Canterlot Castle, Canterlot, earlier that day…
Luna stood upon her balcony, overlooking the city. From here she was wont to watch over the country while it slept, and to enter the Dream Realm to guard her subjects in their slumber. It was rare that she stood here when the sun was up. But today she had cause.
By most ponies’ standards, Luna kept odd hours. She was active through most of the night, either fully awake or in the strange half-sleep that she entered when dreamstriding. When the sun rose, she went to bed, to shifting between continuing her dreamstriding for ponies who worked the ‘graveyard’ shift and resting herself with proper sleep. In the evenings she began her mornings, and she performed her other duties while also making the most of her limited free time. During the winter months, her free time became limited, and during the summer months it stretched. In both cases, however, the majority of her waking hours that were not devoted to her specific duties as Princess of the Night were taken up with other royal duties. She did not begrudge this time, and in fact enjoyed many aspects of it. Happily leaving the matters of the Day Court to her sister, she busied herself with matters such as intelligence gathering, civilian logistics, and military procurement. In truth, much of the time she was simply being brought up to speed on what needed to be done and signing off on documents that required royal approval (the Civil Service existed for a reason). But it was necessary work all the same, and she was careful to budget her time so as to balance both labor and rest.
But today had been unusual. She hadn’t gotten her typical morning rest, because apparently a crisis had erupted in Ponyville, spawned by the arrival of a strange creature who had bested a pack of timber wolves with unknown magic and was currently dying in Ponyville General. She and Celestia had agreed that the timing of the creature’s arrival was convenient in the extreme, and her sister had taken a detachment of guards to investigate. This left Luna to handle the royal audiences that could not be cancelled, attend a cabinet briefing, and endure several hours of additional paperwork, all of which left her longing for simpler times when paper had been at a premium and most of the nobles she had to deal were either useful and friendly or else readily dismissed.
Luna had barely had a minute to herself since the unpleasant awakening, but when she’d finally gotten it she’d immediately come to the tower. She’d told Celestia’s secretary, Raven, that she was simply taking a moment to clear her head. In fact, she had an ulterior motive.
If the strange creature is dying in a hospital bed, then there is a good chance he is unconscious. And, if that is the case, I may be able to learn something from his sleeping mind.
There was no guarantee that it would work, as it was more difficult to perform on non-ponies. But Luna reasoned that it was worth the effort.
And so, without ceremony, she entered the trance-like state of the Dreamstride.
Harsh winds whipped sand and gravel into her face as she surveyed the savage landscape. Barren lands, cracked and split for lack of moisture, stretched in all directions, blasted relentlessly by the gnawing bite of the storm. Black clouds blanketed the sky, though the air was filled with an unnatural light that somehow pierced the gloom. Intermittent heat lightning would arc through the clouds, but though she felt the tingle of electricity in her horn, her teeth, her bones, the thunder was muted as though by a great distance, and she heard little over the roar of the wind and the scrape of rock upon stone as the great earthen storm ravaged the parched land.
Luna decided that it was different from what she expected.
Far in the distance loomed a towering citadel. A shaft of pure, unyielding Light lanced down from the heavens, piercing deep into the core of the castle. The moment she perceived it, she took a step forward and crossed the distance separating them, finding herself close enough that the citadel filled her vision: a massive stone fortress, the size of the Canterhorn Mountain, three-tiered and walled in by as many barriers, unbowed by the elements and centered upon the shaft of Light.
The land around her was pock-marked by war, and she saw countless burnt and shattered siege engines of heinous and cruel design lying half-buried in the rushing sands, attended by the corpses of bipedal soldiers, their bones stripped of all flesh and their armor shredded by the ravages of war and the unrelenting hail of sand.
The castle itself was weathered as well, by both the onslaught of the earth and the scars of battle, but its ramparts were in good repair and its iron gates impregnable to offense of any sort. Luna got the distinct impression that it would resist any attack until not one stone stood atop another. From within the castle emanated the presence of a single occupant, the architect of the great walled citadel. She could not see him, but knew him to be in the presence of the shaft of Light.
This was not the first time that the Princess of the Night had encountered a dream wherein the dreamer was sealed within the walls of a fortress. But this was by far the most unusual case.
Not knowing what else to do, she walked the worn cobblestone path that led to the gate.
When she had drawn within fifty yards of the massive entrance, she became aware that she was being watched. Looking up, she saw that hundreds of figures peered down at her; bipedal warriors clad in shining armor from head to toe. Most wore livery of white with red crosses or of black with white crosses, though some wore unique livery styled after animals, weapons, and other heraldry. A few even appeared Saddle Arabian or Neighsraelite in their stylings. Some wore the armor of commoners; others of great lords. None of their faces could be seen, but behind each visor gleamed a pair of pure white-blue eyes.
Eyes that were locked on her.
Luna was not easily unnerved, but this dream was making a fair attempt at it. It was not so much that so many hundreds of eyes watched her movement, but rather that she did not feel the presence of life in their collective gaze. If the dreamer believed an individual in the dream to be alive in the waking world, then she would have been able to sense it. But she sensed nothing.
In a castle the size of a mountain, the sole resident was attended to only by ghosts.
The ghosts were unmoving, save for their eyes, until she had drawn within thirty feet of the gate. Then, as one, they raised their spears and aimed them at her. Luna halted at once. It was not that she was in any true danger, but even in a dream the results of such an attack would have been unpleasant at best. Perhaps more to the point, if she were to fight her way into the fortress it could have countless unknown effects upon its lonely resident. It was hard enough entering the dream of a non-pony without foreknowledge of the creature; to start a fight would be far worse.
Once she was certain that the ghosts were not going to immediately attack her, she took a step back. They continued to aim their spears at her until she had withdrawn three yards, at which point they returned to their guard stance and simply stared at her.
How long she stood, enduring their gaze, Luna could not say. But when she had finally resolved to leave, something changed. She sensed the approach of another life, this one from behind her.
Turning, she saw a lone, bipedal creature, garbed in a black robe with an eight-pointed white cross hobbling down the path towards the castle. His skin was coffee brown, and on his face was a bushy white beard that nearly covered the cross whenever he bent his neck. But what stood out to Luna the most was this: not only was the strange creature alive, but its life was like hers or the lone figure inside. In other words, he was not some mere fragment of a dream, alive only because the dreamer perceived him to be.
He was there.
Luna readied an attack. Even if she could not enter the fortress, she would ensure that if this creature was a threat to the dreamer that it would not either. But the creature, upon seeing her, simply waved a gnarled hand, his features utterly benign. “Hello, there,” creaked the ancient voice. “Out for a stroll, I see?”
The princess stared. “Who… what are you?” she demanded.
“Merely a fellow sojourner,” he assured her as he drew abreast. “Fret not, Dream Warden. I am not here to interfere with your work. Only to offer comfort and counsel to an old friend.”
He walked past her, towards the thirty-yard mark where the guards had menaced her. “Wait!” she cried out.
The creature waved her off. “I am expected, Princess Luna.” Sure enough, the guards let him approach unhindered. Though the roar of the wind should have cut off his words as he hobbled away, she still heard him clearly, as though he were speaking right next to her. “You did right not to force your way in, Princess, though it is likely that you could have.” Luna wasn’t sure how to take that. “Because of your patience, you will be allowed in one day, and the both of you shall be better for it.” The great iron doors opened, and Luna caught a glimpse of the great Light within. As he entered, the elderly creature turned to look back at her, and Luna could have sworn that his eyes flashed with the same Light as the great shaft. “Fare thee well, Daughter of the Night.”
Luna stood upon her balcony, overlooking the city. She blinked several times as her mind processed what had just transpired. The experience had been rather jarring, even for her, and she felt that it warranted a response appropriate to the gravity of the situation. Since her return, she had picked up on some of the modern slang from the castle staff, and it was to these terms that her subconscious turned, seeking the proper words.
“What the buck?!”
Ponyville General, Ponyville, present time…
Twilight had listened intently with the others as Jacques had described the nature of his visions, his conversation with his mentor, the vision of this Methuselah, and eventually his coming to Equestria. The scholar had many questions, among them who this ‘King Philip’ figure that he had glossed over was, what he had done to Jacques, and why Jacques now belonged to a different martial order. More pressing, however, was a far simpler question:
Why couldn’t these visions ever just come right out and say what they frigging meant?
It was only after she saw everypony staring at her that she realized she’d spoken aloud. “Ahem,” she coughed. “It would just be more convenient, I mean.”
Jacques gave an understanding smile. “I have pondered that many times myself, my young friend. And I am a priest! But I am certain that Providence has a reason.”
“I think it’d make for a boring story if we just got told the answer at the start,” Pinkie assured her.
Rarity sighed. “I think I could stand a little less excitement in my life.”
Jacques shrugged. “Far be it from me to guess at the will of God, but speaking for myself I find it practical.” He gave a dry smile. “I very much doubt that if I’d been explicitly told that the land I was travelling to would be populated by magical ponies of pastel hues I would have believed the vision genuine.”
Twilight tilted her head. “Why? Because we’re things of legends?”
“Unicorns and pegasi are,” he answered. “But in my world normal ponies, or earth ponies I suppose I should say, are simple-minded beasts of burden with no intellect to speak of.”
“So what’s the difference?” deadpanned Rainbow Dash, earning a glare from Fluttershy and a hearty smack to the back of the head from Applejack. Twilight rolled her eyes. Rainbow, please try to contain the jokes in front of the world-travelling warrior.
“My point is,” continued Jacques, undeterred, “that I likely would have dismissed my visions as being madness if they’d been more direct.”
Twilight pondered this and other implications, nodding. “That and if visions just barked orders all the time the concept of Free Will would be suspect.”
“That as well.”
Fluttershy spoke up. “So, if you don’t mind my asking, does that mean that every creature that exists in our world is either a legend for you or a non-sapient animal?”
“I would imagine so,” answered Jacques. “Though without knowing all of your apparently many races I would be speculating. I only saw glimpses of a few of the creatures in my vision, ponies, griffons, and a few others, which suggests that there are many more besides what I directly perceived.”
“I hope griffons are just dumb animals,” muttered Rainbow darkly, so quiet that Twilight barely heard her and Jacques almost certainly didn’t.
Rarity gave the pegasus a sympathetic smile and patted her on the withers. “It’s in the past, darling. Let it go.”
Applejack rubbed the back of her neck. “Ah don’t rightly know ‘bout visions an’ the like, but Ah do know they ain’t ta be ignored. If’n the friar says we got a storm o’ trouble blowin’ in, we’d best be ready.”
“Indeed,” agreed Rarity. “Though I must say I don’t much like the sound of these shadows lurking at the edges, picking off those who stray too far from the herd. It reminds me entirely too much of—"
“S-s-sombra,” stammered Fluttershy.
“Blech,” grimaced Pinkie Pie. “I don’t want to see that big meanie again.” She tapped a hoof against her chin thoughtfully. “Though, on the bright side, a recurring villain would be a change of pace at least. Silver lining?” she suggested with a forced grin.
“It wouldn’t be Sombra,” said Twilight, shaking her head. “The Crystal Heart destroyed him utterly. He’d already been turned to shadow, and without a corporeal form to take the hit like the first time, he was helpless against the Light and Love of the Heart. Right, Princess?” She turned to her diarch for confirmation, but Celestia was just staring off into space. “Princess?” It was at that moment that she realized that neither Celestia nor Argent had said a word since Jacques had begun his story.
The friar cleared his throat. “If I may, Princess, I’d wager that you and the good captain know something that these others don’t, yes?”
Celestia sighed and shut her eyes. The last time Twilight had seen her this solemn had been right before being sent off to investigate the Crystal Empire. Before that it had been Discord. The realization made her shudder.
At length, the diarch spoke. “It is not Sombra, if that is what troubles you. He is, as you said, rather emphatically dead.” Somehow, the words failed to comfort Twilight. Celestia opened her eyes, and for a brief, horrifying instant, she looked old. “But the approximation to his power is understandable. After all, he was not the only pony to follow that dark path.” Her gaze flicked over to Argent. “Captain, please tell them about the incident in the throne room.”
The officer raised an eyebrow. “With respect, Your Highness, are you certain? We don’t yet know the full details, and our investigation is making little headway.”
Celestia gave a humorless smile. “A warrior has travelled the cosmos to face a dark foe in our land, Argent. I believe a certain measure of transparency is called for.”
“True enough, I suppose,” admitted Argent, who then turned to address the others. “It goes without saying that this is a matter of national security, not public knowledge. You would do well not to disseminate what you hear today outside those within the Princess’s immediate confidence.”
“Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!” grinned Pinkie, making her usual oath. “Don’t worry, Cappy! We won’t tell anypony who’s not in the knowie. Losing a princess’s trust is the fastest way to lose your head!”
Celestia gave a pained look at that. Twilight face-hoofed. Jacques just nodded.
Argent seemed unfazed by the outburst. She’s learning fast, thought Twilight.
The captain began her story. “Three nights ago, an as yet unidentified assailant attacked Canterlot Castle.” The others gasped in horror and Twilight was about to bombard Argent with panicked questions when the soldier forestalled her with an upheld hoof. “There were no civilian or military fatalities, as the attack was successfully repulsed, but unfortunately we know precious little about what led to the attack in the first place. The attacker was a unicorn stallion who appears to have had tan coat and dark mane at one point, but it is difficult to say for certain because he had been using Dark Magic.” Argent’s eyes narrowed. “His features had taken on the countenance of Sombra.” She glanced at Jacques and clarified. “An ancient unicorn who succumbed to darkness and wielded shadow as a weapon. It transformed his body, giving him reptilian eyes, living shadows that moved at his command, fangs, and more. This stallion had many of the same traits, down to the eyes and fangs.”
“How tacky,” observed Rarity.
“I sent Raven to go find Celestia while two Lunar Guards and I faced the intruder. After making it clear that he wanted to speak with the princess, and was planning to kill anypony who interfered, he attacked us with living shadows that manifested as never-ending tentacles and claws capable of attacking even through the ground. He managed to severely wound one of the guards and use him as a hostage. Celestia arrived and bandied words with him. He claimed that he had no affiliation with Sombra, but that rather he was one of a group called ‘the Shades,’ and that they had come to destroy Celestia. Since it was clear at that point that he was intent upon killing the guardpony, Celestia destroyed him.”
Twilight and the others stood in silence for a moment, processing what had just been said. In all, it was rather a lot to take in, especially for Twilight. She’d grown up in the city, and had a military family; as such, she was intimately familiar with how unprecedented the event was. With the exception of the Changelings, it’s been a long time since anycreature had been brazen enough to attack Canterlot outright, much less Celestia herself. The fact that a lone assailant, and a pony no less, was enough of a threat that Celestia had no choice but to… kill him…
She shook off her worries and forced herself into the comforting embrace of analysis. “Well, you said that his dark magic prevented you from identifying features like his proper coat color and cutie mark, but what about the autopsy?”
Argent blinked. “Celestia destroyed him,” she repeated.
“Oh.” The words clicked. “Oh.”
“There was no choice,” said Celestia, sorrow evident in her voice. “He would not yield, and would not listen to reason. I only hope that it was madness that brought him to that end; perhaps there would be some mercy for him if it was not fully his choice.”
“One can hope,” murmured Jacques.
A morbid pallor hung over the room, restraining the six’s usual enthusiasm.
Rainbow rallied first. “All right, then!” she exclaimed, zipping into the air. “Who are these ‘Shades,’ and where do we go to bring the Harmony?”
“It is not that simple, my little pony,” cautioned Celestia.
“Of course it’s not,” grumbled Applejack.
The diarch didn’t seem to hear her. “The Shades are a threat with which I am familiar, but they are not a name that I have heard in centuries.”
At the word ‘centuries,’ Jacques gave a strangled noise. Twilight looked over, concerned that he’d had some sort of attack, but it appeared that he was merely staring with bulging eyes at Celestia, visibly restraining himself from asking a few hundred questions. Is that what I look like? she wondered.
Celestia either didn’t notice the friar’s discomfort or else chose not to acknowledge it, and strode over to the window to look out at the lengthening evening sky. “The Shades are an old enemy; one of the last ones that Luna and I faced before the coming of the Nightmare. At first we thought them to be survivors of Sombra’s cabal, or else a cult that had risen around him. They were, after all, practitioners of the Dark Arts, sorcerers of the foulest and cruelest kind, that had risen in the wake of Sombra’s first defeat.” She shook her head. “Perhaps it would have been better if they had been.”
Twilight and the others exchanged glances. Better if they had been more like Sombra?
“Better how, exactly?” asked Applejack with her typical frankness.
The Princess grimaced. “I do not know, even now, what dark bargains Sombra made to achieve his power. Doubtless they were damnable. But by the time we faced him he was more concerned with the domination of minds than with outright destruction. It was how he sought power, his own deranged quest for deification. But, heinous as his crimes were, he preferred his victims alive, and where there is life there is hope. But the Shades,” she spat, “they sought power at any cost. And to gain it, they performed blood sac—,” she shuddered, and did not finish. “I do not wish to speak of it now. Suffice it to say it was a black mark upon our history.”
The Bearers shared an uneasy look, disturbed that the princess hadn’t seen fit to tell the whole story. Jacques at least, seemed to have guessed, if his dark look and exclamation of “Mon Dieu aie pitié!” were any indication.
After a moment’s silence Celestia continued. “The Shades swept down from the north like a plague, slaughtering entire villages and cutting a swathe of destruction across the countryside.” Her voice shook with emotion as she recounted the deaths of her beloved subjects. “In all my many years, I have seldom witnessed such atrocities. As I said, Sombra, for all his many evils, would rather have slaves than corpses. But the Shades…” she trailed off and gazed silently at the waning sun. “Theirs was a wanton cruelty of a different nature. As far as sheer power, they could not match Sombra; he had become dangerous enough to be able to face two alicorns, after all. But the Shades were a more insidious threat. Where Sombra had relied on raw might, both his own and that of his slave army, the Shades relied on guile and deception. They, too, had an army, but they did not try to take and hold territory, but rather raided and killed in lightning attacks before vanishing. It was… exceedingly difficult to pin them down, and, without a central power like Sombra to face directly, we were forced into more conventional methods of destroying the menace.”
“The army we formed was a coalition force drawn from various nobles and states within the Three Tribes. Its backbone came from the earth pony warrior tribes of the north; its hammer was a hardy cohort pegasi legionaries; its anvil was cavaliers, the elite of the unicorn knights. For many bitter months we waged a rapid, mobile war against an enemy as elusive as the shadows themselves, until finally we found their wretched nest from which all their evils had spawned.” There was grim satisfaction in her voice and fire in her eyes. “There we buried them.”
To Twilight it seemed as though the temperature in the room rose to an uncomfortable level. The ambient power radiating off of Celestia had taken on a fiery essence, like the summer sun in the desert. This was a side of her mentor that she’d never seen before, the relentless and uncompromising warlord who would pursue an enemy to the very gates of Tartarus to keep her ponies safe. She was both frightened and deeply reassured.
But the story had not given all the details, and, given how vague the visions had been, Twilight wanted to know as much as she could.
Eventually, she put words to what she supposed many of them were wondering. “Um… Princess?” Celestia did not look at her. Twilight swallowed. “How did you finally stop them?”
The princess did not immediately respond. Instead, she turned and gave Argent a long, sad look. At length she replied, “At tremendous cost.” She looked back out the window. “Nine hundred volunteers followed Luna and I on our crusade. More would join us as we came across survivors and militia. But when the dust settled after that final battle…barely three hundred remained.”
Twilight blanched. She could tell without looking that some of the others had started crying.
At that sound, the princess finally faced them, remorse on her features as her aura softened and the room became a pleasant temperature once more. “I am sorry for burdening you with the memories of an old warrior. There is a reason that I do not often speak of it.” With her magic, she dried the eyes of those who had wept. “Our era is a gentler one, unaccustomed to such atrocities, and it is better for it. But the intruder claimed the name of a foe long buried, and that concerns me greatly.”
The Bearers were silent. This was not a threat like what they were accustomed to. Monsters like Sombra and Nightmare Moon were at least individuals. Individuals with the capacity to devastate the world, yes, but still individuals who were vulnerable to the Elements. But, as Celestia had said, a movement of evil ponies was harder to deal with. Nopony seemed to know what to say.
That restriction did not apply to Jacques. “So you think these Shades have returned, then?”
“Not necessarily,” replied Celestia. “My sister and I were rather thorough in stomping out their teachings and adherents. We were even aided in dismantling them by a former Shade who had repented and shown us where to look. It is more likely that this stallion, and any other associates that he may have, are a recent cult who are simply imitating one long dead.”
“But even if they are merely copycats, they are still dangerous,” added Argent, taking over the narrative. “And, while it has only been three days, the fact that our intelligence community has been unable to discover anything about this one ‘Shade’ and whether or not he acted alone is disconcerting.”
“Well ain’t that the understatement o’ the day,” grumbled Applejack.
“Whatever the case,” said Celestia, who now sounded more like her usual self, “there is nothing that the six of you can do at present.” She held up a hoof to cut off Rainbow, who had looked like she was about to spout bravado. “I know you are accustomed to facing down these foes directly, and no doubt the assistance of the Bearers will be required when the ultimate threat is determined. But, as of yet, we simply don’t know enough. Until that changes, you would do well to remain here.”
“Remain here?” repeated Twilight. She blushed at her exclamation and continued in more measured tone. “With all due respect, Princess, wouldn’t we be more useful helping in the investigation?”
“Yeah!” exclaimed Pinkie, who produced her detective hat from her mane and planted a bowler hat on Twilight’s head. “Twilight can be my lowly assistant again!”
“De quoi?” exclaimed Jacques at the sight of the pink mare’s antics.
Argent cleared her throat. “Thank you for the offer, but I believe it would be best to let the spies handle this one.”
“Which is not to say that you won’t have a vital role,” continued Celestia, “perhaps the most vital role of all.” She gestured to Jacques. “Welcoming our new friend.”
The friar raised an eyebrow. “Princess, I mean no disrespect, but my feeling welcome is hardly important. I would prefer to begin my work in rooting out this witchcraft immediately.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Recall Methuselah’s dream, Friar. A wounded warrior cannot fight. And, if you are truly to live amongst us and aid us, then you must understand both our land and your new abilities.”
“Yes,” interjected Twilight emphatically. “You don’t want to be in a fight and have your magic start going off willy-nilly. Trust me!”
Pinkie bounced in place. “And we still gotta throw you a—
Twilight shoved a hoof over Pinkie’s mouth. “A party. Yes. That too.”
The party planner pushed the hoof aside. “I was going to say ‘celebration,’ but that works too.”
Jacques considered this, then nodded. “Very well. There is wisdom in this. Though I’m afraid I cannot pay for my care or lodging at this time, so I must seek work when I am recovered.”
Rarity snorted. “Oh, please, dear Friar. After saving my sister I would be more than happy to cover all your expenses.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said Celestia. “The Crown shall pay for his medical treatment, and as for employment I will see to it that you are compensated for your service to Equestria, past and future.”
Argent smirked. “The Civil Service is very good at finding money in the budget for such noble causes as financing professional filly-rescuers.”
“As far as lodging, I’m sure that once you have recovered we can put you up in one of the inns here in Ponyville.”
Twilight considered the various inns available in Ponyville. They were good establishments, by and large, but she worried about the human, new to this land and to his powers, living amongst total strangers. The library is pretty big, and we’ve got a spare room. She grinned broadly. Plus, if he lived at the library, I’d be able to study his magic up close! She was about to suggest just that when Applejack stepped forward, holding her hat in one hoof.
“Er, beggin’ your pardon, Yer Highness, but if’n the Friar don’t mind, we’d sure be honored to have him up at Sweet Apple Acres.” She turned to Jacques. “We got plenty o’ headroom, lots o’ space, an’ I know Granny and Big Macintosh will wanna give ya a proper thank you for saving Applebloom. It’d be our pleasure ta have ya.”
Celestia nodded in approval. Jacques considered the offer, then gave a warm smile. “As I said, your gratitude is unnecessary. A man does his duty. But I would welcome the chance to live amongst friendly faces as I adjust to my…” he twisted one hand in the air, “unfamiliar surroundings. Thank you kindly.”
“Well, that’s sorted,” declared Argent. “And, unless there is nothing else, might I suggest that we adjourn for the evening? It is approaching time for the sun to properly set and I’m sure the good friar is quite tired from the day’s trials.”
Jacques yawned. “Well, I wasn’t until you said something.” Argent chuckled.
“I think that would be wise,” agreed Celestia. “We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow. I will have the nurses return to bring you anything you may require before retiring, Friar.” She dipped her head respectfully. “Once more, I bid you welcome to Equestria.”
Jacques managed a return bow. “Thank you, Princess.” To the group he said, “It has been a pleasure meeting you all. I look forward to seeing you on the morrow.”
The various ponies bid him goodnight and departed. Celestia and Argent split off soon after to discuss official business. The six friends informed Redheart and Medevac that Jacques was ready for them again and headed for the main door. It was at that point that Lieutenant Morning Song made her return with the three fillies and Spike in tow. Other than looking visibly tired, she appeared no worse for wear after the experience, which earned her no small amount of respect from the elder siblings.
All three girls and, to a lesser extent, Spike were disappointed to hear that they had talked to Jacques without them. But Pinkie, perhaps thanks to her experience with the Cakes’ foals, managed to convince them that all they had missed had been boring grown-up talk and that Jacques would be much more able to talk tomorrow now that all that was out of the way. This had succeeded in placating them, and with a final thank you to Lieutenant Song the friends and their siblings had departed.
By ones and twos they peeled off, heading for their respective homes, until only Applejack, Twilight, and their respective wards remained. Spike was walking some ways ahead, seeming eager to get home and finally finish his comic book. Applebloom, worn out from the day’s events, was dozing on Applejack’s back. This left the two adults time to talk.
“Applebloom will be thrilled to hear that the friar will be staying with you,” remarked Twilight.
“Eeyup,” grinned Applejack. “She sure as sugar will.” Her face fell. “Ah just hope the other two don’t get jealous.”
Twilight snickered. “Oh, I wouldn’t worry that they’ll be jealous. I’d worry that they’ll start camping out in your barn just to pester him!”
Applejack grimaced. “Thanks fer that cheery thought.”
Twilight giggled. “You know, if you hadn’t beaten me to it, I was going to invite him to stay at the library.”
“Oh, Ah know,” admitted Applejack. “That’s part o’ why Ah offered so fast.” Twilight gave her a confused look. Applejack responded with an impish grin. “Ah couldn’t bear the thought o’ you experimentin’ on him.”
Twilight glared and jostled her shoulder. Applejack chuckled and Twilight couldn’t suppress a small smile. “I would not experiment on him, AJ.” The farmpony shot her a look. “Without permission,” she amended. Applejack snorted.
The two lapsed into silence for a moment.
“Twi?” said Applejack, her voice serious. “This business about the…” she glanced back at her dozing sister, “…well, you know.” She bit her lip. “It’s gonna be a bad one, isn’t it?”
Mindful that Applebloom might not be as asleep as she appeared, Twilight chose her words carefully. “We were literally sent a warrior to help us, whose magic seems to counter other magics, especially the really bad ones.” She nudged her friend’s shoulder. “And we’ve still got each other.” With a confident smile she declared, “As long as we hold on to that, we’ll win. Just like we always do.”
Applejack sighed in relief. “Thanks, Twi. Ah guess Ah just needed to hear that out loud.”
Twilight nodded back, keeping the smile on her face. But, in her mind, all she could do was think about her beloved Ponyville, seeing it in flames as ponies wielding shadows bathed it in blood. Honestly, Applejack, I think I needed to hear it too.