Spike of All Trades

by Ariamaki

First published

"Wouldn't it be great if life were like a game?", some people ask. Spike can definitively answer... "Maybe."

After years of being the runt of the litter (despite having no siblings), Spike finally comes into his own and starts to grow up and mature. The thing is, a dragon's version of adulthood comes with... complications. And while it might not be as visibly obvious as a Cutie Mark, Spike quickly realizes his life is going to be changed forever by what his magic has given to him.

Chapter 1: Statistical

View Online

All credit for the concept of The Gamer and ownership of the associated light novels and webtoon belongs to Sung Sang-Young. A debt of inspiration is owed specifically to Ryuugi at Spacebattles for his seminal work 'The Games We Play'.


Spykoranuvellitar, Grand Paladin of the Order of the Scale, found himself barreling down the corridor faster than even his fantastic Move Speed could carry him. That was because he wasn't moving of his own volition: Rather, he had been hit with an attack so powerful it sent him flying. The blow in question came from the gigantic hewn tree-trunk club of the ogre in front of hi... No, scratch that. As he felt the terrible impact of the wall against his spines, he re-adjusted his thinking. It came from the ogre at the other end of the hallway. He had been thrown thirty, maybe forty feet (the corridor was ten tiles long, but he was too dazed to do the math) in one enormous slap of its club, and his fellow adventurers were not faring any better. A sickening crunch radiated out as somepony was battered into a wall, although it was quickly followed with the soft yellow glow of the party Cleric's healing magic.

Now they were all scattered across the field of battle, nopony in range to flank the beast, their best ranged units forced into melee, their best close-combat fighters struggling with the huge distances it could throw them. There had to be some kind of guiding intelligence for this beast: No ogre was capable of coming up with such tactical fighting, much less implementing it. It was far more likely that the Master of this Dungeon was toying with them, strings beyond strings, keeping them on their toes. At this rate, the next Wizard they fought might have a level of physical Strength to rival his own.

"Regroup! We-"

He hesitated, something in his head felt wrong. As a leader, he had an instinctive knowledge of what the group was able to do. And that information was looking more bleak with every passing moment. The realization hit like lead shot to his gut, more sickening than the ogre's club had been.

"We're... I don't think we can win this. We're running out of options."

A faint blue glow permeated the Paladin's mind... Or to be more correct, it flickered in front of Spike the dragon's actual eyelids somewhere else. This was just a daydream, after all: He was half-sleeping (he had hazily woken up half an hour ago and decided to stay in bed) and somepony was shining a light in his actual eyes. Spike knew Twilight wasn't awake yet, and she really wouldn't do something that mean to him anyways. He flipped over muzzily, trying to get away from it: Maybe a window got opened? Regardless, the light seemed to follow him. He growled and burrowed his head down between blankets and pillows... And it followed. He closed his nictitating membranes, the slightly cloudy eyelids beneath his eyelids, and still he could see the light. That... that was almost certainly a problem.

He blinked once, then twice, before finally cracking his eyes open and staring. Nestled deep into his pillows, slightly raised so that he could see it all in the tiny space, was a blue box. Not a package, but a two-dimensional window in three-dimensional space, like a heads-up display or a menu in a video game or a sci-fi comic (see 'Power Ponies: In Space! Issue 37', he absent-mindedly recalled). The text was written in basic Equiform, clean and crisp as if it was from a typewriter: Again, like he'd see on a game menu.

OPTIONS

> GAME
> AUDIO
> VIDEO
> SOCIAL

Spike popped his head out from underneath the bedding with a frustrated grimace.
"Cut it out! I get it everypony, it's very funny. Sure I've been playing too many games and reading too many comics, but come on! I was getting some well-deserved... beauty... Um."

Twilight status: Yeah, totally still asleep. Room status: Nobody here but us dragons. Window status: Still floating weirdly at a sort-of comfortable distance from his face. In fact, it moved with Spike's eyes, always staying within view but not whipping around so fast as to dizzy him. He could see through it partially, so it wasn't even obstructing him that badly. Waving a clawed hand through it... Didn't disrupt it in the slightest, and he didn't even feel that faint tingle of trying to touch magic. It stubbornly refused to disperse, leaving him muttering in confusion.
"Why do I have an options menu?"

And as soon as the words left his lips, it was gone. He blinked again, thinking back. When he'd been dreaming, and then again now...
"No way. Was it because I said... Options?"

The window returned as if it had never been gone. He started grinning.

"... Game."

Nothing. But... Button. Oh! It's a button. He reached out and hesitantly 'clicked' the empty space with his finger, the same way he'd select it with a joystick or a gamepad. The button-of-sorts really did depress as he did so, at least visually, and the screen changed to match.

GAME OPTIONS

> DIFFICULTY AND MODES
> HUD MANAGEMENT
> DUNGEON OPTIONS
> CONTROLS / INTERFACE
> BACK

"OK, as weird as this entire situation is, let's mess with something less weird, relatively. Back."

No dice. Another click button, or... Actually, if it worked the first time, it should have worked this time. Well... Spike put a bit more oomph into his voice this time, not with volume but with emphasis and mental focus. He wasn't just saying the word, he was issuing a command.
"Back."

And that did it: The menu transitioned back to the previous state. Seemed to accept touch or emphasized vocal inputs, but not just casually saying the words. At least, that was a hypothesis: He'd have to test it more later.
"Sweet. Audio."

AUDIO OPTIONS

> SFX VOLUME> BGM VOLUME> DIALOGUE VOLUME
> LANGUAGE (DISABLED)
> SUBTITLES
> BACK

Volume... Yeah, hitting those just showed him sliders. BGM was all the way at 0, and after he slid it to 10 he could actually hear music... Pretty catchy, too. He dropped it back to around 2, just in case, um, well, he wasn't quite sure in case of what (maybe it had battle transitions?), but he never turned it all the way off in games anyways. Of course he also had no idea what was even going on, but he was never one to look some gift weirdness in the mouth, especially when nopony else was involved yet. He just didn't get to have as many adventures as everypony else, and even if this adventure was entirely in his own head and ended with him in Ponyville Sanitarium?

He'd take what he could get.

"Subtitles... Right, OH, yeah, neat. Let's change the color a bit though. Turn on the outlines... Extra neat. Um. How quiet can I be and have this still work?"

A minute or so later, Spike was barely even speaking, unable to so much as hear his own voice over the music... But the faint purple-and-black letters at the bottom of his vision still spelled it out perfectly, all in clean crisp Equiform. This was cool, but he was a little irked that his own brain had better clawwriting than him. Next step for testing that... He'd need somepony else to be talking where he shouldn't be able to hear it very well, or even in another language. But that's for later... Regroup, take stock, think about Twilight's lessons about science. Not her lessons about, like, chemistry or astronomy, but her lessons about the science of science.

Lessons like 'Study things from every angle available to you, seeking first to cause no harm, second to leave no traces, third to come away having learned something.' Or the classic 'Any test in which you learn something and nopony gets hurt is not a stupid test, even if it might seem like it. Try everything, within your means and within reason.' And of course, 'It is always valuable to maintain your skepticism in the face of the impossible, but evidence is evidence, and until it is shown otherwise, arbitrary skepticism is the same as willful ignorance.'

Well then, he could temporarily exclude any ideas that required another pony to test: Like if this was only visible to him, if his subtitles worked on other ponies or if they translated other languages, and so on and so on. Leaving him with the more immediate issues, like if he could work on figuring this out without looking crazy to anypony looking. So! Test #1: Are the menus just voice-and-touch driven, or could he command it in his head somehow?

Spike concentrated hard and thought the word "Back" with as much emphasis as he could. It didn't work. He 'clicked' a random space near the button. Nothing. Space between the buttons? Nada. Poked the screen with a nearby quill. Not-a-thing. He said the word "Back", without any emphasis. Still the same. He said the word "Rear" without emphasis. Nu-uh. Said "Rear" with emphasis... Nope. Finally, he went back to the tried and true method of saying the right word with the right emphasis... There we go. Theory confirmed.

"Verbal controls it is. So... Why were some of those menus disabled? I mean, one of them was just sound related, it wasn't even a game thing. Lemme see here, it was... Audio, Language."

The menu shifted once, but then a new box came up, a small lemon-yellow alert.

You do not meet the requirements to change this setting.
Required Intelligence: 125
Alternate requirements: ???

"Whaaat. OK, intelligence. Capital I Intelligence. Like a statistic? Um. Character sheet? Stats. Attributes. Traits... Status?"
And there it was. This... was a lot bigger than he'd even thought.

Name: Spike
Class: The Gamer
Title: The Gamer

Level: Lv 1
HP: 100/100
MP: 50/50

STR: 10 (-) (+)
DEX: 10 (-) (+)
VIT: 10 (-) (+)
INT: 10 (-) (+)
WIS: 10 (-) (+)
LUK: 10 (-) (+)

POINTS: 0

(Confirm?)

Chapter 2: Observance

View Online

Yeah, that... That was a character sheet.

Absorbing that information slowly, his eyes chanced upon a few 'tabs' of several other windows attached to this one, with names like INVENTORY and SKILLS. For now, he focused on what was in front of him: Six stats, most of which he recognized even by abbreviation: It wasn't quite the Oubliettes and Ogres set, but he figured it out. Next to those were buttons to raise them, a button to confirm the change, and buttons to undo mistakes before confirming... So any decision made here was probably permanent. Not that he had any 'points' to spend.
"Ten, ten, ten... Tens across the board. And nothing to spend. Is ten high? Is ten low? Am I... do I suck?"

"Spike, of course you don't! Where did you even get the idea? ...Also, what did I say about using phrases like "I suck"?"

Whoops! He woke Twilight up with all of his menu-navigation, so that was a problem. His (highly complex still-hypothetical relationship-word that encompassed employment, friendship, family, and still-weirder things) Twilight Sparkle was rolling herself out of bed and looking at him... sadly? She probably only heard the last bit of that and just assumed he was putting himself down for whatever reason... Aaand she'd heard him swear. Well, sort of swear. As bad as he ever got, anyways, and normally he was pretty good about keeping even that much under wraps.

"Oh! No, sorry, that was out of context, I swear. Um. Also I did swear, sort of? I'm sorry, I swear."

She giggled at the puns, and Spike turned around to actually face her at the same time... Which brought him to a cold stop. Above her head, words floated much like his new-found menus.

[Faithful Student]
Twilight Sparkle
LV 27

So this... Either it was spreading, or this whole 'thing' had broader applications than just giving him menus. Spike looked her up and down, trying to see some detail that might explain it, but he really wasn't able to discern it. But there was one way to check, and it would help him try to explain.
"Twilight, can you really focus for a second and say the word 'Options'?"

She scrunched her muzzle and shrugged.
"Sure! I'll assume it's for some kind of project, you can tell me about it afterwards. Options. OK, was that good?"

Spike watched Twilight's expression, and nothing changed, so it was a pretty good bet that it hadn't done anything on her end. And she hadn't really reacted to looking at / above his head, so (if he even had one, not like he'd seen a mirror yet) she didn't see anything there either.
"Yeah, that's fine. How do I put this... I woke up with a bit of a problem this morning."

Twilight's expression became a bit more motherly and she plopped back onto the bed with a sigh.
"Oh Spike, I thought we'd already talked about-"

"NOPE, no, nope, Spike noping, not what I meant. Yes we already talked about 'that', and 'that' is not what's happening. I mean, any moreso than usual."

"Huh. Alright, fair. So what exactly..."

"I'm seeing things. Um, and hearing them. And maybe feeling them? But not like I'm sick or being tricked with an illusion, I don't think? But you probably aren't seeing them. I'm not phrasing this well."

This time, her horn flared up as she looked him over, the faint tingles of magic on his scales making him shiver. He could still clearly see his Options menu, and the words over her head, and if she could detect all of that in some way it would save him a lot of trouble and confusion. But the spell faded before he saw any reaction, and Twilight shook her head.
"Sorry Spike, but I'm not noticing anything out of the ordinary. What kind of 'things' are we talking about here?"

It's not like I even know myself, he groused in his head. But still, he owed her an explanation for waking her up, and maybe she could even help him.
"Alright, so I was having a dream about that 'Oubliettes and Ogres' campaign that Shining ran for me and the Crusaders last time he was in town..."

Twilight rolled her eyes, and he felt a very brief flare of anger and indignation, although it sputtered into nothing within a moment. She had every right to be disbelieving of him, especially given how much he'd been binging lately, but so fast? He hadn't even gotten a full sentence out, and she was the pony who taught him to always keep an open mind when shown... Evidence. Right. He could talk all he wanted, but-
"Spike, like I said, I didn't notice anything, and I feel like my diagnostic spells are pretty accurate. I think you just need to cut back on the comics and games for a bit, alright? Here, actually!"

She trotted out of bed and over to one dresser, removing a small pouch with her magic. He stared at it curiously, wondering if it had bits, some kind of gem-based apology, or something else inside. If only he could see it a little more clearly...

A skill has been created through a special action! Through continuous observation, a skill to discern information about your target, [Observe], has been created!

His attention was torn away from the bag, Twilight's words, and everything else. This was new. And this was big. A skill. Not just options or a status screen but a power. He had an ability. All he had to do, if it was anything like the rest of this, was say:

"Observe."

[Sparkle Family Allowance]
A well-worn pouch, used to store money to give to children. Currently contains: 20 Bits.

Well, that answered that question, although this situation still asked far more than it answered. If he could get a skill like that so easily, what's to say he couldn't get another? What would the limits be? Before that though, he had to finish trying to convince Twilight.

"Here you go! I've got some business up in Canterlot today, so I've got to get on the train in a bit, and I'm not going to be back until after dinner. I know you can handle cooking on your own just fine, but until then? Have fun in town, alright? I'm sorry I couldn't give you more notice."

...Oooor convincing would have to wait until later. At least now he had the whole day free to figure this out, experiment, and visit the shops. Oooh, he could visit Rarity, too! This was shaping up better and better, even if Twilight didn't believe him yet. Still, it was worth a shot at resolving early.
"So, uh, what about all the stuff I'm experiencing?"

Twilight was already trotting down the stairs by then, so he followed her to the Library's foyer as they talked.
"Spike, you are my Number One Assistant, and I really adore you, but... I don't think it's a concern. If you're still having these problems once you've really woken up, then we can talk about it again tonight before bed, OK? I promise that we'll do some thorough science to it then."

That was better than nothing, Spike supposed. And if he was lucky, this problem would solve itself with itself: Twilight would leave and come back, and he'd have figured out some more about what was happening, maybe even a way to prove it was happening. Or several, if he was lucky.
"Sure. Thanks, Twilight."

She smiled, her magic already levitating a pair of well-stuffed saddlebags off of the rack.
"Hey, don't thank me yet: If you're right and I'm missing something, I'll owe you an apology."

He hugged her quickly, only separating as she began walking towards the door.
"No apologies necessary. And have a nice trip, alright? I'll stock up the groceries, take care of the mail and stuff, and get us a nice midnight snack while I'm at it!"

Their conversation had made its way outside of the library entirely at this point, so he was a little annoyed when she laughed at him: What if somepony heard? Oh well, he was used to little things like that at this point, and he had to admit...
"Midnight seems like a bit of a stretch, Spike. I'll be back by eight or nine, and I know you'll be awake then, but midnight?"

Well, she wasn't wrong: Even with age, his sleep pattern still hadn't caught up to everypony else.
"OK, you got me, I am wounded, etc. So... See you later?"

"Of course."
A quick peck to his spines and she was off.

Chapter 3: Invention

View Online

One beat, two... He waited until she was completely out of sight and then immediately wheeled around and went back into the Library. He had some things to figure out and test that would probably be best done in private, in case he embarrassed himself or broke something. Even in the brief moment he had been outside, however, he had seen dozens of names and levels, as well as a small handful of... Titles, he guessed? So he had to go check himself, and that meant a mirror.

When he finally got to the bathroom, it wasn't as big of a surprise as it could have been. He'd already seen his status window, after all, so it had all been written right there. Still, there was something very... final about seeing it in those stark blue letters floating gently overhead.

[The Gamer]
Spike
LV 1

"Well. That answers that. Level One, though. How do I even level up? I didn't... Wait. Status."

There it was, nestled in among the other things: A thin empty bar, unlabelled, that he normally associated with XP in video games. He tapped it thoughtfully with a claw, and was only caught a little bit off guard when a description popped out, a window on a window.

Experience
0 / 1,000
This tracks your experience towards levelling up as The Gamer. Experience towards levelling is earned by completing quests, solving conundrums and defeating enemies. The growth of EXP for levels and all skills is modified by WIS and certain WIS-related skills.

"Wait, skills that level up with their own experience? I mean, I guess that one Power Ponies game had something like that, with the superpowers... Right, skills! Um, Skills."

Here was a huge bank of square boxes for displaying icons... Most of them empty. There were, however, three icons shown: A brain overlayed with some kind of futuristic video game controller (six buttons and two joysticks, plus the arcade cabinet wasn't anywhere in sight!), a silhouette of his own body wreathed in what looked like green fire, and an open stylized version of one of his own eyes. He ignored the eye for now, since he had an idea what it must be. So the other two...


[Gamer's Mind] (Passive) Lv Max EXP: N/A
Allows the user to calmly and logically think through any situation with a peaceful state of mind. Grants total immunity to psychological effects.

[Gamer's Body] (Passive) Lv Max EXP: N/A
Grants the user a body which lives through real life as though it were a game. All damage is taken to the user's HP without visible or functional injury. Sleeping in a bed restores all HP, MP, and negative status effects.


"OK. This is totally getting weirder, but not a bad weird. That thing about injury, though..."
Well, it was bound to happen by accident at some point anyways: Spike bit down on the corner of his tongue. There was the usual wince of pain, accompanied by a red bar appearing over his head and ticking down by a tiny fraction... But no taste of blood. Hooking a claw into his lip and pulling it wide, he stuck his tongue out (not out-out, but enough to see) and... No blood, no injury. A few seconds later, even the pain was gone faster than usual, and the bar a moment after that.

"Huh."
That was cool. Some kind of healing factor, although how good of one... He brought up his Status again and tapped at the health meter to see more details, like he had with the Experience bar. Yeah, more details... He apparently recovered 1% of his HP per minute, and he had 100 total health right now, thus 1 HP per minute. Wait, really? Did that mean he could get seriously messed up and be fine in less than two hours? That wasn't quite superhero levels, but it was way more than normal, even for a dragon. Looking at the details of his other bar, called MP... Yup, it was mana points (just like Sweetie's class in O+O) and it was the same deal, 1% per minute.

But his MP was only 50, so not only did he have less of it, the recovery was worse too. That seemed weird, since his VIT (Vitality, he assumed) would logically govern his HP and his... INT, probably? Intelligence made sense as the one for MP. Back on topic: That seemed weird because the two stats were the same, but the bars were different, implying MP was more valuable, or at least harder to come by.

Wait, why even bother wondering what stat did which thing? He could just tap one and... Tap one and... Um. Tap one of his stats and not get any response apparently. Fine, so there were limits to this user interface. Probably something he should have expected sooner. Although maybe it was less a problem of limits, and more that he needed to think of a new solution. He had a feeling that a lot of things might be that way, not just in games or this situation, but as a general rule. And Spike also felt that he was pretty well-equipped to handle lateral thinking by those same games.

It turns out that a lot of the most popular games in town weren't actually very fun, but instead required a lot of pattern recognition, memorization, or outside-the-box thinking. Bit-eating instant death adventure games, hard puzzlers with weird solutions, that kind of thing... Not to say that everypony didn't also like a good fighting game or a cloud-kicking topscroller! But there was something that really drew you in about those sadistic challenges. Spike had beaten one or two of them over the last few months, even the timing-based memorization-heavy Basilisk's Domain, making him and Button the only two with winning scores on that vicious monster of a machine.

And that wasn't even getting into what Shining Armor could do to the party when he ran a game of Oubliettes and Ogres after a hard week training the new recruits. Spike had been introduced into one of Shining Armor's Canterlot groups as a sort of henchman side character only to end up making his own PC by the end of the night, and things just escalated from there. Soon after, it wasn't limited to Spike's trips to Canterlot: After a few months, he and Twilight had convinced her brother to come down to Ponyville every few weeks, take some time off, visit family, and run games. The Elements had been considering trying it out one day, but for now? It was Spike and the Cutie Mark Crusaders, and every session was a whole new experience.

And his gaming relationship with Shining wasn't all O+O, oh no! Spike's surrogate-big-brother-sort-of-pony had been a big influence in his life over the last year or two, getting him even further into games, comics, and all of Shining's old hobbies. It had made Spike feel like an even closer part of the family, and it had also made him feel... Smarter. Smart enough, anyway, that this felt more exciting than frustrating. So what was the first rule of solving a puzzle in those games? Look where you aren't supposed to. Get as much information as possible, especially if you're not on a time limit. And, leaving the bathroom to look at the clock, Spike did a little math. If Twilight wasn't getting home until after dinner, he had at least twelve hours to do his chores, go into town, and figure out as much as possible about... this.

Because whatever this whole thing was? It had quickly gone from being a mystery to being a challenge, and he had no intention of backing down.

For starters, since he was looking at the clock anyways...
"Observe."

[Wall Clock]
A round clock manufactured in Ponyville, designed for hanging on walls.

Observe's level has risen by one!

The system message popped between him and the box he had been reading, so he quickly closed it with an irritated tap... But he noticed the text behind it was slightly different than when it had first opened.

[Wall Clock]
A round clock manufactured in Ponyville, designed for hanging on walls. It currently reads 7:23

"Three good pieces of news there. I can read clocks without looking at the face now, skills level up just from being used, even a little, and if I use a skill it updates... automatically? Wow, sure is a step up from the buffs in O-and-O. Oooh, that reminds me, I should be writing this all down."

Spike quickly made his way back up into the bedroom he and Twilight shared, finding what he was looking for a minute later. For his recent birthday, he had gotten a journal from Twilight, along with a sappy hoof-written card about how it was like giving him a book, but one that he could write himself and decide how things turned out... Sap or not, he had carefully glued the card into the front cover so he'd never lose it. That, plus a good sturdy travel quill and a bottle of ink and boy his claws were full now. So now he'd need somewhere to... put it...

"Status."

Looking over the screen again reminded him that there were other tabs: SKILLS, he'd already checked. MAP, that would be good to investigate later. QUEST LOG, currently dark and probably unusable. But INVENTORY, that was definitely an attractive idea. Clicking it (after setting down the journal to free up a claw) revealed a few dozen empty boxes, like the ones from his skill window. There was no prompt or other message, so he took the quill (easily replaceable if something went wrong) and gently pushed it towards one of the boxes. There was a faint vworp of motion across the vision as the quill vanished, quickly replaced by an image of itself.

"...Observe?"

[Travel Quill]
A feather writing quill made by Davenport, reinforced for carrying without splitting the tip.
Currently stored inside of your Inventory.

Not only did he have an inventory, he could see the things inside. And he didn't feel the quill anywhere on himself, didn't have any pockets... Was it just a sort of storage space? There was a word Twilight would use here, nebu... something, but he understood the gist on his own. Honestly, this might be the biggest thing he'd discovered yet. And a few minutes later, that became very literal: He went on a spree of Observe'ing everything he could think of that wouldn't be noticed if he put it away for a while and then stashed it. Spare snacks, a few more quills and inkwells (the quills even stacked into one space!), the journal, his backup blanket, a few comics, and so forth.

By the time he was finished with his little rampage, Observe had gained a handful of levels and he had a dozen filled inventory slots. He went back to the clock and gave it another look with his newly-levelled skill.

[Wall Clock]
A plain black and white round-framed clock manufactured in Ponyville at Time Twister's Chrono-Emporium, designed for hanging on walls. It currently reads 7:28, even though the current local time is 7:26.

"...that's going to bug me."

Chapter 4: Questing

View Online

Thankfully the clock was an easy fix, although it took a bit of verbal fumbling before he figured out ‘Time’ was the exact command to see his own 'built-in' clock. Not long after, it was 7:30 sharp and every clock in the house agreed on that fact: Something Twilight would certainly appreciate when she got home. The only reason they'd been off at all was because it was getting close to Rewinding Day anyways.

With that taken care of, it was late enough that he could handle breakfast and begin running down today's checklist. His journal's first act had been to contain all of his current information (summarized severely and working from the back forwards) about what he was already thinking of as 'The Gamer'... It gave him a title, he might as well run with it.

His journal's second act would be to hold a full itinerary of the day ahead. And that meant...
"A list!"

So, categories first. Broad strokes went down on the page, dividing it into quarters, top to bottom:

> Chores
> Food
> Gamer
> Free Time

After all, he had a lot of things to do for Twilight today, and he (probably) still had to eat and stuff. So those were all givens. Then after that, he could work on figuring this power out, and kinda do... whatever. Visit the CMC, visit Rarity, spend his allowance, that sort of thing. But before he did any of that, it was best if he made a list: Not just because Twilight had hammered the importance of it into him so many times. No, it was good to make a list for posterity. He had already figured out a lot of things that would be hard to keep track of, so best to track it early and often to cut down on the problems. First up, the chores.

> Sort new book shipment (boxes 1-4 in the foyer)
> Reset clocks (already done!)
> Serve overdue fines (see List F7)
> Make beds (mine and Twi's)
> Do dishes (from own breakfast)

That wasn't too bad, he felt. It could have been a bit worse if the Library actually had to be open today, but Twilight had been planning this trip out of town for a little while, so... Actually, wait. She had been planning, but never got around to telling Spike what or why. So she was just leaving on an early train and coming back fourteen-odd hours later? That was... well, he'd ask about all of that when she got back. 14 hours... Not only would this be his longest day in a while (counting naps as going to sleep), but that much time meant breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the promised snacks.

> Breakfast (at home)
> Lunch (Hayburg's Hayburgers or Sugar Cube Corner)
> Dinner (wherever I didn't have lunch, I guess)
> Snacks (for Me and Twilight)

Not the most complicated of lists, but having objectives felt good. It gave him a sense of direction to what could otherwise have been a day of lazing about. Plus, there was this weird tickle in the back of his head, like this was more important than it seemed... Of course it was! Because the next step was figuring out this new... thing. And he had a good idea of how to break that down.

> Investigate Menus (just at least check them all, write it down. Draw it?)
> Work on Observe (use it on everything. no cost!)
> Look at Ponies (titles? levels?)
> Get XP if possible (quests?)
> Figure out more skills (got observe by observing... duh)

There, that seemed pretty complete. No, there was a better word... Comprehensive! That was it. And that was it, all of the things he absolutely needed to do. Which left a quarter of the page for him to do whatever he wanted. Given the options available to him, that seemed pretty obvious...

> Visit Rarity (<3)
> Visit Cheerilee + CMC (before class lets out)
> Visit Other Ponies (as needed)
> Hit the Arcade, Look at RPGs (research!)

Spike frowned at the list for a moment, because it seemed incomplete. There was something... Oh, right. It had been at the back of his mind for a while now, but it was actually going to be relevant soon. He hadn't convinced Twilight this was actually happening... Hay, he hadn't actually convinced himself until he saw Twilight's level and his power corrected the clocks. But even given that, could he convince other ponies? Should he?

Eventually, he put one last line on the page. If there was any one pony he could rely on for weird, it was her. Well, and one non-pony, but they were currently kinda occupied being evil. And a statue. In Canterlot. So that was off the table for multiple reasons. Still, his first choice would have been to go this route anyways, even if other options were available. It just... felt right.

> Talk to Pinkie about The Gamer

There was an enormous sound in his head, like the ring of a porcelain bell scaled up to the size of a building. At the same time, a strange thrill-and-chill ran up his spine (and out his spines) as the list in front of him changed colors... No, not changed. It was just overlayed with a colorful window full of mostly identical text. The added words were what really caught his attention, though.

STORY ARC: My First Day As The Gamer
By making a concrete plan of action to tackle a situation far outside of your understanding, you have begun the first step of your epic journey. Spend your first day grappling with your new power as effectively as possible, and reap the rewards: It's a boost up the ladder to get you started!

Objective: Do all 4 Quests (Chores, Food, Gamer, Free Time) by completing all 19 Sub-Quests.
Failure Condition: Leave more than 0 Sub-Quests incomplete by 9:10 PM today.
Reward: All Sub-Quest Rewards, All Quest Rewards, 50,000 EXP, 200 Bits, ???, ???, 'Proof'

For a while, all he could do was stare. He had only meant to make things more clear in his head, more organized... But this? He'd found something huge. So many zeroes, such big numbers... And, if this thing was right (could it BE wrong? he had no idea), it would give him what he needed to prove to Twilight that this was all real. A grin started spreading, slow but sure, until his smile was bigger than it had been in months.

"...Oh. OH GEEZ. I... OK. Calm down Spike. Just... Deep breath. Coil up the tongue. Brush the scales. Journal into inventory. And then let's get started!"

Chapter 5: Shaving

View Online

First things done first, of course: What could he handle fastest? Making the beds was trivial, but he wanted to give the eggs time to warm up out of the fridge for breakfast, so... Food preparation. Eggs out and on the counter, chives too. Parmesan (from the pantry) and cheddar (fridge) came out, some spices from the rack, two pots went down on the stove: Milk and butter. He could leave all of this for a few minutes, which was more than enough time to take care of upstairs chores.

See, Twilight wasn't exactly an absent-minded professor stereotype, but it got close some days, and so Spike had gotten very used to doing the chores and cooking whenever possible. Especially over the last two years, she had relied on him more and more until eventually he barred her from the laundry room entirely: Organization was neat (heh) and all, but socks did not need filing. The nice thing was that today wasn't a laundry day, so all he'd have to do was the beds... And they were already done by the time his thoughts caught up to his claws. It helped quite a bit that neither of them was a nervous move-around-all-the-time sleeper (anymore).

In the back of his head, he could feel rather than see the sensation of one of his objectives being marked off. There was no reward to go with it, but that was to be expected: The simplest items on the list were probably just parts of a whole, instead of having any real impact on their own. A lot of the missions in games like Unicorn Alley worked that way, with the payoff being at each big step.

> Make beds

Beds taken care of, dishes not dirtied yet, too little time to do the boxes... Although there was enough time for him to mutter a quick "Observe" at each one of the containers, practicing his whispering and his skill at the same time. According to the skill readouts, it looked like they were all low-cost (but decent quality) copies of magic-related textbooks, split up into a box each for the three pony races and then a fourth 'general' box. That would be for Twilight's new education wing, then. He could take care of that after breakfast, get everything done at the library in one swoop, and then head out into Ponyville for the rest of the day.

Back in the kitchen, Spike stopped and took a deep breath. This was, if not his favorite place in the Library, definitely in the top three. Despite catching flak for it sometimes, he enjoyed cooking and every related thing. There was something very cool and kinda awesome, about making things everypony relied on to get by each day. With that in mind, he continued his original plan: A super-duper cheesy breakfast souffle! A little extravagant, sure, but he could afford to spend some time on it, especially since he was multitasking. With a little fake Prench accent, he began narrating his own cooking to a nonexistent audience, spamming his lone active skill all the while.

"Observe as I take this spare butter and use it to grease up a nice one-serving dish. Then I'll Observe with care to coat all that butter in delicious parmesan without letting any spill. Off that goes to the... Yes, the freezer! Very Observeant of you. And you can Observe that I've already heated the butter and the milk, and I can start adding the spices to the butter. Soon we'll Observe the milk and butter getting combined, but first I'll beat the egg yolks, get them nice and smooth... There we go!"

It was a contrived way to do things, but he had fun trying to mix the term in to every step of the process. Eventually he hit a point, somewhere between tempering the yolks and whipping the whites, where he had to start just saying "Observe" over and over until he sounded like a broken record. But that only lasted a minute or so, because then he was folding the whites in, filling the souffle dish, and scooting it all into the oven.

"Let's see here..."
He went to clear his view of the various pop-ups that had appeared while he was working. Level up boxes for Observe, a good four or five of those (its growth had started to slow down even as he used it more), and... Oh wow, he had wondered what that flurry of smaller boxes had been...

By [Cooking] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 10%
By [Cooking] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 10%
By [Cooking] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 10%

And on and on like that, until he hit 100%, gained the Cooking skill, and then a solid three levels in it to boot. Apparently starting off with such a hoity-toity recipe had been worth it, speeding up the process of creating... A skill for Cooking. Spike was already pretty confident in his food game, but had a feeling it was going to be a lot more literal in the future, not to mention even better. One day his muffins would induce fear and respect among all who witnessed their buttery glory.

"Heh, I slay me. OK, that takes like half an hour to bake, and the quest didn't update, so I guess the food has to be finished for it to count? Or eaten. Either way, I can go manage those books."
Snipping open the tape with his claws was easy: They may not have looked it, but the tips were wicked-sharp. Made some things a lot harder, but it was nice to have his own tools. Actually... Tools, or weapons? Or both? Whatever they counted as, maybe he could get a skill for them.

"...OK books, you're going to have to wait. I've got a date with some leftover gems. Ooooh man, come to think of it, shaved citrine would be fantastic on my breakfast! Two birds one stone, heh."

A trip over to his gem stash, and then a brief shrug before he tipped the entire thing into his Inventory. The gems automatically sorted themselves out into separate stacks by grade and color, which was cool... Unfortunately, it also made it a bit of a mess, since these were mostly castoff gems that weren't worth keeping or giving to Rarity. A little searching for crisp orange-yellow led to him finally finding the main stack of citrines and withdrawing one. Problems or not, at least his inventory made it easy to split stacks up like that.

Now for the hard part. Letting the tip of his tongue dangle out one corner of his mouth, he squinted at the gem in deep concentration. Before he carved, he should see what he could learn with his newly-levelled skill.
"Observe."

[Citrine]
A quartz variant with a brilliant yellow luster. Like all Equestrian gemstones, it comes straight out of the ground in a simple cut and polish (in this case, radiant cut with a clean finish). This stone in specific is of decent quality, not good enough for jewelry yet bearing very few major flaws.

After the description, there was a brief list of what he guessed were chemicals or elements in the stone, and a vague summary of where the biggest single flaw was. That would be useful if he wanted to destroy it, he guessed, but his goal was a little more controlled.

Gripping the gem in one clutched claw, Spike slowly rotated it against one edge of his other claw. He did this a lot when Rarity needed specific cuts or thin little scraps of gem to make some of her more flexible outfits, and whenever he wanted a good snack. That was casual, however: Now he was focusing hard on the action, trying to clearly see if this could get him a skill.

It was slow going, since he was making an effort to think about the process instead of just doing it by rote. By the time the entire gem was whittled into a few dozen pieces of varying thickness, he hadn't gotten anything... But the biggest chunk of it contained what his Observation told him was the gem's most significant flaw, and now it was very close to the surface.

"Here goes nothing..."

Chapter 6: Inheriting

View Online

"Here goes nothing..."
Spike tapped one claw-tip hard against the spot, piercing directly into the stone like it was butter. A moment later, it split jagged across three different faults, all centered on the tiny piece of impure dirt at the center. A trio of windows popped up, and he had to restrain himself from cheering.

By using [Craft] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 10%

A skill has been created through a special action! Through fastidious shaping of stone, a skill to carve the world, [Earthshaper] has been created!

A skill has been created through a special action! Through discovery of your own finesse, a skill to sharpen your heritage, [Dragon's Claws] has been created!

> Figure out more skills

'Heritage', was it? That... There was a faint pain in his heart as he looked at the final window. It had been a long time since he really thought about what it meant to be a dragon, his 'heritage'. Most of those thoughts had been about how decidedly un-dragon-like he was. Maybe this was a sign that he'd be changing that? Maybe he'd become a proper dragon without having to abandon his friends... Or he already was one. He'd have to discuss it with Twilight, but for now, skills!


[Earthshaper] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.0%
A skill given to those for whom working with dirt, rock, gems and all the other products of the earth comes naturally.

Passively improves the quality of your work with all earthen materials by 10%
Passively reduces the difficulty of working all earthen materials.
When used as an Active skill, you may consume Stamina to double the passive benefits of this skill and increase the speed at which you work. Stamina costs and speed increases vary.


Stamina? He had Stamina? I mean, obviously he did, he got tired... He got tired more often than he'd like, frankly. But the game hadn't said anything about it... Maybe it was a hidden stat, derived from one or more of the others? That would make it like his Defense Total in O+O, or the sprint meter in King Blaster... That made a lot of sense, since Stamina was normally something you only think about when it's gone. And maybe his new nature would make it easier for him to stay awake! Wishful thinking, but hey: This was already like a wish come true. And part of it...

Well, part of it was this.


[Dragon's Claws] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
To a dragon, their claws are proof of their dexterity and skill. They hit harder than the hooves of a pony, have more control than the hands of a minotaur, and show the claws of a griffon to be the mockeries they are. None shall face the claws of a dragon unscathed, and this skill is that fact given form.

Allows for precise control of your claws, as well as the ability to retract the tips and edges safely.
Passively increases all other effects that benefit your claws by 10%
When used as an Active skill, your claws are enhanced to strike vicious blows or work even the most durable materials, dealing increasingly more damage based on the MP spent.

This skill will grow with DEX and skill levels, gaining new features over time.


He whistled softly as he read over the details, and then flipped back to Earthshaper's description. Nothing about it had changed, but... He had a feeling that as long as he worked with his claws, these two would combine awesomely. Right now it would just be another single percent, in total, but... Shining Armor had taught him the importance of force multipliers and stacking numbers, especially when it came to building game characters. Even a simple base like 10% of 10% could quickly grow, especially if he found a way to work on increasing both skills together.

Maybe he could go out with Rarity, hit the quarries, and dig for the gems the long way around, through the stone instead of the relatively-soft dirt she usually directed him to. While he was at it, he could incorporate gemstones into his Cooking (which he was already thinking of as capital-C "Cooking") more often. And by Observing every gem for the weak spots, value, and other details (he was hoping for flavor), he could 'optimize' his training, as Rainbow Dash would put it. There weren't a lot of things she would get nerdy about, but training and exercise topped the list (with Daring Do as a close third).

This felt like good progress: It left him with a long-term plan and the means to accomplish it.

Careful planning caused your WIS to increase by 1!

He stared. He blinked. Blink. Stare. Blink. Smile.
"...Oh, so it works like that, huh?"

Even more big news: Normally in games, especially in more 'crunchy' ones like O+O or Unicorn Alley, stats were fairly fixed unless you got more for levelling or used some super-major artifact. But if he could just get stats by exercising them... Well hey, that was how it worked normally, right? So now he could think of all that work in his original skill plan as being stat improvement too. The plan he had already made would cover Dexterity, for sure, and maybe Strength. Vitality, if he worked himself hard enough.

Speaking of Vitality, he totally had a way to drain his own Stamina at will now, so that might be, in the words of Button Mash, "bah-roken". Wisdom from making plans and strategies, probably Intelligence from... studying? He'd have to ask Pinkie how you improved Luck, though: Even if she didn't know what was going on when he asked, she'd almost certainly have an answer. So the good news so far was that he had learned a ton in just an hour or so, but he had a feeling that was only because he knew so little to begin with: Large gains relative to a small base.

Yeah, the quest had even said this was a little boost-along to smooth out the early game, like the scaling experience in a lot of games. Any time now this parade of sweet discoveries would fade into the longer slog of working up individual skills or desperately studying his own menus for hints and clues... Weirdly, that had its own kind of appeal to it. The last time he made a character (for a superhero game that Shining brought as a breather between campaigns), he spent nearly two days poring through different 'splatbooks' to find the right mix of fun and useful for the sake of the group. This was even better, because he'd be improving himself, for real.

Checking his Time... There was a good twenty minutes left before the souffle finished, so he could spend the rest of this time messing with menus. At the very least, he wanted to get drawings of them all down, or at least written lists, so he could talk about it with others more easily. Starting from the top, then...

OPTIONS

> GAME

> DIFFICULTY AND MODES
> HUD MANAGEMENT
> DUNGEON OPTIONS
> CONTROLS / INTERFACE

> AUDIO

> SFX VOLUME > BGM VOLUME > DIALOGUE VOLUME
> LANGUAGE (DISABLED)
> SUBTITLES

> VIDEO

> COLOR BALANCE
> ASPECT RATIO
> VISION TYPES (DISABLED)

> SOCIAL

> PARTY OPTIONS
> COMMUNICATION OPTIONS
> FRIENDS LIST

Yeah, that looked like everything. Another disabled menu, too: But hitting this one told him he needed INT 101 or any of... a bunch of unknown alternate requirements. What caught his interest the most, in the end, were the Game and Social options. Experimenting with Audio had been fun, but while he was in that menu, Spike turned off the subtitles and music he had left on earlier. And Video didn't have many options to begin with, plus neither of them were things he wanted to mess with. But the Social options implied he could make a party, just like in a tabletop game, or that one fancy multiplayer game he saw in Canterlot last year... Plane of Battleforge or something like that.

Now that had been a cool idea for a game: There were a dozen cabinets all placed together, and anypony could sidle up to an empty one and pick up their character from the last time they played, dropping into a connected game with everypony else at the same arcade. Allegiances formed and broke in mere minutes, but the progress made was stored forever in the magically-infused crystal nodes that made it all work. Spike hadn't gotten a chance to play, but he had seen a lot of things similar to what his ability was showing him: Menus, parties forming, inventory that didn't care about size or shape or weight, skills being levelled with use.... It was enough to make him wonder.

Well, maybe he could look into that game and its makers next time he was in Canterlot. For now, he would make do with what he could learn by himself, from himself, of himself.

"Game, Difficulty and Modes."

Another one of the small pale-yellow alert boxes.
NOTE: All contents of this menu are for reference only. There is no user-controlled ability to change the difficulty or mode of a particular scene. Instead, they change contextually.

And then it listed a lot of things he couldn't see, obscured under a strange haze and a wall of ???. That was... Less useful than he had hoped. So apparently his game did have difficulty, but not in the "Are you playing on Hard Mode" sense, instead more like "Stage 7-2 of this game is harder than Stage 8-3 even though it's earlier, because 7-2 is an underwater level". It would change on its own, and he had no clue what that change even did. So one mystery down, another up, no net gain of information: This really was like one of the arcade's nastier puzzle games.

The next piece of the puzzle was "HUD Management"... Ooh, he could make his HP and MP visible in the corner of his eye, that was kind of nice. It would also make his... Stamina...
"Really? It's not even on my character sheet but I can make it visible here? Gah, I hate when menus hide stuff like that! Step up from not being able to see it period, I guess."

"Dungeon Options" was all ??? again, probably because he'd never so much as seen a dungeon, unless the one under Canterlot counted (he was pretty sure it didn't). Games tended to use dungeon less to mean "deep underground multi-purpose prison" and more to mean "contained adventure space", which Spike preferred. Seemed like his menus agreed, but he wouldn't be able to see how or why anytime soon. It's not like he'd stumble into a dungeon on the way across town... Right?

The Game category ended with what Spike guessed might be the biggest, most important section of them all... And he was right. Just looking over the "Controls / Interface" section (although it took him a moment to realize he was not supposed to say "slash") revealed such fantastic concepts as "Subvocal Command" and "Focus-Based Buttons", not to mention controls for changing his handedness, tail prehensility, and tongue articulation. The good news? The first two worked, and turning them both to 'ON' allowed him to control his menus and use his skills without anypony else being any the wiser. The bad news? All of the others were locked behind assorted levels of DEX, INT, VIT, and unknown ???-coated prerequisites.

And so all that was left of his menu adventure was the Social options. He wasn't surprised when the Friends List ended up being empty: Which is not to say that he had no friends, but rather, this interface probably had some special way of declaring a person a "friend" officially, in the system. Communication Options had a lot of submenus that were locked down behind more stat and (he assumed) skill requirements. And Party Options... Brought up a message telling him to form a Party first. To make up for that small setback, however, it told him how. The error message spelled it out right there:

To access Party Options, first form a party with others using the command "Invite NAME". Note that some features are only available if members are within certain level ranges.

Chapter 7: Orienteering

View Online

As Spike wrote that information down in the back of his journal, he felt that slight shiver again and saw the quest popup.

> Investigate Menus

The shiver redoubled itself a split-second before the little clock by the oven went off.

> Breakfast
Reward: A good meal is its own reward, 10 XP
Cooking 'Recipe' Registered

Right. Rewards. His previous quests had been so simple that he hadn't thought about them for a little bit, but this one... Maybe he had complicated the process so much with his fancy breakfast that it was actually worth the bonus? Either way, he had gotten some XP, which meant any minute now... And there it was, a third quest ping, thankfully spaced out from the others.

> Get XP if Possible

That helped support his theory of rewards only being given when it was hard enough to justify it. And it knocked another item off of his list. That only left two more that he could realistically do in the Library, unless he felt like using Observe on every single book or something... Actually, that might not be a bad idea for later. Maybe a shelf a day or something? Planning later, getting his precious food out of the oven now. There was a bit of leeway on that, since he set the timer to go off a little early: Let's be serious, he was all about crunchy burnt pieces, but souffles did not mesh well with them, especially because of the whole deflating thing.

Spike popped open the oven and took a look: The cheese-infused and very eggy column of flavor was safe... For now. But once he extracted it, gave it a moment to stabilize, and began the attack? No, there would be no safety in deliciousness. The citizens of Single Serving Souffle Dish-town learned that quickly as the dragon attacked, laying waste to their parmesan battlements at the same time as his vicious claws cracked the sky of their home... To make a long and fairly ridiculous story short, breakfast today was extremely good.

Between every few bites he sprinkled in the shaved citrine pieces from his earlier practice, creating a really great mixture of smooth, crunchy, gemmy-lemony and savory. Spike was a bit surprised by the other thing it created: Another level-up for Cooking. Was it because the skill was so low, that just seasoning food would count? Did the game consider it to be 'improving' the dish in some special way? Or was it because of the other box that had popped up in front of his eyes...

[A Satisfying Meal]
By eating food of a quality and quantity above the minimum required to get by, you receive a small buff for a short period. The buff's nature varies based on the kind of food consumed.

Cheese-Citrine-and-Chive Souffle: Enhanced movement speed, 4 hours.

That was something worth testing, and he did: As soon as the food was done, he tried dashing from place to place in the kitchen, gathering and cleaning the dishes and cookware as quickly as he could. The end results were, well, a little bit good and bad. He could definitely feel the change and appreciate it, but it didn't seem as strong as it could be. And a quick check of his Status showed why: The effect was percentage-based, so it only had his (poor) base speed to work with. On somepony like Rainbow Dash, this would probably be a huge boost, but he was not Rainbow Dash... OK, apart from that one time when he was.

Less-than-helpful buff or not (although now he had the idea stuck in his head: COULD he give this buff to Rainbow Dash, or anypony else for that matter? It could go either way: Was it unique to him because it was his power, or could he share it because it was his cooking?), he got another quest completed in record time thanks to the little boost.

> Do dishes

That left the books here in the library, and then he'd be off and out for the day. Everything he had done so far had been pretty... arbitrary, things he could have done first or last without a lot of time difference in the long run. Now though, Spike had to figure out a sequence: Even with the speed granted by the food in his belly, Ponyville was kind of sprawling for a small town, and doing things out of order could completely wreck his schedule. In fact...

"You know what? The books can wait. I've gotta come back home to make the snacks later anyways, not to mention dropping off the overdue fines I collect... Yeah, that makes sense."
In fact, the fines were probably the first thing he needed to check up on: It's not like repeat offenders of book not-quite-theft all lived in the same neighborhood. He could route out his other stops based on both timing (no sense visiting the schoolhouse before classes were close to letting out) and the location of the fines. Of course, actually doing that would require him to have a map... Wait. Waait.

"Map."
There it was, even more transparent than most of the other menus (probably so he can keep it up while moving): a respectable map. It was an unlabelled overhead view, sure, but he could recognize the room he was in when he saw it. And this made sense: Even adventure games like Cloudedge had a map, so it would be a bit strange if he didn't. Right now it showed the inside of the Library, but he was able to zoom it out to show the neighborhood. Presumably, another zoom would expand it to Ponyville as a whole, and another to the whole region, then Equestria, and... Well, given the little greyed-out parts inside a lot of houses, probably not a lot. At a glance, it seemed like the map only showed places he had personally been.

For now, anyways.

Cloudedge had given the player all sorts of options to move from one spot to another eventually, and even at the very start of the game? Getting a quest to go somewhere usually put it on your map even if you had never been there before. Which probably meant he could zoom his map out another step and... Not see anything special. So he didn't have that type of objective markers, either "yet" or "ever".

...Or was it because he hadn't actually checked the list of fines? Video games could get away with creating information out of thin air, but maybe this new ‘ability’ of his was more discerning.

Since he had to do it anyways Spike tromped his way up the stairs, eventually flicking through the little rotary file Twilight kept near his writing desk until he found it: List F7. He started reading the names and addresses as well as the books involved and the actual amounts of the fines. Then he checked his map again... Haha! No need to take the list or memorize it: His map did spawn a set of markers showing the details he'd just read. No extra information, or tracking the ponies in question... But It was more than enough for what Spike was doing right now.

They were all over town, and none of them could have possibly owed enough bits that him carrying the fines home would be a problem... even before he got an Inventory. So if he went from here to the first house, then to Sugar Cube Corner to talk to Pinkie (he could hit SCC again for dinner on the way home), that would swing him out past the second and third houses before he got to Carousel Boutique to talk to Rarity. From there to Gillie's open-air arcade (man, he hadn't been over there in FOREVER), then to the fourth and fifth houses and the school. Sure, he might have to kill some time before classes let out, but he had a lot to work on anyways.

Chapter 8: Mystery

View Online

From there, things got a little fuzzier, because the odds were very high the Crusaders would haul him off in who-knows-what direction as soon as he got there. And then he'd tell them... What? That he had somehow become a living video game character? Up until now, he hadn't actually considered what might come as a consequence of telling ponies what was going on. Since the Crusaders were his close friends and also the most likely ponies to spill the beans if he tried to keep it secret... If he was going to make a decision on the matter, now was the time. Twilight's advice settled down onto his mind in the usual way, and thus Spike considered the angles.

Pros: He'd have a social group close to him that he could talk about the whole thing with. He'd have ponies to show off to. Maybe he could help them get their Cutie Marks. Maybe they could help him pick up and train new skills. It would be fun.

Cons: He'd have a social group close to him to talk to anypony they felt like about the whole thing. He'd have ponies to show off to. He might end up helping them get their Cutie Marks. They might help him develop new skills. It would be dangerous.

...Well, that was a pair of distressingly similar lists. Arguments about "fun" and "dangerous" being synonyms aside, this really did feel like an arbitrary choice. Telling them could get them all into odd situations, not telling them could hurt feelings, they'd probably find out eventually anyways... It was that last bit that he felt was the most important. Be it through deliberate focused meddling or just bad luck, the Crusaders would positively absolutely certainly get mixed up in whatever he chose to do. Heck, the odds would probably increase along with the danger he got into (asymptotically, the Twilight-trained part of his brain chimed in), so keeping them in the dark would be worse and more dangerous for them and others.

Why did he think of danger now instead of earlier? That was simple (to him, anyways): Before thinking about this particular wrinkle this had been his problem, and his mostly-alone. As soon as he got other ponies (especially ones his own age) involved? Then the risks actually mattered. But hey, as far as risks went, how much worse could this be than anything the CMC had already done? He himself probably was not a danger or a threat, and he wasn't planning to do anything too insane. Even if he were going to do anything risky, this is a group of fillies who have already dealt with basilisks and worse. And maybe...

Maybe nothing would happen. Just because he happened to have an ability that told him about his HP, gave him damage resistance and regeneration, and defined his claws in terms of their attack power... None of that meant this had to be a dangerous game. ...That was a pleasant thought at least, but his life had already been weird and dangerous even before today! From general Ponyville madness to the Everfree Forest, the Changelings, Discord... There was always risk in life, but maybe now he'd be better suited to face it.

Honestly, his power could probably be used to help protect ponies from all those things. He had MP after all, and a lot of games had buffs. Plus breakfast had just proven he had the ability to get and maybe give perks (albeit small ones) with food alone, much less spells.

So it was probably reasonable to chalk up the "danger" side of the equation as being, um, not much worse than usual. He didn't have any real concerns about keeping it a secret, so long as ponies respected his privacy as much as they already did. Getting the CMC their Cutie Marks... He'd be lying if the thought didn't have a kind of appeal. It's one thing to say that you and your friends were always meant to be together, it's another to have literal evidence of it the way Twilight and the Elements did. And as far as skills went, well... Here's hoping this game has a way to track tree sap resistance.

As for telling other ponies, he'd cross that bridge when he got to it. But for now, there was no question that he was going to tell the Crusaders and the Elements: He'd already told Twilight, he had a quest to tell Pinkie, he'd never keep that kind of secret from Rarity... No questions about it, it felt best to just get ahead of any misinformation, confusion, or drama. 'Tell early tell often', or something like that.

That might be easier than it seemed: If he ended up walking Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom to their houses after school, and then took Scootaloo to Rainbow Dash's place... That would actually run him by all the Elements except for Fluttershy. And the list of fines was going to force him out towards her place anyways, so there it was: A solid plan!

Now to just hope and pray nothing wrecked it.

Spike's first trip out of the Library since his new powers came to light was... Well, enlightening. He learned many useful things in those first few seconds. There were two dozen or so ponies milling about on their way to work, getting breakfast, or doing chores in the early hours of the morning... And only a tiny handful had a 'Level' higher than 7, with nopony breaking double digits. All told he saw three or four titles, universally attached to the rare outliers who were closer to 10 than not.

On top of his inherent sight of titles and levels, using Observe told him a fair bit more: Now that the skill had a decent level, it was showing him a Status screen much like his own, only slightly less detailed. Level, title, class, stats, a brief personal history, and any status effects they were under (he saw a few colds and decided to steer clear). No skills or other tabs, but perhaps that would come in time. Even the few things he saw were a bit weird. He didn't know a lot of these ponies that well, but he still saw cold details about their history, their work, their families...

Something to get used to, he supposed. It certainly wouldn't get in the way of how he saw or treated them, nor would it get in the way of his training.

Spike continued to watch ponies and use Observe on absolutely everything, even clouds and garbage, as he made his way to the first house he had to visit on "the patrol". Twilight usually did the collection of fines and overdue books herself, but sometimes it all piled up and Spike ended up taking a big list and heading out into town. Today's wasn't so bad, only seven or eight ponies, even if a few of the fines were pretty sizable. Plus the weather was great for the season: Seems like the Pegasus patrols had scheduled a nice spring shower overnight, leaving the town cool but not too chilly outside, and the ground was just a little soft under his claws.

The first target was within a stone's throw of home, so he only gained a few Observe levels on the way... Still, it seemed to be getting a bit irate about how often he was using it on 'meaningless' things. The descriptions of rocks, clouds, and random objects started to give more detail in an almost sarcastic tone... Which brought up the question of where this information was coming from.

Yeah, he was sure it was all true (he'd never seen or heard of a game that lied to the player in the UI: there was a bond of trust there), but how did his power obtain the facts? Was it just reading it from their 'profile', in some way? Was the information just... there, already true and merely waiting to be learned? He remembered Twilight going to a symposium about some kind of 'information body' outside of physical reality... The Akashi... something-or-other.

All of that was over his head right now, and even if it weren't, he had a schedule to keep. Dealing with the first fine and the accompanying overdue book was a breeze (Ms. Marker was a bit new to town, and hadn't realized it was a book her son had taken out from the library for a project), and it was doubly easy since he could just surreptitiously tuck them both in his Inventory as soon as he was out of sight. From their house it was a quick zig and zag across the street (making sure not to run into anypony, since he was a little faster than usual) to the front of Sugar Cube Corner, where he could see Pinkie hoofing out samples of some new creation.

Observing the samples showed that they were some kind of breakfast dumplings. She was passing them along to ponies along with little tiny dabs of hot sauce or lemon glaze, seemingly at random. Either that was just traditional Pinkie Pie cuisine, or she could tell which ones were savory and which were sweet without so much as looking. Even odds of either, actually...

Regardless, Spike went to Observe Pinkie herself and was not very surprised to get an abnormal response. He was a little surprised by the kind of response. After using his skill, he felt a terrible crack of static, like a detuned radio that had been slammed into the ground, and saw absolutely nothing except a brief blip of pink and blue, like a window struggling to open before being slammed shut in the same instant. That was new and worrying. Looking above her head, he saw an... explanation?

[A Magenta Mystery]
Pinkie Pie
LV 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375...

Chapter 9: Check Engine

View Online

[A Magenta Mystery]
Pinkie Pie
LV 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375...

...Well, it was the closest thing he'd ever get to an explanation where Pinkie was involved.

Her title, name, and level were all written in an almost painful neon pink instead of the now-familiar sky blue, and her level kept going, far into the distance outside Spike's field of view. Hoof it to this pony in particular to break through expectations and leave nothing but confusion in her wake... Well, maybe she'd be able to help clarify some things he was thinking about. After all she enjoyed a lot of games herself, plus she helped out with various birthday parties at the arcade...

Beyond all that it was Pinkie. If she didn't have a weird insight into the situation he would eat his hat. If he had one. Scratch that: He'd go get himself a hat, and then eat it. One made of diamonds! Or sapphire, obsidian, whatever. He wasn't gonna be picky.

Given that strange burst of whatever from his Observation, he felt cautious about approaching. In the end he trusted his friends: He put his best foot / claw forward and stepped over to the pony.
"Hey there, Pinkie!"

"Oh! You're up and about super-duper early today Spike: More chores from Twilight, huh?"

Spike wavered one claw in the air ambivalently, reaching for a sample at the same time.
"Mmmaybe. She had some kind of all-day thing up in Canterlot, personal business."

She nodded sagely at that while Spike popped the morsel into his mouth.
"I totally know how that goes! Does it have anything to do with those blue words?"

Aaand a bystander got showered with dumpling debris.
"Sorry, what?"

"The bluewords! Over your head. They're very blue. And kinda words."

"Iiiii think we need to go inside and talk. Um. Whenever you're done doing... this."

Looking around, they realized that everypony had seen Spike, the dragon notorious for eating everything up to and including Baked Bads, spit-taking one of the samples. Weirdly, that led to far fewer ponies (you could even say zero ponies) coming up to take a sample of their own.
"Eh, now's probably fine. I mean, I've gotta get started on today's biiig project anyways!"

She did an about-face and trotted into her home / work, and Spike followed, if a little reluctantly.
"How big are we talking? Because if it's MMMM-level, I'm out."

"Um, not that big. Still big though! Feeds more ponies, but isn't quite so..."

He dodged his way around furniture and ponies alike as Pinkie took as obtuse a path through the store as she possibly could. Thankfully, most of the place was empty, so he got to keep his apologizing to a minimum.
"Complex? Sugary? Enticing? Shrouded in marzipan and / or mystery?"

Pinkie dropped off the remaining dumplings on the counter with a wide smile. The smile, and the rest of her, quickly vanished below the counter a moment later.
"All of the above and below, so shall it be!"

"...Riiight. So it's relatively simple and not brain-meltingly sweet. Would it be alright for us to talk about the, ah, blue words, while you work?"

When Pinkie popped back up, she was wielding an apron, which quickly found its way onto him: He didn't question it, nor did he question the brief pop-up box telling him that he had equipped a 'tabard-slot' item which gave him very minor protection from heat and a Cooking buff. If anything, Pinkie seemed to care more about the notification than he did.
"Oooh, a yellow one this time! What's it say?"

Spike moved to shush her, but it was futile: Even if anypony had been listening, it was still Pinkie. He knew to pay attention to most of what she said because he was a friend, but a lot of ponies in town just wrote it off as Pinkie-being-Pinkie. Which... They weren't wrong, but that didn't mean she was wrong either. It did mean they could talk freely, safe from concerns about ponies wondering what was going on. If that failed? The tried and true standby: "We're just talking about a game."

"Wait, I thought you were really good at reading backwards."

"Uhhu! And upside down. And backwardsupsidedown... cake? No, that'd be too tricky to make in four dimensional space. But all I can tell is that it's got words on it, not what the words are."

...So even to somepony like Pinkie, Spike's UI was something only he could truly see. That was actually kind of a relief: It meant he'd basically never have to worry about being peeped on while he did Gamer things. Pinkie was his gold standard for being able to see the imperceptible after all.
"Let's go to the kitchen and get started on this big project of yours, OK? We can cook and talk."

"Aaww that sounds great! We haven't cooked together in a while~! What was it last, the Morose Muffin Monsters of Maudagascar for my sister's birthday care package?"

"Yeah, that was a good time. Hey, she never did come visit after that."

"Mmmh, yeah. Busy with rock troubles."

"I'll... take your word for it."

The kitchen at Sugar Cube Corner was always immaculately clean when it wasn't being used that exact minute: Pinkie always cleaned up after herself, and the Cakes were very good at watching each other's backs while they worked. Spike had a fair feeling it would get a lot nastier in here by the time they were done, especially if the gigantic him-sized stack of banana leaves had anything to do with what they were making.
"Speaking of words, let's speak some words now!"

Spike was planning to tell his friends about this, but he didn't see any reason to let the information spread too much outside of his own control.
"You sure nopony can hear us back here?"

"Deffo! So spill the beans!"

"Wait, like, metaphorically or literally? Because for all I know we're cooking beans."

She blinked a few times while mulling that over.
"Oh. Right! Mmmmnope, no beans. Leaves, dough, onions, peppers, garlic, squash, more onions, different peppers... but no beans. I meant word-beans."

"Word-beans. Sure. Well, it started this morning with a bad dream about a game, and then I woke up. The bad dream was over, but the game part just kept going..."

He ran down the entire thing so far, each aspect he had discovered or experienced. With some other ponies, he would probably tell them a brief summary or even just the concept alone. But it felt like Pinkie (and likely Twilight, later) would be the kind of pony who would ignore information overload and just wanted to know it all. So Spike told her every last detail, sparing nothing. She was quiet throughout, which didn't surprise him: There was nopony like Pinkie Pie when it came to listening to your problems.

By the time he was finished talking, they were up to their respective wrists and fetlocks in thick corn dough, enough to cover the entire counter... Which was actually the plan, apparently. In the same way that Pinkie had let him speak, he just kind of let the concept of the cooking wash over him without worrying about the details. She knew what she was doing, and he trusted her as a friend. He did almost question it when she broke out the blood-orange dye, because at this point it looked as if the dough under their hands / hooves was kinda... flesh-like.
"So yeah, that about sums it up so far."

"Huh. I guess you're... Nope, I went to make a joke about what kind of game engine you run on, but I couldn't quite get there. Oh well!"

"Pfftha! Yeah, that..."

That... that brought up a good question. All of the game machines he'd ever seen ran on engines: Complicated rigs of pistons, magical capacitors, steam valves and other mechanical oddities. Even the most compact one Spike had seen was barely smaller than a bathroom stall, and they were probably pretty expensive to make and maintain. The only reason Ponyville, being a small village off-mountain, even had an arcade was because they were a "test market" with a direct rail line from Canterlot. So if he was living his life as if it were a game, was it just metaphor? Or did he have an engine somewhere, somehow?

"Gimme a second here Pinkie."

His body certainly didn't feel any different, but given the risks involved in helping Twilight with her experiments, he knew how to check and check thoroughly. All he had to do was zone out, take a deep breath, and relax. Another breath, and relax. Follow the air from his nose down past his palate, throat, lungs, body... And then exhale, tracing back the same path until the air exited his mouth. Feel yourself (not like that) and relax.

It was an easy pattern to fall into, easier now than ever before, and he quickly found his mind racing through the passages of his own circulatory system. Twilight had helped him figure out a lot of dragon biology over the years (his biology, at least, with no other dragons to compare to) so he could visualize it all. Compare the images to the form, follow the patterns, all biological life is based on patterns, remember the lessons. He'd just check this real quick and get back to... whatever it was he had been doing. Already it felt detached from his thoughts, so he shrugged (not physically, mind you) and carried on as he was.

...

Pinkie Pie gently prodded the dragon, who seemed for all the world to be sleeping at a standstill. His eyes were half-closed (in that two of his four eyelids were totally shut) and his claws were curled against the floor. Spike rocked gently when pushed, but did not fall over or respond. After a minute she shrugged and got back to work: He'd probably be awake in time to finish assembling the project. And hay if all else failed, the smell of roasting food would wake him up when she got that far. Pinkie took pride in her roasting.

Chapter 10: Acquisitions

View Online

When Spike finished tracing the routes of his nerves, veins, muscles and other systems, the air was filled with a faint cacophony of dinging and a thick miasma of delicious odors. The slightly bitter caramel tang of golden-hot onions, the earthy blast of peppers exposed directly to flame, the mellow butter of deep browned garlic, all of it flew around and knit itself into a scent of perfection. That seemed right, to his calm and centered mind. That was good. That...
"That smells really freakin' awesome! What... Wait, what did... Oh crap Pinkie, I didn't mean to zone out like that!"

"No worries Spike! You seemed super busy making all of those boxes come out, so I just left you to it and started on the veggies!"

"I still... Boxes? OH GEEZ BOXES."


A skill has been created through a special action! Through precise self-observation, a skill to know the inner world, [Omphaloskepsis], has been created!

A skill has been created through a special action! Through knowing your own self to be true, a skill to embody your heritage, [Dragon's Heart], has been created!

A skill has been created through a special action! Through absorbing the lessons of a mental master, a skill to remember everything, [Eidetic Memory], has been created!

A skill has been created through a special action! Through acquiring flawless recall, a skill to learn your heritage, [Dragon's Mind], has been created!
This has consumed [Eidetic Memory]


> Work on Observe
Reward: You gain a level of Observe without raising its XP requirements

> Talk to Pinkie about The Gamer
Reward: Being exposed to {ERROR} has led to the acquisition of a special reward!
Unlocker x?, Late Bloomer's Ticket x1

On top of that shocking mess, he saw a good twenty or so level-up boxes and notifications across all of those skills, and Observe for good measure. Spike was stunned back into stillness, eyes trying to draw it all in at once, until eventually he just hammered his attention against the "close" buttons on every single window, deciding to figure all of that out later. He had just wasted a bunch of his friend's time staring into space and worrying about his own problems... Not cool.

"Awww, no more boxes."

"Yeah, we can look at the boxes later. Late... Oh man, how long was I out for?"

"Hour-ish! And a half-ish. And seven minutes-ish. And-"

Spike quickly waved his claws, trying to take in his surroundings beyond the confusion.
"No, I get it, that makes sense. Well, it doesn't, but I'm just trying not to like, hyperventilate here."

The kitchen looked totally fine, and Pinkie had clearly been working around him as she prepared pan after pot after large casserole full of various lightly-seared and deeply roasted vegetables. The light from outside was coming in at a bit of a higher angle than before, and the clock agreed with Pinkie: So did his 'system' time, which cinched it. He really had just... turbo-slept? Power-meditated? Explosively napped? Blown through ninety-seven minutes standing in a kitchen... Not even his kitchen!

...Yes, his kitchen: after an exhausting month of arguments, Twilight had ceded that section of the place entirely to Spike, citing his insistence on making so much spicy food. He had a feeling it was actually all the quesadillas and the quatro-queso dip. In return for that conciliatory gesture, he had to forfeit his section of basement so she could convert it into more lab. Long run? Totally worth it.

Digressions aside, that still left him down on time, up on confusion, and kinda neutral on the 'friends helped' index. At least one of those he could fix right now.
"Pinkie, is there anything I can do other than stand here? I kinda feel bad about conking out."

"No sweat! Although I could use somepony to sweat these onions. So... some sweat, please?"

"On it!"

Spike moved over to the pan and went to it, while Pinkie went back to the dough they had formed earlier and began turning it out onto a massive blanket of those thick banana leaves. Their work continued in a peaceful silence for a few minutes until Pinkie wound up at his end of the leaves. He kept working over the onions as she approached, only stopping when she tapped his scales gently with one hoof.
"You doing alright?"

"Yeah, they're not quite caramelizing yet so I think I'm in the clear. Heh, clear, sweating onions, good one me. Just another minute or-"

Pinkie's voice took on an unexpectedly serious tone.
"Spiike, that's not what I meant and you know it. Are you doing alright with... Everything you've told me? Because if it just started this morning, you must have been running yourself ragged thinking about it all."

"Even if I weren't, I think I'd be OK: Remember, I told you I started out with some skills? The 'Gamer's Mind' means I'm totally immune to mental effects. I don't know if that counts, like, normal worry or stress or whatever, but it really seems like it. I still feel them, but they don't affect me."

"...Alright. I'll take your word for it. But I bet you didn't come to me just for delicious food, cooking experience, and a shoulder to vent on, did ya Spike?"

He whistled nonchalantly as he stirred the onions around the pan, keeping them moving.
"Well, I wouldn't mind having a friend to give me advice on the stranger side of all this. But even if I want that, what pony could possibly wrap her head around all this, take it at face value, and love games at least as much as me? Turns out I knew just the mare, and so here I am."

She slung one hoof around his shoulder and squeezed him in a somewhat-lingering hug.
"It means a lot that you came to me first, Spike. And of course I'll help you. In fact, I had a great idea while you were birthing all those boxes!"

"I oppose that concept and regret having that mental image. Deeply regret."

"That was the plaaan~! But seriously: Do what I'm doing!"

"Make some kind of enormous mockery of the concept of the tamale?"

"Hey! The zacahuil is a classic Minotauri dish, and I worked very hard to learn the recipe. I had to mix it up a bit for pony palates, but still. It's tradition."

"Really? Fair, in that case. OK, what else are you doing... Be almost comically neon pink?"

"It would look good on you, but no."

He pulled the onions off the heat and turned, theatrically scritching his claws along his chin.
"Well, I'm stumped."

Pinkie whipped a sheet of paper out from (mumble) and flourished it proudly.
"My character!"

"...The one for Shining's game?"

"Mmhmm!"

"The one you never showed me or told me about until now?"

A small bead of sweat dripped down her forehead as she glanced around nervously.
"Mmhmm?"

"For a campaign that hasn't even happened yet, so there's not a chance anypony else told me either?"

"...Aw, dangit. I thought I had been really clever there, but that was just one of those dumb puzzles where you can't see the answer. Sorry about that Spike."

"Eh, no worries: It was still a funny setup. So, what is your character idea?"

She tilted the sheet in his direction, preferring to speak with actions instead of words this time. Spike Observe'd it out of habit and then read it properly, ignoring the skill popup entirely: It was more for the experience than the info right now. A moderate score in all stats across the board, a gigantic spread of random skills, a passel of utility powers and buffing abilities... It didn't look like this character would be able to do anything. He turned back to Pinkie in confusion.
"I still don't think I get it."

"I help! And that's it. I'm just a big ol' walking Assist Other bonus slapped onto some health and a little pool of spells. I even took a bardic instrument that's made up of every other instrument in the book strapped together with Adventurer's Adhesive so that I always have the right tune on hoof!"

He was still a bit skeptical, although the character idea definitely suited her.
"And you think that's what I should do?"

"Well, it doesn't have to be that exactly! But think about it: Everypony has a special talent, and everypony has something they're really good at. But it doesn't look like you have any kind of limit on what you're doing. I bet you could do pretty well at everything."

"Heh. Be a Spike of all trades, sort of thing?"

Pinkie whipped around and looked up and off into the distance, eyes disconcertingly wide.
"Oooh, title drop! That's sneaky."

"What?"

"Nothing."

He caught himself before being totally lost in thought, but the idea was pretty appealing.
"It does make a lot of sense... It's not like I could go toe-to-hoof with most ponies in their special talent even if my power let me do some crazy things and I spent a lot of time practicing. So why not just take advantage of it turning everything into a skill and letting me level anything with XP, and run with it? Thanks, Pinkie: that actually helps a lot!"

Her smile was brilliant and a bit goofy as she trotted closer to him.
"Think nothing of it, Spike! Here, help me dump all this squash in. To celebrate!"

All of the various browned and glazed and burnt vegetables had gone into creating sauces, glazes and seasonings for these cubes and chunks of butternut squash: He could practically feel the fantastic barbecue-esque scent rolling off of them as they poured pan after pan into the tamale. That was followed up with pan-loads of fresh onions and peppers, as well as the occasional clove of garlic dotted along the pony-length of red corn dough.
"Huzzah! Now we just need to finish wrapping it up, seal it real good, and then get it into my new oven out back!"

"You have a new oven?"

The look she shot him could probably have cooked a meal with its sheer sarcasm.
"Does anything in this kitchen look like it could hold or cook a tamale the size of my body?"

"Point."

Chapter 11: Legendary, Mythic

View Online

Making their way out of the kitchen's back exit a minute later (tamale carefully balanced between them), Spike saw exactly what she was talking about: A new shed had been built in the yard, and its doors were wide open to reveal an enormous clay oven, and not much else.

"I've been experimenting with so much foreign food that the Cakes decided I should have a place to do it in! So I saved up the proceeds and they kicked in some as my birthday present, and now I've got my own little mad food-science lab!"

"That shouldn't be as scary as it is, but you are the pony who brought Equestria the concept of a fifth-dimensional sugar sculpture."

"The fifth dimension was flavor!"

A moment after that they slid the leaf-wrapped beast into the oven, and Spike thanked his lucky scales that said scales were, well, lucky: Also heat-proof. That oven was scorching, and if Pinkie noticed she didn't say anything. Instead she just dusted her hooves off, turned, and offered one hoof in his direction. Spike shook it with a smile, honestly glad to have helped and even happier, if a bit selfishly, that he had gotten useful advice. Not to mention new skills, and...

[Legendary Recipe: Zacahuil]
This meter-long shell of flavorful blood-red nixtamalized corn dough surrounds the maker's choice of fillings, providing the normal benefits of all of its contents as well as being able to fully satiate up to 100 citizens of one community, regardless of their hunger or the size of their portions.

Cannot Learn: Insufficient Cooking (30+), Intelligence (15+), and Luck (25+)
Recipe has been saved and will be registered when requirements are met.

And that, apparently. It made sense that his Cooking skill would be able to help him track recipes, and Pinkie had said it was a classical, traditional dish. He wasn't quite sure about the "legendary" bit, but if it really could feed, oh say, a hundred ponies as hungry as Big Mac after a day at work on the Apple farm? It was a fitting title. Even apart from the special properties, his mouth was watering over the idea of taking a big slice of that home later...
"Hey, how long does something this big even take to cook?"

"Oh, I think it's like... Probably eight hours? Could be closer to ten."

"Woof. Good thing I'm going to be busy through the day then. I guess I'll come back and pick some up towards the end of the day?"

"Absolutely! If you make it in time, you'll even get the honor of cutting the first slice!"

"Sweeet. And hey, speaking of slice... This is totally one of those pizza ovens like they have in Canterlot, isn't it?"

Pinkie grinned as she stepped aside to give him a better view of the clay behemoth.
"Abso-dupely! Got it for a song off of a shop that was shutting down so they could move back home: Shame, he was a pretty nice pony, but this is a very nice oven, so it worked out!"

It was an extremely nice oven indeed: Old red clay, solid as a brick (in a very literal sense), stained in some places with soot and age. This thing had character, and given that he lived in a library surrounded with some seriously old books? Spike appreciated character.
"I like it! Maybe pizza next time, huh?"

"Oooh, or popovers!"

Well, if they were suggesting unusual food ideas...
"Ceviche?"

"You know most ponies don't like fish. I kinda do, though. Buuut I thought we were making oven plans! White bean chili?"

"That's not very oven-friendly either."

"Darn. Um, pecan blondie?"

That piqued his interest.
"Wiiith?"

"Honey sauce!"

Spike's mouth was watering, so he had to concede now or he'd end up with a second breakfast.
"Throw some ice cream on there and you've got yourself a date. Deal! You've got yourself a deal."

Pinkie fell back in a giggling fit at that, just barely avoiding the oven mere inches behind her. He helped her up despite the blush on his cheeks, both glad and a little annoyed that Gamer's Mind didn't seem to be keeping him from tripping over his words. When the laughter subsided she looked back at him with bright eyes and a faint wry smile.
"Aww Spike, I know what you meant. After all, well..."

"Hmm?"

Her smile just now was off, and it left a pang in his chest that he didn't quite understand.
"Nothing."

"I... OK. Hey, do you mind if I spend some more time with you before I get back to work? I wanted to look over some of the things that I got earlier."

Rather than a verbal reply, Pinkie stepped away from the oven and slid down to the ground, curling herself up in a corner and inviting him to sit nearby. He happily followed, leaning against her (shame there wasn't any furniture out here yet, it was nice and warm by the oven, or maybe that was mostly Pinkie) as he pulled up his Inventory and Skills. It made sense to check on all of this while he was still here with Pinkie, in case he wanted to get any advice on it all. Plus, this was a lot more comfortable than trying to check it all while on the move.
"Let's see here. I got four skills, some quests done, and an item from that quest reward. So..."


[Omphaloskepsis] (Active) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00%
Ever since they gained self-awareness, living things have sought to look inwards for answers to questions, within and without. The answer they found, through great effort, was themselves. To some this would seem self-evident, but so is this skill: The art of self-contemplative meditation.

Increases HP recovery per minute by your WIS while meditating.
Increases MP recovery per minute by your WIS while meditating.
Increases Stamina recovery per minute by your WIS while meditating.
Meditating acts to directly train your HP, MP, Stamina and 'Dragon's' skills.


This one made perfect sense: It was just like Twilight had taught him, explaining that meditation was the act of purifying and centering yourself in the world, and the world in yourself. Practicing it was the same as practicing magic or exercising, only deeper and more personal. She hadn't put it in game terms like this description did, but he was getting used to how his power behaved.


[Dragon's Heart] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
As a dragon of Equestria, you are just as much magic as flesh. Your nature as a truly magical creature, even in a magical world, enables you to bridge gaps that others cannot. With age and experience, this skill will blur the lines between mundane and mystic even further.

Passively increases STR, DEX, VIT, INT, WIS and LUK by 10%
You may expend MP to further boost your STR, DEX, VIT and HP regeneration.
Precise benefits depend on MP spent.
Meditation can train your HP and Stamina in addition to MP.

This skill will grow with VIT and skill levels, gaining new features over time.


This skill wasn't surprising either. The research and hunting they'd done over the years to try and figure out just what kind of dragon he was had led them to lots and lots of individual dead ends, since even two dragons from the same family could be wildly different. This explanation made it even clearer to Spike, who had never quite grasped the reason before today... Dragons are magic itself, like a pony's Cutie Mark. And if that was the case, they were probably just as unique. Hay, even this Gamer ability might turn out to just be "his" nature as a dragon. He'd have to write that down at some point: It felt like a solid lead.


[Dragon's Mind] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
The dragons of the Equestrian plane are primal forces, as old as the world itself. Some would even say they are older, predating all other things. Regardless of which is correct, the true age of a dragon lies not in time, but in the mind: Something unique and eternal, tied intrinsically to magic.

You can study and learn the magic of all species, in addition to your natural magic.
You can expend MP to perceive magic and attempt to learn the spells you see.
Meditation can train your 'Dragon's' skills in addition to MP.

This skill will grow with INT and skill levels, gaining new features over time.

Merged Skills: Eidetic Memory
You have true eidetic memory and cannot forget or be caused to forget anything.


Despite the incredible power of meditation, or the insane potential stat bonuses of the Dragon's Heart, it was probably this skill that had the most impact on Spike as he read it. Growing up for literally your whole life around Princess Celestia and Twilight Sparkle didn't leave you ignorant of how magic worked to say the least... And a lot of it was very complicated on a biological level. Unicorns used their horns to channel power into the world around them, Pegasi guided their magic into the air through limbs and wings, and Earth Ponies were solid loops of self-improving magic that could lash out into nature with a moment's notice, affecting plants and animals alike.

To be able to actually learn those processes, despite not having the body to match? To see them with his eyes, beyond just seeing the magical aura? That was... He couldn't even think of the words. 'Completely bonkers' was one option, as was 'So freaking cool', but they didn't quite have the gravity he needed. Speaking of gravity, he had managed to sink back a little into Pinkie Pie as he read, leaving him much more comfortable. It seemed like she didn't mind, so Spike stayed in that position as he flipped over to his inventory screen to see what that quest reward had been.


[Late Bloomer's Ticket]
Rank: Mythic Consumable
This special pass allows for those with a slow-growing power to surpass their boundaries one time, and one time only, creating a skill, item, or other mark on the world beyond their current potential.

It may only be used once, but the creation born from it is permanent.

Chapter 12: Masterwork

View Online

"Hey Pinkie?"

Her voice seemed a little sleepy, or at least muzzy, as she replied.
"Mmmh."

"Can I run something by you?"

"Mmmhhmm."

Spike rattled off the description of the item, trying to soak it in a little better himself as he did. It let him... make something, that much was clear. But what exactly did "beyond their current potential" mean, in the terms of the game? Would it let him ignore a recipe, skill requirements... Would it let him ignore materials? Even at the worst case, this still let him make a skill outright, maybe even of his own design. And given that it was labelled 'Mythic', the odds were it was going to be a lot more than just that. This wasn't something he could afford to waste.

It sounded like that woke Pinkie up a bit, and she wriggled under him.
"That's a doozie alright. And you're looking for advice on how to un-doozie it?"

"That's one way to put it. I'm kinda wondering if I should use it at all, honestly."

"Aw Spike, don't be that guy who just sits on all of his items until the endgame and leaves the final boss arena with like, two hundred potions."

"No, no! I mean I'm wondering if you should use it."

Pinkie sat bolt-upright at that, causing him to fall even further backwards, sprawling across her barrel. He quickly stood himself, getting off to avoid causing any embarrassment: Resting against her side like that was probably not as OK as he had thought, given how she was blushing.
"W-what?"

"Well, you're the reason I earned it... I think, anyways. It was a bit unclear. But you're an awesome crafter, right? Like, in game terms you'd be some kind of Artisan or Master, and I'm not just talking about cooking. Whereas I'm... just me, even if I am coming into my own with this whole thing."

"But Spike, it's your-"

"Our. Even if it is mine, that just means it's mine to decide. So... Our."

She grimaced at that, but he wasn't budging. After realizing as much, she continued with a sigh.
"Our ticket. But your power made it, and we don't even know if anypony else could use it."

"It's worth a shot! I mean, if it fails it probably won't get used up, and if only I can use it, we can just come up with an idea together."

"I don't want to waste something special like that! I mean, I know better than most ponies how rarely a cool weird thing like this comes around."

"Pinkie, it wouldn't be a waste. Plus, weren't you the one who just tried to argue I shouldn't hold onto my items forever?"

Her cheeks puffed slightly as she held back her response, letting off a tiny bit of steam from the tufts of her ears when she finally let go.
"MmmmfffFINE! Fine. Just... Hold onto it for now, alright? We can figure it out another time, maybe after you get a few levels under your scales. But if you figure out something you want to use it on before then, go ahead and use it, alright?"

"Yeah, I can work with that. It's exciting, but it's not urgently exciting."

Pinkie looked him over with a curious expression, as if she had just seen him for the first time.
"Speaking of which, you look... a little different."

"Oh! Yeah, that makes sense. I got those skills... Hey, I've already told you all the skills I got earlier, and if you're going to keep giving me advice like this, I should probably keep you up to date on it, huh?"

"You're darn straight, mister! Now gimme that delicious data."

"Hahaha, fine, fine. So, I got two more of those 'Dragon' skills, one for my Vitality and one for my Intelligence. The Vitality one talked about how dragons are mostly made of magic, so it makes my MP and HP sort of work together. The Intelligence one is about my... brain, and my maturity, I guess? It lets me remember everything photographically, sort of. I think it might need some levelling before it's quite that good. It says it'll also let me learn magic, like, Unicorn or Pegasus or Earth Pony stuff. Maybe even Zebrican magic or weirder things. And both of those boost the third skill I got: The game-engine-or-whatever recognized the meditation Twilight taught me for magic lab safety as its own skill. It's... real strong."

"Like, Martial Mares strong, or like Wizards of Winsome Falls strong?"

"Like, blows them both out of the water strong."

She whistled, trying to imagine what could put it up and above a game where meditation had literally been the core mechanic for one character.
"You are totally going to have to thank Twilight for that, when she gets back."

"Yeah, if she ever believes me."

"Hey, she came around about Pinkie Sense eventually! I'm sure she won't be too hard-nosed about this."

"I think it's less like she came around about your whole... deal... and more like she had to bend before she broke."

Pinkie just smiled at that.
"Tomato, potato!"

Blink. Blink again.
"Isn't that supposed to be to-may-to, to-mah-to?"

Her grin only got bigger.
"Kumquat, rimshot!"

"...You're doing it on purpose."

"Naturally!"

"Pfftheh. So, you still think I should hold onto it?"

Pinkie shook herself free of a bit of dust and walked over to him again.
"Yuppers! It's a great thing from the sound of it, and it would be totally sad to waste it. If you find something or somepony you want to use it on, that's another story. But just letting me take it because I helped you earn it... How did I even do that, anyways?"

"Well, I had this quest to talk to you about the whole Gamer thing, and when it completed, it... basically gave me the ticket as a reward."

"Ooooh. So your quests give rewards?"

He scratched at his chin, pulling up his Quest log to look over the previous results. Breakfast, that one had seemed more like a joke but maybe it unlocked the recipe? Putting a bunch of work into Observe, that was worth a free level. And then... the ticket.
"Um... Not usually. I think a lot of them so far have been too small, but that one apparently had this huge reward for some reason. I guess it was more... meaningful, on some level?"

"I can buy that."
Her reply seemed backed with a certainty that Spike himself sure didn't feel: If anything, he felt like he was out of the loop here. But there wasn't a lot of point in showing that confusion. He could just carry on and let things work themselves out. Plus... He trusted Pinkie Pie. She'd do what was right by him, and if she wasn't explaining right now, he'd hear about it when it mattered.

"Alright. I'll shelf it, and we can talk about it again another time. For now... I've got to handle all my other things around town, and it's going to be a long day. Can I grab a snack on my way out though?"

She passed a muffin to him without so much as batting an eyelid... Or having any way to procure said muffin.
"On the house!"

"...In case of muffin emergencies?"

"You know me so well."

He looked the muffin over in his claws, throwing a cursory Observe at it out of reflex.
"And you seem to know me pretty well! Garnet and walnuts are super delicious together."


[Emergency Muffin]
Rank: Masterwork Consumable

Procured from unknown space by the pony Pinkie Pie, this muffin was studded with walnuts, garnets, and Roquefort cheese before being glazed with honey. Why are you so curious about it?


"Made it just for you: Think of it as payment for being so helpful with the tamale! Plus, when you swing by later, you and Twilight's servings will be free too. Least I could do."

"You're the best, Pinkie."

That seemed to catch her off guard, but she recovered quickly, smiling brightly and waving as he left the shed and made his way back out and around Sugar Cube Corner.
"T-think nothing of it, Spike. Have a super-duper day!"

Chapter 13: Correspond

View Online

The sun was still high in the sky as Spike found himself back on the main streets of Ponyville. A few hours had passed and he'd gotten a lot done in that time, but there was still plenty on his plate... At this rate today would be the busiest he'd been in months, and that was including a very hectic Winter Wrap Up. He'd gotten years of experience with checklists in that single week, that was for sure... Speaking of lists, it wouldn't be the worst idea to double-check his lists.

Chores
> Sort new book shipment (boxes 1-4 in the foyer)
> Serve overdue fines (see List F7)
Food
> Lunch (Hayburg's Hayburgers or Sugar Cube Corner)
> Dinner (wherever I didn't have lunch, I guess)
> Snacks (for Me and Twilight)
Game
> Look at Ponies (titles? levels?)
Free Time
> Visit Rarity (<3)
> Visit Cheerilee + CMC (before class lets out)
> Visit Other Ponies (as needed)
> Hit the Arcade, Look at RPGs (research!)

So out of 19 subquests, Spike had knocked out 9 in the first few hours of his day... mostly the smaller ones. He was nearly done with the "Game" section, which left him hopeful that he'd get a significant reward for doing that whole bundle. As for how to do it, that was another question: He was looking at every pony that passed already, so that one? He'd just have to accept on faith that it would complete eventually. The others he'd already figured out more or less. At this point it was more of a waiting game than something he needed to put more thought into, making it a far cry from his new handful of skills. And speaking of his skills...

There was a pattern to the 'Dragon's' skills, one he had suspected from the first and then all but confirmed with the newest ones. One keyed off of Dexterity, one from Vitality, one from Intelligence. If the pattern held then there were also skills for Strength, Wisdom, and Luck... Plus maybe one or two more overarching it all, come to think of it: A lot of games had bonuses for completing "sets" of items or skills. That would hold up so long as he didn’t get a pattern-breaking skill that wasn’t associated with a statistic or the overall set. At that point? All bets would be off.

So far he had the Claws, the Heart, and the Mind. If he thought about what "normal" dragons had that made them, well, dragons... Scales, definitely. And fire breath: He hadn't even used his today, so that could easily be a skill waiting to happen: It seemed like he only got skills upon using them enough, even if he had a lot of prior practice before this morning. Tail could be another option. Wings maybe, and a weak maybe at that: Even during the 'incident' with his growth spurts he didn't get wings... But he did have a hoard. That made thematic sense for Luck actually, especially if it affected item drops or bit-finding, things that wouldn’t normally exist in real life but fit perfectly to the game logic of his power.

So that would leave Strength and Wisdom... Wisdom made sense for fire breath if you squinted a little... At least for Spike specifically: His breath involved communication. And Strength could be wings, tail, scales, or something else entirely. Bones? He'd heard some chatter about dragon bones being powerful in terms of magic, but they were so rare as to make the conversation moot.

Also they were kind of inside him, which didn't help.

So was his heart though, so that didn't rule bones out as being the skill... But he wasn't exactly excited about what getting that skill would involve. All of those Strength options aside, there was a 0% chance that his breath wasn't going to yield a skill somehow, whether it was part of the cycle or just... Wait. What would it even do?

"Eh, only one way to find out, and I've been meaning to do this anyways."

Halfway between Sugar Cube Corner and his next destination for collecting fines (which was, according to his map, the house of D. Whooves and D. Hooves), Spike took a quick detour and planted himself beneath a sizable tree. Nestling into the shade, he silently withdrew a quill, ink, and some loose parchment from his Inventory and began to draw up a letter to Princess Celestia.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I'm going to skip the usual opening today, since this is kind of a special occasion. I've been experiencing some very strange phenom... things since this morning, and while Twilight was not able to give it any attention (apparently she had business in Canterlot?), it's pretty serious. I can tell you more about it later, but for now I had three questions:

- Can I send you a few random letters and objects from now on? I want to test how this 'thing' is messing with my fire, if it is at all.
- Have you ever seen or heard of a dragon developing a strange power when they got older? It's my pet theory as to 'why this' and 'why now'.
- Do the words 'The Gamer' mean anything to you?

Thank you again!

Ever your faithful subject,
Spike T. Dragon

He ended his half-joking signature with a little caricature of his face with its tongue stuck out, just for emphasis. As far as anypony who actually knew him was concerned, he was just Spike, and that was good enough for him. It was only when official documents and boring medical papers had to get filled out that they ever added anything else, and even then it was usually just "Dragon" as a last name. Having his middle name be "The" was a running joke between him, the Sparkle family, and Celestia after a royal announcer introduced him when he stumbled into the Day Court after a nap. It wasn't like most ponies even used family names like that, but there were expectations when you came from Canterlot or had a reputation: The Sparkles, the Belles, the Pies, the Apples, etc.

After puffing a wave of fire across the letter, Spike kicked back and settled in against the tree... quickly lamenting how it wasn't as comfortable as Pinkie. Still, it was nice to take a break while he waited on a reply. He could relax in the shade, feel the cool spring air, finish off that (fantastic) muffin... Belch up a little green fire and have Celestia's letter already? Yeah, that seemed reasonable. Well no it didn't, but it was what was actually happening. As he spit out the flaming scroll, he felt a thrill up his spine and heard the faint ding of success, but reading the reply was more important than checking the skill.

Dear Spike,

I will dispense with formality myself, although I do hope you are well. Your situation, if I grasp it well enough from what little I could infer, is indeed unique and strange. Twilight is coming soon, so I will speak to her then, but in the meantime here are your answers:

~ Yes, go ahead. I will arrange my reception magic so that everything you send me is set aside until I can view it properly, or dismiss and return it if it seems to be arbitrary practice material.
~ I have indeed noticed that some dragons, maybe even most, come into a unique power as they age. The common theory had been that they were passed down lineally by some rite or ritual, but if you are correct and it is biological, that alone would be a breakthrough.
~ Unless we are referring to my sister by way of her latest obsession-level hobby, I am afraid not.

I wish you the best of luck, Spike, although I must go now. Business awaits, and so I shall get busy.

Your (Princess-Mother-Egg guard-Friend-Confidant-Etc.),
Princess Celestia Invictus

"Yes!"
Spike was excited on a few different levels. Celestia had heard of dragons with weird powers, so that was a point in favor of his idea. She didn't know about The Gamer, which was a shame in one way, but at the same time it meant he was probably truly unique. And... back up. 'Twilight is coming soon', she said. That definitely implied that Twilight was going to Celestia's today, but Twilight herself hadn't said anything about it. Weird weird weird... Oh well, he could bring it up when she got home later. And now, with Celestia's permission, he could practice this.


A skill has been created through a special action! Through exuding the flames of dragon-kind, a skill to communicate your heritage, [Dragon's Breath], has been created!


[Dragon's Breath] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
The breath from a dragon's maw is infused with their magical nature, and this manifests as flame. The color and power of the flame varies from dragon to dragon, but it is said that those who dare can learn to harness colors beyond their nature. Dragonfire of any color represents solutions spoken and answers enacted: It is the embodiment of wise decision-making.

Allows the user to breathe fire. Damage, range, spread, and duration vary based on MP spent.
Allows the user to expose themselves to certain conditions in order to learn new colors of flame.
Allows the user to breathe 'things that are not fire' based on their elemental affinities.

This skill will grow with WIS and skill levels, gaining new features over time.
Known Colors: Pure Orange Flame, Green Sending-Fire


[Green Sending-Fire] (Subskill) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
The fire associated with the ancient elder Vorvadoss, lord and master of dimensional spaces. This flame "sends" away that which it burns, acting as everything from communication to transportation to an incredible defense. To those with an innate tie to the Green, their fire may even act as an exit portal for items sent by other kinds of magic.

Items burnt by your green fire may be sent to any destination within 100 yards.
Items burnt by your green fire may be sent to any registered target. (Current Max: 1)
Those who know the proper spells or abilities can attempt to send green fire to you in return.
You may access the MAIL subsystem to deliver, receive, and manage letters and packages.

Chapter 14: Navel-gazing

View Online

Of course, saying he could practice using his mail-sending breath "now" was a stretch. As exciting as these skills were he still had a full quest chain to mow through in the next nine-and-change hours. Next in that process was taking care of more fines... Thankfully the W/hooves family lived just down the road, which kept his route simple and clean.

Spike pulled himself up from the base of the tree with a quick "Hup!" and started jogging his way there. On the way, he passed a few notables as far as titles and levels were concerned: [Sister of the Flowers] seemed to apply equally to Lily, Roseluck, and Daisy, despite all three of them being below average level, while Davenport (who had no title despite a level in the teens, Spike’s first double-digit sighting since Twilight... Pinkie weirdness aside) seemed to be happily returning home with a newly-repaired bit of upholstery. Apart from them and a small cafe, the streets were quite calm for this time of day, making his trip easy going. And when he arrived at his target, an unassuming cottage despite the crazy things Spike had heard about the inside...

[The Nth Doctor]
Doctor Whooves
LV 19

[A Perfect Companion]
Derpy Hooves
LV 19

Well, there was... a big spike up from the average. Heh, spike.
"Good afternoon, D&D!"

Doctor Whooves looked up from the messy tangle of schematics on his patio table. Until Spike's arrival he had apparently been lost in thought, occasionally taking a bit of food or a drink proffered to him by his wife. His mane was just about as much of a mess as the plans, and Derpy seemed a little tired, although her ever-present smile hadn't faded an inch. If there was ever a scene to make Spike glad that Twilight was at least a little self-sufficient during a studying binge, this was it.

"Oh hello there young Spike, how nice to see you! Can I hope this is just a surprise house call as opposed to anything else?"

"Naw, you know me Doctor: It's business or nothing."

They laughed at his usual joke, politely, until Derpy nudged her husband with one hoof.
"Ah, right! I assume this is actually about, how to say, my late return?"

"Returns plural, actually. Twilight has you both down for one."

Derpy blinked a few times, eventually sighing in defeat as she remembered... whatever it was she had forgotten.
"I knew I kept meaning to wear those saddlebags to work for a reason. Sorry Mr. Spike: I'll go get the book."

Spike lifted his claws defensively, not wanting to cause any problems.
"Oh no, no apologies needed! Once we're all settled up you can still hold onto the books for the full checkout period starting from today. Standard Golden Oaks policy."

"No, that wasn't the problem. See, I finished the book the day after I took it out, but once I put it in my bags I sort of forgot about it. I just don't know... Well, you know."

The Doctor hoofed over his own book briefly, from underneath the pile of blueprints, before withdrawing it again a moment later.
"I might still need mine for reference purposes. Should I go get the bits, darling?"

"I've got mine covered, they'll be in my other bag. Just two shakes and I'll be right back out. Want me to rifle through your wallet to cover yours?"

"If you'd be ever-so-kind."

It was only a moment later that Derpy returned and hoofed over two small pouches. Spike dutifully took the money, threw it in his Inventory, wrote a note about the Doctor keeping his book for now, and then stowed that as well. It was only when he looked up to see two surprised ponies that he realized using his new power in such a blatant way might be problematic.
"Ah, heh..."

"Wonderful trick, young fellow! I must say I haven't seen any pony do something quite like that before. Well, outside of some rather risky experiments. How exactly did you manage it?"

"It's... related to my dragon fire, actually. The stuff I use to send letters to Celestia?"
Not technically false, especially now that he had the skill for his Breath set up.

"Fair play! Shame: I'd love to study it, but that's not terribly practical."

"Well hay, we can talk about it another time alright? For now I've got other fines on my plate, and you've apparently got an actual sandwich on yours."

Derpy shoved the plate further across the table into Doctor's field of vision.
"Brought it along with the bits. Custard and fish sticks!"

"Fantastic! I'll get right to that: Have yourself a good day!"

"You two too!"

There was probably a better way to phrase that, but he really did want to hurry, schedule aside, because next he was going to be visiting Rarity. Rarity... He'd matured over the last few years, and while he had grown out of some things (sleeping all day, object hoarding, a fair bit of general immaturity, etc.), his affection for the fashionista of Ponyville had never gone away. It had evolved here and there, picked up nuance, especially as he hit hallmarks of age (none of which included gaining much height), but it was running strong. It was just running tandem with other concerns.

These days his general sense of emotional attachment, to all sorts of ponies, often had to struggle against physical attraction for space in his thoughts. Growing up around ponies his whole life had shown him just how many of them were cute, beautiful, handsome, hot, or otherwise appealing. Other dragons, for contrast, just didn't factor into his mental images.

There was probably some word Twilight could dredge out of a developmental psychology book to describe how he felt, but the result of it all was that Spike’s (currently hypothetical) love life was just a little weird. Hopefully the Gamer's Mind would make it a bit easier to deal with? But that wasn't likely given how he had felt lying down with Pinkie earlier.

Maybe lust and love weren't "psychological effects" as far as his game engine was concerned... Wouldn't be surprising. Every hero needs a weakness, after all, and one of his weaknesses was currently hanging fabric outside her house as he absent-mindedly approached.

Rarity was just as stunning today as always: mane perfectly coiled, tail equally bright, humming a faint tune he couldn't place under her breath. A dozen individual clouds of magic floated from basket to line, from clothespin to line, from line to table... She was working at a capacity most unicorns would never even be able to dream of, and that was even more beautiful, in Spike's eyes.

"Eyes..."

Without really thinking, he whispered "Dragon's Mind" and knew how to use the active side of the skill. His "MP", as the game called it, began flowing through his body in a different pattern, coming together behind his eyeballs and quickening, drifting into the nerves and structures back there as if it were the most natural thing. It only took a split-second, but once it settled he could see Rarity's magic in an entirely new way. Streams of equations and tiny rune-laced circles danced in the air, the natural current of Equestria's magic being drawn into the pony's body with each breath, culminating in her horn before flowing out in patterns to enact change in the world.

Spike had seen diagrams of the invisible parts of magic before, had even seen Celestia and Twilight making simulacrums and illusions to demonstrate during lessons. Even the unicorn using a spell couldn’t see this aspect and didn't think of it: To them magic was instinct and memorized formula. Seeing the process with his own eyes was... pardon the obvious joke, but it was magical.

He couldn't understand the details at first, but as he watched? More concepts filtered into his head. This equation represented the application of physical force while this other string of symbols, repeated throughout, was Rarity's mental short-form for opening and clasping the clothespins... Whether it was Dragon's Mind, Gamer's Mind, or some interaction of the two? He was getting it.

Not a soul in Ponyville would have been surprised to see Spike stopping and staring at Rarity, that much was for sure. And he certainly didn’t care about being caught in the act. But today he quit watching after a mere few minutes: Not out of embarrassment, being caught, nor being interrupted.

No, he stopped because he physically could not continue. The spirit was willing but the MP bar was weak, and his paltry 50-odd mana just wasn't going to cut it in the long run, even for just watching. He deactivated the skill before he bottomed out completely, watching his Status screen with interest as it slowly began to bounce back.

Dragon’s Mind had levelled several times in the process of watching Rarity work, and since he was still a fair bit away from the Boutique he decided to rest and test his new meditation skill before actually greeting her. This would double as a good opportunity to figure out how to tell her about all of, well, this.

A mute recitation of "Omphaloskepsis" turned the skill on (despite the word looking like a tongue twister, it felt totally natural in his head, and he was certain he was 'saying' it correctly), although it wasn't that simple on another level. Sure, it seemed like his skills just worked when he said their names, but he felt the process taking place on top of that. It was just smoother, more certain, and definitely faster than when he had done it by accident at Pinkie’s place. And even that had been easier than when Twilight had drilled the concept into him as part of their lab safety procedures.

He wasn't surprised by the soft ping of a system message once he settled in. Reading it through his eyelids (a nice bonus of being a dragon) confirmed that he had entered what the game called a 'Meditative State', jacking his HP and MP regen up like mad and slowly granting experience to all of his Dragon's skills (not to mention the newly-born miniature experience meters attached to his HP and MP).

From a less direct perspective Spike felt the flow of Equestria's natural energy through his body, refining itself with each breath. It passed from lung to vessel to bone to meat, to scale and tooth and eye and brain. Even the parts where he was fairly sure oxygen didn't go directly from his blood (Twilight's tutelage aside his biology scores were kinda dismal) were flooded with greenish-purple light, rimed with silver.

Chapter 15: Hopeless

View Online

A scant five minutes later he sprung up from the bench, his newly-expanded health and mana pools shiny and full. Sure, some gamers would probably say his meditation "only" added his weak Wisdom to his regeneration levels... But when you recover one-half of a point of mana per minute naturally, +11 more is completely insane. He didn't turn the Dragon's Mind Eyes back on, especially because as soon as he opened his physical eyes he realized his spring up from the bench had a witness: He’d almost landed right on top of Rarity, who was staring at him curiously.
"Gah!"

"Oh, I'm quite sorry Spike! I had merely been wondering what you were doing on that bench alone on such a nice day: It had never crossed my mind to think you were using Innervision."

Spike took a moment to clear his head and look over Rarity again. She didn't seem any different from usual, same striking features, same crisp blue eyes, beautiful mane, flawless eyelashes... Although now it was all joined with a title and a level above her head, which made him appreciate her strength and beauty more than ever.

[Truly Outrageous]
Rarity
LV 25

"The whatnow?"

She scuffed a hoof across the dirt between them, very carefully sketching images into the surface without actually getting herself, well, dirty.
"The, ah, meditative practice? I suppose you might have learned it under a different name, or maybe even some variation on it knowing Twilight: I certainly didn't recognize your posture, but how could I? I'm not exactly bipedal myself, hehe."

Her little giggle brought a smile to his face effortlessly, and he finished dusting himself off and examined her drawing. It showed a pony curled into a sort of half-upright seated position while looking down their own barrel. There was an image of an eye floating detached, above their head.
"Oh! Yeah, sorry about that, I had just needed a little break after walking over here. The way Twilight taught me is called 'Omphaloskepsis' apparently... I think it's an older name?"

"Mmmh, that would make sense. But why did she teach it to you to begin with? I've only ever heard of ponies using it for magical exercise, and rarely at that."

"Decontamination checks, if you'd believe it! It's part of her whole lab safety setup."

Rarity tapped a hoof along her chin at that, eventually nodding.
"Well, if it is Twilight's idea of a safe procedure, I'm sure it's extremely well thought-out. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, Spikey-wikey! What brings you here today, so early to boot?"

"That... Can we head inside? Because it's going to be a looong story. Longest five hours of my life so far, anyways."

He could see the concern in her eyes, but only briefly: A moment after that she was already ushering him towards the Boutique, putting her concern for a friend before formality or questions. It was one of the things she might not have done when they first met, but if there was one thing Spike knew about his friends, it was that they were still growing up, just like he was. They had a head-start, but that didn't mean they weren't developing and learning and changing over time.

The doors of the Boutique clicked open, then shut, and then locked in three quick swipes of blue magic as Rarity dashed into her kitchen.
"Tea, darling?"

"Yes please! And if you have any gem dust that would be sweet. No cream, no honey."
Settling into the chair at Rarity's dining room table gave him one last chance to think this over. He hadn't managed to get through to Twilight earlier, with what little he knew and how short a time he had. Pinkie had understood everything from the first beat, being Pinkie. But with Rarity, he would not only need to explain what was happening, but actually prove it again as well.

The good news on that front was that he had a lot of options now. The Gamer's Body would be a bit drastic, but kinda cool. Carving up some super-hard gemstone for her would be helpful and beyond his usual abilities. Using his sending-fire to teleport objects across the Boutique instead of to Celestia would be a new thing too. And... Well, there was one absolute surefire way, but he wanted to save that one for when it would have the biggest impact.

> Visit Rarity

He dismissed the window out of reflex, although it was good to know that the 'visit' requirements were going to be pretty mild, just in case his schedule started to pressure him. When Rarity came back out from the kitchen he took his tea gratefully, the first sip slow so he could savor the flavor. Ginger, lemon, a tiny dash of honey and a dusting of citrine... It brought back memories of his breakfast, and it even refreshed the movement speed buff. Spike had a feeling there'd be a payoff to that if he kept it up, so he silently moved the stack of citrines in his inventory closer to the top.

"So, take your time, but... Tell me what happened, if you can? I want to help."

Looking away from her, he took a deep breath.
"It's not a bad thing! I just, well... This morning I had a dream, and I was woken up by a strange blue light-"

It was nearly half an hour later when he finished describing everything that had happened, albeit in a shortened form. Rarity had stopped him twice, once to pour another round of tea and then again to supplement her cup with a quick slug of hard liquor.
"The Gamer."

"The one and only! I think. I hope."

"And you were out on the bench meditating in order to... to figure out a way to prove it?"

He shrugged a little sheepishly.
"I mean, it's not like I don't have any options. I just wanted to have a good one, one that made sense."

Rarity sighed as she stood, stepping across the table to give Spike a brief hug. She moved away shortly after, but the warmth lingered, much like it had when he rested with Pinkie earlier.
"Spike, you need to remember that I am your friend. I believe you simply because you are honestly telling me."

"Does that mean Twilight isn't my friend?"

"That's being deliberately obtuse and you know it, young dragon. She's just... very analytical, and was probably quite anxious to get to Canterlot. Mercy knows why, if it was an event so formal she needed clothes for it."

That brought him short.
"Wait, clothes? Did you help her prepare for the trip?"

"Hmm? Oh, yes, she requested a few simple outfits, rather negligible but still quite beautiful, the other day. Didn't even take an afternoon of my time, given how little fabric I used."

"I guess that makes sense... Maybe it was some new book debut or a play or something? She's not coming back until late tonight, and she went by train rather than taking a chariot, or even using her magic."

"A mystery you can solve when she gets back. For now... Do you still want to prove your story to me, even if you don't need to? Because I think I may have something just right for the job."

He put a claw up to his chest in mock offense.
"Why, if I did not know better I'd assume you were going to use this as an excuse to get me to do manual labor!"

It had been meant as a joke, but Rarity's wince reminded him that when he was younger, she had done just that... He'd been more than willing to help, but she had still grown to dislike her former treatment of him as time passed.
"Spike, I had honestly not-"

"Nono, I misspoke. That was supposed to be a gag, a chuckle, a joke. I hadn't been thinking."

"Nor had I. Shall we consider ourselves even?"

"Even steven! Come to think of it, how has Steven been?"

Rarity paced near Spike's chair, expression brighter but still a bit downcast.
"Fluttershy says Mr. Magnet has been doing quite well. I naturally don't get to visit him often, but we do trade grooming tips by letter every few months. Seasonal haircare, and so forth."

"Gee, I wish I'd thought of that. I could probably get some good scale advice from him!"

"I am sure I could arrange for that! He is quite proud of his luster, and does so love to share his knowledge."

"Thanks again. For that, the tea, for trusting me, and whatever your plan is... Speaking of which..."

Her earlier discomfort seemed to have cleared now, or at the very least it was hidden behind a coy smile and a jocular tone.
"Alright dear, I confess my motive: I did have some rather... stubborn pieces in my collection that could use the touch of a dragon such as yourself. Just a shake while I fetch it down."

As Rarity trotted off into another room, Spike wondered how stubborn a gem could be. Or was it clothes? She hadn't said what collection, and the idea of being a model for Rarity's rejected and non-traditional outfits was... Actually not bad. If anything, he'd have some fun trying out clothes with her, as weird as that sounded. It would be a nice way to kill time in its own fashion (heh), even if her 'stubborn' items were embarrassing: It's not like he'd be wearing it in public. Plus, the apron Pinkie had loaned him earlier had been worth a decent stat bonus, and if he was going to live his life anything like the way he played his games? He'd wear anything for a stat bonus. Hay, he'd do it for as little as some alternate dialogue.

That train of thought became moot when Rarity entered levitating a case full of gems. There were dozens, maybe hundreds or more, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The case itself was clear, probably made of glass or some kind of stone, split into various compartments. Some of the contents looked more like metal samples than anything, which was intriguing. Spike had never eaten much in the way of metal, but it was probably possible, right? Could be a good opportunity to find out, or at least to pick up some kind of 'Indigestion Resistance' skill.

"Well, here we have it: This is my Hopeless Case."

Chapter 16: Sorting

View Online

"Well, here we have it: This is my Hopeless Case."

"That pun is... wow. I'm stunned. Did Pinkie Pie replace you when I wasn't looking?"

Rarity scoffed as she popped open the case and began spreading its compartments (smaller individual boxes resting in the case, as it turns out) around the table.
"Quite droll, truly. But to be serious, this is where I keep the pieces that intrigue me, but simply aren't... workable. I was thinking that if your new eyes are as good as you say, you'd be able to tell me why, hmm? That 'Observe' function you mentioned should be able to reveal things that neither of us know, and that would be ample proof to me."

It wasn't a bad plan, and he'd never pass up a chance to improve a skill. Of course, proving and impressing weren't too far apart, so this might be a neat chance to just push himself.
"It's a pretty quick skill, and I can remember everything I see thanks to Dragon's Mind, so... Could you get other things for me to use it on? Just, really haul out anything: Clothes, decorations, food, whatever as long as they're individual objects. I even had a dumb plan I wanted to test if you're OK with it."

"Tit for tat, I suppose: What's the plan?"

Spike started firing off Observe as quickly as possible into the pile, but only for a moment. He stopped and looked towards Rarity again.
"Um, I don't have to keep this all organized like it is, right? I can shuffle it around based on what I see?"

"Of course! I only had it sorted by when I found each piece. The useful items get sorted more functionally, but that's after I separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak."

"Gotcha. With that covered..."
He returned to spamming his skill, taking only a moment after each text box popped up to confirm that he could remember the contents before clicking it shut.
"Um, the plan was to see if I could Observe a dress or something you made, and then have you... unmake it? Take it apart and make a new dress from all the same pieces. Then see if Observe actually considered it a different item. Because it doesn't get any experience from looking at the same thing over and over, but that made me wonder what 'the same' means in context."

Rarity's eyes lit up and she clapped her hooves together happily.
"That's a fantastic idea, darling! I've often wondered what it takes in the eyes of fashion for something to be considered new, and to have that experiment validated would be delightful. I'll fetch the materials right away while you continue, um, Observing, I suppose."

She didn't have to tell him twice. There may have been hundreds of pieces (Observing the pile as a whole said 247 plus thirteen dividers and the original case) taken individually, but he could get off several Observes a second if he was casting it subvocally. Reading each box took ten more seconds at most, and then he could clearly remember it without effort. Adjust piles based on what he learned, repeat. Twilight hadn't needed to teach him about minerals and the like, that came naturally. He studied it in his own time, in order to find out what was the most delicious or nutritious out of each type.

After half an hour of constant rapidfire skill usage, he was grateful that Observe had no MP cost, and the entire pile was sorted based on rudimentary categories. Across the room, Rarity was working on putting together a simple outfit for his experiment, while he just had his head in his claws at the table trying to sort things further. He could probably do it given time, but the sum of the patterns... was a mess. Some samples fit in as many as five or even six different categories: This was an orange¹ igneous¹¹ gemstone¹¹¹ with high cleavage¹¹¹¹ the size of a pony's hoof¹¹¹¹¹, for example. Dragon's Mind let him grasp the details even if he didn’t understand them, and also helped him remember what Observe told him. Despite that, the skill didn't make it easier for him to do the physical job of sorting... That would require raising INT or WIS, probably?

It would be a lot easier if he had some way to see the patterns, but without any stat buffs or a level up, that seemed unlikely. If only he could get a buff... Wait. Could he? He hadn't experimented with deliberate skill creation yet, but the messages that came up when he did get skills suggested it would be possible. 'A skill has been created through a special action', it said. Did that mean he could strive towards it on purpose? And what kind of action would even count as a buff anyways?

Exercise was more about long-term improvement, studying was the same. Mages in games usually just waved their horns around or used artifacts. Clerics did the same but with prayers to whatever higher power existed in the setting. Alchemists had potions, and Bards... Bards. Singing. He could sing, and pretty well if you asked him (nopony ever did). It was natural in Equestria to lose yourself in the flow of communal songs, especially when there was some event going on. Hearth's Warming Eve, Winter Wrap Up... Ponies just had a tendency to break into song at the drop of a hat. And the important thing was that it worked. Phrases like "whistle while you work" and "a song in your heart" were very literal things to pony culture, and the very concept of the magically-empowered Bards in games like O+O came from that.

Maybe if there was some deeper inherent truth to that magic, he could make it work for him. All he needed was to figure out the song and the method, and it was worth a shot. Even if it failed, he'd just embarrass himself, alone... Although Rarity would notice. And he'd hate to interrupt the song Rarity was... humming...
"Excuse me, Rarity? What's that tune?"

"Oh, I apologize! It's just a little ditty I slip into when I'm concentrating sometimes. Was it bothering you?"

He shook his head vigorously, although he was careful not to mess up the sorting he had done.
"No, more like the opposite! Could you start it again from the top? I want to see if I can follow."

"Certainly!"

Hmm hmm hmm, dadada da dum daaa... Spike listened carefully, paying less attention to the notes and pitch and more to the pattern. His whole problem right now was about patterns, and the tune that Rarity was humming had a strong one. It reminded him a bit of the internal thrum and buzz of power he saw when he was meditating earlier. A few passes in his head and he was putting together a shorter loop, something iconic. There was the core thread of eight and then the slow trailing ninth: A section where it rose strongly, plateaued, and then dropped again back to the start. It was like raising water out of a jar, taking a deep sip, and then lowering the dipper again... Or like the pattern of his breathing during Omphaloskepsis. It felt right. Which meant this was it: Either he had figured it out, or he would just abandon the idea for now.

He continued humming as he dropped down into meditation, letting the notes ride his breathing. This made it easier to feel the flow of MP inside of him, and by feeling it, he could handle it. It made it so he could try to direct it, letting the flow hook into his new musical pattern instead of going into the rest of his body like it normally would. The sensation was extremely strange, yet energizing... and difficult to grasp. It slipped from his control periodically, and sometimes those slips hurt, as if he was burning inside. Other times it felt right, as if his body was trying to tell him something. Eventually he let the pattern bleed out in those directions on purpose, flowing into his muscles and his head, gently looping back into his song pattern with a soft ding, then another.

No, that ding wasn't the MP, he realized. That was the sweet sound of success! Some eyelids flicked open while the others remained closed, practicing the skill even as he learned of its existence for the first time. He was so thrilled that he'd be jumping for joy if he wasn't occupied.

A skill has been created through a special action! Through the merger of Heartsong and mana control, a skill to bring forth blessings of song, [Cantus], has been created!

By using [Internal Alchemy] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 1%

...One percent? That must be some truly far-off power. But now he had a vague idea of how to strive towards it, and a new trick up his... sleeve? He didn't actually have sleeves at the moment, but maybe Rarity could fix that. Worth considering, maybe even pick up a sewing skill. First things first, however... Skills, Cantus.


[Cantus] (Active, Heartsong) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Special
The nature of Equestrian magic gives music a special position as the strengthener of all things. Every task made easier, every burden made lighter, every hurdle made shorter, and it is all done through cooperation and song. This skill allows the user to trigger this effect at will, first for themselves, and with practice, for others as well.

The user gains a bonus to MP recovery as if they were using their strongest meditation skill.
This MP may be redirected, based on their song, into bolstering different traits or attributes.
Can be used while taking other actions, so long as the user does not stop the song.
At higher levels this can apply to others, up to all allies within hearing range.
Mutually exclusive with using meditation skills or other Heartsong skills.

Current best meditation skill: Omphaloskepsis
Current song: "Art of the Dress" (+WIS, +INT, +DEX)

Chapter 17: Stagnation

View Online

"Art of the Dress huh? It's fitting. Hahhaha, fitting, dresses: Good one me!"

Rarity's head shot up and she stopped entirely, looking at him with a nervous expression.
"I'm sorry, what was that?"

"Oh! My bad this time, I was just looking over... I got a new skill while I was trying to sort this pile out. It lets me make music to get bonuses, in short. I based it on that song you were humming, and I guess my power gave the song a title?"

Her expression got darker as he spoke, especially at the end.
"Nooo, I'm afraid not. It already had that title. It's not... It isn't just an idle ditty I hum. If you remember back before the Gala, the first one after you and Twilight came into town? I may have put the song together while working on everypony's dresses. It helped me concentrate through the stress... And that was the name I gave it, although nopony else has ever heard me sing it."

"Oh. Alright, um... Give me a second."
He hadn't closed the skill description, so he took the opportunity to tap the bolded song title. Normally descriptions didn't have that kind of texturing, so if it did, it probably meant... Bingo.

"Did it go something like this? Sorry if I botch it, I don't sing that often... Thread by thread, stitching it together! Twilight's dress, cutting out the pattern snip by-"

What had been a dark and nerve-wracked expression shifted into outright shock, and she staggered back and away from him.
"How!? I... No, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be having this much of a problem with it after telling you I'd believe you, but I simply... This is a step beyond!"

The concern was evident on his face as he watched her dart away from her project, grabbing the teacup from earlier and the flask that had gone with it, taking the booze straight this time.
"I, uh, the skill had lyrics? In a little submenu. And sheet music, actually, which is kind of weird? It's not like you had instruments going when you sang it, right? I mean, other than the usual sort of thing when a song takes somepony. Which, it looks like the menu is calling those 'Heartsongs'."

Rarity fell back down into one of her chairs, eyes a bit glazed as she took a slow sip from the cup.
"Right. Well, I don't think I need you to finish with the Case. I've gotten the impression that I'm in a bit over my horn with this whole thing."

"Are you sure? I would feel pretty bad if I just shocked you and then... I dunno, I already feel kind of bad if it's making you feel this weird."

"No, Spike, that's not... I'm just worried and confused. I'm worried about what this might do to you, what it means for you, and I'm confused about where you...r power could be finding these things. Nopony, I promise you, nopony has heard that song before, certainly not the opening."

It made sense in a way. He'd been taking it mostly in stride so far, but this was the first time his power had shown him something really uniquely private, as opposed to just 'something he didn't know already'. There's no way that wouldn't freak somepony out, and he probably should have thought more before saying it... But Rarity's reaction was still pretty over the top, or so he felt.

"How about this: Let's sing it together. Or at least hum it. We can get back to work, I can try out the skill, and then we can just finish our work together. It'll be a way to relax and vent, right?"

Rarity took a breath and sighed.
"I do suppose it is a comforting piece, especially with the memories. And it's not like there's anything that could undo you knowing it... I'm sorry for the outburst."

He put a claw on her hoof with a smile, which got wider when she didn't withdraw. The contact was nice, again reminding him of Pinkie's closeness earlier when they had been working and talking together. This was something he could get used to for sure.
"No apologies necessary. So... let's get back to our stations, and then on three?"

She finished her drink with a nod and strode across the room to the incomplete clothes. Her expression narrowed and hardened, getting back into the working mindest. Spike raised his own claws as he looked down at the assorted bins, containers, and minerals on the table. He had done some things like this before, helping Twilight organize things back home in various collections, like the chemicals in the lab. It was going to be a lot harder now, obviously, but still: A familiar task.
"Shall we?"

Rarity picked up cut cloth and threaded needle in her magic.
"We shall. A-one and a-two and a-one two three..."

It took a moment for them to synch up but once they did, he could feel it. The music grew a bit heavier, a bit sweeter. There was a resonance building, and it flowed over them with each line. He didn't even have to look at the lyrics, since the natural magic of the song was sweeping it into and through his mind. A moment later he felt the buff take hold again, but stronger, stacking onto itself and rocketing his Dexterity, Intelligence and Wisdom up even higher than they'd already been.

A skill bonus has been activated! You are being [Accompanied].

[Accompanied]
Music is an embodiment of harmony and discord alike, all depending on how it is used.
By singing in harmony while using [Cantus], all users receive the full bonus from one another.

It was hard to describe the feeling of the changes in his head, the sensation of his mind gaining strength and clarity, his decision-making becoming tighter and more precise. The changes in his body, however, were far more evident. Muscles became more fluid, nerves began reacting more quickly. His motions were quicker and more practiced, his claws sharper and more refined (that probably had more to do with 'Dragon's Claws' than the buff itself), his breathing more regular. And his breath felt like there was something in it, not just the flow of mana but a kind of potential.

Without even questioning it, he breathed a line of green fire into one claw and began laying it out onto the table like a delicate thread. Lines began to form, and then circles, and then full Venn diagrams enclosing each category. A different flame this time, pale orange, tracing out the letters for each. He knew that the fire wouldn't burn the table or attempt to Send anything unless he let it. That much control would have been beyond him a few minutes ago, but with Rarity's help, it was like second nature. He wasn't sure how or why it worked, but by the time the song was over and Rarity approached with the completed clothing he had also finished his work, laying out her entire 'Hopeless Case' in an array of types and definitions, all connected by threads of unmoving fire.

He leaned back with a sigh, wondering why the fire was still so... well-behaved, even after the song and its benefits faded from them both. A quick glance above his work explained that.


A skill has been created through a special action! Through continuous manipulation of unstable elements, a skill to corral them, [Stagnet], has been created!

You have discovered your [Earth Affinity]!

You have discovered your [Fire Affinity]!


Rarity looked down at the flame-coated table and bit back a shriek. After realizing the fire was not spreading in any way, she managed to calm herself down in order to look over his notes.
"Glass, gems, ore, stones, metals... These pieces are magical, hmm? This one on the outside is supposedly impossible to work or break, which would explain the chisels I lost trying to shape it. High cleavage, low shear, flexible but highly impure... You really did figure out quite a lot here, Spike. This certainly surpassed my expectations."

He nodded, still a bit numb from falling out of the skill's embrace. He wasn't dumber, so to speak, it was just like... There was fog, or blinds, blocking the light he knew was there. The difference between potential and reality? When he fully snapped back to normal thinking, Rarity was holding the outfit up against him. It was a plain piece, not unlike the uniforms that you'd see at a sporting event. Very straight-forward shorts, a clean shirt with a repeating V pattern, a simple sunhat... It was nice in a bland sort of way, which made sense if Rarity was just going to remake it anyways.

"Shall we see if you meet my other expectations? I haven't measured you in a while, but I imagine your size won't have changed that drastically."

"Yeah, you're not wrong. It's kind of like I've been stuck ever since... Well, you know."

She winced, the clothes retreating in her telekinetic grasp.
"I'm sorry darling, if it's a sore spot I'll stop tea-"

"No, no! That's not what I meant."

Spike stood up in order to take the clothes, thinking about his size as he did. Sure, he was still about as large as when he had first moved to Ponyville: Definitely a bit slimmer, a little taller if you fudged it. The one time he'd ever gotten to grow up was when a hoarding (heh) incident had sent him careening through a dragon's full maturity (sort of) in one day, and back. And his body still hadn't grown in right, probably because of the unnatural way it had all happened. But that was in the past, so he waved Rarity's worries off with one claw and took the outfit with the other.

"It isn't that it bothered me. It's that not growing is just something I grew used to, heh... Anyways, I think I'll make some kind of breakthrough now that I've got this power. After all, we know I can grow because of that time. It's just down to figuring out how."

One of Rarity's hooves traced around the patterns of solid fire on the kitchen table as she spoke.
"Well it's not as though the mechanism would have changed."

Spike was struggling his head into the shirt, spines giving him grief for it, as he tried to parse that.
"What?"

"All I am saying is that we know what caused your growth the last time. Just because we undid it then doesn't mean it won't work again. Which does give me a sort of idea... Mmmh, later."

Spike finally got his assorted protrusions to cooperate when Rarity started collecting the empty pieces of her Case. He slipped the hat on and struck an (only slightly) ridiculous pose.
"How do I look?"

Rarity looked him up, down, and up again before smiling. A sudden flash went off nearby and when his vision cleared he could see a flashbulb camera floating in her magic.
"Quite fetching! Speaking of which, would you be a dear and help me clean up the table?"

"Oh, dang, sorry about that. I can get the fire taken care of pretty easily, I think."

She set the camera down with a thin frown on her face.
"You think? 'Think' may be good enough for some ponies, but it is my table on the line."

"Ah, heh... Lemme double-check the skill, juuust in case."


[Stagnet] (Active) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: 10% of original spell's cost
Starswirl the Bearded understood that spells are, by their nature, fleeting dynamic constructs. But like water becoming ice, he also knew that these flowing things could turn solid if given the proper encouragement. This skill allows the user to 'freeze' magic in a fixated form by infusing additional mana, so it can be released or utilized later using variations on the original command.

This skill stabilizes magical creations into temporary concrete forms.
Can be used together with skills that produce unstable phenomena.
The result is stable for the spell's original duration, longer in high-magic environments.

With further skill levels, fixated magic can be manipulated in new ways.
Current Commands: Stagnet, to Fixate. Vanesco, to Vanish.

Chapter 18: Expansion

View Online

"OK yeah, looks like the fire is gonna disappear when I release it. Just give me a second."

Rarity turned her camera on the table and got a cleanly squared shot of the tableau before he could dismiss all of the information. He could remember it all now, but it would probably be nice for her to have a reference... Plus, the assorted gems and metals were pretty beautiful like this, caught in the light of flickering flame from dozens of angles.

"Good, good. I will admit the light and heat is quite pleasant, but it's nerve-wracking when I see the tabletop 'smoldering'. Gives me flashbacks to the last time I let Sweetie Belle make breakfast."

"She can't possibly be that bad."

The look she shot him was withering.
"Remember those 'delicious' charcoal snacks I 'found' for you last fall?"

"Oh yeah, those were great! They had this great aftertaste of hay bacooooooh."

"Yes, quite."

Spike was thankful for the clothes, since it gave him a sleeve to pick awkwardly at during the lull in the conversation. The good thing was, maybe he could ask Sweetie for some food, given his own tastes in terms of burnt and ruined food... Or would she mess up at messing up and make him a totally normal plate? Either way, once he was done feeling sorry for Sweetie (and anypony she tried to feed), he still had to clean up after himself. The skill said it just had command words, and if it was anything like his menus then all it should take was to concentrate on the word...

One by one, the flames began to wink out, snuffed from full roar to total absence without so much as ash. He went methodically around, removing all of the lettering before pausing. Rarity noticed the pattern of circles he had left behind, nodded to him happily and took another picture. Next he cleared the dividing lines, until eventually only the actual contents of the Hopeless Case remained.
"There we go! I think that was pretty enlightening across the board, huh?"

"Certainly. Now, you may notice I already took away the case itself."

"Yeah, are you going to put this all away on your own time? Because I'd be glad to clean it up!"

"No, that wasn't my intention Spike. I'd like you to have these."

He choked on his response, looking at the table again. Sure, it had all been things Rarity rejected due to being unusable in fashion, but giving it to him? There were hundreds of pieces, and most of them probably had value for other purposes. And with the things he had Observed she could even reclaim most of them, finally make them work... And she was just going to give it all to him?
"I... really?"

"Really. I wrote these all off as losses long ago, and you have always been able to put gems to better use than I. A dazzling dress is beautiful and selling them can put food on my table. But it doesn't feed a pony the same way that it can for you."

Spike could have said something, maybe tried to argue in favor of her work and its value, but he was just too overwhelmed by the gesture. He nodded silently (afraid his voice would crack if he said anything) and took the pieces into his Inventory. It would have been faster to just sweep it in as one mass, but he wanted to take it one piece at a time, show proper gratitude to his friend for what she was doing. Coincidentally, doing it that way actually sorted them in his inventory as well, applying the 'tags' he had defined with his sorting to the description of each piece. Finally, he swept the last piece in, the one that had been outside all of the other circles.

He hadn't been able to identify it properly, this stone. Metal? Gem? He couldn't tell, and that was probably a big part of why Rarity had never worked on it. He could tell it was hard, maybe indestructible even. At first he had just categorized it with the other incredibly-tough samples. But Observe, even with its levels in the 20s, couldn't tell him anything about it, other than what he could see with mundane vision: It was grey leaning green and slightly translucent, metallic yet gemlike at the same time, with a weird clarity for something so cloudy. It was full of contradictions, and that was intriguing him more than it was worrying him.

"Rarity... Thank you. Sincerely, this is so... I don't really have words."

"Think nothing of it, Spike. I daresay this might be the real purpose of me keeping this little collection, even if I only realized it just now."

He took another look at the strange final piece, rolling it between his claws. Observe failed again, producing only a vague blurry nameplate with no textbox. It wasn't the same as it failing normally... Not that it had ever failed before, but he had a feeling this wouldn't be the way that looked: That would probably look more like his earlier attempt to use the Languages menu, just a bespoke error message pop-up. He decided that would have to wait for later as he slipped the gem up into his Inventory: Maybe he could study it back at the library, or even in Twilight's lab. The stone entered the strange pocket-space effortlessly...

After which, there was nothing but darkness and pain.

A leaden heavy booming THUD as loud as Canterlot's tower bells crushed up and around him, waves of pressure coursing through his body, then another, and a third. There was a sense of floating suspended by razors, his own weight pressing against the sharp edges harder and further with each passing instant. The pressure grew and evolved into something different, worse. Creaking-slithering-shaking-cracking as his forehead hit the floor, claws failing to find purchase even on the Boutique's carpet. He was probably crying.

He heard-and-felt the sounds of something being shredded and torn almost explosively, it crackled in his ears above the dull pulse of his blood. He couldn't see, the only things he could hear were those around and inside him, and his entire body ached worse than he could ever remember. It felt for all the world like his bones were molten, flowing in his body like a liquid. There was a moment of extreme biological uncertainty...

...Then it passed, and he was left uncertainly stable.

Panicking and with no real idea what had just happened, Spike looked around and saw that Rarity was safe. Relieved of that fear, he croaked out the word 'Status' and looked at the screen. His HP was missing a giant chunk... No, wait; the smaller number was the same. The bar was just a lot bigger than it had been a minute ago, some six hundred HP refilling at a steady clip. Yet his stats hadn't changed, so how...

"W-what..."

The sound of his own voice was louder and deeper than he expected. As his vision cleared, a few things were apparent. Four things all told, each more concerning than the last. One, Rarity's expression was pleased rather than horrified. Two, his new outfit lay in tatters at his feet. Three, his feet were a lot further away. Finally, there was a line of text floating between his eyes and said feet.


A skill has been created through a special action! Through the continuous accumulation of priceless treasure, a skill to expand your heritage, [Dragon's Hoard], has been created!

Chapter 19: Correction

View Online


"Oh good, it worked!"

There would be a time for parsing that eventually. That time was not now. At this point Spike was just scrambling to clear his head and find a mirror, ideally in that order. It seemed like no matter how harsh the sudden changes had been, Gamer's Body was dulling (removing?) the pain faster than could ever be natural... Which was nice. Less nice was the fact that most of the mirrors in the Boutique currently seemed too short for him to use. He was looking over their tops... it felt weird. Helplessly unsure of what to do, he stood very still to avoid damaging anything.
"A, uh, a little help please?"

"Certainly!"
Rarity tilted one of the tall dressing mirrors to face him, quickly pulling two more to the sides to give him a roundabout view of his new situation. He stood so tall that he quickly dropped to all fours out of some kind of vertiginous instinct. He was soon shocked to realize that even in that pony-like pose, he basically struck Celestia's own figure. He was massive, towering over Rarity like a full-grown stallion over a filly, or an alicorn over their subjects... Standing on his hind limbs like usual would easily put him at six feet if not seven at the head, not to say anything of his spikes and spines, or his tail (which twitched and roiled behind him impatiently), or...

His train of thought was cut off by the sensation of a light shiver at his side, like an insect or some other random brush against his scales. He quickly swatted it away with one claw, leaving Rarity to pout at the shredded length of measuring tape floating in her magic. He gaped and stumbled to apologize, but she just shook her head, tossing the tape unceremoniously into a basket of cut ends nearby.
"Nono, that's quite alright: I used a cheap one on purpose, darling."

He nodded without thinking, and then paused. Thought back over the last few minutes...
"Speaking of on purpose... You said 'it worked' when this... this-ed. Please tell me you didn't."

"Well, it would be very misleading to say I had no idea going into it. And just look at the results!"

She did. She'd just... done this. Again. On purpose. Deep breaths. Just... explain things. His head was awash with a lot of different feelings right now, but at the core of it there was a kind of annoyed heat he wasn't used to. He tried to push that to the back of his mind as Rarity looked on, but even still, his voice dripped with unfamiliar venom.
"Yeah, look at them. I mean, hay, I'm as big as Celestia right now!"

"I daresay you are, although I don't have her measurements on hoof..."

"Yup, just like her! And hay, She only knows how easy it is to use doors made for regular ponies."

"Ah, I-"

"Not to mention sitting down, using tables, basically every piece of furniture come to think of it... Oh, beds! You know, I have a bed. Had a bed, past tense, considering what would happen if I tried to take a nap in it right now!"

"Admittedly that could-"

"And of course I blew that outfit into tatters, so that was a nice waste of time for both of us. Sure, you did it for me as a favor and I'm grateful, but you could have warned me if you thought this might happen."

"Yes, I-"

"Speaking of warnings, did you stop and think that this might be permanent? I can't turn passive skills off! It's possible you just got me stuck like this forever."

That left her grasping for a reply, and him out of steam. He wasn't... he didn't feel any differently about her after that explosion, and he wasn't so angry as to try and make this into an extended argument. It just felt like he had to let off some pressure, because Gamer's Mind or not? This was unsettling. He was too big, unable to adjust to the space around him, and it was already coming across in his attitude and actions. Ever since he saw his reflection he'd been staying very still, doing his absolute best not to break more things than he already had. Between the outfit and the measuring tape he had caused more damage in three minutes than he had all day before this.

He just felt... off. Even though he should be a lot angrier at the idea of being permanently stuck as a monster among ponies (moreso than before), he mostly said it... Simply because it was true, without any serious anger or investment behind it. Was it because he didn't think that permanence was likely? Or did it come down to the Gamer's Mind stilling his reactions? Either way, he had to know...


[Dragon's Hoard] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
One of the greatest weaknesses and strengths of the draconic race is their growth. Tied not to biology but instead to their dominion, their ownership, their hoard... They can grow nearly without limit, but they do not grow at all without acquiring new things, and to lose their holdings is to lose, in a very serious way, a part of themselves.

The user's size category and physical maturity are based on the size of their Hoard.
The user may selectively change the composition of their Hoard from a suite of options.
The user may selectively ignore some of their Hoard in order to take on a more manageable form.
At low skill levels, adjusting size is slow and can lead to pain, loss of health, and status effects.

This skill will grow with LUK and skill levels, gaining new features over time.

Current Hoard: Precious Stones and Metals
Current Control: Within 10% of maximum value (6'3"-5'8" claw to crown, for current hoard)


Rarity's hoof scuffed across the carpet as she spoke, refusing to make eye contact.
"Spike... I admit that I may have been rash, even deceptive, in how I behaved. I hadn't thought about the consequences and for that, I certainly apologize. I suppose it was just... an appealing idea, to help you make progress! Twilight has mentioned to me that you seemed, especially in this last year... dissatisfied with your, ah, growth."

He winced, thinking back to all the times he had complained about his height or his perceived maturity. Owlowiscious had to handle all of the high shelves unless he felt like breaking out the ladder, Twilight's levitation often made even that moot, he couldn't haul back most of the gems he helped Rarity find... There had been plenty of signs that he wanted to be bigger and better, he'd said as much more than once. 'If only I weren't so small!' or 'When am I going to get to grow up?' and such. One time he’d even been talking with Shining after a long night of gaming, and asked 'Why isn't my body catching up to my brain?'

"I'm... I'm sorry too. I snapped at you pretty hard, and while this might be an inconvenience for a while, it turns out I can control it... At least, I can control it enough. I got angry without making sure the anger was really justified. So I guess we're even?"

She looked back to him with a weak smile.
"Completely, dear."

"Alright. Good. Good! Now I can just figure this new skill out, and see how close I can get back to my original size. Then I can work upwards from there and hit somewhere comfortable... Think of this as an opportunity."

Flipping open his Status revealed that he had a new section up with his HP and MP, describing his size and age as well as their impact on his stats. Apparently the 'rules' treated it as an intrinsic enhancement, separate from his base stats and from any other buffs. Being this large was granting significant bonuses to his strength, vitality, and health... at the cost of movement speed, manual dexterity, and reaction time. It made sense: After all, right now he was pushing past eight feet from tail to tip, and standing like he usually did put him over six feet. Getting back down to his original size of three-and-a-bit would require figuring out this new menu...

Which should be pretty easy, a realization that came with a simultaneous sigh of relief. He had been worried about all the games with weird methods of adjusting inventories and categories, thinking about games like Bandit and Gridslash with their arcane keyboard controls the size of an entire cabinet's front shelf... But his option here was just a clean drop-down list, fitting the ultra-modern aesthetic of all of his other menus. It even listed his potential height range next to each option, an extra layer of convenience. Right now, getting back to where he wanted to be would take...

His claw hovered over one option in particular. It was more than his original height even at the lowest end of the range, but he did want to express some growth now that he had the chance. More importantly it was a good kind of hoard. It was one that he didn't adjust too often, one that had nothing to do with greed. If anything, it was the very opposite! Without debate he clicked the option and gritted his teeth against the (lesser, but still significant) heated pain of shrinking and warping back down into a smaller form. Adjusting was going to be difficult and he'd have to explain his growth spurt to others, but this was... good.

Current Hoard: Friends and Loved Ones (4'2"-3'9" claw to crown)

He could have been annoyed at the power valuing his friends so much lower than a pile of rocks, but the truth was? It felt more like his friends were coming through for him when he really needed it. None of his other options came close to hitting the right height range, and with a little training he could get the skill to put him back the way he was using this hoard... If he wanted to. Sure, he'd yelled about the inconveniences of height with Rarity, but that was talking about absurd measurements, when he was as tall as a Princess. Right now he was just... a bit taller, and a bit slimmer. If somepony didn't know any better it would just look like he was taking up a new posture, or that he'd had a growth spurt since the last time they met... Which wasn't wrong. No, he could get used to this.

Chapter 20: Arcadia

View Online

To make his situation that extra bit nicer, right now he had a very novel view from where he stood. That is to say he was looking Rarity straight in the eyes. He’d never been able to look an adult pony straight-on like this without him craning his neck or them stooping down. It made it easier to see the details of her features: The subtle lines of makeup, the way her mane framed everything... It was exciting in an all-new way, this unfamiliar angle. This would put him at a proper face-to-face conversation height with just about everypony in town, save for lanky stallions like Mr. Cake, anomalies like Big Mac, and foals like...

"The Crusaders!"

Rarity blinked owlishly, trying to trace back and figure out what he was talking about.
"I'm sorry?"

"I got so caught up in all of this that I forgot I'm still on a deadline. I've gotta get lunch before the school day is over. And I've still gotta hit the arcade, there's fines to collect between here and the schoolhouse, and-"

Rarity put a hoof up to him, pushing his jaw shut.
"Spike, calm down! Just take a moment and relax. It's not so late that you're going to have any problems. Now, go over that again, please?"

It was instinctive to follow her advice and take a deep breath, and it did help.
"OK... I had sketched up this order for my quests, to try and do them... efficiently, I guess? I was going to leave here, get lunch, research different kinds of games at the arcade, collect some fines for the library... Then if I’m ahead of schedule, kill time until school let out so I could talk to Cheerilee and the Crusaders. And I'm worried that I already killed too much time to do all of that."

"Hmm... Normally I would agree with you. However, have you been to the arcade since they closed down for the winter?"

"No, I haven't been out that way since they did that Nightmare Night party last year. Why?"

She shot him a brilliant smile before whirling around to grab a saddlebag and a sun hat.
"I do believe you can solve several of your problems in one go. Shall we?"

Spike's attempts to thank her were cut off by the sudden appearance of another measuring tape in his face, just like the one from earlier.
"Although before we head out, I really should take down your new measurements-"

He rattled the numbers off from memory (thanks to some self-applied Observe), leaving Rarity dumbstruck and a bit annoyed.
"Hmph. You are no fun!"

Everypony knew how much she liked tying ponies up in all of that tape and all of the other things related to making clothes, but that didn't stop him from being on a deadline. He grinned helplessly as he swung the front door open and gestured out into the sunny road.
"I do what I can."


Leaving Carousel Boutique sent them back up and into the hustle and bustle of a Ponyville afternoon. Spike rarely came out onto this side of town when he wasn't visiting Rarity, so a lot of things here were unfamiliar sights. Add in his long and extremely busy winter, and he basically hadn't been out this way in months. Already he saw new homes, businesses, a little apartment set, a few places under construction... The small town he and Twilight had merely 'visited' on the Summer Sun Celebration all those years ago was always changing and growing. All of that change and growth were a big part of why Spike felt so much better here than in Canterlot.

Sure the capital of Equestria was tens of times bigger, brighter, and more glamorous. Yes, more ponies could find it on a map. And yeah, it had more... more, just generally more of everything. But for all of those perks it was a stagnant place, despite seeming crisp and clean and refined. Canterlot was like pure white sugar, stripped of everything excess. The problem was that those changes, irregularities and impurities had their own flavor and value: They gave things a different texture. Ponyville (by comparison) was more like blackstrap molasses, full of body and flavor, a riot of ever-changing smells and sights. It was a village town growing upwards and outwards with the kind of potential that is unique to small things. Yes it lacked in some of the finer aspects, and it would never have Canterlot's wealth... But it had character.

Of course if Pinkie were here she'd be chastising him for not counterpointing all of the benefits of using refined white sugar in baking and lighter dishes and food that needs to have a very particular appearance, but he was trying to have an internal monologue here and that wasn't helping! Or was it? Imagined interruptions probably still counted as being 'mono'...

Spike shook his head, getting his thoughts back on track as they passed more unfamiliar places. His analogy was proven true now that he focused on taking in the scents as much as the sights. A faint whiff of jasmine near a seasonal flower stall, a musky scent near an unmarked black door, the crisp oily crackle of hay bacon and hash at a roadside diner. He could hear ponies murmur and talk and shout, conversations private and public as they moved their way across Ponyville.

In the distance he saw a huge building around where the arcade's fence would normally be, give or take. Kept going for quite some way, actually... Far past where the open-air arcade he remembered used to be. It had been months since he was last here. And the owner was a pony from the Roama, so it would make sense if he packed up and left to be with his family in the spring... Paranoia crept up on Spike, and he slowly turned to look at Rarity for confirmation.

"Rarity, the arcade... is still around, right? This isn't some cruel joke where it turns out that Mr. Gillie shut it down and moved away, right?"

"Aheh, well, not... Not exactly!"

Spike felt awful for having had the idea, worse for having voiced it, and downright terrible when he heard that.
"Rarity!"

"No, no! Spike, I should be more clear. He is moving away, but the arcade is still... Look, it will take some explaining. Do you want to keep going, or should we talk about this first? I know you had gotten to be good friends with the staff there, and I probably phrased that quite poorly."

He sighed and took a moment to lean on a nearby bench, taking a breath to clear his head.
"OK, yeah, I just... I know I was really focused on helping Twilight this winter. And she needed the help! But if it turned out that I let a friend down because I was too preoccupied with work? I'd feel pretty bad about that."

"Well there's no need to feel bad before you even know what's going on, hmm?"

He knew she was right, on an intellectual level, but some snark still came to mind.
"Rarity, are you lecturing me about overreacting?"

"...Touché. I do suppose that a little panic attack isn't the... worst possible thing."

They shared a laugh, and Spike pulled away from the bench so they could keep walking. The building in the distance, the more he looked at it, definitely did cover the entirety of the arcade's old territory.
"So let me guess based on what I'm seeing. He... got a building set up so he can stay open more, even in winter or when there's bad weather scheduled?"

"Very close! He cut a deal with a new owner, and they put the building up. His family's coming back into Ponyville soon and he decided to spend more time with them. Apparently they're making some headway out in the frontier, near Appleoosa? Regardless, he has sold the arcade, although I’ve been told he's staying on the books as a 'consultant' since the new owner isn't too well-versed in game engines and cabinets."

That made much more sense than his fears. Plus, if Gillie Horse had decided to leave the arcade in the grasp of a new owner while he was gone? The new owner was a good pony, period. Spike had always been impressed by Gillie’s size and strength despite his age, like an elder Big Macintosh in a way... Complete with the soft-spoken voice, used minimally. He was a fierce judge of character, able to pick apart anypony who came in to mess with his games or customers in an instant. The only thing Spike didn't quite get about Rarity's explanation was that last bit.

"So if they aren't big into arcade stuff... why buy an arcade?"

Rarity just smiled at that and picked up the pace, forcing Spike to run to keep up. He supposed that was her way of saying 'follow me, and you'll find out'. They rushed past many different tents and smaller buildings, close as they were to the outskirts of town again. A strong smell of cloves, ginger, and cinnamon near a little tea house... Sparks of light and a very faint pressure in the air as they passed a unicorn-for-hire's small shop... A handful of ponies he didn't properly recognize were milling about with apple fritters and referencing maps, probably tourists... And then the massive building where there was once an open field full of tarps and arcade cabinets.

The new structure stood almost loomingly large from his perspective, done up in blues and blacks and faint dots of white scattered across it all. It looked like a piece of the night sky had fallen down and perched in the field, if he was being hyperbolic. More honestly put? Sure, it was still a new paint job and a new building, but...

It felt nice in the way things do when somepony puts effort into making their craft fit with their tastes. More impressive by far than the aesthetics (at least where Spike was concerned) was the sign hanging over the double-doors. It was a subtle and dimly-lit glass or crystal, something he had not seen done before... But what impressed him far more than the technical aspect was the actual words.

ARCANE AMMO'S ALL-DAY ARCADE

Chapter 21: Arcana

View Online

ARCANE AMMO'S ALL-DAY ARCADE

His brain could parse the words. He knew them. He was just having a hard time believing it.
"All day?"

Rarity nodded as she stepped forward, holding one door open in her magic's grasp.
"Indeed! Morning and night, barring holidays I do believe. The new owner is... well, you'll see."

Spike walked in at a slow and solemn pace, almost joking but not quite. He had really loved the old space as plain as it was. In truth? It had been little more than a field with six or seven cabinets and a food cart on busy days, a few trees and umbrellas for shade on the older machines. It had been cozy in a way open spaces usually weren't. Given all that, being here... Somewhere new that was built on that base? It felt right that he should enter like this, eyes wide and head clear.

Putting his remembrance aside, he had to stop and gawk once he got past the entrance. The carpet beneath his claws was dense and riotously colored, the wall to his left stark black, then to his right were... Dozens. Maybe a hundred, even? Arcade cabinets, game machines, engines, exposed engines even, in sizes and shapes he had never seen before. There were tables for not-so-video games he recognized (pool and poker and that one with the little rubber hoofball players on rods), there were tables for sitting and relaxing and eating, there was so much space...

Really, 'space' was the operative word. Just like the outside the interior was decorated in cool dim shades that resembled the night sky. Outside the sun beat down, and yet inside there was no hint of day. Instead there was a pale and pleasant artificial glow, all coming from saucer-shaped lamps and wall-mounted crystal rods.

And that light shone on ponies. A lot of ponies. Even before he saw any of the high outliers in terms of Level, he knew not all of them were from Ponyville. Whether it was the dialects, the clothes, the way they carried themselves... Or the fact that there were too many wings, many leathered rather than feathered.

"w-what?"

Rarity hummed happily as she stepped ahead of him, gesturing out into the crowd.
"For a... variety of reasons, it seems this has become a popular spot for both Luna's Night Guard and the weather-ponies coming to and from Cloudsdale. They used to call Ponyville flyover country in a dismissive way, you know! But now that they have a spot in the middle of their paths to stop for food and drinks, coffee and a break at any time? Their tone has certainly changed. I daresay I've considered opening the Boutique on some sleepless nights just to take advantage of the traffic!"

Spike took a deep breath and just... soaked it in for a minute. Noises, lights, the scent of cooking food and the feeling of the carpet. Brick walls, open vaulted ceiling, no windows. Ponies of every breed and age. He had never, not once in his life, been in any building quite like this one. Even the exhibition arcades in Canterlot didn't have this kind of complex density. But it felt right in a way he couldn't put a claw on, like this was what an arcade should be. He suppressed a small shiver at the scope of it all and then stood straight, turning to Rarity with a smile.

"Alright, since you're so familiar with the place: Gimme the grand tour?"

"Oh nonono, that simply won't do. After all, there's somepony far more qualified than I! One mo, please."

She trotted forward quickly, tail whipping happily as she rounded the corner off into an area that Spike couldn't see from where he stood. He took the opportunity to step down into the lower floor (only a step down from the entrance, but enough of a difference to make headroom for the taller cabinets) and start looking at the place. It's not like he'd be hard to pick out of a crowd, and he'd stick close to the entrance... It was all just so new. Mmmh, not all of it: He recognized the original arcade's cabinets from where he stood. Gillie had probably kept thirty-odd engines in storage even though he only owned ten cabinets, but now it looked like they were all on the floor and then some.

There was Power Ponies: Mares in Space, the one with the power-levelling. There was Martial Mares and Bandit and the latest JewelSmith. There was Haven (with multiplayer!), Treasure Tomb, Sun Seekers and Moondust Wanderer... Spike just marveled at it all for a bit until he heard the distinct quadruple-beat of two ponies approaching: Rarity must have found that guide she was talking about: Maybe an employee, or one of Rainbow's friends from the weather team? He turned to look over his shoulder and... Well, he doubled down on how much he had been staring at things lately.

It was just one shock after another. That was a fitting phrase, really: The mare had a shock of dusty yellow mane over shockingly bright orange eyes, all in the frame of a shockingly fit unicorn mare... Which was made more shocking because she had the grey coat, tufted ears, and bat-like seeming of a Night Guard. Rather than the leathered wings of a normal pegasus affected by Luna's glamour? This mare had a tracery of black thorns running from the tip of her horn down onto her shoulders like a tattooed mantle. Topping off the entire situation was one last, slightly more literal shock: Lightning bolts on her flank, her Cutie Mark showing six of them arranged in a hex pattern.

No, wait. That wasn't quite right.

Really topping it off and really shocking? That was above her, and only Spike could see it:

[A Shot In The Dark]
Arcane Ammunition
LV 39

Thirty. Freaking. Nine. That's nearly forty. Twilight was level twenty-seven. This was somepony who was absolutely not to be trifled with, and he felt nervous just flicking his eyes between her title and her calm smile once. Looking suspicious seemed like a very bad idea right about now. So instead he popped a big bright smile and looked to Rarity as if begging an introduction (easy enough, since he was). She hesitated, reasonably so: He had told her about the whole shebang of The Gamer, including the names and titles. But when he continued to smile, a bit more strained, she relented.

"Ah, Spike... Well, this is Spike-"

The older mare interrupted her with a light cough.
"I do recognize him, although it's only from reports. Pleased to meet you, Mr. The Dragon."

His mood lightened when he realized that level or not, she might be a pony willing to crack a joke.
"Please: Just 'The', or Spike should you prefer."

She dropped into a short and graceful bow, her eyes glinting with a repressed smile.
"An honor! Well met, Spike."

"And you as well, Ms..."

Rarity coughed, apparently at least a little embarrassed about the situation.
"Mrs., as it were. Mrs. Arcane Ammunition, although she prefers to be addressed by 'Ammo'."

Spike continued lightening the mood, breaking into an oversized toothy grin.
"Well then, that seems like an introduction if I've ever heard one!"

"And a long mile better than the ones we get at court, eh?"

Rarity seemed even more scandalized at that, yet Spike himself couldn't help but laugh.
"Trumpeter. Reader. Other trumpeter. And it's so much worse when there's some big shindig."

"If you think it's bad, try writing up the requisition forms for all those extra ponies."

"If you think that's bad, try belching up all those forms!"

Ammo put a mock-offended hoof up to the fluff of her chest.
"So you're the mysterious beast that's always eating paperwork right before it's due!"

"Does that make you the second half of 'Praise the Sun and pass the ammunition?'"

He was 100% sure that Rarity was going to yell at him for that gag, but he couldn't stop himself: The sense of relief from realizing that this over-levelled monster was a nice pony (visual indications aside) had him giddy. It helped when Ammo herself burst out laughing and fell back against a nearby cabinet to wipe at one teary eye. She raised a hoof and Rarity (begrudgingly) helped her up.
"You've got good friends, Rari. I'm so glad we decided to move out here: This is such a great town."

Spike was putting two and two together in his head, although it was honestly nearly as easy as actually getting 4 from 2+2: Rarity knew about the arcade before him. New owner from out of town who doesn't know a ton about video games. The new arcade is open overnight, all day. The structure blocks the sun completely. And now this pony, who speaks to Rarity casually and is apparently either a Night Guard or something very much like it.

"So you're Rarity's..."

"Aunt! Auntie Ammo, isn't that right Rara?"

"Rrrghhhyes to my eternal chagrin, Mrs. Ammo is my father's sister."

"Your father's named after my grandfather, you know! Good ol' Magnum Ammo."

"Since you remind me at nearly every family gathering: yes I do know."

Spike looked askance at Rarity.
"'Auntie Ammo', huh?. Which makes you..."

"Rarity Belle, thank you. I like to hope that I inherited the more gentle side of the family line."

"Pfft, sure. Keep tellin' yourself that Rares. But back on topic... Spike! The Dragon of Canterlot Mountain himself, aide to Twilight Sparkle. What brings you to my establishment today?"

Chapter 22: Marker

View Online

“What brings you to my establishment today?"

He replied with his best shrug, gesturing to the cabinets. After all the time he had spent talking and thinking about 'The' Gamer today, it took concentrated effort to call himself 'a' gamer, lowercase.
"I'm... a gamer. Big one, actually. It's taken over comics as my #1 hobby, and cooking too. Which is not to say I let those slide! And I was a regular at the... The old arcade, I guess."

"Aaaah, say no more. And before we get off on a bad hoof, it's not 'old' to me: Gillie'd tan my hide if I didn't make sure this place carried on in his style, ya know? He'll be dropping back in every so often to help us get a grip on things... Maybe you could do the same, if you're so big into it?"

The excitement bubbling up at the idea broke through his cool facade.
"That would rock! I'd totally love to. I've already got all sorts of questions and-"

Ammo put up a hoof.
"Calm, slow, relax. We can talk shop after the tour, and maybe on another day to boot: You've got a friend with ya and I'd hate to bore her with technical talk, right? Doubly so because it would ding my Hearthswarming gift if I get her mad."

Rarity's cheeks puffed a bit in faux-anger.
"I resent the accusation that I would ever scrimp on a gift simply because I was feeling cross with somepony!"

"Alright, fair enough: Not simply because you were mad. Better?"

The annoyance faded, replaced with a slightly devious smirk.
"Indeed. Compounded by other reasons, well, more than one pony has gotten an outfit that's slightly out of trend. Once, even jewelry that was the wrong base metal for their fur-tone!"

"...Even when you're being vengeful you're still our Rara, huh?"

Rarity didn't have a response to that one, giving Ammo the opportunity to lead them back up the stair (singular) and into the foyer.
"Gonna do the tour, might as well start it from the top! Well, front in this case."

Spike was excited at the prospect, especially because he was starting to realize the building was even bigger than he originally thought. Turning around and looking up from the section of games he had been in, he saw across into the space around the corner. They must have combined Gillie's original space with the field next door to give themselves even more space! He turned to make sure Rarity was going to be on the tour as well: He'd hate to leave her alone, doubly so after kind-of sort-of excluding her with their banter and jokes before.

She smiled at him and gestured towards Ammo.
"Well, shall we? I only know what little I do about the place from helping her get set up in town: This is basically my first time inside, just as much as it is yours."

"Sweeeet."

He had a feeling that Ammo was rolling her eyes as she led them back into the building. It would have been nearly literal to call what followed a whirlwind tour: They moved from place to place so quickly that their movement whipped up enough air to ruffle loose paperwork or flutter a curtain. As far as Rarity's reactions went, Spike guessed this was normal for her Aunt. He did his best to keep up, and thanks to the refreshed speed boost he had gotten from the tea earlier, he even succeeded.

Barely.

"So you've seen the entrance, of course, and the first bank of cabinets: Gillie used to keep his really far apart because older engines had heat problems? I sprung for some open-air cabinets to house those ones, and it solved the problem. Saved a lot of space for some of the other stuff: Got a few shop spaces here in case we ever start doing merchandise or sales or whatever, here's the office, check-in, rentals for the table games, aaand pause."

Ammo screeched to a halt, reminding him of a proper Pinkie Pie Ponyville tour, complete with Rarity bumping into her a moment later. They had passed all of the things she described, ending up in a large sort of clear space. Rather than the cabinets and counters and walled-off rooms from the entrance, this central spot was dotted with tables and chairs, a jukebox, and a single large counter built into the wall. Behind the counter he could see a small kitchen, which made this-

"Food service! Drinks too. Nothing hard yet, but I figured it's important for the stopover ponies from the flights and patrols to be able to wet their whistles and fill their bellies on the way in and out. Plus, locals seem to like it just as much: Cuts down on breaks, makes for a nice social space."

Spike nodded absentmindedly, looking over the menu for a moment. Seemed like the right kind of thing: Nothing too messy to keep you from getting back to the games, and nothing that took too long to make. Convenient, cheap, solid stuff.

"And restart. Washrooms are over there, convenient to the food. No bowling lanes, didn't wanna muscle in or try to compete when you guys already have such a nice alley in town. Still, here's where the rest of the cabinets are, there's the basement entrance: It's not finished, but I've got plans for downstairs. More skill games, some specialized stuff for each of the races, and my specialty..."

She pulled up to another stop, this time gesturing to the last section of the building. He could see another rental counter, this one staffed by a sharp-eyed Night Guard pegasus stallion, and behind it... Targets. Paper and metal and rubber and even some crystal, bullseyes and pony silhouettes and clouds, even an exercise bag wired up into a machine he didn't recognize. Rarity went very still next to him, and Ammo was smiling bright as the sun outside.

"Never did tell you about this one, huh Rari? Well... I couldn't not do it, right? I mean, it is my special talent. And really, what kind of fun is life without a shooting gallery close to hoof?"

Rarity chuckled and looked around with an expression Spike didn't recognize. Her eyes were narrow, her mane pulled back in a brief cloud of magic and settled further from her face.
"I suppose you're not wrong, Auntie."

After she adjusted her mane Rarity nodded to the stallion behind the counter, waiting until he waved a hoof in her direction. Taking that as a signal, she stepped up (taking a deep breath as she did) to a spot across from the furthest-out crystal target. It was a long shot, probably the entire depth of the building from the street to the back.

“Spike, it would be lovely if you don’t gossip around town about this. But, well...”

Rarity cleared her throat and took an unfamiliar stance.

"Daddy... Magnum, that is... always told me this. Ahem..."
She took a practiced pause before busting out a solid impression of Magnum Belle, throwing her voice into a range that was sportsmanlike and deep.

"Rara, it runs in the family! It's how I got my Cutie Mark, it's how your mother bagged me, and it's how you're going to rise to the top, in anything you do. I tell ya, metaphor or literal or whatever-"

Spike barely saw the blip of magic, a flare of blue light that cracked out from her horn and crossed the space in an instant. There was a loud *DING* as the magic-sensitive crystal lit up with the color of Rarity's magical aura. The smallest center segment had been pierced by a stem of solid blue mist... And then it was followed by two more shots near-instantly. The second was long and dense, the third a whirling marble, and all three landed with needle-tip accuracy on the exact same spot. The dense second shot pierced the original stem before the spinning orb blew the whole lot into smoke and ribbons, clearing the board as if she'd never fired a shot to begin with. Rarity turned to Spike with a broad smile while he boggled in shock.

"-a Belle always hits the mark."

Chapter 23: Maturity

View Online

"-a Belle always hits the mark."

He couldn't respond, still in awe at Rarity’s display. Twilight had a lot of magical power, that was for sure. He'd been at her side as she developed all twenty-five of her original tricks, and dozens more since then. Spike had seen his (that extremely complex word they still had debates about some nights when they couldn't sleep) lift an Ursa in her magic alone, saw her meddle with the very concepts of the world, watched as she saved said world time and again. But this level of miniaturized work, fine control, the range... Rarity might have Twilight beat in this particular game.

Spike took a breath of his own and activated the Dragon's Mind, looking at her with an intent gaze (and ignoring Ammo's curious glance).
"Do that again, please."

She picked up his gist quickly, firing the same shots a little more slowly this time. He watched the magic build and flow, paid special attention to each movement through the symbols and systems that her will established. The first shot was plain, and he could feel rather than know when it was registered into his memory. The second one involved more effort, a spin and the addition of more power. The third... His mana cratered out to 0 in an instant trying to process everything he was seeing. Too many complex details for him to work out, and far too fast in his current state.

Meanwhile Mrs. Ammo was speaking to the Night Guard stallion in hushed tones, eventually turning back to them and clapping one hoof on Rarity's shoulder.
"Not half bad! I had no idea you'd been working on the Maelstrom Shot between lessons, but it's good to see you've got the basics down."

Rarity blushed a bit, dusting off one hoof nonchalantly.
"Well... I had an excellent teacher. Best there is, really."

Ammo threw her into a hug, giggling like a filly a fraction her age.
"Awww you!"

Sappiness aside, Spike was even more excited now than before.
"That was incredible! Could you teach me?"

The owner quirked an eyebrow when he said that.
"I dunno... Could I? Last I checked, dragons can't use magic like that. Or at all? I will be the first to admit I don't know a ton about dragons, aside from what we cover in the Guard."

"Hey, that makes two of us: But I think I'm pretty unique. I pick new things up real well, and I might be able to fake it until I make it."

"HAH, well, that's the spirit. Then again... I'd hate to deprive Rariere a chance to spend quality time with her dragonfriend, so why not have-"

Rarity interrupted with a nervous expression.
"Excuse me, Auntie... That was 'dragon friend', two words, yes?"

"Nooo? One word, no space. Dragonfriend. Like coltfriend, but-"

"Yes, I understand the intent. It's just... not the case!"

Ammo scoffed.
"Seriously? Well, get off your flank and make a move: Some other mare might take him! He strikes me as a perfectly eligible bachelor."

"I would hope not! Spike is still a child!"

That didn't hurt as badly as he expected it would: He knew that she had always thought of him as too young, and it was part of what kept him from expressing his feelings when he was younger. But that was when he was younger, years ago. Even if he hadn't grown up physically, he had matured.
"I am not a child! I mean..."

Wait, no, he HAD grown physically! Just a little while ago, this very day. And it had been Rarity's fault to boot: And remembering that brought a little bit of the anger back from under the surface, with a hint of mischief to temper it. So he was old enough to risk unexplained tricks and magical experiments, but too young to date? Well, two could play that game...
"I mean, you made me into an adult just this morning."

He heard a commotion between the counter and watched Ammo actually faceplant. He'd never seen somepony do it outside of comics, but there it was: She stopped mid-stride as if tripping before vaulting muzzle-first into the ground in shock. Spike just set that aside and focused his attention on Rarity's expression, her stammering, her red-hot blush. Turnabout was fair play, right?
"I-I, no, that... Phrasing! That is deliberately misleading phrasing, and I object!"

At this point Ammo seemed like she either had to break or resort to humor. She chose wisely.
"Oh how scandalous! The seamstress mare of Ponyville locked in a tryst with a dragon that she herself calls underaged."

"No, NO, I-"

"But Rarity, you made me so big, I couldn't even-"

"THAT is NOT-"

"Listen to this boy go! You must have sent him on such a trip..."

"AUNTIE PLEASE-"

"She even gave me an entire box of gems for my trouble!"

Ammo cracked up at that, curling up into a ball and laughing herself into tears. Even the stallion behind the shooting range counter was hiding a laugh behind one wing, looking anywhere but at their conversation. For her part Rarity just slumped over and smothered her face in her hooves.

"bury me. bury me and send me to tartarus. it'd be better than this. what did I do to deserve..."

Quite a large part of Spike felt like this joke might have been a touch too far. It was outweighed, barely, by the part of him that was still miffed about being forcibly turned large not long ago. In the end compassion beat out bitterness, as it often did around here. Spike he walked over to Rarity, putting a claw into her field of view to help her up from the floor.
"We're joking, Rarity. It's obvious that... well, it's pretty obvious that you didn't, and you wouldn't."

She took the offer and sat up, looking down at his claw with a sour expression.
"...No, I suppose I wouldn't. And what does that say about me, hm?"

He didn't have a response to that, or more accurately he did... But he knew not to say it right now.

"I'm not blind, Spike, and you... you were not terribly subtle, especially in those first years. But that didn't stop me from being misleading at best and callous at worst. I wonder how many hours of work I got out of you, playing on your affection for my own prof-"

There was a sharp -thwack- as Ammo cuffed her niece upside the back of the head.

"None of that! We, and by that I mean everypony and everydragon here, knows better. You're a good pony and self-recrimination doesn't do you or him any good. If you feel bad about how you acted, buck up and apologize. And if it's not that bad? Buck up and shut up, you know how much I hate ponies wallowing in self-pity. I swear, Mag should have never gotten you that fainting couch."

Rarity glared at her aunt with a heated expression and a deep-set frown.
"You are getting socks this year. Not even nice ones. Trashy ones. With holes."

"...Really?"

Her expression softened slightly.
"...Lace, maybe. That has holes, but they’re nice holes. Holes with purpose. I'm not a monster."

"No you're not. And that's my point. So maybe we can all treat this like rational ponies? I know that's a lot to ask from Ponyville, I've seen some things these past few months, but come on."

He sighed in relief, holding up his claws in a gesture of surrender.
"I probably pushed you too far with the jokes, and I didn't mean to bring up... us. The lack of 'us'."

Rarity nodded her head and nuzzled him for a moment, in simple friendly affection.
"I overreacted, again. And I probably should have been more clear, this morning... Or years ago."

Arcane Ammunition pulled one of Rarity's hooves together to one of Spike's claws.
"Good! Now shake. I'm not apologizing for anything though, that was hilarious until the meltdown."

Rarity shook her head with a soft laugh, and then shook his hoof with a fragile smile. Spike's own expression felt stronger, but for all he knew there were tears in his eyes or something. They'd probably need to talk later. Right here was not the place and right now was not the time. But at least they had cleared the air, right?

Right?

Chapter 24: Confirmation

View Online

It turns out that while right there and right then had not been the place and time, leaving that entire situation to fester was equally unreasonable. So mere minutes later the two of them were sitting across from each other in the Arcade’s little food court. They had settled down for lunch and a long overdue talk about their, uh, ‘situation’. Spike’s plate had chili served over pasta with sharp onions, sharper cheese, and even-sharper ruby fragments (those supplied from his Inventory) while Rarity’s had a daisy sandwich with hay fries, no frills. Two glasses of lemonade were sitting on the table, silently sweating... just like the pony and dragon that were sipping at them.

It was Spike who broke the silence, clearing his throat and refusing to make eye contact.
"So. We-"

Rarity cut him off almost immediately, but even after that she took a moment to compose her words.
"Spike, I... we are friends. Close and inseparable friends. And it is... not impossible that we could be something more than that, someday. Romantically. Let's make that clear now."

He leaned back, trying not to let his shock or pleasure show on his face. That restraint became easier when he noticed how unenthusiastic she seemed at the prospect... There was more. Of course there was.

She looked off into the distance, avoiding his gaze across the table.
"The thing is, I would be lying if I said it would be soon, even theoretically. Not even remotely. I know about your... affections. I always have, but I never once considered reciprocating them. You're a sibling-of-sorts to one of my closest friends, and you're so... well, I still think of you as young, like Sweetie if not younger."

"But I'm not just a kid to you? In other ways?"

"Of course not: You’re a dear friend, even if I spent some time showing it poorly. But thinking of you as a romantic prospect or even something close to that... Well, that is an idea I would need to warm up to. I'd never really given the idea serious consideration, you understand! Because everything else I said doesn't even touch into the... issue of...um, well-"

She trailed off and looked back at him: He knew why pretty quickly, and also knew how to emphasize it: He flexed a claw, cracking another ruby onto his food. It was fascinating how she followed the motions as he cut and crushed the stone bare-handed, her eyes wide and fur bristled. It only got worse when he took a bite, a bite taken with teeth sharp enough to cut meat and hard enough to break rocks.
"Species?"

She visibly deflated and turned to look at him... She couldn’t keep the fear completely out of her eyes, now that he knew to look for it.
"Yes, frankly."

"Well... Yeah. I don't think that's a problem. I can see how it would be weird, and I never... I never expected anything, if that makes sense? It was always more dreamlike than real. Twilight would probably say my attraction was 'Fantastical, not actionable', or something like that."

Rarity nodded and took a bite of her food: It felt like it gave her some energy as she continued.
"Right. And given that... This is not ‘no’, and it's not ‘never’. However, it's honestly not ‘wait’ either. Spike... I think of you very fondly, and I want you to be happy. And if that happiness ends up being with me at some point down the line? So much the better!”

There was a pause as she looked away yet again... But he saw her expression curve, just faintly, into a hint of a smile.
“I can see it just a little, imagine it in my mind’s eye. It's a future I can picture, and a happy one in theory. That is more than I can say of most. But I can't guarantee it. I'm barely certain of now in my life much less then. And even in the best case I have a lot of things to work through, between now and then. So what I'm trying to say is... If you find love? Follow it. Please don't wait on me."

His smile felt more real this time, more genuine, as he briefly laid a claw across her hoof.
"Of course. I mean... Well, it sounds weird to say 'I definitely wouldn't', right? Putting it that way feels dismissive. But I mean it! I mean it in a good way: I won't wait, but you will never not be in my heart."

That drew a sniffle out from her and a sigh from them both. They both relaxed, really relaxed, and Spike felt a sense of peace wash over him. This had been weighing on him for a long time. Ever since he’d first come to Ponyville all those years ago, his attraction to Rarity had been something any pony in town could have told you about him. Most of them had never even talked to him before they knew, since he was... unsubtle, immature in his attraction. Of course, that was further cemented during that first incident with his accidental growth, but even before then he’d been...

He’d been selfish, in a weird way. The attraction had never been about Rarity, it had just been another latch-on crush like when he’d been a hatchling. Imprinting like a feral animal would, something he should have realized sooner... Something both he and Rarity had come to regret, clearly. Hearing that there was potential for it in the future kept the spark alive, but it was only that: A spark. At this point he was older and wiser than when he’d first seen her pale fur and purple mane, poise and grace...

But she was her own pony, and he was his own dragon. Spike was a carefree kind of guy, he felt that to be true... But this had always been there in the background, lurking behind his happy moments. And now they’d finally taken one of his only cares, one of the few things that really weighed on him, and broken it down into pieces. Airing it all out like this, to have an answer... It made him feel whole.


A skill has been created through a special action! By living a life dedicated to Harmony and the happiness of others, you have shown that you possess a [Balanced Soul].


He stared. He blinked. He couldn't help himself: He laughed loud and hard, the chuckles barely restraining a scream.
"Aaaaahahahahahaseriously! NOW?"

Rarity was clearly concerned with his sudden outburst, quickly lowering her sandwich.
"What... what? Is everything-"

He clicked the box away, pulling up the Skills menu afterwards.
"Believe it or not, that got me a skill. Cathartic dialogue about our lack-of-a-relationship got me a freakin' skill. I just... I've got no words."

Rarity seemed to recognize what his claws moving through thin air meant even before he said it, but once it was confirmed she clearly had to restrain a frustrated laugh of her own.
"Oh! Well, that.... That is rather gauche, no? Then again, benefits are benefits I suppose... Do you think it's a social feature? You did make a rather touching denouement, and I’ve read enough romances to know from touching."

"I'm not sure. The name is pretty generic, so it could be nearly anything..."
Scroll, scroll... There. Click


[Balanced Soul] (Passive) Lv 1, EXP: 0.00%
An ability found in those who truly understand that while Harmony and balance are difficult to maintain, they are worth maintaining. This skill creates internal harmony so that improving one aspect of the user improves them all, granting enormous growth via balanced distribution.

You gain one extra attribute point per level, in the future and retroactively.
Your base attributes are improved by 1%. This factor will improve with increased level.
You gain experience 10% faster and gain 10% more from quests and other bulk sources.

All of your base attributes must be exactly equal to one another in order to reap these benefits.
If one attribute rises higher than the others, this skill’s benefits will diminish in equal severity.
This requirement will become less strict with increased levels in this skill.


"...Or everything. It could also be everything."

Chapter 25: Penetration

View Online

Rarity gestured for Spike to elaborate, and he explained it as best as he understood. It was spelled out pretty clearly, and he could see the adjustments it was making (that extra Wisdom from earlier was dinging him down to 9% bonus experience, sadly, but in better news it looked like the 1% boost to his attributes was rounding up to whole points), but the repercussions were harder to grasp. Meanwhile they kept eating, while he thought about the skill and what it meant... Partially to avoid thinking about this change in their friendship and what that meant.

The skill seemed powerful, maybe the best thing he'd gotten so far. Sure it was relatively minor now, but with time... His experience in games suggested that any bonus 'XP' was a thing to be reckoned with. And the same was true of buffing base values, since it would kick in before multipliers. The restrictions were a little worrying, but it honestly just motivated him to stick to the plan Pinkie presented: Balance himself and do everything. It would be a long road normally... But would it, in practice? If this skill was emphasizing that it enhanced the base attributes, then it might even apply the new values to other skills and their requirements. That would be worth investigating for sure.

> Lunch (Hayburg's Hayburgers or Sugar Cube Corner)
Reward: A good meal is its own reward

Cincineighti Chili 5-way (with Rubies): Enhanced perception, 4 hours.

Before long they ran out of food to eat and even, at that point, things to say. Spike sat comfortably across from Rarity and sighed with contentment, dismissing the buff pop-up from his vision. That had really hit the spot after a hectic morning, and a little citrine from his inventory helped cleanse his palate (and refresh his movement buff) afterwards. He offered some to Rarity jokingly... but he was surprised when she took him up on it, plucking the inch-long curled shaving from his claws.

"Uh, you do know that you can't-"

"Eat this? Of course not! But I certainly cannot turn down an offer like that: I'll use it as an accent piece in something tonight, a memento by which I can remember today. Keepsakes are important after all."

He nodded with a smile that felt a bit forced... Remembering this particular part of the day wasn't going to be easy for him, no matter how well it had worked out. Still, he had to push that away and look at the brighter side: They had cleared the air and settled things, no hard feelings, fewer regrets than not... Probably better than a lot of ponies managed. A rather Pinkie-like section of his brain supplied a quiet 'Speaking of managed!' as the stallion from the shooting counter earlier came up to their table. Spike could finally get a good look at him, and doing so seemed extra-important. That was because ever since the shooting gallery earlier? He had already been fairly certain this was Rarity's uncle, and thus Arcane Ammo's husband.

[A Shot Through The Heart]
Piercing Ammunition
LV 38

Yeah, fairly certain.

"Food up to your standards, kids?"
He was surlier than his wife, eyes sharp and manecut sharper. A pegasus of the Night Guard, Mr. Ammo was taller than his wife and a little wider at the barrel... Come to think of it, his Cutie Mark was a kind of barrel as well: A guardsman's sighting scope on his flank. Taking that together with his name, Spike guessed the two of them worked as a pair in the Guard, using their skills for long-range recon and combat. Very cool stuff, and uncommon too: It was something he only knew about tangentially from talking to Shining Armor and reading about the 'sniper' classes in games like O+O. He shook his head, getting his train of thought back onto its apparently slippery tracks.

"Yeah! It was actually super good. I'd love to get the recipe, if it's not some family secret."

"Friend of the family's good as family to me anyway, kid: I'll go throw a copy together in a bit, OK?"

He nodded excitedly, both because it had been good food and because the chili would be another addition (admittedly only the second) to his arsenal of buffing food. It was a foundation for more, and Spike could imagine himself throwing entire feasts for himself and his friends... Maybe if he worked on making and testing food long enough, he could even figure out a way to lay the buffs directly, or condense the meals? Worst comes to worst, it seemed like an excuse to pig out on unusual food.

Piercing shook a crick out of his neck and then looked back and forth between Spike and Rarity, eyes still sharp. Eventually he spoke, quite softly, gesturing off towards the shooting gallery.
"Rare, Arc wants to talk to ya. Mind leaving me and you friend for a bit? Figured I'd ask him some questions while we're here, maybe see if he has anything he wants to hear from me in return."

She nodded, only hesitating for a moment. Spike gestured that it was fine: This was a chance to learn more about the arcade, about Rarity's family... He had a lot of questions, so Piercing's idea sounded just perfect to him. And with that reassurance Rarity left them, trotting away to go handle whatever Arcane wanted. Spike watched until she rounded the corner, sighing, just once, as soon as she was out of earshot.

"Going to guess you let each other down easy, huh?"

He wanted to make a biting remark like his jokes with Arcane, but there wasn't any heat behind it.
"...Yeah. There's kinda been this whole... thing, ever since I came to Ponyville. I guess you heard a lot of it?"

"Nope: Just got a good eye for this sort of thing. Don't worry, you'll both bounce back. Rarity's made of sterner stuff than most ponies, and you strike me as a pretty adaptable dragon yourself."

Spike smiled at that, and held a claw out to the older stallion. He got a hoof up from his chair in return, which left Spike standing and... a little uncertain.
"So, you said you had, um, questions? For me?"

"I did indeed: Nothing bad though. Just figured we could help each other out a bit."

"Curious about dragons?"

Piercing chuckled at that.
"Not so much, at least not in the immediate sense. No, I hear tell you're a pretty avid gamer. And I... was. Past tense. But that was when I was a colt, and I'm not exactly getting any younger over here. I'm out of date, and now that it's my job, well... I could use a guide to the modern stuff."

"How out of date are we talking? Like, Mark 1 engines? I know Shining Armor does a lot of griping about how wonky those were."

"Mmm, nope: Pre-engine. The last game I played ran off a hoof-crank, entirely mechanical. The displays were all done with moving crystal overlays and little lanterns. Half of the blasted things had to be scored on the honor system, 'cause the game had no way to tell when you got a point."

"Yiikes."

"Exactly. Now don't get me wrong, I think I've figured out a lot from setting up the place. But it's one thing to hear marketing schpiels and make sure the machines are running, and it's another entirely to get the scoop from a dedicated gamer. So how about it?"

Spike nodded almost before he realized it, glad to be able to show off a little. Plus, he still hadn't knocked out that 'Look at games at the arcade' quest, so this might be his chance.
"Sure thing, Mr... Um. How do you like to be called?"

"Pierce, if ya please. The wife already took the nice simple 'Ammo' for herself, so I've gotta stick to that."

"Hey, Pierce isn't a bad name!"

Spike was pretty sure he’d met one before, in town: Nice enough stallion, if a bit coltish.

"True enough. Now... Where do you think we should start?"

He looked around and thought about that question himself. The quest he had written earlier said "RPGs" in specific, but maybe the angle didn't have to be role-playing games. There were plenty of simulations, puzzle games, god-games, fighting games, combat stuff... There were all sorts of options, and they were all important to show Mr. Am... Pierce. So even if they weren't going to be useful for his own growth as The Gamer, the best solution was clear.

"Show me around all the cabinets, and I'll point out the really interesting stuff as we go. But..."

"Hmm?"

"I won't be able to cover it in too much detail, and I know barely anything about older games or the history of it all. You'd be better off asking Gillie. He's still going to be in town for a while, right?"

Pierce nodded.
"Yeah, he said he'd be here for the rest of the year at least: They're not leaving until the summer, and he'll be back every season or two. We kept in touch a lot during the setup period, too."

"Good! I've got to visit him myself, sooner than later. It'd be a shame to miss the chance."

Nodding again, Pierce gestured towards the nearest bank of cabinets.
"Before that... Shall we?"

Spike followed with a broad smile.
"We shall!"

Chapter 26: Ping, Pong

View Online

It was a bit of a blur as the two of them made their way through the arcade. They'd bounce from one set of games (racing, both character and vehicle) and towards another (shooting games, near the range) and then out to a third (adventure games this time), all the while talking about the small details and changes. They were both out of their depth, coming from different directions: Piercing Ammunition didn't really know much about modern gaming, but in return Spike's knowledge of the old ways was just as spotty. They filled each other in as well as they could, occasionally pausing to talk about personal questions. It was a literal back-and-forth, in tune with the way they walked.

"So how long have you been here in Ponyville?"

"About six, seven months. You?"

"...Since Luna came back?"

"Right! Right. Should be hard to forget, but... you and the Elements don't raise a lot of fuss."

"Hah! And you say you've been in Ponyville for six months."

"You know what I mean: None of you go around rubbing it in ponies' faces."

"Oh! Yeah, I guess not, even moreso after dealing with a really arrogant unicorn one time."

"...Just a wild guess, but does the name Trixie Lulamoon ring a bell?"

"Loudly. It's a bit weird hearing it without the 'GREAT AND POWERFUL' though."

"Hah. Haha. Yes, that's... Well, she's getting better."

"You know her personally? I had guessed you'd heard of her, or seen one of her shows."

"Story for another time, Spike. Now tell me about these contact screen games..."

Shifting back into business mode, Spike began explaining what he could. They were pretty new to him as well, but some games used a magical crystal for the whole screen, instead of having a projected image. Not only could it produce much more realistic three-dimensional images, but those games could be controlled with the screen, using direct contact. Most of them still used a mix of buttons and contact control, but it allowed for unique methods of play and easy interaction.

"Hmmm. Makes sense, and it's an improvement over a lot of older games. I remember joysticks so twiggy you had to be a unicorn to play well. Using your hoof is an interesting development."

"Yeah, it's neat! Some games have gotten kind of lazy with it, but the best ones do really cool stuff. And a lot of the designs for modern controllers are an improvement over what you're talking about: I'm not a great judge though, what-with the claws and all."

Pierce rolled his neck with a faint -crck- and started trotting away, letting Spike follow behind.

"Understood. Moving on?"

"Sure! Do you have the time right now, though? I thought you were working the counter..."

"I'm free: I put one of the employees on it, they need the counter practice anyways."

"That makes sense! But, um, how many employees do you even have? This place is..."

"Big? Yeah, we snapped up a lot of the local night owls to cover certain shifts. A dozen, or so?"

Spike whistled. "Pretty impressive! And I guess you're having them all train everywhere?"

"Mmh. Me and Arc can't afford to specialize, so why should they? Everypony does everything."

"That way you two don't have to be here all the time, even as the managers."

"Exactly: It would be a shame to move to Ponyville and not be able to spend any time exploring."

"I take it you both like it, then? A lot of ponies think it's, um, 'quaint', to be polite."

"Yer shootin' straight we like it: Quiet, compact, not too far from Canterlot... It feels comfortable."

"Hah! I was thinking the same earlier. And it's growing all the time, I mean, just look here!"

"Glad to be of service. Speaking of: How much do you know about cabinet and engine repair?"

They came to a stop near a door on one far wall, off in a corner, with a strange flat-looking crystal panel where you'd normally see a handle or a lock or even just a push-plate. Spike looked from Pierce to the door, thought about it, and put two and two together once again.
"...Employee's Only door, and you're about to show me the repair room. Also, not much."

Pierce chuckled and ruffled Spike's spines, putting his other hoof onto the panel. It let out a faint ding and a glow before unlocking the door. Spike watched with curiosity, throwing an Observe at it and shoving the window aside to read later. So cool.
"Got it in one. And we can fix that last bit, if not today then next time. Come on in!"

Their tour of the service area was all ups and downs for Spike. On the one hand, he got to see a ton of things he barely even understood and had never seen before in his life. On the other hand, he got to see a ton of things he barely even understood and had never seen before in his life. He hadn't been so frustrated with the (admittedly ever-shrinking) limitations of Observe before, much less the limitations of linear time. He wanted to understand everything he was seeing, to figure it all out and develop new skills (or even new Skills), but he had a schedule to keep and the same was probably true of Pierce.

Still, Spike didn't let anything go to waste: He fired off an Observe into every single individual object he saw in the tightly-packed room, minimizing all of their windows to make room for more. Asking questions of Pierce and taking the time to look at things with his eyes as well, Spike indulged himself. It was a fun time for him, and the bat-pony also seemed to enjoy it. Eventually, reluctantly, they made their way back out into the main arcade. Spike did manage to extract a promise from Pierce that the next time they were able, he could start studying all that stuff properly.

"Gladly. Should go well, too: I like to think I'm a pretty good teacher, given all this."

The stallion gestured at himself, but Spike didn't understand what he was getting at.
"...Your fur's nice and all but I'm not sure how it makes you a better teacher?"

"Pffft! No, I mean being a Night Guard."

"Also nice, but I don't get what an illusion would do to your teaching ability either."

Piercing Ammunition pulled up short, his posture strangely stiff. A moment later he turned his head back to look at Spike, expression dead neutral and tone undeniably cold.
"What did you just say?"

OK yeah this is a time for backpedalling.
"W-well that's what Celestia told me. I asked her about the Day Guard when I was younger and she said it was just a kind of glamour that she put on them, and they weren't all identical underneath or anything, so I just figured-"

Pierce shook his head, his expression softening.
"I would have expected her... Actually, nono, wait. How much younger is 'younger'?"

"Waaay younger. Like, three or four years before we came to Ponyville, I think? So eight years ago, might have even been nine... I hadn't even been out in public in Canterlot that much, so I mostly saw royal staff and Guard ponies back then. Hence the confusion. Sorry for the offense."

"Hrm. So Celestia keeps state secrets from her state secrets? That makes... a distressing amount of sense. Oh well: None of my business! Not that part anyways. So, let's grab a seat. And no offense taken: I'm not mad. I just, well... What the Princess told you isn't entirely true, and what you said to me might come off as an insult if you said it to another pony on either Guard. Since there's a lot more of us in town these days, best to cut any kind of misunderstanding off at the pass."

Spike didn't want to cause any more problems, so he followed and sat down at the table, listening carefully. Twilight had taught him that the best way to make amends for this sort of mistake was to apologize and pay attention. It's one thing to make a mistake, it's another to fail to learn from it.

"So... The true part is that I'm a normal pony, underneath. A pegasus, just like my wife is a unicorn. If you saw her 'normally', the resemblance to Rarity would probably be a lot more apparent. And that much is obvious: After all, not too many ponies rock natural black and purple color schemes, much less the leather wings or thorn-laced horns, right?"

"Heh, yeah... But-"

"The false part is that it's a glamour or illusion. It's something bigger, something real, something that makes an impact. The spell Celestia uses on her Day Guard, and the spell that Luna used on us Night Guard after her return? Those are a unique kind of power that only the Princesses can bring to bear."

Chapter 27: Departure

View Online

“Those are a totally unique power that only the Princesses can bring to bear."

At first Spike had been listening to avoid offending other Guards in the future. Now he was listening with rapt attention for an entirely different reason: This was big, and now he understood why Celestia hadn't explained the details to him when he’d essentially been a baby.

"It's called Benediction. An unrepeatable and irreproducible miracle that cannot be faked, imitated, copied, stolen, taken or broken. In a very real and literal way, it's an investiture of their authority onto their most trusted servants. We carry a fraction of Luna's power, and as such we are like her eyes and ears and hooves in the world. The Benediction is something no normal pony could do, not even a unicorn as powerful as Ms. Twilight. Cadance, maybe... I wondered why Captain Armor never took the call from Celestia, but maybe he's waiting for his lover to make her own version, to be her First."

"Yeah that sounds like something Shiny would do alright."

"Shin- Right, you're basically his nephew. Hah! I guess you could ask him directly, hear it from the horse's mouth. Of course, if the pattern holds true then he might not have an easy time of it..."

"Pattern?"

"Mmh. Celestia's Benediction sort of 'gravitates' towards unicorns. It's why you see so many in the Day Guard, above and beyond Canterlot demographics. And Luna's leans towards pegasi: Hence all the flying Night Guard. Cadance having an easier time laying her power onto earth ponies would complete the little triad, and historically speaking magic likes neat little sets like that."

"Ooooh. That... Wow. This is a big deal. And I can guess it's not a 'public knowledge' sort of thing?"

"Natch: I had assumed you knew, being from the palace and all... I guess when you were younger Celestia might not have wanted to explain the details."

Spike nodded, letting his thoughts drift. It made sense in a lot of ways. And it... Well. The idea of a power that only one single pony in all of the world could use, something just as unique as a Cutie Mark and yet was shared with others by its very nature... It gave him ideas. Not ideas he could act on just yet... But in the back of his mind, the ticket from this morning held an all-new significance.

Further musing was interrupted by Piercing Ammunition standing up and offering a hoof to Spike. He took it and stretched, looking over at the one section of the arcade they hadn't gone through yet.

"Long-term games is all that's left: A lot of the stuff with that 'profile' tech, role-playing games and adventures and building games. These are all pretty much permanent installations, instead of swap cabinets: Made sense to give the games ponies are likely to replay a more permanent home."

"Favorite section, here we come!"

"Heh. Lead the way, little expert."

A blur of cabinets and rapid-fire patter and chatter later, Spike and Piercing Ammunition came out the other side of the 'longplay' island and up into the food court. Pierce, for his part, was mulling over everything Spike had explained about the costs of playing some of the really long-term games, while Spike himself was engrossed in his latest piece of user interface.


> Hit the Arcade, Look at RPGs (research!)
Reward: Quality Assurance

[Quality Assurance] (Subskill) Lv Max EXP: 0.00% MP: N/A
For one who has the ability to claim all things, study all things, learn all things, know all things, and become all things, it is important to make sure that what you do claim, study, learn, know, and become are of the utmost quality. This skill enhances 'Observe' to make sure you don't waste time.

Your Observe is now capable of highlighting objects which pertain directly to The Gamer.
This includes but is not limited to:
Skillbooks, Skillgames, Fuel-for-Fire, Buff Consumables, and Recipes.


"...Who slash what writes these things?"

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Sure. That aside, think fast: The gals are a-comin'."

Spike straightened his posture and tapped the skill window closed with a quick jab of his attention. Sure enough, Rarity and Arcane were approaching from across the food court, having some kind of animated discussion that he couldn't quite hear. By the time they made it all the way over, their conversation had ended, so Spike put it all out of mind. It wasn't his business, right? But it seemed like Arcane Ammunition had some amount of business with him, from the way she was angling that piece of paper towards his face.

"Here you go!"

He looked down. It was a schedule written onto a copy of the next month’s calendar, a few blocks of several hours marked off on various days, at various hours early and late alike.
"...Um?"

"You mentioned having some interest in Rarity's ranged spells, yes? And I don't doubt that my husband got some ideas into your head as well, so... Those are times we'd be free, if you want to come learn from us. Rara's welcome too: If I'm going to be teaching things anyways I might as well get two birds with one. And we wouldn't mind getting some work out of you in return, of course..."

He cut her off with a surprise hug, smiling wide.
"That's so cool! I'll make sure I can find a time where I have openings and Twilight isn't having me do anything at the library and... Yeah! Thank you so much."

"Nothing to it, kid. You two need anything else before we go our separate ways for the day? It has been one beast of an afternoon for sure."

Rarity shook her head, while Spike stood up and surreptitiously slid the schedule into his Inventory when nopony was looking.
"I think we're good to go!"

The four of them walked to the front doors of the arcade, right back where he had started. It felt like it had been a long time since he arrived, but emotional moments always made him feel that way. In reality, it was still a good forty-five minutes before school was scheduled to let out, so he was right on pace.

"Nice meeting you two!"

"And you as well, kid."

"Keep in touch, huh Rara?"

"Of course. I merely had a fair few spring orders to get through and-"

"No excuses. We literally know where you live, all that jazz."

"Pfffine."

As Rarity trotted away, Spike turned back to take another look at the husband and wife duo. For the sake of testing his earlier Observe grinding, he made an effort to use it anew on both of them. He expected two boxes of information to pop up... What he got was a chorus of dinging bells and seven boxes. Above the two Observes were quest completions and one new message, first of its kind.


> Look at Ponies (titles? levels?)

Reward: Indra's Net

> "Game"

Reward: 2,500 Experience (+240 from bonuses)

Your level has increased by one!
Your level has increased by one!


His claw shook a little as he tapped the name of the unknown reward: With a name like that, it had equal odds of being an item or a skill. Turns out it was the second...


[Indra's Net] (Subskill) Lv Max EXP: 0.00% MP: N/A
In the same way that one pearl reflects all others. In the same way that one thread connects all things. Denying the singular vision of Gutei, those who see the world through the filter called Indra's Net are able to perceive the inherent and pervasive interrelationship of all things.

Your Observe is now usable on the relationships between things, as well as the things themselves.
All uses of Indra's Net are automatically compiled into a network of relationships (In a new menu).
Relationships that you know about are automatically added when Observing only one part of it.
Relationships for which you have a false impression will not be corrected until you are corrected.


Indeed, between the two expected Observe boxes was a third, filled with lines of holographic fire that reminded him of his earlier sorting job on the Hopeless Case. In the center of the diagram the Cutie Marks of Arcane and Piercing were connected by various lines (pink for marriage and love to each other, red for familial ties to Rarity, a solid blue for cautious respect of Spike himself, a plain black for ownership of the Arcade, etc) and boundaries.

Without saying anything he Observe'd Rarity again, and watched as a cascade of information added her relationships into the diagram. A swipe of his mentally-imagined claw over the interface moved it all aside, letting him see the vast space prepared for the information he would gather... Maybe with practice and more complex information, he could change this into a three-dimensional model like the ones Twilight used sometimes. Or maybe he just needed the right commands? This was going to take time. And it was also going to have to wait...

Because he had just leveled up.

Chapter 28: Purchasing

View Online

He had just leveled up.

That bump of experience had pushed him to Level 3, probably even close to 4. And his Balanced Soul made it so that he got... 6 points to distribute per level, according to the Status screen. The level up hadn't increased his HP or MP like in some games, so that was dependent entirely on skills and stats. Nor had the regeneration of either improved: It looked like the sole benefit of levelling was the points he could spend, which implied that stats were very important. And given that passive skills like Balanced Soul couldn't be shut off (that he knew of yet, anyways), he should probably let the restrictions from those passives guide his spending.

Spending. Hm. This might actually be a time to apply more of Twilight's advice: She had taught him a lot across dozens of subjects, but with a serious emphasis on what she called "baseline" topics, concepts that were applicable in many different situations. Several of them were probably applicable right now, but one in particular stood out. Combining that with the notes he took in the arcade...

Spike had a bedrock of information to work with. None of the games were exactly like his power, but he had seen enough that were similar to be able to make educated guesses, most of which he could test without risk. Taking all those games into account... The odds were high that he'd only get exactly 6 stat points per level up, and that spending them would be permanent with no option to respecialize (except as a quest reward?). The "training" point of WIS had given rise to questions, and he had looked into games with similar mechanics and learned... Disheartening things, mostly.

Without a single exception that he had seen, games where you can earn "free" stat or skill points by training made each point harder to earn based on how high the stat was. And it usually did not matter if those points came from training or from freebies, the difficulty in training went up the same. Which meant if he wanted to squeeze everything he could out of training, and if his system worked like those games, then he had to front-load his training and put off on his spending.

And that's where Twilight's lessons on cost-benefit analysis would come in. The name didn't sound great, but the concept was simple: What was he spending, what was he losing, what doors were being opened, what options closed off? The idea was to measure not just positives and negatives, but the things you spend compared to the things you gain in return. It didn't take him very long to sketch up a preliminary comparison in his notebook.


> Spend Now and Train Later
	 Benefits: Immediate 20% bump to everything, further bonus XP now, less up-front effort
	 Costs: All of my hard-earned points, when and if I do train I might get less reward for it

> Train Now and Spend Later
	 Benefits: Probably more total points in the long run, easier to keep stats even for XP
	 Costs: Requires me to work harder & earlier, unspent points will sit there taunting me

To some ponies, that would look like a fairly balanced list. But growing up around Twilight, and even moreso growing up in Canterlot? Spike had learned the value of long-term investment. There was a reason that Celestia still owned ninety-nine percent of the entire Canter Mountain range in her own name, and it was called "2,000+ years of interest". So Spike settled for the reliable old method of training hard and blowing his freebies only as-needed, or once the growth from training stopped.

With his plan of action set in place, Spike nodded to himself and stowed his notebook... With good timing, since he looked up a second later only to run snout-first into Rarity as she abruptly stopped.

"Gah! Sorry, wasn't watching where I was going."

Rarity tutted at him softly.
"Nonsense! This was my fault if anything: I thought you were occupied so I chose not to interrupt you. I myself was distracted by this lovely shop display."

Spike looked over to where she was gesturing and quirked one brow.
"Pouches? I thought you had a very strict NO POUCHES policy after that time with False Field?"

"Mmmh, while his ideas about fashionable clothing design were nothing short of grotesque... I must admit that they have functional purpose. Especially for Aunt and Uncle Ammo: I'm considering a little 'thank you' gift for all of their help today. And there's something chic about a well-constructed tactical vest in its own rugged way, hmm?"

"I... sure? Yeah, that sounds reasonable."

He could picture it, actually. Saddlebags were great when you weren't going to be moving around a lot, but for ponies who jumped and climbed and did acrobatic maneuvers without setting the bags down, they were... counter-productive. And that was being charitable. Come to think of it, this might be a good opportunity to put some of his funds from this morning to use, especially since the idea of what his afternoon would entail was starting to settle down in his head.

"Actually, yeah! Let's head in here real quick. I might pick something up myself... Then I've got to take care of those fines, so don't let me forget."

"Can you forget? I could have sworn you said-"

"You know what I mean."

"Hee, alright. Come along, Spike! Let us go... shopping!"

It was a whirlwind couple of minutes... Somepony might have expected longer, with Rarity involved, but the fact is they both knew exactly what they wanted. Spike socketed his purchases away into his Inventory on the way out, and Rarity hefted hers into a new pair of saddlebags (she saw a set in pink with lace accents that really tickled her fancy, apparently), and that was that: In and out with minimal muss or fuss for a change.

"So, going to hoof those off to the folks next time you visit the arcade?'

"Mmh. If you're able to get in that first date for the training schedule Aunty and I wrote up, that will actually be just a few days from now."

Spike nodded, pushing the aforementioned schedule a bit higher in his inventory.
"Yeah, I'll run it by Twilight's schedule and make sure we're not already doing anything. I bet I'll learn a ton, too, given how powerful they are."

Rarity tilted her head at that, apparently confused.
"Sorry?"

Spike angled them down a different street so they would reach the house where he had to collect his next fine a bit faster, talking and walking.
"Rarity, your aunt and uncle are crazy strong."

"And how would you know that, having only just met them?"

He could have let his deadpan expression say it for him, but since they were still moving he emphasized the point by gesturing above their heads.
"Titles and status screens, remember? First thing I see when I look at anypony."

"Ah, yes. You never did tell me how I stacked up, did you?"

"25. Close to Twilight, more than double the average pony in town, nearly ten times above me even after I just gained a few, and barely over half of Arcane or Piercing."

She pulled to a stop after hearing that tidbit.
"HALF of them!?"

"Not quite that bad, I did say 'over' half: They're both in the high 30s. Which is weird, because we both know what Twilight can get up to. So having her be like a dozen levels behind them..."

Rarity was silent for a while, and he kept walking: They'd get where they were going at the same speed whether they spoke or not. And they did arrive before she spoke again. The library fine this time was another simple one, just one cycle behind: They paid and kept the book, Spike took note in his impromptu ledger, and they moved on. It was only once they cleared the block and hit a stretch of open road that Rarity replied.

"Perhaps... I am admittedly not the most informed pony on the subject, but what is a 'level'? It strikes me as something that could be very imprecise, if it's measuring up every aspect of a pony. Even if it's just based on the total, what would you call them, points?"

"Points, yeah. It looks like 5 per 'level' is what my system thinks of as normal, most ponies I've seen are a little better, probably from training or special effects. But it's within range of being consistent, so the stat spread probably has an impact on how it's calculating things or vice versa."

"Mh. Well, even if the level you see is just 'take the points, add them up, and then divide by 5', that leaves all sorts of room for... outliers. What about specialists? What about skill, talent, dedication, or experience with the situation at hoof? No, I think levels are... Maybe a bit of a generalization."

"I can see that. A lot of RPGs use level as a shorthand for power in some way, but it never tells the whole story unless the game is really simple. And mine decidedly isn't, from what we've seen."

Rarity nodded rapidly, looking around to make sure nopony was in earshot before continuing.
"Their particular focus also has some bearing, I'd imagine: They have seen more combat this year than dear Twilight has likely seen in her life, even counting the Changeling incident. And that's after they moved to Ponyville and switched to being stationed here as opposed to working in the field."

He couldn't help but whistle.
"Daaang. That does make a lot of sense though: Combat power tends to be a big factor in the level you get in most games, even if you're not a major combat player."

"Mmmh. Do keep me informed, however, if you notice any other interesting outliers? I find this kind of comparison fascinating in a way, given what you've told me about my relatives... and myself."

"Sure thing! Oh, one second though: Last fine on this leg of the trip is riiiiight here."

Chapter 29: Blind Eye

View Online

They were fairly close to the schoolhouse at this point, and Spike's internal clock showed that he had a decent bit of time: Thanks to combining the arcade trip with lunch and his visit with Rarity, he had managed to come out right on estimate. Once he collected this last fine (significantly larger than the others, list says Twilight attempted to serve this one before and never get an answer) then he would be able to relax a bit on his way to the Crusaders.

A few knocks later, a light-coated stallion ('Blind Eye', no title, level 9, self-employed, lives alone) pushed his way up to the door, frowning deeply when he saw Spike and Rarity.
"What do you want?"

Ah. Because of course it wouldn't be that easy.
"Just making my way around town collecting fines for the library."

There was a very brief flash of something in the stallion's eyes, maybe anger or disgust? It's an ugly expression, but it passed quickly. Almost as quickly, he began to shut the door.
"None here."

The door didn't make it all the way to the jamb, what with Spike's foot in the way... It hurt, but only briefly. He shrugged off the small chunk of HP damage and dismissed the box that popped up to read later.
"Listen, Blind Eye, I-"

That stopped his motion, and the harsh expression came back, his mouth set in a firm scowl.
"Didn't tell you my name."

"Right! But I have a ledger, see. So I know you have one of our books, or had it anyways. So rather than slam the door on my foot again, let's handle this like gentlecolts, alright?"

Blind Eye cocked an eyebrow at the word "foot", which then settled back into a dour expression when he looked down and saw Spike's scaled claw.
"Don't know why my name is on your list, but I hate the library here. Absolutely despise the place. So I don't have one of your books. Go awa-"

Spike didn't need Observe to tell him that this stallion was lying. It certainly helped, but it wasn't necessary. He sighed and reached into a little belted bag on his side (picked up at the pouch shop, a convenient excuse to hide his Inventory's blatant nature) and pulled out the ledger. Looking at it more closely, he was surprised that he hadn't been more worried about this earlier... Then again, at the time he may have just written it off on the assumption that there would be no answer. Again.

"I totally understand that this can be an inconvenience, and normally I'd just come back on a nicer day, but it says here that you owe really quite a lot: We've attempted three previous collections and gotten no answer. So if you return the book today, it will still be twenty-five bits. If you don't, it'll be a flat fifty, given the cost of a new copy of... 'A Skeptic's Field Guide', and the cost of making it shelf-ready."

Somehow the stallion managed to simultaneously sneer and scoff, a real feat all things considered.
"Yeah, you think I believe that? As if your little gambit needs any more money."

"I... what?"

"That place is one of Celestia's little pet projects, run by her little pet unicorn. She pours extra bits into that and ignores the actual problems here in Ponyville. So even if I had your book, I wouldn't pay a single bit. And you know what? I wouldn't give it back even if I could."

Spike didn't react in the slightest, visually, even when Rarity let out an affronted gasp to hear this random schmuck insulting Twilight to their faces. He just sighed and looked down at the ledger.
"Alright then. Thank you for your time: I'm just going to head up the block to the Guard office."

Blind Eye went to close the door on him mid-sentence, but stopped just before it hit the frame.
"What?"

"You know, Celestia's Guard? Nearest Guardhouse is like two streets away from here? If you're right about the Princess putting so much effort and personal funding into a small-town library... And I mean, how could you not be right, Mr. Skeptic? If you're right, then you don't owe fifty bits for fees and defrauding our free public library. At that point what you’ve done is steal government property."

Spike began pacing back and forth, keeping his head turned to face Blind Eye. He never broke eye contact and didn't slow down, so every time he turned around again his neck craned strangely, making it look like his head was moving independently of the rest of him.

"I grew up in Canterlot with that 'pet' unicorn, you know. And geez let me tell you, the Guard really hate it when ponies steal from the government. I remember the last time somepony tried to take a bunch of art pieces from the Palace? Couldn't walk on their front hooves again for months. It was a shame, too: They seemed like such a nice pony. You seem like a nice pony too, honestly! But either way I have to go tell the Guard about this, so I'll see you later."

He stopped dead-center with the door and tilted his head, leaning to one side with his eyes as wide as he could make them.
"Or maybe I won't see you ever again? Doesn't make a difference to me, in the end."

The stallion had already been pale to begin with, but at this point every drop of blood had fallen out of his face, and he turned around on shaking hooves, blinking furiously to get the image of Spike's expression out of his head.
"I-I'll go get the bits. Sorry. sorry."


By using [Intimidate] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 33%


Not even a full minute later, Spike was waltzing away from Blind Eye's house whistling a jaunty tune, tossing the bag of bits from one claw to the other. The book itself was already stowed away in his Inventory, and the bits followed a few steps later. Rarity was looking at him with her face twisted up in... Well he wasn't sure what her expression was, exactly. Wasn't great though.

"Spike, I am not entirely sure I believe what I just saw."

"Hmm?"

"You browbeat that poor stallion as if he had done you some horrible personal offense! I mean, yes, he did say those things about Twilight and Celestia, but... That was excessive! And what was that bit towards the end about the Guard breaking somepony's legs?"

"Oh! Made it up. Sort of? I was reading this comic series about the old Cavaletti crime family in Baltimare, and there was this great scene like that, so I kind of just... went with the flow. Maybe I should try to get into acting, see what skills that gets me!"

She snapped his name out like it was a curse word before catching herself, clearly flustered.
"Spike! I... Spike, listen. It is one thing to make your best effort to get back what is owed to you, and it's another entirely to do so with lies and intimidation. I'm... I was going to say 'disappointed', but given some of my own actions with you perhaps that's not the right word. Disquieted? Worried?"

"Worried?"

"I simply don't want you to be abusing ponies just because you have a little power, is all. I know what it is like to let a rush of potential, or authority... even just popularity get to your head..."

That brought him short. He turned around and smiled, softly, trying to steady his expression.
"Alright. I promise that I won't do anything unnecessary like that in the future, alright? But I can't just say I'm going to avoid doing things when they're needed. Sometimes I might have to-"

"No, no, I understand that. I suppose I've just... seen a lot of you growing up today, in more ways than one. It has left me a bit askew, and that was the last push to full-blown shock in my head."

It made sense. He could understand how strange it was to see somepony go through big changes in very little time: After all, he had been there for so many moments of Twilight's changing life: When Shining left for the Guard, when Celestia sent them to Ponyville, all sorts of times when things were thrown into upheaval. Spike realized that all of these changes hitting at once wasn't bothering him because of the Gamer's Mind, but the ponies in his life watching him didn't have that luxury.

"I promise I'm not going to totally change. I mean, after all this... I'm still me, right?"

She stepped forward and nuzzled his side briefly before pulling away with a smile.
"That you are, Spike."

Chapter 30: Listing

View Online

A few minutes passed on their walk before Rarity stopped and gestured for Spike to join her. They were around the mid-point between the school and Carousel Boutique, so this was where they'd part ways for now. Spike had mixed feelings about that, about all of this, but he could get past it.

"And here the road splits, hmm? Have a good time with the Crusaders, and make sure to bring Sweetie back sometime before dinner, alright?"

Spike nodded rapidly, reaching out to shake Rarity's hoof.
"Sure thing! Thank you for... everything."

"Think nothing of it, Spike. Although... I did have one last thing I wanted to mention. I suppose talking with Aunt Arcane reminded me, in the end."

"Oh yeah?"

"A piece of... advice, I suppose? My perspective on your new situation. You already know that I prefer to do things all together instead of one by one: I can multi-task, if I do say so myself, along with the best of them."

Spike recalled the cloud of clothespins and magic working in concert this morning.
"I'll say! I’ve always been impressed by that side of you... Obviously."

"Hah! Well... Consider doing the same. That's my advice, simple as it sounds! It seems like you can use your 'skills' at the same time as one another, yes? In that case, if you’re going to train yourself... Train everything you can all at once. Normally I wouldn't think of things in such utilitarian terms, but... I'm rather curious to see where this all takes you."

His smile was wide and genuine, and he leaned forward to follow their hoof-shake with a quick hug.
"I can definitely get behind that. Thanks again, Rarity: I'll see you when I bring Sweetie back!"

His feet carried him away quickly, almost against his will, as Rarity waved him off.

Spike would be at Ponyville Schoolhouse within seven or eight minutes if he kept full pace... So he slowed down a bit once he had crested the hill. He had some 'menuing' to do, as they called it. Management and reaffirmation of what he had on hand, something he could multitask- Hey, maybe that'd be a new skill! He had been getting them at a pretty fantastic pace so far, although the gut feeling remained that the bonanza would end tonight. His initial quest had even called itself a "jump up the ladder", so it was probably easing him along in order to level the playing field...

Level it against who, or what? He couldn't shake the idea that this wasn't just him growing up and coming into his own as a dragon, if that was even the cause of it all. There was a purpose to what was happening to him. Thus he had to stay alert and smart and keep himself prepared: Which meant it was time to hit the menus and make sure he had a strong grasp of his 'arsenal'. First came skills... No, actually, first came that box he ignored when he was dealing with Blind Eye.


A skill has been created through a special action! Through the power of your body to endure pain and damage, a skill to resist trauma, [Physical Endurance] has been created!

[Physical Endurance] (Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00%
This basic skill increases your bodily toughness, but only in regards to mundane damage.

3% decrease in the damage from all physical attacks and hazards.


Well, that was... refreshingly simple. Although it made sense that the descriptions of 'generic' skills were in and of themselves generic: It looked like Cooking had a similarly short summary. And since he had that up, Spike took the opportunity to pull up all of his other skill boxes and take a look at the haul thus far. Probably wouldn't hurt to get a summary of what it all does in writing while he was at it. It would make it easier to keep track of what he needed to test and experiment with in the future, since the descriptions were not 100% forthcoming about specifics.

Skills
Gamer's Mind -- Immune to 'psychological effects'. Still experience them but not affected? (TEST)
Gamer's Body -- No 'real' consequence to injury. After sleeping, recover from absolutely anything.
Observe -- Activate ability to see the description of things. Provided by game's "engine" it seems.
Cooking -- Passive, generally improves my ability to cook, required to learn / use complex recipes.
Earthshaper -- Improves my ability to carve / sculpt / shape rock, stone, and maybe metal? (TEST)
Dragon's Claws -- Claws are stronger, sharper, precise, retractable. Blunt fingertips feel weird.
Omphaloskepsis -- Twilight's meditation, restores MP / HP / Stam, trains them and Dragon's skills
Dragon's Heart -- Passively boosts all stats, lets me burn MP to boost them... how much? (TEST)
Dragon's Mind -- I can see and learn magic, plus it's why meditation can train the Dragon's skills.
Dragon's Breath -- Defines how my fire works, might give more control, learn new 'colors'? (TEST)
Cantus -- Singing a 'Heartsong' gives bonus MP regen, I can redirect it into various buffs per song.
Stagnet -- Lets me freeze, dismiss, and manipulate my fire as well as (apparently) magic. (TEST)
Dragon's Hoard -- Changes my growth based on chosen "hoard", can scale freely within a range.
Balanced Soul -- Passively boosts XP and all stats, but only if all my stats are equal. Free points!
Physical Endurance -- Damage resistance from 'mundane' harm. What exceptions are there?

Spreading it all out like this made him realize just how much he had accomplished in so little time. Still missing that Dragon's (Strength) skill, assuming there isn't an inexplicable gap in the pattern: Probably something good to focus on soon, even if only to confirm or deny his suspicions. Speaking of confirmation some poking around in submenus eventually led to him finding other things he’d acquired with less fanfare over the hours: Elemental Affinities, Masteries, Subskills, and a single Consumed Skill. His 'engine' was showing itself to be more complex every time he looked... Not necessarily a bad thing.

Affinities... He had picked up two, Fire and Earth. Given the timing, it was easy to guess that they were related to the circumstances in which he acquired them. At the same time they made a lot of sense for him in the long term as well: Being a dragon, he could breathe fire, and for that same reason he ate stones and gems. Even an Earth Pony couldn't boast that level of connection to the soil. So those made sense, and expanding his collection of Affinities... Well, it could go a few ways. Those ways, in turn, got another segment in the journal:

1- It's possible those were all he'd ever get: More than one game had that stuff hard-locked at character creation. Decent and depressing odds, although if he had to stick to two elements, that was probably going to be the pair he chose anyways. Shame about Air, if it works out that way...

2- He might be able to learn or acquire them from ponies or other races, especially if Dragon's Mind had a generous definition of 'magic'. This had high odds since he had gained these affinities at the same time as Stagnet, which let him control and manipulate magic and fire.

3- He might gain them naturally by getting new kinds of Dragon's Breath with the self-same skill, or even just through exposure to the right elements or situations. Not the most likely, but also the best one in terms of potential.

As for the Masteries... Well, he had a decent idea there. He had earned Cooking with this system, and was on his way to getting Craft and Intimidate by the same metric. Since they were word for word the same as skills from O+O and the games based on it? Mastery was probably how he got the things most others would consider 'skills': General, mostly passive talents. Earthshaper wasn't in the list, but in O+O that kind of thing was a subset of Craft... and so was Cooking, plus there’s at least one other difference: Spike’s Earthshaper has an Active component.

Given the evidence, Spike was pretty convinced that the Mastery system was for "skills" in the traditional sense as opposed to the hodgepodge of magic and powers his engine called skills. Which left the weird mystery of Internal Alchemy, of course, but that was probably going to bother him for a long time at the rate it was growing. So that was another topic handled.

Subskills, another one with questions attached. He didn't have a lot of data-points to work with directly, although he had interesting counterpoints. The Commands from Stagnet, the Heartsongs from Cantus, the Recipes from Cooking, etc... Why weren't those Subskills, and why were the ones he had? Using his current collection as a guide he guessed that the deciding factor was if the new 'part' merely added to a skill, or if it was a total overhaul to the core concept: A variant of sorts.

By that logic, Quality Assurance was an always-on method of seeing items his power could utilize, Indra's Net let him turn Observe onto the bonds of things instead of the things themselves, and the Green Sending-Fire totally changed his breath (even if it was his 'default', it wasn't mundane fire).

Commands and Heartsongs and Recipes just added to the framework of their skills in a defined way: Different commands, different tunes and buffs, different kinds of food. That seemed like a good way to split it up, although something to take note of? So far all of his Subskills were either inherent to who he was before The Gamer, or had been gained as quest rewards.

And that left his single Consumed Skill, Eidetic Memory. That was the situation that felt the simplest, but simultaneously the weirdest. From what he could tell it was ‘consumed’ because Dragon's Mind replicated its functionality, but if that was the case then did it even do anything? Had he "wasted" a skill, so to speak, or did earning it amplify that part of Dragon's Mind in some way? The Consumed Skill menu didn't even let him see Eidetic Memory's description, probably because he never saw it before the skill was lost to him.

After so many new theories and ideas, it was a bit disappointing that this would remain a mystery.

Chapter 31: Shifting

View Online

Spike had been meandering towards the school while trying to run all of that down and produce theories and write down his notes for later. As such, he had made it... Three blocks, if you could even measure Ponyville by the block. It seemed like his multitasking was going to need a lot of work, but that didn't dissuade him from moving on to an inventory management spree. Just that and his quests and he'd have everything totally in order, then he could hoof it. Inventory, inventory... Huh.

A good start: Nothing surprising in terms of actual contents. Gems, comics, books, blanket, pillow, quills and ink, the ledger, the journal, some loose paper, his bits (which resided in a currency tab instead of being ‘items’), the pouch from Twilight, the muffin from Pinkie, the fines (these were an item, either because he didn't think of that as "his" money, or maybe their quest connection?), the books that were returned, the contents of Rarity's Hopeless Case mixed in with his own gems, the gifts he bought for the Crusaders, Pinkie's recipe, and the Ticket. He hadn't mysteriously been burdened with items, hadn't accidentally stored anything, no weird backfires. A reliable system!

Somewhat less good: He still couldn't Observe that piece of metal from the Case to any real consequence. However, all the various stones and gems had been connected in Indra's Net, his web of information filling out with all of their similarities and interrelationships. Spike wondered if his escapade with the Case had been some hidden prerequisite to attaining this subskill, given how much the skill’s display mimicked the results of that experiment.

The best news? Quality Assurance worked, and it worked even in his inventory. He could see four marked items, each surrounded with an orange-gold glow. The Ticket of course, the Zacahuil recipe... as well as one of his books and the strange metal. Attempting to turn Quality Assurance on them directly with Observe, he could see... Errors, mostly.


Late Bloomer's Ticket
Allows for an act of exceptional creation.

Legendary Recipe: Zacahuil
Teaches a new cooking recipe... but you do not meet the minimum requirements.
INT: 15, LUK: 35, Cooking: 30

Able Actor's Advice (an introduction to performance art, by the nonponymous Able Actor)
Teaches a new skill... but you do not meet the minimum requirements.
STR: 40, DEX: 40, VIT: 40, INT: 40, WIS: 40, LUK: 40, LV: 10

???
Improves Dragon's Breath... but you are not powerful enough. Failure Chance: 37%


On the one hand, it was nice to know that this little chunk of metal would be useful... Eventually. But he wouldn't risk that failure chance. Heck, throw a decimal between the 3 and the 7 and he still wouldn't do it: What if this was totally unique? Plus, the idea of eating something he couldn't put a scratch into with his newly-buffed claws? That was the very definition of unappetizing. No, he'd put all this back for now, even the ticket: While he could use it whenever, and he even had an idea of what he wanted to use it on... The plan wasn't perfect yet.

Another block or two of walking done, and all that was left were his quests. That was a lot simpler. He had to serve the last fine (a bit out of town towards Fluttershy's, might as well visit her while he's at it), 'Visit Other Ponies' (hopefully Fluttershy counted, or the Apples when he dropped off AB?), deal with dinner and snacks and the book shipment (all on the way home or even at home), and...

"Hay Spike!"

"Yoooo!"

"Aw hay there Spike!"

"Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, no outbursts in class! And where... Oh. Hello, Spike."

He waved through the open window, leaning across the sill into the classroom. The Crusaders were waving back, as were a few of the others: Button, Diamond, Silver, and Twist. Cheerilee herself was looking at him with a surprised expression, eyes just barely widened.

"Hey everypony, don't mind me, just dropping in."

Cheerilee sighed, putting one hoof to her forehead and setting her pointer down with the other.
"Yes, well, I'm very glad to see you and we can speak after class... But that's after class. Can I trust you all not to cause any more disruptions? Because if not, I'm closing the window."

The class nodded and quieted down, and Spike followed suit.

> Visit Cheerilee + CMC (before class lets out)

With that handled, he took the opportunity to look around the classroom, firing off something like several hundred Observes in ten or fifteen minutes. Why so many and how so many? Apart from the motivation that is 'grinding itself', there were 20-ish ponies in the class. 20, times that many desks, times twice that many quills, times four-fold that many books, then the shelves, clocks, Cheerilee's desk...

THEN he had to switch to Indra's Net and do... Oh. He had forgotten that the Net auto-updated when he looked at any part of a relationship he already knew about. That shaved off quite a few Observe casts from the back end. Still! By the time he was done Spike was really impressed.

Over the years the class had grown up and really improved themselves in all sorts of ways. Nowhere was that more evident than in the fact that nopony was on bad terms anymore: Not a single line of hate or disgust or any other purely-negative relationship on his little web chart. Sure, a lot of the colts and fillies in the class were still distant from each other, especially from Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. But everypony was civil, which was an improvement over when he first arrived in Ponyville, and even over when he tried to attend the school himself. His sleeping schedule had put the brakes on that plan very quickly either way...

He could think about disappointments later: Right now he had other appointments!

Namely, class was letting out. That meant that everypony except for the Crusaders and Cheerilee began filtering out and heading towards their homes and after-school activities. Nopony was staying behind for remedial lessons or detention from the look of it, so Spike made his way to the double doors and stepped inside. For a lot of ponies the smell and feel of a school hallway was nostalgic or familiar, even at their equivalent to his age: For Spike it felt like a cut-rate version of the Library he lived in.

A jog past the lockers and the water fountain took him to the open door of Cheerilee's classroom. Ponyville's constant growth had lead to the schoolhouse expanding over time, from a one-room setup back before he and Twilight arrived all the way into its current form. These days they had a solid pack of teachers and a veritable swarm of students of nearly all ages. Twilight had considered petitioning for secondary education initiatives, specialized classes for the adult ponies in town.

All of that aside, right now Spike only cared about this one classroom and the ponies waiting inside.

"Come on in, Spike! I apologize for being snippy earlier, but you know how it is trying to keep order."

[Homeroom Teacher]
Cheerilee
LV 19

"Hay! Ah thought ah recognized those claw-clicks walkin' in the halls. What brings ya round?"

[Cutie Mark Crusader]
Apple Bloom
LV 5

"Aw dude as soon as we blow this joint I absolutely have something to show you! Um, no offense Ms. Cheerilee."

[Cutie Mark Crusader]
Scootaloo
LV 5

"Afternoon Spike! Did you see my sister yet today? I know she said she'd be working outside..."

[Cutie Mark Crusader]
Sweetie Belle
LV 5

"No problem, various news, awesome, yes I did and yes she was... In that order."

Spike expected a laugh or even a giggle-fit, after a line like that. What he didn't expect was the dead silence and unabashed staring of the fillies (plus a grown mare) looking at him like he'd gained a third eye. Wait, had he grown a third eye? Twilight had said something about that when she was teaching him meditation but he had thought that was a metaph-

"Spike, when did you get so tall?"

-or. Or it could be the growth thing. Come to think of it, he hadn't run into anypony who knew him very well since the incident at Rarity's. A random bystander would see little amiss, but these ponies knew him. Which means they also knew that he had been fully six inches shorter circa yesterday.
"Ah! Ahha. Funny story, actually! I had a bit of a growth spurt, sort of a dragon thing..."

Sweetie Belle looked at him with a narrow glare.
"Um, I'm pretty sure growth spurts affect ponies too, and they're not so... sudden?"

"Maybe ponies grow up slower?"

Apple Bloom was the next one to fix him in her gaze.
"Ah live down on the farm and lemme tell ya, that much overnight is plain freaky."

"...Dragon thing?"

Scootaloo was too busy looking at his new form from various angles to complain much, but Cheerilee eventually broke up their standoff with a sigh.
"While I admit that Spike's sudden... change is rather... impressive, we should all really let him be. Don't you all remember what it was like when you started growing up and out in various ways?"

There was some unspoken recollection behind that, because all of the Crusaders immediately went quiet and pulled away from him. Scootaloo even blushed, rather uncharacteristically. Their teacher stood up from her desk with a smile and trotted over, putting a hoof on Spike's shoulder.
"I'm glad you came by to visit: Although maybe some forewarning wouldn't hurt, next time? I have quite a few tests I need to grade, so I'm going to have to send you all away early."

"Oh! Sorry about that. And it's no problem: We can head out to the Clubhouse and chat there."

"Very good! Now don't forget girls, the reports are due in three days, and we have a quiz tomorrow."

"Um, Ms. Cheerilee, I don't remember you saying anything about a quiz during class..."

Cheerilee smiled at the four of them before making her way back to the desk.
"Oh! Dear me, I'll forget my head at this rate. It was supposed to be a pop quiz. It would be a shame if everypony found out about it early somehow... isn't that right Snips?"

A muffled "Yes ma'am!" came from the window outside the classroom, then a moment of silence, followed by the distinct sound of Snails' voice, his "Really?" coming a second later.

Cheerilee let her smile shift into a smirk as she winked at Spike and the Crusaders.
"Class dismissed... For real this time. I hope."

They all laughed at the absurdity of it, but Spike internally wondered just how perceptive Cheerilee was. Picking up that kind of detail was impressive even if it was a regular event... He decided to take one more look while she settled in to grade the papers and tests on the desk. At which point he jerked back in surprise, met with an unexpected shift.

[Pass / Fail]
Cheerilee
LV 19

Chapter 32: Crusading

View Online

"W-what?"

"What's wrong, Spike?"

He stared for a moment longer, but the title over Cheerilee's head didn't change: Rather, it didn't change anymore than it already had. Chalk up another thing for his notes.
"Nothing. Sorry, it has been... a bit of a crazy day."

The trip to the clubhouse was... uniquely exhausting. Spike didn't have any real problem with the distance, and he'd never begrudge his closest friends for being themselves. But for the entire walk, the Crusaders bombarded him with questions about his new height and why he was being so quiet. They knew they were not going to get answers, all three of them knew, but there were formalities to be upheld. So they asked questions (increasingly arbitrary and silly ones as time went on), Spike filtered out the noise, and they walked together. There was something peaceful about it, in a very weird and uniquely 'them' sort of way.

"Are yah gettin' wings next?"

"Oooh, what about a horn!"

"Are you gonna sprout another-"

"SCOOTALOO!"

"Tongue! I was going to say tongue."

Spike rolled his eyes.
"Suuure you were. It's not like I need a third one of... those."

"What?"

He frantically gestured to the Clubhouse, just ahead.
"Nothing oh hey look we're here!"

Over the years the Clubhouse had grown up and out itself. Apart from acquiring the materials it was all work they had done themselves, and at this point they had something you could call a legitimate 'base'. Two stories and the start of a small basement, an open second-floor deck to 'launch' their various rope and vine swinging crusades from, even a little offset shed for storage and working on interesting things that Zecora or Pinkie happened to pass on. The windows were still free of glass but had picked up bug netting pretty early, and the various entrances and doors had a nice mixture of beaded curtains inside and plain screened doors on the exterior.

They made their way inside, up the ramp and through the doors. Spike had spent a lot of his time in Ponyville here, with these ponies. Spending time with the Crusaders was comfortable in a way that spending time with his older friends (arguably Twilight's friends, but he had gotten closer to them over the years himself) wasn't... It felt more like he was with ponies who had the same perspectives as him, or who had similar problems. Not just friends but allies in the game of life. Which meant this next bit was going to be particularly interesting.

"Sorry for the short notice, but: I hereby proclaim a Crusader Council!"

They had come up with the idea quite some time ago, in response to the arguments and bickering that occasionally derailed efforts at Crusading. There was a mixture of seriousness and comedy behind the entire thing, pomp and circumstance deliberately blown out of proportion: As soon as he said the words, the Crusaders bolted to various corners and began assembling their council folderol. A gavel, a wig (nopony wore it, it was just important that it be present), some robes (enough for all of them, courtesy Rarity), things like that. By the time they were done all four of them had settled into formation, with Spike in the center as the declarator, and had even grabbed drinks out of their icebox (a hand-me-down from the Apple family farm).

"All hooves present?"

Twelve appendages were pointed his way for a moment and then pulled back into their respective robes.

"You know what I meant."

"Present!" "Ah'm here!" "Occupied!"

"That's ALSO not what-"

"I know! I just... I like the joke."

"Fair enough!"

And with that, their meeting was called to order, for a very very tenuous definition of order. For the others, he had settled with summarizing what all had happened: The Gamer, his new abilities, the sheer density of things that had changed in just a fraction of one day. But with the Crusaders, he explained everything. As he went along with his story he also put things into practice, showing off each of his skills in turn. A gem from his Inventory, Observe'd, cut with his claws and Earthshaper. Dragon's Heart enhanced his efforts, Omphaloskepsis restored his MP afterwards. A puff of his Breath held still as a crystal in mid-air with Stagnet, crushed in his palm despite the brief flare of pain to show his Physical Endurance... and of course, his already evident height, explained as the effects of the Dragon's Hoard.

The Crusaders watched silently, never once interrupting. It was part of the rules: Once one of them called a Council, that member got to say their part before anything further was discussed. What was unusual was that after Spike stopped, they were still silent. They looked at him expectantly and he looked back, eventually just shrugging his shoulders and falling back onto his tail.
"So yeah... That's a thing that happened."

Sweetie turned to look at Scootaloo.
Scootaloo turned to look at Apple Bloom.
Apple Bloom turned to look at Sweetie.
The three of them all turned as one to look at Spike.
"OK yeah we're gonna have to take a break." "Agreed." "Motion thirdeded!"

They quickly bolted away and scampered up the stairs, leaving Spike to sit there in his robes and question his life. He knew they weren't going to react badly but it was very possible they would still overreact. Although come to think of it, how bad could that be, all told? He’d survived all of their unsuccessful attempts at Cutie Mark hunting in the past, even the really rough ones. This time he had the added protection and power of this new ability: Hay, maybe the Crusaders were the first real way he could test his limits. The only thing that worried him was just how long the three of them were spending upstairs...

Almost in synch with his musings the Crusaders came barreling back down the stairs, their hooves loaded with stuff. They had shed their robes and used them to bundle up all sorts of things: Looking from where he sat, Spike clearly saw rope, wood, nails, a hammer, a knife, a saw, glue, books, a deck of cards, a jar full of marbles, the Treasury (their name for the perpetually near-empty bag of bits hidden under a loose floorboard), masks... He lost track despite staring, and staring meant he almost didn't have time to react when Sweetie Belle tripped and started to tumble. He leapt and... Didn't have a chance to do anything, as Sweetie caught herself on the bottom step with a pirouette and a smile.

"Oh my gosh sorry we just got so excited about testing everything out and seeing all the new stuff you can do that we got caught up collecting stuff to test it out with!"

"So you all..."

"Spike cmon, how could we NOT think this is the best thing ever? Our super-cool dragon friend just got even super-cooler, and we're some of the first ponies to find out!"

"Ah'm really interested in seeing what yer up to, Spike! Ah mean... You know what Ah mean."

He smiled and felt his chest loosen up, worries blown away by sheer enthusiasm.
"Awesome. It means a lot for me to hear that, and-"

Three hooves shot up in front of him before he could finish.
"But!" "But!" "But!"

"...Rehearsed that?"

Three totally innocent grins behind the outstretched hooves.
"Maybe!" "Maybe!" "Maybe!"

They all burst out laughing for a moment before continuing on.
"OK, so... what's the but?"

"You need to look at us!"

"Scootaloo!"

"What? He does! Unless it's just like, proxi... what's that word?"

"Proximity."

"That! Proximity based."

"What we're tryin' ta say, Spike, is that we want ya ta Observe us."

He scratched the spines at the back of his head nervously.
"I sort of... Already did. Didn't pay much attention though, just a grinding reflex. Why?"

"Duh! We wanna know what our stats are!"

"Spike, we just found out that we have character sheets. Imagine trying to play in Shining's game without being able to see your own stats, except you still know that the stats exist."

"Plus ya said ya didn't look at 'em yet! So we're all curious... Right?"

He hadn't considered this issue before. Telling somepony all of their statistics, details, history... Everything that Observe showed to him? He couldn't really think of a good reason not to, but it emphasized for him just how much he was prying into the privacy of other ponies when he used his abilities. The discomfort was brief however, and only gave him a moment of pause before he nodded.

"Alright. Gimme one of the easels and I'll write it all down. Maybe I can get a calligraphy skill!"

The Crusaders cheered as he pulled the ink and quill out of his Inventory (not bothering with his belt pouch charade) to start charting. Before he really got down to it, he turned around to look at them.
"No peeking! If you want to show each other that's cool, but I'm going to hand them over privately."

"OK." "Alright!" "Sure thang."

It only took him a minute before he finished, handing over sheets one after the other. He didn't bother copying over their personal histories, averted his eyes as well: No sense prying more than he absolutely had to. Predictably they showed each other their details right away: He hadn't expected anything else, but it felt proper to have given them the choice. His eidetic memory kept the sheets in his head as clearly as when they were written, so he basically followed along as they read.

Chapter 33: Quantifying

View Online

The Crusader’s ‘character sheets’ as produced by Observe were... interesting.

Identity: Sweetie Belle, 15, Female, Unicorn
Personal Information: Job: Student, No Position
Title: Cutie Mark Crusader, ? Specialty
Current Status: Status (Normal) 
Experience: Level 5, XP to Next Level: 978
Attributes: STR: 10    DEX: 14    VIT: 13    INT: 22    WIS: 19    LUK: 22

Identity: Scootaloo, 16, Female, Pegasus
Personal Information: Job: Student, No Position
Title: Cutie Mark Crusader, ? Specialty
Current Status: Status (Normal) 
Experience: Level 5, XP to Next Level: 760
Attributes: STR: 13    DEX: 29    VIT: 17    INT: 10    WIS: 15    LUK: 18

Identity: Apple Bloom, 15, Female, Earth Pony
Personal Information: Job: Student, No Position
Title: Cutie Mark Crusader, ? Specialty
Current Status: Status (Normal) 
Experience: Level 5, XP to Next Level: 410
Attributes: STR: 23    DEX: 19    VIT: 23    INT: 17    WIS: 14    LUK: 7

In addition to dropping the History segment, Spike trimmed off a few other small sections. The main one was that to his eyes 'Status' also included their emotional state. Not much sense writing that down, it was going to change too often to be useful. It made sense to keep Status line as a whole, just to prove they were all in good condition. Chalk that up as another use for Observe: He could probably do some fantastic diagnostic work at the Ponyville General Hospital. Volunteering might be a good way to grind skills... Onto the list it went. In the meantime, he tried to keep an ear out for what the Crusaders thought about their stats.

"Mah luck is seven?"

"Aw, why am I so... balanced?"

"WHOO! So fast. I mean, probably? Um, what's the base like?

"I started with ten and that seems normal, from the ponies I saw."

"OK, sweet! Then I am very fast. Awesome."

"Seven?"

"I mean, it definitely seems right, but geez, Scootaloo's got twenty-nine dexterity and-"

"-and Ah have SEVEN LUCK. Can we come back around ta that?"

Spike frowned down at the sheets.
"Yeah, about that... Actually... Huh. Give me a minute here, I want to do some math."

"...That is not a normal sentence."

"Ya'll OK?"

"Hey, I like math!"

Tally it all up, carry here... Weird. So if everypony had 10 in each stat to start, and then everypony but him got 5 points to spread on level-up (or got a level when they earned five points? how do levels even work? was it just abstracting these stats from their potential when he used Observe, or was it a static fact that only he could see and understand?), and all the Crusaders were Level 5... Added up that would be 85. But Apple Bloom, despite her Luck complaints (and the fact that everypony started with 10 made seeing a single-digit number even weirder, actually) had the highest total of them... at a staggering 103.

So where did the other 18 points come from? That was more than three levels' worth! They had to come from training, given what he knew about the system... And that made sense. A worrying amount of sense. Their never-ending Cutie Mark Crusade inevitably involved all sorts of high-end strenuous activity, pushing their limits trying to learn anything and everything. As they had gotten older they'd diverted into just as many mental pursuits as physical: Scootaloo spent six solid weeks last year studying old Cloudsdalian war tactics, for just one example.

Spike wondered if the girls would be anywhere near this powerful if they had already gotten their Cutie Marks at a normal age, instead of striving constantly and still lacking. Would they have the same raw stats, except more focused? No, they'd almost certainly be weaker... He felt that there was a lesson here, something about spreading out and confronting your weaknesses instead of just relying on the places where you're already strong. He also realized he was digressing again: The Crusaders all looked at him expectantly, clearly having come to a similar conclusion a while ago.

"So all the crusading and adventuring that we did..."

"Worth a whole mess a' points, huh?"

"...Spike, what are your stats like?"

He looked nervously from the Crusaders to the pile of random implements they had brought down.
"Uh, I think because of The Gamer it... Started me off fresh? So, um, Eleven-ish. All around."

Their eyes lit up with a very worrying gleam, which was when things got a little hectic. Spike remembered agreeing to work on his stats and maybe even grind his skills while they were at it. And he very clearly remembered the setup, making sure they understood his limits, deciding on a signal in case something dangerous happened. The basics, you know? As for what came next...

"Hay Spike can ya Observe how many marbles are in this here jar?"

"Spike, can you lift me? What about after buffs?"

"Oooh! Can you calculate how much buffing it takes, out to two decimals?"

"Carve a stone statue! Doesn't matter how bad, just try it."

"Alright, now that I'm on your back, how much slower are you? Try sprinting!"

"Start using that Heartsong thing! I'll accompany you, that works right?"

"Oooh, that's actually pretty nice. Can ya try to do it up as sheet music? In dragonfire!"

"I'm your training weight for now! Do normal exercises but with me on top of you."

"Croup dock haunch, shoulders hip- How long can we interrupt the song?"

"Ya'll both slowed up real bad there: So... Not long from the lookuvit. Less than a bar?"

"OK, throw me! Just toss me, I'm good at tucking and rolling. See how far I can get."

"That's enough song testing for now: Let's make our way into town!"

Somewhere towards the end there he ended up slipping into a harness attached to a modest sledge. It was something they pulled around town during school fundraisers, or they’d drag it out of mothballs when their families needed help to move things. Spike had helped haul it before, although usually he wasn’t alone and it was full of cloth or produce. Today he had to pull it solo, and it was over-full with three over-excited fillies. They didn't stop testing his abilities and limitations either, save for was some attention paid to keeping his MP stable: With his current stats self-buffing was required to drag them all across town, so testing Active skills right now was off the table.

They got some strange looks, but not much stranger than usual: Ponyville kind of inured you to shenanigans after the first few months. Around halfway to the Library, Spike realized that in a cosmic sense this whole thing was his own fault: The Crusaders had only encountered this kind of ridiculous multi-disciplinary training in comics and games thanks to him, and now it came full circle to bite him. That bite was softened just a little by the constant parade of stat bonuses, skill ups, fresh acquisitions and Mastery system pings. Turns out when you've got the body of a video game character, you can do impossible ridiculous grindy training like one too. Who would've guessed?

Chapter 34: Snacks

View Online

Once they got into the Library, they took a bit of a breather. Scootaloo helped him out of the harness and Apple Bloom stowed the sledge out of the way of the road, all while Sweetie Belle moved the rest of their training equipment inside. For his part, Spike had to close-slash-minimize-slash-hide that entire pile of alerts, as interrupting this momentum with minutia would feel wasteful. He'd check it later, anyways. As it is he took a moment to center himself, focusing on taking a few deep breaths and centering himself in the meditation practice Twilight had taught him. That evening in the lab last year felt like it was a lifetime away... Hay, this morning felt like it was a lifetime away.

He went to crack the seal on the packages full of books but was stopped by Apple Bloom.
"Naw, the boxes can sit fer now: We got plans fer those."

Spike put on his best fake-pout to try to convince Apple Bloom, or at least get her to laugh.
"Given that they're library property, shouldn't I at least get a hint?"

Thankfully, he succeeded on both counts: She had to stifle a giggle as she answered him.
"Well, ah know yer Observe trick can see through stuff, right?"

"Yeah, because of the bit bag Twilight gave me. Using it then listed the contents, and it was my first time using the skill too! So it must be way better now."

Scootaloo chimed in from across the room, where she was hoofing her way through some of the flight manuals and aerobic exercise guides on one shelf.
"Right! But like, I could tell you how many bits are in a bag just by lookin' at it. I might have to guess a little, but I could see the coins pressing on the fabric... I said the fabric..."

Sweetie sighed and threw in a quiet "Dumb fabric" for old times' sake when she realized Scootaloo wasn't going to continue until she did... Always worth another shot at the 'running gag' Cutie Mark.

"Thank you! But seriously, what about identifying the books inside that box? Not just the number of them, but the titles? What about the subjects? Could you read them? Could you use Observe on the books themselves just 'cause you're also Observing the box they're in? It's super weird! And it sounded like a really good test with no risks or sweating, so it'll be nice for during our snack break."

Apple Bloom looked anxiously towards the kitchen.
"Speakin' a snacks, how 'bout we-"

Spike remembered, in horrible clarity, Rarity's description of Sweetie's cooking from earlier.
"How about I throw some snacks together! You three can just chill out here. I need to grind on my Cooking skill anyways."

He caught a sigh of relief from AB and Scoots when he said that, while Sweetie just pouted a bit. After seeing their expressions Spike made his way to the kitchen, holding back a laugh. Snacks and drinks... And training. It wouldn't be fitting of him to take a break at this point: The natural way forward is to mix practice with preparation, just like at breakfast. With this in mind, Spike turned his eyes to the cabinets and the fridge. He would be serving for ponies as well as himself, so many of the 'special' items in the fridge were right out, as were gems.

Thinking over what they had been doing and what was available, it wasn't difficult to come to one conclusion. The hard work had been focused on him, but he wasn't the only one working hard: Refreshing drinks and light food, recovery fare, that was the ideal menu today. Start off with some citrus fruit... Oooh, they still had some of those orange slices Twilight had prepared the other night. A fun chemical experiment had dissolved the outer pith and left them with flawless crystal-clear jewels of fruit, no bitterness or stringy toughness.

Follow that up with a bit of salad (they had enough spinach and assorted lettuces to segue into some kind of joke, and he could add daisies for color), throw together a vinegary dressing with capers and lemon and a bit of spice... Pair that off with something fatty, maybe crumble up some good sharp cheddar: It was too late if he wanted to pick up fresh curds at the market. Then a drink and a sweet finisher would round it out. Come to think of it, he hadn't assembled a menu like this in a little while: Twilight hadn't been hosting many of the girls’ weekly get-togethers, and those were the only time he really got to show off his cooking chops for a whole group.

Interestingly, he earned XP for Cooking as he threw together the dressing and assembled the salads, which matched up with his earlier theory. 'Cooking' (to his power) seemed to be a broad umbrella for everything related to food prep, even if it was as simple as a salad. Just taking the already-stripped orange slices and plating them for service didn't trigger anything, so there must be a threshold. Either that or maybe something about intent... No matter how it worked, the amount of benefit he got for each action was starting to go down, and that was a more pressing concern.

Spike had settled on the idea that his enormous growth today was influenced (at least in part) by the quest he was on. That feeling was being backed up with new information as he trained and ground out new skills... It was going to get harder from here. As skills levelled up their growth slowed, hypothetical influence of his quest aside. As Observe went past 20 and up towards 25 it slowed even more. However, Spike wasn't too worried: He had spent a lot of time with the Crusaders and other ponies as they developed new skills and talents, and that gave him an educated hunch.

If his hunch was right then things would actually balance out after that, making 25 a benchmark beyond which things would be a bit easier. The theory made sense if you compared it to actual self-improvement, where there was a rough wall before you hit the plateau of achieving basic mastery. Once you knew what you were doing, getting better was easier as well (up to a point): If his power worked the same way, the experience-per-level might even end up lower after the bump.

The combination of that theory and the much more clear-cut idea that his 'first day' quest was actually boosting his growth provided him a good excuse to do what he wanted anyways: Try and get as many skills levelled as possible before the day was out. This put Spike in an experimental mindset, so he tackled making the drink for their snacks as if it were more a chemical brew than a beverage... Try to find the boundary between Cooking and Crafting, and level them both either way.

Even if he messed up as badly as possible, it couldn't actually out-catastrophe some of the food he'd been exposed to. The Baked Bads alone were a masterstroke of failure: The most his mistakes could do was kneel in their crumbly, wormy shadow.

So to start... Precise ratios, use some lab glass from the washing rack, measure syrup against seltzer with mint and ice. Crush and mix and fuse it together... The experience went into Cooking.

Alright then. Next time be more methodical, step back and look at it like assembly as opposed to mixing... Cooking. Hrm.

Well, if that failed... Spike the mix with some emeralds, hold back on the syrup a bit, focus on the tonic aspects... Crafting! Perfect.

Now he had a few drinks made up, albeit one of them only he could drink safely... But even more importantly he had a good idea what the divide was. There was a line between something you’d eat or drink under normal day-to-day circumstances, and something that was meant as a curative or palliative, something closer to medicine... That's when it shifted from Cooking to Crafting, and vice versa, was when something crossed that line.

A few extra glasses with small variations confirmed his hypothesis and provided a buff notification for the gem-laced version: [Virgin Emerald Julep], granting improved HP recovery. So now he had drinks, fruit, salad... He could grab a bit of bread or some crackers on the way out to get carbs in there. If all of that got finished off and they still needed a refresher, there were dessert fixings in the fridge. Ideally Spike had been hoping to save it for later, but there was no sense not treating friends when he had the chance.

And a treat it very clearly was: As soon as he came back out of the kitchen the usual light-hearted ribbing began, even as Spike could see the hunger in their eyes.

"Awww, food food again?"

"Hey now, that's the rule! We all voted and everything."

"Yah, plus today's looks real swell."

The Crusaders had established a rotation of sorts to cater to all of the four critical food groups: Junk food, fast food, sweets, and ‘real’ food. Apple Bloom could always be counted on to provide the pies and cakes and fritters, Sweetie had a sizable allowance to blow on takeout, and Scootaloo helped Rainbow Dash stick to training diets by 'confiscating' all of the daisy chips, cookies, hay crisps and other unhealthy food she kept 'managing to end up with'. Which left Spike as the only capable cook of them all, alone in charge of Class 4: Home-cooked meals.

"Well, here's hoping! Orange ‘gems’, salad with cheddar and capers, crackers with the leftover cheese, plus mint spritzers to drink. The one in the, heh, pebbled glass is mine by the way: Threw in some emeralds while I was experimenting."

"Niiice! Alright, let's dig in!"

Rather than try to distribute eating into all of the training they had been doing, it was a lot simpler to just take the direct route and take a real break. Time was limited, but not that badly... Plus, it turns out the food was so good that they finished it in mere minutes anyways. A quick trip back into the kitchen to rinse all the glasses and bowls, and then Spike was back in the foyer preparing himself for another bout.

Chapter 35: Smacks

View Online

"Oh hey, before we get started... I think we can be a little riskier about damaging me in training. I can regenerate more HP thanks to the emerald drink, so let's push the limits further, OK?"

A portable easel was snapped into place and notes taken, recovery rates combined with what they already knew about his skills. Adding on the buff (and preparing another glass to refresh it once it ran low), they had a few reasonable guesses for how much punishment Spike could take: There was a level of uncertainty to the formulas until they figured out the order of operations. A lot of games showed that stuff, but just as many kept it hidden for the power-users to find... Maybe he was missing a critical submenu somewhere that would clarify those things.

Even with that topic on their minds, it probably should have surprised him at least a bit more when Scootaloo lashed out hard with one rear hoof and bucked him right in the knee. As it stands, he winced at the pain but stayed standing himself: A hit that would have crumpled him flat on his face a day ago was absorbed effortlessly... Somehow. The pegasus blinked and looked him up and down.
"...Huh. I could swear I hit the joint dead-on."

"Uh, I think you did? But it didn't matter. Body of a video game character, right? Hitting a joint is no different from hitting my tail: The only HP that matters is the last. I bet I could cut off a finger or an arm and just sort of... not. You know what I mean?"

"Wait wait wait. So all the damage we'd do is just... numbers, not damage? Aw shucks lemme rejigger the plan here."

Spike had a very distinct feeling he had just made things a lot tougher for himself. That was confirmed when Sweetie Belle came waltzing out of the kitchen, all smiles and whistling... with her greenish-yellow magical aura levitating a broad chopping knife.

"...Um. Let's test the theory on something small."

"Tailtip? Chunk of a limb?"

"Bit of tongue, maybe. I know from experience that I can regrow that even without this new stuff."

There was still an air of nervous tension as he stuck out a modest (foot-long) portion of his tongue and Sweetie lined up her swing. It was one thing to confront the idea that he could deal with this kind of harm, and another to actually enact it. But they'd all suffered worse when out Crusading and he had regrown multiple inches of tongue after a bad bite when he was younger. Twilight had taken notes and done a bit of research on the severed piece, eventually concluding that it was one of the ways in which dragons were kin to terrestrial lizards.

"So here goes, um, not nothing but... something?"

"Masterful speech, Sweetie."

"Shoosh. KNIFE TIME!"

If anything the pain was even more transient the second time around, fading just as quickly as it happened... And there was no piece of tongue on the ground. The fillies looked from the knife to him, to the lack of blood and meat, then back again.

"Did I miss?"

"No, 3 damage. Like I said: Gamer's Body. I just don't... show any harm, and I guess there's no functional damage either? My tonguetip is still just as far along as before"

He stuck out his tongue to make sure, and there was the forked tip, plain as day... Even after Sweetie took it off again with another lazy swing.
"Huh. I totally feel the, like, feedback? Resistance? Whichever word's more cogent. I feel it, but... Yeah. It's like a luchapone no-selling a Gerrmane suplex."

Scootaloo looked over incredulously.
"You watch professional wrestling?"

"Rarity likes the outfits. And the drama."

After that comment, a third sweep removed his tongue cleanly again, or would have if he hadn't been him. Sweetie watched this time from a side-on view, head cocked to one side.
"Yeah, I can see that I'm making impact, passing through... but no severing, no pieces, no blood."

Spike put up his claws and sighed.
"OK, enough tongue lack-of-mutilation. With that covered... that was 11 damage total, plus like 9 from the knee shot earlier... But I recovered 10 already. AB, does that match any of the theories?"

The farmfilly looked at the clock, did some math in her head, and then looked back over to the easel. A moment later she tapped her hoof against one option before circling it with a stroke of ink, although her verbal response was muffled until she spat out the pen.
"Ymmf, Numf... Blegch. Yeah! Number 4."

Sweet. That meant it was based on his natural regeneration but worked on its own, independently ticking his HP up over a period based on his Vitality... all while not replacing the original recovery! It was like having a second ‘dose’ of natural health recovery... Truly the best of all possible worlds.

"OK, let's figure out how high I can get this with Dragon's Heart. Buffing... Now!"

He had been feeling the benefits of the skill's passive side ever since he got it, a constant heated pressure in his muscles and his body, like his blood was running warmer and thicker somehow. But this would be his first time really using the active portion. Spike focused his energy into the proper shape, following the way the skill... Elucidated? It was hard to describe. It wasn't like flexing a muscle, or like channeling his fire breath. It didn't have much in common with a learned motion or a practiced skill, either. Instead he just shifted the way he was, directing what his abilities called ‘MP’ into a different route than normal.

Surprisingly, the effects of this buff were more visible than the damage from their attacks. As soon as he began flowing MP into the skill his HP slapped back up to full in a sudden jerk... No, not quite. The bar extended as his VIT rose, while the regeneration's pace picked up to match it. Aside from the changes in his menu, his body... Well it didn't suddenly swell up or get leaner. It didn’t change at all from a certain perspective. The difference was a pervasive glow around him, like a unicorn's magical aura sans the sparkles. He radiated colorless power for a moment as he stood before the Crusaders. The room was bathed in the pale light only briefly before it sank back into his skin and then faded. But while the light was gone, the changes on his stats remained.

"...So cool."

"Ah'll admit that's a fancy lightshow. But how diff'rent are ya feelin'?"

"How different?"

He flexed one claw and then the other, then an arm... Then lashed back out quickly, snatching the kitchen knife out of Sweetie's magic. A few quick tosses from hand to hand before he passed it back, watching his stats and his movements at the same time. It was hard to split his attention but he could feel the benefits of it, like stretching a muscle. His perceptions seemed slightly sharper, but nothing compared to the change in his reflexes. To top it off, while he didn't want to break anything, it felt like he could have shattered the knife (the handle, at least) if he chose to.

"...Pretty. Um, right, charts. At this skill level, 10 MP a minute gets me another 10% boost and doubles my base HP regen... So the Emerald buff pulses faster and heals more per 'pulse'.

"Both?"

"Yeah: My Vitality is higher and the natural regeneration is stronger: It keys off of both."

Sweetie looked over the tools they had gathered and started bouncing a few small gems between her hooves. He had described his other buffs to them already, and she seemed to have an idea.
"So, all these gem powers seem like... Um. They're not adding to the base, or multiplying it. They're based on the original value but they don't change the statistic itself. I don't know a good term for it."

Scootaloo's eyes glazed over through most of that, but she snapped back to attention at the end.
"Trait-based independent enhancement!"

"...Thank... you?"

"Rainbow Dash keeps drilling me on weather magic and flight boosters and stuff. Apparently I've got 'a good instinct for the framework', or so she claims? I think it all goes over my head when we talk about it, but I guess it is soaking in a bit."

Apple Bloom just rolled her eyes and started making adjustments to the numbers on the board.
"OK ya'll, we’ve got it figured. Sweetie, wanna double-check my numbers?"

Spike grimaced.
"Please do. I know these hits aren't showing, but I do definitely take them and I'm not like that one Outerworlds mechanic: I won't survive with 1 HP and a chance to recover if you kill me on accident."

"Yet!"

"...What?"

"I mean, you've already gotten skills that are like mechanics from real games we've played. So maybe you could get a Last Chance or Undercoat sort of thing!"

His reply was very measured and patient, while his tone made it clear he was serious.
"Yes. Sure. That would be really reassuring, actually. But I don't have it now, is the point."

"Oh yeaaaah. OK, double-checking the numbers! Still not sure why you keep having me do this though: You're way better at math than me."

Apple Bloom frowned as Sweetie came over to the easel.
"Shore, yeah, I guess... But I like bein' positive. And I keep havin' trouble puttin' my numbers inta action."

"And that's why we're a team!"

"Yup! Never fear Apple Bloom: Separately we might be mere Cutie Mark Crusaders, but together!"

Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle were both standing attently near the easel as if they’d prepared for this. Meanwhile their fellow Crusader’s only response was to bury her face in her hooves.
"Aw horsepucky not this again."

"YES! Together, we can combine our unrelated talents to cover each others' weaknesses! In this way we three fillies form..."

Scootaloo and Sweetie arched towards each other and clapped hooves as if doing some kind of fusion technique.
"ONE FULLY FUNCTIONAL PONY!"

"Ah love ya girls. Ah hate ya too sometimes... but ah still love ya, all the same."

"Right back atchya AB."

Chapter 36: Stacks

View Online

"Ah love ya girls. Ah hate ya too sometimes... but ah still love ya, all the same."

"Right back atchya AB."

Sweetie nuzzled up to their friend while Scootaloo kept laughing, although their attention never entirely strayed from the problem at hoof.
"Always! And the numbers look good, by the way: The checking has been doubled!"

Spike looked from the board and then to the not-quite-forgotten knife, then to the Crusaders.
"So I'm just going to sit here taking hits?"

Apple Bloom began shuffling through the contents of their cart, trying to find something in particular.
"Naw Spike, yer not just gonna sit around gettin' wailed on."

"Oh good, because-"

She finally came back up with a claw-backed hammer in muzzle. Her initial attempts to speak were totally muffled by the tool, so she spat it out before trying again.
"After all, somepony's gotta calculate how hard we're all hittin'!"

"While being hit?"

Scootaloo hadn't bothered getting herself any kind of weapon, instead relying on her hoof-strikes.
"I mean can you think of a better time?"

The reply that came out of his mouth was so dry Spike was pretty sure his tongue curled.
"Several."

That gave them pause. The Crusaders looked from one to the other, silent for a moment.
"Spike, if you're not OK with this-"

"No, no, I am! I just keep grinding to see if I can get Sarcasm as a skill."

"...Now see, I can't actually tell if that was sarcasm, so are you still..."

"The better question is when am I not. Just... start hitting. I promise not to be flippant about the actual work we're doing."

"Works by me! Who wants the honor of first blood?"

"I don't actually seem to bleed anymore, so I’m not sure that term is copac-"

His little jab got cut off by an actual jab, a stiff hoof to the gut. He rattled off the damage numbers and then took another hit from a different direction. His menus needed him to look to see details, but he had a constant sort of 'knowledge' of his HP and MP even without turning on the visible bars. He closed his eyes and focused solely on that instinct.

Attempting to predict where the next hit would come from was another way to stack one exercise (maybe some kind of threat awareness or blind-fighting skill?) with another (taking damage for Physical Endurance), and yet a third once that started ranking up: As his Endurance rose the damage the girls did went down and the math had to be constantly adjusted. Eventually they learned to pull their kicks and bucks and bites and stabs in order to modulate the damage, and a consistent rain of blows ensued.

Once the damage started getting into a steady flow, with his HP and MP kept in check by the hits and the cost of regeneration, they started getting real experimental. Could severe damage to his limbs lower his DEX or cause a status effect? A pony could be hobbled or crippled, even a dragon could (he remembered a bad fall off a bookshelf back in Canterlot, although it had healed weirdly fast even then), but could a Gamer? No he could not, as it turned out: Even when Sweetie took one of his arms clean off in a massive sweep (the damage so high they had to pause for a minute), Spike maintained full use of the limb that had been 'removed'.

After that, things settled back into a casual groove of beating and breaking, cutting and burning: Every so often the girls would pass their weapons around to each other, and Spike took new hits from different angles as they all learned how to use everything at-hoof. Despite the constant flares of pain (which steadily dropped as they worked), he was actually enjoying this. There was something satisfying about mutual training, to the point where he decided they'd need to make a habit of this. Not just damaging him, he was pretty sure he wasn’t enjoying it that much. No he’d been thinking more of just... training in general.

Towards the end, another plan for an experiment came up, this one much more tentative. Spike reacted to having an arm lopped off the same way most ponies reacted to stubbing their hoof... But what about critical damage? The body had a lot of very important parts, and so Gamer's Body or no they couldn't risk anything that would kill him outright. In the end they compromised on some soft blows to the less essential 'danger zones'.

"Eyes?"

"Eugch, yeah, that'll be on the list for sure."

"Inside the mouth?"

"Well, I don't have a conspicuously loose scale under one leg, but we should check the traditional dragon weaknesses. So yeah, that gets in."

"Yer, ah..."

The hesitation was palpable in the air, and Spike cracked his eyes open to see the Crusaders blushing and shuffling their hooves.
"What?"

They pointed down, he looked down, saw nothing but smooth scales...
"Oh. OH! Nope, nope, not letting knives anywhere near them. A kick would be OK though."

"Them?"

"Just... Let's test the risky spots and move on?"

He got some dubious looks for that, but closing his eyes again ended that conversation... Doubly so when those closed eyes were assaulted a moment later. Details aside (just because he could endure it didn't mean he liked recalling it) it seemed like the weak-spots they had chosen worked. Taking a hit to one gave him a 'Critical Damage' notification, bumped his Physical Endurance XP much faster, and did much more damage.

Further tests showed it was floored: The weakest blow that did any damage at all did a guaranteed minimum on a Critical. Hits which did more than that got a multiplier, although it wasn’t a huge one. Theory suggested that his heart and brain would work the same but with nastier results. Importantly, shots to the eyes didn't blind him even briefly: Whatever way the Gamer's Body worked with these 'critical' hits, that aspect was still purely in his favor.

By the time they were done? The sheet on the easel was totally covered in calculations, the girls had amended their character sheets with damage outputs ("Just for reference!") and their plan to get the rest of the chores and training done had solidified. It turns out that when you spend enough time stabbing somebody who isn't actually getting hurt? The whole thing gets so rote that you don't mind having a different conversation mid-stabs. Not something he'd have believed if you had told him as much yesterday, but neither was... any of this.

"Alright, so we've got everything prepared, right?"

Sweetie Belle hoisted a long poking-stick and gestured to the stack of boxes.
"Ready!"

Apple Bloom finished closing the easels and throwing all the data into a folder for later.
"Eeyup!"

Scootaloo just kicked him in the shins again to keep his HP from topping all the way off.
"Good to go when you are!"

He resisted the urge to kick back, and instead just clapped his claws together.
"OK. Good. But before we do: I've had this little niggling worry in the back of my head, and I wanna take care of it. I've been getting so many skills today, and all so fast... Given how the quest I got was worded? I think the golden age of quick pickups is going to end when the quest does."

"Awwww!"

"Real shame."

"Bummer."

"Yeah yeah, no disagreement here. But, since I know it's coming? I can cram as much as possible before then. So, while I am going to regret this later... Can we go a little harder this time?"

There was no response: Not a verbal one at least. Their intent was made clear by the way they prepared and angled themselves, with almost no visible worry about going overboard. This was... fun, fun in a way Spike didn't quite have a grasp on. Maybe after so many years of being the one being he knew without any direct power, with few adventures to his name? Maybe this was all going to his head... Well, at least he had experience getting that kind of thing back under control.

It was a good thing, too, because 'control' was going to be the watchword here. He went into the trance that activated Omphaloskepsis and let the trance carry him forward as they worked. It was much harder, trying to move and act while staying in that meditative state, but after a few false starts he managed to make it work. It was weaker than normal, and it got disrupted over and over as the Crusaders interfered with him. But instead of letting the distractions bother him (only listening in order to know what to do next), he focused on keeping his mind in that state. He took each distraction as it came and then drifted back to his center.

Spike held the trance as he worked, wove the work into the trance and back. Movements of his limbs matched the interior movement of his blood, the passage of air matched by the passage through rooms. Attempting to Observe the insides of the boxes and packages was mirrored by self-observation. Cutting and being cut, breaking and being broken, reading and being read. He could Observe the world in order to observe himself. Treat the world as a part of himself, as well as the other way around. Twilight had talked to him about this kind of meditation before, but he had never really understood it until now. Now... he fell into a pattern, as the grinding and work continued.


Spit fire (literally, sending test items to the Princess), spit fire (bolstering his Intimidate), Spitfire (Scootaloo delivering Wonderbolts trivia), spit fire (a catastrophically failed attempt at rapping).

Crack rocks (consume more gems, study their benefits), crack rocks (Earthshaper opening the geode Twilight ordered), crack rocks (a box of medical journals, overdose countermeasures...).

Move water (pour drinks, bring them out), move water (try to control his beverage with Stagnet, fail), move water (bathroom break), move water (loads of laundry and glasses to clean).

Fresh air (move the laundry to the line, out on the balcony), fresh air (a break outside, break down the empty boxes), Fresh Air (say hello to their new neighbor, a sky blue unicorn).

Trip light (everything blurs together, he barely remembers the conversations as he worked), trip light (a stumble here and there, as his legs are cut from underneath), trip light (the girls glow on the inside).

Open everything (all of the boxes are clear), open everything (air out the storage closets and the basement), open everything (cry, just a bit, when the Crusaders can't see), open everything...


Spike opened his eyes, raising his eyelids.

Spike opened his eyes, pulling back the membranes beneath.

Spike opened his eyes and something else opened with them.

A skill has been created through a special action! Through immersion in the flow and then safely returning from it, a skill to open oneself to the world, [Exposure], has been created!

Chapter 37: Exposure

View Online


[Exposure] (Passive) LV1 EXP: 0.00%
By letting their bodies become a conduit between the inner self and the outside world, the user of this skill has learned to treat any regular sustained behavior as a form of meditation. This not only allows for more regular recovery, but improves the depth and power of traditional meditation. In addition, a myriad of future skills may develop from this root...

The user may meditate while physically active as long as actions taken are simple and repetitive.
Your HP, MP, and Stamina recovery are raised a further 10% while meditating 'normally'.
This skill deactivates temporarily if the user is distracted or takes complex actions.

Exposure acts as a precursor to many other skills.
Meditation trains Exposure and all skills that follow from it.


Spike simultaneously felt drained and full, warm and cool, heavy and light. His entire body ran with a slight heat even as he exhaled crisp air, and he could feel a tremor as he whipped one arm out to strike at thin air, the meditative trance breaking along with his stillness. That had been... a bit of a rush. The clock said that less time had passed than he expected (it had felt like they worked for days, but it was only just time to start heading back to drop them off), and his body was refreshed as if there hadn't been any effort involved.

Emotionally, he was... stable. The crying had been a whim, just a little venting to remind himself that it was still a thing he could do. He didn't need a reason to do it any more than Pinkie needed a reason to laugh or Rarity needed a reason to sing. It had felt right in the moment, so it had become a part of the sequence. At the same time, that didn't mean it was something he was going to ignore: It went on the list of things he had to ask Twilight when she got back... Which brought Spike back to his quest, and the schedule it implied.

> Sort new book shipment (boxes 1-4 in the foyer)

Quest Time Remaining: 2 hours, 47 minutes

And since he was looking at menus anyways, he might as well sort the haul from all of his efforts with the Crusaders: They'd want to know the fruits of their efforts, so he couldn't put it off any longer. It was just a bit of an intimidating list. Lots to unpack (internal monologue pun fully intended).

"Um, there's... a lot more here than I thought. Can we head back and drop everything off at the Clubhouse now? I'll figure this all out and tell you about it on the way."

"Awww, does that mean we're pullin' the cart on the way back?"

"Only if you want: I do still need to see if I can get a Multitasking skill."

They ended up giving him a break (he took it gladly), so Spike rode in the cart meditating as he went through the haul. He was making a list, and it was a big list. Eventually he trimmed the literal dozens of popups down to a nicely formatted list... Right before he realized that there was a 'Recent Notifications' menu that would have saved him the trouble. Typical, honestly, the things you only figure out when it’s too late to use them. The Crusaders listened as they made their way through Ponyville and out towards the woods.

"Alright, so... A few masteries finished, a few new ones started, made progress on that 'Internal Alchemy' thing. No real surprises there. Looks like doing the last leg of our training with my eyes closed really helped though!"


Craft has become a skill!
Intimidate has become a skill!
By using [Internal Alchemy] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 11%
By using [Sense Danger] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 80%
By using [Detect Bloodthirst] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 80%


"Good. I felt pretty bad kicking somepony who couldn't even see me."

"Somedragon."

"Yeah, he really is some dragon, huh?"

"Oh hush yerselves."

Spike chuckled as he moved down the list, trying to contain his excitement. Thanks to all of the sorting, he already knew about these, but they'd be surprises to the Crusaders. And he hadn't looked at the details, so there were still some things left unspoiled for himself as well.
"Picked up three new skills: Told ya about Exposure already, I'm grinding it right now. And then..."


A skill has been created through a special action! Through showing enduring power, a skill to reinforce your heritage, [Dragon's Scales] has been created!

[Dragon's Scales] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
The potency of a dragon lies not just in their magic or in their body, but in how the two intertwine. This natural fusion of powers is embodied by scales: They encompass and surround, support and contain. Scales can block and cut, crush and break, cloak and shield, be worked and be broken. Used well, strength (and scales) can move mountains. Used poorly, they can spell one's downfall.

You are able to perform unusual feats of strength without destroying your tools or surroundings.
You may focus your strength inwards, temporarily improving defenses and VIT based on STR.
Allows you to molt and shape your scales to act as short-lived clothing, disguises, and tools.
Increases the power and efficiency of the active portion of [Dragon's Heart] in regards to STR.

This skill will grow with STR and skill levels, gaining new features over time.


"Ah'm kinda surprised that strength is scales, and not like..."

"Muscle?"

"Yeah, or bones. He's already got Heart, right? That's a muscle... or a few muscles? I forget."

Giving them a moment to finish, Spike continued: It was relevant, after all.


A skill has been created through a special action! Through resisting significant critical harm, a skill to protect your heritage, [Dragon's Bones] has been created!
This has consumed [Physical Endurance]

[Dragon's Bones] (Active and Passive) Lv 1 EXP: 0.00% MP: Varies
At their core, dragons are unbreakable and unbroken things: unique, singular, whole. Their bones support them and make them distinctly stable, a bedrock on which great works may be based.

All of your past and future resistances become Merged Subskills of Dragon's Bones.
You reduce the bonus damage from critical attacks by 1%, to a minimum of the normal damage.
Skills and attacks that would normally pierce resistances have a 1% chance of failing to do so.
Your ability to resist damage from your Affinity elements is doubled.

This skill will grow based on how many natural and unnatural resistances it has consumed.
Merged Skills: Physical Endurance
Your ability to resist physical harm scales extremely well along with this skill.


"Oooh, that makes sense."

"Wait, so there are Dragon skills with no stat?"

"Aw man, there could be dozens of them!"

Spike blanched at the thought, although he wasn't opposed. Just concerned.
"I don't even have dozens of parts. If it's that crazy, the names might start getting... questionable."

"Hey, you already got Dragon's Bone!"

"Awful. Just awful."

Jokes aside, he realized this was a big deal. Not only was it going to be a huge improvement over the original (already quite good) Physical Endurance, it would only get better as he picked up more resistances... Which, knowing the Crusaders, would happen quickly whether he liked it or not. The bit about resisting his Affinities was interesting, because right now that included Earth. Would that make it harder for him to be hurt by stone weapons? An avalanche? Would it make it easier to eat that mysterious gemstone? All questions in search of answers... Eventually.

"Speaking of Physical Endurance, that got a bunch of levels... a bunch. So did basically everything else, with a heavy emphasis on the meditation skills, Heartsong, all the Dragon's stuff, and... um, Observe. Sort of."

For the first time (that he knew of) since this morning, Spike was massively wrong about how part of his new abilities worked. He had been assuming that the path to a skill's 25th level was hard, but just as a threshold: Beyond that point it would smooth off and get easier, the way normal ponies grew faster once they had base competence. Turns out it was more like the opposite... Observe was barely any higher than when they started, despite him casting it at least a thousand times in the last few hours.

Rather than thinking about how skills and learning worked for real normal ponies he should have thought about Twilight's lessons on sequences, and Shining's discussions about balance in game design. Levelling up skills just plain gets harder. Now that he had more data he could almost see the pattern in his head, an exponential rise in experience with a harsh spike every 25 levels. And then, assuming the curve continued like it was now, the 100th level (if it even goes that high) would take potentially just as much experience as all 99 before it combined.

"What's that put Observe at, like 40? 50?"

"...27."

"Yeeeikes. Bad beats, huh?"

"Eh. Just makes it clear how long-term some of these goals are going to have to be. Especially if I am getting bonus experience for this first quest."

"Well hayfeathers. Did yer stats make it up any better?"

At that, his expression brightened significantly.
"Oh yeah! I'm on par with you three for bonus points now: We nailed our goal."

"Sick!"

"That's going to be a big boost, huh Spike?"

He looked over his new character sheet stats with pride. While he hadn't gained any experience for his personal level during all that, he managed to hit thirteen across the board in his stats. A huge 30% spike (heh) in power for basically everything, even moreso for the Dragon's skills which scaled so strongly to stats. Balanced Soul was at full potency, his earlier Wisdom outlier being evened out by the training they did. And now he was, just like Apple Bloom, 18 points ahead of his level... Or he would be, if he spent the points from levelling.

He didn't spend any, of course: This just added more evidence favoring two of his theories! It helped back up the idea of 'Train First, Spend Later' and the idea that his first day was giving him some real big help along the way. The Crusaders spent 'years' grinding to get just as far ahead of the curve... Assuming they didn't have unspent points themselves. Beyond just the benefit of proof, Spike also confirmed that his HP and MP scaled up off of Vitality and Intelligence, respectively. Every point in VIT had been worth 10 HP, while INT gave 5 MP apiece. Their regeneration was also improved since they were based on a percent of the total, which left Spike feeling much better about his resources.

"Two finished Masteries, big progress on an existing one, two new Masteries, two new 'Dragon's' skills, seventeen points of stats... And then these three little weirdos."

"I represent that statement!"

"... Didj'all mean resent?"

"Said what I meant, meant what I said."

Spike ran his claws across the last line of UI, humming to himself.
"She might not be wrong, either."

"Wut?"


By [???], your Mastery increases by 3%
By [???], your Mastery increases by 3%
By [???], your Mastery increases by 3%

Chapter 38: Affections

View Online

"So yeah, three pop-ups, three percent, even more blanked out UI than usual, they were filed away separately from my other improved Masteries under a 'Recent' header... I'd bet anything that these are from you three."

"Wait, so is that three different skills, or nine percent for one?"

Spike was already saying "Three separate skills" before he even thought about it... But when he did think about it he couldn't imagine any other result. Opening his Mastery interface proved his hunch correct: Three unnamed skills were now listed apart from all the others in a distinct category.

"Huh. Well girls, I guess that gives us something ta think about when we get home. Mebbe any new skills or tricks we've been workin' on? Could help go faster if we knew what it was."

"Yeah, I can think on it, for sure. First we need to unload all this crap... I feel better knowing we used all of it at least once, though."

"I'll say! It was hard coming up with a way to train with thirty unspooled yards of random string, but we got there! Also, we got there!"

Spike was going to correct Sweetie, but then he opened his eyes.
"You said that alrea... Oh you mean we're at the Clubhouse. Cute."

"I try!"

Back inside and all exhausted in one way or another, they started hauling things upstairs one arm-load at a time, Spike pitching in extra since he just got off of a break. Working together, it was easy to get everything back where it belonged and quickly too: Over the years the Clubhouse had gotten organized, albeit in a very Crusader-y way. Things had their places, but Celestia forbid any other pony try to figure out where those places were, or why.

"Welp, got all that taken care of with a bit of time to spare. You three doing much tomorrow?"

Apple Bloom sheepishly rubbed behind her head with one hoof.
"Yeah, actually... The rest of the girls are free."

Aaaah, well. It made sense: 'the rest of the girls' meant Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon, and neither of the two had what you'd call an easy or open schedule. Them being free was a rare occasion, so it took priority for sure. Even after things got patched up (or maybe even because of it) the Crusaders were way closer to those two than Spike was, so he made an effort to give them their space.

"Hey, no worries: You five do your thing, or things. Whatever it is you get up to and into."

Sweetie glared at him.
"I can't tell if that was a euphemism or not."

Over by the shelves, Scootaloo started laughing.
"I mean if it wasn't before, it sure is now!"

"Scootaloo!"

Spike didn't even bother stepping in, instead leaning back into one of the Clubhouse's cushions. Scootaloo wasn't backing down, and they were all still smiling and clearly messing around. This struck him as a regular topic for the three, even if it was his first time hearing about it. Apparently you can’t spend a few hours stabbing a guy without getting a little more free-spirited around him.

"What? It's pretty obvious how hung-up you all are."

"You just mean 'you', yeah?"

"Said what I meant, meant what I said. Isn't that right, Bloom?"

"Ah didn't... Euggh, no, I can't lie ta ya'll. That obvious, huh?"

"AB, if your crush were any more obvious Spike would notice it. Or worse, Diamond would."

Rather than taking offense, Spike just pulled out some of the smaller gems from his inventory, throwing them back like popcorn.
"I should probably object, but this is fun! Also you're not wrong: I wouldn't have guessed it. DT?"

The little farmpony buried her muzzle into her hooves with another groan.
"And ah can't do anything 'bout it! She's always so close to Silver, and..."

Sweetie's grin went wider at that, and she put a hoof on Apple Bloom's withers.
"I could totally help with that!"

"Could ya?"

"Oh sure. I'd just need to get Silver off into a corner and kiss her 'till she can't see straight-"

"That aint' helping!"

"Awww, isn't it though? She can't stop you from smooching Diamond when she's busy with me."

Scootaloo made her way over to Spike as he watched the entertainment.
"Great show they put on, huh?"

"I will admit it's pretty good. But I guess you're used to it, huh?"

"Ugh, yeah, for like the last year. I think it might have been that time we all went camping-"

"IT WAS!"
"NAIL, HEAD!"

"-so yeah. Anyways, I just sort of roll with it."

Spike couldn't help himself from feeling surprised at that.
"Don't you have anypony you like?"

"Everypony."

Spike rolled his eyes and turned to face the filly.
"Aw come on, that's a cop out and-"

Scootaloo stared at him with a strange expression, her eyes wide and her smile a bit too tight.
"No, I mean it. EVERYPONY. E V E R Y. All. The entirety! All the colts, all the fillies, you, most of the adults, Celestia, why is everypony hot‽ I never bothered complaining about it out loud because... What a problem to have, right?"

"...Was there a pause after 'Celestia' or were you like, using it as an exclamation? I have my subtitles off and she's kinda-sorta my mom so whether or not you’re attracted to her seems like a crucial distinction-"

His pegasus friend cut him off with a growl of frustration and stalked into the ongoing Sweetie-Bloom argument, eventually plopping herself down in the middle of it all and just letting the words wash over her. Spike finished off the last of his smallest gems, dusted his claws clean and weighed his options. He could leave this be and not say anything, let them talk it out... Or he could weigh in with his own romantic woes. Because he did have some crush-based news of his own.

"Topical interjection: Me and Rarity talked about my, uh, feelings towards her. Earlier today."

Instant silence, all three of the Crusaders stopping mid-sentences (they had been talking over one another by then) to stare at Spike. It was Sweetie who actually broke the silence, looking at him with a new and near-unreadable expression.
"Aaaand?"

"We, uh... nixed it. Neither of us thinks it'd be a good idea. Mostly. Or if it is, then not now, a-and-"

His explanation was cut off by the sudden hugs from the Crusaders, all three of them tackling him into a pile of fur and scales in the corner of the Clubhouse. At first he thought to protest, explain that it wasn't like that... But it was, if he was being honest. Even if it weren’t, it’d be rude of him to reject this kind of affection. He snuggled the girls right back, resting his chin on top of what was probably Sweetie's flank before they all settled down into a heap.

"...Crushes suck, huh?"

"Eeyup."

"Eh, I'll spit it out eventually."

"Every. Pony. All the time."

They lay like that for a bit, just relaxing in the cool evening air. Eventually the Crusaders climbed off and out from the pile, popping joints here and there, stretching legs and wings. After that Spike was out of excuses for lying around, so he got to his feet. They'd be parting ways for a bit, but it seemed like something was still left. The girls had helped him a lot, and he hadn't done much...

Wait. He did have something for them, apart from character sheets and serving as a punching bag. But the more he thought about giving them their real gift now, the more it seemed like a better idea to wait. After all, right now it was just storebought goods, nothing unique. He could make it better, even moreso if he spent some time grinding or learning new skills.

"...They're not ready yet, but I did get something for you three to thank you all for today."

Some ponies would have expected a polite chorus of denials here, cries of "Oh you shouldn't have" and "You don't have to", but none were there to be had. The four of them had done away with that sort of thing years ago, realizing that it was just... cruft. It didn't actually make you seem more grateful or thankful, and it wasted precious time that could instead be spent with your cool new stuff. As it was, the Crusaders just nodded (and maybe perked up a bit) before he continued.

"I want to finish them up first, though, so give me... I dunno, a week or two? Depends how hard-won some of these skills end up being."

"Yeah, isn't that Alchemy thing still stuck in the teens of percents of being Level 1?"

"Regrettably? Yup. Still short of the teens if we're being technical: Twelve percent mastery."

"Blurfggh. Good luck with that."

Apple Bloom cleared her throat and pointed outside, the setting sun visible in the west.
"Speaking of good luck, aint' we gonna need some to get back on time?"

That was more than enough to get all of them hauling out the door, slowing only to close up shop behind them and make sure nothing was left behind. The doors swung shut behind them, and Spike led the pack as they began to trot and jog (respectively) out of the woods.

Chapter 39: Returns

View Online

The dirt roads were harder now, the softness from the overnight rain well and truly gone. All that water had been sent back to the sky to become more clouds again. It lent a pleasant click and clack to Spike's claws as he walked, and a soft familiar clunk and thump to the Crusaders' hooves. He focused on the sounds as they moved, which only threw him off pace a little when Apple Bloom spoke up.

"So ah... We tellin' mah brother an' sister 'bout this?"

"About..."

She gestured at Spike.
"This."

"Oh! Um. Hrm. I had planned to eventually, yeah: I think it would be a bad idea to keep Twilight and her friends in the dark about it. They'd just find out anyways and stuff would get complicated."

"Right, eventually. But right away? Ah know you've got a schedule ta keep."

That was a fair point. He could tell Applejack about it and then make an excuse to bolt, but that somehow felt like it would be worse than not telling her at all. So it'd eat into his remaining time, maybe by a lot. But dealing with a sudden Interrupting Applejack from behind would probably take even more time, and failing that, then the issues of catching her up on the entire thing later...

"I think I'll tell her, but I'll keep it simple. I can wait to spill the whole mess again when we've got everypony we want to tell together at once, right? I mean, I told Rarity and Pinkie the schpiel earlier, and Twilight's going to hear it all later, but... The idea of explaining the whole thing six or seven more times is exhausting just to think about. So I'll give the others the short version"

"What's your 'short version' gonna sound like?"

"Um... Lemme figure that out on the way."

Scootaloo rolled her eyes but didn't press him any further, so he got to work... He was a dragon of his word after all, and he had every intention of being prepared when they got to Sweet Apple Acres. Eventually the short version boiled down to: "I think I woke up this morning with the dragon equivalent of a Cutie Mark, and it made me into a living video game character."

Sure half of that was only theory, but it was both his leading theory and the shortest way to phrase the situation. And it wasn't like he had a lot of time to come up with anything else: They were already at the gates and Applejack was closer than he expected, bucking some of the trees at the edge of the property. She turned to look as soon as the four of them got close, a smile lighting up her face once she realized who had arrived. Out of a newly-growing instinct, Spike looked up to check the words above her hat.

[Steadfast Farmpony]
Applejack
LV 27

"Well hay there! I wondered if ye'd be makin' it back fer dinner, Bloom."

"Ah'd have told you if ah wasn't gonna, AJ!"

"Sure, sure. Not like ah don't know that: Just ribbin' ya a bit."

Apple Bloom stepped away from the rest of the group and made her way over to the tree her sister had just finished, grabbing a loose apple and flipping it up into the basket. Meanwhile, Applejack took another look over the rest of their group.

"Ya'll headin' home too?"

Scootaloo nodded vigorously, her wings fluttering a bit.
"Yup! Spike's accompanying us."

"Oh, now who's the dictionary?"

"That's a normal word and you know it, Sweetie."

"Yeah, yeah, tell it to the other books when you get back to the library."

Just like earlier, both of them were smiling despite their tone.
"If you make a joke about Spike 'shelfing' me I am going to-"

Spike felt the need to interject there.
"Nope! Technical foul: Bringing in a bystander as part of a rebuttal. Match goes to Ms. Belle."

"Aw come on!"

"...I'll re- your -buttal?"

"Nevermind, the point goes to nobody. Everypony loses. We all lose. Equestria has lost just for being the stage of this conversation."

Applejack cleared her throat, looking off to one side as she tried not to laugh.
"Ah'm most definit'ly still here."

"Right! Sorry. Reflex."

"Yeah, force of habit."

"Ah swear ah can't tell if makin' up with Diamond an' Silver was good fer you girls, or plum awful."

It was times like these that Spike wished he had some kind of outfit with pockets: It seemed like a good opportunity to stick his hands in them and shrug. Instead he settled for just the shrug.
"I dunno how they all feel, but to me everypony seemed a lot more... well-rounded, after that? I think they balance each other pretty well, and either way it's nice having more friends and fewer enemies."

"True enough, that's fer sure. Anyway, what brings ya'll over with 'em today? I figured you and Twilight would be workin' up a storm, this time of year."

"Oh! Nope, the official Sparkle Household Spring Cleaning and Organization Festival (Ponyville Regional Edition) is on hold. Twilight had business in Canterlot."

Applejack raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't comment any further.

"Buuuut, I did want to tell you why I'm out and about today, even before you asked."

"Well go'on, Ah'm all ears!"

OK, here was where it got tricky... Actually saying any of the things he came up with.
"Well, uh, you know how dragons don't have Cutie Marks?"

He resisted the urge to facepalm at himself. Great job, Spike. Top score! The crowd goes wild.

"Eeeeyup. Ah'm well aware dragons aint' ponies... Not intendin' offense, mind ya."

"Nah, I getcha. I'm just beating around the bush anyways. What I'm saying is... When I woke up this morning, I think I had a bit of a magical growth spurt. So the dragon equivalent."

Applejack looked him over again before nodding.
"And a phys'cal one ta match, huh?"

"It was definitely related, yes."

"Well congrat'lations! But..."

It was Spike's turn to look at his friend for answers.
"But?"

"Whole reason Ah was buckin' the front field this early was all the work needs doin' inside the house tonight. Wouldn't bother ya too much if'n we talk about this later, right?"

Huh. A built-in out!
"Oh, no! Not a problem at all. I'd actually rather explain it to the whole crew instead of explaining it, what, six or seven times all told?"

"Swell! Sounds like that'd be best fer us both then. Just keep me in tha loop, ya hear?"

He nodded and stepped back from the front gate, letting it close and separate their groups.
"Sounds like a plan, Applejack: You all have a good one!"

Apple Bloom shot him a curious expression and Spike shook his head. If they were going to put off explaining things, they might as well put it all the way off. In the end, there was no sense in her telling her folks about what all they did today. Certainly not now, anyways. Either way, that meant she was safely home and he was free to take Sweetie and Scootaloo back to their places.

"Oh yeah, Scootaloo, I'm dropping you off at Dash's place, right?"

"Yup! Folks are out of town again, and my aunts are still on vacation in Neighpon."

Well, that simplified things... If he remembered where Rainbow Dash had parked her cloud house today, the path home would actually be a straight shot across town: From here to the Boutique, from there to Dash's place, back to Sugar Cube Corner to pick up their share of the tamale (zacahuil, he corrected himself in the back of his head), drop that off at home, pick up the last fine near Fluttershy's, visit her to (hopefully) round off that quest... And then back home in time to meet Twilight and complete all of his quest objectives.

The walk from Sweet Apple Acres to the Carousel Boutique had never seemed quite so long... But it was also oddly quiet. None of them really spoke or acted, simply walking and soaking in the events of the day. The birds were as active as ever, the trees flourishing to their full glory, the roads dried brittle-hard after a night of rain and a warm day. As they covered the last stretch of road, Spike wracked his brain for things he could, or should, say...

"Oh! Before I forget: Rarity already knows everything, I told her earlier. And I met your aunt and uncle Ammo, Sweetie, but I didn't tell them the details. Just in case it comes up."

"Right. OK, that seems pretty easy to keep track of: We know and Sis knows, but nopony else."

"And Pinkie, remember? I think I mentioned that."

Scootaloo buzzed up from the surface for a moment, gliding to get a better angle to speak to Spike.
"Yeah you did, but what's up with that? I can get you telling Rarity, but... why Pinkie?"

"Um... She's Pinkie."

Scootaloo blinked and dropped back to her hooves.
"No, you know what? Fair enough."

"Yeah, I know if I woke up with weird powers and was seeing things, I'd talk to her first."

"I mean, it was either that or get Discord back out of the statue."

They all went quiet for a moment. Spike stopped and looked between then two of them.
"You don't think I should ha-"

"NOPE!"

"Oh pony no. No. Just lost my train of thought. I second the 'nope'."

"Then we're all agreed! And here. We are also all here."

"Hey, that's my gag!"

Rarity was unspooling her clotheslines from the poles outside of the Boutique, bringing everything back inside now that the fabric she had hung in the morning was all dry. Well to be more accurate, her magic was doing that. Rarity the pony was kicking back on a delicate pink lounge chair, a glass of lemonade in one hoof and a romance novel in the other. She nodded over the top of the book to the approaching group, her magic still working away across the yard.

"Hello girls! Hello Spike."

For maybe the first time, Spike didn't feel any hesitation or nervousness when he heard that greeting. Instead he just nodded back, with a side of extra-wide smile.
"Hey Rarity. Everything go well after lunch?"

"Oh, yes! I've gotten quite a lot done, if I do say so myself. And you?"

He raised one claw and gave it a slight wiggle.
"Eh, so-so. We had a ton of fun and it helped a lot, but I do think we ran a bit over time."

Rarity's expression was slightly wistful, although he couldn't place why.
"Aaah, isn't that always the way... I suppose you'll be off in a hurry, then?"

Before he could reply, Sweetie looked between the two of them several times before throwing her hooves up in the air and trotting her way over to the Boutique.
"You two being normal around each other for once is weird."

A moment later they all burst into chuckles and giggles, while Rarity set her drink and book aside before walking over to the front of the yard. She looked back towards her sister and sighed.
"Don't let me keep you any longer: I'll just roast my dear sister for the details, hmm?"

Sweetie shouted back from the front door with a frown.
"Hey! I'd have told you without any roasting at all."

"Really?"

"...Bargaining at most. I sure could use a big dessert tonight, hint hint."

"Well that remains to be seen. As for you, Spike... I'm sorry again, about earlier."

He rubbed the spines along the back of his head bashfully, not wanting to meet her gaze.
"No, that's... Well. We can both be sorry, right? I shouldn't have blown up so bad."

"Does that mean I shouldn't have 'blown you up'?"

"...See, I want to blame you for that pun? But I totally walked into that."

"Like a rake in a Vaudeville act, darling. But in all seriousness do come back to visit soon! We should think about making some outfits for your... new situation."

He nodded before he even really thought about it. It was, after all, a generous offer. Even moreso considering the pony herself. Learning clothesmaking from Rarity had... potential.
"Sure! Maybe I could try to pick up some new skills from you? We can talk more about it later, obviously."

"That would be lovely, Spike! And I will see you two again soon: Be good at Rainbow Dash's, Scootaloo."

The filly rolled her eyes, but it was clearly exaggerated.
"Sure thing, Mom. Not like I could mess her place up any worse than she does."

"...Valid point. Ahem, well I... I should probably get started on that dessert. Tata!"

Chapter 40: Confusion

View Online

Rarity waved the two of them off and the last leg of their trip began. It was going to be a short walk, which Spike didn't mind: Scootaloo had a tendency to get quiet when it was just the two of them. It wasn't a problem, but it was something that sort of stuck in his head. It especially stood out when she actually did start a conversation, around halfway to the cloud house.

"Do we tell her?"

"I... Hm. That's a good question."

Rainbow Dash was certainly the most brash, outspoken, adventurous, and physical of the group. Even Applejack, who arguably worked harder? Worked with a more dedicated focus. Dash just got out there and did things for better or worse. And sure it had her on the shortlist for Wonderbolts membership. And the Sonic Rainboom, etc. But it also meant she was probably the biggest risk in terms of sharing this kind of secret. It'd be like telling her Daring Do spoilers and then expecting her to not spill it to Twilight on accident. That was what actually settled the decision for Spike.

"Absolutely."

"OK, go- Wait really."

"Yeah! Because, honestly? She'd find out anyways."

"Are you kidding me? I could totally kee... But she'd... Uh. One sec."

Spike waited for 'a sec'. And then a few. And then a minute. Eventually Scootaloo shook her head.

"No, yeah, you're... yes. Yes, she'd absolutely figure it out. Or I'd squeal. Fifty-fifty."

"Alright then. So we tell her?"

Scootaloo went quiet again, and initially Spike was worried that he had made her mad somehow. But that concern went out the window when the filly's expression changed to something more... devious. She was looking up at Dash's lazily-floating house with the look of somepony who just had an idea so glorious and terrible that they don't want to speak it, lest the moment be broken.

"The last time you looked at a house like that we had to replace a window."

"We won't this time! I mean, it's all cloud: Dash can just slap it back together."

"Scootaloo."

She whipped around on all fours and stared him in the eye... Or tried. She was used to his previous height, he guessed, because her initial glare was directed more throatwards than anything. After a second she corrected and then started in on what could only be called a schpiel.
"Spike, when you see an opportunity in this life you have to seize it. Ponies did not get where they are today by keeping their hooves on the ground (no offense). They got here by striving, reaching higher! Daring to do the impossible. We have but one chance to do this. One shot. Are you going to let it slip?"

"...Some of those Cloudsdalian war stories stuck with you, huh?"

"Seriously! But seriously. We have the window, no jokes, for a perfect prank here. Get me up to Rainbow's house. And the timeframe for doing it is-"

It hits him, just then.
"Right. It won't be a surprise once she knows I can buff my Strength. So it's literally now or never. And it is pretty funny."

"Right?"

He starts crunching numbers in his head. He doesn't know an appropriate Heartsong to use with Cantus for Strength or... athletics, maybe? Whatever governs throwing force or distance. He can put his size all the way up to the biggest scale Dragon's Hoard will allow. Dragon's Scale was boosting his Strength, and would make Dragon's Heart boost it even more than it used to. But...

"Even at max size, with my full mana pool, with Omphaloskepsis up, running Dragon's Heart at the highest I can put it, and with Dragon's Scale factored in... I don't know if I'm strong enough. So either we come up with a Heartsong, or I suddenly develop a skill for giving magically-potent motivational speeches... to myself."

Scootaloo frowned and sat back on her haunches, and for a moment they just crunched the numbers, chatting down a hundred or so feet below Rainbow's house. Eventually Scootaloo had him actually write out the numbers he was getting, and that's when she stopped him.

"Right here, you've got Dragon's Heart listed as taking all of your mana for a one-minute buff."

"Yeah, that's the most I can put into it: Cantus gets better efficiency even at the lower level, but again, we've got no rhythm to work with."

"OK, I get that, but... why one minute?"

He blinked a few times.

"Seriously, do you need an entire minute to throw me?"

Spike hadn't thought of it like that before. In fact, he hadn't really thought of that at all. His buffs took away MP from him as a pulse every minute... But why was it in that interval? He could adjust how much mana he put in, why not for how long? A thought pulled up the menu, and he looked over the Dragon's Heart description. Like most of his skills so far, the cost was "MP: Varies". It wasn't the most concrete or useful way for the UI to put it... But that meant there was probably a reason.

And reasons, in his experience (and according to Twilight) were always worth testing. He directed his focus onto the flow of magic in his body. One channel in his mind, in particular, represented the buff he got from Dragon's Heart. A slight 'twitch', so to speak, changed the potency of the effect. He sent it up and down a few times... Then he cranked it up all the way, exhausting his MP. Dialed back, waited, did it again. Spike repeated the process a few times, cancelling the benefits each time so that he could recast it faster. Finally, after a dozen or so cycles, he felt it.

It wasn't obvious. Honestly, if he weren't looking so intently, he wouldn't have noticed it at all. But there was a pace to how the mana moved, like the speed of the blood in his veins (which he could feel when he meditated: it was unsettling). So if he could mentally adjust how much of his mana was flowing into the ability, then surely he could adjust how fast. In his mind, he pushed. He felt channels of energy narrow and focus, trying to find purchase on their potential new shapes... And then a bright flash of blood-red shot across his eyes. He opened them and read...

ERROR: Ability factor 'Timescale' not currently available. Would you like to spend an Unlocker?

His concentration broke when the message window came up, and he felt deeply unsettled. Not just in his mind but in his belly, where there was now a roiling fire as the mana inside of him shook.

You were disrupted during a significant act of internal alchemy! 'Mana Confusion' has been applied.

Whatever that was, it hit him fast. His body was not a fan of the sudden whipsaw fluxes of mana rocketing up and down. Pain wracked him worse than any of the physical injuries from earlier. It hurt far worse than his growth spurt at the Boutique: If it weren't for his new skills he would have dropped to his knees. Even with that, it was impossible to ignore the prickling and popping in his veins. The sensation was like the bursts of fizzing candy on his tongue, elevated a thousand times and inside his blood. His HP took a series of quick hits while his MP recovered at a snail's pace. A moment later, his entire MP bar swallowed itself in a huge gulp...

Scootaloo could tell something was wrong from the outside, but he waved her off with a claw. It didn't seem like he could do anything to end this condition, not in his current state. But The Gamer giveth and The Gamer taketh away: The debuff had a visible timer in his status screen.

So Spike waited it out, thankful that Gamer's Body kept this from doing any kind of permanent harm to his internal organs... Hopefully. His health continued to burn away in fits and starts while his mana alternately burbled upwards and plummeted, both forces burning and sizzling. It went on for a full minute before it settled, leaving him emotionally shaken but physically recovering. He blinked back tears as he tried to stand up straight, failing several times.

After another minute passed Spike took a deep breath, shook himself off, and gave Scootaloo a thumbs-up to signal that he was OK. This had been a valuable experiment, and sometimes progress came at the cost of some pain. Rather than make his friend worry, he kept quiet about what had just happened. Thankfully, she didn’t question it. After making sure nothing around him had been impacted, he turned his attention to the messages.

Before he got back to the Timescale thing, the other window had told Spike that his experiment was related to Internal Alchemy, by name if nothing else. Which meant that his big mystery Mastery was... like alchemy, but inside his body. 'The movement and processing of magic using tools and material substrates', except the tools and the materials were both him. That might have been an easy thing to assume from the name, sure, but he tried not to take things for granted. That would help avoid more mistakes like his assumption about Observe's levelling curve, at least.

When he went to check the Timescale error, his view was blocked by a set of other screens.


By using [Internal Alchemy] without the skill, your Mastery increases by 1%

By surviving [Mana Confusion] without any aid, your Mastery of [Internal Alchemy] increases by 1%