In the sky there are no rocks to trip over, no legs that won’t go where I tell them. The cloud cuts through the air as if it isn’t there, slips between snowflakes that would otherwise blow into my eyes. I pass other clouds sometimes, fluffy-white, drifting. They disintegrate as I near them, shear off wisps that join the one I’m riding. After a while, my cloud is twice as big as before, still no slower for it.
I like flying a lot more than walking.
The trail the ponies left behind is easy to follow, even as the sunlight lessens the snow, rubs away the marks they left in it. There’s only one clear path between the trees. Clover ran through it with the other ponies when they first came to the cave. Clover knows the way back now, although she was too Blue to realize it then. I don’t have any other word for what I felt from her, what radiated through her memory when I watched it with her eyes. I know Blue was the color of her aura, but only because I felt from her the same things I felt from Pansy: heart pounding, lungs too small to breathe, running fast legs stretching don’t look back they’re getting closer.
There is another word for it, there must be, but I need a pony’s mind to thought-tell me first. As I fly above the trail, the sun sinks lower behind me, marks off the time the day takes to pass—hours—seconds. Ponies use those words to tell them, but which one is bigger? How many minutes make both of them? Why are so many words for time if time is singular, constant?
Mouth-speaking hurts, different words mean the same thing. I don’t understand ponies. At least I’m not one of them.
Whatever the specific word for it is, a lot of time passes before I reach the green ocean, find out it’s not an ocean at all once I’m close enough to see it. The ground is covered with millions of tiny green plants, like pine needles but flatter, a little thicker. A stripe of dirt cuts through them, stretches a little ways back into the forest, extends in a straight line in front of me as far as I can see. In the distance beyond it, something glows on the darkening horizon—not an aura itself, but dotted all over with bursts of color that can’t be anything else. That has to be where the ponies in the cave went, at least must be where other ponies are now. Maybe Clover is there. Maybe she’s still Red.
I can’t wait any longer to find out. I straighten my body out, set my sights on the distant glimmer, hold on as the cloud flashes forward at its fastest speed yet. The ground blurs into a featureless smear. The sky above me seems to narrow, bears down on top of me as the force of my passing tears a jagged white wake in it. Soon I’m close enough to see what lies past the horizon glow: stone towers that separated sky from earth, massive gray walls splattered white with dying sunlight.
The plants below me have changed from green to yellow. Stray auras begin to slide across my vision: some Pink, some Yellow, every so often Green. There are even a few on top of nearby clouds, the same shade as the high-sun sky—Cyan. None of them interest me. I’m not looking for auras anymore. I’m looking for a memory, a pony, a missing piece to complete my puzzle. I’m looking for–
Stones piled on stones—highest room in the tallest—tower—cast a long shadow over the smaller structures below. At the edge of my vision, at the fringe of my mind, there are more auras than ever before. Ponies gazing up, squinting, darkening into Blue. They don’t know what I am. I still don’t know either. I don’t care. Far above them, inside the tower, a lone aura burns for me. Welcoming. Familiar.
My consciousness slots together with Clover's like clockwork cogs, two parts of a much greater whole. When I approach the tower, her aurachanges. She is aware of me. She feels our connection too. There is a gap in the stones—too wonderful a view to keep the drapes drawn all day my dear—window. I fit through it with ease, but my cloud piles up outside, falls apart. Without anything to support me, I fall faster than I expected to. Warm ice—sand heated in bubbles—glass—falls around me, shatters on my back. When I stop moving, I look at Clover. She is upside-down, wide-eyed, Yellow. I am on my back, lopsided, even brighter.
I am smiling.
She is not.
Red, exploding, so powerful it makes my legs weak. Clover’s horn flashes pink. The table next to me evaporates in a burst of black smoke. Chips of wood pelt the walls, stick to my coat in icy brown chunks. When I stand up, Clover screams again.
The second blast from her horn hits me square in the chest. It tickles as it passes through me, deliciously cold, strong enough to leave a crater in the wall behind me. Red is flowing out of her, pooling in my belly, freezing me to the core. It’s a hundred times better than flying, a million times better than words or thought-speak or any other aura I’ve felt. I leap forward, try to soak in more. Clover grabs me in midair, pulls me even closer, fills me with so much Red I’m not sure I can hold it all. Her magic snaps my legs out from my body, squeezes tight around my neck. Her horn is sunlight, blinding, pulsing with energy.
“Evil awful unnatural monstrous little–”
Clover clenches her teeth together, bulges her eyes out of her head. My own mouth hangs open. My own eyes are half-lidded. I’m so dizzy I can barely see her anymore. I want her to explode again, fill me up Red until I pop, but she never does. A thunking noise reaches my ears, gentle, repeating. A hoof, knocking against wood.
Clover turns around, lets my head loll to the side. A noise escapes my throat, soft, low-pitched. She’s not quite Red anymore, though herface is still flushed. A new aura shines in the doorway behind her, an equally odd blend of Yellow with Pink.
“Don’t mind me, my dear. Just borrowing a textbook. Carry on with your wanton acts of destruction.”
The pony standing behind her is a stallion—stone-coated—snow-haired—Star Swirl the Bearded. He is much older than Pansy, but when he mouth-speaks he sounds younger, even more Pink. I try to breach his mind with mine, but something pushes me back, a gentle nudge in my head like a hoof steering my eyes away from something I know better than to look at. Star Swirl is smiling at Clover, pointing his eyes at me.
How did he know I would do that?
I know many things, little one. More than my apprentice may think.
“Don’t just stand there, Master! Help me!” Clover mouth-shouts, Red seeping between her teeth. If I reached for it I could just barely catch a taste, but I can’t concentrate enough to try. Star Swirl just thought-spoke to me. He can understand me.
I feel for a way into his mind again. This time I move slower, more carefully. The moment I reach the verge of his thoughts, he guides me away again, back into my own head. A single image—memory?—comes attached: a gray stallion, beardless, setting a pawed animal with floppy ears—puppy—down on a pile of soiled papers.
There’s a time and place for everything, little one. Now is not the time, and my mind is not the place.
“Help with what, my dear? I can assure you, you’ve done quite a spectacular job dismantling that alchemy table without any assistance from me. I’ve been meaning to replace the blasted thing for ages.”
It takes a moment before I realize that Star Swirl’s voice is outside my head again. Once I do figure it out, I hardly mind the change. He’s mouth-speaking to Clover again, making Red pour off her in sheets peppered with tiny flecks of Orange. Orange doesn’t feel quite as good as Red. It’s thinner, grainy, less filling. Still, it’s a nice touch. When I stick out my tongue to catch a few bits, Clover rewards me with an extra-strong flare.
“Not with that!” She jerks one hoof off the ground, points it at me. “With this! With… it!”
Star Swirl looks back at me, strokes his hoof over his beard. “Hmm,” he throat-hums. “It, indeed.”
“I don’t even know how it got in here. I swear we got all of them back in that cave…” Clover’s chest glows, flint against steel, sparks. In her mind she sees Not-Me diving towards her, dissolving into steam as her magic blasts through them. “This doesn’t make any sense!”
“Oh, now you know what I’d say to that kind of talk.” Star Swirl looks at me again. When you think things through, either everything makes sense or nothing does. Clover always forgets that. Maybe you’ll help her remember.
Help her remember. I can do that. She’s remembering him say that right now, a hundred-thousand-million different times, pressing her lips together at the thought. Mine bend upwards again. I’m good at helping Star Swirl. Especially if there’s Red involved.
“Fine,” Clover mouth-speaks. She tries to scrub the Orange off each of her words before it leaves her throat, but I can still see it after she’s done. “Then if you’d be so kind, you explain why and, while we’re at it, how in the ever-widening world of Equestria there’s a fun-sized little Windigo in my sunforsaken bedroom!”
Lightning strike. New page in a book. Math problem, scribbled answer, solved. I was so focused on Clover that I forgot about myself, about the question I’ve had since I first was. Clover’s mouth just gave me the answer. Her mind explains to me how it feels, how I’m buzzing like a honeybee in springtime. I know what I am now. I am brighter-than-Yellow. I am Gold.
I am Windigo.
“I presume through the window, as far as ‘how’ is concerned,” Star Swirl mouth-says. Clover’s aura forms a cloud over her cheeks, covers both her eyes when she looks at Star Swirl. I have to filter her aura out completely just to see what they really look like: hardened, crystal-blue, cold. “As for there being a ‘why’... now that is an intriguing proposition.”
“Any time you’d care to expound upon it, I’m all ears,” Clover mouth-grumbles. I look up towards her ears, but they’re still the same size they were before. I’ll never figure out how pony words work.
“Jog my memory, then,” Star Swirl mouth-says. “To the best of equine knowledge, what is a windigo’s purpose?”
Clover mouth-answers him fast, still looking at me. “Destruction. Torment. Anguish and despair.”
“A little less prosaic, if you would.”
Clover sighs, glances back towards him for a moment. “They feed off the emotions of sentient creatures, primarily those related to anger and hatred. Everything they touch freezes solid, and everypony they come across becomes a parasitic obsession, one that can only be broken by immense magical force or the mortal expiration of the equine host.”
Obsession. Reading a book by moonlight. A stallion chasing a mare down the street. Star Swirl, beard soaked in coffee, snoring atop an incomplete star map.
I’m not obsessed. I’m just hungry.
“What do ponies think of them?” Star-Swirl mouth-asks next.
“They’re characterized as malevolent spirits in folktales, and classified as dangerous magical anomalies by the Platinum Court.” Clover’s throat bobs—swallowing. When she continues, her mouth-voice sounds different, a bit duller.
“For the past several years, they’ve continually encroached further into our land, bringing with them an endless blizzard that’s caused widespread famine and pushed diplomatic tensions between the tribes to the breaking point. Our entire way of life was almost destroyed, and were it not for the peace treaty being drafted as we speak, it would have been.”
Star Swirl smiles. Pink-gleams-Gold on his lips. “To hear the Princess tell it, you deserve quite a bit of credit for that.”
“Spare me, Master,” Clover mouth-growls. “What are you playing at?”
“I doubt I’ll know until the game’s over.” More Orange from Clover, Pink from Star Swirl. He seems to be enjoy being Pink. It just feels odd to me, bubbly, like I’m so light I'm floating away from the floor. I don’t like it nearly as much as Red. “In any case, what do you think of windigos, Clover?”
Clover flashes back Red when she looks at me, but this time there’s something more to it. A whisper behind somepony’s back, the far-off clang of swords. A new aura, darker than Red, stronger than anything else I’ve felt or can imagine ever feeling.
“I think they’re monsters,” she throat-growls. “And I don’t think I understand why you keep stalling me from getting rid of this one.”
Star Swirl hums, a quiet noise, Yellow behind an Orange haze. Clover called me Monster. Monster is teeth gnashing, claws ripping flesh, screams in darkness that will soon be complete. I like the thought of Monster, but I don’t think Monster is me. I have hooves, not claws, plus I have never bitten anything. I click my teeth together, wonder if I could. Clover is too far away to try right now. Maybe later.
“In that case, we’ve come back to the core of the matter,” Star Swirl mouth-says. “Namely, why is this windigo here?”
“Because I missed it when I killed the rest of them…” Clover throat-whispers. Star Swirl’s lips twitch. His aura doesn’t change.
“I mean why is it here? In this room?”
Clover’s horn is glowing when Star Swirl mouth-speaks. Once he finishes, it dies down again, lowers me a bit closer to the ground. Another mouth-noise escapes me, higher-pitched. The thought of killing me made her darker Red than ever. Was that what happened to Not-Me? Is that what being killed feels like? In Clover’s head it’s a horrible thing: blood freezing, bodies growing cold, Red all over. I like being cold, though. I like Red even more. Anything with both those things together can’t be that bad.
“The most recent royal census listed over eight thousand unicorns living in or around Platinum Castle. The other two tribes surely boast comparable numbers themselves.” I can hear Star Swirl thinking, distant echoes in a black void, too muffled to understand. “Windigos feed on emotions, and this one seems no exception. Yet with a countryside and castle both full of thinking, feeling ponies to choose from, what you call a unthinking, unfeeling monster bypassed them all. It came here instead.”
Every word from Star Swirl’s mouth peels slices of Red off of Clover’s aura, replaces them with strips of Cyan. I stretch out with my hooves, try to catch the pieces, can’t reach them in time. They splatter against the floor, vanish into the cracks between the stones.
“What are you say… are you saying it followed me?” Clover mouth-says.
“Yes! Now we’re getting somewhere!” Star Swirl mouth-shouts. I can feel it steaming off him, infecting me. I am Yellow too. I am restless. “And not just followed: pursued. It’s been over eight hours since you and the Princess returned, and only now has this little one found its way to you. Now why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t…” Clover rubs a hoof against her eye, throat-growls. “I don’t know why it pursued me. It doesn’t know why it pursued me. It’s abeast, a wild animal looking for a meal. Whatever made it think I was worth stalking home is just coincidence–”
“Oh, I abhor that word!” Star Swirl is pacing around the room, waving his forehoof in front of his chest. “Lazy word! Used by lazy ponies! Don’t be lazy, Clover, think! We’ve eliminated impossibilities. We’ve laid out all the parts and pieces left behind, Now all that’s left is to put them together.”
“What is there to put together? It’s a predator and all of us are the prey!” Clover is Red-screaming, squeezing her eyes shut, tightening her magic like a vice around my neck. Her mind told me breathing was important back in the cave. Now I don’t seem to need it. I think that’s a good thing. It was hard to remember to keep doing it all this time. “That’s all there is to it! This thing’s the problem, and I’m the solution!”
As Clover yells, Star Swirl is quiet, shaking his head. “A problem is never truly solved until you know its source. We know why the windigo’s here now, but I spoke too soon before. We don’t know how it was there then, close enough in that cave to bond with you in this way. The Friendfyre spell destroys every windigo within its blast radius. If it’s properly cast, a sole exception like this little one here is impossible. Once we eliminate that option, what else is left?”
Clover’s aura changes in a blink of her eyes. She’s not fully Green or Blue, somewhere halfway in between. “It wasn’t there until after the spell was cast,” she Turquoise-mutters. “It didn’t exist until after the spell was cast.”
“And what makes windigos come to exist?”
Clover is silent for a long time. I hear her thought-speak her answer long before she says it aloud. “You think it was me,” she whisper-sighs. “You think I hate windigos so much that… that I created one myself.”
Star Swirl’s chest is a mess of colors, Yellow on top of Gold encircled by White, like a miniature sun without any heat. I’ve never seenWhite before. It makes my chest squirm, my legs rubbery. It feels like I shouldn’t be feeling it. When I turn away, I can feel Star Swirl looking at me.
You’ll understand someday, little one. For her sake, I hope you both do.
“I wouldn’t call it a conclusion,” he mouth-says. He’s looking at Clover now. She’s looking at the ground below me. “It’d take a magician of immense power and mental fortitude to manage something like that alone, and moreover there’s plenty more we can do to look into the matter in the meantime.”
Star Swirl blinks his eyes, pushes out a sigh. “But since you asked… yes. That’s what I think.”
Clover’s magical grip loosens, lets go of me in midair. I fall before I can catch myself, land hard on my rump. It doesn’t hurt, just shocks me, makes me lose my connection to her mind for a moment. Her head hasn’t moved by the time I look up again. Now she’s staring down at me. Something is shifting inside her, changing, coming to a head.
Even separated from her I can feel it, rumblings at the start of an earthquake, wind picking up before a storm. I’m in the middle of standing back up when it hits me all at once, blinding, titanic. We are swirling chaos, endless night, blood-rivers soaking scorched earth. We are eternity crusted on bleached bones, infinity compressed into two halves, one soul. We are sightless. We are darker-than-dark.
We are Black.
It blots out the room behind her, oozes from every inch of her coat. Each pulse of her heart sends sprays of it showering off her, not just at me but everywhere. I am frozen, struck dumb, spellbound. I can think of nothing else but her, Clover, Master, Goddess. Her eyes bore into me, hollow me out, wipe my mind of any thoughts but here, now, her.
This is not Red. This is not just a word, just an imprint of something physical. This is Hate. This is loathing, disgust, ecstasy. This is what I was meant for. This is what Clover—my master—my creator—can provide for me.
Because she Hates me.
I think I Hate her too.
“So what am I supposed to do?” Clover mouth-whispers.
Nothing. Don’t change. Just like this. Forever, please.
“Well, what anypony does in a situation like this,” Star Swirl mouth-replies. “Give it a name.”
Stop talking, Star Swirl. My name is Windigo. I know that. Clover knows that. Clover is staring at you now, opening her mouth. Her Hate is receding, pulling away from me, being painted over all shades of Blue. Stop it! Get your own!
“Wha… what are you… you want me to keep it?” she mouth-sputters. “Why in… flaming Tartarus would I want to keep it? Why would I even want it near me?”
Because Star Swirl won’t be here. Because he won’t hog all the Hate. Because I can do whatever you want, whatever it takes to keep it all for me till the sun burns out. Don’t answer that, Star Swirl.
“I can’t imagine you would.” Damn you, Star Swirl. Damn your Pink face—your eye-smile—your smirk. “Be that as it may, I’d wager you don’t have much of a choice in the matter by now.”
Never mind, Star Swirl. I forgive you. Clover’s looking at me again with narrowed eyes, with pure Hate writhing inside her. “Wait, it… oh, stars,” she mouth-says. Her eyes are a bit wider now. “Oh, stars above, no. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me because I hate this thing… it’s not gonna leave.”
“Unless it manages to find somepony else who hates it more,” Star Swirl mouth-tells her, shrugging, still smirking. “Which is, in the interest of being both cordial and succinct… unlikely.”
When Clover is done screaming, she slumps flat on the ground, clamps her forehooves over her head. I walk closer to her, stand within inches of her nose, can’t help but bask for a moment. When I stretch my hand out to nudge her back up, she jerks her head away, yells again.
“Don’t touch me, you filthy little…”
Clover sees the look on my face, realizes something. “That just made things worse, didn’t it?”
I lean forward on my hooves, shiver as a burst of Hate rolls down my spine. Clover mouth-moans. “This is a nightmare. This is my actual, literal nightmare.”
“Oh, it’s not so bad.” Star Swirl sidles up to her side, pats the back of her head with his hoof. “It may feed off hatred and despair, but it’s far from hateful itself, nor does it seem to bear any ill will towards you. After all, it was only born today, and it has you to thank for that. Goodness, it may even think of you as a mother!”
Clover mouth-moans again, louder. Mother. Mother is childbirth, weaning, nursing to health. Mother is hot breakfasts on chilly mornings, warm hugs on cold nights. Mother is the one who protects you, guides you, cares for you when you’re sick. Mother is Love.
Clover created me, but I was not born from her. She taught me everything I know, but she is not warm, does not Love me. She is cold,Black. She Hates me.
She is not Mother. I wouldn’t want her to be.
“Or… perhaps not,” Star Swirl mouth-mumbles. He twists his lips, pats Clover’s head again. “In any case, you wouldn’t be the first mortal pony to find themselves in the company of spirits. In fact, many powerful magicians have taken on dæmons as assistants or… even companions!”
Clover moves one hoof, peers out at me from behind the other, meets my eyes as I meet hers. For a breath of a moment, our minds coalesce. What was that word Star Swirl used? I’ve never heard it before. Clover knows it, but in her thought-speak it sounds different:
Shade of the night. Bowels of the earth. No sun, no heat, no mortal life. Demon is what keeps children in bed at sunset, adults off the road at night. Demon is punishment for murderers, penance for thieves, a hundred scary stories whispered by a thousand sleepless ponies. Demon is chaos. Demon is a chill down your spine. Demon is Fear.
I like Demon. I like it a lot.
“I’m not gonna name it,” Clover mouth-says. “I won’t kill it for your sake, Master, but I’m not keeping it either. I’ll find a non-lethal way to get rid of it, and until then we’ll just… I’ll survive. Try not to… indulge it too much.”
She sighs, stands up, brushes herself off. Little rivulets of Hate laced her words together, just enough for dessert. She’s holding it back now, trying to remain calm, but for now I don’t mind. I’m sure there’ll be more later.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” Star Swirl mouth-says. He blinks one eye at her—winks—then turns to me. He lifts one hoof—a wave. Pleasure meeting you, Demon. Go easy on her, if you would.
I look down at my own hoof, lift it up in the same gesture. Star Swirl is the oddest pony I’ve ever met. I don’t Hate him like CloverHates me, but I guess he’s all right.
We watch Star Swirl turn on his hoof, start off towards the door again. He hums as he trots, Pink as I’ve ever seen him. When he reaches the doorway, he stops, knocks his hoof against his head.
“Oh, fiddlesticks, before I forget…” he mouth-says. “Two things. First of all, in light of this early morning’s events, Princess Platinum has issued a royal decree declaring you official magical liaison to the crown and hero to the ponies of all three unified tribes. They’ve also decided you’ll be known as ‘Clover the Clever’ henceforth and forevermore, in light of your arcane brilliance and tenacity in repelling the windigo hordes. Not what you’d have preferred, I’m sure, but yours truly ended up with ‘the Bearded’, so count your blessings. Anyhoo, there’ll be a ceremony or somesuch thing tomorrow evening at sundown, so keep a gown clean for that, I suppose.”
“Perfect.” Clover smiles as if she’s one thing, lights up inside as another. I don’t get it. “And the second thing?”
“The second thing… oh, yes!” This time, Star-Swirl winks at me. “Windigos gather information and communicate through a form of emotional synesthetic telepathy. So in other words… Demon here can read minds. Do prepare for that.”
“Demon can… wait, what?”
Star Swirl is gone before Clover finishes yelling after him. I watch him through the floor for a moment, follow his aura as it descends in a spiral towards the bottom of the tower. Clover distracts me soon after. Her aura is flaring again, Black as before. I knew it’d be back. I knew she still had it in her.
“I hate you,” she mouth-tells me. I look up, meet her eyes with mine, smile.
“Monster,” she throat-growls. She stalks away across the room. I follow her, bounce along between the Black hoofprints she leaves on the floor. I am not Monster. I am Windigo. I am Demon. Clover is wrong about my name. Aside from that, she’s absolutely right: as far as I’m concerned, everything is perfect.