by Arad

First published

There are many secrets that Celestia would prefer nopony ever know...

Everyone knows the story of Hearths Warming Eve. They know the tales of the three pony tribes and how their strife brought the Windigoes upon them, and how the Fires of Friendship saved them from their frozen fates. For countless generations the tale has been told, but how has it changed over those years?

Or is any of it true in the first place?

Only one pony knows, and Celestia would prefer that the past stay forgotten.

(Based on a 'What If' line of thought that was born from the Stardust storyline. While some familiarity with Stardust and Mente Materia doesn't hurt, this story can be enjoyed on its own)
(Coverart available soon from the amazing FoxInShadow!)
(Many thanks to Arzoo, BradTheBrony, Vandenbz, and Setokaiva for prereading!)
(Complete with it's own TVTropes page as part of the Stardust continuity)
(Character tags will be added as chapters are added!)
(Possible spoilers in the comments! BEWARE!)

Let Me Tell You A Story...

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“...and that was when--” the gray-coated and white-maned unicorn in a security guard uniform stopped mid-sentence and turned back to the child that was following behind him. “Is something wrong? I do hope I’m not boring you with my little story.”

The child shifted his stance, but quickly shook his head. “No, sir! It’s just that it feels like we’ve been walking for hours. Could we maybe take a break?”

The unicorn tilted his head to the side to consider the point before nodding. “I suppose that’s not too unreasonable a request, and we are at a good place for an intermission.” The unicorn’s horn flashed and a bar stool appeared beside the child. Despite its horridly bent legs, the stool didn’t wobble for a moment as the child took the hint and hopped up onto it. Once the child was comfortable, he continued, “Now then, how about a different story while you rest your legs? Do you know the story of Hearth’s Warming Eve?”

A skeptical look entered the child’s face. “Of course I have, I don’t know if there’s anyone who hasn’t.”

“Do you really know the story?” the guard asked with a note of surprise.


“Do you really know the story?” the guard asked again.

“I’ve heard what the exchange students told me at school…”

“Do you reeeeaaaaaaa--” the guard started to ask again, but a flat look from the child stopped him. “What are the basics of the story you know? The three pony tribes didn’t get along, which brought the wrath of the Windigos and the winter upon them, then the Windigos were defeated only when the three tribes discovered the fires of friendship shortly thereafter, correct?”

“That’s right, yeah,” came the instant reply.

“Mhm,” the unicorn nodded. “Do you know anything about Queen Solaria?”

“No, sir,” the child answered with less certainty.

“Well then! This story starts with the illustrious Queen Solaria, and the day she made peace with the dragons…”


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The alicorn needed no introductions or announcements as an unnatural wave of cold entered the volcano's crater. Boiling pools of magma rapidly cooled and cracked to form a black and desolate wasteland as she landed gracefully and began to walk towards the caves at the far end of the crater. The clip-clop of armored hooves was quickly drowned out as a half dozen dragons bolted from the holes and charged at the intruder.

The first had barely left its ambush spot before a beam of magic no wider than a strand of hair lashed out and split the dragon cleanly down the middle. The second and third fell into heaps of crushed scales, bones and flesh as telekinetic forces crushed them. The fourth and fifth were intercepted by two lances of ice that nailed them to the crater's far wall, where they struggled and died. The last crashed to the ground as its wings were torn from its body. Despite the grievous wounds it rose to breathe a gout of fire at the intruder, only for telekinetic force to twist the dragon's head off of its body with a series of sickening cracks. Throughout the short battle, the alicorn hadn't so much as missed a single step.


She stopped and set an icy stare upon the largest cave mouth as another dragon appeared. Unlike the previous attackers, this dragon's scales were as white as fresh snow and it was far, far, far larger. Several moments passed before the dragon had completely emerged from the cave and made quick use of its superior size to glare down at the alicorn.

“I am Shirogane, and I am the last of the matriarchs. All that remains of my people are in those caves, and if you seek to murder them, then you must first defeat me, monster!” the dragon roared and prepared to attack.

“Such irony to label me 'monster' when Kurogane had similar plans for my subjects,” the alicorn said coolly and without any concern shown for the gigantic dragon's threats.

“Kurogane and his brood were fools, and they got what they deserved!” Shirogane snapped. “What of Hagane and her children or the broods to the east? They had no designs against you, and neither do I!”

“Dragons are greedy creatures, and it will only be a matter of time before another brood attempts to pillage my domain. Like a gardener, I must cull the weeds to ensure the survival of the crops,” the intruder emphasized the insult before taking another step forward. “I have come for that which you seek to defend, Shirogane. I will have what is in that cave, and if I must walk over the cooling corpses of the last of your species, then I shall.”

“You want my eggs? My unhatched children!?” Shirogane screamed with equal parts fear and outrage. “Your deal with Kurogane was banishment and a vow never to attack again! I will never--” Anything else she might have said was cut off when a blanket of magic held her frozen in place.

“Kurogane's deal became null and void when his brood failed to abide by it after he lost. I have since altered the deal,” the alicorn stated, and the temperature of the crater dropped even further. “You are going to give me all of the eggs in that cave and I will hold them hostage until such time as I am convinced that your kind has learned its lesson. If you do not agree...” the one visible eye narrowed behind the blizzard of snowflakes that coalesced around it, “...then I will kill every dragon that cowers behind you and I will crush every egg before your eyes. I'll then leave you to contemplate the fact that you will be the last of your species. Choose.”

Shirogane struggled both physically and mentally to escape the terrible choice that had been forced upon her, but in the end there was only one choice that could be made. In the end she couldn't even say the words. She could only bow her head in defeat as the intruder entered the caves and returned with the eggs floating in a line afterward.

The guilt of Shirogane's choice was interrupted as the sound of a teleport echoed through the crater, and the musky smell of unicorn sweat and fear assailed her nose. Though she didn't react in any way, her keen hearing was able to hear every word the new arrival said.

“Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness for this intrusion...” the unicorn's voice was slightly muffled as he no doubt bowed and groveled before its ruler. “I have terrible news from the royal city. Civil war has broken out between the Magisters, Enforcers and Laborers! We can't--” Anything else the messenger might have said was lost as the resounding crack of instant petrification cut him off, followed by the snap of teleportation. Shirogane finally lifted her gaze to find the petrified form of a unicorn wearing ornate armor and a terrified expression on his face. The alicorn was nowhere to be found.

I hope your garden rots and burns, Queen Solaria, Shirogane thought bitterly as she turned towards the caves to console the last of her species.


Queen Solaria glared down from her throne as the doors to her audience hall opened. The first to enter was a unicorn mare with streaks of shining silver in her mane and tail who possessed a regal manner that spoke of the aristocracy. The second was an armored pegasus that seemed to waver between disciplined impartiality and shooting glares at the unicorn. The last through the entrance was an earth pony stallion in chains with two pegasi at his flanks.

The group came to a halt before the throne, and Solaria simply glared at them. The earth pony lasted the longest, but all eventually wilted under the force of her gaze. “You will explain this to me. Now.” She said as she turned her eyes to the unicorn.

“Your Majesty,” the unicorn said as she bowed deeply. “Since your departure last year to deal with the dragon menace, the laborers have forgotten their place. Their work ethic declined as treasonous and seditious thoughts such as receiving payment for doing what they were bred to do has taken root. Some have even gone so far as to demand days of rest, which is quite impossible! Does the mallet require payment to operate? No, it does not, and neither should the laborers.”

“Spoken like somepony who’s never worked a day in her posh life, Princess,” the earth pony spat, and while one of the guards cuffed the prisoner on the head for the remark, the other pegasus let out a short laugh.

“And there lies the other party to blame,” the unicorn continued as though the snarky response was beneath her notice. “The former Commander Typhoon had failed to crack down and stamp out these seditious thoughts from the laborers; at the height of his treachery he dared to express sympathy for them.”

“And you had him murdered for it,” the lead pegasus interrupted with a glare.

“Queen Solaria’s order must be maintained, and any disruptive elements must be removed,” the unicorn spat viciously. “Your negligence, Commander Hurricane, started that very night. You did nothing but watch as a rightfully empowered agent of mine was murdered in cold blood for doing nothing but his duty.”

“Your assassin died squealing like a pampered pig,” the earth pony smirked, and he only continued to smirk when neither guard struck him for the remark.

The unicorn’s composure began to erode as she ground her teeth. “Since Commander Typhoon’s removal from office, the laborers have begun to rebel. They destroy their fields and workshops, and in some places they even dare to attack their magisters! Commander Hurricane’s enforcers have done nothing to quell the unrest.”

The aforementioned pegasus rolled his eyes. “My enforcers aren’t going to do a thing to save you, Princess. You brought this mess down on all of our heads, you’re just as liable as the ground pounder over there for the rebellion.”

“And you, sir, are part of the problem, just as much as the Princess is,” the earth pony spoke, and despite his bruised and dirty appearance, he commanded the attention of the room. “You call me a ground pounder? Fine. Mudhoof? Fine. I’ll be sure to remember that when you and yours come begging me and mine for food. We remember everything that was done. Every stallion that was worked to death. Every mare that was taken to satisfy the whims of the nobility.” His eyes narrowed and he grinned viciously. “The only way you’ll see food grow again is if we get the respect we deserve, plus the Commander’s broken wings and the Princess tied to my bed.”

All three ponies began to shout and accuse the others of wrongdoing. Their voices filled the audience chamber completely, and when Queen Solaria spoke one word, the silence was deafening.


Every set of eyes turned to look at the queen to see just who the statement was directed towards as she descended from her throne. “Princess Platinum, you are guilty of overstepping your authority on this matter,” she said icily, and a look of pure terror marred the unicorn’s beautiful features before she was petrified on the spot. “Commander Hurricane,” Queen Solaria continued, and the vindictive sneer on his face vanished instantly. “You are guilty of dereliction of duty for not subduing this rebellion.” The pegasus had just enough time to open his mouth before he too was rendered into stone. Queen Solaria turned to the earth pony last, and he dared to look her straight in the eyes and set his jaw. “You are guilty of wasting my time,” she accused, before walking past the now petrified laborer.

“HEAR MY ORDERS AND OBEY!” Queen Solaria boomed as she stepped onto her balcony overlooking her capital city. Enforcers along the walls and the skies turned to face the balcony, as did the Magister nobility below. The few Laborers present didn’t dare raise their gazes to look upon her. “THIS REBELLION WILL CEASE NOW! FOR EVERY DAY THAT THIS CONTINUES, SO SHALL THE WINTER PUNISH ALL!” Solaria shouted, and the sun began to fall from the sky. Chill winds had begun to roar through the city even as the queen turned to resume her seat on the throne.


Queen Solaria’s winter had lasted for nearly a year before she felt a familiar presence in the back of her mind.

“Approach no further, Traveller,” she commanded, and she felt the thing behind her stop. Once she was certain the creature would not move into her line of sight, she continued, “How fares your projects in the void? When last we spoke you mentioned several experiments currently in the process, but that was millenia ago.”

Well, about--

“Enter my mind again and this conversation is over,” Solaria snapped, and the thing behind her surrendered with a sigh.

“Fiiine,” it sighed dramatically, and with several voices simultaneously. “I did have several irons in the fire so to speak, but I had to give up on a few of them. I gave them one simple command and they blew it all out of proportion.” Another multi-voice sigh preceded an almost eager explanation, “The newest project is pretty promising, though. I find myself loving a people with a naturally developed sense of irony.”

“Oh?” Solaria asked politely.

“I just finished checking on them, and for some reason they think it’s some great and significant act to nail a carpenter to a piece of wood. I imagine if they don’t all kill each other then they could become pretty interesting in the future.”

The ice blue alicorn could only shake her head at that. “Appreciation of irony aside, your projects keep failing because you do not monitor them. These creatures cannot be trusted not to destroy themselves without proper supervision. They don’t need freedom to squander their lives away. They need structure and discipline to give their lives meaning. The marks I have implemented on my world have provided these. When one of my little ponies receives their mark, they know what they must do. There is no angst or wandering over their purpose.”

“Well, that’s no fun. I’ve always found the best mortals are the ones who had to struggle to become what they were, not have it branded on their flank.” A moment of pause was followed by the thing diverting its attention elsewhere. “You know, for one who advocates control so much, the populace does seem a bit rowdy. Nothing like a good old war to spur innovation and change, right? Though if this winter keeps up there might not be anything left.”

“That is the point, Traveller,” Solaria stated. “The mortals have dared to resist the systems I have put in place. They will submit to those systems or the winter will continue.”

“And what happens if they continue to resist until the winter cripples their civilization beyond repair?” When Solaria left the question unanswered, the Traveller’s response was tinged with almost palpable disbelief. “You can’t be serious!? These creatures are all amazing in their own unique ways! You’re giving them the choice to have all that crushed out of them or to die! Can’t you see what a tragedy that is? It’s cultural and literal genocide! They are a bit too stuffy for my tastes, but if you just let them work this out they could be happy. If you played this right they might even come to love you!”

“I do not require their happiness or their love. I require their obedience,” the alicorn stated. “If they will not give me that which I require, then the winter will continue. Nothing in my world is irreplaceable, not even its people. If I must, I can start with a clean slate.”

The Traveller recoiled and for the first time since Solaria had encountered the creature, it was still and silent. “Well, then. I see I have no other options in the matter.”

The attack came so swiftly that Solaria nearly missed it. She spun and launched herself away from her throne just in time to see her seat of power consumed. Reality itself convulsed around the Traveller as a wholly alien being twisted the room itself into a weapon. The transformation halted as a wave of of power exploded outward from Solaria and froze its surroundings. Hundreds of blades of ice coalesced around Solaria like a blizzard and hurtled towards her foe. Each one struck home and did nothing to stop the oncoming rush of eyes, jaws, beaks, claws, tentacles and wings. It was like stopping a flood with her hooves: for every swath of limbs she destroyed, hundreds more appeared. To her horror, some of the severed and destroyed limbs had begun to cross the floor towards her under their own power.

In that single moment of distraction, the fight was decided.

A massive tentacle hurled itself at Solaria only to be severed and torn to pieces in the blizzard. Any relief at stopping that attack was brief as the individual pieces morphed into a myriad of limbs. They were all picked off by the spinning blades of ice as they approached the alicorn, but against all odds one made it through. It was an ugly thing, nearly completely hairless and with five digits attached to a flat palm, and the longest digit was curled back and pinned into place by the smallest-and-thickest. That curled-back finger snapped forward and struck the tip of Solaria’s horn… and the Traveller’s laughter signaled that the fight was over.

“Oh, that was far more difficult than I anticipated, Solaria.” Reality began to reassert control on the throne room, and the formless mass of limbs began to shrivel and shed. “Your power almost rivals that of my people. Bravo, bravo.”

“What have you done?” Solaria demanded as she attempted to conjure another cloud of icy blades to carve up the withering form before her. The magic simply refused to activate. The energy had been gathered and the spell matrices formed… but no frozen death flowed at her command. Neither did petrification or any of her other chosen and well-used forms of punishment. “What have you done!?

“When you like using a hammer, my dear, every problem looks like a nail,” the Traveller said cryptically. “It’s an understandable impulse, after all. If you find something that works for you, why change it? The answer is that not every problem is a nail, and you need to learn that there are other tools that work just as well if you're willing to put in the efford.” A figure emerged from the decaying husk that was once the Traveller, and it gazed upon Solaria with wild yellow eyes and a grin filled with crooked teeth. Without another word, a griffon talon appeared from the pile and snapped its digits.

“My Queen, is anything amiss?” called a voice from the door.

In the split second that Solaria’s gaze drifted away from her foe, he had vanished along with all signs of their brief conflict.

“My Queen, the Enforcers had reported sounds of a confrontation. Are you in need of aid? Or disposal of the remains?” the voice asked again as the door started to open.

Solaria’s glare snapped back to the door as she lashed out at the fool who thought to enter without her permission… and nothing happened. As with the Traveller, no killing magic froze, petrified, or otherwise tore the pegasus asunder as he peeked into the throne room. Why isn’t it working? she asked herself before a chill ran through her. If I cannot administer punishment, how can I rule? How can I admonish these mere mortals when they step out of line? They will not obey without that threat! They will not respect or obey me without my power behind me!

“My Queen?” the enforcer asked meekly as he stuck his head through the doorway.

Solaria opened her mouth to reprimand the trespasser, but the words stuck in her throat. Some emotion she had never felt before began to erode at her will, and she found herself backing away from the doorway as the pegasus entered the room. “A-away!” she screamed, before vanishing in a flash of light.


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It took far more willpower than Solaria was willing to admit not to scream as her magic continued its stubborn refusal to function as she intended. Through countless days and nights, she continued to force her magic to operate, and with each failed experiment her frustration grew. The mountains were not torn asunder, the seas did not freeze solid, and the cities did not burn to the ground before her hooves. As though to add insult to injury, she could not even eviscerate the small rabbit that was looking up at her. One armored hoof rose into the air above the rodent, only to halt mid-strike. This time, Solaria did give voice to her frustration, which caused the rabbit to flee for its life.

It is not just my magic, but my body as well? What did you do, fiend? What did you do to me? Solaria fumed. My magic still functions in some form, but in a way that is so haphazard that I cannot rely upon it. Why would the Traveller place such a curse upon me? What value does he see in these mortals, that exist and expire in the fastest blink of our eyes?

A quiet snap of a branch in the forest around her brought the alicorn on guard, and a quick scan revealed two unicorns warily approaching her position, though they were still some distance away. Solaria’s first thought was to announce herself and demand their obedience and aid, but that unpleasant emotion she had first experienced back in her throne room gripped her. Without my full powers, what have I to support my demands? They would seek to disobey me at every juncture without the threat of force. I need… a different approach. If I approach them as I am now, I cannot command their obedience. The commoners have always been more accepting of members of their own tribes. If these unicorns can lead me to an enclave that can undo the Traveller’s curse, I may yet again be able to salvage this situation.

After checking briefly to confirm the approaching pair’s location, Solaria began to alter her physical form. Her wings vanished and her stature began to diminish into a more common size. Her mane and coat also adjusted their hue, the former a shade of pink while the latter faded to pure white. As an added touch, her unadorned flanks were graced with marks representing the sun to complete the illusion. Once Solaria was satisfied with her disguise, she began her trot towards the two unicorns.

“Halt, and declare yourself!” shouted a voice from the depths of the forest, and a bright light temporarily blinded the faux unicorn. While her eyes adjusted to the light level, her other senses clearly identified one of the approaching ponies lurking in the darkness nearby while the other waited further away.

Solaria stood tall and drew a breath to speak, but the words stuck in her throat. How do I introduce myself? The simplicity of the question made a mockery of her as she began to flounder for a response. I have heralds to introduce me! And I can’t name myself as Solaria, since that would defeat the purpose of this disguise! An increasingly uncomfortable feeling began to take hold as she struggled to recall any point of reference on just how the commoners proceeded with this type of interaction.

The light in front of her winked out, but one remained near the unicorn stallion that stepped out from behind the trees. He was mostly hidden beneath a ragged cloak that dragged against the snow, and a wide-brimmed hat hid most of his features save for his snout and the modest beard that hung from it. “I apologize, child, I did not mean to startle you,” he said as he surveyed the area around them. “How did you get here? You don’t have a stitch of clothing to protect you from the cold, nor any provisions to survive in the wilderness.”

“I--” Solaria started before floundering again. Cease your questions until I can fabricate a name! she wanted to command. And who are you calling ‘child’? I was ancient before your species existed!

The hat tilted sideways and she finally caught sight of the unicorn’s wary gaze. “You must have just escaped the capital. I had heard rumors that the city had been taken by the rebels, but I thought the Magister’s Terrace still stood. I imagine it was just a matter of time before it fell as well. Are you alone?”

“Yes, I am alone,” Solaria finally answered, but her mind was abuzz with what the stallion had said. Rebels have captured the capital? How long have I been away?

The stallion surveyed his surroundings one last time before nodding. “My companion and I were returning to a safe haven. If you would like to join us, I will speak on your behalf.” When Solaria nodded, he turned back the way he had come and raised one hoof from within his cloak. Wrapped around it was a strap lined with bells, which jingled merrily as he shook his hoof twice in the air.

Almost immediately a foal-sized figure wrapped in a cloak bolted out of its hiding place and sprinted through the snow towards them… only to trip and faceplant into the snow spectacularly.

The stallion chuckled before he spoke. “Lulu, did you cast the detection spell we have been practicing?”

“I forgot!” the foal answered immediately as she rose just as quickly to resume her sprint. She skidded to a halt before the pair, and her hooded head alternated between the two of them. “Oh, who’s this, a new friend? Oh, it’s a unicorn! And it’s a mare! This is going to be great! I hope we can be friends, and you can teach me magic! Clover is too grouchy and Swirly is too boring--”

“I’m standing right here…” the stallion said with a tired smile, but he didn’t interrupt any further.

“--so it would be really awesome to learn magic from you! Would you teach me all sorts of magic pleeeeeeaaaaaaaassssse?”

An increasing amount of frustration was beginning to build in Solaria as she was given yet another social situation to deal with. The elder seems tolerant of the child, I may be able to curry favor by agreeing… “I’m sure something can be arranged…” Solaria answered, and the foal’s response was not what she expected.

“You will? Yes! Yesyesyesyesyesyes--” the foal leapt up into the air and screamed with what Solaria assumed was joy. The foal began to circle Solaria while jumping, only to trip and fall onto her face again. “Ouch, that one really hurt.” She sat down and her hooded head turned towards the stallion, who obligingly sat down beside her.

“My name is Starswirl, and this is my granddaughter, Lunar Lullaby. She prefers to be called Lulu though,” the stallion introduced himself and the child as he retrieved a finely woven washcloth from his bags. He slowly pulled back Lulu’s hood before asking, “I don’t believe I have gotten your name yet, Miss…?”

Solaria barely heard the question as Lulu’s face was revealed. Most of the coat on her face had been burned away, and the flesh that remained was puckered and wrinkled. Unblinking, milky-white eyes stared blankly at Starswirl as the washcloth began to wipe away the snow and dirt from her face.

“Sunny Sky,” Solaria was finally able to say, the alliteration finally coming to her after she heard the introductions of the other two ponies. “My name is Sunny Sky.”

“Is that so?” the stallion asked, and Solaria once again got the smallest glimpse of Starswirl’s eyes from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. She did not know facial expressions enough to classify what that look meant, but it seemed akin to suspicion and that made the matriarch-in-hiding more than a little tense. The moment came and went, and the stallion replaced the washcloth before giving the foal a pat on the head. “We should return to our camp soon. The cold is dangerous in this forest at night, but it’s not the only thing that can kill here.”

“Indeed. Let us proceed to your camp. I suspect we have much to discuss,” Solaria said as her gaze moved away from the now hidden features of the foal to the stallion’s. “Why do we delay?”

Again, Solaria found herself under the watchful eye of Starswirl, and the silence began to stretch uncomfortably before he spoke. “Aren’t you cold? I’ve seen stallions and mares come down with frostbite from just a few hours exposure in these elements. Here, child. This will suffice until we can make it to the camp.” A simple heavy cloak appeared in a flash of the unicorn’s magic and draped itself over her back, and after a few brief moments Starswirl asked incredulously, “Do you need me to tie that for you?”

“No, you do not,” Solaria replied stiffly, the drawstrings already moving with her magic to secure it around her neck. You should not offer such things without me demanding it, she thought, and her annoyance at the unicorn’s tone was tempered by an emotion that Solaria rarely felt: confusion. Why would any of these mortals waste their efforts on another who does not demand it? It makes no sense to squander what little time and energy they have before they expire. Any further contemplation of Starswirl’s motives were lost as she saw the two unicorns moving deeper into the forest. A quick trot was all that she needed to catch up.


Darkness was rapidly approaching as Starswirl brought the trio to a halt. He let out a small sigh before turning back to Solaria. “We are almost to our destination, my dear, and there are a few things that I must share with you. Calling our destination a ‘camp’ may have been a small understatement, as there are entire families that live there and they are simply trying to stay safe and warm. You are welcome to stay as long as you contribute to the community, but I would understand if you feel the need to leave. If you grew up in the capital then there are things in this village that might not make sense, but--”

Any further explanation was interrupted by a brilliant flash of light and a tremendous shout from all around the little group. Neither distraction was enough to do more than inconvenience Solaria, and she doubted anything in this forest might prove to be a threat to her. Still…

“Clover! Cease this nonsense at once!” Starswirl snapped, and the distractions abruptly stopped. A quick glance to the older unicorn showed no small amount of annoyance even as he glared out into the surrounding forest. A unicorn stallion in robes that Solaria vaguely placed with the Magister Guard stepped out from behind one of the larger trees and levelled an equal glare at Starswirl.

“We cannot be lax in our security, sir. Your optimism will not defend us against raiders. Plus, you’re returning past your appointed hour and I could not leave the wards down at night,” the newcomer explained. “We were also expecting only two, but I see you have a third with you. Are you certain that you were not followed?”

The annoyance on Starswirl’s face melted into an expression that Solaria had never seen before as the elder unicorn glanced her way. “I found this young one wandering in the forest without so much as a cloak on her back, Clover. If she were bait for some nefarious plot or an infiltrator seeking to compromise our refuge, then I’m afraid she’s somewhat lacking when it comes to planning her scheme.”

Discomfort at Starswirl’s too-close guess at her duplicity immediately crashed into the annoyance she felt at the implication that she was incompetent at anything. Before she could voice her objection at the characterization, the other stallion spoke up again.

“Ignorance and ineptitude can be just as destructive as nefarious intent, Starswirl. This powderpuff…” Clover said harshly, “...might not be a spy, but she has all the markings of a capital softhoof if I’ve ever seen one. We can’t have deadweight, sir. We’re stretched too thin as it is.”

“I won’t argue that point, Clover, but I would argue that your wife would turn nopony away. If she had, we would both be dead right now,” Starswirl said with a simple smile, and the glare that Clover shot the elder unicorn seemed to indicate that this was a conversation the pair had explored many times in the past. “Besides, I suspect this young one will have much to offer us. I will explain in greater detail once we are out of this terrible cold.”

Clover snorted with annoyance as he cast a glare at Solaria before turning to lead the trio deeper into the trees. “The place you enter now is a place of equals, princess,” he said, and Solaria felt a spike of annoyance at being addressed so rudely. “Nopony here is your servant, and if you intend to stay here then you will work alongside the ponies that you no doubt considered beneath you. Or you can leave and freeze. Perhaps if you beg, then Queen Solaria will end your suffering quickly.”

“Don’t let grumpy Clover get to you,” Lulu said cheerfully as she interrupted Clover’s rant. “He acts that way around almost everypony. He never wants to play, or teach me any magic, or laugh at my pranks or anything!” The stallion in question did not rise to the bait, but he did look back to glare at the filly. Lulu’s response was to stick her tongue out at him.

The treeline began to recede and flickering lights from several buildings could be seen. Clover led the group right up to the door of the largest building before he hesitated. One hoof rose to knock but the door flew open with a bang!

It was then that Solaria was convinced that the world no longer made sense.

“Do you know how worried I was? You jump up and teleport away from supper without so much as a word why!” an earth pony mare bellowed from the doorway. “I’ve been worried sick, that’s how much! Don’t think you can just canter back in here without an extremely good explanation, Clover!”

“Someone’s gonna be in the doghouse,” Lulu whispered just loudly enough for everyone to hear, and she feigned innocence as Clover shot a glare at her.

“The outer wards were tripped by the those two,” the stallion explained quickly while indicating towards the elder and younger unicorns before turning his attention to Solaria. “They were delayed by a mare that escaped the capital.”

“Oh, you poor dear. Are you alright? That place simply isn’t safe anymore for an innocent young mare like yourself,” the earth pony said, her tone switching from outraged indignation to gentle concern in a heartbeat. “Come on inside, we’ll get you warmed up and some food to eat, alright?”

Solaria was so stunned by the scene she saw that she offered no resistance as she was herded inside the large building, and she barely noticed when the earth pony kicked the door shut while Clover was still outside. The interior of the building was dominated by what was likely a primitive banquet hall, with large tables and unadorned wooden benches packed onto the crowded floor. Roaring flames filled the fireplaces and filled the room with both light and warmth, and nearly every place a pony could sit was already taken. Earth ponies, pegasi and a few unicorns of nearly every age could be seen eating at the tables or sharing stories around the fireplaces.

The earth pony mare said something, but Solaria didn’t hear the words. It took every ounce of her concentration to try and comprehend the… impossibility of the three tribes socializing before her. It was chaos. It was mayhem. It should not exist.


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Over the next several days, Solaria was subjected to a treatment that the commoners called ‘mothering’ from the earth pony mare that had first taken her in after she had arrived. The mare, Smart Cookie, had shown her to a room that she could use temporarily before practically ordering her to lie down. Any objections were buried under several layers of warm comforters before the candle in the room was blown out and the door closed quickly.

The night had passed quickly as the disguised alicorn had attempted to process all the information she had learned over the previous day. The exact moment the sun came over the horizon, her door flew open and Smart Cookie entered with a bewildering amount of good cheer. Before any questions could be levied or objections voiced, Solaria found herself wrapped in a coarse, thickly woven cloak and hurriedly dragged out for a tour of the village.

Dozens of ponies were seen and introduced, and Solaria found herself struggling to keep them all straight. Places and roles were easy enough for her to remember, such as the blacksmith’s forge or the common hall that the majority of the ponies stayed in. The individuals were another thing entirely. The majority were earth ponies, followed by the pegasi, and the minority were the unicorns, and each had their role to play in the hidden community.

After a week’s worth of this treatment, Smart Cookie dropped the thoroughly overloaded ‘Sunny Skies’ off with Starswirl and Lulu before trotting off to talk with Clover.

“So, are you finally settled in, child?” Starswirl asked with a smirk. “I suppose I should have warned you of what would happen when we got here. I was expecting to have at least a day before she swept in to show you how everything works here.”

“I might have considered the treatment condescending if it wasn’t so useful,” Solaria said truthfully as she watched the mare in question move alongside Clover to rub against him. What does that behavior mean? I know the commoners have a word for it…

“The first step to learning is admitting that you don’t know everything,” the elder stallion said with a smile as he retrieved a small jug of water and began to sip from it. His sharp gaze peered over the container at Solaria as he continued, “I do not know where your talents lie, but any unicorn will be immensely helpful to the community if you choose to stay. Based on what you saw from the tour, did you see anything that you might be able to contribute to? I know the unicorns working on keeping the fields warm could definitely use some help.”

“Teacher!” Lulu shouted as she hopped up. “Sunny said she would teach me! I bet you know all kinds of magic, don’t you? What can you teach me first?”

I had honestly forgotten about that promise. Solaria thought as she tried to divide her attention between the bouncing filly and the interaction between Clover and Cookie, plus the conversation with Starswirl. “Well, how about…” This is rather vexing, as I know the mortals have a word for this. Ah! I have it! “Concubine!”

Water sprayed from Starswirl’s mouth as he shot an alarmed look at Solaria, then in the direction she was looking. His horn flashed and a silence spell fell over the trio before he spoke. “Sunny, if you value your life you will never say that word in Clover’s presence,” he warned as he wiped the remaining water from his beard.

“What’s a concubine, and why would that make Clover angry?” Lulu asked, puncturing the suddenly tense situation with her innocent question. “Is that some kind of special magic? Is it some kind of magic that he can’t do?”

“No, it’s not, Lulu. And that’s a grown up word so you aren’t allowed to use it,” Starswirl said firmly, and his swift reaction combined with the slightly exasperated expression was a sure sign that it wasn’t the first time that similar topics had come up.

As soon as the phrase ‘grown up word’ left Starswirl’s mouth, Lulu’s expression took on a cunning edge. “Like ‘plothole’?”

“Yes, exactly like that, Lulu.”

“What about--”

“Lulu, did you hear that Clover and Cookie are expecting a foal?” Starswirl asked in an attempt to stave off the perhaps not-so-innocently listed profanity. When the filly’s scarred expression lit up as much as it could from behind the hood, Starswirl added, “Why don’t you go ask them about it?”

“Okay!” Lulu cheered before dashing off towards the pair. She only stumbled once before skidding to a halt and barraging the couple with increasingly uncomfortable questions, judging by the adults expressions. Cookie’s expression went from surprised to positively glowing, then to slightly embarrassed as she did her best to keep up with the barrage from the filly. Clover’s expression was a pointed glare at Starswirl that usually preceded a political assassination, and it only intensified as the elder stallion grinned and waved a hoof.

“Sunny, I know things are different here, so I urge you to tread carefully,” Starswirl explained carefully. “Everypony here is an equal, and most of us consider each other friends. It’s a fragile thing, but there’s something special that happens here when everypony works together. It gets stronger every day, but tension still exists between the three tribes. Making assumptions about somepony’s role here might offend them, so please come to me first if you have questions.”

Solaria blinked with honest confusion at the lecture. “I’m not certain what you mean. Their relationship is servant and master. If she assisted in the cleaning of his chambers, she would be a maid. If she assisted with his personal effects, she would be a carry-all. Unless my eyes deceive me, she likely assist him with more… carnal needs. The title of one in such a position is co--”

Do not speak that word,” Starswirl snapped, and with far more heat than the disguised alicorn had expected. “You hear my words, but you do not understand my meaning, child. In this place, all are equals. She is his wife, and he is her husband. They love each other as much as anypony can love another, and their race does not matter to them. Whatever their foal turns out to be, they will love it as much as any child can be loved by its parents.” When Solaria tried to speak, Starswirl cut her off. “It does not matter if you have a horn, or wings here. It’s not the what, but the who that matters.”

The explanation smacked against everything that Solaria knew about the people she ruled, and no matter how she approached the knowledge, it just did not fit. I suppose there are exceptions to every rule, and with a lack of suitable partners then it makes sense that Clover would look beneath his station to provide his heirs, she finally concluded. Rather than dwell on the subject, Solaria chose to latch on to something else that Starswirl had said… something that might explain the unreality of this community. “You mentioned that there was some force at work here that bound everypony together?”

Starswirl’s head tilted enough so that she could see an arched eyebrow beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Everypony that has chosen to stay here to keep this place alive and successful has exhibited several clearly defined behaviors. When these individuals work together they can achieve far more than if they did so individually. They even achieve far more than the same number of ponies attempting the same thing under Solaria’s rigid caste system.”

The alicorn in disguise managed to resist the temptation to snort in disbelief, but her expression must have given her away as Starswirl showed his tired, patient smile.

“Honesty. Loyalty. Generosity. Kindness. Laughter. These five things you will find in abundance in this hidden village, and in all my years I’ve never seen the like,” the elder unicorn explained. “Scoff if you must, but something is happening here that is real. Tangible even. It’s more than just simple friendship regardless of birth or status. To be a part of something like this, it’s empowering. I’ve never felt as young or hopeful for the future in years.”

Empowering… Solaria mulled the possibilities that the word implied, even though she tried to make sense of what Starswirl was saying. There was a power in this land long before I arrived and began to shape the species to serve my purposes. Perhaps there could be a way to harness this power… to capture it in physical form and use it to break the Traveller’s hold upon me.

“Regardless, we’ve dithered on this subject long enough. I hope you take my original instructions to heart, or you may not be long for this world,” Starswirl said, and the silence spell around them dissipated. “Come, we should go to the fields. Something tells me you will be uniquely suited in assisting with this duty.”


Solaria had expected to see the vast and vibrant fields of produce that were commonplace prior to the rebellion. The fields that sustained the village were a pale shadow of that, much to her surprise. Instead of the billowing wheat fields or tall stalks of corn, the cultivated rows boasted only pathetic sprouts that barely reached past her fetlock.

What was more surprising was the amount of effort that was being invested in the weak harvest. A dozen earth ponies patrolled the rows, and each hoof that touched the ground channeled just a bit of magic into the surrounding soil and plant life. Half as many unicorns also paced around the field, each one maintaining a small flock of flickering flames that hovered over their respective areas. Several pegasi darted through the air to keep the normally overcast sky clear so that the sun could reach the field for the few hours that it was in the sky.

“This is what keeps our community going, Sunny. Without all three tribes working together, we would likely be starving right now,” Starswirl explained, and when he glanced to Solaria and saw only confusion on her face, he continued, “I suppose if you spent most of your life in the capital, you probably didn’t see much farming, right? Under ideal circumstances, earth ponies can grow and tend to the crops with no help necessary. Due to the current conditions, unicorns are vital in keeping the crops and the soil from freezing, and the pegasi have to keep the skies clear while the sun is out. The Windigo’s winter is a cruel thing, but we will survive it.”

“Windigo?” Solaria asked, more curious as to the unicorn’s biting tone than about the term itself.

Starswirl affixed her with one of his looks that was too good-natured to be considered suspicious before continuing. “The windigoes were creatures that fed on emotions such as anger and hatred, and they were well known for the wintery weather they brought with them. It’s been several hundred years since any have been spotted, and I suspect they were the victim of one of Solaria’s purges. The griffons and dragons were spared extinction when they surrendered to her, but I suspect the windigoes did not. It is ironic that ponies are speculating that Solaria is a windigo, and that her purge of them was less about the protection of ponies as it was a greedy coup so she wouldn’t have to share.”

Starswirl’s story brought up vague memories of emotional vampires made of ice and snow, but nothing concrete came to Solaria’s mind. After all, there were far too many dead species at her hooves for her to remember all of them. The last sentence piqued the disguised alicorn’s interest, though. “That assertion is absurd. Why would anypony believe that Queen Solaria is anything like such creatures?”

“Besides her apparent affinity for ice and snow?” the stallion asked with a bemused expression. “On its face, the caste system creates a perfectly functional society if everypony in it operates like a cog in a machine. Unfortunately, they don’t. Resentment, cruelty and hatred are rife within all of the castes, and Solaria does nothing to mitigate this. Thus the windigo theory was born.”

“Surely you do not believe this, do you?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t think Solaria is one of the windigoes. I think she just doesn’t care.” The statement was laced with a bitterness that the disguised queen found surprising. After all, he was completely correct. Before she could ponder on the subject any further, Starswirl let out a sigh before continuing, “Now is not the time for the old and jaded to place the burden of grudges on the young and hopeful. I was actually hoping to see what you can do with your magic, so we can find the best place for you. Do you think you can make a globe of fire like the unicorns out in the fields?”

“Of course I can,” Solaria said with absolute certainty. The particular spell they were casting was one she had never attempted, so a quick glance was needed to dissect the exact formulae they were using. To her surprise, the base of the spell was actually a highly modified spell that the battle magi had used, with a variety of minor changes that were unimportant. With a slight inhale, she closed her eyes and cast the spell using her normal routines.

A globe of fire was summoned before her, cast as easily as a master of the arcane craft. Unlike the warm spheres in the field, though, hers was like a sliver of the sun.

By Tartarus, child, do you not know restraint!?” Starswirl’s yell broke Solaria’s concentration, and she opened her eyes to see just what had elicited the comment.

The stallion was surrounded by a shimmering shield, but the edges of his hat and robe were blackened and a look of panic was in his eyes. The packed snow outside the protection of his shield had melted almost instantly and the ground directly beneath where the sphere had appeared had scorch marks. The nearby fence beside the field had also been blackened, and several wafts of smoke could be seen rising from the wooden crossbeams. Solaria’s cloak had also been scorched near to cinders, though not a hair was out of place on her disguise.

Starswirl’s shield dropped as he approached with a far more wary expression on his face. “That was… well, unexpected, Sunny. Are you unharmed? I must admit to being surprised, child. The spell was well formed, but the power behind it was rather excessive.” The wariness gradually morphed into contemplative evaluation. “You have too good a grasp of spellwork not to have been tutored extensively. Did your teacher not instruct you on how to throttle your power?”

“Well… no,” Solaria answered after a long moment. It is technically the truth. I have never had a need to ever restrict my power.

“No, of course she wouldn’t teach you that,” Starswirl muttered under his breath before he cleared his throat. “How about we move away from the fields and we’ll see about fine tuning your casting for just the right amount of heat, okay?”


The sun was setting as Solaria tried and failed, again, to produce a sufficiently restrained globe of fire. The small clearing that they had chosen for practice was peppered with scorch marks and melted slurries from all of her attempts. Despite Starswirl’s patient and calm coaching, the alicorn was becoming increasingly frustrated with what should have been an extremely easy test. It also hadn’t helped that the unicorn stallion had chosen to offer his advice from several body lengths away.

A modest crowd had gathered around the perimeter to watch Solaria’s pyrotechnic displays, which made every failure seem far worse. This is far too vexing! Surely there is something more useful and significant that I can do other than warming the fields, the disguised alicorn thought. She started to ask Starswirl for a different role before her pride stopped her. It’s nothing but a simple spell, a manipulation of the world around me. I am Solaria, I will not be defeated by so simple a thing!

The problem, however, did not meekly surrender to her might as she tried three more times with no progress. The root of the problem was less about the spell itself and more about the power that was required for the desired effect. Specifically, Solaria couldn’t reduce her power enough to produce the warm torchlights that were necessary. Even with the supercharged incendiary globes, she couldn’t feel even the slightest draw on her power to gauge the consumption and thus had no frame of reference as to how to achieve the desired effect. If she tried to assist in the fields in her current condition, the plants would likely be incinerated…

Once that realisation struck her, Solaria knew exactly how to defeat at least one of the challenges that had been set before her. She whirled around to face the crowd of onlookers and shouted, “I require a…” the words ‘test subject’ were almost said, but stuck in her throat. What do the mortals call it when they offer their services? Ah! “...volunteer!”

The amused crowd recoiled slightly at the request, and nervous glances rippled back and forth through the crowd. Several long moments passed before somepony shouted, “I’ll do it!” The crowd parted to reveal an adolescent pegasus colt on the cusp of adulthood as he cantered out into the clearing. His confident demeanor faltered when he hit a patch of recently refrozen snow as he slid and stumbled forward. His hooves finally found enough purchase for him to right himself before he smiled brightly at Solaria.

“Sunny, what are you--?” Starswirl asked, before a look of alarm entered his expression. “Sunny, wait!”

The gentle crackle of flames was the only sound that could be heard in the clearing, and a tiny globe of fire hovered nearby the volunteer. Everypony observing held their breath, Starswirl included, and the volunteer began to look somewhat panicked once he realized just what he had volunteered for. Once it became apparent that the colt wasn’t going to burst into flames, the assembled crowd let out a collective sigh of relief.

“Success!” Solaria gloated at the tiny ball of flame, and a sense of… accomplishment filled her. If my magic cannot hurt anypony, then using the volunteer allows me to gauge the proper amount of power! Her grin grew as she ran a test and duplicated the tiny spark on the opposite end of the field. “Haha! The success has been doubled!” She repeated the process again and again a dozen times over, until the clearing was as well lit and warm as a summer’s day. She nearly lost concentration when the crowd approached her to offer congratulations and other accolades. The smiling faces and kind words brought a new emotion to the alicorn in disguise, one that she was not familiar with but was still… pleasant.

Solaria was so enamored with the experience that she didn’t notice Starswirl hanging back with Clover, or the eager look that the elder stallion gave the younger.


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It had taken less than a day for Solaria’s display to reach the ears of the rest of the hidden community, and after a prolonged discussion with Starswirl about the virtues of precision and moderation, she was able to take a shift warming the fields. After showing literally no fatigue from the shift, Starswirl had tentatively agreed to increasing her area of responsibility in the field the next day.

The process had repeated itself several times over several days before they had come to a rather startling arrangement: Solaria would maintain the warmth of all of the fields for one day per week, thus allowing the regular team a much-needed break to rest and recuperate. The plan also was designed to give her enough time to recover her apparently substantial magical capacity, as well as help with some other duties in the town.

What she had not shared with Starswirl or any of the other unicorns was that she suspected that she could warm the fields for years before beginning to feel any strain from the fire spells she was casting. Even replicating the flickering flames several hundred times felt no more strenuous than the magic she used to maintain her physical form. The only problem that Solaria had encountered with the arrangement of her work schedule was the pony who was sent to ‘supervise’ her and make sure that if she needed help she would get it. Still, her ‘supervisor’ was proving useful in other ways.

“Are you really sure you don’t need to rest? It sure seems like it would be pretty tiresome to maintain this many spells all at once,” the pegasus calling himself ‘Prancer’ said as he walked in the next cultivated row beside Solaria. The younger stallion had never failed to miss an opportunity to talk with (or more accurately, talk at) Solaria, and seemed impervious to the frosty reception of his company. It had been nearly two weeks of such treatment before Starswirl pointed out that he was the same stallion who had helped her master the torch spell, and that she should probably be a bit nicer to him.

Still, she had found a use for the stallion. After she had discovered an elevated heart rate in him whenever she approached, she had run a series of test to see if her magic was somehow affecting his body. Through that, she had hoped, she could find a way around the Traveller’s curse so that she could resume her rightful place in the world. Solaria’s theory fell through when her magic continued to have no negative effect on her test subject, and the curious behavior of his heartbeat continued regardless of what magic she attempted to cast on him.

“The answer to your question is the same as the last time you asked: This work is no challenge for me,” Solaria answered, before idly attempting to disembowel Prancer with his own ribs. The familiar pull of the energy welled up within her, but the spell refused to execute. She resisted the impulse to scowl as she let the energy of the failed spell bleed into the torches around her.

“That’s amazing! I know the others on the field team really appreciate having a chance to put their hooves up and rest for a bit,” the stallion said, and Solaria once again felt the curious feeling of déjà vu right up until the conversation deviated from its usual path. “Before you came, they didn’t really have the opportunity to spend much time with their families and friends… and special someponies.”

“Then it is good that I require no such time for myself,” Solaria replied, and she threw an off-the-hoof attempt to teleport Prancer off the planet and into the airless void. When Prancer’s heart rate began to elevate again, she arched an eyebrow to witness what effect her attempted murder was having on the stallion.

Prancer face had grown quite red, and he immediately glanced away when Solaria’s gaze fell upon him. He squirmed under the scrutiny before stuttering, “I-is that because we spend so much time t-together?”

Nearly incoherent speech, increased blood pressure and heart rate… is this progress? “I have no such attachments, therefore I require no such time,” Solaria said as she again attempted to teleport Prancer while directly observing the test subject. Unlike the first attempt, Prancer’s vital signs began to level out. He tried to speak several times but failed to do so. I do so hate inconsistency in my results! Solaria complained inwardly before resuming her patrol.

“Oh… well… that’s nice, right? Lots of free time then,” Prancer finally managed to say as he recovered enough to trot back to his usual place. “Most of my days I have to keep the skies clear so the fields can get as much light as possible while the sun is up. The rest of my time off is spent here… with you.”

His heart began to race again, and Solaria felt a spike of agitation as she hadn’t even tried anything new yet. Accursed inconsistency! Perhaps it’s not my testing, but the raw materials I’m working with? I will have to pursue another line of testing to confirm this…

“Little Lulu seems rather attached to you. You must be a really good teacher! Starswirl’s been trying to teach her for as long as I’ve been here, but he has problems keeping her focused I think.” A brief pause was filled only with Solaria’s failed attempt to twist Prancer’s head from his neck. He continued to talk, oblivious to the ongoing attempts on his life. “You’re way too young to have been a teacher before all this happened. Were you a student in the capital?”

A spike of annoyance drove into Solaria’s concentration as another of the mortals made an assumption based on her appearance. “I am older than you,” she said, and some of her aggravation must have bled into her voice as the stallion actually winced at the words.

“O-of course you are! I didn’t mean to imply that you’re inexperienced or anything!” Prancer said hastily, before apologizing again and floundering with his words. Solaria began to tune out his rambling as the pair continued their patrol of the fields.

It was only when Lulu’s cloaked form came bounding down the hill from town that Solaria finally perked up. The little filly made a flying leap between the rails of the fence that seemed rather reckless before skidding to a halt before the disguised alicorn. “Sunny! Sunny! Your shift’s over and I’ve got something for you to see!”

“But--” Prancer started to say before the little filly turned her blind gaze to him and stuck out her tongue.

“You’ve had enough time to try and flirt with Sunny, Pansy! I get to spend time with her now!” Lulu explained quickly, and right on cue the next shift of unicorns trotted down the hill to the fields. Their torch spells were already lit and they didn’t hesitate to take their usual places as Solaria extinguished her own spells.

“F-flirt?!” Prancer stammered, and his heart rate instantly ramped up again.

“Pansy?” Solaria asked, her attention split between the excited child and the test subject that was now so close to the heart attack she had been trying to provoke for weeks.

“That’s his name, silly!” Lulu said while pointing a hoof at the stallion before tilting her head. “What, did he tell you some other name like ‘Prancer’? Clover said that’s what he tells all the mares, but everyone still calls him Pansy.” The filly shrugged and didn’t seem to notice Pansy’s incoherent sputtering at the subject of the discussion. “Anywho, it’s time to go or we’re going to miss it!”

Lulu sped off, and Solaria trotted behind to keep pace. I wonder what this is about? she mused as the pair wove between the smaller buildings on the outskirts of the town before coming to lurk in the shadows of the central structure in town. “Lulu, why are we here?” the disguised alicorn asked.

“Shhhh! Stay quiet or you’ll spoil everything!” Lulu whispered, and she crouched down before peaking around the corner.

What is she doing? One would think she does not need line of sight to ‘see’ if she’s using a spell to make up for her handicap, Solaria asked herself as she watched the filly. The cloak she always wore was excellent camouflage against the side of the building and the stacked debris that was also there, but she was quivering in place. Her expression was carefully controlled neutrality, and Solaria couldn’t quite put her hoof on what it all meant until she lifted her gaze to look across the courtyard.

The building across the way was the small cottage used by Clover and Smart Cookie, and seemed perfectly normal at first glance. A second glance revealed some spellwork on the door, specifically enchanted to activate when anypony placed a hoof upon it. The inner workings of the spell were so slapdash and convoluted that the alicorn couldn’t make heads or tails of the spell’s intent, until she looked back at the filly lurking beside her.

It’s a trap meant for Clover, Solaria finally concluded before looking back to the doorway. I must admit to being somewhat surprised that one so young would be capable of such deception or intent. If she is mature enough to lay such a trap to eliminate a rival unicorn, then perhaps that mess of a spell is intentional to confuse its victim long enough to have a lethal effect? Why would she take such action though?

Any further pondering about the meaning of the situation was halted with the trap’s intended target cantered into the yard. Clover was wearing a far simpler cloak than normal, and was covered in dirt and pine needles from the trees surrounding the village. The fatigue from whatever work he was returning from must have been significant as he didn’t even hesitate for a second as he placed his hoof on the door and the spell began to activate.

Solaria tensed and the ghost of a smirk crossed her features. Perhaps little Lulu can be made my apprentice if one so young as her can be so cunning to remove a battle magi without direct conflict. Perhaps I need not directly exercise my wrath, as agents and assassins could prove just as useful…

“Sweetie? I’m home, and the wood stores are finally back up to a comfortable level,” Clover said as he opened the door, completely oblivious to the fact that his coat and mane were now lavender and purple.


“Did it work, did it work? Clover was being a mean plothole because I played a prank on Starswirl during their meeting, so I wanted to get him back!” Lulu explained quickly.

Solaria’s confused gaze swept down to the young filly… only to see that the would-be ambusher was also afflicted with the same coloration. The purpose of the trap was to alter Clover’s colors, and the improperly cast cantrip affected Lulu too? That’s… that’s--

The first sign that something was wrong was the muscles in Solaria’s barrel tensing. The disguised alicorn was so distracted by the illogic of Lulu’s apparent ambush that she didn’t catch the sensation until it had migrated into her chest. A strangled sound escaped her mouth as she struggled to keep her thoughts clear and diagnose the symptoms. It was then that an insidious thought hit her. What if the target of the ambush wasn’t Clover, but me? A brief thrill of fear entered Solaria’s mind as the muscle spasms forced all the air out of her lungs, and seemed to be unwilling to allow any back in.

Lulu asked something, but the words barely registered as Solaria ran a magical scan over her assumed shape. No spells appeared from the scan, and the convulsions doubled in severity in seeming defiance of her findings. She attempted a dispel incantation but her concentration continued to be interrupted as her lungs began to ache from lack of air. Solaria tried to fix the accursed filly with a glare promising a slow and painful death but her vision blurred with tears as the muscle spasms reached her face.

“What’s going on here? Is Sunny alright?” Clover’s voice asked from somewhere.

I am not alright, simpleton! This filly is trying to murder me! Solaria mentally screamed as her legs began to shake with the rest of her body.

“I… I think she’s laughing, but she doesn’t know how?” Lulu answered back.

“Okay? Well, let me know if she needs help. Also, why are you purple?”

“I’m not purple, you’re purple!”

A moment of silence.

“Lulu! You fix this right now!”

This is LAUGHTER? Why would anypony willingly put themselves through this!? I swear I will get you for this, Lulu! Your ‘laughter’ will be a thousand times worse! Solaria swore as she was finally able to drag a lungful of air in, before losing control of her breathing and her body to another fit of strangled guffaws.

Despite the struggle to draw breath and the full body spasms that took several minutes for her to recover from, Solaria couldn’t deny that she felt better for the rest of the day.


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Nearly a month since the ‘laughter’ incident had passed before Solaria had learned something entirely unexpected about the ponies in the hidden village, at a celebratory event that the commoners called a ‘party.’

Solaria nearly tripped over the galloping herds of foals more than once as she made her way over to the familiar cloaked shape of Lulu. “What is the purpose of this event? I know of no significant event that requires such a gathering,” she asked as she surveyed the anarchy of the scene. A significant number of adults had apparently found time to leave their usual work to attend, and were all helping set up decorations and conversing with the others that were present.

“Cloudy and Skipper got their marks!” Lulu said, as though it explained everything. “And Pansy’s mark changed entirely! We used to have a party once a year to celebrate whenever ponies got their marks or whenever they changed, but I think it’s because of you that we have the chance to celebrate early this year!” The scarred unicorn’s wide smile was visible from the folds of her cloak.

Solaria had thought to inquire further, but something Lulu mentioned gave her pause. “Because of me? Why do you think that?” There were no parties while I was on the throne…

“Because of your mark!” Lulu exclaimed cheerfully. “You showed up, and then you were such a hard worker that the field crews could take breaks! Everypony’s also talking about how everything is starting to thaw out, which means the sun’s slowly coming back, which means that the field crews have even more free time to help everypony, which let us have this party!”

The thaw… that isn’t possible! Solaria stretched her senses to the heavens and celestial body that she controlled, and she nearly stumbled with the shock of her discovery. It’s moving closer to the planet! I still control the orbit, but the distance is resisting my commands. Traveller… your end shall be slow and painful once I recover from your curse. Despite the well-worn nature of that particular oath, there wasn’t nearly as much fire in it as before. While it is frustrating to lose even a modicum of control… this change is tolerable. It will make the work of the villagers easier.

That idle thought caused Solaria’s gaze to drift to the rest of the gathered ponies in the village square. Many of the adults in the square were either in the process of shedding their heavier clothing or already down to little more than a vest. The foals were almost entirely devoid of clothing as they galloped playfully about the square.

“Lulu, why don’t you spend time with your peers?” Solaria asked with an honest note of curiosity coloring her question. “I have noticed that the ponies here congregate into groups based on similar interests, age groups, and work environments. It seems odd that you would almost exclusively stay with myself or Starswirl.”

The foal’s smile fell just a little bit before she explained. “Well, the other foals think I’m… spooky. I mostly stayed indoors until Starswirl taught me a detection spell that let me feel stuff around me. I think my eyes, and not needing to see ponies to know where they are, makes them scared. Some think I’m some sort of ghost, I think.” She hesitated for just a second before continuing in a rush, “They aren’t mean or anything. Nopony has teased me after I learned how to create homing snowballs with telekinesis and an attraction spell!”

The image of Lulu surrounded by dozens of snowballs, punishing her enemies like a miniature version of Solaria herself was enough to make the disguised alicorn smirk. “They do not appreciate just how great you will become, Lulu. They will learn the error of their ways, in time.” The smile on her face slowly faded as well as another question came to mind. “Lulu, why don’t you shed that heavy cloak, at least? You must be rather warm under it.”

The happy expression on the foal vanished completely before she lowered her head to vanish within the shadows of her hood. “I can’t,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Why can’t you?” Solaria asked curiously, but no response came from the cloaked filly. She didn’t press the issue, as Lulu had continued to shrink into her cloak. Instead, Solaria took the opportunity to review some of the conversation that she had with the filly, and she nearly facehoofed when she recalled something interesting that had been glossed over. “You mentioned that this party is to celebrate those who receive their marks, but you also said that some… changed?”

“Yep! Some ponies that already had their cutie marks before, but they started to change!” Lulu explained excitedly, once again showing the good cheer that Solaria had come to expect. “It’s becoming rarer, and Starswirl thinks it’s because whatever magic governs the marks is finally settling down. Anypony that already has a mark would have changed by now, and anypony who doesn’t have a mark yet gets all these really amazing marks!”

How many times can a single filly shake the foundations of the world I’ve tried to build here? It must be deliberate! Solaria sighed in defeat. She cautiously began to inspect the ponies assembled in the square, and had to resist the urge to facehoof at her lack of perception.

More than a dozen ponies milled about the square, and now that she looked more closely, Solaria couldn’t help but notice the variety of the different flank marks present. While some of the expected marks were present, such as marks related to agriculture or physical labor for the earth ponies, they were easily matched by the number of those whose marks were... unique. A pegasus with a close-cropped mane and an hourglass mark conversed with Smart Cookie and Clover, whose marks appeared similar to their namesakes. Two of the most active foals in the clearing held a bouncing rock and a cloud. Even Pansy possessed a nonsensical mark of what appeared to be bubbles.

What do they mean!? Solaria screamed inwardly. The immediate implications were nothing short of staggering. The mark system was designed to provide purpose for everypony! How does this village function without clearly defined roles!?

Her attempts at making sense of the situation abruptly halted as she caught sight of a familiar peaked hat in the window of the common hall. Solaria took a steadying breath and asked, “Lulu, I’m going to go talk to Starswirl for a bit, alright?”

“I don’t know how much talking you’ll do, since he said he was studying. He never wants to talk or do anything when he’s buried in his books,” Lulu explained grumpily.

“I’ll come back out once I’m done with Starswirl, then maybe you can show me this fabled food called ‘cake’ that you love so dearly?” Solaria offered, and the filly grinned widely with anticipation. With the young one suitably uplifted, the disguised alicorn made her way through the crowd and entered the common hall.

Starswirl had commandeered a corner table, and all manner of written material was scattered around him. Scrolls and books were stacked in the other seats around the table, and every inch of its surface was covered by at least three layers of unfurled scrolls, minimum. The unicorn himself was seemingly lost deep in thought as he stared down at his work. His concentration was so complete that he didn’t react in any way when Solaria approached and looked over his shoulder at his work.

The spells and matrices laid out on the table were wildly complex and went far beyond the simple manipulation of the local environment that the majority of spells entailed. One incomplete spell caught the disguised Solaria by surprise, as it laid the foundation to undo the rigid control that she had instigated for the marks that the tribes were given. “Ah…” she said as comprehension finally struck her.

Any further inspection was interrupted as Starswirl nearly jumped out of his chair and whirled about before he caught sight of the mare behind him. “Sun above, child! Were you never taught to not sneak up on anypony? It’s been a few years since the fall, but some of us still have reflexes meant for battle. You could get hurt!”

The disguised alicorn floundered momentarily at being caught red-hoofed. She tried several times to explain, but stopped when Starswirl let out a sigh and smiled. “I apologize for raising my voice toward you. I would have thought you would be outside with Lulu enjoying the warmer weather?” the stallion asked as he cast a glance toward the papers on the table, then back to Solaria. “On that subject, I don’t suppose you know anything about why the weather is acting so?”

“No, I don’t,” Solaria said. Perhaps too hastily, however, as Starswirl’s eyebrow arched up towards his hairline. Without missing a beat, Solaria continued, “Though you are correct in that I do have a question. Lulu was just explaining the purpose of this gathering, and the marks that some of the ponies have don’t… they are not the typical marks that I would expect to see on the pony that bears them.”

Starswirl held Solaria squarely in his too-knowing stare. After a moment, the stallion nodded. “I suppose that’s to be expected. What with the cold weather, everypony has been too bundled up for you to see some of the changes that are taking place. You’re familiar with the typical marks that show up on each race, yes? And I imagine Lulu’s explanation only gave you more questions?” When the disguised alicorn nodded to both questions, he mimicked the gesture before pausing to collect his thoughts.

“Clover was the first, from what I’ve been told. Don’t tell me you thought a trio of clovers was a normal mark for a battle magi before Solaria’s absence?” Starswirl began, and a small smirk spread when he caught sight of the flat look she gave him. “Regardless, he was left to die after a skirmish and fell unconscious. When he awoke, he was in the care of our dear Cookie. Just between you and me, he said that when he opened his eyes and saw that mare for the first time, he felt that his rotten luck had finally changed. And when he was finally able to leave that bed, his mark had changed as well. Ever since then, he abandoned his old identity in favor of the one he has now.”

But… that… that makes no sense! If you have the power to undo the binding mark, why bother with something so meaningless as a lucky symbol? Solaria asked herself silently. “I’m not certain I understand. You were able to undo his mark, but--”

Starswirl raised a hoof. “I suppose I should be impressed that you were able to deduce that much from my incomplete notes, but you’re only partially correct.” The unicorn looked down at the aforementioned notes and shuffled them into the bottom of the stack. “I was researching for a way to break the mark system to free us from Solaria’s caste system when I became aware of Clover’s curious development. Soon after, the foals coming of age started getting their own marks that were far from the normal ones we were expecting.” He turned back to Solaria and let out a helpless laugh. “It seems that the mark system has broken itself. If marks are changing on their own, then it seems rather silly to develop a spell to force the change.

With his explanation apparently complete, Starswirl paused to give Solaria another one of his suspicious looks. “I’m afraid you’ve piqued my curiosity, Sunny. It is well within your rights to refuse my question, but I feel compelled to ask: Is your mark the one you’ve always had?”

“Y-yes! Of course it is!” Solaria asserted with as much confidence she could fake, though she withered under the weight of Starswirl’s stare. Does he ask these questions because he does not know the answer, or because he does? she thought, and a small amount of panic began to enter her thoughts.

“Yes, I imagine so,” the stallion said with a nod as he released Solaria from his visual grip. He again sat at the table and began to pour over his notes. “We’ve only been seeing this phenomenon for a couple of years, with a hooffull of foals and younger ponies to base our studies on. It’s nothing concrete, but there does seem to be a correlation between the marks that appear and the traits that the mark-bearer possesses. It all somehow ties back to the five… but five isn’t enough, is it? There’s something that’s missing.”

With the stallion’s gaze no longer upon her, Solaria once again stepped forward to look over his shoulder to inspect his work. “The five? Is this related to the traits you mentioned some time ago? Honesty, loyalty…” Her words gradually drifted off as she tried to make sense of at least a dozen spells that were partially finished or in only a theoretical stage. Time travel, unlocking true potential, translation and interpretation spells, plus the mountains of research on something called ‘the Elements of Harmony’ covered nearly every page in front of him. Unfortunately, any further inspection of the elder unicorn’s work was interrupted when the door flew open with a BANG.

“Sunny! Sunny! You’ve got to try this, it’s delicious!” Lulu shouted as she galloped up to Solaria with a plate of the mythical ‘cake’ being pulled behind her with telekinesis. Without any prompting, the cake was nearly flung into the disguised alicorn’s face. It halted an inch in front of her snout before hovering there patiently.

The filly seems to be quivering with anticipation for me to try this ‘cake.’ Perhaps I will humor her on this to see what excites her so, Solaria mused to herself as she took a nibble of the offered sweets. Then another nibble. Then a bite. Then a larger bite. “Lulu, tell me… is there more of this ‘cake?’” she asked as she finished off the last of what the filly had brought her.

“Yes, there is! But we have to hurry before it’s all gone!” Lulu confirmed happily before whipping around and bolting out of the building. “Because the crops turned out so well, they’ve got all kinds of awesome flavors and toppings! Like strawberries, and…”

Solaria trotted in the filly’s wake with a smile. Any concerns about just what Starswirl was planning were placed a distant second priority to securing more of the sweet confection that the mortals had apparently been hiding from her for all the years of her rule.


View Online

Solaria relaxed upon the couch near the window of her room, sipping a warm drink that Smart Cookie called ‘cocoa.’ The drink, along with cake and several other common foods, had become something of a vice for the disguised alicorn over the past few weeks. I merely do this to maintain the appearance of normalcy amongst the mortals, she thought as she drew another long sip from her mug. When the time comes, I will cast these things aside. Now is not that time, however. The faux unicorn savored the warm feeling that the cocoa gave her as she took another sip, before looking over her mug at the other occupant in the room.

Lulu sat on her flank, her body completely obscured by the cloak draped over her body. Her scarred face was mostly hidden in the shadows of her hood, but Solaria could clearly make out the intense look on her face. That intense look evolved into comprehension, then excitement as she said, “Is it--”


The ghost of a grin crossed Solaria’s face as Lulu vanished from the room. She took another sip of her cocoa before glancing back down at the book she had been reading. Starswirl’s work is… surprising. His results are completely preposterous, but there’s a logic to it that’s tempting. Compelling, even.

The sounds of galloping hooves could be heard in the hallway, and the door flew open for Lulu as she barreled in the room. “It’s a teleport--”


Solaria hadn’t even looked up to address the filly as she entered and abruptly vanished again. Her thoughts began to race as she continued to read. Starswirl theorized that the races of this world are capable of influencing it through magic, while also being influenced by the world. He believes that these ‘Elements’ represent the true and honest nature of ponies, and cites this village’s success as proof that they can achieve ‘Harmony’ and become much more.

Before Solaria had come to the hidden community, she would have dismissed the concept instantly. She would likely have had the heretical text burned and the foolish author added as a statue to her garden. Now, though…

The sounds of galloping hooves again could be heard in the hallway and Lulu skidded around through the doorway. “A--”


Starswirl believes that the world is a reflection of its inhabitants, and vice versa As one improves, so does the other, she realised, and the impulse to burn the book was supplanted only by the unspoken question: What if he’s right? The idea of something so monumental escaping Solaria’s notice gave rise to the philosophical implications of the two parties influencing each other. A curious quote about chickens and eggs drifted through her memory, but was interrupted by a knock on the doorframe.

“Good evening, Sunny,” Starswirl said as he stepped just inside of the doorway. “I see that you’re going through my old notes like a mare possessed. I certainly hope this isn’t drawing your attention away from Lulu’s lessons.”

“Don’t be silly, Starswirl. I’m teaching her right now.”

The sound of galloping hooves down the hallway heralded another appearance of the filly. She was panting lightly as she asked, “Why is it--”


“Teaching?” the elder unicorn asked with a suspicious and not entirely unamused look.

“Indeed,” Solaria said as she sipped her cocoa. “She soaks up anything I show her like a sponge, so I figured I would teach her how to identify spell effects without the use of her own magic. Simple observation is all that’s needed, rather than complex formula.”

Lulu skidded past the doorway and shouted, “I--”


“Simple observation?” Starswirl repeated, adopting his ‘I don’t believe you but I’m going to play along’ tone. He brought up a hoof to his chin and he squinted into the room. “I’ll admit your cantrip is cleverly cast, but are you sure she’s going to be able to puzzle out the conditions for activation?”

Solaria turned to the next page of her borrowed book. “I’m actually quite confident that she will work out the parameters. She actually sat still for around fifteen minutes trying to work things out before she triggered it for the first time.” She paused her reading and cast an offended look at the unicorn. “Are you accusing me of having some ulterior motive for this test?”

The sound of hooves could be heard in the hallway again, but they had slowed from a frantic gallop to a slightly more sedated rate. Lulu made it around the corner and asked, “How does it--”


“I would never accuse you of such a thing, Sunny,” Starswirl said, and he looked upwards and to the side. “A lesser pony might think this is revenge for that time that Lulu told you that the fiery mustard was a special kind of cake frosting. Or that time she sprinkled flour into your coat just before your morning bath. You’ve become quite the focus of our resident prankster, so a lesser pony might think that this is retribution.”

“Well, then I should be thankful that you’re a better pony than that, right?” Solaria answered while levelling a glare at the stallion that had made lesser beings cower.

Trotting hooves punctuated by gasping breaths caused the two adults to pause as Lulu rounded the corner and into the room. “I’m getting--”


Starswirl gave a helpless chuckle and angled his head so that his gaze was hidden beneath his hat. “It’s to your credit that you can keep her attention. She hasn’t once complained about the lessons you two have, which is something I couldn’t manage for more than a two day stretch.” He sighed and stepped back into the hallway. “I’ll be downstairs with my research. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”

Solaria nodded to acknowledge the stallion’s offer before turning back to her reading. What I’m feeling is the satisfaction of teaching a valuable lesson, she told herself as she kept a mental tally of the number of times Lulu had fallen into the same trap. Lulu takes great pleasure in teaching me so much about the commoner’s life. Is it so wrong that I enjoy ‘teaching’ her also?

The hours of the evening came and went, and Lulu’s full speed gallops eroded into trots, then sedated walks. It was past midnight before she finally produced a winning answer. “Letters… first word… word count… teleport,” the foal panted before giving Solaria a wide grin.

“Very good!” the disguised alicorn praised. “Now, what did you learn?”

A minute passed as Lulu slowly caught her breath. “That if I’m going to prank somepony, I should make sure there’s no evidence leading back to me?” she asked slowly and without an ounce of remorse.

“Partial credit,” Solaria stated, before closing her book. “You also need to learn how to choose your targets more wisely: Starswirl will not retaliate; Clover will likely speak rather harshly towards you; Smart cookie will take your sweets away for a week.” A vindictive grin crossed her face, and she hoped it carried over to her voice, “I choose to get even. Do we have an understanding?”

“Perfectly! I promise only to get caught by ponies that are too mature for pranks of their own!” Lulu announced, and she burst into giggles when her teacher facehoofed. The giggles faded as she sat on the floor. “Sunny, can I sleep here tonight? I don’t think I can make it back to my room.”

Solaria arched an eyebrow before surrendering with a sigh. “You may. Starswirl’s books are quite enthralling, so I will likely not be sleeping. You may use my bed to rest if-- what are you doing?”

Rather than head for the simple bunk in the corner of the room, Lulu tottered forward to the couch and hopped up. The filly snuggled up beside Solaria, and once she was comfortable she fixed the faux unicorn with a wide-eyed look from beneath her hood. “Swirly used to spend all night reading and I could never go to sleep by myself. Do you mind if I sleep beside you? I promise not to get in your way.”

What spellcraft is this… this compulsion? Solaria asked herself as she found herself a prisoner to those milky-white eyes. No magic is in effect or being directed towards me, but I cannot resist! “Very well… but I must insist that you remove your cloak. Today’s lesson has you sweating dreadfully under it, and to be honest I’m not certain it’s been washed. Ever.”

Hesitation entered Lulu’s expression before she looked down. “O-okay,” she agreed, her voice barely more than a whisper. Magic undid the knotted string from around her neck, and the ragged cloth folded itself in the air before being placed near one of the sofa legs. With the garment no longer a concern, the foal burrowed as deeply as she could into Solaria’s side before her eyes slowly closed.

This is the first time I’ve seen her uncovered, Solaria realised, and a hollow ache slowly grew in her chest the longer she looked at her. The scars on the foal’s face and eyes were the most prominent marks, but they were far from the only ones. The burns continued past her horn to her ears, as well as down the front of her neck and forelegs. The burns couldn’t have been inflicted naturally, as there is no gradient to the scars. The cause was likely a magical burst of… of… Lulu shivered in her sleep, and Solaria had to restrain the impulse to wrap a foreleg around the filly. Confound your compulsions, Lulu! One day you will surrender the secrets of this ability to me!

Despite her best attempts to resume the study of Starswirl’s books, her gaze was continually drawn to the foal at her side. The coat that was unmarked by the scars was a gentle powder blue, and a crescent moon mark adorned her flanks. Her mane and tail were light gray and completely matted down from the weight of the cloak she always wore. A monumental force of will was required to keep from pulling Lulu closer, so she instead chose to focus on the burns.

If the magister that’s responsible for this still lives, I must make it a priority to find him upon my return to power. I wish to personally express my displeasure, Solaria concluded. The disguised alicorn closed the borrowed book before she closed her eyes as well. It had been several weeks since she had devoted any thought to her more creative forms of punishment, and she had every intention of exploring each one in detail… but her thoughts kept drifting back to the foal sleeping at her side.

Solaria gave a small sigh as she opened her eyes and glanced back down to Lulu. My recent lessons have been to prepare Lulu to serve as an agent of my wrath in the future, but she misunderstands my intent. She must become aware of my intended role for her, she concluded. Plans began to coalesce in her mind on just how that could be achieved, but every single one was derailed by the sight of the foal burying her scarred face into the older mare’s barrel. Perhaps… perhaps that can wait for a while, Solaria concluded, and she finally surrendered to the impulse to pull the filly closer.

The pair stayed side by side for some time before Solaria felt the first rays of sunlight arc over the horizon. Warm light began to slowly began to filter into the room, and the disguised alicorn could do little but sit and bask in the morning light as Lulu shifted to make herself more comfortable. Her adjustments were apparently unsuccessful, and the foal rose and stretched. As she reached the apex of her stretch, her eyes grew wide as she slowly turned toward the window and the rising sun.

And then she screamed.

Lulu tumbled from the couch and galloped away from the window, only to collide face first with the wall on the opposite side of the room. The impact caused her to stumble, but she quickly recovered and began banging on the wall with her hooves. Her screaming continued for a few seconds longer until Starswirl entered the room.

The elder unicorn’s teleport was an order of a magnitude louder than those of Solaria’s trap, and the excess force of his magic cracked the window panes and pushed back every piece of furniture by a quarter inch. “Lulu! To me!” Starswirl shouted, and his forelegs swept up the filly as she sprinted in the direction of his voice. The filly’s sobs were muffled slightly by Starswirl’s cape as it pooled around him, and they slowly grew silent as Starswirl hummed a lullaby to her.

The stallion’s expression was unreadable as he glanced towards the open window, then the folded cloak at the foot of the couch. A brief magical tug pulled the curtains around the window closed, and a second spell pulled the folded garment over to him. “Lulu, you’re safe now. I have your cloak ready for you,” he whispered.

“W-what kind of cloak is it?” the filly questioned from somewhere within the depths of Starswirl’s cape.

“It’s a magic cloak,” the elder explained as he backed away slowly and draped the tattered cloth over Lulu. “It’s enchanted to keep you safe. I promise that no harm will come to you so long as you wear it.” Starswirl pulled the filly into a tight hug before setting her down.

“You p-promise?”

“Cross my heart.”

A knock at the door was followed by Cookie’s concerned voice. “Is everypony okay in there?” The concerned mare cracked the door open, and some unspoken message passed between her and Starswirl in the blink of an eye. “Lulu, dear, why don’t you come downstairs to the kitchen? I’ve just finished a loaf of cinnamon bread, and I think we can spare some butter for toast if you like.” Cookie offered, and she favored the filly with a warm smile as she walked out the door.

Starswirl waited for the door to click shut before he spoke, his back still to Solaria. “You have my apologies, Sunny. I had hoped that we would never have to have this conversation, but it seems that it’s unavoidable now.”

The disguised alicorn hadn’t managed to move an inch during the entire exchange, and she let out the breath that she had been holding. “What… what was the reason for that outburst? I cannot recall any cause for such fear.”

Starswirl took in a slow breath before letting it out. “This all started with the Dawnbreaker incident…” The stallion stopped and let out a helpless chuckle. “You’ll have to forgive me. Almost all of the adults here know of what occurred, but you might have been too young to have heard about it.”

“I cannot say that the term ‘Dawnbreaker’ has any meaning for me,” Solaria answered honestly, her indignation at the presumption of her age overridden by curiosity of the topic at hand.

Starswirl nodded, and another moment passed in silence before he spoke again. “Dawnbreaker was a magister who was rising through the ranks with admirable speed considering his age. His skills in management were surpassed only by his magical capacity, and he was considered to be the best candidate to inherit the Grand Magus title from his father. Unfortunately, Dawnbreaker was also a rather… radical member of the magisters when it came to how things should be run.

“He would often have meetings with Commander Typhoon of the enforcers, and rumor has it that he was even meeting in secret with influential members of the labor caste. From what I have been told, Dawnbreaker was planning on instituting sweeping reforms for more lenient treatment with the laborers, and greater oversight and accountability for the magisters and enforcers,” Starswirl explained. An emotion that Solaria had never heard before had entered the stallion’s voice, and it only grew as he continued. “These plans might have earned him censure or lost standing had they come out… before his daughter was born.”

“Lulu?” Solaria asked, and Starswirl could only nod in response.

“You already know how much of a prodigy she is. Minor telekinetics at three, and basic cantrips at four. Four! I could barely manage a lamp spell when I was six! Most of the other magister foals were barely starting their arcane schooling by the age of five, and she was already tackling spells of apprentices twice her age.” The stallion let out a tired laugh. “I remember that some were speculating that at the rate she was progressing, she might just steal away the title of Grand Magus before her father could lay claim to it. Some very powerful ponies wanted to make sure that wouldn’t come to pass.”

“And did Dawnbreaker take issue with this overly ambitious--” the disguised alicorn started to ask, only to recoil at the furious glare that Starswirl gave her.

“Lulu was his daughter, and he loved her with every fiber of his being!” he hissed at Solaria before clenching his teeth and taking another deep breath. He turned back to the doorway before continuing. “Dawnbreaker did nothing but shout his daughter’s praises to anyone who would listen, and he’d often shout them at those who wouldn’t. Unlike the other magisters and their pure bloodlines, Lulu was born to a common earth pony cook working at Dawnbreaker’s estate. Apparently she was the product of one of Dawnbreaker’s ‘youthful indiscretions.’”

“That would explain the reactions of the other magisters lack of enthusiasm for one so gifted…” Solaria said carefully, her eyes searching Starswirl for any sign of the anger he had briefly shown after her last question.

A bit of the heat that had been in Starswirl’s tone returned. “That would be an understatement. At first they had thought a half breed would fail when compared to their chosen heirs. When she didn’t, they assumed some trick perpetrated by Dawnbreaker to support his radical ideas. When that was proven false… they accused Dawnbreaker of laying the groundwork for rebellion with the laborers and took their case to Princess Platinum. The princess believed their every word, and escalated the issue.”

The price of treason is death. If Dawnbreaker was collaborating with the enforcers, then they would likely have sent magisters or the Grand Magus to punish him, Solaria concluded. She opened her mouth to say just that, but the slowly growing ache in her chest gave her pause.

“Princess Platinum brought the reports to the Solar Court, and pled the case of Dawnbreaker’s treachery to Queen Solaria… and she…” Starswirl’s shoulders shook, and he turned to face Solaria fully. Tears ran from his eyes as he sobbed. “I don’t know what spell she cast, but everypony who was within sight of Dawnbreaker’s estate said it was like a shard of the sun itself in its heat and intensity. Dawnbreaker… my son... died in the fire before I could get there. Lulu, my precious granddaughter, was nearly burned to cinders. It was all I could do to save her life! She refuses to go out during the day because she thinks the sun will make her catch fire, and I can’t do anything but lie by telling her that rag she wears is some mystical artifact that will protect her!”

Starswirl continued to rant and plead towards Solaria, but his words fell on deaf ears.

I… did this? Lulu’s scars were caused by me?! she thought, and the pain in her chest increased exponentially. They weren’t obeying the rules of my system! They brought it on themselves! Solaria protested, but the arguments rang hollow. This town I’m in doesn’t obey the rules of my system. Do Clover and Cookie deserve to die? Does their unborn foal deserve to die? Does Starswirl deserve this fate for orchestrating this? Does Lulu for participating in it? No, they’re good, they don’t deserve--

The faces of the ponies she knew in town were replaced by thousands of half-remembered punishments, of creatures pleading for mercy or crying out in terror. Did the others deserve it? Or were all the others like Clover and and Cookie? Like Starswirl and Lulu?

The questions struck her with the force of a physical blow. How many? How many fathers have had to bury sons that I killed? How many foals were maimed and orphaned because of me? The thought of thousands… millions of such things happening during her reign threatened to crush the disguised alicorn. Is the system of order I’m trying to create worth more than their lives? Was it worth scarring Lulu for the rest of her life? She raked her memories for an explanation or some higher reason that might justify what had been done… and found nothing but genocide repeated again and again.

“Sunny?” The question was accompanied by a gentle tap on the shoulder, and Starswirl held up his hooves in a placating gesture when the mare recoiled. “I am sorry. I know you’ve lived a sheltered life, and it was unfair of me to unload all of this onto you.” When no response was immediate, the old stallion closed his eyes. “I’m sorry… I don’t think I’m going to be good company. Why don’t you downstairs and have have breakfast with Lulu and Cookie?” He wrapped one foreleg around her shoulders and slowly guided the stunned mare out of the room and down to the kitchens.

“Sunny! You gotta try this!” Lulu said excitedly, the terror of the sun apparently forgotten in favor of a delicious snack. The filly’s muzzle was covered in breadcrumbs, which multiplied as she stuffed a second slice of toast into her mouth. “It’s delicious when it’s warm! Go on, try some!” Lulu levitated a slice over to the mare. Her good cheer began to fade when her offered treat wasn’t taken immediately. “Don’t you want any? I promise I haven’t done anything to it…”

Anything else that filly might have said was abruptly interrupted when Solaria did the only thing she could think of to ease the pain she was feeling. “I’m so sorry, Lulu,” she sobbed as she scooped the filly into a crushing hug. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know… I didn’t know about any of it.”

Lulu’s flailing and protests about the treatment went unheard. The weight of one thought overshadowed all others. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall casting the spell that destroyed Lulu’s family and scarred her for life. She had far too many similar memories to draw from.


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The comforting babble of chirping birds and the screaming of delighted foals reached Sunny’s ears as she trotted out onto the dirt path outside the common hall. The sun hung above the mare and warmed her coat quite pleasantly as she trotted down the path. She was quickly overtaken by the stampeding herd of foals that stopped just long enough to wave at Sunny before resuming their mad dash past the buildings that lined the village square.

The ponies of the village and the birds weren’t the only ones who had benefitted from the warmer weather. For the first time that Sunny could recall since being accepted by the hidden community, the trees and uncultivated fields showed far more vibrant green than brown. The temperatures had even improved to the point that torch duty on the fields had been disbanded, and the unicorns that had participated in it were able to pursue the careers of their choosing.

Clover had led the charge, taking to carpentry and woodworking like a stallion possessed. Over the past several weeks, he and several other unicorns had built several homes on the outskirts of the town. One of them had even been offered to Sunny, but she had politely declined for the time being.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Starswirl’s role had remained largely the same from what Sunny knew. The majority of his time was spent with his research, followed closely by the time spent with Lulu and (preventing) her ‘adventures’. On occasion, Sunny had seen the elderly stallion speaking with Clover in hushed tones and with serious looks. Their conversations would end abruptly whenever she approached, and she didn’t feel it would be appropriate to pry.

“Ah, good morning Sunny!” an earth pony mare named Needlepoint greeted as Sunny stepped into her tailoring shop. She was an older pony with a fading blue coat and a sewing needle flank mark, and her smile was warm as she asked, “How can I help you today?”

“I am afraid I must impose upon you again,” Sunny explained as she looked over the various tools and materials lining the shelves. “I will require the use of your tools and some fabric, if you can spare it.”

“Oh, are you sure you want to try again? I know you really want to make something yourself, and I’m not the only one who’s glad that someone as young as you is so driven, but…” Needlepoint put a hoof over her mouth in some approximation of a filly trying to smother a giggle. “Are you certain that I can’t help you at all? You certainly put in a lot of effort with your magic, but the results might be less… embarrassing.”

The only sign of Sunny’s annoyance was a clenched jaw and a twitch of one eyebrow. Neither did anything to dim the good humor of the seamstress as she retrieved the necessary materials and tools before pushing them over the counter towards the unicorn. “There you go, dear. Try not to let your creations get out of control this time, okay?”

“Thank you for your advice, Needlepoint. I shall keep it in mind at all times,” Sunny said stiffly. She turned and departed from the tailor’s shop, and she pointedly didn’t look back as Needlepoint broke down into a fit of giggles.

When Sunny had first expressed an interest in creating an article of clothing, she had watched over the seamstress mare’s shoulders as she had worked on another article of clothing. After a single hour of observation, she was confident she could replicate the earth pony’s skills to create what she needed. The movements of thread and needle were automated into a spell that took the barest fraction of her concentration, which allowed her to continue planning the later stages of her project.

Because of this lapse of concentration on the task at hand, the needle and thread that was binding the fabric together had somehow migrated to her forehooves and tied them together. By the time Sunny had realised what was happening, the animated threads had already made it past her fetlocks. By the time she had stopped the spell, it had already crawled several more inches up her forelegs. Rather than potentially ruin the precious thread, Sunny had called out for Starswirl to help untangle herself. The elder stallion did help free the mare from her unintentional bindings… after taking several minutes to stop laughing. Starswirl had sworn an oath of secrecy about the events that had occurred, and the two parted ways.

Naturally, the entire town had learned about the mishap in less than a week.

I will not have my reputation besmirched without retribution, Starswirl! One day I’ll— Sunny grumbled to herself, but halted just as quickly. I burned his family to death and scarred the last of his line for the rest of her life. What punishment could I threaten that would surpass that?

Sunny’s short walk stopped in the shade of a tree that had apparently survived the long winter and was even now filling out with vibrant green leaves. She sat down abruptly and squeezed her eyes shut before giving her head a quick shake. Solaria would have thought of ways to punish Starswirl, but I will not make the same mistakes again. I spend ages as Solaria trying to create a perfect system of order… and for what? I don’t even remember why I was trying to create the system, or what that system was meant to accomplish. I don’t even remember who instructed me to do those things…

The mare slowly opened her eyes and arrayed the tailoring supplies neatly around her. The simple actions filled Sunny with a small but noticeable sense of purpose and enjoyment, two things that had been completely missing from the life that Solaria had led. Solaria would have scoffed at such things. She wouldn’t have seen the purpose of learning how to do this… she probably wouldn’t have even acknowledged the need for the result of this process. ‘It does not serve the system,’ she would think. Sunny’s self-deprecating thought process gave rise to a startling conclusion. I had always punished ponies who had strayed from the purpose of the system, to try and force them into being good little cogs in the machine. Did I ever take a moment and consider that I might have been a cog in somepony else’s machine?

She let out a sigh and pushed those thoughts aside. Solaria and her system failed. All she could do was destroy things that she didn’t like. As Sunny Sky, I can try and make things better. Any doubt that the mare felt was pushed aside as she found resolve in her task. I’m going to make Lulu the best cloak ever, no matter the cost!

The fabrics and other materials might have been considered crude, but that didn’t concern Sunny. Given the amount of abuse Lulu puts her current cloak through, ruggedness takes priority, she thought as she pulled the materials together with her magic. Once the basic garment is completed, I can see about adding some enhancements to it. If she’s going to be wearing this all the time, then temperature regulation will be a necessity. It shouldn’t be too hard to make it resistant to the rain and other environmental concerns. Perhaps I should-- FOCUS! Sunny gave herself a mental kick as her wandering thoughts had very nearly caused a repeat of her earlier embarrassment. She needed…

“She needed to keep all of her attention on the task before her. Though she had no proof of it, Sunny secretly suspected that the mundane needles and thread could smell her fear…”

“Good day, Lulu,” Sunny greeted while pointedly ignoring the narration that the filly had supplied. “Am I to assume that you’ve completed your penance and were released, or did you escape your jailor again?”

The scarred unicorn harrumphed dramatically. “I don’t see what the big deal is. I was just using one of Starswirl’s boring research books to play paddle ball! It’s not like a few hard whacks are going to hurt it or anything.” When Lulu grew silent, Solaria spared a moment to glance and saw her annoyance had been replaced with a thoughtful expression beneath her tattered hood. “Sunny, is reading fun?” she asked.

“Fun? I don’t know if I would consider it fun…” Sunny answered as she thought back to all of the texts that she had borrowed from Starswirl over the past few weeks. It’s the accumulation of knowledge that another pony has catalogued. I don’t think that--

“Really?” Lulu interrupted, and a large hardcover book landed with a heavy thump on Sunny’s tailoring supplies. She bounced from hoof to hoof as excitement apparently overpowered her capacity to stand still. “Double Check just finished writing this a week ago, and he was reading it to the other foals. They all seemed to have a lot of fun!”

Sunny arched an eyebrow as she shifted her attention from her now buried project to the book that had been dumped in front of her. The covers were newly crafted and crisp, as were the pages contained within them. She pulled open the cover and asked, “Did you have fun then, Lulu?”

The filly stopped bouncing, and she shrank back into the shadows of her cloak. “The others weren’t having much fun while I was there. So… I thought it might be fun if you read it to me!”

I don’t understand why my inclusion in the activity would increase the ‘fun’, but there are many things that this foal has taught me since arriving here, Sunny thought as she let out a sigh in surrender. Perhaps I will divine the underlying formula of ‘fun’ that she grasps so easily some day. “Very well then, Lulu. Why don’t--”

“You will? Yes!” the filly cheered as she bounced from hoof to hoof again as her previous excitement returned. She quickly settled down when the elder mare cleared her throat, though she continued to quiver from the apparently monumental effort necessary to sit still.

What followed was possibly the strangest book that Sunny had ever been exposed to. It followed the journeys of a young earth pony that lived an apparently mundane life in a world very much like their own, were it not for a series of unfortunate events that strained what might be considered believable. Disaster and tragedy struck, followed by renewed hope in the form of friends and family, and a journey across the width of the world to stop an unspeakable evil. Hours passed between the two as Sunny became just as enraptured in the story as the foal she was reading to, until the inevitable occurred.

“...where’s the rest of the story?” Sunny asked as she stared down at the blank last page of the book. She flipped the page to reveal the equally blank back cover, then back again. “Lulu, I demand that you take me to the pony who wrote this at once! I will not tolerate not knowing the ultimate fate of Somber Sea, or how the wendigo managed to slay her brother with impunity and escape!”

Lulu tilted her head and raised a hoof to scratch one of her ears. “That’s the end of this book, Sunny. I think Double Check plans on writing more, but that takes time--”

“Nonsense!” Sunny declared. “Come, Lulu! We will go to this Double Check and he will tell us what we wish to know or suffer the consequences!” She rose and began to trot in the direction of the town square, but stopped when Lulu’s giggling reached her ears. It was a sound she had learned to dread. “What is it, Lulu?” she asked as she turned to face the filly.

The scarred filly was grinning widely as she put a hoof on the book. “Silly Sunny! Half of the fun is the suspense and wondering what happens next. The other half is talking about it with friends!” Lulu explained quickly before drawing in a quick breath. “So what do you think? How do you think that the wendigo got away with it, or maybe her brother survived? Or maybe her brother was the wendigo! Remember, we didn’t see the body at the end!”

Sunny attempted to parse the flood of questions as they were launched by the filly, but she found herself hung up by what Lulu had explained at the start. She said it wasn’t as fun listening to the book with the other fillies, but it would be fun with me. She said that talking with a friend about the book was half the fun. She had told me months ago that the other foals don’t like her because of her scars and lack of sight. She wants to talk about the book with a friend… and she comes to me. She wouldn’t have to come to me if I hadn’t done this to her.

The conclusion was built on circumstantial evidence and off-the-hoof comments from conversations with the filly, but it all led up to the same dull ache in her heart that wouldn’t go away. Starswirl had called it ‘sympathy’, but the term didn’t seem to encompass the feeling that ate at her to varying degrees every waking moment that she spent with the filly. There was only one thing that Sunny could do to ease that ache, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment as she swept Lulu into a tight hug… or she tried to, at least.


The sound of teleportation snapped Sunny out of her thoughts, and her eyes settled on the sour-faced Lulu who now sat a half-dozen body lengths away. “No no no, none of that! If you try that again I’ll just teleport to my secret hiding spot!” the filly protested as she looked away in protest. The defiant pose didn’t last long, and concern began to enter Lulu’s expression. “Why are you so grabby lately, Sunny? Right now, you’re worse than Starswirl and Cookie when I was younger.”

“I… I did something very mean to somepony, Lulu,” Sunny explained, and an inexplicable urge to tell her everything rose within her. “I didn’t know just how mean it was until just recently, and I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t know if I can make it better.”

“Have you tried apologizing? Starswirl makes me apologize whenever I do something wrong,” Lulu explained as she tapped her chin with a hoof. “I know you have some trouble warming up to ponies you’ve just met, so maybe somepony just got the wrong idea about you? I know you’re a nice pony, Sunny. You always make time to play with me! I’m sure if you apologize and tell whoever it is that you’ll do better, they’ll forgive you.”

The simple wisdom of the filly’s advice fought for supremacy with the dull pain in her heart that Lulu’s faith inspired. Just apologize and say you’ll do better? Is it really as simple as that? Is a simple apology enough to make up for what I did to her… to her family and to Starswirl? I want to do better… I will do better. The resolve to do just what the filly had advised made itself apparent, but her voice began to falter. “Lulu, I’m… I’m so so--”

“I figured I would find you two together,” a voice said from behind Sunny, which caused the mare to jump in surprise. A look over her shoulder confirmed that it belonged to Starswirl, who gave Sunny an amused look from beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Don’t glare at me like that, child. I snuck up behind you with all the stealth of a gutshot dragon.”

“Swirly! Swirly! I can teleport!” Lulu declared triumphantly, and promptly suited words to action. Her little horn flared with energy and she appeared in front of Starswirl. “I was going to show you later, but I had to use it just now to escape Sunny! She was trying to molest me!”

“I wasn’t trying--” Sunny started to protest, indignance at the accusation apparent in her voice. A raised hoof from Starswirl gave her pause.

“Lulu, I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” the elderly stallion said as he brought his raised hoof up to cover his face.

“I know exactly what it means!” Lulu declared. “The word shows up in Double Check’s book! When I asked him about it, he said it was a hug that I should tell adults about if it happens!” Her expression scrunched up in confusion. “Come to think of it, Clover and Cookie molest each other all the time! Did they tell you about it yet?”

Midway through the explanation, Starswirl had begun to shake his head in apparent exasperation. Rather than tackle that powder keg, he chose to change the subject. “Lulu, I just came from Double Check’s home. Did you borrow his one-of-a-kind first draft of his book without asking?”

“Yes! But I’ll bring it back right now since we’re done! I’ll talk to you later, Sunny!” Lulu said, and both she and the book vanished in a flash of magic.

Starswirl let out a sigh and turned to Sunny. “Thank you for spending so much time with her. She certainly benefits from having somepony to look up to… so to speak.” He let out a small chuckle at his poor choice of words before giving Sunny a serious look. “I’m afraid that we have something serious to discuss, Sunny. Even with spells, I’m afraid this place is far too public. If you would follow me, please…”

Sunny nodded and fell into step behind the elder stallion. The pair was greeted at nearly every storefront by the business owner or one of the younger helpers that had been drafted to help with the work, but Starswirl didn’t tarry more than a moment at each. Sunny followed the stallion’s example by exchanging pleasantries with everypony. A small flicker of warmth had taken root in her after every conversation, and it took her a moment to realise that it had nothing to do with the sun.

This never happened to Solaria. Ponies cowered in fear at my approach. Now they seem happy when they see Sunny… when they see me, Sunny realised. I was a truly wretched creature… to have wanted to inspire such terror in my subjects. This… this is far better. She held onto the gentle warmth that the realisation had brought her, and Lulu’s kind words earlier added a bittersweet quality to it.

The sound of a door latch shook Sunny out of her thoughts, and she followed Starswirl into the common hall. Clover was already present and sitting by one of the far tables, and Smart Cookie closed and latched the lock behind the two new arrivals as soon as they passed through the door. The hall itself had developed something of a comforting quality to Sunny when filled with ponies making merry and talking. With just the four, though, it seemed ominous. The feeling only increased as the blinds were drawn and Starswirl cast spells to prevent any sound from leaving the room as well as block any scrying attempt.

“Sunny, I suspect you might have questions regarding this little meeting, and there will be plenty of time for those in just a bit. For now, though, I’m afraid I must apologize,” Starswirl said as he took his seat next to Clover. He took a deep breath and raised his head just enough for Sunny to lock eyes with the elder stallion.

“I know who and what you used to be, Sunny.”


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“I know who and what you used to be, Sunny.”

Over the course of her long life, the strongest emotions that Sunny had felt were often negative. Anger and annoyance were the two largest contenders by far, followed by frustration and other darker things.

Since her time in the hidden village, she had experienced far more than she thought had been possible. Sunny had experienced the wonders of surprise from Lulu, gratitude from the other ponies for her work, satisfaction in a job well done… and the heart wrenching sympathy she felt towards Starswirl and his young grandchild. She had also been haunted by another emotion since the revelation of Lulu’s injuries, something that gnawed at her every waking moment. It was a feeling that she had no name for, and as uncomfortable as it was, deep down she felt that she might deserve the horrible feeling.

The emotion that gripped Sunny in the darkened common hall was something entirely new. It wasn’t the slow burning pain that she had been dealing with, or the spikes that prodded her whenever she thought of Lulu. A sense of urgency unlike anything she had ever felt overpowered everything else, until only one single thought ran through her mind.

They know. They know!

The part of Sunny’s mind that was still free from the chilling grip of that nameless emotion ran through a thousand probable outcomes of the situation she now found herself in. An ambush? Pointless. Even Starswirl could do little to harm me for long. Plus, any such combat would irreparably damage the village. No, if this were an ambush, he would have taken me elsewhere. So why confront me in the first place?

The two repeated words continued to repeat with increasing urgency for Sunny, but with the immediate threat apparently a figment of her imagination, she approached the problem from a different angle. Why confront me at all? It’s not as though they can help me-- The memory of Starswirl retelling the tale of his son’s death, Lulu’s terrified screaming as she fled from the rising sun, and the long-ago conversation about Smart Cookie and Clover’s relationship flashed into focus for her, and each scene was punctuated by those two words.

They would never help Solaria-- they would never help me after what I’ve done to them. Sunny realised, and her composure began to crack. They hate Solaria… and that means that they hate me. She gasped in a breath as the full ramifications of that thought struck her. They don’t mean to attack me. They want to cast me out. The disguised alicorn could almost see the comfortable little life that she had built here crumbling to dust around her. No more ‘harmony’ discussions with Starswirl. No more attempts at baking or sewing with Smart Cookie. No more reading and lessons with Lulu.

“Sunny, are you alright?”

Surely they wouldn’t do that! I’ve changed! They’ve helped me change! Surely they’ll see that I’m not the way I once was… right? Sunny pleaded internally, and she was accosted with a deluge of memories of ponies who had begged and pleaded for their lives in a similar manner over the centuries. Their groveling hadn’t helped them… and it won’t help me here, she realised, and she struggled to breathe as that terrible truth struck her.

“Sunny, just stay calm…”

Were it not for the sheer number of wards and protections that Sunny maintained and disguised around herself, she would have sworn that something had reached into her chest and crushed her heart. It’s gone… it’s all gone. This life… the pony called ‘Sunny Sky’, is dead. If I chose not to be Solaria, and I can’t be Sunny anymore… then what does that make me now? What am I without those names, those… identities? Nothing… nothing at all. Her legs threatened to give out from beneath her, and any attempt to speak failed due to that stabbing pain in her chest.

“Breathe, child. Just--” “Step back, you dusty old stick! You’re the reason she’s acting this way!”

I don’t want to go! I want to stay here, stay Sunny! Desperation overrode all other thoughts in Sunny’s mind as she searched for some way to delay the inevitable. Lulu… Lulu said that if I apologize and promise to do better, then everything will be alright? Right? That has to work, that has to work! She opened her mouth to speak, but the only sound that came forth was a pitiful series of sobs. Before Sunny could attempt the apology again, another pony pulled her into a gentle hug.

“There there, dear, it’s all right,” Smart Cookie said as she patted the stunned mare on the back, and she didn’t pull away as Sunny clung to her like a drowning foal to its parents. “It wasn’t Starswirl’s intent to give you such a shock, Sunny. He’s always had an eye on the bigger picture, and he tends to miss some of the more obvious concerns.” The earth pony’s tone was patient and caring, not at all what Sunny had been expecting.

“I like it here with everyone, with Lulu and all of you. I like it here more than anywhere I’ve ever been!” Sunny pleaded. She couldn’t bring herself to do more than bury her face in Cookie’s shoulder as she begged. “I’m sorry for everything, and I promise I’ll do better! Please don’t make me leave! Please!” Silence fell in the wake of her words, but Sunny couldn’t bring herself to pull herself from Cookie to judge the expressions.

“Sunny, why would you ever think that we would make you leave?” Cookie asked, confusion entering her tone. “Even if Starswirl’s suspicions are true, nopony blames you. You were in no position to stop Solaria from doing any of the terrible things she’s done, any more than the rest of us here.”

Wait, what? Sunny thought, her panic morphing into bewilderment at the comment. She pulled away from Cookie’s shoulder to glance at the mare and saw nothing but sympathy there. What… what is she talking about? She isn’t making any sense!

Starswirl spoke next, hesitation clearly apparent in his voice. “I must apologize again, Sunny. Had I known that this conversation would have such an effect on you, I would have been gentler. I had suspected your true nature since our first meeting out in the wilderness, and I suppose this is proof enough that I was right not to confront you there.” Sorrow could be heard in the stallion’s voice, and he looked away when Sunny glanced at him. An undercurrent of anger colored his words as he continued, “We all have reasons to hate Solaria for what she’s taken from us, but I want you to know that nopony here considers you culpable for her crimes in any way. In all honesty, she’s probably taken the most from you, as it was rather obvious that Solaria took you at so young an age that you lack some of the basic knowledge that everypony's taught.”

The tidal wave of fear and loss that had threatened to drown Sunny broke against the nonsensical explanation that Starswirl was providing.

It was Clover who spoke next, and the suspicion that seemed to be his median mood was nowhere to be found. In its place was an uncharacteristic hesitant and regretful tone. “When we first met during the long winter, I admit that I was rather harsh on you, Sunny. I want you to know right now that I’m glad that you’ve proven me wrong. You’ve earned your place here, and nopony will think less of you for refusing to help us--”

Starswirl cleared his throat suddenly, and the younger stallion stopped mid sentence. “We’ll get to how you may help in just a moment, but I think an explanation is required.” His horn flared and several lights began to fill the darkened common hall. Only one remained stationary, while the others slowly orbited around it. The overhead lighting hid the elder stallion’s face under the shadowed darkness of his hat as he spoke. “One might argue that the greatest threat to our survival is Solaria, and I would be inclined to agree but for one thing. The fact that she controls our solar system means that, were she to be removed from the equation, we would all die as our sun is flung from the planet. This is an absolute certainty.”

Sunny’s eyes watched the light representing the sun do just that, but she didn’t have to use much of her imagination to realise what would happen next. The long winter would be nothing compared to what would follow! she thought, and a second pang of guilt stabbed into her. Why did I arrange for the orbit to be this way in the first place? Or was it always this way? A flurry of questions arose from the display, but none took precedence over the largest question of all: Why is Starswirl telling me this? He’s all but admitted to planning to usurp Sola-- me…

“I have several plans in place to neutralize Solaria’s influence over this world, or at least convince her that it isn’t in her best interest to continue to interfere here. I doubt she can ever truly be killed, as I suspect that she is far more than she appears to be,” Starswirl continued, oblivious to the effect his words were having on Sunny. “Those plans are not our concern for the moment. What is our concern is how to regain control of our star to prevent our own extinction. I have been working on a spell that will solve that problem with the help of several crystals that Clover found--”

“You WHAT!?” Clover screamed, and he planted one hoof onto the floorboards with enough force to splinter the wood. “You have no idea how dangerous Arcanite is, or what it’s capable of! It’s not just some magical supercharger like I first thought! There’s something evil behind it… something that pulls--”

“I am well aware of what you speak, Clover, and I believe I have found a solution,” Starswirl explained, and he retrieved a small locked chest from the corner of the room. He set the box down and produced a small key, and his hooves briefly fumbled with the small item before it clicked and began to open. The elder stallion stood back and looked down at the box with a small smile. “Shortly after we founded this little village, I retrieved these shards and buried them around the perimeter. Since then, they’ve had years to bask in the positive emotions of the ponies here. Honesty, loyalty, laughter, generosity, kindness… when combined, they all have a magic of their own and they’ve driven out whatever dark forces that resided in the Arcanite.”

Clover’s outrage took on a betrayed tone as he began to rant about experiments, consent, and the danger that Starswirl had put them all in, but Sunny’s eyes were locked squarely on the box itself. Six crystal shards rested at the bottom of the box in a rough pentagon shape, with the last resting in the center. Each was a different color, and while her eyes continued to stare at them, Sunny’s mind was elsewhere.

Crystalline structures cut into the landscape as far as the eye could see, sharp and ordered lines standing in stark contrast to the the disorganized chaos that occurred without the guidance of the Architects. Quadrupedal creatures walked in neat lines at an equal pace, mindless in their duties.

A presence entered her mind, both overpowering and unfathomable. There was no resistance to the domination; she was made to be a conduit for their will.

MAINTAIN ORDER, they demanded, and she complied to the best of her ability until she received further orders.

Those orders would never come.

Sunny was jarred out of the memory as Starswirl snapped the box shut, and it slipped from her memory like a dream when she noticed the elder stallion’s gaze was fixed squarely upon her.

“I apologize for the distraction, Sunny,” Starswirl said, and he cast a sharp look at Clover, who returned it with a scathing glare of his own. “Do you recall our discussion during the mark party? I know you had some time to survey all of the work I had spread out, and you might recall this one specifically.” He produced a rolled scroll as he continued, “It is designed to transform a unicorn into a form that can properly channel the amount of force needed to move our star, if necessary.”

Sunny nodded on reflex, though the meaning behind Starswirl’s words didn’t immediately register with her. What’s going on? A-am I going to be allowed to stay? That can’t be, they hate Sol- they hate me. They aren’t making any sense at all! And what was that I saw earlier? Crystal lines and mindless creatures… and just a single command given… Her mind struggled to recall the scene that she had seen, but it was quickly lost in the flood of other worries that were more immediate.

Apparently ignorant of what was going on in Sunny’s mind, Starswirl continued. “I had originally intended to cast this on myself, but two problems arose. I didn’t want to risk the spell falling into the wrong hooves, so I’ve taken steps that ensue only those worthy of it may benefit. The lions share of the spell is also in my head, so there's no danger of it being abused in the future. The other problem is that I fear I’m too old to survive the process. The only other alternative with the magical potential and capacity was… my granddaughter, Lulu. She’s young enough to grow into--”

“What!?” Smart Cookie and Clover shouted simultaneously, and the earth pony mare released Sunny to stomp over to the elder stallion. “She’s your family, and you’re all she has!” Cookie shouted, and Starswirl’s gaze lowered beneath the brim of his hat. “She trusts you more than anypony in the world, though it seems she does so at her own peril! Was this your plan all along, you manipulative spider? To use--”

“Do you think I came to this decision lightly? Do you think I am such a monster that I would use her for my own convenience?” Starswirl roared back, and he matched Cookie’s glare with one of his own. “I chose not to share the entirety of my plan with either you or Clover because I was looking for any alternative that was possible! If no other way could be found, then I would have to use Lulu to save every living creature on this world.” The fire in his eyes gave way, and Starswirl seemed to age visibly. “Thankfully… it seems that we may be blessed with an alternative.”

Starswirl looked past Cookie, and eventually the earth pony mare and Clover followed his gaze. Sunny withered under the stares of all three, and she held her breath.

“Sunny Skies,” Starswirl said as he drew himself up. “I’ve long suspected that you were Solaria’s student prior to the war. Given the sheer scope of your magical capacity, I suspect that she was using the nobles for centuries to produce a unicorn with the amount of magical potential necessary to succeed her. Your flank mark, the sun itself, only adds evidence to this. I suspect that her heavy-hooved punishment of my son and his family was to eliminate a bloodline that might threaten her… and you, but that’s beside the point and not your fault in any way.

“Sunny, we can finally be rid of the tyrant Solaria and the threat of extinction with your help, but only if you are willing. I would understand if you had some lingering loyalty to her, but I ask you to weigh that against the lives of everypony you’ve met here and all of the innocents that have suffered beneath her. I will not order you to help us, nor will I threaten your place in this community if you decline. The spell to empower you enough to control the sun will change you… permanently, so you must choose of your own free will to have it cast upon you.” The elder stallion seemed to struggle with his words before asking in a whisper, “Sunny, will you volunteer to become an alicorn?”

The avalanche in process in Sunny’s mind came to a screeching halt at Starswirl’s question. They… they don’t want to banish me, not because I’m Solaria but because they think I’m my own student? That’s ridiculous! And Starswirl has a spell that can turn somepony into an alicorn!? I must have missed some critical detail… I’m forgetting something important, aren’t I? What is it… am I misunderstanding something... Sunny wracked her mind for the elusive key detail that would make sense of this nonsensical situation, but her concentration faltered and the world turned sideways.

What… oh, I forgot to breathe, didn’t I? she thought as the floor rushed up to meet her. I’ll have to remember to keep doing that. Hopefully when I wake up everything will make sense. Yes, clearly I’m misunderstanding everything, or this is one of Lulu’s elaborate pranks. Oh, I’ll get her for this… Any further plotting was halted as Sunny hit the floor in a dead faint.


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The sound that woke Sunny wasn’t hooves galloping down the hallways, or the birds chirping outside, or even the conversations from the common hall leaking through the floorboards. It was the sound of a page turning beside her bed that enticed her from the dreamless sleep she had been experiencing. Her waking mind took in everything that her senses save sight could tell her, from the breeze from the open window on her face to the warmth of the bedding that held her… to the inexplicable weight on her chest.

One eyelid cracked open to reveal Lulu sprawled out on top of Sunny, apparently deep in sleep with her face buried in the comforter. Opening her eyes further revealed Starswirl in the chair beside the bed, his use-worn tome in his hooves and his face buried in the pages. Sunny did not know how long the strange scene lasted, but it was only a temporary comfort as Lulu stirred. The small movement of the filly drew Starswirl’s attention, which in turn brought his attention to Sunny.

“The chains we place upon ourselves are never easy to remove,” Starswirl said, and for the first time that Sunny could remember, he looked away first after meeting her gaze. “The chains forged by guilt are by far the hardest. I wish I could say that the circumstances of our last visit were accidental, but I would be lying.”

“What do you mean?” Sunny asked, still dumbfounded at the events that had unfolded and her mind still clouded with the remnants of sleep.

“Smart Cookie was right, you know. I am a manipulative old spider, spinning threads to make ponies dance like puppets,” the elderly unicorn explained, and he elaborated when he caught the look on Sunny’s face. “I’ve done a terrible disservice to you by being dishonest, and if I am going to ask so great a sacrifice from you, then I have to start correcting that now. As I said, I had long suspected your true identity, and I had engineered the circumstances of our last conversation to ensure you would be as off balance and on the back hoof as possible. After your reaction to finding out about Lulu’s past, I knew that you would feel guilty by association with Solaria, and I had intended to use that as leverage to undermine any reluctance you would have felt. Sunny, I owe you the greatest of apologies for trying to sabotage your judgement on this, but I cannot overstate enough the importance of your role in what comes next.”

Why is he apologizing for doing what’s necessary? Starswirl was correct when he postulated the theory that this world would die if Sola-- if I were to lose control of the sun or push it out of orbit. Is there anything that cannot be justified in that circumstance? Sunny thought before managing a whisper. “What comes next?”

“According to my calculations, the sun is now the closest it has ever been to our world. If we are to wrestle control of it from Solaria, then now is the best time,” Starswirl said, and he levitated a set of saddlebags up high enough for Sunny to see before placing them beside the bed. “There’s a place of power somewhere within the ruins of the capital, but we’ll have to move quickly to avoid being caught out at night.”

“I… I may know of a place in the capital that would suit your needs,” Sunny stammered as she struggled with the lie. I have to tell him the truth… but I can’t do it here. There are far too many ponies who might… misunderstand if they were to overhear.

“I suspected as much,” Starswirl nodded as he stepped from his chair. His magic engulfed the sleeping Lulu and moved her to the side of the bed enough for Sunny to slip out from beneath the covers. He placed one hoof gently on the filly’s head and whispered something to her before stepping out of the room with Sunny immediately behind.

The only obstruction the pair encountered was Clover, who was dressed not only for a journey but for battle as well. Rugged armor covered his limbs and core, and a quartet of kine blades rested at his flanks on either side of a backpack. He gave Starswirl a stubborn glare as the pair approached. “You’re going to need my help, Starswirl. The only ponies who are left in the capital are bandits and brigands. You’ll need somepony watching your back.”

“I’ve already accounted for that, Clover,” the elder stallion started to explain. “We’ll be heading out of the village before teleporting to ensure this place isn’t compromised, and we won’t be using any magic until we’ve located the place of power. Once we’re there, it’ll be too late for anyone to stop us. And besides, I’m not sure you’ve accounted for the dangers--”

“Not accounted for the dangers?” Clover snapped, and he emphasized his point by stomping a hoof. “You’re going into one of the most dangerous places in this world without backup and I’m the one not accounting for the dangers?”

“If we’re discovered before reaching the place of power, then our mission will likely fail anyway. The sounds of fighting carry quite far, if you recall, and will attract others looking for prey,” Starswirl explained patiently, before giving the other stallion a tired smile. “You’re an expecting father, Clover. I don’t want to be responsible for any more orphans…” He paused and looked around for several moments before adding, “Plus, even if our plans succeeded, Cookie would beat me within an inch of my life if I let you come with.”

Clover opened and closed his mouth several times as he tried to formulate an appropriate rebuttal before surrendering the point. “One day, Starswirl. If you haven’t returned by this time tomorrow, I’ll head to the capital myself. That’s all I will allow.” He turned and stomped off towards the home he shared with his wife without waiting for a reply.

Starswirl let out a helpless chuckle as he slipped the wide-brimmed hat on over his head. His gaze dropped just enough to disappear beneath the hat as he spoke, “The pride of stallions is a fragile thing… Come, Sunny. Daylight’s burning and I don’t want to delay any more.” He didn’t look behind to confirm if she was following as he trotted out of the village and into the dense forest beyond.


The pair had trotted for several hours into the late afternoon before finally stopping at a clearing. The trees surrounding the clearing were heavy with foliage and made a near impenetrable wall around them, and the area itself was covered in long grass that brushed against Sunny’s barrel as the two followed an almost invisible path beaten through the underbrush. The sun immediately began to warm Sunny’s coat as they left the protective canopy of foliage.

He must be sweating under that cloak… why doesn’t he leave it? Sunny thought as she glanced towards the stallion. Focus, Sunny! You’ve got more important things to worry about than that! “Starswirl…” she started, and all of her willpower to tell the truth of who she really was vanished when she met his gaze.

“Yes, Sunny?” Starswirl asked as he inclined his head to eye the mare, and he turned to address her directly a moment later. “Sunny, you seem… uncertain. Are you reconsidering your decision?”

“No. Not exactly…” Tell him! He deserves to know, and now is as good a time as any! Sunny railed against her hesitation, before another thought occurred to her. Does he really have to know? I could just let him cast the spell and then ‘transform,’ and nopony would be the wiser. The dishonesty of that option smacked against her desire to confess and unburden herself of the secret that had been eating at Sunny. A moment passed, and the decision was made for her.


The sound of a twig breaking underhoof seemingly had the volume of an explosion in the quiet clearing, and Starswirl reacted almost instantly. “EAVESDROPPERS!” he roared as his horn flared, and a mighty gust of wind flattened all of the grass in the clearing while nearly bending the trees to the ground. Only one thing resisted the sudden burst. A powder blue shield broke the gust of wind like a wave against the rocks, and the cloaked filly behind it didn’t move an inch.

The wind died down the instant Starswirl recognized the pony behind the shield. “Sun above, Lulu! You should not be here! It’s dangerous and we’ve no time to play!” he scolded, his voice filled with equal parts relief and anger.

“I’m not here to play!” Lulu screamed back, and her tone caused both Starswirl and Sunny to recoil from it. “I’m not some stupid filly, Starswirl! I know that when you sent me off to return that book, you took Sunny to have a talk with Clover in the main hall, and every time that’s happened in the past, that pony leaves forever!” Her expression was hidden underneath the hood, but the anger in her voice was more than enough to convey what she was feeling.

“Lulu, that’s not what’s happening here,” Starswirl said, and the outrage that had been previously present was replaced with something far softer. He took several steps toward the filly, and didn’t stop as she continued to yell.

“You’re lying! I don’t want Sunny to leave, ever! She’s smart, and nice, and she always tells me the truth!” the filly yelled, her blind eyes unable to spot the wince that both of the adults couldn’t suppress. “She listens to me, and she never scolds me for my pranks! She plays her own pranks instead! And she’s--let me go!” Despite her screaming, Starswirl had continued his approach and swept the filly into a hug as soon as he was close enough. She flailed her legs to strike the stallion, and he weathered the blows without complaint.

Through the entire scene, Sunny remained removed from it. The ache that had been eating at her reached new heights, and some unknown instinct told her that the only way to ease it would be to join the two. Despite the possibility of relief, she couldn’t muster the willpower to approach. “Lulu, I’m not going to leave. I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me,” Sunny promised.

Lulu’s struggles slowly ceased, and she eventually returned Starswirl’s hug. Her unblinking eyes peeked over Starswirl’s shoulder to stare in Sunny’s direction. “Forever and ever?” she asked timidly, the question barely more than a whisper.

Sunny nearly agreed, but another awful truth assailed her. What is forever to her is nothing to me. How long might she live? Seventy years? Eighty? Eighty years is nothing. Eighty years is a lifetime. The realisation robbed her of her words, and all she could do was nod in response.

“I’m afraid Lulu being here has put us in a bit of a bind,” Starswirl said as he finally released his granddaughter and lowered her back to the ground. “If we return to the town, then the day will have passed and our opportunity with it. I will not risk pinpointing the village by teleporting her either…” He chewed his lip before leaning down. “Lulu, we’re going someplace that’s filled with ponies that aren’t very nice. The only game they like to play is hide and seek, so if we’re going to beat the mean ponies, you’ll need to be very quiet and not use your magic. You can follow the bells, remember?

Lulu nodded excitedly but didn’t speak as Starswirl turned back to Sunny. “I do believe you were interrupted earlier, Sunny,” he stated, and he cast a world-weary expression towards the mare. “If you have anything to say, then now would be the time. We will have to be swift and silent once we enter the capital.”

“No… it isn’t so important anymore,” Sunny lied, and she cast another glance towards Lulu. The memories of the filly screaming in mortal terror merged with her most recent declarations, and they smacked against the truth of who and what she really was. I can’t tell him now… not while Lulu is here. I don’t want to hurt her any more!

Starswirl held Sunny’s gaze for a moment longer before letting his own fall under the brim of his hat. “I understand. Brace yourself, we’ll be teleporting from here to the capital.”


The capital had changed since Sunny had last been present. When she had last been in attendance, it had been filled with shining spires of polished stone and glass attended to by ponies dedicated to its maintenance and advancement. The capital had shown like a beacon of the order that Solaria had aspired to maintain for the whole world.

What remained of the capital in her absence was the rotting husk of her ideal. Only a few of the towers still stood, and all of the shining glass she remembered had been broken to pieces. Fire damage was also prevalent on several structures, and the only indication that anypony still remained in the dying city was the occasional scream or yell in the distance.

Seeing her greatest achievement in such a state shook Sunny to her core. She kept her surprise in check as she followed the others through the ruins, their only stops being when Starswirl paused to give Sunny a questioning look. When this had first happened, it had taken a moment for Sunny to realise what the elder stallion had been waiting for. She had raised one timid hoof in the direction of Solaria’s fortress atop the hill, and Starswirl took point for the trio as they picked their way from cover to cover.

I’ll have to convince Starswirl that his spell worked and I was transformed… but I have no idea how the spell works! Does it activate in stages or is it instantaneous? Did he include any sort of success indicator in the spell’s design or is he intending to use visual verification that it was complete? A thousand more questions hammered at Sunny’s mind as they came closer and closer to the base of the plateau that Solaria’s castle sat on. With each unanswered question, her panic increased, and drove her to distraction. By the time she regained her focus, it was too late.

Starswirl snuck around the corner of a building and cast a wary eye down the main boulevard before freezing in place. He held the pose for more than a minute before turning back to where Lulu and Sunny hid, and he gave the small bangle of bells a small shake. Lulu dashed out of cover in the direction of the sound while the still distracted Sunny stayed behind.

With Starswirl’s back turned, Lulu unable to see, and Sunny not paying attention, there was no defense offered as a hoof-sized stone flew out from one of the buildings and struck the elder stallion on the back of the head. The sound brought Sunny’s attention to the here and now just in time to jerk backwards as a similar rock flew towards her, only to ricochet off of a hastily generated shield.

“Oy, you didn’t get both of them, Buckshot!” came a rough shout from above the alleyway. “Yer slippin’!” A pegasus wearing the battered remains of an enforcer captain’s livery dropped into the alleyway behind the still running Lulu and put one hoof on the tail of her cloak. The filly could only let out a strangled squeak as the caught cloak yanked her off of her hooves, which elicited a laugh from the pegasus and others as more ponies appeared from the ruins around them.

“I do believe we’ve struck the jackpot. A unicorn mare and a foal? They’ll both sell well at the market,” another stallion, a unicorn in torn magister's robes, said as he approached the struggling Lulu. Greenish magic reached out and encased the struggling filly, and lifted her up for the stallion to inspect. “Well, perhaps not as lucky as I thought. This one’s damaged goods, fit only for birthing livestock when she’s older. More of an investment than immediate payout.”

“Your face is damaged goods, now let me go!” Lulu yelled in response, and one hoof kicked out to catch the stallion square on the snout.

The magic holding Lulu aloft cut off immediately and dropped her to the ground, but any attempts to escape weren’t meant to be as the unicorn turned and planted one of his rear hooves squarely into the filly’s face and sent her flying into the stone wall of one of the buildings lining the boulevard. The sound of bone breaking from the impact was clear, and a smear of blood marked the impact as Lulu fell to the ground.

More stallions appeared from the ruins around them, but Sunny scarcely noticed them. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from Lulu’s limp form, and a chilling thought struck her. If I had told the truth… Lulu would still be alive. I… I killed her. The irony of that realisation, that she would come full circle to where this had all started and indirectly achieve what she had originally intended all those months before, wasn’t lost on her. It struck her mind like a hammer and she nearly shattered beneath it.


Another emotion welled up in her as she finally looked away from Lulu’s broken body and to the bandits in the alley. The pegasus stallion was leering at her from the other side of her shield while the magister hurled magic to try and dispel the protection. The other attackers, mostly earth ponies and pegasi, emptied out Starswirl’s bags onto the ground but not before giving the dazed elder stallion a kick in his barrel as he attempted to rise.

The emotion that gripped her then wasn’t the stabbing pains or the slow burns that had troubled her so much over the past few weeks, or the annoyance she felt after falling victim to one of Lulu’s pranks, or anything else she was familiar with. The new emotion consumed her mind and filled her every muscle with a need that demanded satisfaction.

That satisfaction wouldn’t come from behind a shield, so she dispelled it.

The illusion of Sunny Skies disappeared with it.


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“Ha! That’s a cute trick, missy, but it isn’t going to help you any here. The Ice Queen is long gone, and there’s nothing to fear from her! I’ll admit that I find the thought of taking a mare that looks like her to bed by force has some appeal. Of course, if you put up too much of a fight I’ll have to kill you like the last one. Oy, why haven’t you dispelled this illusion yet?”

“It’s not.”

“Eh? It’s not what?”

“It’s not. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, itsnot itsnot itsnot!

“For the sun’s sake, it’s just some mare disguising herself. Why are you freaking out?”


All activity in the alleyway halted and the raiders all looked in the direction of the shout. The former magister had collapsed onto his flank and could do little more than stare with wide-eyed horror, but the enforcer stallion was having none of it.

“You choose now of all times to lose your bloody mind? I swear, if I have to—” Anything else the stallion might have said was interrupted when he noticed a curious thing; his breath was fogging with every word he spoke. “What’s this...oh—” His head whipped around just in time to see the frosted alicorn speak.

“It is proper to bow to royalty.”

Telekinetic force lashed out and forced every one of the bandits to the ground. Outraged shouts from the unsuspecting stallions quickly broke down into panicked screaming and begging as they finally realized the full extent of the situation they now found themselves in. Queen Solaria, in all of her terrible glory, stood above them.

With deliberate slowness, Sunny approached the captive bandits. Ice blossomed out from her every hooffall and coated the alleyway. The only sounds that could be heard was the crunch of her hooves, and the now wordless and incoherent mewling of the stallions. “Bandits. Thieves. Murderers. Slavers...” Solaria rattled off a crime with each step, before bowing low to hiss in the ear of the pegasus stallion. “Rapists.” She didn’t wait to listen to the blubbered excuses as she rose again to her full height. “You have all admitted to these things in my presence. Your lives are now forfeit.”

It was well within her rights to render judgement, and Sunny was more than willing to execute their punishment… but nothing worked. Even the ice that radiated from her in waves parted around the bandits, leaving them chilled and frosted, but frustratingly healthy. Had she less self-control, she would have screamed and pounded her hooves against the ground. She nearly did just that but a small detail caught her attention.

As with the bandits, the frost and ice had failed to approach another spot: where Lulu’s broken body had come to rest.

She...she’s alive! I have to help her! A spark of hope took hold, and she took one step towards the crumpled form before remembering her situation. I cannot help her while these… mongrels are present. I cannot kill them, and the curse seems to be preventing me from teleporting them somewhere since I know of no location that would not harm them… think! Think of something!

As Sunny’s mind raced, it stumbled upon a half-forgotten conversation with Starswirl regarding a laughable theory about Solaria. A desperate plan began to form in her mind but it nearly withered on the vine. They thought Solaria was a Windigo… but how can I solidify that in their minds if I don’t remember what they’re like? I’m the last living soul to have encountered them! The answer struck her the moment the question was asked. It doesn’t have to be accurate… it just has to be believable. Sunny began to laugh as sinisterly as she could fake while making her way to the far end of the alley. All eyes had been turned towards her when she had dropped her shield and disguise, which now meant that nopony had direct line of sight on what she was doing. All she needed from them was for them to listen.

“Yes… I think I will start with… this one,” Sunny declared loudly, nearly stumbling over the line as tried to recall what the villain had said from Lulu’s book. She hastily cast a cantrip and the begging of the bandits was quickly overwhelmed by screaming from somepony Sunny only vaguely remembered. As the scream worked its way up to the climax, she conjured up a sculpture of ice in the shape of a pony… and let it drop to the ground. The cantrip cut off the moment the sculpture shattered, and she levitated the head of the sculpture before her as she walked back among the bandits. “Hmm, plenty of anger, greed, and hate… but not nearly enough fear. Pride is lacking, too.

Sunny gave an over-exaggerated ‘tut’ before letting the ice sculpture head drop right in front of the bandit magister, and she was rewarded with a renewed round of sobbing from the stallions who couldn’t help but see what lay on the ground before them.

“Rejoice, my little ponies,” Sunny sneered as she imagined the book villain did while quoting word for word. “It seems that now is not the time for me to feed upon you. The more you steal, burn, and murder, the more misery and fear you will produce. When you have spread enough of it, I will find you and drain you dry. Your agony will be… delicious. Go and spread word of my return, and know despair. Winter is returning!” The telekinesis lifted from the bandits, but none moved. Several seconds passed before Sunny growled impatiently. She raised one hoof and brought it down with enough force to crack all of the ice in the alleyway and send cascades of ice shards from the building walls. “FLEE!” she roared, and the bandits scattered as quickly as they could. The moment she was certain she was alone, she galloped to where Lulu had fallen.

The young filly’s cloak had settled over where she had come to rest, and ice had built up around her resting place in a perfect ring. The smallest of movements could be seen under that cloak, and in the silence of the now deserted alleyway, Sunny could hear Lulu struggling to breathe.

The spark of hope was nearly drowned by a wave of panic. I… I know that the magisters developed spells to mend wounds, but I don’t know them! Sunny thought as she tore through her memories for any sort of hint as to how the process worked. If it were any kind of offensive spell I could guess at the mechanics or create a simulacrum of it. If the end result of a spell is fire, it is unimportant how it ignites. But mending flesh and bone and body… I don’t think I can even guess as to how that works! Sunny had nearly given in to despair when she remembered that she wasn’t alone in the alleyway. She whirled about to plead for help from the one stallion she knew would have the answer.

The quick move gave her enough time to raise her shields.

A stream of raw arcane power the likes of which Sunny had never seen broke against her hasty defenses like a raging river against a boulder. The building behind her vanished in an instant from the torrent of energy that wrapped around her defenses. Just as quickly as it had started, it ended. The spot in which Sunny stood over Lulu was an island in a trough of melted stone. A cascade of building collapses could be heard from the scores of buildings that had been caught in the blast, but all of Sunny’s attention was focused on the stallion that the attack had come from.

“YOU!!!” Starswirl roared, his rage apparently enough to shrug off the head wound that the bandits had inflicted. “I was such a fool to have trusted so easily! Solaria would never train a student who might challenge her rule!” His horn flared again and three hair-thin lines of energy scythed through the air towards Sunny. The beams deflected off of her shields in random directions and cut through ruins around them, causing further collapses. One of the deflected beams came perilously close to Starswirl himself, shearing part of the hat off of his head. If he even noticed the near miss, he made no note of it.

“Starswirl, you have to help—” Sunny pleaded, but the rest of her request was lost as Starswirl launched his next attack.

A minor spire, likely belonging to a unicorn noble’s family that had been slashed near the second floor by the deflected beams, halted mid-fall. The entire structure levitated before spinning and launching itself at Sunny like a spear. “Was this all according to plan!? Are you going to burn down the village once you’re done with me?” Starswirl accused as the building-sized projectile crashed into Sunny’s shield. He did not bat an eye as Sunny telekinetically pushed the stone, wood and glass with ease.

What did give him pause was when his next attack was completely cancelled by Solaria and he was forcefully teleported beside her.

“Listen to me! Lulu’s hurt really bad and I don’t know how to save her. Please Starswirl!” Sunny all but begged as she used her telekinetics to force the stallion to look towards the filly. “You can heal her, right? Tell me you can save her, please!”

The fury on Starswirl’s face melted into despair at the crumpled form, then to suspicion… then to careful neutrality. He drew in a breath, then another. Tears fell from his face as he placed a hoof gently on the cloaked form. The stallion’s shoulders shook as he said one word.


It took a moment for the word and its meaning to fully register with Sunny. “Why?!” she screamed the disbelieving question as her last hope seemed to vanish before her eyes.

“Her injuries are severe, fatal even. Regular healing will not work on her… and I will not save her only to deliver her to you! You’ve already robbed her of the normal childhood, and I won’t let her be one of your tools for the rest of her life!” Starswirl snapped back.

The denial that Sunny nearly launched caught in her throat. Before I found out the source of her scars… I had been preparing her for just such a thing. Everything I’ve done has only hurt her in the end. The realisation came with another burst of heart-wrenching pain, and she gave Starswirl a pleading look. “But she’s your granddaughter!” When Starswirl’s expression didn’t budge, Sunny nearly broke. “She’s my friend, too,” she sobbed.

The admission caused Starswirl to slowly look towards Sunny, his expression suspicious and searching for any sign of deception. “Do you mean that? Do you mean what you just said? And what you said back in the village… did you mean any of it, or were you lying to me?!”

The stallion’s tone went from barely a whisper to shouting so quickly that it shocked Sunny enough to make her recoil. She couldn’t meet Starswirl’s gaze, instead looking towards Lulu again. “I don’t want her to go. I want her to keep teaching me about cake, and books, and pranks, and everything else that I never knew about. I don’t want her to go!”

The fury in Starswirl’s eyes melted away, only to be replaced with a blank stare. He drew in a breath as he closed his eyes. “Worry not, Little Light,” he whispered as he bent over Lulu. “Soon the pain will be gone. I will see you again in the next life, and I hope you’ll forgive me for what I’m going to do,” he whispered as he placed one hoof gently onto the cloaked filly. And just like that, the moment passed as the elderly stallion galloped from the scene.

If… if Starswirl will not do it, then I must, Sunny realised, but her resolve once again smacked against her ignorance of any spell that could help. That old stallion isn’t going to help, but his books might. If Starswirl will not help, then I will take his books by force. Brittle anger filled Sunny as she slowly rose and turned in the direction that the stallion had fled.

“Gather her up as gently as you can, and be quick about it!” Starswirl growled from further down the alley. His hooves were nearly a blur in gathering the contents of his saddlebags that the bandits had scattered. Once everything was packed away, he cast a withering glare at Sunny. “I don’t trust you one whit to lead us to the ‘place of power’ you hinted at, so there is only one place left where we might save Lulu. Of course it won’t matter if you don’t stop dragging your hooves!”

The shock of Starswirl’s apparent change of heart lasted for only a moment as Sunny enveloped the dying filly in a bubble of telekinesis and cantered over. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“To where I found the arcanite in the first place.”


A teleport spell pulled the trio from the wreckage of the capital to someplace that Sunny was not familiar with. Their immediate surroundings appeared to be a dry gulch or small canyon, though any further observations were delayed as Starswirl galloped into a nearby cave. Sunny’s longer strides allowed her to catch up easily, and her mouth dropped open as the cave widened into a large chamber. Lavender and purple crystals were embedded in in the stone walls of the cave, and while Sunny could not put her hoof on it, some deep-seated instinct screamed at her to keep her distance from them.

“Bring her here, we don’t have much time!” Starswirl ordered as he unceremoniously emptied his saddlebags onto the ground. His spellbooks, his supplies… everything was pushed aside in favor of the six crystals that Sunny recalled from their talk in the village. After giving each a brief inspection, he plucked a piece of chalk from the things that had been dumped from his bags and drew a small circle. “Place her there!” the stallion indicated to where he had marked before drawing a larger circle in the center of the chamber.

Sunny followed the command before stepping back. “Is there any way I can help?” she asked, taking her eyes off of Lulu to look towards the stallion..

“No. Just stay back or you’ll corrupt the process,” Starswirl growled as he carried and placed each arcanite shard with his hooves rather than magic. He paused for just a moment to look at Sunny before resuming his preparations. “If I am to do this then I want you to promise me three things, Solaria. Three things, or I bring the cavern down on all of us.”

“Anything! I’ll do anything!” Sunny answered desperately.

“First, if you’ve learned anything while we were at the village, I want you to use that knowledge to make things better for everypony. No more castes, or slavery, or stacked courts. Am I clear?” Starswirl again stopped in his preparations to glare at Sunny, and he only relented when she nodded. “Second, Lulu can never know what happened here. Never.”

“And the last condition?”

Starswirl nudged the last of the shards into place before making his way to where Lulu was. After a moment he took his hat off and placed it beside her, then turned to take his place at the center of the circle. “I want you to treat Lulu as though she was your own flesh and blood. As time goes on, you’ll be all she’ll have left… Sunny.” The stallion’s pensive tone became exasperated as he turned to face the alicorn, “And for the sun’s sake, change your appearance. If Lulu wakes up to you looking like that then she’ll never trust you again.”

Sunny nodded in agreement, though something with that last request struck her as odd. “I will, but aren’t you going to help?”

“No. It falls to me to do what is necessary.”

The statement held a tone of finality to it that immediately set off a warning in Sunny’s mind, but before she could question it, Starswirl cast his spell. His magic touched each of the crystal shards in sequence, and they slowly rose to positions around him. Starswirl himself began to rise into the air as he made himself the nexus of the most wildly complicated spell array that Sunny had ever seen. Light began to emanate from the array, and it poured toward the cloaked filly. The array began to pulse in time with the crystals of the cavern, and several began to reach up almost organically to the floating stallion.

If he keeps channeling the spell, then he’ll… Sunny thought in a panic, and she tried to approach but was pushed back by the power emanating from the array. “Starswirl, stop! The spell will destroy you!” she shouted over the roar of arcane energy.

The elder stallion’s eyes had been closed in concentration, but they opened at the shout. His now glowing gaze looked down at Sunny, and he said two words.

I know.”

As the light increased, so to did the crystals; to the point where Sunny could watch no longer.


The first thing that she became aware of was the full-body muscle ache that hammered every inch of her body, from her snout to her hooves. She stretched as much as she could before she became aware of something else: The rag covering her was quite possibly the stinkiest thing that might ever exist. Ever.

A sound was next… a voice. Female, and really worried, judging by the tone. Blinding light was next as the rag was yanked off with no warning. Warmth was next, wrapping around her completely and shielding her from the light. It was… comfortable.

Gradually her eyes adjusted to the light enough to open them fully… and she found herself wrapped in a tight hug by the most beautiful mare that she had ever seen. A pristine white coat covered her body, and her mane was a gentle pink. Tear streaks were the only thing that marred her appearance, and she somehow knew that things would be better if she returned the hug.

“Lulu… I was so worried. I thought that you were lost,” the mare said, hugging all the tighter with each word.

“Momma…?” the word slipped out involuntarily, but she dearly wanted it to be true. Any mare this gentle and kind would make the best family...

The mare jolted at the word, and cast a wide-eyed, fearful look at her. “No, I’m… Lulu, it’s me. It’s Sunny. Don’t you recognize my voice?”

Answering that question would have to wait as she caught sight of the dazzling crystals that lined the cavern. Her wandering gaze finally settled on the pile of assorted junk that was scattered nearby, including a curious wide-brimmed hat and the bangle of bells before turning completely around.

It looked like a tree… if trees could ever be made out of crystal. The roots started at a deep purple, and slowly lightened in shade the further she looked. There were many limbs that sprouted from the trunk, but the five largest each bore a crystal shard, each a different color. She was certain that she had never seen such a tree before in her life, but the sight of it felt strangely reassuring.

“Lulu?” ‘Sunny’ asked again, concern clearly apparent in both her body posture and voice.

“Lulu?” she repeated, and she wracked her memories for… anything, only to come up blank. “Is that my name? Where are we?” The mare’s earlier statement finally clicked, and a small pang of disappointment struck her. “If… you’re not my mom, then are you my sister?” The hope, the need for some connection with this mare was her only wish right at that moment.

A fresh set of tears rolled down Sunny’s face. “Yes, Lulu. We’re sisters,” she said, and she pulled Lulu in close for another hug with both her forelegs and wings.

“Don’t cry, Sunny. Everything will be fine as long as we have each other,” Lulu replied, saying what she thought sounded best while wrestling with her apparently unfamiliar name. With nothing else to say, she basked in the warmth of the hug and returned it with her own forelegs and wings.

...That May Or May Not Be True

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“...and then they lived happily ever… is something wrong?” the unicorn guard paused in his storytelling when he caught the look on the child’s face. “What? Is something wrong?”

“I’m not sure I believe any of that,” the child replied skeptically. He leaned back on the stool and gave the guard a narrow look. “This sounds like the kind of thing one of my brothers rants about after mom says he’s had too much to drink. Crazy”

A wide grin spread across the unicorn’s face. “Healthy skepticism! Such a rare thing in the young these days. You’re quite right! If someone tells you something unbelievable, then don’t believe it! Often the only things you can really believe are those you see with your own eyes!”

The child shrugged as he hopped down from the bar stool and stretched his legs. “My legs feel better now, so if you want to go back to the other story, you can,” he offered as he looked away from the guard to the next window in the hall. In that moment of distraction, he failed to notice the snaggle-toothed grin on his guide.