Chapter 9: Die hard.
It was midnight in Ponyville, and most of the townsfolk were sleeping in the safety of their houses. Robert walked through the dark alleys, carrying his heavy backpack in silence. He had been lucky, as Twilight had forgotten to seal the chest in which she hid his things, so he had avoided telling her about his departure face to face, choosing to leave a letter for the purple unicorn which said that he and Lyra were going to travel around Equestria for a long time. The letter also detailed what Twilight should do with the equipment he had left, like his many electronic devices (such as his radar and movement detector) or Matheus’ clothes. He had found the book that Lyra wanted, “Scanning spells for dummies”, as well as “Basic spells for dummies” and “Healing spells for dummies”, predicting that he may become a unicorn and stay in that form for some time.
Soon he arrived at the park, and as soon as he did he began hearing a faint music. He followed it to a bank in which two unicorns were sitting, one of them in a very unusual position. Both of them stopped playing their musical instruments when they saw him. It was a bit dark, so Robert could only see that he was male, his coat dark enough to look black at night and with some kind of violin as a cutie mark, which fitted with the violin he was levitating in front of him. The stallion tried to leave, but Lyra stopped him with a hoof.
“It’s alright, he’s the one I was waiting for,” she said.
“Lyra, you didn’t tell me we would have company” Robert said.
“A-and I w-was expecting a pony, not a... Creature” the unicorn said, not daring to look at Robert in the eyes.
“Robert, this is Passionate Heart. Passionate Heart, Robert Eisenfaust the human,” she introduced them, “we are leaving now. It will be a long journey so... Could you keep this safe until I come back?” she gave the other pony her lyre, which he took with his magic along with his violin.
“Lyra, are you ready?” Robert asked.
“Yes, let’s go,” she replied, “goodbye, my friend. I will be back, and we will practice again so take good care of my lyre.”
“Good luck on your journey,” he said, nervous, “when will you return?”
“We don’t know, we might miss a few winter wrap-ups before we come back” she said as she left the bank, took her saddlebags and joined Robert, “until we meet again”.
“Yes, until we meet again”.
The human and the pony left Passionate Heart alone and worried.
‘This is wrong’ he thought, ‘why would they leave in the middle of the night like this? That hunam or whatever must be up to something. What should I do?’
He went home, resolved to do something about Lyra and Robert in the morning.
“Are you sure we are going in the right direction?” Lyra asked.
“Yes, my glove is leading us to the provisional camp we made in the limits of the forest,” he explained, “the ship is 20 kilometers away from there. It won’t be hard to take what we need from there and make a more permanent settlement in the forest.”
“If only we could avoid the Everfree forest, but it would take weeks, maybe months to surround it and reach the Salty Desert.”
When Robert was still living in the library he had learned more about the places he had already been at. According to Twilight, the Everfree acted as a border between Equestria and the Desert, which led to a mountain range and to the sea. Later on, when talking with Luna, he had discovered that Canterlot and Ponyville were located east of the former Mojave Desert, known as Salty Desert because of its lakes of salted water, created by a temporal overflow of the Pacific Ocean when the continents moved and replenished by aquifers. He had given up trying to learn all the changes on Earth and how that place became this one, but at least he had learned a bit about his surroundings.
“I think it’s a risk we should take. If we cross the forest we will reach our destination in less than two days. We will walk a bit more and settle camp. Are the Everfree creatures afraid of fire?”
“Most of them are, but not enough to sleep safely without somepony making guard.”
Two hours after entering the forest they found a small clearing and they decided to start a campfire and sleep there. Robert taught Lyra the basics of shooting, so she could use one of the two rifles he had brought to kill, or at least scare, the creatures that may attack them. Using her magic to hold the arm and aim wasn’t very precise, but it was better than nothing.
“Don’t worry, the weapon’s noise will scare the creatures and wake me up even if you miss,” he said when she voiced her concern about her total lack of skill.
She took the first watch, as she tended to fall asleep whenever she woke up too early. Before Robert fell asleep, she showed him something.
“Robert, this is what made me start looking for humans, I found it buried under the sand in Manehattan’s beach.”
She took something from her saddlebags and levitated it to Robert’s hands. He immediately recognized it: it was a small statue of liberty, made of steel, its torch and part of its head missing.
“It looks like the Statue of Harmony, and I was very intrigued because of that.”
“This is a copy of the Statue of Liberty, and the name of the island was Manhattan... Also, we had Castelot instead of Canterlot, and I’m sure I could find more of those with enough time. I don’t want to think about it, put this in your bag again.”
They didn’t speak anymore, and the night passed without incidents, so they raised camp as soon as there was enough sunlight and continued their travel.
At the same time, Twilight Sparkle was woken up by an insistent knocking on the library’s door. She watched the Sun, noticing how early it was.
“The library’s doesn’t open until 9 o’clock!” she angrily shouted, “come back later!”
The knocking stopped for a second, then returned stronger than before.
“Who could it be so early in the morning?!” Spike asked after Twilight’s shout woke him.
“It must be something important, go and greet him while I prepare myself,” she commanded.
The baby dragon left his basket and opened the door. He found a unicorn stallion with a dark blue coat and a disheveled brown mane about to knock again.
“Oh, thanks Celestia. For a moment I thought nopony would come,” he exclaimed, “there is something I must tell Twilight Sparkler, could you tell her so... Spine?”
“Sparkle and Spike” the dragon corrected, “she will come as soon as she’s ready, what is all the fuss about?”
“Last night, I was playing music with Lyra in the park when that creature, the humen, came and they left together.”
Spike turned his back, noticing for the first time that the coach where Robert should be sleeping was empty.
“Come in, Twilight will want to speak to you,” Spike declared.
A few minutes of awkward silence between them later, Twilight descended the stairs, her mane combed and her face cleaned.
“Well, what is it?” she harshly asked.
“Last night, I was playing music with Lyra in the park when that creature, the humen, came and they left together,” Passionate Heart repeated.
“They left? Where to?”
“They didn’t tell me, but Lyra said that they wouldn’t return in years!” he exclaimed, “they must be hiding something, or they wouldn’t have left in the middle of the night like that. I came here as soon as I could because I fear that Lyra might have gotten herself in trouble.”
Twilight didn’t reply for a few seconds, processing all the information and making a mental checklist of her following steps.
“Alright. Spike, look around in the library for anything that Robert might have left. You,” she said pointing at the stallion, “why did you wait until now to tell us?”
“Because... I didn’t want to wake everypony up?” he said, making Twilight facepalm.
“If they haven’t stopped in the whole night we might not find them at all! You did well telling me, but you have woken me and Spike up so the only thing you did was wasting time.”
The stallion lowered his head in shame.
“Is there something I can do to help?” he asked.
“Yes, go to Sugarcube Corner and tell Pinkie Pie to bring our friends here as soon as possible. She can gather everypony faster than anypony else.”
The stallion left galloping, and Twilight went to the basement, only to confirm her suspicions when she saw the sacked chest.
“Twilight! I found something!” Spike exclaimed as he joined her in the basement.
He gave her a letter, written with Robert’s unmistakably terrible mistakes, which she read aloud for both of them.
“Twilight and Spike,
Lyra and I are going on a travel around Equestria. I want to see your world with my own eyes and she wants to join me. I have taken some things from the chest, they are mine anyways so I don’t think I need to explain myself. Everything I have left there should be submitted to Princess Celestia, as she wants to add them to her collection of human objects. Speaking about the pony god empress, she is already aware of my plans so you shouldn’t bother her with a letter.
I know it’s rude to leave without warning, but I know you all would have managed to convince me to stay and this is something I want and must do.
PS: Three Swedish switched witches watch three Swiss Swatch watch switches. Which Swedish switched witch watch which Swiss Swatch watch switch?”
The unicorn managed to pronounce correctly the entire tongue twister.
“Woah Twilight! That was awesome!” the dragon exclaimed, causing her to blush.
“Let’s focus, Spike, I’m starting to think that that unicorn might be right: there is something fishy going on. Help me with this, I want to pack all this human things for Celestia before anypony arrives.”
“Robert, are we ever going to walk faster?” Lyra asked, “if anypony is following us they’ll catch us in no time.”
Robert felt a bit embarrassed when the pony that was carrying all of their equipment, minus his rifle, on her back asked him that.
“No, your travelling pace is faster than mine and I don’t know if I will be able to go so fast for days. Still, I must say I am impressed. I thought that we would be even with you carrying everything.”
“Well, I was a travelling musician before I started living in Ponyville, so I am quite used to walking long distances with all my possessions on my back.”
They continued walking in silence and paying attention to their surroundings, well aware of the dangers of the Everfree.
“Darling, I hope this is worth interrupting my beauty sleep!” Rarity chimed.
“I think it is, Rarity,” Twilight replied, “last night, Lyra and Robert left without telling anypony, which is very suspicious. We must find where they are.”
“How? They could be anywhere!” Rainbow Dash said.
“Don’t worry, there is a spell that will help us,” Twilight revealed.
“Wait, you can use your fancy magic to find somepony?” asked Applejack, “Why didn’t you use it when y’all looked for me when I left Ponyville?”
“Because the spell needs the blood of the pony you want to find.”
The rest of the ponies looked at her with confusion.
“Are you implying that you have taken blood from Robert?” asked Rarity, “how gross!”
“He was a voluntary donor! I asked for a sample so I could study it and he accepted,” she justified, “I can cast the tracking spell in a few seconds, but it will only make my horn point to his current location. Dash, I want you to fly in a straight line to their position, you are fast enough to cover the distance between us in less than an hour. If you find them, tell them to return. If you don’t, come back and we will come up with another plan.”
“Alright!” the athletic pegasus said.
Twilight ran to the basement and returned with a vial full of blood. Rainbow and her went outside and her horn beamed with energy until, suddenly, her entire body turned.
“There they are! Try not to deviate or you will miss them!” she said as the pegasus darted off.
Rainbow Dash might not be the best brain in Ponyville, but when flying was involved she was short of being a genius. As soon as she took off she noticed where the Sun was, memorizing its position to correct any deviation due to wind. Sadly, it was all in vain, as she stopped as soon as she realized that she was flying over the Everfree forest. She turned back in a rainbow-colored blur and returned to the library.
“Why are you coming back?” asked Twilight when she saw her friend.
“They are in the Everfree forest! I can’t fly over there.”
“Why not?” asked Applejack.
It was Fluttershy who answered the question in a burst of confidence.
“B-because flying over the Everfree is a death sentence with all the m-manticores, wyverns and other winged monsters that can see you, jump behind you when you least expect it and eat you!” she explained, covering immediately after finishing.
“Not that I am afraid, of course” Rainbow Dash nervously added, “it’s just that I can’t fight all those monsters and catch Robert and Lyra at the same time!”
“Girls!” somepony exclaimed, “Lyra has left with that human!”
The pony was no other than Bonbon, who joined the group.
“She left a letter telling me that she was leaving on some kind of journey, like she did when she was younger.”
“Robert has done the same,” explained Twilight, “what should we do?”
“Twilight,” answered Spike, “I think this is one of those things that the Princess should know, and I think we should ask her what to do.”
“Yes, yes! Take a letter,” she waited for him and began dictating.
“Oh, so it’s true that you can write letters to Princess Celestia herself,” Bonbon said with awe.
“Dear Princess Celestia,
Last night some unsettling events transpired. Robert, along with Lyra, the unicorn who found him, left Ponyville in secrecy. They left letters explaining that they wanted to travel together, but we have learned that they are currently travelling through the Everfree forest. We are worried for their safety and we don’t know what course of action to follow.
Your faithful student,
Spike sent the letter with his magical flame while Twilight Sparkle asked Bonbon more questions about Lyra, trying to learn anything that could help them.
“I’m sorry, girls,” Bonbon said after a while, “I fear that there is nothing I know that could help.”
“Don’t worry, sugarcube, we’re all on the same boat.”
“Yeah, it’s not your fault that *BURP*” Spike’s words were interrupted by Celestia’s response, which Twilight immediately began reading.
“My dearest, most faithful student Twilight,
The Everfree is a dangerous place, even for an armed human and an unicorn. I share your concern for Robert and Lyra, but following them will only increase the number of ponies in danger, so we must stand aside and hope for their safety.
If you learn more about their whereabouts, don’t hesitate to write again.
“She wants us to do nothing?” asked Rainbow Dash with surprise.
“I know it sounds weird, but she’s right,” replied Twilight, “going after them is too dangerous, we must wait for them to return.”
“But, what if they are attacked by some horrendous beast?!” exclaimed Rarity, “they could be in dire danger as we speak and we would never know it!”
“Don’t be silly!” replied Pinkie, “I’m sure Twilight can use her fancystastic magic to know if they are fine.”
“Can you do that?” asked Bonbon.
“Well, there is a spell... But it’s blood magic...”
“So what? You already used that vial of blood to make magic!” said Rainbow Dash.
“It’s not the same! The spell I used doesn’t need blood, it can use hair or other bodily fluids. This is real blood magic, the kind of magic that is forbidden and its abuse can curse the caster with the forbidden knowledge of the horrors trapped in eternal slumber in the darkest and deepest pits of Tartarus!” she finished with an otherworldly echo.
“Really?” they all asked.
“Yeah, really,” she said, her right eye twitching, “that is why I won’t do it, no matter what.”
They all said their goodbyes and left to their respective places. When Twilight and Spike were alone in the library, the dragon spoke.
“Seriously, Twilight, you have to stop reading H P Trotcraft!”
“Well, it IS forbidden magic, if I am going to do this I must make sure that nopony knows it.”
“Okay... So, what do you need?”
“Prepare a checklist.”
The little dragon groaned.
Three days passed without incidences in Ponyville and the Everfree. Lyra and Robert were very close to their goal, less than fifteen minutes of walking and they would arrive. The sunset reminding them that they would have to be fast to avoid walking in the darkness of the night.
“So, when I become a human I will always wear shoes?” Lyra asked.
“Well, maybe you will have strong soles that will let you walk barefoot, but if you have feet like mine you will need shoes to walk or you’ll hurt yourself.”
“And of course I will have to wear clothes, too,” she said, not expecting an answer.
“Well, we are almost here, if we are lucky the animals won’t have messed-”
Robert instinctively threw himself and Lyra to the ground, as a bullet hit a near tree.
“Come at me!” he heard a very familiar voice shout, “I will kill you all, damned bugs!”
“John? John! Don’t shoot, it is me, Robert!”
“Robert? Come here with your hands over your head so I can see you, I promise I won’t open fire.”
Lyra whispered him not to, but he rose up and did as he was told. He didn’t see anyone, until he felt cold steel against his neck.
“Don’t freaking move, Robert. If it is really you. There are intelligent creatures here that can take the form of anything, including me.”
“It is really me, sir.”
“Don’t move, it is an order.”
The knife left his neck and he felt a stabbing pain on his hand.
“Red blood... Eisenfaust, I thought you were dead!”
Robert turned around to face his leader, and his smile turned into a frown immediately.
“...What happened to your arm?”
John Stringer looked the same as he did when Robert last saw him, except for his missing left arm which had been replaced by a knotted sleeve.
“The dragon happened. You look fine, what have you and Matheus been doing?”
“...I think we both have very long stories to tell, and there is somepony you must meet.”
“Did you just say somePONY?”
“I have met the dominant species of this planet. One of them is with me, so hm... Don’t kill her as soon as you see her.”
“Lyra, come here. It is safe.”
The unicorn obeyed and left her hiding place.
“... Ponies?” John asked.
“Ponies” Robert said, nodding, “John, this is Lyra Heartstrings. Lyra, this is my captain, John Stringer.”
“Robert, I think you have a LOT more to explain than me. Let’s go to the cave, there we will speak without strange creatures attacking us. Oh, and mind your steps, I have placed traps everywhere and it is already surprising that you haven’t fallen in one.”
As they struggled to follow John’s fast pace, both Lyra and Robert noticed a disgusting smell.
“John, what is that smell?”
“You will know very soon.”
Twelve minutes later they arrived at the cave. Almost everything was just as Robert remembered, save for a mountain of black corpses surrounded by a green substance.
“What the fuck is that?!”
“I am not an expert in biology, but they are some kind of insects that can adopt the form of other animals with something that looks like magic. Imagine my surprise when I saw a copy of myself, the only difference being the hair color. Soon I learned that they revert to their original form if you kill them and that their blood is green. Oh, and they don’t burn, so I decided to stack them up there as a warning for the others.”
Upon closer inspection, Robert found that the creatures looked like a cross between a pony and a beetle. They had a black exoskeleton, with holes in the legs, insectoid wings and curved and sharp horns on their foreheads.
“Lyra, have you ever seen one of those things? They kinda look like ponies,” Robert said with a grimace.
“No, I don’t know what they are.”
“Maybe later you can help me move them somewhere else to avoid the reek. Doing it alone is dangerous and cumbersome with only one arm,” John said nonchalantly.
To their relief, they couldn’t smell the rotting creatures inside of the cave, where they left their luggage. Robert noticed that John’s technoglove was being used to display the records of nine cameras which were located in the forest.
“So that’s how you were able to ambush us,” Robert said, pointing at the device.
“Yes, I usually don’t fire warning shots, but when I saw you instead of a cheap imitation of me I decided to give you a chance,” the coldness of John’s voice made Robert and Lyra gulp.
They sat, forming a triangle, with John facing the entrance with his pistol on his hand. Then he started speaking.
“Well, it’s been two crazy weeks for me. Pony, has Robert told you about how we were separated?” she nodded. “Good, then I will continue from then. The dragon, because it was a dragon, didn’t expect me to fight him. That is why I managed to blow one of its eyes off with a precise shot. Unfortunately, it started flying around, too fast for me to hit it in the other eye. It created a wall of fire around me and it landed, and then it began speaking in our language! It said that I didn’t deserve to die burned or something like that, so it tried to eat me. I jumped to the right, but it managed to catch my arm. Then I took my knife and stabbed its remaining eye, but then it tore my arm off. It began roaring and trying to kill me with its claws, so I took all my ammo and threw it inside of its mouth. I was lucky, because it tried to breath fire and all the bullets fired themselves in its throat, killing it. I stopped the hemorrhage and came back here, expecting Matheus and you to return sooner or later...”
He continued with his story, telling them about the improvements he had made to the camp, how he had managed to survive without his left arm (which meant he couldn’t properly use rifles), and how he had fought against the insectoid creatures for the last five days. Robert noticed some unusual things on John’s behaviour, mainly how his pupils were shrinking and expanding at irregular intervals, even when the illumination was always the same. He also had a nervous tic on his left eye, and his right hand, which never left the gun, sometimes began shaking noticeably. He blamed it all on the stress that John had suffered, hoping that he would recover.
“...And that’s pretty much everything. Your turn.”
“I think I will make dinner. Meanwhile Lyra can tell you about their civilization and their control of magic... Have you tried eating those bugs?”
“They are edible, but the taste is awful. I got a lucky shot on a stag, use that... Wait, magic?”
While Robert made a fire outside to cook the remains of the stag that John had killed rather recently, Lyra began talking about magic and Equestria.
Robert took Discord’s fang while he watched over the fire, noticing that the lower half was no longer made of stone, but of a white and smooth material that probably was real ivory. Seeing the tooth, which was big as a kitchen knife, reminded him of something he had seen on the Internet a long time ago.
He remembered that ponies weren’t omnivorous when he brought the dripping meat into the cave.
“How is it going?” he asked.
“I am intrigued,” John said, “is it true that there are two immortal ponies with wings and horns ruling this Equestria?”
“It is, I have met both of them, and they really look like goddesses. Lyra, I don’t know what to cook for you, are you alright with eating provisions tonight.”
“No problem. I have told John almost everything I think he needs to know, and I must say that I expected him to be more surprised when I showed him my unicorn magic.”
“I have seen dragons speaking English and bugs turning into me in a flash of green fire, I have reached the point where nothing can really surprise me.”
“Well, there are some more things I must tell you,” Robert said, “they are very shocking, so you may want to drop the weapon.”
John looked at his pistol for ten seconds, before he left it next to him and motioned Robert to continue.
“First, as you may suspect, Matheus is dead. He left while I was sleeping, leaving a suicide note, and I never saw him again.” John nodded somberly, “the other thing that I have to tell you is that... We are... We are home, John, this crazy place is our Earth.”
John started laughing.
“Robert, I think these ponies have messed up your mind,” he said between laughs.
“John, this pony found this on a place they call Manehattan. Show him, Lyra.”
She took the souvenir and showed it to John, who stopped laughing and stared at it without blinking. Then he started laughing again, this time sounding like a madman.