• Published 20th May 2012
  • 6,047 Views, 200 Comments

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?

  • ...
7
 200
 6,047

Chapter 15

My Little Balladeer
Chapter 15

I took that letter from Twilight where she held it. The English writing on it showed plain and clear. Maybe another time it would have made me feel the better, to see a language I didn’t need magic to speak or read, but not then. Not when I knew the only person it could have come from. I started a-reading it.

By now Rarity’s parents were upstairs with us all. Two unicorns, the white stallion with a black upper lip that made him look like he wore a mustache and the pink mare with her mane all piled up like a beehive. They’d pushed by me and were with their daughter, asking the kind of foolish questions most folks seem to at such times, be they human or pony. They gave me frightened and fearful looks. Her mother was weeping to see her younger daughter gone, and her father made to ask me something, but Rarity pulled herself up straight where she sat and spoke in a voice that had the tears but not the hurt gone from it.

“John, perhaps you could tell us what exactly Thorne says in his letter?” Her lovely voice sounded brittle but steady to say it. Her parents started to say something but she shushed them, as polite as ever, and they fell still. I caught the look she and Applejack and Rainbow Dash aside her were all giving me as she said, “I think we all ought to know just what kind of demands he’s making, though I think we can all guess.”

I reckon I shuddered the least little bit and felt glad I wasn’t the one those three wanted to get right then. Not with the looks they showed in their eyes.

“She’s right, John,” Twilight said, nodding at me. “Better we should all hear this now, so we can decide on whatever we’ll have to do.”

I a-started to read out loud as they wished.

My Dear Silver John,

On the outside of this letter just now I referred to you as my fellow, and I hope that wish proves true. I failed just recently in my efforts at killing you and Twilight Sparkle, and I confess myself glad that I did so. I understand that you and those ponies probably feel some animosity towards me right now, but let me remind you, had you and they returned my grimoire to me none of that would have occurred. However, that is all in the past, and let it remain there.

Right now I happen to have some relatives of your newfound friends as guests of mine. I brought them here before I claimed the little dragon, and I daresay they were quite surprised to see me and my, well, let us say my current associates. As to how, well, suffice to say that I said certain words and made certain gestures unknown to you –

“I’ve got a gesture for him right about now,” I heard Rainbow Dash say afore the others shushed her. Twilight nodded me to go on and I did.

They are with me now, in comfortable quarters for the moment. And now, I imagine, you are wondering what to do about it. Let me say only this as, yes, I dare hope as a friend. Be practical. Be reasonable. Return my grimoire to me. Earlier I was in a mood to destroy you and Miss Sparkle, and I admit, it was spiteful of me. I would even still accept her as my apprentice as originally offered if she can find it within herself to rise above childish fears.

All I ask is this. Return my grimoire to me. Do not come looking for me right now. I am in the village of Sunny Town at the moment, and were you and those ponies to attempt entry without me there to order restraint, I am very afraid you would be worse than killed by the inhabitants. You and Twilight can come to visit me two days from now at the old Palace of the Sisters – she knows where it is. I will meet you together with some of my allies roughly an hour after sunset. You will return my grimoire to me. Hopefully you will listen to the wise words I will have for you both. And of course I will return Spike and the three fillies to you and her, safe and unharmed.

And if you arrogantly refuse? I will be most downhearted. It may prove impossible for me to keep the Sunny Town ponies from forcibly inducting Spike and the fillies into their most unique herd. And even if they don’t, I will have to inform the youngsters that their elder sisters think so little enough of them as to sacrifice them for your pride and Twilight’s fears. They will refuse to believe at first, but eventually, they will prove receptive to my teachings. I will take my time and trouble with them. They will come to hate you all for abandoning them.

With great hopes for future partnership, I trust that I am and shall remain

Your future partner,

Rowley Thorne

“Well,” I said to them all, “there you all have it. Thorne wants his spellbook back, and he hopes you’ll trade it for Spike and your sisters.” I handed the letter back to Twilight. Her purple glow surrounded it as she took hold. “Now, what do you all want to do?”

* * *

Now, what do you all want to do?

The words were still echoing in Twilight’s head later, after they’d calmed Rarity and Sweetie Belle’s mother down enough for her to go and rest. Rarity’s father went with her, after they’d both begged Rarity to do something, anything, to save her little sister. Rarity promised them in the most serious voice Twilight ever heard her use that the next time they saw her, she’d have Sweetie Belle with her. Applejack sent a message off to Granny Smith and Big Mac at Sweet Apple Acres explaining what happened to Apple Bloom. It brought the big stallion galloping over from the farm to Carousel Boutique. He’d gone and told the Cakes as well, and now they were outside along with what seemed like a small crowd of their friends and relatives, along with a few Royal Guards. At least the Cakes brought food, which Twilight appreciated. They’d all needed something to eat. She could dimly hear the worried murmuring of the small herd through the walls of the Boutique. Twilight looked out and saw Big Mac. The big sorrel looked more frightened than she could ever remember, even after her reckless use of the Want-It Need-It spell. He pleaded at her with his eyes. Please, Twilight, don’t let my little sister die.

“I’m the only one with nopony out there,” she said softly. She turned and found herself eye to eye with Rainbow Dash. John stood behind her, watching her calmly. She flinched and tried to say something.

“Nah, it’s okay, Twi,” Dash said. She grinned crookedly. “Right now I wouldn’t want my family here. They’d just be gettin’ scared and beggin’ me not to save everypony. It ruins my style.” She flapped off to hover by Applejack.

“Okay,” Twilight said as she walked to the center of the workroom. She felt the weight of their eyes on her as five ponies and one human looked at her. “Thorn wants his spellbook back and he wants us to bring it to him.”

“Just me and you, more like,” John corrected her. “He doesn’t seem to value your friends right much.”

“That’s only ‘cause he knows we’re gonna kick his flank when he get our hooves on him,” Rainbow Dash said, but even she sounded tired.

“Not to interrupt, but we have to find him before we can do anything,” Fluttershy said. “Can we even find Sunny Town? Applejack, Twilight, you said Apple Bloom went there once. Did she tell you anything about how to find it again?” When AJ and Twi both looked at her, she quickly added, “I mean, if she said anything at all.”

“She didn’t say anythin’ to me about how ta find it,” AJ said, shaking her head. “The way she talked, she was more concerned with gettin’ away from there as fast as she could. An’ even so, if not fer her pal Ruby she mighta gotten killed anyway.” Applejack gave Twilight a direct look and asked, “One thing Ah want ta settle right now is, we’re all feelin’ the same about Thorn’s offer? We ain’t just gonna give him that nasty spellbook of his back, are we?”

“We,” Twilight began to say, we might have to, to save Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, but the words died in her throat as she saw how her friends all looked at her. She guessed without being told what they were thinking.

“No, we won’t,” she said. “Thorn’s already shown that he’ll do anything, no matter how cruel, to get what he wants. He’s just as bad as Discord or Nightmare Moon. Worse, maybe, because in some ways he’s a coward. A coward with power, but still a coward. He’d just kill or enslave us all if he got his grimoire back to make sure we could never threaten him again. I’m not even sure that he’d return Spike or the Crusaders even if we did do all he said.”

“I’m of a mind with Twilight,” John said then. “Air thing she says puts me in mind of what the folks I know back home who fought Thorn told me about him. He doesn’t keep any promise he doesn’t have to. And I remember what those Sunny Town ponies said to me the other night. They seem to think that they’ll end up being here in Ponyville and that you’ll all end up in their town in the Everfree.” He stopped then, looked curious, and asked, “Just why is that Everfree Forest the way it is? It seems kindly unlike airy other place I’ve seen or heard of since I came here.”

“And how long have you been here?” Dash asked him with an angry snort. John scowled at her. Dash ruffled her wings up and returned glare for glare. Twilight spoke up hurriedly to forestall more trouble.

“It’s a place of power, from long before Equestria itself even existed,” she said. “After Discord I learned about it from the Princesses. It used to be the center of his power, his fortress. After they defeated him the Princesses dwelled there for centuries trying to redeem it, but in the end it proved to be too much for them, and after Luna became Nightmare Moon Celestia and the court abandoned it for Canterlot. Even today it’s still wild and uncontrollable.”

“The clouds just blow where the wind sends them, and the animals all have to fend for themselves!” Fluttershy said it in a voice that shivered from fear. Twilight saw how the rest of the girls shook from it, and she felt a trace of that fear herself. John looked more confused than anything. Well yes, she thought, her mind chasing the tangent down. Remember, he said that there is no pony magic in his world. I suppose that means humans are at the mercy of their environment. They must live in such fear of it that it explains some of what he told us about his world, the wars and the violence.

But some of them are like him, maybe a lot of them, so it’s not all or even mostly bad. Given their limitations, I wonder if ponies could have done so well if we’d been so defenseless…

“Hey, Equestria to egghead! Twi, focus!” Twilight blinked as Rainbow Dash dropped down in front of her and clapped her forehooves together. “Don’t zone on us, Twi.”

“Sorry, John, everypony,” she said. “I was just lost in thought for a moment there.”

“That’s far from the worst place to be lost in,” John said with a little smile on his face. Twi joined in the ripple of laughter that went around the room. More seriously, he added, “So, if Thorn’s in the Everfree, and he’s getting his power from Discord, like you said afore, then he’d be at his strongest in there, wouldn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Twilight responded, wincing at the thought. “He can draw on the chaos magic of the Everfree that’s been there since Discord’s fall and use it to power up his usual spellcasting. In fact, he’s probably been doing that since he came here.” She broke off as something nagged at the back of her mind, something hopeful. Whatever it was, she couldn’t figure it out, so she just went on with, “And since the Everfree is so chaotic and magical, it’s almost impossible for us to figure out where Sunny Town is and how to find him using normal locater spells.”

“Like the static on an old radio,” John said, looking thoughtful. “Or like how folks used to fight radar, a-throwing something they called chaff out to make bad signals.”

“Radar? Radio?” Twilight cocked her head and looked at him quizzically. Not now, she told herself, and said, “Uhh, yeah, I guess it’s like that. And it’s not like a lot of ponies know how to find their way around inside the Everfree.”

“Ah bet Zecora could find ‘im,” Applejack said. “Leastways, Ah bet she could find Sunny Town. She knows near everything in and about the Everfree.” It was John’s turn to look curious then.

“Zecora?” He asked.

“Oh, she’s somepony we know. The Zebra witch of the Everfree.” Sudden alarm showed on John’s face, and Twilight said, “No, not like Thorn. Zebra magic is based around herbalism and alchemy – potions and the like. Local ponies used to be suspicious of her, but we all found out she’s okay.”

“Yeah, an’ Ah used ta be one o’ the worst,” Applejack said unhappily. Then, brightening, she added, “But she’s a good pony, better ‘n some others. Every now an’ then she comes ta the farm and has dinner with us.” Twilight gave her a surprised look and saw her friends do the same.

“Applejack, you never told me that!”

“Never saw the need to,” she responded. She frowned and added, “It’s been a few days since we saw her, though. Before this whole business with Thorn started.”

“Anyway,” Twilight said, “if we get to her, she can show us a back way into Sunny Town if anypony can. And if we’re going to go ask her for help, we’d better get going,” she looked outside at how the shadows were lengthening. “It’ll be dark in a few hours.” Her friends made to get their things together. John stood up.

“I have only the one more question,” he said. “When we do find Thorn, how are you fixing to stop him? I doubt me he’ll just give up.”

“You got magic that can fight his!” Pinkie said. “You just do that so he can’t turn us into toads or anything and we’ll go all Orbital Friendship Laser Cannon on him with the Elements!”

Judging by the way John looked at her, he felt about as confused as Twilight usually did at Pinkie’s comments. Instead, he just asked, “And now once and for all, just what are these Elements you keep talking on, and how can they stop Thorn?”

“Aha!” Now, Twilight thought, she was in her element, and she almost smiled at the pun. She levitated her Element from her saddlebag and set the tiara on. She saw her friends doing the same with their own, putting the necklaces around their necks as she began to say, “The Elements of Harmony are the oldest and most powerful magic in Equestria. They combine the power of Generosity, Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Loyalty,” She saw her friends perk themselves up as she listed them one by one, “And linking them together the Element of Magic, which is mine. All together, they create the Rainbow of Light and are the strongest force in Equestria.”

“That’s kindly good to know, then,” John said, nodding his head at her. “And howair do you use them? You can just stay hidden from Thorn and hit him with your rainbow before he knows we’re even there?”

“Oh, no!” Twilight looked at him, shocked. “First, we have to be all together. All six of us. Then we have to confront the Bringer of Disharmony – Thorn – directly. The Elements must be allowed to ‘see’ and judge the Bringer of Disharmony; only then will they activate completely. It takes,” she thought back to their encounters with Discord and Nightmare Moon, “a minute and a few seconds for them to come together.”

“That much time?” John said, sounding and looking worried. He walked over to stand before her and the others. “Let me just show you something right now. Make like I’m Thorn, a-standing here, and you’re about to use the Elements on me. Wait as long as you say it’ll take before you move.”

“Umm,” Twilight looked around at her friends. They looked as confused as she felt. “Okay. Positions, ladies!” They all fell in around her. She looked at John and said what she meant to say to Thorn when the time came. “You’ve done enough evil here, Thorn. We won’t allow you to –“

And she fell very still and silent as John stepped forward and set his knife at her throat. She felt, more than heard, her friends gasp in shock.

“John!” It was AJ’s voice. “What the hay?”

“I told you we couldn’t trust him!” Dash said. “He could kill Twilight!”

“That’s just the point,” John said, taking the knife away. Twilight felt slightly better to see that he’d kept the blade folded into the handle as he set it back in his pocket. “I’m rightly sorry to frighten you and your friends thataway, Twilight, but listen. If I could do that in less than a minute, Thorn can do something a sight worse still. How will you stop him from running off or killing you while you all are getting your rainbow ready?”

“But…” Twilight said, “But that’s how the Elements work! We don’t control them, we bear them! They chose us as their bearers, back in the Castle of the Sisters two years ago!” And, she thought, maybe years before that, when the six of us all got our cutie marks at the same time.

“Yeah, and they worked, too!” Rainbow Dash snapped as she flew over to hover before John. Twilight felt tired at her nonstop suspicion of John, but found herself agreeing with her as Dash said, “We had all the time we needed then! When Nightmare Moon ate the Rainbow! And Discord!”

“But Princess Luna was inside Black Snooty to make her hesitate,” Pinkie spoke up, and Twilight felt a chill at her words as she said, “And Discord was so sure we couldn’t touch him that he just stood there and dared us to hit him and we can’t count on script immunity this time so we gotta be sneaky to give Twilight time to face him down and make the big speech while the Elements come together into the Rainbow of Light and…”

“Pinkie!” Twilight couldn’t tell which one of them yelled the party pony’s name first, only because all of them yelled it. Pinkie winced and grinned, as irrepressible as ever. And then John spoke up.

“There’s only the one way I can see it,” he said. He held up his guitar. “I’ll have to use this, my songs, and The Long-Lost Friend,” he patted one of the pockets in his pants, “to give you-all the time you’ll need. I just need to keep Thorn a-looking at me and not paying you airy attention until it’s too late.” He paused, and then added, “Still, if you could hurry it a bit when the time comes, I’ll not complain.”

Twilight winced. She knew full well how dangerous Thorn could be, and how he’d react to any challenge. And that was provided he didn’t have any help with him. If he did, and John had to hold off more than one enemy…

“Ya sure ‘bout that, John?” Applejack asked. “You’re gonna be takin’ one mighty big chance there.” He shrugged.

“It’s been one big chance for me air since I came here,” he answered her, “And before that, too. And I’m still here to tell of it. And I crave pardon of you all, but right now I don’t see airy other way to do this.”

“He’s right,” Twilight found herself saying. “If we want to do this, he’ll have to hold Thorn’s attention long enough for us to get the Elements into play. When that happens, the fight will be over.” She looked out the window, at the frightened and worried ponies outside, at Ponyville and Equestria beyond. “It’s lasting until then that’s the problem.”

“Well, that and finding Thorn,” John said. “Even if your zebra friend knows her way around the forest, it’ll be kindly easier on her and us all if we can narrow the search down a mite.”

“Oh dear, he’s right, Twilight,” Fluttershy said. “The Everfree can be hard to navigate at the best of times. With Thorn in there, it might be even worse.”

“But how shall we find Thorn?” Rarity asked. Her horn glowed and a large scroll floated out of one of the drawers in her nearby work desk. Rarity set it down in the middle of them all on the floor and unrolled it into a detailed map of the Everfree. She explained, “We spend so much time in there anymore I thought I should have the best map available, and even it’s rather vague. Look for yourselves.” Twilight and John and the other ponies bent over and looked. She knew he couldn’t read Equestrian, which gladdened her. She didn’t want him to see just how many places were marked both ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Approximate Location’.

“Wait,” Twilight said then. “John, you said something before about sympathetic magic from your world? How once somepony wore or used something, they’d have a connection to it?” When he nodded at her she looked to Rarity. “Do you still have the old capes your sister made, the ruined ones? Because if so, then while we can’t use magic to track Thorn himself we can trail the Crusaders using those capes.”

Hope lit Rarity’s eyes as she brought the capes over, wadded together with tree sap and decorated with leaves and branches. Twilight set them down beside her, and then looked down at the map.

“Okay, John,” she said, wondering if this would even work, “how do we do this?”

“I’ll do all I may here,” He said as he sat down next to her. She heard him whisper some words under his breath as he made a sign over the map, and she felt something gathering there. Not a lot of power, and it felt nothing like Thorn’s magic, but something. She saw her friends gathering around as he did it. Then he reached into a pocket and took out a small stone on a string. There was a hole through the stone. Without needing to be told she took a firm grip on it with her telekinesis and held it still over the map. This resembled a known Equestrian tracking-and-finding spell, and Twilight poured that spell into the stone and map, reinforcing the aura already there.

“Now all of you,” he said without looking up, “Air one, think on Spike and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. Think on how they act, the things they say, the times you’ve had with them, and while they’re a-doing that, Twilight,” she focused her concentration at his address to her, “You think on all that, too, and try and feel for them where they are.”

Twilight thought back to some of her first magic lessons while she’d been helping to raise Spike, keeping him nearby and seeing to him as she’d learned. Don’t force it, she remembered Celestia telling her. Let it flow through you like the breath in your lungs or the sun in the air or the love you feel for your friends. And so Twilight let every memory of Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders flow through her and through the ruined capes and then down that stone on its string until it felt as focused as light through a lens. As one, so is the other, she thought, listening to the wet rustle of the ruined capes as somepony brushed against them. They are here with me in spirit. Now show them to me in flesh.

For a moment she thought nothing would come of it. She could feel her friends’ despair but she held firm. It would work. She knew it would work. And so it did.

The suspended stone began to move, first swinging back and forth and then going to form a circle over the map. Twilight dared to look at the area it marked out. She opened her mouth to ask somepony to mark it on the map and found Rarity drawing a circle around it before she’d even asked. She sighed and let the spell end. The stone dropped down onto the map. John picked it up and set it back in his shirt pocket.

“That’s a kindly big chunk of woods,” he said, pointing at the map.

“It’s smaller than we had,” Twilight responded, and frowned. “But you’re right. It’s too big for us to go searching around blindly in. It could take us days to find Thorn, and that’s assuming we don’t run into any of the Everfree monsters.” She fell silent and thought, and provided Discord doesn’t break free in the meanwhile. From what Princess Celestia said, he’s almost ready to do that right now. We need something to bring Thorn to us, some sort of bait. She realized to her dismay that she could think of only one thing they had that Thorn was interested in.

“John, come over here,” Twilight motioned off to the side. Looking curious, John followed her. When her friends started after them, Twilight said, “No, I just want to talk to John privately for a moment.” They looked curious, all save Dash whose face suddenly went suspicious, but even she gave a quick jerky nod as John followed Twilight into Rarity’s kitchen. Once there Twilight closed the door with her magic and said, “When we buried Thorn’s grimoire, we disabled it. If we,” She swallowed past a suddenly large and cold lump in her throat. “If we were to unearth it, it’d still be disabled, right?” She saw that he frowned and rubbed one hand against his chin.

“I don’t rightly know,” he said. “I nair heard of anyone digging one of those books back up after burying it proper-like. I suppose it’d be fine so long as we didn’t do anything to ruin either Applejack’s words or mine.” He gave her a wary look. “Why, what are you thinking on doing?”

“Thorn wants his grimoire back,” Twilight said, wishing she didn’t have to force the words out. “If it’s disabled, we might be able to use it as bait to draw him out into the open. I… I know it’s risky,” she hurried on as John’s eyes went wide, “I told everypony we should never let Thorn have any chance to get that book back, no matter what, but we don’t have time and this is the only thing I can think of.”

“It’s a kindly big chance,” he said, “For your own self and air pony else.”

“I know,” Twilight said, switching her tail nervously, “but he’ll be expecting us at the Castle of the Sisters in two days. We might not have two days. If we come in for him before then he’ll have to react to us, and it won’t be us reacting to him.”

“It’d be a sight better than waiting for him to come up with some new thing to do, either to all of us here or to your friends’ little sisters and Spike out there in the Everfree,” John said. “I wonder how your friends will like it, though.”

“I wonder that myself,” Twilight answered, “So let’s find out. They’ve got as much of a stake in this as I do.” She opened the door and walked out, followed by John. Her friends were looking at her, rather obviously wondering what was going on.

“Okay, ladies, we’ve got a plan, but first I need to know if you’re willing to go through with it.” She briefly explained her plan to them, ending with, “So, what about it?”

“Ah dunno, Twi,” Applejack said, rubbing her chin with one hoof. “Considerin’ all the trouble we had getting rid o’ that thing the first time, do we really wanna give Thorn any kind o’ chance at getting it back so he can cause more problems?”

“But Applejack, think! What about Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo and Spike?” Rarity walked up to the farmpony, looking her in the eyes as she said, “What about Apple Bloom? You know Twilight wouldn’t make this decision lightly if at all. And besides, if the spellbook is disabled,” Rarity looked at Twilight and John, “Then it’s useless to Thorn in any event, isn’t it?”

“I do think so,” John said, “But there’s no way to be sure of it unless and until he gets his hands back on it. And if we’re wrong, by then it’d be a trifle late.”

“I, I’m for Twilight’s idea,” Fluttershy said. She looked down as the rest turned their eyes on her, but she said, “The less time we spend wandering around in the Everfree, the better. And I’m so worried for the girls and Spike. Who knows what Thorn could do to them?”

“Yeah,” Pinkie said, nodding her head so hard Twilight wondered if it would fall off, “I’m with Fluttershy and Rarity and Twilight. That big meany-face Thorn could really hurt them! We have to get them out of there as fast as we can.”

“Thanks, Pinkie,” Twilight said. She turned and looked at Rainbow Dash where she hovered, a scowl on her face. “What about you, Dash?”

“If it’s his idea, I don’t like it,” Dash said, jerking her hoof at John. “Didn’t he say burying that book was supposed to stop any more trouble from Thorn?” John showed no particular response to her words, but Twilight scowled. She opened her mouth to tell Dash to just drop the hostility already when the rainbow-maned Pegasus said, “But if it’s your idea, Twi, then it’s cool. And yeah,” she looked at the wall as though she gazed at the Everfree beyond it, and her eyes hardened as she said, “I really wanna take the fight to him for once.”

“And you, AJ?” Twilight turned to the blond-maned pony. “Are you in on this plan?” Applejack looked thoughtful and finally nodded.

“Yeah,” she said. “I want ta get Apple Bloom and everypony else back safe an’ sound, but this still feels like one mighty big risk ta me, Twilight. I don’t want ta give Thorn a chance ta hurt anypony else just so’s we can get Spike an’ our little sisters back. But,” Applejack sighed, “There ain’t nothin’ else we can do right now, is there? So yeah, count me in.”

“Good,” Twilight said, feeling relieved. “And at least now we have some idea of where to start looking.” She turned to her friends. “Okay, ladies, John, we know where we’ve got to go and what we’ve got to do,” she rolled up the map and set it with a pair of pieces of paper, “so let’s do everything we need here and get going.”

“Like make all our goodbyes?”

Twilight and the rest all looked at Applejack when she said that. AJ said nothing back. She just looked out towards the square where just a few hours ago, ponies had died.

“Yeah,” Twilight said, feeling a chill. “Like make our goodbyes.”

* * *

I tell you all, it was no light leavetaking we had there in Ponyville afore we set out into the Everfree to find Zecora and then Sunny Town. I remembered thinking to myself whatair kind of a name that was for a place that sounded like to be one of Pandemonium’s outlying towns, the city of hell from an old poem by a man named Milton, filled with the wicked living dead and what would like as not be a wickeder living man. Part of me wondered if I’d leave myself there, not dead but something a sight worse for the rest of time. As much to keep my mind from that and a-worrying about Evadare and all I loved at home I thought back on what we’d done and were doing.

First Twilight and her friends a-telling and showing me how their Elements worked, and that making me feel frightened because I saw how long they’d need to be a-working at it before the Elements did airy thing. I remembered me something my old army sergeant told me, how if you can see airy thing on a battlefield you can hit it, and if you do that you can kill it dead with one shot. I’d shown them the harshest way I could what might could happen. Then we’d decided on our plan, of them getting their Elements ready and me giving them the time to use them. They called that providing a diversion when I served. You let the enemy shoot at you while the real attack comes in somewheres else, and hope you live through it.

I wondered myself as I watched the ponies saying goodbye to everyone they’d be leaving behind them, maybe forever, just how wise I was to be doing this. I’d done it now and then in the war, but then I’d had only my own self to worry about if I got hurt or killed. Now I had Evadare back home, and probably wondering herself about me the same as I did about her. But then, if I couldn’t get back to Earth, or if I did and found the years and maybe the centuries gone as Thorne said might could be, would it rightly matter all that much if I lived or died?

“John?”

I looked to see who it was who spoke me then, though I had a good idea from the deepness of that voice. My guess proved right as I saw the big sorrel I’d met right my first night here a-looking me in the eyes.

“Big Mac,” I nodded at him. “It pleasures me we got to speak this little bit. I wanted to say to you, I thank you and your granny kindly for your generosity that first night here. I’m just kindly sorry for what trouble I’ve brought on you.”

“You didn’t cause none o’ this,” he said back to me, a-shaking his head. “This’s been Thorne’s doin’ from the start. I’m not entirely sorry it happened, though.” He chuckled and smiled. “Ah never woulda met yah if it hadn’t happened, and you’re a good fellow ta know.”

“That’s a kindly good thought of you, Big Mac. I’m glad I met you all here in Ponyville too. I do wish it could have been under some better circumstances, though.” He just shrugged.

“There’s nothin’ couldn’t ever be better somehow. Yah just gotta do all yah can with what yah get.” Then, more softly still, “Ah’ll just ask the one thing of yah. Please watch out for both my little sisters, an’ for the rest of ‘em, too.”

“I’ll do just that thing,” I promised him, and meant it.

“Ah’d go along if Ah could,” he responded me. “Ah’d like to have some words with Thorne my own self.” He scraped the ground with one forehoof and his ears went down a bit to say it, but then he said calmer wise, “But some o’ us have ta stay here in case things don’t go as well as they will.”

He meant in case you all die in there without trying to make it sound like he wished us any ill, and I found myself grateful to hear it said like that. He must have seen that I understood, for he said, “When it’s all over, come back ta the farm. Granny wants ta hear some of them songs again, an’ Ah reckon I do too. Might could be we can teach yah some old earth pony songs from Equestria for yah to take back home.”

“I reckon I will at that, and I thank you.” He nodded me the one more time and then walked off heavy like to say his goodbyes to Applejack. I watched and listened to what all I saw and heard right then.

“Rarity, please be careful!” You can guess whose parents were saying that to which white and purple unicorn. Her father looked kindly silly in what looked like one of those fancy-printed Hawaiian shirts, but he puffed his chest out and said to her, “I still feel like I should go along with you mares and him!” He pointed his hoof at me and said to her, “That, that sorcerer thinks he can threaten and try to kill my daughters? I’ll show him what I showed Forward Pass at the Ponybowl…”

“Father, mother, listen to me,” Rarity said, her voice soft and strong. She’d cleaned herself up from before, but she looked grimmer than air I thought she could as she said to them all, “I will be returning with Sweetie Belle, or I won’t be coming back at all—“

“Don’t say that!” Her father said, and I saw him trying to blink tears away as he and Rarity’s mother hugged their daughter horse-style by craning their necks around hers.

Past them I saw Applejack and Big Mac talking, just like how I reckoned many a young man or woman back home must have talked to their family afore they ever went off to a fight they didn’t know they’d win or not. Right close by I saw Fluttershy talking to a little rabbit, of all things. But then maybe that wasn’t so odd there, where so many beasts didn’t just have wisdom like human folks but could talk like we can too. She turned to go away, and he grabbed her tail like as though to bid her to stay. She just smiled at him afore she bent and gave him a quick nuzzle. The little hopper looked like he wanted to cry, but instead he gave me a look as though to warn me to look out for her like I would my own self. Then he turned and hopped away.

A-speaking of hopping and bouncing, I heard Pinkie a-talking to the stallion and mare from that gingerbread-house bakery. “Aww, don’t worry, Mister and Mrs. Cake! I’ll be back and we’ll have a great big ‘We Saved The Day Again’ party and John will play some more of his songs for us before he goes home and I’ll have a whole buncha stories to tell everypony about how we stopped old meanypants Thorne and…”

“Pinkie!” I saw that she stopped talking as the Cakes both bid her goodbye. I nair thought I’d see her be quiet. They both looked sad and worried, that lanky yellow stallion and the pudgy blue mare. They minded me some small bit of Jack Sprat and his wife from the old children’s rhyme. I saw how Mrs. Cake’s two little foals were looking out of something like saddlebags hung over her sides. They started to cry when they saw Pinkie turn to go away. She turned back around and stood up on one forehoof like what you’d call a handstand, only to fall down and roll over into some mud. They laughed at that, and I headed off for where I thought Twilight might could be.

I guessed right again. She stood by the tents of the Royal Guard, talking to one of those Night Guards who had fancy trim on his breastplate, like for an officer. Aside of him there stood one of the Day Guards, who looked sleeker and smaller than the others. I supposed him for what you’d call a courier, taking messages back and forth.

“…and that’s the most current up to now report for Princess Celestia,” Twilight said, a-handing over a thick sheaf of papers to the Day Guard. He saluted and set them into a satchel he bore. I saw Twilight hesitate, and then give over something smaller, saying, “And this is for my parents – and my brother, wherever he’s deployed. If, if worst should come to worst, please make sure they get it.”

“I promise they will receive it, Miss Sparkle,” the Night Guard commander said to her in a whispery kind of voice. He glanced at me just the once and then said to her, “I would feel better if you would accept my offer and take some of my troops along into the forest with you for protection.” Twilight just shook her head at him.

“I doubt it would do any good,” she said, “And it would probably only risk their lives to no good end. Thorne would kill them the same way he killed Captain Bastion,” she choked a bit to say it, “And tried to kill John and Rarity. He’s done enough damage to ponies, Captain Silver Crescent. I don’t want him to be able to do any more.”

“Hold on there,” I said, a-thinking of something. “There might could be a way for them to help without coming near Thorne or his Sunny Town friends. Could the Royal Guards try pushing their way into the forest from other directions than the one we’ll be using, a-making noise and a show of it to draw attention?” They both looked at me, and I saw the understanding go over first the commander’s face, then Twilight’s. “Thorne won’t likely know if they’re really going to fight him or not, and he’d like as not try sending some of whatair he has off to chase them away, and while he’s doing that…”

“While he’s doing that, we can get to him without having to worry about him sending half the Everfree down on us,” Twilight said. “It makes sense. That is, provided your troops would be willing, Captain?” She looked hopeful at the Night Guard. He frowned and looked thoughtful, narrowing his golden slit-pupil eyes.

“Diversionary Probes? It could work, but I’ll have to ask their Highnesses for another troop each of Day and Night Guard for it. I don’t want to leave Ponyville unprotected.” He took the packed papers from the courier’s pack and said to Twilight, “If you would sign your name along with mine, Miss Sparkle?” Twilight did so and I heard the quills scratching across the paper. That done, she and I walked out in front of everyone.

“Ladies, if you would? We’d better get going, it’ll be dark soon,” Her friends gathered around the both of us, and Twilight said to the crowd of ponies, “Okay, everypony, we’re going to bring the fillies and Spike back and to stop Thorne. All of you, stay safe here in Ponyville and don’t worry about us. We’ll be back soon, safe and sound, I promise.”

“Yeah, just as soon as we kick Thorne’s flank!” Dash said as she flew up in front of us all and made a kicking motion with her back legs like a little blue mule. The crowd cheered that and off we set.

“Yah know, Twi,” Applejack said as we headed back off towards the place where we‘d buried that grimoire, the girls trotting along the way horses will, “Who’s gonna carry that spellbook when we get it?”

“I figured I’d be a-doing that,” I showed them an old burlap sack. “I crave your pardon, Rarity, but I took this from your place when we decided on what we’d need to be doing. I doubted any of you would want to be holding it.”

“I’m not afraid of it,” Dash half grumbled at me, “But if you wanna carry it, go right ahead.” She flapped off ahead of and above us all, circling like to keep watch.

Not for the first time, I wondered myself what I’d done to get her so mad-sounding at me, but I didn’t see any way to bring that up right then. So I kept silent until we got closer to the place where we’d buried the book.

“Oh I hope we can find it,” Fluttershy said to my side. “It’d be terrible to lose it now, now that we have to get it.”

“Ironic too,” Twilight said, “And not the least bit amusing – hey!” She’d shouted the last bit as Dash dropped down before her, her feathers and mane all ruffled up. For all her bragging she looked pure down scared to me right then. Before airy one of us could ask her whatair the problem was, she pointed in under the trees.

“Twi, guys, you haveta see this! Come on!” She waved for us to follow and flew off. We hustled along after and soon enough found what startled her. It was the spot where we’d buried the Letters of Cold Fire last night. Only, something else’d been there afore us, and we could all guess what. The dirt showed greasy and slimy, like from some old graveyard, one where the coffins were buried just under the earth and sometimes stray dogs or worse things pulled them up and bore away what they contained. Something or other had been digging there. The dirt looked piled up beside a small pit set all around with those hoofmarks we’d seen before.

“They didn’t get it,” I heard Rarity whisper, and I reckon we all stood quiet enough to hear it. Even the birds seemed still around that spot. “Why? We didn’t bury it that deeply.”

“The words John an’ Ah said, Ah reckon,” Applejack said into that stillness. She stepped forward to try and dig the book back up with her own hooves. When she stepped onto that sickly-looking slimy ground it squelched under her hooves. She gave a disgusted sound and stepped back. I doubt airy pony there blamed her. I know I didn’t. Applejack drew herself up and made ready to try again, but then Twilight stepped up.

“I’ll get it,” she said. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. That purple light I’d seen so many times went along her horn. Something began moving in that hole, and then the spellbook almost seemed to leap up from it like some nasty toad or big jumping spider. It seemed to head for Twilight. I snatched it from the air. I just about dropped it into that sack I held when I saw how Twilight looked at it.

“Miss Twilight?” I asked her, hoping I didn’t need to be worried, “How are you feeling right now?”

“Fine,” she said and smiled on us all to say it. “It’s still disabled. I don’t feel anything from it. At all. It’s just another book.”

I nodded her back and dropped it into that sack I held. She gave back with a shudder. I felt just about as bad myself. It’d felt like the hairs on that cover tried wrapping around my fingers when I’d touched it.

“Now let’s get going,” she said. “The sooner begun, the sooner it’s done.” We all stayed quiet as we headed out from under the trees of Whitetail Wood and into the open hilly part north of Ponyville. Off northwards I saw those mountains from before, including the one with Canterlot on its flank looking like it’d been carved from ice and snow, and for all I knew there in Equestria it could be. We went over a bridge past a windmill. I saw ponies bringing up a cartload of grain to be ground into flour. They stared at us when we went by like we were a-going to a funeral. Then we went by something like a park and headed around back of the schoolhouse. I heard the bell ringing for the end of the day and I saw the little colts and fillies leaving. Even from the distance we saw them, they looked right quiet for children.

“The poor dears,” Fluttershy said next to me, like she’d guessed my thoughts. “They’re worried about Spike and the girls.”

“We don’t stop Thorne, they’ll be worrying about themselves, too,” Applejack responded her. I reckon we all thought on that a bit until we got up to the clock tower. It showed half past three, and I wondered myself why the ponies divided their day up into twenty-four hours, or did a right many things just like human people did back home. While I thought on that, Twilight spoke to me.

“Say, John, before in Ponyville Emergency, you were saying something about the monsters here. What kind of monsters are there back in your mountains?”

“There’s kindly a few, though they seem rarer and hard to find compared to the ones you have here; folks outside the mountains all think they nair even exist,” I said. I relished the chance to speak of it. It’d be easier than worrying about what might could be ahead of us as we began entering the Everfree along a dirt trail. It already showed dark under those trees, not night-dark, but dark enough. “There’s the Flat. It’s kindly like what you might could call an inchworm or what science folks call an amoeba, but it’s hairy all over. It hunches its way along the ground, and if it crawls onto you, it wraps itself around you like a big snake and crushes the life out of you.” The girls shuddered to hear that, all but Rainbow Dash. She just snorted.

“You’re scared of an overgrown carpet with an attitude,” she said. “Oh, brother. Okay, what else?”

“There’s the Toller,” I said back to her, my voice maybe just a bit cross. She was a-starting to wear on me, and no mistake. “It’s near about the biggest thing that flies…”

“Big as a dragon?’ Fluttershy asked, sounding scared.

“Might could be bigger,” I answered her. “Nair soul that ever saw it came back to say of it. It makes a sound like an almighty big bell to tell other critters their feed is near. There’s other things asides, like the Skim, that’s a thing like a flying plate or saucer that can cut into you, and the Rolling Claf. That’s something like a ball of fire that’s always hungry, and it chases after people in the woods. Unless you throw it meat or something else it can burn up, it’ll burn you down to ashes. And the Tripodero, and the Bammat, and the Behinder.” I shuddered a bit to say that last one.

“What the hay is a Behinder?” Dash again there, trying to sound brash.

“It’s something you don’t want to ever see, because if you do, it’s about to jump on you,” I said to her. “I’ve seen a Behinder twice in my life, and that’s twice more than I wanted to see it.”

“It can’t be that dangerous,” she kind of jeered at me, “If you were able to run fast enough to get away from it.”

“The first time I saw it, it was after some other body, and it got him,” I said, and I took a long step and stood before her. She stopped her flying and stared me in the eye, and neither of us looked friendly at each other. “The second time, I was lucky. And yes, there’s been times I lived through something because I ran faster than it could chase me. I’m not proud to say it, but there’s the plain truth of it.”

“Maybe you’ll run again,” Dash snapped back. I saw Applejack try and get her attention, but she ignored her to stare at me. She stuck her hoof in my chest. Any harder and she’d have punched me with it. “Maybe you’ll run when we have to face Thorne, and after we beat him you’ll try an’ claim you did it all. I don’t know why we even brought you here!”

“I’d like to know the why of it myself,” I said back to her, feeling hot in the face, “Why these five ladies keep you around, when all you do is brag on yourself air day and night and fly high enough to make sure no one can give you the lesson you might could deserve. And if you weren’t some little girl pony, I’d do it.”

“You’d what!

Dash dropped down on the ground and braced herself. She snarled like a mean dog getting ready to fight. It looked dangerous right then to see, not that I cared. I brought my fists up. I’d been raised to nair hit women unless there wasn’t airy other way, maybe not even then, but right then I doubt I cared much. Dash made to fly at me but she stopped short. Just past her I could see Applejack sitting on the ground and holding on to her tail with her mouth. I made no move to swing at her, but even so I felt something warm and strong along my arms. I didn’t need to look to know it was Twilight and Rarity, holding me back.

“Dangit, Dash, can’t yah never keep your temper under control?” AJ gritted out at her. “’Specially now, of all times!”

“Oh, John, Rainbow Dash, please, can’t both of you just get along?” Fluttershy said, flying up and setting herself between us.

Twilight stepped up and the look she gave us both minded me of some teacher lady with two boys who fought air chance they got. I felt my cheeks burn as I set my hands back down. Twilight nodded, short and sharp, and then she looked at Dash.

“What is your problem anyway? We’re out here to save Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders and all of Equestria, not to watch you two fight each other!”

“That’s just it!” Dash yelled back at her. I saw she’d dropped back down to the ground, and both Applejack and Rarity were a-holding her. Fluttershy and Twilight stayed between us. I wondered myself where Pinkie was. The way the shadows were deepening all around, I knew the sun to be setting and I didn’t want her to get in some sort of trouble with the Everfree monsters. Dash yelled again, “He shouldn’t be the one you all need to help, it should be me! I’m the Element of Loyalty!”

“Too bad it ain’t the Element o’ Maturity,” I heard Applejack respond her. That just set Dash off again.

“No! It’s just… I’m supposed to protect you guys! I let Thorne hurt Twi and almost summon Discord back! I let Lyra almost steal the spellbook back again, and then I saw her kill Bastion and nearly kill Rarity and Twilight! And then Thorne ponynapped Spike and Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo! And the whole time I didn’t do anything that helped, and every time he turns around,” she pointed her hoof at me like it was an accusation in court, “he’s got something new that works! And you all say how great he is!”

“Dash, I swear to nothing, I’m not trying to take air thing from you,” I began, but she cut in.

“That’s not it! These are my friends, and if I can’t protect them from stuff like this, what good am I?” She dropped down like she was exhausted, breathing hard. I think we all stared at her then. I thought back on what I’d been doing here since I came, and how much of hard times I’d given her whether I air intended it or not. I guess I have to say, I felt like a right sorry fellow about then. I was about to tell her as much when Pinkie came bouncing down the trail from ahead of us.

“Hey, guys!” she said. “I have a riddle.”

“Not now, Pinkie,” Twilight answered. I saw her roll her eyes to say it.

If Pinkie heard, she didn’t care. “No, this is serious! What’s all green and grassy and covered in bark and looks like a ruined treehouse and has stinky-nastyriffic hoofprints around it and no Zecora?”

I reckon it took about a second for her words to get through to us all, and as we all spun to look where she pointed at someone’s home built half into a tree like Twilight’s library, and a-looking old and tumbledown like the Gardinel, she said, “Because whatever it is, it’s where Zecora’s hut should be.”

“Pinkie,” Twilight said, a-sounding more lost than ever, “That is Zecora’s hut.”

“Oh!” Pinkie responded her. We went closer and could see the rotted hoofmarks around a hollowed-out tree with the door half smashed from its hinges and the dirt torn up outside like there’d been one hellacious fight before the one who didn’t leave those dead marks in the dirt marched away amidst the Sunny Town ponies.

“Oh,” Pinkie said again, “I guess this means we’re in trouble, huh?”

* * *

In the garden of the Sun Palace at Canterlot, cracks ran and dust rained from a statue like a Chinese dragon made of mismatched parts. Their horns glowing with gold and silver flame, two alicorns in royal tiaras and pectorals – one white as the new risen sun, the other the deep blue of the purest night sky – worked their magic, sealing the cracks and returning the figure to solid stone. As fast as they mended and sealed, more cracks appeared, the stone eyes shining as the cracks spread.

Beyond them stood a circle of a score of the best and most powerful unicorn mages in Canterlot, including one in the barding of a Spellguard sub-lieutenant with Specialist badges. Twilight Sparkle would have been in awe to see so many of her professors and teachers and even her own big brother working together like this, channeling all their power into their Princesses, holding the containment wards. Any one of them would normally have been a match for anything short of the eldest and mightiest dragons, but right now they looked like candles set beside the sun and the moon – which, in truth, they were – as they frantically worked to aid Luna and Celestia. Past them, at the edges of the garden, a small knot of frightened nobles and castle servants gathered and watched in fear. Between the assembled magical might of Equestria and the onlookers stood a full regiment each of Day and Night Guard pegasi in full armor.

A Day Guard Pegasus in light courier armor dropped down by the Day Guard Colonel, a scarred old Pegasus. They spoke hurriedly and as they did, Celestia stepped back with a gasp of effort.

“Sister, I must lower the sun,” she said to Luna. The alicorn of the night simply kept working on the statue. Beyond a quick nod she showed no other sign of notice. Celestia turned away and began bringing the sun down, trying not to hear the slightly louder than ever sound of stone cracking behind her.

“Highness!” Celestia looked at the Colonel and at the courier beside him. He gaped at her in what looked like shock and quickly lowered his head. She smiled at him, and it looked only slightly strained.

“Come now, Nimbus, surely I’m not that much of a mess, am I?” When the courier looked up in surprise, she said, “Yes, I remember your name, and yes, I am in a hurry. What is it?” The Colonel simply handed the package over. Celestia scanned it. “Twilight? From Ponyville? Why didn’t she just use Spike’s dragonfire…” and then her eyes narrowed as she began reading further.

“Sister,” Luna’s voice came from behind her, “I need to raise the moon. And Discord becomes more restless. Thy help would be most appreciated!”

Celestia read faster, finishing in seconds with, “…and if all else fails and you see or hear no sign from us within two days, then please, Princess, call down all the power you can spare on this spot I have circled on the map. I hope it’s enough to destroy Thorn’s stronghold. And if that happens, then please know that it was the greatest joy in my life to have been your student. Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle, and my friends…” Celestia ran through their names, and saw that it finished with, “And John, a human from Earth.”

“Sister!”

“Colonel!” Celestia reached out with her power and took Luna’s place, feeling Discord’s frantic desire for freedom beating on her will like a hurricane. As Luna began to raise the moon faster than she had since long before her exile, Celestia spoke to the Guard officer. “Dispatch a squadron of both Day and Night Guard with attached Spellguard to Ponyville immediately. They will put themselves under the command of Captain Silver Crescent of the Night Guard and assist him exactly as he commands. Understood?”

“Yes, Highness!” Both pegasi turned and flew off in a whirl of feathers. Celestia sighed and looked up at Discord’s statue, only to freeze as she saw the stone cracking away over his eyes as they locked right on hers. And then his telepathic voice buzzed through her mind like a hive of wasps poured into her ears and trying to come out through her eyes.

Why, hello, Celestia! Meeting again so soon? If I’d known how amusingly destructive Thorn and his kind could be, I’d have brought a thousand more like him here – and maybe I will!

“No,” Celestia spoke out loud, answering the monster in her mind. She felt her sister’s power added alongside her own again, and the stone over his eyes slowly began sealing itself shut. “No, you will not. You shall return to stone and your servant shall not harm any more of my little ponies!”

But even after the stone sealed itself shut, she could still feel his mocking, triumphant laughter.