• Published 12th Oct 2011
  • 27,184 Views, 913 Comments

The End - shalrath



A friendly stranger delivers some unsettling knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

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Chapter 3

Day broke over the lush rolling hills of Ponyville. Radiant beams peered in through windows and slowly crept over the face of one brown and white pony.

Two eyelids stirred, gently opening to take in the light of dawn; ears perking to the chirping of birds and the growing bustle of the streets outside.

The refreshing tranquility caused the pony to bolt upright from bed, gasping for breath with panic stricken eyes, in the same manner that one might rouse themselves from the gruesome climax of a soul wrenching nightmare.

“I’m LATE!” Captain Laurie screamed within his head.

Slowly he adjusted to the sight of the unfamiliar room, easing himself back down into bed. “No, no. False alarm,” he thought. There was no need to scramble out of bed, or sneak into the morning formation before headcount was finished. He had a special assignment today, free from the clockwork rigors of Canterlot Palace.

He reached for the bucket of water on the bedside table, greedily pouring it into his mouth. The cool water soothed his raspy throat, painfully inflamed from the past night’s screaming expletive laden orders, expletive laden words of encouragement, and expletive laden thank-you speeches. He coughed and sputtered momentarily, sinking back into the sheets as the memories of last night began to assault his tenuous grasp on sanity. The ponies, the forest, the mud.. Oh god, the mud.

Some pony had managed to get a nasty bruise, complete with lacerations on his foreleg. It was really the only blemish on an otherwise successful operation. Laurie sighed with exasperation, shaking his hoof angrily at the ceiling of the cottage inn. A stick! A stick! If you want to pull the berries out of a gardener plant, you used a blasted stick! It was right there in the damned Royal Guardpony field manual. He shook his head, awash with rage. Flipping over, he buried his face in the plump goose feather pillow and bellowed a single drawn out curse.

Through the soft pillow came a muffled cry, which sounded vaguely like “civilians”.

He hopped out of the makeshift foxhole of rumpled blankets. A sense of urgency drove him to get started on his tasks for the day. As he surveyed the room, he was taken aback by how small it was, as if someone took a normal sized room, shoved in an extra set of bedding, and tacked a bolt of fabric down the middle to divide it in half.

Which would explain the bolt of fabric, tacked hastily down the middle of the wall and ceiling.

Laurie knew exactly what had to be done. He cleared the writing desk, and emptied his satchel into three distinct piles. One well abused copy of the Royal Guardpony field manual, several sheafs of loose paper, and a writing quill. He opened the book, diving straight into the appendix. From there, he painstakingly copied several pages, taking obsessive care with the margin spacing, the neatness of the lines, and the strings of numbers adorned across the top and bottom of each page.

He went over them again, hastily scrawling his name, hoof number, and terse wording in the spaces he provided. Several minutes of furious writing later, he sat back to admire a job well done. One copy of Form P-4211-004, ‘Combined Multi-Part Request for Basic Housing Allowance, Cost of Living Allowance, and Substandard Accommodation Comfort Allowance, and one copy of Form P-2300-4-23, Request for Advancement of Pay Grade Due to Unscheduled Field Promotion.

He mentally wrestled with the last form. A set of check boxes near the end remained blank, demanding a choice which he could not answer. Laurie spat the quill onto the desk, rubbing his temples with both hooves. Who actually witnessed the field promotion? If he could remember, it would be a simple matter of checking the first box, and writing the name of somepony that could vouch for the event.

He chuckled with a tinge of pride at the previous block, the Granting Authority. It read:

[ ] Unit Commanding Officer
[ ] Surviving Unit Ranking Officer
[ ] Sword-Wielding Magical Aquatic Apparition
[x] Celestial Deity

That one was considerably easier.

With a sigh, he backed away from the desk. Curiously, he parted the curtains to peer outside at the bustling backwater town of Ponyville.

Directly across the street was a bakery. A pink hoof waved excitedly from the window.

Laurie fell to the floor, his heart thumping loudly in his chest. He crawled along his side against the base of the wall - all the while hearing the incessant shouting of his old Drill Stallions demanding that he go lower and faster. For a moment he stayed in the corner, curled in a fetal position, gently rocking back and forth.

He steeled himself for what came next. With a bolt of determination, he launched himself from the base of the wall and skidded to a stop in front of the writing desk. He grasped the quill quickly, suppressing his shaking hooves as he bent down to check “[x] Will submit additional form P-2442-84-2 ‘Waiver for Lack of Witness to Unscheduled Field Promotion’”.

* * *

“You look positively exhausted, sister,” Luna proffered a hoof to Celestia, helping her up from the pile of books strewn in a semi circle around the throw pillow. “You’re not planning to face the rest of the day like this are you?”

“I believe I can manage. The palace staff can handle today’s events without any hoof-holding. Just so long as we can reschedule any further crises until next week,” Celestia smiled weakly.

“I’m dying to know more about this visitor you mentioned. I caught sight of him briefly last night before they reached Ponyville. And I must say the Lieutenant down there was doing a remarkably entertaining job as well. A real way with words.” Luna smirked.

“That would be Captain Lancaster now, or Laurie, as he prefers to go by. He seems to be quite adept at handling crowds.”

“He can certainly speak their language.”

Celestia permitted herself to a loud snorting laugh. But just this once.

“I trust that he will be an excellent host to our new guest,” Luna continued. “Although I understand there’s something of a language barrier. Do we expect Captain Laurie to take on the role of linguist as well?”

Celestia tapped the pile of books and parchment at her hooves, and gestured at Twilight Sparkle, who had completely passed out in the middle of an open tome.

“We have something that may help with that. It did take us some time to research the elements of this spell, but it may help us to communicate.”

“While I understand your desire to bring your protege` in on this, were there not more experienced scholars of magic to help you develop this spell?”

“There were. I imagine they will be sleeping on your schedule for the next few days. But Twilight is who I trust to use the spell. It is not so simple to transliterate spoken word without an understanding of the meaning behind it. And that necessitates an ability to listen to the mind, rather than the tongue.”

Luna pondered this.

“Such a spell would allow one to read minds like a book.”

“I know what you are thinking. It would bear grave consequences if used improperly.” Celestia intoned. “Though pardon my figure of speech, I did not need the spell to discern your reaction.”

Luna looked back to Twilight. “And you trust her implicitly with this?”

“That is why she is my protege`”

“Mmm.. It will be interesting to see what she learns. Although our guest may grow tired of only having one pony to talk with.”

“That did not escape our attention. A variant of this spell may allow our guest to project the thoughts behind his, or her, words. Likewise, it can be used to delve into the meaning of our language as well.”

“Is that wise?”

“Do not fret sister, the spell has limitations. Our guest cannot read minds, and Twilight’s ability will only extend through the bond between her and the visitor. As for me, I shall take no part in this spell, for even the potential to do so would undermine the nature of my rule.”

“Does our guest possess the ability to harness magic? I can not see how this would work without it.”

“No, at least not that I can tell. But our research last night was not in vain. I have a plan to deal with that.”

“And what becomes of this?” Luna motioned towards the pile of books and hastily inked scrolls.

“Sealed away. Forever, I should hope. Much like their original author.“

“The Draconequus?”

Celestia nodded.

“Sister, could I ask of you a few small favors?”

“Anything, Celestia.”

“If you could send for our guest in a few hours, around Noon perhaps. And wake me before he arrives. Twilight as well.”

“Consider it done.”

“One more thing. Bring me a knife when you come for me. The sharpest you can find.”

Luna eyed her sister curiously. “I don’t suppose you have a plan for that too?”

“Yes, you’ll see.”

“Okay. Sleep well Princess.”

“That’s Boss Hoss to you, sister.”

Luna giggled as Celestia slumped over on her side.

“I’ll bet that was Applejack.”

“Eeeeeeyup!”

* * *

“Oh, good morning, Applejack.”

“Same’s to you, Fluttershy. What brings you around these parts?”

“Oh, I wanted to see what all the commotion was about last night. I was away tending to the frogs in the swamp behind my house when it happened. I was really surprised to come back and find Ponyville almost completely empty!”

“Sugarcube, I got enough tales from that night to tell all week.”

Fluttershy smiled, her thoughts partially elsewhere.

“Did you see that new pony?”

“Might wanna narrow it down a bit, sugar.”

“The one covered in mud and leaves.”

“Oooh, him. Some officer from Canterlot, I reckon. I was pulling up the rear of that wagon train, so I only spotted him a few times.”

“He had such a way with his words!”

Applejack winced, rubbing one tan hoof against her forehead.

“And the way he ran back and forth through that crowd. I’ve never seen anypony with such.. “ Fluttershy trailed off for a second, looking away suddenly, while tracing her hooves through the dirt.

“Any such what?”

“Um..” Fluttershy whispered. “Stamina.”

Applejack cocked one eye at her friend.

“I mean, well.. Do you think he’s nice?”

Applejack laughed nervously, trying to eject herself from the trainwreck of morbid embarrassment.

“Ohhh, no sugarcube. If I ever go cross eyed and head over hooves for somepony, I reckon he’d be more of the strong and silent type.” She smiled nervously herself, concealing a trace of blush.

The two friends went quiet, having reached a verbal detente` in mutually assured awkwardness.

“You know, I rarely see you this early. Are you all caught up with bucking apples for today?”

“Oh, no. Just came into town to fetch some supplies”

“Did you forget your saddlebags?”

Applejack looked back, feigning surprise.

“Aw shoot. Reckon I did. Need to add that to the list.”

* * *

The more Laurie thought about it, the less sense it made. The general condition of the dwelling, which he thought about briefly to determine the proper adjective; ‘adequate’, seemed out of place with the fabric curtain that bisected the room. It just smacked of a rush job. But why?

Something else nibbled at the back of his mind as well. Somewhere between his colorful public service announcement about “why to avoid gardener plants at all costs - unless you were really hungry, in which case you can try this little field technique”, and drearily stumbling his way into a decidedly inadequately lit cottage, there was something else. He strained to remember.

The memory involved a hoof tap on his shoulder.

Not just any hoof, as it suddenly dawned on him.

He turned to look at the curtain. He could hear a slight rustling behind it.

A guest? Laurie grimaced. He could barely remember anything about that. He approached the curtain and cleared his throat

“Ahem, excuse me. Hello. Is anypony in there?”

The rustling stopped.

“Anyways, hello, again. I think. I believe I should introduce myself. I am Lieu.. er.. Captain Laurence Lancaster. But you can call me Laurie for short. I hope I didn’t startle you there, but I believe we should get to know each other. After all, I understand you are a guest in Her Majesty’s kingdom of Equestria, and I am here to be your escort, your guide, and quite possibly your friend as well.”

Laurie paused for a moment, suddenly drawing in his breath. Memories of the previous day surged in his mind. The dawning horror of the branches slapping his face, the rush of the ground to meet them, his barely suppressed urge to scream “women drivers!”, and the abrupt painful crash in Everfree Forest. But there was something else that crept into his painful flashback. The metal monster!

From across the curtain, footsteps could be heard.

* * *

“You’ve been working on your list for a while now.”

“Don’t rush me girl, you know I ain’t the sorta filly that has to make two trips.”

“At this rate, I don’t see you making any trips.”

“Fluttershy, don’t you have some cutsie wootsie little green hoppers to handle back in the swamp?”

“Oh, I do!” She said through gritted teeth. “And you know what? It’s applesauce on the menu today!”

* * *

Laurie recoiled as the curtain began to pull aside, steeling his body into the panicked position of attention that had long since superseded the typical fight or flight pose of less disciplined creatures. The haphazardly placed tacks gave way from the ceiling, and the whole curtain fell to the floor in a *whump*.

Staring across the room were two surprised individuals. Not equally surprised, but sharing some mutual modicum of astonishment.

Laurie attempted to relax slightly, but the chain of command in his brain had efficiently lost or routed any such thoughts into bureaucratic oblivion. The ‘guest’ standing before him did not bear the formidable nightmare-inducing suit of armor he had seen earlier. In place of a dragon’s skull, forged from blackened metal, and rimmed with glowing glass eyes, there was a simple round face with a neat tuft of wavy hair. Only two arms, instead of four this time, and a white cotton fabric that draped loosely over a slightly rounded belly, in place of the many interlocking scorched steel plates.

It raised one arm, waggling it’s flat palm with five fingers pressed together as a shallow bowl.

To Laurie, the greeting that followed sounded not terribly unlike a bulldog clearing it’s throat in preparation of singing a baritone part in a Bel Canto style opera.

After a few brief moments, the interloper returned to its chair. It picked up a pair of boots, and began to rub a greasy black cloth in tiny circles around the toe.

Laurie looked down at his own hooves suddenly, and then to the small metal tin of ebony hued wax next to the interloper. He approached cautiously, pointing an inquisitive hoof.

The interloper dabbed the cloth in the tin, smearing it around on the face of Laurie’s hoof, and then brushing it vigorously with a wooden block stuffed with short stiff bristles.

He looked down in amazement.

Now, that was shiny!

With wide eyes and an exuberant grin, Laurie took a look at the rest of the Interloper’s belongings. He extended a hoof to delicately touch the crisp shirt hanging from a makeshift line strung across the room. The creases were impeccable, and the fabric itself held stiff with only a soft pliant give. Laurie stopped to look at his own royal sash wadded in a barely laundered heap at the foot of his bed. He turned back to face the Interloper.

It stood there, aiming a stubby metallic tube at Laurie’s neck.

There was a soft whine, and a blast of hot air. The damp hairs of his mane ruffled and dried with perfect wavy volume.

Laurie searched a moment for the best adjective to describe how he felt.

This was Fabulous!

* * *

Twilight stirred gently at the incessant prodding of one polished azure hoof.

“Ooh, what time is it?” she mumbled, blearily opening one eye just far enough to bare her pupil to the stone floor and wooden tables of Celestia’s private study.

Both eyes shot open. Luna stood before her in the dim library, deftly levitating a long wicked blade within the shimmering magical aether of her glowing horn.

A million questions raced through Twilight’s head. Foremost of these was just how well an entire wall of books would insulate her final gurgling screams from the rest of the world.

“I’m glad you are awake Twilight. I know it has been a while since we’ve seen each other!”

Twilight gulped.

“Anyways, I have a slight favor to ask. I have just sent for our guest, who should be arriving here soon. Celestia asked me to wake her before then, but I’m afraid she’s completely dead to the world!”

Twlight gulped, again.

“I have a few loose ends to wrap up myself.. Are you all right?”

She nodded weakly, glancing across to see Princess Celestia’s chest still rising and falling, as she sprawled loosely over the throw pillow.

“Okay. If you could wake her up soon, that would be tremendously helpful. Oh, and could you give her this as well?” The tip of the polished ornamental blade sank smoothly into the wooden bench.

Twilight drew her gaze to the sharp silvery implement, just as Luna leaned in closely - their horns nearly crossed.

“Between you and me, she can sleep like a bear - and the snoring isn’t that far off either.”

Luna turned to leave, making her way to the door before Twilight found her voice.

“What is the knife for?”

Luna stopped, and looked back.

“Beats me,” she said with a shrug.

* * *

Laurie’s hooves gleamed pitch black, and his sash hung smartly over his forequarters; the beleaguered fabric pressed flat with a silvery polished brick that blasted steam like a sleeping dragon.

The two stood to inspect and admire each other, helpfully correcting any minor imperfections. Despite not sharing a single word, they conveyed their thoughts easily through a wealth of common experience.

There was a slight muffled commotion outside the cottage. They turned to look, before exchanging a glance that clearly spoke “Ehh..”

Laurie’s guest gestured with one hand, pursing its fingers together against its lips and chewing.

The brown and white pony nodded understandingly.

Feeling the hairs rise on the back of his mane, Laurie stepped back towards the window, peering out through the curtains. He sighed with relief at the distinct lack of anything pink.

Just then, the door burst open.

“Gooood Morning!” squealed Pinkie Pie, delicately balancing a cupcake on her nose through her violent entrance.

Laurie could not scream, but he tried with all his might.

Pinkie jerked her head up with her teeth bared wide. The cupcake sailed upwards.

Laurie could not help but share a brief emotional bond with the tiny confection. His heart wrenched and his eyes glistened with fear and sadness as it arced through the air, before succumbing to the inexorable tug of gravity, and disappearing with a single wet snap in that voracious jaw. You and me both, brother. You and me both.

“Who’s hungry!” she shouted through frosting smeared lips.

The interloper stared quizzically, turning to look at Laurie, then back to Pinkie, then back to where Pinkie was looking.

“Fluttershy? Applejack? What are you doing there?” she asked through mouthfuls of masticated mush.

The tangled morass of tan and yellow pony stopped abruptly, staring up from outside the door.

“Oh well! Breakfast is served!” Pinkie announced as she bounced out of the cottage, and across the street to Sugarcube Corner.

Laurie and the interloper stopped to exchange a glance with Fluttershy and Applejack. Awkward transcends all language barriers.

They left quickly. Laurie would take his chances with Pinkie.

* * *

The tan pony gently spat out a tuft of delicate pink mane.

“Fluttershy?”

“Yes Applejack?”

“Reckon you’re in the mood for a bite to eat?”

“Ohh.. most definitely”

* * *

“You should’ve seen me!” boasted Scootaloo, through bites of a rainbow sprinkled doughnut.

“Oh I saw you allright. I thought you were going to launch all the way into Cloudsdale! Don’t try anything like that again tho, or you’re going to get picked up by the Wonderbolts before me!” Rainbow Dash ruffled Scootaloo’s mane.

“Wasn’t nearly as awesome as what you did, Sweetie Belle. I heard you kick that thing from fifty yards away!”

Sweetie Belle smiled, her body still sore from the near-fatal encounter with the spiderpede, her mind treading carefully around the terrible memories of the incident.

“Oh, it was nothing. Although, I just hope there were no hard feelings,” she grinned slightly, but hanging her head. “I know I didn’t feel very brave yesterday.”

The door crashed open.

“More tea, girls?” asked Pinkie Pie, as she bounded back into Sugarcube Corner.

“With lemon drops, and enough sugar to knock out a humming..” Scootaloo paused, looking across the dining area.

The otherwordly visitor, and a spectacularly well groomed officer of Her Royal Majesty’s Palace Guard stood at the threshold.

Laurie broke the silence - oblivious to the sudden tension in the room - as he sidled up to a free table, and motioned to Mrs Cake.

“Hello, and good morning. I was wondering if I couldn’t get a little something for myself and my, er, friend here. I’ll have my eggs runny, my coffee black, and my toast blacker. Oh, and a receipt please. Travel records, you know. And for him, eh.. oh wait, where are you going?”

Rainbow Dash’s hoof pressed firmly against Scootaloo’s, as the interloper approached their table.

Sweetie Belle held her head high, returning the gaze.

It gave a disconcerting smile, leaning over the table. Slowly it raised a fist, and brought it down hard into the side of its own thigh.

The diner grew unsettlingly quiet.

Slowly, the interloper reached across the table to Sweetie Belle, past the other nervously immobile ponies, and raised its fist again.

A gentle tap connected with Sweetie Belle’s flank, careful to avoid the bandaged portion.

A palpable sense of relief filled the diner, as the interloper tousled Sweetie Belle’s pink and purple mane. She smiled deeply as he returned to sit next to Laurie.

“Huh? What was that all about? Arghh.. You can’t understand me? Can you? Oh well - just thought I’d put that out there. So! What will you be having? Gah! Still no idea what I’m saying right?”

* * *

“Now that was the bravest thing ah ever did see,” breathed Applebloom.

Sweetie Belle shook her head. “No, I’m not that brave. Really.”

“That’s just it. My big sis used to tell me that being brave only happens when you ain’t, but you do it anyways.”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders each placed a hoof in the center of the table, wordlessly acknowledging that which did not need to be said.

“Speakin of which, what’s she doing here this early anyways?”

* * *

The two devoured their breakfast in relative silence. While every eye in the diner was locked onto Laurie and his strange looking guest, Laurie felt one set that seemed to be drilling a hole in the back of his neck with focused intensity. They both turned around to look.

Applejack and Fluttershy sat several tables behind them, their plates untouched. Applejack suddenly looked up with a start, reciting the next month’s rain forecast from the Apple family Almanac, while Fluttershy abruptly buried her face in an upside-down newspaper - in much the same manner that a blushing Victorian lady might demurely conceal herself with the switchblade deployment of a folding fan. If only she could be seen from behind it.

Laurie and his guest turned back to their meal, blissfully oblivious.

He watched Pinkie as she bounded industriously around the diner, feeling slightly more relaxed in the close proximity to her hyperactive pink presence. A humorous thought crossed his mind. ‘Give me a few more soldiers like these, and we’ll never see another war!’ He sighed with amusement. He really shouldn’t be so worked up when she was around.

“Desseeert time!” cried Pinkie as she barrelled towards Laurie with a large wobbling tray, overloaded with towering stacks of frosted and jelly slathered sweetbreads.

Laurie’s eyes darted from the structurally ‘temporary’ assortment, back to his groomed fur and crisp immaculate sash, and then back to Pinkie.

Oh god oh god oh god KEEP IT AWAY!

* * *

A gentle trumpeting heralded the arrival of the pegasi drawn coach, as it set down with the grace of a falling leaf on a still pond. It glided smoothly on well greased wheels towards Sugarcube Corner, narrowly missing one panic stricken brown and white pony who had bolted from the door scant moments prior.

Unfazed by the near brush with death, the pony could be seen looking back with alarm, as if it had forgotten something terribly important. The cry of “My receipt!” barely audible over the screeching of its hooves.

“Lieutenant Lancaster, I should presume,” the older black haired pony shouted dryly.

“Oh, hello!” Laurie trotted over to the carriage.

“Ahem”

“Huh? Ohhhh.. A salute. Right. Ahh, I figured that since we’re both Captains now, it wasn’t necessary. Sorry about that, one for old times sake eh?”

Laurie saluted smartly. The other pony performed a similar motion that might appear as a salute to the casual onlooker, but really looked like rubbing his temple in anticipation of a crippling brain aneurysm.

“Exactly how long have you been a Captain, Mr Lancaster?”

“Ahh.. about twelve hours now. No wait, more like twenty or so.”

The older pony glared.

“I have the chit right here too..” He ruffled through his satchel.

“Nevermind. We’re here for our ‘guest’. Perhaps you’ve seen him, or her, or whatever, in the last twenty hours?”

“Well speak of the devil, here he comes now.”

Laurie motioned towards his guest to enter the carriage, as he clambered aboard.

“Mr Lancaster.”

“Yes?”

“Get out.”

“Ahh.. right.”

“Normally I understand this would have been your job, but I hear you’ve been having some carriage trouble recently.”

“Gargle in a slit trench, sir.”

“What was that? Speak up Lieutenant, or whatever it is that you call yourself these days.”

“Understood perfectly, Sir!”

The two exchanged a mutually professional glare.

“Sir, permission to speak freely, Sir!” called out the lead pegasus.

“Go ahead.”

“Sir, permission to hydrate before we return airborne.”

“You’re serious? You are serious. Aghh. Fine! You have three minutes. Stay right here, and don’t let our guest leave. I’m going inside to de-hydrate.”

He turned to Laurie before he descended from the carriage.

“Enjoy your stay in Ponyville, Lieutenant. I’d love to stay and chat, but we have work to do back in Canterlot.”

The door to Sugarcube Corner closed behind him.

“Captain, permission to speak freely?”

“Huh? what? Oh hey, you’re the team with me yesterday. How are you guys holding up? But yes, ah, go ahead.”

“Get in.”

“Ahh..”

“Now.”

“You don’t suppose somepony might have an issue with that?”

“Negative sir. Orders state that we return to Canterlot without delay.”

“If you say so..” Laurie’s words cut short as the carriage rocketed forwards, slamming him into the soft plush seat.

* * *

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