How Two Worthless Genetic Freaks Founded a Nation

by TheDriderPony

First published

Celestia and Luna bumble through history on their way to fame and fortune.

Some people say that Celestia and Luna are useless. That they lounge in the castle while delegating all their responsibilities to hard working, underappreciated, exceptionally well-read students. That even when faced directly with threats to kingdom and country, they fold like cheap origami and wait to be rescued.

These people are correct. But there's a very good reason for it!

[Rated Teen due to a dark scene early on to set some backstory, and occasional comedic death]

Occam's Razor

"Oh you should see the looks on your faces! So intense, so sure of yourselves! Ah haha! Hiiilarious~! Ha ha ha ha-"

*Thunk!* *Thunk!* *Thunk!* ... *Thunk, Thunk, Squish, Pwap, Thunk!*

Eight impacts echoed across the suddenly quiet landscape, quickly followed by a single much louder sound of something significantly more fleshly hitting the ground. A silence followed, as small things slowly began to shift. Floating houses and sections of hills quietly made their way back to solid ground. Whole groves of lollipops shriveled into their stems as green grass began pushing upward through rapidly expanding holes in the checkerboard floor. And in the middle of it all, two ponies stood with their mouths agape.

"Was... was that it?" the taller one finally ventured.

"I... guess so," came a reply from the other. "He's down, isn't he? Look, even the chaos is starting to recede."

"Yes, but didn't that seem a little too... easy? I expected the Mad King to put up a bit more of a fight."

The shorter blue one snorted. "And I expected you to have something more of a plan."

"More of a- whatever do you mean?" she asked incredulously, nostrils flaring.

The blue mare rolled her eyes. "Really Celly? Starswirl gave us those things specifically to defeat the Mad King, and your first line of thinking was 'let's lob 'em at his head' ?!" Her wings flared in agitation. "You could have at least told me that was the plan! I barely had time to react and throw mine!"

Celly frowned. "Well what did you expect me to do with a bunch of shiny rocks? Bribe him off the throne? I figured it was like the tale of Marevid and Goliath Hammer."

"Oh, so you didn't just think 'let's hit him with the rocks', you actually thought 'let's hit him with the rocks like in that old folk-story' ! Stars, I can't believe you!"

As the two bickered pettily, the local landscape was rapidly returning to its natural state. Tress regained their verdant hues. Horrible atrocities shrunk back into woodland critters. Most notably, a certain throne was sinking into the ground, leaving the limp body of its occupant behind. As the seat vanished into the grass, Discord's body finally won the fight against friction and tumbled down the hill. Rolling head over heels over tail, the sudden motion caught the attention of the bickering sisters.

"Sneak attack!" Celly cried in alarm, "Get back Lulu, he's headed right for you!"

Lulu shrieked in fear, her fight-or-flight response taking over as she stumbled backwards. "I'm sorry!" she cried, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please please don't kill me-he-he!"

"Lu." Celly interrupted, having taken a closer note of the situation, "It's alright, it was a false alarm. I think he just rolled down the hill."

It took a minute for Lulu to regain her composition and breathe the adrenaline out of her system. Meanwhile, Celly leaned in over the deposed king to take a closer look at him. She noted his mismatched limbs, the odd patches where fur made the transition to feathers or scales. His face, an insulting mimicry of that of a pony, lay flat down in the mud.

"Stars, he's even uglier up close." She reached out to poke him as she delivered her verdict.

"Don't touch him!" Lulu exclaimed, lunging forward to block her sister's hooves. "What are you going to do if he wakes up, huh? I doubt he'll be decent enough to sit still and monologue so you can practice your pitching again." She blinked and paused, having realized something important. "Actually, what are we supposed to do with him? When he eventually comes to, I mean."

Celly paused as well, and Lulu could almost see the gears in her head turning. "I- I don't know," She finally admitted. "I think maybe I didn't think this plan all the way through."

"I'm liking this plan of yours less and less." Lulu rolled her eyes, the end result of which left her looking at the back of Discord's head. She stopped. Something was... wrong with the image in front of her. She just couldn't quite put her hoof on it. King of Chaos defeated, good, all's well there. Knocked out by eight rocks to the head, unconventional but effective. Defeated foe lying humiliatingly face down in the mud, face down... in the mud...

"Oh sweet stars above!" she exclaimed loudly, startling Celly out of her worried ruminations. Leaping forward, she wrapped her forelegs around the Mad King's head and flipped him head over heels so he laid on his back. Celly snapped out of her shock just quickly enough to dodge.

"What are you doing?! You just said not to move him! What if he wakes up?!"

"He was face down in the mud!" Lulu explained quickly as she tried to wipe the muck off his face, "I don't think he was breathing!" She laid her head against his chest, roughly where she assumed his heart and lungs to be, and swiveled her ear to get the best possible line-up with his chest. Celly held her breath, partially in shock over the ramifications of her sister's realization, and partially so as to not create undo noise. Tense moments passed. Tense moments turned into a full tense minute before Lulu finally lifted her head. "I- I think he's dead."

"What?! No, he can't- he can't be dead!"

"Well he isn't breathing! Oh my stars we're murderers!" Lulu wailed.

"What's this 'we'? I didn't kill him, you killed him!"

"It was your bright idea to lob rocks at him!" She noticed a trickle of blood coming out of his mouth and mingling with the remaining mud. "See, he's bleeding. I'll bet you cracked his skull with that pointy pink one."

"I didn't even throw the pink one, that was one of yours," Celly rebutted.

"It was not," Lulu tossed her head indignantly as she made a point to step away from the corpse. "I threw the orange one, the blue one, the yellow one, the brown one, and the green one."

"I threw at least two of those." Celly did a quick tally. "Wait, that too many. Starswirl only gave us six. There was no yellow one."

"Of course there was! I should know, because I threw it. It landed over there." She indicated off to their left with a foreleg.

Celly trotted over, gathering up the other former projectiles as she passed them. She paused when she got to the one yellow splotch in the field of green. She gave it a cautious poke, followed by a more confident investigative jab. It squished under the pressure, and a little stuck to her hooves. "This is a cheese!" she yelled back, before noticing a brown object slightly farther on, "And there's a loaf of bread here too. You threw our lunch at him, you ninny!"

"Well sor-ry, I panicked okay?!" she threw her hooves up in exasperation, "You didn't give me any time to prepare for this masterstroke of a plan of yours, so I grabbed everything in my saddlebag and threw it."

The pink maned mare returned to her sister and the body of the former Mad King, the six colorful rocks clutched beneath her wings. The two shared a cold stare for a moment, before the shorter one looked away with a sigh. "Whatever. Anyway he's defeated, and the kingdom is safe." She glanced once more at Discord's body. "Do we- I mean- would it be right to bury him?"

"I think Starswirl said we need to bring something back to prove we defeated him. In the old stories, heroes used to cut off the heads of monsters they defeated as trophies."

"Eewwwwwww..." Lulu shuddered. "No, no, and no again. I don't care what he did, I am not carrying his icky severed head all the way back to the city. That's disgusting, why would you even suggest such a thing?"

"I'm not suggesting anything!" Celly said defensively, "I'm just saying what they did in the stories. I've no more experience with this than you do. So, maybe, you'd like to cut me some slack and help me think of a way to deal with the dead body of ponykind's greatest tormentor?"

The two fell into silence again as each tried to puzzle out a solution. The blue mare's mind however, was preoccupied with thoughts of repercussions. They had killed, killed. Killed the most hated being in the mapped territories, but the laws were very clear. 'An eye for an eye, and a wing for a wing', as the old Pegasus law stated. Bureaucracy had expanded and complicated the axiom until it was ten scrolls long, but the core remained the same. How could they possibly prove they defeated the Mad King, without revealing that they killed him?

The white mare's mind took a different track. Though she lacked a formal education, she was clever, and used to having to think her way out of tough spots. An idea struck her. What if they brought the Mad King's body back, and had Starswirl control it like a puppet from afar? Parade him around town as if he were still alive, then stage a mock battle him which they could defeat him publicly? Yes... it was a plan so crazy, it just might work. She opened her mouth to tell her sister of the idea, before another thought struck and she closed it again. The plan had too many weak links, too many unknowns. What if Starswirl couldn't replicate chaos magic well enough to fool the crowds? What if the guards intervened and decided to fight Discord themselves? Worst of all, if anything happened which made the plan fall through they'd likely be charged with murder as well as necromancy. No, puppeteering his body around simply had too many risks.

The sisters turned back to each other.

"I've got nothing." Lulu shook her head in disappointment.

Her sister nodded. "Same." She stomped the ground in frustration. "Oh... why couldn't those blasted magic rocks do whatever they were supposed to do? If they'd gone ahead and done it when we needed them we wouldn't be in this mess."

The younger one snorted. "Maybe if Swirly had given us any sort of instructions..."

"That's right. 'You will know what to do when the time comes' is about as unhelpful as it gets. This is really all his fault!"

Their eyes widened and their gazes met. A slow smile crept across their faces. "Yes... he sent us off on this mission," one began.

"He gave us the magic rocks, " the other continued.

"So he should know how to fix this!" they said together, a glimmer of hopeful excitement entering their voices.

It dimmed as they returned their gaze to the corpse. The blood from his head had mingled with the mud, and already curious flies had begun circling.

"Soooo..." Lu began, "How're we getting him back to the city?"

Cel snorted. "I think that's your problem. You killed him, so you get to carry him back."

"What? No!" she retorted eloquently. "For one thing, I didn't kill him! That was you!" She pointed an accusatory hoof. "And secondly, look how big he is! He has to be at least ten stone! My magic can't lift that, I could barely throw those rocks to begin with. So unless you want me to drag him all the way home, I say you carry him!"

The white pony gave her sister an even look before lighting up her horn. It flickered slightly, like a candle in a breeze before finally stabilizing in a weak glow. Her face twisted in exertion as the glow of her magic enveloped his body. She jerked her head aside like a fishermare trying to hook a bite. Discord's body slid forward, aided greatly by the mud which was progressively coating more of his remains. Her magic flickered out, leaving the mare sweating and breathing heavy. She turned back to her sister. "See? He's... too heavy... for me too."

Lu sighed as she eyed up the dimensions of the corpse. "Well, I suppose that settles it. I guess we're dragging him back. You rest up, I know that took a lot out of you, while I go get some branches to make a sled we can pull." She muttered under her breath as she walked off. "I really hope Starswirl has a way to fix this, otherwise things are only going to go downhill from here."

Knock Before Entering

Having stashed the now thoroughly disheveled body in a thicket of trees, the pair of young mares approached the outer walls of the city. Or at least the quarter that remained around the main gate. During one of the former Mad King's "playdates" a large portion of the wall had been turned to cheese and subsequently melted in the rain before his chaotic aftereffects could dissipate. It was entirely possible to enter the city through the still unrepaired holes, but the Magistar had made a severe ruling on the issue, and the local guard enforced a strict discipline against those who broke it.

They made their way to the main gate unimpeded. Trade was minimal between towns, save for a few brave or foolish merchants, and it was too early yet for the farmers to make their way into town for their nightly ale. The two sisters huddled closely as they walked, both in fatigue and in fear. It was hard to brush aside thoughts of their actions, and every insignificant detail felt threatening. What was that rustling? An ambush? A trap?! Could somepony somehow have learned about the murder and informed the guards? No, just a rabbit hopping between bushes. The guard on duty eyed them as they passed. Cel raised her head slightly, and tried to meet his gaze with a small subdued smile. He scowled in response and spat in the road ahead. She dropped her head quickly, and grimaced as she made no move to avoid the gooey residue. There was no use in causing trouble.

A powerful force hit them as they entered the city of City McCityplace. (It had once held a much grander title, but ponies had quickly learned not to disagree with the Mad King when he decided to rename something. Not after he made an example of New Forever-Burnington). The outer edges of the city were uniquely recognizable. Not for the buildings or shops, as they were of the normal style and mostly consisted of pubs and poorhouses. What made the locale so identifiable was the smell. The streets were awash with the bouquets of spilled beer, rancid piss, and unwashed bodies. With underlying subtleties of decay emanating from the countless rats, roaches, and occasional jobless drifter who'd gone too many days without food or spent one too many nights in the cold. The sisters inhaled deeply and sighed as the familiarity relieved a bit of their stress. It was terrible, horrible , and foul, but it was home.

They made their way through the meandering alleys, dodging the frequent waterfalls of dirty dishwater and carefully avoiding any route which would take them too close the the wealthier parts of town. Despite the mid-afternoon sun, the overhanging buildings left the paths in an eternal twilight, making every step a cautious hunt to avoid the worst of the shadowed refuse. But Cel and Lu navigated their way quickly and efficiently, having had many years practice navigating in the gloom. Their pace picked up as they neared the far side of town, their destination virtually in sight. Suddenly, disaster struck in the form of a pegasus being chucked out of a pub's backdoor.

"And stay out!" A voice yelled from inside, "Ya filthy featherbrain..."

The pegasus grumbled a few curses as he tried and failed repeatedly to stand up in the slippery pile of garbage. Cel and Lu pressed themselves into the shadows, preferring waiting over a potential confrontation. A few moments later, a voice called down the alley from the main road it intersected with.

"Swift? Swift, you back there?"

"Yeah, I'm here," he called back in a huff. "Lend me a hoof, will ya? I can't get my hoofing in this muck."

Soon, a pair of earth ponies rounded the corner that led to the main road. Both were stocky and short, with shaggy unkempt grey coats. The only real difference between them was that one was a hoof taller, and the other clearly had had his muzzle broken several times. The shorter one rushed over to help his friend up, while the taller one hung back hesitantly. The pegasus sighed in relief as he finally stood on his own.

"Thanks," he offered. He gestured to the door he'd been thrown out of. "What was that guy's problem, eh? With a wife like that *a-hic!*, you'd think he'd be used to jokes about her weight. Bloody *hic!* conehead."

The earth pony nodded in solemn agreement. "Don't I know it. He's pretty much askin' for it marrying a stick like that." He pulled a face and grimaced. "All skin n' bones without an ounce of meat on her. I jus' don't see the appeal."

The pegasus smirked. "It's them magic horns they've got. Their heads are so, so full of magic nonsense," he giggled giddily at his own uncompleted joke, "that there's no room left for common sense."

The pair laughed heartily at this, while the third pony chuckled along awkwardly. The sisters pushed themselves deeper into the shadows. Inter-tribal tensions were iffy at the best of times, and brazenly open tribalists rarely heralded a peaceful immediate future. Lu took a step back, hoping she and Cel could quietly rewind their path without drawing any attention to themselves. Unfortunately, walking backwards has the regrettable side effect of not being able to see where you're stepping. This is exactly what happened as her hoof landed on an old discarded bottle of mead.

The bottle shot out from under her hoof and impacted the wall, shattering explosively. The sudden shift in weight left her unsteady, and she lurched forward in a desperate attempt to regain her balance. Cel reacted instinctively, and tried to right her sister with her magic. However gravity overcame her meager magical strength and she ended up being pulled down as well. The pair fell forward, their faces landing in a patch of light right in front of the three startled stallions.

"Oi, what was that!? Who's there?" As the stallion's eyes locked on to the two smaller forms, the panicked light in them faded away. "Oh, it's just those two. For a second there I thought it might be somepony to be concerned about."

"Ugh, it's those freaks," The earth pony groaned. "What? You lookin' for a hoofout? Go on, shoo, you street rats." There was luckily no malice in his voice, more akin to the mild irritation one expresses at a troublesome stray cat.

The other earth pony, who had remained silent until now, finally spoke up. "Umm... guys? I'm know I'm kinda the third wheel of your little drinking group, but could you clue me in on what the deal is? Either that unicorn wine was stronger than I thought, or those pegasi have horns"

The shorter earth pony adopted a confused expression for a moment, before his eyes lit up in realization. "Oh yeah, right. Sorry brother, I forget sometimes how new you still are to the City." He gestured to the awkwardly frozen mares like one would to a mildly interesting insect, "This is what happens what you let the tribes inter-breed all willy-nilly. Either that, or what happens what the Mad King starts spreading his chaos when a mare's in heat. Or maybe somethin' else. Nopony really knows, but there they are anyway. Part unicorn, part Pegasus. They're kind of a local legend."

The taller earth pony stepped closer in interest, as he examined the girls like a caged exhibit. His smaller brother shook his head. "It's a shame really," he mused, "the worst parts of both the unicorns and the pegasi, no offence Swift, and no earth pony constitution either. No fortitude, can't fly, can't even do bloody magic tricks with those cones of theirs."

"At least we aren't stumbling through an alley, half blind with drink." Cel retorted cockily, gesturing to Swift, who was using all six limbs available to him to try and keep some semblance of balance.

"Certainly got that griffon silver tongue though..." the earth pony finished with a frown.

"You'd better watch that mouth of yours missy," the taller earth pony said, "or it's gonna land you in trouble one day."

She smirked slightly. "Better a treacherous tongue than a friend who can't hold his drink."

"Oi!" Swift suddenly yelled, gesturing wildly for his comrades to stop, "Don' let her egg you on Granite! It's jus' what she wants."

"What are you talking about?" The one which was not Granite asked, "What could this helpless homeless mare possibly gain by aggravating us?"

"Tha's exactly what she wants you to think!" He pointed an angry, shaking hoof at Cel. "I've heard the stories. I know how you operate. One 'a you get a pony talking, gets 'em all riled up and distracted. And then the other one sneaks up from behind and cuts their purse!" He spun around, fully expecting to catch Lu in the act of discreetly slicing open his saddlebags. However, the space behind him was barren save for the door he'd been thrown out of. He whipped back around. Lu, who apparently hadn't moved since being discovered except for standing up, waved cheekily. "Oh, scared of me are ye? As you should be. My lightning-fast reflexes would catch you like... like... like lightning! Krakow!" He made a quick sweeping motion with a hoof, the inertia nearly toppling him again.

Granite shook his head at his drunken companion. "Swift, I don't know where to even start with you. For one thing, none of us are even wearing saddlebags."

Swift looked at his back, apparently surprised to find a pair of wings and nothing else. "Yeah well... then maybe they'd steal something else." His eyes lit up with an idea. "Like your kidneys!"

"Your what?!" Every pony who was not Swift exclaimed in unison.

"Yeah, yeah... I can picture exactly how they wanted it to happen." He rambled off, eyes unfocused as he concentrated all his mental power on his imagination. "Three strapping young stallions head into an alley to avoid having to thrash a barkeep who doesn't know his place. And then, a strange mare melts from the shadows. She distracts their minds with either honeyed words or gets them angry with barbed insults, and then when they least expect it, Pow! The other one comes from behind. And when the stallions wake up, if they're lucky, they find themselves in a field in the middle of nowhere without their kidneys."

The others stared at him in silence, mouths agape. Cel was offended by his portrayal of her. She may be a starving orphan, but not that starving. Nor did she think her earlier comebacks could really be considered either honeyed-words or barbed insults. If anything they were observational humor at best, her attempts to try and defuse a potentially dangerous situation through making their drunk friend the butt of the joke. Granite was surprised at how well a speech Swift had managed to craft despite being so tipsy earlier, and how morbid a turn his thoughts had taken. Granite's brother, who's name was Feldspar, was starting to think that maybe his brother's friends weren't quite a right fit for him after all. Lu was wholly consumed by how gross the idea was of touching another pony's organs, context aside.

Swift held his dramatic pose for several laudable seconds before he suddenly and completely collapsed. Granite quickly rushed to his side, while Feldspar followed after a few moments hesitation. With a grunt of effort, Granite hoisted the larger Pegasus back onto his hooves. The Pegasus continued to mumble various half formed comments as he did so. "Won't get me though... too fast...like lightning. Buck... buck silly pegacorn lights out."

Granite nodded placatingly as his led his stumbling friend back to the main road. "That's right, you'll show them next time Swift. C'mon, I know a tavern across town. A pint of hearty Earth pony ale will clear you right up. Better than that unicorn's swill at least..."

Cel and Lu sat in silence, ears pricked and alert, waiting until the coast was absolutely clear. Several minutes passed as the shock and adrenaline worked their way our of their systems, leaving them feeling drained. The situation had been remarkably lucky. The Pegasus had been too drunk to really start anything, and his friends hadn't seemed to care too much either. However, if any of them had been any soberer, or if a unicorn had been in the mix, then the encounter would likely have ended with Cel and Lu racing through the gutters and backstreets, attempting to outmaneuver ponies angry at them for anything from "sullying the proud bloodline of the 'X' tribe" to insulting their honor. Plus, any pony not from the poorer areas of the city could have possibly also called the Guard into the mix. And it was well known that the Guard and anypony considered "not a contribution to society" got along like cats and mice. Or, to be more accurate, like a large team of well-trained and coordinated tigers versus a dormouse.

Cel and Lu turned and continued back the way they came. It would be safer to take an alternative route to their destination, just in case. A few side roads later, Cel broke the silence between them. "Did you get it?"

Her sister smiled as she extended her wing to reveal a small pouch held between the feathers. "Of course. That was not an easy one though. That taller earth pony had it stashed in his tail of all places." She shook her head. "Some ponies."

"Is it much?"

"Seems they spent most of what they had on drink already. A hoofful of copper, and maybe one silver, judging by the weight of it."

"Better than nothing. That's a couple meals we won't have to scavenge or steal. Splendidly done, sister."

"Why thank you, dear sister. Always a pleasure working with you."

The two giggled at their mocking impressions of how they'd heard nobles and merchants talk when money was concerned, and then continued in comfortable companionable silence as they made their way to the place where Starswirl was currently residing.

Despite the rocky start, as far as days went, this becoming one of the better ones for Cel and Lu.

As far as days went, this was turning into a great one for Starswirl.

Soft light dappled across shelves of countless books as Starswirl's yellowish-green magic latched onto his pipe from across the room. As the light from his magic faded once pipe was in hoof, the glow of light crystals once again filled the curtained room. They were valuable items, easily five silver a piece, but simple enough to produce when one was talented enough and knew the proper spells. Or had written them.

With a quick ignition spell, he lit the medicinal herbs in the pipe's bowl and took a long deep breath. He let the smoke out through his nostrils, looking for a moment like a strange sort of dragon. The smoke ruffled his silvery blue goatee, misaligning the carefully combed strands. He reclined back into a cushion as the herbs helped him to recall his visions of the future. They were glimpses only, brief snatches he'd been able to steal during his preliminary experiments with time magic. He strode for a time in the depths of his mind, as his mind's eye, the fogginess of memory lifted by the herbs, replayed the scenes he had witnessed.

Two ponies, one white and one blue, ruling over a vast nation. A beautiful city, larger than any he'd ever known, built into a mountain. Monsters and villains rising up to challenge the peace, only to be struck down each time by either the might of the two ruling ponies, or their ability to rally others to their side. They flew faster than the quickest pegasus, withstood blows that would topple the hardiest Earth pony, and cast spells more powerful than a team of unicorn mages. In each vision he witnessed, the pair appeared younger and younger, as his future-viewing spells started to produce diminishing returns. He continued until he reached the final vision, one which was only months in the future when he first saw it. The two mares, who stood younger then he, so young they could barely be called adults, faced down the Mad Tyrant, Discord. Armed with six magical artifacts, a set which he knew so well, they brought low the beast that had terrorized the ponies for so long. The details regarding exactly how they defeated him were unclear , but given the magical artifacts in their possession, it was an easy conclusion to draw.

Starswirl sighed contentedly as he took another puff of his pipe, remembering not visions this time, but recent events. He recalled when he had first descended from that last high of future-vision. How he had checked his reliquary, and found that the six mysterious stones which he had acquired from a ruined unicorn city so long ago were a perfect match for those he'd seen in his vision. How, in that moment, his path had become clear.

He'd begun to search the land, seeking any rumor of those mysterious winged unicorns of immense power. For weeks, his search was fruitless. Ponies led him to freak shows, medical wards, and coin-grabbing impostors with cloth wings or wooden horns, but none were of any help. Until he found himself in a rundown inn near the western coast. There, a grizzled old farmer had vaguely recalled such creatures living in the City to the southeast. Starswirl had rushed to the City, hoping to make a covenant with the mares and prepare them for the fate that awaited them. Based on his visions, he had expected young knights, or perhaps the daughters of nobles, already wowing the populace with feats of political aptitude, strength, and speed. But the truth had been a far cry from that.

Orphans. Street rats. Hated by a few bloodline purists, at least tolerated by most, but not specifically cared for by anyone in particular.

It was better than he could have ever hoped for.

Wealthy mares of influence or iron-willed warriors of renown would have turned him away. Educated young ladies would have seen through his schemes and stratagems like a poorly woven shawl, and brazen knights would either be loyal to some cause or too muscle-headed to be guided. But meeting the real mares, the illiterate inept orphans, was like a sculptor finding the world's most perfect clay. With almost no effort, he could mold and shape them to his benefit. All it took was a few kind words and the promise of reliable food and shelter, and every word he spoke became like gospel. Within days the prophesied conquerors were as loyal as if they were his own children.

It hardly seemed very long after that when he had set them on their quest. Armed with the six relics from his vision, he emboldened their spirits with talk of fate and destiny. Of existing for a purpose and doing a service to the world. They had left in high spirits, heads held tall and ready for adventure.

That had been just over a week ago. And then, the next morning, he felt it. A wave of magic passing over the land like a river breaking it's banks. Most ponies would have ignored it, shrugging it off as an illusion or some insignificant curiosity. Perhaps a few particularly magic sensitive scholars would recognize it as a unique event worth investigating, but without direction or guidance their searches for the cause would take weeks before being abandoned altogether. But Starswirl had been ready. He had expected a sign and recognized it for what it was when it came.

It was the sign of the end of an era. The last burst of chaos magic fleeing as it's host was finally defeated.

In light of this monumental success, Starswirl had decided to celebrate. It was the same way he had celebrated after he wrote his first original spell. And his third. And his thirtieth. And after he got a deal on a new cloak. And when he'd found a silver coin on the ground last week.

Starswirl was drawn out of his musings by the sound of a soft moan to his left. Pulling back the blanket with his magic, he gave the shamrock cutie mark he found there a quick tap with the end of his pipe. The mare it was attached to yelped as she awoke fully and dropped down from the euphoric high she'd been slowly recovering from. Starswirl smirked as he remarked, "I take it that was rather good for you then?"

The mare shook herself quickly to dispel the remaining fog from her mind, before smiling genially in his direction. "As always, Master Starswirl." She stood up, leaving the older unicorn reclining on the bed alone. A quick general purpose cleaning spell returned her disheveled mane and coat to their pristine mint and snowy colors and condition. Starswirl took another puff as he admired the lights gleaming off her refreshed coat. "Now then," she turned back to face him, her cordial smile replaced with a thin line; a clear sign that the pleasure of business and progressed to the inevitable business of pleasure. "Regarding my fee..."

Starswirl waved it off. "Put it on my tab. Bell knows I'm good for it."

The mare shook her head. "I'm sorry, but Madam Bell specifically told me that you aren't allowed any more credit until you come by her office to settle your outstanding balance. She'll accept no less than coin or items of equivalent value until the debt is settled."

He clicked his tongue in annoyance. Clever mare, she'd come prepared. "Fine, whatever. How much do I owe?"

"Thirteen silver."

Starswirl grimaced. It was a not insignificant amount. Nearly a week's wages for a moderately skilled craftspony. He'd hoped to be able to extend his credit a little longer, at least until his association with the heroes who defeated Discord began to pay dividends. Coin was a bit tight at the moment, having to feed three mouths instead of one, but that did not mean he lacked resources. His eyes cast about the room and alighted on the crystals which were still providing ambient lighting. With little effort, he pulled several from their places about the room and passed them to the mare. "There. Five illumination crystals. Satisfied?"

She smiled ever so slightly. "Perfectly," she replied as she began to head for the door. "As always, Madam Bell thanks you for your patronage and-"

But her words were cut off by a loud knocking on the door. "Starswirl!" A voice cried out. "Starswirl, we're back! We finished that thing you wanted us to do! But... ah... things didn't totally go exactly to plan and we kind of need your help."

"Maybe we should just go in?" A second voice added. "He could be using his pipe again, and he's pretty much dead to the world once he goes on one of his 'vision quests'." The voice was quickly followed by the sound of a rock being moved, which itself was followed by the distinctive noise of someone fumbling to get a key into a lock.

All this happened very quickly. As the door began to inch open, Starswirl swore, jumped up, crossed over to the door, and slammed it the rest of the way open. The speakers on the other side were revealed to be two young mares, blue and white of coat. They had leapt back from the suddenly opened door and landed on the cobblestones below. They cowered slightly under Starswirl's withering gaze. "How many times have I told you girls, do not enter on your own?! How many times now?" he roared, causing the girls to cower even more. Taking a keen note of their reaction, the unicorn forced himself to calm down. He sighed deeply. "I apologize, you caught me at a difficult time. But I tell you these things for your own good. Yes I could be 'on a vision quest' as you phrased it, but at any given time I could also be deeply involved in a highly reactive magical experiment."

"We're sorry Mr. Starswirl, it's just that we-" Cel tried to interject.

"No excuses. You girls need to learn. I don't give you instructions just because I like hearing myself talk. Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir." Came two mumbled replies.

"What was that?"

"Yes sir!" This time their replies were crisp and clear.

Starswirl's frown broke down into a genuine smile. "Splendid. Now that that unpleasantness is out of the way, why don't you two come inside? I'm sure you're very tired and have much to tell me." Stick, then the carrot. He reminded himself. Rebuke then comfort, that's the way to do it for effective long term learning. He held the door open for the two of them to enter, but a forgotten figure blocked the way from within.

"I... I suppose I'll be taking my leave then. If you'll excuse me." The mint maned mare from earlier commented.

"Oh, um, hello." Cel offered in surprise, not used to seeing anypony else in Starswirl's wagon. "Who are you?"

"Me? I am..." the mare drifted off, her focus stolen by the unique combination of appendages in her presence.

"...my research assistant!" Starswirl finished before the mare could find her tongue again. "Yes, that is definitely all that she is. She is my research assistant who was helping me conduct research on an experiment. Isn't that right, Ms. Assistant?"

She snapped out of her stupor enough to shoot the heavily indebted unicorn a sly smile. "Oh there was definitely some experimenting..." she teased.

"AND with that!" Starswirl announced, suddenly very eager to see her off, "I think you had better be on your way. Thank you for your assistance today." The mare silenced herself, and carefully navigated down the few stairs to the street. As she left, she turned back for a moment, unable to resist one final remark.

"And I'll make sure to tell Madam Bell about you coming to settle your tab."

"Yes, Ms. Bell, who loans out research assistants who really should know when to stop talking if they want to retain their repeat customers!" He shot back.

She blanched, realizing she may have toed the line a little too closely. Composing herself, she continued down the street until she turned a corner and disappeared from sight. The three ponies by the door watched her go. After several seconds of long awkward silence, Cel decided it was time to speak up. "So then... that was-"

"A research assistant and that's all and that's it, end of discussion!" His tone brooked no argument. The wizard turned with a flourish and reentered his domicile. After a quick confusing glance between sisters, they followed him in.

Starswirl crossed the room in a huff, muttering under his breath. With a quick flash of magic he yanked open the curtains, allowing the sun to fully illuminate the room through the single window. It was a decently large room, big enough to hold four or five ponies comfortably, and maybe twice that cramped. Despite this the room seemed half its size due sheer amount of things packed into it. Bundles of dried herbs and other strange ingredients hung from the rafters, as well as whatever miscellaneous objects couldn't find a home on the room's limited furniture. It was a multipurpose room, with subsections loosely defined by their function. The area beneath the window was the "kitchen" by dint of the large wooden bucket set beneath it, loosely containing three mismatching sets of cheap cutlery. The bed took up most of the back wall and was surrounded by inset bookshelves on two sides. Starswirl gave the bed a kick, and it folded up and into the remaining wall, revealing yet another bookshelf on its underside, the contents held in place by thin wooden bars. He returned to the front of the room and unlatched a small hinge on the front wall. Its restrain removed, a board unfolded from the wall to become the room's dining table cum research area cum parlor. Grabbing a small stool from the rafters, Starswirl sat down with a sigh. With a wave of his hoof, he indicated for the sisters to sit as well. Sliding out another panel from the wall created a bench that just barely fit the pair of them on the side of the table opposite from Starswirl.

The group sat in silence for a moment. Starswirl stared at the girls over steepled hooves, while they squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze, waiting for permission to start. Eventually, the silence broke.

"I can tell that you were successful in your quest," Starswirl began, his expression softening. "I felt a wave of magic indicating the Mad King's defeat. Congratulations. You've done a great service for ponies everywhere."

Cel smiled awkwardly. "T-Thank you, Starswirl. Yes, we did defeat him... but things weren't exactly as smooth as you said they'd be."

He quirked an eyebrow. "Oh? Did he put up much resistance? I would have thought that the Elements of Harmony should have defeated him in one blow."

"Oh they defeated him in one blow alright..." Lu muttered, her face down-turned as she hid beneath her bangs and the thoughts she'd been carefully avoiding for hours started to come back.

"I don't understand," Starswirl replied with a shake of his head. "If the Elements worked and defeated him, then why do you seem so disheartened? If anything, this should be a time for celebrating."

"If anything, they worked... too well?" Cel offered tentatively.

"Oh, for sun and stars sake, we killed him!" Lu exclaimed, finally raising her head to show the water gathering at the corners of her eyes. "We hit him with those rocks of yours and he went down like a sack of moldy potatoes!" She sobbed quietly into her mane as her sister lent a comforting wing.

Starswirl sat in shock, his mouth agape. Killed him? Killed the Mad King? The Lord of Chaos? Impossible... simply impossible. The Elements were meant to purify, they shouldn't've even had the capacity to kill! Even putting that aside, what of his visions? The future sight spell could only show immutable events, scenes from future history which were invariably fated to occur. How could things have gone wrong? The wizard got up slowly, leaving the softly shuddering sisters, and crossed the room to the bookshelf. Scanning the titles, he quickly found what he was looking for. A thickly bound tome, entitled Book of Answers: Vol. I, authored by himself. He brought the surprisingly lightweight book back to the table and set it down. Opening the cover revealed a hollow space where pages should have been, from which Starswirl removed a finely crafted wineskin. Popping out the cork with his teeth, he took a long draw of its contents. After a moment, he pulled it away with a slight gasp and cough. "There now," he announced, still coughing a little from the strong drink, "I think you had better tell me the whole story."

"So... so *urp*... to sum it all up..." Starswirl swayed alarmingly as he spoke, the half full bottle of Book of Answers: Vol. IV waving about in his unfocused magic. "You took the wrong gate out of the City. Wandered around for a w-week before stumbling, by chance, into Discord's vicinity. Threw valuable artifacts at him. Rolled him around in the mud. And drag- *hic* dragged his body all the way back for me to de-*hic* to deal wi-*hic* ugh... to clean up your mess?"

The girls nodded, ashamed, but relieved for the truth to out in the open. Starswirl clicked his tongue in annoyance. It was a conundrum. On one hoof, the two young mares before him did manage to successfully defeat Discord, just as the visions had foretold. On the other hoof, they did it in the absolute most ill-prepared and roundabout way conceivable. And thus, the contradiction. The visions had not shown a dead Discord, and yet somehow that absurdity managed to happen. An event so world-changing in nature surely would have been revealed in his visions. After all, everything the visions showed were absolute certainties, set in stone. Set in stone. Set in stone...

The gleam of inspiration entered Starswirl's eyes. As a knowing smile began to grow on his face, minor looks of fear grew on the two mares in front of him. They may not have lived with Starswirl for any great length of time, but it didn't take long to learn to recognize the signs of the wizard getting an idea. And although Starswirl swore to having his greatest ideas whilst a little inebriated, such ideas often toed the line between genius and madness.

"Girrrlllzzz..." he slurred, drawing out the sound in an unsettling sing-songy fashion. "Where did you say you left *urp* you left his body again?"

"In- in the forest outside the West gate." Cel replied, a little trepidatiously.

"Under some leaves behind a rock that looked like a toppled castle tower." Lu added for clarification.

"Ta." he replied as he began charging a spell. Wisps of magic floated through the air as the corona around his horn grew brighter and brighter. "You girls sit tight for a bit. I have an idea that just might turn this situation around." He winked, and with a flash of chartreuse light, teleported away.

Author's Notes:

Sorry for the delay, but since this idea has spiraled away from the "oneshot-villain-of-the-week" I originally planned on, I decided to do a bit of world and back-story building. Plus, I had to keep rewriting this chapter since it kept turning waay too dark for a comedy tag. But, I think I've managed to elevate their societal status from "serial-killer-who-got-away-on-a-technicality" to about an Aladdin~esque level.

Don't worry though, the comedy will return in full force once we start to see some new villains popping up, and I have unique interactions planned out for at least four already, though there will be a few time-skips to make the short interactions fit into a larger world.

As a bonus comedy tidbit for you all, I was looking up old-timey words for "being drunk" and found a phrase most peculiar which I don't think anyone has capitalized yet: "to have an applejack gait."

Here's looking forward to next time, when we'll learn what Starswirl's plan is, and how it fits in with turning two street rats into beloved Princesses.


Behind Every Great Ruler, There's a Great Hypeman

"I'm ba-ack~!" Lu trilled as she slammed open the door to Starswirl's wagon.

Cel started in surprise, nearly knocking an inkwell off the table where she was sitting. "Don't do that!" she scolded, "I nearly got ink everywhere!"

"Sorry," Lu apologized unapologetically, a wide smile still on her face, "But you'll never guess what I got us at the market!"

Cel carefully moved the inkwell back to the center of the table, far away from the dangerous edges. "Bread, I hope. That's all you were supposed to get."

Lu's smile widened and she stepped fully into the room, revealing a bucket she'd been hiding behind the door frame. "Even better!" She thrust the bucket forward, as a distinct and exceedingly strong smell filled the room. "Fish heads!"

Cel's eyes lit up at her sister's revelation. "The griffon merchant is back in town?"

Lu brought the bucket over to the cooking area, careful not to let its contents slosh out onto the floor. "Yep! He remembered me from last time, and saved me the heads after a pegasus noble bought all the fillets. Sold 'em to me for two copper pieces each!"

Cel joined her in the kitchen as her magic lowered a copper cooking pot from the rafters. The ambient magic triggered the runes engraved around the pot, causing it to fill up on its own with magically generated water. A subtle red glow around the bottom indicated that the heating runes had activated as well. As soon as it began to simmer, Lu poured in her fishy treats before tossing the used bucket back out into the street. She began to stir the stew as Cel scanned the desiccated herbs and plants which cluttered up the ceiling.

"Which one is chives again? Is it the one that looks like grass or the one with the strange leaves?" she asked.

"First one." Lu replied, "Pretty sure at least. Look for little purple flowers."

"Right." Finding the herb in question, she snagged it from the roof with a primary and pulled a few strands from the bundle to add flavor. She sprinkled them into the pot as Lu continued to stir, having moved to using her hooves and the heavier spoon since the stew was beginning to thicken.

For a moment, the room was silent, save for the bubbling of the pot, before Lu finally asked what had been on her mind. "So he's not back yet?"

Cel sighed. "No, he's not. If it were anypony else I'd be getting worried, but still. He said he'd be right back and it's been almost two days." She gazed into the stew as if hoping she might find answers within its fishy depths.

Lu stopped stirring and went to fetch a ladle. "I'm sure he's fine, he's the world's most powerful wizard after all. He said so himself." She returned and began spooning out two portions of stew into a set of bowls. "Come eat something, you've been cooped up in here waiting all day."

Cel opened her mouth to answer, but her rumbling stomach beat her to it. She laughed slightly as she pushed her worries to the back of her mind and gladly accepted a bowl from her sister. They carried their meals over to the table and set them down.

"Sorry about the mess," Cel apologized as she pushed her quill, parchment, and inkwell off to one side.

Lu caught a glimpse of repeated strings of unicorn characters before the page was hidden from view. "You're working on your writing again?"

Cel nodded and she blew softly across her steaming bowl. "Nothing else to do in here all day. Plus Starswirl says it's important to be able to read and write in at least one language."

Lu blew a raspberry in response. "Important for a wizard like him maybe. I know when ponies are talking to me and enough Earth Pony script to know what a store sells. Isn't that enough?"

"For now I guess, but what about later?" Cel pointed her spoon to emphasize her point. "You want to live on these streets forever, or fight past our limitations and make something of ourselves? Education's the first step to that."

Lu returned an unimpressed frown. "If you're going to quote one of Starswirl's lectures back at me, maybe try using one that I wasn't there for as well."

Cel grinned sheepishly. "Caught red-hooved. Well, in any case, I at least find it a little interesting. How the different characters work together to mean something and the whole structure of it all and stuff." She held aloft a spoonful of fish soup. "Anyway, cheers."


They clinked spoons together, only to be interrupted by the force of an enormous explosion. The resounding boom knocked them out of their seats and set the whole wagon to shaking. Potions and books rattled on their shelves, while fish soup flew everywhere. Celly and Lulu found themselves thrown to the floor and covered in soup.

After a moment, the rattling objects settled down and quiet returned, save for two sets of heavy breathing.

"What- what in the world was that!?" Cel gasped out through her panic.

"I don't know, but it- Aack!" Lu's reply was cut short as her voice got stuck in her throat.

Cel rushed to her sister and immediately began to check her for injuries. "What is it? What's wrong? Are you hurt?"

Lu whimpered softly and pointed to her backside, which Cel finally noticed was covered by an enormous black splotch. "Your inkwell fell on me during all the shaking." She got to her hooves with a helping wing from Cel. "Quick, get me a wet cloth or something! I have to blot it out before the stain sets."

Before she could, however, a trapdoor in the middle of the floor was flung open from within, releasing a cloud of greenish smoke into the room. While most single floor wagons do not contain trapdoors leading to a basement level, most wagons are also not owned by powerful wizards. Said wizard stuck his head out of the hole, hacking and coughing.

"Note to self," he wheezed between his coughs, "Two containment fields is not nearly enough, better use three next time. Maybe four even..." He trailed off as he noticed Cel and Lu staring at him, slack-jawed and dripping with soup. "Ah, there you two are. It's about time! Would you get down here already, it's nearly time for your part."

In their defense, Cel and Lu actually managed to recover fairly quickly. Even then, it took either of them a good few seconds to respond.

"Starswirl!" Lu was the first to recover. "You're back."

He rolled his eyes. "Obviously. I was only gone for an hour or two."

"But, but... we've been waiting!" Cel managed to rebut, "I've been watching the door since you left and-"

"Doors are for less important ponies whose equally less important time is worth wasting." he interrupted, "Now hurry up, he's starting to smell." With that, Starswirl disappeared completely back down the trapdoor.

Cel and Lu gave each other uneasy looks before hesitantly following Starswirl downstairs.

The basement of Starswirl's wagon was a stark contrast to the floor above it. Obviously, of course, because if you're going to magically extend the dimensions of a room, it'd be abhorrently boring to make it all of a consistent style. Rather than wood, the walls were lined with heavy flagstones, each covered in runic engravings. The floor extended several times the wagon's length in each direction, with a door at one end that implied it went on even longer. The room was haphazardly lit with a mix of both candles and illumination crystals, their scattered light half revealing various enchantment circles drawn in multi-hued chalk on the floor. The air was thick with the smells of alchemical smoke, wax, alcohol, and the tingly lemon-like residue left behind in the wake of large expenditures of magic. This, was Starswirl's magical testing chamber.

Cel and Lu stepped cautiously off the ladder and squinted through the poor lighting to try and catch a glimpse of their mentor. His quiet mutterings filled the air, but the sound echoed around in such a way that made it impossible to pinpoint his location. Lu pointed after a few moments of searching at a particularly large shape in the darkness. Cel noticed it as well and the pair began making their way over to it.

"Starswirl...?" Lu began, treading carefully to avoid disturbing any chalk lines which may still be in use, "Did you figure out a way to solve our problem? You know, with Discord being dead and everything?"

"Of course I did!" Cel and Lu jumped as the voice came from directly behind them. Starswirl lit his horn, revealing himself and several pieces of chalk in his magical grasp. "I am the greatest... the greatest wizard ever born, of course I have a solution. I had a plan the moment you told me the problem." The chalk pieces flew out from his grasp, each beginning to write or repair parts of the largest enchantment circles. "It's only taken me this long to work out a few... inconsistent results."

He lurched forward, passing them as he made his way towards a worktable. Around it lay the partially broken remains of many lifelike plants sculpted from stone. Cel leaned in close to her sister so Starswirl would not overhear them. "Is he drinking again?"

"Again?" Lu snorted in disbelief before pointing at a variety of bottles and jugs hastily stashed beneath the table. "I don't think he ever stopped."

"Girls!" Starswirl exclaimed, spinning around on the spot and startling them both again. "I have a spell to fix everything. All this... trouble that you caused. Took some modifying, of course. Originally meant to make pottery after all..." he trailed off into mumbled nonsense.

"Uh, Starswirl?" Lu prodded.

"And that!" Starswirl rocketed back to full volume, "Is how I will fix every- everything. Now, get in place for your parts."

The sisters shared a confused look between them. "Our... parts?" Cel ventured.

"Don't be daft, haven't you been listening to me at all?" He stomped over to the cloaked mass on the floor and whipped off the covers. "I need you to pose Discord's body and hold him there so I can encase him in stone!"

"This is so gross..." Lu whimpered.

"Well, suck it up," Starswirl replied as he ground reagents into a fine powder, "This is your own fault you know."

"It's not that bad." Cel offered.

"Not that bad? Not that bad?! Celly, you're propping his head up with your own! Anypony seeing this without context would think you're romantically tangoing his corpse!"

"Could be worse," she offered, shifting her hoof slightly in order to keep Discord's claw posed upwards. "I could be holding on to his tail."

Lu shuddered again as the mostly scaled appendage settled further across her outspread wings. Discord's corpse had definitely seen better days. His abdomen was bloated, his fur matted, several teeth and all but one fang were just plain missing, and he reeked of the most foul combination of rotting bananas peels and sauerkraut. But worst of all was his tail. Scales apparently did not deal well with a sustained lack of blood flow, and had taken it unto themselves to occasionally slough off in large sections. That alone would be bad enough if only the flesh underneath wasn't so... so... goopy.

Another piece of tail melted off, joining the ever-growing mass of scales, fish, and ink which had once been Lu's coat. She dry heaved in revulsion and Cel took the opportunity to speak for her. "How much longer until the spell is ready Starswirl? He's really starting to go to pieces over here."

"O 'ars! Is on ai 'ongue!"

"What?" Starswirl looked up from his powders. "Oh. Spell's been ready for ages. I just had to make things a bit more bearable." He poured his powered herbs into a fabric casing and tied the whole assembly across his face, covering his muzzle completely. He took a deep breath. "There. That's better. You know you two smell nearly as bad as he does."

"Waaaaarrggg?!" Lu vocalized with utmost eloquence.

"Fine, fine. I'll get on with it." Starswirl began to charge his horn. The lights dimmed in the room as the green corona around his horn grew brighter and brighter. "Hmm... going to have to turn up the power on this. He's a bit bigger than my test subjects."

The glow around his horn continued to grow, as did the fear in the eyes of Discord's impromptu stagehands. "Starswirl..." Cel called out over the growing magical whine, "You do have some way to make sure it only hits him and not us, right?" She squinted into the light as he failed to respond. "Right?!"

"Of course!" Cel's eyes adjusted enough to the light to just make out Starswirl taking another hearty pull from a flagon before slamming it back down. "I have excellent aim!"

"Wha- !" But any complaints on Celly's part were cut short as Starswirl let loose the spell. A beam of magic as wide as a foreleg shot across the room like a magical railgun. It struck Discord square in the chest, missing a stray lock of Cel's hair by a literal hair's breadth. With a sound like crackling lightning, Discord's body absorbed the magic and began to glow.

The effect was surprisingly subtle. Stone did not grow outward from the point of impact like a lithomorphic virus. Nor did random patches across his body begin to transmute like a standard transformation spell. Instead, he just began to turn grayer. Color drained from Discord's body like a rain-soaked painting, the various parts hardening as they lost their hue. Within moments, he was a pale shadow of his former self.

"You can let him go now." Starswirl instructed, "He should be hard enough to stand on his own."

Without an ounce of reluctance, Cel and Lu immediately abandoned their posts. Cel took the time to marvel at the new statue, while Lu instead began frantically searching through the various empty bottles for anything with which to wash off her tongue.

"Wow..." Cel marveled, tapping the statue with a hoof. "He's so... so lifelike. Like he could start moving again at any second."

"Well he won't be," Starswirl stated, "He's just rock now, through and through." Leaving the magic circle behind, Starswirl wasted no time marching across the room to the door at the far end. He turned back impatiently. "Well come on then. Time for- for phase two."

"Phase two?" Cel questioned as Lu gasped behind her, having finally found a forgotten glass of water with which to rinse and spit. "But what's left? The Mad King's a statue now, and we get to take credit for defeating him, just like you wanted. What else is there to do?"

Starswirl grunted in frustration. "Ponies are going to have... certain expectations... of world-saving heroes. And it's going to take more than just a statue to prove you to the bumbling masses. There's something to be said for presentation. Now hurry up, I have... a present for you."

"A present?" Lu lit up immediately and rushed past Starswirl and through the door. Cel followed curiously but at a more sedate pace, fully trusting that Starswirl, genius that he was, had a plan and a better grasp of the needs of the situation than she possibly could, but still understandably cautious.

Behind the door lied another experimentation room. This one was smaller, and better lit, with evenly spaced alcoves across the walls for larger illumination crystals. This room had wood paneling and looked more like the interior of a moderately wealthy house. That is, excluding the glowing warding runes written across each wall to constrain any magical aftereffects. A simplified magic circle was drawn on the ground with four smaller rings within it. Two of these were currently occupied by a pair of unconscious ponies. Lu was looking over them curiously.

The first was a lanky green stallion with a short-cropped cherry-red mane. The second was a cornflower mare with long lavender locks.

"Who're they?"

"Doesn't matter. Don't worry about it. They volunteered." Starswirl replied decisively. "Now go stand in the other two magic circles."

Cel and Lu dutifully trotted over to the unoccupied circles and turned to face Starswirl. In the relatively short time they'd known him, it was remarkable how quickly being the subject of his radical new spells had become commonplace. He rifled through the pages of one of his notebooks. "You two should be grateful, this is possibly the most complicated spell I've created to date. I doubt any other spellcaster in history could even come close to crafting something half as precise and intricate." He squinted as he turned to the last page. "I'll be needing a new journal after this. The calculations ran so long I had to cram the activation phrase in the margins."

Cel paused. There was something unsettling about this whole situation. Whether it was the unconscious ponies, the secrecy, the lack of any proper explanation, or the fact that Starswirl was bunkering down behind additional layers of warded barricades. "Are you sure this is safe?"

"Of course! I'll be perfectly protected behind these blockades."

"No, I meant-"

"It's time!" Startswirl interrupted as he once more lit his horn (the only part of him still visible behind his protective wall). The lights dimmed as his aura grew, and the circles inscribed on the floor lit up in matching hue. Starswirl's voice took on a strange echoing quality as his incantation reverberated throughout the chamber.

From one to another, another to one. A mark of one's destiny singled out alone, fulfilled!

The two sisters rose into the air, surrounded by a glowing white light. The pair of unconscious ponies floated as well, only a moment behind. The light grew and grew to a blinding brilliance such that Cel and Lu could still see it even after they had closed they eyes.

And then it exploded.

Green-tinged smoke filled the room, accompanied by the sound of two ponies coughing, and one pony cackling maniacally while only occasionally being interrupted by wracking coughs. "Ha ha! That's it! Perfect! Finally it went off exactly how it was supposed to!"

"Starswirl!" Lu choked out between coughs of the thick smoke, "What- *cough* -What just happened?"

"What just happened? What just happened?!" A faint glow permeated the haze as the mage cast another spell, this one creating a whirlwind that sucked all the smoke into a small vial, which he quickly capped. "What just happened was the greatest feat of magic in modern history! Something that all the scholars of old swore could never be done! But such a trifling task was hardly even a challenge for Starswirl, Wizard of the Arcane!"

The 'Wizard of the Arcane' who, apparently, had an unfortunate premature bald patch made temporarily visible by how the explosion had blown his normally wavy mane into wild spikes.

"Our... coats are clean?" Cel guessed. For all her searching, she could not spy any other major changes. Their two unconscious guests looked unchanged, as did the room as a whole. The only truly noticeable change was that she and her sister were no longer covered in fish soup and, in Lu's case, other unpleasant things. In fact, their coats were probably the cleanest they'd been in years.

"Except for this ink blot," Lu pouted, pawing at the large black splotch that, if anything, seemed more firmly set than before. "That's going to take ages to grow out."

Cel started to respond when something caught her eye. There was something there, a light patch against the darkness that was her sister's hindquarters. A patch of fish scale from the soup maybe? No, it looked to be set in the fur, almost as if it were a part of her.

She gasped in sudden realization, as Lu did as well for her own reasons. "You have a cutie mark!" They exclaimed simultaneously.

Cel whipped her neck around to check her own flank. True enough, where before had been plain white fur there was now a stylized sun. An immense joy welled up from within her, the likes of which she had never known in her short existence. The ponies had all said that a mongrel half-breed like her could never get a cutie mark, and as years progressed she had started to believe it herself. But now this! She didn't know what this cutie mark represented or what it meant for her future, but by the stars she had a cutie mark!

Lu as well was literally jumping for joy, her wings fluttering instinctively, if ineffectively.

Cel turned to Starswirl and looked up with wide glimmering eyes. "You gave us cutie marks?"

He chuckled in smug self-satisfaction as he basked in the adoration. "Indeed. A fine piece of magic, if I do say so my-Oof!" He stopped talking as the breath was knocked from his lungs by the impact force of the glomping hugs of two overjoyed fillies.

He froze for a moment. Though he was well used to intimate gestures from his research assistants, the innocent hugs of genuine care and thanks threw him offbeat.

"Alright, alright. That's quite enough of that." He peeled the reluctant fillies off. "There is still more to be done."

"What's next Master Starswirl?" they asked eagerly. If they had held any doubts about Starswirl or his plans and intentions before, they were long gone now.

He nodded to himself. Good. They were more prepared to follow him now than ever. "I hope you two are well practiced in running a scam. Because for this to work you're going to need to pull one over on the entire population." He shook his head abruptly and his spiked mane fell back into grey-blue curls. "It's going to be quite a performance."

The marketplace was a hustle and bustle of activity. The air was rich with the fragrance of food and spices, far removed from the noxious smells of the slums near the outer walls. Though not the truly wealthy district, the market was still frequented by ponies of reasonable wealth and thus was kept accordingly clean.

Banners hung over small stands and shacks, their level of vibrancy giving a general idea of how wealthy the vendor was, while the ponies within hawked their wares. Grains from the farmers, pottery from the masons, even a few pricey treats like sugar and salt from merchants brave enough to venture between settlements. Shopkeeps shouted out discounted prices and promises of guaranteed freshness, while shoppers called back with counter offers and exclamations of disbelief. It was a hubbub of noise and activity.

As usual, there were always a few ponies who had claimed spaces without the intent to sell anything. But they had messages to share and were prepared to do so as loudly as possible.

"A great calamity is upon us!" A stallion cried, throwing his hooves wide as his billowing red robe flared dramatically. "That which was once feared shall come again! An ancient evil, lost to history, shall return anon. Though he wields the seven-colored sword and rides atop that which is neither bird nor beast, he does not wish for your destruction! All he asks is for your obedience."

He took a moment to wipe the sweat from his brow, but all too soon his reedy voice was once more bludgeoning the ears of his captive audience. "Praise him! For none can overcome his greatness. The only wise choice is to submit lest you draw his ire. Even the strongest of guards, the most powerful of wizards are like the buzzing of flies to him. Death is but a door and time is but a window! Save yourselves and your families by pledging your allegiance now!"

"Do not listen to these prattlers of false testimony!" A mare interrupted him from another platform a few stalls down. Though she wore no grand robe, her honey-yellow coat was irregularly striped with some sort of black dye, as were patches around each eye, giving her a wild and untamed appearance. "My name is Corvax and I speak for the Bees! For too long ponies have stolen from them the plants and fruits which they hath nurtured and defended. Ponies hoard the plants and love them to excess, and love shall be their undoing! The High Queen shall come and her anger shall be righteous. When her army descends like a cloud of night, all hope shall be sucked dry. Change your ways, o ye nonbelievers, lest you be caught in her fury!"

There were others, rambling on with their own soliloquies, including one aged stallion on a corner who mumbled on in a monotone so flat and even you could level a shelf with it. So boring was he that not a single pony noticed when a blue hoof reached around the corner and knocked him out with a jug. Nor did they notice when a golden aura slowly and haltingly pulled him out of sight. In seconds, his position was taken by a pair of white and blue mares, both wearing cloaks, and the marketplace continued without so much as a hiccup.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Cel whispered nervously, "This is so different than tricking a few ponies at a time into giving us food or coins. I don't know anything about making speeches or convincing large crowds of ponies about anything or... or... or anything." Though normally confident in such matters, she was used to small ruses in the shadows where she and her sister could slip away if things went south. This was broad daylight in an open market, an entirely different kettle of fish.

"Then it's a good thing we don't have to do anything like that," Lu replied, "Starswirl said that all we had to do was gather a crowd and then he'd take over." She gestured to the proselyting ponies perched on their pedestals, "And if these wackjobs can do it, then it can't be that hard. Plus, nopony'll know us in a richer part of town like this."

Cel swallowed her nerves. "Alright. Let's try it then." She stepped forward to the edge of their platform and tried to push out her chest with confidence and authority. Unfortunately, it mostly made her look like she was trying to hold in a sneeze, but the intent was there.

"Ponies of the marketplace!" she cried, her voice more than a little shaky and nervous, "I have... uh... great news! Yes, great news that requires your attention. So if you all could, ah, you know... look over here... please?"

As expected, she was completely ignored. The downside of trying to copy the traveling prophets was that said prophets were also regularly ignored. Lu shook her head and nudged her sister in the back.

"No, no, no. You can't start things weakly like that. Go big or go home. Hey!" she shouted into the crowd, "Discord is dead and we killed him!"

"Yeah, an' me mudder's the Queen'a Ponyopolis!" Some wise guy in the crowd shot back.

"Hey who asked you?" Lu retorted, singling out the stallion who'd paused his shopping to reply. "We're trying to do a thing here!"

"And you're right terrible at it!"

"Just ignore him," Cel murmured, trying to defuse the situation, "Let's just keep going. That's right! The terrible monster that has made us live in fear for so long... is defeated!"

"What, did he die from fright seein' those ugly mugs of yours?" The same stallion cackled over his own ingenious heckling.

Lu grunted and leaned over the platform to speak to him directly. "Don't you have something better to do?"

He shrugged. "Not really. Me missus is doing her shoppin'. I'm just here to carry 'er bags."

"A great evil..." Cel continued over top of their conversation, "Has been defeated."

"Well go bother somepony else then."

"Why? I'm havin' plenty of fun right 'ere."

"Through ancient magics, lost to time..." Cel raised her voice over the growing argument.

"I don't care if you're bored, quit talking or get walking."

"How's about you get a good pitch? This is boring as nails."

"And the aid of a powerful wizard..."

"At least the guy in the robe is promisin' good fortune if I convert. What's yer offer?"

"We're not... we're not offering anything! We're trying to deliver important information."

"..stood united on the field of battle..."

"Yeah? Well what's so important then?"

"What? She... Have you no ears?! My sister's said it like twelve times now!"

"Hmph. Must not be that important then."

"But she... I... ARGH!" Lu shrieked in frustration and despair before slammed her hooves back on the wooden slats beneath her. "You know what? Forget it! I don't care anymore." She stomped towards the back of the stage. "C'mon Cel, let's try this again at another market. Or tomorrow. Or... something different!"

A disappointed frown grew on the face of the elder sister. "Aw... and I was really starting to get into a rhythm too."

"Oi! Hang on now," said the stallion whose impertinence beggared belief, "You said you had important news. You can't leave me hanging like this. I wanna hear it."

Lu rolled her eyes and decided to ignore him. "Oh, go soak your head in vinegar."

His eyes widened in shock before narrowing in anger. "I what?"

"You heard me."

He sputtered nonsense sounds as he tried to rationalized a comeback. "You can't talk to me like that!" He tapped the shoulder of a passing pegasus, grabbing the stallion's attention for confirmation. "She can't talk to me like that, right?"

"What the devil are you on about?"

"That conehead filly there! She's got some kind of important information and won't share it. And she insulted me!"

The finely-dressed pegasus looked confused but mildly intrigued. He turned toward the stage and asked accusingly, "Is this true?"

Lu threw up her hooves, her breath angry and flaring in short bursts. "Sure. Why not? I don't care! Go eat a barrel of twigs you ultramaroon."

The pegasus gasped, a hoof to his chest in shock. "You dare? Do you have any idea who I am? I'll have you know I am the third son of the Silk family, the second biggest producer of wholesale fabrics in the City's east district inner ring! What gives a half-starved gutter-filly like you the right to say such things to me?"

"Hey!" Cel interjected, "You take that back! Gutter-filly she may be, but I always make sure she eats well."

"Pipe down clodsnotch, I'll deal with you next." he spat before turning back to the fuming blue mare. "Now I demand that you apologize to my good fellow and I, and tell us what he wants to know."

"No, and there's nothing you can do to make me." She grinned snarkily and stuck out her tongue. "Now both of you can go and..."

The argument had started to gather a crowd. Ponies love drama and all the more so drama that is loud, public, and free to view. Hushed conversations passed between ponies as those who'd been eavesdropping from early on filled in those who had just arrived.

"What's going on?"

"You see those fillies? They've got some kind of important secret."

"What is it?"

"Don't know. They're refusing to say. And they keep insulting ponies far above their station without thought to the consequences."

"The nerve! It must be important then. I demand to know immediately!"

"What this then?"

"Those foul-mouthed cretins have important secrets they refuse to divulge!"

"State secrets..."

"National importance..."

"A leak from the Court officials..."

"Want to know..."

"Have to know..."

"Need to know..."

The story shifted and warped as it was passed from mouth to mouth, until everypony was sure they understood everything, even though none of them could agree on just what was going on. But it was something important, on that there was a consensus.

From atop a rooftop overlooking the market, a lone unicorn watched the scene below as Lu and the original two stallions (as well as several others who had felt the need to join in) continued to bandy harsh words and increasingly severe slurs. The crowd was suitably large and no pony had any sense of direction or purpose. A herd was gathered, now all he needed to do was redirect them where he wanted them to go. Exactly as planned.

Well, certainly not exactly as he had planned; the cursing fight alone had made him worried for the plan's success, but the end result was close enough to work with. That aside, he made a mental note give the fillies a crash course in statesmareship and working a crowd for any future plans involving speeches.

Alighting his horn, Starswirl cast several spells over his person in preparation. Disarming Voice. The Salespony's Smile. Charm. Piper Pie's Persuasion. Finally, he cast a short flare of magical light which signaled the fillies below to stand back. With a near invisible wink of green light, he vanished.


Amidst the chaos that she had long since stopped trying to resolve, Cel noticed the signal from the rooftops. She tapped her still arguing sister on the shoulder. Lu whirled around, ready to continue her battle with a newcomer only to quickly calm as Cel's look communicated everything she needed to know. The pair stepped back even as the crowd continued to yell and argue, half with each other over the nature of what they were arguing about. But all voices quickly ceased as a flash of light and a bang of green smoke appeared on stage.

A commanding presence stepped forward, his blue star-studded robe cutting a striking figure against the smoky backdrop. With his head held high and proudly, he exited the smoke like a sage from ancient lore.

"Ponies!" His voice thundered across the crowd like cannon. "Observe thyselves! Look at the state in which you live! Squabbling amongst each other like hens over a hoofful of feed.

For too long ponies have lived in conflict. Mare against stallion. Brother fighting brother. And who is it, what beast has forced you to live in this chaotic state of fear and confusion?"

A few hesitant voices managed a "Cha-" or "The Mad-" or "Lord-" before cutting themselves off. No one wanted to accidently draw the Mad King's ire by calling him by a name he'd grown bored with.

"Yes, Discord!" the crowd gasped at his boldness, "Do not be afraid to call it by name! Your hesitance and fear only give him more power over you. It is due to his madness and cruel tyranny that we are forced to cower in our settlements like wild beasts before a storm. But there is a prophecy..."

The crowd leaned in, those eager for a story hushing any who tried to argue or heckle. "Many years ago," he began in traditional format, "In the early years after Discord's appearance, a wise sage, respected council to the courts of all three tribes, had a vision. Her vision told her that in a time of great need, when all hope was lost, the Forces of Harmony would send down two champions to aid ponykind. They would be blessed with the strength of all three tribes and together, they would defeat any would-be tyrant and herald in a glorious age of prosperity to the land."

Starswirl smiled as he paused for effect. He had the crowd truly well-wrapped around his hoof. Even the most skeptical and cynical of ponies loved a tale of a savior triumphing over evil. The prophecy was, of course, completely fictitious and had been in fact written by him over the past several evenings. But keeping track of things like prophecies and history was a job for sages and scholars (much like himself) and not the common pony.

"I stand here today, good ponies, to tell you that the prophecy is fulfilled! A pair of young maidens, blessed by the fates, went and did battle with Discord at the very heart of his power. And through their combined gifts, and the aid of a skilled advisor, they emerged victorious! Today I will make of you witnesses to the birth of a new era. Behold!"

With a pulse of magic Starswirl cleared the remaining smoke, revealing what had been hidden within. A horrible statue, like something from a nightmare. Ponies gasped, screamed, or cowered as was their wont while Starswirl reeled in his control over the crowd. "Do not be alarmed! There is no danger! The Mad King is no more than harmless stone!" He boldly strode forth to place a hoof on it's marble chest. This calmed the crowd somewhat, as their fear slowly gave way to shock and awe.

"No more does the Mad King rule these lands. His power gone and his essence trapped within an eternal unbreakable prison of stone!"

Starswirl took careful measure of the crowd's engagement. Everypony was zeroed in on him and the statue. Even pegasi passing overhead had stopped and what little free space that had been left in the market had been filled to the brim by ponies who had poured in from sidestreets. Too stunned to react, they were blank slates waiting for direction. All they needed now was to have their attention swiftly redirected and the emotional whiplash would leave them vulnerable. They were putty in his hooves.

He stepped to one side, carefully drawing the crowd's attention with him as he maneuvered in front of where the two cloaked ponies were still waiting for his signal. The crowd had been baited; now they just needed to be reeled in.

"Today I present to you, your saviors and mine, the all-in-one-icorns... Celestial Star and Lunar Nova!"

Cel and Lu stepped around and past him and spread their wings, intentionally weakened stitching in the cloaks ripping apart with the force. Another shocked gasp echoed through the crowd. These were not the type of ponies who hung about in the slums, and therefore most had never even heard the rumor of ponies with the traits of multiple tribes.

The choice of new names had taken the three of them most of the night to decide. Cel and Lu had thought that their names were perfectly fine as is thank-you-very-much, but Starswirl had insisted that world-saving heroes who would be recorded for all time in the annals of history needed equally weighty names, even if they were just monikers. Or at least names more than a single unicorn character in length. He had also insisted that they be related to the heavens. Countless ideas were shot down either for being too nonsensical (such as Day Mare and Mooning View) or too over-the-top (though Midnight Astra and Dawn Deliverer had almost made the cut). Eventually a compromise was reached with a pair of names that allowed them to use their old ones as nicknames.

"Behold! The proof of their divine birthright! The gifts of all three tribes!" Cel, or rather, Celestial Star stepped forward. "The magic of the unicorns!" A golden aura surrounded her horn and with a flash, she vanished, reappearing a few platforms over. She repeated this a few times before returning to where began, and stepped back.

Lunar Nova stepped forward next. "The magic of the Earth Ponies!" At Starswirl's command she reared up and stomped her forehooves into the platform. Immediately, the wooden slats turned green and lush as new branches and sprouts wormed their way skyward like charmed snakes. So quickly they grew that they completed enclosed and grew around the scattered shards of a shattered potion bottle, small enough to fit in the frog of a hoof.

At last both sisters stepped forward and spread their wings. "And last but not least, the magic of the Pegasi!" With a flap, both mares took to the skies. They swirled and swooped across the marketplace, banking against high windows and gliding low over an audience that reached out to touch them in wonder and awe. Every eye was on their aerial acrobatics. Not a single glance was free to notice how Starswirl's eye seemed to be twitching or how his winning smile had clenched into something more grimace-like. Almost as if he were performing a complex feat of magic while also reducing his coronal discharge to be nearly invisible.

They landed back on the platform with as much grace as if they were being set down. Starswirl stood between them, all traces of exertion having vanished from his face.

"But it is not just the powers of all the tribes that these two bear, no indeed. In their conquest over the Mad King, Celestial Star and Lunar Nova stripped from him his control over the very sun and moon in the sky!"

The pair rotated, as rehearsed, so the crowd could have a firm look at their behinds. A soft murmur rippled over the crowd, but it did little to dampen the energy from the previous display. "Before, day and night would shift and change as Discord pleased, but no longer! Have you not noticed? For days now the day and night have come and gone in equal measure. Even now, these two noble young mares hold the celestial bodies on their courses, guaranteeing everypony a reliable day and night from now until forevermore!"

Cel and Lu shared an uneasy gaze hidden behind their plastered smiles. They hoped that this would work.

~~~~~Some time earlier...~~~~~

"Move the sun and moon?" Cel asked in disbelief from the floor of Starswirl's wagon. "I can't do that! Nopony can do that!"

"Calm down already," Starswirl chided from where he sat at the table. He levitated it nonchalantly so Lu's scrub brush could reach the fish soup that had spilled and dried underneath it. "You don't have to actually move anything. It will be sufficient that everypony thinks you do.

With Discord's hold broken, the sun and moon should be free from any magical interference. It'll take hundreds of years before their fields stabilize, if ever. And without any interference, they should return to the stable orbits they held before ponies started meddling. Very few ponies alive today even know that the orbs used to move on their own before early ponies slowed their movements for longer days and softer seasons. And in the meantime, even if the methods to move them are rediscovered, no pony, no matter how powerful, will be able to. Thus cementing your claim that you two have divine authority over the sun and moon."

"But.. what'll that do to the world?" Lu asked, "If nopony is controlling the sun, I mean."

Starswirl snorted. "Nothing anypony will notice. Slightly hotter summers and colder winters. Some seasonal festivals might fall a day short of or past the actual equinox."

"But they won't fall and crush the city, right?"

He frowned at her, remembering once again just how little education the pair had, even compared to the common pony. "No."


The sisters smiled nervously both at each other and the audience, hoping to whatever might be watching that this would work. Because if it didn't...

"And so, I ask you, ponies of City McCityplace, what have you to say to these legendary heroes, as foretold by prophecy, vanquishers of Discord and unifiers of the three tribes, shepherds of the sun and moon? What say you to them?"

There was a pause in which all of the sister's fears seemed to hang above them like a great boulder, before the tension finally snapped and the whole crowd erupted into cheers. A wild surging ovation. Hooves stomped into flagstones so hard it sounded as if they might shatter. Unicorns fired sparks and light spells with wild abandon, creating impromptu fireworks of raw emotion. Even the ponies in front, those who had been cursing and arguing before, whooped along with the rest; all thoughts of the earlier incident banished by the overpowering swell of positive emotion.

The two alicorns, recently reclassified as such, turned slightly to each other and smiled giddily. For the first time in their lives, ponies were happy to see them. Emboldened by the cheers, Lu stepped forward and hollered out a powerful cry which rung through the crowd like a bell which tolls a new era.

"It is time for a new day in City McCityplace!"

The crowd's cheers doubled.

Behind the young mares who were lapping up the praise that had been so starved of, Starswirl smirked to himself. Everything was in place now. The herdmind of the masses had been won over with grand gestures and word would quickly spread, the stories becoming greater as they made their way down the grapevine. One or two more performances across town, and there wouldn't be a pony in the City who did not know of Celestial Star and Lunar Nova, all-powerful and nigh-invulnerable alicorn warriors and saviors of the realm. And also Starswirl, their humble mentor and guardian, who would of course be right by their side as they rose to the heights of power and society. All the way to the top. Where plans could then be put into place to take full advantage of the actual prophecies. This was just the beginning.

Author's Notes:

Would you hate me more or less if I told you that the first third of this was actually written 6-8 months ago then accidentally forgotten about?

From Whom the Bell Stole

Starswirl took a long draw on his pipe and allowed the fragrant smoke to burn in his throat for a moment before loosing the cloud. Those were some quality herbs. Yet another unexpected perk he was discovering up being the King's new advisor.

Oh, the stipend he had expected, as well as the access to the King's family's old texts and records, more food than he could eat, and a sizable tower in the keep to call his own. Who knew that the King's consort kept a private garden of exquisite herb, and right behind his (previously unoccupied) tower as well?

Another puff. Yes, after a rocky start with their first few performances, he and the girls had finally convinced enough ponies that their story became self-propagating. Soon, every pony from the lowliest beggar to the King himself (who had readopted his title since Discord could no longer punish him for doing so) knew of the heroic deeds of the two interspecied fillies. And their learned mentor.

With mounting pressure from the populace, the King had of course summoned them to his court to be praised and rewarded. Starswirl, for his great and worldly knowledge that put the King's current advisers to shame, was given a worthy wizard's tower and direct access to the King.

Cel and Lu, or Celestia and Luna as they were now known, were praised all the more as heroes. Their names were added to the register as a minor, landless noble house, though they asked only for rooms in Starswirl's tower. They were also bestowed the rank of "Knights of the Realm", a new title invented by the King to ensure their continued residence in and protection over his city.

Even with Discord defeated, the world was not empty of threats. Monsters lurked on the edges of the map, and having a pair of heroes on hoof would do well to ensure his city's survival and prosperity should another villain arise.

Starswirl reflected on this as his smoke drifted lazily out the tower window. It had been several weeks since then and a sense of normality had settled across the city. True, the world was fundamentally changed with the incarnation of chaos dead, but for most ponies life moved along as it always had. Bread still needed to be made and fermented spirits needed tending. Speaking of which...

He set down his pipe to finish off a bottle from the King's vintner. Another fine perk he'd discovered.

His meal tickets, such as they were, had been doing well for themselves in the recent times. Since 'Knight of the Realm' was such a new title, no one knew exactly what to do with it. So they were sent to train with the regular knights. Life on the streets had sharpened their reflexes and made them quick, at least enough to earn some begrudging respect from knights who had trained for years. Still, they did their best to avoid any sort of magic or flight training which was helped by a little misdirection magic (cleverly woven by Starswirl into a pair of amulets) so that nopony noticed their lower-than-average abilities.

The Guard was a different story. They did not take kindly to a couple of street rats, monster slayers or no, being added to the Knights so easily, as it was usually a once-a-year honor given to he very best the Guard had to offer. To make matters worse, while the Knights barely left the keep and central areas of the City, there were Guards who knew Celestia and Luna from when they were just Cel and Lu and were less than taken by their sudden change in fortune.

But Starswirl had plans, great plans, and a few disrespectful Guards were a minor issue in a long litany of more important problems to deal with. The first of which preyed on his mind.

There would always be dissenters. No matter how good he made himself and the alicorns look, there would always be a few ponies who refused to accept change or fought just for the sake of fighting. Maybe a mage who insisted that he could raise the sun with only a little boost, or a pegasus who refused to acknowledge the alicorns if they couldn't beat her in a race. Such ponies posed a problem to his plans and he needed a way to deal with them. Unfortunately, all the great mind magics had been lost with their creator during the fall of...

Starswirl grinned devilishly as a new plan came together, one that could kill two, no, three birds with one stone. Opening one of the many drawers in his desk, he collected a quill and ink.

It was time to draft a new prophecy.

King Mighty Ash was a wine-colored unicorn with the build of an earth pony. Which was definitely not due to a dalliance his Mother had definitely not had while his father was away at war over a territorial dispute.

Though not the brightest King, he was charismatic enough to form alliances and strong enough to back them up. He was also a firm believer that one should be rewarded based on their merits and accomplishments above all else. This had gained him the moniker 'uncorruptible' from the general populace and 'difficult to work with' from the noble factions.

When Starswirl approached him it was at his favorite time of the day: Second Lunch.

"Aha! Starswirl!" the King cheered across his overflowing plate, "Come, come! You're just in time for the third course."

Starswirl paused before grabbing a brimming chalice with his magic. "Maybe just a flagon or two."

The King chuckled. "I've never seen a pony who could put away drink like you do, Starswirl. Tell me, where does it all go?"

He emptied his cup in a single swig and replied. "Straight to my head and out my horn your majesty. Fine spirits truly are a form a magic in themselves."

That got a bellowing guffaw from the portly King. If he wasn't in a good mood before, then he certainly was now. Starswirl cleared his throat with another glass. "There is, unfortunately, a dire reason why I grace your table today."

"Oh fie, no business of state during mealtimes, Starswirl. Politics will sour the wine."

"I'm afraid that this is something that cannot wait. I have been watching the signs and I fear another prophecy is soon to pass."

The laughter stopped. Mighty Ash sat up straighter and shooed off the consorts that had been hanging about him like a swarm of flies. They left promptly, easily reading the mood. Politics and governance could always be postponed or delegated, but prophecies were another matter.

The mirth had gone from Ash's eyes, leaving steely little balls as sharp as flint. "Tell me of this prophecy."

Starswirl reached into his cloak and pulled forth an ancient seeming roll of parchment. The edges were cracked and yellowed and looked more like tree bark than proper paper. He unfurled it slowly, the scroll popping and crackling as he did, and set it on the hastily cleared table.

Strange characters of an unknown language graced the page, full of long and flowing lines like streamers caught in a breeze. The borders were filled with illustrations that were beautiful and horrifying in equal measure. Equine skeletons reeled in torment around the words, their faces frozen in anger or horror as they twisted and tangled with monsters made of fire and shadow. A wicked curved set of horns headlined the page, set around a pair of eyes that seemed to glare from the page. The room felt colder as the very paper itself seemed to radiate an aura of fear.

"Put it away," the King demanded after realizing how long he had been enraptured by the terrifying image. Starswirl dutifully rerolled the scroll and the oppressive air vanished. "Those words, you can read them?"

Starswirl nodded. "The tongue is ancient, but yes, I know their secrets."

"...and the prophecy?"

"The scroll tells of a monster, a tyrant ruler in his time, from days long forgotten by ponies. A master of dark magics who took cruel pleasure in inflicting his experiments on the inhabitants of his city. After decades of honing his craft, one of his spells went out of control, destroying both himself and most of the city. His dark magic permeated the land, so that nothing would ever grow, only decay and fester."

Ash nodded. "You speak of Tambelon, the Fallen City."

"You are well informed , my liege."

"Rumors and legends only. But you say it is real?"

"Not just real, but a growing threat. The scroll continues to say that Grogar had control over the magic of life and death, that he sealed his essence away as a last resort. That is why the dark force around the ruins never diminished. If the land is not cleansed of his remaining taint, then it will only grow and become a wellspring of dark magic that spawns demons and monsters the likes of which have not walked the surface world in generations."

"And you say that this has come to pass?"

"Not yet, but soon. I glimpsed a future in which the land is ruled not by ponies, but by shadows and living corpses. I have seen the city myself with a spell that lets my mind travel outside of my body at incredible speeds. The darkness is weak, but it is growing. It is imperative that we cleanse the land before the darkness becomes too powerful."

The King sat back in his seat in silent contemplation. "These are dark times we live in. As soon as one monster is defeated, another rises to take its place.

You are new to my court, but I value your counsel. In your first days here you routed out several corrupt ministers and your other advice seems to be beginning to bear fruit as well. If you say that this threat is grave, then I believe you."

He walked around the table, fur bristling and ready for action. "I'll send a full squadron of knights posthaste. With you guiding them, I am sure-"

"Unfortunately," Starswirl interrupted, "It seems fate has ordained that I shall not go on this mission."

Ash turned on him, confused. "But, you are the only one who knows the location of Tambelon. That aside, you are the most powerful wizard I have ever heard of. My knights may be strong and capable but surely your great magic is needed to purify the land?"

Starswirl carefully hid his pride at the praise and applied his well-practiced emotional mask #53, bitter regret. "As ironic as it seems, I appear to be too powerful. Even when I visited in spirit the darkness took notice and tried to consume me. If I were to go in pony, the whole power of the region would be focused on our group. We would be snuffed out like a candle." He added a tinge of optimism to his expression. "However, I can craft a talisman which, when placed at the source, will purify the land as fully as if I were there myself."

Mighty Ash nodded. "Make it so. A smaller contingent of knights then, prioritizing stealth and mobility over raw power. I believe I know just which knights to send on such a quest."

"Actually," Starswirl interrupted with a small smile, "I have an additional pair of knights in mind as well..."


Elsewhere in the keep, in the Knight's Dining Hall, Luna sneezed.

"Hey!" her sister cried from across the table, "Say it, don't spray it!"

"Sorry," she muttered and then returned to shoveling food in her mouth like someone was coming to take it away from her.

"Geezy peezy," a pink-coated knight to her left laughed, "Where's the fire, filly?"

"Can't help it." Luna managed between spoonfuls. "It's just so good!"

"It's just gruel," a gruff older knight with an off-yellow coat commented from her other side, "Cooky makes it by the barrel. Not much taste..." He lifted his spoon a a thick glob of gruel clung, gathered, and fell back into his bowl with less of a plop and more of a smack. He grimaced. "But lots of essences to balance the humors and revitalize the body."

"Guess you've never been really hungry before." Celestia commented. She too was eating the paste at an astounding pace, but at least she was trying fake having been raised with something akin to table manners. "The things we would have done to get ahold of some of this stuff back then..."

"Bah. If you like this, then you'll love marching hardtack. It's so tough and tasteless, I heard Cooky sells his leftovers to the stonemasons guild."

"I heard that, Mace!" A deep voice rumbled from the small windows that connected the kitchens to the dining hall.

"I meant you to, Cooky!" Mace called back over the noise of the hall. "What's the deal with this gruel?"

"What's wrong with it?" the voice like a mountain called back, "It's the same as it always is."

"And that's exactly what's wrong with it!" A chorus of laughs littered the chamber as more knights started to listen in to the dialogue. "You couldn't spring for some carrots? A bit of onion maybe? How about just some salt? I know the rock farmers just brought in their harvest so it's cheap now."

There was a pause as the hall waited for the cook's response. Finally, it came. "If you want it that badly, how about I take the coin for it out of your wages? Course, I'd have to buy enough for everypony here. What a generous colt you are."

The laughter only grew at Cooky's clever comeback. Mace grinned ruefully. He knew when he'd been beat. "Request withdrawn Cooky, I'll take the gruel as is."

Laughter continued to echo through the hall until it was punctuated by the sound of two empty bowls hitting the table and a pair of young voices calling "Seconds please!"

The hall dropped into immediate silence as all turned to look at their newest members. The pair pulled into themselves, suddenly unsure. Though they had managed to build some rapport with a few knights, they still worried that they might do something wrong or break some unknown rule that could reset their standing. Much like this very moment.

"Is... that not a thing you do?" Celestia asked nervously her eyes darted between those staring at her. "Starswirl always used to let us have seconds if we cleaned our plates and he didn't need the leftovers for any... thing..." She realized she was rambling and cut herself off.

The shocked silence continued to fill the hall like a flooding oubliette until something finally broke.

Cooky's booming guffaws filled the silence and overflowed it.

"Ha! In thirty years of cooking for the knights, the guards, and the castle staff, no one has ever asked me for seconds of gruel! You fillies come on up here! I'll feed you till you burst!"

Laughter filled the hall once more as all of the knights' level of respect for their youngest members went up a notch.


"You would send them?" Mighty Ash asked in shock, "They may be heroes, yes, but they are practically children!"

But Starswirl was adamant. Having the girls go with was the most important part of his current scheme after all. "Fate has much in store for them. This shall be the least of what they achieve, if all comes to pass as has been foretold. Until then, practical experience can only benefit them."

Mighty Ash hesitated. He had seen the demonstration of the hero's capabilities during one of their appearances in the City when they had been showing off their victory, and there was no denying their skills. He had seen the both of them teleport, soar like eagles, and bring life to plants better than his own gardeners could. Not to mention their defeat of Discord, a feat which the mind could scarcely comprehend.

And yet... some part of him could only see them as a pair of orphaned fillies, in way over their heads as they did their best to fill the roles destiny had prescribed them. Maybe it was because they reminded him of his daughter. She would have been just a year or so older than them.

But now was not the time for sentimentality. A shadow was on the horizon, and he had to put his city first.

"So be it. The heroes shall be a part of the questing party."

The idea of a ruined city usually comes with a certain set of expectations. Crumbling ruins which threaten to topple on unwary passersby. Putrid or petrified remains of creatures who died trying to escape. Weapons rusted to brittle orange skeletons like physical ghosts of a battle long forgotten.

Tambelon was worse.

It was worse because it had none of these things.

The wood and thatch had long rotted away, and time had pulled down a few unsteady structures, but by and large the buildings were wholly intact. There were no bloodied weapons scattered like ninepins. What few weapons there were were rusting peacefully on their racks and shelves, untouched. And there were no bodies. No skeletons contorted in agony from war, no piles of mass graves from disease. Aside from the rotting wood and general lack of upkeep, the city and houses within looked as though the occupants had simply vanished.

Carts composted in the middle of the street, their cargo long rotted to dirt. Washing basins in cellars squatted full of dishes and stagnant water that hadn't so much as rippled in years. Piles of slightly-more-colorful-than-usual dirt hinted at where richer ponies had once stood, the magical dyes from their garments standing the test of time better than the fabric itself had.

And then there was the miasma. It took the form of a dense fog that suffocated the city. No amount of wind, nor sun, nor pegasus magic could dispel it, and so it remained; choking out life and light, keeping the weeds and vines and the rest of the outside world at bay. It muffled sound, muted light, and dampened the hopes of any foolish or unlucky enough to enter.

It was into this miasma; this city of death, that four groups of knights had been dispatched. The journey there had taken six days and the mission, they hoped, would take less than one. No one wanted to try and make camp in such a dismal, soul-crushing place. Dark influences bled into the edges of the mind just from being there too long, causing an unnatural sense of paranoia, agitation, and fear.

Desiring to leave as quickly as equinely possible, the four pairs of knight had decided to split up. Whoever first found the nexus of dark magic was to light a signal flare with their magic. Even in such an all-dampening fog, their lightly enchanted armor was attuned to respond to such a flare and give a distance and direction.

Of those four teams, one was composed of veteran knights. At present time, this first team found themselves in what used to be the merchants quarter. They maintained a professional silence; they were warned that there could be monsters about. Each kept a firm grip on their weapon. They pointed things out to each other and communicated through mutually agreed upon gestures, borne of many years working together. Their minds were rigid, fixated on the task at hoof and stalwart against any intrusion of foreign influence. So it was the physical things which caught them unaware.

Cages. Cages and chains. Their occupants long absconded or worse, but the evidence of their conditions was as clear as it had been when the market was in use.

They had prepared themselves for mental assaults, but not ones like this. They huddled close together as they walked, breaking battle-ready stance as terror flooded the cracks in their armor.

Two of the teams were composed of younger knights. They were green as anything and had never seen true battle outside of their drills and sparring. But all four were highly skilled in combat, even without the practical experience. These two groups had chosen to loosely stick together, disagreeing with their elder's decision to split up. They wandered through low-class peasant districts, and their minds saw monsters around every corner. Half-fallen banners became pouncing ghouls, and every pile of rubble was a nuckelavee lying in wait. Though their bodies were strong and lean, their minds were weak and vulnerable. They too fell to panic and paranoia.

And then there was the last group, composed of two mares who were way too young to be out in the field and never would have been if it weren't for their special circumstances. They were the youngest of the knights and had received only the most basic of training. One might think that they would have caved before all the others. Or perhaps, that they could not even bring to bear the mental fortitude to enter the toppled city gates.

But sometimes, life itself can be a sort of training, especially when you grow up in the streets.

These two youngest knights literally skipped down the main street, singing into the miasma without a care in the world.

"Oh, a looting we will go~!
A looting we will go~!
Hi-ho the Merry-o,
A looting we will go~!"

Celestia picked up the next line as she held aloft a scroll. "Oh, I've got Starswirl's list~!"

"And I've his magic sack~!" Luna lifted a rough hemp bag that looked to be much deeper than it's outside dimensions implied.

Their voices joined back together for the finale.
"Cause he's promised to trade us lots of sweets,
For whatever we bring back!"

"Speaking of which," Luna said, cutting off their song (which was fine because they hadn't written any more verses anyway), "Could we go over his list again? I want to make sure I know what to look for."

Celestia rolled her eyes. "This is like the third time since we got here! How have you not memorized it already?"

"I remember it!" The smaller sister shot back defensively, "I just... want to be sure."

"Alright, fine. But only because it's you." They stopped walking and Celestia unrolled the scroll. "You want me to do the voice?"

"I very much want you to do the voice."

Celestia cleared her throat and began to read in a voice that might have sounded something like Starswirl if he had a bad head cold and was himself trying to do an impression of a whiny noble.

Celestial Star and Lunar Nova,

I am going to write this as simply as I can, so even you two can't mess it up.
While all the knights are stumbling around on the fool's errand I sent them on, I need you two to collect up anything and everything of value in that miserable shell of a city. The plunder bag I've sent with you is enchanted with featherweight spells, undetectable expansion charms, and an enchantment to remember who put each item in. So there shouldn't be any complaints about the bag being too heavy or too full or who found more items. If you do well, I will exchange the relics you bring back for various candies and rare treats. Whoever brings back more will get a special prize.

Following is a list of suggested items to search for, ranked from least to most desirable. Do not bring me garbage.

Common, but quality-made, household goods
Weapons of good quality
Precious metals (gold, aluminium, mithril, maudite, etc.)
Books, any quality
Objects imbued with small magic (trinkets, amulets, medallions)
Alchemy/Necromancy/Thaumaturgy/Legilimency paraphenalia* (see addendum)
Enchanted books or grimoires
Enchanted weapons

Addendum: Tambelon was a city known for its advanced mages, the greatest of them being Grogar himself. Many will have had private labs and places of study which should be filled with books, tools, equipment, and even notes. If you find one, empty the room into the bag. Even if you don't know what something is, put it in the bag. As a general rule of horn, wizards and thaumaturists prefer towers while necromancers and alchemists prefer underground lairs.

If you think something may be evil or cursed, make sure to grab that, but for the Creator's sake don't touch it with your bare hooves! Find a stick or something.

If you can find Grogar's secret inner sanctum, then you will both receive a very special secret reward.

Do not disappoint me.
Starswirl, Wizard of the Arcane

Luna struggled to hold in her giggles. "He- That's really not what he sounds like, you know."

Celestia shrugged and smiled."Close enough." She gestured to the sack that Luna carried slung over her back like a misshapen saddlebag. "That's not too heavy is it?"

She shook her head. "Feels as light as when we started. Even though it's got all the stuff from three lairs, and everything not nailed down from the merchants houses." She pressed her horn to the bag, activating a spell woven into its fibers. "You're up by fifty points after those last gems, but it's still a close game."

"Hm." Celestia continued to trot forward, her eyes darting across the street for anything that might glint in the light of her horn. It was only a simple light spell, but one of the very few spells she'd learned to cast, so she was quite proud of it. Without it, she never would have found those gems buried in the mulch of an old chest. "I'd better find something good if I want to keep that lead. You think we should head up to the big fortress?"

"What, the one decorated with skulls and unreadable runes?"

"They're not unreadable, you just can't read."

"Then they're unreadable."

She snorted in amusement. "Fine. Yes, that fortress."

"Sure. Doesn't seem to be much around here anyway." She kicked an old barrel which immediately collapsed into splinters. "Unless you really like wood pulp."

The pair took a side street, realigning themselves toward the castle at the center of the settlement. It was impossible to miss. Despite the ever-pervasive fog, the fortress (especially the horned sculpture at the top) could always be seen. Their path took them down curving side streets that seemed intentionally designed to create blind corners from which monsters and fiends could hide around.

"You know," Luna began as they took a shortcut through a hole in a wall. "I don't see what the big deal is about this place. A bit foggy, maybe, but not too bad honestly."

"I know, right!?" Her sister agreed enthusiastically, "Everypony talks like it's this horrible place, a living crypt possessed by the undead or something, but it's not bad. It's clean, it's dry, no rats to steal your food-"

"Bit lonely maybe..." Luna interjected.

"True, but that's a self-solving problem. It's still better than the alleys back home."

"Oh definitely. I'd take this over the alleys any day." She scrunched her muzzle contemplatively. "Food would be a problem. Hard to grow and nopony to steal it from."

"Good point. Besides," Celestia tapped a hoof on her armor, "It's not like we need to worry about it now anyway. Not with us having our own rooms. In a house. A real house for once."

"Not just a house," Luna grinned, "The King's castle. We're moving on up in the world, sister dear. Today, the King's castle. Tomorrow... uh..."

"Our own castle?"

"Pfft! Don't be silly. Like we'd ever have our own castle."

They continued on much in this manner, making light conversation and jokes in an atmosphere they felt completely comfortable in. Ten and change years living on the streets did wonders for a pony's constitution and fortitude. Near the steps of the imposing fortress, Luna made another find.

"Oh look, it's a bell!"

In fact it was. A simple cowbell. The strap was long gone, but the bell itself was in surprisingly good shape. Somewhat dented, to be sure, but that was the worst of it.

"No rust." Celestia pointed out. "Might be one of the fancy metals Starswirl wants. You going to put it in the bag?"

"No!" Luna gasped, "Can't you see? It looks just like the one I had when we were little!" She shook it and it made a familiar clanging sound.

"Except that yours was mostly rust and had a big hole in the side."

Luna rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean. And I'm keeping it." Clutching it under one wing, she turned and started up the stairs, the bell tolling mutedly with each step.

Celestia shrugged and followed after. It was no concern of hers whether her sister decided to keep it or not. On the contrary, it just meant Luna had more loot to find to make up the gap in score.

The inside of the fortress was just as dismal as the outside. Grogar had apparently been quite the fan of interior decorating, though he lacked the talent for it. Despite the significant effort put in to making the place seem grim and intimidating, it had pitifully little effect on the carefree explorers.

There were columns covered in horrifyingly exquisite carvings of monsters, each one of which had probably taken teams to carve and years off the life of the artists. Celestia and Luna just laughed at their silly faces and tried to make sillier ones.

Tapestries hung on the walls, where intricate needlework detailed the glorious conquests and achievements of Grogar, most of them bloody. Celestia ripped them down and stuffed them in the loot sack without a second thought. Even if Starswirl didn't want them she could cut them up and make ponchos for the cold winter months. Or unravel them and sell the thread back to the fashion guild. The habits of a lifetime of thrifty living died hard.

Decorative pots and urns decorated alcoves. They weren't particularly frightening, but Luna smashed them each with an overhead throw anyway.

"Lu!" her sister chastised. "Don't just go smashing things."

"But there could be gems inside!" She whined in response.

"Use some common sense." She held out the bag that had traded hooves at some point. "Put them in the sack intact. Then we can go through them at home and then sell the pots too."

Her sister's mouth contracted to a small 'o' of understanding and she began transporting the remaining pots into the bag. "See, that's why you're the smart one."

Celestia puffed up her chest with pride. "I know."

"And I'm the good-looking one."

The older sister stumbled at that, her pot almost missing the sack. "Wait, what? No, I'm the good-looking one."

"Oh?" her sister smirked, "I guess that makes me the smart one then."

"What- I- That's not how it works!"


"Have we tried this way yet?"


"How about that hallway?"

"There too."

"Did we-"

"Yes. We've looked everywhere. It's not here."

"Well it has to be somewhere!"

Several hours had passed and the young mares had effectively sacked Grogar's castle for all it was worth. Anything not nailed down was shoved in the bag. If Starswirl didn't want something, then they'd keep it or sell it themselves. And yet, they had yet to find Grogar's inner sanctum. The secret lair where he would have his experiments, kept his notes, and (hopefully) left other valuable loot behind. The castle had been searched high and low, it's halls and room stripped clean as they went. The others would be arriving soon. They'd all agreed to meet at the central fortress if no one had found the 'nexus of dark magic'. And so the sisters found themselves in the entrance hall, running out of time, options, and patience, as they double-checked that they had gone down every avenue.

"Did you check the kitchens?" Luna asked.

"I did." Celestia nodded. "Took all the cutlery. Did you check the guard posts?"

"Yep, and grabbed everything that wasn't rust or dust. No secret passages, hidden rooms, or even so much as a false-bottomed drawer. Face it, if he had a sanctum, it either got destroyed when he did or it wasn't in the fortress."

Silence fell between the two.

"Did you check that big fancy looking door?"

"That one?" There was only one door which fit that description. One at the end of the hall, ornately carved and bigger than all the others. "No, that seemed like an obvious spot for good loot, so I left it for you so you could catch up in points. Didn't you check it?"

"I left it for you for the same reason. I thought I was winning?"

Luna lowered her horn to the bag before her eyes widened in surprise. "It's a dead tie."

"So, just so we're clear," Celestia stated slowly, "We're currently tied and neither of us has gone in the very flashy door which now seems very likely to be Grogar's sanctum of loot?"

They were inside the room before they realized they'd moved. The magical wards and locks on the door had once been nigh-impregnable, but years of being leeched away without anyone to refresh the spell had left the door as vulnerable as any other.

It was a decidedly large room, seemingly too large given the size and arrangement of the rooms around it. Downward steps descended from each wall like an inverted step pyramid, creating an almost stadium-style seating around a platform at the center of the room.

In the center was a stone table large enough for an above-average sized pony to use for a bed. It was cut from a single block of obsidian and covered in runic markers in red and gold.

But what most caught the fillies' attention was what sat atop the table.

First was a jumbled up skeleton. The bones of some vaguely equine being stacked in a loose pile around a sword. And what a sword it was! Its wavy, black blade had a dull reddish gleam and the handle was encrusted with rubies like droplets of blood. If there had been anything worth looting the city for, it had to be this fancy, almost-definitely-enchanted weapon.

"Dibs!" Both sisters called out at exactly the same moment.

"I saw it first!"

"No, I did!"

"No, me!"

"I need it to get Starswirl's special treat!"

"You've had enough special treats as it is! I can't even see your ribs anymore."

"Well it doesn't matter who saw it first. What matters is who puts it in the bag."

There was the briefest of pauses and then the pair flung themselves down the stairs, a roiling ball of fur and feathers that occasionally yelled some variation of "Get off," "Let go", or "I saw it first."

They hit the lowest layer hard, bruising and scratching themselves up in the process.

Luna rose first, having advantageously landed on top, and half-stumbled her way toward the sword. Celestia saw this, realized that she wouldn't be able to cross the distance quickly enough and decided to cheat.

A golden glow surrounded the sword as it rose shakily and began to inch itself forward.

"Hey, no fair!" Luna cried as she grabbed hold of the handle. "Magic is cheating!"

"You're just mad, urf... that you didn't think of it first!" She pulled hard on her magic, twisting her head around like a fishing pole. Luna pulled back with all her might, rearing up on her hind legs so her forelegs could focus on pulling. Her wings flared out behind her instinctively for balance.

With a soft clang, the bell fell from where she'd been clutching it under her wing and bounced onto the bone pile. Meanwhile, the sword was trapped in a dangerous game of tug-of-war between the two inter-tribe sisters. Celestia's magic wasn't all that strong, but on the other side, neither was Luna.

Sensing a stalemate forming, Luna decided to shift her grip on the handle. At the same time, Celestia shifted how her magic was gripping the blade. The resulting twisting force sent the blade spinning in an unexpected direction.

"Ah!" The sword clattered to the floor as both ponies dropped it at once, startled as they were by the noise. Luna's hoof flew to her mouth as she winced in pain.

"I'm sorry!" Celestia bounded over to her sister's side, all thoughts of swords and rewards forgotten. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! My grip slipped! How bad is it?"

Luna removed her hoof, a small dribble of blood on her lip. "Ow... it's not deep. Just stings a bit."

Celestia sighed in relief. "That's good. I was worried." She grabbed the loot bag from where it had fallen and opened it. "Here. You can claim the sword since you got hurt."

"Alright!" Luna grinned, "That puts me in the lead. Though I'll probably share whatever the prize is with you anyway."

Celestia smiled slightly, "Yeah, I guess I would have as well."

Luna reached out to pick up the sword, but was suddenly distracted. "Oh! My bell! I think I dropped it somewhere."

"It's on the table," Celestia pointed out, "Nestled in the bones."

"Ew. Though it could be worse, I guess." She reached out to grab the bell, but as she did, a drop of blood fell from her injured hoof onto the pile of bones.

Immediately, the temperature of the room plummeted. A sourceless wind began to howl across the chamber as the sisters clung to each other in fright. The obsidian table started to glow in an unnatural crimson light, as did everything on it.

"My bell!" Luna cried as it too began to glow.

"Don't get close! It's not safe!"

"But I just got that bell and I do not want it getting cursed." With a quick tug from her horn, she pulled her trinket from the throbbing mass of energy. It resisted, the red glow sticking and stretching like gelatinous slime before it finally snapped and let her recover her prize.

Wind continued to howl as the glow intensified, forming a miniature whirlwind on the table. It picked up the bones and began to spin them about, rattling them against each other in a terrifying symphony. No, they weren't just rattling, they were reassembling! Joint by joint, a body began to take shape. As the final piece, a horned skull, connected to the rest, a brilliant red light flared from within its empty eye sockets and filled the room, blinding the two observers.

When their vision cleared, there was no longer a skeleton standing on the table.

A dark shaggy coat, coarse as a wire brush, covered a large body of rippling muscles. He was built wide and sturdily, like a mountain. Crooked and curling horns drew the gaze towards his horrible appearance. Mangled and crooked teeth gave him a predatory look, aided by his gaunt, still near-skeletal face that seemed locked in a permanent scowl.

Grogar, dark ruler of Tambelon, had returned.

"At last..." his voice was like the wind off a crypt, "After eons spent in the chasm between life and death, I make my return to the land of the living." His eyes were closed, as though he'd been without a body for so long that he'd forgotten that you need to open them to see.

"My loyal congregation," he continued. Celestia and Luna looked around. They were most definitely alone. "For generations you have waited. You have watched the signs and prepared the rites. You have spilled much blood and made countless sacrifices. And now, all your efforts have finally come to fruition."

He was really starting to get passionate, gesturing wildly and dramatically through his obviously rehearsed speech. He still had his eyes closed though.

Celestia leaned closer to her sister and whispered. "Do you know who that is?"

"No," Luna whispered back. "Do you?"

"No. I was hoping you did."

"...and now I, Grogar the Undying, shall lead you into a new age of blood!"

The sisters 'aah-ed' together in quiet realization. So this was Grogar. Grogar the conqueror. Grogar the torturer. Grogar the very powerful magic user.

...Grogar the pony who owned the castle they'd just stripped down to the flagstones.

"Should we run?" Luna whispered, even more quietly than before.

"Not a chance. In a big echoey room like this he'll hear us the moment we take a step."

"Well we can't fight him! Not unless you want to try throwing our lunch at him and hoping for another miracle."

"...I think we're going to have to bluff our way through."

"Sorry, I must have had some imminent fear of death in my ear. You want us to what?"

"Look, he's expecting worshipers, right? So we play the part, wait till he's distracted, then leg it back to the knights and let them handle him. That'll-"

"Shu-shu-shush!" Luna suddenly silenced her sister with a hoof, "Too late for a better plan. He's finishing up his speech."

"...and they shall forevermore fear the mighty name of Grogar the Undying and his loyal followers!" He finally opened his eyes, twin pits of red light. He then blinked owlishly as he noticed that his resurrection theater had rather a lot more free seating than he'd designed it for. "What is this?" he muttered to himself, "I thought there'd be more."

Finally, he noticed the two individuals still half-hiding behind a table. "You two." They both jumped at his voice. "Where are my acolytes? Who performed the sacred ritual? "

"Oh! Ah... that, that would be, ah, us." Celestia stammered awkwardly. "The acolytes, I mean. We are them, yes. Exactly."

Luna nodded along furiously.

Grogar hid his confusion well and maintained her royal bearing. "You? You are far too young to be acolytes. Even then, where are the others? The priests and cultists? The standard-bearers and..." Something changed in his eyes as he finally gave his two guests a closer look. They narrowed as a cruel smile eclipsed his face. He chuckled darkly. "Ah, now I understand."

"W-What?" Luna stammered, "What do you understand?"

"Both horns and wings, how unusual." He stepped down from the table. "You must be uniquely magical indeed. A fitting sacrifice to mark my return."

The girls' eyes widened. Sacrifice? This was not how the bluffing was supposed to go. "No, no, no." Celestia laughed breathlessly and awkwardly, "Definitely, definitely acolytes. Not sacrifices."

"It is far too late to reconsider," Grogar sneered, seeming to revel in their fear, "You should be honored. Your blood shall herald a new era." He picked up the sword from where it had fallen on the floor and whispered softly to it. "Drink, my heart. Drink and grow strong once more."

He opened his jaw, wider than it should have been able to and bellowed out a bleat that resounded like the screams of Tartarus.

And then he charged at them, both sword and horns primed to skewer.

"No! Please stop!" Luna wailed as she curled into a protective ball. As she moved, the bell still clutched in her hooves rang softly and briefly glowed red.

She waited for the inevitable pain, but none came. There was no rain of hooves, nor magic, nor steel. Worried but curious, she chanced to look up.

Grogar stood remarkably balanced on two legs mid-charge, completely still.

"What... magic.. is this?" he growled through a jaw locked in a snarl, "Release me!"

Celestia and Luna both blinked, likewise frozen in shock. After a moment they came to their senses and slowly stood up and moved out of the path of Grogar's charge. He remained still.

Feeling a strange surge of confidence, Luna poked him.

"Stop that, you ungrateful worm, and release me from this spell so that I may rain death upon you!" He demanded once more, showing he was still quite capable of making threats, if not much else. Aside from his voice (and presumingly, his tongue) he remained still as a statue.

Carefully, Celestia removed the sword from his grip. He did not resist. She turned to her sister once the weapon was safely removed. "What happened to him?" she asked, "Did you do something?"

Luna, her heart still racing in her chest, shook her head. "Not me, I just curled into a ball." *ding!* The bell was clutched against her chest, held so tightly that her staccato heartbeat managed to make it ring.

"Gah!" Grogar exclaimed as his body began to move again. All his previous speed returned as if he'd only been paused and he was flung into the wall. As he tried to stand up, he found himself once again unable to move. Only now, his body had contorted into a fetal position and was refusing to leave it.

His furious gaze scanned the room as the full brunt of his magical senses were brought into play to hunt down the source of this spell. He lingered on the would-be sacrifices for a moment before moving on. They had too little magic, remarkably little in fact. But then he caught sight of a glint of red power in one's grasp, a magic alarmingly similar to his own.

"That bell..." He scowled as the red light of his eyes surged and flared in anger. "You fools! What have you done to my phylactery!"

They stared at him blankly. Finally, Luna asked, "What's a filfactory?"

His anger blazed even hotter. Did these utter fools not even know what they had done? No, no one could be that dim. "You corrupted my ritual! What became of the sacred sword which was forged to house my soul?"

"You mean this sword?" Celestia held up the weapon she'd extracted from his frozen form earlier. Grogar held back a gasp as he looked at his treasure through his magic perception ability. It was empty. The runes and spell shapes were still there, perfectly primed and ready to contain his soul, but there was no soul to be found.

"You nitwits!" He roared, "You blumbering bobolynes! Do you have any idea what you've done? You've substituted a foal's toy for the finest weapon to ever be made! Now all it takes is a bell to command my very soul!"

"Wait," Luna interrupted, "Are you saying that as long as I have this bell, I have complete control over you?"

Grogar froze, through this time it was a fully natural reaction. For the first time in his long unlife, a trace of fear entered his eyes. "I should not have said that."

"And stop!" Ding-a-ling! "And go!" Ding-a-ling! "And stop!" Ding-a-ling! "And go!" Ding-a-ling!.

"Stop!" Ding! "Go!" Ding! "Stop!" Ding! "Go!" Ding! "Stop!" Ding! "Go!" Ding! "Stop!" Ding! "Go!" Ding!

"I demand that you cease this nonsense immediately!"

"And I demand", Luna mocked, "That you hop around like a drunken bunny rabbit!" Ding!

After some experimenting with their newly created unholy magic artifact, Luna and Celestia had discovered that any order given while ringing Luna's bell Grogar was bound to follow, even making his body move against his own will. A few early orders to "not attack them or bring harm to them in any shape or form" had left the pair rather cocky around the legendary necromancer. And also more than a little righteously indignant after he'd tried to kill them.

After having him unwillingly revealing the secret door to his sanctum beneath the obsidian slab, with her sister's go-ahead Celestia had headed down with the loot bag for a little shopping trip. Meanwhile, Luna was having fun with her new toy.

"Okay, okay," she managed between wheezing laughs, "You can stop now."

Grogar the Undying ceased prancing. His new body did not tire, but that didn't mean that these constant insults and indignities weren't stoking his anger into an impotent rage or grinding on his psyche like a millstone. It seemed he would receive a brief respite, however, as the sound off hoofsteps came up from his secret chamber.

"Heyo!" Celestia greeted as she returned, Starswirl's sack slung across her back.

"You sound pleased. I take it you found some good stuff?" her sister asked.

Celestia's smile looked like it was going to break her face. "Starswirl's going to have to found a candymaker's guild to trade in everything I collected."

"You... those were priceless relics!" Grogar yelled, actually concerned for something other than himself for once. "I spent lifetimes gathering and creating rare tomes and powerful artifacts, and you just threw them all in a sack like kittens!"

"It's a magic sack," Celestia clarified as she ignored his cruel metaphor. Words were all he had left and he was making the best of them.

"Oh! Oh! Celly, Celly!" Luna suddenly cried, hopping excitedly in place. "You've got to see this neat trick I found."

"Oh no, not this again." Grogar moaned.

She pointed the open end of the bell towards Grogar. "Return!" *Ding-a-ling!*

With a sigh, Grogar's body decomposed into red magical light which was quickly pulled into the bell like foam down a drain. The bell dinged once more when all of him had vanished within it.

"And come on back out!" *Ding-a-ling!* In a reverse of the previous effect, Grogar was back standing where he had been before. Luna grinned at her sister. "Easy transport and storage for today's filly on the go."

"When my legions hear of this," he growled, "You two will wish I had taken you as sacrifices earlier."

Luna blew a raspberry at him. "What legions? You're a myth! I hadn't even heard of you till last week!"

"By the way," Celestia cut in, "I found something really neat down there that I think I might keep." She reached into the bag and pulled out a curious piece of jewelry. It was a necklace of sorts; a long chain of golden discs set on a red strap.

"No!" Grogar suddenly shouted. "You leave that be! Don't you dare touch that! You're not for to even look at my finest creation!"

They ignored him, as they had become accustomed to doing. Luna stared at the jewelry. It felt as though something was drawing her to it. Fate, perhaps? Or maybe she just had a thing for shiny objects. "Can I have it?"

"What?" Celestia replied, "No, I just said I wanted it for me. Look how well it matches my coat."

"Aw, c'mon, please?" She pleaded, making beggar's eyes at her sister. It was mostly ineffective since they'd developed the technique together. "Oh! I know! I'll make you a deal. If you left me have it, then next time Starswirl sends us on one of these looting trips, which he's probably going to do seeing how successful this one was, then next time we find some really epic loot, you can have first pick.

Celestia pondered it for a moment. Truthfully, the eyes were working on her. Just a bit. "Hmmmm... alright, but don't think I'm going to forget about it this time! I learned that lesson after the watermelon incident."

Smiling, Luna donned her new accessory. As soon as it settled on her shoulders, one of the discs gleamed and her eyes lit up white.

"Luna? Lu!?" Celestia shook her in a panic for a few moments before the light faded and she blinked, her eyes back to normal.

"I'm fine, I'm fine." She assured. "The mantle just has an enchantment on it that tells the wearer everything they need to know about it."

"It has what?" Grogar yelled.

Luna pointed at him. "Also, he's a liar. He didn't make this, it's way older than he is."

"Well, what is it then?" Celestia asked, curious but also cautious about an object that could dump information into your mind.

"It's called the Mantle of Dreams," Luna explained, "It... uh... well, so look, I have all this knowledge now about what it is and how it works, but a lot of it's crazy advanced magical theory stuff. You know when Starswirl tries to explain how his spells work and uses all sorts of fancy words that he doesn't bother explaining and assumes we know? It's like I have a monologue of that stored in my head. I know it can 'fold the auric field to create ripples in the sub-ether', but I have no idea what that means."

"I spent years studying that!" Grogar continued, though no one was listening. "Years trying to decipher its secrets, and this whole time all I had to do was put it on?!"

"Does it actually do anything?" Celestia asked, "Cause having one of Starswirl's magic monologues stored in your head sounds more like a curse than anything else."

"Oh you bet it does!" She grinned again, "I'm pretty sure this'll let me go into ponies' dreams."

"Really!?" Celestia's eyes lit up as bright as her sister's. "Now I really wish I'd kept it for myself!"

Luna shoved her lightheartedly. "I'm sure the next one'll be just as good. Maybe it'll let you actually control the sun!"

"Ha! As if! Like I'd want that kind of responsibility."

"And dreams too! Imagine how far I could have expanded my empire with that kind of power! But instead of me, now some half-baked simpleton wields the power. It's not fair!"

"...You know Celly, I think I'd like to introduce you to a game I just invented."

"Oh? What's it called?"


"After the miasma cleared," Chain told her rapt audience of fellow knights, "We all headed to the temple at the center where the bright light had come from."

Nearly the whole regiment was listening, food long forgotten. Even the cooks and staff were neglecting their duties to hear the tale.

"Now we hadn't seen Celestia and Luna in hours, so naturally some of us started to fear the worst."

"You mean you did," Mace interrupted, "I never lost faith in them."

"Don't interrupt me," She scolded her partner, "And as I recall, you were the one complaining about how tedious it was going to be do drag a pair of litters home."

She continued as Mace wilted under the gaze of the collected listeners. "So anyway, we entered the temple. Horrible place. Monsters carved everywhere, brutal and austere without a speck of decoration. So we're checking the place out, going room by room, following protocol, when suddenly we start hearing these grunts and cries."

A gasp came from the crowd, at least those who hadn't heard the first two tellings.

"So we rush over and there's this enormous door fit for a king's throne room and it's hanging open. We go in, two-by-two, quiet-like. You know what we find in there?"

The crowd hushed. One scullery colt actually asked "What?"

"Grogar. The King of Death and Shades."

Another gasp, even from the ones who had heard the story before.

"He was just like all the legends described, only worse. His coat was dark as night and shifted when he moved like oily smoke. Massive curled horns bigger than a pony, with sharpened tips. He stood at least twice as tall as a normal pony and three times as wide. And he wasn't alone. You know who else was there?"

"Who?" the same colt asked before being shushed.

"The heroes that defeated Discord, Celestia and Luna."

"What happened next?"

She shook her head. "It was like nothing I'd ever seen. The battle raged across his resurrection chamber. Grogar shot blast after blast or arcane magical energy. More magic than I'd seen in my life!"

"What about the heroes? Did they shoot back?"

"That was the most impressive part. They didn't even need to. Every shot they dodged. Every single one. It was like he was incapable of hitting them no matter how hard he tried. And I know you're wondering, how did they defeat him if they didn't fight back?"

A few murmured in response, while those familiar with the story just smiled.

"Well I never said they didn't fight back, just that they didn't need to use magic." She smiled, a wild crazy grin that had earned her the battle nickname of 'The Mad Beserker'. "They beat Grogar, legendary sorcerer and wielder of death magic, with nothing more than blunt weapons."

"That's right!" she cried over the rising gasps and outbursts, "Not even swords! The younger wielded a standing candle holder, while the elder fought with a copper tapestry-holding rod. Each blow they struck sent him flying across the room towards the other who'd strike him again in perfect coordination. It was a jaw-dropping feat of skill, battle-tactics, and coordination."

She shook her head slowly, winding the excitement down for the really impactful part of her tale. Chain lowered her voice so everypony had to lean in to listen. "But the most awe-inspiring thing I saw that day, was not their incredible evasion, nor their strength and battle skill. It was their attitude. They laughed. Laughed as they fought him. Like it was all some sort of game! They weren't scared or intimidated in the slightest, just like the heroes from all the old stories!"

She sat back up, clearing her throat to finish off the tale. "After a time, once their victory seemed all the more certain, Mace announced our presence by cheering them on and taunting the monster. Very soon after that, they produced some sort of powerful spell and destroyed him utterly, leaving nothing but his evil red essence which soon too vanished."

The crowd was silent. No one knew how to react. They'd been saved from a monster no one had believed in, by a pair of fillies that some of them had also had their doubts about. They had seen the results of their fight with Discord, but not the battle itself. But this was different. There were multiple witnesses who attested to the heroic feats of the fillies.

As one, everypony in the hall craned their necks up to gaze at what glimpse of Starswirl's tower could be seen through the high windows. Somewhere in that tower, a pair of living legends were celebrating their victory.

Meanwhile, up in Starswirl's tower...

"You met who there!? What do you mean 'would I like to meet him'!?"

Author's Notes:

Why am I incapable of writing short chapters? This was supposed to be a third this length.

Crystals on the Cutting Room Floor

A cold wind blew across the barren landscape. As far as the eye could see, for miles and miles, there was nothing. In the far distance there were mountains, not just snow-peaked, but snow-covered, tinted blue by the vast gulf of air in front of them. Nothing grew here, save for a patchy blanket of some tough, scrubby brush the color of mud. Why anyone would choose to come here is a bafflement. Why anyone would choose to settle down and build a city was an absurdity worthy of Discord.

And yet, someone had.

In the distance, a city glittered like a jewel on the horizon. Marvelous spires of crystal reflected the sun and made it impossible to look at for long, but even a short glance was enough. Such artistry of architecture and design was best appreciated in small doses. One could only imagine how it must look in snow, as the Northern Tundra was covered with ten months out of the year.

Conversely, there was another settlement in those wastes, though much more modest. Nestled amongst the shallow hills was an enormous camp brimming with ponies of all tribes and colors. They sat huddled around hundreds of small campfires or trotted between tents, delivering messages, transporting supplies, and generally trying not to go stir-crazy. Banners sprouted up like weeds, each color and pattern representing a different city or fort or noble house. Never before in living memory had such a large army been convened. Never in living memory had it been needed.

In one small corner of the encampment, a cream colored pegasus in light armor trotted briskly towards a lone campfire set apart from the rest, beside which sat a pale yellow earth pony. He snuck up behind her, keeping his wings still and his steps soft to mask his presence. When he got close enough, he darted in and gave his marefriend a surprise nuzzle.

"Rappi!" She cried happily as she returned the nuzzle affectionately.

They stayed their for a moment, content with just the intimate contact. Some ponies wouldn't approve of their cross-tribal affections, but other ponies weren't there so they felt no need to restrain themselves.

"When are they going to match up our shifts again?" She sighed melodramatically as she leaned back into him, "I can't live seeing you only a few hours a day. I may very well perish from loneliness!"

He ran a hoof down her cocoa-like mane. "Don't do that, my sweet Cornbread. Then I'd be forced to die of the same. As to the patrols... I don't know." He took a seat next to her by the fire, the fatigue suddenly apparent in his posture. "Ever since we made camp the whole command structure's been a mess."

"I'm sure they'll figure it out. That's what the brass is for."

Cornbread grabbed a long stick by her side and used it to poke the fire, pulling more embers around a cooper cookpot.

"See anything new during your scouting?" she asked.

He shook his head. "Nothing new since your last patrol. The enemy hasn't moved; they're still camped out around that crystal city. They don't advance, they don't retreat, they just wait there. It's spooky." He shuddered involuntarily. "I got close today. Closer than I was meant to. Then all have these helmets on, horrid looking things that leak purple smoke when they move. Some kind of awful magic. Makes me glad I'm just a scout and a runner. Probably won't see too much actual combat, assuming we do';t starve each other to death first." He perked up as the wind shifted the steam from the pot towards him. "Speaking of which, what's on the menu?"

Cornbread sighed. "I'll give you three guesses and the first two don't count."

"Ugh, not gruel and brick bread again."

She lifted the lid to reveal a thick paste that slowly bubbled. "Ding ding! He gets it in one! Someone give the stallion a prize."

"How do they expect us to eat this slop? It's impossible!" He gazed longingly towards the center of camp where larger fires burned brighter, illuminating the officer's tents. "I bet they don't eat like this.'

"On the contrary," a smooth yet clipped voice interrupted their time alone, "I have it on good authority that they do."

At the familiar voice, the stallion hopped to his hooves, almost fell over, but managed to overcorrect into a somewhat sloppy salute. "L-Lieutenant Urge, sir!"

"At ease, Scouter Dash," the new stallion said with a nod, "And it's Major now."

"Yes sir," Dash replied as he slackened his posture, "Congratulations sir. It was well overdue."

The newcomer was likewise a pegasus, with a burnt orange coat, a windswept black mane, and icy blue eyes that could piece through tempered steel. Unlike most of the gathered army, he wore a decorated uniform which left no question to his rank and superiority. Major Urge carried himself in such a way that always made ponies feel like he knew their deepest secrets and wanted to make sure that they were aware of that.

"Indeed. Now, back to your earlier discussion. While I can assure you that you are not alone in the ranks regarding your distaste for the supplied provisions, you might be interested to know that even our Generals, the highest authority on the battlefield, share the same rations as every fighter around you."

"Really?" Cornbread asked, more curious and much less intimidated than Dash. She hadn't served under Major Urge before and didn't know the stories. "I would have thought they'd want special cooks and high-class meals brought in special."

"It was offered," Major Urge replied easily, "as is customary for their rank. But they in fact turned down the offer, claiming that they preferred to eat the same food as the troops."

"Huh." Cornbread continued to stir the paste wistfully. "How about that. I would have thought that the generals would be some stuffy nobles, but they're surprisingly down to earth. I suppose wonders never cease."

The Major's eyes seemed to widen then, even as his brows furrowed suspiciously. "If I understand you correctly, are you saying that you don't know who our generals are?"

She shrugged, perhaps too casually, but being an earth pony she'd never been trained in pegasus military discipline. "Can't say that I do. I'm a baker's daughter turned scout. No pony tells me anything except where to go, when to be there, and what to do when I arrive."

"Yes... I suppose that would be the case. Then please, allow me to elucidate this matter, such that you might inform others who may be similarly uninformed."

Behind his back, her coltfriend was making frantic negative gestures and mouthing 'no, oh please, no' over and over. Unfortunately, Major Urge's positioning had perfectly blocked Cornbread's view of him and thus his warnings went unseen.

Cornbread smiled, innocent and blissfully ignorant. "Thank you Major Urge, that would be most kind."

He cleared his throat and rose up, using his wings for balance as he spread his forelegs wide. "Our Generals, our most valued of leaders in this most historic of battles, is none other than the grand Heroes of the Realm! The Stellar Shepherds, who guide the sun and moon and stars through their ceaseless journeys across the great expanse of sky! High Knights and Defenders of the Peace, who have smote countless monsters for the good of all ponykind! Vanquishers of Grogar! Slayers of Smooze! The very mares who..."

It was at this point that Cornbread came to the unfortunate realization of just what a terrible mistake she had made.

The Major, as it were, just so happened to be a very particular type of pony. Not something so obvious as a tribal variation, but a quirk of personality, one which ponies who know about it try their best to avoid activating. He was the type of pony who most times behaves like a rational, straight-laced, even stoic individual, except for when the object of their singular interest crops up, at which point they turn fanatic. Such as a gruff and laconic Forgemaster who will gush for hours about his little filly and whatever cute thing she's done lately. Or an author who will invest pages and pages of vivid and captivating detail about a minor and ultimately inconsequential facet of the world they've created. In the Major's case, his particular obsession was, to be blunt, exceedingly obvious.

"...of Naponyon! Our grand leaders, are none other than General Celestial Star and General Lunar Nova!"

He pivotted on one hoof, swinging about so his outstretched foreleg pointed towards the fires at the center of camp and the largest tent therein. "Even now they are deep in conference with King Ash's right-hoof adviser, Starswirl, strategizing for our upcoming confrontation, crafting battle plans so complex and inscrutable that they would transcend your feeble commoner's comprehension." The Major shook his head with a rueful smile as his gaze drifted longingly to a tent on the hill. "Even I can only hope to come close to understanding the genius tactics they must be concocting even now within their war tent."


"...and a set of crystal vases, and a flugelhorn; only an original flugelhorn, mind you. I'll accept no cheap imitations."

"Yes, Starswirl."

"Also, make sure to acquire some crystal silk. In blue. I'm thinking of having a new cape made."

"Yes, Starswirl."

"And I don't think I need to remind you to clear out Sombra's library and all of his personal effects for my perusal."

"No, Starswirl."

"Good girls." The image of Starswirl's face warped in the crystal ball as he got too close to the mirror on his end of the connection. "And most important of all: Crystalberry wine. I want at least six, no, make that twelve cases at minimum. The older the better, and nothing that was bottled after Sombra rose to power. Can't risk his dark magic corrupting the flavor. Do you have all that?"

Luna scribbled the last few items down on a parchment, underlined the final item three times for good measure, and stuck the quill behind her ear. "Got it!"

They were alone in the war tent. Celestia, Luna, and Starswirl's disembodied head which floated disapprovingly in a crystal ball the size of a large cantaloupe. Aside from a few tables made from planks placed across supply crates, the room was unfurnished.

"Er, Starswirl?" she ventured nervously, "Not to derail the your shopping list or call this whole plan into question or anything but..." she scuffed a hoof on the cold dirt floor and suddenly found everything except Starswirl's image more interesting to look at, "Shouldn't we come up with a plan or something?"

The wizard's disembodied head quirked an eyebrow. "How do you mean?"

"I- well, I mean, we're about to go to war. There's thousands of ponies outside this tent waiting for us to come out and tell them how we're going to beat a literal army of dark-magic empowered soldiers and a shadowmancer, and we have nothing." Having managed her initial statement, a dam seemed to break, letting all her pent up worries pour out. "Nothing! No plan! Zip! Zilch! Nada! This is bigger than anything we've ever done! They're expecting us to lead an army! I don't know how to lead an army!"

"Oh, sweet stars above!" Celestia moaned, her sister's breakdown triggering one of her own. "Finally someone said it! Why did they decide to put us in charge?"

Starswirl's head huffed. "Pull yourselves together. Honestly, such a display. It's because you're heroes. Saving the world from certain destruction, leading righteous ponies into battle against the forces of evil. That is what heroes do. Besides, out of quite possibly most ponies currently alive, myself excluded, you two have by far the most experience in dealing with monsters and villains."

"All of which we did solo!" Luna clarified.

"Duo...o. Duoly?" Celestia paused her nervous pacing to consider her phrasing before giving up. "Together. As a pair."

"We have no experience leading anypony!" her sister continued, "Every creature we've ever defeated has been on our own. And most of them beat themselves, one way or another."

"You seemed to do just fine leading the Lost Legion of the Kirin Emperor Quan Mul Shao some months ago," Starswirl commented. "You led them to glorious victory against Bade Harss and his horde."

"That doesn't count, those were golems," Celestia rebutted, "I just told them to attack and they figured the rest out themselves."

"Not to mention," Luna cut in, "Every single one of them was destroyed during the battle. That's a little harder to justify when your soldiers and flesh and bone instead of clay and magic stones."

Starswirl remained silent at their rebuttal, wisely choosing not to mention the squadron of archaic automata that he had purloined before the battle had even begun. Golems which were, at that very moment, diligently toiling away at maintaining several of his experiments not twenty paces out of view.

The wizard furrowed his brow at the pair. "That is beside the point. I taught you warcraft, did I not?"

"You taught us how to deliver a stirring speech."

"How to phrase leading questions so ponies think we came up with plans before they told them to us."

"How to fake a battlefield injury to get off the front lines."

"How to-"

"Enough!" Starswirl roared, stunning the young mares into silence. The crystal ball crackled as his anger fed too much power down the line."You want assurances? You want a guarantee? Fine! I'll give you an assurance! I've already looked into the future and seen that you will win this war today!"

"But how?" Luna pushed, "How do we do it?"

He snorted. "I can't tell you that, which you would well know if you ever paid any attention to my lessons. It would violate causality." Truthfully, not even Starswirl knew how they would win. He never did. He could see clearly events leading up to a confrontation and then a grand victory celebration afterward, but the critical turning point was always shrouded from him by an impassable cloud of possibility. Not that Celestia and Luna needed to know that.

"However, I have prepared something for you which you should find most useful. Stand back!"

The image of his horn glowed for a moment before two saddlebags poofed into existence on the sisters' side of the crystal. Luna immediately went to poking while her sister took a moment to reconcile what she'd just witnessed.

"That... was a really far teleport," she said in awe. Though even the smallest teleportation was well-beyond her abilities, Starswirl had hammered the information and theories on it into her head.

"Not for me," Starswirl replied cockily, as usual not telling them that the telepresence connection of the crystal made the distance negligible. His gaze shifted at a quiet clinking noise. Luna had removed several rounded bottles and was taking turns holding them up to the light to cast multicolored shadows. Each was stoppered by a cork and had tied around its neck a parchment label with Starswirl's distinctive scrawled hornwriting.

"What you see here," he began, "Is a world-changing revolution in magic preservation. Now, while most of these are potions, brewed especially for- Don't drink that you fool!"

Luna stopped, the cork almost out of a bottle as iridescent yellowish-green liquid sloshed fractions of a hoof away from her lips. "What? You said it's a potion. Potions are for drinking."

"Some of them are potions," he restated sharply, "Read the label on what you were about to drink."

Luna squinted at the label. Starswirl's spidery writing seemed to swim before her eyes, but slowly she made out the letters. "Teleportation Level 2: Intermediate Range."

"A spell?" Celestia asked.

"Exactly! What that flask contains is nothing short of pure magic! Condensed from the very aether, liquefied, stabilized, and contained. On the back of each label is a mathematical expression of a spell, while each bottle contains the precise amount of mana needed to cast it. It lacks the illusion of you casting the spell yourself, but in turn this will increase your battle potential tenfold!"

He took a moment to glance at something out of the sister's sight, a nervous expression briefly flitting over his features, before continuing. "There are, of course, normal potions as well for you to use to temporarily enhance your physical abilities and traits. And again, I cannot stress this enough, do not confuse the potion bottles with the spell flasks. The results could be... messy."

"What kinds of spells?" Luna asked as she carefully sorted the bottles in 'Drink' and 'Do Not Drink' piles.

"Oh, all sorts. Practical spells such as Silence, Unseen, Unlock, and Reveal Trap. A few less common ones such as Smokescreen, Purify, Expand, and Reduce. There's a few Teleportations too, but they consume a great deal of mana and are thus very short range. No more than the length of a room. There are also effect spells to use in combination with the primary ones. Ones to widen an area of effect, or delay the effect of a spell. Spells to invert the effects of another enchantment. Very handy in the right situation."

Celestia stepped in place fretfully as Starswirl continued to list spells and Luna continued to sort them in an ever more complicated system. "Yes, but... I mean, thank you Starswirl, most definitely thank you, but... we still have to tell all the captains and commanders something. There are thousands of ponies with their eyes on us!"

"Where?!" Luna sprang up suddenly, wide eyes darting about to spy the sneaks who'd apparently snuck into her tent.

"I told you it doesn't matter." Starswirl insisted again, "You do not need to come up with a plan because I already have. It involves you taking a rather direct role, as this is a grand opportunity to showcase your strength and heroics to ponies from far-reaching villages, though it will still rely on the commanders and their forces to keep the main bulk of the enemy busy while you deal with Sombra. Now, listen very closely and commit everything I'm about to say to memory..."


Major Urge was in high spirits. Finally, after hours of waiting he had received a summons to the Generals' war tent. Despite his cool and collected atmosphere, inside he was giddy as a schoolfilly. The generals, no, the heroes Celestia and Luna... He was finally going to meet them.

Oh, they'd met in passing. He'd seen them from afar on one of their victory tours, and had even been introduced when the forces he commanded had met up with the main army some weeks ago. But he'd never really met them. Not one on one. He was well aware that he would not be the only participant in this council, the leaders of the regiments from other cities and alliances would be present as well, but they were incidental.

To talk with them, to listen to them. To just bask in the grand intelligence that had led them to victory after victory over beasts and monsters of myth and legend. It was all he hoped for.

The interior of the war tent was sparse and utilitarian, a sensibility which he agreed with. A long table took up the center of the room, around which sat leaders from other portions of the combined army. A green earth pony with a face more like a stuck pig. A tan unicorn who didn't even bother to disguise his tribalist sneer. A silver pegasus that grumbled and fumed and muttered dark noises under her breath. There were others as well, minor nobles, high-ranking knights, second sons of wealthy serfdoms and more, but Major Urge paid them little mind. The important players he knew well and the rest were but numbers and noise. Bodies to be thrown at the enemy. Besides, there were two ponies to whom he was much more keen to give his attention.

They were younger than he had expected. Arguably in late adolescence, charitably young adults. Though they held themselves highly, they still came up half a head shorter than the next shortest pony in the room. Their bodies were not rippling with muscle, nor were they outstanding beauties. To be blunt, they looked slightly underfed.

To the slow-witted observer, they might have seemed ordinary, even exceedingly so. Aside from their excess of tribal blessings, there was little that would mark them as legendary heroes.

But Urge knew better. Though he held great pride in always being the smartest in the room, before these titans he knew there was no contest. Despite their less-than-intimidating statures, there was an undeniable air about them. An aura of power and leadership that left no question in his mind as to their legitimacy to command. So what if they were young? That only meant they had time to grow even greater; that they had not even begun to reach their peak. So what if they lacked warriors builds? Such a trifling thing was more than compensated for by their genius level intellect and raw magic power.

A pair of hooves clopped on the table, gathering the attention of the gathered commanders and captains. Their chattering and bickering settled down to quiet as all eyes turned to the multi-tribed pair at the table's head.

"First of all," General Celestia started, "We wish to thank you all for your prompt attendance and your willingness to lend your hooves and those of the ponies you represent in this most honorable fight against a truly evil foe."

How humble she is, Major Urge couldn't help but think, and how well-spoken as well. Truly, the tales of her silver tongue and grace were undoubtedly accurate. He felt himself hanging onto her every word, and could see other already doing the same, as though they were under some kind of mild charm. Not that such a thing would work on a stallion of his high intellect, of course.

"For those whom we have not had the pleasure of meeting, please allow me a brief introduction." Celestia continued as she flared her wings and raised her head, a most clever and tactical stance to garner the attention of both the unicorns and pegasi present towards the traits they shared. "I am known as Celestial Star: student of Starswirl the Archmage and Advisor to King Ash, High Knight of the Realm, and appointed General of the forces of this alliance."

The darker mare by her side stepped forward. "And I am Lunar Nova: likewise student, High Knight, and General in equal measure. You all have my greetings and shared gratitude for your contributions to our cause."

Their choice in order of titles did not escape Major Urge. An intellectual first, followed by a warrior, and only then a leader. Once again they had humbled themselves, likely to play to the egos of the assembled puffed-up lordlings and self-styled heroes.

"Before we present our ideas for the upcoming battle," Celestia continued, "Seeing as we are the most junior representative here despite our positions, it would be our honor to pay heed to your combined input and battlefield experience. Anypony who wishes may speak and share with the assembled leaders their view and thoughts on the fight before us."

Major Urge could only smile as once more as his General's thinking outstripped his own. Opening the floor was indeed a clever strategy. It would make it that much easier to weasel out the competent and the capable ponies from the muscleheads and the hooflickers.

"Now, if anypony wishes to speak, please rise and state your titles to be acknowledged by those assembled here."

Major Urge settled in his seat as well over half the ponies present rose at once. A clever strategy, yes, but one that would require them to suffer through a mind-numbing time of boring prattle and pablum. Satisfied in his seating, he braced himself for the assured asininity that was bound to follow.


Simpletons. All of them. Brutes and berserkers without a pinch of strategy between them, only occasionally interrupted by a weak-minded pony who took a long time to say absolutely nothing. It was exactly as he had expected: he and the Generals were the only competent ponies in the whole alliance.

When the final representative, a navy and purple pegasus from the city-state of Germaneigh, and said his piece and sat down, the elder of the two generals stood and addressed the assembly once more. "We have heard your suggestions and thank you for your counsel."

Her sister rose as well to stand beside her. "Now, if you will allow us, we too shall share the plan that we have formulated to combat Sombra's forces."

She pulled forth a roll of parchment and spread it on the table, revealing a surprisingly detailed map of the surrounding area. "We begin here, positioning a battalion of forces along the western border..."

Major Urge could only marvel in awe as brilliance poured forth from their mouths. Like a master artisan with their clay, they sculpted the battle before him, painting a picture so clear that every aspect seemed shamefully obvious in hindsight. Lines of troops in novel new configurations, backed by flying cavalry. A mage line that seemed practically impregnable. Sometimes he could scarcely believe that such profound words came from a pair so young. It was almost as if they were merely mouthpieces for an intelligence several times their age, reciting words like glorified parrots. Because beyond the battle tactics there were the subtle political plays. If he hadn't been so fiercely intelligent, he might have missed it himself. Even as his generals arrayed their forces for battle, they still arranged the nobles and lords as though it were a banquet! Nobles that were on good terms had their forces aligned to support one another in equal measure, while feuding clans were placed along the same front, forcing them to compete with one another for grander victories. The known tribalists were cloistered between more tolerant members of the same tribe. Enough of each force was set to the front that every lord and governor could boast that their host had been the first into battle. Truly, it was a masterful display of tactics, both against the enemy and within their own ranks.

Against such a display, the Major could only smile and lower his head in deference to the pair, the true geniuses of both the battlefield and the political field.

But within all their strategy, there was one glaringly obvious piece missing. It was so obvious, that even the most thick-skulled muscle-heads picked up on it.

"Oi." That was Red Dawn, the bulldoggish representative of the pegasus company from the port city of Baltimare. He'd made his disdain for the Generals well known in the past, and the Major had been keeping a special eye on him. The scowl he'd started with had only grown deeper as the battle plan had been laid out.

"While we's all out, riskin' our lives in t'heat of battle, woss youse two suppose t'be doin? Eh? Sittin' back, all nice'n comfy-like in yer tent I suppose?" He jabbed at the map, a sharp edge of his armored shoe tearing through the thin parchment. "An' woss wit' this battle plan? Iss all defense, no advancin', no frontal strike. You espect us t'starve 'im out? We ain't no siege company. I knew it. I knew it woss a mistake them puttin' youse two in charge. Yer just a couple'a fillies, never even bloodied in proper battle, weak an' scared an' tryin' t'act like yer not. Heroes? Feh! More like a couple'a cowards I say."

The Major's fur bristled, though he bit his tongue and swallowed the hot burst of anger, letting it boil his blood. How dare he. To even insinuate such things against the generals, his generals! Even impertinence had to have a limit. "We," the dulcet tones of General Lunar Nova cut through his harsh thoughts, soothing the fire, "Have a mission of our own. One of very much great importance."

"Who among you can tell me," General Celestial Star cut in, her voice placid as a lake, "How does one kill a snake?"

Answers came quickly from all corners of the room.

"Stab it."

"Crush it with a rock."

"Burn out its nest."

"Swallow it."

With no response from the generals, the replies from the assembly began to peter out. The Major took this moment to gather some attention with a feigned cough before coolly giving the right answer which they all should have known from the start. "You cut off it's head."

Finally, General Celestial Star smiled, and it lit up his world as though she were the sun itself. "Correct. Thank you..."

He stood, and gave a deep and formal bow. "Demolition Urge, my generals. Major Demolition Urge."

"Major Urge is correct." Luna rose from her seat. "A large portion of Sombra's forces are civilian conscripts, controlled through his dark magicks. If he were to be defeated, beaten in combat and forced to quell his spells, then much of his army would immediately surrender, if not outright join our side. However, he is far too powerful for any normal pony to confront."

Her sister continued. "While our forces maintain a defensive line, my sister and I will perform a surgical strike against Sombra's fortress. We shall shall offer him a chance to make peace and, if he should refuse, we will engage him in direct contact."

"And then he shall fall!" Luna, no, General Lunar Nova flapped her wings and rose up on top of the table. "He shall fall like so many others before him! For evil can never triumph when god ponies stand together as one!"

The shift in the mood was palpable. As the speech continued, Major Urge could see more and more ponies beginning to nod along. A few called out in support of a particular uplifting line or three. The sisters traded off lines, bouncing the speech between each other as though they'd rehearsed it, each new statement building off the last. There were holdouts, of course. Red Dawn looked no less upset, but the room was clearly against him and he remained silent. The assembly was so thoroughly enthused, they cheered now with every proclamation.

"We shall rout him!"


"Vanquish him!"

"Here, here!"

"Strike this evil from our lands!"


Driven by the passion of their oration, Major Demolition Urge found himself carried away much like everyone else in the room. Soon, he found himself adding to their speech, cutting in when the moment felt right. "We shall parade him through the streets in chains as a warning against any villain who would dare stand against Harmony, the United Equestrian Alliance, and our mighty Generals!"

The roaring cheer drowned out any before. The Generals looked slightly startled, and a small fire of shame burned within Major Urge for having stolen their dramatic finish. But the deed was done, and the effect was apparent. The captains and commanders were all on board with his general's plan now, and any who weren't wisely kept their mouths shut. Truly, never before in history had there been a pair more better suited to lead, not more deserving of his praise and loyalty. At that very moment, deep within his heart, Demolition Urge made a vow. After the war, he would withdraw from his regiment and move to the City. And if they would have him, he would submit himself to the service of his heroes. He could think of nothing better, nor more glorious a life.


Celestia and Luna glided through the dark pre-dawn skies. Starlight glinted off their golden armor and made the inset gemstones twinkle like stars themselves. Each had equipped one of Starswirl's Storage Sacks (he had named them Spacial Pockets Of Increased Larceny bags, but the mares did not find it as catchy) for 'the recovery of potentially dangerous artifacts (and everything else on Starswirl's shopping list)'. Luna also carried with her a large saddlebag brimming with potion and spell bottles.

Coasting on open wings, Celestia angled her flight to bring her closer to her sister's side.

"How's your armor handling?" she called.

"Fantastic!" came the cheery reply, "It's amazing! I wish Starswirl had made these years ago!" Luna pumped her wings once and immediately shot up thirty lengths higher where she spread her wings again and continued to coast. Celestia flapped once and rose to join her as a rush of pegasus magic surged from the armor's reservoirs into her wings. As her ascent apexed, she locked her wings in a coasting position, confident that she wouldn't need to flap them again for several minutes.

Aside from being beautiful, their armors were masterworks of enchantment and magical engineering.

Starswirl had long known that parlor tricks and sleight of hoof spells would only get them so far. Eventually, somepony was going to want to see the legendary heroes do a feat of magic that they didn't have a clever trick ready for, and that was a problem. Training was off the table, as even this far into adolescence the pair still barely had the magical strength of a single average adult between them. So Starswirl had begun researching more artificial ways to increase their magical aptitude.

First it had been small gemstones, disguised as pendants and trinkets, enchanted with magic to mimic common spells. Then larger stones, embedded in platinum horseshoes to make arcane capacitors.

There had been a few... false starts. Such as the entire line of inventions which hinged on the concept of the sisters storing magically charged crystals within their bodies at all times. But, all in all, Starswirl truly was the genius he carried himself as, and success after success supported that claim.

Piece by piece, groundbreaking innovation by secret groundbreaking innovation, Starswirl improved upon his creations. And these sets of armor were the end result of his efforts. A thin overlay of gold and silver hid the iron and mithril beneath. Patches of chain mail contained links of far rarer materials in the discreet shapes of runes and glyphs. Gemstones, both showcased and hidden, all but glowed with stored magical power.

Merely wearing the armor pushed the sisters past the limiting thresholds of normal ponies. Of course, nowhere near the level of gods and heroes. Starswirl's efforts were inherently limited by the natural ineptitude of the ponies who used his items. But it put them above average in enough fields that they could bluff their way through any lingering suspicions over whether they deserved their titles and honors.

Of course, the power-up provided by the Alicorn Armor was not in any way linked or bound to it's similarly named users. Any pony who donned the full set could make use of it's superequine abilities, assuming they knew the correct order of runes to activate it. And had adolescent bodies small enough to even wear it at all.

Most of this naturally went over Celestia and Luna's heads. They appreciated it for the immediate tangible benefits. With the armor, they could fly (more than a few unstable lengths), buck a tree (without immediately breaking a leg), and cast spells (that an average pony would find mundane but had stumped them for ages). It was liberating, freeing. They felt... normal. For a brief time, they felt like normal everyday ponies who could fly up to reach high shelves and who didn't need to take a breather after performing some simple act of levitation.

Well, normal aside from being semi-fraudulent heroes inexorably caught in the riptide of destiny.

Luna nudged her sister and pointed ahead. The Crystal City was in sight. Countless green fires reflected off its many-faceted towers, making the whole city seem to flicker and waver as if it were no more than an illusion. "We're getting close."

Celestia nodded. "You ready for your part?"

"Of course, it's the safest part of this whole mission. Watch my body while I'm out, kay?" With that said, Luna closed her eyes and let her mind drop out of her body. She didn't drop 'down' so much as it was 'out' and 'through'. Normal directions didn't really apply well in the Dream Realm and she'd yet to invent new words to describe them.

Her ethereal form shot forward and found herself at the castle in seconds, which was much easier now that distance was subjective. The city was murky, almost fluid, as though she was gazing through greasepaper on a hot day. But there was one thing she could make out with crystal clarity.

Ponies. Or rather, orbs of light that flickered with snapshots of thoughts and dreams.

She followed the hazy grid of the tower up until she reached the peak. As Starswirl had predicted, there were fewer guards here, but enough to be a problem.

Luna cracked her figurative neck. Time to get to work.

Back up in the sky and several leagues away, Celestia was relieved that Luna had remembered to close her eyes this time. Leaving them open, blank, empty, and unblinking for minutes at a time was no end of unsettling.

When she and her sister's empty body had glided low enough that she was starting to get concerned, suddenly Luna blinked and the life returned to her eyes. "Guards are taken care of," she reported with a grin, "the tower's clear for landing."

"You sure they're out this time?" Celestia asked skeptically as they pair once more rose into the night sky, "I don't want a repeat of what happened in Ravenmire."

"Yes," Luna stressed, "I'm sure. I pulled them so deep into their subconscious, it'll take being fired from a cannon to wake them up."

They continued to fly, flapping once every so often when their glide fell too low. They passed over the enemy encampment, forts and camps pitched around the outer border of the city, and continued unimpeded. Troops marched in strict lines as wisps of dark magic trailed behind them. Despite being in the middle of enemy territory, there wasn't an aerial patrol to be found as they flew without detection or notice. The journey was so smooth that it became worrisome.

"I'm a little surprised there aren't any pegasus patrols." Celestia glanced left and right as her wings twitched with involuntary nerves. "I know Sombra prefers unicorns, but still, he's supposed to be a master tactician."

"There were," Luna replied easily, "They're all asleep now."

"Oh. Nicely done. Having the power over sleep is really useful."

"I know right?" Luna beamed, "I can't see any reason to not use it at every opportunity."

Her sister started to nod before stopping midway. "Wait, is that how you keep getting all those cookies? You've been knocking out the royal chefs?"


Celestia scoffed. "You're terrible. And you didn't even share."

They landed on the top of the tallest tower with only a slight stumble. As promised, all the guards were deep asleep. At the center of the roof there was a mosaic floor made of the same crystal but in slightly different shades. Above it hovered a large crystalline heart that spun slowly as it illuminated the roof with a soft, blue light.

Luna batted it as they passed it and made their way to the stairs, making it bob and spin faster for a moment. "Neat lantern. Say what you want about Sombra, but at least he has a better decorating sense than Grogar did."

The palace was quiet. Eerily so. For such a large building, one would expect it to be packed with personnel. Maids cleaning and fussing, scribes and messengers dashing from room to room with loads of paperwork, guards protecting important rooms and important ponies. But there was none. Every able body had been drafted for the war, leaving the palace as empty as a crypt in Tambelon.

Except it wasn't. There was a sound, echoing from somewhere, too quiet to make out. It seemed to haunt the invading sisters, always coming from behind them no matter how they turned. It set their hair on end. With silence, at least they could pretend they were alone. Now, there was no doubt that they weren't.

Still, spooky sounds or no, they had a job to do. Or rather, a shopping list to clear. They systematically made their way through every room from the top of the tower downward, ever alert for a sign of Sombra and their ears ever assaulted by the mysterious voice. Unfortunately, the upper floors held slim pickings. What rooms weren't completely empty looked like a fruit stall just after being ravaged by a roving band of starving orphans. Clearly someone else had already been through the tower with the same goal as Celestia and Luna. Still, they pocketed a few things that had been missed. Scrap metal mostly, as well as the odd book or overlooked crystal trinket. They chugged potions as they went, quaffing them down as though it were hard liquor and they were about to have a leg amputated. Potions to buff strength, agility, durability, endurance, charisma, luck, sure-footedness; anything and everything that could give them an edge.

Starswirl's liquid spells worked as perfectly as he had promised. Locks were melted or cut away, large furniture was moved through levitation and magical output amplification spells, and any sudden noise was responded with an immediate bottle of invisibility. Not that any noise turned out to be more than scampering crystal mice. But that and the ever-present murmuring voice was more than enough to put the pair on edge. It wasn't until they were nearly halfway down the tower that they could finally pin down a clear direction towards where the voices originated.

Following the voices, the pair found themselves on a balcony-like protrusion hanging high over a large hall. Judging by the the spiked monstrosity of a throne against the far wall, this was where Sombra had chosen to set up court. The walls were heavy with ornamentation, as every free space boasted a carving or bust of some hero, king, or legend of old. Tapestries overlapped each other like fallen leaves in autumn. The whole affair was rather like if someone had tried to cram an entire palace's worth of decorations into one room. What few spaces were free of artifacts and heirlooms and baubles allowed tiers of balconies to jut into the room. Possibly to let more ponies sit in on royal speeches. The two common-born mares had no idea. Besides, there were more important things in the room to attract their attention.

Aside from the cluttered finery, the walls were also lined with chained crystal ponies, each shackled to their neighbor by hoof and neck. Civilians, merchants, former castle staff and guard, they seemed to be a random sampling of the citizenry gathered without a common factor. Though their eyes seemed free of dark magic control, they were not free from misery. Much to Celestia and Luna's delight, despite his ominous throne, Sombra, thank goodness, was nowhere in sight.

But, given that, where was the sound they had been following? There were no dark guards in sight, and all the slaves sat silent as mice. Had Sombra just left the moment they'd arrived? Or was there someone else in the castle that they needed to worry about?

Any further musings on the subject were swiftly cut short by the sudden return of a loud and boisterous voice that came from nowhere yet filled the hall like thunder.

"Alright, do it again. All together now, passionately!"

Celestia and Luna risked peeking over the banister once more, just barely enough to see what was happening down below. In a plume of smoke as black as midnight, Sombra appeared before his throne. His chest puffed out pridefully as a scarlet cloak billowed out behind him, lifted by an unseen wind. He wore a shining mithril crown, forged with demon-like horns that gleamed with wickedly sharp points even at a distance. Dark magic residue leaked from his eyes even while he wasn't actively casting, creating afterimages and a delayed amethyst blur when he moved. His horn, ribbed, cracked, inflamed and bursting at the seams with dark energy arced and hissed in the wake of his teleport and smoke spell.

Luna noticed some motion among the slaves. It looked like some of them were, against all reason, raising what looked like musical instruments. Horns, mostly, all made of crystal, but a few others as well that she didn't recognize. At some unknown signal from Sombra, they sprang to life with the opening bars of an unfamiliar, yet undeniably catchy, tune.

Sombra strutted forward, no, properly​ swaggered to the staccato beat of the blaring horns. And then, in front of his enslaved accompaniment and an audience of two increasingly confused enemy generals, he began to sing in a rich and creamy baritone that was only occasionally off-key.

"Oh, who's the most phenomenal, extraordinary fellow?"

"Youuuuu!" The slaves sang back morosely, but in perfect four part harmony.

Sombra grinned and nodded to the beat, apparently pleased with their response. "Who's the most remarkable, extra special kind of fellow?"

"Youuuuu!" The slaves chorused once more, those in front of him cowering obediently while those behind and outside his field of vision sighed heavily or rolled their eyes.

Accompanied by a musical interlude between verses, Sombra continued his exaggerated walk down the length of the hall, turning the regal red carpet into a veritable catwalk. Now and again, in time with particularly vibrant trumpet blasts, he paused to swirl his cape or flip his mane, basking in the adulation of the audience in his head.

"I'm- a-fraid- of- nopony under the sun! All- I- say- is- Boo! and my enemies run!"

Up on the balcony, Celestia snickered. Luna gave her a little shove, but also failed to hold back a giggle. Which made it harder for Celestia to swallow a chuckle. Which made-

"Oh, who's the- ...STOOOOOP!" The music died suddenly, one horn bleating out a solitary sharp note in surprise. Sombra stomped over to the flugelhorn players and shot them an evil eye. "Alright, which one of you was it?" he snarled, "Which of you insufferable ingrates played a B-flat when it obviously should have been an A above middle C? Well? Who was it?!"

The hall was dead silent, save for a brief sound not unlike the first quarter second of a glass shattering. The tyrant paused and listened intently, his ears swiveling on either side of his crown to try and pinpoint the noise or catch a follow-up sound. After several long seconds, he dismissed it as one of the other slaves biting their hooves in fear. Which was fine by him... so long as it didn't hinder their ability to sing or play instruments.

Meanwhile, up on the balcony, a pair of alicorns were laughing themselves to pieces. In a rare moment of thinking ahead, Luna had smashed a spell bottle and cast a sound-proof barrier, protecting her and her sister from his notice. Which was good, because they'd otherwise have been found out immediately and been in no shape to fight back. Celestia was rolling on her back, cackling like a madmare and struggling to breathe. Luna pounded on the floor, taking full advantage of the silence magic as she fought to regain control over herself as she laughed her head off.

"Bwaha...buh-ha ha! Who- who's the.. the- ha, I can't even say it! Who- who's the -ha, ha!- special!?"

"Oh, I'd say he's extra special all right! Shihaha-ah!

The unexpected spark of merriment lifted the dark cloud that had been hanging over them since they'd entered the palace. Suddenly, the mission didn't seem so scary.

"Okay, okay... I think that's enough" Celestia took a few deep breaths and tried to get her breath back. "His silliness aside, we still need to do something about him."

Luna, still wheezing, nodded. They peeked over the railings. Though they were still behind the bubble of silence, Sombra's strutting and posturing up the red carpet could only mean he was still rehearsing his musical number. Luna nearly started to fall into giggles again at his now silent pantomime, but managed to restrain herself. They watched for several minutes as he swaggered, got mad at a musician or singer, and restarted from the top over and over. In time, with enough staring, Celestia began to notice a pattern, and from that, the beginning of a plan emerged.

"Hey," she nudged her sister with a growing grin, "You remember that trick we used to pull on the old apple vendor?"

Luna's eyes lit up, followed by her grin a moment later. "I think I know what you mean. You think it'll work here?"

The paler sister took another glance at the room below, taking note of the occupants and their arrangement. "I think so. And if it doesn't, well..." She hesitated, realizing that if this plan failed it'd likely just make Sombra really angry.

"We run?"


"Got it."

"You want to be the distraction or the sneaker?" Celestia asked.

Her sister peeked over the banister once more, confirming her memory of there being a servant's door on the wall beside the throne. "I'll be sneaky. I think I see a path to where I need to go."

"Alright, I'll keep him distracted till you get in position." The pair shimmied back out into the hallway where, once out of sight, they stood up. "Remember, just like with the apple vendor."

"Apple vendor, got it."

Celestia and Luna smiled at each other for a moment, before finally caving to their worries and embracing one another in a nerve-filled hug. "Good luck, Lu." Cel whispered.

"You too, Cel," Lu replied.

The hug broke, Luna turned and began trotting down the hallway as quickly as she could while staying quiet. Celestia waited until she turned a corner before looking away. Once her sister was out of sight, she freed a nervous breath from her breast. She didn't like splitting up. Back in the streets, it had always led to disaster. But sometimes you just had to do things at different places at the same time to succeed. That was why she had to do her part as best she could. To give her sister the best possible chance of success. The best chance of them both surviving this.

Swallowing her racing heart, she stepped back onto the balcony and gazed over the room once more. The silencing spell was still functioning perfectly, so she could still hear nothing, but from the looks of things Sombra was back in middle of his routine. She craned her neck outside of the barrier, listening for the right cue to jump in and bring the rain to his parade.

Meanwhile Sombra was having a wonderful day. His enthralled generals told him the conquest was going well, and he'd finally routed that one horn player who kept hitting the sour note in the third stanza. He couldn't imagine anything that could ruin his good humor.

"Who's the most remarkable, extra special kind of fellow? Who?"

"Celestial Star!"

And much like a falling star, disaster had come loudly, unexpectedly, and from above.

She slammed into floor, reinforced armor cracking the crystal where she landed. Instruments and voices alike fell silent as all eyes turned to her.

Caught completely off guard by the sudden intrusion into his most private personal time, Sombra briefly forgot to adopt his kingly manor. "Who fills the air with notes so sour, and dares to threaten Sombra's power?"

Celestia, clearly confused, clarified. "Celestial star. I... just told you?"

Quickly, Sombra regained his composure as a evil and menacing dictator. With a scowl, he barked out an order for the slaves to leave him. Not wasting a second, the two chained lines shuffled up and out the doors as quickly as their shackles and instruments would let them Once the pair was alone, Sombra smiled darkly at his guest.

"So, the great hero Celestia has deigned to pay a visit to my humble estate. Oh, my apologies, its General Celestia now, isn't it?" He commented dryly, "I suppose congratulations are in order."

"Likewise," she replied, falling back on Starswirl's words of wisdom; if you don't know how to talk to somepony, mimic them and their patterns of speech. Then strike once their guard is down. "I hear you've recently declared yourself emperor as well."

"It's a start. I have much greater ambitions than a mere empire, you know."

"Oh I know."

An awkward silence filled the space between them. Sombra cleared his throat and tried to reignite the dialogue.

"I'm surprised you managed to make it this far, overcoming my defenses is no small feat."

"It wasn't that hard," she replied flippantly, "You left a few holes for us to slip through."

"Indeed. I suppose I'll have to address that."

"I suppose you shall have to indeed."

Again, silence took up residence and Celestia was finding it hard to meet his gaze. Ad-libbing a high level conversation was hard. Where oh where was Starswirl and his coaching when she needed him?

After a time, Sombra sighed mockingly. "You know, I seem to find myself... disappointed. Tales of your skills​ at statecraft, your cleverness with words, your sagely wisdom and insight have reached even here. Yet, thus far, you've shown yourself to be merely... adequate. I was actually looking forward to the chance to bandy words with you. To lay forth an intricate game of verbal chess as we trade barbs and threats with veiled undertones. Yet this barely qualifies as a successful conversation, let alone intellectual sparring. Do you mock me, Celestia? Am I not worthy enough a foe for you to even make the effort?"

"I am making an effort!" she insisted, "I think we're having a very nice conversation."

"Do you take me for a fool, Celestia?" His eyes narrowed, making the smoke at their edges flare. "I've read transcripts of your speeches. The stirring monologues that drive ponies to support you and your efforts as effectively as any of my mind control magics. Where are your words now? Did you not bring with you the silver tongue which ensnares the minds of feeble ponies like a hunter's trap? Where-"

"Fine, alright already!" Celestia interrupted, flaring both her wings and nostrils in anger and annoyance over what was clearly a touchy subject. "So I use a speechwriter, okay? No one ever said part of this job was creating grand and inspiring speeches at a moments notice! You don't have to rub it in, I get enough of that at home."

Yet another awkward silence settled between the two. Celestia still quietly fuming to herself over the slight and Sombra, caught off balance by the unexpected change in tone and subsequent destruction of mood he'd been trying to set. Neither spoke for a time as they each waited for the other to go ahead with their plan to jump-start the dialogue. Eventually it was Sombra who broke the impasse with a disappointed-sounding sigh.

"Perhaps it would be best if we were to forgo the ceremonies and skip right to the combat." His voice sounded tired, like he wasn't nearly as invested as he had been before.

Celestia hesitated. Combat? She couldn't do combat, nor did she want to! The whole point of the plan with Luna was to stall him long enough that they could explicitly avoid combat!

A hole with edges of flickering shadows opened in the space to Sombra's right. He plunged a foreleg into it, reaching deeply into the void before seeming to grasp something. He retracted his hoof at a snails pace, savoring every inch and second. Say what you would about his dark magic, regicidal tendencies, and general lack of ability to lead an orchestra, but right now Celestia was more than thankful for his showboating, theatrical inclinations. How he took a thousand words to say what a normal pony could have accomplished with ten.

Idly, a part of her brain not currently occupied with stalling for survival wondered what sort of weapon it was going to be. He'd been pulling for a while but had as of yet revealed only a long handle. It was a very nice handle at least. A long staff of obsidian, twice the length of her foreleg (so far) and intricately carved. As he reached the blade he suddenly whipped it out the rest of the way and brandished it with a pose that definitely looked rehearsed.

It was... certainly a unique weapon. A handle as long as a spear or halberd, but headed with a blade that looked like it belonged on a pirate sword: wide, thin, and oddly curved. Definitely weird, but oddly fitting such a weird wielder.

Sombra spun his weapon around in his magic, showing off his full range of motion and mastery over its movement. Even the air seemed to ripple as it flew, slicing out a vortex that made crystalline dust rise from the floor into a halo around his head before he sent it all back with a downward slash.

"Impressive, no?" He preened as he pulled the blade in close and held it like one would a child. "My prized possession, and my closest friend."

"I've... never seen anything like it," Celestia said honestly.

"A traditional weapon of the ancient crystal ponies," he continued as he stroked it, "Predating Discord, the Unification, and even the Great Migration." He tilted it so light played off the razor-sharp edge, casting rainbows across the room. "Forged with an alloy of the seven legendary prismatic ores in white hot furnaces for over three years, and folded over one thousand times, there is no blade in any of the settled lands that could be called it's rival."

He brought the blade up to face, his tongue dancing dangerously along along its edge while his eyes never broke their lock with Celestia's. "Diamond Smasher has drunk the blood of royals, warriors, spellcasters, and sages, but you should not feel slighted. You shall be it's first taste of 'hero'. Now, if you still have the will to fight, would you like to begin?"

It was at about this point, that Luna pulled the rug out from under him.

To be perfectly accurate, Sombra was still on the rug, only the royal red runner was now several hooves farther back than it had been and he was not.

Sombra's smile widened. It grew and grew, seemingly in slow motion to his two observers. The edges rose back higher and farther until both sides of his mouth met around the back of his head and completed the circle. Noiselessly, and somewhat anticlimactically, Sombra collapsed to the ground, his body remaining still as his upper head rolled off like an errant wheel of cheese.

The silence was short lived.

"You did it again!" Celestia cried, "Why do you keep killing ponies?!"

"I'm not trying to, it just keeps happening!" Lune shot back.

"What did you think was going to happen if you tripped him while he was licking a sword?"

"I was behind him, I didn't know it was a sword!" Luna released the carpet and stomped over to the body where her sister was. "I thought he had a warhammer. He was supposed to hit himself in the head and knock himself out. Who calls a sword 'Smasher'? This is all his fault!"

Celestia shook her head in exasperation. "Why are you even down here? You're supposed be in that hole in the ceiling, dropping something heavy on his head."

Luna glanced up then back at her sister accusingly. "The ceiling? You said we were doing the trick from the apple merchant. You distract him, I pull out the rug, he trips and we grab the food and run."

Celestia groaned. "That was the baker on middle street, not the apple seller. We tripped the baker cause he was so fat that he needed three of his apprentices to get back up! The apple merchant I distracted while you dropped a vase on his head from the roof. How could you get those mixed up? Does Sombra look fat to you?!"

She glanced at the body. "Eh, he could stand to lose a few pounds. He's got a bit of a muffin top. A couple of sit-ups wouldn't kill him." Her grinning gaze turned back to her sister. "Get it? Cause he's already dead."

Celestia snorted as she tried to choke back an involuntary laugh. It was macabre, but still funny. She just couldn't let Luna know that. Someone had to be the responsible one after all. "You're impossible."

"It was probably going to happen eventually," Luna reasoned, "Half the ponies out there were calling for his blood anyway. Also," her face grew a devious grin of realization, "This counts as my win, so by our agreement, I get first pick of the loot drop!"

Celestia opened her mouth to remind her dear sister that that was definitely not the system they'd agreed on and that it was most definitely her own turn for first pick, but then stopped before speaking. Her eyes dropped down to the body, then back to her sister, then something quite near the body. An odd little smile grew on her face. "Yes... you go ahead and take first pick. I'll wait."

"Yes! Score!" Luna dashed to the headless head of state and relieved him of his weapon. "I claim this sword-on-a-stick in the name of Luna, first of her name!"


Luna (first of her name, owner of sword-on-a-stick) looked up as she heard a dark chuckle. It was, surprisingly, her sister, giggling as she kneaded her hooves menacingly.

"Oh my sister dear, once more your hasty actions have cost you dearly. Behold, the real treasure!" Celestia pounced and in a single bound vaulted to the other side of Sombra's body where she ripped his cloak clean away. Her magic lifted it into the air, spreading the corners to better display its full size.

Looking closer, Luna noted that it was indeed a fine cloak. A rich and evenly dyed crimson, thin yet not without enough heft to drape properly, and an occasional glimmer where light caught the weave. Yes it was very nice, quite a luxurious item to honest, but it wasn't all that. Not when you had a sword. On a stick, no less. Her sister would see the truth once Starswirl started exchanging their loot for prizes.

"Nice secondhoof clothes," she mocked, "You know, if you were cold there's a heating charm in your armor."

"You don't understand. This isn't just a cloak, this is 100% hoof-spun all natural crystalworn silk!"

"So its fancy fabric. Still doesn't beat my stick sword," Luna replied with a shrug, giving her new toy a few experimental overbalanced swishes.

"Don't you know anything, Lu?" Celestia admonished, "It's crystalworm silk! It's as strong as chainmail, but soft and light as regular silk. It can hold enchantments as easily as gold and the spells don't fade. And so hard to make! It must have taken years to get this much in one place! And its threadcount is so high:" Celestia stuck in face in the fabric. When she inhaled, a ghoulish impression of her face appeared on the other side. She pulled it away, gasping for air. "It's airtight!"

Eyes sparkling in newfound wonder and appreciation, Luna saw the cloak in a new light. "Wow! That's amazing!"

"I know! I'm going to sew it into a cushion to sit on!" Celestia brought up the cape to her face and began to nuzzle it like a foal. "Who's going to make the comfiest pillow ever? You! That's right, you are! No more sitting on hard wooden chairs for this mare. I'm moving up in the world, yes indeed!"

For a moment, Luna smiled alongside her sister, likewise picturing how comfy such a pillow must be. But suddenly her expression clouded over with anger. "Hey, you tricked me!"

She received a face full of smug grin for her trouble. "Oh? Is that a fact? I gave you first pick didn't I?"

"I- Well- That is..." the smaller sister sputtered, "No fair! I want a do over!"

"Tough hoofnails little sister, you had your chance and you chose the stick-sword."

Luna cast it away without a second thought. It spun through the air and landed, tip first, gouging through the crystal floors like a hot knife through butter. "Who cares about some silly weapon, give me the superpillow!"

Celestia clutched it to her chest. "Never! It's mine!"

"I undid my first pick! I want the that instead!" She grabbed a corner and began to pull, but Celestia would not yield that easily.

Thus began a most epic battle the likes of which no one would ever sing of, because who would write a song about two mares playing tug-of-war with a cloak like overgrown fillies? But in the midst of their heated battle, neither took notice of how an edge of fabric had gotten caught on an angled plate of their armor.

Luna pulled and the fabric hitched.

Celestia pulled and the first threads snapped.

Luna tugged as a tear formed.

Celestia tugged and it widened.

And when both sisters pulled on the cloak with all their might, the cinched and overstrained strap of Luna's saddlebag finally snapped.

The bag went hurtling through the air, end over end, followed by two pairs of eyes. It came to a crashing collision squarely atop the recently deposed and decomposing dictator heralded by the unmistakable sound of shattering glass.

Celestia and Luna froze in shock and alarm, Starswirl's warnings running through their head. After a few seconds of nothing happening they glanced at each other warily. Maybe their luck was holding out?

And then Sombra began to writhe and boil. Vibrantly colored liquids seeped out of the bag, hissing where they spilled into each other and releasing foul smoke. The corpse began to surge and twitch as magical forces ran rampant through his easily accessible veins and nerves. Spells and potions that never should have interacted began to form strange and fantastical hybrids of magic. And then he began to swell alarmingly.

Celestia's and Luna's gazes met once more, and in a moment of pure sibling synchronicity, they shared the exact same thought.



"Well... that's not so good..."

Celestia and Luna hovered a safe distance away as the city was consumed beneath them. Torrents of magic, green and black and thick as tar, poured forth from the castle and out into the streets like the second coming of the smooze. Buildings, statues, soldiers; nothing was spared from the tidal wave of materialized magic.

"Pull back all forces!" Celestia ordered into the far-speak crystal embedded into her helmet, her voice travelling via magic all the way back to camp. "Call in any scouts and rangers from the city, get everypony away!"

"Of course, my General!" Major Demolition Urge's crisp voice responded immediately, "But what of the battle strategy? Were you not successful in subjugating him?"

"It, uh... we..." Celestia stumbled over her words, panic preventing her from coming up with a convincing lie. Luckily, her sister had her back.

"Sombra laid a trap!" Luna joined the frequency on her own earpiece, lying as glibly as Starswirl had taught. "We defeated him, as planned, through honorable combat, but even after a resounding defeat he refused to yield. He took his own life to spite us and as soon his blood spilled we felt a powerful spell activate."

Demolition Urge swore over the line. "A Deadmare's spell, the coward. Too craven to even face defeat with honor. That's dark magic, old as well. I'll sound the retreat down the line with all haste, my generals."

"Better make that double time," Celestia commented as the magic maelstrom of her own accidental creation surged and seemed to pick up speed.

Minutes passed as the magic continued to flow, encasing ever more of the beautiful city as it went. Just what had been in those bottles? What possible combination of spells could create such chaos? Around the border, they could see the troops of the alliance retreating. The enemy soldiers, however, merely fell back into formation without pursuing. Without new orders from their emperor, all the mind-controlled conscripts could do was follow the last orders given; to keep a defensive line around the city.

With little resistance, the flood of magic passed the edge of the city, quickly consuming as well the enemy camps and fortifications. Just as the two generals were starting to worry that they might have actually doomed the world this time, the magic stopped. For a moment, nothing moved as the entire city stood frozen like an insect in amber. Then, with a sudden flash of light, everything the mutant magic had touched disappeared. Where once a grand city carved of solid crystal had stood tall and proud, there was now nothing but a shallow crater.

There was silence for a time, and then somebody cheered. In moments the entire alliance was roaring cries of victory. Knights and soldiers shouted the names of their home cities and holdfasts while conscripts whooped and yelled with wordless triumph. For miles the sounds of their victory carried across the scrubby hills.

In the skies above, two sisters gave each other uneasy smiles.

"I... guess that works," Celestia ventured.

"We don't have to explain the body anymore," Luna pointed out, "And we have a perfect absentee scapegoat for why the city vanished. "

"Why did the city vanish?"

Her sister shrugged. "Who knows. I don't know how magic works. Maybe Starswirl included a melting spell or a disintegration charm." Her gaze drifted to the crater below. "Anyhoo, doesn't really matter does it? Knowing isn't going to change what happened."

"Hm. True." Celestia gave her sister a grin. "Call it a win then?"

Luna returned it. "I think we can call this a win."

They shared a high hoof and a short aerial victory dance before tilting their wings to start the long slow glide back to base camp and the celebration that was no doubt already taking place.

"Mind you," Celestia commented, Sombra's cape rippling in the wind from over she shoulder,"You're going to have to explain to Starswirl how you lost his storage sacks."

Luna grunted in annoyance before replying. "Fine. But you have to explain how you lost a whole city."

They laughed before Celestia suddenly stopped and all color drained from her face. "Oh no. Oh no, this is bad."

"What's wrong?" Luna scanned the skies around them and the ground below. Was there an attack incoming?

"Oh we are dead. We are so so so so dead!"

"What is it?! What happened?! Why are we dead?!"

"...we didn't get Starswirl his crystalberry wine."

Color drained from Luna's face until she nearly matched her sister. "Oh criminy, we are dead."

Author's Notes:

...This was supposed to be short.
This was supposed to start roughly when they get to the crystal palace.
But noooo... little voice in my head wouldn't settle for that.

"We could add a little bit of worldbuilding."

"How about a smidge of foreshadowing?"

"Ooh, how about this neat idea for a character cameo? Oh, he's going to need some characterization and backstory while you're at it."

And then suddenly... here we are. With a lot of words. Hopefully good words. Fun words.
Maybe less words next time?

On that note, have a picture of Major Demolition Urge! Yes, obvious reference is obvious, but no less fun. Be wary, he might show up again.

In realer news, I got a new job that has been majorly slowing me down. Last job had a policy along the lines of "Finished your assigned tasks for the day? Great! Rest of the day is yours. Read, write, whatever, just stick around till 5:00."
New job has a policy of "Done with work? Ha! Silly summer child, there is always more work."
So writing in generally will be slow. Slow, but not stopped. New chapters will happen... eventually.

Two Liddell Alicorns: Part 1

Of all the words one might use to describe the castle at the center of Forever Free City (recently renamed), 'magical' would generally not be one of them. It was built by earth ponies in their own image; dense, strong, and practical. The walls were fortified rather than adorned and the banners of heraldry were simple and visually distinct. It was a practical castle for practical ponies built to stand up to practically anything.

Plus, it didn't help that any decoration during the age of Discord was basically an open invitation for him to come and provide some of his rather transformative brand of artistic critique.

But with the world's worst critic "dead" and gone, a younger generation of ponies had taken to the idea that the castle was somewhat drab and utilitarian, especially as ponies in other cities started having the same idea.

It wasn’t more than a few years before a proper decorative arms race broke out. If the city of New Trot built a portcullis, then suddenly every castle needed one lest they seem shabby or poorer in comparison. Then ornate glass windows became popular. Then mosaiced bathing chambers.

Slowly but surely, even the castle of Forever Free City started to look like the kind of proper castle one hears about in fairy tales. Not nearly as effective in battle, but far more influential in a time of peace.

Still, there was only one part of the castle that your average pony on the street would call magical. The grand Court Wizard's Tower. It was, after all, the most visible part of the structure, even from the outermost slums. It soared high above all else, its architecture a mystery of long-forgotten magics. It was the eye-catching, jaw-dropping beacon that grabbed the attention of every visitor and, once an actual wizard set up shop, many of the locals as well.

But even the most fantastical things became ordinary with time, and the ponies of Forever Free eventually grew used to the guttural demonic howling and the seraphic ecclesiastical chimes. The muffled explosions where trails of smoke leaked out the windows and the less muffled ones that blew the chimney off. Even the bright and colorful lights that some nights merely flickered in the windows and other times strobed like rapid-firing lightning into the night became a comforting familiarity and a reminder that their city was under protection.

They didn't understand it, but they didn't need to. High magic was going on.

It was towards this tower that two figures strolled one early morning. Atop a battlement, a maid watched them make their way across the courtyard. Even at a distance they had the bearing of Heroes. They practically seemed to glide across the hoof-deep snow, every movement quick and precise, no second wasted in indecision. Facing the elements head-on without flinching at their foes. These were far from ordinary mares; they were Heroes, through and through.

Perhaps it was merely wonder clouding her eyes, but she could have sworn that a trail of glittering magic drifted in their wake, sparkling and twinkling in the morning light like fairy dust.

Fortunately for her, who remained at a distance, the effect of their heroic aura was somewhat lost upon approach.

"Cold, cold, cold, cold, cold." The shorter sister muttered the phrase like a mantra to ward off evil spirits, her teeth chattering between each syllable.

The door to the tower recognized them as they approached and swung open welcomingly. They entered without hesitation and it slammed shut behind them.

"Criminy it's cold!" Celestia swore once inside. She shook herself as she walked over to the thankfully lit fireplace, her sister following suit. Sweat from morning training that had frozen on their fur flaked off in a flurry of tiny crystals. She threw off her simple cloak and the chestplate she wore beneath it. Ice had formed on them as well which chipped off as they hit the ground. "Of all the times for his spell to fail, it just had to be on the coldest morning of the year."

Luna tapped the colorless gem set into the discarded breastplate and compared it to the crimson one on her own. "Do you think it ran out of mana? Or maybe it took a hit during sparring?"

"As if I know," Celestia grumbled, "Hopefully he can fix it. You have no idea just how cold it is out there without a heating charm. I swear it never got this cold when we were little."

"Maybe you've just grown soft." She teasingly poked her sister's flanks, the only place where a little fat always seemed to stick around.

Celestia gave her a deadpan stare. "Do you want to take off your heated armor and go back out there?"

A dry chuckle escaped her. "Oh little sister-"

"Stop that." Celestia interrupted, "I'm the big sister."

"Not anymooore-!" Luna trilled as she raised her head above her sister's with a grin that threatened to split her face, which was something she'd been doing a lot lately now that she could. Much to her delight and her sister's chagrin, Luna's recent growth spurt had finally allowed her to eclipse her sister's height. Now she was the big sister, if in stature only.

In time, her laughter petered out and Celestia groaned. "We can't put this off any longer can we?"

"He's expecting us," Luna agreed. "I bet he's going to start yelling in a minute if we don't hurry up."

Neither sister moved for a moment, but there was no escaping it. With a sigh, Celestia grabbed her disenchanted armor and turned towards the spiral stairs. Luna followed, still dressed.

"You're keeping your armor on?"

"Just in case. He might want to try some new combat spells today."

"If he is, he might change his mind if you ‘accidentally’ leave your armor down here."

“Hm. Good point.” With that, she shed her garments and the pair lapsed back into silence as they started up the stairs.

The spiral staircase coiled along the wall of the tower, leaving a hole in the middle that could let an impatient traveller go all the way from the highest floor to the lowest in no time flat (if they didn't mind a sudden stop at the end). Landings came periodically with arches that led into various rooms. They passed many on their way to the top.

An overstuffed library filled with more books and scrolls than the rest of the country combined.

A miniature smithy with a rainbow of metal ingots and a worktable spilling over with enchantable gemstones.

A room with nothing but a cauldron which sat over top an everlasting fire, bubbling and frothing but never diminishing.

Celestia and Luna walked past them all with nary a glance, as the fascination charms were keyed to pass them over. A normal pony (be they a lost servant, a visiting scholar, or a would-be assassin) would find themselves charmed and enraptured by the mysticism and majesty and leave with a subtle mental suggestion to spread stories of how fantastical it was.

The higher floors had actual doors on them, concealing away rooms filled with enchanted candles and noise-making contraptions that Starswirl used to build the tower's public image.

Finally, they reached the top level where there were two doors. One led inward to a tasteful sitting room and observation chamber, outfitted with both cushioned chairs and magically enhanced telescopes that could see either distant stars or any street in town.

The other looked as though it should open directly into the empty air outside the tower.

It was, of course, the second door that they opened.

Starswirl really did love his spatial manipulation spells. Besides being his field of specialty, it was also just generally one of his favorite things. Right after alcohol and his herbs.

"So," Celestia began as she took the first steps of their long walk down the much tighter second staircase towards the research chambers. "Any guesses what spells he'll have us test today?"

Luna groaned. "Who knows? I just hope it's not another transformation one. I still haven't recovered from the afternoon I spent as a squirrel."

"At least you could still run about and breathe air. I was stuck swimming round and round a bowl all day."

"Maybe if we're lucky it'll be a new enchantment," Luna offered hopefully, "I did ask him if he could make something that could preen my wings for me."

Celestia glanced at her wings. Though she was well versed in the intricacies of preening (thank the stars for that one charitable pegasus guard) her mouth was built more like that of an earth pony's and she could never quite get past the unsettling feeling of feathers running across her tongue. "That would be nice."

A teasing smirk flitted across Luna's face as she gave her sister a nudge. "Anything to help catch War Hammer's eye, eh?"

"L-Lu! The very idea-! I-I have no such intentions-"

"Oh please, it's not like half the castle doesn't know about your affections. Besides, there's nothing wrong with us looking. We're well into courting age and have done pretty well for ourselves if I do say so myself. Outside of the old families and the tribal purists, I bet we could probably have our pick of stallions if we wanted. But nooooo..." she rolled her eyes dramatically, "You just had to set your sights on War Hammer, Mr. I-felt-an-emotion-once-and-didn't-like-it."

A heat burned across Celestia's face as she tried to keep her composure. She needed a biting retort, and quick, or else she was going to lose so many sibling points! "W-Well, at least I'm pursuing somepony. Which is more than you've ever done with a stallion."

"Who says I haven't?"


"Kidding!" She gave her sister another friendly shove. "Seriously, you need to stop worrying and stressing so much. Enjoy your youth while you have it."

Celesta huffed and reeled back a little dignity. "And you need to grow up; start taking things more seriously. We're not fillies anymore."

"Age is just a number, sister dear. And besides," she rested her head atop her sister's, "Don't you think I've been doing plenty of growing already?"

Celestia grumbled, but finding herself without a valid comeback chose to change the topic instead. "How many tests will today make?"

"732 for me, 726 for you."

The discrepancy earned her a quizzical glance. "How did you get ahead?"

"Starswirl said the tests he did that time you got split into two ponies still only counted as one each."

"Oh." Her expression fell in slight disappointment. She stopped walking for a moment to juggle her armor around to her other wing. "Still, that's nearly three quarters of the way through our punishment." Finally getting it comfortable, she shook out her stiff other wing and continued. "And I still say testing a thousand new spells is too much. I mean really, it was just one city."

"And the whole world's supply of crystalberry wine."

"Oh. Right. Forgot about that."

They rounded the last bend of the stairs to find a long hallway lined with sturdy doors on either side. They approached and knocked on the closest.

"You're late," a voice beckoned from within.

"Sorry Starswirl," they replied as they entered. Such was their usual greeting. Though it may have seemed cold, they knew he meant it affectionately. The pair had long since learned that Starswirl, Master of the Arcane, was rather a novice when it came to genuine social interaction in ways that didn't involve pulling the wool over someone's eyes.

They could arrive an hour early and he'd still call them late.

The room beyond the door was a wizard's fever dream. Across one wall hung countless racks and shelves loaded down with magical ingredients and components (the good stuff, not the showroom pablum and parlor tricks he kept upstairs for visitors to see). Beneath them sat tables, thick and sturdy but covered with scratches and scorch marks, littered with countless projects in various stages of completion. Though the rest of the room was sparsely filled, it showed the signs of innumerable magical misfires and after effects. Parts of the wall were slagged or fractured, and one section seemed unable to decide if it was stone or wood. The floor too bore the marks of heavy usage, its stonework hidden beneath the charred tallow of countless candles, smudges and smears from old chalk, and a pattern of thoroughly clean-scrubbed runes that could throw up a shield faster than even their creator himself could.

And everywhere—on the tables, under the tables, scattered across the floor—were bottles, casks, and wineskins. 'Fuel for the creative process'. If some pony were to gather them all up in one place, they could easily start a small shop. Not that Starswirl had any intention of doing so, nor even owned most of them.

One small corner of the room was home to a small oasis of semi-normalcy. It held a few small chairs (made from scrap) and one cushioned bench (stolen), as well as a basin of cold water. It was an allowance Starswirl had made in his work space for his assistants to rest and recover between tests (and often from tests) where they wouldn't get in the way of anything.

Starswirl rose from the cushioned chair and dumped the ashes of his pipe into a nearby pot. "No matter. Today's should be a short test." He winked in an entirely uncharacteristic way that set their hairs on end. "I think you're going to like this one"

The pair of mares winced. That was usually a bad sign.

"Follow me," he said as he headed for the door. "I moved it to another room."

Celestia rolled her eyes but followed, as did her sister one step behind. More likely he had just created a new room on a whim and placed his creation there to justify the space's existence.

The walk was not a long one, but the air of apprehension made it seems to stretch for miles of suffocating silence.

"King Ash wants to see you tonight." Celestia blurted, breaking the silence if not the tension. "He asked me to let you know."

Starswirl scoffed. "What does he want now?"

Though he put on a face for the courts, it was no secret to the alicorns that Starswirl cared for their liege exactly as much as he cared for most other ponies: measured by how much he could wring out of them.

"He has a cough. Wants you to come look at it and concoct a remedy."

"A cough remedy?" Disdain dripped from his voice so undisguisedly they could practically see it dribbling onto the floor. "Who does that stallion think he is? A cough remedy, I ask you! Like I'm some kind of streetside apothecary."

"I'm pretty sure he thinks he's the king," Luna pointed out, though she went unheard.

Starswirl shook his head, sending his ringlets flying. "I swear, the older he gets, the more of a hypochondriac he becomes."

Luna picked up her pace, darting ahead and around her sister so that her voice wouldn't be lost. "Better safe than sorry. Imagine what would happen if it turned out he actually was sick and then died? He doesn't even have an heir!"

The wizard came to a sudden and dead stop, making the ponies behind him crash into one another in a tangle of wings and legs.

"Yes..." He mused, a hoof stroking his beard as his voice took on a hard inflection. "No heirs. Yes, that might actually be- no. No, it wouldn't. It would be a short-term gain but disastrous in the long run if they're barren. We don't need another succession war like in Harmonia."

Starswirl blinked and looked up, rising from the depths of his mind to once again rejoin the world. "What are you two doing lying on the floor like that? Get up. Didn't I tell you we were behind schedule already?"

"Sorry Starswirl," came the all-too-familiar chorus.

The air in Starswirl's latest addition to his tower still carried the sizzling magical tingle of a space only just recently forced into existence. It frizzed out the hairs of their manes and tails and discharged small arcs of raw mana when they brushed against enchanted objects (something they'd learned the hard way somewhere around punishment test number two hundred, and the subsequent twenty that followed to study the effect).

There were no chairs present; the room was unadorned save for a single tall and cloak-covered object in the room's center. The pair sat down on the floor—the stones thankfully still toasty from the magical expansion—as Starswirl stood by his creation and cleared his throat.

“Today’s experiment is one of great import. The fundamental spellwork alone is based on a total inversion of Sacred Sigil’s standard matrices, which utilize a formula I derived from cross-reducing the magical coefficients of…”

Celestia and Luna made themselves comfortable, knowing that from this point on they could tune out what would be either an overly-technical explanation which they had no hope of understanding or inane drunken ramblings. And with Starswirl, the line between the two was never clear. Besides, he'd always summarize anything actually important at the end as he chastised them for not listening the first time. It was a peculiar system, but one that had been grown and designed around the eccentric wizard's quirks.

"...using the spellcraft of my spying glass as a rudimentary framework..."

That made them perk their ears up. Starswirl's spying glass was one of their favorites of his creations and one of the few which he allowed them free access to (so long as they asked first). An enchanted hoof mirror which allowed one to see faraway lands as though they were right outside. It was a fantastic toy both for exploring the world and, in their younger days, watching pranks unfold at a safe distance. For some reason though, Starswirl always insisted on wiping its viewing history before letting either of them use it.

“...and after extrapolating the auric waveform functions into a stable frequency, I was able to produce... this!"

With a grand gesture, he removed the cloth to unveil his latest creation.

In many ways, it resembled a standing mirror. But no mere mirror every bore such heavy ornamentation, not even in the richest of noble houses.

"My Spying Glass MK 2: The World Window."

A moment passed as he awaited their usual praise.

"Isn't that the mirror Lady Amethyst sent the king for his birthday?"

"I think it is."

"It is not and you won't find any records or ledgers of such a gift from her ever arriving at the castle."

Celestia gave him an odd look. "You know he'd probably have just given you the mirror if you asked for it, right? King Ash thinks the world of you. He gave you a whole tower for yourself and his right-hoof seat at the banquet hall."

Starswirl scoffed and rolled his eyes. "This coming from the grown mare that still picks pockets when she visits the market."

Crimson fire spread across her cheeks in a hot flush. "It- It's a very valuable skill!"

"For an orphan and a street rat," he countered, "Less so for a mare with private accommodations, unlimited free food, and who has led a multi-fronted assault against a foreign power."

She lowered her head in defeat. "Now, where was I?"

"The World Window," said Luna.

"Right, yes. The Spying Glass MK II. Behold!"

Humoring him, the sisters oohed and ahhed appreciatively, and they didn't even have to fake it all that much this time. For once they found themselves genuinely excited about testing a new magical device. Who knew what wondrous new features this upgraded model might have.

Pilfered or not, the mirror was a marvelous sight to behold. The frame was polished to a shine, pale lavender manyullyn shaped into a high oval. Inset rubies glistened and winked like so many gimlet eyes, thrumming and glowing with magical charge at the edges of perception. Ironwood encased the edges, hoof-carved by an obviously master craftspony into spiraling filigree that looked too delicate to support its own weight.

It was an unparalleled work of art. Naturally, since it had been designed as a gift fit for a king.

"What does it do?" Luna asked eagerly.

"This one," Starswirl paused for effect, ever the showman, "Is bigger! It displays everything in true-to-life size."

They waited for him to continue. He did not.


Starswirl broke his pose. "And what?"

"Is that it?" Luna cocked her head as though a different angle might reveal some hidden feature. "It's just bigger?"

"Just bigger? Do you have any idea how frustrating it was to try and sp- try and see everything on that tiny glass?"

Seeing their rather unimpressed expressions, he lit his horn in a huff. "Fine. I'll just show you how much better it is."

Two by two, the jewels set around the frame began to light, each one sparkling with a brilliant radiance. The largest gem at the mirror's apex (one that notably did not match the rest of the design) was practically blinding. Their reflections, what they could make of them through the light, began to waver and wilt, soon falling from the frame entirely and leaving behind a blank canvas. On some unseen cue, Starswirl dimmed his horn and the gems dimmed in response to a much more agreeable glow.

The mirror no longer showed the room in which they stood. Instead, beyond the veil was a forest clad in the orange glow of twilight. Pines stood like silent sentinels, keeping much of the snow off the loamy ground below.

Starswirl grinned. It worked. Of course it did, he had every confidence in his creations, (though he had briefly worried over his rash decision to activate without selecting destination beforehand).

Most importantly, his display had had the desired effect on the two mares.

"It's so real..." True, seeing everything on the other side at the proper size was entirely different from holding it in their hoof. "It's like a doorway that I could just walk through and be somewhere else."

"Well, don't," Starswirl warned. "You'll smack your muzzle into the glass and be spending the next hour polishing it till it's spotless again."

"Oh..." came Celestia's disappointed sigh. "Can I at least get closer if I promise not to touch it?"

"Hmph. Fine. Do as you wish."

She took a step closer and leaned in till her breath was nearly fogging the glass. While not nearly as overtly showy as a color-changing fireball or self-repairing armor, the magic of the mirror was amazing in its small details. Calling it a window really was the best way to describe it. The sheen of the glass itself was all but invisible unless it caught the light of a candle behind her, and she could even see further around the edge if she tilted her head.

Something shiny twinkled at the edge of her vision and she twisted her neck to try and get a better view.

"What are you doing?" Starswirl asked.

"I see something," she explained, "I just need to get... a slightly better angle."

"Lean in a little more, why doncha?" Luna teased. "Maybe it'll pick up on your thoughts and shift to a low view of War Hammer's bedroom."

"Wha- Lu! There's no way I would ever- whoa!"

There were many drawbacks of having a long mane. The time wasted brushing it, the high cost of soap, and getting it tangled in things to name a few. Another issue is a long mane's annoying ability to retain water or, in winter, snow. Snow which, when brought into a room filled with toasty flagstones, would then slowly melt and drain out into a puddle. A puddle in which hooves —still semi-numb from cold—could easily slip.

A great crashing sound like a regiment of knights in full platemail getting struck by lightning shook the room as Celestia fell forwards and through, fragments of shattered silver glass raining down all around. Without the enchanted glass to stabilize it, the image of trees melted into a swirling vortex of wild colors. A vortex that quickly sucked an alicorn inside.

"What in the nine-!"

"Cel! Wait for me! I'm com-!"

Followed quickly by the other one.

Starswirl stood in shock for a moment at the swirling rabbit-hole of a magical anomaly his two meal tickets had just disappeared into. His mind, ever sharp, raced through his options, weighed costs, and judged value versus risk.

"Oh Tartarus," he grumbled as he jumped in after them.

Author's Notes:

This one was getting long, so I decided to split it in two.
Expect part two next week.
(For real this time.)

Two Liddell Alicorns: Part 2

It was times like these that made Starswirl wonder if the benefits bought by managing two manufactured heroes was worth the price of their crazy shenanigans.

The violent churning kaleidoscope of colors was unpleasant, but not unexpected. After all, by fracturing the event horizon, the elder of his two migraines had effectively transformed his window-to-anywhere into a doorway-to-one-very-specific-location. It was, in essence, now a portal spell stripped of most of the safety features. The destruction of his creation aside, wherever it was connecting to must be a far-flung destination. What should have been instantaneous transference was taking measurable seconds. That, or they'd somehow made a portal with only one end and this was to be his fate for the rest of time.

It was with a wash of relief that he finally felt his body reform in proper, stable reality. He stepped across the threshold with all the grace and poise of a seasoned member of the royal court—

And gasped as his body and spirit both felt like they'd suddenly been plunged into an icy lake.

A yawning void, no less invisible than bottomless, pulled at his mana as forcefully as a high-tier spell. He actually felt his magic being drained with each passing moment.

Acting on instinct he cast a protective ward across his body, then another, and a third for good measure even as the act of casting made his reserves dip even further. A brief blue light illuminated him, sealing his body off against foreign forces and the drain soon abated. He sighed in relief. That had not been pleasant. Could there really exist such a place in the world with so little magic that the sheer vacuum of it tried to suck the mana from his body? He had never considered it, but until moments ago he would have dismissed such an idea as ludicrous.

He glanced skyward in hopes of getting a rough bearing on his position. It was only early evening, yet the stars were already out in full display. Astronomy was something of a starved art—only in the past year had the old constellations that ships had once used to navigate by finally slid back into place from where Discord had rearranged them to spell rude words and pictograms—but Starswirl considered himself well-versed enough in the field to at least judge how far they had traveled.

He sought the Guiding Star (named as such for being one of the few Discord had never moved) only to have his hubris hit him upside the head.

It was gone. In fact, all the stars were wrong.

None of the constellations were there. Not even the out-of-season ones. The Great Horn, Stalwart the Defender, the Twin Fillies. Not just scattered and rearranged like shells on a beach, these stars were new. Different. It took a trained eye to see but the evidence was clear.

It was like a new sky. As though this wasn't the world he knew at all. A sobering, if outlandish thought. One best tested through further observation.

He took a step forward and promptly tripped over his own feet. He managed to land in a semi-dignified kneeling crouch, though it didn't save him from prickly stings of the bed of pine needles. He rose slowly, a little unsteadily, finding it much easier to stand on his hind legs than all fours.

Being the unparalleled genius that he was, it did not take long for Starswirl to surmise that his body had been transformed. Why? That was a question for later, among many others. For now at least he chose to focus on the what.

Whatever he was, it was bipedally locomotive; similar to an adolescent dragon in build yet clearly mammalian. Four limbs, two hind ones for movement and two upper limbs for manipulation.

Feeling out the unfamiliar muscle memory, he flexed his claws—no, they were far too soft for that—his fingers, marveling at the dexterity they possessed.

A sharp wind cut through the air like a knife, sending a shiver across his furless body (although he noted he'd kept his beard, his mane, and—unfortunately—his budding bald spot). His horn was gone, yet he felt his internal mana still thrumming with vibrancy thanks to his quick shielding.

All in all, he surmised he was some previously unknown variant of hairless ape. An unusual transformation, but not something outside the realm of plausibility. It could have been a lot worse.

Also, he was wearing clothing. That was a surprise.

His cloak had shifted to fit this new form and looked to be of better make than when he'd first bought it. Accompanying it was a blue tunic and breeches, both made of a soft breezy material he was unfamiliar with, and a silk cravat festooned with repeating miniatures of his cutie mark.

All of which, as was often the case when his two troublemaking charges were involved, made absolutely no sense!

Breaking his enchanted mirror? That he could understand. That followed the laws of magic, if in a very roundabout and statistically unlikely way. Being unexpectedly transformed? That too he could grasp. If by some kind of insane miracle they had been transported to another world (which was the only realistic explanation for both new stars and life flourishing without a magic field) then the shift across magical boundaries could have altered their forms to a local equivalent.

But clothing? Crafted from nothing by some quirk of their arrival? Fantastical nonsense!

He sighed and vented his frustration as a shuddering blast of air through his nose. No. Everything had to follow a logic, follow some rule, even if the path to get there was wildly circuitous and circumspect. Such he had learned from nearly two decades taking care of two crossbred fillies who somehow managed to stumble into beating the odds every single time. And every time they did something that didn't make sense, something that shouldn't have worked yet somehow did, he discovered a new theory of magic or branch of arcane science. In a sense, they were the fuel that drove many of his discoveries.

Still, that didn't mean he couldn't punish them for the annoyance in the meantime.

Sometimes he wondered if Discord had somehow imparted a portion of his chaos powers unto the pair before he died. A variant of the mythical 'may you live in interesting times' curse such that things would never make sense around them. From that perspective, perhaps he was the one who was cursed.

Continuing down his earlier train of thought, his new outfit might be explained if, for some reason, clothing was also subject to the four fundamental theorems of transmogrification. Though that of course would mean...

He shook himself, clearing his mind of distracting thoughts. Unraveling their latest mockery of the laws of magic could wait until more pressing concerns had been dealt with.

Speaking of whom...

His test subjects had, thankfully, not wandered off into the wilderness on their own to get mauled by wild animals (again). They were likewise transformed—he noted some clear sexual dimorphism between this species' genders—and too caught up in their changes to have gotten far.

Their transformation was more visible than his. Most notably...

"Why am I short again?!"

Be it a quirk of their transformations or just the effect of standing upright, there was no doubt that Luna was once again the shorter sister by a noticeable margin. Celestia towered over her by a head, shoulders, and wide, wide grin.

"And balance is once again restored to the world," the taller one joked before taking a closer look at herself. "But at what terrible cost?" Her fingers danced like frying worms as they explored her new hairless form. "My hooves, my wings, my horn! All of my things are ape things!"

Starswirl resisted the urge to roll his eyes at their antics; it was a bad habit. "Oh pipe down," he scolded, "This is hardly the strangest creature you've held the shape of."

"At least we knew what those were!" Luna shot back, "This is something weird and alien and... and-"

"And basically a minotaur in all but the head.” Honestly, these two... “Besides, I'm sure the transformation will be undone just as quickly once you travel back through the other way." Probably. If it didn't, unraveling spontaneous magic like this could be tricky at the best of times. He might need to feign another cursed artifact if they needed to be kept out of the public eye for a few weeks of careful reverse-spellwork.

He took some solace in the fact that they'd calmed down now and were no longer panicking. That was always a good start as panic tended to be a trigger for the bulk of their misadventures. And Starswirl was more than content with the amount of supposed magical laws they'd already broken today thus far.

"Now, as amusing as your childish whining is," he continued stressing his tone to make it clear just how unamused he was. They'd ruined his planned testing, after all. "You can just as easily do it back on the other side of the mirror where I have proper hooves and magic makes sense."

"Awwww," Luna whined, "But why? We're already here. Why not explore Griffonia while we have the chance?"

The sheer unexpectedness of her comment caught Starswirl off guard and nearly caused him to lose his balance and fall over again. A tiny application of magic (one which still drained more than it should have) rooted his feet to the spot and maintained his dignity.

"Would you care to repeat that?"

"Is it wrong to want to explore?" she asked. "I've never been to Griffonia before."

"Griffonia," he repeated, "You believe we are in... Griffonia?"

She nodded.

Starswirl amended his mental list of things he still needed to teach the pair and added 'World Geography' just in between 'How To Dodge A Magic Duel' and 'How To Fake A Heart Attack To Get Out Of Social Events'. It was not a short list. "Do you see any griffons anywhere? Any treetop fortress? A Great Library? Perhaps they're all just invisible to me."

"No," she admitted, "but it makes sense. I worked it out."

"Do tell."

Radiating smug confidence, Luna smiled with a grin that made it clear she wanted to show off. It was almost unsettling how such such inequine faces could convey familiar emotions so clearly. "Well, it's still winter, so I figured we can't be too far from the Settled Lands. It's also darker here, so that means we have to be more eastward than we were before. And I know a griffon merchant who likes to go on and on about the beautiful pines of his hometown, and we're surrounded by pines. So, cold, dark, pines: Griffonia." She beamed in conclusion.

Emotions warred within the wizard for a moment before he settled on resigned disgruntlement (one of his three familiar defaults alongside irritation and feigned interest). "That is quite possibly the worst reasoning I have ever heard. Even- no, since it's coming from you, I should have expected at least this much nonsense as a baseline. By the Stars, I swear you definitively are the worst logician I've ever seen."

It was a point in her favor that she at least had the decency to look properly ashamed.

"Yeah Luna," Celestia added, "if you don't know what you're talking about, don't show your ignorance." Starswirl was about to commend her before she carried on a sentence too long and ruined her chances. "If we're logicians, then this country is obviously Logia, right Starswirl?"

"...I take it back. The title goes to you, as well as worst linguistician."

"Wait," Luna asked, cocking her head to the side, "So which is it? Are we logias or linguics?"

"Neither. We're-" He didn't actually know what creature they were at the moment, and while he could easily draft a name on the spot, if it wasn't a truly new species then he'd certainly look the fool when their true name came out.

As it was, the chance to make a decision was stolen from him by the sound of something moving just out of sight.

"Quiet!" he ordered. The pair immediately silenced, years of strict training kicking in in an instant. Starswirl crouched down and parted the branches of a squat bush to spy towards the direction the sound had come from. Celestia and Luna quickly joined him on either side.

The forest was smaller than he'd initially thought; that, or they'd arrived on the fringes. The trees continued on thickly for another twenty lengths before ending abruptly at the edge of a field. Riding the line between forest and field was a road. Not a road as one would find back in the City, with wide paving stones and perfectly leveled by Earth pony magic, but more like what one would find out in the outskirts of the Settled Lands. A path of hard-packed earth, riddled with small stones and gouged with uneven wagon tracks.

The tracks were evidently from wagons rather than any other type of wheeled contraption because there was currently a wagon stuck in one, listing slightly to one side. Beside it—and cursing a blue streak if his tone meant anything—was a local member of their new species.

He wore simple brown tunic and trousers—not dissimilar to the peasants back home—with pale orange skin and a vertical shock of red hair. He grunted and cursed as he repeatedly threw his shoulder into the wagon, making the wood cry out with the squeaks of age and disrepair.

Starswirl was not a stallion fond of adventure. He enjoyed savoring the fruits of the labor—wine, celebrations, fame, and fortune—but was none too keen on actually facing down danger and unknown threats himself. One could hardly enjoy the spoils if they died in the process of acquiring them. This was why he'd chosen the role of Guiding Mentor, allowing him to reap rewards with none of the risk. However, he was, at his core, an opportunist. Finding himself in the dawn of such a fantastic accident, a new world was—to be painfully blunt— a whole new world of possibilities to discover and claim and introduce to Equestrian society under his name. All that potential just within his grasp... so long as he didn't have to personally risk anything for it.

Luckily, that's what he had mine canaries for.

"Alright fillies," he said, clapping them on their backs. "Time to put your charisma classes to the test."

"What?" Celestia asked.

"Do I have to spell it out for you?" He gestured to the creature still struggling against his wagon. "Go and do reconnaissance. Find out where we are, what's nearby, and anything else of import."

"But aren't we in Griff-"

"This is not Griffonia!"

Luna frowned petulantly before standing. "Geez, you don't have to yell." She took a few steps to the side and beckoned her sister to follow. When she did, Luna continued in a whisper that was still loud enough he could almost make out her words. They hadn't even fully moved out of his line of sight. He added 'stealth communications' to the syllabus.

"So how do you want to play this?" Luna asked once they were alone.

Celestia brushed some stray snow off her knees, but the casual action failed to hide the almost giddy energy in her voice and eyes. "One of the old routines, for sure. Stars, it's been so long since we've gotten to do a proper grift!"

"I know!" Buoyed by her enthusiasm, Luna's mood rose to match. "Cause you know what Starswirl says about lying-"

"That it's a skill like any other and if you want to maintain a level of excellence you have to practice constantly?"

"Exactly. And I can barely remember the last time we got to pull a little ruse. Hard to pretend to be somepony else when we're so well-known now."

Celestia nodded. "I tried to sneak an apple last week. Just because. Before I even could try the shopkeep just gave me a bagful." She shook her head. "Took all the fun and challenge out of it."

"Right. So we've got to use this chance while we have. A new world where nopony can recognize us."

Celestia gave her a confused look. "Wait, a new world? But I thought you said..."

"Practice constantly, remember?" She rolled her eyes. "I'm not a simpleton, Cel." She clapped her hands eagerly, a surprisingly natural gesture. "So, we've got a mark, he has information. How are we going to do it? I'm thinking maybe routine number eleven?"

Celestia considered it for a moment, then shook her head. "No, there's no alleyways around here. Plus, we don't have any firewood. Maybe number six?"

"The lost performers? A classic, but we've done that one a lot." Luna countered. "Number... twenty-five?"

"We can't ask him anything if we knock him out." The edge of her mouth quirked up. "And with our track record of trying to knock ponies out..."

She let the implication hang. Growing up (and regular knight's training) had helped them come to terms with their let's-not-put-a-number-on-it accidental killings. They could even joke about it a little, though neither was all too eager to try any plan that involved going for the head.

"You know..." Celestia continued after a moment of contemplation. "We could always try," she took a deep breath, "...number forty-nine."

"Forty-nine?" Luna gasped, her eyes widening. "You want to try that, here?"

"Why not? Hear me out!" She held up her hands to intercept Luna's objections. "When are we ever going to get a chance to do it otherwise? It's a perfect set-up! Starswirl's here, we don't look like ourselves, and even if it fails, like you said we're far enough away from home that it won't come back to bite us. I-" her voice hitched, catching for a second on some unspoken emotion. "Just, let me have this one?"

Luna considered her. Forty-nine was a doozy. There's only so many different ways you can plan to trick, rob, or scam a pony, so by the time their theoretical plans had gotten into the mid-double digits, they were less plans and more pipe dreams. Little skits that would only work under very specific and unlikely circumstances. Still... forty-nine was a fun one, even if she let her sister take the lead rule.

"Alright, let's do it!" She declared with a ready grin. Luna turned back to Starswirl who was still crouched in the bushes like a particularly ungainly wildcat. "Okay! We're ready!"

"Finally," he muttered, "If you're done giggling like a couple of schoolfillies then get a move on already! He's nearly freed his cart."

The duo rolled their eyes at his impatience, used to it though they were, and started to push their way through the shrubbery towards the road, their footsteps silenced by the thin cushion of snow and pine needles.

"Remember," Luna quietly called back to Starswirl, "We don't have our enhancing gear, so be ready to fake our magic when the time comes. Thanks!"

Starswirl initially missed her trailing reminder, his mind already working through the possibilities and advantages of easy access to an alternate world free from repercussions or consequences. After a few moments the words did manage to slink their way into his mind, crawl between the gears, and force everything to a grinding halt.

“Magic? What? Wait! Get back here you idiots!” But his hissed warning was lost to distance and the rustling of leaves.

Wild Canter was a simple man who lived a simple life.

Every morning he woke up, kissed his wife, had a simple breakfast of cornmeal, and set out with his wagon. Every day he pulled his cart from one settlement to the next, ferrying along whatever mail, goods, or passengers were willing to pay for his services. Every night, after reporting his earnings to the Guild, he returned home to have dinner with his lovely wife and his nine eternally-ravenous children.

Wash, rinse, repeat. Day after day since he'd graduated his apprenticeship and gotten married nearly fifteen years before.

On days of rest he went to the tavern. On festival days he visited whichever of his brothers was hosting all their extended family that year. He held no dreams or aspirations other than to see his family happy and for the roads to be free of bandits.

His was the kind of painfully ordinary man to whom nothing interesting ever happened.

Until it did.

He was kicking fruitlessly at his wagon's wheel, lodged tight between two rocks buried in the near-frozen mud when the voice came to him.

"What ho, weary traveler!"

Wild started as the woods which should have been empty spoke with the voice of a young woman. No one lived in the forest and the road was clear.

Then the voice came again, slightly different this time.

"Prithee, dost mine words reach thee or dost they yet fallest upon deafened ears?"

The voices came from behind, towards the deeper part of the forest. Wild leaned forward slowly as to not draw suspicion and reached into his wagon. His hand returned with a sturdy length of wood. He didn't like the idea of attacking women, but banditry was an equal-opportunity employer, and he had life and livelihood to protect.

He turned slowly, just in case there was an archer among them with a nervous grip, and peered into the shadows lengthened by the setting sun.

"Who's that?" he called, "Who are you?"

"Who art we?" the voice came again. It was simple, yet well-spoken, with an accent he couldn't place. "To ask a question of ones such as we, without having givenst thine own name first, is it not the height of arrogance, my dear sister?"

"Indeed, sister dear." Agreed the other voice. "Truly such folly I had not even imagined."

He narrowed his gaze as he tried to pinpoint the source of the sound. Somewhere in the bushes, where the trees were thickest. The shadows seemed to deepen for a heartbeat.

They emerged from the forest like living shadows, barely disturbing branches or snow as they passed. Two young women; one with skin of ivory, the other of lapis. Something about them put him on edge and made the hair on the nape of his neck rise in warning. Maybe it was how they appeared from nowhere, or how they barely seemed to make a mark in the snow. Or perhaps it had to do with how they stood in the wilderness without so much as a stitch of clothing, yet held themselves as calm and confidently as one of the king's elite guards.

They made no move to cover themselves even in his presence; as though the very concept of clothes was foreign to them. It was... unsettling, and he found his eyes drifting even as some primal voice in the back of mind screamed at him to keep his guard up.

"We artst but travellers, much as thineself," the taller one spoke with a fluidity that bordered unnatural. "Two sisters on a journey who didst hapst uponst thee in thy efforts. I hadst thought to continuest on our way, but mine dear sister did remind me that generosity ist a virtue, is it not dear sister?"

"Indeedst it is, sister dear."

The first sister smiled disarmingly. "Perchance we may offer you aid in such trying times?"

Wild didn't know what to think. Two naked women in the forest was strange enough, but that they thought they could unstick the wagon when he couldn't? It was laughable. Borderline absurd, what with their twig-like arms that looked like they'd never seen a day's hard labor. Which was not to say that he wouldn't mind getting a closer look at such a fine pair of ladies. It wasn't like there was anyone around to rat him out to his wife.

"I don't know how much a pair like you is going to be able to do, but I won't turn down an extra pair of hands to help push."

Their response to what he thought was an entirely reasonable statement was... unexpected.

"Ohohohoho," the taller and more talkative one laughed into the side of her hand. Her laugh had a strangely hollow quality to it. Like it was rehearsed rather than genuine. The other tittered alongside her. "Push? How amusingly pedestrian. I assure you, you'll findeth our magic more than up to the task."

Wild blinked in confusion. "Magic?"

"Indeed." She raised both her voice and her hands to the sky. "Behold, a boon as my magic maketh your cart anew."

A moment passed. Then two. Then three.

Wild was just about to make a comment about being made a fool when it happened.

Her hands began to glow. Light dripped off them, running down her slender arms like rain. Small baubles of light rose from her palms like soap bubbles, rising up before drifting with clear intent towards him and his cart. He scrambled back even as his gaze remained transfixed. The lights descended around the stuck wheel, soaking in until the wheel itself began to glow. Then, with a low groan of straining wood, the entire back end of the wagon strained before rising into the air. It popped free from the rocks, spun for a moment with brilliant blue light, then alighted back on the ground just outside the road's ruts.

"There," said the taller sister though her expression seemed strained. "Made... anewly... freed. Yes. That was what I meant."

"Indeed," said the other quickly.

"Indeed, indeed."

The makeshift weapon dropped from Wild's hands as a torrent of his grandmother's old stories came rushing to the forefront of his mind. One word echoed above the rest like the pealing of a church bell spelling his doom.


Mystical beings of strange power and ungraspable intentions that lived in the fringe beyond the world, taking human shapes at their fancy to tease or help mortals. Creatures that could curse and bewitch with the same breath that they blessed and bestowed. Spirits that stepped out of trees to punish greedy woodsmen. Moonlit dancers that invited young men to join their revelry, only for those poor souls to ever be seen again. Strange women lying in pools of water distributing swords that made kings of farmhands.

Legends and cautionary tales contradicted one another at times, but the stern advice of his grandmother sang so clearly he could practically smell the baccy on her breath. "Sonny, if you ever have the misfortune to encounter the fae, remember this above all else: be courteous. Accept no gifts or favors. Be careful with your words and never make a promise you can't keep. If you can manage that, you might just escape with your life."

His heart beat in his ears like a drum at the thought. He'd already sealed his fate, hadn't he? He'd already accepted a favor in the form of them freeing his cart. What could he possibly offer to equal magical aid? He was starting the fight for his life with a foot already in the grave.

No, there was no use thinking like that. He had to press on. Make a good impression from here on out and hope to regain their favor and abate their wrath. At least he hadn't given them his name.

"T-Thank you, kind maidens," he ventured. Was maidens the right thing to say? He racked his brain for any scraps of noblespeak he'd picked up in the big cities. Would they turn him into a newt for mis-aging them?

She waved off his thanks, her every motion frightening in its elegance now that he knew the truth. "Twas not but nay trifling task indeed. Hast thine magic fled thee thus that thou could not helpest thineself?"

"I- I have no magic, your- your- " He swallowed hard and gave up picking the right honorific. He was far from an expert on the ranks of peerage. "No one does."

"No magic? Really?" Wild winced at the change in her voice. Those three words had lost the whimsical air and the difference was jarring.

"N-No, Ma'am."

"Is that just you, or all your race?" It was less unsettling to hear the change in the other one's voice as she hadn't said much to begin with.

All your race. If he hadn't been sure before, that was the cherry on the cake. They truly were inhuman. "Everyone. No magic."

"No magic..." she mused.

A question burned in his mind like a hot coal. Magic was real, so what did that say about the old stories? Were some of those real and some just stories? But which? If he only knew just what these women were, then he could tailor his behavior to best ensure his survival. Were they elves? Pixies? A pair of sprites? Maybe even something divine?

But with all the stories at odds with each other, there was only one (terribly dangerous) way to tell. Guess high and pray.

"Be... be ye angels?" he asked, slipping into their tongue.

The tallest smiled down upon him beatifically. "Neigh," A shimmering light spread from behind her like the warm glow of morning. "We are but alicorns."

He lowered his head in reverence, missing entirely the other one's lips silently sounding out "Butt alicorns?" in confusion.

Wild may not have known what a buu'tallicans was, but nor was he going to admit that. He took some solace in knowing that at least now he wouldn't offend them by calling them the wrong title.

"Now, we have a favor to ask of thee."

"Tis buteth a simpleth tasketh."

Wild's blood ran cold. This was it. Time to balance the scales and try to survive. Memories of his wife and children bubbled to the surface of his mind. He could only pray he'd be able to see them again.

"I- I would be honored to repay the kindness you showed me."

“We have a few... questions to ask of thee.”

Wild swallowed the lump in his throat that was nearly choking him. "What... what would you like to know?

The shorter of the pair's face twisted into a cheshire grin. "Firstly... what have you got in that cart?"

“Not a bad haul,” Luna commented cheerfully, a sack of donated goods tossed over one shoulder.

“Good information too,” Celestia’s sack was somewhat smaller than her sister’s, but no less full.

“I never would have guessed that the Charitable Ladies of Nobility act would work so well. Did you see how happy and excited he was? If more rich ponies were nice like that the world would be a lot better place.”

“Now that’s a truth if I’ve ever heard one.” Celestia giggled a little as she felt another wave of actor’s high. “Plus pretending to be hoity-toity rich mares was fun. We should try it more often.”

Luna paused mid-step as her face contorted in sudden conflict. “Wait. Aren't we... technically that already?”

“How do you mean?”

Luna began to count off on her fingers (a technique she was rather proud of having invented). “We have noble titles, we're certainly not poor anymore, and Starswirl did try to give us charm classes. What else makes a classy rich mare?” The color drained from her face. “Oh no. Does that mean we have to talk like that all the time now?”

“Of course not, silly-billy,” Celestia gave her a sisterly shove which nearly sent the smaller woman toppling into the snow. “When you're rich or famous enough you can act however you want and everypony else will follow. We set the trend on what makes a rich noblemare.”

“Oh good. I was worried.” They started walking again, briefly falling into the silence of the forest sentinels. “That was a good speech," Luna said, “You really had a handle on talking in Fancy. You've been practicing since Sombra?"

"Trying," Celestia admitted. "But coming up with all that kind of stuff off the top of my head just doesn't come naturally to me."

"Then what was...?"

She grinned sheepishly. "I may have lifted most of that from a book I've been reading. Tales of Zalyss in the Court of the Breezie Queen."

“Cel!” Luna scolded admonishingly, but there was no bite to it.

“What? I bet you as much gold as you like he’s never read it. And if no one knows you’re quoting, is it really any different than coming up with the words yourself?”

Luna considered this argument for a moment. “Yeah, I suppose I can’t argue with that.”

Starswirl was less than pleased when they finally arrived back at the otherwise innocuous portion of forest currently functioning as base camp. Even if his body language was unfamiliar and foreign, his scowl was a mirror image of the one they were so familiar with seeing stretched across his muzzle.

Not that this deterred either of the sisters. Scowling was his default expression. But years of familiarity meant they could spot the beginnings of a rant on his lips, the precursor to that sharp intake of breath just before he raised his voice. Before he could, Celestia beat him to it.

"He wasn't the best source of information, but I'd call it a success. They call this area the Dark Woods and they don't really seem to be part of a unified nation. There's a dozen or so small villages scattered within a day or two's journey and a much bigger city to the North."

Starswirl gave her a hard stare for a moment. "That's-"

"They call themselves 'humans'," Luna quickly picked up the stream of gathered intelligence. "And they only come in one tribe. Apparently they have no magic, like, at all. Even less than we do. He was some kind of commoner, I think, so he didn't know much about their sciences, government, or military, but he did have some weird tools and a bunch of these yellow coins." She pulled one from her bag and bit it. It didn't even dent, much less bend. "Definitely not gold, way too light, but it has a nice luster to it. Might be worth something."

Starswirl waited a moment, seeing if she'd continue. When neither spoke, he fixed them with a stern glare. "I'd call you half-wits, but that would imply that there's a single competent pony between the pair of you." They flinched. His voice was hard as steel and tense like a coiled spring. "Quarter-wits at best. How you two have managed to survive this long with no common sense might be the one mystery I may be incapable of solving."

He followed up with a glancing strike to the backs of their heads.


"That hurt!"

"Good. Maybe one day it'll finally knock some sense into you. Now, can either of you two tell me what is the first task you should perform when encountering an unexpected phenomena while testing a spell?"

Still rubbing their sore spots (which really didn't hurt all that much—soft fleshy hands couldn't hit nearly as hard as hooves could—but the psychological damage was still very much felt), Celestia and Luna glanced at each other. Neither had been expecting a pop quiz on laboratory procedures. With such an unexpected change in track it took them a second to shift the proper mental gears into place.

"You cast a basic scan-"

"A basic scanning spell." Starswirl finished. "The most *rudimentary of diagnostic magics. So *simple and so *cheap to cast that even you two can do it without much effort. Tell me," he leveled his flinty gaze at them, "Did either of you cast it?"

"Yes," lied Celestia.

"Of course," lied her sister.

Starswirl cuffed them again. "No, you didn't! If you had, you'd have immediately noticed the shocking absence of mana around here. It's a total null zone. Any other creature wouldn't even have needed the spell, as they'd have noticed it naturally as they lay writhing on the ground, their bodies struggling to function in such a low-magic environment. Meanwhile you two have so little magic between you that I doubt you even noticed it leaving your body."

In their defense, they had noticed something. Celestia was slightly itchy and Luna felt a mild gnawing sensation in her gut not dissimilar to hunger. Both had dismissed the feelings as side effects of their transformations.

"So of course, you chowderheads’ first plan of action is to go put on a little production the success of which hinges on me being able to supply the requisite magical effects. Without so much as informing me beforehoof!"

He was pacing now, letting his anger bleed out through his steps. Had he been back in a proper magical environment, the technique would have been wilting the grass in little charred crescent moons as he walked over it. It was a splendid intimidation tactic against anyone except the two mares closest to him who knew it was a sign that he was actually winding down instead of ramping up.

Still, a little ego-stroking never hurt to soothe his temper more quickly. "But you're a genius," Luna said, "I didn't think there was anything magical you couldn't do."

He stopped for a moment, torn between his receding anger and desire to preen. "Naturally. But even with that in mind, for those of us who don't have the magical potency of an emaciated parasprite, putting on that little light show here was the equivalent of casting a high-tier spell back home."

When this did not get the reaction he'd hoped for, he clarified. "High tier by my standards."

Once they gasped suitably, Starswirl sighed. The force behind his anger was gone now, dwindled down to his usual level of low-to-mid grade irritation. "Scatterbrained shortsighted fools," he finished for good measure. "If you weren't grown mares I'd tan your hides."

"That never seemed to stop you with your special guests," Celestia muttered.

"What was that?"


He scowled and jabbed a finger towards the towering marble boulder behind them. "Back through the portal, both of you. We'll discuss your punishment when I have four proper hooves under me again. Or, better yet, three under me with the last holding a strong drink."

"Yes, Starswirl."

Wild Canter pulled his wagon with a strange lightness to his soul.

Today he had been blessed. He wasn't sure exactly by what, but there was no doubt in his mind that the beings he'd met on the road were nothing short of benevolent. For all his fears and worries over dire costs, all they'd asked of him was a few questions. Trivial ones, mostly, things a mere child would know. And for those few tricky ones he'd been unable to answer, they'd accepted his ignorance with resplendent grace.

Even now the words of the benediction they'd left him with echoed in his mind like ringing bells.

"May thy life be full of endless celebration and may ye be excellent to thine fellow man."

He knew the words would stick with him forever, as though they were etched upon his very soul.

A shaft of sunset light cut through the trees, blinding him for a moment before he stepped out of the beam. It cut through the forest like a fallen pillar of transparent gold, making small starbursts where it hit patches of sparkling snow. It was beautiful, in a way he'd never appreciated before.

Were these woods their domain, or had they merely been passing through? He knew not, yet somehow the forest felt different now, as though something in the air had changed from every other time he'd passed through. A strange liveliness to the air, as though life was slightly more vibrant near where those beings had stood.

These were a special woods. Important. Sacred.

Someone needed to care for them. To protect this important place. And who better to do it than he who best knew why?

The idea twisted in his mind like a seedling, growing larger as its roots sought purchase in his centers of logic and justification. He could bring the whole family, settle down and make a new life in the forest. Maybe open an inn or trading post. The road was well-travelled and besides, he was starting to get on in years. Pulling a wagon and ferrying goods all day was a young man's job.

Maybe his brothers and their families would come too, if business did well. A good inn needed nearby farriers, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters.

He could see it all now; not just a home, but a small bustling village smack in the middle of the forest, where generations of his family could protect and keep this sacred place.

One way or another, there were going to be a lot of Canters there very soon.

Celestia found herself spat back into Starswirl's lab with all the grace of a foal spitting watermelon pips. It was a small relief that her fall was softened by the slightly-squishy-yet still-mostly-bony shape of her sister. She rose from the groaning pile as the wizard of the hour passed through, easily falling back onto all four hooves. He breathed in deeply and sighed.

"Ah... sweet mana, how I missed it so."

His gaze dropped down to the pair of them, still sprawled on the floor and groaning. "Well? Are you just going to sit there all day? Up, there's still more work to be done and punishments to be sorted out."

Celestia grimaced as she rose, feeling aches in places she was pretty sure she didn't have before. But that was one of the many fun features of full bodily transformations, though it was still better than lingering phantom limbs. Some mornings she swore she could still feel a hand growing from the tip of her tail or scales running down her spine.

A quick stretch popped a few of her joints as all the bones settled back into their proper places. To absolutely no one's surprise, least of all hers, Starswirl had already found himself a drink. Something brown and strong, judging by the rivulets that escaped the edge of his mug and ran down the sides of his muzzle like dark rivers. There were no tables or cupboards around to have taken it from, but she wouldn't put it past the wizard to have set up a dedicated self-maintaining teleport circle solely to manifest a drink in his hoof at any given moment.

He finished his drink and tossed it away, the empty mug vanishing in a twinkle of magic before it even hit the floor. "There. That's better." He rolled his shoulders, joints cracking much louder than hers had. "Now that that little adventure is once, back to-"

"Hold everything!"

Both Celestia and Starswirl froze in surprise at Luna's outburst. The blue mare marched up to her sister, eye-to-muzzle, before she slammed her hoof down hard enough on the flagstones to crack the keratin. "WHY AM I STILL SHORT?!"

It was at this point when Celestia realized why the room felt subtly off. It wasn't just that Luna was shorter (which she was by an undeniable horn and a half) but that she was shorter as well. Not by much, but just enough that her perspective on the room was different from when she'd entered.

"Hmph." The single grumpf from Starswirl spoke volumes. "I suppose a perfect reversion was too much to ask for. Hold still."

Celestia and Luna locked their legs instinctively as a familiar gambit of scanning spells passed over their bodies, making them feel itchy, slimy, and tickled in turn. Starswirl frowned as the spells ended, then cast them again, harder.

"No," he muttered, "No, that's impossible." He cast a new set of spells, these unfamiliar to his test subjects.

"Starswirl?" Celestia ventured.

"Back," he ordered. "Go back through the mirror, wait for it to stabilize, then return immediately!"

Celestia and Luna shared a look, one which hinted at the stirrings of unease. There was a worrying intensity to his instructions. He was getting invested. It was starting to sound like the beginnings of a new research project, and that always meant more tests.

Still they stepped through the mirror, as instructed. A few moments later they were human again and standing back in the snow. Luna leaned back against a free standing stone. "How long do we need to wait?"

Celestia shrugged. "A minute?"

She nodded. "Did Starswirl seem off to you?"

"I'd call it concerned," said Celestia. "I don't like it. Concerned means more tests until he's satisfied. And probably not ones that count towards our quota."

"True. But what are you going to do?" A moment of contemplative silence passed.

"How's your hoof? I saw you crack it earlier."

Luna wiggled her fingers. "Feels fine, actually. I think the transformation fixed it.

"Hm. Handy, that."


"Have to remember it next time you get your mane caught in a spinning wheel and they have to lop it off."

Luna glared at her. "Hey! That was one time!"

"And yet, twice in one visit."

"Can we go back yet?" Luna groused.

"I guess. It's probably been long enough."

Once back on the pony side of things, Starswirl hit them with another barrage of spells before they could even speak.

"Again. There and back, no dilly-dallying. Quickly now!"

It took another half dozen trips with and without his accompaniment before the old wizard was satisfied. If one could equate impotent seething to satisfaction.

"Well congratulations," he spat, his voice thick with anger and sarcasm. "You finally managed to do something I could not."

He collapsed bonelessly, not just sitting but slumping down onto the raised stonework at the mirror's base. He made a gesture with his hoof and a wineskin appeared in it. It was emptied almost as swiftly. The sisters made eye contact and, after a brief nonverbal argument, Luna stepped forward. "Er.. what did we do, exactly?"

The glare he shot her could have melted through armor. "You've done nothing, and that's exactly the problem. I've run every diagnostic spell I know and even created two more just for the occasion. Not a one of them has been able to refute the single most impressive impossibility you've achieved to date."

He sighed and took another pull of wine, only to throw the cask away when he realized it was empty. He summoned a tankard of something that could be smelled across the room and began to drink again.

"Uh... what di-"

"You're not just smaller!" Starswirl exploded, "You're younger!"

He jumped to his hooves, anger filling his bones

"My spells all agree. No matter how many times you go through, you always return exactly sixteen years old. Sixteen to the very second! No ripples of warped time! No lingering fraying spellwork of a decaying effect! Somehow, by sheer dumb luck you two have solved old age! And just because the universe wasn't done laughing at my years of wasted effort, it only works for you two!"

Celestia and Luna eyed each other. Neither as sure exactly how to respond to his rant. Both were more than familiar with him getting mad at their mistakes and slip-ups. But those at least were theirs to take responsibility for. Never had they encountered him being mad at their fundamental being. Even then most of his anger seemed directionless, as though he acknowledged, on some fundamental level, that this wasn't actually their fault.

"I went through just as many times and I'm no younger than I was this morning! Yet you two keep coming out sixteen over and over and over again due to what I can only determine is some unaccountable interaction between the wild magic and your own unnatural heritage! Perpetual youth for no effort! It's not fair!"

As peculiar and—in it's own strange way—oddly fun as it was to watch her normally stern mentor stomp around and grind his teeth like an angry foal throwing a tantrum, questions and concerns were piling up too fast for Celestia to properly enjoy it. She needed to have her voice heard.

Luna beat her to it.

"Fair? Fair?!" she demanded, matching his anger with her own. "How do you think I feel? I was tall! Finally tall! And now I've lost it all! Years of effort and morning stretching exercises down the drain like yesterday's dishwater!"

He scoffed. "You prove my point! You've unlocked eternal youth and instead you're worried about something as insignificant as your height. Why, if you were to pop through the mirror even just every few years or so, it'd be effective immortality!

"Don't call my height insignificant!"

"Consider this then!" Starswirl rose to his full height, once again reminding Luna of her shrinkage as he towered over her, looming like the specter of death. "Your options, as fate has presented them, are as follows: you can either remain short and live forever, or grow tall and die."

The room fell silent, leaving only the hollow echoes of his declaration and the quiet pop-hiss of the portal.

"Well..." Luna said after a long and weighty pause, "When you put it like that, I guess step-stools aren't all that much of an inconvenience."

"As I said. Youth is wasted on the perpetually young."

Celestia had remained quiet, letting her concerns and questions percolate down and condense into a solid mass of concise thought. Only when she was finally sure of what she wanted to say, lest she risk getting interrupted again, did she speak. "This sounds like it might be too good to be true. Don't you think there might be some drawback for constantly de-aging ourselves?"

A pensive look briefly flashed across Starswirl's face, but it disappeared just as quickly and was replaced by a calm consideration. He rubbed his beard for a moment before lighting his horn. A section of the floor began to glow, growing and warping as it was transmuted into a comfy chair. He sat down as it finished forming, still deep in thought.

"I doubt it. While that would make sense, all my scans indicate that you're both perfectly normal, healthy adolescents." He chuckled. "Though I suppose being eternally in the throes of maturation is its own cost. Growing pains. Emotional instability. The shifts in your humors. Poor decision-making skills, though I suspect yours couldn't degrade much further. At most I'd expect the effects might compound over the years, and at worst an extended adolescence might incite you to grow a little taller than you should have otherwise"—Luna perked up at that—"but I highly doubt there'd be anything noteworthy beyond that."

There was more to it than that, something he'd realized but wasn't telling them. Celestia could tell from the look in his eye. Though he would keep up the conversation, a portion of his focus was off planning. He had that starry look of when something made a turn for the better in a particularly long-term plan.

"Soooo..." Luna said slowly, "What you're saying is that if I stay short in the short term, I'll get extra tall over time?"

Truly, her single-minded focus was at times both a blessing and a curse.

"Probably," Starswirl sighed, the rapid mood swings finally taking their toll. He manifested another drink, though he'd calmed down enough to merely sip at it rather than quaff it down. "This whole situation is completely unprecedented."

Sensing an opportunity, Celestia seized it. "We should probably go then. Get out of your mane so you can focus on your research. Luna?"

Her sister caught her drift immediately. "Yes, definitely. We'd just be a bother. Bye Starswirl."

They both moved for the door with a swiftness that belied their shorter legs. They almost made it too.

"Hold." They froze. "We still have yet to settle the matter of you breaking my World Window."

An icy finger of dread ran down Celestia's spine. Her hopes that he'd forgotten about that little misstep in the whole 'discovering immortality' hype were dashed like grains of sand before a hurricane.

"It- It's not really that big of a deal," she stammered behind a nervous smile. "I mean, you know it works so, with your incredible genius, it should be easy to make another one, right?"

His unwavering intensity showed that her sycophantic attempts were falling flat. "On the contrary. Do you know what that is?" He pointed to the very top of the mirror, where sat a hoof-sized purplish orb. One with a glaringly obvious crack down the middle.

They shook their heads.

"That," he began, "Was the pearl of a rare psychic oyster. A near-mythical beast from the far Northern seas. It can only be caught by accident, as it can see any hunters before they even leave shore. This in particular is one of the largest pearls in known history. It is, or was, a fundamental component that allowed the SpyGlass to scan the world. Without it, this mirror—or I suppose ‘doorway’ would be more accurate now—is locked permanently on this one spot."

A cold sweat ran down Celestia's back as she felt her coinpurse clutch in fear. "O-oh. Terribly expensive, was it?"

"No, actually. Got it off a trader who thought it was just a very shiny stone. No idea how he got it, but I bargained him down to thirty copper."

She laughed awkwardly; a squawking noise borne of stressed relief. "Oh! So no big loss then?"

The wizard smiled and laughed along with for a moment before cutting off abruptly. "Hahaha- no. I'm doubling your remaining quota of punishment tests."

Outside the vaunted tower where impossible things could happen, a wail of discontent echoed across the courtyard, followed by a quiet snigger.

"And double for you too for goading her."

And the wailing was doubled.

Author's Notes:

I feel like each proceeding chapter of this story is getting less and less funny.
This one especially, but it was needed to establish important precedents that will come into play later.
But I will persevere nonetheless and bring this story to its hopefully satisfying conclusion. Eventually.

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