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~Princess Luna


A completed collaborative fanfic by internetcatchphrase and Light.

In category: Role Play and Fanfiction

I'll try to be brief and to the point. While you have the right to post on this thread, Light and I have decided to work on this project without third-party involvement. So go ahead and post, but don't expect a reaction. Any attempt to insert yourself into the action will be ignored. Anyone who wishes to read this is more than welcome.

The original G-Rated RP thread appears to be dying, or at least going into hibernation. It was fun while it lasted, at least for me, but I went into this knowing there would be no definite ending, no conclusion. Light saw this coming, while I was in denial for a while. Light wishes to continue the tale of his character. So do I. Thus, we're each going to transfer our posts from the G1 (in my case, just the relevant ones). Nothing happening here will affect events in the G1, or vice versa.

Light, I'll go first. The first few chapter recaps can be used to contextualize the situation in which Light inserts himself. Then you can copypaste your post where he turns up at the party. Then we ping-pong until it's all here. Then I believe that the ball is in your court. Let's do this. :)

EDIT (2/23/12)
It's done. Came to a bit over one hundred thousand words. The initial point polishing it, in media res seems to work well enough without a lot of overt lead-up. So I'm removing it. That and I'm somewhat lazy. Enjoy the read, everypony, and feel free to post comments at the end. I can't promise Light or I will respond to them. But if you spot a typo or something, let me hear from you.


Light hadn’t been in Ponyville long before the wall-eyed mailmare slipped his first piece of mail through the slot in the door. It was an invitation to a party. Putting on his best bow tie, the black one that was barely threadbare at all, he did what he could to tidy up the small house he’d rented. It was scarce of furnishings but over-supplied with books. That done, he spent some time trying to get his shining black mane exactly perfect. When he eventually glanced at the clock on the wall, his brush dropped from his magic in shock. He’d gotten so engrossed in his primping that he was now late. Not fashionably late, either. His nervousness had tried to make him delay setting forth.

Bow tied around his collar, adding a fleece-lined cape and warm scarf against the cold, the gray unicorn slipped out of his book-lined nest of a bachelor residence. His teeth shone in a practiced smile in case there was anypony around to see him. His horn gleamed, and so did his mane, which was so long it almost brushed the dirty slush of the streets. Light headed toward the center of town, assuming the party would need to be near there. His head spun a little with a dizziness born of nervousness. He prayed silently to Celestia that it didn’t show.

In an effort to distract himself from his dread, and seeing as how the streets were deserted, Light decided to brush up on what he’d say when he got there. “Oh! Thank you for inviting me, Miss…ah… I received your invitation, Missus…” Walking slowly, the unicorn squinted and bit his lip to try and remember. He failed. Really, it was his fault. He’d moved to Ponyville because it had a decent library for someplace so…rural. Well, and for another reason. But he hadn’t come here to make friends. Or to go to parties, but if he didn’t force himself to get out and meet some ponies he feared he’d withdraw entirely and end up some mad old recluse. He looked around again. Not a pony in sight and few houses showed lights in the windows. ‘Early to bed and early to rise,’ and all that. Light was used to the city, where midnight was just late evening and streetlamps chased back the dark. His nervousness increased. Had the party already ended?

Eventually, he found the place. His ears led him to the confectionary shop, a quaint building that looked almost as delicious as the smells he’d caught coming from it. He didn’t have the bits to spare for indulgences. Shameful as it was, one reason he’d forced himself to come was the prospect of free sweets. Not that his stomach felt ready to handle food. Nudging open the door, he poked his head in for a clandestine peek. His cheeks went from cold to warm as he blushed. A sprinkling of stallions among a sea of mares, not one of them sporting any garment except maybe a bow in a mare’s mane. Though he spotted a gorgeous white unicorn in a dress that would have made the mares back home green with envy. Maybe his bow tie wouldn’t cause too much scorn after all. The music whose bass he’d heard outside was simple and bouncy. Rural: right. He’d imagined something a lot more…formal. Light seriously considered retreating while he still could. He knew how to behave at a more formal kind of party. Here…what were the rules of conduct? He didn’t know.

But then some kind of commotion broke out near the middle of the room. Light knew better than to squander a chance to make an unremarked entrance. He slipped inside and added his outdoor garb to the rest, hanging from a pair of rolling clothes racks that would have looked at home at a photo shoot. Engraving on one caught his eye: Property of the Carousel Boutique. Borrowed for the party, then? The racks and clothes made a kind of alcove of the front door. Light eyed the wall of rumps closing off the opening and then looked at the clothes, wondering if he could slip sideways through them without anypony spotting him doing something so undignified. His stomach started to hurt, but he’d come too far to slink off now. Then a gasp rang through the crowd.

A gray mare held up what looked like a bomb in her magic.

Pinkie Pie started toward Star and the angry unicorn she’d pied earlier, but then a very dapper colt with a bow tie and long shining mane caught her eye. He hesitated near the door, looking like he needed some immediate encouragement to keep from bolting right back out. She recognized him from gossip and rumor: Light, a new arrival to Ponyville. He was a scholarly sort and reclusive enough to make Twilight Sparkle look like…well, Pinkie Pie. This was a promising sign of emerging from his shell…

…but the tall grey unicorn looked really angry and Star seemed to be having trouble keeping her from erupting. Maybe literal: she was a fireworks-maker. Pinkie was all for fireworks, but not indoors. Groaning in frustration, she darted to Twilight, grabbed her, darted again, and dropped her friend next to Light. The colt looks startled to say the least, but his eyes light up as he recognizes the purple unicorn. Pinkie giggles as she spots the pun. His eyes ‘light’ up.

“Okay!” Pinkie said. “I heard Light loves books and so I figured the two of you would get along great, Twy, and I’m Pinkie Pie and this is Twilight Sparkle and I’d love to stay and chat with you Light but I gotta go now and welcome to the party BYE!”

Twilight stared after Pinkie as she dove back into the crowd like a swimmer into a pond. Her voice almost-instantly came from near the center of the room, where a tall grey unicorn mare looked ready to literally crash the party. Twilight blinked as understanding dawned. She glanced sidelong at the colt, who stared after Pinkie with an expression Twilight found amusingly familiar.

“Don’t mind her, she’s always like that. We wouldn’t have her any other way!” Twilight forced a nervous laugh that ended with a nervous cough into a hoof. She forced a bright smile and glanced sidelong toward the looming trouble. Her eyes swung back. “But seriously, she means well. So, uh…Light. You like books?”

Twilight perked up, nervousness fading. Pinkie had good instincts. If she thought Light and Twilight would have fun together, they almost certainly would. The ponies of Ponyville were wonderful: as nice a bunch as you’d find anywhere in Equestria. Sure there were a few sour apples, but no one who seemed to be rotten. But few of them were interested in what Applejack called ‘book learnin’ and the rest were more interested in reading for fun than information. Twilight didn’t understand how anypony could find a history of obscure unicorn magicians boring, but apparently they did. The library had a shelf of romance novels. Twilight had only read partway through one and she thought her face was going to catch fire. Then she’d rearranged the whole system so the books were high up on an obscure shelf, hopefully out of reach of any innocent fillies. She preferred books to impart useful information.

The stare that Light directed at Twilight was similar to the one he’d sent after the hyperactive pink whirlwind who had introduced herself as Pinkie Pie. His jaw had definite slack feel to it. Whatever Twilight had said refused to settle in his mind, flitting just out of reach of easy understanding. His ears swiveled back and forth in confusion as he grasped part of it.

“…I like books.” He pointed a fore-hoof in the general direction of the crowd Miss Pie had vanished into. “Is she always this good at multitasking?”

The unicorn tried his best not to seem awestruck, coughing and shuffling aside to get a little more distance from Miss Sparkle. He had a good excuse. Some partygoers had, upon seeing the possible bomb, decided to call it a night. Light was nearly knocked over twice. The gesture of moving the two nerds in the room together was much appreciated, however. He made a mental note to thank Pinkie later for being such an empathetic host.

Smiling hopefully, the stallion dipped low in something of a bow to Miss Sparkle, sighing with the relief of regained confidence. Somewhat: plenty of anxiousness remained. “It’s an honor to meet you, by the way. I’d have sought you out a bit sooner, but…shyness took hold. Comparing notes with the famed understudy of the Princess?” Not to mention a wielder of an Element of Harmony, which didn’t seem like something to mention right now. If he thought too much about it he’d end up completely tongue-tied. …and trying not to think about it made him think about it. “Well. I’m…uhh. Words.”

Light’s cheeks burned with a champion blush. Something he’d been trying to ignore hit him again. ‘Wow,’ he thought, ‘look at all the people at this party. Heheh. Hah. Oh, dear.’

At least the mad gray unicorn seemed to still be listening to what a blue pegasus mare was saying, rather than proceeding with the fireworks. The pegasus seemed to be doing her best to talk the unicorn down.

Twilight was no pony’s first pick when it came to noticing the emotions of others, but a blind mule could have spotted Light’s discomfort with the crowd. She could relate. “Follow me, Light.” They make their way across the room, or rather around it: hugging one wall. Everypony’s attention was on the commotion in the middle. Midway there, Twilight had to move a hoof to avoid it being hit by a rolling object. It landed in the closet they were passing. Twilight did a double-take. The thing looked like a demoliton charge. She kicked the closet door closed and used her magic to lock it. Not that a door would have helped, but it hadn’t been lit.

The thought of explaining to Light crosses her mind, but she decides it might cause him to panic. Then everypony might panic. Those things didn’t go off unless someone tried to make them explode, but if there was a stampede for the door somepony might get hurt. Trying to put it from her mind, she led Light to the kitchen. Behind them, she heard a chorused awww. Twilight heaved a quiet sigh of relief. If something heartwarming had happened, the danger was probably over.

Spike was in the kitchen, eating doughnuts and looking saddle-sore. He brightened. “Hi, Twilight!” His eyes slid to Light and the brightness turned to darkness. He keeps staring at the gray unicorn as he speaks to her. “I put half the antidote in the punch. I think it got most of them. The ones who turned up for the party, anyway. They think it was just the spell wearing off. I don’t think some of them would have taken the antidote if they knew what it was.”

“That was…” Twilight wanted to say reckless. But his actions had apparently worked. And the problem of ponies refusing the antidote had in fact been preying on her mind. “…very clever of you, Spike. I’m proud.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Spike tried to hide it, but Twilight could tell he was pleased. For a moment. “Uh, should I go?”

Twilight blinked in surprise. “Oh, no! Please, stay. Spike, this is Light. He’s new to Ponyville. Light, this is my number-one research assistant and good friend Spike.”

“Yo.” Spike said. Light just stared back, clearly intimidated. Twilight wasn’t sure why Spike was acting this way, though she had an idea… Spike cheered up, possibly because Light looked nervous, and held up the tray of doughnuts. “Want one?”

Light’s mood lightened as he entered the kitchen. As soon as he was interacting with only two instead of a multitude, he brightened up and held his head higher, like a proper stallion should. Upon being introduced to the hostile little dragon, his face contorted a little, but he smoothed it away an instant later. Bowing respectfully to the creature, mane brushing the floor, he straightened to eye the donuts, cheeks dimpling in a smile and trying to hide how much his mouth had begun to water.

“Don’t mind if I do. Thank you, Sir Spike.”

Leaning forward, turning it into a smaller bow, Light took the offered pastry and absorbed it in a single bite. He looked between them with a smile, crossing one foreleg past the other in a bid to look at ease. Swallowing, he gave a genteel sigh. He felt the stare Twilight directed at him. She would be curious, of course. No one in Ponyville knew a lot about him at this point. At least, he hoped not. Of all the ponies here, Twilight would probably get the most out of his explanation.

“Well,” Light said, “I suppose I should start from the beginning. I’m…not so different from you, Twilight…” Light paused to order his thoughts and bring up the words he’d composed earlier.

“I was enrolled in the Canterlot School for Gifted Unicorns, though not officially. I wasn’t required to pass an entrance exam, as you did. They took me in at a very young age, on the strength of the potential they sensed in me. I came of age under the watchful eye of my mentor, Professor Argent. Despite the signs of promise, I…wasn’t advancing. In fact, while my fellow students were juggling balls and moving crates, I was lucky enough to make a feather slide across a table. The Runt, they threw at me for a nickname. Light the Dim. It was disgraceful. I usually ended every night in the library, trying to figure out what was wrong with me, as other ponies passed me by. I was beginning to wonder if the horn on my head was actually real or not. That was where it happened. One morning I woke up using a book for a pillow, the bright morning sun treating my tear-stained eyes to a beautiful dawn. Given my late-night readings, it had been years since I had awakened early enough to see one. I had…forgotten. The dawn lifted my spirits. Its warmth and energy inspired me. Somehow, I knew. I pointed my horn at that glorious morning and concentrated with all my heart, mind and spirit…and it happened.

“A small ball of crystallized sunlight hovered right beyond my horn. I think…my parents knew.” Light twitched his thoughts away from them with the ease of long practice. Nothing but pain and sorrow…and rage…lay down that stretch of memory lane. “That’s why I had the name. It was a big clue for me, to aim me toward my true potential. While you, Twilight, can do just about anything, most unicorns have a focus. Mine is narrower than usual. Most unicorns have no trouble with the simple trick of moving things around. I can do it, but the method is quite different. I can manipulate light. If I make the effort, I can even make it solid.”

As he said this, Light demonstrated. Four transparent golden birds materialized in a circle around his head, chasing each other’s tails. They darted off in random directions, fading from existence as they did so. His smile returned, then became something that only a glance would mistake as happiness. His forelock fell over one of his eyes as both narrowed to slits, glaring at the past.

“But that wasn’t good enough. Not for the Canterlot School for Gifted Unicorns. It wasn’t…even close to good enough for them.”

Light’s head tilted downwards, ears drawing back.

“Do you know what happens when you grow up with hope slowly dying in your heart, until you have none? When you find a spark of hope in the darkness, but the world seems to lash out and attack it instead of helping you nurse and protect it? You get paranoid. You get angry. You get…even.”

The room dimmed. Not much: possibly only Light noticed it. The blackness of Light’s mane pulled on it, shadows condensing around him like fog…and then dispersed. Light’s expression shifted from furious to mild in an instant. It was a reflex. Light hadn’t even begun to explain his entire story, but at least they knew where he hailed from: Canterlot. The stallion forced the dark mood back into the depths of his heart and straightened. He shook his mane out, forcing a smile that wasn’t entirely false.

“I’m sorry, I sometimes have a habit of…making speeches. I was curious about something you said.” He also wanted to change the subject. “Sir Spike, you said something about an antidote? Did something happen at the party?”

“So.” Twilight said. She decided to pretend that brief darkening hadn’t happened, as Light seemed eager to do the same. Though it had, and she had noticed, and her curiosity was bouncing around like Pinkie Pie on a sugar high. “You’re from Canterlot?” She hadn’t heard about him. Her cheeks warmed. But that didn’t mean much. She’d been about as socially aware as a cocoon.

Spike rolled his eyes. “Twilight, he asked about the antidote. Nothing happened at the party, Light. We just used it to lure in a lot of ponies affected by a spell that got messed up by Pmph!”

Twilight Sparkle had used her magic to shove the doughnut Spike was holding into his open mouth and then used this opportunity to take over the sentence. “Popcorn! A kernel fell in the cauldron of a potion I was brewing.”

Spike gave Twilight an annoyed look, his mouth full. She glared back where Light couldn’t see. Spike gulped, for more than one reason, and nodded. Twilight turned a slightly forced smile to Light. “Just one of those things: should have been more careful to keep random foodstuffs from falling into a metastable magical distillation. I formulated an antidote and Spike added some to the punch here. Pinkie Pie’s parties are always a big draw.” Her grin faded to a more genuine smile. “By the way, I think your magic is wonderful.” And fascinating.

“Hah.” Light said. “Most of what I can manage is mere tricks with light. Illusion: and not even convincing ones. Useless.”

“Beauty is its own purpose.” Twilight said.

“I’m limited.”

“You’re specialized.” Twilight resolutely kept from looking at his cutie mark, a pure white sun with stubby, curving rays like stylized waves. Or the teeth of a circular saw. He had sun-golden eyes and, while grey, his body was the soft pale grey of the moments before the sunrise. Both were offset by a long ebony mane that gleamed from brushing. He looked a bit like Prince Blueblood, only without the lack of charm. Possibly a relative? That might explain how he’d gotten an education at the School for Gifted Unicorns without a proven talent. But if he wasn’t going to talk about it, Twilight wasn’t going to ask. “There’s nothing wrong with being special. Ized. Specialized. I mean.”

“I don’t-” Light said.

“Dude!” Spike said. “Just take the compliment, all right? Twilight, can we go home yet? It’s nighttime already.”

Twilight had jumped at the interruption, but also decided to be grateful for it. “It is?” Twilight looked out the window. “It is! Where did the time go?”

“Time’s weird inside a Pinkie Party.” Spike said.

Twilight briefly wondered why Spike would want to leave before he must. But only briefly, before other considerations swept it aside. “Stay right here, Light, I just need to say goodbye to Pinkie and have her aim any ponies still affected toward the punch.” Twilight darted through the door back into the dim-lit crowd of dancing ponies.

Light and Spike exchanged looks. Spike held up a doughnut and studied it. “Twy’s going to invite you back to the library when we go. To talk. I know that look. She wants to hear more about you. Try anything funny, Mister Shadow, and you can kiss that fancy mane goodbye.” Spike trailed green flames from his nostrils, incinerating most of the doughnut. He ate the rest, then picked up another and held it out. “We clear, prettyboy?”

Twilight returned before Light could answer. “Okay! I found Rainbow Dash and gave her the rest of the antidote. She rushed right off to Cloudsdale: apparently things are a little hectic over there right now. Light, I’m sorry, but I really have to go. You could…come with me if you like."

Where Twilight couldn’t see, Spike stared at Light and took a meaningful bite of the doughnut he held.

Light’s eyes had narrowed in an unamused squint as Spike spoke. Being threatened by a pint-sized dragon made him feel silly, but not the laughing kind. Twilight had come back just in time to interrupt his rebuttal. Planting his hooves and giving his mane a toss, he nodded in agreement. “Yes, it’s sounding like the aftermath of this…antidote thing is getting a little out of control. I’ll help you where I’m needed, Miss Twilight, but I’d rather not get in the way of you. Or Spike.” His eyes darted to the dragon and back, sensing that saying his name without looking at him might be taken as a sign of weakness.

Twilight shook her head, eager to reassure. “Oh, no, it’s under control. Rainbow Dash is very reliable when she understands it’s important. She’ll get the antidote to where it needs to be.” Twilight coughed into a fore-hoof, a faint blush dancing across her cheeks. “So. To the library, I guess.”

Light’s head dipped in a nod, ears flitting back and forth. “Of course. Though honestly, my…curiosity is perked. I…I’d like to know how this happened. If possible. If you…feel like talking about it.” Light had heard the rumors. Rather than focus on magic, which was common and understandable, Twilight Sparkle dabbled in the occult arts: chemistry, physics, geometry. Science. The strange art of manipulating Nature and its laws with nonmagical actions. Twilight, the special student of Celestia herself, had been indulged in her…hobby. It wasn’t a proper subject for a well-bred pony. Especially not a unicorn. Most of the dark allure…and danger…of science was that anypony could use it. According to rumor, there was a device in her library home’s cellar that could peer within a pony’s mind…

Twilight beamed at Light, then stifled it with another nervous cough. “All right then. To the library!”

“Finally.” Spike said. He set the tray of doughnuts aside and hopped onto Twilight’s back.

The pair of unicorns braved the crowded main room once more, sidling around to the front door to fetch their winter clothes. After the stuffy heat, the cold, clean air was a relief. A moon, just a bit fuller than half, hung high in the sky. Twilight stared at the stars, the old familiar constellations, and let her hooves carry her along the familiar path home. Light kept pace and let the silence stand. To Twilight, the walk seemed to take both too long and yet was over too soon.

Spike sulked, but in silence.

Once the trio entered the gentler warmth of the hollowed-tree house, Spike yawned. Over his protests, Twilight insisted on putting him in his bed-basket. Once there, tiredness and doughnuts dragged him under despite his resolve. Twilight hurried back downstairs, where Light was looking around. Twilight looked too: books and scrolls and equipment crammed into shelves and into cabinets willy-nilly. She blushed. “Oh, uh. Excuse the clutter, please. Things were…a little wild earlier.”

Light nodded absently at Twilight’s apology. He was already wandering around the room, poking his nose into the various contraptions, ears high and turned forward in alert interest. He paused at one table, where a bottle of something fizzy and green stood alone. He sniffed it and caught a powerful odor of lemons and limes. Light was a bit disappointed. It was just a bottle of Pixie, a popular soda brand. He’d never drunk it, of course: soda was a lower-class drink, not suitable for Canterlot unicorns.

Resisting an urge to grin, Light glanced over at Twilight. “Why do I get the feeling that the antidote was for something brewed in here?” She blushed, and he felt bad. Then he remembered that she’d already told him the antidote was for a potion she’d botched and he felt his own cheeks heat.

Light coughed and looked away. The soda caught his eye, reminding him that he’d eaten a doughnut at the party but hadn’t managed to find something to drink. He leaned over to catch the top of the glass bottle in his teeth and tipped it back. He drained half and set it down. Then the taste hit and his eyes crossed. His tongue stuck out, trying to escape a flavor like a lightning bolt wrapped in hot tinfoil. His hind left leg drew up and trembled.

Then the paralysis ended. Light shook himself, mane flying as his lips tried to suck themselves down his throat. “Aurlgh. I really don’t see what you rustics see in these fizzy drinks. No offense to your palate, Miss Sparkle, but that was vile. I really shouldn’t have drunk your soda without permission but it…I was curious. I’m sorry.” Light smiled in apology. “Quite sorry, as it turns out.” Light wobbled a little, feeling dizzy. He recalled that some of those drinks were said to pack a punch. The world swam past his eyes and he sat down on the floor. It started as a sit and ended up more of a flop. His mane felt warm at the roots. Whatever it was, he hadn’t encountered it before. He wasn’t entirely sure he liked it, but he began to see why somepony would endure the flavor.

Twilight stared at Light, but after the day she’d just endured, she simply didn’t have the energy to panic. She could barely muster surprise. Facehoofing, she charged up her horn. “Sorry to be so abrupt about this, Light, but you really aren’t going to want to be awake for what’s about to happen. We’ll talk in the morning.”

The spell hits Light, and darkness falls.

Light drifted toward wakefulness like a bubble of marsh gas through dense mud, which was also an accurate description of the burp that sighed out his nose. Blinking gritty eyes, he tried to move and found himself swaddled in a blanket from neck to tail. Twisting around, he saw the silver netting wrapping the blanket.

A snore made him turn back. Twilight Sparkle sprawled on her side on a nearby couch, drooling into the pillow. Light shifted and sore muscles complained. The netting shimmered purple for a moment and a high sweet chime leaked from the air. Twilight jolted upright with a snort, eyes wobbling before she could make them focus. She blinked at him. “Oh. You’re awake. It’s dawn, then. It looks like the first stage is over.” She used her magic to remove a pair of earplugs, and yawned. “I’ll untie you in a minute, but first, I need to say something.” She cleared her throat and her tone becomes that of someone reciting a rehearsed speech. “That was an incredibly foolish thing to do, Mister Light. I would expect someone who went to the School for Gifted Unicorns to grasp the basics of lab safety. Rule Number One being, of course, No Food Or Drinks Allowed. If it’s in a laboratory environment, never assume that it’s safe. But if this hasn’t made you learn that lesson, no words of mine will help.”

Twilight paused to rub at her eyes and yawn again.

“Luckily,” she said, “what you drank isn’t life-threatening, but it was no health tonic. You consumed a failed potion intended to confer earth-pony-level physical strength and stamina to a unicorn for a moderate length of time. It works, more or less, but there are side effects. The expected one was the temporary loss of all magic, even basic telekinesis. The physical energy has to come from somewhere, after all. The unexpected ones come in three stages. The first is violent euphoria, and I cannot emphasize violent enough. I thought the sleep spell would be enough, but you began sleepwalking. I had to restrain you."

Light glanced at the earplugs. Sleep-talking too? What had he said? She’d put in earplugs. Had it been because he was noisy, or had she been trying to respect his privacy? If that was the case, he was profoundly grateful.

Twilight took a deep breath. “The second stage, which should hit in about an hour, is an equally powerful lethargy, though only physical tiredness. Mentally you will remain perfectly lucid, but so much as standing upright will require tremendous effort. This will progress to stage three after a number of hours, when your physical energy will return as your mental clarity fades. You’ll essentially end up drunk, though better coordinated, and any parts you normally repress are especially likely to manifest. If you need me to restrain you again for stage three, I’d appreciate it if you let me know about it now.”

Twilight fell into an expectant silence.

Light stared back at Twilight. He couldn’t stand, wrapped up in a blanket and a silver net like he was, but if he’d been free to stand he wouldn’t have even tried. His eyes dropped and wandered, not really focusing on anything. Ears drooping, he avoided looking toward the unicorn mare. “…I’m sorry.” That defeated tone wasn’t something he often used. It was the sort of tone that didn’t ask for forgiveness, only expressed remorse. It was an apology offered in full knowledge that forgiveness was neither expected nor deserved. “I didn’t get that far. With my studies. I left right after…”

“After what?”

Light saw no reason to hide it now. He had already disgraced himself in her eyes. “Remember how I said I wanted to get even? Well, I discovered my abilities about a month before the big autumn talent show. We took our turn one at a time but of course the other students watched. One of them was clay-molding. You had to look at your face in a mirror and try to copy it in clay as best you could. I signed up for it. When it came time, I lurked in an alcove and used my magic to bounce flashes of light into their eyes. It’s a color that can’t be seen, but a bright flash of it still makes the eye water and blur. I sabotaged the other unicorns. It worked like a charm, no one noticed anything. When it was my turn, I did my best…which was terrible. But nopony else so far had done even that good. It felt great…until I got caught. I went back to my sabotage but a judge had noticed I was the only pony who hadn’t been blinking and squinting. She watched me, and she caught me.”

Light took a heavy breath, eyes closing.

“Kicked out then and there. I won’t deny that I did wrong, I’m perfectly aware, but I was just so…jealous and angry. I left Canterlot in disgrace; disgusted and ashamed of myself.”

He went quiet, eyes following the whorls in the carpet as he searched for something else to say to her. Nothing really came to mind. His cheeks began to burn as the silence drew out.

“I heard about that. Two years before Princess Celestia sent me to Ponyville. I wasn’t there. The talent show was a waste of time. I was more interested in training my magic than showing it off. I didn’t know you got expelled.”

“I didn’t contest it.” Light said.

“That was foolish of you.”

Light gave a bitter snort. “Foolish might as well be my middle name.” He raised his eyes from the carpet, but looking away from Twilight. “I think I should be restrained for the whole day.”

Twilight Sparkle was silent for a long moment. Her eyes turned away as well, but not away from Light as much as toward…something else. Long beams of wan winter sunlight slanted in through the eastern windows, motes of dust gently dancing through them. The hollowed-tree dwelling gently creaked to itself. From elsewhere in the house came Spike’s snores. In his cocoon of blanket and enchanted netting, Light held still. He nearly held his breath. It appeared that he feels it too, on some level. There was something in the air, a gentle hum to the silence that seems to come from those beams of sunlight.

Twilight soon recognized it: Celestia was near.

Her first impulse was to teleport to her mentor.

Her second impulse was to race out the door.

Her third, hard on their heels, was to stay where she was and deal with the problem in front of her. To do what Celestia would expect her to do. Twilight nodded to herself and forced her focus back to the unicorn trussed up on the rug.

She unbound the spell and the netting evaporated with a sigh and a puff of silvery glitter. “You don’t need retraining all day, even if you might need it later. Thank you for sharing that with me. I could tell confessing it didn’t come easily. It never is, admitting when you’ve done something wrong. But the potion will have run its course by noon at the latest. There might be some minor physical side-effects as well, but nothing really drastic or permanent. You won’t be hungry, but do you think you could make yourself eat something? I have really good clover hay and some of Sweet Apple Acre’s finest winter apples.”

Light was dumbstruck. Twilight Sparkle hadn’t reacted at all the way he’d expected. He’d expected…anger. Disappointment. Even disgust. Half the reason he’d confessed was so she wouldn’t find out from somepony else later. He at least wanted the first version she heard to be his. Regardless, he had been expecting to suffer more than a lecture. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she had asked him to leave Ponyville as soon as he was able. After all, his foolishness had caused her extra work and worry at a time when she clearly had too much to deal with already.

He was being a baby about all this.

Wiggling his forelegs free of the netted blanket, Light firmly planted his fore-hooves and gave a sharp nod. “As the doctor orders. If something needs to be done while all this is going on, please allow me to do help any way I can. Sorting your books, taking inventory…labeling all of your potions? I’m bound and determined to make this mess up to you, at the very least.”

Light pulled himself out of the rug, his long tail twitching to get free of the tangled blanket and netting. He made it to his feet with a painful effort that he tried to conceal. The promised stage two had already begun sapping the strength from his muscles. Snorting, he stamped a fore-hoof against the floor, fighting the weakness with fiery determination of spirit. His legs wobbled slightly, but his force of will was taking up the slack. No more making a fool of himself today, thank you.

Twilight watched Light force himself to his feet, suppressing an urge to facehoof and groan. Sure enough, he tried to take a step and his legs gave out. Her magic caught him and eased him back down. After a moment, she draped the blanket over him, tucking it around him. Light kept silent, but a hint of red marked his cheeks. Twilight decided she hadn’t noticed that. She was too familiar with that particular blend of embarrassment and self-directed anger to judge him for it.

“Stage Two, right on schedule.” Twilight said. “I’ll have Spike make you some food. You don’t have to eat it, but I’d like you to try, please.” She trotted away, rousting Spike out of basket-bed and sweet-talking him into a good mood. It lasted right up until she mentioned Light.

“He’s still here?” Spike said. “He spent the night?”

“Er, yes.” Twilight blushed, then sternly reminded herself that she had absolutely no reason to do so. Sending Spike to the pantry, she stayed where she was for a moment, staring at nothing that anypony else present could have seen.

So what if Light was…fascinating. She was almost positive it wasn’t like that. There was something different about him, and being the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous stallion she had ever seen had nothing to do with it. Or almost nothing. That long mane and tail was more than just hair. Something about his magic struck her as…not off exactly. If magic was a language, he spoke it with an ‘accent.’ It might have been mistaken for a ‘speech impediment’ but Twilight’s magical ‘ear’ was too good for that mistake. There was too much music in it, too much pattern.

Loneliness without sadness, wildness without violence, and innocence without ignorance. Plus the distinct impression that Light trying to do traditional unicorn magic was as wrong as a fish trying to climb trees. Unicorns… A fragment of memory niggled at her, carried on the scent of truly ancient books. Twilight reached for it, only to be distracted by banging noises from the kitchen. She frowned. Spike had taken an instant dislike of Light, which just wasn’t like the little dragon. Dragons and unicorns and something about… The impending insight surged stronger…and faded without coming out of hiding.

Twilight muttered a word she had learned when Applejack dropped a basket of apples on her hoof. Shaking herself, she teleported to the basement and threw herself into looking for some spell or potion that would hurry Light’s recovery. But really she just wanted to keep busy so her mind wouldn’t circle back to Light. Coming up with two possible cures, she took the stairs back up. Teleporting with potions had proven to be an extremely bad idea. Light had a big bowl of alfalfa hay before him with a pair of apples, and a bowl of water beside it. He barely had the strength to keep his head up, and clearly no interest in food.

“Here, Light, I think one of these potions might help get you back to your old self sooner. Uh, where’s Spike?”

“He brought the food and left.” Light said. Twilight almost pressed him before catching a set to his face that said he didn’t want to talk about it.

“I’m sorry about him, Light. He’s usually not like this. I think he feels like he has to protect me. Here, try this one.”

Light eyed the potion, which was clear but full of tiny bubbles that flashed and glinted like diamond dust. But the smell tugged at him: faint and indescribable as the scent of snow, promising to slake thirsts he had never even realized he suffered before now. He let her tip the glass before his lips. It went down like liquid wind off a meadow full of wildflowers and stabbed him with a pang of physically painful homesickness for somewhere he’d never been. A moment passed in silence, and on Light’s part it was almost reverent. Then gas swelled in his stomach. It surged like a living thing, and one with claustrophobia at that: it had a choice of exits and, in Light’s opinion, chose wrong. It erupted in a spray of brilliant rainbows with enough force to blow the blanket off his back.

Light’s face turned scarlet, and Twilight’s matches his. They spend a few minutes avoiding each other’s eyes until the mortifying trumpet fanfare and lightshow trailed away to silence. A voice from above made them jump. Well, in Light’s case he managed a twitch. Spike looked down from the bedroom balcony.

“Dude.” he said. “That’s just wrong.”

Twilight looked down just as Light forced the brief glare of cold malevolence off his face. She hadn’t really seen it, but sensed enough to feel unsettled. “Spike, that was my fault. I gave him a potion to try and hurry his recovery.”

Spike rolled his eyes. “You and your potions lately. Why does he need it, to get his strength back after last night?”

Twilight heard a faint grinding sound: Light’s teeth. She wasn’t quite certain why. “Yes, actually. He drank that failed strength-enhancing potion I was working on.”

“Oh.” Spike looked ashamed for a moment, but then he shrugged and withdrew from sight. “Whatever.”

Light huffed a sigh full of bitten-back words. Twilight sighed in a more heartfelt way and offered the other potion, which looked a bit like muddy water, though it smelled like medicine. “This isn’t magical, but it will help you sleep.”

Light looked ready to argue, but then his eyes dropped. “I’m no use to anyone like this. I may as well sleep.”

“Okay, then.” Twilight’s forced enthusiasm had no visible effect on Light, who drank the sleeping potion without comment or complaint. He fell asleep within minutes.

Twilight teleported upstairs, scaring Spike off his perch on the foot of her bed. “Spike, talk to me.”

“Gah! Twilight, what’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you? Light is a perfect gentlecolt. What’s got you so grumpy? Did he do something or say something when you two were alone in the kitchen at the party?”

“No.” Spike crossed his arms. “I just don’t like him. He gives me the sculls.” Twilight looks blank. “Right, you weren’t there when Celestia gave me that talk. He makes me want to puke. Fire. The serious stuff, not the letter-sending stuff. Not doing it is giving me heartburn.”

“His magic is a little…unique. Maybe you’re…allergic?”

“I dunno.” Spike turned his back to her, arms crossed and tail twitching. “I don’t want to talk about him anymore.”

“Okay, Spike. I’m here if you need me. Just…avoid Light, I guess. He’ll be fine by noon, and then he can leave.”

Spike heaved a huge sigh, but nodded. Twilight pulled him into a hug over his half-hearted protests and then headed for her books, chasing down that niggling sense of an answer. Hours passed like minutes as she read. Then a hoof patted her rump, causing her to leap and yell. Light giggled and fell back on his rump, grinning like an idiot. “Hi, Twy.”

Twilight starts to get angry. Then pauses. “Stage Three.”

“I like this one. I like you, too. I heard a lot about you. Smart, talented, lots of things. But no one ever mentioned you being the hottest thing on four hooves.”

Light lunged forward with intent to kiss. Seconds later he hung in midair, all four hooves tied together. Twilight huffed, struggling for composure. “Light, calm down!”

“Hmmmhm.” Light eyed the rope. “Interesting. I wouldn’t have pegged you for that kind of girl, but okay, I can play along. What is your command, Mistress Sparkle?”

Twilight tilts her head in confusion. “Huh?” She dismissed it as unimportant: he was clearly babbling nonsense. “Oh, go back to sleep.” The spell gathered around her horn as his grin vanished, replaced by a pout.


Twilight tried to go back to her books, but she just couldn’t concentrate and gave up. Pacing the house, avoiding Light and Spike both, she passed the time until noon. But even as he awakens, a frantic knocking comes to the door. And yelling. But it sounded like Fluttershy. But Fluttershy didn’t raise her voice…

…unless it was important.

Light’s eyes snapped open. He looked around in confusion, with no idea where he was or how he’d gotten there. It started to come back. The party. Twilight Sparkle. The potion. But then the memories trailed off into a hazy blur. When he tried to stand he discovered all his hooves tied together. ‘Where did this rope come from?’ Light thought. Then the thing that had most likely awakened him happened again. ‘Oh my, yelling person at the door.’

Light gave a snort. “Nuts to this.”

The stallion squinted down at the rope and concentrated. Golden light gathered and hardened into the shape of a dagger. It wasn’t especially sharp. His magic seemed reluctant to form keen edges. So he made it saw-edged and sawed at the rope, trying to balance care against haste. Whoever was outside seemed close to beating down the door at this point. He’d somehow ended up in the main ground-floor room, sprawled out on the low couch. How had he gotten here? What time was it? He laid back his ears and shook his head: all the questions rattling around inside it were fraying his concentration. The rope snapped and he stood, shaking himself and carefully checking to see if his hooves were working. The unicorn trotted to the door, barely noticing when he stepped on the pile of his discarded winter clothes.

As he began to open the door, some instinct made him pause and turn, looking back and up. Spike glared down at him from a balcony. The little dragon slipped out of sight when he saw Light looking back. Light’s brow furrowed, but he had more urgent things to worry about. Priority went to the distressed mare on the doorstep. He had just enough time to dodge out of the way to avoid the pink-haired pegasus who burst into the room as soon as the latch opened. She landed, only to dance in place with anxiety.

“Twilight, it’s terrible. Oh dear. Oh, de-oh! You’re not Twilight.” She seemed taken aback, studying Light while trying to catch her breath. Her wings finally folded shut.

The unicorn was more than a little confused as well, but he snapped out of it and remembered his manners. He bowed low before righting himself and looking attentive. “You can call me Light, m’lady. No relation to Missus Sparkle, but perhaps I can help. What seems to be the trouble?” Watching her body language, the unicorn moved to mirror it. That tended to help people feel more at ease. He lowered his head and slid his mane forward over one eye.

Light’s memory gave him a nudge as he saw her cutie mark was three pink butterflies. He’d seen her immortalized in stained glass celebrating the defeat of Discord by the Elements of Harmony. The Element of Kindness was a yellow pegasus with pink hair. What had her name been again? Shy Butterfly? Fluttershy: that was it.

Twilight raced to the front door to find Fluttershy already inside, exchanging peek-a-bangs stares with Light, who was awake, untied, and apparently fully recovered.

“Oh! Twilight!” Fluttershy said. “Sweetie Belle, Applebloom, and Scootaloo went into the Everfree Forest!”

“What, again?” Twilight said. “What is wrong with those fillies? Okay, let’s go after them.”

“Please allow me to accompany you, Missus Sparkle.” Light said. “I don’t…recall much but I suspect I owe you an apology for my behavior. If so, you have it.”

Twilight stayed deadpan, but her blush betrayed her. “All right, you can come.” He might actually be useful. It would make a nice change from his actions so far. If nothing else, he’d be another back to carry saddlebags of supplies.

“Then I’m not.” Spike said.

Twilight ignored the dragon’s tone. “Excellent idea, Spike: you stay here and hold down the fort. Keep some blankets warm and brew some cocoa. Tell anypony who shows up where we went. If we aren’t back within an hour after sunset, tell the mayor.”

“Okay, Twy.” He shot a look at Light and vanished into the kitchen. Fluttershy frowned, glancing at Light with mild suspicion. Spike didn’t like him? Why not? But she was too worried about the girls to worry about anything else for long.

“Supplies.” Twilight said. “Okay, that’s easy: I keep some kits packed for various emergencies…” Twilight dove into a storage closet. As she emerged with the packs, the room slowly went dark. She blinked around the room. “What the…?”

Fluttershy flew up to a window. “There’s a huge bank of clouds rolling out from Cloudsdale. That’s not on the schedule. Um, I think they had a whoopsie with a storm.”

Twilight and Light spoke as one. “Storm?”

“Um, it won’t be a stormy storm now, they have safeguards for that, but it’s going to hang around for a while and probably start snowing by nightfall.”

“I need light for my magic.” Light said. Twilight looked at him. His expression changed from dread to determination. “But I won’t let that stop me. I know a thing or three about wild places like the Everfree. They’re no place for little fillies, even without an imminent snowstorm. I have some light stored. Not at full capacity, but…”

Twilight looked closer, noticing that Light’s mane and tail are grey instead of black. A thousand questions arise, but she shoves them aside. “I can create light.” The spell caused her horn’s tip to glow with bright white radiance. Light’s hair drank it in, deepening toward black. He shot her a look of quiet gratitude. She quelled the light and nodded back, looking away. “Okay, Fluttershy, Light, here’s your packs. Let’s hurry.”

The two unicorns followed the pink-haired pegasus into an early afternoon rapidly going almost as dark as night. It wasn’t long before they reached the edge of the Everfree Forest, where a lot of defiant green peeked from under its mantle of snow and ice. At least the trail of the wayward fillies was easy to follow, though Twilight had to maintain the light spell so they could see. The tracks seemed to head for Zecora’s place, but then veered aside to avoid the Poison Joke patch.

But while the fillies may have intended to swing back onto the trail, their hoofprints don’t swing back enough. They wandered parallel for a while, paused at a muddle of tracks caused by milling around, and then struck off in exactly the wrong direction. Fluttershy stayed between Twilight and Light as they trotted along, flinching at every noise. But she didn’t falter. Neither did Light, who seemed…oddly at home. Not that he was relaxed, but he fit into his surroundings in a way he hadn’t in all the time since she’d first seen him. He was wary, but also confident.

“So, Light.” Twilight said. “You said you know about wild places?”

The answer was a moment in coming. “I am solitary by nature, Missus Sparkle.” Twilight nodded, that maddening sense of an important insight dancing just out of reach. “I ventured into places few ponies go and often spent weeks without seeing another person. Going without haircuts is how I learned that the longer my hair grows, the more light I can gather and store.”

“Oh.” Fluttershy said. “I just thought it was because it looks nice.” Light glanced at the pegasus beside him, and they both blushed. Twilight felt an odd pang and realized it might be jealousy. Fluttershy didn’t notice anything. She had her head turned toward Light. “You have light powers?”

“Indeed, that is all I have. I can create illusions, even things with solidity, though anything much larger than myself and they become…brittle. But I can create most things.”

“Can you make anything offensive?” Twilight said. Fluttershy gave her a shocked look. Twilight took a moment to see the misunderstanding. “I mean fighting, Fluttershy: not rude.”

“Oh.” Fluttershy said. It was her turn to blush.

“Not much.” Light said. “I am much better defensively.”

“Okay, then. If we meet anything unfriendly, you try to fend them off. I’ll give you light and try to figure out the best way to deal with whatever it is.” Light answered with a firm nod.

“Um, I could probably convince most things to go away. Um, if I had to. You know. The, um, the Stare.”

“Stare?” Light said. Fluttershy blushed again.

“I’ll explain later, Light.” Twilight said. A few minutes pass in tense silence. Then: “I hear voices.”

Up ahead, they heard three young and familiar voices in familiar argument. Then the shouting turned to screams of terror.

Light charged without a moment’s hesitation, head low and eyebrows lower. There were young damsels in distress and he knew how a stallion was supposed to behave in this situation. Twilight and Fluttershy caught up fast but didn’t try to pass him. When he skidded to a stop they managed to avoid crashing into him. He might not have noticed if he had. The scene before him was enough to hold anypony’s attention.

Three young fillies had been backed into a corner made by a snow-patched boulder and a fallen tree’s trunk. A hulking brown creature advanced on them with arms raised, claws clicking together. Light immediately recognized it as a bugbear, and not just any bugbear. He’d dealt with this fellow just a few weeks before. The gnawed ear gave it away.


The creature gave a surprised sort of growl, turning around to face the stallion as Light stamped a hoof against the ground. A thread of light spun around his horn. The fillies screamed again as a transparent yellow globe flashed into being. It held them and some snow. The screams turned to yells, mostly on the theme of [/i]whoa[/i], as the ball darted forward. It rolled out of the natural trap and reversed direction to leave the clearing. It then rolled in a circuit that took it back around behind Light. The girls would be mostly fine. Perhaps a little dizzy and covered in snow. Light glared at the bugbear and tried not to show how much of his concentration it took to control the ball-spell. If the bugbear smelled weakness it would jump him in an instant.

Light had enough spare attention to speak, but only because he already knew what he wanted to say. “I told you not to pick on innocent critters anymore. Was I not clear with you last time?”

The bugbear tilted its head in confusion and dropped its claws, now looking past Light to where the ball had just slid forward into sight near Fluttershy and Twilight. Light let it vanish. With them safe, the stallion stamped his other hoof against the ground. The bugbear flinched, just a tad. Light began to prowl back and forth, walking half-circles that got a little closer each time. The bugbear wasn’t amused at being treated like prey by prey. In fact, it was insulted.

Giving out a bellow full of slaver and stink, the bugbear beat its horrible clawed forepaws against its chest. Then it charged the unicorn with reckless abandon. But its pause for the threat-display had been a bad idea. Light had gotten plenty of warning that the charge was coming. It tripped.

What looked like a transparent yellow limbo pole had appeared in just the right place to catch its foot as it swung forward. It crashed down so hard snow flew up. Light hadn’t moved a muscle outside the ones needed to smirk. He’d learned from the previous encounter that this fellow was a stinker, not a thinker.

Light tossed his mane out of his face and gave a jump. He landed none-too-gently on the bugbear’s back. It growled and tried to do a push-up. He planted a hoof between its shoulders and thumped it back down. Its eyes rolled up trying to look at him. Light leaned forward and gave it a grin. The noise it made probably translated as uh-oh. It didn’t try to get up again. That meant it remembered the last time, and what would happen if it tried.

“Very, very naughty bugbear.” Light moved back a little so it couldn’t see him anymore. “I let you off with a warning the first time, but I’m going to be less forgiving now.”

Light focused, shutting his eyes and visualizing an object from his memories. A wooden paddle, the handle wrapped in rope and a heart-shaped cutout on the far end. His eyes opened and a transparent yellow copy hovered in front of his nose. It was easier for him to create something when he had fond memories of it. Flipping the device around and lowering it behind himself, he raised it…and became aware he had an audience.

Twilight and Fluttershy stared at him. Then, as one, their eyes went to the paddle. Again as one, they dropped to the targeted bit of bugbear anatomy. Twilight looked shocked but Fluttershy turned bright red from the tip of her nose to the tips of her ears. Huddled between them, the three fillies were mostly just confused.

Light felt his own cheeks warm. “Tough love is the only way you can deal with a lot of these fellows. Ladies, if you would, please let the poor thing take its punishment in privacy.”

They turned their backs and headed away through the bushes lining the clearing. Once out of sight, the stallion stopped trying to hide his triumphant smile. The paddle cracked against the bugbear’s leathery rear. It grunted. He gave it a few more until it started howling. Satisfied he’d made his point, Light hopped off the bugbear’s back. The paddle evaporated. He stared off into the trees, acting disappointed. “Now, you better have learned your lesson. Get yourself gone, and don’t let me catch you harassing any little ponies again. Hear me?”

The beast sniffed a few times as it picked himself up. It staggered off into underbrush, bawling into its hands. The sound took a while to fade. Light let it, using the time to catch his breath. His magic was a little tiring, and he hadn’t been feeling too great even before. He found the mares and fillies not to far off. On impulse, he swept them a bow. He noticed that his mane was nearly as pale a gray as his coat, but the significance of that failed to bite home. The fillies were rescued, after all. It was time to go home for hot cocoa and the warm feeling of a heroic act.

Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy did their best to calm the three fillies, who were as much dizzy as afraid after their hamster-ball roll of an escape. Fluttershy winced with each crack and yelp, but didn’t protest. Light returned looking tired but satisfied, his mane and tail the color of paper ash. “The afternoon progresses, ladies. Shall we go?”

“What was that thing?” Fluttershy said. “I’ve never heard of anything like that around here before.”

“Bugbear.” Light said. “Big bullies, mean but cowardly at heart.”

“Okay, let’s get you three home.” Twilight said.

“We was just goin’ ta visit Zecora.” Applebloom said.

“Then somepony got us lost.” Scootaloo said.

“Girls! No arguing!”

The fillies instantly fell silent as Fluttershy chided them. They huddled between her and Twilight as they walked, Light leading the way. But as they neared where their hoof-prints had left the path, a warm yellow light bloomed among the branches.

“That must be Zecora’s place.” Twilight said. “We should probably stop there first, since it’s so close.” She was a little puzzled. Her mental map wasn’t as good as the one on her pack but she didn’t think they’d been that close to the zebra’s tree-cottage. And wasn’t it in the wrong direction?

They’d been heading for the light even as Twilight came to question her assumption. It turned out to be a lantern hanging from a low tree branch. Then it twitched, went out, and the snowy mound half-hidden behind the tree shuddered…

…and rose. The monster looked like a snake, its body big around as an earth pony’s belly, but with a row of runty lizard legs down each side. The head was almost entirely tooth-filled mouth. A fleshy stalk rose from his forehead, and the ‘lantern’ hung from the end. It lit, a very dim cold blue, as the creature gave a hiss. Twilight knew The Stare wasn’t going to work here: the thing had no eyes. Its light was just a lure, and it had worked.

Light stood his ground, giving a snort of challenge. He appeared to have forgotten that his reserves were almost drained. Twilight hadn’t exactly forgotten that she could feed him light, but it briefly slipped her mind as the thing hissed again, sliding closer. Fluttershy covered the fillies with her wings, terrified but nowhere near close to running. Her usual empathy for all non-dragon creatures was ominously absent.

Light was in over his head, but he didn’t realize it at the time. The afterglow of his triumph against the bugbear left him feeling more confident than, if he’d thought about it, he really should.

“Fluttershy! Take the foals and get out of here, please.”

She was clearly hesitant to obey, but the primary concern was getting the kids back to safety. The pegasus herded the fillies back but not totally away. It was clear she wasn’t going to run for Ponyville. She might not be able to help in the fight, but Fluttershy wasn’t going to abandon her friend Twilight. Not even if it meant staying within sight of a tooth-faced abomination. Odd to see such courage in one so timid.

Light turned around to give her a nod of respect, only to have Twilight give a warning yell a moment later. The shadows gave a dizzying whirl as the eel-thing’s lantern came crashing swinging out to hit his left side. The unicorn let out a yell of surprise and pain. The blue-glowing orb was cold: so cold it burned. Light went with the impact and rolled off to a side, quickly getting back to his feet. He gave out a flash of light from his horn but it was wasted effort. The monster’s eyeless attention was already focused on him.

The unicorn watched the monster’s movements, his focus narrowing until nothing else existed but him, the monster, and the ground he where he put his hooves. It shifted left and right, like a predator trying to judge distance. Then it tensed and hurled itself at him like a living spear, pushing off with all its many stubby legs at once. Its maw gaped wide and he saw that it wasn’t eyeless after all: an eerily beautiful sapphire eye rested in the roof of its mouth. Light only met its stare for an instant. He leapt straight up, conjuring poles of light that existed just long enough for his hooves to land on them and push him higher.

Seemingly enraged at the move, the thing whipped around, horribly agile. The lantern swung at Light even as he landed. Light reacted by slamming a foot-wide shield of hardened light into being. An instant later cold blue met warm gold…and blue won. His reserves ran out and the shield shattered into a cloud of brief motes. The bare trickle that made it through the overcast and the treetops was no more use to him than armor made of chocolate. He reached out for the blue radiance, instinctively seeking any light he could find, and a spike of frozen agony stabbed into his skull. He leapt back, dimly aware that his mane was pure white. Frost glimmered on his horn’s tip. It was magical light: and foul magic at that. Light had tasted its malice. Not hunger. It wasn’t a mere beast but a monster in truth, taking delight in suffering. Fear twisted a different cold through his heart.

Twilight’s yell made him jump again, eyes wide and rolling as he fought his paralysis, struggled to turn tail and run, run, run. It took a moment for the meaning of her words to make it through the terror. “LIGHT! I’ll charge you up!”

The timing was…horrible. As she charged her horn and aimed it at him, the monster’s lantern lit up like a dead blue sun, thrashing around so fast and wild that it formed a chaotic web of glowing lines in the air. Maybe it was seeking to blind and dizzy them before attacking again. Maybe shattering Light’s shield had stung and this was it dancing around like a pony with a singed hoof. Light closed his eyes, more willing to face the dread of that dark than stare into the evil light. He’d never learned how to keep from absorbing light but he tried to learn fast now.

Cold sank into him, evil and hungry. Then molten heat blasted it away. The darkness behind his eyelids turned red. Twilight had lit off the mother of all illumination spells. It wasn’t quite like sunlight but it was close. Light’s reserves filled, then over-filled, then overflowed. Heat became pain. Then pain became something indescribable that scoured his mind blank. He sent it out with his last shreds of awareness, doing his best to aim. He hoped it hit the monster and doubly hoped it didn’t hit Fluttershy and the fillies.

As her dazzled vision began to return, Twilight saw a solid-black unicorn with glowing yellow eyes. Light. His cutie mark spun like the saw-blade it vaguely resembled. Those glowing eyes didn’t see. They stared at nothing. Then golden lightning burst out from his cutie mark to wrap him in a dancing web. It bunched up around his horn, gathering into a fist-sized orb like a miniature sun. It burst, unleashing a fat golden lightning bolt that hit the monster right in the thrashing lantern.

There was no thunder, just a sound like a wagonload of raw potato slices dropped into a swimming pool of hot grease. The creature screeched as its lantern exploded, body turning black and shriveling up like a salted slug. Meanwhile Light danced and jittered in place like he was cold, scared, and badly needed a visit to the little colt’s room…or like an unstable potion about to go exothermal. Twilight teleported to Fluttershy and brought up an opaque, mirror-skinned shield around them all. A second later the drain on her magic increased a hundredfold. The ground bounced hard enough to make Twilight stagger. A dull windy roar made it through the shield. Then…silence.

Twilight felt sick. Rather than drop the shield she altered it so only light got blocked. It was very possible Fluttershy and the girls didn’t need to see this. Twilight swallowed hard, sent a silent prayer to Celestia, and poked her head out. After another moment she forced her eyes to open. Sunlight swept down in a broad golden bar from a hole punched into the clouds. It didn’t illuminate the new clearing. The nearby trees were all char-black on the near sides and limbless everywhere except where they’d been shaded by their trunk. Smoke curled from them. All the snow had turned to steaming mud.

Light stood in the center of it all, unharmed…but not unchanged. His coat was back to being pale, his mane and tail back to being dark, and his eyes back to being golden. Little golden sparks spit randomly off his horn’s tip. Black hair formed a long, disturbingly Discord-like beard on his chin. His hooves had split in two, becoming goat-like. His tail looked like that of a lion or griffin. Light looked stunned but then he had every right to be. He gave a shudder. Grunting and tossing his mane, he stamped his cloven hooves. The sparks died away. He gave Twilight a tired stare, chest heaving. “The…girls. Are they…all right?”

Twilight couldn’t answer. She was too busy staring at him and wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her. Part of her found it very reassuring what his first question had been. That was the question of a good person. “What happened to you?”

Light frowned as if she’d asked him to mentally calculate the volume of a sphere to the tenth decimal place. He seemed to notice the slash-burned trees and the hole in the clouds. “…I exploded?”

“No, I mean the changes.”

Light gave her a blank stare. His new griffin-like tail twitched and swayed, catlike. It was clear he had no idea what she was talking about. “What changes?”

“Oh…my…Celestia.” Twilight Sparkle said. “I remember now. Unicorns used to be different. The world was too. Then the world changed and the unicorns had to change along with it.”

“You aren’t any making sense, Missus…” Light’s voice trailed off as he noticed his ground-dragging beard. “Oh, that? I have always been able to grow one, but I keep it trimmed.” He shifted on his hooves, and then lifted one out the steaming mud that had been snow not long ago. “Uh. That’s new.” His griffin tail twitched. The paintbrush tuft, at least a yard too long, tried to bristle with his growing fright as he turned his head to look back. “But. I. But. Tail. My. Wha…?”

Light trailed off again, staring into space with a look of brain-broken incomprehension. Twilight approached but got no reaction. The dead monster sizzled as it dissolved into ash. That told Twilight it had just been a construct: a created body for something with none. Twilight felt pretty sure the animating spirit had been destroyed too. Magic could do that and Light’s attack hadn’t just been light. “Light?” Nothing, and then a slow blink. “Oh, boy. That’s not good.” Twilight turned to look for Fluttershy. She stood with the fillies behind her, watching Light with an expression not of concern but of…

…well, if little pink hearts had been orbiting her head, they wouldn’t have looked out of place. Twilight groaned and turned back to Light. His mane and beard and tail tuft were all far too long. Given their function, Twilight wondered if that might be the cause of his mental collapse. Using a pair of twigs, she turned them into scissors long enough to give him a trim. His mane was still long, but no longer trailing in the mud.

“Oh, Twilight!” Fluttershy said. She had ventured closer, hovering to keep her hooves out of the mud. “He’s beautiful!”

“Why does he have feet like a goat?” Applebloom said.

Fluttershy spoke without looking back. “Hush, girls. He saved us.”

Twilight waved a hoof in front of Light’s eyes. No reaction. So it wasn’t the too-long hair. Like she usually did when she had no idea what to say, she started repeating things she had read. “Unicorns used to all look like that, a very, very long time ago. I thought there was something strange about his magic. It explains why Spike dislikes him. Back then, unicorns and dragons…didn’t really get along.” Twilight grabbed his beard in her magic and gently tugged. He took a step, eyes still blank. “Okay, at least we can get him home. We can all argue when we get there. For now, let’s go.” Twilight looked up at the round hole punched through the overcast. Fluttershy got the fillies lined up. “Before anything else comes looking to see what happened.”

Unnoticed by anyone, Light’s shadow was a bit sharper than the diffused light should have cast. It also lagged just the briefest moment behind his movements.

Light didn’t open his eyes. He found them open. He didn’t arrive. He found himself here. Wherever here was. Light stood in a meadow, the tangled greenery studded with flowers. It was wild as anything found in a land where ponies didn’t look after nature and as beautiful as anything found in a land where they did. Cherry blossoms drifted down like a light snowfall. He stared as a sense of wrongness awakened in his mind. The pink petals…didn’t accumulate. The light was wrong. Bright as sunlight but too diffuse. No shadows anywhere. Light tried to close his eyes. When he failed he knew he must be dreaming.

It was too real to be a dream. Light crept forward. He reached the end of the meadow in a few dozen steps. As he emerged from the flower rain he saw a ‘landscape’ of islands that hovered like clouds. Bridges joined them: arches and sweeping curves whose simple lines contained the distilled essence of beauty. Some of the islands held buildings with the same quiet grace. Seven suns hung here and there in the soft blue sky. Light’s ears had gone back but he couldn’t keep a grip on his alarm. This place was too peaceful and too…familiar. He had no memory of ever being here before. But maybe he had, once upon a dream.

Light followed the edge of the meadow toward the foot of a bridge that swept out and around and up to a higher island. Several small creatures drifted by. They looked like tiny ponies made of near-transparent mist. The apparitions had green eyes that glowed from within and multicolored butterfly wings. They circled him, giggling, and then zipped away. He couldn’t help but smile. The bridge led to an island hollowed out into a deep pool. A waterfall poured down from somewhere above. The mist that boiled from it poured off the edges of the island and became cherry blossoms. Light did something it hadn’t occurred to him to do yet. He stepped to the edge and looked down. More islands, each connected by bridges. Some with buildings. Some without. Beyond them…blue sky.

There was nothing dreamlike about the vertigo that gripped Light’s head or the queasy feeling in his stomach. He slowly backed away. Then his tail brushed something and he startled, finding himself suddenly turned around with no clear memory of actually turning. That didn’t help settle his stomach. He faced a unicorn stallion with a brilliant white body and mane and eyes like smooth orbs of glowing golden crystal. He had a long narrow chin-beard, cloven hooves, and a griffin’s tail. Light stood with his hooves planted, dimly aware that they felt odd. His tail too. But he didn’t want to think about that. Instead he attempted a friendly smile. The other unicorn didn’t smile back. Light’s smile withered like a flower in the frost.

The strange unicorn snorted and trotted in a tight circle. Then he reared up and gave a little hop. Instead of coming back down he drifted upwards like a balloon. Light was dimly aware his mouth hung open. The flying stallion paused in midair, his legs tucked up under him, and looked back. His strange tail crooked at the end and made an unmistakable follow me gesture. Light noticed his cutie mark for the first time. The number forty-two. What was that supposed to mean?

Light became aware that those featureless eyes stared at him, and they weren’t full of joy and friendship. Giving a nod, Light turned in a little circle like a dog preparing to lie down and then reared up. He tried to stifle his mild dread of heights as he did. There was a reason he’d unconsciously avoided looking down for so long. Light gave a little hop that carried him all of a foot into the air before he came back down. He felt a hot blush pour across his face. The mist off the waterfall failed to cool it. He tried to imagine being light as air, floating on an invisible cloud, sprouting imaginary wings. Nothing happened. The other unicorn’s growing disgust was silent but eloquent. Light stared upward and wished he was floating up there too. His longing finally outweighed his dread and he found himself comfortably standing on nothing beside the strange unicorn.

And then the fear bit him and he was standing back on the ground. The other unicorn gave a groan and face-hoofed. Eyes still closed, he made a gesture with his other fore-hoof and a bridge of ivory and gold spun into being from mist and sunbeams. Then he flew away. Light trotted up the bridge, feeling a vague but deep sense that he had failed some kind of important test. The bridge spiraled like a corkscrew. He might have climbed a mile. There was no way to be sure. He never tired and the random drifting of the suns left him with no way of guessing how much time passed.

The bridge finally ended at a smaller island with a short green lawn around a stone platform. It had a roof upheld by pillars and no walls. Except being white marble it looked like something from a pegasus cloud-city. The strange unicorn from before sat under it on a simple cushion of vivid green silk. Light walked to the place where grass became marble, maybe ten feet from the other. As soon as he lifted a hoof to put it on the stone something erupted in his head. It was like a thought but coming at him from outside.


Light stopped, eyes wide. The unicorn in front of him hadn’t moved a muscle but Light knew the command had come from him. The stallion ‘spoke’ again, the mental voice harsh and uncertain as if he’d half forgotten how to use it. You are the. First in a long time. A very. Very long time. The stallion grimaced and tossed his mane. His glowing eyes narrowed and he crossed his forelegs. The part of Light still stuck on being at school gave a whisper: ‘oh great, a lecture.’

The other unicorn didn’t seem to hear the thought. This does not. Bode. Well for us. Are we still at war. It was phrased like a question but lacked the tone.

Light began to feel out of place. This dream no longer felt like a home he’d never known. He looked around again, trying to find some reason for his sudden dread. After a moment he forced his attention back to the other. “…N-no. We haven’t been at war since Equestria was founded.”

The other seemed taken aback. His head lifted in alarm or maybe just surprise. He climbed to his hooves, head now dropping low but with high and forward. He didn’t quite look aggressive. Just very, very intense. I have not. Followed events in the. World. For a long time. Are the scaled ones defeated.

Light felt his mane trying to stand on end. This was getting downright creepy. He coughed into a hoof and then pushed his forelock back out of his face. “Uh…I don’t…I don’t know what scaled ones you’re talking about.” That felt like half a lie. He felt like he did, or should know. “I don’t understand.”

That nagging sense of dread poured in through the growing cracks in his composure. In this warm and sunny place Light felt cold, as if a shadow had fallen over him. It came with the sense of watching eyes. His skin crawled. Light looked down. He didn’t stand in a shadow but he suddenly had one. It looked like what a noon sun might cast. The strange unicorn snorted and stamped, making the island tremble. Then he was in Light’s face, glaring, without having crossed the space between them. You. Are. Unclean.

It was not a question. Light stared back in utter confusion. The angry stallion finally seemed to realize just how clueless he was. Another baffling moment of lost time and the stallion was sitting on his green cushion again. I must think. On this. You. Will come here again. I will know what to say. A warning. Young one. Beware your shadow. You or it. One must be the master. Be certain it. Is you. Or a monster you will. Become. The stallion paused. Then he spoke aloud. “Go.

The word hit Light like a wrecking ball made of marshmallow. The notorious Royal Canterlot Voice could not have been louder, yet Light had the unshakable certainty the other unicorn had been trying to whisper. The blast swatted him off the island and sent him tumbling through the infinite sky. Absolute panic blasted him through him like a bolt of lightning. He thrashed…

…and woke up.

Twilight and Fluttershy sat at a low table, playing Go Fish. They’d tried checkers but Fluttershy had kept passing on opportunities to take pieces. Go Fish was working better. Fluttershy certainly wasn’t going to lie about whether she had any eights. Twilight didn’t either but she was a little tempted after the fifth loss in a row. Statistical analysis didn’t seem to be working like it should. Fluttershy looked at her cards and blushed a little. “Um, do you have…any, um…sixes?”

Twilight sighed, but only inside, and moved to pass over the three sixes. Then cards sprayed everywhere as somepony gave a strangled yell of fright. Fluttershy vanished under the table. Then she shot right back out again as she realized who had yelled. Twilight only beat her to Light’s side by an instant and only by teleporting. They managed to bang their noses together in their eagerness to look down at his face. Thankfully Twilight’s horn didn’t get involved. It still hurt. Instead of reassuring smiles, Light’s staring eyes focused on pair of mares making closed-eyed grimaces of pain. He didn’t look reassured. But they soon switched to expressions of concern.

“I just experienced a very strange dream.” Light said. He sat up and looked around. “I know it’s cliche, but…where am I?”

“The lib-” Twilight said.

“Twilight’s bed.” Fluttershy said.

Light leapt away as if she’d said ‘a snake pit.’ He landed on his feet, staggered, but managed to stay upright. After a moment he cleared his throat and tried to look dignified. His scarlet cheeks ruined the effect. His eyes dropped away from theirs and then locked onto his cloven hooves. He said a word that Twilight didn’t know, and that wasn’t exactly a daily occurrence.

Eeep!” Fluttershy said. She blushed crimson. Twilight gave her a sidelong glance of surprise. That word had clearly been impolite. Fluttershy knew it? Twilight badly wanted to ask what it meant and knew she’d never have the courage.

Light seemed not to notice. “That wasn’t a dream? The lost fillies, the bugbear, the eel-monster, my transformation, that strange place with float-” He stopped so fast his teeth clicked together. He closed his eyes for a moment. “I’m awake.”

“Uh…” Twilight said. She fell back on her script of what she planned to say when he woke up. “After you transformed, you kind of…stopped…for a little while. You’d walk if you were guided, but you didn’t really seem aware of your surroundings. I didn’t have to carry you in my magic so any dreams of floating were really dreams. But everything before that, um, yes. That was real. How are you feeling?”

“I would quite like to panic.” Light said. He took a deep, shuddering breath, held it, and let it out in a slow hiss. Did it again. “But I won’t. I hope. What has happened to me?” His tone was smooth the way glass was smooth, and just as brittle.

Twilight had a minor panic of her own and retreated into lecture mode. “Regarding your transformation, I believe you to be a reversion of phenotype in the unicorn genome to an earlier and presumed-extinct form of horned equine.”

Fluttershy looked blank. Light frowned but he didn’t seem confused, just taking a bit to digest the words. “I’m a throwback to a kind of ancient unicorn?”

“That’s what I just said.” Twilight said. Behind her bangs, Fluttershy rolled her eyes. Twilight pretended not to see but felt her cheeks warm. “It explains your difficulty learning conventional unicorn magic. When I…” Twilight blushed even more. “When I overloaded you, I forced a latent part of your nature to manifest fully. I think.”

“How do you fix…” Light’s voice trailed off, frowning as his gaze turned inward. “It’s gone.” He noticed the mares looking at him in confusion. “The…rage. The…frustration.”

“You were spiritually…constipated.”

Fluttershy jumped, eyes wide and her entire face shading from yellow to red. “Um, um, maybe I should go check on how the girls are doing?” She fled.

Light stared after her. “The girls? Oh, the girls!”

“They’re fine. They’re with Spike. Um, he understands why he doesn’t like you, now. The ancient unicorns fought a terrible millennia-long war-”

“-with the scaled ones. With the dragons.”

“Yes, exactly. It ended up taking the entire world to the edge of disaster. Once, it was all like the Everfree Forest. Well, minus the monsters. Both sides stopped before it was too late, but some things had been broken beyond repair. Things like the weather had been tamed, turned into weapons by one side or the other, and couldn’t be made wild again. Even now, only a few places remain as they once were. Everywhere else needs looking after. The dragons and unicorns agreed to transform their children, and so make their species into the kind of caretakers the world now needed. …Light?”

Light has gone back to staring at nothing, but he lacked the glazed aspect this time. Stirring at the sound of his name, he shook himself and focused on her.

Light looked into Twilight Sparkle’s eyes and reconsidered the words he had been about to say. “I was about to ask if there was a way to…fix this. But somehow…I think it is fixed. I think you fixed something that I didn’t even know was broken.”

The unicorn sat on a couch by Twilight. They had turned partway to face each other. Now he turned away a little to stare at the floor. He tried to think but his transformed tail kept twitching and distracting him. He looked ridiculous; did he really want to consider staying like this? He tried to put the outer changes from his mind. The inner changes were subtler but far more profound. He stared down at his shadow. A cool draft blew from somewhere and made his mane sway. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Twilight shift as if about to say something, but stopped herself. Light had a guess what she had just reconsidered saying.

“You want me to stay here in Ponyville?” She must have sensed he was thinking about leaving, even though he hadn’t really realized that he was thinking it. Staying would mean being seen.

Twilight’s cheeks tinted with a blush. “Well, I don’t…I don’t want to objectify you or anything, but you’re a marvel. A living fossil. I was hoping you’d stick around for at least a little while. I’m not about to do anything to hurt you, of course, but the chance to study an ancient species, one that I’m personally descended from… Wow, this is starting to sound creepy.”

Light shook his head, a knowing smile spreading across his lips as he chuckled in the back of his throat. “Not really. The scientific mind questions all. Nothing is too strange if there’s an experiment in it somewhere. And besides, I was about to ask you if I could hang around.” Once he really considered leaving, he had realized he didn’t want to. “I want to know more about me, too.”

A door opened and shut. The pattering of soft feet approached and then Spike entered the room. The dragon avoided eye contact with the two ponies even as he moved to stand in front of him. He shot Twilight a glance and she gave an approving nod. Spike coughed and looked at Light’s hooves. “Hey, um. Light. Sorry I was such a sour-sport to you earlier."

The male unicorn stifled an urge to smirk and lifted a hoof to nudge the dragon on the shoulder. Spike looked up. Light met his green eyes and then gave a small bow. “It’s not easy to control your emotions. Controlling emotions you aren’t aware of, however, may as well be impossible.”

Spike seemed to relax a bit, to Twilight’s obvious relief. She let out a held breath, looking between the unicorn and dragon with a satisfied sort of smile. “Well! I’m glad you two are talking. Ancient conflicts are better left in the past. The last thing we need is another war breaking out.” Twilight didn’t exactly laugh at her own joke. Light didn’t exactly laugh either but he did smile. “This town gets in enough snowball fights as is.”

That got a laugh out of Spike. Light grinned wider as he looked between mare and dragon. A tension had faded from the room and its absence made him realize how much its presence had weighed on him. Light attempted some humor of his own. “Speak for yourself. I’m just glad he didn’t eat me.”

Spike found that notion ridiculous enough to laugh. Twilight gave the dragon a fond smile and shifted a little, ending up closer to Light on the couch. She didn’t seem aware she had done it. Light was…very aware. Suddenly his mind started handing him reasons he should get off this couch and be elsewhere. Light wondered about Fluttershy’s behavior. Or how the girls were actually doing. He needed to be certain they were safe and unharmed. Perhaps explain that violence was always a last resort. He should go thank Pinkie Pie for the party last night. He should go meet some of the other ponies in town, and give Twilight and Spike a break from him for a bit. He should find out who this Zecora person was.

“Oh, Zecora?” Twilight said.

Light twitches. “…I said that aloud?”

“Well, mumbled really. She’s a zebra.”

Light absorbs this in silence. “I remember a map. Zavros is across the Eternal Crossing, south of the Muudi Desert. She is a very long way from home.”


“Twilight?” Their heads turn to see Fluttershy creeping in from the kitchen. “I should get the girls over to Pinkie’s before it gets any later.”

Spike shifts as if sitting on something hot, though of course as a dragon he could have sat in a furnace and felt fine. He gives a sharp nod, a scowl of determination making him look less childish. “I’ll go with you, Fluttershy.”

“Oh, thank you, Spike.” Fluttershy gives Light a sidelong glance through her bangs, and for a second, her eyes darken with frustration and annoyance. Light feels a chill as something not at all nice stares back from those lovely green eyes as if they are holes in a mask. No hate or aggression, no ill feeling: in fact, the stare is disturbingly…intent. Then it’s gone, as if it never was. Fluttershy vanishes into the gloomy afternoon with the CMC and Spike in tow.

“Um.” Light said. “Is Fluttershy…all right?”

Twilight curls up on the couch, and after a moment, Light joins her. “Fluttershy’s…complicated. She’s actually one of the strongest, bravest ponies I know. She scolded a dragon once and made it cry. When she stares at you, it’s very hard not to do what she says. I think she’s afraid of that power. Of how she could abuse it. So she always tries to be nice and mild. Only she tries too hard. Spike’s going to be fine. He left us alone.”

Light coughs, cheeks warming. “Yes. About Zecora?”

“She lives alone in a tree-house in the Everfree Forest and makes herbal medicines. Oh, and she speaks in rhyme. People here in Ponyville were afraid of her at first, but then she helped me and my friends out when we fell afoul of some Poison Joke. Uh, don’t ask. That’s a story for another time. You can take the spare bed here tonight if you don’t feel up to heading home. We can discuss the ancient unicorns some more if you stay.”

“I would be imposing, Missus Twilight--”

“Just Twilight. Anyone who saves me from a monster can call me that. Or Twy, even. If you want.” She clears her throat and edges a half-inch closer to him on the couch, possibly not aware she did it. “So, will you stay?”

Light meets her wide purple eyes: so open, so naive despite that agile mind and a memory packed with knowledge. Innocent. Pure. Conflict erupts in his heart and mind, with clamoring from his glands. Oddly, his mind is with his glands in yelling for Light to kiss her. His heart, so newly still and peaceful, whispers a gentle no that has all the authority of a roared command. He cannot take advantage. At least until he is sure it is him she truly sees, and not…what he is. To sully that purity would be worse than wrong, it would be abominable.

But he could stay, as long as his intentions were pure.

Light shifted on the couch, trying to move a little further away from Twilight without being too obvious about it. “I’d rather stay. I may be in need of some…serious psychoanalysis, as well as the simple need to tell somepony about my experiences. So long as I’m not imposing, anyway.”

Twilight simply shook her head. Her manner changed, withdrawing somewhat without actually moving further away. But she didn’t become distant. She waited to hear whatever he said without demanding he speak. Light took in a deep breath and began to think back to his dream, which he was less and less certain had been a mere dream. The details remained too clear.

“You said I was catatonic. I don’t think my mind was…still in my body anymore. After I woke up I assumed it must have been a dream. Then you mentioned an ancient war between unicorns and dragons. I hadn’t known about that. A dream made up by my mind couldn’t have included that detail.” Light put a hoof to his chin, smoothing down the hated goatee he’d sprouted. “Is there any place in Equestria…or the known world…that features floating islands? Where light shines from seven different suns?”

Twilight’s blank expression told him the answer. It had been a futile hope in any event. As she attempted to speak, however, he gently interrupted her. “I was in this…place. In a meadow on a floating island among floating islands, some connected by bridges. Each one had a different sort of theme or aesthetic. A waterfall, a big tree, a small building with…this weird sort of style like earth ponies trying to make in stone what pegasi build from clouds. It was oddly peaceful and very familiar, and vice versa, but it was nothing I’d ever seen before.”

Light went on to explain his entire dream in detail: every detail he could pull from his memory and be certain he didn’t remember wrongly. Even his embarrassing failed attempts to fly. He was aware he wasn’t doing a good job, jumping back and forth through time. When he felt fairly sure he’d explained everything he remembered, he took a pause to take a breath. “What do you think it all…might mean? Or am I just going insane? I’m probably going crazy. Now you’ll tell me you and Miss Fluttershy chatted about the ancient war while I was unconscious and my mind heard it enough to weave it into my delusions."

Light gave off a nervous half-laugh, hoping she would confirm his guess. Having gone crazy seemed like the less horrible option. He didn’t believe it for a second, he just hoped it. But then truly crazy people never believed they were crazy. So…he hoped. The thought that it had all been real in some sense scared him. He had always daydreamed about discovering he was destined for great things. Now that a great destiny threatened to arrive he realized that great was not the same as good or safe or fun. Light had tasted terror in the fight against that eel-monster and hadn’t liked the flavor. He knew he was due for nightmares about a horribly lovely eye surrounded by gleaming fangs. If that was the kind of thing a heroic figure had to deal with he’d rather become a librarian.

“I don’t think you’re insane.” Twilight said. Night had fallen as Light revealed his dream. Twilight lit a few more lamps as she considered her next words. Light seemed frightened rather than relieved. “The legends say the old unicorns weren’t mortal. They never grew old or died of natural causes. After the war ended, dragons weren’t killing them off anymore, and besides, too many of the old ones couldn’t let go of the bad feelings. They ‘left the world to their mortal descendants.’ But I never read anything about where they went. They didn’t die out, because one fragment claims they ‘stand ready to defend the world’ if the dragons break the treaty. That matches what you described in your dream.”

“But why has this happened to me?”

Twilight had no idea, so she continued with what she had been prepared to say. “Dragons usually stay out of Equestria. Most ponies have never even seen one. Well, besides Spike. It was a big deal when that red one turned up to take a nap in a nearby mountain.”

“That would be the one Fluttershy scolded?”

“Exactly. But let’s talk about you.” Her mind had handed her a possibility. “I don’t think the old dragons ever left the world. Maybe they stay away from Equestria, where most unicorns live, because of the ancient treaty. Maybe this one felt justified in breaking it because, in its opinion, the other side had already done so. Maybe it sensed your presence and decided to nap here in case the old war was about to start up again. A kind of sentinel. That’s a lot of maybes, though.”

“But following the chain…maybe the dragons have sensed my awakening. They might come here.”

“Princess Celestia won’t let things turn violent." Twilight said. She said it with an absolute certainty she actually felt.

Light seemed reassured enough to let his mind wander onto a side-track. “What are Celestia and Luna, then?”

Twilight’s eyes dropped from his, lingered on the floor, and then resolutely lifted back to his. Her mouth continued without the full guidance of her suddenly preoccupied mind. “I don’t know. I never found a single legend describing their origins. Before you, there’s never been a scrap of evidence that the tale of the Dragon-Unicorn War was factual, rather than just a myth trying to explain why the world is how it is. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think you’re supposed to exist. I mean you weren’t meant to happen. That no unicorns of the old type were ever intended to be born. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some of the original unicorns can’t let go of old grudges.”

Twilight paused to let Light absorb this in peace. While he was distracted, she unleashed the blast of focused magic she had been honing in the back of her mind. Light found himself unceremoniously yanked into the air while twenty white-glowing orbs bloomed around him. It should have destroyed any shadow he cast. Instead his shadow on the floor shrank and darkened, hunching up into something so dark it looked flat but was clearly not. A twitchy little thing, it was about the size of Spike and built roughly the same way: with two arms and legs. It was skinnier and hunched, with a pair of jointed feelers on its head and no tail. A pair of round eyes opened in the flat blank face, orange-tinted yellow and glowing from within.

A cage formed around it, the bars glowing like congealed moonlight. It jumped back, brushed one, and jumped forward again with a pained manner. But it made no sound. Twitching in place, it looked all around, and Twilight had the strong impression the thing wasn’t very intelligent.

Light caught sight of the thing. “What the hay!?”

“You said that dream-unicorn warned you.” Twilight tried not to shudder and managed to tone it down to a shiver. “Meet one of the nastier creations of the ancient dragons. The dragon name translates to He Who Walks Behind. They’re a kind of magical parasite on the old kind of unicorn, woven right into the very nature of the world’s magic. It’s a law now, like gravity. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Here is the shadow to your magic’s light.”

Light struggled with his fear and managed to adopt a stiff, formal dignity. “Twilight, please put me down.” The shadow-thing looked up at Light and held out one claw in a yearning way. Light shuddered. “On further consideration, don’t put me down.”

“I don’t think you have any reason to panic.” Twilight had begun to get a grip on her fear. She’d seen scarier things. Discord sprang to mind. “This is a newborn, and almost certainly the only one in existence. It hasn’t been taught to hate unicorns. According to what I’ve read some unicorns trained their Walkers. Like pets. They can handle physical objects when manifested like this. I can tell that just from hearing its feet on the floor.”

Light’s eyes were too wide, but he managed to stay in control of his rising panic. “Is it a threat to me?”

“Not that way. It dies when you die, after all.”

“And not before?” Light said. “Could you…squish it? With your magic?” Twilight looked at the Walker, which stared back. She had a ‘blank slate’ impression from it: not just unintelligent, but unformed. Shadows took the shape of the objects they cast. This one couldn’t possibly be very evil. She glanced up at Light, who held tight to brittle calm but with his griffin tail lashing in agitation. He wasn’t demanding its destruction from anger. His eyes held nothing but pleading. No, he wasn’t evil. She looked at the shadow again. It would have some form of deep connection with Light. Destroying it might badly harm him. And…there was his name. Light. Light was what cast shadows. This had the feel of something meant to be.

Besides, Twilight had never killed anything before. She wasn’t sure she could bring herself to do so unless there really wasn’t any other choice. “I wouldn’t care to risk it.”

Light started to protest before Twilight’s tone managed to sink through the dread trying to suffocate him. He hesitated. Suddenly his fear felt vaguely silly. He was like a little foal convinced the winter wind moaning outside was a windigo come to get him. Light forced himself to look at the shadow-thing: really look. It didn’t…feel evil. It acted like a puppy that didn’t understand why it had been locked up in a cage.

His heart started to slow from its hummingbird racing. Light focused on his breathing until he could actually pick apart the beats. “First impressions can be deceptive. I…think I should be nice to it. As far as I know, he’s a stray puppy that just wants to be loved. Maybe if I…befriend…it? I won’t have to worry about it harming me.” The words of the dream-unicorn came back to him: master or servant. Spoken like a pony from before the founding of Equestria. Spoken like a pony that didn’t understand that the greatest magic was friendship.

Light was having trouble believing his own reassurances. The fear still danced and gibbered in the back of his mind. Being courageous was the mastery of fear, not the absence of it. Light tried to be brave. The little entity was reaching up with both clawed hands and wiggling them. No noises, but obviously wanting. Wanting…him. Light shuddered again. He had to close his eyes and swallow twice before he could make the words come. “Set me down, Twilight. S-set me d-d-down and t-take the cage aw-away.”

Twilight made a small sound of surprise. Light dared to open one eye. She gave him an incredulous look but obeyed his request. As soon as the unicorn touched ground next to the thing, it gave a squeal like two glass rods scraped across each other. It vanished and Light’s shadow reappeared. Light came embarrassingly close to making a puddle. He managed to avoid that ultimate disgrace but couldn’t stop from prancing in place like a prissy pony trying to keep his hooves out of the mud. He could feel it. Wiggling, snuggling up close to his mind. But the feeling dulled after a few seconds like a familiar smell. Light managed to talk without his teeth chattering. “I’m calling you Black, if you’re paying attention.”

Light looked down at his shadow, a hoof slowly nudging his dark silhouette; half petting it. He had no idea what he was doing, but after a few seconds he could swear he heard a purr. The sound caused him to stop, eyes widening. And then…just for a moment…his shadow had two yellow eyes. His shadow’s head canted sideways like a puzzled dog. Then the eyes vanished and his shadow was just his shadow. He twitched an ear and watched his shadow mirror it. Light relaxed. Slightly. He didn’t understand this but he had the hope of understanding.

That was enough to keep from blubbering. Light had drunk a flawed potion and strongly suspected he had disgraced himself during the ‘stage three’ he couldn’t quite recall. He too-clearly recalled the humiliating trumpet fanfare resulting from Twilight’s attempts to speed his recovery. He had spanked a bugbear, fought an abomination against nature, suffered a violent magical overload, and had his body transformed in ridiculous ways. He had been hurled into a dream-world where some kind of ancient immortal unicorn had been condescending at him before hurling him back out, and then he’d woken up to learn some kind of spiritual parasite had replaced his natural shadow.

More than anything, Light wanted the past twenty-four hours to not have happened. He would have settled for a warm bed in a dark room and some time to be alone. It seemed he wasn’t even going to get that. “T-this is entirely too much to take in. I’m not even sure if I can sleep knowing something’s…there. Right beside me. Watching me…in the dark.”

That was half a lie. Light was absolutely certain he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He turned his head around to face Twilight, uttering a very tired sigh. “You wouldn’t happen to have an elephant-tranquilizing potion on hoof, would you?”

Twilight frowned at Light’s shadow, which had gone back to looking almost normal. “You’ve already had too many potions in the past day. The remnants are still in your system and they can cross-react in unpredictable ways. That’s why…” Twilight cleared her throat, certain that Light wasn’t eager to be reminded of that impolite eruption of rainbows. “Shadows can’t exist in the dark. Maybe you could…”

Light’s stricken expression stopped her. He smoothed it away fast, but not fast enough. After a moment’s thought, she found it perfectly understandable that Light wouldn’t like being in total darkness. He shook his head. “No.”

“Hrm.” Twilight hunted for another option. “Well, if you surround yourself with sources of light you can destroy your natural shadow. Like I did: forcing it to manifest. If you can maintain a light-cage construct in your sleep or make it permanent…?”

“I cannot.” Light said. “Please, a potion. Just for tonight? I need to sleep.” Twilight gazed into his pleading eyes and felt her resolve waver. She shook her head and looked away. “No. I’m sorry, but drinking any more magical potions could seriously hurt you.” She began to offer to watch over him as he slept and make sure the creature caused no trouble. “I-”

“No, it’s quite all right.” Light said. He seemed calmer now, or hiding his upset by being formal. “I understand. I suppose I should at least try to sleep without assistance first. Perhaps it will be less disturbing than I suspect.”

“All right.” Twilight beamed in relief. “In that case I have some books you should really-”

Light held up a hoof. “Please. I am too tired to think clearly, much less read. I am grateful for your offer of hospitality and would still like to spend the night here. Being alone in my apartment with this thing…” He shuddered.

“Oh. All right. The spare bed is this way.”

Twilight lay awake for what felt like forever, listening to Light’s quiet breathing in the other bed and trying to make sense of her tangled mass of conflicting emotions. She eventually slipped into fragmented dreams that confused her deeply on more than one level. Then they settled as Light vanished from them. His absence made her dreams feel bleaker.

Light crept downstairs, finding his newly-cloven hooves were far more agile than before. His made the descent in near-perfect silence. Carved from the solid tree, nothing creaked. Light donned his winter garb, now in far sorrier condition than before the party. They smelled faintly of fried monster. Twilight had taken a long time to fall asleep, but she had in the end.

Outside, Light shivered, and not from the cold. A bit of lamplight leaked from various shuttered windows, the clouds glowed dull grey from the moon behind them, and the snow had the eerie inner light of all snow. Aside from those, darkness covered the world. He probed at his reserves and found them shockingly large. For that much, he should have been trailing a mane and tail to make Princess Celestia’s look like a bob-cut. Light was far from at peace with his transformation, but he began to realize it wasn’t all bad. Causing golden light to leak from his horn, he headed for his lonely little bachelor apartment. He planned to pick up his money-pouch and then head for the Emergency Help Center, where he would plead dreadful insomnia.

Light paused as a memory nudged at his attention. Zecora, the zebra in the Everfree Forest. She made potions. Those three fillies had been following a path to her house, one already marked by hoof-prints coming and going. They had diverted for some reason but the path was there. Light turned and headed another way. Normally he would sooner shave his mane than venture into a place like that on a night like this. His deep new reserves reassured him. So did the bone-deep sense of rightness the Everfree instilled in him. The wild land called to him more than his dwelling in town. Light focused the light forward and sped up. Snow was coming and it would hide the hoof-prints. Part of him was aware that he wasn’t thinking as clearly as he should. The part that would stop him had been beaten down by too much happening too fast. A calming sense of unreality embraced him.

A clicking purr made Light look left. The shadow-thing had manifested. It half-ran, half-glided beside him: skittering over the snow with the twitchy weightlessness of a dead leaf before the wind. Its blank glowing eyes turned to his. The clicking ended on a rising, almost questioning tone. Light viewed it with dispassion, a little voice in the back of his head chanting: it is all a dream, I am just having a strange dream, just play along and I will wake up safe in bed in the morning.

“She said you might be useful.” Light said. “I wonder if you can track things.” The thing twitched its jointed feelers at him, radiating puzzlement. Light snorted, his breath steaming, and turned his attention back on his path. As he imagined the forest, the path, and the hoof-prints, its clicking rose to an excited buzz. It streaked ahead, briefly melting into a flat puddle that swooped along like the shadow of a pegasus. Popped up, cast about, and then turned to hop up and down, staring back at him.

Light stopped dead. “You read my mind?”

Light’s certainty trembled, but solidified. Just a dream. He thinks ‘come to me.’ Nothing happened. He formed the mental image of the thing beside him. In a swooping, deceptively lazy flicker, it was. After a frowning moment, Light formed another image. The shadow-thing paused, melted, and then formed a very clumsy, crude imitation of Spike. With feelers. Light only recognized it because he knew what he imagined. He had the strong impression all this obedience was entirely voluntary on the part of the thing. But it seemed eager to please. Like a dog, maybe. A stupid dog. Treat a dog well and its loyalty was absolute. Treat it badly, cruelly, and one day…

Light snorted again and changed the image. Dream or not, he had no time to waste standing around. It glided to the edge of the light his horn cast and paused to look back. Light trotted forward. It kept its distance, melting on occasion to sprawl out; seemingly to trace the surface of the snow and every hoof-print stamped into it. Somehow, Light had no doubt that the prints it followed belonged to him. Unless goats had passed through recently that wouldn’t be much of a trick. The shadow-thing’s tracking let Light move much faster than he would have dared by the careful trickle of light. Soon enough it reached where the tracks skewed off the path.

The wind was absent in the forest, giving the illusion of warmth as he stopped generating headwind. After a frustrating minute of enforced patience, Light managed to ‘explain’ to the shadow that he now wanted it to track the different prints continuing down the path. After dipping a claw into a shadow-filled print, it seemed to make the connection. Light sent it images of praise that made it bounce around in delight, purr-buzzing. The hoof-prints led to a low and twisted tree that has been hollowed out into a dwelling. Down between his cloven hooves, Light felt a vague itch. He dismissed it as not being used to having them and knocked.

Inside, Zecora raised an ear, swiveling it toward the door as a hesitant knock rapped against it. She slipped out of bed with a shiver, quickly draping her travel cloak around her. Tossing a bit more wood into the central fire-pit, she walked to the door. But she had no intention of opening it for a knock alone. There were unfriendly things smart enough to pull such a ruse.

“Who is it that knocks without?” she said. “When you speak, please do not shout.”

A male voice answered, properly low. “A unicorn. My name is Light. I seek the zebra Zecora.”

“A unicorn in Everfree? As for Zecora: I am she.”

Zecora heard the voice mutter as she lifted away the heavy bar lying across the doorway: “Rhyme. I thought she was kidding.” A wash of cold rolled in. Light hurried inside and Zecora hurried to close the door. The winters in this land were something she had despaired of ever becoming accustomed. She lowered the hood of her cloak as she turned to him. He studied what she revealed: a short bristly mane, standing up straight and striped in alternating black and white. More stripes banded her neck and barb her face. He stared for a shorter time than many. “I am deeply sorry to intrude, but I require a potion to aid sleep. Enough doses for many nights, if possible. My name is Light, ma’am.”

Zecora eyed the unicorn in turn: taking in the goatee, the split hooves, and the griffin tail. Her mind traveled back to her homeland and a sacred cave with ancient paintings on its walls. She looked around the one room of her home, stared at the fire burning in the central pit, and then back at him. She had come to Equestria to seek wonders, but never in her wildest dreams had she imagined a living myth walking out of the night. Her excitement faded as she truly looked at him. Something in his eyes told her that part of him had gone away inside, denying what it couldn’t accept. She spoke, arranging the words to be as musical as possible, like everything in her native tongue. “A darkness in your eyes I read. Perhaps it is not sleep you need?”

“I have money.” The unicorn paused. “Not with me, I admit…” He shuffled his hooves, looking embarrassed and half-turning away. That exposed his cutie mark, and the scatter of tiny blue flecks on it. They slowly bloomed in size even as she watched. Zecora plopped down on her rump, groaning. Light took a half-step closer, concern clear on his face. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

Zecora gave a nod. “It’s not for me you need to fear. Through Poison Joke you walked to here.”

“Poison what? Wait…poison?”

Zecora started to explain, but then it happened.