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                             Mark of the Magician
                                      By Eshettar

                                      Prologue
                                 A royal request


       "Ooh, ooh!" squealed the lively voice that could have belonged to no other pony in Equestria but Pinkie Pie. "Care for a cup of my special lemonade, Rainbow Dash? I brought ice so it'll be colder than the shoulder you gave those boys who were such awful meanies to you at the Best Flyers Competition (which they so deserved by the way because of how awfully meeeeeean that was of them)! But it'll taste sweeter than sugar when it's sloshing around in your mouth because it's going to be poured by your friend, Pinkie Pie, especially for my friend, Rainbow Dash!"

       Most ponies would have been backing slowly towards the door in response to her hyperactive babble but the hyperactive babbler was among ponies who knew her well enough to take it in their stride. And those ponies were the best friends she'd ever had.

       One of them, a boisterous blue pegasus, grinned back at her. "Hey, are clouds white and fluffy? Is the sun round and warm? Does a spider have five legs? Of course I care!" Rainbow Dash's hoof pushed an empty cup towards the pink pony. "Fill her up, friend!"

       Old habits were almost impossible to break and so Twilight Sparkle couldn't resist the temptation to chime in at this point. "Um…actually, Rainbow Dash, spiders (or arachnids as they're more correctly called) have a grand total of eight legs." She lectured her friend with the smug little smirk of one born for academics.

       Rainbow Dash turned and matched it with the broad smirk of one who didn't care. "Heh, you tell that to the humungous spider I bumped into while flying through the Everfree Forest yesterday! Whatever you wanna call her, there's a Black Widow with less legs than she had before trying to net this super-sonic spider-stompin' pegasus! That leggy dame better warn the rest of her posse not to tangle with me or whoever writes those big fat books of yours will need to do a few revisions, Twilight!"

       Twilight gave her eyes a long-suffering roll. "Ladies and filly, I give you the one and only Rainbow Dash! Bane of spiders and reference book authors everywhere!" she sighed eloquently.

       From the orange earth pony's seat at the table, Applejack chuckled. "Maybe you got your Cutie Mark way too soon, Rainbow Dash! It should've been a spider with five legs and a tear in the corner of her eye!"

       "Don't forget the ripped up textbook." quipped the studious purple pony.

       "Ooooooor the cup of Pinkie Pie's patented extra-frosty n' ultra-sweet lemonade!" squealed Pinkie Pie as she came bouncing (yes, not hopping or skipping but literally bouncing) back to the table with a cup of the very same clasped between her front hoofs." Which I'm perfectly happy for my friend, Rainbow Dash, to be the bane of because it was just poured by her friend, Pinkie Pie, especially for my friend, Rainbow Dash................yowza!" she broke off, her left eye twitching in an odd way. "My tongue's getting in a tangle! So's my brain!"

       The pink pony was helped back to her seat by Fluttershy who, up until now, had been frowning with disapproval in regards to how Rainbow Dash chose to handle the situation with Miss Spider. If only the pegasus had tried to reason with her. It was always surprising how far a little understanding could go.

       Trixie, a midnight blue unicorn and Twilight's dearly loved mate, was smirking as she listened to the friends bicker back and forth. Draped over the back of her chair was a deep purple cloak and on the table cloth sat a matching hat with a long and curly peak. Both distinctive garments had a pattern of glittering silver stars embroidered into their fabric and shared the same eventful history, having been worn by two stage magicians whose talents had left veritable trails of audiences behind them, pleading for more like awe-struck fillies. Up until now, the second magician had been content to remain a mere silent spectator of the conversation between her friends and family, her eyes darting between their faces like she was following the ball at a cricket match. Seeing the cocky grin which cleft Rainbow Dash's muzzle, however, she now stepped in to venture her own opinion.

       "And I thought that the Great and Powerful Trixie's ego was swollen!" Trixie drawled languidly.

       "Never a truer word, darling." came the elegant voice of Rarity. "Why, the fashion designer in me feels a terrible migraine coming on simply from imagining the eyesore that such a cluttered cutie mark would be."

       Rainbow Dash had been lifting the cup to her mouth as Trixie spoke. Now she shot the unicorn a reproachful look.

       "Bite your tongue, showmare! It's not like a couple of goofy kids upped and brought a giant spider to Ponyville to watch me squash it!" the pegasus bantered, raising both eyebrows into an arch laden with meaning.

       Silence fell as everypony caught her breath.

       Trixie could feel the deep crimson of an angry and embarrassed blush heating her cheeks. She scowled and lowered her eyes, resenting this reminder of the unenviable circumstances under which she'd first met Twilight and the others long ago.

       Twilight's eyes glinted with the fire of instinctive protectiveness. "Rainbow Dash." She said warningly, rising halfway from her chair without even realising.

       Rainbow Dash was glancing from one unicorn to the other, wide eyed as she feigned innocent bewilderment about why they were so upset.

       "Girls, girls. I think we're beginning to get a little carried away." a serene voice chided the ponies before an argument could be ignited. Instantly the sudden tension dissolved and the three were left looking sheepishly at one another.

       "Sorry, you guys. I didn't mean anything by that. It just slipped out." Rainbow Dash said, her eyes flicking guiltily between Twilight and Trixie whose cheeks were no longer the reddest at the table.

       Twilight was rubbing at the back of her head, shocked and embarrassed at the way her dander had risen like that. It had not been at all like the purple pony and, thinking it over, perhaps she was the one who ought to be apologising here.

       "Oh, it's all right, Rainbow Dash. Heat of the moment and all that. Already forgotten." Twilight smiled, also blushing.

       "Wait, what have you forgotten? I can't remember what we were just talking about!" Trixie was smiling gladly, relieved beyond words that an argument had been averted before the party could be spoilt. This was a special party indeed, one that had been put together to celebrate the arrival of a day more important to Twilight and Trixie than any other on the Equestrian calendar.

       With peace preserved, Princess Celestia smiled affectionately at the occupant of the little chair beside her. "It's a fathomless mystery that the one pony whose voice hasn't been heard so much this afternoon is yours, my dear. Are you not enjoying your birthday?" she asked jokingly. As the Sun Princess spoke, the lustrous strands of her pastel mane rippled as though somepony had forgotten to tell them that she was indoors and shone like the sea on a magnificent summer's day.

       Young Midnight looked up at her through shining eyes. "Yeah, I am, Gammy Cestya! I was just thinking about how Aunt Dash wiped zebra lady's forest with that humungous spider!" All smiles, the filly pointed her worshipful hoof in Rainbow Dash's direction.

       A sound betwixt amused laughter and groaning resignation went up as the sky-blue pegasus grinned, leaning over to ruffle Midnight's mane. Seated with ponies far older than her, the filly was as small and bright as a lavender rose growing among the roots of tall and graceful trees. Twilight and Trixie's beloved daughter may have been young but her lilac eyes were bright and lively with the spark of an intelligence that grew as it was fed.

       Nigh on every inch of the table was packed with the refreshments such a gathering of close friends and family like today's cried out for. Shiny red apples and freshly squeezed juice courtesy of everypony's favourite farmer, various chocolates and sweets which had been provided by the best candy salesmare Ponyville had ever known, tea with biscuits and cakes with thick creamy frosting and many more delights besides. There was just one thing left to make this bountiful evening feast complete.

       The two mother unicorns exchanged a private sidelong glance, the amusement in their faces mixed with just the faintest tinge of apprehension. Both of them prayed for the conspicuously absent Spike to return from his 'little errand' without any trouble or delay. Nothing would go wrong, would it? Not today of all days...

       Difficult as it was to believe that an entire year had crumbled away since a most eventful day at the hospital, Celestia's Sun had dawned on Midnight's first birthday. Setting up the party had been almost daunted Twilight and Trixie far more than venturing blindfolded into the Everfree Forest after nightfall would have. In a stroke of favourable fortune, Midnight's birth had taken place on a weekday which ensured that the filly would be at school, thereby granting her desperate mothers (and the rest of the gang who were ready and more than willing to lend a hoof) the morning and afternoon to get everything ready for her homecoming. Even with the able assistance of Pinkie Pie, who was acknowledged as the Party Princess just as Celestia and Luna were known as the Sun and Moon Princesses respectively, their labour was only just complete when Rainbow Dash (whose turn it was to keep lookout) spotted Midnight and Fluttershy (whose duty it was to pick the filly up from school) trotting towards the library from the near-distance.

      All throughout the prior week, Twilight had been worried to the point of borderline neurotic about whether the HAPPY FIRST BIRTHDAY MIDNIGHT!!!! banner she had laboured over was good enough. Despite the exasperated reassurances of Trixie, the purple unicorn's worries had lifted only at the moment she'd seen her daughter stop dead on first sight of the bright and colourful banner which had been purely her own effort, those eyes filling with the radiant glow of pure joy. In that same moment, Twilight's heart had nearly burst with pride.

       Battling to put the considerable worry over where Spike could be out of mind, Trixie smirked. Her lilac gaze had happened upon the face of another esteemed guest.

       "Speaking of party animals who've been veeeeeeeery quiet this evening, there's another one I could name. How about you, beloved teacher? Aren't you having the time of your life?" Trixie teased.

       Princess Luna turned a fathomless eye upon the unicorn. The smile she gave Trixie was tinged with ever advancing fatigue but nothing could possibly have diminished the sweetness and contentment of it.

       "The very best. I don't normally get to stay up until five in the evening." Joked the mare of the moon, chuckling wearily.

      Seated between the two royal sisters and perceiving the sorrowful undertone of this quip, Midnight leaned across to Luna. The Moon Princess inhaled as the filly's arm attempted to slip around her waist in a loving cuddle. It was too short to encompass the entire distance but, for Luna, that Midnight cared enough to try meant everything in the world.

       "It's okay, Princess Mommy! We'll look after you!" Midnight beamed innocently.

       As a dark-blue wing enfolded the little unicorn's shoulders and cuddled back, the universe of unspoken emotion frozen in Luna's eyes made everypony's heart ache more than they could bear. Due to her demanding responsibilities as Princess of the Moon, she didn't get to spend much time with Midnight. Seeing her with the child reminded them all of watching children build a snowpony. Beautiful while it lasted and yet that would not be for long. Even though Twilight, the other five Elements of Harmony and Trixie loved Luna as much as they did Celestia and would have done almost anything to ease her bitter loneliness, every last one of them cringed just to imagine swapping places with the Moon Princess.

      Neither Twilight nor Trixie had been able to believe that she would be here at all. As Princess Celestia had arrived shortly before the party kicked off, her magical golden chariot descending from the heavens like a ray of sunlight, both unicorns had been expecting the worst case scenario involving a very disappointed young filly. Yet at her side had been none other than Luna who swept Midnight up in her arms and wings as the child came galloping to meet them. The solemn yet radiant gaze she bestowed upon her two co-parents over their child's head had spoken more volumes than Twilight's eyes would ever pour over. She was Midnight's third mother. And nothing, not the moon and every star in the cosmos put together, would have kept her away today.

      Princess Celestia arrived at a decision. "Trixie. There is a matter I have been rather curious about for some time now." She remarked in a casual voice belying the true importance of this issue to her.

      Trixie threw another quick glance at Twilight. "You have only to ask, Princess." The unicorn smiled, courteous but wary as she wracked her brain.

      What in the world could the Sun Princess desire to speak to her about?

      Surely this wasn't about the lamp she'd accidentally broken and not told anypony about during that fateful visit to Canterlot….

      If such a thing lay within the boundaries of possibility, Celestia's eyes became gentler than normal. To the other guests who sat observing this little scene with interest, it was as though she now called upon every morsel of tact she could muster.

      "I do believe I shall take you up on that offer, my dear. Tell me…" Much to the amazement of everypony else, the Sun Princess began hemming and hawing rather in the manner of a young filly who was working up enough nerve to ask for a bigger allowance. "…exactly what became of you after your mother…well…"

      Trixie felt a knife plunge into her heart. "After she died. You can say it, Princess." She said quietly, forcing herself to retain eye-contact with Celestia. She could feel Twilight's sympathetic gaze as this subject was broached.

      Celestia's smile faded ever so slightly. She loathed feeling as though she was prying, especially into a matter which was still raw and painful to the other mare concerned, but also felt compelled to pursue the matter. For too long now, she had remained trapped in the unbearable agony of not knowing.

       That Celestia and the original Midnight, Trixie's mother, had been enchanted with love for each other was now common knowledge throughout pretty much all Equestria. When the beautiful unicorn fell ill and passed away unexpectedly, a devastated Sun Princess had sought for Trixie, wishing nothing more than to give her a new home in the safety of Canterlot. Yet Trixie was nowhere to be found. According to the ponies who staffed the hospital where Midnight's terminal breath had been taken, the child had fled the rural village within the very hour of her mother's death, desperate to outrun her pain.

       For years after, Celestia had suffered with the guilt of her failure to help Trixie. The haunting uncertainty of Trixie's ultimate fate came to an end when she resurfaced alive and happy in Ponyville as the mate of none other than Twilight, Celestia's own star pupil, a revelation which opened an entire new can of turmoil for everypony concerned. This drama had been resolved in the end but the Sun Princess was still left in the dark about what had befallen the unicorn after her flight from the village so many years ago.

       In Celestia's eye, the time had come to lay that particular demon to rest once and forever.

       "Wherever did you go? How did you fare, a young filly all alone in the world?" she put the question to Trixie plainly.

       "Do you really want to know?" Trixie asked quietly. There was no stalling, no awkward attempt to steer the conversation to another subject. Just one last flimsy barrier between the Sun Princess and the answer she sought.

       "I do. Nothing more." Celestia nodded resolutely, her clear eyes unerringly upon the blue unicorn.

       "Ooh, a story about mommy?" exclaimed Midnight whose innocence made her immune to the emotionally charged aura now surrounding the particular mother in question. "I wanna hear!"

       There came a cough and Trixie looked over to see Rarity smiling with encouragement. "It occurs to me that we know too little about your past, darling. I, for one, wouldn't object to listening whilst you regale us with some of it."

       "Um…that is…" Trixie gave a start as she heard the barely audible stammer of Fluttershy. "…I wouldn't mind hearing it too. If…if you don't mind, that is, Trixie." The custard-pelted pegasus expressed, smiling too.

      "Yeah!"

      "What's wrong, sugarcube? Is yer tongue in a bind just like Pinkie Pie's?"

      "Awww, it isn't in a tangle or a bind anymore, Applejack. But I think I'll give it a rest while we listen to Trixie. Yaaaaaay Trixiiiiiie, by the way!"

      "Please, mommy! Your stories are the greatest!"

       Trixie could not speak. It was ironic given her calling as a storyteller but, all of a sudden, she found herself at complete loss for words when called upon to tell one regarding herself. Her past. She couldn't help smiling bitterly.

       The sensation of a wonderfully familiar hoof caressing hers pierced the aura. She looked up and saw precisely who she'd known it would be. Twilight's smiling face was more comforting than anything then unicorn had ever seen. It promised she didn't have to say anything now unless she was willing but that, if she did choose to speak, the purple pony would be there for her throughout it all. In this moment of silent understanding, Trixie's love for Twilight soared to a height she had never dreamed possible. And yet…and yet…

       The legs of her chair grinding across the wooden surface of the floor, Trixie got up and turned around. There were some things you just couldn't do sitting down and boy was this one of those things. Everypony's gaze followed her as she gravitated towards the window and stood before it, looking out at the town beyond. She did not feel their collective scrutiny anymore than she did the slivers of fading daylight now bathing her pensive face. She remained oblivious even as Twilight, moved by concern, rose to come over and make certain that she was all right.

       The purple unicorn sat back down as she received a meaningful look from Princess Celestia. This was something Trixie must do herself. Twilight could not help her in it.

       From her chair, Midnight was looking around at all the adults curiously. Why did everypony look so serious all of a sudden?

       "Fine. Consider yourselves regaled."  Trixie shrugged, still looking through the window at Ponyville.

       There was no grand stage for the coming performance. No bright and colourful fireworks to add a little flair. No fictional Ursa Major that she had never seen let alone vanquished with her Great and Powerful magic. Just the grim and gritty truth about what had happened to the Great and Powerful Trixie before she first became the Great and Powerful Trixie. And the dark memories of a time long ago, of a place far away,  made the unicorn shiver regardless the warmth of the sunshine pouring in from outside.

       As she wandered the dank corridors of unpleasant nostalgia, the town seemed to melt away before her eyes like a chalk drawing beneath the assault of a ferocious rainstorm. The places and faces of that other time, that other place, was painted on the canvas of Trixie's mind like the masterwork of some phantom artist's brush. She was going back in time.

       Just as Trixie had dreaded, an earnestly smiling face took form before her. She fought to hold back a guilt-ridden sob as she recalled the pony who had gone with that sweet and trusting countenance. The pony she had let down so badly.

       I'm sorry...in the name of all that is good, I'm so sorry...

       The words drifting from her mouth like snowflakes out of a grey sky, Trixie began the tale.

                                       Chapter One
                                   Little filly in the big city


      Many days and nights before the prophesised return of Nightmare Moon and the destined reunion of the Elements of Harmony...

       Hear now the story of a time following the tragic death of one great magician and leading towards the fire-forged birth of another. It begins in a place several leagues away from both Canterlot and Ponyville. A place of which many equines have heard but precious few would willingly go, the mere thought enough to make those who know better cringe.

       Meconium City (known more popularly as the festering pus-filled boil in Equestria's hindquarters) had a filthy river snaking through the middle of it. Once upon a time long ago, this twisted body of water had been given a name of its own but there were no ponies now who could recall it. That was just the type of place Meconium was. When one considered the sheer dearth of bilge and driftwood floating sluggishly across the surface, it could have been justly described as more landfill than liquid. Last year, the present generation of ponies had dubbed it 'The River Sticks' on account of this and the less than affection nickname had stuck like a fly to somepony's abandoned candy wrapper. Once again, that was just the type of place Meconium was.

       Why this information is at all relevant to the tale you're now being told is simple. On the northern side of The River Sticks, nopony observed a lone scrawny filly crawling out from beneath a cardboard box and groan as she orientated herself for another day's hardship. Nor did anypony notice that her diminutive frame was clad in a starry hat and cloak obviously designed for the head and back of one far more physically mature than she, one so young that she had yet to receive her cutie mark. It hardly deserves mentioning that they were just as oblivious when she flicked the remaining damp of last night's rainfall from the wide brim of her too big hat and ventured warily from the narrow passage between two buildings, walking.

       Walking. That felt like all she did now. It was certainly all she had done yesterday before practically collapsing in that alleyway from profound exhaustion, weariness which had seeped through the filly's leaden limbs just as moisture had seeped into the box. It was all she could remember doing the day before yesterday and the day which had come drifting before it like a meaningless scrap of paper on the chill breeze. Now that she really gave it thought, motion had been the only constant thing in her life since that terrible night came and went, leaving the filly heartbroken.

       The night when her mom, a famous storyteller known from the farthest reaches of the sparkling emerald-green plains to the cloud-crowned peaks of the loftiest mountains as the Wonderful and Mysterious Midnight, finally lost a hellish struggle against an unknown illness and slipped away with the tiny filly cradled in her loving arms. To that self-same child, it was like the bottom had fallen out of her entire world. With the only family she ever knew gone, there was nothing for her in the rural hamlet where she had been born, where she and mom had lived happily together. It was haunted by far too many ghosts for her to live there ever again. There had seemed no other choice than for her to start walking.

       Walking. Walking towards a future which held not even the dullest glimmer of happiness. Walking in the vain hope of leaving her grief behind in the shadows of the past if she just went far enough. Just walking. Walking.

       As plans went, this one was simple enough and yet came with an equally simple problem from the orphaned unicorn. The fly in the ointment was this; she couldn't even begin to fool herself that it was working out. Driven to rash action by the grief rampaging inside her like a wild beast, she had forsaken the safety and shelter of her hometown. Freedom was all well and good but what the roving filly had soon been forced to realize since then was that with independence came all the bitter realities of adulthood and, though she was not prepared for them, those realities had engulfed her like an avalanche.

       Here were those realities and in the order she had began running foul of them. She possessed no defence against the cruel elements beyond the showy hat and cloak ensemble she had taken from her mom's bedside upon leaving the hospital, desperate for some piece of Midnight to hold onto and cherish forever. Not only that but, in her despair, she had not thought to bring any food with which to fill the limp bag of her empty stomach.

       For the first week or so, these pitfalls of living alone had not overwhelmed her as they did now. The timing of her flight had been curiously fortunate, being right in the middle of an especially prosperous summer when strawberry bushes were plentiful for her to nibble away at, watched closely by the curious eyes of blackbirds perched in the trees above. The berries had left a tangier taste in her mouth than the ones she had enjoyed for dessert beneath the safety of mother's warm gaze. Remembering the time of strawberries and cream, of home and love, she had felt inevitable tears prick at the back of her lilac eyes. Then she blinked them away and, with a hardening of those features so youthful and yet careworn, told herself that this was the way of things now. It was strawberries with or without cream and there was the end of it.

       Mother Nature had provided for the young unicorn in other ways too. On the odd occasion when rain clouds gathered to blacken the sky and drench the earth in their wet bounty, the unicorn was easily able to take refuge either sitting beneath the natural canopy of a tree's broad boughs or buried deep in the heart of a thick leafy bush. To her surprise, she had actually quite enjoyed the experience of turning to the land itself for help in times of need and finding just what she'd sought. Receiving the victuals she needed to ward off the pang of hunger and shelter to keep dry from the torrential rain had made her feel as though something somewhere was watching over her as she lay asleep when the stars of Luna's Night blazed overhead, guiding her hoofs when Celestia's Day painted the land with rays of warm golden light, making her ready to face any trouble or danger that may lie just beyond the horizon of life.

       But was her good fortune truly the benign influence of one 'something somewhere' or the joint effort of several 'somethings somewhere' taking it in turns to make sure that nothing happened to the lone vulnerably filly during her aimless journey? Try as she might, even now she still couldn't begin to fathom the answer to this mystery. The fruitless endeavour to do so only raised her bewilderment to new levels. If she truly did have a charmed life then why was she even all alone like this, sleeping in the undergrowth at night and eating berries to survive by day? Why had she lost mom? Where was she going? When would she get there? What would she find waiting when she finally did? Each and every last one of these unanswerable questions had churned within her soul like a storm-ravaged ocean until she could no longer blink the threat of tears away and the pride she had gotten from having survived thus far was banished. In these moments, the unicorn could do only one thing. Get up and forge ahead, putting one hoof in front of the other, the renewed struggle of the journey numbing her to the coldness which seeped from her broken heart. Walking.

       No matter what had led Trixie across such a distance and through so much hardship unharmed, be it an unusually generous fate smiling upon her diminutive yet determined efforts or just dumb luck, here she was and here her troubles now began in earnest. Here in Meconium City. The unicorn had arrived late last night and only now did she realize just how in over her head she was. While waiting for sleep to come and take her away from the weariness, hunger and misery, she had clung onto a thin sliver of hope that this place would look much friendlier by daylight. A hope which, feeble though the mind of even a naïve filly without any prior experience of big cities had realized it to be, now let Trixie down with a cruel bump.

       To her worried eyes, the urban forest appeared very much as it had yesterday evening. Dirtier than every inch of bare earth she'd become acquainted with out in the country laid side by side. So incredibly huge that, to the awe-struck unicorn, it seemed like the ground couldn't be anything other than some napping dragon on whose back this place had been built centuries ago. But far more discomforting than this morbid fantasy was the one thing Trixie couldn't escape regardless of which direction she might take. Other ponies.

       More other ponies than she had ever dreamt possible for there to be. The citizens of Meconium seemed more of a countless-headed monster than separate entities. Impatient to reach wherever they were heading this gritty day, they pushed and jostled to get past each other, forcing the lone child in their midst along at an often breathless rate. Trixie yearned to stop and draw the silken cloak even more tightly around herself than she had on the chilliest night out in the country.

       If anything, the roads were an even worse pony tale. Almost every inch was obscured from clear view by carts and wagons being dragged along by muscular stallions. They were conveying myriad types of cargo, stuff like mountainous masses of pitch-black coal and dusty vegetables that a minimal glance was sufficient to inform anypony were far from fresh. Just the ill-conceived act of turning her face towards the road made Trixie choke on her next breath. As they strained to pull their aforementioned burdens, the working ponies gave off a hoof-curling reek of perspiration. Yet the effect their indescribable body odour produced on Trixie's hooves was naught compared to what their language did to her young ears. The words that sprang to those coarse mouths whenever one of their colleagues cut across their path or a wheel became stuck in a pothole would surely have gotten Trixie grounded for a year if she'd been heard uttering any of them back when mom was still alive.

       Having gotten her fill and a lot more besides from that quarter, Trixie diverted her attention, turning to look at the cityscape itself. This place. It was nothing like what she had imagined while listening, almost literally spellbound, to the stories her mom told about travelling to perform in the major cities throughout Equestria. Midnight's vivid descriptions of the locales she had graced with her luminous presence and whose inhabitants would never ever forget the magic she'd brought into their lives for a single night had rendered a portrait of glamour in Trixie's fertile imagination. Those stories had made the filly desperate to leave the small village she and her mother had called home, see one of those exciting places for herself, have wonderful adventures. When Trixie pleaded to accompany her on her next trip to Canterlot, Midnight had donned an enigmatic smile and promised that the day she longed for would arrive much sooner than she thought. Yet this beautiful promise had been doomed never to be fulfilled.

       Trixie knew one thing to be an absolute certainty. This place wasn't at all like she had envisaged. The ground was all but carpeted with litter. Candy wrappers tossed aside by careless ponies, empty oat-shake containers which had been crushed flat beneath many trampling hoofs, the pages of old forgotten newspapers scattered and dancing about with the mischievous wind. The whole city exuded a sense that it was gradually rotting. The buildings were decrepit and crumbling, worse eyesores she could not claim to have ever seen. On the side of one such structure, somepony had painted the picture of a skull with a horribly grinning mouth and two broad skeletal wings outstretched beneath it. Both skull and wings were wreathed in roaring fire. This charming image was accompanied by a thought-provoking missive.

       NEXT WEEK AT THE STADIUM! THE MECONIUM SWASHBUCKLERS EVISCERATE THE WONDERBOLTS (THAT WORD MEANS THEY'RE GOING TO CUT THEIR GUTS OUT)! BE THERE OR BE FLAYED (SKINNED) ALIVE!

       The filly stared at it with disbelief. If anypony had dared to do such a thing back in Trixie's village, they would have been sent straight to the mayor and gotten into huge trouble!

       As the rough wall reached its conclusion, she found herself gazing at a row of windows. Even the windows in this city were something entirely alien to her eyes, rusty metal grills having been bolted into place over them. It was as though the ponies of this city were afraid and the thing that many of them were most afraid of was one another. A squeal of surprise escaped Trixie's lips. For the barest instant, she had seen somepony peering between some drab curtains on the other side of those bars. Peering down at her. The face retreated, allowing the curtains to flutter back into place and render the living-room beyond invisible once more.

       For some reason she could never quite place even in the years to come, Trixie felt shaken. What had been in those eyes as they stole a furtive look upon her? Hatred? Suspicion? Fear?

       All of a sudden, despite having waited impatiently for her entire life to visit different places and see unfamiliar things, Trixie couldn't wait to shake the dust of this putrid hole from her hooves. Back at home…no…back at the village where she was born, she reminded herself sternly, the unicorn had known and been known by everypony there was. In all honesty, Trixie hadn't had many friends. She didn't know the reason why. That was simply how it was, just she and her mom against the world. But the village was a nice place and so it had been nearly impossible to walk along the street without somepony familiar calling out in warm greeting to her, ("Good morning too, Mrs Fleecetail.") asking where she was headed and if her mom knew she was going there ("I'm going to the library to borrow more books about magic and other places. Oh and yeah. Yeah, she does.") or merely commenting on how much she'd grown since the last time they'd met ("Have I? I don't think so…not really…").

       Here she knew not even a single soul. Acquaintances, well-wishers, adults she knew she could have trusted…the filly had left them all behind. Now she was lost in the middle of a strange place surrounded by ponies who were even stranger. Trixie felt more and more afraid by the second. This wasn't an adventure. This was just scary.

       Trixie was compelled to scoot clear of an approaching equine, narrowly avoiding being stepped on like an insect. She grumbled softly under her breath, knowing exactly how a piñata must feel by now. Her interest in them renewed, the unicorn gazed around at the countless number of unknown ponies streaming past her. There were earth ponies, pegasi and even the odd unicorn like Trixie herself. One thing she noted was that the expression on most faces was the same. Those eyes looked dull as windows on a misty night, reflecting the deeply-ingrained exhaustion of souls which had been beaten down by the daily nastiness of their surroundings. What thoughts may have run through the heads of the few who peered down at this strange newcomer (an unaccompanied filly with an overlarge plum purple magician's hat upon her head, a cloak trailing along behind her like a voluminous parachute and a leather saddlebag which had clearly been put through many years of faithful use tied to her side) remained right there. Locked inside the bowed and defeated heads of these ponies with nothing to say and no will to do so even had they. Somehow those blank eyes so devoid of warmth and spirit were even more frightful than the bellowing wagon-pullers and, eager to reach some kind of open area and escape from this chaos, Trixie picked up her pace.

       Unable to conquer the ghastly curiosity, the unicorn went on peering over her narrow shoulders. To her right yawned the mouth of an alley quite like the one she'd taken refuge in the night before. Looking into it, Trixie saw something which brought her up short. Glinting back at her startled eyes from that murky recess were two points of dull light. No, there was more than a single pair. Far more. And their number only increased as the filly stood gawping in at them.
      
       Then Trixie gave a strangled yelp of fright and recoiled as though beneath the force of a physical blow. Like an eerie firefly swarm, those motes of glimmering light had moved closer to where she stood. And, as they did, their true nature was rendered hideously clear to the young unicorn.
             
       Eyes.  The narrowly squinting eyes of the ponies who had been loitering in the dark alley. The ponies who had just spied Trixie. The ponies who now came stalking toward her with ruthless grins. For the passage of a single heartbeat, she wondered what they could want from her before enlightenment arrived in a flash of sickening clarity. The diamond clasp of her cloak!
             
       Trixie didn't stick around to find out whether they would settle for taking her cloak. Down the street she galloped as fast as her little legs would carry her. When the moment came to stop, she did so not because she dared but because the stitch burning in her side could no longer be ignored. The claw of fear raking at her scrawny body, Trixie forced herself to look back.
       
       She couldn't see the ponies who'd tried to get her. They could not have gone farther than the mouth of the alley.

       The tidal wave of relief that swept over her as she finally emerged from the crowded sidewalk was more vastly euphoric than she'd ever imagined anypony could feel without bursting. No longer needing to keep on the move, Trixie surveyed the new location she'd ended up in. Her equine eyes brightened. Finally something that was familiar to them. A town square, well, a city square. The faint ghost of a smile made its way to her lips, no easy fete considering that the downward curve of an unhappy frown had threatened to crease them permanently during recent days. As mom had put it, the centre of the town she'd once called...where she'd once lived...was where the heart of their community lay. Recalling the many, many weekends she'd spent cantering around, her eyes roving over market stalls laden with marvellous surprises brought in from out of town and her nostrils twitching with the aroma of fresh flowers, Trixie felt the briefly lived smile ebb. Wrapping itself around her like invisible tendrils now came disillusionment and trepidation.

       The heart of Meconium City brought forth no more welcome, no more promise of things getting better for her, than anything else she'd seen thus far. The number of ponies clip-clopping around was much smaller. That was good, it gave her space to breath. Yet the life and colour she'd been hoping to find was just as non-existent as wings on an earthpony or a horn on a pegasus. Not even one market stall was there. On the other hoof, there were potholes aplenty for Trixie to fall down if she didn't watch her step. The same grim sense of festering neglect that had been shoved down her throat everywhere else seemed to linger in the air here.

As she peered around the desolate square, Trixie's eyes began shining. A truly wonderful notion had just been kindled within the young unicorn. If this place was the heart of Meconium City's community then no wonder the entire place was so grey and devoid of liveliness. And mom, in all her cleverness, had known just the way to lift unhappiness from the hearts of ponies and fill them with wonder. A truly spectacular magic show. Conviction worked its way through her, rekindling the courage and optimism wherever it went. Trixie dared smile. But she had to confess that the prospect daunted her.

       There were many reasons why it should. For one thing, she was the merest beginner, a novice in terms of actually casting functional magic spells. For another, she had never put on a show of her own and therefore didn't even know where to begin. And finally she didn't have permission from anypony to do so. For a moment, the indecisive filly stood wavering upon the threshold of doing and not doing. Then she thought of her mom's big premier in Canterlot. An insignificant matter of not having the right bit of paper from the right pony hadn't stood between the Wonderful and Mysterious Midnight and taking the nobleponies of Equestria by storm. Cloaked from sight within the dense and swirling bank of vapour she conjured especially for the occasion, the magician entered the grounds of the royal castle and appeared before the highly stunned high society members with a flash of magic and her trademark stage smile, dazzling their senses and capturing their hearts with an evening of story, song and magic that they would talk about in Canterlot for years to come. To add the crowning touch of perfection to Midnight's show, Princess Celestia herself had been there to witness it. And she had adored every second so much that she insisted upon the magician returning to perform for Canterlot's court again, again and again.

       If the mother could win over a crowd of strangers with mere talent and daring then so could the daughter, Trixie reasoned. There was just one question. Dare she? With a confident flick of her snowy tail, the question was answered. Yes, she dared! (An undeniable motivating factor was the obstinate rumble of her empty belly and the chance that these ponies may shower her with food as a reward for bringing light into their dull grey lives.)

       Trixie marched resolutely towards the middle of the square. It seemed like the ideal spot for not only would she be the centre of attention but (as though fortune itself favoured her undertaking) there was an old wooden crate there for her to stand on. Hardly as impressive as the traditional wooden stage mom used to perform on but needs must. Hopping like a nimble frog, the unicorn landed on top of her makeshift platform and turned to face the ponies who were milling around. Despite being at a higher vantage point, she felt just as puny and negligible as she had moments before. Like the warmth of a candle left forgotten upon the window sill, her courage flickered and almost died.

       Trixie took that flame in both hooves and cleared her throat loudly for attention. She felt her knees knock together like two bony cymbals in a marching band as what seemed like an army of faced instantly turned towards her in scrutiny. But it was too late for second thoughts. There was no going back for the pint-sized aspiring entertainer now.

       "N-noble m-mares…" Trixie began only to swallow heavily, realising just how dry her windpipe had grown due to acute nervousness.

       She soldiered onward through the embarrassment of this false start and, with each syllable formed by the increasingly deft motion of her tongue, felt confidence soaring within her like a pegasus. The words came with a natural ease that astounded her. She simply imagined how mom would have gotten everypony excited for the show and they came like water pouring from the Neighagra Falls.

       "Noble mares and honourable gentlestallions of Meconium City! Pay heed to my words now for today is a day everypony fortunate enough to be here will tell stories about to their children who will pass down those same stories to their own for countless generations!"

       By now, the ponies were over their initial surprise and had begun whispering to each other. The naïve filly's cheeks bloomed with the flush of pleasure as she imagined that they had been blown away by her natural showmareship and were now excitedly debating about just what kind of spectacular performance they would soon bear witness to. She felt prouder than she ever had in her entire life for, in this moment, she was just like her mom. A showmare to the core.

       It flew right over Trixie's inexperienced head that they were actually exchanging remarks along the lines of "Who does this kid think she is?" and "What the hay's she talking about?"

       Getting carried away, Trixie shut her eyes and threw her forelegs wide for maximum dramatic effect. "A day which shall become legend within the walls of your fair city and beyond! For, on this day of destiny, the Great and Powerful Trixie walks among you!" As naturally as the air which she breathed, that name flew to her lips. In her heart and soul, she knew that it had been meant to be and rejoiced.

       "Excuse me, Great and Powerful Trixie."

       Feeling the pressure of a remarkably hard hoof tapping her shoulder, Trixie opened one eye very slightly. She found herself squinting at the grim visage of a frowning pegasus. The stranger's mane and pelt were both dust grey and perched upon her head was a black hat with corners and a sun visor. With suddenly renewed apprehension, the unicorn's narrow eye wandered down to the grey mare's flank. The cutie mark she beheld there was unmistakably two pairs of hoofcuffs, their chains intertwining like the bodies of twin metallic serpents and gleaming coldly.

       Trixie's sliver of vision returned upward, bewilderment not unmixed with a drop of tension covering her face. She had no idea what was taking place and yet her every instinct screamed for her to run, to get away from here. Like the young foal she was, Trixie stayed put, waiting to find out what this grey pegasus wanted. Which she soon did.

       "I'm Policemare Stonemane, little filly." the pegasus introduced herself, not taking her hoof away from Trixie's stiff shoulder. "What are you doing out here all by yourself? Other than making a buffalo's ass of yourself, that is?" she added with an inflection of biting sarcasm.

       "I…I was just…" Trixie felt amazed by the low stammer her voice had become. Where was al the confidence she'd possessed just moments ago?

       "Get down from there." Trixie was pulled from the top of the crate, her knees bending involuntarily as her hooves re-established contact with the hard ground. "Now you can just tell me where you parents happen to be at this moment." The policemare looked at her through marble eyes. "Come on. Answer."

       Trixie couldn't. Her heart was beating ten a dozen as she stared up at this grim representative of the law, frightened and speechless.

       Seeing the obvious terror on the child's face, Policemare Stonemane eased up. "Are you alone?" she tried again in a voice much less rough though by no means gentle. "Aren't your folks here with you?"

       Trixie hesitated for the barest instant and then very slowly shook her head. No.

       The policemare's lips pursed. "I think you'd better come along with me." Those stern eyes were a crisply clear warning for the unicorn not to even think about trying to ditch her.

       Trixie found her voice at last. "But...I didn't do anything..." she faltered, rooted to the ground. The entire world was spinning around her.

       In response, she received a push in the hindquarters. The unspoken message conveyed by it was just as plain as the equally silent warning of Policemare Stonemane's frown. Move it. Now.

       Trixie started walking, the onslaught of the crowd's derisive laughter ringing in her ears. She moved as though beneath a deep hypnotic trance, numb with fear, lost in a nightmare from which there was no waking. The pegasus was right behind her, a silent shadow driving her towards her fate. The beginning of tears prickled at her eye-lids but this time she didn't have the will to stop their bitter advance. One thing was for sure.

        Meconium City definitely wasn't the type of place mom had visited.

       Not willing to cross a hard-snouted policemare, the grubby lowlifes who had stalked Trixie's cloak from the alley could now do little else but turn and slink off into the crowd with their tails between their legs, feeling like a Diamond Dog pack deprived of their gemstones.
During the joyful celeberation of Midnight's first birthday, Princess Celestia seeks from Trixie the resolution of a longstanding mystery. What she gets is an answer far more than she had bargained for. An answer that is not only great and powerful but unimaginably bittersweet. The tale of how an orphan filly would become who she became to be. (An interquel of EsperDerek's series, Out in the Cold, which takes place between Reaching Midnight and Shades of Midnight written by Phoe.)
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:iconjinchuruki-gojira:
Jinchuruki-Gojira Featured By Owner Feb 19, 2013  Student General Artist
...Eshie?! My Little Pony?! Are you serious? Omg ><

I can't believe you're one of those guys!! HAhaha
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:iconeshettar:
Eshettar Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2013
Heh...is your image of me completely blown by this revelation?
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:iconjinchuruki-gojira:
Jinchuruki-Gojira Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2013  Student General Artist
...yes. God I couldn't take this very seriously at all. Come on, Eshie!!! Sailors and Ponies?! > <
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:iconeshettar:
Eshettar Featured By Owner Feb 20, 2013
I know you must be reeling but are we still friends, you and I? I read in a book that the bond between two people can overcome just about any force in the universe. Surely that applies to differences of personal taste? At least I...uhh...hope so?

We could go to friendship counselling?
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:iconjinchuruki-gojira:
Jinchuruki-Gojira Featured By Owner Feb 22, 2013  Student General Artist
yes of course, eshie!! haha i was just taken by surprise that's all.

C: I didn't mean to offend!
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:iconeshettar:
Eshettar Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2013
Phew, glad tidings indeed! You've no idea how worried I was that I may have fallen out of favour with a friend more dear to me than all the cartoon shows ever animated! By the by, did the email I sent last Tuesday make it to you safely? The suspicion that it ran outta gas along the cyberspace highway and failed to reach you has been driving me loco in the coco!
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:iconjinchuruki-gojira:
Jinchuruki-Gojira Featured By Owner Feb 23, 2013  Student General Artist
Oh, you! There's no need for worry, Esh! :D

Yes, I definitely got and read your email. I've had a super tough time lately, but I'll have to get back to you soon! I might just have to take a break from the story discussions for a little. :/ Hmm but I'd love to just keep mailing you about more casual things! :D
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:icondemonpanther:
DemonPanther Featured By Owner Aug 9, 2011
Curses!!! Waiting for updates is my bane in fanfiction! I truly enjoyed reading your tale, and I eagerly await the next chapter of this riveting story!
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:iconnova225:
Nova225 Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011
Hum... interesting, an 'ok' story so far...

It might be able to insert itself between those other 2 'legendary' stories... Only future will tell.

On another (more or less related) note, I can start to imagine what will happen to that City, once Celestia has heard the whole story... ... ;)
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:icontheunrealchrichan:
TheUnrealChrichan Featured By Owner Jun 9, 2011  Hobbyist Writer
The prologue dragged on a bit too long for my tastes. Other then that it was a good read. Looking forward to chapter two!
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