Down the path from Fluttershy’s cottage, a short-sounding thrum and a flash of light signaled Joseph’s successful teleportation.
From past experience, he readied himself to void his stomach, but when the sensation failed to arrive, he sighed in relief and looked around for Spike.
“Did the spell help?” Spike asked from behind Joseph. He was looking back at Ponyville, deep in thought.
Joseph walked up beside him. “I think the better question is; how’re you holding up?”
Spike didn’t answer. He balled his fists and took a determined breath, steeling himself and walked past Joseph and up the path to the cottage. Joseph used his magic to grab at Spike’s arm before he could get too far ahead.
“Let go!” Spike snapped, yanking his arm free of the aura. He turned to glare at Joseph through an enraged expression with heavy, nasally breaths.
‘Well, I guess that answers that question…’ Joseph thought. “Look, we’re in more shit than tub girl and we need to figure out a plan, alright?”
“No, it’s not alright!” A stray tear leaked from the corner of Spike’s eyes as they misted over. “She… Chrysalis, she…” His eyes clenched shut, trying to stem the flow.
Joseph walked up to Spike, sat on his haunches, and pulled him into a hug. Quiet sobs wracked Spike’s body as he tried to keep his composure, but he eventually acquiesced and hugged Joseph back.
“I know what it’s like to lose someone you care about,” Joseph said, looking Spike in the eyes. “And it’s alright to have a good cry about it; that’s how we know we care. But... the worst thing is not being able to do anything.” Joseph paused to consider how he watched his parents die in the hospital. The feeling of utter uselessness and lost hope had left him physically and mentally drained for a long time. “I’ll get her back, don’t worry.”
“H-how?” Spike sniffled and rubbed the back of his hand across his nose.
’Well if that isn’t the question of the day,’ Joseph thought before turning his attention to Nightmare Moon. ‘What kind of magic did you say Chrysalis was using?’
Biology orientated transmutation, she replied. She’s using her magic for forcefully transform ponies into her changelings.
‘What about the rest of them? The ones that she didn’t do… that… to.’
My knowledge of Chrysalis’ magic is limited. I know what she does, but not how she does it. That’s why we need to get to the castle in the Everfree. There’s ancient tomes there that’ll likely have information on her.
‘You really enjoy skipping around the point, don’t you?’
Without missing a beat, Nightmare answered; Do you know why Chrysalis takes her captives back to her hive? To me, it seems a likely reason get them out of her way and into a place where she can keep an eye on them.
‘Let’s just drop Spike off and get to the castle,’ Joseph amended before turning his attention back to Spike. “Nightmare said that Twilight could either be at the hive, or that that changeling could still be her. Now come on, let’s get you inside.”
“What’re we doing here anyway?”
“We need to make sure Fluttershy is safe.”
Good luck explaining to Fluttershy what has transpired, Nightmare said. You know how she is; she’ll likely have an aneurysm.
The duo made their way up to the cottage’s door, wherein Joseph rapped a hoof on it.
”Go away, no visitors on Nightmare Night!” bellowed a voice from within.
“Fluttershy, it’s Joseph,” he said dryly. Several seconds passed but he got no reply. He banged on the door louder.
“I can hear you!” he replied with equal vigour.
This time it was Spike’s turn to bang on the door, although with both fists, and rather frantically. “Fluttershy, we need your help! Something happened in Ponyville!”
Joseph clenched his teeth and glared down at Spike, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Lesson number one in how to not be subtle as fuck…” he said under his breath
The door creaked open. The inside was pitch black, as if Fluttershy had extinguished every light source. The longer Joseph stared at the open crack, there was one thing that came apparent.
Shadows don’t have fur. Do they?
When the door opened fully, Joseph craned his head to look up at the bear standing before him. The massive creature gave him a disapproving look with crossed arms.
Joseph took a cautious step back, swallowed a lump in his throat, and said; “Can I get through? I need to talk to Fluttershy.”
The bear shook his head, then clasped his hands together and put them on the left side of his face, tilting his head as he did so.
The bear nodded.
“She couldn’t have been if she heard me knock!”
He snarled in reply, strongly suggesting that Joseph leave.
“Look, something happened in town and we need to come in!”
The door moved open another couple inches, and an eye half covered by a pink mane peeked around the door.
“I-is everything alright?” Fluttershy asked meekly.
“If Mr. Tall, Dark, and Scary could step aside, that would be great.”
“Come on Barry, let him in. Joseph won’t hurt us.”
‘Barry’ scratched his head and pointed a claw at Joseph, making some confused growling sounds.
“Not right now. I’ll tell you later.” He then stepped to his left, out of the way of Joseph and Spike to let them in. Once they were in, he followed suit and closed the door behind him.
“Sorry about Barry, he can get a little over-protective at times.”
“When your bodyguard is two-and-a-half metres tall and can rip large chunks of hamburger from your torso with his claws, I don’t doubt that he keeps those types at bay.” As Joseph stepped inside, he was overwhelmed by the multitude of animals that were scattered around the place. Barry exempt, there were birds, rabbits, mice, a few jackalopes, squirrels, ducks and ducklings amongst others and, much to Joseph’s confusion, a rather pissed-off looking white bunny sat on Fluttershy’s back. The rabbit seemed familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.
And then the smell hit. Joseph recoiled slightly, nostrils flaring as the offensive odour did battle with the cilia in his nose. How could nobody else notice it? Regardless, he’d just have to do his best to ignore it for the time being.
“Y-you said something happened in town?” Fluttershy asked, bringing the conversation back to the original point.
’Damn it, how do I break this to her?’ Joseph looked down to Spike who, in turn, looked up to him with the same expression. “Uhm… Ponyville.” He thickly swallowed. “Ponyville got attacked.”
Fluttershy gasped and pulled a hoof over her mouth. “I-is everypony alright?”
”No,” he wanted to say. “I hate to beat around the bush, and this is something that’s as difficult for me to say as it is for you to hear, so I’ll be candid: Changelings have been replacing people in town and now their leader has staged a coup.”
Fluttershy’s mouth hung agape as her eyes seemingly stared past Joseph and into infinity. She was as stiff as a board, unmoving as she struggled to process the information. Several animals were watching the conversation, and more joined the crowd to see what was going on.
“Look, I need you to keep an eye on Spike while I find a way to get rid of Chrysalis.” Fluttershy blinked in confusion. “Their leader,” Joseph amended. Her mouth formed a small “o” and turned to look up at Barry, whose arms were crossed and looking down at both ponies with a neutral, stoic expression.
“No,” Spike interrupted. “She took Twilight, I’m going with you!”
“Not a chance. You can breathe fire, so if any changelings come snooping you can turn them into charcoal briquettes. And with Mr. Claws McNope over there, the two of you can do some damage.”
“Chrysalis has an army! Do you really think a baby dragon and a bear can hold them off!?” Spike exclaimed through a vexed glare.
“The fact that Chrysalis hasn’t even been here tells me that she either doesn’t know about Fluttershy’s cottage, or doesn’t care. What’s one timid mare going to do against her?” Joseph shot back. “That’s only a last resort, if it ever came to that. No offense by the way…”
“N-none taken…” Fluttershy replied, idly pawing at the ground.
“The longer I spend here, the more I’m putting the both of you at risk.” Joseph didn’t know if she had gotten her use out of her mysterious spell, or still wanted to use it to keep tabs on him.
“W-what are you going to do?” Fluttershy asked, looking up to Joseph through moistened eyes. “If Twilight and the rest of us can’t use the Elements on her...”
“I… I don’t know.” Joseph was just one person; he couldn't do enough damage to Chrysalis and her army. He needed her alone. “But I will fix this. She knows I’m going to come back, so I need to change the status quo somehow. Nightmare Moon said there’s something at the castle in the forest that would help.”
A loud, shrill whistle from somewhere among the animals drew the confused stares of those present. The white rabbit that was on Fluttershy’s back was impatiently tapping a foot on the floor, his arms crossed and staring down Fluttershy.
“Angel Bunny? What is it?” He proceeded to hop high enough to land on Fluttershy’s head, where he started being vocal with the other animals, squeaking away and making wild gestures with his paws.
He suddenly pulled out a little wooden sword that looked like it was made from chopsticks, from where Joseph couldn’t figure out, and thrust it forward with a squeak of finality.
All animals present dove back into their little houses with some running off into the kitchen. When they came back, they all brandished various forms of cutlery—forks, spoons, ladles and spatulas—as well as other items they could hold.
“Angel Bunny! You are not going outside!” Fluttershy angrily chastised before clearing her throat and speaking calmer. “I understand you want to help protect me, but like Joseph said; we’re safer here. Now put that thing away, please?”
Angel threw his paws up in the air in frustration.
“I’m sorry, Angel, but I can’t let you do that. I don’t know what I’d do if any of you got hurt…” She looked to the ground dejectedly, and Joseph saw the animals slump in defeat. “Now would everyone else be so kind is to put the cutlery back where you got it?”
’Can she actually talk to the animals?’ Joseph asked Nightmare.
Her talent means she’s good with animals, so she’d be able to talk with them on some level. You were speaking to the bear just before, weren’t you?
“I gotta say, I admire the balls on your bunny,” Joseph said out loud. Angel folded his arms in pride and gave a nod to Fluttershy. “Even though they’re probably the size of peas.” Angel gave a squeaky huff and hopped out of the room, then Joseph turned to Fluttershy. “You just need to lay low and stay out of sight. Keep Spike with you, too.”
“They’ll find us eventually,” Spike said pointedly.
“Which means there is still time. I’ll get Twilight back, I promise.”
“I… Okay. I’ll stay here and keep Fluttershy safe,” he said reluctantly.
The more time you spend reassuring them, the less we’ll have to stop Chrysalis, Nightmare said.
“Look, I need to hurry up.”
Spike nodded. “Alright. Just be careful.”
Joseph looked up to Barry. He nodded stoically, wordlessly telling Joseph he’d also keep an eye on things. Joseph heaved a breath to calm his heart and anxiety, then turned for the door.
“Uhm, wait a moment…” Fluttershy said meekly. Joseph turned his head to look at her and she continued. “How will I know when everything is alright?”
He looked around the room at the various birds, and the idea bulb went off in his head. “Send one or two of your birds out in the morning. Until they say it’s safe outside, I can only hope nothing finds you.” Joseph cracked open the door to see if there were any changelings, but it was rather quiet all the way out here.
Looking back over toward town, he sincerely hoped he could find a way to put Chrysalis down before she could cause anymore damage. Nightmare Moon could only muster so much magic to craft her spell to reverse Chrysalis’, and he still had a few of his molotovs.
He had no idea if these changelings were vulnerable to fire like he hoped, but right now, that was all he had to go on. If not, then they can still cause some serious damage. That is to say he could throw competently, and hit his targets.
With five bombs left and hundreds upon hundreds of Changelings, that would require skill he didn’t have. And lamp oil.
Joseph began walking down the dirt path from Fluttershy’s cottage. ’How do I get to the castle from here?’
Keep heading south-east into the forest. You can’t miss it.
’How do I know you’re stearing me straight? In every sense of the word.’
Joseph stood before the dense thicket leading into the Everfree. He could already feel the shadows within weigh down on him.
I want to deal with Chrysalis just as much as you do, Nightmare said.
’I’m going to go out on a limb and say that your reasons are not the same as mine.’ Joseph breathed a relaxing sigh through his nose, boldly entering the oppressive forest.
As he tentatively strode through the looming shadows, his thoughts went back to something Chrysalis said earlier.
“You have the abilities of a god…”
Half an hour had passed with neither Nightmare or Joseph saying a word to one another. He knew she had an ulterior motive for helping him, but he knew it would be a wasted effort to try and get her to talk. Nightmare Moon could easily peruse through his head to find out what she needed to know about him, and while she could do anything she wanted in there, the risk of doing so outweighed what result she’d otherwise get.
The more he thought about it, there was one thing that didn’t sit straight with Joseph. How did he get where he is now? Not walking around a forest in the middle of the night, but… here, in every sense of the word. How did he wind up on this planet in the first place? What happened to his body on Earth? And why does Chrysalis have such a hard-on for him?
Breaking the blissful internal silence, Joseph asked; ’Am I still going in the right direction?’
Yes, you are. Nightmare said.
’And what did Chrysalis mean back there?’
’Oh, y’know, the part where Chrysalis said I have the abilities of a god. Care to shed some light on that?’
No need to get snippy about it.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did you miss the part where I got kidnapped from my home and tossed into this stupid body, thrown into the midst of something that makes exactly zero sense to me, and not to mention how I lost the very thing that made me a man!?”
Sometimes shouting felt good.
“You owe me some serious answers,” he finished irately.
Alright, I’ll give you that much, Nightmare said, dejected. Chrysalis is right, I am a god. Of what, you already know.
“Fat lot of good that does me right now. Anyway, how much longer to the castle?”
About another hour's walk if you keep on track.
“So that means we’ve got time.”
Do you expect me to tell you my life’s story while we walk?
“No, just answers to the questions I’m going to ask.” A twig broke somewhere off to Joseph’s right, and his head snapped to face the sound as he froze in place.
I suggest you keep your voice down if you don’t want to get eaten by manticores.
’If I was still on Earth I’d call bullshit on the manticores, but since I’ve got a horn, wings, something I never thought I’d get, and magic is a thing, I’m not remotely surprised anymore.’
You will be when one stings you. Death by manticore venom is not pretty.
More rustling caught Joseph’s attention again and caused his heart rate to increase. ’Part of me wants to stay and find out what that is since I’m genuinely curious, and the other wants to book it in the other direction so I don’t have to.’
To do so is a deathwish.
Just then a rabbit hopped out of the bushes, bounding over to Joseph. Only, this rabbit wore a tiny little general’s cap with a small wooden sword strapped to his waist with a piece of string.
“Angel?!” Joseph said. “Was that you following us?” Angel curtly nodded, pointing back and forth between him and Joseph. “What do you want?” He pointed back toward Ponyville, squeaking something incomprehensible.
Joseph just gawked at the rabbit as he played his game of charades. “Dude, I don’t know what you’re trying to get at!”
Angel pulled his ears down over one side of his face, adopting a more fragile posture.
“Fluttershy?” Joseph guessed. Angel nodded, hopping closer to jump onto Joseph’s back. “Woah there, what do you think you’re doing?” He plopped himself between Joseph’s shoulders and folded his arms and legs. “Oh, nu-uh, you ain’t coming with me!”
Angel whapped Joseph over the back of his head, pointing towards town again and going off at Joseph. Joseph, meanwhile, could only stare at the rabbit with bemusement and annoyance as the bunny continued his tirade and charade.
’What’s he saying?’ Joseph asked Nightmare.
I can’t understand him anymore than you can, she said.
“Just… hold the phone for a second,” Joseph pleaded. Angel stopped what he was doing and looked at Joseph, his impenitent glare unmoving. “Just bear with me and nod or shake your head at my questions. First question: You want to help Fluttershy?” Angel nodded and proceeded to wrap his arms around himself tightly. “Alright, you’re trying to keep her safe. Next question: Going off of what you did in the cottage, you think we need more help.” He nodded again, raising his paws high and slowly widening them in an arch. “A lot of it, apparently.
“And where do you think we’re going to get that help?” Joseph asked pointedly, arching a challenging eyebrow.
Angel turned around toward the depths of the forest, opening his arms wide and gesturing forward, rotating himself left and right, as if scanning the trees. He seems to think that the creatures of the Everfree would help, Nightmare translated. Personally, I don’t see why they would. They don’t like the ponies any more than the ponies like the creatures.
The rabbit then hopped off Joseph’s back and ran back into the bush he came from. Angel was gone for all of five seconds before a hushed “Ow!” came from the same direction. Out hopped Angel, and a larger shape moved through the bushes behind him. He heard some annoyed grumbling following a white hoof with a remote strapped to it stepping from the bush.
Vinyl emerged rubbing one of her ears against the side of her head, glaring down at Angel, then turned her gaze towards Joseph, her eyes narrowing in an accusing stare.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Joseph said angrily.
“I was in my house getting some music for after Trixie’s, or should I say Chrysalis’ magic show, when the mayhem broke out. After than I hoofed it in the opposite direction to get away and ended up running into the forest. After a while I was found by Fluttershy’s rabbit, so I thought he could lead me back to her place.”
Joseph noticed the remote for the soundstage still on Vinyl’s leg and asked; “What have you still got that on for?”
Vinyl brought it up to her face and used her magic to press a few of the buttons. “Well for one thing I made it so I’m not just going to leave it in the middle of the woods. Secondly, it went nuts for some reason a while back; started shaking, then it shut itself off.”
’What do you think happened?’ Joseph asked Nightmare.
That remote controls the music platform. When we fed the magic into it, the surge would have overloaded the remote.
“It’s dead,” Joseph said.
“Yeah, about that… I kinda fed Nightmare’s magic into your platform and the surge overloaded the remote.”
Vinyl stiffened in place, cautiously regarding the tall mare before her through narrowed eyes. “What do you mean, ‘Nightmare’s magic’? Isn’t this just a disguise?”
’Apparently she wasn’t around for the big reveal’ “Yeah, about that…”
The mare just stood, transfixed in place as the gears in her head began grinding. Her jaw dropped in realisation, horror washing across as she stumbled backwards. “Y-y-you’re real!” Vinyl blurted.
“It’s a long story.” Joseph explained as Vinyl plastered herself against a tree. “If you think I wanted to hurt you, don’t you think I would have done it one of the other times we were in the same room? Y’know, benefit of the doubt and all that good stuff.”
Vinyl reluctantly lowered herself to the forest floor and cast a wary look Joseph’s way. “Fine,” she acquiesced, “I’ll hear you out. Where are you going, anyway?”
“To the castle somewhere in the forest to stop bug brain back there. C’mon, either tag along or don’t; it doesn’t really matter to me either way.” Joseph glanced to Angel. “Same goes for you too. I need to put her down before things go from bad to a complete shit-show.” He returned to walking in the direction of the castle.
Vinyl looked at Angel and shrugged indifferently. “Better than town right now, that’s for sure,” she said before walking after Joseph. Angel hopped onto Vinyl’s back for the ride.
“So, where to begin…” Joseph said
Joseph recounted his tale for the next forty-five minutes as they walked. He saved some time by skimping on some of the detail, namely the parts he felt embarrassed or ashamed to mention. Vinyl listened as they ventured further into the forest, stopping now and then to ask a brief question.
Eventually they found themselves in a fog covered clearing. Up ahead sat two wooden posts in the ground, and as they got closer, noticed a rope and board bridge spanning to the other side of the ravine. On the other side was the faint, hazy silhouette of a large building, blocked by the thick fog. It was gently coaxed along by a barely noticeable breeze, a crisp chill permeating the ambience and accentuating the entire creepy factor.
We’re here, Nightmare said.
A short, shrill whistle caught the attention of Joseph and Vinyl. They turned and saw Angel standing back at the tree line. He pointed back into the forest and made a determined squeak, still adamant about gathering the creatures.
Joseph rolled his eyes in frustration and said to Angel; “Do you expect me to play diplomat to a bunch of wild animals? We’ll get mauled!” The bunny continued to berate Joseph through words unknown, and eventually Joseph’s impatience got the better of him. Ignoring Angel, he gave the rabbit the cold shoulder and turned back towards the bridge, contemplating the old wooden bridge.
Angel, meanwhile, threw his paws up in the air with frustration, and wailed with anger towards Joseph. He then hopped back into the forest, leaving Vinyl with Joseph.
“What are we even doing here?” Vinyl asked.
“I,” he corrected, “need to find some kind of magic that’ll help me get rid of Chrysalis.”
“I can help,” Vinyl said hopefully.
Joseph snorted derisively. “How?”
“I know my talent is music, but I’m also good with other things.”
Joseph looked over the bridge before him and smiled. “You can start by testing the bridge.” His smile transformed into a shit-eating grin, but Vinyl paid him no heed.
“Well, if it was good for Twilight and the rest of them, it’s good for me,” she said shakily.
A careful hoofstep told her the wood, while old, was still sturdy. She made it across easily enough and turned to Joseph, smiling smugly.
“If I can do it, surely Nightmare Moon can too!” Vinyl taunted, calling back from across the other side.
Joseph scowled at her and tested the bridge with a hoof. When he began to cross, his wings flared so that, if he fell, he could at least try and glide to safety. Or fall to his death and have every bone in his body broken against the cliff face on the way down.
Fortunately neither situation came to pass as Joseph let out a relieved breath he didn’t realise he was holding.
“Can’t fly?” Vinyl said with an edge to her tone.
“I’ve never flown before,” Joseph retorted. “Humans aren’t designed to fly, so I’ve kept myself grounded.”
“What happens when they do?”
“What am I gonna do, flap my arms and hope it works? If I jumped out of a plane and did that, I’d just wind up as pizza on the tarmac.”
“What’s a plane?”
“Just ssshhhhh, please,” Joseph said with exasperation. “I know you want to help, but I’m trying hard not to completely lose it right now.”
Vinyl’s demeanor softened and she turned to face the destroyed ruins of the castle alongside Joseph. The main foyer of the castle had been completely destroyed; there was almost nothing left of the walls, and the remains of the roof lay as piles of rubble around the room. The massive wooden doors that were the entrance were both ajar at different angles. Slightly open doors in the middle of the night were always something to be cautious of; one does not simply walk into an old castle without considering the possibility of getting jumped.
Joseph pulled one of the slabs of wood open further, the hinges screeching like rusted nails down a chalkboard. He grimaced, and when the noise had stopped and the door was open, he looked around inside, Vinyl craning her neck to try looking over his shoulder.
“Do you know what it is you’re looking for?” Vinyl asked, one of Joseph’s eyes twitching with a modicum of annoyance at the question.
Much of the castle is in ruin, Nightmare interjected to Joseph. However, some of the lower levels will have survived. There’s a vault under the castle that we need to get to.
“Nightmare says there’s a big room with lots of treasure in it,” Joseph mocked.
“Oohhhh!” Vinyl joyously sing-songed.
“Don’t you just love the idea of plundering ancient treasure vaults?” Joseph asked rhetorically. ’So, where do we begin?’
As you’re probably aware, Nightmare said sarcastically, old castles often have mazes of secret tunnels around. There are two leading off from the old throne room, so that’s where we need to start.
Joseph grinned as wide as the Cheshire Cat. “Which way to the throne room?”