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by DeltaSierra

“Hey, Trimmer! Over here!”

Leaf Trimmer turned toward the sound of Spark’s voice. He was surrounded on all sides by leafy green undergrowth, punctuated by the moss-draped boles of ancient trees. Visibility was poor, even with the bright sunlight overhead. But behind one broad leaf, he could just make out a flicker of movement. Muscles in his hindquarters rippled, and he threw himself through the curtain of leaves.


Leaves and twigs scattered everywhere as he crashed through the foliage. But of course Spark was too quick for him. She always was. Leaf Trimmer landed squarely where Spark had been. He straightened up slowly.

“Too slow! I’m up here, silly!”

Leaf Trimmer looked up. Spark hovered above him, bobbing slowly in place. Even through she was relatively stationary, what passed for her body was always in motion. Brightly colored yellow-white flecks traced luminescent arcs through the air as they whirled around her central core, which glowed with its own soft blue light. From a distances, she looked just like her namesake. Certainly not a pony, but he preferred her company to that of the other ponies in his little village despite that.

Or maybe because of it.

“You’re never going to catch me if you move like that,” Spark taunted. “I’ve seen ponies twice your size move half again as quickly.”

“Yeah? And how long ago has that been?” Leaf Trimmer fired off in response. “You said I’m the first pony to come through here in a fifty years, right?”

“More like a hundred, actually.” Spark fell silent, bobbing thoughtfully in place. “And to be fair, most of the other ponies were probably moving so quickly because they were terrified of me.”

Leaf Trimmer shrugged at the exaggeration, but as usual he held his tongue. Spark had made claims about her age before. Nothing alive lived that long. But Spark was his friend, and he wasn’t going to call his friend a liar. Not over something so minor, anyway. Besides, she usually clammed up when he asked her to elaborate.

“Sure, because you’re so scary. Anyway, what are we doing today?”

Spark considered the young stallion thoughtfully. How she did that without visible eyes was a mystery to Leaf Trimmer.

“Weeellll… How would you feel about helping me with something? Sort of a puzzle?”

“‘Sort of a puzzle’? Sounds ‘sort of’ dull.” Leaf Trimmer grinned and shrugged. “It’s a beautiful day, I thought we could go for a run down to the lake.”

Spark moved in a bit closer. The motion of her passage left streaks across Leaf Trimmer’s vision.

“You’ll find this exciting,” promised Spark. “For one, it’s something other creatures have been trying to figure out for years. For another thing, we’d be going into the dark forest.”

Leaf Trimmer’s ears perked up. “The dark forest? The actual dark forest?”

“The same. Through it, actually.”

Leaf Trimmer paused for a moment. Everypony had heard of the dark forest of course, but only to be warned away from it. If you believed the elders of the village, anypony foolish enough to even approach the dark forest was as good as dead. He stomped a hoof decisively.

“All right, lead the way!”

Even with Spark scouting a path through the tangled undergrowth, it took them nearly an hour to reach the boundary of the dark forest. When they arrived, Leaf Trimmer paused in awe. Spark, usually chatty, remained silent as he took in their surroundings.

The forest they’d started in was old, overgrown, strewn with fallen trees and dense undergrowth that hindered movement. But as they approached the edge of the dark forest, the density of the forest dropped off abruptly. They’d emerged into a barren strip of land between the two forests, which only served to heighten the difference between the two stretches of trees. Across the strip of empty land, huge trees soared above them, their trunks nearly interlocking. Even the smallest of these trees dwarfed those at their backs. The trees themselves were clad in dark, hoary bark. To Leaf Trimmer’s eye, they seemed to drink in the light. High above them, a profusion of fleshy leaves hung limply from stout branches. Aside from the occasional creak of straining wood, the dark forest was silent.

“What is this place? I’ve heard stories, but I never expected it to be like this.”

“Would you believe it used to be a garden?” asked Spark. “No? Well, a thousand years ago-”

Leaf Trimmer snorted. “Come on, Spark. Now’s not the time for stories.” He drew himself up. “If we’re going in, let’s go in!”

Spark bobbed slowly. “Right. Okay, I’ll lead the way.”

The pair moved forward slowly. At first Leaf Trimmer worried the tightly-nestled trunks would prove impassable, but he’d been fooled by the scale of the trees. They passed between the dark trunks easily; in fact, compared to the more natural forest they were leaving behind, the dark forest floor was remarkably uncluttered. It was almost like the huge trees drank up more than just light, and in doing so kept anything else from growing. He commented on this to Spark, who chuckled.

“Well, if you had listened to my story, you might understand why.”

“Fine, I’m listening now.”

Spark sketched a slow circle around him, seeming to gather her thoughts before she spoke.

“Like I said, this used to be a garden. A thousand years ago, ponies used powerful magic to make changes to the soil and water and even the sky above the garden. They could keep any kind of plant alive here, regardless of that plant’s needs. And yet, they took this for granted. Most of them hardly spared this garden a second glance as they passed through it.”

She paused to dodge around a tree.

“When the magic let go, it left the soil strange. The balance of minerals was wrong for almost every plant they’d originally let into the garden. But the balance was perfect for this one specific type of tree. And now they’re everywhere!”

Leaf Trimmer rolled his eyes. “Oh sure, magic. That’s foal stuff, Spark. Just stories, it’s not real.”

Spark darkened a bit, and led him on for another dozen yards before responding quietly.

“It is now. It wasn’t then.”

The sincerity in her voice made Leaf Trimmer bite back his initial retort. He thought for a moment before responding.

“Okay, so let’s say magic was real. What happened to it, then? It just disappeared one day?”

Spark made a rolling motion which he’d long ago learned to interpret as a shrug.

“Essentially, yes. It was a war, the last war. Steel was always an option, but magic was easier, faster, more destructive. They slung spells at one another for days. Fire, ice, enough power to turn half the world to slag. Some used the magic defensively; Nevinyrral discs, massive barriers and counterspells.” Leaf Trimmer didn’t understand any of this, but she went on anyway. “They used up all the magic in the immediate area, and then they drew on the magic from surrounding areas and depleted that too. The world itself wobbled on its axis. The sun and the moon froze in the sky. It was very nearly the end of everything.”

“You talk about it like you were there.”

Spark skirted a tree before answering. “I was.”

Leaf Trimmer looked around them. The dark forest was ancient, and yet it showed no signs of conflict. “But Spark, that would make you so old.”

She twisted ruefully in the air. “I tried to tell you. I was born, if you want to call it that, a hundred years before the war. It’s been over a thousand years since the last fires of the war burned out. Your little village has been here for almost a hundred years; four generations of ponies.” She paused. “You… don’t live as long as you used to.”

They moved across a rough patch of terrain, with Leaf Trimmer paying careful attention to his hooves. Spark, as usual, drifted serenely through the air, above the pits and snares on the ground.

“Why has nopony ever told me about this?”

“They have, in a way. Nopony in your little village has ever ventured into the dark forest, did you know that? You’re the first. Naturally curious ponykind, completely uninterested in something? Why do you think you’ve avoided this place for so long?”

“I… I don’t know. Is that part of the puzzle?”

Spark shook herself. “Ahh, that’s right. The puzzle.” She swirled around Leaf Trimmer’s head for a moment, seeming to collect her thoughts.

“I’m not sure how much of this will sink in. I’m not really alive, not in the same way as a plant or bird or pony. I’m made of pure magic. My job was to safeguard a place, and all the ponies and other creatures within it.”

“But I thought you said all the magic was gone.”

Spark shrug-rolled again. “Have you every poured out a cup of water? Ever manage to get all of the water out of the cup?”

Leaf Trimmer paused for a moment, actually thinking about it. “No, no I guess I haven’t.”

“Well there you go. Almost all the magic was gone, but there was enough left to hold me together. Barely. Dregs where there was once a limitless spring to draw from. Or so they thought.” She continued moving forward, and Leaf Trimmer followed. He could see a dim light shining around the dark trunks in front of them.

“I had to shut down nearly every part of myself. I sat in darkness and silence for half a millennium, barely conscious, barely existing. But the thing about magic, is that it eventually comes back. Especially if there’s nopony around to use it.”

“So I might be able to use magic someday?” Leaf Trimmer looked up at her, excitement plastered across his features.

“It’s not likely.” Spark watched as his face fell, then continued. “One of the nastiest spells unleashed during the war was designed to strip the affinity for magic right out of a pony. Barrier spells held it at bay, but the barrier spells failed before this simple little thing. You’re one of only a handful of ponies who has enough affinity left to even see me.”

“And the rest ran away.”

“That’s right. You’re just slightly above average, but you won’t be levitating or starting fires with your mind anytime soon.”

Leaf Trimmer pushed aside a fallen branch. “Maybe that’s for the best then.”

Spark was surprised. “Maybe. But there is still something you can do. Something very important.”

“Right, the puzzle.”

The pair had reached the inner edge of the dark forest. As they stepped past the final row of closely-spaced trees, Leaf Trimmer’s jaw dropped. They’d crossed the boundary into the dark forest easily enough, but this was like the threshold to another world. Ruined buildings lay before them, their age readily apparent. However, even the relentless pounding of the elements hadn’t managed to erase their exquisite craftsmanship. The ground was paved with stone, roughened by the years but with a timeless beauty lurking below the surface. The dark forest stretched out to either side, following a line of paverstones so closely they appeared to actually hold the treeline back. Leaf Trimmer could see that the treeline encircled the ancient buildings. And in the center of the space…

“Spark, what is that?

“That’s the puzzle.”

Ahead of them, equidistant from the border of dark trees, a hazy crystalline spire hung unsupported in the air. It turned slowly, reflected sunlight occasionally flashing across Leaf Trimmer’s face as the angles lined up just right. Smaller chunks of crystal followed the center spire, their paths all synchronized to the main spire's rotation.

“This is, well, it’s basically me. Or it’s where my consciousness lives, at any rate. What you’re used to seeing is just a projection of sorts.” Sparks bobbed merrily in place. “Or did you think I was just a little ball of sparks?”

Leaf Trimmer tightened his jaw as he gazed at the impossible structure. “So what do I need to do?”

“In the central spire, in the very center of the space, there’s a sort of switch. When I went into hibernation, I was in a hurry. I thought I could wake every part of myself again, but I was wrong. The vast majority of my potential, of my power, is blocked because of that one switch.” Sparks moved to hover directly in front of Leaf Trimmer’s face.

“I need you to turn it back on. I can’t do it myself, but I can guide you. Just the touch of a hoof in the right place will do it.”

“And what happens if I do?”

Spark bobbed in place for a moment as she tried to frame an answer. “You and your kind can’t use magic anymore. But I can. I can help you live longer, feed you better, make you stronger. Buildings of stone and glass instead of rotting wood. Meals that don’t leave you squatting over a ditch. Warmth in the winter, cool breezes in the summer. Crops that tend themselves. You can go from barely hanging on to thriving again, after all this time.”

Leaf Trimmer nodded uncertainly. “And you can teach that to us.”

“In a way, yes. It might take another hundred generations, but I can pass along some practical knowledge now, and keep things running until your ability to use magic manifests again. I may even be able to speed that along.”

“But what about magic as a weapon?”

Sparks circled his head rapidly, coming to rest in front of his face again. Leaf Trimmer had never seen her so agitated. “Never again, do you understand? I may just be a glorified watchdog, but even an old dog can learn new tricks.”

Leaf Trimmer gazed past his friend. His eyes drank in the ruined buildings, still splendid despite their age and the harsh treatment of time. The beautiful stone, the tightly interlocked pavers. The massive spire, hovering without any visible means of support. The tattered and faded glory of a civilization which had once spanned the world. The giant trees, coaxed and goaded by ancient power, looming above them. The means to an empire, fuel and tinder piled heavy and rich before him. Slowly, a grin split his face.

And here he was, with a spark.