• 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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I - VI

The Archmage

I realized about thirty seconds down the road from Spicy’s home that I had only the vaguest of ideas where in Tartarus I was in the streets of the Equestrian capital. Of the weeks I had spent in Everfree City since my arrival, I think I had only been alive, conscious, and healthy enough to walk around for a grand total of three days. In that time, I had visited the ‘haunted’ house of my predecessor (Solemn Vow, Equestrian Baron, failed usurper, and unsurprisingly remorseful ghost, who had boldly offered me tutelage in exchange for rescuing his soul from Tartarus), the Equestrian Palace, Archmage Diadem’s Royal Academy of Magic, and Commander Hurricane’s personal home on the edge of one of the city’s two major rivers, the Coltlumbia. Star Swirl could have been in any of those locations, or none of them; I needed somepony more familiar with Everfree to point me in the right direction.

My first instinct for finding a friendly face and good advice was to seek out Celestia, before I remembered that, as Meadowbrook had told me that morning, she was hundreds of miles away in the Crystal Union. Failing Celestia, I considered that my next best choice was probably Commander Hurricane, a thought I dreaded because frankly, the stallion still terrified me. Growing up amongst the victims of his military success, in a crystal culture that most often referred to the old stallion as ‘The Butcher’, would do that. Even if I had no reservations about the stallion himself, though I didn’t actually know the way to his home, since Everfree City was built on a cross-shaped fork of two rivers. And with the city as large as it was (even in those earliest days), walking all the way along even one bank would take hours I couldn’t afford to waste.

That left fewer options than I cared to admit. To run over a few of the names that came to mind: Luna, Queen Platinum, and Commander Typhoon—who were all most likely in the palace—all thought of me with something between a mild passive-aggressive dislike and outright loathing. My other friends from my journey: Graargh the changeling ‘bear’, my golem Guardian Angel, Hurricane’s granddaughter Blizzard, and Gale’s lazy soldier ‘nephew’ Tempest; were all basically useless for advice even if I had the remotest clue where to find any of them in the city.

At Diadem’s Academy I could probably find the titular mare, though asking her for any kind of advice would likely just end with her digging through her library instead of actually thinking for two seconds. But then, as Star Swirl’s grand-apprentice (Diadem was Clover the Clever’s student), she had just as good a chance of knowing where to find the stallion as the next pony. And since her academy was obviously visible on the skyline, it was perhaps the ideal destination.

Perhaps I could even find food there.

The walk was, thankfully and mercifully, short. It might have been called luck, but there was a practical reason I quickly realized on my trip. To summarize from a philosophical bird’s eye view, part of the southwestern side of Everfree City was home to an unofficial district filled with elaborate iron streetlamps and narrow streets paved with rounded blue-gray bricks. Called Lighten Heights by its native unicorns, and Horntown (pronounced ‘horn-ton’) by the other two races, the area was a home for numerous alchemists, hedge mages, and working-class enchanters who lit the magical streetlights which colored the streets with arcane lamp light and the glow of luminescent liquids. I’m not sure whether their presence was due to the Royal Academy, or whether Diadem built the academy to be conveniently close to the families of magically inclined unicorns. Either way, professional bleed-over between working mages and alchemists is common all across Equestria (and even in other magical races; the elk don’t even have words to distinguish the two disciplines), and so Horntown was also home to the Equestrian Alchemists’ Guild’s guildhouse. Since the House of Three basically was the Alchemist’s guild, that their home would be nearby is likewise not much of a surprise.

I knew none of the names in question as I made my way to the Royal Academy, but the tall, skinny painted wood storefronts of unicorn architecture were the beginnings of a hint to that idea. Once I got close enough to a few of the buildings to see bubbling, colorful potions and gleaming gemstones set into otherwise everyday objects, though I couldn’t read any of the storefronts’ signs, the conclusion was obvious. Even my rather formal mage’s robe blended in on the streets of Lighten Heights, where few ponies went naked and most wore some form of robe or jacket. I received a few friendly waves I would never have dreamt of receiving in more noble districts like the Ridge where High Castle lived, and I found myself smiling a bit as my mind wandered, imagining how any of the items in the storefront windows might be improved by a real, formally trained wizard into something worthy of royalty.

That joy vanished when Lighten Heights’ storefronts ended at the edge of a wide grassy square. The city block-sized green might have made for a beautiful park, had somepony not decided to ruin it with a show of egregiously traditionalist, hideous architecture. The Royal Academy of Magic was both the iconic symbol and the platonic ideal of the phrase ‘ivory tower’; it was almost as if its architect had wanted to gift anypony criticizing its philosophy of academic, impractical magic with twenty thousand tons of whitewashed visual metaphor. In addition to my detest toward what the structure stood for philosophically, on shaky legs I got the additional benefit of being in considerable physical pain as I finally climbed the stairs that spiraled around the exterior of the building to the entrance halfway up its side, panting as I pressed my way in more with my body weight than the strength of my foreleg.

I didn’t actually know my way around terribly well inside the academy; I’d only been in the entrance hallway there, in one single library, and up the stairs to a large auditorium at the top. Not only that, but on my first entrance I had been teleported inside by Lady Luna, and on my second visit, a pegasus carriage deposited me at an external door near the top. Now there were hallways and doors and clear Equiish labels identifying the rooms of the structure, but no pictures for an illiterate like myself. Thankfully, a few scattered ponies in the halls and the murmuring of a dozen lecturing voices, accompanied by the scratching of hundreds of quills, told me that the building was still well populated with ponies I could ask for directions.

Amusingly, I didn’t need to. “Hey!” The voice that called to me belonged to a filly of twelve or thirteen, who grinned and rushed over. “Hey, mister; I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you new to the academy?”

I took a moment to look down to my hooves and back up my chest as far as my neck would allow, saturating the motion with incredulity, before I replied “Do I look like I’m new here?”

Some ponies, however, weaponize social ignorance. “Oh, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Sure, most first years are ten or eleven, but any unicorn with an open mind is welcome at the Royal College! That’s what headmare Diadem says, anyway. You’re a little late for your class, but that’s ok. I’ll help.”

I raised a brow at the audaciously helpful little filly. “Doesn’t that make you a little late too?”

The filly chuckled with all the innocence and situational awareness of a mossy rock. “Nope, it makes me very early. I’m a second year, and second year classes start in the big auditorium after the first years are done. I can sit with you, though, and catch you up on what you missed. We’ll just have to be quiet and sit in the back. That’s where most of the good seats are anyway. I’m Exuberance, by the way, mister!”

“Morty,” I replied, shaking her hoof and trying to figure out how to fit in edgewise that I wasn’t interested in sitting through an introductory lecture to magic for a mass audience. Alas, the only thing my brain could provide to question was the strangest of details from her final string of thoughts. “The good seats are in the back? Wouldn’t you want to sit in the front?”

We have to whisper now, since we’re close to the lecture hall” Exuberance replied in a forced stage-whisper as she led me towards a stairway with which I was already familiar—it led to the large auditorium at the top of the tower where I had, not too many days prior, passed away. “Some bad wizard named Wintershimmer, who I think used to be friends with Master Star Swirl, when they were both students—can you imagine that? Master Star Swirl, our age? (as though Exuberance and I were remotely similar in age)—anyway, this Wintershimmer pony tried to kill Lady Celestia. Can you believe that? But Headmare Diadem and Master Star Swirl teamed up with one of the students from Wintershimmer’s school, named Mortal Coil, and they all beat him together. They broke a lot of the benches in the room, though.”

“Actually, I’m—”

Shh,” Exuberance interrupted me, holding a hoof in front of her lips as a surge of magic from her horn pushed open the doors to the auditorium.

Of course, I had no idea what I would be walking in on in any given room, but my guess was that as the biggest lecture hall in the academy, if I made my way up to the huge circular room where I had only a few weeks prior died fighting my late mentor, I would find one of the Archmagi who called the structure home. That meant more walking for my tired legs, but it wasn’t much farther before I reached the doors to the room in question. Sure enough, a lecture was ongoing in the room, audible through the doors. I eased them open as gingerly as I could manage, hoping not to gather much attention.

The first thing that caught my eye was how incomplete repairs to the room were. Wintershimmer, Silhouette, Solemn Vow, Luna, Graargh, and I had done a number on the room; that much was true. Whole rows of pews and benches and desks had been cut in half, and huge gouges had been taken out of the wooden steps that created a raised stadium or amphitheatre-style seating area. Several of the benches had apparently been bolted together roughly with scrap materials as a short term fix, given how awkwardly their broken edges were joined. Even more awkwardly, the hole I had smashed in the ceiling during our battle was still all-but gaping overhead; the only thing keeping the room from the direct sunlight of the Equestrian summer was a large tarp that had, at its corners, been nailed into the beams of the still intact roof surrounding the hole.

Missing (thankfully) from my last visit to the room was the open hole in reality where the Summer Lands, the afterlife for good little fillies and colts, had been torn open atop the dais in the center of the room. In its place were a lecturer’s podium overflowing with scrolls full of notes, and behind it, three huge green chalkboards. Beside this podium, but ahead of the chalkboards, a stout wooden table supported a number of trivial magical supplies and one large smooth and rather familiar stone. I did note with some amusement that, off to the side of the platform, a huge blob of half-blackened candle wax was still stuck to the floor where Luna’s candlecorn simulacrum and Wintershimmer’s spare body had violently merged together. I did not envy the janitor who would have to scrape that up; it might have had just enough magic left to develop sentience and fight back.

I might have kept surveying the room had the lecturer not shouted at me from over his own shoulder, keeping his eyes locked on the chalkboards where he was inscriping some sort of sigil theory or other—unlike Equiish, something I absolutely could read, were I closer to the boards in question. “If you are going to be so tardy, student, why bother showing up at all? Please be seated and shut the door, at least, so that I can focus on students who want to learn.”

“I’m sorry, Master Grayscale; I think he just got lost,” Exuberance called back over the heads of about three hundred unicorns more or less her age. “We’ll just sit in the back here, and—”

“Wait… Master Coil?” The voice that shouted across the room was tinny, artificial, and geological—fitting, since it issued from the stone resting on the table at the front of the class. About half the class seemed stunned at a voice coming from a rock; the other half turned over their shoulders to get a good look at me.

The lecturer’s chalk very firmly landed in the wooden drawer beneath the chalkboard, and he took a moment to adjust the eyeglasses resting on his dull gray muzzle before he turned to look at me. “Oh. You.” Then he removed his glasses entirely and massaged the bridge of his muzzle. “Well, now that you’ve thoroughly ruined the students’ attention, we may as well make a learning opportunity of this. Exuberance, please go fetch the Headmare. For the rest of you students, may I introduce Mortal Coil.”

Exuberance had been halfway turned around to go get Diadem when she stopped and looked up at me in awe. “Wait, you’re—why didn’t you say anything?”

I shot her a silent grin and a wink, which I suspect might have damaged the filly’s mind, given how much she was giggling as she fled. As the auditorium doors swung behind me, I lifted a forehoof, slowly swept it across my torso, and issued a bow to the class. “Coil the Immortal, the Pale Master, at your service.” Then I nodded to the other adult in the room. “I’m afraid I haven’t made your acquaintance, sir. And do you know where I can find Star Swirl?”

“Archmage Grayscale,” the lecturer replied tersely. “Archmage Star Swirl isn’t actually faculty here, Coil, but as a matter of fact he is present teaching a seminar on advanced transmutation. I’ll be glad to direct you to him once the lecture is over, but I would advise against so rudely interrupting his teaching; I have never been known to transmute a tardy student for the duration of a lecture.”

“…Stars, I just opened the door.” I then set my way toward the front of the class, where my pet rock was still laying on the table. “Angel, it’s great to see you, but what are you doing here? Where are your rings?”

Guardian Angel, for those who haven’t read my prior work, was at the time my greatest creation: a Ouijan ‘learning golem’. To summarize, that means that unlike most golems which blindly follow orders literally, Angel had what was for all intents and purposes a real soul. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it at eighteen, one wouldn’t have been remiss to call him my ‘son’. And though he was quite literally a large rock, he most often hovered in the air, surrounded by a pair of enchanted golden rings—we sometimes called them ‘halos’ in keeping with his name—which allowed him to more-or-less fly, as well as to store up excess magical energy I could use in the event of an emergency.

“Just off to the side of the table, sir. Archmage Grayscale was giving the students a lecture on the magical applications of gemstones, and my rings are a bit of an interesting practical example, between the static hovering enchantments and the mana storing functions. So I took the liberty of volunteering my services. It’s… a bit more entertaining than hovering over Archmage Diadem’s shoulder in her office while waiting for you to wake up. For the record, sir, I’m glad to see you up and about as well. But I’m afraid you may want to address some questions from the masses before we catch up further.”

Angel’s note alluded to the number of hooves raised in the classroom, attached to ponies whose eyes were locked on me as I approached the front of the room. With a chuckle at their curiosity, I gestured to one pony at random.

“So you’re really the pony who broke the whole room and fought Winter Shimmer?” The colt didn’t seem so incredulous as just curious, given how wide his eyes seemed.

“Wintershimmer was one word,” I corrected. “But yes. In my defense, he was the one throwing most of the spells that actually cut the benches in half. Though I think the hole in the roof is my fault…” I awkwardly let a hoof scratch at the back of my neck to admit some sense of embarrassment, though the unusual chill of the hard flesh I found there made my hoof leave quickly. “Uh, you there, filly.”

“You said you were ‘the pale master’. What’s a ‘pale master’?”

“Well, have you ever heard Star Swirl be called the ‘emerald master’ before?” The filly shook her head. “Anypony?”

Archmage Grayscale sighed nearby at the question and spoke to me at a volume the audience had no chance of hearing. “Magical history is an elective for higher year students, Coil. Students this age don’t need to be worried about egos and titles before they know their cantrips. We start them on basic theory first, and then—”

“You there,” I interrupted quite loudly (and with a bit of joy I couldn’t quite hide) when one pony near the rear of the class raised a hoof. “Do you know what it means to say Star Swirl is the ‘emerald master’?”

“Well,” said the filly hesitantly. “Um, I read that Master Star Swirl was the emerald master ‘cause he’s the best transmuter in the world.”

I nodded. “Correct. Excellent. It seems you know more than your teacher gives you credit for.” Even if I hadn’t drawn glee from the irate glare Grayscale shot me, the beaming of the proud student would have been worth it. “Yes, transmutation is called the ‘emerald school’ of magic. Thus, being the best transmuter alive makes Star Swirl the ‘emerald master’.”

“Ooh, I know that!” another student shouted without being called on. “Then… wait, what’s the pale school?”

“Necromancy,” I replied, not thinking it a very controversial revelation. Whispers spread immediately through the class, correcting my mistaken assumption almost instantly. “With the arguable exception of Luna, who doesn’t count for any of the other schools anyway, I’m the best necromancer in the world. You’ve all practiced necromancy, right?”

Before any of the foals could answer, I got an earful from the adult standing beside me on the stage. “Are you insane!?” Grayscale snapped, this time fully loud enough to be heard by the class. “They’re first year students, Coil. You’re going to risk letting them disperse some poor soul learning to séance when they don’t even know how to draw a stabilizing glyph yet?”

I could feel my brow twitching as I turned to Grayscale. “Well, not unsupervised. But if you have that little faith in them, are you really expecting any of them to ever amount to anything as wizards? I made him—” I gestured toward Angel, still lying on the table, “—when I was younger than any of them. Wintershimmer taught me to séance when I was four, and by the time I was six, I could séance Archmage Comet without him.”

One particularly enthusiastic student in the front row of the lecture hall waved her hoof back and forth at that point, and after taking a short breath to keep from releasing my irritation at the school’s teaching methods on some poor foal who had no idea that there were other options in the world, I nodded in her direction.

“How old are first year students at Wintershimmer’s school, if you were only four when you started?”

“Ah. Wintershimmer didn’t have a school; in fact, wizards traditionally don’t learn in schools. I was Wintershimmer’s apprentice; if you don’t know that word, it means I learned from him one-on-one. I was his only student… at least, at the time. And I actually started learning from him when I was three. He gathered up all the unicorn foals in the Crystal Union and gave us a test to see who would get to be his apprentice.”

“That isn’t to say you should idolize Master Coil’s education,” Angel cut in with his piercing artificial voice. “Wintershimmer was not, perhaps, the best role model one could ask for.”

The questions went on like that for some time, pinging off the curiosity of the foals, until one of the foals asked “Why do you get to fight with your magic? We’re not supposed to hurt anypony with our magic.” Before I could answer, a commanding but gentle voice from the top of the auditorium stairs stole my momentum.

“Morty was defending himself,” Archmage Diadem answered in a commanding but gentle voice, perfectly suited for addressing a preteen foal. “And furthermore, he was in a very particular situation. One which I doubt will ever occur again. I don’t think any of you will have to worry about a rogue wizard like that in your lifetimes.”

For those who don’t have the misfortune of having known Celestia’s least interesting choice in apprentice, Diadem the Mentor (you may be familiar with her epithet being ‘the Enkindler’, but it was bestowed posthumously) was a mare in her late twenties or early thirties. She wore her teal mane in a shelf of bangs cut straight across her forehead, while behind her head she wore them tied up in a firm bun. The color blended well with a muted aquamarine coat, or at least as much as could be seen under her clothes. Oval glasses were perpetually perched on the very tip of her muzzle, seemingly on the verge of falling off at any moment, but obviously affixed by magic, given how quickly she could move her head or neck without losing them. In addition to her glasses, she accessorized with her namesake, a silver tiara with delusions of grandeur, set with six large aquamarines, resting just behind the bump of mane that formed her bangs. Over her whole body she wore wizards robes, whose baggy sleeves would surely have interfered with her if she needed to run, or even jog, anywhere at all. At least for her sake, unlike Star Swirl, the fabric was a relatively plain emerald green and devoid of bells or accoutrements.

I have the utmost admiration for Star Swirl, but I will never understand the stallion’s choice to drive himself frothingly mad by accompanying his every step with that constant jingling.

Diadem gave a quick glance down to Exuberance, who was practically clinging to the elder mare’s robe hem, and gestured for her to take a seat on most of a bench. Then the senior wizard nodded to me. “Morty, it’s good to see you up and about, and under better circumstances. I think this is the first time we’ve gotten to talk where your life was not literally on the line?”

“That sounds right,” I agreed. “I’m glad actually dying settled that.” At least six hooves shot up, and I sighed. “Right… I’m sorry I said anything. Until you know more about necromancy, students, I don’t think you’d understand that lesson. And I suspect Luna would kill me herself if I taught a bunch of foals to cast Wintershimmer’s Razor.”

As that ominous name sent a fresh wave of whispers through the class, Grayscale raised a brow and took a step away from me. “You know his spell?”

“How do you think I beat Clover?”

Grayscale looked like I had rammed a tin whistle down his throat—that is, in addition to looking shocked and short-of-breath, he was also extremely confused, and further making a slight squeaking noise when he tried and failed to breathe. “You fought Archmage Clover?”

“Clover is fine,” Diadem clarified to her student, offering him a warm comforting smile. “I’m certain knowing how to stop ‘the Razor’ was also very valuable to actually facing down Wintershimmer.”

“If I didn’t, it would have been a very short duel. And it would have ended very differently. For one thing, you’d have all of your benches in working order.” Then I offered Diadem a bitterly sarcastic wink. “But I can’t promise the sun would have come up this morning.”

Grayscale finally found his full voice after that. “I will grant that it was a dirty job that needed to be done, Coil. But if you’re expecting me to lift you up as the pinnacle of magical practice in front of young impressionable minds over an act of violence, instead of using your magic constructively, you are sorely mistaken.”

Leaping to my aid, Angel called out from his place prone on the display table. “Master Coil can be quite constructive when his life isn’t on the line, for the record.”

I, however, had a different perspective to the golem. “Acts of violence are the point of having wizards, Grayscale.” That claim, which I had thought was not especially controversial, elicited a wave of gasps from the students listening. “Certainly having to kill a power-mad archmage is an unusual task even for me, but the world will always have monsters and spirits.”

Grayscale scoffed. “And now ‘the world’ has a legion of soldiers and two living goddesses to address those problems, and unicorn magical education can be put toward positive ends. We need not be the barbarians of history anymore, Coil.”

“I see you two are getting on well,” Diadem observed wryly as her hooves—impeded as they were by the oversized robe of a wizard without a sense of taste—clicked on the steps up to the podium. “I think you both have very valid points to be made about the applications of magic, but I’m afraid they’re a little bit too philosophical for our class of first year students.” Then she coughed heavily into her hoof. “And I certainly can’t imagine the lesson it would convey if two esteemed senior mages stood arguing like foals and setting a bad example in front of so many impressionable young minds.”

Grayscale bit his cheek and briefly found his eyes locked firmly on the boards underhoof. “My apologies, Coil.”

“It’s fine,” I replied with a shrug.

Diadem nodded sagely, though I caught a bit of a judgemental edge out of the corner of her eye—likely the most condemnation she could show without it being noticed by the students—but before continuing to speak to us she turned to the class. “Alright, everypony; it might have been a surprise, but let’s give Mr. Coil a hoof for sharing his time with us and answering our questions.”

What I got in reply to that address was a fairly tame round of applause that I had no earthly idea whatsoever how to react to. As the noise of young hooves died down, Diadem’s voice picked up again. “I’ll arrange a time for him to give a lecture and teach us all some very different magic in the future, but for now that’s all the time we have. Remember to practice your cantrips; Archmage Grayscale’s test schedule will not be moving. And remember, in magic, like in life…” The final five words were delivered in a rhythmic, sing-song tone that would have obviously prompted some sort of reply even if the teacher had called it out in an empty cave.

In the presence of so many foals, however, she got back a cacophonous failed attempt at harmony. “Differences make us better.”

I quirked a brow in Diadem’s direction as the students shuffled out of the room. “Is that supposed to be some sort of political creed?”

“Oh, it’s just something cute Clover told me once, years ago. A while ago, I noticed some of the older students acting a bit… superior… to a couple of the pegasi I was paying to help paint the walls of the tower. I’m hoping if I end lessons with that, we’ll nip that problem in the bud with the younger students.” She gave me a gentle smile. “Not that you aren’t welcome anytime you want to come listen in on a lesson, Morty, but I suspect that isn’t what brought you here. Certainly not with the first year students, at any rate. Is there something we can help you with?”

“Something with Master Star Swirl,” Grayscale observed.

“Of course you aren’t here to collect me,” Angel muttered in complaint. “Well, let’s hear it, Master Coil.”

I had to double take at Angel when his biting sarcasm hit my ears. Angel was a learning golem, a recreation of the thesis research of the ancient necromancer Ouija, and up until the latter half of my most recent ‘adventure’ (a word which here means ‘procession of elaborate attempts on my life’), he hadn’t learned enough about the concept of emotions to understand sarcasm if I sent it his direction.

That made Angel probably the foremost work of enchantment in Everfree City at the time, and thus explained his presence in the classroom. Still, I was used to thinking of the golem as little more than a floating yes-mare.

In case I have not made this abundantly obvious in my writing, I hold a much higher opinion of Star Swirl the Bearded (his lacking fashion sense and hygiene notwithstanding) than I do of Diadem; nevertheless, cornered as I was by the two teachers, I didn’t feel strongly enough to keep my opinions close to my chest. “Gale’s birthday is coming up, and I’m told it’s customary to give a gift.”

“You’re ‘told’ it’s ‘customary to give a gift?’” Grayscale asked, brow raised to the point of joining it with his maneline.

Diadem frowned for a moment in thought, and then donned a sympathetic smile. “I take it Wintershimmer didn’t believe in celebrating birthdays?”

“Not especially, no. At his age, I can imagine he might have been happier not thinking about them.”

“Ah, I see.” Grayscale nodded slowly, turning his horn to cleaning up his teaching tools as we spoke. “I hadn’t considered how odd your upbringing must have been in the Crystal Union.” Then the wizard frowned. “How do you know Her Highness? And why do you call her by her pegasus name?”

“Well, that’s what she told me to call her,” I answered as flatly as I could. “Judging by how angry she got at me when I found out who she really was, I’m honestly surprised you’re brave enough not to.”

Diadem suppressed a knowing chuckle. “Morty met Her Highness when she last ran away a few months ago. I believe she may have even had a hoof in defeating Wintershimmer.”

“More or less the decisive hoof, if I’m being completely honest.” I nodded. “I should thank you for teaching her to teleport, by the way, Diadem. But regarding getting her a gift: Mage Meadowbrook may have cleared me to stand, but my horn isn’t healed yet. And without my magic, I don’t have a fantastic plan for how to make her a gift… or even what a suitable gift would be. I thought since Archmage Star Swirl’s enchantment work on my jacket was so effective—”

“You got Master Star Swirl to enchant that thing?” Grayscale asked over his shoulder.

I sucked down a deep breath as I felt a vein in my brow twitch. “My jacket tells you that I am the Grandmaster of the Order of Unhesitating Force, and unlike more academic robes, I can actually run in it without tripping. But please, do go on about the superiority of your pajamas.”

Grayscale made a bit of a show of turning fully away from the chalkboards to face me—either that, or the difficulty of turning casually proved my point about our apparel before he had even answered. “Well, for starters, my robes don’t make me look like I belong to a cult that sacrifices foals in the woods at midnight.”

“That’s what I fucking said!”

As a trio, all three of us mages on the stage turned to look at the doors into the auditorium. There, Princess Platinum III in all her glory was struggling to make headway against a tide of foals who had been making their way out into the hall. I use the past tense here because, in addition to painting both Diadem and Grayscale’s faces a variety of interesting colors, Gale’s colorful shout had also managed to halt the progress of the foals around her.

“Miss, what does f—”

Your Highness!” Diadem nearly shouted, her eyebrow twitching behind her glasses. “How nice of you to join us. And make your presence known. In a roomful of first-year students.” Though those three sentences were spoken at a much calmer volume than Diadem’s first greeting, their staccato delivery and occasional jump in pitch suggested that some part of the school’s headmistress’ sanity was fraying.

Then again, I have never met a truly sane school administrator, and I suspect I never shall. Some occupations inevitably attract the unhinged.

“Hi, Diadem.” Gale tried to take a step forward, frowned when she realized that the step would have put her hoof down on Exuberance’s face. She rolled her eyes, lit her horn, and appeared on the increasingly crowded podium with the rest of us adults with a mild pop and the scent of ozone. “Morty, how the hell did you know this was where I was headed next?”

“A wizard never reveals his secrets,” I replied with a small smile, since the real answer was ‘dumb luck’.

“Please tell me you didn’t spy into the future as a parlour trick,” Grayscale begged with an expression that seemed to stretch out his muzzle into a presumption of disappointment.

“Nothing so dangerous.” Then I slowly turned to Gale as, my response done, my mind caught up with what she had initially said. “Wait… him?” I asked, pointing at Grayscale.

Gale responded not with words, but by handing the irascible academic an envelope in the glow of her magic.

Grayscale chuckled as he beheld the envelope, not even bothering to open it in front of us. “Oh, didn’t you know, Coil? Yes, I’m one of her Highness’ suitors.”

I glanced at Gale with a raised brow. “If he’s allowed just for being a wizard, why was Chrysoprase so obsessed with bloodline?”

Gale sighed, but she answered by addressing Grayscale. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Grayscale, but Star Swirl is your great uncle?”

“Two ‘greats’, actually. He’s almost a hundred years old, your highness. To answer what I assume Coil’s question is building to, Archmage Star Swirl is the head of one of the great noble lineages, the House of Zodiac. Archmage Clover, my second-cousin-once-removed, is next in line as the actual head of the house, but as a senior mage closest to Your Highness’ age and of the appropriate sex, I was put forward.”

“Are all the wizards in Equestria related? Do you have some sort of—”. I took a moment of self-awareness to glance over my shoulder and check for any foals remaining before continuing “—recurring wizard orgy going on?”

Diadem blanched. “Morty!

“Oh, of course,” Grayscale deadpanned with a glare. “We take turns lecturing out of the Libris Amoris, and take copious notes on staff enchantment. It’s exhilarating.” Gale had to muffle a chuckle at the bitter sarcasm, which prompted the insufferable stallion to shoot her a wink. Then he turned his attention to me. “Nopony is going to think the implication of incest you were building towards is funny, Coil. It’s disgusting. Our family has a lot of wizards because given the choice between taking a relative or a stranger as an apprentice, most ponies choose the former; it’s an artifact of selection bias, nothing more. And even that will fade away quickly now that our education of new mages isn’t shackled by the apprenticeship system. If you have any more sophomoric barbs, you would be better off sharing them with the students. Perhaps you could even learn something about the value of peacefully applied magic from them.”

“Kindness, Grayscale,” Diadem chided gently. “We need to remember, Morty comes from a very different upbringing than we’re used to.”

Grayscale resisted the urge to roll his eyes, though by the way they dodged from matching Diadem’s gaze, it was obvious that’s what he wanted to do. “Of course, Master. Your Highness, I’d be glad to attend your party.” And then he asked the seemingly inevitable but dreaded question. “Is there anything in particular a wizard could gift you?” He chuckled. “If you truly enjoyed learning to teleport from Master Diadem, I would be glad to offer you a lesson or three.”

“Sure,” Gale answered. “You know any spells that will let me spar with this asshole?” She gestured her horn in my direction.

Grayscale swallowed nervously and adjusted his collar with his magic. “Your Highness… Um... like Archmage Star Swirl, I am a pacifist. I know a few dueling spells for academic purposes and theory, but I would certainly never use anything more than a stunning charm on another living being. And I can hardly best the pre-eminent duelist of our generation.”

“I can teach you anything you want,” I offered her, seeing my chance to figure out a gift of my own.

“One,” Gale countered, “No you can’t. You’re a shitty teacher, Morty. Remember the wine glasses thing?”

“How is it my fault I had never seen a ‘normal’ wine glass before?”

“And two, if I wanted to actually spar with you and win, it would feel awfully shitty to have to remember you taught me all the tricks I learned, right?” Gale rolled her eyes before turning toward Grayscale. “But I do have to ask: when I’m Queen, I want to go hunt down the last windigo, so we can finally free River Rock from eternal winter. What good is a pacifist wizard for that?”

“Well, to that purpose, I’ll admit: very little. But in the administration of a government, where secretarial quills could be enchanted to do work without error and crime could be anticipated and prevented, instead of merely punished, I would imagine you would find…”

Grayscale’s words trailed off as Gale yawned; to this day, I don’t know if the motion was a forced show or a genuine tiredness on her part. “Do you do anything interesting, Grayscale?”

“I…” Nervously, Grayscale looked to his mentor, Diadem, for support; her shrug was obviously not what he was looking for. “To be completely honest, Your Highness, I’ve always been more concerned for whether or not my research is practical, not whether or not it is interesting. Interesting does not light our streets, it does not put food in ponies mouths, and it does not save lives. Practical magic does all of those things.”

Gale sighed. “And how is fixing River Rock not practical? Because from where I’m standing, this asshole I found at random in a tavern in the middle of nowhere—” In case it isn’t obvious, the future queen was referring to me. “—can do all the shit you can do, making quills talk and seeing the future or whatever, and he can also go kill a monster or an evil wizard if there’s a problem.” Then she grinned, the evil grin of a deliberately difficult (if not outright impossible) birthday wish. “In fact, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want a court mage like Morty. Figure out a gift that shows me you can come through if things go sideways for Equestria.”

“I…” Grayscale swallowed as he tried to find resolve somewhere in his throat. “Your Highness, I accept your challenge, so long as I have your word that if my solution does not involve grandiose flashes of light and the shedding of blood, you’ll still accept it for its practical value.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” Gale answered, a smirk still on her face.

Diadem glanced nervously at her student. “Grayscale, perhaps we should talk over lunch. Until then… Morty, Gale, if you’ll both forgive me, I do have a lecture to teach in a few moments.” Diadem lit her horn and vanished with a whiff of ozone and a crackling pop. Only a moment later, however, she reappeared. “Oh, right; Morty, if you’ll humor me in the future, I’d be more than happy to have you give a guest lecture or two on necromancy—especially golem-making. Angel is frankly fascinating, and since Wintershimmer had the only copies of Ouija’s work, I think you’re the only pony who currently has any idea how to create such an animus. I’d hate for the knowledge to be lost. If you’re ever interested, I’d be likewise happy if you wanted to sit in on some of the seventh-year classes; I have no idea how proficient you are in transmutation or illusion, but Star Swirl and Mistmane do occasionally offer some fascinating seminars on their respective subjects.”

“I…” My gut reaction to snap to a refusal, in deference to my skepticism of learning any kind of magic in a classroom, foundered when my mind caught up to what was being proposed. Mistmane the Beautiful was no mere footnote in the annals of illusion, and as I had mentioned to the students at the beginning of my discussion, it would be patently idiotic of me to turn down a lesson in transmutation magic from Star Swirl the Bearded, considered the greatest master of that school in all of equine history, living or dead. “I’ll have to find some time.”

“Excellent.” Diadem genuinely smiled; at the time I cynically thought of it as a reflection of her desire to enhance her school’s reputation by calling me a student, though I now can say in better faith of her character that she was just that passionate about education.

“Well,” Gale sighed. “See you tomorrow, Grayscale.”

“Farewell, Princess. Coil.” Grayscale nodded, and then likewise teleported away.

With the room mostly emptied, Gale grabbed my shoulder. “Come on, Morty. Next are the Rains.”

“One second, Gale. Could you lend me your horn?” After she gave me a brief nod, I made my way over to Angel and held his rock like a particularly low budget rendition of Shake Spear’s Piglet. “Lift up his halos with your horn, and you should feel them sort of ‘snap’ into place.”

“Ah; thank you Master Coil,” the rock in question voiced as Gale helped grant him his flight. “And thank you Mistress Gale.”

“I told you, don’t call me Mistress, rock,” Gale growled.

Though Angel had no nostrils and no breath, he still managed to emit a noise that was a decent approximation of a huff. “Shall I accompany you today, Master Coil?”

“No, Angel.” I shook my head, and slipped into a whisper. “You don’t want to be around these ponies. I’m only putting up with them to help Gale.”

“I see,” Angel replied with a similarly quiet voice. “In that case, shall I simply stay here and assist at the college?”

“Do what you want,” I told him. “I thought we had already settled that you had real free will, Angel.”

“Ah…” The golem seemed to hesitate, at least as much as body language can when the body in question is a mostly round stone. “I… suppose I don’t know what I want.”

I shrugged, and though it might be incredibly wise in retrospect, my response was delivered mostly full of teenaged sarcasm. “Welcome to ‘life’, Angel.” Then I nodded to the doors. “If you don’t want to hover around here, you could go find Graargh and Blizzard.”

“They’re staying with my dad,” Gale added.

Angel did a little spin in midair—his way of showing happiness. “Ah, our friends. That does sound like a welcome reprieve. I shall be off.”

Angel could move quite quickly; quickly enough in fact that he was already through the doors and out of the lecture hall before I could ask the next question on my mind.

It was clearly on Gale’s mind as well, since she asked me “Does he know the way?”

I shrugged. “He has a sort of magical compass that points to me, so he can’t get that lost. Now, where did you say we were headed?”

Though I tried to sound as chipper as possible, the facts that I hadn’t found Star Swirl, nor lunch, still ate away at the backs of my mind and stomach respectively.

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