Celestia woke to the sound of raised voices outside her chambers. Or rather, to a raised voice. Period. Full stop. That she could hear the voice at all was impressive, as her bedroom was not immediately accessible to the hall and was quite well sound-proofed to boot. But then, Luna has never been known for her subtlety when her anger is aroused.
As if to punctuate the thought, the outer chamber doors slammed open with such force that Celestia could feel the ‘thud’ through the floorboards. With one barrier to sound removed, another voice could be heard: that of Kibitz, her long-suffering steward. I really must have a word with Luna about tormenting the poor old stallion, mused Celestia, languidly drawing herself out of bed.
The second set of doors banged open in the next room and the voices’ volume increased, accompanied by the sound of hoofsteps. Celestia briefly considered making herself more presentable, but quickly dismissed the idea. It’s not as though Kibitz hasn’t seen me looking half dead before.
She had only just managed to rise to all fours when the doors to her bedchamber burst open to admit four Solar Guards, who wore blue-trimmed barding of her chamber guards, the much-harried Kibitz, who still wore his nightgown, and Princess Luna, who wore an expression of utter fury. “Celestia!” cried Luna, her voice just one step short of the Royal Canterlot Voice. “We would have words with you!”
Celestia heaved a mental sigh. Oh dear. She’s using the Royal We. That can’t be a good sign. Putting on a dignified smile, she turned to Kibitz, who was still stammering over the impropriety of waking a reigning princess from her slumbers, and said in her best ‘I’ll-handle-this’ voice, “Kibitz, did you perchance restock the coffee and tea in my sitting chambers?”
The elderly stallion looked wounded by the suggestion, which was at least an improvement over looking wounded that one sister should visit another in the wee hours. “Of course, Princess,” he chunnered through his bristling mustache. “I would never think to leave you without provisioning for—”
“Thank you, Kibitz. You are most efficient as usual,” said Celestia warmly. “Now, judging by the hour, I’m sure you were just out fetching a nightcap when my sister decided to pay me a visit, so you are free to return to your slumbers.”
Kibitz’s mouth flapped for a moment as he tripped over his words, seeming torn between obeying the princess’s wishes and following his usual habit of mothering her whether she wanted it or not. Ordinarily she found it endearing, and even appreciated that he kept her from overtaxing herself, but with Luna seething in place it was time for him to go. “Goodnight, Kibitz,” said Celestia. Her smile was pleasant, but her tone carried an unspoken (polite) order.
Recognizing this, the stallion bowed. “Goodnight, Your Royal Highnesses,” he said, ducking back out of the room chambers, the guards following close behind.
Once they were alone, Celestia turned an inquiring eye to her sister. “Jacques?” she asked.
“Indeed,” Luna grimaced.
Celestia let out a sigh rolled her neck relieve the cricks in it. “Of course it is. Why don’t you fill me in while I get the tea going.”
Luna flitted through the myriad of gleaming orbs that dotted the dreamscape, her eyes intent as she prowled. As Keeper of the Realm of Dreams, she was attuned to the flow of unconsciousness around her and to any effects that lay upon it. The blessings… and the curses.
Tonight there was a foulness on the air, like the stench of a rotting corpse. This was not entirely a rare occurrence. There had long been Dark Magics wrought by the sapient creatures of the world upon others and themselves which had the effect of tainting dreams, whether deliberately or not. Likewise, there were vile monsters of various forms which infected the dreams of ponies, typically in an effort to feed upon their misery or twist their thinking towards some nefarious purpose. Even the ambient power of evil artifacts or enchantments in proximity could have dangerous side effects. It was Luna’s job to defend her subjects from these torments.
What made tonight different was the nature of the threat. Rather than attacking particular ponies as such entities were typically wont, this threat lurked in the shadows, darting about from dream to dream. It did not linger in any one place for long, but seemed only to sow little seeds of corruption before moving on.
Luna was vexed by the shadowy entity. Its damage to the dreams it touched was easily undone even in passing. After the first few she did not even bother to enter the dream proper, for there was no need; it was practically harmless.
It is searching for something, she thought to herself. Else it would not pass by so many dreams so easily. Yet I detect no intelligence in it beyond animal craft. This vile thing is like a griffon’s hunting animal, turned loose to locate a particular prey. But to what end? And what shall it do if it finds what it seeks?
She had no desire to find out, but the entity proved to be elusive prey, even for one such as her. There was no pattern to its moves; no direction. It passed by ponies’ dreams with such disinterest that any harm it inflicted on them seemed to be an afterthought at best; a matter of instinct and nothing more. It was only when it lingered briefly over a lone griffon’s dreams that a strange theory came to her.
What if it is not after the dreams of a pony, but some other creature? What if…? her gaze drifted ahead and saw another inequine dream lying in the path of the monster.
That of Friar Jacques.
Luna reached out with her magic to shift the dreamscape around her, drawing her to the friar’s dream in much the same way as a teleportation spell would function in the waking world, but even with her speed it was too late. The entity was already there.
“It entered Jacques’ mind?” demanded Celestia, incredulous, almost dropping her tea in shock. Fortunately, she managed to hold on to the cup. True, she’d magically steeped the tea with such blasphemous speed that she half expected the Duke of Trottingham to appear in her chambers and accuse her of witchcraft, but it was still decent tea, and a much-needed source of caffeine at the moment.
“No, thankfully,” replied Luna, who had opted for coffee with equally blasphemous amounts of cream and sugar. Ironically, the Princess of the Night rarely drank it black. “The priest’s defensive faculties are quite robust. Shockingly so. Even I would have difficulty forcing entry without permission. I could do it, but not without harming him.” She took a long pull of her beige coffee before continuing. “Unfortunately, this entity did not need to break into his mind to harm him.”
Time is a nebulous concept in the sleeping world. Thus, the battle was already raging when Luna arrived. As before, Jacques’ mind was a multi-tiered fortress of weathered stone, standing proud amidst a wasteland of bygone wars, its walls guarded by armored humanoids with gleaming eyes.
Now, however, fresh war lay upon the wasteland. Humanoid creatures of oily black shadow besieged the massive fortress, attacking with weapons of darkness and hate. They shrieked and hissed and beat their frenzied magics upon the walls like a hurricane.
Yet the darkness found no purchase upon the fortress, and the cold-eyed warriors who defended it slaughtered the monstrosities in ruthless silence. Luna allowed herself a grim smile. It appears this monster has bitten off more than it can chew, especially now that I am here. She struck the entity from behind, striking them as a hammer against the anvil of the fortress.
The darkness was no match for the combined fury of the Lunar Princess and the warrior priest. One apparition after another was vaporized, and Luna’s smile turned wolfish as she ravaged her cornered prey.
Then she heard the screams.
There are many sorts of cries a creature will emit when in pain. Some mark physical pain; others emotional. What she heard from the depths of the fortress was so loud, so anguished, that it pierced the very air around her. It was a cry of total agony; the wail of one who had lost those he loved more than his own life.
Friar Jacques was in pain.
But how?! thought Luna in horror. His fortress was not breached! His mind is safe! The enemy cannot have—
Then gazed out upon the carnage of the battlefield, and understood.
The dreaming mind naturally latches onto those thoughts which are readily associated with each other. It tends to consider that which it perceives. Though Luna did not know what evils Jacques had faced in his life, she knew them to have been dire. His mind is a fortress in a barren wasteland, its walls guarded by thousands of warriors who are almost certainly representations of dead comrades. His pain is that of an old soldier, long surrounded by death. This evil assaults him, and though it does not touch him it torments him from afar, reminding him of pain and loss. His dreams recognize this… and turn dark.
“No, no, no!” shouted Luna, flying high over the carnage. “FRIAR JACQUES!” she cried out, her Royal voice booming throughout the wasteland. “THIS IS BUT A DREAM, FRIAR! WHAT TRAGEDIES ARE PAST HAVE ALREADY GONE, AND FUTURE TRAGEDIES ARE AS YET UNWRITTEN!”
But he did not hear, and the screaming continued unabated.
Again, she tried, “THESE VISIONS ARE BUT THE BITTER FRUIT OF FEAR! THEY ARE NOT REAL! FIGHT BACK! IN HEAVEN’S NAME, FIGHT BACK!”
Her words had no effect.
Fearing that the old man’s heart would give out under the strain, Luna flew towards the fortress, hoping to enter his mind palace and console him directly. As she approached, however, the defenders menaced her with their weapons. “Please, grant me passage! I come with aid!” The weapons were not lowered, and the screaming did not stop. Luna felt tears well in her eyes. “I beg of you, he is in pain! Grant me passage!”
Silent sentinels and anguished cries were her only answer.
“I could not enter,” said Luna, her voice husky as she raised her cup to her lips. “They would not let me.”
Horrified, Celestia crossed the room to put a wing around her sister. “Oh, my dear Luna, I am so sorry! That must have been terrible!” To witness such pain and be unable to act… a special torture I know all too well. “What did you do? How did you wake him?”
“I didn’t,” answered Luna bluntly. “At least, not alone.” Seeing Celestia’s confused expression, she gave a small smile. “I put to practice what you taught me, sister. I called upon a friend.”
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy Name…
It was all Jacques could do to keep his hand from shaking. He sat in the armchair by the window, taking in the light of the stars and the moon without really seeing them.
… Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…
Applejack had held him, comforted him, for he could not even guess how long. Time itself had seemed to cease as the warmth of her touch battled his nightmares with a sisterly affection.
… on earth as it is in heaven…
The softness of her coat; the security of her embrace; the faint smell of apples that clung ever to her – these tactile sensations anchored him in reality. Dreams could make a disturbingly detailed facsimile of the waking world, but even the most lucid could not truly compare to material reality.
… Give us this day our daily bread…
Even when she helped him to the chair, Applejack had remained by his side, allowing him to rest one hand on her head and stroke her mane. She seemed to know that he needed to feel her, to physically remind himself that she was alive, all without him telling her. It was fortunate that she intuited this for, in truth, he had been unable to say a word to her.
… and forgive us our trespasses…
It shamed him that he could not speak to her, but the pain was too fresh, too poisonous to risk speaking aloud. He could not bear the fear of bringing his past agonies down upon these gentle souls. Nor could he bear to inflict the pain of his memories upon them.
… as we forgive those who trespass against us…
Every day Jacques prayed for the souls of the persecuted, the fallen, the lost, even as he prayed for the souls of those cruel and vicious people who inflicted such depravities upon them. He prayed for his enemies as much as he prayed for his friends, except when his outrage threatened to drive merciful thoughts from his mind.
… and lead us not into temptation…
Then he prayed for his enemies doubly.
… but deliver us from evil…
… deliver us from evil…
… deliver us from evil…
Jacques let his head turn to Applejack as her worried queries turned more insistent. The farm mare cleared her throat before speaking. “Ah, uh, Ah know ya probably don’t wanna talk about it, but…” She trailed off, leaving the question open.
… deliver us from evil…
“No,” croaked Jacques, his voice raw from sobbing. “Thank you, Applejack.”
Applejack bit her lip. “Friar,” she said haltingly, “You know you can tell us anything, don’t you?”
… deliver us from evil…
I do not wish to burden them, he thought.
But is that protectiveness? prodded another thought. Or pride?
Jacques realized he didn’t know.
“Ah just…” Applejack’s voice was thick with emotion, “Ah just want ya to know ya can be honest with us. We’re here for ya, no matter what.”
But I am not sure what the honest answer is yet, my friend. Not wanting to commit until he’d had time to think and pray on it, he gave a wan smile and replied, “Another time, perhaps.”
If Applejack appeared less than satisfied with his answer, she at least did not press him about it. “Well, can Ah… can Ah get ya anythin’ at least? Some tea? Warm milk ta help ya sleep?”
Jacques shuddered at the thought of going back to sleep.
… deliver us from evil…
“No, thank you Applejack, I…” he had to clear his throat against a dryness that now made itself known. “Actually, if you would fetch my waterskin from the table…”
Applejack did as she was bade. After learning that many hoofed creatures of Equestria were sapient, Jacques had feared that they might react… poorly to his waterskin. As it happened, there were far more animals that weren’t sapient, and enough omnivorous griffons living within the borders to mean that waterskins, while uncommon, were not unheard of. Being that the Apples raised farm animals, they were unbothered by it. Some of the other girls had been a little put off (more because the fur on the exterior was a little too close to equine for them to be comfortable than any genuine concern), but Fluttershy, of all ponies, had been fascinated by the pragmatism behind it. Under other circumstances, Jacques might have found the memory amusing, but with his nightmare fresh in his mind it only conjured images of the pale yellow pegasus lying limp at Philip’s feet, blood spilling from her cut throat.
… deliver us from evil…
Jacques’ gnarled fingers dug into the armrest. Philip is dead! Dead and gone! Such fears are only nightmares—
Applejack set the waterskin on his lap.
—and yet the danger these Dark Magic-wielders pose to my flock is very real.
“Anything else Ah can get ya?” asked Applejack, anxious to help.
… deliver us from evil…
Jacques gave her a long look. These poor ponies… there is an evil coming such that I must contend with. A helpless rage built in him at the thought of how powerless he’d been in his dream; how powerless he still was in the waking world.
… deliver us from evil…
… I must think on this…
“Applejack,” he said aloud, “there are matters I must meditate on. Thank you most kindly for your tender care, but I wish to be alone for a time.”
The mare balked at that. “A-are ya sure?” she stammered. “Maybe it ain’t such a good idea ta be alone, ya know?”
Jacques smiled wanly. “My dear Applejack, you have already saved me from my nightmares. I shall be quite all right on my own.” Still, Applejack hesitated. “Please, jeune fermière.”
It was the ‘please’ that did the trick. Applejack’s nod was reluctant, but obedient. “Well, if’n you insist. But you just holler if ya need anythin’, ya hear? Won’t be no bother.”
Truly, Heavenly Father, she is fit to bear Your Harmony. “Thank you, my friend.”
Applejack backed out of the room, seeming unwilling to take her eyes off him as she left. For his part, Jacques tried to look back out the window, but he caught himself watching her on his peripherals. He held strong until she closed the door. Then it took all his strength not to beg her to return. So long as she had been in the room, he had known that it had only been a nightmare; that his old enemy had not really returned and slaughtered his friends. With her departure, that fear returned. It was foolish, irrational, and powerful.
… deliver us from evil…
His nightmare had been an illusion, but his struggles were not. Something was inhibiting his ability to grasp his new magic, and he suspected that something was himself.
Come Holy Spirit, enlighten our hearts that we may see the things that are of God. Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our minds that we may know the things that are of God. Come, Holy Spirit, enlighten our souls that we may belong only to God. Sanctify all that we think, say, and do, that all may be for the glory of God. Amen.
When Jacques had first learned swordfighting, it had come naturally to him. The mechanics of such combat were as natural to him as breathing. Spears, pikes, axes, maces, all manner of melee weapons he could wield with deadly efficiency from when he was a boy.
Mastery of the bow, however, had eluded him for years. Even now, he was nowhere near as skilled an archer as he was a swordsman. He had learned to improve, however, when an old Templar sergeant had explained to him the problem.
“A fighter must think,” the sergeant had said, “but not too much. When he thinks well, he sees the right course of action and takes it. When he thinks too much, he sees too many courses of action and is too slow in acting, if he acts at all. Young lord, this is your trouble - when you fight with a sword, you think; when you shoot a bow, you think too much.”
Jacques had taken the old man’s words to heart on and off the battlefield, even in his theological studies. The simple wisdom of the sergeant had taught him a valuable lesson: Contemplation is a precious gift from God, but confusion is oft of the devil, for it is his delight to sow doubt where there ought to be faith.
… deliver us from evil…
Throughout my life, my fears of doing wrong have prevented me from trusting in God to do good in my life. I pridefully think to solve problems myself, rather than humbly striving to do the best I can and having faith that God will account for my mistakes. If I am to master this magic, I must act; act and trust in my God…
His eyes fell on his sword.
… as I have in the past.
The beginnings of a plan formed in his mind.
… deliver us from evil… amen.
As Applejack backed out of the room, she tread as lightly as she would to avoid waking a newborn. It was an irrational action – Jacques was still awake, after all – but the experience of comforting the heartbroken man had left her defaulting to her maternal instincts, honed by raising Applebloom from infancy.
Ah hope ya find what ya need in yer meditatin’, Friar, ’cuz Ah don’t understand none o’ this. She eased the door shut behind her, turning to find Big Mac waiting for her. His silent stare was as eloquent as ever. Years of reading him meant that she heard his questions about Jacques as clearly as if he’d asked them aloud. She shook her head and mouthed “Not here,” indicating down the hall with a flick of her head. Big Mac nodded a silent “Eeyup” and accompanied her away from the room.
They walked in silence for a time, ambling in the direction that would ultimately take them downstairs. Once they were a reasonable distance from the room, Big Mac simply tilted his ears towards Applejack. The mare sighed. She wasn’t exactly ready to talk about the experience. “Ah reckon ya’ll wanna know what that was about,” she said, her voice as soft as a sigh.
“Eeyup,” he replied, his basso quiet.
“Well, that makes two of us, because Ah don’t rightly know myself,” she said honestly, running a hoof through her loose mane. “He didn’t say a word about it but… that scream…” she shuddered. “Ah ain’t gonna unhear that, ever.”
“Eeyup,” rumbled Big Mac, his tone somber.
They reached the staircase at the end of the hall and started downstairs, lapsing into silence. She almost said more, but bit her lip instead, unable to voice her inner thoughts out loud. Then there’s… the other thing. The fact that it weren’t him who woke me up. Applejack grimaced. Magical dream shenanigans. Ah don’t begrudge Twi ropin’ me inta this world savin’ business, but Celestia help me there are times Ah miss bein’ a normal pony.
Applejack shook her head to clear the distracting thoughts. Ah need more time ta think is all. Better ta focus on somethin’ else ‘til Ah wake up good an’ proper. The smell of tea and cocoa from the kitchen provided a welcome distraction. “Did you brew that, Big Mac?”
Applejack was so tired that, by the time she’d formulated the question ‘who else is up?’ they’d already reached the kitchen. The answer proved to be Morning Song and Applebloom.
Well, Applebloom is sort of up, corrected Applejack. The little filly was seated at the table, a mostly-empty mug of cocoa clutched limply in one hoof as she snored, her face tucked into her other hoof. Applejack instinctively grimaced at the thought of giving the filly a sugary beverage during the night, but she reasoned that tonight probably warranted the exception if it helped her get back to sleep.
Song, for her part, was up and alert, cozy silken bathrobe notwithstanding. Her mane gave little indication that she’d just woken up, leading Applejack to suspect, with some mild annoyance, that she was one of those mares who needed little work to make herself presentable. Her blue eyes were keen and lively, as though she’d been awake and active for hours and not even hit her stride yet. If it hadn’t been for the soldier’s silk bathrobe, Applejack might assumed just that.
Looks like Grannie slept through it, though. So there’s that at least.
At their entrance, Song held out a pair of mugs. “Tea or cocoa?” she asked.
“Tea, Ah guess,” replied Applejack. She indicated Applebloom with a tilt of her head. “What did’ya put in her cocoa ta make her conk out like that? Nothin’ from the top shelf Ah hope,” she quipped.
Song smiled. “Just the cocoa. Poor little thing got exhausted waiting for you.”
“Really?” blinked Applejack. “How long was Ah in there?”
“Over an hour.”
Applejack’s ears fell flat. “Sweet Celestia, that long?”
Song shrugged. “These things take as long as they take.”
Applejack let out a long breath, walking over to the table to lean against the heavy wood. “Don’t Ah know it. That was… somethin’ else,” she said with an exhausted half-chuckle. “Ah admire ya greatly, Song, but Ah don’t mind tellin’ ya Ah could never do yer job.” Her gaze drifted to Applebloom. “Ah mean… Ah calmed down ponies from nightmares plenty o’ times before, but that…” a shudder ran through her, “Ah don’t ever want ta see any creature goin’ through what he went through again.”
Song trotted over and passed a mug of tea to Applejack. “You don’t seem to think it was just a nightmare,” observed the alabaster mare. Her tone was not challenging. If anything, she sounded like she suspected the same.
“Ah don’t just think it,” said Applejack, taking a swig of tea, “Ah know it.”
“Oh?” asked Song, raising an eyebrow. “How’s that?”
Applejack chuckled, her gaze falling to watch her sleeping sister. “Somethin’ crazy is how. Ah’m not sure Ah’d believe it if’n it weren’t fer all the other crazy stuff that happens ‘round here.” She reached out to stroke Applebloom’s mane while the filly dozed. “Like what happened ta this little one’s friend a while back when we were out campin’, for instance.” Song tilted her head in mute query. “Ah’ll tell ya some other time. Let’s just say the Royals sure seem ta like Ponyville. Meantime, Ah got a favor ta ask of you and Big Mac.”
“Of course,” nodded Song. “Name it.”
They departed on their errand a short while later, leaving Applejack to sit alone in the kitchen, watching Applebloom sleep. Such an innocent little angel, thought the farm mare, her heart swelling with love. Ah can’t even imagine what Ah’d feel if Ah lost her. But, her thoughts darkened, if Ah did, Ah imagine Ah’d sound a lot like Jacques did. The realization left a bitter taste in her mouth.
Deciding to do something productive rather than dwell on it, Applejack gently slid the filly onto her back and padded upstairs to put her to bed. She managed not to bounce her sister too much, but, despite her best efforts, the filly still shifted on her back, mumbling as she woke up. “Applejack?”
“Is Jacques okay?”
What a sweet little filly you are. “Sure he is, sugarcube. He just had a nightmare is all.” Under her breath she added, “ish.”
Applebloom seemed to sense the qualifier anyway. “Sure sound’d like more’n jus’ a nigh’mur,” mumbled the exhausted filly.
Applejack bit her lip. “Well, it’s nothin’ that won’t pass in time. Yer big sister and brother are gonna take good care of him.”
“Y’better,” mumbled Applebloom, sounding like she was about to drift off to sleep again. “Or Imma tell Grannie on you.”
For the first time since her harsh awakening, Applejack smiled. “Well, we’ll just have to bring our A-game then.”
The thumping at Twilight’s door repeated, a heavy sound that resonated through the whole library. “A’right, a’right,” the unicorn grumbled, her words slurred by recent slumber as she made her way downstairs, a faded blue bathrobe thrown on against the blanketless chill. Celestia, if this is Pinkie Pie with some asinine question about the history of sprinkles or the viability of edible greeting cards, I can’t be held responsible for what I’ll do. “Hold yer horses, ‘m coming.” She swung the door open with her magic, blinking away her sleepiness. “Okay, Pinkie, what’s the—”
Big MacIntosh loomed in the doorway.
Twilight jolted to wakefulness with painful abruptness, an instinctive burst of telekinesis checking that her bathrobe was cinched tight. “Big MacIntosh!” she greeted a touch too loudly. “This is a surprise! What brings you to the library?” Once the words left her mouth, her eyes widened in horror. “Not that it’s a surprise that you’re at the library! I’ve heard you’re read very well, I mean, very well read! And red, as it happens, so you’re a red reader, but why would you be reading now when it’s the middle of the night, which is why it’s surprising that you’re here, so—”
“Miss Twilight,” interrupted the stallion mildly.
The unicorn swallowed. “Yes?”
“Applejack asked me ta get you an’ the girls an’ come to the farm.”
Twilight’s blood ran cold. “Oh dear, did something happen?”
“Eeyup,” replied the stallion. Twilight gasped in horror, but before she could begin panicking he held up a calming forehoof. “It’s settled fer now, but Applejack thought it best ya’ll talk it over sooner rather’n later.”
“O-of course,” stammered Twilight, feeling some of the tension leave her body. Her worries were not banished entirely, but at least it seemed there was no ongoing catastrophe. “Let me just get a few things.” She made to call for Spike’s assistance, but stopped short. For all his maturity, he is still a baby dragon, and he needs his rest. I can always come back for him if I need to. She magicked her saddlebags over and threw in several quills and a bottle of ink, as well as some of the notes she’d been compiling about Jacques (whom she assumed this was about) and a pair of general reference tomes. In her concentration, she almost removed her bathrobe in front of Big MacIntosh before she realized she’d be undressing in front of a stallion. Flushing red, she gripped the doorknob with her magic. “One sec.” Shutting the door, she threw off the robe and tossed it over the back of the nearest chair. She then gave her mane and tail a cursory brush while she jotted down a quick note to Spike in case she didn’t get back before he woke up. This done, she stepped out to join the Apple patriarch. “Ready.”
Big MacIntosh nodded once, rolling the stem he was chewing on from one side of the mouth to the other before turning to lead her towards the Acres. As they stepped out, Twilight became confused. “Excuse me, Big MacIntosh, but aren’t we going to get the other girls?”
“Eenope,” he replied. Noting her tilted head, he added, “Already handled.”
Twilight blinked. “But… how? I mean, based on the layout of our homes the most efficient way to rouse all of us as an earthbound pony would involve proceeding to my home first and then to Rarity’s—”
“Ah woke Dash first fer speed,” rumbled the big stallion.
“Oh,” said Twilight, frowning. “Well, that would make sense, as she is geographically closer to you and could wake the others quicker, but… how did you do it? Did she park her cloudominium on the ground?”
Big MacIntosh smiled.
Even from the ground, Big Mac could hear the raucous snoring of the pegasus. She was so loud that it was not difficult for ears as acute as his to pick out which window was her bedroom. It was not even impossible for him to guesstimate where in the room her bed lay.
Satisfied with his reconnaissance, he glanced around for a suitable means to rouse her. His eyes lighted upon a green pinecone. Smiling to himself, he hefted the cone in one hoof, glancing up at the window as he mentally calculated force, angle, and trajectory; ‘Fancy Mathematics’, as his sister would call it. He gave the cone a gentle toss, pivoted, and bucked.
The projectile sailed through the air in a gentle arc to plunge through the window and strike the occupant within. Big Mac was too far away to hear the impact, but no so far that he could not hear the abrupt cessation of snoring, followed by the creative string of profanities which, among other things, loudly speculated as to the genetically improbable lineage of the pony who dared launch the missile. A moment later, an expletive-spewing frizz of rainbow hair poked out the window, ready to give whoever stood below an earful (on top of the one already administered), but the magenta eyes which peered from beneath the frizz blinked repeatedly upon seeing Big Mac, and the foul mouth fell silent.
“Miss Dash,” said Big Mac politely. “A word?”
“‘Physics?’” said Twilight, repeating Big MacIntosh’s answer in its entirety. “You used, and I quote, ‘physics’ to wake her?”
“I… don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate on that?”
Twilight glowered at the smugly smiling stallion. This was a side of the big pony she seldom saw, but Applejack often mentioned – the sly prankster. It made her wonder about what other hidden sides of Big MacIntosh lurked beneath the surface. But that can wait for now. “Well, can you at least elaborate on why Applejack is gathering us all in the night?”
Big MacIntosh’s face fell. “Friar Jacques had a nightmare,” he said after a pause. “An’ AJ thinks it weren’t no normal nightmare, but she didn’t want ta say more without the rest o’ ya’ll there.”
“Oh,” winced Twilight. She’d had her own night terrors plenty of times over the years, ranging from the annoyance several days ago about Sombra to the truly disturbing one about the Forgotten Final Exam. But if it’s something that messed with Jacques of all people, it must have been pretty disturbing. A post-traumatic episode perhaps? Or something magical in nature? I’ve never heard of any pony except Luna being able to mess with dreams, but then I haven’t studied dream magic much. She mentally kicked herself for the oversight and resolved to requisition books on the subject when she next had the chance. And maybe write Luna… when Spike’s awake. Oh, I miss my Number One Assistant! Maybe Morning Song can—
“It’ll be alright, Miss Twilight.”
“Huh?” she asked, turning to face Big MacIntosh.
“Sorry,” he said, looking down as though embarrassed to have intruded on her thoughts. “Ya’ll looked like you were gettin’ yerself worked up. AJ gets that look too. Ah just didn’t want ya worryin’ before we even know what ta worry about.”
Twilight’s mouth flapped open and shut, not sure how to take his sudden and caring insight. Or the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever heard him use so many words at once. Perhaps it was her tiredness, but she couldn’t keep down a girlish giggle. “That transparent, huh?”
“Well, thank you, Big MacIntosh. I suppose I just need to think about something else.” She glanced at him with a smile. “Like the fact that we’ve known each other for years and you still call me ‘Miss Twilight.’ You don’t have to do that, you know. AJ’s like my sister; no need to be so formal.”
“Fair enough,” he rumbled. “Ah’ll call ya plain ‘Twilight’ as soon as you start callin’ me plain ‘Big Mac.’”
“Deal,” replied Twilight. Her grin turned sly. “<Though I suppose we could just address each other by Latin names, being that you know it so well.>”
“<We could>—” he froze, realizing he’d just replied to her Latin in the same tongue.
“Aha!” exclaimed Twilight. “So it’s true! You’re a classicist like me!”
Big Mac harrumphed in irritation and resume walking. “Who talked?”
“How in the hay does she know?” he demanded. Twilight just raised an eyebrow. “Right. Stupid question.”
“I don’t understand, though,” she said. “Why do you keep it secret? From the sound of it, even Applejack doesn’t know.”
A noise approaching a growl rose in the stallion’s throat and he looked away. “Ah don’t wanna talk about it just now, Twilight.”
“Okay,” acquiesced Twilight, knowing better than to prod him. “Well, if you don’t want to talk about that, how about… Xenopone or Thucydonkes?” Big Mac turned with a quizzical expression on his face. “Hey, I’m trying to keep myself from spiraling into a mental fugue of worry about Friar Jacques. I need something mentally stimulating to distract me, and I just so happen to be walking with Ponyville’s own closet classicist. Give me something!”
Her last request might have come out a little more intense than she’d intended, judging by how Big Mac pulled back slightly, but it seemed to have the desired effect as, after a moment’s thought, he replied, “Xenopone.”
Oh, he is not getting away with one-word answers! “Why is that?” she prodded.
Realizing that they still had a ways to go to get back to the Acres and that there was no escaping Twilight’s thirst for intellectual conversation, Big Mac sighed and began. “Well, you gotta understand, Ah first read Xenopone when Ah was about eight, right after Ah read Magnus Aurellius…”
Rarity wasn’t especially thrilled to be awoken in the middle of the night by Pinkie Pie shouting something about Rainbow Dash shouting something about Jacques shouting something. She was even less thrilled by the fact that there was no time to indulge in even the most basic of beautification exercises to offset the ill effects of a rude awakening, which she loudly lamented to Pinkie Pie as the two of them hastened to the farm.
A pony who didn’t know Rarity might have concluded that she was unconcerned for Jacques’ wellbeing, but this would be untrue. Rarity was concerned. She simply believed that it was better to fret about something trivial (and thus easily dismissed when necessary) than to focus on something grave over which she had no control.
Or, to put it more bluntly, complaining about her mane helped to distract her from worrying about Jacques.
Fortunately, Pinkie knew Rarity well enough to take it in stride, a fact which the fashionista silently appreciated beneath her veneer of annoyance. The brightly-colored mare just hopped along with her customary exuberance, replying to Rarity’s general irritability with generic chatter. About halfway through the journey, the couturier noticed a certain tightness in Pinkie’s smile and a deliberateness to the chatter. It was then she realized that Pinkie, too, was distracting herself with an affected normalcy.
I suppose there’s a lesson here about who we’ve all become these last few years, reflected Rarity. When facing physical dangers, our mindless chatter and knee-jerk complaining tends to be genuine. When a friend struggles with trauma, we hide our fretting behind an affectation of the same. Masks of unconcern. Danger is routine while personal struggles are distressing. It was a sobering realization.
Rarity and Pinkie Pie were the last to arrive at the Apple homestead, the airborne Rainbow and Fluttershy having passed them on the way and the others all living closer. When they entered, Rarity fully expected (and dreaded) to be the most disheveled pony present.
She was both surprised and somewhat horrified to discover that Fritters was in an even more ghastly state than her.
Marble Slab and Fritters were both kitted in full armor, though they’d stacked their helmets on the table where they sat. Marble looked understandably weary and unkempt, but not to any noteworthy degree.
Fritters, by contrast, brought to mind the phrase, ‘like Tartarus warmed over.’ His already gaunt features had taken on a ghoulish countenance in the dead of the night. He gripped the coffee mug in his forehooves as though it were a dark artifact anchoring his undead soul to the realm of the living. His bloodshot eyes twitched with manic intensity as they screamed baleful pronouncements across the room at the rather awkward-looking Rainbow Dash who, for her part, was studiously avoiding meeting Fritters’ gaze.
Now, while Rarity was the sort to wonder what might have passed between the two to inspire such antipathy on Fritters’ part, she was not the sort to tactlessly draw attention to Fritters’ appearance or his palpable ire until she had a better lay of the land.
Pinkie Pie was not Rarity. “Wowie cazowie!” exclaimed the bubblegum-colored mare. “Are you practicing for Nightmare Night early, Fritters? Because I love the Undead Murder Hobo look you’ve got going!”
There had been a light chatter in the room before the declaration. That stopped immediately, as ponies abandoned communication in favor of staring in shocked horror at Pinkie Pie.
Unaware of any social gaffe, the pink mare tilted her head in confusion. “Wha’did I say?”
A high-pitched, reedy laugh cut through the air as Marble Slab sagged against the table, shaking with laughter. It was shortly joined by muffled snickering as Applejack bit her hoof in a vain attempt to smother her amusement. Fritters recovered enough from his shock to glare at the former and shoot the latter a wounded look. “Sorry,” mumbled Applejack through her teeth.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to ask,” said Twilight. “Why are you in armor anyway?”
Fritters directed a cold glare at Rainbow Dash. “Well you see, Twilight, we were visited in the dead of the night by the Dread Cake Bird, in all its wicked glory.”
Rainbow hopped into the air, returning the glare. “Hey, I’m not a—"
Pinkie’s horrified inhale cut her off. “THERE’S A BIRD DISTRIBUTING CAKE FLYING AROUND AND NOPONY TOLD ME?!” cried the pink pony.
Applejack winced and hushed the mare. “Cripes, Pinkie, ponies are sleeping here!”
Fritters chuckled bitterly. “Oh, the Dread Cake Bird does not distribute cake, dear Miss Pie. Rather, it is the foul harbinger of the wicked Cake Eaters, those dark spirits which wear the flesh of officers and bureaucrats. Through their feigned incompetence and petty actions they create a realm of hate and misery for the lowly enlisted ponies, so that they might feed upon the anguish of those unlucky enough to fall under their evil spells. Whoa be he unto whom the Dread Cake Bird cometh, for he shall reap only grief and hardship for all his days.”
Ponies stared at Fritters in various levels of bemusement and disturbed fascination. Applejack broke the silence by asking what every civilian in the room was thinking. “Huh?”
Rolling his eyes, Marble explained. “‘Cake Eater’ is slang for the cruddy officers and bureaucrats who make bad decisions for political, petty, or just straight up incompetent reasons and end up hosing the ponies who actually have to carry those orders out. When those orders get passed to you, we say you’ve been visited by the Cake Bird.”
Pinkie Pie snorted. “That’s silly. Why would eating cake be a bad thing?”
Marble wisely elected not to engage in debate with her. “The reason Fritters is so worked up is that when Flight Officer Dash woke us up in the dead of night, she did so by shouting into our window that something had gone wrong at Sweet Apple Acres and we needed to head out here right away… then left without providing further details.”
Rarity winced, guessing what happened next. “Ah. So, you naturally assumed it to be a catastrophe…”
“… and armored up with painful speed to book it out here, yes,” finished Marble. “Fortunately, we bumped into Lieutenant Song on the way, since she’d been coming to get us, but the damage was done. The princess over here was already awake and cranky.”
“Shaddup, Marble,” glowered Fritters.
Rainbow blushed. “In my defense, I didn’t know that Song was already coming to get you, and Big Mac was light on the details with me too.”
“And in my defense,” said Fritters, far from appeased, “you’re a Cake Bird.”
“I’m not a—!”
“Enough,” interrupted Song. “I’m calling a halt to this conversation before Fritters starts his whole sermon on the vile power of the Good Idea Fairy.”
“Oooh!” cooed Pinkie. “The Good Idea Fairy sounds like fun!”
“It’s really not.”
“Um, I’m sorry to interrupt,” broke in Fluttershy timidly, “but… um… shouldn’t we talk about why we’re all here?”
“One of life’s great mysteries,” muttered Fritters.
Song nodded. “Thank you, Fluttershy. I think that would be best. Applejack?”
All eyes turned to the orange farm mare. She sighed, one hoof playing idly with her unbound mane. It was odd to see her without her hair ties, and even odder to see her without her hat. Rarity knew that, though Applejack didn’t put great stock in presentation, she still made an effort to look nice each morning. A small measure of her stress that, even when she had time waiting for the rest of us, she didn’t bother tidying up.
“Truth be told,” fidgeted Applejack, “Ah ain’t exactly sure where ta start.”
“Maybe start at the beginning?” suggested Pinkie Pie brightly. “I always think that’s the best place to start.”
Applejack smiled at the simple wisdom. “Ah reckon that’s true, Pinkie Pie.” She took a deep breath. “Ah was dreamin’, ya see. Nothin’ too crazy, just dreamin’ about the orchard.”
Rainbow chuckled. “Of course you were.” Applejack shot her a look. “Sorry.”
“Like Ah was sayin’, the dream weren’t nothin’ special. Right up until…”
Applejack plucked at the guitar strings. The fruit responded to the call of her music, drifting down from the branches to flow in red rivers of ripe produce. Harvest had been far easier ever since she’d discovered the Songs of the Earth, which left more time to spend with her friends and family. When she was done here, she’d go into town, see what everypony was up to, maybe even see if Fr—
A hole was ripped in the fabric of reality, blue and purple light sparking from the rift as existence was rent open to admit the frantic visage of Princess Luna two feet from Applejack’s face. “APPLEJACK!”
“HYAAA!” screamed the farm mare.
“So Princess Luna herself visited you?” asked Rarity.
“Eeyup,” grimaced Applejack. “Scared the dickens out of me, too.”
Fritters chuckled. “Yes, Her Royal Frightness does have that effect when she forgets to dial back the intensity. Thank the Source she didn’t inherit her sister’s predilection for pranking.”
“Wait, Celestia pranks?” demanded Rainbow.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Can we focus please?” interrupted Song, her eyes flashing. The culprits immediately fell silent. Her calm demeanor returned, and Song asked, “Applejack, what happened next?”
The farm mare looked down. “Well, if’n Ah’m honest, Ah think Ah missed a lot o’ the exact words on account o’ bein’ so shocked, but the gist of it was, ‘Forsooth, Fair Applejack, thine friend the Friar is sore afflicted with terrors wrought upon him by the foul incantations of a dark entity. Wake, therefore, and rouse him from his suffering, then send forth for thine friends to deliberate!’” She cleared her throat. “Or, ya know, somethin’ ta that effect.”
Fritters gave a quiet, sardonic laugh. “‘Forsooth, Fair Applejack?’” he muttered.
Applejack flushed. “Ah’m paraphrasin’, alright?” she protested hotly. “The mare talks funny! Is now really the best time ta be laughin’ about this?”
“Cracking jokes is not my motivation,” said Fritters. “Well, not my prime motivation, at least. Luna’s rhetoric is relevant in itself.” He glanced at Song. “We’ve only personally interacted with Luna a few times, but in our experience there’re two contexts when she defaults to an older mode of speech. Right, Doc?”
Song nodded. “Yes. Usually, it’s when she’s surprised, or when she’s stressed.”
“Oh my,” whispered Fluttershy.
Twilight frowned, rubbing her chin. “I can’t blame her for being a little stressed. Dreams are her domain, and it sounds like her territory was just violated by somepony.”
“Or something,” added Rainbow Dash ominously. Fluttershy eeped. “Or, you know, probably just somepony,” came the hasty addendum.
Rarity cleared her throat. “Well, somepony or something, it does raise the question: what does Luna want us to do about it?”
The question was an obvious one, the answer less so. Marble took a pull of coffee before addressing Applejack. “I don’t suppose Her Royal Highness gave you any other details?” Applejack shook her head. “Well, that’s less than ideal.”
Rarity felt a headache coming on. It’s much too early to be dealing with this nonsense. She lit her horn helped herself to a much-needed cup of coffee. “I don’t mean to speak ill of the princess’s judgement, but I can’t help but wish she had given us a little more to go on.”
Song shrugged. “Intel is always incomplete. Perhaps Luna needs to confer with Celestia before telling us more. If this is related to the Shades, as is probable, it may be that they want to deliberate before rushing into anything. Agelessness breeds patience.”
“Well, Ah ain’t ageless,” groused Applejack, “and Ah wish Ah knew what they were talkin’ about.”
“As do I, but there’s no point dwelling on it,” observed Song. “The best thing we can do is focus on what we do have control over. In this case, helping Jacques deal with this.”
“But how?” protested Applejack. “Ah don’t know about ya’ll, but Ah can’t fight some dark thing what took hold o’ a man’s dreams. Ah don’t think even Twilight can do that, and she’s the most magical one here.”
Twilight nodded miserably.
Rarity huffed. “Well, we have to do something, darlings! Who knows what terrors the poor man must have experienced?”
Fritters opened his mouth as though to say something, but fell into a silent grimace instead. Rarity’s eyes narrowed. You seem to know, don’t you, Colour Sergeant.
“So we will do something,” said Pinkie, her voice somewhere between cheerful and somber. Trotting over to Twilight, she threw a foreleg over the other pony’s withers. “We’ll do what we do best.”
Twilight blinked several times as she processed the statement before a slow smile spread across her lips. “Of course we will, Pinkie. We’ll be his friends. We’ll be there for him.”
Even Fritters smiled at that.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” chirped Pinkie. “Let’s go up there and give him a big group hug!”
Before she could spring up the stairs, Applejack stopped her with an outstretched hoof. “Hold on there, Pinkie. Ah think it’d be a little overwhelming if we all ran up there at once; he still ain’t used ta how ponies do things. Ah’ll go up first an’ see if he wants company, an’ then come get ya’ll if’n he does.”
“I’ll go with you,” volunteered Twilight. “That way, if he wants company, I can come down and get everypony while you sit with him.”
Applejack nodded gratefully and the two of them slipped upstairs. An awkward silence followed as various ponies imbibed in caffeine, stared ahead with blank grimaces, or (in Pinkie’s case) hummed cheerfully. Rarity envied her friend’s optimism. Perhaps it’s just the early hour, but I can’t help but feel that we’re all missing something.
In the silence, the fashionista noticed that Song was staring rather pointedly at Fritters. The stallion seemed to ignore her but, after a few beats, abruptly said, “You’re not a Cake Eater, Dash.” Song smiled.
The pegasus blinked. “Oh, um, thanks?”
“Don’t make a habit of it, though,” added Fritters with a smirk. “I’m about twenty years behind on my beauty sleep, so that chicken scat won’t fly twice.”
“Language,” sighed Song, seeming to say it as a reflex.
Fritters chuckled. “Boss, haven’t you given up hope that—?”
Whatever hope Song may or may not have given up would remain a mystery, as Fritters was cut off by the sound of heavy hooves galloping downstairs, heralding the arrival of a horrified Applejack. “He’s gone!” she exclaimed, breathless. “Jacques is gone!”
“What?!” cried Rarity. “Gone where?!”
“A-Ah dunno! He ain’t in his room, he ain’t anywhere upstairs! He mighta gone down the other stairs, but we oughta heard him! He can’t be runnin’ around right now, he can’t—”
Fritters was at her side, trying to calm her down. “Uspokajać się, Applejack. Easy. He’s probably just downstairs somewhere.”
“I’m afraid not,” said Twilight tightly. All eyes turned to the mare as she arrived, her face pale. “I just checked the main floor. And that’s not all.” The mare swallowed. “He… he took his sword.”
Jacques sang a hymn under his breath to keep his pace as he strode down the winding path. The cool spring breeze and the distant hoot of an owl were the only accompaniment he had on his journey. The breeze, the owl… and God. Heavenly Father, I pray this is the right decision.
The friar was a level-headed man, not given to madcap schemes or risky ventures, but years of war had taught him that bold plans verging on insane had their place. The duel with Karim was a foolish idea by the wisdom of the world, but by God’s grace it worked. This present matter would appear to demand such action.
Jacques had no desire to sin by putting God to the test through senseless risk. Equally, however, he knew better than to allow fear and indecision to keep him from trusting in God’s will, even if the only way forward was fraught with peril. His inability to make progress through study or practice seemed to indicate that his only remaining options were drastic ones. Hence this calculated risk I now undertake.
Even so, he paused in hesitation upon reaching his destination. Am I truly interpreting God’s will in this, or am I just acting emotionally? Sighing, he massaged his temples. What great difficulty it is for mere mortals to seek to fathom the Divine. God, how I wish for great burning words in the sky to direct me.
Since no such sign was forthcoming, however, he fell to his knees in prayer. Lord, I am but a sinner, weak and frail. I cannot comprehend your designs, but may only fling myself upon Your mercy and strive to do the best I can. As You were once patient with Gideon when he humbly asked You twice for the same sign, be patient and merciful with me as I endeavor to learn my magic. If I have misread Your will in all this and acted foolishly, I am sorry. Please minister to the good that I ought to have done and correct my error. Let my meager self serve Your glory, weak and sinful though I am.
With that prayer of trust in God, Friar Jacques rose and resumed his journey, striding forward until he was lost in the depths of the Everfree Forest.