• 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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Dinner with the Rains

I felt like I was going to die when Iron Rain embraced me on her doorstep, and I suspect Blizzard got it all the worse for being whatever kind of honorary family she was—I had, of course, gathered some details, but there were limits to my understanding of the complex web of imperial pegasus dynasties, and even if I had received the full information, it had been shuffled back out of the forefront of my mind by more pressing and potentially life-ending matters. All I knew was that Rain hugged Blizzard so tight that, even had her coat not naturally been white, I suspect the poor mare might have been bleached out of any color anyway, and that when she was finally released, Iron Rain told her "You're twenty years late for dinner with us, Blizzard, but it's damn good to finally have you."

"Yeah…" Blizzard, truth be told, was almost Rain's height. But the difference in posture, between mighty, weathered, one-eyed Rain and wilted, shy, nervous-to-the-point of paranoia was such that in front of the old soldier, instead of twenty-something, Blizzard might as well have just turned five. "It's good to be here, Miss Rain…"

I've seen more confidence in wet noodles—not al dente, either; I mean properly overcooked—but somehow, that nuance escaped the senior hulk of an ex-soldier in front of us.

"You can call me 'Aunt' if you want," Rain suggested (clearly more enamored with the idea than Blizzard was). "Your Mom and I were like sisters growing up."

"Y-you did mention that at Gale's birthday party."

"Oh, right." With a certain whimsy not befitting the battle-scarred, one-eyed, well-past-middle-age bulk of a retired career soldier, Iron Rain spun on a hind hoof, then beckoned us into her home. "Well, come on in, both of you, we'll get some food in you—Finder's in the kitchen working his magic, but it'll be a bit yet. At least he's making a feast; Ofnir knows you both could use it."

"Ofnir?" I asked as I stepped over the threshold into Rain's opulent villa.

"He's the Cirran god of war," Blizzard explained for me. "So the god who cares the most about being big and strong."

"And—with good reason—the patron of Nimbus," Rain added. "That makes him the popular choice for mares like us, eh Blizzard? Not that I buy into all the old gods now that I've spoken to Celestia and Luna, but they're handy for swearing when you need something specific."

"Yeah, I… I don't know. Father, um… well, we don't really have the old shrines in River Rock." Blizzard took a step toward my side, and I briefly shared a glance her way, but the look of my eyes—still fresh from the confrontation in the alleyway—sent her a step back away.

As the brief conversation trailed off into awkward silence, Rain's heavy hooffalls led us into the villa's main family room, where some time prior Gale and I had enjoyed a bit of her 'grandma candy' as we waited to deliver a birthday invitation to Rain's son, Gray. This time, both my companion and I were somewhat less interested in spooning on the couch, and we instead settled side by side with a modest gap between our flanks on the area Rain had idly pointed to with a wing. The opposite side of the coffee table, also containing a couch, demonstrated its sturdiness when Rain flopped her muscular mass onto it in what I will call the most violent possible interpretation of a relaxing motion. "Ahh," she let out, before craning her neck toward an archway that led into an adjoining room, into which she shouted rather gruffly "Blizzard and Morty are here, Finder; let us know when food's done."

Pathfinder's gentler voice rang out "Will do, love of my life. Just toiling away here while you have all the fun hosting."

"Ah, you're so sweet," said Rain with a decided hint of sarcasm mixed in with the obvious affection in her tone, before finally turning back to us. "So. Blizzard. Tell me all about you. I feel like I've already missed so much."

"Um…" Blizzard, already not especially good at talking about herself, took that blank check and promptly cashed it into the Bank of Social Awkwardness, dramatically raising the balance of her Staring into the Void of Space account. Despite her nervousness at the fact that I had, only minutes earlier, threatened to take over another pony's mind and force him to stab his friends to death, she shuffled slightly closer to me on the couch. "What… what do you want me to say?"

I buried my face in a hoof, deciding that, while a savior of a very different kind, it nevertheless once again fell on my shoulders to save the day. "Maybe start with your family? You've got lots of brothers and sisters, right?"

Immediately as I saw Blizzard's reaction to those words, shriveling up like the horn of a proper wizard exposed to poison joke, I winced. But the damage had been done.

"I… well, you know my dad."

"Better than you think," Rain admitted with a sigh of her own—though hers was more wistful and jaded than any subtle air that had slipped past Blizzard's lips. "Hurricane had me teach the colt how to fight while he was too busy kissing unicorn ass to keep us fed. That—" and she indicated above the hearth, where a truly obscene sword two-handed sword (and I say 'two-handed' because, though I didn't know it at the time, Rain had taken it off a griffon in her youth) was mounted over the fireplace. "—is the reason his fancy cloud-sword is so stupidly long. Had to show up 'old Rain'... But he's a… hard topic. How about siblings?" Immediately after the words left her lips, Rain winced. "I mean… I'm sorry; obviously you couldn't—"

"Actually, I do have a few," Blizzard interrupted, brightening just a little bit. "A couple of half-brothers and sisters. And a whole bunch of adopted siblings."

"So many…" I cut in. "How do you keep them straight?"

"I'm more like a mom to most of them," was Blizzard's reply, and a hint of amusement slipped onto her face. "The only ones even close to my age are Maelstrom and Sirocco—did you get to meet either of them, Morty?"

I shook my head. "Not that I remember, anyway; not if they were anything close to our age. All the ones I saw were closer to Graargh."

"Graargh?" Rain asked, once again exhibiting her curious habit of raising the eyebrow above her patched eye to indicate her curiosity. "What kind of a name is that?"

I chuckled. "That's a long story. The short version is he's a bear cub I found abandoned outside Union City; he's basically my little brother…"

Blizzard acted with more swiftness in the moment than I would often otherwise see from her, springing on an opportunity. "Actually, Morty, do you have any siblings in the Crystal Union?"

I scoffed. "Two half-sisters. Lash and Scourge; they're all I know about. Probably more, but it's a coin-flip if any of them lived to 'grow up'."

The names piqued Rain's curiosity. "Lash and Scourge? And you wound up with 'Morty'? What were your parents smoking? And can I have some?"

"My real name is 'Mortal Coil'," I explained, at least managing to find some humor in it at that moment. "Which probably explains a lot. How do I explain this…? Before Queen Jade killed Warlord Halite, the crystals—"

"Kid, I'm gonna cut you off right there," Rain told me, extending a hoof. "I was Praetorian Prefect during all the fighting with the crystals; what do the kids call that these days? The Crystal Campaigns? The Weather Wars?"

I—having never heard either of those titles—couldn't help but chuckle. "In the Union, it's 'The Storm War'. Or sometimes 'the Butcher's War', since that's what everypony calls Hurricane there."

I couldn't help but notice a surprisingly violent twitch in Iron Rain's eyelid (the one still attached to a functioning eye). "So you've heard of me, then?"

"No; should I?"

"Should you? Should you have heard of the pony who actually led half those battles?" Rain let out a frustrated groan. "Whatever. It's fine. The point is, I know a few things about how the crystals used to work, Morty. Your dad's a crystal, I take it?"

I shook my head. "I don't actually know who my dad is, beyond that he was a unicorn and probably a knight or a soldier from the Diamond Guard, since mom thought he was…" Here, I hesitated for want of words that would cushion the unpleasant nature of the topic. "...he was enough of a 'catch' to be worth dragging back to the north alive, instead of just killing."

Blizzard hung her head. "I'm sorry I brought it up."

"Don't be; it doesn't bother me." I extended a hoof to pat on Blizzard's shoulder, but she recoiled from the offer, so I tentatively lowered. "Um, the point is, you'll get over a bad parent once you've had some time on your own. Though it might take you longer than me; Dad only took care of me when I was a tiny foal; I never even learned what his real name was. He begged Wintershimmer to take me when he couldn't care for me anymore, and when I passed the old stallion's test, that was the last I ever saw of him. If I knew his name, I could check on that, Blizzard, but…" I finished the thought with a shrug. "Jade's laws mean mom couldn't just kill him when he embarrassed her by giving her me, but that didn't mean she had to support him, and with his horn split in half…"

"Huh…" Rain nodded. "I heard about that… 'prize-taking'. But I thought crystals always had crystal foals."

"Not exactly… crystal foals are just the only ones that get to… 'make it'." I sighed. "Having a 'softcoat' foal is a sign of weakness; it means the crystal parent is weaker than their partner. And it's enormously embarrassing for somepony who was supposed to be a barbarian leader; Mom's probably lucky Halite ate it at Onyx Ridge, or he'd have stripped her of her command over having me."

"That's horrible!" Blizzard gasped out.

I nodded. "Queen Jade outlawed it after she took over the Union at Onyx Ridge—but between also outlawing the whole foalnapping part too, and the fact that a whole lot of the ponies awful enough to do that kind of thing in the first place dying with Halite, there still aren't many non-crystals in the Union. But my dear mother was—let's be honest, is—still quite devoted to that abomination of a culture; the only reason she wasn't at Halite's side to die at Onyx Ridge is that she took a sword to the back a few months prior."

"Wait—is your mother Castigate?" Rain asked, leaning forward.

"You know her?"

"I think I've only said three words to her—'Die, crystal bitch', or something like that. But it was that sword." After gesturing again toward her gigantic griffon sword, Rain turned toward the archway of the home that led into the kitchen and shouted. "Finder, did you hear that? Gale's fucking Castigate's kid!"

After a noted pause, Pathfinder's green, scarred-up face leaned in through the archway into the kitchen. "Rain, are you suggesting 'Cane slept with one of Halite's commanders and then got Platinum to pass the kid off as hers?" Then, shaking his head, he added "Wait, not only is that stupid, it's impossible. Castigate is an earth pony; how could they have Gale?"

"They—" After a moment with her head cocked, Iron Rain broke into a hearty laugh. "No, no, that's not what I meant!" Pointing a wing at me, she explained. "He's Castigate's kid. My point was, Gale—"

"Oh." Pathfinder looked at me, and this his eyes rose. "Oh!" The laughter that followed between the older couple seemed to cut through some of the tension in the room, with even Blizzard and I joining in at least with some amusement at the peculiar grammatical ambiguity. Though, it should be noted, I did take a bit of offense when, before returning to his cooking, Pathfinder noted "Well, you must take after your dad. I guess there's no accounting for taste."

Rain laughed at that, looking me up and down. "He's right; I guess I can see the color, sort of, but you're not exactly crystal barbarian material."

"A wizard doesn't resort to petty hooficuffs," I retorted, before glancing to Blizzard and catching a slight nod from her—a subtle signal that, despite the tension between us, she had appreciated my diversion. "How about you, Miss Rain? You have any siblings?"

Rain shot me a very small, good-natured glare as she answered. "I had an older brother, back in Nimbus. When I was Kataigismós Sidero, princess of the greatest city on Dioda, and upstart little shits didn't call me 'Miss' to my face—"

"Dinner's ready!" Pathfinder called, cutting off whatever further chastisement the old soldier had prepared.

As we moved into the Rains' kitchen and took seats on cushions around a stout but unadorned wooden table, Blizzard quirked her head. "You were a princess?"

"Eh, not like Gale. I don't know how much Cirran history you know, but 'Cirra' proper used to be a whole bunch of separate city-states; Stratopolis slowly conquered them. Nimbus was the last to fall in line, even if that was hundreds of years ago."

Pathfinder, who was stepping away from the kitchen's formidable oven at a gentle hover with a pot between his mittened hooves, nodded. "Nimbus wasn't like anywhere else in the empire; all the cities had their own little bits of culture, but most everywhere was trying to be like Stratopolis. But not Nimbus. They had their own rulers, their own language—"

"Nopony actually spoke Nimban day-to-day," Rain interrupted. "It was all for ceremonies and reading old books and naming foals. And Dad still ruled at the mercy of the Emperor."

"Naming foals?" I asked. "Like how the crime lords at the baths called Gale… what was it?"

"Gladioprocellarum Aura?" Pathfinder offered. "It's just 'Gale Stormblade' in old Cirran. But yeah, that's the idea. Cirran patricians—uh, nobleponies, you'd say—named their foals in old Cirran instead of common Equiish, even if everypony except bigshots like the emperor and the senators used the Equiish translations day-to-day."

The distinct waft of cooked meat hit my nostrils when Pathfinder set down his pot, but I resolved to settle my stomach and relegate myself to something more acceptable to my palate without making a scene of it.

Rain picked up from her husband as he set about ferrying more dishes to the table. "Almost all the Cirran cities used old Cirran, but since Nimbus had its own ancient language… Well, like I said before, I'm Sidero Kataigismós—it just means 'Iron Rain. Blizzard, your mom was Kalokaíri Éxochos, 'High Summer'. Though most of the time, we gave her a hard time and used her Cirran name, because her dad was the senior Nimban senator, so he spent most of his time in Stratopolis. So we called her by the Cirran version, Aestas Celsus. I could teach you some if you want, Blizzard."

"I, um… actually already know most of that," Blizzard noted. "Father's commanders taught me a lot. I just didn't want to interrupt you, because Morty probably doesn't know. But you knew my grandfather?" Blizzard asked. "What was he like?"

"He was a great pony," Pathfinder picked up. "Not a famous soldier or anything like that, but he was one of the wisest ponies I ever got to meet. And your other grandfather's best shoulder to lean on when he was figuring out how he was supposed to be any kind of emperor."

"Hmm?" I asked, not quite following.

"Discentus… oh, Mobius, this is a tangled mess for a unicorn." Rain took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and recentered herself. "Summer's dad was 'Higher Learning', but because he was a senator, like Finder said, he went by the old Cirran version of his name: Discentus Celsus. When Emperor Augustus ate it at Feathertop, and Hurricane got handed the Imperial laurels, he had no clue what the Hell he was doing, since he'd grown up on a farm."

"How did he become emperor if he was just a farmer?" Blizzard asked.

I didn't think it was a particularly piercing question, but Rain and Pathfinder shared a nervous glance before the former nodded and the latter—lowering the last tray down to the table—spoke up.

"Look, I didn't tell you this," Pathfinder began. "But even though Hurricane grew up as some farmer in the middle of nowhere, he wasn't actually a nopony. His dad—your great-grandpa Thunder Gale—was Emperor Augustus' right hoof in the last big war with the griffons before the Red Cloud War." As he spoke, Pathfinder took a plate, loaded it up with salad, some sort of colorful wild rice, a healthy glob of some kind of white cream sauce with herbs in it, and at least three different kinds of meat, all before handing it over to Blizzard.

"He was the Commander at that particular siege of Nimbus. Which was a debacle," Rain added.

Pathfinder glanced pointedly at Rain's missing eye, and said "Knowing what we know now, I'd say he probably did a pretty good job."

"Huh? Oh…" Rain hung her head. "Yeah, I guess so."

Pathfinder swallowed heavily, and continued his thought. "So I don't beat around the bush too much: Emperor Magnus attacked Nimbus, and slaughtered almost everypony defending it. He crippled your great-grandfather."

"Magnus is the griffon's god?" I asked for the reminder. "Giant like Celestia?"

"Bigger," Rain corrected tersely—but the fact that she stated that claim with authority was not lost on me.

Pathfinder began to dish up a plate for me, and when he got to the meat, I delicately raised a hoof. "Ah, sorry, kiddo; I'm used to serving pegasi. No meat, right?"

"No," I agreed with a nod. "But give me some extra bacon to make up for it, if you don't mind."

"I beg your pardon?" Pathfinder asked. "You know bacon is meat, right?"

"No; pigs can't talk." I replied.

This earned me a raised brow from all three other ponies at the table.

I sighed and sat back. "Put a pin in that story about Magnus; now I'm really curious. But, as a necromancer—scratch that, as the foremost necromancer in Equestria, with the noted exception of Luna's unfair millenia head-start—"

I interrupt that already very complicated sentence because it is very important that you understand this: when I made the observation about Luna and necromancy, a flash of recognition passed on the faces of both our hosts. Pathfinder, it seemed, was better at concealing his emotions and thoughts than Rain, but neither was subtle enough to repress an obvious show of some kind of understanding when blindsided by my claim.

I chose not to comment on this, and charged boldly forth on the subject of what is and is not 'meat'. "—when I decide whether or not something is 'meat', what matters is whether or not the animal it came from had a soul. That's why I would never eat part of a cow; even though they're fairly unintelligent creatures, the fact that they're capable of speech means they have a soul, and therefore are 'people'. But pigs… well, lets just say I've met more intelligent trees. And, for that matter, I've made more conversational rocks."

"You make rocks?" Pathfinder asked.

"No, I just dug up the rock. The hard part was teaching it to talk. Dead ponies are a lot easier." As I concluded with that note, I took the offered plate and grinned down at the pork alongside its accompaniments. "Thank you, Pathfinder."

Pathfinder's bacon, like all good bacon, was only slightly crispy on the edges, and quite flaccid when held aloft by one end (not that I could easily test that the usual way without using my horn; I resorted to eating with my face, and trying my best to ignore the strange looks I got from the rest of the table).

"R-right," Rain noted, deciding to pick up for her husband on the explanation of Hurricane's past. "Well, like Finder pointed out to me, Magnus was clever. I don't know if he used his weird magic to hide himself, or if he just killed everypony that saw him besides Thunder Gale. But however it happened, when Gale limped back to Stratopolis, nopony believed that he'd been attacked by a giant, magical griffon. The nicer senators, like Discentus, assumed he'd lost his mind from the stress of war—which isn't at all unheard of. The crueler ones accused him of making it up to excuse his humiliating defeat, since without taking Magnus into account, Cirra should have easily held the griffons at bay at Nimbus." Rain shrugged. "So Thunder Gale was quietly discharged, and he left the capital to live on some nowhere farm where nopony would give him trouble for his embarrassing past and bother his foals about it."

I cocked my brow, and after swallowing a mouthful of rice, spoke up. "So rather than some farmer from nowhere, whoever chose the replacement for the emperor picked the son of a disgraced, failed general?"

"Hurricane happened to be at Feathertop when it blew up," Rain answered me, and then sensing my confusion, explained "Mt. Feathertop. It was a volcano. Hurricane was hoof-picked before Augustus died, and he wound up stumbling around like an idiot trying to figure out how to apply the command skills he'd picked up from his field promotion to Centurion into running the entire damn empire. Discentus took pity on him—which is good, because if he hadn't, and Hurricane hadn't been rutting my cousin, I swear I would've cut his head off the day I met him."

"Wait, hold on." I held up a hoof. "Your dad was the ruler of Nimbus, and your cousin was Hurricane's first wife, and then your best friend wound up sleeping with Hurricane's kid—"

"Don't try to keep track of it," Pathfinder interrupted me. "Just trust me that, since there's no incest involved, the Stormblades and the Rains are the least intertangled family mess from old Cirra."


As I indulged my bacon, Blizzard looked between Pathfinder and Iron Rain before, at least, she asked a question that only I had been present to hear Gale warn as an item of strict taboo. "Um… I don't know if this is bad to ask, but Mr. Pathfinder, I saw you look at Misses Rain's eye when you talked about 'what you know now' about Magnus; is that—"

Pathfinder winced, but Rain's face remained surprisingly neutral. After finishing her current bite, she simply nodded. "Yes, Blizzard."

"Wait, you… you fought a god and survived? How? When I was in a fight with Celestia, she was on my side, and she still nearly killed me!"

Pathfinder and Blizzard both shot me concerned looks, but Rain merely shook her head. "I won't answer that question. I won't give the bastard the satisfaction."

"Perhaps we should talk about something else," suggested Pathfinder, who I noticed had grown ever so slightly pale, and who pushed his plate away from his edge of the table.

"Ah, sorry," I offered. "Um… what do you want to talk about, Rain?"

"It's just dinner with friends, Morty. Blizzard, how are you finding Everfree?"

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

Pathfinder had much more emotional awareness than his wife, in addition to his considerably better cooking skills, so while Rain occasionally pressed onto further curiosities about Blizzard's past in River Rock, Blizzard did not find herself pressed on any further especially unpleasant questions toward dinner. The last, and the farthest, that Rain's unending curiosity got was asking about our departure from River Rock—a story which Blizzard acquiesced to, but which she quickly left to me to tell.

"...and then Cyclone claimed Hurricane wouldn't accept Blizzard here in Everfree—and I have to say, it's a little bit hilarious how wrong he was about that, Blizzard."

Blizzard chuckled at that bit of humor, just one highlight in my retelling of her confrontation with her father—a conscious choice on my part, since a more direct telling as I recorded in my prior novel would no doubt be filled with unwelcome emotion.

"And then, when Blizzard reasonably pointed out that she'd never done anything wrong to anypony, Cyclone tried to claim Summer would have been able to explain things if she were still alive."

Pathfinder and Rain shared a small chuckle and a glance of their own; when Blizzard cocked her head and I raised a brow, it was the smaller, scarred face of Pathfinder that met our gazes to answer. "Cyclone would have been right, but only because Summer would've been wrong too. Summer hated Hurricane. She…" With a sigh, the gray-green stallion settled his focus fully on Blizzard. "The Red Cloud War broke something in your mother. She always thought we should have stayed on Dioda, or gone back. She thought Hurricane was a coward for leaving. And when he had to make hard choices to keep Cirra together in those early days living with the unicorns, selling us off as mercenaries against the crystals, she blamed him for every drop of blood spilled."

Gone went all the joy from Blizzard's face; her eyes ran away from Pathfinder's gaze. "She sounds… a lot like Father."

"Hmm? No, no!" Rain shook her head fiercely, only to find herself given pause when Finder placed a hoof on her foreleg.

"You knew her when you were foals, dear," Pathfinder noted. "But… looking back, I think she's more like Cyclone than we want to admit. Er, rather, was."

But that was the second stroke. So I leaned forward across the table, steepled my hooves, and continued my story. Hopefully, I thought, my sudden cut-in would appear to be saving Blizzard's already troubled emotions. "Well, I decided that would be a good time to offer my unique services, so I called Cyclone's bluff."

I let those words hang over the table of well-finished dishes (Pathfinder's meal had been exceptional) until finally the chef himself rose to my bait. "Wait, how could you 'call his bluff'? Summer's dead."

"Indeed she is," I agreed. "And I'm the world's foremost expert on necromantic seances, so in a way, that's more convenient for me than if she were alive. I can ring up anypony—well, almost anypony—for a quick chat."

"That's possible?" Rain asked. "I thought only Celestia and Luna could touch the Great Skies."

"'The Summer Lands' is the proper name. But yes. That's what my talent marks are for. It's a simple spell, though there's some finesse to doing it safely and stably. But when I tried on—"

Rain cut off my dramatic reveal by urgently leaning forward over the table toward me. "Does it hurt them? The pony who died? Is it safe?"

"I…" I had to lean back from my own dramatic position with how forcefully Iron Rain had seized the momentum at the table. "Uh, no; I've been told it's a little disorienting, like a sudden lurch, or the weightless feeling when you jump off a cliff, but that only lasts a second or two. Seances are perfectly safe for the soul in question as long as the caster takes reasonable precautions. And, like I said, I'm the best."

"What does it cost?" Rain pressed.

"Oh. Um… I'll be completely honest, that was something I've been thinking about, but I haven't settled on an answer yet. It probably depends on what you can afford; I want to be available to anypony, but I could use the money. It will also depend on the pony in question, and how long you want to talk to them. I can't do foals who died very young… we'll say a minimum of eight years old. I'll charge extra if whoever you're asking for was damned to Tartarus. Ponies who died more than two or three hundred years ago are usually impossible, unless they were particularly important to Celestia or Luna or a still-living but very old earth pony—but I doubt you'd be asking me so urgently about somepony you never knew. Um… Oh, I have to charge a lot extra for non-ponies, since I have to figure out how their afterlives work. So if you want to summon up some griffon to taunt them, that's gonna be expensive."

Rain shook her head. "Our eldest daughter, Sky. She died just before Cyclone's rebellion. She was almost thirteen."

"I'm sorry," I replied. "And certainly, I can let you talk to her. Not tonight; it takes a little bit of preparation. But I'll make arrangements to host you both at my home, and I'll set up a room with the necessary runes and glyphs—no charge, at least the first time. Can I ask what happened? If her passing was… especially traumatic in certain ways, it can be useful to be prepared to comfort the soul."

That question, dear reader, was one of kinder bits of clever misdirection I had learned from Wintershimmer; what I was actually asking was 'How likely is this soul to blame one of you for her death?'—because between the claim about preparing the spell, and the fact that said pony is already dead, you'd be surprised how often ponies are willing to be honest even in cases where it reveals them to be absolutely terrible ponies.

"The feather flu," Pathfinder explained, and then sighed. "You might be too young to know this. At the beginning of the Long Winter, the flu broke out in Cloudsdale. It wasn't new to us; Cirra had been through dozens of outbreaks. But with food short from the winter lasting too long into spring—we didn't know it was magic at the time, we just thought it was freak weather, and the unicorns and earth ponies were blaming us for it—that flu hit hard. Harder than any plague anypony could remember from Dioda."

Pathfinder paused, stood up from the table abruptly mid-tale, and walked over to his cabinets. He brought back a small keg tucked under his wing and a few tankards, which he slapped down on the table; he didn't actually speak to offer us any, but with the count of tankards it wasn't hard to imagine the intention. What he did do, however, was fill his own mug nearly past its lip, and then drain it completely in the span of perhaps a dozen seconds. Rain looked disapprovingly at the display, though on her face I mostly read sadness and concern, rather than anger.

Only with his thirst sated—or more likely, his hard memories suppressed—did Pathfinder continue to speak. "The short version is, other ponies had the medicine we needed, in addition to food, but they wouldn't give it to us unless we fixed the weather, since they were starving under the snow. We couldn't. Obviously; you know about the windigos. But… Well, we tried talking, and Hurricane got us what pay he could for fighting the crystals, but it was like milking a brick. And what he did get…" Another drink—this time, at least, just a gulp and not the whole tankard—disappeared into Pathfinder's maw.

Rain picked up for her husband. "Hurricane had to make sure Cirra would survive. And back then we were surviving because of the Legion. The Legion was how we traded with the other breeds. The Legion was how we defended ourselves. The Legion was most of the labor behind building Cloudsdale. So when he didn't have enough medicine for all the sick ponies… he ordered legionaries to get treated first." Then the old mare scrunched up her remaining eye and, much like Blizzard, she averted her face.

"I'm sorry. I… I can see why you might not like Hurricane, after that."

Rain leaned back in her seat and—with a notable stiffness in her neck that I could only imagine stemmed from the weight of all the battles she'd seen with a griffon sword clenched in her teeth—stared up at the ceiling. "No. I don't blame him. I want to sometimes, but… When you lead like we have, sooner or later, you have to make a horrible, cruel decision. And if I were in his position, I don't know that I would have made it differently." Rain's nostrils flared in with a breath, and then rattled as she exhaled some weight from her powerful shoulders. "Morty, Blizzard, I joke about Hurricane a lot—and I was genuinely mad that he didn't let us adopt you—but I don't want you to think I hate your grandfather. He's one of my—of our—" and there, she flicked a wing toward Pathfinder, who nodded eagerly "—closest friends. I certainly admire the stallion; when I was your age, I was mad this nopony was made emperor. But with the wisdom of getting old and gray, every damn day I thank the gods I don't believe in anymore that I never had to wear the black armor." Then, with a snort of some bitter humor, she added "There's so few of us who even remember Dioda left."

Rain's thoughts left the room in silence, save a gentle settling into the couch from Blizzard, and Pathfinder pouring another of his mournful drinks (far slower, at least, this time). At last, I pulled myself forward. "Well, if she was old enough to understand that she was denying medicine, I'd expect some bitterness, but I wouldn't expect it to be toward you."

"We did get her medicine, eventually," Pathfinder noted. "Summer stole it for us."

"Mom stole medicine?" Blizzard asked.

"She was a medicus," Pathfinder explained, and then for my benefit, added "A Legion field medic."

"A damn good one too," Rain added. "So she had access to the medicine Hurricane was able to get. Set aside a little bit for Sky. And eventually, she and the Dawn stole a bunch more from the earth ponies." With that, Rain made a very tired gesture with her wing, not toward anypony or anything in particular. "I don't know what she felt about it. Will she… will she blame us?"

"Hmm? Oh, almost certainly not, no." I leaned forward with my most genuine smile, leaning into my role. A good necromancer deals just as much in catharsis as in souls. "Death provides a certain perspective. In life, most ponies fear it because they don't have a strong understanding of what the other side is like. But, speaking from experience, the dying is by far the worst part. Compared to that, being dead is calming; some might even say soothing. I promise you, she hasn't been suffering—emotionally or physically. She'll likely be very happy to see you though. I can explain more when the time comes to perform the seance. But for now—"

My attempt at driving the conversation back to a lighter topic was interrupted by a rather urgent rapping on the Rains' front door, reverberating through the house.

"Who's that?!" Blizzard gasped out with sudden urgency, even leaning slightly toward me for support. "I thought it was just us coming tonight."

Rain, however, seemed unperturbed, and started to rise from her seat. Deciding in the moment to test a hypothesis, I placed a forehoof on Blizzard's shoulder, both to comfort her momentarily, and to brace myself to stand up. "Please, let me get it; I wouldn't want a mare of your age having to do more walking than necessary."

"I will break your jaw, kid. And I should get this one."

"So you were expecting her." I chuckled to myself at Rain's flash of worried surprise, as I lowered myself back to the couch.

"Her?" Blizzard asked.

I nodded to my friend. "Your Mom's come to visit. And more importantly, our hosts knew." The words stopped Rain fully in her tracks toward the door. "You both slipped up referring to her in the present-tense, and as inept as I might be at 'reading faces' or whatever Gale called it, I'd take my odds at cards with Rain. But that leads to an interesting point: neither of you are necromancers, which means you couldn't have figured it out the way I did. So good odds say you're both going behind Luna's back."

Rain's focus on me hardened considerably, and while Pathfinder's expression was much more neutral (and if we're being honest, less focused from how much alcohol he'd imbibed), he did set down his drink and lower his gaze ever so slightly to my… throat, I'm guessing?

"…which is honestly fine by me; I have no love lost for Luna, and I have no doubt she'd say the same thing about me. But will you humor me one observation before you go to the door, Rain?"

The one-eyed mare nodded slowly, her scarred brow raised in reflection of her curiosity—or perhaps concern.

"Many more sophisticated undead have their senses enhanced with magic beyond what their original body possessed in life. And given their uniquely predatory, bat-like forms, and the fact that Luna has had literal millenia to practice her craft, I would be surprised if that weren't true of her… what did she call them?"

"The Night Guard," Pathfinder offered.

"I wonder if that's the organization or the name of the category of undead… Anyway, if my hypothesis is correct, then frankly, I think the creature in question is probably wasting all our time waiting for somepony to answer the door and ought to just come in already."

Sometimes, the sound of a door not swinging open can be surprisingly satisfying.

After a solid three seconds, I nodded to Rain. "Don't actually go to the door, but can you tell her she has permission to come in?"

Rain nodded and called out "Well, come in."

And then, the sound of the door opening was even more satisfying.

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