Panic flooded through the library.
“Quick, hide everything!” Dash whispered urgently as she attempted to gather up the gaming paraphernalia on the floor.
“There’s no time!” Rarity hissed back, “She’ll think we’re hiding something if we take too long!” The doorbell rang again, underscoring her point.
“Everyone stand up and block her view!” said Twilight, “I’ll try to send her off before she sees anything!”
“What will Derpy do if she sees all this stuff?” Applebloom asked apprehensively.
“We have no idea,” Applejack said as she frantically helped the girls into position, “that’s what we’re worried about.”
“Look casual! She can’t know anything’s wrong!” Twilight directed. They tried to strike a nonchalant pose. If anything, it only made them stand out more. Twilight started to tell them so, but a third ring of the doorbell cut her off. She took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m opening the door…”
The door swung open. Derpy stood placidly on the stoop, apparently not bothered by the rain. She was wearing her mailbags, and she held a slightly soggy package in her mouth by the twine it was wrapped in. One of her eyes made contact with Twilight, while the other checked out something interesting in the door frame.
“Derpy!” Twilight said, trying to keep her voice from betraying her alarm and failing badly, “It’s so nice to see you! And you brought me my new book order, too! Why, I didn’t even know the post office started delivering on weekends!” She gave a shrill laugh, her eyes shifting back and forth.
The mailpony smiled with professional pride. Her good eye slid off of Twilight, noticing the odd positions of the ponies behind her. They were unmistakably trying to hide something. Her expression changed to one of confusion. Twilight quickly moved in front of her. “Well, you must have lots and lots of work to get to, so don’t let me keep you here…”
Derpy ignored her, curiously leaning sideways in an effort to see behind the other ponies. They leaned with her, trying to keep themselves between her and the game. Rainbow Dash shifted her footing as they did, accidentally bringing her hoof down on an errant d4.
“Ow!” she shouted, her leg kicking involuntarily, “Dang it!”
The die skittered across the floor and ricocheted off a bookcase. Every eye in the room followed it as it bounced around the library. Eventually it slid to a stop directly in front of Derpy. The room held its breath. Derpy stared at the little plastic pyramid, her face going blank as she recognised it. Slowly, her wayward eye swiveled around, until both of them were focused, laser-like, on the d4. She gently set down the package and shrugged the mailbags from her back, swinging the door shut behind her. She stepped into the library, no one daring to stop her.
Without saying a word, she walked over to the DM screen, sat down, and cleared her throat.
The heroes coughed as their vision returned to them. They were lying on a dusty plain, the smoking wreckage of the Pinkitania some distance behind them. The trails in the dirt behind them indicated that someone had dragged them to safety.
"We’re… alive?” said Applebloom in astonishment, looking around.
The landscape stretched away to the horizon, filled with rolling mountain ranges and twisting valleys, deep blue lakes and dark jungles. Towers and castles could be made out, faintly, in the distance, and rocky roads and worn paths criss-crossed the countryside. Every nook of the world seemed filled with danger and possibility. Even the jewel-blue sky above them seemed larger, somehow, as if it had needed to expand to reach the edges of the land.
A single figure stood before them, facing away. He leaned on a halberd, its point embedded in the soft soil. He wore a wide-brimmed bush hat and a military greatcoat, both faded with age. Perhaps he was an ex-soldier, or perhaps the coat was stolen. He didn’t seem like the type to tell. The adults seemed reluctant to speak, so Sweetie Belle steeled herself and greeted him.
“Um, hello…” she said, trying to be friendly, “What’s your name, sir?”
“My name?” he said, turning to reveal his face. It was covered with deep lines and scars from past battles. He wore a leather eye patch over one eye, with a single dragon’s tooth stitched into the center. He rubbed his stubbled chin, mulling over Sweetie Belle’s question. “I have lots of names. None of them too well-respected in these parts. Those that bother calling me anything just call me… the Stranger.”
“Cool…” said Scootaloo, unable to stop herself.
Applebloom couldn’t help but agree. Still, she remained cautious. “If it’s not too much trouble,” she said, “can I ask what you want?”
The Stranger considered this, pulling his pole-arm from the ground and resting it casually across his wiry shoulders. “I don’t want for much these days. It’s been some time since I lusted for combat, since I sought glory so greedily.” He looked away, sadly. “A warm meal, a soft place to sleep, that’s all I need, really. You, on the other hand,” he gestured to the girls, “you seem like you could use my help. Nothing sadder than a group of adventurers without an adventure.”
“You… you have an adventure for us?” said Applebloom.
He nodded. “Sure do. Real important one, too.” He gestured to the canvas bag slung over his shoulder. “I need you… to help me deliver a letter.”
“That’s all?” said Scootaloo, trying not to sound disappointed, “Just, like, walk to the post office?”
The Stranger grinned. “One does not simply walk to the post office.” He pointed the blade of his halberd at the landscape around them. “The Lich Empire is allied against us, and they will do anything in their power to stop us from delivering our crucial communiqués. In addition, there are many leagues between us and our destination, and many dangers therein. We will need to cross the icy peaks of the Devil’s Spine mountains, the deep chasms of the Death’s Grip Gorge, the orc strongholds of the Western Deserts, and, perhaps most terrifyingly, the black depths of the Soulless Swamp, crawling with blood-thirsty beavers!”
“M… maybe we can just go around the swamp.” Sweetie Belle said haltingly, “You know, since those beavers are so terrifying and all.”
“Good call.” said the Stranger, nodding in her direction, “Quick thinking like that will do you well on this journey.” He looked to the adults, who were still standing there, dumbfounded by his sudden appearance. “You are all welcome to join us.” he said with something like a hopeful twinkle in his eye, “For old time’s sake?”
Grimstar stared a moment longer. Finally coming to a decision, he walked over and extended his hand to the Stranger in a show of brotherhood. “I would like that, old friend. I must admit, I missed our companionship terribly. I feel I owe you an apology.”
Killthrust joined the wizard. “Truly, you were the greatest among us.” he said sagely.
“He’s right.” said Gracelove, “We never used to fight with each other when you were around.” The others nodded solemnly in agreement.
The Stranger waved off the apologies, but accepted Grimstar’s hand. “Let us not dwell on the past. There is much yet to be done.” He took up his halberd and led the party forward. “The road ahead is long and arduous, but we will surely prevail, together.” They headed towards the setting sun, their adventure only just beginning.
Eventually, the rain slowed to a stop. A few pegasus workers pushed the clouds aside, letting the sun shine through. A warm breeze blew as the sunlight gradually began to dry the damp earth.
The door to the library opened, and the CMC rushed out, laughing and full of energy. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and they were determined to make the most of them. Applebloom and Scootaloo found a pair of sticks and used them to duel with each other as they splashed through the puddles. Sweetie Belle chased after them, roaring as ferociously as her little lungs could manage.
Derpy exited the library soon after them, picking up her mailbags and continuing her duties. Twilight clicked the door shut behind her.
"Did… that actually just happen?” she said, still a little shell-shocked.
“I think so.” said Pinkie. She was being unusually quiet.
There was a long pause. Rarity eventually spoke up, her voice wavering with uncertainty, “Sh… should we tell the mayor?”
“What would we tell her?” Dash said with a shrug, “I mean, all we did was play a game, right?”
“A really fun game.” Fluttershy added, breathlessly, “I guess we should still do something, though.”
“The smart thing to do,” said Applejack, a little reluctantly, “would be to put all this stuff away and never talk about it again.”
There was another pause as they looked down at the game.
“We’re not going to do that, are we?” said Fluttershy. It was more a statement than a question. They went quiet again.
Twilight broke the silence. “I… kind of want to see what’s inside that Silver Pagoda.”
The floodgates broken, Rarity enthusiastically picked up the DM screen again. “Is it okay if I work in the Pinkitania?” she said, “I actually really liked that part.”
“Do you think Derpy would mind if I played her character?” Dash said, joining in, “Like, just for a few rounds?”
“I think Killthrust is pretty cool, too.” said Applejack, abandoning all pretenses of responsibility, “Maybe you could blow up another dragon?”
“Dash blew up a dragon!?” Pinkie Pie gasped, “See, this is why you guys can’t start this stuff without me!”
Twilight and her friends laughed and chatted excitedly, gathering around the rug again. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and they were determined to make the most of them.
The Stranger hefted his mailbags as he left the library. The young heroes ran through the streets before him, playing cheerfully. He smiled. He knew that he may never earn the forgiveness of those he had wronged in the past. He also knew, more than most, that redemption was a less a destination to reach than a road to travel. Perhaps, he thought, making those children happy had put him a few steps further along that road.
He shook his head, clearing his mind to focus on the task before him. He had a job to do. He had to deliver the message. And the message always got through.