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by Aquaman

A sliver of light pierced through the inky blackness, followed by the crackling and snapping of weather-worn stone giving way. She felt the sun on her face, a release of pressure from around her neck and wings and chest--and then, for the first time in ages, Cozy Glow sucked in two lungfuls of fresh outside air.

Still blinded by the glare of the outside world, she was helpless to react to the rumbling sound beneath her, or to keep her balance once the remainder of her prison fell away from her flanks and legs. She tumbled off the dais and collapsed in a heap in front of it, surrounded by shards of the magical marble she’d been sealed inside for… it didn’t matter how long. She was out now. She was free. And she wouldn’t need long to make Princess Twilight Sparkle feel every millisecond she’d taken away from her--

Cozy tried to stand, but her wobbly hooves gave out almost instantly and pitched her to the grassy ground again, dusty flecks of stone showering out of her mane. Okay, she’d have to remember how to walk first. And then probably to fly. But after that, nothing could stop her. Especially not whoever had been foolish enough to set her free, whose hooves she could just barely see before her as she lifted her head and grit her teeth through the waves of pins and needles passing through her body.

It was a grown-up, judging by their height. Probably a pegasus, if the light imprints they left in the grass were anything to go by. And… perfume. Feminine, expensive, overbearing. In a matter of moments, she had a perfect picture of the situation, and of how the curious Canterlot socialite still gormlessly staring down at her would slot into her plan to extricate herself from it.

Or she thought she had one, until she looked up. Until she saw the mare’s pale pink coloring and oversized wings, and her cerulean-striped violet mane that gathered in looping bangs across her forehead and perfectly framed… her horn. Her alicorn horn.

Intriguing. And more complicated than she’d expected. For the moment, Cozy Glow chose to keep her silence and put on a plaintive look, daintily coughing in a way that always drew sympathy from the grown-ups she’d used to know. She wanted to know more about this other pony. She needed to figure out how she could use her.

“Are you okay?” the alicorn asked--plainly, efficiently, with concern but not emotion. She was a soldier, or at least came from a family of them. “Can you walk?”

With put-upon effort, Cozy gathered her hooves underneath her barrel and pulled herself upright. “I… I think so,” she whimpered, shaping her face into a grimace as she quickly scanned over her companion’s form. The mare was fit, healthy, and well-groomed--obviously a princess. But who? Cozy had never seen one who looked like this. How long had she been locked away for?

“Good,” the alicorn continued. “Then we need to move. It won’t be long before the Garden Guards find us.”

In the few moments she had before a response would be obligatory, Cozy took in her surroundings. A wall of trimmed rectangular hedges twice the alicorn’s height wrapped around the dais Cozy had been trapped upon, which--she noticed with satisfaction--was encircled by the shattered remains of her once-fellow conquerors. Beyond Chrysalis and Tirek’s decimated forms, there was nothing else of note in the area but a single gap in the greenery, framed by an ivy-wrapped archway and flanked by immaculate displays of hyacinths and crocuses.

The foliage, the flowers, and the mention of Guards all matched what Cozy had assumed upon awakening. She was in the Canterlot Gardens, put on display as Discord had once been to warn future generations of foals not to offer the world more than it wanted to take. That meant the break in the hedges wasn’t just for show--with how many defensive enchantments infected these grounds, it was surely the only way in or out of this space. If she wanted to escape, the alicorn would have to accompany her. She nodded to herself, nominally answering the alicorn’s statement, and set her plan in motion.

“O-Okay,” she said, maintaining her pitiful tone. “Gosh, I… it was so cold in there. It felt like I was… I thought I was…”

The alicorn finished her unspoken dramatization. “You were, technically. And we both might be soon if we wait here much longer, so let’s go.”

Cozy Glow swallowed and nodded. “Right. Go… where?”

A dark look overtook the alicorn’s face--a look that Cozy Glow knew well. As the alicorn would be a pawn in Cozy’s game, Cozy was surely meant to be a queen in the alicorn’s. “Away from here,” the alicorn muttered. “Someplace both of us can get what we want.”

Cozy bit her lip to keep from smiling. A power-hungry Princess… she couldn’t have picked a better partner to escape with. This alicorn--really a teenager more than an adult, now that she looked at her--would be so wrapped up in her own machinations that she’d never notice the wrench about to slip between its gears. “Then let’s go,” she said through a pantomimed shudder. “I hate this place.”

With a jerk of her head, the alicorn led Cozy through the archway and out of the clearing. Cozy didn’t even spare her former partners a parting glance. Good riddance to those fools. They deserved the fate she’d been spared: an eternity staring up at the sky through sightless stone eyes, with moss growing and snails crawling over the jagged edges of their broken bodies.

“So what’s your name?” Cozy asked as they walked, flanked by hedges just like the ones that had framed her prison. “Mine’s Cozy Glow. I’m… well, maybe you already know who I am.”

A crease formed in the alicorn’s brow. “Everypony knows who you are,” she grunted. “The Frozen Foal. Sent to Tartarus and then trapped in stone before she even turned twelve. A perfect example of the justice that the Elements provide.” She fell silent for a moment, then added, “I’m Flurry Heart. I’m Twilight Sparkle’s niece. I’m sure you remember who that is.”

Oh, did she ever. Cozy had had years--it must’ve been decades, or even centuries--to think about the last time she’d seen the sun, to replay her final moments of freedom and reconsider where it had all gone wrong. The solution was obvious, and ever more infuriating with each inch deeper it burrowed into her soul: she’d backed the wrong not-quite-horses, and their idiotic paranoia and greed had left her without any hope of defeating Twilight Sparkle and her army of magically supercharged “friends.” She’d made the mistake of depending on the wrong friends herself once. She wouldn’t give herself the chance to do it again with Flurry.

“Nice to meet you, Flurry,” Cozy said. “Thanks for setting me fr--”

Flurry’s hoof shot out in front of Cozy, shoving her back a step just before she walked onto a cobblestone pathway that snaked through rows of white lilies. Before Cozy could ask why, Flurry showed her. The alicorn picked up a pebble with her magic and tossed it onto the pathway, and the moment it struck one of the darker stones, a web of arcane energy rose over it with a flash, pulling the pebble to the ground and snaring it there with what looked like titanic force.

“Eyes open in here,” Flurry said. “This place is full of much worse traps than that. Can you fly?”

By this point, Cozy more or less had all of her strength back, so getting into the air only took a few test flaps and a bit of an unsteady takeoff. “Go to the right,” Flurry ordered as she rose to float next to her. “There’s a safe path over the flowers there.”

They continued like that for several minutes, with Flurry in front pointing out security spells and Flurry quietly memorizing their functions. The sidewalks threw up magical nets if you touched the darker stones, the hedges with berries spewed out a sweet-smelling juice that could put you to sleep in an instant if it touched you, and any archway without vines was rigged with all manner of petrification spells, pit falls, and once what looked for all the world like poison gas. The Princesses--Flurry being the lone exception, it seemed--really didn’t want anypony to get out of here. Too bad for them they’d never entrapped another pony like her.

It took almost an hour and more than one bout of backtracking after the maze-like arrangement of hedges suddenly shifted before their eyes, but eventually the two mares found themselves in a clearing much like the one Cozy had awoken in. This one, though, had a fountain topped by a sculpture of an unicorn mare reaching towards the heavens and ringed by displays of black-eyed susans--and beyond them all, the biggest archway yet leading out into the Canterlot Castle grounds. They’d reached the garden’s threshold. They were almost free.

Well, Cozy Glow was, anyway. As she glanced around the garden and spotted something she’d hoped she’d see here, she became pretty confident that Flurry Heart would be staying here a little while longer.

“There’s the exit,” Flurry said, sighing with palpable relief. “And no guards. I think we’re good.”

“I think so too,” Cozy replied, sidling towards the fountain as she spoke. Flurry followed close behind her, oblivious to anything but her own self-centered thoughts.

“Stars, I can’t believe this worked,” Flurry said. “I read stories about you, what you managed to do even without alicorn magic, and then with it… you’re exactly who I need. You’re the best chance I’ll ever have of making this awful kingdom a decent place again.”

“You must have a pretty good plan,” Cozy told her, saccharine reverence dripping off every word. Closer, closer…

“You are the plan,” Flurry replied. “I know the Princesses and the politics and everything, but you… you know how to use them. With both of us working together, they don’t stand a chance.”

Cozy shrugged, and giggled, and grinned. “Well, that sounds nice and all, but… I’m more of a solo act.”

Before Flurry could so much as narrow her eyes, Cozy launched herself into the air and slammed into the alicorn with every ounce of wingpower she could muster. It was just enough to send Flurry tumbling into the fountain’s basin--and for the glimmering, booby-trapped pool of water within it to swirl around her, wrap around her chest and legs, and lock her in place against the base of the statue in the center, each rivulet as strong and unbreakable as an iron chain.

With the enchanted water covering her mouth, all Flurry could do was glower at Cozy--which, to be honest, Cozy had missed the feeling of. It never got old to have somepony completely at her mercy like this, especially when they absolutely resented that fact.

“If it helps at all, I really like your plan,” Cozy said through a sneer, trotting at a leisurely pace around the fountain and towards the exit. “Me, the Frozen Foal, making this awful kingdom my own… sounds like just the thing for me to do. Thanks for the help, Flurry!”

Just before she left the maze and her latest lackey behind, Cozy remembered one last thing. “Oh, and when they find you in here and figure out what you did,” she called back, “tell your aunt I said hi.”

With that, her plan was complete. Cozy Glow stepped over the threshold, and--

Something rammed into her, like a freight train made of nothing but air, and she tumbled end over end back in the garden. Head spinning and stomach churning, all Cozy could do was gaze dumbly up at Flurry as the alicorn looked down at her, the fountain water sloughing off her in waves until she was free to soar overtop of her and land between her and the exit.

“Unbelievable,” Flurry murmured without turning around. “Didn’t even make it out of the garden.”

Cozy tried to stand, but whatever had hit her before stayed on top of her, squeezing the air from her lungs and pinning her legs to the sandy path encircling the fountain. When Flurry turned and walked back towards her, her face had changed. Instead of enraged, or even just vengeful, she looked… sad. Disappointed. Like a plan she’d spent months working on had failed in a matter of moments--and not, Cozy realized with a sinking feeling, the plan she thought she’d seen through.

“Nopony else thought this would work, y’know,” Flurry said. “I was the only one sticking up for you, the only one who thought there was still some hope left. They’d tried everything else: sending in counselors and therapists, telling you you’d been pardoned and had a new chance at life, even having Chrysalis and Tirek take you in.”

Flurry sighed and looked off in the distance. The edges of Cozy’s vision were starting to turn black. “Nothing. No progress. A hundred different attempts, and a hundred different lead balloons. And finally I talked them into this. I said, ‘Maybe if she thinks she can be a villain again, if she really believes that she’s worthy of respect and of someone admiring her, eventually I can get through to her. I can help her.’”

Flurry sighed again, softer and angrier this time. “And you didn’t even make it out of the garden before you stabbed me in the back. You don’t want help. No matter how many times or how many ways we tried to give it.”

With a flash from Flurry’s horn, a lock Cozy hadn’t known to look for opened inside her mind. She saw herself in the same position, surrounded by frowning earth ponies, despondent princesses, Tirek and Chrysalis--he with a healthy form and fatherly demeanor, and she with a kaleidoscope of pastel colors sprayed across her carapaces. And every time, the same end: a flash of light, a hole in her brain, and then tightness and darkness once more.

“I’m not giving up,” Flurry Heart said. “We’ll figure something else out. I know there’s a good pony in you somewhere, and so help me Luna and Celestia, I’m going to find her. But until then… you chose this. You chose to stay exactly the same… angry, stone-hearted, frozen.”

Cozy felt her legs began to stiffen, then her torso, then her throat. A hot wave of anger rolled through her--and then, beneath it, a cold spike of fear lodged in her heart.

“I’ll see you soon, Cozy,” Flurry whispered, her voice wavering as her eyes filled with tears. “Please let next time be the last.”

There was nothing Cozy could say--her voice was trapped inside her, along with everything else. She felt her face grow cold, her eyes fall shut, and then nothing else.