• Published 26th May 2020
  • 2,335 Views, 297 Comments

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.

  • ...

PreviousChapters Next

V - II

The Living Goddess

When the bread was in the magic oven and the kitchen had been manually cleaned (a task I thoroughly did not enjoy without the use of my horn), I emerged into Hurricane's villa again to find a Queen Platinum of Equestria waiting for me—just not the one I wanted to see.

"Your Majesty," I offered her with a nod as I passed her in the sitting room, where she was engrossed in an old, paper-smelling tome she held balanced with its spine in the frog of one hoof. I had thought that brief recognition would be our only interaction before I headed out to the porch to see about waiting for Gale in the fading daylight. I was tired. Worse, I was emotionally drained. Frankly, I was not ready to deal with another 'civil enemies' verbal sparring match with the elder Platinum.

I was sorely disappointed.

"You have my condolences, Morty," the queen mother replied, flipping a page in her book without looking up. "Regarding your condition, I mean."

The question turned my mind from tired avoidance to something more akin to fire in the space of an instant. "You were listening?"

Platinum let out a huff. "Again, I find myself reminded that you aren't used to the rules of our game. Information comes from many sources, and because most ponies will refuse to share those sources, it is considered rude to even ask. And a queen has many ears. But if it makes you feel better, no; I did not eavesdrop on your conversation with Blizzard. Your shouting at Star Swirl when you received your diagnosis was more than loud enough that the relevant ears could hear, even through the palace's walls. Now, should I expect you to be returning the coin and Solemn Vow's home, or does our arrangement still stand?"

I winced, and concerningly, Platinum smiled, though she kept her eyes on the pages in front of her. But it wasn't as if I had a choice, given amongst other things my bribe to Reed only a few hours prior. "I… don't currently have all the money. And I rather need the home. It's too much to hope you might grant me a reprieve, isn't it?"

Platinum slowly closed her book and took a long moment before locking eyes with me. "Because I'm sympathetic to your position—probably more so than anypony else alive—I'll offer you a deal. Stop pursuing your romance with my daughter, and I will gladly consent to ending your obligations from our contract. Now more than ever, she doesn't need the distraction. Do that, and you can keep the house and the coin."

I fixed the senior statesmare with my firmest glare. "It doesn't weigh on your conscience that if I say 'no', you'd be trying to kill me?"

"Oh, quite the opposite, Morty; that's the point. Don't get me wrong; I would much rather you ceased interfering in politics without the need for an untimely passing. But if that is not a choice you're willing to give me, I am more than happy to put the wellbeing of Equestria, and my daughter, above any single pony." It was a grim way to end a conversation, to be sure, but also one the queen-mother seemed to think needed little by way of further discussion. So, reopening her book with a hoof, she gave me one final nod of acknowledgement, and then said "I'm certain a stallion of your talents has places to be. Don't let me keep you."

I admit, my response might have been a little bit aggressive, but in my defence, I had tried not to have the conversation at all. Or, to put it in a more direct but more juvenile way, 'she started it.' I walked straight up to Platinum, closed her book with a hoof, and then reached up and actually adjusted her chin so that she would meet my gaze. "Whereas I'm certain a mare of your talents could be doing any number of things to help the daughter she's supposedly willing to kill for, instead of sitting on her flanks at home like an impotent geriatric."

"You really don't have the slightest sense of self-preservation, do you, Coil?" Platinum asked, swatting away my hoof. "So much for civility between enemies."

I let out a single bark of a laugh. "Platinum, maybe I didn't make myself clear when we last spoke. In order for self-preservation to even enter into my consideration, there would have to be something you could do to even inconvenience me, let alone threaten me. There isn't."

Platinum sighed, closed her eyes, and let her head swivel from side to side. I noted her ears fell backwards, as if she was tired or disappointed. "So you aren't interested in pursuing my blessing for Gale's hoof?"

"Why bother? I have every intention of fixing my horn, and once I do, it won't take much patience for me to wait for any requirement of your endorsement to expire. Namely, about the same time you do. Since we're talking so bluntly about one another's deaths, what was it Star Swirl gave you again? A year or two?" This time, it was Platinum's turn to glare, and my turn to grin in an open display of sadism. "But I should be fair and give you the same offer you gave me. In a few weeks, I'll be glad to trade you a cure for your horn, in exchange for your blessing."

Platinum steepled her hooves, and then lowered her brow until the base of her horn was resting on their crests. With her eyes closed, she drew in two long breaths and released each in turn. Then, not raising her head, she spoke. "Thank you for helping me make up my mind. I believe, for the time being, we have nothing else to say to one another."

Being eighteen, and therefore an idiot, I walked out of the room feeling like I had won.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

I spent the rest of the evening on Hurricane's porch, pretending to drink with him. I learned that his crops of hops and wheat and barley and whatever other grains were growing around his villa had all been raised from seeds he carried back from Dioda, and more specifically from his foalhood home in some pegasus farming town called Zephyrus. The passion and pride with which the old soldier talked about his crops, and their being his last connection to the Cirra he knew as a child, were why I bothered to pretend to finish drinking his ale even though the first sip proved instantly that it was an acquired taste.

To be a bit more descriptive, Hurricane's "Old Cirran Ale" was bitter like an ex-lover left in the rain at the altar in favor of a more attractive younger sibling. Its texture suggested not only that it consisted entirely of the dregs and sediment usually found only in the bottom of a bottle of beer, but that those dregs had somehow developed a five-o-clock shadow. In fact, I would say its taste reminded me most of being punched in the face not by Gale, but by my crystal 'nemesis' Silhouette—the operative difference between the two being that Silhouette was an earth pony made of rocks.

Mercifully, Hurricane was distracted long enough for me to dump the bottle off the side of the porch when a sky-carriage emblazoned with Cirran Legion emblems, pulled by ornately armored pegasi, swept down to land on the city road just at the edge of Hurricane's property. It took a second after the carriage to lurch to a halt before the door was flung open at the ice-white hooves of Frostfall. I took it as a troubling sign that, upon locking eyes on me, the esteemed auditoris glared in my direction before she turned to offer a hoof to ease the next mare out of the carriage.

In fact, the next mare was Celestia, who kindly declined the hoof while demonstrating that her legs were more than long enough that the step down was hardly an inconvenience. Judging by the chuckle she and Frostfall shared, and knowing Celestia's sense of humor, I suspect she made some joke about the implications of putting her considerable bodyweight on the offered limb.

After Celestia came Gale in the same burgundy dress stained with Satchel's blood that I had left her in after Satchel's seance. She still wore the unicorn crown, but it sat askew on her head, held in place more by the gnarls of her mane about it than any actual balance on her brow. What makeup Gale had endured that day was mostly smeared on her right fetlock, with only a few thin smears near the edges of her eyes suggesting anything had held—but at least, as far as anypony could looking could tell, she hadn't been reduced to tears.

Gale almost swatted at Frostfall's hoof; I saw her pull her own leg back, before some memory or regret caught in her mind, and instead she took said hoof for support on the short trip down to the road. There, she finally looked up the road and gave a little smile in my direction.

The last to depart the carriage was Commander Typhoon herself, clad in full black armor and wearing a sword I was at least passingly familiar with at her side. Her prosthetic hoof, clad in its little aura of frost, put a brief flash of discomfort on Frostfall's expression, though any harm was quickly mended by a peck on the cheek from her lover. Of all the ponies present, Typhoon looked the least tired. However the day's events had impacted her, they had not stolen the iron from her spine, nor the icy focus from her motions.

Hurricane set down his bottle, pushed himself up from his seat onto his braced foreleg, and despite the obvious pain the motion caused him, set into a rather brisk walk forward. The eagerness with which he went to meet the four mares took me by surprise, and it took me a good few seconds to even stand up, let alone move to join him.

Ahead of me, in the middle of his precious grains, Hurricane answered a greeting of "Dad—" not with words, but by wrapping Gale's chest in his one remaining wing and pulling his daughter into a tight hug.

Gale tucked her neck around his, matching the hug with a foreleg, and visibly shaking as she pulled him even tighter against her. "Hi, Dad."

"I'm glad you're home, Aura," Hurricane answered. "Do you need anything right this moment?"

Gale shook her head. "I think I've done everything I can right now. I mean, Ty and I still need to talk privately, but that can wait until later—"

"Commander Typhoon and I," Typhoon corrected, dipping her head in Gale's direction with something like regret just barely visible to me in the scarred lid of her right eye. "Not that I want to push you away, Gale, but when it comes to deciding what comes next, it won't be easy for either of us."

"No, you're right." Gale stepped back from Hurricane's hug and swallowed.

Hurricane himself, on the other hand, scoffed as he walked over to his substantially older daughter. It was, at least to me, an amusing reminder that Typhoon was a smaller mare than Gale, given how much more Hurricane's hug encompassed her; normally, between the crest of her helmet and her own posture and presence, Typhoon often seemed larger than life. But in Hurricane's grasp, it was easy to imagine a sense of chiding in Hurricane's voice. "You and Gale will always be family, Typhoon. Don't let Platinum's rules get in the way of that."

Typhoon rolled her eyes as she matched Hurricane's hug. "I know, Dad. But it's a good rule to have anyway. It makes the dinner table a lot less awkward."

"If you insist. Speaking of which, Blizzard's made us some bread from River Rock." Turning to Frostfall, I was amused to note Typhoon's lover got no gentler of a hug from the old pegasus than either of his daughters. "I hope you'll stay too, Frostfall; we've got an open seat now that Graargh is gone."

Frostfall responded "Please don't tell me you knew about that nonsense too, sir."

"I… am going to guess I don't?" Hurricane admitted after a moment's hesitation, releasing Frostfall as he spoke.

"Good," Frostfall replied, glaring over his shoulder in my direction.

I reached Gale at about the same time Hurricane moved on to embrace Celestia and share a few quiet words which I think you will understand I hardly cared to pay attention to, except to note that Celestia was bold enough to plant a kiss on Hurricane's collar bone, and that the sensation apparently sent a shiver through the old stallion.

No, that detail aside, my attention was on Gale, and the fact that her kiss was decidedly bolder (though, in comparison to other kisses we had already shared in public, rather quite tame). When we pulled apart, Gale just said "Thanks."

"I enjoy it too, you know." I nodded to Gale. "Now, what can I do to help?"

Gale looked at me like I'd grown a second horn. "Morty, you can't. It's just politics left now."

I nodded. "I meant more in the vein of heading up to Riverward, or maybe a restaurant in town—"

The suggestion was cut off by a scoff from Gale, though a flash of guilt passed over her expression the very next moment. "Sorry, I shouldn't be so cynical. I forget you don't know to think about this kind of shit. Um… Look, imagine how it would look to the newspapers if somepony died off, and not six hours later, the Queen was out fucking around with her colt-toy."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You know damn well what I mean, Morty. It's not what I'd say; it's what they'd say." Gale hung her head. "I'm sorry. I don't think I'm going to be free for a couple of days. But I appreciate the thought, for what it's worth."

With that brief explanation out of the way, Gale turned toward her father and her sister, just in time for the trio to head back up the path through Hurricane's fields toward the family home. Their departure left me standing with Celestia and Frostfall, whose presence I almost didn't notice for the frustration Gale's words had left in me.

Not that she was wrong, as my own inner voice reminded me even in the moment. But that hardly helped to soothe the feeling of inadequacy.

And then, as seemed to be the theme of that wretched day, it got worse. "Morty," Frostfall greeted me. "Long time no see." There was a barb to her voice, particularly as her white wing stretched out over my shoulders to pull me unnecessarily firmly against her side.

"Um… hello to you too… Um… Miss…"

Lest any reader be confused by my forgetfulness, while I as the narrator have described Frostfall's presence several times, face-to-face, this was only the second time I had meaningfully met the mare in question, and the prior introduction had come well before I bested Wintershimmer.

"Morty, this is Frostfall," Celestia helpfully introduced the soldier.

"Auditoris Frostfall. And we've already met, Lady Celestia." Still holding me close to her side, Frostfall gestured with her other wing up the road. "Let's head inside."

"Oh, right! You're Typhoon's wife."

Frostfall huffed once in amusement, and muttered "I'm just her secretary. She'll never buy me a ring; she gets cold hooves too easily." Despite that being a magnificent joke, while Celestia laughed genuinely, my own laughter was rendered somewhat awkward by Frostfall's rather forceful physical pin, and Frostfall herself kept a completely straight face.

I squirmed under Frostfall's wing as we walked forward (Celestia offering no help whatsoever), and when I quickly learned I was no match for the career soldier's strength even despite her apparent office job, I groaned out "Okay, what's your problem with me?"

Frostfall didn't even look at me. Her eyes stayed pointed straight ahead. "You have a beautiful kitty, Morty."

"What? I don't have a cat;. What are you talking about?"

"The cat you sent your bear friend to bring back to school for you?"

I was immediately envious of the fact that, unlike my own pale blue, Frostfall was actually white-coated. Had I shared that trait, it might not have been obvious when all the blood flushed from my face. "Um, you see… Graargh didn't mention anything about the guard getting involved."

"The guard got involved with Graargh?" Celestia asked, craning her head down to involve herself in the conversation. "Morty, what happened?"

"Nothing should have happened!" I protested. "This is the first I'm hearing the guard got involved!"

"You turned a child into the Commander of the Cirran Legion!" Frostfall snapped. "How could you possibly think the guard wasn't going to get involved?!"

"You did what?" Celestia asked.

"Well, Celestia, I used my magic to turn Graargh into Typhoon so he could fly, because he wanted a stray cat." After a moment's pause, I decided I needed to explain the cat's absence, and added "To eat."

"You let him eat that cat?!" After that first gasp, Frostfall shook her head. "No, you know what, that's not the part of this I'm worrying about. Morty, you must think I'm really stupid if you think I don't see you're trying to pass some sort of secret message to Celestia. I may not know what it is, but that doesn't matter right now. Lady Celestia, would you like to lend me a hoof here?"

Celestia closed her eyes, drew in a breath, and shook her head. "Frostfall, you are going to be much happier if you let me handle this. I'll give you my personal assurance it won't happen again."


"Why don't you let Morty go, head on inside, and enjoy a nice dinner with Typhoon and the family?" Celestia interrupted. "Give Hurricane my regards and my apologies for dipping out. And Gale too, for that matter. Morty and I are going to have dinner privately this evening."

Celestia's tone in delivering that final observation, letting her pink eyes pass harshly from Frostfall onto my face, sent a shiver down my spine. The condemnation similarly seemed enough to satisfy Frostfall, who gave a rather stiff bow to Celestia before turning back toward the house. She paused, only a moment, to fix me with one final harsh look of her own. "That poor cat."

Celestia waited a very long few moments for the fields outside of Hurricane's home to be completely empty of any other pony before she finally turned to me… and smiled. "Can we consider that my apology for your experience with Mrs. Aspirations?"

Celestia, I love you so much.

It was in that moment, as relief swept over me, that I realized just how thoroughly tired I felt. Perhaps it was relief, perhaps it was fatigue, or perhaps it was some combination of the events of what seemed like an interminable day, but seemingly without any input from my brain, I felt myself collapsing onto my tail on the dirt path and laughing uncontrollably. It was as much as I could do to keep my volume down.

There are certain advantages that come with millennia of age. One is to know how to react in such a situation. Instead of assuming I found the situation genuinely funny, Celestia wrapped a wing over my shoulder, leaned forward, and pressed her forehead against mine (just off-center, so that I wasn't impaled on her far-sharper-than-usual horn, nor her on mine).

"I'm here."

"I'm… heh... fine," I insisted between gasps of laughter. "I just…"

"You're exhausted, Morty. It's okay to admit it." Pulling her head back, Celestia seemed to have a sense of my own body better than I did. When the tears of trying to hold back the volume of my laughter were replaced by the salty water of a sudden sinking gloom, her wing on my back pulled me into the dense fur of her chest. Stubbornly, with the pride only the young and foolish hold onto, I resisted letting out the swarm of feelings leaking through my dam of fatigue.

But as I held on, Celestia insisted on holding me. She stayed there, as close to an emotionally supportive parent as ever I had in my life, until at last it was done. Then, taking a moment to dry out the coat around my bagged and sunken eyes with her horn, she finally released me. "I was honest with Frostfall about dinner. There's a little place I'm fond of not too far up the river from here. Join me?"

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Dawnside was a little cafe near Everfree's western gate. It was a humble place, filled with ponies who were flabbergasted when the goddess Celestia herself, and the handsome (though sleep deprived) young stallion at her side were led to a private table in the open-air seating area behind the building. There, we were seated at a little 'booth' made of two vine-covered wooden trellises, between which were a small rectangular table and two blue cloth cushions.

Celestia had said almost nothing of note on our way over; her choice of small talk was how much Everfree had changed since she arrived, and how she had first discovered Dawnside while on a walk trying to escape the stress of an unintended entanglement in Queen Platinum's political affairs.

Therefore, I found it both surprising and refreshing when, barely moments after we were seated and provided with a glass pitcher of ice water and two tall glasses, Celestia cut directly to the chase. "I spoke to Star Swirl after you left this morning."

If that day had taught me anything, it was to be ready for yet another disappointment. I braced with a sharp intake of breath.

"What Wintershimmer did was evil, Morty. And it hurt Star Swirl. He couldn't bring himself to tell me everything, but the scars were obvious."

I grit my teeth, and put a hoof on the table to brace myself on the way to standing up.

Celestia's hoof reached across the table, coming to rest atop mine, to stop me. "But whatever damage Wintershimmer did is already done. Now, we have the chance to use that learning to help a young stallion who needs it."

"Are you saying you're going to help me?"

"Within reason, Morty, yes. I do have my limits. Which is one reason I wanted to talk to you privately." Celestia left off on that note when a waiter approached with two salads. After applying shavings of fresh cheese and a sprinkling of raspberry vinaigrette, we were quickly once more left alone.

"She didn't even ask?" I observed, looking down at what was clearly a dinner salad.

Celestia seemed almost embarrassed as she chuckled, lifting a fork in her golden magic as she did. "When you live as long as I do, it's easy to become a creature of habit. I'm enough of a regular, and I always order the same thing, that usually they don't bother asking." Then she nodded in the direction of my food. "I hadn't expected them to assume the same for you, though. If that isn't what you'd like, I'm sure I can flag somepony down."

"Well, it's fine," I answered. "Except I'm already losing sleep from my horn aching, and the last thing I need is fiddling with silverware."

Celestia calmly glanced to her fork, hovering in midair with a piece of lettuce speared on the tines. Grace defined the movement of the fork as it descended to the edge of her bowl, scraped the lettuce free, and returned to the table beside the bowl. The alicorn then lifted her napkin from the table, unfolded it, and tied it gingerly around her own neck.

I let out something like a scoff when her next action, still graceful despite its inherent lack of formality, was to lower her face into her salad bowl and take a considerable, audible bite.

Ponies around us began to murmur and pointedly avoid looking directly towards us. Celestia paid them no heed, lifting her head and dabbing at her cheeks with the corner of her napkin—making a point to hold it in her hoof instead of with magic. After enough time to chew and swallow, she offered me a sympathetic grin. "There. Now you won't need to feel embarrassed for doing it too."

Though I massaged my brow with a hoof, I could hardly argue with Celestia's logic. "Alright. You were saying?" With that prompt out of the way, I deigned to lower myself into the salad face-first.

"My limits, yes. To be clear, Morty, Star Swirl is my friend. He has been for a very long time. I disagree with him about this issue with your horn, but I still respect him, and I respect that he feels like he is doing the right thing. So I will not have any part in any kind of attack on Star Swirl to try and force him to give Wintershimmer's work."

I quickly swallowed my lettuce and followed it up with a dismissive scoff. "I know I picked a couple fights with Wintershimmer, Celestia, but I'm not stupid."

"I hadn't intended to suggest otherwise." Celestia nodded. "But you are, understandably, desperate. And for better or for worse, you did beat Wintershimmer."

"I was lucky." I briefly leaned forward to my salad, then hesitated and pulled up. "Not to say my plans weren't also incredible, but victory was hardly guaranteed. And I had a lot of advantages. I would have died in the first thirty seconds without Luna's assistance, certainly. That's to say nothing of the fact that Wintershimmer raised me, and even if he was better at all his own tricks than me, I still knew most of them. Star Swirl might be the lesser duelist, but he's also an unknown to me. And I simply don't have an answer for his omniomorphic spell. So I wouldn't even try." I chuckled. "I suspect I'm going to have to rob him."

With that thought released, I let myself enjoy another bite of what was truly a succulent salad. As I enjoyed the flavors, Celestia answered me hesitantly. "I… cannot promise that I can help with that either. At least, not directly. In all honesty, when it comes to subterfuge, I'm usually more harm than I'm worth anyway. But I will help you with learning whatever you need to pursue that goal—that is, if you'll still have me."

"That's it?" Celestia had just enough time to raise a worried brow before I clarified my question with "Of course! I'll be glad to have your help, Celestia… for whatever good I'll be as a student, without a working horn."

Celestia gave me a small smile. "There are many kinds of magic in our world, Morty, that don't require a unicorn's horn." After a moment where bites of salads overlapped and we sat in silence, chewing and enjoying the evening air, Celestia continued. "Will you forgive me for a brief lesson over dinner?"

"Forgive you? I'd welcome it."

"Alright." Celestia nodded, and then took a moment to wipe her lips of vinaigrette. "Define 'magic'."

"Something you understand, but observers don't."

My entirely serious answer got a chuckle out of Celestia. "That's a clever answer. Wait, you're serious?"

In the moment she'd taken to laugh, and then come to realization, I had taken a bit of a particularly juicy grape tomato, and so had to suffer awkward silence before answering. "Well, that was Wintershimmer's answer. But he was trying to make a point about how wizards use magic differently than your average unicorn. How in conflict, the element of surprise is more important than abstract academic understanding. The ultimate point being that the latter should serve the former, or else you wind up sitting in a classroom like Grayscale or Diadem."

"Hmm…" Celestia indulged in a sip of ice water. "Well, that's interesting. But I'd like to hear your answer, Morty."

"My answer? Huh. Well, generally, I do agree with the point Wintershimmer was making. But I also take the point that isn't the answer you're looking for."

Celestia cut me off with a stern shake of her head. "Like I told you before, Morty, I'm not looking for a specific answer. You're past the point of your studies where magic has clean-cut, hard and fast rules. The way we both learn should mirror the subject. I'm asking so we can have a conversation, not because I want to quiz you, or punish you for a wrong answer or a poorly chosen word."

"You really aren't at all like Wintershimmer…" I smiled a little and settled back in my seat. "Magic is… the art of using the controlled application of mana to violate the physical laws of the world."

Celestia nodded. "I like your choice of the word 'art'. But I do disagree with some other points. Does one have to use mana to practice magic?"

"Well, yes, I would think so… I'm struggling to come up with a counter-example at any rate. You might make an argument that an earth pony using their endura isn't actively 'practicing' magic, but they are certainly still passing mana through their hooves."

"And what about an alchemist? Or a geometer? Or an astrologer?"

"I generally wouldn't call an alchemist a 'mage'. And while a geometer—or really, any arithmancer—might achieve some incredible feats with well crafted sigils, at some point somepony still has to cast a spell with a horn. That's how Wintershimmer's portal to the Summer Lands worked, for one immediate example." I afforded myself a sip of my own water before concluding my rebuttal. "Truth be told, I don't know enough about practical astral sorcery to comment on it."

"I'll have to convince Luna to teach you some, then." Celestia shook her head. "But your point about geometry and sigils works for the moment. What would you say if I told you it was possible to produce magic with geometer's sigils without ever using your horn."

"I…" I bit back my immediate response, before being subjected to a surprisingly judgemental look from Celestia. "Honestly, my immediate thought was 'if you're that gullible, I have a snake oil elixir to sell you.' But I know I should trust you. That just violates every rule about the world Wintershimmer ever taught me; it seems… impossible?"

"Like magic?" Celestia suggested with some obvious enjoyment. "Pure sigil magic is an obscure practice, and because it's less natural to a pony's body than the arcana, empatha, and endura our three breeds are used to, it's much easier to make mistakes in a way that hurts us. So ponies usually only use that kind of arithmancy to supplement their existing magic."

"Alright." I nodded. "So supposing we remove the requirement of 'mana' from my definition, do you have any other objections?"

"Nothing else I could so directly argue against." Celestia waved a hoof as if to dismiss the thought. "It wasn't a bad answer at all, Morty. Especially given your experiences with magic."

"Maybe not." I shrugged. "But it was still wrong. Will you humor me with yours? Or is not saying a part of the lesson?"

Celestia responded with an uncaring shrug of her own shoulders. "I don't see why not; I'm sure I can trust a stallion of your pride not to just accept it blindly."

"I… suppose I should say thank you?"

"I would say magic is the art of persuading the will of the universe to see the world through your eyes."

"Surely you aren't suggesting there's a single, cohesive intelligence behind the universe." After a moment of silence as Celestia (midway through a bite of salad) failed to reply, I pressed "I mean, most ponies would argue that if there were such an omnipotent god, it would be you."

That comment earned me a flat huff through Celestia's nostrils, followed by a heavy bob of her throat as her salad vanished. "Some ponies would say that, yes. But you know better, so please don't. No, Morty, I'm not claiming there's actually some sort of single willpower in our world. It's just a metaphor for things like the natural laws you mentioned in your definition, but also subtler things—things you could do without magic, but might choose to do with magic because they are more convenient, like growing a healthy garden or climbing a mountain."

"I see." I nodded. "You prefer the metaphor to more academic terms?"

"In my experience, any understanding of magic—or the rest of the world, for that matter—that limits itself to strict, black and white terms is always going to be incomplete. But with magic especially, including some metaphor and some nuance is very much intentional, because magic itself is that way. To take another example… well, no, you've likely never had any experience with chaos magic. Perhaps Wintershimmer taught you about the fey, though?"

"Quite a bit," I admitted. "I've… had some experience with the effects of fey contracts."

"Well, that's a perfect example," Celstia agreed. "Fey don't have horns, they don't use mana, but they're still inherently magical creatures. Their words, their understanding of language, have their own form of magic that's every bit as capable of changing the world's mind as ours."

"Point taken." I nodded. "So… is your point for me to start learning fey magic, so that I can do things without my horn?"

Celestia shook her head. "Since you're already working on learning to read, and you've already shown you know the basics of using glyphs to support your own magic, I think a study of runic magic would be a better place for us to start. It's certainly slower and more subtle than what you're used to using, but I'm confident with your creativity, you should be able to find ways to use it in lieu of your horn in no time."

"Wait…" I couldn't help but cock my head. "You're telling me you can do magic with a glyph and not use any mana from your horn? Not just a stabilizing glyph like I sometimes use for seances; actual, honest-to-goodness independent magic just from the shapes you draw?"

"Well, after a sense," Celestia offered with a nod. "There's magical potential in everything, Morty. Water. The stars. Imagination. Stories. Even the air we breathe. Glyphs and runes are better thought of as ways of converting magical potential into magical, um, we'll say effects. Spells, if you will. You can put magical energy into a glyph any number of ways—whether it be the mana from your horn when you seance, or latent energy from one of the world's leylines, or music—"

"Or blood?" I suggested.

Celestia winced, but nodded. "That… isn't where I would immediately jump, but yes, I suppose so. Blood is how mana moves through the equine body, and—Morty, what are you doing?"

What I was doing was leaning over past the trellis separating us from the next table, where a pegasus and a unicorn on a date were having their dinner removed by a waiter and replaced with slices of a thick honey cake. Since the pegasus of the pair wasn't using her rather fierce looking steak knife any longer, I proceeded to borrow it with a nod to the waiter.

Apparently, this was not an especially normal thing to do in a restaurant, as not only the waiter but both romantics turned to stare at Celestia and I. Completely unaware of the audience, I winced and lit up my horn—not flaring for any fancy magic, but just applying the telekinetic grip necessary to handle the knife, like a quill or chalk or other instrument of runecraft, with any kind of dexterity. As I lifted the blade, I used a hoof to flip back our plain white tablecloth and expose the wood grain of the raw table beneath. And then, without further ado, I began to carve.

"Morty!" Celestia chided. "You can't just—"

"Shh!" I interrupted. "I've got to get the formula right."

"Sir, I must insist you stop!" said the waiter. "Lady Celestia, I apologize for cutting in, but if your companion does not cease vandalizing our tables, I'll have to ask him to leave."

"Why do you care?" I asked as I finished off the outer circle of my quick (and rather dirty) work. "It's not like it's an expensive table."

"How dare you?!" The waiter announced with a gasp.

"I'll buy the table if it makes you feel better," I snapped back without really caring; in the time of that exchange, I had finished my inner sigil. It was a silly symbol, really; one Wintershimmer had taught me to teach the basic idea of a stabilizing glyph, rather than for any practical purpose outside of manual construction. But for my purposes, a stabilizing glyph for basic telekinesis would more than suffice. Now all I needed was the mana. Lifting the knife from the table, I briefly licked the flat of the blade to clean off the sawdust, making both Celestia and the waiter wince back—not that I actually cut my tongue. They had just enough time to relax in the assurance I wasn't worried before I turned the blade to the upraised frog of my front left hoof.

"Morty, you can't just stab yourself in a restaurant!" Celestia objected, though the statement was already factually false by the time she finished it.

Behind me, the unicorn romantic gasped as I grit my teeth from yet another pain, but smeared my now bloodied hoof over the carved-up table.

To my joy and astonishment, amidst the red smear, the blue light of my own magic began to emanate from the symbol I had carved. And when I placed the knife over the sigil, it hovered freely in midair, blade up, dripping my blood down it's edge like a grisly trophy.

"How long will that last?" I asked.

Celestia frowned. "Morty, I don't think that's the question you should be asking right now."

Her chiding tone brought me down from my feeling of triumph, and I answered her with perhaps more dismissal in my voice than necessary. "Or what? This is life-or-death for me. For him it's, what, having to walk down the street and buy a new table?" I didn't wait for Celestia to answer; instead, I turned to the waiter, reached into my jacket's breast with my non-bloodied hoof, and retrieved one of the smaller promissory notes from Queen Platinum. "Here. Courtesy of the hero of Platinum's Landing."

"Morty!" Celestia outright snapped, before turning to the waiter herself. "Sir, I'm so sorry—"

"It's really not a problem, Lady Celestia," said the waiter, frantically pocketing the paper I had just handed over and smiling about six-hundred bits more generously than the situation called for. "Please, do enjoy the rest of your evening." And then, frantically, the stallion darted away.

Celestia let her wings droop on her back. "I'm disappointed, Morty. You can't just bribe all your problems away."

"Would it be in bad taste to observe that it's worked every time I've tried it so far?" I asked flatly. When Celestia closed her eyes, I decided a deeper hole was better, and added "If you'd prefer, I could take a page out of Wintershimmer's book and threaten murder every time somepony inconvenienced me."

"I see between your day's struggles and your lack of sleep there's no point trying to teach anything more today." Celestia fixed me with a harsh look. "Let me be clear, Morty: I don't want you draining your own blood trying to accomplish the same magic you could with your horn. Even if you don't immediately kill yourself, bloodletting is dangerous, and can have serious long-term side effects."

"I'm aware," I told Celestia. "There's a reason most famous hemomancers used other ponies' blood to augment their magic. Queen Maiden, Lord Impala, Count Dragonson..."

"Do I actually need to tell you—?"

"No," I interrupted. "I'm not going to kill anypony for their blood. I'm not a monster, Celestia."

"And I'm very glad for that." The alicorn let out a prolonged sigh as she searched for words. "The next time we're able to get together, after we talk about this evening, I'll teach you some other, less dangerous sources of magical potential—and while we're at it, perhaps some more nuance for your runes and glyphs."

"That sounds like an excellent place to start." I tilted my head back to stare blankly up at the ceiling as I thought through my obligations. "I'm busy three mornings a week with Diadem, and I'm occupied tomorrow evening, since Hurricane asked me to take Blizzard out so she can experience Everfree. But the following evening I should be free."

"I'm looking forward to it already," Celestia concurred, rather less than enthusiastically. "Until then, is there anything I can help you with?"

It took me a few moments of thought to consider that question, and more importantly, how bold I wanted to be in pushing my other objectives.

For the first time since his appearance that morning, the figment of Wintershimmer in my mind made himself known—not by appearing to my eyes, but with just an unmistakable whisper in my ear. "Celestia is offering you aid. Do you really have time to hesitate?"

And, as usual (though I detested it), that voice was the voice of reason. Steeling myself for a lie by omission, I met the goddess' gaze. "Well, if it isn't too much trouble, do you know where I could buy a ponyquin?" When Celestia raised a brow, I matched it with a hoof. "That's, uh, actually the easier of two requests."

"Very well. I promised I would help you. Yes, there's a shop that does my dresses when I do balls not too far up the road here; I'll show you when we're done eating. But now I'm a little bit worried. What's the second request?"

I took that moment to pick up my water glass between my hooves, drain it completely, and then somewhat awkwardly toss the ice cubes leftover into a patch of nearby lawn. The glass now empty, I placed it back on the table, and slid it over to Celestia. "Is it too much to ask for you to fill that with your blood? Since you promised?"

PreviousChapters Next