“… and that’s about when Fritters’ magic spear destroyed the first of the wolves,” concluded Jacques, stifling a yawn as they made their way back to the Apple Family homestead. “I believe you know the rest.”
The night was silent for a moment, save for the tramp of hooves and the scratching of Twilight’s quill on paper. I can’t believe she actually brought those on a rescue mission, thought Jacques. With her muzzle buried in her notes, it’s a wonder she hasn’t tripped on anything. The friar found it impressive, but he also thought that it suggested worrying things about how often she must do it. Ah, well, he thought with a sigh. At least her questions keep me from dwelling on all the trouble I’ve caused them this evening.
Song and the others hadn’t elaborated on how they found him, or why everybody was awake in the first place, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Applejack had called for reinforcements. The fact that Rainbow Dash had gone on ahead to let ‘the others’ know he’d been rescued meant that those present weren’t the only ones who’d been woken up by his late-night jaunt.
It didn’t help that Applejack kept shooting him glances as though to assure herself that he was still there. Much like how I needed that same assurance when I woke from my nightmare, he thought remorsefully. I hadn’t counted on their worry. Such foolishness! A man who has lived as long as I should know better by now!
“Fascinating!” said Twilight, her hushed exclamation drawing him back to the present. She poured over her notes, eyes shining with excitement. “It seems that my hypotheses about the intuitive nature of the magic were correct, as well as my belief that gaining a greater degree of mental stability through piety would have a direct correlation to your ability to accept your body’s new magical capacity. How would you describe the aura feedback when you wielded your sword?”
Jacques blinked several times and rubbed his eyes blearily, struggling to parse out what she’d just asked him. It’s no use. My mind is too fuzzy to recall the terms. And her lengthy interrogation hasn’t helped. “I would describe it as something for another time,” he quipped.
Twilight tilted her head to one side. “Another time? What do you mean?”
Raising an eyebrow, he tried again, “It feels like something it’s best to sleep on.”
The mare scratched her head with her quill and pondered his answer. “How interesting. I’ve never heard of magic causing that sort of sensation. Is it a matter of perceiving temporal distortion, or a connection to sleeping? I wonder if there’s a relation between that and the Dream Realm—”
Rolling his eyes, he cut her off, “Twilight?” She looked up at him. “You are taking the wrong meaning from my words. I wasn’t actually describing the sensation; I was saying I’d rather discuss it tomorrow.”
Twilight’s ears fell flat. “Tomorrow?” she asked piteously.
The friar chuckled. “Dear lady, I am exhausted. I’m not sure how to describe it because I’m too tired to consider complex matters. Much as I hate to keep you waiting, I’d prefer to resume this conversation tomorrow.”
Twilight’s eyes, already unfairly large and adorable, now assumed a lugubrious quality calculated to twist the hearts of mortal men. Saints alive, she looks like a kicked puppy! lamented Jacques.
“But… but magic,” she wailed.
Applejack laughed and patted Twilight on the back. “Don’t worry, hon. Magic will still be there tomorrow waitin’ for ya.”
Twilight let out a disappointed “Aw” as she put away her writing materials.
Fritters laughed. “Don’t worry, Twilight. If he wants to keep mum about it tomorrow, I’ll hold him down while you force it out of him!”
Jacques shot the unicorn stallion a sidelong glance. “That won’t be nearly so easy for you after tonight,” he warned.
“Good,” grinned Fritters. “I need the exercise.”
“Okay, boys,” sighed Morning Song, “let’s dial the testosterone back from an eight to a three, okay? At least until morning.”
Fritters looked confused. “But aren’t you Morning?”
Marble Slab and Applejack snickered while Song shot him a glare. “Don’t get smart with me.”
“Small danger of that,” snarked Marble.
Now it was Fritters’ turn to glare. “Last time I checked, I outrank you, Marble. So, if I’m dumb, and I’m your boss, what does that imply?”
“That you called in a personal favor with your old pal Celestia?” offered Marble innocently.
Twilight’s head shot up, her earlier sorrow forgotten. “Wait, what?!” She darted around Jacques to walk beside Fritters. “You know Celestia? Like, personally?” Applejack perked up with interest, and even Jacques inclined his head to observe Fritters.
The stallion seemed uncomfortable with the scrutiny and pulled back slightly. “Okay, that is definitely a story for another time. As in the ‘you’ll have to bribe me to hear it’ kind of other time.”
“What kind of bribe?” demanded Twilight eagerly.
“Something of tremendous value,” he said airily. “You’ll have to expand your thinking to meet my high-class standards.”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Hey, Fritters.”
“Yes, fair Applejack?”
“Ah have food and booze.”
“Shucks!” exclaimed Fritters, waving one hoof in mock disappointment. “You discovered my high-class taste. I’ll tell you tomorrow.” He gave an exaggerated frown while shooting Applejack a wink. She grinned back. Jacques raised an eyebrow.
Song laughed. “Maybe you should demand a higher price for your bribes, Fritters.”
Or perhaps, speculated Jacques, he simply gave Applejack a special discount.
Unaware of the friar’s musings, Applejack addressed the Konik, “You’ll also have ta tell us ’bout that supercharge thingy ya did. Twi’s been droppin’ hints fer days. Between your special magic and the good friar’s, Ah think she’s about ready to snap from the suspense.”
Twilight laughed unconvincingly. “Hahaha, oh, that’s so silly, AJ. I wouldn’t just snap! I’m not bothered by the delay at all! Who’s a silly pony? You are, Applejack.” The farm pony gave her a flat look. Twilight’s ears fell flat and her voice turned snippy. “Alright, fine! It’s been driving me nuts. I’ve actually lost sleep over it. Happy?”
“Just wanted you ta be honest with yerself, sugarcube,” smiled Applejack.
“Well,” interjected Song, “your answers will have to wait until we’ve all had some shuteye and Celestia raises the sun. Friar Jacques, on the other hoof, will be getting some answers soon.”
The man tilted his head. “Oh? Why?”
“Because we’re back.”
Sure enough, the party emerged from the orchard to see the homestead within easy walking distance. In his exhaustion, Jacques hadn’t even noticed how close they were, but now that he saw the house, he decided it was one of the most beautiful things he’d seen in a long time.
Applejack seemed to agree. “Ain’t that a sight fer sore eyes. Let’s get in there so I can take off this tin monkey suit.”
“Race you back?” teased Fritters.
As they approached the house, Jacques saw five ponies waiting out front. Upon seeing the returning party, the five came rushing out to meet them. His heart sank when he realized that the remaining Bearers, plus Big MacIntosh, were all awake at this beastly hour on his account. Regret was quickly replaced by confusion as he saw that, in addition to Rainbow Dash, all the other ponies were armed and armored. What possible reason—?
But the friar had no time to speculate, as a certain pink blur raced ahead of the others and clamped onto his legs in a mighty hug, almost knocking his feet out from under him as her armor clanked painfully against his shins. “Oh thank goodness you’re safe!” shouted the party pony. “You went missing and we were all ‘AAAH!’ and then Twilight was all ‘Where’d he go?!’ and Applejack was all ‘He’s gonna hurt himself!’ and Fluttershy was all ‘oh my!’ and Rarity was all ‘of all the worst things that could happen—’”
Wincing at the metallic grip, he attempted to interrupt. “Lady Pie…”
“We were so worried, darling!” added Rarity as she ran up with the others. “Running off in the dead of night like that, I just— we were just— oo~ooh!” She reared up onto her hind legs to hug him from the side, her armor digging into his hip.
Jacques cleared his throat. “Ladies…”
Fluttershy flapped up in front of him, her eyes tearful. “Oh! It was just terrible! You could have fallen in a ditch and hurt yourself, or gotten lost in the woods, or, or, eep!” With that she flung her forelegs around his ribs. Jacques expected the timid pegasus’ grip to be gentle.
It was not.
“Ghak! Ladies!” he gasped as the armored hug squeezed the air out of his lungs. With bulging eyes, he looked for aid from the other ponies. Based on the barely concealed mirth (and, in Fritters’ case, open laughter) of the others, his hope was in vain.
At that moment, Big Mac ambled up, and Jacques felt his blood run cold as the massive stallion looked him up and down. If that behemoth hugs me, I will die. For a terrifying moment, he thought Big Mac would. Then the stallion just gave a knowing smile and patted Jacques’ arm. “Eeyup.”
God bless you and keep you forever, you prince among stallions!
Song trotted up to give Jacques a triumphant smirk. “Feeling the love, Friar?” she asked.
Jacques glared at her, not missing the subtext. This is my punishment for running off, eh? Mother, you would love this mare. She has your love for mockingly ironic justice. “Quite,” he said through gritted teeth. “I especially love all the armor plates digging into my flesh.”
Satisfied that he’d had enough, Songs coaxed the girls into releasing him. They did so, but continued to pepper him with questions about his health. “Fair ladies, I am fine,” he insisted, massaging his ribs. “I came by no injury tonight.” Until you all hugged me, he didn’t add aloud.
“That’s certainly a relief!” said Rarity feelingly. “But… why did you run off, darling? Where did you go?”
“Oh, Rainbow didn’t tell you?” asked Fritters, tutting censoriously. “Typical Chair Corps, leaving out details like that. Well, no matter. I’ll tell you.” He gave Jacques a sly look that sent a chill down the friar’s spine. “It’s no great affair, really. The good friar just took a little walk… in the Everfree.”
Three mares looked up at Jacques with horror on their features. Too late he realized what was about to happen. “Please don’t—”
This time their combined hug did topple him.
Ten ponies and one human sipped tea and cocoa in the kitchen. Jacques’ initial plan to head to bed after hearing the ponies’ side of the story had been nixed by the curiosity of the five who’d stayed at the farmstead. Thus did Jacques find himself recounting his adventures for the second time that night. Having shed their armor, the ponies gathered around the table and listened with rapt attention to his account, even those that had heard it before. Jacques wasn’t sure if it was a cultural trait to be so engrossed in storytelling or if his rescuers were simply being polite, but he was grateful that their interest motivated them to rein in Pinkie and Twilight whenever they interrupted with questions.
Reactions to his tale were mixed. Rarity and Fluttershy were flatly horrified at the risk he’d taken while Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie kept wanting him to go into greater detail on the fight. Twilight probed about his magic in a manner that she doubtless thought was subtle. Applejack and Morning Song seemed torn between relief that he was all right and annoyance that he’d been a fool in the first place. As for the stallions, Big Mac was inscrutably stoic, Marble seemed unfazed, and Fritters nodded with non-judgmental understanding. Somehow, I get the impression he’s done worse, mused Jacques.
Once he’d finished, Rarity cleared her throat. “Well, darling, I think I speak for all of us when I say congratulations on unlocking your magic, we are relieved by your victory, and, of course,” she leaned forward and gave him a flat stare, “please don’t ever do that again.”
Murmurs of assent echoed from around the table.
Jacques dipped his head respectfully. “On that we are in agreement. Far be it from me to put God to the test with a second such midnight walk.”
“Not to mention waking the neighborhood,” added Song dryly over her tea.
Rainbow broke down chuckling, leading to the others to cast quizzical looks at her. “I just realized something, Friar. Redheart is gonna be peeved when she finds out about this!”
Fluttershy shot her friend a disapproving glare. “Rainbow! Language!”
Jacques raised an eyebrow at that. ‘Peeved’ is considered foul language here? Merciful heavens, must I now add ‘learn Equestrian vulgarities’ to my duties to avoid causing scandal?
Dash laughed anyway, unmoved by her friend’s ire. “Well, she will be! She practically popped a vein when he sparred with Fritters! When she hears he went back into the Everfree, she’s gonna have a fit!”
“I mean,” interjected Pinkie Pie brightly, “at least he didn’t come back injured, right? If he’d gotten hurt again, Red reeeeeaally woulda been peev—” Fluttershy shot her a look, “—vvvangry. Yes. ‘Angry’ was definitely the word I was going to say and not something I changed to at the last minute.”
Snorting, Rainbow retorted, “No, if he’d come back beat up, ‘angry’ wouldn’t have cut it. I think she’d pull a Twilight and burst into flame.”
“That happened once,” grumbled Twilight.
Rainbow ignored her. “As it is, Red’s still gonna be ready to wring his neck.”
Applejack let out a tired chuckle. “RD’s got a point, Friar. Ah think ya’d best prepare yerself fer a serious tongue-lashing next time ya see her.”
“Perhaps I should commission a suit of armor first,” replied Jacques ruefully. The ponies laughed at that, though Rarity simply looked thoughtful. “On the note of armor,” continued the friar, “I’ve been meaning to ask – why were all of you girt for war? The rescue party I understand, but the rest of you?”
His question sobered the room immediately. The ponies glanced at each other before answering, as though weighing their possible responses. Which is always a good sign, came the sarcastic thought.
Song, as the senior officer, took it upon herself to field the question. “When we discovered you were missing, I sent Fritters and Marble out to pick up your trail while I got the others armored up. We had plenty of sets; Captain Argent and I figured that getting everypony outfitted would be a good idea long-term, so we requisitioned quite the selection. First Sergeant Brick even left something in Big Mac’s size. When my soldiers found that your trail led to the Everfree, we took Rainbow, Applejack, and Twilight along with us for speed, pathfinding, and raw magical power.” Twilight and Applejack smiled modestly; Rainbow flexed her wings and smirked. “We left the others in reserve, just in case.”
Jacques nodded, seeing the reasoning, but could not help but notice that Song’s explanation left out one critical detail. “I cannot fault your division of forces, and I am certainly thankful for the rescue, but you still haven’t answered my question. Why was everyone arrayed for battle?”
“Yes… that,” sighed Song. “To be honest, it was probably a case of being needlessly paranoid, but I haven’t lived this long by assuming false alarms. As to why I felt paranoid, it’d probably be best if Applejack explained.”
Thoroughly confused, Jacques turned to the farm mare, who looked distinctly uncomfortable to be put on the spot. “Friar, it’s… well…” She scratched her head. “I was sleepin’ all peaceful-like when things sorta…” The mare grimaced and let a snort out through her nostrils. “Remember how we talked about Princess Luna bein’ the Dream Warden an’ all that? Well, it turns out…”
Twilight watched Jacques’ face become progressively grimmer as Applejack explained the nature of the dream and, subsequently, what everypony had already discussed about it. When she finished, the friar sat in silence for a moment, staring at the far wall in a brown study while he drummed his fingers on the table. “This is ill news,” he said at length. “It would seem our enemy is already on the move. The Shades see us, while we see nothing.”
“Technically, we don’t know that this was the Shades,” interjected Twilight, “or that they gleaned any information from the attack on your mind. All we know for certain is that an entity of Dark Magic attacked you in your sleep. For all we know, it could have just been the Everfree acting up. We won’t know more until I’ve had a chance to contact Princess Luna and ask.” She thought about asking him what all his nightmare had entailed but, upon reflection, nixed the idea. Applejack was pretty clear about his reluctance to talk. If I ask him about it in front of everypony, he’ll probably clam up. I’ll have to see if I can tease it out of him later.
Morning Song spoke up. “Hopefully Princess Luna will have some answers for us. However, it would be wise not to expect too much. Even if she can tell us what exactly happened last night, it may not point us to anything we can directly act upon.”
Fritters nodded. “Meaning we’ll still be stuck waiting for the spooks to turn something up.” Noticing that Pinkie had opened her mouth to speak, he quickly added, “Spooks as in spies, Pinkie Pie. Not ghosts.”
The mare chortled. “Oh I know that, silly. I was just gonna say that I bet they have epic Nightmare Nights. I wonder what they do to celebrate?”
Twilight glanced at Fluttershy, expecting the timid pegasus to say that she certainly didn’t want to find out, but, to her surprise, the pegasus remained silent, a pensive expression on her face. Maybe she didn’t hear Pinkie. Or maybe she has something else on her mind. Twilight yawned. Or she could just be tired. It’s been a long night, after all.
“Ugh!” groaned Rainbow. “I hate sitting on my wings! There’s gotta be something we can do!”
Twilight rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Well, if we can’t prepare for the modern Shades directly, we can at least familiarize ourselves with the originals. I didn’t find much in Ponyville, but I do have enough data to give everypony a rough overview, and I sent a letter to Princess Celestia a couple days ago asking her to pass along any resources she can find. She said it may take time, with the old records being such a mess, but we should get something from Canterlot soon.” The thought of reading long-buried historical tomes made her giddy, but she managed to keep her enthusiasm in check by reminding herself that it was impolite to drool in front of alien dignitaries from a distant world. “I’ll get started putting together some lessons for you all. Having a better sense for how they were beaten the first time might make it easier to beat them this time around.”
“Yay history!” cheered Pinkie Pie.
“Yay. History,” grumbled Rainbow Dash.
“Ah reckon it’s better than doin’ nothing,” sighed Applejack, who leaned gloomily against the table. “Knowin’ these Shades are out there is bad enough. Waiting for ‘em to show up is worse.” Several of the others murmured in assent.
Rarity cleared her throat. “Learning about our adversaries is all well and good, but surely there is yet something else we can be doing to prepare.”
“There is,” declared Jacques. The ponies turned to see him leaning forward, gnarled hands folded, a determined look in his pale eyes. “Applejack and Rainbow Dash have already begun.”
“You mean martial training?” ventured Rarity warily.
“Yes,” replied Jacques, “but not only that. It is not enough to know how to use a weapon.” He looked around the table, fixing each of the Ponyville ponies with his gaze. “One must also be prepared to use it.”
A heavy silence followed his words. Twilight and the others exchanged glances. Rainbow was unbothered by the statement; at least, until she glanced at her friends. Applejack looked resigned, the tilt of her head casting her face in shadow. Rarity’s expression was unsure as she looked to the others for guidance, and Pinkie Pie was oddly somber. Fluttershy’s face was hidden behind her mane, but Twilight could guess.
For her part, Twilight was of two minds. The analytical part of her had long ago accepted the rationale of warriors; she’d grown up in their shadow, with a family including both aspiring soldiers like her brother and old veterans like Uncle Lance. Celestia had taught her combat spells; spells which she’d had to use more than once. She was even familiar with some melee techniques. The knowledge that the Shades might force her to use that knowledge with lethal intent had been logged and processed days ago.
At the intellectual level.
On the emotional side of things though… “Friar Jacques,” she said, her voice soft, “you do know what you’re asking of us, don’t you?”
Jacques met her gaze evenly. His eyes were full of compassion, but did not yield an inch. “I do,” he replied gravely.
“I was afraid of that,” sighed Twilight, letting her gaze fall to the table.
Rainbow spoke up, her voice light. Twilight couldn’t tell if it was forced or not. “Come on, girls, it’s not so bad. AJ and I are already training.”
“That’s not what this is about and you know it, Rainbow Dash,” snapped Applejack, the bite in her voice making the pegasus flinch. “This ain’t no small thing ta ask.”
“You can say that again, darling,” agreed Rarity, her voice quavering. “I must say, when the Elements of Harmony chose us, I didn’t foresee this being in our futures.”
“I don’t think any of us did,” sighed Twilight. “But in hindsight, maybe we should have spent more time considering the possibility. Think about it – in all the adventures we’ve had, we’ve never had to… well…” she cleared her throat, “…anyway, how many heroes of legend can say the same?”
“I’m a baker.”
All heads turned to Pinkie Pie, who was staring ahead with a flat expression on her face. Realizing she was the center of attention, the party pony put on a sheepish smile that didn’t quite hide the deep thought in her eyes.
“Sorry. Just thinking out loud. You know me, just sayin’ whatever pops into my head, hehehe.”
Marble Slab cleared his throat. “Maybe it would be best to table this discussion until tomorrow, once everypony’s had some shuteye.”
Rarity gave a bitter chuckle. “Oh, yes. I’ll be sleeping quite well after all this!”
“I only meant that—”
“I know what you meant!” cried Rarity. Marble recoiled and the others stared. Flushing red, the fashionista put a hoof over her eyes. “My sincerest apologies, darling. I become rather short-tempered when I haven’t had my beauty sleep.” Pinkie Pie trotted over to the unicorn and gave her a gentle hug, eliciting a smile from Rarity. “Aw, thank you, dear.”
Twilight cleared her throat. “Even if we don’t get much sleep, I think Marble may have a point. This is a difficult decision to make and—”
“Um… excuse me, Twilight?” The purple pony turned to see Fluttershy staring at her, a resolute expression on her face. “But it’s really not. In fact,” continued the pegasus, turning to face them all, “the decision is really quite simple.”
Being the quiet type allowed Fluttershy plenty of time to think. She didn’t consider herself to be any great mind like Twilight or, apparently, Big MacIntosh, but she did spend a lot of her life deep in thought. Sometimes, those thoughts were pleasant ones. Other times, they were anything but.
Since Jacques’ arrival in their world, her thoughts had taken a darker bent. Celestia’s warning of the danger the Shades posed had struck a sour chord in her mind – a grim note that echoed in a seemingly endless vibrato at the edges of her consciousness.
It was the note of fear. Fear for Equestria. Fear for Ponyville. Fear for her friends and family and animals. Fear for the evils the enemy might inflict, and fear for what she might have to do to prevent it.
What would you do to save the lives of those you love?
Fluttershy had not told her friends about how all-consuming the thoughts had become, or how nothing she did ever truly made them go away. She had not told them about the hours she’d spent unwillingly contemplating death. She certainly hadn’t told them about the nightmares; the ones she’d needed Luna’s help to face.
She hadn’t wanted to burden them.
What would you do to save the lives of those you love?
But now it seemed the burden lay on all of them, and they were as unsure as she was. The knowledge was comforting in a way, but distressing at the same time. If they weren’t sure what to do, then how was she to know?
Some of the other girls were even suggesting that they discuss it tomorrow after a good night’s rest, and a part of her wanted to agree. The other part of her wailed in terror at the thought of putting it off for even another minute.
What would you do to save the lives of those you love?
How am I supposed to answer that? How is anypony supposed to answer that?
She looked around the table, seeing the worried and doubtful faces of her friends, and she almost despaired of the answer.
Then she saw Jacques – the man who had risked death to save three fillies he didn’t know simply because it was right; who didn’t act for any petty or vengeful reason, but simply out of a desire to be good; who’d seen so much of war, yet remained at heart a gentle soul. There was much she didn’t know about his past, yet there was no ambiguity to his character.
Fluttershy looked into his eyes and saw a man who knew exactly what he was asking of them, and hated that he had to ask. She saw that he would have willingly suffered great agonies if he might spare them this trial; this pain.
But he’s asking us anyway. He has to.
What would you do to save the lives of those you love?
Fluttershy knew the answer, even if it terrified her.
Twilight cleared her throat. “Even if we don’t get much sleep, I think Marble may have a point. This is a difficult decision to make and—”
“Um… excuse me, Twilight?” The purple pony turned to see Fluttershy staring at her, a resolute expression on her face that masked the fear and sorrow lying beneath. “But it’s really not. In fact,” continued the pegasus, turning to face them all, “the decision is really quite simple.”
The room was silent as nine ponies and one human waited to see what she would say next. Their focus almost drove her to hide behind her mane, but she knew, just like she’d known when facing the dragon, that she couldn’t back down now. Taking a deep sigh to collect herself, she continued.
“When a wild predator is threatening other animals or ponies, I can use my gift to calm it down. But, well, most ponies don’t have my gift. Sometimes they can trap the animal or lead it away, but if they can’t,” a lump rose in her throat, “they have to kill it, for everypony’s safety.” Instinctively, she began to stroke her own tail with one hoof, a displacement activity that helped her maintain calm. “The Elements of Harmony are like my gift. They’ve let us handle things without… killing anypony.” She felt moisture in her eyes. “But… with the Shades… we won’t have that. So, to keep everypony safe, we may have to…” she swallowed, “… do things we wish we didn’t have to. B-because, i-if we don’t…”
She was startled to feel a foreleg wrap around her in a familial hug. She glanced to the side to see Rainbow pressing herself against her barrel, smiling encouragingly. Fluttershy blinked at her old friend in silent gratitude. Ever loyal. Her courage restored, she resumed, voice steady.
“We’re the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony. Ponies are going to look to us for protection. If we’re not ready to protect them, and they get hurt, it’ll be our fault. So, the decision is simple: we can avoid this and let bad things happen, or we can be ready, and save the ponies we love.”
During most of her speech, Fluttershy had kept her eyes on the table or the wall. It was hard enough to get the words out without seeing her friend’s reactions. Now that she was done, she hung her head, afraid to see what they might think.
“Wow,” marveled Pinkie Pie after a long pause.
Wincing, Fluttershy sank deeper into her seat. Please don’t be mad!
The pink pony continued in the same awed voice. “That… was… awesome!”
Fluttershy looked up in shock to see Pinkie staring back with wide-eyed amazement and a stupefied grin. “I was not expecting the rousing hero speech to come from Fluttershy! I mean, seriously, that’s usually Twilight’s thing, with AJ doing the ‘practical wisdom’ bit and Dash taking the ‘go team Harmony!’ bit! Way to go!”
Blinking in shock, the meek pegasus eventually managed, “Um… thank you?”
“It was an impressive speech, darling,” agreed Rarity.
Rainbow laughed. “‘Impressive?’ Hah!” She ruffled Fluttershy’s mane, much to the yellow pegasus’ chagrin. “She knocked it out of the park!”
Applejack tilted her hat back to give Fluttershy a searching look. “Speaking from the ‘practical wisdom’ angle, Ah gotta admit that it’s hard ta argue with ya, Shy.” The farmpony sighed. “Ah may not be happy ’bout what we gotta do, but that don’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
Twilight was giving Fluttershy a look that had ‘Letter to the Princess’ written all over it. “Certainly a well-thought-out, logical case for weapons training. I guess you’re right. The decision might not be pleasant, but it is pretty simple.”
“Eeyup,” agreed Big Mac.
Fritters chuckled. “Quite the personality transformation there, Fluttershy.”
“I guess there’s more to you than meets the eye,” added Marble Slab.
Morning Song simply gave Fluttershy an approving smile and a nod.
Most striking of all, however, was Jacques’ reaction. The old man regarded her with a warm look full of praise and admiration, but there was something else as well – a sober look that may have been sadness. Before she could wonder what that might mean, the friar spoke, “Bravo, mademoiselle! Yours is true courage to face such a painful truth.”
Fluttershy blushed and giggled awkwardly. “A-actually, I was terrified.” I still am terrified.
“I know,” replied Jacques with an understanding smile. “That is exactly what makes you courageous.” Fluttershy’s blush deepened.
Song chose that moment to interject. “It seems you’ve reached a consensus, and, for what it’s worth, I think it’s the right one. However, I think I speak for all of us when I say that the specifics are best left until after we’ve all had a few hours’ more sleep. I propose we all find our way back to the Land of Nod for the next,” she glanced at the clock, “six hours and meet back here at ten to decide how best to proceed.”
“I motion that anypony who gets any bright ideas about waking us up early gets dunked in the nearest lake,” suggested Fritters.
“I second the motion,” agreed Marble. “All in favor?”
A chorus of assents answered him. Song rapped her hoof on the table. “Motion carried. Meeting adjourned.”
“Wonderful,” yawned Rarity as she lazily walked to the door. “Now I can top off the evening with schlepping back to town.”
Rainbow flapped into the air with a tired laugh. “Yeah, I might just crash in the orchard. The trees are pretty comfy.”
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Hold on, everypony. Ya’ll ain’t goin’ nowhere. Wouldn’t exactly be good Apple hospitality if’n we let ya hike on back to town at this hour. We got plenty o’ couches, cots, and blankets, ain’t we Big MacIntosh?”
Jacques rose and stretched, his back audibly popping in a way that made Fluttershy cringe. “I can sleep in that overstuffed chair in my room if one of the stallions wants my bed.” He held up a hand to forestall Applejack’s protests. “I often sleep in a chair for my back’s sake these days. It’s no trouble.”
Fritters stepped forward with a smirk. “I’ll take the bed. You can just put out a doggy bed for the pigmy pegasus.”
Marble shot him a hurt look. “Ouch.”
Applejack gave a smirk of her own. “Well, Winona’s still at the vet’s, so….”
“I say again, ouch.”
Song pushed past them. “Children, play nice. Mama’s off to bed and I don’t want to hear any whining.”
“They started it,” whined Marble, earning a chuckle from his superior officer. Once she’d gone, he simply looked up at Big Mac, cocked an eyebrow, and grunted, “Uh?”
Big Mac nodded and emitted a sound that sounded vaguely like an “eeyup.” Without another word (or grunt), the two of them departed upstairs.
Fritters munched on something he’d raided from the fridge. “Mm. Guess Marble’s gonna sleep in Big Red’s sock drawer. See you up there, Friar. G’night ladies.”
Pinkie Pie bounced up to Applejack, and Fluttershy was happy to see the spring was back in her step. “This is gonna be so fun! I love slumber parties! Are we bunking in your room, AJ?”
“… Ah was thinkin’ more the livin’ room—”
“Oh, cool, so you’re gonna bunk with us in the living room?”
“Well, sure Ah… wait… why do Ah gotta leave mah bed to sleep in the livin’ room? Especially when we only got two couches.”
“I call the green couch!” said Rainbow, zipping into the next room.
“Ooh! Ooh! I want the carpet next to the creaky floorboards!” cried Pinkie, bouncing after her.
“I’ll take the recliner,” said Twilight with a yawn as she ambled after them. “I’m used to passing out in chairs.”
Rarity followed, declaring, “I will also require a couch.”
The farmpony glared at her. “Rarity, we got other rooms besides the living room. We don’t all need ta pile there for a slumber party.”
“Tell that to Pinkie Pie,” scoffed Rarity. “But I shall require the use of your mane care products in the morning.” Applejack rolled her eyes and followed, muttering under her breath that the fashionista was going to be disappointed.
The kitchen fell silent now that everypony had gone. Fluttershy let out a long sigh, closing her eyes and massaging her temples. I can’t believe I said all that, she thought. All this talk of… that… and I’m the one to propose it?! Pinkie’s right, I am the last pony who should have—
“Are you not going to join your friends, Lady Fluttershy?”
Fluttershy eeped and leapt into the air, spinning to see Jacques still standing there, wearing an inquisitive expression.
“Apologies, young lady. I did not mean to startle you,” smiled the man.
“Oh, um, it’s okay, I just sorta… didn’t realize you were still here.” She flapped awkwardly. “That’s my fault, really, I should be more observant—”
“Fluttershy.” His gentle tone cut her off. Striding over, he took one hoof in his hand and gave her a steady look. “I know you have misgivings, but I meant what I said. You truly are courageous to face this. You are stronger than you know. All of you are.” He squeezed her hoof lightly. “Have faith, young one. We shall be triumphant.”
The shy pony beamed at him, feeling tears well up in her eyes. “T-thank you, Friar.”
Releasing her, he stepped back with a shrug. “I speak only the truth, mademoiselle. Now, if you will excuse me,” the friar bowed slightly, “I bid you bonne nuit.”
Jacques started for the stairs, but came to a halt when Fluttershy addressed him. “Friar Jacques? Um… will you be… okay to go back to sleep? I mean, after that scary nightmare you had, whatever it was, not that I’m asking you to say, just, well…”
The old man smiled tiredly. “I believe I shall be fine, Lady Fluttershy, but your concern is much appreciated. Besides,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “if I have another nightmare, I can always use Fritters like one of those stuffed bears I’ve seen foals carry.”
Fluttershy giggled at the mental image. “I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t appreciate that.”
“Probably not.” He turned once more to leave, but stopped when he saw her biting her lip. “Something wrong?”
“No, no,” she insisted. “It’s just…” It’s just that horrible ponies are gonna try to hurt us. “…well…” And we don’t know who or where they are. “…it’s silly really…” Silly to think we can do this, that I can do this “…but…” She looked up nervously; he returned her gaze with no judgment. “… could I have a hug?”
Jacques’ smile was fatherly as he opened his arms. “Of course, petit.”
Canterlot, the Pearl District, known colloquially as ‘Lord’s Row’
A massive earth pony approached the manor’s gate, his pale, ash-grey fur only a shade darker than his white suit coat and fedora. He was known to many as ‘Quartermaster,’ but more properly as ‘Kiln.’ At his steps, the black iron gates swung open to admit him.
Kiln was aware of the Blades who watched him from the shadows, but he paid them no mind. Nor did he pay any attention to the statue that had been rebuilt after his minor disagreement with Kuro Ken the last time he’d visited. Such trivialities were beneath his notice.
He entered the mansion without a word. The Acolytes and Initiates he encountered hastened to get out of his way, averting their gazes as they bowed. It was well that they did, for if they had dared to look upon his face they might have been frozen in panic.
Kiln looked… miffed, and for him to display any emotion without deliberate intent was almost as rare as something which could genuinely vex him.
And he was vexed.
He descended to the midnight blue wooden door in the cellar and entered without preamble, his massive frame barely fitting through the undersized entry. Kiln stepped into the little patch of light which so feebly illuminated the first few feet of the room and stood tall, his jaw set. “Inkling,” he said flatly.
The shadows began to swirl around him. “Two visits in such a short time?” the darkness purred. “Oh, Kilny, you flatter me—”
“Stop,” he commanded. “You know why I’m here.”
A disembodied chuckle answered him as the shadows crept onto him. “Why, is it because I am such a beautiful mare that—”
Kiln ground his hoof against the floor, and the shadows were swept away from him as if by a great wind. Inkling hissed in pain as she was driven back. Kiln’s eyes narrowed the barest fraction. “Enough. You will not be playing games tonight, Inkling.”
It took a moment for Inkling to respond. When she did, her sibilant voice was sullen. “As you wish.”
He nodded once, satisfied. “You know why I’m here?”
“I have an inkling,” she replied with an audible smirk. Kiln rolled his jaw and Inkling’s mocking tone wilted. “You’re sad that I went and had my fun with the Dreamers,” pouted the voice in the mist.
“‘Angry’ would be a better term,” he corrected. “You were told not to trespass in the Dream Warden’s domain.”
“Aw, but I was so bored,” moaned Inkling, sounding like a filly whose parents hadn’t let her go to the park with her friends. “It was just a little mayhem! A simple terror turned loose to make some fun!” Her plaintive tone took a more biting edge, its rasp like that of a hungry predator. “I’m bored, Kiln!”
“No doubt you are,” he replied, sounding quite bored himself. “But it will be some time yet before we are ready to strike, and any further childishness on your part will only delay your fun.”
“The Master must be bored as well,” sulked Inkling.
Kiln gave a slight sigh. “The Master has… his own frivolities to distract him. Frivolities which do not risk exposure as yours do. Keep yourself in check, or I will.”
Inkling’s sigh was like a knife running over silk. “As you command, Kiln.”
“Good,” he replied.
As the earth pony turned to leave, Inkling spoke again. “Don’t you want to know what I discovered, Kilny?”
Kiln paused, but his tone was bored when he spoke. “If you are merely going wax eloquent on the taste of fear, then I have better things to do.”
Inkling’s coy giggle sent a ripple through the shadows, and once more the tendrils danced around Kiln. “Fear not, oh Eldest Son. I have something much more interesting than that. Something even the Master may want to hear.” A dark mist drifted between him and the door, and from its mass a shape emerged, taking on a twisting, snakelike form that reached to the level of his eyes. “My little terror found an interesting creature… unlike any I have felt before. He pulsed with Light, Kilny, a powerful, powerful life…” The form before him quivered, giving a shuddering, hungering sigh. Twin orbs suddenly blazed as eyes, and the shadows around it took on angular definition. “A new friend for me to play with… maybe enough for us all…” The shadows resolved into the visage of a dark mare, with gleaming eyes and glittering fangs. “Do you think the Master would like to know that, Kilny?” she asked with a childlike tilt of the head.
Kiln was silent as he considered her words. “Yes, Inkling,” he said at length. “I believe the Master would.” With a smile that showed entirely too many teeth, he invited, “Why don’t you tell me all about him?”