A lone, gaunt figure floated in the inky black, staring into a pit of nothingness that swallowed the surrounding darkness like water. He would have to travel many hundreds of miles to reach the pit’s edge, and yet it encompassed his vision, spanning from horizon to horizon. The immense energy of the Void called to him, beckoning, enticing, promising great things to come. He could feel its exotic pull tugging at his skin, the temptation to join it in ecstatic never-death stirring his loins. He could be the seed of a fresh new future.
Later, perhaps. But not yet. There is much work yet to be done.
Another joined him in the cold and the dark, the light of the universe at their backs. For an age, they stared into the Void, allowing its gaze to drain their emotions as one would draw poison from a wound. Nothing could stand before the Void and resist. Only those who served the Void, who breathed its very essence, were allowed to slip its grasp. In the very end, there would be no movement, and the Stillness would consume all. When that time came, they would embrace the Void, and their devotion would be rewarded. But in the meantime, there were matters to discuss, plans to put into action. The watchers spoke, but not in tones, for there would be no sound before the Void. They conversed across space and time, conveying meaning through the eddies of life, to be swept up in the nets of their minds. The latecomer spoke first.
“I bring news, your Reverence.”
“We have sown the seeds across the universe. All possible resistance has been crushed. The Stillness is now inevitable. Shall we move on to the next to be converted?”
The mind-echos were silent. For a time, the messenger fidgeted in place, anxious to continue his work. Eventually, he could contain his impatience no longer.
“Brother Superior, I am eag-”
“I did not give you leave to speak, Brother.”
The cold, calm rebuke blew through his soul like a glacial wind, and the messenger fell silent once more, terrified of incurring the Brother Superior’s ire. He trained his gaze on the Void, entreating it to suck out his desires, to quell the fires of ambition that drove his impatience. Just as the messenger began to feel as one with the Void, the Brother Superior finally replied.
“We will be leaving a small contingent here. It will not be glorious work, but I have seen that it will be necessary. There may have been some who slipped our reach, as impossible as it may seem, and there remain some pockets of life still agitating the threads.”
“If I may, Brother Superior?”
“You may speak.”
“I will volunteer for this task, if you will have me. I… believe I must serve penance. My ambitions have become too unruly.”
He could feel the radiance of the Brother Superior’s smile shine through his very being, and he knew he had made the correct choice. The Brother Superior’s words reverberated through his mind.
“Brother Aaron, you have only just joined us, but you have already shown wisdom beyond your time. Have faith. Look not to your ambition, for you are already destined for greatness. The Watcher in the Weave has seen that greatness, and so you were chosen to join our ranks. You have my blessing, Brother. Do good works. The Watcher sees you.”
The messenger prostrated himself before his superior.
“I await your word, Brother Superior. Stillness in the Weave.”
“Stillness in the Weave.”
With that parting blessing, the messenger took his leave. The Brother Superior returned his attention to the Void and smiled.
Soon. Very soon.
“Twilight, when do you think he’s coming out?” Pinkie fretted, breaking the contemplative silence that had settled over the friends for the past few minutes.
“Soon. Very soon,” Twilight assured. “I think I heard movement in there.”
Rainbow Dash cleared her throat. “So… Aliens, huh?”
Twilight hummed. “Well, yes, but... There’s something just a bit… off, about him.”
Rarity raised a questioning eyebrow. “You mean besides the fact that he’s an alien?”
“Well… yes and no,” Twilight attempted to explain. “There’s something odd about his aura… it’s hard to describe. It’s like… like a single note in a great, loud harmony, but ever so slightly off key and barely detectable amongst the other sounds.”
“Wouldn’t that, like, support his claim or something?” Rainbow guessed.
“I’m not dismissing the possibility that he’s an alien, I’m just not prepared to make any assumptions until we have more information. I need to know all I can gather about his supposed homeworld. For all we know, a country that’s been isolated from the entire world might actually exist. Remember the Crystal Empire?”
“Well, yeah,” Applejack acknowledged, “but sugarcube, that was an area the size of a city, gone for a thousand years. You’re talkin’ about an entire country bein’ hidden from the rest of the world for at least as long. I ain’t an expert on magic, but wouldn’t that take a huge amount of energy?”
“Yes… Princess levels of magic energy, in fact. But I’d rather not confront the Princesses without at least a little more information. Hopefully, talking with Sam will help to illuminate some of my murkier questions.”
Just then the door opened and Sam stepped out. She was about to greet him when she noticed the changes to his grooming. Namely that he had actually bothered to try cleaning himself up. With his bath and a trim, he was beginning to look like a presentable – if sickly – member of society.
“Goodness,” Rarity exclaimed, “you certainly cleaned up. You look at least halfway civilized now.”
“Rarity, honestly!” Twilight admonished. Sam just chuckled.
“Well, she’s right. I may not look like a caveman anymore, but my styling skills probably leave something to be desired.”
Twilight cocked her head in confusion. This new demeanor was a near hundred-eighty degree shift from before. Had a little alone time really helped him level out so rapidly? She looked around, and it seemed the rest of her friends had noticed the change as well. Unfortunately, before she could approach the topic with a modicum of delicacy, Applejack flexed her honesty muscles a bit too hard.
“Well, shoot, where’d this attitude come from?”
Twilight winced at Sam’s raised eyebrows. She braced herself for whatever emotional explosion was about to happen. But instead of snapping, Sam sighed heavily, took off the spare glasses in the crook of his thumb, and dug the heels of his palms into his eyes. It wasn’t annoyance she heard in the sigh, but regret.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” he began. “I was in shock, and I may have reacted… inappropriately. Truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit. I mean, it’s not everyday you find yourself unceremoniously thrown into an alien land. I have no idea where in the universe I stand, and it’s more than a bit distressing.”
Then he took a deep breath, huffed, and put the glasses back into place, forcing a determined smile onto his face.
“On the other hand, it’s not everyday you find yourself in an alien land,” he reiterated with a lighter inflection. “I’m excited to see what your society is like. I mean, how many humans have interacted with intelligent, English-speaking ponies?”
“We’re not speaking... whatever it was you just said,” Rainbow Dash countered, words curved by her smirk, “you’re speaking Equestrian.”
Sam laughed and put up a conceding hand. “Fine, I’m speaking Equestrian, and you’re speaking English. It apparently amounts to the same thing.”
Twilight cleared her throat before Rainbow Dash could continue arguing.
“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better. As much as I want to discuss the similarities between our cultures – and I really do, in fact, want to – we should probably take this somewhere more private. Sam, will you accompany us to the library?”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Um, sure? But I don’t think a library would be very private.”
“Oh! In this case, it is; I live in the town library. It’s been my home ever since I moved to Ponyville.”
As he was listening to her, rubbing his scruffy chin, realization dawned in his widening eyes and his mouth slackened in awe. Twilight looked behind her, searching for whatever might have caused him to be struck dumb, but all she could see was the reception area and her friends looking at each other with concern. She was about to ask him if something was wrong when his jaw closed with a snap.
“Just to b-” Sam began, screeching to a halt as flecks of drool escaped his teeth. He wiped his beard with a tattered sleeve. Rarity tried to, but couldn’t quite silence a quiet and disappointed “Ew.” Sam grinned sheepishly.
“Sorry,” he apologized, swallowing hard to dispose of whatever saliva remained. “So, just to be clear, when you say ‘library,’ you mean the place where people – er, ponies – go to borrow books?”
“Um, yes?” Twilight confirmed, taken aback by the incongruous question.
“And, uh… ‘book’ does mean pages of written or printed word, bound together to form a collection of information, right? Not some weird alien definition?”
“Yyyeeesss?” Twilight ventured, now thoroughly confused. Where was he going with this?
As soon as she confirmed his rather inane suspicions, Sam’s face lit up in a beam so wild it bordered on mania.
“Well, no use in standing around here! Let’s get a move on!”
Sam marched out the front door, not bothering to wait for the rest of them. As Twilight put the puzzle pieces into place, Sam’s smile became infectious.
“He likes books!” She squealed happily, dancing in place at her newfound comrade.
The others just giggled amongst themselves, sharing in their expectations.
“He’ll be back any second now,” Rarity tittered.
Sure enough, Sam poked his head back through the door a few moments later.
“So, uh, why don’t I just follow you? Seeing as how you know where we’re going and all.”
A library. With books. Alien books. Real alien books written by actual aliens. To read. Here.
Sam was so excited that he forgot to duck the second time he left the Ponyville Day Spa. But the resounding thwack his forehead made against the doorframe did little to dampen his spirits. He hardly even seemed to notice the sympathetic outcry that followed him out the door.
I’m going to get to read books never before seen by human eyes! Ow.
Sam didn’t have long to wait before the ponies joined him outside. They poured out of the door, mostly sporting expressions of concern, like they expected to find someone doubled over in pain. Instead, they found him still upright, arms patiently akimbo rather than clutching at his forehead.
“Um, Sam? Are… are you alright?” Fluttershy questioned, looking up at him with big, worried eyes.
Dear God, why does she have to be so cute?
Sam took a moment to recover from the pulmonary embolism she had inadvertently caused, then gave her a reassuring smile.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s scary, sure, but… I can really only concern myself with the ‘now.’ I shouldn’t try to tackle everything all at once. If I do, I’ll just worry myself sick, and that won’t do the people back home any good.”
“Oh! No, not that. I mean, you are being very brave. It’s just that, well… you hit your head pretty hard just now…”
“Oh.” Sam patted his forehead. It stung hard enough to make him wince. “So I did… Ow.”
A sudden soft tug on his other hand brought Sam’s attention back to the fore. Fluttershy held his hand between her hooves, apparently trying to coax him into following.
“Come on, we’ll get you some ice at the library.”
Sam could only allow himself to be guided along by the adorably gentle, butter-yellow pegasus. After all, she had shown him nothing but kindness and concern for his well-being in the short time he had known her. If he were to choose only one pony to trust from those he’d met thus far, it would have to be her. Though, being honest, his initial gut reaction to the others was nothing if not favorable.
Twilight gave him a nervous smile and shuffled her hooves, a dance that plainly spoke of the nervousness of someone desperate for someone else’s approval.
“So, before we get started, I guess I should first say: welcome to Ponyville,” she announced with a grand sweep of her hoof, gesturing to the landscape beyond the shop.
Up until that point, Sam had been too singularly focused on the prospect of alien writings to pay attention to his surroundings. But when he did, he could suddenly feel the giddy energy sloshing around in his brain.
He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but what he saw somehow seemed wholly appropriate. The rustic thatched roofing, timber framing, and overhanging upper stories of the housing seemed to indicate a pre-industrial society. But the architecture was too neat, too clean, and just ornamental enough for him to believe that the medieval trappings were a stylistic choice.
He watched an orange, curly-maned pony humming merrily to herself as she tended the flower garden in front of her house. Yep, definitely too carefree for pre-industrial.
The pony looked up and smiled at the greeter, a light blue unicorn passing by and waving with a foreleg. Sam would have paid more attention to the unicorn’s range of motion, except for the little pouch jingling merrily as it levitated before the unicorn. Sam stopped in his tracks to gawk at this new affront to physics. He could only assume it was the unicorn’s doing, as the same pale blue aura that surrounded the pouch also enveloped her horn.
Sam snapped out of his fascination. Fluttershy was looking at him with slight concern as she hovered at the end of his outstretched arm. Had he jerked her to a stop, too? He must have, though he couldn’t remember.
“Sorry, I just… uh…”
He looked back at the retreating form of the unicorn, and noticed that the pony in the Garden – Junebug, I guess – was now staring wide-eyed at him. He didn’t think it was fear he saw in her eyes, just surprise. At least he hoped so. He gave her a hesitant grin. With a gasp, she bolted. The front door to her house swung open and closed so quickly he couldn’t be sure that she had even touched it. His grin faded.
“I- it’s nothing. Let’s go.”
They caught up to where the rest of the others were waiting and set off again. Sam spent less time watching their surroundings, as it was much the same story. Ponies would openly gawk at him, but as soon as he attempted to pay a little attention to them, the grand majority would run and hide. Eventually, he just turned his attention towards the six currently leading him through town, just in time to catch the tail end of a conversation.
“... what Zecora expects to find,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “I mean, we were all there, and I for one didn’t see anything else in that meadow.”
“Yeah, but were you lookin’ all that closely? Seems to me your attention weren’t focused on the ground,” Applejack chided.
“Well… No, I guess not.”
“Besides,” Twilight added, “she might not even be looking for a physical object. She could be looking for traces of magic. Anything she can find will be welcome information, for us and him, I suspect.”
“Who’s Zecora?” Sam blundered into the conversation with all the subtlety of a freight train.
“Oh, uh, Zecora’s a friend of ours,” Applejack stated with a backwards glance. Apparently, she was unsure of how much she should be divulging.
“She’s a zebra herbalist. She’ll be helping us investigate what happened to you,” Twilight supplied with a helpful smile.
He was about to ask her what she thought they might find when he was interrupted by the arrival of another pony. This one swooped in from above, instantly commanding his attention. Up until that point, Sam’s working theory had been that a pegasus pony’s wings were only made to allow them to hover. The appearance of this new pony directly refuted that theory.
But, as fascinating as she was, Sam found he couldn’t look at her for long. For reasons he couldn’t place, she was glaring at him as though he was plotting murder.
“So,” she nearly spat, turning her glare on Fluttershy, “I see you got him back. Is there a reason he isn’t on a leash?”
Sam gulped. Yup, that is definitely animosity.
“Oh, um, well, you see…”
Twilight came to her rescue, flying up to meet this new pegasus. “Um, Cloudchaser, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” she soothed, subtly guiding Cloudchaser to the ground. Unfortunately, Cloudchaser’s fiery indignation brooked no opposition.
“No, it’s not! He attacked me, Twilight! And if I hadn’t been the first pony to come across him, it would’ve been somepony else! I only kept us both from getting hurt because I had Wonderbolts training! What would’ve happened if it hadn’t been me? What are you doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?”
An uncomfortable silence descended on the group. The girls exchanged glances, silently attempting to determine how much to let Cloudchaser in on. However, they didn’t get a chance to respond.
“... I attacked you?”
“Yes, you did! And if you know what’s good for you, you… are… talking… Twilight, he’s talking. Why is he talking?”
Twilight gave an embarrassed grimace. “Cloudchaser, meet Sam. Until recently, he was acting under the influence of some very concentrated Poison Joke.”
“Yes, hi, but,” he turned back to Twilight, “I think we’re glossing over the fact that I tried to hurt someone!”
“Well, yes, but I assume this isn’t something you would normally do, right?”
“No, of course not!”
“See, there you-”
“But that still doesn’t change the fact that it happened! And ‘I wasn’t myself, your Honor,’ would hardly stand up in court. Twilight, assault is a serious offense. In my country, I could be looking at a year of jail time, maybe more, not to mention charges for being under the influence of a potentially illegal substance.”
“But you weren’t yourself! You weren’t in your right mind!”
“Great, so the best defense I have is insanity!”
“Only if I decide to press charges,” Cloudchaser cut in.
Sam stared at her, waiting for a catch or backtrack. But she was no longer looking at him with anger, and neither did she seem to be scheming. There was still concern in her eyes, moderated by what looked like a splash of curiosity. He swallowed apprehensively.
“If you decide…?”
“I have a few questions I want you to answer truthfully and without hesitation. Depending on your answers, and if Applejack trusts them, I might let you off the hook. Any objections?”
Sam emphatically shook his head, not daring to speak yet, lest she change her mind.
“Good.” She lowered herself until she hovered directly at eye-level. “Well then, question one: did you know about the effects of Poison Joke before your recent encounter with it in the Everfree?”
“No, definitely not! If I had, I would never have eaten the fruit.”
“Fruit?” She looked expectantly at Applejack, who simply shrugged.
“It’s true,” Applejack confirmed. “Apparently Poison Joke does bear fruit. We all saw it.”
“Huh,” Cloudchaser mumbled. “Interesting… Question two: Do you remember anything from when you were acting like an animal?”
“But it wasn’t an act!” Pinkie blurted. “He really was an animal!”
“Well, I wasn’t really… I mean I technically am still, but… Nevermind. The answer to your question is both yes and no. Yes, I have memories, but they’re all fuzzy and vague, with no context whatsoever.”
Again, she looked to Applejack, who looked back, and gave a solemn nod.
“Alright, then. Question three: do you have a history of violence?”
“No,” Sam stated firmly.
“Then why did you attack me?”
“I have no idea,” Sam sighed. “I mean, I can make an educated guess. If I was out for as long as I think I was, and I had been acting docile up until that point, I’d hazard that the, uh, Poison Joke, was it? That the Poison Joke fruit is addictive… which means I have to monitor myself closely, to make sure I don’t relapse.” He groaned inwardly.
Cloudchaser squinted, switching her stare between his eyes, as though she might catch his right eye with its guard lowered while she was focusing on his left. Eventually she gave up, and looked to Applejack.
“Far as I can tell, he’s been tellin’ the truth,” Applejack confirmed, then chewed her lip. “‘Course, I might not be readin’ him right.”
“What?! But… But I'm not lying! I swear!”
Applejack guffawed. “Relax, I was only foolin’. Honest, sugarcube, you got nothin’ to worry about. Cloudchaser’s pretty much already made up her mind, haven't you, Cloudchaser?”
Cloudchaser let out a smirking sigh, and her body language relaxed slightly.
“Nothing gets by you, does it, AJ?”
“Well, I don’t like to brag, but…”
“Anyway, AJ’s right. Anypony can see you’re a good po- uh, whatever you are, at heart. I think I can safely let you off the hook, so long as you continue to behave like a decent, civilized being. I’m just waiting on one more thing,” she hinted, watching him with an expectant smile. For a moment, Sam worried that she might be waiting on a bribe or some other reparation, but then he realized that he’d forgotten something important.
“Ah… uh… Cloudchaser, I am really sorry for trying to, um… to hurt you. I promise that I won’t lift a finger against anyone as long as I have even just a scrap of my senses about me. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you-”
“Your apology is enough,” she interrupted with an embarrassed smile. “No harm, no foul, right? Besides, I can hardly blame you for something that was out of your hooves, er, hands. Those are hands, right?”
“Oh. Uh…” Sam looked at his hands, wondering where she might have seen hands before. “Yes, they are.”
“Okay, cool. Hope you have a good stay in Ponyville, Sam. I’ll see you around!” With that, she flew off again, a much more relaxed flight than her original confrontation. Sam only realized he was staring again when Rainbow Dash had to wave a hoof in front of his face to get his attention.
“Hey, Equestria to Sam! Anypony home?”
“Oh! Uh, yeah,” Sam started. “Sorry, I was just…”
The words died in his throat as he watched Cloudchaser fly up to join another pegasus with similar coloration and a long, styled mane. The pair then took off, plowing through the fluffy white clouds like so much smoke, breaking them up and clearing out the sky. He marveled at the practiced ease with which they glided across the sky. Rainbow Dash chuckled.
“Impressive, huh? It might not look like it, at first glance, but Ponyville’s weather team is just short of being the best in all Equestria, second only to Cloudsdale. All thanks to me, of course.”
The boast jarred Sam’s thoughts hard enough to break him out of his stupor. He turned to her with a cockeyed smirk, raised eyebrow daring her to make that assertion once more.
“Don’t believe me, huh? Well, watch this!”
Rainbow took off like a shot from a cannon and the blast of air knocked Sam backward a few steps. When he looked up, it was all he could do to follow her aerial acrobatics with slack-jawed awe. She streaked across the sky fast enough to leave behind a rainbow trail. No living creature should have been able to sustain that kind of speed, and yet here she was, doing just that, all the while performing impossibly tight loops, rolls, and turns. Not to mention the clouds she absolutely destroyed.
Then, just as he thought she couldn’t possibly impress any more, she suddenly dove at him full speed. In the split second he had before impact, he threw his arms up in front of him. The displaced air hit, and he tensed for impact. The moment seemed to stretch on into eternity.
“So, whaddya think of that?”
Cautiously, Sam opened his eyes. He stood in the same place he had been before, although a little more wind-ruffled. He lowered his arms to find a slightly winded Rainbow Dash hovering just before him, smiling triumphantly. That eternal moment had actually just been the seconds passing after Rainbow had come to an abrupt stop.
Her smirk faltered, morphing into a look of concern as Sam continued to stare at her.
“Dude, you alright?”
“How the hell did you stop? You must’ve been going eighty miles an hour!”
“Oh! Well, they don’t call me the best flier in Equestria for nothin’!”
“I… but… how…?”
Rainbow chuckled, flitting over to Applejack just to elbow her in the side. “Hear that, AJ? He’s been struck speechless! Seems like I might be the better athlete after all.”
Applejack responded by hip checking the gloating pegasus, sending Rainbow careening to the ground a few feet away. “Yeah, well, don’t go gettin’ your hopes up just yet, missy! He ain’t even seen me applebuckin’ yet.”
“Oh yeah? Well-”
Twilight’s shout brought their boasting competition to a screeching halt. They gave her guilty smiles and mumbled their apologies.
“Honestly,” Twilight huffed, “I know you two enjoy a bit of competition, but can you at least wait until Sam’s settled in before you go butting heads?”
“Yeah!” Pinkie chirped. “I mean, we haven’t even thrown him a ‘Welcome to a Different World’ party yet!”
“I believe that will have to wait, Pinkie dear,” Rarity arbitrated, before Twilight blew another gasket. “There are a few things we should ask him first. And I’m sure Sam has some questions of his own, hm?”
The pointed question popped Sam’s growing bubble of incredulity, reminding him that he was, in fact, a part of the current conversation.
“Ah… yeah. I can think of at least ten off the top of my head.” Like how do pegasi fly? And how do you make objects levitate? And what the fuck happened to physics?
“Well then come on!”
There was a sudden blow to the back of his thigh and he lurched forward, nearly toppling onto an alarmed Fluttershy. A quick look back told him that Pinkie had slipped behind him while he wasn’t looking, and was now trying to headbutt him into high gear. To avoid the awkward questions that might accompany repeated headbutts to the posterior, Sam jogged forward, pulling Fluttershy along with him.
“Let’s get moving, we haven’t got all day!” Pinkie cheered, following him at a gallop, the others in tow.
“Okay, okay, I get it! But I still don’t know where to go!”
Twilight sighed through an amused smirk. As exasperating as Pinkie could be, it was difficult to stay mad at her.
But then the hushed murmur reached her ears. She looked around to find a growing crowd of anxious ponies. Whispers about the stability of this foreigner burned her ears, tempting her to jump to his defense. But she still knew too little about him to truly defend his actions. She tried to give the gathering ponies a reassuring smile, but then raced off after her friends, anxious to get Sam out of the view of the town.
Sam stared goggle-eyed as he ran his fingers over the wood. It was smooth. Completely smooth. He could feel no lacquer, otherwise it would have caused more friction. Instead, it felt like the flesh of a completely debarked tree, and it stretched seamlessly around the circular room, from floor to ceiling. But the most confounding part was that he detected traces of moisture. The tree was still alive.
“How is this possible?”
He dropped to his knees to examine the trim, inadvertently ducking away from a concerned, hovering Fluttershy and her ice pack, but there was none. Not even a crack. The connection between wall and floor was seamless.
He jumped up, nearly knocking Fluttershy out of the air, and ran over to the shelving inset into the walls. They would not move. There was no evidence of construction whatsoever. Not even the slightest hint of the use of sandpaper, as if the shelves had been carved out of the wood by the gods themselves.
Even the ceiling curved up into the spot where the sun mural was painted, and if he were to fly up and examine the mural up close, he doubted he would find a single line covered up by the paint. An ice pack was gently pressed against his forehead while he gawked.
“This room was grown… This house was grown. Out of a tree!”
He was aware that the girls were tracking his every move with a mixture of confusion and concern, but he couldn’t help it. Treehouse Masters got nothin’ on this!
“Well, yes,” Twilight began, “it was grown with magic, after all. The ponies that grew this place even took a few months to grow it, just to be sure that there wouldn’t be complications down the road.”
“This is… incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this.” He gazed about the room for a few more seconds before suddenly focusing all of his attention on Twilight. From the outside, it probably looked like he was glaring, seeing as the ponies tensed up at this sudden switch in attitude. Even Fluttershy flinched away from her self-assigned first aid duties. But he had to know. Could it be possible…?
“Real, honest-to-god magic…”
Sam trembled in anticipation. He heard the ponies shifting uneasily. Then before anyone could blink, Sam dove into a prostrated position before Twilight. He snatched up her forehooves in supplication, beaming at his newfound idol.
“What is it? How does it work? Where does it come from? Canyouteachme?”
Twilight was simultaneously bewildered and flustered by the sudden adoration. No one said a word for several awkward moments.
“Ah-ah-ah,” Pinkie tutted, breaking the silence, “you’re forgetting the rules. We’re supposed to take turns asking questions, not let them fountain out like fondue… Mmmm, fondue.”
Sam released Twilight with all possible speed, ears burning in shame of his disgraceful behavior. He sat back and cleared his throat, adjusting the remnants of his shirt.
An embarrassed Twilight, meanwhile, fluttered unevenly, trying to straighten out her ruffled feathers and ignore her own ripening cheeks.
“It's, um… It's alright. So, uh, to answer the simplest of your questions, I'd be happy to teach you what I know about magic. But later, if you please. There's a few things I'd like to know about you, first.”
That ‘like’ sounded a lot like ‘need,’ Sam observed with a sinking heart. But I can't say I blame her. I wouldn't give a strange alien the secrets of nuclear physics without some kind of assurance that they wouldn't try to reconstruct the atom bomb.
“Right… I guess that’s fair.” Sam sat back into a more comfortable cross-legged position. He had no doubt this would take a while. In the meantime, maybe I can learn a few other things.
Sam flinched as Twilight’s magenta horn-light-aura-thing flared up for the second time that day, but this time the only effect was a roll of parchment, quill, and inkwell suddenly floating before her. Then, he felt the cool touch of the ice pack on his forehead again.
“Um… could you, maybe… please not move around so much?” Fluttershy entreated meekly. Guilt welled up in his throat. He’d forgotten she was even there.
“R- right, sorry.”
“So,” Twilight chirped, calling his attention back to the matter at hand, “first question should be fairly obvious: what are you exactly?”
Twilight’s attitude had flipped completely in the short span it took her to get her note taking tools. It seemed it was her turn for manic enthusiasm. She fidgeted in her seat, watching him with an expectant grin and sparkling eyes.
“Ah, well, my kind call ourselves humans, and we live on a planet we call Earth. We're a, uhh… generally… neutral people?”
Sam’s thoughts ran screaming through his head, frantically racing between departments, trying to throw together a passable description. How was he supposed to summarize an entire race of people, their factions, history, and dispositions? There were far too many variables. For every arsonist, there were probably at least five fire fighters. For every corrupt politician, thousands of good Samaritans. And yet the scale of atrocities that could be committed was staggering. Even still, the Earth was populated by millions upon millions of neutral parties. He couldn't possibly sum that all up in a single sentence, let alone a paragraph. Unless…
He chuckled. If he couldn’t do it seriously, there was always the ever accurate Douglas Adams.
“On the whole, I guess humans could be described as ‘mostly harmless.’”
The entire room gave him a raised eyebrow.
“That’s it?” Twilight asked, failing to keep the exasperation from gnawing on her words.
Sam shrugged. “I could elaborate further, but that would take hours, and I have questions of my own I'd like to ask. If you want to know more, you'll have be more specific.”
To Sam's relief, she sighed good-naturedly.
“It’s okay Sam, it was a bit too open-ended of a question, anyway. I’ll try to organize my thoughts while we answer your first question.”
Sam’s confident facade faded away into plain uncertainty. He hadn’t actually considered what he wanted to ask first. There were so many questions buzzing around his head, it was like asking a blind man to snatch flies out of the air with a pair of chopsticks.
In a fluke of concentration, Sam snatched one of the questions out of his mind. It was one that had gone unanswered since they left the spa.
“Ah! Why don’t I start where we left off? You were saying my magic aura seems fine, but a bit stale. What do you mean by that, exactly?”
Twilight shifted in place, staring up at the ceiling in contemplation.
“Well… from what I felt, I get the impression that you haven't used your magic in a long time. I don't know how often you practice your special talent, but-”
“Wait, special talent?”
“Sam,” Pinkie warned playfully, “you’re not playing by the rules.”
“Yes, okay, but…”
“It’s okay, Pinkie,” Twilight mediated. “If he needs some context, it’s only right that we provide it.”
“Long as he does the same,” Applejack butted in.
Sam nodded impatiently. “Okay, fair enough. So what do special talents have to do with magic?”
“Well, everypony has a special talent that they discover when they’re young. It's how we get our Cutie Marks,” Twilight explained, displaying the brilliant starburst emblazoned on her flank.
“Huh…” Sam’s fingers twitched. I should be taking notes. Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain that the most constructive thing to come of me using a quill is a new ink blot test. “So a pers... er, a ponies’ magic is tied to their special talent?”
“For the most part, yes. There are some general skills that most ponies of a particular race can learn or possess. For example, a pegasus’ ability to manipulate clouds, or an earth pony’s affinity for growing plants, or unicorns’ levitation. Of course, there are exceptions all over the place, but as a general rule, these examples hold true. Magic is an inextricable part of life.
“Which is why I'm curious about your aura. How did it get to be so…?” She trailed off, apparently trying to think of a more tactful way of saying ‘musty.’
Sam sighed heavily. “I'm not sure. If I had to guess, it's because none of my kind can actually use magic, at least not in the way you ponies can. Humans can hardly heat water up to body temperature without the use of tools, much less make objects levitate with our minds. So, even if all humans are actually born with the capacity for magic, I doubt we ever learned about it in the first place.”
“So then how do you manage your weather, if you can't use magic?” Rainbow Dash accused, clearly skeptical that any society could exist without that ability.
“Simple. We don't,” Sam countered, a smug smile on his lips.
Over the next few hours, Sam answered their every question about life on Earth. The topics ran the gamut, from science and technology to politics, geography and popular culture; Sam spared no detail, so it was unavoidable that they had only scratched the surface of what it meant to be human. In fact, he seemed to recall much more than he had ever learned, a prospect more than a little worrisome. Whenever he struggled to remember, or even if he felt like he hadn’t known in the first place, the information came unbidden to the fore of his thoughts, as though delivered by some unseen courier. Had his mind been manipulated on the move from Earth to Equestria?
But that thought took a backseat, in favor of every tidbit of information he could glean about this alien world. The things these ponies accomplished with magic… They seemed unreal. But they also didn't seem to be lying, and he could no longer discount claims simply based on their outlandishness, not with what he'd seen. Even so, this most recent claim had pushed past even that boundary.
“I'm sorry, Twilight, that's just too fantastical.”
“It’s true, Sam! They've been doing it for over two thousand years.”
“How?! The amount of energy necessary to keep a tether that strong and that far advanced is unfathomable!”
“True, it requires a colossal amount of power, but the Princesses are alicorns, like me. And they've been around much longer than I.”
“Twilight, that's anecdotal evidence at best. You're going to need to present empirical evidence before I will believe that these Princesses can even influence the trajectories of your sun and moon.”
“Well, in that case… Spike, can you come in here please?!” Twilight called out.
A young male voice shouted back from somewhere down the hall.
“Be there in a sec!”
“Who’s Spike?” Sam asked, surprised and intrigued that she might have someone so close at hand that might provide the necessary evidence.
“Spike’s my assistant. He's been with me since I was a filly, when I first started in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”
“So, is that like a magic school or som-”
Sam was struck dumb by the scent that suddenly wafted into the side room. That slightly acidic, incredibly cheesy odor belonged to a few things that he knew of, any one of which made his mouth water in anticipation. It also didn't help that he couldn’t remember the last time he had a proper meal.
However, one of the things that wandered through the door was something he would have never suspected.
As the smell of Italian food reached the peak of its intensity, a short, purple and green figure wandered through the doorway, balancing two trays of what could only be lasagna in his claws and a stack of plates and silverware in the crook of his scaly tail. The little lizardman child sauntered over to the central display, a small, self-congratulatory grin on his face, and laid out the food on rounded counter.
“I knew you guys hadn’t left yet, so I went ahead and made extra. I figured you'd all be hungry.”
“Oh, thank you, Spike,” Rarity cooed. “You are such a thoughtful little gentledrake.”
“Ah, it's nothin’. It's the least I can do for you, seeing as you’re hard at work out here.” Spike puffed out his chest, obviously trying his utmost to impress. Rarity giggled and stroked his crest obligingly, to which Spike responded with the enthusiasm of a lovesick puppy.
“Yes, thank you, Spike,” Twilight said pointedly, trying to tear his attention away from the object of his affection. “If you don't mind, I have a letter I'd like to send.”
“Okay…” Spike murmured, leaning further into Rarity’s ministrations. “Just gimme… one… more minute.”
Twilight let out an exasperated groan and glared at Rarity. Rarity smiled sheepishly and released Spike.
“Sorry, Spikey-Wikey, but this is rather important.”
“Oh, alright,” he huffed, slumped over to Twilight, and petulantly stuck out his hand. Twilight placed a scroll there and, with a burst of green flame, Spike blew the enchanted ashes out the open window.
A gasp drew the young drake’s attention over to the gangly biped sitting little more than a yard away.
“Woah!” Spike yelped. He backpedaled a couple of steps. He couldn't help it. The creature was staring at him with an intensity that could vaporize stone. “Um, I'm guessing this is that creature, Biggs, that you were talking about?”
Twilight chuckled nervously. “Um, yes I was. But, see… the thing about that is…”
“You’re a dragon,” Sam intoned reverently.
Sam could see the shiver crawling up the little dragon’s spine. Spike slowly turned to look back at him, guilt etched into his features.
“You…I, uh… Sorry. Twilight didn't mention that you could talk.”
“It’s okay. Only regained the ability recently. But, more importantly, you're a dragon, aren't you?”
“Um, yes?” Spike edged guardedly towards Twilight, trying to make it look like he was just shuffling his feet. “Is… Is that a problem?”
Spike relaxed only slightly as a toothy, cheek splitting grin lit up Sam’s face.
“This… is so… cool! First magic, and now this? Could this world be any more awesome?”
But before anyone could respond, a blinding white light flared outside the library’s front door, accompanied by a thunderclap. The light vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and all became silent once more, apart from the ringing in their ears. For several tense moments, no one so much as shifted in their seat, all eyes glued to the front door.
Whatever stood on the other side of the door was setting Sam’s hairs standing on end. In some small part of his brain, the klaxons blared, warning lights flashed, and the danger level had been set to DEFCON 2. He had no idea what was behind that door, but he knew it was dangerous. It was almost like he could smell it.
None of the others seemed to be as concerned, but they were at the very least startled. Until there was a knock at the door, and a worried, matronly voice called out.
“Twilight, are you in there?”
“Princess Celestia!” The girls all cried out in unison, equally relieved and perplexed. Twilight got up and trotted over to the door, pulling it open with her magic. Sam tensed.
The being that stepped through that door was as beautiful and as terrifying as a roaring inferno. Power radiated from her like the heat waves rolling off of a forest fire. She was tall – almost as tall as he, if he included her foot-long horn – with an alabaster coat and an ethereal, translucent mane in the colors of the Aurora Borealis, that constantly flowed in some intangible wind. A more mystical creature he had never seen, and right now she seemed to be wearing an expression of barely suppressed fear.
“Good evening, Princess,” Twilight started, trying to gauge her mood. “I’m surprised you teleported all the way out here; I didn't think you would even send a letter until tomorrow morning.”
“Twilight, this is important,” the Princess emphasized, “where is the alien right now?”
“This is him, Princess,” Twilight answered, gesturing to Sam with apparent confusion. “His name is Sa-”
From the moment Twilight had pointed him out, Celestia and Sam had locked eyes. In that fraction of a second, Sam’s mind had gone into overdrive. What he saw was no longer the regal and beautiful being that ruled over her country with an even hoof, but a harbinger of eternal pain. In her eyes, he saw the fires of hell, in her voice, the cries of the damned. His every sense screamed at him, and one small voice in the back of his head succinctly summed up their message.
He couldn't even blink. One wrong move, and he would be torn limb from limb, his soul shredded to pieces and thrown into the void. But then, he was slammed with a surge of adrenaline so massive that it set his hindbrain ablaze.
Sam was on his feet, sprinting down a side passage before he even realized he'd gotten up. He faintly heard voices shouting his name, but he didn’t dare stop. The thunderous hoof beats bore down on him like an avalanche.
He burst through the first door he found. The kitchen. One glance told him everything he needed to know.
He couldn’t hesitate. One second would be the difference between life and death. He charged forward. The opening was small. He would have only one chance. Two steps away, he flung himself forward, bracing his arms in front of him. The frame buckled the instant his elbows struck it, and he smashed through in a shower of splintered wood and shattered glass. He tucked and rolled, coming to his feet in a display of unprecedented agility. But he didn’t stop to admire his own handiwork. A thousand little cuts burning his skin, he took off into the night.
Or he would have, if someone hadn’t been waiting for him.
“And just where do you think you’re going?!”
Another alicorn appeared before him in a convulsion of shadows. This one was midnight blue, with a mane like the night sky. One look told him this one was just as dangerous as the one called Celestia, if not more so. To Celestia’s raging inferno, she was the silent, inescapable riptide. Her aura of power tugged at him, trying to ensnare him in its pull. If the first had been Princess Celestia, then this one must be her sister, Princess Luna, as Twilight had explained.
Sam sprung away, scrambling off towards the shelter of the streets and alleyways. But before he could take even three steps, another flare lit up the small courtyard around the library, and Celestia appeared in his path.
“You’ll find you cannot flee from us so easily,” the one behind him gloated.
“Do not run,” Celestia commanded, “you will only make things worse for yourself.”
Sam’s head whipped around, trying futilely to keep them both in his sights. The world seemed to close in around him, until he was gasping for air. This was it. He would be dissected, analyzed, tested. They would break him apart and put him together until he could no longer remember who he was. Everything that was Sam would be erased, until nothing was left but an empty, shuddering husk.
At some point, Sam realized he was screaming, but it was unlike any noise he’d ever heard in his life. It almost sounded more like a jetliner plummeting to earth, the shriek of shredded metal tearing through the howling wind, punctuated by the terrified screams of a hundred doomed souls. It rattled his very bones, and he was fairly certain he heard the shattering of windowpanes beneath the cacophony.
Eventually, as he ran out of breath, there were two things he immediately noticed. First, he was still alive and unrestrained. Second, the two princesses seemed to be paralyzed, abject terror frozen on their faces. But as he glanced between the two of them, he saw something that made him feeling like his heart was trying to escape through his throat.
The six ponies – the ones that had been so kind to him and shown him the only hospitality he'd known for months – had piled out of the front door of the library and been frozen in place,staring at him with the same look of fear as his pursuers. Guilt clung to his throat. He tried to speak, but the only thing that came out was a hoarse wheeze. Tears blinding him, he did the only thing he could think of.
“I'm sorry,” he mouthed, eyes lingering on Fluttershy in particular. He then turned and, with one last mournful glance back, fled into the night.