Displaced

by Seven Fates

First published

A unicorn colt has an accident, and nopony knows him. His wild claims go widely ignored until...

The wheels of fate turn in mysterious ways. When a unicorn colt has an accident on the edge of the Everfree, nopony knows who he is. Assuming his brain was jostled by the accident, they ignore his absurdist notions of not being from this world, and not being a pony at all. However, when he is involved a terrible incident that threatens the lives of his only friends in the world—Ponyville's three most rambunctious fillies—their friends and family begin to pay more credence to his claims.

For Warren Ashland, the clock is ticking as a chain of events that was set into motion the moment he woke in Equestria comes to a vicious head. The time will come when he must decide whether he wishes to stand alone as a human in the Equestrian world, or give it all up for his newfound friends. His actions will shape the lives of those around him.

Cover art by - GMEiden

Chapter 1

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Cold rain pelted the Everfree Forest, the makings of a storm hovering over its darkest depths. Vicious winds rampaged, cutting swaths of damage in the foliage throughout the forest. A massive vortex born of magical buildup, the storm was like a hurricane. At the center of it all, the castle ruins that once housed the Elements of Harmony glistened like marble as a flash of lightning arced to the ground.

A resounding boom echoed through the forest, audible as far away as Ponyville. Again and again, lightning struck a single spot in the ruins. With each strike, the stone ground cracked and shattered. The frequency and potency of the magic discharge increased as more and more magical energy gathered in the storm. Eventually, the area around the impact site began to change. The stone began to take on a glossy, crystalline form as it was pulverized into sand and melted.

A small explosion of magical energy erupted at the epicenter of the magical storm. The winds began to calm, and the rain lifted, the storm ending almost as suddenly as it began. In the glassy crater sat a glossy, mirror-coated sphere, the likes of which the creatures of the forest had never seen. Dust continued to dance in what little wind remained, casting dusty haze in the ruin.

As the time began to pass, so too did the sphere begin to pulsate. As the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon, the pulsating sphere began to glow. The closer Princess Celestia brought the countryside to night, the brighter the sphere began to glow. The beating of the sphere soon petered out, becoming nothing more than an irregular twitching, eventually cracking the sphere. With one final surge, the sphere collapsed in on itself, and ceased to be.

- - -

A loud crash of stone on stone caused Warren to wake with a start. He jolted upright, and immediately knew something was incredibly wrong. Instead his room at the inn, he found himself in a dark and crumbling old ruin, moonlight shining through a hole in the roof. Not far away, he could see a toppled stone column, the risen dust marking it as his unorthodox wake-up call. He wanted to get up and figure out where he was and how he got here, but the instant he attempted to scramble to his feet, he pitched forward, landing face-first in what seemed to be a pit full of broken glass.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light cast by the moon unto the ruin, he realized he was at the center of a glassy crater. He was also suddenly painfully aware of the pins and needles sensation that encompassed his entire body. He rolled over, and stared at the sky. It all looks the same, but where am I?

Anxiously, he brought his hands up to rub his face. To his horror, he discovered instead of hands, he had hooves. He held his arms out in front of him, only to find a thin coat of blonde fur. Panicking, he twisted awkwardly to glance at the rest of his body, only to confirm his fears. He was covered, seemingly head to toe, in the same blonde coat of fur on his arms.

Experimentally, he rolled over and attempted to rise up on all fours. While it wasn't the most natural way for him to stand, it seemed more realistic than attempting to stand upright. He was certain now that his very body structure had changed drastically.

I have no idea where I am, or what's happened to me. All in all, not the worst way to start a day. It made his head hurt trying to think of what happened the previous night, so he decided to put his mind entirely into locomotion. Pausing only to flex the muscles in his foreleg, he made his first shaky step.

After what seemed like an eternity of wobbling around the ruin on all fours, Warren finally felt confident enough to explore beyond the dark archway sitting at the edge of his vision. With as much gusto as he could muster, he found himself cantering through the dark portcullis.

He stared off down the debris-strewn corridor as he tentatively picked his way around the rubble. Warren couldn’t help wondering were he was and how he’d gotten there. The architecture was so unfamiliar yet at the same time it reminded him of the old historical sites back home. Home... I wonder just what happened.

For what seemed like the hundredth time in such a short period, he found his mind drifting back to his lack of distinct memory regarding the previous night. Images of public transit and nightclubs drifted vaguely in his mind. First bender I've ever been on to have results this bad. A bemused snort escaped him, echoing throughout the dark corridor.

Around him, shadows danced and played, piquing his anxiety tenfold. The only respite to be found was from the moon, peeking through the many shattered stained-glass windows adorning the wall.

Contrarily, the windows themselves did nothing to bolster his rapidly receding bravery. Like glistening teeth in the many mouths of some eldritch horror, the broken glass in the frames mocked him. Like the prey of some great snake, he felt like it would only be a matter of time until his flesh would start to dissolve if he stayed in here much longer.

A loud crash echoed from the chamber far behind him, eliciting a squeal of fear. Shutting his eyes tight, Warren galloped headlong down the corridor. Adrenaline coursed through him, making every sound into dark horrors reaching for him, hoping to make a meal of him.

Without warning, he slammed into something unyielding and coarse. Without much choice, he forced his eyes open, expecting the worst. To his relief, nothing so horrible as an eldritch abomination waited for him. Instead, a massive wooden door loomed over him. This has to be the way out! It just has to be!

Disappointment was seemingly not on the agenda for him this time. With some effort, the door was forced open just enough for him to squeeze through. Immediately, the door slammed shut behind him, knocking him forward into a patch of dirt and grass. What is it they always said about letting the door hit you on the way out?

Recovering from the indignity of a mouthful of dirt, he stretched himself out on the ground and let a cool breeze waft over him. It was only when he was about to declare an immediate improvement to his situation when realized that he was mere feet from a cliff edge. Panicking, he scrambled backwards; if there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was heights.

Fearful that there was no way off this precipice, he prayed. His eyes darted about, longing to find some sort of escape that didn't involve trekking back into that dank, musty ruin. The place unnerved him. It wasn't just because he woke up in a glassy crater in the place. There was an immense feeling of wrongness about the place. If he'd been asked to describe it, evil would have been one of his first choices.

Distracted by his own musings, he almost overlooked the rope bridge that was straight across from the doorway. He felt like an idiot once it hit him that he was letting himself get too distracted by his own fears. Wary, he crept towards the rope bridge, trying not to think what kind of drop awaited him if it gave way.

Reaching the edge, he felt his stomach plummet. Not only did this not look remotely good enough for government work, it didn't look like something fit to be in any sort of treasure hunter film. It was a death trap! It swayed too much, and the boards looked rotten. It didn't help that the rope looked like it was ready to disintegrate if he so much as looked at it.

Looking back at the ruin, he didn't fancy his chances of surviving there very long. It didn't seem to be the kind of place that would have a drinkable water source, and doubted any of the vegetation that was undoubtedly eroding structure was edible. His only choice seemed to lay on the other side of the bridge.

A crash echoed again through the ruin, solidifying his resolve. Looking down, he shut his eyes and ran across the bridge. He'd never been so scared in all his life. Not when he'd frozen up in front of an oncoming train. Not when his brothers left him up on the roof all night. Not even when...

For hours he ran, not stopping, not even to pick his way around the bramble. He could hear things in the dark around him; they were very large and hungry-sounding things. The longer Warren ran, the more light began to stream through the forest canopy. Entering an area with far less dense foliage, he gave in to his exhaustion; his muscles and lungs were crying out in protest to all the running. He could only hope that whatever things he’d heard out there hadn’t heard him.

Not far off in the distance, he could have sworn he heard the laughter and banter of children. If there are kids out there, then surely there’s adults! Grabbing hold of that thought, he forced himself up, and began running in that direction.

- - -

For three rambunctious fillies, it was the dawn of a new day. The Cutie Mark Crusaders were wound from a night at Fluttershy's cottage and eager to find their next adventure. Fluttershy was gracious enough to host another Crusader sleepover, despite their trouble-making.

Always eager to take the chance that their cutie marks were related to bravery or daring, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and Scootaloo often strayed near the edge of the Everfree Forest on their way back from Fluttershy’s cottage. Their families disapproved of them being anywhere near the forest, but like all fillies and colts their age, they couldn't help but willfully ignore the consequences of their actions.

Scootaloo was loudly rambling on and on about some of the extreme activities she wanted to try in order to force the appearance of her cutie mark. Sweetie Belle, bless her slow-working mind, was eagerly nodding her head along until it began to sink in how dangerous Scootaloo's suggestions actually were.

Apple Bloom fell out of the conversation quickly enough once they were far enough out from Fluttershy's cottage. She could have sworn that she'd heard something crashing through the foliage in the Everfree. Just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped again. Whatever it was stopped dead; had it heard them? She listened intently, staring into the forest.

“...-m! Apple Bloom!” She felt a gentle prodding. “What's up Apple Bloom? Why'd you stop?”

She didn't realized she'd stopped moving. “Huh? Oh! I could have sworn I-...” A rustling in the bushes cut her off. “There it is again! Listen! There's something out there!”

Exchanging nervous looks, the fillies backed away from the forest's edge. The sound of something tearing through the foliage had quickened. Whatever was out there was practically on top of them at this point. At times like this, Scootaloo found herself wishing she was a little older, able to fly above the treeline and scout ahead.

With nothing else to do to make her feel useful, she decided to take an offensive stance in front of her friends. Whatever it was, it'd have to go through her first. She refused to let it hurt her friends. The thing in the forest wasn't all that far now. It'd break the treeline at any moment.

Adrenaline pumping, her heart thundering along like a stampede of buffalo, she turned her back towards the forest. Peering back over her shoulder, Scootaloo waited, ready to buck. Almost without warning, the bushes behind her began to part. She could just make out a light yellow blur as she began to kick out.

“Scootaloo, wait! Don't-” She could hear Apple Bloom shouting out, almost panicking. It was too late though. No sooner had Apple Bloom said “don't” did her hooves collide with something both fleshy and solid. It was surprisingly light; it couldn't have weighed much more than herself or the others.

Proud of having protected her friends, Scootaloo turned to face her foe. She wondered if Rainbow Dash would praise her for being so loyal and protecting her friends. What she saw chilled her blood, dropping her emotional state from proud to shamed in ten seconds flat.

On the ground at her hooves was a small, blond unicorn colt. He wasn't much bigger than any of them. His mane was matted with mud, blood, and bramble. Nicks, and cuts covered his body. Aside from scratches and mud, his flank was blank like theirs. What scared her the most, though, was his horn. A massive crack almost completely encircled the circumference of it.

“Dear Celestia, what have I done?” she whispered, before breaking out sobbing. She knelt down and nuzzled his prone form. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to!”

Behind her, Scootaloo could hear Apple Bloom talking. “Hey, Sweetie Belle? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

“I think, but where are we going to get a narwhal?” Sweetie Belle responded incredulously.

An exasperated sigh could be heard behind Scootaloo. “No, dummy,” was Apple Bloom's only retort. “Cutie Mark Crusaders EMTs!”

- - -

“It looks like he's coming around.”

The sound of voices made his head hurt. Simply trying to do anything besides lying there did, for that matter. Was I kicked in the face by a horse? He wanted to open his eyes, but it felt much less painful to just relax. Try as he might, he simply couldn't remember anything that would have put him in this situation.

Here's what I know. I'm in a hospital of some sort. The antiseptic smell is making that abundantly clear. I can't remember anything aside from a really weird dream. I mean, seriously, like I'd really wake up with hooves in some dank old ruin, run through a creepy forest and then get kicked in the face by a winged horse.

A gentle prodding of his arm roused him from his contemplation. He wanted to speak but only managed a weak “What?”

“Oh, good, you're awake,” a masculine voice sounded in his ears. “We were all concerned that you might not wake up at all.”

“Why?” It was all he could think to ask. The very thought of how bad of a condition he was really in scared him. Did something serious happen? Is that why he couldn't remember anything substantial about the last few days?

“Well, son, when those three pretty young things brought you in, you were in pretty rough shape.” The man, whoever he was sounded uncomfortable with what he had to say. “You were covered in scratches. With your specific injury usually comes with - well - a very minor case of serious brain damage.”

Suddenly Warren found himself bolt upright, eyes wide open. He wanted to stare at this bringer of bad news. It could have been a doctor or a nurse, or a veterinarian for all he knew. Despite himself, all he could see was a blurry collection of colors and masses. The only thing he could really see was a vague gray shape in front of him that he assumed was whoever was speaking.

“What? What do you mean brain damage?” He tried not to sound like a panicked little kid, but only succeeded in choking on his own words. “Where am I and why can't I see clearly?”

“Calm down, son; you're safe.” the voice soothed. “You're in the Ponyville Hospital, in the Foal Ward.”

Ponyville? Foal Ward? This must be some backwater farming town. He couldn't help but mull that over. Well, if their primary income is horse-related, I suppose it only makes sense that they might have horse themed names for things, right? I bet the kids love that sort of thing. Wait, wasn't a foal a young horse?

“So why am I in a children's ward? I know I look young, but I'm not some scrawny kid.”

“Son, I assure you, nobody has confused you for a goat.” The male voice sounded thoughtful, almost amused. “Just relax, you're just a bit confused. Your brain had a good jostling. She may be just a pegasus filly, but darned if she doesn't have a good buck.”

“I -uh, what?” he was fumbling with his words. “You're not making any sense.”

“She got you clean between the eyes son. You're kinda lucky, really. If she'd kicked just a bit higher, you might have lost your horn, and not just cracked it.” The doctor's voice seemed almost beaming. “As for your eyes, well, we can get somepony from the optometry department in to fit you with some glasses after we contact your parents.”

“Oh, only cracked my horn.” Warren tittered nervously. He couldn't wrap his mind around the weird things this guy was saying. These folk must sure love their-

“CRACKED MY WHAT?” As it dawned on him what had just been said, he shouted childishly in alarm. “PARENTS? MY FOLKS HAVE BEEN DEAD FOR OVER A DECADE. WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON HERE?”

- - -

The stallion doctor was at a loss. The colt the self-proclaimed Cutie Mark Crusaders had dragged in was in a real bad way. The cuts and bruises weren't an issue. Those were all solvable with salves and bandages, and he knew the Nurses Redheart and Tenderheart were ensuring exactly that. In time those scars would heal.

No, the problem was mental. He didn't know if the boy's issue was from brain trauma from the kick to the head, or if he'd gone through something really horrible. All he knew was that the boy didn't seem to know where he was, who he was, or even what he was. The only thing that would help this little guy would be time and tender loving care.

The doctor stared on at the colt silently for a few minutes. He'd long since shouted himself unconscious. Where would the little one go after he was discharged? The boy claimed his parents were deceased, and he didn't seem to be rational enough to mention any living relatives, if he even knew of any. It could take a while to find out if anypony in Ponyville was missing a young colt. It might even take longer if he turned out to be from elsewhere.

Slipping out of the ward, the doctor called for Nurse Redheart. He paced quietly outside the entrance to the ward, watching as nurses and other doctors milled about, occasionally stopping to converse or ducking into one of the other wards. He almost didn't notice when she finally did canter up to him.

“You called for me, Dr. Freemane?” asked the white-coated mare. “Is there something wrong with the patient in the Foals ward?”

“He'll be fine, given time.” Dr. Freemane responded, rubbing a hoof through his black mane. “No, I have something special I need you to do.”

The white mare perked her ears up, but made no indication she was going to speak. He eyed her for a moment more, and then turned back to peer into the ward. “I need you to put a message out to all volunteers in the Emergency Foster Care program. This colt's physical injuries aren't enough to keep him here for long. He could be released tomorrow morning if any volunteers respond.”

“Consider it done, Dr. Freemane.” The nurse smiled, bowing, and then ran off down the hallways. He knew she'd be getting a unicorn clerk to write out the request for a volunteer to take in the young lad. Then the post-mare would collect the letters and distribute them.

- - -

Warren paced the ward anxiously. Despite what the doctor had said, nobody had yet been by to fit him with glasses. He still wasn't convinced this wasn't all some messed up dream, but if it was, it was too consistent for his liking. Not only was he forced to walk awkwardly on all fours, but now he couldn't see worth a damn. Continually bumping into objects he couldn't really see didn't seem like the best thing to do, but he couldn't just lay there.

He sighed, exasperated, after once again bumping his horn off of something. Every time something touched his horn, it elicited a surge of pain radiating from his forehead. He still didn't know exactly what to think about all of this. Hooves and a horn, and some sort of horse city. Not only that, but they apparently they think I'm a child. This makes no sense, but I guess I'll have to go with things for now. At least if I try to blend in, I might figure out what's going on if this isn't a dream.

The sudden creak of the ward door broke his thoughtful meandering. He couldn't see the large form of the doctor. For a moment, he was sure that he'd simply imagined that he'd heard the door, just wishful thinking. Then he noticed some out-of-place colors at his own level. “Is someone there?” he asked timidly.

The out-of-place colors - shades of purple, orange, yellow, and rose, as well as an off white – moved closer. At the forefront of the group of colors was an orange mass topped off with a splash of purple. If he squinted, he could just make out an equine shape to it. The orange one moved forward a few more paces before coming to a stop a respectable distance away from Warren.

For a long while it was quiet. Just when he was convinced that whoever was there was content just to stare at him, someone finally spoke. It was a brash voice, but distinctly feminine. “I'm really sorry.” Whoever she was, she was sincere, and maybe a little afraid.

“I beg your pardon?” He asked incredulously. “Sorry for what?”

There was a long pause, followed by some whispering. More girls, by the sound of it. “I'm kinda the one who kicked you in the face.” She was trying to sound nonchalant about it, and failing miserably. She was clearly more bothered by the incident than he was. The very thought of it amused him.

He smiled kindly, or at least what he assumed was kindly. If what seemed to be going on actually was, it wasn't completely out of the question that his face was very different from what it used to be. “It's okay, really.” He let out a soft chuckle. “I'm sure you had a good reason.”

- - -

It was surprising just how easily he fell into conversation with the three fillies, after a one-sided introduction. Well, conversation was stretching it. It was more like listening to a nonstop newscast run by excitable children. From what he could pick out from their talk, they were trying to earn something called a cutie mark, a visual embodiment of their special talent in life. He had to admit that the idea of his special talent in life manifesting itself on his flank when he discovered it sorta sounded appealing. It certainly beat aimlessly going between jobs, not knowing what to do.

Disappointment dawned on him when a nurse pony ushered them out mumbling something about visiting hours. He didn't even get to bid farewell to Scootaloo and the others. The next thing he knew some grouchy old pony was intruding on his personal with her hooves all over his face. She opened his eyes, covered them individually, and made him look at a chart with characters decreasing in size. Contented with her examinations, she slapped a pair of glasses on his nose. As if magic, and future experiences would contribute to this belief, he could see everything clear as day. Confirming such, the old pony, a unicorn pony as he could now see, left without a word.

He was grateful that he could see again. He just wished he could have actually seen the three fillies who'd come to see him. Well, at least he could take a proper look at himself now. Approaching a standing mirror at the far end of the room, he stared into his reflection.

Staring back was a blond little pony. As sure as the doctor had said, he had a horn, delicately wrapped in bandages, sticking prominently out of his short-cropped, orange streaked blond mane. He was covered head to toe in small bandages, marking the full extent of his encounter with the bramble in the forest. None of that was what drew his eyes though. It was the redness in his eyes. It detracted greatly from the strange magenta color his irises had taken. Yep, Scootaloo got me good. It felt odd to laugh at such a thing, but when he considered that he was now a unicorn, getting kicked in the face and laughing about it didn't seem so silly.

As contented as one could be when they found themselves in a completely foreign form, he turned away from the mirror. He noticed standing at the door was a white-coated pony, her pink mane tied back in a bun and capped with a white cap emblazoned with the red cross. A similar red cross, pink hearts in the corners, adorned her flank. She had a stern, but very caring look about her.

“It's time for bed, little one.” The nurse pony smiled, pointing her hoof at the bed he'd spent the majority of his day in. “You may have a big day ahead of you tomorrow.”

Warren stretched, trying to convince himself he wasn't tired, but he knew he was lying to himself. Despite sleeping all day, he was exhausted. He slowly moved across the floor towards the bed, prolonging his time spent out of the bed. At the foot of the bed, he climbed a small step undoubtedly placed by the staff to help foals up onto the beds.

Settling down in a comfortable position beneath the covers, he faced the nurse. “Thank you Nurse...”

“It's Redheart, little one. Nurse Redheart.”

“Right. Thank you for taking care of me Nurse Redheart.” He looked into her blue eyes and smiled sincerely. “Please thank the doctor for me, and pass on my apologies for my outburst.”

Nurse Redheart looked taken aback. Clearly she wasn't used to young fillies or colts apologizing for childish behavior. “Alright then, I can do that. Good night, little one.” She smiled and then flicked a light-switch, plunging the ward into darkness. For what felt like the first time in forever, Warren actually felt like he just might be able to relax. Minutes later, he was fast asleep.

Chapter 2

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“You're not from here. Very interesting!”

A voice poured into Warren's mind like ice-water, jarring him awake. As his eyes began to focus, an absurd sight greeted him. His bed was perched precariously in a bizarre purple tree. As far as his eyes could see were rolling hills of green checkerboard. A rainbow of trees dotted the checkerboard landscape.

“What the...?” It was all he could think to say as a flock of bananas passed overhead, weaving their way through a bright pink cloud. Something tells me my sanity took leave of me while I was asleep.

“Oh no, little human.” It was the liquid voice, again inside his head. “You're still quite sane, or at least, as sane as any human could claim to be after waking up in Equestria as a small colt.” Sibilant laughter echoed inside his head.

“Who are you? What's going on?” Warren cried out, more alarmed than before. Something was speaking to him inside his head, and was apparently reading his thoughts.

“Oh, I thought you knew?” More of that sibilant laughter erupted. “You're dreaming, a wonderfully chaotic dream.” No sooner had the word dream begun to sound out in his head than everything began to vanish into nothingness. The darkness embraced him. It was warm, just like the covers in his bed at the hospital. “Just remember, you wonderful beast of disorder. You don't belong here, so have fun while you can!”

- - -

Early mornings were a regular fixture in Fluttershy's everyday life. It had been that way since she moved to Ponyville, and she wouldn't have it any other way. Her animal friends all greatly appreciated her being up bright and early to care for them, and she loved caring for them in turn.

After making sure everybody was up and had eaten, Fluttershy liked to settle down in the garden and have tea with her most loving companion, a white bunny by the name of Angel. She was always there to receive the Ponyville Post, Equestria Daily and the local mail, first thing in the morning.

As sure as clockwork, a gray pegasus with a pale yellow mane landed just outside the fence that bordered the edge of Fluttershy's land. She smiled as the wall-eyed mail-mare sauntered up to the gate, her saddlebags bulging. Fluttershy met her at the gate with a polite welcome, “Good morning, Derpy Hooves, do you have a letter for me today?”

“Yep!” The mail-mare nodded vigorously. Without warning, she turned and nuzzled one of the saddlebags. “Dinky, the letter for Fluttershy, if you please.”

One of Derpy's saddlebags began to shake and squirm. Without warning, a pale purple unicorn filly popped her head out, clutching a letter in her mouth, grinning. “Did I do good momma?” she asked as Derpy took the letter and passed it to Fluttershy.

“Yep, Dinky, you did very good.” Derpy smiled and ruffled her daughter's mane with her hoof. “Have a nice day, Fluttershy.”

“Wait!” Fluttershy exclaimed suddenly. “I mean, um... Would you like to stay for some tea? Only if you want, though.”

“Sorry, Fluttershy. No can do.” The post-mare smiled halfheartedly as she turned to leave. “After all the damage I done to town hall, they said I'm not allowed back on the weather team. Gotta pull overtime with the post office to make ends meet.”

“Oh, okay.” This left Fluttershy disappointed. Try as she might, she'd never once been able to convince the mail-mare to have a bit of tea. “Have a wonderful day then, Derpy.”

Returning to the garden, Fluttershy went back to her tea, saddened. She just wanted to sit down with Derpy and ask about her adoption of Amethyst Star for a few moments, but could never get the opportunity. While she'd never admit it to Applejack or Rarity, she was a bit envious of them. Both of them had younger siblings that they helped take care of, while Fluttershy had grown up without any brothers or sisters.

It had never occurred to Fluttershy, at least until she started hosting the Cutie Mark Crusader sleep-overs, just how much she'd wanted a younger sibling to take care of. She had so much fun with the girls, and reckoned she was cut out to take care of a little pony. She'd considered adopting, but she didn't know how to go about it, hence her desire to speak with Derpy about it. She dropped the letter down on the table, and returned to sipping her tea.

- - -

Finishing her cup of tea, Fluttershy began to gather her things up to go inside. She glanced down at the table one last time, and remembered the letter. For the first time, she actually read who it was from. Her eyes lit up in alarm as she read the sender, Ponyville Hospital. Panicking at the thought that one of her friends might be hurt, she tore into the envelope without abandon.

Dear Miss Fluttershy,

A while back, you signed up to be part of the Emergency Foster Care program. We hope you are still interested in participating in the program. Recently, an emotionally confused and injured colt has come into our care, with no family to speak of. As such, we are required to request the help of an Emergency Foster Care volunteer until we are able to track down his family, or - short of that - determine a chain of custody. If you wish to take this young ward into your care, please stop by the hospital at your earliest convenience.
Sincerely,
Nurse Redheart

Fluttershy gasped loudly. “An injured and confused colt! Oh, I hope the poor little guy is okay.” she whispered to herself as a stray thought began to cross her mind. If the colt hadn't yet been taken in by anypony else, she could always take him in. Fostering, even if just for a while, would certainly help her decide adoption was right for her. “That'd be nice, I think.” It was decided, then. Fluttershy hurriedly put away her belongings, and was out the gate in a flash.

- - -

Warren was in a daze as he picked his way through the oatmeal Nurse Redheart had brought him. He was puzzling over his dream. Ultimately he knew it was just a product of stress and confusion stemming from this bizarre world. Still, he couldn't help but wonder if some part of him didn't think he'd be able to fit in enough to be able to determine what had brought him here, and if he'd ever get home. It almost escaped him completely that Nurse Redheart had entered again.

“Are you up to having visitors, little one?” Her voice was sincere, with the slightest hint of concern.

Looking up at her Warren thought it over. There aren't many ponies who want to come and see me, I reckon. That means it's those Cutie Mark Crusaders! For a reason he couldn't particularly fathom, this thought excited him most. Maybe it was that someone actually seemed interested in him, or that this childish body had him more inclined to childish behavior. “Yeah! Bring'em on, Nurse Redheart!” he exclaimed, maybe a bit more enthusiastically than intended.

Nurse Redheart smiled knowingly, and ducked back out of the room. Shortly after, she returned, followed by a light yellow pegasus mare whose face was half obscured by her long pink mane. Warren eyed her cautiously as she walked silently to the center of room. She smiled sincerely and kept up a non-threatening posture. Whoever she was, she clearly didn't mean him any harm.

“Hello there,” the mare said softly. “My name's Fluttershy. What's yours?”

Warren looked at her with a guarded expression. Fluttershy? Scootaloo and the others mentioned her, didn't they? She's the one that takes care of all those animals, right? If I tell her my name is Warren, she might misunderstand and think I was named after a breeding ground for rabbits.

“Hi, Fluttershy! My name's...” Think Warren think. He glanced around the room. On a counter was a vase with flowers in it. “My name's Goldenrod. Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle told me so much about you.”

“Oh, that's wonderful!” She sounded truly happy for him. “I'm so glad you're already making friends. The letter said you were emotionally confused, so I was afraid you might not be able to make friends.”

He looked at her quizzically for a few moments, and then glanced back at Nurse Readheart, who was standing silently by the door. “What letter?” he asked.

Nurse Redheart walked forward with an embarrassed smile. “Well you see, you aren't in bad enough condition to require us to keep you here long-term.” She sighed. “Since you're just a small colt with no apparent family, we had no choice but to contact the Emergency Foster Care volunteers.”

He sat down and stared at the ground for a moment. Well, I guess that takes care of finding shelter. “Alright. Makes perfect sense to me. When can we go?” He beamed at Fluttershy. “I've only been cooped up in the hospital for a day and it feels like forever.”

Fluttershy glanced at Nurse Redheart, seeking an answer. Picking up on Fluttershy's unspoken question, she coughed before speaking up. “We just have to have some paperwork signed and filed, and then you can be on your merry way.”

- - -

The walk to Fluttershy's cabin was fraught with an awkward silence. Warren wanted desperately to say something, anything, in order to break the silence. He wanted to get to know his new caretaker. The two were next to each other, but worlds apart. Fluttershy, too looked as though she wished to speak, but remained silent out of understanding or perhaps respect.

Their quiet journey was interrupted not far from Fluttershy's cottage when a figure stepped out of the woods. It was another pony. Turning its head, the pony noticed the pair and quickly trotted up to them. Warren instinctively took a few paces backward. An unfamiliar sensation pulsed through his horn and head as the figure approached.

As the unknown pony drew close, he could begin to make out her features. Yes, she was definitely a mare. A straight indigo mane, streaked with pink and purple, flowed as a breeze caught it. Poking through it was a lavender horn, attached to a lavender pony. Her violet eyes locked on Fluttershy, and a smile spread across her face.

“Oh, hi Fluttershy!” The lavender mare exclaimed. “How are y-, oh, I'm sorry. I didn't know you had relatives visiting.”

Warren glanced at his foreleg and then at Fluttershy. Their coats were certainly close in color; his was just a few shades lighter. Fluttershy must have done the same, because he caught her glancing at him and then chuckling. “Oh no, Twilight, he's not a relative.” She smiled sincerely. “He's just going to be under my care for a while.”

Twilight glanced at Warren, who smiled and nodded at her, before speaking up. “Aw, that's great Fluttershy.” She grinned at Fluttershy. “I'm sure you'll take great care of him.”

Fluttershy nodded “Goldenrod, this is Twilight Sparkle, a very good friend of mine. Twilight, meet Goldenrod. I'll be taking care of him until his situation changes.” She seemed to Warren to be confident in her abilities to care for others, not that he had any intention of making things difficult for her. “So what brings you out to the Everfree Forest today, Twilight?”

Twilight bobbed her head forward in - what seemed to Warren - the equivalent of a shrug. “Just a bit of investigating for Princess Celestia.” She cocked her head in the direction of the forest. “There's been some reports of unusual magical activity in the forest. When I stopped by this morning to speak to Zecora, she told me that there was a full-blown magical storm. Apparently the center of it all was the ruins.”

Warren perked his ears up to listen better. “When I went to check it out, I found something very strange.” Her tone changed ever so slightly at this point. “In the atrium there was a-”

“Glass crater.” Warren wasn't even aware that he'd spoken the words aloud until he caught Twilight looking at him in blank astonishment. Fluttershy was glancing repeatedly between the two, a confused expression chiseled onto her face.

He took a step back, realizing he was now in an awkward position. He didn't know anything about this Twilight Sparkle, aside from the fact that she was apparently a representative of a regent by the name of Princess Celestia. On top of that, he'd just revealed that he knew at least something about a site she'd investigated. I don't think I can worm my way out of this, so I won't even try.

“How do you know about the crater in the ruins?” she inquired a bit forcefully. “What did you see?”

Warren lowered his head. “That crater in the ruins is kind of where I woke up, really early yesterday morning.” Twilight looked at him inquisitively and expectantly. Clearly she wanted to hear everything he knew. Even Fluttershy was looking interested. He inhaled before continuing. “When I woke up there, in the dead center of the glass crater, I had no idea where I was, how I'd gotten there, or even what I was. Waking up in those ruins is my first memory of this world.”

Everyone was silent from that point onward. He thought he'd heard Fluttershy say something about how horrible it must be to have lost his memories, but he'd honestly been too busy paying attention to Twilight's facial expression. She appeared to be trying to determine whether or not he was telling the truth.

She suddenly exhaled, and then closed her eyes. Her horn began to shimmer, and began walking towards him. Warren began backing away almost immediately. He had no idea what was going on, but it made him anxious. After a few minutes of chasing him, Twilight sighed, her horn dimming. “Please sit still. I'm just trying to get a magical impression of you.”

Fluttershy trotted up beside him. Placing a reassuring hoof on his shoulder, she said, “It's okay, Twilight won't hurt you.” He looked at her unsure. Swallowing his anxiety, he sat down, and then nodded at Twilight.

She stepped forward again, her horn alight. A shimmering field of energy enveloped him. Every hair on his body began to stand on end as an odd tingling began to sink into his every pore. This continued for many moments. Then, without warning, that unfamiliar sensation pulsed through his horn again. Then it began to ache, dully at first, but building up in intensity quickly. He brought a hoof up to his horn moments before his legs gave out. As he fell forward, his glasses tumbled from his snout. The world blacked out around him.

- - -

Something warm and purring was nestled against his side. Warren opened his eyes, only to find himself all but blind. He flailed his hooves around, looking for some sort of table, but all he managed to do was get himself tangled in the blanket that had been placed over him, and evoke a displeased yowl from his bedmate.

“Hello? Is anybody there?” he called out. “I seem to be, er, stuck. Also, I can't find my glasses.”

Two sets of hoof-beats began to echo from somewhere else and draw closer. He could hear whispered chatter as the sound of a door opening echoed through the room. Then he heard laughter. “My goodness, how did you manage to get so tangled up in the blanket?” It was Fluttershy.

Warren scoffed. “It's kind of hard to see anything without the glasses.” He laughed in spite of himself. “Where are they, anyway?”

His question was answered a moment later as something floated in front of his face, and his vision then cleared up instantly. “Sorry, we figured it'd be better if you slept without them on.” Twilight chortled. “I also need to apologize, Goldenrod.”

“Why?” he asked as he began to untangle himself from the blanket, taking care not to disturb the white kitten that was still nestled beside him. It flinched as one of his hooves brushed past the powder-blue ribbon on its head, but did not wake. “It's not like you did anything to me.”

“I'm not completely sure that's true though.” Twilight's smile faded. “I didn't notice your bandaged horn when I began that spell.” He looked at her quizzically, but made no move to speak. “The magic I used may have overwhelmed your cracked horn, which is what caused the intense pain.”

Warren thought it over for a moment, and then repeated the motion he'd observed Twilight make earlier that he reckoned was a shrug. “What happens, happens, right? You couldn't have known.” He looked her in the eye and smiled sincerely. “It would have been hinky if you'd known and done it anyway.”

He watched as Fluttershy and Twilight exchanged glances. He had the impression that for the second time in as many days, his ease of forgiveness was surprising others. Perhaps this world was not so different from my own. He rose out of the bed and moved to stand in front of the two.

“So, did you learn anything interesting when you scanned me?” He asked nonchalantly.

Twilight stood aghast for a moment. It made him wonder if he wasn't being too forward. “Well, there was a strange magical residue at the ruins that I've never encountered before.” She sounded like a scientist with a fascinating research topic. “That same residue was all over you, too. So at least, we know you weren't lying about being there. Is it true though, that you don't remember anything about Equestria at all?”

“That's right.” He decided then and there that it would be better to tell the truth. “I'm pretty sure I'm not from this world. I can remember my whole life in another world, and can even remember going drinking with my family in Manhattan. I just don't know how I got into those ruins, or how I became this way.”

“Oh, you're much too young to be drinking.” Fluttershy exclaimed. “No wonder your memories are all funny.”

“I've gotta agree with Fluttershy there, Goldenrod.” Twilight chuckled. Clearly she thought his story was just as farfetched. “The whole magic incident and your cracked horn wouldn't help things, either. I hope you've learned your lesson about drinking, though.”

Warren sighed, and decided to get into the role that was apparently expected of him. “Yes, Miss Twilight.” He let defeat creep into his voice, and he dug at the floor with one of his front hooves, and hoped he looked as guilty as they thought he should be.

“I need to get the meals ready for the animals, would you like to help, Goldenrod?” Fluttershy asked suddenly, as if looking for a change in the mood of the room. “I'm sure Twilight has somewhere else to be.”

“Okay, Miss Fluttershy.” He smiled weekly. “Just tell me what to do.”

“Right, I've got to go write a report to Princess Celestia.” Twilight excused herself. “I'm sure she'll be interested to hear my findings.”

Fluttershy and Warren spent the rest of the afternoon preparing food for the animals. He was only slightly useless in his current form. She did a good job of explaining how to make use of his mouth and his hooves. When it came to clean-up, he was only slightly covered in flour. By the time the evening came around, Warren was tired out, and spent the rest of the night asleep, the white kitten close by.

- - -

Dear Princess Celestia

I investigated the magical disturbances in the Everfree forests like you asked. There were swaths of storm damage throughout the forest. When I spoke Zecora, she told me that the epicenter of the magical storm that had torn apart the forest was at the old ruined castle. Inside the atrium, I found a crater filled with glass created by the magic of the storm heating the sand. Aside from the crater, the only finding worth mentioning was a magical residue, the likes of which I've never seen before.

I feel that this should also be mentioned. Fluttershy has recently taken in a unicorn colt named Goldenrod. When we spoke on my way out of the forest, he knew about the glass crater. I examined him with my magic, only to find him to be covered in the same residue found in the atrium. In my carelessness, I failed to notice his bandaged horn, and may have addled his memory a bit when the spell overpowered his nervous system through a crack in his horn. When I questioned him about his knowledge of the crater at Fluttershy's cottage, he claimed to have woken up there with no prior memories of Equestria, and instead claims to remember a whole other life in another world. As an aside, it might be worth looking into Manehattan age policies in drinking establishments, as Goldenrod mentioned drinking there with family.

I apologize for not finding out more about what went on at the castle in the Everfree Forest. I will forward you any information I am able to dig up, in addition to any friendship reports. Please say hello to Princess Luna for me, too.
Sincerely,
Your Faithful Student Twilight Sparkle

Chapter 3

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“Goldenrod, it's time to wake up,” a gentle voice whispered in his ear.

Warren groaned and rolled over. Jeez, Goldenrod whoever you are, why do you have to sleep in the same room as me? Can't a guy get some sleep? A gentle nuzzling kept him from drifting back into sleep. Wait. Goldenrod is me, isn't he? Crap.

He opened his eyes. Standing over him was a yellow and pink mass. Reaching over to the bedside table, he carefully used the crux of his fetlock to grab his glasses. Carefully, he manipulated the glasses until they were safely mounted on his face. The yellow and pink mass resolved into Fluttershy. In her mouth she clutched a small cloth parcel.

Rubbing at his cheek with a hoof, he looked up at Fluttershy. “What's up?” he mumbled as he yawned rather loudly.

“You're going to be late for school if we don't get a going.” she spoke around the parcel. “We talked about this last night, don't forget.”

Rising to his hooves, Warren stretched. “Is there enough time for me to grab a bite to eat?”

Fluttershy looked at him unhappily for a moment. “I'm sorry, Goldenrod.” she again spoke around the parcel. “I know you're a growing colt but you need to be on time if you're going to make the best impression on everypony else. At least you'll get to see your friends today.”

He wanted to argue and find a way to go back to bed, unfortunately for him, Fluttershy was giving him a pleading look that almost cried out that he'd just shot her puppy. After trying to stare her down, he finally gave in. He wondered if this wasn't the Cutie Mark Crusaders had described as 'The Stare', at least he'd be able to ask them later, if he remembered.

- - -

Scootaloo sat at her desk, bored out of her mind. Miss Cheerilee had yet to enter the classroom, even though class had technically been on the go for more than fifteen minutes, it bothered her that there was nothing to do in the classroom without Cheerilee's lessons or assigned work.

She wanted desperately to turn around in her seat and talk to Sweetie Belle, but if their teacher caught them talking again, she just knew that they'd both be given a detention. It wouldn't be the first time she'd suffered through a lecture about the disrespect shown by presenting her back to the teacher. She didn't want it cutting into time that could be better spent finding her cutie mark.

Five more minutes passed before Cheerilee arrived. She looked absolutely frazzled. The sight of their beloved teacher so out of sorts was almost enough to distract them from the colt that followed behind her. Scootaloo wasn't sure, but she could swear that it was the same colt she kicked in the head and later made friends with just the other day.

She glanced over at Apple Bloom, seated over between Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara, and received a knowing nod, so she'd definitely recognized him too. It couldn't hurt to give him a once over. While still covered in bandages, he was nowhere near as bandaged as when they visited him in the hospital; the majority of the bandages covered his flank, with a small amount around the base of his horn. She was glad to see his eyes weren't as red, either.

However, she didn't expect him to be wearing glasses. It left Scootaloo wondering if he'd even recognize her, Sweetie Belle, or Apple Bloom. It took all the self-restraint she could muster to not just shout out “Hey there, remember me?”

“Good morning, everypony. Sorry for the delay.” Cheerilee smiled at the class. “We have a last-minute addition to our class.”

There was an interested murmur among the students; among the loudest were Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle. Cheerilee cleared her throat before continuing. “Joining us today is Goldenrod. He's had a bit of a rough time as of late, so he'll be with us for a while.” She glanced at Goldenrod. “Is there anything you'd like to say to the class before we get started?”

- - -

“Is there anything you'd like to say to the class before we get started?” Cheerilee gave Warren an encouraging nod. Everypony in the room had their eyes on him. Being the center of attention, however brief it might be, always made him feel small. Only now, I really am small. How's that for you?

They're only kids, right? It's not like you can't handle yourself. He took a step forward and put on his best poker-face. “Hi, everyone, I'm Goldenrod. I hope we can all get along.” Wow, is that all you've got? That's so damn cliché.

Despite his painfully bland self-introduction, three fillies in the room gave him a roaring applause. An orange Pegasus pony with a purple mane, a white unicorn with a lighter purple mane, and a pale yellow earth pony with a rose mane, it was definitely the Cutie Mark Crusaders. He may not have seen their faces, but he'd seen their colors, and had been told they'd be there. I may have suffered brain damage, but damned if I can't put two and two together and still get four.

“Well then, how about we get you seated.” Cheerilee said while scanning the room. “Ah yes, I think I'll have you in seat right behind Twist. You can ask her anything if you're unsure of something.”

Motioning with her hoof, she pointed to a bespectacled filly waving at him vigorously. It was the first time – and probably not the last, he realized – that he'd seen a literal redhead. Her brilliant red mane, curly like nobody’s business, was in stark contrast to her amberish gray coat. If not for her gigantic horn-rimmed glasses, he might have even called her adorable.

Walking down the aisle between the columns of desks, he paused and looked at Scootaloo. She looked back at him, expectantly. Clearly she wasn't sure that I'd recognize her. Maybe I should reassure her. He grinned at her, and then winked, a smile spread across her face, and then she winked back. He continued on to his seat, and readied himself for his first day of school in almost ten years.

- - -

Class had stopped for lunch, and Warren couldn't have been happier. He had no problem with Cheerilee's lessons; in fact, he thought she was a very good teacher. All of the material in the morning lesson, basic mathematics, and English—though it was described as Equestrian here in the classroom—were things he was very familiar with. He was happy because it meant he could eat lunch.

He watched as everypony else funnelled out of the classroom, in a hurry. Everypony preferred to eat outside, it seemed. That worked just fine for him. From under his desk, he retrieved the cloth parcel that contained the lunch packed for him by Fluttershy. Just as he was cantering out the classroom door, however, Cheerilee pulled him aside.

“I won't be keeping you too long, Goldenrod. I just wanted to ask how you're doing.” She radiated nothing but friendly concern. “Fluttershy told me about your circumstances this morning, and I understand that you've been having a rough time remembering things.”

“I'm fine, thank you, Miss Cheerilee.” After setting down his lunch, he laughed. “It's just Equestrian culture, history and geography that I can't recall.”

“Well, dear,” she smiled at him warmly. “That's kind of what you're here to learn. Don't worry yourself over the things you don't know. You'll pick it up eventually, run along now. I have to mark the quizzes from this morning.”

Warren snatched up his lunch-parcel and cantered out the door, turning to wave as he crossed the threshold of the door. In no time at all, he'd cleared the entrance hall and was standing outside the schoolhouse. The Cutie Mark Crusaders were right there waiting for him, their own lunches spread out on a small table in the schoolyard.

“C'mon Goldenrod, come an' sit with us!” Apple Bloom waved him over. As he made his way over, they cleared some space for him. “We wanted to come visit ya yesterday, but when we stopped by, Nurse Redheart said you'd already been picked up by your new foster mom!”

“Is it true that you really don't remember anything?” Sweetie Belle jumped right in, not letting Warren get a word in edgewise.

After that point, it was an endless barrage of questions. 'What were you doing in the forest?' 'Did you see any monsters?' Everything expected of overexcited children to ask was asked. He couldn't even articulate an answer for one question without another two flying at him. Meanwhile, his lunch sat neglected on the table in front of him, begging to be discovered.

- - -

Finally, he'd had enough. He didn't swear, slam a hoof down on the table, or even ask for them to stop badgering him. He just looked down at his parcel of lunch, and awkwardly unwrapped it. Not moving his eyes from their downward position, he ate the sandwich that lay before him. As he finished bite after bite of the flower-filled sandwich, the other fillies at the table turned their attentions to their own lunches, all of them sitting quietly eating together.

“You know, you three sure know how to keep a guy from getting a word in edgewise.” He laughed. “Here I am, trying to answer one question, and then three more questions are thrown at me before I can get a word out. I'm not saying your enthusiasm is a bad thing, but when you don't pace yourselves, you'll miss out on things.”

The three fillies looked away, embarrassed. He waited to see if any of them would speak up, but upon realizing they actually wanted to hear what he had to say, he continued. “I'll answer what I can though. Firstly, I think one of you asked who my foster mom is. Remember how you all mentioned Miss Fluttershy to me when you talked my ears off? Imagine my surprise when 'the nicest pony in all of Equestria' herself shows up to take me home with her.”

This revelation elicited excited laughter from the fillies. A mixture of 'no way' and 'that is so cool' could probably have been heard clean across the fields. It was all he could do to not laugh at their amusement. The sound of their laughter warmed his heart.

Clearing his throat to get the group's attention, he moved onto the next question fresh in his memory. “No, I really don't remember anything; not how I got there, or why I was there to begin with. I don't know anything about this world or its culture.” He paused for a moment and decided to throw in a lie to really sell it. “Even my own identity is somewhat muddled.”

The three looked at him in confusion. They exchanged quiet glances. “What do you mean by muddled?” It was Scootaloo asking this. “Yeah, what's that supposed to mean?” The Apple Bloom and quickly followed up with their own spin on the question.

Warren leaned back and rubbed the back of his head with a hoof idly. He wanted to word this in a way that might make sense to them. “Imagine you have all these memories in your head, okay? Now imagine yourself in some place unfamiliar to you. Heck, imagine yourself on another planet.” He exhaled and inhaled, stalling to compose his thoughts. As he glanced around, he caught them staring at him, captivated by what he had to say. “Look at your memories in comparison to this strange, maybe fantastical, place. They'll all seem kind of unreal when everything around you screams to you that it is real. That's kind of what it's like for me, right now. I have memories, but they don't fit with where I am or what I am.”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders remained silent longer than he believed possible. It was almost as though he'd just overloaded their young little minds, a surprisingly vivid image appeared in his head of him having to explain to Miss Cheerilee why there were three catatonic fillies outside. He lost track of time as the scenario played out inside his head.

It wasn't until the bell on top of the schoolhouse rang signalling the end of their lunch period that the fillies seemed to realize where they were. They looked at him, still dazed, smiling gently back at them he cocked his head in the direction of the school house. “Sorry, that was pretty intense, wasn't it? Come on, let's all get to class.” Warren laughed.

A sort of distraught look flashed across Scootaloo's face as they were walking back into the schoolhouse. She paused and turned to him. “Wow... I'm so sorry.” She looked like she was trying not to cry. “I didn't mean to break your brain, honest!”

Smiling, he tousled her mane with a hoof. “Nah, you had nothing to do with it. You have my word.” He soothed. “I was kind of already messed up like that when I woke up in some ruins in the Everfree Forest. Don't worry your pretty little head over it.”

Scootaloo gulped and nodded. “Yeah.” He wasn't completely sure, but he thought she might have been blushing. “Do you really think I'm pretty?”

Instead of responding, he just grinned at her, and motioned a hoof across his mouth, hoping that the zipped lips pantomime transcended universes. Judging by her reaction it had exactly the effect he'd intended; Scootaloo galloped on ahead. He was definitely sure she was blushing this time. It might be mean to tease her, but I can't help it. She really is kind of cute.

Sweetie Belle stopped beside him. She had the most peculiar of looks on her face, as if she was trying to figure out a very bizarre puzzle. After a moment of quizzical staring, she opened her mouth. “Are you from another planet?”

- - -

For Warren, the second half of the day was much more interesting than the first half. First, Miss Cheerilee returned the morning's quizzes. Unsurprisingly to Warren both of the quizzes from this morning yielded perfect scores. Elementary level mathematics and Equestrian were hardly a challenge for him.

It was the history lesson that held his rapt attention. Cheerilee told the tale of a magical being set on reigning over Equestria with chaos and disorder. It was a tale of a rise to power, and of crushing defeat at the hands of the Princesses Celestia and Luna. This part interested him, as it was stated that this had happened thousands of years ago, yet Twilight Sparkle answered to a Princess Celestia.

“A long time ago, when the Princesses and Equestria itself were still young, times were most chaotic. Much like the weather of the Everfree Forest, the world was very much in control of itself. While the Pegasus ponies had by this point learned how to alter the weather, plants and animals – everything really – were all quite self-reliant.

“This all changed, however, with the establishment of Equestria as a nation, and the Royal Pony Sisters stepping up to guide the nation towards more peaceful times. Weather became easier to control, animals became docile and chose to cohabit with pony-kind, and even the land was more forgiving. For many decades, the ponies of Equestria, who had known only strife and meager living, lived a peaceful, harmonious life like none they'd ever known.

“There was however, one being that did not like this change to the world. A creature called a Draconequus, rarer even than the Alicorns themselves, rose up against the Royal Sisters and their harmony. With powerful magics, the likes of which had seldom been seen, the Draconequus unleashed chaos upon the countryside. The natural laws of the world were rewritten, and the land itself began to change in the most bizarre and unlikely ways. The discord created by the Draconequus lead to him crowning himself Discord, the Spirit of Disharmony and Chaos.

“The reality-bending magics of Discord proved too powerful for even the Princesses, and thus were they dethroned and cast into exile, chased from their castle at the heart of what is now the Everfree Forest. For many decades the Royal Pony Sisters wandered Equestria and the lands beyond, studying the magics of the world, desperate to find something that could counteract Discord without resorting to the sort of dark magic that would corrupt their very being. Finally, they found their answer in the most unlikely of places.

“In a small village at the base of a mountain, well within Discord's area of control, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna discovered a most amazing sight. The village lay untouched by the chaos that had spread across the lands. The ponies of the village lived in absolute harmony, as they had for many years, as long as the existence of Equestria itself. The friendship of the ponies in this village was stronger than any they'd seen since Discord rose to power.

“More curious was that this Harmony had bled into six stones, as well as the ground around the village and acted as a shield against the chaos. It radiated powerful magic rivalling that of Discord’s magic. After much bargaining, including the promise of establishing their seat of power in the village upon their victory, Princesses Celestia and Luna convinced the villagers to part with these stones, the Elements of their Harmony.

“Upon returning to what had once been their capital, the sisters were distraught to find what had become of their home. Where once lay verdant fields and fertile orchards, only twisted forests and brackish swamps remained, a corrupt husk of what the land had once been. The creatures of the lands themselves became twisted shadows of what they'd once been. The loyal hounds of the village had become twisted and wooden.”

“Timber Wolves!” Apple Bloom shouted out, only to be given a disapproving glance by the fillies to either side.

“That's right, Apple Bloom. The bears too had become warped and grew to disproportionate sizes, rivalling even full grown dragons.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” Scootaloo bounced in her seat, hoof in the air. Cheerilee nodded at her. “The Ursa Minor and Major!”

“Yes, Scootaloo. The Ursa Major, Timber Wolves, Manticores, Hydras and Cockatrices, all born of his corruption from the land served as Discord's army. As soon as they had entered the forest, Discord had known they were there, and set upon him the monsters born of his magic. None could withstand the magic contained within the Elements of Harmony, which was amplified by the magicks of Celestia and Luna.

“Before long, they were on Discord's doorstep, eager to reclaim Equestria for all of pony kind. With their powers combined with that of the Elements of Harmony, the Royal Pony Sisters sealed away Discord in stone, rendering him powerless and unmoving. Upon his defeat, all of Equestria returned to the way it had once been, all but the forest. So contaminated with Discord's chaos, not even the Elements of Harmony could cure the forest.

“Victorious, the Royal Pony Sisters returned to the village where the Elements of Harmony had been born, Elements and Discord in tow. True to their agreement, the Princesses established their new seat of power, christening it Canterlot, in honor of the village. Thus returned harmony to all of Equestria”

“But Miss Cheerilee, how did the Elements of Harmony end up back in the Everfree forest, where our sisters,” Sweetie Belle said, motioning repeatedly at herself and Apple Bloom. “Found them again when fighting Nightmare Moon?”

“That's a good question, Sweetie Belle. When Princess Luna chose to give into her anger and envy, she became the tyrannical Nightmare Moon. Princess Celestia, having no other choice, was required to use the Elements of Harmony on her sister. Unfortunately, because they were bound to both sisters, she was unable to use their full power. With no other option, she banished Nightmare Moon to the most appropriate place, the moon. Upon doing this, however, she willingly broke the bond of friendship, rendering the Elements of Harmony useless to her. She returned the Elements to the castle in the Everfree Forest as a monument, not just to all she and her sister had gained, but also what they had lost.”

- - -

The history lesson was sobering, to say the least. The thought of a being powerful enough to warp the very fabric of reality, never mind one linked to the very ruins he awoke in, was nothing if not frightening. What would happen if such a thing were to happen on Earth? Would humanity be able to find a way to overcome it? No, probably not.

He spent the entire remainder of the school day absorbed in thought. These thoughts ranged from the quandary of how he got here to whether or not he'd ever see his friends and family again. He was so deep in thought that he hadn't even noticed the bell ring. If he hadn't been shaken back to reality by Scootaloo, he'd probably have stayed there the whole night.

“Huh? What's up?” Warren asked, staring at Scootaloo dazedly. “Something wrong?”

“Kinda,” she whispered. “You were sorta just... Not there.”

He could see Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle right behind Scootaloo, friendly smiles on their faces. “It's nothing, really. I was just really deep in thought.” He stretched, climbing off of his seat. “What are you three up to now that class is over?”

Her face brightened hearing his interest. “Oh! We're crusading for our cutie marks!” Scootaloo exclaimed, bouncing on the spot. “Today we're going rappelling! Wanna come?”

Warren brought a hoof up to his face and rubbed his chin. “I'd love to, I really would.” He sighed. “I wanted to ask Fluttershy to take me to the library though. What about tomorrow?”

“Hang-gliding!” the three fillies shouted in unison, grins plastered across their faces.

“Sounds fun. Count me in for tomorrow then.” Warren was unable to contain his amusement at their endless enthusiasm. “Oh look, here's Fluttershy now.”

- - -

My dearest pupil, Twilight Sparkle,

I apologize for not responding to your report on the incident in the Everfree forest sooner. The last twenty-four hours have been nothing if not hectic. Civil unrest in the east has escalated at such an alarming degree that the Equestrian guard has been dispatched to keep the peace. It was only recently that I had an opportunity to read your assessment.

I would be interested to find out more about this colt. If you could find the time to speak with him, and find out what else he knows or remembers, it might help to better put together the puzzle of the ruins. I will turn my attention towards researching whether or not magic has ever been used to create a living pony. Dependent on my findings, I may require more of your assistance.

Your loving teacher,
Princess Celestia

P.S. Luna was most happy to receive your regards, and asked me to inform you that she would be returning to Ponyville for this year's upcoming Nightmare Night.

Chapter 4

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Goldenrod was most eager to get to the library, Fluttershy could see the spring in his step. It was puzzling – to the point that she was worried – that such a young colt would be more interested in going to the library over going out to play with his friends. It reminded her a bit too much of Twilight before she opened up to everypony and became more sociable.

On the other hoof, she could understand why a colt in his situation might take solace in books. With so many things he should know that he didn't, books were the easiest way for him to catch up on things. He'd said he wanted to research something he learned about in class, which meant he was at least not shying away from reality.

Even now, one day after picking him up from the hospital, she couldn't believe he was the same pony described in Nurse Redheart's letter. Certainly he was confused, but he seemed quite emotionally sound. He was very well mannered for a colt of his age, as far as she'd seen. He was very respectful to those who were older than him, almost too much so.

“Miss Fluttershy?” Goldenrod spoke in that overly-respectful manner again. She'd asked him to just call her Fluttershy, but he insisted on using that 'Miss'. “I was wondering, would it be alright with you if I could go hang-gliding with Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle tomorrow.”

The proposition caught her off guard, not because it was dangerous, but because it was as though he'd read her mind. “I guess if you promise not to get in trouble, yes.”

If it was even possible the spring in his step seemed to increase. He was almost bouncing as Pinkie Pie often did. A wry thought crossed her mind as they approached the library. It would certainly be nice if Goldenrod could experience a Pinkie Pie party, once he was settled in of course.

- - -

Warren still found himself awed by the unique architecture found throughout Ponyville. There was a bakery made to look like a gingerbread house; Fluttershy said it was called 'Sugarcube Corner'. Then there was a building that reminded him of a carnival merry-go-round. It was apparently called 'Carousel Boutique', and was run by Sweetie Belle's older sister Rarity.

Both of these were nothing in his eyes compared to the sight that stood before him. It was a massive tree, windows carved into various points, and two balconies near the very top. In front of the tree was a signpost with an open book painted on it, evidently, the tree was hollow. It was like something out of a children's cartoon. As libraries went, this was one for the books.

As they approached the door, Warren couldn't help but feel a burst of giddiness, here he was, about to enter a library built inside a tree. It was like some sort of child-like fantasy come true. It occurred to him that such childish thoughts had been occurring more frequently as of late, but he put it off as some sort of subdivide between his mind and the brain-chemistry of the young colt, and assumed it'd get better with time.

Fluttershy pushed open the door, and they both stepped inside. The inside of the library was surprisingly cozy, not too big, but not at all claustrophobic. The walls weren't just lined with bookshelves. The bookshelves were literally carved into the very structure of the tree. On the far side of the room, he saw a staircase, leading up to the next floor.

“Um, hello? Are you in, Twilight?” Fluttershy called out, hesitantly.

“Oh, Fluttershy! Good afternoon!” exclaimed Twilight as she came downstairs. “Oh, and Goldenrod is here too. What can I do for you two today?”

Warren didn't stay by Fluttershy's side long enough to hear her response to Twilight. He trotted over to the nearest bookshelf and examined its contents. Not seeing anything of interest on the bottom shelf, he realized that his height was going to cause issues. Cautiously, he reared up onto his hind legs and placed his hooves on the shelf in front of him. At least in this position, He could see the next two shelves.

A hoof tapped him on the shoulder. Startled, he fell over backwards, only to see Twilight Sparkle standing over him from his upside-down perspective. “So Goldenrod, Fluttershy tells me you're interested in reading. Is there anything in particular you're looking for, perhaps adventure, mystery, or something like that?”

“Now that you ask,” said Warren as he rolled over. “I'm actually looking for a few things. First things I'm looking for are the unabridged encyclopedia volumes for letters D, H, and M. Next, I was wondering if you had a catalogue of rare, unidentified or extinct creatures. These ones aren't to take out. I just want to do some research here.”

Twilight looked at him, and chuckled. “I didn't expect you to be making off with three unabridged encyclopedias.” Pointing a hoof at his legs, and then waving it, she said, “You certainly don't look like you're built to carry that much weight. C'mon. I can help get you set up.”

Twilight began to lead him up to the second floor. There, she sat him at a small table, and brought him three massive tomes, and a smaller, but still fairly large book. She smiled watching him instantly dive into the first encyclopedia. “If you need anything, just call for me, or my assistant Spike. Just leave the books there when you're done. Spike will get them. I'll be in the next room having tea with Fluttershy.”

- - -

Warren felt disappointed, having just finished with the last of the encyclopedias. Closing the last encyclopedia, he couldn't help but sigh. He had been hoping to find some sort of reference to humans in them. Human, Homo Sapiens, even man; no such articles were found. The only reason he even thought to look up his own race was because of his dream; he wanted something to validate his belief that he wasn't just a brain damaged little colt.

The only thing that could be considered a reference at all to humans that he'd come across was in the articles on the Draconequus and on Discord. Both articles referenced strange upright walking creatures sighted during times at which a Draconequus had been seen. They were described as tall, lacking a mane, and having prehensile multi-digital appendages not unlike a gryphon’s or dragon’s claws. Much of these sightings were listed under Discord's reign at the end of the Pre-Classical era, but all were attributed to Discord's Magic.

Lacking the gusto he'd started with, he pulled over a faded tome that had seen better days, otherwise looking like any other image catalogue. As he hoofed carefully through the book, he saw plenty of bizarre creatures. Among them were many creatures from the various mythologies of man, like the cockatrice, the basilisk, and the hydra. The manticore was a bit surprising to see, and a bit disappointing, as it didn't have a man's face like human mythology, but a lion's instead.

He felt more and more defeated the more he passed through the pages. Finally, he'd reached the last page. Absolutely nothing was there to be found. Absolutely and utterly lost, he began to close the catalogue. At the last possible moment, however, he noticed that the last page was actually two pages stuck together. Ever so gently, he separated the pages.

There, staring him in the face were multiple photographs of a perfectly preserved human skeleton. Warren let out a giddy squeal of victory at his find. Humans do exist! I'm just not some addled little colt!

He read the small blurb of text out loud with relish. “This skeleton, found on the outskirts of the Everfree Forest two hundred years after the establishment of Canterlot, is regarded as one of the most enigmatic finds in pony-history. Some argue that these remains, colloquially called 'Ponyville Bones' are creatures either created or dragged into this world by Discord during his reign over Equestria, while others would argue that the magical residue found on the remains stand as proof that the remains are nothing but a hoax perpetrated by unicorns.”

“Wow, I thought Twilight was the only one who did that.” A high, but clearly masculine voice nearby broke the silence, startling him. The surprise caused him to lose balance on his seat, leaving him again sprawled on the floor on his back. In the unguarded moment, he contemplated the peculiarity of how his glasses could possibly still be on after falling over backwards not once, but twice.

He stared at the source of the voice. In front of him stood a bipedal purple reptile, with green spines dotting the length of his back, and a pale yellow belly. “Huh?” Warren couldn't muster anything more than that for a few moments. “You thought only Miss Twilight does what?”

The reptile sauntered over, smiling coolly. His spade-like tail swung ever so slightly as he walked. Sitting down beside Warren's prone form, he laughed. “When Twilight gets really into a book, she'll forget everything around her start reading it aloud. She's the only pony I've seen do it. I mean, I suppose other ponies might do it, but I can't very well state it as fact without seeing for myself.” The reptile boy laughed thoughtfully and offered up a claw. “By the way, I'm Spike. What's your name?”

Quickly rolling over and sitting up, Warren put his hoof in Spike's claw and shook. “W- er... I'm Goldenrod.” He stared at Spike for a long while. “I've never met anyone like you before.”

“That's 'cause I'm a dragon!” Spike exclaimed proudly, pointing at himself. “Hey, you said anyone instead of anypony!”

Warren blanched, though he doubted such a thing was noticeable with his light coat. “Well, it wouldn't be fair to speak with a word such as anypony when there's someone around who is clearly not a pony.” He was trying desperately not to let his anxiety slip into his voice. “It's just not courteous.”

“You kind of sound like Rarity when you talk like that.” He heard Spike whisper – no it couldn't be – dreamily under his breath. “Right on. By the way, Twilight would like to talk to you in the next room.” He motioned a claw towards a doorway.

“Oh, uh, thanks Mister Spike.” He cantered towards the doorway before stopping. “Have a good day.”

- - -

“So, Spike said you wanted to speak with me, Miss Twilight.” Goldenrod entered the room slowly, somewhat hesitant. Twilight could see now that Fluttershy wasn't joking about formality, she'd have to be gentle. The foal psychology book she read stated that a filly or colt whose behavior matched his was wary of adults, and polite out of fear of reprisal.

“Yes, please, come in and have a seat.” She ushered him in, directing him to an inviting, plush couch. He looked at her, at the couch, and then back to her. Almost casually, he trotted over to the couch and gingerly climbed up onto it.

Goldenrod looked at her and smiled knowingly, but decidedly not arrogantly. “We're to continue the conversation we were having yesterday, then?”

“Yes, Goldenrod. That's right.” She returned his smile, but frowned inwardly. His outwardly timid appearance was most definitely a facade put on for the benefit of adults. If anything, he seemed more cool and collected than Twilight was, as though he'd been prepared for this inevitability. Gone was her carefully laid out plan, so all she could do now was play it by ear. “I wanted to talk to you about the ruins you woke up in.”

“You mean the ruined castle of the Royal Pony Sisters, resting place of Elements of Harmony, and the location where Princess Luna and Princess Celestia imprisoned the Draconequus named Discord in stone before dragging him back to Canterlot, yes?” The young colt seemed almost proud to make this statement.

“Yes, that's the place. You know some Equestrian history after all.” Twilight was intrigued by him now. He was mature, polite, deceptively innocent, and had a mind sharp like a tack, but there was also that element of childish behavior there, as well as a surprising well of forgiveness. “Are you starting to get some of your memories back?”

“Nope.” He shook his head in that deceptively innocent fashion. “I still have the memories I woke up with, and the memories I've been making since then, nothing more. We simply had a very convenient lesson in history in school today.”

Her mind whispered that there was something off about what he'd said, but couldn't decide what it was. “About those memories, would you like to discuss them?”

Goldenrod turned his head, thoughtfully. “I don't want to discuss them per say, but rather, I'd like to discuss the way they feel.”

There it was again. That inkling that there was something off in the conversation. She could see now, though, what it was. He was steering the conversation to where he wanted it to go. What was he up to? Twilight decided to see where he was taking her.

“I guess the best way to explain it isn't how I explained it to my friends when they were peppering me with questions. I don't think they would have understood if I'd explained it fully.” He laughed so easily, despite the fact that his furrowed brow belied his calm demeanor. “I have memories, but they aren't of here. They are of another place, being another being. Yet here I am, in a fantastical world, bequeathed unto me a form much unlike my own. You have no idea how unreal my memories feel when I compare it to where and what I am.”

Twilight watched him carefully, but didn't speak. There was a flash of something in his eyes when he spoke again. “Then, I began to wonder... What if Miss Twilight is right?” There was definitely fear in his eyes. “What if I'm just an addled little colt. Where does the brain damage the doctor mentioned end, and where do I begin?”

Goldenrod was visibly trembling. Fluttershy, who'd been sitting quietly at the table, drinking tea and observing quietly, moved over to the couch to sit with him. She put her foreleg around him and held him close. “It's okay. Nothing can hurt you here. You can let it all out.”

“During school, I heard about Discord and the Draconequus during class today and made me wonder.” His face showed a panicky expression Twilight knew too well; she'd seen that same expression on her own face when she overreacted about missing a deadline for a friendship report. “If a Draconequus can warp the natural laws of things and warp reality to meet its own desires, what's to stop one from reaching across massive distances, or even between universes and plucking a guy out of his own reality and stick him here.”

He shrugged out of Fluttershy's embrace and laid back on the couch. “There were few mentions in the encyclopedias of anything like my kind. Most mentions, strange upright walking creatures, were all under the Draconequus and Discord articles. I thought I was at a dead end.” He laughed nervously. “Then I saw it in that creature catalogue... The Ponyville Bones; a human skeleton! See! I'm not losing my mind! I'm not just an addled colt!”

Goldenrod seemed to relax. Having gotten that all off his chest, he let out a large sigh for such a little pony and sat up. He was rubbing the back of his neck with his hoof. An awkward smile was plastered across his face, and he was clearly blushing. “Sorry about the dramatics. I really, really needed to get that off my chest before it could eat at me. Besides, you needed to hear it.” He looked kind of serene. “I know it's not quite what you were expecting to hear, and I did kind of hijack your interview. Sorry about that.”

Twilight Sparkle, for what felt like the first time since learning of Pinkie Pie's Pinkie Sense, was totally dumbstruck. Everything the colt said about the Ponyville Bones was circumstantial at best, but he believed in it implicitly, clinging to it as though it were the only floating thing in a sea of confusion. Then there were his theories about the mentions the upright-walking creatures spotted during times when a Draconequus has been active in the world. She didn't know quite what to think, but maybe Princess Celestia would.

“It's quite alright.” Twilight smiled, approaching the couch to stand face to face with him. Gently patting him on the head with her hoof, she whispered in his ear. “You did great. I'm sure what you said will be very helpful.”

Twilight watched Goldenrod as he and Fluttershy began to get ready to leave. The colt seemed like he had a great weight lifted from his back. She wasn't sure if it was because of the Ponyville Bones, or if it was because he'd come clean about his identity anxiety with an adult. It might have just been that he'd been able to confide in two adults without judgment.

The sun was beginning to set, and the smell of various dinners in Ponyville began to waft through an open window. She really wanted to get started on her report to Celestia. It occurred to her that reporting to Celestia everything that he'd said would be a grievous breach of trust in most ponies eyes, but it needed to be done. She just hoped he'd be as understanding and forgiving as he had thus far.

A stray thought crossed her mind as the Fluttershy and Goldenrod left. She knew it wouldn't make up for such a breach of trust, but she still felt the need to do something nice for him. After asking Spike to take care of the library for a bit, she ran up to her study and rooted through her personal collection of books. What she was looking for was exactly where she'd left it. In a hurry, she bolted out of the library after the pair.

- - -

Warren felt kind of bad. It wasn't his intention to hijack Twilight's interview like that. It just happened. He simply wanted to make sure that she knew his theory as to how he came to be in Equestria. It makes sense, right? I mean, she was appointed by a regent to investigate.

Without warning Twilight Sparkle galloped up behind them, startling Fluttershy. She was carrying a book with her magic. She panted heavily, trying to catch her breath. “Sorry,” she said with a cough. “Goldenrod, you're of that age, right?”

Staring at her, he didn't know what she was going on about. Surely she couldn't mean what he thought she meant. “Huh?”

“Magic! You're around the age where unicorn fillies and colts become interested in magic, right? I figured I'd lend you my copy of Introduction to Unicorn Magic: Useful Cantrips for Fillies and Colts.” She used her magic to gently place the book on his back. “It gives a good tutorial on activating your horn, a number of control exercises, and the most basic of basic spells that unicorns simply can't go without. This is the very book that set me well on my way to being Princess Celestia's apprentice.”

Warren sputtered. He didn't know what to say. It surprised him that she wasn't angry for taking control of the conversation so childishly. “I, um, thanks!” He laughed, realizing he had a book on his back. “I'd hug you, but, well...” He motioned in the direction of his back with a jerk of his head. “I'll take very good care of it, Miss Twilight.”

“Take care of yourself, too, Goldenrod.” Twilight said, turning away. “Don't push yourself too hard, either. A cracked horn is a very unpredictable thing.”

“Bye, Miss Twilight!” he called out as the lavender mare ran off. “You and Mister Spike have a good night!”

He looked up at Fluttershy as they continued on towards the cottage. “Miss Twilight is certainly a nice pony, isn't she?” He smiled sincerely. The weight of the book on his back reminded him of the fun night to be had as he walked.

“Oh yes. Twilight Sparkle is a very nice pony.” Fluttershy nodded. “You wouldn't think she was the same pony who came here three years ago assigned to oversee the Summer Sun Festival. Fighting Nightmare Moon brought all of us together, but it had the most profound effect on Twilight. She really opened up to others after that.”

The pair was just passing the limits of town when they ran into another pony. Warren wasn't quite sure if he was looking at an actual pony, or if he was just staring at a walking ball of cotton candy. The pony that stood before him was pink-coated, with bright-blue eyes. Her curly pink mane and tail looked as though no amount of combing, brushing, or ironing would allow them to be straight.

“Hi Fluttershy, what are you doing out so-” The pink mare started. As she glanced down at Warren, just a pace behind Fluttershy, she gasped loudly, like someone about to scream bloody murder. Without another word, a pink blur shot between the two of them and into town. Awestruck, he looked at Fluttershy.

“What in the world was that all about?” He muttered aloud.

He could just catch Fluttershy whispering something under her breath. “Oh dear! I thought I'd have more time.”

Chapter 5

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Warning: This chapter contains events that some may find upsetting. Please refer to the authors comments for an explanation of why these events occurred, and what is to become of them.

- - -

The sight of Ponyville from up here on the cliff was beautiful. Looking out at the town, Warren felt as though everything was crying for his attention. He could see the town hall standing tall and proud at the dead center of town. From that point, he was able to pinpoint Sugarcube Corner, Carousel Boutique, the library, the schoolhouse, and even the hospital. He could even see the verdant apple orchards of Apple Bloom's family farm 'Sweet Apple Acres', nestled just south of the Everfree Forest.

Despite everything that had happened, it still wasn't home. He knew he didn't belong in this world. Everypony he'd met had been so kind and accepting of him. The feeling was just so alien to him. It was a far cry from the casual indifference of humans. All in all, it was too much for him to even register how high up he was, and that he'd be hang-gliding in just a few minutes.

Turning away from the cliff, he looked at Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. The three of them were working together to fit each other with their helmets and harnesses. He'd insisted on gearing up himself, explaining that he wanted some time to think by himself, about the party Pinkie Pie was going to spring on him at some point. Fluttershy had informed him the previous night about Pinkie's parties, and how she'd hoped he'd have more time to settle in before there was a party.

It wasn't really a lie, when he thought about it. He really did want to think. It just wasn't what he was actually thinking about. He found himself thinking again about whether or not he could really ever fit in, as well as whether or not his memories were in fact real. His practices last night had allowed him to activate his horn, and levitate a pillow. I somehow managed to set my horn on fire, but that didn't detract from the fact that I was able to perform magic. Humans can't do magic!

“You all set?” he asked. He shook his head clear of thoughts. “We should really get started before the sun begins to set. It won't do us any good if we can't see where we're landing.”

“We're all set over here!” Scootaloo called back cheerfully. “Right girls?”

“Yeah!” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle exclaimed, albeit less than enthusiastically. “Come on over so we can all get tethered in.”

Warren smiled at his friends and trotted over to the glider. He couldn't remember the last time he'd just gone and had some genuine fun with a group of friends. Coming along for this was a great idea.

- - -

This was a terrible idea! They had barely cleared the cliff edge when his fear of heights miraculously came back to him. What was I thinking? It clearly wasn't about hang-gliding. He took a deep breath and shut his eyes. It'd all be over soon.

Scootaloo must have noticed him shutting his eyes and the anxious expression on his face, because she put a hoof on his shoulder. “You're scared of heights?” He nodded, keeping his eyes shut tight. “Why'd you ask to come along, then?”

Warren let out a self-deprecating laugh. “Because I'm some sort of idiot, I guess.” He opened an eye, just a crack, and glanced over at Scootaloo. “I don't suppose you know any fliers tips for overcoming fears of heights, do you?”

She shook her head. “Can't say I do, but I keep telling myself Rainbow Dash would say something like 'Pretend you're invincible, and don't look down if you can help it.'”

He inhaled, and exhaled, centering himself, and opened his eyes fully. Remember, you're invincible. Just enjoy the scenery, and everything will be just fine. It seemed to be working. No longer did his stomach feel like it was going to tear itself apart out of fear. Instead, he felt like a feather drifting serenely on the wind, over Ponyville and the surrounding fields. More than that, he felt liberated.

“It certainly seems like sound advice.” He laughed, looking at Scootaloo with a new-found respect. “It's definitely working.”

They soared quietly over the town. The breeze in his face was awesome. Occasionally, the girls would spot somepony or someplace they knew, and point them out as they saw them. For the slightest moment, he felt something burgeoning in his heart. For the first time in days, since he'd woken up in the ruined castle in fact, he truly felt happy.

“So Goldenrod, how are ya likin' Ponyville?” Applebloom called over from the other side of Scootaloo.

“Are you finding everything okay?” Sweetie Belle asked from his other side. Obviously they wanted to keep his mind off the height with conversation. It worked for him. They hadn't had much time to talk today. The Crusaders had been required to stay in to write a small essay for talking in class.

“Yeah!” he exclaimed, relishing in the opportunity to further distract himself from the height. “Oh! I didn't get to tell you guys yet! I met Pinkie Pie last night!”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders all laughed together. “We know what that means! Pinkie Pie's parties are the best!”

The group let out a loud cheer that carried on the wind in all directions, causing many ponies below to look up at the source of the sound. Everypony below began waving up at the fillies and colt gliding above them. Every one of them, including Warren, waved back at the gathering crowds. They were all having such a blast.

Without warning, a piercing shriek cut through the air. The faces of the ponies below showed terror, the gathered crowd quickly dispersing. Everypony was running indoors, or diving under whatever cover could be found. Soon after, Warren could hear what he could have sworn was an air-raid siren.

Confused, he glanced around frantically. Finally, he looked up and saw the fabric of the glider's wings darkening rapidly. There was a sickening tearing sound as bright-amber avian claws shredded through the wings of the hang-glider. As the claws grasped the the frame, all forward momentum ceased. In front of them, a large feathered wing beat downward in front of them. They didn't know what would happen next. All they knew was that an impossibly huge bird had them in its clutches, and it was dragging them west, over the Everfree Forest.

To Warren's surprise, Sweetie Belle shouted out, pointing down “Look, Goldenrod! That's our friend Zecora's house.” Sure enough, she was pointing down towards a large tree with a column of smoke rising out of it. “She sometimes lets Apple Bloom help make potions!”

From Scootaloo's other side, Apple Bloom called back, “I really don't think now's the time for that!”

A really stupid thought crossed Warren's mind. Granted, it was much less stupid than letting this gigantic bird take them god-knows-where to do god-knows-what with them. Didn't change the fact that it was dangerous as all hell. Ah screw it. I'd rather die falling than being eaten.

“Girls, you're going to want to hold on to something. I have no idea if what I'm about to do is going to work, and even if it does...” Trailing off, he shook his head. “Don't even think about that for now. Just remember where Sweetie Bell pointed out Zecora's home.”

Warren screwed his eyes shut in concentration. He concentrated on the thought of all his energy being focused in his horn. Feeling the familiar tingle in his horn, he opened his eyes to verify that it was active. A hazy green aura was dancing around the tip of his horn. Okay, so that's working... Now... What can I focus on levitating or gripping magically long enough for my horn to catch fire again?

The glider jerked, causing his glasses to slide forward, precariously to the tip of his nose. Almost without thinking, he imagined a hand pressing the glasses right back up his face. Sure enough, the same green haze was also dancing around his glasses. Now, keep it there. He focused his attentions wholly on keeping his glasses on his face.

“Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, I need you two to squeeze together. I have to get a boost.” He shouted. The stress of continually casting the spell was causing his head to pound, disrupting his other senses. “Hurry!”

The pair of fillies both looked at him like he was crazy, but didn't object. They both began shuffling together, allowing him to place his hooves on their shoulders. He was close enough to almost touch the claw with the tip of his horn. With a bit more concentrated energy, he began to feel the same burning in his horn he felt the previous night just before it'd caught fire.

In a flash, his horn was aflame. Licking the talons of the massive bird, the flames were like a dog excited to see its master. A loud shriek came from above as a shiver went through the bird's foot. Almost as quickly, it released the glider in its entirety. The sudden jerk caused him to lose his balance, causing his head to swing back, and his horn nicked the safety tether.

The flame quickly caught on the tether. Oh come on! Who makes a flammable safety tether? His mind screamed as the tether began to practically disintegrate. Regaining his balance, he squeezed back down between the girls.

“You might want to hold on tight...” He cried, as he realized the glider was in free fall. “The tether just went up in flames.”

The change in weight distribution sent the ruined glider tumbling. Fillies and colt alike were now holding desperately onto the structure, no longer safely suspended by the tether. It felt to Warren almost like being in a carnival ride. He couldn't help but shout a terrified “Crap, crap... CRAP!” It came to an abrupt end as the glider struck the treeline, causing his helmet to crash against Scootaloo's, causing him to black out.

- - -

A burning sensation dragged him back from the depths of unconsciousness. To his surprise and confusion, his horn was still active, and still aflame, the spell holding his glasses to his face still going strong. Quickly, he focused on ending the spell, and then plunged his horn into the dirt. It occurred to him that he was no longer wearing his helmet when he bumped his face off the ground.

Removing his extinguished horn from the ground, he stood up and looked around. He found himself standing in a small clearing. In the dense foliage above, the glider was a complete wreck. He looked around, desperate to find the girls. What little light was leaking through the forest canopy showed that night was almost upon them. He really didn't want to spend another night in this forest.

“Girls!” He called out haphazardly. It didn't matter if there are dangerous beasts in the forest; whatever happens to them is my responsibility now. “Are you all okay?”

In response to this, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom both crawled out of the bushes, covered in pine needles and tree sap. Aside from some nicks on their legs and torn harnesses, the two of them were pretty much intact. “Yeah, we're fine. Just more of the usual.”

He watched as they touched some of the tree sap covering them. Giving himself the once over, he saw that he was surprisingly clear of sap. “I guess I just fell straight down from the glider. No sap in sight.” He laughed pointing a hoof up at the wrecked glider.

The filly pair didn't look up though. They were looking around, a distressed look on their faces. It hit him like a brick why they were upset; Scootaloo wasn't anywhere to be seen. Had she been thrown further than the others?

With no concern for himself, the others, or what might be lurking out there, he began off in the direction the girls had come from. He could hear them begin to follow. Without turning back to face them, he said, “No, you two stay here. I'm just going to go get Scootaloo, and then we can all make haste for Zecora's place.” Without waiting for a response, he bolted.

Every once in a while, he'd call out to the girls back in the clearing, as well as to Scootaloo. He didn't know how far he'd actually gotten when he finally found her. All he knew was that he could barely hear the crusader pair back in the clearing when from behind a tree trunk came a pained groan and pitiful whimpering. Walking around the tree, he began, “Scootaloo, thank god I found-”

What he saw before him turned his blood to ice. She was huddled against the tree trunk, staring with intense shock at something orange on the ground at her hooves. It took a minute for him to register what it was he was seeing. A nearby tree was streaked with blood where she passed by too closely. One of her wings had somehow been torn clean off. He could see a large gash in her harness, and the spot where her wing had once been. It was weeping blood, and Scootaloo was weeping too.

In a hoarse voice that he didn't even recognize, Scootaloo said, “Goldenrod, I don't want them to see me like this. Please don't let them see.” She grabbed her severed wing with her hooves and clutched it to her chest. She broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. He decided that he didn't want the girls to see this either. It'd break their hearts.

Turning his head in the direction he came from, he shouted back to the girls in the clearing. “Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, you two go on ahead to Zecora's. We'll catch up to you. I promise.”

“But-”

“Just go!” Warren yelled. Tears were streaming from his eyes. This is all my fault! “Look at the sun, and run the opposite direction from that. That's east!”

- - -

Picking up Scootaloo's wing and tucking it in her harness – his harness, really – was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do. She didn't put up a fight when he removed her own harness and used it to staunch the bleeding. She didn't cry out, or even whimper. Putting his harness on her was met with even less resistance. It needed to be done, he couldn't very well keep it there otherwise. Even with the makeshift bandage, he knew she wouldn't last very long without treatment. She was already going into shock. He didn't blame her.

He nuzzled her cheek. “Can you walk?”

He watched as Scootaloo shook her head rose onto her hooves for a moment, before slumping back against the tree. She shook her head, sending tears flying off of her cheeks. “I... I'm scared, Goldenrod,” she whispered in that hoarse unfamiliar whisper. “I don't want to die.”

Crouching down beside her, he whispered back, “I know. I don't want you to either. You need to be strong.” An idea crossed his mind. Pegasus ponies would have to be light in order to fly, and walk on clouds right? It was a lot to bank on, but at that moment in time, he needed something to believe in. “Get on my back.”

“What?”

“Just do it. I'm not just going to let you bleed to death!”

Scootaloo went silent. “Okay.” Much to his surprise, she straddled him like a man straddling a horse. Carefully, he stood, and much to his relief, she was lighter than she looked. It wasn't to say she wasn't heavy, but she was definitely manageable. She leaned her head on his, her forelegs wrapped gently around his neck.

Carefully, he glanced up at the sky. He seemed to be standing in an area that had suffered storm damage of some sort; the foliage in the canopy here was mostly destroyed. Using the brightest point in the sky as a reference point, for west he ran east, with a slightly southward heading. He hoped this would take him out near Sweet Apple Acres.

- - -

Warren didn't know how long he'd been running, and he didn't care. All that mattered was getting Scootaloo to safety. He didn't care about the bramble that cut at him and re-opened his wounds, or the burning in his muscles, nor did he care about the feeling of terror trying to break its way into his mind. If he stopped for an instant, he knew he'd succumb to the fear threatening to ensnare him.

“Oh look, it's the little displaced human.” A sultry feminine voice flooded his ears. It seemingly came from all around him, and at the same time from nowhere all at once. The voice struck him like some half-forgotten memory, like he'd heard it somewhere once before. “Enjoying yourself deceiving little girls and attacking my innocent little Roc with fire?”

“I don't know what you're talking about.” he scoffed. I don't have time for this.

“Oh don't give me that... Warren Ashland.” The voice purred in his ears. “I know a human that I dragged into this universe and turned into a pony when I see one.”

The proclamation, both of his name – his surname he hadn't even thought about since waking in Equestria – and claims to credit for his presence here, stopped him dead in his tracks. On his back, Scootaloo groaned and shifted, but didn't speak. He worried about how long she'd been out of it now. The fact that she wasn't conscious scared him. “I don't care! She needs help!”

He began to push forward again but was again stopped dead in his tracks. He hadn't even seen them approaching. Sitting not ten feet from him in a beam of moonlight was what looked like a very large wolf. From its back, he could see branches by the dozens sprouting. Its face was a gnarled wooden visage. The eyes were glowing a frightening amber. It was those same glowing eyes that gave away the rest of the pack.

“Now, now, Mr. Ashland.” that sultry voice chided. “We can't have the guest of honor leaving so soon before the main event.”

“Show yourself, Draconequus.” Warren growled.

A figure faded into existence, mere inches from his face. Just like the depiction in the encyclopedia, the Draconequus in front of him was a ridiculous Chimera that was hard to accept possessed reality-bending magic. A lion's paw and griffon's claw were steepled together on it's long undulating belly. Poking from its long white mane, the goat horn and deer antler looked at odds with its equine face.

She simply floated there, not even using its mismatched pegasus and bat wings. “Were you expecting maybe my baby brother, Discord?” He looked at her, confused, but somehow not at all shocked. “Oh please. Discord is still locked up oh so securely back in the palace garden, you didn't really think I was him, did you?”

“Then tell me who you are, what you want, and get out of my way!” He spat at the demigod before him.

She twitched a single claw, and one of the timber wolves inched forward. “Please, even I can't hold back these lovely, bloodthirsty beasts with the scent of blood on the air. Just drop the filly and just come with me!” The Draconequus snickered, and rolled absentmindedly in the air. “My name? Now that is quite the question. I've gone by many. Long ago, beings of your world worshiped me by many names, some call me God even today. I am most fond of 'the Morrigan'.”

“Wow! Morrigan, the Supreme War Goddess of the Celts, how egotistical of you.” he snorted.

“I do so hope you'll co-operate. I didn't give your race your own world just so your kind could live happily ever after.” Morrigan laughed haughtily. “All I want is a little war, carnage, and bloodshed!”

“What are-” he started to ask, before she began to vanish.

A group of lights appeared outside the ring of timber wolves. “Y'all git away from them, ya filthy varmints!” A voice with a southern twang not unlike Apple Bloom's. “Or there'll be hay to pay!”

In the lamplight, Warren just caught a rainbow blur shoot towards the nearest timber wolf and send it tumbling away. He wanted to bolt, and run towards the lights, but something inside his head clicked. Others are here, it's okay to be scared now.

It occurred to him that his legs were crying out in pain. Even if she was just under half his weight, his young body wasn't used to carrying heavy objects. Despite himself, his legs gave out, pitching him forward and sending Scootaloo tumbling off him. The wolves pounced, and Warren screamed like he had never screamed before. All he could think about before passing out was protecting Scootaloo.

- - -

Twilight Sparkle sighed in relief. Her barrier spell almost hadn't been cast in time. Thankfully, when the timber wolves pounced towards the filly and colt, they bounced harmlessly off of the bright, magical bubble. Again and again the wolves attacked the bubble, but each time there were less and less returning as Applejack and Rainbow Dash sent them running.

The group – Applejack, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Big Macintosh, and herself – had come across the scene purely by chance after departing Zecora's home, where Pinkie Pie and Rarity had volunteered to bring Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle back to the farm. They'd heard the voices and come running.

Once the last timber wolves had been sent packing, Twilight let down the barrier spell. They all gathered around, Big Macintosh pulling over the apple cart they'd brought with them, and watched as the white bubble of the barrier faded. They were all surprised to see Goldenrod laying unconscious beside a small bramble dome. Fluttershy immediately swooped down and picked him up, and sat with him in the cart, cradling him in her forelegs.

“Um, Twi, sugar-cube?” Applejack started. She prodded the bramble dome with a hoof. “Did you do that too?”

“N-no.” She shook her head. She gave it a prod with her own hoof, and then lit her horn to get a good sense of the magic. It was rough, hastily done, and not very strong, the sort of thing an inexperienced unicorn would create. She glanced over at Fluttershy and Goldenrod in the back of the cart. His horn had the faintest shimmering green aura dancing around it. “I think it's Goldenrod.”

Chapter 6

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Warren sat in the waiting room waiting for news with the others. Scootaloo had been in surgery for many hours now. He hadn't spoken a word to anyone since they came in. It hurt more than anything just explaining to the others that her wing was severed in the crash. They could all see clear as day that he blamed himself and had decided to leave him be for now.

He wanted more than anything to apologize to Scootaloo for this happening. If he hadn't been in the glider with the three of them, he doubted Morrigan would have sent the Roc after them. Her parents deserved an apology as well. Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and their sisters needed one too.

Looking around, he found no sign of any alarmed parent ponies coming looking for their daughter. Surely word had been sent to them, right? She had to have parents. The question festered in his mind for almost an hour before he broke down and finally asked. Looking up at Fluttershy, sitting beside him with a foreleg holding him close.

“Fluttershy...” he whispered, his voice hoarse from disuse. “Why aren't Scootaloo's parents here?”

Fluttershy looked down at him, a sad look in her eyes. “They're um... Traveling far away.” The look in her eyes betrayed the meaning of her words. Even if she hadn't looked him in the eye, what she'd said brought to mind a phrase he'd once read in a novel, 'Not gone, merely marching far away,' which would have lead him to the same conclusion.

“Oh...” He looked down at his hooves. “But who takes care of her then?”

A hoof gently caressed the side of his face. He looked up to his other side, and saw Sweetie Belle's older sister, Rarity, drawing her hoof back to rest on Sweetie Belle's sleeping head. “We all do, dear.” The look on her was equally sad, but not lacking any of the sincerity that was in her voice. “Everypony in Ponyville tries to help her out whenever possible. She can be a bit stubborn, though.”

“Tha's right, sugar-cube.” Applejack called over from the other side of rarity. “Here in Ponyville, we take care of our own. So what if we aren't blood kin? As far as the lot of us are concerned, friends are honorary family members an' what not.”

Everypony else in the room began to speak up, affirming what had already been said and adding their own spin on it. For the second time today, he felt that he didn't belong in a place where such togetherness is so easy to find. He certainly didn't belong if his very presence meant they were at risk.

- - -

“Miss Twilight, did you ever hear back from Princess Celestia regarding the topic we discussed last night?” he asked, jumping down from the seat he'd been sharing with Fluttershy. Warren walked over to the wall and began to stare.

“Yes, Goldenrod.” She sounded confused. “Is now really the time to talk about that though?”

Cocking his head to one side, he looked at Twilight with one tear-rimmed eye. “Considering that everything that has happened is a direct result of my being here, yes, I do.” Looking away, he spoke very dejectedly, “What did she say about humans?”

He could hear Twilight inhale sharply. “The Princess was very surprised to hear that word, especially in relation to your theory linking humans to the Draconequus. There are records which remain sealed for good reasons. You know things that nopony other than the Princesses should know.” She sighed. “The records she mentions state that humans vanished from this world thousands of years ago, roughly at the same time the Draconequus all but vanished.”

“Apparently, humans crop up from time to time, usually the precursor to war, the appearance of a Draconequus, or both. It could very well be that they are the ones who made humans disappear, and are the ones making them reappear.” He could hear her pacing. “But she said Discord is still-”

“Locked up 'oh so securely' in the Palace Garden. I know.” He turned to face her. “If you can believe it, I saw a different Draconequus tonight. She claims to be Discord's big sister, and she was after me. The Roc and the wolves were both after me. Whatever her plans are, I am a part of them. It may very well be that she's interested as to why I'm a pony.”

A rainbow blur rushed up to stand in front of him. “'Why I'm a pony', you say that like you're not!” Rainbow Dash said in a barely controlled tone. “If you're not a pony, what are you, a spy for the Draconequus?”

“I'm a human!” He looked away.

“Will somepony please explain what a human is?” Applejack spoke up. “Some of us aren't quite in the know.”

Warren sighed. It's now or never. “Humans are tall, mostly hairless, omnivorous beings, long not of this world. Many of my kind are aggressive, war-like, driven to hate each other by one thing or another. Ironically it is faith, something intended to bring people together, that drives them apart. Our kind knows more about killing each-other and devastating the environment. By all rights, my people are barbaric, especially by your standards.”

“The Draconequus I encountered tonight claimed to be responsible for giving my people their own realm, probably to sate her own blood-lust.”

“So you are a spy!” At near shout, Rainbow Dash caused the sleeping fillies nearby to stir.

Warren stared at her angrily. “With all due respect, Miss Dash,” he spoke with an even tone, out of fear that he might shout. “If you found yourself yanked out of your own world and placed elsewhere, would you honestly serve the being that claimed responsibility? No? I thought not!”

He went to sit in a corner, not facing any of them. His brain screamed out for quiet. Nothing more than silent reflection could soothe this screaming. At the very least, he could pass the time until word of Scootaloo's fate.

- - -

After a stretch of time had passed, Warren turned to Applejack and Rarity. “Miss Rarity, Miss Applejack, I'm terribly sorry for the danger my presence has put your sisters in. I intend to apologize to the both of them, as well as Scootaloo, before I depart.” He bowed his head until the tip of his horn touched the floor. “I don't expect forgiveness. I really don't deserve it. It's not like I belong here. I'm not even a real pony.”

“An' where ya gonna go, Goldenrod?” Applejack smiled. “Ya got nowhere else to go. So what if this happened 'cause yer here? Ah don't claim to know much 'bout humans, an' ah can't say ah fully trust ya, but it certainly don't sound like ya wanted any of this.”

“Applejack is quite right.” It was Rarity this time. “If everything you have said is true, you are just as much a victim in all this. It is hardly something you can be blamed for.

“That's right! Those Draconequus are tricky meanie pants!” Without his noticing, Pinkie Pie had managed to come to be right beside him. She was bouncing on the spot. “Don't let them put a frown on your face!”

Rainbow Dash lounged in her seat. Scowling, she looked at him. “Yeah, what they said.” She looked away. “I still don't trust you.”

Tears were freely flowing down his cheeks now. “Why?” All of them stared at him. “Why are all of you being so nice to me? You don't know me, and I've done nothing but deceive you since I got here.”

“What do you mean?” Fluttershy looked at him with puppy-dog eyes. “You've been deceiving us?”

“I never truly asserted I was a human... I just made myself look like some brain-addled little idiot!” He sobbed into his hooves. “I didn't even give you my real name! I- I thought you'd misunderstand, Fluttershy!”

“I don't know what I'd have been named if I'd been born here, as a blissfully happy little unicorn colt like I look. Heck, maybe my name would have been Goldenrod. It isn't.” He laid down, burying his head in his hooves, his eyes screwed shut. “It's Warren Ashland, not Goldenrod. God... I've been acting so damn childish since I woke up here.”

He felt a pair of hooves pick him up and pull him into a tight embrace. He opened his eyes and found Fluttershy hugging him. He felt her patting his back, soothing into his ear. “There there, I understand. You were just scared, in an unfamiliar place. You just wanted to make a good impression.”

- - -

The sun streamed through the curtains. Warren knew even without his glasses that he was back at Fluttershy's cottage. He didn't remember falling asleep in the waiting room at the hospital. It was probably some point after he'd broken down crying in Fluttershy's embrace. He could only guess that they'd been all sent home, and somepony had carried him.

As was almost routine now, he grabbed for his glasses, and pushed them onto his face. It was strange how easily he was able to develop a routine in a place he knew he didn't belong. It would just make it all the harder to leave.

Quietly, he made his way downstairs. Fluttershy was somewhere downstairs talking to a group of animals, probably tending to the injured. He'd seen her tending to the animals regularly over his short time here, and had even helped out during the first evening. It wasn't going to be easy to face her, but he passed the point of no return last night and had to live with the consequences.

All he cared about at that very moment was making sure Scootaloo was okay and ... filling his stomach. There hadn't been the chance to eat anything since lunch the previous day, and he didn't want to make a habit of not eating properly. He still didn't know how long he'd be stuck in this form, or how long he'd be in Equestria. Make the best of things.

“Good morning, Goldenrod.” Fluttershy greeted him, smiling kindly, but there was an undertone of unease present. “Oh, I hope you don't mind. It's just, um...”

“It's okay, Miss Fluttershy.” he responded, spooning some oatmeal from a pot on the stove into a bowl. “I didn't really expect you to be comfortable with my name. That's why I called myself Goldenrod. I kind of prefer it here, being called Goldenrod, I mean. Not to say, I don't like it here.”

She put a hoof on his shoulder as he ate awkwardly with a spoon. It was hard to do without any fingers, but he was managing. “It's okay, I understand.” He could tell she wanted to say more, but something was holding her back. There was a lot he wanted to say too, but he refused to think about anything other than Scootaloo.

Quickly and quietly, his breakfast was finished. It was routine by now to simply wash up the bowl and spoon in the sink and set it aside to dry. He didn't know if dishwashers existed in Equestria or not, but it was a moot point to ponder; Fluttershy didn't have one in her cottage. Almost trotting out the door, he realized that he needed to bathe, as there were still signs of last night's terrible events upon him.

Another amenity he sorely missed was a shower. Again, he didn't know if ponies actually had them or not, but she didn't have one in the cabin, so when it came to bathing, he made do with what was there. Blood and muck came out just as well with a wash-cloth as it did under a jet of water.

Without fingers to pluck the twigs and bramble out of his fur and mane, he could only brush it away. At least with even his limited magical ability, he was able to handle a brush well enough. It also helped that he was close to water when his horn would combust. At least with more practice it was taking longer before the fire caught.

No longer looking like the sole survivor of a horror film, Warren was off. He didn't bother explaining to Fluttershy that he wasn't going to the schoolhouse. It was clear as day that she knew how much he blamed himself for what happened to Scootaloo.

- - -

“Get out.” Scootaloo's expression was grim. “I don't know what to think about you right now. Just go away.”

Goldenrod, or Warren if even that was his real name, had just told her the most absurd story. He told her that he's not really a pony, or at least not one by choice. It was his claim that the Roc that attacked the glider was after him, and that it was sent after him by a Draconequus that knew who he was and knew of his world.

It sounded all too much like some sort of self-centered poor-me tale. Even if he sounded sincere about it, he still sounded like an attention seeker like those two stuck-up fillies, Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon. Nothing hurt like hearing somepony she'd trusted tell her that he had been lying to her.

All of it was just too much for her to take in. If only she could just get on her scooter and clear her mind. The doctors were able to reattach her wing without issue, but in order for it to mend, she was restricted to bed-rest. She wasn't even allowed to get out of bed without a doctor or nurse present; they didn't trust her not to hurt herself.

A surge of pain radiated from her wing joint as she shifted in her bed, blinding agony. If a nurse hadn't come in to administer pain medication, she doubted she'd have even realized she'd been screaming. The downside to the pain medication was that it made her incredibly drowsy.

As her mind filled with haze from the drug she asked for the nurse. “When can I get out of here?”

“You'll be here for at least a week, little one.” She vaguely remembered hearing the nurse say. “Even then, it's going to be a long way for you. There's lots of physical therapy in store for you before you'll be able to fly.” It was the last thing she remembered before drifting off to sleep.

- - -

Warren sulked through the streets of Ponyville. He wasn't bothered by being chased off by Scootaloo. That was well within his projected outcomes, since she had every right to be angry with him. What bothered him was what he'd heard on his way out.

Even when doctors and nurses spoke in hushed whispers, all the secrecy in the world couldn't hide their conversation from an unobserved pony passing by. The nurse, notably not the Nurse Redheart who had tended to him during his stay, was saying something about Scootaloo being in for a lot of physical therapy after she got out a week from now. Doctor Freemane, in a serious, yet sad tone had said that he doubted she'd be able to fly even after the therapy.

Spirits dampened by the news, he had no doubt that the ponies out and about town thought he looked like a gloomy Gus. There were certainly an awful lot of eyes turning his way. Then again, he was by all appearances a school-aged colt skipping classes. He just wanted to find a nice place to wallow in his self-loathing.

This all happened because of you. It wasn't his own voice in his mind, but Morrigan's. You should just come with me. You can be a part of my reunion with my dear baby-brother.

'Go away!' he thought back. 'This is your fault, not mine. If you hadn't brought me here, this wouldn't be happening. I want nothing to do with you or your plot.'

Even if you wish for no part in my plans, you will be a big part with or without your consent. Her sensual voice was only serving to curdle his blood. You'll come to find that your fate is set in stone, petty human.

“Get out of my head, foul monster!” he shouted aloud as he walked into a tree. Evidently, it was not an easy feat to have a running conversation inside your mind while wandering aimlessly through the streets. He looked around, embarrassed. Luckily for the wound to his ego, there wasn't anypony else around as far as he could see.

Exasperated, he decided to sit beneath the tree and try to clear his mind. He could make out Sugarcube corner just down the road; the distinctive candle-topped cupcake tower was hard to mistake for anything else. Staring at it, he couldn't help but think about the pink mare he'd met only two nights ago. Everypony said that Pinkie Pie threw the best parties, and Fluttershy said Pinkie threw parties for everypony without hesitation.

A sad smile crossed his face as he found himself realizing that she probably wouldn't throw a party for him. He was a deceiver and not even a real pony, so why would she throw a party for him? It struck him doubly hard that he actually found himself yearning for a party. With all the things going on, a bit of lighthearted fun sounded like the perfect thing to take his mind off things.

Laying his head down in a small patch of flowers, he began to stare up, past the tree, into the sky. He wondered if anyone in his family was looking at the sky back home, wondering where he was. Laughing to himself, of course they wouldn't. That last night on earth wasn't particularly a nice one. That much had come back to him.

Sure, he'd been out to drinks with some of his family. It was hardly a joyous occasion. His older brothers and sisters had called him up after years of not talking to him and asked him out to drinks. It seemed innocent enough at first, until they flat-out told him that they were all getting shafted in their dying father's will. They wanted him, the only one to remain in good graces with their parents, to curry favor in their names so that they might get something when their parents passed on. Needless to say, he wasn't amused, and had stormed out of the bar. From there, his memories of earth pretty much stopped.

Thinking about life back home only served to put a dull ache in the back of his mind. On top of that, he was starting to feel drowsy staring up at the sky. All those clouds drifting about, with the occasional pegasus pony shepherding clouds around, was strangely hypnotic. Without even realizing it, he'd drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

- - -

“Hi!”

A jubilant voice jerked Warren awake. Without a thought, he sat up, looking everywhere, trying to find the source of the voice. He could see the odd pony milling about in the streets, but none close enough to have been the source of the voice. Looking around still, he noticed that the grass he'd been laying in was significantly longer now, almost as if it were a blanket. Behind him, where his head lay only moments before, there was a pillow sized dandelion.

“That's a nice looking bed you've got there.” That voice called out again, seemingly from nowhere. It sounded so joyful that it almost oozed sugar. “Looks like a real nice place to take a nap.”

Hearing a rustling in the tree above him, Warren looked up. With a startled cry, he fell backwards onto the dandelion pillow. Hanging from a tree branch above him by her tail, surely this was impossible, was Pinkie Pie. Grinning down at him, she reminded him of the Cheshire cat. “Oh, uh, hello.”

With a giggle, the party pony dropped down beside him. With bewildered amusement, Warren stared at the mare. As was the case the last few times he'd encountered the mare, she was incredibly perky. She was bouncing on the spot, like some sort of cross between Pepé Le Pew and the baby kangaroo from the Looney Toons classics.

“Why are you so down, Goldenrod?” She chuckled, smiling kindly. “Are you worried that just because you aren't really a pony and think you're to blame for everything that you aren't getting a party? Don't be silly. I throw parties for everypony. I even threw one for a griffon once!” She put a foreleg around him and pulled him close. “Just between you and me,” she spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Gilda was kind of a meanie pants.”

“Uh-huh.” He didn't know how to respond to this proclamation. “Actually, Miss Pie, I was hoping you could hold off on the party.”

The pink mare's hair went limp in front of his very eyes. It was as though the implication that he didn't want party had sucked all the happiness out of her world. “You... don't want a party?” She sounded so defeated.

“No, no! I do! I really do!” Warren backpedaled. “It's just... I can't in good conscience go to a party while a friend is holed up in the hospital. So I want you to change my party into something we can use to cheer up Scootaloo.”

Like magic, Pinkie Pie's hair inflated. Her eyes were almost sparkling with devious planning. She hugged him close, and then pulled away, staring him in the eye. “A 'Get well soon party?' Of course! Why didn't I think of that?”

Without another word, the party pony was up and and running off in the direction of Sugarcube corner. “Where are you going?” he shouted after her.

“I've gotta plan!” he could hear her squeal out of excitement. “Oh this is going to be so awesome!”

Staring at Pinkie Pie as she entered the bakery, Warren couldn't help but ponder if he hadn't just done a terrible thing. Would she appreciate us springing a party on her? Would the hospital even allow it? What was with that look in her eyes, anyhow?

Chapter 7

View Online

He was back again. Scootaloo still wasn't sure whether or not she forgave him, whatever his name really was, but she had to give him credit; the colt was definitely doing his best to make it up to her. Every day since she kicked him out, he would stop by in the morning, and wouldn't leave until asked, either by her or a nurse. At the very least, she appreciated him going out of his way to make sure she wasn't lonely.

He'd been coming back for the last few days. Today he was reading a novel to her. Twilight Sparkle had recommended it, or so he claimed, saying that it was the very novel Rainbow Dash was hooked on during her hospital stay. Reminding her of when her father would read bedtime stories to her, it brought a sad twinge of happiness to her.

“I've gotta ask,” she interrupted him in the middle of a lull in the story. “I know you told everypony your real name already, but you don't really look like you're sure you know what you want to be called yourself. What would you prefer I call you, Warren or Goldenrod? It's kind of confusing not knowing what to call you in my own thoughts.”

Scootaloo eyed him as he seemed to squirm on the spot. Ceremoniously, he marked the page he was on with a bookmark before closing it and placing it beside him at the foot of her bed. With a great sigh, he said, “You're right. I don't know what I want to be called.” Turning his head to one side, he shut his eyes. “Lately, I've been thinking about my family. Yeah, my parents were good folks, but mom's long gone, and dad is on his way out the door too.

“My older brothers and sisters are all a terrible lot. They're a greedy bunch of liars, thieves, and cheats. Dad's not even in the grave yet, and they're all looking for ways to 'get their fair share.'” He laughed coldly. “I suppose I don't really want to associate with that lot when I think about it. I suppose if you're more comfortable calling me Goldenrod, by all means go for it.”

Again he made her think of her own parents. It wasn't that sad reminder she felt waking up alone every morning or those lonely nights at home, though. If she had to describe it, it was like her family was right there with her at that very moment, and that she didn't have to feel alone any more. It brought tears to her eyes.

Goldenrod must have noticed the tears when he looked back, because there was an embarrassed frown on his face. “Ah jeez, I'm sorry. I wasn't even thinking.” He sighed, looking down at his hooves. “Here I am rambling about my family without any consideration for you.”

Scootaloo sniffled, trying not to break out crying in front of him. “It- it's alright, Goldenrod.” she managed to say, calming herself with a few deep breaths. “It's actually kind of nice... Everypony thinks they're walking on eggshells around me when it comes to family. I miss my parents, sure, but I'm a big girl. It hurts more to be treated like a fragile little doll than to be reminded of them.”

To her surprise, he didn't make to speak. Instead, a warm smile spread across his face, and he nodded ever so slightly at her. It took a good two minutes for her to recognize it for what it was, a sign of recognition and understanding. Without saying so in as many words, he'd told her he understood.

- - -

Later in the afternoon, not long after the sound of the class dismissal bell at the schoolhouse reached the hospital, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom arrived. As they had the prior day, they showed up with homework from Miss Cheerilee, not just for Scootaloo, but for Warren, as well. It made sense; it wasn't like he had formally withdrawn from the school. The least he could do was continue humoring Miss Cheerilee.

It was all just a give-and-take study-session. Whereas Warren was dishing out help in Equestrian and Mathematics, the girls gave him the help he needed on the History and Social Studies. They all laughed together, himself included, whenever his ignorance to the greater workings of Equestria showed.

Once the homework was all out of the way with, safely tucked back into a satchel Apple Bloom brought with them, they were able to have some fun. Today the girls wanted to play a card-game called Old Mare. It was very much like the some of the variations of Old Maid back home; a joker was added to the deck, and whoever was left with the card at the end of the game lost.

Just for fun, the girls explained, they liked to have a punishment game; whoever had the most loses at the end of five games had to suffer through whatever punishment the victors decided. It all seemed innocent enough, so he agreed to their terms. What's the worst that could happen?

“Now watch closely, Goldenrod, 'cause yer next,” Applebloom said with a grin.

He watched in fascination as she manipulated the deck deftly with her hooves in ways he never could have imagined. In no time flat, she shuffled, cut, and blended the deck. With that out of the way, Sweetie Belle pulled up a chair to one side of the bed, and Apple Bloom did the same on the opposite side. Warren remained where he'd been the entire day, perched at the end of the bed.

From the very moment Apple Bloom dealt the first hand - or rather hoof - of cards that he'd been swindled. As he plucked the immediate pairs from his hoof to place in the discard pile, he began to notice subtle distinctions in certain cards of the well-used deck; a certain crease here, a certain wrinkle there. Then he saw the joker in his hoof. Well, I'm screwed.

Five games and five losses later, Sweetie Belle clapped Warren on the back. “Better luck next time, Warren,” she said with a sly grin. She was the only one so far who chose to refer to him by his birth-name when given the choice. “Just wait in the hall. We have to discuss your punishment.”

“Yeah!” Apple Bloom pipped in. “We'll holler for ya when we're done, an' then ya can be all gentlecoltly an' walk us home.”

“Yeah, go on, Goldenrod.” Scootaloo couldn't help but laugh. “It's time for girl talk.”

- - -

Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were nothing if not suspicious as he walked them home. The both of them kept suffering bouts of uncontrollable giggling. The conspiratorial glances they kept exchanging the closer they got to Carousel Boutique didn't help to reassure him.

When the trio trotted up to the entrance, Warren was already making to continue on towards Sweet Apple Acres. “It was great seeing you today, Sweetie Belle. Let's go, Apple Bloom.” He smiled over his shoulder back at Sweetie Belle.

Apple Bloom made no motion to follow. “No-no-no!” They both chuckled in unison. “Please, come in... We insist!”

Without giving him the option to respond, the two fillies began to push him into the boutique. Bracing all four hooves against the door-frame, he resisted all he could. “What in the blazes are you two up to?” he wheezed, straining himself to speak without being dislodged.

“It's for your punishment, silly!” The fillies chuckled mischievously. Without warning, Sweetie Belle stopped pushing on Warren, setting him off balance and allowing Apple Bloom to tumble into the main studio of Rarity's boutique on top of him. Just as quickly, Sweetie Belle followed them, closing the door behind her. The jingling of an old-fashioned bell could be heard as the door closed.

Almost face-down and glasses askew, he gazed around the inside of the shop. There were racks of dresses as far as his eyes could see, which was admittedly short; Apple Bloom had yet to get off of him, and her mane was obscuring his vision. Hoof-steps could be heard in the room above, and then coming down a set of stairs. A familiar voice called out, “Sweetie Belle, is that you? Haven't I told you not to make such a clamor in my studio? You'll scare off potential customers!”

Hurriedly, Apple Bloom scrambled off of his back. “Good afternoon, Rarity.” Apple Bloom beamed innocently. “How are yer dress sales?”

Warren sat up, not bothering to adjust his glasses. Rarity was backing through an open doorway in the back of the studio. Levitating in a line behind her were a series of pony-shaped mannequins, all clad in fairly interesting clothing designs. “Oh, hello Apple Bloom. Business is a bit slow because of the troubles out East.” Rarity greeted the filly disinterestedly, guiding the mannequins to one of the shop windows. “Are you and Sweetie Belle going to be studying together this evening?”

“Not tonight!” Sweetie Belle snickered. “We did all our homework and studies up at the hospital with Scootaloo and Warren!”

Rarity shuddered at his name. With her back turned to the front entrance, she still hadn't noticed him. “I really wish you wouldn't say that name, Sweetie Belle. Why can't you simply call him Goldenrod like everypony else?”

“Because it's his name!” Sweetie stomped on the spot. “Ugh! Why does everypony need to such a big deal out of a name?”

“It's just so unladylike a word to say.” She turned look at Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. “It's just so... uncouth.”

“Sweetie Belle? Apple Bloom?” he spoke warily. “Maybe we should deal with the punishment game some other time.”

Realization dawned on Rarity's face as her eyes lit upon his face. Her cheeks flushed, very visible through her white coat. “Oh my! Goldenrod, I had no idea you were here too. Please forgive me if I have offended you; I did not mean to speak ill of your name.”

He waved a hoof dismissively. “It's alright. I get it.” he said sourly. “I don't like it, but I get it.”

A sudden look of suspicion crossed Rarity's face as she looked at the trio. “What punishment game?” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle looked at her with an air of innocence. Warren had no doubt that he looked as bewildered as Rarity did. “Are you up to something ungentlecoltly, Goldenrod?”

“It's about as far from that as you can get, Miss Rarity,” he deflected. “I lost a bet, fair and square. They pulled me in here, so I can only guess that whatever my punishment is, it's taking place here.”

“About that...” Sweetie Belle began. “We were wondering if you couldn't do us a favor.”

- - -

Warren could barely believe what had just happened. First, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom asked Rarity to make him up to look like Rainbow Dash, with a complete dye job to his coat, mane, and tail. Rarity flat out refused.

“I have absolutely nothing to gain from making a colt look like a filly,” she'd said, her nose pointed in the air.

The fillies giggled, and then manipulatively challenged her. “You're right, Apple Bloom.” Sweetie Belle had said, smothering a grin. “Anything Rarity can do with fabrics, dyes and make-up, Twilight can do twice as good with her magic! Hay, I bet Rarity wouldn't even know where to start.”

He didn't understand the event that followed. Rarity had narrowed her eyes at Sweetie Belle, and said in a low, even voice, “Oh, it... is... on!” He was then unceremoniously enveloped in a shimmering blue energy field, and carried through the door and upstairs. “You two can stay right where you are. If I'm to do this, it has to be done without distractions.”

So now here he was sitting in a washtub of water, at the mercy of a cleaning spell set upon him by Rarity. He was being assaulted on all sides by soap, shampoo, and a wash cloth. In no time at all, he was as clean as a whistle, and covered in a very feminine lavender and berry scent. As he looked down at himself, he also noticed that his coat was no longer the pale blonde it had been when he had been dropped into the bath, but was now a light yet vivid turquoise.

Warren flinched as Rarity slid a dye cap over his mane and horn. Without his glasses on, he was still not able to see much more than blurred colors and shapes; he noted however that they were much more distinct than they were when he was first bucked in the face. Momentary alarm coursed through him as something slid over his rump and tail. Of course ponies who want to dye their mane would want their tail to match.

“Miss Rarity, if you don't mind me asking,” he began, as Rarity began threading his mane through the cap. “Do you take care of Sweetie Belle on your own?”

Rarity hummed a bit as she worked. “Oh no! Not at all, dear.” she said with a laugh. “If I took care of her all the time, why my mane would be gray before its time. Mother and Father also take care of her, but they do so like to travel.” She adjusted the cap with a tug. “What about you? Surely you have family back where you come from.”

Warren sighed, and rolled his neck, attempting to crack it, drawing an unamused snort from Rarity. “I do, but it's not worth talking about.” He had no doubt his tone belied that there was more to it than just that, which was probably why he heard an interested noise from her. “There's not much to say. Mom's long gone, Dad has one foot in the grave, and my brothers and sisters are all looking to me, the only one still in good graces with dad, to curry his favor so that they might get something when he passes on.”

“Sounds like a rotten bunch, if you ask me.” she said in a disgusted tone. Now she was threading his tail through the cap on his rump.

“It wasn't a picnic growing up with them, no.” he agreed, impassively. “I can't say that I don't appreciate having had a family though. Even with all the crap my brothers put me through as a kid, I can't imagine life without them. I can't help but feel bad for Scootaloo.”

“This might seem overly personal, Goldenrod, but...” Rarity began.

“Twenty-eight.” He said without pause. “That's what you're wondering, right, my age?”

The hairs of his tail ceased threading themselves through the cap as her focus left the spell. Whatever she thought he might be, she clearly hadn't thought he was as old as he actually was. He could probably even guess the question now formulating itself in her mind. She was probably disgusted that a man of his age would hang out with little girls. That was the likely line of thought back home.

“But, why the girls?” Her voice was uncertain, but there was no hint of being put off. She began threading his tail through the rump cap. “I mean, you could have tried to befriend anypony, adult ponies, even.”

Warren thought for a moment. “I suppose if I had to guess, Miss Rarity, it's because they were the first ones to make me feel welcome, getting kicked in the face aside. They were the first ponies to come visit me at the hospital.” He shrugged, and then felt her slop something into his mane. “I guess it's partly because I want to watch over them. We both know the sort of trouble children can get into. The way I saw it, the Crusaders all energy and no grounding. If they don't have some sort of grounding element, or a down to earth pony, in their lives, they'll only spiral out of control and get into more trouble than they already do.”

“Well, now with this insane Draconequus in the picture,” He sighed as Rarity continued putting the dyes into his mane. “I just want to make sure what happened to Scootaloo never happens again, not to any of them, you know?”

Rarity chortled away in amusement. “I can certainly see why they seem drawn to you, especially Scootaloo. You're a loyal pony, even if you don't realize it.” She moved onto his tail, delicately taking portions of his tail and streaking it with dyes.

Cocking his head sideways, he couldn't help but ask, “Why is it funny?”

“Rainbow Dash is the bearer of the Element of Loyalty. She's also Scootaloo's idol.” Rarity explained. “It's funny in that making you up to look like Rainbow Dash is quite fitting in a way. Your eyes are very similar in color to hers, and your girlish face makes it much easier to pass you off without any make-up necessary.”

Without warning, he was again hoisted into the air with magic. Warren screwed his eyes shut as ice-cold water streamed through his mane and tail. It wasn't like the water from the washtub; it was just water and nothing else. The conversation died then and there. He was at least permitted to towel himself off on his own; she was generous to allow him some semblance of dignity.

With his glasses returned to him, Warren had to admit, he did look like a tiny, bespectacled unicorn Rainbow Dash. He agreed with Rarity's assessment regarding his face; if he hadn't known he was looking in a mirror, he could have sworn there was a filly with a short rainbow mane standing on the other side of the glass. He was glad right then that his blushing wasn't showing through the coat too much.

Rarity looked proud of her work, and he had to give credit where credit was due; she did an excellent job. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom must have approved, as well, as they were in stitches the moment he trotted down the stairs. The entire time he walked home, he felt like all eyes were on him. It didn't help that he had a nagging worry that Rainbow Dash was going to shoot down out of the sky at any moment and confront him over the misappropriation of her image.

When he finally reached Fluttershy's cottage, he felt too tired to say anything more than 'punishment game' to a his confounded host. During their supper, he even nearly fell asleep in his salad. All he could think about was getting enough sleep for tomorrow, the day of the party. As soon as he was in bed, he was out like a rainbow-colored light.

- - -

My dearest pupil, Twilight Sparkle,

I was most distressed in reading your report regarding the incident in the Everfree Forest. If what this Warren Ashland human says is true, and there is in fact another Draconequus active, this could have dire implications for all of Equestria. This is especially important after a most disturbing event that followed the arrival of your last report; the stone-encased form of Discord has been stolen from the palace gardens. There has been no sign that he has been released, so that is at least a small comfort.

Tensions have escalated in the east to the point where I was forced to withdraw the Equestrian Guard, and now I am receiving reports of civil unrest from the south as well. Luna and I both agree that manipulation from this Morrigan seems the most likely of causes. Equestria is on the precipice of disaster, so please take care and remain vigilant; the bearers of the Elements of Harmony are likely to be targeted for attack.

Your loving teacher,
Princess Celestia

Chapter 8

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Warren was dreaming those bizarre dreams again; he knew it the moment his vision swam into clarity. The bizarre landscape that once stood before him besieged his eyes once more. He gazed across the verdant checkerboard fields and rainbow trees at the unlikely geometry before him. All of it was the same, yet ever so different. The land was not a solid mass, but instead large clusters of floating islands, floating precariously over an ocean of darkness.

He walked about his lone island, floating above the rest. He realized then that he wasn't a pony, but instead the man he once was. Looking down at himself, he saw his lanky form. It was not that of an athlete, or a craftsman. It was of a man of voluntary servitude. Such was fitting, clad in the suit of a butler; he was in servitude still, not to any man or woman, but to his own inadequacies.

“Contemplating the shortcomings of being human?” It was that voice, so sibilant and mocking. Not Morrigan, he realized. The tone was unmistakably and utterly male. “My dear sister does so love your kind, so brutal, efficient, and chaotic! So utterly boring if you ask me. Humans are too predictable.”

Warren turned to face the voice, for it was not in his head, but behind him. He wasn't at all surprised to see the Draconequus, laying there in a hammock of clouds suspended between two trees. After meeting Morrigan, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he dreamed of Discord. Is this really a dream though? Or a vision?

“Discord, I presume.” he said in an apathetic tone, adjusting the collar of his shirt and removing the tie. “I won't pretend humans are perfect. Heck, my kind has done a lot of things that would be frowned upon here in Equestria. But you know what? For every Hitler, there's been a Gandhi. For every Marquis de Sade, there's been a Mother Theresa. For every Klu Klux Klan, there's been a Habitat for Humanity. Say what you will about humanity; we may be a rotten lot, but we're the paragon of perseverance and self-betterment!”

Discord laughed, causing his chimeric form to sway in the cloud hammock. The laughter was so jovial, yet it stung like vitriol. “Do you even know how silly you sound?” He made familiar talking expression of a hand talking. “You humans are all talk, and too easily manipulated, even more so than ponies.”

“So what?” he spat. “You act like your kind is so superior, so evolved, so perfect, when really, you just treat the universe like your plaything. I've heard the stories they tell of you, and having seen your sister, I don't doubt for a moment she's partly to blame for the violent nature of my kind. I'm perfect through my imperfection.”

“Ah yes, my darling sister.” his voice sounded almost like some sort of whimsical reminisce. “Yes, she did say she'd be getting me out of my stone imprisonment. That's why she took me. It's only a matter of time.”

Maniacal laughter roared forth from the Draconequus as he spun and vanished. Around him, the world began to burn and crumble. He watched as the islands below disintegrated into the abyss. He knew the dream was ending, probably at Discord's desire.

Soon, only one other island remained in addition to his own. He could just make out a small orange and purple form cowering at the center of the island. Inside his mind, he knew it was Scootaloo. He watched as she tried to take flight, but couldn't; her wing simply didn't have the strength. The last of her island crumbled, and she began to tumble into the darkness.

Without a moment's consideration, he dove after her. The wind ripped at his clothing as he descended. It was silly to think about his lack of fear. It was all a dream after all. If this is a dream, I don't really need to save Scootaloo, right? Then again, this could all be some sort of test.

Drawing closer to Scootaloo, he could see tears and fears in her eyes. She was absolutely terrified, not that he blamed her. If this hadn’t been a dream, he had no doubt legs would have given out the moment he first looked over the edge, never mind jumping. When he was close enough to touch her, confusion spread across her face. She didn't know what to think of his form.

He reached out and grabbed a hold of her. Warren rotated in the air until he was between her and the dark void. Hugging her close, he stroked her mane gingerly. “It'll all be over soon.” he whispered. Then they struck something solid with a sickening crack.

- - -

I've done a lot of stupid things in my life, he abashedly mused over breakfast. Sleepwalking and falling out the window has to be somewhere near the top of that list, though.

The dream was still occupying his mind so that he didn't even know how to explain to his gracious host why he dove out the window at the crack of dawn only to land in the hedges. He'd never been one to put much meaning into dreams, but he'd never been dragged into another universe and then haunted by a being he'd never actually met in his dreams, either.

Some part of him realized that he should probably have told somepony – anypony – about the dream, vision, or whatever it actually was. What Warren wanted, however, was simply to go to the party and give Scootaloo the support she deserved. He had no doubt that if he went to Twilight Sparkle with this news, she'd spirit him away to interrogate him. Surely the fate of Equestria won't be thrown into chaos because of a single party. That's just absurd.

Before he went anywhere though, he wanted to get a gift for Scootaloo. Sure, he'd nudged Pinkie Pie in the direction needed for her to throw the party for Scootaloo instead of himself, but Pinkie was doing all the work required to set up the party. She was taking care of getting all the decorations prepared, as well as all the catering. Even if he was made up to look like the filly's idol Rainbow Dash, it was because of a lost bet.

Helping clean dishes, Warren decided to put forth the question to Fluttershy. “Um, m-... Fluttershy?” He bit back the 'miss'. Usually he was all for politeness, but he knew he had to break the habit worked into his brain from years of butlering. It served him no good here, and only made it awkward to create any friendship outside the Cutie Mark Crusaders if he continued with the Miss and Mister.

“Yes, Goldenrod?” she inquired in that disturbingly sweet manner. Clearly she'd noticed the lack of miss in his speech. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, Fluttershy...” he started again. “It's just that I'd like to get Scootaloo some sort of gift to give to her at the party. Something that says 'get well soon,' like a bouquet of flowers. The issue is that being both from another world, and a child in the eyes of this world, my access to currency is practically non-existent.”

A look of quiet consideration played across Fluttershy's visage. “That sounds like a wonderful idea!” she said with a great big smile. If he didn't know better, he could have sworn that he'd heard it squeak. “I'm sure Scootaloo would love to receive some flowers.”

“I really don't want to impose though,” Warren added hastily. “I mean, I'm already freeloading off of you, and you've done so much for me. I couldn't expect you to do any more.”

She looked genuinely taken aback by his position. “Oh, w-well, if you won't accept the kindness of a friend,” she said in a quiet voice, sounding most uncomfortable with what she was trying to say. “Could you at least accept it as a treat from your legal guardian?”

Then in a quieter, disarming voice, she added “I mean, if that's okay with you.” Fluttershy gave him the puppy-dog eyes and he just knew that he'd probably die from sugar overdose before he could say no to her. It was almost downright sinister.

“Ah jeez!” he sighed, pacing about on the far side of the kitchen. “How can I say no to that?” In a more audible tone, he asked, “Where shall we get the flowers then?” Gently, focusing on using only the slightest bit of energy, he pushed his glasses up closer to his eyes. With luck, he managed to pull it off without so much as a wisp of smoke emitting from his horn. “We still have a few hours until the party.”

Fluttershy seemed to mull this over for a minute. “I always get my flowers from Rose, so I'm sure she'd be willing to help throw together a nice bouquet for Scootaloo.” Pausing, seemingly for dramatic effect, she smiled at him. “As for the rest of the time between now and the party, I volunteered to help Pinkie set up the decorations.”

- - -

Not surprisingly, a morning on what he assumed was a Saturday in the Ponyville midtown was quite lively. There were families milling about in the streets on various adventures and errands. Occasionally, Warren saw a mare or stallion trying to garner attention to one business or another. He found it all quite charming.

After stopping to speak with Twist, who had a stand selling homemade sweets in front of a house, he knew that Pinkie Pie had definitely made the rounds giving out the invitations. Twist told him that Pinkie Pie had burst out of Cheerilee's desk in a shower of confetti and invited the entire class, teacher included, to the party. He waved good-bye after telling her he'd see her at the party.

After only a few more minutes of traveling Fluttershy and Warren were in a part of town, packed with market stalls. Fruit stands, flower vendors, a textile stall, there were merchants of all shades and stripes; indeed, there was even what looked like a zebra apothecary set up on a sheet or tarp further down the lane. If he had to guess, this was probably the Zecora the fillies often spoke of.

Fluttershy didn't seem to notice. She had her eyes locked on a particular market stall. It was a flower vendor with a sign above it depicting a trio of flowers. Tending the stall was an older looking mare with an off-cream coat, and a rose-red mane. As she went about her job, he spotted a rose on her flank.

Fluttershy trotted up to the mare, Warren running close behind her to keep up. The mare saw Fluttershy and smiled warmly, accentuating laugh-lines under her leaf-green eyes. “Good morning, Fluttershy!” the mare exclaimed in a friendly tone, yet somewhat unhappy. “How are you today?”

“Oh, I'm well enough, Rose.” Fluttershy's voice was pure sugar. “I just wanted to pick up some flowers today.”

“I'm sorry, Fluttershy,” Rose sounded genuinely upset. “Those flowers and herbs that you ordered from the monks in Neighjing have been delayed because of all the troubles in the east.”

“Oh that's quite alright, Rose. They're only tea ingredients.” She smiled sweetly at the red-maned florist. “My friend and I were just looking to pick up some flowers for a friend in the hospital. One get well bouquet please.”

“Might I interest you in some azaleas then?” Rose suggested.

“Azaleas sound wonderful,” replied Fluttershy with a thoughtful look. “What do you think, Goldenrod?”

Warren had never much cared for botany, but his mother had been a florist. As such, he'd gotten to know a bit about flowers gifts and the meaning behind him. “Azaleas are nice, but the 'take care of yourself' message behind it kind of implies a lack of future presence from the giver. I plan on being there for her.” Shaking his head, he glanced at the florist's stall. He was about to commit to the azaleas when he eyed a long, leafy-stemmed plant ending in multiple white blooms.

“I think some yarrow would be nice,” he said at last. “Not only is it also a symbol of good health, but it's the kind of multipurpose medicinal plant that can be used in a pinch. That's why despite it's weedy appearance, it's a really good gesture.”

Rose gazed at him with an amused look, and then looked to Fluttershy. “This colt sure knows his flowers.” She laughed. “So what will it be, Fluttershy, yarrow or azaleas?”

“Well, Scootaloo is only a filly, so the gesture might be lost on her,” she spoke in an unsure whisper. “Whatever you think is best, Rose.”

“A bouquet of Azaleas it is, then,” Rose said with a smile.

Warren watched as the mares exchanged currency and flowers. He felt offended, even though he knew he shouldn't. They were right, after all; Scootaloo was probably too young to recognize the gesture. What's with all of the childish feelings lately? He couldn't help but dwell on that thought as he and Fluttershy began to leave.

As they walked away, he heard the florist call after them, “Goldenrod! Maybe when you're older, you might like to come work with us!”

- - -

Warren decided to make his colorful makeover a surprise for everypony attending the party, so when the time came, he split up with Fluttershy. He watched as she walked over to an open area not far from the entrance. There was large tent, not unlike a circus tent. From it, he could smell baked goods in the making.

He could see Rainbow Dash, flitting about tending the weather and helping hang decorations. Luckily, she wasn't looking in his direction. It wasn't that he didn't want her to see him, but he wanted Scootaloo to see Dash's genuine surprise; he thought it would amuse her.

Rarity was there too, using her magic to assist Rainbow Dash in hanging decorations outside the tent. Unlike the pegasus mare, Rarity did notice as Fluttershy and Warren approached. She gave him a knowing wink before returning her attention to the decorating. She definitely had an eye for detail. Twice as he stood there, he heard her scold Rainbow Dash about the placement of a ribbon or banner.

When Twilight Sparkle stepped out of the tent, everything else clicked together. Applejack and Pinkie Pie had to be in the tent. Who else could it possibly be, making those wonderful baked goods? It's certainly not the hospital cafeteria.

Without a moment's hesitation, he entered the hospital as he had every day since the incident. While he drew the odd glance from the nurses, they seemed rather impartial to his appearance. Either they weren't surprised to see a filly or colt of his perceived age imitating Rainbow Dash, or perhaps Rainbow Dash had suffered some bizarre afflictions in the past. It occurred to him that in a world where magic was possible, a pegasus taking the appearance of an earth pony or unicorn wasn't out of the question.

That's something worth looking into. The thought was out of the blue and took him by surprise. Why would that be something worth investigation? If things work out, I'll be going home, so the knowledge would be purely academic, and utterly worthless back home.

A devious thought crossed his mind then. Who was to say he had to be Warren? He could pretend to be Rainbow Dash. Surely Twilight's magic misfired from time to time, right? Grinning to himself as he approached the door to the foal's ward, he removed his glasses and tucked them carefully into his mane. It took some effort, but he managed to set them in a spot where they wouldn't fall unless he stood on his head.

Puffing up his chest, he tentatively pushed the door open. Without the glasses, he couldn't see more than the colorful masses. Three distinct masses were present, all sitting on a bed together. They seemed to be doing something, probably playing a board-game, and he was fairly certain they weren't looking at him.

As he inhaled and made to speak, however, he had the distinct impression that they had turned to face him. When he was greeted with a “Hi Warren!” from Sweetie Belle and a twinned “Hey Goldenrod!” from Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, he knew that the jig was up. Knowing that he'd been caught in a childish prank, he carefully removed his glasses from his mane with magic and placed them on his face.

“What gave me away?” he asked, looking at Scootaloo. “Besides the fact that you were all in on this, I mean.”

The pegasus filly looked like she was trying desperately not to roll around laughing. “Honestly? It was the bandage around your horn.” She giggled thoughtfully. “Sweetie Bell and Apple Bloom were right; you really do look like Rainbow Dash, if she was a unicorn.”

“Ah reckon Rainbow Dash ain't the type to bring flowers,” Apple bloom said, frankly. “Nice touch with the rainbow flowers, though.”Apple Bloom laughed, pointing at the flowers Warren had clutched in his tail.

Turning his head he was doubly surprised. At first, he was surprised because he realized he had been carrying the flowers with his tail, without a thought. I've been around Pinkie Pie too much, he concluded with a laugh. Then he cast his gaze up at the azalea blooms, and it suddenly struck him what Apple Bloom had actually said. The petals of the azaleas were now mirroring the colors that had been dyed into his mane.

“What the-” he muttered under his breath. Those were yellow this morning, I know it! Could I have done that? But how? I didn't even feel myself using magic! Could it be because of my damaged horn?

Scootaloo hopped down off of the bed, and trotted eagerly towards him. “Whoa, where did you get those flowers? They're so cool!” She danced around him, looking at the flowers at all angles. He didn't peg her for a flower girl, but it was probably the fact that they were rainbow azaleas that they were so interesting. “Are these for me?”

He swallowed anxiously. “Um, well yeah!” Why was he so flustered? He laughed, attempting to save face. “That's the idea. You're supposed to bring a gift of flowers for an ill friend.”

“Is this what they call hitting on somepony?” No sooner had he heard Sweetie Belle's comment did he try to cover his face with a hoof. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Scootaloo start to blush. He didn't know where to begin, if he even wanted to comment at all. In no time at all, Sweetie Belle had managed to fill the atmosphere with enough tension that a knife could cut it.

How could he possibly explain the way he felt about Scootaloo? Despite only knowing her for roughly a week, he cared for her deeply. There was this intense need to protect her. Going against his every desire to return home, he wanted more than anything to be here for her, to let her know that she isn't alone. A big brother, he realized, is what he wanted to be for her. We barely know each other. I'd sound like some sort of creep.

Looking to break the tension, he glanced at the clock. They still had a lot of time to kill before the party would be ready. They'd have to keep Scootaloo occupied until someone came for them. One could play board-games or card games for so long before they felt compelled to flip a table out the window. No, perhaps he could find a way to entertain them while testing a theory that was formulating in his mind.

After putting the bouquet of flowers in a conveniently present vase on Scootaloo's bedside table, he looked around the room. Scootaloo returned to the bed, sitting with Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom There were plenty of flowers in vases scattered about the room, abandoned after other inhabitants had been discharged. Experimentally, he focused on some goldenrod in a vase not far from Scootaloo's bed.

With surprisingly minimal effort he managed to extrude a leafy tendril from the plant, and then another. The three Crusaders watched him curiously, wondering what sort of magic he was up to. Carefully, he snaked the tendrils underneath the bed. With a jolt, the bed lifted free of the floor, sending the fillies into bewildered hysterics. Yes, I think I can keep all of them occupied like this. He smiled inwardly at the fun he knew that would soon follow.

- - -

The preparations outside were complete. Fluttershy watched Twilight confer with Pinkie outside the tent over a scroll the librarian had produced. Even when party-planning was Pinkie's passion, it seemed Twilight couldn't help but try to push a little organization. Nearby, Rarity was fussing about arrangements upon the tables.

Meanwhile, a nearby tree proved the napping grounds for two ponies. Up on a branch near the top of the tree, Rainbow Dash lounged. Far beneath her dozed Applejack, her stetson tipped forward to keep the sun out of her eyes. Both had been catching a little shut-eye since finishing up their parts in the party preparations.

Fluttershy would very much have liked to join them, but she knew that her part was coming up. It was her job to bring Warren, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and the guest of honor Scootaloo out to the party. Scootaloo's party attendance had already been cleared with her doctors and nurses with the stipulation that a nurse be allowed to keep an eye on the filly. Pinkie had said at the time that anypony was welcome. “It's unfair to hold a 'get well soon' party for just one pony outside the hospital and turn away other sick or injured ponies.” was the way Pinkie put it.

Turning away from her friends, Fluttershy entered the front doors of the hospital. She pondered what sort of fate had her frequently visiting the hospital lately. Immediately, her thoughts were interrupted as she was greeted by Nurse Redheart. She approached Fluttershy smiling warmly.

“Is it time for the party then?” The white mare asked. “Come on, then. I'm sure little Scootaloo will be thrilled for the opportunity to go outside.”

“Oh yes, I'm sure she'll love the party.” Fluttershy agreed as they walked through the sterile halls of the hospital. The anti-septic smell of the place made her uneasy. It didn't at all smell of healing; it lacked all the smells of life. She could only imagine what being cooped up in here was doing to poor Scootaloo.

As they drew closer to the foal's ward, the pair began to hear bizarre rustling sounds, and muffled voices. Fluttershy could just make out Sweetie Belle saying “Easy now...” This was quickly followed by a thud and what sounded like Apple Bloom shouting, “Wh- hey! Be careful! That hurt ya know!”

The pink-maned mares exchanged quizzical looks, before glancing back ahead at the ward door. By the panicked flush on Nurse Redheart's cheeks, she clearly had the same impression, however awkward it might be, that Fluttershy had about what was going on in the ward. They broke out into a full on gallop, clearing the last stretch of the hallway in moments.

Nurse Redheart bucked the door open and stormed in. “Now what are you four up to in my-” Fluttershy heard the nurse trail off, distracted. She quickly followed her in. Immediately her eyes were drawn to a massive, figure looming over Apple Bloom. Clutched at either side of it was Goldenrod and Sweetie Belle. Scootaloo was nowhere to be seen.

Panic flooded through Fluttershy. Some unknown creature was attacking the foals, and may very well have eaten one of them already. She responded in the way anypony would in her horseshoes; she screamed, before blacking out.

Chapter 9

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Fluttershy eased her eyes open. She'd had the most horrifying dream. It was the day of the party, and everything was ready. All she had to do was bring Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and her human friend Goldenrod outside to the party, but when she and Nurse Redheart went to retrieve them, they saw a terrible sight.

Before the shy mare fainted out of terror, she saw a large green creature looming over Apple Bloom. Meanwhile Goldenrod and Sweetie Bell hung helplessly at it's sides, clutched in its strange clawed tendrils at either side. Scootaloo was nowhere to be found.

Sitting up on the bed, she realized she wasn't in her home, but in the hospital instead. She looked around, casting her gaze at everypony around the bed. The other bearers of the Elements of Harmony, the fillies Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, pretty much everypony she considered her friends was there with her. Even Goldenrod was right there beside her with Nurse Redheart. Finally, with a sigh of relief, she spotted Scootaloo dozing on the bed behind the nurse.

It was then that she remembered the monster she had seen and panic filled her heart. Without a sound, she dove underneath the covers, her eyes peering out from under the covers. She looked frantically around the room, scouring every square inch of it for sign of the thing that had been attacking the foals. It occurred to her that it probably wouldn't come back with so many ponies around.

Fluttershy had no idea what that thing was, but its very shape was frightening; it had the upright, clawed armed stature of young dragons, but also bore a plant-stem like hide not unlike a Timber Wolf pup. “Where did that awful plant monster go?”

“I would also like to know what you four have been up to in my ward.” Nurse Redheart had spoken to nopony in particular, but her gaze was locked on Warren as she spoke. “Please tell me, why there are vines all over the place.”

- - -

Warren looked around the room, blushing. He really had done a number on the room. From various vases, many leafy tendrils sprouted and trailed across the room. Some were holding books at reading-level for somepony on a bed, others were entwined around bed-frames, but most were drawn to the center of the room, where a pair of vases sat, each sporting a rose. Looking at the mess, he was drawn back into the events that had lead up to the mess.

Not long before Fluttershy and Nurse Redheart had burst dramatically into the ward, he'd been experimenting with the limits of his new-found affinity for plants. Through trial and error, he'd determined just how far he could extend a plant, as was now evidenced by the vines. He could make a plant grow proportionally to the amount of water available to it, but in doing so consumed the water. Purely by chance, he'd noticed he could adjust the tensile strength of the stem or tendril of the plant, making it as unyielding as steel, or as pliable as a piece of cloth.

In a moment of self-indulgence, he attempted to make a replica of him original out of the two roses. Warren justified it to the fillies as practicing control and accuracy, but in reality, he simply wanted the ego boost of being able to look upon himself. Unfortunately for his ego, his control was nowhere near refined enough to make a plant-doppelganger of himself, yielding a tall, misshapen monstrosity that would probably haunt his dreams.

Incredibly, the fillies weren't scared of it in the least. Scootaloo, craving physical activity, decided to climb onto its hunched back, staring down at her friends in that victorious 'king of the hill' fashion. Quickly, Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom were trying to climb it too, precariously unbalancing the plant. It jerked forward with a start, sending Scootaloo tumbling over the shoulder towards the ground.

Without even really thinking it, Warren willed one of the plant effigy's arms to shoot up and catch her in it's hand. With a soft thump, Scootaloo landed in the effigy's open palm. The sudden rising motion of the arm sent Apple Bloom, who at the time had been hanging off that arm, sailing into the air. Again, he willed an arm to shoot up to catch the airborne filly, only to dislodge from the other arm Sweetie Belle.

Panicked, Warren was now juggling the fillies with a focus he dared not break. The three Crusaders, in the meantime, seemed to be having a ball; they were cheering and hooting with laughter. What if I drop Scootaloo? What if I drop any of them? Crap! Crap, crap, crap! He needed to figure out a way to take Scootaloo out of danger of being dropped, and fast.

Anxiously, he carefully climbed the foliage monstrosity, making sure to keep the juggling action in sight. Without a doubt, Warren knew that if he broke eye contact for too long, all three fillies would tumble to the ground. He was the one in control of this thing; it was all up to him. With a mad scramble, he made his way up to the deformed lump that represented his head.

Timing it just right, he reached out and grabbed the bandaged orange filly at the apex of being tossed. With some difficulty, he dragged her back onto its back. Before he could explain himself, though, the deformed plant mass shifted forward again, sending him tumbling into the game he'd just pulled Scootaloo out of.

From there, everything became a lot more risky, especially with Scootaloo's cheering him on now serving as a distraction. It was one thing to judge the timing of the throws when he was rooted firmly on the ground, but being constantly jostled and launched was taking a major toll on his focus. Eventually he and Sweetie Belle collided in mid-air, evoking a startled “Easy now...”

With that, any semblance of focus he once had was broken. Apple Bloom bounced off of a forearm to the ground below. She looked up, indignant and hurt, watching as he awkwardly caught Sweetie Belle and then himself in the awkward hands of the effigy. “Wh- hey! Be careful! That hurt ya know!” she reprimanded.

Then, without warning Nurse Redheart bucked open the door, storming in. “What are you four up to in my-” was all she could manage before breaking off, distracted by the sight that stood before her. She stared, aghast at the monstrosity before her. Soon after, she was followed in by Fluttershy, who upon seeing the leafy monstrosity quickly screamed and fainted.

Knowing the others would probably come running when they heard their friend's scream, the ponies present moved the unconscious Fluttershy onto a bed and placed the now tuckered Scootaloo back onto her own bed, before Warren quickly focused his efforts on deconstructing his plant-doppelganger. If Fluttershy had that sort of reaction, heaven only knows what sort of reaction the others will have. Sure enough, Applejack and Rainbow Dash burst through the door, looking as fierce as the admittedly cute pony mares possibly could. Following suit were Rarity and Twilight, finally bringing up the rear, with a tray of cupcakes, was the pink party planner herself, Pinkie Pie.

As he regaled everypony, knowing his explanation had everypony – not just Nurse Redheart – at attention, with his explanation of what had happened to the room, and how he'd managed to keep the fillies occupied, he came to realize something. Since he'd gotten here, he'd been nothing less than downright irresponsible on multiple occasions. He made a mental note to find some sort of way to punish his inexcusable recklessness; it was the sort of thing that could get somepony killed.

“Ah reckon ya'll should apologize for the scare ya gave poor Fluttershy, sugah-cubes.” Applejack said at last, eying Goldenrod. “That's one hay of a tale you been tellin', and truth be told this plant magic of yours is a might interestin' and all, but that was a terrible scare to be givin' her!”

The Crusaders – even Scootaloo, who had stopped dozing in the middle of his recap – sounded dejected as they apologized. “We're sorry, Fluttershy! We didn't mean to scare you, honest!”

Fluttershy looked kindly at the three fillies and smiled at them. “It's okay girls, I know you didn't mean to scare me.” Hearing their heartfelt apologies.

All eyes were now on Warren, who still hadn't apologized. His throat was suddenly very dry, and wished more than anything that he hadn't used all the water in the room fueling his plant mayhem. “I guess I really screwed up at being the adult I'm supposed to be, didn't I?” He said at last. “Here I am playing around like a little kid, messing up the day. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for my carelessness, Fluttershy.”

Fluttershy broke her smile, and looked him in the eye for a long while. It was not a look of admonishment, anger, or even sadness. He wasn't really sure how to interpret it. It almost reminded him of a look he'd get from his mother whenever he'd get up to trouble as a little boy. It was a look of understanding and unconditional caring. “Goldenrod, you may be the oddest little guy I've ever met, but your heart is in the right place.” She finally smiled, placing a hoof on his. “You were just trying to have fun and better understand your abilities.” In a lower voice, she whispered, “Besides, you did keep her occupied until the party was ready.”

Scootaloo's ears pricked forward, now alert. “What? A party?” The orange filly began bouncing up and down on her hospital bed excitedly. “Are you really throwing me a party?”

Warren turned from Fluttershy to face Scootaloo. He broke eye-contact only momentarily in order to catch the approving nod of Pinkie Pie. “That's right kiddo, we're throwing you a party.” he said with a grin. “We all thought you must be going stir-crazy, even with the three of us constantly visiting.”

“That's right!” Pinkie began to bounce on the spot, cheerfully. “We've got snacks, friends, games and music; everything you could possibly need to cheer up a filly! What's more, you get to go outside!”

Hearing the word 'outside' seemed to ignite a fire inside Scootaloo. Without warning, she leaped off of her bed, and wrapped her forelegs around Pinkie Pie's neck in a hug. “You're not playing a prank on me, right? I can really go outside?” The filly stared up at Pinkie's face, waiting for the inevitable nod. “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Pinkie Pie giggled, kneeling to let the filly down to the floor. “Oh, I can't take all the credit.” She looked at Goldenrod with a knowing smile. “Throwing a 'get well soon' party for you was all Goldenrod's idea! I made sure the party would be super-fantastic, just for you!”

With appreciation dawning on her face, Scootaloo stared at Warren. She looked as though her mind was running around in circles trying to come up with a conclusion as to why he'd do it for her. “I- um, thanks?” She finally managed to say, blushing. “But why?”

“We can talk about that later!” Warren laughed, hopping off the bed. “If we don't get out there soon, the guests will get all the food!”

Everypony began to hurriedly make their way towards the door, the Crusader trio leading the way. Warren was just about to follow suit when he was dragged to a stop by Nurse Redheart, his tail between her teeth. He stared at her, hurt by the sudden pull on his tail.

“You can go to the party after you clean up all these plants.”

- - -

What first seemed like a small task was turning out much more monumental than Warren first assumed. When it came to reverting the replica plant, it seemed so easy. It became apparent after the first five minutes of struggling with just one plant that his deconstruction was fairly panic-fueled. Without that adrenaline flowing, he found it took much more energy to transform them back to normal.

The first one he attempted to revert started to glow, as though about to catch aflame, and then suddenly turned into dust. Of course it would make a bigger mess for me, he thought dryly as he swept the remains into a waste-bin. The rest of them didn't disintegrate like the first, but they did not look at all like normal plants, either; they were just compressed spheres of plant-matter. With a sigh, he added the spheres to the waste-bin with their dust brother.

Regardless of the struggle with his magic, he managed to get it done, though it left him feeling significantly drained. Looking around the room, he knew he'd probably be scolded if he didn't at least tidy up a bit; there were books littering the floor and a bed out of line with the other beds.

With a grunt of effort, Warren forced his shoulder into the foot of the bed and pushed for all he had in him. It was times like this, when he was most helpless and weak, that he most yearned for his old body. Moving the bed would have been so much simpler. Until he found a way to get his body back to normal and find a way home though, he knew he had no choice but to grin and bear it.

Then only the books on the floor remained. If it had been any other day, he'd have simply chanced his horn catching fire by using magic, but he still felt pretty tired from reverting the plants. I guess that's what Twilight's book meant about overexertion. I feel like I could pass out if I did anything like that now. He settled for picking up objects like everypony else did; using his mouth, he picked up the books on the floor individually, and carried them to the table beside Scootaloo's bed.

As he was picking the copy of Daring Do and the Quest for the Sapphire Stone that he'd been reading aloud to Scootaloo up off of the floor, he noticed a folded piece of paper flutter down to the ground. After setting aside the book, he bent down to pick it up in his fetlock joint. Carefully unfolding it, he found a messy, but intelligible letter.

Dear Mom and Dad

I'm sorry I haven't written to you in a long time. Things have been going pretty good around here lately. My friends have all been taking really good care of me. Everypony is so nice to me, and they treat me like family, even though we aren't. It's almost like you never really left. Even so, they can never replace you.

I met a boy last week. At first we all thought he lost all his memories. He seemed really confused and uncomfortable, so me, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle befriended him. He's a bit strange, but really nice, and smart, and not in that gross nerdy way, either! It turns out that he's not really a pony though! He's something called a human, and says he's from another world; can you believe it?

I was in an accident as a result of hang-gliding with everypony, and actually lost my wing. The doctors managed to put it back on, and they say I could be flying in no time, but I don't know. It kinda feels like they're lying because they don't want to tell me that I might never fly again. I'm in a lot of pain sometimes. I still want to cry like a new foal sometimes, but the medicine that Nurse Redheart give me helps a lot.

Goldenrod, that boy that turned out to be from another world, blames himself for the accident. I'm not mad at him, though. If it wasn't for him, I might not have made it at all! Since then, he's been trying so hard to make it up to me. It's kind of nice having somepony fussing over me like Mom did again. When he reads to me here in the hospital, it's like having you here with me, Dad. When he's around, at times it's almost like... having you both back here with me.

That's what reminded me that I haven't written in a long, long time. I love you both so much, and I miss you both terribly. It gets so lonely at home at night.

I'll always miss you,
Scootaloo

Warren knew immediately when he began reading the letter that he was intruding on something private, and should have stopped immediately. For whatever reason, though, he became engrossed in it. Even if he hadn't intended, he'd left a lasting impression on the poor filly. She may have been all bluster and bravado on the surface, but deep down, he could see that she was just a sad little girl wounded by the loss of her parents, looking desperately for something to cling to.

Shakily, he folded and placed the letter in the back of the Daring Do novel. Warren realized then that his eyes were rimmed with tears. His heart felt heavy from the implications of the letter. Sure, I wanted to protect her as long as I'm here, but it's almost like she's starting to see me as a big brother or something. Would I really abandon her for my own world? Deftly, he removed his glasses, and then wiped his eye with a foreleg.

When he returned the glasses to his snout, Scootaloo was right there beside him. She didn't look sad, angry, or even hurt; she looked embarrassed. “So... you saw the letter,” she stated hesitantly. With glance at the ground, he nodded shamefully. “You must think I'm pretty silly, writing to my parents like that.”

Warren gaped at her. “What? Why?”

“They're dead; I thought you knew,” she said sadly, looking away. She shuddered, looking like she was about to break down crying.

“Of course it's not silly,” he replied softly. Gently, he put his forelegs around her neck and hugged her close to him. “People write letters to their deceased loved ones all the time! It's a mechanism for grieving, not something to be ashamed of.”

He released her, and then began to move towards the door. “I'm sorry I snooped though. It wasn't my place to read that letter.”

She looked at him, as though longing for something. As though realizing he was watching her carefully, Scootaloo shook her head. “No, it's... Well, it's not okay. It kinda hurts to find somepony reading something that had been private for so long. Still, it was nice to be able to talk to somepony about it. I guess that makes it even.”

“Even is something I can cope with,” he said with a wan smile. “Come on, or we'll miss all of the party.”

- - -

The party was in full swing when the two of them returned. There was loud music pounding from inside the tent that had served as a bakery earlier, ponies coming and going through the flap. Outside the tent were many arrays of tables. Every square inch of every table was covered in baked goods or candies, either end seating a large bowl of juice.

There were ponies everywhere. He could see fillies from the school off near a tree playing Pin the Tail on the Pony, lead by Twist. Congregated more towards the side of the hospital were patients and nurses. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves. At the far side of the array of snack tables, he could see Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle with their sisters and their friends.

As they made their way towards the group, Warren glanced through the flap of the tent, and saw that a dance floor was set up. He could even make out a DJ in the back. It wasn't a white mare with the blue mane; Vinyl Scratch was what the fliers he'd seen had called her. Instead, he saw a young stallion, deep navy blue in coat, his mane mix of cyan and blood-red. A banner above the door proclaimed the tent 'The dance floor of DJ-H4RM0NIX.' How can that trend be here in this world too? I haven't seen anything more substantial than an arcade machine, never mind an actual computer.

When they both reached the table, Warren headed straight for the snacks. After all the playing with magic, he was absolutely famished. Ignoring the greetings of everypony else, he stood up on his back hooves to better access the table. Sitting right in front of him were a dozen of the most delicious looking cupcakes, and directly across from him was a godly smelling apple pie.

Eagerly, he popped one of the cupcakes into his mouth. The icing all but melted in his mouth, and as he chewed, he found the pastry was with just the perfect amount of moisture. The flavor of it all almost brought tears to his eyes. He quickly grabbed a cupcake, and then another, not caring if his stuffed cheeks reminded anypony of a squirrel; he was starving.

Then, without warning, the pie in front of him seemingly leaped up into the air, out of its tin. What followed was like something out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Pinkie Pie was up on the table in an instant, her tongue stretching out to an unreal length. The pie landed on her tongue, and then it was gone, retracted into her mouth instantly.

A pang of revulsion shot through Warren, both at his own gorging and what had just occurred before him, when she looked at him and giggled thoughtfully. “Sorry, were you going to eat that one?”

“Uh, no...” he mumbled, backing away slowly. “I've suddenly lost my appetite.”

Turning to look for Twilight Sparkle, he smacked face-first into Rainbow Dash's flank. The sudden head-on collision surprised him, and sent him stumbling backward to the ground. Adjusting his glasses, he stared up at the rainbow-maned mare.

“Watch where you're going, chump.” she grumbled, staring down at him.

He stood up, and brushed his flank and legs off with his tail. “Sorry, Rainbow Dash. I wasn't looking where I was going.”

Rather than being pleased with his response, she smacked her hoof against her forehead and shook her head. “Ugh, you're just going to roll over and take it?” She gave him an appraising look. “Why are you even dyed up to look like me? You're nowhere near cool enough.”

Warren decided then and there that he definitely didn't like her. She'd been the first to accuse him of associating with the Draconequus after the accident, and seemed incredibly arrogant from his standpoint. “I didn't do it to look cool,” he said flatly. “I did it because I'm a man of my word.”

A strange look crossed her face. Whether she was surprised by the fact that he was unimpressed by her, or she was trying to mull over the 'man of my word' comment, he didn't know. “What's that supposed to mean?”

He glanced sidelong at Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, seemingly in a pastry eating competition. “I did it for them,” he replied with a soft smile. This drew a strange look from Rainbow Dash. “I lost a game with the three of them, and this was my punishment. I could have reneged, but I didn't. I know she's the one who came up with the punishment, so if I went back on my word, it'd hurt her. Don't you think she has enough hurt in her life?”

Rainbow looked humbled for a moment, but quickly shook her head. “Fine, so you're kind of cool,” she said dejectedly. “I still don't think you're cool enough to wear my colors.”

He shrugged. “What do you want me to do about it?”

A playful look spread across her face. “Well,” she said loudly, “if you wanted to prove you were cool enough to wear my colors, you'd race me.”

Everything went silent then. He could have even sworn he heard a record scratch as the music died down. It seemed like everypony had their eyes on them both. The absurdity of it all; a scrawny unicorn colt racing the pegasus everypony said was the fastest living thing in Equestria. Then he heard everypony begin talking animatedly.

“He's not really going to race her, is he Twilight dear?” he heard Rarity ask.

“No, of course not, Rarity. Goldenrod is a bit strange, but he isn't crazy,” Twilight's voice replied. In a mumbled tone, he heard her say “At least, I hope not.”

“Oooh! A race! Just what this party needs!” Pinkie Pie squealed. “Who wants to do a six-legged race?”

“Wouldn't it be cool if he raced Dash?” Apple Bloom said loudly.

“Yeah!” Sweetie Belle's reply was most eager. “Imagine if he won!”

“Nah, he'd never beat her.” Scootaloo laughed. “But if he did, that'd be pretty awesome.”

It seemed like everypony in the area was having their own animated discussions about the race. The general consensus was that he'd never race Rainbow Dash. It seemed simple enough, let everypony talk and let his ego take the beating, and there'd be absolutely no harm done. Something nagged at him, however. It might have been the attention-loving grin on Rainbow Dash's face, or it could have been what Scootaloo said.

Without even consciously thinking, Warren said, “I'll do it. I'll race you, no holds barred.”

Chapter 10

View Online

It occurred to Warren just how foolhardy it was to agree to racing Rainbow Dash. Right off the bat he knew he was at a major disadvantage. The rainbow mare had the advantage of being fully grown, her longer legs permitting further strides. Adding in her wings and her status as an experienced athlete, he didn't really stand a chance.

Yet here he was, standing at the starting line, beside the pegasus mare, anxiously waiting for the starting whistle. Staring out across the hastily constructed track, he took in everything around him. The track itself was nothing more than a grassy lane flanked at either side by a column of tables. At the far end of the lane, no more than 150 yards, the finish line was marked by a re-purposed banner held up on two tent-poles and a line drawn across between the poles.

Rainbow Dash must have seen how nervous he looked. “You know, kid, you can still back down now.” she said with a chuckle. “I doubt anybody would think less of you.”

Glaring at her out of the corner of his eyes, he let out a derisive snort. “Don't call me kid. I don't know how old you are, but in reality I'm probably older.” he replied through gritted teeth. Then he relaxed his facial expression and said, “Besides, it's a bit late for me to quit. These folks want a show, so we may as well give them one.”

The mare gave him a confused look. “Look, Goldenrod, I really don't know what to think of you.” She said at last. “You're all over the place with your behavior. It's even more random than Pinkie Pie.”

Warren threw her a halfhearted smile, and muttered “You've just summed up my life experience with my own kind.” In a more audible tone he added, “Humans are complex. Even we don't completely understand ourselves.”

It appeared as though she were mulling over what he'd said. Just as she looked ready to respond, however, another voice cut in loudly. “Fillies and gentlecolts, our super special main event is about to start!” Pinkie Pie's voice carried quite well from her tree-top vantage point thanks to a megaphone. “Racers to your starting positions! This no-holds barred competition is about to get underway!”

I'm almost afraid to ask where Pinkie got that thing on such short notice. He glanced at Rainbow Dash, and imitated her stance. His entire body felt coiled like a spring, but even if that were to somehow help, it still wouldn't be enough. That's right! I did say no-holds barred, didn't I? A cocksure smile spread across his face.

Igniting his horn, trying his best not to be blatant about it, he carefully turned the grass around Dash's hooves into almost indiscernible snares. It all seemed simple enough, except that he was still pretty worn down. If he was going to do this, he either had to make this incredibly quick, or hope that it'd be enough to draw on the surge of energy that he reckoned would come with the adrenaline of the race.

The instant he heard Pinkie blow a whistle loudly into her megaphone, he snapped the grass-snares shut and tightened their structure. From his side, he heard a grunt and a thump as his competitor attempted to take off across the starting line, only to trip and fall to the ground. A unanimous gasp could be heard from everypony in the audience. A wave of dizziness washed over him, but he shook it off and took off at a gallop.

“Barely out of the starting gate and this no-holds barred race is already shaping up to be a dirty one, everypony!” Pinkie spoke in a strangely sing-song tone. “Goldenrod has tripped up Rainbow Dash with some sort of dastardly grass-snare, and taken an early lead.”

Goldenrod kept on running, not looking back. The feeling of blood pulsing through is body brought a smile to his face. He hadn't felt this alive since hang-gliding with the Cutie-Mark Crusaders; he was really enjoying himself.

“Oh, but look! Rainbow Dash has torn herself free!” Pinkie cried out. “She's really tearing up the turf, catching up to Goldenrod in no time at all!”

Chancing a glance over his shoulder, he saw a rainbow blur catching up to him. He faced ahead again, and screwed his eyes shut. He had to throw up every obstacle between them that he could think of in order to keep his lead. His horn began to glow brightly, and his head began to throb.

“But what's this? Goldenrod is making a bold play in order to keep his lead!” The pink mare shouted into her megaphone to be over the astonished cries, jeers, and cheers of the crowd. “Just look at those pillars and walls of grass erupting from the ground! I've never seen anything like it before, well, except that one time I dreamed—” A moan of pain sounded over the megaphone; probably somepony hitting her with an apple to get back on track. “Oh! Right! Look at Rainbow Dash weave through this maze cropping up before her! This is really working out well for Goldenrod; Dashie can't get up to her full speed dodging and weaving!”

Warren could almost feel Dash's frustration building as he continued to keep his lead. Opening an eye a crack, he saw it wasn't far to the finish-line. Victory was within his grasp! It was then that he heard the crowds shout, and dreaded what Pinkie might announce next.

“Frustrated by Goldenrod's sneaky tactics, Rainbow Dash has taken to the sky!” Pinkie sounded as engrossed in the race as either racer. “Now that she's free of his obstacles, she's taking back the lead in no time at all!”

Darn, it's all over now. I can't possibly win! Unless... He stopped all delaying efforts and focused on a mental image of a large plant-limb hitting him with enough force to propel him to the finish-line. Up ahead of him, a large leafy tendril sprouted from the ground. It bent sharply and coiled around itself.

“Rainbow Dash is so close to the finish that she can taste the victory!” cried the pink announcer. “Goldenrod gave it his best, but how can he possibly make up for the distance?”

Warren passed the plant, and willed it to uncoil. He felt a sharp pain in his flank as the plant struck him. He began to rocket through the air towards the finish line, his sudden increase in momentum almost sending is glasses tumbling from his face. It looked like a clear path to the end from his standpoint.

“With a risky move, Goldenrod is back in this!” cried Pinkie in astonishment. Indeed, the crowd had gone deathly silent. “It's Goldenrod, no, Dash! It's-”

Without warning, Warren careened off to one side, ricocheting off of one of the tables and sending him spinning through the air. He was still on track to the finish-line, but he couldn't see it; his glasses had gone flying after the ricochet. A second impact sent him tumbling as he struck the ground. The crowd gasped loudly, and then all went quiet again.

“It's a tie!” Pinkie Pie finally announced cheerfully. “Rainbow Dash and Goldenrod crossed the finish at exactly the same time! Can you believe it?” The ground began to rumble as everypony began stamping their hooves on the ground in raucous applause.

He heard Dash's voice then. “Not bad!” she said with a laugh. “I'll admit, I didn't think you had it in you. You aren't fast, but you sure did your best to make up for it.”

Looking in her direction, he thought he saw a hoof extended to him, an offer to help him up. “I almost didn't have it in me,” he wheezed, still stunned from the ricochet and subsequent tumble. Awkwardly, he attempted to rise, but a churning in his stomach put him back down. “I think I'll stay down here for a bit.”

“Suit yourself!” She laughed.

It was then that everypony gathered around the competitors. Crowding tightly around him were Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, and Applebloom, all cheering. At that moment though, a strong need to sleep washed over Warren. His eyelids became too heavy to keep up, and it was all he could do to keep his head from smacking hard against the ground. With a yawn, he mumbled, “I think I overdid it.”

- - -

The world returned to him hours later. It felt as though he was tucked into a bed. That wasn't quite right, though; he was laying on his side, his back pressed up against something soft and warm. Draped over him was a soft, down like blanket. As he laid there, though, he could feel a heartbeat that wasn't his own.

Easing his eyes open, he saw that he was not on a bed at all. Through the blur of his vision impairment, he discovered he wasn't in a bed at all. Assuming that he wasn't incorrectly interpreting the colors all around him, he was on a blanket beneath a tree. Hunkered down beside him, her pale yellow wing draped over him, was a pink-maned pegasus mare that could only have been Fluttershy.

He yawned, looking towards Fluttershy's face. “Fluttershy?” he asked, wiping a hoof across his eyes. He made a mental note to find his glasses sooner rather than later. “What's going on?”

Fluttershy snapped her head upright. “Oh, um...” Clearly she'd also fallen asleep. “Well, when you finished the race, you fell asleep. Twilight said it was probably magical exhaustion, and that you just needed to rest. So I thought it'd be nice for you to rest under this old willow tree.”

As she pulled her wing back from him, he shakily rose onto his hooves. “But why were you right up against me?” he asked with some embarrassment.

The yellow mare seemed to shrink into herself. “I'm sorry...” she apologized. “It's just... when the Weather Patrol moved the clouds into the sky for the scheduled overcast afternoon, it cooled off quite a bit, and you looked awfully cold. I just wanted to keep you warm.”

The sincerity in her voice brought a smile to his face. “You don't have to apologize for that, Fluttershy.” He attempted his best to console her. Maybe I came across too harsh out of embarrassment? “That was a really sweet thing of you to do.”

“Oh, that's a relief.” She seemed to come out of her shell a bit. “I was worried you were angry.”

Squinting his eyes, he tried to find his glasses. After some searching, he found them in front of Fluttershy's crossed hooves. Attempting to pick them up with magic failed miserably – he couldn't even light his horn – so he used his hooves instead.

Now able to see, Warren looked her in the eye, giving her the warmest smile he could. “Do you remember how you told me why you joined the emergency foster care system?” he inquired. “You said you wanted to be like a big sister to a foal in need.”

“I remember.” Fluttershy responded, unsure.

“Fluttershy, in all honesty, you're more motherly than sisterly.” he said in a monotone voice, not losing his warm smile. She looked disappointed hearing this. Heck, she looked on the verge of tears. “That's okay though.” He winked at her. “I know that you'll make a great mom. Any filly or colt would be lucky to have you as their mother, be it foster or other.”

She let out a soft sob before embracing him tightly in a hug. “Thank you, Goldenrod. It really means a lot to me.”

As nice as it felt to make Fluttershy happy, he wanted more than anything to get back to the party. Peering over Fluttershy's back, however, revealed that time flowed quite freely with or without him; it was well into the afternoon now, and everypony was either packing up or dispersing.

He could see Twilight and Rarity using their magic to do something to the tables. It looked as though the tables were simply disappearing in puffs of smoke, leaving him wondering whether the tables had been real, or if they were simply conjured with magic. Applejack could be seen taking down the tent with the assistance of Rainbow Dash, while Pinkie seemed to be doling out gift-bags, possibly filled with leftover treats from the party. The ones Warren didn't see, though, were the three Crusaders.

“Fluttershy, where did Scootaloo, Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle go?” he asked as the Element of Kindness finally released him from her hug. “Did I really sleep that long?”

Fluttershy pulled back from him, to look him in the eye. “Nurse Redheart took Scootaloo back inside.” She sounded a bit saddened. “She said Scootaloo was getting a bit too rowdy and was going to hurt herself if she continued.”

“Oh...” he mumbled. “Let's go see how she's doing now. I'm sure the three of them are eager to talk my ear off about the race, being excitable children and all.”

Fluttershy smiled and nodded. “Yes, I'm sure she'd like that very much.”

- - -

Scootaloo fidgeted discontentedly on her bed, wishing Nurse Redheart hadn't pulled her inside, putting an end to her fun. Surely the nurse could understand that being cooped up in here all the time was driving her crazy. She was just a filly; she needed to be outside, playing with her friends, not bed-ridden!

Still, she understood that she had been getting a bit too rowdy. After seeing Goldenrod and Rainbow Dash race, she couldn't help but want to race too. Nopony would let them use the circuit on which her two friends had raced though, so she ultimately just ended up running around with Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom until Nurse Redheart put the kibosh to it.

Now here she was, stuck in the foals ward again, contemplating her hooves while the others cleaned off the tree-sap and pine-needles the other two had inexplicably accumulated. It occurred to Scootaloo that if she ended up unable to fly for the rest of her life, her hooves would get a lot more use before the end. She'd already lost track of the amount of times that she wished they'd never gone hang-gliding. At least before, she'd had a chance of actually being able to fly. Now she might not even have that much.

Quickly, she forced herself out of her dark reflections by directing her thoughts back to the party. It truly had been something spectacular, even if it was something she'd come to expect from Pinkie Pie. Everypony had put so much effort into cheering her up and how much they cared really shone through today. The race was just the cherry on top. Never in a million years did she think that Goldenrod would have taken Rainbow Dash's challenge, never mind ending the race in a tie. It was unfathomable that he could—

A knocking on the door interrupted her thoughts.

“Come in!” Scootaloo called out, still somewhat giddy remembering the race.

After a moment's pause, the door opened, granting entrance to Fluttershy and Goldenrod. Fluttershy simply smiled politely at the filly as she entered. As Scootaloo gazed at the colt now in front of her, however, she saw by the haggard look about him that his long nap had done nothing to rejuvenate him. He simply made a show of yawning before grinning at her.

“Wow,” she began with a smile. “You look like how I feel.”

Rubbing the side that had hit one of the race-lane barricades during his ricochet, Goldenrod said, “A little tired and pretty sore, but no worse for wear, really.”

Scootaloo trotted up to him, an eager bounce in her step. “That was amazing!” she exclaimed. “I've seen Rainbow Dash race tons of ponies, but even most adults can't give her a run for her money! You went and tied with her though!”

“Nah, it's not that big of a deal!” he joked. There was a bead of sweat making its way down his brow, and she could just make out a reddish tint spreading across his cheeks. Looking down, he idly kicked at the floor. “Besides, I'm pretty sure she didn't give it her all. Just ask Rainbow Dash. I'm sure she'll tell you the same.”

Scootaloo watched as he gave an imploring look to Fluttershy. The mare glanced from the filly to Goldenrod, and then back to Scootaloo. “Oh yes, even Rainbow Dash wouldn't give a young colt a hard time of things.” The yellow pegasus spoke, as though she weren't completely sure herself.

The filly only grunted, unconvinced.

Goldenrod put a hoof on her shoulder. “Don't sell your idol short.” His warm smile was almost infectious, even as he tousled her mane with his hoof. “So what if I caught her off guard with some less than savory tricks? I guarantee she'd never fall for the same thing twice in a no-holds barred race. Peop- Ponies like her constantly evolve; they better themselves with each race!”

Scootaloo chuckled. “You really are from another world, aren't you?”

“Yes, he is.” A voice like ice cut in very suddenly. “I would very much like for him to come with me. Mr. Ashland has something that simply does not belong to him.”

- - -

Out of the corner of his vision, Warren watched as the shadows in the room distorted and spread themselves, coming alive with angry red eyes throughout. Each eye was fixated solely on him. The voice was one he knew too well. He'd never forgotten the encounter in the Everfree.

“Morrigan?” He took up a defensive position in front of Scootaloo, but then realized how foolish it was. The shadows were everywhere. If they became solid and attacked, they could come from any angle. “I don't know what you're talking about. Why can't you just leave us alone?”

The shadows in the room began to gather at one point, coalescing into an amorphous mass. Still, Morrigan's voice rang out into the room. “It is as I said, child.” The Draconequus sounded most displeased, even as the shadows began to take the familiar shape of the creature. “When you came to this world from your own, you took something from me. I intend to take it back.”

Warren turned to Scootaloo and Fluttershy. “Both of you, run; it's me she wants.” He watched with satisfaction as the filly and mare took off through the door. Returning his attention to the Draconequus, he stomped a hoof and snorted. “Like I said. I don't know what you are talking about. Unless you plan on returning me to my own home, leave me alone.”

Morrigan sighed. “You humans are so quick to forget your loyalties.” she said with a shake of her head. “Long ago I made a deal with the chieftain of a human tribe here in Equestria. I would provide his tribe with a place to prosper and intermingle with more of his own kind, and he only needed swear the fealty of all of humanity to me.”

He eyed her warily as she waltzed about the room dramatically. It occurred to him that he was at a serious disadvantage if this turned into a fight. Warren had no magical reserves after the race, and he was still pretty exhausted. All I can do is hope that they send help.

“Oh, and I suppose you are hoping your little pony friends are going to come to help you, yes?” The Draconequus released what sounded almost like an amused chuff. “I assure you that they will be quite busy. My dear baby brother, Discord, is ever so eager to see them again. He told me as much when I finally set him free.”

Warren stared at her bleakly. So this is it, huh? I'm going to just go out with a whisper and not swinging? No. I can't just lose here. His gaze moved from Morrigan to the door. Even if she hadn't placed herself firmly before the door, he didn't doubt that she'd simply close off the door before he was halfway there. If you want me, you're going to have to take me.

With a snort of anger, he lowered his head and dropped into as close to a sprinting stance as he could get without being too obvious. Not knowing how much good it'd do him, he closed his eyes after glancing at the door. It's now or never. Bolting, he choked back the fear he felt. Sorry I couldn't be there for you a bit more, Scootaloo.

Two things happened in very quick succession. First, a large amount of kinetic energy slammed against him, sending him tumbling into the wall. Doubled over in pain, he snapped open his eyes. He spat blood onto the floor, though he had no time to ponder what sort of internal injury it had caused.

No sooner had he opened his eyes did he see a blinding white flash in the room. Bedazzled by the sudden light, he saw the room had many more occupants now. Fluttershy, Twilight and the rest of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony were all present. That wasn't the most surprising thing, however. It was the presence of a second Draconequus—the very one that had been haunting his dreams. Discord.

Morrigan didn't seem to notice, or at least, she pretended not to. She cast a stony gaze towards Warren. “You forget your place, human,” she shouted angrily. “I think you would benefit from a lesson in pain, as well as a reminder of what you are.” She made an arcane gesture at him, and then his body exploded in agony.

- - -

The pain Warren was experiencing was like nothing he'd ever felt before. His muscles felt as though they were boiling off of his skeleton, only to attempt to crawl back up. It was as though every bone in his body was constantly breaking, healing, re-breaking and then healing again. It was almost too much for him to take.

The pain itself blinded him to all sense of passing time. Each crack of bone could have been seconds apart or hours apart. The agony of it all made him want to black out, but he couldn't if he wanted to; it was a most maddening state. He was left suspended in a white fog of searing torment.

It could have been hours or minutes before his brain began to to adapt to the sensory overload of the constant torture. All that mattered was that he was beginning to hear again. He could hear raised voices, and crying.

“You imbecile!” shouted one voice. “Why did you bring them here?”

He heard what sounded like throaty laughter. “I thought it would be fun!”

Warren knew these voices. The first one spoke again, “Are you so quick to forget the results of past underestimation of these meddlesome ponies?” It had a name... Morrigan, wasn't it? And the other was... Discord.

“Please, sister.” Discord laughed. “They're harmless without their Elements of Harmony. Besides, what fun is it if they don't get to see such a sight? They're too horrified to do anything other than sit there and cower.”

“Still as arrogant as always, Discord.” Morrigan snorted with disapproval. “At least the human has stopped screaming.” Now that they mentioned it, his throat felt harshly dry and incredibly sore. Warren hadn't even realized that he had been screaming.

He also found that he could see now. He could see the six mares, all of them terrified. Fluttershy had her face buried in her hooves; he could hear her sobbing. Rarity's face was aghast, as though she could faint at any moment. Pinkie looked horrified, her hair slightly deflated. Applejack and Rainbow Dash both cringed away. Twilight Sparkle's reaction was that of a horrified scientist; she was absolutely mortified, but couldn't help but stare in an analytical fashion.

His eyes then crossed a mirror, and he took sight of his own reflection. He was mostly human, and wholly naked now. His flesh hung off him like ragged scraps, seemingly randomly. Even as he watched, it began to reattach itself. The hair on his was still a motley rainbow, a bit longer, showing again his blonde roots. The glasses he wore just barely sat on his face, which still bore the cyan splotches on his face, remnants of the dye. Most striking was the horn that still poked through his forehead.

There's no time to check yourself out, you dolt. Get up and do something. Warren shifted painfully to his feet. Unbalanced by almost two weeks walking on all fours, he almost fell over immediately. Everypony in the room watched as he rose. Even the bickering demigods turned to watch him. Without warning, he plodded over to the ponies, and fell to his knees in front of Twilight Sparkle.

He looked pleadingly at the light-purple mare. “Twilight,” he croaked weakly. “Get us out of here.”

Twilight sparkle stared at him for a moment, before she understood what he meant. Lighting her horn, she charged a spell. Casting one last glance over his shoulder, he looked Morrigan in the eye, and watched them light with malice. Before he blacked out, a light-purple sphere of light enveloped him and the mare sextet and collapsed in on itself.

Chapter 11

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If somepony had told Twilight Sparkle that the draconequus, Morrigan, would attack Goldenrod at the end of the party, she might not have had too much difficulty believing it. However, if that same pony told her that Discord would make them watch, instead of simply going on a rampage of chaos across Equestria, she would probably have inferred that pony was crazy. If nothing less, she thought Discord would have wanted to stretch his legs after being sealed back up in stone, so to speak.

What Discord showed her and the others was an utterly horrifying sight. When they were taken to the room, they were just in time to witness Morrigan cast a terrible sort of transmogrification spell on Goldenrod. Twilight watched impotently as flesh began to peel off of the colt's skeleton, him screaming all the while. Bones stretched and deformed before her eyes, as his flesh began to creep back up his skeletal form. The analytical part of her mind was in overdrive trying to fight off revulsion as his skull compressed, becoming more oval-shaped, and his hooves branched into clawed structures not unlike Spike's hands. The colt’s unicorn horn remained unchanged, as though to spite the new form he was taking.

Even now, she remembered the shock that washed over her when he stopped screaming, and seemingly regained consciousness. There was a look of agonized terror on his face as he rose up on his hind legs and stumbled across the room while the Draconequus siblings bickered. The look in Goldenrod's eyes said more than his hoarse voice ever could. They both knew that they needed to be far away from that place.

Twilight cast her teleportation spell with the safest place she could think of in all of the land in mind. The group found themselves in the dead center of the luxurious Canterlot market district. She'd been hoping for somewhere a lot less public. The citizens in the market square only took one look at the unconscious human and erupted in panic.

It was a foregone conclusion that the Royal Guard would respond quickly to the chaos. Had her beloved elder brother, Shining Armor, not been chief among the first responders, she doubted the guards would have been so quick to listen to her, even as Princess Celestia's student. It had been pure luck that Goldenrod was not simply hauled off to the castle dungeon.

So here they all were, now, in Twilight's old chambers in the castle, awaiting an audience with Princess Celestia. Everypony else had fallen asleep on whatever furniture they could find. Twilight hadn't slept a wink, though, having spent most of the night attempting to pacify a traumatized Fluttershy. Even now, said pegasus mare occasionally sobbed or squealed in terror while she slept.

Staring at the sleeping giant that lay before her, Twilight Sparkle still couldn't believe that this was Goldenrod's true form. There was no piece of furniture large enough to lay him on, so they ultimately chose to pile cushions in the center of the room and gave him a blanket. She knew that he was in agony as he transformed so, at the very least, he would be comfortable while he slept.

The unicorn mare knew that she should get some sleep as well. Princess Celestia would probably find out rather soon about what had happened in the market square, and there wasn't a doubt in Twilight's mind that the Princess would summon her to report on what had happened. She only hoped Princess Celestia's wisdom could help the situation at hand.

Just as Twilight thought she might get some sleep, though, a sharp hiss caused her eyes to snap open. She looked back to Goldenrod's prone form; his pale rose eyes were wide open and lips drawn taut across his teeth in a grimace. With a groan and a disoriented shake of his head, he sat up.

“Wh-where am I?” His voice was a hoarse whisper. Rubbing at his eyes, he groaned again before he attempted to evaluate the chamber. “Hello?”

Twilight realized he still couldn't see clearly. From a nearby table, she levitated his glasses across to the center of the room until they were right in front of his face. “Here,” she offered as she crept across the floor.

“Twilight?” Goldenrod asked, unsure as he took the glasses from her telekinetic grip. A look of simultaneous astonishment and appreciation played across his face as he closed his fingers around the frame of the glasses. Putting them on, he allowed himself a moment to stare at his hands, repeatedly flexing his fingers. “I-I'm human again! Did you do this?”

She was shocked by his proclamation almost as much as the barely contained glee in his croaking voice. “You mean... You don't remember what happened to you?”

A thoughtful gleam shone in his eyes, which at this distance she could see were now flecked with green. “I don't thi-” Goldenrod slapped a hand over half of his face and groaned in pain. “Ooh... That wasn't a dream then...” She shook her head sympathetically. “Care to bring me up to speed? Where am I? What have I missed while I was out?”

- - -

Warren stared with dumbfounded wonder at the sheer size of the open-air bath Twilight Sparkle had directed him toward after expressing his desire to clean. It had been just behind the tower that woke up in. Even by human standards, this open-air bath was extravagant. Did she really have this all to herself when she lived here? He couldn't help but ruminate on the similarity between this bath and those hot-spring baths that he'd heard so much about from a friend who had traveled to Japan.

Luckily for him, nopony seemed to be around. It had been awkward enough simply being naked in front of Twilight and the others, even though they had probably already seen everything his form had to offer. Something about his transformation back into a human had instilled that missing sense of shame. The mere act of going outside stark naked felt tantamount to lunacy.

It pleased him to see there were shelves, off to one side of the bath, stocked with towels and soaps. Upon closer inspection, the soaps had that same girly nature of the one he'd been assailed with by Rarity, but it beat smelling of sweat and fear by miles. With towels, he'd at least be able to cover his nakedness until he could do something about clothes.

Sliding into the hot-spring, he couldn't help but stare at the early-morning sky and reflect on just how badly his life had spun out of control. It seemed like years had passed since his brothers and sisters had tried to coax him into getting them back on their father's good graces, though it had only been weeks. As much as Warren wanted to, he couldn't feel angry about it any more. His time in Equestria had taught him jut how much importance family actually held.

What about that insane Draconequus? What is her issue? He scrubbed himself as he thought. What could I have possibly taken from her? I never even met her until the Roc attack. Whatever I took must be of some importance, but if it is, why can't I remember?

Finally, there was the Canterlot situation. He didn't blame Twilight for landing him in this latest batch of hot water. There was no real choice besides fleeing, and she'd simply gone to the first place she believed would be safe. Too bad I’ll stick out like a sore thumb wherever I go. He couldn't help but think that God was angry with him. At the very least, a creature who claimed to be God was certainly out to get him.

A surprised squeak broke him from his solemn reflections. He snapped his head around to look for the source of the sound, he saw Fluttershy framed in the entrance to the bath area. There was a panicked - almost pained - look about her, as though she were reliving some horrible moment. Poor thing probably is probably reliving what happened last night.

“Good morning, Fluttershy! Did you come to bathe too?” he called softly, painfully aware how different his voice must sound to her. The steam of the bath had done a lot to sooth his throat. It was still plenty sore from all of the screaming last night, but at least now he had a voice. “It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm still roughly the same as I was yesterday morning, only in a different shape and a different voice.”

Warren's voice caused her to wince, but she didn't shy away. “Oh, um, I know...” she softly mumbled. She ambled over to an edge of the bath a fair distance from him, and stared down at her reflection. “It's just...” Fluttershy cast her gaze towards the sky, away from the water.

He knew immediately what she was thinking about. “Yeah, I'm sorry you had to see that.” he apologized. “I can't imagine how bad that looked. Nobody should have had to see that, least of all you. You're too nice for that sort of thing.”

The pale yellow mare continued to avert her gaze. It wasn't easy for him to imagine what was going through her head. ‘If you want to talk about it, I'm here.’ That's what he wanted to tell her, but he found the words simply stuck in his throat. It was one thing to offer to discuss the loss of a parent with a child, he realized; at least there he had a common ground. There was no way he could really discuss what she saw without comparing it to what he felt and coming off self-centered.

With a groan, he rose out of the water and began to towel off. Warren wanted to console her, but decided this was something Fluttershy had to sort out on her own. Traversing the interlocked stone tiles of the floor, he made his way on the wall opposite of the shelves. Towel around his waist, he knelt in front of a mirror. He'd always been rather skinny as a human, but the reflection before him was too skinny, almost emaciated. It was as though all the flesh that had been on his body had been stretched thin to cover him. He couldn't help but shudder at how weak he probably was now.

Leaning in closer, he inspected his face. If it had been any more gaunt it'd probably be skeletal, he realized. His eyes were what drew most of his attention, though. Ever since he'd looked into that mirror in the hospital so long ago, he'd known his pony eyes to be a pinkish rose color. Now his pupils were flecked with green, a bizarre combination of old and new.

“Your eyes are very pretty, now.” The sound of Fluttershy's voice beside him startled him, causing him to fall backwards. He hadn't heard her fly up beside him, but it hit him that his human ears were nowhere near as strong. “Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. You just seemed troubled by something in the mirror. Are eyes like that a bad thing in your world?”

Turning his head to face her, he smiled. “Not really.” A smile played across his gaunt face. “While they're uncommon, differing pigmentation in eyes is sometimes linked to disease; the eyes aren't bothering me.” Lifting up an arm, he indicated his very visible ribs with a tapping motion. “I'm skinnier than I should be.”

“My goodness!” She brought a hoof up to her mouth in astonishment. “We'll have to see what we can do about that.”

Rising to his feet, Warren let out a weak guffaw. “Another thing I've gotta see to is clothing.” He made a visible effort of cinching the towel around his waist. “Ponies might be proud nudists, but my human dignity has kicked in and I refuse to be naked.”

- - -

“So, Rarity...” Warren began speaking in between bites of pancakes. “I was wondering if I could ask a favor of you.”

The fashionista eyed him hesitantly, put off by the gusto with which the human was eating food. As she moved to speak, though, Rainbow Dash interjected. “I think he’s been taking eating lessons from Pinkie Pie. I don’t see him chewing.”

Not giving Rarity room to speak, Applejack responded, “Now Rainbow Dash, you cut that out. Just look at him!” The blonde pony motioned at his side with her hooves. “He’s skinnier than the stem on an apple! It’s only natural somepony like that’s gonna be mighty peckish.”

Clearing her throat, Rarity glared at her two friends. Once she was certain she wouldn’t be interrupted, she said to him “I’m sorry dear, but whatever for?”

“Well Rarity, it’s like this.” He gulped down a glass of milk. “As a pony, I had no issue with being nude. I accepted that as a part of nature and pony-society. It’s part of the way you’re built. Humans, however, began wearing clothes as an adaptation to varying factors. It became ingrained in our culture that being nude was a private thing. What I’m trying to ask is, ‘Could you make some clothes for me?’”

The indigo-maned seamstress seemed to consider this for a moment. “I’m sorry, dear, I wish I could....” She looked ready to jump out of her skin at the chance. “I just don’t have the materials needed.”

Warren clapped his hands together. “So, if I got you some materials, you could make me some clothes?”

When she stared at him blankly, he continued. “I’ll understand if you’re not up to the challenge after being conned by the girls into dyeing me, Rarity...” He hated himself for what he said next. “You must understand; a naked human is a crime against fabulosity! If you allow me to remain unclothed, that makes you a purveyor of crimes against fabulosity.”

Almost everypony at the table seemed to find this amusing, though whether they were laughing at Warren, or the manner in which he was baiting Rarity, he couldn’t tell. Rainbow Dash in particular was laughing loudly. Rarity only stared in bewilderment at him for the time being. Finally, an expression of seething determination lit on her face.

“Fine!” Rarity exclaimed with a smug expression. “If you can provide a feasible baseline design, and somehow acquire the materials to make some clothes, I will make you the finest attire a gentlecolt may ask for.”

- - -

Warren stared at the sheet of parchment in mild disgust. It occurred to him that he should have been paying attention in Home Ec. all those years ago, as he now found out that he had next to no sense of design. What he had drawn was nothing if not crude. The pant-legs looked far too wide, almost like something from one of his friend’s photographs at a Japanese shrine. The design for a belt was nothing more than doubled over fabric that could be cinched at the waist. At least the shirt didn’t come out looking as badly; it could almost pass for a blouse from the Renaissance.

Knowing that this was the best he was probably going to come up with, he decided to turn his attention to the materials. Leaning back, he stared at the top of the book-shelf behind him, upon which napped Rainbow Dash. Colors weren’t very important; he’d grown accustomed to plain colors while working as a butler. Going out into the city was also out of the question. Even if he had the bits, he doubted he’d be able to just walk into the market district discreetly. Would the vendors even sell anything to me? Or would they flee at the sight of me? Twilight just left for an audience with the Princesses, so who knows what will happen.

It was then that Warren remembered something; despite returning to his human form, his unicorn horn remained firmly on his forehead. Since waking, he hadn’t once tried to use magic. Can I even use magic as a human? That book Twilight lent me said something about the horn being vital in magic use... His mind began to race at the prospect. If I can use magic, maybe I can acquire some materials for clothes.

Focusing his attention on a random book near the top of the shelf, he imagined a hand closing around a book, and gently lifting it down to his outstretched hand. To his shock, the entire row of books slid outwards, and then soared towards him. Two dozen thick tomes crashed into him in an instant, evoking a pained shout of “Ow! Damn it!”

With an amused snort, Rainbow Dash opened one eye-lid. “I’m no expert on magic,” she began with a yawn, “but I don’t think power is a substitute for finesse.”

Warren ignored the jibe and rolled his eyes. He knew what he did wrong. A passage in the instructional book had said, ‘Visualizing the effect of the spell you wish to cast is important, but to exact more precision, one must visualize it as it is happening.’ What he had done wasn’t so much visualize what needed to happen as it happened so much as imagining what he wanted done and making it happen.

Again, he attempted to manipulate the books. Enveloped in a shimmering green aura, the lot of books began to float once more, this time through his intent. Slowly, they flew together into an even horizontal stack, and, albeit shaky, the stack began to levitate back towards the top shelf. Much better, he thought proudly to himself. If I had some plants, I could definitely—

“Hey there!” A shrill, cheerful voice cut his concentration like a hot knife into butter. The stack of books slammed into place on the bookshelf, causing the whole thing to jerk wildly. Rainbow Dash, shaken awake by the rocking bookshelf, took flight. The change in weight nearly caused the shelving unit to tip forward entirely. By some miracle, it stopped rocking, with some books hanging more than an inch over the edge.

Crisis averted, both Warren and Rainbow Dash glared at the source of the loud greeting. Standing before them was Pinkie Pie in her luminous, bubbly glory. She beamed back at him, and then nodded at a basket sitting before her hooves that he hadn’t noticed at first. In it were a variety of flowers, including black roses, bellflowers, and even goldenrods. “I figured you might want some flowers to make clothes out of.”

Warren looked at her in complete confusion. “But how did-” He shut his mouth, not wanting an answer to his uncompleted question. “Wait, did you raid the royal gardens or something?”

Pinkie Pie gave him an innocent grin. “Nopony is going to miss just a few flowers.” She said with a giggle. “You wanted clothes, right?”

Well, folks are always saying to never look a gift horse in the mouth. Given the situation, I’m sure I’d only find cupcakes. Warren couldn’t help but snort at the thought. “Thanks, Pinkie...” he said with a tired smile before grabbing the basket.

He stood up and stretched, looking towards the door. “On the plus side, anything that isn’t used in making clothes can be made into lunch.” Warren chuckled, walking towards the door. “If done right, there will be a lot.” Turning to face Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash, he said, “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’m just going down to a stream I noticed when I went to the bath.”

Basket in hand, he took off towards the stream. As he arrived, he realized that calling it a stream was stretching it a fair bit. Following the stream with his eyes, he realized it was a run-off ditch for the hot-spring bath. Shrugging, he trudged over to the water and knelt, placing the basket beside him.

From the basket, he withdrew a pale violet bellflower and held the stem in the stream. He closed his eyes, and imagined the petals on the flower elongating and growing in thickness. Warren focused on the petals becoming one and coiling into a bolt of fabric. Opening his eyes, he saw that the flower petals had separated from the stem, and became what looked like a large bolt of cloth. Smiling inwardly as he caressed the material, he thought to himself, This will work just fine.

Chapter 12

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“Ow, ow!” Warren yelped. “Hey, are you doing that on purpose?” As if to accentuate his question, a sharp pain shot through his leg. “Yow! Hey! Stop sticking me with the pin, Rarity!”

“I'm sorry, dear, but you simply must hold still!” the fashionista apologized. With a flourish, she levitated the makeshift needle and thread towards his ankle. The human went ramrod stiff as the needle traced a path, completing the final hem in the outfit. “I wouldn't need to use so much force if you hadn't made this cloth so durable. Honestly, it's like punching a needle through Kevlar!”

Warren groaned at her criticism. “I get it; I overcompensated in hardening the petal-cloth to make it more durable.” He flinched as the needle nicked him. “So using the petals instead of the stems wasn't the best decision. I thought it'd be lighter!”

“All done!” Rarity chimed, ignoring his retorts. “Go on, take a look!”

Once the last of the pins had receded from the pant leg, he stepped off of the table that had served as a model-stand and walked towards a tall mirror Pinkie Pie had found. As he stared at his pants, he noted that Rarity was nothing if not relatively true to his design. Like the design, the pant-legs flared out the closer to the ankle one looked, however Rarity had taken some artistic license and embroidered a stylized fuchsia design upon one of the black rose-cloth pant-legs.

As his eyes traveled up his reflection, he couldn't help but feel a bit silly. Rarity hadn't botched the belt, but it wasn't quite right in the strictest sense. Made from forget-me-not cloth, the belt seemed to have been doubled in length and width. While it should have been simply cinched around his waist through loops he'd included in the design of the pants, it was instead tied neatly in a great big bow behind his back. All wrapped up in silky-smooth flower-clothes and topped with a bow, Warren felt more like a Christmas present than anything else.

Finally, Warren sized up his shirt. Without a doubt, he knew Rarity would choose the cloth made from the odd silver flower that was nestled in the bottom of Pinkie's flower booty. The sleeves were loose but not cumbersome, and, as with the rest of the outfit, it fit surprisingly well. He was pleased to note that instead of a collar, she had altered the design to be hooded. At least I can walk down the street without the sun in my eyes.

“Well, what do you think?” the indigo-maned seamstress implored. “Do you like it?”

“Aside from the way you made the belt look like a decorative bow on a present, I have to say I love it.” He smiled at her. “I'm still amazed you managed all of this in only a few hours. I doubt a human tailor would have the outfit finished in twice the time.”

“Really? I find the bow quite fetching!” she said cheerfully. “I'm sure if you weren't so insistent on having clothes as soon as possible, I could have made your outfit even more charming. Oooh! I just thought of something that would complete your handsome ensemble! I could make you the most dashing cloak!”

“No Rarity, that's quite alright.” he put his hands up in a warding gesture. “I couldn't intrude any more on your generosity! I—”

The opportunity to complete his statement never came, as he was interrupted by a sudden magical pop mere inches from him as Twilight Sparkle appeared in the room. While she frantically looked around the room, he saw that there was a frazzled look about her. Something clearly wasn't sitting right with her.

Locking her eyes on him, Twilight said, “Good! You're here, Goldenrod!” Warren couldn't help but cock an eyebrow at this comment, as though the idea of him being elsewhere had actually occurred to her. “Come with me; we don't have much time!”

Warren, dumbstruck, could only watch Twilight as she galloped towards the door. When she turned around to face him, her exasperated expression told him that whatever it was, it was serious. He looked to Rarity and gave her an apologetic nod. Without a second thought, he flipped up his hood and followed after the pale mulberry unicorn.

“Twilight... what... is going on?” he said, panting from the exertion of trying to match her pace. Her hooves beat a steady tattoo on the stone path, contrasting with the barely audible slaps of his own feet. “Where... are... we going?”

Slowing her pace, the unicorn mare cast a glance over her shoulder. “We're going to the castle,” she called back. “The Princesses wish to meet with you!”

His pace faltered as the gravity of her words struck him. Two regents are requesting my presence. Not only that, but the Princesses are most likely my best hope in finding out what Morrigan wants with me! It was so distracting that he very nearly forgot where he was.

“Goldenrod, come on!” Twilight's shout jerked him back to the now, making him painfully aware that he'd stopped moving. A crowd of curious ponies stood at one side of the academy lane, watching him for some hint he might become threatening. Not wanting to be under public scrutiny for too long, he bolted after Twilight. This time, eager to meet with the Princesses, he even managed to come up beside her.

“We're almost there.” her voice was barely audible over the beating of her hooves. Truer words were never spoken. The packed avenue they had been running along gave way to a broad road leading up to a large wooden gate. At either side of the gate stood a mixed file of unicorn and pegasus guards.

“Twilie!” a masculine voice rang out. An armored white unicorn waved down to them from up on the ramparts above the gate. “The honor guard will escort you and our... guest to a private chamber for your meeting. I hope it won't cause any trouble.”

Warren couldn't help but notice the tone the unicorn used. He wanted to shout up to the unicorn, but then it hit him that it was probably exactly what he wanted. There was never an opportunity to retort either way; the gates glowed with a magical aura and parted, and soon after they were ushered inside by the honor guard. As Warren walked alongside Twilight, he turned to look at the unicorn atop the castle-wall.

“So... 'Twilie', who was that?” he said, muffling a snicker. They'd entered the castle proper and traversed the main hall into what seemed to be a relatively unused white marble corridor. To his surprise, the corridor angled downward at a moderate slope. There were no windows, which lead him to discern that the only source of light could be what seemed to be caricatures of the sun and moon etched into the arched ceiling.

With her head half turned, she gave him a cool look that spoke volumes. Clearly the pet name was something between her and that unicorn; he decided not to ever call her that again. “Sorry,” she said, suddenly blushing. “That was my brother, Shining Armor. He's captain of the Royal Guard.”

“That explains the escort.” Warren shrugged, relishing in the ease of a human shrug. It felt so natural to him. “But, why does he have such a bug up his butt—” He snapped his hands over his mouth. I can't believe I just said that. “Er... Why does he have such an issue with me.”

She eyed him suspiciously, but chose not to comment. “If he came off a bit untrusting, that's just because it's his job to lead the Royal Guard in protecting Canterlot. He's been particularly suspicious of strangers since his wedding.” She sighed, noting his curious expression, and looked away. “Don't ask; it's a very long story.”

As they marched further and further down the corridor, Warren couldn't help but notice through the columns of guards that there were alcoves in the walls spaced at regular intervals, with ornamental marble columns at either side of the openings. He would have thought there would be doors in the alcoves just by looking at the sizes, but they were completely empty.

The whole corridor felt odd to him. Even though he could see straight down in either direction for miles, he couldn't help but feel as though he was turning frequently, occasionally rising or dropping what felt like many levels. It was all too eerie. Just when he thought to ask though, the group came to a halt at a dead-end marked by one such alcove.

A unicorn guard broke off from the escort and approached the alcove wall. A bronze aura enveloped the guard's horn. A seam formed in the solid marble, and the wall slid apart, revealing a doorway to a moderate-sized chamber. The unicorn guard silently ushered Twilight and Warren inside with a flourish of his hoof. Once inside the room, the door slid closed, returning to its perfectly seamless state.

Confident that the door would probably remain exactly where it was, Warren lowered his hood while turning his attention to the room at large. It looked to be a guest chamber of sorts; decorative wall-hangings covered most of the walls, save for the entrance. In the center of the room sat a broad oak table; instead of chairs, cushions were spaced equally along the length of the table. In one far corner of the chamber sat what could have been a king-sized mattress, while in the other sat a kitchenette complete with stove, sink and cupboards.

“You might as well take a seat,” Twilight said, moving to one of the cushions on the side of the table opposite to the door. “Princess Celestia still needs time to finish up the day court.”

That explains why we hoofed it here, even if it was in plain sight of everypony, he thought dryly to himself. Ignoring the cushions at the table, he moved over to the small kitchen unit. After rattling around in the cupboards for a few moments, he found what he was looking for; a kettle and tea leaves. Without a word, he filled the kettle with water and put it on the stove to boil. When he caught her looking at him oddly, he only smiled and said, “What? Is tea with royalty out of the question?”

Content with the kettle on the stove, Warren returned his attention to rummaging through the cupboards in search of teacups and saucers. “So, Twilight, what is this place? There's something weird about it.” From one of the cabinets, he withdrew a large tray, and placed on it a quartet of teacups and matching saucers. Almost as an afterthought, he added a bowl of sugar-cubes. “It's not just this room, either. It's this whole part of the castle that's off.”

“So you noticed, then.” Twilight said, in a rather thoughtful tone. “I wasn't sure you would. I assume you realized that although the way the hall leading to this chamber seemed straight, you could feel the turns and inclines. Am I mistaken?”

Warren shook his head. Placing the tray on the table, he made to sit by the mare. “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Is this some sort of lavish prison or something?”

The assessment seemed to amuse her; he caught the faintest upward twitch at the corner of her mouth. “In a way, you could say that. Long ago, this wing of the castle was dedicated to housing diplomats or foreign dignitaries.” As though expecting his inevitable response. “You must understand, even here in peaceful Equestria, there are ponies who bear issue with dignitaries of certain nations. In times long past, there have even been assassination attempts and spies.”

“So then this is a labyrinth designed to protect high-ranking guests as well as keep them out of trouble.” He ran his hand against the stubble on his chin, and then sighed. “But, what good is a labyrinth that shows you exactly where to go?”

“That's just it, though.” She clapped her hooves together and grinned. “The labyrinth will only take you where Princess Celestia wants you to be. If she wants you in your room, you'll always find yourself back at your own chamber. If she wants you elsewhere, the labyrinth will always lead you to the main hall. On the other hoof, if she's not even thinking about you in relationship to the labyrinth...”

“You get lost until someone notices you're gone?” Warren offered, noting her change in mood. “Had some experience with that aspect of it have we?”

“I was just a filly!” she rebuked.

“Come on, Twilight. I wasn't judging you!” He waved his hands defensively in front of his chest.

Warren was grateful to hear the chamber-door parting a moment later. In marched four pegasus guards. The first pair of guards to enter were both clad in gold-trimmed armor, the tufted crests on both helmets were a regal blue. The second pair looked far more intimidating than the first pair, clad in a purple-tinged steel armor, sporting a webbed crest on their helms instead of a plume of hair. The wings of the second pair looked as though they'd come off of a large bat. Each pair took position on either side of the door.

When the Princesses entered, Warren was awestruck. The depictions of the Princess Celestia and Princess Luna in a history book he'd skimmed through did neither Princess justice. Princess Celestia's mane had been depicted accurately enough as an amorphous cloud; the depiction did not, however, convey the animated way that her mane matched a daytime aurora. Princess Luna's mane had been less accurately depicted by the book; instead of the amorphous cloud in which the night sky could be seen, her mane was depicted as an ordinary shade of light blue. There was also the issue of size; in the book, Luna had been depicted roughly the same size as a regular mare, when in reality she was maybe an inch shorter than her sister. The pair of them were both just too regal for words.

Realizing that he was staring, Warren averted his eyes and made to bow. If he'd realized he was still sitting at the table, he wouldn't have so quickly bowed, smashing his face on the table. Quickly regaining his composure, he caught Princess Luna smothering a smile behind a bejeweled hoof. Princess Celestia's face, on the other hand, was much more composed; only a raised eyebrow betrayed her amusement.

“Twilight Sparkle, it is so good that we could see each other again,” the Moon Princess began. “I only wish it were under better circumstances.”

“Quite so,” the Sun Princess continued. “Please, Twilight, introduce your friend.”

Twilight sparkle made to speak, but Warren interjected, “Your majesties, if you'll excuse my interjection, it would be impolite of me as a gentleman to not introduce myself.” He folded his hands on his lap and inclined his head respectfully. “My name is Warren Ashland. During the two weeks I spent among your subjects as a unicorn, I went by the name Goldenrod.”

The whistling of the kettle on the stove behind him caught his attention. “May I offer either of you a cup of tea?” he proposed.

“Tea would be lovely, Mister Ashland,” Luna smiled. “I've only just awoken.”

“Please, Princess Luna, just call me Goldenrod; everypony does,” he replied softly, returning her smile. “Princess Celestia? Twilight?”

“It is kind of you to offer, Goldenrod,” Celestia responded in a warm tone. “I cannot accept, however.”

Turning to Twilight, Warren just caught her shaking her head in a 'no'. He just managed to hear the moon princess whisper a 'spoilsport' to the sun princess as he closed his eyes. With a practiced breath, he ignited his horn with a brilliant green aura, and levitated the teakettle by the handle off of the stove. As the kettle drew near, he casually reached a hand behind him, and let the handle come to rest in his palm.

Luna cooed enthusiastically. “Can all humans use magic?” She seemed eager to learn about his kind. “Or are you the only one?”

“As far as I know, I'm the only human to actually use magic.” he said, pouring tea into a teacup. When he held the saucer towards Princess Luna, he noticed the bat-winged guards visibly flinched. “The only reason I really still use magic is because of this. At least, I think so...” He traced a finger along the length of his horn for emphasis. “I'm pretty sure we ran for the hills before Morrigan's spell could run its course.”

“This draconequus,” Celestia began, suddenly. “You call her Morrigan. We have no written records of such a draconequus, nor do we have any clue as to her motive. The only things we know for certain are that she has freed Discord, and that she is apparently pursuant of you. Can you shed any light on her motives?”

“Well,” he said, pausing for a sip of tea. “Morrigan is a vexing being. The name itself is that of a goddess of battle or strife among one of the cultures in my world. I can only surmise that her goal is war, but it seems to me at this point she's more interested in me. In our last encounter, she claimed that I stole something of hers, but for the life of me I can't think of what I could possibly have taken.”

Luna looked at him blankly, before turning to her sister. “Sister, might it be that this Morrigan is behind the recent uprisings?”

Celestia seemed to mull this over, as though none of it surprised her. “You mentioned that name belongs to a goddess of battle in your world. How is it that she has knowledge of things from your world?”

“When she last attacked,” he replied, not missing a beat. “She said something that kind of bothers me. Morrigan stated that my people owed her a debt of fealty, and mentioned something about giving them a place to develop free from ‘predation by creatures of this world’. It may very well be that my people, or at least a portion of them, are from this world.”

“Twilight, my student, you have remained awfully quiet.” Celestia's voice was soothing like silk. “I can see that this is all troubling you. Please speak your mind.”

Warren turned to Twilight, his cheeks flushed. He'd become so engrossed in the discussion that he hadn't even noticed his friend had been completely silent. She was staring down at the polished surface of the table. “Twi-”

“It isn't this Morrigan that bothers me; not exactly,” the purple unicorn said, not breaking her gaze from the table. “When Discord made his appearance yesterday, he wasn't the same as he was when he escaped last year. There was something more... malignant about him. In all his chaos, even in tricking us, he was never overtly cruel. There was a method to his madness. When he teleported us into the room and forced us to watch the horrible transformation Goldenrod underwent, there was nothing to be gained from it; it was just malicious.”

“Are you saying, then, that Morrigan has somehow fundamentally changed Discord?” Celestia's concern was as clear as day. “Could she really be that powerful?”

“I don't know, Princess.” Twilight looked up, her face clearly rife with worry. “But, I think it would be foolish not to consider the possibility.”

“I suppose that leaves us right where we began then,” Warren scoffed. “All we've really managed to do is collate a bunch of circumstantial facts. If only we had some clue as to what she wanted...” He trailed off, not bothering to complete his thought. Everybody present in the chamber knew what he meant, even the guards, who had been trying to act like they weren't eavesdropping. If only we had some clue as to what she wanted, we might be able to predict her next move.

- - -

Nobody spoke for what seemed like ages. Warren nursed his now-cold tea anxiously, waiting for someone else to speak up, but nobody did. There were frequent glances between Princess Celestia and Twilight, with the odd jerk in his direction. As for Princess Luna, she was a complete enigma; she simply sat there with her eyes closed sipping at her tea, contradicting the feeling that she was watching him like a hawk.

“I beg your forgiveness, Princesses, but I suppose if there's nothing else to discuss, I'd like to return to Ponyville.” he said with a yawn. As he rose to his feet to stretch, he once again caught sight of the guards visibly flinching. Making a visible show of keeping well away from the Princesses, he walked around the table and towards the door. “Would one of you sirs be so kind as to show me the way out?”

“Before you go, there's something I wish to check.” the white Alicorn said, rising to her hooves in a manner he could only describe as regal. “In one of Twilight Sparkle's first reports regarding the ruins of the ancient stronghold, she mentioned finding a strange magical residue coating you. While I have no reason to believe that this residue might still cover you, I feel it worth an examination myself.”

“I don't see how it could do any harm, I suppose...” He couldn't help but shrug as he spoke. “What do you need me to do? I'm a bit fuzzy on what protocol might be for getting probed by royalty.”

“All you need to do is come closer,” Princess Luna prodded. “Sister's magic will do the rest.”

Casting a wary glance back over his shoulder at the guards, he walked cautiously towards Princess Celestia. At her nod, he stopped, and sank to his knees. As a glittering golden aura surrounded the white regent's horn, he recalled the incident on his second day in Equestria, and steeled himself for any pain that might radiate from his forehead.

The energy field that enveloped him was gentle and warm, like a summer breeze, or a mother's embrace. Like Twilight's scanning spell had, so many days prior, the shimmering aura surrounding him caused all the fine hairs on his body to stand on end. Every so often, a sensation of pins and needles would wash over a part of him, seemingly in tune with the occasional pulsation in the magic surrounding the Princess's horn. It even seemed to be probing within him, as though his very being was being spread out on an operating table.

When the supernatural examination finally ceased, Celestia furrowed her brow. A look of grim realization spread across her face. “I now understand what it is that you felt, Twilight Sparkle.” Celestia spoke in a dead neutral tone he'd only ever heard from a doctor bearing bad news. “There was no way you could have known that the residue you felt was in fact magical energy seeping from his very being.”

Warren and Twilight stared at the Princess and practically shouted a 'What?' in unison.

“Within Mister Ashland, there is an immense store of power that no being should hold. It is largely the power of a draconequus, but also something more.” She exchanged a concerned look with her sister before continuing. The very fact that she’d used his human name after so casually calling him Goldenrod told him that she was dead serious. “It is a sampling of the very essence of another reality, parallel to our own.”

“But, Princess... If it is a draconequus' power, why didn't I recognize it for what it was?” Twilight was incredulous, yet her tone betrayed the anxiety and curiosity burning within her. “How did it come to be inside him? Would the essence of this other real-”

The realization hit Warren like Scootaloo's hooves had on his first day in Equestria. “Wait! If this power within me is a Draconequus' power, then this is what Morrigan thinks I've stolen from her,” he croaked. “This is something that she'll want back at any cost then! But, if she can't get me here... She'll go after something else...”

He vaulted over the table to Twilight, and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Twilight!” he gasped, as his feverish mind reeled. Panic was preventing his brain from adequately communicating with his mouth, causing what he said next to come out in a jumble. “The Scootaloo! Where are girls and the Scootaloo?”

Twilight stared at him, terrified by his panicked behavior. “What? Scootaloo and the girls should be at Sweet Apple Acres,” she spoke, trying to be calm, but his unease was contagious. “They all met up when Fluttershy and Scootaloo came to get us while Morrigan was attacking. Applejack told them to go to the farm and to stay by Big Macintosh's side until we sent word. They should still be there!”

He vaulted over the table again, dashing between the Princesses, and began pounding frantically on the door-slab. “You've gotta let me out of here. She's going to go after the girls!” he shouted, almost on the point of crying. “I just know it!”

“Warren! I can't do such a long-distance teleportation again so soon, and we still need the Elements of Harmony!” cried Twilight, glancing warily at the Princesses. “I promise we'll get back as fast as possible.”

“That might be too late!” Warren was almost sobbing, now. He smashed his fists feebly against the solid marble slab. “Please, somebody have a heart! These children are already too involved. If something happened to them because of me, I can't bear to think of what I'd become.”

There was a brief moment where Warren almost believed the Princesses might have the guards subdue him. Instead, Princess Luna spoke, “Escort him from the castle grounds and let him go.” No sooner had she finished speaking did the door open with a dark-blue aura. The pair of bat-winged guards nodded to him, as if to imply they'd be his escort.

Hastily uttering his thanks, he bolted down the corridor, his hood flapping uselessly behind him as he ran. His escorts easily kept pace with him through the labyrinth, and out through the main hall. Out in the courtyard, a few attendant ponies scrambled out of the way, the sight of the strange creature being chased by two night-guards confusing and scaring them. When he reached the main gate, his night-guard escorts flew up to the ramparts, issuing Luna's order that he was to be let free.

The gate had barely begun to part when he dove through the narrow opening. His lungs and muscles ached, but he didn't dare slow down. If he was right, the closest friends he had in this world - and more importantly, the closest he had to family in this world – were in grave danger. As he tore through the streets, a trail of dust kicking up behind him, panicked ponies of all kinds shouted and screamed, running for cover.

I really hope there's still a bolt of that flower cloth left... I'm going to need it, he thought to himself as he closed in on Twilight's Canterlot residence. Otherwise, my plan to get back home to Ponyville is shot to hell.

Chapter 13

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Twilight Sparkle watched as the two Alicorns paced back and forth before her. They began their bout of pacing shortly after Goldenrod hurriedly took his leave. Since then, the Princesses had been exchanging worried glances almost regularly.

“Sister, was it wise to let the hu—Goldenrod go?” Princess Celestia whispered anxiously to Luna. “His kind are hardly known to our world; you've seen the sealed documents in the forbidden archives. Only a few of his kind have ever reappeared since they vanished from Equestria, and none have ever lived long enough to shed light on what happened to them! He could cause a massive panic... and I worry about him...”

“I don't think he'll cause trouble,” the moon princess responded with a soft smile; there was a twinkle of admiration in her eye. “At least, he won't go out of his way to make trouble. You could see his concern just as well as I could. If he cares about those fillies a quarter of what he seems to, he's probably half-way to Ponyville by now.”

“While I worry about our beloved subjects, that isn't what has me truly worried.” The Sun Princess heaved a heavy sigh before stopping to gaze at the floor. “I sensed something more in him; something that I didn't have the heart to tell him.”

Twilight pricked her ears forward. “Princess Celestia...” she began, but quickly hesitated once the princesses locked their eyes on her. “I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but is something wrong with Goldenrod?”

Celestia refused to look her in the eye, instead returning her gaze to the floor. “Yes, my student, there is.” When Celestia looked up again, the gravity of what she had to say showed on her face; there was a sadness Twilight had never seen before on her mentor's face. “Never could I imagine such a terrible fate for any being; it is almost too terrible for words.”

“What is it, sister?” Luna beseeched. “What could be so horrible that it could trouble you to this degree?”

Celestia turned to face her sister, and seemed thoughtful for a moment. “Luna, my dear sister,” she began with a wistful smile. “Do you remember how our kind and the unicorns regenerate their magic?”

The lunar regent seemed to ponder this, as though reflecting fondly on a childhood memory. “Well,” her cheeks flushed and Twilight caught sight of the slightest upward twinge at the corner of the Princess's mouth. “Mother always told me that when we dream, we commune with the living planet, and through that we replenish our magic. It is much the same for unicorns, is it not?”

Caught off guard by the off-hand reference to Luna and Celestia's mother, Twilight momentarily forgot her concern for Goldenrod. The Princesses rarely ever spoke of family beyond her sister-in-law and former foalsitter, Princess Cadence. There were very few historical references at all to the origins of the Alicorns, and even fewer records as to known Alicorns. She listened raptly for any further tidbits of information.

“That's right,” Celestia said, her voice a soft whisper. “Even pegasi and earth ponies, with their respective affinities with the weather and nature, draw on the planet's energies to some degree.” Turning to her student, the white Alicorn said, “Your friend, however, doesn't have the same sort of bond with the planet. Even though he has a unicorn's horn and a massive store of magical energies deep within him, they are limited.”

“Princess Celestia,” Twilight said with some relief in her voice. “That doesn't sound all too bad, really. He'll just not be able to use magic once it's all gone. It'll be an inconvenience for him, but he said his kind doesn't use magic anyways. It's not like he'll-”

The Sun Princess returned her sad gaze to her faithful pupil. “Yes, Twilight, he will die.” Celestia's mane dimmed, losing its radiant lustre. “I sensed no life-energies within him. The only thing keeping his body alive is the draconequus's magic. Once the last bit of magic leaves his body, he will perish.”

- - -

Warren crashed through the doors of Twilight's residence on the Canterlot Academy grounds—‘Princess Celestia's Academy for Gifted Unicorns', he reminded himself. He looked frantically around the main chamber from the doorway, heaving heavily from his non-stop run from the castle. Darting about the room at every imaginable angle, his eyes searched for some hint of life; nopony seemed to be around.

Fighting against his crying muscles, he strode farther into the room. Upon the very same table that he'd been playing mannequin mere hours prior, he found a bolt of rose-red petal-cloth, accompanied by a rolled up piece of parchment. With trembling hands, he picked up the parchment and unfurled it.

Dearest Twilight Sparkle,

I hope you can forgive our absence should you return before we do. With a lull in the day and nothing to do, I felt a bit of shopping was in order. As such, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie have accompanied me on this venture. Last I had seen, Rainbow Dash was loafing about in the clouds nearby.

Sincerely,
Rarity

P.S. For whatever reason, Pinkie Pie insisted that we leave this bolt of cloth for Goldenrod, claiming “He'd need it more than we do.” Please pass on Pinkie's compliments.

With a sigh of relief, he placed the parchment back down on the table and snatched up the bolt of cloth. “I hope this will be enough...” he mumbled to himself, unfurling the bolt of cloth on the table. He stared at it, trying to work out how to make it into a parachute. The blood pounding through his head wasn't making things easy.

After lining up a design inside his mind, Warren grabbed the bolt of cloth and folded it width-wise. With a bit of magic, he merged two adjoining edge on the cloth, making for a seamless cap of cloth. With a bit of luck, he managed to restructure the cloth without heavily altering the size, leaving the water in the air sufficient enough for his alterations.

Fighting a wave of vertigo, he stepped back and examined his makeshift parachute. It wasn't much to look at; it was just a conical piece of fabric with a shoddy looking harness. There was no deployment mechanism, either. He'd have to bunch it up against his chest and hold it tight until he was ready.

Until I'm ready... he thought numbly to himself. What was I even thinking? A parachute? There's no way I'd be able to parachute all the way to Ponyville from Canterlot! Defeated, Warren began idly banging the side of his head on the broad table. Damn, I'm such an idiot.

“What are you doing?” a familiar voice whispered into his ear. “That looks like it hurts.”

“R-Rainbow Dash!” he said at a near shout, facing the new-comer. Tears welled in his eyes as he threw his arms around her neck. “Oh thank God you're here!”

The rainbow mare reared back in surprise and broke his grasp, flapping her wings to gain distance between the two and then hover on the spot. “Whoa! Back up, chump!” she said, crossing her hooves in front of her chest. “What are you getting all touchy-feely about?”

“Right!” He clapped his hands together anxiously. “The girls—Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom—they're in terrible danger! The draconequus can't get to me, so she's going to try to get to me through them! We've got to get to Ponyville before it's too late!”

“What about Twilight and the others?” the rainbow pegasus said, landing in front of the door. “We can't just leave them!”

“Twilight still needs to grab the Elements of Harmony.” He smiled the awkward smile of a cornered man. “They all can catch up.”

Rainbow Dash seemed to mull this over for a moment. “How are we going to get you there?” She feigned an amused snort; a placatory gesture intended to cover for her own insurmountable anxiety. “It's not like you can fly.”

“Fly, no...” He pointed at her before wringing his hands. He picked up his makeshift parachute and waved it at her. “I can land though! If you can drop me over Ponyville, I can take care of the rest!”

“You're almost as tall as Celestia!” she scoffed. “There's no way I'll be able to haul you that far.”

“I'm lighter than I look,” he said with an anxious titter. “C'mon, let's get going, before I loose my nerves!”

- - -

“Hang onto your flank!” Rainbow Dash's voice broke through the wind.

Even with his hood over his head and part of his face, Warren's face was still being buffeted by the wind; a testament to how fast they were really moving. No sooner had her legs tightened around his chest did he feel their speed jump once again. Any blood that was still in his face rocketed back to his feet. Did we just break the sound barrier? He gripped his folded parachute closer to his chest at the thought.

If he hadn't screwed his eyes shut in concentration and looked back, he might have seen the sonic rainboom firsthand. Unfortunately, he was focusing all his might into using his magic to force his blood to keep flowing, as well as simultaneously keeping a telekinetic grip on his glasses. It was causing him a migraine, but he knew that he couldn't afford to black out. Warren could even feel a trickle of blood snaking from his nose.

“Get ready!” cried the rainbow-maned pegasus. “I'll see you on the ground!”

Without warning, the pair decelerated and Rainbow Dash released her hold on him. His stomach didn't have time to lurch forward, however, as gravity soon took over. Despite every instinct that cried for him to keep his eyes shut, he pried open his eyes and stared down at the ground below him. He needed to get an idea of where he was so he knew how to adjust his descent.

Warren found himself dead center over the Ponyville market square, on a trajectory for the largest barn on Sweet Apple Acres. It wasn't until he passed over the town hall that it occurred to him that the girls were probably not in the barn, or even on the main grounds. The few times he'd seen Big Macintosh, the presence of three fillies and a colt underfoot seemed to be more of an impediment to his work than anything else; not that they were likely to listen if he told them to stay by him. They would be at the clubhouse for sure.

It was a place he'd only been a few times—especially after the accident—but he still remembered where it was. It was on the north end of the orchard, near the river. Now... What was it they say about free-fall? 'You can change your orientation by altering the profile your body presents to the wind' or something like that.

Experimentally, he withdrew his right hand from the bundled parachute and extended his arm to his side. He saw an immediate result; as soon as he shifted his body weight, he veered off to the side and began to spiral out of control. Panicking, he threw his other arm out to counteract the spin before realizing that without his other hand holding the parachute, the parachute was free to deploy.

With the parachute flapping free in the wind, it was only a matter of time before it caught. Expecting this, he swung his feet groundward to right himself. The harness jerked him hard, crushing the breath out of him. He could see the clubhouse coming up, but he could tell that he was going to come up short. If he was right, he'd be landing in or near the river.

Skimming the treetops, he knew he was in for a rough landing. It seemed like such a great plan at the time. I was lucky I didn't succumb to my fear of heights at all! Tree branches tugged at his clothes and slashed at his skin as he fell through the forest canopy. If he hadn't increased the durability of the cloth in making it, he could only imagine the tatters his fine garb would be in.

Just as he jerked to a halt over the river – his parachute had snagged in some branches – he heard a familiar shout. “Hey, did you see that?” His heart leapt, in his throat; it was Scootaloo’s voice! “It looked like it came down over here!”

“Do you think it's an alien?” Sweetie Belle's off yet decidedly accurate manner of thinking brought a smile to his face; he couldn't mistake the tone of voice for anypony else. “Do you think it's friendly?”

“C'mon!” He could hear Apple Bloom's protests now. “Big Macintosh said to stay on the farm! He was very strict about it an' Ah don't want him to get cross with us.”

Warren watched, amused and grateful, as the three fillies appeared on the riverbank. Unsurprisingly, Scootaloo was the first to emerge from the tree-line with Sweetie Belle close behind. Apple Bloom brought up the rear, looking increasingly anxious. They seemed completely unharmed. If Morrigan is targeting them, at least I know she hasn't struck yet.

“Scootaloo!” he cried out, drawing the group's wary attention immediately. “Thank God you're okay!”

The three fillies backed cautiously towards the treeline. His knowledge of Scootaloo's name had unsettled the group, not that he blamed them; he'd been uneasy when Morrigan approached him in the Everfree, and rightly so. Exchanging hesitant glances, the Crusaders clustered closer together, seemingly to discuss whether or not they should make a run for it.

While he couldn't make out the entire conversation, he thought he heard his pony name mentioned more than once, as well as the word trap. Finally, he heard Apple Bloom speak in a louder tone, “Ah think we should get Big Macintosh an' see what he thinks.”

Struggling against his harness, which was now tangled in the tree's branches, he flipped back his hood. “Girls, if I might interject...” he said loudly to get their attention. “It's me!”

“Me who?” Sweetie Belle shot back. “We don't know any mes!”

Just as he slapped a palm over his face to hide his grimace, he heard Scootaloo speak up. “Wait! Look at its mane!”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders did a double take, and then entered another discussion. They glanced repeatedly back at him, and whispered. Finally, they seemed to reach a consensus. In unison, the filly trio cried out, “Goldenrod! What happened to you?”

- - -

A rustling in the bushes jerked Warren awake. A beady-eyed chipmunk stared up at him from under the treeline, its eyes glinting like rubies in the last evening rays. From his perch up on the clubhouse porch, the small rodent looked like just one more piece in a portrait of peace. Absentmindedly waving a hand to shoo the critter, he tried to come to grips with the time.

It'd been close to dinnertime when he'd finished regaling the Crusaders with the events of the last twenty-four hours from his perspective. Sweetie Belle had almost shrieked in terror when he described Morrigan's attack, even though he didn't go into the gory details. All of them cheered in wonderment when he told them of his royal audience. When he finally got to the point where he dropped in via parachute, Scootaloo let out a loud whoop!

When he explained to them all why he went against his fear of heights, some of the gravity of the situation seemed to cut into their exuberance. Soon after finishing, Rainbow Dash and Big Macintosh burst onto the scene, raring to fight. When the adult ponies saw the fillies were safe, they were relieved and perplexed. Warren had been insistent that the girls were in mortal danger, so Rainbow Dash was quite put off that he had seemingly misled her. Big Macintosh, meanwhile, still seemed a bit wary of Warren, having never seen anything like him before in his life.

He'd spent the rest of the afternoon watching over the group of fillies, right up until he'd fallen asleep on the porch. It had to be well into the evening now. He turned his head, letting his ear press up against the wall, and listened. The girls were still inside, playing cards by the sound of it; they were still safe.

With a stretch, Warren laboriously rose to his feet, causing him to bump his head into the roof overhang. Rubbing the back of his head and muttering a silent curse, he noticed the girls were staring at him through the window and giggling. He smiled weakly back at the fillies. While making his way around to the door to join them, the call of nature struck him.

Crouching, he peeked his head in the doorway and rapped his knuckles on the wall. Once he was satisfied that he had their attention, Warren said, “I've gotta leave the you three for just a few minutes. I need to take care of something real quickly.” Almost as an afterthought, he added. “Don't go anywhere. I mean it.”

Before the fillies could get a word in edgewise, he ducked his head back out of the doorway. Making his way down the ramp to the clubhouse, he gazed up at the horizon through the treeline. The last gleam of daylight was quickly vanishing. He jogged away for some privacy in the bushes before taking care of the issue.

It was at the very moment that he began contemplating his relief at not having soiled himself during the flight that he heard, or rather noticed, the lack of ambient noise. The evening crickets had gone deathly silent, and not a bird was to be heard. A chill went down his back when a deafening crash split the night, followed by the screaming of the Crusaders.

His stomach plummeted, and before long he found himself running back to the clubhouse as fast as his legs would carry him. A cold fear bubbled within him when he heard a most bestial bellowing, followed by more screaming. What sort of monstrosity had Morrigan set upon the girls?

Warren could see a bright light up ahead on the other side of the trees. Bursting through the underbrush, he found the clubhouse torn asunder and fully engulfed in flames. Clearly whatever had attacked sent their candle rolling into one of the many paper-covered walls; the months of crusade planning had gone up in an instant.

A bestial grunt to his right brought his attention to three massive shapes. Adjusting his glasses, each of the creatures clarified into an ebony bull-man. Their large ivory horns were made all the more menacing by the red glint their eyes took on in the firelight. They stood upright on two cloven hooves, their scrawny legs a stark contrast to their well-toned arms. With a groan, he realized that he was looking at gigantic minotaur thralls in the service of Morrigan.

“What have you done with my friends, you rank bastards?” he shouted, pointing accusingly at the minotaur trio.

The one nearest to him grinned savagely. Malice glinted in its eye, but there was something more; it was the look of an intelligent being trapped inside its own body, helpless to watch as the world moved around it. It raised a massive clenched fist threateningly. A purple mane could be seen poking out through the top of its fist, and an orange feather dropped. It flicked its wrist ever so slightly, and a pained groan could be heard. It tilted its head left and then right, indicating its comrades using its horns. Its savage grin revealed a row of jagged broken teeth.

The threat was clear; the minotaurs held the lives of the fillies in their bulky hands. The cowardice of their tactic made his blood boil. He'd already left the capital; surely a powerful being like Morrigan would know that. It would serve no purpose to take the girls now, unless...

She's playing games with me! Warren's fury was bubbling up inside his stomach, almost dyspeptic with rage in the most literal sense. Never had he felt hate with such an intensity in all the time he'd lived. “Give them here, you overgrown cow-patty!” he spat, and bared his teeth at the beast. “You can tell your master she can come and take me herself, and leave the children out of it!”

For one brief moment, it actually seemed like Morrigan's thralls were considering his offer. The one holding Scootaloo instead stepped forth and shoved him to the ground, laughing a strange braying laugh. The beast kicked him in the stomach, sending him tumbling closer to the burning wreckage of the Cutie Mark Crusader clubhouse, and then turned away.

The other two had already started running off in the direction of the Everfree by the time he rose to his hands and knees, tears streaming from his eyes. Impotently, he pounded his fists into the ground. Scootaloo's captor was now thundering away, faster than he could possibly run. How could he possibly hope to best a faster opponent?

An image flashed into his mind; it was the race-track, and Rainbow Dash was right there beside him. It's almost the same, he realized. He could use his magic to slow them down just as he did with Dash. Reaching out with his magic, he willed the tree roots ahead to shoot out and snare the minotaurs. He didn't even wait for an effect; he rose to his feet and sprinted after them.

A pair of inhuman screams echoed through the forest. Drawing up on the first minotaur, Warren saw in horror that his spell had gone horribly wrong. Instead of snaring the minotaur by the ankles and tripping it up, the tree roots had shot out like spears, impaling the minotaur many times through the chest and stomach. Even as it heaved its last breaths, the beast fought to deprive him of his friend; it had been holding Scootaloo at its head level before a tree root had impaled its forearm, coming dangerously close to skewering the filly instead.

He scaled the hulking monstrosity, perching himself on its shoulder. With all the force he could muster, both physically and with magic, he forced the enormous fingers apart. Scootaloo fell from the hand, bruised and unconscious, but otherwise unharmed. Wrapping his legs around the monstrous fore-arm to keep purchase, he swung out to grab the orange filly. As the unconscious child tumbled into his hands, he heard a most sickening crunching sound up ahead.

When he returned to the ground with the injured pegasus filly, he continued using the stolen magic to augment his strength; his physical reserves were dangerously low, and he didn't have much muscle density either. Clutching his beloved friend close to his belly, he made his way to the other minotaur. The moon was out now, making the beast easy to find.

This beast had fared slightly better than the first; one root had pierced the base of the skull, severing the brain stem and killing it instantly. Whether this had been the first blow or the final, he couldn't bring himself to care. The overgrown cow-man had been impaled repeatedly like its comrade and had met a similar fate. Like its friend, the only thing holding it up was the mess of roots meshed through the thing's torso.

Did these minotaurs have families too? Were they simply pulled into Morrigan's games as well? The panicked voice of his mind was trying to rationalize everything before he'd even finished looking. Of course they were. I could see it in its eyes. It was scared and couldn't do a thing to stop itself... and I killed it!

Warren did a double-take, looking for any sign of the captive filly the minotaur might have had. To his horror, he found the source of the sickening crunch he'd heard while retrieving Scootaloo. One of the minotaur's arms had been wrenched clean from its socket, leaving only a gaping hole at the shoulder. A fresh trail of blood, still damp, dotted the ground in the direction of the Everfree; the arm and its captive were nowhere to be found.

His mind quavered as multiple tangents fought for control. Instinct dictated that he should be tracking down the last minotaur and retrieving his friends. Common sense insisted that he bring Scootaloo to safety and then go after the others. His conscience and body, however, decided that being ill was the best course of action.

After a short battle for control, his body won out; in an instant he was leaning one shoulder against a tree, heaving for all he was worth. Even if he'd been saving his friends, he'd still taken sentient lives! It just wasn't something he could just compartmentalize and cry about when he was alone. He began to sob uncontrollably over his own ineptitude and his crime against life. Once his stomach's fits had ceased, he shakily made south for the farmhouse; Scootaloo's safety was his priority now.

Chapter 14

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“Scootaloo!” a familiar voice called out, rousing a purple-haired girl. “Scootaloo, angel, it's time to wake up!”

The girl stirred among the blankets. Gently, she brushed a purple lock out of her face with her hand. “Alright mom!” she called back, still groggy. “I'll be down in a minute.” In a lower voice, she added, “I was having such an interesting dream.”

Scootaloo sat up in her bed, arching her back as she stretched. Pressing one heavily tanned fist against her mouth, she muffled a drawn out yawn. She couldn't remember what she had been up to with Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom yesterday, but her entire body ached. A clock on her bedside table ticked away, marking the passage of time.

Rising off the bed to her feet, she plodded over to her bedroom window. Scootaloo gazed out at the farm, taking in her home. Her father was out in the fields, tending to the ponies. One of the mares, Fluttershy, was due to give birth any day now. She watched as he knelt down to brush her mane. Through the open window, she could just make out an appreciative nicker from the mare.

A rumbling from her stomach brought her attention away from the touching scene of animal husbandry. Smiling inwardly, she moved away from the window. As she walked across the room to her door, she caught sight of herself in the full-body mirror that her mother insisted every girl should have. Her pale purple eyes glinted in the morning sun, contrasting with her orange pajamas, on the back of which her mother had jokingly sewn a pair of plush wings. She was deceptively scrawny, as was the norm in her family, which caused her clothes to hang off her, giving a tomboyish appearance. That suited her just fine, though.

Running out into the hallway, she leapt onto the balustrade lining the farmhouse stairs. Uttering a gleeful cry, she slid down the rail, much to the dismay of her frowning mother at the bottom of the stairs. With one final effort, she vaulted over the decorative sphere mounted at the end of the rail, and tucked and rolled to her feet beside her scowling mother.

“I swear, one of these days you're going to break your legs doing that. Where will you be then, hmm?” the indistinct woman chided her daughter. Giving a shake of her head, the woman wandered back into the kitchen. “Go wake your brother. After you've both eaten breakfast and gotten dressed, you're coming into town with me, alright angel?”

“But Mom!” she whined. “I wanted to stay and help Dad! The vet said Fluttershy's due any day now! I wanna be there help; being a vet might be my special talent!”

“But nothing, missy!” her mother retorted, pointing back up the stairs. “I need you and your brother to help carry things. I'm not as spry as I used to be!”

Scootaloo turned away with a huff, and pointedly stomped back up the stairs. Walking to the door opposite of her own bedroom, she wondered if her brother wasn't already awake with his face stuck in one of those hard-to-understand books he always seemed to be reading these days. They filled his head with all sorts of ideas that didn't make much sense to her; stuff about alternate realities, magic, god-like creatures, and other things that would upset the Church of Celestia if they were to find out.

Agitated at having to wake him again, she knocked on the door; to her surprise, the door creaked open slightly at her touch. Not hearing her brother respond, she pushed the door further open and peered in. Beside his bed sat a pile of thick books, stacked neatly in a tower. His nightstand was also covered in thick tomes; his glasses sat neatly upon the book pile. Clearly he'd been to Miss Twilight's library again. He laid on his bed, unconscious and uncovered, except for a book hiding his face. Only a pair of pajama bottoms seemed to keep him safe from the cold.

Carefully, Scootaloo crept over to his bed, making an effort not to disturb a nearby stack of books that was nearly as tall as his mattress. A bit disappointed at the manner in which her brother fell asleep, she reached out and gently plucked the book off of his face. That was when she caught sight of something odd for a split second; she could have sworn she'd seen a horn of some sort protruding from her brother's forehead, but that was all just a dream, wasn't it?

Shaking her head, she marked his page in the book before placing the tome on his nightstand with the rest. Leaning in close to her big brother, she shouted excitedly, “Goldenrod! It's time to for breakfast.”

The boy rolled off the other side of the bed, startled. Peering over the edge of the bed and squinting, he gave her a glare. “I really wish you wouldn't do that,” he groaned. “Have some respect for a person's space!”

“Mom says we have to eat and get dressed,” she replied, blowing a raspberry from the safety of the opposite side of the bed. “We're going into town today!”

“Alright...” Goldenrod grumbled. “I suppose I can return some of these, then.” Then, as if surprised she was still there, he motioned to shoo her. “Well, go on squirt! Get out! I need to get changed.”

Without a second glance, Scootaloo walked out of his room, and back into hers. After shucking her pajamas into her laundry hamper, she rooted through her dresser drawers. Moments later, she settled on cut-off jeans and a sleeveless tee. Knowing her mother wouldn't be pleased if she didn't look presentable, she decided it would be best if she took the time to brush her hair, which was still frizzy and tangled from sleep.

Reaching out for her hairbrush, she nudged it uselessly with her hoof. She pulled back the offending limb in alarm. Staring at her hand in disbelief, the purple-haired girl wondered how she could have mistaken her hand for a hoof. Again, she reached for the brush, this time successfully closing her fingers around the handle.

She never had the opportunity to brush her hair, though. Just when she brought the brush up to her tangled hair, a loud crash shook the house. Without a second thought, she tossed the brush aside, and tore off through the door. When she reached the stairs, she simply leapt over the railing, letting her stubby little wings flutter frantically to slow her fall.

The clatter of her hooves on the wooden floor broke the dead silence that had filled the house. Inside the kitchen, she found two ponies crushed under the pile of debris that had once been a wall. The large crimson stallion had tried to shield the lime pegasus mare with his body, but a pipe had impaled the pair and pinned them firmly to the floor.

The pegasus mare stared at her wistfully through her violet, drywall dusted mane. “Scootaloo, sweetie, run!” the pony implored. “Go get help!”

Scootaloo glanced up at the earth pony, before turning away to wipe the tears from her eyes with a tiny hoof. His neck had been twisted at an unnatural angle, causing his reddish brown mane to hang oddly over his ears. He'd very clearly given his life to save the mare. Could Scootaloo possibly hope to get help in time for the surviving pegasus pony though?

A movement on the other side of the fallen wall broke her thoughts. The source of the movement was incredibly large, and incredibly black. The thing leaned down, peering through the hole, to reveal a huge horned head. It reached through the wall with a massive black hand, tearing more of the wall down in the process, and groped around. Finding the pipe and its pinned victims, the thing licked its lips and grinned. Plucking the impaled ponies off the floor, the monster pulled them back through the wall. It raised its prize to its face.

The pegasus mare called weakly to Scootaloo, “Don't look, baby! Run and—”

The massive horned beast brought the pony shish kebab to its broad mouth. Without a care, it popped the mare's head into its mouth. It closed its lips around her neck and snapped it's jaw shut; the crunch reverberated throughout Scootaloo's soul.

The tiny filly sank to her haunches and pressed her back up against the wall, tears streaming from her eyes. She sobbed uncontrollably as the beast ate the ponies in front of her. As it plucked the last of the pegasus mare off of the pipe, she screamed, “Momma!”

- - -

Warren stared at his hands; they were scrubbed raw and clean, yet in his mind they were still covered in blood. The cries of the minotaurs still resounded inside his head. There was the very real possibility that the minotaurs had been unwilling slaves which he simply couldn't ignore. His recklessness had claimed two lives, and he hadn't been able to sleep at all because of it.

After the ordeal the previous night, he'd hauled Scootaloo up to the farmhouse. Compared to what had happened, explaining everything to Big Macintosh was but a small chore, though, after finding out that the northern quadrant of the orchard was ablaze, he didn't much care for the story. He'd simply told Warren to get Scootaloo up to Apple Bloom's bedroom and to stay with her.

Come dawn, Big Macintosh was still out there, doing his best to help the weather patrol contain the blaze. In addition to the sounds of a makeshift firebreak being made, alarm bells could be heard ringing all the way from Ponyville since midnight. Rainbow Dash was out there too; her rainbow contrail could be seen zipping in and out of the firebreak with what looked like a fine mist of water following close behind. Warren had to give it to the Weather Patrol, they were no fire brigade, but their pony ingenuity was something special.

Warren glanced out the window as the last flame vanished from the orchard canopy. At that same instant, a piercing shriek jerked his attention away from the fire-control efforts. On the bed, Scootaloo was sitting bolt upright, her eyes wide with terror, screaming for all she was worth. Tears were streaming from the corners of her eyes.

In seconds he was on the bed with her, pulling her into a hug. “It's alright, Scootaloo. You're fine!” he whispered into her ear. Snaking his fingers through her mane, he patted her head comfortingly. “They can't hurt you any more.” He choked on his next words. “The minotaurs can't hurt anypony any more.”

The orange filly stopped screaming and Warren thanked his stars that Granny Smith was visiting relatives out in Appleloosa. She still seemed pretty dazed. Squirming out of his grasp, Scootaloo plunked herself back down on the bed, adopting her bravest face. Even then, she still had the air of a scared little girl about her. Everything but her outward attitude cried to him that she needed someone to be there for her.

She began to blush after catching his gaze, and quickly averted it again. “Um... Sorry about the screaming,” she mumbled, thoroughly embarrassed. “I was having a real good dream but then...” She wiped a foreleg across her eyes, and shook her head.

Gently, Warren put two fingers under her chin, and gently guided her gaze back to him. While putting on a brave smile of his own, he asked softly, “Do you wanna talk about it?” A big part of him demanded he tell her to stay put, and then go after Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom, but the nurturing part in him overrode it with the need to make sure Scootaloo was safe in body and mind. “You know I'll listen.”

In response, the little pegasus let out an appreciative laugh before sidling up beside him. Placing her head against his ribs, Scootaloo eased herself under his armpit to allow him to put his arm around her. “I was dreaming about my family,” she spoke after some thought. There was a certain tone in her voice that sounded as though she was still a bit confused from her sudden transition from sleep to wakefulness. “We were all living in a farmhouse just like Apple Bloom's; Mom and Dad were there!” She let out an amused giggle; the feminine sort she'd never express in front of others, he thought. “You were there too, like a big brother! We were all people, just like you, living happily together!”

“I bet you looked cute.” Warren laughed, before tousling her mane.

“It was kind of weird. It all felt right, but then I started getting glimpses of things; your horn, and then my hooves...” She trailed off, struggling with her words. “There was a crash in the kitchen. I went running down to investigate and suddenly I was just an itty-bitty filly...” She choked back a sob. “I-I watched my parents get eaten by a giant horned beast with big hands!”

“Oh, Scootaloo!” He hugged her close to his side. “That was all just a dream because of the minotaurs.”

“No it wasn't,” she sobbed. “Not entirely...” She pulled away and moved to the foot of the bed. “Mom and Dad were really eaten by a giant monster when I was just a filly. It was a minotaur that had gone crazy from living in the Everfree... I froze up last night just like I did back then. I'm just a useless little filly who can't even fly or protect her friends!”

“Scootaloo!” he spoke in a firm, sobering voice. Sliding across the bed, he placed a hand on her back. “You aren’t supposed to be protecting your friends from monsters, not yet. The only thing you should be protecting yourselves from at your age is bullies! Leave monster fighting to the grown-ups and enjoy your childhood while you can. You can't blame yourself for what happened last night any more than you can for what happened to your parents!”

“If you want to blame anybody, blame me.” Warren sighed, and then retracted his hand from the filly's back. “I was supposed to be watching over you, and the fact of the matter is that I got you all into this mess. You don't want me as a brother!”

“That's not true.” It was Big Macintosh who spoke from the doorway. His fur and mane were streaked with soot and mud. “It's a mighty brave thing ya did, regardless of whether or not it was yer mess they got dragged into. Ya gave it yer best to take care of them like kin, and that's what bein' a big brother is about; bein' there for them! That's what yer doin' now!”

Gazing at Big Macintosh, Warren managed a laugh. “Mac',” he said knowingly. “You're a better man than I am.”

“Ah don't rightly know what ya mean by that,” Big Macintosh said after some thought. “... but Ah'll take it as a compliment.”

Rising up from the bed Warren looked back down to Scootaloo, who was looking up at him expectantly. “Scootaloo, I know that it's probably a trap, but I'm going after Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom.” he said softly. “They're in a lot of danger, and it's my responsibility to get them out of it, even if it is a trap. I need you to stay behind, with Big Macintosh here, and pass on a warning to the others: 'Morrigan may be controlling ponies. Keep your wits about you.' You think you can remember that?”

Scootaloo frowned and looked like she wanted to say something, but only nodded. “I don't want to lose you, Scootaloo.” he almost whispered. “That's why I need you to stay here.”

Warren strode out the door, past Big Macintosh, and made for the stairs. The sound of heavy hoof-falls behind him indicated that Big Macintosh was close on his heels. Warren turned to face the stallion and almost fell over when he bumped into him.

“There's somethin' else ya ought to know.” Big Mac said plainly. “Apple Bloom an' Sweetie Belle weren't the only ones abducted last night. Weather Patrol was talkin' about how if it weren't for the fire, they could be off searchin' for a bunch of fillies and colts gone missin'. Ah'm not a gamblin’ pony, but Ah reckon the two might be related.”

Warren stared at the crimson stallion for a moment, letting the words sink in. Damn right they're related... But why the other fillies and colts? “Thanks, Mac'.” he said, offering the stallion his hand. To his surprise, Big Macintosh obliged, and the two shook.

As he was about to turn and run, a poke from the stallion's hoof caught his attention. “One more thing,” the stallion said, biting his lower lip. “Bring Apple Bloom home safe, ya hear?”

“I will...” Warren nodded. Without a second glance back, he took off down the stairs and out the door. From there, he made off west for the Everfree.

- - -

Scootaloo watched from the bedroom window as an unmistakably royal carriage banked and came in for a landing in front of the farmhouse. The draft pegasi leading the carriage through its descent, she noted, were not the standard gilded Royal Guard, but instead were instead of same cadre that had accompanied Princess Luna to Ponyville on Nightmare Night. Even the carriage matched the dark theme; instead of whites and golds with a sun crest, it was charcoal gray and steel-blue with a crescent moon emblazoned on the front of it.

Watching anxiously, she stared through the window as Big Macintosh approached the carriage and waited patiently for the occupants to depart. Even Rainbow Dash had broken off from the clean-up efforts where the clubhouse once stood in the orchard. The first two out of the carriage were Applejack and Rarity. Scootaloo couldn't hear Big Macintosh's voice, but it was clear by Rarity's sorrowful and panicked reaction that he just broke the news. Applejack, in stark contrast to Rarity, simply tilted her stetson forward to cover her eyes, and gritted her teeth; at this distance the orange filly thought she could just make out tears streaming down the straw-maned pony's cheeks.

Pinkie and Fluttershy had come out in the middle of the whole ordeal, and were quick to comfort Rarity. The one pony Scootaloo hadn't seen yet was the one she needed to speak to the most. Goldenrod had given her a message to pass on to Twilight Sparkle, and she wanted to prove that she wasn't useless. She stared longingly at the carriage for what seemed like forever; even the others down below turned to stare at it.

When Twilight's face finally did appear in the carriage doorway, Scootaloo hurried out of Apple Bloom's bedroom. Running as fast as her tiny hooves could carry her, she bounced through a gap in the crowd and landed at the bottom of the carriage steps, causing Twilight to rear back in alarm.

“Scootaloo, what is the—” Twilight Sparkle began.

“Twilight! Twilight!” Scootaloo shouted. “It's important! Goldenrod said he wanted me to pass on message! He said—”

“Goldenrod?!” Twilight exclaimed, stepping down from the carriage. “Where is he? Why isn't he here?”

“Minotaurs came to take me, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle!” the pegasus filly exclaimed. “He stopped two of them, but they still managed to take Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom! He said—”

“Stopped?” Twilight shouted, panicked. “How?!”

“Minotaur skewers.” Rainbow Dash said pointedly. “It was pretty gruesome, even for me; the smell was terrible. We found them after the fire had gotten to them, so we don't know what tribe they were from. All we know is they came for every filly and colt in the village. The weather patrol could have tracked the rest of them down but they set the orchard on fire.”

Twilight began pacing back and forward, looking increasingly disheveled with each step. The look was frighteningly similar to one she'd worn the day she'd enchanted a doll in an attempt to find a friendship lesson, only it seemed far worse to Scootaloo; it was grim and sober. “No, no no... That is not good. If he keeps using magic, he'll—”

“Twilight Sparkle!” a regal shout carried from inside the the carriage. Scootaloo turned her head to face the door, and to her surprise Princess Luna herself had accompanied Twilight's party of five back to Ponyville. “Such things are not for the ears of foals.” The Princess motioned toward Scootaloo with one hoof. Turning to Scootaloo, Princess Luna said, “Trouble not your mind, little one; Goldenrod will be fine.”

Scootaloo didn't buy it. Twilight seemed genuinely anxious about something... but what? Then she recalled the message he wanted her to pass on. “Princess Luna, Twilight... Before Goldenrod went after Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle he told me to tell you something important!” She made sure she wasn't going to be interrupted before continuing. “He said 'Morrigan could be controlling ponies,' and to 'keep your wits about you.' I think he meant that because of the minotaurs, she could also have control over ponies too.”

“Thank you, Scootaloo,” Twilight said with a weary smile. “It was very good of you to pass on this message. What we have to discuss now... It isn't something for you to hear.”

Big Macintosh had come up behind Scootaloo, and placed a hoof on her shoulder. “Ah reckon ya ought to go back inside.” he said softly to the filly. “Let the big ponies talk.”

It wasn't fair. Goldenrod was her friend too. If something bad was going to happen to him if he kept using magic, she had a right to know; he was like a brother to her! Scootaloo walked slowly towards the farmhouse, watching the group through the corner of the eye. When everypony turned their attention away from the orange filly, she dove into a bush.

From there, she could hear everything everypony said. Princes Luna held out a jewel-encrusted box, and from it Twilight withdrew and distributed the Elements of Harmony. Then the unicorn mare began to speak, “Girls, we can't expect Goldenrod to solve all of this. Rather, if he does anything in an attempt to stop Morrigan, he'll die. The only thing keeping him alive is the very limited magical energy he expends each time he does something.”

The words stuck in Scootaloo's head. Goldenrod will die if he keeps using magic? But he was going after their friends, and she didn't doubt he'd use every bit to save them and the others. If he died, who would be there - really be there - for her? For the first time since her parents died, she didn’t feel alone when she was with him. She fought back the tears that were threatening to spill down her chubby filly cheeks.

He had to be warned, she realized solemnly. He was the closest thing she had to a brother she would ever have. Sure, he asked her to stay behind, but a good sister wouldn’t in good conscience let her brother go off to die because he doesn’t know he’s secretly killing himself, right? Scootaloo latched onto that thought. She needed something to believe in; she needed him to believe in, but to do that, she’d need to believe in herself.

“I'll show them all that I'm not some useless little filly who can't fly!” she muttered, taking off in the direction of the Everfree forest. “I'll show them all that I can rise above the rest!”

Chapter 15

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Twilight Sparkle paced back and forth in front of the carriage. “Girls, Princess Celestia has given us a very important mission. This is probably the most important mission we've had yet.” Though she wore an air of confidence, she felt anything but. “We are going after not just Discord, but also Morrigan.”

With an anxious sigh, Applejack spoke softly, “Ah'm not sayin' we shouldn't be doin' this and all sugar-cube...” She dug idly at the ground with a forehoof. “It's just... We nearly lost it all when we fought Discord last time. Ah honestly don't see good odds for us if we're fighting two 'Draco-whatsits.'”

Princess Luna strode to Twilight Sparkle's side, as if to reinforce her sister's faithful student. “Fear not, Honest Applejack.” Her tone was confident, and reassuring, nothing like the way she was on Nightmare Night. “Morrigan is not at her full power at the present time; our human friend is a vessel for a good portion of her power. For added measure, I have volunteered my abilities to assist in this endeavor.”

Rainbow Dash seemed to perk up at those last words. “Alright!” she cheered. “With the Princess on our side, we'll be unstoppable!”

“Since we are likely to be facing both Draconequus siblings at once, Princess Celestia has granted us full use of the Elements of Harmony.” Twilight said, more confident now that Luna had her back. “In addition, we are granted free access to any supplies we may need, as this is not likely to be a simple affair.”

The Alicorn Princess ignited her horn, and from within the carriage a familiar jewel-encrusted container floated out and presented itself to Twilight. With a nod of gratitude towards the Princess, the lavender unicorn enveloped the case in her own levitation spell. Quietly, Twilight floated the Elements of Harmony from the box towards their living embodiments.

After a moments pause, Twilight glanced down at the ground. “Girls, we can't expect Goldenrod to solve all of this. Rather, if he does anything in an attempt to stop Morrigan, he'll die.” There was an audible gasp from the group. This was the first any of them had heard this; Twilight and Luna had remained deliberately silent on the matter, hoping to tell Goldenrod in person. “The only thing keeping him alive is the very limited magical energy he expends each time he does something.”

Except Twilight and Princess Luna, everypony was floored by this revelation. It began to sink in that since learning to use magic, the human had been increasingly liberal with his use of it. He didn't know, and he was going to die because of it.

It was Rarity that broke the shocked silence. “Darling, if what you are saying is true...” The fashion unicorn glanced anxiously towards the Everfree. “Then if Morrigan catches Goldenrod, she'll take back her power...”

“She'll return to full power and be free to do many wicked things.” Everypony turned to stare at Pinkie Pie. Her eyes seemed out of focus, and her hair seemed like it could go limp at any moment. “It might not even be contained to Equestria! Nopony would be free to laugh and play, 'cause there'd be nothing to laugh about!”

Twilight glanced at Pinkie and Rarity before turning to face the Princess. “Princess Luna, on the transition from Canterlot, I wrote down any supplies I could think of for this mission. Would you be able to send your guards into Ponyville to get them?” She glanced anxiously at her friends. “At this point, I don't think it is safe for us to separate. We'd be extremely vulnerable by ourselves.”

“Of course, Twilight Sparkle.” The Alicorn smiled. “I agree wholeheartedly. The list, I take it, remains in the carriage still?”

- - -

Walking beneath the forest canopy, Warren fumed at his misfortune. It seemed like regardless of what he tried to do in this world, Morrigan would wreck anything good or pure around him. The more he thought about it, the more the Draconequus seem to be his perpetual bad-luck here in Equestria. What did I ever do to deserve this? It’s not like I stole her power on purpose. Despite this, she goes and drags the girls into this.

He cast a wary glance back over his shoulder. The dim shade of the overhead foliage made it hard for him to see anything, meaning he couldn’t see too far ahead in any direction. It wouldn’t take much for anything to get the jump on him, and he knew it. This whole place is eerie, all I can hear is the cry of crickets... and maybe something else. Cicadas? I thought this was supposed to be a place so bizarre that not even crickets would venture in.

Pausing to take in the sounds around him, he smiled momentarily as the familiar summer buzz filled his ears. At least some things stay the same between worlds. I’d recognize that zeee-zeee-zeee buzzing anywhere. It’s just like when we all went camping in Maine when we were kids. His smile faded when he thought about his family.

Questions had crossed his mind quite a few times since he arrived here in Equestria. What were they doing now? Were they as angry with him as he’d been with them? Had they even noticed that he’d gone missing? Has Father passed on yet? More and more, however, he found himself wondering what they’d think if they ever found out he was living in a rural town, a universe apart from the likes they knew, living among colorful, talking, flying, and magical ponies. He imagined that they’d scoff at the very thought of a pure-blooded city boy like him living in the country.

‘Warren in the dirt and mud with a bunch of horses? Don’t make me laugh.’ The spectre of one brother laughed at him. ‘Working in the flower shop with Mom is one thing, but he’d never survive in a place like that.’

He shook his head, attempting to clear the thought from his mind. I was only like that as a kid! So what if I hated camping? I grew out of it! That was true, to an extent. Even in his adult life on Earth, he’d never strayed out further than the suburbs, even during his tenure as a butler. Try as he might to explain it away, they were all ultimately just excuses.

‘He’s living with a bunch of friendship loving animals, you say? That social recluse?’ It was his mental representation of his eldest sister’s turn to have her say. ‘He couldn’t care less about animals, never mind make friends with them. He wouldn’t know how!’

Again, Warren fought the thought. That’s not true! Everypony here is so nice; they aren’t just animals! It occurred to him that fighting with mental apparitions of his kin was the last thing he should be doing, but the voices kept coming. I couldn’t have been a butler if I lacked the social graces to interact with people! It was another lie he told himself. He knew it was one thing to be polite, respectful, and able to take orders, and a completely separate thing to truly interact with people.

‘Warren’s just as selfish as the rest of them.’ his father wheezed inside his head, as he plodded on deeper into the forest. ‘The boy wouldn’t even consider helping his siblings make amends.’

No, that’s not true. I’m nothing like them! His mind was screaming now. He could practically hear every word the mental avatars of his family spoke as they continued to tear apart his personality. Each word they spoke tore at him, striking true in his heart. An empty feeling slid in to replace his heart, and his stomach bottomed out.

‘Was I really like that before I came here to Equestria?’ It was a small, childlike voice that spoke this time. It took a few moments before he realized it to be his own, as it had been when he was a colt. ‘Have I really changed so much? Was I really that deluded? Maybe something good did come of me being here...’

Of course something good came of it! He slumped against a tree, exhausted. Scootaloo has someone who cares for her and wants to be there for her! I’m there for her!

Another voice, one he truly hated, filled his ears. ‘Oh poor human, so full of self doubt.’ Morrigan’s cool, hateful voice echoed around him, blotting out all else. He stared around, looking for the source of her voice, but could see nothing but the stand of leafless trees surrounding him. ‘Who is to say you are really making a difference? She has lots of friends who watch over her! You mean nothing but trouble to her and she’s better off without you!’

“Shut up, you horrid witch!” he mumbled weakly, before slipping and falling into the mud. “I know how she feels about me, and it ain’t that I’m a bother to her!” He pushed himself to his feet and strode on through the woods. “Even if she hasn’t come to terms with it, it’s almost certain that she sees me like some sort of big brother figure! She said as much about her dreams!”

‘Tut tut, frail human.’ The chiding voice rang out inside his head. ‘You should know more than anybody that dreams aren’t real, nor do they all have meaning!’ More of that sibilant laughter he’d come to associate with the Draconequus began to fill his mind. ‘A pony like her could never care about a sour man like yourself.’

“You’re probably right.” he said with a yawn, once again slumping against a tree. “Scootaloo doesn’t need someone like who I was back on Earth in her life.” His legs couldn’t hold him up any longer; he slid down into a sitting position at the base of the tree. “That’s why...” He felt so weak. “Equestria shaped me into the person she needs me to be.”

Warren grinned victoriously to himself as the voices inside his head grew silent. So what if I’ve changed? he thought happily to himself as his eyelids grew heavy. People change all the time! It’s just another learning experience...

- - -

Fluttershy sat in a cloud above the group, staring out across the orchards in the direction of the Everfree Forest as she waited anxiously for Princess Luna’s guards to return. The sooner they returned bearing the supplies, the sooner she and the others could confront Morrigan and Discord. She shuddered to think what the encounter would be like, and she wasn’t looking forward to it, but still she felt it necessary to think about.

It angered her more than she’d ever admit, hearing that Morrigan had taken the young fillies and colts of Ponyville hostage. What could she possibly gain from taking them? What did she plan to do with them? The questions flooded her mind, and the thought of a powerful being targeting children filled her with a fury she’d never felt before.

What made waiting even worse was that Goldenrod was out there, stumbling around the Everfree, possibly itching for a fight, and here she was stuck here on a cloud beside Rainbow Dash simply waiting. Every minute they wasted waiting was another missed opportunity to catch up with Goldenrod and warn him about his magic usage. The longer she waited, a dark whisper in the back of her mind insisted, the more likely she was to find him barely clinging on to life.

She felt incredibly sorry for him. In addition to the whole magic situation, he’d been stranded in an unfamiliar world, twice transformed against his will, and had been dragged into a conflict he needn’t be a part of. Even if she didn’t understand the situation completely, anypony could see how alienated somepony would feel in his situation. In spite of it all, he’d managed to bond with Ponyville’s loneliest filly and bring a light to her eyes that nopony had truly seen since her parents had died. None of it was fair; not for Goldenrod, and especially not for Scootaloo.

A piercing howl from somewhere in the Everfree took Fluttershy’s attention away from her dark ruminations. It had definitely been a timber wolf. She looked expectantly about the forest treeline, hoping to catch sight of the animal. Even if they were savagely feral and dangerous, she still couldn’t dislike them; they only acted according to their natures.

“You heard it too, huh?” Rainbow Dash said beside her.

Fluttershy nodded quietly, only half paying attention. It occurred to her that for an unpredictable, chaotic place where the elements of nature did not rely on pony shaping, the Everfree was incredibly still. Not a single tree stirred, as though the wind itself was afraid to be there on this day. The thought of the Everfree being still was somehow even more disconcerting than its ‘regular’ state of natural chaos.

Without warning, a pillar of large black birds shot out of the forest canopy off in the distance. The geyser of crows quickly dissipated, and she couldn’t help but watch as they circled strangely above the spot the murder had erupted from. There was something vaguely familiar about the way they flew, but at this distance, it was too hard to make what it was that was so familiar about it.

“Rainbow Dash,” Fluttershy whispered, pointing her hoof in the direction of the birds. “I wonder what the crows are circling?”

The rainbow maned pegasus looked thoughtfully at the murder of crows for a moment, and then back to Fluttershy. “Who knows?” she replied disinterestedly. “It’s the Everfree forest, Fluttershy. It’s about as random as you can get without Discord.” As if to accentuate Dash’s point, the avian mass of black circling over one spot in the Everfree flew apart in all directions.

Defeated, Fluttershy leaned back to stare up at the sky. “I guess you’re right.” she mumbled.

Down below, the pair of pegasi heard a shout. Peering over the edge of their cloud, they saw Pinkie Pie and Applejack down by the road helping one of Princess Luna’s royal guard back up towards the farmhouse. Even from this height they could tell something wasn’t right. His helmet was missing, and the membrane of his bat-like wings was torn.

Rainbow Dash was the first one down. Fluttershy gazed off in the direction of Ponyville one last time, hoping to catch sight of the other three guards following suit. Instead, she was treated to the sight of the citizens of Ponyville, gathering en masse at the bridge that spanned the river separating Ponyville from Sweet Apple Acres and the rest of the farmland. Each pony in the group bore either a torch or some blunt instrument they’d grabbed at random. Not needing to see any more, she rapidly descended to join the group in front of the farmhouse.

“My Princess!” the guardspony wheezed, leaning against Applejack’s strong shoulders. Fluttershy saw that he had been battered and bruised, his once gleaming chest-plate now dented and dirty. “The citizens of Ponyville have betrayed us!”

Everypony looked at him in shocked confusion. “Explain yourself!” Princess Luna responded almost too quickly, unable to completely mask her own fear. “Where is the rest of your unit?”

“We went into town for the supplies, like you asked. They were waiting for us.” he replied, coughing. Without warning, the guard spat out some teeth, as though his jarring cough had dislodged the already loosened teeth. Fluttershy winced as she realized they were his front teeth. “They had a mean look about them, like thome thort of red glint in their eyeth. They thouted that we were traitorth! Thaid we were harboring one of the monthterth that took the fillieth and coltth. They captured and beat uth; only I ethcaped. The otherth are thtill tied up in the town hall.”

Twilight Sparkle bowed her head toward the valiant guardspony. “Thank you, kind sir, for risking your life to get a warning to us.” She looked towards Princess Luna, awaiting an approving nod before continuing. Satisfied that she was not acting out of line, Twilight turned to Big Macintosh. “I know we’ve asked a lot of the Apple family as of late, but could you please see to it he recuperates? Take him inside and lock up tight.”

“Anythin’ for a family friend an’ the Princess.” Big Macintosh said gravely, bowing towards Princess Luna before helping her remaining guard into the farmhouse.

“Twilight Sparkle, I commend your compassion in the face of danger.” A tight-lipped smile played across Luna’s face. “My sister was most wise to place her trust in you. You would make a fine consort of the Royal Family.”

Twilight lowered her head, and cast a sidelong glance at Fluttershy. “I wish that I could say that my reasoning was purely compassionate, Princess Luna, but it would be a farce.” She heaved a heavy sigh before gazing off towards Ponyville. “I once said that all the ponies of Ponyville were crazy, and that is unfortunately true now. I think Morrigan has purposely turned Ponyville against us all in an attempt to distract us. Chances are that they went after your guards because they were trying to aid us by getting supplies.”

“If Big Macintosh, Scootaloo, and your guard are all safely locked up inside the farmhouse,” Twilight breathed deeply. “I don’t think they’ll go after them, as they aren’t perceived to be helping us. If we make a show of leaving the farm, they should have no reason to stay. They’ll either chase us until we lose them, or they might just chase us out of Ponyville.”

“No offense Twilight,” Rainbow Dash said with a snort. “But your plan stinks. It plays entirely on using us as bait. What kind of friend uses her friends as bait?”

Fluttershy watched anxiously as Twilight bit back a scathing retort. If they started arguing now, they might not have an opportunity to escape the mob that was bearing down on them even as they spoke. It was very important that she get their attention. “Um... Excuse me, girls? I think we should really-”

“Then why don’t you tell me your AMAZING PLAN, oh Great and Powerful Rainbow Dash!”

“Why are you comparing me to her?” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“‘Cause yer bein’ an attention horse!” interjected Applejack.

“GIRLS!” Princess Luna shouted, falling easily back into the Royal Canterlot Voice. She coughed, embarrassed as everypony turned their rapt attention on the Princess. “I believe Kind Fluttershy wishes to speak. Perhaps it would be wise to listen to what she has to say.”

Once everypony in the group had locked their gazes on Fluttershy, stage fright kicked in. “Oh, um...” she faltered, kicking idly at some dirt. “I just wanted to remind you about the angry torch-bearing mob bearing down on us!” she squeaked.

- - -

The atmosphere of the Everfree forest never changes, Scootaloo noted as she crept through the shade and bramble of the forest. So why does it feel so different? The sense of danger was still there, but at the same time, it felt like all the wildlife had fled the area. There wasn't the regular sensation of eyes bearing down on her at all angles, and somehow that was so much worse.

A chorus of crickets and cicadas sang to the filly as she followed Goldenrod's tracks. It struck her as odd that there were any crickets or cicadas in the Everfree at all, given the dark nature of the place. The only symptom that the place was still dangerous was the solitary howl of a timberwolf off in the distance. Every other time she'd ever been in or near the forest it had been deathly silent. It was reassuring to know that she'd at least hear danger before she saw it.

Despite Nurse Redheart’s warnings that she wasn't completely healed, Scootaloo used her fledgling wings to propel herself along the ground at a faster speed. She buzzed along an inch off the ground, following Goldenrod's bizarre footprints. It helped her feel safe as she flitted above the tracks, knowing that he had seemingly come through this area without incident.

As she went on through the woods, his tracks became more staggered, occasionally diverting to a tree. At these points, his footprints dragged out, where she thought he probably slid down against a tree to rest. Indeed, when she stopped to examine this last tree, there was fresh mud smeared against the tree. Maybe I'm close?

Sure enough, as she followed his trail into a small grove of zap apples trees, Scootaloo found Goldenrod slumped underneath one such trees. The trees were unmistakable with their rainbow-striped fruit, but it wasn't zap apple season. After all of the trouble the Cutie Mark Crusaders had gotten into during the last zap apple harvest, she knew the signs as good as anypony else, and she hadn’t seen any of them. Yet here she was, staring at a bunch of zap apples trees ripe for the picking.

Plodding up to his slumped form, she saw his eyes were closed, and that he was as still as stone. She wasn't even convinced he was breathing; that was how still he was. I'm too late, she thought to herself. Unable to think of anything else to do, Scootaloo climbed up onto Goldenrod's lap and rested the back of her head against his stomach.

Through half-lidded eyes, she stared up at the sky, through the canopy of the grove. A beautiful rainbow aurora danced above them. She just wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn't come. So much had happened lately, and as hard as she tried, she just couldn't shed a single tear. With one final sad sigh, she turned to nuzzle his chest one final time.

“I'm sorry I didn't make it in time...” she muttered to nopony. Slowly, she crawled off of her friend’s lap and cast one last forlorn look at him. As though to torture herself, she imagined his head shifting ever so slightly. What hurt most about it all was that his body was still warm, as though she’d missed him by mere moments.

Defeated, she turned to follow the trail back to Sweet Apple Acres. Explaining herself to everypony wasn’t something she was looking forward, but the shame of failing her friends made it difficult to care. The filly had made it no more than a couple of steps when something behind her growled.

Chapter 16

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Scootaloo turned slowly to face the source of the growl. It made her heart leap to her throat because it was a sound she knew all too well; she had heard that same sound from her own stomach many times. Staring at Goldenrod’s unmoving form, she thought she caught sight of a slight movement of his lips.

Hesitantly, the pegasus filly returned to her friend’s side. It hit her that in her panicked sorrow, she hadn’t thought to listen for his heartbeat. When she placed her ear firmly against his chest, she was rewarded with a faint but steady tattoo from his heart. This in turn caused her own heart to skip a beat.

A sharp intake of breath from the unconscious human caused her to leap back in surprise. It was as though somepony had punctured a balloon in reverse. The sudden intake of breath was followed by a series of coughs. His eyes wrenched open with a start, and as he grew more aware that he was conscious, he even brought one hand up to cover his mouth.

“Goldenrod, you’re alive!” she nearly screeched. In spite of her earlier belief that she had no tears left to shed, a single tear of joy spilled down her cheek. “I-I thought you died; I thought I was too late!”

With a dazed look in his eyes, he wiped a line of saliva from his chin on the back of his hand. “I almost did... I think.” he wheezed, seeming to gain some idea of where he was. “This body is in really rough shape because of that transformation. Nothing works as well as it should. Between my hunger and the way this body is stretched out, it’s a wonder I didn’t kick the bucket.”

Unappreciative of his nonchalance with his mortality, Scootaloo stared uneasily at him. She needed to tell him now. “Um... Goldenrod?” she said, pausing just long enough to be sure he was paying attention. “You probably shouldn’t use magic anymore... Twilight says that it is slowly killing you. Something about your life-force and magic being the same.”

He squinted at her through his eyeglasses, as though he were unsure what to think. With one hand, he removed his glasses, before massaging his closed eyes and the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “Twilight actually said that to you?” he asked grimly. “What the heck is wrong with her?”

“Um... she didn’t, not really.” she muttered, blushing. “I kinda was supposed to be in the farmhouse, not spying.”

Goldenrod opened his eyes, one eyebrow half-raised, and gave her an appraising smile. “I guess that explains why you didn’t stay back at the farm with Mac like I asked you to.” He shook his head; she couldn’t tell if it was mirth or disbelief. “Oh the troubles that plague my life. I’ve got a body that could quit at any minute because it can’t handle being stretched to this size, a little sister who can’t keep her butt out of trouble, and now apparently every time I use magic I’m one step closer to the edge, and I’m about to break.”

“Well... if it helps, we are sitting in a grove full of zap apples,” she offered meekly, still somewhat caught off-guard by his sister comment. “Do you really see me like a sister?”

Goldenrod didn’t speak. Instead, he glanced around at the grove before tucking his glasses, which had still been in one of his hands, into the neckline of his shirt. “Well... I suppose things ain’t all bad.” he said with a self-deprecating laugh. He jumped to his feet and stretched. “My eyes are well enough that I can make out things now. Just... don’t ask me to read when I don’t have the glasses on.” He added a sly wink to punctuate that point.

“Well...” Scootaloo felt a pang of guilt, remembering the very moment she’d first met him. She felt compelled to say something, but couldn’t think of anything worthwhile. “That’s...convenient?”

The growl of his stomach was the only answer he seemed to have to that question. Staring up at the zap apples in the large tree directly above him, he clapped his hands together. “So, who wants lunch?” He sounded a lot cheerier thinking about food, but she supposed being told he would die if he used too much magic would make him take delight in a lot of the little things. “What did you call them, Zack apples?”

“Zap apples.”

Goldenrod gave her a goofy grin, and jumped up in the air, seizing a tree-branch in his hands. He swung himself back and forth in a manner that reminded Scootaloo of a friendly monkey that Fluttershy had once introduced the Crusaders to. With an exaggerated grunt, the human swung his legs up to a thicker adjacent branch, wrapping them firmly around it. From there, she watched as he arched his back and reached one arm towards another branch above him, righting himself on the branch he was perched upon.

She couldn’t make out the expression on his face, but he seemed to be amused by something. “So,” he began with a laugh, tossing down a pair of apples. “I can’t be the only one to imagine that Applejack and Rainbow Dash had something to do with these things coming into the world, can I?”

“No...” Scootaloo responded, ducking as four more apples dropped down. “Granny Smith found a grove of zap apples in the Everfree when she wasn’t much older than Applejack. There are even some zap apple trees up at Sweet Apple Acres-”

“I... Never mind,” he said with a sigh. Without warning, he tilted sideways, hanging upside down from the tree-branch. He looked downright silly, hanging there with his part of his shirt hanging down at his armpit while he clutched a piece of rainbow fruit in each hand. Eagerly, he stuffed a piece of fruit into his mouth and used his free hand to grab the tree branch.

When he finally jumped down from the tree, he had already finished eating the first apple, core and all. By the time he had the second one half eaten, she said, “Hungry?”

“Mmm, yes.” Goldenrod said through a mouthful of apple. “Haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. These are delicious. They make my lips all tingly. Go on! You eat up too, so you can be nice and strong like Rainbow Dash.”

Scootaloo knew that he was probably right; she hadn’t eaten anything this morning either, and she had to admit that she was hungry as well. Too often, she found herself not eating properly as a result of living on her own. While she was able to have a proper meal when her friends’ families would have her, it just wasn’t the same. With great vigor, she grabbed the apple in the crux of her hoof.

Just as she was about to bite into her own apple, Goldenrod dropped his and fell to the ground, convulsing. She watched in horror as his flesh began to bulge beneath his clothes, as though somepony had hooked him up to a helium pump like some sort of grotesque flesh balloon. Just as suddenly as it began, it ended. His swollen flesh began to retreat back into itself. When this horrifying turn of events was finished, she was astonished to see that, while he was still lean, he no longer looked as though his flesh was stretched beneath a skeleton.

Pushing himself up into a sitting position, he groaned and rubbed his head with one hand. “Well...” he said, flexing and examining his other hand in front of his face. “That just happened.”

“W-what just happened?” Scootaloo inquired, confused. “You’re not skinny any more!”

Goldenrod sat and mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I’m still new to magic, but this stand of trees was dead when I got here...since I’m practically bleeding magic, and plants seem to have a mind of their own around me when I’m not paying attention...” He broke off his thought, and furrowed his brow. “Twilight would probably say something like ‘The Draconequus magic embedded in the fruit interacted with the interrupted spell cast by Morrigan, temporarily reactivating it, drawing energies from the fruit to create extra muscle and bone mass.’” He waved his hand idly. “I’m sure it’ll have no effect on you, but all the same, better safe than sorry.”

He rose to his feet again, and frowned. “Now, lets get you back to the farm.” The look on his face told her that he was dead serious. “Oh, don’t give me that look. I know you want to help, but I don’t want to see you h-uhhh... Aaaah...”

Goldenrod turned away and began sneezing violently away from the filly. Each time he sneezed, a gout of pale mist shot forth from his nose and mouth. Instead of dissipating, however, it began to coalesce into a solid white shape. Scootaloo didn’t know what this thing was, other than the fact that it looked as though it was made of bone. The look on Goldenrod’s face told her that he knew vaguely what it was, and did not like it one bit.

When he finally did stop sneezing, they both heard a voice. “Oh I think that’s enough tomfoolery out of you, Mr. Ashland.” The voice was cold and cruel, the owner sounding most bored. “My sister would very much like to get her magic back from you before you end up killing yourself and wasting it all.”

- - -

The angry mob made its presence known long before they came came into sight on the road to the farm; shouts of “Give us back our foals!” and “We know you’re working with the monsters!” could be heard well ahead of them. Even having faced down dragons, manticores, and hydras, Twilight found facing down a mob of ponies she knew no less daunting. What made it worse was the fact that she spoke with most of these ponies on a daily basis, and the thought of having to defend herself against them scared her most of all.

Finally the mob came into sight, and the gravity of situation began to sink in. Everypony in Ponyville had gathered, even those who hadn’t any foals of their own. At the front of the herd were the Cakes, brandishing rolling-pins. Close to the front, she could make out Bon-Bon bearing a torch. Riding the crowd not far from Bon-Bon was Lyra, holding up a sign that bore the words ‘Give me his hands!’

Twilight turned to her friends. “Alright, it’s like we discussed.” She nodded to Princess Luna. “The Princess and I shall attempt to speak reason with them. Obviously, if Morrigan has influenced them, it will be a diversionary tactic at best. Meanwhile, you four head north and then loop around west. We’ll meet you on the edge of the Everfree.”

As Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, Rarity, Applejack, and Rainbow Dash ran off to the north in the direction of the burned section of the orchard, Twilight Sparkle marched anxiously behind Princess Luna towards the advancing mob. She envied the bravado the Princess was able to show in light of what they faced. She knew that, sadly, the Princess of the Night was used to such treatment since her return; even after earning popularity on that fateful Nightmare Night, her subjects still treated her as an outsider. Being treated like a traitor was surely no different.

The Princess stopped suddenly, fanning out her wings and spacing her hooves evenly. If Twilight had been paying attention to the mob instead of the Moon Princess, she would have run straight into the royal flank. Peering beneath the Princess’s wing, she saw the mass of angry ponies cease their forward advance. They looked warily at the threatening display put on by the royal Alicorn.

“Citizens of Ponyville, return to your homes!” Luna shouted in the Royal Canterlot Voice. “You have been deceived!”

“Don’t lie to us!” Mrs. Cake replied, shaking her rolling pin at the Princess. This drew a murmur of assent from the crowd behind her. “We know you’re hiding the monsters that took our babies!”

“You tell her, honeybun!” Mr. Cake added in.

“Everypony, please!” Twilight pleaded to the group, stepping beneath Luna’s wing to make herself seen as she did so. “We’re telling you the truth. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom were taken too! How could we be hiding the ones that took them? How would you even know whether or not we had anything to do with this?”

The mob seemed to take this question seriously for a moment. She could make out murmurs of ‘Who told you, anyway?’ and ‘She has a point!’ among them. Even the Cakes, angry at the foalnapping of their toddler twins, seemed unsure now. The crowd seemed all too ready to disperse.

Then it happened; somepony in the crowd screamed, “She’s a witch; you can’t trust her! Remember how she attempted to sabotage the crops during the that winter wrap-up!” A chorus of ‘Oh yeah!’ rang out among the crowd. “Burn her! Burn the witch!”

All at once, torches and miscellaneous objects were hurled towards Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna. If not for her innate talent for magic, and lessons from her brother in casting a barrier spell, she might not have been able to protect herself. Rolling pins, pitchforks, and even a sofa were just among a few of the objects that bounced harmlessly off of Twilight’s magical protective shell.

Once the initial barrage of objects subsided, the Alicorn, using her mouth, grabbed Twilight roughly by her tail, and swung her onto her back. “Twilight Sparkle, please hang on. I am not used to flying with a passenger, so this may be rough,” the Princess shouted as she took flight.

Without pause, they were barreling south at breakneck speed, a cloud of pegasi hot on their tails. As the Ponyville Dam—the landmark that marked the end of the available cover—came into sight, Princess Luna quickly dove beneath the treeline. Instead of continuing on this course, the Moon Princess veered off west, towards the Everfree forest. Once they were free of the orchard and their pursuers, they flew north, where their friends surely waited.

- - -

“Oh sure, Discord. I’ll come right along with you. I was hoping to hear from one of you anyway.” Warren said nonchalantly. “Just two things.”

“Oh?” the Draconequus spoke through the human skeleton, thoroughly unamused. “And what might those be?”

Warren folded his forearms in front of himself, watching as the skeleton paced back and forth. He wasn’t sure, due to the lack of eyes in the skeleton, but he thought it was eying up Scootaloo. “Firstly, before I come with you, let me return Scootaloo to the farm.” He turned his head just enough to give the school-filly a sidelong glance. She looked like she was going to object, but catching his gaze, she thought better of it. “Secondly... Why a skeleton... Why out of my nose?”

The skeleton shrugged, and held its hands palm up at its sides. “What is it you humans say?” Discord’s voice resounded from within the skeletal maw. “‘When you sneeze, it’s your skeleton trying to escape your body’?”

“Even if you weren’t wrong—it’s the soul, not skeleton by the way—it’s still goddamn stupid.” Warren replied grimly.

The skeleton parted its jaw again, permitting the escape of an empty laugh. “Well, I thought it was amusing.” The voice lacked all humor. “At any rate, I will have to decline your terms. If the filly goes home, there will be no motivation for you to behave. I guess I will simply have to beat you into submission.”

Discord hadn’t finished speaking when the skeleton launched itself at him. Caught off guard by the attack, Warren fell to the ground, the bony assailant atop him. Its clawed fingertips raked across the shoulders of his shirt, raising bruised welts across his flesh. He knew then, as he fought to pry the skeleton’s wrists away from his neck, that it had been an excellent idea to reinforce the material of his clothes.

“Scootaloo, keep back, but be on your guard.” he growled, kicking the skeleton off of him. “There could be more of them.”

In the time it took him to rise back to his feet, the skeleton was already bearing down on the orange filly. Warren didn’t even think. He reached out with his magic, and smashed the skeleton down into the ground. It was the first time he’d even tried non-plant magic in a few days, and he could feel the draining effects of it. Maybe Twilight’s right?

Striding over the skeleton embedded in the ground, he gazed down at the Scootaloo. She’d seen him use magic, and was now crying. “Please, please! Don’t use magic any more!” she cried. “I don’t want you to die!”

Kneeling down beside her, beneath the zap apple tree, he swept her bangs out of her face. “I know,” he whispered. “I just can’t save our friends without it. I just can’t stand idly by just because I don’t want to die.”

She looked up into his eyes, and then looked past him. A look of terror crossed her face. Before he had the opportunity to turn and look, he felt the skeletal claws of his foe grip his shoulder and wrench him away from the little pegasus. He tumbled back a few feet away from the filly. Jumping to his feet, he immediately made to dive back at his attacker.

By this time, the skeleton had already grabbed Scootaloo by her tail and now held her helplessly above its head. It held up one clawed finger, waggling it mockingly at him while swinging the filly down between them. “Tut, tut. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your filly-friend, would you?”

Warren stopped in his tracks, glaring at the Discord’s skeletal avatar. “You monster!” he mumbled under his breath. The Draconequus puppeteer knew that he would never harm the filly and aimed to exploit that fact. It just stood there beneath the tree, smugly using the filly as a shield. Wait... the tree!

Taking a deep breath, the human slumped his shoulders, turned his back on the skeleton. “So you finally see that fighting my puppet is pointless?” Discord’s voice sounded relieved. “Good! I’m sure Morrigan will be most pleased to get her power back.”

Ignoring the vitriolic words hammering into his ears, and drowning out all sound, Warren closed his eyes and focused; he would only have one chance at this and he had to make it work. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the surface of the tree becoming like thick tree sap. Mentally casting a stone into the tree, he imagined the stone sinking in and becoming stuck forever, like an insect in amber. Keeping his attention partially on this mental image, he began a buildup of telekinetic energy.

At the very moment he began to feel weak, he wrenched his eyes open and swung around, locking his eyes on the skeleton. Discord’s skeletal puppet hadn’t even the time to react; the telekinetic blast discharged into the skeleton’s chest like a hammer fist, shattering its ribs and sending it flying backwards into the tree. Instead of shattering against the thick trunk, the skeleton sank like a stone in a pond, until only its grim visage and the hand clutching the filly were all that jutted from the tree.

Releasing the spell on the tree, Warren collapsed to his knees and fell onto his side. His entire body felt drained, as though he’d just run the Indie 500 on foot. By now, he knew the sensation all too well: magical exhaustion. If he hadn’t been so concerned with the safety of Scootaloo, he might have found it amusing to ponder if this was what the author of Introduction to Unicorn Magic: Useful Cantrips for Fillies and Colts meant when they warned that it was incredibly dangerous for even the most experienced unicorns to operate multiple magical spells at once in dire situations. It was so incredibly taxing that he couldn’t move.

Looking up at Scootaloo, he said, “You alright?”

“Kinda...” the purple-maned filly responded. “You have no idea how much it hurts being held up by your tail.”

“I can ima-” he moaned before noticing a large black minotaur had entered the clearing. “Damn it!”

The minotaur had noticed them almost immediately. Warren’s stomach sank as he saw a dismembered arm hanging from its neck like a grisly trophy: the lone survivor of the trio that had attacked the previous night. With a loud snort, the ebony beast stomped up to the tree, and grabbed the protruding skeleton arm, filly and all. Scootaloo screamed. It turned to Warren and grinned, its eyes glinting red in the light bleeding through the forest canopy.

“You let her go, you son of a-” The minotaur booted him in the head. In the haze of his fading consciousness, Warren felt something thick and firm wrap around his leg. There was the vaguest impression that he was being dragged somewhere. Blackness enveloped all.

- - -

Scootaloo couldn’t believe what had happened. Goldenrod had tried so hard—risked so much—to protect her, and all his effort had gone to waste the instant the minotaur had showed up. It simply kicked him in the head and grabbed him and dragged them both through the woods. It had dragged them for hours through the forest.

In the end, the minotaur had dragged the two of them across a rickety old rope-bridge and into a castle. She knew of the place—all of the Crusaders did—but had never been there before. It didn’t look nearly as old as she had expected; if anything the castle looked brand new. The corridor the minotaur dragged them down was pristine, with its macabre stained-glass art casting creepy light displays on the floor. It didn’t help calm her nerves when she saw candle holders made of pony skulls lining the corridor.

The great beast didn’t make a sound as it lugged them both down a side corridor and down a flight of stairs. The room they emerged into a large dungeon. In the center of it was a massive dais, with bindings at either end. Along the far wall was a large cell marked by iron bars. Scootaloo’s heart sank as she saw that the cell was filled with ponies she knew, most of them her age or younger. Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle peered out through the bars at her, the Cake foals nestled between them.

Lumbering forward, the minotaur approached the dais and slammed Goldenrod down upon it. There was a scream from the unconscious human, but the ebony monster didn’t care, it just continued on towards towards the cell. When they reached the cell door, the bestial grunt of their captor was all the group of foals needed to hear to know to back off. Without warning, it spit a key into its massive palm, and opened the door with it.

Unceremoniously tossing Scootaloo into the cell, the minotaur guard slammed the door and locked it, placing the key in its mouth when it was done. It returned to the giant stone slab and proceeded to strap the unconscious human firmly to the slab. It hit Scootaloo then that the straps on the slab matched Goldenrod’s form almost perfectly. Contented with its work, it left without a sound.

“This is all your fault!” a malicious voice came from one corner of the cell. Scootaloo turned to see Diamond Tiara, her light pink form trembling in the corner with the gray filly that was unmistakably Silver Spoon. “This all happened because of you and your weird new blank-flank friend! Those Draconequus things said so! I promise; when my daddy comes and saves me, I’ll make sure he-”

“Oh shut up!” Scootaloo shouted, tears streaming from her eyes. Her outburst startled everypony else in the cell. She was fuming; not only was that Draconequus likely to take all the life out of the only pony that treated her like she was truly family and not just a friend, but now she was stuck in a cell with the most insufferable filly in all of ponyville. “You're just a prissy pony whose only talent is spending her daddy’s money on stuff that doesn't even matter in the world! I’m surprised the minotaur doesn’t just eat you!”

“How dare you speak to her like that!” Silver Spoon interjected. “You have no-”

“No, you listen!” Scootaloo retorted, storming up to the stuck-up filly duet. “Unless the next words out of either of your mouths are a way to get out of here and get my friend off that slab, the both of you are going to have to ask Granny Smith...” She jabbed a hoof against Silver Spoon’s chest for emphasis. “... for advice on a good denture supplier!”

Convinced that the two snobby fillies weren’t about to test Scootaloo’s resolve, she strode back to her two friends and the Cake siblings. Breathing heavily from her angry outburst, she sat down next to Apple Bloom and stared down at the ground. The last of her bravado crumbled away, and she began to sob. Without a word, Apple Bloom pulled Scootaloo into a close hug.

“This is it, isn’t it?” she said, defeated. “Now that Draconequus is going to get her power back, Goldenrod is gonna die, and nopony is ever gonna find us!”

A slight smile crossed Sweetie Belle’s pale face. “That isn’t true...” She pointed one hoof out through the bars at the stairs. “Look!”

Chapter 17

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“Look, Applejack! Their tracks lead straight into that grove o—” Rainbow Dash shouted from the front of the group.

“Now just ya’ll wait a moment! Zap apples can’t be in season!” shouted the stalwart earth pony. She trotted on ahead of the group to join the rainbow pegasus at the edge of a deep forest grove. Not wanting to be left behind, the remaining bearers of the Elements of Harmony and the lunar princess ran to catch up. “Y’all be careful now. Somethin’ don’t smell right about this here place.”

Princess Luna leaned down to Twilight Sparkle’s level. “What has fair Applejack so on edge about this place?” the Princess whispered. “Surely a stand of apple trees would be reassuring to her, if nothing else.”

The uninformed candor of Princess Luna surprised Twilight, until she realized that there was a high probability that the zap apple species hadn’t become common knowledge until after the Alicorn been exiled to the moon. Sparing the Princess the sad reminder of her exile, she whispered, “Zap apples are a magical apple cultivar unique to the Everfree area. They bear fruit only once a year, and not without any of the signs showing first.” She cast a wary glance at the rainbow fruit. “The zap apple season has already passed this year...”

“There ain’t been none of the signs, Princess, an’ that’s what worries me about this place.” Applejack had come up beside the two of them quietly. “Sorry, Ah didn’t mean to intrude. It’s just that’s my livelihood. I know them signs all too well, an’ there ain’t been none of them. No timber wolves howlin’...”

“Actually-” Fluttershy tried to interject.

“... no leaves, no crows...” Applejack continued.

“But we did see some crows, and heard a timber wolf howling, too!” Rainbow Dash said, catching on to what Fluttershy was trying to get at. “I even noticed a meteor shower when we had to flee!”

Applejack turned to face the competitive pegasus. “But that don’t make a lick of sense!” she muttered. “This here takes weeks, not hours!”

“Unless...” Twilight whispered, igniting her horn. Quietly, she approached one of the trees in the grove and pressed the tip of her horn against it. She winced, and then pulled her extinguished horn away. “It’s as I feared...” she said with a sigh.

“Oh Twilight, there’s nothing to fear!” Pinkie Pie said, bouncing on the spot, having misread the implication. Giggling, she added, “It’s just a bunch of trees. We’ve conquered scary trees before!”

“No, Pinkie, it’s not that.” Twilight looked down at the ground. “Everything in this grove is tainted with the energies of draconequus magic. Goldenrod was definitely here, and he’s bleeding magic at an incredible rate... It seems a foregone conclusion that these trees all fed on that magic and grew at an accelerated rate.”

Fluttershy looked downcast hearing this, but she threw on an optimistic smile. “At least we know he was here, right?”

Twilight looked up at the bearer of the Element of Kindness and smiled. “You’re right, of course, Fluttershy.” she said softly. “Alright everypony, let’s spread out and see what we can find-”

“Um... Twilight?” It was Rainbow Dash, calling from deeper in the orchard. She had already gone ahead, and found something already. “I think you’re gonna wanna see this.”

Everypony ran as fast as they could, anxious to find what Rainbow Dash could possibly have found. They found the rainbow pegasus mare hovering in front of a rather thick zap apple tree, hoof pointing at something that nopony could make out from their side of the tree. “Is that...”

As Twilight and the others came to stand beside Rainbow Dash, they saw what was so fascinating about the tree; half sunken into the solid bark of the tree was a skull—much like the one Twilight was still seeing in her sleep—and a skeletal forearm that had been broken off at the elbow. Fluttershy screamed upon seeing it, fearing the worst.

“It’s okay, sugar-cube.” Applejack calmly whispered, placing a reassuring hoof on the yellow mare’s shoulder. “‘Tain’t him.”

“I dunno about that Applejack.” Rainbow Dash scoffed. “There’s signs of a fight here, and somepony was with him, too. Look!” She pointed at a small set of hoof prints on the forest floor.

“These are much too small to have been made by any of us.” Rarity agreed. “They’re definitely a pony’s tracks... a young filly judging by the daintiness of them...” She paused, noticing a fuchsia lock of hair on the ground not far from the tracks. “Oh no... Scootaloo... you didn’t...”

“I found a clue!” Pinkie Pie shouted, hanging upside-down from the tree. “Look! It’s a trail of flowers!”

- - -

“Wake up, you pitiful fool!” a cold, vicious voice commanded. Warren could hear the crying of foals start anew at the sound of the voice. “Your time has come-”

“Oh, spare me your prattling, devil witch!” he spat, not bothering to open his eyes. The human tugged against his bonds, trying to find comfort, but his entire body ached. “You can have your damn magic back on just two conditions.”

A large paw grabbed hold of his face, wrenching his head to one side. “You are hardly in a position to make demands, you spineless worm.” Morrigan snarled. “Give me one good reason why I should even bother hearing your demands.”

“Easy.” he replied smugly, his voice dripping venom. “My life is tied to the magic. All I need to do to ruin your plans is die; it wouldn’t take too much effort to set off a telekinetic blast inside my own brain, you know.”

The hairy paw—a lions paw, he knew—left his face and slammed down on the surface he was laying on. “Very well,” the Draconequus said, with a hint of amusement edging her voice. “What are these... terms of yours?”

“Firstly, let the foals go. You have no further use for them, so holding them here is of no benefit for you.” he said loudly, hoping the foals could hear him. “If any harm comes to any of them, our deal is off and you can kiss your magic goodbye.”

He heard throaty laughter from the Draconequus, which caused him to open his eyes. She was hovering horizontally above him, grinning like a madwoman. “That can be arranged.” she purred. “... and your second request?”

Warren smiled, stealing a peak towards the large cage the foals of Ponyville were locked up. Scootaloo was looking at him with a look of betrayal. She has every right to be mad at me. I told her I’ll be there for her and protect her, and now I’m using my life as a bargaining chip for her safety. He turned his head to face the filly. “Don’t be mad, Scootaloo. If it means you’ll live, I’d gladly give myself up as payment to the Ferryman of the River Styx himself.”

“Charming,” Morrigan moaned, sounding bored. Warren turned his head back to face her just in time to catch her lowering a raised brow. “Your second request: you’ve yet to make it.”

“Oh yes, my second request.” he said with a hollow laugh. “Tell me three things. Why did you bring me here? Why did you make me a pony? What is it you need all this magic within me for?”

“Is that all you wish to know?” She sounded almost amused again. “There are are many questions you could; were those were all your puny mind could come up with?” Morrigan snorted derisively. “Fine, I can answer your questions, if you’ll indulge me as I tell my tail’s tale.

“Long ago, your ancestors lived here in Equestria. They were just barbaric tribes, scattered across the land, fighting to survive. Without the affinity for nature, weather, or magic that ponies had, they relied entirely on their ability to adapt and invent. Unfortunately, they were easy prey for dragons, manticores, and creatures that have long since ceased to be. With each passing year there were less and less of them in the world.

“Discord and I, in our boredom, came across one such tribe purely by chance. Despite their chaotic nature—for even in their dwindling numbers, they often fought one another—Discord took no interest in them, citing how ‘boring’ and ‘predictable’ they were. I, on the other hand, recognized their propensity for violence. I felt it a shame to see such delightful creatures die off.

“I thought to myself, ‘How can I keep such darling beings from being wiped out?’ I knew that nowhere on this planet would be safe. Using my innate magics, I peered through many realities, searching for a place where they could thrive. Again and again, I saw unsuitable worlds—full of ponies, dragons and worse—much like this Equestria, yet markedly different each time.

“It was when I had almost given up on the prospect that I found a world outside the normal flow of time, at the very edge of my reach. For every second, I saw a minute pass, and for every minute an hour, so-on and so-forth. In just a week, I watched a year worth of time pass. In that time, I saw no hint of ponies developing society, no dragons, and no manticores. Better yet, there were humans already there were at roughly the same developmental stage! It was the perfect place for Equestria’s humans to thrive.

“Two thousand years ago, I appeared before the chieftains of each human tribe and directed them towards one location. To them, I promised the opportunity to compete in a tournament for leadership of the combined tribes, and from there more tribes that they could conquer, if only the victor swore his tribe’s fealty to me. Through a gloriously bloody battle, the supreme chieftain rose to power. Craving more combat, he implored me where the promised tribes were.

“Using most of my energies, I created a link between this world and the one I had found in my scrying. I told him to lead his tribe through the gateway that lay before us, and he would find vast lands unspoilt by ponies and dragons, one where his tribe could thrive and conquer. Eagerly, he lead the thousands of his horde through unto your world, Earth. Thus, humans were all but written out of the annals of pony history.”

Warren gaped at her, surprised by the pride she exhibited while speaking of this act. It wasn’t just that, though. In the back of his mind, he’d been tallying up the time differential as she spoke. “That was... one hundred twenty thousand years ago!” he whispered. “... but that means I’ve been gone for almost two and a half years!”

“That’s right, Mister Ashland.” Morrigan replied sweetly. “I was just getting to that part of the story.” The Draconequus cleared her throat. “Not wanting to miss out on the fun of manipulating my new subjects, I too entered the portal. Upon exiting, I found the tribes in disarray. Dozens of the tribesmen hadn’t appeared on the other side—”

“Which, accounting for the time differential, would explain the random humans cropping up and—” Warren stopped himself. “God, I sound like Twilight. Sorry, carry on.”

“In addition, the combined tribes suddenly felt that the supreme chieftain’s rule was illegitimate. This, of course, was my own doing; I wanted them to spread and proliferate themselves as much as possible. Because of this, the Equestrian tribes merged with, conquered, or formed alliances with the Earth tribes.

“Through them, I was able to spread my influence, becoming worshipped as a deity by many names. Even in my weakened state, planting whispers in the backs of their minds was no trouble. I would squirrel away my true power for the next hundred thousand years, so that once again I could create the portal on a more powerful scale. In times when my interference was not needed, I slept.

“They socially developed as I wanted them to. Technologically, they were more than I could ever have hoped for. Nations formed and toppled around their religions. Men on both sides of battles fought in my name. It was absolutely delectable. Soon humanity would become the ultimate weapon of chaos to exact carnage upon Equestria.

“It was around fifty or sixty Earth years ago, with the advent of the blasted United Nations, that all my hard work began to unravel. Too quickly did your kind became interested in peace and security instead of strife and chaos. I knew, then, that the only way your people were likely to go to war with Equestria was if something from the other side struck first.

“I knew that I needed my brother in order to create the hostile ‘first contact’ scenario that would send your kind into a rage, but I couldn’t waste a portal. It was quite a bind. The only way to cross the Divide was with the portal, or to die and let your soul get caught in the currents, to be carried on to its next life, in the next universe. I couldn’t just die either; all the magic I had stored over the last hundred thousand years would go to waste if I did.

“So I waited and watched. I began to notice patterns in my scrying. Human souls, when crossing the Divide, would often snare other, more magical entities as they surged through the currents. I could even predict what soul would go to which realm. I surmised that I might be able to catch a ride on one such soul, if it were destined to my Equestria.

“Imagine how frustrated I was when I found out that out of the six billion souls on that rock, only a few dozen were destined for this Equestria, and none of them seemed ready to die. So, I found a mind that was significantly... weakened by alcohol, and planted a suggestion. Thus, you walked out in front of a bus.”

“You what!?” Warren screamed, thrashing against his bindings. “You killed me just so you could get here at your own convenience!? I’ll tear your goddamn heart out!”

“Oh, that’s enough of that,” Discord said, appearing from nowhere. “Let the old girl talk!” With a snap of Discord’s avian fingers, Warren’s mouth fused shut. Discord took delight in the human’s muffled shouting. “Now, you were saying, dear sister?”

“Thank you, Discy; that’s so sweet!” Morrigan said with a girlish laugh. “Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. I was getting to the part where you stole all my magic.

“As you were dying, I disposed of my physical form and followed your spirit through, using your body as a conduit. I had hoped to speed ahead and get to Equestria sooner, but my attempt yielded only a collision in the current. At that instant, our essences merged, but still you tore away, faster than I could follow. You tore through the divide sooner than the universe had planned; there was no body for you.

“Why did you become a unicorn colt? Who can say? Perhaps you were always destined to be one when you got here. Equestria works in mysterious ways. I’ve seen things happen that even a draconequus can’t explain.” The draconequus shrugged. “But enough of that now. I’ve grown bored of this. I will give you one hour to ponder your life.”

Discord snapped his clawed fingers. Warren glared at the draconequus, but didn’t speak when his mouth unsealed. He wasn’t sure he could do anything but scream obscenities and death threats at this point. With one final glare at Morrigan, he shut his eyes, and tried slowly to breathe away the rage he felt.

“Know this, though,” the draconequus said, with the hint of amusement in her voice. She leaned in to whisper into his ear so that only he would hear. “I can most certainly spare enough energy to let you live long enough to watch both worlds burn. Whether I do so is up to you.”

- - -

“Goldenrod?” Sweetie Belle called out through the bars. She was looking out at the human who, despite having his eyes shut tight, had a steady stream of tears coming from the corner of his eye. He’d been that way since the draconequi left not half an hour ago. “Are you really already dead?”

“Don’t bother, he doesn’t really care,” Scootaloo mumbled, not looking at the human. The unicorn daughter of the Cake family, Pumpkin Cake, had cuddled herself against Scootaloo for warmth. “He just wants a clean conscience before she kills him. If we get out of this alright, he couldn’t care less.”

“Ah don’t think that’s true,” Apple Bloom replied softly. “Before she passed on, Momma always said ‘It takes a lot of love to take care of another pony, but it takes even more love to die for them.’ Ah always wondered what she meant by it, but now, Ah know what she meant. It’s not that he don’t care ‘bout you; it’s that he cares too much ‘bout you to let this happen.”

Scootaloo looked up at her friend appreciatively. “Sometimes I forget you lost your parents too.” She ushered her friend close and pulled her in for a hug. “I used to be jealous of you, y’know. You had Big Macintosh, Applejack, and Granny Smith. Who did I have? You two... and nopony else! ...and then Goldenrod came along and he was something special! I thought I finally started to understand what Big Macintosh was to you. Now that he’s gonna die again, I don’t wanna lose him.”

Nuzzling her friend, Apple Bloom smiled. “Ah know, sugar-cube, Ah know.”

“But look, you guys!” Sweetie Belle said, pointing at the stairs again.

Scootaloo looked at her friend crossly. “You keep saying that, but won’t tell us! What is up with the stairs?”

“The flower trail!” she said, beaming at them before staring back out at Goldenrod. “If that trail came all the way from where you were taken, our sisters and everypony could follow it straight here!”

“By Celestia, she’s right, Scootaloo!” Apple Bloom hugged her tightly. “It’ll all be okay now! Applejack will come save us, an’ then Goldenrod doesn’t have to—” She cut herself short, her eyes wide, staring up at the ceiling.

“Oh, do continue, little pony.” Discord said, floating down to the filly’s eye level. “They’ll follow flower-boy’s path and... ? No answer? Oh well.” He sighed before shouting, “Sister, oh sister! You might want to expedite your little plan! We’re going to have company!”

With a loud crack, Morrigan appeared beside the dais. She stared at the stairs and then back to Goldenrod. Shaking her head, she muttered, “Oh well. I wanted to be generous, but I guess half an hour is enough for you.”

“If you’re going to do it, send the foals away first. Send them back home!” He all but spat in her face.

“Fine, fine, you insistent pest!” Discord said from within the cell. “All the fillies and colts who aren’t of use to us can go free.” With a snap of those clawed digits, Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo watched as all the other fillies and colts vanished from the cell.

Goldenrod stared into the cell in disbelief. “We had a deal! Why are they still here?” he shouted with incredulous rage.

“Oh, I don’t recall making any deals,” the snide voice of Morrigan cooed. “I only recall listening to your requests.” She laughed deviously.

“Besides, I said the ponies who were of no use to us,” Discord said with a cruel laugh. “These three are here to ensure you don’t cause any trouble.”

“Now, time for me to claim what is rightfully mine!” she shrilled gleefully. “Maybe you’ll even live to see the my work in full.”

Scootaloo stared in horror as Morrigan’s eagle claw plunged through Goldenrod’s shirt into his chest. She didn’t flinch as she watched him scream in agony. It was absolutely ear-splitting, but she didn’t dare look away. He was doing this for her. His sacrifice would not be forgotten.

After minutes of rooting around as though his torso were a toy-chest, the draconequus withdrew a glowing silver egg-like object. It pulsated with magic as she held it above her head. Goldenrod’s voice had failed completely. With a maniacal laugh, Morrigan dropped the egg into her fanged maw.

“Come now, fillies. We must go up to the atrium.” Morrigan laughed. “You’re about to have a one of a kind trip.”

As Discord opened the cell from within, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle cast their eyes away from Goldenrod. When Scootaloo passed by the dais up the stairs, she didn’t avert her eyes. She took in the sight of her friend, the blood pooling beneath him on the altar, and the sacrifice he made, and swore the draconequus would regret it.

“Goodbye, big brother.” she whispered, letting a single tear roll down her cheek.

- - -

Princess Luna looked pensive as they walked through the ancient castle. Twilight knew that Luna was probably marveling at the way the castle had been restored from a crumbling ruin, as well as reflecting on the last time she had been there. All those years ago, she and her friends had fought Nightmare Moon in an atrium not far from the entrance corridor—even longer so, she'd fought Celestia herself here. It hadn’t been the Princess’s proudest time, being possessed by the Nightmare. Still, Twilight marveled at the resolve the Princess showed as they marched down the corridor.

The same could not be said about the rest. Fluttershy cringed at the candle-bearing skulls mounted on the walls as they walked past, and flinched at every shadow. Rainbow Dash and Rarity had fallen into a frivolous argument as to whether the decorations were macabre or awesome. Pinkie had it insisted it was ‘Macabrawsome.’ Applejack simply stated the place was giving her the heebie-jeebies.

“Everypony, was this stairway here when we were last here?” Pinkie asked suddenly. “Goldenrod’s flower trail goes down these stairs, but I don’t remember them being here.”

Twilight stared down the flight of stairs with apprehension. She thought she’d seen something in this spot when they’d first visited, but when she’d been by again shortly before meeting Goldenrod, it had just been another collapsed corridor, inaccessible from age. She looked to Princess Luna, who seemed even more apprehensive.

“This leads to the dungeon.” the Lunar Princess whispered grimly. “It seems odd that they would restore and use this part of the castle when they could just as easily have made any one place a prison.”

Applejack looked pale. “Do y’all smell that?” her voice was a hoarse croak. “Something’s bleeding down there...”

“Oh no!” Fluttershy said in a worried tone. “Somepony could be hurt!”

Throwing caution to the wind, Fluttershy bolted down into the dungeon, Applejack and Rarity hot on her hooves. A resounding scream duet quickly brought the rest of the rescue party storming down into the dungeon. When Twilight saw what the screaming was about, she felt suddenly faint, and had to fight to keep the contents of her stomach firmly in place.

In the center of the chamber was a large stone altar. Goldenrod laid bound and unmoving on the massive stone slab, a massive hole punched in his chest. His blood had pooled beneath him, and begun trickling down the sides of the altar. Whatever plans Morrigan had for Goldenrod, she’d clearly already followed through.

A strange magical presence had begun to fill the chamber, radiating in from elsewhere in the the castle. It was so strong—so tangible—that even the pegasi and earth ponies in the group could feel it. “Ah reckon there’s nothin’ more we can do for him ‘til all this is done,” Applejack said softly. “C’mon, lets find the girls an’ stop this madness.”

Everypony began to filter away from the dais, solemnly casting a glance back at the figure resting upon it. The only one remaining near it was Princess Luna, leaning down close to him, her horn glowing brightly. “Everypony, don’t be so quick to assume he is gone,” the Princess said, almost relieved. “It is true that he has only a tiny sliver of magical energy left in him, but this one has some fight left in him yet.”

Fluttershy gasped and quickly returned to the Princess’s side. “Are you certain Princess? Can you heal him?” she pleaded.

The royal Alicorn furrowed her brow, deep in thought. “Yes, I do know some restoration magic, but for the amount of damage and blood loss he has sustained...” She turned to face Twilight Sparkle and Rarity. “I will need you to lend your strength.”

- - -

Warren eased his eyes open slowly, dazed. As his memories flooded back to him, sat up with a shout, bringing his hands up to his chest. They came away bloody, but it didn’t hurt. Staring down at his chest, he saw whole, undamaged flesh. This doesn’t make any sense... I felt her claw enter my chest... I felt it...

“Goldenrod!” a voice called in his ear. There was a gentle prod at his shoulder. He turned to look for the source of the voice. Fluttershy was hovering beside him, a look of worry on her face. “Are you alright?” she asked.

He shook his head, trying to clear it. His mind felt so drained—so groggy—and he just wanted to do... what? Without even realizing it, he was onto his feet, shakily making his way to the stairs. “We’ve got to go after them,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean, where are the girls?” Twilight inquired, trotting to keep up. “Where are Morrigan and Discord?”

Warren turned to face Twilight and the rest of the group. “You’ll see soon enough. I’m pretty sure I know where the portal is.”

“Portal? What portal?” Princess Luna inquired, alarm in her voice.

He didn’t listen. Instead, he just crept up the stairs slowly, leaning against the wall for support. “You’ll see soon enough.”

The ponies followed close behind him. Fluttershy attempted to provide support, but he simply shrugged it off. They were all concerned by the daze he was seemingly in. It was as though he wasn’t completely there, and that he wanted to be elsewhere.

After what felt like forever, he finally reached the doorway to the atrium that he’d crossed through on his first day in Equestria. With a strenuous shove, he parted the doors, and ushered them inside. What they all saw inside was beyond anything they could have imagined.

Sitting there, jutting from a glassy crater, was what resembled a massive shard of glass. Instead of the other side of the room, however, the shard showed the group a strange sight. The ponies saw an alien place: a concrete jungle. To Warren, it was the tavern he had died outside.

Warren approached the portal, and then turned to face the ponies. Spreading his arms, he smiled weakly and said, “Girls, now you get to see my world. Hold onto your hooves!”

Chapter 18

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Plunging through the portal was like nothing Scootaloo had ever experienced before in her life. At first, it reminded her of the time that the Cutie Mark Crusaders attempted to earn an ice skating cutie mark, only for ice skating to become ice diving when the ice gave out beneath them; she remembered the icy feeling that seeped into her core, and for a short moment it was just like that. The instant the icy feeling passed, she felt like she was being catapulted at Sonic Rainboom speeds through the air. It was amazing, and if the situation had been different, she might have called it awesome. She didn’t have time to wonder if that was what Rainbow Dash felt every time she flew—not when her friends were still in danger.

Being thrown through a portal to another world by two draconequi—who probably rivaled Nightmare Moon on the evil scale—was not awesome. Landing in a heap with Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom on top of her had left her dazed, but she knew they had to get out of there. Unfortunately, they’d collided with some sort of hollow metal cylinder—a street lamp—jutting from the ground, and made a large amount of noise.

In an instant, there were humans rushing out of the building the fillies had landed in front of. It didn’t surprise Scootaloo that they’d come to investigate the ruckus; every time the Crusaders had ever made such a racket back in Ponyville, ponies had come to find out what the trouble-making trio had done. She found it oddly reassuring that Goldenrod’s kind weren’t all that different from ponies in that aspect.

Multiple flashes lit up the dim area in front of the building. Many of the humans were holding up small rectangular objects that she belatedly realized must have been some sort of cameras. They were nothing like the ones back home. They were small and sleek, and fit perfectly into a human hand. The repeated flashes were making her feeling ill, wishing she wasn’t trapped beneath her friends.

“Do you think this is another one of those wackjob PETA stunts?” one human asked.

“I dunno... It’s possible.” another added in. “Wonder what they’re trying to get across?”

“Probably that it’s our fault that we don’t have unicorns or pegasi,” a third human added in, laughing as he pointed to Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle. “Just look what they did to the poor things. They dyed them all candy colors and gave one wings and one a horn!”

Scootaloo looked up at the human dejectedly. “I’ve always been this way!” she muttered angrily as she struggled beneath her dazed friends to get up. It was no use; she could barely feel her limbs under the weight of her friends.

“Whoa, dude...” the rude human said, turning to one of the others. “That little horse just talked. This crap is too weird for me.”

A cold duet of laughter pierced the air. “If things are getting too weird for you,” Discord roared, breaking out into another fit of laughter. “You really should stick around to see just how much weirder it’s about to get around here.”

Scootaloo watched as one of the humans plucked something paper-like from his mouth and stared at it with a frown. “I’ve got to stop smoking this stuff,” he whispered to himself. “This stuff is going to—”

Morrigan appeared beside the human, setting her lion paw on his back. “Stop smoking? Why dear, it isn’t even lit!”

Without warning, Discord appeared on the other side of the human. He snapped his avian fingers together, and a flame sprouted from his thumb. “Need a light?” Discord asked with a laugh, offering his flame-tipped thumb.

The human smiled in the dim light provided by the lightly dented street-lamp, and returned whatever it was in his hand to his lips. “Hey, thanks. For an alien thing, you’re pretty cool,” he said around the object, before leaning in to place the tip of the object in the flame.

This proved to be a horrible mistake for the human. The tip of the paper object had barely touched the flame when it began to disintegrate into ash. That in itself would have been fine had the disintegration stopped at the end of the paper; it didn’t. Every human in the crowd began to scream as the man’s face began to burn up into ash. Quickly, the effect spread across his entire body, leaving the clothed skeleton to crumble to the ground.

The crowd began to disperse in all directions, shouting about ‘the end of days‘ and ‘aliens are attacking,’ and something about a PETA experiment gone wrong. All the while, Discord was laughing as though he’d just been told the punchline to some hilarious joke. It wasn’t a joke, and Scootaloo could see a grim expression on Morrigan’s face, reflecting her lack of amusement.

“Come, brother.” she commanded flatly. The disoriented Crusaders began to float as Morrigan turned her back. “We need to gain the attention of the United States military if we are to get their retaliation. Fortunately, I know the where and the how. All you need to do is follow my orders.”

- - -

Upon emerging on the other side of the inter-dimensional portal, Warren felt violently ill. It wasn’t from the sudden vertigo caused by the high-speed sensation of the portal. Instead, it was the combined pollution and the scent of burnt flesh that was doing him in. All around him were clothed skeletons and swirling clouds of ash. Further down the street, he could make out a car, overturned and burning.

“Legends Bar and Restaurant,” Rainbow Dash pointed out with a laugh as she emerged from the portal. “It certainly doesn’t look legendary, but I suppose if I visit, it’d be at least twenty percent—”

Next out of the portal was Rarity. “Really, Dash, dear... Is now really the time to...” she was saying. The pile of bone, ash and clothing distracted the white unicorn from whatever reproach she had planned for the rainbow pegasus. “Oh dear Celestia...”

Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie followed suit with Applejack just an instant behind them. Fluttershy looked mortified, while Applejack—focused on the buildings around them, instead of what surrounded them on the ground—complained that the air didn’t smell right. Warren couldn’t tell what was going through the mind of the pink party pony. Either she’s as deeply disturbed by this scene as Fluttershy, or she’s planning some sort of funeral/’Sorry a villain from our realm invaded your world and killed your citizens’ party. I really hope it’s the former.

Warren watched as Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna finally emerged. Princess Luna looked around at the ashen remains of the citizens who had been on 33rd Street West upon the arrival of the draconequi. “I had hoped I would never again see such carnage, Twilight Sparkle,” the Princess said sadly. “No race should suffer at the hands of a draconequus.”

Wandering over to a dented lamp-post, he decided it was as good a place as any to lean. “Yeah, for all the things my people have done to each other, nobody deserves this, especially not just random citizens.” Warren pushed off from the street lamp and made a sweeping motion with his arms. “Ladies! Welcome to the Manhattan borough of New York City. Once home to about one and a half million people, I suppose it’s now home to—” He sighed. “—whoever is left.”

“One and a half million?!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed.

Warren joined in as the whole group said, “No, Pinkie. No parties! We have more important things to do!” The party pony looked sad, but not hurt. Clearly she got the point.

Everypony went quiet for minutes, trying to gather themselves and figure out what to do. Unsure of themselves, they each began to wander around the street. Pinkie Pie was examining an overturned ice cream cart. Rainbow Dash hovered over Fluttershy as she tried to make friends with some literally winged rats. With Applejack examining a van and Rarity fidgeting about around all the human remains, it was a wonder Twilight hadn’t tried to get their attention sooner.

“Alright, everypony gather around me,” Twilight said loudly. Every one of them returned to her instantly. “The plan hasn’t changed. The first thing we need to do is locate Discord and Morrigan. They’ll likely still have the girls with them.”

“Only one problem, Twilight.” Rainbow Dash sounded worried. “Goldenrod just said that more than a million live in this area alone! That’s like thousands of times the population of Ponyville! This area has to be massive to account for that many ponies... How are we ever gonna find them?”

“People,” Warren interjected, rolling his eyes.

Something out of the ordinary caught his attention. He stopped paying attention as the mares around him began planning. Something about the Empire State Building is off... but what? He looked up at the famous landmark across the street from him. Streaks of mud and gouges covered the face of the building. How did mud get up there? Looking further up the side of the building, he realized what was off about the building.

“Say, Twilight,” Warren said with knowing smile and a chuckle. “I think I know where they are.”

“What? How could you possibly have found them? This place is huge!” she responded, incredulous. “With so many large buildings it’d take weeks to search them all!”

Instead of a hurt look, the scholarly unicorn was treated to one of reproach. “I think Celestia would be disappointed in you, Twilight,” he said flatly, before breaking into a smile. “I told you, my world has no magic. That being said, magical creatures will probably be in the most obvious of places.” He pointed up. “In this case, the floating island in the sky above the Empire State Building is a good place to start.”

Everypony gazed up into the sky. They were all astonished to see he was right. Floating above the city was a fair-sized island, complete with docks sagging off the sides. Even as they stared up at the impossibly floating land mass, a clump of stone and dirt came crashing down into a building on the corner of 5th Avenue and west 33rd Street—a Starbucks.

“Oh...” Twilight said sheepishly.

- - -

Scootaloo wanted to scream. It wasn’t a desire borne of fear or anger, but one of frustration. The very reason she wanted to scream was the same reason that she couldn’t. As the group made their way west, towards a river, the Cutie Mark Crusaders—still snared in the telekinetic grasp of Morrigan—had broken into conversation in hopes of staving off fear. Discord had taken a dislike to their childish banter, and threatened fire or worse if they didn’t remain quiet; it worked.

Standing on a pier looking out across the river, the orange filly realized just how different her world and Goldenrod’s world really were. It wasn’t just the way the unfamiliar architecture cut against the morning glow growing on the horizon, the look of the strange metal carriages, or even the awful smells in the air that impressed this difference on her. It was the largeness of it all that made the difference hit home. Even the Equestrian capital didn’t match this place in size.

“So, sister...” Discord began, gazing around at the mass of city on the opposite side of the river. “You mentioned a where and a how for your plan. What, pray tell, are we looking for?”

Morrigan chuckled gaily, sending chills down Scootaloo’s spine. “Do you see the island with the large statue?” She made a dramatic sweep of her paw, indicating an island off in the distance. “That’s the one. Meet me there.”

Cringing as a bright white light filled her eyes, Scootaloo felt herself drop to the ground. When she opened her eyes, she found herself staring up at a large green statue of a human, torch raised high into the air, its back facing them. Light sources on the pedestal below the statue lit it, even in the dead of night. As the disorientation of the sudden transit left her, she realized that the four of them—Morrigan, Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom and herself—were on some sort of pedestal beneath the statue.

A split second later, Discord appeared alongside them. He looked up at the landmark in disgust. “They certainly have a certain ego about themselves, don’t they, sister?” he said, unimpressed. “Who is this, then? Some human empress, I suppose. Are we going to have some fun with this statue?”

“Nothing as fancy as an empress, I’m afraid. It’s a gift from one nation to another,” she replied. “Lady Liberty is a landmark held very dearly in the hearts of the citizens of this proud nation. To see it vandalized would enrage them. To see it altered and relocated impossibly... I can’t imagine them not sending in their armed forces.”

Giving his sister an appraising nod, Discord smiled. “Always the planner, aren’t you, Morri?” he chuckled viciously. “So, what’ll it be? Shall this fair and proper lady become something a bit more wild or vulgar?”

“Of course not, baby brother,” the elder sibling said, returning her gaze to the statue. “I was thinking we should ensure they know who to blame. One of the Equestrian Princesses should do. Or better yet...” The draconequus didn’t finish her thought. Instead she made an arcane gesture towards the statue.

The three fillies stopped examining their immediate surroundings and turned their gaze up to the statue. They watched as the landmark began to twist and bend, curling in upon itself. No longer bipedal, the statue began to take a very familiar shape. Wings spread menacingly, its head lowered in a menacing sneer. What had once been the statue’s torch was now the Alicorn’s horn, glowing a dark shade blue of blue. The statue was, in essence, a replica of the statue of Nightmare Moon on the edge of the Everfree forest that ponies would make offerings of candy to on Nightmare Night.

“I say, I always did like Nightmare Moon. She was so feisty,” the younger Draconequus snickered. “But how would you know of her? She was after your time!”

“Silly brother... You forget my ability to scry,” she scoffed. “Granted, with the difference in the flow of time, I only caught glimpses. Honestly, watching Equestria from here was like watching paint dry. Enough talk, though. We’ve got an island to move, and I know the perfect place for it.”

“Oh?”

“Remember where we came out? There was a very large skyscraper right across the road from it. I believe right above there would be the perfect place for this island.”

“Yes, it does scream ‘We’ve attacked your world. Our portal is right here. Come get us!’ doesn’t it?” Discord laughed. “Well, let’s get to work.”

The fillies saw their chance. Even as the island began to quake, the Crusaders cast their eyes about again. To their relief, there were two flights of stairs opposite of the pedestal on which the statue was mounted. They ran for the stairs as fast as their little hooves could carry them. With a jarring lurch, the island tore out of the ocean floor and began to rise, causing the three fillies to fall.

Apple Bloom was the first up. All of them were covered in scrapes and bruises from the fall to the midway point of the staircase. “If these stairs hadn’t panned out to change direction, Ah reckon we’d be in a lot worse shape.” she whispered.

Scootaloo knew that they had to get away. “Never mind that!” she whispered pressingly, helping a dazed Sweetie to her hooves. “Just run!”

As the filly trio began running down the staircase again, an icy chill ran down their spines. “They’re escaping!” Discord screamed angrily. “What were you thinking?”

Morrigan’s tone was even and soft. “Never mind them, there’s nowhere for them to go.” If her voice hadn’t carried to their ears from a distance, Scootaloo would have sworn the draconequus was right beside her. “They’ll get their punishment for their misbehavior soon enough.”

- - -

“I swear to God... if you drop me, I’m going come back to haunt all of you,” Warren groaned, squirming in Princess Luna’s telekinetic grip. “Don’t think I won’t just because you’re the only friends I have in the world right now.”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably as Rainbow Dash lifted the unicorn higher. In addition to being held precariously many stories above the asphalt, she was focusing her own magical energies to keep Applejack afloat beneath her. “That seems highly unlikely,” she said dismissively. “There’s absolutely no scientific evidence that supports the theory that ghosts exist.”

Rolling his eyes, Warren fought back the compulsion to tell her that he was walking proof that resurrection was possible, and that to dismiss ghosts with that in mind was foolish. Truth be told, he hadn’t had the time to reiterate Morrigan’s story. Knowing that the scholar in Twilight might possibly distract her from the matter at hand, he didn’t want to have to explain to Apple Bloom that he was partly responsible for her sister plunging seventy stories to her death.

More than that, though, he knew just how skittish Fluttershy was through reputation. If she clammed up while lifting Rarity, she, the fashionista, and the pink party pony in her telekinetic grip would plummet to their dooms. Secretly, he promised himself that he’d make sure everypony would make it home to their families.

Family: in his situation, it was probably almost as complex as the fact that he was still alive, even though he was dead and buried in this world. If he had the opportunity to talk to his family when this was all done, he wasn’t completely sure he’d take it. Even if it was two years after his very apparent death, a call from him would be like re-opening an almost completely healed wound and pouring salt into it. He didn’t want to cause that sort of grief.

He gazed out at the harbor, only to see that the whole place was a mess. Through the glare of the late morning sun, he spotted the ruined hulk of an aircraft carrier was smoking roughly where Liberty Island should have been. Scattered around it were the smoking remains of a few destroyer escorts and battleships. Every bit of metal out on the harbor was scrap now. At least I know where the island came from.

Attempting to fight the sudden onset of a headache, Warren shook his head and forced himself to rotate in the Alicorn’s magical hold. “Um, Princess? Could we maybe speed this up?” He cast a wary glance back down to the ground. “I kind of have a thing about heights.”

Rainbow Dash burst out in laughter, drawing a glare from Twilight and Applejack below. “That didn’t stop you when I flew you from Canterlot to Ponyville,” she mocked.

“Yeah?” he shouted, letting panic slip into his voice. “I also had a damn parachute!”

“Are you insinuating that the Princess would drop you?” admonished Rarity. “Have some respect! She is still royalty, you know!”

He cast his gaze up toward the edge of the floating island, sweating and trembling the closer it drew near. “No, I—”

“No, Lady Rarity, it is quite alright,” the Princess replied with a smile. “I too was afraid of heights when I was young.” Turning her attention to Warren she said, “I may know of a method to ascend quicker though it is a bit dangerous for many reasons. Do you trust me?”

“Well yeah, of course.” He exhaled hesitantly. “Why d-aaaaaaaaaaaah!”

The Lunar Princess threw him vertically with all the force she could. He stared down at her, incredulity coursing through his mind. She vanished in a flash, reappearing at his side. Once again, he sank into the cushion of her telekinetic field, only to be catapulted again and again, the Princess teleporting each time to keep up with him. The impromptu elevator continued until Warren landed safely—a subjective word, to be sure—on an overhanging dock.

Warren sank to his hands and knees and immediately began kissing the ground. Never have I been so happy to have solid ground beneath my feet. That was his thought until he remembered where he was. Well... still, this is an improvement to being hundreds of stories in the air with nothing but magic holding me up. Then he began to vomit upon the edge of the dock.

“My apologies, Goldenrod,” Princess Luna said softly from beside him. One of her hooves was rubbing his back. “I had hoped that would be preferable to flying.”

Rising to his feet, the human shook his head. “No, you probably did the right thing. It got me up here quicker, didn’t it? I know I should be pissed being treated like some sort of hackey sack, but...” He gave the Princess a weak smile. “I know I’m doing this for Scootaloo and the others.”

Before the Princess could respond, they were interrupted by the sound of a very irate Rainbow Dash. “I don’t see why we couldn’t have all just teleported up here using your magic, Twilight,” she was saying. “It’s not like you haven’t taken us incredible distances before!”

“It’s because teleporting to a place you cannot directly see or clearly visualize in your mind is incredibly dangerous!” Twilight replied, aggravation clear in her voice. The entire group was on the dock by the time she spoke again. “What good would we do the worlds half inside a...” She blanched, looking off in the distance. “Is that—”

Warren turned his head, only to see a large gout of smoke fly at them from the island-end of the dock. He threw himself down to the ground, and shouted, “Jesus Christ!”

- - -

Stirring restlessly in her cage beneath Nightmare Moon’s sneering visage, Scootaloo deeply wished she could go back and tell her past self not to run. In hindsight, running had been a very bad idea. Sure, the three Crusader fillies had managed to hide out for a few hours inside a small building not far from the pedestal, but it was only because Morrigan had let them hide out, listening to the screams and chaos going on outside the building and on the streets below. The horrid witch had simply waited for them to fall asleep from exhaustion before making her move.

The memory of what the draconequus had done to Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle was still fresh in her mind. She knew instinctively that the creature was still somewhere out there, watching her. Morrigan called it ‘making an example,’ but Scootaloo knew that she had simply done it out of sheer evilness. Nevertheless, Morrigan’s message was clear. If she made any attempt to escape, a fate far worse than what her friends faced was in store for her.

So she waited... and waited. Time seemed to flow at a perplexing rate. She could watch the sun soar along the sky, but whenever she closed her eyes, time stood still. It felt like minutes, but it could have been hours. The only things marking any regularity in time were her heartbeat, and the regular visits from the monstrosity that was her ‘guardian.’

Just before dawn, the world seemed to come alive with noise once more. A delta formation of strange gray wedge-shaped objects had screamed by, leaving a contrail in their wake and a ringing in her ears. Except for the noise, and the fact that these objects weren’t pegasus ponies, Scootaloo was reminded of the Wonderbolts.

The strange aircraft made a few more passes before another craft entered her vision. This one reminded her of an inverted, winged boat with spinning discus-like objects mounted on the wings. As it drew nearer, she watched the discs began to turn upwards to face the sky and the thing decelerated. It almost looked like it was going to land.

All of a sudden, the sky exploded in fire. Struck by a massive fireball, the strange discus craft veered off to one side and crashed somewhere beneath the star-shaped pedestal below. She turned to face the source of the attack, and nearly screamed at what she saw. It was a large serpentine dragon, but it was also unmistakably Discord. The horns and mane were a giveaway.

“Look at my dear baby brother,” Morrigan chuckled, appearing beside the cage. “He’s all grown up!” The draconequus seemed absorbed in what was going on in the skies. Even as she spoke, the trio of wedge-shaped craft began soaring back towards the harbor. Scootaloo could see what were unmistakably boats out on the water. There were dozens of them, all of them different shapes and sizes.

The wedge-shaped craft didn’t make it out to the harbor. They had only been halfway there when the Discord dragon had soared out in their wake, sending massive blasts of fire after them. One by one, the aircraft erupted in balls of flame and plummeted into the nearby river. Discord roared, seemingly happy to have new targets, and flew out to the harbor. The ships never stood a chance.

Discord returned triumphantly only half an hour later, like a dog returning to its master. Laying down at the base of the statue, he fell into a short nap. “He may be a treacherous one, but even he has his uses,” Morrigan whispered into Scootaloo’s ear. “Look at all that glorious carnage out on the harbor.”

Fighting every bit of reason that told her not to, the filly did indeed stare out at the harbor. All of the boats had been reduced to floating slag, some even having melted together. Inwardly, she shed a tear, not just for the humans who had probably been on those boats, but for both worlds. Defeating Morrigan seemed like an impossible prospect, having seen what she had done to Discord, as well as her friends.

For the next five hours, Scootaloo stared out at the edge of the floating island, wishing and hoping for some sort of release from this hellish nightmare. On a small dock off on one side of the island, she could have sworn she caught sight of something landing. Then there was more movement as another figure landed on the jutting precipice. Surely she wasn’t seeing this. The elements of harmony were on the island, led by Princess Luna! But who is the human with them? Surely it can’t be...

In his sleep, Discord snorted, letting out a blast of flame towards the pier. The ponies cringed back from the flame, while the human threw himself flat against the ground. A voice she never thought she’d hear again filled her heart with hope.

“Jesus Christ!” shouted Goldenrod.

Chapter 19

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Wishing he’d commissioned a pair of shoes or boots from Rarity, Warren spat onto the sole of his right foot. When he’d thrown himself down out of the way of a blast of fire, one of his feet had stuck up in the air, getting blasted with a painful burn. Sitting in the center of the pier, he vigorously rubbed the saliva into the burn—drawing a look of disgust from Rarity—hoping what he’d once heard about licking wounds was true.

“I can’t believe your shouting didn’t wake that... thing!” Rainbow Dash whispered irately. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

“I don’t know about you ponies, Dash, but humans have panic reflexes, which can include shouting.” He looked over the group. Everypony seemed to be sporting some sort of singing to their manes. “I also have an aversion to being on fire: something I’m sure you can relate to.”

Pinkie Pie stood beside him, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. Her mane was surprisingly flat and straight for a change, only smoking at the tips. “Twilight knows all about being on fire.” Pinkie giggled softly. “She’s caught fire at least twice since I’ve known her.”

He gaped at her. Surely she knew that joking was the last thing she should be doing at a time like this. Then again, he had to remind himself that this was Pinkie Pie: the Element of Laughter. The party pony looked like she was dead serious, too. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

As he stared at Pinkie, he began to notice movement out on the harbor. A single ship pulled into the bay at a decent clip. It looked like some sort of aircraft carrier but seemed rather short. Is this some sort of late reinforcement to the fleet? Heck, we should probably get this done before they have time to get any fighters out. There’s been enough loss of life today.

“Uh-huh... Anyway...” He turned to face Twilight Sparkle, who was returning the jeweled coronet—the Element of Magic—to her crest. “We should probably get going...there’s a boat coming into the harbor, and I’m pretty sure it has fighter aircraft on board. I’d rather we don’t get caught up in the crossfire. I’m not sure how much your magic would stand up to the cannons on a fighter jet, and I’m not keen on finding out.

“... and I’m no genius, but somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be easy getting around that Discord dragon thing beneath what used to be the Statue of Liberty. Do we have a plan?”

The purple unicorn cast a quick glance up to the creature beneath the statue. “I’m not sure what has happened to Discord, or how Morrigan changed him, but I think the Elements of Harmony should still have an effect on him.” Her voice didn’t match the confidence she exuded. “Somehow I don’t think it’ll be that simple, though. Princess Luna, do you have any ideas?”

Everybody in the group turned toward the dark blue Alicorn looking for guidance. Instead of speaking, however, the Princess merely stared in a mix of disgust and horror. Warren looked furtively to the statue, and then back to Princess Luna. There was something about it that was familiar, but he couldn’t place his finger on it. The figure was a menacing looking Alicorn sneering down at Manhattan and the harbor, her horn glowing a dark blue. Everypony, following his lead, also looked to the statue. A dark air filled the group.

“Is there something wrong?” Warren asked, again glancing back to the Alicorn statue. “Princess Luna? Is that...”

He could see the beginnings of tears welling up in her eyes, but to Princess Luna’s credit, she looked him right in the eye. “Yes,” she said softly with a profound sadness clear in her voice. “That is a statue of what I once was, corrupted by the Nightmare. I’m not proud of it, but I cannot deny that it did happen.

“That isn’t what I was focused on, however.” Her voice had taken on a bleakness that chilled Warren’s bones. “On the pedestal with the statue, there is a small cage. There is—” She choked, either unwilling or unable to continue. “—only one pony inside.”

A mix fear and concern filled the group. Both Rarity and Applejack exchanged devastated looks towards one another. Even Rainbow Dash had lost her arrogant demeanor at the implication. Warren felt his stomach plummet.

Slamming his fist down into the pier, he grunted in anger. “Damn it all to hell!” He wanted to scream to the world, but all that came out was a choked growl of rage. “We’re too late! We’re too goddamn late!”

Twilight stepped forth, placing a gentle hoof on his shoulder. “You don’t know that for sure! There could be more cages elsewhere. There-”

Warren shrugged her hoof off and rose to his feet. The pain of the burn was nothing to the seething agony that was tearing through his stomach. “You seven worry about Discord,” he said grimly, hobbling a few steps forward. “I’m going to see about freeing whoever it is up there...”

“But Goldenrod...” Fluttershy squeaked.

“No!” he intoned sharply. It was harsher than he intended, so he cast an apologetic glance towards the timid pegasus mare. “No, Fluttershy. You six have to be together to deal with that monster up there. You’re the only ones who can do anything, and I know you’ll need Princess Luna’s help as well... Where I’m going, there’s a good chance I’ll be meeting Morrigan...” In his mind, he added, and if I do see her, I’m going to make sure she pays. “In case I don’t make it... Thanks for everything, Fluttershy.”

Warren limped off towards the island end of the pier, never looking back. He hoped they would never have to see whatever had happened to the two fillies who hadn’t made it. More so, he was itching to give the Draconequus witch a piece of his mind. Without a doubt he stood no chance, but if he could free the surviving Crusader, maybe—just maybe—God wouldn’t completely forsake him.

- - -

The aircraft sitting before him was a mess. The entire outer hull of the aircraft was charred, melted, and even disintegrated in spots. If Warren hadn’t had an acquaintance in the armed forces, he’d probably never have recognized this burned up hulk as a V-22 Osprey. He could see clear into the troop bay from the side, where the fallen soldiers were strewn about outside the craft, either flung from the troop bay in the crash landing and killed outright, or falling victim to injuries sustained in the crash not long after.

It wasn’t hard to guess what had happened to it. In his mind, he could picture the dragon-like maw of Discord’s new form spewing a ball of fire toward the oncoming aircraft. The pilot would have taken evasive maneuvers, but it probably wouldn’t have been enough. The fireball erupted along the side of the craft, burning through the aircraft’s carapace and probably vital avionics. The aircraft would have lost control, and crashed, probably spilling its human cargo shortly before impact, wedging itself into one of the points to the statue pedestal’s base at an awkward angle.

A sound from within the craft jerked him out of his mental replay. Was that a radio? Climbed into the troop bay from where the ramp should have been, and grimaced as he found the floor plates were still hot to the touch. It wasn’t blistering hot, but it was painful hot at any rate. He crawled across the floor as best as he could, and made his way for the cockpit.

Again, he heard the noise. An electronic squelching noise was blasting from the fallen headset of one of the deceased pilots. He thought he could make out a voice. Tentatively, he reached out for it, and put it on.

In between mixed static, he could make out a woman’s voice repeating a call. “-Wasp, any U.S. forces please respond. I repeat, this is the USS Wasp-”

Warren positioned the microphone in front of his face, hoping that the tech was voice activated. “Hello? Is this thing working?”

“Finally, an answer. Oh-” The voice over the radio sounded relieved, until they realized that had just gone out over the airway. “Give me a sit-rep, soldier. What happened here?”

“Sorry to say I’m no soldier, ma’am.” he said flatly. “The entire crew of this Osprey died in the crash here on Liberty Island.”

There was dead air for a long while. Clearly the comm officer was consulting a superior officer regarding the situation. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the aircraft, and leave everything—”

He actually laughed at the woman’s command. “The way I see it, even if there were anything of any use to me on this wreck, there isn’t a thing you can do about it. Between your boat and this wreck is a giant fire-breathing dragon monster—something I’m sure you folks heard over the radio as the rest of that fleet was slaughtered—that wants nothing more than to spread chaos across this world.”

The comm officer on the Wasp went silent again, either biting back a scathing remark or again consulting her superiors. “I’m going to ask you once more to vacate the vessel and clear the airwaves, sir.”

“Sure thing,” he scoffed. “I just wanted to let you know that if your boat is carrying any fighters to save yourselves the trouble and keep them grounded. If you can’t, at least tell them not to fire on any colorful ponies they see. They’re the good guys.”

To his surprise, the lady on the other end of the radio actually started laughing. “Wow, you had me going for a second, sir. I understand it must seem like the end of the world but this is no time to be getting drunk—or high—and hacking military radio channels for a laugh.”

Warren peered through the cockpit windscreen. He could just make out the draconic form of Discord rise up and fly off. He thought he could make out a rainbow blur shoot past the statue. “Well, I suppose you’ll find out soon enough. Just remember this when your pilots start talking about a rainbow-maned pegasus shooting past their cockpits at super-sonic speeds, make sure to pass on my message not to fire. I’d kind of like my friends whole when we go back to our world.”

Slamming the headset down on the console, he strode out of the cockpit. The naval officer hadn’t taken him the least bit seriously, not that he blamed her. It was his hope that if the time came, there wouldn’t be a tragedy as a result of her ignorance. At least with Discord off chasing Dash, the cage beneath the statue was unguarded.

With a shaky jump, Warren jumped out of the troop bay and back onto the body-strewn ground. He wished he was able to check the dog-tags of each soldier, and place a coin in the mouths of the Christians. Sure, it wasn’t a common thing among Christians now, but it would have been a good show of respect. He thought it should have surely made up for what he was about to do out of necessity.

- - -

“Twilight, are you sure one of us shouldn’t go with him?” Rainbow Dash asked, eyeing Goldenrod’s back as he walked away. “He looks like he’s committed himself to death.”

Twilight Sparkle sighed and looked down. “He probably won’t be making it back to Equestria,” she said sadly, and then smiled. “He knows it, and he knows we know too. That’s why he’s not going to hold himself back. He needs to do this for himself, and for the girls. That being said, he is the most resilient pony I’ve ever known. If anypony can find a way to make the impossible possible, he’s as good a candidate as any.”

“At the very least, sugar-cube, we should give him a chance to succeed,” Applejack said, tears in her eyes. “That fella’s dedicated himself to the girls, it’s only right we be doin’ the same, even if it means puttin’ our necks on the line.”

Twilight looked from Applejack to Rainbow Dash, and then to the rest of the group. Everypony nodded at her in unison, reflecting the sentiment, including the Princess and Fluttershy. They hadn’t known him long, but all of them had seen something good in him worth helping. Twilight returned the nod to the group.

Pausing to collect her thoughts, the unicorn scholar stared up at the Nightmare Moon statue and Discord beneath it. If Discord was still there when Goldenrod arrived, it would be the end of the line for him. No, they needed to get the draconic Avatar of Chaos away from the statue before the human got there. They needed a plan.

“Rainbow Dash, I know it’s dangerous, but we need to get Discord away from there. Could you take him on a short tour of the city below?” The cerulean pegasus brought a hoof up to the side of her head in a salute. “The rest of us are going to make our way around the other side of the statue; the island looked a lot bigger from below, so surely there’s more to it than just the statue. If it comes down to it, I'd rather we have more room to defend ourselves.”

“Take care of yerself, Rainbow Dash,” Applejack said, turning to face the bearer of the Element of Loyalty. “Don’t ya go doin’ anythin’ to get yerself killed, ya hear?”

“You have my word,” Rainbow Dash replied solemnly, understanding the unspoken implication of Applejack’s message. There’s been enough loss already. She half-smiled and said, “You won’t even know I was gone.”

The remaining five bearers of the Elements of Harmony and Princess Luna didn’t wait to watch as Rainbow Dash took flight. They knew that the more time they spent waiting on the dock, the bigger the risk to Rainbow Dash would be. With great haste, the group galloped off the pier onto the island proper.

- - -

Rainbow Dash felt a surge of adrenaline as she soared towards the statue. It was unmistakably, undeniably Nightmare Moon, but she couldn’t help but wonder why Discord hadn’t made the statue a replica of himself. With Morrigan in charge, however, he probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so. Could Discord even use his magic in the form he was in now?

“Hey, Discord!” she shouted down at the draconic monstrosity below. “Come get me, you lame excuse for a villain!”

Discord looked up, his yellow-red eyes locking on her, and let loose a feral roar. To Rainbow Dash’s horror, the slavering maw of the dragon was being caressed hungrily by a serpentine tongue. She had his attention, she realized with a sickening chill filling her gullet. Unsure whether being on the dinner menu would be a step above or below being incinerated, she cringed away and took off.

It didn’t take her long to determine that Discord had given chase; there were plenty of hints when she felt her tail being singed by his snorts. Not bothering to cast a glance to verify his position, she yawed off toward the nearest edge of the floating island. As soon as she cleared the edge, she pitched downward sharply, aimed almost directly at the streets below.

Boulders dropped behind her, knocked loose as Discord clipped the edge. The falling debris gave her no other option than to pitch upward to fly parallel by the street by the time she was level with the tops of the skyscrapers. As much as she’d have liked having more of the buildings to use as cover, should the dragon lose his patience and decide to incinerate her, having some cover was far better than having none at all.

Expertly weaving in and out between the skyscrapers, Rainbow Dash allowed herself a moment to indulge in the memory of the Best Young Fliers competition that she had participated in years before. Her routine hadn’t been all that different, and all of the maneuvers involved would definitely be a help in losing Discord down here.

The sound of an explosion erupted behind her. At first she’d thought Discord was simply crashing through the buildings instead of maneuvering around them like she was, but when she chanced a glance over her shoulder, she saw a fiery blossom burst outward from the side of a building, followed soon after by another explosion closer behind her.

It occurred to her for a split second to observe what was happening behind her, but that thought was quickly dashed as Discord came roaring out of the smoke and falling debris, two strange things flying after him. Are those what Goldenrod meant by fighter jets?

She didn’t have time to ponder the fact too much. A pair of projectiles streaked out from beneath the wings of the pursuing aircraft, missing Discord completely. Again, explosions erupted close behind her as the projectiles struck nearby buildings. She could only imagine what one of those would do to her, and she would rather not find out for certain. It was time for phase two.

Slipping into a modified form of the second phase of her routine, Rainbow Dash looped around the nearest building, and not a moment too soon. She’d barely made a sharp left when she felt the exhaust of the missile singeing off more of her tail. A few more turns, and she was racing in the opposite direction of her initial turn, Discord and the fighters still hot on her tail.

Again and again, she repeated the pattern, increasing in speed until a cloverleaf pattern rainbow was almost completely visible from the island above. Still, for every straightaway she pulled ahead in, Discord still somehow made up for it in the corners. She didn’t understand how he could be so fast. Nothing is as fast as me!

Rainbow Dash swallowed anxiously, and said aloud to herself, “Time for phase three: the Sonic Rainboom!”

The pegasus mare veered upwards on the next straightaway, climbing higher and higher with every beat of her wings, Discord and company keeping pace. She flew until she was as high as the clouds, surprised at how much higher the clouds on Earth were, and then leveled out for a few moments until she was sure the dragon and his tailing opponents were as high as she was. It’s time!

Angling herself down towards the floating island, Rainbow Dash flew harder and harder, gaining even more speed. She flinched as she felt something whiz past her head and then again beneath her. Those jets were firing something at Discord and missing, almost hitting her! Despite the drag it caused, she chances one final glance over her shoulder. There were more missiles, and they were all chasing after her, having missed the Dragon.

She began to corkscrew as more and more of the high-speed projectiles whizzed by her, one coming so close as to burn a furrow through her mane. This was getting crazy and far more dangerous than she’d ever imagined. Soon enough, she found herself fighting against the sonic barrier. Somehow, her corkscrew maneuver was making fighting it easier.

Punching through the sound barrier, she let out a scream of triumph. “Who’s awesome? I am!”

Close behind her, the missiles impacted the wake of the sonic rainboom, and exploded. Her scream of triumph became one of agony as the concussive force of the explosion reached her, sending her hurtling out of control. Something inside of her broke, and it was making flying impossible.

The floating island was coming up, faster and faster in front of her, and she couldn’t move one of her wings. Air-braking would be impossible. Closing her eyes, she whispered a silent prayer to Princess Celestia, and an apology to her friends. I’ve doomed us all.

The familiar embrace of a magical field wrapped itself around Rainbow Dash, slowing her to a stop, before gently lowering her to the ground. She wrenched her eyes open as her hooves settled on the ground, and to her delight, she saw Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, and Princess Luna had worked in unison to save her. She smiled weakly before letting her legs collapse like rubber beneath her.

- - -

Warren looked grimly at his feet one last time before he scrambled atop the charred wreckage of the downed Osprey. He knew it was wrong—even ghoulish—to loot the bodies of fallen soldiers, but he knew they had supplies they’d need. Well, I don’t need the boots, but it’ll make things a whole lot easier, especially if I’m going to be fighting. He had to admit, standing on the warped surface of the VTOL’s wing at this angle was a heck of a lot easier with combat boots on.

He counted himself lucky that the aircraft had crashed in such an awkward position. It made it much easier for him to scale the wall than to run around to the back of the statue and up the first flight stairs. It’ll be far less tiring, he thought. Slowly but surely, he inched his way up to the rotor/propeller, where the blades had snapped off. Luckily, it was locked in an upright position.

As he clambered onto the damaged aircraft part, he was painfully reminded of the other objects on his personage—ones that he had borrowed from the dead soldiers—as they pressed into his back and side. Even from the highest tier of the pedestal, he would still need something to get up to where the caged filly was; he’d appropriated a length of rappelling cable and a grapnel from one soldier’s kit. It was coiled around his torso, with the hook tucked safely in the sash-belt that Rarity had crafted. From the soldier he’d gotten the combat boots from, he’d borrowed a combat knife and promptly tucked it in the sash as well.

Then he'd noticed one of the pilots had a nice custom-finish revolver tucked in his hip-holster; it probably wasn’t standard issue. He’d never held a firearm before, let alone fired one, but he didn’t know what he could be facing. It could very well be that it could be just what he needed to get the drop on that damned Draconequus. If nothing else, it could act as a very big, very dangerous key. He initially thought of tucking it in the back of his pants, but realized that was begging for an accident, and quickly tucked it into the sash as well.

Breathing one heavy breath, Warren leapt from the wing, and grabbed hold of the edge of the pedestal building. With a bit of luck, and help on the part of the boots, he managed to pull himself up over the edge. Looking up, he saw Nightmare Moon sneering out at the harbor. From here, he could make out the colors of the caged filly. Simultaneously, glee and sorrow filled his heart. Scootaloo had made it! At the same time, he knew that meant that Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were gone.

Adrenaline surged through his veins, riding on the waves of anger. He ran around the back of the statue, and quickly found the steps up to the higher levels. The way he ascended couldn’t be called running so much as it was leaping. The love he felt for the fillies and the rage he felt at their loss was fueling acrobatic feats he couldn’t have dreamed of otherwise.

For all the feats his body was performing, leaping straight up a wall was still beyond him. Heaving slightly from the exertion, he uncoiled the line from over his shoulder, and took the grapnel in one hand. This was something else he’d never done before, but he understood the concept perfectly. Spinning the cord at his side, he let the centripetal force carry the three pronged hook up the wall and towards the statue. The first time around, he didn’t quite make it, but that was to be expected. The second time, he was treated to a satisfying clatter and felt the line go taut.

Up above, there was a massive explosion. Turning his head upwards, he saw a rainbow exploding out from a single point. Instead of radiating out like a ripple on a pond—this was how the Crusaders had described it—he saw it spiraling out like some sort of whirlpool. At the center of it, he noticed a series of smaller fiery blossoms. What looked like a rainbow bullet was streaking down toward the island from the center of the rainbow spiral.

Not giving things a second thought, he climbed the cord until he was beneath Nightmare Moon’s raised hindquarters. There, resting beneath the statue’s chin, just like Princess Luna had said, was the cage. He counted his blessings and let out a small sob of glee, rousing the filly from a daze. She turned away from the display, and locked her eyes on him.

“Goldenrod, I’m so glad to see you!” she squealed, on the verge of tears. “Listen, we don’t have much time! Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle—”

“Yeah, I know,” he cut in, his voice cracking. “Let’s get you out of there. You might want to back up into that corner of the cage.” He walked around the cage, so that the door was in front of him. Sure enough, it was secured by a simple padlock mechanism. “This is probably going to be very loud, so cover your ears.”

As soon as the filly had brought up her hooves to cover her ears, he shot the lock off of the cage, the revolver bucked against his grip and causing discomfort in his wrist. He pulled the door open, using his free hand to tuck the revolver back into his sash, and grabbed the filly. Wrapping his arms around her, he hugged her close. “I’m sorry for scaring you. I didn’t want you to think I was dead, honest.”

Scootaloo pushed away from him. “We have to get out of here. That thing that Morrigan made to guard me is going to be back at any minute.” She sounded truly panicked and horrified. “We have to go, now!”

“Okay, hold on.” He scooped her up one-handed and held her close to his chest. Grabbing the rappelling cord, he slid down the wall. “We just need to—”

A growling beneath them caused him to stop partway down the wall. Looking down, he saw a large two-headed beast. Its body was a mottled of pale light-gray olive and white fur. Its faces were vaguely equine. The manes were a bright red and a light pink and grayish mulberry respectively. It was the eyes that really got to them. Each head boasted one brilliant gamboge eye, and one sap-green eye.

“Oh Apple Bloom... Sweetie Belle...” he whispered, losing his grip on the line. “What has she done to you?”

They fell.

Chapter 20

View Online

Pain: it wasn’t just something that manifested physically. It’s as much a psychological reaction as it is a physiological one. There are many causes of psychological pain; homesickness, doubt, disgust, rage, and hate are but a few examples of psychological pains. The pain Warren Ashland was experiencing was of both varieties. On one side of the proverbial coin, he was being continually battered and bruised by the onslaught of the Sweetie Bloom chimera. While its claws weren’t getting through the reinforced material of his clothes, each blow was enough to bruise both flesh and bone.

On the other side of the coin, he was in agony over what the monster Morrigan had done. The rage, guilt, and disgust he felt over had become of two of the fillies that had made him feel so welcome in Ponyville was almost paralyzing. The only thing that kept him moving was the pain brought on by the seething hate he felt for the Draconequus. The physical pain was nothing compared to what he felt inside.

Ducking a blow that would have otherwise decapitated him, Warren continued to make sure he kept himself between the chimera and Scootaloo. He felt terrible shame for what the filly was going through. So much loss in her life, and now the monster that had been made from her two best friends was trying its damnedest to kill them both. It was all taking a toll on the filly, manifesting itself in a catatonic state. She just hung limply in his arms.

Wanting more ground to avoid the creature’s sweeping strikes, Warren ran down the stairs, leaping over the rails partway down. After he rose to his feet from a roll, he repeated himself by making for the next set of stairs. Every step of the way, the Sweetie Bloom chimera was at his heels, yowling angrily.

This time, however, the creature bowled him over just as he reached the stairs. The resulting impact catapulted him over the edge. Try as he might to mitigate the damage with an unsuccessful roll, he felt a sickening crunch as he hit the ground. Having had broken ribs in the past, he was somewhat prepared for the spike of agony as they cracked, but nothing could have prepared him for the pain that followed as his left shoulder was wrenched loose from its socket.

When he sat up, he could see Morrigan’s damnable chimera perched between him and the final set of stairs to the island. The human-sized monster was salivating at the sight of him, but he could have sworn he caught a momentary glimmer of revulsion in the thing’s eyes. He was instantly reminded of the minotaurs—the very ones he’d later slain—and how their eyes had reflected a restrained intelligence.

The beast stood there, holding its ground. It struck him then that there was a good chance that Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom were still very much alive. They would have been in uncontrollable agony over what they were being made to do, and would probably need counseling if they could be saved, but there was still a chance to save them.

As if to answer his thoughts, a voice called from above, “Oh yes, those two fillies are still very much alive inside my beautiful chimera.” He looked up to see Morrigan floating upside-down above him with a malicious sneer on her face. “It was the only way that I could make it loyal enough to guard little Scootaloo.” The draconequus pointed at the little orange filly that lay cradled in his arms. “They will protect her with their lives, even from her friends—especially from her friends!”

Warren bit back every bit of rage-fueled profanity that was threatening to spill forth from his tongue. “So what you’re saying, is that Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom will never harm Scootaloo?” he grunted. Attempting to move his left arm resulted in a strangled scream of agony. He wouldn’t be able to pick the filly back up again. “That’s good to hear.”

“Oh?” Morrigan crooned, her snide voice filling the air. “Why is that?”

Warren ignored the question as he used his good arm to lift Scootaloo off of his lap and place her against the wall beside him. “Because,” he said hoarsely. Using the wall to stabilize himself, he began to rise. “...now that I know that I don’t have to worry about Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom harming her, I can focus on subduing them.”

The boldness of his words elicited mocking laughter from the Draconequus. “You’ll subdue them?” she mocked, before letting out more roaring laughter. “Did you not hear me when I said that they will protect her with their lives?”

Warren ignored Morrigan’s rhetorical query, and strode out to face down the monster before him. “Come on, girls!” he said, looking the chimera in the eyes. He stretched out his good arm, welcoming an embrace. “Come give Goldenrod a big hug.”

The chimera hesitated, glancing up at Morrigan expectantly. He could see an internal conflict raging inside those yellow-orange and green eyes. The creature took a step backward, trembling slightly as it fought with itself. For a split second, he hoped it would run.

“Go on,” Morrigan shouted angrily. “Kill him and be done with it. I’d rather focus my attentions elsewhere!”

It was all the prodding the chimera needed. It dashed forward and leapt at Warren, its slavering maws wide open. Even as the beast slammed against him, he didn’t budge an inch. As it closed both sets of jaws down on his shoulders, he screamed. The taste of blood was ripe in his mouth.

Nothing stopped a smile from spreading on his face.

- - -

Everypony rushed to aid Rainbow Dash. They had gathered beneath a tall flagpole—on a circular red-bricked concourse marked with concentric rings of a dark stone—when the pegasus mare came streaking out of the sky. If the magic users in the group hadn’t pooled their telekinesis together...Twilight didn’t really want to think about what would have happened.

They were horrified to find just how bad of condition she was in. Most of her tail looked like it was singed away. Worse than that, there were furrows burned through her mane and coat from Celestia knows what. Her left wing stuck out at an awkward angle; at the very least, it was dislocated, worse, it could have been broken.

Applejack was the first up to help the mare up. “Rainbow Dash, ya silly girl,” she said, exasperated. “She said it’d be dangerous! She didn’t ask ya ta fly yerself through Tartarus an’ back!”

The farm pony was quickly pushed out of the way by a butter-coated pegasus. Before anypony could object, Fluttershy was thoroughly inspecting every square inch of Rainbow Dash. She cast a glance back to everypony else. “She has a few contusions, and the burns are worrisome, but she’ll be okay...” she said softly. “... and you’ll have to keep off of that wing until we get you to a doctor.” She looked Rainbow Dash in the eye. “You will keep off your wing, won’t you?”

Rainbow Dash gave Fluttershy a confused look before rasping, “So... awesome!”

“She might be a bit dazed, but-”

“Heads up, everypony!” Applejack shouted. “Discord don’t wait for nopony, no matter how much we be wantin’ to talk.”

Sure enough, when Twilight looked up, Discord was bearing down on them, slobbering mouth contorted in a hungry smile. She didn’t even think; she just let her magic flow. A magical dome erected itself between the oncoming terror and the pony septette.

The draconic form of Discord didn’t so much impact the bubble shield as it did part around it. From within the bubble, the ponies—even Princess Luna—couldn’t help cringe as Discord split down the middle as he hit the shield. Like a monstrous medical cross section, they got to see a side of Discord they would rather not have: his inside.

The horror didn’t stop there. Even as they watched, the two halves of the Draconequus began to merge once again. It was sickening watching as strand after strand of flesh began linking between the two halves. Nothing more would have pleased Twilight than the ability to modulate the shield in order to opaque it. It was making her more than a bit queasy to watch.

“Has Rainbow Dash gained her senses enough so we can use the Elements of Harmony?” Twilight groaned, feeling the throb in her horn as the now-mended Discord wrapped himself around the dome and squeezed like a boa constrictor. “I can’t keep this shield up forever with the pressure Discord is putting against the shield.”

“I suppose...” Rainbow Dash groaned, managing to rise to her feet. “...but I wish everything would stop spinning.”

“Fear not, Twilight Sparkle.” Princess Luna assured. “Once you drop the shield, I will teleport us to a safer position.”

Nodding at the Princess, Twilight took a quick look at everypony else. They all nodded in affirmation. “Okay girls, form up around the Princess,” she said tentatively, wincing as the dome began to crack. “Once we’re out, get ready to blast him. Our friendship will pierce the heavens!”

Letting out a sigh of relief, Twilight closed her eyes let the shield collapse. The coils of Discord’s length surged forth to crush them all. The crushing death that the dragon so wished to inflict upon the ponies never reached its intended target. In but a split second, the seven ponies vanished in a bright flash of navy blue light.

As soon as she could feel her hooves on solid ground again, Twilight opened her eyes and let the power of Harmony flow through her. As had happened so many times before, the six mares began to float, held aloft by the sheer surge of magic building up within them. One by one, the Elements of Harmony began to glow and pulse a bright white, until finally the coronet representing Magic began to glow too.

A blinding white beam of concentrated magic surged forth from the group, spearing through the draconic form of Discord. Letting out one last defiant roar, Discord began to thrash about violently. For each second of exposure to the magic, Discord became smaller and smaller, his more chimeric features returning to him.

The Bearers of the Elements of Harmony sank to the red brick walkway on which the Princess had moved them, exhausted from the exertion. They cast thankful looks towards each other, smiling gleefully. They’d done it, they’d stopped Discord! Now they just had to-

“Oh, that wretched sister of mine! What a dirty trick!” Discord groaned indignantly. “Why I ought to...”

The seven ponies stared at Discord. Against all odds, he had survived a direct hit from the magic of Harmony. It hadn’t been like before, when disharmony had corrupted their hearts, but instead the Elements had a purifying effect on seemingly only one layer of chaos. Stripped of Morrigan’s enchantment, Discord was still very much a threat!

They couldn’t attack again so soon, though. Using the Elements was a draining feat, and with all the use they had gotten over the recent years, it seemed very likely to Twilight that the effect was being diluted with each use. Even with a two year recovery period, the frequent reliance on the Elements could only be weakening them.

Twilight blinked, staring at Discord. Normally, he would have been one to gloat over their failure. Instead, he’d ceased mid-sentence, distracted by something. To Twilight’s horror, the Draconequus had begun transforming, elongating and becoming more draconic again. This shouldn’t have been possible!

“Never in my life did I ever expect to encounter such a malicious self-renewing enchantment.” Princess Luna spoke as though she’d just been bucked in the ribs. “One of the most complex types of enchantments possible; for anything other than a Draconequus, placing one on a living being is impossible!” she explained hastily, gathering magic in her horn. “These are the most common source of the ‘curse’ misconception. They can only be rescinded by their caster, or are removed upon the death of the enchanter.”

Twilight gave a horrified look to the Princess. “Are you saying we are fighting a losing battle?” she asked, letting new-found panic take hold of her.

“No, Twilight Sparkle.” The Princess didn’t frown. Instead, she gave her sister’s student a hopeful smile. “We only need to survive long enough for your friend to triumph over Morrigan.”

“Do you really think he can do it?” Fluttershy asked, anxiously watching as Discord grew back into his full draconic glory.

“I think what the Princess means is that we shouldn’t just have faith in him because we want him to succeed.” Rainbow Dash said, as navy blue light began to form around the group. “We should have faith in him because he must succeed.”

“Thus spoke the Element of Loyalty.” the Princess humorously whispered, as the group was enveloped in a navy-blue flash.

- - -

A dark corridor stood before him. Warren didn’t quite know how he had gotten there, or where he was. He wasn’t even quite sure he was anchored to his body; he could see and feel the corridor around him, but it was as though his physical awareness no longer existed. When he looked down, he realized that he didn’t have a body. That startling realization chilled his soul almost as much as the corridor itself.

What is this place? The question floated to the forefront of his mind before he realized he’d even thought it. Is this what lies on the other side of the veil?

As if to confirm his thoughts, images flooded his mind in quick succession. He struggled to make sense of the ones he could understand. There was a bus surging towards him as he lay sprawled on the road. That bus then transformed into a dark ruin where his fear was tangible in the air. Things sped up as the images of ponies—fillies, mares, a stallion, and a rude bunny that he didn’t much care for—appeared before him.

Many of the ponies vanished from his sight, leaving only the fillies outside the schoolhouse, listening to him. These were his memories, he realized with startling clarity. So it’s true, that your life flashes before your eyes before you die, he thought to himself as the schoolhouse became a burning hang-glider, plummeting towards the forest canopy of the Everfree Forest.

Suddenly, he was walking towards Zecora’s hut with Sweetie Belle. Wait a minute! That’s not how things happened! he shouted inside his head. Apple Bloom went with Sweetie Belle to Zecora’s while I tried to get Scootaloo to a doctor! As more and more unfamiliar memories began to flood his mind, he realized these weren’t just his memories... He was being blasted by the very being of Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. That means that I’m not dead, but crossing into their minds!

Warren tried to shake his mind free of the memories, focusing on the corridor. He found it easier if he pictured himself moving forward; it was harder for the memories to assault him if he focused. Soon, he was blazing down the length of the corridor, riding over the memories like a surfer on a wave.

His progress along the dark corridor came to a crashing halt as the corridor ended in an impossibly large metal door. It looked like some sort of prison cell in what dim light his perception provided him. It was as though it was there solely to test his resolve. Open only if you have the willpower to face what lies beyond.

Without a second thought, he forced the door out of existence, and stepped through the archway into the blackness that lay beyond. A dim room manifested itself around him. He was now in his body, much to his relief. He turned his head from side to side, scoping out the chamber, not liking what he saw.

Across the chamber from him, etched into the wall was a doorway that didn’t seem to really be there. That wasn’t what was drawing his attention though. In the far corner of the dungeon, he saw two small shapes huddled together, shivering. As he approached, he could more clearly make out what they were: Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. His stomach lurched sickeningly as he noticed the fillies weren’t just huddled together; they were stuck together, their very bodies and beings slowly fusing together.

“Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom? Is this...” he spoke aloud, not sure if they would actually hear him. “Is this the inside of the chimera’s mind?”

To his shock, the pair looked up at him in unison. “What? Goldenrod? Ya can’t be in here!” Their voices shrieked. “She’ll hear ya anthen she’ll hurt us! Ya have ta get out of here!” The fillies tried to shrink back further away from him, only managing to press themselves further together.

Their minds can’t take being in here in this form... They’re holding onto each other just to keep from losing their minds. It made him sick to realize what the witch that credited herself as God had done to his friends. It’s so hard on them that they’re losing themselves in each other.

“I’ll save you both.” he whispered, turning away. “I promise.”

He suddenly had a good idea of what that doorway etched into the wall was. If Morrigan had to control the chimera, of course she would have to have some means of asserting herself into its mind. This etching probably manifested a doorway when she so chose. The link would have to had to have been constantly active for moments where sudden control was needed, given the reluctance the two fillies had shown when she ordered them to kill him.

A grim idea crossed his mind. That monster probably isn’t expecting unwanted guests inside her mind. If I can get inside her head, I might be able to find a way to fix what she’s done. Warren smiled darkly. She’d intruded on his own mind and body far too many times; it was time to return the favor.

Mustering all the willpower he could manage, he forced himself against the etched doorway. It was surprising just how easily it yielded to him. Had she reasoned that once under her influence, the fillies wouldn’t have the strength to move against her from within? That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he was inside her mind.

Arcane knowledge—almost more than he could possibly stomach—flooded his mind. So many things began to make sense all at once. Chief among the things that drifted into his mind was how to free Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom from this torture, but there was so much more. He understood now just how to use magic without killing himself outright. He actually laughed when one final piece of knowledge regarding the portal flitted into his mind.

I might actually be able to pull this off! I might-

“How dare you!” Morrigan’s voice flooded his very being.

A blinding white agony flashed through him, before fading to black.

- - -

When Warren opened his eyes once more, it wasn’t without extreme difficulty. His chest ached more than he had ever imagined it would. It had all been a stupid gamble, but as he glanced up at the tip of his horn—placed firmly between the two heads of the chimera—he knew it had been worth it.

Operating only on the principal that his magic was the same as Morrigan’s, he’d surmised that he might be able to reach Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom inside the creature’s heads with the right application of magic. He hadn’t counted on an actual telepathic invasion, but it had proved far more profitable than he’d expected. Warren only wanted to sway the creature to his side, but instead he had gleaned the secrets of not just how to save the fillies, but possibly to stopping Morrigan altogether.

He groaned as the heads of the beast withdrew their fangs from his shoulders. They’d proven far more effective than their claws; he saw sickening crimson trails flowing through multiple puncture marks in his silver flower-cloth hoodie. Fighting to remain upright, he grimly took notice that his fractured rib had moved on to an actual break. Things aren’t going to be as easy as I’d like... not that they ever are, anyway.

The chimera backed away slowly, giving him a confused look. He caught the faintest glimmer of recognition in the creature’s eyes, before the returning hungry, glazed look removed any hint of familiarity in those gamboge and green eyes.

“What are you waiting for, you idiotic beast?” Morrigan all but screamed, unbridled panic flowing in her voice. “Kill him! He knows too much! He’ll ruin everything!”

A growl erupted forth from the creature’s gullet, followed by a roar signifying the beast’s charge. Warren chanced only a momentary glance at the wall that stood only a few feet behind him. He knew what he had to do in an instant. His only doubt was whether or not he even had the stamina to do so.

Turning, he ran at the wall to the right of where Scootaloo still rested. At the last possible moment, he stuck out a foot, kicking off from the wall. He found himself flipping backward through the air, watching as the chimera slammed headfirst into the wall. Whispering a silent apology, he landed on the creature’s back.

He didn’t even think about what had to happen next. Igniting his horn in a sickly green, he plunged his hands into the backs of the creature’s heads. Just as he expected, the creature’s heads had yielded like two fleshy portals. In spite of his dislocated shoulders, he forced his arms further and further into their skulls, his hands finding purchase on exactly what he wanted: the two fillies.

The chimera wasn’t about to take things laying down, as it were. Shaking off its confusion, the monstrosity was back on its feet. It quickly began doing its damnedest to buck Warren off of its back, hoping to shake him loose before he could free the fillies from within. It did the creature no good, however, as Warren quickly secured his position, tightening his legs against its sides.

“What are you doing?” the Draconequus shrieked. “You’ll kill them both!”

Warren looked up at Morrigan, and grinned, blood bubbling over his lips. “I’ve seen the truth, you monster,” he wheezed. “Lie all you like. You’ll never win.”

Forcing a controlled burst of energy into the spell, he yanked at the two fillies. Any ability the chimera might once have had to keep the two fillies within crumbled under the force of the spell. His hands—still gripping the school fillies—exploded out through the backs of the chimera’s heads. Quickly, Warren lost his purchase on the creature’s back, and found himself sprawled on the ground a few feet away, the fillies landing unmoving beside him.

Weakly easing himself into a sitting position, he stared at the chimera. No longer bearing any tangible parts, the creature let out a horrific death rattle, thrashing about on the ground. He had to cringe away as a sudden conflagration began to consume what remained of the incomplete creature.

Just as he was about to check on the two unconscious fillies laying at his sides, there was a flash of light in front of him. Avian claws wrapped themselves around his throat, and lifted him from the ground. Morrigan had the advantage of being far taller than Goldenrod, even in his human form. His legs hung uselessly a full foot off of the ground.

Malice filling her, the draconequus forced him to look her in the eyes. “I’m going to do to you what I should have done from the very start,” she said, her voice horrifyingly flat. “You will wish you had the chance to rue the day you crossed me, pitiful human.”

Chapter 21

View Online

Morrigan’s grip was vice-tight. The moment her claws had closed around his neck, he felt as though several ever-tightening iron bands had been fastened to his throat. Despite all the malicious cruelty he had glimpsed in his momentary invasion of her mind, the Draconequus seemed completely content simply choking the life out of him. He feebly brought his right hand up to Morrigan’s wrist in a futile effort to pry her hand from his throat, while his left hung limply at his side.

Warren was surprised by just how badly her imagination had seemingly dwindled in her rage at his continued interference. She had maimed—possibly irreparably—two harmless fillies, caused the dismemberment of another, put him through the most agonizing experience in his entire life, and on top of it all, she was even to blame for his death in this world. She was probably behind uprisings cropping up in Equestria, yet she didn’t have a more creative way of dealing with him.

Even as darkness encroached on the edges of his vision, a spark of realization struck him. The enraged Draconequus was not thinking with any clarity, and there was always some degree of predictability to rage. If he played his cards right, and if the odds were in his favor, he might live long enough to formulate a real plan.

“So... tell me...” he rasped, fighting for his voice to be heard. “Why waste your energy on... me? It’s the others you should... worry about.” It was difficult to breathe, much less speak. He found himself pausing as he gasped for air. “Right now... they’re probably kicking Discord’s flank... seven ways... to Tuesday.” He sneered at her.

The death-grip she held on his throat loosened, and an amused look filled her eyes. “You would think that, wouldn’t you?” she crooned. “Ah, how I forgot how arrogantly optimistic your kind can be.” A sinister cackle filled the air.

Taking the opportunity he’d been given, he greedily sucked in a deep breath. He needed to take stock. Combat boots? Check. Combat knife? Tucked into the left side of my belt. Not sure what good it will be. Revolver? Right side of belt, four more rounds in the cylinder. What about the girls? Looking down, he saw that Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle were no longer at his side. They had moved over to the wall to be with Scootaloo, who was vigorously hugging them even as they exchanged scared and confused looks.

“You see,” the Draconequus said with a vicious snicker. She released her hold on his throat, letting him drop to the ground. He’d barely recovered from the sudden drop to the ground when she spun him to look out towards the flagpole on the other side of the island. “I think you’ll find that your friends aren’t going to have such an easy time with my brother as they did the first time.”

Sure enough, Warren could see Discord circling about in the air above the terrace, diving at shield barriers that cropped up randomly. Each time the dragon took a dive, he watched in mute disgust as the creature would somehow dismember itself upon a shield bubble, and then slowly stitch itself back together. It didn’t help any that the shield became smaller each time it appeared.

It took Warren a moment to process what was happening. He didn’t think that Discord was actually regenerating. Something in the back of his mind gleaned from the invasion of Morrigan’s mental processes insisted that the draconic form kept reasserting itself. That’s... “... a self-renewing enchantment...”

He didn’t even realize that he’d spoken aloud until Morrigan spun him back around and yanked him up by the collar of his shirt. “Thank you for reminding me why I need to kill you,” she hissed angrily. “I guess all that’s left to do is to is put an end to your wretched existence.”

“Yeah?” Warren spat in her face. “You first!”

He yanked the revolver from his belt. With a grunt of exertion, he forced the muzzle of the revolver up underneath her ribs. Sneering at her, he squeezed the trigger. Click. He squeezed twice more. Click. Click. His sneer quickly faded away as he realized something had gone very wrong. Well crap...

Warren held up the revolver and stared at it. Pointing it at Morrigan’s face, he pulled the trigger one last time. Click. In mute horror, he watched as a stick emerged from the barrel of the handgun. At the end of it, he noticed something white wrapped around the end of it. His gut dropped as the white thing unfurled into a banner. Printed on the banner was the word NOPE. Not knowing what else to do, he dropped the now useless implement.

A frighteningly girlish laugh caused him to look back to Morrigan’s face. The expression on her face was one of complete amusement, and it somehow frightened him most of all. The laughter continued to intensify until tears began spilling down her cheeks. “Oh my...” she said, wiping the tears away with her lion paw. “Jokes are usually Discord’s domain, but that one has always held a special place in my heart. You might even say that I pioneered it—at least in this world.”

Just as Warren intended to slam his palm against his face, however, something most unexpected happened. A loud crack resounded from the battlefield behind him, buffeting them all with an explosive force that made his very bones ache. He couldn’t turn his head far enough to see what had happened, but it was certainly enough for him to receive a face full of gore. From what he could tell, the whole of the island was streaked in an impossible degree of gore.

“Well, that was unexpected.” Morrigan said, nonplussed, as she idly wiped a large gobbet of flesh off of her nose. “I’m surprised that the little unicorn had it in her to do such a thing.”

- - -

Fluttershy cringed away as Discord’s maw snapped in her direction. Only Twilight’s shield spell separated the timid pegasus from certain death. The draconic Embodiment of Chaos and Disharmony eyed her hungrily from the other side of the barrier, even as it hammered away. She had long since determined that it had taken a keen interest in her; after all, Discord was almost feral in his animalism, and her fear was the most powerful of all of her friends.

Each time the shield broke, Princess Luna would teleport them to a new position. Fluttershy couldn’t help but notice the strain Twilight was suffering; each time she erected a shield, it became slightly smaller, and slightly more brittle each time. The butter-yellow pegasus couldn’t help but fear that Discord might actually break the shield and get one of them before Luna could whisk them away.

The Princess was being put through her paces as well. The way sweat beaded her regal brow told Fluttershy that a mass teleportation spell—like the one she’d been doing continuously for what felt like hours—was not intended for repeated rapid use. Every time, Discord became closer and closer to touching her, in addition to other abnormalities. On one occasion, Applejack’s hat had materialized on Rarity’s head, and Pinkie had appeared upside down.

Like the shell of an overly large egg, the magical purple barrier began to crack and crumble. Again, Discord lunged through through a newly formed aperture in the shield at Fluttershy. Unlike so many previous attempts to do so, the pegasus couldn’t resist the flight instinct, forcing a terrified squeak from her lungs. Frantically beating her wings, she began to fly away from the Draconequus dragon’s snapping maw. A bright flash filled her vision, and suddenly she was elsewhere.

From there, things began moving in slow motion for the mare. She gazed around at her surroundings, and found she was many yards above her friends. Before Twilight had even noticed that one of her friends was no longer in the area the shield would encompass, the magical hemisphere of energy began to coalesce. Her friends looked up at her, their mouths agape in horror.

A hungry roar filled the air. She turned her head without having to know the source. Discord was surging towards her in all of his serpentine glory. His mouth was open wide to receive his most desired pony morsel. The look in his eyes all but conveyed the thought ‘I will eat you, and you will taste good to me.’

Fluttershy stared at her oncoming death as one might look towards an oncoming train. She was absolutely paralyzed with fear. One part of her mind screamed that she should fly away, while another gibbered that she was nowhere near as fast as Rainbow Dash, that fleeing was futile. Then her mind inappropriately offered up the question, ‘Who will take care of all the animals when I’m gone?’

As Discord finally closed in on her, she settled on a course of action. The Draconequus made to swallow her whole. Before his mouth had closed completely around his butter-yellow morsel, there was a piercing scream from within his mouth. “GIRLS!”

- - -

Twilight Sparkle focused inwardly trying to draw out every last bit of energy she could muster. Even as she did so, a second, brighter aura enveloped her horn. She couldn’t just let her friend die like that. It wasn’t the Equestrian way! It wasn’t Celestia’s way!

Even though Discord was turning his attention from his snack to the covered dinner platter below, her friends turned toward her. Their faces showed it all; devastation at the perceived death of their friend was burned into their faces. Rainbow Dash was worst off; her sobs at the loss of one of her oldest friends wracked her entire body.

Exhaling shallowly, the studious unicorn looked from Rarity to Princess Luna. “I can still save her!” she said weakly. “Lend me your strength... Please!”

Everypony in the group seemed to sober a bit at her words. Princess Luna was the first to begin channeling energy into her sister’s student. Rarity blinked away a stream of tears before nodding and adding her own strength. The flow of their magic flooded her entire being with much-needed relief. It was as though she’d been trudging through a sun, only to be cast into a wellspring of cool, refreshing magical energy.

To her surprise, the aid of the Princess and the dressmaker was not the only aid she received. Rainbow Dash, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie all moved to her side. Each of them added their own supportive hoof to her withers or back. The confidence they felt for her surged in to bolster her own strengthening resolve. Friendship truly was magic; a third, nearly smouldering white aura caressed her horn.

“We believe in ya, sugar-cube,” Applejack whispered, nodding. “Y’all can do it!”

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash said with a grin that conflicted with her own tear-streaked face. “Show Discord who the boss is!”

“Inspirational quotes always help at times like this!” Pinkie exclaimed. “Your magic rocks, Twilight!”

Despite being confused by Pinkie’s ‘support’, she grinned before looking up at Discord. “Give us back our friend right now, Discord!” she all but screamed. “... or I’m going to give you one wicked stomach-ache!”

The dragon paused, seemingly considering her proposal. His consideration was incredibly short-lived; without even blinking, he spat a massive white-hot ball of flame at their shield bubble. It splashed harmlessly against the protective force-field, which only seemed to agitate the beast. He ungraciously dove at them, hoping to use all of his mass to smash through the shield.

Twilight didn’t even blink. She magnified the power to the second spell she’d been pooling all the magic into, causing a fourth and fifth aura to ignite around her horn. Her vision faded for only a moment, but it felt like an eternity. When the blinding white light that had been her eyes ceased, she cast one uneasy glance up at the dragon, unaware that she was no longer actively channeling magic into any spells.

Discord’s gut began to bloat and grow impossibly large. A loud crack filled the air, and then Discord was torn to bloody rivulets and meaty hunks. The canopy of trees on the island was blasted clean of any foliage, and the brick ground outside the barrier was pulverized into dust as a shield inside of him exploded outward. In the epicenter of the shield explosion sat a mortified, but otherwise unharmed Fluttershy. A shower flesh and blood rained down all around them, not hitting any of them but for the presence of the shield.

Slowly, the shield surrounding the rest of her friends faded out of existence. It was becoming a great effort for Twilight to even stand at this point. Her legs felt like jelly, and that was saying nothing of the way her horn burned. It was probably the exhaustion talking, but she couldn’t help but be glad the shield spell that rid Canterlot of the Changeling invasion force hadn’t had the same destructive force as hers had. Celestia would have been furious that all of Canterlot had been destroyed.

A weak laugh escaped her muzzle before her legs gave out. Her friends were all on her in an instant, smothering her with one great big group hug and cheering loudly. Even Princess Luna had moved closer to the festive pony-pile, and while was not actively participating in the smothering of Twilight, she still exuded warmth and admiration. It felt like their victory over Nightmare Moon all over again, only all the more tiring.

Even the festive revelry of her friends couldn’t distract her from a sickening revelation. Twilight had long been aware of the destructive potential that magic possessed. In addition to the combative magics wielded by the UniCorps of the Equestrian Guard in times of war, the destructive potential of even the most mundane magic was often used to emphasize proper supervision of unicorns in training; one popular example was of a unicorn colt who, in attempt to make lemonade, burned his entire house down.

While she could admit that she had her share of magical mishaps—there wasn’t a unicorn who didn’t on occasion—it was the first time she’d ever purposefully utilized the destructive potential of magic. She couldn’t deny that there was a certain component of anger there, and that scared her more than anything. If I could do this to Discord, what other horrors could I be capable of?

Her introspection proved to be short-lived, regardless of how she felt. Through the legs of her friends, she could just make out a single gobbet of blood-soaked meat slowly creeping across the ground like some macabre snail. While his regeneration would be undeniably slower, she hadn’t managed to defeat Discord after all, and now she was out of energy and options!

- - -

Warren gazed past Morrigan, setting his eyes upon the three fillies. They’d been spared a coating of whatever or whoever the gory mess had once been, but they were no less mortified. The looks of horror on their faces as they cringed away from his gore-streaked visage only compounded the sick feeling in his stomach as he got his first good look at Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle.

The chimeric fusion they’d been a part of hadn’t been lifted without leaving scars. Right off the bat, the first symptom of the change he noticed was their manes. Sweetie Belle’s two-toned mane of grayish mulberry and grayish rose now bore a third highlight: an amaranth that perfectly matched Apple Bloom’s mane. The Apple filly, on the other hand, bore a streak of grayish rose. It was then that he was drawn to their eyes. They each bore one of the other’s colors; Apple Bloom’s right eye was now sap green, and Sweetie’s right eye was unmistakably gamboge. Even as he looked at them, they backed away to hide behind Scootaloo, recognizing that he was sizing them up.

If he hadn’t known they’d been of two separate blood-lines, he might have thought they shared a common ancestor or parent. They probably share similar genetic markers now, too, he thought glumly. This is my fault, but I have to remember that it could have been worse. If I hadn’t taken that knowledge, I’m not sure I’d have been able to save them.

“You still won’t be able to save them, human.” Morrigan snarled. “Have you forgotten all about me?”

Enraged, the Draconequus threw Warren into the air with her eagle claw, and then spiked him down into the ground like a volleyball with her lion paw. His body slammed to the ground, and he could feel his internal injuries cry out in protest. Before he could even spit the mouthful of blood, a goat’s hoof slammed itself down into his stomach. He shut his eyes in pain.

“Leave him alone!” a small voice cried out. Morrigan’s hoof continued kicking him. That small voice cried out again. “I said, leave him alone, you b-b-bully!”

Morrigan stopped kicking him. “What was that, little one?” The cruelty in her voice did not belie the amusement at being challenged. Warren forced open his eyes, only to see Scootaloo standing between her friends and Morrigan, wings spread defiantly. “By all means, go ahead and repeat yourself.”

“I said,” the filly sucked in a shaky breath. Her face was chock-full of grim defiance. “Leave my big brother the buck alone!”

“Oh my! If this were a schoolyard row, your courage might be meritorious.” Morrigan crooned condescendingly. “Unfortunately for you, this isn’t. I’ve had enough of you pitiful whelps.”

The Draconequus strode up to the pegasus filly, and stared down into her eyes. Warren felt a hot flash of rage as Morrigan kicked out with her hoof. Scootaloo went tumbling backwards, landing in a heap in front of Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom. The Draconequus stomped her way towards them, stepping through a migrating ocean of gore.

Not even thinking—he was completely blind to the pain—Warren silently rose to his feet. Ignoring his dislocated shoulder, he pulled combat the knife from his sash. Malice and rage filled the pit of his stomach as he staggered after Morrigan. He wanted nothing better than to sink that knife into her back, and that was exactly what he planned on doing.

“You won’t lay another hand on these girls ever again!” he shouted, catching the Morrigan off guard. Plunging the combat knife into her spine, he felt the satisfying click as the blade nicked bone. “It’s high time you paid for everything you’ve done. Not just to me or the girls, but to both worlds!”

He wrenched the blade left and right, eliciting a pained exhalation of air from Morrigan. With her spine severed, she no longer had the ability to stand. She crumpled to the ground—her head lopsided—as he withdrew his blade from her, a seething anger rising to her face. Warren glared down at the monster, before moving around to place himself between the fillies. With one booted foot, he kicked Morrigan over.

“Girls, I don’t want you to see what I’m about to do.” he said flatly, not taking his eyes off of the Draconequus. “This isn’t anything you girls need to see.” Not hearing the clip-clop of hooves moving away from him, he half-turned his head and raised his voice. “Scootaloo, go! Take Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle and make sure they’re alright.”

“Alright, big brother...” her soft voice came after a moment. He knew he’d hurt her, but he couldn’t do what he needed to do next to end this if they were watching him. “Come on. Let’s give him some space.”

Warren listened to the receding hoof-beats of the three fillies. Once he was certain they had rounded the corner, he knelt crouched down over the Draconequus until his face was hovering just above hers. “You know, it didn’t have to be this way.” he whispered into her ear as he lowered his knife to the bottom of her ribcage. “You had plenty of chances to leave well enough alone, but instead you chose to be greedy. What has it gotten you now? You’re going to die very soon, and it isn’t a god or a king that has slain you; it was but a simple man.”

He flipped the blade’s cutting edge so that it pointed towards where he assumed her belly button was. With a grunt of pain, he forced the blade into her body cavity, quickly tearing through muscle and tendon. Drawing the blade downward, he cut a bloody furrow down through her chest, eliciting an enticing dark image to flow into his mind. Oh how easy it would be to just stab her repeatedly... But then I’d be worse than her.

“I really must thank you, though.” he whispered idly as he withdrew the blade and moved backwards, allowing himself better access to her chest cavity. “If you hadn’t killed me and put me through all of this, Scootaloo would be all alone. If she hadn’t met me, she might not have known the feeling of family again while she was still a child. For this, I promise your actual death will be quick.” He paused to spit out a wad of congealing blood. “This next part, however, will be excruciating. I know it will be.”

Tearing his eyes away from the face of the crippled Draconequus, he plunged his good arm up into her torso. The moment his hand passed up into her body cavity, he could feel her lungs vibrating against his hand in a silent scream. Where was it when she was rooting around in my chest? he wondered, as his hand groped blindly around inside her chest.

It was up behind my heart, wasn’t it? The thought came to him as his hand brushed against a pulsating organ. Yeah! That’s right. It was right behind this old thing. I’m kind of surprised I didn’t manage to botch it and kill her outright... He pulled his had back slightly, and slid it behind her heart. His fingers grazed something simultaneously unyielding, yet gelatinous. It had enough give in it to get a grip, but not to puncture it. If I’d killed her, they’d all be trapped here... I don’t even want to think what would become of their lives.

It’s rather large... Not like the one she took out of me. Hell, this has to be almost as big as my head. Tugging and guiding his prize out of her chest was no easy feat. More than once, he had to release his grip and find better purchase. Finally, he found he had to widen the incision in order to pull out his prize.

To think, so much power could be compressed into something the size of my own head... He stared at the glowing concentrated magic sitting in his hand. It was incredibly light, yet at the same time he could feel the weight it would hold on his future. The thrum of its power pulsed through his hand, and within him, he could feel something respond. Warren felt drawn to the power of the egg-shaped energy mass resting in his palm.

‘With this, you could heal all of your wounds, and fix most of the damage done to this world,’ the egg seemed to whisper. ‘You could live a life of luxury wherever you choose to live. You’d never have to worry about illness or dying of natural causes. You could...’

“You could become a God.” Morrigan managed a whisper.

Warren frowned, looking from the egg to Morrigan and back. “Yes, I certainly could, couldn’t I?” he said softly. “That’s not what I want, though. Even with just a bit of your power, I could feel the malignant effects it had on my spells. Your magic craves wanton carnage,” he said, thinking back to the minotaurs, and the skeleton. “If I made this a part of myself...” He glared down into Morrigan’s eyes. “I’d be no better than you.

“No,” he said firmly. “I can still use this without actually making it a part of me. I’d only need to channel it. I’d only need to use it three times, anyway.” He looked up at the Nightmare Moon statue. “Okay... maybe more than a few times. Then, once we cross through the portal, its use will have ended, and I’ll smash it.”

He sat down beside the dying Draconequus, ignorant of the ever-widening pool of blood. Nesting the egg in his legs, he laboriously took off the shirt which Rarity had crafted. A light clatter drew his attention to a pair of glasses that had landed in the pool of blood. Putting the bundled shirt aside—a fair distance from Morrigan’s paralyzed form—he reached for the glasses. He hadn’t even realized he still had them tucked in the collar of his shirt.

In a moment of wistful reminiscence, Warren plucked the glasses from the ground. He turned them over in his hands, remembering that they had been enchanted to help him overcome his temporary vision impairment. With a sigh, he opened the sides, and moved to place it on his head. Instead of placing it on his nose—it hadn’t sat properly there since he’d returned to being human—he sat the bridge of it over the base of his horn, letting it rest like sunglasses over the bill of a cap.

A pained wheeze from Morrigan returned his attention to what he had been doing. Placing the egg on the bundled shirt, he stood up. Moving to stand over Morrigan’s head, he found himself looking into her suddenly frightened eyes. He gave her an apologetic smile as he knelt down. Placing hands on either side of her head, he sighed before saying, “Even if you don’t rightly deserve it, I hope that you can find the solace in death that you never found in life.” With a pained grunt, he twisted her neck, and continued to do so until he heard a sickening crunch. “Rest in peace.”

Turning his back on the lifeless corpse that had been the biggest threat to the peace of two worlds, he approached the egg. He cast a thoughtful glance back to her body. I can’t just leave this body... Lord knows what madness the scientists would create with her remains. Tentatively, cradled the bundled shirt and egg in his arms. I hope this works like I thought it would.

He immediately began picturing a flame igniting inside Morrigan’s remains. In his mind’s eye, that flame became larger and hotter, growing until it encompassed all of Morrigan’s remains. As the flame burned on, the body broke down into ash. Finally, he added an additional thought to the structure of the spell; one that would allow the spell to carry out on its own, without his focus on it.

Warren turned to face the pyre. As the violet flames licked at Morrigan’s remains, he couldn’t help but feel amused. “I suppose it’s only fitting that a Celtic goddess should receive a funeral pyre... even if it isn’t a standard one,” he said aloud, more to Morrigan than to himself. Turning to the corner around which the fillies had vanished, he called out, “You can come out now, girls. I’ve done what’s needed of me.”

As the fillies gathered at his side, he stared out towards the flagpole. The angry mass of meat and blood that had showered down around the island had almost completely migrated back towards the point of origin. With the Discord dragon nowhere in sight, he could only imagine that the mess was Discord. He couldn’t help but wonder what effect it would have on the Draconequus. After all, he’d ended the enchantment placed on Discord before he’d completely regenerated. Would he be more dragon, or would he be himself again?

“So, girls...” he said, gently patting the egg he cradled in his arms. He gave the three fillies a knowing grin. “Who wants to help save everypony?”

The three fillies lit up at the implication. In unison, the three fillies chanted, “Cutie Mark Crusader Support Squad! YEAH!”

- - -

With the help of Applejack, Twilight rose to her hooves. Though she managed to delay Discord’s assault by many minutes, the gathering ocean of flesh in front of them heralded their impending doom. Even as she watched, the last of the gory mess had gathered in a pool beneath the flagpole. Slowly, the bloody mass began to rise out of itself.

“I’m sorry, girls.” Twilight said, turning to her friends. “It looks like this is it. It looks like we’ve failed.”

Pinkie Pie, in spite of the situation, remained sickeningly cheery. Even though Twilight knew the party pony was well aware of the situation, Pinkie didn’t stop smiling or bouncing. “It’s alright, Twilight!” she said, pausing her bouncing. The pink party pony held out a leg, flexing it at her knee. “See? No pinchy knee! If my Pinkie Sense doesn’t say something scary is gonna happen, there’s nothing at all to be worried about!”

“But Pinkie, haven’t you seen what-” Twilight stared agape at the pink earth pony. Her friend had stopped bouncing. Instead, a vaguely familiar shuddering had overtaken the pink mare, causing her to vibrate across the ground. Twilight turned to Applejack and asked, “Isn’t that the same...”

“... Pinkie Sense meanin’ somethin’ really unexpected is gonna be happenin’?” Applejack completed the thought. “Yeah, Ah reckon so... but how unexpected can ya possibly get?”

“I don’t know...” Rainbow Dash laughed, allowing a look of relief to cross her face. She lifted a fore-hoof and pointed it toward the puddle of Discord. “But that is pretty unexpected.”

Following the outstretched hoof, everypony gazed back at the writing mass of blood and gore. It was indeed reforming, but instead of the massive dragon, they were relieved to see Discord’s natural chimeric shape forming from the mess. The look on his face spoke multitudes of his own confusion as he regained his color.

A clattering sound inside the group distracted the group from Discord, giving him the opportunity to rise off the ground and look about in confusion. Pinkie Pie was shuddering and vibrating across the ground. Whatever Pinkie’s Sense had predicted, Discord’s return to normalcy wasn’t it.

“... but if that ain’t it, then what-”

“Discord!” a voice boomed out across the park. “Get down from there. It’s time for us to go home.”

Everybody in the square—ponies and villains alike—looked out towards the statue. Limping along the pulverized brick walkway by himself was Goldenrod. With his shirt off, they could see that he was covered in blood and wounds. In his arms, he cradled something bundled up in his shirt. A flat smile worked its way across his blood-streaked face.

The Draconequus stared smugly down at the human bearing a unicorn’s horn. “Too bad for you. I don’t want to go.”

“You don’t at all seem surprised to know that your sister is dead,” the human called back. “You knew then, that this was the only way it could end?”

“Yes.” Discord’s voice seethed with barely contained disgust. “She woke me from my slumber, only to turn me into nothing but a slave the very next instant. You can’t expect me to be sorry she’s dead. If anything, I should thank you for saving me the trouble.”

Goldenrod looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yeah, family is more than just blood,” he said softly, looking away. He gave the pony group a wistful look and turned his gaze back up to Discord. “Seriously, you need to get down here right now! I won’t ask again.”

The Embodiment of Chaos returned the human’s sentiment in a gesture recognizable to any beings that bore digits, or those that spent time around them. Goldenrod didn’t even look angry; instead, he just reached his right hand up to stroke whatever was in his bundled shirt and closed his eyes. Twilight thought she could make out the faintest glimmer of a sickly green aura around his horn. Without warning, Discord came crashing to the ground in front of them. He was thrashing as though he were being held down by an invisible hoof.

“Do it now, Twilight...” he shouted. “I can’t hold him for long.”

She faltered. “I-I’m not sure I can!’

“We know you can, Twilight!” a small voice called out behind her. “We believe in you!”

All at once, a trio of fillies burst from the treeline. Two of them rushed to the sides of Applejack and Rarity to show their support. Twilight watched as the third—a familiar orange pegasus filly with a fuchsia mane—rushed past the group, taking her place beside Goldenrod. Surely I must be mistaken... I could have sworn I saw something on Scootaloo’s flank.

“You can do it!” cheered the three fillies. “You can do it!”

One last time... Twilight smiled to herself before closing her eyes. Again, she reached out to tap the power of the Elements of Harmony. Letting it flow through her, she opened her eyes towards Discord. We will not fail. A blinding white light shot forth from the mares, striking Discord’s thrashing form.

Twilight did not relent until Discord was nothing but a statue. Sinking back to the ground, she allowed a laugh of pride escape her mouth. “We really did it then. It’s all over.”

As if to answer her question, the floating island began to lurch towards the bay. “Oops...” Goldenrod chuckled, unfazed by the island sudden motion. “That’s my bad.”

Chapter 22

View Online

“What’s happening? Why is the island moving?” Twilight inquired, panic creeping into her voice. She looked at Warren imploringly. Everypony shifted anxiously, trying to get better footing on the ground in case the island lurched suddenly again. “What do you mean, ‘that’s my bad’?”

Warren cringed at Twilight’s tone, but didn’t break his smile. Instead, he released a soft breath and uncovered the egg. “In a nutshell, this is all of Morrigan’s magic. I...” He looked away, frowning. The island righted itself and began drifting more smoothly towards the bay. “I took it from her before she died. I’m the one keeping this island afloat right now. Don’t ask me how, but I’ve been drawing on the magic from the egg instead of what little is left within me in order to keep us afloat.”

Rarity stepped forward. She looked a bit indignant at what had become of her work, but there was a look of concern on her face. “But darling... Twilight told us that the Draconequus’s magic is the only thing keeping you alive,” she intoned. “Surely you’d want more than anything to take that magic back into yourself so that...well...you wouldn’t die!”

He simply smiled at the porcelain-white unicorn. “I would have thought so too, Rarity—I really would have—but you haven’t seen half of the horrors this magic is capable of.” His eyes wandered over to Twilight Sparkle, only to see an uneasy look on her face. “Morrigan’s magic... It’s not right.”

“When I first started using the magic inside me, I didn’t see the malign nature behind it since I hadn’t been able to truly tap it. Even when I realized I was in tune with the plants, that wasn’t a fraction of what was there,” he said, shaking his head. “When I began drawing on it in an over-emotional state, be it of anger or fear, that’s when the malignancy began to come out.

“I only wanted to stop the minotaurs out in the orchard—to bind them. The magic took on a life of its own and slew two of them,” he said, watching Twilight. Again, the mare had seemingly flinched at his words. “Then it happened again with the skeleton—but differently. I’d initially thought it had been my own mind making the suggestion, but now that I think about it, I realize it was the magic within me looking to be used in such a manner. Had that skeleton been a living thing...it would have been beyond cruel.

“No,” he said firmly, shaking his head. “If I took all of this into me...I don’t think it would be me any more. I’d become something...tainted. Even though she’s dead, a bit of Morrigan lives on in this concentrated magic...and in me.”

“Then why not just destroy it outright?” Applejack suggested. “Land this island in the harbor, an’ let me buck it to the moon.”

“It’s not that simple,” he whispered, gazing at the ground. He placed his left hand on the encapsulated magical energy, and stroked it gently. The island began to move smoothly toward the harbor. “This thing is all that remains to keep the portal open to your world. I can’t just break it yet, either. There are things that I must do...some wrongs that I must right-”

“You can’t bring back the dead!” Twilight blurted out. “It’s not natural, and it wouldn’t really be them! Necromancy was outlawed in Equestria for a reason.”

A lump rose in Warren’s throat. “I know, Twilight.” When he looked up to her, his eyes were the saddest she’d ever seen. “I wasn’t even considering it. Even if it was them...what would happen to the life they were reborn into?” He shook his head grimly. “There are still some things that I can do in an attempt to help.” He turned to stare up at the statue of Nightmare Moon.

“Goldenrod, your arm!” Fluttershy exclaimed upon seeing his back. “...and your side! What happened to you?”

“Oh...yeah.” Warren threw on an idiotic grin. “I don’t suppose anypony could help mend a few broken ribs, and reset my shoulder?” When three excitable fillies looked like they were about to volunteer, he coughed and said, “Anypony who won’t accidentally hurt me worse than I already am?”

“I can help with your shoulder,” Fluttershy volunteered meekly. “That is, if you don’t mind.”

To his surprise, Rarity volunteered before he could even glance at Twilight or the Princess. “I’m no medical unicorn,” she said smoothly, “but I can at least help bind your broken ribs. That sash I made for you looks to be about the perfect size.” Then, as if picking up on the unspoken question, she blushed slightly and added, “Twilight and the Princess are simply exhausted. They really did all the hard work.”

Warren looked at the two, and grimaced. “Do it.”

- - -

“Do you really think you can fix the statue?” Scootaloo asked from beside him.

Everypony was up on the lowest tier of the statue’s podium, staring out at the ruined boats on the bay. In spite of an agonizing experience having his shoulder set by Fluttershy and Rarity tweaking his ribs with her magic before wrapping the big bow-like belt around his chest, he had managed to land the island safely enough. They had even brought the statue of Discord with them, not wanting to risk him breaking out and escaping while they weren’t looking.

“Probably not,” he said with a sigh. “I mean, I have the magic to do it...but I’m terrible with fine details in art.” He looked back to the burn mark where Morrigan had once lain. “I’ve gotta give her credit...she might have overlooked some glaring holes in her plans, but darned if she didn’t have a detailed eye.”

Without warning, Rainbow Dash hopped up onto the half-wall that bordered the platform. “Heads up! Those fighter jet things are back.”

Warren gazed upward, and sure enough a pair of jets made a pass by the island. Off in the distance, the USS Wasp was picking its way through the floating graveyard that had once proudly been a fleet. Up on the flight deck, he could just make out an Osprey. At this distance, he wasn’t sure, but it looked like it was getting ready for takeoff.

“Okay...gotta make this quick then,” he said anxiously. “We’re about to have company, and I’d rather we’re gone before they get here.”

Cradling the egg in his left arm—made simpler by the fact that Rarity had also been able to fashion a sling from the belt—he stroked it gently with his right palm. Focusing all the willpower he could muster, he willed the Nightmare Moon statue to break down into its iron and copper components. It began to lose its equine shape. Ultimately, what towered above them was a copper monolith bearing none of the decades of tarnish that the Statue of Liberty had suffered. Words were imprinting themselves upon it as quickly as Warren could think of them.

He watched a falling star at the edge of the world

Now the maiden’s beautiful face is covered in barren earth.

Everyone has to look into the eyes of the truth


In the stone at the base of the copper memorial, a second series of words etched themselves into existence. Sorry I couldn’t fix Lady Liberty.

“That is very poetic, Goldenrod, but you shouldn’t aim to loosen your people’s faith in their deity,” the Princess commented. “It isn’t as though their deity was the one to cry havoc and let slip Discord.”

“No, Princess Luna. That isn’t necessarily true.” He shook his head. “If what Morrigan said was true, she’s behind all of the major religions; she’s the embodiment of the Gods of present. Even if she was lying...God betrayed them by allowing Discord and Morrigan into their universe.” He spat on the ground. “Look at me spouting blasphemy. My mother is probably rolling over in her grave.”

Fluttershy was by his side in an instant, nuzzling his right arm. “I know it may seem like your ideals have come crashing down around you, but it can’t all be completely false,” Fluttershy said softly. “Surely somepony has been watching over you. Just look at you, at all you’ve been through. You’ve faced unspeakable horrors and suffered countless times.”

“Fluttershy’s right, sugar-cube,” Applejack added. “Sure, bad things’ve been followin’ ya wherever ya go, but good things have been coming too. Look at Scootaloo. “ Everypony turned towards the orange filly. “Before y’all came around, the only pony she had to look up to was Rainbow Dash, and ya know she ain’t that great of a role-model. Now the little filly has a big-brother figure, and she even managed to earn her cutie mark.”

“What?” the three fillies shouted. Scootaloo turned her body so that she could get a better look at her own flank, presenting just as good a view for everyone else in the group. Emblazoned on her orange flank was a regal bald eagle, with its wings and talons outstretched in a dive. The three fillies all looked confused.

“It’s cool and all... I guess,” Scootaloo said dejectedly. “... but why a bird? What does it even mean?”

“Maybe it means yer special talent is eagle taming,” the pair said in unison, drawing worried glances from their elder sisters. Rarity in particular looked about ready to scold Sweetie Belle for using the Apple family twang. “... or maybe it’s flying after all?”

“But when would I have had the chance to earn either of those cutie marks?” she complained. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Warren couldn’t help but muffle a snicker with his right hand. “I think I know why its an eagle,” he finally said. “Eagles can symbolize courage and strength, right? Think about it: what did you display when you stood up against Morrigan? It takes a heck of a lot of courage to stand up for your friends, but to be willing to throw self-preservation to the wind when you know your foe is far too powerful for you is displaying courage on a whole other level.”

A bright smile began to work its way across the orange filly’s face. “That makes sense, I guess,” she said, letting uncertainty creep into her voice. “But how does it fit with my name? I’m Scootaloo, not Eagleoo.”

Rainbow Dash trotted up to the filly and mussed her hair with a hoof. “That’s easy, squirt!” she said cheerfully. “To scoot is to move fast, right? Eagles are really fast too!” Realizing what she’d said, the rainbow pegasus put on a smug look. “I mean, you probably won’t be as fast as me, but you could be really fast, with the right training.” She gave the filly a wink.

Keeping his eyes on the filly as she hugged one of Rainbow Dash’s forelegs, Warren moved over to Princess Luna. Leaning is head next to her ear, he whispered, “I don’t suppose you’d be able to teleport us one last time, would you?” He pointed out amongst the boneyard on the bay towards the oncoming naval vessel. “I really don’t know how you all will be greeted, but I don’t want any more interdimensional incidents. I’m sure as a regent of Equestria, you can understand the sentiment.”

“Yes, I can do that,” she replied sadly. “I really wish we had the opportunity to make reparations to the people of this world for what has happened, but we cannot delay seeking aid for the wounded.” Though the word implied Rainbow Dash, her gaze betrayed her concern for the formerly merged Crusaders. Her voice was a low whisper when she next spoke. “What did she do to these poor girls?”

“It’s almost too monstrous for words,” he whispered back. “She made them into one monstrous being. I did everything I could to separate them again, but with the degree of fusion, I doubt they’ll ever be completely the same. When we get back, could you make sure they get the best help possible? Don’t think of it as a favor for me, but instead for them.” He indicated Rarity and Applejack.

Luna only nodded in response. He watched her horn as it began to glow with that beautiful navy aura. Even though it was broad daylight, he couldn’t help but feel it was exactly like the Princess’s mane, dotted with many stars. As a bright light began to envelope the group, he whispered once more into the Princess’s ear. “Thank you.”

- - -

Standing once again before the Legends Bar and Restaurant, Warren couldn’t shake a feeling that his chest was about to burst. He knew he should feel jubilant about their victory and the impending return to Equestria, but a hollow ache in his heart left him the most sombre of the group. On one hand, he was back here on Earth, where he had wanted to return to since day one. On the other, he knew that he was legally dead here on Earth, and that his home was elsewhere now. What would his family even think if he came back into their lives? It’d be horrible to put them through any of this craziness.

There were others that needed him now. He had Scootaloo. More than that, he had an entire clan that showed they at least cared for him. Maybe they weren’t all family, but in these past two weeks, they’d been more of a family to him than his own had been in many years. Even if they didn’t think of it in the same way, they were his family now.

So why do I feel so conflicted about going back? He turned to face the portal. His home was there on the other side with Scootaloo, so why did it feel so difficult to just walk through that portal? He looked down at his feet. Laying there at his feet, there was a cellular phone. When he knelt down to pick it up, he discovered it still had a charge—it wasn’t much, but it was there. As the screen sprang to life, he couldn’t help but laugh at the date. Today’s the fourth of July, huh? Suddenly, that epitaph seems a heck of a lot more patriotic. And fancy that, there’s still a cellular signal to boot.

When he stood back up, he realized that everypony was watching him. Their eyes all darted towards the small rectangular object in his hand, and then back to his eyes. Fluttershy began stepping forward, as if ready to ask a question. “No, it’s alright,” he said. “There’s one last thing I’ve gotta do. Go on through the portal. I’ll be right there behind you all.” He turned his back on the portal, and strode through the doors of Legends.

The interior was dim, lit only by the daylight filtering through the windows and doors. Making his way across the empty restaurant towards the bar, he was already trying to decide which one of his brothers or sisters he wanted to call. He decided it would be best if he was seated at the bar. While he was sure he could stay standing, he didn’t want to test his luck.

Finally deciding on which family member to call, he punched the number into the phone’s keypad. The phone rang four times, and then jumped straight to the answering machine. With a sigh, Warren waited for the prompt to speak. “Hey Billy Bingo, it’s Wimpy. You probably never expected to hear my voice again, but listen. I just wanted you and everybody else to know that I’m not mad at you. I was being selfish when-”

“Hello?” a voice on the other side asked. “Warren, that really is you, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, William, it is,” Warren sighed. “Wow, I don’t even know what to say, now that you’re on the line.”

“That’s my line,” his brother responded. “I suppose the most obvious thing to ask is how is this even possible? You’re dead! I saw what was left of you! Dad was devastated by your death, you know. He’s amazingly pulled through and he’s still kicking.”

“Dad’s still alive then? That’s good...” He smiled at that piece of good news. “I know you’re up there in Maine, but surely you know that stuff going on in New York, right?” he replied. “Let’s just say that I was called off my vacation in the afterlife because of what was going on here.”

“What, you’re some sort of heavenly monster hunter now?” Billy laughed. “What, no real hunters made it to heaven?”

“It’s not really like that. I know it’s not quite what you expected regarding the afterlife, but I was reborn into another world,” he said flatly. “The only reason I’m here is because some God wannabes with freaky magic decided they wanted our two worlds to go to war. I had only a small part in this. I’m just the tour guide.” It was a flat-out lie, and he knew it, but he couldn’t tell his brother that he’d almost single-handedly saved the world. He wouldn’t have believed it at all anyway.

“Uh-huh.” his brother said suspiciously. “So... what, you just called to say hi and then goodbye?”

Warren felt dejected. “Look, I know you guys were pissed about my stance regarding Dad. I was being selfish.” He sighed again. “I just wanted to let you all know that I felt bad about what I put you all through. I never wanted any of this to happen. I also wanted to say that I don’t blame any of you either. You are, and always will be my family. Goodbye, Billy.”

Warren ended the call, and threw the phone against a wall. Tears rimmed his eyes. The hollow ache in his heart had lifted, but he still felt even more sorrowful than before. It was settled; he had no place on Earth any longer. Screwing his eyes shut, he sank his head into his palm, and tried his hardest not to cry. He was failing miserably.

The door opened and closed behind him. Two sets of hoof-steps sounded behind him, the heavier set indicating the Princess was one of the visitors. He listened as they picked their way across the floor, admiring the soft clip-clop of their hooves on the tile. Wiping the last of his tears away, he forced a smile onto his face and faced his company—Twilight Sparkle and Princess Luna.

“Ladies, can I offer either of you a drink?” he said with a swagger that he didn’t at all feel. “We’ve got a lovely selection of beers, wines, spirits and liqueurs here behind the bar. The power may be out, but I’m sure the ice cooler is still plenty cold.”

“Please, Goldenrod. I didn’t mean to intrude on your privacy. I just wanted to talk before we go back.” Something in Twilight’s voice told him that she wasn’t in any sort of mood for joking. “Those things you said about Morrigan’s magic... do you really think its possible for magic itself to be... evil? Could it actually change who we are?”

Warren thought about it for a moment. “As far as Morrigan’s magic was concerned, yes...there will always be that dark element waiting for users that it can take advantage of.” He leaned back against the bar, looking down into Twilight’s worried eyes. “I think as far as pony magic is concerned, it is the user that shapes the magic, not the other way around.”

“You didn’t see what I did to Discord though!” she cried. “I was of sound body and sound mind, and I blew him apart! How can I just go on using magic knowing that I did that to another living being?”

Letting out a shaky breath, Warren felt a cold look creep into his eyes. “Twilight, what you did was out of necessity, for your safety and the safety of your friends.” He pushed himself off of the bar and walked towards her. Crouching down to her level, he looked her in the eyes and smiled. “You were hardly of sound mind. You were stricken with panic, afraid for your well-being and the well-being of your friends.

“Sometimes the world isn’t just light and dark, but also many shades of gray in between.” He brushed a stray lock of her mane out of her eyes. “Yes, what you did was extremely violent—probably the first violent thing you’ve ever even done. A dark action can have a positive outcome, though. Think. What would have happened if you hadn’t blown up Discord?”

“Fluttershy would have...” she whimpered.

“That’s right.” he said softly, caressing her cheek. “You would have lost one of your closest friends.” He glanced up at Princess Luna. “Now, imagine if Princess Luna—please excuse my using you as an example, Princess—hadn’t become Nightmare Moon. The chain of events that led to you making friends with the others might never have occurred.” He paused, forgetting what he was trying to get across. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because something bad happens, or you do something bad, it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a good thing just over the horizon.”

Twilight stared at him in bewilderment. “So what you’re saying is that my magic isn’t my concern after all, but whatever darkness may rest inside me?”

“Sorta. There’s a bit of darkness in all of our hearts, things we act out upon in moments of weakness. Luna had hers...” He inclined his head respectfully. “I had mine when I destroyed Morrigan’s body. I could have left it, and allowed humanity a chance to find a way to protect itself from magic—don’t ask, human sciences are complicated, but trust me, they’d find a way—in the event of future transdimensional incursions. Instead, my disgust with what she had done and the things her tainted magic made me do blinded me to the good and only allowed me to see the bad.

“No, what I’m saying is that you can’t be afraid of your magic just because you’ve realized the destructive potential for the... first time.” He tilted his head thoughtfully. “Instead, learn from it. Think about what you did, and how you can better yourself from it. You may not be wholly comfortable with magic for a while, but don’t shun it completely.”

“While I might not have worded it in such a confusing manner, what he says is essentially correct,” Princess Luna added softly. “Celestia will not be angry with you if you choose to take a sabbatical from your studies of magic. Given what you’ve gone through, she might even encourage it. Remember that a refrain from magic use can teach you a lot about magic as well.”

Though Twilight had never seemed like the hugging type to Warren, right then and there, the unicorn student looked like she could use a hug. He wrapped his good arm around the back of her neck, and pulled her close to him. “I’m sure everypony would agree that you need this hug,” he whispered into her ear. “With all you’ve been through, you deserve it. Go on and join everypony else on the other side. I still need to talk with Princess Luna.”

- - -

“You know, I never got to properly thank you,” Warren said, nursing a glass of Irish cream on the rocks. “For healing me, I mean.”

“Think nothing of it, Sir Warren,” the Princess replied sweetly. “I would gladly do so for any of Equestria’s subjects.”

He nearly choked on his drink. “Wait wait, you’ve knighted me?”

“Well...not officially.” she said teasingly. “Would you rather not, for all you’ve done for Equestria?”

“Your Highness, I’d be rather honored to be knighted, but I’m not completely sure I’d even have a place in your court.” He shook his head. “I’m not even sure what good I’m going to be helping Scootaloo. I’m not a pegasus—hell, I’m not even a pony—so I can’t even help her when she starts flying.”

In spite of his doubts, the Princess smiled. “Maybe you don’t know now what you’ll do tomorrow or the next day, but you’ll find your way.” She smiled even wider. “I find that things in Equestria have a wonderful habit of working themselves out.” Luna inclined her head towards the door. “Now, shall we join the others?”

“I...you’re right,” he mumbled. “I’ll know what to do when it counts.” He smiled at her, and strode towards the door. “They’re probably worried sick.” He snickered. “... what with the time difference on the other side.”

Pushing the door open, he half imagined finding himself staring down the barrel of a rifle. Instead, he was greeted by the sight of bones and ash, and an almost still image of the backsides of everypony on the other side of the portal. Discord’s petrified form was there with them, probably having been carried through by Rarity and Applejack. Holding the door open for the Princess, he allowed himself a gentlemanly grin.

An idea of one last parting gift for Earth struck him when they were only a few steps from the portal. Maybe he couldn’t give the Earth a means to protect itself from magic, but maybe—just maybe—he could give them something else. “Go on ahead. I have an idea.”

The Princess gave him a serene nod. He watched as, without a word, she closed the gap on the portal, and passed on through. Releasing a breath he hadn’t known he was withholding, he took one last look around. This was the end of his story as Warren Ashland. It was also the beginning of the next chapter in his life as Goldenrod.

“Goldenrod,” he said aloud with a smile. “I never thought that name would grow on me. Now though, I kind of like it. Funny how that works.”

He gazed down at the egg shaped construct of magic sitting cradled in his arm. Placing one hand on the top of it, he focused on the egg and all magic contained within. It was no longer an egg holding a barely contained power, but a firework ready to explode. He imagined a minute long fuse, that, when completely burned up, would spread the essence of Morrigan’s magic across the globe, simultaneously dispelling the portal. Like he had with the fire, he enchanted it so that it would continue to carry out this action separate of him until its job was finished.

Content that he was giving humanity a chance at something more, he drew a bit of power from the egg into his arm. With all the force he could muster, he hurled the egg into the stratosphere. It’s up to you now, what you do with this magic. You can become something great—a utopia like Equestria if you’ll allow yourselves the chance—or you can doom yourselves to repeatedly act on the darkness within us all. All that matters is that the choice is in your hands. Goodbye, Earth.

With a happy sigh, Goldenrod stepped through the Equestrian portal to join his friends.

Chapter 23

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Goldenrod smiled as he exited through the portal. It’s the third time he’s been in this castle since he woke up here two weeks ago, and unlike the first two times, he felt nothing but relief. Here in Equestria was where he belonged now. As long as he had Scootaloo, and so long as she needed him, he knew his place was right there with her.

Behind him, a bright flash of light burst through the portal before a crystalline tinkling echoed through the chamber. Everypony watched as the portal shattered into millions of shards. As the portal’s shards tinkled to the ground, they disintegrated into diamond dust. The glimmering cloud washed away in a stray breeze passing through the restored atrium.

“Who’d have thought that something so pretty could be the result of so much bad?” he offered idly to the regal Alicorn beside him, not taking his eyes off the spectacle. “At least it’s all over.”

A gasp from the Princess jerked everypony back to the matter at hand. Radiating from the center of the crater, a sort of grayness slowly began spreading outward. As it passed over the ground, the interlocked stone became ancient and weathered, as it had been when he had first arrived, and with each passing second, the rate of approach increased.

“I would suggest we leave with great haste.” Luna commanded. “The sudden reversion of the castle is going to bring it down upon all of us.”

Everypony was backing away, not eager to find out if the effect was restricted to the castle. Even Goldenrod couldn’t help feel that the Princess was right. An icy chill crept down his spine as the wave of degradation passed beneath him. If Morrigan’s magic is being reversed upon the castle, why hasn’t the transformation spell on me reverted? Am I immune because of the bit of her magic still inside me?

A nudge at his side drew him back to the matter at hand. Twilight was now between him and the Princess, giving a worried look to their friends. Applejack and Rarity were struggling with Discord’s statue, while Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, and Rainbow Dash were ushering the fillies out of the atrium. He caught one worried glance from Scootaloo before she crossed the threshold of the doorway. Smiling, Goldenrod flashed her a thumbs up.

“Leave Discord,” the Princess said calmly to the seamstress and the farm pony. “I shall remove him myself.”

“Can’t we just leave him here?” Goldenrod shouted back, running beside Twilight to join the others at the doorway. “It’d be a fitting tomb, judging by the history of the place.”

“No, the collapse won’t destroy him! Leaving him in the Everfree Forest would likely allow him to break free.” Luna sounded confident of herself. “I will join you once I have removed him to a secure location.”

“Take care of yourself, Princess Luna,” Warren whispered as the door slammed shut behind him as a result of Luna’s magic.

He ran behind Twilight as fast as he could. Even as they ran, he could feel a terrible shudder reverberate through the castle. A great crash resounded as the archway and the door crumbled behind them. It only served to spur him to move quicker. Even the stained glass windows began to shatter inwards around them.

Even through a hail of crumbling ceiling debris, he could see the rest of the group make it out through the doorway at the end of the entry hall. Everypony sat safely beyond the open doorway. The sudden drop of a gigantic slab of stone beside him showered him with a mountain of debris. One large stone landed in his path and tripped him up. He landed face-first on the floor.

Scootaloo shouted something from the doorway, causing him to look up in the direction of the doorway. It took Pinkie Pie and Applejack to hold the filly back. Twilight had also made it to the safety of the door and was staring back at him nervously, as though fighting against the idea of using her magic. The only one still in trouble here is me. Without another thought, he jumped to his feet and sprinted to the door.

His no-longer-borrowed combat boots batted smaller debris out of his way while he hopped over the larger pieces. Faster and faster, the place began coming down around his ears. More than once, Goldenrod narrowly avoided being crushed by a minotaur-sized stone slabs.

Not more than a yard or so away from the door, he saw a giant stone pillar slam into the wall opposite of the one it had come from, partially blocking the doorway. Even as he ran, he could see it becoming less and less stable, sliding further down the wall, leaving only a small window of escape. Throwing caution to the wind, he dove through the last vestige of escape.

Sprawling on his back, he landed in front of everypony. Goldenrod was panting heavily, and covered in scrapes, blood, and dust, but he was very much alive. Rolling onto his right side, he forced himself up and turned to face the group. After a few shaky breaths, he glanced at Rainbow Dash and Scootaloo and said, “Well, that was fun. Who’s up for round two?”

The Rainbow pegasus grinned at him. “You bet your flank, Goldenrod.”

“I should hope you two aren’t itching for any more trouble!” Rarity interjected. “Don’t forget that you are both wounded, and the fillies are still in every bit as much trouble out here in the Everfree.”

“When the lady’s right, the lady’s right,” Goldenrod said with a laugh. “Let’s get everyone home and rested, and then we can deal with getting ourselves killed for fun some other day.”

The cool winds near the cliff were sending chills down his spine again. Glancing down, he grabbed his tattered shirt and untied it from his waist. With a grunt of pain, his arm came out of the sling easy enough, allowing him to remove the restraint and don his shirt.

With the chill taken care of and his arm returned to the sling, he glanced to Twilight. “What’s our next move?”

“We’ll make for Ponyville by way of the path that passes Zecora’s hut. We can get some healing salves and-” She stopped suddenly, her ears flicking about. Everypony else had done the same.

“What?” he asked, worried.

“I don’t know... It sounds almost like something crumbling but...” she replied. Before she could finish, the ground beneath them started rumbling viciously. “The cliff is coming down! Quick, to the other side of the bridge.”

“You all go first,” he commanded. “I’m the heaviest, so if it collapses beneath me, nobody else is stranded here.”

“But-” Scootaloo began to object.

“Go!”

Fluttershy and the bonded fillies were the first two across. Applejack helped Rainbow Dash across, and they were quickly followed by Rarity and Pinkie Pie. The scholarly Twilight gave him an appraising glance before bolting after her friends. Finally, it was just him and Scootaloo.

“Promise me! Promise you’ll be right behind me, not just now, but forever!” the pegasus filly cried. “You’re my big brother and I need you!”

“Of course I will.” He tried to sound reassuring, but didn’t feel it. He wanted her across the bridge now. “Just go!”

Goldenrod watched transfixed as Scootaloo turned and ran across the bridge. It was undoubtedly hard for the filly knowing that if the bridge collapsed before he could cross, he’d be unable to keep his promise. That was probably why she was so reluctant to leave him behind. In spite of it all, there were no regrets visible in her gait.

A movement in the corner of his eye turned his blood to ice. One of the ropes on his side of the bridge was disintegrating from age. His heart stopped when the line finally snapped, jerking the bridge and slanting it to one side. The pegasus filly tumbled sideways, only just managing to catch hold of one of the ropes. The fear in her eyes was immense.

“Damn it, no!” he shouted.

Not even thinking, he grabbed hold of the unbroken top rope. Using it to keep his footing, he made his way towards Scootaloo. Even now, he could see her slipping. Finally he was right above the filly. Again, he wrested his left arm out of his sling. Offering his hand, he reached for the filly.

He wasn’t fast enough. The filly lost the last of her grip, and tumbled the rest of the way off of the bridge into the chasm below.

- - -

Scootaloo felt his arms wrap around her. Without a doubt, it had to be Goldenrod. Even though it seemed like a predetermined outcome, he'd still come for her. Surely he knew that they were doomed.

His body felt insanely warm against her back. In spite of the falling sensation, she peeled open her eyes. At this point in the fall, the ground below was still obscured by the ever-persistent fog of the Everfree forest. Wrenching her attention away from the grim fate that waited below, she squirmed against his grasp to turn to face him.

She found herself muzzle against the tattered flower fabric of his tunic, bindings, and sling. Even through the cloth, his body-heat almost burned her. Forcing her chin upward, against his chest, she looked at his face. Despite the situation, he smiled down at her weakly. There was a look in his eye that she couldn't explain. It was a look of defeat, but wasn't at all one of sadness; on the contrary, he looked like he couldn't be happier. Then she saw it; his horn was alight, pulsating furiously with a glittering green aura.

She knew he didn't have much magic left in him, yet here he was burning it all away for her. Tears spilled from the corners of her eyes uncontrollably. “Why?” she sobbed weakly. “Why?”

Goldenrod didn't respond. Instead, he blinked away his own tears before screwing his face up in pain. There was a loud tearing sound, and he hugged her closer. From over his shoulder, she was astonished to see two large golden wings sprout forth from his back. Immediately, the wings caught the wind, slowing the pair's descent.

With a single beat of his new wings, Goldenrod forced himself upright. Before he set his gaze skyward, she could see his face contorted in sheer agony. The heat of his body once again increased, but still, it did not hurt her. Was he using his magic to protect her as well as fly?

His wings began to beat faster and faster, slowing their descent with each beat until finally they had stopped falling entirely. “I know this will probably kill me, but I'd rather it be me than you,” his voice seemed to say, even though his mouth never opened. “You've got so much to live for.”

The glow from his horn became even brighter, lining the chasm walls in a brilliant emerald green. In response, his wings beat faster and harder each time, forcing the pair steadily upward. His face no longer showed pain, instead he was beaming at her. Even against the brilliant light produced by his horn, his skin seemed to be glowing.

Finally, they rose above the cliff edge. Scootaloo's back was to everypony as Goldenrod flew them over solid ground, but she could hear them all gasping or crying out in alarm. She turned her head to see Twilight Sparkle and Applejack tending to Rainbow Dash's bruised and battered wing, attempting to force Rainbow Dash to sit still long enough for them to re-splint it, fighting back a flood of tears all the while. Pinkie Pie was right behind them, holding Rarity as she fussed over her dirty mane in feeble denial over what had just occurred. Then there was Fluttershy, holding Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom close, the only one able to comfort the melded fillies.

Unceremoniously, he lowered her to the ground in front of the others before heaving a heavy sigh. With her hooves on solid ground, Scootaloo was finally able to get a real look at her big brother. She nearly screamed at what she saw.

His face was almost completely transparent, the occasional flake peeling off and disintegrating as it fell. Even the clothes that Rarity had crafted from the flower cloth were in various states of disintegration, revealing more transparent flesh. Everything below his stomach looked almost completely dispersed into a vague mist. The only part of him that wasn't transparent like a ghost was his horn.

Twilight Sparkle broke from the group to stand by Scootaloo. “Goldenrod, you used the last of your magic...to save her,” the unicorn mare spoke in a shock-ridden tone. “But...what happened to your body?”

Scootaloo looked from Goldenrod to Twilight, and made to speak, but it was Princess Luna who spoke up first, stepping forth from the shadows. “I think I understand what he has done,” the Lunar Princess's tone was bleak, but there was a hint of an appreciative smile at the corner of her mouth. “Goldenrod knew that he didn't have enough energy to save her and live long enough to get her to safety, so he made more using the only thing he had available to him; his own body.”

The group looked to him for some sort of confirmation. Instead of speaking, he simply nodded and smiled at the princess. It occurred to Scootaloo that this was why his body had become so hot, as well as why his voice had been so clear in her ears but she never actually saw his mouth move at all. Once again she had to blink tears out of her eyes.

“You promised you were going to be there for me! You were going to be my big brother!” Scootaloo shouted, before turning to bury her face in Twilight's shoulder to cry. “How can you be here for me if you're dead, y-you big dummy!”

His ghostly visage flinched at her scathing accusation, and to everypony watching, it almost seemed as though shimmering motes of energy were floating away from the corners of his eyes. Goldenrod's ethereal shape moved closer to Scootaloo and Twilight, smiling all the while.

“I know I promised you I'd be there for you, and to never let anything bad happen to you,” his solemn voice entered the minds of everypony on the cliff-top. “...but I guess in order to keep my promise, I had no other choice but to break it.” The sound of heartfelt laughter echoed inside their heads. “While I may not be able to ensure your safety any longer, I think I can still keep at least half of my promise.”

Scootaloo withdrew her face from Twilight's shoulder and looked up at him. He reached out one transparent hand and brushed away her tears, causing his hand to break down at an even faster rate. His touch was no longer blisteringly hot; it felt like a cool blanket gliding across her cheek. “What do you mean?” she asked, uncertainly.

“So long as you keep me here,” he motioned his ghostly hand over his own chest. “...in your heart, I will always be there for you. So long as you keep someone's memory alive, they'll be there for you, your parents included.”

Goldenrod reached out once more with his intact hand. Gently, he tousled her mane. More shimmering motes of energy floated freely from his eyes. His form dispersed into a mere mist-like state, and began to glow bright-white. His words echoed again one last time in Scootaloo's mind. “Stay safe, my little pony.”

Chapter 24

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A bright white expanse filled the wandering mind's perception. Despite the bleak sterility of the void, it was not at all uncomfortable; it felt warm, peaceful, and inviting, like a mother's embrace. Even formless, this abyss was like heaven to the perceptions of the mind.

How long had it been here? It could have been days or years, or conversely it could have been mere moments since it came to this peaceful place. The flow of time here didn't seem to matter to a being without a body or beating heart. It was a place for a rest well earned.

The formless one hadn't always been without form or place. It had once known multiple shapes, and had many family and friends. In an inspired act of love, it dedicated its very existence to ensure life for those that would surely die. In exchange, it willingly sacrificed its body and the names it had been known by in both worlds.

A presence intruded on the mind's rest; it felt and heard the crunch of leaves and dirt under hooves. With every step he heard, the sound of plants in the wind soon followed. As the sounds drew ever closer, the mind began to perceive the growth of grass and flowers—standing out against the void—at the point each sound originated. The mind mused that the pattern matched the spacing of a horse's hoof-falls perfectly, so it found it odd that it could not sense any presence there with it.

“Goldenrod...” a sweet, motherly voice whispered to the mind.

That's a name that I didn't expect to hear again,” he thought in amusement, focusing on the voice. “Is this the afterlife?”

There was a giggle. To Goldenrod, it was paradoxically youthful and ancient; the laughter of an ancient being that had lost none of its youthful spark. “No, dear. It's nothing so grim,” the feminine voice sounded cheerful in this revelation. “I simply brought you here, to the privacy of my plane of existence, to thank you, and make unto you an offer.”

If Goldenrod had a face at that moment of time, an expression of surprised confusion would have broken out across it. “Thank me? For what?


“Why, for all you have done for Equestria of course—for all you've done for me.” she chided. “Don't think that your noble actions have gone outside my notice. Your actions averted a great tragedy.”

Goldenrod again found this humorous. “Noble? Hardly. My actions were as selfish as they come.” The only hint at the location of his conversation partner was through the appearance of plants and grass. He suddenly found it quite disturbing that he had no form of his own, meaning that he couldn't direct his senses toward the equally formless entity. “Do you think maybe you could take a form of some sort? It's unnerving not knowing what the other person looks like.”

“But of course!” she replies softly. “How rude of me.”

To his senses, it was almost as though she was being inked into existence on a piece of parchment. From the equally spaced flowers on the arbitrary ground, hooves came into existence. Up from each hoof swam a creamy-white leg. The legs merged into a body, and from that body, sprouted a head and wings. Her head was pointed with a horn, as well. From her head sprouted a slightly frizzy auburn mane, which was soon matched by an equally frizzy tail. There was a flash, and upon her flanks appeared an inkwell and quill. In the incredibly detailed perception of his non-form, he could even make out a small seal on the inkwell: the world.

You're an Alicorn, yet...you're something more.” Another plane of existence? Plants growing in her hoofsteps? “You're the embodiment of Equestria herself, aren't you?

The Alicorn smiled, winking one blue eye. “That's right, Goldenrod.” She brought a hoof up to her mouth and smothered a laugh. “By my daughters and those who remember me, I am called Gaea.”

“...the Mother of All,” he mused, knowing full well she could hear his thoughts. “Would that make you the Mother of the Alicorns then?

“Oh but you are the clever one, aren't you?” A thoughtful look crossed Gaea's face. “Yes, the ones you know as Celestia and Luna are my daughters, in the same way that you too could become one of my children.”

What?

“Becoming an Alicorn isn't something that comes through birth, exactly. Instead it is a gift I bestow upon rebirth of those I deem worthy. Take Celestia and Luna as an example. In previous lives, they were twins who amounted to many great things. Upon their deaths, they were given the choice of being reborn as something more—a pillar for Equestria, if you would—or to peacefully pass on. Unhappy with having left Equestria as it was, they chose to meet the challenge and serve Equestria not as leaders, but shepherds. For all they had done and continued to do, they were rewarded with domain over the sun and moon.

“Then of course there is dear, loving Cadance.” She chuckled. “She too is my daughter, but Celestia and Luna see her more as a niece, simply because of how young she really is. They also see the difference in birth parents as something that separates them. She never seems to mind though, bless her soul.”

Goldenrod wasn't quite sure what she was getting at. “What does this have to do with me?

“I'd like to offer you the option of becoming one of my children of course.” She smiles curtly. “You've more than shown to be a strong male figure—something Equestria is sorely lacking—willing to make hard choices for the good of others.”

I'm hardly the ideal choice for that,” he responds with ill humor. “My reasons were selfish. What I did was not heroism or nobility or anything of the sort. Everything I did was for either myself or Scootaloo. Saving Earth and Equestria were just side effects. No, Scootaloo needs me more than Equestria does.

Gaea frowned at Goldenrod, an eyebrow raised. “You think to downplay your virtues, and refuse a gift of greatness?” She hummed idly. “Would you, then prefer to pass on to your next life then?”

No.” Goldenrod didn't even need to think about it. “There's a lot I still need to do in Equestria. Right now, there's a little filly who needs a big brother more than anything. I might not be a hero or worthy of becoming a god, but at the very least I'm good enough to be her brother. I don't doubt that it is in your power to give me shape once more. I get the feeling you've already done it once before.

The Mother of All grinned at him knowingly. “Nothing escapes you, does it?” she replied with a nervous laugh. “What gave it away?”

The plants did,” he thought flatly. “Plants were always prospering around me, just like how they grew around your very hooves.

“Indeed,” she remarked. “All souls who enter the world must have a form, but when you entered Equestria, there was no form ready. As such, I created one suited to your unique state. The plants were just a motherly touch I felt would work for you.”

...and you made me a colt because I was but a child to the worldintelligent, but with my eyes still closed to the ways of Equestria.

“That is right. I take it then that you would wish me to again give you form, not as an Alicorn, but as one of the more mundane ponies?”

Yes,” he thought, imagining a grin on a face. “Just make sure I'm older this time. I'll have a harder time taking care of Scootaloo if I cannot be perceived as old enough to care for myself.

A thoughtful look returned to Gaea's visage. “Would you like to become a unicorn—a proper unicorn—again?”

Hell no.” Again, this wasn't something he even had to think about. “I've had enough magic to last me seven lifetimes. Besides, Scootaloo doesn't need a unicorn for a big brother. She needs a pegasus like herself.

“Very well, a pegasus you will be.” Her horn began to glow in an aura so white that it made her coat look gray in comparison. “Farewell, Goldenrod. I hope that some day we may meet again.”

- - -

Twilight Sparkle watched as the mist that had once been Goldenrod began to dim and dissipate. There was nothing left of their friend aside from the glowing mist. Even though they had known him only a short while, the loss was well felt by the entire group. Even Rainbow Dash had turned away so not to show any tears.

The only pony in the group who hadn't teared up was Scootaloo. Her face was frozen in a smile rife with sorrow. “Come on, everypony, don't be sad,” she offered. Her voice betrayed the brave face she was trying to put on for the group. She sounded sadder than anypony in the group likely felt. “It's not what he'd want.”

Applejack swallowed, forcing down her own sadness. “Ah reckon she's right, ya know.” She smiled softly, mirroring Scootaloo's bravery, and joined Apple Bloom beside Fluttershy. “Just like our Ma an' Pa, he'd want us to be happy for all he's done.”

“Oooh! You're right!” Pinkie Pie exclaimed, quickly perking up. “He'd want us to throw a party in his honor! Oh, but there's so much to do!”

Twilight watched Scootaloo's smile waver as everypony reaffirmed the orange filly's sentiment. That smile almost broke at Rainbow Dash's mention of her regret at not being able to race him again to break the tie, but still the filly remained strong. Twilight leaned down and whispered into the filly's ear, “He'd be proud, you know. You're already living up to his assessment of your cutie mark.”

The sorrow left Scootaloo's smile as she looked up at Twilight. It was just what the filly had needed to hear. “Thank you, Twilight.” She gave the mare's foreleg an affectionate nuzzle before running off towards the path. “Come on, everypony! Let's go home!”

Falling behind for a moment, Princess Celestia's student watched as everypony else ran after the pegasus filly, not wanting to let her out of their sight. Casting a wistful glance back at the spot where Goldenrod had ceased to be, she caught sight of a fog forming over the area. The normalcy of the Everfree Forest was returning.

She faced back down the path, and saw that her friends were almost out of sight. Breaking into a sprint, Twilight quickly caught up with the rest of the group. She was just about to voice her concerns about the Everfree Forest's wildlife when a loud crack sounded off behind them, accenting a bright flash of light.

“Am I too late for my funeral?” A vaguely familiar voice called out.

The voice sent a chill down her spine. No, it couldn't be!

“Damn, I missed it again, didn't I?”

- - -

Watching her perplexing guest intently, Twilight Sparkle couldn't help but marvel at how much about Equestria she still didn't understand. By all rights, Goldenrod should have died as a result of what happened. Yet here he was before her, napping in the corner of the main room of her academy residence, with an equally sleepy Scootaloo nestled against his side, beneath a large yellow wing.

Everypony had received a royal summons a mere day after their departure and return to Equestria. To Twilight's absolute shock, Goldenrod had not only received the same summons as everypony else, but the Princesses also issued a formal invitation to a private audience at his earliest convenience following the audience granted to everypony who had returned from Earth.

They had taken the train to Canterlot right away and made straight for her academy residence. In spite of his youthful, adolescent form—somewhere between the puberty and young adulthood, making him just a bit shorter than Fluttershy—he was napping almost as much as Rainbow Dash. Goldenrod always put it off as catching up on peaceful sleep.

Most intriguing though was his reincarnation as a pegasus. Each time she broached the question, he'd pretend that he didn't hear her, or would change the subject. The most he ever let slip was that it wasn't his place to discuss, and he was very adamant that she would have to ask either Princess, first. While she had given up her questioning, she intended to find out more.

“Mmmm... What time is it?” he groaned, gingerly retracting his wing from over the filly. Squinting at her, Goldenrod frowned. “You've been staring at me again while I napped, haven't you? Look, I've said it before, Twilight. It's purely up to the Princesses if they want you to know.”

“I-okay, yes. I've been watching you. It's just that you were so good about being open before.” Twilight let out a sigh. “But ever since you died, it's like you've locked yourself in a closet. I just want to know what you saw. Come on, just a hint.”

“You're not going to let this go until you get time alone with Celestia, are you?” He rose to his hooves, careful not to disturb Scootaloo. The look in his eyes—mostly magenta again, bearing only a few flecks of green—was one of weariness. “Fine. I'm only going to whet your appetite though. I saw the heart of Equestria. That's all.”

Biting back a comment about how annoying cryptic comments were, Twilight forced her attention back to the clock. It was fast approaching the appointed time of their audience with Celestia. “Fine, that's clearly all I'll get out of you. Get ready to go, we'll be meeting everypony else at the castle gates.”

- - -

Walking into the throne room of Canterlot Castle, Goldenrod couldn't help but fight back a shudder. The place was deathly silent, and as he and the others were escorted to the base of the throne, he couldn't stop thinking place was creepy. There were three Alicorns in the room, a familiar looking Captain of the Guard, and countless Royal Guards and Night Sentinels. All of them stood as still as statues.

The Guards and Sentinels weren't what bothered him. Their eyes were locked on everypony as they strode up the blood red carpet. No, it was the three Alicorns that put him at ill ease. Was it that he had met their mother—his mother now too, he realized—that made him uncomfortable? He knew they had been mortal ponies just as he is. Or was it just their combined gaze that set him aback?

Reaching the stairs leading up to the raised platform on which the throne sat, he stopped. Bending one foreleg, he shifted his weight to the other side and bowed his head respectfully. He wasn't sure this was how ponies dealt with bowing, but he needed to make it clear that he did not see himself better than any other pony. Goldenrod was, after all, now one of their subjects.

“Thank you, my faithful subjects, for coming here this day.” Princess Celestia announced, smiling radiantly. “It fills me with great pride to see you all fight not only for Equestria's safety, but for the good of two worlds.”

Twilight stepped forth as the voice of the group. “It was our duty as Equestrian citizens, Princess.” she offered meekly. “We also had our personal stakes in the matter. It wasn't something we could stand idly by and let happen.”

“While that may be, dear Twilight,” the white Alicorn replied softly. “What you and your friends have accomplished has averted total war.”

Golden didn't mind his role being downplayed. In fact, he was the one who encouraged Luna to do so. As much as he would like to have his share of recognition, it was more important that his new life in Equestria didn't begin in the limelight as the hero of two worlds. With the friends Scootaloo had—and who they were related to—she was already going have an interesting life to say the least. She didn't need a big brother who was 'that hero that hasn't done anything recently.'

“For your actions in the defense of Equestria and all of her citizens,” Luna announced in the Royal Canterlot voice. “There is no greater honor we can bestow upon you all than induction into the Order of the Eclipse as honorary Knights of Equestria.”

Damn it. I thought she was joking about knighthood.

One by one, the Bearers of the Elements of Harmony were summoned before the three Princesses. Each Alicorn placed her horn on the withers of the recipient, beginning with the pink Princess Cadance, followed by Luna, and ending with Celestia. As they returned to join the others, Guard Captain Shining Armor levitated a pendant from a box, and placed it around their necks.

He got his first good look at the pendant when Fluttershy came back down to join the group. The pendant was a sterling silver shield bearing an emblem of a total solar eclipse. “Know this,” Princess Celestia declared. “So long as you bear the sigil of the Order of the Eclipse, any Guard or Sentinel you encounter will be obliged to help you in a time of need.”

Goldenrod watched Twilight as she received her knighting. He found it endearing how much she blushed as she was knighted. Then again, with both her older brother and the Princess beaming with pride in her, it would be hard not to be slightly embarrassed. When Shining Armor levitated her Order sigil around her neck, the stallion couldn't help but give his sister an affectionate nuzzle.

That was when Goldenrod first became aware of an audience observing the whole spectacle. The sound of a mare sobbing somewhere behind him drew his attention to the 'back' of the throne room. Ponies of all kinds had gathered. Among them were a sobbing mare and stallion bearing a close resemblance to Twilight and her brother. Then he thought he caught sight of a handsome yellow earth pony stallion wearing a hat, bearing an apple cutie mark, flanked by Apple Bloom, Big Macintosh, and an elderly earth pony mare. Not far from them, another unicorn family sat alongside Sweetie Belle, watching Rarity proudly. Finally, he spotted a rough, Amish looking family of earth ponies, all bearing similar grayish manes. They seemed to be watching Pinkie with pride, in spite of her goofy bouncing in the presence of royalty.

When could they have had the chance to get all these families here? Did they receive invitations the same day as us, but caught a later train? He was observing a few pegasi watching from the back when his eyes were immediately drawn to the front of the pack. Of course Scootaloo would be here at the ceremony too! She was, after all, his adoptive little sister.

“Yer up, hayseed,” Applejack said with a slight elbow to his ribs. “Stop makin' goo-goo eyes with mah cousin an' get on up for yer recognition!”

He gave her a confused look. “Your what?” he sputtered. “But I wasn't!”

“Sure thing, sugar.” She gave him a wink, and then gently bucked him towards the stairs. “Show'em yer all that!”

Goldenrod slowly ascended the steps to join Celestia, Luna and Cadance in front of the throne. His cheeks were burning as red as Big Macintosh's coat, and not just because he was receiving an honor he didn't feel he rightly deserved. He'd just been accused of checking out his friend's cousin. Was I? I mean...he was pretty good looking, in a pretty-boy sort of way. He shook his head, and stopped just short of bumping into Princess Celestia's chest. Through reflex, he sank into the same stance he had at the beginning of the ceremony, again bowing his head.

As Princess Luna dubbed him with her horn, she whispered into his ear, “We will be borrowing you shortly after closing the ceremony and sending everypony off to the celebration. Do not be alarmed.”

Then it was Princess Celestia's turn, both to dub him and whisper into his ear, “I am very proud of you, my little pony.”

Swallowing his sudden anxiety, Goldenrod rose, and strode towards Shining Armor. The white stallion didn't bear any of the apparent mistrust and animosity he'd expressed towards him when he'd first seen Goldenrod's human form. Instead, there was a look of modest approval in his eyes. Nodding, he presented Goldenrod with the sterling silver sigil of the Order of the Eclipse.

As Goldenrod returned to the group, Scootaloo broke free of the crowd of families, and practically flew to his side. She tackled him in a big hug almost instantly, beaming with pride and excitement. Can anyone blame her? Her 'big brother' is a knight! He broke out in a gigantic grin and mussed the filly's hair with a hoof.

“I'm going to disappear for a bit after the ceremony is over,” he whispered in her ear. “Don't fret. Just go to the party with everypony else and I'll catch up with you.”

- - -

Goldenrod found himself floating in a bright white void again. He wasn't alone though. The three Alicorn Royals were present as well, giving him appraising looks. Celestia and Cadance seemed to be surprised by his unsurprised face, while Luna seemed amused.

“So you can do this too then?” he asked, grinning but keeping his tone respectful.

Luna looked at Cadance with a smirk, and let out a jovial laugh. “I told you he met Mother,” she stated in a singsong voice. “You owe me five bits.”

Cadance gave her 'aunt' a playful raspberry in response.

The Solar Princess, on the other hoof, was all business. “So it is true then, Goldenrod. You met Mother Gaea.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

“Tell me,” her voice was silky smooth. “What did Mother seek from you?”

“She came to me with an offer,” he said honestly. “Gaea offered me the choice of becoming an Alicorn like you. Said something about Equestria needing a strong male figure.”

“You didn't, that much is clear.” Cadance offered with a sweet smile. “Why?”

“I'm not the pony she's looking for—the strong male figure I mean.” He glanced off into the void, where Scootaloo had been beside him only moments before. “Equestria doesn't need a pony like me. Scootaloo needs me far more than Equestria does.”

The pink Alicorn let out a girlish giggle. The look on her face told him everything going on in her head. 'Aww, that's so adorable! I just wanna take you home and keep you like a pet... but then Shining would get mad at me.' Instead she said, “That's a very noble sacrifice.”

“Few have ever been offered Mother's boon,” Celestia added softly. “You are the first to ever reject it. That filly must really mean a lot to you.”

Goldenrod smiled, looking down sheepishly. “She does, your majesty.” He let out a soft sigh. “I can't really explain it, but I saw something in that hurt little filly that I needed to nourish, not as a parent or friend, but as a brother. I wouldn't have it any other way.”

The three Alicorns exchanged glances. Their smiles were of both pride and acceptance. What he said seemed to solidify an opinion among them. “We see now why Mother granted you this chance at life,” Luna spoke. “The love and devotion you hold for Scootaloo is everything we cherish in our subjects.” Then she added with a wink, “While I speak for myself more than the others, I can understand why she thought you a good candidate for being an Alicorn. I would have gladly called you a brother.” This last remark drew a sour look from Cadance.

Shifting his hooves awkwardly, he glanced at Luna. “I suppose technically we are related...Mother gave me form not once, but twice.” He winked at the Moon Princess before turning to Celestia. “One last thing, it might be time to have the talk with Twilight.”

Princess Celestia began to blush profusely. Even Luna and Cadance had to muffle laughter with a hoof. “I- there's nothing I can tell her that she hasn't already learned!” she sputtered. “You know how she likes to read!”

Goldenrod couldn't help but laugh. “Sorry, that was a bad choice in wording.” He rubbed the back of his head with a hoof. “I meant you should probably talk to her about Mother eventually. She was very adamant on learning about why I'm even still alive, and I wasn't sure you would want her to learn about Gaea from anyone but you.”

Composing herself, the Princess gave him a soft smile. “Ah, yes. I suppose this is a matter I can trust my most faithful student with.” She paused before asking, “Was there anything else you wanted to say?”

“Only that I'd like your blessing in taking guardianship over Scootaloo.”

The three Alicorn Princesses exchanged nods. “Consider the paperwork already done. It's the least we can do for the filly.”

“Now, who wants to go party? I bet there's lots of tasty cupcakes and other treats!” he cheered. “I'm eager to get started on showing Scootaloo what having a big brother is all about!”

Epilogue

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Dear Mom and Dad,

Gosh, has it really been so long since I last wrote? So much has happened since I last wrote to you, and I hardly know where to begin. I'm really sorry that I haven't written to you at all since my last letter. Three years is a long time, I know, but you have to understand things have been really good for me lately.

I suppose I should start with the 'beginning'. There was the whole ‘kidnapped by Draconequi’ deal, but Goldenrod saved me! Everypony came to save us all! Get this: they all saved not one, but two worlds in the process! Is that awesome or what? I even got my cutie mark for bravery!

The Draconequi were really terrible. They murdered indiscriminately, and destroyed a lot. They even did a really horrible thing to Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle. They were forced to become one monstrous creature! Goldenrod saved them too, though! Still, they haven't completely been the same since. That in itself has been really hard on their sisters, Applejack and Rarity.

When we returned to Equestria from Goldenrod's homeland, we had to escape a collapsing castle. It was kind of scary, but pretty awesome, too. It was just like the Daring Do novels Goldenrod reads to me. Then, when the bridge collapsed, he saved me again! He grew wings, and dove into the chasm after me!

He died shortly after that, but he came back as a more grown-up pegasus soon after! I have to wonder, did you see him on the other side? He won't talk to anypony about what he saw, or if he saw anything at all. Apparently only the Princesses know.

There was a big ceremony for Goldenrod, Rainbow Dash, Twilight, and the others in Canterlot just days after everything that happened! They were all knighted by Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Princess Cadance! Right after, there was a big party with everypony's families. Goldenrod told me at the party that the Princesses gave him their blessing in becoming my legal guardian!

Since then, we've lived together back in the house you raised me in. Sometimes he can be stubborn, but I know he's just looking out for what's best for me. It can be pretty hard on him, watching over me. Celestia knows I still get into all kinds of trouble with Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom.

Like I said before, they've never really been the same since they were made into a monster by the Draconequus. For one, they've been a lot closer than they used to be, and they have a creepy habit of speaking in unison or finishing each other's sentences. Apparently that's supposed to wear off over time, but I'm not so sure. Even a few years later, they're still like that from time to time. They think it's funny though; they even joke that they could relay messages at long distance.

Sweetie Belle initially got a lot of grief from Rarity after she started speaking with the accent Apple Bloom's family does, but after an examination by experts in Canterlot, she was a lot more supportive. Still, it didn't stop her from trying to re-brainwash Sweetie Belle into talking like 'a proper lady.' It was sorta funny that Apple Bloom started talking all fancy after the first few sessions.

Just recently, Sweetie Belle earned her cutie mark for singing in the school pageant! A microphone and music notes! She's even been accepted into a prestigious music academy in Canterlot. We always knew she had a great singing voice, but she was always so shy about it. I suppose that's the one good thing that came out of what happened to them. She's not as shy about her voice now.

Similarly, Apple Bloom got her cutie mark too. It's some kind of glass beaker shaped like an apple. Go figure that her cutie mark would have something to do with potions or invention. After all, she used a potion she cooked up under Zecora's supervision to protect the crops of Sweet Apple Acres from a parasprite invasion. Since then, she'd been looking to travel. Finally, one day, she up and left for Appleloosa to go visit her cousin Braeburn.

I still get letters from them both from time to time. We're looking to set-up a Cutie Mark Crusader Reunion right here in Ponyville. Pinkie Pie jumped at the opportunity to host the party, and insisted everypony who'd gone to Earth should come too. Ponies change, but Pinkie? Pinkie never changes.

In spite of her experiences with Goldenrod, Fluttershy did eventually adopt. About a year ago, she took in a very lonely earth pony filly who'd lost both of her parents in a train accident. Since then, Puppy Eyes has come out of her shell and befriended the Cake twins, and Fluttershy is already dealing with a new batch of Crusaders. I swear, I don't know where they got the idea!

Rarity's boutique has never been busier. Since Sweetie Belle began attending the Canterlot Academy for Talented Musicians, her business has doubled. Of course, it helps that Rarity is always sending her new dresses to wear to her recitals. I sometimes hear Rarity talking about how proud she is of Sweetie Belle when she visits Pinkie at Sugar Cube Corner. Then she goes on to complain about the outrageous number of orders she's gotten from the families of Sweetie's classmates.

Sweet Apple Acres is as busy as ever. Applejack's been working extra hard since Apple Bloom left. Granny Smith has been ailing lately, and Big Macintosh reckons her time is coming. It's been really hard on AJ. Even with the bits Apple Bloom sends back from her sales of parasprite repellent, it's only enough to make sure Granny Smith is comfortable. I just hope Apple Bloom will be back to see her grandmother one last time.

Since her visit to Earth, Twilight Sparkle has been a lot more sparing with her use of magic. While she puts it off as having taken an interest in the theoretical aspect of her studies in magic, I accidentally overheard her when she was dictating a letter for Spike to send to Celestia. She said that she's still scared of what she did on the island. I don't know what she's talking about, but it must have been something pretty bad. Twilight instead has become a lot more active in the community, particularly physically. In the last winter wrap-up, in addition to her usual organizational role, she helped the earth ponies clear the snow. AJ comments from time to time on how her lessened reliance on magic has done her a world of good. Twilight says she still uses magic when it matters, but she's beyond the casual uses.

Rainbow Dash kept her promise of training me. Once my wings were strong enough, she took me on as an apprentice. I learned a lot from her, and so has Goldenrod. When he became a pegasus, he didn't really know how to fly, and Dash didn't object to his learning from her sessions with me. Sure, he gets remarks about 'flying like a filly,' but he doesn't seem to mind; he's just as fast now as the next pegasus, but more maneuverable than most stallions. He still practices with me and Dash. Oh, and when Rainbow Dash was accepted into the Wonderbolts, she did a triple rainboom! It was so awesome. Even though she's pretty busy with her position on the team, she still takes the time to train with me. I don't think she'd ever say as much, but it feels like she's grooming me as a possible prospect for the team in the future.

It took a while, but Goldenrod began to fit in around Ponyville. He began to volunteer his time helping around the flower stall run by Rose, Lily and Daisy. After he learned to fly, Rose asked him if he'd like an actual job with them, delivering orders of flowers. He leapt at the opportunity, and has been working happily with them since. I think that's probably why his cutie mark became a bouquet of goldenrod. Delivering flowers is apparently his special talent. I never see him dating though, it's sort of odd.

I think he might be going away for a while though. I've seen him approached by Twilight a few times now, and they seem to be getting into some pretty heated conversations. I think she received a mission from the Princess, and for whatever reason, she thinks he should go with her. The only thing I've gotten from eavesdropping is that there's some sort of temple somewhere out past the Mild West. It sounds like it could be fun.

As for me, I've been trying to find a bit of summer employment. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find work in Ponyville when your special talent is bravery. I've done a few jobs for a local cartographer's guild, scouting areas for their scribes to make sure they're safe, and I like the whole scouting deal, but the areas around Ponyville are all well-documented, and they refuse to send me into less known areas. Who knows; maybe I can convince Twilight to take me with her on her mission?

Anyway. I'll miss you both more than I can ever tell you, but I think I'm finally coming to terms with your loss. I won't be writing letters any longer, but I'll never stop thinking about you both. I love you so much, Mom and Dad, and I hope you're proud of the pony I've become.

Your loving daughter,

Scootaloo