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Great Expectations · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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Land of the Blind
The evening light slanting through Foxglove’s window filled the shop with a warm, orange glow. Her shelves, crammed with hundreds of empty glass bottles, beakers and phials, caught the rays and refracted them, turning the bare wood room into a fluid starscape that lived, shifted and died in the minutes it took for the sun to finally set.

Sometimes Foxglove noticed this display and took the time to watch it play out. Today she did not; her full attention was on a stubborn jar whose mouth was just too small for her hoof. It sloshed in her sink's soapy water, where she had already rinsed it dozens of times, but the residue of pine sap still smeared along its bottom refused all her entreaties to come clean. With a heartfelt grunt she dunked it back in the water and left it there. The damn thing could soak overnight.

The sun was gone, and she gazed out the window at the fading twilight lingering on the horizon. Clouds painted dark blotches across it, and she watched them for a few minutes, letting the stress flow down her legs and into the earth until nothing remained but the calm stillness that accompanied a day’s job well done.

She turned to fetch the lantern from its hook, to light it for the evening, when a bell sang from the shop’s main room, followed by the creak of her front door.

“One moment!” she called through the doorway. The lantern blossomed into life as she tapped the spark crystal, and she carried it with her into the shop. “Sorry, I’m closed for the day… er, my lord.” She finished with a respectful bow of her head to the unicorn stallion casually perusing her shelves.

“My apologies,” he said. His voice was soft but carried easily, and in those two words she knew his diction was crisp and perfect and utterly, completely at ease ordering around his lessors. His body was a study in symmetry and flow, from the long spiraled horn to the perfect, imperial arch of his neck.

“I wanted to speak with you alone,” he continued. His horn glowed with a pale green light, the same color as his eyes, and the front door swung shut with a clatter. “On a private matter.”

“Of course.” She willed her heart to slow and set the lantern on the counter. “How may I serve you?”

“You know who I am?”

She nodded. There was not a pony in the Riverlands, earth pony or pegasus, who wouldn’t recognize this pale blue stallion. “You are Prince Hyperion, son of Queen Platinum the Fourth.”

The corner of his lips turned up. “And you are Foxglove, correct? Daughter of Oak Heart?” He tilted his head downward, a mocking echo of her own supplication. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

She swallowed soundlessly before replying. “What can I do for you?”

“I have heard of your skill with elixirs and potions. They say you are the greatest alchemist still alive.”

She couldn’t help but snort. “They exaggerate.”

“Perhaps. Common ponies enjoy their little dramas, after all.” He spoke as if the common ponies were a mere amusement, a playful puppy tugging at a rope. “But regardless, I have a need for your services.”

His horn glowed again, and a small black pouch floated out of his saddlebags, coming to rest on the countertop between them. It was not cloth, she noted, but some fine metal mesh composed of wires each thinner than a hair, bound together with a silver chain drawstring. A hot metallic scent filled her nostrils.

“And this is?”

“Open it,” he said. “Carefully.”

She grunted quietly and set the lantern down. With both hooves she slowly loosened the drawstring, allowing the pouch to fold open. The bitter, hot metal scent doubled, and her nose wrinkled as she tipped the bag onto its side.

A single black pebble tumbled out, rolling a few inches across the counter before coming to a stop. It left a charred trail in the wood, and the counter beneath it began to blacken and smoke. A baleful point of azure light shone out from the stone’s depths, stinging her eyes until she turned away.

“Get out,” she said. Her voice was calm despite the disgust in her heart. “I don’t traffic in black magic. Take that thing and get out of my shop.”

“I understand.” He lifted the bag in his magic and carefully scooped the pebble back inside. The room seemed to grow lighter as he tightened the silver drawstring. “But you don't, I'm afraid.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He shook the bag. “This is not mine. I removed it from my mother’s horn two days ago. There are a dozen like it, and more grow each day.” He paused, and for the first time an emotion other than arrogance or amusement shadowed his features.

It was fear. She saw it in his eyes, and then it was gone like it had never been.

“Queen Platinum is dying,” he continued, turning away to avoid her gaze. “She is cursed and dying and none of my or my sisters’ magic can stop this… thing. At best we’ve managed to hold it in check. Soon that will fail, and she will be consumed.”

That cast a different light on things. Foxglove’s shoulders relaxed. “I’m sorry.”

He waved a hoof. “Don’t be. Your morals do you credit.” He dropped the bag on the floor and ground his hoof into it. A faint wail, like a distant scream echoing up from a bottomless cavern, sounded in Foxglove’s ears, gone as soon as Hyperion removed his hoof from the flattened pouch.

“But I still need your help,” he continued. “They say you can brew the panacea potion.”

Silence followed his statement into the room. She stared at him for a long moment, eyes wide, until the expression of confidence on his face faded with a faint frown.

“Well, can you?” he asked. His tone had lost some of its kindness.

“I can. It’s an herbal potion, and not difficult to craft. I even have some of the components in stock.” She stepped over to her bookshelf, scanning the spines for a moment until she found the one she wanted. It was thin and unbound, just a sheaf of pages tied together with string, and she carefully took it over to the counter. The parchment was old and faded and threatened to flake away as she turned to the appropriate recipe.

“But that’s not the problem. See for yourself.” She carefully turned the manuscript and pushed it across the counter toward him.

“Panacea potion,” he read. “The magic of this potion is limitless and can cure any disease, illness or curse. Its power is matched only by its cost…” He trailed off, and his eyes danced across the lines as he read the rest of the page.

Minutes later, he spoke again. “I don’t recognize some of these. Prism lotus?”

“It’s a flower that grows on the surface of ponds in the Wildlands. It cannot be plucked, and the panacea must be brewed on the living flower. But that’s not even the hardest part. Read the last ingredient.”

His eyes returned to the page. “Eyesight?”


“What’s that mean?”

“Just what it says. Eyeballs, two of them, from the same pony.”

The silence that followed was much longer this time.

When the prince finally spoke, his voice was low, almost a whisper. “Assuming I could procure such things—”

She cut him off with a barking laugh. “Just like that? I’m sure you could, prince,” she spat the word, and derision dripped from her words. “But if it were that easy, the world would be filled with blind earth ponies and immortal unicorns. No, my lord, the potion requires the brewer’s eyesight.”

Hyperion’s nostrils flared, but if her words stung he gave no sign of it. “I see. That changes things, certainly, but let’s not be hasty. I can compensate you beyond your wildest dreams. You would be richer than any earth pony in the kingdom. I would take your hoof in marriage… ‘Princess Foxglove,’ do you like the sound of that? Your life would be one of leisure.”

“Leisure and darkness.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, my lord. I hope you find some way to save your mother, but I cannot—”

The door banged open, cutting her off, and a dark peach filly pounced into the room. “Foxy, I’m home! I got the berries you…” She came to a stop, mouth hanging open as she stared up at the prince. Her surprise was so thoroughly she didn’t remember to bow.

Hyperion recovered first. “Well, hello little one. What is your name?”

“Uh… Anise?” It came out as a question, and the filly glanced between Foxglove and the prince, her ears folded back against her mane.

The prince bowed to her, a tiny smile on his lips. “Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, Anise. I am—”

“Go to your room, Anise,” Foxglove said. “Now.”


“Now!” Foxglove stared at her sister until the filly wilted and turned, plodding up the stairs with a final desultory glance back at the two. Upstairs, a door slammed, and Foxglove exhaled.

“Such a cute thing,” Hyperion said. “Your sister?”

“Yes, not that it’s any concern of yours, my lord.” Foxglove’s patience and courtesy was at an end. “Now, I’m afraid we’re done here, so if you don’t mind…” She ended with a meaningful glance at the door.

He didn’t move. “It would be best if you reconsidered.”

“I don’t think so. I’m am sorry for your mother, Prince Hyperion, but I cannot help her. No alchemist will brew this potion.”

“Very well.” He let out a sigh and stepped through the door, pausing astride the threshold. “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.”

Prince Hyperion sat on his throne.

It was, technically, still his mother’s throne, but as she was currently incapacitated he shared the seat with his sisters, each rotating through it for a day while the others did their best to stem the curse slowly destroying the queen. Even from the great hall, separated as it was by hundreds of feet of corridors and doors and solid stone, he could hear the occasional howl from his mother’s quarters. Not all of the screams were hers.

But the business of running the kingdom did not pause simply because its master was dying, and so they held court, though of course no commoners or merchants or diplomats were permitted within the castle walls. The queen’s curse was still a secret, but a fragile one, and he could feel their conspiracy slowly unraveling about the edges with each whisper from servants or sidelong glance from nobles. Soon, within days at most, the secret would escape, and true chaos would begin. An end to the tense unity between the tribes.

Their race could not survive that, he and his sisters agreed. It was too soon – the unicorns must lead, and Platinum’s descendants must sit on the throne, just as she had in days past, and neither he nor his siblings were strong enough to hold the throne yet themselves. Civil war was on the horizon.

These thoughts and others swirled through his mind as the court’s business concluded for the day. Beneath the stairs two nobles squabbled about something, but he had long since stopped listening and could no longer recall what, exactly, they were arguing about.

“Enough,” he said, raising a hoof. “I have heard what you said and will consider the matter tonight.”

The nobles grumbled at the dismissal, but made no argument as his seneschal escorted them to the door. The elderly unicorn returned a moment later, and stood respectfully at the base of the stairs.

“There is one more, your highness,” the seneschal said. “An earth pony commoner. She insisted that you will see her.”

For the first time in a week, the faint headache that had lurked behind Hyperion’s horn eased. “Did she say that? Tell me, does she have a lavender coat and pale pink mane, like the inside of a shell?”

“She does.”

“And is her mark a tall stalk of bell-shaped flowers?”

“It is, my lord. You are most perceptive today.”

“Thank you. Finally, is her name Foxglove?”

“So she claims.”

“I see. Please, bring her in.” He paused. “Under guard.”

Some time passed while they carried out his will, and he amused himself by trying to ignore the screams from his mother’s room. The headache was nearly back by the time Foxglove, the seneschal, and two large, armored earth pony guards arrived.

If the show of force intimidated her, it didn’t show. Her eyes locked onto his as soon as she stepped through the door, and he could see the muscles quivering under her coat.


“Foxglove,” he said, rising to his hooves. “Thank you for coming. Welcome to my home.”

Her muzzle twisted. “They took her.”

“I’m sorry, who took whom?”

“Don’t mock me!” she shouted. Beside her, the guards tensed. “Anise! The constabulary grabbed her this morning. They said she stole a jewel box from the mayor’s house.”

“Ah, I am sorry to hear that.”

Foxglove spluttered. Her face and chest darkened to an ugly red. “Don’t give me that, I know what’s going on here. You ordered this.”

He glanced down at his hoof, then buffed it against his coat. “That’s a serious accusation. I hope it’s not the only defense your sister plans to mount at the trial.”

“Trial? She’s a foal!”

“Yes, well, the law applies to all ponies, great and small. But given her tender age, I’m sure the local magistrate will spare her serious punishment. Perhaps a decade in the mines, if he’s feeling merciful.”

He expected her to explode at that remark, one reason for the guards at her side. Even so he let a little trickle of magic flow into his horn, ready to act if she came at him.

Instead she crumbled, like somepony had kicked her in the gut. Her ears fell, hanging limp against her cheeks, and all the color fled from her face. A lost, stunned expression replaced the anger that had so recently dominated her features.

“What… a decade? Ten years?”

He stared down at her, and a hollow pit opened in his stomach. A hot, itching burn crept up the back of his neck as he turned those words over in his mind. Ten years. Ten years. Is this what we have become? She told us to protect them, but now I am—

A tremulous wail broke through his thoughts, and as one they turned to the small wood door set in the court’s western wall. Beyond it, down corridors and stairs and dark halls lit by struggling torches, he knew his sisters crouched in a circle around their mother, feeding the wards that held the curse at bay.

Another cry, filled with pain and fear, joined the first. He wondered which of his sisters it belonged to.

“What… what was that?” Foxglove mumbled. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the door.

“My mother and my sisters,” he said. The shame and doubt evaporated as he spoke, and the old resolve returned. “The curse is… well, you can imagine. Even being near her, as my sisters are, is painful.”

That was an understatement. On other days the screams had been his own, and for a moment the memory returned of a blinding azure light, alive with malevolent intent and burning his retinas even through the iron plates they had erected around his mother’s bed. He remembered the few seconds he spent beside her pillow, prying one of the black crystals from her horn while his sisters waited, ready to yank him away if he collapsed. It had taken days for feeling to return to his hooves.

Yes, definitely an understatement.

“What…” She sat, or rather collapsed, onto her haunches. “You can’t help her?”

“We’re trying. Which brings us to you, and now your sister.”

Some of the fire returned to her eyes. “That’s what this is? She is just a tool to you? A lever to pry what you want from innocent ponies?”

She told us to protect them. He shook his head to banish the nagging thought.

“I am doing what I must, just as I am sure you will too,” he said.

She bit her lip, and in that motion he already knew he had won. “And if I… if I help you, what then?”

Be magnanimous in victory, his mother had taught them. “You will be rewarded as I promised. Beyond anything you could hope for. As for your sister, well, I'm sure I could find a royal pardon around here somewhere.”

It was awhile before she answered, but he was not worried. The result had never been in doubt.

Dawn had just breached the eastern sky when Hyperion arrived at her door.

Foxglove spent the night in sleepless turmoil, rolling from one side of her bed to the other, her eyes never long from the dim shapes of the rafters overhead. It was late, after hours of darkness, when she first wondered if this was the last time she would see them.

At that point it became clear that sleep was impossible, and she spent the rest of the night filling her saddlebags with potions and flasks and and knives and tongs and all the other tools of her profession. She was debating the merits of wearing a second set of saddlebags over the first when the knock came at her door.

She trotted over to it, somewhat surprised that dawn had already arrived, and opened it to see the hateful form of Prince Hyperion standing before her, wearing his usual arrogant smirk.

“Good morning!” He said, far more chipper than any pony should be so early. “I hope—”

What, exactly, he hoped for would have to remain a mystery. Her hoof shot out and smashed into his snout before she could stop it. He stumbled back, gurgling, and his horn lit with a sharp green light. They stared at each other, him panting and dripping blood from his muzzle, her with eyes narrowed and a vicious grin twisting her mouth.

That. That felt good.

“Good morning yourself, prince,” she spat. “What are you doing here?”

He snorted, sending a red spray splattering over the mud at his hooves. “We had a deal. Are you reneging?”

“I said I would brew your damn potion. I didn’t say I wanted to see your ugly face again.” She frowned. “And where is Anise? You said she would be freed.”

“Anise is enjoying a comfortable stay with my niece in the castle, where she will stay until we return with the panacea. As for me, I am here to accompany you to brew this ‘damn potion,’ as you put it.”

“You? Why you?” Foxglove glanced around – aside from her and Hyperion, the town’s streets were still deserted. There were no guards, servants or retainers. “Don’t you have an army to do this sort of thing for you?”

“They’re busy.” He pulled an elaborate handkerchief from somewhere and pressed it against his nose. Blood quickly soaked through the cloth, and he scowled at her again. “And it’s important that I accompany you personally.”

Foxglove had raised a filly, and she knew a lie when she heard it. Part of her wanted to press further; the other part actually hoped Hyperion might get his fool self killed trying to escort her.

Still, that wouldn’t help Anise any. “The Wildlands aren’t some royal hunting ground, prince. They’re dangerous. You could get hurt. We both could, I guess, but mostly you.”

“Your confidence is inspiring.” He gave the soiled rag a scowl and stuffed it back into his bags. Blood still dripped from his nose, and the entire end of his muzzle was smeared red. “But I’ll have you know I’m not some pampered noble. I’m a skilled mage and I’ve been campaigning. I have my sword. It’s just as likely I’ll end up keeping you safe.”

It was her turn to snort. “I’m sure. Anyway, I hope you packed for the road. It’s three days to the Wildlands.

For some reason, he just smiled. Even the blood on his face didn’t spoil the expression.

It turned out Hyperion did not pack for the road – he didn’t need to. He just brought money, and they stayed at inns each night.

Foxglove should have been happy about this. Sleeping in a bed, under a roof, in a warm room was infinitely preferable to attempting to sleep on a bedroll beneath the stars. But, of course, she had to share the inn with Hyperion, which was almost enough to make her sleep outside.

At least she had her own room. The bastard was wealthy enough to pay for two.

On the third morning she had some measure of satisfaction, for there were no more towns, much less inns, between them and the Wildlands. Civilization simply faded away the closer one drew to the mad, fae-touched expanse of forest and swamps that had long resisted ponies’ attempts to tame.

Why the Wildlands were wild was something of a mystery, one that most ponies were happy to leave alone. It was filled with strange animals, exotic plants and more monsters than she could shake a stick at. Basilisks, manticores, chimeras and more haunted its dense woods.

For the last several miles of road, they had seen no other ponies. There were no farms or mills or mines around them. Only the occasional signpost by the wayside, and the road itself, existed to remind them that civilization still had some weak hold here.

And now even those things ended. Before them a valley opened between two long foothills that grew, in the distance, into true mountains. A forest inhabited the in-between, and the road simply came to an end a few feet from the first tree. A primitive pile of stones, heaped by the roadside, stood as a marker meaningful only to whichever pony had labored to stack it there.

“Last chance, prince,” she mumbled. “Want to turn around?”

They were the most words she had spoken to him since they left her home. He seemed surprised at her sudden loquaciousness. “Not yet, I don’t think. You’ve been in here before?”

“Four times. There are ingredients that you just can’t find elsewhere, or they cost too much.”

“Sounds like a pony could make a fair amount of coin in here.”

“Funny thing about that, actually,” she said. “Ponies who come here to take things for their own use tend to be okay. Ponies who harvest things to sell… sometimes they don’t come back.”

“Hm.” He frowned at the verdant shadows waiting for them. “Coincidence?”

“Probably. Care to find out?”

“Not especially. After you, then.”

“How chivalrous.” Still, she took the lead, as she had planned from the start. She knew the Wildlands as well as any pony alive, which was not saying much at all.

The world seemed to darken as soon as they stepped into the woods, as though the trees above them cultivated shadows about their trunks in addition to blocking the sun’s rays with their canopy. Spears of sunlight broke through in places, providing weak, shifting oases of light amid the perpetual gloom. In places, Foxglove could barely see her hooves, and she felt Hyperion’s coat brush against her side as he stumbled along with her.

“Is it always like this?” he said. His voice was on the verge of a whisper, and she had to lean closer to hear him over the crunch of leaves beneath their hooves. “This dark, I mean?”

“Some parts are different, but there’s remarkably little change in here,” she said. “Even at night it will barely be any darker, except we’ll see by moonlight instead of sunlight. I’ve never been here in the winter, but I’m told the trees do not lose their leaves. It’s like the land is stuck.”

“Lovely. By the way, what’s our plan?”

“I have most of the ingredients for the panacea already.” She hopped over a small tree that had fallen over the path. The jumble of equipment and vials in her saddlebags clattered as she landed, the loudest sound she’d heard since entering the forest. “But there’s a few we’ll need to collect.”

“Do you know where they are?”

“Eh…” She gave the dark forest around them a glance. To say she knew where anything was in here was probably an overstatement. “I know the settings where they can be found. We’ll need to look for those, and hopefully find the plants when we get there.”

He darted ahead a few lengths, his horn lit in a vain attempt to push back the shadows. The light seemed to fade a few hoof-lengths from his face, illuminating him like a ghostly apparition come to haunt them.

“What’s the first?” he asked. His horn went out, and they fell back into darkness.

“Bone thistle. It grows in canopy breaks caused by fallen trees. We shouldn’t have any trouble finding it once we get deeper in.”

“Why deeper? Why not here?” He motioned with his snout toward a warm glow some hundreds of yards off the path. “That looks like a break.”

“It’s a magic plant. We’re too close to the border for those yet. We’ll need to get at least a few more miles in before we start seeing any of them.”

He frowned, and she knew he wanted to ignore her, to tromp off into the brush to search for himself. He was impatient, this prince.

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“Yeah. Look, I know you’re in a hurry, but I know plants. The ones we need aren’t here.” She took a few steps down the faded path, into the cloying mists that teased her nose and left a clammy sheen on her coat. “They’re this way. Come on.”

He snorted, but he followed, and together they walked deeper into the forest’s heart.

Hours passed, until the faint light of the plains and the civilization behind them faded, and they found themselves fully within the Wildlands’ embrace. The sun still shone through the leaves overhead, but Foxglove knew better than to rely on it for direction. Travelers who used the sky as a compass in the Wildlands quickly lost their way, and the lucky ones wandered for weeks or months before stumbling onto a path.

It was late in the day – or she assumed it was late, for the sun was little use in telling time – when she judged they were deep enough into the forest to start their search. She told the prince, and his ears perked up as he looked around them for a suitable break.

They found one less than a mile later. It was only a few yards from the path, and they were able to hack through the intervening vegetation with little difficulty.

The break itself was perhaps a dozen yards wide and filled with sunlight, tall grasses and shrubs. Countless saplings reached skyward with wide, waving leaves. In a few decades, one of them would seal the break, killing the rest with its shadow and returning the forest to the unblemished perfection that had ruled here for centuries.

But until then, this was the perfect spot for bone thistles. Foxglove stopped the prince with an outstretched leg against his chest.

“Careful,” she whispered. “Look for bright purple flowers made of thin strands, like cotton or silk stuck on a branch. Don’t touch them.”

They split up to search the grasses, which was a waste of time, since the prince found one after a few seconds. He called her over and stood well back from the plant as she inspected it.

It was like she remembered. Bright green, with a vibrant purple bloom above the spiny seed pod. Easily confused with the regular thistles that grew all over the world, except for the faint scarlet dusting that coated the spines.

“Okay, this is it.” She opened her saddlebags and pulled out an empty glass jar, setting it beneath the blossom. Two murky red vials followed, and she passed one to the prince. “Here. Don’t hold it, just set it on the ground in front of you.”

He blinked. “What is this?”

“Healing potion. The thistle has certain… defenses. Drink it after I snip the blossom.”

He took a step back.

Foxglove rolled her eyes. “There’s that chivalry again. If for whatever reason I can’t drink my own potion, drink yours first, then pour mine into my mouth. Understand?”

“No, but very well.”

“Good. Here goes.” Foxglove took a few deep breaths and used one hoof to bend the plant’s stalk so the seed pod hung over the open jar. The air around her seemed to buzz as the plant woke, and she felt the forest’s attention bend toward her as she placed her shears against the stem.

Okay. Okay. Just like last time. This wasn’t the first bone thistle she’d harvested, but that didn’t make it any easier. Her chest tightened, and she acted before her will could fail.

She closed the shears. The decapitated blossom fell into the jar.

A pair of loud cracks echoed a split second later, and her side exploded in pain. A sensation like a wagon rolling over her ribs crushed the breath from her lungs. She let out a choked, weak gasp and tumbled onto her side.

Just a rib. Oh thank you, just a rib. She dropped the shears and floundered with her hoof for the potion. A dull roar filled her ears, and her vision went grey around the edges, but she managed to pry the cork seal from the vial and swallow the contents in a single gulp. The pain faded, followed by the unpleasant feeling of her rib writhing as the bone mended itself.

Not bad. Not bad at all. She sat up and turned to see how the prince was doing.

He lay on his side, eyes wide, staring at his foreleg. The acid stench of vomit suffused the grass around his head, and she forced herself to look at his limb.

It was bad. Twisted, swollen. The bone had broken the skin somewhere, and blood soaked his coat from the fetlock down. She looked away quickly and found his potion, pouring it into his mouth.

It wasn’t until much later that she remembered she should have been happy at his pain.

They made camp on the path. At some point while they were recovering from the bone thistle, the sun had simply gone out, replaced by the moon. Such was the Wildlands.

By mutual agreement they hadn’t spoken beyond the few words necessary to set up camp. The pain in her side was gone, the potion’s work done, and Foxglove knew that Hyperion’s leg was as good as new. Still, he favored it as they walked, and couldn’t seem to stop staring at it when they came to a rest.

She wanted to sleep, but either the strange time of the Wildlands or the adrenaline still coursing through her veins kept her awake. Opposite the fire, she heard Hyperion shift as well.

Lacking anything else to occupy it, her mind circled back to an old, unfinished conversation. She mulled it over and then spoke.

“Why are you here? Really here, I mean?”

“What do you mean?” Hyperion responded.

“Why are you, a prince of the realm, risking your life out here? You could have sent half the army with me.”

He took his time before answering. “I don’t trust half the army. I trust myself.”

“Do you trust me?”

“I trust you’ll do what’s necessary to keep your sister safe.”

Ah, point. A hot flush of anger rode up her chest. “Yes. Should I trust you, I wonder?”

“You have no reason not to. I have been entirely straightforward with my intentions, after all.”

“Have you? Then tell me why you are out here by yourself, without even a servant.”

There was another, longer pause.

“My sisters and I… we all want to save my mother. We know she has to survive to lead us. The rest of us are too weak. But that won’t always be the case, and someday one of us must succeed her. To accomplish something great, such as, say, to save her life, might persuade her to name me her heir.”

“That’s it? This is just a competition with your sisters?”

“It’s far more than that.” He shifted, and she knew he was staring at her across the smoldering campfire. “We have to work together to save her, but whoever of us does the most… that is quite the prize, and they would not hesitate to steal you or this potion from me. I can’t trust any of the staff or the guards, for they could easily be working for one of my sisters. I can trust only myself.”

She snorted. “Such a loving family you have.”

“I do love them. As much as you love Anise.”

The anger returned, double. “Don’t say her name! If you knew what love was, you wouldn’t be doing this.”

He sighed. “I understand. But this isn’t just about you or your sister or me and my sisters. It’s about the kingdom. It’s about saving our whole race. Sometimes that requires sacrifices.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m not thrilled to sacrifice my vision for a queen who dabbles in dark magic.”

She heard him shift sharply on his blanket, but there was no response for the longest time. She wondered if he had finally gone to sleep when he finally answered.

“You shouldn’t say such things.”

“Oh? Seeing as how I’m the one who has to ‘sacrifice’ to help fix this, I’d seem to be in a good position to comment on—”

“You don’t know!” he roared, stunning the buzzing insects around them into silence. “You don’t know what she’s had to do to keep the kingdom from falling apart. To try and keep the tribes unified. After generations of war our family finally drew the pegasi and earth ponies and unicorns together, and keeps the sun moving in the sky and keeps the griffons and minotaurs at bay. Unicorn magic by itself isn’t enough, so yes, she dabbled in other arts. Her mother did, and her mother before, just as I am sure I will too. We had to. We had no choice!”

She had no way to answer that, and judging by his panting breath, he didn’t care to speak any further.

They lay awake until the Wildlands’ artificial dawn returned.

“What does your mark mean?”

They had already walked for several miles when Foxglove spoke. They were their first words since the previous night, and Hyperion had started to wonder if the rest of their journey would be conducted in silence.

He glanced back at his flank and the metal heater shield emblazoned there. “It’s a shield. I protect ponies. That’s all.”

She snorted. “Funny way of doing that.”

It stung, but he wasn’t about to give her the satisfaction of responding, and the silence between them resumed.

They found the prism lotus a few hours later, floating sedately on calm water in the bend of a narrow stream. Even in the perpetual dark of the Wildlands, it glowed with every color of the rainbow. Wide, glass-like petals formed a bowl atop the flat floating leaf, large enough to hold a foal.

“So, that’s it?” Hyperion mumbled. He couldn’t help but stare.

“Yeah, we should remember this place,” Foxglove said. “There’s still one more ingredient to gather, but once we get it we can just come back here and finish the... ah…” She paused. “The thing. You know.”

“Right.” Hyperion tore his gaze away from the lotus. “What’s the last item?”

“It’s called a charm lilac. I’ve never harvested one, but I’ve read about them.”

“How do find it?”

“You listen for its song.”

Foxglove explained the rest of what she knew as they worked their way through the forest. Sadly, that wasn’t much. Still, Hyperion reasoned, it could hardly be worse than the bone thistle.

The charm lilac used its song to draw animals and enslave them. They kept it safe, Foxglove said, by trimming back other plants, keeping away predators, and eventually dying at its roots to provide fertilizer for its seeds. It was all rather amazing. And horrifying, but mostly amazing.

“So, how do we keep it from charming us?” he asked.

“It can’t enslave sentient species. At most it can distract us. Just don’t look at it and you’ll be fine.”


Time passed; how much, Hyperion couldn’t really say. The sun seemed frozen in the sky, and he had long since lost track of the number of steps since they broke camp that morning. He could only hope they weren’t hopelessly lost and wandering in circles. Stay on the path, Foxglove kept saying.

So they stayed on the path.

Eventually they heard it – a high note, like a violin trembling at the edge of its range, then darting up and down the scale like birdsong. It was so subtle that several minutes passed before he realized what he was hearing.

They tracked it, dodging around fallen trees and crumbling banks. Mud squelched around their legs as they forded a bog, the path left somewhere behind. Foxglove fretted over leaving it, but in the end they had little choice.

The bog gave way to firmer ground, and ahead of them the trees came to an abrupt stop at the edge of a clearing. A thick carpet of moss covered the ground, leaving no space for brush or grass, and at the center of the clearing, resting in the bright sun like a cat lounging beneath a windowsill, was a wide shale boulder. Something perched atop it, something green and white and beautiful and shining like a star. The song rang louder in his ears, drowning out the rustle of leaves in the wind and even his own thoughts, and he lifted a hoof to step into the clearing.

He came up short as Foxglove yanked on his tail. He turned to growl at her, and just like that the spell was broken. The song faded away, and he realized he was already several steps into the clearing. Something crunched beneath his hooves, and he glanced down to see countless small bones mixed in with the moss. The ground was paved with them.

“Keep your head down,” Foxglove said. Her eyes were fixed on her hooves.

He let out a shaking breath. “Right, sorry. How do we get it without looking at it?”

“By feel. It can’t actually hurt us, not like the bone thistle.”

They crept closer, eyes down, ignoring the teasing song that tugged at their minds. Each step sent a loud crackle echoing through the still clearing.

It was almost within reach when another sound came. Thousands of tiny bones snapped as a huge shape rose from the moss beside the boulder. A hideous stench, of rotting fur and diseased flesh, threatened to choke them, and Hyperion could not help but look.

A dying manticore stood just feet away. It was practically a skeleton itself, flesh and skin pulled over bones, and its wings were little more than sticks with paper stretched between them. But its teeth were sharp and its tail barbed. Foggy eyes, shining with a brilliant white light that sparkled in time with the lilac’s song, stared into his soul.

He jumped, dodging the tail as it slammed into the moss. Foxglove shrieked and dived the other way, narrowly avoiding a swipe of the manticore’s claws.

“Stay back!” he shouted. His horn flared, snatching up his rapier and slashing at the manticore’s face. The blade drew a long, bloody line across its muzzle, but the beast barely flinched. He slashed again, but the manticore seemed to feel no pain, swatting away the blade and charging at him again.

“Cut the lilac! Cut the lilac!” Foxglove shouted.

The manticore turned toward her and bellowed, spraying blood and spittle. She shrieked and turned to flee.

The lilac! Hyperion spun, the sword already slashing, when his eyes found the blossoms.

They were delicate things. White, with just a hint of purple near the petals’ base. Dozens of the little flowers sprouted around the stalk like a wreath of sunshine. He could smell them, even from several feet away, a delicate perfume that reminded him of his mother’s coat.

It was quite beautiful. He was not a poet, but never had he regretted the fact more than now. He sat down and pondered how best to exalt this wonderful little star. Perhaps a painting? Or an aria, dedicated to its magnificence?

Something was screaming, which was quite distracting. The lilac’s violin-song doubled, drowning out the irritating noise.

Nice. That was nice.

Such a dangerous place. I can’t believe a delicate flower like this lives here. I should find some way to protect it.

He was good at protecting, after all. It was his special talent. Protecting ponies was his pride and joy.

Protecting ponies. Protecting ponies…

The violins faded, and the screaming returned. He turned to see Foxglove lying beneath the manticore, her coat a savage mess of blood, its tail lodged in her flank. Her hoof was stretched out toward him, a pleading look on her face.

His sword moved faster than thought, slicing through the lilac like a scythe through grass. The violins ended, leaving only Foxglove’s screams.

Foxglove had four healing potions left. He poured every one into her mouth, which healed the horrid slashes on her chest and side. Those wouldn’t kill her, at least.

The manticore’s poison, though. That might.

The manticore itself collapsed with the lilac. Without the flower’s magic, its body simply failed, and within seconds was little more than a dry husk.

But that was no help for Foxglove. A black, rotten circle slowly spread from the wound left by its stinger, and none of the healing potions slowed poison’s advance. She was feverish, weak; he had to drape her across his back as he walked back through the bog.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he mumbled. It was all he’d said since killing the flower.

She stirred. “Now? Now you’re sorry? You brought me out here to steal my eyes, and now you’re sorry?”

“I’m sorry for that too. But I had to do that. This… this was failure. I’m supposed to protect ponies.”

She snorted weakly. “Right. Just… just promise you’ll keep Anise safe.”

“You’ll keep her safe. We’ll get back and you’ll both live in comfort and luxury. You’ll be a hero.”

“Manticore venom, prince. I'm not... Just find the damn lotus.”

Foxglove passed out after that, despite the rough ride. She moaned in her sleep, and her coat was a furnace against his. Sweat poured from her like a river.

He had found the stream and was following it back to the bend when she woke. Her breathing shifted, and he could hear a wheeze in it now.

“What… what happened to us, Hyperion?”

“You were attacked by a manticore, but you’re going to be fine.”

“No, not that…” She sniffed, and he turned to see tears flowing from her red eyes. “To us, to ponies. We were supposed to be ready for this. We finally… We finally came together, we put aside the hatred… We lived together, like we were supposed to.”

“And we are.” A splash of color caught Hyperion’s eye, and he stumbled along the bank toward the prism lotus. “We are living together, like she said. We just… We’re still learning.”

“She said we were ready.” Foxglove’s words were slurred, but she managed to push herself upright as Hyperion set her on the bank. “She said we were ready, then she left us. Were we…" Her voice caught on a sob. "Were we not good enough for her?”

“We are. We’re still learning, is all. And then she’ll come back.” He set the lilac on the bank beside her, and watched helplessly as she emptied the rest of her bags.

The bone thistle, the charm lilac, a jar of dark liquid that smelled of salt, and a hoofful of ashes. She set them all in the bowl formed by the prism lotus’s petals and stirred with her hoof. The solid ingredients melted away, until all that remained was a blood red fluid that seemed to drink the lotus’s light.

“It’s been centuries, Hyperion.” Foxglove’s hoof shook, and she slumped onto her side. The horrid wound from the manticore’s tail spread halfway up her barrel now. “If Twilight Sparkle was going to return, she would have by now.”

He licked his lips. “Don’t say that. She’s going to come back someday, and we’ll be fine. You’ll be fine and Anise will be fine.”

Foxglove chuckled at that, or sobbed. It was hard to tell. “Sure, sure.” She reached into the saddlebags with quaking hooves and pulled out a metal spoon. He noticed with a jolt that the rim was razor sharp.

“I think you’ll need to do this part for me,” she said, setting the spoon at his hooves. Her voice came out as a weak rasp, her chest hitching with each breath, and it seemed to take the last of her failing strength to speak. “Put my eyes in the lotus, and use my hoof to stir until they dissolve. Then take your potion back to the queen. Tell Anise I love her.”

Protecting ponies. It’s what I do. It was the last thing Twilight Sparkle had told his great-grandmother before naming her queen. Protect the ponies until she returned.

He stared down at the razor-edged spoon.

Foxglove noticed two odd things when she woke on the stream bank.

The first, of course, was that she was awake. She was supposed to be dead. Manticore venom was fatal, and she ran a disbelieving hoof along her unblemished flank. Only a small wound remained where it had stung her.

The second odd thing took another moment to process – she could see. She pressed her hoof against the corner of her eye.

Yes, still there.

Something moaned beside her, and she turned to see Hyperion stretched out in the mud. His hoof was smeared red with the remains of the panacea potion. Beside her was a jar, empty but for a residue of the same liquid.

“Ah, you silly fool…” She forced herself to look at his face, and then she looked away.

In time he stirred. His voice, when he spoke, was weak and thready.

“Foxglove?” He felt at the empty air with a hoof.

“Yeah, I’m here,” she said. “Why? Why’d you do it?”

He chucked and then coughed. “Seemed right at the time.”

They were silent for a while. Foxglove looked up at the forest, still dim but filled with a beauty she hadn’t noticed before. Motes of light danced through the sun’s rays in defiance of the darkness.

“And your mother?”

“We’ll figure something out. Or we won’t.” He shrugged. “But if we do save her, it will be by doing the right thing.”

“Ah.” She reached out to brush some of the blood from his cheek. He flinched at the contact, but then pressed against her hoof.

“If it’s any consolation, I think you’d make a good king,” she continued.

“Kind of you to say. So, am I forgiven?”

“Getting there.” She stood and helped him to his hooves. He leaned against her, and took halting steps with her up the bank, back onto the path.

“Let’s go home.”
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