Dust. Why is it always dust?
Lieutenant Karen Hawthorne sneezed miserably into her handkerchief, careful not to contaminate the documents on the desk before her. She rubbed her nose and folded the square of cloth neatly to one side of her workspace, touching the her blonde bun to make certain it hadn't come loose.
Where the hell does it all come from? Are the air scrubbers even working?
Her attention returned to the stack of records before her. It was in here somewhere. It had to be. She could remember seeing that name so clearly. But where had she seen it? She scanned another report before placing it in the ‘out’ pile and picking up a fresh file.
“If you could find it, that would be a great help,” he says. Bullshit. He just didn’t want to deal with the Archives. Who takes care of this place, anyway? Have they even set foot in here in the past few years? So help me, if I find out the scrubbers have been broken for that long, I will personally take out the filters and shove them so far up the Maintenance Director’s ass that he coughs up dust for a month!
With an aggravated sigh, another dead end file found its way to the out pile. Delicately, she removed her wireframe glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to squeeze the frustration out of her sinuses.
It’ll all be over soon, she tried reassuring herself. Only a few more files, and then it’ll all be over.
She reseated her glasses and glanced through the next file. Then, like a bolt of lightning, something caught her eye. A single quoted phrase:
She picked up the file, a thrill of excitement sending a shiver down her spine. Was this it? She delved into the report, slowly growing tenser as she continued to read.
Incident Report: #053-C07y-01015
Reporting: Cpl. T’kelk Stoth, Shard #0616-935-07274
Date: C513056, M03, D23, H1824
Patrol Route: Fesh-Till, R-001-25, PID-R4Oc5-175.035.022.199
Attachment(s): Visor Recording 935-07274.056-03-23: 0832-0845, Census Record of Pocol 7
Statement: This One began Its assigned patrol as per the usual. At 0830 hours, This One was passing through the capital’s Market District when a commotion drew Its attention. As This One drew close to the scene, the situation revealed that Fesh-Till’s standard military strength would not be enough to contain the threat.
In the center of the Market Square, a human male - not Fesh-Till native - was rampaging, heavily tainted by Void magics. Casualties were mounting by the second. As such, This One activated Its perception filter and dephased to engage the assailant. The assailant was successfully detained with no further casualties, and with minimal additional damage to the scene. This One disengaged from the Fesh-Till natives with no further incident, and brought the tainted human back to base to process the transfer to the Secure Holding and Intensive Care Unit in the Tartarus Prison branch, pending trial. Casualties were later determined to be 27 civilians and 4 guards, Fesh-Till native. No special corpse disposal was deemed necessary.
Genetic and vitaic testing revealed the following information: the tainted human male -- name of Marwell Tint -- is native of Plane Pocol 07, “Wildfire” Galaxy, Adrius System, Planet Killiab, and a citizen of the Gunnav Dynasty. Pocol 07 has been classified Protected Access by the Council, but Mr. Tint’s method and location of planar departure is unlogged, so it is suspected to be involuntary and malicious, since Mr. Tint had also been reported missing over 2 cycles ago.
It is to be noted that the Mr. Tint was cooperative during transfer, though whether that was because of his restraints, This One cannot speculate. During the process, Mr. Tint babbled incoherently, but for one key phrase.
When pressed for more information, the only comprehensible answer This One received was this: “He waits in the Weave, watching, salivating. The Stillness descends.”
After this, Mr. Tint devolved into moaning and guttural noises.
This one recommends standard observance protocols until such time as it can be ascertained whether or not his comments require further investigation.
Lt. Hawthorne’s hackles rose. This was it! The report she had been looking for! She nearly jumped up from her chair and stormed out of the Archives with an excited sneeze.
The whitewashed stone walls passed by in a flurry, as she sped toward the Captain’s office. Lower ranking soldiers stepped out of her path with a salute, and her peers and betters stepped aside with a snide comment or raised eyebrow. She ignored all of it. If the Captain was correct about this, the entirety of the Planejumpers would be mobilized before long. No one would have the time to be egotistical.
In minutes, she stood before a door with the nameplate “CPT. Conrad Balken”. She rapped smartly on the wooden panels.
“Come in,” a gruff, muffled voice could barely be heard from within. Lt. Hawthorne shut her eyes, frown deepening. The cadence of that voice could only mean one thing. She turned the handle and walked inside.
Cpt. Balken sat in his perilously complaining swivel chair, ursine feet propped up on the desk, scraps of rendered shoe littering its surface. His cap barely covered his face, and the shaggy brown fur covering his massive body swayed gently with his breathing. The uniform the massive beast wore barely fit, though it didn’t seem to disturb him one bit. Every few seconds, a light snore emanated from beneath the cap. Lt. Hawthorne sighed explosively.
“Sir, your lycan is showing.”
The werebear jerked awake, looking around himself in bewilderment. He lifted his cap with a dinner-plate sized paw, and his eyes fell on the remains of his shoes.
Cpt. Balken began to shrink, his fur and bulk receding until only a large, hairy, muscular man with olive-tan skin remained. His dark eyes glared at his feet from beneath wavy brown bangs.
“That’s the second damn time this month. Hawthorne, do I have any shoes left in my uniform allowance?”
“No, sir. After last month, command decided to limit your monthly allowance to two sets of uniform. I would suggest taking your shoes off from now on, if you find yourself drifting off. Or, alternatively, stop falling asleep at your desk. It would make my life much easier.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed dismissively, obviously ignoring her. The leather scraps were swept into a bin with a single sweep of his large hands. “So, you find something?”
Lt. Hawthorne permitted herself another small sigh before dropping the file on his desk, sending up a small dust cloud. Cpt. Balken opened it curiously, as she relayed her findings.
“Yes, sir. I believe this incident report has strong ties to the Stillness and their deity. The perpetrator, Marwell Tint, is probably our best lead. If we can extract any information from him, it may well shed some light on the recent disappearances.”
Cpt. Balken grimaced as he glanced through the report. Eventually, he came to a decision.
“Alright, I’ll set up a visitation request with Tartarus branch. You pull together whatever else the geeks can find on void magic and Pocol 7, and get some equipment together. I’d prefer to spend as little time there as possible.”
The day dawned as clear and as bright as mountain spring water. The first rays of sunlight crept over Sam’s eyes and he turned away, unwilling to leave the comfort of sleep. But the light had already hit his retinas, sending impulses to his brain.
Half-asleep, Sam slowly dragged himself into a seated slouch, stubbornly keeping his eyes closed against the day. It took him a minute to recognize the sound of his heart monitor. Mentally, he took stock of his situation and his memories of everything that had happened in the past few days.
Ugh, okay… Woke up in a spa. Found out I’m on some weird magical alien pony planet. Got yelled at for being a dick while under the effects of hallucinogenic fruit. Explained Earth, sort of. Got chased by demi-gods. Nearly killed an entire town. Now I’m in the hospital.
Sam sat in silence, mind blessedly empty.
…Yeah, too much. I’m going back to bed.
“Sam! You’re awake! Excellent.” Twilight’s exclamation rung in his ears, insistent but not quite painful. “Everypony’s already at the Library. Now that you’re awake, we can get going.”
“Twilight, what time is it?” Sam groused.
“Oh. Um, well it’s about 6:30. Why?”
Sam was about to tell her to come back in a few hours, but a thought struck him, commanding his attention.
“Twilight, how do ponies keep time?”
“… With clocks. What else would we use, sundials?”
“No, I mean… well, yes but… you have sundials, too?”
Sam’s mind was starting to pick up speed. He had expected there to be at least some deviation between the ponies’ technologies and humanity’s, but everything he’d heard so far led him to believe that they’d progressed along the same lines as Earth.
“Interesting… But, no, what I meant was: how do ponies measure time? What’re your units and their conversion rate?”
“Oh! Well, on the smaller scale there are twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour, and sixty seconds in a minute. On the larger scale, there are seven days in a week, fifty-two weeks in a year, or three hundred sixty-five days, divided into twelve moons. Then there’s ten years in a decade, a hundred years in a century, and a thousand years in a millennium.”
“Okay, that’s just spooky,” Sam whispered.
“You have the exact same distribution of units that my people do. I wonder if the length of a second is even the same.”
“Unfortunately, unless you have a clock from your home planet, there’s no way to know for certain.”
“Hmm… if I could get an electrical charge of the right voltage, I would know,” Sam muttered to himself.
“What was that?”
“Uh, nothing. For now, at least. Something to look into later. Right now, I’m awake enough to realize that I desperately need a shower.”
Twilight gave him a curious glance, then mentally filed the comment away for later and turned to the door.
“Alright, later. I’ll go get the nurse so we can get you back to the library. You can use my shower.”
“And maybe food, too?” He called after her as she left. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”
Sam sat and stared at the open doorway for a few minutes, still trying to let the situation sink in. Everything about this place was alien, yet so familiar. It almost seemed like he could be on an alternate version of Earth.
Which is yet another possibility I can add to the list of Things That Might Have Happened To Me… Although I suppose I could just ask Bob.
He returned his attention to the door.
I wonder if I have enough time to try contacting him.
Sam chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, then made a decision. He closed his eyes and concentrated on visualizing Bob. He waited until he felt like he couldn’t be concentrating on Bob any harder, and then thought at him.
The response was almost immediate.
*Sam, are you completely certain you’re alone?*
Well, no, but-
*But nothing! I would really rather not be found out a second time because of your poor judgement; judgement that led me to getting booted over your mental horizon. Thank you for that, by the way, getting kicked in the rear is my absolute favorite pastime. Now, would you please return your attention to the physical world? I can only translate if you dig the wax out of your ears!*
Bob severed the connection so suddenly that Sam jumped, surprised not to have heard the clack of a phone being slammed down on its receiver.
Well fine, I’ll ask later, then.
Before he had a chance to dwell, however, Twilight returned, Nurse Sweetheart in tow. Sam swallowed dryly.
Guess I dodged a bullet there.
“Well, Sam,” Sweetheart called, “how are you feeling?”
“Ah, uh, just fine, thanks. Is it time to go?”
“Very nearly. We just need to do one more checkup, and you’ll be free as a bird.”
Sam glanced at his tattered jeans-turned-shorts lying on the nearby table, and a thought struck him.
“Oh, I do have one question before we get into it.”
“What would that be, dearie?”
“Well, would it be a terrible bother to let me keep this bedsheet? I… don’t have many clothes right now.”
A little more than a half an hour later, and Sam and Twilight were walking out of the hospital. Sam inhaled deeply and stretched in his clean bedsheet toga, glad to be out of the hospital’s sterile atmosphere. He looked around at the gardened approach to the hospital, reveling in the gorgeous weather. It was so beautifully bizarre. Everything was so bright, and yet it didn’t hurt his eyes.
“I still think you’re being silly,” Twilight huffed. “You only had to wait until we got to the Library. I’m sure Rarity would have been able to make something comfortable for you to wear in no time at all.”
“Yes, well, I’ll be more comfortable in the meantime, now that I have something to cover my naked shame.”
“And what the hay is that supposed to mean?” Twilight asked exasperatedly.
Sam tried to think of a tactful way to explain it.
“In my culture, one is expected to wear clothes in public and in view of the public. A grand majority wear clothes in private as well.”
“But why is that?”
“It’s just kind of always been that way, since the beginning of recorded history. It probably started as a way to keep warm and then evolved into an aspect of our social climate, for various reasons.”
“Such as?” Twilight prompted, innocent curiosity brimming in her eyes.
“W- well… Probably to begin with, the style of a person's clothing was indicative of their social status. The higher your status, the fancier and more intricate the clothes that you wore. Then, I think it became more of a… a moral thing, to remain clothed. It was seen as inappropriate to walk around… exposing oneself. Without clothes, we are bare to the world, and some things are better kept… private.”
Twilight’s cheeks pinkened, remembering what Fluttershy had learned about Sam’s physique while he was still impaired by the Poison Joke.
“Oh… I see.”
They continued in awkward silence for some time, but then it became uncomfortable. Something seemed to be bothering Twilight; something about him, if the supposedly surreptitious glances she threw his way were any indication.
“Is there something else you wanted to ask me, Twilight?”
Twilight jumped at the mention of her name.
“Oh! Well, yes. I was just wondering… Do you remember much from after we stopped the parasite?”
“A little, yes.”
“Do you remember what I said?”
“… No, I don’t. It was like you were speaking another language.”
“You were, too. We couldn’t understand you after we hit you with the Elements of Harmony. Were you speaking in, uh, [Ing-lish], was it?”
Her sudden accent was one of the strangest things Sam had ever encountered. She seemed to be perfectly fluent, until it came the proper name of his language. But it made a strange kind of sense. If Bob was translating the ponies’ Equestrian into English, he must also have been translating Sam’s speech into Equestrian. The ponies could understand him, after all.
It perturbed him slightly that Bob could control what came out of his mouth, but he seemed not to have breached that trust, even if Sam hadn’t known about it.
“Yeah, I guess I was. You think it might’ve been the parasite who was translating for me?”
“I do, but that raises the question: how are we talking right now, if the parasite is gone?”
A cold chill ran down Sam’s spine. Had she already figured it out? N- No need to jump to conclusions. Maybe she’s just trying to figure it out.
“I… I’m not sure,” Sam lied. “Uh, do you think it could be the work of those Element things?”
Twilight frowned at the dirt, rubbing her chin with a hoof. A small part of his mind took a moment to appreciate her ability to walk on three legs.
“I suppose it could be. You do still possess a lingering energy signature from the Elements’ magic.”
“That’s probably it, then,” Sam said dismissively. He turned his head, avoiding all possible eye contact. He had always been a terrible liar, and didn’t want to risk giving away that he was currently harboring a fugitive. Instead, he focused on anything else that caught his eye.
Eventually, his gaze landed on a mare sitting with what looked to be her young son, reading to him. Sam could almost hear her voice, gentle and kind, encouraging the young colt to try reading the next sentence. And she was be so happy and praising when he did. He had to wonder, would he eventually stay up late, just reading all on his own? And then he might decide he wanted to try writing his own stories. Of course, his mother would be ecstatic, and incredibly supportive. She would want to read every little thing he wrote…
“Sam, are you alright?”
Sam jerked out of his trance. He had been reminiscing about his own mother, without even realizing it. And to think, just this morning I wanted to sleep in.
Then again, maybe she’s better off without you.
The speculation blindsided him like a runaway freight train. He’d almost forgotten about that part of his psyche. Ignoring it as best he could, Sam swallowed at the painful lump in his throat.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just… a little homesick.”
Sam could feel her pitying gaze. He sucked in a breath through his nose. No need to worry her unnecessarily, right? He slapped his cheeks, focusing on the sting instead of his own mulling depression.
“Right! Anyway, let’s get a move on!”
He marched off, eager to leave his troubles behind. The clip-clop of her hooves eventually caught up to him.
“Sam, if you want to talk about it, we’re all here for you.”
“What’s there to talk about? I’m god only knows how many miles from home, and by now my parents probably think I’m dead. The only thing I can do is get back as quickly as possible. That’s all that really matters.”
Twilight didn’t respond, instead giving him only worried glances. The oppressively awkward atmosphere spurred Sam to change the subject.
“But, since there’s only so much I can do towards that end, I might as well occupy myself with other things. Like… say… magic, for example.”
In the back of his mind, Sam had tried to come up with a more subtle suggestion, but he was too preoccupied with the return of the voice of his depression to give it much thought. Twilight rolled her eyes, though relief was plastered all over the rest of her expression.
“Well, I suppose I can at least teach you the basics.”
“So, what is magic, exactly? How does it work?”
“Well,” Twilight swelled up, going into lecture mode, “I suppose the first things you need to learn about are Aristrotle’s Three Pillars of Magic: Mind, Body, and Soul…”
Sam tried to pay attention, really. But when Twilight had said she would teach him the basics, he hadn’t expected her to launch into a extremely condensed college lecture on Magic 101. With so many new terms and concepts being thrown at him, Sam wouldn’t have been able to keep up even if he’d had a voice recorder and an entire afternoon. After only five minutes, he stopped trying to comprehend it all, and simply resorted to the age-old tactic of politely nodding in places that seemed appropriate. Thankfully, they reached the library in no time.
“Well then,” Twilight suddenly exclaimed, “I believe that concludes part one of my lecture on ‘the Fundamentals of Magic.’ So, do you have any questions?”
“Ah, um… a couple, yeah. You said that ponies are born with magical powers, right?”
“That was one of the first points in the section on Magical Development, yes.”
“Are there any, uh… books for young ponies, to teach them about their magic and… stuff?”
“Um… yes? Why do you ask?”
Sam smiled guiltily. “So… D- does the library have any? I mean, your lecture was very… detailed. A- and quite intelligent, I’m sure. I just… I think something like a children’s book might be more on par with my learning level.”
Twilight’s expression fell with a disheartened sigh.
“Yes, I’m sure I have at least a few.”
“I’m sorry, Twilight,” Sam tried consoling. “I do appreciate your attempting to speak with me as though I were an equal to you. I’m just… not.”
“It’s fine. I should have realized that an undergraduate lecture might not be the best material for somepony – er, someone – who’s never had exposure to magic before. I do have a bit of a tendency to get carried away when it comes to sharing my love of learning.”
“Well, you can always save that lecture for later,” Sam offered, spreading his arms placatingly. “I may not be up to snuff right now, but I like to think I’m a quick study. Once I’ve had a little… practical experience, I’m sure a lot of what you were talking about would start to make sense.”
Twilight giggled good-naturedly.
“Alright, I’ll hold you to that. So… are you ready to go in?”
Sam’s smile fell, and he looked up at the windows of the tree-brary. Nearly all of them were cracked or shattered; a disheartening reminder of the events of the night before last. Guilt clawed at his throat.
Am I ready? No. Not at all.
“Yeah,” Sam lied, “let’s just get this over with.”
He leaned down and opened the front door, which he only just realized came up to the base of his neck, and motioned for Twilight to go before him. Twilight’s eyebrows knitted together and she fixed her worried eyes on him, likely trying to read beneath his resigned expression. Sam gestured more insistently and she caved, heading into the library with an exasperated sigh. Sam took a moment to watch the sunny morning, before ducking down into the entrance.
The inside of the Golden Oaks Library was thankfully well lit, due both to its plentiful windows and a few strategically placed lanterns. Twilight had apparently cleaned up, because there were no traces of broken glass except for what remained in the windows. The girls and Spike had all assembled and were smiling at him nervously. He gave an awkward wave and, seeing Twilight head upstairs, took a pointed interest in examining one of the lanterns, trying to put the gnawing guilt out of his mind.
Sam could only assume that the lanterns were magical in nature. They were cordless and lacked the flicker of candlelight. When he put his hand up to the cloudy glass, he felt no heat, and neither could he find a hatch for batteries.
Mmm… definitely magic. Or maybe some kind of single-use LED lantern, but… eh, probably not.
Rarity’s timid call snagged his attention, even though he desperately wanted to pretend he were anywhere else right now. He turned his head, giving her a sidelong gaze. She cleared her throat politely.
“Twilight will be back down with the Princesses any minute now. Would you… perhaps… like to come sit with us?”
Rarity gestured to a row of seven straight-backed wooden chairs, set up in a semicircle facing the stairs. Apparently, their gathering had become a tribunal at some point.
I guess there’s no getting around it, huh?
Yes. Time to go put your self-importance in the limelight.
Sam exhaled forcefully, set the lamp down, and plodded over to the seating arrangement. He examined it for a moment, eyeing the center chair in particular. It had obviously been meant for him by the way it had been set slightly apart from the other chairs, giving it an air of importance. Sam groaned. He didn’t feel particularly important at the moment. If anything, he was beginning to feel to like a plastic bag on a freeway, buffeted by the wake of passing cars.
He entertained the idea of sitting in one of the chairs next to the center, but discarded it immediately. He wasn’t going to derail the meeting just because he felt uncomfortable. Instead, he picked up the center chair and turned it around, flopping down on it so that he faced the stairs while straddling the chair back. If he rested his chin on his arms, and his arms on the backrest, he could almost pretend he was part of the audience and not the jury.
The girls exchanged looks in Sam’s periphery, which he pointedly ignored. When they took their seats around him, he kept his gaze locked forward. A minute passed, then two. Rainbow Dash fidgeted in her seat. Rarity looked like she wanted to say something – anything – to break the oppressive silence, but couldn’t work up the nerve. Pinkie and Fluttershy kept glancing at him, though whether they were concerned for or about him, he couldn’t tell. Applejack maintained a stoic air, despite her tense posture.
But before he could ruminate any further, the Princesses appeared at the top of the stairs. They had once more donned their regalia, looking every bit the part of royalty. Twilight led them down, like court security escorting two defendants to the stand. Luna diligently stared at fixed point in front of her. Celestia watched her forehooves like she thought they might disappear at any moment. Neither had the nerve to look him in the eye, it seemed.
The Princesses stopped before the arranged seating. Twilight gave them a single, short glance before heading for the seat to Sam’s right, the only open one. As she took her seat, her posture straightened until she looked as much like she had sat in something unpleasant as she did a public official. She signalled something to Spike, sitting off on the side, and he readied a quill and roll of parchment. Twilight cleared her throat.
“The hearing of Princesses Celestia and Luna, in the case of illegal dark magic usage against the human Sam, will now come to order.”
Sam felt the prickly heat of mortification crawling up his spine and groaned.
“Oh, for the love of… Twilight, is this really necessary?”
“Of course it is,” Twilight admonished. “The Princesses insisted that we make this a legally binding hearing, and the only two ways to do that are to be tried by a Princess, or by the Equestrian High Court. Would you rather take this into the public court system?”
“No, but I also didn’t think we had to… I dunno, make this big a deal of it?”
“Sam,” Celestia murmured, “we appreciate your concern, truly. But you must understand, this is something Luna and I need to do. What happened was deplorable, and we must take steps to ensure it never happens again.”
“Well, okay, but… why Luna? I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but you were the one who cast the spell.”
“That may be,” Luna cut in, “but I did nothing to stop her, nor had I any intention to. I am guilty both by association and intention.”
Sam grumbled into his hands. Apparently, the Princesses were dead set on playing the penitent, making it very difficult to blame them. A cold breeze blew through one of the shattered windows and traipsed mockingly along the back of his neck. Finally, he threw up his arms in defeat.
“Fine! How’s this: I’ll forgive you if you help me find my way home,” he exclaimed, before muttering under his breath. “The sooner I can put this whole thing behind me the better.”
Celestia gave him a pained smile.
“Of course. That is something we would’ve offered even if this hadn’t happened.”
“Well then, good. Problem solved.”
“Not quite,” Luna added, as Sam made to stand up. “We also wish to offer you ambassadorial status during your stay here, as well as a weekly stipend to cover your living expenses. Additionally, we will keep a line of communication open to you, should you have questions or concerns for us, and will make resolving any problems that might confront you our top priority. Is this acceptable?”
“Yes. Okay. Fine. Issue closed.”
Sam got up from his chair and stalked over to the far side of the library. He picked a book off of the shelf and flipped it open. Of course, he couldn’t read it worth a damn, since he didn’t know their language. But he thought it might distract him from the room’s other occupants.
The library was chokingly silent, even though he had disengaged from the conversation. Sam could feel their eyes boring through his back, and it made him acutely aware of the aching tension in his shoulders and neck. He aggressively turned the page.
Don’t pretend you aren’t loving the attention, you sorry sack of shit.
Sam gritted his teeth.
Shut… the hell… UP!
The solid clunk of metal-shod hooves on wood startled him, signalling Celestia’s approach. Sam bit his lip, trying not to tense up. He couldn’t show fear. Not now. If he could just keep his back to her, maybe she would go away. He glared at his hand, which had subconsciously moved to wipe the sweat from his brow. Instead, he changed the motion into another turn of the page.
“Sam?” Celestia addressed him gently.
His couldn’t stop himself from tensing up, from steeling himself for the blow he felt certain was descending upon him. But when none came, he knew Celestia was waiting for him to face her. Slowly, he relaxed his stance and turned his head, until he could just see her out of the corner of his eye. She gave him a sad but hopeful smile.
“I’m glad you’re willing to forgive and forget, after all that’s happened.”
“Yeah… Right. Sure.”
Little sounds of surprise echoed around the room until they found a perch on his scalp and the nape of his neck. The shame dug into his flesh with needle-like, burning claws, pecking at his ears and cheeks. He hunched his shoulders, preparing for the inevitable onslaught of reprimands and outrage, but he was met with little more than mild disapproval.
“Sam,” Rarity chided, “that wasn’t exactly polite and proper, now was it?”
“Yeah?” Sam growled. “Well, it wouldn’t be polite or proper for me to lie, would it? I can forgive, yes. But it’s gonna take a lot more than a simple apology and what could be mistaken for a bribe for me to forget!”
Sam slammed his book shut in punctuation and stormed past the gathering. He took the stairs two at a time, eager to get away from their judgemental eyes. Of course, he had no idea what might be upstairs, but anywhere was better than staying in the same room as his former captors.
If they had called after him, he’d done a thorough job of tuning them out. He entered the first door he encountered without so much as a glance backwards. Luckily for his pride, it turned out to be a side library, and not a broom closet.
Or perhaps more than just a side room, he noticed as he walked out of the small stairwell into the room proper. The room had plenty of stocked bookshelves, yes, but it also had several other notable features. Namely the bed up on the third floor landing. Combined with the nearby vanity and a few other choice pieces of furniture, and Sam quickly came to the conclusion:
This is Twilight’s room, isn’t it?
Sam huffed dismissively and trudged over to the landing stairs, sitting heavily on the bottom step before cracking open the book once more.
Well, whatever. There are worse places I could’ve picked.
Yes, I’m sure she won’t mind you intruding on her privacy. After all, you’re so very important.
Sam ground his teeth, determined not to give the incarnation of his self-hatred the satisfaction of a retort. Instead, he drowned out the voice with unknown symbols and letters, trying futilely to make sense of the foreign language. It seemed like he had only been sitting for a few moments before the bedroom door creaked open.
“Sam?” Twilight called out, her tone quiet and concerned.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
Twilight trotted up the few stairs into the bedroom proper. Glancing up from the book he could tell by her subtle frown that she was frustrated, but trying to subdue it with concern for his well-being. He gritted his teeth, angry more at himself than anyone else. Of course she came. It’s not like the only extraterrestrial being she’s ever encountered just verbally slapped the rulers of her entire country across the mouth. Why would she possibly be concerned? …Goddammit, why does everything I do have to become such a complicated mess?
Because you’re alive.
“Sam, everyone’s really concerned about you.”
She was silent for a moment, apparently considering her next approach.
“Princess Celestia is really distraught over-”
Sam barked out a sharp, humorless laugh, cutting her off mid-plea, and slammed the book shut.
“As well she should be! I don’t know know about you, but mind control is pretty damn high on my list of big no-nos.”
“And she’s trying very hard to make amends!” Twilight asserted, the frustration growing in her voice. “But you insist on being angry and not even giving her chance!”
Twilight’s eyes widened, having realized that she had started shouting as well, and she reeled herself in.
“Sam, I have known Celestia all my life, and I’ve never known her to act out of spite. I think you can sense it too. Last night, it seemed like you might be willing to give her and Luna a chance. What changed?”
Sam groaned and buried his face in the stiff cover of the book. What am I doing? In truth, he knew exactly what was going on, but he hesitated to share so much of his personal life. Well, it’s not like her opinion of me can get much lower.
I don’t know. You’ve a pretty good job of deceiving them so far, you manipulative sociopath.
He threw his arms up, giving up on all pretense of privacy.
“I don’t know! Maybe I’m mad because I can be! Maybe I’m mad because I’m afraid! Maybe I’m mad because if I wasn’t, I’d have to face how I’m really feeling!”
Sam slouched over, head hung in defeat. He dropped the book at his feet, freeing up his hands to pull on the nape of his neck, massaging his sore muscles. He sat in silence and Twilight just waited for him to continue. Sam let his anger fade, unable to deny to hollow feeling in his chest.
“Twilight… how prevalent are mental illnesses in Equestrian society?”
“Well, they’re not exactly common, but-”
“And how about depression and anxiety? Are they viewed as mental illnesses?”
Twilight put a hoof over her mouth, to stifle a quiet gasp.
“Sam, are you…?”
Sam let the question hang. He wasn’t really sure how to approach this topic. Would it change the way she looked at him? Of course it will. The only question is how? But what the hell? If I’m gonna have myself a fucking pity party, might as well lay it all out.
Of course. Drag her down into your pit of despair and self-loathing. After all, misery loves company.
He did his best to ignore the insult, focusing instead on gathering his thoughts.
“In my world, something like ten percent of the entire population of the world is affected by depression. Probably fully half of that is chronic. It’s a chemical imbalance in our brains. I’m one of the ones that get hit pretty hard…”
“Twilight, have you ever felt true apathy? The feeling that nothing you did would ever matter? That, if you were to vanish off of the face of the Earth, nothing would change, or even maybe… just maybe… things might get better for everyone else? Would you believe those feelings?”
Twilight said nothing, tearing up as she listened to him explain himself.
“That’s what I get to deal with. It’s gotten a bit better since puberty, but back then, it was a struggle to get out of bed every morning. Since then, I’ve begun taking medication to correct the imbalances, and I learned to remind myself that my family would be heartbroken if anything ever happened to me. Truthfully, I was lucky to be born to parents that actually wanted their children and knew how to express that, for the most part. Otherwise, I might not be sitting here today. Even so, I am, to this day, really and truly convinced that everyone would be better off without me, even if they don’t realize it.
“That’s what I started to feel again after Celestia hit me with her spell. Hell, I’m not even sure her spell did much of anything. Ever since I woke up in that spa, I’ve been riding on the adrenaline wave that came from finding out I was on an alien planet. The spell may have just overwritten that adrenaline, and that whatever I felt was just lurking in the background, waiting for the excitement to wear off.
“So, I guess I was really just using this as an excuse to be angry. Because if I wasn’t angry, those negative emotions would be directed inward.” Sam grumbled sourly, before adding under his breath, “Great, I’m turning into my dad.”
Sam growled at himself, embarrassment finally catching up to him. He angrily ran his fingers across his scalp for a moment, as though he were trying to scrape away the negativity.
“Sorry, I don’t know why I told you all that. It’s not something you need to worry about. Just forget I ever sa-”
A pair of equine forelegs wrapping around him succinctly cut him off. Twilight hugged him tightly, nuzzling his cheek with tear-stained fur. Sam swallowed thickly, looking anywhere but at the unicorn hugging him. He couldn’t even effectively return the hug with his arms pinned to his sides. Sam coughed uncomfortably, patting her back.
“Twilight, it’s fine. I can deal. You don’t need to-”
“Yes I do! You’re a friend, and friends help each other. You shouldn’t have to face that on your own.” She sniffled, rubbing her eyes with a fetlock, but keeping him in the hug. “Besides, I do know a little bit about how you feel, since I have anxieties too. Although, you definitely seem to have gotten the short end of the stick.”
They shared a small chuckle at their own expense. Sam managed to get his arms around her waist and give her some semblance of a return hug, resting his chin on her shoulder just as she had done to him.
“Thank you, Twilight. All things considered, I honestly could not have hoped for a better first encounter with an alien species.”
Twilight nuzzled him again, sending a thrill of warmth through his core. She pulled away, giving him a supportive grin.
“Are you ready to go back out?”
Sam took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose.
“Yeah… I guess.”
I’m going to have to apologize, aren't I? Sam grimaced, but got to his feet, regardless of his trepidation. It was still true that he’d rather be allies than enemies with the Princesses. He’d just have to watch his step around them.
At least they do seem genuine in their regret. But, if they’ve really been alive for as long as they claim, who can say for sure? Beings that old have to be masters of deception, right? I guess I’ll just have to take their sincerity on faith.
Surprisingly, his low self-esteem didn’t seem to feel the need to comment. I wonder if pony hugs have anti-depressive qualities, he mused.
Sam allowed Twilight to lead him out of the room. Even so, she looked back a couple of times, to make sure he was still followed.
As Twilight escorted him back downstairs, Sam couldn’t muster the nerve to look anywhere but at his feet, and he smirked bitterly. The irony of the role reversal was not lost on him. He tried to think of what he should say, what might convince them to overlook his outburst, but he came up short, almost literally.
Twilight’s sudden stop brought him to a stumbling halt, narrowly avoiding bowling her over. When he recovered, he found himself face-to-face with Celestia, and his heart skipped a beat.
She wore an inscrutable expression; a mask that carefully concealed her heart. For all he knew, she could be absolutely livid. And why wouldn’t she be? I did basically accuse her of trying to bribe me, after all. Sam’s eyes fell back to the floor, and he found that all his words had dried up in the back of his throat. He swallowed nervously.
“Sam?” Twilight prompted. “Do you have something you want to say?”
Sam inhaled, held in the breath, then released it, letting the words flow out on the exhale.
“What was that?” Celestia asked, frowning slightly, though whether from confusion or barely contained fury, Sam couldn’t tell.
“I’m… sorry. To both of you.” He looked between Celestia and Luna. “I was childish, and… I lashed out at you because I could. I’m not terribly good at apologies, but I’d rather this not be how we part ways, so… truce?”
Sam offered his hand to the Princesses, hoping against hope that that would be enough.
Luna smiled kindly, but the frown remained on Celestia’s brow. For a moment, she examined his face, long enough for Sam’s hope to falter. But then, just as he was about to lower his hand, Celestia let loose a massive sigh of relief.
“My goodness, Sam. I thought I might develop an ulcer, worrying about how I might make it up to you. Of course I will agree to a truce.”
She placed her forehoof in his hand, and they shook on it. Celestia smiled earnestly, though it was tinged by regret.
“Although, it is my hope that we might call you friend before long.”
Sam gave her a conciliatory smile in return. As much as he agreed with her hope, he couldn’t see it happening very soon. Just the presence of the Princesses was enough to send spikes of adrenaline through his system, and he had to force himself not to recoil at her touch. The seeds of distrust were sown deep. It would take a lot of time and effort on their part to reverse that.
“On that note,” Luna added, “while we are here, is there anything you wish of us?”
Sam would have given her a polite refusal, but his stomach interrupted him with a dejected growl.
“Um… some breakfast might be nice?”
From somewhere behind him, Sam heard Pinkie Pie gasp excitedly.
She zipped by, leaving on a pink blur in her wake. Applejack chuckled.
“Well, I’d best be helpin’ her, just so pancakes aren’t the only item on the menu. You need protein, right?” She asked Sam. “How’s eggs sound?”
Sam nodded gratefully. “That sounds amazing, thank you.”
Applejack trotted off, smiling. “Comin’ right up!”
“Oh thank Celestia, I thought I was gonna starve,” Rainbow Dash groaned. Celestia giggled.
“No need to thank me, my dear. After all, I’m not the one doing the cooking.”
Sam’s attention tore away from the rest of the room as he heard hoofsteps approaching him. As his eyes locked onto hers, Luna halted mid-stride. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t find the words. It took her a few tries, but she eventually found her voice.
“Sam… would it… would it be acceptable for my sister and I to attend the breakfast? We still have many things we wish to ask you.”
Sam smiled uneasily. “Well, I can’t very well turn down the rulers of an entire nation, can I? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll go wash up. Twilight, do you have a shower I can use?”
He did feel a bit grimy, since it had been a day and a half since he awoke in the spa, so it was as good an excuse as any to get away from the Princesses. Twilight started and looked up from the sheaf of papers and open book that floated before her. A slightly guilty smile touched her lips.
“Oh! Uh, sure. Spike? Would you show him the way?”
“Sure thing, Twilight.”
The little dragon peeled away from Twilight’s side, trying to look confident, but the tension in his arms and his clenched jaw gave him away. Spike was nervous. He hadn’t forgotten the events that led up to this meeting, and he wasn’t going to let Sam off the hook just because the Princesses were desperate for his approval. Sam had to appreciate that.
“The bathroom is just upstairs,” Spike instructed. “Follow me.”
Sam complied, carefully measuring his stride so that he didn’t overshoot and accidentally step on Spike’s tail. Spike, in turn, jogged up the steps, allowing Sam a less restricted pace. When they reached the upstairs hallway, Spike stopped in front of the first door on the right, across from the door to Twilight’s bedroom.
“Alright, here you go,” Spike gestured at the door, fixing Sam with a pointed look. “Just… try not break anything, okay?”
Sam gave him a sheepish grin. Spike was probably the one who had to deal with the aftermath of the night before last, sweeping up shards of glass and whatever else Sam might have knocked over in his haste.
“Right. You got it.”
Even to his own ears, Sam sounded unconvincing, so he tried putting on the most convincing smile he could muster. He realized he overdid it when Spike’s eyes narrowed, and he pointed two claws from his eyes to Sam’s. Sam watched the baby dragon stalk off with regret. Of course, he couldn’t be mad at Spike; his distrust was well justified. Though he certainly seemed unconcerned about confronting someone ten times his size.
He’s a gutsy little shit, I’ll give him that, Sam thought with a smirk, and ducked into the bathroom.
It took Sam a while to figure out how to use a shower whose plumbing only came up to his neck. Half an hour later, he came out of the bathroom clean and warm, but slightly stiff. He rewrapped his bedsheet toga, put on his scrappy jean-shorts, and decided at last to forego the months-old boxers that, by all rights, should have been incinerated the moment he reentered society.
Item one: eat. Item two: get new clothes. Togas are nice and all, but I would dearly love a new set of clothes or three. And I definitely need more boxers.
Sam headed back downstairs, following the smell of pancakes, and wondered how best to approach the second item. Rarity had offered to make him some new clothes, but she also said she owned a boutique, which meant her services likely didn’t come cheap. Which meant he needed money.
Which means I’m going to have to swallow my pride and ask Princess Celestia for that allowance. Oh well… I never had much pride anyway.
But all thoughts of money and clothing were swept aside as the mouth-watering fog of baking rolled over him. The smell of the buttered griddle and the heat of the stove was enough to flood Sam’s mouth. He watched longingly as Pinkie flipped another set of pancakes onto an already overflowing plate using nothing but the frying pan’s hot-pad-wrapped handle and…
Her… mouth? …Ponies don’t have hands. I don’t know what I was expecting.
She wasn’t drooling all over the pancakes, though, and Sam was hungry enough that he might not have minded even if she did. Meanwhile, Applejack was finishing up a batch of scrambled eggs cooked to perfection. She, too, held the spatula in her mouth, but she wielded it so effortlessly that even Sam began to feel like it was just a normal part of cooking.
Off to one side of the kitchen stood a smallish folding table, now completely open and seated near to capacity. Upon shifting his attention to the table, the ponies seated there waved him over.
“Over here, darling,” Rarity called out, patting a seat between her and Fluttershy.
Sam nearly sprinted to his seat, eager for the reward at the finish line. The table was already set with everything Sam could think of that might go on pancakes, and even some things that he couldn’t. There were syrups, jellies, and jams of all kinds; butters, both dairy and nutty; fruits, chocolates, and a row of objects that looked suspiciously like whipped cream aerosol cans. Much to his surprise, he even found a dish of what smelled like anko – a sweet red bean paste from Japan. He salivated at the possibilities.
“Awrigh’!” Cheered Pinkie around a mouthful of platter. “Bre’fass is serbed!”
She and Applejack maneuvered into the space left for the two of them and set the heap of pancakes down with a satisfying thud. Sam nearly dove for his fair share before he noticed that no one else was making the same move. He looked around, thoroughly embarrassed, before sitting back down.
“I’m, uh… I’ll just-”
“It’s quite alright, Sam,” Celestia reassured with a chuckle, “it’s customary for guests to have first pick, I believe.”
Sam felt the heat prickling at his ears and cheekbones.
“Isn’t… Aren’t royalty supposed to go first?”
“Mmm, perhaps. But what self-respecting princess allows her guests to go hungry?”
Most of the real-life ones, Sam thought bitterly. But while his brain may have been suspicious of the preferential treatment, his stomach finally got fed up and wrested away control of his hands. Within seconds, Sam had a steaming stack of pancakes piled before him. Alarmed, his brain gave up the fight and took back control, before his stomach could start piling everything within reach onto Sam’s plate.
Applejack set a bowl of eggs to the side of Sam’s plate with a knowing wink and sat down at her place between Pinkie and Princess Luna. Sam smiled gratefully, but before he could continue his feast, Twilight cleared her throat to get his attention.
“Sam, you should probably go easy on the food for now. I know the doctor said your phosphate levels weren’t low enough to put you at risk for refeeding syndrome, bit you still don’t want to make yourself sick.”
“Whatever, mom,” Sam snarked, and jokingly blew her a petulant raspberry.
“Ew, Sam! Gross!” Rarity nearly shrieked, floating a napkin between them like a shield to ward off the flecks of spittle.
“Oh, crap, sorry,” Sam backpedaled, trying wave the cloud away with a hand. Rainbow laughed to herself, so at least it was one step forward after his two steps back.
But Sam knew Twilight had a point. It would be a shame to eat something so delicious only to throw it back up later. So, after a moment’s consideration, he decided on a game plan and went straight for the almond butter and raspberry jam.
“Dude, the peanut butter’s over here,” Rainbow said, already lathering her pancakes with it.
“So why’d you grab almond butter?” She asked in a tone clearly indicative of the bad taste that even just the word ‘almond’ put in her mouth.
“Habit, I guess. We never had peanut butter at my house; my sister’s allergic.”
“Laaame. Nothing beats PB, banana and chocolate syrup on pancakes.”
To her credit, her pancake stack did look amazing; alternating layers of pancake and peanut butter, drizzled thoroughly with chocolate syrup and topped with banana slices. Sam licked his lips. “Well… maybe I’ll try that next, then.”
“So, Sam,” Luna inquired, “what is your family like, if I may ask? Do you have any other siblings?”
“No,” Sam said around a mouthful of pancake sandwich, then politely swallowed. “Just my younger sister. Though she and I were definitely more than a handful for our parents when we were younger.”
“Oh? Do tell,” Luna prodded playfully. Sam hesitated, but Luna’s mischievous grin somewhat quelled his fears. Combined with expectant and intrigued looks of the other ponies, and he started to feel an obligation to his pride as a storyteller.
“Where to start…? Well, when we were very little, we would host what can only be loosely defined as ‘tea parties’ for our stuffed animals…”
As the morning passed, Sam continued to regale his hosts with stories of he and his sister’s misadventures as children. Somehow, he even managed to finish his entire stack of pancakes at the same time. By the end, everyone’s cheeks ached from laughter.
“So, after teaching us how to make spitwads and telling us to go crazy, my dad leaves us in the bathroom, unattended, to go finish his business call! Must’ve thought he was pretty clever.”
“Oh no,” Applejack chortled, “I think I see where this is goin’.”
“Mmmhm. We have fun for the first few minutes, firing spitwads at the bathtub wall, but then we start to get bored. So we decide that, if something is fun, it’ll be more fun in excess. What kind of silly noises would the spitwads make if they were larger?”
Fluttershy gasped. Rarity put a hoof over her chest, trying to cover up her horrified amusement with a shocked facade. “Surely, you didn’t…”
“Surely we did! We graduated to little coin-sized wads, then walnut-sized. But we just kept escalating until pretty soon we were double-overhead-hurling great chunks of wet toilet paper at the walls, laughing like madmen. Eventually, my dad gets off the phone and charges into the bathroom, having heard great big wet slaps for the last while. And he just stands there, slack-jawed. There was wet toilet paper everywhere. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor; nothing was safe from our maniacal little hands.”
“H- how did he take it?” Rainbow Dash choked out, barely able to keep herself composed.
“Oh, he was furious. He chewed us out for a good ten minutes. Then, when there was finally a silence long enough for us to say something, my sister – evil little genius that she was – retorts with, ‘But you told us to just go crazy.’”
The entire room burst out in laughter. Spike, Rainbow, and Pinkie fell out of their chairs to roll on the floor, hardly able to breathe. Applejack, Twilight, and Luna clutched their sides from the ache of too much laughter. Fluttershy, Rarity, and Celestia giggled heartily to themselves. Sam couldn’t help but be swept up by the merry atmosphere.
Eventually, the laughter petered out, leaving everyone breathless and tired. That is, until Applejack noticed the clock.
“Oh, shoot! Is it that time already?” She hopped off of her chair and trotted over to the door. “Sorry, Sam, it’s been a hoot ‘n a holler, but I still got chores to finish up on the farm.”
“Oh, by all means! Don’t let me keep you.”
Applejack grinned. “Don’t forget, I expect to be seein’ you ‘round Sweet Apple Acres sometime soon.”
“Um… I do actually have a few animals I still need to check up on,” Fluttershy realized. “But… maybe, once I’m done, you wouldn’t mind me tagging along to wherever you were going to go today?” Fluttershy asked Sam, gazing hopefully from behind her bangs. Biting back another heart attack, Sam shook his head fervently.
“Of course I wouldn't-!”
“Oh, oh! Me too!” Rainbow interrupted, launching herself into his line of sight. “I can get my weather team work done in a jiffy! Then I can come hang out with you guys.”
“Hmm,” Pinkie pondered intensely, “I’d better go see if the Cakes need my help. If not, you’d better believe I’ll be there! There’s still so much information to gather for your welcome party if I’m gonna make it perfect. And it will be perfect.”
Rarity sighed melodramatically. “Alas, I suppose I, too, must be on my way. The boutique won’t run itself, after all. Do stop by soon, though, Sam. I’m quite eager to try making something dashing for someone of your strapping physique.”
Despite the flattery, Sam looked down at himself and laughed.
“I hope you don’t mind making it a couple sizes too large, because I still have a fair stretch of filling out to do.”
Rarity smiled easily, as if his request was just par for the course.
“Of course, darling. You have been malnourished for a rather long time. Weight gain is to be expected.”
He hadn’t realized she’d been thinking that far ahead.
“Oh. Well, uh… thank you. I think you’ll probably be one of the first stops I make today.”
“Wonderful! Would you care to accompany me to the boutique, then?”
Sam glanced nervously at the Princesses.
“There’s… something I need to take care of first.”
Rarity looked between Sam and the Princesses quizzically.
“Oh? Well, don’t keep me waiting, darling. There is much to do and too little daylight.”
Sam nodded and waved goodbye to the girls already heading out the door. “I won’t be long.”
Rarity took her leave as well, and in less than a minute, the cheerful farewells faded beyond the library’s threshold. Sam took a steadying breath. Celestia had offered, and yet the thought of asking for money still congealed in a sour tension in his neck and shoulders.
To his relief, he found a distraction in the clink of plates nearby. Spike was clearing the table, somehow able to both lift and balance the large platter while stacking tableware on it. Sam felt a twinge of guilt watching the little guy carry such a ridiculously disproportionate load.
“Hey, Spike. You, uh… want some help with that?”
“No thanks, I’m good. I’ve dealt with much larger messes than this.”
“You sure? That seems a bit… heavy.”
“Are you kidding? I’m a dragon. I can carry all of Rarity’s luggage by myself. This? This is nothing.”
It was true that Spike handled the platter much more deftly than should be possible for a creature his size. However, there was something about the scene that pressured Sam to test just how much strength he had lost.
“Alright, well, just holler if you change your mind.”
Spike walked off with a smug grin, balancing the dishes in one claw. But before he could make it more than five steps, he stepped on a rogue strawberry slice and his foot slid out from under him. For several nail-biting moments, it seemed like he would topple over, sending the platter flying, but he regained his footing at the last moment. His free claw jumped to one of the handles, stabilizing the teetering stack of dishes.
“I’ll just… use both claws, for now,” Spike mumbled around his slice of humble pie.
“So Sam,” Celestia began, startling Sam out of his observation, “I believe you had something you wished to ask me?”
Sam froze in place, then groaned in frustration. So much for subtlety.
“Well, yes, I do. I just… the thing is… I want to be able to pay Rarity for her services, but…”
Celestia smiled knowingly. “Say no more.”
Her horn lit up with a brilliant golden aura and, a moment later, a sack almost as big as his head materialized before him. Sam stared at it, trying to determine whether it would bite him or not.
“This should be sufficient for your needs.”
Sam nodded, transfixed by the glowing bag floating in front of his face. Licking his lips, he reached out slowly to touch it. The gently rotating bag brushed his fingertip, and he jerked his hand back as though burned. But it didn’t hurt. All that he had felt apart from the canvas cloth was a tingling warmth, like static from a woolen blanket fresh out of the dryer. Gently, he cupped a hand beneath the bag, and lifted it out of the levitation field. Immediately it sagged with the weight of jingling coins. Sam chuckled nervously.
“Heh, coin-based currency, huh?” He tugged at the opening with a finger, too curious to wait. “I suppose it does have a satisfying wei-”
The gleam of gold caused an involuntary expansion of his lungs, resulting in the inhalation of a mouthful of spit. Sam clutched the mouth of the sack until his knuckles turned white, coughing and hacking all the while. When finally, he was able to regain control of his lungs, the first words he gasped out were:
“Holy Mary, mother of God!”
Celestia took a concerned step forward. “Are you alright?”
“What happened?” Twilight fussed.
Sam ignored her, fishing a coin out of the bag. He examined the thing incredulously. There was no mistaking, the coin was pure gold. It was far too malleable to be an alloy. And the stupid thing is huge! This has to be two or three ounces of gold!
“You really are trying to bribe me, aren’t you?” He choked out.
Celestia’s brow furrowed further. “Sam, I assure you, I am not-”
“Bull!” Sam interrupted, shaking the bag menacingly at her. “You call this a reasonable amount of money?! I haven’t seen this much gold in my whole life! There has to be a king’s ransom in here!”
“Sam, calm down,” Twilight pleaded. “Those are just bits. They’re standard Equestrian currency.”
Sam sputtered. “You’re joking! This is standard?”
“Yes, it is. Honest.”
Sam’s eyes boggled. His stare switched from Twilight to the bag, to Celestia, then back to Twilight. No one faltered even a fraction of an inch. Finally, his eyes fell back on the bag.
“Standard… this… Jesus Christ monkey balls,” he muttered, then cleared his throat. “I, uh… I’m sorry. I guess I… overreacted?”
He still felt like that had been the appropriate response. But, to his confusion, the princesses just relaxed, as though nothing had happened.
“It is alright, you are forgiven,” Luna announced. “Although, that does beg the question, what kind of currency do humans use, if not gold? Silver?”
“W- we may have, at one point. Gold was a part of our money, too, long ago. But it was only used by the very wealthy. Nowadays, we use paper money printed with different values, to represent wealth. They used to be exchangeable for gold, but that practice died out… I don’t know, at least sixty years ago.”
“Really? How odd. How does your government guarantee wealth across countries, then?”
“I’m not sure. I’m no economist, but currency values probably have to do with a given country’s overall economic strength.”
“Seems unnecessarily complicated to me.”
“Well, with a global population approaching eight billion, there’s just not enough gold to go around.”
“Eight bil-?!” Twilight yelped, unable to finish. “Th- there are that many humans?”
Even Celestia and Luna looked taken aback. Sam laughed nervously.
“Ah… forgot to mention that, did I?”
Celestia huffed in amusement. “Incredible. Come, let’s make our way to the Carousel Boutique. I would like to hear more about your world.”
“Ah! Wait a minute,” Twilight exclaimed, remembering something. “I need to speak with you and Princess Luna. Sam, would you please wait for us outside? We’ll join you shortly.”
Sam eyed them warily, but decided to let it slide. He couldn’t expect to be privy to every conversation the Princesses had.
“Sure. I’ll be just outside the door.”
With a deep breath, Sam stepped out of the library. It was another beautiful day outside. The sun shone brightly, the air was crisp and clean, and animal songs could be heard all around. Sam clutched the jingling bag closer to his chest. Even in such a peaceful place, it felt dangerous to be carrying such a stupidly extravagant amount of gold, standard currency or no.
Still, the morning went a lot better than I expected. Maybe this will be a nice day.
Brother Aaron was having a terrible day.
Not that it was easy to tell the time of day in space. He didn’t even have a watch to keep track. It could have been days, weeks, even years since he had last looked at a clock. Though he was pretty sure it hadn’t been more than a few months.
He shoved the last bite of a magically reheated Big Mac into his mouth, trying to savor the taste. It was probably the last he would ever have, now that he could no longer return to Earth. He licked the wrapper clean and crumpled it up, tossing it like a baseball. It floated away, tumbling out of the dull glow of Aaron’s magelight into the cold depths of space.
Aaron summoned up a gust of non-existent wind and attached it to his feet. The gust propelled him away, no real destination in mind. How long ago had his conversation with the Brother Superior taken place? Not that it mattered, of course. He was under no time limit. The only reason to complete his mission quickly was to prove his usefulness to the Stillness. But these damn Hounds are gettin’ me nowhere!
He glared at the leash-band around his forearm. Each of the three notches in the thick, dull-grey metal armlet flickered with a faint blue light, like roaming halogen flashlights glimpsed through a cracked doorway. His lip curled in disgust. Dumb fuckin’ mutts couldn’t sniff out shit if their noses were shoved in it… if they even have noses.
Speaking of which, I guess it’s been long enough. Time to see if they’ve grown brains since last I saw them.
Aaron pulled a mirror-polished dagger out of his robe’s sleeve and slashed it across the palm opposite the leash-band. He held the cut to the armlet, letting his blood soak into the notches. Soon after, a dark fog like roiling storm clouds began pouring out of the grooves. Aaron used a quick Flesh-knit spell to close up the cut, and wiped the blood from his palm and the dagger on the hem of his robe.
As he did, strange, jagged shadows began to squeeze out of the notches in the armlet. The nightmarish creatures oozed and twitched as they pulled themselves out of the tiny cracks. Eventually, the not-quite-creatures had fully emerged, taking shape. Hounds of Tindalos, the stillness called them, or sometimes Bandersnatches. But to call them Hounds was inaccurate at best; they were more akin to bats than anything else.
Translucent gray pseudoflesh exposed a spiderweb of black synapses, and smouldering black spines thrust out from their bodies at odd intervals. They had no eyes or ears, and their mouths were more of a simple gash that allowed their long, dark probosci to sample the air, occasionally drooling a foul blue pus. Each Hound constantly exuded thick black smoke, however, effectively shrouding their forms and making it difficult to determine the exact nature of their corporeality; whether or not they were truly creatures of flesh and bone. The only ways one might mistake them for canine were their posture and movement, which mirrored those of starving wolves.
Normally, the sight of such a monstrosity would send a mortal mind into a terrified frenzy. However, the Stillness had something other mortals did not: the favor of the Watcher. This came in the form of a band of angry crimson energy writhing around the Hounds’ necks. Those bands bound them to Aaron’s will, so long as he held the leash-band. Aaron sneered in disgust.
“Supposed to be able to track anyone through the corners of time, and look at you; can’t even find a single fuckin’ guy,” Aaron growled. “Apex predators, my ass.”
But then, he noticed that Fugly still hadn’t shown up.
Ugly, Fugly, and Fuck he had dubbed the Hounds, though none responded to their new names. Still, it was easier to remember which was which with names assigned to the notches they poured out of. Recently, though, Fugly was responding less and less to his summons. It made Aaron restless. If the leash was failing, he’d need to put Fugly down, and soon.
With a growling sigh, he dismissed Ugly and Fuck, sending them back to their home outside of time.
“Fine, if that’s how it’s gonna be, no one better complain when the stupid thing turns up dead.”
Aaron focused on the middle notch. With a quick command, a rift opened up to reveal a tense Hound stalking along the edge of the Void, almost exactly where he and the Brother Superior had been floating weeks earlier.
“What the hell are you doing, you dumb fucking mutt?” Aaron shouted as he crossed the rift, voice carried magically across the emptiness of space.
He resisted the impulse to kick at the creature, remembering at the last moment that it wasn’t really corporeal, in the strictest sense. Instead, he sent a shock of Void energy through the leash. The Hound shrieked, turning on Aaron with a gurgling hiss. It quickly backed down, however, when Aaron threatened it with the leash-band. With an agitated, shuddering huff, the Hound began pacing back and forth on nothing, whipping its eyeless gaze back and forth between Aaron and the Void.
“I swear to fuck, if you’re whining about wanting to go home, I will end you.”
The Hound hissed at him, though Aaron somehow recognized it as distress, rather than anger.
“What? What’s got you so fuckin’...”
He trailed off. Something had caught his eye. Something that shouldn’t be.
Off to the left and down a bit, in a corner of the shapeless Void, something… shimmered. Almost. It was like catching a beam of starlight glinting off of a shard of smoky glass on a moonless night. It was what he had been searching for: the scar of a planar ejection, hidden in the very same Void he had helped to open. Somehow, weeks ago, it had escaped the attentions of both he and the Brother Superior.
Or had it? Was that sneaky cunt testing me? Shit. Of course he was testing me. I only joined up a couple months ago. Well, I see it now, fucker. He turned to Fugly.
“Well, praise where it’s due, I guess. You get dibs on the first dipshit that crosses my path.”
He turned back to the Void and stared a while into the total absence.
Well, whatever. I’m not gonna be sucking up to Mr. Superior Shits for long. I’ll climb the ranks so goddamn fast, it'll make his head spin. And it starts now!
Aaron jerked the leash-band up, activating its semi-physical tether. A dark red band connected to Fugly’s collar and the Hound tensed at the sudden pull. Aaron guided its snout towards the scar, so there could be no doubt what he wanted. Then, he took a deep breath and dropped his arm.
Fugly took off like a gunshot, whipping Aaron forward. The tether snapped taut, nearly pulling Aaron’s arm out of his socket. In a matter of seconds, they crossed the threshold of the Void, and the light of the Universe shrunk down to a pinpoint behind them. Aaron offered a quick prayer to the Watcher, that he might be granted passage through the Void. Almost instantly, he felt a cold, clammy pressure on his mind, and he was reminded how much better his new god was than anything Earth had had to offer.
Fugly charged unerringly towards the scar. The moment in time could have been a second or an eternity, but it still came to an end. Fugly’s claw pierced the stitched-together fabric of reality with a sound akin to a braking train. For another eternal moment, Aaron began to worry that momentum would carry him past the scar, and that he would tumble endlessly into the Void.
But Fugly pulled through, and they plunged through the rift into a sea of fog like television static. They’d made it into the Astral plane. Aaron laughed breathlessly, adrenaline pounding through his veins. He let out an ecstatic whoop as he drifted to a halt.
“Oh yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”
He almost gave the Hound an appreciative pat. It had certainly earned a graduation from it’s previous title of Fugly. He’d have to think up a new name. Already, the Hound was probing the fog with its meter-long, tongue-like proboscis, hunting out traces of their quarry’s essence.
“You know, you might just be my new favorite. Alright, you crazy bastard, let's go bag ourselves a runaway!”