Renaissance Pony

by Dafaddah

First published

In the late middle ages, Celestia foresees trouble for humanity and seeks help

I am Starswirl the Bearded and my story does not start in Equestria. Many have heard the rumor that I am from a foreign land. This is but the smallest part of the truth, for I was not born a pony but on another world, and brought here by Princess Celestia on a mission to save my race. I was born a human, in the year of my people 1452, and my name was Leonardo daVinci.

Artwork by Mythee and Nevina

Born again

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Renaissance Pony
Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze

Chapter 1: Born again

The first thing she noticed about the Maestro was his eyes. Bright blue eyes under bushy white eyebrows, full of mirth and warmth. He had a tender expression that spoke of a gentle soul, and yet his glance missed nothing, going hither-thither and alighting but a moment on any one thing in the bright, busy studio. And then he looked into her eyes. She felt a penetrating intelligence instantly taking her measure, seeing more deeply into her than she would have either desired or thought possible. She was relieved when he merely smiled and greeted her.

"A good morning to you, ma donna. I trust your displacement to my studio was a pleasant one?" He gave a small bow from across the studio while speaking, never looking away from her eyes.

She was fascinated with his long fluffy white beard and mane. If ever a human's hair deserved the title 'mane' this one's surely did! Yet for a great master he was certainly dressed in old fashioned clothes, wearing a short tunic and hose. Practical, she had to admit for one who spent his time in a studio full of paints, oils, wood chips and marble dust.

"Indeed it was, Maestro, and such a beautiful morning can but gladden the heart." She bowed in turn, her flowing dress typical of the current Florentine style for a lady of her station. Or so she hoped. She had upon occasion erred in costume or custom, one such mistake leading to pursuit and accusations of witchcraft. She certainly hoped this 'visit' would not be so eventful. Especially after all she had read of the Maestro.

His smile grew broader and he approached, waving to a rather tall bench near the window. "A day blessed with both beauty and excellent light with which to gaze upon it! Please sit here. My assistant Gian will help you take the proper pose, so do not be offended as he may need to move your limbs or position your clothing, at my request of course."

With this introduction a very handsome young man approached, bowed, and offered his hand to assist her in sitting on the bench. She nodded and took his proffered arm, and managed to get seated more or less without incident. A lady sitting down was a simple activity frustratingly fraught with protocol in these clothes and in this society. She hoped the unconventional nature of posing for a portrait gave her some latitude in order to cover any blatant mistakes on her part.

She looked back at the Maestro as Gian busied himself minutely adjusting her pose at his prompting. The Maestro was a very handsome man still, despite his advanced age. Living beyond one's fiftieth year was a rare occurrence amongst these people, but then as one of Italy's greatest masters he had no shortage of patrons and wealth, and the uncommon wit to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Imagine! A vegetarian amongst all these carnivores. How her sister would laugh!

The Maestro had begun sketching in charcoal on large ragged-edged parchment. "Ma donna, you have happy thoughts this day. Pray share them with this old man to brighten his." He was indeed as sharp as the reports from her informants had related. This old painter was not easily played the fool. Best she be as truthful as possible.

"I was thinking of my sister, Maestro, and how she would be perplexed upon hearing that you have disavowed the consumption of victuals." That was safe enough, and had the added virtue of being the unvarnished truth.

"So you have heard the rumors that circulate about me and my studio." Neither his voice nor his smile expressed any bitterness as he sketched. In fact he seemed to be pleased. "And pray tell what else wagging tongues have attributed to this old man."

Aha! A golden opportunity to get right to the quick! "Signore, I have heard tell that you have comprehended the inner workings of all beings of flesh, and have even invented great machines to fly as a bird in the air and swim like a fish in the sea!"

His body seemed to tighten up even as he sketched. Then he visibly came to a decision and relaxed. "As a boy my uncle taught me how all living things have special parts to do important tasks, such as eating, digesting, running and flying. These things are all there, one but has to look. And I have looked, to the great benefit of my art. When I draw your face, ma donna, I know how all the proportions must fit together, because I have studied how the jaw bone connects to the skull, and the skull to the neck, and the neck to the body. In the same way I have looked at countless ears and noses, lips and eyes, cheeks and chins. All have their own geometries and places on the head."

He glanced up at her eyes to read her reaction. Noting the lack of shock or outrage, and her expression of rapt attention, he relaxed even further. "Undoubtedly you have heard more about this, ma donna?"

"Indeed. It's been said that you cut up dead things to look at their insides. Is this how you discerned these proportions?" she asked.

He looked at her with interest anew. She knew that this particular topic had gotten him into trouble afore. "I would fain try to hide such facts from one such as you. Yes, and I have noticed many similarities in the internal constitution of most living beings. Men have much in common with cats, cows, birds and even reptiles. It is as if the same basic plan is the foundation of all creation."

"Yet even if a man, or a bird or a horse should all have common parts, these are all very different from each other. How can you still know them to be the same parts?" she asked.

He looked piercingly at her a moment. "When one looks at these parts closely enough, let us say the leg of a man and that of a horse, one can see how each one is but a transformation of the other, with the same elements in different proportions."

Yes! The rumors had been true. This man might hold the key to understanding and perfecting the transformation of body types. She smiled inwardly at her success. And something of her internal musings must have shown in her expression.

"That was quite a good question. And that is quite a smile, ma donna. You seem wise beyond your years," said the Maestro.

Ouch! She blushed in embarrassment. She had to be more circumspect if she did not want this to end badly. "I am flattered that you might say so, Maestro. And as to the machines that fly?"

He again gave her a probing look and then shrugged. "It is easy to make a small model flying machine. One that can convey a man aloft is a most frustratingly different matter. My success in such things is certainly less than I would have hoped. I suspect I will need to continue trying."

He seemed frustrated. Perhaps this was an opening she could use. She came to a sudden decision.

"It would be a great boon would it not, if one could simply - continue trying - to one's heart's content." She focused all her considerable attention on the old man to gauge his reaction.

His smile faltered for a moment. "I have many projects left unfinished, and I have no desire to leave any of my obligations too long ignored. Perhaps I might consider such pleasurable pursuits when I am older and wiser." He put down the charcoal and wiped the dust from his hands. "As to your portrait, we are finished for the day, ma donna. I have the sketches I need, including that pretty smile of yours." His own smile returned, tinged with a little sadness. "I have truly enjoyed your company this morning," he added with a glint in his eye.

Gian offered her his arm again and she rose from her bench. She curtsied. "I am sure we shall meet again, Maestro."

Leonardo da Vinci looked at this person before him who was most obviously not donna Lisa di Gherardini. "I look forward to our next meeting." He left the studio.

Gian turned and gave her a strange look. Rather roughly, he used the common contraction of her title. "M'onna Lisa, I will lead you back to your coach, please."

Princess Celestia nodded and followed da Vinci's young assistant out of the Maestro's workshop.

It was a beautiful spring morning in the Loire. Celestia's coach pulled up to the main entrance at Château de Cloux. She was met at the door by an attractive young man in his late twenties.

"A good morning to you Count Melzi," said the Princess holding out her hand, which he took and kissed.

"It's so nice to see you again, Princess Celeste. You are as lovely as always." He offered his arm and led her into the Château.

"Still the charmer Count. And tell me, how is the Maestro?" she asked.

"Sadly, the doctors tell me that he is in his last days. I did as you had instructed me as soon as they informed me to make preparations for his passing. I am most curious as to how burning a letter in a fireplace conveys it to its destination. Even the ashes disappeared." He smiled conspiratorially. "There were priests about the entire Château. I wanted to avoid them seeing me send a letter to hell!"

Celestia laughed, a sound like bells ringing. "I can imagine. I had pause to use this method of correspondence out of just such a misunderstanding. But under the circumstances, days, even hours, might matter."

"Nevertheless, You must have been already on the way from Paris in order to be here in less than a day" said the Count.

The Princess ignored his implied question. "Is he lucid, Francesco?" she asked, concern clouding her familiar and ethereally pretty face.

"Yes, but he knows his time is short. I know how he looks forward to your visits." He looked at her with a sly grin. "You are the only young lady to ever capture his heart." His smile faltered. "But I must advise you that he will only be able to say a few words at most. You must not tire him out, Princess. I beg of you." The usually suave counts was now quite uncharacteristically earnest.

"Do not worry, Francesco, I shall be brief. Please give me five minutes without the presence of anyone, and by anyone I mean no living soul, not even the Maestro's chamber attendants."

"You have my word, Princess." The Count open the door to da Vinci's bedchamber and she strode into the dark room. He shut the door behind her.

Celestia looked at the bed with the old man immobile within it. She thought he was asleep, but then she heard a whispered invitation: "Approach, child."

She felt a weight lift from her heart, she was not too late! "Good morning Maestro. I have returned, but it saddens me greatly that your time may be so short. I will be brief. I beg you again to consider my proposal. Join me in my kingdom, as I and my subjects have desperate need of one such as you."

"You flatter an old man who can but offer days of remaining life. The bargain would be a poor one for you." His breath was shallow, as if so many words had taxed his fast dwindling resources.

"And if I could offer you many more years of life, and even of vitality?" replied the Princess.

"What would I do with these years?" asked the ailing artist.

Celestia felt dread that even on death's door, he might still refuse her offer. She would make one last attempt.

"I have foreseen the end of the human race, Maestro, as I have told you before. I have a plan to save it from a dismal fate and bring true happiness to all. But I need two things to make this possible. The first is a less taxing way to transform human bodies to those of my people, the pony folk, so that humans can live in my domain. The second, and much greater task is to make a systematic study of the magic of my realm." She paused and considered. She was not being entirely truthful.

"And Maestro, I must admit to a third and most selfish need." She approached the bed and reached for his skeletal hand. "I have grown fond of our discussions. You have taught me much of how to think, and how to see the world and thinking beings. I still need your guidance, now more than ever."

To her own surprise, she began to shed tears. She had let herself get close to a mortal again, and the extent of the attachment had come upon her unawares, as had happened before.

The limp hand in hers made a weak attempt at a reassuring grip. "This is the first time I have ever seen you weep. Do not weep for me, child. I will ask you one thing. That I might have time to work on my flying machines." His voice was getting weaker with every word.

Celestia was overjoyed. "You will have it, my dear Maestro." She clutched his hand to her lips and kissed it. "Do you then agree to become one of my subjects?"

"I do, dear Princess." She almost could not hear the words, but hear them she did. Instantly the room glowed purple, and the form on the bed changed to that of a pony. There was another flash, and the pony was gone, replaced by another human, freshly dead and made to look like da Vinci.

She went to the door and opened it. When Melzi saw the tears still on her face, he swallowed once, unable to find his voice. She merely nodded. The count rushed in and clutching the hand of the corpse on the bed also began to weep.

Celestia let herself out. The carriage was still at the front door, and the coachman helped her step up into the conveyance. Inside she found a sleeping unicorn stallion with a long flowing white mane and tail, and most rare amongst ponies, a long white beard. He woke as the carriage moved off.

"Have I died and gone to heaven?" he asked, and looked up at her. There was a purple flash and Celestia reverted to her true form.

"No, Maestro. You are very much alive. Although in a new form as one of my subjects. You have much to learn about being a unicorn, and about magic." She considered a moment. "But perhaps we have a simpler task first. Leonardo da Vinci is not a conventional name in my kingdom. Perhaps you should choose a new one. How would you like to be called?"

The unicorn thought for a moment. "I was observing the night sky last summer, and admit that I very much liked to view the milky way spanning the firmament. I find the swirl of stars the most pleasing of sights."

"My sister would definitely agree! Very well then." She looked at da Vinci's ever present flowing white beard. "Starswirl the Bearded it is."

He looked up at her in amusement. "Indeed. Now please tell me about this magic."

Celestia smiled at her new little pony.

First steps

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Renaissance Pony



Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Chapter 2: First Steps


Starswirl the Bearded looked out of the carriage's back window as the Château de Cloux receded into the distance. On his newly minted pony muzzle was a sad smile. "Adieu," he whispered. Behind the trees lining the road his last glimpse of the Château's pink and white façade disappeared along with his former life.

"Maestro, you seem sad," remarked Princess Celestia. She sincerely hoped that she had done the right thing, both for Equestria and for her old friend. She also hoped the consequences would be better for both than with her first such conversion.

He sighed. "I have known such happiness in this place. I was with people I loved and who loved me. A king gave me what I have never known: the peace to pursue even the slightest of my curiosities." Starswirl looked into her eyes, his own were twin blue pools of sorrow. "You know, he even called me 'Papa' in front of everyone, shocking all those stiff aristocrats!" He laughed once and looked back at the trees behind them. "And now I abandon all these true and cherished friends, leaving them to mourn my death."

Tears struck the carriage's cushions. She leaned over to embraced him in a hug, encircling them both in her wings. "I am sorry that we were obliged to resort to such subterfuge. The only way in which I could prolong your life was to bring you fully into my realm as a pony. They would... find it difficult to believe you were still the same person inside."

"Am I still the same person? I was a man, my Princess, and now I am not." He raised a hoof, examining it before his muzzle. "And am I still a painter? It might prove difficult to hold a brush." The corners of his mouth raised in a slight smile. Despite his words, the cast of his eyes showed no submission, but rather the anticipation of a new challenge to his formidable intellect.

Over the tracks of tears on his muzzle, he looked on in fascination as Celestia folded her wings. "You are everything you have ever been, Maestro: a painter, a sculptor, an architect, an engineer, a discoverer, a teacher, a designer of cities, an anatomist, a playwright and a good friend. And now you are also Starswirl the unicorn and magician. Behold..."

Celestia's horn glowed with purple light, as did a small chest on the floor of the carriage. With no visible means of support it began to levitate up into the air before the astounded Starswirl.

"How is this possible?" he asked, eyes wide in wonder. With a hoof he explored the air around the chest, encountering no hidden wires or other devices holding it up. Gingerly he placed the hoof on the front of the chest and pushed. It moved back slightly, but then he felt it pushed back into its original position.

"Now it is your turn. You are a unicorn, and so like me you can wield the power of magic." The chest descended to the floor. She touched base of his horn with a hoof. "There is an organ just under your horn that allows you to do so. I want you to focus your attention on the chest and will it to move upwards, as if you were pushing it with that part of your head," instructed the Princess.

Starswirl's horn glowed purple and so did the chest although it stayed resolutely in place.

"Unicorn foals sometimes take years to learn to do this," she explained, in order to spare his feelings should he fail to move the chest. She berated herself for not starting with something lighter, perhaps one of her own feathers. She leaned back to pull one out with her teeth when she heard a crash as the carriage shook.

Looking up she noticed a hole where part of the carriage roof used to be. Looking down she also noted the absence of the chest.

"I may need further practice in order to develop a lighter touch..." said Starswirl, transfixed by the hole in the roof.


Several hours later, they approached an inn by the roadside. Starswirl had been hard at work exercising ever finer control of his telekinetic abilities, to the point where he was doing sketches and writing in a notebook. He imagined his hand holding the quill and moving it as if he still had a hand and fingers. He even wrote in the tiny mirror script he used in many of his more private notebooks.

"Your progress amazes me, Maestro. I am impressed, but not surprised in the least. As the man Leonardo, you excelled in nearly every discipline you attempted. I had staked my hopes on this still being the case for the pony Starswirl. You do not disappoint!" said Celestia.

"It is I who am amazed," replied Starswirl. "I would have never imagined being able to do so much without hands. Tell me though, is it usual to get a headache upon doing such things with magic?"

"My poor Starswirl! The magical organ is much like a muscle of the body. It becomes stronger with use. Perhaps a frightening prospect in some cases." She glanced up at the carriage roof. "It can also become sore with overuse. I suggest you take a rest from magical activities."

The carriage shuddered as it slowed to stop.

"We must pause here momentarily. I will resume my human appearance and get us both food. For now I will render you invisible to humans with an enchantment, so please stay clear of them. I suggest you stay in the carriage and have a nap, as you may need some time to learn how to walk on four legs." Her horn glowed a moment and the human Princess Celeste stood in the carriage. She rapped on the door. The footman opened the door and held out an arm to assist her exit. He left the carriage door open as she made her way to the inn.

Despite the light pain in his head, a beautiful day beckoned beyond the open door. Starswirl had spent much of the last two weeks abed, awaiting his death. "I have no desire to waste such a pretty day," he grumbled to himself. He very gingerly tested his ability to walk on four legs. Having studied the gait of horses, he objectively knew which leg to move when. Doing so correctly required a bit of trial and error to master adequately, righting himself with a telekinetic push whenever he stumbled in the limited space afforded him by the carriage floor. He also tried hopping up and down, but stopped when this drew the attention of the coachmen.

Satisfied with his results so far, he decided to take his experiments to a broader stage: the lovely green meadow visible through the windows. He was then confronted with the new task of climbing down the carriage steps to the ground, a complication he avoided by the simple expediency of hopping into the air and trying to cushion his fall telekinetically. Unfortunately this resulted in his landing in a tangled heap next to the carriage, a muffled "Ooof!" and a rather severe increase in the magnitude of his headache. The coachmen, engaged in their meal, noticed neither commotion.

Starswirl rose upon four legs and engaged in his first walk under the sun as a pony. The sunshine warming his back was most agreeable, as was the sensation of walking without pain for the first time in years. He felt giddy with vigor, but restrained his urge to gallop or make any noise that might attract the attention of the few people about.

Then he took a deep breath through his nostrils, and stumbled to a halt. His mind reeled as it was presented with an overwhelmingly rich tapestry of scents: the varnish and dust of the carriage, the coachmen, their meal, the leather of the carriage's tack, the horses and their sweat, their food, the people wandering about, the smoke and cooking smells from the inn, and most enticingly the scents of the meadow, its grass, flowers and growing things calling irresistibly to him.

It took him a moment to recover from the olfactory onslaught. During that time his stomach growled, letting him know in no uncertain terms that it demanded sustenance. With the utmost deliberation he walked to a remote area of the meadow where he felt his actions would not be observed. Satisfied, he scanned the surrounds once more, then lowered his muzzle to the greensward and took in a mouthful. The taste was indescribable! Nothing prepared by Mathurine, his cook at the Château, or even at the king's frequent soirées, had ever tasted as sweet as this simple grass. He then sniffed a daisy growing nearby and nibbled at it delicately. It also was heart-achingly delicious! He smiled broadly while chewing. His disdain of meat would pose no hardship in his new pony form.

He ate his fill of grass and flowers in the space of a few minutes, experimenting with different field flowers. In the end he had to admit his first love was still his sweetest: daisies. Looking up he noticed that the Princess had returned from the inn with a basket in hand and was speaking with the coachmen. He approached as quietly as possible, noting that the Princess and the horses all looked his way as he quietly made his way the carriage door. He swallowed upon realizing that climbing back in might significantly tax his primitive skills in quadrupedal locomotion. He had just raised a hoof and placed it on the first step up when he felt himself unceremoniously lifted into the air and lightly deposited inside, upon one of the carriage benches.

The Princess reentered as well with her basket, siting down on the other bench. The footman closed the door. The carriage shook as it accelerated to resume its travels. With a flash Celestia reclined on the bench in her true form, one eyebrow raised very high indeed. "We may speak openly again, Maestro. I can tell from the smell that you have already decided to have your first meal as a pony and sample the bounty of the meadow. Was it to your taste?" she asked somewhat archly.

"It was exquisite!" gushed Starswirl, an immense smile upon his muzzle. "I had no intent to eat at first, simply desiring to stretch all four of my legs. But hunger and the scent of the grass got the better of me. And then I ate the daisies." He closed his eyes as if reliving the moment in his mind's eye.

Celestia's laughter rang out, a sound he estimated was that of silver bells being played by fairies in the woods. He watched in fascination as the basket rose into the air.

"Are you sure you're quite satisfied?" she asked. When he nodded, she added "That is such a pity, as they had one of my very favorite foods." The lid of the basket opened, a scent rose from it that called into doubt his placement of daisies at the summit of his new culinary pantheon. From the basket rose a beautiful, perfect, blood red apple. It twirled in the air before him.

"I am immune to temptresses!" said Starswirl in a shaky voice, the sight and smell of the apple making his mouth water in the most distressingly obvious way.

"But not to temptation." Celestia smiled as she brought the apple to his mouth. He took a small bite, and chewed with his eyes closed. Tears began to streak down his muzzle and into his beard.

He swallowed. "Never since I was a lad, has anything tasted so sweet and pure. It is like the very food of the gods." His eyes opened. He took another bite and chewed it slowly. "Thank you, my Princess. I have had enough... for this meal." He smiled again to show his return to good spirits. "But after these past few hours I have two very important questions for you." He paused, looking her directly in the eyes.

"Please feel free to ask them, my friend. Coercion is not my way, and I am most serious in my appeal to you for your assistance," replied Celestia.

"The first is this: are you a goddess?" His gaze was unblinking.

"I have oft asked myself this same question, since coming to visit the world of humans. In my world this is not even a question. Unnumbered years ago, I and my sister inherited a world in utter chaos, which we have worked ever since to bring to harmony. We shaped and brought forth the ponies to help us achieve this goal, and have ruled over them since. But in truth, they continually gain in wisdom and power. I am now convinced that they can become greater than even we the sisters who rule them. I guide them now to the fulfillment of that day."

"But you created the ponies."

"Yes, we did."

"In your own image."

"How else would we?" Celestia seemed honestly perplexed.

"Indeed." His glance focused inwardly, as if deep in thought.

When he eventually looked back up from his musings, Celestia spoke again. "In one way I am not a goddess such as the ones depicted in human legends. I permit no worship of my person." She paused for a moment considering her words. "I will not lie to my subjects and tell them I am omnipotent or omniscient, for I am neither of those things. The only prayers that reach my ears are those expressed by my subjects when they come to visit me in my castle, or when I visit their villages. If that makes me less than a goddess, then so be it."

Starswirl looked again into her fathomless eyes, eyes that had captivated his mind, an intellect more profound, and good, than any other he had ever met.

"My dear Princess, if you are a goddess then you are the goddess of truth. Ever have I followed truth, and ever I shall."

For the second time that day Starswirl found himself in Celestia's embrace. He felt her shudder as she wept into his mane. After a few moments she pulled back, tears still tracking down her ethereal face.

"Then let us be fellow pilgrims in this quest," she said. "I have been so alone these past several hundred years. Much do I need sound advice and a helping hoof, for I fear the task ahead might be beyond my reach."

"This brings me to my second question," said Starswirl. "What am I to do?"

Celestia paused to gather her thoughts. "In several hundred years, the world of men and the pony realm shall intersect, with the latter eventually consuming the entirety of the former."

He smiled at Celestia. "I cannot imagine your realm to be any but a most pleasant one. Why is this prospect so dire?"

"Because, my dear Maestro, my realm is poisonous to humans, unless they are first converted into the true substance of ponies. I do not know why that is, it is simply so. Your quest, Starswirl the Bearded, is to determine how to turn millions of humans into ponies, to house them, to feed them, to build cities to accommodate them, to bring them happily into Equestrian society. The alternative is to let them die a horrible death. This is why I need an anatomist, an engineer, an architect, a builder of cities.

"The most powerful tool at your disposal is magic, and so I have another task for you to do, perhaps even preceding the first: to turn the practice of magic into a science. To measure it and map its dimensions. To elucidate its potential, its rules and limitations, and apply them to the problem of conversion. This is why I also need a scientist. Maestro, you are unique in being all these in a single person, and more. I want you to help me save humankind."

Starswirl was most encouraged to hear of this truly great task. But to have a clear conscience and devote himself entirely to it he needed one more thing. "Tell me, my Princess, why do you desire this? You must certainly be aware that such a monumental task is fraught with risk for your own people and kingdom."

"I have two reasons, Maestro. The first is that it is simply the right thing to do. I cannot stand by idle and witness the slaughter of innocents, even when they are naught but victims of unhappy circumstance.

"The second is that I made a promise to a man who loved me. Perhaps this was not the wisest decision I have ever made, but I always keep my promises, Maestro, even those that speak more to my ambitions than capabilities."

At that Starswirl began to laugh heartily. "What good fortune you have Princess. I am personally expert in this final mastery, that of promising overmuch! I suspect I shall be entirely too comfortable and familiar in this new life you have given me."

For a third time Princess Celestia reached over to hold him to her bosom, encircling them both in her wings. "Then, my dear Starswirl, I am glad to announce that we have reached our destination." There was a violet flash. When Celestia retracted her wings, the carriage was gone and they were in a verdant land under a blue sky. Before them on a mountain side stood a great city with a beautiful castle. Flying ponies could be seen winging their way about. In the fields before them other ponies without wings nor horns husbanded the land.

Celestia spoke with pride in her voice. "Welcome home to Equestria, Starswirl the Bearded."

Meet the Siblings

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Renaissance Pony



Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Chapter 3: Meet the Siblings


High over Equestria, Starswirl the Bearded gazed out in rapture from Princess Celestia's back, nestled between her magnificent alabaster wings. He was flying! Long had he dreamed of roaming the sky and observing the world from above. The sensation was everything he had imagined it would be, and many things he had not! With every twist and turn his heart thudded in his chest as it hadn't since he was a youngster. Yet he felt completely safe as Celestia expertly wove a path through the sky, approaching the towers of the castle he had glimpsed from below.

They landed on a large parapet surrounding the tallest tower. This time instead of jumping off he waited until the Princess gently levitated him to the floor using her magical ability.

"Thank you again my Princess. This truly was a kind gift to an old man," said Starswirl.

"You are no longer an old man, Maestro. You are a young stallion and it would seem you enjoy flying even more than I do," replied Celestia. "But as you lack wings, perhaps you might seek other means to do so." She winked at him and with a laugh entered the tower proper.

"Speaking of wings, I could not fail to notice that yours are somewhat smaller than what my studies have shown would be needed to carry aloft a... lady of your... importance... carrying a passenger," he finished lamely. To his embarrassment and joy, this again set her to laughing. Another laugh joined Celestia's, lower in tone, but still undeniably female in timbre, as a dark form emerged from the shadows.

"Sister, I believe this gentlecolt called you fat. I would say he lacks gratitude to one who just saved him a climb of some three hundred steps!" said a dark colored mare with horn and wings, no doubt the sister Celestia had previously mentioned.

Starswirl was dismayed at his poor choice of words. To this sister he must have sounded like some boorish character from a farce! He was much relieved when Celestia carried on as if nothing untoward had happened. "Starswirl the Bearded, please meet my sister Princess Luna, co-ruler of this realm."

He now noticed the crescent moon motifs on her regalia. Something of her countenance looked familiar, but he could not quite place a finger... er hoof, on it. Celestia looked at him expectantly. It came to him that he was being rather slow in his response. He clumsily bowed to the new Princess.

"An honor, your majesty. I apologize for my lack of tact. I am both old at meeting royalty and new at being a pony." He smiled sheepishly.

"My, he is indeed as ferociously smart as you related to me, sister dear... and much better looking, even with that long white beard. It gives him a bit of a goatish cast, don't you think?" Princess Luna turned her head sideways as if to better examine him.

Celestia laughed. "I have a favor to ask you, sister."

"And what might that be?" replied Luna.

"I have asked Starswirl to do a scientific study of magic. His efforts will be very important to the future developments of Equestrian society that we have planned, and to the eventual merging with Mundus. My wish is that you help him in the learning and development of his magical abilities, as he is quite new to being a unicorn," replied Celestia.

As the lighter colored Princess made her request, Starswirl could have sworn that her sister's complexion darkened in displeasure. Nevertheless Princess Luna agreed if somewhat reluctantly. "Of course, dear sister. If you think this is the course of action we should take, then I will certainly comply."

Celestia raised an eyebrow, but did not further comment on the less than wholehearted response. She looked Starswirl in the eye and seemed to make a decision. "Good. Well, I must go verify that the accommodations for the new member of our household are in place. Perhaps this is a good opportunity for the two of you to get to know each other." She stopped at the door and winked. "By the way, sister, despite his relative newness, his magic is frightfully strong already. Please don't break him, or the observatory while I'm away. I look forward to seeing you both at dinner." She disappeared in a flash.


Luna sighed and looked away from her sister's pet project. No amount of discussion on the topic had done anything to dissuade Celestia from her intended path. She had decided to try to save an entire alien civilization, and the new 'foal' before her was the latest folly in that hopeless and potentially dangerous enterprise.

She looked back towards the unicorn and saw that he was gazing intently at her. He was obviously used to the presence of the powerful and did not seem in the least intimidated. He was also strikingly handsome, and from the look in his eyes frighteningly intelligent. Her sister had picked up a most dangerous pet.

"In answer to your earlier question, the wings of Equestrians are bolstered by magic to accomplish that for which they might otherwise appear insufficient," stated the Princess as this was the rote answer to the stallion's question.

"Might I ask your majesty another question?" His blue eyed gaze was steady on hers.

"Certainly, Maestro Leonardo." Her smile did not reach her eyes quite intentionally, looking to see how he would react to her assertion of his true provenance. She winced when she saw pain cast its shadow over his expression.

"Da Vinci the man is dead. I am what is left of him, but I am quite sure that I am not the man himself." He paused for a moment. "What do you think I am?"

Luna was caught flat-hoofed by the question. Yet she was still angry enough at her sister not to honey her reply. "You are a human poured into the shape of a pony. But you are not a pony. You are not part of the herd, not like they are." She pointed at the ponies tending to their fields below. "If I were to take that question to mean how do I judge the quality of your character, I must admit that I do not know you. But I do know of you, and how highly my sister thinks of you."

The unicorn's intense gaze relented a bit, and he smiled most fetchingly at her, the scamp!

"Your words are a great relief to my soul, Princess, for I harbor no shame to be a man. Much the opposite in fact," said Starswirl. "I believe I have met my second goddess of truth. Now I see how much indeed the two of you are sisters." He suddenly laughed.

"What drives you to such jocularity, Starswirl the Bearded?" she asked, intrigued, and truth be honored, flattered at his unusual compliment.

"In the castle where I resided of late, my assistant and dear friend Count Melzi has painted a fresco depicting the mother figure of my religion. She is standing on a crescent moon, and somehow resembles you closely. She is called the Virgo Lucis, the virgin of light."

This time her smile was genuine, its warmth reaching her eyes. "You are a scamp, Starswirl. A virgin, really?"

"Indeed. Your sister was visiting when Melzi was painting the fresco, and I thought he had used her likeness, but they both denied it. Now I know why."

Perhaps this won't be such a chore after all, thought Luna, and he is a handsome devil!

With a mischievous glint in her eye, Luna decided to get down to business with this unicorn. Her horn glowed purple. Moments later, a large stone quickly floated over the parapet and came to rest on the floor between them. "I would like to test the veracity of that other goddess of truth, who states you are quite the powerful magician. I want you to take this stone and lift it as high as you can."

To her astonishment, the stallion just smiled, and drove the large stone straight up and through the roof. Blue sky shone through the hole. So much for not breaking the observatory, thought Luna.


Celestia returned to the observatory tower of the castle, where she had left her sister and the Maestro to get to know each other. Much depended on the success of that relationship, and she knew her sister was far more likely to be her brilliant self when Celestia was not also present. The thought made her sigh. It was her hope that Starswirl's natural congeniality and wit would win Luna over. Two who had so much in common could be friends.

Over the last century Luna had become increasingly frustrated with feelings that her contributions to the growing realm of Equestria were less than fully appreciated. The increasingly bitter rivalry between the pony tribes was taxing her somewhat limited ability to suffer foals. She was also highly skeptical of Celestia's plans for saving humanity. Nevertheless, Celestia's intuition told her that Starswirl was the pony who could provide the key to solving all three of these vexing problems.

Arriving at the top of the stairs, she noticed the Maestro's signature ventilation of the observatory roof. She sighed and permitted herself a moment's indiscretion to eavesdrop on the two. She smiled as she heard a mare and stallion's laughter ring from the parapet.

As she exited the room onto the parapet itself she beheld a strange sight. Her sister and the Maestro each seated on cushions, whilst between them in the air floated two sets of chessmen, a game obviously in progress. Luna played black, of course, and just as Celestia arrived lost a bishop to Starswirl's knight.

"Aha!" shouted the Maestro. Then to Celestia's horror he jumped over the rail of the parapet into empty space.

"Drat!, I lost another piece." Luna jumped over the parapet in her turn, returning a moment later with Starswirl on her back, who commanded her with great enthusiasm to fly in a spiral as he held on to her neck with his forehooves. He whooped with delight as she executed the arial maneuver and returned to land on the parapet.

Celestia's heart resumed a more stately beat seeing the maestro safe. Raising an eyebrow she addressed the grinning pair. "Chess is so popular these days. How nice it is to see that you two have found a way to turn a perfectly harmless intellectual pursuit into a death defying activity."

"It was his suggestion, sister," pouted Luna.

"On the contrary," objected Starswirl, "it was her majesty's proposal that taking a piece be rewarded with a boon. Mine was that her majesty would take me flying on her back." His smile could only be described as predatory. "Hers was that I recite an ode to her beauty."

Luna blushed, as Celestia could see that Starswirl only had lost one piece so far. "Maestro, would you mind repeating your ode to the elder sister of the mare in question?" asked Celestia with a wicked gleam in her eye.

Luna blushed even deeper, but Starswirl recited in a beautiful voice:

Tell me where, in which country
Is Luna, the beautiful;
Aepona, and Celestia
Who was her sister;
Echo, speaking when one makes noise
Over river or on pond,
Who had a beauty too much more than human?
Oh, where are the nights of yesteryear!

Celestia saw through her sister's embarrassment at how pleased she was with the poem. "I think Villon would have approved." She looked over the railing. "Perhaps even with the parapet jumping part." Now it was Starswirl's turn to look abashed. "And pray, was there a wager for the taking of the king?"

"I promised to teach him how to teleport," said Luna humbly.

"I offered to paint her portrait," said Starswirl, still smiling.

Celestia eyed the pieces still floating in the air between the cushions. "Better prepare you lesson for tomorrow, sister. He will win the game in four moves."

Luna looked shocked and immediately went to examine the pieces. "But..."

"I suggest we all go to my quarters where dinner awaits us."

"But..." said Luna.

Starswirl bowed to the younger princess. "Princess Celestia is most correct. I have played her many times, as she is one of the few I have met whom I cannot best in every match."

"Don't wager with him if you can avoid it sister," said Celestia, "or he might soon be wearing your regalia."

With one last look at the chess pieces, Luna turned away and sighed. "Very well. I concede. Good game, Maestro. Teleportation class begins tomorrow." She bowed to him in return, her good humor restored.

They disappeared from the observatory in a violet glow.


As the purple glow faded Starswirl saw that he was now in a large, richly appointed room in the castle. In many respects it reminded him of the Château de Cloux, where he had spent the last years of his human life. Everywhere were motifs of white and gold, and mirrors reflecting the rainbow of colors of Celestia's mane and the star speckled black of Luna's.

In the center of the room was a low table laden with food, surrounded by the low cushions the pony folks favored over chairs. Princess Celestia invited them to the table with a gilded hoof. They each took a place and began to serve themselves using magic to handle fork, knife and spoon. How fascinating, he thought. It is all done as if they possessed hands. He could no longer contain his curiosity.

"My dear Princesses, I cannot help but remark upon how much your meal etiquette, like so many other things in Equestria," Starswirl gestured to the apartment around them, "is very much akin to that of the human world. Surely this is no coincidence."

Luna looked at Celestia, who simply nodded and continued daintily eating her meal. "What you see here in Equestria has been much influenced by Mundus in the last several hundred years. Ever since Celestia discovered the bridge to your world she has been visiting and bringing back with her ideas, mores, tools, processes, scientific discoveries, and even in a rare few cases entire individuals." She looked at Starswirl pointedly, then resumed.

"Oft these have proven beneficial and been adopted and adapted to suit our own realm. My sister has under several noms-de-plume chronicled many of her trips, styling them the travels of fictitious ponies to foreign lands neighboring Equestria. These books are very popular and circulate widely." The younger Princess laughed heartily, warming to the subject, even as her sister began to blush.

"I will have you know that many of our subjects think highly of France, Italy, Spain and England, imagining them peopled with their fellow ponies, even adopting many of the frivolous fashions my sister so enjoys describing in her fictions. Why, some of our more idle aristocrats even attend classes to learn to speak these languages!" Princess Luna almost fell over in her mirth.

Celestia coughed politely into her hoof. "All these were devices for us to quickly disseminate ideas, and to enable me to perfect my own disguise, ensuring my access to the leading lights of Mundus nearest the bridge!" she replied a bit hotly, her embarrassment having lent a quite delightful rosé color to her muzzle.

"Especially the fictions with all those randy princes and princesses!" laughed Luna. "She spent entire nights writing those." Of a sudden she stopped laughing and raised an eyebrow at Starswirl. "Speaking of custom, I have yet to hear our human-of-late guest ask for his meat. What say you of our repast, kind stallion?"

"Oh, dear Princess, I have not fancied the meat of beast, fish or fowl for decades. I like not the thought of profiting from the suffering of others, even such as they. Also, having studied the insides of all of these, the similarities are such that in a joint of pork I see the shadow of the limb of a man and my appetite quite deserts me. From foreigners and other like minded souls I have learned how to profit well enough from vegetable sustenance alone."

"I am quite abashed, sir stallion," said Luna. "Your qualities certainly demonstrate that you had the heart of a pony long before you achieved your present equine estate." She turned to Celestia. "What else have you not told me about this most excellent gentlecolt, sister dear?"

"I did not intentionally deny you any intelligence I had of the Maestro, sister," replied Celestia, relieved to no longer be the subject of the meal's discourse and pleased at her sister's obvious rising affection for Starswirl. "But as you have asked I will make one thing clear: that I have never met a greater assemblage of both talent and wit than that which resides within the stallion sharing our table this eventide."

Starswirl felt his face grow hot with the praise, setting both Princesses to jolly laughter, which despite his discomfiture he eventually joined with his own.

"Your majesties are too kind," said Starswirl, "as is your welcome. I know that I have much to learn if I am to assist you in your great quest, and I look forward to the exercise most eagerly."

"I am truly glad, Maestro," said Celestia. "In this regards, have you under my sister's tutelage today learned anything of interest about magic, other than your fancy for flying acrobatics?"

"Oh indeed," he replied, "I have noted how there seems to be many forms of magic, some translational that move objects, some transformational that change an object's nature, and some animational magic that allow an object to behave as if it had a will of its own. I saw all three used by Princess Luna when she lifted a stone from the castle yard below, transformed it into chess pieces, which floated in the air and seemed to know of themselves when they were defeated by another piece and removed themselves from the game. I could tell that her majesty was not involved in active magic at those moments because her horn would glow brighter whenever she was. This last magic of animation intrigues me greatly, as it has great potential for the augmentation of will and intelligence, much as a lever multiplies the strength of a limb."

Luna's mouth hung open, a look of pure awe on her face. Celestia reached over and delicately pushed her mouth closed with a hoof. "As I said, sister. He will surprise you. Take notes tomorrow as he will no doubt be teaching us about teleportation by day's end." She rose from the table. "Maestro, might I show you to your new quarters in the castle?"

Starswirl rose with Celestia, Luna rising a bit slowly as if still deep in thought. "Goodnight, sir stallion," she said in a subdued voice. "I look forward to our lessons tomorrow."

He bowed to the Princess. "Your majesty is too kind, and I also look forward to the morrow."

"Come, Maestro, it is almost time for the Unicorn tribe to lower the sun and raise the moon," said Celestia as they exited her apartments.

He laughed. "What a charming jest, your majesty."

Celestia chuckled along uneasily. "Yes, well, perhaps we should save discussions of the nature of Equestria's cosmology to another day."

"Of course, majesty." He was still laughing at the silly joke when a few minutes later in his own quarters he lay down to sleep.

Serious Trouble

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Renaissance Pony



Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Chapter 4: Serious Trouble


Luna sat upon the Moon Throne, Starswirl the Bearded at her side. Her sister's Sun Throne was vacant as she was about other business this morning. The days when the Princesses held court together were becoming rare, and today it was the younger sister's turn to preside, a lonely duty she found increasingly irksome.

The huge doors of the audience hall opened and two unicorns entered, a mare wearing a tiara, and a pea-green stallion with a mane of almost the same color. "Her Royal Highness Princess Platinum, and the unicorn Clover," announced the chamberlain.

"IT IS OUR WISH THAT THIS AUDIENCE BE CONDUCTED IN CAMERA!" pronounced Luna in the Royal Voice. The chamberlain backed out of the hall and the doors closed with a clash.

"APPROACH!" she commanded.

The two visiting unicorns did as they were bid, stopping and bowing deeply at the foot of the steps leading up to thrones.

"GREETINGS TO THE UNICORN TRIBE!" said Luna, nodding. When the visitors had raised their own heads she addressed them in a less formal tone of voice. "We will speak plainly, as we have many weighty matters at hoof today. We have requested the presence of the unicorn King. Where be he?" Luna was displeased at seeing only the Princess and not her father.

"Our humble apologies, your majesty. My father sends his greetings, and expresses his sorrow at being too ill at present to attend your majesty's request personally. He has delegated me to do so in his stead," replied Princess Platinum coolly.

Luna's eye narrowed as the Princess delivered her message. She thought it entirely too likely that the words contained an intended slight upon the Royal Sisters. The unicorn King's defiance seemed to be growing worse with every passing month. "Thou wilt suffice, as the main object of our command be thy companion." Luna smiled inwardly at her dismissal of Princess Platinum, and looked directly at Clover. "Unicorn, we have requested that thee be apprenticed to the mage Starswirl the Bearded, to aid him in any task he may wish to undertake, to assist him in the scientific study of magic, and furthermore to learn from him the methods and philosophy of rational investigation and such arts as he would wish to convey onto you. Art thou fit and willing, Clover?"

"He is indeed," replied Princess Platinum.

"Is the stallion dumb, that he hath no voice to respond to his sovereign's inquiry?" Luna scowled at Platinum's intercession.

"No, your majesty, of course not." Clover spoke for the first time. His voice was low and gentle. "I am most honored to meet the mage Starswirl, having heard much of him in the months since his arrival."

At the mention of his name, Starswirl bowed to the Princess and her companion. "The honor and pleasure is mine."

"Of that we shall see," interrupted the unicorn Princess again. "Before we entrust into his hooves our most promising young mage in a generation, we wish to know: where did this Starswirl the Bearded come from? Why does his name not appear on the rolls of the unicorn tribe?"

Luna was growing very weary of this impudent unicorn Princess, and was on the verge of a rather cutting reply, when Starswirl's voice rang out, calm and conciliatory.

"My dear Princess, I was born and raised in a foreign land, far from Equestria and other unicorns. Consequently my name has not been added to the unicorn tribal rolls, an oversight I wish to have repaired. Another is the limited magical education I received from my mother only, as my father was mostly absent during my youth. I was fortunate though that my parents were wealthy, and did see that I be educated in many other arts, sciences and philosophies by great masters of these foreign lands. These skills I wish to now bring to the unicorn tribe for the benefit of all equestrians." Starswirl finished his exposition with a broad smile and another bow, this time aimed directly at the unicorn Princess.

It took but a moment for her to make her mental calculations and decide that there was potential profit for the unicorn tribe in the enterprise. "Oh, well, then I can see the wisdom of your majesties' intent, and can report to my father the unicorn tribe's assent." She bowed to Princess Luna, waiting to be dismissed.

Luna was fuming at the insolence of this mare, but saw Starswirl's signal as he repeatedly gestured towards the entrance with his eyes.

"WE DISMISS THEE, PRINCESS PLATINUM." Princess Luna stamped a hoof. The sound reverberated loudly in the cavernous hall. Before its echo had died away the doors opened ponderously, and under Luna's watchful eye Princess Platinum wisely backed out of the room, bowing every few steps as per protocol. The doors closed again.

"Please join us, Clover." Luna gestured for the stallion to climb the steps to the throne, which he did with a certain trepidation. This made Luna laugh, greatly improving the mood in the hall. "We did not mean to frighten thee, good Clover. Our patience with your former companion's antics wears thin. But do tell us truthfully, how dost thou see our intended placement of thee under a unicorn both strange to you and foreign to this land?" She looked at Clover expectantly.

"The Bearded Mage is a subject of much speculation amongst the unicorn tribe." He smiled at Starswirl. "He has been seen to do great feats of magic in the company of the Royal Sisters, and is most mysterious. I do so like a good mystery!" replied the young stallion.

"Well then," said Starswirl, "you are no less a mystery to me, and Princess Luna says you also have some repute as a mage. Perhaps we can start with you showing me everything that you can do, and every spell that you have mastered. In the process we shall document them all, and then see if we can build an architecture in which to house them. Oh, and you may call me Maestro, a title I have worn for so many years that I would sooner hear it than my own given name."

Clover lost his smile as Starswirl spoke. "Maestro, of course you are aware that the members of the unicorn tribe rarely divulge their spells to those outside of their own families. These spells are both power and legacy."

Starswirl looked to Luna. "Good Clover, if we are to do a scientific study of magic, we shall improve the lives of all Equestrians, and that is a most worthy thing alone. Even thus, the unicorn tribe will profit the most as the usages of magic will no doubt significantly multiply and the importance of unicorns gain in the affairs of it."

"I understand. In fact I even agree, as likely would most younger mages. We secretly share spells already, when necessity so dictates. But what you ask might be considered a betrayal of family by many unicorns." He looked lost before the enormity of that which they had asked of him. "One thing escapes me," he added in a low voice. "The raising of the Sun and the Moon consume by far most of the magical impulse of the unicorn tribe. How can we spare enough to engage in new magical affairs?"

This time Starswirl spoke. "We have a plan for this as well, although young Clover, the time is not yet ripe to share it. Not until such a time as we have verified that it is indeed both feasible and that it shall indeed augment the fortunes and happiness of all equestrians, including the unicorn tribe. For much the same reason, we shall not disclose our compilation of spells until that time. Neither shall we do so without the agreement of the unicorn tribe."

Clover looked relieved, but it was obvious to Luna that he was still not fully convinced. "Gentlecolts. As there are many ponies waiting for audience without this hall, I recommend you take your deliberations elsewhere, so that the state may move ponderously foreward and other ponies be satisfied. Or not."

She looked on regally as the stallions bowed and left the hall, trying not to appear too obviously disappointed at the loss of Starswirl's company. Oh, my! thought Luna, I am getting rather fond of that stallion. I wonder if he has noticed? Lost in her thoughts she awaited the announcement of the next petitioner.


Starswirl led Clover out of the castle and into the beautiful gardens surrounding it on three sides. He found a pleasant low bench amongst a grove of very interesting statuary: they were technically very good, but lacked any of the artistic touches that give such pieces dynamism and emotion. Today he ignored the sculptures, sat on the bench and facehoofed.

"What is the problem Maestro?" asked the green unicorn.

He looked at Clover anew, liking what he saw, a good soul that had the courage to speak up for himself before two Princesses. They would be working closely together for the foreseeable future, so there would be no way for him to hide his nature from the youngster. Also his situation was becoming urgent. He decided to take the stallion in his confidence. "I believe I am getting into serious trouble, my friend," said Starswirl. "Though I am a unicorn, I am a foreigner in Equestria, ignorant of many of its mores and social customs. So please forgive me if my questions offend you."

"Certainly Maestro. You may ask any question and I will do my utmost to reply competently," replied Clover.

"My first question is this: is it considered unseemly or even forbidden for ponies of the same sex to... become intimates?"

Clover blushed deeply at the unexpected question, but nevertheless responded easily. "No Meastro, there are many such couples, and even a few herd families consisting entirely of one sex or the other. That is considered a personal issue in our society, also I have read that this is not necessarily so in other lands such as in Spain, for example."

Starswirl smiled. His companion's mention of the ponified version of Spain, recounted under a pseudonym by Princess Celestia, was a reminder of his hosts' delightful ingenuity. "Excellent! My second question is this: do the Royal Princesses ever take on either husbands, companions or even consorts? I have never heard either mention relationships of an amorous nature in respect to themselves."

Clover's muzzle split into a wide smile. "Good Celestia, Maestro! I thought I had detected a glimmer whenever Princess Luna looked your way. Tee-hee! The Princesses have been rumored to have paramours upon occasion, which they have usually kept discrete, if such were true." He winked. "Even now, whispers circulate holding you as the object of trysts with either one or even both the Royal Princesses." He continued a bit more soberly. "However, they are rumored to be most reluctant to engage in such relationships. As immortals, it is their great burden to see their loves grow old and die while they stay ever young. That is truly sad, don't you think?"

"Young Clover, my situation is most unfortunate then. Indeed I have noticed the signs of Princess Luna's favor waxing over the last weeks. And you say that there is no real social impediment preventing her from wooing my lowly self?"

"No, sir, there is not," replied Clover.

"And yet I am an impediment for such." He took a deep breath. "I do not... fancy... mares." He took another deep breath. "You will keep my confidence in this, won't you?"

Clover's mouth had dropped open, at a loss for words. Finally he mastered his shock and spoke. "Yes I will, and, yes I believe you are getting into serious trouble, Maestro."

Starswirl facehoofed again.


Princess Platinum entered her father's bedchambers. The unicorn King was having one of his better days today, reading reports in bed. Several scrolls lay in a heap beside him and his spectacles were perched on the end of his muzzle. "Greetings Father. I am here to report on the meeting with Princess Luna and Starswirl the Bearded."

The report he was reading hovered down onto the covers and ceased glowing as he released it. "Approach, daughter. So, what did the moon mare have to say?" His voice was clear and almost devoid of emotion. Excellent! thought Platinum, He truly is having a good day.

"Her Lunar majesty relates that they wish Clover to receive many new arts and learnings from this strange foreign unicorn. Such I determined to be to our tribe's advantage, and so raised no objection to it. Starswirl also wishes his name be added to the rolls of the tribe. This may provide further opportunity for advantage." Platinum delivered her report crisply and factually, a trait much valued and praised by her father.

"Well done, daughter." He raised one of the scrolls. "Please do have a look at this. It was recorded three days ago. I have only today been sufficiently hale to peruse unread reports and found it therein."

Platinum unrolled the report and began reading.

As recorded on the second day of the fifth month, in the one thousand and and second year after the defeat of Discord.
Lieu: the Royal Gardens, Subjects "C" and "S"

C: I believe now is an opportune moment to finally discuss cosmology.

S: Yes. I would hope so. Never has something so shattered by confidence in my own reason. Truly, in Equestria the sun and the moon are raised by the unicorns?

C: Indeed. (reference to S) I must now tell you something that you may not repeat to any other living being. Something related to my sister and I by our mother in millennia past, and that may have some impact on your study of magic. Do I have your word that you will not repeat it?

S: Yes, (reference to C).

C: Some universes are born naturally of the cosmos as part of the fluctuations of its very fabric. In very rare circumstances universes are produced that will foster new life, and that life may eventually produce self-aware beings, such as humanity. If such a race of beings can avoid the many possible disasters that can extinguish it, it sometimes achieves the wisdom and science needed to be able to create entire new universes of its own. (C paused.)

C: Equestria is such a fabricated universe. It was made by the antecedents of my sister, myself and Discord. As with any craft, the making of universes leaves room for both artistry and whim, and so their shapes may be radically different from that of naturally life-bearing universes. In our universe, we chose to have magic to play an integral part of life, and we made the unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies such that they would found a harmonious society on this world, in this universe. Also, many processes that are natural and unguided in your native universe are here objects of magical craft, such as the movements of the sun and moon, the weather and the growth of plants and minerals.

S: Why was it done this way?

C: To ensure interdependence on all members of society. We did not want it possible for any one group or tribe to hold the others hostage, and drive them into penury or even slavery.

S: So that is why the unicorns move the sun and the moon. It is part of their commerce with the other tribes.

C: Yes, indeed.

S: I wonder what that young Pole, Kopernic (ref. unknown) was his name, would think. (subject laughed)

C: I have actually met the man (ref. unknown, possible reference to Kopernic above). He was brilliant, but a bit ambitious for my tastes. I also wondered what he would say if I told him that the geocentric model of the universe he wished to debunk is actually the more correct model in this universe. (subject laughed)

S: This has rather dire implications for our plan. How much of the cumulative magical power of the unicorns is spent on moving the sun and moon?

C: Better than nine tenths of it.

S: That is disastrous. This leaves the unicorns very little energy to drive the new equestrian economy we have planned. We must find a means of freeing the unicorn tribe from these tasks.

C: They will resist the change, (ref. to S), these tasks are how they hold sway over the other tribes.

S: And that is also the problem. You do not have a single society in Equestria, you have three, each competing as much as cooperating with the others. All are governed separately, live apart, work apart and meet infrequently. They have no loyalty to each other. And from my brief time here it is evident to me that the unicorns are showing signs of wishing to place themselves at the apex of this pyramid.

C: It is a most vexing problem, and one of the reasons I went to search for answers in your universe. Our talks there, especially the more recent ones when you lived in France, have helped me grow my own philosophy and statecraft.

(At this point subjects arose and moved beyond hearing range. End of report.)

Princess Platinum levitated the scroll back to pile on the bed. "It would appear this unicorn is far more foreign, and far more dangerous than we thought," she said.

"Yes. I want you to watch him closely by whatever means you may deem necessary. Celestia is disclosing too many of the deepest secrets of Equestria's past to this outsider. If he proves a threat we may need to remove him from the game," said her father as coolly as if discussing the pegasi's mismanagement of the weather.

"Yes, father." The thought gave her a chill. However, the ultimate advancement of the unicorn tribe was far more important than any one unicorn's personal scruples. A pity, she thought, this Starswirl has no idea that he is getting into serious trouble.

Harmony and Discord

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Renaissance Pony



Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Chapter 5: Harmony and Discord


Starswirl the Bearded was shown by a guardpony into the Royals' common dining room. The younger sister had arrived and was already seated, but the elder was apparently late, an unusual occurrence for the habitually punctual senior Princess. Luna beamed joyously as he entered.

"Greetings dear Maestro! Please do come and sit with us," said Luna cheerily. "It has most certainly been at least an entire week since we last supped together, and that is entirely too long to deprive us of your company. We are most disappointed in you." Luna made as if to pout, but the smile in her eyes betrayed her true feelings.

"Greetings Princess Luna." Starswirl swallowed as he bowed. Luna's feelings were exactly why he had been trying to avoid the Royal dinners. "My enthusiasm for the study of magic is perhaps taking a toll on my social obligations." He smiled apologetically. "I do tend to get a bit obsessed over these things." He stopped suddenly just short of the table. "Is her majesty your sister indisposed? She did mention wanting to discuss some important matters," inquired the stallion.

"She will be joining us anon. While we wait please tell me of your progress." Princess Luna levitated a cushion into place next to hers and patted it suggestively with a hoof.

Starswirl smiled sheepishly and gulped as he sat down very close indeed to Princess Luna. She noticed the perspiration breaking out on his brow. "Why my dear Starswirl, you are weary from your labors and in need of refreshment." There was a purple flash and a tall glass appeared on the table before the unicorn mage, full to the brim with some tealike liquid and actual cubes of ice floating in it.

Grateful for the distraction, he magically grasped the glass, brought it to his lips, closed his eyes and took a deep draught of the cool libation. His eyes popped open as wide as dinner plates as the unknown substance burned its way down his gullet and settled like molten lava in his stomach. When he began to cough the Princess moved in closer still, pounding him gently on the back with her foreleg. "Ah, Maestro! I should have warned ye." She whispered into his ear. "There might be a wee dram of something stronger than tea in that glass." He was still sputtering when the voice of salvation called from the doorway.

"Well now. I was about to offer excuses for my tardiness, but perhaps I should leave and come back later." Celestia surveyed the two. Starswirl was practically in Luna's embrace.

"Princess Celestia!" Starswirl rose to bow. "Of course not. If anyone should leave it should be me." He backed away from the table a step, Luna's foreleg still over his withers.

"Nonsense Starswirl. Do sit." She pushed him back down with no little force. It did not help that all the joints in his four legs suddenly seemed devoid of strength. "Why sister, I can see you were not overlong delayed." Luna's smile seemed a touched forced. "Let us get on with our repast, shall we?" She smiled very sweetly.

Celestia cast a skeptical eye on the tableau. "But of course. Where are my manners?" She moved a cushion closer to the table and took her customary place opposite her sister. She gave them a very big smile and said "Bon appétit!", and began serving herself from the food laden platters on the table.

Starswirl's complexion was becoming progressively more ruddy by the second. He cleared his throat. "Uh, Princess Celestia... though it is rude of me to bring up business so early in your majesty's repast, might I... inquire as to the pressing matter mentioned... in your invitation to this meal?" He swayed slightly and was visibly trying hard to enunciate clearly.

"Are you quite well, Starswirl?" Celestia voiced her concern. "Perhaps you should have a sip of iced tea?" The stallion's head swerved unsteadily with the motion of the glass before him as it again began to levitate to his lips.

"NO!" His head jerked backwards in alarm. Luna held him steady as he resumed a more normal posture. "I mean, I thank your Majesty, but I just cannot drink another drop." Luna smiled and winked at her sister. "Yes, I do think he's already had enough." Starswirl sighed as the glass returned to the surface of the table.

"Very well then," said Celestia. "Perhaps we can begin discussing the matter at hand. I wish to make another visit to the human realm."

Princess Luna's countenance suddenly clouded over. "Oh sister, must you?" Starswirl's posture relaxed even more when Luna finally removed her foreleg from his back and leaned closer to her sister. "I so loath your visits to that place. Without your company the days can be so dreary, and I end up having to hold court every day myself without respite. Oh, Celestia! Each of these trips seems to last an eternity." She finished miserably. Starswirl was surprised at the depth of feeling Luna had expressed.

"Dear sister, I would not do so but for a pressing need. Our guest has brought up a major issue for the long term prospects of our nation. An issue which preoccupies almost all my waking thoughts since he first related to me, and that I now cannot leave unresolved." She turned her head to face Starswirl. "To whit, we are not one nation. We are three tribes, living in the same land but apart, and the distances between the three grow daily. We are are not one family. We are not one herd." As the words left her mouth her smile never wavered, but he could see tears appear and begin their twin tracks down the side of her dainty muzzle. There was silence for a moment.

"I would not have spoken those words had I known they would make you weep, dear Princess," said Starswirl, mortified.

"Nevertheless, they are true words, and bravely spoken. Words I... words I needed to hear." Celestia looked at her sister. "Sir stallion, you might be relieved to know that you have merely confirmed ideas which my sister has already more than once tried to get into my thick skull. I must apologize, Luna. You were right." She wept on in silence.

Suddenly Luna arose and quickly went around the table to gently embrace her sister. "My dear sister, dry your tears. Our failure in this is a harsh reminder of our own limitations, but does not blunt our will to do what is best for Equestria. What do you propose to do?" she asked.

"I shall seek advice from the human philosophers, for we have decisions to make on the future shape of the Equestrian nation. I should like the Maestro to come with me, as I will need his wise council in these matters," said the elder Princess.

"What?" Luna released her sister. "You wish me deprived of both of you?! I am left speechless!" She gazed miserably down at the table. Finally she spoke again. "How long, this time?" she asked, seemingly resigned to her fate.

"Two weeks, perhaps a month," replied Celestia.

"Then so be it." said Luna quietly. She nodded to Starswirl, then to her sister. "I will retire now as I find that my appetite has quite deserted me. And in truth you do not need me to finish planning your trip to the human realm." She turned and practically fled through the door leading to her own apartments.

Starswirl wished he was anywhere else but in this place. Celestia looked at him, with her usual smile and a world of hurt in her eyes. "My sister's advice is sound. Let us plan our trip." She ignored the food on her plate thereafter. When their deliberations were complete he bowed and made to exit from the beautiful and decidedly sad dinning room. Before he got to the door Celestia called to him.

"You know that she is becoming rather attached to you, Starswirl. I have seen her fall in love before. All the signs are there," she said.

"Yes." He stood in the doorway.

"And we both know that this love you cannot reciprocate."

"Yes." His smile was bittersweet. "Of course you must have known for years."

"Indeed I have. It was perhaps my error to have never mentioned this to my sister." She took a deep breath. "Maestro, I beg of you, do be careful with my little sister's heart. It already carries such sorrow."

"Of course I will. I have much experience in gently deterring the advances of amorous ladies." He bowed and left.

Celestia watched as the door closed behind him. "As I can honestly attest, Maestro," she whispered into the empty room.


Starswirl paced back to his quarters. The door was open and young Clover sat waiting in his parlor, as instructed. He rose when the older mage entered. "Good evening, Maestro." The colt's smile wavered when he saw his mentor's expression. "I take it the meeting with the Princesses did not go well."

"Oh, it went as well as could be expected. But Princess Luna's advances are becoming both more direct and more difficult to deflect. I will have to speak with her directly about this, a task that fills me with dread." He motioned for Clover to follow him as he went to his study. He had instructed his chamberlain to always have some food there, awaiting to sustain him during his periods of obsession. He levitated and filled a plate. "Please serve yourself, lad, if your evening repast was as meager as mine."

"Ho, ho, ho! This does not bode well!" The green unicorn began to fill a plate of his own. "And what of the important matters Princess Celestia wished to discuss?"

"The Princess wishes me to accompany her on another trip to the land of my birth. That reminds me, I have some spells I wish you to investigate during my absence." His appetite came back as the discussion turned to matters of science. "One of the spells you brought me recently is supposed to have enabled infertile mares to conceive. You also mentioned a family of unicorn mages who specialize in breeding chimeras. Please assemble and document everything you can find on these spells. You also have my permission to use the discretionary fund if some frogs need greasing."

Clover was making short work of a dish filled with his namesake. "Understood. Mmph!" he munched. "Will you be gone long?" He slurped and chewed, then tossed some hay and daisies onto his plate, hardly slowing down.

"The Princess said we should return in a fortnight or so. We leave tomorrow," replied Starswirl, trying to keep up with his student's masterful mastication of vegetable mass.

"Oh! Then perhaps I should give you this now." Clover levitated his saddle bag from where it lay near the entrance and produced from within it a midnight blue amulet sporting Luna's crescent moon sigil.

"I can imagine this is a gift from her younger majesty?" Starswirl took telekinetic hold of the bauble, examining it from all sides.

"Yes. She spoke to me but an hour ago and made me vow to present it to you this very eve, as a good-luck charm for your travels. One of her retainers delivered it to me as I sat waiting for you."

The elder mage held the pendant before him. "She likely expects me to wear it on my trip. I suppose I should wear it when we leave tomorrow." He levitated the chain over his poll. It hung quite handsomely around his neck.

"It is indeed most fetching on you, sir!" Clover gave a laugh. "Now as to these spells you are looking for..." The two mages discussed the details of the research far into the night.


Shortly after sunrise, Starswirl arrived again at the entrance to the Royal apartments. A guard let him enter. Celestia met him at the door as if she had been waiting for him. "I bid you good morning, sir," said the Princess, looking preoccupied.

"And a good morning to you as well, Majesty." He looked around and saw nopony else. "Will her Majesty your sister be seeing us depart?"

"It would appear not, Maestro. In truth I have yet to see her since she retired after dinner last night. It troubles me to leave without giving her a proper farewell." She noticed the pendant around Starswirl's neck. "How pretty! Did my sister give you this, and have you seen her today?"

"This is indeed a gift from Princess Luna, but it was waiting for me in my apartments late yester-eve. I did not see her myself, but she did speak with my student Clover not long after she left the dining hall. I suspect she is still unhappy with our departure, although not enough to prevent her from giving me a talisman for protection."

"Well, I suppose that is some comfort. Still..." She looked in the direction of Luna's apartments, hesitating.

"A journey never started is sure never to see its end," said Starswirl. "And nothing raises the spirit as does the beginning of a new enterprise, don't you agree, Majesty?"

The Princess smiled warmly at him. "You are indeed a most congenial fellow pilgrim. Let us be off then!" She encircled them both in her wings and there was a purple flash.


Starswirl opened his eyes to see within a stone's throw a building that was either a monastery or some other institution dedicated to study or contemplation. He and Princess Celestia were next to some low bushes. Looking down at his legs he noticed he was also still in pony form.

"My Princess, I suspect the folks about are not very accustomed to unicorns, let alone winged ones." Her delightful bell-like laughter rang out in reply.

"Be at ease, Maestro. None about can see us, however do remember your first lesson in invisibility during your carriage ride to Equestria." She sounded much less jovial a moment later. "We have emerged much closer to our destination than we should have. This is fortunate, but quite... unusual." A moment later he felt himself being levitated onto Celestia's back. "I will convey us to our destination," she said, still sounding troubled, and took to the air.

Flying was still a great pleasure for Starswirl and he reveled in its thrill as they gained altitude. Looking down, he saw the city becoming smaller. "Princess! I know where we are." He pointed a hoof at the buildings below them. "That is the University at Louvain is it not?"

"Yes, it is." Despite the rustling of the wind in his ears, he could hear the dismay in Celestia's voice. "We should not have been able to come so far in the transposition."

"There is a scholar here I've wanted to meet. In his writings he's shown that he is above all an apostle of Harmony and Truth. His name is..."

"... Desidarius Erasmus." The Princess finished for him. "He is indeed the philosopher I wish to consult." The Princess seemed to have found her intended destination, and glided down to land in the middle of a small alley behind some houses. There was a flash. Starswirl found himself back on his own four legs, and the Princess standing before him in her human form.

"I had forgotten how tall you are - or perhaps how short my pony self is!" he observed, looking up into her worried countenance.

"I regret that we must change our plans. Something feels... off. I want to make all due haste and return to Equestria," said the Princess. "Please stay here and avoid any contact with the locals. I shall return within the hour." With that the Princess moved off in a greater hurry than he ever witnessed her display.

In less than an hour she reappeared, accompanied by a man not much beyond his fiftieth year, wearing priestly garb. It was obvious by the way she held onto his arm that they were not of recent acquaintance.

"...because in this way the truth, which is often lost amidst too much wrangling may be more surely perceived. The truth is furthered by a more harmonious relationship between interlocutors," said the man.

"So to create unity of the provinces, I must ensure both the freedom of all to discuss any issue they so choose, in a forum that ensures the harmonious exchange of opinions," replied Celestia. "But will they abide by the decisions of the majority?"

"My dear girl, in all things under heaven and earth, the essential point is that people have the freedom of choice. If they chose freely to enter into such an arrangement, then will they truly embrace it and abide by its decisions. If you try to force an alliance of these three provinces against their will, at the first sign of dispute their solidarity will dissipate. Believe me, I have of late seen too many important scholarly discussions become intractable when the parties involved shunned reason in favor of sordid insults, calumny and the pleasing of the mob. Even here, in this place of erudition, I am persecuted for refusing to join the growing discord in the church. So much so that I am even thinking of leaving Leuven."

"It saddens me so to see such a great and learned scholar unhappy in his circumstances," said Celestia.

"Well then, I count this day a joyous one, if only for the brief visit of my favorite foreign Princess. Au revoir, your highness." He bowed and shambled back onto the street, disappearing between the buildings.

Celestia ran to Starswirl's bush, quite a feat in the long puffy dress she was wearing. On the way she transformed back into her Alicorn form, and practically fell on him, again wrapping her wings around them both. There was a violet flash.

Starswirl stood in knee-deep snow. A cold wind blew and whistled across the deep snow drifts. Celestia stood stock-still and surveyed the land.

"Were you expecting this, your Majesty?" asked the mage.

"No, Starswirl. I did not expect this. Not at all." They looked out over the frozen wasteland. There was not a single sign of life or movement to be seen.

Starswirl the Bearded began to tremble in the cold.

Real History

View Online

Renaissance Pony



Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance,

Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Edited by the right honorable Microshazm

Chapter 6: True History


Starswirl the Bearded gazed at the frozen landscape through slitted eyes. He shivered in the cold air making his short fur stand on end. In his last years as a human he had such dread of the cold and the ache in his bones it caused. As a pony it was only marginally unpleasant. "Is it normal in Equestria that winter might come in a single day?" he asked of Princess Celestia.

She stood as if frozen by the icy gales blowing across them. "No, Starswirl, winter does not not come in a day. Not even in Equestria," she replied, "and if my perceptions are correct it has been over one hundred and fifty days since we departed."

He looked at Celestia in shock. "How is that possible? We left your apartments a scant two hours ago!"

"Maestro, it has been my observation that the course of time does not run apace between Equestria and the world of your birth. In both universes it ebbs and flows, and in my travels between them I must exert a great deal of thaumatic energy to compensate for the difference. But in this instance..." She halted her own speech, staring intently at Starswirl.

"In this instance, Princess?" Starswirl felt a movement at his neck and Luna's necklace slipped off. There was a flash of light and Princess Luna stood before them, her face downcast.

"It is my fault," she said in a low voice. "I... I could not bear to be left alone. I disguised myself as an ornament that I might in stealth accompany you in your travels, though you did not wish me to do so. Oh Tia, I have been clumsy!" She looked to her elder sister, regret both sincere and all too familiar on her dark visage. "I amplified your energy to compensate for my presence in your spells and misjudged. That is why they went awry." Luna's ears hung behind her in shame. "I am sorry. This is all my fault," she concluded miserably.

In all this time, Celestia had stood staring at Luna and Starswirl. He watched in embarassment as a sequence of emotions shaded her countenance: surprise, disbelief, hurt, anger, and finally alarm. She disappeared with a pop, leaving him alone with the dejected younger Princess.

"It has been over a thousand years since we were foals together." Luna turned to face Starswirl. "In that span I have dissapointed my sister times beyond counting. Once again, in my selfishness I have hurt her, and worse than ever before." Tears fell onto the snow.

Starswirl hesitated but a moment and wrapped the Princess in a hug. She began to weep in earnest and shook against his chest as she sobbed. They stood thus while the Princess poured out her shame and guilt. After a time Luna looked up and spoke in a husky voice. "I was wrong about you, Maestro, you are part of the herd." She gave him a small, tender kiss on the cheek, disengaged from the hug and wiped the tears from her muzzle. "I thank you for being there for me when I needed you." Her smile was the saddest he had witnessed in both his lives. "Perhaps we should find my sister." She put a hoof on his shoulder and teleported them both away.


They rematerialized in the common area of the Royal apartments. Celestia was there with Clover, seated on cushions near the center of the otherwise empty room. She looked up at them, her expression unreadable. "You have arrived. Please join us." Her breath blew plumes of condensation as she spoke.

As the new arrivals made their way to the cushion, Starswirl noticed his own breath, the bone chilling cold, and the lack of flowers, plants or any other decorative living things that had been so prevalent in his previous visits there. A fire in the hearth provided light but no perceptible improvement in the temperature.

Clover rose and bowed to Princess Luna. "Your Majesty, Maestro, you are indeed a sight for sore eyes! We had begun to lose hope that you would return in time." The youngster resumed his seat only after his mentor and the younger Princess had taken theirs. Neither of the royal Princesses looked at the other. Clover's gaze went from one to the other, and finally to Starswirl his eyes wide with concern. The elder mage discouraged his student's unvoiced enquiry with an almost imperceptible shake of his head.

Celestia broke the brief but uncomfortable silence. "When I arrived I found that the castle abandoned. Showing great foresight, our clever Clover had left a message on the apartment door in anticipation of our return. As soon as I entered I read the note and went to fetch him. You are just in time to receive his report on what has happened in Equestria during our absence." She looked pointedly at her sister with a tight smile. "It is indeed a good thing that the leaders of the pony tribes received Princess Luna's advisement of her joining our expedition. Nevertheless, they were expecting us to be away for a few weeks, not almost five months. Clover, please proceed."

The young stallion lowered his gaze and took a deep breath. "I am afraid my news is not very good. Within a few weeks of your departure, the leaders of the three tribes began to squabble. At first the arguments were petty: how much food the earth ponies were to provide for the Unicornia festival, how many days of sunshine the pegasi were to ensure, and such. The squabbling got worse when the earth ponies announced a shortage of cloud-berries due to unusually dry conditions, and that they wanted rain on one of the festival days to salvage what little crop remained. The pegasi decided to comply with the request, as they consider cloud-berries their favorite fruit. Unfortunately, this infuriated the unicorn leadership...


"Oh, well, that's absolutely outrageous!" cried Clover. "Princess, we cannot use the sanction of denying the sun to ponies just because we might get a bit wet on a festival day!" How ironic he thought, gazing at the Princess' private chambers. Pink and platinum bows and ribbons everywhere, with plush animal toys literally stacked into furry pyramids in several corners, as the Princess herself is anything but soft!

Princess Platinum's eyes narrowed. "You overstep the bounds of your priviliges as my assistant, Clover. Remember that you are a member of this tribe and you owe your loyalty to us first, and above all others." She turned her back on the young mage. "You have grown arrogant in your service to that foreigner, and perhaps you are beginning to forget who and what you are." She turned again and strode back towards the entrance where Clover stood.

"My father has made his decision: we will use this opportunity to teach the other tribes the power of the unicorn nation. You will inform the lords and ladies of the House of Magic to convene in three hours in my father's audience chamber for a statement from the crown," she said, gazing intently at a plush Ursa Major doll with a pink and platinum bow-tie.

"And what if the other tribes retaliate? Need I tell you how little of what unicorns need to survive is actualy the product of our own hooves?" countered Clover.

"Our magic will suffice to carry the day, as it always has. Of all ponies, you should know this better than most." Her gaze finally returned to him bearing an expression of grim determination. "Go now, Clover. I will not ask you again."

Clover shook his head and sighed. He knew better than to insist. "Yes, your highness." He bowed and left.


Princess Platinum watched Clover depart. How could it have come to this? she thought. She looked at the unhappy visage reflected in the mirror of her dresser and addressed herself: Buck up, Platinum. You have your father's instructions, now go and do your duty. The mare in the mirror gazed back at her in sadness. Then why do you feel so heavy in your heart? The Princess looked down in shame, and left to prepare the meeting of the Unicorn nobles.


Clover quickly made his way back to his apartment in the Everfree Castle. Waiting at his door were two guests: an earth-pony and a pegasus. "Greetings, Cookie and Pansy! My thanks for coming on such short notice. Please enter and make yourselves comfortable." He pointed with a hoof to his small but tidy sitting room.

Private Pansy stared at everything around her. "Wow. This is first time I've ever visited with someone who lives in the castle, Commander Hurricane usually comes to visit here alone. We pegasi don't go in for luxury like this!" She chose to recline on the small couch.

Cookie chose a large cusion while Clover took the remaining low chair. "Oy have to tell 'ya Clover, oy'm not sure we three should be meetin' like this without our bosses. If Chancellor Puddin'head ever found out it could mean moy job!"

"I understand. The same is true for me. But for the sake of all Equestrians, I think we have to try to difuse the situation before our bosses escalate it even further. With the Princesses gone, there is no moderating influence on the tribal leadership, and I would like to propose that we three, as the assistants to the tribal leaders, take matters in hoof until their return," said Clover. "This would entail our meeting on a regular basis to at least come up with proposals that might be acceptable to all three tribes, should our respective leaders lack the will to do so. If you do not feel comfortable doing this I understand."

"Granted oy'r tribal leaders are a pretty stiff-necked lot, but why should we trust yah, Clover?" asked Cookie.

Clover paused to gather his courage. "Because I'm going to tell you something important. If the Unicorn leadership ever finds out I told you this it would likely mean my banishment from the tribe, or worse."

"Then are you sure you should?" asked Pansy, concerned.

"Yes, I am," said Clover resolutely. "Unless we can find a compromise to the situation, the Unicorn leadership will refuse to raise the sun."

Cookie rose to his full height, tail and mane bristling in anger. "ARE THEY MAD?" he shouted. "How will we produce any food? Crops 'ave already been damaged by drought an' an oy'rly fall, no thanks to the pegasi," he said, turning to Pansy.

"Hey!" Now the pegasus stood up on her couch, wings unfurling in anger. "It's not our fault - we don't control the seasons. And this drought goes way beyond the land pegasi have explored. We've been having to go further and further away just to find a few rainclouds. The Pegasi tribe have never experienced anything like this before."

Clover rose in turn and motioned the others to calm down with his hooves. "Pipe down, both of you! We're not going to improve the situation if we act just like our dear bosses and point the hoof at each other. Please, sit down." His guests resumed their former positions. "Now Cookie, is there any possibility the chancellor might accept to delay the rain for two days?"

Cookie pondered. "Nope, not an 'ope in Tartarus. Another two days and a big chunk of the current crop will be irreparably damaged."

He turned to Private Pansy. "What about the pegasi moving up the rain by three days to before the festival?"

Pansy looked miserably at the carpet before her. "We're not even sure we can get enough rainclouds together in time as it is. And the ones we have secured are drying up every day we wait. So I don't think we can change anything."

Clover had a sudden inspiration. "What if instead of a full day of rain, you split it up into three mornings' worth of rain?"

"If it don't royn enough in one go the water don't soak inta the soil," complained Cookie.

"And the pegasi have to do the same work three times, when we're already understaffed because we've got all available wings scouting long distances for clouds to herd."

Clover's ears drooped behind his head. "I may have overestimated our ability to come up with ideas." He took a deep breath. "Perhaps it was foalish of me to call you here. I apologize in advance if this meeting causes you any difficulties with your tribes."

As he rose from his chair, Pansy hopped over to him and placed a hoof on his shoulder. "Just because we couldn't figure out something this time doesn't mean we should give up." The little pegasus looked up into his face with earnest determination on hers. "I think for the sake of all ponies, we should continue meeting."

Cookie rose and completed the triangle, placing a hoof on his other shoulder. "Pansy is royght. Oy've got a feelin' that there's a mess a'brewin', an' what we three are doin' might just be oyr best 'ope of gettin' out of it aloyve."

Clover looked at each of them in turn. He nodded. "Thank you. Both me and my fear agree wholeheartedly with you. Maybe this meeting isn't a failure after all, maybe it's the beginning of something even bigger." He smiled and raised a hoof between them. "Friends?" The other two placed their own hooves over his. "Friends!" The three spoke the oath together in a ritual as old as ponykind.


"... and so the Unicorn King issued a proclamation that were there any shortage of the originally agreed food provisioning or if it rained during the days of the Unicornia festival, then the Unicorns would refuse to raise the sun until reparations were made." Clover leaned back, daring to look only into the eyes of his mentor. Princess Celestia was as still as a statue. Luna winced and seemed to shrink with every word of the report. By this point she was hiding her face in her hooves.

"That is a most terrible edict indeed," said Starswirl to break the silence. "For a certainty it was ill received by the other pony tribes."

"Yes, each tribe blamed the others. The weather became colder and drier still. The earth tribe delivered less than half of the food that had been promised to the Unicorns for their festival. The pegasi did make it rain on the third festival day and the unicorns then refused to raise the sun."

"How long?" Celestia's voice was barely above a whisper.

"Six days' worth of hours. Then food was placed before the palace of the Unicorn King. Not a lot, but in the end, enough for the unicorns to save face and declare their satisfaction by raising the sun again. Ponies of all three tribes ran into the streets and wept for joy at the sight of it."

Luna jumped up from her cushion. "I can hear no more. I... forgive me!" and she disappeared in a flash.

"Princess, if you must..." Starswirl gestured towards Luna's chambers.

Celestia's voice was soft, and low, and sad. "But I cannot as I must attend to Equestria first. Maestro, I fear I must impose on our friendship and ask you to see to my sister. She will need your help." She looked at him with great sadness in her eyes. "I beg of you, please."

"Yes, of course." He made to go and was stopped short when Clover held him back with a magical tug, a look of stark terror in the youngster's face. "Don't worry, lad. You will be perfectly safe here. I wish I could say the same for myself." He dashed off.

"Please continue your report, good Clover," whispered Celestia.

Clover sighed. "The days of darkness did nothing to improve the weather, and as temperatures plummeted, crops died in the fields. Soon, the accusations of food hoarding began, with all three tribes blaming the others. The Earth Pony food reserves started to run low, so they progressively reduced the amount of tribute they provided. This led to further actions - or rather lack of actions - by the Unicorns and Pegasi, which did yet more damage to Earth Ponies' crops. It also led to one other very unexpected result: winter arrived a full two months early."

Celestia's ears sprang forward. "Clover, could you excuse me a moment?" she asked in a more normal tone of voice as she stood up.

Clover quickly rose and bowed, "Of course your majesty. Should I wait here?"

"Please do. I must verify something by going to my observatory. It should not be more than an hour. Please be at your ease. I shall return shortly." She disappeared in a flash of light.

Clover looked over the now empty room. "Well," he said to no-one in particular, "I've waited five months already. What's another hour[?" He levitated his cushion nearer to the hearth. "Let's see if I can get any heat from this fire."


The door to Luna's apartments had been left open. He approached her bedchamber, hearing the sounds of a weeping mare within. He entered, his hooves crackling as he trod on broken glass. Looking up from the floor he saw that all the mirrors in the room had been smashed. "Princess Luna, might I speak with you a moment?" he said and winced at his lame choice of words. The dark Princess lay on her bed.

"Please leave me Maestro." Luna spoke between sobs. "I do not know if... I can bear the shame of company... just... now."

"I can fetch your sister, if you prefer..."

"NO!... I mean, please do not... Starswirl... I can face her least of all... after what I have done."

He slowly approached the weeping mare. "Princess..."

Faster than he could have thought possible, Luna jumped up from her bed, and seeming twice her normal size towered over him as she shouted: "WHAT DOST THOU WANT OF ME? DID I NOT COMMAND THEE TO LEAVE?" Her breath came in gasps, and Starswirl could have sworn her beautiful eyes had momentarily become dark orbs of pure hate.

Starswirl was frozen in shock. He had never seen this aspect of the Princess and trembled in fear. Finally he found his tongue. "Forgive me, Princess. I meant not to offend."

One moment he was before a monster and the next he was looking into the weeping countenance of a distraught Princess Luna. She reached over and placed her forelegs around him in a hug. "Please forgive me, Starswirl. Please... I... I don't know what happened... I'm so sorry..." she held on to him as if her very life depended on it. He could not help but think that perhaps his own did.

"Princess Luna. Please you must not blame yourself. The conditions for this..."

"... were the very thing that prompted your trip to your world. This I knew full well, and still, I selfishly left Equestria ungoverned for five months."

"You could not know it would be so long. Please come back with me, and we will all face this together, Majesty."

Luna laid her head on his chest. "How can you call me by that word, Majesty? Celestia rules and deserves it fully. I merely fill-in periodically and try to not to ruin things." He felt her tears wet his fur.

They stayed that way for many minutes until finally she spoke again. "Starswirl?"

"Yes, Princess?"

"Please call me Luna." This getting into dangerous territory again, an untimely reminder of his unfinished business with the Princess.

"Yes, Luna. I... I do not want to keep secrets from you, so there is something I must tell you."

"I like hearing you say my name." She looked up into his face, their muzzles inches apart.

"Well, I... this is most awkward." He hesitated as words abandonned him. "Luna I..."

She kissed him. At first lightly, then passionately, and then desperately. At first he felt terror, and then, so sharp were the need and loneliness within Luna's kiss, deep sadness. Slowly she disengaged and looked into his eyes, seeing his tears. The light of passion died in her eyes, leaving only a tired soul and infinite sadness.

"Oh," she said. It was enough. She still held tightly onto him and he hugged her back just as fiercely. "Please, just stay with me for a while." He nodded. Together they mourned what could not be.


Clover woke as Princess Celestia gently prodded him from slumber. His first thought was shame for having drifted off. His second was She touched me!

"Come now Clover, it is time to finish your report. I have been able to confirm my suspicion as to what has been causing the inclement weather: windigos." Instead of the earlier guarded expression, her face was now sported a very determined grin. He levitated his cushion back to the circle. Just as they were getting resettled Starswirl and Princess Luna returned. The two Princesses hugged as if they had been apart for years, not merely an hour. Starswirl gave him a wink to indicate that all was going well as they resumed their places.

At Celestia's nod Clover summarized what Starswirl and Luna had missed, and then continued his report. "When the weather took this disastrous turn many ponies of all three tribes asked their leaders why all of this was happenning. Because of the pressure from the population a conference of all three tribes was called. It ended disastrously as all three leaders blamed the others for the situation.

"They all stormed out, and as if in reaction to their cold-heartedness, the winter grew even more bitter. Since the effect seemed centered around Everfree Castle, all three tribal leaders decided to relocate their settlements in warmer climes. Unfortunately all three have laid claim to the same territory near the base of Mount Canterlot. The Castle was made ready for winter, and then everypony was ordered to leave." He looked down at his hooves. "And that is how things stand today. There is to be another meeting of the tribal leadership tomorrow to decide on apportioning the land. I am so relieved that you have returned and can set Equestria back on course. Should I announce your participation in the conference to the leaders?"

"You will do nothing of the sort," said Celestia firmly, to the utter surprise of everypony in the room. She looked into their questioning faces one at a time. "In fact, Clover, you will tell nopony of our return and will keep the matter confidential until we advise you otherwise."

"But Majesty, why?" Clover knew he was going dangerously beyond convention by directly questioning his sovereign, but judging by the looks on Starswirl and Luna's faces he was not the only one surprised by the sudden ban.

Celestia reassured him with a smile. "Because, my little ponies, many ideas are born from the experience of struggle. Two such ideas are identity and harmony. And what is true for a pony is also true for an entire nation." She looked at her sister. "In my discussions with the Human philosophers this idea was made clear to me. If we wish to build a unified nation then every pony must have common cause with every other. This crisis, caused by an invasion of windigos, is the crucible in which a new Equestria itself will be forged, an Equestria to which all ponies will feel allegiance and belonging because they have created it with their own hooves."

"So we do nothing?" asked Luna, not quite sure if her sister was still in her right mind.

"We do nothing openly." Celestia winked. "But we can help Clover the Clever nudge things in the right direction, can we not, Clover?"

"Uh, yes, Majesty." He smiled sheepishly.

Starswirl exploded in laughter. "So lad, you thought working for me was getting you into trouble? Indeed! Welcome to the frying pan, then." He laughed deeply. He looked at Luna, and saw relief in her face, relief and perhaps the shadow of something else, something dark. He knew then that the younger Princess' troubles were not at an end, and that all of Equestria might have to pay the price.

The Power of Three

View Online

Renaissance Pony

by Dafaddah

Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter
Edited by Microshazm and SecondLaw (thanks y’all!)

Chapter 7 - The Power of Three


“If it wasn’t for your return I would say the only future most ponies should expect is starvation and death. There’s barely any food left, the forests are quickly being denuded of forage, and all signs point to winter only getting colder. Maestro, what are we to do?” Starswirl listened to Clover’s assessment of the situation, as well as his plea. The colt’s tone was far more desperate in private. Starswirl looked at his near empty apartment, eyes scanning back and forth.

“Much of my furniture is missing. What happened here?” asked Starswirl.

“As it became much colder the three tribal leaders commandeered all the firewood being produced for their own populations. When the stockpile at the castle ran out they began to burn some of the furniture of lesser officials in the kitchens in order to prepare food for the staff.” Clover smiled sheepishly. “If it’s any consolation, even my bed was broken up before they touched anything in your chambers. And the order to evacuate the castle came before they could take much more than a few chairs and tables. Oh, and they ate all the edible house plants in the process. The tougher ones required cooking.”

Starswirl took a close look at his student. “Lad, I can count your ribs!“ He was appalled, and the youngster flushed in embarrassment. He resolved to speak about this with the Princesses. They needed to know just how bad things had become. This gave him an inspiration. “Have you been able to locate those spells I tasked you with all before my departure?”

“Yes, Maestro. They are documented in this notebook.” Clover extracted the document from his saddle bag. “Are they really so important?”

“Lad, I do not exaggerate when I tell you that these spells hold the key to the survival of two nations!” Starswirl opened the handwritten notebook and studied it quickly. “Excellent work! But I must meet the unicorns who produced these spells. Would you be able to bring me to them?”

Clover scratched behind one ear. “I suppose they must all be with the unicorn tribe gathered near Mount Canterlot. It shouldn’t be difficult to find them. As the groups tend to move about, we will likely have to pass through some earth pony and pegasi enclaves on the way. There won’t be any trouble, as long as we keep our noses down and don’t react to any provocations.”

Starswirl sighed. “So thin is the veneer upon society.” He gave the youngster a reassuring smile. “Fret not, lad! The Princess has plans to fill the breach dividing Equestrians. Have faith in her good judgement. Let us then go without further delay.”

Clover’s expression did not improve. “What’s the matter, Clover? You still seem troubled.”

The young unicorn glanced down. “I... I think I saw too much in our meeting with the Princesses. Starswirl, if I am not mistaken, I have seen a quarrel between them. Ordinary ponies should not be privy to this, and I must admit... I am afraid.”

“Listen to me, Clover. Those who rule must always try to keep a distance with their subjects in order to protect the dignity of their office. But they are nevertheless, ponies as well as rulers, for good or ill. In my life I have had much traffic with rulers, not all of it happy. Perhaps I am too at ease with them, and they in turn with me. In these years discretion has served me well, and though frightening, such a moment is an opportunity for you to prove that you can be trusted with the very thing most important to them: their privacy. Be discrete about such moments, when they occur, and above all never discuss the subject unless they do first.”

Clover’s expression did seem to relax. The whole meeting with the sisters must have given the poor colt quite a scare! thought Starswirl. He levitated a quill, paper, and ink from a drawer, but was prevented from writing when the quill refused to descend into the ink bottle. Looking inside he saw that the ink had frozen solid.

“Maestro, please allow me.” Clover’s horn and the ink bottle glowed a moment. “Several unicorns have come up with warming spells, which are being generally shared.” The glowing stopped. Clover wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. “As you can imagine, even simple heating spells require quite a lot of energy. We take turns in the enclave.”

Starswirl dipped his quill in the ink and this time was rewarded with a black drop clinging to its nib. He wrote quickly, rolled up the scroll and sprinkled some powder on it from another jar in his desk. The scroll was consumed in a flash of green fire. “I have advised Princess Celestia of our intent. Has your ability to teleport improved of late?”

Clover beamed at his teacher and raised a forehoof in the air between them. “Let’s see.” Starswirl raised an eyebrow and placed a hoof on his student’s. There was a flash and they were gone.


They reappeared in a valley, with Mount Canterlot looming on their right. “Precisely on target, Maestro. Do you wish to count your hooves?”

Starswirl looked around and saw that they were essentially surrounded with earth ponies. Some immediately came over to investigate the sudden appearance. A large ruby-red pony with a rust colored mane spoke to them first. “Why have you two unicorns appeared in our enclave? What are your names, and what is your intent?”

“I am Clover and this is Starswirl. We just teleported here from Everfree Castle and did not mean to offend anypony. When we left earlier today this location was between encampments. We’ll go now, by your leave.”

“Well this area is earth pony territory now. Please leave immediately, and don’t return unless you’re invited. Is that understood, unicorns?”

“Yes, of course,” offered Starswirl. As they were leaving the enclave, he noticed several earth ponies trotting in circular patches in the snow. The patches were undeniably greenish brown under the snow.
“Excuse me, but what are these ponies doing?” he asked of the ruby-red pony.

The stallion considered for a moment, then decided the question had been put politely enough. “They’re growing lichens. It’s the only crop that will grow under the snow cover. It’s very arduous, and does not produce much, but it’s all we can do until the weather warms up.”

They had reached the edge of the earth pony enclave. Beyond was an empty space a few pony-lengths wide, followed by a large crowd of pegasi, many of them looking very gaunt.

“The pegasi look even more starved than the earth ponies, Clover.”

“Yes, the pegasi have had a very hard time adjusting to their new circumstance: the snow clouds are too cold to live on, so they have to live on the ground, and they have to fly so far for forage that they can go for days without a meal.”

Starswirl approached the edge of the crowd and noticed groups of pegasi lying together in closely packed groups, while one of two of members of each flew in circles around them. One member of the closest group arose and approached them, a pink coloured mare.

“Hey you two, that’s close enough!”

“Hello!” said Starswirl in response. “Would you mind telling us why you have pegasi flying around each group?”

The mare looked at him in anger. “Because that’s the only way we have to keep out the cold. It creates a mass of still air around the groups so everypony inside can share their body warmth. I gotta go back because it’s my turn next. Don’t enter pegasi territory. About one hundred and fifty yards down the no-pony’s land you’ll find the unicorn enclosure. Get there quickly if you know what’s good for you.” With that the pegasus returned to her group.

Starswirl stared at the retreating mare, with a somewhat distracted gaze.

"Maestro, you have that look on your face," said Clover.

"What look?" replied Starswirl. Only his lips moved.

Clover sighed. "The look you get when you're sitting on an idea and nothing will push you off of it."

"Nonsense, lad. I'm standing, not sitting." He turned and smiled at Clover. "But I do have an idea!" He suddenly trotted off after the pegasus mare. "You! The pink pegasus. Could I have just a moment of your time?" She stopped suddenly, turned and flew back, hovering inches above the unicorn pair and looking very irate.

“I thought I told you to stay away from our enclave, unicorn.” Several other pegasi broke from the group, flying in to investigate. In a moment Clover and Starswirl were in the middle of an angry looking circle.

“You certainly did,” replied Starswirl, “but I could not help reflecting on what you said. Tell me, would you be interested in bringing a bit of warmth and food to your group? It wouldn’t be much, but it’s certainly more than nothing.” Many of the pegasi looked to be in very sorry shape, just skin and bones, several of them shivering visibly. They hadn’t even flown but rather had trotted over to join the circle.

The mare looked at some of her companions, those who were obviously in dire straits. She visibly bit back on her anger. “I’m listening, unicorn. But if you have come here to waste our time and energy...” Her face still held a scowl, but her eyes spoke of desperation.

“In my youth I learned a technique to help ponies survive the longest, bitterest winter,” said Starswirl. He looked around. “It would appear nopony here knows how to build a three-house.”

“A tree-house?!” the mare’s complexion darkened.

“No, a three-house. But, to build one we need at least one pony from each tribe. He pointed back in the direction from which he and Clover had arrived. “I met up with a nice earth pony a few minutes ago. Would you mind terribly waiting for a minute and I’ll go fetch him?”

The pegasus mare looked at him as if he had gone crazy.

“Dear lady, many of your companions are in dire need. I would not jest with you, nor ever risk bringing them harm. I swear.” Starswirl was very earnest. He gave the mare a small smile. “And you can hold my student hostage until my return!”

Clover tried not to panic. “He is quite trustworthy... usually.” He swallowed and tried not to look any of the hostile pegasi directly in the eye.

Starswirl returned a moment later with the earth pony they had spoken to earlier. “This is Peach Pitt.” He introduced the stallion. “I am Starswirl and you are...?” He gazed expectantly at the pink pegasus.

“Seraph,” she answered reluctantly.

“Excellent. Miss Seraph and Mr. Pitt. This is how we build a three-house. A pegasus creates a circular wind wall, capped at the top. Inside, the unicorn uses a heating spell to raise the temperature and keep it above freezing. The earth pony goes about and encourages the lichens and grasses to grow. This way all three get food, warmth and shelter. This is why it is called a three-house. Of course usually it works better if there are at least three ponies of each tribe so they can take shifts, which technically would be a nine-house, but we just call it a three-house anyway.”

The circle of faces looked at him as if he was a pony gone mad.

Seraph moved in close and spoke in a low voice so only he could hear. “Why? Why do you come and give us false hope just to make a sick joke?” Her previous bravado had left her. She seemed near to tears.

“I am quite serious, Miss Seraph. The only thing you risk losing is a few minutes of your time. Is that too much to ask to give them hope?” He looked to the ring of desperate faces around them. When she didn’t reply he invited her and the earth pony to follow him, which they did in silence. He led them a few pony lengths away from the group.

“We will start with a small three-house so that the effects can be visible in a shorter time. Seraph, can you build your wall so as to have a diameter three times my length and to come together at twice my height?”

“Yes. This had better work, Starswirl. We have so little reserves left.” She began flying in a tight circle around the unicorn and the earth pony.

“Now, Mr. Pitt. Please give me a moment, and then begin inviting the growing things of the meadow to spring forth from under the snow as I make it melt.”

Peach Pitt raised a skeptical eyebrow. Nevertheless he answered: “Ayup.”

Starswirl’s horn glowed first dimly, and then brighter and brighter. In a few moments its glow was so bright that it was painful to look at. Peach Pitt began pacing around in the circle, concentrating on the snow which had already turned to mush. In less than a minute patches of moss and grass were exposed. The earth pony went to one larger patch. He whispered encouragements to the exposed plant life, which quickly began to grow at an exponential rate.

Outside the circle, the pegasi who had previously surrounded Clover and Starswirl were looking at the exposed greenery in awe and and in longing. Other pegasi and even some earth ponies nearby galloped up when they heard the word “food” exclaimed by members of the growing throng.

Seraph, still flying around Starswirl and Peach Pitt could not believe her eyes. “Dust Devil, take over for me”, she shouted to one of the pegasi, who immediately took her place.

The crowd parted and she entered the space of the three-house. There were patches of grass everywhere, and even a few flowers had pushed their fragrant blooms above the grass. She walked up to Starswirl, visibly sweating with effort.

“Have a mouthful, Seraph. You’ve earned it,” said Starswirl.

“Those who need it most will eat first,” she said. Then she went to him and enfolded him in a hug. “Thank you, Starswirl. We were... some of us, well... How can we ever thank you?”

“Dear Seraph, I have already thanks enough. But promise me one thing, that you will share freely what I have shown you with all ponies, no matter their tribe. Tell as many as you can about the three-house, and allow others to visit here and learn. I will send unicorns here so more three-houses can be built. Will you do that for me?” He felt her nod.

Seraph took a step back. She looked at the eager, hungry muzzles surrounding them. “Okay, we’ve got work to do. Midnight Rain, set up a triage and get the weakest ponies here first for a few mouthfuls. We’ll let in two ponies at a time. Each pony gets one minute to graze, then they have to leave.” She looked at Peach Pitt and Starswirl. “Any pony contributing to a three-house will of course be able to eat at least one square meal a day.”

A round of cheers went up at the mention of meals. Already some of the pegasi and earth ponies were starting to team up.

“Clover!” called Starswirl. His student trotted over, awe still written all over his face. “Quickly now, lad. Go fetch some of your closest unicorn colleagues, those who are relatively powerful, and whom you can trust to learn and spread the three-house technique quickly. Time is short, but we may still avert a disaster.”

“Yes, Maestro! Immediately!” He disappeared, choosing to teleport in his haste.

Where does that lad get all the energy? he thought. He locked his legs in place, reserving his own considerable energies to making this three-house a success and an inspiration.


An hour later Clover and Starswirl were walking slowly to the unicorn enclave. Already several other three-houses had been assembled, and he expected the idea to spread like wildfire over the next few days.

“But Maestro, why did you never tell me about this three-house idea before?” asked Clover.

“Mostly because I only thought of it an hour ago,” replied Starswirl with a smirk and a wink.

“WHAT! You risked an untried idea on a mob of starving hippocidal pegasi? If it hadn’t worked they would have stomped us into the very ground!”

Seeing the expression on Clover’s muzzle made Starswirl chuckle. “But it did work, and those ponies needed hope even more than they needed food.” He grew serious. “I’m under no illusion that most other unicorns will be able to do a full melt like I did, but the combination of the insulating wind and the growing power of earth ponies should make it work even for less magically potent ponies, don’t you agree?”

Clover gazed at his teacher ruefully. “I guess so. But then couldn’t you have chosen a better sounding name than three-house?”

“You might have noticed I was under a certain degree of pressure, lad. But if you think of a better name I’ll change it officially. Oh, that reminds me,” said Starswirl, “we need to add a new chapter to our book of magic: Combinational Magic - which integrates unicorn magic with that of pegasi and earth ponies."

“But Maestro. We don’t have such spells, er, other than the three-house, that is.”

“Well then, we’ll just have to invent some now, won’t we? Perhaps the Princesses might have some suggestions. Let’s see if we can think some up now.”

The two eagerly and happily discussed the possibilities on the way to the unicorn enclave.


The Unicorn King lay in his bed, waiting for his end to come. It would not be long now, he felt it in his bones. He still had a small staff to tend to his needs. Everypony else had left Everfree for the warmer climes near Mount Canterlot.

At the very least, he had lived to see his dream realized: the ascendancy of the Unicorn Tribe over those other lesser ponies. A few more months would seal the new order. The earth ponies were led by an imbecile and incapable of any organized response. The pegasi were starving and would soon agree to anything in exchange for food and shelter, and Celestia and Luna were still nowhere to be found. Things could not have been going better.

There was a flash, and Princess Luna stood next to his bed. Cold anger bit into his heart. As was inevitable, they had returned. He should have expected as much.

“I did not recall inviting you here, Princess Luna. How rude of you to barge in on a dying old stallion.”

“I came to let you know of our return, Unicorn King. And to tell you that we shall be reversing some of the policy changes made in our absence.”

“That saddens me. I cannot help but think that things had improved in the interval.” He coughed and hacked for a moment.

“Your health fails you. Perhaps you have something on your conscience, King.”

“Enough!” the shout brought yet another hacking fit.

“I came to ask you why you are doing this. Why are you setting pony against pony?”

“I seek only to restore the natural order of things, nothing more,” said the King.

“You consider having the unicorn tribe rule over the two others as natural?” Luna’s ears bent to the back of her head, as if trying to escape her words.

“Yes, the natural order.” He coughed. “Tell me, who among ponies educates their foals? Who has raised ponykind from the mud with our magic? Who makes all the finest and most beautiful artifacts of Equestria? Who created the craft guilds, and who creates arts that are the summit our civilization?” He stopped, his breath shallow and quick. “You know... as well as I... that unicorns have... done all of these. It is our... manifest destiny... to rule over those lesser ponies. And they will be... the better for our rule. Soon...” the King coughed again, “... soon, the unicorn tribe’s place... as the aristocracy of ponies... shall be enshrined, and there is nothing... you and your...” more coughing, “... sister can do about it.”

“Yes, there is. The ponies of Equestria will be brought back to the path of harmony, King. You do not know them the way I and my sister do, we who have been with them since the beginning of things. You do not know the pegasi. You do not see their resolve and the courage that runs swift in their veins. Nor have you any idea of the power of earth ponies, whose will moves mountains and shapes the very land itself. And most of all, you do not even know the unicorns of your own tribe. I know them. They will not betray and enslave their fellow ponies. Mark my words!”

The unicorn King felt pain in his barrel. “Leave! Leave now!” cough, “You disturb my rest.”

Luna stared of the frail old unicorn for a moment. “As you wish, but I will be back soon to speak with your daughter.”

“Don’t you dare... put your hooves on her! Leave her... out of this, do you hear? Or I will find... a way to show you... my wrath.” His voice was becoming weaker by the moment. “I will... I swear it....” his voice dropped to a whisper.

In her long life Luna had had her fill of threats. Without a word she turned and left.

The Unicorn King tried to call out and curse Luna and Celestia, but his voice had left him. Mute, the fierce stallion, who had by force of his own personality raised the lot of unicorns to dominance over the other tribes, felt his heart stop beating. He had time for one last spell. His eyes closed and he expired.

From his bed a dark mist arose, leaving the now useless corpse to pursue the departing Princess.

In the garden of Everfree Castle, if anypony had been there to listen, they would have heard sinister, mocking laughter coming from a statue.


View Online

Renaissance Pony

by Dafaddah

Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Edited by SecondLaw and Microshazm (again, they rock!)

Chapter Eight - Amniomorphic


“Halt, who goes there?” Two massive stallions in guard uniform blocked the entrance to the unicorn enclave as Clover and Starswirl approached.

Clover replied: “Clover and Starswirl, both unicorns as I am sure you can discern.” The guards didn’t budge. Clover rolled his eyes. “Well, are you going to let us pass, or do I have to call Princess Platinum to come confirm it if you will not believe your own eyes?”

“Sorry, sir! It’s protocol, sir!” replied the guard on the right. “You may pass.” He moved aside and the two scholars entered the enclave proper.

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. “And what is this all about?” he asked, noting the many unicorn guards patrolling the perimeter of the enclave.

Clover’s expression was grim. “The Unicorn King wishes to discourage ordinary unicorns from fraternizing with other ponies, so he has instructed the guards to make entering and leaving the enclave as unpleasant as possible. I’m lucky to have good friends who would put up with it for a good cause, but if not for the guards I might have gotten twice as many to follow me to build three-houses,”

They walked briskly through the area, which was dotted with tents and various habitations, including lean-tos, small houses, and even a few respectable mansions. Clover noticed Starswirl staring at the larger edifices. “It’s amazing what some of the more powerful unicorns were able to bring with them when we left Everfree. Some are already calling this shanty town Canterlot city.”

“Tsk,” replied Starswirl. “And all of this in plain sight of the freezing pegasi and earth ponies.”

Clover sighed. “I tried to convince them to provide shelter for the other tribes, but the King decreed that no unicorn was to do so, as it would be a tacit admission of shared ownership of this area.”

Starswirl looked at the snow heaped high between the habitations, and the ponies circulating in the muddy lanes between them. “And yet the unicorns seem not to have suffered so much from starvation.”

“There are some who can do permanent transformation spells, turning inedible vegetable matter into digestible food. Since we can heat ourselves without firewood, the unicorn tribe has been reserving its firewood as an emergency food supply. But it too is fast running out. Soon enough we’ll all look like those pegasi did today. Your wonderful invention of three-houses came not a minute too soon.” Clover looked sadly at the elaborate buildings around them.

“Even if you cannot trust the Unicorn King, you can trust hunger to motivate ponies to do the right thing. After all, amongst the common folk politics begin after breakfast, lad!” replied Starswirl.

A group of four young unicorns approached. A pretty pale blue mare with a blond mane smiled and nodded briefly to Clover and his teacher. “Well met, Clover. And this must be your teacher, the mysterious Starswirl.”

“Oh, Hydrangea... it’s nice to see you again. And your brothers also.” He nodded to the new arrivals. “Actually, we’re on our way to see the Star and Dawn clans, do you know where we might find them?”

The mare smiled at Clover speculatively. “And why is a handsome and unattached young stallion seeking the Star clan?” Clover blushed beet red and looked down, eliciting a chuckle from Starswirl. Hydrangea pointed with a dainty hoof. “The Star clan owns the third mansion in that direction. I have no idea where the Dawn clan is located.” Her smile became warmer. “My brothers and I are on our way to the pegasi enclave. We wish to find other ponies with which to set up a three-house of our own. In these times we have so few worthy projects to occupy our days. This is one all ponies should support. Perhaps you'll come visit us?” she said with a wink.

Clover nodded and swallowed visibly. "Yes... I'll do that... uh, see you later... and thanks!"

Starswirl nodded to the quartet of young unicorns. “I wish you and your brothers the best of luck, Miss Hydrangea," said Starswirl. "While you’re in the Pegasi enclave look up a mare called Seraph. She might be able to name some reliable pegasi to join you. The same with an earth pony named Peach Pitt."

“Thank you, Starswirl, and Clover.” The mare and her brothers departed at a trot.

Clover was still blushing as he watched them disappear between the habitations.

“Well, she certainly seems like a nice filly!” said Starswirl with a wink.

“Yes, she is isn’t she?” said Clover, still staring in the direction she had disappeared. He gave a sudden start, and his smile turned sheepish.

“Ha, ha! You had better keep a close eye on that mare, lad. I think she has plans for you!” With a spring in his step he took off towards the mansion Hydrangea had pointed out.

Clover had thought he couldn’t blush any harder. He discovered he was wrong, and hurried after his teacher.


“In the last hour over one hundred unicorns have left the enclave, your majesty,” reported the Captain of the Unicorn Guard to Princess Platinum. “Several of them were overheard talking about tree-houses, for some reason.”

The princess was puzzled, but strange as this was, she had more weighty matters to occupy her attention: preparations for the upcoming conclave of the tribes. “Have the delegations from the pegasi and earth ponies arrived?”

“Yes, majesty. They’ve been waiting in the anteroom for almost an hour, as per your instructions.”

“Good! They should have gotten the message by now. Please let them in, Captain.”

“Yes, majesty.” He saluted and left the room. A moment later she heard the hoofbeats of the delegates. They strode forward together and bowed to the princess.

“Welcome Smart Cookie and Private Pansy. I regret that since my assistant Clover is mysteriously absent, I am obliged to finalize these arrangements myself. As to the floor space...”

“Yor ain’t gettin’ half the space for the unicorn delegation. Forget it,” interrupted Smart Cookie. “We is already usin’ part of the caves as an ‘ospital for sick-uns and frostbit earth ponies, and we ain’t movin’ them out!”

“The same goes for we pegasi,” said Private Pansy. “We’ve got the very old and very young residing in the caves. Why should we move them out when you unicorns have warm houses right outside?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffed Princess Platinum. “The earth ponies cannot grow anything in the caves, and why do the pegasi need so much floor space, you can fly can’t you?” She looked at the two with disdain. “And how can we hold a conference of the tribes with foals, sick ponies and old fools bumbling about? Our delegation is largest because we need many unicorns just warm the place up. Our proposal for a 50/25/25 split for space is more than generous.”

“That’s not acceptable ta we earth ponies, especially as the unicorns ain’t even in the cave now, and we ain’t givin’ up what's ours,” said Smart Cookie.

“Nor will the pegasi,” agreed Private Pansy.

“That is a pity. Let me remind you that if you earth ponies want unicorn finished goods to help set up your farms in the spring you will need to show adequate respect to our tribe. And the same goes to the pegasi if you ever wish to realize your Cloudsdale project,” said the princess. She paused to let her statements sink in. “But... the unicorn tribe is ready to be generous. We will accept a one third each split between the three tribes, in the interest of harmony.” She smiled. How easily they had fallen into her trap!

“But we’ll have to move some of the most vulnerable out into the cold!” objected the pegasus.

“Same fer us!” objected the earth pony.

“Then we are agreed!” said the princess. “This is an equitable compromise.” She looked at the two coldly. Their tribes were absolute foals to have sent these dolts to such an important negotiation. They deserved what they got, and she felt no shame in it... almost. “Do we have anything further to discuss?” she arched an eyebrow.

Her two guests looked at each other in consternation.

“I guess not,” she replied for them. “I will see you at the conference tomorrow. Please make sure your leaders are fully aware of our agreement and the cave is prepared for our arrival. Good day to you.”

The pegasus and the earth pony looked at each other again, sighed, bowed and departed.


Clover and Starswirl knocked on the ornate door. As far as mansions went this was one of the biggest and finest in the newly minted city. An old servant in livery answered the door. “Greetings. Are you visitors, or seeking... “ he looked at the two stallions dubiously , “... assistance in having a foal?”

“Oh, visitors, most assuredly,” replied Clover somewhat too quickly. He immediately regained his recent blushed complexion.

Starswirl smiled. “Indeed, please tell the head of the Star clan that Clover, assistant to Princess Platinum, and Starswirl, chief magician for their royal highnesses Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, are here for an important discussion.”

“Please wait one moment. I will see if Mistress Onuava is receiving.” The old unicorn gestured for them to sit on the benches lining both sides of the rather large entranceway.

“They must get quite a number of visitors to have so much waiting space,” remarked Starswirl as they sat. “And I’m beginning to think that redish-green colour suits you quite well.”

Clover looked to the ceiling and sighed, but otherwise chose not to respond to his teacher’s gentle ribbing. This set Starswirl to chuckling again.

The servant re-appeared and bowed. “The mistress will see you now.” He retreated into the mansion with the two mages following closely behind. They followed him down a short corridor and were ushered into a large and rather comfortably appointed office. Behind a huge oaken desk sat a very old unicorn mare, with a white mane and a pale yellow coat. To her right sat a young mare, golden brown in both coat and mane. The elder mare rose slowly.

“So these are the famous scholars of magic, Starswirl and Clover.” She indicated the younger mare. “This is my grand-daughter Aknu. Please have a seat.”

The two stallions did as they were bid. “Greetings, Mistress Onuava, Miss Aknu.” Starswirl scanned his surroundings. “You have quite a beautiful office. Business must be very good indeed.”

“We do adequately. Many ponies greatly desire progeny and are willing to undergo significant expense in order to have a foal of their own,” replied the Mistress nonchalantly.

“However, I imagine there has been somewhat of a downturn in business of late, what with the unseasonable weather and food shortages.” Starswirl said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Indeed. Although we are blessed in having a bit more put away for a rainy day than some,” answered the old mare.

Starswirl gazed directly into her eyes. “However, if this situation continues, the prospects for the coming years might be grim indeed, don’t you agree?”

Mistress Onuava gave Starswirl a cold stare. “At my age I have short patience with doomsayers, sir. Please state your business, for as much as we enjoy your company our own business awaits.”

“What would you say to the Star clan being appointed the Royal Equestrian Order of Nurses, of being given the exclusive charter for midwifery for all ponies in Equestria, and of having a guaranteed annual income equal to that of your last year before this calamity befell Equestria? And to have this guarantee for, let us say, one hundred years.”

Aknu, next to her grand-mother became very still, with only her eyes betraying her level of agitation. Onuava, on the other hand was a cooler customer by far. “And what would the Star clan need to give up in order to receive this income?”

“Only the full pony fertility spells your clan have developed over the last two hundred years. My student has attested that they are quite effective indeed,” replied Starswirl with a nod to Clover.

The old mare rose slowly to lean over her desk. “Only that? One hundred years of prosperity for the very heart and future of the Star clan? Please leave this office now!” Her grand-daughter grabbed her foreleg and whispered intently into her ear, which she flicked back in annoyance.

“Oh, but mistress, you have not heard what else we will give you,” said Starswirl.

The ear came back up. “Speak, before I have you thrown out for wasting our time.”

“We will give you back many spells. Spells that will work equally well on all ponies, and that the Star clan will have in exclusivity for two hundred years. Fertility spells, foalbirth spells, spells to protect foals from disease and to heal them when they get sick. Spells that all ponies will receive at birth. ALL ponies. Have I made myself clear?”

The mistress sat slowly down. She looked at Starswirl for a long moment. It was evident to Starswirl she was tallying the value of his proposal against the clan’s current prospects. “Aknu, please take out your quill and ink. Sir Starswirl, let us draw up the details of our agreement now, before I come to my senses.”

“Clover, I would be much obliged if you could do the same for me,”said Starswirl. He smiled at his student.

“Of course, Maestro.” said Clover, smiling back in resigned confusion.


Princess Luna was exiting the bedchamber of the ailing Unicorn King when she froze mid-stride. She felt his aura fade and die. She started to turn back, but then halted again, in shock and in shame. He was dying, she thought to herself. You knew this, and still you went and denied him peace in his final moments. Why did you do this Luna? What could you hope to gain by tormenting him? You could have waited to see his daughter, but you didn’t. Why?

Luna faced the cold truth about herself in her mind’s eye, and judged herself wanting. I was angry, and disappointed, and heartbroken. I who am the cool one, the logical one. I who am the sister who does those things needful that Celestia cannot bring herself to do. She took a shuddering breath and hid her face in her hooves.

I who have failed thrice today to do as I should. I who have failed the ponies I love. What have I become?

She wept in shame and never noticed the dark cloud as it approached her from behind. Slowly, without hurry, it was absorbed into her heaving body.

A statue in the abandoned garden of Everfree Castle stopped laughing. It had been there for many hundreds of years. It had learned patience. Now it waited in expectation.


Clover and Starswirl approached the edge of the unicorn enclave. Here there were none of the fine mansions or houses, only a few grimy tents and dilapidated shacks. Many of the unicorns about wore hoods or otherwise disguised their features. Some stared at the scholars in speculation, some departed immediately seeing strangers about. It all made Clover very nervous.

“Not the most savoury part of the enclave, is it?” remarked Starswirl.

“I hadn’t expected this, Maestro,” said Clover rather quietly. He watched in alarm as the elder mage approached a disreputable looking shop selling cloaks and hoods and dropped a silver bit on the counter before the merchant.

“My good Stallion. Could you kindly point me and my companion to the abode of the Dawn clan?”

The stallion took the bit and favoured the two with a gap toothed smile. “I’m sure to recall it, if I try hard enough...” He waited expectantly.

Another two bits fell on the table. “And there’s three more waiting when we get to our destination.”

The gap-toothed stallion greedily scooped up the two additional bits, and only noticed a moment later the three daggers doing a complex spinning ballet in the air in front of him, which then all fell points down on his table with a thunk, one blade on either side of his forelegs, the third precisely in between and almost touching his nose.

“I’m sure we won’t have any trouble along the way, will we?” said Starswirl with a smile. The three daggers vanished.

The stallion hurriedly arose and beckoned them to follow. Clover raised an eyebrow at his mentor. “I have lived in the artists’ quarters of Florence, Milan and Rome. I know how to keep myself unmolested in the less savoury parts of town.” Clover kept silent, even though he wondered if those strange names were cities of the foreign lands in which Starswirl grew up.

They were led in short order to a very dirty but still very large tent. From inside came strange animal noises. Two excessively burly unicorns guarded the entrance, something about them was different, but Clover could not quite figure out what it was.

“I am Starswirl, chief magician for their royal highnesses Celestia and Luna. This is Clover, my student. We wish see the head of the Dawn clan on a potential commercial venture.”

“Let them in,” said a male sounding voice from inside the tent. The curtains over the entrance parted and the two scholars advanced into the dark interior. It took a moment for their eyes to adjust. In a moment they could see that they were in a small enclosure walled off with more curtains. On the floor was a threadbare rug with a few moth-eaten cushions. Sitting on one of them was an old stallion, whip-cord thin, with a faded orange coat and a mane of pure white.

“Welcome,” he said. “Please have a seat.” He waited patiently as they sat. A young filly, grey with a chestnut mane and equally thin, entered and sat by the old stallion. “I am Zinch, Master of the Dawn clan. What brings a pair of royal scholars to my humble establishment?” His smile could only be described as greedy.

“I will start by assuring you that everything we discuss here is entirely between us. No other ponies will be involved and we will not disclose our business dealings to any other party. I imagine that, given your line of work, you find this satisfactory,” said Starswirl. Master Zinch nodded. “Good! Then let us proceed. We have heard much of your work, here. But it is so hard to separate rumour from fact. I need to know for sure, do you have a spell that allows the creation of perfect chimeras?”

“Perhaps it might be better to show you. Oya dear. Please go fetch Minerva,” said Zinch. The filly jumped up and dashed through the curtains. She returned a moment later levitating a small birdcage before her. In it was a snake with wings. Noticing the two unicorns staring intently at it, it fluttered into the air, where it hovered and hissed at them.

Starswirl approached to get a better look. He turned to Clover. “Well lad, have you seen its like before?”

“No Maestro. Such a creature has never been seen before.” He turned to Master Zinch. “What is it?”

Whereas before the old stallion had seemed cold as the the snows outside, at the sight of the small creature his face lit up like the sun itself. “Minerva is my masterpiece. She is a combination of serpent and bird.” His horn glowed and a small drawer extend from the base of the birdcage. From it emerged a lone cricket, glowing purple as it levitated in the air before the cage. Immediately the animal within approached, opened it mouth and began to sing a most beautiful song.

Zinch smiled in satisfaction as the visitor’s jaws dropped at the ethereal melody produced by the snake. He let the snake sing for a minute longer and then flicked the cricket into the cage. There was a sudden sound of wing beats, and snake had the large insect in its mouth. It began the slow process of ingestion as the ponies looked away.

“Very impressive,” said Starswirl. “Tell me, how do you select which traits of the parents are expressed in the offspring? Most of your... product... is destined to fighting rings. It would not be very efficient if you had to produce very many to only obtain one animal with the desired characteristics. I would not want a bird with no legs instead of a snake with wings.”

“These two are not so far apart as you might think,” replied Zinch. “However, my clan has over many years evolved spells that make it possible to provoke the expression of certain traits and discourage that of others. Mind you, the problem is that even so, we must do many tries before we find a combination of traits that is viable. The more similar the animals, the easier this is, and the more different the harder it is. My Minerva is priceless, isn’t she?”

“Yes indeed,” said Starswirl. But we are not here for Minerva, Master Zinch. No, this is a quite different business deal we offer. We offer you an income many times what you have in this shady business. A way to become a legitimate clan with a royal charter for the production of livestock that will benefit all Equestria. We offer you and your family a way out of the shadows.”

“Those are very pretty words for ragged ears, but then what is the Dawn clan’s side of this agreement?”

“What we ask in return is that you disclose your chimera creation and trait selection spells to myself and my student. They will not be disclosed elsewhere. But we are going to create some new spells based on yours and those of others that will be used to help create a new Equestria. Did I mention the charter will be granted for a duration of two hundred years?”

Master Zinch’s expression had not changed, but there was an obvious tremor in his limbs as he arose. Oya jumped up to help her clan leader. “Wait here. I must confer with my family. My daughter Oya will bring you tea. It is all we can offer guests in these hard times.” He left assisted by his daughter.

She returned minutes later, levitating a tea service. “I’m afraid we have no milk and sugar, but the tea is a family recipe of which we are very proud.” She poured three cups, waited as Clover and Starswirl each took a cup. She took the remaining cup and sipped. The two stallions did as well.

“I can see you’re not foals,” she said. “Had you drunk first I would have advised my father to forget this deal.” She smiled and took another sip from the cup. “What you offer is my father’s dream. To have our clan become engaged in a legitimate business, and to walk in the sun with all the other unicorn clans. Why should we trust you?”

“You may not disclose this to anypony, but the Royal Princesses have returned. Tomorrow I will come to fetch your father and he will meet with the Princesses. Then I am sure he will have no doubts. Until then we should document our agreement to be sure there are no last minute misunderstandings.”

Oya put down her teacup. “I agree. Let’s.” She pulled aside a curtain and levitated in a writing stand with all the necessaries. Clover put down his teacup and took out his own writing implements.


Clover and Starswirl were walking briskly back towards the center of the unicorn enclave.

"So that’s why you asked me to research these spells," said Clover. "This is absolutely brilliant, Maestro! The Dawn clan spells allow a single pony to carry the heritages all all three tribes. The Star clan spells ensure that such a mixed tribe foal can grow safely in its mother’s womb. All ponies will be able to interbreed. You are in effect turning the tribes into nothing more than professional associations! So what will you call this spell that will make it possible for a mare of any tribe to safely give birth to foal of any tribe, and did I tell you this was simply brilliant?" He paused and looked at his teacher in awe.

"Breathe once in awhile, lad," said Starswirl with a laugh. "I favour the name amniomorphic as essentially it controls the shape of ponies in the womb.”

Clover seemed lost in thought for a moment. "I do have one question though. Why have the spell restrict the expression of features to only one of the three usual pony types. Why not have all ponies become alicorns?"

"When I discussed this with Princess Celestia and she provided some very interesting information. It would appears that most alicorns are magically quite unstable. Either they are so powerful as to be a mortal danger to all those around them, or become much weaker in magic than any member of a single tribe. Having a large number of them in the general population would not likely be conducive to harmony. She also told me that when Equestria was created, the three tribes were created along with it and Equestria itself would become imbalanced without a sufficient number of each type of pony present. One of the main functions of the amniomorphic spell will be to maintain this balance over the entire pony population."

"Are you sure this will work?"

"Nothing is certain, lad. But we have to try. Speaking of which I have to get back to Everfree Castle. I have some business with the princesses before the meeting tomorrow," said Starswirl.

"Just as well, we have arrived at the unicorn tribe headquarters." Clover motioned towards the most elaborate building Starswirl had seen in the enclave. "I had better go take my medicine for having gone absent the day before the big conference."

Starswirl placed a hoof on his shoulder. "Clover, before I go, I must tell you something. You were very clever indeed during our absence. What we have achieved today would not have been possible without your diligence for all these months. This has not gone unnoticed and unappreciated, not by me and not by the royal Princesses. We all thank you lad."

"Thank you, Maestro," said Clover, pleased but embarrassed at the praise.

"And you should go see how Miss Hydrangea is progressing with her three-house. I think she likes you, maybe even as much as you like her! Farewell!"

Clover blushed bright red again and had raised a hoof to make a point when Starswirl laughed, winked and teleported away with a loud pop. Farewell? How odd! thought Clover, as if we won’t be seeing each other a few hours hence. He sighed and approached the unicorn headquarters.

He climbed the steps with a certain degree of trepidation. He had a feeling Princess Platinum had most certainly noticed his absence and that she would most certainly not appreciate it. Time to take my lumps. He swallowed and opened the door... only to crash head-on into the Captain of the Unicorn Guard. Clover ended up on his back, mere inches away from the edge of the steps he had just climbed, with the Captain sprawled over him in a most intimate fashion.

"If you're waiting for me to blush, Captain, you'll have a long wait. I've already had my full quota of embarrassment for the day, thank you!" said Clover, as the much larger stallion extricated himself from the supine scholar.

"Sir! Excuse me, but I have been looking for you everywhere!" cried the Captain. The expression on his face was most upset.

However it seems I have not yet exceeded my quota of bad news, thought Clover. "What is the matter, Captain?" he asked, finally able to get up and dust off his coat.

“It’s the Unicorn King, sir. I’m...” He looked away and his ears drooped low. “I have the sad duty to inform you that his majesty, the Unicorn King, has passed away.”

“Oh.” Clover was not the type of pony who revelled in another pony’s death. In the case of the Unicorn King, to his shame, he was almost glad. But then he thought of Princess Platinum. Poor filly! Her beloved father is dead. “Has the princess been informed?”

“Not yet sir. As her assistant, we thought it best you be the one to deliver the sad news.”

“Oh,” said Clover again. He nodded to the Captain, took a deep breath, and strode inside.

The Colony

View Online

Renaissance Pony

by Dafaddah

Based on the The Conversion Bureau by Blaze, as well as other related stories by Chatoyance, Midnightshadow and creative motivation by Krass McWriter

Edited by SecondLaw and Microshazm (again, they rock!)

Medical assistance from Lucefudu

Chapter 9 - The Colony


Starswirl the Bearded was using magic to hoe a row in the colony’s little garden plot. The sun provided a pleasant warmth on his withers as he did a little weeding. There was abundant forage and grazing in this green land far from Equestria and Earth, so the garden was mainly for special treats from home, something to spice up the hardy but bland diet of the dozen inhabitants of the colony.

They were sure to have a special meal soon to celebrate Candy giving birth to her second foal. All-in-all, he felt rather helpless during such events. Aknu and Oya took care of helping the mares deliver. He was superfluous in such proceedings and knew it. Here in the garden he could at least be useful.

He adjusted his straw hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, and moved leisurely on to the next row. He was in no hurry. After all, the whole purpose of the colony was to give them time. Starswirl still thought it amazing that such a place could exist, where over four years could pass by while clocks in Equestria moved ahead by mere minutes.

After the initial rush of his becoming a pony and arriving in Equestria, time had seemed to fly by as he discovered the joys of being a unicorn magician and rediscovered those of being young again and full of vigor. Still, he had to admit that often he dearly missed so many of the simple joys of being an old man in the company of friends. Working the earth in this garden, he felt almost as if he had returned to those days at the Château de Cloux, in France. Soon, Count Melzi would come out, with Mathurine his cook in tow, to scold him once more for having forgotten the hour and delaying the midday meal. These were dear friends that he had abandoned on his deathbed, and could never meet again.

As he looked down at his pony forelegs tears began to fall. It had been a while since he had had one of his ‘human’ moments. With the royal princesses at home in Equestria, he had no-one... nopony... with whom to talk when melancholy set in. Old fool! he berated himself. This is exactly what you asked for, you have only yourself to blame! He dried his tears with a foreleg. What if one of the other should catch you like this? They all look up to you. For shame!

Starswirl gazed around him. The garden, much like the rest of this world Celestia had found for them, was so quiet. There were no other inhabitants of this land, pony, human or otherwise. The only voices to be heard, ever, were their own, and the colonists had yet to discover any animal larger than a rabbit.

He took a deep breath, then another. Just as he had regained his composure he heard the sound of galloping. A thin grey unicorn mare with a chestnut mane arrived and skidded to a halt literally inches away, standing partly in a row of green beans.

He quickly put on his ‘happy Maestro’ smile, but it faltered as he read the grim expression on her muzzle. “What is it, Oya?” he asked.

“Oh, Maestro, it’s Candy. She’s... miscarried.”

He felt a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Where is she?”

“In her cabin, Maestro,” replied the young mare.

Without further delay, they galloped back together.

They arrived just outside the cabin that was home to the family of the earth pony Candy Apple and Head Wind, her pegasus husband. The colony’s five little foals were playing together outside and stared wide-eyed as Starswirl and Oya rushed in.

Inside the simple single room dwelling Aknu attended Candy, as she did all expectant mothers in the colony. Candy slept in her bed as Windy looked on, worry drawing lines on his otherwise youthful face. He looked up at Starswirl as they entered and could not prevent a brief look of resentment from flashing across his muzzle.

“How is she?” asked Starswirl.

Aknu spoke, her eyes never leaving her charge on the bed. “As well as can be expected for such a late-term miscarriage. It was very hard on her, but she’ll recover. There were no complications and the afterbirth just expelled normally,” replied the golden brown mare.

“That is fortunate,” said Starswirl, “for her and for our mission here.” One of the recurrent nightmares he had was of somepony being hurt. They were a mere dozen in the colony, and the only recourse available would in effect separate that pony for years of subjective time. So he had a strict policy that families would either stay together or return to Equestria together. The colony was comprised of three such young families and one lonely old stallion, himself.

“Why, Maestro?” asked Candy’s husband. “Why didn’t the spell protect our... our little filly? Why?” There was anger in Windy’s voice.

“I don’t know, lad, and I wish I did.” He looked at Candy’s sleeping form. “Can she hear us?”

“No Maestro. I have given her the sleeping root, along with a healing spell to help her womb contract. She will not awaken before tomorrow morning,” said Aknu.

“Well done, child. You, Oya and I have much that we need to do. Where is the...” He could not make himself say the words with the stillborn filly’s father there in the room. He started to move towards the cradle at the foot of the bed, over which a cloth had been placed.

Windy rushed up to him, eyes wide and ears low. “What are you going to do to her... to my daughter?”

“Hush lad.” Starswirl placed a hoof on his shoulder tenderly. “We need to establish why this has happened. It is the only way to avoid such occurrences from being repeated in the future. We will treat her with dignity. Had you chosen a name yet?”

Windy’s ears drooped low and tears began to drop from his muzzle. “Zenith,” he whispered. “We were going to call her Zenith.”

“Then we will bury her, under the large tree where we hold meetings. When Candy has recovered from her ordeal, of course.” He gestured to Aknu. “Please bring Zenith. We will go to my cabin. I assume Glide is with the foals?” This was a safe assumption as Aknu’s pegasus mate was the only adult of the colony missing, along with the five young ones that had been born since their arrival.

Aknu nodded.

“Scotty, could you stay with Windy and Candy for a bit?”

“Sure, Maestro,” said Oya’s earth pony husband.

The three unicorns exited the cabin, Aknu levitating a small bundle before her.

The four cabins of the colony formed a rough square. Celestia had said they would have no need for defensive structures on this world, but placing them so made everypony feel better. Starswirl’s cabin was immediately clockwise from Candy and Windy’s. He opened the door and the two mares followed him in. He had only one table, and gestured for Aknu to place her burden there.

“Does anypony have any idea why she miscarried?” he asked. Both mares shook their heads. “Then we will have to do an examination and autopsy of the deceased foal.” Oya visibly winced, while Aknu’s color paled. “I know this is difficult, as you are both mothers now. I will do the autopsy myself. I would ask you each to examine the foal and see if you can draw any useful information.”

Aknu gulped and approached the table. Starswirl looked away as she uncovered the dead foal. “The Fetus is in the range of three hundred days. Pegasus female. It is well developed enough to have survived early delivery. There are no obvious defects. It...” Aknu’s ears fell. “She would have been such a pretty filly.” She examined the the foal’s eyes and mouth, and felt along it’s ribcage and abdomen. “There’s nothing abnormal that I can detect.” When she stepped away from the table, she sat on her haunches and hid her face in her forehooves. “I have done this many times before, and could keep detached. But this time, I..” She shivered.

Oya gave her a gentle hug, and then went to the table in her turn. Her horn glowed. “Forgive me, little Zenith,” she whispered. She stood before the table. Zenith’s body glowed and levitated into the air as Oya made her examination in silence for several minutes. The body descended back to the table and the glow ceased. “This foal had a rather small heart, which appears to have stopped working several hours ago. I cannot tell if this was the cause, but I could not sense any other abnormalities.” She covered the little body up. “Did she expel the afterbirth?” She looked at Aknu, who nodded and went back to the table.

There was another lump in the cloth package that Aknu had brought. Together the two mares unwrapped the placenta and umbilical cord. Aknu felt along the cord. Starswirl’s ears rotated forward as he heard her indrawn breath. She passed it to Oya, who levitated the umbilical for a few moments with her eyes closed, and then let it slowly fall to the table. She glanced at Aknu and nodded.

Oya spoke. “There is no doubt, Maestro. Zenith’s death was the result of the combination of two unfortunate occurrences. First, she had a rather small and weak heart, and secondly her umbilical cord is twisted far more than the usual three times, and seems to have developed a partial obstruction. One or the other and a foal might survive until birth, but the both was just too much of a challenge for the poor filly.”

“How sure are you of this?” asked Starswirl gravely.

Again Aknu and Oya looked at each other. This time Aknu spoke. “It is almost a certainty. This twisting of the umbilical cord is a condition that is all too frequent. On the other hoof, the small heart is quite rare. Neither are likely to be caused by the application of the Amniomorphic spell. You might still wish to do an autopsy, but I do not think it will reveal anything more than what we already know.”

Starswirl breathed a sigh of relief. “You are both mothers because of this spell. Do you still trust your future foals to it?”

“Absolutely Maestro!” said Aknu. She rubbed a hoof over her bulging belly. “I am the first unicorn to have given birth to a pegasus, and I will trust this third foal of mine to the spell. And the next one after that, and all the foals I might be blessed with in the future."

“And I am the first unicorn to have given birth to an earth pony and I wouldn’t give up my little Jolly for anything in the world. Maestro, our faith in the spell is still strong,” said Oya.

Their assertion of support for the Amniomorphic spell eased the burden on his own heart, and so did being relieved from having to autopsy the foal’s corpse. He gave them a sad smile. “And now, I must go inform Windy, and Candy when she wakes up, as to why their foal was stillborn. I will also construct a casket for Zenith. She deserved no less. Could you prepare her so that her parents can see her beauty before they say their goodbyes? I have clothes in the linen closet and distilled water under the table to finish cleaning her.”

They nodded their assent, and he went to do the hardest task he had known as leader of the little colony.

Leonardo was painting a fresco in Santa Maria delle Grazie church. He had decided to experiment with various paints, trying to find a better way than having to paint wet plaster. For a perfectionist such as he, not being able to constantly and minutely improve his work was a great frustration. There had to be a better way!

He looked at the segment he had been working on: a red cloak. Even as he worked, the pigment began to run down the wall onto the dried surface below it. He grabbed a cloth to prevent it from damaging the work already done, the blood-red paint staining his hands. He tried to wipe them, but his efforts just seemed to spread the paint all over his hands. Soon it looked as if he had immersed them in blood. He cursed, turning to get a clean cloth, and noticed he suddenly was no longer in the church.

He was in his workshop, a corpse before him ready for dissection. He knew he had to move fast. The corpse already stank and either it would quickly become unbearably rank, or the local constabulary would come to take it away before he could complete his dissection. He worked quickly, relying on his memory to be able to accurately sketch later what his careful incisions exposed.

It was messy work, and he already had blood on his hands. He went to pick up a bone knife on the table next to the corpse, but it slipped from his hand. He bent down to pick it up and dropped it again. For some reason he just could not grasp it! He tried with his other hand, with no better result.

Leonardo rose, and was blinded as the evening light coming in through the window struck his face. He looked down but shadows hid his body. Something was wrong with his hands. He tried to feel one with the other. Both were like bloody rags, flailing helplessly. He lifted his arms before his face and saw only mangled flesh where his hands used to be.

How could this have happened? His hands were his life! Without hands he was not an artist! Without hands how could he paint? How could he sculpt? In desperation he brought the bleeding masses closer to his eyes. In the midst of the ragged gobs of rent flesh he saw... not broken bones, no, something else. He saw... hooves.

A weight pressed against his chest. He looked down and saw the body of dead foal in the crooks of his arms. It was Zenith, her eyes were open, vacant with the emptiness of death. Poor child! thought Leonardo. Sadness overwhelmed him. Poor child... Something caught his gaze, and he looked down at the foal’s thin fragile limbs, clutched to its tiny barrel. Her forelimbs ended not in hooves, but in two small perfect baby hands. Leonardo screamed in horror and...

… Starswirl woke up with a start, breathing heavily, his heart thudding in his barrel, his coat damp with sweat and fear. Before his muzzle he was holding up his forehooves. He closed his eyes, and let his heartbeat slow, before he opened them again. There they were: his hooves.

He caused a small bright light to appear magically above his head, and examined his forelimbs, as his breathing slowly returned to normal. My salvation and my nightmare, he thought. There was only one thing to do when he became like this, something that he had done so many times in his life as a man: when the weight of the world and the expectations of others became too heavy to bear, he wrote in his notebook.

He got out of bed and slowly clip-clopped over to his writing stand. Locking his legs in place, he levitated a quill, opened his notebook, and re-read the tiny script that crammed the first page.

These notes I write to posterity in the hope that they will be of use to future generations of ponies and will help them understand who I am and the things that I have done. There is indeed a certain degree of hubris in such an undertaking. However, leaving aside the call of my admittedly well inflated ego, I have a genuine desire to reach out to both those who, like myself, yearn to discover the underlying principles of magic and matter, and also those average ponies, who simply wonder about the world around them and how it has come to be so.

It will surprise many that my story does not start in Equestria. Many have heard the rumour that I was born and raised in a foreign land. This is the truth, but only the smallest part of it. For I wish to make it clear to all, I Starswirl the Bearded, was not born a pony, but on another world, from which I was brought here by Princess Celestia on a mission to save my race. I was born a human, in the year of my people’s reckoning 1452, and my name was Leonardo daVinci.

In particular, this notebook documents events starting on the day on which I conceived of a way to unite all Equestrians: the Amniomorphic spell. However, I must warn the reader that many of the dates listed herein will be forcibly of different calendars as the events they describe have happened in other worlds where the flow of time is much different, and where in the span of a day in Equestria, they might experience a thousand years. In such instances I perforce use a local calendar of days and years to avoid any confusion.

He skipped ahead a few pages

… so from my student Clover I learned of a family of unicorns who had developed spells to create perfect chimeras, that is to say animals that display features of two lineages that normally cannot interbreed. I had also previously learned of another clan that had the magic to make it possible for a almost any barren mare to conceive and carry to term a foal. It was my plan to combine these two spells to allow a mare of any pony tribe to conceive and bear a foal of any tribe: unicorn, pegasus and earth pony. My objective was nothing less than the unification of the pony tribes into a single race, thereby making of them a single herd, Celestia and Luna’s herd...

He paged through the notebook, coming to a particularly significant date.

The second day of the tenth month of the Year of the Sisters’ Reign 1103, founding day of the colony.

Today, with the blessing of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna, we begin a grand and terrible experiment: with a herd of ponies, two from each tribe (not counting myself), we will attempt to verify and refine the function of the Amniomorphic spell. My companions will be three couples, each one of mixed tribes. I was surprised to find the unicorn mares Aknu Star and Oya Dawn were ready not only to become my assistants in the administration of this spell, but also to become mothers themselves! Both had fancied stallions of other tribes, and along with another mixed tribe couple that had sought Celestia’s blessing, they volunteered to become the first families to carry foals under the influence of the Amniomorphic spell.

In this enterprise, Celestia has granted us an incredible boon: she will send us to a world where we can build a colony and safely undertake this experiment for as many years as we deem necessary, and when we return to Equestria only a few hours will have passed.

Never in my life has a prospect presented such possibility of gain for so many, at such a potential cost to so few. These young ponies who join my cause have only just met me, yet still they entrust in my hooves their welfare and even that of their future offspring. Their bravery humbles me, and guides me in our preparations, for if all goes well, we together will have perhaps saved not only Equestria, but also the people of my own world, the Earth.

He paged to the last entry, and began to write.

The twelfth day of the eleventh month of the fourth year of the founding of the colony.

Today was sad one as the second pregnancy our earth pony mare Candy Apple ended in a miscarriage. We were able to determine the cause and it was unrelated to the Amniomorphic spell, but still this tragedy has dealt a great blow to the happiness of our little group. Perhaps it was unrealistic for us to expect no setbacks in our great experiment. Nevertheless, had the foal survived, it would have been the sixth foal brought to term under the spell: a pegasus born of an earth pony. We feel that the basic principle of the spell seems to be functioning admirably well. But only one more generation of births will prove that the spell’s effect continues and is successfully inherited.

At the end of next month I am expected to return to Equestria to give Celestia and Luna a briefing on our status. In that brief hour I spend in Equestria, the colony will experience over fifteen years, and I will rejoin it just in time for the planned second generation. The thought of leaving all these youngsters behind sickens my heart, safe as the colony has proven to be. But this was the agreement Celestia insisted upon, so my hooves are tied. My only consolation is that Oya’s husband Scotch Pine, who will lead the colony in my absence, is a truly solid and dependable stallion, and one who has the love and respect of all the colonists.

My own state of mind can only be described as melancholy. The isolation of the colony has indeed given me the time needed to work on my systematic study of magic, but it has often been lonely work, despite the good company of Aknu and Oya. Understandably, motherhood consumes most of their days. How I miss my student Clover and his sense of humour.

I also dream of the days of my life as a human. How I miss my hands and the pure sensual pleasures of working, touching, caressing and feeling objects both living and inert. I dream of working stone or painting or sketching, of the feel of skin and the sweet touch of lovers.

Of late, these dreams have become disturbing as they mix images of my human and pony lives. I have nightmares of losing my hands, and this past night dreamt of hands on poor stillborn Zenith. Why? Do I fear that I am losing my humanity at last, that Leonardo soon will be nothing more than fading memories in the back of Starswirl’s mind?

Starswirl paused as he thought about the dream and what it meant. A few minutes later he resumed writing.

Upon reflection, there is another possibility. The tiny fists of infants have always fascinated me. The sight of them invariably brings joy to my heart. Why did seeing hands on the dead foal horrify me so deeply? Are hands evil? Or is this just a sign that I have come see a foal the same way I see a human child? Zenith was not a dead animal, she was a person to me, and my horror was that of seeing death rob us all of getting to know her and seeing her grow.

The ponies are beings with a soul and an intellect full of potential, of this I no longer have any doubt, so I weep at Zenith’s foreshortened life. In my life I have celebrated humanity, and seen it as the the very summit of both creation and beauty. Am I now ready to elevate ponykind to share that summit? Perhaps the body, or even the hands, are not what standing on this summit is about. Perhaps there is something about thinking beings that separates us fundamentally from the non-sentient animals, something the sapient hold in common: a brotherhood of the mind.

Now I bend my unicorn magical skills to building a coffin for a babe. The first our little colony will have seen, and something I build from human memory. We will bury her with the rites of the ponies, for they, like we humans, have ceremonies and words to blunt the pain and help the living to carry on.

Starswirl put down the quill and stared at the passage he had just written. “... like we humans,” he read aloud, and smiled.

“Old man,” he spoke to himself, “you will need to fetch some wood and nails.” Starswirl busied himself as dawn rose outside his single window, shining upon the few small cabins of their little colony, on this world for which they had no name.

Celestia and Luna reclined in the elder princess’ apartment.

“You’re so quiet, little sister. What is the problem?” asked Celestia.

Luna hesitated. “It is nothing, truly. And it is time to call forth Starswirl from the fast world.”

“Very well,” said Celestia, her expression serious. Her horn glowed a moment and Starswirl appeared before them. His cloak was rather threadbare, and his appearance disheveled as he bowed, making the sisters chuckle.

“You seem well, Maestro, although perhaps that cape has seen better days,” commented Celestia.

He looked down at the ragged garment. “Greetings, your majesties. I have been thinking of changing into my other one, the one with the elegant tassels.” He looked up and smiled.

“Yes indeed. From your expression I gather that our little colony is doing well?” asked Luna.

“Very much so. I am happy to report that the colony is now home to six healthy foals! All are growing prodigiously and are above average in both talent and intelligence, according to their parents, who may lack a certain degree of objectivity in these regards.” This last assertion made the princesses laugh.

“So far it sounds like any village we have ever visited!” commented Celestia.

“However, here is the difference: two unicorn mares have produced between them two pegasi foals, two unicorn foals and an earth pony foal. The earth pony mare had one earth pony foal, and also had one pegasus foal stillborn, the only loss in our colony. We were able to determine that this was due to factors independent of the Amniomorphic spell.” The princesses became more somber at the news of the loss of the foal. “The overall performance of the spell is better than expected, and the colonists are willing to extend the experiment into the next generation. In that regards, I must ask if we can have a few more volunteers to join our colony, to provide a wider range of mating possibilities for the first generation.”

“This is very good news indeed, Starswirl, despite our grief for the lost foal. Please extend our condolences to the parents on your return,” said Celestia, then her face brightened. “We had anticipated this request might be forthcoming and have gathered from amongst the younger staff of the castle six unmated volunteers who are agreeable to spend a few years in the colony. They will be here within the hour. So, is there anything else you need?”

“Well, your majesty, I thought you might ask.” Starswirl produced a fat scroll from under his cloak. “I have listed a few odds and ends the colony will need.” He held the scroll before him and let it unroll, dropping all the way to the floor and tracing a path to the tips of Celestia and Luna’s hooves.

“I suspect I will have a busy hour,” commented Luna. She disappeared with the scroll.

Starswirl looked at Celestia, perplexed at Luna’s sudden departure.

“She is still upset at recent events, Maestro. It will be good for her to busy herself. Perhaps you should take advantage of the respite to visit your quarters. You can tell me about the colony and the colonists on the way.” Celestia waved towards the door. Starswirl bowed and followed her out.

With a loud pop, Starswirl the Bearded appeared in the space in front of his cabin. Behind him were six young pony volunteer colonists, and a literal mound of supplies. Before him was a truly unexpected sight: fully a dozen cabins, some of them quite large, and some two dozen ponies of all ages.

Five ponies approached, all of them of apparent age similar to his own. He smiled at them. “Dear friends, I have returned.” He saw Candy and Windy, Aknu and Glide, and standing alone, Oya. His smile faltered at the sad look she gave him. “Scotty would have been so proud to be here. As you can see, the colony has not been idle,” she waved a hoof to encompass the village.

Starswirl looked towards the hill with the ‘meeting tree’. Four grave markers stood below it, one showed a pictogram of a tree stump with an axe embedded: the cutie mark of Scotch Pine. He looked back over the many expectant faces. They were all so young!

Starswirl raised a hoof high and the crowd grew quiet. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna send their regards and praise to all the ponies of this village,” he looked back towards the hill and its graves, “and their gratitude to those who have made such sacrifices for the benefit of all future Equestrians. You have all done very well!”

Starswirl looked on as most of the youngsters clopped hooves enthusiastically. Most had been waiting for Starswirl’s promised return for their entire lives. Some of the elders wept. He raised a hoof for their attention.

“Today we begin a new phase of our colony’s existence. We have brought with us the supplies to make this possible, a few treats to help celebrate this occasion, and also some new friends, who are joining our colony and are very eager to meet you all... as am I, for that matter!” There was laughter and the two groups merged, to much hugging, laughter, oohs and ahs, and not a few tears.

Starswirl looked at the gathered ponies, as the occasion turned into a welcome home party. A large banner to that effect was draped across the top of the expanded building that used to be his cabin. Ponies laughed, ate and talked as introductions were made, fillies blushed demurely and colts did their best to appear dashing. A few musically inclined colonists set up a band and began playing. Soon, many couples were dancing to the merry tunes. It was all so... human... and so pony.

Starswirl felt a tug on his new tasseled cloak. Looking down he saw a young filly of no more than six years. She bowed, and smiled up at him. Keeping a serious face, he bowed back formally, followed the youngster into the ring of dancers, and they danced to everypony’s amusement.

Starswirl gazed in wonder at all the faces, young and old, male and female, full of the joy of fellowship, and laughed. It was a timeless scene, a village festival no different than any he recalled from his days as a human in Italy or France. This is what it means to be a village, and hands or hooves changes nothing. These are my people. This is my herd!

A Hearth's Warming Eve Carol

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 10: A Hearth’s Warming Eve Carol

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Clover roamed the headquarters of the unicorn enclave looking for Princess Platinum. Everypony Clover ran into looked downcast and nopony spoke above a whisper. News of the Unicorn King's death must have been circulating via the grapevine, he thought. When he asked, nopony recalled seeing Princess Platinum since the visit earlier that day by the pegasi and earth pony delegations. After half an hour of fruitless searching he decided she must have teleported somewhere unobserved. He was hurrying back out the front door when he dug his hooves in and screeched to a stop. How could I have been so stupid? She must know already! That left only one likely place for the princess to be. Clover teleported.

Princess Platinum sat on her haunches, leaning against her father’s bed, his forehoof clutched in hers. Oh, papa, why now? She sighed and tried to be angry at him for leaving her at such an inopportune time, but... other thoughts and emotions claimed her attention every time she looked at his face. She looked at it again, so familiar, yet so different now. Then she understood. He wasn’t scowling. There was no scorn turning down the corners of his mouth and his brow was smooth and unlined. For the first time in years papa, the anger is gone. It’s been so long since you’ve known contentment. Was the burden so hard to bear? Did it have to be? Could I have done more?

He did look peaceful. She felt glad that maybe after these last bitter years, he might have known a bit of happiness before he died. She stroked his foreleg, an intimate tenderness he had not tolerated for years, even from his daughter. She recalled the days when she was just a filly, and he would levitate her in the air and spin her about as she pretended to be a pegasus acrobat. Then he would hold her close to him, and she would feel so safe, so happy, and fall asleep in his embrace. Those were the days before her mother had died, taken by an unknown disease that had consumed her seemingly in the blink of an eye, and the sparkle in her father’s eyes had disappeared as if it had been buried along with her mother.

There was a gentle tapping at the door.

“I wish to be alone with my father,” she said. “Please.”

There was a moment of silence, then she heard the door open and the soft clip-clop of somepony who approached slowly and sat down next to her. She could not even gather sufficient anger to object to the casual disregard of her request.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you found out, Princess,” said Clover. Of course it was him. Who else would dare?

“Nopony should face the death of a parent alone. I can stay with you if you like, and I won’t tell anypony.” He paused. “But if you want me to leave, I’ll go.”

She sat frozen, unable to decide what she wanted. Why can’t I think?! she berated herself. Clover waited a moment and when she didn’t respond started to get up. In the moment he rose it was as if her hoof reacted on its own: it shot out to grab onto his foreleg, preventing his departure. She stared at it for a moment, wondering what wisdom had guided it when her mind was paralyzed so. In her heart though, she felt that no matter the provenance it was the right decision. This was indeed what she needed, even if her brain was too muddled to decide on its own.

“Please stay,” she whispered, barely loud enough to hear.

“Yes, Princess.” Clover settled down. Her hoof trembled, and she felt him put his other forehoof over hers. It was as if the simple act loosened all the knots she held inside. Finally, she felt safe again. Finally she could let go and just be Platinum again. Finally, the tears came.

“Wake up, Clover.”

He started as he realized he’d fallen asleep. He felt the by now very familiar heat of embarrassment again. “I’m sorry, Princess, I...”

“Hush,” she interrupted, “we have a meeting to attend tomorrow morning.”

The princess on the other hoof, looked almost serene. She had wept for what seemed like hours, and he had stayed by her side, until finally he had fallen asleep. She led him towards the door. What she had said finally penetrated the cobwebs of sleep still clouding his thoughts.

“Surely you don’t expect to go yourself, your highness! Your father just passed...”

“... which is irrelevant to the situation, Clover.” Princess Platinum’s expression became businesslike as they exited her father’s bedchamber. “If we don’t show up who knows what the pegasi and earth ponies will concoct by themselves. No. We have to be there.” She favored Clover with a shy smile. “Thank you for sitting with me, Clover. It was very kind of you, especially as I haven’t always been so kind to you.”

Clover blushed again and scratched the back of his head. “Think nothing of it, highness.”

“Well then. It’s the middle of the night and we need some sleep, or in your case some more.” The princess grinned to ease the bite of the jest. “You can sleep in the room two doors down the hall to the right. Please join me for breakfast an hour after dawn in my quarters, and we’ll teleport to Canterlot from there. Sleep well, Clover.” She went in the opposite direction and disappeared through the door to her own rooms.

The three delegations, one from each tribe waited at the mouth of the caves. Clover followed Princess Platinum as she strode with dignity over to the small group of unicorns.

“What is this?” asked the princess angrily looking at each face in the group. “Why aren’t all the unicorns of our delegation present?”

One unicorn, a clan leader named Lord Beryl, spoke. “Greetings, you highness, and our sincerest condolences. We...”

Princess Platinum raised a hoof and interrupted him “We... mustn’t appear weak or disorganized at this sensitive stage of the negotiations. I forbid anypony from mentioning or discussing my father’s health until this conclave is adjourned. Have I made myself clear?” She glared at the assembled unicorns, who nodded or bowed to show their compliance. “Good! Now have somepony get the rest of our delegates here immediately.” She turned and began striding towards the caves, Clover in tow. He shivered in the bitterly cold wind that blew over them.

As they approached the mouth of the caves, the leaders and lieutenants of the pegasi and earth ponies joined them.

Commander Hurricane looked as stern and gaunt in his armor as Chancellor Puddinghead looked silly in his odd puffed-up garments. They were accompanied by Private Pansy and Smart Cookie. Princess Platinum hardly slowed her pace as they came closer.

She nodded her greeting. “Let’s get this started on time, shall we?” Without waiting for a reply she immediately strode into the caves, leaving Clover and the other two delegations hurrying to catch up. He looked sidelong at Pansy and Cookie. Both looked better today, and Pansy actually winked at him.

Once inside, the three leaders went to their respective places in the center of the main cave, where somepony had drawn lines on the floor dividing the area into three equally sized sections. Although he couldn't hear what they were saying, he could easily discern their expressions, and he didn't like what he saw. Clover sighed and went to sit next to Pansy near the divider between the unicorn and pegasus areas. They waved at Cookie a short distance away.

“Hello Pansy. So how are things with the pegasi?” said Clover.

“Much better since yesterday, and I hear we have you and Starswirl to thank,” said the mare with a shy smile.

Clover was surprised. “Oh, and why is that?”

Pansy’s eyes grew large. “You don’t know? Wow!”

“Don’t know what? What’s going on Pansy?”

Her smile grew mischievous, and gestured for him to lean in close. She raised a hoof next to his ear and whispered softly. “The three-houses are a brilliant idea! We pegasi and the earth ponies had to move some of our sick and elderly out of the caves to make room for the conclave, and because of you we had somewhere safe and warm to bring them. Some of them were even able to eat for the first time in days!"

Clover turned his head to better see Pansy's expression. The look on her face was nothing short of admiration. All of a sudden he noticed how close their muzzles were. He blushed and backed away slightly. He looked to the side and noticed Cookie smirking at them. The earth pony winked and waved for Clover to approach him.

When Clover arrived he also moved close to whisper in his ear. "Oy imagine she done tol’ you ‘bout the three-houses. We did the same with oir’ own old and feeble ‘uns. They was so ‘appy they sang songs t’gether, folks of all three troibes! Yer did good, you and Starswirl did!"

Embarrassed, Clover ventured a glance at the three tribal leaders. They were getting louder and gesticulating wildly at each other. He felt a lump of dread form in the pit of his stomach as he watched. He shivered. It suddenly felt even colder in the already frigid cave. With a series of mutual shouts, the three leaders broke formation, turned their backs on each other and retreated to their respective territories and delegations.

Clover went to see the princess. "Your majesty, that didn't seem go so well, did it?"

There was fire as well as pain in her eyes when she looked at him. "All they have are accusations and slander, and they refuse to recognize the central role of unicorns in Equestria. Without us to maintain the cycle of day and night how could they possibly grow crops or manage the weather? They blame us for our actions in response to their own intransigence. It's as if they can't see that they are the authors of their own troubles!"

Several of the unicorn delegates muttered their sympathies to the princess and remarked on how low the pegasi and earth ponies had fallen below the unicorn tribe. Clover said nothing. He had had enough of such talk, but decided to let the princess’ other advisors each speak their piece. After a few minutes more of such fruitless deliberation, the princess turned her gaze back to Clover. “So what do you propose we do, Clover?” Her eyes were slightly wide, and she had tilted her head slightly to one side. Silence fell as the other unicorns looked on, many with scowls on their muzzles.

“Your majesty...” Clover thought furiously. “Perhaps you should remind the others of the benefits of cooperation and working together to ensure that...” He swallowed seeing scowls grow into anger around him. “... we can survive this wretched winter, rather than endlessly deliberating the past and those issues that divide us?” Clover heard indrawn breaths from several unicorns around him.

Lord Beryl stepped forward. “How dare you suggest that!”

“Enough!” interrupted the princess. “I asked for Clover’s opinion, and he was brave enough to give it honestly.” She glanced towards the center of the cave. “Capitulation is not an option. I would not betray my father and all that he has striven to achieve.” She looked at the assembled unicorn delegation. “Does anypony wish to make a suggestion?” Many of the ponies looked down. Nopony spoke up. “Very well, then.” She slowly made her way back to the center of the cave. Her breath made plumes of condensation in the air as she went. The other two leaders advanced to the meeting point. Soon, the angry talk resumed.

Clover looked on in disgust. What an incredible lack of harmony! What a terrible example they present to other ponies. Then he had a sudden thought. He smiled slyly, went to Smart Cookie and began whispering in his ear. The other stallion nodded a few times, soon sharing Clover’s smile. They both nodded, and Clover went to see Pansy. Her smile was more sweet than sly, but she nodded enthusiastically at Clover’s whispered comments. He went back to the center of the unicorn section and sat, waiting for the leaders’ discussion to inevitably break down.

A bit over an hour later, there was a flash near the mouth of the cave, causing Clover to look up. There he spied Starswirl, wearing a new cloak. He went to greet his teacher.

“Hello Starswirl. I’m sorry about last night, I, uh, had an unplanned engagement.” Clover blushed a deep red as he realized the implications of his excuse. A huge grin split Starswirl’s face. He trotted up and embraced his student in a fierce hug.

“Clover, lad. I am so happy to see you! Let me look at you.” He released his perplexed student and made a big deal of examining Clover closely. “You haven’t changed a bit!” he announced with a happy glint in his eye. “Even that famous blush of yours!”

Clover couldn’t imagine why Starswirl was so happy to see him. He doubted he had changed much since yesterday. On the other hoof, Clover did find that something was different about Starswirl. He seemed... more at ease on his hooves? Older? Or just more weathered somehow, and happier. “Are you quite alright, Starswirl? It’s been less than a day since we parted, yet you seem older and younger at the same time.” He spared another glance at the cloak. “And the bells are a rather playful choice.”

Starswirl laughed heartily, the bells on his cloak chiming as he shook. “Yes, well to me it feels like it’s been years.” He looked to the three tribal leaders in the center of the cave. “So how goes the conclave?”

Clover’s ears drooped. “Those three have been frozen there, arguing for over an hour. I swear they must have hearts of ice to be so obstinate. However, Pansy, Cookie and I have an idea to warm them up that we’ll propose when they take a break.”

Starswirl looked at the young stallion shrewdly. “I would have expected nothing less from you lad. For my part, I must rush off. I have a village to move! However, I do have a request to make of you and your little cabal before I go.” There was a twinkle in his eye, as he moved in close and whispered in Clover’s ear. The young stallion listened attentively. Both student and teacher nodded agreement, then Starswirl turned and disappeared with a tinkling of bells.

Half an hour later, the tribal leaders parted again. Princess Platinum’s body language alone was enough to convince Clover that they had not moved any further towards compromise. She addressed the unicorn delegation, rubbing her forelegs together to restore circulation. “The only thing that has changed is the temperature in here. Why is it so cold? I thought I had requested a group of mages to warm this place up.”

A slight unicorn spoke up. “We have been doing heat production spells at maximum capacity, your majesty! If we weren’t here it would be much colder in this cave.”

A look of alarm crossed Princess Platinum’s face. “If we can’t make these obstinate foals come to agreement we’ll all perish from the cold long before the spring thaw comes!”

Lord Beryl stepped forward. “Princess, there is always the plan I proposed to your father.” Clover already didn’t like this stallion. What he saw in Lord Beryl’s face was very unpleasant, the old unicorn had a predatory gleam in his eyes. He felt compelled to intervene before the princess was goaded into an unsavory course of action.

“Your majesty, I have a request.” All eyes turned to Clover.

“Yes, Clover, please proceed.” The princess’ glance had a great deal of weariness in it, but her ears rose to point towards him.

“I propose a visit to a camp outside by the three tribal leaders. There is something important we wish to show you there,” said Clover. “I have asked the other two tribes’ lieutenants to propose the same to their own leaders.”

Lord Beryl spoke up. “Majesty, I don’t see what possible good could come of such a visit. My own plan, however, could be implemented within a day.”

Clover turned to the unicorn lord, and was about to retort when he felt a hoof on his shoulder. It was the princess’. “If any alternative would still take a day then there is no harm in humouring our Clever Clover now, is there, especially if the other leaders agree?” She looked around the gathered unicorns. Nopony dared contradicted the princess. “Then we agree. Clover, please accompany me.”

As they made their way to the meeting point, the other two leaders and their assistants also advanced. All six stood together in the middle. Clover held a hoof before him. “Please place your hooves on mine, and I will teleport you all. It is only a very short distance away.” They did as he asked and...

… the six ponies stood in a field. Nearby was an area that held some twenty ponies. Many were old or injured, and rested on what looked to be a broad circle of grass. A few very young foals gamboled nearby while a pegasus was flying an orbit around them all. As the leaders approached their eyes grew wide at the sight of fresh grazing. They stepped into the circle and immediately heard voices raised in song.

“How can it be so warm here?” asked asked Princess Platinum.

“Why doesn’t the heat escape?” asked Commander Hurricane.

“How is there grass at this time of year?” asked Chancellor Puddinghead.

“It’s warm because I have a heat spell going,” said blue unicorn mare. It was Hydrangea. She waved at Clover.

“And because the heat is being kept in with a wind dome,” said the pink pegasus mare named Seraph, if Clover recalled correctly.

“And we can grow things because it’s hot enough in here to melt the snow,” said the fiery red earth pony called Peach Pitt. “Welcome to our three-house, the very first one built here in Canterlot,” he added with an air of pride.

Seraph pointed a hoof at the ponies laying on the grass. “These ponies are our guests, as they were rather suddenly required to relocate from the caves yesterday. Luckily, we have had many unicorns come to volunteer to help build three-houses, so we were able to accommodate them all. Since they have nothing, they repay our kindness by singing songs of harmony and fellowship. Now each three-house going has a few such guests, at least until you leaders get your hooves out of your...”

“Why thank you, Seraph,” Clover cut in hastily. “And Hydrangea and Peach Pitt too.”

“Do you have many of these three-houses?” asked Commander Hurricane.

“Yes, we had some twenty of them set up yesterday, and at last count another forty so far today,” Hydrangea answered.

“Are all of these three-houses set up in the pegasus enclave?” asked Commander Hurricane.

“No, sir. It’s pretty much half-and-half between pegasus and earth pony enclaves,” answered Peach Pitt.

“Why are there none in the unicorn enclave?” asked Princess Platinum angrily.

“Because,” replied Clover, “each three-house needs at least one pony from each tribe. Since your father ordered all non-unicorns to be kept out of the unicorn enclave whenever possible, it was impossible to build any three-houses there. Those unicorns who wanted to participate had to leave our enclave.”

“Why wasn’t I informed of this?” asked Chancellor Puddinghead.

“Because they was just set up fer the first time yesterday. We didn’t know if they would last the night. But, as yer can see, they managed jus’ fine.” Cookie winked at Clover.

“How come we didn’t know about this three-house idea before?” asked the princess.

“The three-house is a spell brought to Equestria by Starswirl the Bearded from the faraway land where he was born.” replied Clover. “He suggested it while he and I were touring this area yesterday, saying that in ancient times this is what ponies did to survive the dead of winter.”

“Hey Mister Clover!” said a very young voice quite loudly. A young earth pony pushed his way into the circle of adults, followed by two others, a pegasus and a unicorn. These last two swallowed, eyes as large as saucers as they felt the attention of these grownups focus on them. The earth pony colt, beamed up at them as if he was surrounded by family. “We have a song for everypony we’ve been practising! Can we sing it for you?”

Clover looked at the tribal leaders. As nopony made any objection, he shrugged and said “We’d like that very much, thank you!”

The three foals lined up and the earth pony tapped the ground with his hoof. On the third tap they began to sing, and the sweet bell-like tones of the foal choir embraced the gathered ponies in a moment of magic.

We three foals of Equestria are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

O Sun of wonder, Moon of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Homeward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Harmony's Light

A three-house built on Canterlot's plain
A magical hearth provides warming flame
A roof and walls made of wind
A place to grow and live in

O Sun of wonder, Moon of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Homeward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Harmony's Light

Only song to offer have I
In friendship voices are lifted high
Prayer and praising, ponies raising
Worship of Harmony nigh

O Sun of wonder, Moon of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Homeward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Harmony's Light

Glorious now behold the sunrise
A new dawn opens for the three tribes
Pegasus, unicorn and earth pony
Equestria to heav'n replies

O Sun of wonder, Moon of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Homeward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to Harmony's Light

The last echoes of the sound faded, and still nopony broke the silence. Even the little earth pony’s smile wavered, unsure if their song met the approval of these important ponies.

Finally, it was Chancellor Puddinghead who spoke first. “That was very beautiful, my little ponies. What a pretty song, and you all sang it very well!” He started to applaud, and soon all the adults did the same. This time, even the little pegasus and unicorn foals broke into smiles.

“Thank you so much,” said Clover with a bow. The three foals bowed back, and in a scurry of titters and giggles galloped out to their mothers who were tending the injured. He turned to face the ponies from the three-house. “Thank you. This has been very helpful.”

Hydrangea winked in his direction. “Come back to visit anytime, Clover.”

He hoped this time his blush wasn’t visible through his fur. “And now, we have a second place to visit. Could you please again place your hooves on mine?”

“Now just a moment, Clover, I admit that this visit was good for our morale, but we agreed to one visit only!” objected Commander Hurricane.

“Please, Commander,” interjected Princess Platinum, “I also do not regret having seen this three-house.” She placed her hoof over Clover’s. “I recommend we comply.”

Hurricane looked at Chancellor Puddinghead, who shrugged and placed his hoof on those of the other ponies.

The pegasus leader raised his hoof, but didn’t touch it to the others’ just yet. “And where are you taking us this time?”

“To Everfree Castle, to visit Princess Celestia and Princess Luna,” said Clover.

Commander Hurricane placed his hoof on the five other ponies’ and...

... they were in Princess Celestia’s quarters. The regal sisters stood at a round table before them.

“Welcome, my little ponies,” said Celestia. The six new arrivals bowed, as did the sisters in their turn. Celestia indicated the table, laid out with a tea service for eight. “Please sit.”

When all the ponies had joined them Celestia and Luna sat, followed by their guests.

“I will come directly to the point,” said Celestia. “The current social contract that binds the tribes of Equestria is failing. These tensions have been building for over a century. My sister and I have tried to minimize its effects, but our recent absence for some months let the situation speed forward unimpeded, perhaps beyond the point of no return.

“A major problem is the division between the three tribes of ponies. Their lives are separate, and so they are a nation in name only. In the three-house you have seen what can be done when unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies work together. What is needed is a way to bring the ponies of all tribes together so that they can live not only as as neighbors in harmony, but as one herd, one family.

“There are two main obstacles to this. The first is the separate nature of activities of pegasi, earth ponies and unicorns. This division was created to ensure harmony, but there is a flaw we had not foreseen. The first two tribes must interact almost daily, and many pegasi live in earth pony villages. But this is not so for the unicorns. They live apart from the other tribes, mostly because of the great deal of coordinated effort they must expend in raising the sun and moon.

“Unicorns can do so many useful things with their magic, but can only spare a little of it for activities other than raising the celestial orbs. If the unicorns were free of this task they could so much more and truly be part of the daily life of every village in Equestria. Also, they would not need to congregate in Everfree, or Canterlot for that matter.

“Therefore Luna and I propose that we take over the duties of raising the Sun and the Moon to free unicorns to do more magic for all ponies. Of course we will only do so will the full agreement of the leader of the unicorn tribe, Princess Platinum.”

“Princess Platinum?” said Commander Hurricane. “Does this mean her father is...”

Clover noticed that Princess Luna looked down at her hooves at the mention of the Unicorn King. He also caught Princess Celestia’s glance in Luna’s direction. She no doubt noticed it as well. The others around the table seemed oblivious to this exchange and looked to Princess Platinum.

She sighed. “Yes, my father passed away yesterday. I asked the unicorn tribal leadership not to make it public as we were just going into our conclave.”

“You have our heartfelt condolences,” said Commander Hurricane.

“It was very courageous of you to carry on despite your loss,” added Chancellor Puddinghead.

Princess Platinum seemed to shrink in on herself for a moment but then looked up. “Thank you both. Your words do mean a lot to me, and they are perhaps kinder than I deserve.”

Everypony was quiet a moment. “I understand what you are proposing, your majesty,” said Princess Platinum. “But such a momentous proposal demands careful consideration. I beg you to have some patience with me yet. And what is the second obstacle that divides the three tribes?”

Celestia placed her forehooves on the table. “Overcoming the second obstacle will forever alter the lives of everypony in Equestria. However, this we wish to show you rather than tell you.” Princess Luna did the same, one hoof on her sister’s, as Clover did in turn, placing his hoof on Princess Luna’s.

Commander Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “Well, we have been shown the past and the present. We need the future to complete the squadron.” He put his hoof on Clover’s. Soon the circle was complete. There was a flash and...

... a wash of warm wind hit Clover almost like a physical blow, as the delegation found itself in what looked like a grassy square surrounded by several dozen houses of varying sizes and shapes. In the distance he saw the towers of Everfree Castle. His attention returned to the cheery looking cottages. What a nice little town!

The first of the leaders to react was Commander Hurricane. “Where is this? It’s warm here, and it smells... different.”

“Welcome to Ponyville, a town for all ponies!” said a familiar voice.

Clover looked up and spotted his mentor, who approached surrounded by a troop of foals from all tribes. He bowed. “Starswirl the Bearded at your service. I am the mayor of this settlement, and we would be most honored if you could join us for a brief tour.” He paced towards one of the larger houses, the bells on his cloak tinkling in musical counterpoint to his gait. A pegasus stallion and earth pony mare waited on either side of the door. “This is Candy Apple and her husband Head Wind.”

A series of younger ponies began to emerge from within the house. The first was an earth pony stallion. “This is their son, Head Pond, a miller, and his sisters Honey Apple, and Wind Chime, and their brothers Overcast and Blizzard.” A pretty earth pony mare followed Head Pond, then another mare, a pegasus, and finally two more pegasi stallions who were obviously twins. The whole family stood together in front of the house.

“That ponies from the same tribes can live together isn’t news, Princess Celestia,” said Chancellor Puddinghead. “Although perhaps adoption laws here are less stringent that those in earth pony towns.”

“My dear chancellor, nopony here is adopted. These fine young ponies are the true offspring of this most excellent couple,” replied Starswirl. He clopped his hooves. A few more adult ponies emerged, each finding one of the older couple’s sons and daughters. Among them were also a several unicorns. Once the younger adults had paired off a veritable torrent of foals galloped out of the house, each one joining one of the pairs. Some families included ponies of all three tribes.

By this time the three tribal leaders were whispering amongst themselves. Starswirl gestured with a hoof to two other similar groups gathered in front of two of the other larger houses.

“How is this possible?” asked Princess Platinum. “Mixed tribe couples are rarely able to conceive, and if they do the offspring are invariably infertile. Are you saying that now ponies of any tribe can interbreed?”

Starswirl approached. “Yes. That is exactly what this village was created to demonstrate.”

“But how is this possible?” asked Commander Hurricane.

Starswirl replied. “It’s made possible by the Amniomorphic spell. It enables unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies to combine their lineages, while preserving the individual heredity of each. The spell also keeps the numbers of each tribe in balance, to ensure the population never runs short of any kind of pony.”

Celestia continued. “This village is the answer to the second cause of division between the three tribes. The family is the fundamental unit of our society. Perhaps the best way to get ponies to see all others as brothers and sisters is to make it the literal truth. With the Amniomorphic spell, ponykind can truly become one nation.

"For the last forty years, these ponies have been testing the Amniomorphic spell. Three generations have been born and lived in it influence, far from Equestria. We find the results conclusive. Look upon these families." Celestia gestured to the assembled villagers. "These are good ponies, with happy foals. And they have built a strong community that has managed to live and prosper far from Equestria and all other ponies. This morning, we moved the village and its residents here within sight of the Everfree, to rejoin Equestria and to be an example to all ponies of that which is possible." Celestia paused, letting the implications of her pronouncements sink in.

The first tribal leader to speak up was Princess Platinum. "Your majesty, this is a beautiful vision, but what you suggest is the very extinction of the tribes!" She could not look Celestia in the face as she spoke. Commander Hurricane nodded, and Chancellor Puddinghead as well.

“Sometimes my little ponies, the only way to grow is to shed a piece of who we are.” Celestia shared a smile with Starswirl. “But fear not, there will still be a place for the tribes in the organization of their livelihood, professions and government. Tribe will still be part of their identity, but like the color of their coats it will no longer a barrier between them.

“In the matter of government, I propose the establishment of an Equine Assembly, composed of the leadership of the three tribes and the representatives of their constituents. If you three agree to our proposals, this along with the dispensation of the Amniomorphic spell to all ponies who desire it, and the transference of the management of the celestial orbs to Luna and myself, will be the foundation of a new Equestria.

“I do not ask your answer immediately for this might be the most important decision any of you will ever take. The very future of Equestria is at stake. Consider, however, the opportunity that this crisis has provided to seek a better way of life for all ponies.”

As she spoke, she and Luna clasped hooves, then Starswirl and Clover, and then all the members of the delegation. There was a flash...

... and they were back in the cave at Canterlot, minus the royal sisters and Starswirl. The delegation split into three parties. With many uncertain glances exchanged between them, each pair went towards the center of their own tribal space.

Princess Platinum gathered the unicorn delegation. As she always did with her father, she gave a concise account of the three visits made by the group of tribal leaders. As she expected, the first unicorn to give his opinion was Lord Beryl.

“Your majesty, this is the most pernicious set of lies imaginable! Ponies of the three tribes cannot live together, it is unnatural. Why, to even propose that unicorn mares interbreed with these lowlifes is a betrayal of unicorn society and everything for which your father fought. And to suggest we give up the stewardship of the sun and moon is to rip out the very soul of what it is to be a unicorn. They are stronger and faster than we are. Denying our enemies the sun and the moon is the only real defense we have!” He raised a hoof to make another point but was interrupted by a shout.


To Platinum’s surprise, the outburst had come from Clover, the quiet, if unruly scholar. The realization came upon her that the only pony in the entire unicorn delegation she considered a friend was the irate green unicorn.

“Did I hear you call the other two tribes of Equestria enemies of the unicorn tribe?” He approached the rather larger Lord Beryl and faced him, fur standing on end, nostrils flaring. “Did I hear you say that all ponies living together is unnatural? That the only power in the hooves of the unicorns is the threat of starvation FOR US ALL?”

Clover’s teeth were bared, his ears were flat against the back side of his neck, and the whites of his eyes were visible from across the cave. The hubbub in all three delegations died down and everypony looked to see what was obviously shaping up to be a stallion fight.

“The sun and the moon are not our defense, Lord Beryl! They are the chains that bind us down and prevent us from growing beyond what we are! We unicorns can do more than lift orbs into the sky. We can make the world better for all Equestrians. We can have a life of harmony and be ponies among ponies, and loved for what we are. What do you have to offer instead? A world where ponies live in fear and hate of each other! That isn’t Equestria, it’s Tartarus!”

Lord Beryl’s demeanor had changed as Clover spoke, progressively reacting to the younger stallion’s challenge and assuming an aggressive posture of his own. His eyes grew wide as he prepared to charge. Princess Platinum feared that the inevitable was about to happen.

In two steps Lord Beryl covered the distance between him and Clover. He reared back on his hind legs, preparing to strike the youngster down. Platinum’s horn glowed and suddenly Lord Beryl was flying in the air, legs flailing.

“Let me down, you idiotic mare!” shouted the enraged stallion, suspended above the cringing unicorn delegation.

There was complete silence in the cave, other than the ragged breathing of the enraged Lord Beryl. Platinum noticed that despite his earlier brave display, Clover now had his face to the floor with his forelegs held up to protect his head. As the expected crushing blow didn’t come, he peeked out from under one foreleg, and noticed his aggressor's futile aerial struggles.

“Rise, Clover, and attend to me,” said Princess Platinum. She set Lord Beryl down. “You. Go home. Now.” The dark fury in her eyes brooked no argument. A moment later, Lord Beryl slumped in submission. She turned tail to the Lord and trotted back regally to the central area. The other two tribal leaders came to join her. She looked at them each in turn. At first she had some difficulty in discerning Commander Hurricane’s expression. Was that a smile on the old warrior’s muzzle? Deciding it was, she favored him with one of her own. Chancellor Puddinghead was as always an easier read. He just clopped hooves and even whistled his appreciation. She took a deep breath.

“Shall we contact the Royal Princesses and tell them we have decided to accept their proposals? With a proviso that we all must agree to the nature, roles, and responsibilities of this Equine Assembly?”

Both other leaders nodded their assent. “Shall we then prepare a joint statement to their majesties?”

Again the other two nodded, then all three leaders turned their heads to their delegations.

“Clover!”, “Private Pansy!”, “Smart Cookie!” The names resounded as the leaders called in their assistants to help in preparing the document.

“Oh, and one more thing...” said Princess Platinum looking down. “Can somepony please erase these idiotic lines from the cave floor?”

There was a commotion and a mixed group of ponies entered the cave. They lined up in rows. One of the ponies, a unicorn filly, caught Clover’s eye and winked at him. It was Hydrangea. I guess that explains why they’re here, he thought with a grin. Another pony stood before them and took out a baton. In a moment song echoed through the caves.

The fire of friendship lives in our hearts

As long as it burns we cannot drift apart

Though quarrels arise, their numbers are few

Laughter and singing will see us through (will see us through)

We are a circle of pony friends

A circle of friends we'll be to the very end...

Rhapsody in Blues

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 11: Rhapsody in Blues

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

"Great Harmony, I feel like a foal on her birthday! Who would have thought so many ponies would come to see the sun being raised?” said Hydrangea.

Her eldest brother Hyacinth raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so surprised, Angie? You did say yesterday that everypony was going to be here this morning, and it appears you were right!”

The enormous herd practically filled the entire open field at the foot of Mount Canterlot. The cold pre-dawn air and fading moonlight made silvery plumes of everypony’s breath, as Hydrangea and her three brothers squeezed their way through the dense crowd. The deeper into the herd she and her brothers ventured, the greater was the feeling of anticipation. She shivered as her emotions fed off and reflected those of her siblings and the excited ponies around them.

Hydrangea took a deep breath and smiled. “Don’t you think it actually feels like the first day of a new age?” she asked her brothers. In the week since Celestia, Luna and the leaders of the three tribes had announced their agreement altering the shape of Equestrian society, she and her friends had talked of almost nothing else. So many things would change in the wake of the new unified Equine Assembly and especially with the advent of the Amniomorphic spell. Hyacinth nodded, but didn’t say anything. Her brothers tended to be less passionate than she was about such things, for which, in the manner of all brothers, they chided her mercilessly. This time they all chose to keep their council, although she noticed surreptitious winks between them.

Scanning the crowd she focused on the other ponies. She noticed how everypony seemed to be stepping higher today. Even the air smelled different! The thaw in relations between the pony tribes had been accompanied by a welcome respite from the bitter cold of winter. And it all started officially with this morning's ceremony. Today was to be the first day the royal sisters would raise the sun and the moon. It was all so very exciting!

In the distance, they could just make out a large wooden dais that had been set up at the eastern edge of the field. “We might as well stop here,” she said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to get any closer.” She had goaded her brothers into coming. She wanted to be part of this event, and she knew that they would regret not having come. And so as usual, she had kept at them reciting every reason to go she could think of, until all three gave in and promised to come.

“Hoompf!” her middle brother Cornflower stamped a hoof. “You also said there’d be lots of fillies here for us to check out. We can’t do much filly gazing packed in wither to flank like this! And there isn’t light enough light yet to see anypony.”

“Eeyup!“ agreed Morning Glory, her youngest brother. He sighed and managed a cramped stretch in the tight space. “This is way too early for me. I for one will appreciate not having to cut my sleep short to raise the sun anymore!” he said.

Cornflower elbowed him in the ribs. “As if you ever get up early to raise the sun! Mother and father should have called you Lunchtime Glory. Or, come to think about it, Moon Glory might even be more appropriate.” The elder brothers laughed. Morning Glory’s only reply was to stick his tongue out at them.

Hydrangea rolled her eyes. "Do you three always have to behave like grade-school colts when we're all together?" she half whispered.

"Pipe down, you foals," said Hyacinth, who was also the tallest of the siblings. “It looks like something’s happening near the platform.”

“Finally!” said an impatient voice nearby. “Let’s see just how well Her Alicorn Majesty can manage by herself what it takes thousands of us to do.” The comment was greeted with a few skeptical snickers and even a laugh or two. Hydrangea's regard flitted left then right, then all around her. She noticed that they were surrounded exclusively by other unicorns, though she could see pegasi and earth ponies in the distance. Ponies still preferred the company of other ponies of the same tribe. Some things don’t change overnight, she thought.

Around them the crowd grew quiet and all eyes turned to the distant dais. Hydrangea spied the well-known but rarely seen profile of princess Celestia ascending the structure. She stopped and eyed the crowd a moment in silence, then to hisses of indrawn breath from many of the unicorns present, Celestia spread her wings wide. Behind her, the horizon began to glow.

Hydrangea felt the excitement in the huge crowd grow as beams of light focused on the princess, bathing her pure white coat and feathers in shades of amber and orange. As the light slowly intensified Celestia reared to her hind legs, wings fully outstretched, chin lifted to the sky as if in supplication.

Then, even from this distance, Hydrangea saw the glint of a grin on the princess' muzzle. This isn’t supplication, she thought. Like most unicorns, Hydrangea had participated in the raising of the sun almost every day since her age of maturity. It had been a chore, a solemn duty, a collective obligation to which every unicorn contributed. But it had never been like this. Her heart beat faster and she felt a shiver rise from her lower body and follow her spine all the way to the back of her head. She focused all of her attention on the distant princess.

Celestia's outline seemed to catch fire. Waves of molten gold seemed to pulse from her form as she slowly rose into the sky. Feelings threatened to overwhelm Hydrangea: awe at the beauty of the moment, and also a deep reverence for the alicorn princess. This is joy, she thought in surprise and elation. This is... exaltation! And it isn’t even over yet! Just when she thought the experience could not become more intense, the sun rose fully above the horizon. Unbearably bright shafts of light exploded from the princess in a fiery corona as Celestia’s outline burned itself into Hydrangea’s eyes and in her mind. She fought to continue looking until finally, with a pang of loss, the sheer magnitude of the brightness forced her to look away.

When she looked back Celestia still hung in the air. Above her head in the pale blue sky the orb of the sun had returned to its normal intensity. Day washed over the land, and the sky was tinged the pale blue of a crisp, clear winter morning. The princess calmly levitated down to the dais in total silence. When back on all fours, she slowly bowed her head.

Many of the ponies around Hydrangea had tears in their eyes. With a sniffle she realized that she did as well. A sound rose from all sides, building from a slow rumble as pony voices and pony hooves began to demonstrate the herd’s approval and admiration. The sound grew until it was almost as deafening as the sunrise had been blinding. Hydrangea and her brothers cheered, and applauded, and hugged each other and many of the ponies around them.

On the dais, Celestia rose from her bow. Flashing a smile to the madly applauding crowd, she turned and was lost from view as she descended the stairs behind the platform. The cheering and applause only seemed to grow louder. It was several minutes before the noise finally began to abate and the herd to disperse.

The siblings gazed at each other. “That wasn’t anything like when I helped raised the sun,” offered Morning Glory.

“It wasn’t for me either, Mo,” said Hydrangea, wiping away her tears, “it wasn’t at all the same.”

A hubbub started and amplified as ponies all over began discussing what they had just witnessed. They gesticulated animatedly and pointed at the dais. Hydrangea’s eyes grew wide when she heard a voice in the crowd exclaim: “How shameful: turning a sacred unicorn ritual into a spectacle for common ponies! His lordship will be appalled.”

“Indeed!” replied another voice. “I wonder how large a bribe the pegasi required to clear the sky for this little show!”

Hydrangea was shocked. Her head whipped back and forth as she scanned the crowd in vain, trying to locate who had made the remarks. Her eldest brother noticed her sudden change in expression. “Angie, why the long face?” asked Hyacinth.

“Didn’t you hear what those ponies just said?” Hydrangea looked at her brothers.

“Hear what?” asked Mo and Cornflower in unison. Hyacinth looked equally perplexed and shook his head.

“Honestly, you three must have carrots stuck in your ears!” said Hydrangea. Her brothers looked at her expectantly, oblivious to the insult. She sighed and shrugged. “Oh, I overheard some ponies talking, and I’m just quite surprised at their attitude, I suppose.” She decided to change the subject. “So what are you layabouts going to do with the rest of the morn?”

“I’m off to attend a meeting with one of my three-housemates,” said Cornflower. “The pegasi are fixing to build a new cloud city. They’re looking for some unicorns with experience in architecture. I’ve done construction so thought I might fit in, and this Cloudsdale idea sounds like it might really fly!” He smiled broadly as his siblings winced.

Hyacinth spoke up next. “And I’m going to check out this new Ministry of Science Starswirl the Bearded and your little friend Clover the Clever are setting up.” He smirked at Hydrangea’s reaction to his innuendo. “I’m quite impressed with those two. Apparently they’re going to publish some huge compendium of magic!”

Morning Glory spoke last. “Well, I’ve been invited to an information session about a new school for gifted unicorns Princess Celestia is setting up,” Both of his brothers started laughing again. “What is it with you two? I am gifted! Just ask mother.” He shook his head and turned to Hydrangea, who had discreetly hidden her own chuckle behind a raised hoof. “What about you, sister dear? Any major plans for the day?”

“I think I’ll accompany Hy as I need to have a word with Clover. We’ll see you back at the three-house after lunch.” With a nod good-bye they moved off through the slowly dispersing crowds of mostly smiling ponies. The only unhappy faces around seemed to on some of the unicorns, she noted. Despite her earlier elation Hydrangea left the ceremony with a sour feeling in her stomach.

Clover cleared his throat, a huge book floating in the air in front of him. He peeked over its edge at the hundred or so ponies gathered just outside the caves near mount Canterlot, swallowed, and began to read out loud.

“Principia de Magicis by Starswirl the Bearded.


“Magic is an expression of the will of intelligent beings over matter and energy. It is the instrument used to raise Harmony from Chaos. To understand magic is to understand the very nature of the world and its relationship to the beings that live within it.

“This volume seeks to do something that has never been attempted before in the history of Equestria: to provide a systematic examination of magic using the methods of art, natural philosophy and science as the tools with which to achieve true understanding. These three tools, the first triad of many that are manifest in the scientific study of magic, provide reliable signposts along the path to truth itself. They are named Observation, Theory and Experimentation.

“Observation is the origin of all knowledge. Therefore it is necessary to develop the senses and use them to perceive and record. Artists are trained to see and discover that which is important, and a true artist can often see that which others fail to see. Like an artist, a true scientist has an open mind and the courage to accept what is not expected, even when it challenges dearly held ideas and beliefs.

“It is also important to understand how everything connects to everything else. Discerning these relations will allow one to connect cause and effect and will enable one to build Theories to predict which action will lead to a desired result, or which actions to take in order to avoid undesired results. Some may ask of what importance is understanding the underlying Theory if one already knows the result of the practice. However, he who loves practice without Theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast. He is doomed to wander endlessly, never finding his destination nor the way home. Theory is the map which those who explore science create for themselves and for those who will follow. Theory enables each scientist to build on the work of others, and makes it possible for every generation to move ever outwards the frontiers of knowledge.

“The last of this triad is the need for rigorous Experimentation, to test the accuracy of the Observation and the validity of the Theory. The greatest deception ponies suffer is from their own opinions. Experimentation is the light that banished the gloom of deception by subjecting all claims to the stark light of objectivity. Experimentation puts Theory to the test, exposes error and misconception, and makes manifest the truth. All sciences are vain and full of errors that are not born of Experience.

“By mastering these three tools shall ponies come to fully understand magic and use it as the key to unlocking the secrets of the cosmos as well as the foundation upon which to build the future of Equestria.

To those ponies who think this method maps out an excessively demanding and tedious path to knowledge, I have one last entreaty to make before they undertake reading the chapters that follow:

“The noblest pleasure of all is the joy of understanding.

“I dedicated this work to the ponies of Equestria, to their royal majesties Princess Luna and Princess Celestia, and to the joy of understanding.

“Starswirl the Bearded

“Addendum: This book would not have been possible without the significant contributions of the following three ponies I list here as full collaborators in its inception as well as in my own education in the science of magic: Oya Dawn, Aknu Star, and especially my student Clover the... Clever.”

As Clover finished reading the passage his face turned bright red. The ponies gathered for the meeting clopped hooves in appreciation. These included Hydrangea and one of her brothers who had joined the crowd shortly before he began reading, and Princess Platinum and Starswirl who stood immediately to his right.

Seeing his embarrassment, the older mage chuckled. He leaned over to Clover and putting a hoof to his ear whispered. “What is that strange expression Princess Celestia says in such moments? Oh, yes, I recall now... Gotcha!”

“Ahem,” said Clover out loud, waving for the crowd to stop applauding. “I am honoured to present our new Minister of Science Starbeard the Swirled... I mean Swirlstar the B...“ His voice rose to an almost unintelligible squeak.

“Thank you Clover,” said Starswirl addressing the massed ponies in turn. “As we said earlier, we have decided to erect near this spot a new Ministry of Science, with a royal charter to scientifically explore magic in all its forms, including that of the unicorns, but also that of earth ponies and pegasi. This means we will of course be looking to employ ponies of all three tribes in this most noble enterprise.

“The motto of our ministry will reflect our ambition: Licet cognoscat omnia. Translating into Equestrian this says: The knowledge of all things is possible. However, lest anypony think this ministry will do nothing more than seek the understanding of magic, I inform you that their royal majesties have impressed us with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do. And so this ministry will be also dedicated to the practical application of magic in improving the lives of all Equestrians, and in working with Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, teaching both the theory and practice of magic.

“Are there any questions?”

A unicorn raised a hoof. Starswirl pointed at him and nodded. “A lot of what you have in that book is family secrets,” said the unicorn. “How do we know anypony else can use the same spells?”

“That’s a good question. There’s no doubt some ponies are better than others at certain types of magic. There are also some ponies that can handle very complicated spells while others cannot. Some ponies can exert more powerful magic than others, while others still can do exceedingly fine work. For each tribe we expect there will be a common set of magical capabilities shared by everypony, and a lot of abilities that only few can do. By sharing this information, every pony will have a chance to try their hooves at a much wider range of magical activities and discover their own special talent. More crucially for the future of Equestria, ponies can again learn to work in concert as did our ancestors, and combine spells in ingenious ways as is demonstrated by the three-house spell. ”

Another hoof shot up in the crowd. “What are you going to do when you’ve learned all the spells in the world? Take a vacation?” Some laughter followed the question.

“To be honest, I believe that there is no end to knowledge... but I will let you know if I think we’re getting close!” replied Starswirl with a wink, “And for those who join this ministry in the attempt, I promise a most invigorating voyage, as learning never exhausts the mind.” Many ponies chuckled and applauded the comment.

“No further questions? Good! Then I declare this meeting adjourned. I ask that all who wish to seek employment at the ministry give your names with my faithful student Clover. Don’t worry, he only forgets mine.” The ponies laughed and applauded once more, and then began to disperse.

A familiar blue unicorn mare and her brother approached and bowed. Oh, good. Ponies I know personally were in attendance. Clover swallowed his pride, and introduced them. “Your highness, my friend Hydrangea Blue and her brother Hyacinth,” he said.

“Honoured,” said the princess, nodding her head. She glanced at Hydrangea, and then looked Clover in the eyes.

“And I believe you’ve met my teacher Starswirl the Bearded, our new Minister of Science” Clover enunciated carefully.

“Well done lad!” said Starswirl, applauding.

Starswirl and Hyacinth shared a chuckle. Neither Princess Platinum nor Hydrangea reacted to the jest. Why are they looking at each other so intently? thought Clover. “So, Hydrangea, what brings you and your brother to the meeting?” he asked. Both of the mares inched slightly closer to him.

“Oh, we have an interest in working for the ministry,” said Hydrangea.

“Yes, and my sister said she wished to speak with you Clover,” added Hyacinth. Hydrangea winced and Princess Platinum’s eyes widened slightly.

“Perhaps Minister Starswirl and I should excuse ourselves,” suggested the princess.

“NO! Uh, no, that’s not necessary,” said Hydrangea, looking embarrassed. “In fact, it may be good that you hear this as well, Princess.”

Platinum nodded, and they waited while the young mare composed herself.

“This morning we went to see the sun raising ceremony,” began Hydrangea uncertainly. “My brothers and I stood in a large group of unicorns... and just before it started some ponies made some rather disparaging remarks about Princess Celestia.” She glanced at her brother a moment. “Then immediately afterwards, I heard more such comments, and then somepony said ‘his lordship will not be pleased’.”

“Did you have any idea which lord they were discussing?” asked the Princess.

“Unfortunately not, your highness,” said Hydrangea. “I only heard snippets of the discussion. It was a very dense crowd, and voices were coming from every direction. I’m sorry, but that’s everything.” She looked down at her hooves. “Why would anypony say such things? Didn’t they see what we saw? Could they be so blind?” When she looked up again her distress was evident.

“My dear child,” said Starswirl, “it has been my sad experience that there are three classes of ponies: those who see, those who see when they are shown, and those who will not see.” He sighed. “Thank you for telling us, but do not be distressed. It is only natural that some resist when faced with so great a change. We must give them time.”

“But Hydrangea,” added Princess Platinum, “if you or your brothers hear any more such talk, and especially if includes the name of the lord in question, then please do come to me with the news immediately.”

“Yes, your highness.” Hydrangea and Hyacinth bowed.

“Now I must take my leave,” said the princess. “I have a meeting of the Unicorn Estates General to prepare. I bid you all a good day.” She bowed and with a final glance at Clover teleported away.

“We need to go as well,” said Hydrangea. “But, I will be joining you gentlecolts tomorrow for the tour of Ponyville. Good day Clover and Minister Starswirl.” She and her brother nodded and left at a trot.

Starswirl indicated the ponies waiting politely a short distance away. “Perhaps we should go collect the names of those interested before they wander off.” Clover nodded and levitated a notebook, bottle of ink and quill from his saddlebag. Together they went to greet the hopeful future employees of the Ministry of Science.

Half an hour later the last of the recruits had asked their questions and Clover had written their names into his notebook. He again took up the heavy volume from which he had read the introduction. “Maestro, I still find it hard to believe that this book is already complete. To me it is only days since I gave you my collected notes on unicorn magic. I feel as if I’ve contributed very little to it,” said Clover, looking somewhat bemused.

“Nonsense, boy,” said Starswirl. “Your notes on spells were the genesis of the book, without them it would not have come into existence. And do keep in mind that from my point of view I’ve had almost thirty years to analyse, practise and refine the spells you provided. You should see what the unicorns of the colony have been able to achieve with this knowledge.”

Clover sighed. “Actually, that might be causing a problem.” His teacher’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “There are more than a few unicorns who resent the sharing of spells, as was demonstrated earlier. And I’ve heard that some have come away from a visit to Ponyville feeling shocked that magic is treated so casually there.” He glanced about. There was nopony within earshot. “There has been much criticism of the new situation in whispered conversations amongst the unicorns. There is even a faction attempting to gather all these malcontents into a common cause. I’m afraid Princess Platinum will face some trouble ahead from those ponies. Perhaps we all will.”

“Have you made this known to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?” asked Starswirl.

“My work with Princess Platinum and towards setting up the Ministry of Science has consumed the entirety of the past several days,” replied Clover. “And it’s almost time for the Unicorn Estates General meeting. Did you plan on attending?”

“Indeed. I am to be officially invested as Minister of Science. I will be there.”

“Well then, perhaps we had better get going, Maestro.” He offered a hoof to Starswirl and teleported them both.

Clover and Starswirl arrived at the House of Unicorns, as the new permanent tribal headquarters in Canterlot were to be called. The meeting was being held in the House’s large Assembly Hall. As Minister designate, Starswirl took a seat just below the dais of the currently empty throne. As his assistant, Clover sat immediately behind him. They had just taken their places when the Sergeant-at-Arms began ringing a large hoof bell, inviting all the members to be seated. The benches were already full, an unusual turnout as the House members tended to be generally much absorbed in their own affairs.

The Chamberlain ascended the dais and pounded his staff upon it resoundingly three times. "Lords and Ladies of the Unicorn Tribe, our leader Princess Platinum has called a meeting of the Unicorn Estates General in response to recent events and to confirm the appointment of Starswirl the Bearded to lead the newly created Ministry of Science. All rise!" A buzz grew as ponies stood and began to discuss the Chamberlain's announcement.

A fanfare played and Princess Platinum entered the hall preceded by a guard bearing the tribal standard: a white unicorn head on a royal purple field of stars. To polite applause she made her way at a stately pace to the throne, first through the outer ranks of common unicorns, grouped into the professional guilds and merchant associations. The closer third were the benches of the Unicorn nobility and clan heads. The princess climbed the stairs, turned, bowed and then sat down. The applause faded and the assembly sat down.

“Lords, ladies and commoners,” she intoned. “We declare this meeting of the Unicorn Estates General open.” She paused and looked over the assembly. “The events of the last months have sorely tested all Equestrians, not least the members of this tribe. These have not been easy times, but the Hearth’s Warming agreement between all three tribes again brings harmony to Equestria. It has created a new social contract between ponies whose most profound impact will be upon we, the unicorn folk.” Some angry grumbling could be heard in the hall. Princess Platinum paused and narrowed her eyes at the unusual display of discontent.

“There are always those who will be unhappy with any change. However it became evident to us that the prideful and selfish course on which all three tribes were engaged would only lead to our collective ruin. The solution devised by the leaders of all three tribes and the royal princesses Celestia and Luna, creates new opportunities for us all, but especially the unicorn tribe. Relieved of the collective burden of raising the celestial orbs, we may now apply our unicorn skills, steadfast determination and native wit to a vast expansion of the commerce and exploitation of magic in all of its forms.” She paused as loud applause broke out, but she did not fail to notice that most of it came from the outer ranks of benches, and that it was far more muted amongst the nobility.

“As a first step in realizing this glorious future, all tribes have agreed to the creation of a new ministry to which all Equestrians shall be subject and welcome, but that will be led by a pony selected by this august assembly. It is the Ministry of Science, and we nominate Starswirl the Bearded to the post of Minister of Science.”

The hall erupted into a clamour as ponies both cheered and jeered the announcement. The Chamberlain pounded his staff sonorously until the hubbub died down. Baron Lamplight, head of a powerful mining clan rose for attention. The Chamberlain pointed his staff at him. A glow of bright light illuminated him, indication that he had been given permission to speak.

“The crown states that the candidate must be chosen from the ranks of the unicorn tribe.” He produced a greasy smile. “However, it is our understanding that Starswirl the Bearded is of foreign birth, is not listed in the tribal registry, and so we dispute that he is eligible for this appointment.”

He sat back down to loud applause from many in the nobility. The princess rose.

“Should the Baron be so kind, I would ask him to read the registry“ The Unicorn Tribal Registry appeared before the baron. “Please do read the entry fifth from the last in the registry.” She sat back down.

The baron scowled and took out a pair of spectacles from a vest pocket, which he placed on his muzzle. Scanning down the page he paused and then read. “Starswirl, called the Bearded, sired by Rock to his dam Purity, in the village of Vinci, near the city of Florence in the foreign land of Italy. Both sire and dam were foreign born and unregistered.” He took off his spectacles, shoving them into the vest pocket from which they had emerged. “Your highness, this is preposterous! We have no idea who this Starswirl really is!” There was loud agreement from several assembly members nearby.

The princess rose again. “Baron Lamplight, the pony in question is seated but a few pony lengths away from you. Even without your spectacles, can you deny that he is indeed a unicorn? This registry is for all unicorns, and as you have most amply demonstrated, Starswirl is indeed listed within it. We thank you for your diligence.” She smiled and sat back onto the throne.

Another lord stood up. The light of recognition encircled Lord Beryl. “I wish to call a point of order. It is the tradition of the unicorn tribe that a colt or filly is recognized as having attained the age of majority in their eighteenth year. I will remind this assembly that our Princess Platinum is still several months shy of her majority. In fact she has not been crowned. It is unicorn law and tradition for this assembly to appoint a regent until such a time as the crown prince or princess’ coronation. I move that this assembly appoint a regent for the crown and I offer my own candidacy to bear this heavy but necessary burden.” He sat back down to both applause from many of his peers as well as catcalls and derision from the outer circles of the hall.

The Chamberlain thumped his staff repeatedly until finally the noise abated. Clover stood and was recognized by the Chamberlain. “As the Baron is aware, the Princess was named regent in his name by her own father as his illness progressed, which office she has competently executed for over a year. Until the new monarch is crowned that order still stands.” He sat down to wild applause from the back benches.

Lord Beryl rose again. “However, I should like to inform Clover the Clever that the King has passed and that his decree is subject to heir or the regent appointed by this body until such a time as the heir is crowned.”

Princess Platinum rose to murmurs from all sides. “Clover is well aware of my father’s passing, Lord Beryl, as he is the only pony who offered to stay with me as I mourned at his deathbed.” The hall became deathly quiet. “However, Lord Beryl is quite correct. I have not yet reached the age of maturity, and so a regent should be appointed as per the traditions and laws of the unicorn tribe.” She smiled in an almost predatory fashion. “However, the law does not require that the regent have reached the age of maturity to be appointed, as I can attest my father so ordered when his illness became debilitating. Consequently, I offer my own candidacy for the title of regent, effective until such a time as I have reached the required age to ascend the throne.”

An angry buzz mixed with cheers greeted the princess’ pronouncement. She remained standing. “The rules of this assembly require that each motion presented be put to a vote in the order they are presented. The first such motion today is mine, and so I amend it as is my privilege. In order to expedite today’s proceedings, I move to include both the appointment of Starswirl as Minister of Science, and myself as regent pending my coronation.” She sat down.

Clover shot upwards before anypony else would have a chance. “I second the motion to amend Princess Platinum’s original motion. Lord Chamberlain, will you please initiate the vote?” He sat down. Looking up he locked gazes with Princess Platinum, raising a single eyebrow. He sincerely hoped the princess' political instincts had served her well in making such a daring move. She smiled reassuringly and gave him the barest hint of a wink.

Using telekinesis, the Chamberlain he raised a large black and white ball into the air above his head. "In response to the motion proposed by Princess Platinum, I release the ballot. Unicorns, vote now!"

The ball rose and trembled as opposing wills tried to push the ball towards the basket that indicated 'Yea' at one end of the hall, or towards the other basket labelled 'Neigh' at the other end. As this was a close vote the ball seemed to vibrate first going slightly towards 'Yea' and then towards 'Neigh' and then back again. Finally, the momentum of the vote began to favour ‘Yea’ and the ball travelled tentatively, and then with greater speed to land definitively in that basket.

The Chamberlain struck the dais with his staff three times. “The vote is ‘Yea’. The appointments of Starswirl the Bearded as Minister of Science, and Princess Platinum as regent of the unicorn tribe are confirmed.” The middle and back benches of the assembly rose to their hooves and burst into cheers and celebration.

Barons Beryl and Lamplight looked at each other, barely hiding their contempt as ‘Regent Platinum’ rose. “With humility, we thank this assembly for showing us the same confidence our father did upon his incapacitation, and we accept the appointment to the post of regent of the unicorn tribe. As our first action in our renewed capacity, we congratulate Minister Starswirl on his appointment.” She joined into the prolonged applause that followed. After almost a minute the sound died down. She gestured to the Chamberlain with a smile. “We hereby declare this assembly of the unicorn Estates General closed.” She descended from the dais and followed the standard bearer out of the room.

Several hours later Baron Beryl called a meeting to order. Baron Lamplight and some twenty other major unicorn lords had joined them. He addressed them in the drawing room of his mansion in Everfree. “My friends. We have seen today the ultimate betrayal of the vision of our late king. As trusted associates of his, the burden of realizing that vision now falls onto our withers. How sad and unfortunate is this corruption of our poor innocent Princess Platinum by that vile sorcerer, the so called Starswirl the Bearded and his equally repugnant toady, Clover. Together they have not only blinded the princess, but they have cheapened and made a travesty of the very institution of magic itself!" The stallions present clopped hooves and harrumphed in agreement.

Lord Beryl scanned the eager faces before him. "Of course the greatest insult perpetrated by that sorcerer is that abomination the Amniomorphic spell! Only a mind truly depraved would propose to sully the flower of unicorn marehood and forever taint the pure blood of the unicorn race. No, my brothers! We must return Equestria to its rightful course, with the unicorn nobly holding natural dominion over our lesser brethren, so sorely in need of our inspired guidance.” The applause this time was loud and sustained.

“And so it is with a heavy heart, but a fierce determination, that I propose we execute the plan I originally proposed to our departed king, and open the portal to Tartarus. We can then corral the monsters that emerge and herd them into attacking our enemies. After a few days of terror, they will beg for our magical protection, and will no doubt be most agreeable to our terms.”

A hoof was raised in the audience. Beryl nodded to Baron Lamplight. “This sounds like a most excellent plan, Baron. But I have a question. What is to be the first target of this monster cohort?”

Baron Beryl put a hoof to his temple as if in deep thought. “That is an excellent question. And I do have a first target that is most appropriate to propose. There is, a mere hour’s walk from this very spot, a village that is the most heinous symbol of the dilution of tribal blood. Of course I mean none other than that crime against nature, the town of Ponyville.” His eyes narrowed in grim determination. “It is our intent to crush that hated hamlet beneath the claws and paws of our monster army, eliminate its inhabitants, and burn the remains until it is fittingly erased from our fair land.”

The cheers grew deafening. From one corner of the room, perhaps close to where stood Baron Lamplight, a chant started. “King Beryl! King Beryl! King Beryl!” Soon the whole room was chanting the slogan. Baron Beryl smiled modestly. If the burden was offered to him he would of course not shirk his duty. It was only fitting. Perhaps to legitimize things he would take Princess Platinum’s hoof in marriage. She would no doubt see reason when his campaign brought the other pony tribes properly under unicorn rule.

“We’re a lot closer to the action this time, Angie,” said Morning Glory with a smile. The dais was still in place from the sun raising ceremony. He reared up onto his hind legs a moment and scanned the surroundings a moment before falling back to all fours. “I figure less than half as many ponies have come for the sunset ceremony as for the sunrise.” He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Morning ponies!” he exclaimed.

“We can’t all be nighthawks like you, Mo.” Hydrangea smiled at her younger brother. In the fading light his blue coat was nearly invisible, his eyes and smile seemed to float suspended in the air. “I guess it’s already been a long a day for many ponies, especially the ones with little foals, she said. “But I would have thought Hyacinth and Cornflower had a bit more stamina and come with us.”

“Those two were embarrassed to come here without a marefriend.” He shrugged. “They think most of the fillies will show up already accompanied.” He grinned and cocked his head to one side. "That is where they are wrong, and why I like going out at night!”

Hydrangea took a more careful look at the ponies surrounding them. There were a few families, quite a number of obvious couples, but also many groups of fillies and colts. “So why did you insist I come along then? Aren’t you afraid those nice fillies will think we’re a couple?”

His snort was louder this time. “Hah! One look at us and they know we’re siblings. And a colt in the company of a female relative gets approached more often than a solitary stag!” He looked on in amusement as her eyes grew wide and her mouth gaped open. He reached over with a hoof and lifted her chin. “If you leave your mouth open like that you’ll frighten off both our prospects!” His grin turned wicked. “Or have you eyes only for a certain little green mage?”
It took a moment longer for Hydrangea to recover from her surprise. “It seems my little brother has grown rather sophisticated. I’m shocked.” Then she smiled. “And paradoxically pleased.” There was motion near the dais. “Oh, look. It begins!”

They looked on as Princess Luna climbed the steps that led up to its platform. Once there she gazed out over the large crowd of ponies just as the setting sun slipped below the horizon and the last crimson rays of light faded to purple.

Luna closed her eyes as the crowd grew totally silent. Unlike her sister, Luna remained on the platform, but she did rise to balance on her hind legs, wings half open to assist. Her eyes were closed, her form almost invisible in the fading light. Only the crescent moon sigil and the silver horseshoes of her regalia showed that she was still there.

The princess raised one silver tipped hoof on high and started a slow circular motion. A sparse sprinkling of stars began to appear, twinkling into existence as her movement swept the sky. Waves of oohs and ahhs broke the silence, the sound adding an eerie accompaniment to the stellar dance above. As the sky slowly darkened, Luna raised her other forehoof, moving both like a conductor before an orchestra. Entire groups of stars appeared, and gradually the familiar patterns of the constellations took shape.

Hydrangea put a hoof on her brother’s withers. She wanted to tell Mo how much more beautiful this was than the usual night sky, how much richer and more alive it seemed. But even the smallest whisper might have shattered the almost palpable feeling of awe that resonated through the herd. He spared her a quick glance. A flash of teeth in the dark, and he resumed looking at the sky.

Luna had brought both forehooves together before her chest, her head pointed down as if in meditation. Then she pushed up her chin slowly with her hooves. As her muzzle became level with the crowd, the edge of the moon broke above the horizon. Beams of silver light traced her outline. Slowly her hooves rose ever higher, her wings spreading outwards, as the moon slowly rose, its colour a deep orange. Now many ponies did whisper as they remarked on the unusual sight and the silvered silhouette of the princess just below it.

Luna’s hooves rose above her head just as the bottom edge of the moon cleared the horizon. Its colour paled almost imperceptibly as it rose, until finally, framed one either side by the quicksilver edges of the princess’ wings, it assumed its usual cool yellow countenance. Luna’s wings and hooves slowly folded back into her compact form. There was a moment of silence, and then applause began, grew and gathered momentum.

Hydrangea felt herself clapping along. It wasn’t the wild outburst she remembered from the sunrise celebration. The ponies clapped slowly, touched by fragile awe at Luna’s artful way of raising the moon. It was so very different from the cold practicality of how the unicorns did so, until this first night of the new regime.

Luna had not yet moved. To gasps of the ponies nearest the dais, and even a few exclamations of fear, she launched herself into the night air above the herd, wings beating hard as she fought to gain altitude. Soon she was high and to the north of the field. Hydrangea heard expressions of surprise and anger around her, as the princess did several pirouettes in the sky, becoming a fast moving silver dot, like some wayward shooting star. And then she slowed and spread her wings wide. She glided in a broad arc from east to west, leaving a glittering trail behind her in the firmament. “The northern lights!” whispered Hydrangea to her brother. “She made the aurora appear! It’s so beautiful Mo. I’ve never seen it like this.”

Her brother could only stare at the sky. “Woah...” was his whispered comment.

The lights started moving, colours shifting as if they were curtains of glass billowing in an astral wind. Their dance seemed to fill the heavens as they roiled from east to west, advanced south and faded back into the distant north. The princess slowly glided back to earth, landing on the dais without a sound. She stared out over the crowd of ponies, her expression unreadable. But all the ponies were watching the sky. Finally, a cheer rang out from next to the dais as somepony noticed Luna had returned. It spread and gained in volume until the whole valley resonated with approval. Luna bowed and left the stage as the cheering went on.

“Wow, sis. That truly was an experience!” enthused Morning Glory. He began to move back in the direction of their three-house.

“Wait Mo, it’s not over,” said Hydrangea, as the aurora continued its silent ballet above them.

“The lights will go on all night, Angie. And I’ve got some parties to attend.”

“Hah! I should have known nothing would keep you away from the fillies.”

Morning Glory bowed. “Well, since you know me so well, then maybe I’ll walk you home before I go off into the night.”

“How truly mature of you!” she retorted. “And might this have something to do with what you said about colts with female relatives being more approachable?”

“The thought never crossed my mind,” said Morning Glory with a laugh.

Together they walked home, enjoying the aurora and each other’s company. What a wonderful day it’s been, thought Hydrangea. I can hardly wait for tomorrow!

The Geometry of Magic

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 12: The Geometry of Magic

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Starswirl the Bearded lit a small magelight, revealing the inside of his apartments in Everfree Castle. Clover had teleported with him and was busily energizing the several lamps in his teacher’s abode. “Thank you lad,” said the elder unicorn. He proceeded warily to the closet next to the entrance, where he slowly doffed and hung his hat and cloak.

Finished with the lights, Clover placed some cushions next to the dining table. On it lay several large platters of cut hay, carrots and even some daisies and potatoes. Clover smacked his lips. “With the the three-houses so widespread, somepony is always leaving you treats!” He grinned at the sight. “And now that the unicorn Estates General has confirmed Princess Platinum as regent we should soon be able to get the new Equine Assembly elected and operational.” He lost his smile as his teacher approached and wearily sat on the cushion. The older stallion did not even look at the delectable offering.

“Maestro,” said Clover, “you’ve been brooding ever since the Estates General meeting.” His ears drooped as he focused on his teacher. “You should be celebrating the vote and your appointment, but something obviously burdens your heart. Pray tell me, what is it?”

Starswirl took a deep breath. His gaze met Clover's, a bittersweet smile on his lips and sadness in his eyes. “My student, and my friend! Indeed I cannot hide my thoughts from you, nor do I wish to do so.” Vegetables hovered momentarily as he began to fill both their plates. “Eat up, lad.” He gestured to the plates and paused a moment as he nibbled a carrot. “Clover, I... have an admission to make.” He began then hesitated. Clover chewed thoughtfully on some hay, letting Starswirl take the time he needed. “The Princess would have lost the vote tonight, had I not been there to support her.” There was both sadness and fear in the elder unicorn’s expression.

“Maestro," replied Clover, "I saw the ballot fly towards the Yay basket. It was not a close vote.”

“That’s because I pushed it there.” Starswirl hung his head in shame.

Clover smiled sheepishly. “It's hard to believe a single unicorn could make such a difference to the vote, even you.” His tone was jocular, but his eyes betrayed his concern. They widened in surprise as a single potato levitated into the air above the table. He took in another mouthful of hay.

“Lad, do me a favour and try to displace this tuber in any direction. Use all the strength at your command.”

Clover furrowed his brow at the strange request. Seeing that Starswirl was serious, he swallowed the hay and focused his magical sense on the potato which continued hovering in perfect immobility. His ears lowered as he concentrated more fully, still with no effect. Clover then closed his eyes. Sweat began to bead his forehead, and his breath grew quick. Finally he clenched his teeth and visibly trembled with the effort. Still the vegetable hovered serenely.

Clover opened his eyes and looked at Starswirl in disbelief as his teacher nonchalantly downed some daisies, poured himself and his student water from a pitcher, all the while holding the potato in an iron grip. He tilted his head to one side in wonder. “Maestro, just how powerful are you?”

“Princess Luna says that in her estimation my telekinetic strength approaches several percent of that of her sister Princess Celestia. This would make me by a fair margin the most powerful telekinetic unicorn she has ever tested. She accredits my origins, of which I must tell you more sometimes, lad. That much I owe you.” He paused and furrowed his brow. “But that is only part of the story. Powerful as I am, the opposition would still have prevailed. No, I understood the rules of the Unicorn Estates General before I cast my vote. Power isn't the issue. You see Clover, I..." he lowered his head in shame, "... I cheated.”

Clover frowned in confusion. “How can you cheat, Maestro? The sum of the magical power of the voters pushes the ballot towards one basket or the other.” He scratched his chin with a hoof. “Although there was that one time when Solly the Silly magically shrunk and ate the ballot. The vote was resolved only when Solly himself was dumped into the Neigh basket.” Clover stuffed spinach greens into his mouth.

“Were that this be such a case.” The barest shadow of a grin graced Starswirl’s muzzle, if only for a moment. “Lad, I used the principles of mechanics with magic. I forced the vote the same way I keep that potato in place: I constructed frame of magical segments braced against the beams of this room. As with a pyramid of sticks, the construct is much stronger than its individual segments. In the case of the vote, I created a series of magical levers, each one amplifying the strength of the previous one. It’s amazing what you can do in the absence of friction.”

Clover stopped chewing as he considered the implications of his teacher’s admission. “Buth...” he started to say, spraying his plate with partly chewed spinach, “thaths...”

“Cheating!” interrupted Starswirl. “Yes, I know. And I’m ashamed of what I’ve done. But lad, that’s not the worst of it.” He looked Clover in the eyes. “I estimate Princess Platinum had the support of maybe a third of the unicorns at the Estates General.” He took a deep breath. “Clover, there will be a price to pay for forcing these decisions on so many, and I fear their reaction to losing the vote. I urge you to contact Princess Platinum and strongly recommend that she exercise great caution over the coming days. I will do so the same with their majesties Celestia and Luna.”

Clover swallowed and looked down at his plate, his appetite suddenly quite diminished.

Lord Beryl looked up at the moon. The perfect hour was upon them to open the gate to Tartarus.

To erect the opening in the Everfree Forest they had chosen a large clearing which afforded them just enough space to marshal the monsters that would emerge. He smiled at the prospect. They had the perfect plan to distract the guardian of Tartarus, Cerberus, and both of the alicorn princesses should they somehow become aware of the cabal’s activities.

He approached the circle of large stones his unicorn brethren had placed near one edge of the clearing. These had been invested with powerful spells and were covered with runes placed there to contain their energies. Beryl reached the center of the circle. As he closed his eyes a dark violet glow began to emanate from his horn, and then faltered as a loud voice cried out “STOP!”

Lord Beryl opened his eyes and turned towards the sound. “You!” he said through clenched teeth. A steel grey unicorn mare stood at the forest’s edge. With an angry whip of her tail she strode into the circle of stones.

“Yes, me,” said Princess Platinum with a sneer. Her eyes had narrowed to slits and her ears were flat against the back of her skull. “It appears you have decided to ignore the ruling of the Estates General and disobeyed me. Well, Beryl, once I could forgive but not twice. What have you got to say for yourself?”

The stallion at the center of the ring merely stamped a hoof. “Your interruption of these proceedings is unwelcome, Princess.” He smiled. “We know how you used that foreigner to imbalance the vote in your favour, Princess. We deplore such tactics. They do not reflect well upon your character.” He grinned at the princess mildly, and stamped his hoof again twice.

Platinum raised an eyebrow. “Then I suspect you will not approve of this either.” Her horn glowed brightly as she built energy for a spell. Her attention totally focused on Lord Beryl, she did not notice as over one hundred unicorns stepped out of the forest and into the clearing. Her spell fizzled above her horn as it was captured by their combined will. With a look of surprised anger she hissed at the mob and its leader. “How dare you!”

“Easily, Princess,” said Beryl. He gestured with a hoof. Platinum’s young face showed outrage as she was pushed roughly onto her side. The expression turned to alarm when a rope wound itself around her legs and a blindfold covered her eyes. Then her body surged into spasms as she felt the ultimate violation of any unicorn: an iron ring was thrust over her horn rendering her magically impotent. Speechless, shock and rage warred for what little he could see of her face, as she pulled against her bindings and struggled thus in vain until a spell rendered her unconscious.

Lord Beryl looked down upon her immobile form. “It’s such a pity that young ponies these days have forgotten their place. Take her to the basement of my manor, Lamplight, I still have much to do here.” He turned away as his lieutenant levitated the sleeping princess from the circle of stones, the two disappearing in a flash of magic. Beryl’s horn resumed its glow, and with it the runes on the stones blazed into purple fire.

At dawn there were a good fifty ponies assembled at the mouth of the Canterlot caves for transport to Ponyville. Pegasus drawn wagons awaited, the ponies chit-chatting amiably until the official time of departure arrived.

Hydrangea and Cornflower were there. He had surprised her by showing up accompanied by a pretty young pegasus mare with a yellow coat and a pale blue mane. Her name was Dawn Breeze and she was one of Cornflower’s partners from his three-house, explained her brother with a blush. Hydrangea tried not to smirk as the two avoided standing too close to each other, and kept exchanging half-hidden smiles and secret gazes. The only reason that they were not embarrassingly obvious were the twenty-odd other mixed-tribe couples attempting the same fiction, with similar results.

“Hmm. Only eight unicorns amongst all these ponies,” said Hydrangea. “I would have thought more would show up.”

“Who needs them, Angie?” retorted her brother. She raised an eyebrow, which was usually sufficient to unnerve her middle brother. “I mean, so many of them are against mixed tribe families.” He explained with a sheepish expression. “We don’t want anypony critical to the very idea of Ponyville on this trip now, do we?” Again his gaze wandered to his pegasus companion.

“Still, I would have expected more to show up,” said Hydrangea.

“Give them time, Angie. They’ll come around,” said her brother while his eyes never left Dawn Breeze.

The lead pegasus charioteer called out. “All those who want to go to Ponyville should board the wagons now. We leave in five minutes.”

Not wanting to ruin the experience for her brother and his female friend, Hydrangea decided to keep her misgivings to herself. The happy ponies boarded the wagons, which took off precisely on schedule in the direction of Ponyville.

Starswirl smiled broadly as the visiting ponies discharged from the pegasus wagons, chatting happily and pointing to various features of the town. He heard many comments of how from above Ponyville had seemed a charming little hamlet. He looked around the town green and admitted to himself that, with its brightly coloured houses and shops, the town was indeed quite inviting. Next to him stood Clover and a light beige stallion, who addressed the gathered ponies.

“Welcome to Ponyville, brothers and sisters! My name is Joly Pine, and I am the son of Oya Dawn, the mayor of Ponyville. It is my honour to be the very first earth pony born of a unicorn mother and living proof of the effectiveness of the amniomorphic spell. We have many things to show you and many ponies to introduce, so we will start at the beginning and present a history of our village and its founding on another world!” There were gasps and whispers as the visitors heard this confirmation of one of the many rumours circulating about the tiny town. They followed Joly as he led them from the town’s central green. Starswirl stayed behind, as did Clover.

“He’s got his mother’s gift of the gab, that one!” said Starswirl to his student, looking on as the earth pony stopped and gesticulated every few steps, pointing at this or that, or told a brief anecdote. “This tour might just take longer than anticipated.” He gestured to another building a short distance out of the town proper. “While we wait for Joly to charm our guests I want to show you the hospital.” Starswirl lowered his hoof and began to walk briskly towards the edifice, talking all the while. “Our very talented Oya has made great strides forward in the care of the sick and injured. I am thinking of creating an annex of the Ministry specializing in the medical sciences. What say you, Clover?”

Clover hurried to catch up to his teacher. “Medical science? What an interesting idea, Maestro. Did you come up with it during your stay on the other world?”

“Yes, indeed.” Starswirl’s smile faltered a moment. “But it came to us after a rather unfortunate incident in the early stages of our colony there.” They paused at the building’s entrance.

Chiseled in the stone above its arch were the words: “Zenith Memorial Hospital”. Just below it Clover read: “All who suffer are welcome here.” He paused a moment to recollect Starswirl’s report on the Colony. “Zenith... there was a stillborn foal by that name in the early years, was there not?”

“Yes, it is she. I saw Oya use magic to find the cause of her demise by feeling the inside of her body with her telekinetic sense. It was a revelation in how magic could be used to ascertain the extent of injuries and identify disease. The unicorns of Oya’s clan have been doing this for centuries, but because of their lowly status as animal handlers, the practice has never spread beyond their ranks.” Starswirl entered the hospital. “We now have a chance to rectify this to the benefit of all equestrians, no?”

“I have ceased counting your wonders and revelations, Maestro. I...” Clover was interupted by the loud clatter of hooves on polished wood. An earth pony had galloped into the hospital, blood dripping down his purple sides, breathing hard with and carrying a pony draped over his back. It was a pegasus stallion, and was a mess of feathers, fur and more blood. Starswirl felt his stomach lurch at the sight.

A grey unicorn mare with a chestnut mane approached the new arrivals; a padded pallet hovered in the air behind her. She set it next to the earth pony, who was still trying to catch his breath, and levitated the pegasus from his back onto the pallet. Her horn glowed on as she continued to examine the grievously injured pony. “Head Pond, are you injured as well?” she asked of the earth pony, who finally had wind enough to spare for words.

“No... it’s just Blizzard that was attacked... Aunty Oya.” The earth pony looked down, as if seeing the injured pegasus for the first time. “I didn’t see how badly he was hurt before, I just grabbed him and ran.” He swallowed, looking close to tears. He started when Starswirl placed a hoof on his shoulder.

“Easy, now lad,” said Starswirl. “Can you tell us what’s happened to your brother?”

The pony looked up with eyes as large as saucers. “Monsters!” he said. “...Maestro... there are dozens of monsters... coming out of the Everfree forest!”

Starswirl’s ears flattened against his head, as did Clover’s when he also worked out the implications of the earth pony’s revelation. “I was mistaken, Clover. They didn’t go after the princesses. The target is Ponyville!” He turned back to Head Pond. “Where are these monsters?”

The purple earth pony pointed roughly south-east. “Just beyond the mill, on the other side of town.”

“Listen son, there will likely be more injuries. The hospital must be prepared. I need you to stay here and help Oya organize the staff. Tell her what I have told you as soon as she is finished examining your brother, and then do as she commands.” At the look of incipient panic in the stallion’s face Starswirl again patted his withers. “Blizzard, and all the rest of us are depending on you, Head Pond. I know you can do this.”

The stallion nodded, and looked inwardly as he marshalled the will to stay calm. When it returned his gaze was determined, if grim. “Yes, Maestro. You can count on me.”

Without another word, Starswirl galloped out of the hospital with Clover hot on his tail. They made straight for the Town Hall. Several ponies who had witnessed Head Pond’s mad rush to the hospital with his injured brother joined up with them. Recognizing several of them Starswirl sent them in pairs onwards to the forest, asking them to take a careful look and report back the instant they saw anything amiss.

Joly Pine’s discourse came to a sudden stop as he saw the fast approaching ponies. The visitors craned their heads to see what the commotion was, and made room for those arriving in such haste.

“I’m sorry,” Starswirl shouted out, “but we have to postpone the tour. There are monsters approaching the village from the south. We cannot ensure your safety, and so I ask you all return home forthwith.” He turned to the mayor’s son. “Joly, we need to establish lookouts at the edge of town and set up defences immediately.”

Joly Pine looked at him in confusion. “Starswirl, we’ve never had to do such a thing. Where do we even start?” The villagers clustered around the pair, looking on in fright and confusion. A few of the visitors also approached.

“We need some ponies who are fleet, and... ” Starswirl faltered. He had no clue how to defend a town from monsters.

A cyan coated pegasus, one of the visitors, pushed his way into the inner circle. “You need pegasi to scout from the air and unicorns to prepare a ring of defenses around the town. Have every other pony erect a barrier across the southern edge of town to impede the monsters’ progress while you evacuate the non-combatants.” The group grew quiet.

“Forgive my lack of decorum, but who are you, sir?” asked Starswirl.

The pegasus saluted. “Captain Cirrus Dash, of the pegasi militia. We’re used to fighting monsters on remote weather patrols, and I for one will not leave this town while its good folk are in peril.” Several of the other pegasi formed up behind him. “And it seems my tribemates share my resolve. Have a few of the village pegasi join us and we’ll do the scouting, and some of the fighting if it comes to that.”

Clover spoke. “Starswirl, four of the unicorns here including me are members of our militia as well. We’re young but we have some experience in defence against monsters. We stay and fight.” The unicorns nodded.

Starswirl felt a knot in his throat. It had been an eternity since he had felt such gratitude towards anypony. He hesitated only a moment.

“Captain, I place you in charge of organizing our defences. Clover, you will lead the unicorns under his command, and send somepony who can teleport to advise the princesses of our situation. Our village has for its entire history existed in a place where the only threat to life was accident or disease. It is my failing that we are so ill-prepared upon our return to Equestria!” He turned back to Joly. “Sound the emergency bell, get the evacuation started, and then assist the good captain and Clover in any way they see fit. I will lead the erection of the barrier to the south of town myself.”

The crowd dissolved into three major camps. Minutes later several pegasi took to the air and winged their way south. Few ponies had the time or leisure to observe as Starswirl galloped alone into the fields at the south of town. He then stopped and planted his hooves firmly. Ponies did notice however when earth began to move of its own, as if a giant invisible plow were digging a furrow around the edge of Ponyville. It left a pony-deep trench in its wake that traced fully three quarters of the town’s circumference. The Hospital stood at just about the midpoint between the open arms of the excavation.

When he returned to the front steps of the Town Hall barely a quarter hour later, many of the visiting ponies, especially the unicorns, looked at him oddly. The matter seemed forgotten when everypony was distracted by the return of the pegasi scouts.

The first, a pale yellow filly saluted the Captain and Starswirl. “There’s a whole line of monsters making its way towards town. I saw cockatrices, manticores, two Ursa Majors, and even some timberwolves. They have crossed the river and passed the mill. They’re not in any hurry so far and probably won’t be until they spot some prey. I figure we have half an hour until they reach the earthworks.” The filly tilted her head. “Speaking of which, how’d that trench get dug so fast?”

Every gaze focused on Starswirl. “That new earthmoving spell works quite well, doesn’t it?” he remarked with a sheepish grin. “Well then, have the foals and those who cannot fight been gathered?” Joly nodded. “Then I and Clover will teleport them to Everfree Castle...” He paused when Clover shook his head sadly.

“Maestro. I just tried to teleport a minute ago,” said Clover. There is a counter-teleport spell over the entire area. Try as I might I can’t get through!”

Starswirl’s horn glowed a moment. “Neither can I, lad,” said the elder mage in a grave voice.

“Not to worry,” said Captain Dash. All eyes turned to the pegasus. “Let’s load them up on the wagons we used to carry the guests here. With this bunch it should take three trips at most. We’ll put one experienced driver and three townspegasi per team. We need to keep the pegasi who can fight on hoof.”

“Excellent proposal, Captain. We are most fortunate and grateful for your presence amongst us today. However this has further implications.” Starswirl paused as he chose his words. “A simultaneous attack by a whole menagerie of different monsters is not likely to be just simple coincidence.”

“The monsters are being assisted,” said Clover. Several ponies gasped in surprise. “The conclusion is inescapable. And there is a group of unicorns opposed to the Hearth’s Warming Eve covenant. This can only be their work.”

Captain Dash’s eye narrowed. “Then we’ll have to be cautious. We are not just dealing with dumb animals. All ponies on the ground will be teamed in groups of no less than three. Pegasi will fly in pairs. This may limit our coverage, but it is the only way to fight effectively if... other ponies are involved. I also suggest that as soon as the foals are brought to safety we also evacuate all the other inhabitants.”

Joly surged forward “What do you mean? Are you saying that we must abandon Ponyville?” Everypony present held their breaths.

Starswirl answered for the Captain. “The ponies of this town are more important than any building or even the town itself, Joly. I know, this town is all many of us have ever known, but trust me lad, it isn’t all there is. We can always rebuild, here or elsewhere.” Many of the ponies in the crowd had begun to weep.

“Listen to me, Ponyville! Today we fight not for our town, but for each other! You keep that in mind when considering what and whom is truly important. Those who attack us will know justice, but today our goal is the survival of our families. Our mission is to hold this place while they are safely removed from harm's way.” His gaze turned to the pegasi and unicorn visitors. “This is true for all who have chosen defend us today. You are henceforward part of our town and families as well. We will need to stand firm the better part of two hours, and no more. That is our only objective, and then we leave and let the royal militias deal with this infestation. Anypony who is hurt should be brought to the hospital. Go now, and let us all remember our plan to work together and keep every single one of us safe.” Dismissed, the crowd began to disperse.

Captain Dash approached, Clover and Hydrangea a step behind him. “Well, that wasn’t exactly the most inspiring battlefield speech I’ve ever heard,” said Dash with a wry smile.

Starswirl’s expression was bleak. “Captain, these ponies are not warriors, and neither am I. They are my friends and neighbours. I have known most of them from the day of their births, and they are all very precious to me. I don’t want them to be courageous. I want them to survive. This is a very selfish wish, but I beg of you Captain, please keep them as well as yourselves safe!” He looked at Clover and Hydrangea each in turn. “And that goes for the two of you as well. Take no unnecessary risks, just protect our ponies until the authorities get here. Is that clear?” His gaze shifted back to the Captain. “Speaking of which, we need the fastest pegasus we have fly to Everfree Castle forthwith and advise the princesses.”

Hydrangea spoke. “We already called for a volunteer. My brother Cornflower’s friend put her hoof forward. She’s getting ready to leave now.” She pointed to a little yellow pegasus who had given the report on the monsters’ progress. She was joined with Hydrangea’s brother in a neck hug. The two noticed the attention and slowly parted, blushing visibly. The filly approached.

“I’m ready. Do you have any further instructions?” she asked.

“None. Please do be careful, Dawn Breeze,” said the Captain. She raised a hoof in a somewhat inexperienced salute. With a last glance at Cornflower, she leapt into the air and flew off towards the south-east.

“I need to get an update from the scouts on the monsters’ movements,” said Captain Dash. “I suggest you finish organizing the unicorn teams.” With a nod he trotted off.

“There will be four unicorn units,” said Clover, “one protecting each of the cardinal points. Leading these are Hydrangea and the unicorns who have had some defensive training. Each group will have three teams, two active and one in reserve at all times. Each team will consist of three or four unicorns. We’ve already formed the teams, who are now travelling to their assigned positions on the wall you so thoughtfully provided.” Clover smirked as he concluded his remarks.

“What about you and I, Clover?” asked Starswirl raising an eyebrow.

“You and I troubleshoot. We go to wherever the action is hottest and assist. I take the western half and you the eastern.”

“Sounds competently organized,” said Starswirl. "Let’s get to it then!” Starswirl and Clover began to walk towards the southern edge of the impromptu barrier.

Soon, they stood upon it and gazed out over the peaceful countryside. They did not have long to wait. Groups of various oddly shaped creatures were ambling purposefully towards Ponyville. The closer they came the faster they moved, as if their predatory instincts goaded them on to the expected defenceless ponies.

Minutes later, flashes of magical discharges could be seen around the fortifications. Roars of rage and confusion gave testimony to the defenders’ success. Above the fray, pegasi flew back and forth, pointing out movements and dropping stones on unsuspecting monsters whenever possible.

Starswirl and Clover each went to the assistance of the defenders as the monsters had massed into two large groups. Starswirl’s main tactic was simple: if the beast was terrestrial then from a distance he launched it into the air and back where it had come from. He could not stomach watching them fall, and so wasn’t entirely sure how effective this was. But he assumed what went up high would then come down hard. As to manticores and other flying fiends, he simply struck them in the air with levitated stones. In minutes many large bat-winged bodies littered the field before the embankment. Several were still alive, and mewled pitifully in obvious pain. Their cries alerted their fellows, who became wary of his tactics and stayed away from his position.

Forty minutes into the defence of Ponyville, Captain Dash dropped from the sky less than a ponylength away. “Maestro! Your impeccable defence of this sector has discouraged the foe. Unfortunately they have decided to concentrate their efforts to the other side of town where our defenders are in dire need of assistance. We need you to join them there as we risk being flanked from the north.”

“Tell them I’m on my way.” Starswirl stopped only to advise the unicorn who lead the unit where he was stationed, and galloped off into town.

When he arrived at the northwestern segment of the barrier, he was met by a scene from nightmare. The manticores had adopted his strategy and were bombarding the town's defenders with rocks. The unicorns on the ground mostly aimed balls of fire or small rocks at the manticores, when in the air, but the brunt of the aerial defence was born by the pegasi, who while much smaller than their foes were far more nimble and used their hooves to devastating effect. He could only bear to watch for a terrifying moment the incredible and extremely dangerous aerial ballet of the pegasi defenders.

On the top of the earthen bank, many ponies showed bloody scrapes and gashes. These warred with the ground bound monsters. The unicorns threw stones and fireballs here as well, but to better effect, at least on the smaller monsters. There were two Ursa majors, bound with magical ropes that seemed much too small to hold them. Earth ponies with rods, spades and pitchforks made up the remainder of the defenders.

As he watched a shout went up: "Cockatrice!" Immediately one of the unicorns ran forward, a magical shield forming before the pony as he galloped towards the still distant but oncoming monster. Two earth ponies followed the unicorn close behind.

"Don't look at the Cockatrice!" shouted a voice he recognized. Clover limped over to him while still casting fireballs over his withers into the sky." His left foreleg was a bloody mess, with most of the fur scraped off and much of the skin with it from the shoulder to the hoof. "If you look them in the eye they can turn you to stone," he said. "At least the magic fails and you return to normal if the Cockatrice is felled. Here this is how you do the mirror shield spell."

Starswirl watched, unable to find his voice. He nodded and then produced his own mirror shield. Clover nodded in weary satisfaction. Starswirl's stomach had grown queasy at the sight of his student’s injuries. His voice cracked as he was finally able to speak. "You look like something tried to flay you alive, lad!"

"It pays to keep one eye to the sky, Maestro. You never know when a manticore will try to drop something on you!” Clover’s forced smile faltered, and a look of exhaustion clouded his young face. “Thank harmony you're here. We're reaching the end of our rope, and yet still more of the beasts come from the forest."

At that moment there was a huge roar. One of the Ursa Majors had broken its bonds and was struggling to rise onto its huge legs. Several unicorn defenders rushed past Starswirl and Clover towards the house-sized bear to re-subdue it, but not before the beast was able to tear the bonds off its mate with the swipe of a huge claw. Clover hobbled towards the scene, magical fireballs projecting from his horn as he attempted to assist his fellows in distracting the beasts. Two of the unicorns projected glowing lengths of magical rope, which they threw at the bears. The ropes hovered in the air next to the behemoths looking entirely inadequate to bind the raging monsters.

Starswirl watched in horror as the bears made a surprisingly fast dash towards the barrier. They were so tall that they could literally step over it, which they did, catching the unicorn contingent including Clover and Starswirl between them. Both the bears reared to their hind legs and raised their forelegs, intending to smash the unfortunate ponies into the ground. Starswirl saw Clover’s eyes grow wide in fear and raise his injured foreleg above him in a futile move ward the coming blow. Starswirl’s horn glowed.

The first thing Princess Celestia saw when coming out of her teleport was the ring of stones. Crossing the diameter of the ring was a glowing semi-circle of energy. Inside the princess saw the ethereal light of Tartarus. This is the place! she thought with satisfaction. It had taken her hours to trace the faint energy signature to this remote part of the Everfree Forest which was still rife with the chaotic remnants of the war with Discord. Her sister had been chasing shadows all night long as well, up in area around Mount Canterlot.

A lone unicorn in a dark cloak stood near the gateway, only its horn protruding from beneath the hood. In the clearing just outside the stone circle, Cerberus the guardian of Tartarus slept, bound to the earth with ropes and stakes. Celestia landed in the circle. Her horn glowed and Cerberus awoke. He snarled as his bonds dissolved, and made to pounce on the hooded unicorn, who stood unmoving under his cloak.

“The unicorn is mine!” Her voice resounded, loud enough to shake the stones of the ring. The huge animal lowered its head in fear. More softly she continued. “Return to your realm, Cerberus. I will close this gate, so that you may rest.”

The huge three headed dog bowed, and in two leaps was through the gate. Celestia raised a hoof and stamped it on the ground. From where it struck, a white glow spread like veins through the earth to each of the standing stones, which for a moment glowed bright white as if from an internal fire, before crumbling into piles of dust.

“Show yourself!” said the princess to the lone unicorn. The pony did not move. Celestia felt unease and approached the figure warily. With a flash of her horn she sent the cloak flying. Revealed was the skeleton of a unicorn long dead, kept whole by a spell. As she watched, the spell dissipated and the skeleton fell in pieces to the ground. She stared at the heap of bones, growing more uneasy with each passing second.

Her breath caught in her throat. “This was a feint!” she exclaimed in dismay, and teleported, hoping she wasn’t too late.

Clover expected the sight of the Ursa’s paw above him would be his last. Then the first miracle happened. A ponylength above his head, a magical shield appeared. The bears paused a moment in consternation, then one drove a mighty paw into the gleaming apparition, it shook, and next to him Starswirl staggered to his knees. Clover looked up at the Ursa. The failed attempt only seemed to enrage it further. It roared out its frustration, making the very ground shake. It lifted its huge paw again.

Then Clover saw the second miracle. He and the unicorns under the shield looked up in confusion as the shield began to grow, curving down, until its edges touched the ground, enclosing them in a perfect, transparent half-dome of energy. The bears began to pound on the dome in earnest. Inside, it rang like a bell with each mighty blow, but it held. Starswirl rose to his hooves, eyes closed, horn glowing brightly.

Clover risked a glance beyond the dome. Many of the attackers were taking advantage of the respite from the unicorns’ missile barrage, and running towards the now undefended area.

“Maestro! We need to leave this dome now or the creatures will be able to breach our line!” shouted Clover over the din of the bear strikes, which were coming ever faster.

Starswirl opened his eyes. Instead of the usual deep blue irises, Clover only saw pools of light. The force dome shield disappeared, one of the Ursas nearly stumbling into the group of ponies as it lost its balance when its paw went straight through the air and impacted with its own knee. It roared in pain and then in confusion as it suddenly levitated into the air. Its mate also ponderously rose to float above the embankment. Starswirl took a step forward as if there was a huge weight on his back. Then another. He crested the barrier and slid down into the trench before it. A moment later he climbed ponderously forward up the slope to the field and made his way slowly in the direction of the Everfree forest.

Clover shook his head and shouted at the other unicorns. “Close the breach!” The other defenders quickly spread out and started driving back a pack of timber wolves with balls of fire. Levitated stone missiles took care of several cocatrices that were trying to climb the barrier’s earthen bank. Clover risked a glance at Starswirl who now looked like a tiny dot next to the floating Ursas. Moments later even they were hard to make out. Finally the threesome melted into the green canopy of the Everfree Forest and were lost from sight.

Some ten minutes later Starswirl galloped back towards the defensive barrier. His eyes appeared normal as he broke through the invading horde, scattering them back towards the forest like leaves in the wind. He crested the barrier, and then continued galloping along its summit, a hurricane of force driving back the monsters in all their variety.

He returned less than a quarter hour later, plodding slowly along the barrier’s top. He stopped when he reached Clover’s position. There was a fluttering sound and Captain Dash landed beside them.

“That was truly amazing, Starswirl! I’ve never seen anything like it.” The pegasus stared at Starswirl, a huge grin on his face. “Not one, but two Ursa Majors! If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes...”

“Please captain, just tell me, how goes the evacuation?” asked Starswirl, weariness making his voice weak.

“All the foals, elderly and infirm have been removed. We can now start to move out the other citizens. But I don’t think that will be necessary,” The captain smiled brightly.

“And why is that?” asked Clover.

“Because the beasts are retreating. There’s a good chance the attack is over!”

“I don’t think those who did this will give up so easily,” said Starswirl.

“Two Ursa Majors couldn’t get through. What more could they do?” asked the Captain innocently. Clover winced, and then felt more than heard what could only be termed an earthquake. Then a few seconds later another. And then another. Without another word Captain Dash took off and flew almost straight up until Clover could hardly see him in the distance. He hovered a moment, and then shot straight down, again landing next to Clover and his teacher. His expression was grim.

The earth trembled again. “We’ll continue the evacuation. It will require another thirty to forty minutes to complete,” said the pegasus.

“So what did you see up there?” asked Clover as the ground shook.

“Just past the southern edge of town, a hydra is approaching.” There was fear in his eyes. “This is a small one as such go, only about twenty ponylengths high.”

“So how do we defend against it?” asked Starswirl, as another reverberation shook them.

“We don’t,” said Dash. “All we can do is lead it around while staying out of its way, and hope we have the energy to do so until we can finish evacuating everypony.”

“We have another problem,” said a new voice. Clover turned and saw Hydrangea approaching with her brother. Another seism shook the ground.

“And what’s that?” asked Captain Dash.

“We just saw a group of unicorns herding the monsters into a small valley just east of Ponyville,” said the blue mare. “They also engaged some of our defenders. We’re not just dealing with monsters anymore. This is turning into pony against pony.” Several ponies adjusted their stance as the ground shook again.

Clover looked at Starswirl in dismay. His teacher seemed to age twenty years before his very eyes. He peered into the distance. A hug dun coloured fan could be seen south of the town. It took him a moment to make it out clearly: the fan was actually an array of four long necks, topped with four huge reptilian heads. The hydra was upon them.

The ponies stared south and watched as the behemoth inexorably approached the tiny hamlet, feeling helpless as the earth trembled beneath their very hooves.

The Siege of Ponyville

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 13: The Siege of Ponyville

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Once again, the first thing Princess Celestia saw coming out of her teleport was the ring of stones. But this time there was no pony figure, no captive giant three-headed dog, nothing but the stones and the sound of the breeze blowing through the conifers and leafless trees at the edge of the forest clearing.

The traces of magic that had led her here were faint, much fainter than those left intentionally to mislead her to the other ring. She stamped a hoof in frustration. It had been many decades since she had been so effectively duped, and the shame of it burned worse than she had thought possible.

She scanned the clearing carefully. There were some differences. The ring here was much larger than in the previous clearing. And there were the tracks: timberwolves, manticores, even the huge prints of Ursa Majors and, she shuddered, a hydra. All the tracks left the gateway and proceeded into the forest. None returned.

Celestia’s eyes grew wide and her knees buckled. Her magical senses had felt as if she had only barely fended-off a mighty blow from above. She turned her head sharply to the north, feeling strong resonance from a pony with whom she had a most singular link, and who was in pain. The aura of the magic left no doubt in her mind: Starswirl was in mortal peril!

She didn’t know how far he was, only his general direction and so she couldn’t teleport to his location. There might be only be seconds left to act, so in desperation she did the first thing that came to mind. An idea she had had, but not discussed yet with her sister. She closed her eyes, and linked a magical object directly to Starswirl’s magical aura. She felt his power bloom. She held her breath and waited. His aura remained steady. After half a minute she dropped to her haunches, relief flooding her body. Starswirl lived! Still a nagging feeling tugged at her conscience. She would have to find a way to explain to Luna. After all, she had had little choice.

Celestia arose and followed the tracks of Tartarus’s monster inhabitants towards the Everfree forest. Her heart sank when she saw many pony tracks interspersed with those of the monsters. She closed her eyes, trying to locate nearer sources of magic. It was obvious that whoever had set up these gateways wanted to do something with the monsters. She could feel a group of unicorns assembled to the north, at the edge of the forest. Celestia followed the tracks out of the clearing, feeling dread settle like a cold mass in the pit of her stomach.

With a deafening crash, Clover was thrown to the ground as the earth shook hard. A surge of pain shot up his already wounded right foreleg. He shook his head and forced himself up onto all fours, as did several of Ponyville’s defenders who had also fallen to the ground.

Looking up into the air he spied the pegasi contingent, fluttering in low flight and no longer willing to trust in terra firma. “The beast is coming this way! Get out of there!” shouted Captain Dash. Behind him, huge dun coloured necks swayed in the air above the rooftops, each one topped by a reptilian head equipped with razor-sharp teeth the length of a pony’s leg. They eyed the pegasi and every few seconds one of the heads would lunge for a flying pony. Thankfully their huge mass made the lumbering giants no match for pegasi nimbleness in the air. They also kept the attention of the Hydra away from the more vulnerable ground based ponies.

Starswirl, Clover and Hydrangea galloped as if pursued by the beasts of Tartarus. Clover allowed himself a wry grin. We ARE being pursued by the beasts of Tartarus! he thought. Through his hooves he felt more than saw another house crumble into splinters, bricks, and dust. Finally he had the courage to look back at the Hydra.

“It’s still headed straight through town!” he shouted through the noise. He saw Starswirl just ahead also venturing a glance over his withers. Instead of looking up at the Hydra he was looking down at the swath of crushed houses that extended behind it, the expression on his face reflecting the devastation of the hamlet.

Clover gritted his teeth. Seeing house after house destroyed was taking a toll on his teacher. None of their strategies had succeeded in causing the Hydra to deviate from its course. Soon the town would be bisected. Already they had reports of timber wolves and manticores driving through the Hydra-sized gap in the town’s defences.

The group slowed to a stop. They were far enough ahead that they could take a breather. Starswirl gestured for Captain Dash to come in for a parlay. The pegasus landed next to him, sides heaving from his most recent aerial acrobatics. “Our forces will be divided... and so will the evacuation... if this continues!” he said between gulps of air. “We need to fall back... to one side or the other.” He looked at the unicorns. “Instead of trying to redirect it, do you think you could just slow it down a bit?”

Clover looked back at the Hydra. One of its legs came down squarely on top of another house. It stumbled a moment as the leg sank through to the house’s cellar, causing it a momentary imbalance. “I have an idea!” he said. The others’ desperate gazes settled on him.

“Maestro, can you dig a shorter trench but deeper than the one outside of town?”

His teacher nodded wearily. “Aye, lad. But a beast with four heads and eight eyes has excellent vision and misses little, and will just step over the pit,” said Starswirl.

“Not if I cover it with an illusion while and after you dig it, so it doesn’t see the pit until it’s too late. Then it will topple, and it takes a huge monster like this quite a while to stand up,” replied Clover with an exaggerated grin.

“Excellent idea, Clover.” He looked at the next house in the path of the beast. It was his own former cottage, now greatly expanded, and beyond it was the town green. “We’ll lay the trap just beyond that house,” he pointed with a hoof. “Clover, prepare your illusion.” He galloped to the house in question and magically blasted the back door off its hinges. The other unicorns had followed him inside, and he led them to the front door. “Cast your illusion from here where you can see but cannot be seen. I’ll be back in a moment.” He galloped up the stairs, leaving Clover and Hydrangea to look at each other in confusion.

Clover facehoofed as he suddenly understood. “This house! This has been his home for the last thirty years, according to his point of view. And now it’s being destroyed!”

Hydrangea’s face took on a determined look. “Not if I can help it!” She placed a hoof on Clover’s withers. “There were unicorns following the hydra. I’m convinced they’re somehow directing its movements. If I can take some of them out of action maybe the hydra will stop or we can get it to turn around, or at least prevent the beast and the unicorns from detecting the trap,” she said.

“You’ve got to be kidding! You can’t go against these unknown unicorns alone!” Clover felt desperate. “I’ll go, you take care of the illusion.”

“I can’t,” replied Hydrangea, she stepped closer to him. “Clover, illusions and subtle magic have never been my strong point.” She smiled sadly. “At school you’ve always been the one with the fine touch, able to do even the most complex spells, the finest young mage of our generation the teachers said.” She looked down. “I was always better at the straightforward stuff.” Her gaze met his again, this time accompanied by a saucy grin. “That’s why I was made head of the militia cadets. You, on the other hoof, never seemed too motivated for that kind of practical stuff, my little egghead stallion.” Unexpectedly, she gave him a tender little kiss on the cheek.

Clover felt himself blush. It seemed like forever since the last time he had had the leisure of embarrassment. “Please be careful, Angie.” Her eyes widened as he used her familiar nickname.

“You too, Clover the Clever.” She turned and galloped out the back door.

Clover took a deep breath, focusing on the area outside the front window. He began to build the spell, overlaying all the objects in sight with identical illusions. Hydrangea had been right. The complexity of the task tested the limits of even his skill with the subtle stuff. When it was finished he dared not break his concentration, even for a moment. Even to spare a thought for a dear friend running headlong into danger.

Princess Platinum woke up with a start in the darkness. She tried to cast a magelight and grew alarmed when nothing happened. Then she felt it: the cold ring of iron around the base of her horn. “No! How?” The echo of her cry had that particular timbre of underground chambers. The smell of humidity, mouldy hay, and filth completed her mental picture of her circumstances.

She felt fear. Then images of her last conscious moments in the ring of stones returned. “Lord Beryl!” She seethed in rage, and tried to rise, finding her legs bound. She writhed on the cold stone floor, her mood alternating between misery and wrath.

An indeterminate time later there was the clip-clop of approaching hooves, the sound of a key in a doorlock, and the squeak of rusty hinges. “You have a guest Princess. Please be a dear and show her all the courtesies. Ha ha!” said a voice. She heard the sound of a body hitting the floor next to her. She reached out tentatively with a hoof and felt the barrel of a pony on the ground. Upon further exploration she discovered a feathered wing. She sighed in relief as she detected regular movement. At least the pegasus was still breathing.

Hydrangea skirted the zone two or three houses outside the path of destruction. She hoped to flank the enemy and catch a glimpse of the unicorns she and some of the others had seen accompanying the beastly invasion. She was cautious as some of the defenders had reported clandestine attacks from unicorns who then faded back into the background.

She scanned the houses, to her left. There! A shadow moved surreptitiously towards the hydra. Hydrangea moved in cautiously, approaching the pony from behind. The unicorn rounded the corner of a house and she lost sight of him. She quickly trotted across the street to the same house and crept to the corner. Flattening herself against the wall, she carefully peeked around the corner.

The pony was at the back of the next house up, his horn glowing. She surmised he might indeed be controlling, or at least influencing the hydra. She built a magical charge, hoping to cast a spell to knock the unicorn out of the action for at least a few hours. With an effort of will she launched the spell at the pony, and felt triumph when the unicorn folded to the ground, fast asleep. One down! she thought. On to the next.

Hydrangea quickly moved up to the next house, hoping to again catch another of the beast handlers from behind. A quick peek showed nopony around. Disappointed, she quickly advanced to the next house. And the next.

She was beginning to think that maybe there were fewer handlers than she had been led to believe. And then her eyes grew wide as she considered another possibility. What if the handler she had put asleep was the vanguard, and the other handlers were further back? She quickly turned around, just in time to see the flash of a unicorn’s horn as he discharged a spell.

She ducked and fired off a volley of her own. The figure disappeared behind a broken wall. Hydrangea crept forward, going from cover to cover. She had excelled at this type of dueling in school. Of course, the penalty for being hit in those days was being covered by a splotch of bright paint. She maneuvered around the broken wall, hoping to trap her assailant on inside angle of the wall behind which he had retreated. She charged up, and leapt over the low wall, catching sight of the fleeing unicorn and casting her spell while still in the air. The stallion hardly had time to register surprise on his face when the blast caught him full in the barrel. He also went down like a sack.

Hydrangea felt her heart beat faster, smiling at her victory. She had been good at this. She turned and saw a flash from the corner of her eye. Her legs collapsed beneath her, and everything went black.

Starswirl looked around the bedroom. Everywhere lay reminders of his years in the colony, and all its wonderful ponies. His herd. His people. He had time to take only a few things. He levitated a large trunk onto the bed. Objects began to fly into it as if borne on a whirlwind. His notebooks, some paintings of the fauna, flora and scenes from the other world, art objects, toys and crude drawings made by the many foals through the years seeking to impress their ‘Old Maestro’. An entire other lifetime, where he had learned to become a pony in his heart. Even the smell of the room was precious to him. The essence of the woods of that other world so subtly different from those of Equestria or Earth. He was more a child of this place than of Equestria proper, and he would miss it.

A few last items went into the trunk, then he shut the lid. The finality of that act brought tears to his eyes. Old fool! he berated himself. Time is wasting. He turned his back on the room and levitated the trunk out before turning back and closing the door. He looked at it one last time, and rushed down the stairs with his trunk floating behind him.

Near the front door he found Clover, eyes closed in concentration. “I’m done, lad. Is the illusion ready?” he asked.

Clover did not open his eyes. “Yes it is, Maestro. It extends some fifty paces from the front door in all directions and is about five paces above the ground. You’ll have to keep the displaced earth below that level.”

“Where’s Hydrangea?”

“She went to ensure that our trap is not discovered,” replied Clover, his countenance grim.

Starswirl could tell something was lacking in this response. He looked at the young unicorn’s expression, and decided now was not the time to push for the truth. “Then lad. Give me a minute or two.” He also closed his eyes. There was a low rumbling sound, and Starswirl felt the earth shifting as he used the mental image of a huge screw and several magical pulleys to amplify his strength. It dug a hole in short order, but the earth was accumulating fast. He set several more screws to spreading the earth away for the hole. He smiled as he laboured. Even if the hole was not so deep, the fresh earth would be uncertain footing for the hydra.

After a minute the trench was a good two pony lengths deep. He could feel the earth shake with each step of the hydra. It was getting close. Desperately he dug deeper. Already he feared filling up all the space he had below the illusion for the displaced earth.

There was a tremor larger than the rest, this time accompanied by a crashing sound. “The hydra is upon us! I left us an exit path to the left of the front door. Run, lad!” Starswirl nudged the young unicorn forward. Clover advanced gingerly forward still keeping his eyes closed. In a panic, Starswirl picked him up telekinetically and hurried out the door, carrying both his student and his trunk as he galloped down the path. There was a huge crash as the hydra placed another leg down onto his house.

He cleared the alley just past the two houses down from his own. A bit further and they should be safe. He risked a look back and saw his roof collapse as it was pushed aside by the gargantuan beast. At last he felt safe to stop. He put Clover down gently. The unicorn still had his eyes closed.

The hydra took one more step, its left foreleg going straight into the hidden excavation. The leg came down, and continued going down, and down. The hydra’s leftmost head reacted first, its eyes bulging in surprise. Still the leg plunged further. The second to leftmost head roared in surprise as it felt its body began to topple. The first neck and head were crashing into Starswirl’s neighbour’s house before the third and fourth heads sounded in frustration and fear. The huge beast demolished the two houses next to Starswirl as it fell onto them, and lay still.

“You can open your eyes now, lad. Your stratagem worked, and brilliantly at that,” said Starswirl. He wanted to smile, but he couldn’t. All he could see was the ugly gash in the pretty row of houses. He knew the day was not yet over, and that the hydra would get up. At the price of a few houses, they had bought minutes. He prayed it would be enough.

Clover opened his eyes, and saw the downed hydra. His smile died on his lips when he saw Starswirl expression of loss. “Maestro, let’s help get everypony evacuated to the eastern part of town,” he said gently.

“Aye, lad. What about Hydrangea?” asked Starswirl.

“She’ll find her way back,” replied Clover with a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Starswirl looked at him oddly for a moment. “Then let’s go before the beast rises again.” He took a few steps into the village green, now half covered in fresh earth, and waved to a pegasus nearby, who fluttered down close. “Tell the Captain we are going to construct another defensive trench to cut the invaders off from the eastern half of town. Get everypony there as quickly as possible.

The pegasus flew off. Clover looked to Starswirl. “So how do I help? I’m not so good at the practical stuff.“ His breath caught in his throat.

“Lad, you just keep me safe. I have some houses to pull down and some digging to do.” Starwirl’s face hardened. Clover knew this was going to be in his teacher’s nightmares for a long time.

This was the last wagon load of defenders remaining in Ponyville proper. What’s left of it, anyway, thought Starswirl. As they took off, he looked down on the once picturesque little hamlet. It was mostly rubble. He estimated fully three quarters of its buildings had been demolished totally. The hydra had been made to run a pattern circling the town. It had gone twice around so far. Plumes of black smoke rose above the wreckage, as fires raged unchecked, spreading ever faster.

The only part of Ponyville left standing was the hospital, fortified with dual rings of earthworks thrown up by Starswirl after he had dug the trenches in the town. That’s where they were heading now. All the defenders had massed there.

Clover sat on his haunches in a corner of the wagon, sullen. He had not wanted to board the wagon. Hydrangea had never shown up and nopony recalled seeing her. He had wanted to stay and wait for her, but Starswirl ordered him to get aboard or he would put the lad there forcibly. Clover knew better than to test him in a one-on-one contest of wills. He had boarded the wagon in resentful silence and had not uttered a word since.

Joly Pine held the other corner, face ashen while looking at the wagon’s floorboard, hiding from the view below. He had not flinched until the last moment, when he too had almost refused to get on. Starswirl had begged him quietly, saying that his mother awaited him at the hospital. Joly had looked up at him.

“How can I face her?” he had asked. “The town is destroyed.”

“We’ll face her together, Joly. We have saved almost all the ponies which as the mayor will make her proud. And as a mother she’ll weep tears of joy that her son has survived the day.” This had only made Joly burst into tears himself, but he had boarded the wagon.

The rest were various unicorns, earth ponies and even two pegasi, including Captain Dash who’d had half of the flight feathers of his right wing chomped off by one of the hydra’s heads. They would grow back, but he was for the moment incapable of sustained flight.

Including Hydrangea there were two other missing ponies. Three from a population of almost five hundred, including the day’s visitors. Starswirl knew intellectually that this would have been called an amazing successful retreat. In his former life he had played at war with generals and kings, but never had he been in battle. Now he knew its true cost, and the knowledge tasted of ashes in his mouth.

The Princesses had not shown up, nor anypony from the authorities, for that matter. Captain Dash was also worried for the little yellow pegasus they had sent to advise them of Ponyville’s peril. They had sent another with a word to exercise caution. Still, Starswirl was glad Hydrangea’s brother had been evacuated in an earlier flight. He had no clue what he would say to the lad when they landed.

Below he saw the Hospital grow in size as they approached. Wounded ponies were lined up in triage lines outside. The most serious cases were brought inside first. Starswirl saw a lot of red dotting the white sheets covering those awaiting treatment.

He looked back once more on Ponyville. He could not see how the town could survive this day. Surely the fires would make short work of the few buildings left standing. And he doubted its residents would abide staying so near the Everfree forest, now that it was infested with dangerous creatures. No, his Ponyville, the Ponyville he knew, was dead. That was the only word for it. Starswirl hid his face in his hooves and wept.


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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 14: Relativity

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

"Mmmph, whaa...” Princess Luna struggled for awareness, sleep only reluctantly giving way to the persistent prodding of a hoof on her withers. The warmth of her blankets and the comfort of her bed called her back into their jealous embrace.

“Your majesty, please!” said a deep familiar voice. The urgency in the voice of her Thestral Guard Captain beckoned her from the embrace of Marepheus. Her eyes opened slowly, focusing on the midnight black stallion. A fierce countenance loomed over her: black and silver armour, split pupil eyes, a predator’s fangs, and leathery dragon’s wings. He stood next to her bed, the heavy drapes that encircled it drawn and letting in the light of day.

Luna smiled. “Captain Dusk. Is that the setting sun shining through yonder window?” She squinted into the unaccustomed brightness. Her sleep had been troubled in the past weeks; waking had become an arduous process. “It seems as if we’ve hardly slept at all.” Beyond the captain her maids waited anxiously for their mistress to rise. He offered her a raised hoof, a gallant gesture which brought another smile.

“It’s not yet noon, majesty. We have a situation that requires your immediate attention,” said Dusk. His wings were partially extended. This unusual display of emotion, even more than his words, caused her some alarm. Her grin faded, and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

“What is it? And is my sister aware of it as well?” Her chambermaid peeled back the blankets, and offered her a steaming towel to wipe her face. She stood as her dresser approached with her new regalia, designed upon the same model as her guard’s armour.

“A pegasus has just flown in from Ponyville. She reports that it is under attack from various creatures of Tartarus, including a hydra. Much of the town has been destroyed, and they need help to fight off the monster. There is also a counter-teleportation spell in the vicinity of the town. Oh, and nopony has seen her majesty Princess Celestia since you spoke with her shortly after dawn.”

“My sister must still be tracking down those mysterious usages of magic we detected in the Everfree last night.” Luna considered a moment, then her eyes narrowed.

“Captain Dusk, alert my guard and give them my apologies for waking them so early,” said Luna. “We will lead the operation ourselves. Advise the captain of the day guard.”

Dusk’s hooves clicked together as he stood at attention, “Your majesty's guard is mustered and awaits your orders in the courtyard. I will advise Captain Dawn and join you there presently.” He saluted and exited her quarters at a trot.

Luna looked on her departing guard captain with approval. “The new Thestral Guard surpass our expectations,” she remarked to her maids as they briskly finished polishing her regalia and brushing her mane and tail. She nodded to the mares, knowing her words would get back to the Captain and his ponies as well as the rest of the castle staff. Celestia had at first balked when Luna suggested a separate guard detachment for herself, but she had argued that the arrangement would provide an added degree of familiarity and better coordination in emergencies. She smiled. “And now we have occasion to show our sister what they can do!”

Feeling quite refreshed despite her foreshortened repose, Princess Luna left her quarters with a spring in her step.

Celestia peeked out from under a bush. The largest concentration of monsters she had ever seen milled about in the forest clearing, roughly divided by species. Something, or rather somepony was keeping them pacified and apart. There really was only one possibility, bitter as it was for Celestia to admit it: unicorns were herding the beasts. The real question was why? Nopony went to such effort without some gain in the enterprise, and Celestia was determined to find out what it was.

She had approached the area hidden by an invisibility spell. The bush gave a good vantage from which to spy out the ponies whilst keeping out of the traffic. At first she had hoped to listen-in on their conversations and thus gain intelligence on their purpose. An hour of patient waiting convinced her that the unicorns had been instructed to stay well apart and not engage in discussion. As her options were few, she resolved to grab one of the miscreants for interrogation. Since the unicorns kept at a certain distance apart she hoped to take one and have the time to get some answers before the others became aware of the absence.

There was a haughty looking light blue coated young mare wearing rather plain looking saddle bags who stood scowling a short distance to her right. She selected this one for capture and prepared an illusion to replace her. Celestia approached the mare from behind, and in a single cast both rendered her unsuspecting target invisible and caused the illusion to appear in her place. Then Celestia zapped the mare with a sleeping spell. She heard a muffled thud as the body dropped to the forest floor. Too bad Luna isn’t here, thought Celestia with a thin-lipped smile, she enjoys these clandestine activities so much more than I!

She started levitating the mare onto her back when she was interrupted by a loud whistle. It was immediately joined by many others. Uh oh. Celestia looked to the nearest of the monster herders. The stallion was blowing mightily on a whistle while looking at the illusion of the mare she had created. They must have a magical buddy watch implemented, and like a foal I triggered it! The stallion extracted a stone from his own identical saddle bags. He cast the stone to the ground and disappeared in a flash of light. The mare in her telekinetic grip was also suddenly gone.

Selective teleport keys! thought Celestia, These ponies must have been preparing this a for long time. It’s a most sophisticated...” Her ruminations were interrupted by a huge roar. It was followed by the sound of animals fighting in the clearing and many more crashing pell-mell through the forest. The handlers have abandoned the monsters! Celestia burst into the clearing, hoping to catch as many as possible before they escaped into the Everfree forest. Already many of the monsters had fled. With a spell she put to sleep the remaining ones.

She trotted into the center of the clearing, leaping over sleeping monsters. Blue fire coursed from her horn whenever a sound from the forest let her locate another, which would then levitate into the clearing to be added to the pile of sleeping denizens of Tartarus. A few minutes later there were no more sounds to be heard other than Celestia’s breathe through her clenched teeth.

Blue fire again burst from her horn as she levitated the entire monstrous collection of sleepers into the air. Her eyes glowed white as she opened a gate to Tartarus just below them and dropped the sleepers through it. Then it closed with a pop. Her eyes resumed their normal magenta appearance. She sat on her haunches, breathing hard.

Think Celestia, what could they do with all these beasts? she closed her eyes. Where could they drive them? The only settlement within hours is...! With fury in her heart, Celestia tried to teleport to Ponyville, and failed. Her ears drooped and her mouth gaped open. “Their target is Ponyville!” Celestia gritted her teeth and launched herself into the air. The trees at the edge of the clearing shook from the downdraft as she beat her mighty wings.

Luna flew fast through the sky at a thousand pony lengths in altitude. Her Thestral Guard followed her in perfect formation like some dark and forbidding flight of bat winged geese. The wind whistled through her ears. In the distance, she could see pillars of smoke rising from Ponyville, and the four swaying columns of the hydra’s heads as it slowly progressed through the town’s ruins. “You know what to do!” She called to her guards. On each side of her, two pairs of guards peeled off, forming up into four wings. The noonday sun glinted off bared scimitars clasped in their forehooves.

The Thestrals flew down to the hydra, each wing selecting one of the necks. They lined up and simultaneously passed by each head, one member of the wing on either side. At the last second they pulled in their bat wings and extended the scimitars towards the hydra. As soon as they were passed, they extended their wings and climbed rapidly. At first it appeared they had not been successful. Then red traces appeared on the hydra’s necks. It roared through four mouths, and one by one, its severed heads fell to ground.

“Well done!” shouted Luna. “Now quickly, the net, before it has time to generate new heads.” The hydra had stopped moving, as if the huge headless body was unsure of what to do. However, already the wounds at the top of its necks had stopped bleeding and the skin was closing over. One of the Thestral Guard passed below the others, dragging a dark mesh behind him. Each guard hooked a hoof onto the mesh. When all four wings were so linked, they once again descended onto the hydra, unfurling the net behind them. As they passed, all but the two guards at each end dropped the net. The ones still grasping the net looped around, winding the hydra tightly in its mesh. Already, a new head burst from the top of one the necks. The hydra again roared its frustration.

The entire guard detachment swooped in, each one grabbing onto loops of rope depending from the mesh. Luna watched in satisfaction as they laboured to haul the hydra into the sky in a magnificent display of Thestral power and coordination. They had instructions to dump the creature into the swamps in the middle of the Everfree forest. Nopony lived there, and as the creature was aquatic it would most likely stay put until Luna had time to send it back to Tartarus. For the moment, however, there were more important scores to settle. She winged down towards the lone standing edifice of the town.

Starswirl’s ears drooped. At his sides, Captain Dash and Clover looked away, unable to face the accusing gaze of the bright blue colt before them. Behind them hospital staff carried another bloodied pony into the hospital.

“How could you have left without her!” shouted Cornflower.

“I’m sorry, son,” said Starswirl. “We waited for Hydrangea as long as we could.” His words sounded lame in his own ears.

“For all we know she could be hurt, or even trapped in a burning house!” The colt stepped closer to Starswirl. “We have to go looking for her,” he begged.

“Nopony leaves the safety of the Hospital!” said Captain Dash. “There are not only monsters hunting ponies in town. It would be suicide!”

Starswirl put a hoof on Cornflower’s withers. “Lad, your sister...” he started, but words failed him.

“Hydrangea would tell you to keep your flank where it is,” said Clover.

Starswirl looked sharply to his left when help came from this unexpected quarter. These were the first words Clover had spoken since his argument with Starswirl on this very topic.

“She was made captain of the magic school’s militia for a reason,” continued Clover. “Anypony chasing after her would just get in her way.”

“Clover’s right, lad, please listen,” said Starswirl to Cornflower. His gaze shifted back to his student, glad that he was speaking again. His smile died on his lips when the young pony would not meet his gaze, choosing instead to walk away.

“Flyers at five o’clock!” shouted a voice. One of the pegasus defenders pointed to the sky. It looked like a flight of pitch black pegasi in military formation. Eight of them peeled off from the edges of the formation. “They’re attacking the hydra!” Several of the pegasi defenders took the air.

Starswirl stared at the lead pony of the formation. The sun glinted off familiar regalia. “It’s Princess Luna!” he called out, with a laugh. “Thank harmony.” He watched and cheered with the weary defenders as Princess Luna’s guard made short work of the hydra and then transported it away to the south. He waited patiently as her majesty slowly flew down to the Hospital and landed next to the group of defenders.

“Well met, Minister Starswirl,” said the Princess. “My Thestral Guard has prevailed and is securing the town as we speak. Tell me, what do you know of those who have done this crime?”

Starswirl bowed. “Almost nothing, majesty. We know only that our town was attacked by creatures from Tartarus, and that unicorns were seen somehow guiding them. Also, there is a spell over Ponyville preventing teleportation.”

“Your messenger told us as much. We’ll smoke out those involved and get to the bottom of this, you have our word.” There was a cold edge to Luna’s voice.

“Thank you, your majesty,” said Starswirl. He gulped. The princess also seemed to be avoiding looking him in the eyes.

Luna looked up to the sky. Starswirl followed her gaze. A Thestral guard arrived from the town and landed before the princess. His insignia indicated he was their captain. He saluted and waited for the Princess to acknowledge him.

“Speak!” said Luna.

“Majesty. When we landed there was a series of whistle calls, and several unicorns were seen deploying teleport keys. One of our guardponies grabbed onto a unicorn and was teleported away with him. Afterwards, the invading beasts went feral and began attacking anything that moved including each other. We are currently disposing of them in a sweep through town.”

Clover bowed. “Majesty. Several of the defenders are missing. Please have the guard keep an eye out for wounded or unconscious ponies.”

“You heard our good Clover, Captain. Please inform your ponies.” She focused inward as her horn glowed. “The teleport interdiction spell has dissipated. Prepare a squad for teleportation with me.”

The Captain saluted again and took off.

“Your majesty. Where do you propose to go?” asked Starswirl with a confused look. “We have no idea what was their destination.”

“Patience, Starswirl. We are confident our guard will provide.” Luna’s smile was predatory. “And then those responsible will taste the wrath of the Night.”

Many ponies cheered at the words. But Starswirl was quiet, and looked away from the princess.

The Captain and six of the Thestral Guard returned barely a minute later. They had just landed when a glow appeared over Princess Luna’s head. Bit by shining bit, it assembled itself into a scroll that dropped into her telekinetic grasp. She unfurled and read it. “Guards in transport formation,” she said. They lined up on either side of her, each guard clasping the one to its front, the first two placing a hoof on the princess’ partially extended wings.

“The guards in the town will tell you when it is safe to return.” Luna nodded once, and with her guards disappeared in a flash of light.

Starswirl decided to try speaking with Clover again, but even after several minutes of fruitless search the lad was nowhere to be seen. Where could he have gone? he thought. His eyes grew big as he realized the likely answer. He teleported.

Princess Platinum again heard the clip-clop of her approaching jailor and the grinding of the door’s hinges. “Well, this is turning out to be our most popular suite! As they say, Princess, two's company, three’s a herd!” There was the sound of another body falling to the ground.

Platinum squirmed and shimmied until she could touch the new arrival. Mane hair led her to the pony’s poll and horn. Another unicorn with a restraining ring firmly affixed.

The pony groaned. “Hey! Are you injured?” Platinum asked.

“My head hurts. And my horn!” The pony, a mare from her voice, struggled.

“Be still and save your strength, sister,” soothed the princess. “I have little to show for my own struggles other than chafes and cuts. Our captors are most vexingly efficient.”

“Princess Plantinum?” asked the pony.

“Yes, indeed.” Platinum smiled. “It would appear they have blindfolded you as well, miss...”

“Hydrangea Blue, your highness. We met yesterday.” The mare sighed. “It’s so hard to believe it was only yesterday.”

Platinum finally recognized the voice and recalled the pony to whom it belonged. “Oh, the mare who attended the Ministry of Science meeting with her brother.” She heard a movement against the floor, which she assumed was a nod. Something the mare had said sounded ominous. “What do you mean ‘only yesterday’, Miss Blue?”

“This morning I was in Ponyville when it was attacked by monsters from Tartarus. They were herded by unicorns, Princess. I was trying to take out the unicorns handling a hydra when I was myself captured.”

“A hydra?! But, that’s truly monstrous. How could any unicorn do such a thing?”

“It’s true,” said a shy voice. “I was there, I saw the monsters as well.”

“Our pegasus cell-mate is awake,” said the princess. “What is your name and how are you dear?”

“My name is Dawn Breeze, and I hurt all over,” she said.

“You’re Cornflower’s friend!” said Hydrangea. “So they captured you. No wonder the Princesses never came. Have they mistreated you?” she asked with indignation.

“They were waiting for any pegasus that tried to leave Ponyville in the direction of Everfree castle. They sent manticores after me, and I was struck in the sky. I blacked out even before I touched ground.” She paused and took a long trembling breath. “I’m surprised I’m still alive. Somepony must have caught me.” Then the little pegasus giggled.

“What’s so funny?” asked Hydrangea.

“Oh, just that Cornflower told me about you two.”

“What do you mean about us two?” asked Platinum.

“Well, that you both fancy that green colt, Clover the Clever. Is it true?” she asked shyly.

Neither Hydrangea nor Platinum said anything.

“Tee-hee! It’s true!” Dawn Breeze giggled again.

The cell was quiet a moment.

“Do you fancy him, your highness?” asked Hydrangea. “I mean, he and I haven’t kept company or anything. We just know each other from school, but I’ve always felt he was special, not just another colt.”

Platinum felt herself blush. She was glad the other mares were apparently also blindfolded. Even though embarrassing, it was nevertheless a good question, and so she searched her feelings. “You know, I hadn’t put much thought to it, really. But in retrospect, perhaps I was bit jealous when I saw how he reacted to you yesterday.” She smiled under her blindfold. “You know, when my father died he was the one pony who came to me in my grief.” She hesitated a moment. “I guess I do have a special place in my heart for him.” She snorted in a very un-princesslike manner. “And for a scholar he does have a fine flank!”

“Oo! You learn such juicy stuff in jail!” tittered Dawn. The other two mares chuckled along.

From high in the sky Celestia saw the columns of smoke rising on the horizon. She flew at high speed and in minutes was swooping down on Ponyville. She circled the hamlet once. The sight of the destruction broke her heart. Ponies were gathered at the one building left intact. As she landed before it several ponies trotted out to greet her.

“What happened here?” she asked the first pony to reach her, a cyan coloured pegasus who bowed and related the day’s events. Celestia listened patiently to the pony’s report. With relief she heard how her sister had arrived with troops and ended the incursion.

“And where is Starswirl now?” she asked Captain Dash.

“Nopony has seen him since he was asking for the whereabouts of his student Clover. They’ve both been missing for some twenty minutes, your majesty. We speculate Clover went to town to look for a missing pony and that Starswirl went to find him in turn.”

“I have my own ways of locating Starswirl, Captain.” She looked at the burning town. The fires were now quite extensive and she was quite worried. “I will go fetch our missing ponies. Thank you, Captain.” Celestia nodded and the Captain bowed.

The princess concentrated for a moment, and found herself in the town, surrounded by smoking ruins. She heard a cough and caught sight of Starswirl. His horn glowed as he levitated large segments of debris out of the way.

“Starswirl! Have you found him?” she called out.

The mage looked up with desperation, hope and streaks of soot staking equal claims to his visage. “Princess Celestia! No! I’ve been tearing away debris in case he has fallen unconscious in one of the houses. I am sure he went to look for Hydrangea, who went missing earlier today.” He coughed. “How did you find me, Princess? And can you also find Clover and Hydrangea?”

Celestia gingerly stepped over burning embers. “I created your pony body from a piece of my own, Starswirl. You and I share a special bond, one that I do not have with other ponies.” She saw the disappointment in his face. “But I have other ways to search for them. As they are unicorns, I can detect if either one uses magic. Let us search together and if...” Celestia halted mid-sentence and winked out of sight.

She reappeared a moment later with a soot covered Clover on her back. She also sported several dark smudges on her white coat. “Let us return to the Hospital, Starswirl. It’s much too dangerous to stay in this inferno!” she shouted. Starswirl nodded. They teleported and reappeared on the grass in front of the Hospital.

The relative silence was a great relief, as was the fresh air. Both she and Starswirl coughed repeatedly to get the smoke out of their lungs. He trotted up to her and the weight on her back was gone as he levitated Clover off of her back. A pony wearing a bloodstained white uniform galloped up to them as Starswirl held the colt suspended in the air.

At first Clover did not move. Then, with a gasp he started coughing. The nurse examined him briskly. “Did he breathe any smoke?” she asked, and placed her ear near the young mage’s mouth.

“I do not think so,” said Celestia, coughing again. “I found him under a dome of force. It was quite clever actually, as otherwise a burning wall would have fallen upon him. It trapped a bubble of cooler air beneath it which kept him alive until I was able to free him.”

Clover’s eyes suddenly opened wide. The nurse offered him a drink of water. “You can put him down now,” she instructed Starswirl with a gentle smile.

Starswirl gently levitated Clover to the grass. With a cough the lad got back onto all fours. He looked around and gave a weak smile. “Thank you majesty for pulling me out of there.” His gaze turned to Starswirl. “And thank you Maestro! That bubble shield spell kept me from dying of my own foalishness.”

Celestia nodded, noting how Starswirl suddenly looked as if a huge burden had passed from his withers. The old mage’s smile reminded her strongly of the Leonardo she had known so long ago, before she had pulled him into her world. The nurse turned to her, examining her scored coat. Luna dismissed the mare with a wave of a hoof. “Thank you miss, but I can attend to my own wounds.”

She was still cleaning up when Starswirl approached her with a scroll. Her expression hardened as she read the names listed therein. “Starswirl, do you wish to meet the perpetrators of this outrage?” She observed as several emotions washed over the scholar's face in quick succession. Finally, he nodded, looking grim.

“Yes, majesty. Your sister and her Thestral Guard have been there for some thirty minutes already. Do you think it safe to join them?”

“Worry not. My sister is generally quite expeditious, and she has worked intensively to train her guardponies in the last few weeks. They were competent before, they are no less so now.”

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. “The Thestral Guard was in existence before, then?”

Celestia’s laugh was dry. “I’m sorry if my comments mislead. The unit is new, as is the spell that gives the Thestral Guard their unique look. However, its members are for the most part former members of the Royal Pegasus Guard. Today’s events prove that perhaps there was wisdom in Luna’s suggestion to create a unit under her own command.” She offered a hoof to Starswirl. “Shall we go see the results of their labours?”

Starswirl nodded and placed a hoof on hers. She teleported them both to the mansion of Lord Beryl.

Hydrangea heard a ‘Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat’ sound as several ponies galloped down the corridor that led to their cell. There was the jangle of keys in the lock and the creak of the cell door opening.

A haughty voice spoke: “We are going to relocate you ladies. We will untie your legs and you will go where we direct you in all haste, or you will not survive the trip. Have I made myself clear?” When none of the mares responded, he laughed. “Hah! I’ll take that as a lack of objection for now.” Hydrangea felt the binds on her legs loosen, followed by the pain of restored circulation. She stumbled to a standing position. She heard the other two mares clumsily arise.

“Move! Now!” She blushed as she felt a rather un-gentlecoltly telekinetic prod. She started forward and was shepherded out of the cell, with the princess and Dawn close on her flanks. They had begun moving up the corridor when there was commotion ahead.

“Stop!” The three cell mates stumbled into each other as they did their best to comply. “Do not take another step!” shouted their captor from behind.

There was the sound of fighting ahead. Hydrangea felt a body move between her and the wall. She heard a whisper. “Keep between me and the guards.” It was the princess. She heard a ripping sound. And then a scrabbling sound of hoof on metal.

Further up in the corridor she heard a pony’s scream cut short by a gurgling sound.

Behind her in the corridor her captor cursed. “Where is the blasted thing? I had it in this bag! Blix - run ahead to give me time to find the key.”

She felt a pony gallop by her in the tight confines of the corridor.

“Success!” she heard Princess Platinum exclaim. Then her blindfold was ripped from her head and she could see. It took a moment for Hydrangea’s vision to adjust to the sudden light.

At the head of the corridor she could see three unicorns battling a pair of bat-winged ponies with swords. Somehow they seemed immune to the magic being cast at them. Already two unicorns lay bleeding on the ground near the corridor entrance. She turned her gaze to look back at the other end of the corridor and saw a unicorn desperately rooting through the contents of a saddle bag, with several more on the floor in front of him.

Next to her, Princess Platinum shot out towards the lone captor at their rear. Not only had she removed her blindfold but she had somehow even removed the iron ring from around her horn. “Surrender, foal!” she shouted.

With a shout of triumph, the unicorn with the saddlebags pulled a stone out from one of them. “Found it!”

“Too late!” shouted Platinum, as her horn began to glow.

The unicorn with the stone just smiled. “Is it now?” Something about his self-assurance set alarm bells ringing in Hydrangea’s head. The other captors! She turned her head just in time to see the unicorn named Blix cast a spell of dark purple fire directly at Platinum’s back.

Time seemed to slow down.

Hydrangea still had the iron ring on her horn. It made her head heavy but she moved it as fast as she could. She pushed off with her forelegs. As she began to shove forward, she thought of Clover and of Princess Platinum. He could do worse! The thought put a wry smile on her lips. She leaned into the space between the princess and the oncoming fireball. She had a moment to look at it as it approached. Such a pretty death spell! she thought. Then the fireball hit her squarely in the chest, and everything went dark.

Lamplight grinned when Blix threw the death spell at Princess Platinum. The stupid filly was finally getting what she so richly deserved. Then his eyes grew wide as the other traitorous unicorn mare stepped between it and its intended victim.

“Nooo!” shouted the pegasus mare, whose blindfold had no doubt also been removed by that troublesome princess.

Lamplight saw the princess turn her head at the mare’s shout. She was just in time to see as the fireball hit the blue mare and she crumpled into a lifeless heap. He felt a certain satisfaction as the princess let go a howl of agony. Beyond them, he saw Blix cut down from behind by a leather winged pegasus in night black armour.

Enchanted armour! he thought. It was probably what protected the pegasi from the unicorn’s spells. Well then. There’s no reason to dally. He threw the stone to the floor.

Starswirl sighed as Celestia teleported them both. Finally the princesses had arrived and were taking things in hoof. His eyes blinked closed with the flash of teleportation, and opened onto a new scene. Then he wished they hadn’t.

They stood in front of a mansion. Blood was everywhere, as were dead unicorns. Most had been felled by slashes to their necks. Some had obviously offered more resistance and had more extensive wounds. Starswirl fell to his knees and vomited.

From his vantage near the ground Starswirl observed Celestia’s frozen stance.

He heard a clip-clop sound and saw dark hooves clad in silver appear. He looked up at Princess Luna. Her pupils were dilated, and he could not read the expression in her face. “Justice is done, and we grow weary from our efforts,” she said. She approached her sister, who still hadn’t said a word. She turned her gaze to her Thestral Guard Captain who stood on her left. “Captain, as the Princess of the Day has arrived you and your guardponies are dismissed. You may fly back to the castle and retire to a well deserved rest.” She looked at Celestia. “Those who chose to surrender are grouped under a constraint spell over there.” She pointed to a group of some thirty ponies keeping down low beneath a glowing spell field. “Those who chose to resist are dead. Unfortunately this includes their ringleader, Lord Beryl. At least the state is spared the expense of a trial for that traitor.”

Starswirl looked into Luna’s eyes, searching for some sign of the vivacious princess he knew. He saw only darkness.

“Thank you for helping protect the inhabitants of Ponyville, sister. I will attend to matters here. You may also seek your rest,” said Celestia, her voice as coldly devoid of emotion as Starswirl had ever heard it.

Luna nodded and with a flash was gone. Celestia looked out over the scene of carnage.

“What is happening to Princess Luna?” asked Starswirl.

It was a long minute before Celestia spoke. “I do not know. You must understand something, Starswirl. After our war with Discord, Luna and I were forced to root out and destroy much of the evil that threatened this land. During those times we often had to impose... severe sanctions against evil-doers, including ponies. Luna was usually the one to undertake these less savoury aspect of our cause. I sometimes lacked the... resolve... to do what needed to be done. She did not.” Her glance in his direction showed embarrassment and held a world of pain. “I assure you these actions were necessary, and every time I am reminded of those days I recall that she chose to bear these stains on her soul not least because she wished to spare me the same.”

Starswirl stared at Celestia long and hard. “This isn’t justice, majesty. It’s slaughter. I would not have thought it within her character.”

“Our herd was under attack, Starswirl. And I wasn’t there to defend it. Luna was.” said Celestia with misery in her voice.

Starswirl could not think of a reply that would not further sadden the princess. He turned his head at the sound of several of Luna’s guardponies exiting the mansion. They were escorting two ponies, one, a unicorn, was carrying another pony on her back.

“Princess Platinum!” he shouted, recognizing the unicorn. He and Celestia trotted over. As he approached he could see the tears falling from Princess Platinum’s muzzle. The little yellow pegasus mare next to her was weeping as well. His eyes grew wide as he caught a glimpse of a familiar light blue leg dangling from Princess Platinum’s back. His voice caught in his throat.

“Is it Hydrangea?” he croaked.

Platinum nodded. “She saved me. She... saved me.” The princess lifted a foreleg to cover her eyes and wept.

Starswirl stood frozen in shock. He felt Celestia brush by him and embrace the weeping unicorn. Her horn began to glow as she tried to relieve Platinum of her burden.

“No! Please...” Platinum looked up into Celestia’s eyes. “I wish to bring her home to her family. This... this is what her family deserve. This is how I wish to honour her memory.”

Celestia nodded, and gently released Hydrangea’s body. “I will accompany you, Princess Platinum.” She looked back at Starswirl. “I saw her brother in Ponyville, Starswirl. Could you please see him to Canterlot?”

“Yes, of course your majesty.” Starswirl called to the pegasus. “Come Dawn. Cornflower is looking for you, and I suspect he will need your support.”

The little mare nodded and stepped closer to Starswirl. He offered her a hoof, and she placed hers in his. He took one last look at the area around the mansion, seeing the crying mares, the cringing prisoners, and the bloody dead. Were that this be the last time I ever see such a sight, he wished desperately.

He sighed, and teleported.

The stallion materialized in his hut in the Everfree forest.

He pondered his circumstances. So much for Lamplight. His horn glowed as Lamplight's features slowly faded to be replaced by his true appearance. He stretched his wings and sighed. That feels so good! But I can't be seen looking like this. His horn glowed again as he set about experimenting with various facial and body features.

He settled on a powerfully built stallion, with a grey coat and black mane and tail. A unicorn of course. What shall I call this one? He examined himself in a mirror hanging next to the door. What a dark fellow! he exclaimed to his reflection. That’s it! I think I’ll name you... Sombra!

The Echoes of Dissonance

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 15: The Echoes of Dissonance

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw
Chapter title in part suggested by SecondLaw

"There be no neutral parties in this war!” Princess Luna’s pronouncement echoed through newly constructed Hall of the Tribes in Canterlot. The very columns and rafters of the huge room shook with what had become known as the Royal Canterlot Voice. “All must choose and make their colours known, for they who stand not with us most assuredly stand against us!"

Luna looked out over the three hundred or so assembled ponies of the Equine Assembly. She knew she was a fearsome sight in her full regalia as the Princess of the Night, Defender of the Realm. Celestia had at first resisted her wearing the uniform at royal functions as a public display of the diarchy’s resolve, but in the end Luna’s good sense had prevailed. The enemies of Harmony needed to be reminded of the cost of their intransigence. Let them tremble in fear in the face of justice, her face.

“Ten years ago, the enemy first raised its hoof against us, and drew forth evil from Tartarus itself in a cowardly attack upon an innocent hamlet that had our blessings." Luna scanned the assembly. "The wage for this monstrous act was paid in their own blood.

“In the days that followed, we trothed a pledge before this very assembly that we would henceforward defend our realm with all our vigour and the totality of our will, a pledge we have honoured to this very day. And this we say to them that wouldst succor and give comfort to our enemies, let them know the sword of our justice shall spare them not, even unto the ends of the earth!”

Applause started and built into a thunderous tumult. Just to be sure the message had sunk in she snuck a glance at the ambassador from the Crystal Empire, sitting just to the other side of her sister. The poor pony stood and clopped hooves with the others, his eyes wide and ears swiveling first one way then another. Luna felt the edges of her muzzle curl up the slightest bit. Yes, the message has been received, she thought. She sat down at her throne, very satisfied with how the evening was proceeding.

Celestia looked over the Assembly cheering Luna’s short speech, projecting a carefully neutral demeanor. Ever since the arrival of the ambassador from the Crystal Empire, she and Luna had argued repeatedly on how to respond to this totally unexpected contact. The very existence of a nation to Equestria’s far north composed entirely of earth ponies had been embraced with glee by the separatist factions of all three tribes.

Luna’s reaction had been characteristically direct: she wanted to tell the Empire’s ambassador that any statement favouring any of the separatist factions would be interpreted as a declaration of war. Thankfully she was able to get Luna to see the value of stating Equestria’s policy by less direct means before confronting the Empire, such as through a policy statement presented in the Equine Assembly. Nevertheless, this evening she had still been shocked at her sister’s vehemence.

Even though she deplored Luna’s methods, she had to admit they seemed to have produced the desired result: the ambassador from the Crystal Empire was giving every sign of recommending that the empire officially support the diarchy and refuse to deal with agents of the rebel factions. She stifled a sigh. The diarchy could ill afford even the hint of a difference of opinion between the ruling princesses, especially before a delegation from a foreign government. She rose and the crowd quieted down.

“As our sister remindeth us... ” Celestia winced as her words reverberated and were echoed back towards her. Perhaps we don’t have to be so loud, now that we finally have an indoor venue large enough for the entire assembly, she thought. She continued in a slightly softer tone of voice. “It is indeed a decade full since the three tribes decided to join their destinies in a common cause and live as one pony nation, indivisible, with justice, equality and Harmony for all!" She grinned, letting anticipation build. “And so to commemorate that fateful night, when earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns put aside their differences, we declare Hearth's Warming Eve an annual national holiday henceforward!”

As Celestia expected, the applause was warm and polite, but not nearly the clamour that followed Luna’s speech. The news was expected, as she had canvassed key members of the Assembly beforehoof and had asked the Minister of Culture to sponsor a bill that had already been voted into law. She sat down, allowing the Speaker to call the next order of business to be presented before the Assembly.

From her seat just before the diarchs’ thrones, Princess Platinum watched as Princess Celestia resumed her seat. On her left was the head of the Unicorn Council for most of these last ten years, Sombra, a commoner. Every time she saw the pony she wondered if she had made the rights decision ten years earlier to ask that a regent be appointed, and thought back upon those difficult days. She turned to her right and squeezed Clover’s hoof. The Prince Consort glanced at her and squeezed back reassuringly.

Something in her expression caught his eye. “You’re thinking about her again aren’t you?” he whispered into her ear. She nodded solemnly. After the attack on Ponyville she had begun to doubt that she was indeed ready to lead the unicorn tribe. That so many under her rule had defied her, causing so much destruction and death including that of Hydrangea, had rocked her to the core. It was Clover’s patience, love and support that had saved her from the depression that clouded her thoughts during those first difficult years.

“It’s been ten years, and still my heart aches that she lost her life because of me,” she whispered back.

“Hush, love,” he whispered back. “It was in Hydrangea’s nature to protect others, just as she was always pulling her brothers out of trouble. She did what she thought was right. We honour her sacrifice, but love, you are not to blame for her death.”

Not to blame, she thought. If only other ponies thought so. She sighed and recalled the moment her responsibility in Hydrangea’s death had been made clear to her. It had been at her funeral...

Princess Platinum shivered in the cold and leaned in closer to Clover. She looked at Hydrangea’s brothers and parents, huddled at the edge of the grave. Even without the cold snap firewood was a scarce commodity, too rare for a traditional unicorn pyre. Platinum had wept when the mare’s shroud clad body was gently lowered into the earth.

Hydrangea’s younger brothers stood on one side of her parents and the eldest, Hyacinth, on the other. The latter scowled as he looked in the direction of his brother Cornflower with his tiny pegasi marefriend Dawn pressed close, her face hidden under his mane as she shook in grief. She had seen his sister die, and had been inconsolable since.

The eulogies had been moving. Princess Platinum had also been asked to say a few words. To her shame, when it was her turn to speak before the mourners she had only been able to stammer a few words: “I wish... If only...“ and then choked up and burst into tears. Princess Celestia had draped a wing over her and led her back to Clover, where she stood now, in the chill morning air.

“It’s our turn,” said Clover. She followed as he led them to the graveside. He levitated two blue roses from a bouquet near the grave, gently lowering them to join those already covering much of the shrouded form below.

They turned away and went to stand with Cornflower and Dawn. She was trying to think of any words of consolation she could offer the still weeping mare, when Hyacinth walked up to them, his face clouded and ears lowered. They stared at each other for a moment.

“It should have been you in that grave,” he said, eyes furious and dripping tears. Her eyes grew wide. She felt her heart drop into her stomach. “If you hadn’t agreed to this... abomination,” he pointed at the pegasus under his brother’s foreleg, “then none of this would have happened!” With a final glare he spun on his hooves and galloped off.

Everypony within earshot stared at the little group in shock. Hydrangea’s mother was the first to speak. Her midnight blue coat made her seem smaller than she actually was, but there was a fierce intelligence in her gaze. “That was just the grief speaking, Princess. He’s always been the hot-headed one. Hydrangea was constantly pulling his hoof out of his mouth, she was.” She patted Platinum on the back and slowly moved off.

Platinum felt Clover’s leg shift as he held her even more tightly, and realized he was supporting much of her weight. As she glanced up at his muzzle, she heard somepony in the crowd whisper loudly: “Nothing good will come from this mixing of tribes. This is just...” the remainder of the remark was lost in the wind. She looked at Cornflower and Dawn in dismay. Thankfully neither one seemed to have been paying any attention to the evil words.

“Please take me home,” she asked Clover, her voice a hoarse whisper.

His horn glowed. The harsh daylight was replaced by the comforting and familiar surroundings of her bedchamber. She climbed into bed and lay her head down. Clover stroked her mane as she shuddered in grief and guilt.

Starswirl the Bearded looked at Celestia and Luna, sitting poised on their thrones. They projected calm, benevolence, wisdom and unity, and he knew it was nothing more than a façade, a charade to please the ponies of the Equine Assembly. The last few years had seen increasing strife between the sisters, and to his own guilt, he was in no small part part responsible for much of the rift, even though most of it was not of his own making.

The biggest bone of contention between he and Celestia was the behavior of Princess Luna. Her zealotry in defence of the diarchy was progressively less restrained. Even though many ponies supported her actions unconditionally, an increasing number had begun to fear her as well. Unavoidably these feelings were being projected onto her sister. He feared that if things continued on the current course, it would only drive more and more ponies to join the separatist movements, and so he constantly advised Celestia to counsel her sister to moderate her actions. Of course Luna knew that this was going on, and she openly resented Starswirl’s intrusion into the diarchs’ affaires. Relations between the two were tense at best.

However, Luna’s words had reminded him of another issue that had caused a great deal of strife between Celestia and Luna. Starswirl unconsciously raised a hoof to touch a star shaped diadem affixed to his broad-rimmed hat: the Element of Magic, one of the mysterious Elements of Harmony. On that perilous day ten years earlier, to save his life Celestia had invested him with the object. It had multiplied his magical power several fold and had been the focus of much of his magical studies ever since.

When Luna found out, she had been furious. He recalled the first argument that had resulted from these events ten years earlier...

They sat at a round table on which lay two silver trays, one covered in scrolls and another graced with a very delicate looking tea service. Starswirl watched in silence as Celestia poured for her guests, the mayor of Ponyville Oya and her son Joly, the deputy mayor. When everypony’s cup was filled, she put down the teapot, and paused to collect her thoughts. Starswirl knew what she was going to say, but that did little to allay the dread he felt at what must come.

“We regret that we must abandon Ponyville,” said Celestia. The grim words seemed out of place in the cheerful decor of her quarters in Everfree Castle. Starswirl saw Oya and Joly wilt under the pronouncement. “There are still too many creatures escaped from Tartarus wandering the woods nearby, and given the nature of the Everfree, it may take generations to reduce their numbers sufficiently to ensure the residents’ safety. I’m sorry.” Celestia took a sip from her teacup while her guests left theirs untouched on the table between them. “However, we do have a proposal to make.”

Starswirl raised one ear, and looked up at the princess. Her expression remained serious. Celestia took another sip, her gaze steadfast upon her steaming cup.

“I take full responsibility for what has happened to you all. I sent the colony to the slow world, where I knew you would be safe.” Her eyes met Starswirl’s. “I never once imagined how ill-prepared for life in Equestria your descendants would be. I fear that establishing Ponyville on a new site would just preserve that vulnerability. I see only one solution: settling colonist families into existing towns with ponies who know how to deal with the local perils.”

Joly hid his face behind a trembling hoof. His mother covered his other with her own.

“It was always our plan that families from the colony would leave Ponyville and move into existing towns. Your goal is to become living examples of the success of the amniomorphic spell, and to spread understanding of multi-tribal families.” Finally the corners of Celestia’s mouth sketched a smile, though it was tinged with sadness. “And since Starswirl’s introduction of three-houses, most towns will have ponies sharing mixed-tribe accommodations, at least into the summer. We are fully confident that many of these will result in more permanent families that will need the example and advice of the former colonists.”

“We understand, your Majesty” said Oya, finally venturing to speak. She looked at her son as she spoke. “This is the task to which we had agreed, all those years ago.” She smiled and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes momentarily showed her age. “Even if to everypony else it was mere weeks.”

Joly pushed back from the table. “But mother, our town... the only home most of us have ever known, will cease to exist!” His eyes were moist and his mouth gaped in dismay.

Oya patted his hoof. “Nevertheless, we will do our duty, son.” There was no mistaking the iron will behind the words. It reminded Starswirl of the filly he had first met when she was barely past foalhood. Now she seemed so much older and wiser than he. He suddenly regretted the time he had spent away from the colony, where the years had raced ahead while he spent mere hours in Equestria.

Celestia’s expression was no less serious than Oya’s. “Though it is probably of little comfort, I make you this pledge: one day the town of Ponyville will be reborn. I swear it.”

Joly’s shoulders drooped and he leaned closer to his mother. He picked up his cup, staring into the tea. “Then that will have to do, I guess,” he said, and took a sip. “How long do we have before we... part ways?”

Celestia’s horn glowed a moment. A scroll moved into view, which she passed to Oya. “This is the resettlement timetable for towns and villages. Each will take a family or two. I shall leave the specifics in your capable hooves.”

Knowing when they were dismissed, Starswirl, Oya and Joly rose from the table and bowed. The princess bowed in turn. “Starswirl, might you remain a moment? I have some other matters to discuss with you.”

He waved the other ponies onwards. They left Celestia’s apartments with a last bow at the door. He turned to Celestia. “How may I further be of service?” he asked.

“Please sit, Starswirl.”

Starswirl resumed his seat. Instead of sitting down Celestia went to a low table on which lay a chest. Her horn glowed a moment and the chest opened, revealing a half dozen jewelry pieces. For some reason, once they were in sight he could not tear his gaze away. One piece, with a star-shaped jewel, rose in Celestia’s telekinetic grip and floated over to the table. As it approached he felt his heart beat stronger. Finally it lay on the table before him. His chest was pounding so hard he wondered that his heart had not yet burst from it.

Celestia’s voice was barely above a whisper. “Do you know what this is?” she asked.

“No majesty,” replied Starswirl, in equally hushed tones. “But I must admit, I have never felt so fiercely drawn to an object in my entire life.”

“That,” said another voice from the entrance to Celestia’s quarters, “is the Element of Magic.”

As if the words broke the spell, finally Starswirl tore his eyes away from the bauble, and saw that it was Princess Luna. He rose and bowed. As she approached she stared first at the star shaped jewel and then at Starswirl. Her eyes grew wide.

“Sister! What have you done!” she cried, an expression of horror on her face. Their gazes met. In all the time Starswirl had know Princess Luna, upon her face he had seen laughter, suspicion, boredom, determination, anger, regret, vengeance, victory, tenderness and tears. But he had never since such naked fear.

“I had no time to consult you Luna. I feared for Starswirl’s life,” replied Celstia.

“But this puts the entire world at risk! What if Discord were to escape? What if some other power once again threatens to destroy all we have built? Have you forgotten what it cost us to acquire them and keep them out of the wrong hooves?” The pitch of Luna’s voice, normally much huskier than her sister’s, was both loud and shrill.

“Then Starswirl would simply add his power to ours!” said Celestia hotly. “We have discussed this before, Luna. I believe the Elements will be even more powerful if we have more ponies bearing them.” She pointed at Starswirl’s flank. “And you yourself have remarked that his cutie mark certainly resembles the Element of Magic, did you not?”

Starswirl had long ago ceased wondering about the mark on his flanks. All adult ponies had them, and stars could mean anything. Luna’s hoof smashed down onto the table next to the jewel, leaving a deep hoof-mark on the polished wooden surface. The tea set rattled dangerously and tea pooled onto the table from an overturned cup. Starswirl forgot about his cutie mark and began to inch away.

“So what next, sister dear? Shall we apportion them all to worthy ponies across Equestria? Shall we then pray they remember the meaning of Harmony and form a committee to take action, whilst our enemies patiently await our deliberations? What madness is this?”

Celetia's eyes narrowed and her ears pulled back. This was the first time she had shown such emotion since their last disastrous trip to the human world.

"Perhaps we should distribute the Elements! You know full well they were never meant to be concentrated into the hooves of only two ponies. By gathering them to ourselves we betray the very principles we are sworn to protect."

Luna's head and ears were both dangerously low. She glared at Celestia for a moment, then resumed her usual upright, regal posture. Her smile was terrible, haughty and cold as she gazed down at the other princess. "I remind you that you did not voice your objections at the time, sister dear," she growled. "You fought no less than I did to acquire the Elements. You had no qualms using them, and rejoiced no less to see Discord cast into stone."

With every sentence Luna leaned forward and Starswirl shrank back even further. "In times of such disunity you would place the Elements into the hooves of the tribes?" The Princess of the Night shook her head. "You talk about scruples, yet you did this behind my back, you who in the past have selfishly placed your scruples above the needs of Equestria time and again, and then watched as I did that which was needful," she spat. “Is this is the measure of your gratitude for all I have done?”

She turned her head in his direction and Starswirl shivered. “As to you, Bearer of the Element of Magic,” she sneered, “it seems trust has not abandoned my sister entirely, as she has just placed the most powerful magical item in this world into the hooves of a creature born of another.”

Starswirl dared glance at Celestia. Her expression was as hard as he had ever seen it.

“This time, Luna, it was I who did what was needful. Otherwise Starswirl and who knows how many more in Ponyville would have died on that day. And perhaps the reason there is still such a lack of unity amongst our ponies is because we have never entrusted its protection into their hooves. The only limits to their growth so far, sister, have been those we have imposed upon them.”

As she spoke Celestia leaned in as well. The sisters were now muzzle to muzzle over the table, and Starswirl shivered in dread. It was long moments before either sister spoke.

“So be it,” said Luna. “You may do what you want with your three Elements. Mine I will keep in my own care. Somepony has to take the defence of Equestria seriously, and it is a burden and duty that I for one have never shirked.” With a final glare at her sister and Starswirl, Luna turned and stormed out the door.

“I’m sorry you had to see this, Starswirl,” said Celestia. She still had that very determined look on her face. “However, circumstances often dictate needs, and so I have a request.”

“Anything, your Highness,” replied Starswirl in a muted voice.

Celestia’s horn glowed, and the Element of Magic rose into the air. A circlet of gold formed behind it, incorporating the star shaped gemstone as its centerpiece. It floated further into the air and slowly descended onto the cone of his broad-rimmed mage’s hat. The moment its weight settled onto his head Starswirl again felt as he had when he had first spied the gem. His blood rushed in his ears, and he felt light as a feather.

“Starswirl,” said the Princess, “I want you to do for the Elements of Harmony something akin to what you have done with the Amniomorphic spell. I want you to craft a spell that ensures that each Element will always find the most suitable pony to bear that Element, and that the elements are distributed two to each tribe. The spell should also have some means to draw all the bearers of the Elements of Harmony to seek each-other out, so that in times of need they will be able to come together quickly.”

“My Princess,” gulped Starswirl, “I have no idea where to start.”

Celestia indicated the scrolls on the table. “I have written down much of what I know about the Elements of Harmony. Please study this. That is all, Starswirl. You may go now.”

Starswirl rose, bowed and gathered the scrolls in his telekinetic grip. At the door he turned to bow once again. Princess Celestia had not moved from her place at the table. With a pang he saw that her earlier determination had deserted her, and she leaned heavily on the table. The teapot levitated and refilled her cup. With a trembling hoof she picked up the cup and brought it to her lips. Starswirl bowed again. With a feeling of relief and then shame, he left the Princess to her thoughts.

Sky Blue sat down at the long table and tried not to fidget. It took all the willpower he had laboriously amassed in his eight years since birth not just to go muzzle down into the bowls heaped high with every imaginable amazing dish his grand-parents had prepared. And they were both great cooks! So he told everypony who would listen. Just ask.

He eyed a leaf, fallen from a serving bowl onto the table-cloth. If he took that, surely it would qualify as tidying-up! He raised a small blue hoof and noticed his uncle Hy glaring in disapproval. With a sigh he slowly retracted his offending appendage.

Uncle Hy was a challenge for young Sky. He knew his uncle didn’t like it that his dad had married a pegasus. Uncle Hy was ‘one of those unicorns’ according to his dad. They, and Sky’s Grandma, always kept a wary eye out whenever he and his uncle were together in the same room. Not that Uncle Hy was ever outright rude to Sky, but he wasn’t exactly Sky’s favourite uncle by a long shot. That honour was reserved for uncle Mo.

Uncle Mo was a teacher at Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns and he knew all sorts of amazing magical tricks. He was still a bachelor and so didn’t have a wife or foals, but had a mare-friend with him at supper tonight, a light yellow coated earth pony who worked at the Ministry of Science. He said they had met a long time ago in a tree house. Sky had a hard time imagining his uncle as a kid in a tree house.

A sudden thought struck him. “Hey, we got all three types of ponies here tonight!” His wings fluttered in excitement as the table conversation died.

“They’re called tribes, nephew,” said Uncle Hy.

“Hydrangea would have been happy,” said Grandpa, putting a last serving bowl onto the table. He sighed and then smiled. “She was always so happy around all types of ponies.” He gave his grandson a wink.

“Well I’m pretty happy about all of us being together tonight,” said Grandma, the last to sit down at her place. “And I’m especially glad Cornflower, Dawn and Sky were able to come all the way from Cloudsdale.”

“We wouldn’t have missed it for the world, mother,” said his dad. To his embarrassment, his mother gave his dad a squeeze right there in front of everypony. “And with Hy joining the Unicorn Council’s mission to the Crystal Empire, this might be the last chance for us all to get together for quite a while.”

Uncle Mo stood and raised a glass of wine. Again the table became silent. He turned to a place setting where there was nopony seated. His mother explained that it had been placed there for his aunt Hydrangea, who had died before he was born. Everypony stood and also raised a glass. Sky’s had grape juice in it, his favorite.

“To the pony who isn’t here tonight, the mare we still love and hold dear in our hearts, the heroine who saved a Princess, the sister who made my younger days bright and whom I still miss every day: Hydrangea, you are always in our thoughts.”

“To Hydrangea!” The words rang out all around the table. His Grandma’s eye’s grew wet, so his mother went over to give her a hug. Together they shed a few tears. Concerned, he was about to flutter on over himself when his father put a hoof on his withers. “They’re okay, son. Let them remember your auntie together a bit.”

Everypony started filling their plates, and it wasn’t very long that his mother returned to her seat and joined in the eating. The rest of the evening was the eight year old colt’s idea of the best supper ever: amazing food, his Grandma and Grandpa refilling his plate whenever he managed to empty it, grape juice, and his Uncle Mo doing really cool magic tricks. There was a lot of laughter and his elders all told stories about his aunt Hydrangea.

At some point Sky was cuddled up next to his Grandma, who had a foreleg around him. In the heat and the pleasant smell of her fur he found himself nodding off. His father whispered in his ear: “It’s time for bed mister. Go say goodbye to your uncles, they won’t be here when we leave tomorrow morning.”

He stretched and went to hug his Uncle Mo, who pulled a golden bit from his ear. Then he went to his Uncle Hy. He hesitated a moment, but then hugged the old stallion fiercely. He could tell his Uncle was surprised. He looked up into his eyes and whispered. “Please be careful up in the north Uncle Hy. Granpa ‘n Granma ‘n all of us don’t need more sad things like what happened to Aunt Hydrangea.”

His uncle got a faraway look just then. “No, I guess you don’t.” He smiled for just a moment. “You know, you’re exactly the same shade of blue as she was,” he said. “Good night, Sky.”

“G’night uncle Hy.” He was sleeping in his aunt Hydrangea’s old room that night, and to his embarrassment his grandparents insisted on tucking him in. After they left he had to admit to himself that he felt pretty glad they had. His Grandma had told him the same bedtime story she often told his Aunt Hydrangea when she was a little filly.

In the semi-darkness, he realized that he was looking at the same things his aunt had looked at, slept in the same bed she had slept in, and loved the same ponies she had loved. With all the stories he had heard about his aunt tonight, somehow he now felt that he knew her, at least a little bit. He imagined her in his mind, and fell asleep, images of his Grandma, mother and aunt Hydrangea swirling in his thoughts. He dreamed of his aunt cuddling him while reading bedtime stories.

Against the Fall of Night

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 16: Against the Fall of Night

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Pompadora, queen of the Crystal Empire arose from her throne. Topped by her new crown, an exquisite mother of pearl peignoir, her fiery orange mane framed a radiant expression of supreme satisfaction on her blue crystalline face. “My Lord High Protector, approach!” she called.

A dark gray unicorn with a black spiky mane and tail moved through the dozen or so members of the Empire’s nobility attending the queen, earth ponies all. He nodded to the new Royal Guards, stalwart pegasi and unicorns in shining Crystal Empire uniforms.

Without pausing for the usual obeisance, he climbed the steps of the dais to stand before the queen. He was a good deal taller than she, and her smile faltered as he stood looking down upon her, an unreadable expression on his dark muzzle. Her eyes narrowed.

“What hast thou to report, Lord Sombra? Be brought to justice the rebels who have dared disturb our peace?”

He eyed the queen a moment. She swallowed and glanced at the courtiers.

“Yes, my queen.” He bowed, the sneer of a predator spread over his features. The queen chuckled and the atmosphere in the room relaxed palpably. Crystal Pony nobles smiled in satisfaction as they nodded and whispered to each other. “It was a wise precaution for you to allow me to augment the Royal Guard with our gallant unicorn and pegasi recruits.” He glared over the nobles below. “They made very short work of the rebels.”

The room became very quiet. Nopony knew what happened to the ‘rebels’ captured by the foreign soldiers. But everypony agreed that they were never seen again.

Sombra cocked his head to one side. “One wonders how the empire would have defended itself, had not our delegation arrived here a scant five years ago.” Sombra focused his glare back onto the queen. “However...” he said.

She licked her lips. “How... however?” she stammered.

Her courtiers gasped as Sombra turned his back to her. He glared out at them. “However... It’s most unfortunate that a small group remained undetected.” He paused.

“Sombra, what is the meaning of this?” said the Queen, showing a flash of annoyance.

He turned back towards her and took a step forward. “It’s indeed unfortunate... that a small group of fanatics was able to infiltrate the Crystal Palace.” He raised a hoof to hold the queen’s muzzle, as if she were a foal. “They entered the palace, and killed a number of important ponies before they were justifiably dispatched.”

Queen Pompadora began to tremble. “Who did they kill?” she asked.

He gestured over his shoulder. “Why, your court, my queen.”

The sovereign of the Crystal Empire stared in horror as her own Royal Guard cut down the leading lords and ladies of the land. A moment later they lay without exception in pools of their blood. The smell made her sick to her stomach. She gagged and tried to look away, but was unable to move her muzzle as it was still firmly within Sombra’s grip.

She finally detected a glimmer of warmth in his eyes. His smile became almost tender. “Sadly, they somehow breached the royal apartments before they were discovered.” The queen shuddered. “And the entire royal family was killed, to a pony.”

“N... no!” Pompadora mumbled in the stallion’s crushing grip. Tears began to drip from her eyes and drew black tracks as they fell on his grey foreleg.

“Yes,” said Sombra. “Luckily for the Crystal Empire, I am here to defend it against any further such disastrous occurrences.”

There was a crunching sound, and the queen became nothing more than a corpse amongst its fellows.

Sombra turned to the Royal Guard Captain, a unicorn newly appointed to the role by Sombra himself of course. Sombra’s eyes were bright green and a red flame danced on his horn. “Have the bodies removed, but leave the blood and offal. I want the good ponies of the Crystal Empire to see, and smell, how their valiant queen died defending them unto her last breath.” A predatory rictus split his muzzle. “Oh, and have the Royal Family’s bodies cleaned up and placed in state in the Queen’s parlour, including her consort and her foals. We want the call for revenge to be heard to the ends of the Empire.”

Soon to be King Sombra strode down the steps whilst whistling a lively tune, happier than he had been in millennia.

It was a simple inn at a crossroads in the Equestrian countryside. A signpost pointed down one of the four possible directions. Royal Road to Canterlot, it said. A lone pony galloped up to the inn, head, back and flanks hidden beneath a heavy cloak. The door opened.

The latest arrival took the fourth place at a rough hewn wooden table. All the other ponies were equally cloaked, except one. Her size alone would have made it useless for her to attempt anonymity. Princess Luna banged a hoof on the table’s surface.

“This meeting is called to order. Ye all knowest why ye be here. Report!” said the Princess of the Night.

The pony immediately to her right spoke up.

“Your majesty, I have discovered unimpeachable evidence that Lord Sombra is in league with the separatist Unicorn faction, and that the Unicorn Council is itself compromised. I have personally witnessed a meeting that he attended with the leaders of two of the main fanatic cells and can confirm what we suspected, that the members are leaving Equestria. I now know whence they have gone: to the Crystal Empire. There is a rumour that many have joined the Crystal Empire’s Royal Guard.”

One of the other ponies snorted loudly. “The same is true for the separatist faction in Cloudsdale. However they seem to be functioning entirely outside the normal pegasi hierarchy. We noticed a recent spate of disappearances, and found out that most of the missing had migrated to Crystal Empire. There has also been a marked decrease in open criticism of non-pegasi “cloud-shoe” residents of Cloudsdale. Finally, whispers abound that visitors to the Crystal Empire have seen pegasi wearing the Guard uniform of the Empire."

A third cloaked pony spoke. “The earth ponies have experienced a wave of emigration to the Crystal Empire as well, not to join the Guard, but rather to farm. These departures have decimated the ranks of the earth pony separatist faction. Earth pony villages have benefited tremendously from the integration of pegasi and unicorns in their midst and with the more extremist elements gone the movement is essentially extinct."

"This confirms what we have suspected," said Princess Luna. "The weight of our justice hangs heavy upon our enemies, and so they have been leaving our lands to congregate within the Crystal Empire. Their ambassador has for several years now complained bitterly to us that Equestria exports our difficulties with extremists to our northern neighbours. Is it not ironic that the solution they have selected be the engagement of more unicorns and pegasi?" She paused and the corners of her mouth turned down.

"However, we find it troubling that our Lord Sombra seems implicated with the separatists. His rise in influence with Queen Pompadora no longer seems the boon to Equestria we first reckoned it be."

The first pony to speak cleared his throat. "I have one more interesting piece of news, majesty."


"You asked me to investigate Sombra's origins. Very little is known about him before his emergence some fifteen years ago. To learn more I infiltrated the unicorn hall of records and discovered that his entry into the Unicorn Tribal Roll is a forgery. His name was magically overwritten on a legitimate entry. By comparing other records from the period I discerned that the original name listed was Jelad. I then went to visit Jelad's house. His widow informs me that he died in an accident some fifteen years ago."

"Perhaps it is time for us to recall Lord Sombra," said the princess. "My sister and I have many questions to ask him. Thank you all."

Without another word the three ponies left the inn. Luna gazed down at the rough wooden table. There was a shout of rage and the flash of a dark hoof. The princess left a few gold bits on the crumpled shards of the table and left the inn.

Sky Blue blushed as he passed the folded note to his best friend Harvest Wind. “Okay Harvey, you give the note to Flash and tell her it’s for Summer. Got it?” he said.

“Uh, yeah. I think.” Harvest Wind’s smile was somewhat on the sickly side as he took the paper from Sky. “But... if Summer’s brother gets wind of this he’s gonna come looking for you, and I don’t mean to play hoof-ball.”

Sky’s response was a rakish smile. “He’ll have to catch me first! Now go, before the girls head off to the next class.”

Harvey crossed the schoolyard, a mostly flat expanse of cloud typical of the central core of Cloudsdale, and approached Flash. The fillies were talking together next the hedge of cloud roses that grew all around the base of the schoolhouse. “Hey Flash, you have a minute?”

The filly’s eyes widened when he called out, but she trotted over to him with her usual sunny disposition. “Hello Harvey. What’s up?”

The colt blushed slightly and hesitated a moment. “Uh, could you do me, uh, rather Sky, a favour? Could you pass this note to Summer for him?” He hoofed over the folded strip of paper without waiting for her to answer.

She took it with a smirk and a wink. “No problem, Harv...” Harvey felt his knees weaken momentarily when their hooves touched. She batted her eyes at him, then trotted back to Summer. The two fillies began whispering furiously and looking at the note. Summer wrote something inside, then Flash trotted back to Harvey. She passed the note back to him.

She looked up in the air a moment. “I wonder when I’ll receive a note like that form a handsome colt.” Her sigh was dramatic enough, but ended with a little smile.

Harvey was suddenly speechless. “Uh,” was about all he could produce. He nearly dropped the note as he waved goodbye to the departing filly.

“Psst. Harv!” It was Sky. Harvey tore his gaze away from Flash’s departing form, and focused on his friend. “Oh yeah. Here’s the note,” he said somewhat distractedly. Sky snorted a laugh and took the paper. He opened it and looked down. Next to his scrawled note was a single word in a tidy female script: ‘Yes.’

“She said yes, Harv. She said yes!” Sky almost couldn’t believe it. He looked up to where Summer and Flash had been chatting together. Both of the fillies were gone. He decided he might as well head into class, and strutted in, literally on cloud nine. He never saw the two pegasi who had been watching him leave the schoolyard entirely.

"EXPECTING?" cried Clover. "As in... expecting a foal?" He stood with Platinum at the entrance of the Royal Quarters of Everfree Castle. They had just arrived for the meeting with Princess Celestia and Starswirl.

From inside Celestia’s quarters, Starswirl laughed at the unicorn stallion's bewildered expression. "Well, lad, the amniomorphic spell has yet to produce kittens from a mare, so a foal is the safer assumption."

Celestia in the meantime had wrapped Princess Platinum in a full forelegs-and-wings hug. "But... how?" asked the young mare from underneath the white feathered mound.

The bearded mage only laughed the harder. "After ten years of marriage one would assume you were already informed how, Princess.” He winked at Clover. “Mayhaps I am mistaken,” he chortled.

"Now Starswirl, be kind to the happy couple," said Celestia with a radiant smile. "Finding out that you are going to become a family is momentous news. I failed to consider that they might not yet have been aware of it, and I should not have blurted it out so cavalierly."

Moments earlier, Starswirl himself had been as surprised as everypony else when Celestia, after taking one look at Princess Platinum at her door, went "Squeee!" and rushed up to the couple to congratulate them.

Celestia retracted her wings, revealing the unicorn princess's face. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. "No, I mean, after trying unsuccessfully for so long, I had just assumed parenthood was not our fate." The look she gave Celestia was equal parts hope and dread. "Are you sure, majesty? I mean absolutely sure?"

"Yes, my little pony," replied Celestia, a very pleased grin on her muzzle. "Without even the shadow of a doubt."

This time it was Platinum who went "Squee!" and assaulted her sovereign in a hug. The mares tittered together for a moment before Platinum drew in a breath, turned to her husband and subjected him to a rather unchaste kiss. From his muzzle to his ears, the stallion's green coat blushed deep red.

“Well my friends, this is indeed great news,” said Starswirl. “But the reason for this meeting is actually to discuss some progress I’ve had with the Elements of Harmony.”

“Quite so,” agreed Princess Celestia. “Now, are you two, or more accurately you three, going to continue to stand in my entrance hall, or do you prefer to sit at my table and have a cup of tea?” She waved a hoof towards her parlour where they could see a table topped with a bowl of fresh fruit and a silver tea set.

Princess Platinum guided her still wide eyed husband into Celestia’s parlour. As she sat him down on a cushion his eyes remained fixed on some faraway horizon. The others sat as well as Platinum took an apple. “I now understand why I’m so famished of late. I’m eating for two!” she said, and bit in as Celestia served them tea in fine porcelain cups.

Starswirl waited a moment to give time for the company to settle in, and then leaned forward. “I have had a breakthrough in determining how the Elements of Harmony amplify magical potential,” said Starswirl. Clover still had not met his gaze. “Are you back with us, Clover?” he asked.

“Ah-hem, er, yes father... I mean, yes, Maestro.” He suddenly looked around the table with a rather silly grin on his muzzle. “Er, Elements amplify magic.”

“Yes.” Starswirl nodded. “And multiple Elements, when joined together, are even more powerful.” He noticed that he suddenly had Clover’s full attention.

“Joined together how?” asked the green unicorn.

“The key seems to be friendship...” He paused, and the Alicorn princess nodded in his direction. “With only two ponies holding the Elements, Princesses Celestia and Luna were able to capture Discord. Their bond as sisters was a major contributor to the Elements’ power. But since Princess Celestia delegated the Element of Magic to me, she herself has felt the potency of the other two Elements she holds increase substantially. We believe that there is the potential for this effect to wax even greater, should the other two Elements be also assigned to other ponies.”

“But wouldn’t the absence of Princess Celestia’s magical power lessen the overall power of the Elements?” objected Platinum.

“Actually, the reverse seems to be true with the Element of Magic. It grew more powerful when it was transferred to me. The only external factor we have found that can explain this is the impact of emotional bond of friendship. You see, magic is in essence an imposition of the will upon reality. Friendship amongst ponies significantly strengthens the resolve and focuses the will of the individual using magic, especially where and when its use might affect the friend in question.

“From the Princesses earlier dealings with the Elements, it is Celestia’s surmise that having Element bearers of all three tribes would allow them to tap into the very sources of magic of each tribe. I add to this my own belief that if these ponies were also bound together by friendship, their magical power would be further amplified to currently unimaginable levels.”

Starswirl looked into the earnest faces of the unicorn couple. “As I, a unicorn, already hold the element of Magic, I would like you two to help me locate suitable candidates to hold the elements of Kindness and Generosity from amongst the pegasi and earth pony tribes.”

Finally he seemed to have Clover’s undivided attention. He selected an apple from the bowl as the lad looked towards his wife.

“But how can we know in advance that these Elements bearers will be friends? For all we know we might choose ponies that would simply loathe each other’s company.”

“Ah yes, how to find those ponies whose fates are destined to intertwine?” Starswirl bit into the apple, and gave one of his annoyingly smug smiles. “It just so happens, there’s a spell for that.”

The rest of the afternoon was spent on teaching the unicorns the spell, and in pleasant discussion of parenthood. It was a most satisfactory afternoon, up until the moment one of Celestia’s Pegasus Guard arrived, breathing heavily, at the door. Celestia let him and asked him to report.

“Your majesty,” said the pegasus, “the entire royal family of the Crystal Empire has been assassinated. And Lord Sombra has been named regent-pro-tem.”

All merry thoughts fled from his mind. Starswirl felt dread deep in his heart.


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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 17: Rain

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

"Hold thy hoof, foal! Dost thou intend to wake the castle entire?" Starswirl surprised himself by using the Royal Canterlot Voice. Still, it was the middle of the night! He stomped loudly from his bedchamber to the entrance of his quarters, closing his night robe tight against the Everfree Castle's nighttime chill.

Regaining his temper he grumbled as he began unbolting the door. "Short of an invasion by that despot Sombra, what matter could not wait until a more civilized... hour." He faltered as he registered a tall silhouette in the semi-darkness of the corridor. Above him hovered a muzzle, glistening with twin tracks of tears, and showing a desperate, pleading expression. His eyebrows rose nearly to his horn when he recognized the unexpected visitor.

"Starswirl, I beg of thee, please! I have dire need thy counsel!" said the shadow before him.

It was a moment before Starswirl managed to draw a breath. "Of course, Majesty. Please enter." He gestured with a hoof. Princess Luna rushed by him, entering his parlour. He sighed. The day hadn’t yet started, and still he could not imagine that it had anywhere to go but downhill.

In the moonlight, a team of pegasi swooped-in silently, a covered chariot in the air behind them. The features of the mare and stallion pulling it were hidden under heavy cloaks. Despite the clumsy air the garments lent the team, it was obvious that they were skilled flyers. The chariot made nary a sound when its wheels touched down upon the muddy field. Nearby, several tracts of scarred earth and piles of tailings surrounded the entrances of mines. They had been abandoned when all of their crystal deposits had been extracted, making the site an ideal staging point for the Overcloud Express.

The stallion waved a hoof towards a low slung lean-to nearby. The shelter had been nearly impossible to see from above, which was entirely intentional as the construction’s roof was camouflaged against just such an occurrence. From it emerged six earth ponies. Two of them, a mare and a filly, were helping a stallion who hobbled slowly forward. The other three huddled together, assisting each-other and also moving as if they were in some pain.

“Hurry!” said the pegasi stallion, gesturing with a blue hoof from under his cloak.

“Stop that!” said the mare. “They can’t move any faster. Just be patient.”

“Yes, Sum... uh, Nimbus one,” replied the stallion sheepishly, embarrassed by the almost slip. His discomfiture turned into a crooked grin when, despite her words, he saw teeth flash in a moonlit smile on the muzzle of his partner.

As the earth ponies passed, he could see that the mare was silently weeping as she helped her mate climb awkwardly aboard. The filly though was smiling broadly as if the entire enterprise was just a big adventure. Sheesh, was I ever that young? he thought. Still, he and his partner were only a few years her elder. The thought made him feel proud and sad at the same time.

When the last of the earth ponies was safely aboard the chariot, he did a quick salute in the direction of the lean-to. A cloaked figure emerged, the tip of a unicorn horn projecting a short distance from under its hood. The disguised unicorn saluted back, and then promptly galloped out of sight.

“Let’s get these ponies out of here, Nimbus Two!” said the pegasus mare.

The stallion focused a moment, feeling the magic of his wings flow through his body and harness and out to surround the carriage behind them. With a practiced beat delivered in perfect synchronization, the pegasi's wings flapped once and the chariot’s wheels lifted off the ground. A moment later the team and the vehicle rose rapidly into the sky.

As they rose he activated the spell that made them near invisible from the ground, a gift from the Overcloud Express’ mysterious patron, a unicorn with a white beard. Four hours flying time to Equestria, thought Sky Blue. A glance at Summer flying at his side revealed that she too was peeking at him from the corner of her eye. He winked at her and she looked away in annoyance, causing him to laugh out loud. I enjoy these jaunts to the Crystal Empire way too much! he thought.

Luna lit the mage-lights lining the walls of Starswirl’s parlour. In the soft light she looked on as he followed her into the room.

How small he looks in that robe, she thought. And still, here was a unicorn powerful enough to wield one of the elements of harmony, something she had not thought possible until Celestia and Starswirl proved otherwise.

And they did so behind my back. She clamped down on her anger.

Luna, cool thy ire! she admonished herself. Why is thy blood so quick to boil and peace so seldom at home in thy breast?

“Please have a seat, Princess,” invited Starswirl. There were low benches around a small table, upon which sat a bowl of fruit. Luna selected a bench nearest the wall and sat down. The mage sat immediately across from her, a wary expression on his face. I deserve that look, she thought. She dropped her gaze to the bowl on the table, and gathered her thoughts a moment.

“Starswirl,” she began, “I realize we have not been on the best of terms these past years. It is has upon occasion weighed on my heart that to blame you for the dispersion of the Elements of Harmony may not be quite fair to you or entirely true to the events that led to it.” She tried to smile reassuringly. Seeing Starswirl’s continued nonplussed expression, she wasn’t entirely sure she had succeeded. She stared into his eyes a moment. Again she was reminded how frightfully intelligent was this human her sister had imported into Equestria. That capacity was of course the reason for her visit. The cool intellect was there, but also something else, something warmer. With a pang she realized that maybe he still had a small place in his heart for her.

But he took the Element of Magic! said a voice inside her head, souring the warm feeling that had been growing. She steeled her resolve.

What was done is done and I have more important things to discuss! she scolded the voice. Luna noticed that she had closed her eyes at some point in her internal deliberations. Why is it so hard to concentrate these days? she thought. I am here for a purpose and must not allow distraction to sway me from my course. She took a calming breath and opened her eyes.

Starswirl gazed at her expectantly. “Thank you for your understanding, majesty. I am greatly relieved that this matter should no longer come between us.” His expression grew warm, almost tender. “Now, Princess, what is this dire situation of which you spoke, and how may I help?”

It had been years since anypony other than Celestia had looked upon her with the simple affection of fellowship. She was surprised by how much it meant to her.

Don’t mistake his sympathy for more than it is, said her blasted inner voice. You have made that mistake with him before, foal! Luna wished the voice would simply let her be for a change. She took another deep breath and looked down at her forehooves on the table.

“What I will tell you, I have revealed not even to my sister. And you must swear an oath not to share it with anypony unless I expressly release you from your promise. Do you so swear?”

Starswirl stared at her across the table. Finally he nodded. “I do, majesty.” He rose from his seat. “However, mine are not the only ears in this apartment. I would have another spared the burden of keeping a confidence from her majesty your sister. I beg a momentary indulgence.” Her eyes widened at the news, but she nodded her assent. He left the parlour.

There were whispered words in Starswirl’s bedchamber and the sound of hurried movements. A cream coloured stallion emerged, a blanket wrapped around his withers. He noticed Luna through the doorway of the parlour, and made a quick obeissance before leaving through the apartment’s main entrance.

Starswirl returned and resumed his seat. “Thank you Princess. Joly is a dear friend whom I would spare from such weighty matters. Now, as you were saying...”

You see, he loves only stallions, and not you, a princess! He is unnatural... Luna clamped her forehooves over her eyes.

Accursed voice, begone! The shout echoed through her mind. She lowered her hooves to see Starswirl wearing a very concerned expression.

“Princess, are you unwell? Should I make some tea?” A pot levitated from a buffet and began to steam while still on the way to the table. A tea-ball and two cups floated along behind it. The ball plunged into the pot just as the entire procession landed on the table.

“Thank you, Starswirl, I would love a cup. But first, the reason why I’m here.” She paused a moment. “Starswirl, has my sister ever discussed with you our own parentage?”

The mage’s ears swivelled forward and his eyes grew large. “I can tell from your reaction she has not.” Luna smiled. “Let us be clear about this. There are many things my sister insists we keep from our little ponies, knowledge for which she thinks they are not ready.” Her voice turned bitter. “Most of our disagreements stem from such things. And in this particular case it is something about which she feels very strongly. She thinks that clouding our own origins in mystery protects our ponies from knowing that they are descended from a race whose greed for power and conquest nearly drove us to extinction.”

“There was a race of alicorns?” asked Starswirl.

Luna laughed. “Oh, that is but one of many forms we could take. Celestia chose it you see. She chose it and she bound us to it, because she felt it represented the best that was in us. And so that the folks that we made, our little ponies, could see the best of us in themselves. That’s why she insisted on three tribes, you see. None would we able to live without the others, a society built on fellowship and trust, so different from our own bloodthirsty lot.” When she laughed again she noted the bitter disappointment in her own voice. “And still, in a moment’s inattention, they turned to war. Celestia was devastated.” And I had no little part in making that moment happen, she thought. The shame she felt for her role in that disaster gave her the impetus to plow forward with what needed to be said.

“Our race once had the power to build worlds, Starswirl. This,” she waved a hoof in broad arc, “is a world we made, and we called it Harmony.” She held a hoof in front of her muzzle, examining it as if puzzled to see it. “We tore it apart in our individual quests for dominance. Ironic, is it not? Never numerous, of the original settlers there were only four of us left, Starswirl. My sister, myself, our brother Discord, and my father.” She leaned back. “With Discord we fought a war for this world. We won control of the Elements of Harmony, and so he lost. As to my father, he had mostly sided with Discord, but would not fight directly against me. He surrendered when we defeated Discord. I pleaded with my sister to spare him, so she drew a border around our part of the world and forbade him to ever enter it. To limit his powers she severely curtailed his access to magic, and constrained his abilities to transform to only one of the three pony tribes. My cunning sister did not want him to use his true origin to gain power over our little ponies.” She wondered if this admission would change how the mage thought about her sister.

“I am surprised Princess Celestia could do such a thing to her own father,” said Starswirl.

Apparently, not. She smiled. “She did not, Starswirl. You see, Celestia and I share the same mother, but have different fathers. Her own was an early casualty in the war that killed most of our race on this world.” Luna stopped for a moment, lost in memory.

Starswirl took advantage of the pause to pour them each a cup of tea. Luna took it gratefully and sipped in quiet. “I am most surprised and grateful that you would confide in me, majesty. Your sister has told me some of your history, but only in the vaguest terms. I did not press her for answers as I could tell that it was something which made her quite melancholy.” He took another sip from his cup. “But what is this urgency of which you spoke?”

Luna breathed-in the soothing aroma of the tea. “I have just discovered something that has shocked me to my very soul. My father has returned despite his exile, and has been hiding amongst the ponies of Equestria.”

“And you fear that Princess Celestia will discover him and wish to punish him further?” asked Starswirl.

“No, for he has left Equestria and taken residence in another land.” Luna took a sip. “But, that is actually the problem in this case.” She looked Starswirl in the eyes. “You see, my father is the one everypony these days calls Sombra, and if my intelligence reports are correct, he is using Crystal Pony magic to restore most of his power.” She put down her teacup. “Starswirl, he has become a great danger to Equestria and to my sister,” tears began to fall from her muzzle, “and this time I must be the one who stops him.”

Deep below the Crystal Palace was a hidden room. It wasn’t particularly large, but then the only furniture was a high table on which lay a complex array of stills, refractors, crucibles and other magical and alchemical gear. In the middle of it all a flame burned bright, casting long shadows of the devices, and two ponies, on the room’s rough-hewn walls. Above the flame, a small earthen vessel glowed white hot, and in it a liquid bubbled turgidly, glowing a sickly green whilst purple flames danced above it.

Sombra had built this lair himself, and only one other pony, a dull grey unicorn thaumaturge named Duskfall even knew of its existence. The aged pony levitated a small vial. "With this last shipment of concentrated crystal essence, we finally have enough for the spell, my Lord Protector,” said the aged pony.

Sombra laughed. “Finally!” He closed his eyes and opened them slowly. “I thought it might take too long, and that I would lose this golden opportunity to reclaim my heritage. But no. After almost ten years of waiting, despite the lack of conviction of these Crystal Ponies, tonight I finally get back what is rightfully mine!”

Duskfall lifted the stopper from the vial, and it floated over the glowing earthen bowl. “Tens of thousands died in the mines to collect this much crystal ore, and many more will die yet from having inhaled Crystal dust,” said the old unicorn.

Sombra laughed again. “One cannot appear to lack resolve when dealing with the criminal elements of society, can one? It’s a good thing the rebels have provided us a constant flow of inmates to work the mines.”

“Indeed, my Lord.” Duskfall smiled and tilted the vial, pouring the contents into the glowing green liquid. There was a flash and the light intensified. The contents of the bowl began to spin like a small green maelstrom. From the table rose a golden amulet, shaped like a triangle with a unicorn head and two pegasi wings projecting from it. It plunged into the green whirlpool, which began to shrink until it disappeared. Nothing seemed to happen for a moment, then the the eyes of the unicorn head flashed green, and the entire amulet was shrouded in a purple miasma. There was a final flash of unbearably bright light, and the amulet fell into the bowl, the flame below it extinguished. Frost spread from the bowl in a circle, growing to cover almost half of the table.

“Success, my Lord.” Duskfall reached for the amulet. Then he stopped and gurgled in surprise, as he saw the pointed end of a broadsword protruding from his barrel. He slumped to his foreknees.

“Thank you, Duskfall. That will be all,” snickered Sombra. The amulet rose from the bowl and over Sombra’s pole, descending to finally lie around his neck. Sombra closed his eyes. When he opened them again they were empty pools of glowing green, and purple flames wreathed his head. He pushed the dying unicorn over onto his side.

“Say goodnight to King Sombra before you go.” He laughed as he felt the amulet’s power course through his body and his horn. Ethereal wings of darkness formed over his withers. He flew up the hidden stairway and emerged from the Crystal Palace into the predawn sky. He flew up to the tip of the Crystal Palace’s spire. The Entire Crystal Empire resonated with his cry of victory and defiance.

From her throne Princess Celestia looked out over the Equine assembly and its noisome ponies. Anypony who did not know the Princess as well as Starswirl did would just have thought her the very image of equanimity. But Starswirl did know her well, and could read the subtle signs that showed how upset she truly was.

The lord Chamberlain struck his staff onto the surface of the royal dais three times, calling the assembly to relative order. “The vote has been taken.” The Chamberlain unfurled a scroll passed to him by the chief scribe. “By a vote of ninety-two 'yeas', eighty-five abstentions, and one hundred and fifty-six 'neighs', this assembly refuses the member’s proposal to censure the unicorn Sombra and order him to return to Equestria to face charges of sedition and murder.” There was applause, mostly from the unicorn tribe's wing of the assembly.

Starswirl wasn’t surprised. Although most unicorns sympathized strongly with Sombra, the majority of other ponies simply did not want to get involved. So the bill failed and now the Princesses had a stark choice: they could either accept the vote of the assembly, or they could issue a royal decree reversing the vote, which he knew Celestia had sworn she would never do. He could see Luna bristling next to her sister. The day was going exactly as Luna had predicted. Luna was adamant that Sombra needed to be dealt with in short order, and the only way for that to happen now was for Luna to risk an open confrontation with her sister.

He gritted his teeth. Maybe there was a third possibility. He stood for attention.

“The house recognizes the Minister of Science,” said the Chamberlain.

Starswirl cleared his throat to give himself a moment longer to fully develop his idea. “Your majesties! I would like to propose the following for consideration and vote unto this assembly: That within a fortnight a diplomatic delegation be sent to the Crystal Empire to gather the facts of the situation, and to ascertain from King Sombra his intentions towards Equestria and report them to this assembly. Furthermore, I propose that this delegation be led by Her Royal Majesty Princess Luna, and that it consist of an entourage appropriate to such a diplomatic mission and with a contingent of Royal Guards sufficient to ensure its safety.” He sat down.

He could tell that Celestia was not happy with his proposal, just as he could see the gratitude in Princess Luna’s eyes when she glanced in his direction. He had feared that such might be the result when Luna had visited him in the night. She had placed him in a difficult position. Nevertheless, he had agreed to try to convince Celestia to let Luna go to Sombra alone. His sympathy for the younger princess was heartfelt, and he hoped her sister would prove in a forgiving mood should he need to intercede, as he just had.

He wrote his own vote in his ballot. After a moment the 'Yea' faded from the magical parchment as it was counted by one the royal scribes. He watched in silence as the Chamberlain called an end to the vote. A scribe provided the tally, which the Chamberlain read out. "By a vote of one hundred and eighty 'yeas', twenty-five abstentions, and one hundred and twenty-eight 'neighs', this assembly approves the member’s proposal to send a diplomatic delegation to the Crystal Empire, and respectfully proposes that Her Majesty Princess Luna consent to lead this delegation."

Luna rose from her throne. The Chamberlain struck the floor with his staff three times. "Her Majesty Princess Luna will speak. All rise." All ponies rose to hear Luna speak.

"Ponies of Equestria, it is our pleasure to lead our delegation to the Crystal Empire, and we shall do for forthwith." The applause was much louder than before as she resumed her throne. Starswirl felt his heart drop when he saw how little Princess Celestia moved during this entire exchange. She must be furious! he thought with a pang. There will be Tartarus to pay when this session is over. For a change he wished the proceedings of the assembly would not end so quickly.

She was so beautiful with the wind blowing through her mane. Even in the baggy cloak, and dripping sweat, she literally took his breath away. And here he was making her upset again.

“Look, we’ve got to tell your parents sometime, Summer,” shouted Sky over the sound of the wind. They were pulling the covered chariot for another voyage to help earth ponies escape the mines and oppression of the Crystal Empire. “You know this isn’t the safest thing to be doing and they deserve to know the truth.”

Even over the wind he could hear her sigh. “Enough of this, Sky. My parents wouldn’t understand why I’m doing this. They were active in the Pegasus Defence Force. They saw friends and relatives starve to death, and they actually fought against unicorns and earth ponies when the situation between the tribes was at its worst. But if they found out about you and me it would be even worse. They could never accept that yours is a mixed tribe family. Nopony does stubborn pride like a pegasus, Sky, and my parents are at least twenty percent prouder than the worst of them.”

"So what do we do then, act like strangers every time we met in Cloudsdale? Summer, I want to be with you, and not just when we're hitched to the same wagon!" He couldn't prevent some bitterness from entering his voice.

Summer's expression darkened. "So then is being with me the only reason you joined the Express?" She gritted her teeth. "Do you even want to be doing this?"

Sky was struck speechless. He felt betrayed and not a little bit angry. He couldn't bear to look at Summer in case his emotions might show on his face. He was still looking away into the clouds when he heard her scream, and had barely turned his head in her direction when he felt a huge crunch and everything went dark.

There was noise in the dark. A filly, crying out... "Summer!" he called, and immediately regretted it as nausea and pain competed to see which could claim the greater share of his throbbing head.

"Sky! Hush, now.” It was Summer's voice, and she sounded more concerned than hurt. “Don't stir if you can avoid it. You mustn't hurt yourself worse than you already are."

He took a few breaths, trying not to pass out again.

"The filly's advice is sound, young colt. Don't be making things worse for yourself than they already are," said an unknown stallion.

It was dark. Moving his ears - even that hurt! - he noticed he had a hood over his head. It's a good thing I didn't vomit in this! He also noticed that he was in movement, the boards on which he lay vibrated as if he and Summer were in a vehicle travelling over a rough country road.

“What happened?” asked Sky, although he could already make a good guess.

There was a laugh. “You two were caught doing something very strange. You were hauling an empty wagon into the Crystal Empire.” The voice became more serious. “Our King Sombra doesn’t take kindly to ponies smuggling things into this land.”

“Smuggling what? The wagon’s empty!” Sky regretted speaking so loud.

“Yes indeed. I did say it was strange, didn’t I?” replied the stallion in a rather conversational tone of voice. “What makes it even stranger was that you were being disguised by a rather clever magical charm. That’s something a smuggler would find very useful. But why would you want to be smuggling a cartful of nothing into the Crystal Empire?”

Sky had nothing to say to this. He literally had never thought that they might so easily be caught.

The stallion chuckled. “Not talking, eh? Well, you see, I have a theory. Perhaps the wagon was empty, not because you are smuggling something into the Crystal Empire, but rather, you are smuggling something out!”

Sky felt his heart begin to beat even faster. This stallion had figured it out, that they were part of the Overcloud Express. It was then that he felt a hoof on his right fetlock. It tapped three times fast, then twice slowly. It’s the signal! This pony is part of the Express! Sky felt overjoyed, but at the same time he was weary. It could be a trap! He paid as careful attention as he could despite a splitting headache and a bag over his head.

“Ah,” said the voice. “I can see you’re beginning to understand the gravity of your situation. Good!” The stallion laughed as if they were all just friends sharing a good joke. “Now, if you two feel inclined to cooperate, then perhaps I’ll also feel inclined to say a word or two in your defence to King Sombra, and perhaps he’ll feel inclined not to have you executed for aiding and abetting prisoners of the Empire to escape from their just punishment! After all, a stint in the mines is far better than a long walk off a short scaffold, no?” The stallion laughed again.

“Er, okay,” said Sky. “We’ll cooperate.”

“What?!” objected Summer. “Sky have you gone crazy?”

“Please Summer, let me be the one who negotiates here.”

“But...” stammered his fillyfriend, “Sky if you...”

“I said, please let me be the one who talks to these ponies. Please, Summer,” pleaded Sky. He hoped she remembered the code words.

Sky prayed as he never had before as the silence dragged on.

“Okay,” said Summer in a very small voice.

She trusts me! thought Sky. We have a chance of getting out of this alive.

“Good!” said the stallion. “Well, we’re here!” he said.

Sky was blinded when the bag was pulled off of his head. The light certainly did nothing to improve his headache. His first impression was of Summer. Her mane was tousled, she was also squinting into the sudden daylight, and had obviously been weeping. His second was of the other pony in the wagon. He stared up at the stallion who had been interrogating him and Summer. For the second time that day he was left speechless. It was a unicorn he recognized.

The unicorn winked at him. “Perhaps you can start by introducing yourself and your lovely companion. My name is Hyacinth Blue. Welcome to the Crystal Empire.”


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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 18: Machinations

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

"Yes, yes! Hold thy steeds, I come!" These midnight calls are becoming a cursed habit! thought Starswirl. As is this Royal Canterlot Voice nonsense. The banging on his door continued unabated as he simultaneously tried to rub the sleep from his eyes with one hoof, struggle into his night robe, and hobble on three legs to the entrance of his quarters.

He grumbled as he raised the bolt and opened the door. "Is everypony in the castle conspiring to rob me of my sleep this week?" The door creaked open, exposing a green muzzle sticking out of an amorphous heavy cloak. Nevertheless, he knew immediately who it was, and stepped aside.

Clover the Clever rushed into his antechamber, pulling off the heavy garment while Starswirl shut and re-bolted the door. The look the stallion gave him was troubled, and his eyes were wide with fear.

“Lad,” said Starswirl, “I haven’t seen you this afraid since the night little Hydrangea was born. What is it?”

“Maestro, we sent out a recovery team last night. They failed to return,” said Clover in a low voice. “We just got word from our agent in the Crystal Empire. They were caught and will be brought before Sombra soon.”

Starswirl felt his heart drop into his stomach. He swallowed and tried to show a calm demeanour to the younger stallion. Behind Clover in the parlour, a small bulb on the mantelpiece broke and its contents wisped away rapidly out through the window.

“Who was it?” asked Starswirl. A flash of light emanated from the parlour, momentarily blinding both unicorns.

Clover squinted and looked back to his teacher. “It was Sky Blue and Summer Breeze, Maestro. Sky’s the young pegasus who is the nephew of...” Clover's jaw dropped and he hastily bowed as a large white figure moved into sight.

“...Hydrangea Blue," finished Princess Celestia. "The very same mare who gave her life to save your dear wife’s, and for whom your sweet little four year old filly is named.” She acknowledged Starswirl’s bow with a nod of her head. “With my sister leaving for the Crystal Empire on the morrow, this could not have happened at a more delicate time.” She turned her gaze back upon Clover, who was visibly trembling.

The Princess took a deep breath. “Yes, Clover, I am aware of this little clandestine operation you, Princess Platinum, and Starswirl have organized to rescue ponies from the mines of the Crystal Empire.” She winked at the elder mage. “Thankfully not everypony thinks me so obsessed with the law that I can’t overlook a bit of pony smuggling when I believe it might save lives.”

“The question, Princess, is what can we do about our captured pair?” said Starswirl.

Her gaze turned inward for a moment. “Luna categorically refuses my help in dealing with Sombra, even though the thaumic disturbance from the Crystal Empire grows almost daily. And your solution to the vote in the Equine Assembly has left me little room to manoeuvre.” This time she made her displeasure at Starswirl’s initiative plain. “Increasingly, ponies from all over Equestria are feeling a strange malaise, even amongst those who are unaware of the dreadful things happening in the Crystal Empire." She looked up.

“Starswirl, this delegation to Sombra fills me with dread. Your reports on the situation there do nothing to ease my mind. Perhaps it’s time to bring together the Elements of Harmony and have them join my sister in the Crystal Empire. I know for a fact that she will be bringing the three Elements she holds with her.”

Starswirl took a moment to consider his words. “Majesty, that is taking quite a risk.” Starswirl’s expression grew grim. “Your sister does not approve of what you have done with your own three Elements. Will she co-operate should we decide to use them?”

Starswirl glanced at Clover, who stared from one pony to the other, evidently aghast that he should openly express such doubts of Princess Luna. He felt a wave of guilt for having put the young unicorn and Princess Celestia in such an awkward situation.

Celestia blinked her eyes. Only one who knew her well would have seen the hurt briefly reflected there. She flashed a pained smile. “I have confidence that my sister will do what is right when the moment arises, Maestro, and so should you.”

Clover still looked as if he had been told to swallow a cat. He placed a hoof on the young stallion's withers. “Don’t worry, lad. I’m sure her majesty is quite right and that we've nothing to fear. Let’s get the other elements here in the morning.”

Princess Celestia and Clover both looked relieved. She nodded her head. “Starswirl, I’m relying on you to do what must be done if the situation in the Crystal Empire becomes untenable.” Her stare bored into Starswirl’s very soul.

He smiled. “Yes, majesty,” he said, putting more confidence into the words than he truly felt. “We will hold nothing back, and we will not fail you.” He knew what she was asking. From the plainly audible gulp next to him he guessed so had Clover.

She stared at him a moment longer, her troubled expression giving way to one of embarrassed relief. “Good. Then I’m sure the two of you still have much to discuss, and I cannot delay the dawn, even for two worthy stallions such as yourselves.” A warm smile lit her ethereally beautiful face, and she disappeared in another flash of light.

“Well, lad, it’s finally time to prove that the Express isn’t just for smuggling ponies. We have some planning to do.” Starswirl indicated a table in his parlour sporting a half empty bowl of fruit. I’ll need to have that bowl filled more often! he thought, and followed Clover in.

“Sky Thunder?” hissed the voice, “I, Summer Thyme, am most disappointed in you!” Even though it was a low whisper in the semi-darkness of a dingy cell, Sky could hear the irony in Summer's voice.

Sky grinned and rubbed the back of his still throbbing head as he picked himself up from the dirty hay. “Hey, I was under pressure,” he whispered back. “And by the way," he gestured with his eyes back towards the cell door, "I’m sure that this is all a misunderstanding and that kind unicorn will help us get a fair hearing from King Sombra.” He chose what he said carefully, all the while thinking: Please, uncle Hy, get my Summer out of this mess!

They had been kept in separate cells for a number of hours, but then the guards had literally thrown him in with Summer. They obviously can hear everything we say, which is why they put us together, he thought. His concern for Summer fought with the urge to rush up and hug her. It’s safer for both of us if we don’t appear to be so close.

There was the sound of keys jangling and a gate opening. The sounds of several ponies’ hooves on the stone floor reverberated, until he saw the door to the cell open again and three ponies were roughly pushed into the small cell with them. The guard took one look at Sky’s surprised expression and laughed uproariously.

“Har! Sorry we cain’t give you lovebirds any privacy t’night. We’ve got a royal delegation visitin’ all the way from Equestria and we needed to clear the upper levels a bit. So you sweet’arts’ll just have to put up with some comp’ny in our fine accommodations. The more the merrier, eh? Har!” He laughed all the way out and locked the door.

The new arrivals looked Sky and Summer over. Seeing the pegasi’s folded wings, a look of fear passed over their muzzles. They huddled together as far as they could from the pair. Sky had seen the reaction before. Sombra employed pegasi and unicorns to keep the Crystal Empire’s earth ponies subdued, and consequently they were feared by most of the population. One of the ponies coughed, showing evidence of an advanced case of Crystal Lung.

Sky inched closer to Summer, giving the other ponies a bit more room. “I just hope that unicorn can help these poor ponies as well as us.”

Summer nodded silently.

“We’d better get some sleep. If there’s a delegation from Equestria here that unicorn might show up at any time.” He lay down next to Summer in the straw. With a last glance at the crystal ponies eyeing them warily, he closed his eyes.

The Thestral Guard detachment formed up in two parallel lines along the red carpet leading to King Sombra’s throne. As Princess Luna progressed down the aisle at a regal pace, the Guards saluted her with impeccable timing, a display of precision and discipline that brought a smile to her lips. King Sombra’s own unicorn and pegasi guards seemed clumsy and rude in comparison, and the expression on their muzzles bore witness to the fact that they knew it.

She looked up to the throne where King Sombra sat, wearing the crown of the Crystal Empire and dressed in the grey uniform and cape of its Royal Guard. He seemed completely oblivious to the interplay between their respective forces. A glance from the corner of her eyes showed that the throne room was for the most part deserted, not a good sign, but she was confident her Guard Captain was already sizing up the situation. Good, she thought. This way there’s less scope for collateral damage.

She arrived at the dais. A smaller vacant throne stood to the right of Sombra’s at an angle, presumably so the two sovereigns could converse. Sombra rose, nodded, and beckoned her to take the other throne. She nodded back, climbed three steps of the dais, and stood before King Sombra. She looked into his eyes. They had a certain glow to them and a ghostly impression of flames wreathed his head. Nevertheless, she knew in an instant it was him.

“Welcome to the Crystal Empire, Princess Luna. Please sit with me.” The two each took their respective seats. “Let’s ensure our deliberations are not interrupted, Princess.” At a gesture from Sombra, the doors of the immense hall closed and his guards relaxed slightly. He looked at Luna expectantly.

“Very well.” She gave the signal and her own detachment assumed parade rest, appearing no less lethal for the change.

She had been gazing at Sombra all the while.

“Hello, father,” she said. “It has been... a long time.”

Sombra's expression relaxed and warmed slightly. "Hello, my little Luna. How I've missed you!"

Luna took a breath. "Father, why did you break your exile? Did you truly think we would take no action if you did?"

He flashed a brief smile. "We? You still cling to Celestia in preference to your own sire?" He shook his head and sighed. "In answer to your question, things were falling apart in Equestria in her Celestial Majesty’s absence. The windigo incident merely proved my point: these ponies in which she and her parents were so proud are nothing more than an incomplete and inferior replica of ourselves. They are like foals, simple creatures, too weak to govern themselves. It is a kindness for such as we to take them under our guidance, no?”

Luna didn’t know if her father had seen the brief blush of shame on her face at the mention of the windigo invasion. The thought that he had, as much as his words, vexed her. “You seem to forget that one of Celestia's parents was also my mother, and briefly, your wife." She sniffed. "Do not confuse how Celestia and I govern Equestria with the ham-fisted oppression of your own regime, father. Our concern is nothing less than the happiness of our subjects.”

“Ha, ha, ha!” Sombra laughed on his throne and lean forward. “I have no doubts about your motivations nor your convictions, my daughter! Unlike that pale hypocrite, you have never flinched from doing what was necessary." Leaning back, he grew serious. "No, despite our differences of opinion, I have always been proud of you, Luna, especially in these past decades."

"Words are easily said." Luna looked warily at her father. "But deeds speak louder and far more eloquently. When you returned to Equestria you broke your word, and then you came here and usurped this empire by subterfuge and murder." Luna finally let some of the misery she felt be reflected in her expression. "Thousands have died!" She stood and waved a hoof. "Truly, how can you sit there and to my very face profess that this was worth it?"

"Ha, ha, ha! You most certainly are right, my daughter." He raised a hoof in imitation of Luna's gesture. "All of this isn't worth it. It's a minor country of deluded earth ponies, cowards who quake in fear at the sight of a unicorn or a pegasus. What a farce of a nation! Who would be foal enough to want this pocket empire in the frozen north?" He stood from his throne. "Not I, that's for sure!" His eyes glowed brighter. "No, I came here for something else entirely. I came here to restore what was rightfully mine by birth! I came to this contemptible, puffed up backwater..." The wreath of flames around his head grew bigger. He clutched the collar of his shirt and pulled it aside. “...for this!”

Luna stared, eyes wide. The sight drew her gaze and refused to let it go. “What is it?” she whispered. She tried to turn her head, but the object steadfastly refused to let her look away.

Her father smiled crookedly. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” He stroked it with a hoof. “I call it the Alicorn Amulet, for it restored that which was taken from me. By her.” These last words were said with a sneer.

Luna could feel the power coursing through the amulet. Its thaumic aura was not unlike that of the Elements of Harmony. However, where their power uplifted and attracted, the Amulet exerted pressure. Looking into it felt like galloping into a strong wind. Her heart pounded in her breast.

“Yes!” he chortled. “You feel it too!”

Luna struggled to respond. Why... can’t... I... think? It was as if the very world had shrunk down to the size of the Amulet: its hold on her senses was so overwhelming that all else faded into insignificance. With a huge effort she was able to blurt out one word. “How?”

Sombra’s smile was a predatory rictus. “The crystal ponies! Centuries of earth pony magic has caused thaumic excrescence into the very bedrock of the land! All along the ley lines, crystal ore formed. Distilled, it is the very essence of thaumic potential. I have concentrated it all into this one object of power, and through it I am made whole again!”

The edges of Luna’s sight were growing dim. The sound of her father’s voice became tinny and weak, all but drowned out by the sound of her beating heart. Something dark at the core of her being had reacted to the amulet. This something desired the amulet, with a burning and all-consuming passion. All sight faded but the amulet. Thought fled. I... want!

She stepped closer to Sombra and growled. “You don’t deserve it!” she shouted. Oddly, as if she were a stranger in her own mind, a piece of her could still observe what she was doing, but was powerless to act. Luna, what are you doing? it asked.

“You were never strong enough!” she heard her own voice say. “You were always a follower, joining one lost cause after another.” Please, stop. But the voice was not done. “And finally it was just you and Discord, and you failed. You do not deserve the amulet.” Please. “But I do!” A mist of green and black shrouded her head. “Give it to me,” hissed the voice.

Sombra stared in disbelief and rage at his daughter. “What?! You would betray me, your father?” The darkness about his eyes deepened. “I thought I could reason with you. I thought you would understand why all this was necessary.” He sneered. “I thought you would come back to me and together we could rule this world!” His howl of anger and anguish reverberated through the lofty room.

Luna stepped forward. “The amulet!” she shouted, eyes glowing green and streaked with black. “Give me the amulet!”

“Never!’ shouted Sombra. A wall of thaumic equipotential built up between the two, bathing the entire throne room in an unearthly light. The nearest Thestral and Crystal guards were bodily thrown back by the thaumaturgic discharge.

Finally, their respective guard detachments realized that they were now in open conflict. As their sovereigns fought an unmoving battle of magical will, the guards engaged each other. Despite being outnumbered two to one, the Thestral Guards proved by far the superior fighters. In moments Sombra’s Guards were incapacitated, and the Thestrals converged on the pair fighting a magical battle upon the dais.

‘Your forces are defeated. Surrender!” said Luna through gritted teeth.

“Are they now?” said Sombra. “Then perhaps your own troops can fight in their stead!”

The part of Luna that remained lucid heard the sounds of renewed clashes around her. Behind Sombra and the amulet she saw her own thestrals fighting each other. The shock enabled her to focus away from the amulet for just a moment, and she noticed many of her guards’ eyes had become opaque ovals of green glowing light. Those guards were now fighting their own comrades, of which several had already dropped and lay in pools of their own blood. Her concentration wavered.

“No!” she cried, and with all of her will fought to regain control of her body. There was a loud snap and she felt herself falling. An anguished voice echoed in her head. The amulet! It must be mine! She heard Sombra snarl in triumph, and then everything went dark.

With a sniff, Hyacinth Blue looked at the bloodied area surrounding King Sombra’s throne. Oddly enough, most of Princess Luna’s Thestrals seemed to have joined Sombra’s personal guard. He bowed to the King. “Well done, your majesty! What do you wish done with the princess?” The princess in question stood immobile, and looked almost grey. From certain angles it was possible to see sparkling reflections, as if she lay within a solidified thaumic field, which he assumed was actually the case.

“Take her to the dungeon, Blue. The spell I placed on her will keep her incapacitated.” His expression hardened. “And tell the guards that if any harm comes to her I will personally flay their hides.” He sighed and suddenly seemed like a completely different pony. “She is special to me.”

Hyacinth raised an eyebrow. “Oh, a former acquaintance?”

“No,” said Sombra. “She’s my daughter.”

“Oh,” said Hy, genuinely confused.

“What about the mage, Starswirl?” asked Sombra.

“Nopony has seen him, nor the several other members of the Equestrian delegation who are part of his staff.”

“That is troubling,” Sombra raising a hoof to his chin.

“We will keep searching. In the meantime, I have a delivery to make.” The body of Princess Luna floated gently in the air behind him. He bowed and left with his burden.

Starswirl the Bearded crept stealthily through the back passages of the Crystal Palace. His invisibility cantrip would prevent him and his friends from being perceived by any casual observer, as long as they didn’t touch anypony. Thank you for teaching me that one, Celestia! he thought. Finally, they made it to the rendez-vous point near an external window.

“So what are we going to do now?” asked Clover.

“We,” said Starswirl, “and the Crystal Ponies are going to fight back.” As they were all invisible it was impossible for Starswirl to see the lad’s expression, but he had a good idea of what might be on his mind. From a pocket inside his cloak he pulled out a small vial and crushed it under one of his hind hooves. A moment later there was a flash of light and Princess Celestia herself appeared. Starswirl also negated the cantrip, allowing all the ponies in his group to see each other.

“Since you have called me I assume my sister has failed in her mission,” said Celestia sadly. “Please... tell me what happened.”

“Sombra defeated her. It seems he’s magically turned her to stone, majesty, as well as ensorcelled most of the Thestral Guard detachment that accompanied her. We have a report that she has been transported to the castle dungeon. The same source has informed us that our missing pegasi are also incarcerated there.” He lifted the hem of his cloak, showing several pieces of jewellery, each sporting a huge coloured gem. “I was also able to get the Elements of Harmony from her baggage.”

Celestia looked sadly at the display. “So then, are we ready, Starswirl?” she asked.

“Yes, majesty,” he replied. “The volunteers of the Overcloud Express have been marshalled, and are ready to move. Our advance scouts report good news: the enemy’s defences have mostly been planned to fight ground based forces, and from non-magical attacks at that. We will attack the palace and seek to extract your sister and our agents. Then we will assist you in defeating Sombra.”

The Princess nodded, looking grim. “Then let us begin,” she said.

Iron Anvil was a truly muscular Crystal Pony. He had been condemned to work in the mines for preventing one of Sombra’s pegasi goons from stealing fruit from his sister’s stand at the market. Once in the mines he was condemned to death for striking one of the unicorn overseers. The day before the sentence was to be carried out he escaped with the help of the Overcloud Express and had been a member ever since. Today he pedalled mightily, one of four earth pony 'engineers' powering the huge flying machine.

The Maestro called it an Air-screw. Also on board were a pegasus pilot - her magic made the craft much lighter than it would have been otherwise - and a unicorn whose sole job was to dish out and protect them from magical attacks.

Together they could haul some twelve ponies and take off and land in places where it would be impossible for a pegasus drawn chariot. There were three such Air Screws in the attack force, and it was their job to get the princess and the rest of the Equestrian delegation out of the Crystal Palace dungeon.

Flying around them impossibly fast were also six Tri-planes. He glanced over his sweating back as one flew by. Each Tri-plane looked like a large box kite with a smaller screw set in back. An earth pony pedalled to make the screw turn, while a pegasus piloted and a unicorn provide defensive and offensive magic. The Tri-planes’ job was to protect the Air-screws from attack by enemy pegasi. Or at least that was the plan. None of this had ever been tested in a real engagement. He gritted his teeth, the corners of his lips curling up slightly. Better look out Sombra, he thought, Iron Anvil’s coming down at you from above!

Periodically he saw the Crystal Palace. It was not very close, and the side building that also housed the dungeon was now visible. He heard the sound of an alarm bell ringing. Several flights of pegasi burst from the Palace. The gap between them closed inexorably.

Harvey banked left hard and dove towards Sombra’s oncoming pegasi forces. He was normally a pretty timid pony, but there was something about piloting one of these flying machines that woke the predator hidden deep inside. Sky refused to go on mock dogfights with him, but he had provided Harvey his piloting call name: Scythe. A picture of the tool was painted on the plane’s tail, like some aerial version of a cutie mark.

“Ready fireballs!” he shouted to Speck, his unicorn artificer. “Maximum volley, multiple targets. We only get one chance at a first impression!” He laughed. Nopony on the ground would ever believe he would say such a thing.

“Aye!” replied the unicorn, his horn glowing as he prepared his spell. Speck got his call name form the spots on his flying cloak after he first flew with Scythe. Despite the ribbing it caused him, he came back to fly with him the next day.

Plow was a deceptively powerful earth pony. Thin as a whip, he was tireless at the pedals and so fast that theirs was by a solid margin the fastest of all the Tri-plane crews.

Carefully he lined up with the hapless defenders, and just as he expected, the first pegasus flinched and began to bank right. “Fire!” he yelled.

Several balls of flame exploded from Speck’s horn. The first one hit the banking pegasus in the wing, melting feathers and causing him to spin out of the battle. The second ball caught the next pegasus in line squarely on the chest, singing fur and causing that pony to screech and dive headlong for the massive fountain in the Palace Square. The third ball hit the next pegasus defender on the flank, hiding his cutie mark with a dark scorch. That pony howled and dove out of sight.

“Three in one strafe. Not bad!” shouted Scythe. He looked around and noted that close to half of Sombra’s pegasi had already left the field of engagement. The Tri-planes buzzed like angry wasps around the Crystal palace tower, and the Air-screws advanced on to their target unmolested.

From a balcony near the bottom of the Crystal Palace, he saw a flight of Princess Luna’s Thestrals take flight. He smiled. Reinforcements! As they gained altitude and approached, he noticed a strange green glow around their eyes. I wonder what that’s all about, he thought, and waited for his allies to arrive.

Princess Celestia took advantage of the uproar caused by the arrival of the Overcloud Express force to make her way deep into the palace. The doors to the throne room weren’t even shut. She entered the room unopposed.

Sombra sat upon his throne, surrounded by his guards and, quite disturbingly, much of the Thestral detachment Luna had brought with her. It didn’t take him long to notice her.

“Well, well. Look who just strolled in uninvited,” called Sombra from upon the dais. Many of his guards began to move in her direction. “The Heiress of Harmony has come to visit me in my humble abode. I’m honoured, Princess.” He sketched a mock bow.

“I’m not here to trade insults with you Sombra,” said Celestia. “I’m here to take my sister, and you, back to Equestria and justice, respectively.” She stopped about half of the way to the throne itself. “Stand down and submit.” Her voice left no room for debate.

“Oh my. Has the lily-white mare finally condescended to do her own dirty work?” Celestia noted an evil green gleam to his eyes and a wreath of flames around his head. “How unconventional. You usually have no qualms sending my daughter into danger in your stead, just as you did earlier today. As her parent I am most vexed with you.”

“Oh? Need I remind you that you’re the one who turned her into a statue?”

“I did nothing so crude as what you did to Discord. The enchantment is purely temporary, until she regains her senses,” sniffed Sombra.

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, ‘regains her senses’?”

“I mean that she attacked me, her father, unprovoked!” Sombra’s expression grew angry. “I know my Luna. She would never willingly cause me harm.” His expression darkened even further. “It must be because of you! You have poisoned her mind against me!”

Celestia was honestly taken aback. “You can believe any delusion which you might conceive, King Sombra,” said Celestia archly. “But know this: my sister came here of her own free will, even though I recommended strongly against it. It was her plan all along to ask you to step down willingly, or should you refuse, to disable you and remove you from the Crystal Empire.”

“You lie!” shouted Sombra, leaning forward. “It’s you who wants to take away my power and again leave me helpless and weak.” As he leaned further, a large gold pendant slipped from beneath his shirt and hung before his chest. She could see the outline of a unicorn head and feathered wings. Even from this distance, it seemed as if its small red eye was watching her.

She could feel the call of power, heady and intoxicating. It whispered to her every insecurity and self-doubt. It promised inviolability, control, a world of perfect order and Harmony unbroken. With the amulet she could simply impose harmony. Nopony could resist, nopony.

No! Celestia shook her head. With alarm she noticed that she was now surrounded by Sombra's guards. In a blink she created a force bubble around herself just as Starswirl had taught her. She then created a thaumaturgic lever to shove it forward suddenly. The guards nearest her were thrown back. She galloped towards Sombra, her force bubble scattering the guards unlucky enough to be in her path.

Sombra rose from his throne and roared. The green glow in his eyes became intense and he also began to gallop towards Celestia. Beams of sickly green light projected from his eyes, leaving scorch marks on whatever and whoever they touched. They approached headlong and Celestia projected a blast of white light from her own eyes, pushing back the beams from Sombra's. She braced herself, and the two collided in a flash of green and white light.

It was a moment before Celestia regained her senses. Sombra lay on the floor next to her shaking his head. They looked up at each other simultaneously, and both were enveloped in flashing force bubbles. Lightning burst forth in resounding crackles where the bubbles met. Celestia could clearly see Sombra's face. He leered at her across the short expanse.

"The last time I was in this situation I won!" shouted Sombra.

Celestia smiled her own fierce scowl. "Then it's time to show you that I don't mind getting my own hooves dirty!" There was a blast of magenta light and Sombra was sent sprawling again.

Sky heard a rattle as the guard approached. Behind him was a familiar blue unicorn followed by a dark shape floating it the air.

The pegasi guard approached their cell. Laughing, he unlocked the door. "Since you lovebirds 'ave been such good prisoners we've a treat for you." He waved behind him. "You get to share a room with an honest to goodness princess. Imagine that. Har!"

Behind him the floating object lowered to the floor. It looked to be a statue of a pony. The unicorn approached. The guard stepped back to give him room, and had only time to blink in surprise before slowly collapsing to the floor.

"Nice punch, uncle Hy!" remarked Sky. He went to the door and wrapped the stallion in a fierce hug.

"Uncle Hy?" said Summer. "This unicorn is your uncle?"

"Yep. He's my dad's brother. That makes him my uncle."

"And he works for Sombra?"

Uncle Hy winced. "I guess it's worked for Sombra now." He chuckled as a scroll and pen levitated from under his cloak. "Starswirl is standing by. Now that I that I've located you, let's get you all back to Equestria." The pen scribbled quickly across the page, then the document disappeared in a puff of smoke. He turned to exit the cell.

"Uh, Uncle Hy?"

"Yes, Sky?" the unicorn glanced back over his withers.

"What about them?" Sky pointed at the crystal ponies huddling in the corner.

"Follow us." Hy said to the ponies, and then smiled. "One way tickets to freedom on the Overcloud Express, complements of the Stationmaster." He saluted.

"He's the Stationmaster?" Summers's eyes were fit to burst from her head.

"Indeedy!" said Sky. "That's my uncle Hy - my favourite uncle." He winked to the unicorn in question. "Don't tell uncle Mo I said that."

With a laugh Hyacinth Blue shook his head and exited the cell. He resumed levitating the statue of the princess. Warily, the three crystal ponies followed them out.

Iron Anvil felt the Air-screw shudder as it landed on top of the castle annex that housed the dungeon. He was in charge of the "ground crew". He peeled out of the craft with two of his fellow earth pony engineers. Behind them scrambled Fillygree, their unicorn artificer, as well as four more ponies from another of the Air-screws. It had taken Iron several months to get used to working with pegasi and unicorns, the dreaded enforcers of Sombra's guard. But he had to admit, the ones working with the Express were good ponies, nothing like Sombra's acolytes.

The task assigned to Iron's team was nothing less than securing an escape route from the dungeon to the Air-screws. He waved the team forward and pointed from Fillygree to the doors that led into the building. She rushed ahead and swivelled a smoked glass visor over her eyes. Iron looked away just as an intensely bright light lit between her cupped forehooves. It took a moment, and with a clunk the doors swung inward revealing a stairwell leading down. Iron and the other unicorn, Slingshot, rushed into the stairwell followed by the rest of the troop.

They descended several flights before coming out into a deserted corridor. Iron left two earth ponies to defend the access to the stairwell, and then the remainder of the troop burst into the main hall of the dungeon. There were three pegasi and one unicorn stationed there. Unfortunately for them they were looking out of the windows at the aerial battle underway. The unicorn guard was hit by twin balls of lightning and fell to the floor unconscious. The pegasi were also quickly subdued. All four were tied up and the unicorn's head was covered with a hood.

Iron looked around in satisfaction. It was their job to hold this position, and come Sombra himself, that's exactly what they would do!

A scroll materialized in the air just above Starswirl's head. He caught it in one hoof just as it became fully formed. The others looked on anxiously as he read it. "We know where they're keeping Luna as well as Summer and Sky. Follow me!" Together they took off down the corridor leading to the annex building.

His agent had sent him a map, so Starswirl led his crew at a gallop down various halls and stairs. They were only challenged once by a unicorn guard in Sombra's colours. Starswirl's horn glowed and a mirrored force bubble enclosed the guard's head. The unicorn then went careening down the corridor, blinded but otherwise unhurt.

Finally they reached their destination. A blue unicorn stood waiting with a whole crowd of ponies. Luna's immobile form floated in the air next to him.

"Hello Starswirl, Clover." He nodded. Behind him Sky and Summer moved forward and saluted.

"Stationmaster, Sky, Summer. It's truly a relief to find you safe and sound." He hugged each of the three of them warmly in turn. Then he turned to Princess Luna. He examined he carefully, especially the eyes. He levitated her form and turned her upside down, still looking closely at her face. He touched the fur on her neck: it was as inflexible as the hardest stone. He gently placed her upright back onto her legs. The other ponies looked on in bemused confusion as he concluded his examination.

"Clover, please come here and when I tell you flash a tight beam of white light into the princess' eyes." Clover moved into position. His horn glowed. "Now." There was a brief flash of painfully bright light. "Excellent!" He rubbed his forehooves together. "All of you stand back for a moment. The thaumic field I am about to conjure will be lethal to any who touch it."

He moved back himself and concentrated a moment. A glow spread from his horn to encompass Luna's entire body. Her form went totally black for a moment, and then returned to colour and motion. Her head drooped to the floor as she gasped for breath.

"The amulet!" she cried, then slumped down to the floor.

"Princess Luna, are you injured?" asked Starswirl.

When she looked up her eyes momentarily swirled with green and black. The colour slowly faded and her breathing slowed.

"Starswirl." Her voice was barely above a whisper. "What happened?"

"It appears Sombra has learned temporal magic. His spell enclosed you in a zero-time bubble. It was quite clever, actually, but once I figured it out it was easily enough dispelled."

Luna looked at him for a moment. "Thank you. I'm in your debt, Maestro." She looked up at him miserably. "But I must report I have failed." Tears began to drop from her muzzle. "Oh, my poor Thestral Guards! He made them kill each other! Where is Sombra now?"

"Your sister went to battle him herself, Princess. We should..." he stopped as Luna jumped up onto all fours, eyes wide.

"Celestia!" she shouted, and disappeared with a pop.

All eyes turned to Starswirl. "Clover, come hold my hoof. The rest of you, follow the Stationmaster to the main guardroom. I have a force ready to extract you from this place waiting for you there."

Clover approached and placed a hoof in his.

"For your information, we are going to willingly teleport into the middle of an alicorn battle. Are you ready lad?"

Clover looked scared, but nodded his assent.

"Here we go." They jumped.


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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 19: Shattered

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Princess Luna felt her heart break. She had just materialized near Sombra’s throne in the Crystal Palace. All around her on the white marble floor were bright splashes of blood and the corpses of ponies, many of whom wore the armour of her Thestral Guard.

Luna staggered forward. So small, and fragile, she thought.

In death, the ‘uniform aspect’ spell that maintained the illusion of midnight black coat, bat wings, serpent’s eyes, and predatory fangs had dissolved, leaving behind the brightly coloured coats and feathered wings of ordinary pegasi, splashed with crimson and ochre.

Slowly she advanced through the carnage, only turning from her path to avoid stepping on the bodies of the deceased. Here they lie because I put them in harm’s way.

Nonsense! said the hated voice inside her head. They knew what they were getting into! It is an honour to die for us!

Luna was too appalled to answer.

She rounded the dais on which sat the throne and caught a flash of light up ahead. In a corner of the great hall her sister and father stood facing each-other. Terrible energies roiled between them with tendrils of magefire lashing out and laying waste to the floor, ceiling, and columns around them.

She approached Sombra from behind. Over his back she could see Celestia’s familiar, beloved face. On it was an expression she hadn’t seen there in a long time: burning hate. That visage doesn’t become her, she thought sadly. She does not countenance hate.

The voice in her head was of a different opinion. She hates our father, it said. And she is going to kill him.

But I don’t want him to die! she told the voice. I wanted him to go away... and live. She now was close enough now to see that in addition to anger there was desperation in Celestia’s eyes.

She wants to kill him, resumed the voice, and then she’ll take the amulet for herself! Just as she is trying to take the Elements of Harmony away from us.

Luna froze. What a hateful thought, replied Luna. Celestia only wants what’s best for Equestria.

Yes, she always wants the best - for herself! it sneered. Why, do you think, she always takes precedence? Why did she take the day, and leave us the night? Why is it that all the important decisions are made in her court, and not in ours? The voice paused only a moment.

What she wants is to subject everypony to her will. The ponies crowd her court during the day, and leave ours empty at night. She decides on the fates of us all while we sleep, and leaves us to pass judgement on pickpockets and chastise the drunkenly at night. She calls us her equal, but of true power she leaves us only the dregs. The voice grew angrier with every accusation.

Luna had had enough. No! She isn’t like that! She loves me! And I love her! Through her tears Luna stared at the visage of her sister, grotesquely distorted by the heated air and thaumic waves of force that lay between them.

But the implacable voice wasn’t finished. She looks down on us! We are of no importance to her, just as we are of no importance to those ungrateful ponies who cheer each sunrise to see depart the hated night. The night that she left to us, which everypony abandons for peaceful slumber while we stand in lonely vigil.

Luna stumbled. It’s not power she wants, but Harmony, she replied. And she respects our voice as much as her own.

Then why is she here? asked voice triumphantly. She followed us here, despite saying that she would let us take care of our father. It is proof that she does not trust us. She wants to kill our father, and then take our amulet. Then she will have all the power! Then she will be able to take all the Elements of Harmony to herself, and discard us like some old plaything.

Luna flattened her ears on her head and closed her eyes. “Enough!” she said aloud in barely a whisper.

When she opened her eyes again her father had advanced closer still to Celestia, who was crouching low, as if under a crushing burden. Her magenta coloured shield seemed to be shrinking around her, as tentacles of deadly green energy coiled around it. Standing above her, a predatory grin of impending triumph split his muzzle. Somehow through the loud noises of the magefire battle he had heard her whispered objection, and glanced her way. His eyes were empty pools of green.

Why can’t I see my father's soul in this pony’s eyes? thought Luna. Why is it that I see only emptiness when I look into them? Where has he gone? Where’s my father?

"Where's my father?" wailed Luna. All the grownups looked at her strangely. Celestia, almost an adult herself, turned her face away and then galloped out of the sitting room. "He promised me he would be back for dinner. Why isn't he here?"

Mother stepped forward, kneeled and put a wing around her. "Oh, Luna my little one. I fear that your father may be gone for quite some time." Although she was smiling, Luna could see the tracks of tears on the fur of mother's face. The sight made her feel wobbly deep inside.

"How long?" she asked, pawing the rug with a tiny hoof.

Mother looked very sad. "Perhaps a very long long time, dear. This is one of those grown..." there was a shout near the door, "...up things." Her mother rose, a worried look on her muzzle.

"Mooncake!" said the deep voice of a stallion. Luna's heart leapt for joy as her father pushed his way into the room. Uncle Vigilance followed her father in, flaring his wings as his horn began to glow.

"Stop it!” shouted her mother. Luna looked up at all the angry adult faces, eyes round with fear. They all stood away from father, as if he were a stranger.

Luna ran to him and wrapped her forelegs around his. “You came back! I knew you would!” She smiled up at him, relieved. Although she was younger than Celestia, she still knew all about the ‘troubles’ in the Alicorn tribe. She had heard the whispers all afternoon that her father had left the Sept of Harmony, and she knew that when ponies left they usually never came back.

"What are you doing here, Strife?" said her mother, sounding very sad.

Who's Strife? wondered Luna, looking at into her father's face. He was no longer smiling. Suddenly she understood.

Don't answer, she thought. If you don't answer then it wasn't you she was calling Strife, and it's somepony else who's joined Discord.

"I've come to keep a promise I made to my daughter," he said.

He answered. Luna felt the shock of coldness inside. It started right below her heart, and spread in icy fingers outwards through her withers and her barrel, and then to her neck, ears and face. She started to cry.

Her father lowered his head so that his face was closer to hers. "I'm sorry, Mooncake. We won't be able to see each other for awhile." He also sounded very sad.

"But you still look like a pony!" She knew that when ponies changed septs they often changed body shape as well. Luna held on tight to her father’s legs. Maybe if she did that she could prevent his transformation to the Sept of Chaos, and then he could stay.

She glanced over her withers at his face. Luna saw something that she had never seen there before: regret.

“I just wanted you to know that I kept my promise, Mooncake." He titled his head and smiled sadly. "And now I have some other promises I must keep, and that means I can't stay with you." Gently he pulled his legs from her grasp. "No matter what happens," he glanced up at her mother then back towards her, "I will always love you."

He rose back to his full height and nodded to mother. "Good bye to you both. Cordelia, I..."

Luna saw mother turn her head away. Father took a deep breath and nodded again. "Thank you.” With a last glance at Luna, he rushed from the room.

Luna touched a hoof to her chest, the warmth of his leg was still on her coat. He's gone! Luna jumped towards the door. Uncle Vigilance caught her in his magical embrace. Mother rushed up, taking her into a fierce hug, which she fought to no avail. "Father!" she wailed. "Please, come back."

He never did.

Luna stared into her father's eyes, searching for any sign of her sire in those empty pools of green. The moment seemed to last an eternity. The father I knew isn’t there.

Luna poured her entire will into a burst of power that engulfed both her father and her sister. She felt his surprise as he was immobilised and then his dismay as the Alicorn Amulet was ripped from his chest and burst from the bubble of energy, finally coming to land on the floor next to the throne. Luna saw the green haze clear from her father’s eyes. Just for a moment, she read shame and regret in his expression.

In the sudden quiet she saw his mouth move, and heard a single whispered word: “Moon...”

A beam of emerald light shot from the Alicorn Amulet, striking her father’s face. The rest of what he was going to say died on his lips as the whites of his eyes began showing spots of green. His expression changed into a sneer of primal rage. The green beam persisted. Luna felt the amulet pouring its power into her father.

In the energy bubble, Celestia had regained all fours, her head was low and her forelegs trembled. “I must finish him now, Luna, before he receives the full power of the amulet!” she shouted from the other side of the force bubble. There was no mistaking the intent in her expression.

“No! Celestia, please... I... no,” she begged her sister.

“I must, Luna.” Celestia looked desperate. “There is no time.”

Luna stood frozen in indecision. She felt the strength of her binding spell weaken, even as her father absorbed more power from the amulet. And still she felt the amulet calling to her.

Celestia will fail! said the voice in her head. And you will lose both her and the amulet to our father, for he will kill her.

She felt along her link to her sister, and knew for a fact that Celestia no longer had the reserves to defeat her father, who with every second that passed was only getting stronger. She knew then that she had run out of options. And that she, Luna, had to choose.

With a scream of agony, she made her choice.

Harvey banked his Tri-plane to give some room to the four Thestral Guards flying up towards him. They corrected their flight to continue coming straight at his craft. Then he got that funny feeling in his mane down near the back of his neck that usually meant trouble (or that some good looking filly was nearby). He peered at the oncoming guardponies, and pulled a sudden juke upwards. The Thestrals passed only a few leg lengths below the craft. He did not miss the fact that they had drawn their swords.

Scanning quickly around he noted only five of the Tri-planes. A glance downwards showed one of the crafts in a slow corkscrew to the ground. A moment later two parachutes opened and a pegasus could be seen winging his way upwards. Another glance back upwards showed two black spots clinging to the top wing of one of the other Tri-planes while hacking at them using their swords.

“Speck!” called Harvey. “Those Thestrals are hostile! Fire on them at will!”

The unicorn’s jaw dropped in dismay. “What? But those ponies wear spell resistant armour! I don’t know if I have anything that can get through to them.”

Harvey felt something he usually only ever experienced on the ground: butterflies in his stomach. It was obvious that the Thestrals, despite not having offensive magic, were smaller and more manoeuvrable than the Tri-planes. And there were a lot more of them. The only real advantage the larger craft had was mass, and that was a liability in the air. Or is it? thought Harvey.

“Plow!” he shouted to his engineer earth-pony. “Give it everything you’ve got. We need altitude.”

The thin pony’s hooves were a blur on the pedals. The Tri-plane surged upwards.

Iron Anvil led the rescue party back up to the roof of the palace annex building, where the three Air-screws awaited. He distributed six rescued ponies to each of the three crafts. While they were settling their passengers into place he looked up just in time to see the Thestrals begin to engage the Tri-planes. His eyes narrowed in anger, and he gestured for the pegasi and unicorns to join him next to his own craft.

“It looks like our pals up top are getting more resistance than we expected. Unicorns, consider any pony not from the Express a potential threat. Better leave while our ponies keep them occupied. Also, I’m sending my passengers onto your Air-screws. You take off immediately for Equestria. My team will retrieve our downed crewponies.”

The other ponies saluted and went back to their craft. Anvil sent out three of his passengers to each Air-screw. He watched in silence as the screws slowly spun up to flight speed, the thwacking sound rose in pitch as the machines took to the air and began to fly away.

Shortly after they were airborne two of the Thestrals began to swoop down towards them. As he expected the unicorns on each of the flying machines began to fire magical projectiles at the approaching flyers. He watched in alarm as the magic ordnance was absorbed or deflected by the Thestrals' armour with no apparent effect.

“Fillygree,” he said to his unicorn artificer. “Why isn’t the magic working?”

“They’re Luna’s Thestrals, Anvil. She’s enchanted their armour to resist magic.”

The Thestrals got ever closer to rising Air-screws. One made a pass at one of the Air-screws, the glint of his sword clearly visible. But what the heavy craft lacked in speed they made up for in solidity. The Thestral had only time for a few swords strokes before being blown off by a blast of magic. The respite was short lived. Moments later he was back and the sword flashed again as he started hacking away at the door. The craft were still close enough that Anvil could hear the screams of frightened passengers.

Starswirl saw the huge doors that had been left open. He had never been in the Crystal Palace's Throne Room and had chosen to teleport to a place with which he was familiar. With Clover at his side, he entered the huge room.

In the distance he saw the flashes of thaumic discharges. He and Clover picked up the pace and arrived just in time to see Luna encompass both Celestia and Sombra in a ball of force. He also saw the amulet that flew from Sombra to land on floor nearby, a green tendril of energy snaking from it to the immobile unicorn.

Starswirl’s gaze was pulled towards the amulet as if his muzzle was on a string. He tried to tear his gaze away, and only with the greatest effort was able to glance at his student, whose head was facing the same way.

“Maestro!” said Clover, struggling to resist the sudden attraction. “What is it?”

He took a deep breath. A longing swelled in his breast and a feeling that nothing else in the world but this amulet mattered. “It’s temptation, lad.” With a wrench he tore his gaze away to and resolutely fixed it on Clover.

“But Maestro. It... it calls to me.” The youngster took a step forward towards the bauble.

Starswirl rushed forward and tackled his student to the ground. Clover landed on his back with his teacher prone on top of him. He stared up at Starswirl, eyes huge with confusion and alarm. Glints of green swirled in their depths, and slowly dissipated as Starswirl held the young stallion’s head between his hooves. Both were breathing heavily.

“Lad!” He put every measure of conviction he possessed into voice. “This is a desire for power that will eat your soul. I have seen it wreck lives and lay low the virtuous too often in my previous life, a fate that I... I do not want you to share.”

Beneath him, Clover’s breathing calmed. He felt the lad relax and observed as the green lights in his eyes faded. His look of concern was replaced by a crooked grin.

“Well, Maestro, it’s been awhile since I was suitably embarrassed. I guess I was due.” His grin faded. “So what is that... thing?”

“That is the repository of Sombra’s power, lad. We need to destroy it before he can use it again to defeat the princesses. We must not look at it directly again. Do you think you can manage that?”

Clover nodded hesitantly. Starswirl picked himself up gingerly, carefully keeping his gaze on the battling ponies. Clover arose and did the same.

“Destroy it how, Maestro?”

“There’s only one force in Equestria powerful enough to unbind such an evil: the Elements of Harmony.” He took the six Elements from within pockets in his cloak. “Bring Princess Luna her Elements.” He gave the lad three of them. “I’ll bring these to Princess Celestia.” He held another two in his telekinetic grip, while placing the Element of Magic around his own neck.

He and Clover parted, each one moving towards his intended target. He was most of the way around the force bubble when he heard Luna scream in agony.

Harvey’s Tri-plane reached its apogee and began to dive back down towards the Palace far below. It was time to put into practice a most unusual manoeuvre for a pegasus. He withdrew his pegasus magic fully into himself, and the Tri-plane regained its full ground weight. Gravity tugged hard. The aircraft dove and gathered speed.

“Get ready,” he instructed Speck. They had a total of three spanners, a hammer, six water bottles, their three lunch-boxes and nothing else on the intentionally cargo-light Tri-plane.

As they dove, he viewed the situation below to plan the optimal path. It looked like another Tri-plane had been forced to land. The three still flying were being harassed by at least a dozen remaining Thestrals. Harvey carefully adjusted their trajectory. They would have only one pass at this.

The roared into the midst of the melee at ludicrously high speed. “Now!” shouted Harvey, and Speck lined up the ‘missiles’ above the Tri-plane’s top wing. Harvey used his pegasus magic finely adjust the passage of the craft.

The hammer crashed through a Thestral’s left wing. Immediately afterward, a spanner dented a black helmet and a lunch box and water bottle knocked two of the attackers off a Tri-plane. A final course change took Harvey’s craft straight through the thick of the Thestral’s formation, and another three were hit by projectiles.

A glance behind him showed over half a dozen Thestrals spiralling or plummeting to the ground. Harvey whooped in joy. Then he remembered that these were fellow pegasi, and supposed to be allies. They might even be ponies I know. His elation gone, he wondered why they had joined Sombra’s forces. As he banked around the Palace he saw another of the Tri-planes lose a wing and begin a spiral descent. He said a silent prayer for the safety of its crew.

The swords, thought Anvil with a wicked grin.

“Fillygree,” he asked the mare. “Can you do that thing you did to the door latch to a piece of metal far away?”

“Yes, Anvil” she replied. “As long as I can see it.”

“How about those Thestrals’ swords?” he gestured at the slowly moving Air-screws.

It was Iron’s experience that Fillygree was pretty quick on the uptake. He’d barely had the words out of his mouth when a bright light flashed into existence. A moment later he saw the Thestral’s sword falling. Its mate’s sword joined it a moment later. However, the Thestrals continued to cling to the Air-screws, which were now starting to gain speed.

“Now what?” said the unicorn, disappointed. “I can’t melt the tack on their uniforms.”

His smile became predatory.

“Their shoes, Fillygree!” shouted Iron. “Give those ponies a hot-hoof!”

The Air-screws were becoming more distant. Flillygree squinted for a moment, and a set of three lights winked on the furthest Air-Screw. The Thestral jumped off and power dived towards the fountain in the Palace square below. The other Thestral joined it mere seconds later.

“Heh, heh, heh!” laughed Anvil. “And here I was thinking I was good with molten metal!”

He saw two parachutes slowly falling into the Palace Square, and placed a hoof on Fillygree’s withers. “Time for a pickup. Let’s get going.”

It was only as they re-entered the Air-screw that he realized that this was the first time in his life that he had ever touched a unicorn in fellowship. He grinned. And not a bad looking unicorn at that!

The Air-screw took off.

Celestia was approaching the edge of exhaustion when she heard Luna scream. She had seen her sister approaching, but had been far too busy fighting for her life to make any gesture towards her. We... I. I waited too long, and now he’s grown too powerful. He hates me since the wars. He will kill me, and you, my little sister, will see it all happen before your very eyes.

Her eyes widened as she suddenly understood the terrible choice that faced Luna. It’s just as Sombra said, she thought. I always have let you do the dark deeds in my stead. Now, you watch me die or become a parricide!

She raised her head and saw the killing blast building from within her sister’s aura. This will rend your soul as surely as it kills your father.

And I will NOT allow this to happen to you!

In sudden inspiration Celestia poured the little reserve of power she had left into her sister, and subtly changed the spell that was forming as her sister cast it.

The beam from Luna’s horn struck Sombra head on. He roared in pain, and his image began to grow transparent.

Luna’s eyes grew wide in alarm, and then awareness. “Celestia! No!”

Sombra’s image seemed to solidify for a moment. At first he seemed surprised. Then he looked directly at Celestia with an evil grin on his muzzle. As he began to disappear again, he closed his eyes. There was a flash of green from the amulet to Sombra’s horn, followed by a momentary sense of disorientation. Then everything went black.

When Luna opened her eyes all she saw was a huge plain that looked as empty as she felt inside. It was still day, but the sky was completely overcast. In the diffuse grey light she couldn’t even tell where was the sun, or how late in the day it was. She shivered in the sudden cold.

Nearby, her sister was laboriously getting back up. Sister. Family. Father... I Luna felt her gorge rising, and turned away. For her, I was going to...

Upon the plain were scattered various ponies, some odd contraptions, and not much else except for one small amulet on the frozen ground nearby. The Alicorn Amulet, her father had called it. As she slowly clip-clopped up to it, dark splotches appeared on the ground between her forehooves. She stared down at the amulet and the splotches covered it as well. Her vision was blurry for some reason, but she could feel as well as see that it was much diminished. The amulet barely called to her, its aura a pale echo of its former burning heat.

This is her fault! She didn't want us to have it, accused the voice in her head. Luna ignored it and lightly tapped the amulet with her hoof. Glancing up she saw Starswirl's student Clover, looking confused, her Elements of Harmony hovering besides him. Her Elements. She felt the heat of anger in the pit of her stomach.

"How do you have my Elements of Harmony in your possession?" she growled at the stallion.

Clover shrank under her glare. "We took them from your room... Uh, but only when we realized you had lost your first fight with Sombra. We were going to use them..."

"Enough!" Interrupted Luna. Betrayed! Anger such as she had never known before coursed through her veins. Her awareness focused on one pony, her sister.

"You promised you would not touch them, Celestia."

Her sister's eyes widened at the accusation. "It was a measure in extremis, Luna, and only if you were captured or defeated. They were to be our last resort in order to destroy the amulet and defeat Sombra."

The periphery of Luna's vision seemed to go black, and she felt as if she was staring down a tunnel.

“You planned for this, all of you. And yet you did not care to disclose it to me.” She looked at her sister and the two mages each in turn. “Am I not to be trusted then?” The thought hurt more than Luna could have imagined.

You see! said the voice. She wants us to be powerless and alone. She has even given away our Elements. She hates us! insisted the voice.

Luna shivered. Without the Elements, what do I have left? she asked herself.

“Nothing!” answered the voice. “Nothing but the unloved night, a moon too few ever notice, and stars that nopony cares even to name.”

Luna felt the muscles of her back tighten almost to the breaking point. And then she relaxed. The voice was right! she thought.

“We were going to kill him, our father, for her,” murmured Luna. “And this, this is how she repays us.” She picked up the enfeebled amulet, and clomped over to where the green coated unicorn stood, holding her Elements. She held it before the unicorn, who cringed at its sight, as if expecting it to bite him.

“If you want to destroy the amulet that badly...” she tossed it with a burst of royal magical power. It sailed up into the sky and was lost from sight even before it had reached the apogee of its trajectory. “...then go get it yourself.”

He stared after the departing object. Then she struck him in the muzzle with a hoof, hard enough to draw blood, but not to kill him. “And never, never again shall you touch our Elements.” Her superior telekinetic ability tore the gilded baubles away from his.

She turned and strode angrily back to where her sister and Starswirl had stood observing her brief interaction with Clover.

“Do you know, Starswirl, what my sister has done?” she asked of the mage.

“No, majesty. I was just asking her when you approached,” he replied, looking troubled. He should be troubled, thought Luna.

“I chose my sister’s life above that of my own father.” She saw Starswirl wince and glance at Celestia. Even now, he doubts us. She sighed.

“And then, when I was compelled to act or see Celestia die, she grew weak, not I. She changed my spell even as I cast it. Thus all it did was seal my father in the eternal ice of the frozen north. Make no mistake, such a prison will not hold him forever.” She sat heavily onto her haunches and looked down at her forehooves. “It was all for nothing.” Her tears started to fall in earnest. “I was going to kill him. Now he will live with the knowledge that I betrayed him. And it was all... for nothing.”

She saw Celestia approaching and hurriedly scuttled back, causing her sister to freeze in mid-step. There was pain in her expression.

But not pain like ours, said the voice. Not enough to match ours. Not nearly enough!

“Who teleported us here?” asked Starswirl into the embarrassed silence. “And where are we?”

Luna laughed and sobbed in the same breath. “We have not moved, mage. What you see here is what remains of the Crystal Empire.”

“But, the city, all the ponies...” His ears dropped in dismay.

“Gone,” whispered Luna. “When Celestia changed my spell it gave my father time. He could not avoid his incarceration, but he could take revenge. My father placed a curse upon this place and all its ponies. A temporal displacement. They may return a thousand days from now, or a thousand years, who knows when?” She fixed her gaze on Celestia. “As will he.” Celestia began to weep silently.

Luna closed her eyes a moment. When she opened them again she could see that Starswirl had gone to reassure Celestia. He nuzzled her sister, as if she was some innocent waif.

“Luna,” said Celestia, “I couldn’t let you do it! I could not let you kill your own father. It would have damaged you. I... we... would have lost you.”

“Lost me? Instead, we have lost an entire nation.” Luna laughed bitterly. “This is just one more in an endless series of delayed decision making and disastrous compromises, Celestia. What are you going to trade away next, Equestria itself? Your scruples are ever stronger than your will to act, so you fell short when I," Luna blinked, "when Equestria needed you to act."

Luna stood in sudden resolution. She knew what she had to do. Yes, we know what needs be done! chortled the voice.

Finally, voice, we seem to have a common cause, thought Luna. At least for now I’ll have peace in my head!

The ponies nearby regarded her. She drew herself to her full height. She subvocalized the spell that activated the midnight dark uniform she wore as defender of the realm. The dark accoutrements somehow made her feel better, stronger, more her own mare than just Celestia’s younger sister.

“Things in Equestria cannot continue thus any longer,” said Luna, her conviction lending her strength. “Sister, I have lost confidence in you, in your decisions, and in your court of the day. The time has finally come for us to part ways. Our diarchy is dissolved. I, Princess Luna, will present Equestria an alternative to your rule, and our little ponies will have to make their own choice.” She paused a moment. “Just as I had to choose.”

The betrayal in Celestia’s face was evident. Now you know how we have felt these many years. You left us little choice in the matter. This is one more sacrifice we must make for the good of Equestria.

“Good bye, Celestia,” she bowed to her sister. “When we meet again, it will be under the rule of the Night.” Luna spread her wings and leapt into the darkening sky.

Light and Shadow (part 1)

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 20: Light and Shadow (part 1)

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Celestia awoke with a start, surrounded by rubble. She gasped as she recalled the searing pain of being struck by a thaumic blast emitted by Luna... and then darkness. Struggling to get up, she heard a triumphant laugh from somewhere above her. In the semi-darkness she recognized where she was: the floor of Everfree Castle’s throne room. The last few minutes snapped back starkly into her awareness. The haughty laughter, the sneering challenge, and the cold slitted reptilian eyes that no longer held any hint of her sister. She also remembered crimson stains on stone steps, and the look of despair on Platinum’s face as she cradled Clover's bloody head in her forelegs.

With a pang of contrition Celestia realized that Luna was right: she no longer had it in her heart to kill another, even in defense of Equestria. It had been the same with Discord, until fate had gifted her with an unexpected option to deal with him. And now, she could see only one way forward that did not involve the end of the Equestria for which she had striven all these centuries.

She looked up towards the gaping hole in the ceiling, just barely able to make out the moon eclipsing the sun. "Oh, dear sister. I am sorry, but you have given me no choice but to use these." The floor next to her split with a clang and the storage vault of the Elements of Harmony rose into view.

She felt a strange numbness in her barrel, as if a great weight had settled upon her heart. It took her a moment to realize what it was. Is this how loneliness feels? she asked herself in thought. Oh Luna! Tonight we both commit treason, and our sentences await us.

She gathered the Elements of Harmony to her and flew up to end her sister's rebellion, along with her own happiness.

- One month after the disappearance of the Crystal Empire -

At the eastern edge of the Plaza of the Celestial Vault, Luna stood alone upon the raised platform. Her breath was a plume of pink and gold lit by the last rays of the setting sun. As usual, several hundred ponies had come to watch her raise the moon. A good turnout, yet still far fewer than came every morning to her sister’s sunrise ceremony. She knew she shouldn’t let this bother her. But it did.

Luna scanned the gathered herd. Every evening was another stark reminder that Celestia remained the more popular of the two sisters. Yet tonight, there were a few more ponies in attendance, a few more brave souls that had had enough of Celestia’s indecision and pandering to special interests. A few more subjects that had chosen to 'support the Moon'.

The thought brought the barest shadow of a grin to her muzzle. After the Crystal Empire debacle, when Luna had first declared her intent to convince Equestrians to end her sister’s reign, there had been disbelief, then concern, and then anger... towards her. Some ponies began to openly deride her cause, and seeking to belittle her refused to call her Princess Luna, choosing instead a name meant as an insult: Nightmare Moon. Luna was more than a little proud of her office of Guardian of the Night, and refused to take umbrage at the intended slur.

When the news of Sombra’s curse and the resulting disappearance of the entire Crystal Empire became widespread, all that had changed, and Luna made sure every single pony in Equestria learned of the truth: that her sister had had the power to kill Sombra, but in the ultimate moment had let Sombra slip through her hooves.

The furor over those events in the north motivated several prominent ponies of the Equestrian Assembly, mostly unicorns and a number of pegasi, to publically announced their support of her claims. Then it was discovered that all the earth ponies who had emigrated to the Crystal Empire had disappeared along with it. This tragedy touched in a very personal way their relatives still in Equestria. In the months since they had come to blame Celestia for the loss, swelling the ranks of Luna’s supporters.

Luna had felt the momentum beginning to shift in a her direction. Wishing to further show disdain for her sister’s diarchy, she had publically renounced her title of princess, and on a lark openly adopted the name Nightmare Moon. The move had garnered her both sympathy and even a few more followers among the more rebellious elements of Equestrian youth.

Luna rose to stand her hind legs and spread her wings. The herd before her grew quiet.

“Ponies of Equestria!” she declared in the fading light. “Verily my friends, count yourselves fortunate that ye be here this hallowed dusk. For this night, ye be in the very cusp of history, a history ye hold and will fashion in your own hooves. In years future, ponies will hearken to these storied times, and listen in wonder to tales of the founding of their Republic and that for which it stands: the right of all ponies to govern themselves.” Applause, and some cheering greeted Luna’s words. Of course, the masses had yet to fully grasp the breadth of her vision and to share the unbridled joy she felt at its prospect for Equestria. To nudge them in the right direction, she had a little surprise for them and Celestia in tonight’s speech. She grinned in anticipation.

”Many of our fellow ponies have yet to reckon that the time of monarchy is past, and still cannot even imagine a future where all ponies will stand as equals before the law. But we of the Lunar Republic Party, we know different. The scales have dropped from our our eyes, and we rejoice, for the days of domination by a privileged few are counted, and the time for all ponies to stand wither-to-wither is nigh. The time for insecurity and fear of that with lies upon our frontiers will soon end, and the time for justice fair and swift in a strong Equestria lies within sight of us all.” The cheering was much louder this time.

“Ponies of Equestria! We call for the end of the rule of Princess Celestia and of her weak-kneed, bumbling Solar Empire!” The ground fairly rumbled as the herd stamped their hooves enthusiastically. There was also open laughter at her usage of the term Solar Empire, just as Luna had intended. Two can play at that game, sister dear! she thought.

”So, comrades, I implore you, seek your fellows and speak unto them of our Republic and the glad tidings it promises for them and their families. Show them the concern our party holds for their welfare and that of their kith and kin. Invite them in warmest friendship to attend the rallies of the New Lunar Party, and united, let us bring into being that which we hold as our highest ambition: a new Republic of Equestria, which will live forever as a beacon to all nations, a shining example of those qualities that are the manifest destiny of pony kind.”

With her last pronouncement, the sun slipped below the horizon and the moon rose quickly to take its place. The cheering was loud and wild, and went on unabated for several minutes, as Luna painted the heavens with stars, comets and nebulae. It was another masterful show of the beauty of the night.

To her immediate left and right, squads of unicorns and pegasi in the uniform of the Lunar Guard held their right forehoof to their barrel, the salute of the New Lunar Party. Luna had forbidden anypony to bow to her, calling it a symbol of repression by the monarchy.

There was a not inconsiderable number of Lunar Guards present. Their numbers had more than doubled when Sombra’s troops, almost to a pony, had asked to join her cohorts after their former master’s banishment. Many of the attending ponies made the salute as well. With a solemn expression, Luna raised her forehoof to her chest. Starting from her left she rotated slowly, making sure everypony present felt she had saluted them directly. Then she departed from the stage, head held high.

- Three months after the disappearance of the Crystal Empire -

"I just don't understand it, Platypuss," Clover complained to his wife. Princess Platinum smiled at her husband and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Despite there being no servants in the royal apartments of House Unicorn, he blushed. It thrilled her that after almost fifteen years of marriage he somehow still found ways to sneak a bit of affection in their conversations.

“As well as you know him, my love,” she teased, “it does appear the Maestro can still surprise you every once-in-a-while!”

“Still, how could he speak that way to Princess Celestia?” He sat on his haunches and crossed his forelegs together over his chest. “He told her right in front of me that she was being a foal, and that she shouldn’t trust Princess Luna with access to the Elements of Harmony.”

Seeing how upset he was, Platinum sat down and leaned reassuringly into the green unicorn. “My poor sweet Clover.” Her breath was hot on his cheek. “He was feeling angry and not a little hurt by having to give up the Element of Magic and delay the research he has been doing on the Elements, even temporarily. He claims to have almost completed the spell needed to enable the Elements themselves to seek out the best candidates in all Equestria to bear them.”

Clover’s breathing slowed as the comforting warmth and scent of his special somepony cast their own special spell upon him. “Well, it's not as if he was making much sense. How can objects be made to seek out specific ponies based on their destinies, when the first thing the object does is change that pony’s destiny radically? Wouldn’t the object then reject the pony, because his or her destiny is now different? But then, if the pony is rejected and his or her destiny is not changed, then they become the perfect candidate again. The logic seems so... circular.”

Platinum chuckled. “The Maestro has been telling me of this new form of spellcasting he has devised. He calls it recursive thaumic construction. I don’t think anypony truly understands what he is doing anymore. I certainly don’t!”

Clover put a foreleg over her withers and hugged her tightly to him. “Aye, love. But it produces such incredible results.” His smile died on his lips. “Can it only be three months since we returned from the Crystal Empire? How everything has changed! Luna has done everything in her power to belittle and besmirch both Princess Celestia and Starswirl’s research on the Elements. This latest ruse of Princess Luna, proposing a common storage for the the Elements so their power can never be abused, is nothing but pandering to her own supporters.” He lay his head atop hers, and felt a tickle on his neck as she flicked an ear. “But Princess Celestia had no choice, else she would be made to look like the tyrant her sister accuses her of being. How could he then turn on her so heartlessly. Truly, Platypuss, I saw the sorrow in her eyes. Perhaps...” he hesitated.

“Perhaps what, love?” she prompted.

“The last time I saw that look on a princess, she was mourning her father. Perhaps you could seek Celestia out. I have a feeling she desperately needs a wither to lean on and mmmmfff...”

This time it was Platinum who interrupted his words a long, passionate kiss on the lips. When finally they came up for air he smiled down at his wife. “What was that for?”

She gazed up at him and held a hoof to his muzzle. “Every day I count myself the luckiest mare in Equestria. And as well as I know you, my love,” she teased, “it does appear that you can still surprise me every once-in-a-while!”

- Six months after the disappearance of the Crystal Empire -

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” As he trotted past his parlour door Starswirl glanced at the bowl upon the room only table. He nodded in satisfaction. It had been filled with fruit in the early evening, as per his instructions to the castle staff. He rarely bolted the door until moments before going to bed these days. Many of Luna’s supporters had taken to living on ‘Lunar time’, so late evening callers to the Minister of Science were far from rare.

He opened the door. Inches in front of his muzzle was a dark blue plastron sporting a crescent moon. He glanced upwards and gulped.

“Princess Luna, what a... pleasant surprise!” he said. Eyes wide, he sketched a bow and stepped aside, inviting the princess to enter with a hoof.

Luna stared at him for a moment, her expression unreadable. She blinked once, and said: “Call me Citizen Luna, or if thou preferest, Nightmare Moon.” Grinning, she entered his apartment. In silence, he followed her into his parlour, where she sat down without being invited. He took a seat opposite her, forehooves on the table before him.

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit... Citizen Luna,” he asked.

“I wish to discuss two issues with thee Starswirl. Both are matters of loyalty.” She tilted her head to one side and regarded him intently. As he waited for her to continue, she levitated an apple from the bowl on the table. Taking a bite, she chewed for a moment. The half eaten apple floated between them. She swallowed.

“I am sure thou art aware of the politics that stand between my sister and me. At our last face-to-face meeting I departed in haste and failed to seek your thoughts on the matter. Despite your obvious feelings of gratitude towards Celestia, you have frequently demonstrated a genuine independence of thought and a willingness to express it.” She took another bite of the apple. “Of late, my sister has been actively thwarting my plans to reform the government of Equestria. She lacks the resolve to take the actions needed to protect Equestria and its ponies from a world full of predators and worse. I possess no such qualms. The Republic I propose will without a doubt become the strongest nation in the world! My cause is just, and if only a few more key members of the Equine assembly join me I will have the votes needed to overturn the Hearth’s Warming Accord and declare the Republic.” She let the apple core fall to the tabletop. “So now, Minister Starswirl, I have come seek thy succor in mine august enterprise. Will thou join the Republican cause?”

He tried to read Luna's intent in her expression, but was unable to see anything there other than detached patience. Her very formal tone, however, sent a shiver up his spine. He glanced around the room, searching for something, anything with which he could distract the princess. "I thank you for your calling on me personally, Citizen Luna. I suspect everypony in Equestria must be aware of the Lunar Republic party and its objectives by now." He took a deep breath, and hoped it wouldn’t be his last. "But I must reply that my sympathies have not changed, and that I continue to support Princess Celestia's policies and her continued rule of Equestria.”

There was nothing overt in her reaction, but he nevertheless felt a chill radiate from the princess of the night.

“So be it, then. As I said earlier, I have one more matter of import still to discuss with thee.” Another apple apple levitated from the bowl.

“Has my sister ever told thee how the Griffons, Diamond Dogs, and Dragons came to Equestria?” She arched an eyebrow.

“Prin... er, Citizen, do you mean that they were not always here?”

Her smile grew feral. “Indeed not! I can see that Celestia has been most parsimonious in the information she has provided thee. Perhaps she does not trust in thee as much as thou thinkest.” She took another bite of her apple while he squirmed in his seat. “Then again, this involves her greatest follies.” She laughed, and leaned conspiratorially towards him. “You see, she collects orphans. She brought them to this world when their own were doomed!” Luna leaned in even closer. “She let these sentient predators in and created the greatest threats known to the very existence of the pony race, as an act of generosity!” Another two bites and the second core joined the first on the table.

Starswirl eyed the princess cooly. “Such is her nature. And her generosity is a trait I much admire.” He hesitated. He had had few dealings with the other races of Equestria, but his natural curiosity had turned each of those instances into moments of great wonder. Learning of Celestia’s courageous role in making them possible only increased his gratitude towards her and lent him courage. “Wonderful are the works of Nature. If you think it would be a criminal thing to stand idle and let a single individual die, then reflect how much more criminal it is to let an entire race become extinct. For indeed, one who does not value life, does not himself deserve it.”

“Thy concern for life warms the heart, Maestro. It would appear that my sister has also neglected to mention the wars ponykind has fought with her... guests, nor of the thousands, nay, countless ponies that they have killed?” Her eyes narrowed and another apple flew up. “And this is not to mention the hordes of vermin they brought with them: the fleas, the parasites, the parasprites and worse.” She took a bite and slowly chewed as he digested what he had just been told. He suddenly realized why the princess had broached this topic.

“I know what you are getting at, Citizen Luna.” He bit out the words. “The humans are...”

“...the next in her long list of follies, yes,” she interrupted. “These humans she so admires on her travels to thy world. Do you know what thy race have been up to these past years, Maestro?” She took another large mouthful which she deliberately masticated and swallowed.

He stared at her sullenly, refusing to take the bait.

“I remind thee that time flows not apace between our cosmos and that of humanity’s. More than a century has passed in thy world, relatively to the last twenty in Equestria. Expansion, conquest, war, slavery, Starswirl, all on a scale never seen in Equestria. Humanity spreads like a weed. Still worse, your race is a clever one, as thy example so fittingly illustrates, Maestro, and thou art but one of many.” She took a last bite and deposited the third apple core onto the table, a cold gleam in her eyes.

Some books popped into existence above the table and fell upon the cores, crushing them. Sticky juice and the remains of the fruit spread from under the stack, leaking from his table onto the floor below it. He looked at the title on the uppermost of the books. It was Latin. This was a book from his homeworld.

“Principia Mathematica” he read. “Who is this Isaac Newton?”

“Another one gifted such as thou art. Human science advances in leaps and bounds unimaginable in Equestria. Your kind can build the most marvelous things, and the most fiendishly clever and deadly weapons.”

Starswirl scanned a few pages of the tome, his eyes wide as he quickly grasped some of the proofs presented.

Luna looked on as he began turning pages, and chuckled. “Impressive, is it not? E’en more, I cannot help but remark upon those traits humans hold in common with mine own Alicorn race: intelligence, a thirst for knowledge... and enormous greed for power and conquest. Thou art predators of a higher order - as are we of Alicorn blood.”

His ears fell back. He felt the heat of anger rising to his head. “You forget much in your discourse, Luna. Humans also seek beauty, peace, fellowship and understanding. Our ambitions fuel our achievements and lead us to surpass ourselves and improve the lives of all. We say amongst ourselves that poor is the pupil that does not surpass his master. We seek not the estate of the predatory beast, but rather to ever more closely approach our image of the divine.”

Luna snorted. “Verily? Do you know what thy predatory kind would do to our little ponies, Starswirl?” He held his tongue, knowing a trap when he saw one. A brief smile touched her lips, and she continued. “I will tell you, then. You would overrun us and all our defenses. You would enslave our ponies and take all that is theirs. They would be helpless before you! You know this to be true, Maestro.”

He recalled another fact Celestia had told him when she set him on his mission. “But the magic of this world is poison to the human form! That is why Celestia wishes to find...”

“...a way to transform humans into ponies,” interrupted Luna again. “Yes, we have discussed this. Even were they on four hooves, dost thou truly believe that thy kind would be any less formidable or any less dangerous? Tell, me what would humans do with magic?” She placed a hoof on the side of her muzzle, eyes wide in mock perplexity. “Wait, I think I know!” She pointed an accusing hoof at his heart. “They would do as you did, Starswirl. They would change the natural order. They would build colonies wherever they could, and multiply like flies! They would make weapons and conquer whomever opposed them!” She sneered. “Or didst thou think I had not noticed those flying machines of thy fabrication used to war upon Sombra?”

Luna stood, her contempt was evident on her features. She loomed over him like a creature from nightmare. Starswirl cringed, and felt his legs begin to tremble.

“No matter the form, thee and thy kind are predators, and of a potency such as we ponies have yet to face. For the sake of Equestria, I should kill you now, human. But I will not.” Her smile became a gruesome rictus. “This is not because my heart pines still for thine affections, sweet Maestro. Nay, this is because Equestria may need thy knowledge to withstand these humans when the convergence comes. And as thou persists in supporting my sister, I shall place thee in safe-keeping, where thou canst employ thy cunning to thwart my plans.” She tilted her head to one side and again affected surprise. “Oh, my! It appears I have a generous streak as well.”

Starswirl took a step back. “Wait! Luna, I...”

There was a flash of light and...

...Starswirl found himself on a grassy plain. In the distance, he could make out the edge of a forest. The only sounds he could hear were the beating of his own heart, and the wind whispering through the tall grasses. He pivoted around fully twice, trying unsuccessfully to find any other landmark. With a sigh he used his magic to extrude a large stone from the ground. He inscribed it with his cutie mark, two five pointed stars on a spiral swirl, and turning back towards the dark spot on the horizon, began the long trek towards the distant forest. On the way he considered those pages he had glimpsed of Newton’s text.

- Seven months after the disappearance of the Crystal Empire -

Sky Blue let go of Summer’s hoof as several ponies entered the shabby apartment. If they had not known the password they would not have made it this far. Still, he eyed them warily as they removed the cloaks that had been obscuring their features and hiding their cutie marks. He bumped hooves with his colthood friend Harvey. He also waved a greeting to Iron Anvil, the Crystal Pony expatriate, and the slight unicorn mare named Filigree. The two were inseparable, having become a couple shortly after the raid on Sombra’s dungeon. The other ponies included Speck and Plow, and some other members of the Overcloud Express he only knew by sight. His uncle Hy briefly greeted each and every newcomer. As Stationmaster, he had been appointed interim leader of the Express a week after Starswirl’s disappearance. Sky sat down next to Summer as Uncle Hy called the meeting to order.

“My friends,” said his uncle, “you have all heard the news that Citizen Luna has proposed a vote in the Equine Assembly to amend the Hearths’ Warming Day accord and thereby severely curtail the role of the diarchy. Every day since, members of the Lunar Republic Party have been holding rallies and marches in support of the amendment.” He paused as one of the attending ponies snorted.

“If only the Loonies didn’t hold their events after sunset,” said Harvey. “These Moon Walks are starting seriously cut into my beauty sleep!” Many of the ponies present chuckled. Uncle Hy’s expression remained grim.

“I’m afraid the actions of the Loonies are becoming somewhat bolder and less of a laughing matter. In the last week I and other members of the assembly who openly support Princess Celestia have been warned to vote the right way, or there would be personal repercussions.” The mood of the audience became noticeably grimmer.

“Aye,” said Iron Anvil. “The word amongst the remnants of the Crystal Ponies is that the Lunar Republic’s methods bear an uncomfortable resemblance to King Sombra’s. Many are preparing to leave Equestria rather than relive that experience.”

“I also have a disturbing piece of intelligence,” resumed Uncle Hy. “The word in the Royal Guard is that Princess Luna was sighted in proximity to the Maestro’s quarters on the night he went missing. I now suspect her to be at the root of his absence.”

Summer stirred at his side. “What does Princess Celestia say about this?” she asked. “Surely she knows something.”

Uncle Hy sighed. “I’m afraid the Sun Princess refused to believe her sister would stoop to such tactics.” There was a buzz as several ponies expressed disbelief. “However, there are some good news still. Princess Celestia has given her assurances that she knows for a fact that he is still alive.”

“And just who did she give these assurance to?” asked Filigree, arching an eyebrow.

“Now, let’s not forget which Princess we support here,” gently chided his uncle. “We have these statements straight from the pony’s mouth.” He waved towards the open doorway to the adjoining room.

A pea-green unicorn poked his head in. “She gave those assurances to me,” he said. It was one of the ponies who had accompanied the Maestro to the Crystal Empire, if Sky remembered correctly.

Uncle Hy spoke. “I think most of you have met Clover the Clever, our Maestro’s student. He has informed me that he is personally investigating the disappearance, and I have volunteered the resources of the Overcloud Express to assist him in any way we can.”

Clover walked to stand next to Uncle Hy. “I have a plan to find the Maestro,” he said. “But I will need your help to retrieve him. Princess Celestia has given me a machine which we can use to locate him.” He held up a brass and glass device that looked very much like a compass. “Do we have any volunteers?”

In the blink of an eye every single pony had a hoof in the air, including himself and Summer. She nuzzled him. “I guess it’s time for another adventure!” she whispered to him.

He smiled ruefully. “I just hope this one doesn’t land us in jail like the last one did.”

They snuggled into each other as Clover began presenting his plan.

- Eight months after the disappearance of the Crystal Empire -

Celestia had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach as she watched the Lord Chamberlain of the Equine Assembly approach her throne. The other throne on the dais was empty. It had been since Luna repudiated her status of Princess, claiming a seat on the floor of the assembly instead. She could see her sister eyeing her from the floor, a look of calm confidence on her face. The vote was going to be very close. Since Starswirl’s disappearance several other key nobles supporting her had also gone missing. There was more than a little fear of Luna and her Republican party in the assembly. Celestia hoped ponies would vote according to their convictions rather than succumb to bullying. Never had her promise to uphold all decisions of the Equine Assembly caused her such worry.

The Lord Chamberlain struck his staff onto the surface of the royal dais three times. “The vote has been taken by the Equine Assembly on the question of amending the Hearths’ Warming Day Accord.” The Chamberlain unfurled a scroll passed to him by the chief scribe. “By a vote of one hundred and fifty-two 'yeas', twenty-three abstentions, and one hundred and fifty-eight 'neighs', this assembly refuses the member’s proposal.” In a rare break from protocol, the Chamberlain turned towards the dais and bowed deeply. “Your majesty,” he intoned gravely.

Suddenly the sound of clopping hooves rang out. A single earth pony mare near the rearmost bench of the assembly stood, proudly proclaiming her approval. A moment later many of her fellow members joined her. Seconds later a far larger number of ponies than would’ve been suspected from the vote rose to their hooves and began clopping and cheering. Celestia rose and bowed to the assembly, as the hall resounded with their approval.

When Celestia rose from her bow Luna was gone from her seat. But after scanning the crowd a for moment she saw the unmistakable dark blue of her sister’s back as she moved towards the exit with the upper echelons of the Lunar Party following close behind. At the door, Luna paused and turned back towards the dais. The smile on Celestia’s lips died. On Luna’s face was a look of pure hatred. Time seemed to stop and all sound faded from her perception. After what felt like an eternity Luna finally turned away and exited through the hall, leaving Celestia feeling very alone on the dais. Her heart beating, Celestia sat down on her throne. The ponies of the assembly seemed to recede into the distance, their voices fading until she couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. The rest of the assembly’s proceedings slipped by in a haze.

- The night of the vote -

Luna looked over Solar Guard detachment blocking the entrances and surrounding the dais of the Plaza of the Celestial Vault.

“What is this travesty?” she complained to their captain. Her own Thestral Guards formed ranks behind her. They outnumbered the Solars at least three to one.

The stallion stood his ground. “You are hereby advised that the Equine Assembly has declared a curfew in Canterlot. All ponies are to be in their homes by nightfall.”

“Surely this curfew does not apply to me,” Luna declared, venom in her voice. “And how thinkest thou that night shall come without my ministrations? Begone, worms!”

The Solar Guardspony looked back at Luna with contempt. “This curfew has been lawfully instituted and will be enforced for all citizens, Citizen Luna!” There was feral smile on his face.

It only took a moment from Luna to recover from the shock of the stallion’s arrogance and to realize what her sister had done. She sneered. “How dare my sister impose upon my jurisdiction!”

“That is not my concern, citizen,” said the Solar Guard with an answering sneer.

A feeling of anger such as she had never known began to fill her heart. My sister! she thought. She did this to spite me after we left the Assembly. The areas at the periphery of her vision seemed to dim as her ire grew.

“Raising the Moon is mine!” she growled, and signaled to her Thestrals to take out this insolent pup and his mangy crew.

The Solars barely had time to parse her reply, suddenly finding themselves on the ground with one or two Thestrals standing over them.

Luna laughed. “So it goes for those that dare defy the Moon!” She considered a moment. “Remove their armour!” she called to her troops. “And send the varlets back whence they came.”

She laughed again as she climbed the stairs that led up to the platform atop the dais. The piled Solar armour will be a fitting gift for Celestia when she comes to raise the sun in the morning, she thought. It’s a pity I won’t be there to see her face.

She chuckled again and quickly set about raising the moon and filling the night-time sky.

- Twilight, the day after the vote -

“The curfew is rescinded,” declared Celestia simply.

The Solar Guard stared at a moment, and couldn’t prevent a flash of anger from showing before he mastered his emotions. He chewed on his lip a moment, and then responded. “Yes, your majesty.” He signaled the detachment. They assembled into ranks and flew off into the sky in formation, leaving the Plaza of the Vault far below.

Celestia turned to her sister. Luna had arrived moments earlier with her Thestrals in attendance.

Luna glared at Celestia. “Thou showest how meager is thy mettle once again, Celestia. Thou respecteth thine own resolve to honour the edicts of the Assembly no more than thou showeth unto thine own blood sister. If thou thinkest by this act thou has earned our forgiveness, then thou art sorely mistaken."

“No, I did not repeal that law to placate you, but because it was the right thing to do,” said Celestia. Thou. The loss of intimacy with Luna hurt far more than she thought it would. She paused a moment. “The movement of the sun and moon continue to be our exclusive domains, Luna. I only did what was needful to protect the cycle of day and night for all Equestrians. And I came here to ask you to please stop this folly, now, Luna. A... member of the Equine Assembly publicly assaulting members of the Royal Guard. Everypony loses if we cannot maintain public order.”

“I have heard of the other laws enacted after my departure from the Assembly yesterday. That most august body has forbidden any further motions to amend to that blasted accord, and to any assembly of ten ponies or more without permission of the local constabulary. Tsk, tsk, tsk.“ Luna’s smile was gruesome. “I did not imagine thou had the resolve to take such measures, sister.”

Celestia blushed. Too much had happened in the Assembly yesterday. And I only have myself to blame for not paying attention, she thought.

“Luna, listen to me. Tempers are hot and we must prevent this situation from escalating out of control. For the sake of Equestria, I beg of you to stop, please.”

Luna’s expression remained cold. “It is most unfortunate, sister, that we hold very different opinions on what is in the best interest of Equestria. I assure thee, Princess Celestia, that the Lunar Republic party and I intend to continue pressing our suit until it is won.”

It took every ounce of self control Celestia had not to burst into tears. Instead, she sighed once. “Goodnight, Luna.” She jumped into the air and flew off towards Everfree Castle.

Luna looked at the empty field around the stage. There was no point in holding a ceremony. Other than her Thestrals there were no ponies to watch. “Our little ponies will be here tomorrow. Tonight we rest.” She raised the moon and quickly graced the sky with a few simple stars. Then she signaled her guard, and they took off into the sky.

- Three weeks after the vote -

Summer ducked as a brick flew over her head. Blue pulled her to his side and sheltered her under his wing.

“You know that feathers aren’t much protection against bricks, don’t you?” asked Summer as the two alternately trotted and paced through the alleyways.

“Do me a favor and just keep your head low until we’re out this maze,” said Blue. He scanned the area nervously. The previous band of Loonies had seemed to come out of nowhere, and everypony knew what happened to Solars caught by Loony gangs. A glance upwards showed there were still some Thestrals patrolling the rooftops, making a flying getaway unlikely to succeed. He and Summer rounded a corner and ground to a halt. A gang of three Loonies blocked their way. They turned back quickly and saw that they were cut off by another four. These are not good odds, he thought, pressing Summer behind him and as much as possible providing her cover with his wings.

The Loonies gangs approached, each from their own end of the alley. “Well what do we have here?” Said a uniformed unicorn. “Looks like a pair of Loony lovebirds. My, it looks like they might have a few too many feathers, dontcha think?” He taunted as his horn began to glow.

One of his companions, a pegasus stepped forward. “Who’s the filly, punk?” he called. “If she’s pretty we might just let you go, if you don’t put up a fight.” He chuckled and several of his cohorts seemed to share his taste in humour.

Sky felt Summer trying to push out from behind him without breaking his flight feathers. “Thunder, is that you?” she called loudly.

The pegasus’s smirk slipped from his face and his eyes grew big. “Summer?” he called.

She finally was able to poke her head out from between Sky’s wings. There was no disguising the rage in her voice. “It IS you! Is this what you do for kicks now? Assault defenceless fillies? Wait ‘till I tell mom and dad! They’ll have you hung up by your pinfeathers!”

The pegasus stallion turned a full shade paler. His fellow gang members were divided into two groups: one that seemed amused at his discomfiture, and one that seemed angered by the situation. A unicorn who was part of the second group spoke up. “Okay, so we leave the filly alone.” He grinned. “But her coltfriend, well, he’s gonna have a real bad day.”

They gathered closer to prevent Sky from making a move. At least Summer’s going to get out of this, he thought. Then a flicker above caught his eye. “Twenty-five!” he yelled. Then he and Summer simultaneously hit the ground and held their breaths. Gliding-in without a sound above them, Harvey dropped a cannister right into the middle of the group. A thick white fog spread causing the Loonies to scream and and start coughing. In the confusion, Sky and Summer galloped right out of the alley and then took to the air following Harvey.

Sky looked down at the streets and alleys as they flew. A big section of this neighborhood was Loony territory, and he wouldn’t be feeling safe until he and Summer were clear of it.

Finally, Harvey gave the hoof symbol for a landing. They flew down for a landing.

As soon as they were on solid ground he turned to Summer and reached out. The filly just turned on her rear hooves and stomped away. Before she did he caught a glimpse of her face. She was mad, scared, sad, and ashamed all at the same time. Sky knew her well enough to know when to give her a moment’s space. She would be back in few minutes as soon as she had worked out her mad. Or at least he hoped she did. Hers wasn’t the only family split between the Loonies and Solars. And according to Uncle Hy, the conflict was only getting started.

- Two months after the vote -

The wind that blasted through the Triplane smelled of sulfur, vinegar, and... a whole mess of other things Clover simply could not place. He looked at Celestia’s device. Through the glass top he could see its needle spinning randomly. “Not this one either!” he shouted to his crew. “One minute to transition,” he called again. They usually could manage up to a dozen different transitions per sortie, and on a good day managed three sorties. He had lost track of the total number they had tried when they had passed one thousand.

He focused his thoughts on the spell he had read in Starswirl’s journal, used to cross between planes of existence. He pictured the pattern and the equations in his mind, building up his magical potential, and released the spell. A circle of green fire appeared before the triplane and it flew straight into it. They exited the circle from the other side into a sky of pure blue, over a grassy plain. In the distance a forest traced a line of darker green against the horizon.

Clover sighed. At least this was a far more pleasant world than the one they had just left. Out of routine, he began to prepare for the next hop, when he looked down at the compass glass. Its needle pointed solidly to the right of the aircraft. It was a moment before Clover found his voice.

“This is it! The Maestro is in this world!” He pointed with a hoof. “Circle at low altitude. We need to mark our exit point so we can return here.”

He looked towards the forest in anticipation. Maestro, we come at last.

- That night -

Luna stood ready to raise the moon, and gazed over the very sparse herd of ponies in the plaza. So few, she thought. Surely the Solars have been intimidating our partisans. Surely this cannot be all who want to glory in the night?

For some reason Luna felt desperation. She decided that it was time to show all of Equestria just what the night could be, and that this time she would put her heart and soul into her nightly ritual.

She took her time with the moon, raising it in infinitesimal increments, letting it sit near the horizon, huge and deep reddish in hue. Only when its disc was fully above the horizon did she begin to paint the stars and cosmos. Eyes closed she imagined swirls of galaxies and nebulas, and bade them to slowly appear upon the firmament. She created high altitude air currents, varying the air density from moment to moment to make the stars twinkle like candles in a summer breeze. She let a pack of clouds fly by high in the atmosphere, periodically lit from within by lightning. SHe closed with shooting stars and a particularly impressive aurora borealis.

It took almost an hour for her to complete her ritual. Suspended above the stage, she slowly descended to her hind hooves and then at last stood on all four. The crowd cheered. Eyes still tightly shut, she listened as the applause died down. Surely this must be my finest creation! she thought. She smiled in satisfaction. I must know what my little ponies think of it! On a whim she decided she would investigate. She concentrated a moment and felt the flux of magic through her horn.

When she opened her eyes she stood just outside of the entrance to the Plaza. Looking down at her legs she saw the pale blue coat she had affected as a disguise. Feeling confident she trotted out to join some ponies returning home from the ceremony. Nopony noticed as she slipped into the edge of the group.

“That was quite a show tonight!” she called out to the unicorn mare pacing next to her.

The mare turned to look in her direction. “Tell me about it. A whole hour wasted looking at a bunch of lights in the sky! I almost fell asleep twice.”

A young earth pony stallion joined the conversation. “Yeah! I’d even prefer another boring speech than having to stand there like a statue until Miss Moon Mare has had her fill. I don’t know about you all but that’s the last Moonrise ceremony for me, no matter how much the parti boss yells at me.” There was a chorus of laughs from the other ponies nearby.

“Hey, them’s big words for a little shrimp like you! The only reason anypony comes to this total waste of time is because the parti goons frog-march us up to the gate every night. What are you going to do? Hide in the bushes when they come for the roll call?”

This prompted another round of laughter. Dismayed, Luna slowed her pace until another group overtook her. This one was composed mostly of pegasi stallions.

“I’m telling you Cloudburst, I have enough of this lame Loonie business,” said one of the pegasi.

“Oh come-on Thunder. You can’t just drop the movement like that,” replied Cloudburst.

“And why not? What I do is my own business!” said Thunder.

“Yeah? And what will you do when the Thestrals come after your family?” asked Cloudburst.

“Those rumours are just that rumours. And if they do come after us, then they’d better be ready for a fight! We’re the Breeze clan and not some namby-pamby earth ponies running at the first sign of a fight.”

His friend had no reply to this. They walked on in silence for a moment.

“And Cloudy, I have to tell you. This Lunar Republic stuff was cool when it started. But... this chasing down Solars is just... not right. It’s gone too far and I’m sick of it. Just like I’m sick of Thestrals giving orders like they run the world, just like I’m sick of this stupid party and its pissant princess pretending to be just a normal pony, and especially with her stupid obsession about the Moon. The sunrise ceremony - now there’s something worth going to. But the moon? Nopony gives a road-apple about the moon anyway, and nopony ever will.”

Luna froze, not believing her ears. None of these ponies actually cared about the very things that she was working so hard to achieve. Everything she was doing was for their benefit, yet it sounded like they were ready to throw it all away and that somehow she was inconveniencing them! The thought made her angry. The more she thought about the more she seethed.

She decided to see if anypony at all had noticed her performance this evening. Changing back into her normal form she took to the sky and flew over the city of Canterlot, much of it still under construction. All of the public places were deserted. Not even a single pony was out this evening. Finally, she found a old stallion sitting at a park bench. She dropped out of the night and approached his bench.

“Good evening!” she said when she stopped two paces away.

“Good evening, young lady,” said the stallion. “A fine moonrise wasn’t it?”

Luna’s heart skipped a beat. “Yes it was,” she said simply.

“Please,” asked the stallion, “could you tell me about it?”

Luna examined the stallion more closely. His gaze was fixed somewhere to her right. She closed her eyes. Of course. He’s blind. “It was... grand,” she said.

“I’m sure it was,” said the oldster. Luna felt herself trembling. Afraid that if she said anything more her voice would betray her emotions, Luna stood in silence a moment, and then with a beat of her wings she ascended into the sky just as the tears came.

You see, none of them appreciate you.

Luna cringed inwardly as she wept. The voice that had so badly harassed her before and during the Crystal Empire affair was back.

They do not deserve you.

“Stop it!” she cried aloud. “Stop. Please.”

They care about you as little as they care about your beautiful night, and they see no value in all the fruit of of your labors. None of them do, and certainly not that traitorous sister of yours.

That only made her weep harder, her tears falling to the earth as she flew in the night.

They will never listen. They will only laugh at you, and call you the lesser princess, and waste your precious night in slumber.

The voice was right. The realization left her feeling as empty as the streets of the abandoned city below. She looked up at the magnificent display she had painted across the firmament. Without a doubt, she knew it was most likely her very finest. She looked back down. The streets remained empty, as she knew they would be until dawn.

Their loss, said the voice. They will see it not, and miss it even less, and then rise in the morn praising the sun’s erasure of your night and bending knee to that selfish, craven mare. In the end, she will betray them with her foalish ideas with even less regret than her loyal subjects show for abandoning your glorious night.

Luna felt anger spread like fire through her veins. She had always thought of Celestia as giving. Only recently had she been able to see the truth, that her sister always took the better leaf, the largest share, and left her only that which she did not desire.

And now she has pushed you out. There is only one way to correct this situation and save Equestria. The ponies are too divided and morally weak to save themselves. They do not deserve your Republic. They would only squander it. Only somepony with an iron hoof can save them from their own folly and your sister’s machinations. And that somepony must be you Luna.

She flew on in silence, and considered. The voice was right.

Yes, I am, said the voice. It is time for you to push back and challenge that usurper Celestia for supremacy. There can only be one Princess in Equestria, and that princess will be you, Princess Luna!

“No!” she replied. “Not Luna. I have renounced that name. The time of Luna and Celestia is finished. Equestria needs a new princess, and our little ponies have already given her a name: Nightmare Moon!”

The idea made her laugh. It felt good to laugh. She flew up to the moon. Her laughter reverberated over the deserted city streets below.

- Not too far away, in Everfree Castle -

Celestia had come down from her observatory. She had wanted to see what Luna would do tonight, and she had not been disappointed. This was one of her sister’s most impressive performances in ages. She wished she could have told her. She sighed. Thinking of Luna made her so melancholy these days.

Many of her friends amongst the mortal ponies had tried their best to cheer her up. Platinum in particular had become a friend and a comfort during this discord with Luna. Commander Hurricane and Chancellor Puddinghead had also been by to visit, pledging their support. It was a nice gesture for them to make, but they had no idea how much it hurt to have them remind her of her failure to keep Harmony with the pony she loved the most in all the world.

At least there was some good news on another front. Clover had located the world on which Starswirl was residing. She hoped he would be back in the castle within a day. Tomorrow will be a better day, she said to herself with a sniff, and made ready to sleep.

Light and Shadow (part 2)

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 21: Light and Shadow (part 2)

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Celestia sat at her desk, trying to read diplomatic reports, and failing miserably. Thoughts of Luna kept pushing all other concerns from her head. Thus it had been all day, starting in Canterlot when she had performed the sun raising ceremony. As she stood on the dais at dawn, it struck her that her sister had stood upon the very same stage just the previous evening. Hours later the emotion still lingered, lending a hollow feeling to every activity she undertook.

She had been reading the same petition for the third time in a row when Rising Dawn, the captain of the Royal Guard knocked and entered without awaiting her response. The act prepared her to receive bad news. A feeling of dread washed over her.

“Majesty!” said the stalwart pegasus, “We have reports that your sister has declared herself the sole sovereign of Equestria and that a division of the Thestral Guard have surrounded the Equine Assembly! A larger contingent has also been spotted on the way here, and she is leading the formation.” He swallowed. “Your Majesty, they outnumber us better than two to one. I recommend you be evacuated from the castle forthwith. The Royal Guard will engage the invaders here to provide time to get you to safety."

Celestia took a deep breath. She had thought the Alicorns’ strife ended with the defeat of Discord. She smiled. Luna had once confided in her that given the history of their race, she feared that she and Celestia were doomed to fight each other as well one day. Alas, dear sister, it would appear you were right, she thought, and almost let the bitterness of the moment show in her face. She remembered her mother's instructions on the true heart of Harmony. This will guide your path: that which you do, you do in service to Harmony and for all others, but never for yourself. You must be a beacon onto others, and provide love where there is hate, friendship where there is discord, and hope where all hope is lost.

Celestia looked up into the Captain’s face and found both courage and determination, but in his eyes and in the downwards cast of his lips she saw not hope but resignation.

This was the moment of truth. The moment when she became a pivot on which the future of Equestria depended. She could either think of herself, or risk all to stand and be the beacon in the night. All her uncertainties deserted her, and a feeling of peace seemed to settle like a mantle over her withers. She stood.

“I will not turn tail and desert my forces, Captain Dawn. Please advise your guards that I will be fighting with them. There is a strong likelihood I can minimize casualties by engaging my sister directly.” She picked four scrolls on her desk, and opening a small silver box blew powder onto them. They burned with a bright green flame and were gone.

“Assemble your troops, Captain and establish a perimeter around the castle. There will be a teleport interdict over the area in minutes and help is on the way. I will join you momentarily. Now go!” Her tone left no room for argument. Captain Dawn saluted, turned on his hooves and left. Just for a moment, on his scarred old muzzle she had seen the slightest of smiles.

Celestia’s horn glowed and she blinked in the bright lights as she materialized in the hospital wing of the castle. Clover and Platinum stood near a bed with a rather distraught looking bearded unicorn who was arguing with the nurse. His smile died on his lips as he caught sight of Celestia’s grim expression.

“I must be brief," said Celestia as she approached. "The castle is under attack by my sister and her Thestral Guard. Clover, I charge you with protecting Princess Platinum and the Maestro. Get them safely away from here.” As she fed power to her horn Starswirl opened his mouth to say something, but the view abruptly changed to that of the outer courtyard where her Guard were already assembled into ranks. She walked to the head of the formation.

“Soldiers of Equestria!” she shouted. “Today we meet a challenge such as we have never faced. For we will be fighting fellow ponies, our brothers, our sisters...” her words caught in her throat. “This is a most terrible thing I ask of you, but it is a necessary thing, not a choice to be made, but a duty to be borne. I ask this of you because this day will set the course for the next thousand years of Equestria’s history. It will determine not only the shape of our government, but the very character and soul of our nation, and the lives of us all and our families.” She paused to let her troops consider what she had just said.

“One last thing. We may be outnumbered in the air, but we have a strong position in this castle, magical resources on the ground, and even a few surprises of our own. Remember when you are out there that you are not alone. Even when things look their darkest, do not lose hope, and we shall prevail.”

The words had barely left her mouth when she felt a wash of thaumic energy pass through her. Good, the teleport shield is up. With a beat of alabaster wings, Celestia took to the sky.

“This way, Clover,” said Platinum, lighting the way down a steep spiral staircase that led deeper still into the bowels of Everfree Castle. Behind her, Clover half carried, half levitated Starswirl.

“I’m not an invalid, I’ll have you know!” groused the older mage. She smiled as he had voiced the complaint every few hundred paces. At first their progress had been awfully slow as he had insisted on walking on his own. He was barely able to go a few pony lengths before tripping on his own legs. It had taken them nearly a half hour to go down two levels. At that point she had simply picked Starswirl up and placed him on Clover’s back. Progress since had been much faster.

“The physician said that after your sojourn on that world you were dehydrated, malnourished and apparently under the influence of a mild intoxicant, Maestro. She’ll let you know when you can be trusted on your own hooves.”

“None of this is of my choosing. I had no idea what I could and could not eat in that place. At least I was able to find something I could stomach, even though it did make me a bit tipsy,” replied Starswirl. “And that’s why I fell down so often.”

Clover grunted beneath him. “It’s also why you have putrid wounds on both front knees. I suggest you stop fidgeting so much, or we may all get to enjoy falling down these steps.”

They reached the bottom of the stairwell. A tunnel stretched before them for quite a distance.

“How come you know about this secret passage, sweets?” asked Clover.

“My father took me through here when I was just a little filly. He had a meeting with the princesses that needed to be kept secret, so we entered and left the castle via this passage. My mother was still alive then. I remem...” She stopped abruptly after turning a bend in the corridor.

“Platinum? Is there something the matter?” asked Clover behind her.

There was indeed. In the distance, another pony shone a light. A tall dark pony with a horn and wings. She pulled back behind the bend in the passage. “It’s her! She’s in the passage. Turn back, Clover, and run!” She focused her magic a moment and a rock grew out of the earth, blocking the passage. She spun and quickly caught up with her husband.

Despite his burden, Clover galloped for all he was worth. He groaned when they reached the stairwell, and started climbing, complaining between breaths. “If I... ever find out... whose bright idea... it was to... put a... teleport... interdict... on the castle... I’ll...” Platinum saw Clover stumble at the head of the stairs as she felt a shudder run through the stone floor.

Clover was stooped over and breathing heavily. As she lifted Starswirl off his back he caught her gaze. “Somepony needs to warn the Princess. You have to go. The Maestro and I will keep Princess Luna bottled in the stairwell.”

Platinum felt a cold stab of fear. “But Celestia said...” Clover placed a hoof gently over her lips.

“Warning the Princess that Luna is in the castle takes precedence over anything else, my love. You know that... and besides, you know the way back. I don’t.”

Platinum bit her lip in frustration. But Clover was right, only she knew the way back through the maze of passages. She kissed him on the lips. “I’ll be back for more, my love.” He nodded. Her heart aching, she took off at a gallop.

In the air above Everfree Castle, Harvey leaned out over the side of his triplane’s fuselage and looked down at the approaching Thestral formation. The angle was almost perfect! The Overcloud Express squadron should be nearly invisible to the Thestrals in the glare of the sun.

“Hey Speck!” he called, “Ready your munitions!” The unicorn, who was seated in front of him, loaded a belt of crossbow bolts into a strange contraption devised by the Maestro. Each bolt usually had a ball at the end that was meant to be enchanted by the unicorn who operated the device. Generally these were different forms of dissuasion spells, from lightning balls, to fireballs, to sleep spells. Today, the balls had been removed, revealing dull metal tips that no doubt would do a very great deal of damage to anything they hit. A hit to a pony would likely be fatal.

Speck looked a bit green around the gills. “I can’t believe it’s come to this!” the unicorn said, his voice barely audible above the wind.

"When the time comes, will you be able to use it?" asked Harvey.

Speck didn't speak, but he glanced at Harvey and nodded. The whites of his eyes were showing. Harvey sympathized. He wondered if he would have the guts to pull that device's trigger and watch ponies die. In back of Harvey, Plow, their earth pony engineer pedaled steadily, driving the rotor.

Harvey took another long look at the enemy below and counted. He did a double-take and counted again. That's only half as many as had been reported on the way! He began to scan the horizon. There was nothing to be seen around them other than the fifteen triplanes of the Express squadron. They've got to be here somewhere, he thought. Just when we were going to get the drop on them, too. He froze for a moment.

Harvey tapped Speck on the shoulder and shouted: "Signal dispersal! Now!"

Purple starbursts erupted all around their craft. The previously tight formation of triplanes blossomed like the starburst that signalled the manoeuvre as Harvey stared intently back towards their prior position. Seconds later a full two flights of Thestrals dove through their position like Hawks on a strike. One triplane exploded into a bunch of fragments that fell twirling down to the ground. Another triplane's wing was clipped, but it righted itself and continued to fly on course. He held a hoof over his beating heart. Had he not given the word his own squadron might have been decimated.

"Did you make out what were they carrying?" asked Plow, as the earth pony pedalled furiously.

"They were carrying something?" He looked over the side of his craft at the still plummeting Thestrals. They hadn't pulled out of their dives. He watched as they fell further until they were practically on the Castle, and then they fanned out in an unwitting imitation of his own squadron’s recent action. He was perplexed a moment, and then saw as multiple dust clouds erupted from the battlements of the castle. He watched in disbelief as a tower slowly crumbled and fell.

He looked up and saw more black spots in the sky above. "They were carrying explosive devices!" Shouted Harvey. "They're bombarding the castle from the air!" He tapped Speck again. “Signal the squadron to follow. We’re going to take the fight to them!” He turned to the earth pony seated behind him. “Plow! Give it all you’ve got!” He sat and focused on his pegasus magic and making the triplane as light as possible.

On the battlements of Everfree Castle Celestia looked on with dismay at the damage caused by the explosive devices. The powerful combination of missiles and spells had breached several walls and even brought down one tower. “Begin the rescue of any ponies caught in the collapsed parts of the Castle,” she instructed the chief of the Royal Corps of Mages, a wiry old unicorn.

“But majesty, that will mean reducing the power and size of our teleport interdict!” she said.

“Lives come first!” said Celestia. “Besides which, I have to prevent any further bombardment of the Castle. It might not survive another such strike.”

The old mare looked to the sky in dismay. She swallowed and then nodded. “Yes, your majesty.” She turned and Celestia heard her shouting instructions to her fellow mages.

With a mighty blast of wings, Celestia bolted into the sky. She headed straight at the approaching Thestrals, aiming for the Alicorn leading them.

Ponies are dying! How could Luna do this? she thought. She also thought of the castle. We grew up in this castle. How can she so callously destroy it? Celestia fought to calm herself.

As she approached, Celestia started to feel that something was amiss. She had an affinity to Luna that usually clued her into her sister’s proximity. Now, she felt nothing, yet she could clearly spot her sister in the Thestrals’ lead.

Finally, she was close enough for verbal communications. “Sister, what art thou...” The words died on her lips. Her eyes grew wide. With a pulse of magic Celestia ripped through the enchantment revealing the pegasus mare beneath. The mare grinned at her, as if this was one of the best jokes ever.

Celestia changed courses at the last second sending a blast of air that buffeted the Thestrals. Her own Royal Pegasus troops arrived in her wake, and a fierce battle erupted in the air. With a sour taste in her gullet, Celestia concluded that the air attack was nothing more than a distraction. She looked towards the castle and narrowed her eyes. As she circled back, ponies started dropping from the sky. She hoped they would be rescued by their brethren before they hit the ground, but she knew that many would pay the price for this mere distraction.

She was almost back to the ramparts from which she had departed, when she saw a blast of light and noticed Princess Platinum waving a hoof at her. She glided in for a landing next to the visibly distraught mare.

“Majesty! Princess Luna is in the escape passage under the castle. Clover and Starswirl are trying to keep her contained in the passage, but I don’t know how long they can last against your sister.”

Celestia had placed a detachment of Royal Guards at the exit of the passage. She prayed to Harmony that they still lived. “Hop on!” she called to the unicorn mare, who promptly jumped onto her back. Celestia took off in all haste.

Harvey hoped the other triplane crews had understood his shouted instructions. They were still in a climbing spiral when there was a signal to his right. Somepony had spotted movement from above. He glanced up and saw another flight of fast approaching Thestrals. He tapped Speck and pointed a hoof at the enemy. Speck flicked his ears and his withers tighten as he grabbed the hoofles of the mechanical crossbow. Harvey pointed the craft straight at the oncoming flight. A glance backwards showed his squadron forming up on his new heading, trailing behind his triplane to either side.

He counted down as the distance between the two forces shrank. He raised a hoof over his head, and pulled it down with a shout: “Shoot!”

Speck shook as the device whirled and the crossbow bolts flew. In Harvey’s peripheral vision, the bolts from other craft were streaks of bright metallic grey. The bolts and Thestrals crossed paths. At first he wasn’t sure that their aim had been adequate. Then he saw several of the Thestrals pull out of their dives, some tumbling out of control. The Overcloud Express continued firing up until collision were immanent, and then peeled off into two formations, on to either side of their former target.

Harvey smiled in triumph. Only two of the Thestrals were still in a controlled dive. The rest had been thwarted. He saw a movement and witnessed Speck grabbing the side of the cockpit and vomiting over the side. Then he noticed the flecks of red that peppered the surface of the fuselage. He felt his own gorge rise, but by some miracle managed to keep his lunch down. He signaled for the squadron to maintain its altitude. Once they were in level flight, he gently placed a hoof on Speck’s back, and felt as much as heard the sobs issuing from the wiry unicorn.

Starswirl shuffled backwards as Clover pushed him further from the gaping hole that used to be the entrance to the stairwell. Clover's horn glowed as he tried to pull more of the surrounding masonry into its maw, but he succeeded only in loosening a few more bricks. The floor shook and a loud roar emerged from its depths, accompanied by an eruption of shattered brickwork that flew in every direction. Caught mid-spell, Clover had time only to raise a hoof above his head. Starswirl acted reflexively, projecting a force shield that extended a mere hoof's span above his student's outstretched limb.

The pain in the elder unicorn’s head and horn was excruciating. He breathed heavily as his horn glowed, providing the only light as dust filled the ancient chamber beneath the castle and only the tiny volume under the force bubble remained clear. "I can only hold this moments longer, lad," he gasped. "I am ashamed to be nothing more than a burden to you." He collapsed where he stood, his horn light faded and flickered out.

"Maestro!" called Clover as the billowing dust descended upon them. Starswirl felt a hoof on his withers. "We would both be dead if you hadn't shielded us," said Clover.

Starswirl knew that Clover's own magical reserves were waning. His were fully spent and he would likely not be able to work any magic for days perhaps weeks. He should have been in the hospital convalescing. He was amazed that he had been able to produce even that one abbreviated shield spell.

The dust got into their noses and mouths. He and Clover began sneezing. Finally the dust settled sufficiently for them to see the short distance to the stairwell. However, debris from the eruption blocked the view.

"Stay there, Maestro," called Clover. "I have to find a position where I can see if anypony comes out of that hole." He had barely taken three steps when a blast of energy struck him square in the chest from the depths of the stairwell. Starswirl watched in horror as the lad was bodily lifted into the air, striking the low ceiling above them. Clover fell to floor unconscious. A glow wreathed his body and Starswirl cringed in horror as his student was dragged towards the hole in the floor.

"Stop!" He called out in desperation. The glow dissolved, leaving Clover's supine form bleeding at the top of the steps that remained. Luna flew up to stand over her fallen foe.

"So, your most loyal student was able to find you despite how well I had hidden you." She laughed while scratching her neck with a silver tipped hoof. "What a waste of time and effort. Had he taken a day longer I would have gone to retrieve you myself." She stared down at Clover coldly.

"Please!" Starswirl begged, "help him."

Luna looked back at Starswirl. "We have unfinished business, thou and I, human. But first I have other concerns of mine own to attend to." She kicked Clover's body out of the way. "And this one is not worth a delay in my plans." She launched herself into the air, and flew off back towards the entrance to the castle.

Starswirl tried to rise. "Clover!" He called. He managed to rise to his forelegs. There was a buzzing in his ears, and then everything went dark.

Platinum screeched in alarm as she hung onto Celestia's neck for dear life. Normally Celestia wouldn't have subjected the poor mare to such breakneck indoor flying maneuvers, but these were unprecedented circumstances. She also couldn't tell Platinum the real reason for her haste: to prevent her sister from doing something irrevocable. That possibility drove a bitter feeling of dread down her limbs to the very tips of her hooves. Platinum screeched and covered her eyes as Celestia flew sideways through a tight doorway.

Another few tight turns and the corridor opened out into a wide low-ceilinged hall. At the further end of it two ponies lay motionless, surrounded by debris on the stone floor. Celestia swallowed. "We've arrived, Platinum," she said, and glided to a stop between the two bodies.

Platinum said not a word, but practically fell off of Celestia's back in her haste to reach her husband's side. There was blood everywhere. Clover had obviously been dragged after having sustained grievous injuries. Celestia hurried to Starswirl’s side, her heart pounding in her barrel. Seeing no signs of blood, she discovered that he was still breathing. She let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding, then in alarm turned back towards Platinum. The mare cradled her mate's bloody head in her forelegs, cooing as to a foal, her tears falling onto his face.

"Save..." a gravelly voice whispered. Celestia looked back down at Starswirl. "Save him!" he said, his voice only marginally less faint. Celestia leaped into the air and came down next to the unicorn pair, her horn glowing. Clover neither breathed nor did his heart beat, but his life energy had not yet dissipated.

"The spark of life is still within him!" said Celestia.

Platinum looked up to her, eyes brimming with tears and sudden, desperate hope. Celestia focused her attention back on Clover. She used the diagnostic process taught her by Oya Dawn, the mare who had under Starswirl’s tutelage revolutionized Equestrian medicine. The scan revealed that Clover had significant internal damage. Her dismay must have shown in her face as she saw Platinum’s own eyes grow bigger and the mare began to tremble. I cannot let her succumb to panic! thought Celestia. I need to focus her attention. She projected an expression of fierce determination.

“We can save him, my dear Platinum,” she said. “But I will need your help. Can you do these spells? Her horn glowed again as she projected the idea into Platinum’s mind. The unicorn mare nodded.

“Then do as I do,” said Celestia. “We must stop the bleeding inside.”

Celestia began to use tightly focused healing spells to close ruptured blood vessels. If they succeeded in reducing the internal bleeding sufficiently the stallion might survive long enough to get more competent medical attention. Eyes closed in concentration, she didn’t see Platinum’s horn light up, but she did encounter the mare’s magical ‘touch’ inside Clover’s ravaged body. Together they made short work of healing the major wounds. Another of Oya’s spells shocked Clover’s heart into beating and forced air into his lungs. Seconds later, Celestia smiled as she felt Clover’s heart beat of its own accord and his body’s struggles ease.

She opened her eyes to see Platinum’s horn still glowing, eyes closed as she continued to minister healing spells to her husband. “Thank you Celestia.” Even though her tears still fell on her lips was a smile. “He will live, and I can continue on my own,” she said in a breathless voice. A look of rage momentarily marred her usually graceful features. “But you must now deal with the mare who did this to my love, before she hurts anypony else.”

Celestia took a step back and closed her eyes. She’s right, she thought. Her own tears began to fall. She backed away, and with a last glance reassured herself that Starswirl was not in any imminent danger. She took off in the direction from which they had arrived, passing a hoof over her muzzle to rub the sorrow from her eyes.

Harvey shuddered as another of the squadron’s airplanes was struck by the Thestral attackers. Its tail damaged, it began a slow spiral down to earth. The pegasus was breathing hard from his exertions, as were his crew. After seeing the effectiveness of the Overcloud Express’ mechanical bolt gun they had changed tactics and had begun selecting individual triplanes to attack with three or four Thestrals at a time, overwhelming the unicorn defenders plane by plane. It was devastatingly effective. Only seven of the Express’ aircraft remained intact. There were still perhaps two dozen Thestrals. He glanced up, just in time to see all of them pull their wings in and starting to dive.

“Line up!” he called to the other triplanes. “We need a curtain of bolts across their path!”

His squadron mates did their best to comply, but he knew there’d be large gaps in their coverage. He counted the seconds as he watched the distance from the Thestrals narrow. He squinted. Something was off. He didn’t know what exactly until, more by instinct than any conscious design, he pitched his triplane precariously to the left. A dark shape shot through the air almost close enough to his triplane’s fuselage for his to touch. Screams rang out, letting him know several other planes had not been so lucky. A glance upwards showed the wave of Thestrals was almost upon them.

“Fire!” Harvey yelled, and felt his craft shudder as Speck engaged the mechanical crossbow. The black wave shot past. A moment later he called “cease fire!” and looked down. His heart sank. He counted over a dozen Thestrals still in a controlled dive towards the castle far below. Looking back up he saw that only two other triplanes remained intact. Speck turned and glanced at him for a moment. Brief as the contact was it was enough to see the despair in the unicorn’s eyes. He suspected Speck had read the same in his own expression. They had failed.

Harvey felt a cold fury course through his veins. They could no longer save the castle itself, but they might just save the lives of a few of the ponies defending it. Harvey gritted his teeth, and signaled for a dive to the remaining two other triplanes. As they dropped towards the castle, he checked over Speck’s shoulder. They weren’t out of crossbow bolts yet. Not by a long shot.

The floor shuddered as Luna exited the secret passage behind “her” throne. She heard the sounds of walls crumbling and buildings collapsing.

Eyes narrowed, Luna viewed the empty hall. Being in this familiar place after months of absence left a bitter taste in her mouth. Why wasn’t Celestia here? Why hadn’t she protected the castle?

You see! said the voice. Celestia is incapable even of defending this castle, your home since you were foals! How worthless! She is nothing but a pathetic excuse for a ruler.

Luna had expected to find Celestia to be in the throne room with the elite unicorns of her Royal guard, leading the defence of the castle. Absently, she scratched the side of her barrel as she stamped a hoof in frustration.

She flees your wrath! said the voice. And cold-heartedly sends her minions to die in her stead.

Luna paused a moment. In her mind’s eye was the image of Clover crashing into the wall.

Like a coward she runs away to save her own precious hide! accused the voice.

The voice was right, again. Celestia’s defences where pathetic. Either she was truly incompetent, or she severely underestimated the power and intelligence of her own sister. She felt a sneer on her lips. Her anger seethed further still, her veins pulsing with liquid fire. Rage consumed her, and she snarled in frustration that the object of her wrath had failed to be where she was supposed to be.

Luna was having a hard time thinking. Her thoughts seemed to run so slowly. It was such an effort to think and her coat itched furiously. There was a sound from the front entrance of the throne room. She walked out from behind her throne to see Celestia approaching. There was anger in her sister’s eyes.

She hates us! said the voice. The simpering, venal tyrant thinks she has everypony fooled. But not us. Luna’s anger was stoked hotter still. Its heat filled her mind, and the edges of her vision began to grow dark. She has corrupted them all, but we won’t let her take what is ours! said the voice.

“Not... another step!” said Luna as she glared down Celestia and moved to the front of the dais. She never listens. Never!

All of the pain in her soul, the betrayals, the disappointments and the loneliness, all of it fueled her rage as she stared down its source: her sister. “Did you really expect me to sit idly by while they all basked in your precious light?” Luna felt something break inside of her. She paid it little heed. She refused to allow herself to be distracted by minor issues, so great was her wrath.

Words left her mouth, as if of their own volition. “There can only be one princess in Equestria! And that princess... will be me!” She felt her forehooves crash to the floor, smashing speaker’s lectern before the thrones into sawdust and broken lumber. She was blinded for a moment.

What? she thought. What did I just say? Icy panic spread through her limbs. She tried to bolt, but her legs refused to cooperate. She heard cracking noises and then the wall behind the thrones fell in with a crash. Against her will, Luna’s forelegs rose as she felt her body do the motions to raise the moon. The orb cleared the horizon until its path eclipsed the sun and darkness spread like a mantle over the land.

In the shadow of the moon, the itch in her pelt grew until it became a searing pain. Luna screamed as a black miasma coursed from her body until it fully enveloped her. Everything went dark for a moment.

When her eyes opened, echoes of raucous laughter reverberated from the hall around her. Celestia still stood defiant before her. Luna watched in horror as beams of thaumic energy projected from her own horn, laying waste the throne room. As Luna felt her body move forward, Celestia momentarily took to air to avoid the blasts and falling debris.

Once she was back on solid ground, Celestia spoke with fierce determination: “Luna, I will not fight you! You must lower the moon! It is your duty!”

Yes, I must! Luna tried to say, but her voice remained mute. She didn’t want to fight Celestia anymore. Her horror only increased when she heard a harsh and cruel voice say: “Luna? I am... Nightmare Moon! I have but one royal duty now: to destroy you!”

Stop! she cried in her thoughts, only to see more blasts issue from her horn in her sister’s direction.

Why should I stop? said the voice. I am Nightmare Moon, and now you are nothing more than a voice in my head! Ha ha ha ha hah!

Luna tried moving her limbs to trip herself up or interfere with the spells coursing through her horn. She even tried to displace the moon. Nothing happened. She was powerless in her own body. She heaved a mental sigh of relief as Celestia escaped the confines of the hall via a rent in the roof.

“And where do you think you're going?” said Nightmare Moon’s voice. Luna felt her body take to the air in pursuit. Once above Luna saw the devastation the castle had suffered. Most of it was now rubble... just as she had planned.

The realization sank in. I did this, she thought. Why?

Because I told you so, said the voice in her head, and because you listened. Ha ha ha ha hah!

Beams from her horn laid further waste to castle, narrowly missing Celestia several times.

No! Please no! Luna wanted to shout. Instead more beams shot from her horn. One struck Celestia full in the barrel. Luna screamed in silent despair as her sister plummeted to the throne room floor below.

Celestia awoke with a start. She gasped as she recalled being struck down by her own sister. Struggling to rise, she heard a triumphant laugh from somewhere above her. In the unnatural gloom, she recognised the floor of Everfree Castle’s throne room. Memory of the last few minutes returned, and with it both anger and hurt. She also remembered her shock at seeing what her sister had done to Clover, and her realization of the peril Nightmare Moon represented to Equestria.

That’s when she had first devised her plan, a plan that had been thwarted by finding Luna already in the throne room. However, her sister’s transformation and subsequent flying pursuit of her presented an opportunity to still avoid a fight to the death, one in which she knew she lacked the cold-bloodedness needed to kill. So Celestia had leapt to the ceiling, drawing her sister’s fire to blast a gaping hole in the roof. She then drew Nightmare Moon out of the throne room and into the night sky, leading her into a chase that ended just exactly where she needed to be.

Celestia looked up towards the gaping hole in the ceiling. "Oh, dear sister. I am sorry, but you have given me no choice but to use these." She focused her magic on a section of the floor and with a mechanical clang the storage vault of the Elements of Harmony rose into view.

The Elements are still there! she exclaimed in thought. The sight should have cheered her. Instead all she felt was a numbing dread. It took her a moment to realize what it was. Is this how loneliness feels? she asked herself. Oh Luna! Tonight we are both become oath breakers, and our sentence awaits us.

She flew to the top of the structure and gathered the Elements of Harmony to her. The large coloured jewels began to orbit around her, spinning faster and faster until she was encircled by a rainbow. Celestia flew up to end her sister's rebellion, and along with it her own happiness.

Once above the ruined castle, she floated in wait for her sister’s attack. Her subterfuge had worked. Luna had thought her incapacitated and left her alone long enough for Celestia to secure the Elements of Harmony. She saw the rage in... Nightmare Moon’s eyes, and focused on creating a spherical force shield, just as the Maestro had taught her, keeping the element of magic between her horn and her foe.

Nightmare Moon released a massive blast, by far greater than anything she had unleashed previously. This casting was meant to utterly destroy. Eyes open, Celestia unleashed the power of the Elements in her own rainbow coloured beam.

The two beams met. After what seemed like an eternity but must have been seconds at most, the coloured beam traversed the distance between them and engulfed Nightmare Moon. “Noooooo!” she shouted, as Celestia activated the last part of the spell, and exiled her sister to the moon for a thousand years.

Celestia watched as the rainbow beam shot towards the moon. Upon reaching it the beam caused massive disruption to its surface. A rainbow tinged echo of thaumic energy radiated out from the impact’s epicentre.

A scream rent the night that was heard in all of Equestria. It took a moment for Celestia to recognised it. It was her own voice. For a second time in minutes, Celestia felt her world go black. She plummeted to the ground far below.

Harvey’s triplane was the last one remaining in the air when he saw the annular rainbow flash through the sky like a ripple on pond. Then he heard a scream of pain and despair such as he had never thought could exist. He felt tears on his face as it ended, and looked toward its source, seeing a white speck high in the sky. He turned his craft towards it and noticed that it was dropping and picking up speed. He did the only thing he could think of: he leaped from his triplane into the sky and flew as fast as his wings could take him towards the plummeting body.

He didn’t dare to look behind him. He expected Plow to pilot the plane in his absence, although without the pegasus aboard the craft was too heavy to do naught else but return to earth.

Harvey adjusted his course along a parabola in order to get to the falling pony in time. From this distance it looked to be a white pegasus tumbling from the sky. He called on every drop of speed in his wings pushing further and faster than he had ever flown. Finally the form started getting bigger, and bigger, and just as he reached for the enormous pony he caught a glimpse of a horn and a crown. Harvey wrapped his forelegs around Princess Celestia’s ample barrel, locking his forelegs below hers. He heaved upwards with everything he had. The ground was approaching far too fast. He closed his eyes as the pain in his wings tore a scream from his throat, expecting the jarring impact that would bring him and the mare to their final resting places.

Suddenly the pain eased. When he opened his eyes he saw a glow around them as they gently dropped to the ground. He heard the sound of a triplane’s wheels striking ground nearby followed by loud crunch. Turning around he saw his craft as it careened through the courtyard of the castle and embedded itself into the base of a stone wall. He swallowed, but then smiled as two ponies pulled themselves from the wreckage and waved in his direction.

Harvey turned back to the mare. His eyes grew as big as saucers as he confirmed that he hadn't been mistaken, he'd just rescued Princess Celestia, whose eyes were just now slowly opening. Harvey blushed as he realized that he was essentially lying on the ground partially on top of his sovereign with both forelegs still around her barrel.

“Er, your majesty,” he got up and sketched a quick bow, “are you uninjured?” Instead of looking at him the princess stared at the ground. Worried that she might have been hurt after all, he crouched closer to be able to look her in the eyes. “Your majesty?”

The princess’s forehooves wrapped around him liked those of a drowning mare, and she sunk her muzzle into his mane. He felt a damp spot on his neck, and shudders where their bodies touched. Harvest Wind placed a hoof over Princess Celestia’s back, and stroked her ethereal mane as she wept in his embrace.

Princess Platinum shut the doors to Princess Celestia’s rooms behind her. The white alicorn was her guest at House Unicorn, as the severely damaged Everfree Castle was deemed unsafe for habitation. A member of the Royal Guard stood at attention on each side of the door. She turned and faced Captain Dawn and a young pegasus stallion who seemed somewhat in awe of the Guard Captain.

“Her majesty is resting,” said Platinum. “Captain, if she or your guard ponies need anything, please let me or my staff know.”

Captain Dawn bowed to Princess Platinum. “We thank you, your highness.” He nodded to the Guard Ponies, who saluted and resumed their positions. She strode quickly down the hall to the next door, the captain and Harvey in tow. The door opened into a large room in which two unicorn stallions rested on hospital beds. Platinum went directly to the younger one and nuzzled him on the cheek. He opened a single eye.

“Hey, Platypuss,” Clover greeted her, his voice barely above a whisper. She noticed Harvey blushing in response. Clover must have noticed as well. The corners of his mouth turned upwards. “Who’s the easily embarrassed colt?”

On the next bed over Starswirl raised his head to get a better look at the visitors. He nodded to Platinum and the captain. “That fine young fellow is Harvest Wind, the best pilot in the Overcloud Express.”

The young pegasus’ blush visibly ramped up a notch.

Captain Dawn glanced at the smaller pegasus. “I’ll have you know, Mage Clover, that not only was this fine young stallion key in fighting off the invaders, but that he personally saved the life of Princess Celestia.”

By this point Harvest Wind was almost glowing bright red. Clover chuckled weekly. “I remember him now. My, the colt is a blushing phenomenon. Platy, please remind me to send him my king of blushing crown.” He glanced back fondly as his wife. “Of course this means that you’re married to a commoner again. Are you disappointed, sweetie?”

Platinum felt like dawn had come after a very long night. With tears in her eyes she put both forelegs around her husbands head. “Ever have you been my Prince, and ever shall you be, love.”

From the next bed Starswirl harrumphed. “I would ask you two to find a room, but then this is your house in which I am a guest. Instead I shall ask the good captain for a report.”

Platinum smiled in gratitude towards Starswirl and nodded to the captain.

The stallion approached Starswirl’s bed, his expression serious. “We have managed to defeat the Lunar rebellion, in large part thanks to the assistance of the Overcloud Express squadron, although I have to report casualties of over fifty percent, including twelve deaths.” The captain paused as Starswirl absorbed the news, blanching visibly.

The old mage’s voice cracked as he replied. “I feared as much. In the end, I suspect that teams of pegasi are simply too nimble and dangerous for my flying devices to withstand. I may have needlessly put lives at risk.” He stared down at the covers of his bed. “What do you have to say about it, Harvey? You were there in the thick of it.”

The younger pegasus looked thoughtful for a moment. “It didn’t take them long to figure out how to attack us effectively. Three or four pegasi would attack, some of them keeping the unicorn occupied while the others inflicted whatever damage they could to the craft.”

“Nevertheless,” Harvey and Starswirl glanced towards the captain,”without them the Royal Guard itself would have been overwhelmed.” He looked solemnly at Starswirl. “Again, we express our thanks.”

Starswirl could manage only a nod in response.

“In the end, Princess Celestia defeated Nightmare Moon by banishing her to the moon. Incidentally, Mage Starswirl, please do not refer to the invader as Princess Luna within earshot of Her Majesty. She is devastated by the loss of her sister, and it may be quite a while before she can speak plainly of it.”

“She wept, Starswirl,” whispered Harvey. “The princess wept in my embrace and I could do nothing to help her.”

“Harvest Wind,” said Starswirl gravely, “I tell you this not as the leader of the Overcloud Express, nor as a minister of the crown, but as the friend of a princess whom I’ve known and loved for many, many years. I am eternally grateful that you saved her life, and more thankful still that in her moment of need she was not alone. Well done, lad!”

Harvey’s blush this time was muted. “I wish I could have done more. And besides, if Speck and Plow hadn’t followed me in and magically helped cushion our fall there’s a good chance the princess and I would have ended up as part of the landscape.”

A voice interrupted from the door. “But then, as we say in the Express, any landing you can trot away from...”

“... is a good landing!” finished Harvey while grinning at the new arrivals, a young pegasi couple. The blue coated stallion leaned on the pale brown mare as his left foreleg was tightly bound in bandages. Together they hobbled over to stand next to Starswirl’s bed. Harvey introduced them as his friends Sky Blue and Summer Breeze. They bowed to Princess Platinum, nodded to Captain Dawn and then saluted Starswirl.

“There’s no need for that any longer,” said the elder mage. “I am disbanding the Express.”

By the look on the pegasi’s muzzles, Platinum was not the only one shocked by the pronouncement.

“Don’t give me those long faces!” growled Starswirl. “The triplanes were an attempt to repeat the success of the the three-houses in the air. As a fighting instrument they are woefully vulnerable, and the air-screws fared only slightly better. I must admit it: this experiment in the military use of aircraft was a failure." Starswirl's eyebrows rose. "Although Captain, there are certain members of the Express I could recommend as recruits for the Royal Guards, as they have demonstrated both aptitude and courage in combat.”

“He’s talking about you, Harvey!” said Sky Blue with a grin, bringing a rosy blush back to his friend’s face.

“The Guard will be pleased and honoured to take all willing members of the Express, including the princess catcher here.” He elbowed Harvey in the ribs as the stallion blush brightly again, to everypony’s amusement except his own.

Summer breeze spoke up for the first time since their arrival. “Captain, I’m afraid Sky and me are going to respectfully decline your offer.”

The Guardspony raise an eyebrow. “Might I inquire as to why?”

“Certainly,” replied Summer. “We’re getting married and we’re going to help run my father’s weather factory in Cloudsdale. It’s an expanding business and as it turns out my brother doesn’t have much of head for managing other ponies, so my father has asked Sky and me to step in.”

Platinum watched as the young couple were congratulated by all ponies present. The announcement had lifted the mood of the gathering back into more of a celebratory one. When she went to give Summer her own congratulations the young mare took her aside.

“Your highness, how is your husband?” she asked with a glance towards his supine form on the bed. The concern on Summer's face warmed Platinum's heart so she surprised her with a quick hug.

“Better than I could have hoped for, I thank you for asking. We expect a full recovery. I assume you were part of the group that searched for Starswirl all those months.”

Summer smiled, obviously please that Platinum had remembered her. “Yes indeed, highness. It’s a relief to know that he’ll be back on his hooves. My betrothed and I have both developed both respect and no little affection for Clover. We would be honoured if you could be our guests at the wedding.”

“We’ll be there,” said a low voice from the bed next to them. At the mares’ surprised looks he raised an eyebrow of his own. “Hey, I’m magically drained and am one long bruise from poll to hoof, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with my ears.”

“Mine neither,” said Starswirl from his own bed. “I expect my own wedding invitation to be forthcoming.”

“That was supposed to be my job,” said Sky. “Consider yourself invited, Maestro.” He made a flourish with his bandaged foreleg, then turned to Harvey. “You’re the best colt, by the way, and since Flash is the bridesfilly, that means you two are officially on date!”

Harvey was practically beet red by this point.

“You’re right, my love,” said Platinum. “I’ll go get the blushing crown immediately. He indeed deserves it.”

They were still laughing when she waved and left her husband and Starswirl safe in the company of their friends. There was a lot to do in moving the royal residence to Canterlot.

Starswirl held Princess Celestia's hoof in his while they shared a bench in the garden of Everfree Castle. The princess had been given to bouts of deep melancholy in the week since her battle with her sister, so her friends had decided to discretely ensure one of them was always at hoof should she be in need of comfort. The captain of the Royal Guard and Celestia’s personal secretary were both part of this conspiracy, so the princess rarely went unattended.

He suspected today would be a particularly difficult day. It was to be their last before moving the Royal Seat in permanence to Canterlot. Everfree Castle itself was now little more than ruins. Only the statuary in the garden remained to be moved to a storage facility while Canterlot Castle was being built. For some reason that she would not disclose, Celestia had insisted they keep the old graceless art pieces rather than letting him sculpt new ones for her. The one of the patchwork dragon was particularly ugly, a sentiment he expressed to Celestia whenever they saw it together. Today though, she was again looking rather fragile, so Starswirl held her hoof and tempered his words.

"Why do you want us to leave this place, majesty? I'm certain we could rebuild it even better than it was," he asked.

The Princess glanced around, her eyes pools of sorrow.

"This castle is where my mother brought me into the world. This is where Luna and I played and did all the things that sisters do, growing up together." She passed a hoof over her eyes.

"No, Starswirl, I could not bear to see it further dismantled. It will never be the same as it was, and of those parts that remain, every old brick and stone, would constantly remind me of what I have lost."

He had thought as much. He himself knew well what it was like to pick up and leave everything behind. He had done so himself so many times in his life that he had lost track of the number. Nevertheless, the thought gave him a clue as to how he could cheer up the mare that had given him a new life in this magical realm.

“Perhaps it is simply a time for new beginnings,” he said, and gently kissed Celestia’s fetlock. “I know of what I speak. Once upon a time I was an old man. Then a wise and beautiful princess asked me to leave my old life behind, and I have regretted accepting neither her counsel nor her offer.”

Her answering smile was a balm to his own soul. “As I have never regretted bringing such a wise and gallant stallion into my realm.”

They gazed in silence at the trees of the soon to be abandoned garden. Celestia’s response reminded him of something he wished to bring up with the princess.

“I have put much thought to the assignment you gave me, Princess,” he said.

Celestia sighed. “I presume you are referring to the rescue of the humans from the coming merging of our worlds?”

“Yes indeed. Majesty, I have a very important question to ask. But first, I wish to let you know that your sister said many things to me about the nature of the Alicorns. She called you predators. Was she telling the truth?”

Her expression grew troubled, but after a moment’s consideration, she nodded hesitantly and began to speak.

“The term predator is perhaps extreme... but not entirely incorrect.” She scanned the area with her eyes, and then with eyes closed and horn aglow. Satisfied that nopony was in eavesdropping range, she resumed a more relaxed demeanor.

“Starswirl, amongst the Alicorn race there are some who can literally feast on the emotions of others. Any strong emotion will do. With such ponies the joy, love, pain and hate of others is the sustenance they crave, and so they become masters of deception and of sowing the seeds of discord. Some however were also truly superlative artists. As usual, such a gift is a double-edged sword.

“For this reason our race is one that fosters many conflicts, and this was particularly true of those of us who established this world.” Celestia was silent for a minute, her gaze distant. She turned to look Starswirl in the eyes. “I told you of my parents’ devotion to Harmony. Before her passing I made a vow to my mother, Starswirl, that I would change things. And I did. When we had defeated all the other Alicorns...” Celestia looked down.

“Luna and I...” She sniffed and tears glinted on her elegant muzzle.

“... we produced the first generation of new ponies. We split the Alicorn race into four tribes and the results are the ponies of Equestria.”

“Four, Princess?” Starswirl raised an eyebrow. “I know of only three.”

“The fourth live hidden amongst the others, changing shape as need be to feed on emotions and then return to their hives.”

Starswirl stared at Celestia in disbelief. “But, why keep them at all, princess?”

The white Alicorn sniffed again. “In all societies, Maestro, there have to be those with the passion to foster change and sufficient ferocity to defend it when needed. Our plan was to count on the natures of these changelings to help defend Equestria. We never imagined the difficulties we would have in keeping the tribes united as one nation, and that is only the first of our... of my mistakes.”

Starswirl was deep in thought, absorbing this information. A thought struck him. “And is this why you invited those other races in, the dogs and the dragons and such?”

“Yes, I sought resilience through diversity.” she replied simply. “Yet in all of these cases, instead of standing united, the other races and ponies mistrusted each other, and chose to live apart. In each case Luna was livid. She called me a foal to even hope for any other outcome, to believe that Harmony was possible.”

Starswirl looked into Celestia’s face, seeing her in a very different light than he had for all these years. She had always seemed so happy, so full of joy and optimism. It hurt to see the tortured, lonely soul before him. Still, he could not help but feel anger at her admissions. He let go of her hoof.

“And what role has humanity to play in this grand plan?” he asked, trying to keep the anger from his voice. “Are we merely another scheme to provide a buffer between your precious ponies and a dangerous universe?”

Celestia covered her face in her hooves. “No Starswirl! I swear it, that has never been my intention!”

“Then what is your intention?” Starswirl stood up from the bench and faced her directly. “You have asked me to help save my race, Princess, and save it I would. But I will not betray it!” He trembled as he stood waiting for an answer.

Celestia lowered her forehooves from her face. She looked... vulnerable. There were tear tracks down the side of her muzzle. Her eyes spoke volumes. They spoke of misery, loneliness and a broken heart. But there was also something else. A solid core of determination. Most importantly of all for him, there was no subterfuge. He tempered his ire, and awaited her reply.

“My intention is to save them, Maestro. Because that is what I promised to do, and because it is the right thing to do. It was the same with the gryphons, dragons, diamond dogs and the others. All these races faced their extinction and I do not regret my actions in saving them.” She paused and something else appeared in her expression. Doubt.

“But with the humans, it is so much more difficult to keep my resolve.” Despite the words she had a smile on her lips.

“I have loved human-kind for so long, Maestro. Of all the thousands of worlds I have visited, yours has ever been my favourite! The ideas, the beauty, the ambition, the philosophy, the love, the music and the stories of your world have all enthralled me since I discovered it and foresaw the coming convergence of our worlds. And then by bitter experience, I learned that the magic of Equestria is a deadly poison to humankind.” She covered her eyes with a hoof. Her smile became a grimace.

“The only way for them to live in our world is a bodily transformation, such as I have done to you, Maestro. But I am faced with a quandary: am I truly saving humanity if in doing so humans are changed at such a fundamental level? Or does my solution end humanity as surely as if I do nothing and let them all die when our worlds merge?”

Starswirl stared severely down at Celestia. He raised a single eyebrow and waited. She was confused a moment, but then suddenly realized to whom she had asked her question. Her sweet laughter rang like silver bells, even though her eyes remained tinged with sadness.

“Perhaps I was being insensitive in putting my question thus,” she quipped.

“Perhaps,” he replied and sat back down on the bench. “But it is a good question, though a ponified human such as I might be less than impartial upon the matter.” He decided to take a gamble. “I could however relate the comments made by another on just this topic.”

Both of Celestia’s ears turned eagerly in his direction. He took a deep breath.

“Its source is none other than your sister, Princess Luna, from the night of my kidnapping several months ago.” Celestia’s ears fell at the mention of her sister’s name. However they did not fall all the way to the back of her head, so he decided to carry on.

“She said that she feared humanity, because we were not only predators but just as dangerous as the Alicorns themselves. She also said that she thought our nature would not change with ponification. That a predatory species such as ours would remain so even after the transformation.”

Celestia chewed her lip in thought. “Did she reveal her reasoning in reaching this conclusion?” she asked.

Starswirl grinned. “I had the same question, and was quite surprised when she held me up as an example!” He leaned in closer to the princess as if sharing particularly juicy gossip. “She said that since my arrival I had sought to colonize aggressively, had undermined the established class structure, and that I had made war upon my enemies with fiendish weapons conceived of my depraved but brilliant mind.” He tilted his head to one side. “She said that my actions revealed my true nature: that I was still a predator and human being, despite my equine countenance.” He lifted a single hoof in a classic pose of a destrier ready for battle.

Celestia’s grin had become practically jolly. “Thou art a formidable stallion to behold, Starswirl. The bells on your cloak are particularly frightening, I must say.”

They shared a laugh together and suddenly the day seemed much brighter. He sobered up quickly as he considered what he would say next.

“As we have now determined that a four-hoofed human remains a human and no less potent than the two legged variety, there are some things which I think your majesty needs to consider in attempting our rescue from destruction. In my months of isolation on that lonely world I conceived of a way to minimize the danger of the convergence to humanity, and to ensure that this world can accept all humans without being completely overwhelmed and subsumed by my canny and crafty brethren.”

Celestia’s eyebrows shot up. “It would bring great relief to my heart, should what you propose be feasible.”

Starswirl warmed to the topic. “We were fortunate that the world upon which Luna hid me was going through such a convergence, although at a very slow rate. This afforded me an unequaled opportunity to observe the phenomenon and conduct experiments upon it.

“The first problem is the poisonous effect of magic on humans. It is the nature of magic to be unbound and somewhat random in its effect. Should a zone of convergence erupt within a city, thousands, if not tens of thousands, might be caught within it before they could flee. I have determined that we can limit such eruptions within a spherical field.”

Celestia’s eyes grew wide. “Does this mean that if we can capture the zone of convergence then we could keep its effects limited to a small area?”

Starswirl’s smile faltered. “Unfortunately not, Princess. Each episode of convergence causes an enlargement of the spherical area affected. One can restrain the growth of the sphere temporarily, but at the cost of accelerated growth later on. However, because we can limit the emergence to specific areas, this spherical barrier of containment gives us a fighting chance to move the population away from the convergence zone before the barrier grows and the area is subsumed into Equestria.”

“I see.” Celestia was clearly disappointed.

“However, I have another concern,” said Starswirl. “I know what I or most humans would think faced with such a situation, a foreign land that constantly grows to overtake mine own." He took a deep breath. "I would consider it... an invasion.”

Celestia did not seem surprised at his admission. “And so Maestro, what will the humans do when faced with this perceived invasion?”

Starswirl pressed his lips together and nodded. “They will fight it, your majesty.”

“That does not surprise me,” said Celestia. She flicked her ears. “Alicorns would do much the same.”

"What form would this resistance take, Starswirl?"

He hesitated a moment. "We would bombard the sphere with every missile, arrow, spear and cannon ball, poisons, explosive devices and whatever other weapon we devise or have in our possession. There is only one way to protect Equestria from being ravaged and ruining the future of both our races: that is to prevent these weapons from crossing the barrier.

“So I conceived of an idea for a second layer to the barrier shield, one that would instantly teleport outside of itself all unrecognized matter. As to living things, only the ones that are not sickened by magic and are already present in Equestria could enter.”

Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Why inhibit living things unaffected by magic?”

“Again, this is from something your sister mentioned: that many undesirable forms of life entered Equestria this way and now plague its inhabitants. It is my hope that this provision resolves that problem. It's also simpler for if the barrier reacts to those things with which it is unfamiliar.”

Celestia nodded. “This type of magic will require an enormous amount of energy, Maestro. Especially in its growth phase.”

He smiled. “The growth of the convergence zone will actually feed the growth of the spell itself once cast. As an added benefit, it will likely slow down the barrier's growth marginally at the same time.”

Celestia’s countenance remained grim. “How much time after the start of convergence will we have before the world is consumed?”

“I am not yet sure. Perhaps as many as ten years, perhaps as few as one. I lack the information needed to make such projections.”

“And as to the ponification spell?” asked the princess.

“That is more problematical,” said Starswirl. "I am sure the Amniomorphic spell is the key, but it was designed to function at conception for a reason: the quantity of energy required to modify an entire living body is some ten orders of magnitudes of greater than modifying just a few embryonic cells.”

Celestia looked paler of a sudden. Then she smiled weakly. “Perhaps you’ve left us some few mysteries to solve yet, Maestro.” The princess rose from the bench and Starswirl followed suit. “But this is far more than I thought could be accomplished in so short a time. You have my congratulations, and my thanks Maestro.”

He bowed.

“Then let us get ourselves hence to Canterlot,” said Celestia in a cheery voice.

Starswirl was glad to see Celestia’s customary good humour restored. He offered her a hoof, upon which she placed hers, and with a wink teleported them to their new home.

Old again

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Renaissance Pony

Chapter 22: Old Again

by Dafaddah

Globe spanning editorial team: Microshazm and SecondLaw

Fifteen years after the Lunar Rebellion

The breeze blew in from the lake, bringing with it the sweet scent of lilac from bushes that dotted the lakeshore. Nearby stood a small three-room cottage, the only sign of civilization in this wild place so near the Everfree. Angie tried to ignore the enticing smell, a reminder of summer days spent near the lake in leisure and learning with her parents and the Maestro. Today was a day for more serious pursuits. As always, Angie was anxious to please her teacher. She was comforted somewhat by the presence of her aunt Celestia, standing next to Starswirl and smiling encouragingly.

Angie scrunched her face in concentration, tracing dark lines on her light blue forehead. Projecting upwards from it, her horn emitted sparks of blue fire nearly the same colour, as she focused on the convoluted thought pattern needed to produce this complex spell. It certainly didn’t help that the Maestro was gazing at her intently through the whole process, while levitating a cantaloupe in the air next to his head.

Here goes nothing! she thought, and cast the spell. She felt the thaumic energy discharge through her horn. A glowing blue half sphere appeared a few paces in front of the three ponies. Inside the hemisphere, the landscape had changed. The wild grasses of the lake bank had been replaced by the type of underbrush one would normally see in the lea of a forest.

"Excellent!" said Starswirl. He floated the cantaloupe forward until it was half-in and half-out of the field. "Now Princess Celestia, please attempt to teleport the fruit away from its current position."

The elder princess' own horn glowed for a moment and Angie closed her eyes.

There was a loud 'whump' and a wave of sweetly pungent and sticky wetness washed over her. When Angie opened her eyes again there were pieces of fruit everywhere. Bells jingled as Starswirl brushed off bits from his cloak, and straightened his hat. Aunt Celestia stood immobile, eyes wide open, her normally pristine white coat speckled with gobs of green melon flesh. As always, her ethereal mane waved in the breeze, pristine in all its colours.

Angie stared at the pair for a moment, and with a snort began laughing. The light around her horn extinguished as she failed to hold the spell. The shield dissipated and the area within it returned to its previous grassy state. With a massive effort of will Angie clamped down on her hilarity, but when she looked up both senior ponies were looking at her with sober expressions on their cantaloupe speckled muzzles. At that point she simply lost her composure, and started laughing so hard she was forced to sit on her haunches and grab her sides.

Aunt Celestia didn't help things when she wiped one side of her elegant muzzle with a hoof, took a lick and remarked: "At least the cantaloupe was ripe." Looking down at her now green streaked chest and forelimbs, she remarked casually, "It's a good thing you didn't use beets, Starswirl. It would've taken forever to wash the stains out of my coat." Angie was already finding it hard to breath, at that point, but Aunt Celestia hadn’t had all her fun yet. She raised an eyebrow in Starswirl's direction, and said in her Patented Princess Celestia Deadpan voice, "You could have warned me in advance, you know. I’m perfectly capable of teleporting a cantaloupe and raising a shield at the same time."

Starswirl blushed. "Oh. The thought hadn't occurred to me," he said. The elder ponies waited patiently for Angie to wind down and catch her breath. The Maestro looked in her direction and frowned as Angie tried to hide her residual giggles behind a hoof. "It's not seemly for a student to be laughing so at her teacher's discomfiture," he groused. "When I was instructing your father there were no such breaches of decorum."

Angie bit her lip. Her dad had told her many wild stories of his studies with the old mage, but she had too much affection for her teacher to openly contradict him in front of her aunt. She scraped gobs of the gooey mess from her side and flank, revealing her cutie-mark, a large six-pointed star like her dad's with a single five pointed star similar to those of her mother's. She sighed. It was going to take some effort to get her coat clean.

Aunt Celestia winked in her direction. There was a flash of light from the white Alicorn's horn, and suddenly all of the sticky fruit remains disappeared from their coats. It was Starswirl's turn to appear surprised. "I didn't know such a spell existed!" said he.

"And I didn't know that teleportation could cause an explosion," said aunt Celestia sounding more serious. Angie sighed as she noticed that the playful twinkle in her aunt’s eyes was gone.

"Indeed," said Starswirl. "I just discovered this recently. Since the barrier field is a form of teleportation across dimensions, it appears that teleporting an object when it is half in and half out is akin to teleporting two objects into the same space. The typical result is an explosion, and the least destructive result is simply having the object fall into two pieces, a decidedly unsatisfactory result if the object in question is a living being." His own expression had become sober as he spoke. "I must admit, Princess, I am at my wits end. I fear this is a limitation of the barrier field that we will have to live with come the convergence with the earth.” He shrugged. “As is the unfortunate fact that the field itself, being composed of thaumic energy, will be poisonous to humans. In any case, I have already devised a way to combine a teleport interdict into the barrier spell."

Celestia sighed. "It cannot be helped then. The alternative is to allow magic to erupt unexpectedly at random locations over the earth, perhaps killing millions of humans. We must implement the barrier field, even in the likelihood that the humans will blame us for its effects. As the relative passage of time between our universes keeps fluctuating, I fear that time to make our preparations may be getting short. Please proceed with building the field as soon as possible." She turned towards Angie. "Young Princess, I hear that you have no small part to play in this enterprise."

"Yes, Aunt Celestia, as will my mother, at least for the first year." Angie felt her cheeks warm at the unexpected praise.

Starswirl laughed. "As you can see, she is her father's daughter: not only is she the most talented young mage of her generation, but she also blushes just as easily as he did." Angie smiled warmly at the old mage. He knew how much it pleased her whenever he said that she reminded him of her dad. They both missed him very much.

Starswirl pointed to the cottage. "We'll live here, each one of us taking four hour shifts at maintaining and building the spell's thaumic pattern and energy store. After a year, the entire system should be mostly self-sustaining. It will then be a matter of informing the spell of all known manner of objects and life forms that it will allow to pass through, and what to do with those things that must not be allowed in."

"This will be an unprecedentedly powerful spell, and a very dangerous one," said Celestia, raising an eyebrow. "Its behaviour will approach that of an intelligent being."

"Indeed," replied Starswirl. "I have designed it to be able to learn. And therefore I must be its teacher. It may take me many years, but as the one who will bring this entity forth into being, it is my responsibility to ensure its proper nurture and growth." He gestured towards the cottage. The three began walking towards it.

"As a consequence, it may take quite a while before I can return to work on the amniomorphic spell for the humans. Reducing the amount of energy needed for a full body conversion is a most vexing problem." He raised an eyebrow. "Alternatively, I suppose, one could locate a quasi-infinite source of energy, in which case the problem would become moot." He smiled at the absurdity of the suggestion.

"We still have generations to devise a solution to this conundrum, Maestro," said Celestia. "And given their scientific prowess, perhaps the humans will be able to assist in the process."

They paused as they had arrived at the cottage. A platinum coated mare appeared at the door. Angie trotted over to embrace her mother. The corners of her lips tugged down when she saw her mother's frail bow to Princess Celestia. The year since her father's passing had not been kind to her mother. She looked almost as old as Starswirl.

Celestia for her part embraced Princess Platinum warmly as the old friend she was. "So then," she said with a wry grin. "You and your daughter intend to spend a year helping to generate a spell in the company of this grumpy old unicorn and his assistant."

Her mother laughed, the wrinkles at the edges of her eyes bearing witness to the joys of a lifetime well lived. "Joly is both a gentlecolt and an excellent cook,” she said. “I cannot imagine we shall lack for anything. And truth be told, I very much look forward to spending a year in my daughter's company. We've had so little time together while she's been at your School for Gifted Unicorns these last few years."

"Enjoy this year, dear friend," said Aunt Celestia. "These past fifteen would have been far more difficult for me without your able presence at my side."

Celestia turned back towards Starswirl. "And what of you Maestro? How will you fill your magic depleted days?"

The old mage's grin was brilliant. "I will do a little painting, a little reading, and I will work on a little pet project I’ve been developing."

"How mysterious, Maestro," said Celestia. "You would be amazed at the progress in the arts, sciences and philosophy amongst the humans in the last few years. I have taken the time to do a few short visits to that realm. Perhaps we might make the time to discuss developments there upon occasion?"

"It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty," said the Maestro. He hesitated a moment. "Tell me, Your Majesty, do the humans remember my name on the world of my birth?"

Celestia chuckled. "Worry not, Maestro. Your fame has only waxed with each passing century. Your legacy with humanity is that of being one of its greatest artists, as well as one of its great scientists and thinkers. Should I say anymore I would risk inflating your ego beyond sustainable dimensions, and we've had enough explosions for one day, don't you agree?"

Starswirl rubbed the back of his head with a hoof as the mares laughed. The door to the cottage opened again and a cream coloured stallion invited them in. "I've made tea fit for three princesses and a famous old charlatan," said Joly. "And her highness Princess Platinum baked some cookies earlier. Please, everypony, do come in."

Angie followed the elder princess in but stopped on the doorstep, seeing her teacher pause, as he often did, to gaze towards the distant Everfree forest. She was struck by a sudden curiosity.

"You miss them, those humans you left behind in that world, don't you?" asked Angie.

"Every single day," said Starswirl sounding a bit melancholy. "Why do you ask, girl?"

"You have that look of loss in your eyes. Why does that always happen when you gaze towards the Everfree?"

He heaved a sigh. "Soon after I first came to this world, I founded a community. It became the first real home I’ve ever had, even in my life amongst the humans." He turned his gaze in her direction, and she saw the pain in his eyes. "But my Ponyville was destroyed in a single day. Joly and I still miss it dearly." He gestured in the direction of the forest. "Its ruins lie just beyond the lake. I made a vow that one day it would be rebuilt, but with every passing year that promise seems more like just a foalish dream." His eyes again looked into the distance. "Forgive me this indulgence, but do go in, Hydrangea dear, I won't be a minute."

"Yes, Uncle Mo," said Angie as she gave him a quick nuzzle. He smiled briefly at the use of her pet name for him. She turned back to the happy scene inside of friends sharing a brief moment of fellowship and family.

After dinner, Starswirl accompanied Celestia on a brief walk before the sovereign was to return to Canterlot to attend to her many duties.

The Princess was in one of her more sombre moods. Thankfully, these were increasingly rare since that initial difficult year after her sister's rebellion. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Outwardly, she seemed much the same as she had when he had first arrived in Equestria. Looks can deceive, he thought. Only he and a few trusted others knew how difficult those days had been. Platinum, Hurricane and Puddinghead. And Clover... My dear departed student, Clover. He sighed. Of all of them, Clover was the one who was able to step up to Celestia, and tell her when and where he thought she was wrong. He had even argued with her, the starstruck lad who could hardly believe it when he had first met Celestia in the flesh. The memory made him grin.

"Are you thinking of him?" she asked quietly.

"Yes." There was no question as to whom she referred.

"Were he here no doubt he would tell me how foalish I am to try to save humanity. How inept I was at handling my sister, and how my indecisions cost ponies their lives."

Starswirl nodded and smiled fondly. "Perhaps."

"He and Platinum kept the Equestrian state from fragmenting, when I was... recovering. I will be eternally grateful." She glanced at him. "And now, I will lose both you and Platinum to this project for a year."

Starswirl hesitated a moment. "In my case, Your Majesty, I might have to remain isolated for much longer, years, perhaps even decades, whilst I raise the barrier spell."

Celestia paced beside him in silence. He waited as she digested this news. She would speak more when she was ready, and no sooner. She stopped as they approached the lakeshore.

Finally, she spoke. "I am frightened, Starswirl."

"Of what, Your Majesty?" he asked. The breeze was pleasant and redolent of the nearby lilacs.

Celestia turned a sad gaze upon him. "Always I've had my sister with me, and now I do not." She smiled apologetically. "I am very fortunate to have had such good friends during these difficult times, but—" she hesitated "—it is my lot, without exception, to lose all those I love to the sands of time." There was a deep sadness in her eyes. "Luna was always my one constant, my one consolation, even in mourning my little ponies. But now I will have to face their deaths alone, and I do not know if I will have the strength."

Starswirl wrapped the princess in a hug. She leaned against him and wept silently. After a minute, he gently disengaged.

"My goddess of truth," he said looking up into her eyes, "let me tell you a truth in turn that is wider and deeper than the cosmos itself: if you love others you will never be alone."

He distinctly heard a sniffle coming from the lilac bush nearest to them. He brushed a few fronds aside telekinetically, revealing young Hydrangea's face. She blushed brightly in true Clover tradition, and strode from around the lilac stand.

"He's right, Aunt Celestia," she said breathlessly.

To her credit Celestia did not take offense at the intrusion, but rather bestowed a sweet smile on the mare. "Still, all ponies, even you my sweet niece, will eventually leave me."

Hydrangea's expression grew determined. "True, I won't always be here with you, but after me, my foals will, and after them, my grandfoals.” She raised her tiny blue chin in defiance of time itself. “I swear it, Aunt Celestia, you will never be alone."

Starswirl chuckled at the youngster's earnest vow. "Celestia, take it from an old bachelor," he said. "Family are the ponies you choose be with and those who choose to be with you. You are with family now."

"Thank you both," replied the princess, hugging the unicorn mare in turn. "Your words are a great comfort to me. But I must admit to another worry. I miss Luna and her wise advice. Just speaking with her helped me think things through, even when we did not agree. Hydrangea, your father filled in most admirably for my sister when he was still with us, as has your mother since." Her gaze grew apologetic. "But I can see how heavy the burden sits upon her withers, and I will not have my concerns drive such a true friend into an early grave." Her gaze turned back to Starswirl. "I have so many doubts these days. So few voices tell me what I must hear, and not just what they think will please me."

Starswirl raised an eyebrow. "Your Majesty, many are the times in my life when the only counsel at hoof was mine own. Usually I brought order to my thoughts by asking myself questions, and then writing the answers down in my journals. If it is Luna's advice you seek, then do so still, in a letter. Report your days to her and tell her what you are doing and why. And ask your questions." He placed a hoof over Celestia's heart. "As long as you love her, Luna is here, and will be always. You will hear her reply when you need to."

They waited in silence as Celestia wiped her tears. "You are a wise old pony, and a good teacher, Maestro," she said as her smile returned.

Hydrangea beamed up at him. "Yes, he is," she said. "And even a passable uncle."

Everypony chuckled at the jest. Celestia took a step. "Now I must depart to end the day and begin the night," she said. "Good evening, my very dear little ponies." She bowed and was gone with a flicker of blue light.

His niece wrapped him in another hug. Starswirl resolved to cherish this coming year. He was all too familiar with the pains of aging, having gone through the process once before. He knew that his time amongst the ponies of Equestria was not infinite. You still have much to do before you can rest, Leonardo, he reminded himself. And much of it you will have to do alone. Yes, he would cherish his last year amongst the ponies, and then he would miss them very much.

He walked slowly back to the cottage with a mare he called his niece, where awaited the homely joys of family.

Celestia stood on the balcony of the recently completed Observatory Tower of Canterlot castle. It was one of her favourite places in the new castle, and her preferred place to do the rising and setting of the celestial orbs. Having to manage both sun and moon was very tiring and emotionally taxing for the princess, so she had decided to do the full ceremony of the rising of the sun and the setting of the moon only once per year.

She closed her eyes, and 'felt' through the aether to locate the moon. Once it was firmly in her grasp, she lowered the sun below the horizon and before the light was fully faded bade rise the moon. Slowly it emerged over the distant edge of the world, the unicorn head silhouette graven there a reminder of what she had lost. Once the moon was safely on its trajectory through the night-time sky, Celestia relaxed and open her eyes. It was a paltry sky, compared to her sister's dazzling and bejewelled firmament, but it would have to do, until her mastery of the art of the night could grow more sophisticated.

Celestia then turned and began a familiar ritual of her own devising: she lit a candle to her sister, and placed it near the window in sight of the moon. She knew there was no chance that Luna might see such a small flame from the location of her imprisonment, but it was nevertheless a great comfort to her own ravaged heart. She stared at it for a while, a smile on her lips as she recollected memories of better times. A thousand years, she thought. A thousand years before I know whether she is lost to me forever.

She sighed and strode to the stairwell leading down. With a last glance she looked at the writing desk where a scroll lay, partially unfurled. On it she could still make out the last few lines near the bottom.

Rest assured that I will always love you, and that I count the days until your return.

Your most faithful sister,


The scroll glowed around the edges, rolled up into a tight cylinder and rose into the air. The stopper on a small vial on the desk levitated upwards as well. A tiny whirlwind of powder rose from the vial's confines to dust the scroll, which dissolved in a glimmer of green fire. Celestia smiled and descended the stairs.

On the moon a letter appeared and was snatched hastily by a dark blue hoof. Nightmare Moon hesitated a moment, in the full knowledge that if the news were good it might comfort her opponent, small and insignificant though she was. In the end, novelty won out over caution. After fifteen years in this land of eternal stillness anything new was too much of a temptation, even a letter from the enemy's sister, so bored was the mare. Slitted eyes read hungrily.

She loves me still! Exulted the voice of Luna in her mind.

Nightmare Moon stared down at the scroll, which erupted into flames and was consumed in an instant.

Their momentary truce shattered, Luna resumed her assault on the invader, locked in a fight to reclaim her very soul. This time she would not concede. No, she would never give up, for her sister loved her still, and that was all she needed to know to keep on fighting, for a thousand years if need be.

A year later

Starswirl closed the cabin door behind him. Joly stood a few steps away from the entrance with their luggage, the bulk of it belonging to the fussy stallion. He waited in silence as Starswirl took in the scene at the cottage. It was one of those beautiful spring days at the lake. The wind blew through the lilac bushes, spreading the flowers’ gentle perfume. The lake itself sparkled in the sun, with buzzing insects and chirping birds bathing the day in nature’s cheerful symphony.

“What a feast for the senses, Joly!” said Starswirl. He glanced at his companion. The stallion smiled, took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“Are you sad to leave such beauty behind, Maestro?” he asked in his gentle voice.

Starswirl smiled. “Yes, and that is why this is the time to go.” He gestured around him at the lake, the cottage and the nearby forest. “This is the image we will keep in our minds when we recall this place. This is how I want to remember it.”

“Aye. I think I agree, Maestro.” He raised an eyebrow. “Still, I will so miss the place. I do hope Princess Hydrangea will take good care of it.” The expression on his face softened, and his gaze lingered on the tidy cottage.

Starswirl felt his heart go out to his long-time companion. “You always become so attached to things, Joly. As to me, in my life I’ve had to change homes so often that all I need is the cloak on my back and a good hat.”

Joly laughed out loud. “And that’s why you hardly ever take them off, old vagabond.”

Starswirl put a hoof on Joly’s withers. “Perhaps. But this is an old vagabond whom fate has blessed with stalwart friends.”

Joly took a deep breath and nodded. “I guess that makes two of us.” He favored Starswirl with that tiny little grin he had whenever he felt an adventure was about to begin. “Let’s go then.”

Starswirl nodded. He thought of what he was leaving behind: the princesses, the School of Magic, and all this pony business. Before him was the leisure to do nothing but follow his curiosity wherever it led him. What are you waiting for, old fool?!

Starswirl smiled broadly and charged up his horn to engage the dimensional travel cantrip. It’s time to go change the universe!

He cast the spell. There was a flash of white.

First Epilogue

Celestia was holding court in Canterlot when her majordomo approached the throne and bowed, scroll in hoof. Her interest piqued, she nodded and he preferred the missive. His horn glowed and it floated up to her, unfurling it so she could read its contents. Her heart sank as she read. She thought of adjourning court and rushing off, but a moment's reflection was enough to realize that it would not only be futile, but might alarm her little ponies. She nodded, and the majordomo quietly rolled the document up and levitated it back to a pouch on his back. He bowed, and no doubt would deliver the letter to her desk with today's court documents. She smiled as if it were nothing of import, and gestured for the next petitioner to approach.

That evening, Celestia strode into Starswirl's cottage by the lake. As she had expected, the windows were dark when she approached. Also as expected, the door was unlocked. She pushed it aside, and dispersed the gloom by emitting light from the tip of her horn. Scanning the interior, she saw everything much as she last recalled: a tidy kitchen and common room containing a large table with several large comfortable cushions near the fireplace, and two doors leading to the cottage's two cozy bedrooms.

On the table lay a large hard-bound book, a familiar-looking statue of a draconequus, and a scroll. As she approached, the scroll rose into the air and unfurled itself. She smiled. The letter had recognized her. A typical Starswirl touch!

My dear Princess Celestia,

Once upon a time a young lady stepped into my studio, and with a smile stole my heart. Little did I know then how she would come again to change this old man, and bless his life with true friendship and new worlds to discover!

For one such as I, to whom learning is the summit of all joys, that gift was beyond compare! Another earth to explore, and then even more worlds beyond it, each one a treasure in its own completeness, and each a reflection of the universal reality that lies beneath them all. Even the world upon which your sister sought to confine me was a great gift, such that were I before her, I would embrace her and kiss her hooves in thanks —

Celestia had to look away. She waited a moment, wiped her eyes with with a fetlock, and again turned her gaze on the levitating document.

that she she gave me so much. I think of her often. She also gave me another gift: she briefly showed me a book by a fellow human, Isaac Newton, that described tools of mathematics such as I had never dreamt of. Such is serendipity, as what I learned on that world forever changed my understanding of the structure of the cosmos, and Newton gave me the voice with which to sing its praise. Please do extend my gratitude and affection to your sister when you next write to her.

After my rescue by Clover, and my return to health following the unpleasant events of that time, I visited the remains of Luna’s quarters and found that book and some others. With the information I learned regarding Clover’s search through the worlds I was able to delve ever more deeply into the foundations of the cosmos. The results are the interdimensional barrier spell, amongst others things which still astound me even as I think of them. Within the statue on the table I have invested the barrier spell. It awaits your signal to be activated once you have determined that the convergence is nigh. I hope you like the statue. It's a study I did to improve that horrid one you keep in your garden. Someday perhaps you'll allow me to replace it.

Of the other discoveries I've made, one has given rise to the first purpose leading me to my current passage: I have discovered much about the foundations of time. How ironic it is that this knowledge comes to me when I have so little of it left! Let me assure you, Dear Princess, that I am not being an ingrate. The life I now live is my second one, a gift received from your hoof and for which I am eternally grateful. But to understand time, I will need to spend all that is left to me, and so, a hermit I must once again become. Oh, worry not as to my welfare, as my dear friend Joly has chosen to accompany me in my exile – an old hermit still needs his comforts, no?

As a parting gift I leave you the notes in the journal that accompanies this letter. You will find there a spell to travel backwards in time! This is of far less value than one would think. The range of such travel is quite limited, perhaps four days at the most, for the past is jealous of its certitudes, and only suffers admittance to those it feels will not contest them.

You will also find a treatise on the concept of destiny. Here I must tell of the second purpose of my self-imposed exile. With it you will find a spell, still incomplete unfortunately, for changing one of the very foundations of Equestrian society: a pony’s cutie-mark. These are indeed very much linked to the expression of the future, but unlike the past, the future is a veritable herd of warring potentials, refusing all certainty but death. What I seek to do now is to study time and destiny, both most dangerous pursuits. It will be safest for all beings that I do these studies on another world far removed from this one and the one of my birth, one with no beings present whose lives would be forfeit should my experimentations tear down the very foundations needed for life, a danger that I foresee as all too possible.

Speaking of foresight and the future, I have one last gift for you, My Princess. In my examinations of times future I can sometimes discern concentrations of great potential. Sometimes these are opaque to further scrutiny, sometimes they reveal surprising images of what may be. And sometimes many such images are superposed, drawing a palimpsest of every possible outcome all at once. There will come a mare, of my student Clover’s descent, who will be a mage of such power as to rival even those of the Alicorns. She will bear Clover’s mark as well as that of the unicorn royal line. (Fear not! It is not our dear Hydrangea, although it will very likely be a filly of her lineage.) In this mare is the potential to fulfill all of your dreams for Equestria, and also the possibility to turn it all to ashes. I have seen into this mare’s heart, Celestia. She is fundamentally good, but she will need your guidance, and even more so, your love, in order to resist the temptations that her power will offer. Remember this and be ready, Celestia, your sign will be the circle of rainbows.

When you read this I will have been gone for several days. I know you have ways to find me, but I must ask that you do not share that information with others. Please allow an old and weary friend this last indulgence, that in the few years I have remaining, I might live in quiet pursuit of knowledge and the good company of my gentle companion. I know that you would argue that I should remain as Minister of Science, for much still remains to be done. But we are both aware how little I do at the Ministry these days, and that younger ponies have earned the opportunity to carry on that work with all the vigour and energy that old ponies such as this one can rarely muster! You and your little ponies no longer need me, Celestia, and I have every confidence that you will succeed, for of this I am certain: Equestria and her Princess are strong!

Know that I will always have you in my heart, dear Celestia, as I hope to remain always in yours. Please do visit, when you can find the time.

With love and friendship undying,

Starswirl the Bearded

P.S. I have one humble request...

Celestia rolled up the scroll and gathered the book and statue from the table. Upon the book's cover was Starswirl’s cutie mark. She examined the little draconequus statue more closely. She smiled. It was indeed a much more expressive and – lively – looking statue than the actual frozen Discord in her garden. With a final glance around the cottage, Celestia teleported away.

Celestia materialized inside her bed chamber. As expected, there was nopony else there. She crossed the room to the doorway that led to her office. On the way over her she placed the three objects she carried onto her dresser table. Her horn glowed again as the doors opened to reveal three pegasi clustered around her desk.

"Oh come-on, Sky," said Harvest Wind. "You know what the Maestro will say when he's back, he's –"

"– not going to be back," interrupted Celestia. Three faces turned in surprise, then all three bowed deeply to their sovereign.

“Summer Breeze and Sky Blue, what a pleasure to see you again,” said Celestia. “I hear your business is doing quite well indeed.” The pair did look prosperous, with Summer in a fine dress and Sky wearing a yellow Velvet doublet that flattered his azure coat. “I assume you have come to Canterlot to congratulate Harvest Wind on his promotion to Captain of the Royal Guard.”

"Yes, Your Majesty," said Summer. Her ears swiveled to focus on Celestia. "Is there something the matter with the Maestro?"

Celestia smiled reassuringly. "Fear not, my little ponies. He is hale and hearty, but he has come to an age where he has earned a rest. He has tendered, and I have accepted, his petition for retirement from public life." She turned back to Harvey. "Captain, when we are done here I would like you to please inform the Chamberlain of the Equine Assembly that I will add a new motion in tomorrow's session, a discourse on the contributions of our former Minister of Science, and a call for nominations to fill the vacancy created by his departure."

All three ponies' mouths hung open. Celestia smiled. "Come now, why the long faces? He is still alive and with us."

Harvey was the first to break the silence. "But Your Majesty... everything will be so different without him!"

Celestia looked into the earnest eyes of her little ponies one by one. "Will it now? Pray, tell me how." She looked on expectantly.

"He invented the Amniomorphic spell. He made it possible for ponies of different tribes to have foals of their own," said Harvey with a slight blush.

"I for one wouldn't even be here otherwise," said Sky. "My dad's a unicorn." He nuzzled Summer. "Just like our twins."

"To hear the youngsters speak nowadays, the concept of tribes hardly exists anymore," said Summer. "And then there's the School for Gifted Unicorns, which the twins are attending."

"And all those new sciences Starswirl set up, with all the rules on to find out what's true and what's balderdash! That's changed almost every trade and profession, from farming to rainbow production," added Sky.

"Not to mention all the amazing flying machines," said Harvey, a smile crossing his features.

"Don't forget" – said a new voice from the main door leading into the office – "the codification of magic, and all of the other wonderful spells he's contributed over the years. And not least of all, he saved my dad's life more than once." Princess Hydrangea entered and bowed to Celestia, then went to hug everypony in turn, ending with Celestia herself. "I guess uncle Mo has finally decided he'd had enough of politics," she declared with a wink.

Celestia eyed her niece. "And of being a teacher as well as of being Archmage. He said he thought it was time for younger ponies to take the reins. I know of one recently graduated mage whose former teacher has recommended her highly. Perhaps she might be interested in teaching force-fields and animative magic at my school." Celestia gaze calmly at Angie and raised an eyebrow. The mare looked confused a moment, before practically crushing Celestia in her second hug in as many minutes.

“Yes! Yes! I accept!” said Angie emphatically, practically jumping up and down in her enthusiasm. Her friends each gave her congratulatory hugs of their own.

Celestia turned her attention to Sky. “I have a task for you as well, Mr. Blue,” said Celestia.

The stallion bowed. “Your wish is my command, Your Highness,” he said and turned his head towards Harvey. She just caught sight of the tip of the tongue he stuck out at his foalhood friend.

"I have decided to ask your uncle Hyacinth if he is interested in the position of Archmage. I would consider it a personal favour if you could ask him privately about his interest in the appointment before I do so formally."

"Of course, Your Majesty. I'm sure he would consider it an honor, but I will ask him and come back to you with his reply tomorrow, as Summer and I are having dinner with him tonight."

"Splendid!" Said Celestia. "I guess then that it's time for me to write a letter. I do hope to have the pleasure of seeing you all again during the next few days." With friendly goodbyes, the three pegasi and unicorn bowed and left the office though the main exit. The last to exit was Harvey, who turned and winked before shutting the door.

He is very handsome in that uniform, thought Celestia. And he knows it!

With a grin she went to her desk and sat down. Her horn glowed and a scroll of paper settled on her desk as her quill dipped into the ink pot, and then hovered over the page.

Dear sister,

Today the inevitable happened and our Starswirl announced his retirement from public function. He wants to be free to study only that which strikes his fancy and follow his inspirations wherever they may lead. This is much the same as what he did before his retirement, but with less supervision from yours truly, and fewer students and underlings underhoof. It strikes me that his situation has much in common with his life just before I brought him to Equestria!

He sends you his love and gratitude, Luna, and says that you are often in his thoughts.

In contrast to our dear Starswirl, Equestria has changed in many ways, and when I look at our little ponies I can see that it has been very much for the good. Perhaps I am biased in making that assessment, but I am sure that you would be as proud of them as I am. For the most part they now govern themselves quite effectively, and in my daily courts their disputes have become pleasingly trivial. Rational thought rather than emotions or superstitious dread governs their actions, thanks in no little part to the contributions of our pony shaped human. It gladdens my heart so to see how they care for each other, and I cannot help but feel that they will succeed and prosper where our own Alicorn kind failed, becoming the very expression of Friendship and Harmony.

With love and affection,

Your devoted sister Celstia

Second Epilogue - many years later

Celestia paced gracefully through the Annual Canterlot Fair and Exhibition, surrounded by an entourage of unicorn nobles and her Royal Guard. Around her were laid out row upon row of colourful tents, each one a delegation representing a town or county of Equestria. There were even larger tents with delegations from neighbouring kingdoms and principalities, including the Gryphons, Zebras, and Minotaurs, amongst many others.

She made it a point to attend the fair every year. It had become a major meeting place where all parts of Equestria could mingle, exchange ideas and most importantly build the links between families that knit the nation into a single, unified whole. Because of the Amniomorphic spell, Ponies now took it for granted that unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies were all one species, and her somewhat allegorical Hearths' Warming Eve story and pageant had done wonders to ingrain that feeling of fellowship for all the ponies of Equestrian society.

Still, the ghosts of Equestria's tribally segregated history haunted her still, so she was ever vigilant for any signs of regression to the attitudes of the past. That was why she was taken aback when at the end of a long row of bright tents, she saw a dull, well patched habitation that had obviously seen better days. At each side of its front entrance were laid out trestle tables, upon which were arrayed an abundance of seeds, tubers, small potted plants and other agricultural seed stock.

To her right, the Master of the Fair, a fancily clad unicorn named Duke White Tie turned up his snout with a sniff. "Go no closer, Your Majesty," said he. "This is a disreputable lot." He tried to lead Celestia on to the next tent, and was visibly flustered when she refused to budge.

"And to whom does this tent belong?" she asked pleasantly.

"Nopony of importance, Your Majesty, I assure you," replied the duke.

She waited patiently, keeping the same smile on her features. The duke’s expression grew resigned. "They call themselves Pilgrims. They are landless earth ponies that travel and trade seeds, doing seasonal farm labour. Wherever they go there are reports of trouble, petty thefts and such. Really, your majesty we should not consort with such a shiftless group.”

Celestia's only response was to stride up to the trestle tables, where a severe looking pony stood with a worried looking mare. A young light green coated filly, peeked up in awe at her from under the table, her mane and tail done up in beautifully intricate blond braids. Celestia smiled at the youngster, whose eyes widened before turning on the most dazzling smile Celestia had seen that day.

"Mah pa is the very bestest seed collector in all Equestria, Yer Highness!" The filly beamed up at her in obvious pride. Celestia turned her attention to the subject of the filly's assertion, who with his wife bowed low.

"Your daughter speaks highly of your seed stock, sir," commented Celestia.

"Ayyuup," replied the stallion, looking somewhat dazed.

"Why trade in seed? Wouldn't you rather grow your own crops, Mister..."

The stallion's eyes narrowed a bit. "Name's Smith, Yer Majesty. We ain't got no land, so we travel to where there's work, and we trade seed."

Celestia paused and considered. She had an old promise to keep, and maybe these ponies would be the ones to make it work.

"I have a proposal for you, Mr. Smith," she said. "There's prime farmland waiting for settlement. I won't lie to you. It's not the safest country, being right on the edge of the Everfree Forest, but I think that for just the right ponies, it's a chance for land of their own and building a better life. What do you say, Mr. Smith?"

The stallion's eyes were now wider than dinner plates, but there was no denying the hunger in them. He glanced at his wife, who nodded. "Sounds interestin'. Are there any conditions to this offer, Yer Majesty?"

Celestia smiled as she heard the duke's indrawn breath. More than anything else, that question confirmed her first instinct that these were the right ponies.

"I have three conditions, Farmer Smith. The first is that you invite other pony pilgrim families to settle the area. After all, it takes more than one family to start a town."

The stallion nodded.

"The second is that, once the town is established, it will welcome all ponies that I send there, including pegasi and unicorns. It takes all type of ponies for a community to prosper."

Again, the stallion nodded.

"Good! The third is that you name this town Ponyville. That would make both me, and a dear old friend, very happy. Do you agree to this final condition as well?"

For the first time the earth pony smiled. He and his wife both nodded together.

"We agree. We ain't got nothin' fit to give a princess, Your Majesty, so all we can say is that we're mighty thankful, an' we'll do our very best to never letcha down."

"Then, Farmer Smith, I suggest you prepare your family for travel." Celestia bowed, then turned and led her delegation onwards to the next tent. Her ears were nevertheless pointing backwards, the better to eavesdrop on the consequences of her visit.

"Sugarcube, y'all better gallop on over to tha Apple's tent, and the Rich's an any o' the other Pilgrims you 'kin find. Meeting o' the families in our tent tonight," said Mr. Smith's voice.

"Yessir!" said the filly. "Hey pa!" she added. "The Princess called you Farmer Smith. That means we is all farmers now, don't it?"

"Well I recon it does, now, sugarcube. I recon it really does."

There was the sound of a filly's "Yee-haw!", then Celestia saw the filly in question gallop by, leaving a trail of dust in her wake.

As the duke led her to another tent he waved the dust out of his face and sneezed. Celestia grinned in satisfaction. This was turning out to be the best Canterlot Fair and Exhibition, ever!