A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court

by Antiquarian

Stand Firm

Contrary to common belief, the Everfree Forest was not uniformly hazardous. True, there was no part of the forest that could be called ‘safe’ in the sense that most ponies meant it, but there were areas where alert mares and stallions, and even responsible fillies and colts, could pass without serious risk.

Lumberjack Ridge, for instance, had long been a relatively mild part of the forest, with little danger beyond the occasional wandering predator or monster and the odd burst of wild magic. Even these potential threats were kept largely in check by local earth ponies like Burnt Oak whose woodscraft and wiliness allowed them to counter or defeat most threats they encountered.

The area around Fluttershy’s cottage was likewise rather tame, though this was due more to the general fondness (bordering on adoration in many cases) that living creatures almost invariably developed for the light-coated pegasus.

Even the Deep Woods near Zecora’s homestead, which had once been among the deadliest stretches of the Everfree, were now largely tamed by the mysterious mage and her skill in zebra magic. (Ironically, the fact that she’d picked not only the Everfree but that particular stretch of Everfree to live in had contributed mightily to the belief that the zebra was, in fact, a wicked pony enchantress; upon reflection, it was an understandable mistake to make).

But, as safe as some areas of the wood had become, there were plenty more that were just as treacherous as the rumors indicated, if not more so. Topping the list was the infamous Dead Mare’s Drop, a valley whose rather blunt title signified the truly horrifying number of monsters which were wont to dwell in its depths. (A close second was Dead Mare’s Dip, which was equally monster-infested, but not quite so long a drop to the bottom, and thus theoretically easier to escape with one’s life and limb intact).

The Timberline was not so deadly as Dead Mare’s Drop or Dip, but it came close enough that most ponies wisely gave it a wide berth. The Timberline was home to the usual collection of odd creatures, vicious monsters, and wild magic. It was not these, however, that made the Timberline uniquely dangerous. After all, every stretch of the Everfree met that description at some level. No, what made the Timberline treacherous was the unusually high concentration of residual Dark Magic in the flora. Mages and botanists alike debated the reason for this, but the results were known to everypony who lived within walking distance of the wood:

More than anywhere else in the forest, the Timberline was timber wolf country.

Of all the dangers of the Everfree, the timber wolves were arguably the most broadly troublesome. Rocs, manticores, cockatrices, and the like were all dangerous, but at their core most of them were still animals rather than abominations of Dark Magic – meaning that they could be avoided, led away, or driven off according to the same general principles used with normal wild animals. Timber wolves and their ilk, however, were malicious; hateful. They didn’t attack because they were hungry or felt threatened; they attacked because they wanted to. And, while there were other evil creatures in the Everfee which were even deadlier, the timber wolves were by far the most prolific.

It was fortunate that the growth magic of earth ponies was wont to carry an element of Light Magic, for it gave new life according to the harmonious designs of Creation. This meant that flora tended by talented earth ponies dissuaded timber wolves from spreading. When the Apple Family had founded Ponyville generations before, they had planted their acreage directly next to the Timberline, and quite unwittingly created a living wall that kept the evil at bay.

It was here that Friar Jacques travelled. It was no accident that he selected the location, or mere adjacency to Sweet Apple Acres that informed the decision. No, Jacques had familiarized himself with the Everfree Forest once he’d recovered enough to interrogate his benefactors. In part, it had been a sort of professional curiosity brought on by his near demise. More importantly, however, he had been concerned about the proximity of a place that spawned such horrible creatures. These conversations had taught him much about the Everfree, including the Timberline. The knowledge that the wolves were abundant there was his primary motivation for choosing it.

To Jacques, the timber wolves were a known quantity. He had faced them before and won, before he’d even understood the world, much less acclimated to it. In the past weeks, his strength and resilience had grown by leaps and bounds even as his knowledge of magic and its effects deepened. Perhaps most critically of all, he did not have any non-combatants with him this time, meaning that he could fight a running retreat if required.

Not that the friar planned on running if he didn’t have to. If he was understanding his lessons on magic from Twilight correctly (and, given how methodical the both of them were, he was confident he did), then vanquishing a half dozen timber wolves ought to be well within his capabilities.

And, God willing, it will be enough to provoke my new powers to show themselves.

“… I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word…”

Jacques’ sandaled feet made little impression on the earth as he strode through the forest. He was not hiding, but neither was he trying to draw attention to himself before he found a suitable place to fight. Applejack mentioned a clearing somewhere down this path. That should prove adequate to the task at hand.

“…Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path…”

The forest was unnaturally quiet. Even his prayers, murmured at scarcely a whisper, felt loud in his ears. Worse yet, he’d felt as though he was being watched from the moment he entered the forest, and that feeling had only intensified as he walked.

His only consolation was the brightness of the moon and stars that shone through the canopy, and he had much less difficulty seeing than he’d feared. Though, in hindsight, I still probably should have procured a torch before setting out.

The journey was long enough that he finished several psalms. They had a wonderful way of steadying his nerves. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. In verdant pastures He gives me repose. Beside restful waters He leads me. He refreshes my soul …”

A sudden chill ran down his spine, and a foul sense of wrongness gripped him, as though sickness had come upon him suddenly. But this was no sickness, Jacques knew. Something wicked this way comes. His left hand held his scabbard while his right inched towards the sword hilt. “…He leads me in right paths, for His Name’s sake…”

There was a swishing sound behind him, as of a snake slithering through grass. The presence grew behind him with its unearthly chill. His hand closed on his hilt. “… Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death—”

The foulness rushed upon him as a rattling hiss ripped through the air, but Jacques was already in motion. He spun, drawing his sword and slashing in one swift motion. For an instant, his vision was filled with a vertical maw of gnashing green teeth; then his sword clove through the fangs, spraying sickly green fluid in all directions. He felt a severing sensation, the same that he’d felt when killing the timber wolves, but much more acute, as the chill was banished with his strike and his assailant fell in half.

Jacques studied the dead monstrosity out of the corner of his eyes while he scanned the foliage for additional threats. It was some sort of vine creature – a long, thorny green vine with a pony-sized ‘mouth’ filled with fang-like barbs. He vaguely recalled from his studies that they were called something like ‘venomous pony traps’, but didn’t have time to dwell on the recollection. The foul sense had not left him, and he felt the coldness of more foes approaching. Four fresh vines snaked into view, surrounding him on all sides. Holding his sword back for a wide sweep, the veteran knight waited for the newcomers to slither into his reach. The vines hissed, then struck.

Slice. Cut.

In two strokes, four bifurcated pony traps fell to the forest floor, the dark enchantments in them severed along with their lives. With their destruction, the foul sense left him, and he was once more alone in the forest.

“—I shall fear no evil,” he finished belatedly, “for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

Noticing that the dead pony traps already seemed to be withering, he flipped one over with the tip of his sword. It became a husk before his very eyes. “Well,” he remarked aloud, “at least that seems to work.” Indeed, the speed and power with which he moved, and the greater surety with which he sensed the severing of the dark enchantments, was a marked improvement. Better yet, his ability to sense the presence of active evil magic in his proximity was something new – a power that he and Twilight had found referenced repeatedly in the old texts but which they had been unable to test. According to the texts, it’s not foolproof, but it remains helpful all the same, Jacques reflected as he wiped his blade clean of the plant residue. Still, he thought with a sigh, it is not quite enough to justify returning yet.

Sheathing his sword, he continued down the path. “You spread a table before me in the presence of my foes…”

Unbeknownst to Jacques, his presence in the Everfree Forest had been marked by more than just the vines. There were wild animals which noticed his passage, of course, and stayed well clear of the strange and dangerous creature they saw.

But the Everfree Forest was not just home to that which is wild. There, in the Timberline, it was home to that which is Dark. Old and wicked magics had long permeated earth, rock, and tree. It was not any sapient force with active thoughts and ambitions; merely instinct and mindless urges.

For all its simplicity, however, this magic was not without awareness. The magic sensed an intruder; one who bore the Light with him. The Dark Magic sensed this… and was filled with rage. It hated the Light, even as it feared it; desired to confront it even as it shrank from battle with it.

So the Darkness waited, restraining the greater part of its malice while it gathered its strength to destroy utterly the Light which had dared to enter its domain.

It was difficult for Jacques to gauge how long he strode through the forest when he could only intermittently see the moon, but he was out at least long enough for it to have noticeably moved in the sky. Twice more he was attacked by the vine creatures, but he dispatched them with little difficulty. In truth, the occasional attack helped break up the monotony of his travel and proved to be rather cathartic on the whole. Ah, he thought dryly, if tending the plants had been so enjoyable at the Commandery, I would not have found weeding so irksome.

Still, he had yet to encounter any timber wolves. As those creatures were the reason he’d come this way, he found their absence equal parts annoying and ominous. Have I simply missed them by chance, he wondered, or is there some other factor at play? Perhaps they are stalking me even now.

There was a bright spot in the journey, however; quite literally so, as the moon shone brightly in the clearing he found. “At last,” he murmured with relief as he stepped onto the hard-packed earth of the open space.

The clearing was a score or so yards across and twice again as wide; its floor was a mix of coarse dirt and moss-covered stone. There were no great tripping hazards, save for a single large rock that rose three feet from the ground off to his left, and even this was so close to the edge of the clearing as to be of little concern. Without a canopy of trees to obscure the view, the moon and stars granted ample illumination. Open space. Adequate footing. Clear sight. Yes, this will do nicely.

A distant howl broke the forest’s stillness. Soon it was echoed by others deep in the woods. Most people wandering the Everfree at night would have shuddered at the sound. Jacques nodded in satisfaction. “Now I have but to wait.”

Drawing his sword, he rested the flat of the blade on his shoulder and strode over to the flat rock. Sitting down, he propped his elbows on his knees, a hymn on his lips as he waited for the wolves to come.

The Dark denizens of the Timberline had tracked the Light as it journeyed to the clearing. Vines had harried him and lesser crawling things had observed him, slowing him while the packs gathered. Now the first packs had sent up the cry, calling the Timberline to battle. The Dark Magic was too simple a construct to comprehend emotions as such, but its bestial nature still felt spiteful triumph as its monsters closed in on the Light.

Judging by the approach of the howls, Jacques knew that battle was not far off. He was not without trepidation for the danger to come, but he was accustomed to besting such fears. “Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle…”

Many wolves raised their unnatural voices to the night, raising the hairs on his neck and causing a bitter taste to rise in his mouth. Once more he questioned whether or not this had been a wise idea. A moot point, as it is too late to withdraw.

“…Bow your heavens, O Lord, and come down; touch the mountains so that they smoke. Make the lightning flash and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them…”

Friar Jacques focused on breathing evenly as he prayed, keeping his voice steady. Recall what Twilight advised – prayer draws me closer to God; to His Harmony. These new powers are God’s will for me, and so a part of that Harmony. Oh Lord, let my prayers open me to doing your work. “…take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day…”

The acrid smell of the timber wolves’ breath, which had escaped his notice on that first day in Equestria, now washed over him like the chill of a northern wind in January.

“…and, having done everything, to stand firm.”

Green eyes burning with unholy light peered at him from the woods across the clearing, and a familiar sense let him feel the evil energies hidden therein. Jacques rose to face them, sword held in a steady hand. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

The first wolves crept from the undergrowth, drool dripping from their fangs. Jacques’s eyes narrowed. Truly, such abominations are an affront to God’s harmonious design. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

Shaking out his limbs to remove any stiffness, Jacques stepped forward a pace. The wolves responded by fanning out around the impromptu arena – four, six, a dozen. Well, I did want a real threat, thought Jacques ruefully. “With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”

Two wolves, larger than the rest, edged forward, their claws biting into the ground. Jacques squared off against them, meeting their gaze unblinkingly. You are constructs of hell, and it is my duty to unmake you. “Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”

Low snarls rumbled from the challengers’ throats. Jacques let out a low breath and brought his sword into guard position. The power of God is greater than these foul monsters. “My strength is in the Lord who made heaven and earth,” he murmured.

The wolves sprang forward, covering the distance between them a few short strides. Jacques stood his ground and brought his sword back to strike. “By Your Word, oh Lord.” As the wolves leapt into the air, time seemed to slow, and the rush of combat, that old friend of Jacques’, flooded through his veins. Swinging his sword in a mighty arc, he roared his faith and defiance into the teeth of the enemy.

“Deus Vult!”

Fire leapt from his blade, a pure white light which lit the clearing like the rays of the sun. The wolves had an instant to cry out in pain and terror as the blade smote them. One cry, then they shattered in a thunderclap of light, leaving naught but smoldering twigs and ash.

For a moment, there was no sound but the dull echo of the thunderclap. Jacques stood stock still, his eyes bulging at the blade, whose fire had faded to a faint gleam. Then a reedy laugh escaped his lips, mounting into a resonating basso belly laugh that was giddy as a child’s on the Feast of St. Nicholas. “<Yes!>” he exclaimed, reverting instinctively to French. “<That! I felt that! Oh, thank God! Oh, thank God! Now I understand what those texts meant! That is what the technique is supposed to do!>” He looked to the timber wolves, a massive grin on his face. “<Did you see that? Did you see that?>” The wolves ducked low, their ears back as they prowled uneasily about him. “<Did you see…>” he chuckled, “… oh, pardonne-moi, not only did you plainly see it, but I am not even speaking English. Or Ponish, I suppose. Not that it matters much, as you are simple beasts of…”

Low growls answered him as the monsters circled him.

Jacques sighed and readied himself. “Talking to timber wolves now. Well done, Jacques. If Andrew is watching this from on high, he is surely laughing his head off.”

Apparently realizing that charging in ones and twos would be suicide, five of the remaining wolves attacked en masse while the others hung back in case he slipped past. It proved to be a wise choice on their part, as Jacques lowered himself into the low pflug (“plow”) guard and charged through the leftmost wolf, striking down its gullet. Once more his sword blazed with fire, but this time he split the timber wolf in two, leaving what was left of it to burn behind him. He wasn’t sure why it hadn’t exploded this time, but, as his charge had brought him face-to-face with a second wolf, didn’t stop to ponder it.

His new opponent ducked low and swiped at his legs, but he danced around it, feeling as light as an acrobat. He clipped off one of its forelegs with a quick slice and it yelped, backing away as its severed stump smoldered. The friar was forced to dodge again as two more wolves sprang between him and the injured wolf. They nipped at his legs, missing by the barest margin, and he shifted back. A sobering thought came to him as he menaced them with his gleaming blade. Nurse Redheart will be rather cross with me if I come back bloodied. I hope she does not—

A sudden chill to his right alerted him to a flanking attack. He pivoted and swung, splitting one wolf’s head laterally. While he was turned, the two that had faced him split up, one attacking from the front while the other darted left. The wolf to his front Jacques caught with a backswing, but, swift as he was, he couldn’t get his blade into position to block the threat to his left. As the wolf reared to strike him and he raised his left arm to shield himself, a desperate prayer flashed through his mind. Please God, Redheart will be so angry!

Just at the timber wolf’s fangs were about to bite into the flesh of his arm, he felt a shift in power like when he’d first met Spike. A shimmering white shield flashed into being, and the wolf crashed against it as against a wall, smashing its muzzle apart and stumbling back in pieces. The shield vanished from sight the instant its task was completed, but Jacques could still feel it there, waiting to snap into being at need.

Jacques blinked. My shield of faith, it would seem— A snarl from behind brought him back to the fight, and he braced himself for the blow. The wolf dug at his back, only to scrape its claws off against white armor that gleamed around him. This time, the armor did not fade immediately, as yet another wolf struck from another angle, only to be repulsed. Jacques felt the armor burn them even as he heard their cries.

He also felt that the armor was just a shade weaker on the second strike, as one might feel a raw patch of skin where the outer layer had been scraped off. The armor won’t take endless punishment. I need some breathing room. He swept his blade in a wide arc, slaying another timber wolf and wounding two others as he extricated himself from their midst.

Darting a few feet away, he spun on his heel and adopted the low alber stance, ready to bring his blade upward into anything foolish enough to attack. For the moment, the surviving wolves were hanging back, nursing their wounds. They aren’t gathering branches from the surrounding trees to repair themselves, he noticed, suggesting that my blade can permanently cripple them even if I don’t fully break the enchantment. The friar adjusted his grip on his sword. They don’t seem keen to attack me, but that might not remain the case for long. Surely there are other timber wolves in these woods. Loathe as I am to leave these monsters alive, the prudent thing would probably be to withdraw now that I’ve accomplished my mission. He took a step back and saw no reaction from the wolves. God has granted me victory; I should take it and leave.

No sooner had he decided this than he felt a bone-deep chill and heard the crashing of trees and brush behind him. Turning his head, he saw the silhouettes of trees swaying as something forced its way through. Shifting to be able to keep the remaining wolves on his peripherals, he faced the new threat, eyes on the forest for when it emerged.

“Right,” he said softly. “What fresh spawn of hell are…” he trailed off as he had to look up, “…you?”

A house-sized timber wolf loomed over him.

Jacques let out a sigh. “Well. That’s a shame.”

As the Light had destroyed minion after minion, the fear and hate of the Timberline had only mounted. Its bloodlust had been felt by the nearest approaching packs, and they’d run together, crashing into each in their haste to be the first to reach the Light. From their shattered bodies had risen a great wolf imbued with the collective malice of more than a score of timber wolves. This great wolf now loomed over the Light, ready to devour it.

The friar considered his options and found them to be precious few. Outrunning the half-dead pack is one thing; outrunning that thing will be impossible. He glanced at what was left of the original pack and saw them creeping closer, their boldness restored. I certainly can’t fight the great wolf with them at my back. However… the big wolf took a step closer, removing a yard of breathing room with a single step … I cannot destroy them before that monster attacks. His eyes drifted to his sword, which, as though sensing the danger, once more blazed with fire. The sight kindled in him an idea. He wasn’t sure if it was an actual technique from one of Twilight’s books or just inspiration born of desperation, but at that moment he didn’t care. Gift horses and all that.

He concentrated on the fire, letting it grow until it practically leapt off the sword. Will this really work the way I want it to—? The great wolf lowered its head to charge. I guess we’ll find out. Jacques swung the blade at the pack in a low arc, shouting an old prayer that had been spoken in many forms and many tongues over the centuries. “Please God let this work!”

The reach of his blade was several yards too short to hit the timber wolves, but it did not need to reach them to accomplish its mission. As Jacques swung, the vibrant fire of the blade was flung free, casting flames upon the ground which rose into a blazing wall between Jacques and the pack. From the far side of the fire could be heard the dismayed cries of the timber wolves as they narrowly avoided immolation. Jacques was panting hard from the exertion as he turned to face the great wolf, but he smiled in satisfaction. Not exactly a fortress of stone, but it will do.

With the pack temporarily out of the way, Jacques put his back to the wall of fire, keeping close enough to, hopefully, prevent the great wolf simply trampling him. The gamble seemed to pay off, as the wolf hesitated, wary of approaching the blaze. But the fire alone could not dissuade it, and it leapt forward, attempting to crush him with its paws just short of the wall.

Jacques dodged right at the last second, narrowly avoiding death. He smote the left leg with a backhanded strike, then sliced at its jaw. Neither hit did much damage, but it still caused the beast to rear back, which gave Jacques enough time to bring up his shield to deflect a swipe from its good paw. It was a glancing blow, but the friar still staggered and felt his shield tremble. Sweat dampened his brow. That wall of fire took more out of me than I thought, he realized as he jumped back a pace to avoid another crushing strike. My magic reserves are limited. He slashed the offending paw and darted around to the beast’s side. I must be swift.

The friar sprinted down the flank of the great wolf, his blade cocked back in a two-handed grip. Feeding a little extra magic into the strike, he focused on severing the enchantments and swung for the narrowest point on the wolf’s left rear leg. The burning blade bit deeply into the wood and kept going until it touched air. Howling in agony, the wolf staggered sideways, nearly bowling the friar over and weakening his armor.

Mindful of his dwindling reserves, he ducked around its tail, slicing at its haunches as he passed. His strike elicited another howl, but this time the wolf did more than stagger. Bracing off one foreleg, it pivoted, swinging its other foreleg like a tree trunk at his chest. Jacques managed to get his shield up in time, but the blow connected full force and sent him flying back, his magical construct nearly shattering under the strain.

Jacques landed hard enough to get the wind knocked out of him. He gave a low moan and rolled over, mentally logging his injuries. That felt like bruised ribs, bruised forearm, and quite possibly a bruised buttocks, he thought as he used his sword to lever himself upright. And that shield won’t take another hit; can’t risk using it again, or I’ll suffer magical backlash when it breaks, he realized, recalling Twilight’s cautionary lessons. Looking up, he saw the wolf swinging around to face him, its rear scraping the ground as it tried, and failed, to use its back legs. Promising, but that wall of flame is already dwindling, along with my energy. He staggered to his feet and took the risk of sending a burst of power to his sword. Well, nothing for it, then. The wolf clawed its way forward, snarling hatred.

Deus Vult!” cried the friar, swinging his blade while still yards away and flinging a ball of fire at the beast’s head. The blaze struck it in the eye, and it shook its head madly, trying vainly to extinguish the flames. Jacques sprinted with all his might and leapt into the air, sword held up for an overhead strike, roaring as he smote its neck.

Once! Twice! Trice!

With an earsplitting crack the head was severed, falling lifelessly to the ground. The enchantment now broken, the body crumbled.

Jacques stood panting amidst the wreckage, his limbs shaking from exertion; his hands trembling upon his sword. It took an act of the will to not slump to his knees. My word, he thought as he panted, it’s been many years since I’ve been this exhausted and not been on the brink of death. A low growl reached his ears, and he looked up to see that the wall of fire had dissipated, leaving the pack remnant free to advance on him. Then again…

The friar was just lifting his sword for another fight when a crimson light lit the arena, spearing the nearest wolf through the head. Jacques almost fell over in shock. “What in the world—?”

A chorus of battlecries rose to his left, the direction from whence he’d come, as six armored ponies charged from the undergrowth. The REF soldiers he recognized immediately, but he was shocked to discover Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash as well.

The ponies hit the surviving timber wolves like a force of nature. Applejack and Morning Song struck the closest, putting themselves between the friar and the pack as they did. Marble and Rainbow Dash sped through the air and cut across the back, slicing at the wolves as they blitzed past. Twilight and Fritters, meanwhile, cut loose with their magic and cut down anything still moving. Caught completely off-guard by the ferocity of the attack, the timber wolves were slaughtered in seconds and Jacques was left to stare, mouth agape.

“Area secure,” reported Marble Slab.

Rainbow Dash did an aerial flip. “Woo-hoo!” she cheered. “That was so totally wicked!”

“Head in the game, Dash!” rebuked Fritters sharply. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

“How very literal of you,” remarked Twilight.

Applejack scanned the treeline. “Ah hear more of ’em coming! We’d best be off ya’ll.”

Song nodded. “Agreed. Friar?” she said, turning to face him with a crooked smile. “I trust you’d like to leave?”

Now that his brain had caught up to the fact that he was being rescued, Jacques sagged in relief. “Quite ready. Merci.”

“Form up!” barked Song. “Bearers around Jacques, Fritters on tail. Marble, you’ve got point. Lead us out of here!”

Dozens of questions burned in Jacques’ mind as they beat a hasty retreat in the face of growing howls behind them, but he had neither the time nor the breath to ask them. It was all he could do to keep up with the ponies, even with them slowing up to accommodate him. He lamented, not for the first time, that they were not large enough to carry him to and from the battlefield. A horse who could think and fight like a man would be an exceptional companion for a knight at times like these. In the end, Applejack and Song half dragged him as he held onto their armor.

It was a stressful withdrawal, but they successfully navigated out of the forest without incident. Once they’d travelled a sufficient distance into the Acres, Jacques cast a glance back to see a score or more sets of green eyes peering malevolently back at him. Then, one by one, the eyes vanished back into the forest.

Deiu merci!” he exclaimed, finally allowing himself to collapse against the nearest tree. “Dieu merci! That was considerably closer than I like to cut it!”

A smattering of relieved laughter followed his comment as the ponies caught their breath. They were nowhere near as ragged as he was, but, he reflected, sprinting through an evil forest with timber wolves at your back isn’t exactly light exercise. Thank God for good friends, good fortune, and a God who’s so good as to grant victory to my sorry self!

He reached out his arms to the two closest ponies, who happened to be Applejack and Song, and pulled them into an instinctive embrace, armor notwithstanding. “Merci, my friends. I do not know that I would have survived without you.”

“Hah!” laughed Dash. “No sweat, Friar! Saving ponies, er, people is what we do!”

Applejack gave a tired chuckle and patted Jacques on the leg. “Sure is, sugarcube. Just, uh, do us all a favor and don’t make a habit of it, okay?”

“Yeah,” added Fritters with a yawn. “Or at least save your stupid ideas for daytime.”

“I’ll do my best,” he replied. “But, I must ask, how did you know to come looking for me?”

Song also patted his leg, then rose and stretched like a cat, her back popping audibly. “Well, I’ll happily tell you the story when we’re back at the farmhouse. But first…” a predatory grin spread across her features, “I’m afraid you’ll have to face your punishment for wandering off like that.”

Jacques shrugged, unable to find it in himself to be annoyed when things had worked out for the best. “Fair enough. What is my punishment?”

The psychologist pointed. “That.

Turning to see what she was indicating, Jacques found himself nose-to-muzzle with Twilight, who was standing over him wearing a toothy smile that could only be described as ‘manic.’ Before he could draw breath, his ears were assaulted by a deluge of words that made him briefly wonder if this was not Pinkie Pie in disguise. His tired mind was unable to process most of what the maddened mare said, but he was fairly certain he heard “unlocked magic,” “untapped potential,” “the glories of thaumaturgy,” something about “research grants,” “intensive testing,” and “academic accolades,” and, to his admitted pleasure, a hearty “congratulations.”

The others just watched the display and laughed. “Ya really poked the hornet’s nest this time, Friar,” chuckled Applejack. “Betcha didn’t realize the most dangerous thing you’d face tonight would be Twi.”

Twilight was still speaking, not seeming to hear the others as she bounced happily in a circle. Unable to hold back a smile at the adorable display, Jacques chuckled in resignation and replied, “Eh. C’est la vie.”