“Hold still, I almost-”
“Mister Archer, please. If you don’t stop flinching, I’m never going to get these stitches in.”
“Your demon rabbit is the only reason I need these in the first place!”
“Well, maybe, if you hadn’t joked about rabbit fur, he wouldn’t have bit you at all. I mean... if... if you don’t mind me saying so...”
“Gah! Stop it!”
Several minutes after Angel decided not to tolerate any more of Archer’s horseradish, Fluttershy had returned to a scene of utter lapine carnage. It took a few seconds of shouting to get the rabid rabbit to calm down, and a few more after that to convince Archer not to immediately stab, butcher, and eat him in revenge.
“It’s just a rabbit!” Archer had said. “I ate three just like him this week alone!” Fluttershy countered by promising not to give him an ounce of first aid if he so much as laid a finger on Angel. And that was the end of it.
...Or so she had thought. Archer had some very pointed words about the lack of anesthetic to go with the stitches, and every splash of alcohol had him screaming in that nigh-demonic human language, the name of which she could barely pronounce. Equestrian grammar simply wasn’t built to say the same stuff humans did.
After a good half hour of stinging, burning alcohol, agonized screaming, and desperate apologies that did nothing to dull the pain, the ordeal was finally over. Fluttershy came within a hair’s width of a nervous breakdown, and Archer’s face looked like a refurbished saddlebag. That is to say, otherwise whole, but covered in stitching and boasting a few more puncture marks than he would have liked.
“We are never going there again.”
“She sewed your face back together! After you made her physically ill! How can you be mad at her after that?”
“I’m not mad at her, I’m mad at that tiny beast she keeps as a pet.”
Today had not been a good day for Human-Equestrian relations. Twilight and Archer bickered as they made their way back into town, leaving Fluttershy to (all too happily) clean up the mess the rabbit attack had left behind.
“You’re being too hard on Angel. He just thought you were being mean to Fluttershy... which you really were, come to think of it.”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t have to tear half of my face off! What kind of pet owner names a monstrosity like that ‘Angel,’ anyway?”
“The kind that can see the good in anyone. That’s probably why she agreed to sew that half of your face back on, despite you treating her like that.”
“Oh, don’t try to make it out like I’m the bad guy here-”
Twilight rounded on him angrily, a faint aura surrounding her horn.
“You were rude, cruel, and downright gryphonlike to the nicest pony I know! I honestly can’t blame Angel for reacting the way he did!”
“Hey, I thought you were trying to be my friend,” Archer noted sarcastically. “You’re not acting very friendly.”
“Oh, aren’t I?”
“Well, let me tell you something, friend. I happen to be Equestria’s leading expert on friendship. It’s my job, as a matter of fact. And you were not being a good friend.”
“That’s a job here?”
“It’s an official royal duty,” Twilight informed him, rather haughtily. “And I’ve become quite good at it.”
“So... wait.” Archer thought for a minute. He finally came up with a suitably witty response. “What were you before the princess decreed you to be this... ‘professional friend’?”
Twilight cringed a bit. “I was... a student. And a bookworm.”
“Ah-ha. The princess goaded you into it. I know how it works! You were all set to grow up into an archmage, and rather than let you beome someone who could challenge her, the princess decided to turn you into someone who actually had a life.”
There was a brief silence.
“What’s an archmage?”
“Think of something like a human unicorn with a robe, a god complex, and absolutely no social skills and you’re halfway there.”
“My point is, you’re not suddenly the Doctor Philemon of platonic relationships just because you’ve got a fancy commission and a cushy royal allowance.”
“I don’t get either of those, and I don’t even know who Dr. Philemon is!”
“You certainly act like him!”
“LISTEN TO ME!” Twilight’s magic flared a little bit brighter, and her voice gained a good amount of volume. “Fluttershy is my friend. I am trying to make you my friend. Friends don’t let friends escape the consequences of their actions, especially if said friend was acting like a complete jackanape to deserve those consequences. Understand?”
“Good. Now come on. We’re going home.”
Night suddenly and very abruptly fell before Archer and Twilight returned to Ponyville. Upon a panicked and worried query about “what in the heck that was,” Twilight simply replied that it was the doing of Princess Luna, and neglected to elaborate further.
Once in the town, Archer regarded the nearly-empty streets with a veiled fascination. Did the setting of the sun dictate a natural curfew that all Equestrians obeyed? And if so, did his eventual escape just become that much more likely?
Both interesting thoughts, but for now, he was intent on obtaining only one thing.
Much later that night, a certain library window opened silently, letting a gentle evening breeze in.
Wordlessly, noiselessly, Archer slipped through the portal, and into the night.
It was easily midnight by the time he escaped. Or it would have been, had “midnight” existed in Equestria. Here, it was simply another hour the moon refused to budge in the night sky.
The paths through the town were bare. The marketplace was now just an unoccupied lot in the middle of town. The only features distinguishing it from the streets leading to it were the piles of litter that accumulated on the ground, the likes of which occurred in all such places.
Every light in every house was out. There were no guards patrolling the streets, no late-night revelers celebrating nothing in particular, and best of all, no witnesses. Either Equestrians desperately needed sunlight to remain active, or every last pony in Ponyville had had a day just as bad as Archer's.
As he would later learn, it was a little of column A, a little more of B, and a phenomenal rash of good luck. Equestrians did not shun the night by any stretch, but for whatever reason, Archer couldn’t find a single soul wandering the streets as he made his “daring” escape.
First he simply stopped sneaking about and walked like a normal person. Then, feeling he had not tempted fate enough that evening, he began to whistle nonchalantly. Fate, being a fickle and ingenious force of nature, had foreseen this affront and planned accordingly.
For you see, not everyone in Ponyville kept such a regular sleep schedule.
Footsteps (no, they were hoofsteps, hoofsteps) sounded on the cobble road. A distinctly Equestrian figure appeared, its form silhouetted with bright multicolored lights. As it crossed the intersection before him, it released a cloud of steam from where he had heretofore assumed its mouth was.
With a chill that had nothing to do with the frosty night air, Archer realized exactly what he was looking at. The Equestrians didn’t need guards, after all, if this thing wandered the night streets.
It was, without a doubt, a steam golem, and he was in terrible danger.
It turned its head and saw him.
The chase was on.
Twenty minutes later, Archer was beginning to consider giving up. The golem had chased him non-stop, silent save for its hooves clattering on the road.
He had made the rather foolish decision to try to lose it by taking a roundabout path and doubling back through the downtown streets. He failed in this endeavor for two main reasons. Firstly, a custom-made golem would obviously be built to patrol the town, so of course it would know every available route. Secondly, Ponyville was not large town by any definition. He’d exhausted his options within a few minutes.
Every time he thought the guardian had given up the chase, it would reappear in front of him, a dark equine shape highlighted with bright blue, yellow, and green lights. Regardless of how elaborate and confusing his evasive maneuvers were, it would lock on to him again within a few minutes. It never made a a squeak of unlubricated joints or a hiss of poorly-maintained valves, implying a manufacture by a master tinker.
Pinkie, of course. She’d obviously be the one who designed anything techmaturgical for the village, steam golems being no exception. He could see her handiwork, even without being able to make out most of the machine’s features. She’d given it her hairstyle, for one.
Evading the sentry was steadily becoming less and less of an option. During one of the infrequent moments it was not steadily pursuing him, Archer took stock of the few ways he could conceivably disable it.
He had both arrows and a good, human-made bow to shoot them with, but they were all just so much dead weight when only the most expertly placed shot to the internal battery could “kill” a steam golem. He had no doubt he was capable of such a feat, but it was quite unlikely under the current circumstances.
And then there was the fact that the ensuing macroetheric detonation would possibly kill him, and would definitely kill any slumbering Equestrians in the adjacent buildings. Even if he survived, the sleepy town of Ponyville wouldn’t sleep for very long after an explosion of that magnitude. Those things were loud. Archer pushed that plan to the “emergencies only” bin with “DO NOT USE” stamped on every available slot.
His knife wasn’t a very good alternative. In the time it would take him to close range and find a suitably vulnerable cable to sever, the golem would realize its quarry was actively attacking it, and would respond in kind. Unless he was extremely lucky and Pinkie gone the extra mile to design it for nonlethal apprehension only (not very far-fetched, come to think of it), most or all of his bones would be powderized before he could cause any meaningful damage. And even if he did get it right the first time, he ran the risk of cutting a grounding cable or something equally volatile. It would definitely kneecap the golem to do so, but it would electrocute him, probably to death, if it didn’t explode outright.
The only tool he had left was his tinker’s kit. While dismantling the thing piece by piece was no doubt a very nice preemptive measure, the bone-powdering argument still held if he tried it tonight.
So he couldn’t destroy it.
He couldn’t destroy it here.
A clatter of hooves on rock told him that it was time to start thinking on his feet.
As he ran, he considered his remaining options. The robot wasn’t going to tire out soon, but he was. He couldn’t attack it, as any method available to him would either fail or succeed in such a way as to put him even worse off than he was right now.
So he had to change the circumstances. He needed to lead the golem where its destruction wouldn’t cause more trouble than it was worth. He needed to go somewhere safe. Somewhere secluded. Somewhere where noise was no issue, and a shockwave would be dampened.
Somewhere like... Pinkie’s lab. How ironic! The myriad devices down there would definitely help... provided they didn’t take the form of another golem or three.
He would say he was “following a complex and highly tactical retreating path” to Sugarcube Corner. In reality, he was running for his life and simply ended up at the sweet shop ahead of his pursuer, as he had done so many things tonight, through sheer dumb luck.
He entered silently, much like he had left the library earlier. The golem was no doubt hot on his tail. He hurried through the nondescript basement door and down the now-dreadfully-underlit stairway, into a massive basement illuminated only by a single overhead lamp. As he reached the bottom floor, he heard the golem barge inside, with much less regard for whoever happened to be sleeping upstairs at the time.
He had at most a few minutes to plan his attack. Ambush from on top of the Thermonuclear Party Popper? No, much too dangerous. He could use the Party Cannon to down it outright, or disorient it at the very least. He had a better-than-even chance of carting the wireframe gyrocopter outside and making good an escape from the air.
But that just opened a new can of worms.
That was Pinkie’s gyrocopter. She'd spent a lot of time, effort, and money putting it together, and it was the first airmobile she had ever built besides. Was he really going to steal it? Could he even bring himself to consider it?
She was just a Fae! Why did he care? Was it because he was her friend? Did he want to be her friend? Could Fae and humans even be friends?
Was that the explosives bin he just passed?
A wicked grin crossed Archer’s face, all thoughts of larceny and betrayal forgotten for the moment. If this bin was filled elbow-deep with what he thought it was, any and all problems he was having with robotic ponies would cease to be an issue very shortly.
He plucked out a nice, round paper bomb, painted a gaudy pink and labeled clearly in Equestrian which tag you pulled to set it off, and which you pulled to turn it into a dud, in case of accidents. He ignored that second one.
As he knelt behind the bomb bin, he briefly contemplated what his next action would be. That was a scout for you, always a step ahead. Or trying to be, at least. If the golem wasn’t too damaged from the grenade, he could easily rewire it and ride it out of town before daybreak. Even in the worst case scenario, he could always pocket a few of its gears to add a little kick to his bow later.
He went mentally silent as hooves sounded on tile only a few yards away.
Just a little closer...
He ripped the tassel off the end of the explosive, immediately producing a gratifying spray of sparks. He took aim and rolled it so it stopped directly between the automaton’s front legs, where it would do the most damage to its logic center and hopefully leave the rest for repurposing as an escape vehicle.
The sentry looked down at the bomb. It tilted its head quizzically. Then it bent down and picked it up using a mouth Archer thought it didn’t have. At this angle, the sparks were lighting something up on the golem’s skin... something akin to... fur?
With a forceful BANG and a flash of light and color, Archer got the first good look he’d had of his assailant all night.
Pink fur, pinker mane. Not in any way a steam golem.
She fell to the ground with an ugly, fleshy thud.
He stood up, uncertainly. She didn’t move.
She still didn’t move.
He bolted upright, running faster than he had all night, coming to a stop at her side. She wasn’t disfigured by the blast, but her fur was singed, she was unconscious, and she most likely had a concussion, not to mention a headache the likes of which mortals have never seen.
He grabbed curly handfuls of her mane and began to shake as hard as he could.
“Pinkie! Say something! Pinkie Pie! Answer me!"
“Come on! Wake up! I’m sorry, Pinkie! I didn’t...!”
Something bopped him on the nose.
“TAG! I WIN!”
There lay Pinkie Pie, uninjured and covered in soot, giggling like she’d just told the world’s funniest joke.
Archer began laughing too. Not because he’d just been pranked within an inch of his life, and not because he was tired, frazzled, and unhinged, although those were definitely contributing factors.
He laughed like he hadn’t in so very long, because he’d been afraid he had killed his only friend, but now she was okay. He laughed for a long time.
“So... what were you doing out this late?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
The two had gotten over their laughing fit and had gone upstairs. If anything, Archer now knew he could survive in Equestria, so long as he was within reach of one of their sweet, succulent, baked pastries. The apple danishes were simply to die for.
“I was out for a walk.”
Lies. Necessary lies, but it still stung.
“...Hmm. Really? ‘Cause I thought you looked more like you were jogging. Or running! Or maybe you were scampering? It looked a lot like a scamper from where I was.”
“Well, I was only running because I thought you were a steam golem.”
“A guard robot.”
Pinkie snorted into her cupcake and began laughing again.
“That’s ridiculous! I don’t know the first thing about making pony-bots! If you want to make one, though, ask Twilight. She’s probably got a book on it somewhere.”
“I figured as much.”
A minute passed, as they ate sugary delicious food in silence.
“So what was with the lights?”
“You were all glowy when I saw you. What’s the deal with that?”
“Oh, I was taking one of my inventions out for a test run.”
Pinkie produced a small plastic tube from nowhere. She bent it in half, producing a crispy snap, and shook it. It glowed bright blue.
“I call ‘em glowsticks! I’d just made a bunch of ‘em, and I decided to stick ‘em all over my coat to see which ones glowed brightest!”
“And you weren’t worried that someone would come along and think you were an alien, or something?”
“Oh, you worry too much. I’ve lived here for years! Everyone’s used to me by now.”
“Uh huh.... so what was with the steam?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You breathed steam.”
“It was cold!”
Archer’s brain took a short break to simulate a train wreck in chastisement for overlooking this simple fact. It was early spring. It was cold. People’s breath fogged when it was cold. Duh.
“I... see. So why didn’t you say anything?”
“I thought we were playing a game! Also, I didn’t wanna wake anyone up.”
Also simple, also obvious.
“Alright, one more thing. How did you survive the explosion?”
“Pfft, that? That was just a party popper! I’ve had worse stuff than that go off strapped to my back!”
“And immediately afterward, you let me think you were dead.”
“Well, I wasn’t gonna get you any other way. You’re pretty fast for a guy with only two legs!”
He chuckled, and returned to his danish.
It was official. He was best friends with a Fae creature, and in the most technical terms, a traitor to the crown.
He was too tired to care.
After he left Sugarcube Corner, he headed directly back to the library. His little adventure had completely drained him. If he tried to leave now, despite no one stopping him, he’d be dead by the time he reached the forest’s edge.
He climbed back up the old tree and into the bedroom. He closed and relatched the window noiselessly, and staggered back to his bunk. He flopped down and slept the sleep of the dead.
“Scout Archer, for your crimes... I pronounce you GUILTY!”
He was in a cramped courtroom, surrounded on all sides by a jury and judge who would like nothing more to hang him.
He honestly didn’t know. He’d just gotten here.
The judge, who was of course King Jove himself, snapped his fingers. “Jury! The terms!”
One of the jurors, that little snotnose from eighth grade, sprang up with a scroll in hand.
“Ahem... ‘For being captured in a manner unbefitting a royal subject, for allowing himself to be savaged by a harmless white rabbit, for deliberately and with full awareness assaulting an innocent woman-’”
“Hey, hang on!”
“‘-For befriending a Fae, in clear violation of his orders, and for adopting her species in clear defiance and renunciation of his race, we find the defendant Scout Archer...’”
“GUILTY!” rang through the room, like the many-faceted voice of an angry god.
One thing didn’t add up.
“What do you mean 'I adopted her race?' I’m human!”
Laughter. Mocking, incessant laughter.
He looked down at himself. He was covered in fur, a bright rosy red in color. He held his hands in front of his face, only to be greeted with hooves. He felt his face replaced by an ugly equine snout, and his last little bit of composure melted away. He screamed as hard as he could.
“With this verdict, we, the jury, move that the guilty be butchered into meat and leather, and his hooves be rendered into adhesive for the tinkers.”
“Agreed,” boomed the king.
With a single massive hand, archer was plucked from his defendant’s booth and held over a massive expanse of nothing. Carelessly and without ceremony, he was dropped.
He fell and fell, and found his end rushing up to meet him. A massive metal tank lay waiting like a great gaping mouth, filled with sewing needles, carving knives, and a bubbling, writhing mass of pasty, disgusting glue.
He fell, hooves flailing uselessly, to his doom...
...And landed with a thump on the hard wooden floor.
He got up, disentangling himself from his bedsheets. The sun burnt bright in the sky, in its eternal noontime position.
Archer had slept less than four hours all told, and he was neither ready, willing, nor physically able to face the day ahead. He climbed back into bed, desperately wishing he was home.
He did not get his wish.
The sun beat down through the window, and the day went nowhere. Archer assumed this was Celestia’s petty revenge for his pathetic escape attempt last night.
And in a way, he was right.