• Published 26th Feb 2018
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A 14th Century Friar in Celestia's Court - Antiquarian

Providence is an odd thing. Friar Jacques de Charrette, warrior monk of the Hospitallers, will learn this the hard way as a vision leads him to Equestria, where he and his newfound friends will face a diabolical threat.

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The First Day of the Rest of Your Life

Twilight did not consider herself to be an easily irritated pony. That being said, she had enough self-awareness to know that when a task (particularly one related to research, the princess, or friendship) was not going well, she tended to get testy. This one happened to involve all three, which went a long way to explaining the dog-like snarl she emitted as she slammed the latest book shut.

“Not one,” she muttered to herself. “I have the entire, freaking, Golden Oaks Library, and my substantial personal collection at my hooves, and I can’t find one complete account of that stupid war!” Her head slumped onto the desk with a groan.

She’d spent the better part of the night pouring through every book in the library even tangentially related to spellcraft, portals, prophesy, history, and myth, hoping for some clarity regarding Jacques’ abilities and the Shades. While she’d dug up some helpful resources on the former, and some tidbits about the latter, she had not found a single conclusively helpful book in the entire library about either.

Taking a deep breath, Twilight forced herself to think about the matter dispassionately. To be fair, the lack of any data about Jacques and his magic doesn’t surprise me. He’s one of a kind, as far as we know, and the best I had any reasonable hope of finding was further information about similar types of magic found in other races and compendiums on Curatrix and Dark Magic. Which, indeed, she had, albeit not in any large quantity.

The second endeavor, however, had yielded next to no results, and try as she might she could not find it in herself to think positively about that fact. I know it was a long time ago, but is there seriously not one complete account of that war? Heaving a sigh, she glanced around at the shelves, hoping for some burst of inspiration. The morning sunlight filtered in through the windows, illuminating the texts that hadn’t seemed relevant to her research and as such had remained on the shelves. Distantly she heard the sound of somepony singing, and she blinked blearily. Did I really stay up all night again? She shrugged and rubbed her eyes. Oh well. Research never sleeps. I suppose I could start combing through every book in the library, even the ones with unrelated topics. It’s always possible there’s some small connection—

“As though I would make it that easy,” mused a basso voice.

GAA!” yelped Twilight, jolting bolt-upright and tumbling off her stool in shock. “Who’s there?! How did you get in my house?!”

“Who am I?” chuckled the voice, ignoring the second question. “Who am I?” His voice came from every direction at once and the room began to sway around her. Twilight bit her lip and scanned the room frantically as sweat beaded on her brow. “Oh, little pony, I am hurt. Have you forgotten me already?” His laughter echoed in her skull. “Hardly the friendly thing to do.”

“Where are you?” she shouted, leaping to all four hooves despite the shaking floor and charging her horn as though to attack. In reality, she was preparing a teleport spell to transport her to Spike and then another to get them outside as soon as she knew what she was up against. “Show yourself!”

“Very well,” purred the voice. “If you must know, little pony…” the voice came behind her. Twilight spun, a defiant snarl on her lips, but what she beheld almost sent her tumbling back to the trembling floor in abject terror. Leering out from a pall of black smoke was a visage she’d thought annihilated in the icy lands of the far north. Baring a fanged smile, Sombra announced, “I’ve been with you this whole time.”

Twilight didn’t hesitate. She altered the prepared spell matrix on the fly, dumping the power from her teleport into an old Curatrix technique known affectionately as ‘Sunsinger’s Lance’ and launching it at his head. She was rewarded by a snarl of pain as the beam punched through his head, reducing him to vapor. Knowing that she didn’t have much time, she turned and sprinted for the stairs. Can’t teleport. Had wards against it in the Empire. Grab Spike. Make hole in wall. Flee.

Her plan had come together with impressive swiftness, but, unfortunately for her, it wasn’t swift enough. A wall of black crystal shot up through the floor, very nearly severing her head and certainly cutting her off from Spike. Sombra’s head emerged from the crystals, his glare baleful. “You’ve learned a new trick, you little nag.”

Twilight tried to put on a brave face, but it was difficult to accomplish with the floor constantly shifting beneath her as though she were on a sailing ship. “I’ve been practicing since our last encounter,” she snarled. “Or should I say, my last encounter with Sombra.”

The head reared back. “I am Sombra!”

“Sombra’s dead,” replied Twilight, who was rather proud of herself for keeping the shakiness out of her voice. “I saw him die myself. You’re not him…” her eyes narrowed, “but to impersonate him like this would require knowledge of his powers. So who are you really…Shade?

Rather than being annoyed by her question, the Sombra head merely chuckled. “An accurate deduction, little mare. I imagine you will rise to great heights. Unfortunately…”

The ground rumbled and Twilight screamed as a host of inky black vines of concentrated magic exploded up through the floor, wrapping around her in a cocoon before punching up through the roof of the library and carrying her hundreds of feet into the sky. She thrashed against the tendrils, striking out with her magic, but to no avail. Her shrieks filled the air as the smoking head loomed above her, eyes mocking.

“…the higher you rise, the farther you have to fall.”

With that, he released his grip.

Twilight’s screams redoubled as she plummeted groundward. Operating on autopilot, she tried to teleport to safety, but without an anchor point for her starting location her spell fizzled out time and time again. She tried to summon clouds to cushion her fall, but she hadn’t applied the cloudwalk spell recently enough for it to do more than drench her. She tried to summon a trampoline, but apparently there wasn’t one close enough to respond to the summons. She tried every technique she knew and failed, while one persistent thought coursed like a raging river through her mind.

I just got killed by a nameless antagonist making a bad joke.

As the full weight of that depressing fact settled on her shoulders, she actually stopped screaming long enough to examine where she was going to land. It appeared that she was going to end her journey in front of the desk where she’d spent most of the night. She stared at the spot, unable to believe that it was truly to be her final stop. She stared so long that it felt like her eyelids were being peeled open as the ground rushed on.

In fact, it almost feels like my eyes are opening even though they’re already open. Almost like I’m asleep and opening my eyes to see—

Twilight fell off her stool and smashed her face against the hard oak floor with a resounding crack. “BUCK!” she swore.

Spike sang softly to himself as he stirred the pancake batter. The coffee had finished brewing a few moments ago and he’d already taken the liberty of pouring five cups; two for himself, and three for Twilight. A selection of assorted fruits for the librarian and some gemstones for himself were already on their plates (admittedly fewer of the latter than he’d started with), and soon the griddle would be hot enough for the batter. He briefly considered rousing Twilight, but figured that she would soon wake to the smell of the pancakes, if the rising sun hadn’t woken her already. She’d passed out on the lower level of their sleeping quarters, right in front of the window, so it seemed likely that she’d be down directly.

In fact, I think I hear her now, he reflected as he heard the sound of hooves knocking against wood upstairs. He picked up the mixing bowl and was just about to pour the batter when a thought occurred to him. Wait, that doesn’t sound like hooves on floorboards; that sounds like hooves kicking a desk. And didn’t I leave her sleeping in a chair? I hope she doesn’t kick her chair out from under herself—

There was a thunderous wham! from the second floor, followed by the bellow of “BUCK!

Spike sighed and set down the batter, flicking off the burner and hopping down from the stool to head upstairs. I should probably go check on that.

“Son of a mule-loving horseapple-eating cow pie!” spat Twilight, who sat on the floor nursing her bloody nose. She’d somehow contrived to fall clean out of her chair and crack her muzzle against the floorboards. Ordinarily she was somewhat bleary when she first woke up after a long night studying, at least until she got her first cup of coffee. As it happened, however, the sensation of feeling like she’d broken her snout was a wonderful source of morning energy. “How in Tartarus did I manage to fall so perfectly to smash my Celestia-blessed snout against the freaking floor and I had that stupid freaky dream and I am so peeved right now!”

“Language!” chuckled Spike from the door. He walked up holding a box of tissues. “I haven’t heard you swear like that since Uni.”

“Shut your gem hole, Spike,” hissed Twilight, snatching the tissues from him with her magical grasp and dabbing at the blood. “This isn’t funny.”

“It’s a little funny,” smirked Spike. “And besides; you’ve gotten clocked worse than that ice-skating. Well, trying to ice-skate.”

If looks could have killed, Spike would have been lucky to get off merely injured.

Taking the hint, he went back downstairs. “Speaking of ice, how about I go fetch you some.”

“Please do,” she replied, all acid.

While she waited, Twilight took the time to collect her thoughts. It was easy to deduce that the combination of a sunbeam creeping across her face and the sounds of Spike singing while he cooked downstairs had stirred her to the beginnings of wakefulness, which in turn had led to her kicking her hooves in her sleep when the nightmare startled her. That her kicking hooves had thrown her from her stool was simply an unfortunate side effect. The dream itself had doubtless been the product of her late night research, and her desk held more than enough evidence to corroborate that theory. Strewn across it were every book on Curatrix magic, the Dark Arts, and the Shades that she could find. Which, in practice, means seven books.

There was, in fact, precious little in her library on those topics. What books she did have were mostly on Curatrix magic itself and how to recognize the Dark Arts and protect oneself from them. Anything providing greater detail on the latter was only available to those who directly fought dark magic users, as the danger of an unprepared reader becoming fascinated with and succumbing to the Dark Arts was a very real one. Still, I would have thought that there would have been more than passing mentions of the War of Shades in my books. I mean, sure, a lot of records from that time were lost on Nightmare Night, but even then the details of the campaign are really sparse. It wasn’t exactly surprising; record-keeping a thousand years ago had been expensive, and if the original copy was lost then everything it contained went with it. And I suppose Celestia has better things to do than sit around and dictate campaign memoires; especially for something that she would rather not be publicized. Still, she made a point of requesting any relevant books she could from the Canterlot archives.

Her reverie was interrupted by the return of her number one assistant, who brought with him a much-needed icepack and a cup of coffee. As to which I need more, jury’s still out. With a grateful nod she applied the former and set about draining the latter. “Thanks, Spike. Sorry I snapped at you.”

He shrugged. “I get it. Rude awakening.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” she breathed. “I had a crazy dream.”

Spike tapped the stack of books and notes with his claw. “Can’t imagine why. Though I’m surprised; you usually don’t get that wild of dreams. Unless,” he sniffed the air suspiciously, then walked over to the desk and grabbed a dirty dish from it. He sniffed it more closely, gagged, then frowned at her. “Twilight, did you eat the leftover five-alarm hot-wings for a midnight study snack?”

Twilight hid behind her coffee mug. “Maybe?”

The dragon put his claws on his hips. “Twilight, do you remember what you said to me four years ago after you ate that chili right before bed while reading Se7en Sins?

She hid further behind the mug. “No?”

Spike cocked an eyebrow.

Heaving a sigh, Twilight relented. “I said, ‘I will never eat spicy food while reading about creepy things right before bed again.’”

“And do you remember why?”

Twilight’s voice dipped to a barely audible grumble. “Because I… kinda set the room on fire in the middle of my nightmare.”

“Right,” agreed Spike smugly. “And we were both very lucky that I’m fireproof.”

“In my defense, I wasn’t planning on sleeping after I read Se7en.”

“Twilight,” yawned Spike, “planning on making poor life choices is not an excuse for making other poor life choices.”

At his yawn, Twilight noticed that her assistant didn’t look to be in much better shape than her. He had pronounced bags under his eyes and was blinking owlishly. Time to go on the offensive, she thought with a smug grin. “Okay, mister, if you’re so much better at making responsible choices, how come you’re so tired, huh?”

Spike looked around guiltily. “What? I, uh, don’t know what you’re talking about! I slept great!”

“Okay, Applejack,” replied Twilight.

He opened his mouth to protest, then gave a rueful grin. “That bad, eh? I must be slipping. Yeah, you caught me. I was up too late reading.”

Twilight tilted her head. “Well, since it would be hypocritical of me to chew you out for that this morning, I’ll instead ask how you were up so late reading? You went upstairs at ten; that was nine hours ago. How did one comic last you that long?”

Spike twiddled his claws. “It, uh. It wasn’t one comic. You see, my new Batmare comic was pretty… um… dark, so I kinda had to read a few Captain Equestria and Iron Mane stories afterwards to lighten the mood.”

Twilight frowned. “Define ‘dark.’”


Spike told her about the ‘punchline’ of Batmare: the Killer Joke. The mare felt her jaw hit the floor. “How the heck did that get past the censors for a kid’s comic book?!”

“It’s not a kid’s comic book. It’s for mature audiences. And I may be a baby dragon, but in pony years I’m old enough to buy one. And before you go on a lecture about discussing the content of material that I’m exposed to,” he cut her off with an upraised claw, “I already agree with you. I’m swearing off that whole comic line for a while. I’m strictly Power Ponies and Marevel for a while. Okay?”

Twilight had been poised to launch into full lecture mode but, given that she hadn’t even had her second cup of coffee yet and it was shaping up to be a busy day of discovery and friendship, she wasn’t in the mood to pursue it. “Fine. I suppose I can let that be sufficient punishment this time. But I’ll be keeping a closer eye on what you read from here on out, mister!”

Spike waved her off, unconcerned. “Yeah, yeah. That’s fair. Now, do you want breakfast, or do you just plan on rushing off to ambush the poor friar first thing in the morning while on an empty stomach and insufficient caffeine?”

Her stomach rumbled. “Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it’d be best to give him some time to settle into his morning before disturbing him.”

“She can be taught!” cheered Spike as he led the way downstairs.

As they reached the main floor there was a knock at the door. Twilight set her icepack down and sent Spike to the kitchen before trotting over to answer it, wondering who could be at the library at seven in the morning. It proved to be Applejack and Rarity, both with their younger sisters in tow. “Good morning, Twilight,” sang Rarity, opening the pleasantries. “How lovely it is to— good gracious, darling! What happened to your face?!”

Twilight sniffed on the bloodied tissues shoved into her muzzle. “I hit the books a little too hard last night.” Her guests stared. “Long story. Anyway, what’s up? Isn’t it kinda early for you all to be coming by? Not that I’m not happy to see you, of course,” she hastened to add. “I’m always happy to see you!”

“Oh, think nothing of it, darling,” scoffed Rarity. “We knew what you meant. I simply wanted to come by to, ahem, inquire how well you slept last night.” Her eyes narrowed. “And see how you were feeling.”

Twilight tilted her head quizzically. “Why would you want to check that?”

“Because you usually don’t sleep when you get into research mode,” called Spike from the kitchen. “Yes, Rarity, she slept last night, though not well. And don’t worry about the nose; she just fell out of her chair in her sleep.” Applejack snickered, only to be silenced by a sharp jab from Rarity. “Thanks for asking. Really nice of you to check!”

“Well, that’s the best we can hope for under the circumstances,” stated Rarity with a satisfied smile. “And seven in the morning isn’t so terribly early, after all. I only had to get up at five to get ready.” Twilight gave a slow blink at that. Sweetie Belle just face-hooved and the Apples rolled their eyes. “What?”

Applejack didn’t try to answer her. “As fer us, seven’s actually late. Ain’t a lot o’ farm work needs doin today, but we been up since six or so fixin’ up the farm fer the friar when he comes ‘round.”

Sweetie Belle stomped her hoof. “I’m so jealous he gets to stay with you.”

Rarity gave a coy smile. “Oh, don’t worry, Sweetie Belle. I’m sure you’ll get to visit him lots.

The filly brightened. “Really?”

“Why of course, darling,” gushed Rarity, the smile on her face taking an evil quality. “In twelve years when you’re done being grounded for running off into the Everfree without telling anypony where you were.”

Sweetie Belle’s face fell. Applebloom didn’t appear sympathetic. “Ya’ll got off easy,” she declared flatly. “I got fifteen to twenty with no hope of parole.”

Twilight wanted to assure the fillies that the massive punishments were likely to be lifted within a month or so, but a look at their sisters assured her that ruining the illusion would be counterproductive. If it is an illusion, she amended, noting Applejack’s flat nod at Applebloom’s statement. “Would you all care to join us for breakfast?” she offered instead. “I’m planning on bringing some books to the friar to help him integrate to Equestrian society after we eat; I can always ask Spike to throw some more pancakes on.”

“Oh no, my dear, we couldn’t possibly impose,” insisted Rarity.

Spike poked his head out of the kitchen. “Rarity! I hope you stay for breakfast. I went ahead and made enough for everypony!”

Twilight looked back at her fellow unicorn. Rarity shrugged. “Well, I suppose if it’s not an imposition…”

Soon the six of them were happily munching their way through a hearty breakfast. As it happened, Rarity and Applejack had been planning on taking their siblings by the hospital to thank the friar that morning and had already arranged to meet Rainbow and Scootaloo there. Despite their disappointment at being grounded, the fillies were plainly excited to meet their savior when he was awake, and they peppered the elder ponies with questions about Jacques, his magic, where he came from, and anything else that came to mind. The adults answered as best as they were able to without telling the fillies about the secrets surrounding the man. Spike had already been filled in the night before, though Twilight had glossed over most of the more graphic details; as Twilight’s assistant it would have been impossible to keep him out of the loop anyway.

Eventually the conversation wound its way to inquiries about Twilight’s study habits. “So, what did yer all-nighter net ya other than a bloody nose?” asked Applejack.

“Not as much as I would have liked,” admitted Twilight. “I was mostly looking into possible explanations for Friar Jacques’ unique magical properties but, without more data, I’m mostly just crafting theories. I also wanted to investigate that, um,” she glanced at the fillies, “old war that the princess mentioned in passing, but there aren’t a lot of specifics on it. I got ranks and partial names and descriptions for the commanders, but not much else.”

“Isn’t that a little odd?” asked Rarity. “I seem to recall most history books being a touch more detailed than that. And, even if this war wasn’t, shall we say, publicized, shouldn’t the knowledge still be accessible?”

“Not necessarily,” answered Twilight. “What you have to understand about the early years of Equestria is that it was a pretty tumultuous time. The weather wasn’t as controlled as it is now, which led to fires, floods, earthquakes, and all kinds of natural disasters that we really don’t see anymore. And that’s not even accounting for the semi-frequent wars, raids, and riots that plagued the lands.”

Applejack scrunched her nose in confusion. “What does all that have ta do with books?”

“Everything,” replied Twilight. “You see, paper was an expensive a rare commodity at that time, and printing presses didn’t exist. Books were seldom written, and when they were it was common for there to only be a few copies in existence. And, if those copies happened to be in a collection that was, say, flooded, burned, raided, or in some other way destroyed…”

Poof! No history!” finished Spike with a pithy epithet.

“Yes,” sighed Twilight. “All that knowledge, lost for all the ages…” she blinked away a bit of moisture and cleared her throat before continuing. “Anyway, it’s pretty common for data from that era to be piecemeal at best. Remember the Crystal Empire and how not even I had heard of it? Well, the Crystal War was a pretty well-documented and well-known conflict at the time, even if Equestria didn’t know much about the Empire itself, but it passed out of history almost entirely thanks to the ascension of Nightmare Moon since she destroyed a few hundred tomes in her fight with Celestia.” In what was doubtless the single greatest evil she committed short of the actual betrayal of Celestia. “And that’s really a shame in more ways than one. Not only is that knowledge lost for all time, but I get the impression that Jacques’ culture most closely resembles our own Medieval Period in history, part of which was centered around that era, and it might have made his adjustment to our world simpler to have that on hoof.”

“Medieval period you say,” said a pondering voice to her left.

“Yes, Pinkie Pie, Medieval PerioOH SWEET CELESTIA!” Twilight almost fell out of her chair in shock as she saw Pinkie sitting next to her. The pink mare was stroking her chin, lost in thought, and, judging by the stunned looks of the rest of the room’s occupants, no one else had seen her enter either. “Gonna have to put a bell on you,” grumbled Twilight.

“No thanks,” replied Pinkie Pie. “Cowbell Day is next week in honor of Christofoal Walken’s birthday. I wouldn’t want to confuse everypony by celebrating that early, now would I?”

“Heaven forbid, that happen,” deadpanned Applejack.

“Say, Twilight, have you got any books on celebration customs in Medieval Equestria?” asked Pinkie.

Twilight cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”

Spike rolled his eyes. “Twilight, it’s Pinkie. She’s asking about celebrations, ergo, parties. Why do you think she’s asking about it?”

“Fair point,” conceded Twilight. “Stack seventeen, third shelf from the bottom, Pinkie.”

“Okie dokie lokie! Thanks, Twilight!” And with that, Pinkie bounced into the main room to fetch the books.

The breakfasters stared out the door she’d vanished through for a moment before Twilight broke the silence. “So… did anypony else see her enter?”

“Eenope,” answered Applebloom, doing a fair impression of her older brother.

“And did anypony else even notice her before she spoke?”

“Eenope,” answered Applejack, following her sister’s lead.

Sweetie Belle, who was seated closest to the door, peered into the library. “She’s not in there anymore.” She paused. “Did anypony hear her leave?

“I confess that I did not,” answered Rarity.

A moment of silence followed.

Spike took over the line of questioning. “Anypony else feel like, if Pinkie wanted to, she could probably conquer the world and there wouldn’t be a darn thing we could do about it?”

“Honestly, Spike? Ah try not ta think about it,” declared Applejack.

“And the fact that that’s your response scares me more than anything.”

Twilight thought back to her own vain attempts to understand Pinkie Pie, and how after meeting Discord it had occurred to her that the two had a similar propensity for defying what she understood to be the nature of the world. And now I regret thinking about this. “Well, this conversation has taken a turn. What say we all head down to the hospital to visit the friar before we follow Pinkie Pie into… whatever state her mind is in.”



“Sounds good.”

“That’s probably wise, darling.”

“Ah’m all for it.”

Twilight levitated the dishes over to the sink and led the way to the door. “Motion carries. Meeting adjourned.”

A single ray of golden light streamed in through a crack in the curtains, courtesy of the rising morning sun. It touched the edge of the bedspread, working its way along inch by inch until it illuminated the face of the sleeping warrior. It then made its assault upon the unconscious being, battering upon the shuttered eyes like a ram upon gates. The eyelids made a valiant effort to stem the onslaught, but in the end their last defenses were broken and the citadel of the sleeping mind was laid bare by the ravaging spears of wakefulness.

Argent moaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow over her eyes in a vain effort to reclaim her slumber. It was a hopeless cause and she knew it. Once she was awake, it was very hard for her to fall back asleep. Most soldiers developed the ability to become instantly alert when need be and to fall immediately unconscious the instant that need passed. Argent had only ever mastered the first half of that ability. Still, she had lain awake for the better part of the night war-gaming as to how best to oust any traitors from Canterlot in the most efficient manner possible. Thus, she held out some small hope that, in her exhaustion, she might manage to once more seize the elusive quarry that was sleep.

That hope was dashed the moment the door opened to the sound of humming as hoofsteps crossed the room to her side. “Good morning, Captain,” sang the soprano voice of Morning Song.

Argent bit back a hiss. “Lieutenant Song, how long have we known each other?” she demanded through her pillow.

“Four years, seven months, and ten days, ma’am,” came Morning Song’s chipper reply.

“And in that time, Lieutenant, have you ever known me to be a morning pony?”

“No, ma’am. In fact, I recall one instance when you threatened to maim a bugler for playing Reveille two minutes too early.”

“Then why, pray tell, after slipping out so quietly as to not awaken me have you dared to return humming a confounded aria?”

Morning Song chortled. “Because, Captain, I slipped out expressly to bring you this.” There was the sound of a tray being lifted, and suddenly the aroma of fresh Zebrican coffee wafted through the room like a heavenly perfume. Argent felt something in her soul sing. “Given that your meal with Celestia is in thirty minutes time and you’ll, ahem, doubtless want to freshen up, I thought it best to prepare for you the proper beverage to set you in motion.”

Argent tried to fight the compulsion to rise, to follow the aroma to the decadent nectar that was its source. It proved to be her second defeat of the day. “Bloody Tartarus I hate you,” she snapped, sitting bolt upright in bed to glare at her smirking subordinate. She gave Song a grim look before seizing the carafe of coffee from the serving tray, putting it to her lips, and guzzling the scalding contents, all the while maintaining eye contact with her subordinate.

Morning Song, not surprisingly, was already groomed for the day. Argent knew from years of sharing sleeping quarters with her fellow officer that Song possessed the ability to go about her morning ablutions in total silence, as evidenced by the fact that she managed to never wake Argent. And I’m a notoriously light sleeper. She even makes her bed in silence. Argent always wondered if it had something to do with Song’s special talent. Her mark, visible for the moment as Song had not yet donned her armor, was a musical note with a sun for the ball attached to the eighth note branch. Argent knew that her talent helped her brighten the moods of others and lent her a cheerful demeanor, but the lieutenant had always been vague as to what all her talent entailed. Perhaps her powers are stronger in the morning or something.

In the dim light of the room, Argent also caught sight of her own reflection in the mirror behind Song. The image was not flattering. Her coat was matted and her mane more closely resembled that of the legendary physicist Einsteed than her usual meticulous coiffure. Had anyone but Song been in the room, Argent would have been mortified.

As it was, though, Song was accustomed to the fact that her typically spotless superior did not tend to awaken with much aesthetic dignity intact when she was fortunate enough to be sleeping in a bed rather than on the ground. Ironically, I wake up in better condition when I’m camping under the stars. Luxury makes me soft.

It was at this point in her musings that she finished the carafe of coffee and took a breath. She set the empty vessel back on the tray with a contented sigh. “Thank you kindly, Lieutenant. Your efforts on my behalf are always appreciated.”

Song didn’t even bat an eye at the mood shift. “Of course, Captain. Will there be anything else?”

Argent slipped out of bed, trailing the covers behind her as she plodded to the shower. “See to it that your minions are prepared to speak with royalty this morning. I have a little task for the three of you.”

“They’re not minions,” replied Song with a roll of her eyes. “You make it sound so nefarious.”

The elder mare gave her a dry smile. “Haven’t you been reading the Canterlot Post?” She flicked her tail at the copy of the paper that she’d read last night before turning it. “We’re Celestia’s War Dogs. It seems that everything we do is nefarious.”

“I’ll make a note to practice my maniacal laughter, then,” deadpanned Song.

“See that you do,” smirked Argent.

The next hour saw Argent enjoying a pleasant breakfast with Celestia and Mayor Mare, during which time they engaged in harmless small talk regarding the town’s new resident. The mayor was told everything she needed to know regarding Jacques’ circumstances and nothing more. A seasoned statespony and a Crown Loyalist, Mayor Mare knew not to press for details she didn’t need and simply assured Celestia that she would accommodate the friar in any way she could.

After finishing their meal, Argent led Celestia to the study, where she’d told Song to meet them with her subordinates. “Colour Sergeant Krucjata Włócznia and Staff Sergeant Marble Slab,” she was saying as they walked. “They’ve served me well for years, and hit it off especially well with Lieutenant Song. Capable, reliable soldiers. A touch… eccentric perhaps,” she admitted more quietly, “but loyal to a fault and beyond reproach,” she hastened to add.

If Celestia was moved one way or the other by the descriptions, she didn’t show it. Her face was its usual mask of pleasantness and calm that very few were ever privileged enough, or unfortunate enough, to see under. “I’ve always felt that a measure of eccentricity is called for in the REF, wouldn’t you agree?” asked the ruler.

“I suppose so, Your Highness, but these two are, well,” she cleared her throat, “more eccentric than most. Especially Włócznia.”

Celestia favored her with a warm smile. “I have full confidence that you wouldn’t recommend them if they weren’t the stallions for the job.”

Argent felt her heart swell at the confidence that her ruler had in her, which only redoubled her anxiety over introducing her to two of her more off-kilter soldiers. This is ridiculous! she admonished herself. I’ve known Celestia personally for years, and I’m acting like a new maidservant! Calm down, Argent! Celestia trusts you, and I’m sure even those two mongrels will be on their best behavior for Her Highness. “Thank you, Princess.” She gripped the knob of the study door with her magic, faintly hearing the sounds of conversation beyond. “You won’t be disappointed.”

With a twist and a push she opened the door, preparing herself to announce the Princess’s arrival to the room’s occupants. What she saw caused her voice to catch in her throat. It wasn’t Morning Song that caught her off-guard; unsurprisingly, the lieutenant was fully kitted in polished armor and snapped to attention the moment the door opened. Nor was it Marble Slab; the short, stocky red pegasus was just as professionally situated as Song, much to Argent’s relief. Rather, it was the room’s third occupant that drove Argent’s voice back down her throat and sent rage racing through her veins.

Krucjata Włócznia was a rangy unicorn stallion with coarse dark brown fur and a tousled mop of red and white hair for a mane; a mane that was quite plainly seen because he wasn’t wearing his helmet. A week’s worth of crimson stubble marked his chin and his bloodshot blue eyes gave him the look of a crazed scientist rather than a professional soldier awaiting his diarch. He braced against his spear in a pose somewhere between a lean and a slump, and, rather than coming fully to attention, he merely froze in his current position as though a lack of motion would allow him to remain unnoticed. Each of these factors was calculated to raise Argent’s blood pressure to dangerous levels, but there was one point which made her verge on homicidal rage:

He was eating.

A donut was clutched in the red of his magical grip, poised mere inches from his lips, indicating that he had been interrupted mid-snack by a meeting that was already scheduled. Song herself looked mortified and Marble frightened. Argent’s personal feelings on the matter were more in the realm of absolutely livid.

However, Argent was a professional, and she would not let a little thing like blinding rage make her lose her composure. “Colour Sergeant,” she began, her voice clipped and even, “I assume there is a valid reason for your being out of uniform and eating a pastry? Perhaps a late night of thwarting assassination attempts against the princess or a sudden ambush by griffon mercenaries that has left you in so unpresentable a state?”

Argent could have sworn that a potted plant near the door began to melt from her weapons-grade sarcasm. Pondering the possibility helped distract her from the overbearing presence of Celestia behind her.

To his credit, the stallion escaped her verbal assault without injury and, seeing that his attempt to remain unnoticed had failed, he straightened into something resembling attention, still clutching his donut. “Well, Captain,” he began, his accent betraying his foreign birth, “in my admittedly weak defense, you’re five minutes early and I wasn’t expecting you just yet.”

The captain felt her eye twitch. “And it didn’t cross your mind to reach some level of presentability well in advance of Her Highness’s arrival?” she asked, managing not to hiss.

Włócznia gave a weak smile. “Be honest, Captain. Have I ever been what you would call ‘presentable?’”

Argent face-hooved so hard it hurt. “Princess,” she managed through gritted teeth, “I humbly apologize for the conduct of this idiot. I’ll see to it that he is properly punished for his utterly disgraceful behavior—"

“No need, Argent,” interrupted Celestia, sweeping past the captain with a cold expression. “I think I’ll see to his punishment personally.”

Argent blanched. He may be a lout, but I certainly don’t want him in the statue garden. She opened her mouth to object, but her reverence for her ruler silenced whatever she might have said. Song likewise moved to intervene, but with a look at Celestia’s face she stepped back, an odd look on her face. Marble didn’t even try. He just patted his fellow NCO’s leg and stepped back saying, “Been nice knowing you, buddy.”

Celestia loomed over the colour sergeant, looking down from twice his height. Włócznia swallowed. “Colour Sergeant Włócznia,” she began gravely. “For this abominable heresy you have displayed in my presence…”

Wait, heresy?!

“…which is obviously a display of your worship of the Dark Arts…”

Wait, Dark Arts what?!

“…I find you guilty and sentence you…” she leaned down to be eye-to-eye with the sergeant. “To give me that donut.”

Włócznia blinked, then gave a cheeky grin. “All that cake you eat and now you demand a donut from a commoner? The nerve of you tyrants.”

Argent felt something in her brain snap.

With a hearty laugh, Celestia gave the stallion a gentle smack. “You cheeky rip! You’re lucky I’m more patient with you than my sister is.”

Wlocznia cackled. “Even I’m not dumb enough to make her peeved at me.” He magicked over a fresh donut. “Here. I imagine you burn this garbage off suppressing the urge to throttle dignitaries in court all day.”

“Physiology was never your strong suit, was it?” she teased.

He hefted his spear. “I know what parts to break. What more could a simple warrior need?” He glanced at Argent. “All due respect, Captain, but your left eye is rolling backwards in your skull.”

Argent noticed that her vision had indeed blurred, and she gave her head a vigorous shake, trying to ignore Celestia’s barely suppressed amusement and the stallion’s open smirk. “Sergeant, it seems that you failed to mention a rather important detail to me.” Her eyes narrowed. “I had no idea that you knew the Princess personally.”

Włócznia shrugged. “Well, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that I was reputable.” He gestured to the uniform. “I do apologize for this, though. It wasn’t my intention to give you an aneurism, amusing as it was, and I truly thought I had more time.”

She gave a thin-lipped smile. “It’s not a problem. You can simply make it up to me by taking my slot on the next diplomatic escort detail in Saddle Arabia. That way you can have all the fun sharing a carriage with politicians for six hours.” She tried to suppress a triumphant grin at the slump in his shoulders. Then she fixed her gaze on Marble. “Did you know about his association with the princess?”

“N-no, ma’am!” stammered the pegasus. “I see nothing, I hear nothing, I know nothing!”

Not sure why he slipped into a Germane accent for that, but all right. “And you, Song?”

The mare shook her head. “I suspected something was off when Her Highness decided to, ahem, lighten the mood, but he never told me, no.” She shot the offending stallion a glare. “Kind of an important life detail to gloss over there, Fritters.”

Celestia almost choked on the last bite of her donut. “Pardon me, but did you say Fritters?

‘Fritters’ shot Song a pained look. “Now why’d you have to go and bring that up?”

Song responded with a sweet smile. “Because you almost gave me a heart attack, silly stallion.”

Fritters?” repeated Celestia.

With a sigh and a hangdog look, he explained. “Most ponies can’t exactly pronounce a Konik name that well, so nicknames have always been the order of the day for me. Unfortunately, the day I got assigned to this unit there was an…incident in the mess hall.”

“Bloody lot more than an incident,” muttered Argent.

“Let’s just say that my blood sugar was low, and you know how I get when that happens, and it just so happened that the cooks had been making fritters, and I grabbed one or two—"

“Or twenty,” interjected Song.

"—and, well, one thing led to another, and I now have to wear a disguise whenever I enter Fillydelphia.”

Silence hung in the room following the abrupt end of the story. Celestia stared at Fritters for a moment, then cast Argent a long glance. “I expect a full report from every pony involved in every hilarious detail on my desk by the end of the week.”

“Consider it done.”

Fritters sighed and muttered something in Konish.

“But, much as I would love to hear of Fritters’ misadventures in great detail, I’m afraid we have more urgent matters to attend to,” said Celestia, returning them to the matter at hand. “The three of you will be spending a little longer in Ponyville than originally planned. Argent?”

The captain stepped forward to take over the briefing. “First of all, it goes without saying that everything you’re about to hear is classified. As you may have guessed, it regards the human…”

Jacques was long awake, of course. As a monk, he was accustomed to rising at odd hours of the night for prayer with his brethren. True, he had no bell to wake him, and his body’s need for rest had let him sleep through Matins and Lauds, but his internal clock had awoken him in time for the prayers of Prime, the First Hour. Conscious that there might be other patients sleeping, he did not give full voice to the hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours, but he still sang them quietly from the comfort of his bed.

Once he’d finished his prayers, he took quick stock of his situation. He had been blessed with a refreshing and dreamless sleep, which he was abundantly grateful for, and, while his wounds still ached and his limbs still felt weak, he was honestly surprised by how good he felt. If pressed, he was reasonably certain that he’d be able to walk unassisted today, though he might have need of a staff or cane. I’ve always been a fast healer, but after that much blood loss I should still be bedridden for a few more days than this. These pony healers are truly impressive. He sat up and threw off his covers, satisfied that the movement was accomplished with minimal protest from his injuries. That or this new magic of mine is even more incredible than I thought. He chuckled softly to himself. I almost hope it’s the former. I’m not sure how many more upsets to my world I can handle.

In truth, he’d half expected to wake up back in the priory in France, with nothing but a wonderfully bizarre story to share with his brethren. The aches and pains had swiftly put an end to that expectation. A shame. I would have liked to regale them with this maddened tale. He felt a pang of sadness at the realization that he would never have that opportunity.

Jacques shook his head fiercely. Mustn’t complain, he reminded himself. This is your duty. And you have been blessed to find harbor with such agreeable creatures as these ponies. He looked over at his belongings, his books, priestly articles, and sword. The last item gave him pause. I was told to bring a sword for a reason, and I fear that it is unlikely that it was merely for the wolves alone. If I am to properly minister to these ponies, I must recover as soon as possible.

He looked to the floor. Standing seems as good a place as any to start. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he set his callused feet to the cold floor and braced, gradually placing more and more of his weight upon them while he stood, hands gripping the rail of the bed in case they gave out unexpectedly. He moved with caution, mindful both of the need to recover and the need to not further injure himself. Presently, he was pleased to find that he could stand, albeit somewhat shakily. “Marvelous,” he murmured aloud.

Next, illumination. It would be easier to move about the room and acquaint himself with his new home if he could but see better. Enough light trickled in through the partially closed curtains to give some illumination, but it was hardly more than a couple candles’ worth. Gripping the side table, he worked his way over to the window, intent on throwing open the curtains. Just as he was about to, however, he hesitated, glancing down at his nearly naked body. I know Medevac said that I would be considered decent in my current state. Still… he pictured himself standing before the mares in his current state. Best not to, he concluded, reaching for his spare robe.

Immediately this proved to be a challenge. He could not both hold onto the table and don his robe at the same time. In practical terms, he needed both hands free. He was not keen to trust his legs without the support of a rail or table just yet, but he was even less inclined to sit around waiting for someone to attend to him. In a sudden flash of inspiration, he realized that he needn’t be standing to don his habit. Kneeling down, he began working the black garment over his head. Once he began, it became apparent that it would not be as easy as he had anticipated. Balancing on his knees was not much more stable than balancing on his feet, and his arm movements, still sluggish from his injuries, were too jolting to let him maintain his center of gravity easily. He managed to get one arm through its sleeve and, in his optimism, tried to get his head through its hole as well. However, the robe picked that particular moment to bunch up around his neck, leaving him with most of its folds wrapped around his neck and jaw, one arm sticking heavenward, and the other arm seeking in vain to dislodge its neighbors. He struggled in vain, his mind blocking out all outside distractions as it focused on this conundrum in which he found himself. Perhaps if he simply yanked on, no, that didn’t work, well if he were to pull the other sleeve, I think that made it worse, but if he could just—

“What in Tartarus are you doing?”

Jacques froze in place. Turning his head as best as he could without falling over, he spotted Redheart standing in the doorway, a tray of food balanced on one hoof and a mildly exasperated expression on her face. Jacques wasn’t sure how long ponies lived, but if they lived as long as humans he would have been willing to bet that he was between two and three times her age. He was a veteran of a bloody war and the survivor of a tyrannical regime. He had stared death in the eye so many times that the prospect of his own demise had become nearly banal. And yet, under the bland, vaguely irritated gaze of a miniature pony half his years, he suddenly felt like a young boy, caught by his mother in the act of stealing sweets.

Blushing, he replied, “Well, it would seem,” he grunted in irritation as the folds of the robe muffled his voice, “that I am engaged in the act of making a fool of myself.”

Redheart cocked an elegant eyebrow. “And you didn’t use the call button to ask for help because…?”

Jacques glanced at the unused call button, then back at the nurse. “I didn’t want to trouble anyone?” he ventured.

Rolling her eyes and heaving a deep sigh, Redheart muttered, “Stallions!” She flicked on the light and set the tray on the end table before walking over. “Let me give you a hoof, Friar.”

“That would be greatly appreciated.”

It turned out that by ‘hoof,’ she meant ‘teeth,’ as the nurse rather unceremoniously seized the garment and pulled it off. In answer to his questioning look she explained, “I need to freshen your bandages and check your wounds anyway. No point in getting you dressed only to ask you to strip two seconds later.” She helped him back to the bed, though he was walking fairly steadily, and when he’d sat down she hopped up on the mattress to change his dressings. It was strange watching her use her hooves and mouth to apply the bandages, and at first he was a little uncomfortable having an equine muzzle so close to a wound, but her care was as gentle as any he’d received from the Hospitallers. Wondrous! Truly impressive creatures, these ponies.

As she worked, he examined his injuries more closely. Jacques couldn’t help but be amazed by the speed with which his wounds seemed to be closing. If he didn’t know any better, he would have guessed that he’d been healing for a few days or even a week. It must surely be the magic at work, though whether it is mine or the healers’ I do not know.

Redheart’s next comment seemed to imply the former. “Well that’s an interesting development.”

Good interesting, or bad interesting? he wondered. “What is?”

“Well, without a baseline of your non-magical state to compare to, I’d only be guessing as to how quickly your race usually heals, but I’m betting it’s not this fast?” He shook his head. “I thought as much.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Bear in mind that I’m largely guessing here, but I’d wager that your magic has a great deal to do with resilience or perhaps even regeneration.”

“What makes you say that?”

Redheart continued to clean and dress his wounds while she spoke. He marveled at her ability to remain intelligible while using her mouth to grip bandages and tools, though not nearly as much as he marveled at her ability to use her mouth to perform such complex functions in the first place. “All creatures have the natural healing that comes from their biology; that is to say, their bodily processes. What magic they possess tends to aid in the healing process, as well as helping them resist injury and illness in the first place, but to what extent it helps varies from race to race. Some races are very resilient but heal slowly; others are the opposite; still others have almost no magical aid to their healing or resilience whatsoever. Most common animals, for instance, fall into the camp of minimal magic. Ponies are the total opposite. Our magic puts us on the upper end of the spectrum in terms of both healing and resilience, though it still varies from race to race. Earth ponies, for instance, tend to be the fastest healers and the most resilient, with the exception of a few specific things like weather-related matters in which pegasi are by far the most durable. Unicorns, again with certain exceptions, tend to be the least resilient and slowest healers of the three, but properly trained unicorns can use spells to channel their passive natural magic to more actively heal and resist injuries.” She shifted her position on the bed to better access the wounds on his upper back. “What’s different about you is that your injuries aren’t healing at the same rate.”

Jacques blinked, not sure he was following. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” she scratched her head, “take this scratch on your arm here,” she pointed to a rather insignificant scratch on his left arm. I must have cut myself without realizing when I was rushing through the forest. “You got that from a tree branch, not the fight, and it’s healing at a rate roughly consistent with a pegasus or an earth pony. Couple more days and you won’t even know it was there. These injuries from the timber wolves, on the other hoof, look like they’ll heal in about the time it would take for a hearty earth pony or pegasus to recover from an equivalent-sized cut from a normal wolf.”

“What’s so strange about that?” asked the friar, confused. “Is that not the same speed as the cut on my arm?”

“No, it’s not,” replied Redheart around a mouthful of gauze as she finished the last of his wounds. “Because timber wolves aren’t normal wolves. They’re held together with dark magic, and that means any cut from them is much worse than a normal cut. Dark magic is like…” she broke off her work to ponder her next words, “it’s kind of like a poison, except instead of just getting into the bloodstream it gets into a creature’s magical field and bloodstream, and sometimes more besides.” Jacques shuddered at the thought. “Yeah. Nasty stuff. Point is, these wounds shouldn’t be healing this fast. Even when the dark magic is purged from the body, the injuries still generally take longer than normal to heal because the damage is more pervasive and the body’s natural defenses are weakened.”

Jacques narrowed his eyes. “So… my body is healing dark magical wounds as though they were normal injuries.”

“Yup,” replied Redheart, finishing her work and hopping off the bed. “Gotta admit, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

I’m not sure I find that reassuring. “Why do you think it’s happening this way?”

“Well, your body resists outside magic, and from what I heard of your fight it sounds like you might have a particular strength against dark magic. Your magical field had already pretty well cleaned out the dark magic by the time you got to us, and it seems to be working overtime to stitch you up as soon as possible.” She stroked her chin thoughtfully. “It’s a unique ability unlike anything I’ve seen. I don’t know where the power is being drawn from, whether or not you’re controlling it, or even how effective it is long term.”

Definitely not reassuring. “What does that mean, then?”

Redheart gave him a cheery smile. “I honestly have no idea.” Jacques gave her a sour look. “Sorry, Friar,” she giggled, not impressed with his ire. “I wish I had a better answer for you, but you’re literally one of a kind as far as I know.”

Jacques grunted, feeling a pang of homesickness. “True enough.”

“Look on the bright side,” said Redheart kindly, putting a hoof on his knee. “Your magic may be something of a mystery, but at least it’s been a very helpful mystery thus far. Well,” she amended, “except for that part where you were resisting our machines, but other than that it’s kept you alive pretty well.”

The friar smiled, her cheer banishing his darkening mood before it could properly take hold. “You are right, of course,” he said, patting her hoof. “And I truly am grateful for all the work you’ve…” he trailed off when he noticed bruising on her appendage. “What’s this?” he asked, concerned. “What happened to your hoof?”

“What happened to my— oh, this?” She blushed when she saw what he was referred to and pulled the limb back hastily, not wanting to meet his gaze. “I- it’s nothing, really. Just a mishap.”

Jacques frowned. He was sadly not unfamiliar with abused women; as both a priest and as an itinerant soldier he’d encountered all too many, and he’d found that most tended to pretend that their bruises were from ‘mishaps.’ If someone has hurt this gentle soul… his blood boiled at the thought. “Redheart, did someone hurt you?” he asked, his voice both firm and empathetic.

“Friar, really, it was just a mishap,” she insisted. “The guy was out of sorts at the time, and didn’t mean to hurt me.”

So his name is ‘Guy,’ then? But, no, these ponies do not seem to use human names. Unless perhaps things are different in this ‘Prance’ they keep making mention of. And she said it as a title, not a name. Perhaps a title or a general term for males? Or perhaps… his gaze drifted downward to study the bruise more closely, and he saw that the bruise had an odd pattern, almost like…

Fingers, he realized. He blanched. And I’m one of a kind. “Redheart,” he said, forcing her name out through his discomfort, “that bruise is from me, isn’t it.” It wasn’t a question.

Redheart stammered, not wanting to answer, then sighed. “Yes,” she admitted.

Jacques hung his head in shame. “Mon Dieu. I am so terribly sorry, little sister.”

“It’s really nothing,” she repeated. “Like I said, you were out of sorts at the time; barely coherent. You probably thought I was trying to attack you. I don’t blame you for reacting the way you did. It really is just a bruise and, woah! Hey! What are you doing?!”

Before she could stop him, Jacques had slipped off the bed and knelt down on one knee before her, taking her injured hoof in his hands. “Whatever the circumstances, I harmed a lady. Worse yet, I harmed a lady who was attempting to save my life.” He put one hand over his heart. “To all creatures in your land I have been sent to minister. Yet to you in particular I owe a debt.” He brought her hoof to his lips and kissed it. The fact that it was a hoof and not a hand gave him only the slightest pause. “Should you ever have need of my aid, by my life or my blade, you shall have it.”

Redheart’s face had turned as bright as her namesake as she stood, rigid. “Wow. Um. Okay,” she managed, her breaths coming fast. “That’s pretty heavy. Ah, thanks? Y-yes. Thank you, Friar, but that’s really not necessary—

“I insist.”

“O-okay, then,” she cleared her throat. “Neat. Well, um, if you want to start aiding me now, I would be aided if you were to get back up on the bed where I’m less worried that you’ll keel over at any moment.”

Jacques smiled. She is not accustomed to courtly expressions of gratitude, it would seem. Still, she is a commoner, so that is perhaps to be expected. “Of course, little sister,” he replied, obediently climbing back up on the bed with her hovering anxiously nearby.

“Great!” she exclaimed. “That’s one thing, and now I have to figure out what I could possibly ever need a knight to do for me, I mean, what, do I have him clean my house with that cleaver of his or chase off sleezy stallions or wingpony me on a date, I mean, what, didn’t old knights in the stories find suitors for the damsels or something, or…?” She glanced up and noticed that he was watching her. “Did I just say all that out loud?”

Years of practice let Jacques keep a straight face, but only barely. “Yes.”

Redheart turned crimson. “SAY, FRIAR, DIDN’T YOU WANT HELP GETTING DRESSED EARLIER?” she asked.

Jacques winced at the assault on his ears. “Well, yes, I suppose I di—


Especially to Medevac, eh? How interesting. Perhaps I may be of help to her sooner than she thinks. His face betrayed nothing as he congenially replied, “Of course, little sister.”

Redheart helped Jacques into his robe in silence. Verbal silence, at least. I can’t believe I just went on like that in front of a patient! And a noble no less! It’s a good thing he seems more down to earth than the Canterlot crowd. Well, not that I’d know much about that crowd, given that the only Canterlot pony I’ve spent any time with is Twilight and she’s pretty down to earth… the tangential line of thought helped her get her emotions under control. She felt the heat falling in her face as the blush faded. No big deal. Everypony loses their cool from time to time. All things considered, what was I supposed to do? Some old guy who eats timber wolves for breakfast just up and swore to come to my aid, and I get the distinct impression that that blank check could be cashed for any amount up to and including his life… how the Fell does Celestia deal with having an army of ponies swearing that to her?!

She felt her blush rising again and gave her head a hard shake. Celestia’s sake, girl, get a hold of yourself! You’re a professional, dangit! And he’d probably give his life for any random stranger, so calm the buck down! So lost was she in her thoughts that it almost came as a shock to her when she’d finished helping the friar. At least I can still help patients in my sleep, it seems. “How’s that, Friar?”

Jacques rolled his shoulders beneath the encompassing folds of his garments appreciatively. “Much better, thank you.” He gestured to the breakfast she’d brought. “I see you’ve brought my morning repast. I am not accustomed to eating much this early in the day, so I doubt I’ll finish this myself. Would you care to join me?”

Redheart was about to refuse, reflexively thinking that she had some other errand to run, but then she remembered that the hospital was quiet this morning. Relatively, at least. “Sounds good, Friar. I might have to run off if Rainbow wraps herself around a tree attempting some stunt again, but I’ll join you in the meantime.”

Jacques set the tray on the bed between them and divided up the food. “Is that a… common occurrence?”

“I’ll put it to you this way; it’s not uncommon,” chuckled Redheart as she helped herself to some toast. “Do you want to know how she almost gave me a heart attack the day you arrived?” Jacques nodded as he started in on his porridge. “It’s funny now, though it sure wasn’t at the time. I was on break up in my office, reflecting on how nice it was to have some time to myself, when all of the sudden…”

The story needed little embellishment to be amusing, and the friar was soon laughing. This, in turn, led to a few of the other more outlandish stories surrounding the Bearers. Redheart enjoyed regaling newcomers with the stories, but it was always tempered with the fear that ponies might think less of the six mares once they knew about their sometimes wild antics. For whatever reason, she didn’t feel that fear with Jacques. He seemed remarkably easy-going, and the delight he took in hearing the stories was benign and non-judgmental. The reason became apparent when he shared a few of his own tales of youthful missteps and miscalculations, most of which involved he and his younger brother attempting tricks with their horses. Granted, hearing about what horses are like in his world was… odd, but his stories are funny all the same.

“…and that stallion bucked me clean over the fence into the rosebushes on the far side, right in front of the little nun,” Jacques was saying as Redheart struggled not to choke laughing. “And, wouldn’t you know it, it was Sister Sarah again.”

“No!” exclaimed Redheart.

“Yes! I found myself lying on my back right an arm’s length deep in roses with barbs the size of daggers digging into me from every side, and she just stared down at me, not angry, not judgmental, just annoyed. I couldn’t really think of how to explain the situation, and Henri was no help as he was too busy laughing his head off, so I just said, ‘Good morning, Sister Sarah.’ And she just stared back, sighed, and said, ‘Jacques,’ as though my name somehow encapsulated every stupid moment in history, then walked away without another word.”

Redheart snorted in laughter. “That’s it? She didn’t chew you out?”

Jacques shrugged. “Perhaps she thought I’d been punished enough. Or perhaps she was seeking strong drink. I wouldn’t have blamed her. Anyway, my father found out, of course, and Henri and I helped clean around the convent for the remainder of our stay in Assisi as penance. And that’s why I still get headaches whenever I smell certain varieties of roses.”

“Well, I recommend you be careful where you eat, then. Roses are popular dining for some ponies.”

The friar winced. “Ah. My penance continues.” He mopped up the last bits of his porridge with his toast. “At least I needn’t concern myself with finding flowers for a lady love. One less thing to worry about.”

“Yeah, what did you do when you were younger?” she asked, reaching for an apple. “I imagine you had a hard time wooing fair maidens without using the most iconic of flowers.” Redheart’s eyes widened in sudden horror. Idiot! What if he left somepony—someone back home, or his wife passed away, or maybe he never found love in the first place! She set down the apple and fidgeted. “I’m sorry, Friar. I shouldn’t pry—

“No, no, it’s quite alright,” he assured her as he picked up an apple of his own. “You needn’t worry that you’ve brought up a painful memory of a deceased wife or that I’ve left my beloved behind. I never married.” He tapped the cross on his chest. “My bride is the Church, and she follows me wherever I go.”

Redheart tilted her head. “The ‘Church?’” she asked.

Jacques pursed his lips. “Yes, I forgot you ponies have no equivalent. Étrange. It is still odd for me to think that. The ‘Church’ is, well…” he scratched his head, thinking for the right words, “…think of it as the spiritual spouse of the Source, but rather than being a single individual, the Church is the gathered sum of all the souls who follow the Source; of all who have received the Fire, if you will.”

The nurse bit her lip and pondered this. Philosophy was never my strong subject. A vague memory of a lesson from an old class flitted through her mind. History, on the other hoof… “So, it’s like how in the old days ponies used to regard Princess Celestia as being a sort of mother for all ponykind?”

Oui. This is similar. As a Friar, the Church is my spouse, and its members my children. And, as a husband lays down his life for his wife and his children, so I lay my life down for the Church.”

Redheart’s eyes widened as she tried to comprehend the enormity of treating all ponies everywhere as being her children. “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Jacques chuckled. “It can be. It can also be very rewarding.”

“But you can’t have kids of your own or raise a family,” she persisted, her curiosity overriding her reluctance to pry. “Hasn’t that ever bothered you?”

The friar shook his head. “When I was younger there were many times when it did. But consider this: my family is of every land, every tongue, every people. All are made one in God. As a Christian, which is to say a member of the Church, I already had countless brothers and sisters. And now, as a priest, I have countless sons and daughters. I have the largest and greatest of families.”

“And you’re meant to love and protect them all?”

“I try to,” he answered around a bite of apple. “God knows I fall short, but I serve in what meager ways are possible to mortal Man.”

“Wow, Friar, that’s—” Redheart let out a long breath, “that’s really something. I mean, I’m impressed by your devotion, but, I hope you don’t mind my saying, that sounds like it’d be exhausting.”

“I suppose it can be,” admitted Jacques. “There is deep heartache that comes from shepherding such a large flock when so many are lost to the wolves, despite my best efforts.” His hand gripped the unfinished apple and he stared at a point on the floor. “It’s a weighty task, and yet,” he smiled, “and yet I’d have it no other way. Just think of it! I am never without family. No matter what happens, no matter how many brothers and sisters are taken from me,” tears formed in the corners of his eyes and he repeated, “no matter how many are taken from me, I am never, ever alone.” He sat in silence for a moment, staring ahead, then cleared his throat and busily wiped his eyes. “Ah, but I am dominating the conversation. Tell me of your own life, little sister.”

Redheart was dumbstruck. How many has he seen die? How many of his friends, his family died to whatever it was that tortured him so? And how does he stay so happy?! She resolved to ask Medevac about how he coped with losing friends; maybe over a few drinks. In the meantime, she answered Jacques’ question. “Oh, I’m not that interesting, Friar. My parents are farmers from a town even more backwater than Ponyville. I grew up taking care of the farm animals, and as I got older I realized that I was even better taking care of ponies. When a nasty fever blew through town, I ended up getting my cutie mark helping our town doctor take care of the victims. He sponsored me for medical school and, long story short, I wound up in Ponyville.”

“Husband? Children?” he asked.

“Not yet. Guess I just haven’t met the right stallion yet.”

Jacques cocked an eyebrow. “In my experience, it’s less about finding the perfect mate and more about finding someone willing to spend his life working towards perfection with you.”

Redheart tilted her head. “In your experience? I thought you never married.”

“I am a priest. I officiate marriages and offer counsel both to those seeking marriage and to those struggling in their marriages. It is my job to be able to provide guidance, and my work is my life. More than that, I have seen more than sixty-five winters and lived all over the known world. One cannot help but observe many marriages in my line of work, both good and bad.” He sat back on the bed. “For instance, my parents were hardly perfect; my father could be quick to anger and my mother overly scrupulous. But they loved each other, and they loved us, so they labored to be the best they could, and they succeeded far more often than not.”

The mare quirked a smile. “So are you saying I should settle?”

“I’m saying that perfection is impossible in this life, but that in its pursuit one may find deep goodness.”

“Well said, Friar Jacques,” spoke Celestia from the door. Both human and mare jumped in shock and started to scramble to their feet and bow. She’s three times my size and literally shimmers! How did she sneak up on us?! “Please, don’t get up,” smiled Celestia as she and Argent entered the room. “I simply came by to check on the good friar’s condition and discuss his official status.”

Official business. That’s my cue. “I’ll take my leave then, Princess.”

“No need for that, my little pony,” Celestia assured her. “This is not a matter of secrecy to be kept from prying ears.”

“Ah, but the day is young,” smirked Argent, “and the nightmare of politics marches ever on.”

Celestia shot her officer a glance, then stepped forward, producing a scroll from the air in a flare of magic. Jacques gave a start as the parchment appeared; Redheart didn’t even blink. Twilight’s lived here long enough that the casual use of spatial magic doesn’t even phase me anymore. Or anyone else in town, for that matter. What does that say about us?

“I received this correspondence from Canterlot this morning in response to my letter to a certain member of my legal staff yesterday,” the princess announced, unfurling the scroll. “In short, what I was seeking was a way to formally recognize your authority as a licensed practitioner of Curatrix magic without needing to force you to take an oath of loyalty to the Crown on your second day in a new world.” She gave an amused smile. “While I would certainly welcome the opportunity to put you on formal retainer to my realm in the future, I feel that asking you to pledge your loyalty to the throne so soon would be premature.” She floated the letter over to Jacques. “This letter is the solution. You may read it for yourself, but in essence it allows me to commission you as a free agent ‘Guardian,’ or ‘Monster Hunter’ or any number of other titles listed within if you prefer, licensed to hunt down evil creatures and stomp out cults practicing the Dark Arts within Equestria’s borders. You will retain full autonomy and not be beholden unto the Crown, though we may relinquish our permission at any time. You will not have the full authority of an officer of the Crown unless explicitly delegated unto you for a specific instance by a lawful order from a legitimate authority like myself or the captain here. For your services, you will be compensated on commission according to the threats you deal with.”

Jacques took the scroll and read through it with a studious eye. “It sounds rather like being a mercenary or bounty hunter,” he remarked. “Rather an odd arrangement for a hunter of Fell abominations.”

“By modern standards, it certainly is,” agreed Celestia. “It hearkens back to a more dangerous time a millennia ago when the land was rife with such dangers and there were many freelance practitioners of Curatrix magic fighting the menaces. Rather than try to formalize the entire system, it was easier to deputize most of the outliers. The practice eventually died out for the simple reason that there weren’t enough menaces around to warrant its widespread use. In fact, this old law hasn’t been enacted in over six-hundred years.”

Redheart couldn’t hold back a whistle. The princess and captain glanced in her direction and she had to suppress the urge to hop off the bed and bow. “Sorry, Your Highness. That just sounds like an obscure law, is all. How long did it take to find?”

Argent snorted. “Probably only a few minutes. Her Royal Highness has a rather eccentric stallion who specializes in obtuse and outdated laws on her payroll for exactly this sort of situation.”

“How often does this sort of situation come up?” Redheart blurted out.

“Often enough to keep Blue Law very profitably employed,” answered Argent cryptically.

“Well, Friar?” asked Celestia, “Are these terms acceptable to you?”

Jacques nodded, finishing his third re-read of the document. “Quite, Your Highness. I am very grateful for your forbearance in allowing me time to adjust before seeking my fealty. While I can only guess at the relative value of your currency, these terms seem more than generous.”

Argent laughed. “From what I hear, Friar, the change of currency over the years means that these first bounties will work out quite in your favor.”

“These first bounties?” asked Jacques.

Celestia smiled and a bulging coin purse appeared in the air, floating over to the side table to land with an audible thunk. “Of course, Friar. Did you think I’d be so ungenerous as to not pay you for exterminating five timber wolves and saving three fillies? I’m hurt.”

Jacques’ jaw flapped open and shut. “Princess, I was simply doing what any man would do. And I wasn’t even one of these… Witch Hunters at the time. I can’t possibly accept—

Tut tut, dear man,” chided Argent. “Are you suggesting that we let it be known that Her Royal Highness is not generous with those who serve her? The nerve of such an assertion!” Her voice sounded offended, but her smile made it clear that she was jesting. And perhaps enjoying turning Jacques’ noble sensibilities back on him a little too much, realized Redheart.

If Jacques noticed the manipulation, it didn’t change his response. With a sigh, he acquiesced. “Very well. I accept your payment with gratitude.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Friar,” beamed Celestia. “Now, I’m afraid that I must return to Canterlot. There are sensitive matters that I must attend to. However, I am not leaving you without aid. Three of my soldiers will be waiting to escort you when you leave the hospital, and they will have further information to provide you when you are ready. And, unless I miss my guess, my student will be along soon with her friends to attend to your needs and to make sure that you have everything you require to begin acclimating to your new home. We will be in regular contact, and should you have any immediate needs that my soldiers or Twilight and her friends cannot accommodate, simply have her send me a letter and I or the captain will see to it that you are taken care of.”

Jacques rose and managed to bow without his legs wobbling overly much. “You are most kind, Princess. I thank you for your hospitality.” He turned to Argent. “And it was a pleasure to meet you, Captain. I look forward to exchanging martial techniques with you in the future.”

“Count on it,” smiled Argent. “This Dog has a few tricks to show you. For now, playing with my other Dogs will have to do.”

“It was my pleasure to meet you, Friar,” said Celestia. She winked at Redheart. “Take good care of him, Nurse Redheart. I have the utmost confidence in you.”

The nurse blushed furiously and almost banged her muzzle against the floor in her haste to prostrate herself before the princess. The ruler and her officer departed. Once they’d gone, Redheart and Jacques stood in silence for a moment. The mare glanced up at the clock and noted that it was approaching seven in the morning. “Knowing Twilight, she’ll probably be along in a few minutes with a mountain of books and questions for you,” she declared. “And, unless they’ve got other work to take care of, her friends won’t be far behind.” Jacques nodded without verbal answer. Redheart glanced over at the conspicuously oversized pouch of coins sitting on the table. It looks like something a pirate might toss in his chest, she thought. The analogy caused a mischievous smile to appear on her face. “Wanna count up your loot?” she asked. Jacques chuckled and nodded.

Argent and Celestia trotted down the hall, various soldiers falling into step beside them as they made their way for the exit. “Begging your pardon, Princess, but I was wondering something.”

“Yes, Argent?”

“Well, I know that currency has changed many times over the years, meaning that the conversion rate will be rather advantageous to Jacques, but I didn’t actually take a look at the figures,” she admitted. “How much did you pay him, exactly?”

Celestia gave a knowing smile and stopped, holding up a hoof for silence. A moment later they were rewarded with the high-pitched exclamation of “Sweet holy Celestia on a stick!” echoing down the corridor behind them.

The princess grinned impishly. “That much.”

Author's Note:

Antiquarian stumbled out of his office, bloodshot eyes staring at the mob in a crazed fashion. "Hah!" he taunted. "You thought you'd have to wait another, like, week or somethin for a full chapter-thingy, but hah!" He flailed a limb forward. "I went ahead and hammered the full bloody thing out in a frenzy of typing that kept me up way past time to go do the sleepy-bye stuff! So hah!"

Aura strode in wearing a bathrobe, having been wakened from her slumber by a police officer to come investigate the disturbance. Not again. "Come on boss. Let's get you home."

Heedless of her efforts, Antiquarian burst into song. "What can I say, except, you're..." he trailed off. "...you're right, I should probably sleep." With that he left.

Yeah, funny how when I have a chapter that I expected to come out fast, it was delayed a month. Now I have one that I literally today announced would be delayed, and I finish it in one installment.

I give up.

Ironic thing that I didn't notice until after I wrote this chapter: Twilight comments on how so much about that early period of Equestrian history is lost to the ages (which we can ascribe some measure of canonicity to, since it's so shrouded in mystery even in the show). Now, it is clear that Equestria, even at it's worst, still tends to be more peaceful than our world. And yet in our world, the history from our own Medieval period (as well as our Ancient period) is impressively well-preserved, thanks to the tireless efforts of Christian monks who preserved and copied every written text they could during the Fall of Rome, leading to the safeguarding of many philosophers, writers, artists, historians, and more that would have otherwise been forgotten (Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon, etc). In addition to preserving that which already existed, they also documented many things which hitherto had only been oral and might have been lost to time otherwise (like the mythologies and histories of the various tribes and clans which took over Roman territory). Thus, in an interesting twist, the far more tumultuous human world actually came out ahead of Equestria in terms of keeping its history intact. Perhaps the greater pressure they were under accounts for it, or perhaps it is simply the whims of chance. After all, the Library of Alexandria is thought to have been annihilated as a side-effect of a largely unrelated war. Who knows what accounts for the difference between our worlds. Whatever the case, I find it amusing.

Today's shoutout is Skyward Shoe's The Sparkle Census, a light-hearted and clever take on multiverse theory. It was one of the first stories that I deemed worthy of a 'favorite,' and is just honest good fun with a surprisingly gripping climax and a number of enjoyable twists and turns. Well worth the read.

EDIT: It should be noted that The Killer Joke was inserted as a reference to the comic The Killing Joke (which is excellent) and not the movie (which sickens me). Fans were very excited to hear about the movie, but it was so offensively bad that the hype died essentially the same day that it came out. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie die that hard, but it deserved it. The comic (though dark) is worth reading for Batman fans. The movie is worth forgetting.

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