• 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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The Predecessor

If you, reader, happen to be a student of our divine monarch, you may not need any supporting evidence for the claim that I am about to make. But for those who haven't had the experience of Celestia's tutelage, I must once again ask you to trust me, because I am aware that what I am about to say sounds insane.

Celestia indulged me.

That is, in response to my observation that she had promised to help me, Celestia calmly took hold of my levitating steak knife, and—with rather less pomp and ritual than this wording would otherwise suggest—stabbed herself.

As the bleeding frog of her own hoof (stabbed rather quite a bit more deeply than my own) dripped into the offered drinking glass, Celestia smiled across the table in a way that was no more cheerful and friendly than any other of her smiles, but which in context put the fear of the gods in me. "This should give you enough to experiment in your own free time until we're able to get together again, Morty. But please try to be frugal with it."

"I… Yes, I'll be careful." I swallowed.

"Something wrong?"

"I didn't expect you to agree so, um, enthusiastically?"

Celestia leaned back in her chair and masked a laugh with the feathers of an enormous white wing. "Well, Morty, if we're being honest we both know you couldn't stop using magic if you tried. And giving you a little bit of my blood really doesn't hurt me. I have a lot more to give than most ponies, after all." A seriousness slipped into Celestia's expression, then. "But let's not make a habit of this, okay?"

I nodded solemnly.

I'll spare you the remainder of our interactions as briefly as possible, because nothing of particular note followed. Instead, once her wound was closed (which, thanks to her earth pony magic, took a markedly miniscule amount of time), she assisted me in transporting the open-topped glass home. She was even kind enough to stop on the way with me, and to carry the wooden ponyquin I purchased, all the way back to my home. There, I reunited with Angel, said my brief goodbyes to Celestia, and promised at her pointed request that I get some sleep.

That, however, was a lie.

The house's door closed itself behind Celestia, leaving Angel and I alone in what had once been Solemn Vow's foyer; our only company was an inanimate (for the moment) ponyquin of polished wood.

"Master Coil, I fetched the candlecorns as you requested." Angel followed up those words with what I will call a disgusted half-shiver half-croak. "I will request that you not make me possess one of those bodies again unless it is absolutely necessary. I believe I already mentioned the long-term discomfort occupying one entails, and now I fear I am getting some sort of wax building up in the cracks of my new gem. Should I take it that we're making more golems to attend to the upkeep of this home, or—"

"Angel, please." I waved my hoof in the air frantically as I realized a building twinge just above and behind my right eye was likely stemming from the artificial sound of his voice.

"Another headache, sir? Did you use your horn again?"

I grit my teeth for a moment, and then snapped. "Shut up, Angel." When the golem meekly shrunk away, hovering about a foot closer to the ground, I sighed in regret. "I'm sorry. It's the noise. No, I haven't used my horn. I just need to sleep."

"Like you promised Mistress Celestia?" Angel prompted.

"Yes," I agreed. "But I have one more thing I need to do first. And… actually, before I do that: you said something about a new gem?"

"You will recall, sir, that my old one was shattered in our battle with Wintershimmer." Angel's volume was far quieter, so much so that I had to perk my ears forward to hear him. "While you were recovering, Mistress Diadem and Archmage Grayscale were willing to help me create a new one. That process was the subject of several of the lectures I attended at their college while—"

"I get the point," I interrupted. "Can you carry that glass of blood?"

"Certainly," Angel agreed, pinching it between his halos with more deftness than a floating rock with two metal rings would be expected to exhibit. "Where shall I bring it?"

Midway through hefting the ponyquin onto my back, I paused at the question. "Where do you think it will be easiest to clean up if we make a mess?"

"The kitchen it is, sir," Angel 'nodded' (bobbing his rock inside the orbit of his halos). "Shall I lead the way, or do you recall from our prior escapade?"

"Go ahead."

"Very good, Master Coil." Floating along with the glass of ichor, Angel seemed altogether giddy with himself. "It is good to be doing magic with you again, without the risk of imminent violent death. Are we making a new golem? And if so, one like me, or something simpler?"

"We're making a golem body," I explained tersely. "A… actually, I'm curious: how much do you remember from Wintershimmer's lessons, now that you're smarter?"

"Hmm," said Angel, lacking the vocal chords or lungs or lips to make such a noise the usual way. "A 'golem' is made up of two parts: the corpus, or body—hence why it sounds like 'corpse'?" I nodded, but didn't offer any words to interrupt the thought. "The other part is the animus, the spirit of the golem, that understands orders and controls the body."

"Correct," I observed as Angel turned into the kitchen's doorway. "So to actually answer your question, no; we aren't making a whole golem. We're making a corpus out of this ponyquin, but we're not making an animus to put into it."

"It isn't for me, is it?" Angel asked. "I'm quite content in this form, as in-equine as it may be."

"No, Angel, it isn't for you. Even though our corpus isn't a literal corpse, what we're making is, technically, an undead."

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

A transparent burnt orange stallion appeared suddenly on a black and white checkerboard marble floor that had once been his own kitchen. There hadn't been any warning—not that there usually was, when a dead pony was seanced—but more importantly, he hadn't been expecting such a summons for days to come. Nevertheless, he took that surprise in stride… if only because another, far more pressing surprise was awaiting him.

"Hello, Vow; I'll be with you in a moment, but I want to stabilize the seance so I can let my horn rest, and—"

"Dear gods, what happened?! Are you hurt?"

With the benefit of retrospect, Vow's exclamation was completely justified. After all, in his defense, the floor of the kitchen, my hooves, and indeed my face were all rather soaked in blood. However, with my horn actively aching from the seance I was holding, my previously mentioned lack of sleep, and a growing impatience to be done committing what was arguably a crime so bad nopony had dared to give it a name, I was less than inclined to see things from his perspective.

For those curious, being the inventor and thus having the right of naming, I coin my actions 'retropsychopompery'; that is, the act of un-judging a soul for their life's sins, and subsequently removing them from their assigned reward or, more pertinently, punishment.

In the moment, I didn't even look up from smearing blood in wide geometric arcs over the kitchen floor. "There's no need to shout, Vow," I snapped.

"Master Coil, you are covered in blood." That tinny, synthetic voice belonged to Angel, hovering above a small island, not far from a hanging set of hammered copper pans. "It is a justifiable concern."

"Fine." I rolled my eyes. "It's not a big deal, Vow; it isn't mine."

"I didn't take you for a murderer, Morty," Vow muttered in what I assume was good humor.

Finally, frustrated that the conversation hadn't stopped, I threw back my head to glare at him. "Nopony died. It's Celestia's blood."

"You stabbed the goddess Celestia?!" Vow winced. "Golem—forgive me, your name is escaping me—you get why that's worse, right?"

"Master Coil assures me that Lady Celestia stabbed herself," Angel offered in reply. "And my name is Angel. Though I can hardly blame you; it has been some time since our escapades dealing with Wintershimmer." Angel then hovered over to the condemned soul's side. "Master Coil is short-tempered at present, and I suspect in some physical pain from using his horn. You may wish not to aggravate him, sir, as he does hold your existence in his hooves. Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Ah." In a much quieter tone, Vow offered "My sincerest apologies."

"It's fine," I grumbled. "You're anxious about whether you get to be alive again or if I'm going to disperse you, and here I am drawing stabilizing glyphs…" When the seven pointed star of Celestia's blood was done and pale blue and brilliant golden light (the colors of my and Celestia's auras) began to radiate from the dark red symbol, I finally let my aching horn rest, flopped back on my flanks, and breathed a sigh of relief. "No point keeping you in suspense. Yes, I'm going to employ your services. That ponyquin over there in the corner will be your body for now." Vow's expression brightened instantly, but I gave him no chance to even thank me, as I walked over to the ponyquin and placed my horn directly against it.

The act of binding a soul to a prepared body of any kind is less dramatic than the moral implications of the act would suggest. There was a minor slurp, and a pop, and then the ponyquin—now Vow—began to flail his wooden legs, not yet realizing that he needed to step up off of the metal pole impaling his belly that would have kept him upright if he weren't animate. Still, for such a disorienting experience, Vow took to it quickly; in only a few moments, his blank wooden face was 'looking' between Angel and I. "Well," he said (slightly unnerving for his lack of a mouth), still possessing the same voice his soul had used just a moment earlier. "There certainly aren't words to express the magnitude of my gratitude, but I do feel I need to say something. Thank you, Morty."

"You're welcome," I offered, stepping back to give Vow some room to test his new limbs. "Did Wintershimmer teach you his procedure for transplanting a horn onto a new pony's body?"

Vow's wooden brow rose with slightly more elasticity than should have been possible from the material, at least without the aid of my magic; then he shook his head. "That was before my time, unfortunately. I hope that doesn't change your answer about employing my services—"

"If it did, I would have asked before I went through the trouble to build that body," I told him, waving away his worries with a (blood-stained) hoof, and then making the matter far worse by massaging my temple to try and ease the ache in my brow. "It just changes what I need from you."

"Why do you need a new horn?" Vow asked. "I assume you're intending it for yourself, anyway, given the headaches you mentioned the last time we spoke."

"I contracted the Scourge of Kings."

Vow didn't have words to respond to that, but if he had lungs, I'm sure I would have heard the wind pass his lips. "You… I'm so sorry, Morty."

"It's fine." I lied. "I don't intend to die from it. That's why you're here, after all. But since you don't know what we need, our first order of business is stealing Wintershimmer's notes back from Star Swirl."

This time, Vow's response was to wince. "You want to rob Star Swirl the Bearded?"

"I much prefer that option to murdering him, since those seem to be the two options he has given me." When Vow again seemed to recoil from the suggestion, a cruel part of my mind (perhaps the part inhabited by Wintershimmer) felt it a good time to push my point. "But if it does come to assassination, I trust I've chosen the most experienced stallion for the job regardless."

Angel rotated fiercely in place. "Master Coil! If I may be so bold, there's no call for such a comment."

I shot Angel a glare, but it was Vow who spoke up. "Though I don't intend to be that stallion again unless it is absolutely necessary, Morty is right, Angel."

"I'm not saying he's wrong, Mr. Vow. Only that Master Coil is choosing words with barbs when I know he is perfectly capable of speaking more kindly."

Lest anypony not follow, Angel was right—however Vow had interpreted my comment, I had called to mind Vow's past to jab at him for the perceived slight of wasting my already fraying patience. Naturally, as I had for the entire day, rather than recognizing Angel's point, I turned my frustrations on him.

"Your part of this is done, Angel, and I'm getting tired of your voice." I turned to Vow and nodded. "This will be a bit unusual—what am I doing wasting time warning you? You've been bound to a golem before."

"So I have," Vow agreed. "Though Wintershimmer didn't exactly give me any directions. Nevertheless, I did study the art with him when I was your age, so I trust you won't have to hold my hoof through it too much. Did you use Sanguine's Somber Assurance in my binding matrix, or should I be avoiding water?"

"Did I—you honestly think I can sneak your soul out of Tartarus without Celestia and Luna noticing, but I wouldn't have made the glyphs waterproof? What kind of an idiot do you take me for?"

"I'm sorry; I was only trying to get information, and—"

"Look, right now, I don't care. You're here to help me get a new horn, and I'm not…" My words trailed off as a candlecorn walked into the kitchen, despite my having issued no such order to the terrifyingly powerful wax golems. I had just enough time turn away from my irate rant at Vow and look directly at it before the eternally lit candle on its brow flared into golden life, and a blast of magic shot straight into my face.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

"Hmm…" I muttered, as the light tickled my eyelids. "Another five minutes." I rolled over, tugging my luxurious satin sheets up onto my muzzle so that the bunched up wad around my hoof would block the light, and nuzzled into a similarly soft, lavender-scented pillow. The smell eased me back to rest.

At least, until my mind caught up with my senses.

At which point, I bolted upright in bed.

The bed in which I had been surprised to find myself resting was not quite as massive as Celestia's (presumably custom) resting place, but it was the ancient equivalent of what a more modern reader in an era of increasing standardization might comfortably call 'king-sized'. Its scarlet bedding stood as a splash of central color in a space otherwise filled with darkly stained wood furnishings—end tables, a dresser, a full wardrobe, and more muted red cloth upholstery covering a high-backed armchair, a pile of sitting cushions, the drapes around the room's sole window. It was those last pieces of fabric which had failed to let me sleep; though drawn, they were just parted enough that a ray of light had snuck through to catch me squarely in the brow.

After a moment's more investigation, and perhaps a bit more than a moment dedicated to memory, I discovered that I was no longer stained in Celestia's blood, nor even clad in my enchanted jacket. And perhaps most intriguing of all, the scent of lavender was not the product of scented pillows, but my own coat and mane having been treated with some sort of cologne or shampoo.

Disturbing as that surprise was, I had to admit, I felt quite nice as I pulled myself out from under the covers. There was a sleekness to my coat that I hadn't felt in earnest in… well, if ever, certainly not since I had left the Crystal Union some months prior. If anything, the last time I could remember such a feeling was when Wintershimmer had taken me to the Yakish hot springs north of even the Union's borders.

And then it all came rushing back to me. "Wintershimmer!" I snapped.

The irate figment of my imagination quite literally swirled into being before me, choosing to appear leaning beside the window. "What do you want, Coil? I don't have any more information than you do about how you got here. Not that it should be hard to deduce with a moment's thought."

"You tried to kill me!"

"Yes, Coil, weeks ago. And 'I' lost. And died. At the risk of being 'quippy', get over it."

"Not then! Now! The candlecorn!"

Imaginary Wintershimmer stared at me and actually blinked twice in disbelief before shaking his head. "I'm not going to dignify that idiocy with a rebuttal, Coil."

"You left some orders in the candlecorn! Some eventuality—"

"To stun you, and then tuck you comfortably into bed?" The old wizard scoffed. "Replete with new pillows and sheets? Not only is your continued breathing evidence to the contrary, but the real Wintershimmer would have surely guessed his crimes would see his soul dispersed if he failed, and at that point, why bother on trying to inconvenience you with further plans? He, or rather I, since you seem so disinclined to differentiate, was not exactly the blindly vengeful sort in life." With a derisive snort, Wintershimmer turned to the window as if to amuse himself with a view of the street outside. "Go have a tea, or better yet, breakfast. Then, perhaps, your brain will receive some much needed bloodflow. I refuse to believe I trained such an imbecile."

"How else could I have been attacked? Vow doesn't have a horn!"

"Ah, I see." Wintershimmer shook his head dismissively as he walked over to my side. "You're perceiving an attack, and it's blinding you to reality. Coil, it was the golem."


"The very same. You will recall that in Lubuck, when he took possession of one of the candlecorns while they were ostensibly under the control of your inept would-be-lover, he was able to use its 'horn', however crudely. And he observed on more than one occasion that your lack of sleep and your stubborn emotional refusal to embrace its necessity were compromising not only your composure, but your judgement. Which, I will observe, were fair and accurate assessments. Your churlishness was unbecoming of a wizard. Given you weren't subsequently killed, it seems likely your Guardian Angel was taking his name literally."

I growled a bit in frustration. "I ought to have a word with Angel."

"You ought to thank him. And, more importantly, you should vow to be better in the future. Perhaps the stallion named for that verb can assist you in that endeavor. Good day, Coil." With that curt finishing thought, the figment of Wintershimmer faded away into nothing, leaving me to find my own way after Vow and Angel.

The bedroom had three doors; two led to a bathroom and a closet (the latter disappointingly devoid of my jacket), both equalling the luxury and opulence of the bedroom's furnishings. The third, mercifully, led me out into the rest of the house and reaffirmed what I had already guessed—that I was in my own master bedroom.

From the upper hallway, I was guided not by sound or sight or even reasoning, but smell; the delectable scent of baking guided me down the hall until it opened onto the interior balcony of the house's grand main hall, just above the similarly grand piano. But what a difference I observed in that central room! There wasn't a trace of dust anywhere to be seen in the long-abandoned chamber. And furthermore, somepony had added furnishings I hadn't seen before—mostly wooden tables and chairs (some notably devoid of cushions). But the biggest changes were a dazzlingly ornate trio of crystal chandeliers, reflecting the floating magical lights to make the room all the brighter and subtly more colorful.

The only sign that remained to suggest the house had ever been abandoned in the first place was the massive framed portrait up on the wall of the balcony beside me, looking down on the twin staircases and the grand piano between them. I hadn't paid it much mind before, given it was just another abandoned piece of the room, covered in a plain dull sheet with only a small corner visible. But the fact it still hung mostly concealed caught my attention that morning. I had to assume it was just an ornate portrait of Vow, given the sliver of the painting that was visible depicted fur of roughly his orange color, and the sleeve of a jacket very much like my own.

Still, compared to the smell that had drawn me forth in the first place, I wasn't that curious about a leftover painting. Following my nose, I headed down to the entryway, and then toward the kitchen, and with every step the smell got stronger. And finally, my hoof clicked on the black and white tiles of the kitchen floor.

"Oh, Morty!" Solemn Vow was wearing my jacket—or no, I realized a moment later, one very similar but in a slightly different cut—atop his polished wooden body. The jacket in turn was covered by a white apron emblazoned with a series of sigils that…

Look, I should apologize; explaining this joke will probably ruin it. But given putting the actual sigils in an already extensively enchanted tome purely for the sake of a joke would be a terrible idea, I'm left with no choice but to explain it. Or, at least, to summarize. So I'll include the explanation as a footnote at the end of this chapter; I promise, you aren't missing anything other than the reason I broke out laughing as Vow turned away from a sizzling enchanted griddle.

"Well, you seem in better spirits this morning." It took the resurrected insurrectionist a moment to realize I was amused at his apron, and then he shared a small chuckle. "Oh, I forgot I had that stitched on. Twenty years in Tartarus isn't kind to memory of the little things. Crepe?"

"You made crepes?" I asked.

Vow chuckled with distinct self-satisfaction. "You'd be surprised the practical skills you can pick up once you get past… well, Wintershimmer." Vow then demonstrated the terrible facility of my own golemcraft by opening a mouth that the ponyquin which was his body didn't actually possess (the wood not cracking or peeling, but instead separating smoothly rather like flesh). Picking up the pan from the stove between his featureless 'lips', he indicated to a door on the far side of the kitchen. "I'm afraid you'll have to do all the eating, though."

I discovered that the door from the kitchen was a side door into an elaborate dining room. Much like the rest of the chambers I had found my way into that morning, there was no sign that the room had gone completely abandoned for the better part of twenty years.

"You cleaned all of this? Since last night?"

Vow nodded. "Angel and I. We don't sleep, we don't eat, and as you can observe, we can both talk with our mouths full."

"Or halos in his case. Thank you, though."

"Oh, it was nothing. I know it's your house now, but… there's a part of me that still takes pride in it being tidy and maintained. Especially given you'll be wanting to start hosting with it shortly." Vow led me over to the head of the table, where a basic set of silverware, two beautiful white plates stacked atop one-another, a sugar bowl, and a glass of what appeared to be lemon juice had already been set out. There, he enthusiastically piled no fewer than six crepes from the pan in his teeth—stopping between each to dust the top of the pile with lemon juice from the cup and sugar from the sugar bowl—before finally stepping back and pulling out a chair for me. "I should mention, I took the liberty of borrowing a few of those promissory notes from your jacket. We needed to pick up a few cleaning supplies and of course some foodstuffs for you. And the linens, you likely noticed."

"You went shopping looking like that?" I asked. "In the middle of the night?"

Vow turned his featureless head as if looking away sheepishly. "I wore this old jacket to look just a bit more believably equine—obviously not the apron, though. Between that and Angel hovering at my shoulder, we got some odd looks, but nopony was brave enough to ask. I'm just glad the gray market is still open after all these years."

"The gray market?"

Vow made an amusingly musical note when he tried to massage his wooden temple with his wooden hoof. "Morty, please sit down and eat. The crepes are getting cold." I indulged the dead stallion, and found myself quite surprised when he took the liberty of pushing my chair in as soon as I'd sat down. "There we go. Now, to answer your curiosity. Officially, it's the Floodwater Night Market." I didn't have to speak, but a raised brow suggested my confusion all the same. "Floodwater is one of Everfree's districts. And clearly, I have a lot to teach you. Will you forgive me for being extremely blunt?"

Hesitantly, I nodded.

Vow replied by pulling a chair out from the table and collapsing his wooden body into it in a way that at once seemed completely natural to him, but could not possibly have been comfortable for an organic body—that is, with not just his tail but his entire spine aligned with the back of the seat. "I made those for you for two reasons. Well, three, if I'm being honest with myself. The selfish personal one is I wanted to see if I still remembered how to make a mean crepe after twenty years in Tartarus—and I think you'll agree my skills are still sharp." Vow looked down at the plate, and then up at me (tilting his whole head, since he lacked the eyes to show nuance). "Please, eat!"

I intuitively tilted my head toward a fork, but when the first sparkle of magic on my horn left me with a painful twinge, I recoiled. Then, with some trepidation (feeling very much like Vow was judging me with his lack of eyes) I repeated the process from my dinner the previous night with Celestia, lowering my head to eat with my mouth.

"Note to self; I need to teach you how to use silverware like an earth pony." When I looked up to Vow's blank face, he dismissively waved a hoof. "Go on, eat. You won't offend me. Like I said, I take pride in my cooking. I'd be much less happy if they went to waste. And you need energy for your day—which is the second of my reasons for making those crepes for you."

I lifted my head, and though the lemon juice and sugar were a delicious combination on the delicate pancake's texture, I forced myself to swallow so I could politely find words. "And the third?"

"So you would shut up and let me talk without interruption for three seconds." When I winced, Vow chuckled. "I did ask for permission to be blunt. Now, keep eating. And actually savor the food for a second. The reason I want to be able to talk at length is that while you were sleeping off Angel's stunning spell, while we were cleaning, he and I got to talk at length about your situation. So rather than having you explain everything you're dealing with, we can skip to the strategy of how I can help you. Sound good?"

I nodded. This seemed to please the wooden stallion greatly, though he only conveyed it through the orientation of his head on his shoulders, and a slight ripple on the wood of his cheek that suggested the tightening of the corner of lips.

"Reducing what Angel told me to a few useful points: you want to marry Queen Platinum III. By the way, I'm a bit unhappy you failed to mention that when you introduced me to Gale a few days ago. I would have liked to give her a bit more of the respect her burden deserves."

I sighed, and swallowed another bite of my breakfast. "She prefers ponies to judge her for who she is first. She didn't tell me she was the princess until we'd been traveling together for weeks."

"Food," Vow chided, prompting me to give him a sharp scowl.. "But point taken. In any case, the primary oppositions to that goal are that you aren't a noble, that Queen… 'Gale'... has several other suitors in competition with you, and that Queen Platinum the elder actively loathes you. Is that a fair summary?"

I nodded.

"Excellent. The second point I'm not completely certain about, mostly because by Angel's own admission he was guessing about something you haven't openly stated. Would it be accurate to say you would like to support Her Majesty's rule? And that your pursuit of her hoof in marriage shouldn't sabotage her rule?"

I finished the next bit and simply answered "Yes."

"Very good. That makes the first objective more complicated, but I'm confident we can arrange for both. The question is how much trouble Gale is going to get herself into." With that explanation, Vow reached his head past the side of his apron, into the breast of a jacket very much like my own, where he produced a tightly folded newspaper. It produced quite a slap with a gavel-like finality when it hit the dining table. "It seems Her Majesty inherited her political theory from Hurricane, and not the Queen-Mother. That's not an insurmountable problem, but it is substantial. So let me be clear: if we want to pursue these first two objectives simultaneously, you're going to have to get Gale here so that we can synchronize a strategy. If she isn't moving in tandem with us, I suspect that your romantic objectives and her success will be mutually exclusive. At least, without using my old tactics. I'm assuming those are off the table."

That time, he happened to have caught me in the space between bites. "Absolutely!" I almost snapped. "I'm a hero, Vow!"

Despite not actually having eyebrows or a skull, Vow managed to arch the vague ridge above where his eyes would have been. And it was not an insubstantial rise. "You say that with a straight face? About yourself? Well, this might be easier than I was fearing."


"Crepes," Vow snapped, before quickly relaxing back against his seat again. "Third objective: don't die to the Scourge of Kings. This one you expressed yourself, but Angel did add some color. I'll take the liberty of observing this: your long term goal is to steal back your notes from Star Swirl. But in the shorter term, there are other ways we can pursue making sure you can cast at least some magic. You've demonstrated some skill with hemomancy, which is certainly one path."

I raised a hoof, midway through a bite, and there Vow willingly held his (lack of a) tongue to wait for my thought. Once I had finished, I steepled my hooves and smiled. "Celestia and I are going to focus our studies on alternate forms of magic, so I'm already pursuing that path."

"Ah, yes, studying with Celestia." Vow nodded. "Angel didn't know your particular… curriculum, so that's good to know. Regardless, there is another path worth observing. Namely, that you're in possession of two candlecorns."

"Yes, but I don't actually know how to use them." I rolled my eyes. "I mean, I know how to get a golem with the artificial animus bindings to use a candlecorn horn. Angel proved that last night plenty well."

"At the risk of getting on the wrong side of your mood, I would say he was right. You clearly needed a night's sleep. Fortunately, a candlecorn also gives you a mechanism for skipping out on sleep, assuming we can get your soul into one without needing you to light your horn every night. If we set up some sort of hemomantic glyph to arrange that transfer, you can get eight more hours in every day than anypony else. Though I know that's a rather big ask. That also means you and I can work together on your objectives without my needing to compete with your studies with Celestia, or your social obligations with Gale or whoever else we need you spending time with."

"That's all well and good," I agreed. "And actually, the blood magic glyph to transfer my soul would basically just require me to inscribe the Razor as a glyph."

"'The Razor'?"

I emulated my best Wintershimmer voice. "Do you feel that on the back of your neck?" I quickly dropped the parody. "Much like the logical razor suggests the right answer is the simplest solution, Wintershimmer's Razor is the absolute simplest solution to most conflicts. But all that is beside the point; I don't know how to get a real pony's soul to connect to a candlecorn."

Vow's mouth came into existence solely to smile. "Fortunately, Morty, I do."

"You do?!" Ecstatic at the thought, I hardly noticed I had leaned forward and pressed my hooves onto the dining table until my belly suddenly felt wet. It took a moment to realize I had leaned into the lemon juice and sugar atop my crepes.

That earned me a small frown, though it faded quickly. "Wintershimmer had invented the candlecorns long before I became his student, but he was still perfecting them when I was his apprentice. I'll teach you later. But to whet your appetite: when you're binding a soul to a substance that's liquid in nature, instead of moving the nodes of the soul into physical space, you actually move a limited quantity of the liquid into the between. It's tricky translocation, but because liquids don't have a defined shape—"

"—you can express their existence without needing to conceptualize form!" I clapped my hooves together without even thinking about it. Honestly, if you aren't a wizard, reader, you're just going to have to take my word that this was a rivetingly thrilling realization. It was the sort of encompassing joy that comes only from the serendipity of a perfect eureka moment. And for a young wizard, it was bliss.

Vow smiled. "I'm glad I can at least begin to repay what you've done for me, Morty. Now, though, we need to talk about your first two objectives. That means I'm going to have to talk a good bit about politics. So I suggest you keep your mouth full, because if what Angel said about the actions you've taken so far is true, you have exactly nothing of value to add." He proved especially clever with the timing of that observation; though I took some offense, with my mouth full of another bite of my breakfast I could do little more than let out an offended growl—a noise which, by design, he promptly ignored.

"I don't blame you for not knowing anything about dealing with other ponies. I certainly didn't when I left Wintershimmer. But when I came to Equestria, I learned everything I could from every book I could find about dealing with ponies before I tried to actually make any kind of move. You've already gone past that point. And since you're already on Queen Platinum's—that is, the elder Queen Platinum's bad side, you're going to have to trust me to teach you what you need to know. I'm assuming you're okay with that, since you took me up on my offer; I just want to make that clear before we continue."

I gave Vow a nod.

"Good. Now, becoming Prince-Consort would be easy if you didn't mind damaging Her Majesty's legitimacy to do it. Frankly, it's in her rightful power to force the issue and just state that's what's going to happen. I doubt anypony could actually stop her. However, at least if what I read in this morning's paper is to be believed, that would probably cripple her rule forever. So what we're actually looking for isn't eliminating the other suitors you're ostensibly competing with. Even if you somehow become the last stallion standing, you still won't be a good option as you are now. What we need is to create a plausible excuse. And the most basic part of that is getting you a noble title." The way Vow's tone conveyed that goal made it sound as if what he had proposed was trivial.

My wince, and my subsequent awkwardly forced swallow made my objection quite obvious. "Vow, I'm a half-crystal bastard. And I don't even know my dad's name."

"Fantastic," Vow answered—and because text does a poor job of conveying this fact I should clarify: he sounded quite genuine.


"Because," he cut me off, "that means we get to pick. I'll get an updated copy of Twerp's Peerage and see if there's anypony we can lean on. But that's not something we need to act on immediately. The only risk is… is your mother still alive?"

"Regrettably," I answered.

"Regrettably enough that you'd be willing to tie off that loose end?" I glared at Vow, but I confess it was a less stringent look than my prior condemnations. For the trouble, I got him to defensively raise his hooves. "I thought my 'hero' might make an exception for a barbarian—I'm just assuming, of course, but there weren't exactly many happy crystal-unicorn couples when I was living in the spire."

"It's a lot better now, under Jade. But you're right about my parents not being… well, you know."

"Indeed I do. Which I suppose raises another point; we're going to need to find your real father's name; you may not know him, but we don't know whether the inverse is also true. Until we do, we can't safely make a move with an assumed noble title. In any case, I'll handle genealogy, since there's nothing you can add there. But for the time being, we should plan assuming you're going to have to justify Her Majesty assigning you a title on the basis of merit, and in a way that won't harm her relationship with the Stable as it currently stands.

"The way I see it, that involves a few… shall we say sub-objectives? Firstly, you're going to need land." When I raised a brow, and slowly traced my eyes around the room, Vow guessed my wordless question. "A domain, Morty. Nopony's barony worth respecting consists of a single townhouse, no matter how elaborate or enchanted it might be. Specifically, if you want to be taken seriously, you're going to need to own some substantial land, to build some kind of a manor—or if you're feeling particularly fairytale inspired, a fortified castle—on it, and to have it formally recognized and assigned to a barony by Her Majesty and the Stable. Fortunately, your part of that comes down to a question of money. And given how many letters of credit I found in your jacket this morning, I'm guessing you have some substantial source of income already figured out?"

I shook my head as I finished off another bite. "Um… no. For the moment, that's what I've got. I sort of assumed I could get a royal stipend offering my services hunting spirits, and—"

Vow cut me off not with words, but by breaking out into laughter. "Morty… Morty, please, this isn't the early Tourmaline dynasty. Archmagi don't extract stipends from the crown anymore. Nopony's done that for years…" Finally calming his chuckling, Vow shook his wooden head. "Star Swirl gets a bit in taxes on his lands as the head of House Zodiac. Every other archmage I ever met has some kind of a day job, even if it's just being the 'exclusive, luxury-brand' equivalent of a hedge mage enchanting chandeliers and ice chests and whatnot."

"It's repulsive," I sniped back, prompting Vow to raise his wooden brow. "Not the money, I mean, but… you can't expect me to believe Typhoon's soldier's are honestly expected to fight spirits. Or stars know what other monsters might cause problems. Star Swirl isn't going to live forever…" Under my breath, I added "thankfully."

Vow shrugged. "The country's only as old as you are, Morty. And they've always had Star Swirl. And, probably more importantly, Hurricane. They've only had the one problem with meaningful monsters, and I orchestrated it personally. So even if you're right—and for argument's sake, let's agree you are—most of Equestria doesn't know it. At which point, because following in my hoofsteps is a terrible idea now that Typhoon is wise to the threat of a warlock, there's no way to force that issue. So failing that, we're going to need to find some way for you to make money."

"You want me to get a job?" I asked dismissively. "I'm a wizard, Vow."

"I see you're already living up to your future noble title. Just say 'noble' instead of 'wizard' next time." Vow seemed to find some amusement in that observation that I had missed. "I can think of a few approaches once you have access to more of your magic; we'll just have to be frugal in the meantime. We may be stretching the limits of those letters of credit quickly, though, just restoring the house."

I sighed. "I can get more money performing seances. At Platinum's Landing, that earned me a few bits I needed, when I was first coming here from River Rock."

Vow nodded, looked down at where my stack of crepes had formerly been, before realizing just why I had been so willing to speak the past few responses I'd given him.

"They were excellent," I offered. "Thank you."

"My pleasure. And your idea of using seances is a good approach; the other nobles won't consider it a 'trade', as long as we don't make it look too much like a business. No signs, no formal advertising... I'll set aside one of the parlors in the house for that purpose. But we won't want to tax your horn. Can you perform a seance by hemomancy?"

"I… guess I've never tried." I shrugged. "But the basic representative sigil is my talent mark, so I'm guessing I can figure it out."

"That's certainly a reassuring sign." We shared a chuckle, before Vow's wooden hooves once more formed what could, I suppose, be technically called a miniature steeple. "When I'm about the Ridge, I'll prod a bit to see who might take you up on that offer for some more substantial donations."

I'll be honest: the thought of restricting my services exclusively to those who could pay artificially heightened prices somewhat turned my stomach. Still, as I told myself in the moment, beggars—even beggars in immeasurably valuable manors—can't be choosers.

"You're going to talk to other ponies while you're out?"

"Why not?" Vow asked without apparent care. "You've already created one truly sapient golem. Given what Angel explained about how the geode you used for his core had grown, you're more than justified to have claimed you wanted to repeat the process with a larger starting geode to see how the golem would grow. Which, consequently, means I'm more than confident claiming that's the reason for my existence. And the cold hard truth is that you're the best necromancer in Everfree, so nopony is going to call my bluff by trying to disassemble the magic animating me to look at my 'core'. Of course, that's assuming I'm talking to mages, which I don't have much reason to do. I mostly just need to be free to arrange meetings for you, buy things for the house, that sort of thing. Think of me like a proactive butler for the moment."

"You're not going to say something that will give you away—"

The voice that answered back was not the same voice with which Vow had been previously addressing me. Instead, it had a distinctly earth pony accent, reminding me a bit of the voices I had heard on my trip through Lubuck. But it wasn't just a forced accent; the timbre and pitch of his voice changed completely. It wasn't a massive shift, but it also wasn't a change most organic throats could achieve even with practice. "I ought to be insulted, but for the moment I'll forgive you, sir." Vow's lack of a mouth turned up at his cheek. I might have said I had seen the expression in the mirror, had I even the slightest shred of self-awareness at that age. Vow dropped the new voice as quickly as he had picked it up. "I lied to Star Swirl, Queen Platinum, Hurricane, and Typhoon—to each of their faces—for three years. And I would have gotten away with all of it too, if it weren't for Hurricane stumbling on the goddess Celestia of all ponies. Or Wintershimmer hijacking my plot for the sake of covering up his attack on Jade and Smart Cookie, for that matter."

"Point taken. My apologies."

"None necessary," Vow insisted. "So, to recap: perform seances, get money, buy land, build estate, establish domain. Simple enough?"

"In premise," I agreed.

"Good. Next point: even if we forge a noble heritage for you and we set you up a domain, the other nobles in the stable won't be happy with Her Majesty recognizing you and formally assigning you the domain you've created if they still see you as the outsider; as you so elegantly put it, as a 'half-crystal bastard'. So with what time you aren't busy studying magic or making money, we're going to be working you into Equestrian elite society."

Memories of my few notable interactions with Gale's other suitors jumped to mind, and my expression and posture soured in tandem. "Euugh."

"I promise it's not as bad as you think. In fact, I think you'll like it." Vow's mouth came into existence for just a moment to convey an unsettlingly wide, almost cheshire smile. "They aren't worse than anypony else with power—which is a damning reflection on our species, I suppose—they just make it stand out more. Just as blood doesn't actually make them better, despite their claims, it also doesn't make them worse. Even if you don't come to like them, it's a necessary evil."

My memory flitted back to my disastrous argument with Grand Duchess Chrysoprase and High Castle. "I have a hard time believing they'll ever accept me."

"I know a few tricks, courtesy of the Queen-Mother. Remember, I was an outsider once too, and I nearly made it onto the throne. We'll spend more time on this later, too, but to summarize: being present without being actively hostile will do wonders to make them accept you. Secondly, we'll need to arrange so that you owe them some minor favors."

"What? Why would that help? Shouldn't I make them owe me?"

"Absolutely not," Vow stated firmly, moving his hooves laterally back and forth in the air. "One constant of ponies—really, any creature—in any tier of society is that they hate being in any kind of debt. And subconsciously, they transfer that hatred to whomever they owe their debt too, whether it be monetary, or social, or otherwise. But in contrast, having someone owe you a debt, even a small one, has the opposite effect. Being a courteous debtor—show gratitude for the favors you're asking for, repay them in reasonable time—and then ask for another, and you'll make the other pony feel benevolent. And, subconsciously, they'll associate that good feeling with your presence, and start to like you. Trust me; it works even better with unicorn nobles than the general populace. They adore the feeling that they're living up to their precious noblesse oblige with this sort of thing."

I shrugged. "If you say so."

"I can't stress enough that I do. Thirdly and finally, though, we need to get you a vice."

"I'm sorry?"

"You know, a vice. Gambling, smoking…" Vow shook his head. "No, that wouldn't be right for you. And you don't need the pipe to lose weight; Celestia knows I ought to be making you much bigger meals." Vow completely ignored my frown; he didn't seem to even have seen it. "How well do you hold your liquor?"

"Um…" Thinking back to my various experiences with Gale on the voyage that followed my escape from the Crystal Union, I shook my head. "Alcohol isn't really my forte."

"No, I wouldn't think so. Better not to compromise your judgement anyway… There's gambling; that could get us some money… But no, you're too well established as a wizard already. We couldn't plausibly cheat enough. Well, there's nothing for it." Leaning back, Vow clapped his hooves together. "Do you prefer mares, stallions, or both?"

I stared at Vow flatly. "I'm trying to marry Gale."

"I hope that isn't just because you like the way she looks," Vow replied. "There's plenty of fish in the sea that won't require years of work on both our parts."

"No, no… I promised her I'd do it to help her out."

"Ah. Well, in any case, assuming you're implying your answer is the fairer sex, that is the preferable answer. In which case, I have good news: you're going to enjoy your new vice, lover-boy."

It took me very little time to piece together what Vow was suggesting. "You want me to cheat on Gale?!"

"Yes," he replied. "In fact, that's perfect. It should assuage the other nobles that your pursuit of Her Majesty's hoof isn't as serious as murdering one of your rivals in open court would make it seem."

"It was self-defense!"

Vow answered me by rapping his hoof on the newspaper on the table. "History is written by the victor, but public opinion is illiterate. Honestly, I'm surprised you're objecting so strongly to the idea that you have carte blanche to sleep with every mare you can get your hooves on. What kind of young stallion are you?"

I huffed out my frustration. "You make that sound like it's easy."

"For a stallion with your appearance and your apparent charm? It probably ought to be…" Vow's voice trailed off. "Don't tell me you've never been with a mare before."

"Well… Gale and I—"

"You're already sleeping with the Queen?!" Vow outright bolted up out of his chair. "Alright, that's it, this is no longer up for discussion. If Her Majesty has an issue with it, you can absolutely blame it on me, but this is absolutely necessary for our strategy."

"I… Okay."

"Good." Vow slowly lowered himself back into his seat. "Plenty of young nobles—especially stallions—are tail-chasers and philanderers, so that should make the other nobles feel like you're not some towering figure on high looming over them. As an added bonus, being romantically capable can open some doors that even magic and a silver tongue can't. It might help us with figuring out where Star Swirl is hiding Wintershimmer's notes."

"I…" I displayed a visible bob to the apple of my throat, this time noticeably absent any crepes. "Are you intending to teach me that, too?"

"I certainly can, if necessary. And judging by your blush, I'm guessing it is." Vow massaged his temple, sounding rather like a xylophone in the process. "That's all I have for now regarding establishing you as an eligible Prince-Consort candidate. As for Her Majesty's current issue with the Stable, I have a few ideas, but none of them are actionable for you until I speak to the Queen again. So the next time you see her, do please have her find some time to drop by." Vow stood up from his seat. "I'll also encourage you to speak to Angel, and thank him for stunning you last night."

"Thank him?"

"Morty, that golem cares about you more than I think you understand. And not only was he acting in your best interests, but I would go so far as to say he was right. You needed sleep, and you clearly weren't going to get yourself to bed in any kind of a hurry." Though I wasn't happy about it, I had to admit Vow was right, and I offered a tame nod in acknowledgement of that fact. That, at least, seemed satisfactory. Vow stepped behind me and gently pulled my chair out from the table. "Now then, any questions, sir?"

"No, I… that's a lot to take in, but nothing comes to mind that I didn't ask in the moment." Almost immediately, something came to mind. "Where is Angel, anyway?"

"Oh, I sent him off to find you a suitable outfit and some flowers for your date this evening. And returning to our conversation about your vice, Cyclone's eldest daughter is quite the conquest."

"She's not a conquest," I snapped. "And I would never spread around that she's Cyclone's daughter."

Vow, for his part, again massaged the bridge of his lacquered muzzle in frustration. "Very well, sir. It would be quite the victory for your greater objectives, but if you insist. Let me get you your jacket. Your appointment with Diadem for your reading lesson is in about ten minutes."

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Regarding Vow's Apron: In the legends wizards would tell their apprentices about Archmage Hourglass, one of the most common cautionary tales is about the Time of Time's End. According to the stories, Archmage Hourglass' last act as the guardian of time would also be her first, as watching the events of her own death at the hands of a powerful and cruel rival mage would be the inspiration for the creation of her thesis spell.

In case I haven't explained this, one of the most important qualities of an Archmage's thesis spell (or spells plural) is the right to inscribe those spells in the Tourmaline Grimoire, a spellbook of indescribable value passed down from court mage to court mage since the days of King Tourmaline who created it. (And for those following along at home: Star Swirl had that book too; not that Wintershimmer's horn transplant research would be written in it anyway).

Returning to Hourglass: normally, the mare in question is quite protective of the flow of time, and misuse of chronal magic is an excellent way to summon the irate archmage herself into your presence. Fortunately, most ponies who survive their own studies of magic long enough to reach the skill necessary to cast such magic are also cautious enough not to bring her wrath down upon themselves. Even Wintershimmer was (justifiably) afraid of making such an enemy. Hourglass herself, however, laid down an exception when she inscribed the Rite of the Time of Time's End in the Tourmaline Grimoire: namely, granting the right to any archmage who found themselves in possession of that infamous tome to use that specific spell—though aimed at their own passage through time rather than hers—to preview the circumstances of their own death.

The caveat, of course, is that while there normally isn't such a thing as destiny or predestination, the amount of magic required to cast the spell makes whatever death one views through the spell into a functionally unavoidable certainty—effectively, sealing one's own fate, as the magic which projected that future would also go on to try and enforce it by subtly tweaking whatever circumstances were necessary. This made it a terribly dangerous, borderline insane act for a young or aspiring wizard to take. Nevertheless, the spell was cast many times by many mages of the Diamond Kingdoms who, nearing the end of their lives, were more concerned with arranging some comfort for their own impending expirations than to avoid said fate.


Hourglass assures me the reason she even offered the right to cast the Rite of the Time of Time's End to even the greatest and most prestigious of Equestria's wizards for a legitimate reason and not merely for something selfish like her amusement at how many ponies would ruin their lives misusing it. Given her refusal to elaborate further, I am inclined to infer that at some point in her past and my future, the fact that the spell has already been written in the Tourmaline Grimoire will be important to her eventually becoming herself.

Stepping away from the philosophical morass that is why the spell exists and is semi-well known, it needs merely be noted that I already knew said spell, despite having never actually handled the Tourmaline Grimoire. Wintershimmer used its enormously complex stabilizing glyph system as my introduction to both the dangers and expenses of time magic, and a sort of final exam on my own studies of stabilizing glyphs. It was this massively complex symbol, tweaked slightly, which appeared on Vow's apron.

With his tweaks, had one provided the copious quantities of mana necessary (like most substantial chronal spells, this is an amount of magical power we would measure in gigathaums in more modern magical study), using the formula on the apron, one would reach through centuries into the future, manipulate the very fabric of fate and destiny (possibly causing instances of those ideas to come into being where none had existed before), and very likely risk damaging the flow of time itself, all for the sake of adding a slight seasoning to one's cooking.

Well, no, that isn't quite true. Because the stabilizing glyph was simply thread on an apron, that amount of mana would be far more likely to cause the apron to spontaneously combust. The medium in which a glyph is drawn does matter (usually), foals.

But setting aside reality, since the inscription was really for the sake of the joke and not actual practical use, a skilled wizard (and presumably only a skilled wizard) would, if asked to translate Vow's apron into Equiish, observe that it said:

- The Time of Thyme's End -

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