• 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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14-1 The Crystal Connection


The Crystal Connection

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The Old Folks' Carriage

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On the day we were to depart for my old home in the frozen north, the Equestrian delegation gathered in the gardens outside the palace. In the rough gravel path that ringed a statue of Clover, Pansy, and Smart Cookie (the same one that had welcomed my first sight of the city), no fewer than twelve sky carriages had been assembled in a sort of snaking line. Milling around them were dozens upon dozens of ponies: dignitaries in formal attire, legion pegasi wearing harnesses to pull said carriages, attendants and family saying goodbye for the trip or competing to get huge traveling trunks strapped with belts onto the outsides of the carriages.

Gale caught a glance at me out of the corner of her eye from her place entangled in the thick of it beside Typhoon and Puddinghead; she shot me a wink in recognition but otherwise didn't even have time to turn her head.

I scanned the masses for Celestia, but though she should have been painfully obvious simply by looking up, my mentor was nowhere to be seen. As I wandered amongst the crowd, wondering if she was on the far side of one of the carriages and also had her head craned down, I very nearly ran into Hurricane Stormblade coming around a corner.

"Watch it, uni—oh. It's you." That spiteful correction came from Sirocco, just over Hurricane's shoulder. "Well, doesn't matter. Get out of the way."

"An Auditoris should avoid creating conflict for their officer. Your job is to make my job easier." After that light correction, Hurricane smiled at me. "Morty. Good to see you this morning. Though that… thing… is a little on the nose, no?"

The 'thing' in question was Wintershimmer's draconic spinal staff, which I had rested between my shoulder and my neck, much in the same manner Wintershimmer had throughout my youth. "Maybe. But I need it to turn off the old stallion's traps, if I want to give Jade the west tower back." I glanced over my shoulders nervously before dropping my voice, leaning forward, and adding "Then I'll help your little spy thing out. Clover's going to give it back to Lord Krenn to trade for heat for River Rock."

"Subtle," said Sirocco, before reaching out to push on my brow with a primary feather, correcting my leaned-forward posture. "I'm sure no one saw you trying to be subtle there."

"Do I know you?" I asked back.

"Sirocco," Hurricane offered, and in lieu of titles he simply added "Blizzard's sister."

"Half," Sirocco sniped, still holding her wingtip against my chest.

Hurricane used his sole wing to push his granddaughter's wing down, and though I will remind readers that I lacked nearly all the context of their prior fight, I wasn't blind enough to miss the obvious disapproval that flashed over the old stallion's face. Inelegantly changing the topic, though, he picked up with "Give it back to Krenn? Last time I met the dragon, he still had his head and neck."

"Apparently, it was his son, once," I explained.

Hurricane's eyes widened. "That is Dragon Lord Scathe? I remember him being bigger…"

"You knew that dragon?" Sirocco asked. "Did you… do that? Wait, is that the dragon everypony tells that story about? That you just stood in its breath?"

Hurricane chuckled and shook his head. "No on both counts."

"Wintershimmer," I explained, and for Sirocco's benefit I added. "My old teacher."

Hurricane sighed, and smiled, and shook his head. "The last time I met him—Scathe, that is—it was to sign a peace treaty. I take it Wintershimmer didn't trust the parchment it was written on?"

I shrugged. "Before my time. Have you seen Celestia? I wanted to talk to her about what we're going to be dealing with in Wintershimmer's vaults and make sure we wound up on the same carriage."

"I didn't realize Celestia was coming." Hurricane shrugged. "Tell you what, though; I'll save the two of you one of the benches in ours, if you like." With his wing, he gestured to one of the more-or-less identical carriages, distinct only for its comparatively spartan outfitting. "I don't think you're going to have much luck riding with Gale, and I'm sure you won't get enough room in there for Celestia."

"I figured," I replied. "And all things being equal, I'd rather not fly with Typhoon again." I dipped my head to exit the conversation, and in parting added "Wouldn't want to remind her how embarrassing her missing hoof is."

I continued my search in vain, and then settled to sitting on the lip of the fountain and staring up at the sky, as the packing and organizing continued around me. Celestia did not arrive. I watched the assembled and idly noted that High Castle was joining us, but that he was the only suitor in attendance—even Peanut Gallery, Puddinghead's direct heir, wasn't making the trip. He looked at me and smiled.

I regret not giving in to the passing whim to break his jaw.

Finally, when the crowd was mostly into their carriages and I was beginning to worry, I heard a voice over the trickling of the fountain. A voice I loathed.

"Ahem. Mage Coil."

I felt my neck shift like an owl's, smoothed simply by the force it took not to snap the motion all at once in an unwanted show of emotion. "Archmage Star Swirl."

"Celestia asked me to give you this," he said, and in his gray arcane aura, he handed me a sealed envelope. When I took it in my magic—ignoring the pain through sheer spite—I watched him open his mouth, endure my glare, and press on regardless. "I do not mind opening it, or reading aloud if—"

"Go away, Star Swirl."

I watched the old wizard take a few steps—noting idly that he was not wearing his usual bell-adorned robe and hat in favor of a simpler, more formal uniform—and approach an emaciated dull gray unicorn a little younger than myself with the most hideous blue bowl I have ever suffered to witness, adorned in tattered peasant's garb of mud brown. I didn't bother to inquire after the visual war crime that was the other pony, though; my attention was on forcing my eyes to work through the letter, which read thusly:


I know I may be asking a lot to request your trust in a lesson after what happened with the changelings at Graargh's school. However, I am asking as your mentor and your friend, that you bear with me. I cannot accompany you to the Crystal Union. I have asked Star Swirl to accompany you in my stead.

To be completely transparent and fair with you: I do intend this as a lesson of sorts. However, I also know that no matter how much you and Star Swirl may be at odds, he has no intention to humiliate you or belittle you like what you faced at the school. I would like to hope that you and he can find some common ground, and perhaps even become friends through this experience. I can't say I expect that, given you are both such proud, stubborn stallions, but I hope. I do ask that you try to practice setting down some of your pride to see if you can learn from him; he is, in a lot of ways, a better wizard than I am despite my advantage in age. If you can do so, I promise, you'll come back from the experience in a better state than you left.

If this idea bothers you, I'll remind you that you're almost certainly headed for a hero's welcome from Jade and Smart Cookie and your old friend and acquaintances in the Crystal Union. If you find yourself in need of a pick-me-up, I hope that can give you the respite you—or, if we are being honest, your ego—needs.

I am sorry for springing this on you; if I had another option, I give you my word, I would have given you more notice.

If it is any consolation, I'll keep an eye on your new unusual houseguest, Graargh, and Cherry, in your absence.


Out of the vague misty spray of the fountain behind me, my hallucination of Wintershimmer took form. "This will be good for you, Coil."

"Haven't seen you in a while, old stallion."

Wintershimmer's gaunt expression tweaked with a mixture of curiosity and the tension that suggested fury without actually conveying emotion—but even if he were the real stallion, I knew he'd practiced the expression specifically for that effect, and it was just a bluff. "You would dare to talk to me like that?"

"A figment of my imagination? Yeah, I figure there's not much risk there. But you're welcome to surprise me. You agree with Celestia? You think I ought to grow from this?"

"I think her purpose for trying to alleviate your pride is misplaced, but she has nevertheless offered you an accurate diagnosis and an effective cure. You are right to see him as an enemy and a threat, but your hate overrides your reason. You will be a better wizard if you learn to control it." After a moment of ponderance, the old stallion sat on his flanks beside me on the lip of the fountain. "I would also suggest that there are a great many traps in the tunnels that connect my vaults which would make it very easy for you to assassinate Star Swirl the Bearded, and believably cast it as an accident. But I likewise know the suggestion is wasted on you. And I would not want you to indulge that advice for a reason as base as revenge. Certainly not ideological revenge, at that."

"Murder is only a virtue when committed in cold blood?" I quoted to him.

Wintershimmer nodded without so much as a chuckle at the ridiculousness of one of his more extreme quotations. "And at the moment, I fear you would indulge yourself in the heat of passion."

"So what should I do instead?"

"Immerse yourself in him," Wintershimmer suggested. "Sit with him. Debate him. Not on the subject of my research; some other topic. Ideally magical, rather than philosophical."

"What's the difference?"

Wintershimmer's brow dipped. "Don't you dare, colt."

"Fine, whatever. Nice talking to you." As I literally waved my hoof over my shoulder through his torso, dissipating the hallucination like as much mist or fog, I glanced over to where Star Swirl was still talking to the eyesore. "You might as well join me, Archmage. Hurricane was saving a seat for Celestia and I, so there should be plenty of leg room."

Star Swirl raised a brow at my indulgence (even despite the reality that my tone still carried my dissatisfaction, I'm sure). "I can find another carriage—"

"At this point, I doubt it." I gestured with Wintershimmer's staff to where most of the doors were either already closed or in the process of being boarded by an overstuffed mass of Equestria's delegation. "Celestia asked me to humor you. Don't let me change my mind."

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I barely made it on time for the carriage to take off, though in the defense of the legion guardsponies trying to shut the door, it was because I was also already inside. In truth, if I didn't recognize the stallion at the door (Dusk Watch, I think) from Gale and I's last trip north, I doubt I would have been given the courtesy. Instead, a chuckling "He's with me," got my body double aboard just in time.

That made six of us the carriage; in addition to the aforementioned presences of two myselves, Hurricane, Sirocco, and Star Swirl, we had been joined by the now theatrically infamous Private Pansy. It was this old pegasus, butter yellow and with his right hind leg scarred and twisted so badly that its hoof pointed inward toward its left partner, who was the first to voice his confusion. "What? You… identical twins?"

"It's a candlecorn,"I explained. "A magic body made of wax." I glanced toward Hurricane and added "You remember when I cut that void crystal at the dinner table, and it was made of wax?" Reaching over to the body now standing in the middle of the carriage, I ripped his horn off with a hoof, and then held it frog up to reveal a burning candle of yellowish wax. "They're useful if you need to spare your horn a lot of magic, and—ow, ow, hot!" The dripping wax had slipped down the candle and past the horn of my hoof to the soft and sensitive frog. When I smashed the candle back into the candlecorn, the wick went first, and when the flame was snuffed, the hornless other-me collapsed dead on the floor. "I see. It's going to be one of these days."

"They just die when you put out the flame?" Star Swirl asked, brow raised. "All this time I could have just used a little wind, and—"

"The alternate form isn't just an illusion. The fire isn't actually on the outside to be snuffed, usually. Just what I get for showing off." I rubbed my hooves together to scrape off the wax stuck to them, then picked up the now largely cooled candle again. "Hurricane, can you spare a light?"

Hurricane groaned slightly in the motion of leaning forward, before being stopped by his granddaughter's wing. "I've got it, grandpa." Then she pinched three of her lead fingers, ignited a tiny flame like she'd been smoking cigarettes since she was four, and lit the candle. I quickly restored it to the candlecorn's brow, and it stood up before sitting down between Pansy and I, on the rear-facing bench opposite Hurricane, Sirocco, and Star Swirl.

"While you're offering, miss," said Star Swirl, producing a pipe from within his less noisy robes.

Sirocco glared at it. "You think I want to smell that thing in here the whole trip?"

"I'll magic away the smoke, I promise," Star Swirl replied. "Just promise not to tell my granddaughter. Us old ponies have to have our vices." Grudgingly, Sirocco lit the pipe, and after a brief moment of a whiff of something that was definitely not just tobacco but whose true identity escaped me, Star Swirl was true to his word and cast away the smell and the smoke alike.

"Well, I'm… honestly, surprised you solved your problem so quickly, Morty." Star Swirl offered me a smile.

"It's a temporary solution," I answered flatly. Then I finally sat back in the corner of the wagon and let my eyes wander, taking in the new pony. "Sorry, I don't think we've been formally introduced. Mortal Coil."

"Pan Sea," said the stallion, emphasizing a space in his name that history (and Clover's thespian cruelty) have forgotten. "Your reputation precedes you, Morty." After stretching out his wings to rest behind his back and stretching out his wounded hoof into the limited floor space of the cabin, the third-youngest stallion in the carriage (though only barely Hurricane's junior) turned to the other side of the carriage. "Miss, you called the Commander 'Grandpa'?" He then turned to Hurricane. "Is she—"

"Imperator Sirocco," the veritable filly snarled. "And yes. Commander Cyclone is my father."

"You really shouldn't introduce yourself as his imperator, Sirocco," Hurricane chided, before answering his old friend. "I gave her your job. She's my auditoris for the time being."

Pan Sea raised a brow. "What do you need an auditoris for? Having trouble keeping your hops in formation in the yard without a clear line of command? Or are you feeling like an empty nester now that Gale's the queen?"

Star Swirl chuckled at the question. "She still sleeps at home most nights."

"Not weird that you know that, when you're a hundred and she's eighteen," I observed.

The comment was answered with silence, as Star Swirl indulged his pipe. I would have said something further, but the sudden lurch of the carriage moving and lifting into the air, twisted my stomach into a knot, distracting me from the indulgence.

"If you're feeling jealous, Pan, I can find something for you to do too," said Hurricane. "But somehow I doubt you're very intimidating to the Dawn, and I'm mostly calling in a lot of old favors."

"The Dawn?" Pansy frowned. "Please tell me you aren't going to get yourself hurt?"

Sirocco huffed in amusement at the notion. "I don't think there's anypony in Equestria who can take grandpa in a fight."

Hurricane massaged a temple, and then shifted in his seat to face (the real) me. "We've got the benefit of not needing to be in all the diplomatic meet-and-greets, since I'm not commanding the Legion anymore. I've never actually been in the Union long enough to explore or see the sights. Anything you'd recommend?"

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, I'd be careful where you wander, unless you've brought a baker and a candlestick maker to help you blend in."

"I don't follow."

"Rub-a-dub-dub, three mares in a tub?" I shook my head when Hurricane continued to raise his brow. "Sorry. Hurricane, how do I put this? Everypony, every single pony you will meet while you're here, has somepony they're related to that you killed. I doubt I need to remind you about Queen Jade's late father; she was mad enough when Gale brought your sword up to fight Wintershimmer." When the comment made Hurricane recoil, I added "I don't mean to imply you did it personally. My mom has a scar on her back that I only recently learned she got from Iron Rain. But yours is the name everypony associates with the wars. More than Jade, more than your foals… more than Iron Rain, I guess. Everypony my age in the Union has heard of you, and the older ponies call you 'the Butcher' for what happened. So even beyond the weather, I wouldn't expect much of a warm welcome."

Hurricane solemnly frowned. "Maybe I should have stayed home."

"Oh please, Grandfather," said Sirocco, though to my amusement she did put a wing on his shoulder despite the harshness of her admonition. "If they're afraid of you, they'll stay out of your way."

"A shame you didn't come north earlier, Miss Sirocco. Wintershimmer would have liked you." The comment came idly around Star Swirl's pipe, and though he didn't seem particularly aggressive (especially compared to his subject), I couldn't help but note the hint of an admonition of his own in the turn of phrase.

"Morty mentioned him before; who's 'Wintershimmer' that everypony seems to know about him?"

I elbowed my wax body-double, and with a ripple, it took on its most familiar form, all yellowed and thin with sunken cheeks and narrow, glaring eyes beneath a thinning mane.

"That is… profoundly uncanny, Morty," said Star Swirl.

I took some glee in the comment, and with a mental nudge, showed off another little bit of golem-craft I'd been up to. The candlecorn Wintershimmer opened his mouth in Star Swirl's direction. "If seeing the face of death causes you discomfort, Star Swirl, I would encourage you to indulge your age and join me."

"Eugh," said Pansy. Hurricane frowned. But Sirocco looked forward with considerable interest, even leaning forward—at least until Wintershimmer looked her way.

"I am—or was, I suppose—Archmage Wintershimmer the Complacent. In my youth, I studied alongside Star Swirl under Archmage Comet until a… disagreement about the ethics of my magic saw me banished. With nowhere else to turn, I came to the crystal barbarians and slaughtered them with my magic until I got an audience with Warlord Corundum. From that day, I lived in the Crystal Spire, in what they now call 'Union City', furthering my research and protecting the poor miserable captives that the raiding barbarians kept as slaves and… prizes." (I was particularly proud of how that word captured Wintershimmer's peculiar way of conveying disgust, with just how far back his lips peeled from his teeth.) "As well as the foals of those unfortunates." There, the golem glanced briefly but meaningfully to me (obviously, more for Sirocco's benefit than any message for me). "When Corundum proved too effective in his campaigns against the Diamond Kingdoms, I killed him, and allowed a stallion named Halite to succeed him. I served Halite until he died at Onxy Ridge, and then I served the new Crystal… 'Queen', Jade." (Here again, the golem conveyed disgust, though subtler). "In that time, I raised two young colts as apprentices. The first was Solemn Vow, who I understand very nearly became King of Equestria through assassination and the magic of the warlock. The second…" A hoof was pointed in my direction to complete the thought. "Late in my life, I mastered my study of death and necromancy, and alongside Coil, I created a spell to travel physically into the Summer Lands. I instructed him to kill Clover the Clever with a powerful spell I created to sever a pony's soul from their body. Alas… Coil grew a detestable conscience. And, with considerable ingratitude, he killed me."

I flicked my hoof and the waxen form rippled back into a (silent) copy of a more handsome stallion.

"Did we really need the long version?" Sirocco asked.

My response was cut off when the carriage hit a bit of turbulence, and my real body briefly became far inferior to the waxen double, as I braced my foreleg against the wall of the carriage chamber, wrinkled up my face, and contemplated whether or not I needed to open the door mid-flight in order to empty my stomach.

Star Swirl gave me the unwanted mercy of picking up in my indiscretion, nodding at Sirocco's side. "I think you will find, Miss Sirocco, that Wintershimmer's legacy still weighs heavily in the Crystal Union, even now that he's gone."

"Was he as much of a jerk to you as he was to Diadem?" Pansy asked me with idle curiosity.

I forced down a swallow just moments before answering. "I'd—ugh—say 'depends', but since Diadem isn't dead, and there's no way in Tartarus she would be if he'd ever picked a fight with her, I'd say he was probably worse to me." I shrugged. "But then, he got me away from my mom, and I'm a wizard because of him, so… it's complicated." I let out a sigh. "Before I forget what I was getting to, Hurricane, there's lots of beauty around the city. The Frosted Forest should just be getting its namesake frost back this time of year, and there's the Grievous Gorge and the Crystal Mountains if you're into mountain climbing or big peaceful meadows or picnics. Inside the city, the Crystal Spire is the obvious thing to see, and I'm sure Jade will show off the boring, safe parts to the whole group. If you can find one where they won't stab you in the back, I'll recommend a hot stone massage, and the meadery is delectable, albeit in small quantities—"

"Hold on," said Hurricane when he finally found a pause for breath to cut into.
"The boring, safe parts?"

Star Swirl fielded the question, despite not being its subject. "The Crystal Spire wasn't actually built by the crystal ponies. Well, no, that isn't fair; the best we know from ancient histories that are probably more legend than fact at this point, the crystal spire was built by slave labor by the crystal ponies, as the capital of an ancient empire called Tambelon."

"Tambelon?" asked Pansy. "Is that like Tambellium?"

Star Swirl nodded. "I don't know for certain, but I've suspected ever since you all first arrived from Dioda already speaking the same language as we did. There are parts of our histories and myths that line up uncannily—Tambelon, or Tambellium as Cirra calls it, being just one example—that suggest a shared history." Star Swirl chuckled, and then added "Of course, Celestia eventually just told me I was right, but deus ex machina somewhat ruins the fun of history just as it ruins a play, don't you think?" As Pansy gave a small nod, the old archmage pressed on. "Tambelon was a kingdom ruled by a mountain goat lich, Emperor Grogar the Grim."

"What's a 'lich'?" Pansy interrupted.

Star Swirl gave a short nod in my direction, and I sighed at the prospect of simplifying a very complex necromantic ritual for a lay pony. "Short version, a wizard who raises themselves… themself? from the dead. It's not strictly required, but most liches eat souls to prolong their undeath and prevent their souls from dispersing."

Sirocco recoiled. "They eat souls?"

I nodded. "Not much different than greater spirits like the draconequus, or the windigoes some of you are quite familiar with. And if you cross a lich who manages to live—heh—to be a few hundred years old, your odds are about as good as they are with a windigo. Difference is, a lich knows how to set up traps. And that is why you don't go under the Crystal Spire."

It was a great end to my thought, a really beautiful delivery. And, had the door to the carriage not opened a fraction of a moment later, I probably would have looked very knowledgeable and charismatic. Instead, I had the experience of Dusk, or whatever his name was, opening the carriage door to say "We've got some turbulence up ahead, so I wanted to warn—"

Then I emptied my stomach across his finely polished parade-painted lorica segmentata at the sight of just how high up in the air we were and the realization of motion.

I don't like flying, but it's not the height. It's the motion.

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