"Yes your majesty, we can confirm that Factor Ypsilon has departed Ponyville and is traveling in this direction. Apparently some form of magic resistance has prevented teleportation, and thus he must travel overland. Estimated travel time has been calculated at one week." Celestia was in her throne room, basking in the warm morning sunlight. She had taken a rare opportunity to stroll through her palace grounds, and had decided to receive her daily intelligence in her official chambers. After having every other pony removed from the room of course.
One of her trusted advisers was listing off the day's trials and tribulations, giving the Princess a much clearer view of her kingdom. Celestia was pleased with herself- not only had putting guard ponies in every town put her subjects mind at ease, it had also expanded her information network ten-fold. Not a pony could make a move without her knowledge. She responded to the grey unicorn giving the report.
"Lawn Order, tell me, was Twilight Sparkle with him?" The adviser checked her notes.
"Yes Princess. Along with the other five Elements of Harmony." Celestia wasn't surprised at the revelation. The way those six were attached at the hips, it only stood to reason they would be traveling together.
"As I suspected. My students tend to stand by each other's sides. You say a week? That seems so long. Why such a delay."
Order pointed down at a map of Equestria and the surrounding lands. Pointing out Ponyville, she retrieved a set of small green flags from beside the map.
"Here is Ponyville, and here we are, in Canterlot. The rail line follows along the northeast plains and then circles up the mountain path to reach us here. On foot or by train, it's the most direct route." She used the flags to mark out roughly where the tracks ran. Collecting another set of flags, these ones red, she continued.
"Now, for reasons we have yet to ascertain they are traveling this way, a much more northerly route, sticking to light forests and hills. Currently, intelligence suggests that they are possibly trying to avoid more traveled regions. Here is their route so far, and the cottage they stayed at last night." She finished planting the flags in the map.
"Cottage?" Celestia was curious. The unicorn flipped through her notes again.
"Ah yes. The retirement home of a couple of earth ponies. Let's see here... yes belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Greenleaf. The pair is currently staying with family in Trottingham. No direct contact with Ypsilon."
Celestia nodded and examined the map, trying to discern the chosen route of the group, as well as why they were avoiding the rails. If it was to avoid other ponies, what might they be hiding? Twilight would assuredly be leading the group. What was she playing at?
"Which way did they go? After leaving the cottage?"
"They only left the cottage an hour ago, but this is the general direction." Order placed another flag just past the one representative of the cottage. "If they continue on their predicted route, this is an approximation of their path." A series of blue flags, now imbedded within the map, showed a route following along several hills and ridges, passing by farms and towns along the way. Celestia could see how round-about the assumed route was.
There was one community not featured on the map that Celestia knew about, and the fact that they would pass so near to it gave her cause for concern. However, at the time she didn't want to cause any undue stress for her unicorn adviser. Choosing to remain silent on the matter, she turned her attention back to the reports.
"That's enough about Ypsilon for now Lawn Order. Let's move on. I'm assuming, since this information is so complete, that Project Sky Light has proven successful?" Flipping through her pages, the advisor pulled out another report.
"Yes princess. I must admit, I was a little nervous when you suggested reusing one thousand year old magic and re-purposing it, but now that I have seen the results... I marvel at your ingenuity. The uses for it are myriad. Now that we can maintain the fields for over an hour, it is so much more useful."
"Good. Let's see if we can't stretch that another hour or two, please Lawn?" Lawn Order furiously scribbled down some notes and nodded to her princess.
"Yes your majesty." The immediate business finished, the talk turned to minor issues and pittances from around the kingdom. Lawn Order was purposely skirting around one other major project, Celestia knew, but she let the administrative pony believe that the topic wouldn't come up. She was wrong, of course. As their conversation drew to a close, Princess Celestia cleared her throat, drawing a fearful look from the unicorn.
"Y-yes your majesty?"
"Let's not dance around it any further. ES-24. Progress report." The unicorn shuddered.
"ES-24? Why y-yes Celestia. The original activation sites have been found, including the one in Gryphon territory, and the one deep in the Everfree. We are currently in negotiations for access to the former. The work continues on preparing all sites for use."
"Y-your majesty. May I speak freely?" Celestia raised an eyebrow at Lawn. Normally the advisor was content to process the alicorn's demands without hesitation. It was a strange divergence from protocol, but she nodded and allowed it.
"Proceed, Lawn Order."
"Thank-you, Princess Celestia. I'm just concerned. This kind of power has major ramifications. I know the changelings are a threat, but are you really willing to go this far? The potential environmental complications..."
"Tell me, Lawn. If you had... oh let's say a child, that you had raised with love and care for years and years, would you not do anything in your power to protect them, even in the event of your passing?"
"Well yes but..."
"But nothing. Equestria and her citizens are my children, and I will not see her torn asunder."
"You know we all love you, and you have been our princess for time immemorial, however, there is a real concern here. I know that you would never use it to harm anypony, and I trust you implicitly as a subject should trust their monarch, but can you say the same for others? What about Princess Luna?”
“Well, yes your majesty. What has she said about ES-24?”
“My dear Lawn Order… what makes you think that I informed her of ES-24?”
“I-I’m sorry? She doesn’t know? But how…”
“The groundwork for it was laid soon after she was banished as Nightmare Moon. It is not knowledge that she was privy to as an ‘enemy’ of Equestria. I have… neglected to inform her of it since her return as our dear beloved Princess Luna.” Lawn Order shivered.
“Is there a reason we are keeping this from her? I-I-I mean you obviously have a good reason, don’t think I’m questioning you. I just wanted to know if there’s something I should be doing.” Celestia opted for a less scathing retort than the one she was originally giving.
“Why, yes, there is a reason. Luna was gone for a thousand years. Yes, she has returned and tried her best to re-integrate herself with our society, but two years doesn’t remove a thousand years of animosity and hatred. Now, I’m not saying that she is going to go back to being Nightmare Moon. However, wouldn’t it be wise and caring of a ruler to have her subjects best interests at heart and not risk their well being?”
“I-I-I see, Princess Celestia. You are our wise and benevolent ruler after all.”
“Why thank-you, Lawn Order. You always were one of my favorite advisers. So smart and dutiful. Even Twilight Sparkle could learn a thing or too from you.” Lawn’s heart skipped a beat at being compared to Celestia’s own star pupil. The feeling quickly subsided, replaced with a dull feeling of emotional turmoil. “Now, if that is everything, I need to get back to work.”
“Oh, uh yes, sorry, Princess Celestia. That is my full report. For today.”
“Very good. Please see yourself out. We need time to ponder our kingdom’s future.” Lawn Order raised her eyebrow, but nodded and tidied her papers, trotting out the nearest door, quietly closing it behind her.
Celestia was left alone in the throne room, staring out the window, looking over the ponies she had worked tirelessly to protect.
“We will rest soon enough. Soon enough.”
'...the rest of the mares had been concerned when Dash and I had brought back the three unconscious changelings. The changelings were, in fact, tracking ponies. Rarity was still in denial, and had tried to rationalize me into fault, that the attack on Ponyville was my fault, and the changelings had only been there for me.
While I don't believe me being there at the time of the invasion was coincidence, they were also trying to round up any ponies they could as well. Even "La Tigra", as I've taken to calling Rarity behind her back, couldn't deny it any further seeing the trio of beasts.
Once we’ve made solid headway, I fully intend to have a proper conversation with her. As a note on the weather- I've noticed that it's been starting to warm up, even though it's the middle of what would be November on Earth. I'll have to ask Dash about it.’
Before traveling too far, Twilight had pulled out her map to explain their route to the group, but the only one that had been particularly interested was Nathan. This was the first chance he had really gotten to look over Equestria and judge their position. From Ponyville, with Canterlot visible, it didn't seem like it could be that large, but now with a scale and points of reference added he realized just how massive the kingdom was. Even Canterlot was nearly a week's journey on foot, assuming they didn't get too sidetracked.
The map covered the immediate area they occupied and a few other details. To the north was a chain of mountains and plateaus held by gryphons, pony lands long ago before the rule of Celestia. Off to the east were Zebra holdings. Though still technically Equestria, the Zebras had negotiated sovereign territory several centuries before, agreeing to pay tithes and tributes to Celestia in return for some self-autonomy. Nathan was mystified by the subtle complexities of Equestrian politics. He said as much to Twilight.
"So, let me make sure I have this straight. Celestia, and to a lesser extent Luna, rule Equestria out of Canterlot, and all the ponies swear fealty to them. Except, there are still mayors and councils and elected positions. A few other sentient races reside here- donkeys and dragons to name a couple- but they don't actively take part in Equestrian politics. Donkeys are regular citizens, and dragons, besides Spike, just go around being dragons." Twilight nodded in the affirmative.
"Yes that's right."
"Other than Spike, what are the other dragons like? I mean, I realize he's only a juvenile dragon, but he doesn't seem so different from the ponies around here. I imagine that has a lot to do with being raised by you though. Are they all that docile and friendly? In human society, dragons are just fantasy, but the commonly accepted image is a large winged lizard many times the size of a person and can breathe flames."
"No they aren't friendly at all. Actually, that imagery fits a dragon almost perfectly. One once decided it would sleep in a cave near Ponyville and we had to ask it to leave. The beast's snoring was blotting out the sun and threatened to choke out Equestria."
"Nopony has any issues with dragons being around though? They don't eat ponies? They don't burn down your towns? Celestia just allows them to roam the countryside?" Nathan caught himself scanning the skies for any sign of a dragon or other huge monster.
Twilight's eyes went narrow and she carefully scanned the human's expressions. She could feel herself getting upset with Nathan. She was Twilight Sparkle, one of the most intelligent and well-read ponies in Equestria, possibly the world. Her magical ability was almost on par with Celestia's own. She had lived her entire life in Equestria, and dragons had almost never been an issue. In Celestia's reign they had not been an issue. Now, this human was questioning their world. No, he doesn't know any better. I can only imagine how I would feel if I wound up in some strange land and their customs and ways confused me. She forced herself to relax and went back to the map.
"Take my word on it, dragons are not an issue. Let's just get back to the map here, and focus on the task at hand."
"I'm still not comfortable with the thought of killer dragons roaming the wilds."
"They eat gemstones, not people or ponies." Twilight gave him a stern look that indicated that the conversation was over. "Ok. The map. So, we're here, and this is the cottage. I'd like to travel along these lakes, and shadow this canyon. This puts us within sight of a few towns and farms and we can divert slightly if necessary. I would however prefer to avoid most civilized areas if at all possible."
Nathan shook off the last of his worries and focused back on the conversation.
"That makes sense in theory, but I see a few issues. This is going to take us about a week you said? Pretty far distances here, in the snow. We're going to have to pace ourselves. Some of the less... 'rugged' of us are going to need more breaks." He glanced over to where Rarity and Fluttershy were engaged in idle banter. No one else had noticed, but he could see the white unicorn already favouring one hoof. While he really wanted to tell her it served her right, he couldn't fault her for trying to protect her friend. He turned back to the map. "We're going to have to find shelter every night. Either a farm or town. There's nothing else for it. Rarity and Fluttershy won't make six days in the wilderness." Twilight frowned, but acknowledged the evaluation.
"You could be right. I don't like it, but you're probably right." Nathan examined the map closely, noting the labels and legend had long ago worn away, betraying the age of the document. He traced along the route with his finger and noted all of the potential stops based on their current progress.
"Could you tell me about some of these towns? I don't see anything indicating their names. Specifically these three here. They seem to be right about where we would stop for a night." Nathan pointed out the specified towns.
"Sure. So by the end of today it should take us near Foalham, here. Tomorrow, I guess, should bring us to Manyhooves. A couple days after that would see us in North Gelding. South Gelding is down over here but we shouldn't need to go that way. Between them we'll have to hit the farms, but they should be abandoned." Nathan rubbed his chin and mused over the map further. There were a few gaps in the information, but nothing overwhelming except...
"Twilight, how old is this map?"
"I'm not entirely sure. It was in the library when I took up residence. I'm assuming a century or two. Things don't change much around here."
"How can you not know? Do you not research this kind of thing? You're taking us on a route that is out of reach of most civilization, but the map you have isn't even up to date?"
"So why is there this huge gap in detail? After leaving North Gelding, it shows some farms, then nothing. No contour lines, no landmarks, nothing. Just an empty unlabeled plain. On top of that our route takes us right past it." Twilight glanced at the point on the map the human had cupped his hands around.
"What does it matter to you? This is the route we've chosen, and Equestria is stable enough that there shouldn't be any issues. Let me guess, things change so much on earth that maps need to be constantly updated?"
"Twilight, on Earth things change so fast that we don't even trust our maps anymore. We've turned to special devices that give us real-time information about where we are at all times. If you went back in time one-hundred years on Earth, half the roads wouldn’t even exist."
Once again, Twilight was getting hot under her metaphorical collar. She found herself stomping her hoof on the ground, trying to not blurt out the first thing that came to mind. Seeing the red in her face, Nathan gently waved his hand to her, and indicated that he didn't want an argument. The other mares had turned from their own idle conversations and were intently focused on the ongoing disagreement. She forced herself to calm again, but was unable to entirely regain her composure. The longer this discussion went on, the more she could feel the human getting under her skin. Nathan softly spoke to her, trying to defuse the situation.
"I'm being insensitive again. Your Equestria, your ways. Sorry. Let's go on. So, tell me, what is this place?"
"The Horned Rock reaches. I've only looked into it briefly. Since the beginning of Celestia's rule, it has been there, though nopony knows what could be in there. Every pony that goes in that area never returns. Celestia herself investigated several years ago, but she came back empty hooved. The ponies had all just vanished. No trace, no sign."
"I thought you said nopony returns?"
"Well Celestia is hardly a normal pony. She's what we call an alicorn."
"Alicorn?" Nathan had not heard this term before. In fact, now that he though about it, he couldn't remember seeing a picture of Celestia either. Recognizing the gap in his knowledge, he questioned Twilight further. “Twilight, why is this the first time I’ve heard the term? You said that the information you gave me about Equestria was complete. What is an alicorn, what does Celestia look like, and why don’t I know any of this?”
Twilight shuffled uncomfortably and glanced at her friends. Applejack sidled up beside her and laid a hoof across her back, calming and bracing the lavender unicorn.
“Sugar cube, Ah reckon at this point there ain’t nothing you could say that could hurt Celestia or Equestria that hasn’t already been said or put into motion. You need to stop lyin’, as good as yer intentions might be. Go on. Tell him.” Twilight turned back to Nathan and sheepishly twirled a hoof on the ground, drawing a random pattern in the snow. Nathan, for his part, was being as patient and restrained as possible.
“Look, we’ve all been over how I’ve been trying to protect Equestria, and to a lesser extent Celestia, from you. I thought that if you were here to hurt her, any additional information past her name may give you some sort of advantage over her and I couldn’t risk it. I’ve been controlling a lot of the information that you’ve been receiving. Even letting you use my telescope worried me. Celestia, Luna, and Cadance are all ‘alicorns’. It’s a slang term mind you- there is no official designation for what the three are. Chrysalis can also, by extension, be loosely considered an alicorn, though genetically she’s not the same species anymore, if she ever was.
“Alicorns combine the dominant traits of the three pony tribes into a single, godlike being, with powers greater than each of the three originators. The strength of the earth ponies, the flight of the pegasi, and the magic of the unicorns. Celestia is the largest and strongest of them. I would estimate her height to nearly match yours, and her powers are second only to the Elements. While she and Luna officially rule Equestria together, those more familiar with the inner workings know that Celestia holds the true power. This is our princess. This is the being that has summoned you before her.”
“Why hide that though? It’s obvious her strength is more than a match for me. How could I ever hope to match her, even if it came down to trying to kill her? Which, by the way, it won’t because I don’t plan to.” Nathan scratched his chin, legitimately confused.
“It’s the same thing I’ve said over and over again. So far not only do we not know much about you, we don’t even have much of an ability to gauge how much of a threat you are. Celestia’s power revolves around her magical abilities, which you’ve proven yourself to be largely immune to, and we don’t know exactly how capable you are in combative situations. But what we do know is that you’ve proven yourself capable of taking out multiple creatures stronger than yourself with ease. And now, you’re going to be meeting her one way or another now, not knowing how she’ll react to you and vice versa. It’s out of my hooves.” Nathan nodded and chuckled a bit.
"It's alright Twilight, I understand." Nathan focused back on the map and noticed that the suggested route zigzagged quite a few times, and at one point took a sharp diversion south.
"Twilight, one other thing- why all this jumping around? Why don't we just go all the way north to the border and follow along the foothills? It might be a lot faster."
"We can't. We run the risk of accidentally wandering into gryphon territory, and Celestia's protection of ponies doesn't extend that far north."
"What do you mean?"
"Gryphons are predators. They catch and eat meat. In Equestria they are forbidden from it. It is one of the many rules gryphons must follow when they live in or travel to Equestria. They can only consume pony food. Some of the more tribal groups of gryphons would still find great sport in... hunting ponies."
Nathan felt like his head had caved in. There was no way that Twilight, or any other pony, could be so calm about such a situation. Traditions and customs be damned, he was getting upset just by the idea.
"How can you be ok with that?"
"It's just the way our world works. It's simple really. As long as we stay in Equestria, everything is fine. There hasn't been a reported gryphon attack in over five hundred years."
"Except no, it's not fine at all. I mean, this is where I get lost. The Zebras have their own lands within Equestria and pay Celestia for the right to self adjudication. The gryphons, who have a tendency of being hostile to Equestria, not only send envoys and ambassadors to Canterlot on a regular basis, but many of them are citizens here, and some come from out of country to attend your schools and academies. The same gryphons that, not a few centuries ago, considered hunting ponies to be a sport. Sorry, the gryphons that still consider hunting ponies to be a sport." Twilight didn't like the tone Nathan was speaking with. She felt like he was treating her like a foal. She responded, slightly flustered. She could feel the rage building again.
"Well, I still don't see what's so complicated. That was a long time ago. Why shouldn't we want to improve our relations?"
"Twilight, is there somepony who's job it is to count all the tithes the zebras bring in? Does Celestia monitor her northern borders to make sure the griffons don't get the munchies?"
"No, nopony does. Why should they?" Nathan felt his jaw drop. He could not believe what he was hearing.
"W-why should they? You have a political system in place that rivals some of the most convoluted, even against Earth standards, and let me tell you, Earth politics are all kinds of convoluted, and you just trust everypony to do the right thing? This has worked for over a thousand years?!"
Twilight was hurt. She fully put her faith and trust in her princess every day, and if Celestia said it was good enough, it was good enough. Nathan, in her eyes, was questioning Celestia herself. Some of the other mares were similarly offended. Even Fluttershy narrowed her eyes at Nathan. Twilight had had enough. It was one thing to question Twilight and the ponies and their outlook on life. Perhaps the human had a point about the potential danger of dragons. Twilight, being a student and researcher, could even see the value of having an up to date map at all times. However, questioning her princess, her ruler, her teacher? Nathan had gone to far. Twilight Sparkle erupted in rage, throwing the map aside with her magic and picking up a large boulder with the intention of smashing that arrogant tone out of the human.
"You, you, you pompous, arrogant jerk! How dare you come here, and question our very way of life? The way things have always been? If you're so amazing, why aren't you some king? Why can't you humans all get along? It seems like we do a better job than any of you." Nathan was taken aback, not intending to have insulted Twilight. The fact she had of her own volition picked up an object with the intention to do bodily harm just punctuated the point. He immediately felt sorry.
"Twilight, I didn't mean it like that. I meant... what happens when someone does decide to betray the system? What if some gryphon figures out that they could get away with murder because they aren't monitored? Is Celestia prepared for that?" The lavender pony reconsidered the human's words. Calming, she slowly lowered the boulder and allowed it to roll away down a hill. Around her, five mares exhaled at the same time, their held breaths coming out in unison. She herself took a deep breath and cast her gaze over the map once more.
"I really don't know. I would think that having ruled for centuries, she would have some sort of plan. Then again the wedding..." Twilight shook her head and closed her eyes. Suppressing as much pain as she could she looked back up at the human.
"Look. I don't understand you. You continue to defy my reasoning at every opportunity. Just when I think I have you figured out, you do something new and unexpected. You say something cruel and awful. However, even I don't know much about politics and backstabbing. I thought Celestia knew everything, had everything under control. In the last two years, however, I've seen her defeated more than once by something she didn't prepare for because a pony would never think to prepare for them. You are the only one in Equestria right now that would even think there was a possibility one of our allies is cheating us, or killing us one at a time.
"Sometimes, especially right now, I think that sending you back is the wrong decision. For Equestria. We need someone who can see through the possible threats that other species pose. I need to trust you that much, and it scares me. Even Celestia is acting out of character. I know you mean well... but go easy on us. The idea of anypony doing anything to subvert the norm is unheard of. Please. Just be considerate."
Nathan nodded his head and considered Twilight's words. He had not been wrong in his evaluation, but he could have been more conscious in his approach. To Twilight's relief, he did his best to turn the attention back to the map in front of them.
“It’s amazing how much comes up from just examining a map.” He looked over as Applejack was shaking her head and stomping the ground with one hoof.
“Is that what you were doin’? By the looks of things Ah was convinced that sheet o’ parchment was a list o’ things for you two to keep fightin’ over. Now, if y’all are quite finished, can we git going? It’s a might bit chilly and my tail’s likely to start freezing off.” Nathan chuckled and waved on the earth pony.
“Alright. Twilight, roll it up. Let’s get going before Ms. Applejack here bucks me up.” Nathan grabbed his bags and started wandering down the trail Twilight had previously pointed out. The mares followed suit, with Applejack following up the rear keeping an eye out for any changelings or monsters.
Early afternoon saw them following along a long crescent shaped lake, curving their journey towards the east. The countryside was a mixture of woods and brush land. They had debated going further north to avoid the exposed lake system, but the worry of changelings hiding amongst the southern foothills was too great, and it would make diverting to any populated areas a lengthy delay they couldn’t afford. Nathan, concerned that they were under prepared in the event of an attack, convinced Pinkie Pie to carry his extra belongings so he could forge out and around the group to keep an eye on the surrounding area.
With the lake on one side, he kept slightly north of the mares, paying particular attention to the foothills far to the north. He knew from Twilight’s explanations that the changeling’s kingdom was somewhere within range, but where specifically was unknown to them. Every few minutes he would catch sight of a random animal or monster, and close back up with the ponies to let them know. Rainbow Dash had offered to do the scouting, but Nathan reminded her that her colours would be very visible from the air, and the human could blend in better with the trees. A few miles on, he spotted several dark shapes circling the northern skies. He mentally noted the outlines and tracked south to catch up with the girls.
“Hey Twilight! Wait up.” He jogged up, juggling his firearm with one hand while trying to work it with the other. Twilight could see he had snapped open the shotgun and was replacing his small shot with the larger ammo. Nervously she cocked an eyebrow and eyed up the gun.
“What’s going on? Why are you putting the heavy stuff in that thing?” Twilight pointed one hoof accusingly towards Nathan. Pinkie was beside Twilight displaying a frown.
“Nathan, don’t you dare…”
“Pinkie relax, I’m not planning to hurt anypony unless they threaten me. Hey! I said ‘anypony’ and no one had to correct me!” Twilight got frustrated and stomped her hooves.
“Nathan! Spit it out! What are you doing?” Nathan, momentarily confused, looked down at Twilight and remembered why he had come back in the first place.
“Oh right! Sorry. So, there’re four creatures flying around the cliffs just north of here. I don’t think they’ve seen us yet, but I wanted to let you know and figure out what they are in case they come this way. They’re probably around three or four times the size of me, large wings, and tails that end in some sort of point. I couldn’t really make out their faces, but they had a lot of hair by the looks of things.” Twilight immediately looked concerned. This was not good.
“You’re certain? Tails ending in points? Sort of like a scorpion perhaps?” Nathan shook his head and thought about it.
“I’m not entirely sure, but now that you say it yes, scorpion tails are a distinct possibility. Why? What are they?”
“If I’m right- manticores. Body of a lion, wings of a bat, tail of a scorpion with a venom that can incapacitate or even kill a pony if in high enough concentrations. This time of year they should be further south. “
"We'll be safe as long as we keep to the trees right? They shouldn't be able to spot us?"
"Likely yes. Manticores are a threat to ponies but they don't actively hunt us. There's no reason for them to come down this way unless they're desperate for food." Nathan allowed a moment of relief wash over him before another realization hit him.
"But wait. You just said that this time of year they're supposed to be deep in the forest and more southern reaches. Being up this far north at this time of year suggests they might be desperate." Twilight grimaced and nodded to the human. They needed to be away from there as quickly as possible.
"Fine, let's keep moving then. Again, let's keep to the trees. We should be fine. All of these lakes are surrounded by them."
"When does this lake end though?"
"Eh-heh... in about ten minutes the way we're walking..."
"And between it and the next one?"
"An exposed cabbage farm..." Nathan slapped his forehead with his free hand. This couldn't possibly go wrong.
"Ok so we have four likely hungry and violent monsters that will have clear sight of us for at least five to ten minutes? Is the plan to just run across the fields as fast as possible, screaming?" Twilight wrinkled her nose and frowned.
"We shouldn't scream. That would probably attract their attention." Nathan slapped his forehead again.
"I'm about to scream at you."
They had reached the edge of the trees without incident and no further sign of the manticores. Carefully gazing out from the tree line, Nathan examined the structures and layout of the farm. The farmhouse stood a bit off to the south of them, and a barn of sorts was planted almost directly between them and the far woods. A sign indicated the name of the farm- "Heads and Bales". Apparently the farm grew some hay as well and the human had to suppress a chuckle at the pun. Turning to the mares he pointed out the most appropriate route.
"So, as long as we keep to the south side of that snow bank, and then curl around the edge of that short copse of shrubs towards the eastern edge, we should be covered for the majority of the time." Rarity stood forward and snorted in disgust.
"I'm sorry, did you just suggest that we 'sneak' across the field?"
"Um... yes? You know, manticores and stuff? Why wouldn‘t we?"
"Why wouldn't we? For starters we're not humans. We don't skulk around in the shadows like a common criminal. Besides that, I am a lady, and a lady never sneaks or hides."
"I must have been meeting all the wrong ladies then." Nathan snarked.
"You watch your insolent tone! I have to put up with you for one more week, but don't think I won't put my hoof through your backside if it suits me, lady or not." Rarity stuck her nose in the air and trotted off in the direction of the farm house. "Now, let's be civilized and see if anypony is home to offer us some hospitality." Nathan reached out and grabbed Rarity's tail.
"No! Rarity wait!" Spinning in place, a glare of icy death escaping her eyes, she slapped away his hand with one of her hooves.
"Touch me once more, for any reason, and I will make sure you will never use that hand again. Now, be a gentleman and see a lady to the door, won't you?" Nathan watched the pony trot off indignantly. He scanned the sky for any sign of the manticores, and reluctantly followed behind. The other ponies followed suit.
Reaching the house they found it, like the other farms they had visited so far, abandoned some days ago. A half-eaten bowl of fruit was just starting to go bad on the table. Pinkie Pie ate the whole bowl in one bite, eliciting a cringe from Nathan.
"That was disgusting Pinkie. That fruit was going bad."
"But it wasn't all bad yet silly! Somepony had to eat it or that fruit would be all sad and alone on the table. That's why it was going bad! If you eat food fast enough it doesn't have time to go bad because it's so happy to be with its friends in your belly!" Nathan couldn't help but laugh, to which Pinkie joined in giggling. Pinkie Pie logic never failed to amaze and amuse. The pink pony may often be wrong, but she always could find a reason, no matter how outrageous, to convince you she was right. He mused that if she had been human, she would have made a good lawyer.
The giggling long over, they continued to carefully search the house for anything they might need. While they had tried to not be too invasive while at the cottage the previous night, it was becoming clear that they would need to be better prepared for the coming days, and Twilight silently assured herself she would return and repay all of the ponies they took things from. The farm house was typical in its design. The main floor held a large main room, with couches and chairs and a fireplace, a kitchen with most basic trimmings, and a coat room of sorts in the back. Several sets of muddy winter outfits were hung in the room, and Nathan managed to appropriate some of the larger articles of clothing.
Loading their bags with food and supplies, the seven took a moment to have a quick bite to eat before carrying on. Foalham was still a few hours on, and they wouldn't have time to stop later if they hoped to make it by nightfall. While eating, Nathan carefully slipped out a back door, mindful to not alert the ponies, and huddled down behind a snow covered bush. Rarity might not be concerned with the manticores, but he was.
Scanning the horizon, he caught sight of the odd raven, and a few hares, but nothing out of the ordinary. Focusing in the general direction of where he had first seen the monsters, he finally allowed himself to relax.
Behind him, he heard something step in the snow. He tensed up again, reaching over to grab the shotgun he had propped up against the shrub, carefully checking to make sure the safety was off.
The soft footfalls started closing in. He braced himself, tensions rising in his fingers, looking down, he could see them turning white from gripping the gun so hard, and a trickle of sweat beaded at the tip of his nose, dropping to the ground below. He scanned the horizon again, looking for any of the other manticores. Then he waited.
Nathan spun around, wrapping his finger around the trigger and preparing to unload point blank into the manticore behind him. However, at the end of his barrel stood a very surprised Applejack. His eyes went wide, and he pulled the gun to the side, barely avoiding pulling the trigger.
"Wh-what the hay? What are you tryin' to do? You scared the horse apples outta me!" Applejack was as nearly as white as Rarity and looked just as frail. Nathan stuttered.
"I sc-scared you? I thought you were a manticore! Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Ah was hardly sneaking. Mah hooves were crunching in the snow. You didn't hear that?"
"Well of course I heard it! Why didn't you say anything though?" Applejack thought about it for a minute and let the colour return to her cheeks. She shrugged and stated plainly.
"Ah don't rightly know. Ah just wanted to know what you were doing leaving like that without saying anything." Nathan raised an eyebrow and shook his head at the orange pony.
"That was still very foolish. I could have hurt you, or worse." He frowned and gazed back out to the foothills, carefully giving them a scan before returning his attention to Applejack. "If you must know, I'm making sure that those manticores don't sneak up on us. After Rarity's little scene, I've been terrified they're going to show up at any moment."
Applejack walked up beside him and turned her attention to the north. Nathan followed suit and the two stood their in silence for several minutes, just watching the sky. After a while, the earth pony turned to Nathan again.
"Ah get what yer doin', why yer doin' it, but Ah don't get how. Not just this either. Why come out alone? Why not ask for help? Why leave Ponyville alone? What’s yer game?“ Not lifting his gaze from the horizon, he responded to Applejack.
"Help from who, Applejack? Other than Fluttershy, who can't fight, and Pinkie, who at best can throw some confetti at the monsters, who's going to take me seriously? The only one who's going to stand by me, and be able to do anything, is me." Applejack frowned and looked at the snow covered ground.
"Ah take you seriously."
"Oh come off it Applejack. Twilight told me what the plan was when I came to Ponyville. I know you've been monitoring me for months for Twilight. I also know, that you were underpaying me for the work I did." Applejack's eyes went wide and she was slack jawed.
"W-wait ya don’ understand. I was jes going along with Twilight. I didn' mean ta deceive ya. How’d you even know what the pay shoulda been?"
"I went around and asked at the other farms what they pay their workers. I thought you were being too generous, but then your attitude was so all over the place towards me that I didn't know. So I did some digging." Applejack was ashamed. She had been caught, and she was looking for an excuse.
"Twilight made me..."
"I know." Nathan sighed and shook his head. "Look, I've already figured it out Applejack. I'm not stupid. Twilight had you watch me and pay me a fraction of the value of my work so I would be controlled and unable to earn enough money to leave Ponyville. Actually, I think that's what shocked her most about me being able to construct the Pie Cannon- she was likely convinced I wouldn't be able to afford anything.
“I didn't blame you then, and I don't blame you now. I know you were going along with your friend. It probably wasn't that hard to convince you though, considering you hate me." Applejack was shocked, not just for the fact Nathan had deduced the entire plan between her and Twilight, but also because of his latter statement. She mumbled under her breath.
"Ah don't hate ya."
"Ah don't hate you, ya stupid selfish critter! Everything's about you and being miserable and mistreated in Equestria. You can't just enjoy things for what they are can ya?" She was yelling at him, tears rolling down her cheeks.
"Wait, what? What's your deal Applejack?" Nathan was legitimately perplexed and the sudden emotional outburst by the pony did nothing to relieve his confusion.
"Mah deal? Ah am the Element of Honesty! Honesty! Ah'm supposed to be the one that always tells the truth. Ah've spent the last three months living a lie, and every time ah thought to myself 'Applejack, you should come clean and talk to that critter' you do something so stupid and irrational. Scaring ponies, making mah sister cry, being a jerk to somepony. Why do you have to be such a jerk?"
"I am a jerk. Do you not get that yet? I'm a miserable, angry jerk. What does it even matter? Why do you care?"
"Ah care because you're the best thing that's happened to Sweet Apple Acres in years and the only way Ah've been able to repay you is to lie to you and treat you like farm manure! Every day. Every day! Then when you ran away the day the changelings came Ah felt justified. You were just a no good yellow-bellied snake.
"Then you come back hauling tail like some kinda demon, buck the snot outta all them changelings, and Ah felt shame. Ah was ashamed to carry the Element of Honesty. Ah was ashamed that Ah had ever doubted you. Jerk or not, you deserve better. From all of us. But all Ah could do was be angry at you. Angry at making me have to lie. Ah know though, you didn't make me do anything. This is all on me."
Nathan stood there in stunned silence. So many months of uneasy interactions with the pony in front of him, and it all broke down in a single afternoon. She was baring her heart to him, the overwhelming guilt pouring out. Applejack closed her eyes and sat sobbing into the shrub. Nathan gently wrapped his arms around her, feeling her tense up then relax at his touch. She turned back to face him, still sobbing, but not leaving his embrace.
"Ah, Ah thought you were a jerk? And you probably hate me." Nathan smiled and shook his head.
"Oh I'm a raging jerk Applejack, but I have a soul. I can't let a woman cry like that and not be moved. I don't hate you either."
Applejack sniffed back her tears and looked at the human, confused.
"Er... Mare. Lady. Girl. It's what a female adult human is called. Sorry."
"Oh alright. You really don't hate me? Or mah family?"
"No Applejack, I don't hate you. It's ok. I've been angry with you, but I've never hated you. There‘s only one being in either of our worlds that I hate, and I assure you they‘re not a pony. It's not in my nature to hate anypony or anybody. Some strong dislikes. La Tigra straddles that line. Err! Uh, sorry, I mean Rarity. Don't ask about the name. Please. At any rate- what's this now about Sweet Apple Acres?" Applejack really wanted to ask about it, but she respected the human's request.
"Before you came along, we were barely bringin’ in the harvest on time. A lotta the apples were goin’ bad, an’ we had no time for repairs and maintenance unless we worked late into the evening. Celestia forbade Big Macintosh getting sick. This year, we made so many bits we don't rightly know what to do with them. We long paid off the rest of Granny Smith's hip operation, and the farm’s never looked better. All because of you, ya darn pig-headed critter.”
“Ah wasn’t lying when Ah said Ah was coming along to protect mah investment. Even if you never return to Ponyville, even if the reason ya started working there in the first place was cuz o’ false pretences… you’re always going to be the risk Ah was proudest to take. Ah’m gonna miss having you around, keeping Applebloom in line and making mah life that much easier. Ah know that if given the choice you’re gonna go home. If that’s not possible though… between you and me… you’ll always have a place at Sweet Apple Acres. Honest.”
Nathan just held Applejack for what felt like an hour. It was all he could do to not start blubbering himself. He had not been, honestly, expecting any of this from the earth pony, and as shocking as it was, a sort of warmth welled up from his heart. His eyes were starting to open to the beauty of the world around him, and for the first time he really considered what life would be like should he be stuck in Equestria. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. Fluttershy was there for him, Pinkie was a good friend, and Applejack? Well, as spotty as his memory was, it was the first time he could recall ever having an employer break down and cry into his shoulder. Maybe… just maybe Equestria would be ok.
Applejack wiped away a tear and noticed a smile had spread over the human’s face. A twinkle was in his eye that hadn’t been there before. She was about to say something, but then she saw the smile had passed and the perpetual scowl had returned, as he gazed over her shoulder. Confused she turned to look at what had caused Nathan’s mood to drop. As she did, she noticed the three manticores surround them, licking their lips.
Inside the farmhouse, the mares were finishing up their late lunch. Rainbow Dash had retired for a nap in one of the upstairs bedrooms. As the last morsels of food were packed away, Pinkie Pie turned her attention over to where Twilight and Rarity were deep in discussion.
"...well what do you think Celestia will do Twilight? What can she do?" Twilight paced thoughtfully around the kitchen, straightening the odd pot or pan hanging from the ceiling, giving herself more time to think.
"Rarity, I honestly don't know. I don't think Nathan would or could do anything to harm her, but if her magic has no effect on him... I don't think he's thought this out yet, and neither have we."
"Whatever do you mean darling?" Rarity was rubbing the base of her horn, trying to glean some implication or wisdom from Twilight's words.
"Shhh, keep your voice down. I don't want him hearing us in the back room. Well, it has been established that, unless we're missing something or our knowledge of the situation is complete, magic doesn't seem to work on Nathan anymore. If it ever really did. I'm still suspicious but that's beside the point. Think about it- what are we doing right now?"
"Well going to Canterlot of course, to be rid of the brute." Twilight frowned at Rarity's ongoing hostility, but nodded and used her hoof to gesticulate as she continued.
"Ok, sure. However, what ways might Celestia accomplish that?" Rarity looked at Twilight like she was a foal, fresh in the world.
"Either by doing what she did with Nightmare Moon all those centuries ago, or by sending him back where he came from obviously. Twilight honestly, are you sure you're the smart one? What are you getting at?"
"Relax Rarity, just one last question. Just how is Celestia supposed to accomplish this?"
"Well with her ma..." Rarity cut herself short when it finally dawned on her what Twilight was saying. The wind let out of her sails, she finished Twilight's thought with a sigh. "The same magic that has so far proven to be ineffective against him." Rarity looked around the small kitchen and frowned.
"Exactly. For now, Nathan is content with the fact that there's a chance he could be going home. Unless something changes though, that's not possible, and we're unsure how he will react when he realizes it. He could do anything."
Pinkie and Fluttershy had wandered over, both frowning at the pair of unicorns. The pegasus held a particularly cross expression.
"L-look I know that you two don't think much of the human, and you would be happier seeing him gone, but he's still a thinking feeling being. If you two didn't spend so much time worrying about how he might react to certain situations you might get to know him, and find he can be very caring and sweet."
"Yeah!" Pinkie chimed in. "You two are being meany heads. Nathan will probably do what he does every other time he thinks one of us is being silly billy. He'll shrug it off and keep going. That's what he always does." Twilight forced a meek smile and turned to face the pair of indignant mares.
"Girls, look I understand. You both like Nathan," she directed her gaze directly at Fluttershy, "one of you more so than the other." Fluttershy blushed and Pinkie wrinkled her nose. "However, you can't keep acting like he's not an issue. It's a big issue! Even Discord and Chrysalis were defeated by magic, and Nathan has the ability to be even more powerful in our world. Equestria has no real prisons or jails to speak of. We don't have anywhere to hold him that I know of. Girls- If pushed enough; he has the potential to become a villain not even the Elements can defeat."
Fluttershy looked like Twilight had just slapped her across the face.
"Nathan? My Nathan? You're accusing him of being evil?" Rarity stepped forward and placed a calming hoof on her friend's mane.
"Well of course he’s evil dear. Isn't it obvious? I mean look at..."
"No!" Twilight interrupted. "I'm not saying he is evil. I'm saying he could become evil. He's no paragon of virtue and truth. Fluttershy, please see reason. If he overthrows Equestria..."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this. I can't believe you actually think this is possible. You're supposed to be my friends. My best friends. You can't." Fluttershy was torn and upset. While her friend's words were logical, she just couldn't accept them as a possibility. Pinkie, surprisingly, had gone quiet. Noticing the normally chatty pony staring into her own reflection in a pan, Twilight prodded her with a hoof. Pinkie kept her vision affixed on the pan, but responded.
"What are we doing Twilight?" Twilight blinked back her confusion.
"What are we doing? Why are we taking him halfway across the country just to tell him 'surprise! You're trapped in Equestria!'? Why are we tearing our friendship apart because we can't agree on what or who he is? Why are we showing him the worst side of pony life? If he gets pushed to becoming a villain, whose fault is that? Even Nightmare Moon was once our lovable Princess Luna. What happens when we slight him one time too many and he does decide to take it out on us? Is that his fault, or ours?"
"Pinkie, what are you saying?" Twilight was awestruck at the sudden clarity pouring out of the pink pony. "How can you possibly know anything about anything? You're just..."
"What?!" Pinkie Pie clenched her teeth with barely contained rage. Her curls had fallen flat against the side of her face and flank, and a dark expression washed over her face. "A big dumb party pony that doesn't know up from down? That's all you think of me isn't it? This is why I like Nathan. He accepts me for me, and doesn’t automatically hand wave my opinion. If it's not a party or a laugh, Pinkie's just being Pinkie. Right? That's what you were going to say right?" Twilight stuttered trying to deny the earth pony’s claims, but no words formed. Fluttershy cowered beneath a table, petrified of Pinkie's new aggression. Pinkie sighed and relaxed, though her straight locks remained.
"If he becomes a villain, Twilight, we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves."
"Pinkie, Fluttershy, look. Let's talk to Applejack. She will know how honest Nathan is and what his current motivations are- she can almost always tell when ponies are lying." Fluttershy came out and nodded. Pinkie didn't say anything, but Twilight took her silence as agreement. "She's in the back room with Nathan right now. This should be easy."
The four ponies walked into the adjacent room, eager to speak with the two of them. Turning the corner they were greeted with an empty room and an open door. Rarity panicked.
"Applejack? Applejack?! Where are you? Oh Twilight! He's taken Applejack!" Twilight shook her head.
"I doubt that, but we still need to find them, and quickly. It's not safe to be outside alone." Pinkie Pie was about to say something when her tail started twitching. A lot.
"Twitchy twitchy twitchy twitch! Girls, my tail is twitching!" Rarity and Twilight went wide-eyed.
"Twitching? Something's falling out of the sky?" Pinkie continued to twitch and confirmed Twilight's fears.
"Yeah. And it's a doozy!" Twilight frowned and buried her face in her hooves.
The three manticores paced in a circle around the human and pony, their tails held high in the air, swaying back and forth and dripping a caustic violet fluid. As each drop splattered on the ground, the snow hissed as it melted away. Small lines of blood traced the circle the three were making, evidence of their tongues rolling over their razor sharp teeth.
Chancing a glance, Nathan looked to the sky, scanning for the fourth manticore. No other beasts in sight, he allowed himself a calming breath. Glancing between the manticores, Applejack, and the buildings on the farm, he slowly formulated a plan. He hissed under his breath.
"Applejack, when I say so, I need you to run as fast as you can to the farm house, get the others, and escape into the woods on the far side." Applejack just sat there stunned by the sudden appearance of the monsters. Nathan looked towards the house and silently mouthed a prayer of forgiveness. Pulling his hand back he slapped The pony across the face. "Applejack!"
"Ouch! What in the..." She brought a hoof up to her shocked face.
"Sorry. Look, did you hear me?"
"Y-yeah, Ah did, but what are you going to do? Do you have a plan?"
"Of course. I always do." Applejack rolled her eyes and gave the human a stern look.
"Yer gonna just wing it and hope everything works out for the best as usual, ain't ya?"
"Like I said, I have a plan." He smiled and carefully reached for his gun. Applejack watched him while keeping the surrounding manticores in her peripheral vision. The three monsters tightened the circle and put pressure on their paws, unsheathing their claws.
"Applejack, are any of these male?" Applejack looked at the human slightly confused.
"Yer asking me that at a time like this sugar cube? You are crazy. Ah reckon they all are. The females tend to be..."
"No time for that. As soon as this goes off, you run." Sweat rolled down his temple, leaving a moist trail on his skin. He waited and watched as one of the manticores slowly closed in, firearm trained on its face. It stood within swiping distance, and reared up, claws glistening in the sunlight. There!
Swinging the shotgun down, he cracked off a shot to the beast’s nether regions. Its eyes crossed and the manticore froze mid swipe. Nothing happened for a moment, the other two manticores looking on in shock, then just as soon as time had seemingly stopped, it restarted, the monster keeling over, roaring in pain, doing it's best to shove it's hindquarters into a pile of snow.
"Go!" Nathan yelled, and Applejack galloped towards the house. Hearing the sound of the gunfire, the other mares, including Rainbow Dash who had been awoken by the earlier shouting, came bursting out the door.
"Get yer bags on girls and let's go while the gettin's good!" Applejack was already barreling past them into the house, frantically strapping into her own saddlebags. One of the manticores had given chase, and the rest shrieked and followed suit, hastily shutting the door behind them. The beast rammed into the side of the building, and they felt the foundations shake under the stress. One of its claws shattered the door as it tried to fish out a pony. Continuing to shriek, the rest of the ponies collected their belongings and headed for the front door.
Noting the relative safety the ponies found themselves in due to the house, Nathan turned to face the other currently mobile manticore. Estimating that the one he had already shot would be down for a few minutes, he slowly backed away from its companion, keeping the gun focused on it to the best of his ability. The monster stalked towards him, murderous intent glaring from its eyes. It wasn't about to make the same mistake as its friend.
"Nice kitty… er bat thing. This doesn't have to get any worse. We can all walk away happy, and alive." Nathan was struggling to keep in control. The manticore's tail continued to sway back and forth, and the human was wary if letting it get within striking distance. Brushing his pocket he cursed himself, realizing that the two shells chambered were all he had left, the rest being in his bag back at the house.
The tail shot out, a purple trail of fluid flashing through the air. The tip did not come close to the human, but the poisonous fluid itself splayed itself across his outer jacket, and he had to peel it off before the acids could eat their way through to his skin. In his moment of distraction, the manticore leaped for Nathan, claws outstretched and tail following. Quickly diving headlong towards the monster, Nathan came up behind it and watched it crash ineffectively into the ground next to its writhing companion. Not waiting to see if it was going to get up, he sprinted as fast as he could towards the western tree line.
Recovering, the manticore leapt to its feet and took wing, driving hard towards its prey. Landing nearly on top of the human, the manticore lashed out with its claw, trying to dig into Nathan's spine. Rolling to the side, Nathan saw the claw dig into the snow inches from his nose. The tail arced over, and he scrambled backwards towards the monster, narrowly avoiding being impaled. The other claw came around and opened a line of even cuts on his right arm, and he screamed in pain. Recovering, he grabbed the Pie Cannon and fired point blank into the manticore's throat as it attempted to bite down on the injured human. Clutching its windpipe and struggling to breathe, the monster spit up a dark red pool of blood. Nathan smiled at his handiwork until he noticed the first manticore had risen to its feet and was eying up the human.
"Holy shit you must be mad..." Making a split decision, Nathan squinted down the barrel and squeezed off his final round, striking the manticore currently digging at the farm-house in the base of the skull. It roared and arched its back, taking a chunk of the wall with it, spinning to find the offending being that would dare attack it. Seeing the smoking metal tube in the human's hands, it hopped twice and flew towards him.
Coming out the front of the house, the mares looked back to where the human and two manticores were currently running towards the trees opposite to their direction. Nathan waited and dove aside again, causing the infuriated manticores to crash together, momentarily stunning them.
"Nathan!" Applejack called out. "What are you doing? This is no plan!"
"You mares go! Get to Foalham as soon as possible. I'll keep these three distracted. I can lose them in the trees or something." Nathan frantically glanced at the recovering monsters then back to the hesitant mares. "Go! I swear to God, if you six don't get the hell out of here, I will shoot every one of you."
"Fine! But Ah expect a proper explanation next time we see each other." Pinkie and Fluttershy looked frantic and confused, and turned to the orange earth pony. "Never mind gals, let's go!"
"Whatever. Go." Nathan called after them. The mares galloped off towards the eastern woods. Nathan was surprised they had gone off without more fuss. If Applejack had known he was out of ammo...
The thought was lost as the manticores regained their footing, chasing down the human. Running into the woods, the last sight Pinkie caught over her shoulder was her friend disappearing to the west being followed by two sets of claws and tails. All six ponies stopping to breathe, they looked at Applejack.
"Applejack, what did you guys talk about? What is he going on about? Come clean!" Pinkie said to her. Her hair was still flat. Applejack struggled with an explanation that wouldn't betray her new found trust with the human, and wouldn't be lying to her friends.
"We discussed his employment. Equestria. Ah think Ah finally got an honest view into the critter's heart."
"And?" The other five said in unison.
"... gals... for lack of words from our world that describe it... it scared the ever living shit outta me."
On the opposite side of the farm, the manticores were following the human through the woods, ripping out trees and shrubs with wanton abandon. Scrambling to get clear of the lighter woods, Nathan dodged around logs and rocks grimacing as his temporary shields were torn asunder behind him as fast as he left them. One of the manticores put a claw through a tree, toppling it over and causing it to hit the human in the head. Dazed, he rolled into a narrow hollow, feeling blood roll down his brow.
The two monsters tried with futility to dig the human out, gave up, and worked together to uproot the tree that was concealing Nathan. Running out, gun still in hand, he bashed one in the leg and managed to get into the thicker underbrush. Slowed by the dense woods, the beasts carefully pushed into the bushes, using their noses as much as their eyes to locate their prey. Nathan crawled along the ground, taking care to leave the bushes around him undisturbed. Two tails crashed down through the thickets on either side of him, melting away the bushes. A drop of the fluid dropped onto his exposed arm. The painful burning faded quickly, replaced with a numb tingling. Wiping away the caustic solution and gritting his teeth, the human barrelled out of the bushes, his one arm slacking half-uselessly against his side. Up ahead he could see a small pond covered in snow and ice.
Taking a moment to consider if the ice could carry his weight for any length of time, he remembered the two alternatives very rapidly approaching and made up his mind. Dropping the Pie Cannon, he dashed out onto the pond, feeling the ice sag, but sighed with relief as it held him. The manticores roared and chased him down. Nathan kept moving across the ice, slipping and sliding as he went. The monsters behind them flashed their fangs, eager for the easy kill in front of them, out in the open. They landed on both sides next to him, and crashed through the ice, all three plunged into the icy water.
Struggling to keep afloat and get out of the pond before hypothermia set in, Nathan watched as the manticores thrashed around him. Surprised to find themselves suddenly submerged, the two beasts flailed wildly around, trying to find their prey and escape the pond. Crawling up onto the shore, Nathan watched as the pond churned into a muddy purple colour. Venom leaking from their tails, the manticores slowly seeped in their own vile poisons, their movements slowing, and finally growing still as they floated to the edge of the pond, still breathing, but incapacitated. Nathan walked over to them and used his jacket to wipe them down as much as possible.
"I've got another one back at the farm. Don't want you guys catching hypothermia." Collecting his firearm he wandered back to the farm, the feeling slowly returning to his arm. Seeing the third manticore gone, he gathered his belongings, dried off properly and changed into his spare set of clothes.
Reloading the gun, he walked outside and started walking in the general direction of the eastern woods. When he was within a few dozen yards of the edge of the farm, the third manticore appeared and dropped in front of him, roaring. He sighed, flicked the safety off the Pie Cannon and popped three shots into the beast's face. It dropped, growling the whole way down. Exhausted, Nathan spent the last of his energy climbing on top of the downed monster, propping his legs up and watching the sun trace its long path across the sky.
Following the mares into the woods would be foolish, not having a map or compass, and it would be dark before too long.
"Guess I'm staying the night on the farm with you big guy. Be a pal and see yourself out after I go to bed." Still unconscious, the powerful beast gave a rumbling growl in its sleep. Nathan looked over to the manticore’s face. "Yeah, well, fuck you too."
After traveling silently for several hours, nearly all of the ponies contemplating the turn of events, they reached town a just before the last rays of the sun dipped out of sight, the mares were allowed entry by the guards, and went about finding a small inn. Storing their bags, they walked down to a nearby candlelit restaurant and watched the moon rise over Equestria. Eating their fill, they managed to turn their attention to the conversation they had all been avoiding.
"Alright look, unlike the rest of you I'm not afraid to talk about this." Rainbow Dash stated. "Nathan is out there alone right now. We don't know where he is or what he's doing. What's our plan? It’d better be a good one." Twilight nodded, a solemn look on her face.
"Well, I still need to get to Canterlot. That hasn't changed. Nathan will have to catch up on his own."
"Twilight, don't you think that maybe we should go back for him? Ah don't think he has any idea where he's going." Applejack was idly pushing around a bowl of greens that she had hardly touched. Rarity scoffed and turned her head from the earth pony.
"Hardly. It would take too long, and as Dash pointed out, we have no idea where he is. Let us not forget that last time we saw him he had not one but three manticores deciding how to best serve him up. An argument might be made that he could possibly already be..." Fluttershy had flown over and slapped Rarity across the face with her hoof as hard as she could, leaving a red swollen cheek and a shocked unicorn. Rainbow Dash's eyes flew wide at the sudden aggression from her fellow pegasus, but it was quickly replaced with a feeling of jealously. She'd wanted to slap sense into that white pompous prude for years!
"Don't say it. Don't you dare say it. Once again he tries to protect us- protect you- from danger, and you slander him. You're supposed to be my friend." Rubbing her face, a tear trickling down beside her hoof, Rarity looked back at the defiant pegasus.
"Fluttershy! I am your friend, and always will be. I'm trying to save you!"
"From what, Rarity, what are you saving me from?"
“Fluttershy I… you know…” Rarity looked around frantically, trying to find an out.
“Rarity! What are you saving me from?!”
"Yourself you silly, air headed, ditzy mare!" The words escaped her mouth before she could cover it with her hooves, and the six mares sat in stunned silence. Fluttershy squinted her eyes, glaring at the white unicorn.
"I'm what now? I'm sorry Rarity, I don't think the ponies on the other side of town heard you. Tell us again, what am I?"
"Fluttershy, listen. I..."
"No, Rarity. You listen to me. I don't know what crawled up your dress, and why you hate him so much. I was willing to forgive your misgivings. I've put up with you for three and a half months. If your feelings are so strong though, that you’re willing to drag me through the mud to make a point, though, then I'll make it easy for you. I relieve you of the burden of friendship. If he is dead, and so help me if he is I'll make sure you remember this day for the rest of your life, then I'm going to mourn with my friend. Pinkie, let's go." Fluttershy walked off back towards the inn they had booked, crying as she went. Pinkie looked towards Fluttershy and then back to the other mares, torn as to what to do. The pink pony’s trademark curls had returned, but she was still unsure and shaken.
"Go Pinkie." Twilight nudged her. "Keep an eye on her. Make sure she doesn't do anything rash." Pinkie nodded and bounded after the sobbing mare.
"I-I should go too." A clearly shaken Rarity sputtered.
"No. We need you here." Rainbow laid a hoof on her shoulder. "Sometimes it takes a brave pony to speak their mind to their friends. You know Flutters. She'll come around. For now though, let's figure this out." Rarity nodded and sighed. The four remaining ponies sat in silence again. Applejack was still moving her bowl around, eating a few scraps, but nothing significant.
"Applejack, you've been awfully quiet this evening. What's your take? Could you tell us about your conversation earlier." Twilight was staring at the stewing pony.
"Ah... Ah don't know girls. None o' this makes sense to a simple farmer like me. Rarity and Fluttershy fightin'. This human."
"You said earlier though that you caught a view of his heart. Was it all beating and gross and stuff?" Rainbow Dash had a devious look in her eyes.
"Ah meant that metaphorically Dash. Ah mean Ah got to see a little bit into who he is. His feelings."
"You mean anger, rage, and malice?" Rarity pointed a hoof at Applejack.
"Rarity, quit yer yappin'. No, Ah mean the real Nathan. The one he uses the anger to hide"
"Ok," Twilight sighed, "I'll bite. Tell us about Nathan."
"Well Ah'm not sure, but Ah don't think he wants to be here." Dash rolled her eyes and laughed.
"You just figured that out AJ? I could have told you that."
"No you don't understand Ah mean..."
"Hey guys!" Pinkie Pie bounced up. "Fluttershy passed out as soon as we got to the inn. She must have been super tired! Since she was asleep I came back. Were you guys talking about what to do tomorrow?" Twilight beheld from Pinkies eyes, now that she looked for it, a barely concealed hostility bordering on loathing. She tried to ignore it to the best of her ability, but Pinkie Pie refused to break eye contact, burrowing into Twilight's soul and leaving a feeling of fear and anxiety.
"Yes Pinkie, we were." Applejack nodded. "Ah guess we have to keep moving and hope for the best."
"Okie dokie! Sounds good. Nathan will catch up later." Twilight looked over at Applejack, but the earth pony returned her questioning glance with a sad shake of the head. This ain’t the right time Twi. Jes’ trust me.
"Ah'd wager you're right Pinkie. Maybe tomorrow. Let's get a good night's sleep so we can hit the road again first thing in the morning."
The five friends, slightly bolstered by the fact they now had a plan, headed for the door of the restaurant.
Nathan was sound asleep, his dreams filled with sights and sounds he had long ago buried. The Pie Cannon lay straddled in his arms, fully loaded and ready to go at a moments notice. He started to mumble in his sleep.
"I don't care... no... but you promised... I'll show you... no... no... NO!!" He woke up sweating bullets, eyes wide and panicked. Realizing he was in one of the bedrooms of the farm house, he went downstairs and grabbed a glass of water. He had done a quick job covering the doorway with a blanket earlier in the evening, but the cold air still swirled through, leaving the floor cold on his bare feet.
Retrieving the glass, he retired to his room, lighting a candle and making a few notes in his journal. Looking out the window, he could see the manticore in the field had long ago left, and he could probably safely sleep without his gun for the rest of the night. Putting it aside, he went to climb back into bed when he heard a thump on the roof.
Dropping the covers, he spun towards where he had left his weapon, and reached out for it, only to find it floating in the air, just out of his reach. From behind him he heard a voice.
"I would think twice before trying something, Ypsilon.” Slowly turning, he found himself face to face with an enormous horse, far larger than any other pony he’d seen so far. With a sleek coat gleaming in the dark, adorned with the wings of a pegasus and the horn of a unicorn, a single tiara on her head accentuated her ethereal mane and indicated her royal heritage. "It’s about time we’ve had a talk." Nathan's jaw dropped.