• Published 6th Nov 2012
  • 25,765 Views, 654 Comments

Grossly Incandescent - Crack Javelin

Thrust headlong into a strange new world, Solaire of Astora must make amends before he can continue with his mission. Unbeknownst to them all, a shadow from his past approaches.

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Chapter One - Scar Tissue

For eight years running she had attended the annual guest speaker’s seminar. Celebrated scientists and professors—every year a different alumni was called upon by the princess herself to not only kick off the new school year with an interesting speech on modern magic, but to also inspire students to reach farther than they had ever thought possible. As they say, magic is only as powerful as the pony behind it.

But no matter how driven, she was not prepared for this.

When Twilight Sparkle crinkled the papers beneath her hooves and glanced out into the sea of dimmed faces, she could only wonder what Celestia was thinking when she had asked her to be this year’s honorary guest speaker. From her spot on center stage, the now-foreign lecture hall was about as welcoming as a manticore’s den in the middle of winter. Hundreds of eyes followed her every move, and so silent was her audience, her own shaky breaths seemed deafening.

A small cough echoed through the assembly, and for a second, Twilight wondered whether accepting the princess’s last-minute invitation was such a good idea after all. There she stood behind the famous podium—the youngest speaker in the school’s history and still a student in her own right—about to lecture ponies not much older than herself.

Twilight’s throat tightened. She was given a two-hour timeslot, but on such short notice, all the material she and Spike were able to come up with amounted to a paltry three sheets of paper, growing increasingly tattered the longer they remained between her worried hooves.

She would have faltered then. She would have fled from the prying eyes. She would have wilted like a dead leaf had it not been for those special ponies sitting in the front row. Her friends; her harbor; her stone—they all smiled up at her, offering up the kind of silent encouragement that only a true friend could give.

Applejack, despite looking the most out of place amongst the student body, appeared just as interested in Twilight’s lecture as they.

Pinkie Pie was surprisingly still present in her seat, but was whispering into Rainbow Dash’s ear, to whom the pegasus whispered back a furious ‘Twilight was about to start and that she should shut her pink face’ but managing to be the loudest one in the room.

Fluttershy, bless her heart, had not disappeared between the seat cushions following the applause they had received moments before, and Rarity, with this year’s Gala not even two days away, had taken time out of her busy schedule just so she could attend.

And then there was Princess Celestia, who in all her radiance simply gave Twilight the smallest of nods and the smallest of smiles, the simple act meaning more than words ever could.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Twilight Sparkle put on her bravest face and began.

Grossly Incandescent

Chapter 1 - Scar Tissue

A pale, orange light illuminated the cavern walls. Bones of giant creatures long dead were scattered across the ground. All around them, black shadows pressed in, staved off only by the tiny flame guttering weakly at their feet. The two figures exchanged glances, and slowly, the knight crouched down in front of the fire.

Solaire held his hand above the wavering flame, orange wisps dancing between his fingers. A moment passed before he pulled away, sighing as he settled onto his rear.

“It’s getting harder to feel the warmth,” he said.

The woman pulled tight at her ash-grey cloak before sitting down next to him.

“No one’s tended this fire in a long time,” she replied, frost forming on her breath. “Years, maybe. I can’t say for certain.”

Solaire turned to the side and caught glimpse of his companion, her face barely visible in the dark cavern. Shortened black hair framed her worn features, a frown was formed on her lips, and only by the glow of the fire did Solaire notice the bags under her eyes.

She was frail. Thin, as if under all the hardened leather and tattered cloth was a bundle of sticks crudely lashed together to resemble a human being.

“You sound tired,” Solaire said.

“And you sound too happy... considering the circumstances.” She smirked. “Does the thought of slaying a god fill your heart with excitement?”

“You know I don’t condone death unless absolutely necessary.”

“What about this death? Is this one necessary?”

“Adria, please.”

“A jest,” she said, nudging him with her elbow.

Various sounds filled the air as Adria began rummaging through her pack. Withdrawn was a tightly bound scroll and with a practiced flick of her wrist, she had the parchment unrolled by the dim light, her eyes quickly scanning the information inside.

Solaire inched closer to the flame, content with keeping himself warm. As he held his hands above the fire, sensation slowly returned to his fingertips, a dull ache that he squeezed away with clenched fists.

The small flame was not like other fires. From the fine, white ash at the flame’s base rose ribbons of orange light, swaying in otherworldly winds like a ballerina in the dark. Stranger still, the flame produced not a sound. Not a pop or crackle, only a faint humming—a sweet, dulcet tone that washed away all worry.

In this forsaken kingdom however, Solaire knew he could not so easily discard his woes.

The horrors, they waited.

They waited for prey.

Always waiting.

Lordran, once the land of the gods... now the home of monsters.

If the creatures up above were terrifying, then Solaire could only guess at what lurked further underground.

He breathed out a sigh, letting his mind wander. In the past, he had seen hundreds of bonfires scattered all across the land. At night they acted as beacons, drawing in the weary like moths to a light.

No doubt they held some mystery, but Solaire was no scholar. He had no desire of rooting out the flame’s secrets. All he needed to know was that the fires kept him sane. The lingering doubt; the cold fear; the hopelessness—all burned away by the bonfires of Lordran.

An ancient magic, Adria had called them. She had many theories, but even with all her knowledge she could only come up with one explanation for the bonfires.

Solaire shut his eyes and let old voices fill his head.

An entire ocean of energy, Adria had once explained to him. The world’s lifeforce given form.

It was our light, our strength—we relied on it for everything... and now it’s gone. Fish can’t survive without water, Solaire, and we can’t survive in a world without magic.

So here we are... floundering in a shallow, dirty pool in the middle of a never-ending desert. The land is dry and cracked. Where there was once an ocean is now just dust and scattered puddles.

The fires are fading.

The darkness spreads...

“Our world is dying.” Solaire opened his eyes.

Adria stirred, looking up from a scroll she had just unwound. She quirked an eyebrow when he failed to elaborate.

“Something wrong?”

Solaire waved off her concern with a weak chuckle.

“I was just thinking of something you said long ago.”

“What about?” she asked, frowning as she slowly lowered the scroll onto her knees.

“I didn’t think much of it at the time, but... I suppose it has stuck with me.” He looked skyward, but the action proved meaningless. So dark was the cavern, if it were not for the dust in the air he would have thought he was looking up at a starless sky.

A chuckle escaped his lips. “You were talking about fish of all things, and how they don’t realize they need water until they’re sucking air... until it’s too late.”


He shook his head. “It’s magnificent, the things we remember. A century’s worth of memories, and this is what I recall.”

She gave him knowing look. The parchment crinkled between her fingers as she set the scroll off to the side. Afterward, she reached out, her gloved hand coming to a rest on his shoulders.

“We can set this right,” Adria said. “We can set everything right. The prophecy; our curse—no one else needs to suffer as we have. We just...”

“Need to slay a god,” Solaire finished for her. “So simple a plan, but it’s the execution that matters, doesn’t it? No easy feat, I’m sure.”

He had heard only whispers of Gravelord Nito. A towering monster of shadow and bone, the god had sequestered himself away into the darkest corner of Lordran, into a place where no mortal would dare disturb him.

Solaire could only wonder why Nito had chosen to stay behind in this forsaken kingdom when all the other gods had fled. He silently pondered this. The shepherd of death watching over a dead land—perhaps Gravelord Nito was just as chained to this place as they.

“We won’t fail,” Adria said, looking away. “We’ve come too far. Endured so much. I promise you, we won’t fail.”

“When have we ever?” Solaire replied, smiling at her despite the helmet covering his face. “You’ve grown so strong, you know. I might not show it, but this quest... it weighs heavy on my shoulders. Truly, I’m lucky to have you here. To have you fighting by my side, it is an honor I cannot repay.”

Adria gave his arm a squeeze.

“It’s funny that you bring up old memories,” she said, staring off into the dark. “I still remember what you said when we first met... that we all need something to fight for.”

Solaire nodded once, and then twice. He wore his convictions plain on his chest—a large, radiant sun handstitched into his tunic. The shield slung across his back bore the same image, the painted yellows and reds chipped away by the ravages of time. To a stranger, it would be no mystery as to what higher power he believed in.

She pulled away, leaving an uncomfortable silence between them. Hesitation clung to her as a somber look crossed her face—an expression he found her wearing wore more and more.

“I’ve come to know you well, Solaire. You’re so focused... so single-minded, I—” Adria swallowed forcibly, averting her gaze.

“It scares me sometimes,” she whispered, “how selfless you can be, but how selfish your goal is. You speak so highly of the sun as if... that ball of fire is the thing that will eventually save us.”

Solaire made no motion to speak. He had heard it all before—that he was just a fool reaching for something unattainable. Coming from her though, the words cut just a little deeper.

Adria took a deep breath and spoke with a renewed vigor.

“You are a knight, so you must know the value of an oath. Just know this. I’ll never forget the vows I made when you put that sword into my hand. And I swear it... I’ll do anything to make it so.”

He waited, but there came no response.

Even now, she was content with keeping her own convictions a secret. In all their time together, she had never once divulged what she had promised herself on that fateful day.

Solaire sighed.

“Adria, we all have our beliefs. You have yours and I have mine, but in the end it doesn’t matter what they are. What’s important is that they give you courage when there is none to be found.” Solaire nodded, collecting his thoughts. “Think about this. Me, you, the hundreds who’ve come before us. Ultimately, we have all gathered in this land for one reason.”

“To break the curse.”

“To break our curse,” Solaire affirmed. “Strength of will is the only thing that keeps us tied to this world now. Such is the nature of our affliction, we both know this.”

Adria sighed. “Then why repeat what you have told me hundreds of times before?”

“Because you still do not understand.”

“I understand enough.”

“Do you?” Solaire asked her. “I place my faith in the sun not because it is pretty, but because it gives me hope. You’ve chosen to believe in something else entirely. We may differ in our beliefs, Adria, and yet here we are. Tell me, after all we’ve been through, who’s to say we aren’t fighting for the same thing?”

He failed to notice the slight trembling in her hands.

“Yes... who’s to say?” she whispered back, the words suffocating in the dark. “I’m sorry for bringing it up. Just… just let me solve our visibility problem, okay?”

Before Solaire could offer a rebuttal, Adria shook her head and calmly unwound the faded yellow scroll from earlier. She was soon tracing a finger along the ancient runes and muttering obscurities under her breath, completely lost within the parchment.

He tried gauging her thoughts, but her expression was a mask of concentration. The slight furrow in her brow was the only thing that betrayed her annoyance, and even then, the cause could easily have been the poor lighting conditions. She brought the scroll up to her face, a few seconds passing before she let it back down with a sigh.

Always quick to abandon an argument, Solaire thought. Detecting a long wait, he took a deep breath and relished the reprieve. There was no telling how long they’d be there. In between the constant hikes and the short-lived, but often brutal battles, a moment to sit down and relax was something to be cherished. Out of the corner of his eye, he could make out Adria’s blurred shape, the bonfire casting her large flickering shadow across the walls.

The minutes passed by in a blur, and as if detecting that her partner was on the edge of sleep, she let out a low, thoughtful hum.

“Hey,” she said as she rolled up the scroll and placed it back in her pack. “I think I’ve got it.”

Adria rose to her feet and tossed her cloak to the side, revealing a gnarled wooden stick strapped to the back of her belt. She undid the buckles and after one final click, she drew what looked like an ordinary walking staff out in front of her, nodding as she inspected it for damage.

Solaire watched her, bemused, as her fingers danced along the staff’s surface. To someone unfamiliar with sorcery, Adria’s reverence for the staff would no doubt come off as odd. Solaire, however, had seen enough of her magic to know that the piece of wood cradled in her hands was capable of immense destruction.

Looking up at her, he voiced his concern.

“A new spell?” asked Solaire.

“A very old one rather,” she said through a sidelong glance. “I didn’t think we’d ever find a use for it, but… yes, better to be prepared.”

“There’s the normal kind of preparation, and then there’s what you do. I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you’d find a spell for just about anything in that mess of papers!”

She shot him an upset look.

“They aren’t just papers, Solaire. They’re ancient scrolls, and it’s very important that someone catalogue them! Whole schools of magic have been lost because they never bothered sharing their teachings with outsiders!”

Adria patted the small bag hanging near her waist. “If there’s a silver lining to this crisis, it’s this. Just like you said, heroes from all over came to Lordran to put an end to this curse, right?”

“Well, yes.”

“But they weren’t all sword-wielding buffoons. There was bound to be a few intellectuals amongst them.”

Solaire, unsure of whether he should be offended, nodded in agreement. “So you found these sorcerers, picked their corpses and added their knowledge to your own.”

“If they were dead, yes.”

“We’re in Lordran,” Solaire said, chuckling. “Everyone is dead here.”

“You know what I mean…” Looking away, Adria blew out a sigh. “Listen, we really should get moving. The faster we can get out of this tomb, the better.”

Solaire hummed a reply and taking that as her cue, Adria took a step forward and thrust the staff into the air. Where her hand met wood came a single pulse of light—barely imperceptible and gone in a blink—but before Solaire could question whether the spell had failed, a small sphere of energy emerged from the tip of the staff, giving off a faint glow that illuminated the nearby cavern walls.

The pale, yellow orb rose and rose until it hovered lazily above her head, bobbing up and down like a fishing lure in calm waters.

A sun in miniature, Solaire thought as he looked up at the tiny spectacle.

Adria turned toward him and held out a hand.

“It’s time,” she said. “I’d hate to keep Nito waiting.”

He accepted her offer and pulled himself to his feet. Though Solaire stood a good head taller than her, he met her eyes with little trouble.

“You never did tell me,” Adria said looking up at him. “How you feel about all this.”

Solaire’s grin widened.

“I’m here, aren’t I? Nito may be a god, but he is not my god. Don’t worry... for the sake of us all, Gravelord Nito dies today.”


The sound of their boots crunching against the gravelly floor reverberated throughout the cavern. It was as if the dead silence within the tomb conspired against them, amplifying the rhythmic beat of their footfalls by a factor of ten.

Even with the magic light that Adria produced, they moved at an agonizingly slow pace. Centuries of erosion had taken its toll on the subterranean graveyard, leaving behind nothing but gaping chasms that ripped across the cave floors.

‘The safest way forward’, Adria had declared, was a narrow spit of land that ran along the right-most edge of the vast cavern. After mistakenly peering over the cliff’s edge, Solaire could only wonder as to what his partner would think actually qualified as dangerous. Where she walked with a slow but steady gait, Solaire groped at the rocky walls like a blind man without a cane, a futile attempt at putting as much distance between he and the drop as possible.

“Can you make it brighter?” Solaire asked as he stumbled along behind her.

“Brighter? Why? Do you fear the dark, Solaire?”

“Yes,” he replied, “but I fear the fall more.”

Solaire could almost hear the smirk carried in her voice.

“I hope that you are watching your feet then instead of something else. It’s a wonder that you always insist on taking point.”

“Come now, you enjoy watching my back as much as I enjoy watching yours,” said Solaire with a chuckle. “I take no offense—it’s only natural for a lady such as yourself to be drawn to a man like me.”

Adria slowed her step.

“I’d rather hang.”

“Cold words, my friend, but coming from you I suppose it’s nothing unexpected. If I were to give you my heart right now, you’d only return it to me in pieces by the end of the day.”

She gave a small laugh.

“Are you implying that I’m inexperienced in the matters of love, Solaire?”

For a long moment he thought hard on how he should respond, his footfalls forming an even rhythm with hers.

“Yes,” he said.

Adria absentmindedly scooped her hair into a ponytail before letting it fall loose.

“Well, Sir Knight, I suppose I should tell you that I was quite popular back in the academy. I was doted on by the professors, pursued by handsome boys, and oh… absolutely loathed by the other girls. I can’t say for certain, but at one point I think they conspired to have me smothered in my sleep they were so envious.”

Solaire wrinkled his chin. “This is the famous school of sorceries? I’d never have thought that such an esteemed group would even consider sororicide as a means of getting ahead of their peers.”

“I’m exaggerating of course,” she said, a little more subdued. “The Dragon School promoted a respect for power above all else. They would’ve never hurt me...”

Solaire smiled, eager to hear more. Her past had always been something of a mystery to him; something to be treasured when given, but never sought out. Unwilling to let the conversation die, he pushed on.

“What about your instructors? An exaggeration as well?”

She shook her head.

“So you were the best then,” he casually remarked.

“I wouldn’t say that,” she replied, a hand bracing against the wall when the path got too narrow. “I suppose I just had a natural advantage over the others. My… my parents were both sorcerers you see.”

Solaire scoffed. “Are you saying that your abilities are based solely on your bloodline? So modest!”

She shrunk a little.

“Solaire, please. Can we—”

“Do you think I was born with a sword in my hand? I may not know a lot about your craft, Adria, but I’ve seen what you can do. There’s natural-born talent, and then there’s the product of hard work.” A grunt escaped his lips when his tall stature forced him to duck under a rocky outcropping. “Trust me, it’s readily apparent when someone has possession of both.”

Her pace slowed.

“And how exactly do you judge that?” There was an edge creeping into her voice.

He smiled. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

Adria turned to face him. Haggard eyes met his, her shoulders shook, and there was the slightest of tremors on her lips. When she finally spoke, gone were all traces of mirth, replaced by a palpable grief that weighed heavy on her voice.

“If I’m as powerful as you say... then why couldn’t I save myself? Why couldn’t I run or fight back, or just—” She took a quivering breath. “I just let it happen. I just them take me. Not exactly a desirable characteristic for someone trying to save all of humanity, is it?”


“I never did tell you how it happened, did I?”

Solaire swallowed away the lump in his throat. When words failed him, all he could was shake his head, gesturing for her to continue.

She turned away, her magic light casting odd shadows across her face.

“When the school found out I was cursed… afflicted, everything I had accomplished there suddenly meant nothing. Yes, I was one of the most talented students in my section, but that didn’t stop them from slapping me in chains and sending me here.” She opened her mouth, closed it, and tried once more. “Dragged from my home, from my parents. Forced to cling to my last bits of sanity in a land without reason. Wh—”

Her breath hitched in her throat.

“What kind of life is that?” she whispered into the darkness.

Adria looked up, her gaze roaming over the surface of his helmet. Eventually, she settled on the two narrow slits that counted as Solaire’s eyes.

Her voice came out quiet and subdued. “What’s harder do you think? Remembering the past… or letting it all go?”

Solaire breathed in. Some questions, he knew, were easier to answer than others.

“Adria, I’m sorry. I was being selfish asking those things of you. It never occurred to me that I was opening old wounds.”

“Don’t apologize,” she said, her eyebrows wrinkling. “I built a wall around myself even though I knew that one day it would come crashing down around me. I just didn’t think it would still hurt after all this time…”

Solaire reached out and clapped his hand against her shoulder. He grinned a small grin, a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“It hurts, remembering the past. Thinking on what could or should have been. Knowing that your life would be entirely different if you had never been cursed.” Solaire chuckled. “But that’s the beauty of it, don’t you see?”

“I-I don’t understand,” she said, shaking her head.

“If you were to let go of your past, let go of everything that haunts you… what would be left?” Solaire gave her shoulder a squeeze. “The curse wants you to forget. It needs you to empty yourself before it can take over. Haven’t you ever wondered why our enemies are called hollows?”

Adria’s eyes widened.

“Empty inside…”

“Their souls have left them,” Solaire said. “The very thing that once made them human, gone. So don’t let go of yourself, Adria. The pain reminds you that you’re still here. That you still exist.”

Her expression softened into something unreadable.

“I don’t know how you do it, Solaire... how you keep moving forward despite everything.” She looked up. “Don’t you miss it?”

His smile fell away slightly. “Miss what?”

“Being alive,” she murmured. “The curse stole your life away as it did mine, and you’re… what? You always seem so happy and cheerful, and it’s just- how do you do it?”

Adria breathed out a sigh.

“What’s your secret?”

Solaire chuckled. “It won’t be a secret any longer if I tell you.”

“Please,” she said.

He gave a slow nod and cleared his throat, diminishing any humor left in his voice.

“After asking you those questions, I suppose it’s only fair that I give you something in return. Very well. The truth, Adria... is that I chose this. I chose to become cursed.”

Her mouth fell open.

Solaire smiled. “I chose to become undead.”


“What is a soul?” Twilight Sparkle asked her audience. “Is it the well that we all draw magic from? Is it what defines us as ponies? Or is the soul something greater… the very source of life in us all?”

A hundred quills bathed in an array of lights simultaneously stopped in mid-air. Through the dim glow of their horns, she could make out the faces of a hundred unicorns staring back at her in wide-eyed curiosity, waiting with bated breath for her to continue.

A lightshow in slow-motion, Twilight thought as she looked out into the crowd. A hundred horns, a hundred scrolls and a hundred quills all coming together to form a beautiful cadence of scritches and scratches.

She opened her mouth, and all at once a hundred quill-tips clinked against the bottom of a hundred ink pots, the sweet sound echoing throughout the lecture hall.

Twilight smiled. This, this she could get used to.

“What if I proposed that the soul is all of these things? Magic, identity, and life; the well known Triumvirate Three! Not exactly the newest of ideas, but a safe topic for your dissertations nonetheless!”

A small chorus of laughter arose from the audience.

“As the scholars say, the soul is theorized to be the magic reservoir that all ponies draw from. When an earth pony grows too much crop at once, she might feel a tiredness in her bones that even a good night’s rest won’t cure. A pegasus might find that her wings won’t generate lift for the next hour after a long, international flight.”

Twilight gave her notes a shuffle before looking out into the crowd.

“And for unicorns, I’m sure we have all experienced first-hoof the effects of magic exhaustion. As the old adage goes, ‘If the horn pains, nothing good awaits.’”

In the front row, Applejack turned toward Rarity but before she could get a word in, Rarity whispered an incomprehensible something into the earth pony’s ear, prompting a slackened jaw and a chilled look. Applejack sunk back into her seat, a far-off gaze in her eyes.

“If your parents were anything like mine,” Twilight said, “they drilled it into your head from a very young age not to push yourself too far. They mean well of course, but even then, their warnings often fall on deaf ears. It’s not uncommon for an adolescent unicorn, her magic ability newly awakened, to try and earn her cutie mark in a needlessly reckless fashion...”

A few members of her audience gave sheepish, cursory glances before turning back to their scrolls. Four rows back, an older unicorn wearing a crumpled tie appeared as if he had been struck. The greyish stallion slowly lowered his quill before he let his horn go out.

Twilight Sparkle quickly cleared her throat. “Which I, ah… leads me to my next point! Cutie marks and the identity of self!”

She focused inwardly, picturing the image in her head before letting it flow out of her horn like water from an upturned cup. The crowd watched as her magic coalesced high above, forming a gigantic purple starburst that—Twilight realized too late—would not have looked all that out of place among Manehattan’s garish neon signs.

Twilight spared a glance toward the front row where a certain pink pony rocked in her seat. Their eyes met, and immediately Pinkie Pie gave her an enormous smile followed by an equally enormous wink. The floating cutie mark was her idea, after all.

“On some basic level,” Twilight started again, “we all know what a cutie mark is. It’s your first great accomplishment, it’s your signature on official documents, your stamp on letters, and a story to tell your grandfoals on a rainy summer morning.”

She scanned the crowd. “I’ll say it again, we all know what a cutie mark is, but how do you define it? Their existence can be traced as far back as the Pre-Royal era, and though enlightening, what historians have discovered is that the definition of the cutie mark hasn’t changed much at all in the past millennia. Or in essence… we still know next to nothing about them.”

Twilight paused, letting her words sink in.

“If somepony were to ask me to define a cutie mark, they would probably receive a thirty-page thesis that goes into great detail the effects of location variability, inherited interests and of course, nominative determinism!” A grin spread across her face. “Interesting stuff I know, but the amazing thing is, if a seven year-old filly were asked that same question, her likely response of ‘it’s what you’re best at’ would be just as good as mine.”

She rapped a hoof against the podium. “For all we know about cutie marks, there’s even more that we don’t. Are we destined to have a certain mark from birth, or is the outcome determined by outside influences? Is a pegasus a fast flyer because she has a lightning bolt cutie mark, or does she have a lightning bolt cutie mark because she dared to go faster than everyone else?”

Her mouth formed a thin crease.

“They’re all age-old questions. Do we influence the cutie mark, or does it influence us? What prompts it to appear in the first place? And perhaps the most important of all...” With a burst of magic, Twilight dispelled the image hanging above her head. Like miscolored snow, tiny purple specks fell across the stage.

“Why do our cutie marks disappear when we die?”

For a brief moment, her audience was overcome by a strange silence.

“Cutie Mark Dispersion Phenomena,” Twilight said, turning her focus toward her notes. “Another riddle that we are no closer to solving than our ancestors were. You know, I’m not exactly a right-brain thinker but I find it strangely poetic. We enter this world blank, and we leave it in much the same way…”

Chewing on her tongue, Twilight gave her papers a shuffle before looking up. The sudden realization hit her like a gust of cold air entering through an open window.

Every eye was trained on her, each quill at a complete stop. That familiar sensation in her chest returned, the sensation that she could only akin to missing a step on the stairs or miscalculating a teleportation spell.

“Eh heh, I-I think it just got a little grim in here,” Twilight said as she attempted a smile. “When you woke up this morning, you probably weren’t thinking that you were gonna receive a lecture on CMDP, huh? It’s true, it’s just one of those things that we can’t fully explain. The Everfree is wild, Princess Celestia moves the sun, and, well... cutie marks don’t last.”

The silence in the auditorium was deafening.

“But, um… I bring up these things for a reason, not only as a refresher but also as the basis for what I’ve come to talk to you all about today.” Twilight took a deep breath. “I’d like you to visualize a circle if you will, and lining this circle’s perimeter are three dots spaced an equal distance from each other. Or, uh, something like this.”

Her horn took light and began conjuring a purple ribbon that, within seconds, met at both ends to form a large hoop. She floated it off to the side so that it stood next to her podium.

“Magic, identity, and life,” Twilight said, adding a bright, yellow sphere to her hoop with each word. “these are the dots on your circle. These are the things that make you, you. Without life, there is no cutie mark. Without a cutie mark, there is no magic. And without magic… there is no life.”

Her eyes were drawn to the small wooden box resting between her hooves, safely out of sight behind the podium.

“The Triumvirate Three: an interconnected circle with no discernable beginning or end.” Twilight looked up, her gaze like steel. “Or so I thought.”

In the front row, the princess stirred.

Twilight flipped to the last page of her notes where a simple diagram lay: a rough sketch of the image she had just produced. She paused, taking a few calming breaths to combat the storm of nerves that lurked just beneath the surface.

Just say it.

She was painfully aware of Celestia’s deepening gaze.

Just say it, Twilight Sparkle.

She pursed her lips. “Two months ago… I, ah, started a series of controlled experiments in an attempt to, well—”

Just say it!

“—break free from the circle.”

A murmur of shock and confusion surged through the crowd. They whispered amongst themselves in hushed tones, shooting her way the occasional suspicious glance. She couldn’t blame them either. The implications she had just laid down at their hooves were groundbreaking.

And also insane.

Her friends appeared more perplexed than perturbed. Rarity, the only other unicorn within their group, sat completely still, the slow shifting of her eyes and the slight rise and fall of her chest bespoke plenty of how much she understood.

Her mouth moved, breathing something incomprehensible.

Twilight blocked it from her mind. She had a lecture to finish.

“The Triumvirate Three is something that we created so that our world made a little more sense. As flesh-and-blood ponies, we needed an answer to this mystery... something that we could safely place in a textbook and bury once and for all.”

She looked down at her notes. “I suppose it never occurred to them that their solution was inadequate.”

In a brilliant flash, Twilight Sparkle completed the diagram on her page. The hoop of magic that stood next to her podium gained a new sphere; a small, pulsing orb of white light that hung suspended in the center of the circle.

The missing piece.

The burning question.

The final answer.

“What is a soul?” she asked again. “Is it the well that we all draw magic from? Is it what defines us as ponies? Or is the soul something greater… the very source of life in us all?”

She looked out into the audience, her eyes scanning across their faces. “Perhaps more important than any of those things, the soul is a theory that we have based our facts on. The root that we could never dig up—the missing piece that has always eluded us.”

Gone were the nerves. Gone was the trepidation. As Twilight stepped away from the podium and laid her eyes upon the small box hidden there, all she could think of was the look of pride that Princess Celestia would surely give her.

A grin formed on Twilight’s lips, “—but missing no longer.”

The world’s greatest mysteries, my student, are simply just questions waiting to be solved.

The buzzing in her ears blocked out the silence. In a daze, Twilight levitated the box out from under the podium and raised it high above her head.

However, the real question you should ask yourself, Twilight Sparkle, is will you be the one to answer them?

The firmness in her voice could shake mountains. “Eight days ago in the basement of my library, I broke free from the circle and successfully crystallized a piece of myself…”

She looked toward the front row.

“I’ve successfully crystallized a piece of my soul.”


A golden magic enveloped the twin doors before they floated shut on silent hinges. As Twilight’s eyes adjusted to the dim candlelight within, she noticed that not much had changed from the last time she’d been here.

Princess Celestia’s office—her real office—lacked the formality and grandeur that was expected of her station. The only outstanding feature was the wide, oaken desk sitting in the middle of the room. On its surface, strange baubles held down giant stacks of paper. A variety of scrolls were stashed in a pile on the table’s edge, and behind all the mess sat the princess herself, regarding her student with a somber expression on her face.

Through the balcony doors, Twilight caught glimpse of a crescent moon peeking out from behind midnight clouds. She held back a shudder. There were very few reasons why Princess Celestia would ask to speak with her at such a late hour.

With a sigh, Twilight turned back toward the princess.

“You’re mad at me, aren’t you?”

An agonizingly long moment passed before Celestia’s horn took light, her magic grip fluffing the cushion that sat in front of her desk.

“Have a seat,” Celestia said. “After that lecture of yours, there is a certain matter that needs to be discussed.”

She spoke in a measured tone, a veil stretching itself across her words like the darkness that covered torrid waters on a misty night.

A feign.

A disguise.

A mask.

Twilight frowned. That was all the answer she needed.

“If this is about my research—”

“This is precisely about your research,” said Celestia. She took a deep breath. “Please, have a seat. I’d rather we have this conversation face to face rather than us speaking to each other from across the room.”

Twilight nodded and with a few steps closed the distance between them. All the while, Celestia watched her, the familiar warmth in her eyes replaced by a calculating look. Slowly, Twilight lowered herself onto the cushion, a pit forming in her throat.

“I figured you would have called me here,” Twilight began, quiet and controlled. “I saw you back in the assembly when I first revealed the crystal. For a second I thought you were going to leave or make me stop, but… I guess common sense took over and I realized you could never do that.”

Celestia’s expression remained unmoving.

“Would you rather I had stopped your lecture in front of your peers—your friends—after you saw my reaction?”

An image flashed through Twilight’s mind: a wide-eyed Princess Celestia sitting in the front row of the auditorium, the crystal suspended in the air between them.

Twilight locked it away.

“Of course not,” she said, focusing on her hooves. “If you had, the embarrassment alone…”

“Would have killed you,” finished Celestia.

Twilight looked up.

“Y-yeah… something like that.”

The clock ticked and tocked.

Twilight chewed at the inside of her lip, a habit that proved impossible to get rid of.

“Nervous?” the princess asked her. “A natural response, considering what you have done. Although I suppose it’s a good sign that you are able to feel anything at all after everything you’ve put your body through.”

Celestia gave a small chuckle, but it sounded forced and hollow—a laugh for the sake of sound, an actor going through the motions.

Twilight grit her teeth, her own guise cracking.

“You never did answer me,” she said. “I do something you don’t like, and you start treating me like a foreign diplomat. I feel like I know you well, Princess, and honestly, watching you put on airs hurts more than if you had just told me what you actually felt from the very start.”

She felt a bead of sweat forming on her temple.

“So say it. If you’re angry because of my research, just say so.”

For a brief moment, Celestia’s guard faltered. Her shoulders sank by the fraction of an inch. Her lips curled downward and her eyes fell shut, a giant black curtain blocking out the world.

But only for a moment.

“Twilight,” she whispered, “anger does not even begin to describe it.”

A quiet fury.

The sun’s fury.

“Your research. Crystallizing a piece of yourself. What in the world was running through your mind when you thought that was an idea worth exploring?” Celestia shook her head. “You’re a mare grown, Twilight Sparkle, and I realize this, but that does not mean you are entitled to destroying yourself. If even one thing went wrong...”

“But it didn’t! The methods I used ensured that it would never reach that point! I—” Twilight paused, her ears wilting. She continued again in a more muted tone. “You’ve always told me... risk versus reward. I haven’t forgotten.”

Celestia’s eyes narrowed.

“Was risking your life worth it, then?”

A strange silence fell over the two. Twilight stared down at her hooves, her throat tightening. She could feel Celestia watching her, feel her intense gaze boring into the top of her skull.

Only when her lungs began to burn did Twilight remember to breathe.

A sigh from Celestia drew the unicorn’s attention. Horn glowing, Celestia pulled open a drawer and levitated out a scroll bearing a familiar crest. She gently lowered the parchment onto the table, not bothering to unroll it.

Twilight’s eyes flicked between the note and her teacher, coming to a sudden understanding.

“Spike sent me this some weeks ago,” Celestia said. “You had him help with your research, correct?”

Twilight gave a slow nod. “What did he tell you?”

“Almost nothing. I suspect that you asked him not to reveal anything to anyone, and thus he omitted the particulars about your newest endeavor.” From across the desk, Celestia studied her with a sober expression. “But what he did say, Twilight Sparkle, was that you were pushing yourself far too hard. I could tell just by his handwriting alone… he was scared. Perhaps enough for the both of you.”

The unicorn sat silently, her eyes focused on the letter. She already knew the answer, but she had to ask anyway.

“If it’s not too much trouble, um… could I maybe read it? What he wrote, that is.”

Celestia shook her head. “I’m afraid not. I believe this matter calls for some respect of privacy.”


“I know you feel betrayed, Twilight Sparkle, but that is the exact opposite of what he intended. Spike was worried, so he sent me a note.” Celestia tapped the letter with a gold-shod hoof. “And can you really blame him? If anything happened to you, who would be affected the most? Who would be hurt the most?”

Twilight shelved away the sudden surge of emotion.

“What else did he say?” Twilight asked her.

“That you were avoiding your friends. That if they found out what you were attempting to do, they would without a doubt try and put a stop to it.” Celestia leaned forward slightly, but to Twilight it was as if Canterlot itself was towering over her. “You knew that this research was going to hurt those closest to you and yet you continued with it. I want to know why.”

Twilight’s mouth formed a thin line. After a few seconds, she gave a dismal shake of her head. That was all she could do.

Why?” Celestia repeated. “Constantly destroying your magic until there was nothing left except for the very core of your being... this goes beyond a simple academic curiosity. What compelled you to do this?”

A pained look crossed Twilight’s face. She took a deep breath, taking a moment to arrange her thoughts.

“The variables,” Twilight murmured. “I-I wish I could explain it better, but after we returned from the Crystal Empire, I ran through my head all the things that could have gone differently… both the good and the bad.”

Celestia’s brow furrowed. “And what conclusion did you come to?”

“That I wasn’t strong enough...” Twilight turned her gaze toward the balcony doors. “What if Cadence’s magic gave out earlier than it did? What if Spike wasn’t there with me atop the palace? We would have failed, and—”

She breathed out a quivering sigh. “I don’t think King Sombra was the forgiving type of pony. I can’t let something like that happen. Not again. Not ever.”

Celestia blinked once then twice, a slow nod signifying that she understood.

“So you sought to eliminate the variables,” Celestia affirmed. “You began your search for the soul.”

“I had to become stronger. I had to become better. If I could prove that the soul existed and somehow harness it… then maybe I could prevent anypony else from getting hurt in the future.”

She turned toward Celestia. “You took me on as your student and taught me everything I know about magic. The least I could do is use these gifts to help defend your nation.”


Adria had little to say. Like a ghost stuck in time, she checked and re-checked her gear with listless eyes. She fastened her belt, secured her armor, and for the third time her hand was drawn to pommel of her sword. With a quick flourish Adria drew the rapier from its scabbard, the thin piece of steel held in a firm grasp.

Solaire watched as she pointed the weapon’s tip out into the inky black.

“Going into battle with a head full of troubles is going to get you killed,” said Solaire. He adjusted the large shield lying across his lap, the sun’s face painted on its surface staring back at him. “Tell me, what’s on your mind?”

She let the sword back down with a sigh, her eyes flicking in his direction.

“I still can’t believe you chose this,” Adria said. “We’re fighting to end this curse, and then I find out that you willingly cursed yourself? I can’t fathom it.”

Solaire chuckled. “Would you rather have a mewling kitten of a partner who shies away at the smallest of noises? I’m a man, Adria. Born for combat. Is it such a surprise to find someone like me who lives and bleeds for war on the fields of mankind’s final battle?”

He ran a hand across the surface of his shield, a smile growing on his face. “A knight’s duty, after all, is to serve his lord until death takes him. Perhaps that is why I came here, Adria, to die in the service of the Lord of Sunlight himself. I can think of no higher honor.”

“And yet you cursed yourself,” Adria said, looking away. “You will never know true death. Not anymore.”

“Maybe not... but I have died. Many times in fact.” Solaire fit his arm through the shield, his fingers flexing around the metal grips. “And before you say anything, I know that no one is keeping count—it’s a fool’s hope to even think so. There will be no songs or poems about us simply because no one knows.”

Adria scoffed. “What’s the point of your quest then? You come here seeking glory in the name of your lord but no one is around to see it.”

Solaire’s grin widened.

“If the gods know of my deeds, then that is enough.”

She shook her head, her eyes narrowing in disbelief.

“Solaire... all you have to do is look around to know that the gods have abandoned us. The dead walk the earth. Civilization has crumbled. If they ever loved humanity, I’m having a hard time believing it.” Adria breathed in deep and let it all out in one shaky exhale. “You fight for honor, Sir Knight... but there’s none to be found here. The same fate awaits us all.”

Slowly, Solaire stood up, his hand drawn to the mark burned into the center of his chest. Through cloth and chainmail, rough fingers traced the hideous brand found underneath, a black circle of a scar that would never fully heal.

Adria watched him, a grimace spreading across her face.

“A testament to our undeath,” she murmured. “You die and die and die, and each time the Darksign brings you back. Slowly, you become numb to the pain. You start to forget, and one day… the thing the Darksign brings back isn’t you.”

She shut her eyes, her voice fragile in the dark.

“The fate of the undead. If we fail here—”

“I won’t let it happen, Adria. Not to me. Not to you.” Solaire took a step forward. “I promise you this, I will not let you hollow.”


With a burst of magic, Celestia pulled open the tower’s balcony doors, welcoming in the whispers of frigid air.

Twilight watched as Celestia made her way outside on silent hooves, the bright pinks and greens of her ethereal mane a stark contrast against the bedtime skies. All of Canterlot—all of Equestria—stretched out beneath her, the rolling hills and mountains painted a dark blue by the stars blazing up above.

“I made a similar promise to myself long ago,” Celestia began, her voice quiet. “An ancient promise that, I am loathe to admit, has been broken.”

She looked up, and Twilight could almost imagine the heavens reflected in her rose-colored eyes.

“I can remember the moment so vividly, the exact moment when I first made that promise. I wish I could say it was on a night not too different from this one, but that would be bending the truth, wouldn’t it?”

Twilight’s throat tightened. She had read countless times the stories of her princess, but hearing one from Celestia herself often included details that could never be found in the history books.

“I’m sure you’ve realized this already, Twilight Sparkle, but Equestria was not always such a peaceful place. I believe that you are old enough now that I can safely tell you this.” For only a second, Celestia glanced back into the tower. “Would you like to hear about the night I made my promise?”

All Twilight could do was nod, her gaze roaming over the shaded silhouette standing in the balcony doorway.

Celestia turned away and took a deep breath.

“It was raining,” she began. “Sharp, cold, stinging drops of water that, if you were to look up at them, it would seem as if the stars itself were crashing down upon you. Lightning arced across the sky, and the moon only illuminated the mud that stained my coat. I can remember water pooling around me, quickly filling the crater I lay in. I knew then that if I did not move, I would surely drown.”

Twilight tried to picture it in her mind, the still form of her princess laying at the bottom of an earthen hole. She quickly shook her head.

“What did this to you?” whispered Twilight.

For the second time, Celestia craned her neck to the side, a single eye regarding Twilight with a look of deep thought.

“There are many creatures, Twilight Sparkle, who could have injured me in such a way. A dragon could have flung me into the ground with its iron jaws or a battalion of griffon warriors could have speared me in mid-flight. But you should know, my student, at the time it didn’t matter what physical damages my body suffered—” Celestia paused, “—wounds can heal.”

The alicorn began making her way to the edge of the balcony, her hooves clinking against the stone tiles. With a wing she beckoned Twilight to join her.

Silently, Twilight rose from her seat and started for the doors. When she passed the threshold, a gentle breath of wind whispered by, ruffling her mane and causing her to squint against the breeze. Cherished memories resurfaced as she took in the familiar sights, but those were soon dispelled when her eyes fell on the figure standing at the balcony’s edge.

She came to a stop at Celestia’s side, and for a brief moment, she scanned the darkened horizon. Twilight didn’t need to peer over the railing to know that far below was Celestia’s private garden, tucked away in the shadow of the tower. She breathed in deep the cool air, and as the two stood there atop the highest point in Canterlot, Twilight realized her heart was racing.

With a worried look, she turned toward her teacher.

“Princess Celestia?”

Celestia only stared straight ahead, her expression unmoving.

“A cut is instantaneous, Twilight Sparkle. The coat is severed, the skin breaks… and eventually, the blood flows. Only when you look down do you realize that you have been cut. As you’re struggling to find a bandage, the pain sets in. The tears come, and no matter your age, no matter the severity... everypony wishes that someone could come and kiss away the hurt.”

Celestia looked down at her, an unidentifiable expression on her face.

“What happens next do you think?”

Twilight blinked at the sudden question. “W-well, the uh, scab forms… and eventually a scar appears at the site of the break.”

“Scar tissue,” Celestia murmured. “Strange, isn’t it… how something that was once a great source of pain is trivialized into a pale line that can barely be seen through your coat.”

Twilight turned away, her eyebrows creasing. “Before… you said wounds can heal. That can’t be all you meant.”

A moment passed before Celestia responded.

“Wounds can heal, Twilight Sparkle. On your body, you can point out exactly where an injury occurred. You can look in the mirror and trace a hoof along those pale lines, remembering how you got them, or sometimes not remembering the incident at all.”

Celestia took a deep breath.

“Wounds can heal… emotional traumas do not. A scar of the mind; a damaging of the psyche. The reason, Twilight Sparkle, I was not able to climb out of that hole one thousand years ago was not because my body was broken…” Celestia paused, her face becoming a rigid mask, “...but rather because I realized then that I had to destroy the pony I cared for most in the world.”

In that moment, Celestia let the sounds of a sleeping Canterlot fill the silence between them.

She started again, quieter than before. “I could not move—how could I? My own sister took me into her magic field and crushed me into the earth. The pain I felt then could not compare to the despair, the hopelessness, the anguish I felt inside.”

Celestia left no room for a response.

“You might be thinking, Twilight, that my rage was justified. Luna, the pony I held closest to my heart, had just attempted sororicide to take the throne we shared for herself. Her mad delusions would have, without a doubt, doomed all life on Equus. I was right to be angry with her.”

Twilight felt a frown forming on her face. She stared straight ahead, her eyes focusing on a far-off bundle of lights on the horizon.

“I… I’m not thinking that, princess. I’m not thinking that at all.”

She could hear Celestia’s wings ruffle, feel her powerful gaze on the side of her head. Twilight shifted on her hooves, an uncomfortable sensation welling up in her throat.

She swallowed it away.

“I think you were angry at yourself,” Twilight said, “for letting it happen, for... letting her become what she did.”

When Celestia remained silent, the seconds ticking by, Twilight spared an upwards glance only to find her teacher looking down at her with that same unidentifiable expression.

Twilight’s eyes widened.

“I-I’m not saying that’s what you were feeling!” she stammered, turning away. “But… but if that were me in your situation, I think I’d be more disappointed in myself than anything, a-and that’s why I said… that stuff...”

Unexpectedly, Celestia’s lips curled into a smile. A smile that, all too soon, vanished without a trace.

Celestia breathed in deep, her face returning to its previous rigidity.

“As the stories say, my sister was not… happy with the world. She sought change, but in order to make her dreams a reality, she first had to change something else. Something within.”

Twilight felt a quick pang in her chest.

Celestia continued unabated.

“I never did tell you what Luna’s school specialized in, but I suppose now... you can hazard more than just a guess, correct?”

Twilight slowly shook her head. “You can’t mean...”

“Soul magic,” Celestia answered, a hardened look in her eyes. “My sister’s school specialized in soul magic.”

Celestia sighed.

“Fate moves in mysterious ways, Twilight Sparkle. Perhaps this is my karmic justice—I order the destruction of my sister’s favored pupil only for my own student to succumb to that same ancient allure one thousand years later.”

“F-favored pupil? I don’t know—”

“You uttered his name ten minutes ago. It has not yet been two months since you and your friends helped destroy him.” Celestia turned away. “Surely you know who I speak of.”

Twilight blanched. Her limbs felt heavy. Her tongue was a brick in her mouth. She worked her jaw noiselessly, her brain unable to come up with the proper words to convey her thoughts.

Somewhere, an owl hooted in the distance.

A cold gust of air bit into her coat.

Eventually, Celestia started again in a somber tone.

“I believe that Sombra’s banishment was what drove my sister to twist her soul… what drove her to become Nightmare Moon. Just as Luna changed herself to change the world, I had to change myself to save it. I had to become stronger. I had to become better.”

Celestia’s eyes fell shut.

“I had to become something I wasn’t.”

A faded portrait of a pink-maned princess flashed through Twilight’s mind. A princess full of laughter and love. A princess with a coat like snow, a smile full of sunshine.

Once a part of a pair, now alone.

Change myself.

Twilight looked up, the realization slowly dawning on her.

“Your promise…”

Celestia gave a slow nod.

“As I lay in that crater, Nightmare Moon descending upon me faster than the falling rain, I made a promise to myself. A promise that, if I were to live to see the next day, I would eliminate all traces of soul magic. I would not allow it to change anyone else. I would not allow it to ruin any more lives.” Celestia paused. “I would... not allow it to be researched further.”

“Then you should have stopped me,” Twilight whispered. “If I had known—”

“If you had known, then we would not be having conversation.” Celestia peered down at her, an almost pleading look in her eyes. “Do you regret your research now that it has led you here? Led you here atop this tower?”

Twilight shook her head. “O-of course not, princess!”

Celestia looked away.

Her voice was quiet and low—distant, as if she were speaking across centuries. “I can’t seem to put the past behind me, Twilight Sparkle. My greatest regret is that I was not able to prevent my sister’s downfall. But make no mistake, what I did afterward pains me just as much. I… I destroyed her research, destroyed her school… and abandoned the castle that was our home."

Celestia shut her eyes. “I could not face what I had done. Though Luna still lived in that monster I sent to the moon, I essentially buried her. I buried my sister and fled...”

Twilight looked on, her ears flattening. In all her twenty years of life, there wasn’t a memory she could draw on of seeing her princess in such a troubled state. The familiar ache in her chest returned, a dull throb as if something inside was being constricted.

“Princess, I...” Twilight shook her head. “I can’t even imagine the pain you felt, what you were forced to do—but it’s been so long, a-and we saved her. Princess Luna, she—”

“Was at your lecture,” Celestia cut across a flat tone. “She saw it all. Your soul crystal, your formulas. Heard the methods you used.”

Twilight’s breath hitched in her throat.

High above, the crescent moon floated through the sky, a sickle slicing the heavens.

Celestia sighed.

“Our talk was brief, but she told me one thing, Twilight Sparkle. If you continue down this path you will surely destroy yourself.”

Twilight looked down at her hooves, the last two months of hardship and sleepless nights flashing through her mind.

“I-I see,” she murmured. “You’re telling me stop my research.”

A pause.

“I’m not telling you to do anything, Twilight Sparkle... all I can do is simply tell you the truth.”

Sunlight Shield

"Shield of Solaire of Astora, Knight of Sunlight. Decorated with a holy symbol, but Solaire illustrated it himself, and it has no divine powers of its own. As it turns out, Solaire's incredible prowess is a product of his own training, and nothing else."

Author's Note:

A heartfelt thanks to my friend and editor, Kitsunerisu