• Published 20th Dec 2012
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A Wake of Mist and Flame - heliopause



A day in the life of Princess Celestia, as seen through the eyes of one of her guards.

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Grandgait

With the last of their picnic carefully packed and stowed away, it was time to head to their primary destination: Grandgait. They had already covered almost half the breadth of Equestria and had still more to go, not to mention the return trip. Somehow the miles always seemed easier when he accompanied Celestia.

Grandgait was a bustling city, nearly as large as Canterlot itself, but where Canterlot was a noble city of equine aristocracy, Grandgait’s population was dominated by the merchant classes. A center of industry, its craftsponies were known throughout Equestria for their precision building, attention to detail, and intricate designs. Here, a pony could buy anything from an emerald hatpin to a walnut and glass limousine carriage.

At the city’s precise geometric center lay Grandgait Park, and at the center of the park rose the Crystal Chronometer, like a pin marking the city on a giant map. The famous landmark drew ponies every day to have their pictures taken and watch its display as it announced the hours.

Five stories tall, the Chronometer was constructed entirely of glass and semi-precious stones, allowing one to see through to the mechanisms inside and watch the turnings of the clockwork gears. Darrilon had fond memories visiting as a foal, watching the hours ring in. Everything started with a large polished lens perched atop the structure, tracking the sun, focusing it and sending beams of raw sunlight to the various sub-chambers within the chronometer. The light then passed through layers of refracting prisms, birthing rays of red, orange, and violet to race in opposing spirals up and down the tower. One brilliant green beam filled an aquamarine matrix, charging it until it glowed: a battery allowing the chronometer to function under an overcast sky. Another beam struck an array of mirrors mounted on a carousel, which began to spin, faster and faster, becoming a blur, winding the mainspring, which in turn drove the crystal gears and flywheels, visible as an ever-shifting interplay of reflected light.

After weaving through innumerable filters and mirrors, the beams would emerge from a screen of tiny portals, flowing across the clock face and becoming the hour and minute hands for the main display.

It’s dazzling and spectacular. Or, at least, that’s how Darrilon remembered it. Now the Chronometer stood dark and inert, its battery spent. No beams of light danced with its meshed gears. The capstone lens was missing; the driving engine which grabbed light from the sky and fed the apparatus, gone. Without it, the tower looked injured, like a wing with a primary feather plucked out.

Darrilon reread the message that Grandgait had set last night.

In so forth as the Chronometer, being an historical landmark, and a source of Inspiration to ponies from lands across Equestria…

He still couldn’t decide which was worse, the scroll’s legalese or its accusation. Grandgait’s mayor believed Princess Luna responsible for the theft of the Chronometer’s central crystal, and he wanted Celestia to retrieve it, or render some sort of punishment, or both.

Darrilon didn’t believe Luna had anything to do with it, and judging from her reaction this morning, Celestia agreed with him. This trip was a waste of time.

Assembled at the Grandgait city square were the mayor, his assistants, and his assistants’ assistants. At Celestia’s approach they all bowed low, their manes dusting the ground. “Princess Celestia, you honor us with your expeditious response.”

“You have raised a grave concern, Mayor,” the Princess said. “And your Chronometer is renowned throughout the land. It’s a shame for anything to happen to it.”

Everypony turned to look up at the lifeless shell of the Chronometer. It was so dead it seemed to suck the blue from the sky around it.

“And what is your evidence that my sister Luna bears the responsibility for this heinous crime?”

“She used her magic!” an anonymous pony shouted. Darrilon craned his neck to see who had yelled out. It was a pony at the far edge of the crowd, too far for Darrilon to see clearly. Whoever this pony was, he didn’t look like he belonged in this group of city officials.

The mayor sighed and adjusted his coat jacket. “It’s a matter of motive, Your Majesty. Our Chronometer is a testament to your gifts and abilities. It is powered by the light you bring to us each and every day. Clearly this”—he looked up at the stolen lens—”is an act of vandalism fueled by rage and resentment.

“The signs are obvious to those like you and me. For you see, I too am familiar with the heartache of a younger sibling who… disappoints.”

The crowd parted and gave Darrilon a better look at the pony who had shouted earlier. He did have an accent similar to the mayor’s, and the two of them could easily be brothers. But the mayor’s mane and tail were well groomed, while his brother was somewhat shaggy and needed a good brushing. And where the mayor’s hind quarters were marked with a parchment and gavel, his brother bore the mark of a wheelbarrow.

“I know how difficult it can be,” the mayor continued. “Covering up for their mistakes. Making excuses. It never seems to end.” He lowered his voice, to soften the volume of his words, if not their sharpness, and took two careful steps forward to position himself so that his hooves were in the shadow of the dark tower, while his head broke through to the sunlight. “Sometimes, when a sibling cannot hope to match an elder’s accomplishments, they seek instead to take them down, to destroy what they cannot hope to match.”

“Please, your Majesty.” One of the mayor’s assistants stepped forward. “Have you noticed anything odd about Luna’s behavior lately?”

Another townspony stepped forward. “I heard she counts numbers on a toy rack with beads,” she said, setting off a wave of murmurs through the crowd.

“Oh my,” Celestia replied. “That is odd.” Darrilon struggled not to laugh out loud.

“And I heard she likes to wear socks!” shouted yet another rabble rouser, drawing audible gasps and muttered admissions of distaste.

“Clearly, this deserves further investigation,” Celestia said—with Darrilon alone picking up her sardonic intonation. He moved to the back of the group, afraid he’d be unable to maintain a serious expression and give her away. The delegation continued forward around the perimeter of the tower base, while Celestia made noncommittal comments about ever more improbable tales of Luna’s behavior. Eventually Darrilon fell far enough behind that they disappeared around the bend, and he was able to relax, cracking a smile for the first time today.

Stepping off the sidewalk, Darrilon’s right front hoof hit something hard in the grass. There was an object buried in the ground here, the end of a wooden post or stake sticking up an inch or so and covered with a dusting of soil. Somehow it reminded Darrilon of another, much smaller town they had visited, about a year ago.



The settlement of Silver Spurs—calling it a village would be generous—had been one of Celestia’s last-minute additions to the itinerary. The town Speaker (they didn’t have any office higher than that) ushered them through an adorably amateur meet-and-greet, pointing out every accomplishment since Silver Spurs’ founding. Instead of an official delegation they were accompanied by, it seemed, every last pony in the entire settlement. The large crowd made Darrilon a little nervous, but the mood was convivial. All the amiable settlers wanted was to see their Princess.

“This is our community mess hall,” the Speaker pointed out, as they passed a large wood structure, painted red with black trim, the inside all one unpartitioned space filled with benches. “And on your left you can see our marketplace, where merchants from across Equestria gather every week to trade exotic goods.”

Earth ponies were capable of remarkable feats of construction. One of the tricks Darrilon had picked up, traveling with Celestia, was learning to spot the signs. He noticed what Celestia noticed. Recently overturned dirt, a shade darker than the surrounding fill. Patches of paint, slightly off-color as they dried to match. The way the floor felt under your hooves, when the joists had yet to settle to their final rest. A faint smell of sawdust in the air.

He was pretty certain that this “marketplace” where merchants gathered “every week” had been built just this morning. Celestia knew it, too, but she wasn’t saying anything, and so neither would he.

Before they left the marketplace they were interrupted by a couple pushing their way through the crowd. Darrilon tensed, but saw it was in fact a family, husband and wife, accompanied by their baby who couldn’t have been more than a couple days old, still wobbly on her feet and barely able to keep up with her parents.

The crowd grew silent as the young couple made their way to the front. But their courage evaporated as soon as they were directly before the Princess, and they stood there uncertain what to do next—until their newborn poked her head out from between their legs. “Please, your Majesty,” the father stammered. “Our daughter was born just this Harvest Day, and she would—I mean, we would…”

“We’d be ever so grateful,” his wife continued, “if your Majesty could give our daughter your blessing?”

Darrilon had seen variations of this same scene play out in towns across Equestria. Celestia never refused such a request; to the contrary, she seemed to draw energy from encounters like this. Everypony held their breath as the Princess knelt down to get a closer look at the child. The little foal blinked back, speechless, her huge eyes filled with the sparkling image of the Princess and her multihued mane flowing around them. Celestia bowed her head, gently touching her horn between the filly’s eyes. A pinprick of magic sparked and quickly bloomed like a bead of oil dropped onto water, surrounding the entire assembly, and then dispersing in a whispering breeze.

“Grow strong and true, little one,” Celestia said. “You have within you the power to do great deeds.”

The parents’ eyes went wide, and they thanked Celestia a dozen different ways, babbling praise and gratitude even as the Speaker tried to resume the tour. Darrilon casually moved between them, herding the family off to one side and separating them from the main group without being obvious about it, so that the tour could continue without further disruption.

The father looked down at his daughter with pride and astonishment. “‘Great deeds,’ she said. The Princess said she would do great deeds.”

Actually, she had said something else. Celestia was a master of verbal misdirection, speaking with such subtlety that ponies often mistook her meaning. Ponies tended to hear what they needed to hear. Today she had used a light comment to deepen a father’s belief in his own daughter. On the other hoof, Darrilon had witnessed the Princess deliver stinging rebukes to ponies who thought they heard only heartfelt praise.

The four of them were now safely moving away from the tour group, so Darrilon could leave them and rejoin Celestia. “You’re very lucky,” Darrilon said. “Be well.”

Before he was out of earshot, the father called out to him one last time. “She’s wonderful, isn’t she?”

He was talking about the Princess. The earth pony settler meant well, but his casual compliment betrayed a depth of ignorance. Princess Celestia was more inspiring, more generous—more wonderful than anypony could ever guess. Only Darrilon knew of her countless unrewarded sacrifices. If he lost his position, would he also forget what Celestia meant to the land, as the ravages of time ate away at his memories?




By the time Darrilon caught up with the group, the tour had already finished. Even with stops at every shack and hitching post, Silver Spurs didn’t have much to offer. Nothing more than a couple dozen earth ponies scratching out a living.

As they left the settlement, Celestia gave him a querying glance. “Their world is so small,” he explained. “There’s so much they don’t know.”

“Do you think their work is unimportant?”

He’d never given it much thought. “Somepony has to do it. We pegasi have the clouds. And unicorns are too…” He stopped himself before he said something inappropriate.

“…delicate?” the Princess suggested.

“I was going to say ‘refined,’” Darrilon said, recovering.

The Princess chuckled softly. Darrilon never would learn what was so important about that settlement. But Celestia did leave him some words of advice. “It would do you good to consider other viewpoints, Captain. Sometimes the firmest path can only be glimpsed through another pony’s eyes. You should change your perspective once in a while.”




Darrilon now knew why that buried post reminded him of Silver Spurs. It was a remnant of some kind of construction project. Somepony had recently built something here, adjacent to the Chronometer. But he couldn’t tell what sort of project it was from this angle, close up. He needed a better perspective.

Unfolding his wings, he took to the sky. In seconds he flew straight up, past the stories of the imposing timepiece, to a small cloud bank where he could land and observe.

From this lofty vantage point he could see traces of construction in the shape of a square to the west of the clock tower. It was a foundation; somepony had recently built, and taken down, another tower adjacent to the Chronometer. Darrilon scanned around the tower perimeter, but saw no other construction. Celestia and the city officials were on the opposite side, about half of their circuit completed. Darrilon had no trouble identifying the Princess, surrounded by her usual crowd of adoring fans.

Not everypony was so enraptured. The mayor’s brother, the one with the wheelbarrow mark, hung back at the trailing edge of the crowd, together with two of his earth pony friends, one khaki colored with a maroon mane, the other mustard yellow with blue bangs. Blue bangs looked up, spotted Darrilon, and then all three of them were looking at him—but as soon as they realized he was looking back, they broke eye contact.

Interesting. Here was his chance to prove himself to Celestia. He would handle this, just like she would. Darrilon folded his wings and power dove back to earth, raising a cloud of dust by braking at the last possible moment. He couldn’t appear in a magical flash of teleportation, but this came close.

The three of them looked sideways at him and shuffled their feet. “Hey there, Guard pony,” Wheelbarrow said. “Shouldn’t you be, um, guarding Princess Celestia?”

Darrilon ignored him; instead he paced out the perimeter of the foundation he had spotted from above. “When they first built the Chronometer,” he asked, “the primary lens was put in place by a team of earth ponies, wasn’t it?”

The mayor’s brother looked left and right, but there was nopony else Darrilon could be talking to. “Yeah, I guess…” he muttered, without meeting his gaze.

“They built a crane or something,” the khaki-colored one added. “We had to learn that in school. Ow!” He rubbed the spot on his shank where his friend kicked him.

Darrilon nodded, looking past the tower to imagine the additional construction beside it. “I’d’ve liked to have seen that. Seen ‘em build it. That primary lens must have weighed a couple tons at least.” The trio of young colts watched Darrilon as he looked back and forth between the dark Chronometer and the space where the construction crane must have stood. “I wonder how Luna carried it off.”

The question hung in the air for an awkward moment, until the yellow, larger colt, replied, “She used her unicorn magic, of course.”

Darrilon shook his head. “That’s the funny thing about unicorn magic. Every pony has their specialty. I’ve seen Luna summon monsters from Tartarus. I saw her turn a pony into spiders once.” He looked at the colts, all of them big, stocky earth ponies. They wouldn’t know if he stretched the truth a little. “Luna’s specialty is dark magic. I’m not sure a princess of the night could levitate a sun crystal—and besides, it would be much easier with a simple winch. Of course, you’d need to re-build the crane tower…”

Wheelbarrow’s friends exchanged a nervous glance. “She turned a pony into a spider?

Darrilon casually reached back with one hoof to scratch the back of his neck. “Not just one spider. It was a giant mass of spiders, hundreds of them, in the shape of a pony.” He paused, as if dredging up a memory so unpleasant it had been exiled to some cobwebbed corner of his brain. “Poor old Shimmer Skip. Celestia thought she could undo the spell if we kept the spiders together. But the spider-pony broke apart, and those spiders scattered everywhere…

His audience was now staring at him slack-jawed and goggle-eyed.

Wheelbarrow was the first to recover. “Luna isn’t going to turn anypony into a spider! Or spiders!”

“She might not turn you into spiders,” Darrilon said. “You’re the mayor’s brother. But if there’s somepony involved in this who doesn’t have political connections…?” He shook his head and shuddered. “I wouldn’t want to be in his horseshoes.”

That was all it took for the friends to turn on one another. Mustard gave Wheelbarrow a shove, forcing him to back up. “You set us up!”

“Put a bit in it!” Wheelbarrow hissed. Darrilon slowly retreated, as if to catch up with the tour group, and the other three ponies obliged him by edging the opposite direction, back away from him. “If you could just keep quiet until I get the crystal installed in the power plant, I can get my brother to—”

“You’ll get me to do what?” the Mayor asked. The main group—Celestia, the officials, everypony—had completed their circuit around the entire tower, and were standing right behind the mayor’s brother. “Is this all because of you? Another of your ridiculous schemes?”

The brothers faced each other, one stern and disapproving, the other pleading and desperate. “It will work this time, I’m sure of it!” the younger said.

“The only thing I’m certain of,” said the Mayor, “is that this is the last time you will ever cause me trouble. Take him to the detention hall, Hard Time.”

The city sheriff, a green and white pegasus, moved to take Wheelbarrow into custody. But the mayor’s brother bolted—straight through the crowd of officials, who all scrambled out of his way. “I’m not being turned into spiders!” he screamed.

Everypony just watched him as he became a rapidly vanishing dot on the horizon. But the mayor wasn’t letting his brother get away. “Follow him,” he told the sheriff. “He’ll lead you to where he’s hidden the crystal.”

Hard Time saluted and took to the air. The Earth pony didn’t stand a chance.



Darrilon assisted the city justice by identifying the other conspirators. The mayor apologized—profusely—for bringing them out to handle what should have been an internal matter. “Your Majesty, I take full responsibility. You will have my complete written report within a week.”

“Yes, Mayor,” Celestia said. “I’m sure Captain Darrilon is quite eager to read it.” Inwardly, Darrilon groaned. He used to have such fond memories of this city. “You seem to have everything well under hoof here, so I believe we’ll leave you to it?”

The city staff made half-hearted attempts to get them to stay for dinner, but everypony wanted to put this day behind them. With one last farewell, Celestia and Darrilon took to the clouds, galloping across the sky and leaving Grandgait far behind. At the uppermost heights of the atmosphere there were no trees to dodge or rocks to avoid, so a pegasus could really stretch his legs and run all-out.

The sun was nearing the horizon now, its fiery disk tinting the clouds shades of victory, of accomplishment and satisfaction. Where the winged ponies ran, the tops of the clouds became solid for them, reverting to insubstantiality after they had crossed, with the incandescent cloudstuff kicked up by their hooves swirling lazily in the air behind them: a wake of mist and flame.

Surely his performance this afternoon was proof positive of his competence. He had taken Celestia’s lessons to heart. He had unraveled the Grandgait mystery with a minimum of force and interference, using only a perfect little nudge to break up the entire mess before it could grow into something worse. His chest filled with pride and Darrilon allowed himself a wide smile. Was this how Celestia felt when her own schemes came to fruition?

The Princess turned to look at him. “Turning ponies into spiders? That’s a new one.”

“Ma’am?”

“You know how much my sister loathes the stories and rumors that circulate about her, and I think you realized I was encouraging the Grandgait delegation only to measure the true extent of their disaffection. But how do you think Luna would react, were she to learn that the Guard were spreading rumors about her? Do you really think that was wise, Captain?”