The girls made lurching progress through the Everfree, trying to keep up with Winona’s sudden stops to sniff the ground followed by bursts of speed as she picked up Biggs’ scent. The noonday sun glared down at the canopy, and yet very little light shone through. Even so, unlike so many of their previous trips, the Everfree air was oppressively hot and muggy, causing even the hardy Applejack to sweat profusely. Rarity was undoubtedly miserable, and yet she hadn’t complained once since they had set out, her expression one of urgent determination. Applejack grinned to herself.
I’m glad she’s takin’ this as just serious as the rest of us.
“Oooh, I hope he’s alright…” Fluttershy whimpered for the seventh time that hour, flitting about the branches, trying to get the best view of the area around them. With an exasperated sigh, Twilight flew up beside her.
“Fluttershy, it’ll be alright. He’s survived for who knows how long in the Everfree already, I’m sure he’ll be just fine for however long it takes us to find him.”
She sighed in defeat. “You’re right. I just can’t help worrying about him. The Everfree is so very dangerous, and I think his time here may have hurt him emotionally.”
“I know you’re worried, Fluttershy,” Applejack called back, “and I get it, really I do. But worryin’ ain’t gonna help Winona track him down any faster.”
“Sorry,” Fluttershy murmured shamefully.
“Ain’t no reason to be sorry, neither. S’perfectly normal to fret for his safety. You just need to keep your hopes up. You can fuss over him all you like when we find him.”
The others all nodded their encouragement, and Fluttershy took heart in their faith.
“Alright, I’ll try.”
“Atta girl!” Rainbow exclaimed, flapping up next to her to throw an arm around. “You just focus on what needs to be done to get him outta his rut, and leave the rest to us.”
The girls all vocalized their support, and Fluttershy felt marginally better about the situation. She still worried for Biggs’ safety, but the worry of whether or not they would find him had abated. A moment later the worry vanished altogether, replaced by an entirely new one. After a particularly deep snuffle, Winona’s head suddenly shot upright, ears raised in alertness. All attention was on her. She turned back and barked excitedly before dashing into the underbrush, pausing every so often to check that the ponies were following and bark at them to hurry up.
“C’mon, girls! Winona’s caught the trail!”
They took off at a gallop, leaping over the underbrush to stay on Winona’s trail. It didn’t take long for their destination to come into view. When it did, they all cried out in alarm.
Biggs sat swaying to and fro in the middle of a vast field of Poison Joke, droopy-eyed and grinning lethargically. Before anypony could say anything, he reached out lazily and plucked something from one of the flowers, and brought it to his mouth. Fluttershy gasped while the others stared in disbelief as he bit down, smearing fresh blue juices over the large stain already covering his mouth and chin. The situation could hardly be called anything less than dire. They had all experienced the effects of Poison Joke pollen, but, as far as she knew, none of them had ever heard of the plant bearing fruit. Who knew what terrible effect such a concentrated dose of Poison Joke would do to Biggs’ system?
She was about to call out to him when another familiar figure appeared out of the forest on the other side.
“So, I’ve finally caught up to you.”
Discord strode up to him, mismatched paw and claw clasped behind his back. It was hard to tell, but Fluttershy could almost swear she saw a bit of anger behind Discord’s triumphant smirk.
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to finally meet you,” he drawled sarcastically. “We have so much to discuss, you and I.”
For reasons she couldn’t quite place, there was a sinister undertone to his last statement, and it sent shivers down her spine. Or maybe it was the way Discord used the point of a talon under Biggs’ chin to connect their gazes. Somehow, if she didn’t intervene, she knew something bad was about to happen.
Fluttershy let out a mental sigh of relief as Twilight’s voice rang out through the clearing. Discord’s head shot up and, for a fleeting moment, she saw him grimace, but then he turn to the group with a smile plastered over it.
“Ah, Twilight… and the rest of the pony gang. What a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t expected you to be here.”
“Have you been searching for Biggs, too?” Twilight questioned warily.
“Ah, is that his name? Well, yes, I have been. Though I suppose the question should be ‘why have you six been looking for him?”
“Well, we were taking care of him in Ponyville when he ran away.”
At this, Discord’s placating smile faltered. “He’s already been to Ponyville…” He muttered under his breath.
“So why were you searching for him?” Rainbow Dash asked suspiciously. It seemed her friends had caught on to his less than innocent behavior.
“Well, because he’s so very interesting, of course. I mean, have you ever seen anything like him?”
“Then why were you saying you had things to discuss,” Rainbow Dash accused, “when he can’t even talk?”
At this point the smile disappeared from Discord’s face, replaced by one of anxious frustration. He glanced between them and Biggs, clearly trying to come up with an excuse.
“Well, I… I mean… That is to say-”
The quiet authority with which she said his name instantly drew all eyes to Pinkie. Though her hair was still curly and hot pink, they had never heard Pinkie use a tone more solemn or sad, even when she relapsed into Pinkamena.
“I don’t know how, but you’re getting dangerously close to breaking a Pinkie Promise, and a very important one at that.”
“Yes, but… I… I…” He stuttered, looking between them even more frantically.
“I- I…” Suddenly, the anxiety was burned away by righteous anger.
“Gah! I’ve had enough of this,” Discord snarled, and snapped his claws. The girls found themselves frozen in place, unable to move or cast magic.
“At this point, I don’t care if you believe me or not. But know that, when I say I’m doing this for the good of all Equestria, I mean it with every shred of truth I have left.”
Discord whipped around, pulling Biggs off of the ground with his magic to hover before him. The ape broke out of his stupor, panicking and flailing about as he suddenly found himself weightless and enveloped in a golden glow.
“Well then ‘Biggs,’ I believe you and I have business,” Discord snarked. Then he tapped his chin with his free paw, appearing thoughtful. “Of course, since you can’t talk, this could be a rather one-sided conversation.”
The thoughtful look turned to a sinister grin, as he locked eyes with the struggling ape.
“No matter. There are ways of obtaining information without having to resort to methods as clunky and unreliable as speech.” At this, a bright light appeared at the end of his paws forefinger. As he moved the paw towards Biggs’ head, Twilight cried out in recognition.
“Discord, no!” Twilight warned. “Forcefully reading another being’s mind is a crime! If you do this, we won’t have any choice but to report you to Celestia!”
“Please, Discord,” Fluttershy pleaded. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re better than this. You don’t have to hurt him.”
A momentary but overwhelming guilt washed over him. His ears flattened, and he spoke quietly, unable to meet her eye.
“I’m sorry, Fluttershy, but you don’t know these creatures like I do. He is a major threat to the safety and peace of all ponies in Equestria, if not this entire world. I need to know if there are others here, or if more might be coming, and I can’t afford to be delicate,” he turned his attention back to the terrified human, eyes growing hard. “I won’t allow him or his people to bring harm to you...”
If the girls had anything to say beyond that, Discord was no longer listening. More important matters demanded his attention. He brought the brilliant light and, after a moment’s hesitation, touched it to the boy’s forehead.
In an instant, all of his senses went dark. There was no light, no sound, no scent, no sensation other than the ephemeral borders of his mind. So he manifested himself, the break in the monotony.
“Well, I figured that he’d be less interesting inside, what with the Neanderthalic intelligence and all, but this is just downright barren. Ah, well, easier for me to work with I suppose.”
He closed his ‘eyes,’ envisioning a nice, disorganized mess for him to pick through. He always liked going through events in his own mind in bits and pieces; it helped him to see the bigger picture. A similar environment was just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps a pond of fish, or a cartoonist’s workbench, or maybe a messy bedroom. He was searching for ‘dirty laundry,’ after all.
With this image in mind, he snapped his talons, creating ‘something’ out of ‘nothing.’
Or, that is to say, the ‘nothing’ stayed exactly the same. Discord still found himself in a black void. Puzzled, he snapped his talons again. And a third time. Still no change.
“What gives?” He complained aloud. “He shouldn’t have any mental defenses left!”
He stared at his surroundings. “... I’m missing something here.”
“Indeed you are, Chaos-kin.”
The deep, sotto voice nearly frightened discord out of his wits. Discord whipped around to see a tall, likely bipedal figure in hooded robes only slightly less black than the darkness around them. He stood exactly where he hadn’t been a moment before, watching Discord, face still somehow obscured by darkness, even in the omni-directional illumination of the boy’s mind.
“And who, exactly, are you supposed to be?” Discord sneered, unimpressed by the being’s enigmatic appearance. The hooded figure paused a moment, likely sizing him up before answering.
“I suppose this will prove an adequate credential.”
Slowly, the figure raised its right arm. The sleeve of the robe slipped down, revealing the bleached bones of a skeletal hand. Discord would not have been terribly impressed, were it not for what happened next. A white mist appeared under its fingers, coalescing into a polished, white-handled sickle, and bringing with it a terrible Silence. It was like being plunged into an ice-cold isolation tank. Discord became acutely aware of his own heartbeat, his breath thundered in his ears, and he felt a grave chill running through his bones almost down to his very soul. He had experienced this feeling only once in his life, and he could have gone the rest of it without feeling it again.
“Y- you… you’re…”
“A Reaper, yes. Or, to be more precise, Junior Reaper, Third Class.”
A Reaper. The spawn of old Grim himself. He’d hoped to never see one again, but there was no mistaking the magical pressure weighing down on his mind. But then, the oppressive Silence disappeared just as quickly as it arrived. The Reaper had banished the sickle, going back to staring motionlessly at Discord.
“But… Why? What…?” Discord stuttered, desperately trying to understand.
“Why am I here, in this boy’s mind?”
Discord nodded, not trusting his tongue to remain polite.
“He is my charge.”
Discord frowned. “Normally, I can appreciate a self-deprecating joke, but in this case I must protest. What are you really here for?”
The Reaper shrugged. “Believe what you will, that is my purpose.”
“But… He’s just a human! What could he possibly have done to deserve your protection?!”
The Reaper was silent for a long while. “Nothing. I am here of my own volition.”
“Uh-huh,” Discord sneered, arms crossed and eyebrow raised, “forgive me if I don’t believe you.”
“Again, what you believe is no concern of mine,” the Reaper snapped, “know only that he is under my care.”
“Waitwaitwait… Okay… Alright. I’m just… trying to wrap my head around this. You’re a Reaper. Don’t you have more important business, like, say, overseeing life cycles?”
Silence, again. Discord was beginning to think the Reaper was hiding something. “No, I don’t. This is something I must do.”
Discord waited, but when no more information was forthcoming, he lost his patience. “And I’ll ask again, why?” He all but shouted.
The Reaper’s voice lowered dangerously. “Take care, Chaos-kin, to cool your temper. This is not a position I am willing to negotiate. And a tone so xenophobic is unbecoming of one in your station. Do not think that I will tolerate your attitude simply because of my lesser rank.”
“I have my own reasons!” Discord growled. “And I will not back down without a very, very good excuse.”
In the longest silence yet, the two stared each other down. Discord’s immaterial heart pounded mercilessly. It was a risky gamble; he could best a Junior Reaper, but not without taking a few hits that he couldn't just immediately regenerate. But he would sooner face the afterlife than see the day humans ran free in Equestria. Fortunately for both of them, it seemed the Reaper wasn’t so keen on confrontation.
“You want the whole story?” The Junior Reaper offered, conjuring up a glowing orb the size of a bowling ball. “I will show you, but on one condition: what I am about to show you does not leave this boy’s mind. If I so much as hear a hint of a rumor about his past, I will be coming for you.”
Solemnly, Discord motioned for him to continue. With a nod of acknowledgement, the orb of light floated over to Discord, already flickering with images.
“Very well. I suppose the first thing you need to know is that my first assignment started out as an apprenticeship in a relatively backwater plane of the Third Ring, on one of the many iterations of a planet called Earth…”
Fluttershy could only watch in fear as Discord committed unknowable crimes directly in front of her, with no chance of looking away. From the grunts and sparking noises around her, she could tell her friends were trying their hardest to break free of Discord’s magical hold, but she knew they would find no success down that path. When Discord put his mind to something, the only thing that could slow him down was persuasion, and it was already too late for that. Instead she watched intently at the expressions on his face.
Even with his eyes glowing, Fluttershy could tell that what began as righteous anger devolved rapidly into frustration and confusion. Things obviously weren’t going as he’d hoped when he started this spell. But then, rather suddenly, his expression changed to one of alarm and fear. Her wings itched. A frightened Discord was not a good sign. She was about to say something, but Rainbow Dash spoke up first.
“Um… Twilight? Why does he look like that?”
Immediately, all sounds of struggle ceased, as the girls’ eyes locked onto the draconequus. They noticed, for the first time, a Discord they were unused to seeing. One that didn’t seem to project an air of control and arrogant confidence. Nopony dared breathe, lest they somehow set off a chain of events that would spiral into the destruction of Equestria as they knew it. But, gradually, the look of terror dulled into one of discomfort, then concern, and then back to irritation, bordering on anger, but still tinged with worry. And still, Fluttershy could only watch.
Suddenly, his face went blank. No emotion showed through. She stood in the same position in which she had been paralyzed, phantom aches pulling at their muscles. No one in the meadow moved, and the forest had grown eerily silent. Even the normally ever-present breeze had stilled. She couldn’t be sure how long they had been frozen in place, but it had to have been at least an hour since this whole debacle had started.
Then Discord gave the first twitch of movement in ages. He released a long sigh, dropping the paw on Biggs’ forehead and closing his eyes. He slowly lowered the motionless ape to the ground, then knelt down to check his pulse. With a reluctantly satisfied nod, he stood back up, still staring down at Biggs. Fluttershy realized that he would likely stay that way a while yet, unless she reminded him of their presence.
“Discord?” She called out softly. He did not reply right away, but a twitch of his ear told her he had heard.
“I must think on this,” he muttered, seemingly to no one in particular. Then he turned looked each of them directly in the eye.
“He’s been in Poison Joke,” he observed pointedly. “You all know what to do.”
Fluttershy’s hope flared. Then, before any of them could respond, he snapped his talon and disappeared in a flash of light. At the same time, all six of them were released from their magical paralysis. Rainbow Dash immediately took to the air, futilely searching for a trace of the rogue draconequus. Applejack kept a lookout while the other four immediately rushed into the poison joke, disregarding its effects. They wouldn’t manifest for another twelve hours anyway; plenty of time to get to the spa for the antidote.
Fluttershy was immediately relieved to find Biggs unconscious but breathing steadily. Whatever Discord had done, there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger.
“Twilight, is he-?”
“He’s fine,” Twilight confirmed, horn aglow with a monitoring spell. “At least, there’s no physical harm. I can’t say for sure what effect a forced mindread had on his psyche, but he’ll be fine long enough for us to get him into the antidote bath. Applejack, will you be able to carry him?”
“‘Course. I’ve carried loads much bigger’n him before.”
“Thank you. Rarity, you levitate his arms and I’ll get his legs, to keep them from dragging on the ground. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, you and Rainbow Dash will watch for dangerous creatures in our path. Rainbow, we’re leaving!”
Grumbling, the pegasus abandoned the hunt, returning to a hover above them as they struggled to drag Biggs’ limp form onto Applejack’s back.
“Alright, alright, I’m coming. But the next time Discord shows his face he’s got some serious explaining to do.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, darling,” Rarity squirmed, “but let’s not stay too long, shall we? I think I feel my mane starting to mat.”
Fluttershy smiled sympathetically at her friend; none of them had particularly enjoyed the effects of the Poison Joke, and Rarity had later confided in her that she had screamed for a solid ten minutes upon waking up and finding herself covered in dreadlocks. But she couldn’t help but feel more worried for Biggs. He had been eating the stuff, and who knew how long that had been the case before they met him. She didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.
“Oof. Yes, Fluttershy?” Twilight grunted, nudging Biggs into a more stable position on Applejack.
“Well, I was thinking I should go ask Zecora about the Poison Joke fruit. We’ve only dealt with the flower before, so I think it might be a good idea to ask her about what we need to do for him.”
“Good idea. You should probably bring her one of the fruits as a sample. Do you need one of us to go with you?”
“Oh, no need. I’ll be fine. You five concentrate on getting Biggs back to Ponyville. I’ll meet you back at the spa.” Fluttershy sat down, delicately attempting to extract one of the fruit with her forehooves.
“Are you sure?”
“I am,” she reassured, concentrating on the stubborn fruit before her, “I want to be certain he gets back safely. Don’t worry about me. I’ll fly to Zecora’s and be back as quick as I can. Oh!”
The stem snapped relinquishing both the bloom and the fruit attached to it. Fluttershy grinned meekly. “I guess that works, too.”
“Sounds good, Fluttershy!” Applejack called over to them. “Twi, if’n you don’t mind, I’d like to git. This’n’s a bit heavier than he first seemed.”
“I’m coming!” She called back before returning her attention to Fluttershy. “See you at the spa, then.”
Fluttershy nodded, the stem in between her teeth while she held the fruit in her hooves, ensuring the fruit wouldn’t fall mid-flight. With a kick off of the ground Fluttershy launched into flight, wobbling for several agonizing seconds before she stabilized. Sighing in relief, Twilight returned to her other friends, picking up Biggs’ legs in her telekinesis as they began the trek back to Ponyville.
Rarity lowered herself daintily into the luxurious bubbles. She sighed in content as the toasty warm water embraced her.
“Ahhh… I really must remember to do this more often,” Rarity gushed to the others in the large bath, “my coat is always the softest it has ever been after these baths. In fact, I believe I can feel the knots untangling themselves.”
Applejack rolled her eyes. “Well, I don’t know about all that, but I’m sure glad we already know the cure. I don’t fancy bein’ that small ever again.”
For Rainbow Dash’s part, she simply hummed her agreement and slipped further into the water, a relaxed, slightly goofy smile plastered across her muzzle. Biggs, next to her in the tub, noticed and after a moment of concern, decided to imitate her, scooting forward on the seat until the angle of his back allowed him to submerge the lower half of his face.
Twilight tilted her head. “There is still a really small part of me that laments the loss of an opportunity to observe the effects of Poison Joke on a species other than pony. But,” she quickly backpedaled, “like I said, really small part. I’m glad Biggs doesn’t have to suffer through it just for curiosity’s sake.”
Her friends smiled in knowing exasperation. Except for Pinkie Pie, who simply smiled and said, “You’ll probably find out pretty soon anyway.”
Twilight frowned. “What makes you say that?”
“Oh, just one of those sneaking suspicions. But apparently, it wasn’t sneaky enough, because I caught it.”
Rainbow grumbled. “Is your Pinkie-sense telling you we’re gonna have to chase him into the forest again? Because I really hope he isn’t going to get into a habit of doing that.”
“No,” Pinkie shook her head, “I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not getting any twitches. I just get the feeling that we’re going to learn a lot more about him really soon.”
Before they could either ask further or write it off as a part of her Pinkie-ness, Fluttershy burst in quickly followed by Zecora and Aloe. She frantically scanned the room.
Rainbow’s eyes flew open at the desperation in Fluttershy’s voice. She shot up in her seat, hauling a startled Biggs up by the armpit.
“He’s here! What’s wrong?”
At this Zecora spoke up, issuing her command with complete authority. “Everypony, leave him and exit the bath! Unless you wish to deal with the aftermath.”
While the ponies scrambled to get out of the tub, Fluttershy flew up to Biggs and wrapped her forelegs around him, urgently trying to soothe the ape. He had become frightened in the panic, and was trying to leave the tub along with the others.
“Shhh, shhhh… It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured trying to keep her voice level. She stroked Biggs’ shivering, bony back, though whether it was to calm him or herself, she wasn’t sure. Fluttershy swallowed her fear. She had to be strong right now.
“I know you’re scared, but I need you to be brave for me, okay?”
Biggs stared deep into her eyes, searching her for a reason. But he could find none; none that he could understand, anyway. So he fell back on his instincts, and while the urge to flee was strong, his pack animal instincts were stronger. In the short time he’d known her, he’d come to trust her. If she wanted him to stay, he would stay. Reluctantly, tensely, he settled back into the water.
“Good. Good boy. N- now, I need you to do exactly as I say, alright?” Zecora approached, bearing a dark green bottle from her saddlebags, and passed it to Fluttershy. Fluttershy unstoppered the bottle and turned to Biggs.
“I need you to drink this. No matter how nasty it tastes, no matter how it makes you feel, you must drink all of it. It’s very important, understand?”
Biggs hesitated only a moment, looking in each of her eyes, before nodding. Fluttershy put the bottle to his lips and tipped, at which point he took over. Fluttershy backed away and, with one last look at her, Biggs chugged the liquid down despite his very obvious grimace. He set the bottle down, licking at the inside of his mouth, trying to get the taste off of his tongue.
A moment passed. Then two. For a few seconds, it seemed nothing had happened, and yet Zecora stood by, actively watching him. Then, the girls’ attention was caught once again by a cough. Biggs, face reddening and glistening with a sudden sweat, began to cough, intermittently at first, but then with increasing regularity. His expression screwed up in pain. Twilight to a worried step, prompting the other girls to start for him. But Zecora barred their advance with a raised foreleg and a pointed look. Fluttershy shuffled on her hooves, nervously glancing back at Zecora for a cue. Zecora only stared at Biggs. Finally, she got what she came for.
Biggs shut his mouth with a click, just in time to hold back a retch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. His cheeks suddenly swelled and swelled until he could hold it back no longer. He gave a pitiful hrrk, and was violently ill all over the pristine marble floor to a chorus of, “Eeewwwww!” He then plunged his face below the surface, coughing, panting, and spluttering as he inhaled the bathwater like his mouth was on fire.
As soon as he had emptied his stomach, Zecora made her move. She tossed the second saddlebag off of her back, caught the bottom end in her teeth, and upended a bagful of sawdust over the dark blue bile, all in one swift motion. Then, she rooted through the first saddlebag until she found a small pouch. Out of it, she poured a hoof-full of bright red powder. This she scattered over the sodden pile of sawdust, chanting in her native tongue. As she did, the pile began to froth and shudder. The movement became more violent as her tone rose. By the end, she was shouting over the furious hiss of the churning sludge. Then, just as her chant reached a crescendo, the rebellious pile gave in, deflating in burst of acrid black smoke, with a crackle simultaneously reminiscent of burning logs and cracking ice.
Coughing and waving the smoke away, Zecora left the smouldering refuse to check on Biggs, an anxious Fluttershy almost literally hovering over her shoulder. With a fresh application of the red dust on her hooves, Zecora checked Biggs’ pulse as he slumped over the edge of the tub, exhausted and panting. She pried open his eyelids to examine his pupils, then dabbed a bit of sweat – which had turned an alarming shade of blue – from his back with her hoof. The sweat fizzled, reacting slightly to the powder. She cautiously sniffed it and immediately snorted in disgust. But it seemed that she was satisfied with this outcome.
“Thank goodness you came to me with such haste. Any longer and a grisly fate he may have faced. He must soak until he wakes for an effective cure, but he will make a full recovery: of this, I’m sure.”
As Fluttershy sighed in relief, Twilight found herself only with more questions.
“Um, Zecora? We’re all really grateful for your help, truly. But, would you mind telling us what, exactly, is going on?”
“Of course, Princess, I’ll reveal all I can tell. But let us adjourn and let him rest a spell.” The ponies waited for Zecora to scoop up the toxic sawdust, dispose of it in a bag marked ‘Biohazard,’ and wipe down the floor. Then they exited, assaulting the zebra with questions.
Fluttershy watched the others leave before turning back to Biggs. She knew she shouldn’t be disturbing him, but he just looked so uncomfortable draped over the edge of the tub. He would get better rest if he were in a more comfortable position, and she was pretty sure she would need the Poison Joke cure either way. So, she gently maneuvered him around so he could lie back against the wall of the tub. She folded a towel and slid it under his head and neck, for cushioning. Gently, so as not to wake him, she brushed a lock of damp hair out of his eyes, and a little of the tension eased from his scowling face.
Her work done, she left the room to find the others, and hopefully a bath.
It was a straightforward kind of dream. One that he’d had many times. And one of the better ones, too, so he hadn’t bothered trying to influence it. Never really did much anyway.
He sat aiming his plasma rifle over the top of a concrete barrier, waiting for the perfect time. Then, just as the aliens all came into view, he fired. In dream-worthy perfection, he struck them all down in a blaze of plasma fire. Not a single one was left guarding the high-speed cable car tethered to the gargantuan spaceship floating in the sky. As always, the shield bubble surrounding the platform seemed to be at full-strength. However, rather than the clear projection he was used to, the walls of the field seemed to be opaque. A minor detail, all in all, and he wasn’t much at liberty to change the course of his dream, so he continued onward.
As soon as he passed through the walls of the shield bubble, however, the dream changed. He suddenly had an extreme sharpness of clarity, as though he’d woken up. The only reason he knew otherwise was because of the contents of the room he was in, or rather the lack thereof. He stood in an endless black void, but somehow it didn’t seem as sinister as he thought it should. He wasn’t even startled when a hooded figure with a skeletal face suddenly appeared in the center of his vision.
*“Well, boy, we’ve done it,”* the figure said in a voice both ancient and soothing. *“On a fluke, we somehow managed to find the cure to this abominable ailment of yours. The next time you wake up, you’ll have access to all your facilities. Hopefully, this will be the first and last time you see me. In any case, I’m going to need to hibernate for a while; flushing your system has really drained my reserves. I’ll be here to watch over you, but, if all goes according to plan, you’ll never need to know of my existence.”*
“But, wait a minute,” Sam pondered, “if you didn’t want me to know you exist, why are you here? And who are you anyway?”
The figure let out a dry chuckle. *“My dear boy, I’m in your head. I know your track record when it comes to dream retention. Come time to wake, you’ll forget all about our conversation. As for who I am… I believe we had arranged to call me Bob.”*
Sam vaguely remembered something like that, although the recollection was faint and very fuzzy.
“Alright, but you still haven’t answered my first question.”
The hooded figure, Bob, stared at him in silence. Sam waited, but he didn’t say anything. He seemed to be thinking about how to respond. Or maybe he was ignoring the question. Sam couldn’t tell.
*“I am here… because I want you to remember that, if only subconsciously, you will never be alone.”*
“That’s… slightly creepy.”
*“It’s meant to be comforting, fool boy!*” Bob sighed his aggravation away. *“I meant that I will always be here, watching over you, even if you don’t realise it.”*
“Oh… well, uh, thanks.”
Bob shook his head. *“Never mind. You’ll be waking up soon. Just remember that the people here are kind, even if you are, at first, thrown off by their appearance. You have allies here. Don’t neglect your friendships. You are a long way from home, and you can use all the help you can get.”*
Sam was silent for a while. Then, with a scoff, he replied.
“You know, I think this may just be the strangest dream I’ve ever had, if only because of how insanely lucid it is.”
*“Oh, for pity’s sake…”*
Just then, whiteness washed over his vision, and he found himself returning to the land of the living.
Slowly, Sam became aware of a soft and silky warmth surrounding him. He shifted in its embrace and it swirled around him. When he lifted his hands to rub the sleep out of his eyes, he broke the surface, breaching the cool air and slathering warm water across his face.
So I’m in a bath. He stretched lazily. He hadn’t been this relaxed in weeks. His throat was a little sore, but his mind was clear.
His mind was clear.
His mind was clear.
Sam’s eyes shot open. He surged out of the water, giddily feeling himself all over.
“I’m back. I’m back! Ha! Take that, stupid hallucinogenic fruit!”
Then his brain caught up with his hands. Something didn’t feel quite right. He looked down. Despite the blurriness, he knew that, whoever’s body that was, it certainly wasn’t the one he remembered owning. Entirely too bony, even considering the weight he'd lost since the crash. Upon cursory examination, the fuzzy shapes around him seemed to indicate a spa of some kind. Sam scrambled out of the wooden tub, snatching up one of the towels sitting off to the side. They were barely large enough for him to wrap around his bony waist; he had to stretch one of the edges in order to even grasp two corners in one hand. His modesty adequately protected, he looked around for his glasses. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find them anywhere. Sighing in defeat, he turn to one of the blurry shapes that, if the synchronized movement was any indication, should be a mirror. Sam leaned in close.
The man staring back at him was strange, but he mirrored Sam’s every move. His face was gaunt and haggard, with long, coarse hair and a scraggly beard; the face of a man who’d survived a terrible ordeal. When Sam looked down, he could see the outline of his ribcage. Although his stomach didn’t seem to be distended, he was obviously recovering from malnourishment. His muscles seemed to be on the cusp of atrophy, though maybe constant activity had helped him to retain some.
Sam’s breath caught in his throat. While he hadn’t been the epitome of health, he at least had had some decent amount of muscle beneath his fat, and he had found a little scrap of pride in his strength. But now they seemed much smaller than they should be, even without all the padding. Only then did he notice the fatigue and malaise shadowing his initial excitement. The weakness of his limbs sent a pit of icy dread into his gut. He’d never felt so helpless before.
His grip slackened, and the hems of the towel slipped from his fingers. Then, as he scrambled to regain control of the makeshift garment, he caught sight of a certain something between his legs that gave him pause. A certain something that seemed much larger than it had been. A wry smile twisted his lips, the pyrrhic victory pouring a sarcastic humor into his mood.
“Well, that’s one point in favor of my drastic weight loss, I guess.”
His overall condition did make him wonder just how long he’d been hallucinating, though. Last he remembered, he’d lost quite a bit of weight, but he hadn’t yet regressed as far as becoming malnourished. All he knew was that it had to have been months at least since his crash landing in that forest.
“Hoo boy… Mom and Dad are gonna be piiiiiiissed… Right after the tearful reunion, of course.”
Just then, he heard the clomp of hard shoes on tile from outside the room.
“Biggs, darling, is somepony in there with you? I heard a voice.”
It was too late to react. The door to the spa room swung open, exposing his barely towel-clad form for all to see. For an instant, he was embarrassed, before the incongruity of what he was seeing took root in his mind.
Although his sight was blurred beyond any hope of making out fine detail, he knew what the human form was supposed to look like, and this was not it. What stood before him could only be considered equine, even to his tarnished vision, though it was no taller than the average Great Dane. It had a snowy white coat, and a glaringly purple, styled mane. What’s more, it had the audacity to sport what could only be a horn on it’s head.
**Five Minutes Earlier**
“Hoo-wee, no wonder ya’ll were so upset. That’s one humdinger of a poisonous fruit.” The other girls nodded dumbly, still reeling from Zecora’s revelation.
“Precisely my worry, dear Applejack, a poison so potent suggests a tack. It seems to be, by its very nature, bait; only by his presence does the growth stimulate.”
Fluttershy smoothed her mane with worried hooves, soaking in her own personal tub of Poison Joke cure. “So, you think it might be a trap set for creatures like Biggs?”
Zecora sighed. “All evidence found points to that being the case, but I worry about who might have set it in place.”
Rainbow Dash angrily flew up above their heads in the center of their attention. “You guys saw how Discord acted back in that meadow, right? If that fruit has as much chaos magic as you said, I think we all know who we need to talk to to get some answers!”
In a fit of exasperation, Fluttershy spoke up. “Now wait just a minute-”
“Okay, fine,” Rainbow Dash interrupted, heading off the defensive argument, “I’m not accusing him outright, but, out of all of us, he’s probably the one who knows the most about chaos magic. Unless Twi knows something…?”
Twilight shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t. Very little is known about chaos magic in general. It has the distressing habit of… confounding scientific observation. It tends to shift around and-”
Rarity daintily cleared her throat. “Aaand I’m sure the explanations are all very intelligent and technical. So, it would seem we have but one option left to us.”
“Alright,” Twilight said decisively, “as soon as Biggs and Fluttershy are well again, we’ll summon him with the Elements.”
“Um, well, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Fluttershy asked, wilting under her friends surprised stares. “I mean, he was really upset the last time we saw him. Maybe we should wait a while.”
“I know you want to be considerate,” Twilight placated, moving to put a hoof around Fluttershy’s shoulders, “but this is important. Even if he didn’t do it, an intentional poisoning is equivalent to attempted premeditated murder! We need to know who did this so we can stop them before anypony else gets hurt.”
“Oh, oh! Also, if he did do it, maybe he might have had a good reason for it?” Pinkie interjected with increasing enthusiasm, directing the incredulous stares her way. “Like maybe Biggs’ kind were a bunch of violent barbarians that almost destroyed the universe a million, billion years ago!”
The air of amazed disbelief in the room was palpable. After the shock wore off, Applejack was able to ask the question that was on all of their minds.
Pinkie rolled her eyes with an exasperated groan. “It was a joke? C’mon you guys, did you actually, in all seriouslyness, think I would say something like that and mean it? If so, you’re all waaay more gullible than I thought.”
“No, Pinks, we weren’t thinkin' that. I think we were just a mite… overwhelmed, is all.”
Twilight shook the preposterous idea out of her head. “In any case, the only way we’re going to get answers is by talking to and – if necessary – confronting Discord. And I’m sorry Fluttershy, but the sooner we do it, the better.”
“Very well,” Rarity voiced in apparent relief, “I’ll go check in on our big friend, see how his recovery is coming along.”
Rarity hurriedly left the room, before Pinkie could start spouting other, more ridiculous theories. As much as she loved Pinkie’s exuberance, there was a place and time for that kind of humor.
As she approached Biggs’ room, however she heard something she wasn’t expecting. An elated shout, coming from the same direction as the spa. She broke into a quick trot, and as she neared the spa door, she could hear a murmuring, masculine voice, and the tail end of a one-sided conversation.
“...er the tearful reunion, of course.”
Fear tugged at her heart, had one of the spa patrons found Biggs? Or was it somepony else, here to whisk the fantastic creature away? Steeling herself for the confrontation that was sure to come, she opened the door announcing herself as politely as she could, hopeful that whatever was happening could still be settled peacefully.
“Biggs, darling, is somepony in there with you? I heard a voice.”
But when she opened the door, the only thing she saw was Biggs, standing upright in front of one of the spa mirrors, clutching a towel around his waist. Confused, she looked about the room searching for the source of the other voice. There was nopony to be seen.
“That’s odd, I could have sworn I heard somepony talking to you.”
Only when she looked back at Biggs did she noticed something was off. He was still staring at her, wide-eyed, as though in disbelief.
“Biggs, dear? Is something wrong? You look a bit… tense.”
“... Oh… my… god, I’m still HALLUCINATING!” Biggs shouted with increasing volume. He then dashed to the tub and dunked his head underwater.
Rarity stared in slack-jawed disbelief. Biggs had just spoken! He had opened his mouth, and words had come out. But worse than that, it hadn’t seemed like he was being puppeted. His mouth had made precisely the correct shapes to form those words.
Biggs is… intelligent?
Rarity stood in place, opening and closing her mouth as she stared at Biggs, since all other brain functions had been washed away by the shock.
Finally, after half drowning himself, Biggs jerked out of the water and slumped against the tub, scratching his head through soaked locks. He massaged his temples, eyes screwed shut in a desperate attempt to block out the world.
“Okay, pull it together… You know it’s a hallucination, so make it stop. You’re lucid enough. It shouldn’t be a problem, right? Right. Okay. I’ll try again on three… One… Two… Three!”
Biggs blinked, and immediately locked eyes with Rarity. For ages, they just stared at each other. Then Biggs slapped himself.
Rarity gasped. “Oh my! Are you alright?”
“No, I am n-” Biggs eyes bulged. “Y- you talked… how… are you talking?!”
Flabbergasted, Rarity sputtered out an answer. “Well of course I can talk! What about you? How can you suddenly talk?”
“I- but… but you’re a hallucination. Hallucinations shouldn’t be able to argue! Don’t argue with me! It’s disorienting enough that I wake up to… this!” He gestured to his body.
“What do you mean, that? That’s your body isn’t it?”
“Well, of course it’s my body! But someone’s let it go to shit since I last saw it.”
Rarity would have scolded him for cursing, had she not heard hoofsteps approaching behind her.
“Um, Rarity? Is everything alright in here? I heard shouting.”
She turned around to see Fluttershy in the doorway, towels draped over her and wrapped around her mane. However, this only seemed to agitate Biggs.
“Oh, great! Now there’s a little yellow pegasus, too!”
Fluttershy froze, mouth agape. Rarity was fairly certain she would have toppled over if her legs hadn’t locked up. She turned back on Biggs, indignation burning in her eyes.
“Ex-cuse me! Is that any way to treat a lady? Especially one who has been taking care of you?”
Biggs sighed explosively, and went back to massaging his temples. “No… no, you’re right. Just because I’m hallucinating right now, that doesn’t give me the right to-”
“What’s going on in here?” Twilight demanded, charging through the doorway. “What’s with all the shouting?”
“Oh! Oh! Oh that’s just peachy. Now it’s a little purple… pegacorn? Unisus?”
“Perfect, my hallucinations are making up words now.”
“I am not!”
“Making up words or a hallucination?”
“Well you might not be a hallucination, but whatever I’m seeing certainly is.” Biggs rested his elbows on his knees, leaning forward to jam the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. “Ugh, and to think I woke up in such a good mood.”
“What…? What do you mean? And how are you talking?” Twilight grilled.
“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’” Biggs growled irritably, “And why does everyone keep asking how I can talk? Just how far gone was I while I was tripping balls?”
The aberrant question threw the girls for a loop.
“Tripping… balls?” Rarity inquired, unsure of whether she should be confounded or scandalized. Biggs stared, confused by their unfamiliarity.
“You know, tripping? Spaced? Zonked? Seeing pink elephants? …High?” Seeing that none of them responded, Biggs took a more explicit approach. “Out of my mind with hallucinations? I mean, the last thing I remember is finding a meadow full of this blue fruit, and next thing I know I’m waking up in a hot tub, malnourished and sporting hair and beard easily twice as long as they had been. I must’ve lost at least a few weeks, if not a month or more. Especially if kept eating that damned stuff.”
“Um… well, uh…” Fluttershy mumbled, broken out of her stupor, “We… um… might have… mistook you for an… an animal…”
By now, the other girls and Zecora had found their way into the spa, attracted to the ruckus. Biggs’ only reaction was a tired groan and a hand slapped over his eyes.
“An… animal? How do you even…? Nevermind. I’m just going to hope against hope that you are actually people I’m hallucinating as tiny colorful horses and not just figments of my imagination. Could you please call a doctor, or bring me to a hospital? I need to know that this thing is reversible. Oh, and can you bring me my clothes, or a robe, or… something?”
Rarity marched off with a haughty “Hmph!”, leaving the others to deal with the difficult creature. The girls looked to each other, wordlessly asking for suggestions. Eventually, without prompt, Fluttershy began to approach softly. She sat down to Biggs’ right, and put a gentle hoof on his knee. Biggs lifted his hand off of his eyes to look at the contact.
“I… I know that this is a scary time for you, and that you feel like nothing's going right, but...”
She trailed off as she noticed Biggs’ eyes. He was staring at her hoof. No, staring wasn’t the right word. Biggs’ eyebrows were furrowed in a scowl of disbelief, his bug-eyed gaze boring into the hoof on his leg as if it were the last thing he expected. Worried that she had offended him, Fluttershy quickly tried to retract her hoof. But before she could even lower her leg, Biggs’ hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. She gasped, startled at the sudden movement, and she heard the varied tinkling, rustling, and stomping sounds of her friends gearing up to rescue her. But she held up her free hoof, halting their advance. His grip was tight, but not terribly painful. When she relinquished her hoof to his attention, the grip loosened.
Biggs sat up, moving in to look closely at her hoof. He squeezed it, prodded it, bent her wrist at the joint, tapped the keratinous nail. He ran his thumb over the edge. She fought back a giggle as he massaged her frog with his thumbs.
The question was whispered, more to himself than anypony else. She felt a sliver of concern. It was almost like… like he couldn’t believe what his senses were telling him. Suddenly, his hands began working their way up her leg, groping and squeezing, as if he was trying to disprove his senses.
“Stand still,” he commanded. Had she tried to move away? Maybe subconsciously. She was feeling more than a little uncomfortable with all of this sudden, intense attention. Her eyes flicked to her friends, who were watching intently, poised to strike the moment he began hurting her. She gave them a pleading glance, hoping they wouldn’t make any rash decisions. Her breath caught in her throat as his hand reached her breast. Biggs was on his knees now, and after a moment, he leaned in, putting an ear to her breast, apparently listening to her nervously fluttering heart.
His hands began moving rapidly, feeling her all over. Her throat, her mane, her right cheek, her left ear, her nose, her chin, her lips.
“Hey!” Rainbow Dash cried out in indignation. But Fluttershy complied, sparing Rainbow a placating glance. She could tell her friends were worried about her, but she knew that this wasn’t about perverse pleasure. Somehow, Biggs couldn’t believe she was real, and his examination was as much out of fascination as it was to prove his own sanity. She could endure a little violation of personal space if it helped him to accept their existence.
He ran a finger along the back side of her lower front teeth, retracting it to examine the saliva.
“But… No… That’s…”
Once again, he returned his attention to her, staring into her left eye with clinical attention. He then sniffed the air over her head, by her cheek, in her mane. With a snort, he pulled away.
Desperately, he looked her over again, until his eyes locked onto her wings. With lightning speed, he had her left wing. Fluttershy yelped at the roughness of the contact, and Biggs immediately backed off.
“Sorry! Sorry. I just…”
“It’s okay,” she gasped, trying to calm her frayed nerves. “Just… be more gentle. My wings are more fragile than my legs.” Off to the side, Rainbow Dash growled menacingly, pawing the tiled floor like she was preparing to charge.
“Sorry,” he repeated, glancing over at the others for the first time, suddenly self-conscious. Their glares bore guilt into his chest. He swallowed.
“M- may I?”
Fluttershy extended her left wing obligingly, and Sam moved in after one last glance at the others in the room. He gently kneaded the limb with one hand, feeling her muscle, bones, and joints, ending with the shoulder. He ran the fingers of his other hand through her feathers. In the end, he focused on her shoulder, examining the limb’s range of motion.
“This is impossible.”
“What?” Fluttershy asked.
“You’re… real! I mean actually, really real. You’re not…” Biggs let go of her, sitting back heavily. “You’re a real, live pegasus… talking to me. How is that possible?”
A concerned frown worked into her features. “What do you mean? Don’t you know about pegasi?”
He opened his mouth, decided against it, then opened it again. “I… Well, yes. But… but Pegasus is just a myth. You’re a myth. A living, breathing myth.” He took another, incredulous look at his surroundings, stopping on the other ponies in the room.
“Where the hell am I?”
Twilight looked to the others, who turned out to be just as confused as she.
“Well, you’re in Equestria. Ponyville, to be exact.”
“Puh… Po- Ponyville? I… am I still on Earth?”
Twilight’s eyes widened.