Applejack was still toweling her mane dry as she walked into the kitchen. After Rarity had occupied the farmhouse’s sole shower (in the full military sense of the word), the farm mare resorted to dowsing her mane at the pump out back and using a dry brush to clean her coat of any filth from the Everfree that she’d missed in her exhaustion the night before.
Upon entering the kitchen, she found Big MacIntosh hard at work at the griddle, cooking a second wave of flapjacks and eggs. The first wave, cooked by Grannie Smith, was being happily demolished by Applebloom, Twilight, Pinkie Pie, Marble Slab, Morning Song, and the venerable chef herself.
Deciding that her mane was dry enough, Applejack slung the towel over her withers and nodded greeting to the diners before approaching her brother. “Need a hoof?” she asked.
“You already eaten?”
“Fritters still upstairs?”
“Fluttershy and Rainbow leave ta take care o’ the animals?”
She patted him on the shoulder. “Good talk.”
She ambled over to the table, plunked herself down in an empty chair to Twilight’s left, and loaded a plate with sustenance. Listening with half an ear to Pinkie Pie and Marble Slab, Applejack gleaned that the pink mare was giving Marble an abridged (and highly fanciful) rendition of several of the Bearers’ lesser adventures. Judging by the stallion’s expression, he wasn’t quite sure if he believed his narrator. Wise of him.
The farmer listened in on Morning Song and Applebloom with the other ear. She quickly realized the soldier was giving the filly an age-appropriate rendition of the last nights’ events, mingling enough details to satiate Applebloom’s curiosity with a firm injunction to not bother Friar Jacques about it. Song seemed to be straddling the line between explanation and privacy rather skillfully, so Applejack opted not to interject, though the long look Grannie gave her suggested she’d be giving a more thorough explanation to the elderly mare later.
While the filly was distracted, Applejack turned to Twilight, who was busily jotting down notes as she ate. “Weren’t ya gonna grab Spike first thing?” she asked.
Twilight nodded. “I was, but Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy offered to swing by and pick him up on their way back. It’s just as well; I need some time to collect my thoughts before I send off a report to Princess Luna. And probably one to Princess Celestia too, just for good measure.”
Applejack craned her neck around the unicorn to see her notes; they were already at least ten pages deep. Ah was only gone a few minutes at most, she thought with a rueful smile. “Ah’m sure they’ll appreciate yer thoroughness,” she said diplomatically.
“You really think so?” asked Twilight, her face a mixture of eagerness and nervousness.
The farm mare sighed inwardly. Land’s sakes, girl, you gotta stop. “Course they will, sugarcube. Yer Celestia’s prized pupil, after all, and it was you that brought us all together ta save Luna.” She winked. “Ah think they’re fans o’ yer work.”
Twilight blushed slightly. “I- I suppose you’re right. Still, this is a big deal, and I don’t want to leave anything out.”
Out the back door, a low voice singing in Prench heralded Jacques’ arrival. Hearing him before she saw him, Applebloom leapt to her hooves and ran excitedly to the door. When the friar entered, the filly bounded up to him, shouting his name eagerly.
Chuckling, the man crouched down so she could hug him. “Bonjour, petit. You seem lively this morning.”
“Well sure Ah am!” cried the filly. “Ah’m just glad her alright after yer niiiiii…” her eyes went wide as she realized she’d strayed into the territory of forbidden conversation, “…iiiight’s rest probably made ya ready fer breakfast, cuz, um, Grannie and Big Mac made it real good. Yeah.” Then, rather proud of herself for recovering from her mistake, she shot Morning Song a wink that was, in Applejack’s reckoning, about as subtle as a barn fire.
To her immense credit, Morning Song managed to bite her lip and nod approvingly rather than laugh in the filly’s face. Jacques, meanwhile, had to cover his mouth to hold back laughter, though he played it off as stroking his beard. After exchanging a few words, the filly trotted off to do her morning chores, leaving only the adults in the room.
Jacques stood and chuckled, gesturing after the absent Applebloom. “I take it you asked her not to pry about last night’s events?”
“Tried to,” said Morning Song, “but you know how children are when they’re excited. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” smiled Jacques. “That was adorable.” He set a pair of what Applejack assumed to be prayer books down on the table and collected a plate, remarking approvingly on the smell of the food and earning a ‘thank you kindly’ from Grannie and a grateful grunt from Big Mac.
Pinkie layered another stack of pancakes on her own plate, topping them with blasphemous amounts of strawberries and cream. “She’s still better at cover stories than her big sister,” quipped the pink mare. “Right, Miss ‘we’re doin’ construction in here’?”
Applejack raised an eyebrow. “Well excuse me if the Bearer of Honesty had trouble coming up with a plausible cover story on the fly when Miss ‘chase-Rainbow-across-ponyville’ came barrelin’ up on me like Ah was hidin’ the fugitive that stole yer secret rock candy recipe.”
Gasping in horror and huddling behind her pancakes, Pinkie glared at her. “Don’t even joke about that!”
Chuckling, Applejack turned back to Jacques. “Thanks for leavin’ us a note this time,” she teased.
The friar paused loading his plate with food long enough to make a gesture that (Song had explained) was way for a swordfighter to acknowledge a hit by his opponent. “I almost caught an earful from Fritters when he woke up, but, thankfully, he elected not to throw me in the lake.”
“Pity,” remarked Marble. “Woulda been fun to watch him try.”
“I’m glad you’re back, Friar,” interjected Twilight holding up her notes. “When Spike gets here I’m planning on sending a letter to Princess Luna, and your input will be invaluable.”
Yeah, Twilight needs an opening for the book she’s got there, thought Applejack as she took a bite of pancakes.
Jacques gave a small smile as he finished loading his plate. “No need,” he said. “I already had a lovely chat with her this morning.”
With that casual remark, he closed his eyes and mumbled a blessing over his food, quite unaware of the consternation his statement caused. When he finished his prayers, he began eating, a benign expression on his face, only pausing mid-chew when he noticed everypony staring at him. “What?” he asked. “Have I said something wrong?”
Twilight, perhaps most startled of all, blinked rapidly before asking, “You mean, like, you took a nap in the orchard and you saw her in a dream, right?”
Jacques swallowed his mouthful and regarded her with a perplexed expression. “No,” he said slowly, “I mean she approached me in the orchard.”
Jaws dropped. Twilight made an incoherent exclamation and Applejack felt light-headed.
“Ya’ll mean ta tell me,” demanded a wide-eyed Grannie, “the princess just up an’ dropped by mah Acres like t’was no big deal?”
“Is that not normal for her?”
“NO!” chorused the ponies
Jacques rolled his jaw as he digested this information, shrugged, and made a non-committal grunt before he resumed eating.
Applejack exchanged shocked glances with the other ponies. “Friar,” she began, “did… did ya just think the princess popped in for apple fritters every Tuesday or somethin’?”
Raising an eyebrow, he replied, “My dear, I don’t know if you’ve realized it, but, as Bearer of an Element of Harmony, you are essentially the princesses’ champion. That makes you, in a sense, a high and trusted member of the nobility, and renders certain honors and statuses upon your land and kin. For one of your diarchs to visit is not unusual in the slightest.” Chuckling, he added, “And, if I am being honest, jeune fermière, your princesses are scandalously casual by the standards of my homeland.”
The three Apples gaped at each other. “Nobles?! T-that can’t be!” exclaimed Applejack. “Ah ain’t no noble lady. Ah’m just Applejack! Faithful friend! Dependable pony! Ah ain’t…” she trailed off.
Jacques was nonplussed by her outburst. “Take it as you will,” he advised, “but you have the princesses’ confidence. All you young ladies do. If I were in your place, I would cherish that.”
Applejack cast her gaze around the room, searching for somepony to contradict the madness that Friar Jacques had uttered. To her horror, Pinkie and Twilight appeared to be just as overwhelmed as the Apples. Morning Song and Marble Slab were almost worse – they looked on with approval.
“But Ah’m not… we didn’t…” she stammered.
“We’re nothing special!” finished Twilight.
The friar smiled. “Dear ladies, none of us are anything special until we are graced to have greatness awoken in us. You accepted that grace. That is what makes you great.” His deep grey eyes held each of their gazes in turn for a moment, then returned to his food. “Since it would appear you need time to ponder this, however, why don’t I tell you a little of what Princess Luna and I discussed.”
“Yes please!” said Twilight in a voice pitched high with eagerness for a change of topic.
“Very well.” He turned to Grannie Smith. “Grand-mère, may I ask—”
Grannie was already standing. “Don’t worry none, Friar. Ah know mah cue ta go find little Applebloom and make sure she stays scarce. You young’uns talk shop.”
Once she’d gone, Jacques said, “I’ll have to repeat this to the others when they arrive, but what she told me of the dream was this…”
As Jacques related what Luna had told him about the ‘terrorsite’ and shadowmancy, Applejack forced herself to focus on what the friar was saying. Serious as it was, it was still easier than thinking about the implications of the power she apparently wielded. Pinkie listened with similar intensity, and Twilight, not surprisingly, lost herself entirely in the technicals.
“Well,” observed the unicorn when Jacques finished, “at least now we have a better idea what we’re up against. Though I’ll really have to brush up on my shadowmancy. Luna’s right about how easy it can be to stray into dangerous territory. Last time I tried to use it…” her ears fell flat, “I made some stupid mistakes – tried to copy Celestia’s shadowmancy technique without really understanding what I was doing and left myself vulnerable to Sombra’s dark magic.” She shuddered. “If Spike hadn’t been there to snap me out of it, I don’t even want to think about what could have happened.”
Pinkie zipped over and enfolded Twilight in a fierce hug. “Aw, it’s okay Twilight. Everypony makes mistakes!”
“Yeah?” snorted Twilight. “How many of them of cast spells they don’t fully understand?”
Pinkie shot her friend an unusually somber look. “Two words: Mirror. Pool.”
Twilight blanched. “Fair point.”
Marble Slab tilted his head curiously. “What’s the mirror pool?”
“You don’t want to know,” chorused the Ponyville natives.
“As to the challenge of shadowmancy,” said Jacques, “the princess foresaw that exact problem and provided for it. She is quite keen that you study only holy magics.” He winced at his own choice of words. “How I wish that you folk had picked a different word than ‘magic’ for your God-given powers,” he murmured, “if only to make the distinction between these natural powers and the demonic clearer. As there are no parallel natural powers in my world, I’m not sure what such a word would be, but it would be preferable to ‘magic’.” Shaking his head, he resumed in his normal tone. “Regardless, Princess Luna gave me a book to help us in our time of need.”
Instantly, Twilight perked up. “PrincessLunagaveyouabook?!” she squeaked.
Applejack chuckled. “Woah there, girl.”
Jacques held up one of the two books from he’d entered with. “A compendium of combat and investigation spells, including shadowmancy techniques. Mostly it will be useful for Twilight and Fritters as far as application goes—” the friar jolted as Twilight teleported next to him, snatched the book from his hand, and began pouring over the contents, “—though it will benefit us all in learning how to counter such techniques,” he finished with a leery look at the young mare. Big Mac trotted over and patted him on the shoulder as though to say, ‘you’ll get used to it.’
Twilight practically squealed with joy as she flipped through the book. “This is incredible! Mentor’s Misdirection, Arc’s Arcs, the Seven Illusions of the First Clover the Clever— I haven’t even heard of some of these!” Her chatter rapidly increased in speed after that, to the point that it faded into incomprehensible background gibberish.
Marble Slab rose and began clearing the plates of those done eating. “I think giving her a new toy to play with right before training might have been a mistake,” he observed.
“Quite possibly,” agreed Jacques.
Applejack regarded the tome thoughtfully. “Ya said there were illusions in that book?”
She chewed her lip for a moment, then nodded. “Well, Ah guess Ah’ve sort of run out of excuses, then.” When the others (sans Twilight) shot her curious looks, she explained, “Fritters said Ah can maybe tap into my Element to see through illusions an’ offered ta teach me. Ah’ve been puttin’ it off, on account o’ not havin’ an interest in… well…” she rubbed the back of her neck. On account o’ the fact that it’s just one more reminder what Ah’ll have to use it for. On account o’ Ah never asked for any o’ this. “… anyhoo,” she continued, “Ah been thinkin’ a lot about it lately, to the point that him trainin’ me is startin’ ta come up in my dreams an’ daydreams. Ah guess it’s just sorta time to buck up an learn from ’im.”
“Dreams and daydreams, eh?” asked Pinkie, who was suddenly beside Applejack. The pink mare leaned in close, her voice coy and her features sly. “Been thinkin’ a lot about a certain charming warrior stallion, AJ?”
Applejack felt the heat rise to her cheeks as a pit settled in her stomach. “N-no! No! Ya’ll don’t— Ah’m not! He— Ah—"
Pinkie chortled merrily and patted her on the head. “Oh, AJ, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. What mare among us hasn’t fallen for a strapping young Konik stallion assigned to stay in our town to guard the mysterious otherworldly visitor who lives in our farmstead while we happen to be bonded to a magical element that allows us to spot deception and destines us for glory?”
“If that description applies to literally anypony other than Applejack,” interjected Morning Song, “I am really curious about her story.”
“There ain’t no story!” protested Applejack hotly, pushing Pinkie Pie back. “Pinkie’s just talkin’ nonsense!”
Friar Jacques smirked and remarked to Twilight, “Methinks Madam l’Applejack doth protest too much, eh, Madam l’Éclat?”
Much to Applejack’s horror, Twilight was looking up from the book with a cheeky grin. “Methinks so, good sir knight,” agreed ‘Madam l’Éclat.’
“It ain’t like that!” shouted the farmer.
“What ain’t like what?” asked Fritters.
Applejack felt her stomach shrivel up and die as she looked to the doorway and saw a yawning Fritters silhouetted there.
Externally, Applejack stared mutely.
Internally, Applejack shrieked bloody murder.
“What ain’t like what?” repeated the guileless stallion.
Applejack’s heart sang. Oh, sweet Celestia, he didn’t actually overhear anything! Quick, Applejack! Say something to distract him! Something! Anything!
“Pancakes!” blurted Applejack.
You stupid mare! You stupid, stupid mare!
Fritters cocked an eyebrow. “‘Pancakes?’” he repeated.
Why did you say Pancakes?! What could you possibly say to make this worse?! “Eeyup. Pancakes. Ah was sayin’ they ain’t… gonna be enough ta feed yer six stomachs.”
PERFECT! LET’S INSULT HIM TOO! BRILLIANT MOVE, APPLEJACK!
Fritters gave her a long, searching look, then picked up a plate with his magic and began filling it with a truly preposterous amount of food. “Well, it’s a good thing Big Mac made eggs too then, isn’t it?” he said smoothly.
Applejack stared mutely as he sat and began eating, a bemused expression on his face as he watched her. The farm mare felt herself smiling. “Yeah, Fritters, Ah reckon it is.”
The rest of breakfast passed without note. Rarity finally emerged from the shower (and, for once, Applejack was abundantly thankful the mare took so long to get ready) right around the time Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy returned with Spike. The newcomers were filled in on what they’d missed, after which Spike and Jacques were assigned to pry the book loose from Twilight’s grasp (which they accomplished by means of Spike’s ability to distract and the friar’s ability to nullify magic) while the rest adjourned to the barn. From there they retrieved the stored weapons and moved them out to the sparring area. The process allowed Applejack to see, for the first time, just how impressive the armory truly was.
When the REF ponies had first sought permission to quarter their weapons and armor at the Apple Family Homestead, it hadn’t seemed that extensive. Most of it was boarded up in crates or secured on compact racks. Even last night, when they’d raided the armory for basic kit for everypony, it hadn’t seemed like much.
Now that it was unpacked and spread out against the arena fence, however, Applejack could finally see the arsenal she’d had stored in her barn, and it made her wonder if perhaps the REF didn’t possess some of the same physics-defying power that let Pinkie Pie pull guitars and crowbars out of her mane. The scope of the arsenal had caused her to cast more than one suspicious glance at Song. Ah know she said she and Argent sent this along ‘just in case,’ but this is a heck of a lot o’ weapons for ‘just in case.’ Heaving a mental sigh, she adjusted her hat. Oh well. No point worryin’ about it now, ’specially since it looks like they were right.
The farm mare, her brother, and her friends sat facing the armory, with Jacques standing just to her left and the soldier ponies, sans Fritters, sitting by the weapons. Fritters, for his part, stood between the weapons and the civilians, pacing back and forth. Like a stage performer preparing for a soliloquy, his steps had the affected quality of repeated practice and considered showponyship. His face held such exaggerated severity that Applejack found it almost laughable.
And yet, his eyes are deadly serious, she realized. But… wait… why is he pretendin’ to be serious if’n he really is?
Before she could wonder at Fritters’ line of thinking, the stallion began his soliloquy. “Behind me,” he barked, gesturing with his spear, “is a cross-section of weapons crafted, bought, or ‘alternatively procured’ by the REF from all corners of the world and over a score-and-a-half distinct martial disciplines. You will each have the opportunity to select weaponry which will suit your own strengths and weaknesses, a selection process which I and my fellows will aid you in. First, however, you will meet the first and most hallowed of all weapons.”
“Here we go,” muttered Marble Slab, rolling his eyes.
Roundly ignoring him, Fritters held aloft his spear. “This, dear fillies and gentlecolt, is the Spear. Mother of Service Weapons, Bane of Duel-Wielding Edgelords, and Thwarter of the Rule of Cool. The First Lady of Fury. She is honest in her lethality, generous in her reach, kind to massed formations of friendlies, and loyal to those who master her arts; she never fails to bring me laughter when she bests the ornate blades of those foolish enough to challenge her, and her capacity for being a superior weapon in virtually any situation is nothing short of magical. She is, in truth, the Weapon of Harmony, the lost Seventh Element, the Alicorn Princess of Flank-Kicking.”
Applejack was so distracted by his display that she almost didn’t hear Song remark to Marble, “That last bit was new.” Marble nodded approvingly.
“This weapon,” continued Fritters, “Has been the mainstay battle weapon of virtually every professional army in the world since primitive ponies first discovered that pokey sticks make the bad things go away. It has maintained that title for the very simple reason that it works. Its flaws are few and its strengths are legion. Better still, one need not be a natural athlete or a highly trained professional to wield it effectively. A pony with a basic understanding of its utilities may hold his or her own against a far more skilled opponent armed with an inferior weapon.”
He swept the point of the spear in an arc, taking in all six trainees. “Each of you will choose a weapon today. Some of you may choose more than one. Whatever you choose, however, I will be instructing you in the Way of the Spear so that, should darkness fall upon you and the only light be the desperate hope thrust into your hooves by a long and sharpened pole, you will be able stand fast in the knowledge that you hold the greatest weapon ever crafted by sapient beings.” With that, he shouldered his beloved weapon. “Any questions?”
“Yeah,” snarked Rainbow Dash, “how long did it take you to come up with that speech?”
“Oh, that was nothing,” laughed Marble. “Fritters, why don’t you tell ’em what you said to me that night in Tailbruk?” All composure seemed to drain from Fritters and he glanced at Applejack, fear in his eyes. “You know,” continued Marble blithely, “that bit about what spears and pretty mares have in common.”
Applejack raised one eyebrow. Oh?
Fritters took on a ghostly pallor. “Hahaha!” he laughed nervously. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about Marble, and that we should drop it immediately and move on with the lesson.”
Marble grinned impishly. “But why, Frit? I mean, sure, you were a little tipsy when you said it, but it wasn’t crass or anything. Just quirky. I’m certain these fine ladies—”
“Celestia help me, half-pint, I will spoil the ending of the next Sherclop Hooves book if you don’t shut up!”
The pegasus clamped his jaw shut. “Cheater,” he grumbled, dropping the subject. Applejack wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed.
“Now, hold on a moment, darling,” said Rarity, a kittenish gleam in her eyes as she addressed the Konik. “If you are truly intent to teach us in the ‘Way of the Spear,’ as you put it, should you not tell us your, ahem, analogy? In the interest of clarity and martial understanding, of course.”
“Yeah,” agreed Rainbow, her voice playful. “What’d ya say?”
Oh, girls, don’t push the poor stallion! protested one voice in her head.
Yeah, Fritters, what’d ya say? demanded the other.
“Look,” said the stallion placatingly, “it really wasn’t that funny. Just a stupid analogy I made after underestimating the potency of the local brew. You really aren’t missing anything.”
“Then it won’t be any trouble to tell us, darling.”
The Konik looked beseechingly at Friar Jacques, but found no help there, as the man’s grin betrayed no sympathy. "You might as well tell them, Fritters,” he advised. “Whatever they’re imagining is probably far worse than what you actually said.”
Fritters cast his gaze heavenward and muttered, “Pomóż mi! What I said at the time was… oh Source help me… what I said was ‘I like my spears like I like my mares – strong, rugged, and sharper than me.”
A brief silence followed his statement, which was broken by Friar Jacques when the big man threw back his head and roared with laughter. Pinkie and Rainbow soon joined him, and even Twilight and Fluttershy tittered guiltily into their hooves. Rarity, looking much amused, made a remark Applejack couldn’t quite make out. The farmer, for her part, simply watched Fritters, who seemed to want to die of shame. She felt sorry for him yet, at the same time, she found a certain heat rising to her cheeks as it occurred to her that she just so happened to be a strong, rugged mare. Sure, she didn’t consider herself the sharpest pony around (she was friends with Twilight after all), but she was smart, with plenty of down-home wisdom, which seemed to be what Fritters liked anyway and woah there, cowgirl, where is this comin’ from?
“Okay, great!” said Fritters hurriedly, rapping one hoof against the weapon rack to get their attention. “You’ve had a laugh at my expense, nopony was offended, and we can move on now, yes?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” interjected Morning Song, her voice demure. “I think you should tell them the rest of what you said that night about mares and polearms.”
“There’s more?” laughed Rainbow. “Sheesh, Fritters, what is it with you and comparing mares to deadly weaponry?” Marble made to speak, then thought better of it.
Fritters’ shoulders slumped and his ears fell flat. “Proszę nie, boss,” he muttered to his superior.
“Don’t be so glum, Fritters,” Song teased. “It was really rather sweet.”
“What’d he say?” came the question. It took Applejack a moment of Fritters looking at her in horror to realize that she’d been the one to ask it. Oh, horseapples.
Fritters swallowed and closed his eyes, steeling himself to speak. “What I said next,” he said slowly, his voice quiet, “is that a polearm is like a mare of simple natural beauty wearing too much makeup – a bunch of extra stuff that does nothing but cover the beauty beneath.”
A chorus of aw’s greeted his statement, while Applejack found herself reflecting that she seldom bothered with makeup at all, and that when she did it was usually a modest amount intended to ‘accentuate the positive’ as her Aunt Orange always put it and sweet Celestia why am Ah even thinkin’ about this right now?!
Rarity smacked her lips thoughtfully. “My oh my, Fritters,” she said coyly, “it would seem that your tastes are rather…” she glanced meaningfully at Applejack and winked, “earthy.”
At that moment, Applejack felt redder than Big MacIntosh.
Friar Jacques glanced in her direction and a somewhat contrite expression crossed his features. In moderate tone he ventured, “As amusing as this has all been, what say we resume the lesson, eh?”
“Yes, let’s!” exclaimed Applejack.
They stared at each other for a painfully awkward heartbeat before retreating beneath the respective brims of hat and helm.
Jacques did feel somewhat guilty about how out-of-hand things had gotten with the conversation. He’d meant what he said to Fritters that it was better to speak up and avoid speculation, but he hadn’t anticipated just how embarrassed the soldier would be. Nor had he expected Applejack to turn beet red and cow beneath her cap. A lapse in judgment on my part, he acknowledged. Though, I must admit, I do hope this will prompt them to spend a little more time considering matters of the heart. They are a fine young pair.
Still, it would be wrong to push too hard, and, in any case, they had work to do. Ably aided by Marble and Song, he steered the group’s attention back to the task at hand.
Once Fritters regained his composure, he did an excellent job guiding the students through the various weapons and armors, with their multifarious pros and cons. Then came the process of actually choosing arms and armor.
Rainbow Dash had the easiest time of it for the simple reason that it was unnecessary. She already had her Air Corps-issue rig: wing- and hoof-blades, light mixed plates on her barrel and hooves, and what resembled a German sallet helm modified to have goggles and muzzle-shield instead of a standard visor. The fiery mare spent most of her time impatiently waiting for the others to be done. Likewise, Applejack was already equipped, though, at Fritters’ suggestion, she wisely added a short dagger to her kit.
Big MacIntosh was the first of the new blood to fully outfit himself. The REF ponies, shockingly, found multiple sets of armor that fit the massive draft pony. In the end, he settled on a full suit of plate armor with an armet helm. In all, it looked much closer to the armor of a knight than the more Romanesque style favored by the Solar and Lunar Guards. Like Applejack, he took a dagger, though his mainstay weapon proved to be a massive halberd. He chose the weapon because it “felt like a pitchfork.”
Twilight, ever pragmatic, elected to take a spear as her primary weapon, though she supplemented it with an arming sword and a dagger, all of which she had some limited proficiency in thanks to her brother. Her armor plates were not as extensive or as thick as Big MacIntosh’s, but they still covered most of her frame, and her crested burgonet, though visorless, protected her head and neck well.
Pinkie Pie… Jacques took his eyes off of Pinkie Pie for a few seconds, and when he turned back he saw her perched on a fencepost wearing a brigandine and a kilt, her face painted like a Celtic warrior and a double-hooved sword held aloft, saying something in a Scottish accent to the effect of “They shall take our lands, but they shall not take our cupcakes!” This prompted a lecture from Twilight on historical accuracy, which prompted Rainbow Dash to put in her two bits based on some action novel she’d read, and the situation deteriorated rapidly from there. Jacques elected to leave the matter to the ponies, thinking them best equipped to handle the pink madmare. The last he saw, Pinkie was holding what Fluttershy meekly informed him was a ‘katana’ and saying something to an increasingly exasperated Fritters about gathering seven samurai to defend Ponyville.
Rarity, not surprisingly, took a considerable amount of time selecting her armor, largely because nothing appeased her sense of aesthetics. Marble, ever patient, repeatedly pointed out that armor was one of those areas in life where function mattered infinitely more than form. He eventually won her over, leading her to select a light coat of plates and a plumed open-faced sallet helm, but the mare was far from happy about it. Diplomatically, Morning Song suggested colored surcoats and accents to beautify the armor. This led to Rarity asking Spike to “be a dear and fetch some fabric for me,” to which the smitten dragon readily agreed.
That lad’s infatuation will need addressing sooner rather than later, mused Jacques.
For weapons, the fashionista opted for a short recurve bow, explaining that the precision of archery appealed to her. For a sidearm she chose a shortsword. This expanded to include a bandolier of knives when Morning Song and Fritters impressed into her the versatility of her telekinesis and its utility when combined with a dozen or so compact blades.
Fluttershy had the greatest difficulty choosing a weapon. Morning Song managed to coax the timid pegasus into donning a brigandine and a morion helm, but no further. The pegasus obediently considered each weapon placed in front of her, then shuddered at the thought of using it on a living creature.
Jacques’ heart bled for her, but he knew it would be misplaced compassion to not teach her self-defense. Ultimately, inspiration came in the form of a story that flitted through his mind – a legend Andrew had once told him about an English Crusader-turned-outlaw freedom fighter named Robin of Locksley. The famous ‘Robin Hood,’ though chiefly known for his skill with a bow, had also been known for his mastery of the sword… and the quarterstaff.
The blunt shaft of wood, about the length of a polearm, looked like little more than a walking stick. In the right hands (or hooves), however, it became a dangerous weapon, readily adapted to attack or defense.
Fluttershy, though not wild about picking up any weapon, had been amenable to using something that didn’t involve shoving a flattened piece of metal into another creature’s flesh. Perhaps inspired by Rarity’s decision to take a ranged weapon, she also collected a sling and stones.
And, with her outfitted, that only leaves—
“I think I’ll take an axe!” exclaimed Pinkie, till wearing the brigandine but now with a sloped kettle helm in lieu of warpaint. She hefted a large battleaxe in one hoof and a rounded metal shield in the other. “Or maybe I’ll take a few axes! After all, mares love axes!”
Fritters facehooved. “Pinkie, that ad’s talking about a stallion’s cologne.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s mares who love axes.”
Jacques shook his head. I’m still not entirely convinced that mare isn’t simply a trickster in mare’s skin, whatever Twilight and the others insist.
“Hey, do you think I could put an axehead on the end of a katana?”
They can tell me the truth and admit she’s a trickster. I’ve adjusted to this world. I can handle it.
Rarity trotted up next to him and chuckled. “I must say, I’m terrified to spar with that mare,” she observed honestly. “Pinkie has a tendency to quite literally pull things out of her mane when she has a mind to, and I get the impression that even if I disarmed her she’d produce a mace and chain from the ether.”
As though to prove that point, Pinkie set the end of the axe beneath her helmet, where it could not conceivably fit, and proceeded to push it into her mane and out of sight. Lapsing into French, Jacques observed, “<Well, that’s fuel for my nightmares.>”
“<Indeed,>” concurred Rarity. The fashionista turned her attention to her armor and adjusted the straps with an irritated tug of magic. “Oh, I do hope Spike returns with those fabrics soon. This plain steel is just begging for the right accent.” Jacques smiled at the irrepressible mare. “Though I suppose it is my own fault he is delayed,” continued Rarity, “as I asked him to stop by the hospital first.”
Jacques’ face fell. “You did?”
“Why of course, darling. To collect the Lunar Guards, Medevac, and Red—” the mare’s face turned to a knowing smirk. “Ah. You are worried about suffering Nurse Redheart’s wrath, aren’t you?”
The friar sighed. “I don’t want to cause that poor mare grief, but I fear that she will react to the news of my midnight escapades… poorly.”
Rarity chortled. “Well, with all these weapons, we can probably buy you enough time to clear the fence and make a break for the orchards, perhaps to lose her in the trees.”
He snorted. “I am not a callow youth caught stealing strawberries from the priest’s garden to go leaping over hill and dale like a frightened deer. After facing a house-sized timber wolf, I do not believe a single mare can make me run for the hills, however irate she might be.”
Jacques’ blood ran cold as the fearsome roar shook the very air around him. Apples fell from their trees and the ground seemed to rumble with the deafening power of wrath.
Slowly, as though sudden motion would unleash the furies upon him, Jacques turned his head to the direction from which the earth-shattering bellow had come.
There, in the distance, standing silhouetted upon a hill on the meandering path to the Acres, was the Mare. Her white coat was lit with a dreadful light, and her ordinarily pink mane blazed with fiery intensity. Though the Mare was at the edge of his vision, he could see her snarling features and gleaming eyes as though she was right on top of him.
In the gleaming eyes of the Mare, he saw the combined righteous fury of every mother, every grandmother, every elder sister, and every religious sister in history who had ever looked upon the conduct of their wards and found them wanting.
In the gleaming eyes of the Mare, he saw the faces of millions upon millions of maternal figures uttering those dreaded words, “I’m disappointed in you.”
The Mare raised a hoof like a Roman Imperator ordering decimation, pointed to him across the distance, and, with death-knell voice, thundered, “YOU!!!”
“Wow,” observed Rarity mildly as the group watched Nurse Redheart pursue Friar Jacques over hill and dale. “Rather impressive that he leapt the chicken coop in a single bound.”
“Eeyup,” agreed Big Mac.
“You think he’ll escape?” asked Spike.
“FRIAR JACQUES, YOU GET BACK HERE AND FACE THE MUSIC!” bellowed Redheart.
Vox Mannorum Training Hall, Canterlot Industrial District
Sandstone narrowly avoided a jab from his opponent’s practice spear. He attempted to jab back at his enemy, but found his attack blocked with ease. Before he could reposition for to press the attack, his opponent reclaimed the initiative and forced him back. Only a lucky deflection saved him from losing another match.
“Loosen up your hoofwork,” ordered Cloak from the sidelines. “Your movements are still choppy.”
The hard-pressed Sandstone couldn’t spare him so much as a nod, but he did his best to follow Cloak’s instructions. Almost immediately, he saw improvement. He wasn’t winning by any stretch, but he wasn’t on the verge of losing anymore either.
“Better,” commended Cloak.
Sandstone smiled. It wasn’t the first time Cloak had told him to loosen up, but Sandstone had a hard time not tensing up when he sparred. Still, he was improving.
“Stop flinching from your enemy’s spear. If you’re afraid, use that. Let the adrenalin push you past your limits.”
Cloak and Dagger had been drilling the Vox hard the last few days, but they’d made a special note of helping bring Sandstone, Sea Breeze, and the other weaker fighters up to snuff. For all their showponyship, the brothers were superb fighters and patient teachers.
“Keep your speed up. Remember, the spear is a momentum weapon.”
Cloak in particular had helped Sandstone overcome his jitters and get into the flow of combat. Odd though he was, the black-robed, cadaverous pony seemed to have taken a personal interest in the Vox becoming the best fighters they could be.
“Don’t rely on brute force you don’t have. Redirect his strikes and counterattack off the deflection.”
Sandstone took the advice just in time. His opponent overextended on a strike, and as Sandstone turned the point aside with his own weapon, he saw his opening. Pushing forward, he clipped his enemy’s leg with his spear. The other pony yelped and backed up too rapidly, tangling himself in his own hooves. A savage joy lit Sandstone’s heart as he reared back and prepared to deliver the winning blow—
—only to see the frightened eyes of a helpless and bloodied guard staring back at him under the light of a blood red moon.
The image lasted a fraction of a second before releasing Sandstone back to reality, but in that moment he hesitated.
It was a moment too long. The other pony recovered and knocked Sandstone over, jabbing him in the ribs with a ‘killing blow.’ Sandstone sighed and slumped. He’d lost again.
Cloak let out a slow breath through clenched teeth, then ambled over. “Take five, Cobbler,” he said to the other pony. “I need a moment with Sandstone.”
With a respectful nod, Cobbler trotted off. Cloak stood over Sandstone, his face inscrutable. Sandstone sat up and waited, trying to avoid the hooded pony’s piercing gaze.
“You wanna tell me what the buck happened there?” asked Cloak, his voice deceptively quiet.
Sandstone scraped at the ground with one hoof. “I lost?”
“Horse hockey,” retorted Cloak flatly, the expletive ringing in Sandstone’s ears despite the subdued tone. “You had Cobbler dead to rights, but you hesitated. Why?”
The young Vox bit his lip. “I just…” he glanced around to make sure nopony else was in earshot, then muttered, “Look, I believe in the Revolution, okay? The Diarchists and their stooges have been keeping the common pony down for centuries, and the Founder always said it might come to this. If Brother Thornberry says violence is the only way to set things right, well, I believe him. Just…” He forced himself to meet the other pony’s gaze, “I don’t wanna kill anypony.”
Cloak said nothing, but for just an instant something cold and hard flashed in his eyes. Sandstone flinched.
Then the hooded pony sighed and sat down across from him, his features betraying a hint of sympathy. “Look, kid, I’m gonna level with you. The first one is the hard. Mine certainly was.” Sandstone’s eyebrows went up at that. Though he and the other Vox had always speculated that Cloak and Dagger had spilled blood in their day, this was the first explicit confirmation he’d heard of it. “But,” continued Cloak, his tone hardening, “you can’t let that stop you. If you really want to overthrow the tyranny of the Diarchy, you have to be hard. You have to be strong. You have to put aside your innocence and do what needs to be done for the good of Equestria.”
Sandstone looked away. “I know that, but… I don’t know if I have it in me.”
The other stallion clicked his tongue. “Kid, look at me.” Sandstone obeyed. Cloak fixed him with an accusing gaze. “Do you love Sea Breeze?”
“Of course,” replied Sandstone, slightly offended at the implication that he might not.
“Then imagine this,” ordered Cloak, his gaze sharpening. “Imagine Sea Breeze lying in the street, her flesh torn open by blades, her throat spilling out blood, her eyes locked on her killers, begging for a mercy that won’t come.”
Sandstone recoiled. “Why the buck would I imagine that?!”
“Because that’s exactly what will happen if you aren’t strong enough to kill,” declared Cloak coldly. “That’s the price of survival. If you love her, you’ll have to buck up and pay it.”
Cloak swept to his hooves with inequine speed and loomed over Sandstone, his eyes hidden beneath the darkness of his hood. He leaned close, whispering Sandstone’s ear, “Picture that scene, Sandstone. The blood. The death. Everything you love being stripped away from you by your enemy.” Sandstone trembled and a heat rose in his chest. “What do you feel when you think of her killers, the Imperialist dogs, smiling cruelly down at your murdered beloved?” demanded Cloak. “What fire wakes in you when you think of that?”
The young Vox shut his eyes and gritted his teeth. He wanted to jerk his head away from the poisonous words, to flee from the dark predictions of his teacher, but he could not. He could not fight the brutal images that captivated his thoughts. Nor could he escape the hateful flames which erupted in his heart.
“Rage,” he gritted.
Even without seeing it, he knew the hooded pony was baring his teeth. “Good,” hissed Cloak, his voice bitter and proud. “That, my little pony, is the power to survive. Hold onto that rage. That hate. Nurture that fire within you. Tend it well. Feed it with every scrap of anger you can conjure up, and you will find the strength to protect the ones you love.”
For a moment, Sandstone fancied he tasted a hint of the bloody-minded ruthlessness that drove his teacher on; it was as attractive as it was frightening.
Then the moment passed. Cloak pulled back, his face returning to its earlier stoicism and his gaze turning neutral. “Have you got that?” he asked, as though he’d been instructing Sandstone on his hoofwork.
The awful flames that had burned in Sandstone’s chest retreated, becoming a tiny blaze that smoldered in his heart, waiting to be called upon. Somewhat breathless, Sandstone replied, “Y-yes.”
Cloak regarded him with an unreadable expression, then nodded. “Good,” he said shortly. Turning away, he began walking to the stairs. “I’m stepping out for a bit. Carry on with your sparring and remember…” he paused and half turned, his eyes gleaming beneath his cowl, “it’s not about politics – it’s about survival. Hers. Do whatever it takes.”
Sandstone swallowed hard and nodded. Satisfied, Cloak made his way to the exit, whistling for Cobbler to rejoin Sandstone.
Forcing himself to stop shaking, Sandstone resumed sparring. Every time he felt himself falter or fumble, he drove his hesitation away with the thought of what he would do to keep Sea Breeze safe. What lines he would cross. The hot embers of rage drove him on, and he pushed Cobbler back, disarming the other Vox and beating him soundly.
Sandstone smiled grimly down at the defeated pony, pride swelling in his chest. Then, as he stood over the beaten Cobbler, he became aware of another pony staring at him. Casting his gaze around the room, he caught sight of Cloak, lingering by the base of the steps. Sandstone beamed at his teacher, expecting an approving nod or maybe applause.
Instead, Cloak’s features were somber, and in his eyes he saw—
Another pony moved between Sandstone and Cloak. When the pony moved again, Cloak was gone. Sandstone blinked in confusion. I did what he told me to, he thought. Why would he look so…
“Sandstone?” called Cobbler. “We going again?”
“Um, yeah,” replied Sandstone, taking a battle stance. “Ready when you are.”
As they sparred, Sandstone tried his best to put Cloak out of his head. I was just imagining things, he told himself. He’s a hard pony to read. The shadow of his cowl must have distorted the look on his face Sure, he didn’t smile, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t pleased with me. A trick of the light. That’s all that was.
After all, why would Cloak look sad?