• 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 Eldest Hate

My horn was on fire, and as much as I'd like to tell you I grit my teeth and ignored it because my worries about Graargh were that strong, reality just didn't bear that out.

"Are you okay?" Cherry asked, hooves clip-clopping on cobblestones of the street outside Aspiration's schoolhouse. "That was a funny feeling for me; did it give you a headache?"

"No; I'm good at teleporting. It's my horn," I muttered, before lying "I'm fine, Cherry. Angel, mana."

"Of course, sir. Will this be like hunting cragodiles with Wintershimmer? Or should I hang back?"

I pondered briefly on the thought that Angel had been swallowed by one of said cragodiles, before abandoning the thought. I shook my head. "Whatever Aspiration is, she's sapient. Which means she has a soul." I rolled my neck, not for the sake of the popping of my spine so much as to try and get my head to feel right after the surge of agony in my forehead subsided. "Which means this will be brief."

"Can I come?" asked Cherry, grinning.

"I don't see why not. Just… what were Wintershimmer's rules again? Don't interrupt me if I'm speaking. If I tell you to do something, do it without asking why; it might be to save your life. Oh, and don't touch anything, even if it's dead. Promise?"

"You have my oath to Celestia, Morty," Cherry agreed.

"Good. Now, no time to waste."

I walked straight up to the door, and thinking it would be a relatively easy feat, I decided to spare my horn by turning around, rearing up, and bucking it. This… was less trivial than I thought; the door gave a loud thump and its hinges groaned a bit, but it remained firmly fixed in the wall of the schoolhouse.

"Oh, can I help?" Cherry, despite being five years my junior, gave a far less dramatic wind up and proceeded to buck the door in with a shower of splinters—just in time for me to turn back around and lead with my horn.

"What in the—Mortal?" said the by now quite loathed voice of Mrs. Aspiration, the schoolteacher. Standing next to her was a creature I had never seen before, but which I suspect readers of this book might recognize immediately: a chitinous bug-stallion with gossamer wings, a slightly curved horn, and gaping holes distributed roundly through all his limbs. He stood over an orb of vibrant green slime—some kind of monstrous cocoon, by my guess—and floating in its center, I could see the shadowy figure of a much smaller creature.

"Aspiration. Creature… I'm going to give you both a chance to surrender and let Graargh go."

The insect turned away from the cocoon and looked me over briefly with iridescent, gem-like aquamarine eyes. "You know this pony?" it asked, apparently to Aspiration.

"Mortal Coil," she explained, at least apparently willingly. "He's a wizard, and Celestia's student. And he's the drone's guardian; 'Graargh' is the name it goes by."

"Drone?" I glanced between Aspiration and the bug stallion, who had taken a rather unafraid step toward me. "Let me see if I have this right: black-and-slimy there is the natural form of a changeling? And Aspiration isn't your real name?"

Aspiration nodded. "Clever. You can call me 'Metamorphosis'; this is Husk. The real Aspiration—"

"Silence," snapped the more obvious changeling, this newly-introduced 'Husk'. "You won't say any more about us… Metamorphosis."

"If we replace him, who cares what he knows?" Metamorphosis, nee Aspiration countered with a snide grin. "And if he gets away, I haven't said anything Celestia couldn't tell him."

"Don't speak to me of Celestia," Husk answered coldly, before focusing once more on me. "Why do you want the drone, Coil? He's one of us. He shouldn't be any of your concern."

"He's family," I countered, putting a confused and spiteful look on the visage of the bug. "If you had good intentions, Aspiration—Metamorphosis, whatever—would have told me the truth when I trusted her with his guardianship; instead, Cherry comes pounding on my door telling me you're up to something evil in secret, and I find him trapped in some kind of… cocoon? Pseudopod? General ooze?" I gestured to the green blob in the corner. "And it looks an awful lot like you're foalnapping him, since he isn't apparently going willingly. Or consciously."

"You let one of the pony grubs escape without any confusion? Pathetic," Husk growled to… its partner? Given the tone, I would have guessed subordinate, though it would be some time later that I had any kind of affirmation of that claim.

Aspiration's ears plastered back into her mane. "I don't know what kind of strange pony magic Cherry Tomato has, but I did treat him."

"I'm very lucky to be an earth pony!" Cherry offered chipperly.

"A likely excuse," Husk grumbled, before letting out a sigh. "Fine. Pony; you want the drone… and I assume you think you can threaten us." He put on a small grin as he continued "Go on. I would like to hear it."

It isn't often a monster can put me off my game, but I found it hard to put my whole spirit into what I said next, and I think the words came off more perfunctorily than as a proper threat. "You're both going to surrender, and I'm going to talk to Celestia about what to do from there, since she knows what you are better than I do. If you try to fight me, though, I… well, you're both obviously sapient, which means you have souls. And it will take me less time and effort to rip them out if you than it would take you to clear the distance between us."

"Hmm," said Husk. "I thought I recognized the jacket, but I remember you being older." Then he stroked his chin and frowned. "No… no, you aren't old enough, are you?" Those words were followed by a burst of green flame…

…and then, before me, stood a sight that shook me to my core: Wintershimmer—though not as I had ever known him—looked at me with mild disdain. This Wintershimmer was not my old mentor, nor the figment of him from my imagination; the form Husk had transformed into was, by my guess, thirty years old. He still wore the mirror image of my jacket, though I noticed that in the intimate detail of Husk's transformation, it was a cheaper thing, of lower quality than the kind I had been given growing up, paid for by my mentor's access to the considerable stolen treasures of the Crystal Union. This Wintershimmer was naturally gaunt, but not yet skull-like; his mane was, to my surprise (having only ever seen it well whitened) naturally a sort of mint green that stood at odds with his rich mustard coat, and he wore it pulled back into a tight bun. And there was no hunch to his posture, no burden from the very act of existing in spite of nature in his form.

"No, this isn't you," said Husk, wielding Wintershimmer's voice. "A mentor, perhaps? Or a parent?"

"You knew Wintershimmer?" I asked, then shook my head. "What difference does it make? I'll kill you no matter what form you take."

In another burst of green fire, Wintershimmer vanished, and in his place my own mirror image appeared. With a confident grin, other-me dragged a hoof invitingly across his chest at shoulder level. "Then by all means, young wizard; slay me."

I lit my horn, grit my teeth at the pain, and focused on the beginning's of the razor.

"Coil, no!" shouted the voice of the figment of Wintershimmer in my mind, at the very same moment that I felt a grip of ice wrap around my own neck. Realizing the danger, I let the glow on my horn flicker out—

—but in that moment of hesitation, Husk rushed forward. A pair of long thin fangs, visibly splashing with glowing green venom, emerged from my own mouth as it lunged forward, biting for my shoulder. I wasn't fast enough to dodge; at most turning the bite at my neck into one pointed at my shoulder. But where my skill in hoof-to-hoof combat failed, Star Swirl's enchantments on my jacket spared me the pain of the changeling's venom. Husk's fangs scraped along the fabric of the enchanted garment, casting sparks as they were deflected.

I lit my horn again, but it was a doomed effort. To my horror, a burst of green fire turned the copy of my right forehoof on Husk into a snake's tail, and it whipped out with a crack straight into my brow; between that and the pain of my wounded horn, I lost my spell.

Cherry Tomato leapt into action without prompting as I recoiled from the blow. When the fanged version of my own face lunged for my neck, the little colt delivered a left cross right into 'my' jaw. The blow seemed to daze Husk, though it lacked the ursine strength of my usual sidekick to outright inacapcitate the enemy. Husk staggered back, let out an unsettling chittering noise, and rounded on Cherry. Green fire turned the snake's tail whip on 'my' foreleg into an eagle's talon—or, judging from the muscles attached to his shoulder, a griffon's—which lashed out and grabbed the colt by the throat. Talon points like needles drew blood at the back of Cherry's neck, nearly invisible in his coat but a violent clash with his green mane. With his throat held closed, the colt could only let out a muffled sigh as he looked to me for help.

His attack had bought me the time I needed, though. I lit my horn, focused my eyes on my enemy, and cast the simplest spell any unicorn can ever wield. My magic wrapped around the oversized muscles of the griffon shoulder bulging through the facsimile of my tailored jacket, and I twisted, and I pulled. And with a scream in my own voice, Husk was thrown across the room—smashing foals desks and chairs and cracking both the plaster in the far wall, and the glass in its two nearest windows—as I tore his shoulder off.

It should have been a killing blow; certainly, no normal pony could walk away from that wound alive, much less conscious. But the changeling, powered by some alien magic, simply bobbed his head in a heavy, pained panting as he glared at me with my own face, contorted in hatred. My own blood leaked from a hole in my chest, and I smiled about it.

"Master Coil!" cried Angel's tinny voice in warning behind me… but it came too late. With my attention on Husk, I had let Metamorphosis—still in the guise of the unassuming Mrs. Aspiration—slip out of my peripheral sight. I realized my mistake not with Angel's warning, but with the feeling of fangs sinking deep into my hind left leg—a rare spot unprotected by my enchanted jacket. In a moment of clarity that one rarely finds outside of mortal danger, through the pain, I recognized a horrifying cold in my blood, and a pressure. I didn't need reflection to realize it was the venom I had seen dripping from Husk's mouth—from my mouth.

I rounded on Metamorphosis, and I moved to light my horn again, but she responded to the threat by yanking her head violently, like a dog shaking its prey in an effort to break its neck. And with her fangs more than an inch into my leg, the pain was more than I could focus through. I fell to my side, horn sputtering dead sparks… and as I fell, the world spun on an axis it shouldn't have simply from the fall. A part of my mind raced through my memories of Wintershimmer's lessons on toxins, even though the rest knew it was frivolous; the venom had come from the changeling's fangs, so it was not something that I could ever know. And no poison I'd ever seen acted that fast; at least, none that a pony could survive.

When I fell, I couldn't even find the strength to lift my head from the floor. In the twisty, lurching slow-motion of my vision, I watched Angel dart out the door—no doubt to get help. Metamorphosis lit the horn of Mrs. Aspiration—if that was even a real pony, and not a fiction she had concocted—and fired a crackling green bolt at my golem… but her form with the shot was shoddy at best, and she spent too much focus on getting the spell out quickly to have any chance of hitting my nimble creation. Angel would be too late to save me, I was certain, but at least he might save Graargh.

At the opposite side of the room, just barely in my peripheral vision, my own bleeding shoulder was engulfed in green fire, and the foreleg I had torn off and tossed aside was regenerated in an instant. I took some amusement in that moment of impending death to note that Husk hadn't regrown my jacket, and I similarly drew satisfaction from the wince of pain on my unusually handsome visage when he put the new leg down on the floor to try and steady himself, only to pull it up again and re-center himself to accommodate a limp.

"You alright, Commandant?" asked Aspiration, standing over me. She was so close that I could only catch the blows she traded with Cherry by watching their shadows on the wall behind her, but when she remained in place calmly and a loud thud issued from some wall behind my back, it wasn't hard to guess who had won out. The ensuing quiet, punctuated by a groan in a younger colt's mid-pubescent tone, meant I could only conclude that the unusually lucky colt's luck had run out in the face of the shapeshifter's physical and magical superiority.

"I'm not well-fed," Husk answered in my voice, wielding it with sneering disdain for the concern he was offered. "I haven't been in the field to harvest freely like you. But the threat's dealt with; dose the child so he doesn't remember this. Kill the unicorn."

"What? Commandant, the Queen's orders—"

"Damn the Queen!" Husk snapped. "I'll face her if it comes to it." Then the changeling wearing my face lit my horn—no, it wasn't my horn; he hadn't copied the tightness of the grooves, so it didn't flare up—and blasted out one of the windows I had cracked when I hurled him into the plaster wall. "Extract the drone if you can, but if you can't, kill it too. We've used too much magic; the hounds will be here soon." With that Husk let loose one more burst of green fire, and in the place of my handsome visage, he became a rather unremarkable brown earth pony with talent marks of spades biting into the ground. "You have your orders, Infiltrator," Husk offered in a much gruffer voice, before he heaved himself out the window frame with his good forehoof and limped out of sight.

As Metamorphosis rounded on me, hesitation in her stride even as she bared fangs that were more serpentine than insectoid, I felt myself struggle to swallow. I had one spell, maybe, and if I couldn't do something with it, not only would I die, but Graargh and possibly even Cherry with me.

But what to cast?

When I let the first glimmer of magic build on my horn, the changeling schoolteacher leapt back and lowered herself toward the floor, knees bent and ready to dodge if I hurled a spell at her. I had a decent chance of ripping the monster in half, or flinging her clear through the wall and into the street… but would that kill the shapeshifter? I'd just watched Husk walk off a killing blow, and by his own admission, Metamorphosis was the healthier—the 'more fed'—of the two.

How had I bested Wintershimmer the Complacent and lost to some poisonous bugs? Even in my dizzy, heady state I had enough self-awareness to be disgusted that it was even possible. But then, I quickly corrected myself, Wintershimmer had also killed me—if only in a wizard's technical sense—in the course of my victory.

That, of course, was the answer. Then the only difficulty left was working out the spell.

"I…" My tongue felt like lead, and when I tried to lift my head from the floor to at least get it to sit in the bottom of my mouth, my neck refused to respond at all.

"I'm sorry, Mortal. But… I have to do this."

I somehow managed to get my horn to light—it seemed less burdened than the rest of my body (I would later learn this is because the act of casting magic relies on far less of the extended nervous system than any more conventional muscular movement, because the horn is connected directly to the brain)—and the sight of that pale blue made Metamorphosis wince and ignite her own horn. And then, to my surprise and horror, the telekinetic glow I had wrapped around her head and neck, with intentions very much like those I had inflicted on Husk's foreleg, was pushed away by the power of her magic. I had literally never before been magically overpowered, owing to my unique horn, and that was the worst possible moment to experience the phenomenon: knowing my next spell would by my third.

"You'll pass out quickly," Metamorphosis said, not at all in relation to my spell, and then opened her mouth wide.

To my astonishment,the next solid object to enter Metamorphosis' mouth was not, in fact, my neck. Instead, it was the leg of a wooden chair, beaten into the back of her jaw after a flying leap from Cherry Tomato! In a spray of wooden splinters, the chair broke on the changeling's face, and she stumbled backwards from the force with a gasp of pain and a spray of vibrant red blood. Cherry, for his part, slid on his hooves when he landed, eventually skidding to a stop with a small spray of splinters and I could have almost sworn a few visible sparks.

"How? I smashed you headfirst into the wall!"

Completely devoid of the witty tone with which I would have delivered such a line, Cherry answered "I am an earth pony. You probably think of me as being lucky, but I am also very tough. And I was a knight's squire, so I have some combat training. Morty, what do I do next?"

"Focus," I ordered, and then realizing that despite the leaden feeling in my tongue, it was still responsive enough, I added "The poison won't kill me; if it could, she wouldn't try to bite again. Just keep yourself alive, and Angel will be back with help soon."

Metamorphosis—who I remind you, still wore the face of Mrs. Aspiration, chuckled in her authoritarian, 'classroom-control' tone of voice. "You're making assumptions, Coil. With the dose of poison I gave you, you will die without treatment. I wanted to make sure nopony came along in time after I leave." Despite speaking to and looking at me, Metamorphosis' horn ignited with emerald green magic (for those of you familiar with changelings, this was the natural color of the unicorn Aspiration's magic, not the more sickly glowing green common to changelings in their natural form), and she sent several blasts of crackling mana toward Cherry. The colt, for his part, rolled, and finally dove behind a toppled desk to avoid being struck.

"Good to know," I replied with bitter sarcasm. "Let me return the favor: if you leave without Graargh, I won't kill you."

Metamorphosis drew her eyes across my form—paralyzed, sprawled out on the floor, bleeding from my flank—and correctly concluded that said peace offer (or if you prefer, implicit threat) did not warrant a reply. Instead, she turned on Cherry. "Look, Cherry—"

"You aren't going to convince me to stop," he interrupted. "I know it is the right thing to do, and also I have a very good feeling about it. You should give up."

Metamorphosis responded by grabbing the desk Cherry was hiding behind in her green magic, and flinging it against the far wall with enough force that I can only fairly say it exploded—a show of magical power that some random schoolteacher likely could never have exhibited. "Young stallion—" Apparently, Cherry had been expecting the desk to be removed, because he had been crouched down in a ready state, like a runner on blocks, behind it. When the desk disappeared, he launched himself straight at the schoolteacher's face, driving a hoof directly into her horn, and another into her muzzle. Despite being an earth pony, Cherry still had enough growing left in his still foal-like frame that the blow wasn't enough to topple an adult unicorn (to say nothing of whatever advantages being a changeling in disguise might have granted Metamorphosis), but it was enough to leave her reeling with her horn not at the ready while he darted once more out of reach.

Metamorphosis took only a moment to recover, though, and took more careful aim for the colt; she might have fired a blast then and there, had a pair of shadows not darkened the doorway and one of the shattered windows of the now thoroughly damaged schoolhouse.

From where I lay, I could (awkwardly) just make out both figures: through the window entered a unicorn-like stallion, though his horn was unusually long and sharp and had an unusual upward curvature to it, and his mouth was full of carnivorous fangs. Around them, his body was a washed-out gray blue, and his hair silver like the moon. His eyes, perhaps most importantly, were vertically slitted, vibrant blue that I suspect would have glowed in the dark like a cat's.

(A brief aside: for any readers who peruse this tome in the very new future, that description, less the colors, might call to mind the late Somber Shadow—and I fear for future readers, his self-styled name, 'King Sombra'; that isn't an accident, but I won't elaborate further here except to say that in a roundabout way, he was Luna's fault too.)

The other pony—or perhaps former pony would be more accurate—I knew by the name Summer Celsus: pale pink, with flesh blood red hair in her mane and tail, and a matching set of fangs that had not all too much earlier dug their way into my lower lip. For those who may have forgotten, I knew a few things about Summer: in addition to being my friend Blizzard's mother, Summer was perhaps most notable for being an undead, raised at Luna's behest as servants and warriors. And that one fact gave me a pretty good guess as to the nature of the other new arrival.

"Here's the damn parasite," said Summer as she answered. "One cocoon, two civilians, and… wait, Coil?"

"You know a breather that young?" asked the stallion, apparently thinking Summer was referring to Cherry, who rushed over to my side in the relative safety. That motion, that distraction, in turn caused Metamorophosis to perceive her chance to escape. Yet the changeling was hardly quiet enough to escape the notice of the sharp-eared dead; with a flick of his horn, the male corpose created a curved barrier covering the partially broken glass and visibly crackling with raw mana. The changeling skidded to a stop to keep from running into it headfirst, and wound up standing just beside the cocoon that held Graargh. Then, with a flick of her horn, she surrounded herself in a bubble of green very much unlike the color of her natural magic, and very much like the color of the fire that engulfed the changelings whenever they shapeshifted.

"Huh. The bug knows barriers," the stallion in the window joked, finally hopping fully into the room. "Think she can teleport too?"

"If she could, she already would have," Summer answered, before making a show of licking her lips. "She knows who we are. Don't you, parasite?"

Metamorphosis didn't seem inclined to answer that question, and the silence seemed like as good a time as any to speak up. "I don't suppose either of you fine corpses have an antidote for their poison?"

"Did the mighty wizard get bit?" Summer rolled her slitted eyes and shook her head. "Their venom takes a long time to kill; just shut up and watch real monster hunters work. Five, can you pierce that? Or should I cook her out?"

"It'll take a few minutes," said the presumably dead stallion whom Summer had called 'Five'. "Probably go faster with some fire. Anything you're particularly pissed about?" With a glance in my direction, he grinned a mouth full of those vicious fangs. "Is that one rutting your daughter?"

Summer's throat began to glow orange from within, even as she shook her head. "She insists he isn't." The words were accompanied by frankly draconic tongues of flame licking past her teeth. "But he pisses me off enough all the same." And then, very much like a dragon, she opened her mouth and proceeded to expel a column of orange flame—that is to say, to 'breathe' fire—against Metamorphosis' shield. Only a moment later, a beam of blue magic struck another side of the bubble, stemming from 'Five's' horn.

"No, please. Please! I didn't hurt anypony! The school teacher's fine; I can tell you where she is, if you just—"

"That's adorable," interrupted Five. "She thinks that's an offer. The Mistress can ask your corpse for directions just as easily as you can tell us alive. You got a better offer?" With a… dramatically more lascivious lick of his lips than Summer had given moments earlier, he let his eyes wander the schoolteacher's body. "They say you can turn into anypony, right?"

That comment, at least, got Summer to cease her breath and glare at her fellow corpse. In a cautionary growl, she asked him "Isn't that what got you raised in the first place, Five?"

Slitted eyes rolled in their sockets. "When I did it to a pony, big sister. These things aren't real ponies. Mistress wouldn't care if we had some fun."

Summer's warning tone became a feral growl. "If you keep leading with your dick, I'm going to cut it off."


Five resumed his magical assault, and inside her bubble, I noted the smallest of sparks on Metamorphosis' horn. Within the rippling surface of her sanctuary, slowly being ground away by magic, I couldn't help but have a bit of sympathy for the mare—even knowing that label didn't quite fit.

"Please, I… I…" Swallowing in desperation, she looked to Graargh's cocoon, and with a hoof, tore the sticky green substance open. Out slid, to my horror, not a little bear cub, nor even the green and brown colt form he occasionally wore, but a pony-shaped insect. Graargh looked to all the world like that brief glimpse I had gotten of Husk, if shrunk by perhaps half. Despite being freed from his cocoon, Graargh remained comatose, simply lying on the floor.

Metamorphosis raised a shaky hoof and held it above Graargh's neck. "Stop, or… I'll kill him."

Summer scoffed. "Great. Save us the trouble!"

"No!" I shouted, and for a brief moment, I let sparks build on my horn.

"Don't," Summer warned me, slitted eyes dropped into a glare. "I have the Mistress' blessing to put down anypony who sides with them willingly." Then her face shifted, and she grinned in a show of her teeth. "Or do; I would love the excuse."

I let the sparks fade from my horn, and Summer turned away—leaving both undead with their backs roughly to me. Only then did I dare to exercise another of the muscles yet-unhindered by the venom that seemed to have spared my face.

I winked at Metamorphosis.

"Hey, Cherry," I whispered. The colt glanced to me, but said nothing. "Want to be a wizard?"

"What, now?" he whispered back. "I mean, yes of course. But can you teach me a lesson fast enough to help Graargh?"

"I hope so," I answered. "If not, I'll use my last spell to save him. Is my leg still bleeding?" Cherry nodded fervently. "Stick your hoof in the bite. Get some fresh blood on your hoof."

"Won't that hurt?"

"The venom should have made me numb," I answered, and then had to work very hard to bite back a gasp of pain and avoid alerting Luna's servants when my hypothesis proved frightfully incorrect.

"Okay, got it," whispered Cherry. "Now what?"

"Now you're going to draw a picture," I explained. "In front of me so I can see it, on the floor. Start with a circle." As Cherry began to inscribe, I bit back my critique of his circle drawing (fun fact for non-mages: drawing a perfect circle without the use of a compass or similar mechanical assistance is a valuable skill we practice often), I decided the structure was good enough, and continued. "Now, draw a line through the middle—let it stick out both ends. Good, and then at one end of the line, draw another line perpendicular to it."


"Didn't you learn that from Mrs. Aspirations?"

Cherry shook his head. "I'm, um, not very good at math. There isn't much luck involved."

I sighed. "Make a corner at the end of the line, like the corner of a square."

"Oh, okay!"

So my directions continued, even as I watched Metamorphosis' shield waver and flicker and begin to crack, and even as the changeling inside glanced nervously between the shield, my eyes on the floor, and and the little bug beneath her hoof, completely unaware of the danger he was in.

Thankfully, despite his lack of skill in geometry, Cherry was a swift artist—though given I was putting my life in the steadiness of his artistic talent, perhaps swiftness wasn't the virtue that sentence implies.

"Now what?" Cherry asked.

"In a moment, my horn is going to light up and then go out. When it goes out, I want you to stomp your hoof in the middle of that circle and repeat my name. Okay?"

"Mortal Coil?" he confirmed.

I tried to shake my head, and then realized the motion was doomed, and corrected him. "No… I guess at this point, just 'Morty'."

"What then?" he asked.

"I'll handle the rest," I said, and lit my horn as hard as I could. And, with a brief, unpleasant chill, I set my plan in motion.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

"Morty?" asked Celestia, confused, as I floated in the empty sunny void of death, surrounded by billowing clouds and empty sky and utterly devoid of a body. "What—what are you doing here? Again?"

Thankfully, I was less disoriented this time than I had been at my first death. "I won't be here long. Come to the schoolhouse, and—"

And then with a lurch feeling, I was pulled away mid-sentence from my very confused deific mentor.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

I came into being a floating, transparent effigy of my former self, hovering in the air as Cherry finished chanting "Morty, Morty, Mo—oh, wow! I did magic!"

"I guess I owe you more lessons than that," I muttered, guiding my disembodied soul by force of will (the way all souls move, though most don't know the theory behind it and grasp the process on instinct) toward the still collapsed and now comatose form of my own body.

Just as facing Celestia for judgment was less disorienting the second time, piloting my own body as a sort of fleshy suit for my soul was likewise less disconcerting than it had been on my first attempt. Part, I'm sure, was experience—but another part was that I knew this time that the theory was sound.

Also, the threat of death by poison, rather than the threat of bleeding to death by the hole in the back of my neck, was at least a good deal farther away.

Which is to say, I was getting better at being dead. Go figure.

It was surprisingly easy to get to my own hooves once I could do away with the whole business of nerves and mental signals, though I confess the action wasn't as graceful as the standard to which I usually held myself. It also attracted the attention of the other 'adults' in the room, substantially enough that both Summer's flaming breath and Five's magical beam sputtered into nothingness.

"How?" Five asked. "Nopony alive gets up from their poison!"

"Venom," I couldn't help but correct. "It'd be poison if I bit her. And to answer how: getting a soul to drive an unconscious body isn't that much different than getting it to drive a dead one, so it really shouldn't surprise you. I had to guess that my body would still work because her venom was making me dizzy and light-headed—classic signs of a neurotoxin, rather than one that affects muscles—and because of how fast it started to affect the upper part of my body, far from where I got bit. As a disembodied soul, I can skip my own brain and my nerves." I dragged my hoof in a wide arc across the floor, only briefly catching myself before I rubbed out part of Cherry's drawing and quite literally killed myself (again) before extending it laterally in a sort of 'your move' type pose. "So now that I can stand up, and I can cast as many spells as I want again, let's talk a minute. Aspirations—Metamporphosis—whatever; you haven't actually killed anypony, have you?"

"No!" she answered, shaking her head. "The real Aspirations is fine; like I said, I can take her—"

"That's beside the point, Coil," snapped Summer. "They harvest you breathers for your love to power their magic. They're parasites."

"Hmm?" I raised a brow. "Let me make sure I got that right: you're a traitor and a murderer, and I don't think it's a stretch to guess that he's a rapist, but you think I should let you kill a sapient being who hasn't descended to either of those crimes, and is only trying to feed herself?"

"You think you can judge us?" Five snarled.

I scoffed. "Literally, yes. But also, I died to save your choice of Celestia or your beloved 'Mistress', so not only do I have the moral high ground, but I'm so high up that as they say 'you look like ants from up here'." I really need to emphasize, so that you can understand what was about to happen, that I accompanied that last action by rearing up on my hind legs so that I could accompany the quotation with proper 'hoof quotes'.

Summer growled in irritation. "Keep tearing at the shield. I'll keep my eyes on Coil in case he tries anything stupid."

"Ah, you want to talk about practicalities instead of ethics. Good. On the topic of judging souls, for the three-ish seconds I was just dead, I spoke to Celestia; she should be here shortly."

"What?" shouted Metamporphosis, worryingly twitching her hoof near Graargh.

"Calm down," I cautioned. "She already knew about him—frankly, probably a lot more than I do. As long as you don't hurt him, I'll make sure she lets you go." When that left her with some obvious concerns and a notable shake to her hoof, I drew a deep breath and embraced my oldest memories of my first mentor. "But if you lay even a single hoof on him, I promise you: I will make you immortal."

That got Five to cock her head—not diverting the beam that was drilling away at Metamorphosis' shield, but redirecting it to a different point on the shield's surface. "Why would you—"

"Because you have no concept of how much suffering I know how to cause once I don't have to worry about keeping somepony alive."

Those readers of you who find that threat uncharacteristic of me should perhaps know that I was directly quoting Wintershimmer from one occasion in my youth when a fae we were hunting had taken a crystal pony hostage. I don't know that I even had the capability to properly make good on that threat, lacking any proper understanding of how changeling souls or the changeling 'god' worked. But that hardly mattered in the moment. What mattered in my mind was Graargh's safety.

The threat gave some pause to Five, and Metamorphosis pulled her hoof away from Graargh's fragile throat, but my words seemed to have little impact on Summer, who took a rather bold step in my direction, lowered her head as if there were a horn on her brow to threaten me with. "Fifth Brother," she ordered, without removing her slitted gaze from mine. "Let's end this. Teleport into the shield."

Five—obviously 'Fifth Brother'—hesitated. "We aren't supposed to engage in bitting range—"

"If she had the magic for that to be a threat, she wouldn't need that shield." With a flap of her wings, Summer began to hover barely a stride away from me on leather wings. There, she pressed her forehooves against one another, popping the joints in her fetlocks. "What are you waiting for, Five?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Fifth Brother, and the beam from his horn ceased—though the blue glow around it did not. So I grit my teeth and tried something profoundly stupid.

And here, I apologize as a storyteller. In this moment of the highest stakes, with the life of the being who was for all purposes but blood my brother on the line, I have to stop and explain the intricacies of the craft of necromancy.

By strict definition, an undead is created when a natural soul is brought back from death via seance and bound into a body—whether that body was ever actually alive (as was the case for Summer and Fifth Brother) or merely a facsimile prepared for similar purpose (as in the case of Solemn Vow) is immaterial to this definition, even if most ponies picture a rotting corpse when one uses the word 'undead'.

That strict definition, however, misses some nuance of the word 'bound'—for while one can bind a soul into a body in the sense that one binds oneself into a hang-glider before flinging oneself off a cliff (that is, solely for safety, to avoid falling out), most often that word implies restriction, in the case of 'bound' as a synonym for 'enslaved'. This usually takes the form of absolute loyalty to the reanimator (or at least, absolute obedience to their commands—hence my confusion in an earlier Tale when Summer had demonstrated the ability to speak ill of Luna, let alone to sneak away from her duties to visit Blizzard.

These commands are the same spell that attaches the soul to a body (hence the convenience of the word 'bound' in our definition), and in theory, one cannot be broken without the other. But if one stretches the connection between body and soul, those ties that bind can then, if only for a moment, be tinkered with.

I make no qualms about admitting (now) that at the time, Luna was my better at necromancy. I could not casually dismiss the spell binding one of her undead servants. (Even now, that is hardly an easy process.) But that did not mean the Razor didn't have its uses. I grabbed onto Fifth Brother's soul and pulled—and rather than his soul popping free, I felt the sticky, spiderweb-stretchy tendrils of Luna's spell pulling back, dozens if not hundreds of times the better of my own magical strength.

But then, the point wasn't to out-tug them. The point was to find the tendril that demanded Fifth's Brother's obedience, and—in an act of desperate graffiti—to write 'Morty' where 'Luna' had before been carved.

It was a temporary solution; to lean on that strangled metaphor even further, I could feel Luna's magic washing away at my writing even as I finished my signature. But it was enough.

And it all happened in the span of a breath.

"Fifth Brother, stop."

"I—What?" He turned to me, utterly confused. "Mistress?"

Even as those words were escaping between his fangs, Summer lunged at me. And, bless his heart, Cherry Tomato hurled himself into her side. Had she stood on the ground, Cherry would have probably been little match for a living Summer's superior size and muscle mass, even earth pony to pegasus, to say nothing of the undead strength granted by Luna's arcana. But in the air, physics gives the wonderful quality of not providing nearly so much friction with which to push back, and Summer clattered to my side on the floor (though not without beating me across the face with a leathery wing—a feeling I was very grateful not to feel personally thanks to my possession of my own body).

"Release the window; let her go," I ordered Fifth Brother, and without even seeming to think, the dead unicorn's horn complied.

Metamorphosis shouted "Thank you," to me and then released her bubble and leapt out into Everfree City. Summer struggled to rise from her entanglement with Cherry, but even without much resistance on the colt's part, it took enough time for her to rise without hurting him (and to her credit, Summer did at least seem to care about not injuring the young stallion) that by the time she found her hooves and wings again, Metamorphosis was no longer in sight.

Only those few seconds later, Fifth Brother shook his head, seeming to gather his thoughts, and he focused a truly hateful gaze on me, fangs bared, horn lit, and eyes leaking a strange purple-green mana in a pattern that I can only roughly estimate by calling it 'fire'. "What did you do?"

I confess, the answer I would probably have given would have gotten me killed. Thankfully, I was rescued from further violence by a looming white figure in the doorway of the schoolhouse.

"Morty…" Celestia said with a sigh, pinching her muzzle with the crook of her wing even as she bent her head to fit her horn into the room. "This had better not have started with an argument about your literacy."

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