• Published 20th May 2012
  • 6,051 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
 6,051

Chapter 20

My Little Balladeer
Chapter 20

“John?” I heard some voice or other call through the haze in my head. I swore to myself that I’d never get into that much blockade again. The voice yelled even louder as I finally recognized it, “John! Wake up, we got us some trouble here!”

“Applejack?” I opened my eyes and sat up. She stood right afore me, the necklace of her Element still glowing the least little bit as she gave me a right worried look. “What trouble?”

“That!” she said, and I saw that she’d spoken the truth.

Darkness still hung over and around Sunny Town, and so did the undead ponies of it. They’d fled back when Twilight and her friends exorcised Thorne’s spellbook, but they were coming close back in now. The ponies were staggering up on their hooves, looking like they’d run a race up a mountain by the way their sides heaved. Rarity stumbled closer over by Applejack and me, shaking her head. I heard Zecora and Bon Bon yelling from their cell off behind me, and someone a-hammering at the door. Another pony groaned nearby. I saw Lyra’s sea-foam mane and green coat as she stirred. I remembered how Thorne fell close by as well, right after he’d…

I snatched my guitar up in my hands. What was left of it, anyway. Just about half the neck and maybe most of the strings. The rest of it lay on the ground, hammered and smashed into nothing. I looked on it and I reckon I felt nothing much at all. Just empty down deep inside.

“Oooh…” Lyra said nearby as she rose up on her legs and looked around. “Thorne’s gone? Thorne’s gone!” She near about danced for joy before she looked and me and flinched. “I’m sorry for what happened to you and everypony else, I’m so sorry, but Thorne swore he’d hurt Bon Bon and…” Her gaze slipped past me and went wide when she saw who stood there. She opened her mouth, maybe to say she was sorry again, maybe to say something else, but nair word of hers got out.

“YOU!”

Rarity screamed that word out before she dove past me and on top of Lyra. Before I could blink she had her down. Rarity set her horn to Lyra’s throat like she held a knife there. Her eyes blazed.

“Lyra,” she said, her voice full of warning, “Don’t try to run, don’t move, don’t even blink.” She stopped, and when Lyra whimpered, Rarity said, “I saw what you helped Thorne do to Sweetie Belle. Be glad you’re alive.” Then to me she said, “John, maybe you better go and help Applejack and the others.”

What others, I almost said, and then I turned and saw what she meant. At the door of the cell, I saw Applejack working to open it. Apple Bloom was there too, and her friends, and Spike too. He was clawing at the lock and little bits and pieces of it were coming away in his claws. Apple Bloom and her friends were tugging on it aside her big sister, Sweetie Belle using her magic and the others their mouths. Zecora’s staff rested on the ground near him.

I looked around and saw an old iron bar lying nearby, part eaten up with rust. I prayed it’d be strong enough and that cell lock weak enough to do this as I stuck the neck of my guitar in my belt and snatched that bar up. I went to the door and called, “Stand back a moment.”

One mare, three fillies, and one dragon stood back, their eyes wondering at me. Apple Bloom caught on the fastest as I slipped it in between the lock and the bars. Applejack saw it next. Both of them set to push on it when I pulled. Inside the cell, Zecora and Bon Bon set to pull when we did.

“Put your mare to this,” Applejack said aside me, and then we all heaved on that bar. If it’d been me alone nothing might have happened, but while those ponies were a man’s size at the most, they were more than a human man for strength. The lock squealed and broke open. Zecora and Bon Bon came rushing out only to both yell.

“Applejack, look out!”

Applejack yelled her pain as they did. I spun and whipped the neck of my guitar and the silver strings across the face of the Sunny Town pony grabbing her flank with its hooves. It stumbled back with a screech. Past it, I saw more of them using up around us.

“Big sis!” Apple Bloom pressed up close by Applejack. “Are y’all okay?”

“Ah’ll live,” she said back, and sounded strained to say it, “But let’s get back from here.”

We didn’t waste airy time doing what she bid. The Sunny Town ponies pressed close by us, killing mad, snorting and champing their long bony teeth together, scraping the ground with their hooves. They wanted our lives and no mistake. I whipped my silver strings out at them again as we fell back on where Twilight and Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie stood. Rainbow Dash flew over them, looking around for something. And a-circling all around I saw more of those Sunny Town ponies. It looked like air dead pony in that village closing in on us.

Applejack looked at her friends, her eyes unfocused. She looked and sounded like she’d been on the bad end of a hard times party and taken most of the punches. She glared at her little sister.

“Apple Bloom, didn’t Ah tell ya to stay out o’ here?”

“Ya didn’t,” Apple Bloom said, sounding right defiant. “”Ya tol’ me an’ mah friends ta not help ya fight Thorne, and we didn’t. Ya didn’t say anything ‘bout not helpin’ Miss Bon Bon and Zecora from out o’ their cell.”

Applejack looked like she wanted to give her a swat, but then she relaxed. “That’s right,” she said, “Ah didn’t. And ya were brave to do it.” She looked around at the Sunny Town ponies, holding back a bit from us now like they were a-getting the sand together to charge in. Applejack said to her, “But Ah still wish all o’ ya’d ran.”

“We’re not dead yet, Applejack,” Rarity called from where she retreated like the rest of us. She hauled Lyra along with her horn’s magic, that purple glow surrounding the other unicorn. I saw how Lyra’s eyes pleaded at Bon Bon, like to say she was sorry. Bon Bon glared at her and turned away. I don’t rightly know how, but Lyra got even sadder in the face. Rarity said, “But listen, Twilight can teleport us all out of here with my help.”

“Ah thought ya said that ya didn’t know how ta teleport!”

“I don’t,” Rarity said back to her, “But any unicorn can supply magical energy to another unicorn’s spell working when they need to, even if it does leave us weakened afterwards. And Twilight can cast the spell on all of us, even that scoundrel Thorne...” Her voice trailed off and she looked around. “Just where did he get off to?”

I looked too, and I reckon I yelled, for then I saw Thorne where he stood right by Twilight as she looked at us, a stone in both of his hands and up over her head.

“Twilight, run!” I yelled at her. She gave me a confused look.

“John, what?” She said back just as Thorne brought that rock right down aside her horn and across her head.

* * *

Twilight rose with a groan. She could hear her friends around her, sounding drained and stunned from using the Elements. Somewhere close by other ponies whinnied in fear and anger. Then a skeletal equine face bobbed into her vision. Even though no eyes showed in those empty crimson sockets, it somehow glared at her in murderous fury as it shrieked.

“You condemned us to this all over again!” It reached out for her with hooves that reeked of rot. “We’ll kill you all and take you into our herd! Ruby won’t be the only one going into the fire every night!”

“Ahhh!” Twilight thrust with her magic and sent it stumbling back to fall in a tangle of skeletal legs. “Girls, get up now! We’re in trouble here!” She wondered frantically, why aren’t the Elements forcing them back? Did we use up that much power from them in defeating Thorn? Because if we did, then how do we stop them? As her friends got up, she looked around. “Wait, where’s John? And Thorn?”

“John’s right there, sugarcube,” Applejack pointed with her hoof. John lay off to the side and seemed to be moving feebly. Twilight gave a sigh of relief. She’d wondered what the Elements would do to him. True, they’d summoned him here, but she didn’t know what their full unleashed energy would do to something not of Equestria.

“Please check him out,” Twilight said, “make sure he’s okay.” AJ nodded and ran off to help John. Twilight yelled after her, “And somepony get Zecora and Bon Bon out of that cell!”

“We’ll do it!” Three familiar voices said as the Cutie Mark Crusaders charged right by her, accompanied by Spike. As soon as they reached the cell door they began pounding and hammering on it with whatever they could pick up.

“Girls, that won’t work, and we told you not to come in here anyway!” Twilight yelled after them.

Rarity called as well, “Sweetie Belle, Spike, all of you, get out! These monsters will kill you!”

“We ain’t gonna let them eat Miss Bon Bon or Zecora!” Sweetie Belle yelled back as the tiny unicorn tugged at the heavy door with her magic, a look of vast concentration on her face as her horn glowed.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity began to yell, only to stop when she saw Lyra rising next to Applejack and John. The mint-green unicorn looked to be saying something to them both. Then she looked up and paled at the sight of Rarity’s furious glare. The unicorn mare said just one word: “YOU!” She seemed to almost teleport over to Lyra, setting her forehooves on her and putting her horn to Lyra’s throat.

“Well, we know where Lyra is,” Dash said as she rose off the ground, her wings beating. Twilight saw her eyes widen as she saw the Sunny Town ponies gathering around. “Uh, Twi,” she said, “I think we oughta be getting out of here. Like, right now!”

“We will, but we can’t leave anypony else here,” Twilight said. She felt Fluttershy and Pinkie backing up against her. A glance showed her the Sunny Town ponies circling around behind as well. How many of these things were there? “I’ll teleport us all out, but you have to get everypony here, even Thorn!” Dash stared at her in disbelief.

“You have got to be kidding me! HIM?” But even as she said it she flew up higher, wincing at the aches of the battle, and began looking around to find everypony.

“I won’t leave anypony here,” Twilight said, as much to herself as to Dash. She could see a staggering Applejack and John whipping those silver strings of his at the Sunny Town ponies, driving them back as she said, “Not even Thorn. Besides, we took away his grimoire, so he’s harmless now, and…”

And then several things happened in rapid succession. John yelled something like a warning at her, and Thorn’s voice said right in her ear, “Does this feel harmless, you meddling beast?” as something hard and heavy came crashing down alongside her horn.

Twilight dropped, feeling a hot wetness running down her face. I have to get up, she thought through a slow crimson haze in her mind, we have to get away.

Then that painful heaviness came down again, on her leg this time.

She screamed when she felt it break.

* * *

I charged in when I saw Thorne standing over Twilight in the shape of a man, bringing that stone he’d found back up to hit her a third time. I saw how her leg twisted under her where he’d broken it, where the blood ran down her face from his striking her that coward’s blow of his. I saw I’d not reach her in time to stop him from a-smashing her brains out. Then something yellow and pink flew up in front of him.

“Don’t you dare!” Fluttershy said, sounding right angry. Thorne just swung that rock of his at her. Fluttershy shrieked as he caught her in the belly with it. She dropped, coughing and sobbing her pain. But when she dropped she held onto that stone, and Thorne had no more than his bare hands left when I leaped over Twilight and into him.

He staggered a step or three back, but he didn’t fall down. He lashed out with those big heavy hands clasped together of his and caught me high on the forehead. I staggered under that hit, and he came in grabbing for me like someone who knows how to use a grip that’ll break bones.

“You took literal godhood away from me! Godhood!” he spat, “You and these wretched animals! Do you know what I’ll do to you?” His arms went out wide to grip, like a bear or ape.

“I know what you mean to do,” I said to him. “Now let me show you what I’ll be a-doing.”

I stepped a step back and brought my own hands up, doubled up, and gave him a quick jab right into his nose, hard and fast as I could. He yelled but he didn’t try and run, the way near any other man might have. Instead he just tried to get close in on me again, to where his weight would be the main thing. I stayed back and tried keeping him at a reach, punching harder and faster than I’d air done before, because I was a-fighting for my life.

“I’ll call the Sunny Town ponies on you all,” he said to me. I saw the blood from his nose where it looked to have a new dent in it running down around his lips. “They’ll kill every one of you!” He stopped then when I put a punch right into that mouth of his.

“And you too,” I said to him, holding back for a second, and feeling it where he’d hit me hard, in my ribs and along my arms. If I’d hurt him, it didn’t much show. “You promised you’d make them come alive again. Whatair do you think they’ll do, now that you can’t keep that promise?”

“Who says I can’t?” Thorne said back to me. He grinned and I saw the blood on his teeth when he said it. “I may not have Discord’s power now, but I still have some magick. Enough to keep them away from me, which is more than you or those ponies can do. I’ll still find my worshippers here.”

“Like hay you will!”

And with those words Dash flew down into him like a bullet and hammered him down into the ground, her hooves a-pounding on his face.

* * *

“Twi? Twi!” Dash shook Twilight. She seemed only half conscious, blood running down her face from where Thorn struck her with that rock. Dash fought down panic at the sight. Yes, she knew that scalp wounds bled heavily and looked worse than they were, but still, this was her friend and there was so much blood!

“Nnnn…” Twilight said, looking up at her blearily. She tried to rise only to sink back down with a sob of pain as her broken leg buckled beneath her. “Dash, get the others… Get away from here…”

“No, I’m not leaving any of you!” Dash looked around. This isn’t right! She thought, We won! Everything’s supposed to be better now!

She saw her friends, and the CMCs and Spike and Zecora. Even Bon Bon and Lyra, all of them falling back in fear as the undead ponies of Sunny Town advanced on them, their eyes aglow with hate and rage. They’d touched Applejack just once, and she looked ready to collapse even as she shielded her little sister from them. Flutts whimpered where she lay, coughing up blood as she tried to rise.

Pinkie bounced up to two of the Sunny Town ponies. “Giggle at the ghosties!” she said, but when she tried they just grabbed at her. Pinkie shrieked and jumped back from them.

“It didn’t work!” Her mane seemed to deflate, hanging limp. She looked up and saw Dash hovering over her. “Get away, Dashie! Never mind us! And if you ever see some ghost ponies in the Everfree, and they giggle at you when you giggle at them, you’ll know who they are!” She paused and then added, “Just remember to give them some cake, okay? And say goodbye to the Cakes for me!”

Dash heard the rest of her friends join in, yelling at her:

“Dang it, Dash, get outta here an’ take the fillies with ya!”

“Please, Dash, save Sweetie Belle and Spike and the others, we’ll be fine!”

“D-Dash, take Spike and the g-girls and go…”

“I, I…” Dash looked around helpless, and then stared. She saw Thorn, no longer the Nightstallion but the hairless monster from that night at the Town Hall. He was fighting John, forcing him back in on the others, and saying something about, “I still have enough magic to protect myself from the Sunny Town ponies. I’ll still find worshippers here…”

Dash decided in an instant between her loyalty to her friends and to Equestria. She decided, flapped for altitude, then winged over in a power-dive right into Thorn, driving her forehooves into his face.

“Like hay you will!” She yelled. Thorn cursed and snatched at her, grabbing one of her wings as she pounded him as hard as she could. “I’m not lettin’ you get away to hurt anypony else! If we’re gonna die, we’re taking you with us!”

Thorn snarled like a beast. With a sudden twist he snatched at her wing joint and wrung it between his massive hands.

Dash screamed in pain as she felt something inside her wing tear. She would have dropped on it except that John caught her.

“Like jointing a chicken,” Thorn jeered as he retreated back towards the Sunny Town ponies. Dash snorted and tried to plunge after him, but John held her.

“Lemme go!” she yelled.

“Hold it there a second, Dash,” he said to her. He pointed. “Thorn might could be in trouble his own self right now.”

Dash caught his meaning. She looked and hoped as he got nearer to the undead ponies. They turned their empty eye sockets on him. Dash idly realized that the sunlight seemed to be growing stronger. The cloud overhead was fading away. When the sunlight struck the Sunny Town ponies, they flinched from it.

Thorn walked up to the Sunny Town ponies. They gave him the cold stare of walking death. He returned it, made gestures with his hands, spoke words and Names that crawled in her ears. And they dropped onto their bellies and let him pass.

“Return when you can help us,” One of them half moaned as he walked by them. As soon as Thorn did, they rose and began closing in. He turned and looked back, a broad smile on his bruised and bloody face.

“No,” Dash said, her last hope dead inside. John half carried her back to the others. Pinkie and AJ hugged her from either side. It hurt her wing and her wounded flank, but she ignored it to return the hug. The pain wouldn’t last long, after all.

Just the rest of her life.

“Guys,” she said, her voice soft, “I’m sorry.”

“All of you little ponies,” she heard John say from where he stood, “I’m rightly sorry too.” Dash looked and saw that he had one hand along Twilight’s mane and with the other he held the guitar neck, ready to whip. Apple Bloom pressed against his leg.

Flutts dragged herself next to Rarity. Rarity gave her a last hug as well before turning to the approaching Sunny Town ponies, snorting and scraping at the ground, horn ready to thrust. Fluttershy glared at them from where she lay as though already giving them The Stare, Pinkie and AJ and Dash all faced outwards in primeval equine instinct, protecting the wounded and fillies behind them. Spike stood to protect Twilight, Zecora’s staff still in his claws, and Zecora and Bon Bon joined the rest of the mares in their defiance.

“Zecora! Pinkie! Rarity! Try to break out! Take Spike and the fillies! Make for Ponyville! We’ll hold them off!”

“Rarity? Can you carry Flutts?”

“Rarity, don’t… I’m bleeding inside… I’ll never make it…”

The Sunny Towners closed in from all sides, advancing like a herd ready to trample, grinning those death’s-head grins. Two in front reared and made a charge, only to be whipped back by John’s silver strings. Another dashed in from the side, caught a faceful of Spike’s dragonfire and fell back with a curse.

And behind them Thorn, once more the “freaky monster” who’d appeared at Twilight’s door only a week ago, amusement worthy of Discord broad on his massive and ugly face. Twilight raised her head with a groan, making only a whimper of pain at her injury as she looked at the Sunny Town ponies.

“Maybe…” she said, “maybe it won’t be so bad after a while… Girls, John, all of you, I’m sorry this happened…”

And then the brightest and purest sunlight filled the clearing, somehow seeming to shine on the leaves from below, and a voice both beautiful and terrible thundered:

“WHICH OF THESE IS THORN?”

* * *

I stood there alongside those ponies, alongside these friends of mine, and we all watched those Sunny Town ponies a-closing in. It felt like watching Death itself and worse than Death coming at us. Thorne stood behind them all, grinning that grin that made me wish I dared charge through and knock it right off of his face.

And then the noonday sun came down into that Everfree Forest clearing, and a voice like God on Judgment Day spoke out:

“WHICH OF THESE IS THORNE?”

The Sunny Town ponies froze as that light came down amongst us all. The last of Thorne’s darkness over the town faded into nothing, and as it did, they all wailed as the earth seemed to just pull them into it. They fought against it like they were a-trying to escape quicksand. It did them no good at all. They sank down screaming, all of them, until the very last one was gone and swallowed up, back into their graves.

I took a look around at Sunny Town, and saw no more town there. All you saw was forest, not even a clearing, just more forest. Maybe some traces in the ground where there might have been foundations once, long ago. Just a second long I saw Ruby. She nodded at me, smiled on Apple Bloom, and then she faded away like a dream.

I wondered me what could be happening now until I saw what said those words. It was a white horse, not a pony, a horse, lean and graceful as a Thoroughbred and bearing what looked like the sun itself on her horn. Yes, as sure I’m telling you all this, she had a horn like Twilight’s and Rarity’s, and she had wings like Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash. The mid-day sun showed on her flank. Her mane and tail were that shade of blue they call turquoise, and pink, and more colors asides, a-waving like a flag in a wind that wasn’t there. A golden tiara on her head kindly like Twilight’s Element, and a golden pectoral on her withers set with a purple gem like we’d just seen on Thorne.

I think it might just be the best to say, if there are suchlike things as horse archangels, I saw one right there.

She looked down at Dash, at Applejack, at Fluttershy and Twilight. They were straining to bow to her, like how Rarity and Pinkie and the little fillies already were. Past them all I saw Zecora nodding her head respectful-like, and Bon Bon a-bowing too. Lyra just hugged the ground, a-looking like she wanted to be sneaking off somewhere.

“My little ponies,” she said to them all in a voice that sounded regal and gentle all at the once, like she was their mother, “There is no need for this, here and now. Let me help you.” Light shined from her horn, more gentle this time, like every childhood summer day all at the once. I felt it soft and warm on me, and I looked down and saw the wounds on Twilight and the others closing themselves. Twilight drew a hard breath and let it back out more gently.

“Thank you, Princess,” she said. She looked up and craned her neck to return the hug Celestia, for that must have been who she was, gave her. Her blood stained the angel-horse’s white coat.

I heard Thorne give a curse. I turned to see him a-running off into the forest. I raced after him. Off to the side I could see Lyra racing off another direction, only to stop when Applejack and Rainbow Dash both piled on her. Right the next second I got ahold of Thorne. I jerked him back off his feet. He dropped with a yell, and I bent to grab him.

Right then there came another burst of light around both Thorne and myself. We vanished from where we were. When I looked up, I saw Celestia looking down on me, and it wasn’t what you’d call a friendly look.

“Again I ask,” she said, and she didn’t sound the least bit motherly or kind right then, “Which of you is Thorne?”

What Thorne did then I’d have nair thought him to do. He pushed me back and away and walked up to Celestia, a-looking her in the eye to say, “I have the distinct honor of being Rowley Thorne, Your Majesty.”

He took a step back and bowed to her, like he stood in a royal castle and not in a ghost village in a haunted woods. Celestia seemed to smile the least bit. She sat and held up her hoof. Thorne didn’t hesitate. He took it and raised it to his lips, proper as you please, like someone in an old-timey story about King Arthur.

“Thorne,” she said, sounding a mite calmer, “Perhaps you can see fit to explain why you aided Discord, why you hurt my little ponies,” she fanned her wings out like to indicate Twilight and the others, who stood near her, “And what you think I ought to do with you?”

Twilight walked over by me as Celestia spoke to him. Thorne his own self just smiled on Celestia and started a-talking to her as polite as if they spoke together at some fancy party.

“I thought she’d be, I don’t know,” She said, a little cautious-like, “Angry.”

“Let’s wait and hear this now,” I bade her, a-wondering myself what was about to be.

“…And so, after Discord brought me here from my unjust imprisonment,” Thorne was a-saying to Celestia, “I received the choice of aiding him against your just rule, or being cast back to – where I’d been brought from. I regret much of what befell here, and any unjust injuries that have been inflicted on your ponies or myself…”

“Unjust injuries inflicted on you?” Thorne scowled at Twilight as she spoke up. Celestia just looked calm on her as she said, “Princess Celestia, please, don’t listen to him! He’s done nothing but hurt ponies since he came here, and…”

“Twilight Sparkle.” Celestia just said her name, like a teacher shushing her students, and Twilight fell silent. I saw how her friends behind her looked like they wanted to say more, but they held still too, and so did I. Celestia just looked on Thorne and nodded at him to say more.

“I thank you, Your Majesty,” he said, bowing his head to her. “Greater beings should converse in peace, should they not?”

“Indeed they should,” she said in a voice like music. “Please do continue with your explanation.”

“As I was saying,” Thorne said to her, “I regret all unjust injuries, as well as any mistaken ideas your subjects seem to have arrived at due to my forced obedience to Discord. I ask only that I be returned to my own world, where further complications between us may be avoided.” He paused, and then added with a nasty gleam to his eyes, “Though perhaps even in that I may be of service to Your Majesty.”

“Really?” She tilted her head to the side and raised the one eyebrow, like she paid consideration to what-all he said. I think maybe I heard Twilight or some of the others gasp as she said, “And how, exactly, would you serve me, Thorne?”

“As a Goddess deserves, Majesty,” he said to her with a smile. “With worshippers, with temples, with sacrifices.” His gray tongue licked out over his gray lips. “In exchange, of course, I would require some small share of your own power to convince shallow and skeptical minds of the truth of my words.”

Celestia said nair word. She just sat herself back and raised one forehoof to her chin like as though she thought on what he said. I looked around on Twilight and her friends. Her jaw hung open and she stared, like how I reckon maybe I wanted to. From all I’d been told of Celestia, she didn’t act much like what they’d said.

“What of your servant Lyra?” Celestia said. As she did, her horn glowed and Lyra floated up off the ground and over to her.

The little green unicorn whimpered and tried to huddle into herself.

“Her?” Thorne shrugged and said, “Punish her however you please. She means nothing to me.” Lyra gasped at his words, and I think I heard Bon Bon do it too.

“What if I asked you to make her an offering to me?” Celestia’s horn glowed again, and what looked to be a knife made of gold appeared right in Thorne’s hands. He snatched it right fast, and I saw that slug-tongue of his go over his lips again at the sight.

Twilight did gasp then. Spike looked right about as scared as she did. Past them both, Rarity looked ready to faint. She held her little sister back against her so she couldn’t see whatair was about to happen, and so did Applejack.

“Majesty,” Thorne said, smiling on her, “I’m so happy to see we can arrive at a mutually beneficial understanding.” He took the knife and stepped towards Lyra. Her eyes showed white all the way around as she looked on that knife. I took a step forward. I don’t rightly know what I meant to do, but knew I had to do something. Celestia’s eyes caught mine and I somehow heard the word, No. I stepped back and listened as she asked one last thing of Thorne.

“Would you offer more to me, if I asked you to?”

“Majesty,” he said, giving her a smile and a nod, “I would give you nations, no, worlds, if you asked it of me.” He turned to Lyra, pulled her head back by the horn, and raised the knife above her throat with a smile.

Poor Lyra cringed away in her fear, screaming. No words, just a scream like any dying horse.

And Thorne gave a sudden yell. That knife in his hand glowed white-hot and vanished. He turned to run again, only to stop as the glow of Celestia’s magic surrounded him and held him up afore her eyes.

“THAT,” she said, and she didn’t sound curious or friendly to him now, “WAS THE WRONG. ANSWER.” Thorne tried to say something, the words stumbling over each other as they came from his mouth. Celestia frowned and his jaw shut with a click.

“I wanted to see for myself,” she snorted, “Just what sort of a creature Discord brought into Equestria, and you have been only too happy to show me. You are truly worthy of him.”

“I won’t give you the punishment you deserve, Thorne,” He grinned, but her next words took the smile from his face, “But that’s only because I will NOT have your blood contaminating this world. I will, however, do THIS.”

“This is for trying to turn Discord loose!” Something like a slap, then, loud as a pistol shot, and his face jerked to the side.

This is for your cowardly murder of Captain Bastion!” she said, and another sound of a slap, and Thorne’s face jerked over to the other side, spitting blood.

“And this is for every vile thing you have done to my little ponies, from Twilight…”

SLAP!

“And the Elements of Harmony…”

SLAP! Thorne’s face showed hoofprints, like he’d been trampled but somehow lived through it.

“…to every single Royal Guard’s family and Ponyville resident who mourns their dead and injured tonight because of you!”

SLAP! Thorne dropped to the ground, tried to scramble away like a spider or a tick.

“Oh, no.” She stepped forward, pawing the ground like she was a-ready to charge, and her horn started to shine like the sun. “You are NOT getting away…”

And with that, the light of her horn grew brighter still, too bright to look at, hot and harsh. I think maybe Thorne tried to yell the once, but even as he did, it sounded like his yell was fading off into some distance. As the light faded out from under the trees, I looked for Thorne. He was gone, the last little bit of him. Twilight looked for him too, and when she saw nothing she approached Celestia where she stood.

“Princess, what did you do with Thorne?” Twilight bent close to hear her answer, and I reckon I took a step closer my own self to hear the answer.

“I cast him away,” she said, her voice calm again and maybe the least bit sad. “Back to whatever is between the worlds, where Discord found him. It’s too much to hope that he’ll stay there forever, but as I said, I wouldn’t have his blood spilled here. And I can hope he might have learned something from all this.”

“If he didn’t,” I said to her, “I doubt he’ll learn from any other.”

“Ah.” Celestia looked on me then, not angered or harsh, but there was still something in her eyes and voice that set you a-trembling. “So, you are John? The one who helped Twilight and the others, the one they summoned?” She smiled and added, “I seem to recall her mentioning something about you having a guitar?”

“I had the one, ma’am,” I replied her. I held up the broken neck with the silver strings, which was all I had left. I heard Rarity and Applejack both give a gasp behind me. “I’m kindly afraid it’s broken, though, which I do regret.”

“As do I,” she said, and she meant it to say it. “I heard the songs from your world once long centuries ago. I hoped to hear some of them again. But, however,” And her horn glowed as she brought Lyra up beside me to face her. “The last business of the day. What exactly do I do with the two of you?” She smiled on me, but her face went hard when she looked on Lyra. Not hard like some judge in court, but more like a parent who’s just caught their child a-making a right fool of themselves.

“Princess Celestia,” Lyra bespoke her, “I know what you have to do. Just, please, make it quick.” Her voice shook to say that last, and she added, “But, can I say goodbye to Bon Bon first?” She looked over at her friend. Bon Bon gave her a gaze that sorrowed back at her. Then she stepped up and spoke her own self.

“Please, Highness,” she said, and she pressed against Lyra as she said it, “Whatever happens to Lyra, if it’s something,” she swallowed, a right loud gulp we could all hear, “Something permanent, then please, send me with her too.”

“Very well,” Celestia said. She looked around at Twilight and me and the ponies. “All of you, please, gather around. I want this to be heard.” I stepped close, and so did Twilight and Spike and all the rest of us. I wondered at a sort of tugging I felt, but I ignored it as she spoke.

“Lyra Heartstrings,” Celestia said as she looked down on her where she huddled and shivered, “You have helped to do great evil to Equestria and its ponies. But you know this, and you regret it, which is more than can be said for Thorne. You will not be punished as he was,” and Lyra began to smile, but the smile froze right on her face as Celestia added, “But I won’t just let you go free, either.”

“Princess, please,” Twilight spoke up. When Celestia looked at her she said, “She was forced to do it by Thorne. She told me he was threatening Bon Bon, and…” Twilight went quiet when Celestia raised her hoof.

“I know, my dear student,” she said, “But before that, she aided him willingly when he injured ponies. Therefore, Lyra, this is your punishment.” She fell quiet and I saw that she thought on it. I strained, I reckon maybe we all strained, to hear what would be said.

“You will return to Ponyville to live among those you have harmed, and there you will work to help repair all the damage that you helped Thorne to do, to the town and to the ponies in it. You will also return to Canterlot with me where you will explain to Captain Bastion’s family just how he died, and your own role in it.” Lyra shuddered at that. I reckon maybe I would have too, no matter how just it was. Celestia nodded at her. “I’ll be there with you, and I will explain it to them as well, including the threats you and Bon Bon faced.” She looked at Twilight and her friends, and said, “I also ask this of you and the rest of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, Twilight Sparkle. You will watch over Lyra while she is in Ponyville, and while she does what she can to fix the damage she helped to inflict. I put her in your trust, and I ask that if you see any sign of Thorne’s corruption in her, that you do what you can to root it out. Also, protect her from any ponies who think I’ve been too merciful with her.” She looked down at Lyra once more, and said, “That is my judgment on you, Lyra.”

“Thank you, Highness,” Lyra said to her, and no mistaking the relief in her voice to say it.

“Don’t thank me too quickly,” Celestia said to her. “I have set you on a hard road, Lyra Heartstrings, but it is one of your own making. But you have friends and loved ones,” and she looked at Bon Bon, “Who still care about you. And you know that you did wrong, and you want to fix it. Your life won’t be easy for a time, but you’ll be the better for it once this is all over.” Then she turned to me.

“John,” she said, and bowed her head to me politely. “You helped my ponies when I and my sister had to contain Discord. You stood to protect them from Thorne and his sorcery, even after you learned that it was my idea that you be brought here and you would have had the right to refuse, even when it risked your own life.” She smiled at me. “Ask whatever you desire, and it will be yours.”

Now, I ask you all, what can you say to such an offer? I know there were a right many things I could have asked for, but right then I could only think of three of them.

“That’s right kind of you, Your Majesty,” I said to her, and I took my hat off and bowed my head back to her. I said in my politest, “I can only think of the three things. I was a-going to ask for mercy for Lyra,” I pointed at Lyra where she sat by Bon Bon, the two of them with their heads close and talking low and soft to each other, ”But you’ve done that already.”

Celestia nodded at what I’d said, like she approved. She asked, “What else, then?”

“Just this,” I said to her, and I waved my hand around, where Sunny Town had stood and would stand again, next witching hour. “Is there airy thing you can do, for these poor ponies in Sunny Town? They only listened to Thorne because he promised to bring them back to life again.”

“Could you, Princess?” Fluttershy said from where she stood, and Pinkie added in, “Yeah, they must be really seriously unhappy if they wanted to help Thorne! And if you brought them back I could do my first welcome-back-to-life party, and –ummph!” She fell silent when Rainbow Dash put her hoof over her mouth.

“I wish I could,” Celestia said, looking down with a sigh. “The curse was set on them by Nightmare Moon. She alone could lift it, and she is no more. Otherwise they alone can remove it, when they realize that they did wrong. And they yet refuse to do this.”

“That they do,” I said, thinking back on what I’d heard some of them saying when we fought.

“Hopefully today’s events have helped convince them differently,” Celestia nodded back at me sadly. “But until then, the gates of their prison are locked from the inside.” I nodded, for it reminded me of something I’d read once long ago.

“Why then, this is Hell, nor am I yet out of it,” I quoted it, “for wheresoever Hell is, there am I; and where I am, there Hell is.” The ponies all looked curious on me to hear that. Twilight and Celestia looked like they’d heard it before.

“That’s almost something from Marelowe’s play about Nightmare Moon,” Twilight said. Excitement came into her voice as she added, “John, they have or had someone like Kit Marelowe in your world? There are so many things we can learn from each other!”

“Perhaps later, my dear student,” Celestia said to her with a smile. Then she looked back at me. “Now then, I believe you said you had one last request?”

“It’s a small thing, and maybe selfish to ask just right now.” I held up the broken neck of my guitar again. “It’s just that, if we could visit some crafter pony in Ponyville sometime yet, and maybe I could get a replacement for my old guitar?” She grinned to hear it. I made haste to explain, “It’s only that I’ve had it with me most of the last twenty-odd years, and I knew it inside and out. It kept me company and saved my life and some others now and then. I’ll rightly miss it.”

“No need for apologies,” she said, looking like what I’d said amused her. “And I won’t give a replacement.”

“I suppose I do understand, Your Majesty,” I said to her, breaking in on her speech. “It’s been a right long day for us all.” I might have said the more, but she just laughed like the finest music.

“Now let me finish,” she said. Her horn glowed and the parts of my old guitar gathered themselves up and floated before her. “I won’t replace it, but I will restore it.” She looked around at Twilight and the other ponies. “But I might need some help, from those who’ve actually seen and heard your guitar being used. Twilight? Rarity, Applejack, any of you?”

No sooner than she said it, then they all went to her. They gathered in something like a circle, with my broken guitar inside. A light came from Celestia’s horn. I saw it go to Rarity and Twilight’s horns, and theirs began glowing too, soft and gentle. Maybe Celestia said something to them all, for then I heard Dash and Applejack and Pinkie and Fluttershy begin singing, and what they sang was the song I’d played for them all that other night, Vandy, Vandy.

“Wake up, wake up! The dawn is breaking,

Wake up, wake up! It’s almost day.

Open up your doors and divers windows,

See my true love march away…”

Inside of that circle, the bits and pieces of my old guitar gathered themselves up and set themselves back together. Big, little, just plain splinters, they all fixed and set themselves together like my guitar nair once broke. Maybe a little crackling in the varnish, but that was all. Their circle broke apart, and they all watched as my old guitar floated back over into my hands.

I felt it once the more, that tugging from before, but stronger this time. I played the song I’d heard that had drawn me here, those five notes a-repeating, and I felt it even more. The same pull I’d felt near a week afore, when my fingers went wrong on the strings at Luke Forshay’s party.

I walked over to Princess Celestia and bowed my head to her again. “I thank you, ma’am, and all of you too.” I said that last part to Twilight and her friends. I bent down and when Twilight came to me, I hugged her by the neck. “I’m right glad I met you all.”

“And I’m glad I met you,” Twilight said back to me, sounding happier than I could remember. “We’re going to have so much to talk about before you go back home. You can stay just one more day, right? Maybe two?” Spike groaned. I reckon he thought on all the writing he’d be doing. Twilight turned and said to Celestia, “He can stay just a little longer, can’t he, Princess? There’s so much to learn from him.”

I looked at Celestia, and as I did, I felt that tugging again, right hard this time. It pulled me off towards a trail leading into the Everfree, one I recognized from when I’d come here. Twilight and Applejack and the others saw what happened, and they looked confused. Celestia looked back at me, and she saw it. The smile she bore went just slightly sad.

“Were it my decision, Twilight, I’d say yes,” she told her. “But it’s not my choice. The Elements called him here. He’s done what he had to do. Now they’re sending him back home.”

“No! Please, Princess!” Twilight went up to her and looked up, her eyes quivering. “I’ve learned a few things from him about his world, but there’s so much more.” Celestia looked at her and shook her head.

“I’m sorry, Twilight,” she said. “But this is the way it has to be.” Twilight gave her one more look, and then she went over to me. I dropped down and hugged her round the neck. As I did, her friends all came round and joined in, and I heard them all giving me their goodbyes. Their voices sounded strange, like I was hearing horses whinnying behind the words.

“Y’all take care now, John, ‘n thanks for the music…”

“Oh, Mister John, thanks for all your help, and I’m sorry for the trouble we caused you. I’ll miss you…”

“I wanted to give you a we-saved-the-day party!”

“Please, John, if you ever come back, visit my Boutique and I’ll make something special for you; and thank you so much for everything…”

“Heh, hey, take care of yourself an’ thanks, alright?”

“I’ll rightly miss you all,” I told them as we hugged, “And I’ll nair forget a single one of you.” I rose from them and turned to go, and stopped when I near about tripped over Apple Bloom. I bent down for her and she hugged me hard.

“Ah wanted ya’ll ta stay,” She said, and sniffled a bit to say it. “Ah wanted ta hear more of your songs.”

“And I wish I could play them for you, Apple Bloom,” I told her back, “But it’s not always what we want in this world.” I rose up, that song louder in my head than ever, but before I set foot on that trail I turned and said the one last thing to Twilight and Celestia.

“Wait now,” I said to them. “Thorne told me that you couldn’t send me back to my own right place and time. I think he like as not lied, but if he didn’t, what then?”

Twilight looked like she wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. Celestia spoke up instead.

“I doubt the Elements are that careless,” she said, “But I’ll watch and so will Twilight.” Celestia touched her lightly with her wingtip. “It’s very hard to keep gates between worlds open, but I promise, if you need our help, just call to me and I will bring you back through to Equestria.” She paused afore she added, “Just know, that will be a one way trip.”

“And if that happens, John,” Applejack said, her voice a pure down promise, “Ah promise ya, you’ll have a home with me n’ Apple Bloom n’ the rest o’ the family.”

“I hope you get back and find everything as you wish, John,” Twilight said to me, looking just the least bit sad, “But if not, then I swear, you’ll always have friends in Ponyville.” She and Applejack both raised their hooves and said together, “Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a cupcake in my eye – OW!” Twilight rubbed her eye where she’d put her hoof.

“I know,” I replied them all, “and I thank you. Goodbye and bless you all.”

And with that, I turned and began walking back down the trail I’d followed that brought me here. I played the song as I went, hearing the sounds of the birds and animals all around me. They seemed different from what I’d heard in Equestria, kindly like those from home. My old guitar sounded the same as ever or maybe a bit better. The trail and the forest seemed to ripple around and under me, like I pushed my way through something. The ponies’ farewells started to fade behind me, a-changing from voices to sounds like any horse would make.

And then I was walking along a dirt road in a forest I knew. And I saw it, right there afore me. My own home place, mine and Evadare’s. I wondered myself if it looked dirtier compared to my memory of it from before. Or was it me?

Were Thorne’s taunts true, and I’d been a hundred years gone?

I went to the door, wondered if I dared to knock. And right then it opened, and someone came out. They stood about Evadare’s size, and the long gray hair hung down around their head. I opened my mouth to cry out back to Twilight and the rest, and then they looked up at me.

“John?” I knew that voice. Rueben Manco, a medicine man of the Cherokee, and near about one of my oldest friends in airy sense of the word. His bright wise eyes went wide when they saw me. “John, it is you?” he called into the house, “Evadare! John’s here, he’s returned to us.” He looked back at me. “Where have you been this past week?”

I opened my mouth to reply him, but right then I heard a “John!”

Evadare came out at a run, and she held me like we hadn’t seen each other for long years. We just hugged, and I reckon I nair felt happier to hold her and look on her than I did right then.

“John,” she said to me, “I swear to nothing, where did you come from? Did you find out whatair it was that was a-calling to you? And…”

And then she stopped, looking over my shoulder where I’d just come.

“Who… What-all are they just down the road?”

I turned to look, but I knew what she saw. Reuben Manco was looking down the road too, and I heard him singing or chanting something soft and low, maybe like a prayer.

I turned and looked and I could see them in the road under the trees, maybe a hundred yards away. A herd of bright-colored little ponies, Twilight and Applejack and Rarity, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, Lyra and Bon Bon and Zecora, the three even littler fillies and one tiny dragon, Rainbow Dash a-hovering in mid-air, the rest on the ground. And stretching her wings over them all, a white angel-horse, shining like she stood in full daylight instead of the shadow of the trees.

I pulled Evadare around tight, and waved my other hand over my head, like you signal “all clear” in the Army or howdy someone at a distance.

Celestia tossed her head and neighed, her wings spreading even wider over all the others. Pinkie bounced up on top of her back a-waving like a crazy woman. Then they all shimmered like the heat rising off a blacktop highway in summer and were gone as if they’d never been. Only the road and the trees. Naught else.

“Them?” I said to Evadare and Manco. “They’re just some friends of mine.”

Like I said afore, John’s my name, and those who know me know it’s no brag for me to say that I’ve been in many a strange place and seen many a strange thing. But I nair did see or be in any place half so strange as the time I went to a place called Equestria.

END

Often in the mountains I hear the people say

“You needn’t fear the dark, my child, since John has passed this way.”

And when I stop and ask them of this person who has gone,

They tell another story of a wanderer called John –

Every time they finish, and I ask where John did go,

They shake their heads and smile at me and tell me they don’t know,

And tell their watching children “There’s no need to be afraid,

There’s nothing in the darkness now but things the Good Lord made.”