• Published 20th May 2012
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My Little Balladeer - Ardashir



The Elements of Harmony find themselves facing an evil beyond their knowledge, armed with an alien magic. In desperation they use their Elements to summon aid and get - a hillbilly with a silver-strung guitar?

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Chapter 12

My Little Balladeer
Chapter 12

After we’d buried that grimoire and said the words over it, we made for town. The trip back seemed shorter to me, the way it usually does when you’re coming back from someplace you didn’t know how to get to. I liked it better, too. For one thing, we’d rid ourselves of Thorne’s grimoire. For another, I saw the signs and sights again this time and now I could take the time to look closer at them.

We were strung out in a line. Twilight and Spike and Rarity walked out in the front, and I could hear them a-talking to each other. Twilight sounded right happy for the first since I’d come here, and that lifted my spirits some too. It’s always good to know you’ve done right by other folks. After them were Applejack and Rainbow Dash. They were talking about that Running of the Leaves I’d heard mentioned on the way here, and they sounded like two fishers or hunters bragging on how well they’d done aforetimes and how well they’d do again. Pinkie just went bouncing back and forth from the one to the other, a-talking about how she wanted to make it a victory party at Carousel Boutique. She looked happy, but she always did from what I could tell. Quiet little Fluttershy walked right there by me and Captain Bastion. She spoke to me about airy spot we passed, describing the plants and animals like they were neighbor folks.

“Oh, thank you again, John, for helping Twilight and the rest of us,” Fluttershy said to me in that soft voice of hers. “I hope that Lyra and Thorne both realize that they’ve been wrong, and come back and give in peacefully.”

“You’re a good soul to think and hope for that,” I replied her, but I doubted myself that it’d be so easy. Bastion snorted softly beside me, and I guessed he thought near the same. Fluttershy blushed at my words like any shy girl who’s been complimented. I reached down and scratched her by the ear. She made a little sound of surprise like a doe in the woods. She sort of unfolded her wings the least bit. I made my apologies to her if she hadn’t wanted me to do that.

“No, no, it’s quite fine,” she answered. “Just, unexpected, I suppose. Normally here you only do that to animals. Not ponies, unless they know you very well. Not that I’m telling you not to do it.” She rushed that last part out like she thought she’d hurt my feelings.

“I’d do it only if it made no insult,” I told her back. By now we passed out from under the trees and their buckets of maple syrup. I saw Pinkie hop away from the bucket she’d been at before, licking one last taste of it from her lips as she went by. I added to Fluttershy, “I’m still right new here, and I’m not certain sure what makes good and bad manners among you ponies.”

“Oh, you’ve done very well so far,” she said. We were going along the fields now, and they looked right pretty under that cool moonlight. The light of it showed clear enough to make our shadows long and strange looking, like some weird haunts were following us back to Ponyville. Fluttershy said, “In fact, I’d say you have better manners than some other ponies and non-ponies who’ve visited. Not that I want to criticize anypony. We all have bad days, after all. When I visited the Grand Galloping Gala…” She winced a bit, like at an old pain, before she said, “But Gilda especially had a little bit of a temper.”

“And she made Fluttershy cry!” Pinkie came up between us somehow. Bastion and I near jumped and so did Fluttershy, but less than us. I supposed she must just be used to Pinkie. “I even gave her a party to make friends with her, and she was just so mean! Like Thorne, and say, you don’t think Thorne’s kind of like a griffin, do you? Twilight said he looked sort of like a really mean eagle when they talked before everything happened. And I wanted to give Thorne a party too for being the first human in Equestria I ever met, and…” She looked right at me and jumped up in the air and gasped like someone in a cartoon you’d see in moving pictures back home. “OHMIGOSH! You’re a human too! I can give you my first ‘Welcome a Human to Equestria’ party! We can have food and punch and play pin the tail on the pony and have music and…”

“Pinkie!” When she heard Applejack yell, she calmed down. Well, she stopped jumping so high. She listened right careful as Applejack spoke more to her, calmer now. “Let’s just wait until we got Thorne corralled. Then we can have a party welcomin’ John ta Equestria and ta celebrate our victory over Thorne all at once, okay?”

“We haveta wait on the party?” Pinkie looked like the saddest little girl in the world to say that, so I spoke her right then.

“I’ll be sitting and talking with Twilight a bit tonight,” I told her. I strummed my guitar, and she perked up at the music I drew forth. “I’ll play her one or two of my songs for to know. You can stay and listen to them if Twilight and Rarity say no never mind.”

“I can?” She said, looking happy again. “Okey-dokey-loki!” She bounced off to where Twilight waked alongside Rarity to ask. I guessed what the answer must be when she cheered for joy.

“You can stay there too, if you want to listen in,” I spoke to Fluttershy. She gave me a smile that looked like it could light up the noonday sun.

“Oh, thank you, but I’m afraid I have to check on my animals. They’ll need to be fed and some of them have to be cleaned. But I do so want to hear your songs later, John. Applejack said so much about them.”

By now we’d reached the edge of Ponyville. I could see some last few ponies heading for home by the moonlight. A few lights showed along the streets here and there, but mostly it looked like the small mountain towns I’ve known. Dark and quiet and folks settling in for a night’s sleep until the sun brought them back up again. Lights showed in the windows of Rarity’s boutique. As we reached it, Fluttershy flew up off the ground, but not so high or easy as Dash did.

“Goodnight, girls,” she said to them all. “I’ve got errands to handle back home. I’ll meet you early tomorrow to discuss what we want to do about Lyra and Thorne. I mean, if that’s okay?” Twilight nodded her back.

“Early would be best, Fluttershy. Have a good night! Oh, what about you, Dash? You staying? Scootaloo is here, and…”

“Well, I kinda need some sleep, but…” She shot me a quick look, her rose red eyes suspicious, and then shrugged. “Eh, why the hay not? I wanna hear what’s so great about his songs anyway.”

I suppose I scowled to hear that, because it wasn’t what I’d call neighborly. I wondered myself why Rainbow Dash seemed so quick to distrust me, maybe even want to start a fight. I purely deep down hoped that wouldn’t happen, because if it did then I knew only the one good way to get her to back off and that’d get someone hurt, maybe the both of us.

I wondered myself all that as we walked around the edge of the Boutique. I heard Rarity begin to say something about her Boutique being sleek and chic and other fancy French words, but I’m sorry to say I spent the more time staring at what I saw by the Guards’ tents.

I saw two things that looked someways like ponies coming out of their tent. The open flap showed blankets set on the ground inside for them to lie on and sleep, but I noticed them the more. They looked dark-coated, like bats I reckon, and like bats they bore leathery wings with a framework of bones like long skinny fingers in them. Their eyes showed gold and glowed like a wolf’s and the pupils in their eyes were slit like a cat’s. They wore barding like Bastion and the other Guards I’d seen, but where Bastion and his ponies wore a sun symbol these wore a crescent moon. They greeted him like soldiers and then returned my stare. They minded me some small bit of the Raven Mockers I’d seen once atop Wolter Mountain, and not in what you’d call a happy way. So I stared at them and they stared back. Then Bastion went between us.

“Good night, all of you,” Bastion said. Rarity asked him something about staying a bit, but all he said was, “No, not unless my ponies can come in as well, and I doubt you have the room for that. But I thank you for your generosity, Miss Rarity.” Then he turned to the dark bat-winged pegasi and said, “This being is John, and he’s someone to be trusted. So no need for you Night Guards to be hovering outside his window all night long.” He sounded serious to say it, but when he turned and bade me good night I saw the glint in his eye. I figured it then for the teasing you get between different units and services back home. He set off in the dark towards the library.

“You try and rest up,” one of the dark ponies called after him, the Night Guards he’d called them. He added in a whispery voice, “After all, someone has to be awake when the sun’s up and all the monsters are hiding.” Bastion snorted at that and flapped his wings out. The two Night Guards laughed softly at it and went back to their posts. There might could have been more but then I heard Rarity cry out.

“Oh, Sweetie Belle! Not my best fabrics again!” She hurried in, looking horrified. Twilight shook her head and laughed, her mane spilling around her face, and followed her. Pinkie followed Twilight, and Dash flew in over her head. I headed for the door, and Applejack came along with me.

“Ah’d like ta stay,” she bespoke me, “if that’s okay with you, John. Ah know how Rarity ‘n Twi can get, an’ Ah figgered you might need some help here sooner or later. ‘Sides, Apple Bloom is here, an’ Ah haveta admit,” She stopped and scratched along her mane with one hoof, “Ah think Ah’d like ta hear some of those songs o’ yours when I can understand the words ‘n not just listen ta the music.”

“You can stay as long as you air like,” I told her. “I’m never sorry to spend time with a friend.” She grinned at me to hear that, and we went in together. I ducked my head to get through the door.

Once inside I saw a place that minded me in some ways of Evadare’s home and mine. Evadare sewed quilts for selling at fairs and shows, and she usually had some around to work on. More times than not she had needles and thread and patterns out too. I’d found those needles the hard way once or twice. It looked kindly like that in the Boutique, but made of better material and cloth than Evadare could afford, all purples and fancy decorations. I saw sewing machines and bolts of cloth and models of ponies like the ones of people you see in fancy dress stores. I saw Rarity standing by that snarled-up sewing machine and looking right upset at her little sister and her friends. Twilight and Pinkie and Dash were nearby, sitting down and looking right happy to be a-doing it. Apple Bloom saw me and Applejack and came right up to us, smiling her biggest smile.

“Hi, big sis! Hi John! Y’all take care of everything you needed ta?”

“Shore did, ‘Bloom,” Applejack gave her a hug and then asked the way a big sister has to sometimes, “Now, what did yah do with Rarity’s cloth?”

“Uhhh,” she said, looking away, “Our Cutie Mark Crusader capes got soaked in tree sap ‘gain,” She pointed off the side to three small capes made from what’d once been right good cloth. Now they looked stained and stuck all over with leaves and twigs. Apple Bloom said, “An’ so Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo decided that we might as well try an’ make new ones while you were all out in the woods.” Applejack gave her a wary look. Apple Bloom said quick, “We were gonna make it up to Rarity!”

Applejack looked to Rarity where she was talking with her own sister. Rarity caught the look right off. She turned to her own little sister and said, “Sweetie Belle, is this true?”

The little unicorn squirmed like most any youngster caught doing what they shouldn’t have. Scootaloo opened her mouth to speak about the same time Sweetie Belle did.

“It was my idea, Miss Rarity, please don’t blame Sweetie Belle…”

“I remember what you said the last time, and I was just gonna use a little of it. You said you had more…”

“Dears, that’s not the point.” Rarity sighed. A purple glow covered her horn and the cloth alike as it floated up and away from the sewing machine. The three little fillies looked right sorry. Rarity said to them all, “I’ll work on your capes later on, I promise. Here, let me keep them nearby.” She opened the flap of her one saddlebag and set the capes in after folding them right careful. I watched with no little curiosity, let me tell you. I thought I saw something heart-shaped inside that had the bright cold glow of a gemstone. She closed the saddlebags and set them atop her work table. Rarity headed for a door into another room. When I looked beyond I saw a sink and stove and all the stuff you can find in near any kitchen. She called back, “Oh, Pinkie dear, I hate to be a bother, but could you help me with this? I want to make something up for everypony so we have some warm food inside ourselves.” Pinkie hopped off to help her. I stepped forward, but when Rarity saw it she shook her head. “Oh, no, John, you’re a guest! But I do thank you. Besides, I think some ponies want to speak to you.”

“Can I help?” Spike said. He looked after Rarity like he dreamed to see her. Rarity smiled gentle on him and he looked like someone slipped him half a jug of blockade from the smile he gave her.

“Oh, no, Spike, that’s quite alright. Please help Twilight, I think she needs you right now.” He looked unhappy to hear that, but perked up when she said in that soft voice of hers, “I do have some fine gemstones here for you. I set them aside the last time I gathered some. I hope you like them.”

Spike sighed like he dreamed and sat back down beside Twilight. I looked and saw how Twilight watched me with eager eyes. Spike took out more paper and another quill in his claws. He looked less eager than she did. I saw how he looked after Rarity. I could rightly guess where he wanted to be. The three fillies sat nearby and were a-watching me. The wide-eyed way they looked on, it looked as if they thought I’d breathe fire or the like. Applejack sat by them with Dash right by her, both of them looking on, the one friendly and the other less so. The smells of some right good food started to come from the kitchen as I sat down. And near as soon as I did, Apple Bloom and her friends were up and clambering on me, right curious.

“Wow, Apple Bloom,” Sweetie Belle said as she nuzzled her soft velvety nose against my cheek. “You were right. He doesn’t have a coat, or scales either. Just a short kinda mane on top of his head. How do you stay warm?”

“He wears clothes, silly, don’t yah see?” Apple Bloom said back to her as she tugged on my old jacket with her hoof.

“Hey, wow, cool, a guitar!” Scootaloo tapped the strings and they thrummed to her touch. “But it looks real old, and it’s got chips in it.’

“It looks right old because it is,” I answered her back. They sat back down off from me and I showed my guitar to them. I ran my hand over it, and I could near feel airy little chip and dent in it. The little fillies looked on, and so did the older ponies. “I doubt me airy soul I know has a guitar as old as this that they still play. I keep it tuned and repaired my own self, and I know it inside and out. I’ll keep this guitar to my last days if I have the choice.”

Those little fillies looked impressed. They sat themselves down right there by me.

“Well, Twilight, the rest of you all,” I began, a-wondering myself what I might could be getting into, “What all do you want to know?” They all started speaking at the once. I had to hold up a hand. “Now kindly hold on, I can only speak to the one of you at a time.”

“John, what’s your world like?” Twilight asked.

“May we hear a song? Pleeeease?” That from Apple Bloom and her friends. Twilight and Applejack smiled to hear them, and I reckon I did too.

“Better play the songs first, John,” Applejack told me, reaching out to rub her little sister’s mane, “it’s already late, an’ these three need ta be gettin’ home and ta bed.” They looked so unhappy at that I bit my tongue to keep from bursting out laughing.

“Awww,” Apple Bloom said, “it’s not that late! An’ why cain’t we stay here and sleep up in Sweetie Belle’s room? We done that other times.” And the other two echoed her with a “Yeah!” from the both of them. Applejack looked ready to say more when Rarity came back in from the kitchen, with Pinkie close by.

“It’ll be alright, Applejack,” she said. And then, with a bit of a shiver, “Right now I’m not sure it would be good for them to go outside after dark, even with you and Dash along for protection.” She turned her eyes on me, and fluttered those long lashes the way some women will when they want to hold your attention. I almost had to remind myself she was a pony and not a human woman, no matter how she minded you of one. “And I would like to hear some music myself.”

I’ve never needed to be asked twice for music. I took my guitar off and made sure it was tuned right. I saw how Twilight and the rest looked at the strings as they glistened in the light.

“Why do you use silver, John?” She asked me and pointed her hoof at my old guitar. “Most strings on musical instruments here are made of metals like steel.”

“It’s the same back in my world,” I responded her. I drew my hand along the strings and they made the sound I wanted to hear, bright and clear. I saw those ponies strain their ears to hear it. “Silver used to be used back on my world for a right many instruments, for the sound it gives. I reckon I’m near about the last balladeer who uses it.” I wondered if I should say more, and then Applejack said it for me.

“But why did that skunk Thorne run off when you got in ‘tween him and the safe back in the library an‘ played some verses on it?”

“It’s the silver,” I spoke her. I drew my fingers along the strings again. “It’s a strong protection against unchancy things and black magic. It’s protected me against wicked spirits and evil spell-hurlers many’s the time. Other things help, like ash and oak trees, or cedar and tobacco from the Cherokee, but silver works best. It wonders me that you ponies don’t have things to protect you against bad magic.”

“Well, we used to use silver that way,” Twilight began to say. When the others all swung their attention around on her, she flushed a bit. Then she started to speak like some teacher lady in school. “Back before Luna became Nightmare Moon, when she was still ponydom’s protector against monsters and predators in the dark, silver was called ‘Luna’s Shield’. Ponies made amulets of it displaying her crescent moon for protection. But when she became Nightmare Moon nearly everything associated with her became something to be feared.”

“Yeah, an’ then we used the Elements of Harmony and saved Luna and she got back together with her sister Celestia and everything got better!” Pinkie said, right before she turned and dashed back into the kitchen to check on the food.

Rarity went after her to help. Spike started to follow Rarity, but Twilight’s horn glowed and she drew him back. I held up my hand like a student in school and Twilight asked me what I wanted.

“Who all is this Nightmare Moon and Luna you talk about,” I asked them, “and howair did you save her?”

Well, now I tell you, that was the question to ask. I got the whole story in bits and pieces from Twilight and the rest. It seems that their land has the two princesses, Celestia and Luna, who looked after the ponies and made the sun and moon to rise and set. The ponies called them princesses, but if they really could do all that I wondered myself if they weren’t more goddesses of some sort. Airy way, Luna got jealoused of her big sister and tried to make herself the single ruler. She ended up banished away to the moon for a thousand years. And those thousand years went by and Twilight learned the old story and got sent to Ponyville to make some friends there. She met the others, and when Nightmare Moon came back they all helped to stop her from a-doing her wickedness with what they called the Elements of Harmony. I allowed how it minded me of some stories I’d heard back home in old myths and such. They told me more as well about theirselves, about Discord and something called a sonic rainboom – Dash looked right proud to tell of it -- and a dragon that’d roosted nearby and near choked them all out before Fluttershy made it haul stakes and flee away. I reckon I gopped some to hear how Fluttershy made a dragon bigger than a house cry and beg pardon. And there was more still, but if I told you all of it you’d call me a liar to say it.

I tell you all, it was a joy and a wonder to sit there and hear it all. I wished that I had someone there with me like Holly Forshay or Judge Pursuivant with me to hark at what they said, maybe to ask wiser questions than I could rightly ask. I wondered me what they could have learned from that talking. I just tried to remember near all of it I could so I could pass it to them when I returned home. If they were still alive when I returned home, if Thorne hadn’t told the truth about returning to find a hundred years gone.

I wondered special about those Elements of Harmony they kept mentioning; they’d used them to heal Luna from being Nightmare Moon and to set Discord back into stone for howair long they could keep him there. What they told about him in particular was a story, and not what you’d call a pleasant one. First you heard it, some sounded right funny, like chocolate rain and him a-giving rabbits long legs. But then it got the worse, like how he’d made them all go mad and turn on all they’d ever loved and held true to. Twilight’s exact words were “Honesty became Deceit, Generosity became Greed, Kindness became Cruelty, Loyalty became Treachery, and Laughter became Despair.” The way they talked, what they could recall after that made it sound like their whole world became something from a fever dream you couldn’t wake up from. They didn’t speak much of it, and what they did reminded me of some old veterans a-trying to explain a battle to someone who hadn’t been in any. Even the little fillies looked pure down scared when they heard it. They climbed up in my lap and sat against me. They were warm and I felt them shiver at the story.

“Like Coyote among the Indians, in some old stories,” I said aloud when they told it to me. “Like the folk tales of devils in Europe, or the fairies in old legends. He pure down tricked you just for the spite of it.”

“He did, but he outsmarted himself in the end,” Twilight said back to me. Her horn glowed. That tiara from before rose from her saddlebag, all set with jewels like something in a fairy tale. “He thought we couldn’t recover from what he did to us, and when we did, he refused to believe it until we stopped him.” She shuddered and looked sorry. “And I almost let him go again.” Applejack and Rarity and the rest of her friends went to her and nuzzled up close.

“It weren’t you, Twi,” Applejack said, and they all echoed her. She rubbed her nose against Twilight and said, “Thorne did it, and we’re going to stop him tomorrow.”

“That we rightly will,” I promised her and them all.

In the middle of the tale-telling Rarity and Pinkie brought the food out they’d made, Rarity a-making it float out and Pinkie balancing it on her fluffy mane. The little fillies cheered to see it and went to get some. I reckon I gopped to see the small bowl they set down before Spike, filled with gemstones big as your fist and cut fine as the ones in a royal crown. He picked one up, an emerald green as new grass, and crunched down on it like it was an apple. He saw how I watched.

“Oh, sorry,” he said through a full mouth. He gulped it down and reached into the bowl to offer me one. “Want one?”

“No, I thank you,” I assured him and he went back to eating them.

“Here we are, maple-glazed carrots and broccoli almondine!” Rarity said, proud where she set it all down before us in glazed plates of white china decorated with fancy images of ponies. “Please, everypony, eat and enjoy!” We got ready to but Applejack stood up.

“’Fore we do, I got one question for yah, Rarity. Yah still got that apple brandy I gave yah last Hearth’s Warming?” Applejack looked at me and said, “This seems kinda special, so I figgered we might want to have a little bit of it.”

Rarity’s horn glowed, bringing an old-fashioned thick glass bottle that sloshed floating out from the kitchen with a heavy cork in it. Near as soon as she set it down half a dozen fancy wine glasses came from the kitchen to join it. The older ponies looked right happy on that apple brandy. Dash licked her lips at the sight. Rarity poured the brandy out all around. The little fillies and Spike looked like they wanted some. Applejack saw it and smiled at them.

“Sorry. When you’re older, you can have some.” The little ones looked down at that a moment and then they went back to their cider. I took up my brandy, and it looked like liquid gold in that glass. “Be careful now,” Applejack warned me, “It’s strong but it’s smooth. Just sip at it, else it’ll make you want to bite the top offin’ the bottle. Old family recipe, right from the family still.”

I drank it and it tasted as fine as she said, better than any blockade I’ve ever had. The food was right good too, and I said as much. All save some alfalfa they offered me fresh from the front yard that I politely turned down. Rarity batted her eyes to hear it and thanked me.

“But, John,” she said after everything had been cleared away, “perhaps now we can hear some of your music? Something nice and light? It’s been a wretched enough day, what with burying that spellbook and, well, poor Lyra.”

“I reckon I know a few songs like that,” I said and I started in on old favorites of mine such as you’ve likely all heard aforetimes such as Vandy, Vandy and Evadare’s Song. Rarity and Twilight liked them right well, and Applejack looked pleased to be hearing the words with the music this time. I think maybe even Dash looked pleased some. As for the fillies, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo looked happy, they even danced a bit to them. So did Spike, though I saw how he watched Rarity as I sang about Vandy a-waiting for her true love to come marching home. Twilight asked me questions after each song, about how old they were and what else, and I answered her as best I could. She looked near as pleased to be hearing that as to be hearing the songs their own selves.

“You play beautifully, John,” Rarity said to me, “Like few I’ve ever heard before, ponies or other. I wish a pony I know from Canterlot named Octavia could hear this, she plays classical music and she could appreciate this even better than I can.”

“Oooh!” Pinkie said from where she’d finished gulping down air thing on her plate so fast I wondered she’d not eaten it too, “Maybe after we beat Thorne we can take John to Canterlot? They he can play WITH Octavia and I bet the Princesses would love to hear it too and it’d be great!”

“You flatter me to say all that,” I began, but Rarity shook her head.

“Oh, no, I mean every word! But still,” and she rubbed her chin with one hoof, “I wonder if you could play this tune?” She hummed me a few bars of something. I played right along after hearing it some. She looked pleased, and then she began to sing and I played along. It was a song about dressmaking, and it was right clever and a joy to hear, and I wish I knew it better to play for you all here. Her little sister Sweetie Belle joined in and sang like an angel along with her. They were both fit to be great singers, and I told them such. I saw how her friends all winced a bit when she said lines to her song I reckon she got from them.

“Aw, come on, Rares,” Dash said, looking embarrassed. “Those dresses weren’t that bad! And everything ended okay for you, it wasn’t like the Gala!” At that they all shuddered. Twilight just shook her head and laughed.

“Yeah, but we had some fun in the end, didn’t we?” She looked at me and smiled when she said, “I wonder, John, we’ve asked for so much music tonight. Maybe just one more song?”

“Give me the tune,” I said to her, “and I’ll be right happy to try it.” They all sang something they called ‘At the Gala’ then, and I played along as best I could. They were right happy to sing it and I was right happy to hear it. I wish you all could have been there to hear it too. You rarely hear the kind of singing they did. The little fillies all clapped their hooves against the floor and cheered at the end of it. Then they yawned.

“And now,” Rarity said, going over to her little sister, “I think it’s time for little fillies to go off to bed.” Sweetie Belle pressed against her and Rarity gave her a hug with the one foreleg. Apple Bloom went and gave her goodnight to Applejack and got a hug for it, and I saw Scootaloo by Rainbow Dash. I wondered me if they were sisters or mother and foal or what, I never did learn. Then all three of them came over to me, and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle came up in my lap where I sat on the floor. Scootaloo hung back a moment, but they pulled her in too.

“Thank you, John!” They rubbed their heads against me and I gave them a quick hug back. Their coats and manes felt soft, not rough like most horses’. They all three turned and headed off for the stairs then. Rarity saw them up and then when she came back down, Pinkie and Dash both stood up.

Pinkie bounced over, maybe just a little less high than earlier, and thanked me for the music and the stories and for helping Twilight and why shouldn’t I come over to Sugarcube Corner tomorrow and have my breakfast there? Before I could get to thanking her for any of it she went out the door. That just left Rainbow Dash. She flapped over to me and tried to put the wary look from her face. She might could have tried a bit harder.

“I just wanna say…thanks, for helping Twilight and everything else.” She looked like she wanted to go, but made herself stay just long enough to add, “And the music was pretty cool.” Then she went.

“Okay, John,” Twilight said to me, sounding right relieved, “Maybe now we can talk about your world. Please, tell me about it?” She sat herself down by me, and so did Rarity. Spike sat between them, though maybe just the least bitty bit closer to Rarity then Twilight.

Well, I ask you all, how can you tell about your world and your life in it in just the few hours? I reckon I tried my best. I told her what I could about my own little place in it, about the people I knew and had met, about such as I remember from school and air else I could think of that she asked me about. She knew what kind of questions to ask, too, and again I wished for someone better read and learned then me to be there to talk with her about it. Though it might could have taken more time than the either of us had to cover it. She asked me about magic, too, and that was the bigger part of it. Given what we’d faced and what we seemed likely to face, I reckon you can understand why.

“A whole world,” she near breathed out when we had a stop at one point, “A whole world, and I’ll ever know more than the least part of it. I’m not blaming you, John, please don’t think that,” she said, looking sorry on me, “but still… If I had the time and the power, and I could go to your world and visit someplace like your, what was it you called it, Library of Congress and the Smithsonian? A month, a week, even just a weekend! I could learn so much!” She sighed and closed her eyes. “How can you cover a whole world in less than a lifetime?”

“I feel kindly the same about you all here in Equestria,” I said back to her. “From what I’ve seen back home it could take more lifetimes than many a human or pony could have to know airy thing about airy thing. If I knew the way, I’d like to bring some scholars and other learned folks back with me sometime, so they and you could sit a few days and figure out all the ways we’re alike and the ways we’re different.”

“One way that’s important right now is Thorne’s magic,” she said to me, and her eyes and talk were all business. Applejack and Rarity paid close attention then. “We’re going to have to deal with him tomorrow, like it or not. You said that people in your world don’t have innate magic like ponies do?”

“That’s kindly true,” I responded her. “It comes from outside of us. Some say it’s from God or a god, or from spirits good and bad, or even from something in the world its own self; but you have to ask for it, call it into yourself and what you want to be doing, before you can try any spell making.” She nodded at me and began talking as much to herself as me.

“Then Thorne’s power comes from outside of him, but from something native to Equestria. That explains why I was eventually able to get through that spell in the library; the same power source as our magic, but done in a different way and worked so oddly I had to learn it from inside to break it.” Her eyes lit up and she took out more paper from that saddlebag of hers, her horn glowing as she wrote on it. I saw fancy math, what you’d call equations, and the sigils and marks I knew to mean her own language. “This is amazing! Rarity, John, Applejack, I think I know where Thorne is getting his power from!”

“Okay, Twi, but how does that help us?”

“Applejack, listen,” Twilight showed her and Rarity the paper. “If Thorne is using a local entity or power source to work his magic, then that means that the Elements can protect us against it to some extent and might even be enough to break Thorne’s attachment to it!” She frowned then. “Only, he’d have to be using a lot of it when we did it, like trying to cast some big spell on us or somepony else. And we’d have to hit him with the rainbow before he could finish it…”

“But what local entity could he be using, dear?” Rarity broke in to say. “Windigos are savage things in the legends, but I never heard where they were worshipped. And the only Nightmare I ever heard named was Nightmare Moon, and she’s gone, so…” She went silent then, her lovely eyes going wide. I saw the same look on Applejack and Twilight’s faces too.

“Discord,” Twilight said, and I reckon you could have dropped a pin in the silence that followed and heard it strike. She repeated herself, saying, “Discord. It couldn’t be anypony else. Everything Thorne did here is helping him. It explains why he started to break free again, and why Thorne’s magic is so familiar and so hard to defend against all at once. When I tried breaking Discord’s spells, his chaos magic just flowed back as soon as I stopped it. And Thorne’s spells are the same way, which means…”

She broke off when I yawned.

“I’m rightly sorry,” I told her, “But I think this day’s a catching up to me.” Both Rarity and her started to speak then.

“Oh, no, John, that’s perfectly fine! I have just a few more questions to ask…”

“And please, I simply have to do something for your wardrobe, John! After all you’ve done for us I’d feel like such an ingrate if I gave nothing in return.”

I tried to ask them both not to kill me with too much kindness, but before I could speak, Applejack spoke up.
“He don’t need no makeover from ya, Rarity; and he needs ta sleep sometime, Twi! An’ so do you!” She snorted and walked over to set herself between them and me. “Yah both know it’s true.”

“I sure do,” I heard Spike say, sounding pure down tired to say it. Twilight heard it too and sighed.

“I guess you’re right, AJ. Come on, Spike, time to head for home.” Spike looked happy to be hearing that as he got up on her back, only to groan when she said, “First we send one last letter off to the princess, and then we sleep.” They went out into the dark. I saw the Night Guard out there, though they looked to be a-lying down rather than standing guard.

“Reckon I’d better be going too, then,” Applejack said. She stretched and yawned. “It’s gettin’ kinda late for us all, and we’re likely ta have some work ahead o’ us tomorrow.” She walked up to me and said. “Once more, thanks for all yah done for us, John. I don’t know how we’ll ever repay yah.”

“Just the being here and meeting you all is rightly enough of a reward,” I told her. She smiled tired-like and nodded before she headed out the door. That left just me and Rarity, and I asked her where I might could set out my bedroll and sleep.

“Oh, dear! No, John.” Her horn glowed and she drew out a cot from the back of the room. It had a mattress on it that looked well-kept with silk sheets atop it. It didn’t wonder me that Rarity would keep something so fancy even for guests. She said, “I have this for naps when I’m working on something big and have to finish a rush order. I hope it’ll be good enough for you.”

“Airy place I can lay down and sleep is good when I’m tired,” I told her, “and I thank you for it.” I made to lie down on it, but stopped when she set her muzzle by my face. I could smell the perfume she used, and she used it rightly. Just enough to smell sweet but not so much it choked you.

“I also wanted to say,” she sort of stage-whispered to me, “I’m sorry, again, for the trouble we’ve brought into your life. Had I known what that spell would do when it drew you to Equestria, I’d have never gone through with it.” She looked sorry to say it, too, and so I said what I hoped were good words to her.

“You asked for help for a friend, and got it,” I bespoke her. “Airy way I can help, I’m glad to do so. And I nair would have seen this home of yours or you and your friends but that you called me here, and I’m right glad I did. So nair you mind about if you did me wrong or not.”

She looked happy to hear it. She went to the lamps and turned them out, one after another, drawing a metal hood down over each one to hide the light from them. I heard her hooves go up the stairs, and then it all lay still. I lay down on the cot pulling up my legs to fit and wondered myself what might could happen tomorrow when and if we met Thorne. But only a moment, and then I slept.

* * *

Applejack trotted back across the bridge, the water purling slowly below in the dark. She gave one last glance back at Carousel Boutique and saw that the lights were finally going out. Off on the edge of her vision she saw Twilight disappearing between the buildings of Ponyville as she returned to her library. She hoped that girl got some sleep tonight. They’d need all their strength come morning when it came time to find and face Thorn. She also hoped Rarity gave John some peace.

“He don’t need to go dressin’ like some Canterlot noble at a fancy ball,” she said to herself as she began trotting down the South Road for Sweet Apple Acres and her own bed. She hoped Big Mac and Granny Smith would be willing to wait to talk until tomorrow. At least she knew where Apple Bloom would be spending the night, and that she wouldn’t be running around in the Everfree. Not out there where the wild beasts roamed, as that one song John sang put it. She shivered, and it came only partly from the cool night air. After what she’d seen last night and this morning with John, she hoped fervently that those things Apple Bloom told her about from Sunny Town stayed far away.

And then Applejack looked up and saw them crossing the nearest field, the moonlight shining on and through them in places.

AJ dropped onto her belly by some tall grass almost before she realized what she’d seen. Millennia of equine hindbrain took over and warned her to flee. She fought her own fear that yelled at her to jump up and run. If she did, it would be the last mistake she ever made. She held still and silent as the undead ponies crossed the field, the growing corn around them withering as they went by. They seemed to be headed for town. She saw them break up into two groups. One circled around for the library, and the other headed for the Boutique. The breeze shifted and blew their scent to Applejack. She clenched her jaws together against a sudden nausea. It bore a sickly-sweet odor like a whole bushel of apples gone sour and rotten. It slowly passed, along with their limping hoofbeats. She waited a hundred heartbeats before she rose on shaky legs. They were nowhere in sight.

Okay, she told herself, remember what John an’ Twi said. The Elements give us some protection against Thorn an’ his pals, and these things don’t seem able to come into any actual home without someone invitin’ them in. An ain’t no way neither Rarity nor Twi will go doin’ that. The Royal Guards can fly an’ they got their own fightin’ magic, an’ Twi said they’d have wards protectin’ them against anypony they don’t want to come near their tents. I can follow ‘em and see what they’re up to, but if they catch me, then what?

Applejack decided quickly and galloped for Sweet Apple Acres. Everypony else she knew of would be safe. Right now, she wanted more than anything else to be watching over her family. But if when I come back tomorra’ at first light, I find any o’ my friends hurt ‘r gone, then there’s gonna be Tartarus to pay for Thorn an’ Lyra both!

* * *

Twilight passed silently through the darkened streets of Ponyville. Even after almost two years it still felt odd to her to walk through mostly unlit streets. Canterlot sometimes seemed to blaze with light from dusk to dawn. But tonight it felt less odd than what she’d heard from John.

A whole new world, she thought, one with natural laws so different as to border on the utterly alien, and an entire sentient race that discovered ways to control their environment without magic? If she’d read it in a story she’d have laughed at it for the airiest nonsense, but she’d spoken with the proof of it only moments ago.

She swiftly made her way back to the library. Once along the way she thought she heard somepony slipping along behind her, but when she looked, she saw no one. The Night Guard stationed by the chariot at the library nodded to her as she went by, their eyes yellow flames in the dark. She heard nothing from Owlowiscious as she let herself in. He must be out hunting, she thought. She trotted to her writing desk. A thrill went through her to see no sign of Thorn’s grimoire on the desk, and she got no sense of it in the safe like before. Spike dropped off her back and gave a yawn.

“Twi, do we really have to send Princess Celestia one more letter?”

“Spike, we’ve learned some things that she needs to know,” Twilight responded. She turned to face him. His eyes were half closed. Even the spikes along his spine seemed to droop. “And it might help her to know what we’ve done here. But I’ll make it as quick as I can, okay?”

“Okay,” he half grumbled, and got ready to write. Twilight drew herself up, focused her thoughts, and began.

“Dear Princess Celestia,

“I have some good news. John was indeed able to show us how to dispose of Thorn’s spellbook. I’ll know for sure tomorrow morning, but as I no longer feel its presence in my mind, I am hopefully assuming that it did indeed work. I was also able to ask John some questions about his worldstream and confirmed several suspicions. It is indeed magic-poor as compared to Equestria, and aside from some hints by John seems to possess only one sentient species. This may help to explain why its very existence seems so very alien to us. I did discover, however, that Equestrian magic can provide some defense against it; the Elements especially seem to help make one resistant. And there are natural substances that can be a protection. Silver is one such.”

Twilight quickly rattled off the list of things John suggested.

“He also confirmed for me that Thorne’s level of magic is not intrinsic but dependent, almost parasitic, upon the magical energy of beings outside their worldstream. In Thorn’s case, the equivalent of Nightmares and Windigos and their ilk...”

Twilight wondered for a second. Had any of their sorcerers like Thorn ever tried calling upon Luna when she’d been Nightmare Moon? And if so, what happened? She went back to the letter.

“The untranslatable words in Thorn’s spells are the proper names of these Nightmares and Windigos, called upon to attract their attention. It seems obvious that at some point in Thorn’s interdimensional exile, he attracted the attention of or actively contacted Discord. John told me more about his world as well.”

Twilight then swiftly listed some of what John spoke to her, about the technological development John mentioned to her that worked in place of magic, their organization and aggression and great curiosity about the world.

“They even intend to travel to their world’s moon by means of their machinery, according to John. I intend to question him further about this. Another world. Not just another world, but another universe, without magic but with physical laws that sound unnatural…”

“Twi, focus!”

“Oops.” Twilight blinked at Spike. He gave her the best glare back he could manage, as tired as he was. “I was meandering, wasn’t I?”

“Yeah, kinda. Does Celestia really need to know right now how their whole world works?”

“Heh, I guess not.” Twilight quickly summarized the rest of it, and then finished with her usual, “Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle. Okay Spike, that’s it. Send it off.”

“Gladly,” he said, and with a puff of dragonfire sent it off to Canterlot. He felt his writing wrist and winced. Twilight stepped forward, her horn glowing, and a purple glow enveloped Spike’s arm up to the elbow. He stiffened, then sighed and relaxed. He moved his hand more freely. “Thanks, Twi.”

“I owed you that, Spike, and…” She stopped when he suddenly burped a scroll into existence. Twilight took it with her magic, fighting down a sudden unease. “That was quick.” She unrolled it to read. Spike walked up beside her. She lay down to make it easier for him to see it.

To my dear student, Twilight Sparkle,” she read aloud.

I am glad to hear that you seem to have been freed of Thorn’s enchantment and of that spellbook, and gladder still to hear that John has been such a help to you and your friends. The news of Lyra saddens me, but she can be either saved or stopped along with Thorn.

Twilight felt her blood go cold as she read the rest of it.

But for the rest of this letter, I am afraid that little will be good. Luna and I find ourselves in the garden constantly now. It requires the aid of the best unicorn mages in Canterlot to keep Discord from breaking free, and we are slowly losing this struggle. She and I barely dare to take the time to perform our duties by the sun and moon now. It seems that Thorn’s actions have already raised enough disharmony among ponies to weaken the binding you and your fellow Elements have set on him. I hate to set this duty on you, but I must ask you to stop Thorn as soon as equinely possible. You know far better than any other what kind of damage he can do when free, and what he will do with Thorn aiding him this time. Please, my student, one more time I must ask you to help all Equestria.

Your beloved teacher, Princess Celestia.

“Twi?” Spike’s voice sounded small and very afraid. He pressed against her side, hugging her across her neck. “What are you gonna do?”

Twilight rolled the scroll back up and set it on the desk, feeling a chill. Then she hugged Spike back, nuzzling him gently.

“First of all, I’m going to catch some sleep,” she told him. She began heading upstairs. “I want my full strength for tomorrow. Then, when the sun comes up, I’m going to get our friends together, including John, and we’ll decide how to stop Thorn. So come on, Spike, it’s time for bed.” For all his tiredness Spike hurried up the stairs before her. He went straight to his basket, and curled up in it. He started snoring almost immediately. Twilight smiled gently at him. Her horn glowed and she drew a blanket over him.

“Good night, little brother,” she whispered. Then she slipped under the covers of her own bed and in the midst of wondering just how she would stop Thorn, she fell asleep and dreamed. And for the first time since Thorn gave her that spellbook, her dreams were peaceful.

* * *

I don’t rightly know when it was I woke up, but I somehow knew what waked me when I did. The inside of Rarity’s shop showed dark, and a glance out a window showed the night to be at its darkest. The dawn looked to be hours off. Airy thing was quiet, as still as a graveyard.

Almost airy thing. I heard someone like to whispering outside. I crept to the door, a-holding my old guitar. Once there I stopped and listened. More of that whispering, a soft low sneaky sound. I could make out words now.

The one who hid Thorne’s book is in there. The book Thorne promised he’d use to make us alive again.

I reckon I swallowed hard to hear that. But I still opened the door to see who or what spoke there. A man’s got to be a man sometime. Moonlight spilled down across the bridge and the stream, across the tents of what Twilight called the Night Guards. I saw them slumped down on the ground, not moving save for their sides working just enough to show they yet breathed. And right less than six feet away, maybe just a long step, I saw what I’d seen at Applejack’s farm my first night there. Only now I saw them clearer, three of them, and I felt right sorry for it.

They looked like they did in my nightmare about Apple Bloom, like they did along the trees of the orchard. They looked kindly like ponies, but dead and rotted with holes a-showing in them. I saw the moonlight pick out the white of bone on their legs and sides and faces, if they owned what could rightly be called faces. Their eye sockets looked empty at me, glowing red within like from a fire. One place only did they look like they must have when they’d yet lived and breathed, and that place lay along their flanks. They all showed bare and barren there, not one of them bore those cutie marks Twilight told me of. The grass under their hooves looked withered and slimy where they trod. They looked on me and I looked on them, and then one of them bespoke me in that whispering voice.

You’re the one Thorne told us about, the one who wants us to stay dead. You better go get that book back or we’ll make you sorry.

“I’m already kindly sorry,” I said to him, and I wondered myself that I could say airy thing at all right then, “Just from a-looking at you all.” Somehow, those not-eyes of theirs went the wider. It hissed at me then and stepped forward, with the other two staying close by.

I brought my guitar around, and you better believe I did it quicker than near airy other time in my life. I began playing the Last Judgment song again. They flinched back at the sound of it.

But they didn’t run this time.

We’re not afraid of you,” the one who spoke before said, but he didn’t come any closer. “We want you to give Thorne’s spellbook back to him. He’s going to use it to make us live again. To punish the Ponyville ponies for what they did to us.

“What did these ponies ever do to you,” I wondered him, “And how will Thorne be making you alive again?”

Bring Thorne’s book back,” he whispered back at me. “That’s all you need to know. Bring it back to Sunny Town. Then Thorne can help us. Then we get to live in Ponyville like we deserve and they,” he waved one hoof off towards the town, “Have to go be in Sunny Town.” They all looked at me then, and maybe they looked more hopeful than aught else. And I wondered myself, if Ponyville was a place for the living and Sunny Town one for the dead, then whatair might it mean for them to change places like he was a-saying?

“No,” I said, and I shook my head at them. “I’m rightly sorry, but I won’t be doing such a thing. If you came here to ask for that, you done drove your ducks to the wrong puddle.”

They hissed then, sudden and sharp. Those fires in their eyes blazed up hotter. They started to come closer, but now it looked like they forced against something to do it, like they tried walking into a high wind. I began to play again, but I played something else, that tune I’d heard when I came here and heard again from Apple Bloom and then tonight from the ponies when we’d talked and sang. They froze and shivered like frightened horses. I played it I don’t know how long, and they stood there and hated at me with their empty eyes. Finally I stopped.

“You see there’s nary thing you can do here,” I told them, “and so does Thorne. You go and tell him that if he wants his book back, he’ll have to come and fetch it his own self.”

They gave me one last angry look. I saw them scrape at the ground nervous-like with their hooves like any living pony. They turned and seemed to flow, like a nasty bit of water, off and away out of sight. But as they did one or another of them hissed back to me.

You’ll be sorry you didn’t help us.

I waited until I felt certain sure they were gone. First I closed the door. Then I pulled my bedroll out and unrolled it right down there by it. I sat on it and leaned back, a-holding my guitar on my lap. I watched like a sentry in wartime. Because to judge from what all I’d seen and heard and been told, this looked like to be war, with Thorne and all he could raise against us, me and these ponies both. And I wondered me how we might could win through alive.