star Swirl,” I nodded. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I would imagine not,” Star Swirl agreed, before lighting up his horn with golden magic again and conjuring up another pair of seats from the stone of the floor—in the process shifting aside a rather plush rug Meadowbrook had set in the middle of the room. Meadowbrook was ultimately offered a cushioned armchair, while I was provided with a down-stuffed chaise lounge, complete with down-stuffed pillows and what appeared to be gold filigree. (I suspect that trained mages are, at reading that sentence, gaping in awe at Star Swirl’s mastery of transfiguration, even as any other readers skipped over it with nary a thought).

“I didn’t give you any reason to expect me,” Star Swirl grinned, though it faded quickly. “Please, have a seat. No, you aren’t too early; Meadowbrook and I were just finishing up double-checking our results.”

In those days, a chaise hadn’t yet become synonymous with psychological counseling, or I might have been as worried as, frankly, I ought to have been. I let myself collapse onto the seat just as Meadowbrook took her own seat, and I suspect my first sense something was wrong came when the blue doctor steepled her hooves.

“Morty… do you prefer good news or bad news first?” her far more friendly voice asked.

I chuckled. “Well, if Wintershimmer were here, he’d tell me that I need to know and deal with any threats before I enjoy myself. So let’s do the opposite, shall we?”

I thought that would garner a laugh at least from Star Swirl, who had actually known my bitter old former mentor, but instead I got flat looks from both older ponies. It was Star Swirl who spoke up first, at least. “The good news is you’ve solved a mystery that’s been plaguing the unicorns since the dawn of the Diamond Kingdoms.”

“I… what?” I cocked my head. “Uh… alright, you’ve got me; medicine was never exactly my specialty. Care to explain?”

Meadowbrook sighed. “What Star Swirl is trying to say, Morty, is that you’ve discovered the real cause of the Scourge of Kings.”

“Hmm?” At that, I sat up a bit more stiffly. “Horn Rot, you mean? I thought you had to inherit it from somepony who had it—that’s why it’s the Scourge of Kings, right? Because the Royal Line has had it since King Electrum the Omniscient.”

Star Swirl nodded. “But then where did Electrum get it?”

“Celestia cursed him for his hubris for trying to see the future and prevent his own death, right?” Mentioning her name put me back into my foul mood, and I derisively added “Seems about right for her.”

“That is the legend,” Star Swirl replied flatly, certainly hearing the implication in my tone, and therefore demonstrating the substantial difference between being a wizard and possessing wisdom, given that he more-or-less directly commented on just that. “Though in addition to it being somewhat out of character even for the version of Celestia ponies worshipped before most of us had actually met her, your new mentor has flatly denied the story.”

“She might not…” I shook my head as my tired and distracted brain hooked itself onto a more pressing question. “How does that relate to my horn?”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t guess; rather, it was that I couldn’t believe it.

Star Swirl shot Meadowbrook a very sad glance, and she nodded gently before turning her eyes on me. “Morty, you’ve developed the Scourge of Kings.”

My ears heard the words that followed, and I’ll record them for you here, but my mind hardly processed them. Instead, an altogether different set of thoughts rushed into my ears, carried on Wintershimmer’s voice. They were old memories, memories I had enhanced with magic, of lessons in unicorn history and somber warnings about the role of a wizard in the world.

“The Scourge of Kings is incurable,” I heard Wintershimmer say in my mind. I could nearly hear his skeletally slender hooves pace around me. “Every king and queen of the Diamond Kingdoms who didn’t die to violence in the past thousand years was killed by it. The rotting of the horn starts out just crippling magic, but eventually it opens the body to infections that, invariably, travel from the horn, through the skull via the arcane foramen, and into the brain.

Meadowbrook gently tilted her steepled hooves forward. “Most unicorns pass out when they overuse magic; that’s both a form of physical exhaustion and the body’s defense mechanism against hurting the horn permanently. As an earth pony, I don’t know a lot about how that feels, but as a doctor I have treated ‘mana burn’ in plenty of young ponies who tried to cast magic on each other.”

Wintershimmer stepped into view, and the figment of my memories looked just as real as Star Swirl and Meadowbrook, even conjuring up a third seat—an armchair he’d favored in life. His horn gently set his dragon spine staff against the wall, and then he returned his attention to me with his most gentle, instructional expression (though he still looked to all the world like a skull). “Someday, Coil, when you and I travel to Everfree City, you’ll see the Queen almost never uses her horn, except for the absolute most personal tasks. Other unicorns open doors for her, move things for her, even help her climb into and out of her carriage. It may seem like it’s merely some sort of ceremony or a show of respect, and I have no doubt the Queen and her forebears cultivate that idea in the public, but it is a lie. They do so to spare her horn, and thus extend her life.”

Star Swirl nodded to Meadowbrook. “Morty, possessing your own body and continuing to cast while you should have been unconscious inflicted mana burn on the marrow in your horn. And when mana burn interacts with the mana you use casting even more spells… I assume Wintershimmer taught you about Allright’s Principle of Interference?”

“Uh-huh,” I answered without really hearing him. Wintershimmer still had my ears.

On its own, the disease progresses at a different rate for all its victims. Some die young, when the rot cracks open the horn before their body is strong enough to fight off such an illness in the brain. Others who refrain from casting magic live to be seventy, even eighty before the rot spreads broad enough to finally take their lives. But with every spell cast, every lighting of their horn, the rot spreads faster.”

Meadowbrook’s eyes fell as she continued. “I tested all the potions and cures I knew on a sample of your horn marrow we drew while you were unconscious; some of them regrew the damaged marrow, but they also spread the rot. It appears you’ve actually changed your body on a fundamental level, so much that it ‘remembers’ having the disease now. Even if Lady Celestia were to cut your horn off and regrow it, we fear the damage would still be done.”

“It’d make it worse,” Star Swirl added glumly. “Her magic around the horn would spread the rot just as much as yours.”

Wintershimmer gently tapped his sickly-colored yellow-green horn. “The old saying is that ‘a king’s spell is worth a day’. I doubt it’s quite as poetic, or that all spells are equal—the long line of archmagi who studied the condition before us knew it related to how much mana a spell required. But the principle is right. It’s why King Electrum, after he was ‘cursed’ if you believe that sort of thing…” My old mentor snorted in some kind of personal disgust. “Why he was the last king to also hold the title of the Kingdoms’ greatest archmage. For his foals to have kept up studying magic would have killed them and ended his lineage.”

“Morty?”

Wintershimmer vanished when I shook my head at the sound of my name. “Huh?”

“I can only imagine you already know about the Scourge of Kings from your studies,” Meadowbrook told me. “And I don’t want to make you suffer listening to us talk about things you already know; this has to be hard enough on you already. Do you understand what having the Scourge of Kings means?”

I swallowed, and found my mouth suddenly barren and dry in the search for words. “It will kill me, someday. Hopefully when I’m already old, since I’m only starting with it as an adult instead of being born with it.”

Star Swirl chuckled, and with a more good-natured smile than I expected from his normally curmudgeonly expression (something I had derived from only speaking to him perhaps three times before—but it was more than enough). “I have a hard time believing Wintershimmer raised somepony so optimistic.”

“Oh, he was quite the optimist in my later years. He was always bringing out the best in other ponies. Usually, just after asking if their necks feel cold.”

Star Swirl’s amusement vanished. Meadowbrook cocked her head. “I don’t follow—”

“The only warning sign before he ripped another pony’s soul from their body,” Star Swirl explained flatly. “As young Mage Coil demonstrated quite aptly at Her Majesty’s birthday a few days ago.”

“Ah…” Meadowbrook visibly bit her cheek; the flesh pocked in visibly even from the outside. “I don’t know anything about souls, I’m afraid, but—Morty, um, not to put too blunt a point on it, but the long term effects are only part of what this condition means for you. Do you—”

“I don’t know when I could have given you the impression I’m some kind of imbecile, and if I have, I’m sorry.” Looking back, I’m ashamed at how I treated Meadowbrook, and even more disheartened to remember how she winced back at the venom in my voice. Still, in the moment she might as well have been another figment of my imagination, for all the thought I spared for her feelings. “You’re going to tell me that I need to limit the use of my horn, and tell me the old mare’s tale about ‘a day for a spell’. But assuming I’d live another eighty years without casting, that still gives me almost thirty thousand spells to try and fix this.”

“No,” Star Swirl interrupted harshly.

“What, you think I can’t do it?” My blood felt like it was on fire; I pulled myself out of the lounge chair and stood up to my full height—which, in all honesty, didn’t make a young stallion of eighteen or so much of a threat to Star Swirl the Bearded, but in my mind there wasn’t room for such self critique past my fury. “How old were you when you wrote the Omnimorphic Spell? I killed Wintershimmer the Complacent.”

Star Swirl glared. “I’m not doubting you, Coil; I’m informing you of reality. Listen. It won’t be ‘a day for a spell’ for you. The old saying is about kings and queens feeding themselves, clothing themselves... trivial telekinesis, parlor tricks, cantrips. But no monarch of the Diamond Kingdoms ever had a horn coiled as tightly as yours.” Then even Star Swirl hesitated a moment, closing his eyes, taking a slow breath, and swallowing as if the apple of his throat had grown to block off his words. “Medicine is not like arithmetic, so I cannot give you some exact value, and I trust you are smart enough to understand that. But by our study and our estimates, each spell you cast when your horn flares up will accelerate the disease by the equivalent of about a year.”

The world stopped. The room cracked. Star Swirl and Meadowbrook vanished like mist, and in their place, the floor twisted and groaned and cracked into a spiraling ramp that descended down into a colorful void of memory. And when the floor lurched and I plunged downward into the abyss, I made no effort to stop.

“One year” echoed in my ears as I fell, and my body tumbled apart into memories.

When asked about the esoteric numbering scheme for the buildings at the Royal Academy of Magic in Canterlot (founded some years after this event), Archmage Booksmart would pithily reply “It makes sense for the ponies who are actually using the system to navigate. Wizards have a looser grasp on reality than the average pony.” Unlike most of my asides about common idioms and misconceptions of pony society, where I can offer a clever correction or explanation, that quote is just true, no errata necessary. I include it merely as a commentary on how I reacted to the aforementioned news.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

When I was nine years old, Ambassador Greener Grass was sent by Queen Platinum I to try and make inroads with the rather uncomfortable relationship between Equestria and the Crystal Empire. At nine years old, I had no meaningful frame of reference for the tension between Queen Jade the and non-crystal unicorn, and my concerns were much more for how uncomfortable I felt wearing not only a jacket, but the formal cravat, scarf, and tricorn hat that went with it.

“Master… why don’t you have to wear all this stuff?” I whispered as we watched the slow procession of diplomacy in the imperial throne room.

“Firstly, Coil, I know I have taught you better vocabulary than that,” Wintershimmer retorted out of the corner of his gaunt, skin-thin cheek, not even turning to look at me as he spoke. “Try again.”

I pouted just on the side of my mouth away from my mentor, thinking he certainly couldn’t see the expression without turning his head.

“I did not request you to make a face either,” Wintershimmer added idly.

“Yes, Master. Why do I have to wear this hat and scarf and… neck fabric thing—”

“The proper term is a ‘cravat’,” Wintershimmer explained. “Since you only heard that word today, I’ll forgive you for forgetting it. Go on.”

“I would understand if we were going outside the shield spell where it’s cold, but in addition to the spell, we’re inside. I’m boiling.”

“Hyperbole is the purview of the young,” my wiry old mentor answered with a hint of amusement that contained not even the slightest trace of a smile. “There are two reasons I make you wear the full outfit. The first is that I believe it is important you learn the traditions of our order. If you choose not to honor them in the future, I will accept that, but I will not stand for you doing so out of ignorance. The second reason is that Ambassador Grass is old enough to remember the full outfit from when I wore it as a young stallion in court at River Rock. And though I doubt she does recall, on the off-chance she does, I would not want her to think you were being rude.”

“But if you aren’t wearing it, won’t she think you’re rude?”

“No doubt she thinks of me far more negatively than mere rudeness,” Wintershimmer observed with dry humor barely audible in his voice, “given she was present the day I left the Diamond Kingdoms behind. To answer the question you clearly mean to ask, I find the full outfit just as insufferable and uncomfortable as you do, but discomfort alone is hardly reason enough to avoid something. Fortunately, I have a practical reason: as somepony of an age and a talent sufficient to be called on to do battle, both the scarf and the cravat give an enemy a simple way to choke their wearer. Star Swirl used that exact tactic against me when we were perhaps a few years older than you.”

“But if there’s a practical reason, why do I have to—”

“Nopony is going to duel a nine year old apprentice, Coil,” Wintershimmer interrupted. “And though I like to believe I have trained you well enough to surprise an opponent, I would not dream of putting you in such a position. So concerns about combat do not apply to you. Now hush.” And, again, without actually looking in my direction, he added “And stop fidgeting. The outfit suits you. I’m sure the Ambassador will call you ‘cute’.”

“If she does, can I blast her?”

Wintershimmer actually chuckled at that. “No, Coil. Regardless of what spell you mean by ‘blast’. But you have my sympathy.” Then he nodded. “And here is the mare of the hour now. Ambassador Grass, it has been a very long time.”

Ambassador Grass was a few years Wintershimmer’s younger, but both had enough years put away that it was, frankly, hard to tell much difference. What was dramatically different were how they wore their years. Grass was a grandmotherly mare, whose wrinkled cheeks denoted just as much a life of smiles and happiness as the ones on her brow suggested leadership and tough decisions. She wore a healthy weight, and although it is a bit of a cruel stereotype to link these two facts, I happen to know from other sources that, just as her age and weight might have hinted, she made exceptional cinnamon cookies.

Wintershimmer, in contrast, looked like he had died a week prior, and although I know he had a particular weakness for raspberry macarons, the fact that one could easily see the shape of his skull by looking at his face suggested he could not have found food on a map of a farmer’s market. Similarly, the profound wrinkles on his brow and stretching up to his receding maneline told a viewer that it had been so long since he had experienced a moment of real calm that it was his sheer blood pressure, rather than his osteoporotic skeleton, which maintained his overbearing posture.

“Wintershimmer the Complacent,” greeted Ambassador Grass as she approached, offering a slight tilt of her head in lieu of a real bow.

“Ambassador Green Grass,” Wintershimmer answered without bowing his head at all—no surprise there, given he rarely bothered to even offer a slight incline of his neck to Queen Jade, his ostensible ruler. “It has been a very long time, hasn’t it?”

“It has,” Grass noted, before glancing to me. “And who is this handsome young colt? I pray he isn’t your son, Wintershimmer.”

“You think I fathered a colt at eighty years old? I’m not certain whether I should be more offended you think I would stoop to bedding a barbarian, or flattered you think me so romantically capable.” There was no jest in Wintershimmer’s voice.

Ambassador Grass swallowed nervously and glanced over both her shoulders before dropping her voice to a mere whisper. “You still call them ‘barbarians’? Even when you’re sheltering among them.”

“You misunderstand who holds power in our relationship,” Wintershimmer retorted, not lowering his voice at all. “I’ve killed more of them than anypony alive… except now, I suppose, the pegasus emperor.”

“Hurricane.”

“The Butcher?” I piped up.

“The very same,” Wintershimmer noted. “Ambassador Grass, to finally answer your question, this is my apprentice, Mortal Coil.”

“Really?” she asked, raising a skeptical brow.

“The crystals don’t look fondly on ‘soft-coated’ foals,” Wintershimmer explained for me, before finally turning to look down at my still small form. “Coil, say hello to Ambassador Grass.”

“Hello.” I gave a perfunctory nod. “What does ‘complacent’ mean?”

“Hmm?” The grandmotherly ambassador raised a brow. “Well, if somepony is complacent, it means they’re happy with the way things are, and they aren’t worried about bettering themselves or changing things, even if maybe things ought to be changed.”

I responded to that answer by letting a little bit of a glow build up on my horn, which surprised Grass considerably. Wintershimmer, at least, was faster on the uptake. “No, Coil,” he warned. “I am more than capable of defending my honor when it needs defending, and this is not such a case regardless. When a wizard is said to be complacent, it is in reference to the ‘complacency of the learned’; it means they elected to yield a duel with another wizard.”

“Master, you gave up on a duel with another wizard? If you can just rip out somepony’s soul, how could anypony ever beat you?”

“Consider, my student, that just because one can win does not always mean one wishes to.” Wintershimmer then turned predatory eyes on Grass. “Perhaps since you’ve elected to expand Coil’s vocabulary, you would like to share the story with him.” Then, with an edge to his words, the old stallion added “I would hate for his education to be biased only hearing things from my perspective.”

Grass frowned. “Isn’t he a bit young—”

“Hey!” I interrupted. “I’m not afraid. Master and I have fought cragodiles and gibbering mouthers and—”

Wintershimmer calmly tapped me on the back and… I won’t say he smiled approvingly, because I cannot call his expression a ‘smile’ in good faith, but there certainly was a sort of paternal pride there. “I’m sure the Ambassador takes your point.”

“Fine,” Grass muttered. “Coil, something like sixty years ago, when your mentor was only twenty years old, he and Archmage Star Swirl had a fierce rivalry about who would succeed Archmage Comet as Court Mage once she died. In her fading years, both Star Swirl and Wintershimmer sought to impress King Lapis, who actually had the final say, but also their old master, since it was assumed she would advise His Majesty on the right choice.”

I nodded. “I’ve met Grandmaster Comet. I never understood why she was called ‘furious’, though; she seemed very nice to me.”

“How? Comet died decades ago!”

“Death makes for little restriction to a talented necromancer,” Wintershimmer replied. “And given it was that very spell that gave Coil his marks, to say nothing of his aptitude for it, I would be inclined to suggest someday that he might even surpass my talents.” Then, nodding to me, he added “In the distant future though that day may be.”

“Just what our world needs…” the ambassador muttered more to herself than to me, before shaking her head. “Not long before Archmage Comet passed, Archmage Star Swirl finished research into his amniomorphic spell—”

Omniomorphic,” Wintershimmer corrected harshly. “Or just ‘omnimorphic’ if you aren’t as pretentious as Star Swirl. The distinction may matter little to the Ambassador, but for your sake, Coil: ‘amniomorphic’ could refer either to the womb, or something taking on the shape of a bowl or pot. Star Swirl’s spell is, amongst other accomplishments, the modern capstone of transformation magic because it can transform the shape of nearly anything into nearly anything else, without the need to learn a specific new spell for each target shape.”

“Really?” I asked. “Then why did I have to learn to turn all those birds into cats?”

“Alas, my old rival did not see fit to let me read his notes and learn that particular spell. Just as I never taught him to sever a soul. Also, I understand it to be a rather inefficient spell when compared to the more direct versions, and dramatically more complex as well. Even if you do someday claim the Tourmaline Grimoire and read his notes, Coil, you would not be able to understand them without a strong foundation in simpler transmogrifications.” With that elongated aside finished, Wintershimmer gave a single nod to Grass. “Do continue.”

“I hope this will not be a terribly long story,” Grass replied. “I wouldn’t want to bore either of you. Um… Apprentice Coil… the rumors around the court were that Star Swirl’s spell was a massive step forward in magic, that it would change how all transformation magic was studied for generations…” She waved her hoof as if indicating more such thoughts. “In short, that he had become the favored successor, just in time to win the title of the new Court Mage; only a few days after he first demonstrated the spell in court, Comet passed.”

“She didn’t die as peacefully as ponies believe,” Wintershimmer noted. “I’ll tell you later, Coil. But do continue, Ambassador.”

Greener Grass looked positively unsettled by that thought, swallowing heavily before she found her words again. “Well, as the stories around the court went, your teacher was completely consumed trying to one-up Star Swirl’s accomplishment in a way King Lapis would appreciate. He began spending all his time in the palace dungeons, moving his library and his… goodness, I don’t know what all the vials and things are called, but his magical tools, into a cell. He slept among them, ate among them, even asking to be given responsibility for caring for them in lieu of King Lapis’ jailers. The claim at the time was that the interruptions were disturbing him.”

“It was true; the guards were brutes who made undue noise teasing and talking with the criminals.”

The ambassador frowned. “Not even a hint of self awareness at the hypocrisy in that?”

“My work served a purpose,” Wintershimmer replied. “But forgive me, Ambassador, I was far younger when I last had to hear another speak of this subject, and the old habit of defending my honor dies hard. I should not interrupt.”

“I hope not, if you want me to finish,” Ambassador Grass shot back. “Archmage Star Swirl eventually grew worried about his friend, no matter how harshly the two were ultimately competing. So he ventured down to offer his assistance to Wintershimmer. What he found were the results of Wintershimmer’s gruesome experiments: dozens of earth ponies with holes bored into their skulls.”

Grass actually paused, glancing to Wintershimmer, but this time he offered no commentary at all; he only nodded to urge her on.

“Star Swirl went to King Lapis with this knowledge, but before anything could be done, Wintershimmer arrived in open court, leading a… well, I suppose an earth pony still; it was a prisoner Wintershimmer had grafted a horn onto.”

“Really?” I asked, before looking up. “Could he do magic?”

“I’ll tell you when the Ambassador is finished.”

With a cold nod, Ambassador Grass did just that. “He was half-starved, and either half-mad or just broken; his eyes were cold. He wouldn’t make eye contact with anypony. He winced and shuddered every time your master so much as moved. Wintershimmer presented King Lapis with his findings: a cure for the Scourge of Kings.”

“You cured Horn Rot?”

“Medicine must be taken for a disease to be cured, Coil,” Wintershimmer observed in response, before again nodding to the Ambassador.

“King Lapis was repulsed by what he saw; he refused to let Wintershimmer replace his horn, even if it would have meant saving his life from the Scourge of Kings. He called for your mentor to be arrested.”

“For curing a disease?” I asked.

Wintershimmer let out an amused snort. “It seems you have misunderstood the Ambassador, Coil. To be completely clear, I killed thirty-one of the Diamond Kingdom’s criminals before my work bore fruit. That was King Lapis’ objection.”

Usually, Wintershimmer would have added some comment like ‘shortsighted though it may have been’ or ‘a king of more vision would have understood my trade was worth ten times that toll,’ but this time he held his tongue.

“King Lapis’ order led to a problem, though: your teacher killed the first four guards who tried to arrest him, and—”

“Hmm?” Wintershimmer so rarely showed an expression of confusion that it briefly became far more interesting than the story of his actual violent confrontation. It took only a moment for his forced calm to return, however. “Apologies. Continue.”

“Seeing no other option, Star Swirl challenged a duel; no bystanders on either side, no aid. But… I suppose you’ll have to ask your teacher if this is really why, but as the story was told in the Diamond Kingdoms, he decided he would rather be banished than have to kill his friend. So instead, Wintershimmer plead the ‘Complacency of the Learned’—an old, basically forgotten rule about wizards fighting that says one of them can yield, and be spared his life, in exchange for giving up all titles, all claims, et cetera. And so, when Star Swirl explained to King Lapis that letting him go was wiser than forcing a confrontation, your mentor ended up here, with the Crystal Union.”

“They were still the barbarian tribes then,” Wintershimmer noted. “Tell me, Ambassador, why do you believe I yielded to Star Swirl?”

“Knowing what I know now from practicing diplomacy, I imagine you… perhaps not that you expected to lose, but that you feared the risk was large enough that you weren’t happy with the gamble.”

“Interesting.” Wintershimmer nodded, then turned to look down at me. “And Coil, would you like to offer a guess?”

“Well… It’s hard to imagine you losing a fight, Master. I mean, after what you did to the leshy at Eastwatch… maybe it really was just because you were friends with Archmage Star Swirl?”

Wintershimmer snorted derisively. “You give me more credit than I was due at something like a third of my current age, Coil. Understandable, given I was around triple yours, but ultimately incorrect. Fortunately, perspective is a lesson better taught by time than lectures. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that I did duel Star Swirl and that I had killed him that evening in River Rock. Coil, where do you imagine I would be now?”

“Well, you’d have replaced Archmage Comet, right? I mean, that was the point of the fight, wasn’t it?”

“Unlikely. The seated monarch chooses their Court Mage, and that pony serves at the crown’s whim. Even if I had killed Star Swirl, I doubt Lapis would have tolerated me. Consider the face would lose letting me take a place at his side mere minutes after calling for my execution—that being one minor correction to an otherwise mostly accurate story from Ambassador Grass.”

“Oh.” I nodded, then tilted my own head down to think. “So… would you have killed him and become King?”

Wintershimmer actually let out a full strength snort at that, seeming genuinely amused, if in a grim and bitter way. “Coil, if I wanted to rule, do you honestly think I would not already be doing it now? The truth is that if I won against Star Swirl that day, I would have either been banished anyway, and come to the same outcome while denying the world his not inconsiderable life’s work, or I would have had to kill Lapis and make myself the tyrant overlord of the Diamond Kingdoms. Had I wanted to rule, I would have finished Star Swirl in his sleep, and the rest would have been easy. I could have killed Lapis any time the whim struck me, just as I could easily kill Queen Jade or Warlord Halite before her. In fact, I did kill his predecessor, Corundum.”

“I’m amazed Queen Jade tolerates you speaking so bluntly about her,” Ambassador Grass noted. “In Equestria, those words would be treason.”

“I have had this very conversation with Jade quite directly to her face on more than one occasion. She knows exactly where she stands with me. She also needs me, if she ever wants to see her beloved Smart Cookie awake from his coma.” Wintershimmer then smiled, entirely for show. “I wouldn’t want Equestria to think the court of their northern neighbor is divided by dishonesty or secrets. If anything, our court is the stabler of the two.”

To my far younger, less subtext-saavy self, that seemed an altogether innocuous statement, but Grass’ eyes widened, and the corner of Wintershimmer’s lip curled up ever so slightly.

“When you return to Equestria, you are welcome to tell Queen Platinum that she has nothing to fear from Queen Jade. She may not tug at her leash as much as Halite did, but I keep it just as tight.”

“I—I’m the Ambassador, Archmage.” Grass swallowed nervously. “And Equestria recognizes Queen Jade, not you.”

“Nor should they,” Wintershimmer replied. “Just see the message delivered, Ambassador. The Prince-Consort will be most interested to hear that I continue… how did he put it? Ah yes: to ‘pay the price of my loyalties.’” His horn briefly flared to life with golden magic, and the Ambassador staggered back.

“Are you going to kill her, Master?” I asked., pouting a bit. “You said I couldn’t—”

“I have not harmed a hair on the good ambassador’s head, Coil; I merely saw fit to help her remember my exact words. Good day, Ambassador Grass.”

The ambassador swallowed heavily. “And you, Archmage. Coil, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“You too,” I answered.

Wintershimmer then gently tapped on my shoulder with the end of his dragon spine staff, guiding me to walk away from the party.

“I believe I promised you an answer, Coil. Yes, the horn worked on the earth pony. Not that he could use it any more effectively than a newborn; it mostly just sparked and flashed when I compelled him to try. But that is a failing of education and practice, not of the horn transferral itself.”

Then Wintershimmer stopped fully in his tracks, and the noise in the room grew very quiet as he turned to face me fully on his tired joints. “But you must have already known that, Coil, given you surmised that you would find me back in the Crystal Union after our confrontation at what is now your basement.”

“Master, what are you talking about?”

“Have you lost yourself in the memory? I know I never got around to teaching you oneiromancy, but I expected better of you, Coil. This is a memory of events ten years past; you do realize that, don’t you?”

“I… What?”

“Typical,” Wintershimmer muttered. “Lost in a dream.” Then, to my astonishment, Wintershimmer actually smacked me across the face with his skeletal staff. “Wake up, Morty.”

“Morty?”

“Wake up, Morty,” Wintershimmer’s lips repeated, but the voice belonged now to somepony quite different.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

“Wake up, Morty,” Celestia repeated as I slowly opened my eyes. I was laying on her bed in the palace again, rendered just as tiny in scale to her oversized furnishings as I had been in my memories, looking up at Wintershimmer from not much more than knee height. Star Swirl rested on a chair between the room’s balcony doors and a large wardrobe, smoking his curled pipe. His jangly, bell-brimmed hat hung from the corner of the wardrobe, alongside a bandolier of glass vials that I suspected belonged to Meadowbrook; the doctor herself was at Celestia’s side, both of them standing over me at the edge of the bed. When I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and let them focus on Celestia, radiant as always as her mane blew in imaginary wind, she spoke again. “Good, you’re alright.”

“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” I heard Star Swirl note from his seat. “In addition to his fatal disease—”

Star Swirl!” Meadowbrook sighed. “He went catatonic the last time. Lady Celestia, now that Morty is awake, I need to ask that you leave us for a moment while we discuss Morty’s health.”

Celestia dipped her head in understanding, and then smiled at me—as if she hadn’t stabbed me in the back only the day before—and turned to the door. “Be well, Morty; I look forward to speaking to you in a few moments.”

“He’s fine;” Star Swirl replied as Celestia vanished through her own bedroom doors, matching my own response almost perfectly in time.

“I’m fine,” I told her rather dismissively. When my synchronization with Star Swirl met my ears, I let out a light chuckle (though it was a far cry from sounding like I was actually amused) and pushed myself up to at least a sitting position on the mattress.

“Wintershimmer was hardly gentle with hard truths when we were students eighty years ago, and somehow I doubt age made him any gentler,” Star Swirl noted, more to Celestia and Meadowbrook than directly to me. “So I have no doubt, now that his wits are about him and the surprise is settled, Morty is fine.”

Meadowbrook brought a hoof to her brow. “Remind me, Star Swirl, which one of us has marks about being a doctor? And which one of us just picked up enough to look after a couple royals?”

Star Swirl let out what I can only conscionably call a harrumph. “Very well.”

“Good.” Meadowbrook nodded, then held up a hoof in my direction. “Morty, can you follow my hoof with your eyes? Don’t move your head.”

I’ll spare you reciting the full procedures of her investigation; when it was done, Meadowbrook gave a short nod. “Going catatonic isn’t what I would call a healthy response to a diagnosis like what you got, Morty, but I have seen worse. I’m content that it really was just a reaction to bad news, at least, and likely not a symptom of something worse. I… well, I don’t want to push you, Morty, but I did want to offer you a chance to ask any other questions you might have.”

I opened my mouth to answer, and heard a yawn escape instead. “My apologies.”

“No apologies necessary,” Meadowbrook replied. “Have you been missing out on sleep though, Morty? You had some bags under your eyes when you woke up this morning?”

“I had a late night,” I offered. “I won’t make a habit of it.”

“See that you don’t,” the doctor replied, then smiled. “Well, please don’t hesitate to come speak to me. We’ll need to check up on your horn from time to time to see if the disease is progressing faster or slower than normal. And if you think of any questions later, I’ll be glad to answer them.”

“It won’t matter, but thank you.”

Meadowbrook frowned. “Morty, from what Star Swirl has shared, I know plenty of members of the royal family have lived long, full lives despite the Scourge. A fatalistic worldview like that isn’t healthy.”

“You misunderstand me.” I pivoted fully to look over Meadowbrook’s shoulder. “I do have one question, and then we can put this whole matter behind us. Star Swirl, what happened to Wintershimmer’s horn? And the rest of his skull for that matter?”

Few ponies can say in good faith that they have made Archmage Star Swirl the Bearded gasp in shock, but I did just that. It ended in something like a reverse spit-take; Star Swirl inhaled, unintentionally gasping down a lungful and change of his pipe smoke, and then with a wheezing cough, sent the pipe clattering across the floor, spreading a tobacco stain across Celestia’s rug that outlived some of the palace staff who tried to clean it. “Absolutely not!”

“Why not?” I pressed.

“Would you care to fill in the details?” Meadowbrook asked. “For those of us not in the loop?”

“The colt is proposing replacing his horn with Wintershimmer’s, with the same grotesque experiment that got his master exiled in the first place! An untested, unproven theory from when he was barely older than Coil is now.”

“Wintershimmer was planning on using it for his own sake. That’s why he kept Smart Cookie alive, and then failing that, foalnapped Silhouette. It’s why he needed Solemn Vow’s body. So it obviously works—”

“Or it simply wasn’t a concern if it didn’t,” Star Swirl interrupted. “You don’t get to try again if it fails, since you won’t be murdering some poor soul.”

“So I need to prove it with a couple corpses first,” I waved off Star Swirl’s objection quite literally with a raised hoof.

“And whose soul, Coil? Yours, and risk dismembering your own soul? Or will you drag up some victim from Tartarus and listen to their screaming? Stars, I still wake up hearing those poor ponies screaming sometimes! I won’t stand by and let you restart those horrors.”

I nodded. “It was certainly unethical when Wintershimmer first had the idea, I agree. But Wintershimmer is already dead, and in case the fact that I’d be doing the procedure on myself doesn’t make this fact obvious, I consent.”

Meadowbrook frowned. “I don’t know much about souls, Morty, but you’d be risking severe damage to your own brain. Wouldn’t it be better to live a full life, even without using your horn?”

“Absolutely not!” I snapped, right into Meadowbrook’s face. The blue mare winced back as I flung myself fully out of bed, leveraging my lanky height to loom over her as I did. “I’d rather die tomorrow knowing I tried. And frankly, Star Swirl, I don’t need your permission. I’m Wintershimmer’s legal heir. His corpse is just as much my property as his staff and his records and everything else he ever owned. I’m not interested in asking for permission. I wouldn’t turn down your help, but you’re welcome to withhold that. Just give me what’s mine and get out of my way.”

Star Swirl glared at me for a very, very long moment. Slowly, his horn ignited, and he picked up his pipe, which he indignantly thrust home between his lips, before slowly puffing up to a few rings of smoke. His eyes closed, his brow wrinkled, and he let out a final exhale of a massive cloud of smoke; enough to obscure his stern demeanor for just a moment.

“I like to think of myself as a pacifist, Morty. It isn’t my highest moral; there are other concerns that outweigh it. But there are also times it applies beyond the obvious meaning of refraining from outright violence.”

“A pacifist wizard?” I scoffed. “And now I see where the ‘school’ idea came from.”

Star Swirl’s brow fell until his wrinkles formed a spearpoint between his eyes. “Credit for the resurgence of magical study in the world belongs to Diadem, not to me. But it is a credit, no matter what Wintershimmer’s worship of dueling and death taught you to believe. Such as, apparently, that risking your own life for the chance to throw it away in another few years hunting monsters is somehow more noble or more worthy than the lives of everypony around you.”

I matched the old wizard’s scowl. “Even with everything he said about Clover and Diadem, Wintershimmer always spoke highly of you. But I guess he was wrong; you’re more of a coward than either of your students.”

“Morty, let me be clear. Right now, from where you are sitting, the idea of risking your life to get back what you think you’ve lost must seem perfectly reasonable. After all, you got away with it once. The young always think themselves immortal.”

“I’m not stupid,” I snapped back.

The comment earned me a shake of Star Swirl’s head. “You literally titled yourself ‘Coil the Immortal’. But lack of perspective aside, you are not neither immortal, nor are you Wintershimmer’s equal in this field. If you pursue this path, a lifetime of experience tells me it will end in your premature death. You’re a promising young wizard.”

“Perhaps you missed the part where if I don’t do this, I won’t be a wizard at all!”

“A wizard is more than their horn,” Star Swirl countered.

I took a step forward—not that, had I been thinking clearly, I would have expected it to frighten Star Swirl. “I don’t really care if you understand or not, old stallion; give me the damn horn!”

“No.” Star Swirl shook his head. “As for the rest of Wintershimmer’s things, do with them what you will, but I think for the time being, I’ll be holding on to his earthly remains and his last notes, for your safety and to ensure they aren’t used irresponsibly by somepony else. You’ll thank me someday, when you have seen how much you can change the world without needing to use your horn.”

“They’re my property!”

Star Swirl arched a brow. “Forgive me for channeling Wintershimmer, but in this case, I think it appropriate: there is a considerable difference between the legal right to something, and the power to enforce it. My life experience tells me that even if you have the former, I am in the moral right to exercise that I have the latter.” Star Swirl then stood up from his seat and telekinetically donned his jingling hat. “Meadowbrook will agree with me, and I have not the slightest doubt your new teacher will as well, if you ask her.”

In fury, I lit my horn a glowing blue. The throbbing pain at the core that I now knew was a sign of the Scourge growing in me made me wince, but I hardly cared as I reached out for Star Swirl. As much as a spell can have a ‘feeling’ to its caster, the shape of the Razor was altogether comfortable on my horn in a way it hadn’t been when I faced Count Halo.

The old stallion’s eyes merely narrowed, and instead of his soul, I felt his magic meet mine, swatting it away like a foal’s hoof from a cookie jar. “You’re strong,” he observed threateningly as his own horn cast a powerful glow. “But you’re not that strong.” And then, with a hiss and a pop, Star Swirl the Bearded was gone.

I heaved a heavy breath, and then walked over to one of Celestia’s windows. In the distance, a huge crowd of pegasi were hovering over some distant building I didn’t recognize at the time, but I hardly even noticed. I just wanted the fresh air.

“Should I send Lady Celestia in, or…?” Meadowbrook’s hesitance hung in the air like morning fog; I had forgotten she was even present until the question was asked, and then I whirled in shock at the sound. She must have thought me whirling in some kind of fury, taking a step back as I met her eyes, but she was a strong enough mare that, when she realized the concern was unfounded, she tamped the instinct down in favor of calm. “This will take time, Morty. I’m sorry; I’ve never known any other way. I encourage you to spend all the time you can with your friends, your family… do you have family?”

“I had Wintershimmer.”

Those three words killed any hope of conversation continuing. Meadowbrook simply returned to her bandolier hanging from the wardrobe, slipped it over her shoulder, and turned for the doors. I watched her go, and then discovered my mood could still somehow grow colder when the door stayed held open in a glow of golden magic, and in Meadowbrook’s place, Celestia stepped in.

“Hello, Morty.”

“Celestia,” I answered as evenly as I could force myself to speak to her.

“Are you well?”

“I suppose that depends. Are you willing to help me take back Wintershimmer’s body from Star Swirl?”

Almost immediately, Celestia frowned. “I suppose now is as good a time as any to confess I listened in when you started shouting.”

“I was shouting?” I asked, quite honestly. Then, before giving her even a moment to answer the self-directed question, I shook my head. “Should I take it from your lack of interference that you agree with Star Swirl? Or did you have some other reason not to step in?”

“Morty, I understand you’re agitated, but please don’t take it out on me. I don’t know what the right answer here is, so I’m not ready to take anypony’s side yet.”

“You know exactly what the answer is! Wintershimmer’s plan wouldn’t even make sense if he didn’t know the process worked!”

Celestia nodded. “But is it reliable? Wintershimmer was desperate enough and old enough that he had nothing to lose by trying. But you’re a young stallion, Morty. You have your whole life ahead of you—”

“For somepony bothering to eavesdrop, you obviously don’t listen very well.” Celestia was taken aback at my interruption, and I confess I could not have cared less. “I would rather die taking the chance than give up on my magic. Nopony felt like objecting when I took exactly the same risk saving you and Luna from Wintershimmer, but now suddenly I’m supposed to just accept that they know what’s best for me?”

“Morty, you know that isn’t true. Gale and I were both horrified when you went off to fight on your own. And Star Swirl may have respected your choice then, but I know with certainty he wasn’t happy about it.” Celestia stepped up onto her bed, then lowered herself down to lay on her belly. With a wing, she patted the disheveled blankets I had left when I freed myself from beneath them. “Here, lay down for a moment, and we can talk about something else until you feel calmer.”

“I don’t need a mother.” I fully turned my back on Celestia and her offer, walking once more over to her window. “I need a teacher. One who respects me, at that.”

“Morty? What’s wrong?”

“What do you think, Celestia? You sent me to a school for literal foals!”

Celestia gently massaged her temple with a wingtip. “Ah. I suppose I should have explained more fully: Morty, I learned to read and write before the Diamond Kingdoms were founded, thousands of years ago. And while I have kept up on the trends of language enough that I have never had to re-learn that skill, I don’t think that I have the skill to teach you my way, any more than you have the time that would take. I asked around the palace, and everypony recommended Mrs. Aspiration, so I saw an opportunity to help Graargh and teach two birds with one…” Celestia then sighed. “Slate, I guess?”

“That would have been well and good if you had bothered to give her the remotest scrap of warning,” I noted. “Or arranged me to not to have to sit through her lessons with a class comprised almost totally of literal infants.”

“I thought I had…” Celestia muttered to herself.

“Evidently not enough, given how surprised she was when she realized I was an adult. I don’t need remedial basic arithmetic or history or astronomy or whatever other subjects you prefer, nor do I need ‘playtime’ to develop my social skills. And even before I knew there was a somewhat urgent ticking clock on my remaining lifespan, I’m a wizard, which means I don’t have time to waste on that kind of childish… eeugh!” That last guttural utterance was accompanied by me pressing my forehead fully against the window, at least as much as my throbbing horn would allow, and briefly considering pulling back my head to smash against the glass.

“I’m certain I made clear to her that you were an adult, Morty.”

“Yes, well, I’m sure you can understand why I’m having a hard time believing that right now.” I rolled my eyes, not that she could see them with my face pressed into her window, facing away from her. “I’ve already made arrangements to have Diadem tutor me, privately. So I suppose you have that long to decide if you’re going to help me with my horn problem, or if you aren’t interested in having me as a student after all.”

“Morty!” Celestia sounded just a touch hurt by that, and when I pulled my head back from the glass just a few inches, I saw her worried expression in her reflection. “I… well, maybe it’s for the best we leave things there, then. Everypony needs time to process news like what you got, and—”

“Don’t demean me.” I stepped away from the glass, and turned around—not to Celestia, but rather toward the door out of the room. “I’ve identified a problem, I have a plan to fix it, I know exactly what I want out of my life. There’s no need for emotion to get involved. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my appointment with Diadem.”

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