• 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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A Tale From Dream Valley

I want you, reader, to understand something important before you continue reading. What you are about to read is the first of what I am inclined to call a 'danger chapter'. By this term, I don't mean that the story you are about to read is internally magically dangerous to you (such knowledge does exist, in such works as The Princess in Yellow, but that is another Tale). Rather, the danger is this: even with the trust that I or Celestia or whoever has given you to even hold or read this book, misusing the knowledge you are about to gain will earn you my personal attention, and I suspect Celestia's as well, in very much the same sense that Wintershimmer had our shared attention, or that Queen Chrysalis shortly would.

While I told you in a past chapter that the candlecorns wearing my identity would cease their masquerade if they left the Mausoleum, the same restriction also applied to my physical body (because, as Diadem had inferred, which body was 'real' was largely immaterial to the effect). Thus, after I ensured Metamorphosis was 'at home' in her room (and discreetly informed Cherry what had come to pass, and that he had my blessing to turn to Diadem if anything untoward happened) I took my leave of Gale and the other suitors, set the two candlecorns in some side room nopony was likely to peek into, and set out for the Royal Palace, and Celestia's Solarium.

Much as was usual in those days, I found Celestia surrounded by lesser nobleponies and religious zealots trying to earn her favor or her blessing or even just her attention, and stubbornly refusing to take "I am not a god" for an answer. Fortunately, having (however briefly) killed Lord Halo in open court meant that I had a reputation amongst these ponies in particular, and their ostentatious white and gold parted before my black and red like a mythical sea of blood.

"Celestia," I greeted her back, seated as she was to look pointedly away from the masses—given how much she obviously hated the attention, I still didn't fully understand why she put up with them. Regardless, greeting her by her given name without a title (the audacity!) earned me gasps and glares of derision from those present.

"Morty?!" Celestia's ears leapt up on her head and her crestfallen shoulders rose once more into her usual posture. "What brings you here? Not that you aren't welcome, of course; I just thought you were hosting a party today."

"Something came up." I glanced around. "A subject you've generally wanted to keep between you, me, and Graargh."

"Ah. Is there something wrong with him?"

"No, no. Not Graargh. Just following up on a different acquaintance from the school. One I hadn't expected to see again, if you take my meaning."

Celestia's head fully swiveled around (almost like an owl; the fact she took advantage of the full borderline unnatural physique of her magical form and broke the illusion of constant grace that pervaded her movements was perhaps the most telling sign she took my words with shock, even moreso than the widening of her visible eye or the pinching up of her wings on her shoulders).

"Do we need to rescue somepony?"

"No, no," I tried to wave a hoof to placate her worries. "I came because I needed more information from you. But this time, instead of anatomy and physiology, I wanted to talk about politics. Maybe history?"

"Oh." Celestia's expression fell; you'd be forgiven for thinking she had been itching for a fight, which I briefly considered myself at the time. But having now known her for most of a millennium, I recognize the expression she wore was the rarest of all for the nigh-immortal alicorn: shame. "Come here," she told me, quietly, and she raised a wing to offer me a place to sit directly beside her. When I indulged her, she wrapped her warm, strong feathers over my shoulder and then lit her horn.

The lurch of teleportation had long since stopped making me feel ill, or even unsettled, but the sudden thinning of the air did disrupt my constitution momentarily. I sucked in a deep breath, and found my lungs rebelling at the chill. "Ah!" The other disorientating factor was that, though Celestia had teleported us while we were both sitting, her aim wasn't quite good enough to put our hindquarters back onto smooth ground, and so whilst I fell a solid foot and a half onto my tail, she gracefully (and purely magically, without use of her wings) descended to land standing on her hooves.

"Oh, I'm sorry; I should have warned you. I know I'm not the steadiest teleporter."

"The teleport—" I paused to suck in a breath. "—was fine. Just the air. Where are we?"

Even as I asked the question, I took a look around. We were on a mountaintop somewhere; that much was obvious even just from the thin air, to say nothing of the yawning maw of a cavern stretching into gray stone before us. I did take note that we were below the mountain's snowcap, but only just; had we climbed a (quite sheer) cliff some forty feet, we would have begun to see the first bits of frost still surviving the summer sun.

Celestia did not answer my question aloud. Instead, she directed me backwards with a wing. When I turned, I beheld a decently sized flat platform of rock (the same one above which we had appeared) that ended in a more-or-less sheer stone cliff. Off to my left, a series of small pools babbled and bubbled and steamed—an obvious natural hot spring.

Beyond the cliff, the mountain looked down on the X-crossing rivers of Everfree City and the miles and miles of fields and small villages that stretched out from the Equestrian capital in all directions. The city looked so small from this high up and this far, yet it also had such a vibrancy to it—looking back, I am struck by the majesty and the perspective afforded by such a view.

My younger self let out a gasp and remarked on something very different. "You teleported us sixty miles?"

"I don't intend to brag, Morty, but it's actually a fair bit farther than that. It's just brute force, I'm afraid, not something I can teach you."

"Where are we?"

"The Mountain of Dawn. But more specifically, for a long time, this was my home." That comment was accompanied by a tweak of Celestia's horn toward the cavern mouth now behind me. "For a long time, I erased the memory of anypony who came up here."

"You can erase memories?"

Celestia chuckled. "Morty, sometimes talking to you makes it very hard not to come off bragging. I dabble in a lot of kinds of magic. I find it fascinating to explore and learn. Sometimes, it proves to be useful as well. Such as keeping ponies from swarming you, calling you a goddess and demanding your blessing."

"So why do you put up with it now? I know you said you tolerate the church, but that doesn't mean you have to entertain them swarming you, does it?"

What followed was the sound of a very long, very beleaguered sigh. "Those… sessions… have been my efforts to rectify the rough edges of 'my' church's dogma into something genuinely beneficial to ponykind. Fixing things like the root cause of your incident with Count Halo. Unfortunately, I'm learning that, short of appearing in glory in a golden sunbeam and dictating truth from authority, it is incredibly hard even for me to persuade the powers that be that they may need to change their interpretation of tradition or canon. Some days, I wonder if they'd reject my requests even if I did make a show of it." Celestia shook her head to cast aside her doubts. "But I didn't bring you here to listen to me complain. I promise it's safe to speak plainly here. One of the changelings came to you?"

"Mrs. Aspirations," I explained. "Or rather, her real name is Metamorphosis. She says she was exiled from 'the Hive' because of what happened, and she needed me to hide her from the Night Guard."

"Ah." Celestia nodded. "And you want my advice?"

"I certainly wouldn't turn it down. But I also want to know more about the changelings—not just the magic and the love like you taught Graargh and I, but their society. Metamorphosis mentioned a queen who seemed like a potential problem a wizard ought to be aware of."

"She is… she isn't a problem for ponykind, but she is a problem for Luna and I. And by extension, possibly for you. She…" Celestia let the words trail off, and her gaze wandered away from me. "Morty, I'm going to trust you and tell you a story. Before I do, though, I have a few rules."

"Okay," I said hesitantly, not because I didn't trust Celestia, but because a wizard has a certain instinct around agreeing to not-yet-specified rules.

"First, don't interrupt me. I'll let you know when we can pause for questions, but this is a…" Celestia let out a small sigh. "This is a hard story for me to tell, and one I'm not proud of. I'll answer whatever questions you might have afterwards. But most importantly, you must never, never tell anypony else. Do I make myself clear?"

"Of course."

"I have your oath?

I raised a brow. "Do you want it in blood? If so, we'll want to use yours. But I don't mind."

Celestia chuckled and shook her head. "I trust you, Morty, or I wouldn't tell you this at all. I just needed to emphasize the point. This isn't 'unless you think it's important' or 'unless you trust the other pony'. You won't repeat this to Gale, you won't repeat this to Graargh, you won't share this with anypony."

I raised a brow. "Um… alright, understood. And I'm flattered. But… have you really not told this story to anypony else?"

Celestia shrugged. "Hurricane knows some of it; and I would trust him with all of it if he asked; I just haven't had reason to. And if I'm being honest, I wouldn't want to burden him with it. The poor stallion's had enough exposure to my past for one lifetime."

I have her blessing to record this story here (because what follows, despite its magnitude, is not yet the most dangerous secret in this tome), but remember my warning above. Her tale proceeded like this:

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

North of River Rock, a way west of Krennotets—that's the big volcano where I understand you met Clover the Clever—there's a place called Dream Valley. Before the windigos, I think there was a unicorn town there, but now it's just as abandoned as the rest of the old Diamond Kingdoms. But when I was a foal a long time ago; give-or-take seven thousand years, there was a village there. My home.

I was born a unicorn filly. No, I wasn't always like this; I used to be able to fit through doorways comfortably. My best friends were another unicorn named Chrysanthemum, and of course Luna, our pegasus friend. And to answer the obvious question, no; we don't have the same parents. But when you've stuck with somepony for seven thousand years, just 'friends' doesn't capture that kind of bond.

Luna and Chrysanthemum and I were troublemakers, I have to admit. It was dangerous even going out past the edge of the village at night. You see, in those days pony society consisted of a few villages at best; we didn't span huge parts of the world or have anything you could call a country, to say nothing of military or guards, or even wizards the way you understand them. What we did have were 'heroes'. And our biggest heroes were my grandmother, Twilight, and Luna's mom Firefly, though there were some others we'll get to.

Before Luna or I were born, Tirek—yes, 'the Centaur' of Tartarus, that Tirek—started foalnapping ponies and transforming them to create an army and bring about eternal night so he could conquer the world.

I… don't actually know how eternal night would help that.

Look, the point is, Morty, my grandmother and Luna's mom and some of their friends defeated Tirek and saved Dream Valley—and probably the world. Actually, you might know about that; have you heard of Midnight Castle? The ruined obsidian castle off the southern coast of the Diamond Kingdoms? That was Tirek's castle, once.

Jump ahead a few decades and the three of us fillies were enamored with those stories. We always used to sneak out of the village and try to go on adventures pretending we'd fight off Tirek. We'd try to get our talent marks being that kind of heroes, and most of the time we'd get ourselves in trouble and Spike or Megan would have to rescue us.

Ah, sorry; Spike is a dragon. And Megan was…

(Here, Celestia struggled for a moment to find words.)

…she was a human friend of ours. And a mentor; she was a good deal older than us. Oh, of course you wouldn't know; a human is a sort of tall, furless monkey. A lot taller than a pony; only just shorter than me now. They used to be very common back then; they had dozens of kingdoms and empires scattered around the world… they're not extinct, but they live in a different world now.

Anyway, on one of these little runaways, we stumbled onto a huge stone plate in the ground with weird carvings on it. Chrysanthemum identified them as magic runes, but she only got as far as reading 'Leave this place or—' before we were attacked by a scorpio. That's a kind of astrological creature like an ursa major, but shaped like a scorpion, and—oh, of course you know. My apologies.

Of course, that made it obvious why we were supposed to leave, so we didn't keep reading, but with how fast its claws were, it was just as obvious we couldn't just run away. Luna might have been able to fly, and Chrysanthemum could teleport enough to get herself away, but I was stuck, and they stayed to try and help me. We threw rocks at it, and ran in circles, and everything we could think of. But at the end of the day, we were three fillies fighting a star beast. We didn't stand a chance.

After what felt like a long time tiring ourselves out without really getting anywhere, the fight ended in what feels like a very silly way. I tripped on a rock. The scorpio saw its opening and stabbed at me with its stinger. Chrysanthemum was close enough that the only thing she could think to do was try to tackle me out of the way. And she took the blow instead.

(Here, again, Celestia paused, and though her face remained resolute, I watched her swallow down some emotion in the interest of her storytelling.)

The scorpio's stinger was strong enough that it cracked the stone plinth we'd discovered. It pinned Chrysanthemum, straight through her torso. But from underneath the stone, we heard some… (Celestia visibly shuddered) …laughter. And this voice spoke up from under the stone. It asked "Do you want help?"

With our friend dying in front of us and the monster still very angry, Luna and I didn't stop to put together why that voice might be a bad thing, or that it might have been what the writings were actually warning us about. We weren't wizards; we weren't even as old as you or Gale. So I shouted out "Yes! Help us!"

What happened next was… strange. This smoke leaked out of the crack, but it colored in a checkerboard pattern of bright lime green and pink squares. It wrapped around the scorpio and we started to hear this noise like a mouse squeaking, or—do you know what 'rubber' is?

(I confirmed I had heard of rubber—a special kind of tree sap that is famously alchemically neutral, and can be prepared to create a sort of watertight fabric-like substance. But I'd rarely actually held the stuff, as I was terrible with alchemy.)

Well, I suppose 'squeaking like a mouse' is the best description I can give you of the sound then. But it started to turn transparent and shiny and wherever there were knots, it was like its strangely smooth carapace was tied in a knot. And when the mist was done, a sudden wind that smelled like cinnamon apples rose up and the scorpio just… blew away. And in its place, the checkerboard smoke swirled up into a small tornado and then sort of congealed, and in a flash of fireworks—which were very scary to Luna and I, because nopony had invented them yet—there appeared this strange stallion. He was gray, with a black mane that had streaks of gray and white through it, and he had one yellow eye—not the color of the iris like Wintershimmer, but his sclera were yellow instead of white—but the most important thing about him was that he was an alicorn. Which, like fireworks, wasn't something Luna or I had ever encountered before; we didn't even have the word 'alicorn' to describe him.

This stallion didn't even explain himself; he just rushed over to Chrysanthemum's side and started working magic to help her. He was partway through when Spike came rushing out of the woods with his sword raised, demanding to know what was going on.

I suppose I should tell you: Spike was, and still is, a dragon about my height. He… actually, have you met Lord Krenn? When you went to meet Clover in the dragon lands?

(I nodded.)

Krenn is Spike.

(I pictured the strangely dignified old dragon as Celestia spoke: a dark purple colored, almost properly black scaled drake leaning on a steel rod as a walking stick due to his completely missing right leg and mangled left wing.)

'Krenn' is an Equinization of a dragon word that means 'crooked' or 'broken' or something like that. At the time, he looked mostly the same as you'd have seen him, except he wasn't missing his leg or his wing yet, and he carried a sword instead of a walking stick. The other difference is he wasn't as… restrained as he is these days. So when the alicorn from under the stone said he was "removing her heart" (meaning Chrysanthemum, of course), Krenn took that as a threat, rushed at the stallion, and lopped his head clean off.

You can imagine all of our surprise when the head didn't actually fall on the ground. Instead, it started orbiting Spike, making jokes and small talk. I distinctly remember "I know folks say I don't have a good head on my shoulders, but this is a bit ridiculous, isn't it, Mr. Dragon?"
While he was taunting Spike the alicorn's body went right on working on Chrysanthemum, and because Spike obviously didn't trust him (and he had said he wanted to take out her heart), Luna and I ran over to try and pull him away from her.

He got very mad at that, and said if his efforts weren't appreciated he'd leave us to deal with the poison in her veins. He finished what he was doing for just a moment, reached up to Chrysanthemum's mane and pulled out a long green gossamer ribbon that wasn't there before, and tied it around her barrel, sort of like the sash on your jacket. His last warning was that when we figured out we couldn't help her any further, he'd be waiting. Then he vanished in a burst of confetti and… I think clams or oysters or something? Some kind of shellfish.

I know that sounds ridiculous; bear with me.

Spike carried Chrysanthemum back to Dream Valley by wing, so by the time Luna and I got back after them, my grandma was already looking at her; back then, there wasn't a distinction between an alchemist and a doctor and a wizard. Instead, Spike and Megan and Luna's aunt Firefly were waiting for us. I think they were going to chew us out for what happened, but we were so worried about our friend and we felt so bad already that they didn't really do anything beyond telling us to stay in the village.

When my grandmother came out of our hut, she told us she didn't know how long Chrysanthemum had left, but there was too much poison in her system, and we all needed to say our goodbyes. Luna and I went in to see her, and I begged for her forgiveness, but she told me what happened wasn't my fault.

But then the next morning came, and she was still alive. And the day after that. Not getting any better—she couldn't stand up from her bed, she could barely eat, barely talk for more than a few minutes at a time—but she didn't get any worse either. Every time we visited her, she talked about the pain. She often asked my grandmother for medicine to put her to sleep, just to stop the pain. So when Luna and I talked after a third day, we decided to go find the strange 'pegacorn'—like I said, we didn't have the word 'alicorn', and we were still fillies. Normally, I would have pushed back on breaking the adults' rules after what happened, but I still felt guilty about Chrysanthemum, so I went along with her.

Together, the two of us went to the only place we could think to start looking: back at the big stone plinth. And sure enough, he was there: the strange alicorn stallion. He seemed happy to see us, even; he sang as we showed up, and visible music notes came out of his mouth, which turned into chairs for us.

I won't make you sit through all the questions we thought to ask as fillies; to say again, we weren't wizards, or heroes, or anything like you. We had no idea what we were dealing with, we were just worried about our friend.

Firstly, the alicorn said his name was Discord.

(Celestia paused heavily here, watching me. I eventually asked her if she needed to stop her story.)

No, I admit I was just curious if that name meant anything to you. I don't suppose even Wintershimmer would know it though.

Discord told us that while he couldn't fully heal Chrysanthemum, he could ease her pain and get her back on her hooves again. However, he had a price: he wanted Tirek's bag.

I suppose I should explain: famously, when Megan and my grandma and her friends had faced down Tirek at the Castle of Midnight, he had this magic bag full of… well, some strange kind of magic. Grandma called it a 'rainbow of darkness', which I guess describes how it looked pretty well, but I have no idea to this day what it actually was. I do know a bit about the bag though… actually, it's in the cave there. I'll show you in a bit. The point is, even with what little we knew, Luna and I knew that was probably a bad thing to give to a stranger, given what we'd heard Tirek did with it.

Unfortunately, Discord was very convincing to two little fillies who felt guilty about getting their friend hurt. Luna and I stole the bag that very same night, and we brought it back to him. Then Discord sent us home and told us Chrysanthemum would be better before the end of the night.

He told the truth, but only because the sun didn't rise the next morning. The moon was literally holding it back. And when the sun did finally force its way up, we spent the entire day in a dark red haze due to an eclipse as the moon traced the sun across the sky. Between that, our old heroes knowing Tirek had done something similar, and the fact that Chrysanthemum miraculously got up out of bed stiff and weakened and still in quite a lot of pain in her chest but otherwise healed, it didn't take long to figure out the bag was missing. I briefly tried to lie about what we'd done, but when I told the truth, I'm sure you can guess we were in a lot of trouble.

Luna and I were grounded, forbidden from leaving the village or from seeing each other to even play in town. Spike and Megan left to try and figure out what was going on with the sky and Discord, and to try and get Tirek's bag back. That was an awful summer; it felt like it took days to pass, and with what was happening in the sky, maybe it did.

All of summer passed, and the beginning of autumn too. But then, one sunny afternoon, somepony in the village saw a bunch of shadows flying toward us in the sky. Dozens, maybe two hundred huge creatures. They were the first griffons, and they descended on our unsuspecting village with spears and axes demanding to know where Megan and Spike were. We had no idea, obviously, but when we said so…

(A shiver settled over Celestia's form, and she closed her eyes for three long inhales and exhales.)

Luna's aunt, Firefly, was the first one they killed. One little griffon, who the others called 'Maggot', protested that they weren't told to kill us, only to find the two their master wanted. But he was thrown aside—literally, violently. And then they fell on us. Luna and Chrysanthemum and I ran, but the griffons were faster. My grandmother teleported us away with her magic.

That was the last I ever saw of her.

(Again, Celestia paused.)

There were enough griffons around that we knew we couldn't just run out of the village into the woods; the fields right around the village were too open. But there was an apple orchard on the edge of the village that belonged to one of my grandmother's old friends, and they had a basement we thought would be good to hide in. But we didn't get inside completely unseen.

The griffon who found us was the runt, 'Maggot'. We were terrified, and I stood up to him, to try and fight him, but he told us he wouldn't hurt us. Then he helped us hide; just in time too, as a bigger griffon came in after him looking for us. Maggot lied that there was nopony down in the basement, and the other griffon left us alone. So we hid in the dark, for hours, until we started to hear the crackling of fire and smell smoke above us.

We huddled up by the basement door, trying desperately not to cough and peeking the doors open both to see if griffons were watching and to take turns gulping down fresh air; Chrysanthemum thought that way that even if the farmhouse collapsed down on the basement, at least we wouldn't be directly under it, since it was one of those basement doors that sticks out the side of the foundation. We kept waiting for the griffons to leave—and then, shouting and screaming in fury, we heard a familiar voice: Discord himself.

We peeked out and were shocked: Discord hadn't appeared as an alicorn this time. Instead, he was a griffon, brown but mottled with gray specks and black and white feathers that matched his mane in his pony form. And he was big; as much bigger than the griffons as he had been bigger than an adult pony as an alicorn. Which, I guess I should clarify: not as big as my current form, but not dissimilar to Luna's. Even in that different shape, we couldn't have mistaken his voice though.

Discord shouted that he didn't want us killed, or the village burned. He said he wanted chaos, and that there's no good chaos in death. He asked if they had at least learned where the dragon and the human—Spike and Megan—were, the griffons said they didn't know. Discord called them all failures. The leader of the griffons, or at least the biggest one besides Discord himself, took a swipe at his throat. But instead of blood, a bunch of corn kernels poured out, and then started popping violently like popcorn in all sorts of unnatural colors. Discord didn't seem bothered, any more than he had when Spike tried to attack him with his sword. He just turned to the griffon, reached out a talon, and poked him on the tip of the beak. And without a word or a glow of magic, the other griffon started unspooling into a pile of griffon-colored yarn. Then Discord twisted him up into a… well, not a ball of yarn you'd knit with, but basically a huge knot, and explained to the yarn that it would still be more chaotic like that than a corpse was. Then he threw the yarn, and snapped fingers, and something like half of the griffons immediately gave into catlike instinct and started chasing the ball to bat at it and play with it like animals—even in the middle of the village being on fire.

Finally, Discord asked if any of the griffons had left any ponies alive. And though most of the griffons said no, Maggot stepped forward and told Discord we were still alive.

At that, we tried to run, but we didn't get very far. Discord teleported in front of us on the road that led away from the center of town, through the orchard, taking on his alicorn form in the process. He greeted us each by name and smiled. "I'm sorry about all this; really, I am. I didn't mean for anypony to get hurt. Maybe a little terror, a little desperation; that's always good for some chaos. But I never wanted anypony dead. That isn't my style. After all, I helped Chrysanthemum, didn't I?" We weren't in the mood to be very talkative after what happened, but he kept going on about how sorry he was and how important life was to 'good chaos' as though that meant anything to us at the time. Finally, Chrysanthemum snapped and told him even if he was sorry it was still all his fault for sending the griffons in the first place, and we'd never help him with anything. To which Discord just laughed and said "Maybe not willingly." But he believed us when we said we didn't know where Spike and Meghan were, and he gave us directions to a town he thought would be friendly to the three of us (home to a band of warrior ponies who called themselves the 'Big Brothers', but that's a story for another day), and then he just left us, walking back over to the griffons and transforming into a griffon as he did.

Discord told the griffons that because of what they'd done, he was going to punish them by continuing to meddle with their forms, and that only Maggot—a name even he used—would be spared that fate. He shooed Maggot off vaguely in our direction, and then started snapping at griffons—turning them to stone or coating them in caramel or a dozen other things that got them to stop moving. And then, when they were all gone, he lifted a wing and they all began to hover in the air. One last snap sent out a shockwave that put out the last fires in our home, but it also knocked over whatever was left of the buildings in Dream Valley. In the same moment, Discord and all the griffons disappeared. All they left behind were ashes and rubble.

What happened next in our journeys is a long story. One I don't mind telling you, Morty, but one we don't have time for right now. Suffice it to say we brought Maggot along with us, and in our travels we eventually ran into Spike and Megan, who were looking for a way to defeat Discord, who they had learned was some kind of spirit of chaos rather than a real alicorn or pony. We decided to join them, despite their attempts to make us settle down somewhere; we had just as much reason to want to defeat Discord as they did, after all.

Along the way, we also met an elk doe named Valdria, who had been traveling the world looking for a way to grow antlers so that she could do magic—because in those days, only male elk, stags, had antlers at all, and does were… well, not bald, but you take my point.

In our journeys, Chrysanthemum struggled. Like I said, though Discord had healed her, she was still in pain in her chest, beneath the gossamer green ribbon he'd tied around her. She understandably started to grow short with us when we pressed on in our quest or when we had to exert ourselves; I can't blame her, nor can I say it was her fault, but the tension started to build day after day.

Finally, we found our answer: a set of magical relics—seeds of a crystal tree that represented harmony, and could counteract Discord's chaos magic. It took us ages to find the six elements: Generosity, Mirth, Kindness, Loyalty, Honesty, and Magic.

(At this, I couldn't help but scoff; when Celestia glanced at me with a frown, I could think of nothing else to do but raise a hoof, at which point I asked "Firstly, were these objects that represented moral virtues, or do you literally mean some kind of magical representation of those virtues. And secondly: magic? How is that supposed to be a moral character quality or whatever?")

You sound like Chrysanthemum. The short answer is that the 'magic' it's referring to isn't arcana, or even the abstract manipulation of mana like you described when I asked you what magic was over dinner a few weeks ago. In this regard, actually, Wintershimmer's definition of magic might suit us best. Magic, as I understand it, is a spark of something special that can't be clearly labeled. All the generosity and kindness, and (Celestia sighed) honesty and openness in the world won't necessarily make a group of well-meaning creatures like each other. There's something else special needed to. You might as easily call it 'chemistry', in the theatrical sense, but that wasn't an Equiish word seven thousand years ago, so 'magic' was the best we had.

And, in fact, that brings up an important point. As we traveled, Chrysanthemum lacked the 'magic' of friendship that Luna and I had with our other companions. I don't know why; it feels unfair to blame her misfortune on a short temper from pain, especially when she got hurt saving my life. But when we came to the last element, there were seven of us traveling together, and only six elements—ah, right, you'd asked what form they took. The elements were gemstones; about hoof-sized, that changed shape based on whoever was using them.

In our travels, in order, Luna embraced Loyalty, Maggot embodied and was chosen by Kindness, Valdria's pursuit of antlers led her to Magic, Spike earned Generosity at the cost of his wing, and I took Honesty. Mirth was the last, and by that point, even though Megan actively tried to give it to Chrysanthemum, it was obviously never going to bond with her. Megan was the leader of our group, even as the last one without an element to draw magical power from; she inspired us, she lifted us up when we were hurting and encouraged us to press onward. Whenever Chrysanthemum's sour mood dampened our spirits, she was the one undoing that damage. So Chrysanthemum left, defeated, and turned her back on us before we went to face Discord.

I'm sure it will disappoint you, so I promise I can tell you later if you like, but for now I'll skip the details of our battle with Discord as well. Suffice it to say we triumphed, and had to choose to do with the shapeshifter. As much as we had our reasons for anger toward him, we also had our small gratitudes; he was Maggot's 'father' after all, and he had saved Chrysanthemum. He'd never meant to kill anypony, at least if we believed him—and as Honesty, my friends trusted me when I said I did. He had simply misused his power over the world—ah, and I should mention, in our adventures he acquired more power than just control of the sun and the moon—for his games of chaos. So instead of imprisoning him or slaying him, we simply stripped him of his powers over the world and let him go.

In the end, the Elements took six… sparks, we call them, from Discord. The power to move the sun and the moon, as I doubt surprises you, came to Luna and I, transforming us into alicorns and earning us our marks. Spike took control over the movements of the earth—what I think Star Swirl and Diadem call 'tectonics', though I admit it's a field of study I haven't pursued much myself, so I might be misusing that word. Power over the winds went to Maggot, who had by that point decided he hated that name and scrambled around the letters to make 'Ottgam'.

(Celestia paused to look at me, waiting for a reaction, and then chuckled when I raised a brow.)

I apologize; Hurricane had a rather different reaction to that part of my story. 'Ottgam' is Emperor Magnus' given name.

(After that clarification, I did have a reaction for what Gale had told me of the bane of Cirra's existence and, perhaps, the personal archenemy of her father)

That is just one reason I made you swear never to repeat this story. I know you can imagine the damage it would do to admit he was once our friend.

Valdria and Megan's powers were… more abstract. Valdria gained the ability to… not create life, per se, but to encourage its growth, or to deny it. And Megan, conversely, took the most dangerous and most frightening power, which we entrusted her as a sign of our respect for her restraint and self-control: rot, or entropy. The ability to wear things down, to make them lesser. With malice and misuse, the ability to kill.

These powers also gave us the nigh-immortality and magical strength ponykind knows Luna and I for now. Though, as you learned after our confrontation in the Crystal Union, we're far from omnipotent or truly immortal. But as we took on those forms, we also inevitably left Chrysanthemum behind. We went on with our lives; I had a small family of my own, we tried to rebuild pony society, and all the while poor bitter Chrysanthemum grew old and we stayed young—not just that, but we grew larger and stronger, less like ponies and more like the 'gods' Luna insists we are.

So Chrysanthemum set out on her own quest, looking for a way to use magic to emulate, or best, our powers. Luna and I tried to help her, of course, tried to make her more comfortable and to do what we could for her, but by then it was never going to be enough. She traveled all across the world as we knew it; she even went into Tartarus. And eventually, she devised a spell which she believed would make her the most beautiful, most desirable, and most powerful mare anypony had ever seen, and to let her feed on that love to live forever.

When she cast it, the magic was so horrifying, and her own screaming so awful that Luna and I couldn't help but notice. We watched the gossamer ribbon she still wore from Discord peel off, revealing a hole in her belly that stretched up to a cavity where her heart should have been. Then her whole coat, and skin, started flaking off, and underneath was that black chitin like you saw on the changelings in the schoolhouse. Holes drilled themselves through her forelegs, wings cracked through her skin and started thrashing. Her teeth fell out to make way for razor sharp fangs. All the while, we couldn't even get close to comfort her or stop the spell; the green fire around her resisted our magic.

When it was done, and we tried to help her, she swatted our help away. She didn't need us, didn't want us.

I haven't spoken to her much since, but I know she still blames me for what happened all those years ago. I don't know that I deserve as much blame as she casts, but I do understand her struggles, and I can hardly call myself blameless in what happened.

She calls herself 'Chrysalis' instead of Chrysanthemum now—and if you ever meet her, don't call her Chrysanthemum, Morty. She will attack you over it. She has become a ruthless, hungry, and vengeful creature. And while she is powerful—at least in pure strength, more than a match for Luna or I, if she is well fed—the real threat she poses is her cunning for how to use her subordinates to lie and infiltrate.

⚜ ⚜ ⚜

"...So to return to your original question: I would never tell you to turn away a creature in need and desperate for help. But compassion doesn't require blind optimism; if she, or anyone around you, says something too radical to be true, or makes some claim that seems to turn the world on its head, you must resist the urge to act rashly. Beware of claims of urgency, where you might be prevented from seeking counsel, whether you take it from me or your other friends. I do have one unique benefit to you in that, as we learned from Graargh, Chrysalis' infiltrators cannot replicate my size or the magic of my mane. So I give you my word that my door is always open to you. However, as we discussed with Graargh, I would urge you to keep this matter quiet for the time being. In the past, Luna and I made the mistake of spreading news of this threat widely, and the paranoia and distrust between neighbors did more damage than the changelings' own schemes ever could have. I'll trust you if you believe Gale or Typhoon or anypony else needs to be brought into our circle, though especially for Gale, perhaps it's best to spare her yet another problem to be thinking about."

I offered a short nod. "Assuming Chrysalis herself doesn't show up, I'm pretty confident I can deal with the little changelings, now that I know more about them."

Celestia looked down at me gently. "Just don't let them use overconfidence to catch you off-guard. Or worse, try and turn your strength against your friends. I told you all of that so that if she ever tries to get to me through you, at least she won't be able to say I've kept secrets from you. That is the truth, in all the harsh light it paints me." With a short pause, she added "That's the story I have for you. So if you had questions, you may ask them."

I nodded. "Oh my… um, what happened to Megan and her, uh, godhood spark thing?"

"Discord stole the spark back, and banished all humans to another world. We defeated him to take it back, and we even found a way to the other world through a magical mirror, but by then age had caught up with Megan. We gave the spark to a boar sow who helped us defeat him that second time. But in the years since, another boar killed her in her sleep, and ever since the spark has been stolen down a line of the strongest boar through battle or assassination. The current warchief is a boar named Khagan who is particularly ruthless with it; more than willing to literally rot away his enemies with its power when they so much as speak against him."

If you should ever meet Khagan, dear reader… well, my advice is rather not to meet Khagan. He might be the least of the six 'gods', but he is also the most willing to use his powers for violence, and they are difficult even for me to survive.

"So, wait, the same Emperor Magnus who tried to kill all the pegasi embodied kindness?"

Celestia nodded. "Between Discord's tampering and our own personal failures, we all lost our connections with our elements, save Megan—that was why Discord cast her into the other world—and Luna. Discord's manipulations not only brought out Spike's greed, but also cursed all dragons with an obsession for gold and gems. Magnus' fury and sorrow at Megan's fate turned him to an obsession with war and strength. Valdria lost her wonder for magic—the magic of friendship, not arcana, although the same is true for both—by trying to study it and understand it in a desperate search for a sixth new friend who could replace Megan."

"And you lost Honesty?" I asked. "How? You seem perfectly forthright to me."

My question was answered with a hung head and a very heavy sigh. "Today is not the day for that story. And if you can spare me retelling it at all, I would prefer not to. But if you need to hear it, I will tell you. Just not today."

"That's alright," I reassured her. "As long as I don't run into whatever horrifying spirit you left lying around after you solved that problem. Is this 'Discord' creature still around?"

Celestia chuckled. "In a manner of speaking, but you don't need to worry about him. I'd be more concerned about Chrysalis."

I nodded. "Well, with that in mind, I suppose I ought to get back to Metamorphosis. Thanks, Celestia."

"Of course," she answered with a soft smile. "It's good to talk to you, Morty. Do you have thoughts on what our next lesson should be?"

"Next week we're going up to Union City to clean up Wintershimmer's vaults, remember?"

"Ah, right." Something briefly flashed over Celestia's face, a glimmer of an idea I was too young and she too skilled at subtle deceit for me to analyze. "Well, back to Everfree, then?"

And with feathers over my back, we returned.

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