• Published 8th Jun 2019
  • 868 Views, 21 Comments

Tavern Tactics - Impossible Numbers



Before the final battle of the Siren War, the Pillars and Stygian take a moment to get ready, get what fun they can, and if possible, actually get along.

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Part Seven

Just the two of them now. Stygian watched the sorcerer to see where this was going. Behind him, the bar gently tinkled as it cooled down. Star Swirl clearly still “got it”.

Star Swirl didn’t speak right away. Instead, the room darkened around him. Stygian lit his own horn: a simple enough spell, and one he’d learned early on in his studies. His classmates used it to sneak out at night. He used it to study for as long as he could stay awake.

The last few minutes burned in his memory. How had he contributed so much, and yet still felt like a fool at a meeting of monarchs? How could they keep him on the side, like a servant no one needed to notice? It was his plan. His ideas. His thinking. That had brought them together. So why was he always on the margins?

Mad cheeriness seized his throat. “Not going to sleep yet, sir?”

Star Swirl grunted. “I see you have the same idea as me, though I suppose you have more reason.”

“Sir?”

“I wouldn’t ask you to fight tomorrow, Stygian. All due respect, but fighting is not your special talent.”

It’s not Meadowbrook’s either, thought Stygian. She’s only a healer. And I’ve never seen Somnambula land a kick. She uses her brain to win instead. So why single me out, you old hack?

Strangely, the thoughts didn’t worry him. They were his thoughts, after all. He agreed with them. But in his head, the thoughts seethed and bubbled and boiled, cooking all goodwill out of the words and leaving his stomach full of spitting fire.

To his astonishment, he watched Star Swirl slump on the seat.

“Sir?” he said, summoning as much concern as he had left.

“They’re losing hope,” groaned Star Swirl, wearing his years not like a master but like a shabby mule. “Somnambula herself doubts me now. I can see it in her eyes.”

“I’m sure they understand you, sir,” said Stygian, far more happily than he felt. He’d seen Star Swirl like this before. “Seven years weighs heavy on a pony’s heart, sir.”

“Hearts.” A mirthless chuckle died alone. Whatever Star Swirl stared at, it was probably a lifetime away.

Stygian cleared his throat. He really did keep this group together. It didn’t matter if no one else pointed this out, or if he screamed about it in the privacy of his own head every other day. Duty compelled him to step in, over and over.

“Everyone’s desperate, sir. Why, it wouldn’t surprise me if they secretly agreed with your plan, sir. They just don’t want to admit things are as bad as all that.”

Old age sighed with Star Swirl, his constant companion. “Neither do I, to be frank. There, we reach unanimous agreement.” Another chuckle died in his beard. “Now that’s a rarity.”

And Stygian could read the old sorcerer like an open book. “Still think of her, sir?”

“Hm? Oh, her. Yes.” Star Swirl shifted on his seat; under Stygian’s beam, his face sank under the weight of long hairs and too many wrinkles, even worse than Mistmane’s.

Suddenly, Star Swirl sat up straight. “Stygian.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You see further and hear more than these old eyes and ears of mine. What do the others think of me?”

Stygian immediately thought: Lie! Lie through your teeth. It’s so much easier than making him angry, him who can transform ponies into pots as easily as ponies change horseshoes.

“Well, sir…” he began.

“Heroes are always tricky, you see,” said Star Swirl, and Stygian thanked his lucky stars because the old sorcerer was in that kind of rambling mood. “They aim high. They think they know best. They interfere all the time.”

“Sir?” said Stygian, who wisely refrained from commenting about Star Swirl relative to those complaints.

“Put more than one of them in the same room, and there’s always something lacking. No checks, no balances, just lots of egos fighting for space. Ambition gets bigger, and that means everyone else’s ambitions get bigger too. That’s how you get monsters.”

“Oh, sir!” said Stygian, honesty taking full control. “I’m sure the others are very kind and brave and humble ponies. Captain Magnus just wants to get the job done; he is a career soldier, sir. And Meadowbrook wants to heal the world, sir. She’s the kindest soul it’s ever been my pleasure to meet.”

“Yes, yes, Stygian, you say that now. But now you’ve brought them together. They face each other more often than they face their enemies. That’s why friends are more dangerous.”

Stygian’s heart sank. He’d trodden down this road so many times. He’d always drowned under the secret guilt. Yet Star Swirl’s voice grabbed his mind and frogmarched it down a familiar path, at the end of which lay shadows. Shadows that could hide anything.

“I don’t agree, sir,” said Stygian. Change the script! If only he could change the script.

Yet again, Star Swirl ignored him. “I had a friend once. Promising young student. Very interested in transformation spells, I remember.” He frowned for a moment. “Also, fish.”

“Sir, you don’t have to say it. I know.”

“One of the best and the brightest. She thirsted for knowledge, always pestered me, always asked me about this and that. Ambitious, oh yes. She worshipped the ground I walked upon, and the air I breathed, and frankly anything I ate or drank. Always copying my every move. Hoped greatness would rub off on her, I suppose.”

When he blew out, tufts of beard flew up for a moment. Stygian couldn’t resist anymore. He just hoped the shadows didn’t reach out and grab him –

“The others aren’t like that, sir,” he said without hope. “I know they aren’t. They wouldn’t betray anyone.”

“How can you be sure?” Star Swirl’s whisper didn’t have much hope left either.

Around them, the smell of old beer fouled up the breaths they took. So dark was the tavern that Star Swirl lit up his own horn, and red rage caught on his face, the face of a demon.

“And once she had all she wanted from me, she was out the door in a thrice!” Fighting against the age and weakness, Star Swirl growled. “She was my friend, Stygian. Gave me gifts, answered every question I had, fetched my ointment whenever one of my spells backfired. She told such jokes, she did, that even Meadowbrook would cringe to hear them. And she was out that door, as soon as we were done. Gone.”

Stygian shivered. Without other ponies around, the warmth of the place seeped away. Darkness intensified around their two lights.

He rubbed his mouth, which wanted another drink. “Adagio was a long time ago, sir.”

Adagio is right now, Stygian! Flying around out there, bringing Somnambula’s wretched siren legends to life. She liked the idea. She made it a reality. With my own magic! Now she flies around hunting lesser ponies. Not an ounce of unicorn left in her. And she found two more fools to join her desecration of everything I loved. That was all my friendship meant to her! My magic, my country, my… my…”

Star Swirl’s face woke up, as though realizing the memory had been severed. Nothing beyond that word came to him.

The demon returned to him. Glaring, he muttered, “The others will go the same way, if you’re not careful.”

“Lady Mistmane and the others? But after all the things they’ve done, sir, surely we could give them the benefit of the doubt?”

“You’re young and simple, Stygian. You spent too much time locked away from the world. That gullible idealism will get you killed if you’re not careful. Nearly killed me.”

“Adagio was different, sir. Not everyone is like that. Clover was never like that.” The other apprentice. Oh yes. Stygian had never met her. But he liked the sound of her, and anything that stuck it to this fool was fine by him.

Star Swirl bared his teeth. “Nonsense. Clover abandoned me long ago.”

“Did she, sir? I heard she travelled to help other ponies, sir. See, some ponies have their own special destiny.” Like making real friends, Stygian thought.

“Are you contradicting me, young colt?”

In the silence, the demonic face of Star Swirl shifted. His hat shielded his eyes, but Stygian knew from experience the old stallion had narrowed them.

Was he standing up to Star Swirl? What kind of question was that? A moment ago, Stygian hadn’t even thought along those lines. He’d just imagined, say, Rockhoof’s face if the stallion caught them talking like this. Rockhoof might look like an overgrown mutton-head, but he knew denial when he heard it.

Even if Rockhoof had possessed rocks for brains, though, he didn’t need them with Somnambula around. He’d pulled Stygian out of so many fires, snapped him out of so many trances… How could it be wrong to stand up for a hero like him, however much the big loudmouth made stories up about his exploits? With his shovel? And what about the others? Stygian quailed and stayed quiet, but he couldn’t let Star Swirl talk about them as though they were the enemy.

As though wanting to smile among friends showed lack of moral fibre. Hypocrite! Star Swirl hadn’t been so humourless during that stupid song earlier!

But here and now, he was standing up to Star Swirl, a little scholar like him. So he kept his mouth shut, and shook his head, and something deep inside raged against his ribcage, tore at his throat, burned and writhed in the agony of not being let free to right all the wrongs thrown back at his face.

“No, sir,” he whispered. “I apologize, sir. It wasn’t my place to question your wisdom.”

He hated those words. Only, what else could he say? Star Swirl backed off, and that was that. Job done. A lie could help keep this band of heroes from tearing itself apart. And it started with the sorcerer.

Besides, where else was Stygian going to go? Back in his tower, Stygian had barely believed ponies like that were real. Rockhoof alone sounded like he’d stepped out of the sea of mythology. Until Stygian had first seen the mountain of buck up close, it was impossible to believe an earth pony could throw boulders over a volcano, or dig a valley out in one night.

Plus, who else held the key to great power? Clover had disappeared off somewhere and no one else could even come close to Star Swirl. Perhaps he, Stygian, could learn more from the old sorcerer. Find out how he became so strong.

A thought struck him. “You trust me, don’t you, sir?” said Stygian.

“Of course. You’re only a keen scholar, young colt. What harm could you be, after all?”

Stygian froze.

The worst part was that Star Swirl smiled like a grandfather, as though he’d just said something grand.

Stygian dreamed of murder.

For now, he faked a look of gratitude, head slightly bowed.

Then he watched Star Swirl’s horn light up. Of course. The stallion knew magic. Why leave through the door like a common pony? A small bang rattled the planks.

And then there was one.

Stygian jutted his jaw at the empty spot. What harm could he be? Well now. One day, he’d find out. Sirens would not leave him defenceless on the side lines, oh no. Not if he found a way.

Fear choked him. He forced a hoof into his face until all dreams of murder and smug smiles fell back into his heart. Safely contain it. That was the key. Never let the dream take over. Believe there was an end to all this. And that it would be a good one.

He took a deep breath to help steady himself.

Then he headed for the door, hoofsteps pattering on the floorboards. Fear reached up and put his light out. He didn’t want to show up in the darkness. Besides, at night he felt… calmer, somehow. More real. As if the day was full of dreams and myths and stories all clamouring for attention around him, crushing him and suffocating him. Whereas the night? At night, he was his own stallion.

No, he would not join the others tonight.

Maybe he would scout ahead, go to Hollow Shades, make himself useful. He could lead the others there, if he left signs along the route. Marks on the trunks, perhaps, or a few stones piled up in a certain way. He’d read guides on outdoor survival, after all, and journals left by explorers. He knew he could do it. He only needed a chance.

He pushed the door open. He had to. Sooner or later, he had to prove he was one of them. Worthiness had to be earned honourably. For now, he’d play the helpful sidekick, but one day, he’d play the hero.

So Stygian smiled at his own quiet dreams, at cheers never heard and slaps on the back that for once felt earned and hearty. Lights in dark places. Lights in dark times. He could be one of those lights.

Modestly, he laughed under his breath, and then bravery gave him strength and he stepped out into darkness.

Comments ( 18 )

Just so people are aware: I originally had the text in a large block, but that was a bit much, so I've cut it down into more reasonably sized chapters. Little else has changed in the text itself.

This is wonderful. The dialogue is well done and the pillars all feel very much in-character. I especially love your Rockhoof and Meadowbrook. The way that song magic is described and the feeling that Stygian experiences when he dances with Meadowbrook is really well done. You nearly get the pillars to the same conclusion that Twilight and Rainbow get to in Rainbow Rocks, and then you yank it away and it's great.

Placing the reader with Stygian was a great idea––the frustration he feels at not being able to voice his thoughts really comes through and it sheds a lot of light on his later actions.

All in all this was a very satisfying read. You deserve more attention.

9669463

Thank you for the comment! :scootangel: It's very kind of you to say so.

I've written about some of the Pillars before, but I wouldn't mind coming back again to tackle them. This fic was an attempt both to get an idea for each one individually (especially Meadowbrook, yes, who turned out to be a blast once I figured out how to depict her) and to imagine how they'd actually work together, when they're being heroic as well as when they're relaxing.

That said, considering there are already seven characters to examine, I found Stygian surprisingly quite enjoyable to write. Telling the story from his POV made sense, because he's got the best of both perspectives: he's an admirer and sometimes feels like part of the group, yet he's also a resenter who notices (and sometimes exaggerates) their flaws. There are plenty of angles to choose from after that.

Also, yes, the Rainbow Rocks nod was a bit of dark irony I couldn't resist. The way Star Swirl was depicted in Shadow Play got me wondering how his mindset might have developed, and if it might even have been changed by the siren encounter (for the worse). Always room for ideas and development when you start thinking along those lines.

Thanks again for the comment. It's much appreciated. :twilightsmile:

Fantastically done all around. It's fascinating to contrast this with the comics of Stygian gathering the team. You paint a far darker picture wleven without the details. The toll this war has taken is clear to see even without going over past failures. And the way Star Swirl ruins pretty much everything he touches without even realizing it is perfect. Thank you for a great read.

9676041

Although I'm aware of some of the stories, I have to confess I don't read the pony comics, like Legends of Magic. This is chiefly improvised from the show, so I'm guessing it's OK if I don't use the AU tag? I'm kinda open to persuasion there.

Pleased to see you enjoyed the story, including Star Swirl. After Shadow Play, I generally assume he's a great but somewhat misguided hero, the sort to invent a mind-blowing new spell and then assume it'll solve all problems.

And of course, a hearty thanks for the comment, FanOfMostEverything! :scootangel:

Hm, on reflection, I think I'll remove the "Comedy" tag. The story contains jokes, sure, but in hindsight the comedy isn't as prominent as the other two genres.

I think my favorite part about this is Starswirl...and my least favorite part about this is also Starswirl.

I know he's become something of the fandom's chew toy after Shadow Play aired and made him out to be a huge dick, but I kinda wish more people were willing to show more sides to him (and there are more sides). That's why I appreciated you giving us a bit more depth in the first and final chapters, especially when he lets his guard down around Stygian a little bit and reminds us that for all his arrogance and experience, he's an old dude who's probably seen and gone through a lot of shit, and that has affected him. I also really like your idea of Adagio being an old apprentice of his and being the trigger for his cynicism.

Of course, he became particularly easy to hate towards the end of the story (and by extension, most of the rest of the Pillars became kind of easy to dislike towards the end, though not nearly as much as Starswirl), and that grated on my nerves a lot. Frankly, I really wanted someone to just straight up call him out on his shit and pound it through his head.

Another thing that grates on my nerves is that a lot of Stygian work (including the actual comics) make him out to be some kind of poor pitiful messianic archetype who's constantly kicked around by the others (especially Starswirl) despite his brains and talent and arguably make him kind of a borderline Gary Stu. Showing us the story from Stygian's perspective does shine a big light on how much his jealousy and dented pride and resentment contributed to his turning into the Pony of Shadows was a great move on your part, since it does show us that his transformation, while understandable, was still a reflection of his own flaws and choices (and the final chapter hinting at his Start of Darkness was one of the best parts of the story). However, it kind of feels like it wasn't enough. I don't know what more you could've done to pull Stygian away from the Gary-Stu kicked dog archetype, though.

Overall, I did like this story. Stellar dialogue, writing, and description, and everyone seemed very well in character (I especially want to praise you for your portrayal of Mistmane: she doesn't get a lot from other writers, artists, or even the actual show writers). I just kind of think you went a bit overboard on Starswirl's jerkass side.

9711293

I definitely get where you're coming from with Star Swirl, and while I do prefer to go with his "too arrogant for his own good" angle, I will try and tone it down in future appearances (should there be any). If I had to speculate, part of the interest in his arrogant side is probably because, prior to that two-parter, he tended to be played up more as a sort of great mentor, so it's not only different, but gives his character a notable flaw to deal with and play off the other ponies. It's also an interesting angle because of the fact that, despite being so great, he seemed to struggle with the concept of friendship and friendship-based magic. But that shouldn't be the only angle, so I see where you're coming from there, no worries.

The Stygian critique I found more surprising. I mean, I get why it's excessive to make him look like a Gary Stu type, but prior to now I didn't think it applied to him. He's smart, sure, but his whole Pony of Shadows thing put him in more Tragic Hero territory for me: someone who could have been a great pony, but who let his emotions and pride get the best of him. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think he's a Gary Stu. I think that part's fine the way it is.

That said, you make a good case for depicting him from different angles. It's like you said with Star Swirl: does he always have to be this particular incarnation? I put in a few titbits here and there to suggest Stygian was a bit of a shut-in (shades of Twilight pre-friendship epiphany), but now you mention it, a lot more could be done with that idea. And also more specifically how he gets along with some of the other Pillars, one-on-one.

So while I won't say I agree 100% with what you wrote, I am intrigued by it and will take it into account. It's always good to think about familiar characters from new angles, so if nothing else, thanks for steering me in new directions! Hopefully, I'll be able to incorporate those ideas into another fic in the not-too-distant future.

Thanks again! :scootangel:

9718730
I appreciate your reply and where you're coming from. Upon second thought, I may have been projecting my own issues with Stygian's portrayal in the Legends of Magic comics a bit (you mentioned in another comic that you didn't read them).

Your portrayal works better in that it proves to us that Stygian isn't perfect. He grows bitter, he holds grudges and lets them fester, he thinks a bit too highly of his own worth and a bit too little of how the others feel about him. In short, he holds the negative feelings inside himself and lets them rot.

And as for Starswirl, I'm not saying that showing his arrogance was a bad idea, not at all: it is part of his character, and his downfall. It just became extremely overbearing in the middle part.

I did like this story, be assured of that. I really wish people would do more with the Pillars.

9838653

I thought it might add a drop of bitter irony to her character, that the youngest of the female Pillars looks like the oldest. Give her more conventionally attractive ponies, like Somnambula and Mage Meadowbrook, for company, and that's bound to sting the Pillar of Beauty a little. I thought it gave her an interesting, melancholy angle, given her main action was to sacrifice her own beauty for someone else.

I see what you mean regarding the maturity and wisdom aspect. Perhaps I could explain that as the result of coming from a different cultural background, one that puts an emphasis on valuing age and experienced elders (shades of Confuscius's Taoism there), so after she physically aged, she sort of became the mask? I have to admit I'm speculating, of course. It didn't occur to me at the time.

That said, I don't know if it's been officially claimed what their relative ages are? I could have easily missed an official confirmation.

Your portrayal of the Pillars is a little different from the show and from other fanfics I've read, but I think it works when you consider that they're younger and haven't gone through the betrayal and then skipped more than a millennium. Meadowbrook and Rockhoof are the most different - Meadowbrook is a lot more boisterous (love how you remembered that she would be physically strong) and Rockhoof is more arrogant. And Stygian is already feeling resentment toward the Pillars, especially Star Swirl, but the readers can definitely sympathize with him. I didn't predict the twist with Adagio being not just a unicorn, but Star Swirl's former pupil. This paints Star Swirl in a worse light than in canon, because he made the exact same mistake twice.

9866381

I like to think Star Swirl's problem was more a lack of balance between extremes than repeating the same mistake. In Adagio's case, he was too open and trusting, but let that sting him too much, whereas with Stygian - and the other Pillars - his problem is not showing enough trust in them and their abilities, hence his domineering attitude.

Have to admit I go a bit back-and-forth on how to portray these guys (doesn't help they're not very fleshed-out compared with some characters), so some of this is just testing the waters on my part. My personal favourite to write was Meadowbrook, as you can probably guess, :scootangel: but I was also pleasantly surprised by how much Stygian seemed to click so neatly into place, and I'd love to develop Mistmane more, as I kept coming up with ideas for her while I was writing.

Thanks for the comment, though. It was useful feedback, and always good to read. :twilightsmile:

9866409
Star Swirl still banished his former friend/student instead of trying to reach out to her and see if she could be reformed, just like he did with Stygian. That's what I meant by repeating the same mistake.

Yeah, there's definitely room for different characterizations of the Pillars, especially since the comics present very different versions of Star Swirl and Somnambula than the show does.

Starswirl really seems incapable of nuance everyone powerfull other than him will turn out to be a threat to Equestria because one of his students did.

I’ve had this in my read later for ages, and I finally read the first chapter on my lunch break today. This feels very... official, though I’m not sure if that’s the right word. It’s very well written, aesthetically formatted, the story is very interesting and the characterization feels very faithful to the canonical personalities, I can see this being an IDW comic sort of thing.

TL;DR you’ve done a very good job!

10362137

Interesting you should mention the IDW comics: I don't read them myself, and most of my intel there comes second-hand via the fandom website (mlp.fandom.com), but I do sometimes use what I find as inspiration (for instance, I quite like the sound of Rockhoof's tale there more than I like the one shown in "Campfire Tales"; just seems more inspirational to me).

A lovely comment to receive. I'm glad you like the story so far, and I hope you enjoy the rest too. :scootangel:

Shoot, I hadn’t meant to leave my first comment on the last chapter, that looks mighty confusing.

Anyway, I’ve finished it, and I want more! Obviously it won’t happen, but the sentiment is there regardless.

My first comment was more of a review than my usual gush of compliments, but I can’t currently find the words for said compliments.

I think the objectively best chapter, and my favorite chapter, was the dancing one. All of the characters just oozed so much personality how you wrote them, it was amazing.

Hope we can get more stories like this

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