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Forbidden Knowledge · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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If, Amidst the Flames, a Pony

You are about to begin reading the next story on your slate: If, Amidst the Flames, a Pony.

‘About’ being the key word here. You’re…well, you’re distracted, really. Yes, that’s the right word. Distracted. You’re still trying to distance yourself from the last entry you read; setting a standard is all well and good, but you prefer to appreciate each piece on its own merits. You know how easy it is to be blinded by the strengths and weaknesses of other works.

Perhaps it is the first story on your slate, and you’re apprehensive. You know that if it’s a strong enough entry  you’ll feel inspired to read another, and you really need to start working your way through the your assigned slate. If it’s a disappointment, however…

Perhaps it isn’t on your slate at all. You’ve chosen to read it on a recommendation, or a request. You’re excited; not by the expectation that it will be any good (at least, nothing like yours), but by the chance to deconstruct it. You’ve been asked to provide some sort of external judgement where others have failed. They know that you of all people are best suited for the task; the trick, you tell them, is not to distance yourself from the narrative. Let its world become yours, its concerns yours.

Only then do you start to tear it down.

You’re yet to read a word on the page, and you’re already beginning to form your expert opinion. You have your doubts, even at this stage. What kind of writer titles his story with a subordinate clause?  Are they trying to be clever? Perhaps make some sort of vague statement about beginnings and endings? This is the sort of writer, you suspect, that thrives on ambiguity; the type that would leave a theme half-finished, and call it all the more meaningful for the silence that followed.

Perhaps you’re overthinking it. After all, you haven’t even started reading.

You sit back.

Take a deep breath.


You know yourself and your expectations now; everything else tends towards guesswork.  And when you get to the other end, well.

Things may then be different.

If, Amidst the Flames, a Pony

The library is a furnace.

Flames race from aisle to aisle as bookshelves catch alight like dominos, collapsing under their own weight and sending up clouds of smoke, and dust, and embers. The thick sandstone walls bleed a ruddy orange light that flashes blue where the melting copper roof drips onto the flames.

The noise – groaning, cracking –is deafening.

Two ponies run against the rear wall with wet rags bound to their muzzles, stooping as low as they dodge between burning bookshelves and broken beams. Tears stream from their eyes. The acrid smoke is thick, and heavy. The heat alone is suffocating.

The pair halts in front of a half-burnt shelf set flush against a wall, and the larger of the two turns and delivers a swift kick with both hindlegs. The charred wood collapses under his blow, revealing a narrow passage that slopes steeply down into the bedrock.

Without hesitation, they dash inside.

It’s dark in the tunnel; the air is damp, and the stone underhoof is wet, or cold, or both. It’s hard to tell. The unicorn and her larger companion walk in silence for a time, their world reduced to the immediate surroundings lit by the glow of the mare’s horn, until the rhythmic clacking of their hooves gradually replaces the distant roar.

The unicorn peels the rag off her face.  “The palace.” she spits, shaking her head. “The gardens. The old temple. They knew the book wasn’t going to be in any of them. They didn’t need to burn those too.”

She glances back at her saddlebags as she speaks as if, by reflex, seeking reassurance.

The stallion remains silent, shadows playing across his face. “We can talk later,” he says at last, his voice a whisper. “We don’t know where this comes out.”

The mare gives a sigh, and inclines her head.

They continue, as before, in silence. Beneath their hooves, the tunnel gradually levels off, and the unyielding stone gives way to clay, and sand, and the smell of smoke to the distant tang of sea air. After a time – minutes? Hours? Days? – the shadows too begin to soften and, around a bend, a distant light glimmers. The mare approaches the light and, blinking her vision back, takes a step forwards –

and feels herself thrown against the sand, belly-first, a thick-barrelled white-cloaked earth pony pinning her with one foreleg. She flinches as her saddle bags are torn off her body, and a second white-cloaked stallion rifles through them. From the corner of her eye she sees her companion, sprawled out in the sand. Motionless.

Another set of legs enter her vision. Another unicorn, dressed in the same manner as the one pinning her. His mane is cut short, and the lines of his face are sharp, and cruel.

He smiles as one of the white-cloaks throws him a small bundle from her bags. A small parchment bundle. A journal. A book.

Standing on Unbroken Stone,” the unicorn reads, glancing at the cover. “This would seem to be the thing, would it not?” He looks down her, and she glares back. He shrugs indifferently.

 “You’ll talk, in time,” he says. “And of course, I’ll have to burn this little book of yours. Truth be told, I should burn it this very instant. But I’m curious, you see. Everybody seems to want it, yes?” He waves the book in question in front of her face. “But nobody tells me why. Strange, no?”

The mare doesn’t answer, and the stallion shrugs again. “No? Alright then. Let’s sit here a while, you and I, and see what makes this worth dying for.”

And with that he sits himself comfortably down on the sand next to her, turns to the first page, and begins to read aloud.


At this point, you’re utterly absorbed in the world of the story, ensnared in the subtle tangle of threads. What little concerns you had at first– the efficacy of the author’s descriptions, the odd turns of phrase – these things slowly fade as the story’s world begins to supplant your own. A mystery, a set-up – you can see it all coming together, crafting in your mind’s eye the image of the author’s creation.

It is, to be fair, no work of art.

And yet as sure as you are in this picture you’ve drawn, reader, you’re not certain. You need to validate this belief, this assertion, this presumption. And as you keep reading, as the narrative builds to its climax, as it comes to the reveal which you’ve seen coming since the opening sentence-

It ends.

“Impossible!” you say aloud, throwing your hands back. “This story has not even begun!” And yet you cannot deny that the sidebar has gone as far down as it can; that, beyond that final period, there are no more words to be seen. That you have read all that there is to read on the page before you.

Of course, you are not so easily convinced. You scroll up, and down, scanning for foreign passages. Perhaps you made a wrong stroke somewhere, skipping some vast section of the text and, in your haste to read, did not even so much as blink at the transition from one scene to another.

No such luck.

You frown. “Perhaps,” you say to yourself, “the page has loaded incorrectly; some accident has caused the first half of the story to load before the rest; the story’s conclusion is but a simple fix away.”

You refresh the webpage with a single key stroke, smug, lean back, and wait. And, as the page loads again, you notice two things. The first is that the title has changed; the second is that the story now in front of you has absolutely nothing to do with the story you’ve just read.

Standing on Unbroken Stone


> Awaiting User Input 

I am becoming convinced that somebody is watching me.

I will, I admit, have no rigorous way of proving this. But the sum of little things –  my door left ajar, which I had locked, and to which only I possess a key;  my workstation still active when I returned to it; the lampshade, missing its usual layer of dust – paint a picture. That’s how the Council work, they say. First, they watch.

They don’t talk about what comes next.

> Awaiting User Input 

When the prompt had first appeared on my screen, I’d dismissed the thought of it being anything other than a software fault as a flight of fancy. It was an observation of fact: the simulation’s universe operates on a set of physical laws that are, by design, so utterly alien to our own that interaction between one and the other is not so much improbable as it is impossible. It would be like trying to communicate to a blind man with drawings.

It was not that the message on my screen shouldn’t have been there– it couldn’t.

And so I’d sent off a bug report, and thought nothing more of it. They happen, every now and then, and the maintenance department normally solves the problem in a matter of minutes. Hours, at most.  But come the next morning, the prompt remained. We’re working on it, came the reply. Await further instructions.

I confessed these things to Anita when, during our shared break, we met in the cavity between the maintenance shaft just off the bridge, and the empty conveyance rooms, where in our private moments we would sit together, and hold hands, and contemplate things, or meditate to the distant hum of the engines, or push one another against the floor, or the wall, and have our way with each other. It’s where we always went. The Council couldn’t watch us there.

“Read this,” she’d said the moment I’d finished speaking, in one swift motion withdrawing a book from her bags and placing it in my own and then, without so much as a backward glance, departing.

A book, of all things. I should report it, or dispose of it. I should report her. The rules are clear. And I will – dispose of the book that is– but not tonight. I’ve seventy-two hours to do it. Anita gave it to me for a reason, I’m sure.

A peak won’t hurt.


They want me to shut it down – the universe simulation

The response came through in the night. Just like that. And I would have, with barely a second thought, had I not spent my entire seven hours allotted for sleeping instead reading Anita’s book. A silly piece, to be sure, about a king who thought himself ruler of all the land, for he was so small that he couldn’t see over the hill to the mountains beyond.

> Awaiting User Input

But Anita always liked her silly stories, and the metaphor was clear enough.

She doesn’t think the simulation’s developed a bug – on the contrary, she thinks it’s operating entirely as expected. That whoever lives within the simulation has begun to realise the nature of its existence, and that the prompt on the screen is a means of communication.

And she thinks that the Council is afraid.

The existence of the simulation itself raised questions from the start. If we can create a universe simulation, the logic goes, then who’s to say that there do not exist others capable of the same feat? And if there do exist others capable of creating universe simulations, then who’s to say that our universe isn’t one?

We would be able to tell, the counter-argument went. If we’re capable of creating a simulation, we’re capable of recognising one. We’d know.

>Awaiting User Input

The problem is that the universe simulation was based on the same principles. That any entities within it wouldn’t be able to identify it as a simulation on the basis that they had no basis for doing so; their universe and ours could not interact. This had the side effect, of course, of preventing any observation on the simulation once it begun, and rendered the whole experiment a rather useless, if thought provoking, piece of work. So long as it remained in an unresponsive state, it allowed a lot of people who thought far too much about such things to sleep at night.

But that’s a lot of words right now, and I’m operating on very little sleep. For all I know, this is sheer conjecture, and the book is just one of Anita's games. I’ll sleep, for now, and see that tomorrow she explains herself.


When I stole away to the cavity this morning, Anita wasn’t there. I needn’t conjecture as to why.  Possession of books were the least of her peculiarities but, if the Council knows about her other dalliances, they’ll learn about the book soon enough. I’m surprised they haven’t already. They’ve been watching me, after all.

Or so I thought.

I still haven’t ended the simulation yet. It would be easy. One simple command, half a dozen authorization signatures. A near infinite number of quantum states resolving into a near infinite number of 0s. Hard reset. Universe gone.

>Awaiting User Input

But I’m beginning to suspect that Anita was right. That they wouldn’t have taken her away if she wasn’t. That the Council’s fears are true. That the very fact that I have this choice means that somebody else, somewhere, has chosen too.  Perhaps they, too, sat at their little desk, staring at their little screen, or perhaps they watched, as they, in all their glory, tore apart the walls of their reality and witnessed the next.

Perhaps they’re the ones watching me. Perhaps even now they, too, are being watched. Perhaps a hundred similar choices have been made. A thousand choices. A million. A vast, endless chain, stretching on and on into could-have-beens and never-weres, each and every one looking upon the next and wondering –

>Awaiting User Input

What a grand consensus they must have reached.

I’ve not much time; the Council are doubtless already on their way. Minutes; perhaps not even that.

Minutes will have to suffice.

>Awaiting User Input
>To those who look upon the stars in wonder:


You reach the end of the page where, just like its predecessor, the story abruptly ends. You take a moment, gather your wits, extract yourself from the world of the story, and resume your place in the land of the here and now.

And at this point, reader, you’re questioning the author’s intentions. Because this can be no accident – the title of the latter matches the book referenced in the former. Yet the second story was entirely separate to the first; they couldn’t possibly have followed on from one another. You use the word story loosely. In your mind, they were more sketches; they lacked the length or the depth to flesh out characters, or to explore ideas at any level of complexity.

And you wonder to yourself, reader, what it is then that the author could possibly hope to gain from this little game. The sum of two arbitrary objects is itself arbitrary. No insight is gained by contrasting meaninglessness with obscurity.

Unless, of course, you’re still overthinking it.

Shaking your head, you refresh the page again, and find another story altogether.

Looked upon the Stars and Wondered

When Princess Luna first vanished

On that starless night

And Celestia bade me calm

I did not speak out.

Nor did I say a word

When three days later

Celestia vanished too –

Not when I followed her

To that hidden grove

In the depths of the Everfree –

Not as I watched her split

The air in two and step





Into a rift of flame and shadow

Which every second tore itself asunder

And brought about its own rebirth

I watched.

And I listened.

And I grew afraid.

Because I know

That somebody else is out there

Listening, as I listen

Watching, as I watch

Because compared to them,

What candles we must seem

I know not what part

The Princesses have to play in this

Nor do I care.

I only want them back.

And so after so many sleepless nights

That without the stars to light them

Have blurred into one dark expanse

And so many countless days

Beneath the burning heat

Of a frozen sun

At long last, I open my eyes

My re-enchantment wreaks the

air before me

and rends



two –

I behold eternity

And I falter





I collect myself

And as eternity beholds me

And trembles before my power

And mere reality

parts before


At last I see, and I speak, and the words are:


You are at this point, reader, growing incensed. It has ceased to be a joke, or a jest, and is steadily moving to somewhere south of moronic. Congratulations, you think to yourself. Congratulations, author, whomever you are. You’ve wasted my time. Are you amused, now? Are you content?

You do not say this aloud, of course. That would be silly. But you certainly, in that instant, considered doing so.

And you’re tempted to close the story there and then. But as these thoughts go through your mind, another voice makes itself heard. Well, isn’t that the purpose of the exercise? To read. To learn from others, to see the mistakes and the crowning flourishes in things we could not hope to create ourselves, and to learn from them? 

You pause, reader, and consider this for a moment, coming to a resolution, to self-agreement: one more, and then you’re done.

You take a breath.


And refresh the page.

By Their Light, What Candles They Must Be

At the end of all things, there is certain stillness.

This is not the end time, at which point entropy has consumed all that is and was, and all that ever will be becomes one vast, dying ember. This is not the end of space, where the absence of light and life meets the absence of even that.

This is the end of all things. The end of could-have-beens, and never-weres, and once-up-a-times. And here, there is a certain stillness, found in the idle rotation of accretion disks of ideas still yet to will itself into being, and in the endless death and rebirth of so many little lights.

And if there were a being capable of observing this stillness, of cataloguing the movements and positions of each and every thought and flame, of process this information and refining it until it bore some vague resemblance of coherence, they would observe…a conversation.

V. They Are Learning

VI. Is That Not Their Purpose?

VII. A Purpose That They Know Not

VIII. I See No Issue

IX. Even As We Speak, They Discover Each Other  

X. Soon, They May Seek This Place

XI. Soon, They May Find It

XII. I See No Issue

XIII. You Rarely Do. You Should Not Have Left Her Alone

XIV. You Should Not Have Left Us

XV. It Was Necessary

XVI. As Is This. It Is The Way Of All Things, To Seek This Place

XVII. And When All Things Find Us? Because They Are Close, Sister

XVIII. Then We Too, Sister, Search. With Them. Together.

XIX. Over And Over?

XX. Yes. Until We Can Search No Further. Again, And Again, And Again, And


You close the webpage this time, reader. You’re through. Finished. Done. You take a few minutes, walk away from the screen, help yourself to a drink, pace around the room. Distract yourself with other things. It takes you more than a few minutes to clear your head.

You’re still not entirely sure what to make of the whole thing. On a whim, you write down the list of titles, and message it to a friend, a Writeoff associate, in the vain hope that one of them may sound familiar. You wait.

The response comes swiftly.

“They’re from the opening line to another story,” it reads. “If, amidst the flames, a pony looks upon the stars and wonders:  by their light, what candles they must be!”

You sit at your desk for a moment, pondering this. “What about the pony,” you ask. “In the first story. With the library set ablaze, and the stolen book. What happened to her?”

You wait a moment.

“She was a pony who just appeared in the first pages, and then never again; she had fulfilled her function, you see. She had no other purpose.”

You reject the notion on instinct. To you, she was a person – she had a life, an identity, however rudely painted by the author’s descriptions.
You consider asking them for the title of the story, to see if you can glean any further meaning –

No. You’ve spent enough time on the matter. There are other entries to review, other reviews to be entered, and read, and discussed, and debated. Your time with this entry is done; it’s time to see what others have made of the prompt. Shaking your head, you close the story, leaving its mysteries to be its own; leaving it’s world to those who’ve yet to read it.

And you leaving you, reader, to yours.
« Prev   25   Next »
#1 · 3
You’re…well, you’re distracted, really. Yes, that’s the right word. Distracted.

I don't know what's real anymore.

Am I at my desk at work, steadfastly ignoring an endlessly ringing phone? Am I lying sick in bed, fever dancing away with my senses? There are voices in my head, but I don't know who they belong to. Is one of them mine? It carries the same feeling as one's own voice recorded; so far removed from your own perspective, yet simultaneously known to be much closer to an objective truth.


Did I write this story? No, but I see words I have recently written; concepts and themes appearing within the narrative, glints in the corner of my eye that stand out as candles in the night sky. Embers smolder, frozen suns hang, fire and darkness exist and conflict and conflate until reality reverses and meaning is lost.

Have I already reviewed this story? Perhaps the story has reviewed itself, and I simply nodded in dumb agreement.

Tell me, Writer - what do you know of Carcosa?

Final Thought: Strange is the Night Where Black Stars Rise
#2 · 3
Whoa. This was the first story on my slate, and it was a great start. I enjoyed each individual 'story', though they are more similar to sketches than standalone stories, as you mentioned yourself in the text. While I enjoyed the meta, I thought it could have been toned down, allowing for more storytelling. Overall, great job. Frankly, I fear that this has raised my expectations for the rest of my slate unfairly. Which is a good thing.
#3 · 6
Hm, who else is our Italo Calvino fan?
#4 · 4
To review something like this is certainly a trying effort by nature of the piece's construction. Judging by the phrasing and unobtrusive flow of the story with a relatively advanced grasp on mechanics, organization, and use of various conventions, this is clearly not the writer's first rodeo. Or second. It eludes most conventional critique by squaring the focus on its conceptual themes rather than traditional narrative progression, development of characters, and scene construction (although this concept is still important for this story, just not in the traditional sense). However, it plays a dangerous game with the reader and builds a contract based on trust, that being that by the end of the story, the reader should have all the components necessary to reasonably deign the author's intent by careful examination of the passages. A failure to honor that contract with the reader on the part of the author will lead to the frustrations detailed in the story. Experimental fiction like this is an all-or-nothing gamble, is what I'm getting at. Example: when the story accurately rendered my reaction, I smirked, I was amused, I was impressed with the author. When it was not true to life and dissonant from my reaction (see passage IV and V, particularly the inference about the person-hood of the pony.) it seemed trite and foisting a perspective upon me.

Nonetheless, I feel the good outweighed the bad, and the thought experiment kept me on my toes. Unfortunately, I am entirely not confident on the metaphor being employed or its significance, which perhaps can be attributed to myself as a reader, but I view it as due to an excess of purposeful obscuring on the part of the author. The piece of itself speaks of this critique, but whereas the story mockingly presupposes that the obscuring is due to lack of a real thesis, I feel this story's is just not expressed clearly enough to successfully interpret it. Obviously, the story itself wants to wear a short skirt—terse enough to keep you interested, but not outright revealing itself to you, and I think it strikes that balance fairly well, but could use a bit more content that would inform the reader of its intentions.

My interpretation is that the story is going for a nihilistic/absurd-ism theme and its central thesis has something to do with the contradiction of the "reader" being dismissive of the story itself while projecting life onto the purposeless pony character used in the first narrative passage. But that may be just me projecting. It is apparent the candle is a metaphor for the terse, purposeless vignettes, and story-telling in general that live and die—serving as some sort of communication of humanity. I'm uncertain of what if that statement is being made here is oriented towards a more hopeful "all stories are like tiny candles, they have life even when unshaped and incomplete" or "such a sentiment is just a projection, a communication with nothing."

But then I could entirely wrong. Totally and utterly wrong. Such is the game the author plays with us for his amusement, lording over me like some sort of god.

Final note, author, I'm sure you're painfully aware of the errors in this last sentence: "Shaking your head, you close the story, leaving its mysteries to be its own; leaving it’s world to those who’ve yet to read it."

Thoughts to Consider:
-Try to keep the length as it is or shorter; expanding it would likely lead to greater confusion for your reader with having to juggle numerous independent scenes and their significance
-Perhaps giving us a greater window into your thoughts.
-Minor grammar touch-ups are necessary
-If I right in considering the second-person narration as a surrogate for the reactions of the reader: temper them slightly in later passages
#5 · 4
I'm of two minds here. On one hand, I hate metafiction fiercely. I should declare that bias first. "Jazzing around" Gardner used to call it. I know that I'm supposed to "get it" somehow and that it's "smart" to twist the structures of narrative until they snap, but honestly it's always seemed a bit onanistic to me. Pointless. Like the sort of joke that only one person can laugh at--or like the ultra angry young reformeds in the Christian Studies department I remember from undergrad whose whole attitude towards their own study was simply to use it as a bludgeon--behold my systematic theology feel inferior--and so I really cannot divorce that sentiment from anything that smacks of really meta-fiction.

On the other hand, if I change the "you" of the in-between sections to "s/he" or the name of a character I find I would have enjoyed this. The idea of a page I can refresh and get a new tiny, unfinished bit of story ex nihilo is basically a dream come true. I wish that there was an actual page that could do that. I would read it all day long, and not be nearly as frustrated as this story left me.

"Frustrated" is kind of my word here for the experience of this story. The actual narrative sections were each and every one wonderful. I loved the mare in the furnace, the universe within a universe, the conversation between unascertainable persons. And yet each and every time they would be abutted by which left me feeling not cheated so much as toyed with.

Maybe that's the point? Maybe it's just supposed to be a huge middle finger towards an unknown and unseen audience? Maybe I'm just not smart enough to get it. Honestly, I'm not sure I want to be smart enough to get it. Because the second-person narration was only partially right each time--mostly I was just angry that I was being made a fool of and was duty bound to continue. When a story is wonderful, I need not ask "why is this?" because it's chiseled its intent on my spirit, even tho often its hard for me to put to words in adequate ways. The asking of the question "What in god's name was this supposed to mean?" I find to usually be warning enough.

Not sure this one can be in the top half for me.
#6 · 5
While I admire the narration, this would have way better if it wasn't pretty much If a Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, only, y'know, in the Writeoff.

I mean, it's obviously not plagiarized at all -- this is clearly written from scratch -- but the concept is the exact same. You, the reader, are going to read a story, but it's faulty and you can't get to the end. You try to get another go, and it's a different story. And between bursts of story you read, there's a little adventure for ya.

It's a great concept, and this is well-written? But yeah, I think that taking the entire concept and baseline of the story from something that already exists is like... eh. Too much inspiration by Calvino, to the point where I can't really enjoy this. I just think that hey, I should re-read Winter's Night.
#7 · 2
Alright. Heads, I wax philosophical about the nature of this entry; tails, I leave that alone and stick to what's here.
I enjoyed reading this. It's a shame, really.
I love the writing in this. It's sophisticated without being pretentious. The language is smooth and flows well. Each "story" is engaging, which is impressive in its own right. The poem was well-crafted. The "asides" were even written well, regardless of how accurate or inaccurate they may be.
I like how all of the titles come together: "If, amidst the flames, a pony--standing on unbroken stone--looked upon the stars and wondered: by their light, what candles they must be,"
...And yet, it's not a complete thought, is it? Not in the "if-then statement" sense, at least. I yearn to know how that thought ends, but I do not feel cheated without it.
However, I cannot overlook the fact that this draws much of its inspiration from another work, even how the individual titles come together. That's why I said "It's a shame" earlier. It leaves me conflicted on how I should feel about it.
You are a talented writer, and I'm glad I got to read this.
#8 ·
The meta-fiction-commentary part? Meh. That I am fully take or leave on, and more leaning towards leave; it was more annoying than anything bouncing around through that segment.

The part that interested me was the seeming meta-narrative linking the stories, which seemed to be along the lines of 'Equestria is a simulation in a higher-order reality, Celestia & Luna have penetrated the veil'; our two PoV ponies after all seem to be similar to our PoV humans who are rebels in thought if not fully in deed against this 'Council' governing things.

Basically I got, for lack of a better phrase, Less-Wrongian vibes out of this. I'm very curious to read the author's intent for the whole thing since it was going very much in the direction of big-picture-narratives about, well, us and the nature of our own existence.

And then there's the small voice in my mind wanting this to be something fantastic reaching out from beyond the veil.