The Unraveled Thread

by Bender Alpha

First published

||ON HIATUS|| The Stillness is coming. It's up to the heroes of Equestria to defend their home, with perhaps a little help from an unwitting refugee.


The Multiverse. An immense and diverse place, home to countless Planes of existence, each a universe all their own. One organization tries its hardest to keep these Planes in line, and govern the nigh infinite souls that occupy them. But even with a galaxy's worth of agents and the power of the Prime Material Plane at their disposal, something occasionally slips their radar.

Sam is one of those things. An unassuming, twenty-something who one day finds himself stranded in another world. Luckily for him, the inhabitants of Equestria take friendship very seriously. The Elements of Harmony take it upon themselves to befriend and welcome him to Equestria. It certainly doesn't hurt that he's the first and only human ever seen on their planet.

However, all good things must come to an end. Equestria finds itself under attack, both by unknown creatures and beings similar to the country's newest inhabitant. Sam and the Elements must find a way to beat them back, but first they need to figure out who in the Nine Hells this new enemy is.

So begins my first HiE, let alone my first story to be published here. I hope it will be my longest piece to date (even if I never submitted most of my others). I have a long way to go before I can be a professional writer, but that's what this is all about, isn't it? Exercising our writing muscles in a place where some may find enjoyment in our attempts to improve ourselves. So please, lay into me. Tell me what I'm doing wrong, I implore you. It is the only way I will grow as a writer. And, if I can set aside my stubborn pride long enough to learn something, perhaps I will do just that.

Proofread by the wonderful McStuffins.

P.S. This story is set immediately after the events of Season 3, but before EQG. Yes, that is going to be canon in this universe. Why? Because it suits my purposes, that's why. :pinkiecrazy:

PROLOGUE - An Unsettling Teatime

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Discord stared into his cup of licorice tea and sighed. Slouched on Fluttershy’s couch, he listened to her bustle about the kitchen, preparing teacakes and a second kettle for her herbal tea. He snorted derisively. Honestly, it was so strange a concept: he, the Master of Chaos and Disharmony, sitting down to have teatime with a shy little pegasus in her cottage by the woods. Some might even call it absurd.

But, try as he might, Discord could never prove that her friendship was just an act. She might become exasperated, even frustrated, by his pranks and pestering, but she was never truly angry with him. Unless, of course, he was being purposefully and unnecessarily cruel, but he’d learned not to try that after freezing over the apple orchard. For whatever reason, it seemed like Fluttershy actually wanted to be actively kind to him, even going out of her way to perform acts of consideration and caring. Like up and deciding to invite him to afternoon tea not a week ago. But, regardless of his expressed disdain, he showed up anyways, just as she was sure he would. Not that she was prepared for him to show up only a minute after the clocks struck twelve.

And what an amusingly nebulous concept ‘afternoon’ is. Noon really only lasts for a minute, then everything up until ‘evening’ can be considered after-noon. Allows for quite a bit of mischief in the efforts of timekeeping, although I doubt that’s what she had in mind when she invited me.

“Remind me,” he called out to Fluttershy, “what exactly is the point of this?”

“It’s teatime,” she stated, as though that made all the sense in the world, but quickly added, “it’s a time to sit with friends, talk, and have a snack with tea.”

“Talk about what, tea and pastries?” He nearly snorted, watching her questioningly as she brought out a tray of little oblong powdered sponge cakes. ‘Ladyfingers,’ they were called in some other realms, but he sincerely doubted that was their name in Equestria.

“Whatever comes to mind, really. Gossip, news, problems, anything you really want to talk about.”

Discord sighed. “Yes, well, I doubt you’d be interested in talking about ponies’ firmly held misconception that chaos and entropy are the same thing. Honestly, there’s a huge difference between plenipotentiality and nullipotentiality.”

“Oh…” Fluttershy muttered, momentarily downtrodden. “Well, that is probably a discussion better suited for Twilight. But, if you want, you could talk about it while I listen. I’m a very good listener.”

There she goes again, Discord mused. Honestly, does she even have a selfish thought in her head?

However, not being one to pass up an opportunity to hear his own voice, Discord’s attitude flipped like a pancake, allowing his discomfort with intimacy to sizzle underneath the surface for a while.

“Well, why didn’t you say so earlier?” He bubbled, tossing his teacup aside, where it promptly forgot to shatter, or even spill its contents. “Really, I think it’s all just a case of ponies’ inherent metathesiophobia. With perhaps a few exceptions, it seems like the vast majority feel that any change is… bad… change…”

Discord went silent, a look of distraction passing through his eyes.

“Um… Discord?”

But Discord didn’t answer, slowly rising to his feet instead. He strained his senses, trying to catch a sliver of the sensation that had pressed on his mind for that fleeting moment.

“Discord, is something-”

He shushed her urgently. He had to be sure of this. He closed his eyes, cutting himself off from his physical senses. No sight, no sound, no smell, no touch. Just his mind, floating on the currents of the planet’s energy. It had been slight and near instantaneous, the tiniest ripple in the fabric of reality. But it wasn’t one of his. He stood there, more singularly focused than he had been in millennia.

The world exploded around him.

It rattled his brain like a blast from a concert speaker standing only a few feet away, turned up to eleven. Some malicious ghost rammed an intangible motorcycle into his stomach at full speed. His eyes rang, his ears saw stars, and he tasted burnt ozone. He didn’t realize he was falling until the floor ran up to body check him.

Then it happened again.

And again, and again.

Dozens of concussive blasts engulfed his world in the tsunami of reality torn asunder. He was faintly aware of Fluttershy above him, calling out his name. Eventually, the shockwaves ebbed into mere vibrations, and his mind was left spinning with the enormity of the impact. But impact of what? What had just happened?

Eventually, he was able to disentangle his senses, and his vision came back into focus. Fluttershy was indeed standing over his head, gazing down with more concern than any being had had for his health in… a long, long time.

“Discord, what happened?” She fretted, steadying his head in her hooves, looking into each of his eyes, as if to check for stroke. At any other time, he might have felt touched. But, at the moment, something was wrong and he needed to know what.

“I’m not sure,” he said, and sat up rather abruptly to rubberneck the room, but not before extracting the ache from his head and putting it in his pocket for later. Fluttershy’s cottage remained unchanged, not even a single birdhouse out of place. He wasn’t sure if this was a good or a bad thing.

“Stay here, I need to check something,” he instructed, and disappeared with a snap of his fingers.

For a moment, two points in space connected, and Discord scooted into the other point, reappearing some three hundred feet above Fluttershy’s cottage. He perched on that point, scanning the countryside.

Nothing had changed. Not one square inch of land had warped into anything other than what it had been just minutes ago. The air wasn’t purple. Old episodes of the “1st Gen” weren’t enacting themselves on existence. The grass didn’t even have wheels. He snapped his fingers again, translocating onto the roof of Sugarcube Corner.

All was normal. The ponies walked the town, going about their business as if no one had noticed anything out of the ordinary. Discord frowned. He’d been overwhelmed simply because he knew what he was looking for and opened up his senses a skosh too wide. But even so, he expected that even the average pony, with their greater than average connections to magic, would have at least felt a tingle. Something was off. Things hadn’t changed nearly enough to warrant that much of a thaumic shockwave.

Discord sat on the chimney, massaging his temples. Normally, he’d be all for shaking up the status quo. But when the status quo seemed unaffected by the shaking, well… Something had changed, and either he couldn’t detect it or it was affecting his ability to detect change at all. Neither option was particularly pleasant. He needed to figure out where those shockwaves came from. He needed to see the bigger picture.

So he translocated himself a thousand miles above the surface of Equus.

Floating in space, he could see the entirety of the continent Equestria called home. With another snap, he pushed energy into his eyes, augmenting his vision. The ripples in reality became visible.

He could see them all. A hundred clusters all across Equus, and even some above it, where the flow of energy was agitated into sending out waves of reverberation. Not one of these points was unusual but for the arcane turbulence.

But then, just as he was about to investigate one of the clusters up close, an abnormality made him pause. It was faint, barely distinguishable from the rest, but familiar. Different. It felt more like the original shockwave than the others. Discord plucked out the fluctuation in the pattern of the ripples, examining its ridges and vibrations. It was only a fragment, but its form suggested something that Discord hoped wasn’t true.

Little by little, Discord began to piece together the waveform from bits of information he was able to snatch from the cacophony of ripples. A dash of frequency, a pinch of wavelength, a teaspoon of energy output. In minutes he held an unbroken section of the distinct magical emission, and what it told him made his blood run cold.

This is the signature of a forced planar entry.

Immediately, Discord dove down towards the planet, following the traces of abnormality through the interference created by the bombardment of magical surges. They were distractions, all of them; meant to conceal the exact whereabouts of this interplanar interloper. He ground his mismatched teeth in frustration. This was his planet, his territory. He’d had enough of the Continuum and the humans. He’d finally found the perfect place and the perfect species to take under his wing, and he wasn’t about to let some ne’er-do-well come in mess it all up.

However, the closer he got to the source, the harder it became to separate the original from the decoys. Even with his prodigious senses, he was stumped. Infuriated, he kicked at one of the ripples, sending it careening into the sun. Astronomers worldwide would have fits for weeks trying to figure out exactly what caused that solar flare.

Giving up on finding the source directly, he examined the surrounding area, trying to determine the general location he should begin looking. After only a few seconds, he recognized the dense forest below him. He slapped his paw over his face, dragging it down in exasperation.

“The Everfree? Reeeeally? Ugh, how cliché. Honestly, would it kill anyone to use something else? Maybe the Saddle Arabian deserts, or the jungles of Zebrica? Heck, even the Crystal Empire would be a nice change of pace!”

With a long-suffering sigh, he snapped his talon, reappearing in Fluttershy’s living room.

“Of course nothing’s going to change on my account. I suppose I’ll just have to make do.”

“Oh! Discord! Um, who are you talking to?”

“No one of consequence, my dear. I’m afraid I need to take a raincheck on our teatime.” He started stuffing the miniature spongecakes into pockets that appeared on his sides. “Places to do, things to see, unfortunately.”

“Okay, I understand. As long as you’re not hurt.”

Discord smiled. Such touching concern. Fluttershy, you may just be my favorite pony.

“Fit as a fiddle, I assure you,” he said, plucking at strings that suddenly strung themselves along his lithe form. “Just a temporary nuisance. Nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure.”

“Alright, well don’t hesitate to call on me if you’re still not feeling well.”

“Of course. Same time next week, I gather? Though I still don’t understand why you ponies assign so much importance to routines.”

“It’s easier to make time for everypony if you know what your plans are.”

“Hm, I suppose. Anyway, I will see you next Tuesday. Ta-ta!”

With another snap of his claws, he stood outside Celestia’s door. His jovial expression fell. She was not going to be happy to hear about this.

CHAPTER 01 - An Unexpected Hangover

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Sam woke up to a splitting headache, a churning stomach, and the cold damp of morning dew soaking through his clothes. The tickling sensation on the back of his neck and arms confirmed he was lying on grass, and he speculated it was around noon from the light stabbing at his retinas through his eyelids. Waking up in this state may have been a common occurrence for some people, but Sam was not one of them. Sam never got drunk.

That’s not to say he never tried of course. Sam's inability to become inebriated was often a point of contention among his friends. Some blamed his resilience on the food he ate when they went out drinking. Others blamed his size. The smart ones blamed both, for when a young man with a frame as large as his practices eating and drinking water with his spirits, you get a very effective alcohol sponge. But the one time his friends tried to overwhelm the food with sheer alcoholic volume, just to see how inebriated he could become, the only changes they noticed were a heightened enthusiasm and lowered inhibitions. He didn’t even have the decency to stumble a little bit. The next morning, when his groggy friends came to, nursing their throbbing heads, Sam was already up, humming 'What Do You Do with A Drunken Sailor' while cooking up some eggs and bacon for everyone. His friends stopped trying to go shot-for-shot with him after that.

Therefore, it would be a massive understatement to say Sam was surprised to wake up to the mother of all hangovers. At first he thought he might be dying, but he abandoned that idea as his muddled brain slowly revealed a gap in his memory where the previous night should have been. Stories of his friends’ drinking faux pas brought to mind the symptoms of a hangover, and he was forced to conclude the culprit was most likely alcohol. Unfortunately, a couple of wires had gotten crossed somewhere in his brain, and his next questions became mashed together.

Where the hell happened last night?

After a minute of untangling the knotted thoughts, Sam decided to try to reason out the one least likely to cause him physical pain first. He pieced together the events of the night before, searching for clues as to what could have led him to his current predicament.

It had been a fairly average Saturday night. Apart from the high demand typical of a Saturday night, his pizza delivery job had been uneventful. There were a few disgruntled customers, but that was nothing unusual, and he hadn’t been offered anything but money. He remembered leaving the store, a fistful of dollars in one hand and his water bottle in the other. He got in the car, turned the key in the ignition, and then headed down the hill towards home.

Then Sam remembered the stoplight.

At the large intersection halfway between the pizzeria and his house, he sat waiting for the light to turn green. It seemed like the light was taking even longer than usual to change. Then, he looked up at the street lights to his left. Suddenly, everything in his view had taken on a red tint. The distant cars seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace, even though there was hardly any traffic. He had blinked and shaken his head, as if to clear it of whatever was gumming up his cognitive processes.

But that hadn’t helped. If anything, the world to his left seemed darker than before. When he looked right, everything seemed even bluer and brighter. Rubbing his eyes didn’t change anything either. A sudden splitting headache and world-shaking dizziness had sent him reeling, only compounded by the odd feeling that he was being stretched sideways. His head spun. The world seemed to be falling apart before his very eyes. Then, he recalled a black spot appearing on the horizon to his left. It grew until it was about the size of a baseball in his vision. Finally, a blinding pale green light enveloped his sight. He must have passed out, because he couldn’t remember anything after that.

Only a few things in his life were at all reminiscent of this kind of fever dream, and all of them were from his more ‘adventurous’ high school days. The ones he spent skipping the after-lunch period to go hang out with his ‘cool’ friends and hotbox in their car.

Was I drugged? If so, it was definitely something stronger than weed. Acid, maybe? Or pizza laced with shrooms? No, the pizza is unlikely, since most of the other employees would have been affected, too. Did someone spike my water? And who would hate me enough go to such lengths?

Try as he might, Sam could think of no one with such a serious grudge against him. He made it a point in his life to make as few enemies as he possibly could. Staying on people’s good sides was always much simpler in the long term, with less drama directed at him. Let them do as they will and they would do less to him. Unfortunately, it seemed his strategy hadn’t worked.

Ugh, this is a nightmare.

Without more information, he was unable to take his train of thought any further. Reluctantly, he admitted it was time to get up and take stock of his situation. With all the grace of a dying hippo, he pushed himself into a sitting position, eyes screwed shut against the bright light that stabbed at his brains even through his eyelids. Luckily, he had enough fortitude not to immediately keel over and heave his guts out. Then, panting after the massive effort, some foolish part of his mind decided that it was the right moment to open his eyes.

Immediately, the sunlight sent a wave of fresh agony searing through his optic nerves and into his brain. With a thoroughly undignified shriek, Sam fell back against the ground, rattling his already pounding head. Without any sort of warning, his mouth was suddenly filled to capacity with vomit. He barely managed to avoid wearing last night’s dinner by rolling onto his side. Without further consultation, his stomach disgorged, filling his mouth and nose with the caustic sensations of stomach acid.

The burning shame and ache of violent forfeiture did nothing to improve Sam’s mood. He lay on his side, gasping for breath, unable to work up the strength to try moving again. The occasional dry-heave wrenched at his stomach muscles, although nothing remained to be relinquished. Eventually, exhaustion took hold once more, and he slipped back into darkness.


When Sam re-awoke some hours later to the bright glow of early evening, the pounding in his skull had receded to a dull throb. He pushed himself up on shaking limbs and cautiously cracked one eye open. To his relief, he found he was able to squint against the dimmer evening light with only a slight pang of complaint from the grey mush between his ears. As he blinked owlishly at his surroundings, he realized the blurriness of his vision wasn’t just a product of his hangover.

He reached up to feel the bridge of his nose, and when he didn’t find the steel nose piece of his glasses, a feeble groan escaped his throat. Immediately, his mind was flooded with worst case scenarios. He clutched blindly at the ground around him, but his search was brought to a screeching halt when his hand squelched in something cold and soupy. He recoiled in disgust, fervently wiping his hand off on the grass.

I hope to god they’re not in there, Sam prayed, turning to stare at the pool of vomit.

It had cooled in the hours of his unconsciousness, so the smell no longer radiated as it would have were the expulsion fresh. Still, as he got on his hands and knees to look for signs of his glasses, the odor of his stomach’s previous contents fouled his nostrils, bringing tears to his eyes and evoking the sickening recollection of the first time he awoke in this torturous field.

After several agonizing minutes of straining his eyes and tentatively prodding the protruding blades of grass to test for solidity, he realized he would have to dig deeper and comb through the puddle to be certain. Struggling not to gag, he hesitated just above the surface before plunging his fingers into the disgusting mire. But after quickly combing the puddle, he found no trace of his glasses.

Sam’s heart sank. He wiped his hand off for the second time, trying to get the feeling of cold vomit out of his mind. Defeated, he sat back heavily, only for the sound of crunching glass to send the chill of ice water through his gut. Slowly, reluctantly, he sat back up, rolling to the side to get a better look at what he just sat on. Predictably, his glasses sat there, right lens cracked right down the center.

Great. Just fucking great. As if I didn’t already have enough to worry about.

Sam begrudgingly shoved the broken glasses into place, and surveyed the scenery somewhat clearly for the first time.

It was a clearing in a forest, with no visible trail leading into it. Trees surrounded him on all sides, and - from his approximation of where the setting sun should be - he determined that the massive mountain taking up a quarter of the horizon lay to the north. Apart from that, there were no real breaks in the scenery.

Until Sam turned south.

“But… how?”

Sam stared in dumbfounded awe. Wedged in the split of a massive maple tree was his car. The forked trunk had folded the already beat-up silver ’89 Nissan Sentra almost in half, the two arms of the tree crushing the automobile as if it were made of paper. There were no tracks, no mounds of dirt, no rocks, no nearby cliffs, nothing he could see that would give an old four-door sedan the kind of lift needed to land it in a tree. But the broken branches clearly pointed to an aerial approach.

“Well, I guess I’m not driving out of here,” he mumbled to the empty clearing. Numbly, he began to approach the wreckage. As he got closer, the full extent of the damage began to sink in.

The car was totaled. His heart ached at the sight. She may have been a needy hunk of junk, and he may have only had her for three years, but she had carried him through countless trials. She bore the testament of their hardships proudly, and he even found the permanently wall-eyed quality of her headlights – brought about by a pair of unfortunate accidents – strangely endearing. He knew her quirks: her rough idle, her erratic alternator, her propensity to guzzle oil. She had grown on him, and now she sat crippled in a tree, never to rev her engine again. Sam sat down heavily, overwhelmed by the recent drastic changes in his life.

Laughing weakly, Sam tried to brush away the gathering tears. Honestly, anthropomorphizing a car was silly. Nevertheless, the sense of loss still weighed heavy on his mind. He swallowed at the lump in his throat and tried to push the grief down. This new loss, combined with the confusion of waking up in a strange place with no idea how he arrived there… It was too much to take in all at once. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to sort out his emotions. Night was rapidly descending on the forest. There would be time to mourn later; for now, he needed to figure out his first move.

With a heavy sigh, Sam picked himself back up. But then, as he picked his way through the debris, something else about the scene caught his attention, temporarily overwriting his sorrow with confusion. As he drew nearer to the base of the tree, he found that, along with the debris from the car, the ground was littered with hard, black chunks of rock of varying sizes. Surrendering to his curiosity, he picked up a piece.


The pulverized composite completely obscured the ground around the base of the tree. He looked back up at his car. Upon closer inspection, he found pieces of asphalt wedged in the crooks of the branches and dusting the leaves. He froze up, brain processing a-mile-a-minute to try and make sense of what he was seeing. It seemed as though something had just reached down and scooped up his car, taking a chunk of the road with it.

Was I… abducted?

Sam chuckled half-heartedly at the absurd notion, but the more he thought about it, the more it fit. For every piece of the puzzle he picked up, he further realized he was missing vast swaths of the picture. Snapping out of his stupor, he pushed the thought aside. Even if he couldn’t conceive of how he got there, he needed to figure out where he was, and if he could call for help.

Out came his smartphone – that wonderful, multi-purpose marvel of technology – and he pressed the button to power it on, eager to bring up the map application.

No bars.

Figures. Piece of crap.

He was about to shove the phone back into his pocket when a thought struck him.

I may not be able to call for help, but I doubt anyone would believe my story without some evidence.

Instead, Sam accessed the smartphone’s camera and began to take pictures of the – for lack of a better term – crash site. He documented the strange scene from every angle, making certain to take close-ups of the asphalt rubble and scraped off sections of bark, in addition to trying to capture the apparent angle of entry. He even took a video.

Damned if I’m going to be accused of doctoring photos.

They could also accuse you of doctoring the video, you know.

Shut up. Modifying a video to look like this would take more resources than I have available.

Just saying, expect them not to believe you.

Of course they won’t believe me, at first. That’s why I don’t tell them I was abducted. I’ll just say I don’t know what happened and let them fill in the blanks. Besides, if they have any better explanations, I’d be glad to hear them. Being abducted by aliens? It’s ridiculous!

Thankfully, that thought seemed to quell his doubts. After taking several continuous minutes of footage, Sam remembered something else he should check. He exited the camera function, bringing up the main menu and its contents; specifically, the date and time display.

6:39 PM, Tuesday.

Sam’s heart skipped a beat.

I’ve been out for almost three days?! Holy SHIT! Mom must be worried sick!

Of course, with no cell reception, there was no way to tell if she’d called. But it was a safe bet that there would be hell to pay when he got home.

Well, nothing for it. I’m gonna have to hike out of here. And if I’m going to hike, I need my emergency supplies.

Looking up at his car, Sam at least felt grateful that she had been thoughtful enough to pop her trunk open as she crashed into the tree. The maple had enough low, strong branches for him to begin his ascent without outside assistance. He removed his button-up short sleeve shirt, leaving the underlying t-shirt for better maneuverability. After a couple minutes of struggle and a few minor heart attacks at the creaks and groans of his car settling, Sam sat on the branch just above the rear end of his poor, mangled car, peering into the trunk.

Everything was heaped in a jumbled pile, of course. One of the two bags he kept his emergency supplies in had burst open, scattering flashlights, flares, and other emergency gear amongst the empty oil bottles and worn tire chains. Thankfully, the one that held the energy bars, water pouches, and a few other survival essentials had remained intact. He plucked that out, mentally thanking his grandfather for leaving the kits when he sold Sam the car, and dropped it to the ground.

The rest of his supplies, he had to sort through. He gathered up all the loose flares and the least beat-up flashlight, and then tossed them onto the closest, softest-looking patch of grass he could see. These were followed by a tied off loop of rope and an old, slightly rusty hatchet-hammer-pry bar multitool. Then, Sam began tossing loose items out of the car, away from his pile of survival gear. The less that was in his way, the better. After several aggravating minutes of sifting through refuse, he caught a glint of the item he was looking for. A small, watertight, metal container about the size of a pill bottle. He quickly snatched it up before it could become buried again, and unscrewed the cap. The container was still filled to the brim with stormproof matches.

He kissed the little lifesaving container and stuffed it into the front pocket of his jeans. With that, he had gathered all the survival gear in the trunk. Now, he had to get into the cabin. There wasn’t much in the way of survival gear in there, of course; perhaps the folding knife in his glove compartment. But damned if he was going to leave his leather courier bag behind. It was hand-made just for him by his other grandfather on his father’s side, just before he passed away, and Sam wasn’t about to let it out of his sight.

Sam slowly clambered over the deformed hood towards the passenger side, the only side that offered an unobstructed view of the interior. Each creak and groan caused an explosion of anxiety to bloom just below his sternum. Carefully, he lowered himself into position on a pair of branches just behind the passenger door. Peering into the darkened interior, he spotted his bag lying in the footwell behind the driver’s seat, out of arm’s reach. The windows had shattered on impact, crumbling into little pieces of safety glass, so he had no trouble unlocking the door. But no matter how hard he pulled and yanked on the handle, the door wouldn’t budge. He would have to climb in to grab it.

Cautiously, Sam put an arm into the car, putting weight on it only once he was sure he wouldn’t fall. He inched his way inside, trying to make as little contact with the shattered window as possible. When he got his torso completely over the threshold, he reached for the bag. He could barely get the first section of his middle finger around the strap. He missed on the first try, and the second fared no better. On the third, he stretched as far as he could stand, and finally hooked a finger around the strap. With a pull, he snatched the belt and pull the bag out of the foot well.

Just then, the car gave a sickening lurch. Sam snatched up the bag’s handle and did the only thing he thought appropriate. He shoved away from the car seat, launching himself out the window and sending himself plummeting to the ground. He landed heavily on his back, knocking the air out of his lungs in a sharp wheeze. But a grinding noise above him snapped him out of his daze. He glanced up, expecting to see the car sliding out of the tree towards him. Instead he saw it sinking deeper into the crook of the tree, folding almost completely in half.

Sam continued to stare at the car for a few minutes after it had finally settled. Only when he was able to convince himself that it wouldn’t fall did he let go of his breath. He flopped back into the grass, trying to calm his pounding heart.

Jesus, I was almost in that!

But he wasn’t, and he still had to face the trek back to civilization. Riding the tail end of his adrenaline surge, he scrambled to his feet, hoisting the courier bag up with him. He jogged over to his pile of supplies and stuffed it all inside. He considered leaving his laptop behind to lighten the load a bit, but immediately discarded the thought. All his life's work was on there, after all. Besides, it wasn't all that heavy.

Glancing up at the darkening skies, he realized he wouldn’t make it very far in the little amount of light left, but resolved at least to get under the cover of the trees. Washington skies rarely stayed clear for long, after all. He did wish he had thought to put a star chart in with his emergency supplies, but there was no use bemoaning his lack of forethought. He knew where west lay, and that would get him to a road at the very least.

Shifting the strap to the shoulder opposite the bag, he set off towards the edge of the clearing, wondering how he would explain this unexcused absence to his boss, let alone his family.

Celestia relaxed against the pile of cushions in her study, relishing a cup of freshly brewed tea. She grinned, and took a bite out of another self-congratulatory cookie. Day Court had gone swimmingly that day, if she did say so herself. In fact, court had been surprisingly easy for the past few days, in the wake of Twilight’s coronation. Whatever conflicts arose had been easily solved simply by having an outside perspective of the situation.

Even her usual mountain of proposals had been reduced to a single stack. It seemed that her little pep-talk had successfully inspired her secretaries to trust more in their own intuition on which matters were important enough to bring before the Princesses. She had finished in record time, and had even gotten the chance to peruse some of her favorite student’s old letters. Now the evening light shone in from the small balcony, reminding her that, in a few short hours, she and Luna would be casting the spells to keep the celestial cycle going.

Perhaps I should share my good cheer and surprise Luna with an ice cream and cookie sandwich, she mused. But before she could call for a servant to bring her ice cream, there was a knock at her door. A small worry tugged at her mood when she noticed the knock seemed to echo from unusually high up on the door, but she easily dismissed the baseless concern.

“Come in!” She called. Perhaps it’s simply a new servant with strange habits.

She was sorely mistaken.

The door swung gently open to reveal the one being she least expected.

“Good evening, Princess,” Discord greeted humorlessly, his mouth set in an extremely uncharacteristic grimace. The deadly solemn gaze leveled at her immediately set her mind ablaze with the clamor of warning bells. It had been more than a thousand years since she’d seen this look on his face. She tried to retain a calm countenance, not wanting to betray her alarm.

“Discord! What a pleasant surprise,” she lied, attempting to pacify whatever dark thoughts he might be entertaining. “I hadn’t expected you to be one to knock first.”

Discord didn’t even smirk at the light ribbing.

“That, Celestia, is because, just this once, I need you to take me seriously.”

The corners of Celestia’s mouth fell ever so slightly.

“Very well, Discord. Please, have a seat,” she offered cautiously, pulling out her writing desk’s chair for him, “and we can discuss whatever’s bothering you.”

When he walked over and rather ceremoniously took a seat in her chair, her anxiety ebbed. It seems this wasn’t a confrontation, or he would had simply remained where he was. But if he was concerned enough to forgo entertaining his impish or melodramatic tendencies… She shuddered to think of the implications. Discord steepled his mismatched claws.

“Before I begin, Celestia, I need to know: did you feel anything… unusual, sometime around noon today?”

Celestia frowned. There was a fleeting moment during lunch when she felt a wave of dizzying nausea wash over her, but she hadn’t been able to determine the source. At the time, she had thought it might have been an undercooked spinach puff. She wondered if he already knew.

“Yes, I believe I did. Why, did you experience something as well?” At this, Discord sighed heavily, as though he had been hoping she would say no.

“A particularly nasty bout of nausea the likes of which I haven’t felt in many, many centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if Twilight, Luna and Cadence felt something similar.” A slight smirk played across his face. “I’d also be willing to bet it gave Cadence quite a shock, although I hear you’re supposed to get sick first thing in the morning.”

“What are you-” The implication clicked in her mind and she felt heat spread over her cheeks. She telekinetically hurled a pillow at his face, which he promptly dodged by withdrawing his head into his neck, giving him the appearance of a beheaded chicken.

“I thought this was supposed to be a serious conversation,” she huffed as his head popped back out.

“Sorry, sorry,” he backpedalled, trying to stifle his childish giggling, “I couldn’t resist. Phew, okay. Alright. Serious talk. ” He smacked his cheeks, as if trying to slap the silliness out.

Celestia sighed exasperatedly. “So, if my thinking is correct, you’ve figured out the source of that strange momentary illness we experienced earlier today?”

All traces of mirth immediately fell from Discord’s face. As his ears fell flat, so too did his gaze fall to his feet. He took a deep breath.

“Celestia, something has pierced the Veil.”

What little color her coat had drained from Celestia's face, turning her visage ghostly. She felt a chill of dread that she hadn’t felt in many ages crawling up her spine.

“I’m sorry, Discord, I seem to have misheard you. It sounded like you said-”

“Something has pierced the Veil,” he reaffirmed.

“But… but that… can’t be. The aftereffects would have been much stronger than a brief fit of nausea. Even the average unicorn would have been able to feel the disruption of magic.”

“True,” he began, rising from his seat to pace anxiously, “only if we assume we’re dealing with a being unfamiliar with the nature of magic, or one unconcerned with subtlety. But I know what I felt and I know you recognize it, too. Whoever forced their way past the barrier is powerful; powerful enough to open only the smallest of holes and shut it behind themselves instantly. They wouldn’t have been able to suppress the initial shockwave, but they’ve been able to muffle everything else.” Discord stopped pacing to throw a distant glare out the open door to the balcony.

Celestia’s mind churned with unanswered questions. Who was this intruder? How did they manage to break through the Veil – the barrier between Equus and the Aether – without alerting the whole kingdom? And what, exactly, did they want?

“Have you been able to pinpoint their location?”

Discord grumbled barely loud enough for her to hear.

“Discord!” Celestia shouted.

“No, alright?! Whoever this is, they’ve been able to frustrate me at every turn. They disrupted the initial shockwave by setting off magical surges immediately after entry. I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly where the intruder entered…” Celestia slumped in defeat, before Discord continued, “However, I have been able to narrow it down.”

Celestia perked back up. “Really? Where?”

Discord gave a wry smirk. “I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Even Celestia groaned, putting her face in her hoof. “What is it about the Everfree that attracts so much trouble?”

“Perhaps it’s simply because that forest is one of the few places in this land not constantly micromanaged by your devoted subjects.”

Celestia switched to massaging her temples. Sometimes she honestly considered razing the untamed wilderness just to be done with it, but her practicality always won out. Destroying that much forest would be costly and a major disruption of the ecosystem. The ponies of Ponyville had managed to live in tenuous harmony with the denizens of the Everfree for almost one hundred years and she had no doubt they would continue to do so for the foreseeable future, especially with the assistance Twilight and her friends. But this… This was beyond her student’s grasp. As much as she valued giving Twilight challenges to overcome, to help her grow as a mare and to solidify her ties to her friends, she always felt uneasy about sending Twilight into danger, no matter the necessity. She could not ask Twilight to handle this; the danger was simply too great.

“Well then, it seems I have a job to do.”

“So it would seem. I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that this mission might take a turn for the deadly, even for you.”

“Which is precisely why I must handle this myself.”

“And what of Luna?”

Celestia hesitated. “I… I need her here. If something should happen to me-”

“I take umbrage with that attitude,” a familiar voice scolded from the doorway.


In the door to Celestia’s study stood her younger sister, a defiant pout aimed at her sibling. Her coat and her mane – the ethereal starry banner of the Princess of the Night – somehow seemed disheveled, as though she had just woken up. She hadn’t even donned her regalia. Luna stalked into the room, levelling a hurt glare at the conspirators. Celestia shifted uncomfortably, while Discord simply held back an amused grin.

“And what, pray tell, is so important that you feel the need to leave me behind, ‘just in case?’”

“Luna, please, this is a very serious matter! Something has broken through the Veil. I must find out what it is, and if you were to come with me-”

“I would be able to watch your back? Be reasonable, Celestia! If you go by yourself, there is a very real possibility that you could be seriously hurt. Let me come with you. Together, we stand a much greater chance of triumphing.”

“Luna, somepony has to stay and watch over the kingdom. If we both vanish without an explanation, our absence will frighten the citizens. You know how skittish they can be. One of us needs to stay behind, and I’m not comfortable asking you to take this on yourself.”

“Hypocrite! How do you think I feel? Besides, what makes you so much more qualified to take this task on than I?” Luna accused, stalking towards Celestia.

“Because I’m your big sister!” Celestia asserted, tone rising with her distress. “I’m supposed to look out for you.”

But Luna stood her ground, righteous indignation fueling her defiance. They sat motionless, attempting to stare each other down, neither sister willing to allow the other to put herself in danger. Their staring contest was interrupted, however, when Discord cleared his throat.

“Well ladies, this was all very touching, but I believe I may have a solution.”

Celestia and Luna briefly exchanged hesitant glances, before Celestia responded. “Very well, what do you have in mind?”

“Simple. I will go and scout out the situation, and then drop you a line as soon as I find out what came through. Then both of you can keep on eye on your precious ponies.”

“Are you sure? You’ll be facing as much danger as we would.”

“Oh please,” Discord scoffed, “how long has it been since either of you has seen any action?” Immediately, he began snickering at his own double entendre. The princesses' gazes remained stoic, though their flushed cheeks betrayed their embarrassment. After a moment Discord cleared his throat.

“Anyway, I can certainly handle myself,” he boasted, falling back on an invisible floating cushion. “And, unlike you, I’ve had occasion to practice my more… action-oriented skills, in the last millennia.” Discord punctuated his claim by running a sharpened talon along the stone wall.

Celestia and Luna looked to each other, engaging in the wordless communication of siblings. Both were hesitant to send Discord, but he had proven to be an ally, even if he could be a bit of a troublemaker. Plus, he had been the one to bring this to their attention. He could have just as easily left Equestria to its fate, but instead chose to forewarn them. Luna gave Celestia a barely perceptible nod, and they turned back to him.

“Very well, Discord. If you believe you can handle reconnaissance, we’ll trust you,” Celestia conceded.

“Yes!" Discord celebrated. "Watch your back, pesky intruder. You’re about to learn the hard way not to try and slide one by me. Heheheh…” He grinned evilly, seemingly forgetting who was in the room.


Discord flinched at the Princesses’ admonishment. He turned back to them with what he hoped was an appropriately apologetic expression.

“I really hope that was some kind of joke,” Celestia scolded, looking thoroughly unamused.

“Eheh, of course, Princess.”

“You do realize the gravity of the situation, do you not?” Luna added, glaring pointedly at him. The apologetic grin dropped from his face, leaving behind a surprisingly earnest expression of concern.

“Believe me, Luna, I do. For all my tomfoolery, I really want to be sure this threat is neutralized, and I will do so by any means necessary.”

He received only silence as an answer. Celestia cleared her throat, trying to dispel the discomforting atmosphere that had quite suddenly descended over them. “Discord, let’s not use violence as a first resort. I realize that whoever or whatever pierced the Veil is likely very dangerous, but I’d like to try to make peaceful contact if possible.”

“Ah yes, I’m sure that will turn out swimmingly,” Discord drawled mockingly as he was suddenly circling the Princesses, backstroking through the carpet as easily as he would water.

“I’m not saying we’ll go in unprepared to defend ourselves, but if this entity can be reasoned with, I would like to at least give it the chance to explain itself.”

“Very well,” Discord conceded, before popping back out of the carpet with a flash of light, “but know I will respond with extreme prejudice at the first sign of hostility.”

Celestia nodded. “I would expect no less.”

She met his gaze, waiting as he mulled over the details. After several minutes of contemplation, he let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Fine, we’ll do it your way. I’ll call for you as soon as I find the source of the intrusion. I’ll even Pinkie Promise to wait for you to make introductions.” He went through the motions of the routine, sans rhyme, then began heading for the open balcony door. He made it as far as the threshold before Celestia overcame her hesitation.

“Discord,” she called after him, and he looked back over his shoulder.


“Be careful.”

For a fraction of a second Discord seemed surprised by her sincerity, before his signature smug grin return full force.

“Of course, Princess,” he practically purred, bowing theatrically. Then, with the comical sound of violent exhalation, he vanished, leaving behind a puff of smoke and the faint smell of cinnamon. As the seconds became minutes, neither Princess stirred, gazing out at the spot Discord previously filled, now home only to the darkening colors of the growing dusk. Eventually, Luna broke the silence.

“I hope we made the right decision.”

“As do I, Luna.”

CHAPTER 02 - An Unwanted Adventure

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A bone-chilling wind rustled the branches of the dense trees. The cloying darkness of a clouded night filled every crack and corner of the forest in which it could find purchase. The near total blackness was broken only by the flickering red light of a lone campfire. Tucked into an overhang made by the twisted roots of a large, broad-leafed tree, Sam stared vacantly into the embers of the small fire in front of him. He huddled under the meager insulation provided by his emergency space blanket, clutching the last remaining piece of energy bar he had left. It had been days since he’d last eaten, and he could feel the exhaustion tugging at his brain.

Since awakening in that strange clearing, Sam had lost count of the passing days, but it had certainly been weeks now. Probably more than a month. And yet, he hadn’t caught even a glimpse of civilization. The further west he wandered, the more he began to realize he wasn’t in Washington any longer. For one thing, after all this time, he hadn’t seen a single pine, fir, or spruce. The trees were all twisted and short, covered in hanging moss and blotting out the sky with their thick, dark leaves. Even the undergrowth was foreign.

And then there was the wildlife.

Several times, Sam had caught glimpses of a ridged, reptilian tail slithering into the underbrush and out of sight. The first few sightings, he had hoped it might be an escaped pet or something. But as days became weeks, the brief sightings became more common, and the feeling that he ‘wasn’t in Kansas anymore’ compounded. This feeling only grew as he encountered more wildlife. The number of different exotic birds alone boggled his mind, but then there were so many other small mammals he knew weren’t Washington native. He had even spotted a massive, heavily armored crocodile on the banks of a small marsh. Gradually, the notion of abduction seemed less and less ridiculous, whether by aliens or some shadowy organization.

Now Sam had never been much of an adventurous person. Sure, he had dreamed of adventure when he was a child, but who doesn’t? He had a job, he had school, and he had his routine. It was neat, it was tidy, it was safe. Video games, books, and television allowed him to experience adventure vicariously, like so many thousands of other Americans. He led a mundane life, and he was happy to leave it that way. Imagination was more than enough to send him to exotic locations. Which is why he was trying to spend less time in front of the boob-tube and more time reading and writing. He even had a novel he was working on. All from the comfort of his home.

But fate had conspired to have adventure thrust upon him. Bilbo Baggins was right. Adventures were nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things. And his had made him late for dinner by a few weeks. As if taking cues from his thoughts, Sam’s stomach snarled in displeasure, reminding him of the terrible, sharp ache. Never in his life had he been this hungry. He ruefully wished he had spread out the emergency rations much further than he had in the beginning.

Sam’s forlorn gaze shifted to the wrapper peeking out of his clenched fist. There was barely a fragment left, no bigger than the first section of his thumb. But if he didn’t eat something soon, his mind would be so clouded by hunger, he’d be unable to think straight. Slowly, he unclenched his fist, shamefully pondering the last morsel. He’d been unable to find anything suitable to eat over the last few days, and the lack of food had made him irritable and restless, though he honestly hadn’t slept well in weeks. So the question became: Should he eat now, and hopefully sleep better, or save it for the morning?

He sighed, and placed a hand over his mouth in contemplation, over his growing beard. Then, his stomach made the decision for him, and he tore the last piece of energy bar out of the wrapper and shoved it in his mouth before he could reconsider. The sweetness of the orange-flavored foodstuff was enough to make him gag. Making sure he paced himself, he slowly chewed the small piece of confection, hoping to make it last. All too soon, however, his mouth was empty, though slightly more damp than it had been previously. Now he wished he had water to wash down the taste, but he’d run out of that a couple of days ago.

The grim nature of his situation began to wash over his mind. No water for almost three days, very little food for weeks, and only restless sleep for over a fortnight. He was surprised he wasn’t delirious with fatigue by now. Not to mention the difficulty he was having just getting up in the morning. Hopelessness had begun setting in only two days after the crash. Without his prescribed anti- depression and anxiety medication, he spiraled into a pit of despair.

But maybe it was all for the best. Maybe he was finally getting his just desserts. His entire life was one big opportunity taken for granted. He’d had so many chances for success and snubbed them all, just because it was easier and more comfortable to stay in his room, play video games, and pretend the world outside didn’t exist. There were millions of people that deserved more than he had, and yet somehow he was the one reaping the benefits. Everyone would be better off if he weren’t around. Wouldn’t now be the perfect opportunity?

At that thought, Sam recognized what was going on in his own head, and followed the advice his counsellor had given him. He isolated the self-defeating thoughts from the healthy ones and gave them a separate voice. The resulting inner critic groaned in annoyance.

Oh great, this again. I’m a part of your own mind. I don’t understand why you insist on separating me from the rest of your thoughts.

Because I don’t want you to be a part of me!

The voice chuckled. Oh, but I am a part of you. You know, deep down, that I only speak what you feel. Why do you deny it?

He remained silent, but his inner critic continued, needling away at his resolve.

See, you can’t deny me, can you? For all your complaining, you agree with my every word. Because we both know what you are. I would say ‘useless sack of shit,’ but even shit has its uses. ‘Waste of space’ is more appropriate, I think.

Sam remained silent, hoping that his critic would follow suit.

Hah! You know as well as I it doesn’t work like that. Even if you aren’t actively giving me a separate voice, I’m still there, just under your skin. We are one – you and I – and I will always be there to remind you of your failures. At least, until you can be convinced to end your own miserable, pathetic existence.

Sam waited for the abuse to continue, but his self-hatred seemed to be sated for the moment. He swallowed dryly at the aching lump in his throat. His inner demon was right about one thing. There were times when he wished he could just end his ungrateful life. But his family – his mother especially – loved him so much, he couldn’t bear the thought of what they would go through after his death. He couldn’t break their hearts.

So, he soldiered on. As soon as he got home, things would be alright. His mother would be overjoyed to see him alive. His father, too. His little sister would probably rush home from college just to see for herself. They’d have a celebration. A barbeque in the back yard. All his friends and family would be there, eating burgers and laughing about his strange tale. His grandparents, his coworkers from the pizzeria, and maybe even Liam Neeson. And then Gandalf and Dumbledore would show up. In the dark of evening, they’d set off fireworks and teach him to be a wizard.

He would walk around, showing his family all the magic he’d learned, and every time he turned around, there would be fewer people than before. Until he was all that remained. The lights would dim. The darkness would furl around him until he stood in a void of nothingness. Alone. All alone. Blackness all around. No one left.

Until the voices. Off in the distances, he would hear a chorus of voices singing. At first, it would sound like they were singing a lullaby. They would come to him, figures in hooded black robes, visible only because the black of their robes was pale in comparison to the umbral shade of the world around them. He would be soothed by their deep melodic chorus. But then, as they surrounded him, he would hear unfamiliar lyrics.

“Hush now child, quell your fears.
The Stillness comes to dry your tears
And gently lay you down to sleep,
Never more to fret and weep.
We’ll put the lights out, one by one,
Until the course of life has run.
And when we’ve done our eternal chore,
The Watcher in the Weave comes forth once more.”

And then, in the darkness behind them, an eye would open, pallid and grey with a diamond-shaped pupil, and so massive it nearly met the edges of his vision. He would see himself reflected in its retina, and despair would wash over him. And then, he would begin to fall. He would tense up as the sensation of weightlessness shot up his spine-


Sam jerked awake. When he saw that he was still in his makeshift campsite, he relaxed. The fire had died down, so that only a scattering of embers remained. The light of dawn crept over the horizon, casting beams of pale, ghostly light through the dense canopy. He had slept maybe five or six hours. And he had dreamt. For the first time in weeks he had reached REM sleep. He didn’t know whether to be overjoyed or anxious. But he did wonder why, in his state, he hadn’t slept past sun-up.

An unfamiliar, low, warbling growl answered his unspoken question. Instantly, adrenaline banished the dregs of drowsiness from his mind. His eyes snapped up, scanning the foliage. At first there was nothing. But then, long, predatory things slithered out from behind the trees. Things that warbled and clicked to each other. Things with red eyes that seemed to glow in the dark.

If it weren’t for the cold sweat trickling down his back, and the sensation of his hairs standing on end, Sam could almost hope this was a simple nightmare. Looking at their eyes, he could feel his extremities becoming heavy and leaden, paralyzed by fear. However, a small terrified thought whispering in the back of his mind broke through his trance.


Sam scrambled upright, grabbed the shoulder-strap of his bag, and bolted. Leaping over roots and fallen trees, he sprinted through the forest, hardly bothering to protect himself from the branches whipping at his face and arms. He dodged around trees and jumped over small ravines, trying his hardest to shake the things following him. But no matter what tactic he tried, he always heard their warbling cries behind him, only a few yards away. They were matching his pace, intent on running him ragged. They were toying with him. He was exhausted and they knew it.

Suddenly he felt something snapping at his heels. He twisted his head for a moment, trying to get a glimpse of whatever was chasing him. Immediately he whipped back around and struggled to move faster, wishing he hadn’t looked. Behind him was something out of a nightmare.

It was reptilian, for the most part, in the shape of a bird and about the size of the average dog. Green scales coated its body, with rigid fins snaking down its spine to the tip of its yard-long tail. It had draconic wings, but sprinted after him on chicken legs. In stark contrast to the rest of its body, the creature’s head was distinctly avian, covered with feathers and sporting a rooster’s comb and wattle, though it managed to make the thing look even more predatory. Its beak was, by far, the thing’s most horrifying feature. Behind the edge of the beak, Sam caught a glimpse of a row of needle-like teeth, made to shred the flesh of the creature’s prey. These lizard-things were born predators, and he had no idea how many were chasing him.

Sam was running out of energy. Air came in ragged breaths, burning in his chest. Before long, he would collapse, unable to run any longer. The only thing keeping him from slowing was the sound of snapping beaks behind him. He had no idea how far he’d come, but the ground was beginning to slope downwards, and hope sparked in his mind. Maybe he could outrun these creatures with a little help from Sir Isaac Newton.

Sam picked up his feet, pushing the last of his energy into an all-out downhill sprint. Squawks of alarm echoed behind him as the monstrous lizards raced to catch up. Trees whipped by as he barreled down the hillside, praying that he didn’t stumble. For a moment, it seemed as though he might put some distance between them. But his victory was short-lived. The squawks and warbles were closing in behind him and from the sides. Another quick glance found the creatures gliding alongside him, easily matching his pace.

Something brushed his head. He felt claws scrabbling at his neck and shoulder, trying to find purchase. Panicked, his pace slowed as he flailed his arms about his head, pummeling the lizard-things that dared get too close. However, there were too many to fend off. He felt their claws digging into his flesh, leave little gashes on his shoulders and the nape of his neck. They nipped at his arms, taking bits of skin and flesh. One of them caught the earpiece of his glasses, and they were torn violently from his face, but he dared not stop or go back for them. The raptors’ demonic cries grew in his ears, until they filled every corner of his mind with terror.

He was going to die.

Then, quite suddenly, the predatory warbling became strangled cries of alarm. The claws and beaks instantly vanished, and the beating of wings fell behind him. Through blurry vision, he noticed he was running through an open meadow of blue flowers, devoid of any sort of obstacle to the lizard-things. He slowed to a halt, finding that they were no longer following him. He bent over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. When he looked back, he saw the creatures panicking in the air above the meadow, flapping madly to stay off the ground until they were back behind the tree line. The ones that had successfully braked before the clearing paced along the flowers that marked the meadow’s edge, clucking in agitation. He could hardly believe his luck. The stupid things were afraid of the flowers.

A strangled laugh escaped his lips. The mania of surviving a near-death experience settled on his mind. He sat heavily, laughing uproariously at the lizard-things’ distress. Feeling petulant, he blew the loudest raspberry he could manage and twisted his hands in the air by his ears, taunting his saurian tormentors from the relative safety of the meadow. The lizard-things just clucked angrily, glaring at him. Even with his near-sightedness, their red eyes burned through the haze, chilling his spine. He felt his limbs going stiff again and looked away in panic. Then after a minute, he heard them turn as one and take off back into the trees, having realized their quarry had escaped their reach.

Sam watched them retreat until they had all vanished into the dark forest. He stayed that way for ages, before finally falling onto his back. The scratches stung, but he didn’t care. He was safe from those nightmarish lizards. Panting, he closed his eyes, unable to fend off his exhaustion any longer.


Sam awoke for a second time this new day to the sun shining down from almost directly above him. Immediately, he was enveloped by the heady scent of flowers. The rustle of a soft breeze through the trees whispered to him. But then, the sting of his injuries brought everything into sharp clarity. He sat up slowly, muscles still burning from the sprint for survival. To his left, his leather brief lay discarded on the ground, scratched up from the chase. He sighed in relief.

At least I still have that.

Somehow, it was comforting to know at least a few small pieces of home survived. He stared at the spot where he had last seen the strange lizard-things. He wondered if there was anything on Earth that looked like that. Perhaps something he’d never heard of? They looked almost prehistoric. The disheartening thought that he had somehow traveled in time popped into his head. He swallowed nervously, though there was nothing in his parched throat to swallow.

Well, if I got here, there’s got to be a way back.

So sure of yourself, he mocked.

“And you can shut up!” Sam shouted at his doubts. He had to keep up hope. There had to be a way home. Somehow.

Sam winced as the breeze blew across him, sending a chill across his skin and exciting his wounds.

First things first, he decided. He was about to reach for his bag, when he picked out another sound nearby. Under the rustle of leaves, there was a quiet, voiceless babbling. A familiar sound that sent feverish elation running through his mind.

He stood, looking all around for the source of his glee. Then of in the center of the meadow, he spotted a glint of sunlight shining off of a reflective surface. He scooped up his bag and stumbled excitedly towards the growing burble. In seconds, he was within sight of his goal.

A small creek, running through the center of the meadow.

Sam nearly tripped over himself in his rush to the water’s edge. He found clear, running water! Tentatively, he stuck his finger under the surface. It was cold; probably glacial run-off. He scooped up as much as he could hold in two hands and drank. The water went down like a winter wind, cooling the fires burning in his throat. He repeated this process until his thirst had been slaked, and then took off his shirt and proceeded to rub down the gashes and scrapes on his neck, shoulders, and arms with the cold water. After they were thoroughly rinsed, he took out his first aid kit, sterilized the open wounds with alcohol wipes, and bandaged them up as best he could.

Sam fell back onto the bed of flowers, sighing in relief. He hadn’t felt this calm and relaxed in ages. The sweet aroma of the flowers, the babbling brook, the sunshine pouring warmth down on him; the meadow was the most peaceful place he’d encountered in a long time, and it was all thanks to these flowers.

They were quite beautiful, too. A sky-blue, star-shaped flower, crowned by a smaller set of petals, with long, delicate stamen. They had a light, sweet aroma, and were incredibly soft to the touch. He didn’t want to leave. But he would have to, if he wanted to find civilization.

Just then, the sweet aroma of the flowers became pungent and fruity. He opened his eyes, searching for the source of the mouth-watering smell. Then, not three yards to his right, he found a variation in the light blue carpet. One of the flowers stood straight and stiff, its petals peeled back to display a bulbous blue fruit growing out of the center of the bloom. Curious, Sam picked the fruit off of the flower, which instantly sagged in relief. He chuckled a bit at this before turning his attention back to the fruit.

It was dark blue, and plum-like both in its shape and its smooth skin. The skin broke with only a moderate application of pressure from his thumbnail. The open fruit smelled heavily of peaches. Were it not for the little bit of survival information he remembered from the days before he quit the Boy Scouts, he would have devoured the aromatic fruit on the spot.

He splashed a drop of its juice on the inside of his wrist and rubbed it into the sensitive skin. After a few tense minutes, nothing happened. Then, shakily, he squeezed a drop or two onto his tongue. The taste of peaches flooded his senses. When the juice proved not to be an irritant inside of his mouth, either, he took a tentative bite.

Delicious, citrusy-sweet juices collected under his tongue and dripped down his beard, leaving a hint of a flowery aftertaste. It was all he could do not to immediately shove the rest of the flower-plum in his mouth. Biting his tongue, he set the fruit down and willed himself to wait. He had to be absolutely certain the fruit wasn’t poisonous before he indulged. He folded his arms and lay down on his side, turning away from the fruit, and resigned himself to counting.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi…


One thousand, one hundred-eight… One thousand… One hundred-nine… One… thousand…

Sam was having difficulty concentrating. His aching stomach roared angrily at him, demanding he fill it with more of the flower fruit. One glance at the fruit beside him, and his mouth was already watering. One more rumbling gurgle, and he was no longer able to restrain himself. He snatched the fruit off the ground, taking only a moment to brush it off before tearing into it. Instantly, his taste buds were flooded with watery, citrusy goodness.

He ate until every morsel of fruit was consumed. Even then, he hungered for more. Casting his gaze about, his eyes fell on three more fruit clustered together a few yards away. He ate those as well, relishing the feeling of the fruit-flesh sliding down his throat, coating it in nectar and filling his stomach. He continued like this for several minutes, until he had eaten more than a dozen of the strange, plum-like growths, then washed down the sweet aftertaste with cold creek water.

Soon after, lethargy set in, pulling on his eyelids and making the air feel like soup. He struggled against it for only a moment before he lay down again, truly content for the first time in weeks.

Maybe I’ll just stay here for a little while. Recover my strength.

Sam yawned before drifting off to sleep, unaware of a second presence in the meadow.

*One week! I turn around for one week to patch up a hole in the universe and he up and wanders off!*

From his vantage point in the sky above the campsite, the intangible tracker scanned the canopy of the forest.

*For weeks I’ve followed this stupid boy’s trail. Weeks! Little ingrate! He was microseconds away from death and worse. Is this any way to repay your savior?*

A whiff from below caught his attention and he tightened his focus to search for the source. Inaudibly, he sighed.

*I can’t really blame him, of course. He can’t possibly understand what happened.*

In the grand scheme of things, only a relatively miniscule number of races actually understood interplanar travel, and the boy’s race was not one of them. If he didn’t know where they were in the multiverse, the boy stood no chance of finding out. The tracker could only hope that the young human would be grateful for his life.

Finally, he homed in on the trail. A faint trace of DNA, like the softest stroke of a brush on canvas, led away from the camp in almost the same direction the boy had entered it. No wonder it had been difficult to pinpoint. It was almost as if the boy was trying to throw him off the trail. The tracker chuckled at the idea as he maneuvered down below the treetops, undetectable to all but the most sensitive of perceptions. Barely a leaf was disturbed by his descent. Only an infinitesimally few beings would be able to mark his passing.

*Hopefully, he hasn’t gotten himself in tr-*

As soon as he was below the treetops, the tracker found where the trail of the human’s discarded skin cells split. But that wasn’t the source of his sudden distress. He also picked up the trails of several other creatures following the boy.

*I just had to open my big fat mouth.*

He surged forward, ghosting past trees and shrubbery with cheetah-like speed. Although this was hardly his top speed, he could only move as fast as his ability to track would allow him. Eventually, he came to to a downhill sprint. The boy’s trail was diluted. He had to have been running at incredible speeds. The other creatures’ ground trails all but vanished. But then, he began spotting small splashes of concentrated DNA. He halted momentarily to get a closer look.


The boy’s blood.

Mind racing, he rocketed down the hill, scanning the ground only infrequently. At an all out sprint, humans had very decreased maneuverability. The boy would’ve been unable to effectively dodge predatory attacks. The pattern of blood droplets widened until he barely had to pay attention to the ground to follow them. If he had a heart to begin with, it would have been pounding.

*Please, please, don’t die!*

Quite suddenly, he came upon a confusing mish-mash of the predators’ trails at the edge of a field of blue flowers. The blood trail continued into the meadow, but the predators seemed to have been unwilling to enter. Relief flooded over him momentarily, until he remembered that the boy had been bleeding. There was still a very real possibility that he could still be in danger. Refocusing on the trail, he noticed the boy made off at a right angle from a point of rest. The tracker picked up the sound of running water as he raced after his charge. Hope flared in the midst of dark despair.

*Maybe he’s still alive! Maybe he was able to patch himself up!*

As he crested the hill overlooking the creek, he spotted the boy, lying on his back. In an instant he was hovering over the sleeping youth.

*Oh thank-*

Just then, he noticed an abnormality. The boy’s breathing was short and uneven, he was sweating profusely, and his heart was beating much too fast. Something was wrong. He started scanning the boy’s internals.

Immediately, he noticed a great, frothing mess in his intestines. As far as he could tell, the boy’s body was trying to digest a large amount of some kind of fruit. Initially, it appeared that the juices of the fruit itself were toxic. But on closer inspection, he noticed a nearly undetectable magical transfer when the blood cells tried to absorb the nutrients. Once the nutrients were consumed, the cells would either shrivel up and die or begin attacking the boy’s body.

He tried to remove the infected material with the strongest translocation spell he could manage, but it wouldn’t budge. Something blocked his attempt from the inside. He applied pressure to the plant flesh, trying to gauge its reaction. The pulp pushed back, its essence writhing and roiling against his.

*Chaos magic!*

He didn’t have enough energy to fight chaos magic, and the boy would die before he rested enough to try again.

*Not enough time. Need to act.*

The chaos magic was deflecting interference from outside the boy’s body, so there was only one other option.

*Oh, he is not going to be happy when he finds out…*

He hesitated, but then shook himself out of it.

*It doesn’t matter. He’s stranded here, with no chance of returning to his old life, because of my incompetence. The least I can do is keep him alive, even if it means sacrificing my freedom. He is my last charge, and he will survive.*

Relaxing his consciousness, he drifted down towards the boy’s head. He compressed his essence, and flew into the boy’s mouth, phasing through the flesh in the back of his throat. He wove himself into the neurons in a miniscule portion of the boy’s brain, overlapping the boy’s own attachments. From there, he began the arduous process of purging the boy’s system. He poured all of his energy into combating the ill effects of the chaos magic that had infused itself into the boy’s bloodstream, isolating and encasing every last mote. It would take a week or more for him to fully expel all of the toxic magic. Thankfully, once he had engaged the invading chaos, the boy’s body was able to process the fruit normally, even gaining nutrition from it. He only hoped he could subtly discourage the boy from eating any more of the enchanted fruit.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t see the toll the fruit had already taken on the boy’s mind.

Sam awoke to a warm, fuzzy feeling enveloping him in body and mind. He rubbed his face, trying to recall what had happened the day before, but he couldn’t think of anything special. He had a suspicion that something was different, but he felt too relaxed to really care. The sound of running water helped him recognize his thirst, and he sat up. He scooted down to the water and drank until he was no longer thirsty. A rumbling in his stomach brought the blue fruit to mind and he searched the area for another cluster.

Moments later he was moving to take another bite of the delicious treat. But he stopped short when he realized there was a small part of him saying it would be a very bad idea. He looked at the fruit.

I do need to eat… other things. But these are tasty. And in… big… There’s a lot of them. I’d be stupid to… not… eat them. Sam shook his head. I must still be tired. My thoughts are all…

He tried for a few minutes to think of the word, but came up empty. Instead he took another bite of the fruit, much to the horror of the little voice.

CHAPTER 03 - An Unfamiliar Face

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Twilight slumped to the ground, happy to be relieved of the burden of her saddlebags. While a dirt path cut into an incline was hardly the most comfortable resting spot, there wasn’t much else in the way of hospitality in a forest. Thankfully, it appeared this trip into the Everfree would be one of the uneventful ones. She hated to think what running with saddlebags packed this full would be like, especially since her friends were carrying equally heavy packs.

“Thanks again for taking time out to come with me girls,” Twilight addressed the two other ponies with her, “I didn’t realize Zecora was serious when she said she had ‘pounds of cures for aches and pains.”

Fluttershy smiled wearily, shrugging off her saddlebags next to Twilight’s. “Happy to help, Twilight. I know how difficult a pegasus’ growing pains can be.” She stretched her wings sympathetically, haunted by the echoes of pubescent hardship.

Rarity, meanwhile, was using her magic to slip out from under her load as gracefully as she could manage. Which, unfortunately, wasn’t terribly graceful. She winced at the rattle of glass bottles as the saddlebags slumped to the dirt. Tentatively, she pulled back the flaps, expecting the worst. Thankfully, the contents appeared undamaged. Exhaling in relief, she pulled out a small cloth and daintily dabbed at the sweat accumulating around her horn. She grinned sheepishly as she joined her friends, conjuring up a cushion to sit on.

“Ahem, yes, well, I suppose I’d be lying if I said I came along solely out of the goodness of my heart. Zecora offered to show me the rare dyes she often finds in her travels, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to take her up on that. I just wish I’d known ahead of time that it would involve… heavy lifting.”

Twilight giggled at her friend’s distaste. “All the same, I appreciate it. I hope you found a few things you can use.”

Rarity perked up at the mention of her new treasures. “Oh, but I absolutely did! Take this one for example,” - she levitated a bottle of dark dust out of her bags - “when mixed with water, it produces a magnificent shade of cobalt blue that positively sparkles in the light. I think it will be the perfect accent for my new line.”

Twilight tried to pay attention to Rarity as she excitedly explained all the things she was planning to do with Zecora’s gifts – she really did – but her new wings started acting up again. It always began the same way: little twinges and aches in the unfamiliar joints would escalate until she was unable to find a comfortable way to hold them. Even stretching did nothing to assuage the discomfort. Eventually, her feathers would become ruffled and it would take at least an hour to get them back in place. It made her question if becoming a Princess had really been worth the hassle, and that was nothing to speak of the unexpected challenge falling asleep had become.

Eventually, Rarity trailed off when she noticed Fluttershy’s concerned looks towards their friend. She glanced over to see Twilight trying unsuccessfully to hide a pained expression, her wings twitching and rustling restlessly.

“Twilight, darling, are you not feeling well?”

Startled, Twilight’s wings flared reflexively, eliciting a yelp of pain. Twilight locked her gaze on her hooves, cheeks burning and ears splayed.


“It’s quite alright, darling. I can’t imagine what it’s like to quite suddenly have to deal with a whole new set of limbs.”

“Come on, Twilight,” Fluttershy comforted, “let’s head back out. The sooner we get back, the sooner we can mix up some of those remedies Zecora gave you.”

Twilight sighed and gave them a pained grin. “Thanks, guys. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Just as they were getting ready to pick up their saddlebags, a distant roar froze them in their tracks.

“Fluttershy,” Twilight whispered, “was that-?”

“A manticore?” She finished the statement, swallowing nervously. “Yes, and it sounded really angry. We should get moving.”

The girls dashed over and picked up their bags, fumbling anxiously with the straps. It wasn’t until too late that they realized something was crashing towards them through the bushes above. A large figure burst out of the underbrush and rolled down the slope, coming to rest in the middle of the path. The girls whipped around, expecting to see a furious manticore. They were, therefore, completely unprepared for the sight that awaited them.

Before them was a creature unlike any Twilight had ever seen. At a glance, it could have been mistaken for a hornless minotaur. But, when it picked itself up off the ground, she saw that it more closely resembled an ape of some kind. Strangely, it was almost entirely hairless and quite entirely without a tail. The majority of its hair circled its head; a matted, light-brown mop framed by a scruffy, darker brown beard. While it was mostly unclothed, it wore a tattered pair of loose denim leggings with a strange set of footwear, and carried some sort of bag slung about its shoulders. From its musculature and facial hair, she presumed it was male, but also obviously malnourished. He stared at them with wild and frightened eyes… Almost as if he had never seen anything like them.

Then, suddenly, his attention snapped back the way he came, and he bolted off down the hill. Seconds later, a manticore, snarling furiously, charged out of the forest above them, chasing after the fleeing creature. The manticore paid them barely any heed, intent on settling whatever grudge it held with the ape-like thing.

They watched the spectacle disappear into the forest. No one dared move for several seconds.

“Fluttershy,” Twilight whispered, “what was that?”

The pegasus gulped. “I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Well,” Rarity added breathlessly, “while this is normally more of Rainbow Dash’s forte, I think we should to go after them.”

Twilight and Fluttershy both did a double take before staring incredulously at Rarity. She huffed indignantly.

“Don’t give me that look! You saw its– er, his clothing. He’s obviously from some sort of civilization, and we can’t just leave him to his fate!”

Twilight and Fluttershy looked at each other, before giving nervous but determined nods. Somepony needed their help, and they would not turn tail and run. As one, they galloped off into the forest after the stranger and the manticore, following the trail of broken underbrush and churned earth.

Already, questions and ideas were buzzing agitatedly around Twilight’s head; questions like ‘Who is he?’, ‘What is he?’ and ‘Where did he come from?’ The thought of new, possibly even unheard of knowledge was tantalizing. But she shoved the giddy excitement aside until later. They first needed to address the most pressing concern: how in the world were they going to calm a raging manticore? The obvious candidate was Fluttershy, but…

“Fluttershy, that manticore looked pretty angry. Do you think you’ll be able to calm him like the last one?”

“Oh, um, I don’t know,” Fluttershy, fretted. “I can try, but I’m not sure how successful I’ll be.”

“Alright. Rarity, can you cast a sleep spell?”

“It’s… been a while since I’ve… used one, but I’ll… give it my best… shot,” Rarity affirmed between gasping breaths.

“Alright. Fluttershy, you try to talk him down. Rarity and I will have sedation spells prepared in case things get ugly. Rarity, be ready to cast as soon as we reach them.”

Rarity just nodded, focusing on keeping up. As they crested the opposite side of a shallow ditch, they heard a triumphant snarl followed by a pained yelp.

“Come on, girls! That was close!” Twilight shouted, veering towards the noise.

They rounded a thicket of dense trees to find the manticore stalking towards the stranger. He desperately tried to back away from his prone position, hampered by the bloody claw marks on the back of his calf. The manticore sneered in triumph and raised its barbed tail, poised to strike the final blow. Twilight was about to charge up her spell when Fluttershy’s voice rang out loud and clear.

“Um, excuse me?”

The manticore faltered. Not turning away from his target, he glanced back at the intruder, frustrated at the interruption.

“I… I’m sorry to intrude, but is this really necessary?”

The manticore snarled indignantly at her. Clearly this little pegasus didn’t understand the laws of the jungle. Fluttershy gulped, trying hard not to quail under his furious glare.

“Oh, well, um, I’m sure he didn’t know those were your mating grounds. I know he won’t make that mistake again. Would you please consider letting him go?”

He snorted. Perhaps she did know a little about how things worked. She was certainly right about one thing: the little pest wouldn’t be making that mistake again. He turned back to his prey, a hungry gleam in his eye, and growled deep in his throat. How did little ape-things taste? He wondered.

Seeing the manticore turn back on the defenseless ape creature, Fluttershy suddenly felt righteous indignation boiling in her mind.

“Excuse me!”

Surprised, the manticore turned to stare at the pegasus. Where had the timid little thing gone, and who was this that replaced her?

“I realize he offended you, but this is wrong! Surely, he’s been punished enough! The poor thing is scared out of his wits! How would you like it if you accidentally wandered into an Ursa’s territory, and she didn’t stop after chasing you out? You wouldn’t like that very much, would you?”

The manticore felt something unfamiliar well up in his chest, something he hadn’t felt since he was a cub. He started to protest, but was quickly cut off.

“No! What you’re doing is wrong, and you know it! Now leave this creature alone, and go think about what you’ve done!”

Her stare withered his defiance. When he looked into her eyes, he could only see his mother, glaring at him in disappointment. Thoroughly rebuked, he slunk off shamefully in the direction of his cave, unable to look the pegasus in the eye any longer.

Twilight and Rarity watched in awe as the manticore shuffled off into the woods, fighting spirit thoroughly broken. After he had disappeared, they trotted over to Fluttershy.

“My goodness, Fluttershy!” Rarity marvelled. “No matter how many times I see it in action, your Stare never ceases to impress.”

Fluttershy smiled meekly at her friends, but was too preoccupied with the strange ape to give a response. Twilight turned to him as well, clearing her throat.

“I’m sorry we didn’t get here sooner, sir. Would you like some help?”

The stranger did not answer, or even respond, until Twilight took a step forward. He scrambled backwards, retreating from the perceived threat.

“Sir, I just want to help you. Can you understand me?”

Fluttershy was unsure if he could. The entire time Twilight had been speaking, his eyes were whipping around the clearing, searching for the best escape route. While she could see some intelligence in his gaze, it was the kind of intelligence she saw in the eyes of her animal friends, and even then it was buried under layers of paranoia and self-preservation. From the look of things, he had been somepony’s pet that either got lost or abandoned and had to survive in this forest, alone, fending for himself for quite some time. Long enough to no longer trust anypony. The poor thing was terrified of them. If she didn’t get get him to calm down, they wouldn’t be able to help him.

Fluttershy gently put her hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. Twilight turned to look at her, distress pulling at the corners of her mouth.

“Twilight, I don’t think he has pony intelligence. Would you let me try?”

The scholar in Twilight sighed in defeat. She had hoped he would be able to communicate with the strange creature, maybe learn about where he came from and what he was doing here. Unfortunately, it appeared that Fluttershy was correct. With a regretful nod, she returned to Rarity’s side. From there, the two watched the shy little pegasus do what she did best.

“It’s ok,” Fluttershy cooed reassuringly, “no need to be afraid. We won’t hurt you.”

Upon hearing her speak, he stopped backing away, but he was still watching them nervously. She lay down, motioning for her friends to do the same. He didn’t move, but still kept his eyes on them. Fluttershy’s heart ached as she saw the blood dripping from his calf. Slowly, she turned her head to reach into her saddlebag, and pulled out one of the apples she had brought in case anypony got hungry on the trip.

“Twilight,” she whispered, “could you split this with your magic?”

“Oh, um, sure,” she mumbled back. There was a small flash, and the apple fell in two halves. Fluttershy heard a sharp intake of breath from the creature, and she turned back. It had retreated a few more feet, startled by the sudden flash of light.

“Shhh, it’s alright,” she gently hushed, “it was just a little spell. See? Food.”

As calmly and docilely as she could, Fluttershy crawled towards him, inching along until he looked like he on the verge of bolting. Then, she laid one half of the apple on the forest floor and slowly backed away, trying her hardest not to startle him anymore than he already was. Halfway between the first apple half and her friends she placed the second half, then backed up the rest of the way and lay down.

“Go ahead,” she said encouragingly, “those are for you.”

The ape’s eyes darted between them and the apple half. He licked his lips, clearly debating whether or not to make a move. Then, slowly, cautiously, he leant forwards. Fluttershy laid her head on her crossed forelegs, trying to look as friendly and docile as possible. After a minute, the ape took a tentative hop forwards, favoring his injured leg. He watched the girls carefully, to see if they would make a move, then hopped forwards again.

This pattern repeated until he was a few feet away from the apple. Then, keeping his eyes on them, he slowly reached forward. As soon as his fingers touched the apple, he snatched it up and hopped backwards a few times. Fluttershy heard Rarity gasp and scramble to her hooves, as if to make chase. Fluttershy looked back at her friend, eyes pleading for her to stay put. Rarity understood, thankfully, and went back to watching the lost animal.

He brought the apple to his nose and snuffled around it, trying to determine its edibility. Apparently he liked what he smelled, because he took a tentative bite out of the fruit. Fluttershy couldn’t help but grin when he froze, eyes dilated. Snapping out of his revery, the ape wolfed down the rest of the apple, licking his fingers excitedly. He looked crestfallen when the treat was gone, but it seemed that he immediately remembered the other half. Uncertain, he looked between the girls and the apple. Seeing they hadn’t moved while he ate, he scooted forwards, reaching the second apple half with little hesitation. He snatched up the piece of fruit and hopped back only once before devouring his prize. While he ate the apple, Fluttershy had Twilight split another one. This time Twilight did her best to suppress the flash of light that followed her magic, but couldn’t suppress everything.

Fluttershy looked back to see the ape holding his breath, but watching them warily from the same spot. Smiling invitingly, Fluttershy placed another apple half before her, pushing it out as far as she could without getting up. The ape hopped forward eagerly, but stopped when he came within a few yards of their current position. He sized them up, looking for signs of hostility. Fluttershy kept her breathing slow and steady, loosening up the tension that had been building alongside the hope that she could get the poor thing to trust her. She heard her friends doing the same, and mentally thanked them for being so quick to follow her cues; although Rarity was breathing more… dramatically than was really necessary.

Thankfully, he didn’t seem to mind the theatrics and crawled forward, keeping his eyes on them the entire time. Carefully, he plucked the apple half and stuffed it whole into his mouth, watching their reactions. Fluttershy giggled, seeing his cheek puffed out around the large piece of fruit. He grinned a little at this, chewing slowly as he examined them.

She held out the last piece of apple in her hoof, the warmest smile she could muster on her face. The ape chewed contemplatively, before swallowing what remained of his apple. He stared into Fluttershy’s eyes.

Slowly, he shifted towards her. When he was no more than a yard away, he cautiously reached forward, watching her movements. Fluttershy sat as still as possible, not wanting to ruin the trust she’d gained. His hand inched toward the apple. Fluttershy held her breath.

When his hand closed around the fruit, instead of snatching it away, he gently lifted it off her hoof. From this close, his sheer size became much more apparent. Even crouched down, she could tell he would stand at least as tall as Iron Will – horns and all – on his hind legs. Still staring at her, he took a careful bite out of the apple, slightly relaxing as he watched her. Occasionally, his gaze would flick to the other two with her. It was obvious that she had quite a lot of trust to build up, but it seemed like she was off to a good start.

There was still one more thing to try. She pulled the last apple out of her bag and held it up before him.

“Good boy,” he cooed encouragingly. “See? We want to help you. There’s more apples for you if you come with us. Will you come with us?”

She held up the apple temptingly, sitting up to be closer to eye level. Her smile grew as he licked his lips, then shuffled tentatively into her hoof’s reach, gently reaching for the third treat. Like before, he picked it gently out of her hoof, but didn’t move away. Then he sat, quietly munching on the apple. He would occasionally look back over at Fluttershy, a curious but hopeful look in his eyes.

She held out hoof for him, showing she meant no harm. He almost backed away before curiosity overcame him. He reached out and gently stroked her arm, feeling the soft fur and examining her hooves. She moved the hoof, so he could watch, to reach for him. Expectedly, he tensed up, and she murmured soothingly to him.

“It’s ok. It’s ok.” She repeated the phrase, to help him become more accustomed to her voice. Gently, she placed her hoof on his shoulder, and began to pet him. With each stroke, his taut muscles loosened up until he was like putty in her hooves, leaning into her touch and humming happily. He pawed pitifully at her arm when she stopped, and she couldn’t help but giggle at the disappointed look on his face.

“Come on, let’s go back to Ponyville. I can patch you up better when we get to my house. Then you can meet the rest of my animal friends.”

She stood up to turn to her friends and he followed suit, hopping along behind her on his three uninjured limbs. At first, he was leery of approaching the two unknowns. But when they mimicked Fluttershy in offering their forelegs for him to touch, to show they, too, meant no harm, he relaxed his caution. Twilight was fascinated by the strange hairlessness of the creature and was eager to look him up in her zoology texts, to see if his condition was unique among his kind. Rarity, meanwhile, was interested in examining what remained of his clothing. Perhaps if she could identify the style, she would be able to help determine his place of origin.

“Alright girls, let’s hurry back to Fluttershy’s. I’m going to need research material if we’re to figure out this mystery.”

Discord growled in irritation as he flew over the same patch of forest for the umpteenth time that day. It was a thoroughly unremarkable patch of forest, and he had seen thousands more just like it. It was becoming increasingly difficult to care about that little patch of forest with each pass. It was just so boring. Which was exactly the problem.

For weeks, Discord had been scouring the Everfree for any sign of an alien invader. He’d scanned every square mile of the forest through all the types of vision: color, monochrome, infrared, ultraviolet, uber chartreuse, monocular, binocular, trinocular, x-ray, y-ray, z-ray, and even beer-goggle. Nothing popped out at him as unusual. The only reason he was so concerned by this small collection of trees was because of how little he could bring himself to care about it.

The first couple times he passed by it, he just skipped it over. After all, it was exactly like the rest of the forest. Why he should bother with such a nondescript piece of land was beyond him. So, naturally, the third time he came around, his inability to concentrate on the copse of trees sparked his suspicion. Any other spot, he could scan so thoroughly that he understood the personal life of a single ant in an anthill from a mile away. But the longer he stared at this area, the stronger the feeling that it didn’t matter, and that little voice in the back of his mind would tell him that it was somepony else’s problem.

“So, it’s Somepony Else’s Problem, is it?”

That’s right.

“In that case, I guess I don’t need to worry about it.”


“So, it’s the perfect spot to take a break.”


But before he could argue with himself any further, Discord snapped his talon and was quite suddenly lounging on a lawn chair in a vast clearing, sipping a mimosa. He looked around, and found no sign of the trees that had made up the foliage he’d seen from the air.

“A complete sensory illusion field with an SEP perception filter. Well now, it seems that Somepony Else’s Problem has become MY problem.”

With that declaration, the nagging effects of the mental dissuasion evaporated. A clever and thorough ruse, albeit hastily put together, if the ease with which he broke the illusion was any indicator. Someone was trying hard not to be found, but was in too much of a hurry to cover their trail properly.

He tossed the mimosa aside, and stood up, scanning the clearing for anything out of place. It turned out he had not far to search, for after only a ninety-degree turn, he spotted something very clearly not a natural part of the forest. Jammed up in the crook of a branching maple was a mangled mess of metal and rubber.

“What have we here?”

With a flippant snap, the wreckage disappeared out of the tree and reappeared beside him.

“This seems familiar…”

Curious, he grasped both halves of the wreckage and unbent it with as much ceremony as he would uncrumple a wad of paper. The wreckage started to take shape before him, until he was looking at something that slightly resembled the original object. He looked on his work with distaste.

“Honestly, imposing order on anything is just so blasé. Still, at least I’m getting a clearer picture of what-”

The image clicked in his mind. A car. He was staring at the remains of a human automobile. Instantly, his hackles rose, and a cold fury descended on his mind. He’d begun to think, after all this time, that he’d finally found a place isolated from the ravages brought by that incessant species, and now one up and decides to just fall into his reality and start messing up all his hard work? Not if he had anything to say about it.

He conjured up a note and attached it to the wreck, before translocating the whole mess into Celestia’s bedchambers. Her court mages could strip the thing down to spare parts for all he cared, they wouldn’t be able to discern much without knowledge of combustible fuels. His obligation to alert the Princesses of his progress fulfilled, he began sniffing out the traces of the obfuscation magic. He knew what it smelled like now. The human wasn’t going to be able to pull one over on him!

As soon as Discord picked up the trail, he phased out of corporeality. He wasn’t about to give the escapee the satisfaction of a tripped wire or crossed sensor. This was one enemy that would not escape his wrath. He’d put too much time observing and testing this race to have one blundering idiot bring it all crashing down on his head. When he caught up, the two of them were going to have a long, thorough discussion, and no one – not even Celestia – was going to stand in his way.

“The saying is ‘to boldly go,’ is it not?” He seethed, stalking through the trees. “Well, my little human friend, this time you’ve boldly gone too far.”

CHAPTER 04 - An Unanswered Mystery

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“Sorry, but this is going to sting for just a bit.”

Fluttershy picked up the tweezers in her mouth, clamping down on the alcohol soaked cotton ball. She placed a comforting hoof on the ape creature’s thigh, already bare of his leggings, and moved in to begin disinfecting the gashes on his calf. But, at the lightest touch of the swab, his leg jerked away, and she received an angry yowl for her trouble. She set aside the tweezers, quietly sighing away her distress.

“Oh, come now. You’re not going to get better unless you let me help you. It’ll only sting for a little bit, I promise.”

The primate glared back at her, then dejectedly returned to his sidelong position facing the back of her couch, grumbling at the cushions. He relinquished his injury into her care again, sticking his leg out ramrod straight in a petulant display of displeasure. She giggled, seeing behavior in another animal that mirrored Angel Bunny’s, who was conspicuously absent. In fact all off her animal friends had vacated the cottage when she brought him in. Oh well, they’re probably just scared of him right now. I'll introduce them later.

“Don't worry. It won't take long, you big baby,” she teased good-naturedly.

Once again, Fluttershy retrieved the tweezers, and moved in to clean out the wound. This time, when the cotton contacted flesh, there was naught but an errant twitch and a hiss of discomfort. Fluttershy moved as efficiently as she could, keeping to her promise of swiftness. When she was satisfied that the gashes had been properly sanitized, she picked up the tube of antibiotic gel, squeezed a line along each cut, and then, with practiced ease, wrapped the whole thing up snug with an elastic bandage around a gauze pad.

While Fluttershy tended to her patient, Rarity had been examining his discarded clothing. He hadn’t much to offer, only his pair of denim leggings and a softer pair of undergarments. Plus that bag that kept giving her the heebie-jeebies. She couldn’t put her hoof on it, but something about the thing seemed wrong. Shaking herself of the disturbing thoughts, she returned her attention to the leggings. She held them up, thankful that they had taken the time to thoroughly wash both the creature and his clothing after they reached Fluttershy’s cottage; she’d had a difficult time standing near the poor thing the entire trip out of the forest. Twilight had run off to grab research materials as soon as they were clear of the trees. Only Fluttershy seemed able to bear his odor, though Rarity suspected she had been breathing through her mouth.

The leggings were standard, machine stitched denim, with a button and zipper combination at the front to better facilitate pulling them on. Their design was reminiscent of a few minotaur fashions she’d studied – she believed they called them “jeens” – so maybe that was something to look into. The leggings were held up by a standard canvas belt with no markings, and the tag sewn into the inside seam of the leggings gave no insight, either. It was written in a language foreign to her, so she would have to wait for Twilight to try and decipher it.

With a sigh, Rarity set the torn denim aside. Unfortunately, she could discern nothing from his cotton undergarment either. They appeared to be a simplification of the leggings, with shorter ‘sleeves,’ an elastic waistband, and a single button in place of a zipper. If there had ever been a design mark in the first place, it had long since been worn down or fallen off. While at first she didn’t understand their purpose, she began to suspect that the piece had been designed specifically for the mostly hairless ape. Denim was a fairly rough material, so the undergarment could be designed to alleviate chafing in his more sensitive regions. Plus, there was his... unusual condition.

She remembered his surprised yelp when she had first tried to disrobe him with her magic. After Fluttershy had coaxed him down from his hiding spot atop one of her shelves – she still couldn’t figure out how, with his size, he had managed to climb up without knocking it over – she helped Rarity to remove his leggings without much fuss. But when they tried to remove the undergarments, he had held on to them, giving them a look of confusion and uncertainty. He had only released his grasp when Fluttershy showed him the soapy washbasin she used to wash the other animals. They had certainly received quite a shock at that.

At first, Rarity had feared they had made a terrible mistake. He was completely exposed, and she had been certain something indecent was about to happen. But then he had simply climbed into the wooden basin, wincing at first when the water touched his injuries, then cooing happily as he settled into the warm water. When he made no other moves, Fluttershy then proceeded to wash him, unable to hide her blush. Either he hadn’t noticed her discomfort, or hadn’t understood, because he just sat there, humming contentedly as months of grime were washed away. But then, when Fluttershy had worked up the nerve to clean all of him, he had grabbed her hoof before it came too close, taking the brush to finish the job himself.

After he had been washed and dried, he just sat huddled in the towels, happily rubbing his face into the soft fabric. He hadn’t made a single move to indicate he was preparing for intimacy, and yet his stallionhood remained on display for all to see. If anything, he had seemed… looser than before. At that point, she took Fluttershy aside and demanded an explanation as quietly and nonchalantly as she could. Fluttershy seemed lost for a moment, before a curious look crossed her face. She looked over to the creature – who was watching them, head tilted in confusion – before turning back to Rarity. Then she said the strangest thing Rarity had heard yet.

“I think he might not have a sheath.”

It had taken Rarity a moment to process what she had heard.

“F- Fluttershy, darling, what are you talking about? That’s just silly.”

“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and it kinda makes sense. I mean, he doesn’t really have much hair or fur, and I don’t think that’s because of an illness. His kind probably evolved in a warm climate, where it wasn’t as important to keep the cold out. Besides, I guess he kind of has a sheath. It’s just the skin covering his-”

“Yes, okay!” Rarity quickly interjected before Fluttershy could continue. “I’ll, uh, leave the explanation to the experts, I think. Just so long as he isn’t entertaining lewd thoughts.”

“I don’t think so. He’d probably be much… stiffer.”

Immediately, Rarity had retreated from the conversation, avoiding eye contact with either of the others in the room.

She had focused all her attention on examining his effects after that. Now that she was thinking about it, Fluttershy’s claim seemed more reasonable by the minute. It would certainly put his wearing clothing into context. Unfortunately, it still told her nothing about who had the clothing made for him.

Rarity grumbled in frustration. So many unanswered questions, and so few clues to go on. She couldn’t even discern anything from his fashions, her professed forte. She was about to toss the undergarment into a pile with the denim leggings, when she heard a low chirp from the couch. She turned to see the ape twisted around from his position facing the back of the couch, watching her, eyes occasionally flicking to the piece of clothing floating in the air. She glanced between the two until the connection clicked in her mind.

“You want these back, don’t you?”

He chirped again and held out his hand, palm up, in a supplicating gesture. She gave an amused huff, then levitated the garment over to him. Immediately, he snatched it out of her magic and clumsily put his legs through the sleeves, much to Fluttershy’s chagrin. Eventually, he figured out how they were supposed to go, and pulled them up, once again covering himself from roaming eyes. Rarity sighed in barely concealed relief.

Oh well. It’s not like there’s anything more to learn by studying them…

But then, she remembered there was one other object she hadn’t looked into. She glanced apprehensively at the bag sitting against the wall, and shuddered. It was just a bag, right? So why was she so revolted by the thing?

Steeling herself, Rarity strode up to the bag, determined not to let it best her. Once she was only a step away, she stopped, unable to take another step. She took a deep breath, and came to a compromise between her unease and her need for answers by examining it from a distance.

Critically speaking, the overall design was pleasantly simplistic. It was large, at least three times the size of a standard saddlebag, with three outer pockets – one on the front and one on each side – and secured by two standard belts wrapped vertically around either side of the front pocket. She was certain that she’d seen similar, albeit simpler, bags in use in minotaur fashions. However, she couldn’t be sure if this indicated that his owner was a minotaur, or if it had simply been based on minotaur designs for the ape creature to use.

Upon closer inspection, she noticed that the rounded metal snaps on the pockets were embossed with the image of a buffalo from the side, with unfamiliar letters that wrapped around the top and bottom of the image. Three of those same letters were engraved onto the front flap: from the left were one that looked like a snake or a curved road, one that looked like a snowy mountain peak or maybe a tent, and a third that looked like twin peaks. She wondered idly if Twilight knew anything about the language.

Well, there’s nothing more to be learned from the bag’s exterior. I suppose it’s time to open it up.

By then, Fluttershy was finishing up with the her first aid efforts.

“There we go. See, doesn’t that feel bet-”


Instantly, all eyes were on Rarity.

“Rarity, what’s wrong?!”

Rarity backed away from the bag, holding her nose, nausea growing by the second. There was no mistaking that smell. She had only ever been to one griffon fashion show, and had been shocked to learn about the kinds of materials they used. At first she had been fascinated by the material they called ‘leather,’ entranced by its durability, its water-resistance, and its sheen. But when she’d asked how leather was made, she was not prepared for the answer.

“This… this… THING! It’s leather!”


“Leather! It’s…” Rarity put a hoof over her mouth, trying her hardest not to gag. “It’s a griffon material, made from… tanned cow hide.”

Fluttershy gasped, looking between Rarity and the ape, who watched their distress with confusion and alarm of his own. Rarity swallowed audibly, trying to force her bile back down.

“Well, there’s nothing for it,” she asserted, “we’ll have to get rid of it.”

She proceeded to remove the contents of the bag, ignoring the squawk of protest from the ape. He had quite a few unusual things in the bag – tools, notebooks, a large black plastic rectangle that looked somewhat like a book – but she was too preoccupied with the target of her ire to take note of anything that fell out of it. Once she was satisfied that all of the contents of its pockets were emptied, she trotted towards the door, bag trailing behind in her magic aura.

“Rarity, wait!”

“Don’t worry, my dear. I’ll just go put this… abomination… in the trash, and we’ll have done with-”

She had barely crossed the threshold when a sudden tug on the bag stopped her short. She looked behind her to see the ape with his arms latched around the bag. She yanked on the strap, but he wouldn’t budge.

“Nnnnh… Let… go!”

The ape only growled at her and tightened his grip, a wild look in his eyes. She turned around, angling herself away from the ape for better leverage. She gritted her teeth and strained against him, digging furrows in the dirt with her hooves, but the bag wouldn’t budge an inch. After a few minutes struggle, the ape tore the bag out of her magical grasp and she fell backwards onto the dirt path. He bounded over to the far corner of the room and huddled protectively over his prize.

Rarity rocketed to her hooves, raging at the indignity of it all. She stormed over to the trembling ape, intent on giving him a piece of her mind.


“Not now, Fluttershy! Somepony needs to teach this ruffian some manners!”

She took a wide stance a few paces away from the ape, head lowered as though readying to charge, and began shouting.

“How dare you treat a lady that way?! I was trying to do something nice for you, you big gorilla! Do you even realize what that bag is? How it was made? If would just let me dispose of that disgusting display of butchery, I could make you something even bet-”

The ape, tired of her tirade, whipped his head around and glared at her. But Rarity saw something in his eyes that she didn’t expect. Instead of the glint primal rage, she found glistening tears and an angry expression of grief and pain. Taken aback, she opened her mouth to apologize. But before she could get out another word, he hissed at her, clenching the bag tighter to his chest.

She felt Fluttershy’s hoof on her shoulder, gently pulling her away.

“Come on, Rarity. I think we should give him some space.”

Fluttershy led her to the other side of the room, away from the agitated animal. Rarity sat down with a sniff, swallowing at a lump in her throat.

“What was that about? I really was trying to help him, you know. Poor thing probably doesn’t even know what he’s carrying.”

Fluttershy was silent for a time, carefully pondering her hooves, before she replied.

“Rarity… I was thinking. About where we found him. I think he may have been traveling through the Everfree with his owner, whoever that was, and that… that something may have happened to them,” she explained, then looked back at the ape. “That bag may be all he has left of his owner.”

Rarity stifled a gasp with her hoof, a pang of guilt freezing her insides.

“I… I hadn’t even considered…”

Suddenly it all made sense. Of course he would want to keep it. If it was the last reminder of a previous owner, one that he loved, it wouldn’t matter what it was. He’d want to keep it no matter the personal cost. He couldn’t help it if the one that cared for him had used barbaric practices. For all she knew, it was the norm where he came from. And here she was, trying to throw away the last reminder of a better time in his life. Her ears drooped as the shame washed over her.

Slowly, she got back on her hooves and walked over to the ape’s corner, shoulders hunched and head bowed. Fluttershy followed her progress with anxious eyes. Rarity stopped just inside of his reach. A moment passed, then two, and more, while Rarity tried to compose herself. Finally, she worked up the courage to speak.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

The ape’s head perked up, and he watched her suspiciously out of the corner of his eye.

“I didn’t think your bag might mean that much to you. It was… inconsiderate of me to try and do what I did. I promise I won’t touch your bag again. I’ll even make you a new one, so you can have two!”

Hopefully, Fluttershy can help you understand that your owner’s bag might make ponies uncomfortable. I just wish your memento wasn’t so… barbaric.

The ape frowned suspiciously at her, as if he could sense her ulterior motive. She flinched, hoping she hadn’t just made him more angry, even if he had every right to be. She would be if she were in his position. Her hesitant grin faded as the guilt came back full force.

“I really am sorry.”

For a moment, Rarity was convinced that the ape wouldn’t forgive her, and reminded herself that his anger was definitely justified. But her self-berating was interrupted by the soft touch of the ape’s fingers on her arm. Her eyes snapped up to his, and was surprised to see that his eyes matched his touch. She could swear that she saw the forgiveness. He was still miffed, but he would let it slide. She put a thankful hoof over his hand.

“I will keep my promise.”

Just then, the front door to Fluttershy’s cottage burst open, revealing a very frazzled and disheveled Twilight Sparkle. With a grunt, she dumped several saddlebags loaded up with books onto the floor. She stomped over to the couch and, with a frustrated growl, flung herself onto it.

“Twilight!” Fluttershy exclaimed, fluttering over to her friend. “What’s wrong?”


“Huh?” Fluttershy’s brow furrowed in confusion.

“I found nothing! There’s nothing in any zoology textbook, expedition account, or myth in all of Golden Oaks Library that could possibly refer to him!”

“Really?” Rarity marvelled, joining them at the couch. “Nothing at all?”

“The closest thing I could find that looks anything like him are chimpanzees, but even then the physical differences are staggering. In size alone, he’s closer to a gorilla, but very little else! Everything has more hair than him. The only thing I know for certain is that he’s a primate.”

She buried her face in one of the cushions and moaned loudly once more. It seemed that the ape was able to recognize the tension in the room, because he gently placed his bag in the corner and crawled over to the trio of ponies. He looked nervously between their downcast faces, unsure of what was causing their distress. But in his mind, there was only one remedy.

Carefully, he crawled up on the couch and sat on his heels next to Twilight. She was about to look around to see what he was up to, when she felt something combing through her mane. Her heart shot up into her throat. A glance back showed her that he was running his fingers through her hair, straightening out her mane in the process. Confused and a unsettled by this strange display, Twilight turned to the animal expert.

“Fluttershy!” She hissed through clenched teeth, “What’s he doing?”

Startled out of her pensive contemplation, Fluttershy’s attention shot up to the couch, fearing the worst. It took a moment to process what she was seeing. But instead of concern, she found herself relieved and amused, and couldn’t help but giggle at Twilight’s unnecessary dismay.

“Twilight, he’s grooming you,” she reassured, touched by the large creature’s care for her friend’s mental state. “It’s something primates do to comfort and bond with one another. He’s trying to help you relax.”

The knot of anxiety unraveled with Fluttershy’s explanation, though Twilight was still unsure of how she should be responding to this attention. But as his ministrations continued, she found herself growing increasingly relaxed, even reassured by his touch. As she loosened up, the ape began humming in contentment, seeing he was making progress. Eventually, Twilight let loose a long sigh, feeling much calmer, though her shoulders and back were still sore from tension and hunching over tomes of information. At this, the ape ceased grooming, satisfied that he had helped. He then let loose a titanic yawn, curled up on the opposite end of the couch, and promptly fell asleep.

“Poor thing,” Fluttershy cooed, “I can’t imagine how hard it must have been on him, having to survive in the Everfree all on his own. I gave him some more food when we got back, and he would have choked if I hadn’t coaxed him into slowing down.”

“Not to mention what you suspect of his backstory,” Rarity added sullenly.

“Why, what do you think happened?” Twilight asked, already dreading the answer.

“Well, it’s pretty obvious he must have been tame before he lived in the Everfree. But from how protective he is of the bag he had with him, Fluttershy thinks he may have witnessed his previous owner’s… death.”

Twilight nearly gasped aloud at the thought, but quickly remembered the sleeping ape next to her.

“Oh how horrible,” she murmured, watching him with sad eyes. “Have you found out who his master was?”

Rarity sighed. “Unfortunately, no. I haven’t had a chance to examine the contents of the bag yet, but any writings we may find there will probably be just as foreign as the markings on the bag itself. I think it’s possible that his owner was either a griffon, since the bag is made of… eugh, leather… or a minotaur, from its design. Unfortunately, I can’t tell for certain. His clothes are far too simple to identify their origin, and the one tag I could find was likely printed in the same language.”

The trio mulled over the information, curiosity growing by the minute. Quite a confounding mystery they had gotten themselves into. Every answer seemed to sprout five more questions. Finally, Twilight made up her mind. They weren’t going to get anywhere by sitting around, moping about their ignorance. She stood up and made her way over to her saddlebags.

“Alright, girls, we have work to do if we want to piece this puzzle together. Fluttershy?”

“Yes, Twilight?”

“Do you think you could convince Dr. Fauna to come take a look at him?” She called over her shoulder, pulling a quill, ink, and scroll out of her saddlebags. “She may know something that can help us figure out where he came from.”

“I’ll try, but I don’t know if she’ll be able to come right away. Her clinic can be awfully busy at times.”

Twilight nodded, already jotting down notes. “Just ask her to come by ASAP. I don’t want to keep you from taking care of your animals.” She then turned to Rarity.

“Rarity, could you get one of the other girls to help get these books from the library?” Twilight passed the list she had been writing over to Rarity’s levitation. “Spike should know where to find them. In the mean time, I’m going to study the things you found in his bag.”

Rarity glanced hesitantly at the sleeping ape. “Alright. But, for goodness sake, be careful! He was rather upset when I tried to take his bag. I don’t want to find out what may happen if your… ahem, curiosity, gets the better of you.” She pointedly eyed the more peculiar objects in the pile of the ape’s possessions. Twilight followed her gaze and immediately recognized Rarity’s worry. She chuckled sheepishly.

“Alright, I promise not to try taking anything apart until he’s awake.”

Rarity capitulated with her best long-suffering sigh, knowing that was likely the best assurance she was going to get.

“Very well, we’ll be back as soon as we can, darling.”

Twilight simply hummed an affirmation, already engrossed in sorting the contents of the bag by type. Slowly shaking her head in defeat, Rarity followed Fluttershy outside. Fluttershy gave Twilight one last worried stare before closing the door behind her. She quickly joined Rarity on her way down the lane from the cottage, still glancing anxiously back at the door. Eventually, she gave in and spoke her fears.

“Oh, do you think Twilight will be okay in there, by herself?”

Rarity let out what felt like her hundredth distressed sigh that day. “I suppose she can handle herself. She did promise not to do anything too rash.” But then she followed Fluttershy’s example and stared uneasily at the cottage.

“On the other hoof, you’d best run along. The quicker you get your message to Dr. Fauna, the quicker you can come back to keep an eye on things.”

“Alright. I’ll see you back at the cottage?”

"Sure thing, darling. I'll see you soon."

With that, Fluttershy took to the air, making a beeline for the Ponyville Veterinary Clinic, hoping frantically that nothing would go amiss in her absence.


Boredom. It was the bane of Rainbow Dash’s existence.

Usually, her days were occupied with weather management and aerial acrobatics. However, today’s weather was scheduled to be the same as yesterday’s: slightly cloudy. The weather team only needed to shift the clouds around a bit, to make sure nothing was covered too completely. She’d also been banned from practicing her stunts for a week, as punishment for crashing into Town Hall.

“Honestly,” she grumbled to herself, fluffing up the cloud she was laying on, “it was only a window and a couple of filing cabinets. I don’t see why the Mayor’s making such a big fuss.”

She flopped back down onto her stomach, idly kicking her legs up. She’d already taken a nap, so it wasn’t like she was tired, and Pinkie wasn’t available for pranking. I wonder why she was so insistent on waiting for Rarity to show up.

She was about to resign herself to rereading the Daring Do series for the hundred-millionth time when, all of a sudden, Fluttershy shot by beneath her cloud perch. Startled, she almost fell off the edge. She watched Fluttershy speeding off for a moment, bewildered by her haste. Fluttershy almost never flew that fast! Huh, maybe something interesting will happen today.

Rainbow dove off the cloud, feeling the rush of the wind under her wings. She set a strong pace, easily gaining on the generally ground-bound pegasus. Just as she reached her, Rainbow called out.

“Hey, Fluttershy!” She bubbled, pulling off a lazy loop when she caught up, excited by her friend’s urgency. “What’s shakin’?”

Fluttershy, startled by Rainbow’s sudden appearance, faltered in her flight, dropping almost a full wingbeat in altitude. Rainbow would have caught her, but she recovered admirably, returning to her original course with all haste.

“Rainbow Dash, you startled me!”

“Sorry, Shy. I was just wondering what’s the rush?”

“Oh, well, I need to ask Dr. Fauna to come by my cottage as soon as she can. I have a new animal there, and we think we could use her expertise.”

“Wait, we?”

“Yes,” Fluttershy continued, “Twilight, Rarity and I found him on the way back from Zecora’s, being chased by a Manticore.”

“Woah, really?! How did you guys escape the Manticore?”

“Oh, no, we weren’t being chased, he was.”

“Oh wow, he must be in pretty bad shape if you need Dr. Fauna’s help.”

“Not really. We’re just not sure what he is. We were hoping she might have some idea.”

Rainbow Dash was stunned. An animal that neither Twilight nor Fluttershy knew about… She started grinning excitedly.

“Hey, I’ll go get Dr. Fauna for you! Then you can go take care of the animal while I bring her to you.”

“Oh, um, sure, if you wouldn’t mind, that is.”

“Course not! I wanna see this new creature that has two of my smartest friends stumped!”

Fluttershy blushed lightly at the offhoof compliment as they slowed to a halt in mid air. “Well, okay. If you want to, then I guess it’s okay. Just tell her to come by as soon as she’s available. I don’t want to impose.”

“Pfft, whatever. I bet she’ll come running when I tell her you found a rare animal! See you back at your place!” She gave a single wave as farewell before shooting off towards the clinic, leaving her signature rainbow trail in her wake. Fluttershy just stared after her in a confused daze. After a moment, she shook herself out of it, and headed back to her cottage, eager to check up on Twilight and the ape.


“Pinkie, would you please slow down?!” Rarity pleaded, struggling to keep up with the bouncy pink mare.

“But if I slow down, I’ll have to wait long to meet our new friend!” Pinkie shrieked giddily. “Ooo, I wonder if he likes parties.”

Applejack regarded her excitable friend curiously from alongside Rarity, balancing two bushels of apples across her back and the tops of her largest saddlebags, which were filled to the brim with books from Twilight’s library. She had heard the pair nearly tearing the library apart on her way to deliver the apples to Fluttershy’s. When she stopped to see what they were doing, Rarity had roped her into helping to curb Pinkie’s hyperactive enthusiasm. Pinkie had obviously been running her ragged long before Applejack came along. But even after Applejack relieved her of some of the burden, she still couldn’t quite match Pinkie’s pace.

“Pinkie,” Applejack called out, “it’s only some new critter of Fluttershy’s. You don’t need to throw a party for every animal that comes to Ponyville.”

“I know,” Pinkie bubble, “but something tells me that this new animal is suuuper special, even apart from the fact that both Fluttershy AND Twilight didn’t know what he is!”

“What makes you say that?”

“Just a hunch!”

Bewildered, Applejack exchanged looks with Rarity, as if she had the answers.

“I’m telling you,” Rarity said between gasping breaths, “she was waiting for me outside Sugarcube Corner with two sets of empty saddlebags, as if she knew I was coming!”

Applejack just shook her head. Another case of the Pinkie Sense at work, if ever she saw one.

“Come on you guys!” Pinkie shouted. “I think I see Fluttershy’s up ahead!”

CHAPTER 05 - An Unnamed Companion

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Twilight Sparkle was probably the smartest unicorn in all of Ponyville. It wasn't a boast, just fact. As much as she tried to downplay her intelligence, everypony knew that she was the personal protege of Princess Celestia, and spent as much of her free time reading as she could. If anyone could solve a riddle or conundrum, it was Twilight Sparkle.

So why was she having such difficulty figuring out this strange plastic book thing?

She sat in the middle of Fluttershy’s living room, surrounded by the items Rarity removed from the ape’s leather bag. Much of it she recognized: a first aid kit, a flashlight, rope, a paperback book and a notepad. She could even recognize the multitool for what it was, though she had never seen its like. But some of it was still a mystery to her. Like the little metal cylinder with the screw-off cap, or the rectangle that fit in her hooves, with one side of metal and the other of black glass. The words on some of the things – the book, the notepad, the plastic cards she found in a wallet also made of leather – were all in a language she had never seen before. They all seemed to be connected, however, as all of them used the same letters that could be found on the inside of the large plastic book.

She called it a book because she had no idea what else to call it. After all, it had no pages. When she had opened it, she noticed it swung on stiff hinges, and that, while one side consisted of another large rectangle of black glass framed by the plastic, the other housed many tiny buttons, much too small for hooves. On each of these buttons symbols were printed, sometimes one or two, sometimes several. She recognized some as letters from the other documents, and a few of them as arrows, but their arrangement made no sense. When she tried pressing some of the buttons, nothing happened.

In the end, she gave up trying to make it do something by random guesses, and instead resolved to take it apart, to try to discern something from its inner workings. She scanned the room. None of the girls had returned without her noticing.

Sorry, Rarity, but I need to know what this thing does.

But then, just as she was about to pry at the plastic with her magic, she heard a rustling from behind her.

“I wasn’t… uh…”

The ape was watching her from the couch, apparently having woken up from his short nap.

“Um, g- good morning! I was just taking a look at your-”

The words died on her tongue as the ape rolled off of Fluttershy’s couch, dropping onto his hands and feet with a much quieter thud than she was expecting for one his size. He began advancing on her, his face unreadable beneath the scraggly beard. Sweat rolled down Twilight’s forehead. Was he angry? Curious? Hungry? She couldn’t tell. Her heart pounded in her ears. He loomed over her, looking down with his beady, expressionless eyes.

Twilight flinched when he raised his hand. But instead of grabbing her, he reached behind her and picked up a small white plastic tube with a pointed black end, a black clip, and a long black push-switch. She’d long since figured out what that ingenious little device was: some kind of retractable ink pen with a very strange nib. His head tilted, frowning in confusion, and he sat down. She let go of the breath she’d been holding in. Apparently, he was just as curious about the contents of the bag as she was.

He stared at the unusual pen, examining it from all angles. She watched his fascination with amusement. When he discovered the function of the tall button on top of the pen, he began clicking it repeatedly, making short wheezing noises. At first, Twilight worried that he was somehow hurt, or having an allergic reaction. But then, she noticed the corners of his mouth were turned upward in a smile. He was laughing.

Twilight giggled at his enthusiastic clicking. It was adorable that he could find such pleasure in so simple a device. Then, as he watched the retracting copper nib, he noticed the black ink on its tip. With a frown, he tried rubbing it off on his palm, but it only left a dark trail. Barely suppressing her laughter, she was about to tell him it was ink when the ape stuck out his tongue. Before she could warn him, he licked the tip of the pen.

The reaction was instantaneous. He immediately dropped the pen, gagging and spitting, trying to get the taste off his tongue. With the pitiful look on his scruffy, bearded face, Twilight could no longer hold herself back. She burst out laughing, clutching her sides. Unable to retain her balance, she dropped to the floor, writhing with mirth. A moment later the ape joined her, his staccato of wheezes providing a sort of percussion to compliment the brass of her laughter. This continued for a few minutes, until both of them lay breathless on the floor.

At just that moment, Fluttershy flew through the door with a frightened gasp, seeing them sprawled out amongst the bag’s curios.

“Oh no! What happened?”

Twilight, still recovering, pushed herself up weakly.

“D- heehee… Don’t worry, F- Fluttershy. W- we’ve just been having a laugh.”

Fluttershy visibly relaxed, floating back to the ground.

“Oh. Oh, good. I thought… Nevermind. Have you learned anything?”

Twilight’s cheeks puffed out as she choked back another laugh. “Y- yeah. We found out that ink tastes bad.”


“Come on, I’ll tell you about it while I sort these things out.”

It had been a struggle, but he finally managed to bleed the chaos magic infecting Sam down to a manageable level, freeing up his attention enough to turn it outwards. That bath had been the perfect conductor. He hadn’t siphoned off enough to make the water magically toxic, of course, but he would have to make sure its disposal had no adverse effects on the environment, lest the indigenous people take notice. It seemed that Sam – he had finally learned the boy’s name with a bit of snooping through his synapses – had somehow landed the two of them in the care of a few of this world’s society while he had been preoccupied trying to keep the boy alive.

To his relief, the people seemed benign, perhaps even compassionate. He also noted their equine physiology with some interest; the evolution of intelligence in horses was something of a rare occurrence, even in the multiverse. He had observed them while Sam’s injuries were tended to, processing their language through the snippets of conversation and the corresponding physical and emotional cues.

The yellow-coated one – a pegasus, if appearances did not deceive – seemed like quite the animal lover, and had been particularly caring while she administered first aid, so she could likely be trusted. The other, white-coated one, though confrontational about his leather bag, had relented readily enough when Yellow talked her down, and offered Sam a sincere apology. She had access to magic, as is the wont of unicorns, and one always had to be wary around magic users. But, from what he felt when Sam grabbed the bag through her magic, hers was weaker than that of the unicorns he’d observed on other planes, and they hadn’t even been fully intelligent. While he wasn’t sure White could be trusted, per se, he doubted she would be a threat.

The purple one was a different story.

A winged unicorn. He’d only ever heard tell of similar beings from others in his division, and none of the stories were kind. Tales ranging from accounts of aloof creatures of beauty both terrible and cold, to warnings of monstrous demons who found ecstasy and glee in wonton destruction. Of course, none of these stories could be confirmed, and he sincerely doubted their sources, but seeing one in the flesh was enough set him on edge. One could never be too careful around unknown entities.

However, when he tried to impress caution on Sam’s mind, it seemed the boy took it as an instinct to regard Purple as the top dog. Being the primate that he was, Sam immediately decided to ingratiate himself with a little social grooming. At first, he feared retribution for the boy’s forwardness. But as the seconds passed and her tension melted away, he had to give the boy credit: even as a Neanderthal shell of his former self, Sam knew how to get on people’s good sides.

So he watched her. Purple seemed curious and quite intelligent. The fact that it had only taken her half a minute of experimentation and disassembly to understand the ballpoint pen spoke to that, and she had reassembled it with ease. Granted, it wasn’t a terribly complex system, but to figure out an alien technology so quickly was nothing short of frightening.

There was also the fact that, as far as he could tell, Purple had broken a promise when she took apart the pen. The guilty glances around the room spoke volumes. So when he saw the same look while she was examining Sam’s computer, he decided to wake the boy up. He hadn’t expected her to be intimidated by the boy, but then again he wasn’t sure how to gauge her at all.

He would wait. He needed better understanding of their language in order to make a clear decision. At the very least, these creatures seemed peaceful. If things somehow turned ugly, he knew he could get Sam to flee.

Two hours later, Pinkie bounded through the door to Fluttershy’s cottage, Rarity and Applejack trailing in her wake. Rainbow Dash had long since arrived with Dr. Fauna, who was entranced with this strange creature, babbling excitedly about evolutionary chains and species adaptation with a much quieter Fluttershy. Rainbow Dash, meanwhile, had grown bored once more. She floated distractedly between Twilight and the ape, trying to take in both groups’ research efforts.

Upon spotting the ape, Pinkie began vibrating with excitement. He was sitting there, taking Dr. Fauna’s curious prodding in stride, just waiting for a New Friend Hug. She would be darned if he wasn’t going to get one.

Rainbow Dash was the first to notice the hyperactive mare at the door, tensing into a familiar predatory stance. Alarm bells went off in Rainbow’s head.

“Wait, Pinkie, you can’t-”

But it was too late. Before even Rainbow could react, Pinkie pounced. The ape looked towards the commotion, and immediately his vision filled with pink. One moment he was sitting calmly, allowing the ponies to examine him, the next he was on the ground, a fuzzy pink mass attached to his face.

“Hellllooooooo, new best friend!”

The ape rolled on the floor, struggling to pry off a madly giggling Pinkie Pie. For a moment, no one could do anything but stare, dumbfounded by her complete disregard for her own safety. They were shaken out of it when Rarity burst into the room, panting like mad.

“Pinkie Pie! Stop that this instant!”

A lasso flew past her from outside and whipped around Pinkie’s ankles. A mighty tug yanked her away from the ape, who immediately gasped for breath. Applejack snorted, moving past Rarity to untie Pinkie Pie.

“What in the hay were you thinkin’, pouncin’ on him like that? He could’ve hurt you something fierce if I hadn’t pulled you off of him!”

“Aww, he wouldn’t do that AJ. Just look at him,” Pinkie pleaded, gesturing to the ape, who was sputtering and staring at her in bewilderment, “he’s a big ol’ teddy bear.”

AJ did take a good, long look at the creature, and was surprised by what she saw. His physiology was strange enough, to be sure. More importantly, he was whipping around, searching for his assailant, but instead of anger in his eyes, she only saw surprise and bewilderment, as if he didn’t realize who had just latched onto his head. In a creature like him, she would have expected a stronger fighting response. Instead, he seemed ready to hightail it out of the cottage. When he saw no signs of an attack, he seemed to relax, though his eyes still darted around the room, watching for sudden movements.

She sighed. “Be that as it may, you still need to be more careful, Pinkie Pie. You can’t just go jumpin’ on new critters all willy nilly. Not all of ‘em are as friendly as the ones in Ponyville.” She looked back at the ape, and cracked a small smile. “‘Sides, I think you may have startled him.”

“Oh no!” Pinkie cried, and pulled herself along the ground, staring up at the ape with watery eyes and a quivering lip. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Ape. I didn’t mean to be mean, honest! Can you ever forgive me?”

The ape just looked down at her with wide eyes, obviously unable to process what was going on. He looked to the other ponies, searching for some indication as to what was happening. Unfortunately, most of them were just relieved that Pinkie’s antics hadn’t created a disaster. Fluttershy, ever the compassionate one, fluttered over and put a hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder.

“I’m sure he’ll forgive you, as long as you promise not to jump on him without asking first.”

Instantly, Pinkie reverted to her usual bubbly self. “Great! Then I Pinkie Promise not to pounce without permission, ‘cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.’ So now can we be friends?”

Faced with Pinkie’s pleading smile, the ape did what any sensible simian would do. He reached up and patted her on the head. A small voice in the back of his mind praised his thoughtfulness, but all he really wanted was for the fluffy pink thing to stop leaning in so close. Unfortunately, this only seemed to encourage her.

“Oh, thankyouthankyou!” She gushed, grabbing his hand between her hooves and shaking vigorously. “I promise we’ll be the best of friends, Mr. Ape-Monkey-Simian-Thing, whatever your name is. What is your name, by the way?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “Pinkie, he’s a primate. He can’t talk.”

“Oh… Then do you know what his name is?”

“Actually that’s one of the things I was hoping I could figure out, now that you’ve brought the books. You… did bring the books, right?”

“Yup,” Applejack piped up, carrying over hers and Rarity’s saddlebags while Rarity composed herself on Fluttershy’s couch, “got ‘em right here.”

“Excellent! I’m hoping I can find a reference to the words written on some of the things in his bag. If I can figure that out, it’ll be much easier to find out who and what he is, and where he’s from. Maybe I’ll even be able to read that book!”

“Before you delve too deep into your research, I think I can give a little insight into what he is,” Dr. Fauna interjected. “Unfortunately, it’s not much more than you’ve already thought up.”

“Please, tell us everything,” Twilight prompted, “every little bit of information helps.”

“Well, as for his species, it’s hard to say. He bears a mostly superficial resemblance to gorillas and chimpanzees, but he’s probably at least genetically related. If I had to guess, he’s most likely a subspecies of ape ponies haven’t seen before,” she noted with an excited hop, “but I’m not really a biologist, so I won’t claim to know for certain.

“As for his overall condition, he’s fairly healthy, apart from the obvious malnourishment. I don’t think his hairlessness is a disease, since he doesn’t appear to be suffering any other ill effects. However, since his toes seem a bit stunted for an ape, it could also be genetic. Without reference to his species as a whole, I can’t say for certain. His temperature, ninety-nine point eight, is fine by pony and chimpanzee standards, but high compared to gorillas. His resting heart rate, however, at sixty-five beats per minute, is slower than a gorilla’s and much slower than a chimp’s. He takes about 20 breaths per minute, and I could hear no obstruction of the lungs. his teeth are a bit yellow, but that’s nothing some good brushing won’t solve. All in all, apart from the need for a few big meals a day, he seems to be pretty healthy.

“I have full confidence that Fluttershy will take great care of him. He is very well behaved; he never responded aggressively to being prodded, and he only seemed mildly annoyed when I took food out of his hand. He’s also a clever little rascal, since he started whining pitifully when I didn’t give his food back right away. From his teeth, I’d say he’s an omnivore, so you’ll need to supplement his diet with some fish or protein pills, though he appeared to enjoy dog biscuits, so he might even eat dog food. And that’s all I have to say, really. Don’t hesitate to bring him by if you think he might be feeling sick.”

“Thanks a lot for your help, Doctor. If I can’t find anything else, I’ll send a letter to the Equestrian Center of Biological Sciences in Baltimare. I'm sure they'd be quite interested to hear about a new species of primate. Meanwhile, Fluttershy will take good care of him.”

Fluttershy's head shot up from the small yellow notepad she had been taking notes in. She spat out the pencil in her rush to respond, and watched regretfully as it rolled under the couch.

“Oh, yes, um, thank you for your help. I'll be sure to, uh, give him a balanced diet and… um… e- excuse me.” She ducked out of the conversation, stomach churning. As much as she respected Dr. Fauna, she still had yet to get over her nervousness when talking to ponies she didn’t know very well. Instead, she hid from interaction under the pretense of searching for her lost pencil.

She ducked under the couch, immediately locating the pencil, but pretended to search around for it anyway. Behind her, Twilight and Dr. Fauna were making a final comparison of notes before exchanging their goodbyes. Nothing she really needed to pay attention to, just behavioral observations and the like. Instead, she rolled the pencil between her hooves, lamenting her shyness.

But then, she noticed something else. The feet of the ape appeared behind the couch with a soft whump. He limped over to the window facing the Everfree and stood still. Curious, she emerged from beneath the couch and found him sitting, staring out at the forest. Almost longingly. Gently, she slipped up behind the ape, careful not to spook him.

“It’s okay.”

The ape turned to look at her and she felt like he was gazing straight through her. She gulped nervously, but pressed on.

“You’re safe here. Whatever life was like in that forest, you don’t need to worry anymore. We’ll take care of you.”

He turned away, seemingly drawn to the Everfree. For a few moments, he stayed like that, simply staring out at the treeline. But then he he took a deep breath and released it with a shuddering sigh. He turned back to Fluttershy, eyes heavy with fatigue. She smiled warmly.

“Fluttershy, get over here! We’ve got a really super important decision to make!”

Fluttershy nearly jumped out of her skin at Pinkie’s announcement. Realizing that there was no immediate threat, she took a moment to calm her pounding heart. Then, with a wan smile, she gently nudged the ape forward with her muzzle, following him as he lumbered over to the gathering of ponies.

“Right!” Pinkie proclaimed, “I think it’s about time we came up with a name for Mr. Ape.”

“While I agree it’s a bit tiresome referring him as ‘the ape’ or ‘the monkey,’” Rarity replied, “don’t you think it would be best to wait for Twilight to translate the documents?”

“That might take a while,” Twilight pitched in from her pile of books and paper.

Besides,” Pinkie interjected, “it’s fun coming up with names. Like Rumplepants McLargenose. Or Sir Hammingshire. Or Green Bean! Or-”

Applejack shoved a hoof into Pinkie’s mouth, halting the stream of nonsense. “I think we get the picture, Pinkie. But for Celestia’s sake, let’s try and come up with somethin' not so downright silly.”

Pinkie shrugged and extricated herself from AJ’s hoof. “Eh, suit yourself.”

“Yeah!” Rainbow exclaimed, “He needs an awesome name! Like… Like… Rocket! Or… Or Brutus!”

Rarity daintily cleared her throat, cutting off Rainbow Dash before she could continue. “Yes, well, as, er… charming… as those names may be, I don’t think they fit him very well, do you?”

Rainbow Dash appraised the ape for a few moments, then shrugged.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Pinkie rubbed her chin, frowning in deep concentration.

“Well… He could be a Wander, but he’s not quite colossal enough… Maybe Louie or Kong? No, no, he’s not very kingly… Though his mane and beard do look kinda like a lion’s.” She started giggling to herself, drawing concerned looks from her friends. Eventually, they just brushed it off as ‘Pinkie being Pinkie.’

“How ‘bout Jojo?” Applejack volunteered, “I’m sure I heard of monkeys bein’ named that before.”

“Perhaps, though I think Caesar would be a much more distinguished name,” Rarity proposed.

“Um… maybe… Mr. Bubbles?” Fluttershy murmured quietly, unsure of her own suggestion. Meanwhile, Pinkie laughed harder and harder at each potential name, until she was literally rolling on the floor, clutching her sides. Rainbow Dash just huffed at her ridiculousness.

“He’s really big," Rainbow interjected, "so why don’t we just call him Biggs?”

Everyone but Pinkie – who was slowly calming down – went silent, pondering this predicament. Eventually, Twilight commented from her research pile, still not taking her eyes off of her work.

“I like Biggs. It’s fitting.”

Fluttershy nodded. “It is easier to say than Mr. Bubbles.”

“I agree. My idea was, I suppose, a bit pretentious,” Rarity admitted.

“So, we’re all agreed then?” Applejack polled, and everypony nodded. “Well then, I guess we know what to call you from now on, Biggs.” Five heads turned to watch the ape’s reaction, but all he did was tilt his head in confusion.

“Um, it might take a while for him to respond to a new name,” Fluttershy explained.

“Oh well,” Rarity sighed, “at least now we don’t have to refer to him as ‘the monkey’ or ‘the ape.’”

“Awesome!” Pinkie exclaimed, “And now I know what name to put on my ‘Congratulations-on-Not-Getting-Eaten-by-a-Manticore-slash-Welcome-to-Ponyville’ party banner!”

The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. The ponies talked, and he gathered information from the safety of Sam’s head. He’d begun to piece together the language a little bit after the blue one, Rainbow Dash, came by with the veterinarian. He’d had a good laugh at the irony of that.

Then they decided to give Sam a name. If he’d had eyes of his own, they would have been rolling as hard as stones at some of the suggestions. Eventually, they settled on calling the boy Biggs. A decent name, if a bit silly.

*I can only hope Sam never has to find out my name.*

Thankfully, it seemed the ‘Equestrian’ language was quite similar to that of human English. He doubted he’d have trouble translating once he got Sam back to his original level of intelligence.

*Speaking of which…*

He sent a jolt of adrenaline into Sam’s system, waking him from his drowsy state. Through Sam’s eyes, he saw that the buttery-yellow pegasus had gone off to bed. *Good, no one to interrupt us.*

He impressed on Sam the need to go outside. The primitive mind, susceptible to suggestion, felt the pain and pressure of a full bladder and quickly roused Sam into action. The boy lumbered over to the backdoor, and easily lifted the latch.

It took only moments for Sam to find a suitable bush. As he relieved himself, his passenger channelled out as much chaos magic as he could. After a minute or so, Sam’s bladder was drained, and with it a modest portion of the chaos magic.

*Excellent. At this rate, he should be back to normal in… *

Something was wrong. As Sam plodded back towards the house, the concentration of chaos magic was slowly rising. He ordered the boy to halt, hoping that it was proximity to the house that caused the sudden rise. But the chaos magic just kept pouring in like water through a cracked hull. Thinking quickly, he increased Sam’s body temperature until the boy was sweating profusely, and tried to bleed off the chaos magic that way. The influx slowed to equilibrium, but at the rate Sam was sweating, he’d dehydrate in less than an hour.

He held out for as long as he dared. Eventually, Sam dropped to the ground panting and writhing in his intense fever. For a few minutes, he monitored the boy’s vitals, relaxing his vigil when the body temperature dropped back to acceptable levels.

He just didn’t understand. From the rate at which the chaos magic had been flooding into him, Sam’s body should be inundated with it. But as soon as it reached its previous saturation, the flood immediately slowed to a trickle, then shut off completely. Like the vast majority of chaos magic, this spell had no matrix to study, so he couldn’t even get a read on it. What was its purpose, and how had he been able to drain it down in the first place? Who was able to cast such a complex spell with an energy source that was, by nature, entirely unpredictable?

Unfortunately, he would get no answers with the boy asleep, and he dared not try to wake him again. Any more interference would result in permanent damage, at least until sun-up by his estimate. All he could do in the meantime was wait, but he didn’t worry. Instead, he settled with practiced ease into the thoughtless but watchful fugue of an ancient mind.

CHAPTER 06 - An Unslakable Thirst

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Fluttershy awoke to the sounds of birds chirping merrily outside of her window. She sat up and arched her back, giving the kinks a satisfying stretch. The events of the previous day slowly washed over her, leaving the taste of curiosity lingering on her tongue.

Then again, it might just be morning breath.

After quickly completing her morning rituals, she trotted down the stairs, eager to check up on her animal friends. A new addition always caused unrest among the other animals. She just hoped they hadn’t overturned her coffee table, like last time.

When she cleared the floor, however, she stopped and stared wide-eyed. Her animal friends were all in their places once more, playing and scurrying about, eagerly awaiting their morning meal. Exactly as they hadn’t been when she had first brought in Biggs. She bit her lip.

That wasn’t a dream, was it?

Fluttershy looked to the couch, but it was facing away from her. She couldn’t see Biggs from her current angle, so she took the next simplest course of action and looked towards the entryway. The leather bag sat exactly where she left it last night, by the coat rack.

No, it wasn’t. So why is everyone acting like nothing is new?

Just then, Angel Bunny hopped up to her, sporting a conspiratorial grin. He gave her leg a few pats and an approving nod, then hopped off to round up the other animals for breakfast. She stared after him, mind spinning.

What was that all about?

Bewildered, Fluttershy opted to continue with her morning routine and wandered into the kitchen. It was a dry food morning, so she grabbed the boxes of bird and small animal feed. But then, she stopped mid-stride, remembering her new charge. What should she feed Biggs? She knew he was an omnivore, so did he need something with protein? Then again, bears were omnivorous too, and Harry was usually content to eat the large-animal dry food. After a moment, she decided to bring Biggs a bowl, just to see if he would eat it.

She set out the plates of food, which were immediately swarmed upon by eager, hungry little mouths, and filled the bird feeders, whose perches were already occupied. Angel, of course, received a special salad for his assistance, which he dug into with gusto. Then, she flew over to the front of the couch.

“Alright, Biggs, rise and sh-”

Biggs was nowhere to be seen. Her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. Immediately, she dashed over to Angel, who looked up from his meal in alarm.

“Angel, have you seen Biggs?!”

The rabbit raised a questioning eyebrow. Eventually he pointed at Fluttershy, then pantomimed picking something up, opening a door, and then putting the thing down, brushing his paws off. He watched Fluttershy pointedly, waiting for her reaction. A moment later, Angel’s game of charades clicked.

“What? I didn’t put him outside! Where did you see him?”

Angel slapped a paw over his eyes, and shook his head. Wearily, he raised the other paw and pointed to the kitchen. Fluttershy galloped off, leaving a disappointed bunny to lament his owner’s indiscretion.

Fluttershy glanced around the kitchen, just in case she had overlooked him the first time, then sprinted to the back door. Her heart skipped a beat when she found it unlatched. Had he let himself out last night? Then why hadn’t he come back inside? She pushed open the door and scanned the grounds until her eyes fell on a fleshy lump a stone’s throw away.


Fluttershy took off, reaching the ape with only a few strong wing beats. He lay motionless on the ground, eyes closed and mouth hanging open, his skin a shade too pale. Tearily, she placed a hoof on his neck, fearing that she would find no pulse. For a moment, there was nothing. Then a roaring snarl ripped through the air around her.

With a yelp, she toppled onto her back and curled up on herself, trying to present as small a target as possible. But then, the snarl devolved into a coughing fit. Her ear perked up. It sounded like it was coming from… She lifted her head.

Biggs, coughing weakly, was curled into a ball of his own, clutching at his head and grimacing in pain. As soon as the coughing died down, he groaned. Fluttershy sighed in relief, chastising herself for being so startled by a snore. She scrambled to her hooves and trotted over to the ape, who was still cradling his head.

“Are you alright?”

He responded by covering his ears and burying his face in the grass, moaning into the dirt. Somehow, he seemed to be hungover; which was odd, seeing as she didn’t keep any alcohol in her cottage. Nevertheless, she couldn’t just leave him to suffer.

“Oh, you poor thing. Wait right here, I’ll be back with some water.”

Biggs only grumbled in response. A moment later, Fluttershy returned with a bowl of water, and set it down before him. He cracked an eye open and, upon identifying the contents of the bowl, snatched it up. The bowl upended, pouring water down his throat and his front in equal measure. In mere seconds, it was dry, and his face transformed from a scowl into one of intense relief. He caught her eye, and held up the bowl with a slight pout. With a pitying smile, she brought him another helping of water.

It was fascinating to watch Biggs handle the bowl. The way his fingers folded over and pinched the rim; she’d never really had the opportunity to study primates this close. Sure she’d seen the spider monkeys in the Canterlot Castle Gardens, but that was only ever at a distance. Of course, she’d seen minotaurs and griffons work with their hands and talons, but to see the same level of dexterity, if not more, in an animal was nothing short of astounding. That, and the fact that he had four fingers instead of three, as most other species had. It made her wonder if his species had developed tool-using behavior.

Biggs finished the second bowl without spilling a drop. As soon as it was empty, he set it down with a satisfied sigh and tugged at his dripping beard. Fluttershy gave him a worried grin.

“Feeling better?”

Biggs gave a noncommittal grunt and rubbed his eyes. Fluttershy rubbed a foreleg nervously against the other, trying to gauge his mood.

“Well, if you come inside, I have some breakfast waiting for you, and I’ll see if I have an aspirin if you still have a headache.”

Biggs stared at her, then gave a disgruntled snort and rose to his hands and feet, loping after her. Fluttershy ruffled her wings happily, smiling at Biggs as he followed her into the kitchen.

But when they got to the cottage, he did something that made her stop and stare in confusion.

As soon as they crossed through the doorway, Biggs pulled down his undergarments, hopped over to the washbasin she had washed him in yesterday, and sat down inside, watching her expectantly. It took her a moment to realize what he wanted.

“But, Biggs, you just had a bath yesterday.”

He only frowned, gave a short, insistent grunt, and scratched his chest. She sighed.

“You’re not going to budge on this are you?”

He blinked at her.

“Oh, alright. I guess I can understand. After all, who knows how long you were stuck in the forest? But, if you don’t mind, let’s make this a bit easier.”

Fluttershy beckoned Biggs out of the kitchen and, thankfully, he followed. She led him upstairs into her bathroom. Curious, he stepped through the doorway as she pulled her shower curtain aside.

“You’re not terribly hairy, so it will probably be alright if I use the shower.”

She turned the knob for the hot water, and she heard Biggs gasp as hot water began spraying from the showerhead.

Oh no! I didn’t startle him did I?

But when she spun around to check if he was still there, she was met with a massive grin and sparkling eyes. He hopped around in place, wheezing with laughter. Then, without warning, he charged. Fluttershy yelped, barely dodging out of the ape’s way as he barreled towards the tub. With a single bound, he cleared the lip of the bath, landing inside with a splash.

When Fluttershy lowered the wing shielding her face from the spray of water, she saw Biggs sitting in the tub, face pointed directly into the deluge of hot water. She couldn’t help but giggle at the blissful expression spreading across his face as his hair and beard deflated with the growing precipitation.

I guess he really likes showers.

If there was only one thing that would ever keep him sane in the coming years confined to a physical form, it was the sudden ability to taste. There was nothing quite like it. Sure, even prior to occupying Sam, he was able to sense atmospheric changes on the molecular level, but oh, man... Hormones were addictive. The sheer euphoria Sam’s brain rewarded them with for eating made him wonder if incorporeality was all it was cracked up to be - and he was only experiencing pet food!

*What I wouldn’t give for another apple.*

For a brief moment, he wondered what Sam would think about eating pet food, but then disregarded the notion. It was doubtful Sam would remember any of this once he regained his faculties. Besides, Sam had to get nourishment one way or another, and this dry food was both delicious and nutritious, especially for an omnivore in world apparently run by herbivores.

That did beg the question: how was he going to restore Sam’s humanity? It certainly seemed he wasn’t going to find the answer cooped up in this cottage. He needed to get out, to test the boundaries of this blanket of chaos magic. But how was he going to do it without their ‘keeper’ noticing.

It was only at that moment that he realised that Fluttershy had been talking the entire time he and Sam had been shoveling food into Sam’s face.

“...fter I get back, I need to go help Applejack to give Little Piggington his booster shot. That might take me a while, but I promise I’ll be back in time to make dinner.”

*Perfect! She’s going out! That’s just the opportunity we need!*

“In the meantime, I’m leaving Angel in charge. He knows what to do while I’m gone, so make sure you listen to him, alright Biggs?”

Sam stopped chewing. He felt the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck stand on end. He turned his attention to the doorway while Sam sat frozen in his chair. There, at the foot of the threshold, a small white rabbit sat, squinting at him. Sam, feeling the malevolence burn against the back of his head, slowly turned until the rabbit was just in the corner of his vision. It lifted its paw up to point to its eyes, then at Sam. The boy ducked his head, locking his gaze back on his food. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, just looking at the rabbit seemed to make the boy’s stomach churn.

*It’s just a rabbit, you fool boy!*

That seemed to do the trick, as Sam lifted his head once more to glance at the doorway. But the rabbit was gone. This only heightened the boy’s anxiety, and he began whipping around searching for the malefic little creature. As much as he wanted to take control of Sam’s hand and slap him across the face with it, he knew he shouldn’t. Instead, he sent a jolt through the boy’s central nervous system, stimulating his serotonin production. Sam gave a single, violent shiver and itched his back fervently. Finally, he seemed relaxed enough to pay attention to Bob’s plan.

*There, now listen up. This ‘Fluttershy’ is heading out pretty soon. As soon as she does, I need you to get out there and explore. You can sense something’s wrong, can’t you? That you’re not quite yourself?*

Though it was obvious he couldn’t quite grasp the question, Sam frowned down at the remains of his dry food, furiously trying to process it. He could sense a vague feeling of discomfort and unease from the boy, and that was all he really needed.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that the sooner we get this figured out, the sooner you can go back to being your old self. In order to do that, I need to get a lay of the land, to figure out exactly how far this blanket of chaos reaches, and in order to do that, I need you to take me outside for a good look-around. As kind as the creatures here seem to be, I’m sure you’d rather be living under your own power.*

Sam seemed to perk up. Hopefully, he understood what was at stake.

Good. I need you to do what I say when I say it. I realize this will be difficult for you, but if you can follow my directions, you’ll soon have control of your own thoughts, I promise.*

Still, Sam seemed unsure of the specifics, but he could sense the general understanding in the boy’s mind that there was something to be gained by listening to the voice. However, he also sensed hesitance about trusting an unknown entity. Heaving a mental sigh, he realized there was really only one way to circumvent this.

*Fine, if you must have a name, you may refer to me as “Bob.”*

At this, all doubt seemed to vanish. He supposed that was as good as it was going to get.

*Alright, then. Now begins the waiting game.*


It would be a while before Fluttershy was ready to leave. She first insisted that she needed to help all the creatures under her care to clean out their homes. Bob, still unused to having a phonetic alias, took the opportunity to experiment with it.

It seemed that whenever he spoke to the boy’s primitive mind, the appellation would flash through Sam’s consciousness for an instant before he began paying attention to the imparted instructions or advice. With each passing comment, the association cemented further, and the boy’s doubts began to vanish. Furthermore, if ‘Bob’ was actively associating himself with the name, Sam appeared even less concerned about his trustworthiness.

So Bob tasked himself with becoming intimate with his moniker. As blunt and awkward as it was to use, he understood the importance of having the boy’s implicit trust, at least for now. As soon as his intelligence was restored, Bob would be able to take the back seat, and concentrate solely on keeping them alive and under the radar. The sooner the better.

Finally, with a bit of assistance from Sam and the other animals, Fluttershy had finished her morning tasks. With no uncertain amount of reluctance, she took up her saddlebags.

“Alright, I’m off to the market. Are you sure you have everything you need?”

The one known as Angel Bunny nodded impatiently and shooed the mare towards the front door. Bob decided to offer his own method of reassurance.

*Smile and wave, boy. Smile and wave.*

With Sam and the rest of the animals apparently backing the rabbit, Fluttershy seemed satisfied enough to take a few steps out of the house.

“Well, if you need me, you know where to find me.”

Angel rolled his eyes and slammed the door on his owner. If he had a face of his own, Bob would have frowned incredulously. At exactly what, he couldn’t be sure, but there quite a few things wrong with this picture.

Before he could rally Sam into enacting his plan, however, he found that the boy was transfixed by the rabbit’s glare. The rodent had flipped the switch from mildly irritated but outwardly happy to a little burning ball of ire. Even Bob found his attention had been captured, although more out of skeptic curiosity than anything. Then, the glare morphed into an evil grin.

Angel snapped his fingers. From one of the side rooms, a bear lumbered in on his hind legs and carrying an easel under one arm and a large ring-bound sketchbook under the other. He set it up next to the rabbit, who pulled a retractable pointer seemingly out of the ether.

Fascinated, Bob watched as the semi-intelligent rabbit began giving a silent presentation on the pecking order of Fluttershy’s cottage. He couldn’t help but wonder how such a small creature managed to exert so much influence over the others, but he suspected that a close relationship with the owner of the cottage was a large part of it. He was particularly amused by a visual representation of the chain of command. At the very bottom of the graph was a crude stick figure drawing of Sam, below what he hoped was supposed to be a pile of dirt, then worms, then the other animals topped by Angel and Fluttershy on an equal plane. However, he did notice the drawing of Angel was slightly larger than that of his supposed equal. The whole thing was utterly ridiculous.

However, it seemed that Sam was taking it a bit too seriously. He hung onto the rabbit’s every gesture as though his life depended on it. Granted, if Bob hadn’t been there, it may well have. But he was, and his authority most definitely superceded that of a rabbit with a Napoleon complex. Then, when Angel ordered Sam to fetch him a bowl of carrots and Sam took off for the kitchen in his gorilla-like run, Bob had seen enough.

*I’m disappointed, boy.*

Sam skidded to a halt in the middle of the kitchen as his attention immediately locked on to Bob’s ‘voice.’ Bob felt a bit gratified by that. At least the boy put more stock in his thoughts than a rabbit’s.

*Are you really going to allow a self-important rodent stop you from reclaiming what’s rightfully yours?*

Sam seemed confused by the vagueness of the question, so Bob tried a more direct approach.

*Out there is the key to regaining the missing parts of your mind. You won’t be able to fill in those gaps by staying here, and that’s exactly what that rabbit would have you do. Are you going to allow him to stop you?*

Sam dragged a forefinger through his beard. Bob saw the image of Fluttershy appear in the boy’s mind, accompanied by feelings of gratitude and the desire for continued amity. Then Angel appeared, perched atop her withers. Finally, he was getting somewhere.

*So you’re afraid that, by disobeying the rabbit, you might be displeasing her?*

Sam grunted an affirmative.

*Well then, consider this: Fluttershy is a kind and caring being, yes? So, do you think she’d be happier that you followed her orders, or that you found your lost voice, and could actually speak with her?*

When Sam took longer than necessary to respond, Bob decided to just give him the answer.

*I’m sure she’d rather you were made whole again. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’ll get the rabbit his carrots. The biggest, heaviest bowl of carrots he’s ever seen. We’ll get the bear some fish while we’re at it, reassure him we’re no threat. Then when we’re alone with the rabbit, you take the bowl, dump out the carrots, and trap him inside of it. Not much he can do to stop you from beneath a heavy ceramic prison.*

Sam grinned maliciously. Even his simple mind could grasp the plan, and Bob felt the confidence he placed in its success. *Perfect, we’ll get rid of this chaos magic yet. Now get to it.*

“So that’s when Big Mac decided the best way to get the plow out was pullin’ it by his teeth.”

Fluttershy gasped through her demure smile.

“Oh no! He didn’t…”

Applejack grinned conspiratorially.

“Surely did. And when he tried pullin’ it up, the muck held onto the plow like rubber, and yanked Big Mac down into the ditch. So not only was the plow stuck, but Mac too.”

“Is he okay?”

“Fine and dandy, though right now he’s strugglin’ to work up the nerve to ask Twilight if she knows a hair regrowth spell. There must've been sap in that mud or somethin', 'cause we had to shave off the parts of his coat that didn't wash out.”

Applejack chuckled at Big Mac’s expense, and Fluttershy couldn’t help but join in, adding her quiet giggle to Applejack’s deeper mirth.

“So how’s your shoppin’ trip going?

“Oh, it’s going well. I got just about everything I thought I might need to help Biggs to feel comfortable here in Ponyville. I just need to ask Rarity if she might be willing to try making more clothes for him, since he seems to like wearing them so much.”

In the blink of an eye, Applejack’s expression changed from jovial to stern.

“Fluttershy, I’m a bit worried. I mean, how well do you really understand that thing? Are you absolutely sure it’s a good idea to keep him around Ponyville?”

“Well, I can’t say I’m one hundred percent certain. But, from what I’ve seen, he’s really well-behaved. I don’t think he’s likely to hurt anypony, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

Applejack sighed and cast a far off look in the direction of Fluttershy’s cottage.

“I know. I didn’t think you’d take in a critter you couldn’t handle. It’s just a feelin’ in my gut, I s’pose. Somethin’ about him just don’t sit right with me. Like he’s hidin’ some-”


The shout came from the middle of the market square. The pair turned to see a frantic Roseluck running towards them. Immediately, Applejack’s attention became skepticism. Just what emergency had befallen her this time? A bird perching on her fence, watching her seeds menacingly? A squirrel making it’s home dangerously close to her flower bulbs? Maybe even a bunny that ate a poor defenseless daisy outside her garden.

Fluttershy, ever the concerned citizen, gave Roseluck her full attention as the frantic gardener ran panting up to them. She paused a moment to catch her breath before launching into full panic mode.

“Fluttershy, thank goodness you’re here!” Rose gasped, snatching Fluttershy’s hoof and dragging her along until she decided it would be best to follow of her own accord. “Come quickly, Flitter told Daisy, Lily and I about a huge beast on top of the Ponyville water tower. You have to convince it to go back to the Everfree, or wherever it came from!”

“W- What kind of beast?” Fluttershy asked tremulously, envisioning another Ursa Minor situation.

“We don’t know! Some sort of great, big, hairless ape thing. Flitter said he’s sitting up there, snarling and glaring at everypony that passes by! What if he attacks?! What if… Fluttershy? Where’d you go?”

“Already passed you up, pardner!” Applejack shouted as she galloped by, following the yellow streak in the sky.

The situation looked bleak, no two ways about it. From their vantage point on top of the local water tower, Bob scanned the rooftops of Ponyville. The chaos magic blanketed the entire town, connecting to Sam with a fine filament of energy, yet touching none of the rest. In fact, whenever he witnessed a unicorn casting a spell, or a pegasus in flight, or any of the ponies doing pretty much anything, the chaos magic actively avoided them.

It was avoiding detection.

Someone was going to great lengths to ensure that whoever ate the flower-fruit stayed under its influence. The more he thought about it, the clearer it became. The state he found Sam in upon arriving in the meadow, the addictive, soporific, and stupefying effects of the fruit, and now this backup town-wide enchantment: those flowers were meant to be a kind of roach hotel for trespassers. If he hadn’t intervened, there was no doubt Sam would have perished in that meadow. The only question was whether the flowers were meant for humans, or if they were just a catch-all for undesirables. Whatever the case, whoever created them were also doing their best to make sure the village’s residents were unaware of the pest control. That was never a good sign.

Unfortunately, his sour mood appeared to be affecting Sam as well. The boy was in a constant state of anxiety, intermittently looking over his shoulder and scratching at a phantom itch. He could feel the sweat beading on the boy’s brow, and the urge to run, to escape to a safe place.

*Calm yourself, boy! We’ve only just begun our re-*

Just then, he noticed a pegasus focusing a bit too intently on them for his liking.

*Sam, we’ve been spotted. Time to make our escape.*

But Sam didn’t respond. Instead, he locked onto the approaching pegasus.

*Now is not the time, Sam! Move!*

Sam showed no sign of acknowledging his directive. Instead, he straightened his back, puffing out his chest, lean as it was.

*What are you-?*

“Are you alright?”

A low, feminine voice cut into his thought. The pegasus hovered before them, and Bob took a moment to size her up. She was small next to Sam, but still average size for a mare, judging by the few other ponies he’d seen. Her diminutive stature belied her strength, as he could see the lithe and toned muscles beneath her lilac coat. Sharp, purple eyes stared questioningly at them from beneath a mess of spiky sky-blue and white mane. This mare was no stranger to action. They were better off far away from here. Unfortunately, Bob could feel the anger building up inside Sam.

*Back down, boy. Don’t start a fight you can’t finish.*

A poor choice of words, he instantly realized, as Sam took them for a challenge. His hackles rose, and the tiniest growl formed in his throat. Bob knew that the pegasus could recognize the hostility.

“Cloudchaser, what are you doing? Don’t get that close to it! Can’t you see that it’s angry?” Another pegasus called out, fluttering up behind the one called Cloudchaser at a safe distance.

“Yeah, I know,” she called out to her long-haired companion, “he’s also pretty big. He could do some serious damage if things get out of hoof. Go find Fluttershy. I’ll keep him distracted until she gets here.”


“Flitter, go! Now!”

Bob watched Flitter give them one last nervous, sidelong glance and fly off.

*Just perfect. What foolish, half-cocked ideas are you going to follow now?*

“Easy, buddy,” Cloudchaser soothed, “we’re going to get a friend. Then you can go back to wherever you need to be.”

Sam snarled at her this time, taking a single menacing step forward.

“Whoa! Okay, I’ll keep my distance. You just stay right there, and everything will be fine.”

Sam just glared at her, growling under his breath. Bob, desperate to keep the situation under control, decided the best course would be to release more serotonin into Sam’s system, hopefully calm him down.

As soon as the serotonin hit Sam’s nervous system, it began to burn, sending a painful, fiery itch spreading across his body. Sam cried out, falling onto his back in a convulsive shudder, frantically scratching at every inch of skin he could reach. Bob’s connection to Sam’s thoughts was all but lost, as he struggled to retain composure through the immolation of their minds. He could barely make out Cloudchaser shouting through the roaring affliction.

“Oh boy... Somepony go find Fluttershy and Dr. Fauna, quick!”

Bob was unsure how long they lay there, writhing, but it seemed like hours. Eventually, he heard Cloudchaser call out through the burning haze.

“Dr. Fauna, thank goodness! Do you have any tranquilizers?”

Bob felt something snap in Sam’s mind. In a fit of sudden, terrible, fiery clarity, Sam’s eyes shot open. He had but one objective: return to the meadow at all costs. At the moment, there was only one thing Bob dared to do, lest he cause another fit. He scanned the boy’s body. Sure enough, the chaos magic was asserting itself, forcing Sam to return to the meadow on pain of death. As Sam leapt to his feet, there was only one thing on Bob’s mind.

*Twenty-four hours… I’m allowed only twenty-four hours to find a way to purge his system before he returns to square one. This complicates matters.*

Sam locked onto the pegasus hovering before him and charged, yanking Bob back into the action.

*Wait, NO-!*

But it was too late. Sam lunged at Cloudchaser, hurling himself over the edge of the water tower. Only the gasps and screams of the gathered ponies alerted her of the attack.

Were she another pony, Cloudchaser might have turned around first, to see what was happening. But she was one of the Wonderbolt Reserve. Cloudchaser immediately propelled herself into an inside loop. In the moments when she was upside-down, she looked up at the ground, and saw the creature in midair, grabbing at the space she had occupied just previously. With a gasp of surprise, she tightened her loop and dove for the strange bearded ape. She would never hear the end of it if he wound up hurting himself.

Meanwhile, in Sam’s head, Bob was having a decidedly one-sided shouting match with the boy’s primitive instincts.





Fed up with herding this particular cat, Bob retreated back into the small corner of Sam’s hypothalamus that he had claimed. There was only one thing he could do at this point to increase the boy’s survivability. A jolt of energy kicked Sam’s adrenal glands into overdrive.

*Hopefully the stupid child has enough sense to roll when he hits the ground.*

Luckily for Sam, it never came to that. Slammed with a sudden wave of adrenaline, he was momentarily stunned. In that moment, Cloudchaser collided with him and latched on, slowing his descent. A few of the quicker thinking unicorns in the crowd added their magical pressure to slow his descent.

Unfortunately, Sam regained his senses before she could set him down. He began violently thrashing around, so violently that she couldn’t hold onto him without getting hurt. When one flailing arm came within an inch of her wing, she let him go with a yelp. The thrashing, combined with the sudden weight, overloaded the unicorns’ combined capacity, and he tumbled the last few yards to the earth.

Sam hit the ground running, charging hand over foot towards the Everfree. Dr. Fauna called out after him, “Wait! Biggs, come back!”

Panting after her recent exertion, Cloudchaser landed next to her. “Biggs? … That thing… has a… name?”

“Yes. Fluttershy and her friends found him in the Everfree, and were taking care of him. He seemed so docile when I first met him. What in Equestria could have happened?”

Fluttershy quite suddenly appeared in front of them, breathing heavily.

“Where’s Biggs? What happened?!”

“He just took off!” Cloudchaser cried, gesticulating wildly at the forest. “What in the hay is he?”

“W- we’re not sure. Um, excuse me.”


But it was too late. Fluttershy had already zoomed off, making a beeline for the edge of the Everfree. Before she was even out of sight, the staccato of galloping hooves from behind them broke the stunned silence. Cloudchaser turned to find Applejack charging down the street, hot on Fluttershy’s trail.

“AJ! What-”

“Sorry, Cloudchaser! It’ll have to wait!”

Just like that, she raced right by them without another word. They stared after her, stunned. Seconds passed, and finally Dr. Fauna spoke.

“I think someone needs to go warn Princess Twilight.”

Cloudchaser nodded dumbly, preoccupied with trying to process what had just happened. Dr. Fauna gave her a pointed look and cleared her throat. Cloudchaser snapped out of her trance and stared at the doctor, who simply raised an impatient eyebrow.

“Oh! Right.”

Being the faster of the two, Cloudchaser flew off towards the library. With a sigh, Dr. Fauna turned back towards her veterinary clinic.

“I ‘d better go prepare the office for an incoming patient, though I really hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Fluh’rshai, shlow down!” Applejack growled around a mouthful of rope.

“But he’s in there!” Fluttershy cried, straining against the lasso around her waist. “What if he gets lost! Or hurt!”

“An’ whuh goo’ll ih be if you geh loss yaself?”

Fluttershy stopped struggling, sinking to the ground with a sniffle. “But I can’t just leave him in there…”

Relieved of the strain on her teeth, Applejack spat the other end of the rope out. “I know you’re worried, sugarcube, but you ain’t gonna help nopony by runnin’ off into the Everfree without even half a plan. ”


Applejack sighed. “Now we ain’t givin’ up either. I’m gonna run back to the farm right quick, and-”


Twilight’s worried shout rang out from behind them. She landed next to them and shuffled her hooves nervously.

“What happened? Cloudchaser showed up at the library saying that Biggs had gone crazy and ran off into the Everfree!”

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” Applejack nodded solemnly. “I dunno the details, but I was about to go back to the farm to get Winona, have her track him down. Do you have anything of his on you?”

“No, but I can rush back to the library and grab something.”

“Good. Grab Pinkie while you’re at it. The more eyes we can muster, the better. Fluttershy, you go get Rarity and Rainbow, and we’ll all meet back up here. Deal?”

“Deal. Come on Fluttershy, let’s hurry.”

“Oh, okay. See you again really soon… I hope.”

The plan set, the three dashed off to their respective tasks, hoping against hope that Biggs wouldn’t get into too much trouble in the meantime.

Sam charged through the underbrush with reckless abandon. His blood was boiling, and he knew only one thing could cure it. The fruit called to him. He could almost taste the delicate, flowery juices on his tongue. He leapt over ravines and uprooted small saplings that dared to stand in his way. None could stand against him.

Bob stalked through the dark corners of Sam’s mind, raging at the circumstances.

*It’s unjust! Outrageous! What sick, depraved mind would come up with something this devious? There’s no way such a plant could evolve naturally, and the effects are abhorrent! Robbing creatures of their intelligence? Unspeakable! If the Council knew about this-!*

The thought instantly drained the acid from his anger. He felt tired, true exhaustion of the soul, for the first time in ages.

*The Council cannot find out about this. Any of this. I have to figure this out myself. If they were to find out how miserably I failed them… No, this is my burden to bear, and bear it I will.*

Sam was getting close, he could smell it through the boy’s dilated nostrils. That damnable dusty fragrance. The meadow was close, and Sam homed in on the scent like a salmon returning upstream to its spawning grounds. In seconds, the deep blue field peeked through the treeline, and Sam pounced through it with manic glee. If he had his own heart, the first glimpse of the clearing would have brought it to a screeching halt.

Fruit. Fruit as far as the eye could see. Every single blossom had budded into the mind-numbing agent. There would be no escape this time. The boy’s mind was so fogged by the addiction that he wouldn’t receive any impulses Bob sent him. There was only one thing he could do if he was to even survive the coming days. Bob ran Sam’s temperature up, flushing out as much of the chaos magic as he could through the boy’s sweat. All that was left was to steel himself against the incoming tide.

Sam barreled into the meadow, laughing giddily. He began snatching up the fruits as quickly as he could, shoveling as many fistfuls as his mouth could handle. He danced about in primal celebration, throwing the cored fruit around like chunks of wet confetti, then fell over, the fruit already making him dizzy.

Had either of them access to their full facilities, they might have noticed a pair of yellow eyes, red pupil constricted in triumphant glee, staring at them from the darkened treeline across the meadow. They might have heard the sinister chuckle, and possibly even the single muttered word that followed.


CHAPTER 07 - An Unfettered Thought

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The girls made lurching progress through the Everfree, trying to keep up with Winona’s sudden stops to sniff the ground followed by bursts of speed as she picked up Biggs’ scent. The noonday sun glared down at the canopy, and yet very little light shone through. Even so, unlike so many of their previous trips, the Everfree air was oppressively hot and muggy, causing even the hardy Applejack to sweat profusely. Rarity was undoubtedly miserable, and yet she hadn’t complained once since they had set out, her expression one of urgent determination. Applejack grinned to herself.

I’m glad she’s takin’ this as just serious as the rest of us.

“Oooh, I hope he’s alright…” Fluttershy whimpered for the seventh time that hour, flitting about the branches, trying to get the best view of the area around them. With an exasperated sigh, Twilight flew up beside her.

“Fluttershy, it’ll be alright. He’s survived for who knows how long in the Everfree already, I’m sure he’ll be just fine for however long it takes us to find him.”

She sighed in defeat. “You’re right. I just can’t help worrying about him. The Everfree is so very dangerous, and I think his time here may have hurt him emotionally.”

“I know you’re worried, Fluttershy,” Applejack called back, “and I get it, really I do. But worryin’ ain’t gonna help Winona track him down any faster.”

“Sorry,” Fluttershy murmured shamefully.

“Ain’t no reason to be sorry, neither. S’perfectly normal to fret for his safety. You just need to keep your hopes up. You can fuss over him all you like when we find him.”

The others all nodded their encouragement, and Fluttershy took heart in their faith.

“Alright, I’ll try.”

“Atta girl!” Rainbow exclaimed, flapping up next to her to throw an arm around. “You just focus on what needs to be done to get him outta his rut, and leave the rest to us.”

The girls all vocalized their support, and Fluttershy felt marginally better about the situation. She still worried for Biggs’ safety, but the worry of whether or not they would find him had abated. A moment later the worry vanished altogether, replaced by an entirely new one. After a particularly deep snuffle, Winona’s head suddenly shot upright, ears raised in alertness. All attention was on her. She turned back and barked excitedly before dashing into the underbrush, pausing every so often to check that the ponies were following and bark at them to hurry up.

“C’mon, girls! Winona’s caught the trail!”

They took off at a gallop, leaping over the underbrush to stay on Winona’s trail. It didn’t take long for their destination to come into view. When it did, they all cried out in alarm.

Biggs sat swaying to and fro in the middle of a vast field of Poison Joke, droopy-eyed and grinning lethargically. Before anypony could say anything, he reached out lazily and plucked something from one of the flowers, and brought it to his mouth. Fluttershy gasped while the others stared in disbelief as he bit down, smearing fresh blue juices over the large stain already covering his mouth and chin. The situation could hardly be called anything less than dire. They had all experienced the effects of Poison Joke pollen, but, as far as she knew, none of them had ever heard of the plant bearing fruit. Who knew what terrible effect such a concentrated dose of Poison Joke would do to Biggs’ system?

She was about to call out to him when another familiar figure appeared out of the forest on the other side.

“So, I’ve finally caught up to you.”

Discord strode up to him, mismatched paw and claw clasped behind his back. It was hard to tell, but Fluttershy could almost swear she saw a bit of anger behind Discord’s triumphant smirk.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to finally meet you,” he drawled sarcastically. “We have so much to discuss, you and I.”

For reasons she couldn’t quite place, there was a sinister undertone to his last statement, and it sent shivers down her spine. Or maybe it was the way Discord used the point of a talon under Biggs’ chin to connect their gazes. Somehow, if she didn’t intervene, she knew something bad was about to happen.


Fluttershy let out a mental sigh of relief as Twilight’s voice rang out through the clearing. Discord’s head shot up and, for a fleeting moment, she saw him grimace, but then he turn to the group with a smile plastered over it.

“Ah, Twilight… and the rest of the pony gang. What a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t expected you to be here.”

“Have you been searching for Biggs, too?” Twilight questioned warily.

“Ah, is that his name? Well, yes, I have been. Though I suppose the question should be ‘why have you six been looking for him?”

“Well, we were taking care of him in Ponyville when he ran away.”

At this, Discord’s placating smile faltered. “He’s already been to Ponyville…” He muttered under his breath.

“So why were you searching for him?” Rainbow Dash asked suspiciously. It seemed her friends had caught on to his less than innocent behavior.

“Well, because he’s so very interesting, of course. I mean, have you ever seen anything like him?”

“Then why were you saying you had things to discuss,” Rainbow Dash accused, “when he can’t even talk?”

At this point the smile disappeared from Discord’s face, replaced by one of anxious frustration. He glanced between them and Biggs, clearly trying to come up with an excuse.

“Well, I… I mean… That is to say-”


The quiet authority with which she said his name instantly drew all eyes to Pinkie. Though her hair was still curly and hot pink, they had never heard Pinkie use a tone more solemn or sad, even when she relapsed into Pinkamena.

“I don’t know how, but you’re getting dangerously close to breaking a Pinkie Promise, and a very important one at that.”

“Yes, but… I… I…” He stuttered, looking between them even more frantically.

“I- I…” Suddenly, the anxiety was burned away by righteous anger.

“Gah! I’ve had enough of this,” Discord snarled, and snapped his claws. The girls found themselves frozen in place, unable to move or cast magic.

“At this point, I don’t care if you believe me or not. But know that, when I say I’m doing this for the good of all Equestria, I mean it with every shred of truth I have left.”

Discord whipped around, pulling Biggs off of the ground with his magic to hover before him. The ape broke out of his stupor, panicking and flailing about as he suddenly found himself weightless and enveloped in a golden glow.

“Well then ‘Biggs,’ I believe you and I have business,” Discord snarked. Then he tapped his chin with his free paw, appearing thoughtful. “Of course, since you can’t talk, this could be a rather one-sided conversation.”

The thoughtful look turned to a sinister grin, as he locked eyes with the struggling ape.

“No matter. There are ways of obtaining information without having to resort to methods as clunky and unreliable as speech.” At this, a bright light appeared at the end of his paws forefinger. As he moved the paw towards Biggs’ head, Twilight cried out in recognition.

“Discord, no!” Twilight warned. “Forcefully reading another being’s mind is a crime! If you do this, we won’t have any choice but to report you to Celestia!”

“Please, Discord,” Fluttershy pleaded. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re better than this. You don’t have to hurt him.”

A momentary but overwhelming guilt washed over him. His ears flattened, and he spoke quietly, unable to meet her eye.

“I’m sorry, Fluttershy, but you don’t know these creatures like I do. He is a major threat to the safety and peace of all ponies in Equestria, if not this entire world. I need to know if there are others here, or if more might be coming, and I can’t afford to be delicate,” he turned his attention back to the terrified human, eyes growing hard. “I won’t allow him or his people to bring harm to you...”

If the girls had anything to say beyond that, Discord was no longer listening. More important matters demanded his attention. He brought the brilliant light and, after a moment’s hesitation, touched it to the boy’s forehead.


In an instant, all of his senses went dark. There was no light, no sound, no scent, no sensation other than the ephemeral borders of his mind. So he manifested himself, the break in the monotony.

“Well, I figured that he’d be less interesting inside, what with the Neanderthalic intelligence and all, but this is just downright barren. Ah, well, easier for me to work with I suppose.”

He closed his ‘eyes,’ envisioning a nice, disorganized mess for him to pick through. He always liked going through events in his own mind in bits and pieces; it helped him to see the bigger picture. A similar environment was just what the doctor ordered. Perhaps a pond of fish, or a cartoonist’s workbench, or maybe a messy bedroom. He was searching for ‘dirty laundry,’ after all.

With this image in mind, he snapped his talons, creating ‘something’ out of ‘nothing.’

Nothing changed.

Or, that is to say, the ‘nothing’ stayed exactly the same. Discord still found himself in a black void. Puzzled, he snapped his talons again. And a third time. Still no change.

“What gives?” He complained aloud. “He shouldn’t have any mental defenses left!”

He stared at his surroundings. “... I’m missing something here.”

“Indeed you are, Chaos-kin.”

The deep, sotto voice nearly frightened discord out of his wits. Discord whipped around to see a tall, likely bipedal figure in hooded robes only slightly less black than the darkness around them. He stood exactly where he hadn’t been a moment before, watching Discord, face still somehow obscured by darkness, even in the omni-directional illumination of the boy’s mind.

“And who, exactly, are you supposed to be?” Discord sneered, unimpressed by the being’s enigmatic appearance. The hooded figure paused a moment, likely sizing him up before answering.

“I suppose this will prove an adequate credential.”

Slowly, the figure raised its right arm. The sleeve of the robe slipped down, revealing the bleached bones of a skeletal hand. Discord would not have been terribly impressed, were it not for what happened next. A white mist appeared under its fingers, coalescing into a polished, white-handled sickle, and bringing with it a terrible Silence. It was like being plunged into an ice-cold isolation tank. Discord became acutely aware of his own heartbeat, his breath thundered in his ears, and he felt a grave chill running through his bones almost down to his very soul. He had experienced this feeling only once in his life, and he could have gone the rest of it without feeling it again.

“Y- you… you’re…”

“A Reaper, yes. Or, to be more precise, Junior Reaper, Third Class.”

A Reaper. The spawn of old Grim himself. He’d hoped to never see one again, but there was no mistaking the magical pressure weighing down on his mind. But then, the oppressive Silence disappeared just as quickly as it arrived. The Reaper had banished the sickle, going back to staring motionlessly at Discord.

“But… Why? What…?” Discord stuttered, desperately trying to understand.

“Why am I here, in this boy’s mind?”

Discord nodded, not trusting his tongue to remain polite.

“He is my charge.”

Discord frowned. “Normally, I can appreciate a self-deprecating joke, but in this case I must protest. What are you really here for?”

The Reaper shrugged. “Believe what you will, that is my purpose.”

“But… He’s just a human! What could he possibly have done to deserve your protection?!”

The Reaper was silent for a long while. “Nothing. I am here of my own volition.”

“Uh-huh,” Discord sneered, arms crossed and eyebrow raised, “forgive me if I don’t believe you.”

“Again, what you believe is no concern of mine,” the Reaper snapped, “know only that he is under my care.”

“Waitwaitwait… Okay… Alright. I’m just… trying to wrap my head around this. You’re a Reaper. Don’t you have more important business, like, say, overseeing life cycles?”

Silence, again. Discord was beginning to think the Reaper was hiding something. “No, I don’t. This is something I must do.”

Discord waited, but when no more information was forthcoming, he lost his patience. “And I’ll ask again, why?” He all but shouted.

The Reaper’s voice lowered dangerously. “Take care, Chaos-kin, to cool your temper. This is not a position I am willing to negotiate. And a tone so xenophobic is unbecoming of one in your station. Do not think that I will tolerate your attitude simply because of my lesser rank.”

“I have my own reasons!” Discord growled. “And I will not back down without a very, very good excuse.”

In the longest silence yet, the two stared each other down. Discord’s immaterial heart pounded mercilessly. It was a risky gamble; he could best a Junior Reaper, but not without taking a few hits that he couldn't just immediately regenerate. But he would sooner face the afterlife than see the day humans ran free in Equestria. Fortunately for both of them, it seemed the Reaper wasn’t so keen on confrontation.



“You want the whole story?” The Junior Reaper offered, conjuring up a glowing orb the size of a bowling ball. “I will show you, but on one condition: what I am about to show you does not leave this boy’s mind. If I so much as hear a hint of a rumor about his past, I will be coming for you.”

Solemnly, Discord motioned for him to continue. With a nod of acknowledgement, the orb of light floated over to Discord, already flickering with images.

“Very well. I suppose the first thing you need to know is that my first assignment started out as an apprenticeship in a relatively backwater plane of the Third Ring, on one of the many iterations of a planet called Earth…”

Fluttershy could only watch in fear as Discord committed unknowable crimes directly in front of her, with no chance of looking away. From the grunts and sparking noises around her, she could tell her friends were trying their hardest to break free of Discord’s magical hold, but she knew they would find no success down that path. When Discord put his mind to something, the only thing that could slow him down was persuasion, and it was already too late for that. Instead she watched intently at the expressions on his face.

Even with his eyes glowing, Fluttershy could tell that what began as righteous anger devolved rapidly into frustration and confusion. Things obviously weren’t going as he’d hoped when he started this spell. But then, rather suddenly, his expression changed to one of alarm and fear. Her wings itched. A frightened Discord was not a good sign. She was about to say something, but Rainbow Dash spoke up first.

“Um… Twilight? Why does he look like that?”

Immediately, all sounds of struggle ceased, as the girls’ eyes locked onto the draconequus. They noticed, for the first time, a Discord they were unused to seeing. One that didn’t seem to project an air of control and arrogant confidence. Nopony dared breathe, lest they somehow set off a chain of events that would spiral into the destruction of Equestria as they knew it. But, gradually, the look of terror dulled into one of discomfort, then concern, and then back to irritation, bordering on anger, but still tinged with worry. And still, Fluttershy could only watch.

Suddenly, his face went blank. No emotion showed through. She stood in the same position in which she had been paralyzed, phantom aches pulling at their muscles. No one in the meadow moved, and the forest had grown eerily silent. Even the normally ever-present breeze had stilled. She couldn’t be sure how long they had been frozen in place, but it had to have been at least an hour since this whole debacle had started.

Then Discord gave the first twitch of movement in ages. He released a long sigh, dropping the paw on Biggs’ forehead and closing his eyes. He slowly lowered the motionless ape to the ground, then knelt down to check his pulse. With a reluctantly satisfied nod, he stood back up, still staring down at Biggs. Fluttershy realized that he would likely stay that way a while yet, unless she reminded him of their presence.

“Discord?” She called out softly. He did not reply right away, but a twitch of his ear told her he had heard.

“I must think on this,” he muttered, seemingly to no one in particular. Then he turned looked each of them directly in the eye.

“He’s been in Poison Joke,” he observed pointedly. “You all know what to do.”

Fluttershy’s hope flared. Then, before any of them could respond, he snapped his talon and disappeared in a flash of light. At the same time, all six of them were released from their magical paralysis. Rainbow Dash immediately took to the air, futilely searching for a trace of the rogue draconequus. Applejack kept a lookout while the other four immediately rushed into the poison joke, disregarding its effects. They wouldn’t manifest for another twelve hours anyway; plenty of time to get to the spa for the antidote.

Fluttershy was immediately relieved to find Biggs unconscious but breathing steadily. Whatever Discord had done, there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger.

“Twilight, is he-?”

“He’s fine,” Twilight confirmed, horn aglow with a monitoring spell. “At least, there’s no physical harm. I can’t say for sure what effect a forced mindread had on his psyche, but he’ll be fine long enough for us to get him into the antidote bath. Applejack, will you be able to carry him?”

“‘Course. I’ve carried loads much bigger’n him before.”

“Thank you. Rarity, you levitate his arms and I’ll get his legs, to keep them from dragging on the ground. Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, you and Rainbow Dash will watch for dangerous creatures in our path. Rainbow, we’re leaving!”

Grumbling, the pegasus abandoned the hunt, returning to a hover above them as they struggled to drag Biggs’ limp form onto Applejack’s back.

“Alright, alright, I’m coming. But the next time Discord shows his face he’s got some serious explaining to do.”

“I agree wholeheartedly, darling,” Rarity squirmed, “but let’s not stay too long, shall we? I think I feel my mane starting to mat.”

Fluttershy smiled sympathetically at her friend; none of them had particularly enjoyed the effects of the Poison Joke, and Rarity had later confided in her that she had screamed for a solid ten minutes upon waking up and finding herself covered in dreadlocks. But she couldn’t help but feel more worried for Biggs. He had been eating the stuff, and who knew how long that had been the case before they met him. She didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks.

“…Um, Twilight?”

“Oof. Yes, Fluttershy?” Twilight grunted, nudging Biggs into a more stable position on Applejack.

“Well, I was thinking I should go ask Zecora about the Poison Joke fruit. We’ve only dealt with the flower before, so I think it might be a good idea to ask her about what we need to do for him.”

“Good idea. You should probably bring her one of the fruits as a sample. Do you need one of us to go with you?”

“Oh, no need. I’ll be fine. You five concentrate on getting Biggs back to Ponyville. I’ll meet you back at the spa.” Fluttershy sat down, delicately attempting to extract one of the fruit with her forehooves.

“Are you sure?”

“I am,” she reassured, concentrating on the stubborn fruit before her, “I want to be certain he gets back safely. Don’t worry about me. I’ll fly to Zecora’s and be back as quick as I can. Oh!”

The stem snapped relinquishing both the bloom and the fruit attached to it. Fluttershy grinned meekly. “I guess that works, too.”

“Sounds good, Fluttershy!” Applejack called over to them. “Twi, if’n you don’t mind, I’d like to git. This’n’s a bit heavier than he first seemed.”

“I’m coming!” She called back before returning her attention to Fluttershy. “See you at the spa, then.”

Fluttershy nodded, the stem in between her teeth while she held the fruit in her hooves, ensuring the fruit wouldn’t fall mid-flight. With a kick off of the ground Fluttershy launched into flight, wobbling for several agonizing seconds before she stabilized. Sighing in relief, Twilight returned to her other friends, picking up Biggs’ legs in her telekinesis as they began the trek back to Ponyville.

Rarity lowered herself daintily into the luxurious bubbles. She sighed in content as the toasty warm water embraced her.

“Ahhh… I really must remember to do this more often,” Rarity gushed to the others in the large bath, “my coat is always the softest it has ever been after these baths. In fact, I believe I can feel the knots untangling themselves.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Well, I don’t know about all that, but I’m sure glad we already know the cure. I don’t fancy bein’ that small ever again.”

For Rainbow Dash’s part, she simply hummed her agreement and slipped further into the water, a relaxed, slightly goofy smile plastered across her muzzle. Biggs, next to her in the tub, noticed and after a moment of concern, decided to imitate her, scooting forward on the seat until the angle of his back allowed him to submerge the lower half of his face.

Twilight tilted her head. “There is still a really small part of me that laments the loss of an opportunity to observe the effects of Poison Joke on a species other than pony. But,” she quickly backpedaled, “like I said, really small part. I’m glad Biggs doesn’t have to suffer through it just for curiosity’s sake.”

Her friends smiled in knowing exasperation. Except for Pinkie Pie, who simply smiled and said, “You’ll probably find out pretty soon anyway.”

Twilight frowned. “What makes you say that?”

“Oh, just one of those sneaking suspicions. But apparently, it wasn’t sneaky enough, because I caught it.”

Rainbow grumbled. “Is your Pinkie-sense telling you we’re gonna have to chase him into the forest again? Because I really hope he isn’t going to get into a habit of doing that.”

“No,” Pinkie shook her head, “I don’t think so. I mean, I’m not getting any twitches. I just get the feeling that we’re going to learn a lot more about him really soon.”

Before they could either ask further or write it off as a part of her Pinkie-ness, Fluttershy burst in quickly followed by Zecora and Aloe. She frantically scanned the room.

“Where’s Biggs?!”

Rainbow’s eyes flew open at the desperation in Fluttershy’s voice. She shot up in her seat, hauling a startled Biggs up by the armpit.

“He’s here! What’s wrong?”

At this Zecora spoke up, issuing her command with complete authority. “Everypony, leave him and exit the bath! Unless you wish to deal with the aftermath.”

While the ponies scrambled to get out of the tub, Fluttershy flew up to Biggs and wrapped her forelegs around him, urgently trying to soothe the ape. He had become frightened in the panic, and was trying to leave the tub along with the others.

“Shhh, shhhh… It’s okay, it’s okay,” she murmured trying to keep her voice level. She stroked Biggs’ shivering, bony back, though whether it was to calm him or herself, she wasn’t sure. Fluttershy swallowed her fear. She had to be strong right now.

“I know you’re scared, but I need you to be brave for me, okay?”

Biggs stared deep into her eyes, searching her for a reason. But he could find none; none that he could understand, anyway. So he fell back on his instincts, and while the urge to flee was strong, his pack animal instincts were stronger. In the short time he’d known her, he’d come to trust her. If she wanted him to stay, he would stay. Reluctantly, tensely, he settled back into the water.

“Good. Good boy. N- now, I need you to do exactly as I say, alright?” Zecora approached, bearing a dark green bottle from her saddlebags, and passed it to Fluttershy. Fluttershy unstoppered the bottle and turned to Biggs.

“I need you to drink this. No matter how nasty it tastes, no matter how it makes you feel, you must drink all of it. It’s very important, understand?”

Biggs hesitated only a moment, looking in each of her eyes, before nodding. Fluttershy put the bottle to his lips and tipped, at which point he took over. Fluttershy backed away and, with one last look at her, Biggs chugged the liquid down despite his very obvious grimace. He set the bottle down, licking at the inside of his mouth, trying to get the taste off of his tongue.

A moment passed. Then two. For a few seconds, it seemed nothing had happened, and yet Zecora stood by, actively watching him. Then, the girls’ attention was caught once again by a cough. Biggs, face reddening and glistening with a sudden sweat, began to cough, intermittently at first, but then with increasing regularity. His expression screwed up in pain. Twilight to a worried step, prompting the other girls to start for him. But Zecora barred their advance with a raised foreleg and a pointed look. Fluttershy shuffled on her hooves, nervously glancing back at Zecora for a cue. Zecora only stared at Biggs. Finally, she got what she came for.

Biggs shut his mouth with a click, just in time to hold back a retch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. His cheeks suddenly swelled and swelled until he could hold it back no longer. He gave a pitiful hrrk, and was violently ill all over the pristine marble floor to a chorus of, “Eeewwwww!” He then plunged his face below the surface, coughing, panting, and spluttering as he inhaled the bathwater like his mouth was on fire.

As soon as he had emptied his stomach, Zecora made her move. She tossed the second saddlebag off of her back, caught the bottom end in her teeth, and upended a bagful of sawdust over the dark blue bile, all in one swift motion. Then, she rooted through the first saddlebag until she found a small pouch. Out of it, she poured a hoof-full of bright red powder. This she scattered over the sodden pile of sawdust, chanting in her native tongue. As she did, the pile began to froth and shudder. The movement became more violent as her tone rose. By the end, she was shouting over the furious hiss of the churning sludge. Then, just as her chant reached a crescendo, the rebellious pile gave in, deflating in burst of acrid black smoke, with a crackle simultaneously reminiscent of burning logs and cracking ice.

Coughing and waving the smoke away, Zecora left the smouldering refuse to check on Biggs, an anxious Fluttershy almost literally hovering over her shoulder. With a fresh application of the red dust on her hooves, Zecora checked Biggs’ pulse as he slumped over the edge of the tub, exhausted and panting. She pried open his eyelids to examine his pupils, then dabbed a bit of sweat – which had turned an alarming shade of blue – from his back with her hoof. The sweat fizzled, reacting slightly to the powder. She cautiously sniffed it and immediately snorted in disgust. But it seemed that she was satisfied with this outcome.

“Thank goodness you came to me with such haste. Any longer and a grisly fate he may have faced. He must soak until he wakes for an effective cure, but he will make a full recovery: of this, I’m sure.”

As Fluttershy sighed in relief, Twilight found herself only with more questions.

“Um, Zecora? We’re all really grateful for your help, truly. But, would you mind telling us what, exactly, is going on?”

“Of course, Princess, I’ll reveal all I can tell. But let us adjourn and let him rest a spell.” The ponies waited for Zecora to scoop up the toxic sawdust, dispose of it in a bag marked ‘Biohazard,’ and wipe down the floor. Then they exited, assaulting the zebra with questions.

Fluttershy watched the others leave before turning back to Biggs. She knew she shouldn’t be disturbing him, but he just looked so uncomfortable draped over the edge of the tub. He would get better rest if he were in a more comfortable position, and she was pretty sure she would need the Poison Joke cure either way. So, she gently maneuvered him around so he could lie back against the wall of the tub. She folded a towel and slid it under his head and neck, for cushioning. Gently, so as not to wake him, she brushed a lock of damp hair out of his eyes, and a little of the tension eased from his scowling face.

Her work done, she left the room to find the others, and hopefully a bath.

It was a straightforward kind of dream. One that he’d had many times. And one of the better ones, too, so he hadn’t bothered trying to influence it. Never really did much anyway.

He sat aiming his plasma rifle over the top of a concrete barrier, waiting for the perfect time. Then, just as the aliens all came into view, he fired. In dream-worthy perfection, he struck them all down in a blaze of plasma fire. Not a single one was left guarding the high-speed cable car tethered to the gargantuan spaceship floating in the sky. As always, the shield bubble surrounding the platform seemed to be at full-strength. However, rather than the clear projection he was used to, the walls of the field seemed to be opaque. A minor detail, all in all, and he wasn’t much at liberty to change the course of his dream, so he continued onward.

As soon as he passed through the walls of the shield bubble, however, the dream changed. He suddenly had an extreme sharpness of clarity, as though he’d woken up. The only reason he knew otherwise was because of the contents of the room he was in, or rather the lack thereof. He stood in an endless black void, but somehow it didn’t seem as sinister as he thought it should. He wasn’t even startled when a hooded figure with a skeletal face suddenly appeared in the center of his vision.

*“Well, boy, we’ve done it,”* the figure said in a voice both ancient and soothing. *“On a fluke, we somehow managed to find the cure to this abominable ailment of yours. The next time you wake up, you’ll have access to all your facilities. Hopefully, this will be the first and last time you see me. In any case, I’m going to need to hibernate for a while; flushing your system has really drained my reserves. I’ll be here to watch over you, but, if all goes according to plan, you’ll never need to know of my existence.”*

“But, wait a minute,” Sam pondered, “if you didn’t want me to know you exist, why are you here? And who are you anyway?”

The figure let out a dry chuckle. *“My dear boy, I’m in your head. I know your track record when it comes to dream retention. Come time to wake, you’ll forget all about our conversation. As for who I am… I believe we had arranged to call me Bob.”*

Sam vaguely remembered something like that, although the recollection was faint and very fuzzy.

“Alright, but you still haven’t answered my first question.”

The hooded figure, Bob, stared at him in silence. Sam waited, but he didn’t say anything. He seemed to be thinking about how to respond. Or maybe he was ignoring the question. Sam couldn’t tell.

*“I am here… because I want you to remember that, if only subconsciously, you will never be alone.”*

“That’s… slightly creepy.”

*“It’s meant to be comforting, fool boy!*” Bob sighed his aggravation away. *“I meant that I will always be here, watching over you, even if you don’t realise it.”*

“Oh… well, uh, thanks.”

Bob shook his head. *“Never mind. You’ll be waking up soon. Just remember that the people here are kind, even if you are, at first, thrown off by their appearance. You have allies here. Don’t neglect your friendships. You are a long way from home, and you can use all the help you can get.”*

Sam was silent for a while. Then, with a scoff, he replied.

“You know, I think this may just be the strangest dream I’ve ever had, if only because of how insanely lucid it is.”

*“Oh, for pity’s sake…”*

Just then, whiteness washed over his vision, and he found himself returning to the land of the living.


Slowly, Sam became aware of a soft and silky warmth surrounding him. He shifted in its embrace and it swirled around him. When he lifted his hands to rub the sleep out of his eyes, he broke the surface, breaching the cool air and slathering warm water across his face.

So I’m in a bath. He stretched lazily. He hadn’t been this relaxed in weeks. His throat was a little sore, but his mind was clear.

His mind was clear.

His mind was clear.


Sam’s eyes shot open. He surged out of the water, giddily feeling himself all over.

“I’m back. I’m back! Ha! Take that, stupid hallucinogenic fruit!”

Then his brain caught up with his hands. Something didn’t feel quite right. He looked down. Despite the blurriness, he knew that, whoever’s body that was, it certainly wasn’t the one he remembered owning. Entirely too bony, even considering the weight he'd lost since the crash. Upon cursory examination, the fuzzy shapes around him seemed to indicate a spa of some kind. Sam scrambled out of the wooden tub, snatching up one of the towels sitting off to the side. They were barely large enough for him to wrap around his bony waist; he had to stretch one of the edges in order to even grasp two corners in one hand. His modesty adequately protected, he looked around for his glasses. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find them anywhere. Sighing in defeat, he turn to one of the blurry shapes that, if the synchronized movement was any indication, should be a mirror. Sam leaned in close.

“Holy shit…”

The man staring back at him was strange, but he mirrored Sam’s every move. His face was gaunt and haggard, with long, coarse hair and a scraggly beard; the face of a man who’d survived a terrible ordeal. When Sam looked down, he could see the outline of his ribcage. Although his stomach didn’t seem to be distended, he was obviously recovering from malnourishment. His muscles seemed to be on the cusp of atrophy, though maybe constant activity had helped him to retain some.

Sam’s breath caught in his throat. While he hadn’t been the epitome of health, he at least had had some decent amount of muscle beneath his fat, and he had found a little scrap of pride in his strength. But now they seemed much smaller than they should be, even without all the padding. Only then did he notice the fatigue and malaise shadowing his initial excitement. The weakness of his limbs sent a pit of icy dread into his gut. He’d never felt so helpless before.

His grip slackened, and the hems of the towel slipped from his fingers. Then, as he scrambled to regain control of the makeshift garment, he caught sight of a certain something between his legs that gave him pause. A certain something that seemed much larger than it had been. A wry smile twisted his lips, the pyrrhic victory pouring a sarcastic humor into his mood.

“Well, that’s one point in favor of my drastic weight loss, I guess.”

His overall condition did make him wonder just how long he’d been hallucinating, though. Last he remembered, he’d lost quite a bit of weight, but he hadn’t yet regressed as far as becoming malnourished. All he knew was that it had to have been months at least since his crash landing in that forest.

“Hoo boy… Mom and Dad are gonna be piiiiiiissed… Right after the tearful reunion, of course.”

Just then, he heard the clomp of hard shoes on tile from outside the room.

“Biggs, darling, is somepony in there with you? I heard a voice.”

It was too late to react. The door to the spa room swung open, exposing his barely towel-clad form for all to see. For an instant, he was embarrassed, before the incongruity of what he was seeing took root in his mind.

Although his sight was blurred beyond any hope of making out fine detail, he knew what the human form was supposed to look like, and this was not it. What stood before him could only be considered equine, even to his tarnished vision, though it was no taller than the average Great Dane. It had a snowy white coat, and a glaringly purple, styled mane. What’s more, it had the audacity to sport what could only be a horn on it’s head.

A unicorn…

**Five Minutes Earlier**

“Hoo-wee, no wonder ya’ll were so upset. That’s one humdinger of a poisonous fruit.” The other girls nodded dumbly, still reeling from Zecora’s revelation.

“Precisely my worry, dear Applejack, a poison so potent suggests a tack. It seems to be, by its very nature, bait; only by his presence does the growth stimulate.”

Fluttershy smoothed her mane with worried hooves, soaking in her own personal tub of Poison Joke cure. “So, you think it might be a trap set for creatures like Biggs?”

Zecora sighed. “All evidence found points to that being the case, but I worry about who might have set it in place.”

Rainbow Dash angrily flew up above their heads in the center of their attention. “You guys saw how Discord acted back in that meadow, right? If that fruit has as much chaos magic as you said, I think we all know who we need to talk to to get some answers!”

In a fit of exasperation, Fluttershy spoke up. “Now wait just a minute-”

“Okay, fine,” Rainbow Dash interrupted, heading off the defensive argument, “I’m not accusing him outright, but, out of all of us, he’s probably the one who knows the most about chaos magic. Unless Twi knows something…?”

Twilight shook her head. “Sorry, I don’t. Very little is known about chaos magic in general. It has the distressing habit of… confounding scientific observation. It tends to shift around and-”

Rarity daintily cleared her throat. “Aaand I’m sure the explanations are all very intelligent and technical. So, it would seem we have but one option left to us.”

“Alright,” Twilight said decisively, “as soon as Biggs and Fluttershy are well again, we’ll summon him with the Elements.”

“Um, well, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Fluttershy asked, wilting under her friends surprised stares. “I mean, he was really upset the last time we saw him. Maybe we should wait a while.”

“I know you want to be considerate,” Twilight placated, moving to put a hoof around Fluttershy’s shoulders, “but this is important. Even if he didn’t do it, an intentional poisoning is equivalent to attempted premeditated murder! We need to know who did this so we can stop them before anypony else gets hurt.”

“Oh, oh! Also, if he did do it, maybe he might have had a good reason for it?” Pinkie interjected with increasing enthusiasm, directing the incredulous stares her way. “Like maybe Biggs’ kind were a bunch of violent barbarians that almost destroyed the universe a million, billion years ago!”

The air of amazed disbelief in the room was palpable. After the shock wore off, Applejack was able to ask the question that was on all of their minds.


Pinkie rolled her eyes with an exasperated groan. “It was a joke? C’mon you guys, did you actually, in all seriouslyness, think I would say something like that and mean it? If so, you’re all waaay more gullible than I thought.”

“No, Pinks, we weren’t thinkin' that. I think we were just a mite… overwhelmed, is all.”

Twilight shook the preposterous idea out of her head. “In any case, the only way we’re going to get answers is by talking to and – if necessary – confronting Discord. And I’m sorry Fluttershy, but the sooner we do it, the better.”

“Very well,” Rarity voiced in apparent relief, “I’ll go check in on our big friend, see how his recovery is coming along.”

Rarity hurriedly left the room, before Pinkie could start spouting other, more ridiculous theories. As much as she loved Pinkie’s exuberance, there was a place and time for that kind of humor.

As she approached Biggs’ room, however she heard something she wasn’t expecting. An elated shout, coming from the same direction as the spa. She broke into a quick trot, and as she neared the spa door, she could hear a murmuring, masculine voice, and the tail end of a one-sided conversation.

“ the tearful reunion, of course.”

Fear tugged at her heart, had one of the spa patrons found Biggs? Or was it somepony else, here to whisk the fantastic creature away? Steeling herself for the confrontation that was sure to come, she opened the door announcing herself as politely as she could, hopeful that whatever was happening could still be settled peacefully.

“Biggs, darling, is somepony in there with you? I heard a voice.”

But when she opened the door, the only thing she saw was Biggs, standing upright in front of one of the spa mirrors, clutching a towel around his waist. Confused, she looked about the room searching for the source of the other voice. There was nopony to be seen.

“That’s odd, I could have sworn I heard somepony talking to you.”

Only when she looked back at Biggs did she noticed something was off. He was still staring at her, wide-eyed, as though in disbelief.

“Biggs, dear? Is something wrong? You look a bit… tense.”

“... Oh… my… god, I’m still HALLUCINATING!” Biggs shouted with increasing volume. He then dashed to the tub and dunked his head underwater.

Rarity stared in slack-jawed disbelief. Biggs had just spoken! He had opened his mouth, and words had come out. But worse than that, it hadn’t seemed like he was being puppeted. His mouth had made precisely the correct shapes to form those words.

Biggs is… intelligent?

Rarity stood in place, opening and closing her mouth as she stared at Biggs, since all other brain functions had been washed away by the shock.

Finally, after half drowning himself, Biggs jerked out of the water and slumped against the tub, scratching his head through soaked locks. He massaged his temples, eyes screwed shut in a desperate attempt to block out the world.

“Okay, pull it together… You know it’s a hallucination, so make it stop. You’re lucid enough. It shouldn’t be a problem, right? Right. Okay. I’ll try again on three… One… Two… Three!”

Biggs blinked, and immediately locked eyes with Rarity. For ages, they just stared at each other. Then Biggs slapped himself.

“Ow! Damnit!”

Rarity gasped. “Oh my! Are you alright?”

“No, I am n-” Biggs eyes bulged. “Y- you talked… how… are you talking?!”

Flabbergasted, Rarity sputtered out an answer. “Well of course I can talk! What about you? How can you suddenly talk?”

“I- but… but you’re a hallucination. Hallucinations shouldn’t be able to argue! Don’t argue with me! It’s disorienting enough that I wake up to… this!” He gestured to his body.

“What do you mean, that? That’s your body isn’t it?”

“Well, of course it’s my body! But someone’s let it go to shit since I last saw it.”

Rarity would have scolded him for cursing, had she not heard hoofsteps approaching behind her.

“Um, Rarity? Is everything alright in here? I heard shouting.”

She turned around to see Fluttershy in the doorway, towels draped over her and wrapped around her mane. However, this only seemed to agitate Biggs.

“Oh, great! Now there’s a little yellow pegasus, too!”

Fluttershy froze, mouth agape. Rarity was fairly certain she would have toppled over if her legs hadn’t locked up. She turned back on Biggs, indignation burning in her eyes.

“Ex-cuse me! Is that any way to treat a lady? Especially one who has been taking care of you?”

Biggs sighed explosively, and went back to massaging his temples. “No… no, you’re right. Just because I’m hallucinating right now, that doesn’t give me the right to-”

“What’s going on in here?” Twilight demanded, charging through the doorway. “What’s with all the shouting?”

“Oh! Oh! Oh that’s just peachy. Now it’s a little purple… pegacorn? Unisus?”

“Alicorn… How-”

“Perfect, my hallucinations are making up words now.”

“I am not!”

“Making up words or a hallucination?”


“Well you might not be a hallucination, but whatever I’m seeing certainly is.” Biggs rested his elbows on his knees, leaning forward to jam the heels of his palms into his eye sockets. “Ugh, and to think I woke up in such a good mood.”

“What…? What do you mean? And how are you talking?” Twilight grilled.

“What do you mean, ‘what do I mean?’” Biggs growled irritably, “And why does everyone keep asking how I can talk? Just how far gone was I while I was tripping balls?”

The aberrant question threw the girls for a loop.

“Tripping… balls?” Rarity inquired, unsure of whether she should be confounded or scandalized. Biggs stared, confused by their unfamiliarity.

“You know, tripping? Spaced? Zonked? Seeing pink elephants? …High?” Seeing that none of them responded, Biggs took a more explicit approach. “Out of my mind with hallucinations? I mean, the last thing I remember is finding a meadow full of this blue fruit, and next thing I know I’m waking up in a hot tub, malnourished and sporting hair and beard easily twice as long as they had been. I must’ve lost at least a few weeks, if not a month or more. Especially if kept eating that damned stuff.”

“Um… well, uh…” Fluttershy mumbled, broken out of her stupor, “We… um… might have… mistook you for an… an animal…”

By now, the other girls and Zecora had found their way into the spa, attracted to the ruckus. Biggs’ only reaction was a tired groan and a hand slapped over his eyes.

“An… animal? How do you even…? Nevermind. I’m just going to hope against hope that you are actually people I’m hallucinating as tiny colorful horses and not just figments of my imagination. Could you please call a doctor, or bring me to a hospital? I need to know that this thing is reversible. Oh, and can you bring me my clothes, or a robe, or… something?”

Rarity marched off with a haughty “Hmph!”, leaving the others to deal with the difficult creature. The girls looked to each other, wordlessly asking for suggestions. Eventually, without prompt, Fluttershy began to approach softly. She sat down to Biggs’ right, and put a gentle hoof on his knee. Biggs lifted his hand off of his eyes to look at the contact.

“I… I know that this is a scary time for you, and that you feel like nothing's going right, but...”

She trailed off as she noticed Biggs’ eyes. He was staring at her hoof. No, staring wasn’t the right word. Biggs’ eyebrows were furrowed in a scowl of disbelief, his bug-eyed gaze boring into the hoof on his leg as if it were the last thing he expected. Worried that she had offended him, Fluttershy quickly tried to retract her hoof. But before she could even lower her leg, Biggs’ hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. She gasped, startled at the sudden movement, and she heard the varied tinkling, rustling, and stomping sounds of her friends gearing up to rescue her. But she held up her free hoof, halting their advance. His grip was tight, but not terribly painful. When she relinquished her hoof to his attention, the grip loosened.

Biggs sat up, moving in to look closely at her hoof. He squeezed it, prodded it, bent her wrist at the joint, tapped the keratinous nail. He ran his thumb over the edge. She fought back a giggle as he massaged her frog with his thumbs.

“... What?”

The question was whispered, more to himself than anypony else. She felt a sliver of concern. It was almost like… like he couldn’t believe what his senses were telling him. Suddenly, his hands began working their way up her leg, groping and squeezing, as if he was trying to disprove his senses.

“Stand still,” he commanded. Had she tried to move away? Maybe subconsciously. She was feeling more than a little uncomfortable with all of this sudden, intense attention. Her eyes flicked to her friends, who were watching intently, poised to strike the moment he began hurting her. She gave them a pleading glance, hoping they wouldn’t make any rash decisions. Her breath caught in her throat as his hand reached her breast. Biggs was on his knees now, and after a moment, he leaned in, putting an ear to her breast, apparently listening to her nervously fluttering heart.

“... No…”

His hands began moving rapidly, feeling her all over. Her throat, her mane, her right cheek, her left ear, her nose, her chin, her lips.


“Hey!” Rainbow Dash cried out in indignation. But Fluttershy complied, sparing Rainbow a placating glance. She could tell her friends were worried about her, but she knew that this wasn’t about perverse pleasure. Somehow, Biggs couldn’t believe she was real, and his examination was as much out of fascination as it was to prove his own sanity. She could endure a little violation of personal space if it helped him to accept their existence.

He ran a finger along the back side of her lower front teeth, retracting it to examine the saliva.

“But… No… That’s…”

Once again, he returned his attention to her, staring into her left eye with clinical attention. He then sniffed the air over her head, by her cheek, in her mane. With a snort, he pulled away.


Desperately, he looked her over again, until his eyes locked onto her wings. With lightning speed, he had her left wing. Fluttershy yelped at the roughness of the contact, and Biggs immediately backed off.

“Sorry! Sorry. I just…”

“It’s okay,” she gasped, trying to calm her frayed nerves. “Just… be more gentle. My wings are more fragile than my legs.” Off to the side, Rainbow Dash growled menacingly, pawing the tiled floor like she was preparing to charge.

“Sorry,” he repeated, glancing over at the others for the first time, suddenly self-conscious. Their glares bore guilt into his chest. He swallowed.

“M- may I?”

Fluttershy extended her left wing obligingly, and Sam moved in after one last glance at the others in the room. He gently kneaded the limb with one hand, feeling her muscle, bones, and joints, ending with the shoulder. He ran the fingers of his other hand through her feathers. In the end, he focused on her shoulder, examining the limb’s range of motion.

“This is impossible.”

“What?” Fluttershy asked.

“You’re… real! I mean actually, really real. You’re not…” Biggs let go of her, sitting back heavily. “You’re a real, live pegasus… talking to me. How is that possible?”

A concerned frown worked into her features. “What do you mean? Don’t you know about pegasi?”

He opened his mouth, decided against it, then opened it again. “I… Well, yes. But… but Pegasus is just a myth. You’re a myth. A living, breathing myth.” He took another, incredulous look at his surroundings, stopping on the other ponies in the room.

“Where the hell am I?”

Twilight looked to the others, who turned out to be just as confused as she.

“Well, you’re in Equestria. Ponyville, to be exact.”

“Puh… Po- Ponyville? I… am I still on Earth?”

Twilight’s eyes widened.

“Oh my.”

CHAPTER 08 - An Unabiding Curiosity

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Sam stared at the purple horse expectantly, but no information was forthcoming. Miss Purple Alicorn Horse just stood there, staring into the middle distance, slightly stunned. Eventually he got fed up with waiting.

“What? What do you mean, ‘oh my’?”

“Ok. Don’t panic,” Purple Alicorn told herself, panicking. “No need to jump to conclusions. There's a perfectly rational reason for this. Maybe he’s… from another country! Yeah, that must be it! A country that just... doesn't know about Equestria. Or ponies in general. A totally… isolated… country… Oh dear."

Equestria? What is that, some sort of horse rider magazine?

But he knew better. She was naming a country: her country. And she was trying to fit him into her worldview. But he needed to be sure. Since Purple Alicorn Horse – Pony? – seemed to be lost in her own little world, Sam turned to the rest of the gathering. Swallowing nervously, he murmured his question to them.

“I’m guessing that you… um, ponies, was it?” He gestured vaguely at their group. Pink Hyper Pony nodded enthusiastically. Yellow Pegasus Pony sitting next to him nodded more sedately. Orange Country Pony was watching Purple Alicorn with a look of concern, and Blue Pegasus just seemed lost. “I’m guessing you ponies are pretty common in these parts.”

“You… could say that,” the Country Orange affirmed in an appropriate Southern drawl.

“You could also say that ponies make up the majority of Equestria,” Hyper Pink began to ramble, “because we’re the ones that founded the nation. Also we live here, and have a bunch of cities, and a government, and an economy, and-”

“Okay!” Sam cut her off. The icy pit in his stomach grew colder. “I get it. You’re the indigenous people… Which means that I am a long… long way from home.”

“W- what makes you say that?” Shy Yellow asked timidly. Sam swallowed thickly.

“I think that we would have noticed by now if there was an entire country of colorful ponies anywhere on my planet. Unless, of course there is somehow a planet-wide conspiracy to cover up your existence. But, you know… Occam’s Razor and all that,” Sam trailed off, eyes unfocused.

Rainbow Blue rattled her head in confusion. “Uh, who’s this Occam and what does their razor have to do with anything?”

“You’re from another planet?” Hyper Pink gasped.

“So it would seem,” Sam answered absentmindedly. The pink one immediately began gushing excitedly to her friends but he paid no mind, still reeling from this latest revelation. He was on an alien planet. That was the only logical explanation. There was no way that anyone, friend or foe, would go to such lengths to make him, of all people, the center of a prank or act of this magnitude. By itself, the amount of resources required to construct such an intricate fantasy would put this kind of project out of reach of all but the most wealthy, and he could think of nothing that anyone could possibly gain from this.

No, the simplest explanation was, in this case, the best. He had been abducted, then dropped off on this planet, wherever it was. Sam began to tremble as the implications set in, his brain going slightly numb. Part of him wanted to believe it was excitement at the prospect of first encounter, and part of him did, but deep in his gut he was terrified.

How many lightyears away was Earth? Who had abducted him? Had they done anything else to his home while they were there? He squashed that line of thinking before it could go any further. Morbid speculation would get him nowhere. He needed facts.

Alright, step one. Assess your situation. I am alive, I am awake, and I am lucid. The last few months definitely happened. Now I am sitting in a spa with a handful of intelligent creatures that shouldn’t exist… No! Stop! No opinions! Start over!

Okay, so I’m alive, awake, lucid, I have definite memory of waking up here and surviving for the past couple of months at least. I ate a hallucinogenic fruit, or something, and now I’m in a spa room with alien creatures... Whose speech I can understand… Huh.

He looked at Alicorn Purple, who seemed to be muttering about spacetime and extraterrestrial life. Yup, that’s definitely English, albeit really jargonized English.

“How is it that we are able to understand one another?” He asked off-hand.

That shocked Alicorn Purple right out of her musings. She turned to stare at him. Then her horn lit up.

“Whoa! Hey!” Sam nearly jumped out of his skin. “What is that? What are you doing?”

“I’m going to do a scan of your magical signature, see if there’s any spellwork at play.”

“No! What? No! ...What? What do you mean by that?”

“Calm down, it’s just a scan.”

“No, hey! Stop! Whatever you’re doing, just stop,” Sam commanded, putting a hand out as he scrambled to his feet, as if to ward off whatever voodoo was happening in front of him.

“Ugh… stop… moving…!” Purple demanded.

“No, you stop glowing!” He shouted, running for cover behind one of the large, vortex shaped pillars funneling down from the ceiling in the back of the room. As soon as he broke her line of sight, she let out a frustrated growl.

“Fluttershy? A little help?” Purple pleaded, trying and failing to keep the frustration out of her voice.

“Oh! Um, are you sure?” Responded the voice of Shy Yellow, obviously looking for an out. “I mean, it seemed like you had it handled…”

After a few moments of silence, during which Sam could only assume Purple stared at Fluttershy in exasperation, the pegasus gave a capitulating sigh.

“Oh… okay.”

A moment later, Sam could just make out gently falling hoofsteps coming in his direction. He prepared to bolt the moment anything came into view. But she stopped just beyond the edge of his pillar and cleared her throat timidly.

“Um… Mister, um, Biggs…? You don’t have to hide. Twilight’s not going to hurt you.”

It took Sam a moment to realize she was talking to him. But by the time he worked it out, Fluttershy had already mistaken his silence for hesitation.

“She really won’t, honest… Um… Oh! I know! Twilight, why don't you cast the scanning spell on me? Then he can see that it’s harmless. Does that sound good to you, Biggs?”

This time, Sam actually hesitated, considering her proposal. He spouted the first thought that came to mind, trying to stall for time.

“...It's Sam.”


“My name's Sam. I don't know where you got the idea that it was Biggs.”

“Oh! Oh… Well, it- it's nice to meet you, Sam. I'm sorry we didn't ask sooner. We kind of… just… kept using the name we gave you when you were…”

By her embarrassed tone, it wasn't hard to connect the dots.

“Ha! Well, I can't say I'm angry. To me, Biggs just so happens to be quite a flattering nickname.”

“O- okay… I'm… I'm glad you like it.” He heard her shuffling a hoof on the carpet nervously. “So… would you… maybe be willing to come out if we demonstrate the spell?”

He had to give her one thing, Fluttershy’s adorably meek and submissive mannerisms made it difficult to resist her charm. Sam chewed on the inside of his cheek, trying to think of a reason he shouldn't believe her.

Unfortunately, his mouth started a question before his brain could catch up, “H- hhhow can I, uh… How can I be sure she'll use the same... spell… on me? For all I know, you could be the ones who abducted me!” His confidence picked up steam as the question formulated. After all, he had every right to be suspicious!

But the building righteous anger plummeted after an indignant squawk from the rainbow-haired pegasus.

“Hey! Nopony here would ever do anything like that! Apologize!” She seethed in shaming earnestness.

“Come on, Rainbow Dash,” the country girl soothed, “it ain’t his fault he’s in a scary situation.”

“But this is Twilight he’s talking about! You know she would never stoop to such an underhoofed-”

“We know that, dear,” interrupted the elegant voice of the white unicorn, whom he believed Fluttershy called Rarity. In all the commotion, Sam hadn’t noticed her return. “But Biggs doesn’t know her like we do. His fears, to him, are very necessary, unfounded as they may be.”

Sam had half a mind to respond with indignation of his own, but before he could, Twilight responded with a sigh. “You’re right, Rarity… Except for the part about his name, actually. He told us it’s Sam.”

“Oh! My apologies, Sam.” She sounded sincere enough.

“Forget about it,” he said dismissively. Now he had a pretty good idea of when she had returned. “Do you have my clothes?”

“I do,” she chirped, and the strange tinkling noise filled the room again.

“Rarity, stop!” Twilight shouted.

“What?” Rarity pouted.

“You might frighten him again!” Twilight whispered harshly and none too subtly.

But it seemed Rarity had realized her error, because there was a gasp followed by the abrupt end of the tinkling noise and the soft whump of a pile of cloth hitting the floor. “Oh! Oh dear. I’m terribly sorry, it completely slipped my mind… Um… Sam? Would you care for one of us to bring you your clothes?

Sam wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but he was sure it had to do with Twilight’s glowing horn earlier. Maybe Rarity could do something similar. He realized that, at the moment, there was really only one of these ponies that he even came close to trusting.

“Uh, yeah… Send, uh, Fluttershy over.”

The tinkling started up again, for a moment, then stopped. Then he heard Fluttershy’s soft hoofsteps approaching from around the corner. She peered around the column.

“Um, here you go.”

She turned her head and picked up a small, neatly folded pile of clothes off of her back. Relieved to finally have something halfway decent to wear, Sam took them from her with a grateful smile. She smiled back before heading around the pillar once more.

He pulled everything on with great relish, even if his pants legs were tattered up to the knee, his belt needed to be cinched up a few inches tighter, and his shirt billowed around him like a curtain in the wind. Luckily his socks and shoes had survived the journey mostly intact, but he’d definitely need replacements before long. Still, it loosened a knot of anxiety to know he was no longer naked in a room full of strangers. However, he realized there was still one thing missing.

“Where’re my glasses?”

“Your what?” Rarity called out.

“My glasses. I had them on when you found me, right?”

“No, I don’t think you did. Did he, Twilight?”

“Huh?” Twilight exclaimed, startled out of her musings. “Did he what?”

“Have glasses on when we found him.”

“Oh. No, not that I can remember. What did they look like?”

“Black metal rims with wide earpieces. Thick lenses, the right one was cracked.”

“No, I would have remembered something like that.”

“What about my bag? I still had that, right?” He pleaded, hoping that at least something survived the trip through the forest.

“No, I didn’t see them in there either.” For a moment, Sam had half a mind to call her out on snooping through his possessions, but suppressed the urge. After all, were their situations reversed, he probably would have looked through any bags she might have been carrying for some kind of identification.

“Well, crap. I’m going to be blind as a bat.”

The Pink One gasped. “Omygosh! Can you make high pitched screeching noises and then figure out the shape of your surroundings by the way the screechy sounds bounce off everything, like a bat does?”

Sam stared, stunned. In less time than it took to blink, the hyper pony appeared before him, rambling without pause for breath. He stood stock still, trying not to make any sudden movements. But he realized she wouldn’t leave until he answered her question, and neither could he run away; she could apparently run faster than the eye could track. That, or she could teleport. All he could do was humor her.

“Y… you mean echolocation?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Uh… no. I’m just near-sighted.”

“Oh! Well then, here!” She bubbled, presenting him with a pair of coke-bottle glasses that she had somehow been storing in her mane. “I keep spares in case Mr. Waddle misplaces his again.”

Sam scrutinized the glasses, eying them as if they were a cobra poised to strike.

“They’re not going to explode or anything,” Pink Pony teased.

Swallowing his apprehension, Sam slowly reached out and hooked a finger around the glasses. A second glance at the Pink One was met with a beaming smile. Sam gave her an unsure smirk back and slid the glasses into place. They were an awkward shape, clearly not designed for his head, but his vision cleared up considerably.

For the first time, he observed clearly her massive smile and how it reached her sparkling blue eyes. He could see the softness of her coat. This creature was absolutely, diabetes-inducingly cute. What if they were all this adorable? Was it some sort of naturally selected defense mechanism? How could he possibly remain stoic in the face of such dangerous charms?

Sam smiled back, clinging to the last shreds of his paranoia like they were his only life preserver in a sea of false promises.

“Um, thanks, uh…”

“Pinkie Pie! And you're very welcome.”

She bounced – actually bounced – back to her friends. Sam let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding in.

“Alright,” Twilight declared, snapping him out of his trance, “I have an idea. Sam, please don’t freak out. I'm not casting anything at you.”

The purple glow lit up the other side of the pillar and he heard the ambient tinkling once more, along with a sound reminiscent of chalk on a chalkboard, or drawing in wet sand with a stick. Curiosity overpowered his fear of horrible, unnatural death by a slim margin, and he cautiously peered around the edge of the pillar.

Although he could see them all clearly for the first time, Sam was transfixed not by their cuteness, but by the anomaly in front of the one he understood to be called Twilight. She stood in a wide stance, concentrating on the air, flicking her head and eyes in deft movements that perfectly corresponded to what was happening before her. To Sam’s eternal fascination, the air in front of Twilight was – for lack of a better word – being written on, lines of incandescent, neon magenta creating a circle. Inside the circle, runic letters and arcane geometries formulated, creating a complex pattern the likes of which Sam had only ever seen in fantasy illustrations. Twilight finished the mid-air inscription with a small flourish, smiling in satisfaction.

“There. That should ease your worries, right?”

Sam ogled, unbelieving. However, Twilight read this as confusion.

“Oh, you use a different runic alphabet don’t you? Well, most of the geometries should be the same, hopefully. That is, if you use the same equations as me. And arcane constants…”

When Sam’s expression remained unchanging she slapped her forehead with a hoof.

“Oh for pony’s sake! Look, all you need to know is that this glyph will cast the same spell on whomever it targets. Fair enough?”

Sam gulped. As much as he wanted to disbelieve his senses, he couldn’t. He nodded weakly.

“Good. Fluttershy, if you would be so kind as to step a little to the left…?”

“Oh. Ok,” Fluttershy murmured, drawing Sam’s attention.

If Pinkie Pie had come close to giving him heart palpitations, Fluttershy nearly gave him a coronary. He wanted nothing more to sit down and stroke her silky pink mane for hours. So when he realized what was about to happen, naturally, his first instinct was to run out and snatch her out of harm’s way.

But he only got as far as an outstretched hand. The spell was too quick. He could only watch in mute horror as a beam of magenta energy struck her dead on. He tensed up, preparing to sprint to her rescue.

But the cries never came. The magenta light washed over Fluttershy with nary a peep, her calm expression never wavering. As the beam of light faded, she opened her eyes and gave him a small, comforting smile.

“See? There's nothing to be afraid of. Twilight only wants to help. We all do. We would never intentionally hurt you. Won't you please come out?”

Sam’s eyes darted between the ponies’ sympathetic smiles. As much as he wanted to blame them for his predicament, he was finding it impossible. They had such an unshakable aura of innocence that he couldn’t imagine them plotting anything more dastardly than a raid on the nearest bakery, but only after having paid for the sweets.

With an apprehensive but resigned sigh, he inched out from behind the pillar until he was fully exposed. He alternated between clenching and stretching his fingers for a few seconds.

“Will you promise to stop if, for some reason, something goes wrong? Just on the off chance.”

Twilight nodded gravely. “I Pinkie promise.”

Sam blinked at the strange parallel. How could that be a thing if ponies didn’t even have fingers? He shook the errant though loose, and stepped forward. Taking Fluttershy’s place, he sat cross-legged on the floor, nervously popping the joints in his fingers. Fluttershy sat beside him and put a comforting hoof on his arm, and he felt the tension in his shoulders loosen just a bit. He looked Twilight dead in the eye, intent on letting her know his discomfort.

“I’m placing a lot of trust in you right now.”

“Thank you. I suppose submitting oneself to foreign magic might be terrifying for some. But, like I said, you don’t need to worry. It will be over quickly, and you should barely feel a thing.”

Sam just swallowed thickly and nodded. At his cue, Twilight lowered her horn. It lit up in tandem with the floating glyph, glowing ever brighter with magenta light. He wanted desperately to just screw his eyes shut and wait for the pain to come crashing down. But, if he did that, it would take him completely by surprise. So he forced himself to watch, willing Twilight’s promise to stay true.

He couldn’t help but flinch as the glyph flared a second time. But the light washed over him much as it did Fluttershy. The only reason he could tell it was more than just a purple flashlight was a strange tingle at the base of his skull.

After a few seconds of this, the light died out, and the tingle with it. Sam let out a breath of relief.

“Well… Okay, I suppose that was a lot more anticlimactic than I had thought it would be. So what’s going on?”

But Twilight just stared at him in confusion.

“Uh, Twilight?”

“I just don’t get it.”

“What?” Sam demanded, growing anxious. “What’s wrong?”

Twilight shook her head. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing. There’s no indication anything is interfering with your thaumic field other than a few trace remnants of the chaos magic.”

“My… thaumic field?”

“Yeah, your magic aura? I mean it does seem a bit too stagnant to be healthy. And there was a little blip of activity when I first began scanning, but that could easily be attributed to-”

“Wait wait wait… my magic aura? What the heck are you talking about?”

A sudden knock at the door startled everyone in the room. Then another pony – this one with a cyan coat and long pink mane held back by a white hair band – poked her head in the room.

“Please pardon the intrusion, Princess,” she spoke demurely, with an accent that sounded almost Northern European. Sam supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he was sitting with a pony that could have made a passable Texan. “It’s just, we heard raised voices. Is everything alright?”

“Oh! Um, yes… Sorry. Girls, let’s continue this discussion in the library. Sam, would you come with us, please?”

The panic descended once more. “You want me to go… outside? In an alien world?”

“Wellll… yes?”

“I… uh… can I… have a minute?”

Twilight looked like she was about to protest until the country pony nudged her. The cowpony turned to speak directly to Sam.

“I reckon that’s a reasonable request. After all, I think we can all agree that we’d feel the same in your predicament. Right, Twilight?”

Twilight acquiesced with a reluctant groan. “Yeah, I guess you’re right, Applejack. Sorry, this is just really strange.” She turned back to Sam. “Just… will you promise not to run off again? You stirred up quite a commotion last time.”

Sam chewed his upper lip. What exactly had he gotten up to while he wasn’t in control of his faculties?

“Yeah, I… I don’t think you’re in danger of that happening. I have no intention of wandering alone in an alien world if I can help it. So yeah, I, uh… I pinky promise.”

Twilight smiled. “I’m sure she’ll hold you to that. Right, Pinkie?”

When she turned to look at the pony in question, the connection clicked in his mind. Of course it wasn’t named after a finger. Derp. It must be an inside ritual of theirs. However, it seemed the promise’s namesake was too busy to notice, jotting something down on a notepad with a pencil held in her teeth.

“Pinkie? What are you writing?”

“Huh? Oh! I’m writing myself a reminder to change the name on the ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ banner. And I guess I should change ‘Ponyville’ to ‘Equestria.’ Hmm, maybe I should buy a new banner.”

“Pinkie! Have you been listening at all?”

“Yeah, yeah, no running off, Pinkie Promise, yadda yadda. But I think the most important question has yet to be asked. So Sam,” she began, face stern, eyes gazing directly into his soul, “what kind of cake do you like?”

Sam found he could no more look away from those piercing baby blues than he could stop breathing. Eventually, he stammered out an answer.

“I- I, uh… I l- like… German chocolate?” He mentally kicked himself. How could she possibly know what that is? However, she broke into a wide grin.

“Alrighty then, Germane chocolate cake it is!” Pinkie hopped out of the room, humming merrily. Sam could only watch her go, unable to bring himself to correct her. A dainty cough drew everyone’s attention.

“Well then, I believe we’ll leave you to your thoughts,” Rarity offered, prompting the other mares to follow her out. “If you need anything, we’ll be just on the other side of this door.”

She gently shut the door behind them, granting Sam the privacy that had so recently been shattered. At first, Sam just gazed listlessly at the closed door, as though waiting for it to burst open into another ridiculous scenario. But it remained obstinately closed. The very atmosphere of the empty room seemed to mock him, silently laughing at his inner turmoil. He put his head in his hands, mind racing to process the life-changing events that had unfolded only minutes prior.

On the one hand, he was out of his gourd with excitement. Not only have I found -- or been found by -- an intelligent alien race, they speak English! He still couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. In a situation like this, something so fortuitous could hardly be coincidence. The implications were staggering. Had their civilizations encountered one another long ago? Were they even part of a common ancestry, like something out of Stargate? As appealing as that sounded, he realized that it was fairly unlikely. Whoever had abducted him from Earth could just as easily have experimented on him, somehow enabling him to understand these ponies.

The thought caused a spike of paranoia to pierce his excitement. On the other hand, what if I was right? What if these ponies were the ones who abducted me? Can I truly trust them? What if I can understand them because they really did alter my mind? Were the feelings of comfort and adoration simply a product of their manipulation? There was no way to know for certain. And yet, even the gnawing doubt in his gut wasn’t enough to sway his conviction of their innocence.

The two arguments warred circularly for prominence amongst Sam’s thoughts. Long seconds dragged out into minutes, his rear end slowly becoming numb from the lack of movement. Finally, discomfort won out over hesitancy and he got to his feet, restoring circulation in his legs. The simple act of stretching brought a familiar, old quote rushing to the forefront of his thoughts.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Sam chuckled. “Well, Tolkien, old boy, I think my case may be a little extreme, but I guess Bilbo’s lesson still applies. I may be on an alien world, on an adventure not of my own choosing, but if I don’t take the reins, who knows where else I might end up? And if I allow that door – the absolute tiniest of my hurdles thus far – to trip me up, my adventure stops here. The only way home is forward.”

Despite his pep talk, Sam still viewed the door with apprehension. But then, another feeling bubbled up, pushing everything else to the side.

“There’s a world out there that’s possibly never been explored by humans.”

He began to shake with nervous energy, fueled by a giddy excitement he hadn’t felt since he was a child. Everything he’d seen so far… It was like his every childhood dream had come true. Gone were the days of adventures in front of a computer screen. Now, he was actually living one. In a few weeks, in the blink of an eye, his entire life had irrevocably changed.

“And damned if I’m not going to do some exploring!”

Sam nodded to himself, fear unceremoniously stuffed into a corner where it wouldn’t get much in the way of his excitement. He straightened the tattered remains of his shirt and pants as best he could. But looking down, the brushing against his neck reminded him of yet another thing that needed grooming. He searched the room and quickly came up with a pair of scissors and even what appeared to be an electric shaver. However, he wasn’t willing to risk it jamming and breaking on his jungle of a beard, so he left it alone.

In a few minutes, he had trimmed his beard down to a finger’s width and hacked away at his mop of a hairdo until a respectable “inch-and-a-half or so” remained. He examined himself in the mirror for the second time that hour.

“Well, I look halfway civilized now, at least,” he appraised. Looking closely at the shaver he had picked out, he realized it was barely any more sophisticated than an electric sheep-shearer. Gingerly, he set it down, as if it was preparing to leap at him and bite into his neck.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for some disposables. Hell, I’d probably settle for a straight razor. Not that I even have the option to try using one right now. Ah well, at least I look less like a jungle-crazed lunatic.

After another few minutes of cleaning up the mess of hair he left behind, he was standing in before the door to the hallway. He reached for the doorknob with a trembling hand. It came to rest lightly on the cool brass.

It’s now… or never.

Sam took a deep breath and turned the handle.

CHAPTER 09 - An Unyielding Darkness

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A lone, gaunt figure floated in the inky black, staring into a pit of nothingness that swallowed the surrounding darkness like water. He would have to travel many hundreds of miles to reach the pit’s edge, and yet it encompassed his vision, spanning from horizon to horizon. The immense energy of the Void called to him, beckoning, enticing, promising great things to come. He could feel its exotic pull tugging at his skin, the temptation to join it in ecstatic never-death stirring his loins. He could be the seed of a fresh new future.

Later, perhaps. But not yet. There is much work yet to be done.

Another joined him in the cold and the dark, the light of the universe at their backs. For an age, they stared into the Void, allowing its gaze to drain their emotions as one would draw poison from a wound. Nothing could stand before the Void and resist. Only those who served the Void, who breathed its very essence, were allowed to slip its grasp. In the very end, there would be no movement, and the Stillness would consume all. When that time came, they would embrace the Void, and their devotion would be rewarded. But in the meantime, there were matters to discuss, plans to put into action. The watchers spoke, but not in tones, for there would be no sound before the Void. They conversed across space and time, conveying meaning through the eddies of life, to be swept up in the nets of their minds. The latecomer spoke first.

“I bring news, your Reverence.”


“We have sown the seeds across the universe. All possible resistance has been crushed. The Stillness is now inevitable. Shall we move on to the next to be converted?”

The mind-echos were silent. For a time, the messenger fidgeted in place, anxious to continue his work. Eventually, he could contain his impatience no longer.

“Brother Superior, I am eag-”

“I did not give you leave to speak, Brother.”

The cold, calm rebuke blew through his soul like a glacial wind, and the messenger fell silent once more, terrified of incurring the Brother Superior’s ire. He trained his gaze on the Void, entreating it to suck out his desires, to quell the fires of ambition that drove his impatience. Just as the messenger began to feel as one with the Void, the Brother Superior finally replied.

“We will be leaving a small contingent here. It will not be glorious work, but I have seen that it will be necessary. There may have been some who slipped our reach, as impossible as it may seem, and there remain some pockets of life still agitating the threads.”

“If I may, Brother Superior?”

“You may speak.”

“I will volunteer for this task, if you will have me. I… believe I must serve penance. My ambitions have become too unruly.”

He could feel the radiance of the Brother Superior’s smile shine through his very being, and he knew he had made the correct choice. The Brother Superior’s words reverberated through his mind.

“Brother Aaron, you have only just joined us, but you have already shown wisdom beyond your time. Have faith. Look not to your ambition, for you are already destined for greatness. The Watcher in the Weave has seen that greatness, and so you were chosen to join our ranks. You have my blessing, Brother. Do good works. The Watcher sees you.”

The messenger prostrated himself before his superior.

“I await your word, Brother Superior. Stillness in the Weave.”

“Stillness in the Weave.”

With that parting blessing, the messenger took his leave. The Brother Superior returned his attention to the Void and smiled.

Soon. Very soon.

“Twilight, when do you think he’s coming out?” Pinkie fretted, breaking the contemplative silence that had settled over the friends for the past few minutes.

“Soon. Very soon,” Twilight assured. “I think I heard movement in there.”

Rainbow Dash cleared her throat. “So… Aliens, huh?”

Twilight hummed. “Well, yes, but... There’s something just a bit… off, about him.”

Rarity raised a questioning eyebrow. “You mean besides the fact that he’s an alien?”

“Well… yes and no,” Twilight attempted to explain. “There’s something odd about his aura… it’s hard to describe. It’s like… like a single note in a great, loud harmony, but ever so slightly off key and barely detectable amongst the other sounds.”

“Wouldn’t that, like, support his claim or something?” Rainbow guessed.

“I’m not dismissing the possibility that he’s an alien, I’m just not prepared to make any assumptions until we have more information. I need to know all I can gather about his supposed homeworld. For all we know, a country that’s been isolated from the entire world might actually exist. Remember the Crystal Empire?”

“Well, yeah,” Applejack acknowledged, “but sugarcube, that was an area the size of a city, gone for a thousand years. You’re talkin’ about an entire country bein’ hidden from the rest of the world for at least as long. I ain’t an expert on magic, but wouldn’t that take a huge amount of energy?”

“Yes… Princess levels of magic energy, in fact. But I’d rather not confront the Princesses without at least a little more information. Hopefully, talking with Sam will help to illuminate some of my murkier questions.”

Just then the door opened and Sam stepped out. She was about to greet him when she noticed the changes to his grooming. Namely that he had actually bothered to try cleaning himself up. With his bath and a trim, he was beginning to look like a presentable – if sickly – member of society.

“Goodness,” Rarity exclaimed, “you certainly cleaned up. You look at least halfway civilized now.”

“Rarity, honestly!” Twilight admonished. Sam just chuckled.

“Well, she’s right. I may not look like a caveman anymore, but my styling skills probably leave something to be desired.”

Twilight cocked her head in confusion. This new demeanor was a near hundred-eighty degree shift from before. Had a little alone time really helped him level out so rapidly? She looked around, and it seemed the rest of her friends had noticed the change as well. Unfortunately, before she could approach the topic with a modicum of delicacy, Applejack flexed her honesty muscles a bit too hard.

“Well, shoot, where’d this attitude come from?”

Twilight winced at Sam’s raised eyebrows. She braced herself for whatever emotional explosion was about to happen. But instead of snapping, Sam sighed heavily, took off the spare glasses in the crook of his thumb, and dug the heels of his palms into his eyes. It wasn’t annoyance she heard in the sigh, but regret.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” he began. “I was in shock, and I may have reacted… inappropriately. Truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit. I mean, it’s not everyday you find yourself unceremoniously thrown into an alien land. I have no idea where in the universe I stand, and it’s more than a bit distressing.”

Then he took a deep breath, huffed, and put the glasses back into place, forcing a determined smile onto his face.

“On the other hand, it’s not everyday you find yourself in an alien land,” he reiterated with a lighter inflection. “I’m excited to see what your society is like. I mean, how many humans have interacted with intelligent, English-speaking ponies?”

“We’re not speaking... whatever it was you just said,” Rainbow Dash countered, words curved by her smirk, “you’re speaking Equestrian.”

Sam laughed and put up a conceding hand. “Fine, I’m speaking Equestrian, and you’re speaking English. It apparently amounts to the same thing.”

Twilight cleared her throat before Rainbow Dash could continue arguing.
“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better. As much as I want to discuss the similarities between our cultures – and I really do, in fact, want to – we should probably take this somewhere more private. Sam, will you accompany us to the library?”

Sam raised an eyebrow. “Um, sure? But I don’t think a library would be very private.”

“Oh! In this case, it is; I live in the town library. It’s been my home ever since I moved to Ponyville.”

As he was listening to her, rubbing his scruffy chin, realization dawned in his widening eyes and his mouth slackened in awe. Twilight looked behind her, searching for whatever might have caused him to be struck dumb, but all she could see was the reception area and her friends looking at each other with concern. She was about to ask him if something was wrong when his jaw closed with a snap.

“Just to b-” Sam began, screeching to a halt as flecks of drool escaped his teeth. He wiped his beard with a tattered sleeve. Rarity tried to, but couldn’t quite silence a quiet and disappointed “Ew.” Sam grinned sheepishly.

“Sorry,” he apologized, swallowing hard to dispose of whatever saliva remained. “So, just to be clear, when you say ‘library,’ you mean the place where people – er, ponies – go to borrow books?”

“Um, yes?” Twilight confirmed, taken aback by the incongruous question.

“And, uh… ‘book’ does mean pages of written or printed word, bound together to form a collection of information, right? Not some weird alien definition?”

“Yyyeeesss?” Twilight ventured, now thoroughly confused. Where was he going with this?

As soon as she confirmed his rather inane suspicions, Sam’s face lit up in a beam so wild it bordered on mania.

“Well, no use in standing around here! Let’s get a move on!”

Sam marched out the front door, not bothering to wait for the rest of them. As Twilight put the puzzle pieces into place, Sam’s smile became infectious.

“He likes books!” She squealed happily, dancing in place at her newfound comrade.

The others just giggled amongst themselves, sharing in their expectations.

“He’ll be back any second now,” Rarity tittered.

Sure enough, Sam poked his head back through the door a few moments later.
“So, uh, why don’t I just follow you? Seeing as how you know where we’re going and all.”

A library. With books. Alien books. Real alien books written by actual aliens. To read. Here.

Sam was so excited that he forgot to duck the second time he left the Ponyville Day Spa. But the resounding thwack his forehead made against the doorframe did little to dampen his spirits. He hardly even seemed to notice the sympathetic outcry that followed him out the door.

I’m going to get to read books never before seen by human eyes! Ow.

Sam didn’t have long to wait before the ponies joined him outside. They poured out of the door, mostly sporting expressions of concern, like they expected to find someone doubled over in pain. Instead, they found him still upright, arms patiently akimbo rather than clutching at his forehead.

“Um, Sam? Are… are you alright?” Fluttershy questioned, looking up at him with big, worried eyes.

Dear God, why does she have to be so cute?

Sam took a moment to recover from the pulmonary embolism she had inadvertently caused, then gave her a reassuring smile.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s scary, sure, but… I can really only concern myself with the ‘now.’ I shouldn’t try to tackle everything all at once. If I do, I’ll just worry myself sick, and that won’t do the people back home any good.”

“Oh! No, not that. I mean, you are being very brave. It’s just that, well… you hit your head pretty hard just now…”

“Oh.” Sam patted his forehead. It stung hard enough to make him wince. “So I did… Ow.”

A sudden soft tug on his other hand brought Sam’s attention back to the fore. Fluttershy held his hand between her hooves, apparently trying to coax him into following.

“Come on, we’ll get you some ice at the library.”

Sam could only allow himself to be guided along by the adorably gentle, butter-yellow pegasus. After all, she had shown him nothing but kindness and concern for his well-being in the short time he had known her. If he were to choose only one pony to trust from those he’d met thus far, it would have to be her. Though, being honest, his initial gut reaction to the others was nothing if not favorable.

Twilight gave him a nervous smile and shuffled her hooves, a dance that plainly spoke of the nervousness of someone desperate for someone else’s approval.

“So, before we get started, I guess I should first say: welcome to Ponyville,” she announced with a grand sweep of her hoof, gesturing to the landscape beyond the shop.

Up until that point, Sam had been too singularly focused on the prospect of alien writings to pay attention to his surroundings. But when he did, he could suddenly feel the giddy energy sloshing around in his brain.

He hadn’t been sure what to expect, but what he saw somehow seemed wholly appropriate. The rustic thatched roofing, timber framing, and overhanging upper stories of the housing seemed to indicate a pre-industrial society. But the architecture was too neat, too clean, and just ornamental enough for him to believe that the medieval trappings were a stylistic choice.

He watched an orange, curly-maned pony humming merrily to herself as she tended the flower garden in front of her house. Yep, definitely too carefree for pre-industrial.

“Evening, Junebug!”

The pony looked up and smiled at the greeter, a light blue unicorn passing by and waving with a foreleg. Sam would have paid more attention to the unicorn’s range of motion, except for the little pouch jingling merrily as it levitated before the unicorn. Sam stopped in his tracks to gawk at this new affront to physics. He could only assume it was the unicorn’s doing, as the same pale blue aura that surrounded the pouch also enveloped her horn.

“Um, Sam?”

Sam snapped out of his fascination. Fluttershy was looking at him with slight concern as she hovered at the end of his outstretched arm. Had he jerked her to a stop, too? He must have, though he couldn’t remember.

“Sorry, I just… uh…”

He looked back at the retreating form of the unicorn, and noticed that the pony in the Garden – Junebug, I guess – was now staring wide-eyed at him. He didn’t think it was fear he saw in her eyes, just surprise. At least he hoped so. He gave her a hesitant grin. With a gasp, she bolted. The front door to her house swung open and closed so quickly he couldn’t be sure that she had even touched it. His grin faded.

“I- it’s nothing. Let’s go.”

They caught up to where the rest of the others were waiting and set off again. Sam spent less time watching their surroundings, as it was much the same story. Ponies would openly gawk at him, but as soon as he attempted to pay a little attention to them, the grand majority would run and hide. Eventually, he just turned his attention towards the six currently leading him through town, just in time to catch the tail end of a conversation.

“... what Zecora expects to find,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “I mean, we were all there, and I for one didn’t see anything else in that meadow.”

“Yeah, but were you lookin’ all that closely? Seems to me your attention weren’t focused on the ground,” Applejack chided.

“Well… No, I guess not.”

“Besides,” Twilight added, “she might not even be looking for a physical object. She could be looking for traces of magic. Anything she can find will be welcome information, for us and him, I suspect.”

“Who’s Zecora?” Sam blundered into the conversation with all the subtlety of a freight train.

“Oh, uh, Zecora’s a friend of ours,” Applejack stated with a backwards glance. Apparently, she was unsure of how much she should be divulging.

“She’s a zebra herbalist. She’ll be helping us investigate what happened to you,” Twilight supplied with a helpful smile.

He was about to ask her what she thought they might find when he was interrupted by the arrival of another pony. This one swooped in from above, instantly commanding his attention. Up until that point, Sam’s working theory had been that a pegasus pony’s wings were only made to allow them to hover. The appearance of this new pony directly refuted that theory.

But, as fascinating as she was, Sam found he couldn’t look at her for long. For reasons he couldn’t place, she was glaring at him as though he was plotting murder.

“So,” she nearly spat, turning her glare on Fluttershy, “I see you got him back. Is there a reason he isn’t on a leash?”

Sam gulped. Yup, that is definitely animosity.

“Oh, um, well, you see…”

Twilight came to her rescue, flying up to meet this new pegasus. “Um, Cloudchaser, it’s a bit more complicated than that,” she soothed, subtly guiding Cloudchaser to the ground. Unfortunately, Cloudchaser’s fiery indignation brooked no opposition.

“No, it’s not! He attacked me, Twilight! And if I hadn’t been the first pony to come across him, it would’ve been somepony else! I only kept us both from getting hurt because I had Wonderbolts training! What would’ve happened if it hadn’t been me? What are you doing to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?”

An uncomfortable silence descended on the group. The girls exchanged glances, silently attempting to determine how much to let Cloudchaser in on. However, they didn’t get a chance to respond.

“... I attacked you?”

“Yes, you did! And if you know what’s good for you, you… are… talking… Twilight, he’s talking. Why is he talking?”

Twilight gave an embarrassed grimace. “Cloudchaser, meet Sam. Until recently, he was acting under the influence of some very concentrated Poison Joke.”

“Yes, hi, but,” he turned back to Twilight, “I think we’re glossing over the fact that I tried to hurt someone!”

“Well, yes, but I assume this isn’t something you would normally do, right?”

“No, of course not!”

“See, there you-”

“But that still doesn’t change the fact that it happened! And ‘I wasn’t myself, your Honor,’ would hardly stand up in court. Twilight, assault is a serious offense. In my country, I could be looking at a year of jail time, maybe more, not to mention charges for being under the influence of a potentially illegal substance.”

“But you weren’t yourself! You weren’t in your right mind!”

“Great, so the best defense I have is insanity!”

“Only if I decide to press charges,” Cloudchaser cut in.

Sam stared at her, waiting for a catch or backtrack. But she was no longer looking at him with anger, and neither did she seem to be scheming. There was still concern in her eyes, moderated by what looked like a splash of curiosity. He swallowed apprehensively.

If you decide…?”

“I have a few questions I want you to answer truthfully and without hesitation. Depending on your answers, and if Applejack trusts them, I might let you off the hook. Any objections?”

Sam emphatically shook his head, not daring to speak yet, lest she change her mind.

“Good.” She lowered herself until she hovered directly at eye-level. “Well then, question one: did you know about the effects of Poison Joke before your recent encounter with it in the Everfree?”

“No, definitely not! If I had, I would never have eaten the fruit.”

“Fruit?” She looked expectantly at Applejack, who simply shrugged.

“It’s true,” Applejack confirmed. “Apparently Poison Joke does bear fruit. We all saw it.”

“Huh,” Cloudchaser mumbled. “Interesting… Question two: Do you remember anything from when you were acting like an animal?”

“But it wasn’t an act!” Pinkie blurted. “He really was an animal!”

“Well, I wasn’t really… I mean I technically am still, but… Nevermind. The answer to your question is both yes and no. Yes, I have memories, but they’re all fuzzy and vague, with no context whatsoever.”

Again, she looked to Applejack, who looked back, and gave a solemn nod.

“Alright, then. Question three: do you have a history of violence?”

“No,” Sam stated firmly.

“Then why did you attack me?”

“I have no idea,” Sam sighed. “I mean, I can make an educated guess. If I was out for as long as I think I was, and I had been acting docile up until that point, I’d hazard that the, uh, Poison Joke, was it? That the Poison Joke fruit is addictive… which means I have to monitor myself closely, to make sure I don’t relapse.” He groaned inwardly.

Cloudchaser squinted, switching her stare between his eyes, as though she might catch his right eye with its guard lowered while she was focusing on his left. Eventually she gave up, and looked to Applejack.

“Far as I can tell, he’s been tellin’ the truth,” Applejack confirmed, then chewed her lip. “‘Course, I might not be readin’ him right.”

“What?! But… But I'm not lying! I swear!”

Applejack guffawed. “Relax, I was only foolin’. Honest, sugarcube, you got nothin’ to worry about. Cloudchaser’s pretty much already made up her mind, haven't you, Cloudchaser?”

Cloudchaser let out a smirking sigh, and her body language relaxed slightly.

“Nothing gets by you, does it, AJ?”

“Well, I don’t like to brag, but…”

“Anyway, AJ’s right. Anypony can see you’re a good po- uh, whatever you are, at heart. I think I can safely let you off the hook, so long as you continue to behave like a decent, civilized being. I’m just waiting on one more thing,” she hinted, watching him with an expectant smile. For a moment, Sam worried that she might be waiting on a bribe or some other reparation, but then he realized that he’d forgotten something important.

“Ah… uh… Cloudchaser, I am really sorry for trying to, um… to hurt you. I promise that I won’t lift a finger against anyone as long as I have even just a scrap of my senses about me. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you-”

“Your apology is enough,” she interrupted with an embarrassed smile. “No harm, no foul, right? Besides, I can hardly blame you for something that was out of your hooves, er, hands. Those are hands, right?”

“Oh. Uh…” Sam looked at his hands, wondering where she might have seen hands before. “Yes, they are.”

“Okay, cool. Hope you have a good stay in Ponyville, Sam. I’ll see you around!” With that, she flew off again, a much more relaxed flight than her original confrontation. Sam only realized he was staring again when Rainbow Dash had to wave a hoof in front of his face to get his attention.

“Hey, Equestria to Sam! Anypony home?”

“Oh! Uh, yeah,” Sam started. “Sorry, I was just…”

The words died in his throat as he watched Cloudchaser fly up to join another pegasus with similar coloration and a long, styled mane. The pair then took off, plowing through the fluffy white clouds like so much smoke, breaking them up and clearing out the sky. He marveled at the practiced ease with which they glided across the sky. Rainbow Dash chuckled.

“Impressive, huh? It might not look like it, at first glance, but Ponyville’s weather team is just short of being the best in all Equestria, second only to Cloudsdale. All thanks to me, of course.”

The boast jarred Sam’s thoughts hard enough to break him out of his stupor. He turned to her with a cockeyed smirk, raised eyebrow daring her to make that assertion once more.

“Don’t believe me, huh? Well, watch this!”

Rainbow took off like a shot from a cannon and the blast of air knocked Sam backward a few steps. When he looked up, it was all he could do to follow her aerial acrobatics with slack-jawed awe. She streaked across the sky fast enough to leave behind a rainbow trail. No living creature should have been able to sustain that kind of speed, and yet here she was, doing just that, all the while performing impossibly tight loops, rolls, and turns. Not to mention the clouds she absolutely destroyed.

Then, just as he thought she couldn’t possibly impress any more, she suddenly dove at him full speed. In the split second he had before impact, he threw his arms up in front of him. The displaced air hit, and he tensed for impact. The moment seemed to stretch on into eternity.

“So, whaddya think of that?”

Cautiously, Sam opened his eyes. He stood in the same place he had been before, although a little more wind-ruffled. He lowered his arms to find a slightly winded Rainbow Dash hovering just before him, smiling triumphantly. That eternal moment had actually just been the seconds passing after Rainbow had come to an abrupt stop.

Her smirk faltered, morphing into a look of concern as Sam continued to stare at her.

“Dude, you alright?”

“You… stopped?”


“How the hell did you stop? You must’ve been going eighty miles an hour!”

“Oh! Well, they don’t call me the best flier in Equestria for nothin’!”

“I… but… how…?”

Rainbow chuckled, flitting over to Applejack just to elbow her in the side. “Hear that, AJ? He’s been struck speechless! Seems like I might be the better athlete after all.”

Applejack responded by hip checking the gloating pegasus, sending Rainbow careening to the ground a few feet away. “Yeah, well, don’t go gettin’ your hopes up just yet, missy! He ain’t even seen me applebuckin’ yet.”

“Oh yeah? Well-”


Twilight’s shout brought their boasting competition to a screeching halt. They gave her guilty smiles and mumbled their apologies.

“Honestly,” Twilight huffed, “I know you two enjoy a bit of competition, but can you at least wait until Sam’s settled in before you go butting heads?”

“Yeah!” Pinkie chirped. “I mean, we haven’t even thrown him a ‘Welcome to a Different World’ party yet!”

“I believe that will have to wait, Pinkie dear,” Rarity arbitrated, before Twilight blew another gasket. “There are a few things we should ask him first. And I’m sure Sam has some questions of his own, hm?”

The pointed question popped Sam’s growing bubble of incredulity, reminding him that he was, in fact, a part of the current conversation.

“Ah… yeah. I can think of at least ten off the top of my head.” Like how do pegasi fly? And how do you make objects levitate? And what the fuck happened to physics?

“Well then come on!

There was a sudden blow to the back of his thigh and he lurched forward, nearly toppling onto an alarmed Fluttershy. A quick look back told him that Pinkie had slipped behind him while he wasn’t looking, and was now trying to headbutt him into high gear. To avoid the awkward questions that might accompany repeated headbutts to the posterior, Sam jogged forward, pulling Fluttershy along with him.

“Let’s get moving, we haven’t got all day!” Pinkie cheered, following him at a gallop, the others in tow.

“Okay, okay, I get it! But I still don’t know where to go!”

Twilight sighed through an amused smirk. As exasperating as Pinkie could be, it was difficult to stay mad at her.

But then the hushed murmur reached her ears. She looked around to find a growing crowd of anxious ponies. Whispers about the stability of this foreigner burned her ears, tempting her to jump to his defense. But she still knew too little about him to truly defend his actions. She tried to give the gathering ponies a reassuring smile, but then raced off after her friends, anxious to get Sam out of the view of the town.

Sam stared goggle-eyed as he ran his fingers over the wood. It was smooth. Completely smooth. He could feel no lacquer, otherwise it would have caused more friction. Instead, it felt like the flesh of a completely debarked tree, and it stretched seamlessly around the circular room, from floor to ceiling. But the most confounding part was that he detected traces of moisture. The tree was still alive.

“How is this possible?”

He dropped to his knees to examine the trim, inadvertently ducking away from a concerned, hovering Fluttershy and her ice pack, but there was none. Not even a crack. The connection between wall and floor was seamless.

He jumped up, nearly knocking Fluttershy out of the air, and ran over to the shelving inset into the walls. They would not move. There was no evidence of construction whatsoever. Not even the slightest hint of the use of sandpaper, as if the shelves had been carved out of the wood by the gods themselves.

Even the ceiling curved up into the spot where the sun mural was painted, and if he were to fly up and examine the mural up close, he doubted he would find a single line covered up by the paint. An ice pack was gently pressed against his forehead while he gawked.

“This room was grown… This house was grown. Out of a tree!”

He was aware that the girls were tracking his every move with a mixture of confusion and concern, but he couldn’t help it. Treehouse Masters got nothin’ on this!

“Well, yes,” Twilight began, “it was grown with magic, after all. The ponies that grew this place even took a few months to grow it, just to be sure that there wouldn’t be complications down the road.”

“This is… incredible. I’ve never seen anything like this.” He gazed about the room for a few more seconds before suddenly focusing all of his attention on Twilight. From the outside, it probably looked like he was glaring, seeing as the ponies tensed up at this sudden switch in attitude. Even Fluttershy flinched away from her self-assigned first aid duties. But he had to know. Could it be possible…?

“Real, honest-to-god magic…”

Sam trembled in anticipation. He heard the ponies shifting uneasily. Then before anyone could blink, Sam dove into a prostrated position before Twilight. He snatched up her forehooves in supplication, beaming at his newfound idol.

“What is it? How does it work? Where does it come from? Canyouteachme?”

Twilight was simultaneously bewildered and flustered by the sudden adoration. No one said a word for several awkward moments.

“Ah-ah-ah,” Pinkie tutted, breaking the silence, “you’re forgetting the rules. We’re supposed to take turns asking questions, not let them fountain out like fondue… Mmmm, fondue.”


Sam released Twilight with all possible speed, ears burning in shame of his disgraceful behavior. He sat back and cleared his throat, adjusting the remnants of his shirt.


An embarrassed Twilight, meanwhile, fluttered unevenly, trying to straighten out her ruffled feathers and ignore her own ripening cheeks.

“It's, um… It's alright. So, uh, to answer the simplest of your questions, I'd be happy to teach you what I know about magic. But later, if you please. There's a few things I'd like to know about you, first.”

That ‘like’ sounded a lot like ‘need,’ Sam observed with a sinking heart. But I can't say I blame her. I wouldn't give a strange alien the secrets of nuclear physics without some kind of assurance that they wouldn't try to reconstruct the atom bomb.

“Right… I guess that’s fair.” Sam sat back into a more comfortable cross-legged position. He had no doubt this would take a while. In the meantime, maybe I can learn a few other things.


Sam flinched as Twilight’s magenta horn-light-aura-thing flared up for the second time that day, but this time the only effect was a roll of parchment, quill, and inkwell suddenly floating before her. Then, he felt the cool touch of the ice pack on his forehead again.

“Um… could you, maybe… please not move around so much?” Fluttershy entreated meekly. Guilt welled up in his throat. He’d forgotten she was even there.

“R- right, sorry.”

“So,” Twilight chirped, calling his attention back to the matter at hand, “first question should be fairly obvious: what are you exactly?”

Twilight’s attitude had flipped completely in the short span it took her to get her note taking tools. It seemed it was her turn for manic enthusiasm. She fidgeted in her seat, watching him with an expectant grin and sparkling eyes.

“Ah, well, my kind call ourselves humans, and we live on a planet we call Earth. We're a, uhh… generally… neutral people?”

Sam’s thoughts ran screaming through his head, frantically racing between departments, trying to throw together a passable description. How was he supposed to summarize an entire race of people, their factions, history, and dispositions? There were far too many variables. For every arsonist, there were probably at least five fire fighters. For every corrupt politician, thousands of good Samaritans. And yet the scale of atrocities that could be committed was staggering. Even still, the Earth was populated by millions upon millions of neutral parties. He couldn't possibly sum that all up in a single sentence, let alone a paragraph. Unless…

He chuckled. If he couldn’t do it seriously, there was always the ever accurate Douglas Adams.

“On the whole, I guess humans could be described as ‘mostly harmless.’”

The entire room gave him a raised eyebrow.

“That’s it?” Twilight asked, failing to keep the exasperation from gnawing on her words.

Sam shrugged. “I could elaborate further, but that would take hours, and I have questions of my own I'd like to ask. If you want to know more, you'll have be more specific.”

To Sam's relief, she sighed good-naturedly.

“It’s okay Sam, it was a bit too open-ended of a question, anyway. I’ll try to organize my thoughts while we answer your first question.”

Sam’s confident facade faded away into plain uncertainty. He hadn’t actually considered what he wanted to ask first. There were so many questions buzzing around his head, it was like asking a blind man to snatch flies out of the air with a pair of chopsticks.

In a fluke of concentration, Sam snatched one of the questions out of his mind. It was one that had gone unanswered since they left the spa.

“Ah! Why don’t I start where we left off? You were saying my magic aura seems fine, but a bit stale. What do you mean by that, exactly?”

Twilight shifted in place, staring up at the ceiling in contemplation.

“Well… from what I felt, I get the impression that you haven't used your magic in a long time. I don't know how often you practice your special talent, but-”

“Wait, special talent?”

“Sam,” Pinkie warned playfully, “you’re not playing by the rules.”

“Yes, okay, but…”

“It’s okay, Pinkie,” Twilight mediated. “If he needs some context, it’s only right that we provide it.”

“Long as he does the same,” Applejack butted in.

Sam nodded impatiently. “Okay, fair enough. So what do special talents have to do with magic?”

“Well, everypony has a special talent that they discover when they’re young. It's how we get our Cutie Marks,” Twilight explained, displaying the brilliant starburst emblazoned on her flank.

“Huh…” Sam’s fingers twitched. I should be taking notes. Unfortunately, I'm fairly certain that the most constructive thing to come of me using a quill is a new ink blot test. “So a pers... er, a ponies’ magic is tied to their special talent?”

“For the most part, yes. There are some general skills that most ponies of a particular race can learn or possess. For example, a pegasus’ ability to manipulate clouds, or an earth pony’s affinity for growing plants, or unicorns’ levitation. Of course, there are exceptions all over the place, but as a general rule, these examples hold true. Magic is an inextricable part of life.

“Which is why I'm curious about your aura. How did it get to be so…?” She trailed off, apparently trying to think of a more tactful way of saying ‘musty.’

Sam sighed heavily. “I'm not sure. If I had to guess, it's because none of my kind can actually use magic, at least not in the way you ponies can. Humans can hardly heat water up to body temperature without the use of tools, much less make objects levitate with our minds. So, even if all humans are actually born with the capacity for magic, I doubt we ever learned about it in the first place.”

“So then how do you manage your weather, if you can't use magic?” Rainbow Dash accused, clearly skeptical that any society could exist without that ability.

“Simple. We don't,” Sam countered, a smug smile on his lips.


Over the next few hours, Sam answered their every question about life on Earth. The topics ran the gamut, from science and technology to politics, geography and popular culture; Sam spared no detail, so it was unavoidable that they had only scratched the surface of what it meant to be human. In fact, he seemed to recall much more than he had ever learned, a prospect more than a little worrisome. Whenever he struggled to remember, or even if he felt like he hadn’t known in the first place, the information came unbidden to the fore of his thoughts, as though delivered by some unseen courier. Had his mind been manipulated on the move from Earth to Equestria?

But that thought took a backseat, in favor of every tidbit of information he could glean about this alien world. The things these ponies accomplished with magic… They seemed unreal. But they also didn't seem to be lying, and he could no longer discount claims simply based on their outlandishness, not with what he'd seen. Even so, this most recent claim had pushed past even that boundary.

“I'm sorry, Twilight, that's just too fantastical.”

“It’s true, Sam! They've been doing it for over two thousand years.”

“How?! The amount of energy necessary to keep a tether that strong and that far advanced is unfathomable!”

“True, it requires a colossal amount of power, but the Princesses are alicorns, like me. And they've been around much longer than I.”

“Twilight, that's anecdotal evidence at best. You're going to need to present empirical evidence before I will believe that these Princesses can even influence the trajectories of your sun and moon.”

“Well, in that case… Spike, can you come in here please?!” Twilight called out.

A young male voice shouted back from somewhere down the hall.

“Be there in a sec!”

“Who’s Spike?” Sam asked, surprised and intrigued that she might have someone so close at hand that might provide the necessary evidence.

“Spike’s my assistant. He's been with me since I was a filly, when I first started in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”

“So, is that like a magic school or som-”

Sam was struck dumb by the scent that suddenly wafted into the side room. That slightly acidic, incredibly cheesy odor belonged to a few things that he knew of, any one of which made his mouth water in anticipation. It also didn't help that he couldn’t remember the last time he had a proper meal.

However, one of the things that wandered through the door was something he would have never suspected.

As the smell of Italian food reached the peak of its intensity, a short, purple and green figure wandered through the doorway, balancing two trays of what could only be lasagna in his claws and a stack of plates and silverware in the crook of his scaly tail. The little lizardman child sauntered over to the central display, a small, self-congratulatory grin on his face, and laid out the food on rounded counter.

“I knew you guys hadn’t left yet, so I went ahead and made extra. I figured you'd all be hungry.”

“Oh, thank you, Spike,” Rarity cooed. “You are such a thoughtful little gentledrake.”

“Ah, it's nothin’. It's the least I can do for you, seeing as you’re hard at work out here.” Spike puffed out his chest, obviously trying his utmost to impress. Rarity giggled and stroked his crest obligingly, to which Spike responded with the enthusiasm of a lovesick puppy.

“Yes, thank you, Spike,” Twilight said pointedly, trying to tear his attention away from the object of his affection. “If you don't mind, I have a letter I'd like to send.”

“Okay…” Spike murmured, leaning further into Rarity’s ministrations. “Just gimme… one… more minute.”

Twilight let out an exasperated groan and glared at Rarity. Rarity smiled sheepishly and released Spike.

“Sorry, Spikey-Wikey, but this is rather important.”

“Oh, alright,” he huffed, slumped over to Twilight, and petulantly stuck out his hand. Twilight placed a scroll there and, with a burst of green flame, Spike blew the enchanted ashes out the open window.

A gasp drew the young drake’s attention over to the gangly biped sitting little more than a yard away.

“Woah!” Spike yelped. He backpedaled a couple of steps. He couldn't help it. The creature was staring at him with an intensity that could vaporize stone. “Um, I'm guessing this is that creature, Biggs, that you were talking about?”

Twilight chuckled nervously. “Um, yes I was. But, see… the thing about that is…”

“You’re a dragon,” Sam intoned reverently.

Sam could see the shiver crawling up the little dragon’s spine. Spike slowly turned to look back at him, guilt etched into his features.

“You…I, uh… Sorry. Twilight didn't mention that you could talk.”

“It’s okay. Only regained the ability recently. But, more importantly, you're a dragon, aren't you?”

“Um, yes?” Spike edged guardedly towards Twilight, trying to make it look like he was just shuffling his feet. “Is… Is that a problem?”

Spike relaxed only slightly as a toothy, cheek splitting grin lit up Sam’s face.

“This… is so… cool! First magic, and now this? Could this world be any more awesome?”

But before anyone could respond, a blinding white light flared outside the library’s front door, accompanied by a thunderclap. The light vanished as quickly as it had appeared, and all became silent once more, apart from the ringing in their ears. For several tense moments, no one so much as shifted in their seat, all eyes glued to the front door.

Whatever stood on the other side of the door was setting Sam’s hairs standing on end. In some small part of his brain, the klaxons blared, warning lights flashed, and the danger level had been set to DEFCON 2. He had no idea what was behind that door, but he knew it was dangerous. It was almost like he could smell it.

None of the others seemed to be as concerned, but they were at the very least startled. Until there was a knock at the door, and a worried, matronly voice called out.

“Twilight, are you in there?”

“Princess Celestia!” The girls all cried out in unison, equally relieved and perplexed. Twilight got up and trotted over to the door, pulling it open with her magic. Sam tensed.

The being that stepped through that door was as beautiful and as terrifying as a roaring inferno. Power radiated from her like the heat waves rolling off of a forest fire. She was tall – almost as tall as he, if he included her foot-long horn – with an alabaster coat and an ethereal, translucent mane in the colors of the Aurora Borealis, that constantly flowed in some intangible wind. A more mystical creature he had never seen, and right now she seemed to be wearing an expression of barely suppressed fear.

“Good evening, Princess,” Twilight started, trying to gauge her mood. “I’m surprised you teleported all the way out here; I didn't think you would even send a letter until tomorrow morning.”

“Twilight, this is important,” the Princess emphasized, “where is the alien right now?”

“This is him, Princess,” Twilight answered, gesturing to Sam with apparent confusion. “His name is Sa-”

From the moment Twilight had pointed him out, Celestia and Sam had locked eyes. In that fraction of a second, Sam’s mind had gone into overdrive. What he saw was no longer the regal and beautiful being that ruled over her country with an even hoof, but a harbinger of eternal pain. In her eyes, he saw the fires of hell, in her voice, the cries of the damned. His every sense screamed at him, and one small voice in the back of his head succinctly summed up their message.


He couldn't even blink. One wrong move, and he would be torn limb from limb, his soul shredded to pieces and thrown into the void. But then, he was slammed with a surge of adrenaline so massive that it set his hindbrain ablaze.


Sam was on his feet, sprinting down a side passage before he even realized he'd gotten up. He faintly heard voices shouting his name, but he didn’t dare stop. The thunderous hoof beats bore down on him like an avalanche.

He burst through the first door he found. The kitchen. One glance told him everything he needed to know.

No doors!

*The window!*

He couldn’t hesitate. One second would be the difference between life and death. He charged forward. The opening was small. He would have only one chance. Two steps away, he flung himself forward, bracing his arms in front of him. The frame buckled the instant his elbows struck it, and he smashed through in a shower of splintered wood and shattered glass. He tucked and rolled, coming to his feet in a display of unprecedented agility. But he didn’t stop to admire his own handiwork. A thousand little cuts burning his skin, he took off into the night.

Or he would have, if someone hadn’t been waiting for him.

“And just where do you think you’re going?!”

Another alicorn appeared before him in a convulsion of shadows. This one was midnight blue, with a mane like the night sky. One look told him this one was just as dangerous as the one called Celestia, if not more so. To Celestia’s raging inferno, she was the silent, inescapable riptide. Her aura of power tugged at him, trying to ensnare him in its pull. If the first had been Princess Celestia, then this one must be her sister, Princess Luna, as Twilight had explained.

Sam sprung away, scrambling off towards the shelter of the streets and alleyways. But before he could take even three steps, another flare lit up the small courtyard around the library, and Celestia appeared in his path.

“You’ll find you cannot flee from us so easily,” the one behind him gloated.

“Do not run,” Celestia commanded, “you will only make things worse for yourself.”

Sam’s head whipped around, trying futilely to keep them both in his sights. The world seemed to close in around him, until he was gasping for air. This was it. He would be dissected, analyzed, tested. They would break him apart and put him together until he could no longer remember who he was. Everything that was Sam would be erased, until nothing was left but an empty, shuddering husk.

At some point, Sam realized he was screaming, but it was unlike any noise he’d ever heard in his life. It almost sounded more like a jetliner plummeting to earth, the shriek of shredded metal tearing through the howling wind, punctuated by the terrified screams of a hundred doomed souls. It rattled his very bones, and he was fairly certain he heard the shattering of windowpanes beneath the cacophony.

Eventually, as he ran out of breath, there were two things he immediately noticed. First, he was still alive and unrestrained. Second, the two princesses seemed to be paralyzed, abject terror frozen on their faces. But as he glanced between the two of them, he saw something that made him feeling like his heart was trying to escape through his throat.

The six ponies – the ones that had been so kind to him and shown him the only hospitality he'd known for months – had piled out of the front door of the library and been frozen in place,staring at him with the same look of fear as his pursuers. Guilt clung to his throat. He tried to speak, but the only thing that came out was a hoarse wheeze. Tears blinding him, he did the only thing he could think of.

“I'm sorry,” he mouthed, eyes lingering on Fluttershy in particular. He then turned and, with one last mournful glance back, fled into the night.

CHAPTER 10 - An Unmasked Player

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Sam stumbled into the nearest alleyway, tucking himself as tight as he could into the corner where wall met cobblestone, nothing more than a single trashcan between him and certain death. He struggled to calm his breathing, somehow aware that any erratic noise would be immediately noticeable to his pursuers. For a moment, nothing happened. He almost allowed himself to think he might have lost them.

His heart stopped as a great shadow flew just overhead. Ice crystallized in his veins, paralyzing him. He held his breath, terrified of giving away the slightest hint of his position. The shadow passed over once, twice, three times, before disappearing.

Sam kept still, unwilling to gamble that he might be alone. Moments passed, and just when he was about to try moving, he caught the swish of near silent wings.The two voices he dreaded most murmured from the rooftop above him.

“Any luck?” Celestia queried, concern and frustration evident in her tone.

“Nay, I have not laid eyes on the cur since his escape. Many times I believed I had him cornered, only to find out I had been tailing a civilian. The fiend is surely a master of stealth.”

“Take heart, Luna. If he tries to leave the village, we’ll have him, and it’s only a matter of time before he slips up. He won’t be able to use his necromancy without being noticed.”

He heard the one called Luna shudder. “I still cannot believe Discord would transport such a foul instrument into Canterlot, and into your personal bedchambers, no less.”

“I am grateful that he did,” Celestia intoned gravely, “otherwise we would have had no forewarning of this creature’s true nature. Any machine so inundated with the stench of death could belong to no civilized being.”

They were silent for a moment.

“Do you really think it is only a form of transport, sister?”

Celestia sighed. “Neither of us could detect any sort of weaponry on the machine itself, so by its form, that is the only thing I think it could be.”

“To use necromancy so casually… I fear for the ponies here, should he decide to show his true colors.”

“Fear not, dear sister,” Celestia bolstered, “we will not allow him to harm our citizens. Come, let’s resume the search. He can’t have gotten far.”

The rush of air from two massive wing beats blew over him, kicking up the dust of the alley. Soon, the sounds had faded altogether, and Sam allowed himself to breathe.

He couldn’t stay out in the open. He needed a place to hide.


His attention was drawn to a cellar door a few yards away. Sam slunk over to the hatch, eyes alert to any sign of movement. He could hardly believe his luck when he found it was unlocked. Slowly, he peeled open one of the doors, wincing at every slight creak and squeal. He slipped inside, carefully lowering the door, and scrambled down the stairs.

Upon a cursory first inspection, he appeared to be in a storeroom of sorts. Rows of shelves extended out from either side the room, holding cans, jars, and bags of various sizes. The dry air smelt faintly of flour and sugar. It made his stomach growl unhappily, the memory of the delicious-smelling lasagna he had been forced to abandon, an exquisite torment.

What in the Nine Hells is going on here? Why do they think that I’m a necromancer, of all things? Everything was fine until they showed up, so why did everything have to turn to shit?!

*... I may have had something to do with that,* someone admitted regretfully.

For the umpteenth time that hour, Sam froze in place. He’d been hearing that voice in the back of his mind for the entirety of his escape, but he’d simply written it off as his panicked hindbrain being given speech; some sort of defense mechanism against the increasingly deadly odds he’d had to face. But now, it was conversing with him.

Good god… I’ve finally snapped, haven’t I?

*Far from it, I assure you.*

Then who are you? And how are you talking in my head?

*Well, to answer your first question…*

Before him, a jawless human skull unfurled itself in midair, blossoming from a single point like some macabre firework. It hovered in place, watching him with eye sockets that would be empty but for the small twinkling white light in each, focused on him like pupils otherwise might. Sam thought he could just barely make out shimmering runes dancing across its cranium.

*Your kind cannot express themselves as… eloquently as mine, so you may call me Bob. I am a Junior Reaper, Third Class, and the one who brought you to this world.*

The skull, Bob, dipped and tilted forward in a disembodied approximation of a bow.

Sam gawked openly. Just when he thought he’d gotten used to the oddities of this world, a fish like this just had to come up and slap him across the face.

*Originally, I had hoped to keep my existence a secret, but it appears that is no longer an op-*

“Why?” Sam asked, his voice barely more than a whisper.

*Well, Reapers are generally disallowed from interfering in mortal affairs-*

“No, I mean why did you do it?”


“Why did you bring me here?” Sam lost his cool, voice raising to a near shout.

*Mind your volume!*

Furious, Sam was about to respond when a quiet rustling above them shut him up. They sat in silence for what seemed like ages, watching the ceiling, waiting for one of the Princesses to come crashing through it. Bob spoke up again after a few minutes of waiting.

*If you wish to remain hidden, you would do well to be silent!*

“Yeah, well what about you?” Sam hissed.

*I speak in your head, idiot boy! You are the only one speaking aloud. In fact, why are you still speaking?*

“Because it’s weird not to!” He whispered harshly. “Now answer me!”

*Fine! You want to know why? Because you would have died otherwise.*

“Died? What the hell are you talking about? And how do I know you’re telling the truth?”


An image flashed into his mind’s eye, clear as day. It was another runic circle, similar to the one Twilight drew, but with different geometry and language. The runes were a different dialect, however; one that Sam could read, though he couldn’t, for the life of him, understand why.

The lettering was all vertical lines and diagonal swoops. It was unlike any language he’d seen before, and yet the words were as plain as English. For the most part it was a jumble of nonsense – words like ‘chaff,’ ‘spoil,’ and ‘empathy’ – distributed amongst the holes and vertices. But one sentence ran around the edge of the outer circle, begging translation.

“The Truth shall Burn away the Liars Web?” Sam recited.

Bob gave a hollow chuckled.

*Indeed, very astute. Perhaps there is hope for you yet. This is what is known as a Circle of Truth.*

“A spell? But won’t the Princesses be able to track it?”

*Normally, yes. But since it is confined to the contents of your skull, it is unnoticeable to all but you or I.*

“What? Why you?”

*That has to do with the answer to the second question you asked: where I am.*

It took Sam a moment to realize what he meant.

“You’re literally inside my head…”

*Correct. I have taken over operations in your hypothalamus and, by extension, pituitary gland, as well as a small portion of the thalamus. That is how I am able to appear before you in this form, though others cannot see or hear me.*

“You… I… How the fuck am I able to function in this state?!”

*I have been alive for thousands of your years, boy. Do you think I would not be able to manage something as simple as a human endocrine system?*

“So how do I know this Circle is doing its job, and that you’re not lying out your ass right now?”

*If I were to lie, you would experience an extreme case of nausea right now. Shall I provide an example? ‘I saved you out of the goodness of my heart.’*

Immediately, Sam’s stomach twisted in the kind of agonizing nausea that might make a grown man weep. Sam certainly would have, had the nausea not dissipated a moment later.

*You see now?* Bob remarked irritably. Somehow, his voice sounded more strained than it had been a moment before. *Not only will you know instantly, I, too, will feel the effects of the spell. Not a pleasant prospect, I assure you.*

“So why did you save me then?”

*Duty. I have a duty to protect humanity, and you were the only person I could save in the amount of time I had.*

“What happened?”

*...I don’t know.*

Sam felt his stomach lurch. It wasn’t full-blown nausea, but something was amiss.

“But you have an idea, don’t you?”

*A few. But they’re nothing you can act on.*

Nothing that time. Nothing either way.

“... Is my family safe?”

*I cannot know for certain until I know more about what happened. And I cannot learn more if you are captured and imprisoned. So, first things first, we must escape the winged unicorns.*

“Aren’t they called alicorns?”

*What they wish to call themselves is no concern of ours. What our concern should be is how to leave this town without attracting attention.*

“Why are they so pissed at me, anyway? I’m sure as hell no necromancer!”

*Perhaps not, but can you think of a reason something that made the journey with you might reek of death?*

“No! I mean, it’s not like I killed anyone with my car!”

*Hush, boy! I’m not accusing you. But what about man-made automobiles utilizes death? Or perhaps its by-products?* Bob asked leadingly.

“... Gasoline.”

*Precisely. And you may not realize it, but most synthetic oils still use petroleum products. So, to their senses, your vehicle runs on – and is lubricated by – fossilized, liquefied, processed death. The fact that it was I, a Reaper, who magicked you into this world likely only amplified the quote unquote ‘stench.’ Thus, the understandable, if misinformed, prejudice.*

“Well, if it’s all just a misunderstanding, shouldn’t we just go out there and explain the circumstances? The others were kind enough, I’m sure we could just-”

*No! That is the one thing we must not do!* Bob shouted, making Sam’s head spin. *Under any other circumstances, I would wholeheartedly endorse that plan. However, the two after us are no less than demigods. And as demigods, they may be aware of the Mortal Accords. If they were to learn of my… meddling, it would spell out the end for me and, by association, possibly you as well.*

Sam felt a slight twinge in his stomach at the word ‘meddling,’ but he didn’t need it to understand that Bob wasn’t telling the whole truth. Whatever sort of Reaper organization Bob belonged to probably had prior grievances with him. And if that were the case, he had to ask…

“Is it possible for you to separate from me, now that you’ve integrated with my nervous system?”

Bob shook himself in negative, being that his image consisted solely of a head.

*Neither you nor I can perform such an operation with our current resources. It is not impossible, but the chances of finding the facilities necessary on this planet are infinitely approaching zero. You are, in every sense of the word, stuck with me. But I will be doing everything in my power to keep you alive. Now, I think this may be as far as we get today. I suggest you get some rest. You definitely need it.*

Now that Bob mentioned it, Sam became acutely aware of the fatigue creeping up his limbs. He slumped down against the closest wall, suddenly overcome by the thousand aches and pains of a dangerously strenuous day for someone recovering from malnutrition. In addition to the dozens of small embers scattered across his back, he noticed a deep burning pain in his calf. A large, jagged scab bled freely, torn open by his recent activity. Bob tutted.

*If we’re not careful, that may become infected. Luckily, I don’t see any trails of blood the way we came. I’m afraid you may have to sacrifice what little remains of your shirt if you wish to staunch the bleeding. And do not worry about lookout, I will watch over you as you sleep.*

Grumbling, Sam pulled the tattered cloth over his head, barely noticing as the image of the Circle of Truth faded from his mind. Too tired to pursue further answers, he focused on preparing for the night. He ripped the shirt as carefully as his tired hands would allow, creating several long strips. After these had been firmly wrapped around the wound and tied off, Sam yanked a fistful of empty burlap sacks off of a nearby shelf.

Just behind these, he struck figurative gold. It appeared to be a jar of maraschino cherries, which a taste test confirmed. He gorged himself until his stomach ceased rumbling.

Finally at a point he might consider himself sated, he curled up in his nest of burlap sacks. It was far from comfortable, but Sam fell asleep almost from moment his head hit the makeshift pillow.

A pair of disgruntled, anxious alicorns drifted down into the courtyard of Ponyville Town Hall, muttering harshly to one another.

“And you’re certain you found absolutely no sign of him?” Celestia grumbled.

“No, sister, I was too busy grazing on cakes and looking at my posterior,” Luna snarked acidly. “What about you, hm? What did your obviously superior tracking skills net you?!”

“Well, at least I wasn’t the one who failed to Silence him when she had ample opportunity!”

“Oh, pardon me! I must be thinking of the other Celestia. The one who allowed him to escape from the Library because she forgot to Ward it before barging in!”

“Hey!” Twilight bellowed as she charged into the courtyard, straining to be heard over their rising tones. “What is the matter with you two? First you scare off Sam, then you go off on a hunt, acting like he’s some kind of criminal, and now I find you two bickering like little fillies! What in Equestria is going on here?”

The Princesses at least had the decency to look ashamed of themselves. Twilight tapped her hoof expectantly, thoroughly fed up with the runaround. Twilight’s ear caught the clop of her friends’ hooves as they joined her from every direction, having gone off to search on their own. She raised a questioning eyebrow, bidding her mentors to explain themselves before the assembled Elements of Harmony.

Celestia glanced around briefly, before capitulating with a sigh.

“Twilight, we have reason to believe that this ‘Sam’ may, in fact, be a necromancer.”

All around her, the girls gasped, but Twilight remained unconvinced.

“And what kind of reason would compel you to use force before even talking to him?”

Celestia bit her lip, thoroughly shamed. But then Luna spoke in her defense.

“Twilight, my sister and I were only concerned about you and your friends’ safety. Yes, we may have acted rashly, but you have not witnessed the things we have. Discord found an alien vehicle crashed in the Everfree, so effused with the essence of death that neither Celestia nor I could stand to be in its presence for long. The thing was absolutely crawling with the traces of the necromantic arts. So when we received word that you had made contact with an alien, we could not risk allowing it the chance to harm you.”

“Be that as it may, you didn’t even give him the chance to explain! How are you so sure that vehicle even belongs to him? He might have even used it to escape something terrible because he had no other choice!”

“You may be right, Twilight,” Celestia admitted, “and we certainly acted without thinking.”

Thank you, Pr-!”

“But! Aren’t you also jumping to conclusions? You’ve know this Sam for all of… nine, maybe ten hours? Are you entirely certain you aren’t the ones who have been deceived?”

Twilight was about to retort, when Celestia’s point began to sink in. She had only known him for a few hours, certainly not enough time to really get to know somepony, or somehuman in this case. What if he really had been lying to them?

Before Twilight could consider any further, however, Applejack decided to throw in her two bits. “Now hold on just a gol-durn minute! Me an’ the girls talked to Sam for a good long time, and I’d like to think we’re fair judges of character. I don’t think he’d be able to dupe us that easily.”

“Perhaps, dear Applejack,” Celestia admitted, “but even the Element of Honesty is not infallible. Discord showed us as much. I believe we should err on the side of caution, to be certain that nopony comes to harm.”

“Fine,” Twilight conceded, “just promise me you’ll at least try to talk to him first, if you run into him.”

“Agreed, just so long as you and your friends… don’t… Twilight? Where is Pinkie Pie?”

Pinkie Pie was closing in, she could feel it. It especially helped when her Pinkie Sense™ told her that a friend was waiting for her at Sugarcube Corner. But she wasn’t able to find him in any of her usual hiding spots. It took her nearly an hour to scour the entire house. After all that time, she had only one room left to check: the storeroom.

It was a pretty good hiding place, she had to admit, but it was too cold. Plus, she could never bring Pound and Pumpkin down there. Too many opportunities for little foals to get in trouble.

However, it was fairly out of the way. It also had access to the outside, so she could see why it would appeal, given the circumstances.

Honestly, why’d the Princesses have to go and break up a perfectly good party like that? We were just about to have food and everything. They could’ve just asked to join us. Sometimes they can be so silly. I hope Sam can forgive them.

Pinkie prowled down the stairs, careful not to step on any of the boards that creaked. She sidled up one of the shelves, when her right hoof got all prickly. Someone was on the lookout. She’d have to be extra sneaky.

Silently, she climbed the shelves, her face set with grim determination, like she imagined some gritty supersoldier might look climbing an incredibly long ladder. Of course, she was neither of those things, so the climb up lasted only a few seconds. She then skittered over top of the shelves like a fluffy, pink spider. When she reached the last shelf, she peered down. There, huddled up in a bunch of empty burlap, lay her target.

She couldn’t see his watchdog, however, even if her prickly hoofsie and twitching tail told her it was to the left. Probably watching the central aisle, like any sensible watchdog would. Silly thing hadn’t even noticed her. Then again, she was doing her very best to be extra super sneaky. Not many creatures were a match for an extra super sneaky Pinkie Pie.

Pinkie clambered down the shelf closest to the wall, and sidled along it until she was right next to Sam. He was too busy sleeping to notice her arrival. Poor thing. Must’ve been tuckered out from such a full day. He even went through an entire half of a jar of Mrs. Cake’s cherries. Not surprising, seeing as he probably hadn’t eaten since that morning.

He also seemed to be shivering underneath all those burlap sacks, shifting about in a restless sleep. Pinkie felt a pang in her heart at the pitiful sight. She didn’t want to wake him up, but she also couldn’t leave him like that. So she did the only thing she could think of in that situation.

Stealthily, she removed his glasses so they wouldn’t get bent while he slept, and placed them beside his bedding. Taking care not to disturb him, Pinkie burrowed beneath the coverings. She nosed around for a moment, until she caught Sam’s scent, then edged up against him.

Almost the moment Pinkie’s fur touched his skin, he curled up around her like she was the last source of heat in the world. Pinkie had to suppress a giggle as his free arm snaked its way around her midsection and then a surprised gasp as it pulled her flush against him. Emaciated though he might have been, Sam gave even better bear hugs than Harry, an actual bear. She’d have to enlist Applejack’s in her new campaign to help Fluttershy put some meat on his bones.

Pinkie shifted around a bit to get comfortable, until she had to stifle a creeping yawn. She snuggled further into Sam as he began to reciprocate the warmth, lay her head on the arm beneath her neck and across her chest, and drifted off to sleep.

Sam had been riding Falkor around Fantasia for a few hours before a harsh voice yanked him out of sleep.


Only half awake, Sam raised his head unsteadily, trying to focus his bleary vision on the white smear above him. He vaguely remembered having called the white smear Bob.

“Hey… Bob. What- what time is it?” Sam murmured, stumbling over his own tired tongue.

*Sam, do not make any sudden moves.*

A thrill of adrenaline banished the fog of sleep. Sam looked down slowly, expecting to see a deadly snake poised to strike. Instead, he found himself cuddling a happily snoozing Pinkie Pie. At first, he felt the chill of fear grip him, but it quickly faded into curiosity. How had she gotten past Bob? And why was she currently in his arms?

Sam shifted slightly, testing her responsiveness. Pinkie immediately groaned and tightened her hold on his left forearm; the one wrapped under her neck and over her shoulder to her chest, where she held it with her hooves. Then she sighed and settled back against his chest.

Immediately, Sam was conflicted. On the one hand, she was a pony. A quadrupedal, furred pony. But on the other hand, he knew she was intelligent, apparently liked him enough to cuddle with him, and, more importantly, he found her cute. Not like the kind of cute you would use to describe a puppy. The kind of cute that you would use when talking about a crush.

Everything she was doing was cute. The content little sighs, the way she held onto his arm, they way she pressed up against him…

Oh god, please stop.

Pinkie, in a subconscious effort to contour herself to his form, was grinding into a very sensitive area. He battled desperately against his little soldier, who was slowly but surely standing at attention. But try as he might, he was losing the battle. That is, until one dry, sarcastic remark cut into his thoughts.

*Are you quite done?*

That killed his morning wood quicker than an old woman in a bikini. But now he had something else to deal with.


*Shh! Think it, you moron.*

Sam glanced at Pinkie, but she was still asleep. Concentrating, he imagined he was speaking the words instead.

It’s not what it looks like!

*Listen, I know sleeping with attractive females is a high priority for you young males, but-*

Wait, you’re… you’re not… but she’s…

Bob looked at Pinkie, then back at Sam, confusion evident even on his expressionless countenance. But then he realized what Sam was having difficulty with, and rolled his “eyes.”

*Yes, yes. Look, I’ll give you the whole ‘let go of your primitive sexual hang-ups’ speech later. Right now you are literally in the hooves of the enemy.*

Sam recoiled, so confused and uncertain about whether he should feel insulted that he forgot not to speak.

“She’s not the enemy."

“Who’zzawutnow?” Pinkie slurred, stirring for her sleep. Sam tensed up. There went his chances of slipping out quietly. But then, she hadn’t flushed him out like a rat in hiding when she found him, so maybe… maybe she could be trusted.

*Oh, well done, genius. Now lock your arm around her windpipe until she passes out.*

What?! No! I am not going to hurt her.

*Well, what are you going to do? And please don’t say ta-*

I’m gonna talk to her.

*You imbecile!*

But Sam was already tuning him out. Instead, he smiled and greeted her.

“Uh, morning, Pinkie…”

“Good morning, Sam,” Pinkie sung, already peppy, “how did you sleep? I don’t know about you, but I slept like a filly.”

“I, uh, I slept… good, too. So, Pinkie, what are you doing here?”

“Well…” Pinkie took a deep breath. “Last night, everyone ran off to look for you when you ran away – which, by the way, what was that about? – but I knew where you were because my Pinkie Sense told me a friend was waiting for me at Sugarcube Corner but then I couldn’t find you in any of my best hiding spots so I had to search for a whole hour and eventually I found you down here in the basement but you just looked so cold and I didn’t want to wake you up so I snuggled in with you to keep you warm and you’re pretty warm yourself so I just decided it would be a sort of sleepover and then I dozed off and I think I had a dream where something kept poking me in the butt but it felt kinda ni-”



Sam sighed. Just by listening to that run-on sentence, Sam ran out of breath. And yet this bizarre pink creature seemed unfazed. Plus, he thought he heard the narrative turning in a direction that set his ears ablaze.

“That was a really… rapid-fire synopsis, but I wanted to know why you haven’t, well… turned me in.”

“For what?” She cocked her head.

“Well, I did kind of… do… something, to your Princesses. And you.” Sam managed to feel even more guilty about the addendum than the initial admission.

“Oh… right,” she mumbled, eyes downcast. “Well… I mean, you were just scared, right? You didn’t mean to hurt anypony.”

“Wait, did I hurt someone?!”

“Oh! No no, I mean… You didn’t want to harm anyone, so you just scared us. It was pretty good, too. I couldn’t even laugh it off.”

“Well, I guess so, but I didn’t even mean to do that. It just sort of… happened. I’m not even sure how.”

Somehow, Sam could tell that Bob, too, was curious about this and had begun considering the implications.

“Well then it’s really not your fault,” Pinkie tried, sounding a bit desperate to exonerate him. “You didn’t know what you were doing.”

“That’s the same argument as before, when we were talking with that pegasus I attacked. I really don’t want to fall back on such an irresponsible defense. Besides, in a sense I did know what I was doing: I was trying to escape.”

“But why? The Princesses aren’t scary. I mean, Twilight’s a princess, and you weren’t that scared of her.”

“Pinkie, I could feel the power radiating from them. I have never, ever felt anything like that. It terrified me. So... I went into what my people call a ‘fight or flight’ response.”

Pinkie’s forced grin turned into a scared frown. Sam stopped, considering his next words carefully. “Pinkie, when faced with immediate, incredible, or unknown dangers, there are two responses: stand and face the danger or run away. Fight or flight. Fight doesn’t necessarily mean resorting to violence, but it does mean putting yourself in uncomfortable or even harmful situations. When I saw your Princesses, I felt like I was going to be killed.”

“What?! The Princesses would never-”

“Maybe not, but couldn’t tell. I saw death in them last night, Pinkie, and I ran for my life. So tell me, what do you intend to do now?”

Pinkie seemed to physically deflate, her normally bouncy mane went limp. “I… I don’t know. I don’t think the Princesses meant to hurt you either, but I don’t want to make you do something you're scared to. Would… would you at least be willing to talk to our friends about it?”

Our friends?”

“Do you… do you not consider us your friends?”

Goddammit, don’t look at me like that, Sam fumed internally. Pinkie looked like she was about ready to cry. It was becoming heart-wrenchingly difficult to remain impartial. He sighed. He wanted to be tactful, but he couldn’t lie to her.

“Pinkie, I’ve known you for all of half a day. At most, I would say we’re friendly acquaintances. I just can’t call someone a friend until I get to know them better.”

Pinkie looked away, unable to meet his eyes. Shit! Backpedal, backpedal!

“But!” He nearly shouted. “But, I’m not unwilling to give you a chance. I’m just… I’m scared, and I’m homesick, and I’m… completely out of my depth.”

He finished with a sigh. Pinkie wasn’t crying, but she certainly wasn’t happy. Well, disaster averted, I suppose. Still feel like shit. Guess there’s only one thing for it.

*Please don’t tell me you’re actually considering-*

Sam hushed Bob mentally. Then he turned back to Pinkie.

“Alright, Pinkie, I’ll talk with the six of you. Just please don’t let the Princesses find out. I’m still not convinced about them.”

Pinkie smiled hopefully, wiping the unshed tears from her eyes.

“Thank you, Sam. You won’t regret this, I Pinkie promise.”

“I sure hope so, Pinkie.”

“Wait right there, I’ll be back in a flash.”

Pinkie jumped up and galloped away towards the interior of the building. Sam heard her hooves on a staircase, and then a door bursting open. He heard a warbling, matronly shout from further in.

“Pinkie Pie! What in Equestria-?!”

“Sorry Mrs. Cake, no time to talk! Important friendship business!”

Sam had a feeling this poor ‘Mrs. Cake’ had just been thoroughly bewildered. But then he had to turn his attention back to someone who wasn’t going to allow it to stray elsewhere.

*What in the name of the First Races are you doing?! Did you listen to nothing I said last night?!*

No, I did. I just think you’re missing a few things. If they truly are angry demigods, how can you be so certain they will content themselves with chasing us out of the country? If we want our stay to be peaceful, we’re going to have to face them in one way or another. I’d much rather that confrontation be nonviolent. Hell, we might even be able to make some powerful allies. Isn’t that worth the risk?

Bob scoffed. *Oh? And what makes you so certain that these ponies won’t turn on you the first chance they get?*

Sam studied his shoes, beat up and worn down from so long in the forest.

I’m not. I’m just tired. Tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of struggling to survive on my own. I want them to give me a reason to trust them. You’ve seen what they can do. If they have that kind of power, they might even be able to get me home!

Bob was silent for a long time, simply staring at Sam. Sam tried staring back, to show Bob he meant business, but quickly became disheartened. He just couldn’t get a read off of something that barely passed for a face.

*You idealistic fool… So be it. But when things turn south, I will not hesitate to protect my new habitat to the fullest extent of my abilities, whether you wish me to or not. I will not die for an idiot boy’s preconceived notions of morality. My only concern is your survival, and by extension mine. Should you do anything to endanger us, I will retaliate.*

Sam swallowed dryly. What abilities Bob could use from his hypothalamus, Sam couldn’t begin to guess. But he had a strong suspicion that he didn’t want to be on either end of them.

CHAPTER 11 - An Undone Advantage

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Fluttershy sat at the steps of Town Hall, chewing on her bottom lip. She scanned the roads radiating out from the central building for any sign of Pinkie Pie. Every so often, she shifted her right wing, reassuring herself that the signal flare Princess Celestia had conjured up for each of them was still nestled against her barrel. Dawn had already broken, and not a single flare had been lit.

They had found no trace of Pinkie Pie that night. Wherever she had gone, she had been detained, whether willingly or no. Fluttershy prayed that it had been willingly.

It’ll be okay, Fluttershy, she tried convincing herself. Somepony will find Sam and Pinkie, and they’ll be okay, and we’ll sort this whole thing out. Everypony will be happy again, and nopony – or human – will get banished.

She eyed her flare carrying wing.

… Maybe… maybe, if I find Pinkie first, I’ll check to see if she found Sam, and go make sure he’s okay, before I signal the others. Just to make sure. No need to worry the Princesses unnecessarily. Or my friends. Who are also out looking for Pinkie… Frantically…

Fluttershy hung her head with a weighty sigh.

Why does everything everything involving the Princesses always seem to end up so complicated?

Suddenly, Fluttershy thought she heard her name being called. She squinted, searching for the source. A flash of bright pink at the end of Mane Street caught her attention. A figure bounded towards her, wildly waving her hooves.

“... Pinkie?”

It was! Even at this distance, her curly pink mane was unmistakable. Fluttershy jumped up, running to Pinkie as though she might disappear at any moment. As soon as she came within range, Fluttershy leapt at Pinkie, tackling her into a hug.

“Pinkie! You’re okay!” She shouted in a fit of uncharacteristic exuberance. “Oh thank goodness! We were all so worried about you. What happened last night? Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, Fluttershy, really,” Pinkie choked out through the unexpectedly strong hug. Fluttershy immediately let go when she heard Pinkie’s strangled speech. Pinkie’s demeanor popped right back up to cheerful, though, so she didn’t feel too concerned.

“In fact, I’m better than fine! I found Sam!”

“Really?! That’s wonderful! Let’s…”

She almost finished her thought, but the distraught faces of her friends ran through her mind. They deserved to know Pinkie was alright.

“Let’s, um… I- I’d better call the others.”

She looked away from Pinkie’s quizzical stare, turning to retrieve the flare she kept tucked under her wing. She aimed it straight up, took the pull-cord in her mouth and tugged. A bright yellow flare shot up, luminous even in the morning light. As she watched the multi-colored flares sent up in reply, Pinkie decided to address the elephant in the air.

“Fluttershy, you got awfully quiet all of a sudden. Is something wrong?”

Fluttershy sighed.

“It’s just… this whole… situation, with Sam and the Princesses; I’m so confused.”

Pinkie nodded sagely. “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s like, I know the Princesses are trying to protect us and all of Equestria, but Sam is a total super softie, and-”

“Pinkie!” Twilight cheered, appearing with a flash alongside Luna. She, too, ran up to Pinkie to tackle-hug her. “Oooh, we looked everywhere for you! How are you feeling? Where were you last night?”

“Well, I’m feeling fine, and last night I found Sam, but-”

“What they hay, Pinkie?!” Rainbow Dash shouted as she dive bombed towards the growing group. “You made me- I mean, us… you made us sick with worry. Why didn’t you check in with us?”

“Well, I kinda fell asleep.”

“Fell asleep?!” Luna exclaimed. “But I thought you said you had found the necromancer?”

“W- well, I did,” Pinkie stuttered, unable to hold eye contact with the Princess, “b- but he’s not-”

“Hold on, girl!” AJ hollered, joining the group with Rarity hot on her heels. “Don’t start the story without us.”

“Indeed, this I would like to hear.” The disembodied voice of Princess Celestia echoed through the courtyard. A moment later, the Princess teleported in with a flash of sunlight.

Pinkie suddenly started sweating bullets. Her pupils constricted, flicking between Celestia and Luna. Fluttershy swallowed nervously.

Oh no. Is she going to give him up?

“So, Pinkie Pie, where were you last night?” Princess Celestia inquired, trying and failing not sound accusatory.

Pinkie gulped audibly.

“You are not in trouble, Pinkie Pie,” Luna tried to soothe, though the dire urgency of her tone spoiled the effect. “Just tell us what happened.”

“I… I, uh… I found Sam,” she admitted hesitantly. “And he just looked so cold and miserable that I had to help him so I snuggled up to him to keep him warm but then I fell asleep and-”

“It is alright, Pinkie,” Celestia interrupted, growing impatient, “I understand that you were just trying to help. Now, where is he?”

Fluttershy was beginning to feel frightened for Sam’s safety. She’d never seen the Princesses so deadly serious, nor so laser focused on anything before. She looked to Twilight, who looked just as flabbergasted as Fluttershy felt, though she was more likely astounded by the Princesses’ seemingly unchanged attitudes. Before Twilight could come to her aid, Pinkie started talking.

“W- well, you see… the thing is…”

As she was trying to formulate a real response, Pinkie was interrupted again. Not by either of the Princesses, but by a blood-curdling shriek. By its direction and the way the color drained from Pinkie’s face, Fluttershy immediately recognized the source.

“That sounded like Mrs. Cake!” Rarity exclaimed.

Without a word, Celestia and Luna teleported away. No sooner had they gone than a dark blue hemisphere ballooned up over the rooftops, exactly where Sugarcube Corner should be. Upon seeing this, Pinkie Pie whimpered.

“Noooonononono. They can’t! I Pinkie promised!”

The familiar tinkle of Twilight’s magic rung in Fluttershy’s ears.

“Brace yourselves,” Twilight warned, “I’m taking us in.”

“Wait!” Sam shouted, but to no avail. He was forced to duck under the bag of flour that came hurtling towards his head.

“Out! Out!” The hysterical mare shrieked. “Don’t you dare come near my children!”

“Please, stop throwing things! It’s Mrs. Cake, right?”

“How in Equestria do you know my name?!” Mrs. Cake howled, brandishing a large clay jug of some unknown liquid. “Who are you?!”

“I’m a friend of Pinkie’s! She’s helping me with a… a very… delicate situation.” Sam was grasping desperately at any straw that entered his thoughts. “I was hoping I’d be in and out of here before anyone noticed, but I guess that didn’t work out. Please, just… just wait for her to get back. She can clear things up, I promise.”

Mrs. Cake stared at him, clearly weighing her options. It was still a welcome respite from ducking under a barrage of baking ingredients. However, just as she was opening her mouth to ask him another question, she disappeared in a flash of light, leaving the jug to fall and shatter on the floor. The question of what had just happened died on his lips, as the worst possible scenario began to unfold.

In the space where Mrs. Cake had been previously, another flash of light burst, leaving behind the two beings Sam feared the most. Celestia and Luna locked eyes with him, their stares burning into his very soul. He was vaguely aware of Bob shouting in his head, but he was too captivated by their terrible beauty to look away for even a split second.

Against all odds, that split second arrived with a surge of adrenaline burning behind his eyes, jolting him to his senses.

*Get us out of here!*

Sam didn’t even think twice before sprinting towards the cellar door. He ran up the steps, but instead of bursting through an unlocked hatch, the doors held as fast as a brick wall. Sam slammed into them and was immediately sent tumbling back down the stairs.

He scrambled to his feet, but was greeted with an empty corridor. The Princesses hadn’t followed him, but neither had they moved from their advantageous position in the center aisle. They expected him to give up, and submit to their will.

Well, let’s just show them how stubborn I can be.

Sam moved to his right, to the nearest set of shelves next to a wall. He shook out his hands, took a few deep breaths, hooked his fingers under the second to last shelf on either side of the central support, and heaved upward.

The shelves, even laden as they were with baking ingredients, had no choice but to give way to his considerable size, especially when combined with the adrenaline surging through his veins. They tipped forward until they passed the balancing point, and gravity took hold. More than a half ton of jam jars and confectioner’s sugar came crashing down onto the shelves behind them, beginning a deafening domino cascade of sweeteners and flour.

Not waiting to check out his handiwork, Sam jumped up onto the first shelf and took off into the cloud of powder, hopping across the supports and edges like stepping stones. He heard the coughing of royalty off to his left, and couldn’t help but feel some smug satisfaction. At least until the flour was vacuumed out of the air.

Sam nearly lost his balance from the sudden titanic inhalation. But it stopped nearly as quickly as it started, leaving no trace of particulates of any kind in the air. Sam would have been more alarmed that the spell seemed to only have affected him, the flour, whatever dust had accumulated in the room over the years, and nothing else, but he was already fearing for his life. Which was quite enough on his plate already, thank you very much.

He clambered over the last few shelves, and bolted for the stairs. His stomach dropped when he realized they still weren’t making any attempts to follow. Rather than body checking this door, as he had previously, he tried the doorknob. It didn't budge, or even jiggle. He gave the door a half-hearted boot, but it remained as solid as the doorknob, as if the entire thing were carved from a single slab of stone.

“You call yourself Sam, correct?” An even, melodic voice called up to him from the room below. He whipped around, but could see neither of them. Were they content to wait for him to come to them?

Bob?! What the hell do I do, Bob?

*Be silent, boy, I’m thinking!*

The tense atmosphere weighed down on him, constricting his chest. There was no sound, no indication that they were coming for him. His heart hammered in his chest as he realized something.

I have to go down there, Bob.

*What?! Are you daft?! What has possessed you to make that seem like a good idea?*

I don’t have a lot of options here. If they decide to come for me, there aren’t many places to dodge in a stairwell.

Sam took a single, terrified step towards the proverbial pit of lions.

*Damn it… Damn it! Alright, just… be careful.*

Nooo, you think? Sam snarked bitterly. Some help he was.

*Yes, I do. I’m not certain I can hide my presence from these two as well as I could from Princess Twilight.*

Well, that’s one unasked question answered, I guess.

Sam edged up against the right-hand wall, the only one that might offer even a moderate amount of cover, and began to descend. He stepped as gingerly as possible, as though the stairs might give out at any moment. The two below waited for him as silently as panthers stalking their next meal.

How on Earth am I going to get out of this?

*Is that meant to be a rhetorical question, or…?*

Of course it was supposed to be rhetor-! Sam cut himself off, trying to take a deep, steadying breath. Snapping at Bob would not help his situation at all. Look, I’m still not a hundred percent about this whole speaking in my head thing, much less the idea that someone will always be listening, even to my private thoughts. For now, just… just don’t respond to my thoughts unless I specifically address you, okay?

*Fair enough.*

It wasn’t until his concentration returned to the task at hand that Sam realized that he had already reached the bottom of the stairs. There was nothing immediately different about the scene before him. The furthest shelves to his left remained toppled in a column of destruction. He peeked around the corner, but the last row remained as empty as it had been half a minute ago.

“Sam, we have given our word that we would speak with you before making any more decisions.”

Sam waited for his heart to start beating again before responding to Luna’s sudden declaration.

“Oh. Good. For a while there, it seemed like you wanted my head on a pike. Glad to see you can at least put your plans on hold.”

“Your sarcasm is not welcome in this circumstance, necromancer,” Celestia spat. “My student, Twilight Sparkle, is vouching for you, so you are going to have to convince me that she has a good reason to trust you. Otherwise, I may suspect foul play.”

There was enough of a threat in that ultimatum to bring Sam dangerously close to soiling himself.

“Now, if you would be so kind, please come out where we can see you.”

Celestia’s sudden switch to a detached, impartial tone made her otherwise diplomatic request seem more like a warden’s command. But Sam couldn’t exactly refuse. Having eyes on his adversaries was infinitely preferable to not.

Slowly, he crept around the corner, staying flush to the wall as he attempted to angle his sightline down the center aisle. He nearly bolted as the large white and midnight-blue figures appeared around the edge of the shelf, but they remained as unmoved and unruffled as ever. They were apparently and justifiably assured of the inescapability of their trap. When Sam came into view, both Princesses tensed noticeably, and Celestia’s imperious poise notched itself ever higher.

“Well?” She said through a barely perceptible sneer. “We’re waiting.”

“I can see you, you can see me. This is as good as you’re gonna get.” Sam stared her down, the pressure in his bladder rising.

“Fine then, it matters little to me. Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter, shall we? What is your intention here in Equestria?”

“Oh, gee, I don't know… survive, maybe grab a bite to eat, then find a way home. Don't suppose you know any good Italian joints around here?” By the time the words came tumbling out of his mouth, Sam was too terrified and too indignant to care about the repercussions.

“Sam,” Luna ventured placatingly, “we are attempting to be civil here.”

Sam guffawed in disbelief. “You’re Princess Luna, right? Well, your majesty, let’s review, shall we? I am currently locked in a room – against my will, I might add – with the two beings on this planet who most want me dead, and with no hope of an unbiased hearing. I'm being as civil as is appropriate.”

“We most certainly do not want you-”

Celestia spoke over Luna before she could finish her defense.

“It seems you’re a bit too hysterical to take these discussions seriously. I would suggest you calm down.”

Sam would have bit back at her for her condescending tone but for a popping sensation in his brain, like the muffled snap of a single bubble of bubble wrap. His shoulders suddenly sagged, as a great weight was lifted from them. Nothing really seemed very catastrophic anymore. He couldn’t even say why he had gotten so worked up in the first place. There was really nothing to be worried about. Even Bob’s anxious ranting was little more than background noise. Something about “fighting it,” but what was there to fight?

The last thing he registered before the world went black were three words, in a tone more mournful than he had ever heard.

*Grim forgive me.*

“Twilight, what’s takin’ so long?”

The young Princess didn’t even bother to look at the antsy Applejack, opting instead to keep the majority of her attention on trying to coax Princess Celestia’s barrier into giving her an opening. Her magic shivered and rippled against the midnight blue bubble, probing and testing.

“Barrier spell… very tough,” she sputtered, unable to divert enough brain power to form complete sentences. “Different from… when I was… little.”

“And what the hay is that supposed to mean?” Rainbow Dash demanded.

“I think, darlings,” Rarity interjected, walking pointedly between Twilight and her more impatient friends, “that she means she needs to concentrate, and pestering her will not make the process go any faster.”

Rainbow backed off with a grumble, and Applejack with a worried glance at Twilight.

“I’m sorry for pushin’ you, Twi,” Applejack mumbled, “I’m just worried, is all.”

Rarity led her away with her own concerned hum. “I do understand where you’re coming from, Applejack. I can’t help but wonder why the Princesses are so very defensive all of a sudden.”

“That’s just it,” Applejack expounded, “I can’t tell who’s right or wrong. I’m worried for Sam, but I’m worried about him too. The Princesses brought up some darn good points. But Sam also seemed like a decent fella, and I honestly believe he wasn’t lyin’ when he said he didn’t want to hurt nopony. I just… I know there has to be somethin' more to this, and I want the truth!”

Meanwhile, Pinkie lay on the ground, quietly sobbing with her muzzle buried in her hooves. Fluttershy was trying her best to calm her down, with some help from Mrs. Cake, but it didn’t seem to be having much of an effect.

“It’ll be okay, Pinkie, you’ll see,” Fluttershy soothed. “We’ll get in there and sort everything out, and everything will be back to the way it was.”

“B- but what if h- he doesn't forgive me?”

“What’s there to forgive, dear?” Mrs. Cake cut in, trying a different tactic. “From what you said, it sounds like it was my fault the Princesses found him.”

“Yeah, b- but if I’d stopped to tell you about him, he wouldn’t be f- fighting… wi... with…”

Pinkie broke down in tears once more. Fluttershy looked helplessly to Mrs. Cake, but she could only offer a concerned grimace and a shrug. Luckily, the Princesses had teleported her, her husband, and the children outside before erecting the barrier. But there was no doubt something big was going on downstairs. From the series of thudding crashes that Fluttershy had felt reverberating through the ground a minute ago, there wasn’t much else it could be. She stroked her friend’s mane softly, unsure of how else she could help.

“He’ll forgive you, Pinkie. He didn’t seem like the sort to hold a grudge for an accident.”

That seemed to calm Pinkie down a bit. With a hiccup and a sniffle, she nodded her concession.

“Girls!” Twilight shouted, “I’m almost through! Gather around me, we’ll have only moments to get to the other side!”

Her friends hustled over, forcing down their emotions in order to move, jump, or do whatever she needed at her word.

But it turned out they needn’t do anything. As soon as the tiniest of holes opened in the barrier, Twilight’s magic became a force field that surrounded them, pushing its way into the opening like a questing octopus. It pushed the hole wider, until it could fit a pony through, at which point their side of the bubble contracted, trying to cram them all through at once. This was, of course, met with resistance; six ponies cannot simultaneously fit through a hole big enough for one. But somehow, they managed to finagle their way inside one at a time, until Twilight was unceremoniously shoved through by her force field, as the barrier closed with a snap.

“Is everypony okay?” She called out, more than a little disoriented. The rest responded with grumbles and moans, trying to stretch out their recently contorted limbs.

Suddenly, there was a muffled thump, and a bright light began leaking out of the door to the basement.

“Oh no, Sam!” Pinkie wailed, and rushed to the door, trying to kick it in with all her might. The door stood as solid as a living oak tree.

“Outta the way, Pinkie!” Applejack charged over, wound up and bucked the door as hard as she could.

Luckily for her, the Princesses had made one mistake when enchanting the door. They made the door as solid as steel, but they did nothing to reinforce the frame. At Applejack’s insistence, the door and its frame separated from the wall they were set in, flying down the stairs with a clatter of broken wood.


“Doesn’t matter, come on!” Twilight shouted, racing past her. The ponies thundered down the steps, charging headlong into a nightmare.

The entire basement was lit by a hemisphere of glowing gold and cobalt blue magic, bulging and warping as the whirling black cloud inside of it strained to burst free. The storm filled the air with a cacophony of howling winds. Luna and Celestia were forced to their knees by the sheer effort of keeping the spell going. But the worst sight by far was Sam. He could just barely be made out at the center of the stygian dust storm, forced to his hands and knees, vomiting the black sand from every orifice. Tears trailed down his face, muddied by the grains falling out from around his eyes.

“Sam!” Fluttershy screamed, startling everyone in the room. She flew right up to the bubble, pressing her hooves against it as though she could force her way through. She turned to the Princesses. “He’s in pain! You have to help him!”

“Twilight,” Celestia moaned, “we need… the Elements.”

“But I don’t have them! Do we have time to-?”

“Luna!” Celestia shouted desperately, through clenched teeth.

It seemed Luna understood the unspoken order. For just a few seconds, Luna disengaged from the containment field, leaving it to go completely gold. It bulged dangerously as Luna prepared her spell. Just as it seemed like the bubble was about to come apart, Luna fired off the spell, returning her magic to maintaining the containment.

For a few seconds, nothing changed. Twilight was about to ask if she should do anything when her ears caught a high-pitched whistling. The ceiling buckled and then burst into splinters as the chest that held the Elements of Harmony came crashing through it, showering the already disastrous mess of a cellar with even more debris. The chest hovered for a moment, enveloped in Luna’s inelegant summons, then fell with a thump and the clatter of jostled jewelry. Twilight tore the chest open with her magic, flinging the Elements at each of their Bearers. The girls fumbled in their haste to put them on. When the last clasp closed, their eyes immediately lit up with the white light of Harmony.

The containment field exploded in a blast of rainbow light that shook the very foundations of the earth. The black sand evaporated, leaving Sam untouched. Without the storm, the howling winds were replaced by Sam’s terrified screams. Then, without a word, he fell silent and slumped to the ground.

When the girls were released from the Elements’ magic, everyone ran towards the aftermath. Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Applejack took to the Princesses’ sides, helping them to their hooves. Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie rushed over to Sam, turning him onto his back to check for injuries.

Twilight’s head whipped back and forth, unable to decide between helping her mentor and helping the unofficial ambassador of a previously unknown race. The choice was taken from her, however, when Fluttershy’s quivering voice called out.

“Twilight, there’s something wrong! Sam’s not breathing!”

Twilight nearly tripped over herself trying to get to him. She skidded to a halt at Sam’s side, moving to put an ear to his chest. Her heart nearly stopped when she heard the arrhythmic beat of his own. It was slowing down.

“Oh no! Nonono! What do we- CPR!”

She frantically ran her hooves over his chest, trying to figure out where to put her hooves for chest compressions, while Fluttershy breathed deeply, preparing to start giving rescue breaths. They got no further than preparation, however, as Sam’s head suddenly flashed with a halo of rainbow light. He jerked forward, gasping like a man dying of suffocation. Twilight and Fluttershy stumbled backward, trying to give him breathing room. He only curled up into a ball. Concerned, Twilight inched closer, until she could just barely make out mumbled words.

She couldn’t understand him.

Sam was suddenly speaking in an entirely different tongue; a varied, stuttering dialect unlike any she had ever heard. But whatever he was saying, he was obviously tormented. His eyes were clenched shut, tears leaking out the sides, and his voice cracking with anguish.

Did he think he had hurt somepony? They must have been thinking the same thing, because Twilight, Pinkie and Fluttershy all simultaneously placed comforting hooves on him. Sam’s breath hitched, and he slowly turned his head to look at them. His face was a spectre of the giddy personality it had once been.

He spoke again, asking an indecipherable question. It was only recognizable as a question because of the upward inflection at the end Twilight tried to smile comfortingly, but worry twisted it into a grimace.

“Sam, I can’t understand you. What are you trying to say?”

Sam’s eyes widened. He spoke a few more indecipherable words before his eyes rolled back in his head and he lost consciousness.


Everything was dark and eerily familiar. Sam stood on a black plane of nothingness, looking up into black skies, surrounded by light that lit up nothing but him. He couldn’t help but feel like he’d seen this place before.

Suddenly, a deep voice rasped at him.

“Well, boy, I hope you are able to fend for yourself. Because from here on out, you are on your own.”

Sam whipped around, trying to find where Bob might be hidden.

“Where are you?”

“Follow my voice, boy. You will reach me soon enough.”

Sure enough, as he walked towards the point of origin, a black fog lifted, revealing a kneeling figure.

He was cloaked in black, a skeletal chin poking out from beneath the hood. But what caught his attention most were the great golden chains that bound Bob in place, stretching off into the abyss to unseen anchors in every direction. At least, he assumed that the figure before him was the Reaper.


“I hope this is what you wanted, boy. There is no backing out now.”

Sam’s expression darkened.

“I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

Sam’s fist clenched hard enough to turn his knuckles white.

“You just tried to kill an entire town.”

Bob peered at him from under the lip of his hood. “Tell me boy, would you have preferred to surrender your free will to those alicorns? It was the only course of action left to me to keep you from enslavement. Not that it matters now. They used some form of magical artifacts to bind my powers, nearly killing you in the process. If the artifacts had not been slightly intelligent, the spell might not have recognized that I was keeping you alive and allowed me to continue acting in that capacity.”

“And why should I believe anything you say?”

“You felt her break your will, did you not?”

Sam’s blood went cold. He did remember. The sudden overwhelming calm that flooded his mind, the mind-numbing apathy; everything. He wondered if that was what opium felt like.

“And, even if you cannot recall, let me ask you this: you tried speaking to them before you fell unconscious, did you not?” Sam nodded. “Then why are you suddenly unable to understand them? What changed between then and now?”

Sam thought about it for a moment, before coming to the obvious conclusion. Bob had to have been translating for him. The only other reasonable explanation was sudden massive brain damage, and he’d be having much bigger problems than just a sudden inability to understand speech, were that the case.

And yet, there was still one question that nagged at him. One word that covered so many questions.



“Why would you have killed an entire town to keep me from being mind-controlled?”

“Simple. I share this body with you, and I would much rather you be in control than anyone else.”

“Okay, then why did you take over a part of my brain? You’re certainly powerful, if what just happened is any indication. Powerful enough that I doubt you even need a host. So why?”

“Because you were dying. When I found you again after bringing you here, the Poison Joke fruit wasn’t just constricting your intellect, it was killing you. I had to actively intervene, to flush the toxins from your system, or you would have been dead within minutes.”

“But why?” Sam shouted, throwing his immaterial arms up in exasperation. “What’s so massively important about me that you had to abduct me and override a part of my brain just to keep me alive?”

Bob averted his gaze, choosing instead to stare at the darkness in front of his knees. They stayed like that for a while; Sam waiting for an answer, and Bob not giving one. Eventually, Bob caved first.

“I made a mistake,” he muttered.


“I made a mistake,” Bob repeated, louder. “A great and terrible mistake. And keeping you alive is possibly the only way I have to atone. I will say nothing more on the subject, except that I am sorry. I have not been, perhaps, the easiest of guests to get along with. My only request now is that you proceed with caution. I still don’t trust those… Princesses.”

“I’m still not sure I trust you.”

Bob looked into Sam’s eyes, searching for something Sam didn’t think he’d find. Eventually, Bob relented with a sigh.

“Fair enough. I hope, in time, I might convince you otherwise. But if a time comes when you do feel the need to speak with me, I am afraid you’ll have to wait until you sleep. As things stand, I am unable to do anything more than keep your autonomic nervous system running, and I doubt you currently possess the focus necessary to make contact without needing to devote your attentions to the task. That would be inadvisable at this point, unless you wish to alert the winged unicorns to my continued existence. But, as I have said, I no longer have a say in the matter. If that is your wish, then, by all means, do so. Both your life and mine are in your hands now.”

Sam considered the prostrated figure before him. He was trigger happy, yes, but was he truly evil? Maybe not.



“Do you feel any guilt over trying to kill all those ponies?”

Bob studied him for a moment, before slumping forward once more.

“I doubt anything I say will make a difference at this point. But, for what it is worth, yes I am ashamed that I put us in a position where there was no other option than that. Would I make the same decision, were I given a second chance? Yes, in a heartbeat, as your kind says. Your safety was, and still is, my number one priority. Above all else.”

Sam paused, mulling over his words.

“I’m not going to be able to understand them now, you know.”

“There is naught I can do about that. Unless you somehow have the ability to remove these shackles, you’ll have to learn their language. I can give you a few pointers, if you wish. Luckily, the grammatical structure of pony Equestrian is functionally identical to your human English, so the most you will need to learn is…”

Sam zoned out. He really didn’t have time to sit around and learn an entirely new language. The longer he spent here, the more grief it put his family through. He needed to get back as soon as possible, and his two greatest leads were Bob and the ponies. But neither were accessible now, because of those chains.

Without thinking, Sam had taken a few steps towards the shackled Reaper. Bob took notice.


Sam didn’t answer, so focused was he on the chains. As he came closer, he automatically reached a hand out.

“Sam, do not touch those! There is no telling what manner of magical protection they ha-!”

But Sam wasn’t listening. He was hearing something that barely qualified as a whisper, like the gentle drone of a bumblebee somewhere nearby. He had the overwhelming urge to touch the chains, to commune with whatever force had created the restraints. Gingerly, he stroked a link with the tip of his middle finger, causing Bob to flinch away from the expected magical retribution. Nothing happened. As nothing continued to happen, Sam allowed more of his fingers to come to rest on the chain. With each new contact, the unearthly voice gradually grew in volume, and the droning buzz became the tinkling of wind chimes, clear and calm. No words were spoken, and yet the message came through as clear as the crystalline tones that echoed in his mind.

~He is the Human, Sam. We are the Harmony. What does He wish of Us?~

He didn’t even need to speak in the dream. The thoughts came unbidden to his mind’s eye.

An image of an obscured being forging a golden chain.

~We are They, true.~

A plea. The Reaper, talking to and through him, a translator between he and the ponies. Then a shackled Reaper and the ponies thrown into confusion and misunderstanding. Time lost. His family, grieving.

The chimes went nearly silent, almost as if they were considering his unspoken words.

~He wishes Us to undo the Binding?~

A noncommittal affirmative. The need to be understood, atop a pedestal.

~Then He will not become upset if We grant the Reaper freedom to sense as the Human does, only?~

An addendum. The Reaper, speaking to Sam, telling him factual information and translations.

~… Agreeable. The Reaper may have senses and speech, ere the Sam Human meets danger yet unseen.~

Before his eyes, the golden chains began to dissolve. The still-anchored sections of chain quickly evaporated into the darkness as they floated away. The ends still connected to Bob drifted slowly downwards, shrinking until they appeared to be nothing more than standard chain dipped in gold.

Suddenly, the chain animated. It whirled around Bob, wrapping up his torso until he could no longer move his arms, tied behind his back as they were. His legs were from freed from the tight bondage, only to be shackled to each other. Still, he was able to struggle to his feet.

“Well, I don’t know how you did it, but it seems I’ve been granted a little more leeway. Care to explain how that happened?”

Dazed, Sam looked in Bob’s general direction. He huffed in light-headed amusement.

“No, not really.”

Bob stared at him for a moment, and Sam got the impression that he’d have raised an eyebrow, had he any flesh.

“Very well. I will not pry. I am still grateful for… whatever it was you did. It seems my sentence has been lightened. I can continue to translate for you, as I have been permitted access to your senses once more. You may be pleasantly surprised to know that can no longer passively ‘hear’ your thoughts, but you may contact me simply by thinking ‘at’ me, as it were.”

Sam tried shaking the cobwebs from his mind, but the cloying fuzziness sapped his concentration.

“That’s… good.”

Bob studied him, head tilted.

“Sam? Are you al-”

The fuzziness began to manifest itself in his dream, blurring the edges of ‘reality.’

“Ah,” Bob realized, “you are waking. Good. This feels… odd. I am unused to such a lack of information. Regardless, we will speak more once the inevitable commotion has died down. Take care, Sam.”

Sam simply nodded, unable to keep a hold of the dream as it slipped from his mind like water through his fingers.

Sam awoke, disoriented and confused. Every sensation came in fuzzy and out of focus, as though his consciousness existed inside a cotton ball. Slowly, his mind brushed away the cobwebs, catching little bits of clarity as the fuzziness was swept aside.

“…nk he’s waking u…”

“Sa…? …th us, Sam.”

The conversation faded into the background, as though he was suddenly listening from the other side of a wall. Sam could swear he heard a faint but insistent beeping as well. But when he tried to focus on the noises, his mental grip slipped. Instead, he directed his attention his other senses, trying to paint a picture in his mind.

The first thing he noticed was the acrid, sterile smell. Even if he had never been to a hospital before, it would have been impossible not to recognize the odor of medical-grade disinfectants. That, combined with the feel of clean, slightly stiff jersey-knit sheets against his skin, told him all he needed to know about where he was. However, the reason he was there still escaped him.

Sam slowly cracked his eyes, to let the undoubtedly blinding light filter through his eyelashes. Rather than the harsh fluorescents he expected, the lights were soft and warm. Apparently, this hospital placed a great deal of importance on patient comfort. As his vision cleared, the shapes around him resolved into almost everything he expected from a hospital. Except for the staff.

“Sam? Can you understand me?”

The question came from a unicorn mare in a doctor’s outfit, a glaring reminder of his current predicament. She had a light red coat and a straight silver mane, and a stethoscope hung from her neck, its diaphragm receiver tucked into her breast pocket. She was flanked by a chubby pink mare with a purple and white mane done up in a bun, a nurse’s cap placed neatly on her head.

Realizing he’d done nothing but stare, Sam swallowed dryly and nodded his acknowledgement, not trusting his voice to remain stable.

“Do you know where you are?”

“… Hospital,” he groaned, fighting against the residual mental fluff.

“Yes, you’re in Ponyville General Hospital. Do you remember how you got here?”

“Arguing with… Princesses. Went calm. Blacked out. Woke up here.”

“Alright. How are you feeling?”

Sam took stock. As sensation returned to him, he noticed a deep ache in his neck and back, in addition to a general fatigue.

“Tired. Sore. Not too terrible, I guess. Can I have water?”

“Of course. Nurse Sweetheart?”

The chubby mare brought a lidded cup with a straw from a nearby cart, and held the straw up to his lips. Sam lifted a hand to grip the top of the cup and further guide it in, surprising the nurse.

“Easy now, don’t overdo it,” Sweetheart cautioned as he took deep draughts of the glorious liquid. Whether she was talking about the drinking or the movement, he couldn’t tell. But he acquiesced either way, letting go of the cup altogether. The doctor moved in to take up the spot vacated by the nurse, placing the head of the stethoscope on his still bare chest. She took a moment to listen before returning her attention to conversation.

“Alright, so, introductions: I’m Dr. Hearty Drums, the resident cardiologist here at Ponyville General. Do you feel well enough to answer a few questions?”

“One from me, first,” Sam requested, feeling clarity of thought slowly returning. “How long was I out?”

“About… twelve hours, by my estimation.”

Sam sighed wearily. Another day slips through my fingers.

“Now then, you were brought in after an episode of cardiac arrhythmia, which, according to your friends, resolved itself. From what we’ve observed, there haven't been any complications since then, and your heart appears to be functioning properly. Does your family have a history of heart disease?”

“Well, my grandfather on my father’s side has had a heart attack, and the one on my mother's side has had a quadruple bypass, so yes.”

Dr. Drums made a note on her clipboard. “Have you had any history of heart disease or other chronic illnesses?”


“No congenital heart defects, valvular diseases, cardiomyopathy or enlarged heart, or primary heart rhythm abnormalities?”

Sam shook his head at each option. Then, realizing that he wasn't sure the gesture would mean the same thing to ponies, added, “No.”

“Any history of smoking, alcohol abuse, or diabetes in you or your family?”

“Diabetes, yes, in the family. I drink occasionally, but not more than once every week or two.”

Dr. Drums hummed contemplatively, levitated pen scratching away on her clipboard.

“Well, our scans came up clean, for the most part. A little bit of cholesterol build up in your arteries, slightly higher than normal but not enough to cause a blockage. You’ll want to keep an eye on that. Blood pressure appears slightly high compared to the time Dr. Goodall examined you, so try to keep your stress levels down for a while. Plus, general malnutrition, so I’ll have our nutritionist put together a meal plan for you. You are an omnivore, correct?”

“I... am,” Sam admitted, closely watching her reaction. Dr. Drums merely nodded to herself.

“Thought so. Your dental arrangement indicated as much, but I figured I’d ask, in case of cultural differences.”

“I gotta say, you seem to be taking my being an omnivore rather well.”

Dr. Drums quirked an eyebrow at him. “Why wouldn’t I? As long as you abide by the Griffonian Treaties like every other intelligent omnivorous species in Equestria, we’ll have no problems.”

“Oh. Wait, Griffonian?” Sam sat up in shock.

“Yes… You know, as in Griffonia? Land of the Griffons?”

He slumped back against the headboard.

“It seems I still have a lot to learn about this planet.”

Dr. Drums watched him curiously. Eventually, she relented.

“Yes, well… you may have that opportunity. The Princesses wish to see you, once you’re-”

She cut herself off as the beeping of the heart rate monitor skyrocketed. Sam gripped the sheets as if his life depended on it. They were already here.

“Sam, calm down!” She cried out. “They told me that they want to apologize.”

Like hell they do! They just want to try mind-controlling me again.

“I- If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather see my, uh, friends first.”

Dr. Drums gave him a sidelong stare.

“Suit yourself,” she huffed dubiously. She beckoned to Nurse Sweetheart, and they both exited the room. As soon as the door closed, he heard muffled speaking, followed by muted exclamations by voices he recognized. He covered up with the sheet, trying to look at least somewhat decent. There were a few more words spoken, and the door suddenly flung open, launching a pink cannonball at his chest. The cannonball’s report sounded a lot like Pinkie Pie.


A moment later, the wind was knocked out of him. A fuzzy pink pony lay atop his chest, her forelegs not quite able to wrap all the way around his ribcage.

“I’m so sorry, Sam! I tried to keep your hiding spot a secret, really I did! But the Princesses found out anyway… Please, please, please forgive me.”

“Miss Pie!” Dr. Drums admonished, stomping into the room after her. “Please refrain from tackling my patient!”

Sam coughed breathlessly, holding up a hand to placate the doctor’s righteous fury.

“It’s okay,” he wheezed, “I’m alright. Just caught me by surprise, is all.”

Dr. Drums left for a second time, shaking her head and muttering under her breath. Sam returned his attention to the heart-stopping pout less than a foot away. Sam smiled pityingly.

“So, uh, you didn’t tell them where I was, right?”

Pinkie shook her head vigorously.

“Well, then there’s nothing to forgive. Mrs. Cake was the one who gave it away, and I can hardly blame her. I’d have done the same in her shoes. So dry your eyes. Please. You’re going to give me a coronary.”

Pinkie giggled and sniffled, rubbing her eyes dry. She gave Sam one last squeeze before rolling off of the bed. She landed next to Fluttershy, who now stood at his bedside with the other girls.

“See,” Fluttershy comforted Pinkie, “I knew he wouldn’t be mad.”

Pinkie nodded happily.

Sam looked around. It seemed the Princesses had respected his wishes, and stayed out in the hallway. Truthfully, he hadn’t expected that, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. Just the thought of facing the Princesses still made his stomach do flips, but the seeds of doubt were taking root. Could they be reasoned with after all?


Twilight’s concerned query shook him from his thoughts. He was about to thank them for bringing him to the hospital, but the words died in his throat. One look at their faces, and the terror he had seen in their eyes resurfaced in his mind, like an eldritch abomination assaulting a lone fisherman. He averted his gaze, staring instead at his hands, clenched nervously in his lap.

“I, um… I’m sorry,” he began, eliciting confused murmurs from the girls. “It… I never wanted to cause trouble. For any of you. And I certainly never wanted to hurt anyone. I don’t even know how I-”

“Sam,” Twilight interjected forcibly, “none of us blame you for what happened last night.”

“Yeah, I mean, you didn’t really hurt anypony,” Rainbow Dash expounded. “And, if anything, that screamy thing you did was pretty cool. Scary, but cool.”

Applejack gave a low whistle. “Well I'll be… Never thought I’d see the day Rainbow Dash admit to bein’ scared.”

“Oh whatever, AJ. Are you trying to tell me you weren’t scared?”

“Oh, heck no! Darn near soiled myself when I heard him hollerin’. Sounded like he was tearin’ a tractor in half with his bare hands.”

Sam just stared harder at his hands. He knew they were trying to cheer him up, but every word was just a reminder of their terrified faces. They had been afraid for their lives, because of him.

Just what kind of monster have I become?

Some of them seemed to have picked up on his distress, though, because Rarity stepped up to the plate.

“Sam, darling, we forgive you,” she cooed soothingly. “We understand that you were frightened, and that you weren’t even in control of your own actions. The most important thing is nopony – and nohuman – got hurt.”

“Exactly,” Twilight affirmed, then held up a hoof to head off his argument. “I know what you’re going to say, and I won’t have any of it. I know you don’t want to seem irresponsible, but you are the victim here.”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, apparently trying to decide how to begin the next part of her explanation.

“... Sam, how much do you know about magical parasites?”

Sam raised an eyebrow.

“Next to nothing, although I think I can make some educated guesses just by the name.”

“Well, we think you may have been infected with a kind of intelligent parasite that feeds off of emotions. We’ve dealt with one before, and there are a few similarities between that case and yours. But the good news is that you should be completely free of its influence now!” She was a bit too quick to reassure him of that.

“‘Should be?’” He questioned.

“Well… yes. We don’t actually know that much about the parasites-”

“Other than that they are ghastly creatures,” Rarity declared with a graceful grimace.

“And that they’re super nasty mean,” Pinkie added.

“And that’s there’s nothin’ you could’ve done to fight it,” Applejack asserted. “After all, if one could corrupt Princess Luna, ain’t much chance for folks like you and I.”

“I can certainly attest to that,” Rarity said, fidgeting in place. Sam gave her a questioning glance, and she soldiered on. “I, too, fell victim to the parasite in question, even months after we had thought it destroyed. We know it as the Nightmare. Let us simply say that it had a terrifying knack for finding out one’s greatest fears and using them against its… host, in order to gain control.”

“We’re not entirely certain if the two parasites are, for lack of a better word, ‘biologically’ related,” Twilight continued, “as yours seemed to have utilized necromancy; unlike the Nightmare, which used more mentalistic and cosmological magics. That, and it appeared to prefer hiding in the recesses of your mind as opposed to taking direct control.”

Well, they’re not completely wrong, Sam mused, but kept a neutral face.

“And you think it’s gone now?” He queried, feigning concern.

“If not permanently, then at least for another six months, while it regains its strength.”

Sam breathed a sigh of relief for their benefit, wondering just how much the other two Princesses knew. But then his face formed a genuine frown.

“I still feel at least partially responsible for all the damage that’s been caused. I hate to think what might have happened if the parasite had succeeded.”

“You really shouldn’t worry too much about it,” Fluttershy reassured him. “It’s not healthy to dwell on ‘what ifs’. Princess Celestia set up an Equestrian Disaster Relief Fund for occasions just like this. All you should be doing is resting and gathering your strength back. Doctor Drums said that, if you’re doing well enough, she’d be fine releasing you as early as tomorrow morning.”

Sam felt a swell of satisfaction. “Excellent. I’ve had quite enough of being bedridden and unconscious. And I’d like to apologize to the Cakes, if they’ll have me.”

“Of course!” Pinkie all but shouted. “They’d be happy to, and then I can introduce you, and I can show you all the pastries we make, and we can have a party, and-!”

Rainbow Dash landed next to Pinkie and shoved a hoof in her mouth.

“And I can show you more of how Ponyville’s weather team does things. Or some more of my tricks. Whichever sounds cooler.” By her smug grin, he could tell she obviously favored the latter choice.

“And I gotta take you ‘round Sweet Apple Acres!” Applejack beamed. “We got the best apples in all Equestria.”

“Of course, you’ll have to come by my boutique. I’ll see about getting you some… better accoutrements,” Rarity offered, eyeing the raggedy jeans folded up on a nearby table.

Sam held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. Just… one thing at a time, okay? I’m only one man.”

“Sorry,” Twilight smiled sheepishly. “I think we’re all just a little excited about the prospect of showing off for a being from another world.”

Sam reciprocated the embarrassed grin, still unused to all the attention.

“Hey, it’s all good. I’m pretty dang excited myself. This isn’t exactly a common thing for us humans, either.”

Sam paused for a moment, taking in her excited expression with a slowly sinking heart.

“So, you really think I’m from another world, huh?” He sighed heavily. “I suppose it was a little too much to hope for that I might have just ended up on a hidden continent.”

“Sorry. Princess Luna and Princess Celestia were able to confirm that you aren’t of this world. If anypony would know that, it’s them.”

Sam tensed at the mention of the Princesses. He tried to control it, but a few of the girls still picked up his discomfort.

“Sam, darling, I don’t wish to pry, but are you still worried about the Princesses?”

Sam couldn’t meet their eyes, choosing instead to look out the window. He swallowed against the dryness in his mouth.

“Dude, seriously?” Rainbow Dash asked incredulously. “You do know they basically saved your hide, right? Well, with our help, of course.”

Sam sighed through his nose.

“It’s like I told Pinkie: I can feel their power, rushing over me like flood waters. I’ve never felt anything like it. They could tear me apart with a thought, and there’s nothing I could do to protect myself. Just the thought of being at the mercy of someone who, just this morning, considered me enemy number one…” Sam trailed off with a shudder.

“Sam, the Princesses would never do anything like that,” Twilight reassured, but Sam wasn’t convinced.

“It sure seemed like they wanted to.”

“Hey, come on, big guy,” Rainbow encouraged, putting a foreleg as far as she could around his shoulders, “there’s nothing to be scared of. Even if they did want to hurt you – which they don’t – we’re here for you.”

“The Cakes are giving you a chance to apologize,” Pinkie reasoned. “Shouldn’t you give the Princesses the same chance?”

As much as he hated to admit it, Pinkie made a valid point, and Rainbow Dash did bolster his confidence a bit. He really wanted to trust these ponies. The Princesses were also being abnormally thoughtful, as far as their recent behavior was concerned. Maybe he should give them a chance.

After a few minutes of waffling, he finally came to a decision.

“Alright, I trust you. Call them in. Just… don’t leave me alone with them, please?”

Twilight nodded solemnly and left the room. He could hear her talking to the Princesses outside the door, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Sam pulled his knees up to his chest. Even if their intentions really were peacefully, he would not let himself be caught unawares. At the first sign of either of them casting a spell, he would go straight for their horns. Hopefully that might slow them down a bit.

Slowly, the door opened again and Twilight made her way back into the room.

“Alright, they’re coming in now.”

Sam watched as the door was gently pushed open. He couldn’t help but tense up. Even without Bob shouting at him to run away, the fear had become ingrained. However, their appearance began to assuage his fears.

Celestia and Luna both looked a mess, their flowing hair somehow limper and less vibrant. They had dark bags under their eyes, though they tried to hid it behind sympathetic smiles. Celestia’s particularly interested him, he could detect a hint of worry behind her relief. Was she actually regretful of her actions?

“We are pleased to see you awake and alert,” Luna began, awkwardly trying to make plain their intentions. Sam simply stared at them, devoting the entirety of his attention on reading their emotions. Luna shuffled in place, clearly expecting this kind of response, but discomforted by it regardless.

Celestia opened her mouth, thought better of it, then tried again.

“I… Luna and I want to apologize for our earlier… distrust and hostility. We… we hadn’t even considered the possibility that you might have been possessed by a parasite like the Nightmare. We… I could only focus on the kind of magic it was using, and completely misjudged you as a result. Please… accept our deepest and most humble apologies.”

Both of the Princesses then did something that drew an astonished gasp from every mare in the room. They bowed; not a polite nod of the head, but a deep, prostrated, full-body bow that ended with them nearly kissing the floor. Even their wings were pressed to the ground, a gesture which Sam could only read as deep humility.

He could tell that the girls were all watching him expectantly, confounded by his lack of a reaction. But he still felt torn. On the one hand, their apology was believable, even genuine, he couldn’t deny that. On the other, it was difficult to forget the sudden absence of emotion that had washed over him the night before. He let them stew in their own humiliation for a few more moments before speaking.

“Last night, in the basement, were you attempting to control my mind?” Sam kept his voice quiet and level, resulting in a tone so frigid, he almost expected to see hoar-frost clinging to every syllable. He surprised even himself.

But what surprised him even more was Celestia’s reaction. After a moment, he caught the glint of tears streaming down her cheeks. Her lips quivered and he noticed the muscles of her jaw clench. However, she remained bowed. Eventually, she spoke, in a subdued almost-whimper.

“I am so, so sorry.”

Sam felt something claw at his stomach, just below his solar plexus. He couldn’t quite tell if it was guilt, worry, or fear. If he had been just another person in that room, he would have forgiven her on the spot. But he couldn’t let her off the hook that easily, not with what she had done.

“Hate to say, but sorry’s not going to cut it,” he admonished, more gently this time. Celestia nodded glumly.

“I understand,” she replied, unable to keep her voice from quavering. “If you wish to press charges, my sister will ensure I am punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

Out of his peripheral vision, Sam noticed the slightly accusatory looks being thrown his way. He sighed explosively. “Let’s… not get into that just yet. I’m not looking to start an international incident. I’m just… Well, what’s your side of the story?”


“Well…” He pondered before answering with a begrudging sigh. “In the interest of fairness and good relations, I suppose I should hear the reasoning behind your actions. Maybe, if you can somehowconvince me that what you did was justified, I’ll consider other reparations.”

Celestia stared at him in disbelief for a solid ten seconds. Sam grew tired of waiting and cleared his throat.

“Oh! I, um… I’m glad you are still receptive to peaceful relations. But I can’t, in good conscience, consider my actions justifiable. I will still try to explain myself, if that is something you’d-”

Sam cut her off with a roll of his hand, gesturing for her to continue. Celestia nodded her head, grimacing slightly as she recalled the events of the previous day. She closed her eyes for a moment, apparently trying to decide where to start.

“I suppose it should be noted first that necromancy is outlawed in Equestria, for hopefully obvious reasons.” Sam nodded understandingly, to which Celestia responded with a sad smile. “Millennia have passed since the practice died out in the majority of the civilized world. From the stories Luna and I heard when we were but small fillies, it is obvious that it was a very dark time in Equus’ history. We have had only fleeting and violent contact with necromancy in our time, and it has not resurfaced in over a thousand years.”

“That is, in part, why we reacted with such hostility at first,” Luna inserted. “We have not had pleasant experiences with necromancers, and we feared you would be much the same. We had not expected that a parasite like the Nightmare could be responsible for such magics.”

“That being said, we could have handled the situation much better than we did.” Celestia continued. “We have learned much over the years, about both magic and negotiations. Even so, I was unable to keep my emotions from turning the calming spell into dark magic. I am afraid that Luna and I have had… too much history with necromancers to approach them in a calm, impartial manner.”

Sam waited for her to continue, but she only avoided his gaze. Sam looked to Twilight for confirmation, but she only returned a stunned gaze. I guess this is news for her, too.

It was a few minutes before either of them spoke again; during which time, everyone’s eyes were on them, trying to decipher their expressions. Eventually, Luna began again, in a voice little louder than a whisper.

“My sister and I have lost much to necromancers: towns, our subjects, great swaths of land. The Badlands to the southeast used to be known as the Verdant Plains of Tambelon, before our confrontation with Grogar. He was one of the most powerful necromancers we have ever faced, and Tambelon’s last king. We have witnessed our f-… our ponies, torn to pieces before our eyes by his evil creations. We could not allow such a taint to spread in our land again.”

The entire time Luna spoke, Celestia was staring out the window at the evening sky, its light never quite reaching her eyes. There was more to their story, but for the first time that day, Sam didn’t feel like he needed to know.

“We will take responsibility for our misconduct, and any harm done to you. But at this juncture, we can only plead for mercy. We will not hold ourselves above the law.”

Sam glanced between the two of them, both sets of eyes downcast. As far as he could tell, they genuinely regretted their actions. More than he could say for Bob. And yet, it still wasn’t enough to negate the mind control aspect of the whole debacle. He sighed heavily.

This whole thing would be so much simpler if they hadn’t resorted to dark magic, or accidentally allowed it to happen or whatever.

He felt like he needed advice, and there was really only one other being he could even partially rely on to give it.

“I need to meditate on this,” Sam said, giving them the half-truth. “Just… let me think for a while.”

“Of course. We will come back in the morning, if you wish. To let you ‘sleep on it,’ as the saying goes.”

“Yes, fine,” he sighed and waved them off, burying his face in his other hand. The Princesses said their goodnights, leaving Sam with the six ponies he had awoken to find just two days earlier.

“They really are sorry, y’know.”

Sam looked up at Applejack, who was watching him searchingly, though again, for what, he couldn’t tell. Did they actually expect him to forgive them just like that? It seemed like they might, but he couldn’t read their expressions. More likely they weren’t sure what to make of the situation, if the glowing stories they had told him about their Princesses last night were any indication. Sam hung his head and sighed for what felt like hundredth time that hour.

“I know…”

He left it at that. He wasn’t ready to make judgments on anything just yet. He still wanted to ask Bob’s opinion, and then follow Princess Luna’s suggestion and sleep on it. Maybe everything would be clearer in the morning.

“Well, girls, it’s been a long day, and I have a lot to think about. I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”

They all muttered their assent, clearly dissatisfied with where the state of affairs had left off. There were promises to come meet him first thing in the morning, or after chores and work were complete. Fluttershy lingered behind.

“Will you be okay by yourself?” She fretted, watching him with big, concerned eyes. Something fluttered in Sam’s stomach.

“I’ll be alright. Good night, Fluttershy.”

“Good night,” she replied, switching off the light.

“Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Pinkie called from out in the hallway.

The playful parting remark plastered a grin to his face. Such a simple but effective way of making him smile. Those mares really are something else.

The grin didn’t last long.

I really hope they’re right about the Princesses.

He sat there for a moment, stewing in his own thoughts, staring into the shadows cast by the moonlight streaming in through the curtains. The arguments running through his head were circular and tiresome. Yet he allowed them to run their course, until their paths had worn a groove in his mind.

I’m getting nowhere with this.

There was really only one thing to do, and yet he hesitated to do it.

Because I can already guess what he’s going to say, and I honestly don’t agree.

He couldn’t just go around for the rest of his days distrusting everyone and everything. He would never find his way home like that. But he couldn’t think of what to do. What could possibly make him feel better about trusting someone – or somepony – who had almost stripped him of his free will, even if it was unintentionally? Sam groaned into the bedsheets.

“I really wish there was some kind of outside observer that could give me some perspective.”

“Well what kind of perspective would you like?”

Sam shot up, eyes whipping around the room, trying to find the source of the crooning voice. It had been low and scratchy, like pieces of dark chocolate in a rock tumbler. But no matter where he looked, he could find no trace of the speaker.

“Personally, I’m a fan of upside-down, but I’ve heard good things about third-person.”

One second, there was nothing at the foot of his bed. The next, a lopsided, snaggle-toothed grin floated aimlessly in midair, glowing obscenely white in the relative darkness.

“Of course, if you’re looking for something more two-dimensional, I might have to do some reading up,” the disembodied mouth admitted. “It’s been a while since I’ve had any practice.”

Sam stared at the insanity before him for only moments before his mind gave up trying to make sense of it.

Welp, I’m already in Crazytown, might as well go with the flow.

“And, uh, who are you, exactly?”

“Oh! Please forgive me. I seem to have forgotten that we haven’t been properly introduced.”

There was the sound of snapped fingers, and the lights suddenly flicked on. A figure began materializing around the mouth like a video of a knitted figurine being unraveled in reverse.

“The name’s Discord, Master of Chaos and Disharmony. Well, Reformed Master, at any rate,” the creature purred.

Sam wasn’t sure what to make of the being now standing before him. The thing was chimeric, most likely male, and quite obviously magical. He couldn’t decide if his head was more goat-like, or if the slitted pupils made it too reptilian. Sam realized he was staring with his jaw wide open, so he shut it quickly, scraping the dregs of his mind for any kind of conversation.

“I’m, uh… Sam.”

“Oh, I’m well aware. I’ve been following your antics for quite some time. You’re kicking up quite a stir, young man. If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought I had something to do with your arrival here.” Discord kicked back into a lounging position in midair, idly examining his talons with a smug smirk. But then, his smirk dropped completely.

“Then again, I don’t try to kill ponies.”

The room suddenly felt ten degrees colder, and Sam began shivering. Even though Discord wasn’t looking at him, Sam could feel his slitted eyes searing into his soul. Sam felt his throat tighten. Somehow, this ‘Discord’ knew about what had happened that morning

“I… I didn’t… I mean I wasn’t-”

“Oh! No, not you,” Discord dismissed, looking at Sam as if he had suddenly appeared in his line of sight. “I’m talking to your skeletal friend in there.”

Discord rapped on his skull like a door, inviting whoever was inside to come out and play. A chill ran down Sam’s spine.

“I… I don’t know what you’re tal-”

“Oh don’t play coy with me,” Discord chided. “I’ve talked with the miserable old wretch already. Which means he should really be out here, speaking mano-a-mano!”

Discord had grabbed Sam’s ear with both of his mismatched grasping appendages, and shouted the last part directly into it, leaving nothing but a ringing noise. Sam yelped in surprise and pain, shooting a glare at the impatient creature.

“Yeah, well, he’s a bit tied up at the moment.”

Confusion danced across Discord’s face for only a moment, before a malicious grin split his muzzle.

“I see… Well then, I have a little request for you.”

Sam leered warily at the plotting Chaos Master.

“And what would that be?”

“Oh nothing really, just a little mental exercise. No physical or magical activity necessary.” Discord floated over and around Sam’s back, resting his claws on Sam’s shoulders and getting within conspiratorial muttering distance of his ear.

“It’s very simple. Just picture the old coot in your head, however he appeared to you last.”

Despite himself, Sam did as Discord instructed, curious to see where he was going with this.

“Now, imagine yourself walking right up behind him… and punting him, right in his bony posterior. Watch as he sails over the horizon.”

The narrative was so unexpected and so ridiculous that he couldn’t help but picture it, even if he hadn’t wanted to. The comical image of a hooded skeleton sailing into the sunset like a jetliner was just too funny. Sam burst out laughing, although he felt like he was going to be in trouble with Bob somehow.

“Okay, okay,” Sam wheezed, getting the giggles under control, “that was a good one, I’ll give you that.”

Discord bowed before him.

“It was my pleasure, believe you me.”

Discord summoned up a posh armchair, simultaneously clothing himself in a burgundy dress robe and fez, complete with bubble pipe.

“Now then, I believe you wished for some perspective, correct?” He mused, blowing on the bubble pipe.

Sam’s mirth died out, and his worry rushed back in to fill the void. He groaned smacking his head against the headboard.

“I just don’t know what to think anymore.”

“Then don’t.”

The remark caught Sam off guard.

“Tell me,” Discord continued, “what is your first impulse when you think about what Celestia did?”

“...To forgive her,” Sam replied barely stopping to think about it. It truly was the first thought that entered his mind.

“So why shouldn’t you?”

“She did try to control my mind.”

“Did she? Or was it simply a calming spell that got out of hoof? Did she actually make you do anything?”

“Well… no.”

“So then let me ask you one more question. Who would you be more angry at: the person who punches you in the heat of the moment, or the person who does so calmly, with every intention of breaking your jaw?”

Sam stopped to ponder for a moment. Celestia did seem to be taking responsibility for her actions, rather than claiming they were an accident. As far as he could tell, she was being genuine in her apology.

“Well, would you suggest I forgive them, just like that?”

Discord put up his hands defensively. “Hey, I’m not going to tell you what to do. That’s up to you. I’m just here to provide some perspective. After all, how many allies do you have here in Equestria? Especially ones as powerful and influential as the Princesses?”

Sam was struck dumb. How had that not occurred to him? Here they were, god-like beings offering up apologies and reparations on a silver platter, and all he could think about was whether or not they might have spit on them. Of course, trying to take advantage of their repentance was precisely the wrong way to go about building a healthy relationship with the Equestrian royalty, but prospect was tempting, nonetheless.

“You make a fair point,” Sam conceded. “Besides, my guts are telling me that they’re trustworthy. I suppose I can give them a second chance. But, I’m curious, why did you decide to help me?”

Discord smiled knowingly. “I expected you might come to that conclusion eventually. I just wanted to add my two bits, to speed the process along. I have a vested interest in this country, after all.”

“Which is…?”

“Well, it’s where I keep all my stuff, for one,” Discord explained, pulling a hockey stick from under the foot of Sam’s bed, then putting it back without so much as one word of explanation.

“Okay, but that can’t be all.”

“Oh? And why not? Isn’t a draconequus entitled to concern about the safety and security of his country?”

A draconequus, huh? Is that what he calls himself? I suppose he’s right, in any case. Being an alien from another world, and Equestria’s first contact outside of their own world probably gives me a hefty amount of political clout. If word got out on Earth that a politician was mistreating an alien from another world… Well, it wouldn’t be pretty, to say the least.

“Alright, I still don’t think you’re telling me everything, but I’ll leave it at that.”

“Of course not. If I were to tell you everything, we’d be sitting here for the rest of time. I like to think I have a little more common sense than that.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Alright, wise guy, get out so I can finish sleeping. Tomorrow’s gonna be a busy day.”

“Alright then. Au revoir, mon petite pomme de terre.” Discord disappeared out the door, only to reappear out of a flower vase a moment later. “Ah, I almost forgot. If it’s all the same to you, I’d appreciate it if you kept our little chat just between us. I’m in a bit of hot water with the girls at the moment.”

Too emotionally and mentally exhausted to care, Sam made a show of zipping his mouth shut before flopping back onto his pillow.

“Splendid. Toodles!”

Discord presumably disappeared back down into the vase, if the small splash was any indication. Sam settled back into the bed, and immediately felt the Sandman pulling him down into the depths of slumber.

CHAPTER 12 - An Unseen Servant

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Dust. Why is it always dust?

Lieutenant Karen Hawthorne sneezed miserably into her handkerchief, careful not to contaminate the documents on the desk before her. She rubbed her nose and folded the square of cloth neatly to one side of her workspace, touching the her blonde bun to make certain it hadn't come loose.

Where the hell does it all come from? Are the air scrubbers even working?

Her attention returned to the stack of records before her. It was in here somewhere. It had to be. She could remember seeing that name so clearly. But where had she seen it? She scanned another report before placing it in the ‘out’ pile and picking up a fresh file.

“If you could find it, that would be a great help,” he says. Bullshit. He just didn’t want to deal with the Archives. Who takes care of this place, anyway? Have they even set foot in here in the past few years? So help me, if I find out the scrubbers have been broken for that long, I will personally take out the filters and shove them so far up the Maintenance Director’s ass that he coughs up dust for a month!

With an aggravated sigh, another dead end file found its way to the out pile. Delicately, she removed her wireframe glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to squeeze the frustration out of her sinuses.

It’ll all be over soon, she tried reassuring herself. Only a few more files, and then it’ll all be over.

She reseated her glasses and glanced through the next file. Then, like a bolt of lightning, something caught her eye. A single quoted phrase:

“They’re watching.”

She picked up the file, a thrill of excitement sending a shiver down her spine. Was this it? She delved into the report, slowly growing tenser as she continued to read.

Incident Report: #053-C07y-01015
Reporting: Cpl. T’kelk Stoth, Shard #0616-935-07274
Date: C513056, M03, D23, H1824
Patrol Route: Fesh-Till, R-001-25, PID-R4Oc5-
Attachment(s): Visor Recording 935-07274.056-03-23: 0832-0845, Census Record of Pocol 7

Statement: This One began Its assigned patrol as per the usual. At 0830 hours, This One was passing through the capital’s Market District when a commotion drew Its attention. As This One drew close to the scene, the situation revealed that Fesh-Till’s standard military strength would not be enough to contain the threat.

In the center of the Market Square, a human male - not Fesh-Till native - was rampaging, heavily tainted by Void magics. Casualties were mounting by the second. As such, This One activated Its perception filter and dephased to engage the assailant. The assailant was successfully detained with no further casualties, and with minimal additional damage to the scene. This One disengaged from the Fesh-Till natives with no further incident, and brought the tainted human back to base to process the transfer to the Secure Holding and Intensive Care Unit in the Tartarus Prison branch, pending trial. Casualties were later determined to be 27 civilians and 4 guards, Fesh-Till native. No special corpse disposal was deemed necessary.

Genetic and vitaic testing revealed the following information: the tainted human male -- name of Marwell Tint -- is native of Plane Pocol 07, “Wildfire” Galaxy, Adrius System, Planet Killiab, and a citizen of the Gunnav Dynasty. Pocol 07 has been classified Protected Access by the Council, but Mr. Tint’s method and location of planar departure is unlogged, so it is suspected to be involuntary and malicious, since Mr. Tint had also been reported missing over 2 cycles ago.

It is to be noted that the Mr. Tint was cooperative during transfer, though whether that was because of his restraints, This One cannot speculate. During the process, Mr. Tint babbled incoherently, but for one key phrase.

“They’re watching.”

When pressed for more information, the only comprehensible answer This One received was this: “He waits in the Weave, watching, salivating. The Stillness descends.”

After this, Mr. Tint devolved into moaning and guttural noises.

This one recommends standard observance protocols until such time as it can be ascertained whether or not his comments require further investigation.

Lt. Hawthorne’s hackles rose. This was it! The report she had been looking for! She nearly jumped up from her chair and stormed out of the Archives with an excited sneeze.

The whitewashed stone walls passed by in a flurry, as she sped toward the Captain’s office. Lower ranking soldiers stepped out of her path with a salute, and her peers and betters stepped aside with a snide comment or raised eyebrow. She ignored all of it. If the Captain was correct about this, the entirety of the Planejumpers would be mobilized before long. No one would have the time to be egotistical.

In minutes, she stood before a door with the nameplate “CPT. Conrad Balken”. She rapped smartly on the wooden panels.

“Come in,” a gruff, muffled voice could barely be heard from within. Lt. Hawthorne shut her eyes, frown deepening. The cadence of that voice could only mean one thing. She turned the handle and walked inside.

Cpt. Balken sat in his perilously complaining swivel chair, ursine feet propped up on the desk, scraps of rendered shoe littering its surface. His cap barely covered his face, and the shaggy brown fur covering his massive body swayed gently with his breathing. The uniform the massive beast wore barely fit, though it didn’t seem to disturb him one bit. Every few seconds, a light snore emanated from beneath the cap. Lt. Hawthorne sighed explosively.

“Sir, your lycan is showing.”

The werebear jerked awake, looking around himself in bewilderment. He lifted his cap with a dinner-plate sized paw, and his eyes fell on the remains of his shoes.

“Ah hell.”

Cpt. Balken began to shrink, his fur and bulk receding until only a large, hairy, muscular man with olive-tan skin remained. His dark eyes glared at his feet from beneath wavy brown bangs.

“That’s the second damn time this month. Hawthorne, do I have any shoes left in my uniform allowance?”

“No, sir. After last month, command decided to limit your monthly allowance to two sets of uniform. I would suggest taking your shoes off from now on, if you find yourself drifting off. Or, alternatively, stop falling asleep at your desk. It would make my life much easier.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he agreed dismissively, obviously ignoring her. The leather scraps were swept into a bin with a single sweep of his large hands. “So, you find something?”

Lt. Hawthorne permitted herself another small sigh before dropping the file on his desk, sending up a small dust cloud. Cpt. Balken opened it curiously, as she relayed her findings.

“Yes, sir. I believe this incident report has strong ties to the Stillness and their deity. The perpetrator, Marwell Tint, is probably our best lead. If we can extract any information from him, it may well shed some light on the recent disappearances.”

Cpt. Balken grimaced as he glanced through the report. Eventually, he came to a decision.

“Alright, I’ll set up a visitation request with Tartarus branch. You pull together whatever else the geeks can find on void magic and Pocol 7, and get some equipment together. I’d prefer to spend as little time there as possible.”

The day dawned as clear and as bright as mountain spring water. The first rays of sunlight crept over Sam’s eyes and he turned away, unwilling to leave the comfort of sleep. But the light had already hit his retinas, sending impulses to his brain.

Half-asleep, Sam slowly dragged himself into a seated slouch, stubbornly keeping his eyes closed against the day. It took him a minute to recognize the sound of his heart monitor. Mentally, he took stock of his situation and his memories of everything that had happened in the past few days.

Ugh, okay… Woke up in a spa. Found out I’m on some weird magical alien pony planet. Got yelled at for being a dick while under the effects of hallucinogenic fruit. Explained Earth, sort of. Got chased by demi-gods. Nearly killed an entire town. Now I’m in the hospital.

Sam sat in silence, mind blessedly empty.

…Yeah, too much. I’m going back to bed.

“Sam! You’re awake! Excellent.” Twilight’s exclamation rung in his ears, insistent but not quite painful. “Everypony’s already at the Library. Now that you’re awake, we can get going.”

“Twilight, what time is it?” Sam groused.

“Oh. Um, well it’s about 6:30. Why?”

Sam was about to tell her to come back in a few hours, but a thought struck him, commanding his attention.

“Twilight, how do ponies keep time?”

“… With clocks. What else would we use, sundials?”

“No, I mean… well, yes but… you have sundials, too?”

“Well… yeah.”

Sam’s mind was starting to pick up speed. He had expected there to be at least some deviation between the ponies’ technologies and humanity’s, but everything he’d heard so far led him to believe that they’d progressed along the same lines as Earth.

“Interesting… But, no, what I meant was: how do ponies measure time? What’re your units and their conversion rate?”

“Oh! Well, on the smaller scale there are twenty-four hours in a day, sixty minutes in an hour, and sixty seconds in a minute. On the larger scale, there are seven days in a week, fifty-two weeks in a year, or three hundred sixty-five days, divided into twelve moons. Then there’s ten years in a decade, a hundred years in a century, and a thousand years in a millennium.”

“Okay, that’s just spooky,” Sam whispered.

“What is?”

“You have the exact same distribution of units that my people do. I wonder if the length of a second is even the same.”

“Unfortunately, unless you have a clock from your home planet, there’s no way to know for certain.”

“Hmm… if I could get an electrical charge of the right voltage, I would know,” Sam muttered to himself.

“What was that?”

“Uh, nothing. For now, at least. Something to look into later. Right now, I’m awake enough to realize that I desperately need a shower.”

Twilight gave him a curious glance, then mentally filed the comment away for later and turned to the door.

“Alright, later. I’ll go get the nurse so we can get you back to the library. You can use my shower.”

“And maybe food, too?” He called after her as she left. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

Sam sat and stared at the open doorway for a few minutes, still trying to let the situation sink in. Everything about this place was alien, yet so familiar. It almost seemed like he could be on an alternate version of Earth.

Which is yet another possibility I can add to the list of Things That Might Have Happened To Me… Although I suppose I could just ask Bob.

He returned his attention to the door.

I wonder if I have enough time to try contacting him.

Sam chewed on his bottom lip for a moment, then made a decision. He closed his eyes and concentrated on visualizing Bob. He waited until he felt like he couldn’t be concentrating on Bob any harder, and then thought at him.


The response was almost immediate.

*Sam, are you completely certain you’re alone?*

Well, no, but-

*But nothing! I would really rather not be found out a second time because of your poor judgement; judgement that led me to getting booted over your mental horizon. Thank you for that, by the way, getting kicked in the rear is my absolute favorite pastime. Now, would you please return your attention to the physical world? I can only translate if you dig the wax out of your ears!*

Bob severed the connection so suddenly that Sam jumped, surprised not to have heard the clack of a phone being slammed down on its receiver.

Well fine, I’ll ask later, then.

Before he had a chance to dwell, however, Twilight returned, Nurse Sweetheart in tow. Sam swallowed dryly.

Guess I dodged a bullet there.

“Well, Sam,” Sweetheart called, “how are you feeling?”

“Ah, uh, just fine, thanks. Is it time to go?”

“Very nearly. We just need to do one more checkup, and you’ll be free as a bird.”

Sam glanced at his tattered jeans-turned-shorts lying on the nearby table, and a thought struck him.

“Oh, I do have one question before we get into it.”

“What would that be, dearie?”

“Well, would it be a terrible bother to let me keep this bedsheet? I… don’t have many clothes right now.”


A little more than a half an hour later, and Sam and Twilight were walking out of the hospital. Sam inhaled deeply and stretched in his clean bedsheet toga, glad to be out of the hospital’s sterile atmosphere. He looked around at the gardened approach to the hospital, reveling in the gorgeous weather. It was so beautifully bizarre. Everything was so bright, and yet it didn’t hurt his eyes.

“I still think you’re being silly,” Twilight huffed. “You only had to wait until we got to the Library. I’m sure Rarity would have been able to make something comfortable for you to wear in no time at all.”

“Yes, well, I’ll be more comfortable in the meantime, now that I have something to cover my naked shame.”

“And what the hay is that supposed to mean?” Twilight asked exasperatedly.

“Um… Well…”

Sam tried to think of a tactful way to explain it.

“In my culture, one is expected to wear clothes in public and in view of the public. A grand majority wear clothes in private as well.”

“But why is that?”

“It’s just kind of always been that way, since the beginning of recorded history. It probably started as a way to keep warm and then evolved into an aspect of our social climate, for various reasons.”

“Such as?” Twilight prompted, innocent curiosity brimming in her eyes.

“W- well… Probably to begin with, the style of a person's clothing was indicative of their social status. The higher your status, the fancier and more intricate the clothes that you wore. Then, I think it became more of a… a moral thing, to remain clothed. It was seen as inappropriate to walk around… exposing oneself. Without clothes, we are bare to the world, and some things are better kept… private.”

Twilight’s cheeks pinkened, remembering what Fluttershy had learned about Sam’s physique while he was still impaired by the Poison Joke.

“Oh… I see.”

They continued in awkward silence for some time, but then it became uncomfortable. Something seemed to be bothering Twilight; something about him, if the supposedly surreptitious glances she threw his way were any indication.

“Is there something else you wanted to ask me, Twilight?”

Twilight jumped at the mention of her name.

“Oh! Well, yes. I was just wondering… Do you remember much from after we stopped the parasite?”

“A little, yes.”

“Do you remember what I said?”

“… No, I don’t. It was like you were speaking another language.”

“You were, too. We couldn’t understand you after we hit you with the Elements of Harmony. Were you speaking in, uh, [Ing-lish], was it?”

Her sudden accent was one of the strangest things Sam had ever encountered. She seemed to be perfectly fluent, until it came the proper name of his language. But it made a strange kind of sense. If Bob was translating the ponies’ Equestrian into English, he must also have been translating Sam’s speech into Equestrian. The ponies could understand him, after all.

It perturbed him slightly that Bob could control what came out of his mouth, but he seemed not to have breached that trust, even if Sam hadn’t known about it.

“Yeah, I guess I was. You think it might’ve been the parasite who was translating for me?”

“I do, but that raises the question: how are we talking right now, if the parasite is gone?”

A cold chill ran down Sam’s spine. Had she already figured it out? N- No need to jump to conclusions. Maybe she’s just trying to figure it out.

“I… I’m not sure,” Sam lied. “Uh, do you think it could be the work of those Element things?”

Twilight frowned at the dirt, rubbing her chin with a hoof. A small part of his mind took a moment to appreciate her ability to walk on three legs.

“I suppose it could be. You do still possess a lingering energy signature from the Elements’ magic.”

“That’s probably it, then,” Sam said dismissively. He turned his head, avoiding all possible eye contact. He had always been a terrible liar, and didn’t want to risk giving away that he was currently harboring a fugitive. Instead, he focused on anything else that caught his eye.

Eventually, his gaze landed on a mare sitting with what looked to be her young son, reading to him. Sam could almost hear her voice, gentle and kind, encouraging the young colt to try reading the next sentence. And she was be so happy and praising when he did. He had to wonder, would he eventually stay up late, just reading all on his own? And then he might decide he wanted to try writing his own stories. Of course, his mother would be ecstatic, and incredibly supportive. She would want to read every little thing he wrote…

“Sam, are you alright?”

Sam jerked out of his trance. He had been reminiscing about his own mother, without even realizing it. And to think, just this morning I wanted to sleep in.

Then again, maybe she’s better off without you.

The speculation blindsided him like a runaway freight train. He’d almost forgotten about that part of his psyche. Ignoring it as best he could, Sam swallowed at the painful lump in his throat.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just… a little homesick.”

Sam could feel her pitying gaze. He sucked in a breath through his nose. No need to worry her unnecessarily, right? He slapped his cheeks, focusing on the sting instead of his own mulling depression.

“Right! Anyway, let’s get a move on!”

He marched off, eager to leave his troubles behind. The clip-clop of her hooves eventually caught up to him.

“Sam, if you want to talk about it, we’re all here for you.”

“What’s there to talk about? I’m god only knows how many miles from home, and by now my parents probably think I’m dead. The only thing I can do is get back as quickly as possible. That’s all that really matters.”

Twilight didn’t respond, instead giving him only worried glances. The oppressively awkward atmosphere spurred Sam to change the subject.

“But, since there’s only so much I can do towards that end, I might as well occupy myself with other things. Like… say… magic, for example.”

In the back of his mind, Sam had tried to come up with a more subtle suggestion, but he was too preoccupied with the return of the voice of his depression to give it much thought. Twilight rolled her eyes, though relief was plastered all over the rest of her expression.

“Well, I suppose I can at least teach you the basics.”

“So, what is magic, exactly? How does it work?”

“Well,” Twilight swelled up, going into lecture mode, “I suppose the first things you need to learn about are Aristrotle’s Three Pillars of Magic: Mind, Body, and Soul…”

Sam tried to pay attention, really. But when Twilight had said she would teach him the basics, he hadn’t expected her to launch into a extremely condensed college lecture on Magic 101. With so many new terms and concepts being thrown at him, Sam wouldn’t have been able to keep up even if he’d had a voice recorder and an entire afternoon. After only five minutes, he stopped trying to comprehend it all, and simply resorted to the age-old tactic of politely nodding in places that seemed appropriate. Thankfully, they reached the library in no time.

“Well then,” Twilight suddenly exclaimed, “I believe that concludes part one of my lecture on ‘the Fundamentals of Magic.’ So, do you have any questions?”

“Ah, um… a couple, yeah. You said that ponies are born with magical powers, right?”

“That was one of the first points in the section on Magical Development, yes.”

“Are there any, uh… books for young ponies, to teach them about their magic and… stuff?”

“Um… yes? Why do you ask?”

Sam smiled guiltily. “So… D- does the library have any? I mean, your lecture was very… detailed. A- and quite intelligent, I’m sure. I just… I think something like a children’s book might be more on par with my learning level.”

Twilight’s expression fell with a disheartened sigh.

“Yes, I’m sure I have at least a few.”

“I’m sorry, Twilight,” Sam tried consoling. “I do appreciate your attempting to speak with me as though I were an equal to you. I’m just… not.”

“It’s fine. I should have realized that an undergraduate lecture might not be the best material for somepony – er, someone – who’s never had exposure to magic before. I do have a bit of a tendency to get carried away when it comes to sharing my love of learning.”

“Well, you can always save that lecture for later,” Sam offered, spreading his arms placatingly. “I may not be up to snuff right now, but I like to think I’m a quick study. Once I’ve had a little… practical experience, I’m sure a lot of what you were talking about would start to make sense.”

Twilight giggled good-naturedly.

“Alright, I’ll hold you to that. So… are you ready to go in?”

Sam’s smile fell, and he looked up at the windows of the tree-brary. Nearly all of them were cracked or shattered; a disheartening reminder of the events of the night before last. Guilt clawed at his throat.

Am I ready? No. Not at all.

“Yeah,” Sam lied, “let’s just get this over with.”

He leaned down and opened the front door, which he only just realized came up to the base of his neck, and motioned for Twilight to go before him. Twilight’s eyebrows knitted together and she fixed her worried eyes on him, likely trying to read beneath his resigned expression. Sam gestured more insistently and she caved, heading into the library with an exasperated sigh. Sam took a moment to watch the sunny morning, before ducking down into the entrance.

The inside of the Golden Oaks Library was thankfully well lit, due both to its plentiful windows and a few strategically placed lanterns. Twilight had apparently cleaned up, because there were no traces of broken glass except for what remained in the windows. The girls and Spike had all assembled and were smiling at him nervously. He gave an awkward wave and, seeing Twilight head upstairs, took a pointed interest in examining one of the lanterns, trying to put the gnawing guilt out of his mind.

Sam could only assume that the lanterns were magical in nature. They were cordless and lacked the flicker of candlelight. When he put his hand up to the cloudy glass, he felt no heat, and neither could he find a hatch for batteries.

Mmm… definitely magic. Or maybe some kind of single-use LED lantern, but… eh, probably not.


Rarity’s timid call snagged his attention, even though he desperately wanted to pretend he were anywhere else right now. He turned his head, giving her a sidelong gaze. She cleared her throat politely.

“Twilight will be back down with the Princesses any minute now. Would you… perhaps… like to come sit with us?”

Rarity gestured to a row of seven straight-backed wooden chairs, set up in a semicircle facing the stairs. Apparently, their gathering had become a tribunal at some point.

I guess there’s no getting around it, huh?

Yes. Time to go put your self-importance in the limelight.

Sam exhaled forcefully, set the lamp down, and plodded over to the seating arrangement. He examined it for a moment, eyeing the center chair in particular. It had obviously been meant for him by the way it had been set slightly apart from the other chairs, giving it an air of importance. Sam groaned. He didn’t feel particularly important at the moment. If anything, he was beginning to feel to like a plastic bag on a freeway, buffeted by the wake of passing cars.

He entertained the idea of sitting in one of the chairs next to the center, but discarded it immediately. He wasn’t going to derail the meeting just because he felt uncomfortable. Instead, he picked up the center chair and turned it around, flopping down on it so that he faced the stairs while straddling the chair back. If he rested his chin on his arms, and his arms on the backrest, he could almost pretend he was part of the audience and not the jury.

The girls exchanged looks in Sam’s periphery, which he pointedly ignored. When they took their seats around him, he kept his gaze locked forward. A minute passed, then two. Rainbow Dash fidgeted in her seat. Rarity looked like she wanted to say something – anything – to break the oppressive silence, but couldn’t work up the nerve. Pinkie and Fluttershy kept glancing at him, though whether they were concerned for or about him, he couldn’t tell. Applejack maintained a stoic air, despite her tense posture.

But before he could ruminate any further, the Princesses appeared at the top of the stairs. They had once more donned their regalia, looking every bit the part of royalty. Twilight led them down, like court security escorting two defendants to the stand. Luna diligently stared at fixed point in front of her. Celestia watched her forehooves like she thought they might disappear at any moment. Neither had the nerve to look him in the eye, it seemed.

The Princesses stopped before the arranged seating. Twilight gave them a single, short glance before heading for the seat to Sam’s right, the only open one. As she took her seat, her posture straightened until she looked as much like she had sat in something unpleasant as she did a public official. She signalled something to Spike, sitting off on the side, and he readied a quill and roll of parchment. Twilight cleared her throat.

“The hearing of Princesses Celestia and Luna, in the case of illegal dark magic usage against the human Sam, will now come to order.”

Sam felt the prickly heat of mortification crawling up his spine and groaned.

“Oh, for the love of… Twilight, is this really necessary?”

“Of course it is,” Twilight admonished. “The Princesses insisted that we make this a legally binding hearing, and the only two ways to do that are to be tried by a Princess, or by the Equestrian High Court. Would you rather take this into the public court system?”

“No, but I also didn’t think we had to… I dunno, make this big a deal of it?”

“Sam,” Celestia murmured, “we appreciate your concern, truly. But you must understand, this is something Luna and I need to do. What happened was deplorable, and we must take steps to ensure it never happens again.”

“Well, okay, but… why Luna? I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but you were the one who cast the spell.”

“That may be,” Luna cut in, “but I did nothing to stop her, nor had I any intention to. I am guilty both by association and intention.”

Sam grumbled into his hands. Apparently, the Princesses were dead set on playing the penitent, making it very difficult to blame them. A cold breeze blew through one of the shattered windows and traipsed mockingly along the back of his neck. Finally, he threw up his arms in defeat.

“Fine! How’s this: I’ll forgive you if you help me find my way home,” he exclaimed, before muttering under his breath. “The sooner I can put this whole thing behind me the better.”

Celestia gave him a pained smile.

“Of course. That is something we would’ve offered even if this hadn’t happened.”

“Well then, good. Problem solved.”

“Not quite,” Luna added, as Sam made to stand up. “We also wish to offer you ambassadorial status during your stay here, as well as a weekly stipend to cover your living expenses. Additionally, we will keep a line of communication open to you, should you have questions or concerns for us, and will make resolving any problems that might confront you our top priority. Is this acceptable?”

“Yes. Okay. Fine. Issue closed.”

Sam got up from his chair and stalked over to the far side of the library. He picked a book off of the shelf and flipped it open. Of course, he couldn’t read it worth a damn, since he didn’t know their language. But he thought it might distract him from the room’s other occupants.

It didn’t.

The library was chokingly silent, even though he had disengaged from the conversation. Sam could feel their eyes boring through his back, and it made him acutely aware of the aching tension in his shoulders and neck. He aggressively turned the page.

Don’t pretend you aren’t loving the attention, you sorry sack of shit.

Sam gritted his teeth.

Shut… the hell… UP!

The solid clunk of metal-shod hooves on wood startled him, signalling Celestia’s approach. Sam bit his lip, trying not to tense up. He couldn’t show fear. Not now. If he could just keep his back to her, maybe she would go away. He glared at his hand, which had subconsciously moved to wipe the sweat from his brow. Instead, he changed the motion into another turn of the page.

“Sam?” Celestia addressed him gently.

His couldn’t stop himself from tensing up, from steeling himself for the blow he felt certain was descending upon him. But when none came, he knew Celestia was waiting for him to face her. Slowly, he relaxed his stance and turned his head, until he could just see her out of the corner of his eye. She gave him a sad but hopeful smile.

“I’m glad you’re willing to forgive and forget, after all that’s happened.”

Sam gulped.

“Yeah… Right. Sure.”

Little sounds of surprise echoed around the room until they found a perch on his scalp and the nape of his neck. The shame dug into his flesh with needle-like, burning claws, pecking at his ears and cheeks. He hunched his shoulders, preparing for the inevitable onslaught of reprimands and outrage, but he was met with little more than mild disapproval.

“Sam,” Rarity chided, “that wasn’t exactly polite and proper, now was it?”

“Yeah?” Sam growled. “Well, it wouldn’t be polite or proper for me to lie, would it? I can forgive, yes. But it’s gonna take a lot more than a simple apology and what could be mistaken for a bribe for me to forget!”

Sam slammed his book shut in punctuation and stormed past the gathering. He took the stairs two at a time, eager to get away from their judgemental eyes. Of course, he had no idea what might be upstairs, but anywhere was better than staying in the same room as his former captors.

If they had called after him, he’d done a thorough job of tuning them out. He entered the first door he encountered without so much as a glance backwards. Luckily for his pride, it turned out to be a side library, and not a broom closet.

Or perhaps more than just a side room, he noticed as he walked out of the small stairwell into the room proper. The room had plenty of stocked bookshelves, yes, but it also had several other notable features. Namely the bed up on the third floor landing. Combined with the nearby vanity and a few other choice pieces of furniture, and Sam quickly came to the conclusion:

This is Twilight’s room, isn’t it?

Sam huffed dismissively and trudged over to the landing stairs, sitting heavily on the bottom step before cracking open the book once more.

Well, whatever. There are worse places I could’ve picked.

Yes, I’m sure she won’t mind you intruding on her privacy. After all, you’re so very important.

Sam ground his teeth, determined not to give the incarnation of his self-hatred the satisfaction of a retort. Instead, he drowned out the voice with unknown symbols and letters, trying futilely to make sense of the foreign language. It seemed like he had only been sitting for a few moments before the bedroom door creaked open.

“Sam?” Twilight called out, her tone quiet and concerned.

“Yeah, I’m here.”

Twilight trotted up the few stairs into the bedroom proper. Glancing up from the book he could tell by her subtle frown that she was frustrated, but trying to subdue it with concern for his well-being. He gritted his teeth, angry more at himself than anyone else. Of course she came. It’s not like the only extraterrestrial being she’s ever encountered just verbally slapped the rulers of her entire country across the mouth. Why would she possibly be concerned? …Goddammit, why does everything I do have to become such a complicated mess?

Because you’re alive.

“Sam, everyone’s really concerned about you.”

“I’m fine.”

She was silent for a moment, apparently considering her next approach.

“Princess Celestia is really distraught over-”

Sam barked out a sharp, humorless laugh, cutting her off mid-plea, and slammed the book shut.

“As well she should be! I don’t know know about you, but mind control is pretty damn high on my list of big no-nos.”

“And she’s trying very hard to make amends!” Twilight asserted, the frustration growing in her voice. “But you insist on being angry and not even giving her chance!”

Twilight’s eyes widened, having realized that she had started shouting as well, and she reeled herself in.

“Sam, I have known Celestia all my life, and I’ve never known her to act out of spite. I think you can sense it too. Last night, it seemed like you might be willing to give her and Luna a chance. What changed?”

Sam groaned and buried his face in the stiff cover of the book. What am I doing? In truth, he knew exactly what was going on, but he hesitated to share so much of his personal life. Well, it’s not like her opinion of me can get much lower.

I don’t know. You’ve a pretty good job of deceiving them so far, you manipulative sociopath.

He threw his arms up, giving up on all pretense of privacy.

“I don’t know! Maybe I’m mad because I can be! Maybe I’m mad because I’m afraid! Maybe I’m mad because if I wasn’t, I’d have to face how I’m really feeling!”

Sam slouched over, head hung in defeat. He dropped the book at his feet, freeing up his hands to pull on the nape of his neck, massaging his sore muscles. He sat in silence and Twilight just waited for him to continue. Sam let his anger fade, unable to deny to hollow feeling in his chest.

“Twilight… how prevalent are mental illnesses in Equestrian society?”

“Well, they’re not exactly common, but-”

“And how about depression and anxiety? Are they viewed as mental illnesses?”

Twilight put a hoof over her mouth, to stifle a quiet gasp.

“Sam, are you…?”

Sam let the question hang. He wasn’t really sure how to approach this topic. Would it change the way she looked at him? Of course it will. The only question is how? But what the hell? If I’m gonna have myself a fucking pity party, might as well lay it all out.

Of course. Drag her down into your pit of despair and self-loathing. After all, misery loves company.

He did his best to ignore the insult, focusing instead on gathering his thoughts.

“In my world, something like ten percent of the entire population of the world is affected by depression. Probably fully half of that is chronic. It’s a chemical imbalance in our brains. I’m one of the ones that get hit pretty hard…”

He paused.

“Twilight, have you ever felt true apathy? The feeling that nothing you did would ever matter? That, if you were to vanish off of the face of the Earth, nothing would change, or even maybe… just maybe… things might get better for everyone else? Would you believe those feelings?”

Twilight said nothing, tearing up as she listened to him explain himself.

“That’s what I get to deal with. It’s gotten a bit better since puberty, but back then, it was a struggle to get out of bed every morning. Since then, I’ve begun taking medication to correct the imbalances, and I learned to remind myself that my family would be heartbroken if anything ever happened to me. Truthfully, I was lucky to be born to parents that actually wanted their children and knew how to express that, for the most part. Otherwise, I might not be sitting here today. Even so, I am, to this day, really and truly convinced that everyone would be better off without me, even if they don’t realize it.

“That’s what I started to feel again after Celestia hit me with her spell. Hell, I’m not even sure her spell did much of anything. Ever since I woke up in that spa, I’ve been riding on the adrenaline wave that came from finding out I was on an alien planet. The spell may have just overwritten that adrenaline, and that whatever I felt was just lurking in the background, waiting for the excitement to wear off.

“So, I guess I was really just using this as an excuse to be angry. Because if I wasn’t angry, those negative emotions would be directed inward.” Sam grumbled sourly, before adding under his breath, “Great, I’m turning into my dad.”

Sam growled at himself, embarrassment finally catching up to him. He angrily ran his fingers across his scalp for a moment, as though he were trying to scrape away the negativity.

“Sorry, I don’t know why I told you all that. It’s not something you need to worry about. Just forget I ever sa-”

A pair of equine forelegs wrapping around him succinctly cut him off. Twilight hugged him tightly, nuzzling his cheek with tear-stained fur. Sam swallowed thickly, looking anywhere but at the unicorn hugging him. He couldn’t even effectively return the hug with his arms pinned to his sides. Sam coughed uncomfortably, patting her back.

“Twilight, it’s fine. I can deal. You don’t need to-”

“Yes I do! You’re a friend, and friends help each other. You shouldn’t have to face that on your own.” She sniffled, rubbing her eyes with a fetlock, but keeping him in the hug. “Besides, I do know a little bit about how you feel, since I have anxieties too. Although, you definitely seem to have gotten the short end of the stick.”

They shared a small chuckle at their own expense. Sam managed to get his arms around her waist and give her some semblance of a return hug, resting his chin on her shoulder just as she had done to him.

“Thank you, Twilight. All things considered, I honestly could not have hoped for a better first encounter with an alien species.”

Twilight nuzzled him again, sending a thrill of warmth through his core. She pulled away, giving him a supportive grin.

“Are you ready to go back out?”

Sam took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose.

“Yeah… I guess.”

I’m going to have to apologize, aren't I? Sam grimaced, but got to his feet, regardless of his trepidation. It was still true that he’d rather be allies than enemies with the Princesses. He’d just have to watch his step around them.

At least they do seem genuine in their regret. But, if they’ve really been alive for as long as they claim, who can say for sure? Beings that old have to be masters of deception, right? I guess I’ll just have to take their sincerity on faith.

Surprisingly, his low self-esteem didn’t seem to feel the need to comment. I wonder if pony hugs have anti-depressive qualities, he mused.

Sam allowed Twilight to lead him out of the room. Even so, she looked back a couple of times, to make sure he was still followed.

As Twilight escorted him back downstairs, Sam couldn’t muster the nerve to look anywhere but at his feet, and he smirked bitterly. The irony of the role reversal was not lost on him. He tried to think of what he should say, what might convince them to overlook his outburst, but he came up short, almost literally.

Twilight’s sudden stop brought him to a stumbling halt, narrowly avoiding bowling her over. When he recovered, he found himself face-to-face with Celestia, and his heart skipped a beat.

She wore an inscrutable expression; a mask that carefully concealed her heart. For all he knew, she could be absolutely livid. And why wouldn’t she be? I did basically accuse her of trying to bribe me, after all. Sam’s eyes fell back to the floor, and he found that all his words had dried up in the back of his throat. He swallowed nervously.

“Sam?” Twilight prompted. “Do you have something you want to say?”

Sam inhaled, held in the breath, then released it, letting the words flow out on the exhale.

“I’m sorry.”

“What was that?” Celestia asked, frowning slightly, though whether from confusion or barely contained fury, Sam couldn’t tell.

“I’m… sorry. To both of you.” He looked between Celestia and Luna. “I was childish, and… I lashed out at you because I could. I’m not terribly good at apologies, but I’d rather this not be how we part ways, so… truce?”

Sam offered his hand to the Princesses, hoping against hope that that would be enough.

Luna smiled kindly, but the frown remained on Celestia’s brow. For a moment, she examined his face, long enough for Sam’s hope to falter. But then, just as he was about to lower his hand, Celestia let loose a massive sigh of relief.

“My goodness, Sam. I thought I might develop an ulcer, worrying about how I might make it up to you. Of course I will agree to a truce.”

She placed her forehoof in his hand, and they shook on it. Celestia smiled earnestly, though it was tinged by regret.

“Although, it is my hope that we might call you friend before long.”

Sam gave her a conciliatory smile in return. As much as he agreed with her hope, he couldn’t see it happening very soon. Just the presence of the Princesses was enough to send spikes of adrenaline through his system, and he had to force himself not to recoil at her touch. The seeds of distrust were sown deep. It would take a lot of time and effort on their part to reverse that.

“On that note,” Luna added, “while we are here, is there anything you wish of us?”

Sam would have given her a polite refusal, but his stomach interrupted him with a dejected growl.

“Um… some breakfast might be nice?”

From somewhere behind him, Sam heard Pinkie Pie gasp excitedly.

“Pancake party!”

She zipped by, leaving on a pink blur in her wake. Applejack chuckled.

“Well, I’d best be helpin’ her, just so pancakes aren’t the only item on the menu. You need protein, right?” She asked Sam. “How’s eggs sound?”

Sam nodded gratefully. “That sounds amazing, thank you.”

Applejack trotted off, smiling. “Comin’ right up!”

“Oh thank Celestia, I thought I was gonna starve,” Rainbow Dash groaned. Celestia giggled.

“No need to thank me, my dear. After all, I’m not the one doing the cooking.”

Sam’s attention tore away from the rest of the room as he heard hoofsteps approaching him. As his eyes locked onto hers, Luna halted mid-stride. She opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t find the words. It took her a few tries, but she eventually found her voice.

“Sam… would it… would it be acceptable for my sister and I to attend the breakfast? We still have many things we wish to ask you.”

Sam smiled uneasily. “Well, I can’t very well turn down the rulers of an entire nation, can I? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll go wash up. Twilight, do you have a shower I can use?”

He did feel a bit grimy, since it had been a day and a half since he awoke in the spa, so it was as good an excuse as any to get away from the Princesses. Twilight started and looked up from the sheaf of papers and open book that floated before her. A slightly guilty smile touched her lips.

“Oh! Uh, sure. Spike? Would you show him the way?”

“Sure thing, Twilight.”

The little dragon peeled away from Twilight’s side, trying to look confident, but the tension in his arms and his clenched jaw gave him away. Spike was nervous. He hadn’t forgotten the events that led up to this meeting, and he wasn’t going to let Sam off the hook just because the Princesses were desperate for his approval. Sam had to appreciate that.

“The bathroom is just upstairs,” Spike instructed. “Follow me.”

Sam complied, carefully measuring his stride so that he didn’t overshoot and accidentally step on Spike’s tail. Spike, in turn, jogged up the steps, allowing Sam a less restricted pace. When they reached the upstairs hallway, Spike stopped in front of the first door on the right, across from the door to Twilight’s bedroom.

“Alright, here you go,” Spike gestured at the door, fixing Sam with a pointed look. “Just… try not break anything, okay?”

Sam gave him a sheepish grin. Spike was probably the one who had to deal with the aftermath of the night before last, sweeping up shards of glass and whatever else Sam might have knocked over in his haste.

“Right. You got it.”

Even to his own ears, Sam sounded unconvincing, so he tried putting on the most convincing smile he could muster. He realized he overdid it when Spike’s eyes narrowed, and he pointed two claws from his eyes to Sam’s. Sam watched the baby dragon stalk off with regret. Of course, he couldn’t be mad at Spike; his distrust was well justified. Though he certainly seemed unconcerned about confronting someone ten times his size.

He’s a gutsy little shit, I’ll give him that, Sam thought with a smirk, and ducked into the bathroom.


It took Sam a while to figure out how to use a shower whose plumbing only came up to his neck. Half an hour later, he came out of the bathroom clean and warm, but slightly stiff. He rewrapped his bedsheet toga, put on his scrappy jean-shorts, and decided at last to forego the months-old boxers that, by all rights, should have been incinerated the moment he reentered society.

Item one: eat. Item two: get new clothes. Togas are nice and all, but I would dearly love a new set of clothes or three. And I definitely need more boxers.

Sam headed back downstairs, following the smell of pancakes, and wondered how best to approach the second item. Rarity had offered to make him some new clothes, but she also said she owned a boutique, which meant her services likely didn’t come cheap. Which meant he needed money.

Which means I’m going to have to swallow my pride and ask Princess Celestia for that allowance. Oh well… I never had much pride anyway.

But all thoughts of money and clothing were swept aside as the mouth-watering fog of baking rolled over him. The smell of the buttered griddle and the heat of the stove was enough to flood Sam’s mouth. He watched longingly as Pinkie flipped another set of pancakes onto an already overflowing plate using nothing but the frying pan’s hot-pad-wrapped handle and…

Her… mouth? …Ponies don’t have hands. I don’t know what I was expecting.

She wasn’t drooling all over the pancakes, though, and Sam was hungry enough that he might not have minded even if she did. Meanwhile, Applejack was finishing up a batch of scrambled eggs cooked to perfection. She, too, held the spatula in her mouth, but she wielded it so effortlessly that even Sam began to feel like it was just a normal part of cooking.

Off to one side of the kitchen stood a smallish folding table, now completely open and seated near to capacity. Upon shifting his attention to the table, the ponies seated there waved him over.

“Over here, darling,” Rarity called out, patting a seat between her and Fluttershy.

Sam nearly sprinted to his seat, eager for the reward at the finish line. The table was already set with everything Sam could think of that might go on pancakes, and even some things that he couldn’t. There were syrups, jellies, and jams of all kinds; butters, both dairy and nutty; fruits, chocolates, and a row of objects that looked suspiciously like whipped cream aerosol cans. Much to his surprise, he even found a dish of what smelled like anko – a sweet red bean paste from Japan. He salivated at the possibilities.

“Awrigh’!” Cheered Pinkie around a mouthful of platter. “Bre’fass is serbed!”

She and Applejack maneuvered into the space left for the two of them and set the heap of pancakes down with a satisfying thud. Sam nearly dove for his fair share before he noticed that no one else was making the same move. He looked around, thoroughly embarrassed, before sitting back down.

“I’m, uh… I’ll just-”

“It’s quite alright, Sam,” Celestia reassured with a chuckle, “it’s customary for guests to have first pick, I believe.”

Sam felt the heat prickling at his ears and cheekbones.

“Isn’t… Aren’t royalty supposed to go first?”

“Mmm, perhaps. But what self-respecting princess allows her guests to go hungry?”

Most of the real-life ones, Sam thought bitterly. But while his brain may have been suspicious of the preferential treatment, his stomach finally got fed up and wrested away control of his hands. Within seconds, Sam had a steaming stack of pancakes piled before him. Alarmed, his brain gave up the fight and took back control, before his stomach could start piling everything within reach onto Sam’s plate.

Applejack set a bowl of eggs to the side of Sam’s plate with a knowing wink and sat down at her place between Pinkie and Princess Luna. Sam smiled gratefully, but before he could continue his feast, Twilight cleared her throat to get his attention.

“Sam, you should probably go easy on the food for now. I know the doctor said your phosphate levels weren’t low enough to put you at risk for refeeding syndrome, bit you still don’t want to make yourself sick.”

“Whatever, mom,” Sam snarked, and jokingly blew her a petulant raspberry.

“Ew, Sam! Gross!” Rarity nearly shrieked, floating a napkin between them like a shield to ward off the flecks of spittle.

“Oh, crap, sorry,” Sam backpedaled, trying wave the cloud away with a hand. Rainbow laughed to herself, so at least it was one step forward after his two steps back.

But Sam knew Twilight had a point. It would be a shame to eat something so delicious only to throw it back up later. So, after a moment’s consideration, he decided on a game plan and went straight for the almond butter and raspberry jam.

“Dude, the peanut butter’s over here,” Rainbow said, already lathering her pancakes with it.

“Yeah, and?”

“So why’d you grab almond butter?” She asked in a tone clearly indicative of the bad taste that even just the word ‘almond’ put in her mouth.

“Habit, I guess. We never had peanut butter at my house; my sister’s allergic.”

“Laaame. Nothing beats PB, banana and chocolate syrup on pancakes.”

To her credit, her pancake stack did look amazing; alternating layers of pancake and peanut butter, drizzled thoroughly with chocolate syrup and topped with banana slices. Sam licked his lips. “Well… maybe I’ll try that next, then.”

“So, Sam,” Luna inquired, “what is your family like, if I may ask? Do you have any other siblings?”

“No,” Sam said around a mouthful of pancake sandwich, then politely swallowed. “Just my younger sister. Though she and I were definitely more than a handful for our parents when we were younger.”

“Oh? Do tell,” Luna prodded playfully. Sam hesitated, but Luna’s mischievous grin somewhat quelled his fears. Combined with expectant and intrigued looks of the other ponies, and he started to feel an obligation to his pride as a storyteller.

“Where to start…? Well, when we were very little, we would host what can only be loosely defined as ‘tea parties’ for our stuffed animals…”


As the morning passed, Sam continued to regale his hosts with stories of he and his sister’s misadventures as children. Somehow, he even managed to finish his entire stack of pancakes at the same time. By the end, everyone’s cheeks ached from laughter.

“So, after teaching us how to make spitwads and telling us to go crazy, my dad leaves us in the bathroom, unattended, to go finish his business call! Must’ve thought he was pretty clever.”

“Oh no,” Applejack chortled, “I think I see where this is goin’.”

“Mmmhm. We have fun for the first few minutes, firing spitwads at the bathtub wall, but then we start to get bored. So we decide that, if something is fun, it’ll be more fun in excess. What kind of silly noises would the spitwads make if they were larger?”

Fluttershy gasped. Rarity put a hoof over her chest, trying to cover up her horrified amusement with a shocked facade. “Surely, you didn’t…”

“Surely we did! We graduated to little coin-sized wads, then walnut-sized. But we just kept escalating until pretty soon we were double-overhead-hurling great chunks of wet toilet paper at the walls, laughing like madmen. Eventually, my dad gets off the phone and charges into the bathroom, having heard great big wet slaps for the last while. And he just stands there, slack-jawed. There was wet toilet paper everywhere. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor; nothing was safe from our maniacal little hands.”

“H- how did he take it?” Rainbow Dash choked out, barely able to keep herself composed.

“Oh, he was furious. He chewed us out for a good ten minutes. Then, when there was finally a silence long enough for us to say something, my sister – evil little genius that she was – retorts with, ‘But you told us to just go crazy.’”

The entire room burst out in laughter. Spike, Rainbow, and Pinkie fell out of their chairs to roll on the floor, hardly able to breathe. Applejack, Twilight, and Luna clutched their sides from the ache of too much laughter. Fluttershy, Rarity, and Celestia giggled heartily to themselves. Sam couldn’t help but be swept up by the merry atmosphere.

Eventually, the laughter petered out, leaving everyone breathless and tired. That is, until Applejack noticed the clock.

“Oh, shoot! Is it that time already?” She hopped off of her chair and trotted over to the door. “Sorry, Sam, it’s been a hoot ‘n a holler, but I still got chores to finish up on the farm.”

“Oh, by all means! Don’t let me keep you.”

Applejack grinned. “Don’t forget, I expect to be seein’ you ‘round Sweet Apple Acres sometime soon.”

“Um… I do actually have a few animals I still need to check up on,” Fluttershy realized. “But… maybe, once I’m done, you wouldn’t mind me tagging along to wherever you were going to go today?” Fluttershy asked Sam, gazing hopefully from behind her bangs. Biting back another heart attack, Sam shook his head fervently.

“Of course I wouldn't-!”

“Oh, oh! Me too!” Rainbow interrupted, launching herself into his line of sight. “I can get my weather team work done in a jiffy! Then I can come hang out with you guys.”

“Hmm,” Pinkie pondered intensely, “I’d better go see if the Cakes need my help. If not, you’d better believe I’ll be there! There’s still so much information to gather for your welcome party if I’m gonna make it perfect. And it will be perfect.”

Rarity sighed melodramatically. “Alas, I suppose I, too, must be on my way. The boutique won’t run itself, after all. Do stop by soon, though, Sam. I’m quite eager to try making something dashing for someone of your strapping physique.”

Despite the flattery, Sam looked down at himself and laughed.

“I hope you don’t mind making it a couple sizes too large, because I still have a fair stretch of filling out to do.”

Rarity smiled easily, as if his request was just par for the course.

“Of course, darling. You have been malnourished for a rather long time. Weight gain is to be expected.”

He hadn’t realized she’d been thinking that far ahead.

“Oh. Well, uh… thank you. I think you’ll probably be one of the first stops I make today.”

“Wonderful! Would you care to accompany me to the boutique, then?”

Sam glanced nervously at the Princesses.

“There’s… something I need to take care of first.”

Rarity looked between Sam and the Princesses quizzically.

“Oh? Well, don’t keep me waiting, darling. There is much to do and too little daylight.”

Sam nodded and waved goodbye to the girls already heading out the door. “I won’t be long.”

Rarity took her leave as well, and in less than a minute, the cheerful farewells faded beyond the library’s threshold. Sam took a steadying breath. Celestia had offered, and yet the thought of asking for money still congealed in a sour tension in his neck and shoulders.

To his relief, he found a distraction in the clink of plates nearby. Spike was clearing the table, somehow able to both lift and balance the large platter while stacking tableware on it. Sam felt a twinge of guilt watching the little guy carry such a ridiculously disproportionate load.

“Hey, Spike. You, uh… want some help with that?”

“No thanks, I’m good. I’ve dealt with much larger messes than this.”

“You sure? That seems a bit… heavy.”

“Are you kidding? I’m a dragon. I can carry all of Rarity’s luggage by myself. This? This is nothing.”

It was true that Spike handled the platter much more deftly than should be possible for a creature his size. However, there was something about the scene that pressured Sam to test just how much strength he had lost.

“Alright, well, just holler if you change your mind.”

Spike walked off with a smug grin, balancing the dishes in one claw. But before he could make it more than five steps, he stepped on a rogue strawberry slice and his foot slid out from under him. For several nail-biting moments, it seemed like he would topple over, sending the platter flying, but he regained his footing at the last moment. His free claw jumped to one of the handles, stabilizing the teetering stack of dishes.

“I’ll just… use both claws, for now,” Spike mumbled around his slice of humble pie.

“So Sam,” Celestia began, startling Sam out of his observation, “I believe you had something you wished to ask me?”

Sam froze in place, then groaned in frustration. So much for subtlety.

“Well, yes, I do. I just… the thing is… I want to be able to pay Rarity for her services, but…”

Celestia smiled knowingly. “Say no more.”

Her horn lit up with a brilliant golden aura and, a moment later, a sack almost as big as his head materialized before him. Sam stared at it, trying to determine whether it would bite him or not.

“This should be sufficient for your needs.”

Sam nodded, transfixed by the glowing bag floating in front of his face. Licking his lips, he reached out slowly to touch it. The gently rotating bag brushed his fingertip, and he jerked his hand back as though burned. But it didn’t hurt. All that he had felt apart from the canvas cloth was a tingling warmth, like static from a woolen blanket fresh out of the dryer. Gently, he cupped a hand beneath the bag, and lifted it out of the levitation field. Immediately it sagged with the weight of jingling coins. Sam chuckled nervously.

“Heh, coin-based currency, huh?” He tugged at the opening with a finger, too curious to wait. “I suppose it does have a satisfying wei-”

The gleam of gold caused an involuntary expansion of his lungs, resulting in the inhalation of a mouthful of spit. Sam clutched the mouth of the sack until his knuckles turned white, coughing and hacking all the while. When finally, he was able to regain control of his lungs, the first words he gasped out were:

“Holy Mary, mother of God!”

Celestia took a concerned step forward. “Are you alright?”

“What happened?” Twilight fussed.

Sam ignored her, fishing a coin out of the bag. He examined the thing incredulously. There was no mistaking, the coin was pure gold. It was far too malleable to be an alloy. And the stupid thing is huge! This has to be two or three ounces of gold!

“You really are trying to bribe me, aren’t you?” He choked out.

Celestia’s brow furrowed further. “Sam, I assure you, I am not-”

“Bull!” Sam interrupted, shaking the bag menacingly at her. “You call this a reasonable amount of money?! I haven’t seen this much gold in my whole life! There has to be a king’s ransom in here!”

“Sam, calm down,” Twilight pleaded. “Those are just bits. They’re standard Equestrian currency.”

Sam sputtered. “You’re joking! This is standard?”

“Yes, it is. Honest.”

Sam’s eyes boggled. His stare switched from Twilight to the bag, to Celestia, then back to Twilight. No one faltered even a fraction of an inch. Finally, his eyes fell back on the bag.

“Standard… this… Jesus Christ monkey balls,” he muttered, then cleared his throat. “I, uh… I’m sorry. I guess I… overreacted?”

He still felt like that had been the appropriate response. But, to his confusion, the princesses just relaxed, as though nothing had happened.

“It is alright, you are forgiven,” Luna announced. “Although, that does beg the question, what kind of currency do humans use, if not gold? Silver?”

“W- we may have, at one point. Gold was a part of our money, too, long ago. But it was only used by the very wealthy. Nowadays, we use paper money printed with different values, to represent wealth. They used to be exchangeable for gold, but that practice died out… I don’t know, at least sixty years ago.”

“Really? How odd. How does your government guarantee wealth across countries, then?”

“I’m not sure. I’m no economist, but currency values probably have to do with a given country’s overall economic strength.”

“Seems unnecessarily complicated to me.”

“Well, with a global population approaching eight billion, there’s just not enough gold to go around.”

“Eight bil-?!” Twilight yelped, unable to finish. “Th- there are that many humans?”

Even Celestia and Luna looked taken aback. Sam laughed nervously.

“Ah… forgot to mention that, did I?”

Celestia huffed in amusement. “Incredible. Come, let’s make our way to the Carousel Boutique. I would like to hear more about your world.”

“Ah! Wait a minute,” Twilight exclaimed, remembering something. “I need to speak with you and Princess Luna. Sam, would you please wait for us outside? We’ll join you shortly.”

Sam eyed them warily, but decided to let it slide. He couldn’t expect to be privy to every conversation the Princesses had.

“Sure. I’ll be just outside the door.”

With a deep breath, Sam stepped out of the library. It was another beautiful day outside. The sun shone brightly, the air was crisp and clean, and animal songs could be heard all around. Sam clutched the jingling bag closer to his chest. Even in such a peaceful place, it felt dangerous to be carrying such a stupidly extravagant amount of gold, standard currency or no.

Still, the morning went a lot better than I expected. Maybe this will be a nice day.

Brother Aaron was having a terrible day.

Not that it was easy to tell the time of day in space. He didn’t even have a watch to keep track. It could have been days, weeks, even years since he had last looked at a clock. Though he was pretty sure it hadn’t been more than a few months.

He shoved the last bite of a magically reheated Big Mac into his mouth, trying to savor the taste. It was probably the last he would ever have, now that he could no longer return to Earth. He licked the wrapper clean and crumpled it up, tossing it like a baseball. It floated away, tumbling out of the dull glow of Aaron’s magelight into the cold depths of space.

Aaron summoned up a gust of non-existent wind and attached it to his feet. The gust propelled him away, no real destination in mind. How long ago had his conversation with the Brother Superior taken place? Not that it mattered, of course. He was under no time limit. The only reason to complete his mission quickly was to prove his usefulness to the Stillness. But these damn Hounds are gettin’ me nowhere!

He glared at the leash-band around his forearm. Each of the three notches in the thick, dull-grey metal armlet flickered with a faint blue light, like roaming halogen flashlights glimpsed through a cracked doorway. His lip curled in disgust. Dumb fuckin’ mutts couldn’t sniff out shit if their noses were shoved in it… if they even have noses.

Speaking of which, I guess it’s been long enough. Time to see if they’ve grown brains since last I saw them.

Aaron pulled a mirror-polished dagger out of his robe’s sleeve and slashed it across the palm opposite the leash-band. He held the cut to the armlet, letting his blood soak into the notches. Soon after, a dark fog like roiling storm clouds began pouring out of the grooves. Aaron used a quick Flesh-knit spell to close up the cut, and wiped the blood from his palm and the dagger on the hem of his robe.

As he did, strange, jagged shadows began to squeeze out of the notches in the armlet. The nightmarish creatures oozed and twitched as they pulled themselves out of the tiny cracks. Eventually, the not-quite-creatures had fully emerged, taking shape. Hounds of Tindalos, the stillness called them, or sometimes Bandersnatches. But to call them Hounds was inaccurate at best; they were more akin to bats than anything else.

Translucent gray pseudoflesh exposed a spiderweb of black synapses, and smouldering black spines thrust out from their bodies at odd intervals. They had no eyes or ears, and their mouths were more of a simple gash that allowed their long, dark probosci to sample the air, occasionally drooling a foul blue pus. Each Hound constantly exuded thick black smoke, however, effectively shrouding their forms and making it difficult to determine the exact nature of their corporeality; whether or not they were truly creatures of flesh and bone. The only ways one might mistake them for canine were their posture and movement, which mirrored those of starving wolves.

Normally, the sight of such a monstrosity would send a mortal mind into a terrified frenzy. However, the Stillness had something other mortals did not: the favor of the Watcher. This came in the form of a band of angry crimson energy writhing around the Hounds’ necks. Those bands bound them to Aaron’s will, so long as he held the leash-band. Aaron sneered in disgust.

“Supposed to be able to track anyone through the corners of time, and look at you; can’t even find a single fuckin’ guy,” Aaron growled. “Apex predators, my ass.”

But then, he noticed that Fugly still hadn’t shown up.

Ugly, Fugly, and Fuck he had dubbed the Hounds, though none responded to their new names. Still, it was easier to remember which was which with names assigned to the notches they poured out of. Recently, though, Fugly was responding less and less to his summons. It made Aaron restless. If the leash was failing, he’d need to put Fugly down, and soon.

With a growling sigh, he dismissed Ugly and Fuck, sending them back to their home outside of time.

“Fine, if that’s how it’s gonna be, no one better complain when the stupid thing turns up dead.”

Aaron focused on the middle notch. With a quick command, a rift opened up to reveal a tense Hound stalking along the edge of the Void, almost exactly where he and the Brother Superior had been floating weeks earlier.

“What the hell are you doing, you dumb fucking mutt?” Aaron shouted as he crossed the rift, voice carried magically across the emptiness of space.

He resisted the impulse to kick at the creature, remembering at the last moment that it wasn’t really corporeal, in the strictest sense. Instead, he sent a shock of Void energy through the leash. The Hound shrieked, turning on Aaron with a gurgling hiss. It quickly backed down, however, when Aaron threatened it with the leash-band. With an agitated, shuddering huff, the Hound began pacing back and forth on nothing, whipping its eyeless gaze back and forth between Aaron and the Void.

“I swear to fuck, if you’re whining about wanting to go home, I will end you.”

The Hound hissed at him, though Aaron somehow recognized it as distress, rather than anger.

“What? What’s got you so fuckin’...”

He trailed off. Something had caught his eye. Something that shouldn’t be.

Off to the left and down a bit, in a corner of the shapeless Void, something… shimmered. Almost. It was like catching a beam of starlight glinting off of a shard of smoky glass on a moonless night. It was what he had been searching for: the scar of a planar ejection, hidden in the very same Void he had helped to open. Somehow, weeks ago, it had escaped the attentions of both he and the Brother Superior.

Or had it? Was that sneaky cunt testing me? Shit. Of course he was testing me. I only joined up a couple months ago. Well, I see it now, fucker. He turned to Fugly.

“Well, praise where it’s due, I guess. You get dibs on the first dipshit that crosses my path.”

He turned back to the Void and stared a while into the total absence.

Well, whatever. I’m not gonna be sucking up to Mr. Superior Shits for long. I’ll climb the ranks so goddamn fast, it'll make his head spin. And it starts now!

Aaron jerked the leash-band up, activating its semi-physical tether. A dark red band connected to Fugly’s collar and the Hound tensed at the sudden pull. Aaron guided its snout towards the scar, so there could be no doubt what he wanted. Then, he took a deep breath and dropped his arm.

Fugly took off like a gunshot, whipping Aaron forward. The tether snapped taut, nearly pulling Aaron’s arm out of his socket. In a matter of seconds, they crossed the threshold of the Void, and the light of the Universe shrunk down to a pinpoint behind them. Aaron offered a quick prayer to the Watcher, that he might be granted passage through the Void. Almost instantly, he felt a cold, clammy pressure on his mind, and he was reminded how much better his new god was than anything Earth had had to offer.

Fugly charged unerringly towards the scar. The moment in time could have been a second or an eternity, but it still came to an end. Fugly’s claw pierced the stitched-together fabric of reality with a sound akin to a braking train. For another eternal moment, Aaron began to worry that momentum would carry him past the scar, and that he would tumble endlessly into the Void.

But Fugly pulled through, and they plunged through the rift into a sea of fog like television static. They’d made it into the Astral plane. Aaron laughed breathlessly, adrenaline pounding through his veins. He let out an ecstatic whoop as he drifted to a halt.

“Oh yeah! That’s what I’m talking about!”

He almost gave the Hound an appreciative pat. It had certainly earned a graduation from it’s previous title of Fugly. He’d have to think up a new name. Already, the Hound was probing the fog with its meter-long, tongue-like proboscis, hunting out traces of their quarry’s essence.

“You know, you might just be my new favorite. Alright, you crazy bastard, let's go bag ourselves a runaway!”

Chapter 13 - An Unchecked Aggression

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Sam stared at the Carousel Boutique, not entirely sure of what to make of it. It wasn’t that the decor was almost overwhelmingly feminine; that was to be expected of a shop with “boutique” in the title. It was the “carousel” part that threw him off the most.

Like… what are carousels to ponies? Are they something entirely different in Equestria? I mean, it’s not like humans have rides that are shaped like other humans. Not publicly, at least.

“Sam? What’s going on? Why did you stop?” Twilight asked, doubling back for him, wearing her increasingly customary concerned face.

“Oh, nothing,” he mumbled. “Nothing important, anyway. Just a bit of culture shock.”

Twilight followed his gaze, and her brows knitted into a confused frown. She opened her mouth to speak, but then reconsidered and bit her tongue. Sam could tell she was dying to ask what had shocked him, but he decided he would rather not kick that particular hornet’s nest of awkward conversation at the moment.

Instead, he strode up to the front door, pushed it open, and was greeted by the jingle of shop bells. Immediately after, he heard a familiar voice call out a practiced introduction from somewhere in the back of the store, growing in volume as she approached the front.

“Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where everything is chic, unique, and magnifique! How can I hel- Oh, Sam! Wonderful. I had hoped you would arrive soon,” Rarity interrupted herself, as she appeared from behind a floral print partition. She adjusted a pair of bright red, horn-rimmed glasses Sam hadn’t seen before and gave him her most charming smile. “Come, come! I have much to show you.”

Rarity tittered to herself, all but prancing back towards her workroom. Sam glanced hesitantly to the three Princesses standing behind him, and received encouraging smiles and steps forward in response. Sam followed their example and ducked through the doorway into Rarity’s workspace.

The workroom was much like any good artist’s: a chaotic mess of materials and instruments. Bolts and sheets of fabric lay scattered about the room in a seemingly haphazard fashion, alongside boxes of decorative accents that ran the gambit from lace to velvet to sequins. Sketches were pinned to nearly every surface, surrounded by dresses and coats in various states of completion. Thankfully, she had had the presence of mind to put all of her scissors and pincushions up on nearby tables and counters. Everything seemed as it should be; except for the scene before him.

Sam froze when he saw Rarity standing in the center of the room, surrounded by a structureless mobile of floating papers. They shone with the same luminescent blue aura that surrounded her horn. Rarity herself was calmly examining each floating page as it passed, as if the scene around her was the most normal thing in the world. Sam could do little more than stand and stare, entranced by the sight.

“I had started a few designs while you were still, ah… indisposed. However, now that you have regained your senses, I would love to get your input. I don’t know much about human fashion, other than what I could glean from your previous attire, but I think you will be pleased with the results!” She turned to face him with a grin, but the smile dropped to a worried frown as soon as she caught his gaze. “Sam? Are you- Oh!”

The aura around her horn blinked out, leaving her in the eye of a blizzard of suddenly loose pages.

“Sam, I am so sorry! I completely forgot! Are you alright?”

Sam shook himself free of his stupor. “What? I- Yes, I’m fine. Why?”

“Well, I- I thought magic made you nervous.”

Sam tilted his head in confusion, until a moment later, when he realized she was probably referring to the spa. A single laugh slipped out before he could stop it. “Rarity, it’s alright,” he backpedalled, hoping to save face. “I only reacted poorly back then because I was disoriented and on edge. I’m not really afraid of magic, just wary. Actually, what you were just doing was amazing! You can actually levitate and control that many objects at once?”

Rarity relaxed and giggled abashedly, simultaneously relieved she hadn’t made a faux pas and embarrassed by his praise.

“Ah, well, yes. I practiced quite a lot to be able to multitask with my levitation. It helps make the creative process more… efficient, I suppose.”

Twilight nodded proudly. “Indeed. Partitioned levitation is a very useful skill to have, and difficult to master, even for unicorns whose special talent is magic. Being able to do so without is all the more impressive.”

“Oh, you flatterers!” Rarity chided playfully. “Anyway, that’s not really what we’re here for, is it?”

The papers floated upward once more, enveloped in the same light blue aura as before. Rarity took a moment to give a few closer consideration.

“Now, these are all just simple drafts. The final products may look quite different, depending on your measurements and opinions, but they’re good reference points. So, to start with, how about… ah, this one!”

Sam examined the drawing she floated over to him and was pleasantly surprised. It was an expertly drawn sketch of a featureless human model, dressed in a simple button up shirt and tie, and a pair of slacks.

“Wow. This is spot-on for what working professionals wear basically all the time.”

“Excellent! And this one?”

This time, she passed him a sketch of a sharp, black, two-button suit, decorated with shining diamond cufflinks and buttons.

“A bit fancy for everyday wear,” – Not to mention expensive-looking! Jesus, just how big are those gems supposed to be? – “but definitely dashing.”

“How about these?”

They carried on like this for some time, Rarity presenting her designs, from formal to casual, and Sam giving his opinion. Sam was shocked to find that the majority of her designs were familiar to him. A few of the designs were too impractical, fit more for high-fashion runways and photo shoots, but he quickly found that she had an eye for fashionable everyday clothing as well. After seeing so many strangely familiar designs, Sam couldn’t contain a bit of skepticism. He smirked, looking over the latest sketch he’d been handed.

“You know, Rarity, if I didn’t know any better, I might suspect you of having already made contact with humanity.”

“Really?” Rarity playfully exaggerated her shock. “How do you mean?”

“Pretty much all of these sketches look like they came straight out of a human fashion catalogue. How in the world did you come up with such appropriate designs?”

“Trade secret, darling,” Rarity deflected with a wink. “Although, it may be said that you share quite a few of the minotaurs’ physical traits.”

Sam raised a mischievous eyebrow. Minotaurs, huh? Why does that not surprise me? “So these are all minotaur designs, then?”

Rarity fixed him with an unamused stare. “Sam, I am a fashionista, not just a seamstress. I assure you that every one of my designs is entirely original.”

Sam relented, putting his hands up defensively. “Sorry, sorry. I was just teasing. Honestly, these are all wonderful and amazingly accurate designs, even if I can’t really wear a few of them.”

Rarity gave him an easy smile. “Well, thank you. Now, how about we get your measurements?”

A fissure of unease suddenly cracked open in Sam’s gut. He had half hoped she had already taken his measurements while he had been acting like a caveman. Well, I guess it’s “weathering a few minutes of discomfort” versus “no clothes.” He swallowed dryly.

“O- okay then. What, uh… what do you need me to do?”

She walked over to a small circular modelling platform surrounded by mirrors and patted it with a hoof. “Come stand up here, if you please.”

Sam awkwardly shuffled up onto the mini-stage, hesitantly clutching at the edges of his toga. “Should I take this off?”

“It would make my job a little easier, yes,” she said, smiling reassuringly.

Sam nodded and began unwrapping the bedsheet. As more of his flesh was laid bare, his grimace became more pronounced. He hadn’t really taken a close look at himself since the initial reawakening, but it seemed even ghastlier than he remembered. Of course, nothing much had changed; he could still see the outline of his ribs, though his stomach was no longer distended from hunger. That was probably a good sign, given that it had only been a few days. His skin still looked pasty and loose, though, and he certainly hadn’t regained the muscle he had lost.

Twilight seemed to have caught his expression, because she spoke up a moment later.

“It’ll be alright, Sam. You’ll be back to one hundred percent before you know it. Dr. Green Bean said he’d be able to send me nutritional supplements for you before the end of the day.”

Sam chuckled, still amused by pony naming conventions. “Thanks, Twilight.”

“But in the meantime,” Rarity ventured, “how about you step out of your, ah, jeans, and we’ll get down to business.”

Sam felt the heat crawling up his face.

“Uh, if it’s all the same to you, Rarity, I’d rather keep them on.”

“Darling,” Rarity insisted, “you have a garment beneath that. Those are much too thick for me to be able to measure you properly.”

“But, I-”

“No buts! Those simply must come off!”

Sam’s heart rocketed into his throat as he felt a disembodied tug on his belt, and saw the glow around rarity’s horn. Reflexively, he slapped his hands onto his thighs, trying to keep his pants on by force.

“Rarity, wait-!”

But Sam barely had time to cover himself, before Rarity overpowered his grip with her telekinesis. There was a sudden, sharp intake of breath around the room, and although his loaner glasses had slipped down to the tip of his nose, he could see that every face had turned the shade of ripe tomatoes. Sam felt the heat spread across the rest of his own face and continue down his neck, and he was pretty sure his ears had caught fire. The ensuing silence was deafening. Sam cleared his throat.

“A- as I was trying to say, I got rid of my boxers this morning, having realized I’d been wearing them for a few months.”

Sam received only dumb stares in response. Celestia was the first to snap out of her shock.

“Ah! Right! Of course. That makes perfect sense. They must have been quite… heinous to the senses.”

“Yeeeah… so, uh… Rarity? Could you-?”

Rarity yelped, yanked his shorts back up over his hands, and galloped out of the room, blushing like mad.

“We would not have minded a continued presentation,” Luna mumbled, not quite quiet enough to keep it to herself.

“Luna!” Celestia rebuked.

“We shall go attempt to calm Rarity down!” Luna shouted, hastily making her exit.

Sam turned away from the remaining ponies, a fresh blush burning through his cheeks, and fumbled the loose button back into place with one hand. Freakin’ perverted pony princesses, he mused in his mortification, pulling his belt tight. Although, I guess I am slightly flattered?

Sam cleared his throat loudly, hoping it might physically expel his discomfort, and pushed the oddly-shaped glasses back up to the bridge of his nose.

“S- so, um… let’s just… try to forget that ever happened, huh?”

Celestia chuckled a bit giddily, still regaining her composure. “Of course.”

Twilight just nodded, her face still a pretty shade of magenta.

After a few awkward moments, Celestia proposed, “I’ll just go see how Luna’s doing.” Although, it sounded more like a decree than a offer.

As the elder Princess left the room, Sam realized too late that he would be left alone with Twilight, and that neither of them had a convenient excuse to be elsewhere. He glanced over and noticed the horror slowly dawning on her as she came to the same realization. She froze up and locked her eyes on the ground, pupils shaking, trying to think of anything she could say to dispel the awkward atmosphere. He could see her panic building in her posture, until it came bursting out of her mouth.

“Why were you staring at the boutique?!”

Stunned, Sam voiced the only thought in his mind.


Twilight shifted nervously on her hooves, mentally clutching at this last straw.

“E- earlier, when we got here, you looked confused when you saw the Carousel Boutique. Why is that?”

Sam relaxed, immensely relieved to have an avenue of conversation away from his unintentional exposure.

“Oh, right! Um… well, you see, in my world, a carousel is a form of entertainment. It’s this round, rotating platform with little horses moving up and down on poles, and people will get up on the platform and ride them. It’s usually pretty slow-paced, I think partly so that people can take pictures, but mostly because it’s meant… for… little…”

Sam trailed off, noticing the expression on Twilight’s face. Her eyes were wide and glazed over, and her mouth hung slightly open. She had almost achieved a full-body blush, and she was breathing through her nose at a rate just short of hyperventilation. Both of her wings strained outward so completely that they appeared to be trying to pull free of her back. He could almost hear the steam whistling out of her ears. Sam frowned, failing to comprehend what had happened. Then he played back the last thing he said in his mind.

“Oh! Oh no! No, I didn’t mean ‘ride’ like as in-”

But it was too late. Twilight’s horn lit up and she disappeared in a flash, momentarily blinding him. It took a moment for his vision to clear, but the room was silent in the meantime. When he could finally open his eyes, Twilight was nowhere to be seen.

She can teleport. Of course she can. The other Princesses can, why wouldn’t she be able to?

“Twilight, come back! I didn’t mean it like that! Twilight?”

But no answer came. Sam removed the coke-bottle glasses and dragged a hand down his face. Nothing that happens here is ever going to be simple, is it?

After a minute of ruminating on his mistakes, Sam heard voices in the other room. He stiffened, straining to make out the words. Moments later, Luna peeked back into the front of the store, followed by a mostly collected Rarity making her way around the Princess.

“Sam, Twilight appears to be ‘broken,’ as modern parlance has it. What did you do?”

Sam bit his lip, wracking his brain for the most diplomatic phrasing he could muster. “I… may have responded to a question in a way that, given the current… state of affairs, could be taken entirely out of context.”

Rarity tilted her head a few degrees. “You what?”

“I said something that sounded dirty!” Sam admitted loudly, now thoroughly embarrassed. “I didn’t mean it that way, it just sorta… happened.”

Comprehension dawned on Luna’s face. “Ah. That would explain why she keeps repeating the words ‘don’t think about it’ to herself. I will relay this to Celestia, and we will work on calming Twilight Sparkle next.” With that, she ducked back into the back room.

Rarity cleared her throat, deliberately training her gaze on Sam’s eyes. “Meanwhile, you and I will conduct ourselves like reasonable, rational adults, put this accident behind us, and continue our business.”

Despite his embarrassment, Sam could feel a rising urge to laugh at her sudden change in attitude. He desperately tried to hold the encroaching snickers at bay, but one slipped through his defenses. He immediately trapped it in the corner of his mouth, where the worst it could do was twitch his lips into a smirk.

“R- right. Of course.” I am definitely not stockpiling ammunition for later teasing. Not at all.

“Good,” she concluded, picking the measuring tape up off the floor with her aura. “Now then, raise your arms, if you please.”

Sam followed her instruction without comment. He would save the teasing for later, when it might be used to greater effect. For now, it was better to stay in his clothier’s good graces.

But then, it struck him that he was in a perfect position to ask Rarity the question that had been bugging him since he’d arrived at the Boutique.

“Um… hey, Rarity?”

“Hm?” She hummed inquisitively, already deep in concentration. That, or she didn’t trust her voice not to make a fool of herself further.

“Why’d you name this place the ‘Carousel Boutique’?”

“Oh, well, I named it after an absolutely amazing Prench invention. As the story goes, the husband of a Prench dressmaker wanted to help his wife, who lamented that she could find nopony willing to model her dresses. They had neither the money to hire models, nor the renown needed to get into the Prench fashion shows. So, being an earth pony clockmaker, he did the only thing he could think of. Using the spare parts and lumber he had from his business, he built her a mechanically rotating platform to put her ponnequins on. He built in stands that would move the ponnequins up and down with the turning of the platform, to imitate ponies in motion. Then, he added lights to the stage, to better highlight the beauty of her dresses. Of course, she was overjoyed, and wanted to try it out immediately.

“They brought it to a local festival to display her dresses, and it was an instant success. Her dresses sold like hotcakes. When asked why he had bolted floor tiles on top of short wooden posts between the ponnequin stands, he told reporters they were carreaux selle, or saddle tiles; makeshift displays for saddles that weren’t part of an ensemble. A visiting fashion mogul from Equestria misheard him, thinking that was the invention’s name, and he excitedly reported this back to his company. It has been Equestrianized as ‘carousel’ ever since.

“I thought it a darling little story, and I admired the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the dressmaker’s husband. I wanted to capture a little bit of the elegant nature of the carousel, since I couldn’t afford one when I started out. Thus, I did what I could to emulate the aesthetic of the Prench design. Perhaps someday soon I’ll be able to afford an authentic Prench carousel for my shop!”

Sam chuckled in amusement. It was an intriguing explanation, and certainly not something he’d expected. But it was a sweet story, nonetheless.

“Fingers crossed,” he offered tensely, as Rarity chose that moment to measure his inseam.

“Fingers crossed?” She asked curiously.

“Ah, it’s an expression. It means ‘I hope so’ or ‘I wish you luck.’”

“Oh! Well, thank you, darling. Now then, how do you feel about ruffled collars?”

Captain Balken strode briskly through the main corridor, Lieutenant Hawthorne following in step. A handful of PFCs and their Corporal trailed behind him, pushing a large, tarp-covered cart. Hovering around the soldiers were a pair of Magi: Jacobs – a lean human with dull black hair and an abnormally greasy nose – was busy berating the soldiers for every slight bump of the equipment, while his vrael partner, Sless – a snake-headed being with a scaly humanoid torso – slithered along behind the group on his powerful serpentine lower half. Sless’ forked tongue flicked out of his mouth agitatedly, his slit pupils scanning the checklist clipboard he held for the third time that hour.

Balken grimaced. He would rather have left the Order of the Tome out of this, but he would need magic-users to operate the equipment. These two Magi were the absolute lowest ranking spellslingers still qualified to operate void manipulators, and they were on the same pay-grade as Hawthorne. He had needed to call a few favors to enlist their help. But if this turned out to be as serious as he suspected, then it would be worth it.

The Stillness… even their name feels like a bad omen.

Balken was shaken from his ruminations when, at last, they marched through the large archway into the gate terminal proper. It was an astonishing feat of architecture: an underground room nearly five-hundred yards cubed. The southern wall almost completely opened up into an even more massive multi-level hangar, built from a natural subterranean chasm. The northern wall held several warehouses sealed with reinforced shutters. But the main attractions were the gate platforms in the center.

Three grand metal structures were set into the floor of the cavernous room: giant sets of concentric rings like depictions of solar systems, complete with planets, each approximately two hundred yards in diameter. Each structure consisted of six rings around a circular central platform – itself more than fifty yards across – and all made of the same coppery metal. The “planets” in each ring were actually subgates: smaller replicas of the larger design. They were fifteen yards wide, with crystalline structures for their planets. The space between the rings was made of the same metal, diagonally segmented and engraved with intricate arcane designs. They were all quite beautiful, Balken had to admit, even before one saw them in action.

Each of the structures were actually floating platforms, held in place by clamps set in the floor. When the clamps were released, the rings would begin to drift, and could then rotate and spin in whatever patterns, orientations, and speeds necessary to achieve a stable “wyrmhole” – named in homage of the dragons who first utilized the phenomena. The small gates could easily transport personnel and single vehicles. Anything larger required use of the Composite Gates. When each of a gate platform’s six subgates was attuned to the same plane, the subgate rings would detach and rotate just like their smaller replicas. The subgates would then become the foci, and the entire structure would generate a single massive gate capable of transporting entire air squadrons.

And these aren’t even the largest gates the Planejumpers have access to, Balken boasted to himself. Honestly, it was impossible to be humble when you belonged to an organization that had been around for hundreds of thousands of years – or cycles, as the multiversal equivalent went – and claimed jurisdiction over at least as many universes, with bases in over thirty thousand of them.

But even so, the multiverse was vast. So vast that it made even a organization the size of the Planejumpers feel stretched thin. If the Stillness had only half the power he expected, they would be able to deal crippling damage to any who stood in their path, himself included. If they were to focus on gathering followers rather than staying hidden, he shuddered to think what might befall the rest of existence.

Only a minute after arriving, a small, green-skinned man wearing an engineer’s uniform ran up to Balken, snapping a spindly hand to his horned brow in a sharp salute. Out of habit, Balken quickly took note of the engineer’s nameplate and rank insignia, identifying him as Master Specialist Dorokhov of the Technician Branch.

“Captain Balken, sir,” he addressed Balken with a surprisingly deep voice, “we have Subgate 15 prepped and ready for your departure.”

“Thank you, Dorokhov. Have Control spin it up as soon as we get there.”

“Yes, sir!”

Dorokhov scurried off to the southeastern control room, while Balken led his group towards the corresponding platform. As he approached, he almost let himself believe that he might be able disembark without incident. But he knew better. Just as he passed a palette of import crates, he heard a smooth, languid voice call out from above him.

“My, my, Balken. Quite the little procession you have there.”

The captain ground to a halt, clenching his jaw. He knew that voice anywhere. With no small amount of dread, he looked up and caught sight of the last person he wanted to see.

Atop the crates lay a dark, lithe feline the size of a man, leering down at him with her cheshire grin. At first glance, one might have mistaken her for a panther. However the illusion was shattered the moment she revealed her six powerful legs, or the pair of squid-like tentacles that extended from her shoulders down past the tip of her twitching tail. The corner of Balken’s upper lip curled imperceptibly, betraying only the hint of an aggravated sneer. She was a displacer beast; a magical creature that, by all rights, should not be allowed anywhere near a Planejumper installation. And yet, this particular displacer beast had not only managed to find her way into their base, but was then offered a position in the Order of the Tome’s Recon Branch. Granted, she was much more intelligent and seemingly more benign than her brethren, but Balken couldn’t, in good conscience, allow her to walk free without suspicion. Especially since she seemed to make friends in high places far too quickly.

“Lieutenant Bast,” he greeted curtly. Bast may have been a lieutenant, but that was the Recon Branch equivalent of his own rank. Meaning she was under no obligation to address him as anything other than her equal.

“Oh, come now, Connie-boy. Is that any way to greet a friend?”

“What do you want, Bast? I’m busy.”

“I just wanted to drop in and see what my favorite Infantry captain was up to. After all, it’s not often anyone outside the Arcane Branch requisitions a set of void manipulators.”

Balken was almost surprised, but then he remembered to whom he was speaking.

“A fact you undoubtedly learned from one of your many informants,” Balken observed with a sigh. “Did Gull put you up to this?”

“That old wyrm? Hardly. A High Wizard has much bigger fish to fry than an Infantry captain with peculiar rental habits. No, this is just a friendly visit.”

“Is that so? Well, while I would love to sit here and chat all day, I have business to attend to. So, if you’ll excuse me…”

But before he could so much as take one step, Dorokhov came running up to him. Upon seeing Bast, his bony brow shot up in recognition.

“Ah, Captain Balken, I see you’ve met Lieutenant Bast. That will make this simpler. The lieutenant also requested a gate to Tartarus branch at the same timeslot as yours, so our Supervisor merged the two. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“How fortuitous!” Bast remarked teasingly. “As long as we’re headed the same way, I may as well join you.”

Balken didn’t get a chance to object before the engineer jogged off and Bast hopped down from her perch, landing on silent paws. She sauntered of towards the subgate, tentacles rippling smugly along her back. Balken let go of an ineffectual growl, turning to follow Bast while he gnawed on his middle fingernail. Oh, this definitely smacks of Gull’s interference. But the hell does that underachiever care if I checked out some manipulators? What is his game…?

A quietly cleared throat behind him drew his attention. Hawthorne stood behind him, giving him a skeptical eyebrow. He released his fingernail and turned back forward with a frustrated huff.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Use this opportunity to find out what Gull wants badly enough to send Bast to do his dirty work for him. Honestly, can’t I have even just a moment to wallow in self-pity?

But it appeared his questions would have to wait. The group caught up with Bast at Subgate 15, which had already begun its startup sequence. Her entire attention was focused on gate, so Balken took a moment to appreciate its complex gyration. The crystal foci carved brightly glowing lines out of the air as the rings whirled around the central platform. A high pitched cacophony of whistling and whines, undercut by a low, bassy hum, emanated from the center of the dancing rings. Then, as quickly as it started, the feverish display reached its crescendo with a thunderclap, blasting the group with a wave of hot air. The rings drifted to a stop, creating perpendicular arches over a hole in space.

“Standby for connection to the receiving gate,” called a control room technician through a nearby intercom. Balken rolled his eyes. He’d known better than to rush the gate for a long time. Then again, there was always that one overeager rookie that would ruin everyone’s day by charging in and getting himself ripped apart, so he supposed the warnings were necessary.

The wyrmhole was truly a sight to behold. It floated motionless just below the apex of the arches, a perfect bubble. It was not translucent, but neither was it entirely opaque. The edges of reality squashed and stretched on its surface, giving it a mirror-like quality. Like two mirrors facing each other, the reflections faded into darkness as they drifted closer to the center of the bubble, as this reality drifted into the next. Balken could feel the hot, stale wind flowing from inside the wyrmhole, giving them a taste of what lay beyond.

“Connection established, and… stable. Subgate one-five is cleared for departure.”

As control announced this, the light of a nearby status pylon turned green, and Balken felt more than heard the accompanying F-sharp tone. Upon hearing the tone, Bast leapt headlong into the wyrmhole, her body completely disappearing as it passed the borders of their universe and into the next. Without a second thought, Balken strode past the subgate’s threshold and was instantly swallowed up, his company not far behind.

Sam stood as motionless as his tired muscles would allow, afraid he might stab himself with a pin if he shifted the wrong way. Luckily, he had been allowed to take breaks, otherwise he would have thrown in the towel long ago. Rarity used her magic to tug at the fabric of his soon-to-be pants here and there, humming to herself and making marks with tailor’s chalk as she examined the results.

“Almost done…” She remarked, more to herself than anyone else. Sam let out a relieved groan.

“And you’re sure you don’t have any denim?” He pleaded.

“Yes, Sam, I am. Denim is for coveralls, and I don’t make work attire. I create pieces to help mares bring out their inner beauty! Denim rarely does.”

Sam grumbled, but conceded her point. His Grandma Jo had bought him a jean jacket once. It was absolutely hideous. Granted, it had been a department store brand, but he was willing to bet that he would make even the most fashionable of denim jackets look disastrous.

“Fair enough. I just…”

Sam knew he probably shouldn’t continue, in the interest of courtesy, but his mouth moved faster than his brain.

“I really liked my old jeans.”

Thankfully, Rarity seemed not to take offense.

“I understand, my dear, truly I do. It is almost impossible for me to let go of a treasured outfit. Unfortunately, your jeans have most certainly reached their end of days…” She paused a minute to contemplate. “However… if it really means that much to you, I would be willing order a bolt of denim.”

Sam shook his head, trying to remind himself to feel grateful that he was receiving any new clothes at all. After all, it had taken a great deal of cajoling just to get her to ease up on the frills and other assorted foppery.

“Thanks, really, but you don’t need to do that. I have more jeans back home. You’re already doing more for me than I could possibly ask for.”

Rarity smiled graciously. “Well, on the off chance you have to stay here longer than expected, I would be happy to make you some.”

“... Thank you, Rarity. But – and I mean no offense – I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“You’re welcome, Sam. And, for the record,” she added, placing a comforting hoof on his thigh, “I hope so too.” She gave him one more reassuring pat, then hopped down off of the platform

“Now then, I think I’m just about finished with your clothes! I just need to finalize these adjustments and they’ll be ready. I left the screen up, if you still wish for privacy.”

“Yes, please.”

Sam stepped down from the modelling platform and skirted around the mirrors, making his way towards the changing screen on the far side of the shop, Rarity in tow.

A comfortable pair of boxer briefs had been the first thing she made him, which he now wore with much relief. Still, even with something to cover his naughty bits, the idea of stripping in front of a bunch of people – and they were people, even though they weren’t human – that he had known for all of three days was not a trivial consideration. Thankfully, it seemed these ponies weren’t completely unabashed nudists; the need for privacy while changing into and out of clothes was something their cultures shared.

Sam moved behind the screen, unbuttoned his new dress shirt, and slipped out of his pants. Thankfully, the screen was large enough for him to change, although his head cleared the top of it, as it was his only real choice for privacy. He had only needed one look at the changing booth behind the mirrors to see that he would not fit, not to mention the fact that the beautified saloon doors that served as a barrier only came up to the tops of his thighs.

“There you go,” he said, handing the bundled outfit over the screen. A moment later, he felt the tingling warmth of Rarity’s magic on his hand. It was so… comforting. Like feather-light caresses on his skin. But then, he remembered that he was supposed to let go. When he relinquished the clothes, Sam was gratified to find that the fact that he didn’t hear them hit the floor still mystified him.

“Thank you, my dear. Sit tight. I won’t be but a moment.”

With that, Rarity trotted back to her workshop, leaving Sam alone with the Princesses.

“So, Sam,” Luna began, speaking loud enough for him to hear fro the other side of the room., “how are you finding the clothes-making experience thus far?”

Sam huffed in amusement and cracked his back, finally able to properly stretch.

“I know this much for certain: I would not want to be a model for a living. I don’t have nearly enough endurance”

Twilight giggled, while the elder Princesses gave him a good-natured chuckle.

“Well, I’m glad you’ve gained a little insight in addition to your wonderful new clothes,” Celestia quipped.

Sam crossed his arms over the screen’s frame, resting his head atop them with a dopey grin.

“They are, aren’t they? Heck, I don’t think I’ve ever owned clothes as nice as these ones are turning out to be. Shame I don’t have the shoes to go with them.”

They all glanced at the small lump that was his discarded old rags, and the heavily worn cross-trainers sagging inwardly atop the pile. They had seen better days, for certain. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to retire them now, while they still have some dignity, Sam contemplated.

“I’m sure Rarity would be more than willing to help you out with that, as well,” Twilight assured.

Sam’s eyebrows shot up.

“She’s a cobbler, too?” He asked incredulously.

“No, no. What I mean is, I’m sure she either knows or can find somepony who can make shoes for you.”

“Ah,” Sam said, secretly relieved. No one mare should have all that talent. “Well, in the meantime, I suppose I’ll just have to wear those ones down until they become more of a hindrance than a help.”

“Speaking of helping,” Celestia interjected, “what do you have next on your agenda, Sam?”

Sam paused to think for a moment.

“Well… I would really like to find out if it’s possible for a human like me to use magic, since I apparently have a magical aura. Other than that, I want- No, I need to go see the, uh… the Cakes, right? The ones whose basement I hid in and am partially responsible for destroying. I need to apologize for the trouble I’ve caused, and to offer help, if they need it.”

Celestia nodded sagely. “An upstanding and responsible attitude to have. I’m sure that-”

The Princess was cut off by the front door bursting open. “Princess Celestia! Princess Luna!”

A white unicorn stallion in full dress armor ran up to the elder Princesses, giving Twilight only a courtesy glance.

“Forgive me for barging in, Your Highnesses, but I bring urgent news from Canterlot. Ambassador Bacchus has just arrived, unannounced and demanding an audience. He seems quite furious.”

Princess Celestia’s brows knitted together, concern welling up in her expression.

“Oh, dear. Did he say why he was upset?”

“No, Princess. Only that, in his own words, ‘the Equestrian diarchy must meet with him, or suffer the displeasure of the Taurusian Archipelago.’”

Princess Celestia sighed in resignation, and shared a meaningful glance with her sister. She then turned to Twilight, regret etched in her features.

“I am sorry, Twilight, but Luna and I must go take care of this. I trust you will be able to handle things while we are gone?”

“Of course!” Twilight assured her with an eager salute.

“Then I leave it to you. We’ll send you updates through Spike.”

“Thank you, Princess.”

Luna stepped forward and put a hoof on Twilight’s shoulder. “Take care, Twilight Sparkle. We will be back before long, we hope.”

“Don’t worry, Princess Luna, my friends and I have everything handled.”

“Just remember what we spoke of. Whatever happens, we will support you.”

“Thank you, Princess. I won’t let you down.”

Celestia and Luna turned to Sam with reassuring smiles, but he could read more than a hint of unease behind them.

“We’re sorry we must leave you so soon, Sam, but you are in good hooves,” Celestia reassured in her motherly tone. Sam nodded, still confused as to what exactly was going on.

“We’ll see you again soon,” Celestia said, both to Twilight and himself.

She and Luna followed the guard out of the boutique, and stepped onto a large chariot waiting for them in the lane just outside the door. In a moment, they were off, taking to the sky like that was most natural thing for a chariot to do. Sam only boggled at the sight for a moment, before chalking up another tally on his “magic fucking with physics” count.

*Are they gone? Oh thank Grim.*

The suddenness of Bob’s voice appearing in his thoughts nearly made Sam jump out of his skin.

Jesus, Bob! A little warning, maybe? And what the hell happened? You’ve been silent this whole time.

*Yes, I was. Are you really going to tell me you don’t understand why?*

Sam clammed up. Of course he knew why. With beings as powerful as the Princesses around, Bob didn’t want to chance being caught. That didn’t mean Sam was any less miffed about getting yelled at that morning, or being startled just now.

Yeah, well, I still have a lot of questions.

*I’m sure. For now, though, you have other things to worry about. Such as the pretty purple pony princess attempting to get your attention.*

Sam glanced up to see Twilight staring at him, concern once again darkening her face.

“Sam, are you sure you’re okay? You seem kind of… distracted.”

He stifled his frustration, waved a dismissive hand in the air, and smiled.

“I’m fine, Twilight. There’s just a lot on my mind, you know?”

“Alright, well… if you ever want to talk about it, we’re all here for you.”

Sam smiled warmly. “You know, you don’t act much like any princess I’ve ever heard of.”

Twilight blushed and stammered. “Well, of course not! I only ascended to Princessdom a little over a week ago now.”

Sam guffawed. “‘Ascended?’ My my, aren’t we just as humble as can be?”

“Well, it’s true!” She asserted indignantly. “What else would you call becoming an alicorn?”

“Wait, becoming?”

“Yes, becoming. I was a unicorn before I became a Princess. I’m still not sure what I’m the Princess of, really, but… haven’t I told you all this already?”

“No, it never came up. I thought it was genetic, like any pony born of alicorn blood is considered royalty.”

“Of course not. I mean, blood relations are still technically considered royalty, but being an alicorn is something that is earned, not passed down. And Equestria can only be run by alicorn princesses.”

“Huh… So Equestria is kind of a meritocracy, in a sense.”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“But who determines who gets to be an alicorn?”

Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but then paused. As she sat in contemplation, Sam took an educated guess.

“You don’t know, do you?”

“I sort of do, but I’m not sure. Princess Celestia told me I became an alicorn when I created new magic, but that can’t be the whole story. Starswirl the Bearded was constantly creating new spells during his time, and he didn’t ascend.”

“Hmph, sounds sketchy to me. Maybe there’s something the good Princess doesn’t want you to know.”

“What?! What could she possibly gain from lying to me like that?”

“She could be keeping the selection process secret, so that only she knows how it works. So that you and others like you can’t replicate it. Maybe there’s some dark destiny in store for you that she doesn’t want you to know about. Maybe-”

“Sam, that’s enough!”

Sam was taken aback by the forcefulness of Twilight’s demand. When next she locked eyes with him, it pained him to see that her eyes glistened with angry, unshed tears. He had gotten under her skin something fierce. She exhaled sharply.

“I know you’re still having trouble trusting Princess Celestia, but I’ll ask you to please refrain from making such wild and baseless accusations.”

“R- right,” he capitulated, averting his eyes from her glare. “Sorry.”

Doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping my eye on her Majesty.

Rarity chose that moment to pop back out of her workshop, Sam’s new outfit in tow.

“It’s finished,” she sing-songed. However, her jubilation ended quickly when she felt the tension between Sam and Twilight.

“What’s going on? Where are Princess Celestia and Luna?”

“They were called back to Canterlot. Official ambassadorial business,” Twilight explained. “As for what’s going on…”

She continued to stare at Sam for a second or two, then let go of her frustration with a sigh.

“It’s nothing. Just a bit of a disagreement. We worked it out.”

Rarity looked between the two uncertainly. When Sam didn’t say anything, or even look at her, annoyance crept into Rarity’s posture. She marched up to Twilight.

“Twilight Sparkle,” she scolded, “what happened?”

Twilight’s looked up, only to recoil when she saw Rarity’s stern gaze just inches from her face.

“Rarity, it’s fine,” Sam cut in, realizing that she wasn’t likely to drop it if he remained silent. “Can I just have my clothes, please?”

“The looks on both of your faces certainly say otherwise. Now, if you would be so kind, I would like an explanation.” Rarity’s tone brooked no argument. Sam glanced at Twilight, before turning his attention back to Rarity.

“It’s mostly my fault, Rarity. Twilight was telling me about alicorns, and I… may have said some unflattering things about your Princess Celestia.”

That’s an understatement,” Twilight bristled. “You accused her of despotism and luring me into a sacrificial role!”

“I wasn’t accusing, I was hypothesizing,” Sam snapped, finally fed up with her naivete. “In my world we have a saying: ‘when something seems too good to be true, it usually is.’ I can attest to that; I’ve been scammed by people claiming to be down on their luck on three separate occasions because my heart was too damn soft. So yes, I have every right to be suspicious of a being who claims to be a benevolent, thousand-year-old demigod with dominion over the sun, even if she can use magic! And especially because said ‘demigod’ wanted to scoop my brains out with a rusty spoon not two days ago! Let’s not forget that I was forcibly abducted from my home planet by some alien entity, who also tried to take over my mind! And while we’re at it, throw in the fact that I haven’t seen my family for god knows how many months, and that I’m probably considered dead by now! So forgive me if I’m not in the most forgiving or cooperative of moods!”

Sam stood before them, lungs heaving for breath after his one-sided shouting match. Suddenly, a wave of dizziness washed over him, the rush of fury-borne adrenaline depleted. Reeling, Sam sat down before his legs could give out and made the choice for him. Of course, this was all done without looking at either of the room’s other occupants, but he didn’t need to. He remembered the nervousness growing in their faces as he ranted. He just couldn’t bring himself to look at them, for fear of what he might find now that he had ceased. But he also couldn’t just stay silent, staring at his hands all day. He fiddled with the knuckles of his fingers, trying to think of what he should say, how to apologize. After an eternity of agonizing, Sam sighed, deciding to just go with the first thing that came to mind.

“I… I’m sorry. Again. I didn’t mean to snap at you. I guess I’m not as… acclimated to the situation as I thought.”

Wordlessly, gentle white and lavender filled his vision, and he felt two pairs of warm limbs embrace him from both sides. They were hugging him.

Good God, Sam swore melancholically to himself, do these ponies even know how to hold a grudge?

A thrill of startled electricity shot down his spine as another pair of forelegs wrapped around him from behind. The stranger nuzzled the top of his head with their chin, apparently wanting in on the cuddle puddle. When she spoke, however, Sam instantly recognized the bubbly mare.

“Ooh, poor Sammy. It’s alright, everypony gets homesick, and you’ve been away for a looong time. No wonder you’re feeling crummy.”

“Jesus, Pinkie! When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago. I was going to bring cupcakes, but the Cakes’ kitchen was blown all to smithereens when the Elements of Harmony came crashing through the ceiling.”

He wasn’t sure what these Elements were, but the twisting in his gut told him it probably had something to do with his rampage. Before he could say anything, however, Twilight spoke first.

“Sam, I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have lost my temper. It’s just…” She paused to think of how best to say what was on her mind, and Sam took advantage of it.

“Don’t be. You have every right to be mad, especially when I’m being an insensitive jackass.”

To his great surprise, every pony currently hugging him suddenly distanced themselves with a shocked gasp.

“Sam! I was trying to be polite by not saying anything in front of the Princesses. It might just be a cultural difference, after all. But while I might tolerate your use of expletives, I will not allow racial slurs to slide by! Do you understand?”

Sam stared slack-jawed at her fiery indignation. For a moment, he couldn’t understand what she was getting at. He mouthed the accusation, trying to find a way to fit it through the cogs. Eventually, it clicked, and Sam burst out laughing.

Rarity sputtered furiously. Sam put out a hand to ward off the incoming righteous tirade. Luckily, it was enough to buy him a few seconds to gather himself.

“I’m s… I’m sorry. I di-” He choked back a chuckle. “I’m not laughing at y- you. I jus… just didn’t expect… I mean, w- why shouldn’t they b- be? This is a world of talking ponies.”

Sam struggled not to devolve into another giggle fit.

“What are you talking about?” Twilight demanded, glaring him in the eye.

Sam took a deep breath, steadying his voice. “It just… never occurred to me that donkeys might also be sapient here. You told me about griffons and minotaurs and dragons, and even how cows and pigs have tribes. I learned about so many races that, somehow, I didn’t think to ask if there were more. And, once again, my lack of knowledge has come back to bite me in the… butt.”

Rarity and Twilight visibly relaxed.

“Be that as it may,” Rarity said, “racism is still unacceptable in this day and age. We are civil people, and we will conduct ourselves as such. Is that clear?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sam placated. “I assure you, it was never my intention to slander donkeys. It was just an unhappy coincidence. I promise I will try to better watch the words that come out of my mouth.”

Rarity let out a terse sigh. “Well, as long we have an understanding. I will be expecting better from you, from now on.”

Sam just nodded, letting her have the last word.Twilight sighed in relief.

“Well, now that that’s settled: Sam, I will accept your apology if you accept mine.”

“Done. I’ve definitely had more than enough drama for one day.”

Pinkie Pie giggled and bounced around them. “Hooray! We got all the frownies out! Now we can get back to the really important stuff!”

“And what would that be, Pinkie?”

“Showing you around Ponyville and gathering party intel, of course!”

“Of course,” Sam sighed with a smirk, and then shivered. A cool breeze blew across his back, now that he was no longer being smothered with warm pony hugs. It was an apt reminder of why he had come here in the first place.

“But before that: Rarity, could I have some clothes now, please?”

Rarity smiled cheekily, apparently satisfied that he wasn’t actually racist.

“Oh, I suppose, since you asked nicely and all.”

The neatly folded stack of garments glowed light blue, levitating over to Sam from their resting place on a nearby counter. Sam accepted the bundle with a giddy smile.

Fresh clothes for the first time in months.

“Don’t move,” he requested excitedly, “I’ll be right back.”

But rather than a coherent response, Sam heard the screeching of tires. Bewildered, Sam looked around. Nothing around them had rubber wheels. Then his brain caught up with his eyes, and he found what exactly was out of place.


Before them, Pinkie was frozen mid-hop. She hung in the air, suspended by nothing. He couldn’t even see any sort of magic aura holding her in place.

“Pinkie? I, uh… I didn’t mean that literally.”

Pinkie immediately dropped to the ground with a relieved sigh.

“Oh good. Gravity gets a bit grumpy if I hold poses like that for too long.”

Sam frowned in disbelief, mouth hanging open. No words could describe what was going through his mind, however, because even he didn’t know. Magic could do some strange things, but at least there seemed to be some sort of logic to it. With Pinkie, he just couldn’t tell.

*Best not think about it too hard, Sam.*

Bob’s remark broke him from his stupor, and he shook himself.

“Right, well… Be right back.”

Sam retreated back behind the changing screen, trying his best to put Pinkie’s antics out of mind. It became much easier when he turned his attention to the pile of clothes.

He held some of the finest clothes he’d ever gotten his hands on. They were quite simple: a burgundy button-up shirt, a pair of khaki slacks, and black socks. But they were made from the highest quality fabric Sam had ever held, soft and light, but sturdy. The stitchwork was strong, but aesthetically pleasing, and as he put them on, the fit nearly brought him to tears. He’d never worn anything more comfortable. Perhaps it was just a result of his time in the Everfree, but Sam honestly believed these were the finest clothes he’d ever worn.

He emerged from behind the screen slowly, looking down at himself with emotion swirling in his gut. Since coming to this world, he’d never felt more human. He looked up to see the girls watching him with worry. This hadn’t been the reaction they were expecting.

“So… Sam,” Rarity ventured hesitantly, “what do you think?”


“Yes, dear?”

“Can I hug you?”

Rarity sighed in relief, then sat back on her haunches, her forelegs wide open. Sam wasted no time in kneeling down and wrapping her in as tight a bear hug as he dared.

“Thank you, Rarity. These are, by far, the nicest clothes I have ever worn.”

“Oh, pfft! You’re just saying that because you haven’t had anything decent to wear for a while.”

Sam broke off the hug to hold her out before him.

“It’s true! I have no doubt that, were I to buy an outfit this finely crafted in my world, it would cost nearly a week’s salary. In fact… hold on a minute.”

Sam got up and strode over to the modelling platform, where the bag of his allowance sat waiting for him. He fished out a handful to put in his pockets, then returned to Rarity with the rest.

“I don’t know how much you would normally charge for an outfit like this. I just hope I have enough in here.”

“No, no. They are for you, I insist. Think of it as my ‘Welcome to Ponyville’ gift.”

“Rarity, I can’t accept a gift like this.”

“Well, I won’t accept a single cent. I’m sorry Sam, but you’re just going to have to live with it.”

Sam looked uneasily between her and the bag of bits. Then, an idea occurred to him, and he held out the bag once more.

“Fine, I’ll accept your gift, as long as you accept this as a down payment on the next outfit.”

Rarity initial surprise quickly morphed into a shrewd smile. She levitated the bag, emptying it out into her aura. The coins arranged themselves into stacks of five, floating in neat rows. Rarity counted them, pointing at each stack as she tallied. Finally, she nodded and returned all but seven coins to the bag. The bag floated over to her register, while the spares found their way back into Sam’s new pockets. She gave him a smug grin.

“Very well, we have a deal. I should be able to make three or four more outfits with that.”

Sam huffed in exasperated amusement. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re still giving me a steep discount?”

“What?” She gasped with exaggerated shock. “Moi, the Bearer of the Element of Generosity, give you – a lone human, stranded in our world, with nary a bit to your name before today – a discount on your sorely lacking wardrobe? Perish the thought.”

“Alright, alright, I get it,” he relented. “But seriously, thank you. This means the world to me.”

“Well, with thanks like that, I almost don’t need payment.”

“Rarity,” Sam warned light-heartedly.

“Joking. Only joking. For the most part. Anyway, by the end of this week, I promise you will have a wardrobe fit for a king!”

“In the meantime,” Twilight interjected before Sam could argue further, “we still have a few more appointments to keep today. The mayor wishes to speak with you. I also set up appointments with the dentist, the optometrist, and, if you so desire, the barber.”

“Oh! Oh! And don’t forget the Cakes!” Pinkie blurted out.

“Right, that too.”

Sam smiled wearily. So much to do in a day.

“Right, well then,” he began, “let’s try to go to the barber too. I think I could use a more professional trim anyway. Thanks again, Rarity. I’ll see you around town?”

“I’m certain you will. Ta ta, darlings! Oh, and Twilight? Tell Spikey-poo I’ll require his assistance sometime this week. I’m running low on gems.”

“Alright, I’ll let him know.”

Rarity then levitated Sam’s thoroughly used sneakers back over to him with a grimace.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to replace… these, but I’ll look into it. Do try not to let the hem of your pants touch them too much. Or at all, preferably.”

Sam complied, rolling the hems of his pant legs back until they were just barely above the mouth of his unfortunate footwear. Wearing a complete, mostly brand-new outfit, Sam’s heart soared. He felt as though he had found one of the pieces of himself that he had been missing.

“Really, I can’t thank you enough, Rarity. This means more than you know.”

Rarity giggled and blushed. “I think you’ve given me some idea. Now go on. You have appointments to keep.”

Sam nodded, and then followed Twilight and Pinkie out of the Boutique, smiling contentedly. Overall, the visit hadn’t been a total disaster. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep from making any more inappropriate remarks for the rest of the day.

Captain Balken stepped out of the far end of the wyrmhole without missing a beat. The grand, featureless chamber he found himself in echoed with the sound of rushing wind, as the warm air flowed through the wyrmhole and into the lower pressure environment behind them. While looking around, he noticed Bast waiting at the far end of the room. He stalked over to her, the sounds of his squad arriving close behind him.

“Well, Captain? Are we going to stand around all day, or are we moving forward?” Bast quipped, beating Balken to the punch.

Balken snorted and muttered under his breath. “Hypocrite.”

Bast may be a pain in the neck, but he would not let her distract him from the post-arrival status check. He turned and did a headcount, ensuring that everyone was present and accounted for, and the wyrmhole shrinking and disappearing settled the matter. His astral shard pendant came out next, pulled from inside his shirt by its chain. Directing a pulse of mana into the milky crystal, it began its environmental diagnostics program. Air quality, barometric pressure, gravity; all checks came back green, reaffirming Control’s numbers.

Balken oriented himself to Astral north, and turned back east, to the chamber’s only exit. He strode towards a pair of double doors, easily thirty feet tall. With a single push, they swung open as smoothly as if they were made of papier-mache and balsa wood on oiled hinges. However, the unyielding solidity beneath his palms made it clear they were solid stone.

The reception area was larger even than the gate chamber, similar in shape and size to one of the Planejumpers’ hangars, but ever so slightly ovular. It, too, was empty of all but a single half-circle desk set against the northern wall. Sitting at the desk was one of the more grotesque creatures Balken had ever seen.

The ongkhuri were the only intelligent beings native to Tartarus. They were the kind of creatures that looked like an evolutionary dead-end had been bulldozed through the divine planning department by some sort of fetishistic zealot. The average ongkhurian stood no taller than five feet, half of which was their odd, hairless, almost funnel-shaped bodies. A great, bulbous head housed five pairs of eyes set at even intervals around its circumference, above four similarly spaced, large mouths, full of chisel-like teeth, but lacking any sort of nose. Neckless and squat, the ongkhurian body almost looked like an extremely dumpy ice cream cone, though the pallor of their pale grey flesh made them look anything but appetizing. Spindly arms encircled their torsos, six at shoulder height and four upon which they lumbered about, like grotesque crabs. Ongkhurian fashion was singular; they wore only odd tabard-like garments that consisted of rings of cloth strips hanging down between their upper shoulders. No ongkhurian ever truly smiled. The most anyone had ever managed to get from them was a contemptuous smirk.

The ongkhurian at the desk watched them approach with barely contained disdain, clasping two of its hands together on the desk before it. The other eight hands were preoccupied with a dozen sheafs of paper being reviewed by the four sets of eyes not currently trained on the approaching party.

“Name,” the closest mouth didn’t so much ask as command.

“Captain Conrad Balken.”


“Planejumpers, Order of the Blade, Ground Division.”

“Reason for your… visit?” Somehow, he – Balken thought it was a he, anyway – made even that simple question sound like a threat. Balken exhaled angrily.

“Did you not receive a communique with the details of our vis-?”

“Oh, I got it alright,” the ongkhurian interrupted. “Thing is, I could give less than a fleck of shit off a gnat’s ass who you are. You could come waltzing in here with commendations from all three of the Ekat-Ongkhuri, and I’d still run you through the ringer. Because nobody comes through this checkpoint without my say-so. So, reason… for… visit?”

Balken’s eye twitched. Why did it have to be today that the multiverse decided to use him as its personal commode? He was just about fed up. He prepared to tear into the jailer like a particularly mouthy new recruit, but then Bast decided to step in.

“We are here to interrogate prisoner Kappa-4-07298, Marwell Tint.”

The ongkhurian grunted and looked at Bast with one of the pairs of eyes not currently locked on the fuming Captain Balken.

“Name and affiliation?”

“Lieutenant Bast, Planejumpers, Order of the Tome, Recon Division.”

The ongkhurian stared at her appraisingly, then let out a haughty huff. He thrust out three of his hands, palms up.

“Shards,” he demanded, in a tone that brooked no argument.

Bast’s tentacles reared up, revealing the wickedly barbed pads on their ends. Balken tensed, preparing for a fight, but it did not come. Instead, Bast used the claws to reach behind her neck and fiddle with something. There was the sound of a catch unlocking, and Bast lifted a choker away from her neck, her astral shard attached to it as the display piece. She breathed mana into it until it glowed softly, then dropped it from her pad into one of his outstretched palms.

“There you are, Gregor. Don’t want to hold you up all day, do we?” She offered, giving Balken a very pointed look.

Balken growled, pulled the shard out of his shirt, charged it between his fingers, and all but slapped it into one of the ongkhurian’s other hands. Gregor didn’t seem to have noticed, too focused on the squat, hexagonal console he was slotting the shards into. Lieutenant Hawthorne placed hers in his remaining free hand and the soldiers and the Magi stepped forward to do likewise, handing their shards to Gregor as slots in the desktop identification scanner became available. With the jailer’s attention otherwise occupied, Balken shot Bast a withering look, which she completely ignored.

Gregor finished the check swiftly, despite his previous antagonistic behavior. With a disappointed click of his tongue, he handed the last shard back to its owner.

“Very well, your IDs check out. Relinquish all personal belongings and equipment, place them in one of the drawers here,” he said with a offhanded wave to a row of drawers that slid silently out of the wall to his right, “and stand on the red squares to submit to a full body scan. If you wish to bring in equipment, you must declare it here.”

“We are bringing in one void manipulator rig, class-3, biological configuration,” Balken announced, trying to regain some semblance of authority.

Gregor raised one hairless eyebrow and watched Balken for any tells, glancing at the tarp covered equipment behind them. An evil smirk grew on each of his mouths.

“Ah, so that’s that bugger’s little secret. Good to know.”

The rest of the check went by smoothly, of course. But the thing that really tweaked Balken’s nose was that, whenever it seemed like Gregor was about to give them grief, the jailer would take one look at Bast and school his expression. She was even paying attention to the ongkhurian, he just refused to resume being a power-hungry asshole around her. It wasn’t fear Balken saw in his eyes, either. Gregor respected the displacer beast. The frustration made Balken want to rip his own hair out. He’d been deprived of a target for his ire at being forced to let Bast tag along, and he could only grit his teeth and bear it.

Eventually, they finished their scans and Gregor’s inspection of the void manipulators. The jailer led the group to the far end of the hangar-like reception area. Gregor moved to a specific point by the gargantuan rolling doors. At his approach, a small circular pedestal shot out of the floor, stopping at elbow level to the ongkhurian. He placed a hand atop the pedestal and began tapping out what appeared to be a rapid fire combination into an imaginary keypad. But then Gregor paused, his nearest mouth gave a derisive smirk, and three of his eyes trained on the PFCs standing stiffly by their assignment.

“For those of you new to this plane… welcome to the Prison Plane, Tartarus.”

Gregor tapped one last hidden key, and there was a nearly deafening metallic clunk, as the locking mechanism began to disengage. The massive slab of steel began its arduous journey along the tracks, causing the ground to quake at its passing. Hot, dry air blasted in through the widening gap, clamoring to fill the reception with its oppressive heat. Balken’s lip curled into a snarl, as though he wished to challenge to wind itself.

Gregor led them through the opening before the door had finished its motion, out onto a vast red desert under a ceiling of thunderclouds. The landscape was flat and featureless, devoid even of rocks, but for a great grey spire on the horizon.

The trek to the spire was arduous, to say the least. Hot, dusty winds whipped at the group, scraping against exposed flesh until the entire group was rubbed raw. The howling nearly deafened those unfortunate enough to be unable to cover their ears. The only ones seemingly unaffected were Gregor and Magi Sless, the former being native and the latter seeming to feel almost as at-home in the environment as the ongkhurian. After what seemed like countless parching hours of walking through the blistering dust storm, they arrived at the base of the tower.

The Ashen Pile, like so many of the ancient buildings of the multiverse, was built large, and only grew larger with time. As it stood, just one side of the octagonal building was almost a mile wide. A flight of great wyrms would look like mice by comparison. The tower rose up past the cloud cover, leaving observers to wonder just how far above the storm it reached, and, by extension, how far below ground.

Gregor stopped a stone’s throw from the massive spire, and held a hand up to the tower, as if in greeting. Something in or on his palm began to glow, though Balken could not see what. Shortly thereafter, a section of the wall split and spread outward, revealing doors that were each the size of a football field. As soon as the doors were open wide enough, the group shuffled inside, eager to be out of the dust.

Gregor plodded past the antechamber into an insanely tall room, his lower hands slapping against the grated floor. The ceiling was nowhere to be seen, obscured as it was by a maze of pipes and ducts.

“Uncover your equipment and place it in the alcove to the right,” Gregor drawled boredly, “then take a spot on the grate and hold your breath and your pants. Or don’t. I couldn’t care less.”

Thankfully, Balken already knew what he was in for. He directing the PFCs to the alcove, where the manipulator rig would be put through a chemical bath, blow dried, and pulsed with UV light. The rest of them would receive no kinder treatment.

Balken went first, to give his men a preview of the sterilization process, dignity be damned. He would not let the ongkhurians make a fool of him by catching his men by surprise.

“Just do as I do,” he commanded tersely.

Taking a hold of his belt, Balken stepped out into the grated hall and picked a spot near the wall. He got into a wide stance, taking a great lungful of air as he did. No sooner had he closed his mouth than a veritable pillar of liquid slammed down on him.

The first thing he felt was the heat, the chemically treated water held at just under scalding temperature, right on the threshold of discomfort and pain. Once he had gotten used to the heat, however, he noticed the most unique sensation; one that he had missed the first time he had gone through the Tartarus prison sterilizer.

The water dumping down on him writhed like snakes, actively pushing into his collar. It scoured every inch of his skin, ensuring nothing escaped its attention. Balken would have shuddered, had he not been so focused on keeping his feet. After what seemed like an eternity, the deluge simply ceased altogether, leaving him dripping wet and red-skinned, like a boiled lobster. A moment later, the same pipe that dumped water on him began blasting him with hot air, blow-drying him within seconds.

The rest of his crew subjected themselves to the same treatment. Nobody was particularly happy about it, and Hawthorne looked especially perturbed. However, Balken was quite gratified by the miserable expression on Bast after the ‘shower’ was done with her. He would hold that image in his mind for years to come.

Once everyone had been nice and sterilized, Gregor led them to the side of the main hallway, up to what appeared to be a solid wall. However, Balken was not surprised to find that it held a secret, magically sealed doorway, much like the front entrance had been. They quickly came to a T-intersection, which housed a large bay of service elevators, their gated doors offering terrifying glimpses of the endless shafts beyond. After a few more palmed security panels, they were aboard an elevator car as it jolted to life, ferrying them up the shaft at dizzying speeds.

After nearly a minute of tense silence, the elevator lurched to a halt, revealing a sterile white room beyond the gate. The gate creaked open, and they shuffled out into the reception of the Secure Holding and Intensive Care Unit.

“I will be back for you in two hours. If you are not here at that time… well… Tartarus is always accepting of new residents.”

With a wicked grin, Gregor closed the gate and the car disappeared back down the elevator shaft. Bast gave an unconvincing chuckle.

“He’s… quite the charmer, isn’t he?”

Balken rounded on the displacer beast, unamused.

“So, you just happened to know the exact ID number of the prisoner we’re here for, did you?”

“What can I say?” Bast nearly purred. “I like to be in the know.”

“Cut the crap, Bast. What does Gull want with Marwell Tint?”

Bast let out a disappointed sigh. “Did you honestly think you were the first to notice the activities of the Stillness, Conrad?”

Balken was stunned silent by Bast’s sudden candor. A glance at Hawthorne told him she had expected the run around just as much. His attention returned to Bast as she started speaking once more.

“Gull has known about the Stillness for years, but until now, he’s not had any physical evidence of their existence. They’re usually much more careful to keep their activities hidden, and to clean up after themselves. This is the first time in nearly thirty years that the Stillness has slipped up, and we cannot allow this opportunity to slip through our claws.”

Bast sauntered off towards the front desk, but not before shooting one last remark over her shoulder.

“If you are going to continue after the Stillness, you had best get used to working with me, Connie-boy. Otherwise, I’ll always be two steps ahead of you.”

He heard Lt. Hawthorne sigh in resignation behind him.

“Well, at least we know what she’s here for, now.”

But Balken didn’t respond. He couldn’t. He was too busy grinding his teeth.

“Captain?” Hawthorne probed.

With that single innocuous question, all the little annoyances were suddenly too much to handle. Balken’s fist lashed out at the wall, slamming into it with a sickening crack. He heard a few gasps behind him, but he hardly cared. All he needed was the satisfying feel of rock flaking and crumbling beneath his fist. Even so, it was a bitter sort of satisfaction.

“She played me,” he growled under his breath.


“It’s happening again! She’s going to take credit for another goddamn bust! Well that bitch is going to find out just what the Blade is capable of.”

Balken took a deep breath, and calmed his rage into something far icier. He strode over to the front desk, where Bast was already leaning against the edge, speaking to the receptionist.

“Captain Balken, Planejumpers,” he barged into the conversation, holding up his astral shard like a badge, and effectively interrupting whatever underhanded dealings Bast may have been engaged in. “Take us to Marwell Tint. Our arrival should be expected.”

“R- right,” the receptionist – a pretty, young, human girl, obviously a transplant from HQ – stammered. “I’ll just… buzz you in.”

She pressed something under the counter and the nearby double doors buzzed. Balken strode over and pushed them open, pointedly ignoring the strange look Bast was giving him. If he had bothered to look, he would have found a strange expression that was equal parts frustration, disappointment, and pity.

But Balken was too busy being outraged to notice Bast’s internal conflict. Orderlies and nurses scattered before him like rodents, trying to simultaneously appease his temper while remaining out of reach. To their credit, they did seem to be leading him towards his objective, even if it was unwittingly. It didn’t much matter either way. He would not allow Bast to hog all the glory.

“Sir, please, you need to allow us to escort you to the interrogation room,” one of the orderlies – a bald thirty-something man – pleaded.

“Then escort me, but I’m not stopping for you. I’ve been before, I can get there myself.”

The orderly looked between him and the direction he was heading quickly, apparently debating internally. Then, he simply nodded, and took up a position ahead of Balken, doing his best to appear in control of the situation. Balken snorted.

Whatever helps you sleep at night.

In short order, he came upon a nondescript, unlabeled door. He remembered this door. Many a fruitless night had been spent behind this door, attempting to extract confessions from the multiverse’s most unstable and dangerous criminals. This night, however, would not be fruitless.

With a mighty shove, the door slammed open before Balken. The room inside looked exactly as he remembered it, spotless and almost unnecessarily large. The wide stone walls were still deceptively white, the lingering scent of bleach and disinfectant burning his nose. A comparatively small, stainless steel table sat in the center, solid and immobile, tarnished by years of heavy use. And in a matching chair opposite him sat Marwell Tint, cuffed to the corners of the table.

The man had seen better days, that much was certain. He had the hints of a laborer’s face, weathered and bronzed, but his skin had become sallow and clammy. Dull eyes stared listlessly at the tabletop from bruised and puffy sockets, unwilling or unable to lift his gaze. His gaunt face was framed by a greasy, matted tangle of black hair. He hadn’t so much as flinched when Balken burst into the room. Were it not for the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest, Balken might have mistaken Tint for dead.

“Marwell Tint?” He greeted.

Tint did not respond. Balken grimaced. The clattering sound of the manipulator rigging being wheeled into the room reached his ears.

“Fine,” he sighed knowingly. “Can’t say I didn’t try.”

He snapped his fingers and the PFCS rolled the tarp-covered rig around the table. Once they were in position behind Tint, they threw the tarp aside, revealing the machinery they had been carting around all this time.

The void manipulator rig was a simple looking piece of machinery in its undeployed state; utilitarian, and yet dangerous. Like a military trench shovel. It was a matte black box, tall, thin, and long, with a seam around one of the ends. Two pairs of thick, segmented arms – all pistons and servos – hung from either side of the seam, folded in on themselves. And at the end of each arm, a four-pronged claw capped the assembly. The claws were situated at ninety degree increments, like the arcade prize machines. Unlike the games, however, they were not just flimsy aluminum tongs.

The claws were what made the machine. Each prong was harshly curved and made of a smoky quartz-like material with a triangular cross-section. The edges were as sharp as cut glass, and yet they would never be able to physically harm anything.

It was dark astral fulgurite. One of the R&D eggheads had once spouted off the specs at him, how the material formed on the border between the Astral Plane and the Void, and how the only things it could exert force on were astral shards – pieces of astral quintessence that had crystallized – and Void energy. He said something about how Void energy caused the vitrification of astral quintessence into dark astral fulgurite or something like that, Balken wasn’t sure. But the gist of it was that the strange, nigh incorporeal mineral could be used to manipulate Void energy.

A fact that, apparently, did not escape Marwell Tint. Tint visibly flinched when the tarp was flung back. He began shuddering violently and murmuring to himself. Balken grinned with all of his teeth.

“Ah, Mr. Tint. Back with us in the land of the living, I see. Feeling any more talkative?”

Tint still did not respond, but his muttering became loud enough for Balken to hear. Every second, Tint unerringly repeated the same two words noted in his file.

“They’re watching…”

Balken’s grin fell.

“I guess not. Oh well, no skin off my back. And, technically, I suppose there won’t be any off yours, either.”

He snapped his fingers at Jacobs and Sless, and they went silently to work, unwilling to risk his wrath by questioning orders, even if they were unspoken.

The Magi each put a hand on the panel opposite the arms and channelled their mana into the machine. There was a hiss as a seal broke, and the panel slid outwards like the drawer of a filing cabinet, status screens and omnidirectional control stations unfolding out of it like the pages of a pop-up book.

“Standard half-pillar configuration, sir?” Jacobs asked, the crack in his voice undermining the calm, professional demeanor he was trying to exude.

“Proceed,” Balken affirmed dismissively.

When Jacobs and Sless began typing into the touchpads before them, the manipulator’s arms snapped forward, unfolding into menacing arcs of steel. The seam beneath the arms cracked open slightly a moment before the panel shot out with a pop, stopping abruptly after only a foot. Out of the gap spilled a deluge of sections of metal pipe, flipping, clattering, and snapping into place like a Jacob’s ladder. In seconds, the front end of the machine had turned into a semicircular alcove of grid-patterned metal scaffolding.

The arms whirred along the scaffolds, maneuvering into position around Tint, who seemed to be trying to slide down into his chair. The two arms above his shoulders suddenly shot down and clamped around his upper arms, digging into his flesh with nary a trace of their passage. Despite this, Tint still cried out in pain, as though they physically hurt him. Slowly, the arms raised, phasing through his flesh. As they did, the skin along the tops of his upper arms blackened, as though frostbitten. The motion forced Tint to his feet, to avoid further agony.

“Secure his arms and legs,” Balken ordered.

His soldiers rushed over to the prisoner, wielding pairs of grav-cuffs. In short order, Tint was suspended in midair between the far edges of the scaffolding, anchored by the cuffs attached to the four corners of the grid. The claws released him, but remained poised to strike at the first sign of hostility. As soon as they had loosened, Tint’s skin returned to its pallid tone.

“Now then, Mr. Tint,” Balken cooed, “let’s start with something simple. Why did you attack the Market Square?”

Tint groaned, head lolling back and forth. Balken sneered.

“Magus Sless, remind him why he’s here,” he intoned menacingly. Sless only hesitated a moment before following the implicit order.

The claw over Tint’s left arm descended on him. Its tips slowly slid through the flesh of his upper arm. Though Tint screamed in agony, Balken remained impassive, even as the soldiers behind him – Hawthorne and Bast included – blanched at the brutal treatment. Sless pushed the mechanical arm forward, finally drawing out the reason for their visit.

A crude mockery of a human arm was drawn from beneath Tint’s flesh, writhing desperately against its impalement, like a fat black earthworm on a bird’s talons. But to call the limb black would only be a half-truth. It was made of a darkness so deep as to be imperceptible, as though it sucked the light out of the space around it. It crackled with an eerie kind of static energy that chilled the flesh as easily as an arctic wind, and filled the room with the smell of frozen blood. Just being near it gave everyone the feeling that, were they to come into contact with the limb, they might be erased from existence. Everything they were, everything they wanted to be, every interaction they’d ever had with another being, gone, without even a trace of a memory.

“Let’s try this again. Who gave you this power?”

“Th- the eyes…”

“Whose eyes?”

“His eyes… in the weave… and beneath…”

As Tint trailed off, Balken’s face suddenly morphed in a paroxysm of rage.

“Whose eyes?! Who do you work for?!” Balken bellowed hands grasping murderously at the air. When Tint remained silent, he fixed the Magi at the controls with an icy glare.

“Put the screws to him.”

Neither of them moved an inch, paralyzed with fear. Jacobs somehow found the nerve to speak up.

“B- but sir! Th- that’s not-”

“Then get out of my way!” Balken roared, chasing Jacobs and Sless away from the control stations in barely contained fury.

He gripped the control orbs with whitening knuckles and jammed them forward. The lower claws shot up and plunged into Tint’s ribcage, just below his shoulder blades. Tint’s head fell back, eyes bulging and lips peeled back in a soundless scream.

“Talk, damn you!”

Balken yanked back on the controls, and the claw arms followed suit. The claws wrenched a ghastly black shadow from Tint’s back, completing the humanoid upper torso implied by the arm-like appendage in the upper claw’s grip. The voidling’s head was featureless and cold, much like the rest of it, but it still gave the impression of a set of eyes staring at them from somewhere out of sight.

Balken moved to the other console, taking control of the upper claws. The unused claw struck at the voidling’s free elbow, piercing through the incorporeal flesh. At this, it emitted an unearthly, hollow screech, like the death throes of some unseen creature, heard from the mouth of an abandoned mineshaft. Balken pulled its arms upwards until the voidling was locked in a similar pose to its host. Grinning maliciously, he circled back to the first control console.

“Maybe this will loosen your lips!”

Balken gripped the control orbs and began to twist, causing the claws to do the same. Tint’s agonized screams only stoked the mad gleam in Balken’s eyes.

“Augh! He follows our hands!” Tint shouted desperately. “His one great eye, the- gah! ...the spherical motion… of a ring… tumbling into the river. W- what does it mmmatter which side lands up… when there is nothing in between?”

“Captain, please,” Lieutenant Hawthorne pleaded, “I don’t think he’s in his right mind! Just calm down and we can try-”

“I am calm!” Balken shouted, eyes never leaving the writhing form in the clutches of the machine. “This fucker will talk, and he will talk plainly!

Tint screamed again after a particularly hard twist. “The eyes thirst! Th- thirst for our hours and minutes and ssseconds! He laps at the frayed edges, drawing - ghk! - drawing in the curves and lines! None may deny his s- subsumption!”

“Conrad, that is enough,” Bast admonished quietly but firmly, and from a point unexpectedly behind him and to his right.

Balken’s eye twitched. Now she had the nerve to talk to him like he was a child? He felt a familiar boiling in his blood. The hairs all over his body stood on end, his skin tingling. Muscles twitched and burned as his body readied itself for the oncoming transformation. He turned his head towards Bast.

“Bast, disrespect me one more time, and I-”

But that was as far as he got. A sudden sharp pain blossomed from the base of his skull and the world went dark.


With a disappointed sigh, Bast watched Balken’s unconscious form slump to the ground like a marionette whose strings had been cut. Her tentacle pulled away from the nape of his neck, removing the single claw that had pierced his flesh. Hawthorne gasped and scurried over to her captain, to check his vitals. Bast rolled her eyes.

“He’s just asleep, dear, there’s no need for a fuss.”

“But you assaulted him!” Hawthorne protested indignantly.

“Are you saying I shouldn’t have?” Bast questioned, arching an eyebrow. Hawthorne opened her mouth to respond, but then closed it again. Bast took that as an admission that she held the higher ground, so she continued.

“The Planejumpers have very explicit laws against torture. Unfortunately, it seems Conrad has allowed his personal grudges to influence his decision making. However, I think we can look the other way just this once. The good captain is under a great deal of pressure, and had an emotional breakdown. As long as he agrees to submit himself to some… informal therapy sessions, I think we can all find it in us to forget the last few minutes. Agreed?”

She looked to each of the soldiers present, then the Magi. It only took a glance in the eyes for Jacobs to capitulate, but Sless stood fast.

“And what of the Tint man?” He hissed, slurring his H’s and S’s. “What will he have to say about this?”

Bast sighed. “I believe I may be able to salvage the situation. Give me a moment.”

With that, she turned and prowled around the machine. She sat on her haunches, staring up at the sickly man, ragged of breath and sweating profusely. Bast looked to the Magi.

“Magus Jacobs, Magus Sless, would you come move the manipulator arms into a more comfortable but secure position for Mr. Tint?”

The Magi rushed to follow her orders without hesitation. Hawthorne watched them operate with more than a little awe. It was almost unbelievable to see how much more respect Bast commanded from the Magi than her captain. She was tempted to explain it away as following the lesser of two evils – there was no denying how badly Cpt. Balken had screwed up, after all – but their body language made it clear that the Magi were not just relieved. They wanted to do well by Bast.

Soon, the exposed voidling was restrained by claws clamped around its limbs, rather than pierced through them. The two lower manipulators clutched the voidling’s chest and head, to discourage it from acting up. Tint had winced when the claws retracted from the voidling’s silhouette, but sagged in relief as soon as they were removed completely.

“Mr. Tint? Are you still with us?” Bast prompted. Tint merely groaned in response.

“Good. Mr. Tint, I’m going to try something. It will likely be quite painful, but I think you’ll appreciate the result.”

Bast began muttering an incantation under her breath, waving her tentacles about in geometric patterns. A glowing spell circle formed before her tentacles, and she plunged them through it. As she did so, her tentacles split, the flesh falling away from a ghostly afterimage. She shuddered as the spell completed, leaving her with two extra ethereal limbs and two corporeal ones, limp and useless. She groaned, shifting the lifeless tentacles with her paws so that they lay crossed on her back.

“I’m never going to get used to that,” she complained, then turned back to the man strung up before her.

“Alright, Tint, this is going to burn. Brace yourself.”

The ghostly tentacles swaying above her reached out, reaching around Tint’s head as he leaned back trying futilely to retreat. There was a flash of movement, and the clawed pads latched onto the back of his head like a lover’s hands. Tint’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. Then, a pale, translucent copy of Tint’s face emerged from his own, as Bast pulled his soul away from its vessel.

Tint’s ghost moaned loudly, panting and hissing at the pain of being ripped from his body.

“Agh! Oh… I- I can…Ah… Analise! Wh- where is my Analise?”

Bast grimaced sadly. “Marwell Tint, can you understand me?”

“Ah- I… y- yes, I can. Who… where are you? I cannot see. All is dark,” Tint cried, immaterial eyes searching blindly for a speaker he could not find.

“I need you to focus, Mr. Tint. What is the last thing you remember?”

“The… The last… I- Agh! Oh, gods! It burns!”

“I’m sorry, Tint, but it’s the only way I can keep you lucid. Now please, what do you remember?”

“I… I was in the market… with Analise. A man called my name… from a shadowed alley. He… he offered such riches. Enough to feed my family for years! I asked him: ‘What must I do?” He smiled, and handed me a black seed. Told me to swallow it. I… oh cruel fates… what have I done?”

“It’s not your fault, Tint. But what next? Do you remember anything else?”

Tint expression grew agonized. “P- pain. So much pain! And hunger. And his voice in my ear, saying:

“‘Make it interesting.’”

Bast bit back a snarl. Of course the Stillness would employ psychopaths. Why wouldn’t they?

“Did they mention anything about their plans? Names, places, times? Anything?”

“I think… I was a distraction. I heard another in my head. Heard them speak of an acquisition. They were using me to… to collect a shipment of metal. They called it… burgeonite? That it was the last material they needed for their plan. And that the destination was…” Tint trailed off, apparently wracking his memory for the information.

“Was what?” Bast begged.

“T- Tellurian… on the far edge of the… the third… ring.”

Bast clenched her jaw, eyes darting back and forth between thoughts. When she realized no epiphany was coming, she sighed and looked back to Tint.

“Thank you, Mr. Tint. You have been a great help. I will be leaving the manipulator here, so you can remain separated from the voidling. If all goes well, you may regain some lucidity without having to resort to all this.”

“Ah, m- my wife. What of my Analise? And my children?”

Bast remained silent for a moment.

“If I hear anything new, I will let you know.”

It wasn’t technically a lie. She already knew that his family was dead, killed by his own hand. Recon had told her as much. But she couldn’t bear to bring a man in so piteous a state bad news.

“Tha… thank you.”

Bast eased the spectral Tint back into his body, then disengaged her claws. The ethereal tentacles laid themselves back into their fleshy counterparts, and a moment later they twitched back to life. Bast rolled her shoulders and turned back to the assembled soldiers.

“Alright, gather up your captain. We’re leaving.”

“B- but what about the rigging?” Jacobs protested.

“As I said, we will be leaving it behind. Marwell Tint has been nothing but helpful, and he may be of further use if we can help him regain his senses. Besides that, I’d say we owe him at least a few reparations by now, wouldn’t you?”

Jacobs bowed his head, nodding in shame.

“Just remember,” Bast continued, “you are not responsible for Cpt. Balken’s poor judgement, but we all share the blame for not stopping him sooner, myself included. We must do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Now let’s move out.”

Bast felt Hawthorne’s watchful eyes follow her out of the room. She wasn’t quite sure what the Blades lieutenant thought of her, but she suspected that neither did Hawthorne herself. It would be interesting to see what her opinion became after this, but Bast had more important things to worry about. There was research to be done, and done quickly. She had no idea what burgeonite was, its applications, or where Tellurian might be, but she had no doubt that she would not like the answers.

“No no, that’s quite alright, dearie! We’ve got things well handled around here.”

“Yeah, uh… The Equestrian Disaster Relief fund issued our indemnity already. We’ll just let the builder ponies do their thing and we’ll be back in business in no time. Ha ha.”

Sam frowned, distress etching lines into his forehead. It didn’t take a genius to deduce that Mr. and Mrs. Cake were accepting his apology so readily because they hoped he would leave sooner.

“Oh. Well, if you need anything else, please, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“There’s really no need. You just enjoy your stay in Equestria. We’ll be just fine,” Mrs. Cake asserted, beginning to close the door on him. Sam hurried to finish his thoughts.

“Okay, well, if you change your mind, just-”

The door slammed shut.

“-let… me… know.”

Sam sighed, turning away from the door. The four girls that were able to make it – Twilight, Pinkie, Rainbow, and Fluttershy – gave him reassuring smiles. But they were vastly overshadowed by the distrustful, frightened, and even accusatory stares directed at him. Although never to his face; he always saw them out of the corner of his eye, and whenever he turned his head, they quickly looked away. Plus, there never seemed to be any ponies near them, even though he could always see activity only a single street away.

Everywhere he went today, it had been the same thing. The mayor was exceedingly polite, despite the scathingly passive-aggressive “don’t make trouble” speech. But when they visited the optometrist, the poor old stallion was so jittery that the lenses nearly popped out of his frames. And the barber outright refused to see him until Princess Celestia stepped in. The dentist had been the only one remotely excited to see him, but she had a strange, almost unsettling fascination with his canines. Without a doubt, Sam knew everyone in town had already heard about what happened in the basement of the Cakes’ home.

I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. Word travels fast in small towns like this.

“It’s okay, Sam,” Pinkie tried comforting him, “I’m sure they’ll ask for your help once Sugarcube Corner is fixed up.”

“Or they’re being exactly as careful as they should be,” a familiar, feminine voice responded, piercing through the air above them.

Sam looked up to see the darkened silhouette of a pegasus circling above them. She glided down to their level, and Sam felt his heart fall into his stomach. Cloudchaser’s eyes bored into him with the pinnacle of disappointment and betrayal.

“So… here we are,” she observed ominously.

“Y- yeah…” Sam stammered. “Uh… Hey, Cloudchaser. What’s up?”

“I think you know exactly what’s up,” she spat, eyes narrowing.

“Cloudchaser, stop it!” Twilight demanded. “You don’t know what’s going on.”

“Don’t I? Not even a full day passed after we spoke before he broke his promise and got into a fight. With the Princesses!

“Yeah, because he was being controlled,” Rainbow cut in, swooping up into Cloudchaser’s face. “Look, I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s the truth. He was being possessed by a Nightmare. We even blasted him with the Elements of Harmony, for crying out loud! If he’s still around after that, I think we can trust that he’s gotten all the bad mojo out of his system.”

Cloudchaser peered around Rainbow, fixing Sam with a piercing stare. Sam swallowed. Now was the time to say something, if ever.

“I… I know it looks bad. Really I do. But do you honestly think I want to cause problems? I’m stranded here, alone, in an alien land, for who knows how long. The worst thing I can do is make enemies. I just got dealt a shi… shifty hand is all.” Jeez, not swearing is going to be harder than I thought.

Cloudchaser examined him for a few more seconds before sighing explosively.

“Ugh, fine, I get it. But I’d be walking on eggshells from here on, if I were you. If you can’t find a way to keep your promises and stay out of trouble, then I can’t guarantee you won’t have an angry mob knocking down your door.”

With that parting shot, she sped off angrily. Rainbow Dash looked like she wanted to chase her down, but thought better of it.

“It’ll be alright, Sam,” Fluttershy comforted. “Ponyville will warm up to you. It might just… take time.”

Sam sighed, disappointment sticking in his throat. “Yeah. Sure… Hey, can we just… I don’t know, call it a day? I think I just want to go to sleep right now.”

The girls exchanged concerned looks. Then, after a quick glance at the sun, steadily approaching the horizon, Twilight spoke up.

“Actually, I think that might be a good idea. It’s getting late and I do have important business to take care of tomorrow.”

“Oh?” Sam queried, trying to wade through the mire of his depressing thoughts.

“Zecora is scheduled to return from her research trip to the Poison Joke meadow. Hopefully, she’ll be able to shed some light on the fruit you were eating.”

“Ah. Yeah, that would be nice. As things are, anything I can do to avoid a relapse and stay under the radar will be paramount.”

“Well, I don’t know what a ‘radar’ is, but you shouldn’t worry about it so much,” Rainbow said, dismissively waving her hoof. “I break plenty of stuff around Ponyville, and I’m still here. Now, we just need to figure out where you’re crashing for the night.”

Still not exactly brimming with confidence, Sam nevertheless turned to face the group, waiting for their judgement. Twilight frowned and stared at the ground rubbing her chin.

“Well, for reasons I think we all understand – even if we don’t agree with them – I don’t think we’ll be able to find an inn that will take him at the moment. So one of us will have to host him.”

“I would, but my place is no good; I live in a cloud home,” Rainbow said, shooting Sam an apologetic look.

“And I don’t think I have enough room in the library. The boutique might, but I doubt Rarity has a bed in your size.”

“Can’t she just make, like, a big ol’ nest outta her fabrics?”

Twilight raised an eyebrow at Rainbow. “Do you honestly believe she would allow her fabric anywhere near the floor?”

“Okay, you have a point.”

Sam noticed Fluttershy raising her hoof just up to shoulder height, peeking out at her friends from behind her bangs, but she went entirely overlooked.

“Oh, oh! He could stay with me to Sugarcube Corner!” Pinkie shouted excitedly. “Then we can have a sleepover, and we can show the Cakes how much of a softie he is, and-”

“Pinkie, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Twilight advised.


Again, Fluttershy tried to attract her friends’ attention, but was just too quiet to be noticed. Even he barely heard her speak, and he had been listening for her.

“But why not?”

“I think they need some time to… come to terms with Sam.” Twilight noticed his face screwing up in distress and quickly backpedaled. “It’s not a reflection on you personally, Sam. It’s just… their house was damaged only a couple days ago.”

“Oh. Okay…” Pinkie conceded sadly, her mane inexplicably deflating.

“I- I could-”

“Well, what about AJ?” Rainbow offered. “Her barn’s plenty big, and she has bales and bales of hay he could sleep on.”

“I guess that could work. Sam, what are your thoughts on hay as bedding?”

Sam flattened his lips, not wanting to immediately shoot down their offer. But there was no way he was going to sleep on dried vegetation. Waking up so itchy that it burned was quite low on his bucket list. He really only had one other hope.

“I, uh… I think Fluttershy had an idea.”

Fluttershy, who had been scuffing the ground with her hoof in defeat, jumped at the sudden mention of her name.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Fluttershy. I must have missed it. You really should speak up if you have something to say. So what was your idea?”

Fluttershy looked annoyed for the briefest of moments before she swallowed her nervousness.

“Um, well, I was going to say that you could continue staying at my cottage, if you wanted to,” she mumbled, speaking directly to Sam.

“Are you sure, Fluttershy?” Twilight questioned. “I mean you already care for so many animals, will you be able to find room for a guest too?”

“Yes, of course,” Fluttershy asserted, beaming proudly. “Sam may have fallen asleep on the couch before I could lead him to it, but I have a bear-sized bed in a side room of the cottage. I use it whenever I take care of very large, sick animals. Oh, but it’s entirely sanitary, I assure you. I wash it very thoroughly afterwards.”

“Great!” Sam exclaimed, a bit too quickly. “No offense to Applejack and her barn, but I’d rather sleep in a bed than on hay.”

“Eh, suit yourself,” Rainbow said with a shrug. “Those hay bales are actually pretty soft.”

“Well, if that’s all taken care of, I’d suggest we call it a day. I have a feeling tomorrow’s going to be a busy day for all of us.”

In short order, everyone had said their goodnights and was headed for home. Sam trailed after Fluttershy, letting her guide the way towards her cottage.

“Thanks again, Fluttershy. I’m in your debt. If you need any help around the house, I’d be happy to lend a hand.”

“Oh, that’s okay. You’re a guest, and still recovering from malnutrition, no less.”

“Still, I’d like to do something to help out.”

Fluttershy hummed apprehensively. “You really should be resting, especially after all the recent excitement… I’ll think about it. For now, let’s just get you to bed, so you can get your strength back.”

Sam clammed up, letting the subject drop. To be honest, he was starting to get a little frustrated. First, the townsponies all ostracized him, and now the girls were treating him like he was made of glass. He knew he wasn’t exactly projecting an air of strength, but they didn’t have to coddle him.

Whatever. Tomorrow, I’ll show them just how helpful I can be./i]

Brother Aaron was discovering just how helpful Hounds of Tindalos could be. Without their help, he realized he would only have gotten half as far as he was now. He tried not to give them too much credit, though. After all, he was the one holding the leash.

He floated weightlessly along behind a sled team of cosmic horror. Ugly and Fuck took places behind The Hound Formerly Known As Fugly in his new position as lead dog, swimming with the extended wing membranes of their forelimbs. They pulled Aaron through the aether by their energy tethers, following an undetectable trail. Aaron couldn’t tell how long they’d been drifting through the Astral Plane, but, to be fair, he’d given up on keeping track of time long before now. Not that he’d be able to keep track of time in a timeless realm. So, when they finally came upon something, it only felt like it had been a few hours since he’d set out.

Out of the aetheric fog, a wall of shimmering color loomed up before them. The Hounds shuddered, panting excitedly, and began to prowl along the border, searching for a way in. Aaron yanked on their leashes, pulling them up short before they could tunnel through the Veil. It seemed they had found their quarry. Aaron sneered.

Fucking hell, look at this place. It’s so damn… bright.

Despite his disgust with the childish feel of the plane, Aaron couldn’t help but feel some excitement bubbling up to the surface. His first real look at a different plane of existence, and already he was being allowed on a hunt. This organization was already turning out to be way better than the brief trials he’d spent in other groups in his previous life.

Fuck you, Boy Scouts of America. Nobody in the Stillness will tell me I can’t go on hunting trips.

Unless, of course, he screwed this one up, so he would have to be smart about this.

Which means I can’t just go breaking through the Veil. I do, whoever’s in there that knows magic will be able to sense it. And I can’t have the asshole knowing I’m coming. So… I need to find a wormhole in – or wyrmhole, or however the hell that’s spelled and pronounced – through another plane. A couple planes out would be even better. But for that, I need to know where to go.

A plan in mind, he cleared away the rest of his thoughts, preparing for commune. Whatever knowledge he lacked, the Watcher in the Weave would provide. So much more helpful than any of the old, human gods. The errant thought brought a smirk to his face before he could marshal it away. Finally, with his thoughts in order, he opened his mind to his god.

The slippery, icy presence of the Watcher immediately filled his consciousness, settling in like a metric ton of dead fish, and smothering all but the strongest of his thoughts. The edges of his vision darkened, the aetheric winds became muffled, and the scent of frozen flesh filled his nostrils. Aaron felt the Watcher sift through his mind, plucking at details, searching for the reason for its summons. He offered up his recent memories, hoping it would be enough for the void dwelling entity to piece together his plight.

In moments, understanding flooded the empty spaces of Aaron’s mind. His location in the multidimensional realm, the connections into the target plane, and the chain of planes beyond that; everything was unceremoniously crammed into his brain. Aaron could hardly move for fear of his skull bursting from the inside out. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the Watcher withdrew, leaving Aaron’s mind with one last clammy, lingering caress.

Aaron shuddered. Helpful, yes. Unpleasant, most definitely. Nothing would ever be able to prepare him for contact with the Watcher. At least it left his sanity mostly intact, apart from a lingering sensation of the thinnest sheen of mucus on his skin, though repeated pat downs revealed nothing left behind.

Well, at least I know where to go now.

Aaron steered the Hounds away from the Veil, and the idyllic looking plane beyond. His hand itched, and he had to squeeze the handle of his blade until he could feel the inlay digging into his skin. It wouldn’t do to lose control now, especially when he was so close.

The first guy to block my path. Just remember that… I’ll cut down the first guy to block my path.

His temper steeled, Aaron let go of the dagger and returned his attention to his Hounds. With a flick of the arm, he pulled them away from the Veil, and set them on course for the plane that would mark his entry point.

I’ll see you soon, you fuckin’ cock-a-roach, Aaron thought, settling for amusing himself with his best Tony Montana.