• Published 16th Nov 2011
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My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring - JohnBiles



The Mane Six. Typical D&D Adventurer Hijinx. As told by an adventurer rescued by them.

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Book One: Well-Met in the Malpheggi

My(stara's) Little Ponies: Friendship is Adventuring
A D&D (Mystara) / My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic crossover

Book 1: Well Met in the Malpheggi

By John Biles

***************

There is no more wretched hive of scum and villainy than the Malpheggi Swamp, a fetid mass of muck, trees, more muck, more trees, lizardmen, sucking sinkholes, quicksand, muck, more lizardmen, hideous blasphemies against the Immortals, muck, trees, more trees, even more trees, trees which kill you, more quicksand, black dragons, sinkholes, and more muck. Only fools, madmen, and adventuring parties go into the Malpheggi. And ponies, but I already covered them in the first three groups. And hideous blasphemies against the Immortals, but I think I listed them too.

I had to flee Shireton after a small misunderstanding with the Thyatian ambassador (no, just because this pipe of mine resembles the belly dancing Alaysian pipe he favors does not mean it used to be his. Necessarily). The authorities did not accept my protests that I do not know what happened to his harem, though I don't think they REALLY wanted to know. But appearances must be kept up, you know.

That's why I pretended to run for the hills and they pretended to chase me with fire and sword, shouting about young maidens or something. You know how Halflings are, they think everyone is after their women.

I made it across the border to Port Athenos and signed on with an expedition into the Malpheggi Swamp in return for the boss faking my death and giving a fake severed head to the Shires ambassador. I had to submit to polymorphing but I haven't used the face I was born with ever since I was caught naked with Duke Stefan's daughter. I find it suspicious that Duke Stefan somehow memorized the birthmark on my groin. But that's another story.

I must have been too drunk to actually hear the words 'Malpheggi' or I would have smuggled myself to Ierendi to avoid taking this job. By the time I sobered up, our scout had fallen into quicksand and died. Normally, this would be where I ran for the hills but I knew I would die if I tried to make it through the Malpheggi alone.

The first dragon attack killed most of us, which is how Ivan and I ended up floating down some river, clinging to a board. Ivan is Karameikan, an old friend of mine who got me drunk to drag me onto this mission. I'll pay him back later; the Alfheimers are STILL looking for him.

"Ivan, if this isn't the biggest treasure EVER FOUND, I will kill you," I told him. "As it is, I'm going to give you a beating once I am no longer clinging to this board."

"Cafen, my old friend," he said cheerfully, "This will be the greatest treasure ever, once we get it away from the Dragon who has it."

Why do I even bother to get up in the morning? WHY?

"Hey, that looks like fun!" a cheerful woman's voice said from the shore. "Let me play too!"

"No, throw us a rope!" I shouted, trying to figure out who was talking and where and if she was pretty.

"GERONIMO!" Something pink came down like the spear of Halav and landed on the board, breaking it into bits; the splash sent us both towards the shore we'd been unable to reach, though we didn't ACTUALLY reach it. However, I was now clinging to a sagging tree branch with both hands and Ivan was clinging to ME. Why do I always have to be the responsible one?

"Wow, this is a great current!" the pink blur said, now clinging to Ivan somehow. Great, he gets the wet woman clinging to him and I get the smell of wet Karameikan as my body works on freezing.

"Hello, ma'am," I said. "I hope you are a great swimmer because I fear my hands are slipping and we are about to be swept towards that waterfall over there." OF COURSE there is a waterfall.

"I thought humans were good swimmers," she said, surprised. "Oh, I should introduce myself! I am Pinkie Pie from Equestria!"

My water-sogged vision finally cleared; a pink horse with reddish-pink mane, was clinging somehow to Ivan, legs wrapped around him as he moaned from trying to support her weight. An Equestrian. Oh God, I am so... oh wait, they won't recognize me in THIS form. I was a tall blond the time I got drunk and... Let's never speak of that again.

"Hello, I'm Ivan," Ivan said. "And I think I am about to die. This is my friend..."

"Samus Marcus. I am from Thyatis," I lied. "I have never been to Equestria at all."

"Well, you should visit, it's very nice!," Pinkie said. "Hold on, my friends are around here somewhere. HEY EVERYPONY!" she shouted loudly.

Five more ponies came into sight. Four of them were strangers to me; one was golden in color... She'd best avoid dwarfs. I coveted her hat; a man is NOTHING without a hat. Another was a paler yellow and had wings. So did the blue one, who had rainbow colored hair... a mane. Rainbow colored mane. And then there was...

OH FUCK ME.

Twilight Sparkle, favored student of Princess Celestia, who I think either IS an Immortal or is well on her way to that status. Celestia is the Immortal, I mean. Twilight is merely a candidate for such, I suspect. Celestia claims she makes the sun rise, which I suspect pisses off Ixion, but she certainly CAN set your ass on fire.

If Twilight figures out who I am, I am a corpse. It was all a big misunderstanding, though if she was HUMAN instead of a horse... I am going to shut up now.

"Well, I reckon you got yerself in over your head again, Pinkie," the hat-wearing one said. Did I mention I covet her hat?

No, I am not stupid enough to steal it with Twilight watching.

Any more.

"Hey, we're having fun but Sammie's arms are tired and we don't have a barrel!" Pinkie shouted.

SAMMIE?

I won't pretend I understand why we need a barrel.

"SAVE US!" Ivan shouted. "I have apples!"

Dammit, you'd think the man would have the decency to share if he's going to drag me into the damn Malpheggi Swamp when I could be relaxing and enjoying myself and having a nice smoke and DAMMIT MY TOBACCO IS NOW WET.

The blue one zoomed over, grabbed Ivan SOMEHOW, and flew back with him. "There you go! One instant rescue!"

Pinkie immediately latched onto me before the current could take her. "So the idea is to rescue everyone one by one and anyone who goes over the waterfall loses?"

"Yes, you could say that," I said in a panic.

"Hold on," Twilight said, turning to Spike, who was studying me intently. She began digging through her saddlebags. "I have my water rescue guide here somewhere. Spike, help me out."

He began digging, while the golden pony said, "I've got this." She then lassoed Pinkie Pie. "Okay, hold onto him and I'll pull you in!"

I eyed her. Could she really pull a pony and me to shore? If she was wrong, we might well pull her over the waterfall too. I'd feel pretty guilty about that.

For the three seconds before I died on the rocks below, but I WOULD feel guilty.

"We might pull you over!" I shouted, regretting the fact that my conscience had chosen this moment to wake up and stumble around my mind, confused and hungry. "I'd hate to kill someone who I just met!"

"Don't worry, sugarcube," she said. "My name is Applejack and I've got you. Trust me."

Not a commodity I easily part with.

"Don't worry, Applejack's the best," Pinkie said assuredly. I know that tone. It's how I sounded when I assured Helga that we could EASILY make off with the Troll King's crown before the curse kicked in.

Trust is a leap in the dark, they say in Rockhome.

I am going to lodge a protest if this kills me for doing something nice for once. I turned and let go and grabbed onto Pinkie Pie. We rushed towards the waterfall and SHE WAS LAUGHING.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" I'm not sure if I was screaming or the waterfall was.

We traced a long arc in the water as Applejack and the blue pegasus pony and a white unicorn I hadn't noticed before joined forces to pull on the rope with Ivan pulling too. That's a true friend.

I'm going to punch him in the nuts until he cries for getting me into this, but he's a true friend.

"Okay, the first step is to make a lasso," Twilight read from the book.

"I think we did that," the yellow pegasus pony said softly, then she looked around and frowned at the noises in the swamp.

"Lasso made, check," Spike said, checking off something on a piece of paper.

I could see my feet dangling over the edge as I clung to the pink pony, utterly waterlogged and exhausted, while she began singing a song. I will not transcribe this song for fear it will drive you to the brink of sanity as it did me.

Also you cannot, in fact, rhyme waterfall and toast.

I think.

"Okay, next step is to throw one end to the victim," Twilight said.

"STOP READING AND START PULLING," Applejack said. Her hooves were dug into the dirt and though the line wobbled, with her anchoring it, the current, the monstrous current, could not pull us to our doom. A doom I deserved for my past sins and Pinkie deserved for her song.

That's not fair, my sins aren't THAT bad.

On the other hand, she was also saving my life by holding onto me... somehow... as my limbs were giving out from exhaustion.

So I will count it even.

Once Twilight and Spike joined the tug of war, they began to gain ground, gradually tugging us out of the water. The yellow pegasus now took to the air and looked around, frowning.

This did not bode well.

Finally, we came out of the water and then the white unicorn cantered up and brandished her horn. The water flew off both of us and suddenly, I was as groomed as a man can be in torn and cut leather and cotton, though my poor hat was now well on its way to the ocean, I think.

DO NOT STEAL APPLEJACK'S HAT, I reminded myself.

Most importantly, I was dry.

I took one of the lady Unicorn's forehooves and kissed it in the Equestrian style, even if it had muck on it. The moment she saw the state of her hooves, she froze in terror. I said, "Fair lady, I am in your debt." I could tell she was a lady of refinement. I can fake refinement well. "I am Samus Marcus, a traveling swordsman from Thyatis." Thankfully, I still had my gladius. Given it's enchanted, losing it in a river would make me very unhappy.

Spike gave me the eye and I kept my calm but screamed on the inside.

Ivan buried his face in his hands and the lady Unicorn smiled. "I am Rarity, and it is a pleasure to meet you."

Twilight Sparkle now introduced herself, the blue pegasus pony (Rainbow Dash), the yellow pegasus pony (Fluttershy), and Spike. "We are the Elements of Harmony, an officially registered Adventuring Party in Equestria, the Republic of Darokin, Sind, the Five Shires, Alfheim, and Karameikos. I can show you our licenses if you need to see them."

"I will take you at your word, Lady Sparkle," I said, bowing and trying to look gentlemanly. Ivan looked at me dubiously.

KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT IVAN UNLESS YOU ENJOY PAIN.

"I am quite grateful," I told her. "I fear my companion and I have gotten in over our heads on our quest."

"Ooooh, quest. What kind of quest?" Pinkie asked, bouncing around us.

"We're trying to stop a marauding dragon," Ivan said.

Technically true. He does maraud and we do want to stop him.

Stop him having any treasure.

"The terrible Grand Wyrm Vermicoritax?" Spike asked.

The fact he knows its name does not bode well.

"Yes," I said. One of them is probably a priest, even if I'm not sure which one. Priestess. Or possibly Fluttershy is a druid, given she's talking to a bird right now.

While I know Twilight Sparkle is very powerful, I don't know if she can handle a Grand Wyrm. I know I can't, which is why we planned to ROB it.

"We're off to convince it to stop raiding Equestria," Twilight Sparkle said. "Why don't you join us? We can help you get back to human civilization once we finish here; you can easily get a train ride down to Manehattan on the coast and get a boat from there, once we're done." Ponies have an interesting invention known as 'trains', which are multiple wagons on wheels which run on special tracks, chained together and pulled by a team of earth ponies. They're quite nice to ride in, but I digress.

If we join them, eventually, I will be revealed and will die.

If we do not, something WILL eat us, and we will die.

This is the story of my life.

I bowed to her, trying to sweep my hat... my poor hat... "Thank you, Lady Sparkle. We are most grateful and will do our best to assist you."

Applejack was whispering to Dash, who was laughing. Okay, that didn't bode well.

Rarity was busy cleaning up Ivan, who was most grateful.

Twilight Sparkle looked at Rarity, looked worried, then smiled just a little, though it wobbled. "Rarity, why don't you explain to Samus what is going on?"

"Samus is my family name; you may all call me Marcus since you saved our lives," I told them grandly. If nothing else, it will hopefully get Pinkie to stop calling me 'Sammy'.

"I would be happy to, darling," Rarity said, then finished cleaning up Ivan to the extent anyone can clean him up.

Then she looked at me and I realized exactly how horribly this is going to explode.

HOW DO I GET INTO THESE MESSES?

*************

I was in the middle of coveting Applejack's hat again when I suddenly realized that despite the fact that being hatless makes me feel more naked than when I am naked, it likely saved my life. TWILIGHT KNOWS MY OLD HAT.

If she finds me out, I will be lucky to become a soulless zombie, bound to carry her books forever.

Further, for some reason, Spike suspects me. He keeps looking at me as if willing me to DIE DIE DIE.

"So where in Thyatis are you from?" Rarity asked. "I've always wanted to visit Thyatis," she said. "It's so sophisticated and urbane," she continued a little dreamily.

"We've been to Thyatis," Dash pointed out.

"Thyatians put broccoli in their pies, which NEGATES the ENTIRE POINT of pie," Pinkie said sadly.

I cannot quarrel with that.

"It does not count if you are hiding in the back of a wagon as it moves at blinding speed over Thyatis and you can't even see it," Rarity said firmly with her elegant voice.

I have to admit to a certain curiosity, given that sounds like a moment from my life.

Except the wagon would be on fire and full of zombies.

Saferi, I HATE YOU, by the way.

Don't ask.

"Well, perhaps one day I could show you around," I said, knowing I would either be dead or fled before that.

Probably dead, but a man must dream or be no man.

"I would be delighted, Marcus darling," she said with that accent of hers. I can't tell if it's real or affected.

I began regaling her with half-true tales of adventure and excitement in Thyatis City. I know it well, though I'm not really Thyatian. But I can fake it.

I've been all over, even to Canterlot. As you likely know, Canterlot is the capital of the Princesspality of Equestria, a state which lies west of the Malpheggi and east of Sind. At its heart is a high plateau inhabited by a mixture of ponies and buffalo (also intelligent). The two groups have an ongoing conflict over whether the plateau top will be used to grow fruit and vegetables and hay or whether it will remain a free range.

Canterlot is carved out of and into the walls of the southern face of the plateau; which is rimmed by forest and hills. Many ponies live in cities carved into the sides of the plateau; others live down in the plains and forest and hills below in a variety of towns and cities, of which the most prominent is the port of Manehattan.

Long ago, the ponies were enslaved by Orcs and brought to this area, where the Orcs wiped out the primitive humans who refused to adapt to changing conditions and were still trying to live the way people lived in the ancient dawn of the first humans. Eventually, though, Princess Celestia appeared (somehow) and led the ponies to revolt, driving off the Orcs. She has ruled ever since as the ponies slowly grew more civilized under her tutelage and influenced by the Sindhi and Darokinians and the Halflings of the Shires.

I'm not sure where the intelligent ponies came from, but I suspect Blackmoor. It's usually guilty when charged with species creation and mutation.

Canterlot is actually a very nice city, especially since the Ponies drank from the same well Halflings did: as long as they're well fed, they're very nice, kind people. They are more prone to mass panic than Halflings but also less likely to bloat up like balloons as they age. Honestly, old Halflings don't so much 'walk' as 'roll'. This is what happens when you eat six meals a day.

Halflings can't trample you to death if they panic, though.

Thankfully.

Ivan was busy talking to Twilight about the dragon. Since I still hoped to never ever see the dragon, I focused on regaling Rarity, as she was enjoying the stories and I enjoyed telling them. Mutuality, it's the key to everything.

"Rarity, I'm sorry, I need to borrow Marcus," Twilight said apologetically to Rarity.

"Oh, it's fine," Rarity said. "Our mission must come first." She waved a hoof.

I bowed to her. "Until later, fair lady," I told her and she smiled brightly.

I went up to Twilight. "I fear Ivan knows more about the dragon than I; he just asked me to help. But, of course, I will give whatever assistance I can," I said graciously, wondering how on earth... I suppose Twilight will just freak out and kill it or turn it into a duck or something.

Ponies can fight... some fight very well. But this group looked too... civilized to tussle with a dragon. And Twilight, intelligent and interesting as she is, is basically a bookworm, which is why...

Let's not think about that.

I am rather surprised to see her here, in the field, actually doing things with her knowledge instead of endlessly studying, though I suppose this is what Celestia has been grooming her for.

I suddenly wondered how many of these ponies were going to die before this was over and felt my stomach curdle. They're so optimistic, they can't really understand what they're up against. I've tussled with a very young dragon and I had to get a new arm. That was years ago, but the principle remains.

Magic sword or not, I did not want to fight a dragon. If it is as old as Ivan thinks, it can swallow a pony with one gulp. OR ME.

Especially ME.

"I understand you lost most of your group," Twilight Sparkle said. "It must feel terrible," she said sympathetically. "I can tell you're trying to hide your pain and put on a good face, but losing friends is never easy."

I barely knew them and I've seen too much death, but now suddenly, my stomach curdled anyway. I winced and she nuzzled me sympathetically, then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that was probably too forward. I know humans are not as affectionate as we are."

"I had not known them long," I confessed. "And some of them may just be lost. I hope so," I told her. "But they deserved better than that." A good beating for leading me into the DAMN MALPHEGGI, yes. But I try not to wish death on anyone.

Except that one damn Alphatian, but that's another story.

"Anyway, it's okay, I have spent time with Ponies before," I told her. "So I am aware of your major customs. I don't mind."

She relaxed a little. "I wouldn't normally... you just seemed... I knew you must be feeling bad, but you seem the sort who tries not to lay their burdens on others."

"A man must carry his own sorrows," I told her. Then I prayed I had NOT said that when I knew her before.

Either I didn't or she didn't remember.

I live another five minutes, YES.

I can't beg off this conversation but every moment is another chance for me to remind her of the past and DIE.

My stomach curdled again.

"Fluttershy can probably help you if you feel sick to your stomach over it," Twilight said sympathetically. "Don't hold it in forever, or you'll throw up." She made a face. "I did that once, trying to finish a book." She sighed. "I got in so much trouble because I stained it."

I laughed at the image; it was SO her. Then I covered my face. "I am very sorry, Lady Sparkle."

"You can call me Twilight," she said firmly. "Since we are friends. I'm not really a noble, just Celestia's student."

I wondered again if she was really Celestia's daughter, but there was no sign of wings. And she was too short. "It is well known you have her favor," I told her, then clambered over long, annoyingly placed tree roots she simply hopped over.

I have to say this, Equestrian ponies are quite nimble.

"We're just friends, we're not..." Twilight turned red.

Surely they're not... I couldn't be sure, though they hadn't been when I was there. But then, she didn't have her own adventuring party either.

I could see Spike talking urgently to Rarity; hopefully not telling her who I really am and organizing a lynch mob.

Twilight followed my line of sight, then said, "Spike h..."

Pinkie dropped out of a tree and landed on Twilight's back and covered her mouth with her legs. "SHHH, it's a secret!"

"Announcing a secret exists weakens its secrecy," I noted. As I know from PAINFUL experience.

At least my hair grew back.

Twilight nodded to me, trying to get loose from Pinkie.

"Twilight is terrible at keeping secrets," Pinkie said. "I think it's her student instincts, from all those reports to Celestia." She now released Twilight and dropped down to all fours again.

My brain chose THIS moment to remind me that Spike can send anyone a letter by immolating it. And that Celestia can mail him back.

"Reports to Celestia?" I asked. "So you are now her field agent?"

"Yes," Twilight said.

"Celestia sent her to Ponyville in order to learn about Friendship and so she'd stop moping over some boy who broke her heart!," Pinkie said cheerfully.

My conscience stirred, smacked into a wall, and knocked a bookcase on itself, then moaned under the weight. I... was she... dammit.

"I was NOT MOPING," Twilight insisted firmly. "We were just friends and I just missed him when he left. That is ALL."

Pinkie whispered in my ear loudly enough for the dragon to hear it, "She is lying."

"I am not lying!" Twilight insisted.

"She sends regular reports of our adventures and life in Ponyville to Celestia, and sometimes Celestia asks us to help out Equestria, which is usually really fun and the victory parties are GREAT, if I do say so myself," Pinkie said proudly.

She is in constant, daily contact with Celestia, ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET. Thanks to Spike, who probably hates the me he used to know and I think suspects I am that me he knew. He certainly doesn't like me for some reason, I can tell that.

"That must be a great help in an emergency," I told Twilight carefully, feeling my stomach grind.

"Someone needs something sweet," Pinkie said, finally getting off Twilight, then began rifling through her saddlebags.

"Well, I don't like to burden Celestia if I can do it myself and she's often busy; sometimes she may not reply for hours," Twilight said. "Especially if it's late. But yes. Usually, though, my friends and I can handle anything." She sounded amazed and proud.

"She doesn't mope nearly as much either," Pinkie said. "When she thinks we're looking." Rifle, Rifle. She pulled out a fez. "This isn't food."

"You and Ivan have been friends a long time, right?" Twilight said, glancing at him as he now talked to Fluttershy. She looked panicked for some reason but I think that is her natural state.

Mind you, this is THE MALPHEGGI SWAMP. Honestly, she's the smartest person in this group if she's actually scared.

"Cookie," Pinkie said and stuffed it in my mouth.

I choked on it, falling down, flailing and Pinkie stared at me in shock.

Twilight's horn glowed and cookie pieces flew out of my mouth and a flask flew out of her saddlebag and cool, clean water washed my mouth out. "Are you okay?"

"Thank you, Pinkie," I said weakly. "But I can't eat that much cookie in one bite." PLEASE NEVER DO THAT AGAIN. "Thank you, Lady Twilight."

If I died by choking on a cookie, I would probably have to go dwell with whatever Halfling immortal handles death by overeating. I don't know and do not wish to find out.

"It's just Twilight," she said. "Are you okay?"

I got to my feet, now covered in muck. UGH. "I am fine," I said, trying to sort of rub myself on a tree. I hate being filthy. This is part of why I HATE the Malpheggi.

Twilight produced a plate and put the cookie bits on it. "Here you go."

I ate them and she then cleaned the plate and stashed it. Pinkie said, "Sorry, Marcus."

"It's okay," I told her, lying. Best to keep good relations with everyone so that when I have to run for the hills, they won't see it coming. "Did you ask me something about Ivan?"

Pinkie bounced off to see Applejack about something.

"Have you known him a long time?"

"Ever since his Shearing," I told her. "We're roughly the same age, though Thyatians don't do the Shearing."

"Is that why his mane is so short?" she asked curiously. "What is the Shearing?"

"Karameikan youths ready to become adults have their hair cut and go on a quest to find themselves. Usually they go work on the docks or maybe become an apprentice for a while, but some become adventurers like Ivan," I told her. "I left home to seek my fortune in the same basic way." And to avoid being forced to marry Anya, who had slept with me to spite her boyfriend for being an ass, then we got caught. No, she and Boris NEVER got caught but of course we did.

I still have a scar and I think she eventually married Boris.

"Applejack did something like that," Twilight said. "I pretty much knew what I wanted to be at an early age, when I got my Cutie Mark." She looked thoughtful. "So what was your plan?" she asked. "Ivan said you usually make the plans." Her voice, though not hostile, had clearly changed to 'Twilight the thinker' mode instead of the surprising 'Twilight the comforter'. I knew Twilight the thinker well.

"It involved lots of people who are dead or fled," I told her. "Also, we needed to scout the lair area before we could finalize it."

"Rainbow Dash is going to scout once we get close to it," Twilight said. "I've been contemplating a series of plans..." She paused and glanced back at Rarity, who now looked irritated; Spike was now off talking to Pinkie and Applejack.

Please don't let this be a DOOM countdown. "I'm sure Rarity will clean you up if you ask," she told me.

Not when she looks that unhappy, I thought. "I would hate to impose on her," I told Twilight. "And better we discuss plans first, then I can attend to my grooming, which is less important."

Twilight looked at her filthy hooves and forelegs. "I know," she said, sighing. "We will have to sacrifice for now." She smiled at me and I felt my conscience try to crawl out from under the bookcase. I threw a sheet over its head for now. I have to focus, not lose myself in guilt and regrets and...

Has she really been moping all this time? Dammit.

"If Rarity cleaned me up, I would likely just end up filthy again soon anyway. It's how the Malpheggi is." I shook my head.

"You know it well?"

"Too well," I told her. "I've seen many a hero die here, or get swamp rot or..." I finally got that rash off, thankfully.

She sighed. "I'm sorry. You must have a lot of old pain."

"I'm used to it," I told her. I certainly do.

"I... never mind," she said. "I'm being forward again and..." She glanced back at Rarity, who was trying to walk and stare at her dirt at once; Rarity now walked into a tree and fell down, then got more muck and began to go into a panic.

I knew what to do; I sprang into action, helping her up and using my cloak to try to wipe the worst of the muck off her. I know how to gain someone's favor and you can never gain too much favor.

Or run too fast once you run out of it.

"Thank you so much," Rarity said, smiling. "If I have to keep grooming myself with magic, I will become exhausted."

"Worry not, fair lady. You deserve better than to be bespeckled with mud and filth like a common pig," I told her.

"Pigs are actually pretty clean," Applejack said. "That's a myth. They just use mud to cool off." Her voice was a little chiding. "And frankly, a little dirt ain't never hurt nopony." Still chiding.

"But now your cloak is filthy," Rarity said, frowning at it.

"It's okay, it's really too hot for it anyway," I told her.

"You are a true gentleman," she said approvingly.

Which I could tell was what she wanted.

As I said before, always curry favor, so you have it when you NEED it.

"I must finish my conversation with Twilight," I told her. "But I'll be back later."

"Of course," she said. "Good luck making a plan."

"You're welcome," I said and returned to Twilight, who was smiling at me in an odd way. I could see Applejack talking quietly to Rarity now, who looked much happier.

"Thank you for helping her," Twilight said. "She really needs to get more used to dirt, though."

"She is clearly a lady of refinement who is not used to such difficult conditions as this," I told Twilight. "Is she a noblewoman?"

"No but she does carry herself like one," Twilight said, then paused. "She has no title, anyway."

The Equestrian nobility is rather complicated and is mostly found at Canterlot; they once had a lot of power, but now they basically dance attendance on Celestia and fight in wars. Her transformation of them from wolves... who are horses... to simpering courtiers was a MASTERWORK of manipulation.

I greatly admire Celestia and fear her at once.

SPIKE CAN SEND HER LETTERS.

Twilight looked at me, then at Rarity and had that odd smile again. Maybe a little wistful. Then she said, "Treat her nicely. She is very kind and generous. She gives without thought for herself."

"As a true lady should," I said. "As the poem says, 'Grace is the heart of the maiden / Unasked, she gives of herself / Heedless of the cost, yet she gives / Without asking anything from you'."

"Mellifluous Rhymes' third book, Poetry for the Fall Season, published in 886," Twilight said. "I knew a..." She fell silent.

I now realized I had just quoted a book I GAVE HER.

DAMN MY PRETENSIONS TO HIGH CLASS.

"You should read all four volumes. I believe that's from the Discourse on the Six Virtues of Harmony, right?" I asked her.

It now hit me that she'd named her group the Elements of Harmony, so of course she knows about all that.

She looked somewhat pained and I felt my stomach try again to kill me. My conscience flailed feebly. Dammit.

"It's not just a poem," she said softly. "Though I thought so at the time and didn't really..." She sounded very guilty. "I didn't finish the book until much later, when I had to research..." She paused, as if uncertain whether to go on. That anything could stop Twilight from speaking about her studies bothered me a little.

It was like me passing up a night with a beautiful woman or a free meal.

A free meal NOT JAMMED INTO MY MOUTH BY SURPRISE.

"You need not dwell on it if it pains you," I told her.

"I keep wondering if he knew," Twilight said to a passing bush, which I nearly walked into, but managed to dodge.

A half dozen mosquitoes now descended on me; all subsequent dialog should be imagined to be accompanied by me flailing while Twilight walked along untouched and apparently not noticing my flailing or perhaps not caring.

"If he knew what?" I asked.

"The six of us, we were marked by destiny," Twilight said softly. "Events drew us together before we even met each other. And then..." She licked her lips nervously, then glanced at the others.

"A destiny which includes good friends is a fine destiny indeed," I told her. "I confess I do not see the link between the poem and yourself, though. Or destiny."

My flailing hand (remember, I was flailing frantically to ward off mosquitoes with every syllable I was speaking.) now hit a tree. OWW.

"We possess six powerful artifacts which I hope will help us against the Dragon," she said softly. "The Elements of Harmony, which the poem speaks off. Rarity has... is the Element of Generosity. Applejack, Honesty. Pinkie, Laughter. Fluttershy, Kindness. Rainbow Dash, Loyalty. And I am the sixth Element, Magic, which is also Friendship, the root of Pony magic. But this is a state secret that we possess the Elements."

Which is why you registered your group as the Elements of Harmony in a half dozen countries.

Twilight, my old friend, you REALLY ARE TERRIBLE AT KEEPING SECRETS.

"When you say artifacts, you mean an object created by the Immortals? Or are they potent mortal magic?" Now I was curious.

"By the Immortals," Twilight said. "One from each sphere," she said. "Collectively, they create the sixth element, my element."

Wait... "Wait... there's one made by Entropy too?" I said in shock.

"It wasn't always called Entropy and maybe... one day it won't be," Twilight said very softly. "None of the others are really into metaphysics, so keep this between us, but I can tell you are a scholar."

The sphere of Entropy supports the others against invaders from other dimensions, but mostly it's a collection of whackjobs, necromancers, killers, thieves, liars... They support chaos, whereas the other four spheres tend to support law and that never ends well. Still, they are a trouble making part of the system of the Immortals instead of a...

A...

I forced myself not to look. "It's Laughter, right?" I said softly.

"We need order and chaos," Twilight said softly. "In its proper form, Entropy forces order to grow and change, refusing to allow it to become locked down and fixed and stagnant and basically dead but faking life. Pinkie ensures the rest of us do not become too fixed in our ways or just work ourselves to death and never play. Without Entropy, everything would just be the same forever, fixed and boring. I know, it's hard to accept... I kind of like things to be fixed and predictable. It's why I like books."

Yes, you've always been like that. Or so it seemed when I last knew you but you've grown stronger and more flexible.

And don't SEEM to be moping, though...

Do NOT look at Pinkie.

Somehow, I knew she was looking at me. CRAP.

"I will tell no one," I promised her. An uncorrupted artifact of Entropy? At the roots of Pony power? A set of artifacts made by all the spheres and somehow creating a sixth? Now I am curious.

That is bad, because curiosity is how I ended up trapped inside golems or clinging to the underbelly of a star whale as it heads for the planes of Matter.

Also, star whales smell terrible.

"So you think the person who gave you the book knew you would find these artifacts?" I tried to think about the book; I had not read it in a long time, since I gave Twilight my copy.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, right?

It was sort of mine.

I read it, anyway.

"He must have known, or he wouldn't have given me volume three when I didn't have volume one or two yet," Twilight said. "Only..." Her voice wobbled.

That's Twilight logic all over, I thought. Volume three was, in fact, the only one I hadn't sold to buy beer yet, once I read it. "Only?"

"He probably thought since he wasn't part of the prophecy, he had to leave, since my destiny would take me elsewhere," she said, staring at the ground, voice wobbling. "So he gave up his own happiness to help set me on my path." She sounded quite guilty.

I briefly lost my ability to speak OR think.

Shut up, Ivan.

BRIEFLY.

"He may have just thought it was a nice book of poetry and you would enjoy it," I told her. THIS WAS THE TRUTH. "Did he put a box around that part, saying, 'READ ME' or something?" I most certainly did not.

This should cover my tracks a little.

"It was bookmarked," she said.

I stuck that bookmark in at random because it was cute and had a poem about loving books on it! Celestia told me Twilight would love that poem and gave me the bookmark when I found it stuck in a book she'd loaned me.

A book I did NOT sell for beer, before you ask. I am not that crazy.

"Annotated, you mean?"

"No, a literal bookmark with a nice poem about books on it," Twilight said. "He knew I'd love that poem," she said wistfully.

My conscience climbed out from under the bookcase and went looking for coffee, bitching at me. DAMMIT, GO BACK TO SLEEP.

I glanced around, but Spike was busy pushing bushes out of Rarity's way and not plotting my horrible death, thankfully.

I hope.

Twilight got the odd smile again for a moment, then she said, "Though I sometimes wonder..." She did not finish it.

I caught a branch about to whack her. "Wonder?" I can't believe she managed to convince herself of all this. Out of WHOLE CLOTH. "I would think he'd just tell you about the Elements and not kind of hint at it," I told her. Unless it was a con, but I had NOTHING to do with the Elements.

Unless I conned myself, like that time in the Heldaan Freeholds.

Another story, another time.

I hate dopplegangers.

The mosquitoes finally gave up, not that Twilight had noticed my flailing. "He was probably afraid to admit he was worried that he wasn't part of the prophecy and thus didn't have a... special role in my future. But I wouldn't have cared." She glanced back at Rarity. "Surely we're not meant to be alone... I mean, not alone, I have friends who I love, but you know. Ponies are meant to fall in love too. I never thought..." Her voice wobbled. "He can't have just... I don't even know why or what happened to him, but... This theory makes more sense and explains everything and I feel so bad for him. He... He didn't have to go," she said weakly. "But I'm sure he did it for my own good. And worried about his..." She sighed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't lay this all on you. I just... the others kind of make fun of me and say I'm moping when I... you know." She sighed again. "They love me but sometimes that means teasing."

"I don't mind," I told her.

I DO mind but it's too late now and...

Dammit, I hate feeling guilty. My guilt doesn't get enough exercise, so when it tries to do something, it tends to ache a lot.

I can't tell her the truth without dying horribly and if believing this gives her comfort, maybe it's better I let her believe it. "Are you happy being one of the Elements of Harmony?"

"Very happy," she said, recovering a little.

"Then I'm sure he's glad you are happy and moving forwards on your destiny, with or without him," I told her. I never wanted her to be unhappy, I just...

For all that people claim humans sleep with EVERYTHING, we normally stick to bipeds and... Okay, obviously someone didn't and we got centaurs, but I'm not into Ponies. If she was human, or an Elf or even maybe an Orc, that would be fine. But I had to go before things got to where it was all going to explode messily.

Also, I expected she'd forget about it in a few weeks and go find a nice pony, the way it's meant to be. That's what I would have done.

Note to self, DO NOT DRINK AROUND PONIES EVER AGAIN, EVER.

I can see she has the good brandy in her saddlebags.

FUCK.

Okay, it being Twilight, maybe it would take longer to find someone who at least has the same number of legs. But ONLY because she spends all her time reading or else discussing what she read with people. Mostly Celestia, Spike, and myself.

Surely there are books about dating, though.

It suddenly hit me that Spike clearly had not told her about how he tried to beat me to death with a chair when I ran for the hills. I'm still not entirely sure how I got out of that fight.

Also, I left her a letter which clearly NEVER got delivered to her.

Spike probably ate it or accidentally sent it to Celestia or something.

I really should revise my will. I will leave my sword to Ivan if he lives and Applejack can have it otherwise; it deserves to be with someone who has a nice hat and who helped save my life.

Dammit, I want my HAT. And her...

DO NOT STEAL HER HAT.

"I hope he'd be proud of me," Twilight said, then sighed. "I am moping."

"It's okay," I told her. "It's only natural to wonder about the past but it's best to focus on the future, which looks quite bright for you, and involves six friends who love you very much."

She turned red. "I know. And I love them," she said. She sighed. "I'd mostly moved on but now I find myself thinking about him again and hoping he's okay."

"I'm sure he is," I lied to her, knowing that my DOOM is coming steadily closer. It may be anything from Applejack hanging me for coveting her hat to Spike burying me in donuts until I cannot breathe.

But I fear it is coming.

"What brings him to your mind?" I asked, calm outside, gibbering with fear on the inside.

"Nothing," she said, then glanced at Rarity again.

Does she have a crush on Rarity or something? It would be healthy for her to move on but it might cause group cohesion problems if she favors one Element over the others. I could only guess at how this thing works, but I suspect she has to keep them all in balance or something bad happens.

We then started trying to make a plan to deal with the Dragon.

Assuming I live that long.

****************

Ponies are civilized enough that they tend to prefer to process their food, though they can just eat up the landscape if they must. We reached an area with actual grass, with a stream running along one side of it around time for dinner. They all stopped and took a snack, to save on their prepared rations, while Ivan and I went to find something to eat, as our rations had all been lost and we can't eat grass. To my surprise, Applejack and Fluttershy joined us. "You need meat, right?" Fluttershy said softly.

"Yes," I said. Ponies keep pigs but don't eat them; they hunt truffles and keep various vermin down. They also have dogs and cats, which eat meat, so they fish a lot for their pets. I ate a lot of fish and eggs when I was in Canterlot.

I now noticed Fluttershy was wearing a necklace which matched her Cutie Mark. I hadn't seen it before. "That's very nice," I told her. I bet it would sell for a lot, though I'd happily trade ANY jewelry for a decent hat.

"Thank you," she said, then whispered, "It's a secret."

A secret you just exposed to someone you met hours ago. That much trust is a dangerous thing, kind lady Fluttershy.

Applejack was wearing one like that as well. And then it hit me. Were these two of the Elements of Harmony? They didn't look very big and powerful.

But neither did that DAMN RING.

Let's not think about that ring.

Ever.

Fluttershy began singing and animals FLOODED out of the forest; I instinctively went up a tree and pulled Ivan after me; they flocked around Applejack, who looked amused, and Fluttershy, who looked rapturous.

She began speaking to them in their own languages and I stared in amazement as they replied. Soon they began to scatter, but a squirrel remained.

"Stampede's over, Ivan, Marcus," Applejack said, amused. "You can come down now and the bunnies won't bite you. You really don't go out in the country much, I reckon."

"Not if I can help it," I confessed. I am a city boy.

"Better safe than sorry," Ivan said.

I agree wholeheartedly.

The squirrel lead us into a thick grove of trees, the air very humid, and the whole thing shadowed by the thick overgrowth. We stuffed Applejack's saddlebags with mushrooms which grew on the trees. She also, to my surprise, knocked two dozen peaches down from a tree for us.

And then it was time for fishing.

"You sure you're okay with this?" I asked Fluttershy, who looked rather nervous.

"I know how nature works," she said. "It'd be nicer if we could all just eat plants, but the carnivores check the herbivores so they don't breed out of control and then all starve and kill the plants and everything dies." She sighed. "Once upon a time, it didn't have to be that way, but the world is broken now."

Amen to that. I'm not much for believing in mythical golden ages, but I can't argue that the world is out of whack.

"You don't have to watch," I said kindly. "Ivan, Applejack, and I can handle this."

"My animal friends do this too," she said. "I... I'm used to it." She had the look of someone who was trying to put on a strong face.

Ivan, meanwhile, improvised a fishing pole with some string that Applejack had. I made another one and Applejack... was going to lasso fish?

Fluttershy now began a song. Her necklace glowed gently and now you could see lights under the water. "Catch those, they're the oldest and won't live through the winter anyway."

"..."

Ivan and I began fishing; we threw back any fish that didn't glow. Unfortunately, the old ones seemed most disinclined to bite; maybe they were too old and tired to bother eating.

Applejack lassoed several, then she and Fluttershy somehow started a fire and got a pot out. I don't think that's how you make fish jerky but I think that was her goal.

Can you make fish jerky? I've never had it, but I thought you needed a smokehouse or something.

Also, I didn't think it involved apples. But we keep feeding the workers as we caught more fish.

The stars were out and the moon was up by the time we finished; I smelled like fish guts and swamp muck. But the fish jerky was pretty good and so was the fruit we'd gathered. We headed back and found everyone else flopped out, exhausted, even Pinkie. They'd had dinner but Dash was fast asleep in the grass, Pinkie was asleep using Dash for a pillow, and Twilight and Rarity were lying in the grass with Spike sitting next to them, talking quietly.

"I should bathe, but I am plum tuckered out," Applejack said. "And I got a nose full of spices."

"Come here," I told her, and got a bucket and washed her legs off carefully. With no soap, I couldn't do too much but she looked much better.

"I'm right grateful, partner," she said. "I'm gonna go flop out with Dash."

She was soon asleep and I began trying to get myself clean; given my clothing was soaked with muck, this was fairly futile. Ivan just waded into the stream and wallowed in it; Fluttershy had crashed out as well.

I went to join the ladies; they'd both probably used magic to clean up as they and Spike were spotless. "Pardon my filth, but I have no soap and no clean clothing."

Rarity turned and concentrated; power washed over me and I became very clean. My eyes crossed. Goodness, she's strong. Twilight smiled a little smile. "Turnabout is fair play, good sir," Rarity said.

"You are a lady of grace," I told her solemnly and Spike made grumbling noises.

"Do you like fish, Spike?" I asked.

"I love fish," he said, drooling a little.

I tossed him a piece. "I don't know if it's Applejack or Fluttershy's recipe."

He gobbled it down and looked mollified. "Thanks, Marcus."

"You're welcome," I told him. "Will we be standing watches?" I asked, yawning.

"I used my copy of Hallonica House's Guide to Handy Travel Rituals," Twilight said, "To put up Eyes and Ears of Warding. They'll alert us."

Basically, invisible eyes and ears look and listen for trouble, then wake you. Quite effective against those who can't disarm a ward. Mind you, with regard to Hallonica House's guide, Hallonica simply acted as ghost-publishers for Prince Jaggar, who wrote it to raise money for his private army. Since many people hate Glantrians but no one hates Darokin, the deal made a lot of people wealthy.

This, I believe, is the very definition of 'honest graft', and I applaud it.

"If you have the components, you might want to put up Volospin's Air Shield also," I told her. "There may be invisible things afoot." I used to have a copy of that ritual book, but my copy is in the stomach of an undead crocodile in Ylarum now. Along with the magical harp I once had AND one of my previous hands.

"You study magic too?" Twilight asked.

"I dabble in it, but I am not on the level of a full professional," I told her. "I seem to end up getting all my ritual books destroyed constantly." I can do a few tricks and I have a nice attack spell with fire.

"I'd be happy to loan you some of mine," Twilight said. Another sign she is a Pony and not a normal wizard.

"Thank you, kind lady," I told her. "I am short on necessary components too, though I expect I can improvise for some." If I am really lucky, she has one for re... getting a new hat.

She tossed me two, then said, "Oh dear, it's late, Spike has to go to bed and I should sleep too." Her voice sounded odd.

"I'm fine, I'm a big boy," Spike said, then yawned.

"Enjoy the books, we're going to bed!" Twilight said, grabbed Spike somehow and bolted.

Then she spoke a few words and produced a magical tent, into which she dragged Spike; I could hear muffled conversation.

I slid the books to one side; Twilight would have started reading immediately, but I have manners when they are useful.

"I don't mind if you read them," Rarity said.

"It's fine, I'll read when you go to bed," I told her.

She smiled brightly and we conversed for a while; I told her more about Thyatis and she told me about how Twilight had come to Ponyville and ended up leading the six of them on a secret mission. Which she couldn't talk about but which clearly involved getting the Elements of Harmony. Then she told me of some of their other adventures.

Eventually, she yawned. "Well, Princess Luna may stay up all night, but I must sleep."

"I'll be up reading a while," I told her. "Goodnight, fair lady." I paused. "Princess Luna?"

"Celestia's sister," Rarity said, then looked nervous a moment. "She makes the moon rise and set."

Which I thought Celestia ALSO claimed as her doing.

"I must admit I have never heard of her," I told Rarity.

"She's been off on a long trip," Rarity said, her voice wobbling; she was lying. But why?

Celestia must be pulling some really deep maneuver

I put it out of my head; it wasn't my worry as I was not going back to Ponyland, because whatever Celestia will do if she gets her hooves on me, it won't be pretty.

I bid Rarity goodnight after helping her to set up her tent, then I went to do a little reading by moonlight.

******************

I am well familiar with Hallonica House's Guide, though I skimmed through it again just to be sure I hadn't forgotten something useful, like something that gets rid of Dragons without having to risk acid slowly rendering your flesh into a tasty slurry.

There was in fact, a ritual to make things acid-resistant which I carefully bookmarked. It had a check mark by it, which I hope either indicates Twilight already thought of this or at least that it works well and she's used it before.

I noticed she'd circled two rituals: one of them gives you big butterfly style wings, but the thaum cost is hideous. Thaums, for those of you unversed in wizardry, are the unit which measures how exhausting a ritual is. Most rituals cost either a thaum or a fraction thereof, most commonly a decithaum. This one cost SIX thaums. I would probably fall unconscious if I tried to pull that off, sadly.

Not that I want fluffy butterfly wings, but flying... would be VERY useful.

The other one was for walking on clouds. Only 2 decithaums, quite reasonable, though it does require an ounce of roc unguent per person. The words 'Big Success' were penciled in, and I smiled. Pegasi ponies can walk on clouds and build cloud cities; I expect Twilight visited one. Good for her, getting out and around some.

I could hear Spike snoring over in her tent. She'd always been kind of reclusive; seeing her out in the world had surprised me a lot. But despite knowing this had to either end in me running for my life or me dying horribly, it was good to see her again, despite the constant low level fear.

I hadn't run away because I didn't like her. She was good company and it was nice to talk to someone smart enough to actually keep up with me. I like ladies, but normally, I seem to end up with... not idiots, but they usually aren't even close to Twilight's level of brains. A lot of smart women seem to shun me for some reason.

But humans and ponies are not meant to date. Everyone has their limits. Even I have my limits.

I need a smoke.

So I got my now dry tobacco and loaded up my pipe. At least I got to keep my new pipe; soon, the belly-dancer engraving was dancing. However, it's hard to see it while you're smoking. Still, I find it endlessly amusing.

The other book was Maeglin Woodwalker's Book of Practical Rituals; I had heard of it, but never touched a copy. For some reason, Umbarth House had stopped printing it fifty years ago and no one else had bothered to violate the copyright.

Which made me a little nervous, as normally Darokinians treat copyright as a courtesy warning, not something to actually STOP someone. Typically, by the time you win a suit in their courts, the copyright period has expired or you both die of old age.

This gives Elves and Dwarfs an edge in suits, I admit.

Maeglin Woodwalker was a great hero who stopped many rampaging monsters, found a lot of treasure and wrote several books to raise money to make potent magical items with. However, he mysteriously vanished about a century ago, which is why Umbarth House had felt free to print his book without paying him anything.

Until they stopped.

Hmm, maybe he's secretly alive and enforcing his copyrights. That would explain a lot.

A version of Terjon's Fabulous Floating Discs and the ritual component is SWAMP GRASS. Twilight had circled this one and I stared. It could NOT possibly be that easy.

TWO THAUMS. OWW. So you get easy, cheap use but you have to burn your own life force like crazy. Of course, Twilight has thaums coming out the... horn... so for her, this is perfect. Especially given she's not physically strong even for a Unicorn.

I puffed away at my pipe, looking for rituals of use. There was one for removing curses which required a 'large diamond'. Way to be vague, Maeglin. It had the pencil note 'Ask Rarity for diamonds'.

Only now did it sink into my brain that Rarity has three diamonds on her flank. Or some sort of clear, slightly blue gem. If she can create diamonds from nothing or summon them...

Ooooooooohhhhhhhh.

I kept reading; several more rites of use, I noticed. Indeed, I went ahead and did one of them, which made my clothing more water-resistant. It just asked for a few decithaums, which I could easily handle.

Why had Twilight circled a ritual for summoning sweater vests? I guess that wouldn't hurt for winter-time but I would think you'd get one that didn't actually fit a pony. She must have circled that one a while back; the lead was somewhat faded. It had a double check mark by it, though.

I eventually finished my pipe, then decided to sleep; the last thing I need is to be so tired I do something foolish like steal Applejack's hat in my sleep.

I paused then paged through the book; no hat-summoning rituals, dammit.

I did another simple ritual to summon a pillow, then laid down in the grass and slept.

**************

"I have a ritual at home," Twilight said apologetically. "None of us usually wear hats except Rarity and Applejack."

"I would gladly make you a hat if I was at home, but I fear I am short on materials," Rarity said, sighing. "I have made some magnificent hats, but they're over a hundred miles away from here." She patted my shoulder.

I had eggs, peaches, and bread for breakfast; it was pretty good. I don't know where Fluttershy got the eggs, but I wasn't going to question it; I just thanked her for it.

"Ivan and I should go take a bath," I told them. "We'll go downstream a little so you don't have to watch. Rarity, do you think you can clean our clothing? And does anyone have any towels or soap?"

"Always carry a towel," Rainbow Dash said, throwing us one.

Applejack had one as well, while Rarity had soap.

"You don't need to go downstream, though," Dash said. "We're all naked anyway."

I can't talk to Ivan in private to ensure we don't die if we're right here. I did my best to stammer in an embarrassed manner.

"Rainbow Dash, there are things which are done and things which are not done," Rarity said firmly. "If they desire privacy for bathing, then we shall give them privacy." She held the towels up with her powers so we could strip behind them so she could clean our clothing in our absence.

"Ain't much use in getting clean; we're gonna be knee deep in filth by lunch," Applejack pointed out.

"They've seen us naked, it's only fair if we see them naked," Rainbow Dash said, hovering, legs folded in front of her chest.

"Yeah, I'm totally naked all the time unless it's a formal occasion," Spike said. "Though I wouldn't say no to a mustache"

A mustache?

We finished stripping, then Rarity fastened the towels around our waists with a loose knot. "Thank you, fair lady," I said to her.

"Your modesty is quite fetching," she said, smiling at me and cocking her head slightly.

That is something I NEVER thought anyone would say to me.

Ivan muttered something and I tried to very subtly frog-punch him. NOT NOW.

"Fetching what?" Rainbow Dash asked.

"What?" Rarity asked.

"Yes, what is... wait, who is named Modesty and what are they fetching?" Rainbow Dash asked.

I prayed this was a pony joke.

"Don't worry about it," Rarity said to Rainbow Dash. "Just let them be."

"It's really not a big deal," Applejack said. "What if an alligator jumps them while they're around the bend? They could get eaten." She frowned at the thought.

Fluttershy said something too soft for me to hear but she looked worried.

Pinkie said, "I could go with them and keep watch." She got up on her hind legs in a stance reminiscent of a bear. "They'll be TOTALLY safe with Pinkie on guard!"

"Pinkie, you really ought to just let them go. I'm sure they'll be fine," Twilight said nervously.

Her being nervous was making ME nervous. Why is she saying it's okay but she's nervous about...

Oh, THAT incident. Which I had forgotten about.

She just couldn't wait to tell me about something she'd read and of course, I was trying to take a bath and wacky embarrassment ensued but nothing bad came of it. Back in my days in Canterlot. When I was blond and tall. I miss that body.

"Come, my dear friend Ivan," I said, dragging him off. "Thank you, everyone, for the towels and the soap." I now hustled Ivan down around the bend.

As we went, I could hear Twilight trying to whisper and half-shouting to the others, "Humans get really embarrassed when you see them naked, then they run around in a panic and fall down and injure themselves or worse. You're going to embarrass them." Her voice was urgent.

"How in Celestia's name do they reproduce?" Applejack asked, sounding dubious. "You can't mate with your clothes on, you know."

We got round the bend and I couldn't hear anything except the panicked tone of Twilight's voice.

"Remember, the better your manners and the more favors you do them, the more they'll reciprocate," I hissed to him once I thought we were out of their earshot. "And follow my lead, I know ponies."

"Are you seriously trying to score with a pony?" he asked me. The fact that he didn't sound very surprised was the most aggravating part. "Is that why you got that tattoo?"

I have a tattoo of a five-jack hand at cards, one of each of the five suits, and it IS on my left buttock, and it was not one of my wiser decisions, but I was DRUNK OFF MY ASS. Sadly, it has no magic, unless you count reminding me of my younger, stupider days. I am a fair hand at cards, though. "NO. I am trying to maintain good relations. Part of that is figuring out what each pony wants and giving it to them," I said firmly to him. "I am not looking to spawn a new line of centaurs."

We both started getting clean; while Applejack was right, I need that brief moment of clean so I don't sink into abject dementia before lunch. "So what is the plan?"

"I don't know," I said. "If we're lucky, Twilight will turn it into a cow or something," I continued. "She had huge amounts of power and now she has even more. Also, Twilight told me that Fluttershy has some sort of stunning spell which might be useful." I rubbed my forehead. "We discussed a lot of options, but they're all risky. I don't know if even Twilight can just polymorph a Grand Wyrm."

"They seem awfully optimistic about this," Ivan said.

"Ponies are hopeful by nature and apparently they have dealt with dragons before," I told him. "Once we get closer, we can decide if we need to run for the hills or stick it out or what."

"So, basically, we don't have a plan and you want some Pony loving so you're going to hold on and hope the universe saves us for no good reason," Ivan said, frowning as he worked on his legs.

My hands clenched. "I am just trying to ensure our survival, Ivan," I said. "And a shot at the treasure if they are right and they can handle it." I could mention the Elements of Harmony but Ivan would probably try to steal them and hock them for ale and whores.

This is why we can never go back to the Minrothad Guilds.

The Water Elves are REALLY vengeful, let me warn you.

"It's not like YOUR plan worked," I continued, trying to scrub my back.

This is why I like to stay at very high-class inns with sexy women who help you bathe. Instead, I am in a swamp, using soap with a picture of a duck carved into it, while standing waist-deep in water with strands of swamp weed in it, while fish tickle my legs.

At least I have both legs.

Why does this soap have a duck on it?

I started to feel more human as the soap did its work; Rarity had mostly cleaned me up yesterday but just sleeping in the swamp had given me new layers of filth.

I HATE THE MALPHEGGI.

"But we ARE naked," I heard Applejack say distantly.

You are never naked so long as you have a nice hat.

"This Dragon has a HELL of a treasure," Ivan said, now working on his arms. You could see his freckles now. I suppose the Ponies would say he's dappled. "Most importantly, he's got the Lock picks of Asterius."

"Seriously?" I said. Holy shit, that's.. anyone who picks locks at all would give their left nut for those. Then use them to steal their left nut back.

"Yeah," Ivan said. "He gave me a vision," he said softly.

"Wait, what?" I said.

"Asterius. I... I'm a candidate for Immortality, I think."

I stared. IVAN? What kind of crazy...

You know, it does make sense for Asterius. I was jealous now. "Holy shit, man, why didn't you say it before?"

"Because probably half the people I recruited would have knifed me for it, and you were drunk off your ass until it was too late," Ivan said, now working on his neck. "I'm sure there's probably some Immortal with their eye on you by now."

"Valerias, I hope," I said, eyes crossing at the thought.

"She has a boyfriend, you know," Ivan said. While neither of us is very religious, I DO know Ixion and Valerias have been an item forever.

But I also know she has a wandering eye.

"I am a man willing to share," I told him, working on my face.

Ivan began laughing very loudly.

"The man who dragged me into a quest without telling me doesn't get to laugh. Tell me you wouldn't happily just have a little of Valerias' time!" I pointed at him.

"Okay, okay, yes," he mumbled, looking embarrassed.

Ivan the Immortal. The idea scares me, but hey, having an Immortal who owes me would be VERY convenient. I'm surprised Asterius didn't eye someone more subtle and clever, though.

Not that I'm thinking of anyone in PARTICULAR.

"So what are we going to do if they find out whatever the hell you did that you're trying to hide?" Ivan asked me.

I believe the word is 'die'.

"If I have to, I will attempt the flight ritual," I told him. Assuming I can actually stay conscious through it, which I am not sure of, having never tried anything that powerful. "That means only two of them could pursue us."

Until Twilight gives herself wings and hunts us to the ends of Mystara and beyond, anyway.

"And Fluttershy's too nice to really chase us down," Ivan said. "Dash, though, she's not mean, but I think she'd enjoy kicking our ass, just to show off she could do it."

I fear that too. But hopefully, we can handle one pony who is not Twilight.

Maybe this will go smoothly and we won't end this running for our lives. At least there's plenty of water to douse flaming asses here.

We discussed ideas for dealing with dragons as we finished washing, then I said, "I really wish I could get my back cleaner."

"I'll help," a woman said.

I passed her the soap and I could feel my back getting clean, but then I saw Ivan staring at me.

Then I realized two things.

One, we were not alone.

Two, IT WAS PINKIE.

I panicked and ran for my life instinctively, images of clinging to a tree branch to the smell of wet horse and wet Ivan in my mind. I heard Ivan shouting about something and then I streaked (literally) through the camp, unable to overcome my survival instincts. Rarity was shouting and Dash said something about size and Twilight was yelling angrily.

OF COURSE I RAN INTO QUICKSAND.

DAMN THIS SWAMP AND MY PANIC REFLEX!

And, of course, I worried about how much she'd heard as I worked on drowning.

There was a flash of light and Twilight landed next to me. "It's okay, I brought you a... ack!"

She immediately sank into the quicksand, towel and all. I grabbed the towel and donned it. "Try to float, don't move too much or it'll stir the suction," I told her. Or something.

"I don't know how to float, I brought a book on swimming but I didn't have time to read it because we had to get to the Dragon quickly!," Twilight said, flailing and sinking.

I caught hold of her hooves. "Pull yourself together," I told her.

She was breathing hard. "Just relax," I said, then sighed. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Twilight."

"I told Pinkie to leave you two your privacy," she said in frustration. "But she got curious or... something... I'm sorry, they don't understand humans and how they need their privacy," she said. "He... Anyway." She sighed. "I think we're stable. I have some Phoenix feathers I stored some spells in, but I can't get them out of my bag and I can't concentrate enough to cast them myself without sinking and drowning." She sounded frustrated.

"We just need to hold on until they find us," I told her. If she could teleport again, we'd be fine, but teleporting tends to drain thaums like crazy. It's more than I can handle. Phoenix feathers? Nice. You can store a spell just shy of completion in one, then complete it in just a few seconds. Great for those times when you need to dispel a ward and don't have a half hour to spend on it because someone is shooting flaming arrows at you.

I guess once Ivan is an immortal... assuming that wasn't someone conning him... Of course it was. Asterius would clearly want someone smarter who understands the whole idea of buttering people up. Poor guy, he's being rooked. Those lock picks probably will eat his soul or something. I can't let that happen to him. But would he even listen if I warned him?

I may have to steal them myself to protect him.

It's for his own good, really. Then we can find out who set him up for this.

"Twilight, do you know anything about quests for immortality?" I asked her.

I could hear distant shouting and running about and something about snakes. "OVER HERE," I shouted to them.

Now I am going to have to take another bath, dammit.

One without any pink horses.

"A little," she said. "I have read Ilsundal's memoirs. And Celestia had me read up on the Pearl the Water Elves of Minrothad used to have that got stolen."

Ahahaha.

"The Wonderbolts recovered it and returned it to them in return for a trade deal. They're very great adventurers," Twilight said a little wistfully. "Rainbow Dash is a good friend of them."

It's good I have trained myself not to show fear or I would just die now.

Well, not show fear except when I panic.

Ahaha.

There was more yelling and something about lizardmen and a noise like someone getting hit in the head with something.

"Oh no, we need to help them," Twilight said, trying to swim but now we sank deeper from her flailing. I managed to keep her head above the surface, barely.

"Careful," I said to her. "We almost went under."

She looked around, then saw a vine. "I am going to telekinesis the vine over. We'll wrap it around you and then you can climb up it while I hold onto you and we'll be out."

"Will it really hold your weight and mine?" I asked, worried. I could help her do it; I know a little magic, though I'm not nearly at her level. She can telekinesis a cow, I can move a couple of coins or a coin purse And so on. I do have a big boom flame spell I'm rather proud of.

Setting the forest on fire would, however, not help.

"You pull yourself out, then you can get the others, and I'll tread quicksand," she said, frowning.

"I can't just leave you in here," I told her. She'll probably drown herself, then Celestia will make me into a puddle of slime and banish me to the moon. A cesspool on the moon.

Who the hell is this 'Luna' person?

Celestia is up to something, I can smell it.

She turned a little red. "I got you into this," she said.

"I'm the fool who panicked and ran into quicksand; you were just trying to save me," I told her.

"Rarity is going to kill me," she said to the quicksand, staring at it.

"Since you didn't dump me or Rarity into this, I am sure she will only be worried over you being okay," I told her. "This is not your fault. Let's try the vine. The worst that can happen is that it breaks."

"And then you fall back in and my weight pulls you to the bottom and you drown and then Rarity makes me into a hat for your tombstone!" Twilight said in a panic. She started thrashing and we now were just barely above the surface. Our heads, anyway.

"I am sure she would not make a friend into a hat, even if she was angry. And if you thrash, we sink," I said, trying to calm her. "Try the vine anyway."

She pulled the vine over, but when I tried to use it, it broke. "That always works in stories," I muttered.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's okay," I told her. "If we stay calm, they'll find us. Or do you remember the flight ritual?" I asked her with sudden insight.

"It's really hard and I don't think I can do it and not drown at the same time," she said. "Hmm, maybe I can lift you out, and then you can braid vines to make a rope to pull me out."

"Try it," I told her.

I could still hear chaos in the distance. Then several lizardmen fled past us with fruit splattered across their faces. I couldn't help but laugh a little.

She lifted me out and I made a vine rope, but unfortunately, I wasn't actually strong enough to get her out, though now she was head and shoulders above the surface. I kept trying until, suddenly, the vine moved and I fell backwards and she flew out and over my head, landing on Applejack, who had somehow come up without me noticing. And Pinkie, who now was covered in muck.

"Thank you," I told them, trying to bow.

"Ain't nothin', sugarcube," Applejack said, amused. "I guess you two will need another bath now."

"I'll get you another towel and some more soap!," Twilight said, then teleported off.

Like she could have done earlier.

TWILIGHT!!!!

"I'm sure she'd be happy to scrub your back," Pinkie said cheerfully. "Are you okay?" she then said.

"I'm fine," I said. "Except for embarrassment and nearly dying and nearly taking someone with me." My guilt and my frustration were hitting each other with maces.

"I just wanted to help," Pinkie said. "I thought Twilight was exaggerating." She sounded embarrassed too.

"What happened with the lizardmen?" I asked.

"Pinkie thought she heard something, then kind of got distracted but it was them," Applejack said. "They panicked when you ran naked and then we spotted them. Ivan fights pretty well," she said.

"I hope no one's hurt," I said. Fluttershy probably has some healing but not a lot.

"Nothing too serious," Applejack said. "We're tough little ponies."

Twilight appeared with a fresh towel and soap. "Okay, I promise you, I'll sit on Pinkie until you're done."

"I'll help you clean up, Twilight!" Pinkie said cheerfully to her. "Enjoy your bath, Sammie!"

"Honestly, you're just gonna get dirty AGAIN," Applejack said.

It's the principle of the thing. I am VERY principled.

**************

I couldn't actually say no to the sweater vest which Twilight gave me as an apology, though it'll be warm in this swamp. It had 'TS' blazoned on it, but Rarity rewove it into 'SM' for me.

"I'm so sorry," she said softly to me. "I understand the importance of maintaining some dignity and privacy."

We'd gotten underway and were now trudging through the swamp.

"Thank you, and thank you for reweaving it," I told her, patting her back and she smiled.

"Anything for a friend," she said.

The ritual didn't mention monogramming your true name on it when you summon it. I'd best not risk that one, not that I am likely to need ANOTHER sweater vest in the swamp.

"Is it because they're so small there?" Rainbow Dash whispered to Twilight.

Twilight turned twelve shades of red and babbled about the uses of garlic.

What is... NURG.

Rarity sighed. "She's a dear friend; she would have dove down to the bottom of the quicksand to save you. But no one can do everything well."

"I didn't see any garlic," Rainbow Dash said hesitantly.

"Rainbow Dash, please come over here," I said.

Twilight made an 'I'm sorry' gesture as Rainbow Dash ZOOMED over. "Hey, what's up, Marcus?" she asked with a kind of hearty fellow well met tone I know well. It's the sound of someone trying to bluff past a faux paux.

"Humans typically only get naked for bathing and sex," I told her. "It's generally frowned on to run around naked in front of people of the opposite sex, though married couples and lovers may bathe together. Or parents with young children."

"Why?" she asked.

"It embarrasses people," I told her. Especially when it's insane pink ponies.

"That is not an answer," she said, frowning. "Saying it embarrasses you because it embarrasses you."

"Too much seeing each other naked usually sends humans into heat," I said, trying to put it in pony terms.

Her eyes crossed. "But you're seeing me naked ALL THE TIME," she said in a sudden panic.

"But I'm not naked," I told her. "Also, naked ponies doesn't set us off or we'd be in trouble."

She gave a sigh of relief. "I can see how that would be embarrassing."

"Anyway, it's okay. I've made a fool of myself, nearly died, and now I'm mostly clean and it's all good," I told her. Pinkie is going to be the death of me if Twilight and Celestia aren't first. "So I hear you're a weather pony?"

"Yeah. But it's a LOT harder outside Equestria. I don't know how you all stand the crazy random weird weather out here," she said, looking around. "Why make it this hot? I'm surprised everything doesn't wither."

"The Malpheggi has been like this for hundreds of years; the plants all got used to it," I told her. "Do you think you could make a dense fog?"

"Hah! EASY," she said and started to zoom up.

"No wait, not yet!" I shouted and she came back.

"Oh wait, you're thinking we could fog up the dragon's entrance to his lair, so he comes out to fight us and gets lost, right?" Rainbow Dash said excitedly.

"Yes," I said, surprised. Unknowing, not stupid, I told myself, revising her profile in my head. "Are we going to fight him? Or what?"

"I think we will try to negotiate a deal first, then fight if we have to," Rarity said. "Dragons are dangerous." She shivered.

"Oh, I showed that last one what for," Rainbow Dash said, miming punches. "I can take him down," she said confidently.

I looked at Rarity, who shook her head. "I know you will fight valiantly," she said to Dash.

Exactly the way to do it.

"Is that armor?" Rainbow Dash asked me.

"My leather can reduce damage from blades," I told her.

"No, the fuzzy thing." Dash touched my sweater vest

"It's a gift from Twilight," I said. Rarity had to adjust it; it was cut more for a human woman. It's pretty stylish, but hot.

Dash looked at Rarity, looked at me, looked back at Twilight, who was reading and marching at the same time, then said, "Okay," sounding a little confused.

"I adjusted it to fit him," Rarity said, smiling a little.

"OH," Dash said. She relaxed.

Dammit, I am not getting something.

I suddenly felt INTENSE DEATH GAZE.

It was Spike, trying to set me on fire just for being alive. Does he know? He certainly has the 'DIE IN A FIRE' gaze down. Why else would he care?

Dash said, "Time to go play with Spike! He can help me scout!"

She swooped over, grabbed him and flew off with him.

"Please tell me I didn't trample him in my panic," I said to Rarity.

She sighed. "It's nothing, darling. He's still quite young and you know how children are."

"I know," I told her. "I was a child once." It feels like another universe.

Possibly it was, given some of my mishaps.

Deep beneath the Great School of Magic in Glantri City, there is a door. It is labeled 'Do Not Open EVER.' Of course Sergei opened it.

If you ever find it, DO NOT OPEN IT or visit the plane on the other side of it. Dimension. I don't know what it was, but I AM NEVER GOING BACK.

We chatted as the quest continued forwards.

*************

"You're a farmer?" I asked Applejack as we rumbled on through the swamp. Dash thought we could reach close to the lair tonight, which means tomorrow we scout out the area and figure out a plan. I was taking this chance to circulate and feel out the rest of the party.

"I'm a fair hand in a scrap but my real talent is growing apples," Applejack said. Which does, admittedly, match her Cutie Mark. I suppose she mainly fights with her lasso, which she's quite nimble with.

"How good are you at lassoing something in the air?"

"Depends on how fast it's goin'," she said.

Earth Ponies are mind-bogglingly strong, or at least some are. I know it only takes four to pull a 'train' and those things must weigh tons. "I'm wondering if you could snare a dragon's leg and pull it to the ground. Maybe even making it crash if it was going too fast to stop."

"It would have to fly a mite low for me to reach, but I reckon I could," she said thoughtfully. "Depends on the size, mind you. Dragons can be a mite huge."

"Someone could bait it to fly low, then you could snag it," I mused. "You're from Ponyville, right?"

"Ever been there?" she asked.

"I must confess I don't even know where to find it on a map. My apologies," I told her. "I only know the big picture of Equestrian geography."

"About forty-eight miles northwest of Fort Nar, between Cloudsdale and Hoofington," Applejack said. "There's no direct route from Ponyville to Fort Nar, though; they'd have to go through the Everfree and only crazy people and us do that." She shook her head.

Okay, that pins it down pretty well for me. "Seems dangerously close to the Malpheggi."

"First you hit the Everfree, THEN you hit the Malpheggi," she said. "Mind you, the Everfree ain't no better than this, though I guess it is drier."

"So what brought you to join an adventuring party?" I asked curiously. She doesn't seem like she has the need to go plunging into danger like Ivan and I do. Admittedly, in part because she likely never has to run for her life.

"Ah do mah part to defend Ponyville and Equestria," Applejack said. "I ought to be home working the farm, but if this dragon keeps raiding, I may end up with NO farm. And of course, I can't just let my friends get in trouble with out me." She shook her head. "How about you?"

"I have too much curiosity for my own good," I told her and she laughed, but I laughed too. "Seems like the world wants me to wander. I hate the Malpheggi, but mostly I like seeing new places."

"Then you should come back to Ponyville with us, stay for a while," she said. "It's a good town, very friendly, and maybe you'd get rid of that case of the nervous nellies you've got." Her voice was blunt but not hostile.

I laughed nervously. She is... honesty... uuurgh. "The Malpheggi makes me nervous." That IS true. Can she detect lies? How fucked am I? "And the other thing, that's just how humans are raised."

"Didya come from a noble family?" she asked curiously.

"No, but I've been around nobles enough to come off well in high society," I told her. "Your family probably has more money than mine did." I think. I don't remember my childhood well any more and sometimes it seems like my memories contradict each other.

But the past is dead and gone, right?

And I am not.

"Then you'd be fine in Ponyville. No pretensions there. Well, a little from Rarity, but it seems to me you like that." She gave me a look which made my marrow shake; there was a kind of odd cunning to it, like she was seeing through to the heart of me.

"I must confess I enjoy elegant company, but please don't take that as a slight," I told her. "Ivan and I are old friends, and he is rather rough, as you've no doubt noticed. But we always look out for each other." Which is why I can't let this fake immortal sucker him.

"He's not what you'd call smooth," Applejack said, watching him talking to Rainbow Dash; they were both laughing loudly. "But I don't look for smooth m'self."

"The best friends are different from you; their strengths cover your weaknesses, their weaknesses, you cover with your strengths. Everyone can't be good at everything, but the sum is more than the whole of its parts. As Didymus said in his Machina Explicata, 785 AC." This is in chapter 12, 'Never Split the Party'. A very useful book for a man of adventure like myself.

"So you're a scholar like Twilight, too?"

"I dabble in many things," I told her. "You can call me a jack of all trades." Her hat now tried to tempt me but I ignored it. "I do a little magic." I called on one of my best learned tricks, snapping off two branches, then making them sword fight in the air. "I can't move nearly the weight a Unicorn can, but I can move lightweight things, light small fires, do some other tricks. I have a couple of combat spells. And I can do fancier things if I have a book of rituals. Unfortunately, every book I own usually dies horribly within a month or two." I sighed. "Or I end up giving it to someone."

"I guess that's the price of wanderin' so much," Applejack said. "I had some wanderlust when I was younger, went down to Manehattan, but in the end, I didn't feel right until I came back home," she said thoughtfully. "You been back to Thyatis, lately?"

"Not for a while," I told her. "So you went to Manehattan?" She doesn't sound like a Manehattanite.

She now told me the whole story, which you probably already know. In brief, she dreamed of the sophisticated big city, went to live there, got lonely for the country, came home, and settled down, content to be a country girl.

It reminded me, though, of the Shearing in Karameikos; many kids go to their parents, get their hair cut and set out to see the world around fifteen, sixteen, seventeen or so. Most of those Sheared return home after a few years, their youthful rebellion spent, money in pocket, ready to settle down and become adults. Those who don't, they had too much wild in them to have settled down happily. They're happier in the world. Everyone wins. Ivan was one of those who never came back.

For some reason, the trees were moving. I blinked at them; wondering why Applejack was turning different colors. "Are you trying to blend like a chameleon?"

"Whoah there, Marcus, you don't look so hot."

"I'm fine, it would be rude of me to discard this fine gift," I said, suddenly aware of how hot I was and how much I was sweating.

I should take this off, really but it's probably a magical sweater of protection or something that Twilight made and the world is spinning, oh dear...

THUNK.

*****************

I awoke, sans sweater vest At least I was on nice dry grass. "I am alive, right?"

"You betcha," Applejack said. "Does your head hurt?"

It was resting on something soft. "Am I using someone as a pillow?"

"It's me," Pinkie said behind me. "Feeling better?"

"Yes," I said.

"I'm so sorry," Rarity said, sounding guilty.

"Me too," Twilight said, worried.

"It's okay," I said. "A gift should be cherished in the spirit it was given. It felt good to be in something new and clean I hadn't worn for days and days over and over," I said grandly, trying to stand. I wobbled but rose, leaning on Rarity as she moved over to me. "And I couldn't let your work go to waste, Rarity." No one kisses ass like I kiss ass. I am a true master. Here's another order of curried favor!

"Save it for cold weather," Rarity said, smiling. "Twilight froze some ice to put on your head; I hope it helped."

"It feels much better," I said.

I could see Ivan shaking his head, but I just smiled. "And thank you, Twilight," I said to her.

"I didn't even think about it being more of a winter item," Twilight said. She frowned. "The book just assumes you know."

"Well, it was written with humans in mind. I expect I wouldn't know which plants are safe to eat and which not in Equestria, but you do," I told her. That cheered her up a little.

I have to keep my head about me. Currying favor at the expense of my own health is, I think, a little too far, when I need to ensure that I don't die horribly at the hands of a dragon soon.

I have to keep my wits about me and not bake my brain.

I wish I could hold onto that until winter; it would be nice, but I suspect it will go the way of all my wealth.

Such is my life, a life of poverty and fits of terror with brief moments of joy that enable me to go on. But it beats staying at home. Whatever Applejack may think.

*************

A little later, as we were traveling, Rainbow Dash said to me, "I hear you know magic stuff, right?"

"Yes," I told her.

"Good, you can come scout with me; I'll look for normal stuff, you handle the magic," she said.

Shit. I HATE SCOUTING. But I can't back out now without looking pathetic; it won't matter once I run for the hills, but until then, I have to look cool, admirable, fearless.

"I don't know if I can keep up with you," I told her. "You fly very quickly."

"I fly so fast, I can outrun SOUND," she said. "Perfect stealth."

Okay, I am VERY envious.

I could use that.

"Isn't it hard to see anything at that speed?" I asked.

"Umm, yeah. It's only for wide open spaces," she said, then sighed. "Anyway, I think you can ride me; you don't look too heavy."

"Okay, if you don't mind."

"Twilight insisted I take you," Rainbow Dash said, shrugging. "And yeah, someone to find magic stuff would be good; there may be dragon magic traps or something."

I studied Rainbow Dash. "I'm too big to ride you, though."

"We have a clever plan," Rainbow Dash said.

That doesn't bode well.

She took me back to where Twilight Sparkle was studying a book intently. "Okay, I believe this spell will let me make Rainbow Dash big enough to carry you without making her too big."

Spike laughed and Twilight frowned. "I know what I'm doing THIS time," she said.

"I need to be at least twenty percent bigger," Rainbow Dash said. Rarity snorted, and Applejack and Pinkie both laughed loudly. Spike grinned too.

I don't get it. Ivan laughed. What does he know that I don't?

Unless this like that Alph... no, no, I am still trying to forget that.

Twilight began chanting and I felt the glow of magic. This was Enlarge Person or something similar. Pretty easy low level magic. She carefully pronounced each syllable from the book and light washed over Rainbow Dash, who grew about thirty percent bigger. "I could make you really big, but it will last longer this way," Twilight said.

Rainbow Dash was about the size of those steppe ponies the Ethengars use, but much more colorful and, well, both more benevolent and more intelligent. Those things are bastards like their owners.

"Sweet," Rainbow Dash said, stretching her bigger wings. "Come on, Marcus, mount up!"

I mounted up and she took to the skies. I held on as best I could, feeling mounting terror, gripping me so tightly that I couldn't even cry out in fear. She was grinning manically as she zoomed up and over the swamp, moving in a complex search pattern, while I tried to keep an eye out for anything arcane. My ass began to hurt more and more as I'm not used to riding horses.

There was something... "Back up, I think I saw something by that pool."

The pool in question was maybe forty feet across with muck on the surface and the skeletal remains of an alligator next to it, cut in half. Halfling bones poked up out of the muck and grass and bushes around it and a half-dozen rivulets of water ran into or out of the pond; tall plants grew inside the water along its edge, but the middle just had strands of water-weed.

There was something magical at the bottom.

"Some treasure lies below the surface," I told her.

"Diving time!" she said before I could stop her. She dove down and the water churned. I GOT DRAGGED UNDER, SCREAMING.

Then we came up, now draped in pond weed and pond scum, with her clutching a brazier made of black metal, coated in ice, by its metal handles. She had it gripped in her powerful and now thirty-percent larger teeth.

ICE? In this weather?

Rainbow Dash passed it to me, then shook us dry and clean, forming a rainbow that arched right over me; she looked proud and I applauded. "This looks familiar," I said. It had carry handles that were not frozen but the rest of it... why ice? I held my hand near the main body of it; I felt it sucking at my body heat.

Then the bones started moving. "Undead!" I shouted.

We ZOOMED out of there instead of fighting them all and I decided I liked Rainbow Dash. Most heroic types would have stuck around to fight them all.

Screw that, you get the loot and RUN! Like a sensible person!

Maybe scouting isn't so bad.

**************

"You left an undead army wandering loose?" Twilight said, stunned.

"More like an undead company, really," Rainbow Dash said, clearly trying to use the 'Shift Blame' spell. One that all adventurers must learn.

"There was no way the two of us could have handled it," I said. "It was my decision," I lied. "She wanted to stay but I thought it best to withdraw and get reinforcements." Now she owes me. I'll take some heat for this, but nothing I can't overcome.

"Yeah, I was going to clobber them!," Rainbow Dash said boldly, miming punching skeletons out. "But I couldn't protect Marcus and fight them all at once."

"I... can't we just avoid them?" Fluttershy said. "We need to conserve our strength for the dr... dragon. And probably they just don't like strangers."

"They're probably going to hunt us down to try to get their brazier back; it probably *made* them," Applejack said. "What do you think, Twilight?"

Twilight and Spike were busy digging through books.

"I vote for avoiding them," Ivan said. "I'm with Fluttershy, save our strength for the dragon. But make sure that thing isn't evil." He eyed it suspiciously.

"I'm working on it," Twilight said. "Marcus, can you look through Krangon's?"

Krangon was a halfling adventurer from about fifty years ago; he visited the Malpheggi among other places and volume 4 of his memoirs deals with it. That's the one she brought. She tossed it to me and I started skimming.

Rainbow Dash lurked by me, reading over my shoulder. I moved a little to make it easier for her, though I was probably going to fast for her to keep up easily.

"Damn, you read fast," she said.

"I can't fly like you but I can turn pages with the best of them," I said dryly and she laughed.

"There we go," she said; I had nearly gone by a picture of the brazier but I guess she's used to processing visuals quickly if she can outrace sound.

Damn, I am so jealous of that!

"It's a crucible of Blackflame, a kind of fire which is cold," I said. "The Halflings use it for making magical items. Nothing here about it making or being used by undead. It says it comes from the Nightmare dimension." Everything is backwards in the Nightmare dimension; if we enter it, we go mad, but beings from there go mad in the face of our universe. Their fire is cold, their water is dry, and so on.

"So they probably stole it," Rainbow Dash said hesitantly.

"Given those were Halfling bones, it's likely something killed them and turned them into undead, but somehow the crucible got dumped in the pond," I said. "I don't know why they would have had a crucible with them, though; according to this, they're found usually in Halfling clanholds."

Of which I think there are roughly a hundred in the Shires and more elsewhere.

"Well, we can see about returning it to the Shires later," Twilight said. "Maybe I can get the ice off, see what clan it belongs to."

Of course the Ponies will want to return it to the original owners instead of selling it and splitting the wealth. Dammit, they're always so goody goody!

"Oh man," Ivan said. "That thing..."

I gave him the *hide what you are thinking* glare.

"Are you sure it won't kill us all?" Ivan asked nervously.

"It's perfectly safe as long as no one tries to put fuel in it or light it," Twilight said.

There was a deep and terrible silence.

I knew, in my gut, what was happening this very moment.

My head swiveled and found Pinkie trying to roast marshmallows over it.

Everyone stared in horror.

She laughed. "Psych! I didn't turn it on!"

We all fell over.

"I don't even know how to," Pinkie confessed. "But you should see the look on your faces!" She rolled around in the grass, laughing.

Then Rainbow Dash started laughing loudly. "Good one, Pinkie."

I snagged the brazier before something could happen like laughing turning it on.

Okay, it was kind of funny. I might have smiled just a little.

But dangerous. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff this thing may do. Time to read up on it.

*************

We picked our way forwards through the swamp, wading through knee-deep water and trying to arc off to the left of where the undead were. Rainbow Dash, now back to normal, and Fluttershy flew high to keep watch.

Ivan and Applejack spent the WHOLE TIME talking about farming. I knew he came from a farm family, but I thought the whole point of him leaving was to never touch wheat again. However, he and Applejack were discussing something called 'Three Sisters Agriculture', which was NOT some sort of sex position as you would think.

Apparently, it involves growing beans, corn and squash together, which strikes me as a good way to become very gaseous.

While they plotted to give us all gas, Twilight and I talked magic shop; it was a reminder of why I stayed in Canterlot long enough for everything to blow up in my face. Every so often, I noticed Spike glaring at me; I still don't know for sure why he's mad. None of the reasons could be good, though.

We were studying the Crucible of Blackflame, which made me nervous and interested at once. Spike was carrying it for us and a half-dozen books were floating in the air. "Okay, so each Halfling Clan has one of these, which means some clan either lost theirs or they all moved here and died," Twilight said, frowning at the idea.

"Or someone stole it," I said.

"All the undead are halflings," she pointed out. "Except for the alligator."

"Maybe halflings used to live here," Spike said. "Lots of fish, and they could make rice paddies easily." It's easy to forget Spike has a pretty good education, especially as he's still childish. But he's not stupid and he knows more than you'd think.

"This doesn't seem very ideal for their burrows," Twilight said, looking down at the knee-deep water. It was more like waist-deep on Spike.

"You think you could get Winona to actually put the fish in the ground without eating them?" Ivan said to Applejack, sounding surprised.

Who?

"Hmm, so you need something flammable to ignite it," I said, studying the layer of frost. "Which might be hard to do with the cold and the ice. Though I do have a fire spell which might do it."

"Ignatius' Igneous Ignition?" Twilight asked.

Rarity was busy talking to Pinky. Something about a cat. Or an alligator? Rarity was fretting over whether her sister was taking care of their pets. AHH. I'm sure Rarity's sister is reliable, though, if she's much like Rarity.

I remember the time Ivan, Helga, and I stupidly agreed to take care of that damn Flaemish wizard's familiar while he was in Parliament. The Glantrian Parliament, that is. Stupid Salamander.

By the way, flame spells make them STRONGER.

"Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst," I told her. "I learned it from Pieter Vanderhoven, a Glantrian Wizard, after the HELL known as taking care of his familiar."

Spike is, I think, Twilight's familiar. "HEY," Spike said.

"Nothing personal, Spike. You're intelligent, you don't run around burning everything, and you don't keep trying to climb up the chimney," I told him apologetically. "It was a salamander."

Rarity and Pinkie now came up to us. "What's this?" Rarity asked.

I had to tell them the whole story. They were busy laughing at me, except for Applejack and Ivan, who were trying to figure out how many beans a human needed to eat.

If humans 'need' to eat beans, I am in trouble.

Rainbow Dash now dropped down from the sky and said, "We've got trouble. The Undead are following us."

Ivan grimaced. "They probably are tracking the Crucible."

"I'm thinking we should dump it, then," Applejack said.

DUMP TREASURE?

Even LOKI would never dump treasure. And he's an EVIL TRICKSY BASTARD.

So are his priests. They built a whole country around LYING. How Hule works, I'll never understand.

"Dump treasure? I'm pretty sure that's immoral in every religion," Ivan said frantically.

Agreed.

"We can't just throw away treasure," Rarity said firmly. "I am losing income every day my shop is closed. That thing has to be valuable to someone."

A woman after my own heart.

"Oooh, I bet I could make ice cream in it," Pinkie said.

I suspect it would be dangerous ice cream.

"It's too valuable to throw away," Twilight said. "And undead can't be bargained with." She sighed. "Not most undead, anyway. There was this one book..."

"About a lonely Boldavian prince of the night?" I said. No one has ever proven the rulers of Boldavia in Glantri are vampires. Just as no one has ever *proven* Celestia is a Pony and not someone engaged in a really, really thorough impersonation of a Pony. Or proven with irrefutable proof that I am human or Spike is a dragon or Twilight is a Pony.

Her eyes widened and lit up. "You read it?"

There are a ton of crappy books for people about romantic Boldavian vampires. I suspect someone in Prince Mikhail's family churns them out to raise money for fancy coffins for everyone.

"I wouldn't take those as truth," I told her, and her face crashed. "They're intended as entertainment."

She sighed.

"Anyway, this thing is too valuable to throw away and they might chase us anyway, given undead tend to want to eat tasty creatures like Ponies and Humans," I said.

"Actually, Ponies are MUCH tastier than Humans," Fluttershy said.

WHY DOES SHE KNOW THIS???

Spike raised an eyebrow at Fluttershy.

"But candy is TASTIER than either! If we make people out of candy, maybe they'll eat the candy people and leave us alone," Pinkie said hopefully, then began digging in her saddlebags.

"We haven't got the facilities to make candy, and I think they smell the living," Rarity said.

"I didn't bring any of my field guides to the undead, because I assumed we'd only meet swamp monsters and dragons," Twilight said, frustrated. "I need some spell I can pull books out of my library with."

"Can you send or receive books, Spike?" I asked him.

"No, too long," he said. "I could send someone a letter and ask them to go look in the library but by the time they find it, probably zombies will be trying to eat us." He studied me suspiciously.

Did I ask Spike about that in the old days? I racked my brain, trying to figure out if I had, but it's too much of a blur. I only remember the big events, like the time we were in the library so late the castle librarian fell asleep on on our books to make us leave.

Or maybe just fell asleep.

We'd been knee-deep in a discussion of ring theory. I don't remember why, so we went back to her chambers and continued the discussion until we both fell asleep on the floor.

Man, Spike makes good waffles.

"Waffles?" Twilight said.

FUCK ME. PLEASE LET ME ONLY HAVE SAID WAFFLES.

"Focus, sugarcube," Applejack said. "We need to decide what to do about the dead."

"I suggest we press on to something drier," I said. "Ivan and I can fight better if we aren't slogging through water."

"Me too," Applejack said. "Throws my speed and coordination off a mite."

"There's a rocky outcropping," Rainbow Dash said. "Up ahead. About a half mile."

"Is it dry?" Rarity asked.

"Yes."

We agreed to head for the outcropping. Rainbow Dash got Twilight to enlarge her again, then took me with her so we could make sure it didn't have any traps on it.

See, normal people don't have to worry if ordinary terrain features have traps, but in my line of work, EVERYTHING has traps in it.

Possibly even waffles.

Dammit, I want Spike to make me waffles now.

"Hey, thanks for covering for me earlier," Rainbow Dash said to me sheepishly.

"That's what friends are for, right?" I told her. You can't really call someone a friend you just met, but being SEEN as one is a very valuable tool.

She smiled brightly. "Yeah, exactly. Friends take care of each other. You're an alright guy, Samus Marcus. I was kind of worried about you, but I guess that Erik guy was an unusual bad apple." She laughed. "Geez, I sound like Applejack."

The wind battered at me; Rainbow Dash was flying at a good clip but not too fast, soaring over the trees. It was more fun and less terrifying this time, and I envied her. To fly whenever you want, that must be wonderful.

"It is wonderful," she said. "And, of course, I'm one of the greatest flyers in Equestria!" She demonstrated with a loop-de-loop which nearly flung me off into the swamp. "Ack, I'm not used to carrying anyone."

Only now did I realize I had voiced my thoughts AGAIN. If I am not careful, I am going to die.

"Humans can't fly unless they use magic," I told her. "Though there are some winged humans and elves in Alphatia." Though that might have been magic too. Alphatia is an ancient empire, thousands of years old, ruled by anyone who can spell-cast. Everyone else is a flunky at best. Glantri wants to be Alphatia, but is basically a cheap rip-off.

"You do magic... I guess you don't have a horn, though," she said thoughtfully.

"It's the fruit of hard study. I EARNED my magic," I said. "I taught myself from a book I got on an adventure." I later found out it was one of the introductory books from the Great School of Magic.

Okay, I bought it because it had a mostly naked Elf on the cover. I was sixteen, okay?

Why Glantrians had mostly naked Elves on the cover of a school textbook, I don't know. It certainly is an inducement to study magic.

"I went to the flight academy in Cloudsdale," she said. "I don't know if you've heard of it," she continued hesitantly, glancing back at me.

"Cloud city, center for weather production, right?" I said. Equestria, like Alfheim and parts of Alphatia and Glantri, has managed weather. The Pegasi Ponies fly around, controlling it. They all have a knack, but some are better than others.

"Yeah, I'm a weather pony. And I won an award for best Junior Flyer!" she said proudly. "I got to save the Wonderbolts and now I'm pals with them!" She sounded really excited about that.

We now reached the outcropping. It looked rather odd, a mix of grey and black rocks all jumbled together and fused into huge chunks, rising out of the swamp. The land rose north of it to where the water was just ankle-deep and on the west side of it, a stream flowed south. Hardy berry bushes and moss grew on it but no grass. The fire-blackened skull of a dragon of middling age sat on the south face of it, halfway down the slope and a few other dragon bones stuck out of the rocks.

"Look, you're a guy, right?" Rainbow Dash said nervously.

...

"You saw me naked," I said. And commented on my genitalia. Actually, let's forget that ever happened too.

"I'm sorry, I am trying to figure out how to ask this. It's just, I kind of don't have a lot of guy friends," she said nervously.

Whatever she's going to ask me, it's going to be bad. I can SMELL it. "If this is about male Ponies, I can try to help, but I know more about male humans," I told her. I now began casting a spell to hopefully find any magical energies.

She circled the outcropping as I did this. I noticed a long flow of fused rock down the east side. Surely this isn't some kind of volcano. There's no feeling of heat from it. And it's too small, I think.

"Well, I...umm... I think there's enough similarity. This isn't about anatomy," Rainbow Dash said. "From the stories I've heard, Humans and Ponies... they...umm... Has a girl ever made you a pie?" she said frantically.

What?

"I have been fortunate enough to eat food made for me by many ladies," I told her. "Did you make someone you like a pie and you can't judge his reaction to it?"

"What, no, this is just totally theoretical," she said. LYING LIKE A RUG. "If, by chance, a girl made a guy a pie and he got sick but said it was okay... would it mean he was just being polite and now hates her forever?" she asked nervously.

Wow, this is a flashback to when I was eleven or so. But I suppressed the urge to laugh. Never mock people who you want to get on their good side unless they clearly like teasing.

"Is he the honest, athletic, rugged type like you?" I asked.

"Yes," she said nervously.

No sign of magical traps on the hill, thank you, but now I was nervous it might erupt. I don't have any spells for that, thanks to my usual inability to hold onto ritual books for long.

"It means he really does like you," I told her. "But next time, maybe you should get Pinkie to help you."

"I wanted to make it myself," she mumbled.

"But any true man knows that if a woman makes him food, she likes him." I paused. "Unless she's a baker like Pinkie, anyway."

She relaxed. "But this isn't about me," she then said, un-relaxing, and waving her forelimbs frantically.

"Try touching down on it," I told her. "You can tell your 'friend' that the guy likes her," I said kindly.

She landed lightly on top. A rock shifted but her footing was steady. Good visibility from here, lots of places to hide. So what horrible deadly doom am I not seeing?

"I'll try making another pie after this," she said. "I mean...umm..."

"I am sure he will enjoy the pie," I told her, hoping I wasn't sending her down a blind alley. But I'll be long gone before she tries making him another pie. I wonder which one of the Wonderbolts it is. Not that I know much about them beyond their appearance and some of their... "Oh, you know the Wonderbolts, right? Did they ever tell you about their adventure recovering an artifact for the Minrothad Guilds?"

"Those Guilders are ASSHOLES. Greedy, greedy, greedy," she said, spitting on a rock. "But you're not like that, thankfully."

"Aren't there ponies in the Guilds?" I asked.

"CRAZY ponies who think bits are the only things which matters," Rainbow Dash said, shaking her head. Bits are what Equestrians call gold pieces. "Even Applejack and Rarity don't think that."

The Minrothad Guilds control islands off southeast of here, beyond Ierendi. They're major sea traders and compete with Thyatis to control the sea trade. For understandable reasons, they don't like me very much, though I don't THINK they've figured out everyone they hate is the same person. I'm kind of under a few Black Marks, where they are out to kill me but they can't FIND me in this body. Hah!

Twitch.

Anyway, the Pearl was IVAN'S fault, not mine. I only helped.

Anyway, the Islands are home to all five sentient races, who work together in remarkable harmony to get everyone else in the multiverse's gold, by trade, theft, piracy, stealing intellectual property and so on.

If they weren't so greedy, they'd be kind of inspirational, really. Hard working, racial cooperation, no internal wars... but totally greedy.

"This seems like a good place to make a stand, but I feel like I'm missing something," I told Rainbow Dash.

"It looks fine to me," she said. "As long as we don't have to sleep on it."

You know, I can use my new sweater vest as a pillow. That would be nice. It's nice and soft. "Okay, let's get the others, then."

"So do you know this Erik guy who Twilight had her trouble with?" she asked me as she took off.

"Not any more than you know every pony in Equestria," I lied smoothly. "I don't even know what exactly happened beyond people saying she was moping."

"No one knows, beyond him running away and some kind of drinking game with books and... what kind of drinking game involves BOOKS?" Rainbow Dash asked. "Even Berry doesn't know any book drinking games."

I know far too much about exactly what kind of drinking game involves books. Twilight, in fact, had a book of drinking games for book lovers.

Of course.

"I'd be afraid to ruin the book spilling something on it," I told her.

"I kind of got rainbow all over a textbook one time," Dash said ruefully.

Well, I can say I NEVER have done that.

And hopefully never will.

"He probably was from the Northern Reaches with a name like that," I told her. I was claiming to be a Vestlander at that point but it would give up too much if I somehow 'guessed' that.

"Do they break women's hearts a lot up there?" she asked.

"They do in Ostland," I said. "They're all crazy raiding maniacs there." And the women are hot but insane. Anyway, Ostland has earned my wrath, so I don't mind dumping on them.

She grimaced. "That explains that."

"You really care about Twilight," I said softly.

"Yeah, we're pals. I'd do anything for a pal," she said. "But I'll have to save flying to Ostland and kicking his ass for later."

"Better not go alone; they're pretty tough," I told her. I just need to deflect suspicion from myself, not get her killed trying to hunt someone imaginary.

"Well, right now, we have to focus on this," she said. "You holding up okay?" she asked softly.

Why... OH. "Having something else to focus on lets me get by," I told her.

She nodded. "Yeah. It does." She didn't volunteer what she might want to get by from and I didn't pry.

You know, Ivan and I could finally get into that damn tower with the help of someone like her. Assuming the map isn't full of TOO many lies.

And assuming we still had the map, but I THINK I remember where that tower in the Broken Lands is.

She could just fly around until we found it!

This would, however, get in the way of running for the hills. Though if this DOES end smoothly... Well, I'll contemplate that later.

Especially since I know better than to think dealing with a Great Wyrm EVER goes smoothly.

***************

Rainbow Dash left me there to secure the position. This made me VERY nervous, but I only had to kill a single snake which popped out and tried to kill me for no good reason. I was busy hunting for more snakes when the others arrived, splashing through the water.

Rarity paused, then stared at the rocks. I blinked, following her gaze.

"Oooh, did you find gems?" Spike asked, drooling a little.

"There's LOTS of gems in these rocks," Rarity said. She concentrated and various points began to glow, especially along the fused rock on the east side.

"We can dig for gems later, once the undead are gone," Applejack said. "So hold your horses, Spike."

"Oh man!"

I nodded. "I'll help you dig them up, Rarity."

Spike glared super-death at me. Why does he care if I help dig up gems? I know he likes to eat them but surely he isn't going to eat them all. "I can handle it," he said.

"We'll all help," Twilight said. "Maybe we can use these to bribe the Dragon."

"Hmm, good idea," Ivan said, nodding.

We disposed our force along the south and east slope, hoping the river would shield our western flank. Twilight and Rarity took up positions near the peak with Fluttershy over them. Rainbow Dash, Pinkie, and I were on the south slope, Ivan and Applejack on the east. Spike stood at the very corner. Fluttershy now began to sing and scatter seeds and they began to grow up into brambles around our three open sides. GO DRUID!

Twilight began reading from a book, tendrils of magic reaching around the rocks and Rarity now concentrated; a dozen finely crafted arrows rose out of her right saddlebag, each with an engraved head with her Cutie Mark set into it in blue-gem slices. The shafts were smooth oak and the feathers were bright and colorful and carefully cut to match each other for balance. "Wow," I said. They were the most beautiful arrows I have ever seen.

"I will act as the last line of defense for Twilight, but until then, I can support with arrows," Rarity said. "And Fluttershy and I support each other."

Hmm, interesting, I wonder how. I peered off through the steamy wetlands towards where the undead would appear, getting ready to cast.

When I saw them, I opened up with pyrotechnics to mark their position. I can't make very huge ones, unfortunately, but it was enough to give the signal for everyone else to FIRE.

Twilight did a set of signs with her hooves and finished her spell. The ground cracked and black tendrils thrust up, grabbing some of the halfling zombies and beginning to crush them. She looked pleased and determined. Evard's Black Tentacles. He was a Svart-Alfen from the Northern Reaches, I think.

Ivan and Applejack and Spike all held their ground for now, waiting for the enemy to get within range. Rainbow Dash hovered; she clearly wanted to go HIT HIT HIT but Twilight had told her to hold her ground.

Pinkie... began a fan dance. She's remarkably nimble on only two legs and she began singing a song about laughing at ghosts and facing your fears. Somehow, it eased my fears about facing these creatures. I feel strange without fear, like something is missing. I could see the others relax, too. Bards are pretty nice and for all that Pinkie is crazy, she's good at her job.

Rarity studied the onrushing hordes; there were dozens of halfling zombies and skeletons, a skeletal alligator with two independently moving halves, a dozen or so spectral halflings and one shambling corpse limned with blackflame. Unfortunately, Twilight's tentacles had mainly grabbed the slow moving, easy to grab halflings.

"Don't touch the spectral ones with your flesh," Twilight said, pointing them out. "Rarity, if you can hurt them, focus fire on them, because Dash and Applejack and Pinkie can't fight them safely. Marcus, Ivan, your swords can hurt them, right?"

Great, just because I have a magical sword, I GET TO FIGHT THE LIFE FORCE SUCKING UNDEAD. This is the story of my life.

I might have just panicked, but I couldn't run with Pinkie singing. It was too soothing.

Now I know what I will hear when I die.

Rarity concentrated, arrow flickering back and forth as she aimed it with precision. Then she pushed it mentally and it flew with grace and beauty into the left breast of one of the spectral figures and stuck, hovering there. It howled and swatted at it, but it stayed stuck and now Fluttershy began to sing and branches sprouted from the shaft, wrapping around and trapping the creature. Not bad at all.

The lead elements of the wave now hit the massive brambles, and pressed on, getting tangled and trapped, moving very slowly.

Meanwhile, I concentrated and waved my hands, speaking the words of Vanderhoven's Spiraling Fiery Burst. A mote of flame erupted from my hand and began arcing towards one of the spectral halflings. It stared at it and now the flame spiraled in and hit it, then exploded in an outrushing burst of spiral flame which rushed over three of the spectral halflings and some zombies and skeletons as well; the zombies began to burn and the spectral halflings howled. But then the blackflame limned creature just sucked up my flames and his black flame got bigger.

DAMMIT.

At least their injuries stayed.

"Dash, get up and make sure there aren't some coming from a surprise direction," Twilight said, then began another spell.

Dash took to the skies and I began trying to think of something else I could do before it was melee time. My fire spell is my only memorized spell that kills things. I'm not telekinetically strong enough to fling them and my pyrotechnics would probably just annoy them. I doubt they like card tricks either.

Rarity and Fluttershy took down another spectral halfling together, but now the rest were coming through the brambles, faster than the zombies and skeletons, who got stuck in the brambles. But the spectral halflings just floated through the brambles like they weren't there.

"I don't see any more of them," Dash shouted from above.

Applejack now tried kicking apples at the spectral halflings. The apples went right through them, but now they turned and chased the apples.

...

Pinkie paused in her song and dance long enough to tell me, "Ivan, Marcus, I have PIES in my pack."

We dug around in her saddlebags, which she shucked off. They were HUGE inside. I'm going to have to digress.

Every race EXCEPT humans have signature magical items. I'm not sure whether we couldn't make up our minds or what. Elves, for example, have their magical swords, magical boots for stealth, and magical cloaks for stealth. Halflings craft weapons out of blackflame, such as rods of justice, which paralyze on a touch. They also make this GREAT potion called Oil of Moonlight, which makes things fly when you anoint them with it. Dwarfs make magical weapons and armor and these vessels called rockships, which sail through solid earth. I've ridden in one and it's a really smooth, quiet ride and very convenient.

For Ponies, one of their signature magical items are saddlebags of holding, magical bags which hold about a ten foot cube worth of space in each bag while being fairly small on the outside and toning down the weight of what you put in them. The result is that Ponies can carry a ton of stuff with them and just about everypony has one of these. Best of all, you just stick your hand in and think about what you need and you can reach it.

So Ivan and I armed ourselves with pies and started throwing. The spectral halflings began chasing them and eating them. Applejack and Rainbow Dash began laughing and laughing. Meanwhile, Rarity and Fluttershy began picking them off.

The boss, however, was not distracted by food and he now lashed out with huge tendrils of blackflame at us as we fed his minions. Everyone had to jump everywhere and then Twilight lightning bolted him. Which he absorbed and got MORE POWER.

I HATE FOES LIKE THAT.

Then he started to make a beeline for Spike.

Spike shivered, then got a determined look. "I won't let you hurt my friends!" He let out a huge gout of flame. Which, of course, the guy sucked up.

"Ivan, it's up to us," I told him. DAMMIT, I DO NOT WANT TO GO HAND TO HAND WITH THIS GUY.

Quickly, I donned my sweater vest, while Ivan said, "Do we have to?"

"If the ponies try to fight him hand-to-hand, it will probably eat their life force," I told Ivan.

"IT WILL TRY TO EAT OUR LIFE FORCE," Ivan said.

See, here's the problem. I agree with him totally. But if we don't do it, it will kill everyone else, then chase us through the swamp ANYWAY, THEN kill us.

"I'll do it, Marcus, while Nervous Nellie here hides behind Spike," Applejack said, now digging in her pack. She quickly removed and donned... galoshes?

Maybe they're Galoshes of Slaying or something.

"Fine! I'll do it!" Ivan said, charging. Ivan, foolishly can't handle being called a coward.

He does things to look brave.

I am a coward, but sometimes I have to fake bravery when I know cowardice won't actually work.

Seeing that thing closing in on Ivan, tendrils of blackflame lashing about, made me want to piss myself. I was utterly terrified of it. But seeing Ivan charging, I circled left, and Applejack right. It lashed out at me, but I parried with my blade and cut the tendril off. It regenerated but I now moved with Applejack to flank our foe. As he and Ivan flailed at each other and Ivan's blade began to grow a layer of ice, I would dart in and stab him, then parry or duck under or jump over his lashing tendrils, while Applejack did the same, delivering kicks with her now galoshes-shielded hooves. Ice formed on the surface of the galoshes, but her hooves were warm inside.

I could hear Rainbow Dash now charging through ranks of skeletons, smashing them up and flying, and now Pinkie Pie was singing about the hip bone connects to the skull bone, which I will note is TOTALLY wrong, for human OR pony.

I saw Spike set one of the spectral halflings on fire as he tried to climb the hill and then Rarity nailed the specter in the head with one of her arrows and it dissipated. Spike gave a huge cheer. "GO RARITY!"

"SUDDEN DAWN!" Twilight shouted, and sunlight, pure sunlight, washed over the zombies, searing them.

I got lashed by our foe, but it enabled Applejack to do a double kick that knocked him down. I had ice across my chest but the sweater vest kept me warm. Thanks, Twilight, Rarity! HAH!

The three of us hit him wolf-pack style; if he turned to face one of us, the other two would nail him. Applejack could kick him so hard he often fell down. He was starting to get very angry.

Angry enough that he now bowled Ivan over with an all out attack, leaving Ivan crusted in ice and howling, though Ivan gave him a nasty cut down one side which slowly was burning with REAL fire.

Then he rushed towards Spike.

This posed a problem. Without his fire, Spike can't stop this thing AND it likely WANTS more of his fire to get stronger. But if Spike gets out of the way, there's nothing to stop him attacking Twilight and Rarity or getting the Crucible, which would probably make him unstoppable.

"Spike, if you breathe on it, it gets stronger!," I shouted as Applejack and I chased it.

Fluttershy called up a wall of brambles, but he just froze and burned them at the same time, and she stared in horror as he kept coming.

Rarity shot him in the chest, then hit him with two more arrows and he lashed out with long tendrils at her and Spike. Spike bravely interposed himself to protect Rarity, ended up coated in ice and fell down. Rarity's eyes glinted now with anger.

"SPIKE!" Twilight shouted. Her horn glowed brightly.

Oh shit, here comes everyone becoming a turnip.

Pinkie Pie grabbed Spike and dove out of the way.

Rainbow Dash climbed upwards in a long arc.

Rarity pulled the arrows out of him and now all her arrows flew around her in an angry storm, building up speed. But now a tendril came lashing for her.

The river rose up and a lash of water hit the attacking lash and the water became ice and rained down, but now our foe was thrown off enough for Applejack to catch up with him, kicking him down.

"Don't you dare attack Spike and Rarity!" I shouted, stabbing him in a way that would have killed an ordinary person. "They're my friends!" Given he was an undead horror made out of undead blackflame (or whatever he is), it just hurt him and ice rushed up my blade, which now was stuck.

Well, shit.

Stupidly, I tried to stand on his back and pull it out and my boot froze to him. OH FUCK ME.

Rarity's breath caught and Spike said something weakly through the ice around him. Pinkie took a cake knife from her bags and began gently jabbing the ice, cutting Spike loose. Two of Rarity's arrows began ice-pick style assistance.

Dash continued to zoom around, beating up the skeletons and zombies, since everyone else was too distracted to even pay attention to them. She could pretty much kill any skeleton by ramming it, hooves first, and the zombies fell down when she hit them.

Ivan struggled, trying to get loose, his sword fallen on the ground out of his reach.

Applejack now secured her legs around my waist and pulled as I pulled but this just pulled me and our foe back and then we all rolled and ended up more or less back how we started, except I was getting more cold and more weak and our foe had a bigger hole in him.

I will note her galoshes DID NOT FREEZE. For some reason.

Fluttershy looked at me, looked at my sword, then smiled.

I don't get it.

She flew in close and began chanting gently. The ice on my sword melted and now it glowed hotly and I began stabbing our foe while Applejack pinned him down.

"You'd better surrender or it's the graveyard for you!" Applejack said.

I tried to figure out why Druid heat didn't feed him and Arcane fire HAD. Not that I was one to argue with success.

Fluttershy now helped Ivan, while Applejack and I dealt with our foe, the blackflame monster. Rarity shot him with several of her arrows and Applejack stomped him. I still had my feet frozen to him; they were leather and I guess druids don't spend much time learning to heat leather. Heating METAL is a classic Druid trick.

Usually for roasting their foes alive in their armor and weapons, but I assume Fluttershy doesn't go for that.

Hmm, you know, I bet she could make an AWESOME kebab.

I could now see Pinkie had produced a giant fake human hand... why did Pinkie have a giant fake human hand??? It was like a glove over her hoof and she was now using it to do a dance. The surviving zombies were now following her, copying her every motion. Okay, that's a pretty nice Bard trick, I have to say. She was leading them over to the river.

Ivan got the killing shot on the blackflame monster, with Rarity, Applejack, and myself providing support. Fluttershy had joined Pinkie and was singing while Pinkie danced. Pinkie led the zombies into the water; she had enough mass to resist the current, but they did not and it washed them away.

"Well, I guess that's done," I said.

Then one of the spectral halflings, which we'd all lost track of, suddenly came up OUT OF THE GROUND and grabbed the Crucible of Blackflame. Twilight hit him with lightning, Rarity with an arrow, Spike with a wobbly thrown rock, and he died.

"Okay, now we're done," I said.

"There's a flying boat coming this way!" Rainbow Dash said.

I rubbed my forehead; I could see a huge flying ship off in the distance now that Dash pointed it out. Too far to see if it is friendly or hostile, though.

I helped Ivan hobble back to the rock outcropping and Fluttershy began treating our injuries, with Rarity and Applejack for nurses. Spike got out a piece of paper and a quill, then got on Rainbow Dash and flew up with her, to go scout the ship. I assume he plans to send Twilight a letter if necessary.

"Fluttershy, do you know why your abilities could hurt it without making it stronger when Spike's fire and my fire and Twilight's magic couldn't?" I asked her.

"He was mean and I am not," she said.

I am not MEAN. Twilight is not mean. Spike... isn't usually mean, other than hating me.

"Fluttershy, Marcus and Twilight and Spike are not mean," Rarity said, gently chiding.

"I'm so sorry," Fluttershy squeaked, dropping the cloth she had in her mouth, with which she was applying some kind of salve to Ivan's chilled chest. "I... Ivan."

"What about you and the Salamander?" Ivan said to me, grinning a little. "Yes, Fluttershy?"

"The Salamander had it coming," I grumbled.

Rarity laughed softly and said, "You will need to take your boots and pants off, if that's okay, Marcus."

I did so and she worked on me. My poor cold feet soon felt a nice warmth soaking into them.

"She... said, yes," Fluttershy mumbled.

"I don't understand," Ivan said.

"She needs you to strip some in order to treat you."

He began doing so.

"See, he's not panicky about it," Applejack said to me. "Ain't no big deal, a little nudity between friends."

It's not so much the nudity as the surprise and the fact that when someone surprises me when I'm naked, they usually are out to kick my ass. And I was TRYING to speak secret things with Ivan.

Pinkie rose up onto her hind hooves. I think she must have a little human in her ancestry or something. "We're all born naked," she sang. "And naked into the grave we go!"

"Actually, humans are usually buried with clothing on," I said as Rarity now worked on my chest.

"Oh COME ON," Applejack said. "In case of what? The worms seeing you nekkid?" She reared up. "I'm naked and what does it matter? Nothing."

"No one is really naked with a hat on," I said. My tombstone will probably say that. I shivered as Rarity worked on my legs, then remembered my tattoo was just covered by my underwear now and if that got out... I really shivered now.

"I am going to teach you not to be silly about your body," Applejack said to me.

"Applejack, you should respect their customs," Rarity said firmly.

"It's stupidly finicky and gets in the way of way too much," Applejack said. "What are you going to do if your butt gets injured, Marcus?"

"Cry," I mumbled, and she rolled her eyes.

Rarity sighed. "I'm sorry, Marcus, sometimes Applejack carries on like she lives in a barn."

"I HAVE A BARN, you know," Applejack said, irritated. "I LIVE in it."

"Really, it's more like a house than a barn," Fluttershy said; I could tell she was really uncomfortable with this argument.

Twilight was watching us work but also consulting three books hastily.

"We can't bump, if you won't show your rump!," Pinkie sang, dancing along.

Please tell me she is NOT singing about what I think she's singing about.

Fluttershy's eyes crossed.

"You live in your shop and I live in MINE," Applejack said, frowning. "You picking up bad manners from your sewing machine and your thread?"

"Your manners seem fine to me," Ivan said. "Fluttershy, are you okay?"

"I'm okay," she squeaked, then took a deep breath. "Ivan, I'm done. We can put your shirt back on and then you should rest a little while, then you'll be okay."

"Thank you," he said. "I feel much better."

Rarity and Applejack were trying to kill each other with their eyes. "My legs," I mumbled and Rarity looked embarrassed and went back to work treating them.

"You got perfectly nice legs for a human," Applejack said, then for some reason ran a hoof along my calf. "Nice muscle definition there. You do much runnin'?"

A lot. A whole lot.

"Humans are intended as long-distance runners," Fluttershy said. "Ponies are faster over short distances but we tire out quickly. Humans can chase things for miles if they're in good shape. It's how they hunt."

"We should go runnin' some time, then. I'd like to see how fast you are," Applejack said, clearly giving Rarity the 'Wall of Ignoring' spell.

"Sure," I said. I'll be long gone by then, assuming she isn't planning to run in the swamp.

Please not in the swamp.

Rarity finished with the warming salve. Oh yes, feels good. I made happy noises and she smiled. "You can put your pants on."

Twilight was now urgently whispering to Pinkie, who looked baffled.

I put my pants on. "Thank you very much, Fluttershy, Rarity, Applejack."

"I mostly just stood here waiting my turn, sugarcube," Applejack said. "But yer welcome, Marcus."

"I like to help people," Fluttershy said, smiling brightly.

"I shouldn't eat up our limited food but now I'm hungry," I grumbled.

"We can go catch you more fish," Applejack said. "If we're lucky, we'll get some here."

We now got down to getting Applejack treated as well.

*************

Once Applejack was treated, which Ivan helped with, we all went fishing, though Twilight and Pinkie were still talking. Rarity is a pretty good spear fisher with those arrows, I learned. She and Applejack both relaxed while we were fishing. I was in the middle of frying up the fish when it hit me. "Should Dash be taking this long?"

The ship was drawing closer and there was no sign of Rainbow Dash.

Applejack frowned. "I wouldn't think it would."

There had been no sounds of violence or anything, though.

The ship was coming from north by northeast. "It's coming from Darokin or Glantri or maybe even Wendar."

"Assumin' it came in a straight line," Applejack pointed out.

Good point.

A letter now tumbled down to Twilight. We all looked over, curious.

"Dear Twilight Sparkle," she read out loud. "Duchess Sapphire of Sugar Hollow is here, on her way to make a visit of state to Equestria on behalf of Princess Emerald of the Principality of Dream Valley in the Republic of Glantri. She actually wears more clothing than Marcus and Ivan."

...

Ivan laughed. "Now that would be something to see."

Applejack laughed loudly.

"Also, no one needs three tiaras. She wants to see Duchess Twilight Sparkle." Twilight blinked. "I am not a duchess."

"You are now," I said. "Clearly Rainbow Dash wanted her to see you as an equal, rather than some peasant to be pitied and trampled on. Or maybe Spike. If she's like most Glantrian nobles, she has an ego bigger than an Ursa Major."

They all shivered at that, as I knew they would. Star beasts are terribly dangerous things.

"I don't know if we really have time," Twilight said nervously.

"Everyone did bring their formal clothes, right?" Rarity said. "I have mine."

They brought formal clothing to a swamp?

"The only thing I have which is clean, let alone formal, is this sweater vest," I said. "Ditto for Ivan."

Twilight frowned. "I'm certainly not going to leave you behind."

"I got mine, if I have to dress up," Applejack said.

"If you enjoy waves of disdain, then you could go without dressing up," I said. "Duchesses are the next best thing to a Princess. She's probably second in command after Princess Emerald and probably her heir." There are... eleven? Twelve? There is a small number of Princes of Glantri, a slightly smaller number of Dukes and Duchesses, then various other ranks. Usually a Duke or Archduke (higher than Duke, even rarer) is the designated heir of the Prince or Princess.

Applejack grimaced. "Stupid snooty nobles."

"I don't know how we'd go about getting cleaned up here to the right level, though," I said. "And Ivan and I are kind of trashed."

"I'll stay here with you two," Applejack said. "Twilight, you can take Rarity and Fluttershy. They'll come off well. And Pinkie can stay with us."

Ivan pulled out a deck of cards. "I've got the party right here."

"I... is that really okay with you all?" Twilight said hesitantly. "I should meet with her, but I hate leaving you here."

"We'll have a little party," Applejack said. "I have some apple cider and everything."

"I've got pie!" Pinkie said cheerfully.

"We're too filthy to go," I said.

"We could... but you..." Rarity sighed. "I didn't bring much material, as I only expected to make repairs on the fancy clothing if something went wrong."

"It's fine," I told her. "I can help you dress up if you like, fair lady."

"It figures," Applejack said. "Better be careful or he'll have you clothed all the time, Rarity."

Everyone laughed.

I don't know how non-unicorns get these fancy outfits on. Rarity could have done this all herself, really, but I could tell she enjoyed having someone help her. Twilight helped Fluttershy to suit up. I have to say, I thought the three dresses looked pretty nice, though I think Rarity tends to go a little overboard on using gemstones.

Which reminded me, we haven't dug up the gems in this hill yet!

Well, later. We can worry about it later, they're not going anywhere.

"Thank you for the help," Rarity said. "I am sorry I haven't got anything appropriate to dress you up in and no way to make a full outfit suitable for a human." She sounded very guilty.

"It's fine," I told her. "I know you would if you could. After all this is done, I will need some fine clothing."

"I will be happy to help you then," she said, then joined the others. Then Twilight Sparkle teleported them up to the boat, which now was hovering over us.

SHADE! SWEET!

By now, Ivan and Applejack and Pinkie had our improvised party set up.

I eyed the cider warily. I wanted it but I needed to stay SOBER so nothing foolish would happen and why is Pinkie looking at me like that? I shivered.

"It doesn't bite," she whispered loudly to me.

Thanks for the heads up, Pinkie.

Applejack produced mugs and straws and we all got some cider and started playing. I could have easily rooked them all, but this is just for fun and to build stronger bonds with the rest of the party. So I carefully won some hands, but didn't really show off.

Applejack played conservatively, not winning big but never losing big either. She was very good at seeing through bluffs, I noted. Pinkie... I will not pretend I understand her goals. She either won big or went down in flames. Ivan takes moderate risks. He had some big wins, some bombs, but neither as big as Pinkie.

"So Ivan's a farm boy, what's your background?" Applejack asked, sipping through a straw.

"I was the seventh son, wouldn't inherit anything, so I got a sword and training in using it and a kind of hint to seek my fortune," I told her. I actually... dammit, I've lied about my childhood so many times I'm not sure any more which story is the right one. "I went to Karameikos to stay with kin who had immigrated there, which is when I met Ivan." I'm pretty sure the Anya and Boris thing happened. Maybe that was in Karameikos; those really aren't Thyatian names.

Every so often, I have these dreams where I grew up in a tree city, but I'm pretty sure that's my imagination.

Why is Pinkie looking at me like that???

"Seventh son of a seventh son?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Ahh," she said sagely.

What?

I studied my hand. Jack of Flames, Ten of Shadows, Queen of Winds, Six of Stones, Jack of Shadows. I could go for a Straight, or throw most of them and stick with the pair of Jacks. Jack-high is my favorite way to win but it's hard to pull off.

"We've been in a lot of adventuring parties, along with Ivan's cousin Helga, but now she's married to a Glantrian noble and doing well," I told her. "I was sorry to see her retire, but I hope she's happy."

I decided to go for the Straight, hoping I wasn't messing up. Goodbye, two cards.

"You two met on some secret mission you can't talk about, right?" I said.

Pinkie and Applejack looked at each other. "I reckon it wouldn't do no harm to...," Applejack said, studying her cards.

"SECRET," Pinkie said urgently. "We can't tell you. I'm sorry, Sammy."

"My name is Marcus," I mumbled, then said louder, "Okay."

Pinkie discarded three Flames. "This hand is NOT on fire," she said, and Ivan laughed. I smiled.

Applejack sighed. "I hate secrets."

"Well, it's best to keep them," I said. "There's a lot of lunatics who run around stealing artifacts and they might cause you trouble if the full story came out." Not that I know anyone like that, of course.

Applejack tossed out two cards and took a deep sip of cider. "So you're a city boy?"

"Very much so," I told her. "Though I spend a lot of time in the country, getting in trouble."

Ivan dealt everyone more cards. I studied mine. Eight of Flames, Nine of Shadows. YES! I tried not to grin too much.

"So you like the sophisticated city types?" she asked.

"Yes," I told her. Didn't we already have this conversation? "But I enjoy the company of all of you here." Okay, Pinkie terrifies me just by looking at her cards. But other than that, they're good company. I sipped the cider. "Very good. I assume you brewed it yourself?"

"Big Mac handles all the distillin'," Applejack said. "He's my big brother."

"He's BIG," Pinkie said, spreading her forehooves wide. "And very Macky."

Whatever that means.

"You can commend him on his fine skills," I said. "Does he add honey?"

She blinked. "Yes, just a little for sweetness," she said.

"I bet Ponies make some fine mead," Ivan said.

"Shouldn't someone be betting?" Pinkie said.

"Sorry, I raise twenty," I said, shoving the coins out.

"See and raise five," Applejack said, pushing her coins out.

Pinkie turned her cards upside down. "Still the same, blast it!" She took a swig of cider.

"I guess you're missing the noble party on the boat, then," Applejack said. Something odd about her tone. Was she making fun of me? No. She wasn't mad at me, but...

Aargh, this is probably important.

Ivan frowned at his cards. "Fold," he said, sighing.

"I haven't bet yet!" Pinkie said.

"Fold anyway," Ivan said.

"I will admit that I do enjoy high class affairs, but I also enjoy a good game of cards with friends," I told her. "I'm actually more worried something will eat us." I did NOT mean to say that!

"You are a nervous nellie," Applejack said. "Why do you do it?"

Pinkie finally saw and raised two.

I saw her bet and raised five.

Applejack studied me, then her cards.

"There's no reason to be scared of cards," I said hesitantly.

"..." Applejack stared at me, confused.

"She means why go adventuring if you get scared so much," Ivan said. "Dumbass." He sipped his cider. "Man, I could totally go for some nice warm rye bread with butter and jam."

"Me too, but I can't bake anything out here very well," Pinkie said, sighing. "I put JUST a touch of sugar in it."

"You put sugar in everything, Pinkie," Applejack said. "And yeah, Ivan got it right." She frowned at her cards, then studied my forehead. Is she reading... no, Applejack would never invade my mind, find out my secrets, then reveal herself to be a vampire.

History doesn't repeat itself that precisely.

Pinkie said, "You need to bet, Applejack."

She looked up at the flying boat and sighed. Had she wanted to go? Maybe she was the sort of person who fakes reluctance and has to be pushed into what they want.

No, I don't think so. But there is something.

"I see but don't raise," Applejack finally said.

"I raise five," Pinkie said.

Pinkie was betting in an oddly moderate way, which meant... anything. It could mean ANYTHING. Dammit.

My eyes drifted to Applejack's hat. Such a nice hat but I doubt she'll put it up for a bet.

Dammit, I need a hat.

"You gonna answer?" Applejack asked me.

"Answer? OH," I said. "It's the only life I know," I told her. "Every time I try to settle down, something goes wrong. People die, things explode, I have to flee." I sighed. "Am I really that nervous?"

"No," Pinkie said.

"Yes," Ivan said, grinning. BASTARD.

"Yes," Applejack said. "I can see you're always eyin' the exits, so to speak." She took a sip of cider. "You have a bad experience with a pony or something?"

Well, there was having a pony JUMP ON ME as I clung to a tree branch in a raging river. Who thought it was a game. And who basically brings me fear just by... holding her cards sideways.

"In the adventuring business, caution helps you survive," I said. "I think you saw during the big fight that I am not going to run away, scared as I may get sometimes." I felt offended, really. When I run away, it won't be fear, it will be my survival instinct. Eventually, sooner or later, Twilight will figure out who I am and then I will be lucky to be a bottle stopper

"Damn life-drinking undead," Ivan grumbled.

We could hear music on the boat, pleasant tunes from the seventh century in Thyatis. The kind of thing they play at fancy parties in noble courts. Mind you, in the seventh century, it was peasant music and someone probably used a fiddle in it.

Age often gives things an unearned patina of classiness and glory.

Pinkie began tapping her feet and looked up jealously at the boat.

"I could tell you and Ivan fight together a lot," Applejack said. "Kinda like wolves fight."

"Yeah," Ivan said.

"Oh, I raise five," I said, studying my cards; now I was tapping my foot.

Applejack said. "Stay."

Pinkie shuffled her cards, then picked them up, looked at them hopefully and her face fell.

"You do those fancy dances?" Applejack asked me.

"I am versed in many styles of dance," I told her. "I can even sort of do the Pony Square, but with only two legs, I can't do it fully correctly."

Applejack sipped her cider. "You ever met Prince Blueblood?"

"I must admit I don't even know who he is," I said. Maybe I've heard the name.

"I...aaargh. FOLD," Pinkie said to my surprise. "Prince Blueblood is a meanie."

"What, now?" Applejack said in surprise.

"What did Prince Blueblood do?" I asked. "I think I am going to stay."

"Me too," Applejack said. She turned out to have a full house. "Hah! I win." She raked in her winnings.

I hadn't MEANT to lose that, but it's okay, it helps maintain the balance.

"He's a selfish, self-centered jerk," Pinkie said. She sighed. "That whole party was made out of not-fun-at-all. I tried my BEST to liven it up but even though Celestia enjoyed it, I have to do better, next time."

"I dunno if I'll go. Bunch of snobs," Applejack said, sipping her cider.

I sipped mine, then got the deck and started shuffling. "As they say in Karameikos, shake a noble's family tree and a bunch of farmers fall out of the upper branches. You shouldn't care what they think, Applejack," I said firmly. "YOU actually have done something useful with your life. If they look down on you, it just is because they know you're better and they're bitter over it."

She blinked. "Thanks, Marcus." She sipped her cider, and Ivan sipped his, while I continued to shuffle.

I slid the deck to Applejack and she cut it. Then I started dealing. I heard this odd beat, then I realized it was probably ponies dancing to the beat, their hooves striking the deck in unison. "Damn, I am so filthy," I said, looking at myself and sighing.

"It's the dirt of honest hard work, rightfully earned," Applejack said. She studied her cards as I dealt them. "Be proud of it."

There was a sudden sound of thunder in the sky and I jumped to my feet, dropping the deck, though I caught it with a quick spell before it hit the ground. I shouldn't have dropped it but the sound startled me.

It was, in fact, twelve flying Pegasi, soaring in a huge formation from the west. They wore matching blue uniforms and flew in formation. My eyes widened. "The Wonderbolts. I hope they're just here to escort the Duchess." And not because the end of the world is about to start NOW, right here on this rock.

"Rainbow Dash is gonna' be happy," Applejack said, smiling.

I was about to ask which one she has the crush on, but Applejack might not know about the crush, so I just licked my lips. "Rainbow Dash is a friend of them, right?"

"She saved three of them and Rarity at the Junior Flyer Competition in Cloudsdale," Pinkie said. "It was GREAT."

Wow. "That's pretty impressive."

"Rarity was using a flight spell Twilight cast on her and kinda got overconfident," Applejack said, shaking her head. "Sometimes she wants to be loved a little too much."

"Nothing wrong with wanting to be liked," I said defensively. "Everyone wants to be liked." I studied my cards. Two of Stones, Three of Stones, Six of Stones, Three of Rivers, Jack of Winds. Hmmm.

"There's probably some stallion trying to get her attention right this minute," Applejack observed, sipping cider and studying her cards.

"I'd think she'd have stallions all over her," Ivan said. "Sorry, that came out cruder than I intended."

"The boys *love* Rarity," Pinkie said. "It's how she got them to haul us in a carriage to the Grand Gala!"

Good for her, I thought. Using your sex appeal wisely is a VERY valuable tool. I expect she has a lot to ponies. "So what happened with this Prince Blueblood?" I asked.

"I bet... ten," Applejack said.

"He kept being mean to her, wouldn't be a gentleman at all. She had her heart up so high and he wouldn't even open a door for her," Pinkie said. "I am more of a gentleman than him! Open *every* door, that's my motto!"

That does not surprise me at all.

"I promise you I will not do anything like that to Rarity," I told Applejack. "He sounds like a cad, who deserved whatever he got."

"He got CAKE!" Pinkie said cheerfully. "I match Applejack and bid thirty."

He was mean to Rarity and got CAKE for it? I can't accept that. Though I doubt I'll ever see him, he'll get something worse than CAKE from me. "Well, I hope he didn't like the cake, as it sounds like he deserved much worse." Wait, 'Prince' Blueblood? How many people has Celestia elevated lately?

"I... see for now," Ivan said warily.

Now I could see Rainbow Dash up in the air with three of the Wonderbolts, all of them zipping around. Two guys and a woman, I think. I wonder which guy it is.

"I see," I said for now.

Soon everyone was discarding. I tossed all but the threes and got TWO MORE THREES. YES!

"I'm sorry to give you the tenth degree," Applejack said apologetically. "Maybe I've had too much cider." She sighed.

"It's okay, looking out for your friend is a good thing," I told her and she perked up a little. "It's perfectly normal to take a while to get to trust a stranger." It's pretty refreshing, really. Ponies often trust blindly if you seem friendly and nice and that's a good way to get hurt by a con-man who wants to abuse that trust.

"Thinking about Zecora?" Pinkie asked Applejack.

Applejack mumbled into her glass.

Ivan looked at her and frowned, then said, "You don't have to talk about it."

"Apple Bloom was the smart one there," Applejack said. She sighed deeply. "I fold."

Pinkie studied her cards.

High above, Rainbow Dash continued to zoom around with the Wonderbolts. They moved far out away from the ship, then began a long high arc over it, splitting into two pairs, each one man, one woman. I could hear ponies clapping and I smiled. She deserves it.

"Enjoying the show?" Pinkie asked.

"Yes," I said. "I've never actually gotten to see them in action."

"Dash must be in Heaven," Applejack said, perking up some.

"I raise twenty," Pinkie said.

"Dammit, fold," Ivan said, sighing.

Me versus Pinkie. Crap.

Applejack refilled my glass. "Drink up, it's good."

"Humans can't drink as much as ponies," I told her. "If I get too drunk, I might be useless if a monster shows up."

She sighed, then sipped from her glass. "Didn't think about that."

The Wonderbolts and Dash were now zipping around the ship, weaving in and out in elaborate patterns as people cheered. Someone fired off some pyrotechnics, MUCH bigger than what I can do. I was jealous.

I suspect Applejack wanted to get me drunk so she could make sure I wasn't going to be an ass like Blueblood to Rarity. Which I won't. I like her. She's classy and I like that. What an idiot that Blueblood must be.

We kept on playing and talking until it was time for dinner; the party was still going on as the ship hovered. We made dinner, then played some more cards and traded adventuring stories. It was a lot of fun. The formal party would have been more fun but with my luck, some old Glantrian acquaintance would have been there.

I... naah, Helga's probably not there. Why would a member of House Blackhill be on a Pony Duchess' ship? The Aendyrs aren't hostile to Ponies but they're not huge allies either.

To my surprise, one of the Wonderbolts came down to us with Dash, who looked happy, nervous, and excited at once. "Hey, guys, this is Soarin' of the Wonderbolts," she said. "Soarin', you know Applejack and Pinkie, but this is my new friends Samus Marcus of Thyatis and Ivan."

"Of Karameikos," he said, shaking hand to hoof with Soarin'. I shook hand-to-hoof with Soarin' too.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," I told him. "Do you like pie?"

"I LOVE pie," he said.

I gave Applejack a meaningful look.

She perked up and got out a pie and tossed it to him. He ate it down VERY quickly, while Dash bopped about him goofily, looking excited.

"How come you're not up at the party?" he asked.

"We're filthy messes," I said ruefully. "I wish I could go but I lost all my clothing except this and a sweater vest Rarity and Twilight made for me."

"Rarity looks kinda guilty for some reason," Rainbow Dash mused. "Twilight's talking to the Duchess about... crops and things."

Applejack said, "Oh great, NOW she wants to talk about crops." She sounded quite cross.

"I got bored in three seconds flat and fortunately, Soarin' and Spitfire invited me to come fly with them," Dash said cheerfully.

"I assume they want to increase their imports of silk and cotton and satin from Equestria?" Ivan said. "What are they offering?"

Applejack and Dash blinked in unison.

"I... yeah. I think so. How... did you know?" Dash said.

"Cotton? Hmm," Applejack said thoughtfully. "Doesn't seem fancy enough for them. I own some cotton clothin'."

"Servants have to wear clothing too," Ivan pointed out to her.

"Oh," Applejack said.

"There's some humans with them too," Dash said. "They're dressed VERY fancily."

"Are they from House Blackhill?" I asked.

"Dunno. They're kinda dark haired, neatly dressed, fine immaculate uniforms, kind of military style," Dash said.

"Aalbaneese?" I asked.

"Dunno. Where is that?"

"It's a Principality in Glantri."

Dash looked at Soarin'; he shrugged. "I dunno."

There's no way Jagger is here, but Prince Jagger is one of the world's greatest dragon-stompers. He could probably whip this dragon's ass totally, saving me having to risk horrible death in order to live five more minutes.

I WISH Jagger was here. Five minutes is five more precious minutes.

I WISH I had nice clean clothing, so I could be dancing and schmoozing and enjoying myself. I'm sure Rarity is a good dancer; we'd have some fun. It's nice having someone around who appreciates things like this.

"Can you fly?" Soarin' asked me.

Either he only ta... of course he mainly encounters humans as adventurers. Some of whom can fly.

"Twilight has a spell to give wings," Dash said. "But Marcus doesn't know it."

"Yes," I said. "I've seen it but I don't know it well enough to do from scratch. And I'm too filthy to go up and have no clean clothing."

"I'll see about that," Dash said. "You should be up there."

She zoomed upwards with Soarin'.

"Well, dang," Ivan said. "I guess you'll be bailing on us."

"If she can find clothing to fit me. I doubt the Aalbaneese will just give her clothing," I said.

"It's fine," Applejack said, a little morosely. "You go have fun. I'll just take all of Ivan's money."

"Then I'll take yours and Ivan will take mine and we'll all be even," Pinkie said cheerfully.

Now I felt bad leaving them down here.

Not quite bad enough not to go if I had the chance.

I am a sucker for big formal parties, even if I usually end up running for my life.

Which could be risky on a big flying ship.

Hmm, I suspect Celestia was worried these diplomats would get eaten by the dragon, thus the dispatch of Twilight's team.

Of course, if Jagger is here, he may have manipulated the Dragon into raiding Equestria, so he could then 'save' Equestria from it. I frowned at the thought. What would he...

Jagger is obsessed with invading Ethengar, which is full of crazed swordsmen and archers on horseback. He probably wants a Pony army to take them on with. Good luck there, Jagger. Celestia isn't going to dance to your tune and if she did, well, Ponies are not exactly aggressive, usually.

I went and took a bath while I was waiting, just in case. Ivan did likewise. I kept thinking someone was watching us, but I couldn't spot Pinkie and I assumed Applejack, despite her advocacy of nudity, would not just peep on us.

But I had the distinct feeling of being watched. "Ivan, someone's watching us."

"Whatever. I don't particularly care if they see us naked," Ivan said. "I'm surprised you do."

"You don't have a tattoo that will cause Spike and Twilight to know about your past encounters with them, resulting in your horrible, horrible death," I said very softly, hoping the spy didn't know about this.

Though now I probably just told them.

FUCK ME.

Ivan grinning at me did not make me feel better. "Too bad Helga isn't likely to be there."

"Yeah," I said. "Though she wouldn't know this me."

We got clean, though we only had filthy clothing to put back on afterwards. Still, it makes me feel more human.

I like feeling human.

To my surprise, Dash and Soarin' returned with two full SUITS, each sized appropriately for Ivan and myself. "Twilight says for you two to suit up also," Dash said to Applejack and Pinkie. "Time for us to REPRESENT."

The suits looked Aalbanese to me. "Did someone talk them into loaning these to you?"

"Rarity bought them for you," Dash said. "Once I raised the idea. These guys all had spare clothing and, well, offer enough bits and you can buy anything, I guess."

I wonder how many bits. Though these are NICE.

"Okay, Ivan," I said. "Let's go change, and then it is party time."

I was looking forward to it.

*************

Several more of the Wonderbolts assisted us all getting up. Ivan was kind of nervous, which I didn't understand until I remembered the Wonderbolts had been involved in recovering the Pearl he hocked and they might have had some clues as to who did it. Though not very good ones or I assume they would have found us long ago.

The entire deck of the flying ship was one giant party. Humans and ponies and elves were intermingled, having a grand time. To be precise, they were the dark-skinned (but not evil, merely arrogant) elves of the Principality of Belcadiz. A principality from which I was permanently exiled in another of my past bodies. Due to having an affair with Dona Carlotta, daughter of Don Diego, the younger brother of Princess Carnelia. Princess Carnelia was not here, but Don Diego WAS. I couldn't see Dona Carlotta, but if her father was here... Belcadizians, Aalbanese, and Glantrian Ponies. What on Mystara is going on?

A mixed band of all three races was providing the music. One thing I noted is that Dash was right. The Ponies didn't JUST wear clothing, they wore a TON of it. I'm taking 3-5 layer dresses, suits cut to fit a Stallion, and so on. I could probably buy half of Karameikos with the amount of jewelry on display.

I then had to suppress the part of my brain that began planning how best to make off with it. Given my only escape route from this ship is either the Wonderbolts, Fluttershy, Twilight, or Dash, I am not going to do anything too foolish.

No one will know me in this body, I reminded myself. And even if...

I now saw Twilight; she was up on a dais with a blue coated pony with a pink and green mane done up in a fancy bun. Duchess Sapphire of Sugar Hollow (or so I presumed) was busy greeting guests and generally doing the 'look at how awesome I am, everyone come kiss my ass' routine of a noble holding court. Twilight was stuck basically helping her to greet guests; Spike was lurking by her, looking bored out of his skull.

Dash said softly, "We told them all your fancy clothing was destroyed in the swamp and that Ivan is a Karameikan Baron and you're a Thyatian Count."

Ivan grinned. "Sweet."

I have to say my respect for Dash increased when she cunningly pulled this giant scam out of her head spontaneously when needed. It's what I would have done and it means I will be treated with respect instead of being hired help.

I'm a little nervous the Aalbanese will see through the bluff, though; they're of Thyatian descent in part and keep tabs on their homeland, though they've lived in Glantri for centuries.

I could see Herr Sigmund, Jagger's son and heir. He's a noted inventor and quite dashing with short black hair, a nice physique and impeccably dressed. He was busy dancing with some Glantrian pony I didn't know; I could see she was as versed in improvised bipedalism as Pinkie, though.

Pinkie adjusted her hat. "Let's party!" She then plunged into the fray.

Applejack looked around uncomfortably at everything and Dash said, "Come on, we've got to go see the Duchess. She's REALLY eager to meet you two. And you too, Countess Applejack."

"Wait, when did I become a Countess?" Applejack said.

"When Twilight became a Duchess," I said.

"When did we all get noble titles?" Applejack said, slightly panicked.

"Just pretend you are Marcus and all will be well," Ivan said, patting her back.

A lot of the ponies here were faking bipedalism as much as they could, I noticed. They were fairly good at it, really. I never visited Dream Valley during my time in Glantri; it's off in the northwest part of the country, I think. Around Fort Sablestone, by the Adri Varna Plateau. Which means constant invasion by horrible monsters.

Rainbow Dash and Soarin' helped us press through the mass of people towards the dais, but then, I saw her.

Dona Carlotta.

Slender and short, elegant and graceful, with long flowing black hair down to the middle of her back, wearing a four layered dress in reds, greens, and blacks, a silver earring with an emerald shaped like a rose in each ear. She is probably the most beautiful woman I have ever touched.

She had ascended the dais, and while her father spoke to Duchess Sapphire, she was busy talking to Twilight.

Given she knew me as Erik of Vestland...

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.

"What's wrong?" Dash whispered to me, hovering next to me.

"Nothing," I said urgently. She won't know me, she can't see my tattoo, it's under several layers of clothing, EVERYTHING is going to be okay.

I can probably survive falling from this height if I aim for the water.

Carlotta and I actually parted on good terms. Her grandmother simply decided I was no good for her AND a human, therefore, I had to go. I could have... I felt a great deal of sadness seeing her, though it was good to see she seemed to be doing well. She wanted to go with me, but her mother forbade it, and the will of a Princess of Glantri is not easily evaded. In case you're wondering, this was about six months before I went to Equestria.

I want to talk to her, but if I do, I will do something STUPID. I can smell it. But I may have no choice.

Dash, Soarin', Ivan, Applejack, and I pressed up and waited for Don Diego to finish talking to Duchess Sapphire.

"I assure you, the use of black puddings for food disposal is perfectly safe, so long as you periodically flush it with fire to check the growth of the pudding," Don Diego said. He's an expert on slime monsters and similar monstrosities. If you're not careful, he will trap you for hours and lecture you on why gray ooze and grey ooze are NOT the same creature at all.

Hours I will NEVER get back.

But he's a good guy at heart, humble and kind. Just with a tendency to ramble endlessly about his academic obsessions.

"Mother drove him into exile because I was an Elf and he was Human," Carlotta said to Twilight. She sighed, sagging a little. "It was a great tragedy."

WHY ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT ME?

Ivan grinned and punched my shoulder.

Damn you, Ivan.

Twilight's eyes widened as she drew the conclusion from that which I KNEW she would. "But Celestia..." She suddenly looked very nervous.

"Dear Sapphire, may I borrow Twilight?" Carlotta said to Sapphire. "We need to talk in private."

"That's fine, dearie," Sapphire said to her. "Take her to your quarters below deck No one will bother you there. I can have refreshments sent."

"Oh yes, please," Carlotta said. "Some of your nice brandy."

Sweet mother of Ixion, I am going to DIE. DIE DIE.

I breathed out and came forward with everyone. Rainbow Dash said, "Duchess Sapphire, I present to you, Countess Applejack of Apple Acres, head of the House of Apple. Baron Ivan of Novgorod in Karameikos, and Count Samus Marcus of Samuspolis in Thyatis."

'Samuspolis'. Well, it does at least match up the right pattern.

A huge amount of hand-kissing and hoof-kissing ensued. I noted that Duchess Sapphire wore... would you call them slippers? Gloves? They were fine silken sacks around her hooves, dyed blue to match her coat. And she had a very nice tiara of platinum, studded with sapphires.

"You throw a grand party, Duchess," I said, bowing to her. "I am very flattered to be invited to such a high class affair."

"Now, now," she said. "You stand only two ranks below me. If I only invited Dukes and Archdukes and Princes, this would be a very small party. All nobles are welcome here. Twilight tells me you are a wizard like myself."

"I fear I am not up to the shining level you set for the rest of us," I said. I have no clue at all how good she is, but all Glantrian nobles must graduate from the Great School of Magic and then get Parliament to appoint them to a titled position. Or inherit it, but even that requires Parliament. You must at minimum be a pretty good wizard and then you need political skills or strong allies. At minimum, she has the power level needed to teleport, force people into other shapes temporarily, commune with extra-planar entities to learn secrets, and other tricks of like potency. That's about halfway up the ladder of spell potency. And it's nothing to sneeze at. Which actual spells and rituals she knows, I don't know.

Mind you, Twilight's about two or three rungs higher than that, I think.

I then conjured a bouquet of blue flowers. "But a gift for you," I said, bowing and handing them to her. She smelled them and smiled.

One of her servants took them and now got a vase for them.

"A wizard AND gracious," Duchess Amethyst said. "Oh yes, this is Don Diego, *brother* of Princess Carnelia, his daughter Carlotta, and of course you know the great *Duchess* Twilight Sparkle."

Ahh, yes, the classic reflected glory trick. By having such important people around her, it makes her look more important. This is a woman who knows how to play the game. Very good.

"I specialize in fire magics," I told her, making a flame dance. "Applejack specializes in plant and animal control magics, and Ivan specializes in getting in trouble."

She laughed at that, and Applejack blinked.

"I would of course expect the great Twilight Sparkle to surround herself with skilled wizards," Duchess Sapphire said.

Applejack started to speak and Ivan whispered to her and Applejack's eyes crossed. Duchess Sapphire got an odd smile on her face, then said, "Thank you all for coming. I hope you will enjoy the party."

Carlotta led Twilight Sparkle off and I prayed this would not lead to doom.

******************

"I ain't no wizard," Applejack said a little later.

"I know but when in Thyatis, stab like the Thyatians do, you know," Dash said nervously.

"You did the right thing," I told her. "There's no point in us getting mocked because we don't follow their customs where anyone who isn't a wizard is second-class at best."

"You are a wizard," Applejack pointed out.

"Yes, but I don't like seeing my friends mocked," I told her.

Dash and I now high-fived. "Exactly," Dash said. "Anyway, a Cutie Mark's as good as being a Wizard."

"I am going to find Rarity and thank her," I told the others. "She's probably dancing."

She was, in fact. Some stallion unknown to me with a green mane and a brown coat, wearing a fancy navy blue suit, was busy dancing with her. I went and got some punch and a cookie, waiting for the music to end, then swept in and took her before anyone else could pounce. The waltz is a fine dance, though like any human dance, difficult for a pony. Rarity, however, was quite graceful despite the need to rise up on her hind-legs for it.

Pony dances, designed FOR ponies, usually involve a lot of what you might call 'line dancing', where groups of ponies match each other, sometimes in two lines facing each other. Done well, it can be very impressive and plays to pony strengths.

It was clear to me that the ponies of Glantri, though, were trying very hard to be just like their human and elven neighbors. Which was a little surreal to see.

"You look smashing," Rarity said warmly to me.

"You look enchanting," I told her. "Knowing you made it yourself makes it even more impressive," I continued as we waltzed. One hand on her side, I guided her to move into a box step, which is four sets of quarter turns, so you rotate around a fixed point. She moved gracefully; I'm guessing she must have some experience at this, as she doesn't normally go bipedal as much as Pinkie does.

"You flatter me," she said, smiling and letting me guide her, one of her forelegs on my shoulder, the other wrapped around my back. "My dress is hardly the most beautiful here," she said modestly.

"Yes, but you MADE yours. The rest either cheated with magic or just paid money for it," I told her. "You earned your beauty by the sweat of your brow."

That clearly pleased her. I am VERY good at buttering people up.

We danced and flattered each other through several more dances, greatly enjoying ourselves. Well, praised each other. Her skills really do impress me. But you know how it is with elegant conversation. There is an art to the verbal dance. It's one I am good at, which is how I met Dona Carlotta and how we became lovers.

I would have... Dammit. I really liked her, you know. But her mother... I can't prove she's the head of the Secret Craft of Witchcraft, but I can't prove the sun will rise tomorrow, either.

For a sudden moment, I was intensely terrified that Celestia was going to show up. With Carnelia. And Twilight's parents. And I felt someone was watching me. I looked around and realized several couples were watching us, and I felt less paranoid. There were other ponies dancing with non-ponies here, but of course, they don't know either of us.

Then a couple suddenly zoomed in at the end of a dance, the stallion taking Rarity and the mare taking me. Well, time to make some contacts for the future, assuming I don't die horribly or have to abandon this identity, both of which seem likely.

The stallion, by the way, had a magnificent FOUR layered hat. FOUR layers. Damn, I was jealous.

**************

I ended up dancing with a ton of people. Humans, elves, ponies and all. I had stopped to have some punch and a slice of chocolate cake when Twilight Sparkle and Dona Carlotta came up to me. I did my best to show no fear. "I hope you're enjoying the party," I said.

Dona Carlotta said, "It cannot be denied that Duchess Sapphire throws a great party. Would you do me the pleasure of a dance?"

I felt my legs lock up. "I would be happy to," I said.

"Don't mind me, I have to go represent for Celestia," Twilight said, sighing.

"You should at least ask Ivan to dance with you before you go back to representing," I told her. I would have offered, but given I just agreed to dance with Carlotta, I can't.

I hate seeing Twilight sad. It makes me feel guilty and... dammit, my guilt is now up and wandering around my mind again.

"I'm not sure if..."

Ivan now ambled our way. "Hello, everyone."

"Ivan, dance with Twilight," I said.

"..."

"I don't want to impose," Twilight said.

I gave Ivan the STARE. He touched his forehead, then said, "Let's dance, Twilight."

I led Carlotta out onto the dance floor, taking her hands parallel to mine for a traditional Belcadizian dance, the cha-cha. Basically, you only touch hands, so you have to guide your partner by pushing or pulling their hands, or moving the linked hands, side to side. In fact, you basically touch palms. It requires sensitivity and grace, and thus is ideal for Elves.

She smiled broadly as we moved into the cha-cha. "Have you been to Belcadiz, Samus?" she asked.

"I have met Belcadizians. And in Thyatis, we like to draw upon every culture, taking their best ideas. Like this." We glided sideways as I gently nudged her palms left, then back, then right then forwards again, and then I spun her around. "So what brings you here?"

"We import wheat and other grains and certain spell components from Equestria and trade worked metal and rare fruits in return. The current trade agreement expires soon, along with several others. I think the Aalbanese are here about a trade agreement, also," she said.

I marched us gradually around the room as we danced, then did a spin myself, and then she did one and then we both spun in unison. "I expect Herr Sigmund wants to sell Celestia some of his inventions."

"Creepy mechanical things," she said, shivering. The Belcadizians are more like humans than most Elves, but they don't love machinery any more than most elves do.

"They have their uses," I told her. "I'm sure Celestia will give you a fair deal, if you don't mind a few pranks."

"Pranks?" Dona Carlotta said weakly. She was never as fond of a good prank as I am.

Perhaps best I not introduce her to Pinkie.

"I love a good prank too," Pinkie said behind me.

...

She was dancing with a befuddled looking Aalbanese noble with short brown hair and a short, neatly trimmed beard. "Hello, I am Herr Ukvarth of Graez," he said. I noticed he had an odd looking wand holstered at his hip, L-shaped and made of black metal, tubular with runes but no gems. Was it Blackmoorian? That looks like their work.

"He's a DRAGON HUNTER," Pinkie said. "I want him to talk to Twilight."

"It's nice to meet you," I said to him. The name was vaguely familiar.

"A pleasure to meet you, Herr Ukvarth," Dona Carlotta said. "I am Dona Carlotta de Belcadiz."

"The legendary beauty," he said, taking her hand and kissing it. "So you are the Count of Samuspolis," Herr Ukvarth said. "It's a very nice place, but I haven't been there in quite some time. How is it doing?"

There are two possibilities. One, he is bluffing in order to look cosmopolitan and traveled and sophisticated. This is plausible. Second, this is his subtle way of saying he knows I am LYING and letting me know he knows, so that he has a hold on me. This is also plausible and since I have never heard of him, it could go either way.

Graez is home to about half of the von Drachenfels, and the other half live in the Principality's capital, Leenz. I don't know the details beyond that, though.

I now became aware Rarity was pointing at me for some reason as she danced with somepony I didn't know. WHY?

I tried not to think about it. Someone may have me by the balls and it isn't Rarity or the stallion she's dancing with.

"Quite well; the weather has been good, so the fish are flourishing," I said. "Everyone is no doubt busy with that this very minute. This left me free to come to Equestria on some business, and of course, I had to help the Duchess with Vermicoritax. We hope for a peaceful resolution."

The four of us danced together; Pinkie was VERY adept at the cha-cha and I had to wonder where she learned it. Better, indeed, than Herr Ukvarth He, though, was good enough at leading that our two couples bobbed and weaved around each other without ever colliding.

"With a black dragon?" he said dubiously.

"Princess Celestia believes in trying diplomacy first, even with the worst of foes. And so does Duchess Twilight. I am simply along for the ride," I told him.

"Black dragons are horrible creatures who live only to kill and destroy and ruin," Dona Carlotta said, worried.

"Fluttershy will scare him off if he won't negotiate," Pinkie said with absolute assurance.

I find this to be VERY dubious.

Herr Ukvarth looked more dubious than I and now Dona Carlotta looked very worried. Pinkie smiled with serene, absolute confidence. Or dementia. Or both.

"Her?" he said. He pointed to Fluttershy; she was dancing with a unicorn stallion and looked extremely nervous and panicky and clearly didn't like being in the middle of the huge herd of sentients around her.

"Yes," Pinkie said. "She is fierce as a manticore, wrathful as a gorgon, mighty as a fire elemental king!" She sounded quite cheerful about this.

Herr Ukvarth studied me, probably trying to decide if this was a joke on him, if we were all insane, or what. I simply glided around him with Dona Carlotta. "They've dealt with dragons before," I told him. Show no fear, I told myself.

"I would hate to see Duchess Twilight get hurt," Dona Carlotta said. "We have a mutual... friend. And she is very nice."

They talked about me. Other me. I am going to kill myself now.

"How large is your group?"

By the time we finished the dance, I had told Ukvarth everything... a version of everything... excluding my personal secrets, of course. He did not seem a lot more optimistic. "Countess Pinkie, I am sorry to run off on you," he said. "I must speak with your lady."

"I don't have a lady, I prefer men," Pinkie said, confused.

"He means Twilight," I told her.

"But we're not pillowfriends," Pinkie said, confused.

"She is your leader," I said while Herr Ukvarth stared at us.

"OH, yes, totally," Pinkie said. "Unless it's a party and then I lead the charge. Like right now! Twilight's all busy shaking hands and hooves and being pouty instead of having FUN."

Herr Ukvarth bowed to Pinkie. "It was a pleasure, fair lady," he said.

She tried to curtsy and fell down. "Oops!" She laughed and Dona Carlotta helped her up.

Carlotta, always so kind to others... unlike most Belcadizians, who tend to be pretty arrogant. But then, her father is a scholar and quite gracious.

And she'll still be young and beautiful when I am old and dead. Maybe it was for the best that her aunt kicked me out.

But I'd rather have taken my chances with the worst. But I'm also not stupid enough to take another run at it. I'll just stand here and be nostalgic and sad, which I hate being.

"Cookie?" Pinkie said, offering us each one as Herr Ukvarth headed off to see Twilight.

I took it and ate it quickly; Dona Carlotta nibbled at hers gracefully. "Thanks, Pinkie."

"Anything for a friend!" She said, "I'm off to teach the musicians how to play something cool!"

Urk.

**************

To my surprise, the band went along with it and soon the place was jumping with some very lively music, even if I couldn't keep up with... Was Pinkie singing about how a pie did her wrong and ran around with other girls?

This was actually Shires style music. They like their music fast and lively; halflings like to jitterbug. I'd ended up dancing with Rarity again, as Carlotta had run off to see Twilight once the previous song ended. She was having a hard time of it; the Jitterbug is REALLY not designed for Ponies. But I guided her through it and gripped her hooves as best I could. A big part of the problem is that the Jitterbug relies on hand to hand grips, which you change during certain moves and, well, she can't grip due to having hooves. But she looked almost grimly determined to do it and do it WELL.

Every mistake, she let me correct her and kept doing things over and over until she got it right. Cheating with my magic a little also helped me keep hold of her hooves. I think she did the same.

Golden horseshoes, by the way, as you probably expected.

For a moment, I had that feeling of being watched, but then it passed.

Rarity blinked. "Did you feel that?"

"Yes," I said, frowning. "Did someone scry us?"

"Not for long," she said softly.

It was time to see Twilight, who was surrounded by people who were all trying to tell her how to kill Dragons. She looked rather overwhelmed, especially since Dona Carlotta was working on building up a pretty powerful level of panic.

"Dona Carlotta, I hate to impose, but is it possible we could speak with Twilight in your chambers? It is quite important."

Herr Ukvarth was busy talking about the apparently copious misdeeds of Vermicoritax at a mile a minute. He was not happy when Carlotta consented and we dragged her off.

"I need to talk to you later, Rarity," Twilight told us as we relaxed in the remarkably large and spacious suite. This ship was clearly bigger below decks than it was on the outside and I briefly feared this would trigger saddlebag ruptures, but it seemed everything was okay.

You should NEVER put one set of Pony saddlebags inside another, or they both burst and dump their contents into the Astral Plane. This is, to say the least, inconvenient.

Rarity nodded. "Of course."

Dona Carlotta's servants brought us spiced brandy and these really delectable Belcadizian cakes which twisted in stripes into a big circle with cinnamon layers between the cake layers. I had to just eat one. Spike ate four, all at once.

"Someone scried us," I told Twilight.

"I think someone scried me too," she said, frowning.

"Not I," Dona Carlotta said.

"Unfortunately, the rest of our friends probably didn't notice," I said.

Twilight frowned. "Spike, take a letter."

"MRPHMRHMRPOH."

Dona Carlotta patted his head. "You're adorable, Spike."

Why does her voice have to still sound like liquid sunshine? I remember standing with her on that balcony at the Alhambra, kissing her as the sun came up and we said...

Things that never came true. Couldn't, but they felt like they would at the time. Promises I wanted to keep but her mother thought otherwise.

Damn me.

I tried to be serious about it for once and it all blew up anyway.

What's the point of even trying if you always end up running for your life?

I tried to rein in my angst.

DAMMIT.

I breathed in, then out.

"Dear Princess Celestia, I am very, very sorry to bother you at this hour. I have made contact with Duchess Sapphire and her guests, over the Malpheggi Swamp. The Wonderbolts have arrived to escort them safely, and we are still heading to deal with Vermicoritax. However, someone is scrying us and I did not bring any of my books on scrying and thus do not have any defense. We are not even sure why someone is scrying us. It's VERY impolite."

I couldn't help but smile nervously at that. As if there was a way to scry politely.

"I request further instructions on what we can offer him in return for his refraining from further raids," Twilight Sparkle said. "I have been informed he is rather a hard case."

"He might go for the Crucible," I said. Much as I would rather SELL IT FOR GOLD. But since I have to live that long to sell it, better to lose it than MY LIFE.

"We have a Crucible of Blackflame. Do you think he might like it? Marcus suggested that we try that," Twilight added as Spike scribbled. "Please reply tonight. Your faithful student and friend, Twilight Sparkle."

Spike now sent it whisking away. I suddenly wondered how much she had told Celestia about me. ACK.

We made small talk with the others about the party. Then Rarity and I had to show Twilight how to Jitterbug. Seeing her and Carlotta dance with each other, both trying to lead, amused me.

TWO letters now arrived via Spike Flame. One was marked 'From Mom and Dad', the other marked 'To my beloved student and friend, Twilight Sparkle'. Twilight's parents are hanging out with Celestia right now?

"Oh wow, it's from Mom and Dad," Twilight said and quickly read it. First, I will note. She smiled brightly and handed it to Spike to hold onto. Then she turned to the second one.

The problem, though, with bribing Vermicoritax is that he's likely to expect regular tribute payments and that's problematic, though less than being raided by a Grand Wyrm. I have to agree with Herr Ukvarth that black dragons are not even slightly trustworthy.

But it's ponies. Force is always the last option after diplomacy, sharing and caring, pies, and so on.

Also, I am not sure we have enough force, though with the Elements of Harmony and Twilight's vast power, we may get a simple 'Twilight makes a new pancake, Spike eats it' scenario.

Spike's pancakes are better but less cosmic.

"What did she say?" Carlotta said, very worried.

"She advised me to tell Duchess Sapphire about the scrying and that the idea of offering the Crucible sounded reasonable to her, and some other ideas on things we can offer him," Twilight said. "And that she trusts my discretion." She blushed a little.

She turned the page. "She says that Herr Ukvarth is an expert on killing things but that if you have a hammer, you tend to go looking for nails."

Rarity and I both laughed at that; Spike and Carlotta laughed a few seconds later.

"If you try peace, you can still fight if peace fails; if you go straight to war, peace becomes impossible," Twilight read to us. She nodded. "And... hmm, interesting."

"Interesting?" I asked.

"She has a page of coded orders for me to give to the Wonderbolts." She held it up; the letters constantly changed and shuffled. Nice magical security.

"I can have a servant deliver them," Carlotta said.

"I'll do it myself as it must be secret." Twilight paused. "Nothing personal, you know I trust you, Carlotta."

"Of course," Carlotta said, taking her hoof. "We have shared an experience."

Spike held up a hand to his mouth and sidled over to Rarity and whispered to her, shielding his mouth, "Girl talk," he said. Rarity laughed softly. "But I got to skip it and go to the snack bar."

A blessing indeed, but I know what they talked about. Another nail for my coffin.

I am going to die hatless. Dammit.

"Oh yes," Carlotta said to Rarity. "I have a present for you."

It turned out to be a fair sized piece of red felt and a spool of green thread. "This is one of our trade samples, but you can have it."

"Oh, darling, I can hardly take something you need to sell your wares," Rarity said, though her eyes said 'YES MINE MINE MINE'. Her voice though, sounded a little guilty.

"I can summon more," Carlotta said.

"You know how to summon cloth?" Rarity said, eyes lighting up.

"It can only summon, not create, but yes," Carlotta said.

"Teach me," Rarity said urgently. Then she looked embarrassed. "I am sorry, Dona Carlotta. That was rude of me."

"I would be happy to teach you," she said. "Count Marcus, why don't you escort Twilight up to see the Duchess?"

"Of course," I said. "You are in good hands, Rarity." Very good hands.

Twilight had this... weirdly naughty look. And triumphant.

Oh dear.

*************

"You were looking rather gleeful," I said to her as we headed upstairs.

"Nope, not gleeful at all," she said. "Nothing is going on, nothing at all. Let's focus on the here and now and not the future."

The future? What?

"Do you think..." She paused and looked at me hesitantly, though she kept moving and so did I.

"Sometimes, I think," I said and she laughed.

"I wish the others could tell if someone scried them. It could be a unicorn hunter." She grimaced. "Most of them pick off ponies outside Equestria, but... we are outside Equestria. And this place would have a huge number of horns."

"I think only a madman would attack this many wizards AND the Wonderbolts," I said. "And Ethengars can't fly."

"Actually, there's a group of Pegasi and other ponies who live with the Ethengars," Twilight said. "They've gotten large enough to carry small, wiry humans by selective breeding and magic."

...

Those damn things are SENTIENT? But they're normal horse colored.

"Their Great Khan has Celestia very worried," Twilight continued. "But he'd have to cross Darokin to strike us and I doubt he'd make it this far."

We now reached the deck and went and passed the message to one of the Wonderbolts, who took it to their leader, Blue Angel. He read it, then frowned. "Lady Twilight," he said. "I've been ordered to detach Spitfire and Soarin' to assist you. The rest of us will remain with the Duchess and escort her floating party to Canterlot."

"Oh, that's very nice of you," Twilight said warmly. "I'm sure he'll be honored that two of the Wonderbolts came with us."

Given the Wonderbolts have fought dragons and won, this may be an intimidation measure. Or just reinforcements.

I hope it doesn't come down to a fight. If we have to kill it... if we can kill it, it will hurt Twilight. I can tell she doesn't want to hurt it unless she has no choice. Ponies are like that. Though if we do fight it and win, likely Twilight will turn it into a potato and that's how.

I don't want to fight it because I fear dying horribly. I've seen too much of that already.

Why was Twilight being so happy and naughty at once earlier? WHY?

That bothered me.

"I just hope it's enough," Blue Angel said. He was a sturdy blue-coated pony with a purple mane with streaks of red. You couldn't see his cutie mark, due to his unusual full-body uniform. All the Wonderbolts dress like that, along with the goggles.

"Me too," I confessed.

"I'll tell Soarin' and Spitfire," Blue Angel said, and headed out.

"Let's dance," Twilight said to me.

So I took her out on the floor and we danced. I couldn't help but flashback to my days in Canterlot.

Dammit, I hate flashbacks, they're a sign of senility, I'm sure.

*************

INVOLUNTARY FLASHBACK WHICH IS PROBABLY A SIGN OF ENCROACHING SENILITY, DAMMIT:

I was surprised Celestia was escorting me personally to meet with someone. I had done some adventuring after having to flee Belcadiz, and for once, I had held onto some money. I decided to go to Equestria, which would be nice and peaceful. I had made some pony friends when I'd visited Ierendi, and they'd told me about how nice and boring Equestria was. I wanted to try and further my magical studies, especially how to avoid witches' curses.

For obvious reasons.

When I arrived in Canterlot, I fell down exhausted, having stupidly decided to walk up the stairs to save money.

I know, laugh at me, I was being an idiot.

I woke up in a special ward for idiots like me. Mostly human idiots. But there was, to my shock, a letter from Princess Celestia. It was very friendly and though I was very nervous, I went to see her despite the part of me which said I ought to flee somewhere safe, like the Broken Lands.

During the period between Belcadiz and Equestria, I had, among other things, helped to deal with an attempt by one of the Entropic cults (Orcus to be precise) to destroy the city of Akorros. Celestia had learned of this and asked me about it. Then, to my surprise, she asked me to teach at her school about humans to her students.

The pay was generous, I had access to the libraries, and no one was going to kill me. And honestly, ponies are not hard to teach. At least at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns. They are EAGER to learn. Most of them. Some are slackers, but I've been that, so it doesn't bother me.

Twilight had already taken the classes I taught, moved on to more advanced studies. But Celestia introduced me to her after I'd settled in; I had heard stories about her from the other students. A genius but obsessive and anti-social.

Typical wizard, in other words.

Her place... was huge. She had her own tower, multiple stories, lushly decorated... I was totally jealous, of course. Who wouldn't be? You could fit an entire Karameikan village in her tower and it was just her and Spike.

"Twilight, my little pony, this is my dear friend Erik of Vestland, the new Teacher of Humanics," Celestia said warmly to Twilight, who was busy reading three books and scribbling in three columns on a piece of paper, while Spike was busy searching a bookshelf nearby. Also, I did not invent the name 'Humanics'. Blame the ponies.

"It's nice to meet you, Erik," she said, without even looking up. She paused, then looked up, embarrassed. "Hello, Princess Celestia, it's so nice to see you. I... oh no, this place is a total disaster! Spike, start cleaning up! Celestia, let me get you some tea!" She ran frantically up the stairs.

"Wait, Twilight... oh dear, can you help her, Erik?" Celestia asked.

"Of course," I said, running up the stairs. I found Twilight in the kitchen, trying to fill a teapot, water going everywhere as she became too frantic to aim it accurately, ensuring more water and more frantic.

I turned the water off, took the pot, turned the water back on, and filled it. "Can you do Etienne's Swift Warming?" I asked her.

"Of course," she said proudly. "I can light a fireplace too, or several torches at once." She blinked. "You're a unicorn human?" She studied my head.

"I am a wizard like you," I told her, smiling. If not on her level, from what Celestia told me.

Soon, the kettle was warming up, floating in the air and wrapped in a simple but useful spell. Meanwhile, I had gotten out some black tea bags, ready for steeping.

"I thought you taught Humanics," she said as we waited and she got out snacks with her powers.

"I do, fair lady Twilight," I told her. "But magic is a deep part of our history," I continued. "I noticed you seem to be trying to synchronize some passages from two history books and an astronomy text. May I ask why?"

"Do you know what the Twin Sisters are?" she asked.

"Sixty-five year cycle today, first observed by the Alphatians shortly after they arrived on Mystara, roughly two thousand years ago, at which time it had a ninety three year cycle. It stabilized in its current cycle around... seven hundred years ago? Roughly," I said. "I think it last appeared two years ago." Which is why I knew any of this. It's a comet with TWO tails, one of which is green. I couldn't help but notice it. EVERYONE couldn't help it.

"Wait, it changed its cycle?"

"It was slowly speeding up, until, for some reason, it stopped."

The tea was now ready, so we headed down. "Aaargh, none of my books explained that! So you couldn't use it to reliably match dates of different countries."

"You can if you know the pattern, but you'd need Ar's Guide to Celestial Bodies, Volume III: Comets," I told her. My copy, acquired out of curiosity over that comet, was stolen in the Heldaan Freeholds, if I remember correctly. "It's been so long, I only remember the outline."

"Well, maybe you can help me deduce it from the records I have access to," she said hesitantly.

Curry some favor with Celestia's favorite student? HELL YEAH. "I would love to," I told her.

She smiled. "Thanks. Spike loves to help me but he's just a baby." I then got to hear the story of how she got Spike, and we rejoined Celestia and the others.

*************

I had never danced with Twilight before this. Except once, when we were drunk. We could have gone to the Grand Galloping Gala, but we had a conjunction to observe and then we thought we'd discovered a new planet. (IT WAS A BEHOLDER. By the way, if you run away under a fear spell in Canterlot, there are LOTS of ways to fall from a height. Just a warning to the traveler)

Working with Twilight was a totally different experience in my life than almost anything else. Carlotta and I had done some magical work together, but she wasn't driven to learn constantly like Twilight is. Carlotta and I spent a lot of time walking in gardens, going to restaurants, writing and reading love poems to each other, dancing, the usual stuff.

Twilight was driven. Some nights, we fell asleep in the library. Or among books on the floor of her study room. A lot of nights, she'd be studying three things at once, and I'd be busy correcting student papers or trying to plan out lessons, while Spike ran around helping us. Spike is a very good guy and I hate that he hates me now.

I hope I was a good teacher. It's the only time I've ever done it. I think I learned as much as I taught; I had to research constantly in order to avoid screwing things up.

I also got chewed out by the Philosophy teacher, Wise Precepts, because... well, you can't help it. I couldn't teach about humans without teaching how humans think and she didn't agree with me. On how humans SHOULD think.

Which led to her and Twilight having a big fight, to my regret.

Twilight is very loyal to her friends. Which at that point was basically Celestia, Spike and I, though the two of us sometimes managed to push her to actually do things with her fellow students. Our luck was limited. She was too driven.

"Marcus, are you having a flashback?" she asked me and I started and returned to the present.

"I am SO sorry," I told her. "I have too much past."

"There's never too much past," Twilight said. She sighed. "The Thyatians are telling lies about him."

"Who?" I asked.

"Erik," she said softly. "They claim he seduced an Ambassador's harem." She grimaced. "He wouldn't do that."

I set them free and helped them to escape, in fact. They didn't want to be his harem but he owned them. I know, disgusting. Slavery is really the worst aspect of Thyatis. "One woman should be enough for any man," I said. "I certainly wouldn't last long trying to have more than one."

"I know," she said. "You're a good man, like Erik was. But I understand better now why he left. But Celestia wasn't like that. She would have been happy for us." Her voice wobbled.

Every time, I think I have hit 'peak awful', the world cranks it up a notch. I knew this was coming the moment she met Carlotta. Deep down in my bones, I knew it.

She's convinced herself I only fled because I was afraid that Celestia would banish me to the moon. Or something similar.

I never realized she felt that way because we didn't do romantic things together. It was like... Well, Ivan would never ever in a million years do academic research.

But if he DID, then we would have done stuff like that.

Learning with Twilight was fun. And it made me feel like a real wizard, not just a dabbler.

Mind you, knowing what Carnelia could do to me, with a fraction of Celestia's likely powers, gave me extra incentive to run at lighting speed and never look back once I did panic.

"Celestia wasn't like what?" I asked her, though I knew the answer. But 'Samus Marcus' doesn't know what *I* know that Carlotta told her.

I need to find out if Carlotta has moved on because if she hasn't, I am going to have to knock myself unconscious before my inner guilt beats me to death.

PLEASE don't let her be waiting for me.

PLEASE.

"She wouldn't have tried to stop us being together, like Princess Carnelia did with Erik and Carlotta." Her eyes were heavy with sadness. Now I really wanted to die. Seeing people I like hurt hurts me. Stupid empathy.

I spun us around; Twilight is not as coordinated as Rarity, but she can cheat with her magic even better than Rarity, so we got a little fancy. I like getting fancy. We were now back to back, joined hand to hoof behind our backs. Then we came around to face each other again.

It was hard to see. I think I had sweat running down into my eyes. She looked at me and now she started to cry a little. "I know, it's terrible," she said. Then she told me the whole story I already knew.

It's fortunate no railing was nearby; I wanted to run. Run like the wind and not stop until I hit, say, Ylarum.

But I couldn't run. "You'll probably never see him again," I said softly. "I'm sure he misses you." No, no, don't feed her romantic dreams, dammit. "But you can at least look up at the same stars." DAMN YOU MOUTH SHUT UP!!!! "I don't know if he's much of a star gazer, though." Dammit, mouth, the goal is NOT to make her think about past times with him... with me. The him who was me. DAMMIT.

"I'm not... I'm not waiting," she said stubbornly. I wasn't so sure. "He has no way of knowing the truth. When I meet the right guy, I'll know. I'm just not... I'm very busy with my research and protecting Ponyville and studying Friendship and this quest and I'm not like Rarity who every stallion in the universe wants." She sounded jealous.

She paused and her eyes widened. "I'm not saying she's a tramp who just runs around with every man in sight! She's not like that, Marcus! That totally came out wrong!"

"Rarity is a woman of discretion and taste. I'm sure that only the very best will do for her," I told Twilight. "She could, though, teach you about flirting."

It would be for the best, really.

"I just... all the books have contradictory advice," Twilight said, frustrated. "I didn't even... I spent the whole Grand Gala wearing my horseshoes out shaking hooves."

"Celestia wanted you to greet the guests with her?" I asked.

"Yes. Like Sapphire. I hardly got to talk to Celestia at all until we kind of... wrecked the Gala," she said, deeply embarrassed.

I dipped her low, then spun her around and we spun out to where one hand and one hoof connected us. She wobbled, nearly falling but I caught her, aided by my own magic. "What? I can't imagine you wrecking a party."

She told me the whole story as I stared in shock. It was like the story of my life, compressed into a party. "I wish so much I could have seen that." I couldn't help laughing and now she laughed as well.

For now, I could just relax, enjoy the party, and forget everything.

**************

The music finished and now we saw Applejack. "Hey, Applejack," I said. She looked happier now. "How are you?"

"I think I just cut a SWEET deal with Don Diego," she said cheerfully. "He wants to come see my operation later, too."

"That's great. The Belcadizians love their fruit," I told her. "They make this dish with candied peaches, it's amazing."

"Twilight, mind if I take Marcus for a spin?" Applejack asked.

"It's fine but you have to ask him too," Twilight said.

"I would be happy to dance with you, Applejack," I told her.

Applejack ended up teaching me a Pony dance, done side by side. This made it harder to watch her and learn. But I was ready for a rest, anyway. Ponies are heavier than you'd think.

"Thanks for pointin' him my way, Marcus," Applejack said.

"Glad to help you," I told her.

"Even after I kinda chewed on you earlier," she continued ruefully. She side stepped and I did the same, thrice, then we went back the other direct, kicking with every other step.

"It's fine," I told her. "Friends never get along perfectly."

"Yeah, Rarity and I have some fights, sometimes," she said, shaking her head. "You like apples, right?"

"Doesn't everyone?" I said. "There's that crispness and they're easy to chew, but they don't just squish if you try to carry some with you," I told her.

She gave a happy sigh. "Don Diego really liked the apple I gave him too. I guess... you just hear some crazy stories about humans sometimes."

We now surged forward in a quick step, stopped, kicked, then surged back.

"Oh, they're probably all true. It's just... what defines humans is that we're not easily defined," I told her. "There are humans like each and every one of you and your friends and some who aren't like you at all," I continued.

I had trouble with the back rush and back kick, having only one set of legs. It's impossible for me to kick with both.

"Anyway, you get scared too easy and your weird nudity taboo is just kind of silly, but I hope I didn't hurt your feelings too much and I'm sorry," Applejack said.

"Well, I hope I didn't hurt yours either," I told her. "You fight bravely, you're hard working and you should be proud of yourself, whatever some aristocrats may think. I'm sure Celestia is proud of you."

"Thanks," she said, smiling. "I'm feelin' pretty good right now."

I could see Twilight dancing now with some stallion I didn't know. I felt a twinge of jealousy and stomped on it. Don't be stupid, brain, I told it. I was going to be happy for her if it killed me. And she'd probably never see the fellow again, anyway.

"GOOD," Applejack said, following my gaze, and I couldn't help but laugh.

"Is he handsome by pony standards?" I asked.

"Not bad. Looks kinda like one of those useless rich aristocrats, but he can dance and he's got his eyes focused on her, so she deserves a little fun," Applejack said.

That's when I got slapped in the face with a glove. "You disgusting Aalbanese bastard," the man said; he was a Belcadizian and quite drunk. "The last thing I need is for more of MY kin to die in one of YOUR wars!"

What the hell is... oh crap, I look Aalbanese in this body and I am dressed as one. "Sir, you mistake me for someone else. I swear on my mother's hat that I have not started any wars."

It does not count if it only involves goblins. And orcs. And gnolls. And... whatever those things were.

"YOU! You're all guilty!" He slapped me again. "I challenge you to a Duel Arcane!"

"Sir, I don't even know your name and I am willing to gamble that you do not know mine."

"You are the legendary Iron Count of Samuspolis! A notorious mercenary and despoiler of cities!" he said angrily. "One of Jagger's idiot warmongers!"

...

Applejack looked at me, then said to the man, "Did you escape from an insane asylum?"

"Shut your fat pony face!" he said pointing at her and now she looked mad.

"This body is all muscle," Applejack snapped at him, frowning. "I bet you can't even pull your own weight!"

"You're nothing but a pathetic *Earth* Pony. This is between wizards, so keep out!" the Elf said angrily.

Applejack actually growled and I saw her paw the ground once. This was going to get ugly if I can't defuse it.

Dammit, I don't recognize this guy but he is Belcadizian. "Who are you?"

"I am Don Carlos V, son of Don Carlos IV!," he said proudly.

I see his family doesn't know many names.

"We can duel another time," I told him. "I am on an important mission for Princess Celestia and so affairs of honor must wait." There's no point in trying to argue it out with a drunken fool who...

Someone is trying to use this fool against me for some reason. Why? I think Ukvarth saw through me somehow but how would this advance his goals? He clearly is trying to pressure Twilight to go crazy on the dragon. Why?

Dammit, I smell a mystery and I don't have time for a mystery!

On the other hand, the longer we stay on this ship, the longer I live before encountering the dragon.

Dammit.

"Yeah, what he said," Applejack said, backing me up. Though I could see she was still stiff and angry and probably wanted a fight.

"We can do it now or I can go to the Duchess and appeal to her authority to get what is MY RIGHT," he said.

Can he do that? Is this tech... I suppose as a diplomat, this ship is essentially under Glantrian law. I have no clue whether she can actually MAKE us duel. Make ME duel.

"Fine," I said. "Take it to the Duchess." Either she says no, or she says yes and then I am fucked.

"Can she order you two to fight?" Applejack asked, frowning deeply. "That ain't right."

"I don't even know, but he's drunk and he may just go straight to raining magical death if we don't play along," I said softly to her as he stormed off towards the Duchess.

Dammit, someone's trying to play me. Who? Why? Dammit!

We went before the Duchess and he rambled on about how I was trying to get everyone in Belcadiz killed in another of Jagger's wars, though he was kind of short on details about how this worked. The Aalbanese looked rather angry over his accusations, especially given he was short on details. Herr Sigismund especially looked displeased.

Was someone trying to get the two groups to slaughter each other? Ugh. Entirely possible. I tried detecting magic, but saw no sign of a charm spell. But of course, you don't need magic to plant ideas in the head of a bitter drunk.

"This man has NOTHING to do with my father, and we are not... whatever you think we are doing! This is a trade mission!," Herr Sigismund said angrily. "If you want a duel arcane, I will give you one!"

Twilight had joined us, but she looked a little overwhelmed. There's not a book for this and it's clear she's only studied politics abstractly.

Duchess Sapphire had a calm expression. Was she up to something? "Count Samus, you deny his accusations?"

"They're utterly ludicrous. I have never even seen Prince Jagger," I said. "Nor am I a warmonger. I am here on a mission for the throne of Equestria to deal with a marauding dragon. We only came up to the ship because Duchess Sapphire invited us."

"By unleashing it on US," Don Carlos said angrily. "You're going to buy it off to attack Belcadiz!"

Twilight frowned. "We are NOT. Equestria is the enemy of no nation!"

"Who told you that?" I asked him.

He looked flustered. "That's none of your business!"

"Given that someone lied to you in order to create a diplomatic incident, I think it is," I said firmly.

"Count Marcus, I need you to cast a spell," Duchess Sapphire said coolly, her cheerful party demeanor quite gone.

"What spell?" I asked.

"Any," she said.

I scooped a handful of change out, then made it dance in the air. "Tercinius' Invisible Hands," I told her. My telekinesis spell.

"You are an Arcaner by our law, and thus considered innocent until proven guilty. Further, you are part of a diplomatic mission," Duchess Sapphire began.

"He's not a registered part of their group," Don Carlos said. "And thus not covered by Diplomatic Immunity. Especially as he is not an Equestrian citizen."

"He IS part of our group," Rainbow Dash said, arms folded. Everyone was gathered around the dais, watching, though the band played on.

"I am quite sure that if we contact Celestia, she can fix the paperwork," Twilight said hesitantly.

"Diplomatic status does not radiate backwards in time," Don Carlos said. Okay, he is right on that one. Dammit.

Dona Carlotta now finally shoved her way through the crowd. "Don Carlos, stand down. You are here under father's authority and we are not here to fight with the Aalbanese."

"I am within my rights! And everyone knows you slut around with humans. Of course you're taking his side," Don Carlos said angrily.

I felt an intense surge of anger. I felt someone else's intense surge of anger. Several, in fact. Rarity and Twilight both looked ready to charge and trample Don Carlos.

Dona Carlotta's face went very cold and angry. "I am doing what my Aunt sent me here to do, which is to negotiate a trade agreement with Equestria. Something which will NOT be advanced by you forcing a member of an Equestrian diplomatic group into a duel over some stupid accusation you can't and won't prove," she said, her voice like ice.

Where is Don Diego? He ought to be here, but he isn't. Unless he plans to...

Oh, Immortals above, please don't let him do his usual crazy thing.

Dash was mumbling to herself about something, then glanced across the crowd at one of the Aalbanese, who I now saw watching this with huge concern. Why? He didn't look like the manipulator behind this but somehow this touched him especially. But he was just some guy with a mustache to me.

Admittedly, he did have a nice hat, though not a glorious one.

Blue Angel stepped up and began conferencing by whisper with Twilight.

Herr Ukvarth now began talking quietly to Herr Sigismund. The worried young man kept watching everything but kept looking at Dona Carlotta. Oh ho ho. Her new boyfriend. Good. I don't want her to wait for me. We can't ever be together and it's better she moves on.

But he really doesn't look worthy of her to me.

"My victory will be my proof," Don Carlos said.

The Duel Arcane cannot be forced on anyone, though refusing a duel may cause loss of status, if the foe was someone of equal status to yourself or fairly close or if the evidence is strong they are right. I could appeal to the court systems, but then I'd have to stay with them for the duration of the trial and there would be a ton of complications.

Given I am faking noble status, I can't afford that.

I studied Duchess Sapphire. She wants an out, ideally one which offends the least number of people. I think some of the Belcadizians agree with Don Carlos, at least on being angry at Dona Carlotta, and are looking for an excuse to beat up some humans. Why on earth are these three groups traveling together, anyway? It must advance some scheme of Sapphire or Princess Emerald.

Rarity suddenly exhaled with great force and her anger was gone. No, not gone. Contained. Hidden within a field of politeness. She still wasn't happy, but she was going to play the game.

"Don Carlos, are you bringing formal charges against a member of our delegation? Or merely pressing for a Duel Arcane, since your evidence is non-existent?" Rarity asked. "Unless you can provide actual evidence, you cannot levy a charge against an Arcaner. You can ask him for a Duel Arcane whenever you like, for whatever reason you like, but he has no obligation to accept it. Further, you might keep in mind that Libeling, Mocking, or Insulting an Arcaner is a crime and that if your accusation is proven false, there are dozens of witnesses to your crime. Perhaps you enjoy being whipped and beaten, however."

OOOH, burn. Go, Rarity, faster, kill, kill!

He scowled. "Of course not!"

"And, of course, you must have two witnesses. Do you, in fact, have two witnesses?" Rarity asked.

I suddenly wondered when and why she'd learned about Glantrian law.

Then I saw Twilight studying a book and her horn glowing softly and I smiled. Go, Twilight!

"She is indeed correct," Duchess Sapphire said. "I am certainly within my rights to dismiss your charges unless you can provide two witnesses. Do you have two witnesses?" She sounded relieved.

"You are a COWARD! Hiding behind ponies!" Don Carlos shouted at me. "Why won't you duel me?"

"In other words, you have no witnesses and no proof and no case that will last five minutes in court," Rarity said. She wasn't just talking to him but to everyone. Clearly, whoever set him up expected I would accept the duel or maybe even hoped a riot would break out over the accusations. If a trial date was set, the accusations would fester in people's minds, poisoning this trade mission.

But why wreck it?

Does someone want Belcadiz and Equestria to fight each other? Or likely Glantri and Equestria, as I doubt it would remain a private war. Not that either country could easily fight each other, given Darokin and Sind are in the way of them fighting each other. Belcadiz vs. Aalban? More likely, but why accuse an outsider? Is this pressure on me? Why? I don't exactly have much leverage.

Unless it's using me to get to Twilight, who is Celestia's favorite student. Is this someone's revenge? An effort to put pressure on Equestria?

Dammit, too many variables.

Don Carlos seethed drunkenly. "Quibbler! You're still a coward hiding behind others! Why won't you fight?"

Because only macho, retarded idiots fight pointless fights with people to prove their manliness, especially when it's pretty clear someone is playing the 'lets you and him fight' game.

"He's not a coward!," Rainbow Dash said angrily. Thank you, Rainbow Dash. "Kick his ass, Marcus!" Unthank you, Rainbow Dash. She began miming punching someone out.

"I have a mission which is more important than indulging your desire for violence," I said firmly. And I don't give a DAMN what you think. Ideally, I'd like to settle this in some way that doesn't end with the ship on fire and everyone falling and the Duchess swearing eternal vengeance on me.

I could tell that most of the crowd both thought Don Carlos was making stupid accusations but that I was a coward for not fighting him. This galled me.

Just not enough to be an idiot about it, especially since it was clear my current traveling companions mostly had little interest in seeing me fight this man. Other than Applejack, who clearly was angry over the fat pony and pathetic earth pony cracks. Which didn't make me happy but I am alive because you can't taunt me into things. And Dash, who clearly believes in me more than I do.

I am keenly aware that unless he just dabbled in magic to qualify as a gentleman, I am not going to beat him in a Duel Arcane.

Dona Carlotta whispered to Duchess Sapphire, then ran towards the stairs to below-decks, probably to find her father, who had better not be about to do what I think he is.

I can't see Pinkie anywhere. ANYWHERE.

I looked behind me quickly; no Pinkie.

UUUURGH.

Any Pinkie I can't see scares me more than one I can see.

"If you wish to satisfy your honor, we can satisfy you another time," Rarity said, her voice very calm in the way that always indicates control of emotions. Ironically, it can actually expose you aren't calm if you're *too* calm.

Yeah, life hates us, I know.

"So you're going to hide behind women and ponies," he said disgustedly.

FOOL. Did you notice WHO RUNS THIS SHIP?

Duchess Sapphire frowned deeply. "Do you have a problem with women and ponies, Don Carlos?"

He now realized he'd exposed himself. "No, of course not," he said firmly, trying to backpedal.

"As I would be happy to help you go home through the swamp if you do," she said coldly.

HAH!!!!!

"I just want this coward to face me, that the truth might be revealed!" he said angrily.

"The truth is that you're a drunken blowhard with too much clothing and a bad attitude," Applejack snapped at him. "I guess you hide behind clothing so no one can see how inadequate you are."

"Everyone knows Earth Ponies can't use magic! Shut your mouth and know your place, you lowly Earth Pony!" he snapped back at her.

Now a round of whispers went around, and Applejack looked even angrier.

Rarity whispered to Applejack intensely, while I began contemplating our options. A major problem is that by Glantri's definition, she's not a 'spell caster'. Earth pony magic is REAL, but it tends to be things like getting three times the yield of crops that a mundane farmer would or having the strength to pull tons of weight, and so on. It isn't spell magic or even Bardic magic. Pinkie qualifies, but even with the Element of Harmony...

Don Diego, finish showing up and turning this into a travesty already! We can use the chaos to escape before this all goes to hell. Mundaners have very few rights, and Applejack just engaged in what is technically 'mocking, libeling and... whatever the other thing is' towards an Arcaner. If she gets mad and attacks him, she could be sentenced to time in the Tower of Sighs, which is basically a prison haunted by the undead.

And of course, he'll want her to attack him so he can send her to jail.

"Earth Pony, Pegasus, Unicorn, it doesn't matter if you're all friends!" Rainbow Dash said, quite offended. "Applejack is my friend, and I trust and rely on her!" I heard a distant rumble of thunder; clouds were starting to gather. Oh this isn't going to be good. I could see the various Wonderbolts scattered around and none of them looked happy.

"You're nothing but a big mouthed snob," Ivan said hotly, surprising me. "Frankly, no one gives a DAMN what you think. You're nothing but a parasite who lives off other people's work while others work in the fields all day long so you can lounge around, sipping wine and cheating on your wives!" Ivan, this is not the time to remember your roots! We have to handle this delicately! You're going to antagonize an entire shipful of parasites!

"I only have ONE WIFE, I don't cheat on her, and you're not any different than this pony! Duchess Sapphire, are you going to stand for mundaners libeling arcaners?" Don Carlos demanded.

DAMMIT.

The crowd was frowning. They certainly wouldn't stand for it. Bunch of idiot snobs. Why is it that cultured refinement so often goes with being an arrogant bastard who lives off the work of others.

I suddenly realized I had my hand on Rarity's back to steady myself. Now, see, she is elegant and refined AND she works hard instead of living off others. I wish more people could be like that.

Unlike Ivan, I don't have fits of thinking I can change the world for the better, though. I can't even hold onto a DECENT HAT.

Do not covet Applejack's hat, I reminded myself. Not with everyone watching.

"Don Carlos, do you wish it to be known in Equestria that Belcadizians despise non-wizards? Do you think this will help you to get a good trade deal with a country mostly made up of non-wizards?" Rarity asked, shivering under my hand, but her voice calm, holding her position. "Is that what you all think of us? If so, why trade with us? Further, why should we bother to buy your goods if you do not respect us? If you are going to quibble about the precise paperwork of diplomatic immunity, you must expect us to do the same and we will not view your views on Ponies with any great favor. Perhaps you would like to learn the penalties for libel in our country. Do you think Celestia will view you and yours with favor for this? Or that she shares your views on who should rule? Might I remind you that three of the slots on the Royal Council are always reserved for Earth Ponies, because they are as important as we Unicorns?" It's a nine person council, three of each kind of pony.

I could see Twilight frantically working her way through several tomes and clearly still in mental contact with Rarity, while Spike assisted her.

I relaxed a little. Despite my growing terror, Rarity had things well in hand. I think my response to this would have been to scream and babble, though given time to PLAN, I could have done better.

Ivan was whispering softly to Applejack, who nodded to him, while Rainbow Dash looked ready to just explode. She clearly felt as tense as I did.

Duchess Sapphire paused, then had an odd little smile as she looked at Rarity. She now looked around like myself, assessing the crowd, which was now clearly unsettled. Had they not even thought about... of course not. Glantrians think they are the BEST of all societies.

Mind you, so do the Equestrians.

Every society thinks itself the best, but the Glantrians... It's like this. This is a country where the thinkers rule. Where the people who get kicked around and told they are 'weak' and 'nerds' and 'pussies' run the place by their arcane power. Where those who are strong of body don't rule the show like in so many countries. Glantrians often lack wisdom but they aren't stupid. (Mind you, the combination of low wisdom and high arcane power gets pretty messy.)

Unfortunately, a lot of them respond by turning into thugs and bullies who rely on *arcane* rather than *physical* might. They decide their brains make them destined to rule, etc, etc. You know how it goes.

They end up despising non-spellcasters and their laws enforce that. It's why I couldn't stay... okay, one of many reasons I couldn't stay. If a place craps on my friends like Ivan, I can't stay if they're going to be treated that badly.

Not that I have many close friends, but it's the principle of the thing.

Several other Belcadizians were trying to whisper to Don Carlos. Others were glaring at us angrily or at the ponies or at the Aalbanese. The various Glantrian Ponies looked pretty tense, though they all kept silent. I guess they were going to let Duchess Sapphire lead. Understandably.

Don Carlos drew a wand. SHIT. He's going to go axe-crazy now and given this place is full of people who can easily level this ship, we are all going to catch fire and die.

I could feel Rarity tense more through my hand on her back and everyone began reaching for implements. Wizards can heighten their powers through the use of wands, staves, rods, and other items. I could if I had one. I've had a fair number and lost them all. Helga has this really nice staff which amplifies her ability to do thunder and lightning magic.

Unicorn Ponies just use their horn for the same purpose. And their Cutie Mark. Given the Elements of Harmony seem to work like an implement, I expect...

And then there was a twang and the wand flew out of Don Carlos' hand.

Ahh, here he is.

There was a male elf clad in black pants, a black cake hat (a short cylinder, flat-topped, shaped like a cake) with a wide brim, a black buttoned shirt, black gloves and a black raccoon mask (the kind which basically covers the region around your eyes and noting else). The only thing on him that wasn't black was that he wore a badge which depicted a circle with a broad range of colors in it like a spectrum. It represents a planar portal, one of the type known as 'color pools'. He was dark skinned with short black hair and a nicely done mustache, and he had a rapier on one hip, a whip on the other and a crossbow in his hands with a quiver on his back. He stood upon... the pole things that jut sideways from masts and you hang the sails on them.

Next to him stood a pink pony with a wavy pink mane, wearing exactly the same outfit as him, except that she had a pie badge, had a spatula instead of a rapier, some sort of icing spreader thing instead of a whip and a pie balanced on each of her forehoofs as she stood unnaturally bipedally.

Words fail me.

"MANUEL OF THE PLAINS!" the Belcadizians shouted as one in utter shock.

See, here's the thing. As you probably have guessed, it's Don Diego in black, wearing a damn raccoon mask. And yet, NO ONE CAN TELL. No one. I have seen this man give Prince Innocenti di Malipietra a wedgie and somehow not die horribly by poison because di Malipietra couldn't find him to take revenge.

He puts on this ludicrous outfit and rides around on his Pony ally, Platinum, avenging injustices and righting wrongs and helping out oppressed peasants and basically twisting the nose of every noble in Glantri and GETS AWAY WITH IT.

Okay, maybe I am a little jealous.

But how on Mystara can they NOT RECOGNIZE HIM?

It's a freaking raccoon mask. You can see his mustache and his hair and...

I can't get away with a cheesy disguise like that, so how can *he*?

"And I am champion of justice Caramelita of the Pies!," the pink pony said. If that isn't Pinkie Pie, I would eat my hat if I had one. "Who stands for caring AND sharing!"

Every pony in the place stamped their hoof with approval, to my surprise. Some of them began cheering her.

Herr Sigismund began giving frantic orders to his men; he clearly knows what usually comes after this. Herr Ukvarth buried his face in his hands, clearly frustrated. And Duchess Sapphire... grinned. Oh dear.

"What a thrilling, well-dressed heroine," Rarity said, clearly admiring. She... surely she can tell it is Pinkie.

A quick glance showed that somehow, none of them could tell. Except Applejack, who had a hoof over her mouth to keep from laughing. She saw me and she winked at me. Are they putting on an act?

It wouldn't surprise me if Pinkie had done this before.

Of course she has.

Don Carlos started to reach for another wand and took a pie to the face and fell down.

"Someone needs a hug!" 'Caramelita' announced. "Platinum! HUG STRIKE!"

Platinum, a silver-coated, black maned unicorn pony wearing a raccoon mask and black boots (and nothing else, unlikely the heavily clad ponies attendant at the party), now rushed through the crowd and pounced on Don Carlos, hugging him and laughing loudly. His ACTUAL name is 'Silver Fork' and he is Don Diego's butler. He somehow turns his Cutie Mark into a platinum coin instead of a silver fork when he's 'in disguise'.

Another Belcadizian now went for a rod, only to get a pie to the face from 'Caramelita'. "Now, now! Someone else needs a hug!"

"Hug time now!" somepony shouted and rushed at him. It was a middle-aged mare I didn't know, wearing a fancy blue and green satin dress.

Then someone shouted, as I knew they would, "PIE FIGHT!", opening up with a barrage from the snack bar.

"YEE HAW!" Applejack shouted, opening fire with apples and then 'Manuel of the Plains' and 'Caramelita swooped down and food began flying everywhere. Once I saw Duchess Sapphire hurl a plate of candies at someone, I knew that chaos would inevitably ensue.

Was ensuing, in fact.

Rarity looked at the growing anarchy. "Oh dear," she said. "I think we've caused a diplomatic incident," she said, sounding guilty.

"No, you avoided one," Duchess Sapphire said, then passed her a plate of those Belcadizian swirlcakes. "Let's see your legendary archery skills, dear. I think the dry cleaning bill is going to be horrendous, but better cleansers than blood, right?"

...

Rarity smiled. "Of course. Marcus, will you be kind enough to mark my targets for me?"

Okay, I surrender. You win again, Diego, Pinkie. I picked the four snootiest looking aristocrats I could find, then I cast a spell, St. Tarastia's Fire. I think the Shadow Elves originally invented this one; it basically limns a target in totally harmless 'flame'. This makes it easy to find people in the dark and helps with hitting them with ranged attacks.

Rarity hit each of them in the face with a series of quick shots. This of course, led to counter-fire and we ended up drenched in wine with bits of fruit all over us and then someone lobbed MEATLOAF at us. NOT ON A WHITE SUIT!

I staggered, covered in red sauce, bacon, beef, and cheese. My suit. The beautiful suit Rarity bought me with her own money and now it's a ruined soggy mess. And Rarity's beautiful dress was now a soggy mess as well and there was a chunk of cheese-bread-meat mess on her tiara. I brushed it off and eyed the crowd.

Someone was going to PAY FOR THIS.

One of the Aalbanese had a MINIATURE CATAPULT; as I watched, he dropped chicken parmesan on Fluttershy, who was busy dodging attacks. "Please, stop the violence before someone gets hurt," she said, then got hit. Yelping, she fell down into the scrum.

"Rarity," I said, limning him in fire. He stared at himself, clearly knowing what this meant. He was, like most Aalbanese men, dark haired with a mustache, wearing a white suit like mine. "I think he needs a few splashes of COLOR to liven up that white suit."

"I agree one hundred percent, darling," she said. A dozen shrimp rose into the air, dipped themselves in the half a dozen dips which sat next to them on a now abandoned server's tray, and then they flew in a swarm at the man. I noticed an ENTIRE BOWL of dip... no, three... followed the same trajectory, and I saw Twilight concentrating. She gave me the hoof sign, grinning.

Whoever that man was, he went DOWN and went down HARD.

Fluttershy rose out of the scrum, wobbling, only to get hit by an entire loaf of Averoignese style bread, which had been split and buttered and covered with garlic, briefly turning her into a sandwich.

I could totally go for an Averoignese style soup and sandwich right now.

Not made of pony!

You know what I *mean*.

Determinedly, Fluttershy took to the sky again. "Violence is bad! Stop the madness!" She dripped food and sauces now and was a hideous mess.

She would have been hit by an entire pizza, except Rainbow Dash flew down and interposed herself, then hurled an entire tray of Belcadizian burritos at the perpetrator, a green pony who now went down.

"Sorry, Fluttershy," Rainbow Dash said to her. "But this is war! And war means..." A tomato to Rainbow Dash's face. "CHAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGEEEEEEE!" She zoomed at whoever did it, who I couldn't see.

Trust me, Fluttershy, we're getting off easy, except for our dry cleaning bills.

Fluttershy looked around, then got hit with a tomato in the face even as she opened her mouth. Then she saw someone's little yappy pet dog take a Belcadizian swirlcake to the face. Her eyes crossed and when they returned to normal, Fluttershy shouted, "ENOUGH! PETS OF GLANTRI! RISE UP! IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO BE FREE!"

ACK.

***************

Fortunately, the ship's actual PILOT was under decks in the control room, so the ship didn't crash, but wow, cleaning this thing up is going to be epic.

Fortunately, most of the pets of Glantri ran to their masters and hid, but the smarter ones had joined in on the anarchy, now at Fluttershy's command.

My suit was all the colors of the rainbow and Rarity and the other ponies looked like a buffet bar. I was utterly exhausted but it was a good exhausted. Rarity was flopped down next to me, both of us breathing hard. We'd used a lot of magic. I wanted a nap BADLY.

"Justice has been done!," 'Manuel' shouted. "Platinum, to me!"

Platinum ran over and 'Manuel' and 'Caramelita' got onto his back and then galloped across the deck, leaping off the side and vanishing in a spray of silvery dust. A rather flashy teleport, I assume, though given Don Diego's skills, they may have just plane shifted.

"Wow, Pinkie missed the whole fight," Rainbow Dash said. "She is gonna be SO unhappy."

...

"I know, it's her sort of thing," Rarity said.

"It's nice to see heroic ponies in other countries too," Twilight said.

"Uhh... that was Pinkie," Applejack said, cocking her head and looking at Twilight.

"I'm pretty sure that 'Caramelita' was Pinkie," I said.

"No way," Rainbow Dash said, shaking her head. "Pinkie never wears black."

"It didn't look like Pinkie," Ivan said. "You get some weird ideas in your head, Marcus."

Dammit, Ivan, not you too!

I caught Applejack's gaze, then shrugged. I gave up fighting on the whole 'your father is Manuel of the Plains, no really' thing a long time ago.

"Even I think we need a bath," Applejack said, looking at herself. She was a squishy, sticky mess. We all were.

"Everyone will, but I will see to quarters for you tonight; you can teleport back to where we got you in the morning," Duchess Sapphire said. "There is no way I can send you back to the swamp like this."

"Thank you," I said. "I am very sorry about this."

"We avoided the total wreck of the mission and it's clear some tensions needed deflating and lessons had to be learned," she said. "Like how Don Carlos needs to be sent back home accidentally on purpose."

I like how she thinks.

****************

This is how Ivan and I ended up having a nice hot bath, though oddly, though I could hear attendants in the other baths, we didn't have any. On the other hand, we were in a fairly small one, while the others were crowded with ponies, Belcadizians, or Aalbaneese.

I was busy trying to clean my back when to my surprise, someone began scrubbing it. I was fighting the urge to scream and flee when Don Diego said amiably, "It's just me, Samus Marcus."

"You missed the pie fight and two great heroes," Ivan said.

Dammit, Ivan, I just tried to tell you it was Diego and Pinkie!!!

"I always seem to miss Manuel of the Plains," Don Diego said sadly as he scrubbed my back. I twitched, wishing I could have beautiful elf maidens instead of a... okay, he isn't that old for an Elf but I'd rather have women.

That being said, a clean back IS important to me.

"Why does everyone else have attendants and we don't?" Ivan asked.

"I believe the blue-skinned pegasus told them you were easily embarrassed and needed privacy because you were human," Don Diego said. "So I thought I would be a good host and come tend to your needs." He sounded very amused.

DAAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSSHHHHH!!!!!!

Ivan laughed. "Marcus is easily embarrassed."

I began doing my hair with Diego's help. "Where's Silver Fork?" I asked.

"Helping to tend to the needs of your ladyfriends, the Elements of Harmony," Diego said amiably. "It seems he is always a big hit with the ladies. I keep telling him he ought to settle down, but he tells me he cannot marry until he outdoes the glories of the mighty Platinum."

"He should probably set more realistic goals, that's like saying you won't marry until you have the head of three Grand Wyrms," Ivan said. He was washing his hair now.

Is he fucking with me or does the universe just hate me?

Of course, the answer could be 'both'.

"I have arranged for fresh clothing for you tomorrow," Diego said. "Though I fear the swamp will muss it quickly."

"So do I," I told him. "And thank you."

We chatted amiably while my brain slowly worked on melting to slag.

***************

"Don Diego has been kind enough to put us up as an apology for Don Carlos' behavior," Twilight said. "However, we will have to go three to a room with one sleeping on a magical air balloon on the floor."

"A magical air balloon?" I asked, confused. I was wearing actual pajamas, thanks to Don Diego. Black with silver stripes. They fit me poorly, but I didn't care. I feel like a REAL PERSON now.

"They are like a flat, mattress shaped balloon. Don Diego assures me they are very comfortable," she said.

These must be new; I slept on a cot a few times in Belcadiz but never a balloon.

"Well, how about me, Ivan, and Pinkie," Applejack said. "Then you, Marcus, Rarity, Sp... no wait, that's four."

Twilight Sparkle looked at Ivan. "You fine with sleeping with Pinkie and Applejack?"

"Earth ponies forever," he said deadpan and high-fived Applejack and Pinkie at the same time.

...

"I can take Spitfire and Soarin'," Dash said. "Then... oh wait, that leaves five. Ummm..."

"They'll leave with us but they have quarters," Twilight said. "And I think they're going to pull a watch shift with some of the other Wonderbolts."

"So, me, Twilight, Rarity, and then Dash, Fluttershy, and Marcus," Spike said quickly.

"Marcus should be with the unicorns," Fluttershy said hesitantly. "If we're going by type."

Twilight paused and looked at me. "Marcus..."

"I can sleep with whoever will be most convenient," I said. "As you must have seen, I don't sleep naked."

"Twilight, why don't you take Marcus and Dash? I can use Spike and Fluttershy's help on something before bed," Rarity said.

"YES!" Spike said.

I put a hand over my mouth long enough to resist laughing, then Twilight said, "Okay. Marcus can help me with something too."

"Hah! We'll have the best slumber party!" Rainbow Dash said.

Twilight's eyes suddenly lit up.

Rarity and Applejack looked at each other and grinned and I felt my stomach curdle.

Rainbow Dash looked at me. I looked at her. For a moment, our minds moved as one. 'Uh oh.'

****************

In my long life, I can say that I have never actually done up a woman's hair with curlers. Or had mine done up. It's really not long enough for it, though it's not cut extremely short.

"I hope we're doing this right, I am going by memory because I didn't bring the book," Twilight said as she worked on my hair, while I tried to do Dash and Dash tried to do Twilight. This was difficult since she had to do it with her teeth and with clumsy hoof grips. Admittedly, Ponies have insanely nimble mouths and teeth. It was clear Twilight was the only one of us who actually knew how to do this.

"I am sure it will be fine as long as we have fun," I said. This is not, in fact, my idea of fun, but I owe Twilight and she's so enthusiastic about this, how can I say no?

Also, Spike cannot strangle me in my sleep if he's with Rarity and Fluttershy. Working on... whatever it is.

"Man, so humans even have special clothing for sleeping?" Dash asked me, studying my outfit.

"And it's different for men and women," I said.

"Why? It's not like it's not easy to tell which is which," Dash said.

"A woman's body is contoured differently," I told her. I now finished her hair, hoping I did it right.

Twilight finished mine, while Dash fumbled with Twilight's hair.

"Yeah, I noticed all the elf and human women have giant breasts. Don't those get in the way?" Dash asked.

"They make nice pillows," I said. "And typically a woman sleeps on her back or side if it's too much to be comfortable. Isn't that normally how ponies sleep?"

Twilight's eyes crossed and she mumbled.

"Sorry," Dash said. "I'm trying to be gentle."

I helped her with it. She would have been fine if she had fingers.

Dash sighed. "I'm sorry, Rarity could do this really well."

"We can't all be Rarity," I said. "Though it wouldn't hurt if more people were like her."

Dash grinned at me for some reason. "I...umm... you met Soarin', right?"

"Briefly," I said. "He seems a decent fellow."

Twilight nodded. "Okay... we've done each other's hair... oh yes, time for our faces."

"Faces?" Dash said nervously.

"Facial cleanser creams... which I don't have," Twilight said. "I already borrowed Rarity's curlers... I hate to keep taking her stuff."

"We can just wash each other's faces," I said. Though really, it's clean enough.

Dash looked slightly suspicious but relaxed when we carefully scrubbed each other's face.

I feel like I am twelve and someone's sister.

But Twilight basically skipped childhood. I can't help but want to indulge her a little when she wants to do this.

I could have had BEAUTIFUL ELF WOMEN doing this to me if not for you, Dash. But you were just trying to help me.

Dammit.

"We should shave your stubble," Twilight said.

Twilight, holding a knife next to my throat, and if she... and she... No, don't be afraid, she doesn't know, can't show fear...

"Okay, we'll leave it. You'll look good with a beard," Dash said quickly.

Damn my poor self-control.

"No, I trust you two to shave me," I said. "I didn't even realize I have stubble." It being hard to shave in a SWAMP.

Dash lathered me up and Twilight said, "Don't worry, Mother always helped Father shave and she taught me how to do this so one day... I could do it for... friends." Her voice choked up a moment.

"Did you ever... with Erik?" Dash asked, then put a hoof over her mouth.

"No, he always shaved in his chambers," Twilight said. "I mean, I would have, but he never asked and always kept his face carefully shaven and in general, he was well groomed, except the times he woke up on my floor or in the library."

She breathed in and out and began to shave me as I tried to avoid total panic, remaining very still. Dash put a hoof on my shoulder. I was sitting on the floor, by the way.

"Don't worry," Twilight said. "This is going to be fine." She was sweating, however, as the blade moved slowly along my face. Once it left contact, her control was better and she easily cleaned it off.

We all started when a maid said, "I can do that, senorita." We hadn't even noticed her enter in her black uniform; she was Belcadizian.

"No, no, I can do it," Twilight said. "I have to... I need to be able to do this." Her voice was tight and urgent.

The maid looked at me nervously; I was too paralyzed with fear to move. Finally, I tried to blink at her 'HELP ME'.

Dash cleared her throat. "If she... I mean..."

"It's fine," my traitor mouth said. "Her mother taught her how to do this," I told the maid, who looked dubious.

Had she... I guess her job is to be ready to serve. But I will have to remember that. I'd forgotten what it's like. The help ALWAYS knows more than you think.

"Rarity," Dash began.

"I can do this," Twilight said, determined, then began shaving me again. She nicked me once and looked mortified and the maid quickly applied a little cloth and held it until I stopped bleeding. "I... Marcus..."

"Go on," I said. "Make your mother proud."

My mother would probably beat me to death with a chair. I think. I haven't seen my parents in a very long time. Twilight probably should have seen her parents more than she does, but I know they're important to her.

Twilight's stance shifted a little, and now she shaved me with determination more than fear, which made things go smoother. When she was done, the maid cleaned my face. "Very smoothly done," she said to Twilight. "I will clean this for you," she said, taking the razor.

"Thank you," Twilight said warmly to her.

The maid smiled and left.

"Better," I said. "Thank you, Twilight."

She beamed brightly.

"Okay, now... I think ghost stories are next. Or is it brandy?"

"How about brandy AND ghost stories?" I said. "But not much brandy." NEVER getting drunk around Twilight again.

************

"And so he crept through Prince Brannart's tower," I said to Dash and Twilight, who were leaning forward, eyes wide, as we sat in the near-dark with only a small flame in the palm of my hand for light. "He could see an unholy blue light shining from under a door. Curiosity, greed, fear, all warred within him. It could be... it WAS powerful magic, but powerful magic can be DANGEROUS."

"The Second Precept," Twilight said breathlessly. "Use too much magic at once and you will destroy yourself."

My magical education was too informal to have any precepts beyond 'magic is useful.'

"Did he open it?" Dash squeaked out.

Of course, I did. FOOLISHLY.

"His curiosity drove him on. He had to know what laid beyond, what secrets of magic he might find beyond the door, so he studied it carefully; it was slightly ajar, and so he cracked it open," I said, gesturing as if opening a door and peeking through it.

Twilight said, "Was it tomes? I bet there were tomes." Her voice was excited and nervous at once.

"CURSED tomes," Dash said spookily. Twilight shivered.

"The lab was well appointed with a long array of beakers, vials, flasks, tubes, coils, oil lamps and candles, as well as every sort of chemical one might need, and powdered gemstones and rare metals and rare earths, finely ground. But at the heart of the lab table was a finely cut sphere of bluish-gray crystal, set with many facets on a golden stand; it sparkled, casting the eerie blue light. Near it, an aged tome, bound in leather with gold clasps, sat open, words of power on every page."

"Hah! Yes! Books!" Twilight said triumphantly.

"Does it turn him into a chimera?" Dash asked, shivering. "And then his heads turn on each other and he dies?"

...

That's actually better than my ending.

"He began to creep forward, but then a figure came out of the shadows," I said, rising up so I towered over them. The flame in my hand cast unnatural shadows up my face and they shivered. I now made my voice vibrate with a little magic. "He wore a finely made light blue tunic of cloth of gold, wrapped around him, with a belt of deep blue, and around his waist and down to his knees he wore a traditional red and black checkered kilt, and at his hip, a long blade of the Klantyre style."

"A what?" Dash asked.

"A skirt for men," I told her, though it weakened the build up.

"His skin was withered and dry like paper, his hands almost like claws as they clutched the vials in his hands, one with blue, the other with red powder. But his head... though he bore a regal golden crown set with opals and rubies, his eyes shone with the same unholy light as the gem, blazing like blue-litten flame in dark grottoes, and his skin was stretched so tight over his skull as to show it clear as day and his teeth were yellow and black. It was Prince Brannart McGregor, THE LICH OF KLANTYRE!"

They both howled and jumped into the corner, clutching each other, shivering, as I closed in on them relentlessly, making my eyes glow blue. "He opened his mouth with a feral grin and his voice was like dust."

"What did he say?" Dash said frantically.

"Would you like some candy?" I said, holding out my hand with two peppermints.

Dash hit me with a pillow and we segued into the pillow fight.

*************

"I wasn't scared, you know," Dash said, trying to look tough.

I was. Brannart scared me shitless. Enough that he just made me run naked through the streets and hocked my possessions instead of killing me. While I heard him LAUGHING the whole time.

Never taking a job in Klantyre again.

Twilight yawned. "We should sleep. We have a long day tomorrow."

"I want to sleep on the air mattress," Dash said.

"I was going to take it," I said.

"Please?" she asked. "I am REALLY curious if it's as nice as my clouds back home."

Sleeping in the same bed as Twilight seems... well, it's not nice to sleep in the same bed as someone you are lying about your identity to them.

But Dash... made these 'PLEASE' eyes at me.

"Okay," I said. Since I have no reason I can actually EXPLAIN for why I should sleep on the floor. Or in another room. Or possibly another continent. I hear Skothar is nice this time of year.

"You don't mind, right?" Twilight said. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable."

"I'm fine," I said. "It would be silly if you could shave me but not sleep near me."

She relaxed. "There's a lot worse than quicksand if you panic on this ship." She got on the bed on the far side by the wall.

I winced. "I know."

"Yeah, I think he'd have the Element of Fear if we had another one," Dash said, then looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, that came out bad."

"I have had a scary life of facing monsters, seeing people die and sometimes thinking I would die," I said.

Dash stretched out on the 'air mattress'. "Okay, this is TOTALLY sweet." She paused. "Uh..."

"That's right, you have seen people die," Twilight said softly. "I hope..."

"I do worry about you all dying," I confessed. They're skilled fighters and Rarity... she and Twilight were *very* effective. But in some ways, they're still so innocent. "I've seen a lot of death. But I can't seem to ever settle down successfully. Something always goes wrong."

"Well, I'm confident this will go well," Twilight said as I now got into bed, under the sheets. "This is a nice soft bed," she mumbled, her voice going groggy.

Distantly, I heard Pinkie shout something about a naked pony party.

Twilight's eyes widened. "What on Mystara?"

"Let them riot, we need our sleep," I said.

"So is Ivan... an Earth Human?" Dash asked.

"We have different divisions but he would likely be one if he was polymorphed into a pony," I said. "I would be a Unicorn and..." Can't mention Helga. "I met flying humans in Floating Ar, in Alphatia."

I ended up telling them about Floating Ar until we all fell asleep. Or they did. I laid there, worrying somehow my tattoo would start shining with a blue, unholy light, revealing me.

Eventually, sleep took me. I dreamed about everyone setting me on fire and hurling me off the boat. Delightful.

***********

Dash got up early and went out to cavort with the Wonderbolts, I think. Or at least, when I eventually woke up, she was gone, but her bed HAD been slept in. Twilight was still clonked out, mumbling about ten more minutes.

I left her to her sleep and rose, doing some stretching. That had been a very comfy bed but I often contort myself into weird shapes.

Twilight now said something totally incoherent.

"What?" I said.

She floated a glass of water over, then drank from it and sat up and stretched. "So much nicer than sleeping on the ground," she said. "Or worse, my floor."

"Doesn't Spike usually ensure you don't stay on the floor?"

"Yes, but usually that's because he wakes up before me and puts me in bed." She flopped over, then made herself sit up "I... Spike..." She frowned, then sighed and fumbled her way out of bed, stretching as well. "I, look, Spike kind of...

"NO," Pinkie said, suddenly rolling out from under the bed.

HAS SHE BEEN THERE ALL NIGHT?

Twilight jumped. "But..."

"No, no, no," Pinkie said, now rising. "See you all at breakfast!" She trotted out of the room.

Twilight sighed. "Okay, then."

I don't get it.

"Let's go get some breakfast."

"I need to change into something other than pajamas," I told her. "You go ahead," I continued. "Thank you for the sleepover." Always thank people for everything, even if you didn't want it. Not that I...

I enjoy spending time with Twilight and some parts of it were fun. But every moment I spend with her is a moment where my secrets may come out and I may be buried in an unmarked grave.

"Oh yes, I don't want to violate your privacy," she said. "I know it's important to you." She stumbled towards the door. "You're braver than you think, you know," she said softly. "Don't be afraid. We'll back you to the end. Like Rarity did."

"I am VERY grateful to her, but I don't... I am rather poor at the moment, and it's hard for me to repay her," I told Twilight. "And you helped me too. I could see you feeding her information."

"It was very cool," Twilight said, sounding proud of herself. Then she frowned. "Glantri is really unfair to non-spellcasters."

"I know," I told her. "It's just... well, you know how it is for people who like books, like to study. People think you're weird, make fun of you, beat you up." I sighed. "And you know magic and the temptation to abuse it."

"I know," Twilight said. "It's hard to know when I should use my powers and when not. When people will like it and when they'll.. think I'm all snobby and full of myself and showing off too much." She studied the space under the bed; I glanced, but I didn't see anything there, not even dust.

"You should write a letter to Celestia. I'm sure she has that problem too. And she knows what Glantrians are like."

"I should," she said, smiling. "I would have sent one but Spike was helping Rarity." She frowned a moment, then sighed. "Anyway, thanks for listening to me talk."

"I've had the same problem, so I understand," I told her. "We can talk about it later."

She nodded and smiled and ran off.

I got changed. It is a huge problem. Too many people get jealous when others are different or better, but mock anyone who isn't the same as them or up to their level.

But what can we do about it?

I got changed and went out to have breakfast.

************

Twilight kept looking at Rarity, looking nervous, but Rarity, though utterly groggy, seemed in good spirits. So was Spike and Fluttershy. I decided not to pry for fear that Pinkie would somehow rise out of my waffle and stop me. Belcadizian waffles with honey and syrup, VERY good, by the way.

Don Diego pressed a clean set of armor and underwear on me; I was very grateful, though surprised. But the real gift...

Rarity now gave me an archer's cap, made of red felt with a green ribbon held in place by six emeralds. That's right, EMERALDS. A red feather was tucked into the ribbon. It was beautiful. "Rarity, that's wonderful," I said, putting it on my head. "Now I feel bad I have nothing to offer you."

"It's fine," she said. "I know how much you love hats."

She'd donned a stylish white and black hat herself, though I suspect the swamp will soon add green and brown to it.

"I will get you something nice once I am in a position to do so," I told her. I touched my hat and got that wonderful feeling. HAT.

I felt nerves de-tangling already.

"I can face the world!," I said proudly.

"But how will the world face you?" Rarity said, smiling.

How indeed. Nothing can stop a well-dressed man.

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