Through Ice and Shadow

Love and Hope once shone bright from a gleaming crystal city, only to be lost to the evils of indifference and despair. This is a tale of the leaders who built an empire based upon those virtues, and the two newly weds who are about to realize their shared destiny in reclaiming it.

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4. Chapter Four: A Shining Beacon

Chapter Four: A Shining Beacon

 

 



 

 

    Warm summer winds flowed across Crystal’s outstretched wings. The scent of blooming wildflowers and freshly tilled earth filled the air. Oh how she missed this. Maybe not the flying, but definitely the sights and smells of a midsummer day. A secluded grove of trees came into view, and she made a soft landing just at their edge. She would come here every once in a while, using her precious free time to relax and think. Today she would reflect upon the trio of unicorns which had visited her.

    They had been semi-famous traveling performers before the exodus. Crystal never did have a chance to see them as they would rarely stop at the castle beyond special occasions. Last she heard, they had quit. The long winter and increasingly bitter audiences had destroyed their will to keep performing week to week.

    She was happy to grant them an audience, like anypony for that matter. And like many ponies before them, they came in search of a favor from the newly crowned empress. To her surprise, and great delight, they wanted to help grow the nascent art scene that had been developing since High and Mighty’s caravan arrived. All they needed was a place to perform the new works of art that were being churned out.

    New construction was touchy subject; living in a bubble really limited the supply of timber and other resources. But she couldn’t decline their request. She could see it in their eyes. That faint glimmer of love waiting to ignite once again. She was the embodiment of love, it was duty to stoke those embers, be they lost or unknown. It wouldn’t take much convincing anyways, in fact this happened at a very opportune time.

    If one thing the previous months had taught Crystal, other than flying was way harder than it looked, it was she was a naturally gifted schemer. Being manipulative wasn’t really part of her nature, but when she saw an opportunity like the one in front of her, she couldn’t help herself.

    Besides, she had a very good track record for these sorts of things. Ever since that night almost half a year ago, she had been looking for something to cement the ties she had weaved between everypony. Having it on the anniversary was a no-brainier, but finding just the right things to include in the celebration was tricky part. And now she only needed one more piece.

    "An open mind and an open ear." Words her father would always tell her; words Crystal seemed to recite to herself day after day. If not for an open mind, she would never have learned how the earth ponies loved to celebrate the yearly harvest. Just being open let otherwise forgotten unicorn performers rekindle the forgotten love of their craft.

    After all, this was their Empire as much as Crystal’s. Everything she and Luminare did was for the betterment of their ponies’ lives. And why wouldn’t they? For every ounce of effort spent, their ponies would would repay it ten fold. Yet they found it would only take a tiniest of nudges to reap the biggest rewards.

    ‘Yes, it had been a very productive day,’ she thought, sitting under one of the few willows that managed to survive the winter. And now it was time to truly relax. Eventually though, her mind would wander back to a question that had been nagging her for some time: “Why haven’t I told him?” He already knew Crystal wasn’t a normal pony, so she was so worried about breaking the news that they would never have to say goodbye?

    Perhaps telling him in the right circumstances would make it easier for him, or her for that matter. Either way, it was about time she should head back to her castle at the heart of the Empire.

    It would always make Crystal chuckle that they first decided to name their new kingdom “Crystal’s Empire”, it was just so… boastful. Besides, one single city was hardly worth the title of Empire. Of course High and Mighty wouldn't have it any other way, and eventually they gained support from the rest of de facto leadership which had sprouted up.

    Crystal was the first to rule over—what they believed—the remains of all three tribes, and thus was to be crowned Empress by law-though she insisted on still being called Princess. She tried to convince them otherwise-“The Kingdom of Hearts” sounded so much better. In the end she relented, gaining one small concession in the process: changing it from Crystal’s to just Crystal. A fine comprise she thought, they got what they wanted and she didn’t “technically” have her name emblazoned for all to see. After that, she was thankful that they quickly chose a snowflake as the Empire’s coat of arms, and not something such as her likeness.

    

 

    Away from stuffy nobles and worrying thoughts, in a secluded dusty scrap of earth, Luminare would spend a great deal of time watching his winged friends practice their craft. Stormseeker and his pegasi had brought with them the martial traditions of Pega. Their striking arms and armor captivated the unicorn knight. Smiths back home tried and tried to copy the sleek and lightweight designs, but could never get the same amount of protection of true pegasi steel.

    The spears they wielded—or lances as they called them—also fascinated Luminare. They were far longer than a normal unicorn or earth pony spear, designed to strike from a distance. Which came in handy when one didn't possess magic or sheer brute strength.

    They would stand or fly to opposite positions facing each other, then charge. The goal being to knock the other off balance, and into the cushions on either side, or clouds brought in below. This “jousting” intrigued Luminare, until later that day, Stormseeker noticed him and invited him to a match. To say he wasn’t nervous would be a lie. If that old pegasus was to be believed, he was probably one of the fiercest warriors of all ponykind.

    And there Luminare stood, face to face with one of the few ponies who he knew could kick his flank. With a gulp, he swallowed his fear and charged.

    Luminare awoke several hours later-dazed, and nursing a massive headache. He lost, of course, but those few seconds of heart pounding terror was some of the most fun he ever had. Stormseeker was waiting for him when he returned. His once polished armor marred with some recently acquired mark.

    “Up for another go?” Stormseeker said, a grin hidden underneath his helm.

    “Storm,” Luminare began to say, noticing that his previous effort wasn't a complete disaster, “I know my ego can take a beating, but can yours?”

    “Bring it, spearhead.”

    Gone were the noble prince and the grizzled veteran. They were just two colts without a care in the world.

    

 

    Eventually Luminare would claim his victory, but like Stormseeker, he would not gloat. Instead he tried to share his experiences with others. Soon unicorns and earth ponies started showing up to the weekly joust. They only watched at first, but like Luminare, they too gave in to temptation and joined in.

    Jousting became so popular, half the Empire was either donning a suit of armor or just watching the spectacle from the side. The makeshift patch of dirt was far too inadequate for the needs of so many. Thankfully, it didn’t take much convincing Crystal that a purpose built arena needed to be constructed. Even if she thought it was a foalish game played by ponies who just wanted to beat each other senseless.

    Crystal hadn’t been entirely forward with her husband. Not that she enjoyed or wished to hide things from Luminare, but she needed to keep this a secret for a little while longer. After all they had been through, she just wanted some time for her ponies to relax and enjoy themselves.

    Truth be told, she had already made arrangements for a stadium to be built a week ago. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing talk of a recent match, who had the best form, or other gossip surrounding the game. If Luminare wasn’t with her or training the new royal guard, he was jousting with Stormseeker.

    

 

    The months ticked down, and Crystal’s plans drew closer and closer to fruition. Oh, how marvelous it was going be. The arena was already packed with ponies hooping and hollering as their peers slammed into one another. The new theater had been erected, replacing the now destroyed town hall. Earth ponies were beginning to prepare for their harvest festival. Placing various booths and attractions in the spaces Crystal had granted them around the castle. With her own plans for that evening ironed out, all that was left was to string together all her threads into one final tapestry.

    Luminare and Crystal walked along the freshly cleaned stone path from their castle. The castle’s crystal spires still left Luminare a little awestruck every time he took in their entire majesty. As they saddled up to the podium, Luminare stared at hundreds of ponies were waiting for Crystal’s anniversary speech. Many ponies were decked out in their finest armor, some were in colorful poly-chromatic outfits he remembered from performers of his foalhoood. Yet many others still wore the same clothes of day to day life, some looking like they barely made it in from the fields.

    “Dear friends and countryponies,” Crystal started. “One year ago we nearly let the coldness in our hearts bury us under ice and snow. But now I see in you the happiness I had almost forgotten during frigid winter.” Crystal saw something then, something a year ago she would of thought impossible. An earth pony mare and a pegasus stallion standing close together, his wing draped around her back. That single sight made everything she had gone through worth it.

    “You do not know the joy it brings me to see everypony here today, and how proud you make me. That is why I thought I would give a little back today. You may have noticed a little construction around the castle lately. An arena for all you jousters, and a theater for those who do not wish to don arms and armor. There are also the many arts, crafts, delicious food, and even a petting zoo of the harvest festival. With so many new and exciting events planned, I couldn’t help but bring them all together.” Crystal took a moment, trying to judge the reaction of the crowd, finding only an awkward silence.

    “Three separate occasions, from three different tribes. Yet all I see are ponies who have forgotten those differences, and embraced each other like their own. In that same spirit of togetherness we are still here today, and in that spirit, it is my utmost pleasure to present the first annual Crystal Fair!”

    There she got the reaction she desired. Ponies were cheering, and stomping their hooves. Pegasi flew in loops around the crowd Chants of “Long live the Princess. Long live the Crystal Empire!” rang out. The jubilant roar was almost deafening.

    “I’m going to have to keep on eye on you, you know that? Exactly how long have you been planning this?” Luminare whispered, gently nudging his wife.

    “About six months,” Crystal said, watching the crowd before filter out to their chosen attractions. “Now you go have fun, but try not to get too banged up. I have another surprise for you later.”

    Luminare gave his wife a quick peck on the cheek, and galloped off towards the packed arena. Tonight was looking to be one he would never forget.

    

 

    It was late in the evening when Luminare returned home, sweaty, bruised, and in desperate need of a nap. Also probably a bath. He may have overdone it a tad bit, but he was a strong stallion, and wouldn’t let that stop him from whatever Crystal had planned tonight. Crystal was waiting for him when got done freshening up. He wasn’t one for formal wear, but for tonight, he would make an exception.

    “So where are we heading?” Luminare asked, curiosity eating at him from the inside.

    Crystal flashed a playful grin. “You know it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, right? Just follow me!”

    He followed her through the castle until they reached a door adjacent to the throne room. If the castle looked intimidating from the outside--the inside was plain awe inspiring. He had spent months living here, and had yet to explore all of it. Which made him wonder,  what she was doing in front of this particular door? Inside was a massive staircase that lead to the top of the central spire. Crystal took a step up the stairs, causing Luminare to emit an involuntary groan.

    Crystal looked to him with a scowl on her face, before lightening up and sticking her tongue out at him. “What's the matter? Can’t handle some stairs?”

    A blush crept over his face.

    “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to walk them all,” Crystal smiled, stretching her wings from wingtip to wingtip. “Hop on my back.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Trust me, I’ll be fine.”

    Luminare shrugged, hoping Crystal knew what she was doing. He climbed up her back, her wings unfurling to let him get a better grip. To his surprise, Crystal didn't even bat a lash as she carried his entire weight.

    “Alright, hold on tight!” she said, and lept into the air.

    Air whipped past his face, and he felt the strong muscles of Crystal’s wings hard at work below him. He had never been airborne before, or moving this fast, or moving this fast while in close proximity to very hard crystal stairs.

    Another set of steps streaked past him, sending his heart racing. Now that he thought of it, this was really fun. It would be even better if he wasn’t getting a face full of Crystal’s mane. Yup, he was definitely going have her do this again.

    “I forgot to mention! Flying is easy, now landing, that’s the hard part!”

    “What?!”

    “And… NOW!” Crystal yelled.

    In a dull thud, and in spite of Luminare’s bulk, Crystal landed with a practiced grace. They trotted up the last few steps, and through the hatch at the top.

    The sight that greeted Luminare nearly took his breath away. He could see everything in the Empire. The wooden homes and shops that lined the streets heading to the castle. The verdant plains of grass and recently plowed fields. The dotted groves of trees that followed the shining stream which snaked through the Empire. And each and every one of them was aglow under the dancing aurora of pastels above him.

    A blanket had been placed in the middle, a basket full of wine and other refreshments placed to its side. Crystal made herself comfortable and motioned for Luminare to come join her.

    “Do you like it?” Crystal asked, a knowing smile creeping across her lips.

    “Like it? I love it, Crystal. Almost as much as I love you.”

    Crystal snuggled up against him, draping a wing over his back, just like the couple she saw earlier. “I love you too.”

    From their place high above the cares of the world, they could truly be themselves. They talked, and joked. Drank and and laughed. But she knew she would have to spoil it sooner, rather then later. Just thinking about it made her sigh.

    “What’s the matter?”

    “It’s… well… I have been neglecting to tell you something. You know that night a year ago? When I got these?” she said, ruffling her feathers. “I learned I was not a normal pony.”

    “You didn't need to sprout wings for me to know that,” Luminare joked.

    Crystal giggled; how dare he use humor at a time like this. She took a deep breath. No more putting this off. “I met some ponies, very ancient, and very powerful ponies. They told me things, things I did not believe to be true. But they opened my eyes. They showed me everything, Luminare. Everypony whose life I touched. And I knew there was only truth in their words.

    “Look above you. I know you can feel the magic coming from the heart, and I know you can feel the love and hope radiate across the world. That’s because it is part of us Luminare. We are Love and Hope, and it is our duty to protect this land, now and forever.”

    At first, repercussions and doubt raced through his mind; thoughts no pony ever wants to dwell upon. But, that also meant he would never have to let her go. Never say goodbye.

     Never break his promise.

    He could live with that—forever apparently. In his heart of hearts he knew something greater than him had been guiding him all this time, and it felt good to know he wasn’t alone. “Forever is nothing, as long as I never have to leave you.”

    Crystal sighed with relief, as Luminare threw a foreleg across her shoulders, bringing her closer. Everything had worked out better than she could of hoped. And the future was looking brighter than ever with him, forever by her side.

    

 

    Years passed into decades, and decades into centuries. Many of Luminare's fears had come to pass, just as he had dreaded.  They wouldn’t let themselves become detached or aloof, even if the pain never really got better with time. And when the time to say goodbye came, she was always there for him, as he was always there for her. Twin anchors in the ever flowing sands of time.

    Things changed, as they always do from generation to generation. Small things at first, but as time marched on, the Empire was barely recognizable from the tiny village all those years ago. It had grown to unprecedented size and scope, filled with tens of thousands of ponies.

    Even the weather beyond the Empire’s borders had lessened in time, letting adventurous ponies from the far south finally brave the distance to the shining beacon in the north. They brought tales of the Kingdom of Equestria, and its two mysterious rulers: Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.

    Crystal and Luminare rejoiced when they learned their friends and family had made a new start, and finally found a way to work together. Crystal was particularly taken with the mention of her best friend, and sister having such a pivotal role in its founding.

    Yet through the years Crystal and Luminare only grew closer. And every year, they would make the journey to the pinnacle of their tower to bask under the twilight of their love.

    

 

    “One hoof after another,” he chanted, the motto of any diligent scout. He made his way through the never ending maze of drifts and blowing snow. He couldn’t stop now. He was so close.

    He couldn’t imagine how anything could live up this far north. It was wasteland filled with the remains of shattered kingdoms and broken dreams. Yet there was no mistaking the streamers of love coming from over the hill, the same ones had been tracking for months now. And as he crossed the peak, he knew he had found what his king had been searching for.

    And he would be very pleased indeed.

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