• Published 20th May 2012
  • 6,048 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?

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Chapter 9

My Little Balladeer
Chapter 9

Ponyville seemed quieter than normal for an early spring night as Twilight Sparkle returned to the library. She saw a few huddled groups of ponies here and there as she cantered down the dirt street. They huddled together and talked in shaken voices about what they’d seen. She overheard some of it as she went by.

“Made the Elements of Harmony look like foals, right in front of everypony…”

“Did you hear what he said Applejack did? She asked the Nightmare for help, and, and her grandfather did die right after that, didn’t he?”

“Then doesn’t that mean that the Nightmare can grant wishes when you ask her for them? I don’t want anypony dead, but I can think of a few who could stand being taken down a few notches.”

“That Thorn creature turned into a Nightmare and challenged the Princesses, right in front of everypony! Mind, I don’t like that sort of thing, but if he’s that strong, wouldn’t it be better to have him on our side?”

“Said he could give magic to anypony, even us earth ponies! Would we even need the featherdusters or narwhals after that?”

“Who are you calling a featherduster, dirt pony?”

Twilight felt a shiver that had little to do with the chill of the night air. She hurried, her hooves clicking as they struck a stone here and there. If Thorn intended to arouse strife and disharmony among ponies, he’d done a fine job of it tonight. She looked around at the buildings she passed. The windows of Sugarcube Corner were dark, save for one upstairs where the Cakes lived. She thought she saw Mrs. Cake’s silhouette against it and dimly heard a conversation from within. Twilight hoped for her and Mister Cake’s sakes that they’d paid no heed to Thorn’s mockery.

Lights also showed upstairs in Filthy Rich’s mansion. Twilight didn’t find herself able to sympathize with him as much as he deserved, but she still hoped for his sake that he didn’t go galloping to Thorn, either to try something drastic or to beg for his help.

“He did a lot of damage in just a few hours,” she said as she saw the branches of the library rising and spreading out before her, “and right now I’m going to find out how he did it.” She opened the door and shut it behind her. Upstairs, she heard a soft hoot of greeting.

“Hi, Owlowiscious,” Twilight said absently. She turned the lights on and the lamp shed its soft glow over the interior, the cheap glowgem within it giving everything that pale white light. Twilight went to her reading desk and began carefully setting books aside. “Now, where did I put that book? Ah!”

The book she’d held dropped to the floor as the crimson symbol set in that hairy cover seemed to jump out at her like a spider lying in wait for flies. It’d been in that box of Rarity’s romance novels. Twilight fought down a shudder. She was getting entirely too imaginative. A flapping of wings announced Owlowiscious’ entry. He took up position on the nearest shelf of books and watched with his usual wise interest.

“Okay, here we go.” She took a deep breath and cracked it open. She prepared to recite the translation spell she’d memorized earlier when she realized that the words on the page weren’t Thorn’s alien language. They were perfectly normal Equestrian.

“What the hay?!” Twilight flipped through the pages. It wasn’t just the first pages she’d seen. Every page now showed perfectly legible albeit mouth-written Equestrian writing. Twilight remembered seeing some fine horn and mouth-done calligraphy in Celestia’s school, and this equaled it. “How did that happen? Did someone change the book?” She remembered how ponies said that when you talked to yourself, you were going crazy. Desperate, she looked at Owlowiscious. “Did anypony come in while I was gone?”

“Who?”

“Nopony?” She looked down at the book again. “But then how… wait.” A sudden suspicion bit. Twilight brought one of Rarity’s novels over to her and opened it.

Rarity would have been dismayed at what Twilight saw. The Equestrian script and words within were gone, replaced by words she remembered seeing within Thorn’s book earlier. Twilight set it back down and snatched out two more. A glance within showed her they’d been similarly altered. Then an even more horrible thought struck her. She set Thorn’s book aside and looked at the massive tome that lay beneath it:

Equestrian Encyclopedia of Collected Magical Lore

Twenty-Third Edition

Edited by Bastion Yorsets

Professor Emeritus, Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns

Dreading what she expected to see, Twilight opened it.

“No, no, no!

“Whooo?”

Twilight ignored Owlowiscious as she hurried through the pages. Nearly every word had been replaced by words from Thorn’s book. She groaned in disgust and nearly flung it aside. Then she returned to the Letters of Cold Fire.

“You’d better be worth this,” she snorted as she began reading it.

* * *

Before I could even say a thing, Twilight’s horn glowed and the books she’d been a-mentioning floated up from behind her desk and over to me. I just gave her a look, and she smiled.

“I figured you’d want to see them, you had that sort of look on your face,” she said. “Most ponies think I was exaggerating or making it up when I tell them. I wish I was, Professor Yorset’s book cost a foreleg and hindleg when I got it.” She looked at the fancy-bound book in my hands and sighed sad-like.

“I don’t reckon I blame you,” I answered her as I opened it. “I purely down hate to see a book get ruined like that.” I was about to look at it when a purple glow went around the other books. They looked like any paperback romance you’d see in a store, aside from the fancy-dressed mare and stallion on the cover.

“Pardon me, please,” Rarity said to me. “But I have to see this for myself.” She held it up before her eyes, her horn a-glowing like Twilight’s did, and opened it. I saw her face go angry as she did. “That, that wretched creature Thorne! He ruined one of my favorite books! Oh, Twilight, if this played any role in what happened to you, I am so sorry!” Real grief in her voice to say those last words, and in her eyes too as she looked at Twilight.

“It’s okay, Rarity,” Twilight said. “You didn’t do any of this, and I’m sorry you lost your books.”

“The books are replaceable, but what happened to you!” She walked around the desk, her hooves clicking lightly on the floor, and gave Twilight a nuzzle like I’ve seen horses do back home when they want to be a comfort to each other. They talked low and sorry-sounding to each other.

I looked into the book Twilight gave me and frowned as I saw what I’d near about expected to see. Hand-written words, a sort of mixtry of English and Latin and something I recognized as might could be Greek script from a book a wandering preacher showed me the one time. There were other words there too, or maybe symbols would be better to say. Some I thought I recognized, but others were strange to me.

“These here,” I said to Twilight as I held it out to her. “They’re Equestrian signs and letters, aren’t they?” Twilight and her friend looked at what I showed them. I wondered myself something and asked it out loud, “Wait. You spelled me to know your language and speak it. Then why can’t I be reading these here?”

“Because that spell only works on speech, not the written form of a language,” Twilight answered me. She looked over at one of her shelves, and I figured that to be where she kept more of her magic books. They looked thick and solid enough to make for a set of store bought encyclopedias, good ones. “There are other spells for written language. I can cast one on you if you want.”

“No, I thank you,” I said with a shudder. I remembered how that earlier spell felt when it bit. I’d not like to do that more than I could help it, maybe less than that even.

“Why are the words all jumbled?” Rarity asked that. She pointed her hoof at the book. “The Equestrian words, I mean. I don’t know about the alien ones. Or are they just set in randomly as well?” Twilight looked at me curiously then, too. I half noticed that the sunlight behind her was showing almost straight down where it came through the windows. We’d been listening to her some time now.

“They are, leastways the ones I can read,” I said to them both. “I reckon the others are too. Maybe Thorne’s book just took out whichever words it needed from the books near it, so you could be reading them? Wait, what did happen when you read it, anyway?”

Right then I felt that tenseness from before, when I described that book to Twilight. She took a deep breath, like someone who faced something hard and bad ahead. She closed her eyes and lowered her head like any tired and hurting horse. Rarity laid her neck across her back, and Pinkie and Fluttershy got up from behind me and walked around to stand by her. They sure did care about each other a right much.

“Twilight, if you don’t want to…” Rarity began, but Twilight spoke up then.

“No, I need to do this if we’re to face Thorne.” She looked at them and smiled. “Maybe you could help with some details on what was happening outside, though.” They nodded at her. She looked back at me and started back on her story again.

* * *

The first part of the book brought an eyeroll from Twilight. It was filled with the usual folk-magic ‘spells’ sold in books popular among earth ponies and rural ponies of all sorts. How to find water or cure disease or protect livestock. She did feel some unease at the wording of them, however. They seemed to suggest that you would be stealing the health or fertility from others to provide for your own animals and lands.

“Even when Thorn wants to help someone, he has to take it from someone else,” she muttered. Owlowiscious said nothing. He just watched her as she continued turning through the book. The second part held darker spells, the kind found only in protected spellbooks. Twilight remembered seeing a few before when she’d been favored with a glance inside some of the books in the sealed section of the royal library. These were spells for commanding and forcing the love and loyalty of others, for mind control. She squirmed as she remembered her own foalish acts along those lines. And there were more, and her excitement at finding new magic began to override her distaste for the way some of these spells were meant to be worked. Spells for winning when you cheated at gambling, to protect yourself from enemies by destroying the weapons they’d bear against you, for the finding of wealth and the taking of vengeance upon others, delivering plagues and blights on animals and crops and foals. The latter spells especially were both numerous and all too easily performed for her liking. She looked at Owlowiscious, rubbing her eyes.

“This thing seems to have been made to be abused,” she said. “Here’s hoping that the last section redeems it.” She flipped past to the black pages. They showed blank before her. “What the hay? Oh, remember, Twilight!” She focused her concentration and called up darkness again. It worked even faster and better now than before. The room was soon a landscape of vaguely-seen shapes. She heard the scrape of claws and ruffling of feathers as Owlowiscious shifted where he sat. He sounded uneasy to Twilight. She looked down at the page and saw the letters appear once more, only this time in Equestrian.

“Finally!” Twilight bent down to read it and winced at the first lines. She read them aloud, wondering if they’d somehow make more sense that way. “’Remember always, fear is stronger than love. Where love can but plead, fear commands. Serve Those Above in rejoicing. Serve Those Below in terror.’ Who wrote this, Nightmare Moon?” She wondered if she ought to set it aside. Then her eyes went wide at what she read next. “Prepare your mind to receive great knowledge. Empty yourself of your own thoughts, Twilight Sparkle, and proceed to invoke the names of…”

My name? This has gone from weird city to creepytown. I’m not reading any more of this! She thought the words, but she couldn’t say them, couldn’t look away from the book before her, couldn’t do anything but start reciting the names she saw there.

“Holaha, Eroyhe, strong Alector, Somiator, sleep ye not! I call to you, Mikaded, Tuma, Tumch…”

Her eyes grew wider and wider as they focused on the book, ignoring everything else. A Want It, Need It geas! It has to be! Counterspell after counterspell raced through her mind, first the specific one against Want It, Need It, then the generic Dispel Magic, then an emergency protection ward….

Owlowiscious’ frantic hooting faded away in a flapping of wings as he fled the room. As the litany went on, name after name, she felt something vast and terrible turning its attention to her. Mingled with and through her chanting came a howling like every monster in the Everfree roaring at once mingled with the maddened shrieking of ponies. Or maybe the ponies sought to sound like the monsters, and the monsters like the ponies. And it felt like something horrible was getting ready to crawl out from under the table and she cried at herself to stop saying the names!

But all she could do was scream them louder and louder.

“Hear my call, Mighty Tetragrammaton, Molech of the Flames, Ba’al-Zebul of the Flies, Bloody Asherah, Asmodeus, Athe, Stoch…”

* * *

“Anypony see anything?” Rainbow Dash called down to her friends as she watched the Town Hall from above. It lay quiet and still, with no sign of Thorn or Lyra or anypony else. Dash snorted as she circled low, dropping down by Applejack. She asked her in a quieter tone, “Jacky, you okay?”

“Fer th’ last time, Dash, Ah’m fine,” Applejack responded in a frustrated tone. “It’s Thorn we gotta watch for. You see any sign o’ him from up there?”

“Nah, nothing,” Dash said. She folded her forelegs and frowned over them. “I wish he’d come out and try something. Right now I’d really like to give him a hoof in the face, after what he did at that show of his.” The cyan Pegasus hesitated, looking around Ponyville, and then added, “It was nastier than anything Trixie did, wasn’t it?”

“It most certainly was,” Rarity spoke up as she trotted over from where she’d been watching. A quiver went along her elegant flanks as she shivered. “What a brute Thorn is! I suppose I can understand a performer quieting hecklers, but he, he savaged those poor ponies like a monster from the Everfree! And he was proud to do it!”

“At least nopony got a green mess of a mane out o’ it,” Applejack said. Dash grinned at her words. Rarity’s response drove the grin away.

“I’d rather a thousand, no, a million times over that my mane was the only thing he’d touched. I can fix my coiffure with far more ease – well, with slightly more ease – than you can repair the kind of damage he tried to inflict,” Rarity looked up as Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie came up from opposite sides. Spike hurried along behind.

“Spike, dear, are you warm enough?” Rarity asked the little dragon in the sweater. He drew himself up, thrusting his chest out.

“Me? Naaah, I’m fine. I got my own heating system, remember?” He puffed out a bit of fire as he spoke. He looked off towards the library. “I sure hope Twilight is okay. I’m not sure she shoulda checked out Thorn’s spellbook after what we saw.”

“Ahh, she’ll be okay,” Rainbow Dash said, making a dismissive motion with one hoof as she did. “Remember what she said. Thorn’s spells are good, but they’re mostly just tricks. He’s just another loudmouth like Trixie. This time tomorrow he’ll be runnin’ out of town and we’ll all have a laugh over what happened.”

“I sure hope so,” Pinkie Pie said, an uncommon note of anger – well, of annoyance – in her voice. “Thorn was such a big meanie jerkface to the Cakes! Mister and Mrs. Cake would never even think of doing what he suggested they did! After all this I’ll go throw them a party and show them nopony believes what they heard. Oooh, maybe I can throw one for the whole town after we chase Thorn out or just make him realize he was being mean to us all?”

“Ah dunno, Pinkie,” Applejack answered her. She scraped at the ground with one hoof as she watched the town hall. “Somethin’ tells me Thorn knew what he was doin’ every minute, an’ that’s why he did it.” They were silent for a few moments, and then Fluttershy spoke up.

“I wonder, do you think he could do what he said?” She shied back when her friends all looked at her, but went on to say, “I mean, when he said he could give magic to earth ponies and others? I can think of some who’d do a lot of good if they could help everypony the way unicorns can.”

“Ah don’t think so.” Applejack shook her head. “Somethin’ tells me Thorn’s the kind of pony who offers ya a shiny new plow only ‘cause he wants to measure yore neck for the collar. Ah’ve done wondered now n’ then what it’d feel like to have magic like unicorns or pegasi do, but Ah’m not so sure I could handle it half as well as they do.”

“I think you’d do fine, dear. You show more maturity then some unicorns I know.”

“Huh, thanks, Rarity.” Applejack nodded at the elegant mare. “But it depends on just how easy it is ta do. If you could just cut loose with somethin’ when you got mad, just lost your head for a second…”

Wings sounded above them. The girls and Spike looked up and gasped.

“Princess Celestia!” They quickly dropped into respectful bows as the Sun Princess – Pegasus-winged, unicorn-horned, twice the size of any mortal pony – dropped to earth, shining white like it was day instead of night, triple-pointed Royal Tiara shining golden atop her head.

A moment later, a dozen golden-armored pegasi of the Royal Guard dropped down behind her, metal-shod hooves making soft thuds against the ground. Despite the long flight from Canterlot and the barding all wore, none of them looked tired or even smelled sweaty. The guardponies had their training, and Celestia, well, she was Celestia.

“Greetings, my little ponies,” The princess said to them, bowing her own head. “I came as soon as I could, and given some of what Twilight Sparkle told me about this ‘Thorn’ being, I thought it best not to come alone.” She looked at the town hall. “He is inside there?”

“Him an’ Lyra, we’re guessin’.” Applejack spoke up when she saw the curiosity on Celestia’s face. “Oh, uh, that’d be Lyra Heartstrings. She’s kinda, umm, fascinated with humans. So when Thorn showed up, she decided to help him with doing his show.”

“I remember her,” The princess said with a smile. “She wrote me once to ask if I knew anything about humans beyond legends. I told her I had nothing I could share with her, which was true.” She looked around, her horn flashing in the moonlight. “And where is Twilight Sparkle?”

“Oh, uh, she decided to take a look at that creep Thorn’s spellbook that he gave her, your majesty,” Rainbow Dash pointed towards the library. “I’m guessing she’s still there, and – WHAT THE HAY?”

The others all jerked their heads up and around. It started out in the Everfree, a wild howling and shrieking. They had heard the angry roars of dragons and the bellows of a hydra on the hunt, but this sounded worse than both. High and wild and shrill with gleeful madness, it started coming closer to Ponyville, heading towards…

“The library! Oh my gosh, Twi!” Spike raced off, his short legs working faster than any of them had ever seen before. They started after him. Wings flapped frantically, and Owlowscious flew out of the dark to hover before Celestia, hooting rapidly. The Sun Princess listened, and as she did her eyes went wide with something few ever saw there. Real and genuine fear.

“What? Twilight Sparkle? Doing what to her?” Celestia turned and shouted at her guards, “Stay and keep watch. If you see that creature Thorn, arrest him immediately! Captain Bastion, come with me!” She lowered her head and raced off, so swiftly the other ponies didn’t know if she flew or ran. Owlowiscious flew behind her, still hooting away. Applejack and the rest followed her, their hooves pounding the ground. Rainbow Dash flapped hard until she raced neck and neck with her.

“Princess! What’s goin’ on? Is Twilight okay?” Celestia said nothing. She just shot her a sidelong glance, and Dash saw so much dread and fear in it that she put on a burst of speed that sent her flying at the library door. As she approached the noises from the Everfree got louder and wilder, and to her horror Dash realized they were echoed by the sounds coming from within the library. It sounded like half the monsters in Equestria were behind that door, howling in victory. And through it all rang Twlight’s voice, sounding more frantic then they ever could remember hearing, calling names none of them recognized:

“I call to you, Melkor, Aazalek, Adramalek, Ka’ath, to open the gates we sealed and free the prisoner…”

Dash hurled herself at the door. The next thing she knew, she found herself looking up at a circle of her friends, their faces full of concern.

“Dash! Ya’ll okay?”

“What’re ya doin’ here, when you should be in the library?” Dash shook her head, wondering where her newfound migraine had come from. “I just knocked the door down!”

“No, you just bounced off the door, an’…” By now the shrieks were closer and louder than ever and Applejack was yelling to be heard. They could hear neighs of panic from within the town. Terror clawed at Applejack and Rainbow Dash and the rest, the awareness that a predator was near and ready to pounce.

Celestia cried out, and her voice was like a sudden splash of cold water that drove the fear down. “Applejack! Break that door down! NOW!”

Applejack lowered her head, scraped the ground with one hoof, snorted and charged. At the last second she wheeled and kicked out with both her hind legs, the best apple-bucking legs in Equestria. Pain shocked along her legs and back. She was flung back and down, like Rainbow Dash.

“Applejack! Rainbow Dash!” Fluttershy was by her and Dash a second later. She tried to help them up, but both ponies got back up with a snort. Fluttershy stepped back at the look of newborn anger in their eyes.

“C’mon, Jacky,” Dash said as she stared at the door, head down and ears lowered. Applejack nodded her agreement. “We’re gettin’ in there!”

“Right behind ya, sugarcube. Ain’t no crazy door stoppin’ me from helping mah friends!” They prepared to charge again, shoulder to shoulder this time. At a word from Celestia they stopped.

“No – Stand clear!” she neighed as she stepped past them, looking ridiculously elegant as she did. Her eyes glowed like the furnaces of stars. Light glowed and ran along her horn as she approached the door. It gathered at the tip and flared up. And then it reached out and covered the wood and metal of the library door.

The door shuddered and held. The ponies stared in shock. Celestia herself took a step back in seeming disbelief. Something rumbled laughter within. And over it, they heard Twilight’s voice, risen to an equine scream.

“ARIOCH! GROGAR! IBLIS! LEVIATHAN! TIREK! TASH! ALL YE NAMED AND UNNAMED!”

“Twilight!” None of them knew later if one or all of them said it, but it was Celestia who stepped forward. Light played around her, bright and fierce as the summer sun, turning night into day. The ponies couldn’t see her at the door, but they heard her say something in a voice clear and strong as a golden bell. The door flew past them in pieces, the wood smoldering and the metal glowing as though fresh from the forge.

“Twi!” Before even Celestia could go in, a small purple-scaled form rushed past her into the darkened room. Applejack and the girls were hot on his heels, but they froze when they got to the door and saw Twilight.

Her mouth dripped froth as she tore through the words of the incantation in the book floating before her eyes. The maddened howling sounded like a storm now, ready to break over them and flatten them beneath it. But that terrified them less than what they saw happening to their friend.

Her coat was changing colors, a rotted gray running up her legs and along her body like gangrene, her eyes wide and filled with spiraling chaotic colors as she screamed out the last words of the spell being forced into her mind.

“I MADE MY WISH BEFORE, I MAKE MY WISH NOW! I NEVER SAW THE DAY MY WISH DID NOT COME TRUE! I, TWILIGHT SPARKLE, BEARER OF THE ELEMENT OF MAGIC, OF MY OWN FREE WILL…”

“Twilight!”

Five frantic ponies struck her, bearing Twilight away from the book. She vanished beneath them as they ponypiled her to the floor, all crying out as they did.

“Twilight! Stop, darling, can’t you see what you’re doing?”

“It’s bad magic, Twi! Ya gotta stop sayin’ it!”

“We have to hold you down, Twilight! Uh, if that’s okay with you… EEK!”

Fluttershy and the rest flew away from Twilight in a blast of purple light. Cries of pain rose all around as they smashed into the walls and shelves of the library. Spike was forced back, his claws digging furrows in the wooden floor. Owlowiscious dropped down before Twilight, hooting, only to be sent spinning into a far corner, feathers flying. The shrieking outside reached a fever pitch of madness and victory. And as it did Twilight began to call out the last words, oblivious to anything except the incantation forcing itself into her mind.

“DISCORD, AWAKE! I CALL YOU BACK TO EQUES--”

And then the noonday sun descended into the room. Ponies and dragon and owl all saw a ponylike form of white celestial fire, winged and horned, her mane streaming like the solar wind, stride up to their friend and lower a horn of pure light to her forehead. Twilight froze and shuddered, the creeping grayness stopping and reversing, as it spoke in a voice that echoed through the small library:

“TWILIGHT SPARKLE! Return to Us immediately!”

The demonic cachinnation cut out in mid-shriek, though later the girls would ask each other if they thought they heard something fleeing into the Everfree, whimpering in fear. The feeling of something crawling up out of a pit into the room vanished. The only sound to be heard was Twilight’s gasping and sobbing as Celestia held her.

* * *

Twilight broke off then, and shuddered at the memory of it. She took a deep breath, another. I wondered if she’d be able to say more and then she spoke.

“I have studied unicorn magic since I was a little filly, ever since my first Summer Sun Celebration, where I saw Princess Celestia raise the sun. My brother is in the Royal Unicorn Spellguard, a specialist in wards and protections. I was tutored in magic by the Princess herself, and she showed me magic and spells that no other pony knows. I was chosen bearer of the Element of Magic.” Her horn glowed softly and a star-topped tiara rose out of her saddlebag a little bit, surrounded by a purple light. “And I have never felt magic that vile in all my life. Except when we fought Discord.” She shuddered again to say it.

I wondered myself who this “Discord” was they all kept a-talking about. They said it like it was a name, and a right bad one by the way everyone here acted when they heard it. I half wondered if it was what these ponies called the Devil.

She drank some water down, and I waited until she finished. When she set it back down, I asked her, “What happened next?”

“First,” she said, breathing a little calmer now, “the Princess made sure I and everypony else was all right. And then she told us what she wanted us to do.”

* * *

“Twi!” Spike hurried forward to join in the embrace, rubbing his face against Twilight’s coat. She reached out with one leg and pulled him in close, holding both him and Celestia as though she feared ever letting go. Applejack and the others rose, groaning in pain. Celestia showed no signs of taking notice, but light flashed again in the room, soft and gentle this time. And when it faded, their aches and pains were gone.

“Twilight,” Celestia said, holding her close. She nuzzled Twilight like she was her own foal. “Twilight, oh, Twilight, you’re safe now. You’re free of it.”

“Darkness,” Twilight gasped and choked, “I was someplace that was all darkness, no floor or horizon or even stars. It felt like the world was crushing me, and all I heard was a voice telling me that I’d failed y-you, failed everypony, and I deserved to be there where I was and to be alone and in the dark forever and I’d killed you all…”

“Twilight!” The purple unicorn looked up at the command in Celestia’s voice, her face streaked with tears. Celestia locked eyes with her pupil and said more softly, “It was a vision forced upon you by dark magic. You were here the entire time. You’re fine, you’re still in the library in Ponyville, and your friends are all fine, see?”

Twilight looked past her to see her friends pulling themselves up from the wreckage. Applejack’s hat had somehow ended up on Pinkie Pie’s rump and her lasso was wrapped around Dash’s wings; Dash sported a sizeable knot on her head; and Fluttershy and Rarity had to untangle themselves from each other’s mane and tail before they could rise, looking rather woozy.

“See, Twi?” AJ said, sounding almost as bad as she had that long-ago day when she’d stayed awake for five days straight bucking apples and nearly poisoned half the town. She rose on legs that looked like they wanted to collapse beneath her. “We’re all just right as rain, and jest as soon we get th’ number o’ that dragon, we’ll bake him an apple pie with thorns in it.” Her eyes rolled up and she collapsed.

“Jacky!” Pinkie Pie snatched up a bucket of cold water from – somewhere – and dashed it over Applejack’s face. The earth pony shot up on her feet, eyes wide open.

“Ah’m awake! Ah’m awake!” Her eyes focused on Pinkie. She snatched her hat off Pinkie’s rump. “Darn it, Pinkie, that ain’t no way to go treatin’ my hat! Wait, how’s Twilight?”

“Still here,” Twilight said as she rose on legs made of rubber. The words of the spell seemed burned from her mind and that made her very happy indeed. “Wait! That spellbook of Thorn’s!” She looked to see it lying open on the floor before her as though it expected to be used again. Twilight shuddered and kicked it into the far corner. “Oh, Princess, everypony, I’m so sorry, that spell, it took over my mind, right through all my wards and dispels, it was calling me to free Discord, and…”

“And you didn’t,” Celestia said to her gently. “We would have felt it if he’d gotten free. He’s still bound. If Thorn intended that, he failed. And speaking of that creature…” She turned to the broken library door. A moment later two of the Royal Guards who’d accompanied her to Ponyville appeared in the doorframe. And gasped at what they saw.

“Your Highness! Are you well? Do you need any help?”

“Listen to me, all of you. You as well, Rainbow Dash.” Dash shook off her grogginess and flew, hovering at attention as the Princess spoke. “Gather the Ponyville Weather Patrol. I will be sending the Royal Guard from Canterlot. Captain Bastion!”

“Yes, Highness?” answered the Pegasus Day Guard with officer’s badges and helmet-crest.

“To the Town Hall. The Elements will accompany you. When reinforcements arrive, storm the building and arrest this ‘Thorn’ immediately – full magical precautions. And when you do, I…”

And then light flashed yet a third time inside the Ponyville public library that night. Twilight and her friends blinked and saw someone they’d seen only twice before – another alicorn, smaller than her sister but as large as Big Mac, midnight blue with stars sparkling in her mane and a crescent moon on her flanks instead of a royal sunburst, her triple-pointed crown obsidian instead of gold.

Princess Luna stood there, her eyes wide and her ears flat against her head. She opened her mouth to speak and Twilight felt herself flinching back. Hearing the Royal Canterlot Voice in close quarters right now was not something she would enjoy.

Instead when the Night Princess spoke, it was in a fearful voice. “Tia! Thou are needed in Canterlot! Now! I was just in the garden. Discord’s statue is cracking!

Gasps went around the room. Twilight felt the floor dropping away beneath her. “No,” she said helplessly, hoofing herself in the face, “No, no, no…” Her friends gathered around her. She felt them trying to support her, but all she could think of was, I set Discord loose….

“WHAT?” Celestia’s horror looked scarce less than Twilight’s. She turned on her and said, “Twilight, hear me. None of this is your doing. If Discord is still in stone,” she glanced at Luna, who nodded frantically, “Luna and I can keep him there, but it will take all our attention and power. Captain Bastion, I appoint you liaison with Twilight Sparkle as my representative in Ponyville. Obey her as you would me. I will be sending reinforcements as soon as I return to Canterlot. But you and your friends will have to handle Thorn yourselves, Twilight. And be ready with the Elements to come immediately if I summon you. I’m sorry to drop this into your hooves. But first,” and sunlight played along her horn as Celestia levitated the Letters of Cold Fire up from where Twilight kicked it. She walked outside, the book floating along behind her. The Pegasus guards stepped aside, watching everything with wide eyes. Twilight and her friends followed her, and Luna followed them. Once there, Celestia stopped and moved the spellbook to a point on a level with her eyes and a few feet in front of her.

“As a rule,” she said in the icy voice she’d reserved for Discord, “I’m very against the burning of books. But this one time I’ll happily make an exception.” Her horn glowed and white-hot sun-fire poured down on the book. She let its remains drop to the ground. “Come on, Lulu,” she said, spreading her wings, “I want to be back in Canterlot as soon as possible. We have much to do, and the sooner we start…”

Twilight stepped forward and almost tripped. She looked down and cried out one word.

“NO!”

Everpony stopped at the cry. They all turned and stared.

The Letters of Cold Fire lay in front of Twilight on the ground at her hooves. No sign of burning showed on it beyond some minor scorching of the cover. As they watched, even that vanished, with new hairs growing in to replace the ones burned away. And then it flipped open, and Twilight felt the words start to run in her mind. Do not reject the gift you have freely chosen, Twilight Sparkle. Holaha, Eroyhe, strong Alector…

It yanked away from under her sight. Twilight staggered and gasped. She looked up to see Celestia bringing a set of her saddlebags out of the library. She pushed the book down into them and set them across her back, tying them on.

“Sister, what happened?” Luna stepped up and stared at the saddlebag.

“We’ll find out later,” Celestia told her. “We’ll return to Canterlot by the swiftest route. Twilight, Captain Bastion, all of you, I will send word as soon as I may. Until then, be well.” Light flashed as she stopped speaking, and when it cleared both Celestia and Luna were gone, teleported away.

* * *

“The very next thing we did,” Twilight said to me, “Was to go to town hall with the Royal Guards. We got there and found it empty. No Thorne, no Lyra, nopony, and no sign of where they’d gone. We asked around and heard from Derpy that while she hadn’t seen Thorne or Lyra, she’d seen Bon Bon headed off along the old road that leads to Zecora’s hut. Bon Bon told her she was going to go and bring Lyra back before she did something really stupid.”

“Stupider than she’d already done?’ Dash grumbled.

“Please, Dash,” Fluttershy said in that gentle way of hers. “Lyra was caught up in the moment. She didn’t know what she was doing.”

“Pardon my interrupting again,” I said to them all, “But did you have airy more troubles with that book?” They all stared at me again.

“Yes,” Twilight finally said, “But how would you know? Wait, never mind, I’m sure we’ll hear about it later. The next morning more Royal Guards arrived from Canterlot, a company each of Day and Night Guard pegasi plus a detachment of Spellguard unicorns. They brought along three chariots for us in case we needed to be taken to Canterlot in a hurry. And that wasn’t all that came back! That book the Princess took back to Canterlot for investigation under wards? She wanted to seal it in the Secret Archives she and Professor Yorset spoke of, with the shards of Nightmare Moon and other magics too dangerous for anypony. But it was right back here on the reading stand!” She looked at me like she expected me to be surprised, but I wasn’t. From the first she told me I thought I’d be a-hearing something like this.

“Well, wherever is it now?” I asked her.

“We did this twice. I set wards. She set wards. Still no good. Finally she brought this safe,” and she pointed off to the side with one hoof. I looked and saw the safe I’d seen when I walked in. It looked good and solid as a mountain. Twilight nodded when she saw the look on my face.

“It’s magically sealed, magically locked, warded with all the powers of an immortal alicorn plus spells from the most powerful unicorns at her school. It will take the willing and unmagically-coerced efforts of three bearers of the Elements of Harmony, a unicorn, a Pegasus, and an earth pony, to open it.” She spread her hooves out to indicate her friends. “And the next day,” she shook her head like she still couldn’t quite believe it, “The safe was back here, in the middle of the floor. At least the spellbook’s still inside, though. I can feel it.”

“What?” That was Rainbow Dash again. She certainly wasn’t shy when she wanted everyone to know something, let me tell you. She flew over to the safe and tapped it wary-like with one hoof. It made a dull sound. She turned to look at me. Glare at me might be more like it, really, and she said, “How can that happen?”

“I reckon it’s like a Grand Albert,” I told her and all of them.

“A what?”

“It’s a grimoire some folks use back home, here and there, but not near as strong as this one from what you-all told me about it.” They still looked a mite confused, so I said, “Like one of your spellbooks. You can’t buy or sell one, you have to either give one or be tricked into taking it, like you were.” I nodded at Twilight.

“Okay,” she said, sounding right wary. I couldn’t blame her for it. “And?”

“When you get one, you can’t burn it or throw it away,” I added. “You have to bury it like a person, with holy words over it, or else it’ll come back to you.” I might could have said more but Twilight broke in.

“Arrgh, that’s not how magic works! A spellbook is just, just a book! Okay, it has magical knowledge in it, and some private or classified ones have protective geases on them so ponies who weren’t given permission can’t read it, but the book itself is just wood and fabric and paper!” She lowered her head and shook it, and she looked and sounded tired when she looked back at me. “It just, magic’s not supposed to work this way!”

Your magic right here,” I reminded her. “Where I come from, it’s all rightly different. Let me guess, magic’s a natural thing in your world, isn’t it? Something like fire or water or air, a part of the world?” She looked kindly confused, but she nodded at me. I looked around at her friends and I saw wondering looks on their faces too. “But where I come from, there’s no natural magic, or next to none. You’ve got to ask other things for it, angels or devils or spirits, and if they want to help you, or you pay them off enough to make them want to, you can do it.” Twilight and Dash both looked unhappy to hear that.

“Hold on now,” Applejack said as she walked up in front of me. “If that’s true, then how does Thorne keep on doin’ his magic? We don’t have any alicorns in Equestria ‘ceptin the Princesses, Cadence n’ Celestia n’ Luna. And only Celestia n’ Luna can do the kind o’ things we saw Thorne doin’. And you said, what, you could get power from Nightmares or windigos? But nopony can do that. Or else they’d have done it afore this, wouldn’t they?”

“I don’t know the answer to that,” I said to her. To myself I wondered that they had windigos here, in a place as peaceable as this. I hoped I wouldn’t be meeting any if they were aught like what Reuben Manco, a medicine man of the Cherokee, told me about them. I snapped my fingers to think of something. “Wait, you all said something about this Discord fellow. Might maybe he could do it?” Twilight opened her mouth to answer but Dash spoke up first.

“Yeah, if he wasn’t in stone, right where we put him,” Dash said, sounding right pleased to be saying it. I looked from her to Twilight, and she nodded to me.

“Discord’s still bound in stone in Canterlot. Both the princesses are watching him for any further sign that he’s escaping. All six of us who bear the Elements of Harmony are ready to leave for Canterlot on a moment’s notice. If it looks like he’s stirring, we’re going to hit him all at once before he can bring Chaos to the land like last time.” She sat down and sighed. She sounded and looked tired from saying it all, and I reckon she had more than the right to. By the way the sun shined through the windows, we were well along into the afternoon by now.

I wondered myself, if this Discord of theirs was the Devil or as close as made no difference, was his a-being locked in stone the reason these ponies lived in a place that looked like it ought to be right next door to Paradise?

“So there you have it,” she said. “We can’t call on the Princesses for help. We don’t know where Thorne is or what he can do, aside from the facts that he’s very dangerous and he has at least one, and maybe two, of our fellow citizens of Ponyville with him. And he has magic that’s alien to us and that we seemingly can’t defend against. From all you’ve said, John, you know more about his magic than we do. Will you please help us protect our homes and our families?”

“This is no small problem you have, and as I’m here I’ll be glad to help howair I can.” Well, I ask you all, what else could I say to that? But then I thought myself of something and stood up to look around at them all. “But what did you mean before when you said you think you’re the reason I’m here?”

Twilight looked round at all her friends. I saw she looked shamefaced, and I looked to see how the others fared. Applejack looked bothered like Twilight did. Dash looked like she didn’t quite trust me yet. Fluttershy looked on me like she wanted to say she was a-sorry for air thing that happened to me since I arrived here, and Rarity looked embarrassed like a lady who dropped a cussword before the preacher at Sunday dinner. Pinkie just smiled at me like she trusted me air way possible, and I reckon I had to smile back at her. Just a being near her made you want to laugh out loud for joy.

“John,” Twilight said to me, “It’s just that, Thorne’s magic is so different from Equestrian magic that we weren’t sure that even the Elements of Harmony could work against him. But Princess Celestia suggested something to us the last time we spoke to her. She said that, a long, long time ago, when the Elements existed in a completely different form, they brought help through from another world to the ponies who lived then. And if we asked, it might do so again.” She looked away, her cheeks flushing. “I remember, we were all gathered by the edge of the Everfree and we sang a few notes from an old song here in Equestria.”

“Let me hazard a guess,” I said to her. “It went something kindly like this?” I took my guitar and played the five notes I’d been hearing for days now, that I’d heard again in Applejack’s farmhouse from her sister. Twilight flinched a bit.

“Yes, that’s it. It’s the oldest song in Equestria, from before there was an Equestria. Older than the Princesses, and they’re as old as the world. We felt something happen when we did it, like a call or cry going out, but we didn’t know what would happen or who if anyone would come. We’re sorry to have done this to you.”

“We’re gonna be sorrier still if he’s like Thorne, or if he can’t help us,” I heard Dash grumble. Applejack shushed her with something about being polite to guests, but I reckon I just gopped at Twilight. I’ve seen spirits be summoned before, for a few good reasons and many a bad one, but I’d never been the thing someone called up before.

I reckon I stood there a bit while I thought on how to make an answer to what she’d said.

And right then there came a knock at the door. And a voice I’d never heard before asked, “I’m here from Rowley Thorne, and I’ve come to take his book back if you don’t want it, Twilight. May I come in?”