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VAGABOND

PART 1

        A lone figure made its way through the Everfree Forrest, stumbling. As its hoof hit another tree-root, it overbalanced and fell, muzzle-first onto the dirt. For a few moments it didn’t move, then agonizingly slowly, it struggled to rise to its feet. The figure shakily struggled up to a standing position, and began plodding along the path again. A brown, blood-stained bandage was wrapped around its middle, and the smell of infection had set in earlier that day. The figure’s saddlebags creaked with each tormented step and it shuddered from the cool breeze. It was emaciated, dehydrated, injured, running a fever, and bleeding- out slowly. In short, the figure was dying. It raised its head and saw through blurry vision, a small hut with a light on inside it. The figure let out a shuddering sigh as tears began flowing down its face. It had smelled a pony-like scent.

        It turned away from Zecora’s hut and headed, unknowingly, toward Ponyville.

        Its mind slugged thoughts through its lips,

“Can’t . . . hurt . . . any . . . pony . . . again.” It slowly rasped.

        The tears were thick and had a muddy consistency, due to the level of extreme dehydration, the figure was suffering from. It stumbled from side to side, swaying almost drunkenly down the path. It kept walking for several more minutes, coming close to cresting the hill that would bring Ponyville into view. A loud rush of wind caused the figure to look around. It saw nothing and so its addled mind began creaking to a semblance of life, ’Wonder what day it is? Is my sentence finally finished?’  It was the last conscious thought the figure had. It collapsed onto the dirt. Its eyes closed and it lost consciousness.

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

        The sky’s color gradually changed from the bright, excited blue of day, to the calmer, more restful, and peaceful beep blue, almost black of evening. The birds lazily flapped back to their nests to roost for the night, the animals all headed back to their dens, warrens, caves, dreys, or holts to sleep peacefully through the cool night. Princess Luna gradually brought up the Moon and the land of Equestria began to fall into slumber, once again. Twilight and Spike bedded down in their respective mattresses, covered themselves with their respective sheets/blankets, and rather disrespectfully, began a record-breaking snoring competition in the deep, dark, quiet of the Library.

Pinkie Pie had ceased wolfing down sweets about an hour before and was already heading for the inevitable ‘sugar crash’ she enjoyed every night. She turned off the lights downstairs and staggered up toward her room, eyes blurring, speech slurring, legs wobbling. She reached her bedroom and flipped the light-switch in passing, took two steps and collapsed into her bed, already asleep before any part of her even touched the pillow.

        Rarity lay her head back, onto her pillow just so, so as not to mess up her hair, which was thick with curlers. Every curler had to be perfectly in place. She wondered how Applejack or Rainbow Dash could possibly live with themselves. They took absolutely no steps to prepare their looks for the following day, but then again their lives didn’t depend on their sales and that those sales didn’t depend on good advertising, which was constantly displayed on their own bodies. Rarity had a responsibility, not only to herself, but to Sweetie Belle, her parents, the business, and more than anything else those who constantly doubted her ideas of fashion, style and personal pride.

        Rainbow Dash was having a bit of trouble sleeping. No matter how she flattened, smashed, fluffed, rearranged, or mauled the cloud, she just couldn’t get comfortable. She sighed heavily and leapt off the cloud. Perhaps a quick run from the outskirts of Ponyville to the end of the Everfree Forrest and back would tire her out enough to sleep. She sped off against the wind, feeling the resistance against her face, and chest as her wings sliced through the air with scalpel-like precision. She tucked her legs against her undercarriage and lowered her head, level, and in-line with the rest of her body, streamlining her like a missile. Just for fun, she spun, wings making a corkscrew pattern in the clouds, simply enjoying the feel of the SPEED.

        Applejack was visiting Fluttershy. Wynona had taken sick, and Applejack didn’t want to take her to the Vet. Well, more to the point, she trusted Fluttershy, first of all and second, she didn’t have enough money to pay the Vet for his professional, if very expensive skills. The two girls were sleeping in shifts, watching to make sure Wynona didn’t take a turn for the worse. They were both tired and the fact that Angel kept pinning attention didn’t help matters much. To placate the bunny, Fluttershy had suggested they sleep with him between their hooves, hopefully it would comfort him. Fluttershy loved him but sometimes he could be a bit of a pain, when he wanted something. It was Fluttershy’s turn to sleep. She curled up on her couch and Angel hopped up between her hooves and snuggled down for four more hours of fitful sleep.

        Back at Sweet Apple Acres, Big Macintosh was dozing silently. Applejack was always amazed that he didn’t snore, he was so big, but it just goes to show, you can never tell. Applebloom was sleep-crusading for her cutie mark, tossing and turning constantly, occasionally growling at some fearsome foe that kept her from it.

        Rainbow Dash spotted someone on the path to Zecora’s, as she sped past,

“Huh,” she wondered out loud, “Who the heck would be heading to Zecora’s at this time of night? The only ones who even visit her, are my friends and I. Better take a look.” she banked and came around. She saw the figure collapsed on the path and immediately landed,

“Hey,” she said nudging the other pony with her hoof.

        Rainbow Dash received no reply,

“Man! Don’t tell me I have to carry you to…” she stopped. ‘Where is the nearest place?’ she wondered silently.

        The answer came to her almost instantly, ’Duh, Fluttershy’s. I hope she can do something.’  Dash nosed the unknown pony over her head and, after a few failures, managed a firepony’s carry, right between the wings and neck, a rather tight fit. Under the weight, she had a great deal of trouble taking to the air, but Rainbow Dash being Rainbow Dash, she kept up until she did. She flew toward Fluttershy’s cottage as quickly as she could. The wind had picked up, like it was trying to keep Dash from arriving at Fluttershy’s. The wind wasn’t cool like the evening was, but swelteringly hot and humid. It blew with a whispered chant,

“Monstermonstermonstermonstermonster . . . “on and on it whispered, never letting up until the moment her hooves touched the dirt outside Fluttershy’s cottage. Rainbow was panting hard from her exertion; sweat dripped off her every follicle of hair, mane, and tail. As she raised a hoof to knock on Fluttershy’s cottage door, a bell tolled out the hour, midnight.

        Rainbow Dash flinched, involuntarily, as a peel of lightning and thunder shook the very ground. She was facing Fluttershy’s cottage when the lightning flashed behind her back. For the briefest instant, Dash thought she could see the silhouette of a dead pony’s face in the panes of glass set into Fluttershy’s front door. The face was that of a light red pony girl, roughly the same age as Pinkie Pie, it was horribly deformed, as if some terrible force had bludgeoned it into a mushy pulp. The eyes had burst, leaving only bloody sockets behind, and the mouth looked like it was moving, even though the lower jaw had nearly been ripped off. Rainbow Dash reared back screaming silently at the terrifying sight. Sound seemed, to Dash, to be cut off for an instant, as she stared at the dead pony’s face. She saw the mouth move and distinctly heard a voice.

        The voice was sweet, warm, and caring; it calmed Dash almost immediately,

“His punishment is at an end. A new day has dawned. When he is ready, tell him I forgive him.” The dead pony said.

        Rainbow Dash called out to her, soundlessly,

“Wait, who are you?”

“Arabesque.” The face said.

        As it spoke the name, the face knit itself back together, revealing a startlingly beautiful Pegasus filly with silver-green mane and tail. Rainbow Dash looked as closely as she could as the Pegasus turned sideways; there, on her flank, were a pair of ballet slippers.

        The vision of Arabesque shifted into the face of Applejack,

“Rainbow? What in tar . . . Oh my word!” Applejack yelled as she spotted the unconscious pony on Rainbow Dash’s shoulders,

“Fluttershy! Come quick! Rainbow’s here with somebody, and he’s hurt bad!” Applejack yelled. Turning back to Dash, Applejack said,

“Bring him in here, real easy like. I’ll help ya lay im down here on the couch.”

        Fluttershy awoke with a start and gently moved Angel off the couch and onto the floor, where he shot her a dirty look then scampered off. Fluttershy cleared off every pillow from her odd, flat couch, to make room for Applejack and Rainbow Dash, who were carrying the limp form of a pony between them. Fluttershy looked the strange pony up and down, while her friends tried to settle him onto the couch without jostling him too much.

        The first thing Fluttershy noticed was that he had been brutally attacked. His middle was wrapped in a rough type of bandage that honestly looked more like a blood-soaked blanket, and he was covered, from ear to flank, with great, deep gashes, all of which were smeared with dried blood, not to mention swollen and puffy with the early stages of infection. He was a royal-blue color in his coat and his mane and tail were light brown. He was caked with mud and dried dirt which had mingled with the blood, making a tough mortar-like substance all over him. His only visible possessions were a pair of saddle-bags which had been damaged, but looked sturdy and still serviceable, if only just. His whole body was malnourished and thin, his hooves were swollen, his mane and tail were in a terrible state, but despite all that, Fluttershy could tell, by the look of his face, he was probably no more than 24 years old. Fluttershy had never seen anything in such a poor condition, well, nothing living anyway.

        Applejack and Rainbow Dash set him down on the couch, then stepped back to let Fluttershy take a look at him. The yellow Pegasus slid her mane out of the way with a hoof and flattened her ear against the injured pony’s chest, listening. His heart still beat, faintly.

        Fluttershy looked up,

“Oh dear, his breathing is oh so very shallow…” she began.

        Applejack interrupted her,

“Good enough! Let’s get to work. What do we do first Fluttershy?” the orange earth-pony asked.

        Fluttershy didn’t really have experience dealing with medical matters pertaining to ponies, just animals, but she decided that best way to begin was probably the same for both,

“Applejack, will you please get some water from the tap and see if he’ll drink. Get a straw too.”

        Fluttershy turned to Dash,

“I need you to please fill a bucket with warm water and put a sponge and cloth in it. As soon as you’re done, you need to go get Dr. Mend.”

        She turned to the injured mess lying on her couch, “I don’t think we can safely move him.”

“Right.” Rainbow said and sped off.

        Applejack came back from the kitchen carrying a pitcher and a small glass with a straw in it. She set it down next to the couch,

“Now what?” she asked.

        Fluttershy filled the glass with water and held it up to the pony’s lips,

“Would you hold his head for me Applejack? I don’t want him to choke.” She said.

        Applejack placed her hooves on his head and put firm pressure on him to keep him still. Fluttershy put the straw to his lips to see if he would drink on his own. He didn’t respond. Fluttershy turned to Applejack,

“Would you please put your chest next to his ear so he can hear your heart beat.” She said.

        Applejack arched an eyebrow, but complied. Fluttershy waited for a moment before she peeled back his lips and slipped the straw up against his tongue. He twitched, but began drinking.

        Applejack made as if to get up, but Fluttershy caught her,

“Oh please don’t move. I have to keep the cup full.” She said refilling the cup with a continuous, slow stream of water.

“Why in the world am ah here, with mah chest against some strange pony’s ear?” she asked.

        Fluttershy gently shushed her,

“Oh Applejack, please keep your voice down for now. The reason you’re doing that is so he can hear a heartbeat. The first memory any baby has is of nursing while hearing its mother’s heartbeat. It’s deeply ingrained.”

“So basically we’re tricking him into thinking Ah’m his mother and he’s nursing from me!?” Applejack asked aghast.

        Fluttershy nodded,

“Yes, that’s the idea.” She said innocently.

        Rainbow Dash flew back into the room and paused, starring at Applejack. She slowly put down the bucket, sponge, and cloth, then bolted out the front door, closing it behind her. Applejack raised her head,

“Did she REALLY just leave us here to take care of…”

“I’m sorry to interrupt you Applejack, but I asked her to get Dr. Mend.” Fluttershy said.

“Well that’s a mighty fine notion Fluttershy, but whose going to pay for that?” she asked.

“I will if I have to. Look at him Applejack. Don’t you feel bad for him?” Fluttershy said.

“Course ah do, but I ain’t got hardly no money and Dr. Mend ain’t free.” Applejack said.

“I don’t care!” Fluttershy said with conviction. She lowered her head,

“I’m sorry Applejack, I didn’t mean to yell.”

“That was barely more than a whisper, Fluttershy. Don’t you worry bout it none.” Applejack looked at the blue pony’s face, “Looks like he’s done. What now?”

“We should try to clean him off, but don’t touch the bandage, he’s still bleeding. If we take it off, he might bleed to death.” Fluttershy said dipping the sponge into the warm water, with her mouth.

        Applejack picked up the cloth and joined Fluttershy in cleaning him off,

“We can’t clean up all o’ him by the time Rainbow get’s back with Dr. Mend.”

“Then we need to focus on the parts that sustained the worst injuries; his chest mostly, I think.”

        He was positively filthy. Applejack refilled the bucket twice before Rainbow Dash brought Dr. Mend. The two arrived and entered without knocking. Dr. Mend was an older stallion. He was pitch-black in coat, with an ice-white mane, and steel-gray eyes, and he carried a large and heavy black bag.

        He came in at a trot and set the bag on the floor next to the couch,

“Good grief!” he exclaimed, unzipping the bag, “Take this iodine, go to the sink, and scrub hard. Scrub every nook and cranny, get every particle of dirt, and hurry it up. Go!” he said.

        The girls took the bottle and headed for the kitchen. They scrubbed furiously while Dr. Mend used a straight razor and shaved a patch of hair from his patient’s left foreleg. He assembled an I.V. bag of saline and hung it above his patient, then inserted the needle. Dr. Mend removed several different tools and set them out for easy reach.

        When the girls returned, he had them all take places around him to help,

“Rainbow Dash, you’ll help me cut away and clean the bandage and wounds. Take these scissors, alcohol, and cotton swabs.”

        He then turned to Applejack,

“Stand right here and pass me tool as I need them; I’ll use simple terms so I won’t confuse you with medical jargon.”

        Finally he focused on Fluttershy,

“I need you to stand just to my left and use these gauze pads to apply pressure and stop bleeding where you see it.”

        He then addressed all three of them

“If any pony sees him bleeding too much from one place that I may have overlooked, let me know. Let’s begin.”

        Dr. Mend decided to tackle the big wrap-bandage first,

“Dash, cut the . . . blanket above and below where the blood is seeping through.” Dr. Mend indicated.

        Dash cut away the blanket bandage and Dr. Mend carefully pulled it off the patient,

“Fluttershy, apply pressure here.” he indicated the bleeding lump.

        Dr. Mend paused and stared puzzled at the injury now in front of him,

“Looks like a bone is protruding.” he said then checked the ribs,

“Badly bruised but nothing broken, and the spine is intact . . .” he mumbled, thinking.

        Suddenly his eyes bulged,

“Luna and Celestia!” he breathed, “Applejack pass me the bone-saw.” he said.

        Applejack handed over the frightening implement. She shot Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash a concerned look, and then had to perform a double-take. There were tears glistening in Dash’s eyes. Dr. Mend carefully sawed off the jagged bone tip, down to a smooth bump, and then stitched the surrounding flesh back together.

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

        It took five bags of saline, 283 stitches, and many hours of work on each side of the wounded pony, but finally Dr. Mend finished,

“You can relax now.” he said lowering his fore-hooves down to the ground finally, “Well done every pony. Sit down and try to relax.” he said to Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash.

        He turned to Applejack,

“Make sure they sit down and don’t let them do anything, except sit. I’ll be right back.” he said hurriedly.

        Applejack was puzzled. She turned to her two friends,

“Come on yall, take a load off.” she said sitting down on the floor.

        Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy didn’t move; they simply stood and stared at the now stitched and cared-for pony, oblivious to everything around them. Applejack stood up and carefully eased her two friends away from their ‘guest’ and sat them down. Even sitting, they continued to stare at him.

        Applejack became frustrated,

“What is wrong with yall?” she asked loudly.

“They are in shock. Fluttershy held out better than I would have hoped.” Dr. Mend said sitting down and checking Fluttershy over.

        Applejack was still confused,

“Why are they in shock doc?” she asked.

        Dr. Mend lowered his head sadly,

“That poor pony is a Pegasus.” He said.

        Applejack didn’t get it,

“What? No he ain’t! He ain’t got no . . .” she trailed off as it hit her.

        She suddenly realized why Fluttershy and Dash were in shock,

“Those bones,” she whispered, “They’re wing stubs.”

        Dr. Mend nodded silently.


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 2

        For nearly an hour no one spoke. Dr. Mend served the three girls some tea, but they didn’t seem to notice. Rainbow Dash was the first one to recover,

“What could have done that to him?” she asked no one in particular.

“I would chalk it up to an animal attack, a cougar, perhaps, or maybe a bear.” Dr. Mend speculated.

“When will he wake up?” Dash asked.

“He may not. He is, by far, the toughest pony I’ve ever seen, but he suffered massive physical trauma, and by that, psychological trauma as well. Honestly, it might be a mercy if he just slipped away and never woke up. Loosing something like that can absolutely destroy you. But, as I said, he’s tough, so maybe he will recover.” Dr. Mend said standing up.

        Fluttershy came back to the world as well,

“The poor, poor guy.” She muttered.

        Dr. Mend nodded, packing his bag,

“Well, one way or another, you three have been up all night. Get some sleep. I’ll leave some pain medicine and care instructions here, on the table by your door Fluttershy. I’ll come by tonight if I can. Good day girls.” Dr. Mend said closing the door behind him.

        The girls fell asleep right where they sat, on the floor.

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

        All three girls were awakened by Wynona barking loudly at the front door. Applejack raised her head sleepily,

“Quiet Wynona.” She commanded, then it hit her, “Wynona! You’re alright.” She yelled, standing up.

        The energetic collie kept barking at the door. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash were beginning to stir, as Applejack headed to the door to see what had Wynona in such an uproar. She opened the door and there was Pinkie Pie, Rarity, and Twilight standing in front of the door expectantly. Applejack stepped back, holding the door for her friends,

“Mornin’ every pony.” She said.

“Don’t you mean, good afternoon, Applejack?” Twilight asked dryly.

        Every one's attention was diverted when Rarity shrieked,

“Fluttershy darling! You have a dead body on your sofa!”

        The statement stopped everyone, except Pinkie Pie. Pinkie hopped over to the wingless Pegasus and began playfully poking any spot that remained un-bandaged,

“He’s not dead, silly, he’s still warm. Look he’s even waking up.”

        The pony stallion coughed roughly. His eyes slowly cracked partway open,

“Where am I?” he asked. His voice was rough but quiet.

        Twilight stepped up to him,

“You’re in Equestria, in a cottage outside Ponnyville to be exact.” She said.

“So, I’m alive?” he chuckled darkly, “The pain hinted at that.” he paused then looked around. His expression changed from sleepy to sober,

“I apologize for being a burden. I’ll leave as soon as I am able.” he said.

        Fluttershy, being the perfect hostess, flew over to him,

“Oh, that’s quite alright, you can stay as long as you want.” she said.

        The pony stallion shook his head,

“No, actually I can’t.” he said.

        Applejack shared a concerned look with Twilight, then turned to the wingless Pegasus,

“You won’t be goin’ anywhere for quite a while; a couple o days at least.” she said.

        Rainbow Dash threw in her two cents,

“Yeah, you can, like, barely move. You were nearly dead when I found you last night.” she said, then a thought struck her,

“Hey, what’s your name?” she asked.

        The pony stallion settled his face and spoke in a neutral tone,

“For the last five years, I’ve been called Vagabond.” he said softly, then added, “I wish you hadn’t found me last night.”

        Twilight adopted a look of dire concern, but she quickly smoothed it over, fortunately none of her friends seemed to notice. Fluttershy cocked her head to the side inquisitively,

“What do you mean, Vagabond?” she asked meekly.

        Vagabond turned his amethyst-colored eyes to Fluttershy. The yellow Pegasus gasped, the sorrow she saw in those eyes was nigh on unfathomable.

“I should be dead.” he said softly, “I deserve to die.”

        Applejack ground her teeth slightly,

“Well, what in tarnation did ya do? Furthermore, what’s with the pity party thing?” she asked.

        Vagabond’s eyes flashed in the afternoon light. He began to laugh mirthlessly. It was the most lifeless and cold thing any of the six friends had ever heard. It wasn’t full of energetic malignancy like Nightmare Moon’s laugh was; this laugh was utterly hollow, devoid of life, feeling, or any emotion,

“Ask me again, once you’ve killed someone.”

        He continued quickly once he saw the looks on the other pony’s faces,

“Now, don’t misunderstand me,” he laughed even harder. The laughter was becoming more full-bodied, “I’m not a murderer, but the blame is solely on my head.” He continued to laugh, except now the lifeless thing seemed to become bitter as well,

“I don’t pity myself, and I don’t want it from any of you.”

        As suddenly as it began, the laughter stopped dead. Silence filled the air for a moment before Vagabond continued,

“It is my punishment.” he whispered, “I’m sorry for being a burden.” He said laying down his head, seemingly exhausted from the laugh. He closed his eyes, feigning sleep.

        The girls were silent for a long while. Minutes ticked by as the words began to sink in.

Finally Twilight turned to Rainbow Dash,

“Dash, I need you to come with me to the library. Tell me everything you experienced last night, and don’t leave anything out.” Twilight and Rainbow Dash headed for the library.

        Rarity looked utterly disgusted,

“Imagine! A killer among the good ponies of Ponyville! He should be banished immediately.” She said haughtily. A tiny motion caught her eye. She whipped her head around and saw Vagabond’s ear twitch, “I must return to my shop.” she finished heading out the door, ‘He heard me and said nothing.’ she thought to herself.

        Applejack watched her go. She could only roll her eyes and shake her head,

“Wynona and Ah have chores back on the farm, thanks again Fluttershy. If e happens to wake up again, stay out o ‘is reach, take to the air.” Applejack stopped at the door, a deadly serious look on her honest face,

“Know what, Ahm going to send over Big Macintosh. He’ll keep Vagabond in line.” She said.

“Oh, that’s alright Applejack, I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Fluttershy said softly.

        Applejack was decidedly NOT convinced,

“Ah ain’t playin’ Fluttershy. This here’s a big deal. Even if ya don’t need Big Mac, to protect ya, Vagabond’ll need help relieving himself. That ain’t a proper thing for any girl to be doin’. Would ya agree?” Applejack asked.

        Fluttershy blushed at the mental picture,

“I hadn’t thought of that. Alright, thank you Applejack.” Fluttershy said.

        Applejack and Wynona left, leaving Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie alone with Vagabond. Pinkie Pie trotted up to Vagabond and cocked her head to the side, studying him,

“I know you’re awake, you know.” She said.

        Fluttershy gasped and turned quickly as Vagabond raised his head. His eyes snapped open and watched Pinkie Pie like a predator,

“You’re a very observant girl.” he said quietly, “What’s your name?” he asked.

        Pinkie smiled hugely and closed her eyes, bouncing lightly on her hooves,

“I’m Pinkie Pie, What’s your name?” she asked.

        Fluttershy spoke up,

“He already told us, his name is Vagabond.” She said. Angel bunny hopped up on top of Fluttershy’s head crossed his paws and starred down at Vagabond menacingly, almost as if saying ‘Don’t even think about it, bub.

        Pinkie shook her head,

“Nu-uh. He only told us what he’s been called for the past five years, he never said it was his real name.” she said. Fluttershy blinked, Pinkie Pie was right.

“Unfortunately, I must disappoint you Miss Pie. I cannot tell any pony my name, or answer to it, until my punishment is at an end. I’m sorry.” Vagabond said.

        Pinkie Pie, never daunted asked,

“When will that be?”

        Vagabond shifted slightly, possibly in an attempt to shrug,

“Until the pony, whose death I’m responsible for, tells me from beyond the grave, that I am forgiven. Until that time, I am supposed to stay away from any pony I might hurt. That is why I have to leave as soon as I am able.” He explained.

        Pinkie just bounced in place vacantly,

“How did you lose your wings?” she asked bluntly.

        Fluttershy looked absolutely stricken. She put a hoof to her muzzle,

“Oh, Pinkie Pie, you shouldn’t ask such things.” Fluttershy said. She then turned to Vagabond and added, “I’m oh so very sorry Vagabond. You don’t have to answer that. It’s probably horribly painful to remember.” She said apologetically.

        Vagabond actually seemed to brighten slightly. His eyes were still narrow and unfriendly but not quite so dark,

“That is one of the few truly appropriate events I’ve experienced in the last several years.” he said.

        Pinkie Pie plopped down in front of him to listen, so Vagabond began,

“It happened two days ago. It was early morning and I was walking through that forest where your rainbow-manned friend found me. I came upon a bear that had its back legs trapped beneath a rock-slide. It must have been there for some time, several days at least, and it was hungry and thirsty. I don’t much like bears, they’re dangerous, but I had to do something. I know what it’s like to be responsible for a death; it tears a part of you away, knowing what you’ve done. If I didn’t help the bear I would be responsible for its death. I took out my canteen and poured the water into a bowl that I had, and pushed it toward the bear. The bear lapped up the water, but I had to get its legs free. I maneuvered a fallen branch beneath one of the larger rocks and levered it away. I had to repeat the process to probably a dozen more rocks, but apparently the bear was just too weak to pull its legs free. I had to help it pull its legs free, but I also knew it would attack me if I got close, so I tried to use the branch, but couldn’t wedge it between the rocks and the bear’s legs. I had to do it myself. I know herbs well, so I found some Tartolette mushrooms and mixed those with Merchia flowers I had…”

“But that would make you numb!” Fluttershy interrupted, “Oh I’m sorry Vagabond. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, but why would you do that? It’s dangerous. Any herbalist knows not to use that combination unless you’re in dire need. It will erase all feeling and make your mind addled.”

“You are correct, but that was the effect I wanted. I mixed the mushrooms and flowers with what little water I had left in my canteen, which made about a quart of the potion. I drank it all. It worked well, I couldn’t feel a thing, which I would need when the bear attacked me. I had to be close to pull its legs out, and I couldn’t blame an animal for behaving like an animal. I moved as quickly as I could. I ran in and felt the thumps as the bear attacked me. I just ignored it and concentrated on my work and pulled its leg free, then I ran to its other side and pulled that leg free as well. I tried to take to the sky as soon as I was done, but when I tried to fly, I didn’t move. I panicked and ran from the, now free, bear. I looked back over my shoulder to see if the bear was giving chase. My eyes fell upon the bear feasting on my wings. It must have torn them off when I exposed each side of my body to the bear when I pulled its legs free. I stopped and wrapped my blanket around myself before I regained any feeling. I couldn’t find a stream or river and my canteen was empty, but I kept walking.” Vagabond paused and looked back over his flank, “I am curious. Why did you not remove my saddle bags?” he asked.

        Fluttershy looked chagrined,

“Oh, I’m sorry Vagabond, but Dr. Mend felt around under them and said there were no injuries. Besides we know the normal way of carrying saddlebags. The way you are wearing them is concealing your cutie mark. We didn’t want to be rude, if you didn’t want anyone to see it, travelers do that sometimes.” She said.

        Vagabond looked slightly more at ease,

“Thank you.” he said. Turning back to Pinkie Pie, Vagabond continued,

“Any way, I would have made a poultice for myself, but I couldn’t find water or the materials. I was still numb and my head still didn’t work right. I just kept walking like a zombie, until your friend found me. Does that make any sense Miss Pie?” Vagabond asked.

        Pinkie looked thoughtful for a moment then perked up,

“I think so.” she said, then commented, “At least the bear got to eat.”

        Fluttershy squeaked in horror,

“Oh, Pinkie Pie, what a terrible thing to say.” Fluttershy scolded.

        Vagabond’s face was completely impassive for several tense moments.

        Slowly a grin split his face and he began to chuckle,

“That is the funniest thing I’ve heard in a long time.” he said. The chuckles turned into a full-bodied laugh. This laugh though, was rich and full, a thing which had a flicker of actual life to it. Vagabond winced in pain, but didn’t stop,

“Miss Pie, . . . you have . . . an amazing . . . gift.” he said through fits of laughter, when he could get a breath.

        Pinkie only smiled and said,

“Yeah, I get that. You can call me Pinkie by the way. All that ‘Miss Pie’ stuff was making me feel old.” she giggled.

        A heavy knock reverberated throughout Fluttershy’s house, originating from the front door. Pinkie Pie literally bounced up from a sitting position up to her hooves and from there to the door in two simple motions. Fluttershy rose and trotted into the kitchen, disappearing through the doorway. Pinkie opened the door,

“Hi Big Macintosh!” she said, stepping aside to let him in.

        Vagabond had never seen such a large pony. Big Mac looked more like one of the legendary Clydesdales. Big Mac clopped over to the couch and looked Vagabond up and down appraisingly. Vagabond couldn’t help himself,

“You’re huge.” he said looking up.

        The enormous earth pony chewed a piece of wheat and simply replied,

“Ayup, and you’re injured. Mah sister sent me over here to help ya out, and keep an eye on ya.” Big Mac said.

        Vagabond nodded,

“She probably thinks I’ll try to hurt Fluttershy.”

“Ayup. Any idea why she’d think that?” Big Mac asked.

        Pinkie Pie bounced up beside Big Mac waving a hoof,

“Oh, oh, I know!” she said.

        Big Mac raised an eyebrow so Pinkie continued,

“Vagabond-here-though-that-isn’t-his-real-name-and-he-can’t-use-his-real-name-until-he’s-forgiven-he-hates-himself-for-something-he-did-and-he’s-afraid-he’ll-accidentally-hurt-someone-again-so-he-laughed-real-evil-and-gave-this-big-scary-speech-about-it-he-acts-like-he’s-all-like-tough-and-stuff-but-I-think-he’s-actually-nice-does-that-make-sense-to-you-Big-Mac?” Pinkie machine-gunned off without a breath.

        Big Mac looked thoughtfully at Vagabond, for a moment, then seemed to come to a decision,

“Ayup.” He said. Pinkie Pie burst into a fit of the giggles.

        Vagabond’s eyes had gone cross while Pinkie had been chattering, he shook his head and uncrossed his eyes,

“I hate to impose, but I need to use the bathroom. Would you help me get there?” Vagabond asked, obviously embarrassed.

        Big Mac simply said,

“Ayup.”


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 3

        Pinkie Pie trotted into the kitchen where Fluttershy was busy chopping up some fruit,

“Hi Fluttershy! Whatcha doing?“ Pinkie asked.

        Fluttershy jumped several inches into the air but managed not to drop the knife,

“Oh Pinkie, you shouldn’t sneak up on anypony like that.” Fluttershy said setting down the knife, “I know that Vagabond will have to be here for a while; and if he is, then Big Mac will be too, so that will be three ponies I have to feed for a while.” Fluttershy paused to take a breath, “So . . . I thought I should get a head start on the food. Um . . . Pinkie Pie, would you be . . . willing to help me . . . if you don’t mind that is.” Fluttershy asked.

“Sure thing!” Pinkie Pie said bouncing just like always.

        Fluttershy passed Pinkie a knife, a bowl, and a pile of fruit. The two friends began cutting, slicing, and chopping every piece of fruit they could get their hooves on.

        Big Macintosh carried Vagabond back into Fluttershy’s front room, and set him down gently on the couch. Vagabond was in immense pain. Pain however, was an old friend to him so he tried to just endure it.

        Vagabond looked up at the massive red pony,

“I heard Pinkie call you Big Macintosh. Is that what you like being called or is there something shorter?”

“Big Mac’s fine with me.” he said.

        Vagabond nodded,

“Big Mac it is then.”

“And you’re called Vagabond?” Big Macintosh asked.

“That I am.” Vagabond answered uncertainly.

“Do Ah have to worry about ya hurtin’ anypony here?” Big Mac asked.

“No.” Vagabond said simply.

        Big Macintosh looked sternly at the injured blue, former pegasus,

“Good. You behave yourself and we’ll get along just fine.”

        Someone was knocking on Flutterhy’s door yet again. Big Mac casually walked over an opened the door. Dr. Mend nodded to the massively-built stallion,

“Good afternoon, Big Macintosh. Is Fluttershy in? I was hoping I could check up on the patient. He could probably use another dose of pain killers.” Dr. Mend said. Big Macintosh stepped aside and let Dr. Mend in.

        The Doctor then noticed Vagabond starring at him,

“You're awake!?” he asked eyes wide.

“That I am sir.” Vagabond responded.

“Don’t call me sir. You may address me as Dr. Mend.” he said putting his bag down next to the couch, “How do you feel?” Dr. Mend asked shining a light into Vagabond’s eyes.

“Lame, very hungry, and in quite a lot of pain.” Vagabond responded.

        Dr. Mend’s eyebrows arched in surprise,

“Didn’t the girls give you the medicine I left?”

“I have no idea. I haven’t had anything since I awoke.” Vagabond said almost too evenly.

        “I’ll give you something after you've eaten.” Dr. Mend said, then noticed something odd, “You’re sweating. How bad is the pain?”

“Probably close to the worst I’ve ever felt, physically.” Vagabond let himself grunt the words, since Dr. Mend had noticed the perspiration.

“And yet, you are calm?” Dr. Mend asked puzzled.

“I’m used to it, to a point.” Vagabond said.

        Dr. Mend was about to ask what Vagabond meant when Pinkie Pie walked in carrying a big bowl of fruit salad on her back,

“Hi Dr. Mend!” she greeted in passing.

        The older stallion, normally very taciturn, smiled warmly at the pink pony,

“Oh, hello Pinkie Pie. I didn’t know you were here.”

“Yeah,” she said setting down the bowl on the Front Room table, “I’m helping take care of Vagabond here.” she said heading back into the kitchen.

        Dr. Mend smiled at the work pony,

“Thank you for letting me in Big Macintosh. Would you be so kind as to tell Fluttershy I am in?”

“Ayup.” Big Mac said turning toward the kitchen.

        As soon as Big Mac departed Dr. Mend turned and faced Vagabond. Dr. Mend’s face was a thunderhead,

“You are called Vagabond?” he asked seriously.

        Vagabond nodded,

“I am.”

        Dr. Mend narrowed his eyes dangerously,

“That title is only placed upon those suffering prolonged punishment for the most serious crimes. I’m not legally allowed to ask for specifics, but what was the crime?”

        Vagabond clenched his jaw and closed his eyes,

“Involuntary Unlawful-Act Ponyslaughter.” he said crisply.

“Alright, let me tell you something.” Dr. Mend said getting in Vagabond’s face with gritted teeth, “The filly who has taken you in, is the sweetest pony I’ve ever known and the rest of her friends are close up there. If you so much as say a harsh WORD to any of them, I’ll make sure you receive an injury that will NEVER heal.”

        Dr. Mend took a deep breath and sat back, his smile was seemingly warm, but there was a diamond edge to his stare, “It’s nothing personal, but I won’t let anyone hurt a single pony here, especially these fillies. Do we have an understanding . . . Vagabond?” he asked coldly, placing extra emphasis on the last word.

        Vagabond’s expression went completely blank, all life pulled out of it,

“I’ve NEVER intentionally hurt anypony and I DO NOT plan to start now.” he hissed angrily.

“Well that’s good!” Pinkie Pie said shoving a large bowl of fruit salad in front of Vagabond’s muzzle.

        Dr. Mend looked up startled and quickly smoothed over his expression,

“I didn’t see you there, Pinkie Pie.”

“Well duh! I mean it’s rude to butt in on a conversation, so I just watched until you two looked like you were done.” Pinkie said trotting back into the kitchen, “Are you staying for lunch Dr. Mend?” she called.

“Thank you, no.” Dr. Mend called back to her. He then stood up slowly and whispered to Vagabond,

“Remember what I said.” Dr. Mend turned to leave and reached for the door. Big Mac held it open for him.

“Oh!” Dr. Mend said surprised, “I didn’t hear you return Big Macintosh.”

        Something on the table by the door caught Dr. Mend’s eye and he snatched it away into his black bag, “Thank you. I’ll be by tomorrow to change his bandage. Good afternoon.” Dr. Mend said and departed.

        Big Macintosh closed the door. Vagabond silently noticed Dr. Mend never gave him the pain medication. He gritted his teeth for a brief moment before trying to calm himself down. He shifted slightly and the bandage rubbed against his wing stumps. The pain was intense. Vagabond’s eyes watered, the rubbing felt like a cheese grater against his already tender skin, ‘Endure it.’ he concentrated, ‘You deserve every second of it.’ his mind began to drift. The pain was bringing with it, a numbing haze. Vagabond’s mind recalled the time when others said similar words to him, ‘Criminal!  Monster!  Killer!  Suffer!  SUFFER AND DIE!  DIE SLOWLY AND ALONE!  DIE!  DIE!  DIE!  DIE!’ the chant played over and over again; the last moments in his town as he stood before them begging for forgiveness and proclaiming his sorrow for his actions. Vagabond threw up his well-built and well-used emotional wall and steeled his will, ‘STOP THAT! Your PATHETIC tears helped nothing then and they’ll help nothing now!’ he scolded himself silently, through tightly closed eyes and gritted teeth, ‘Suck it up you worthless monster! Show these kind ponies how grateful you are!’ his mind began to slow as the pain receded, ‘They are the first to show you any compassion since you killed Arabesque. Don’t you DARE throw that in their faces. They have given you more than you deserve and you know it! The care they’re giving you should be going to some pony who deserves it, but they chose to help you.’ Vagabond finally focused his thoughts enough to open his eyes.

        The bowl of fruit salad on the table smelled heavenly, and the pain had receded somewhat. His mouth began to water, but he noticed that Big Mac had laid down on the floor and was starring at him,

“What? Have I done something wrong?” Vagabond asked.

“Not that Ah’ve seen.” Big Mac said simply.

        Vagabond was puzzled. It was an odd statement, surprisingly complex for its brevity. Vagabond pondered all the possible connotations and finally settled on an assumption which seemed likely, ‘What he means is that he hasn’t seen me do anything wrong. I think he’s also saying that he is only going to judge me on what he actually sees me do. The whole ‘who you are, not who you were’ thing.’ 

“Big Mac?” Vagabond asked.

        Big Macintosh raised an eyebrow in response, so Vagabond continued,

“T-thank you.” Vagabond said stuttering, “Truly. Thank you.”

“Ayup.”

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

        Twilight was getting frustrated,

“What are you not telling me Rainbow Dash?” she asked.

        Rainbow Dash couldn’t look her friend in the eye,

“I’m not leaving anything out!” she said exasperated, “I told you everything that happened with Vagabond. What kind of name is that anyway?” Rainbow Dash asked changing the subject.

        Twilight began to pace as she explained,

“It’s not a name per se, it’s a title.”

“A title? You mean he’s famous?” Dash asked.

        Twilight shook her head,

“More like infamous. The title ‘Vagabond’ is only placed on somepony who committed a serious crime. It doesn’t happen often, generally it’s only bestowed when a death is involved. Vagabond means ‘wanderer’ or more specifically ‘ one who is without a home’. A pony is named Vagabond then exiled from their home and travels continuously, doing everything in their power to atone for the crime. Most ponies who commit such a crime, do so intentionally and don’t much care, until they realize that the spirit of their victim is tied to them. The spirit of the victim judges and torments the Vagabond constantly until the spirit forgives the one who caused their death.”

“When is that normally?” Rainbow Dash asked.

        Twilight shuddered slightly,

“Usually when the Vagabond dies, which tends to happen within a week or two. Which is why the Vagabond you found puzzles me. He’s been a Vagabond for five years, that’s really unusual.”

“Why haven’t I heard about this before?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“It doesn’t come up often because most ponies die of natural causes. Besides who wants to talk about death and misery when there’s so much life to live?” Twilight said.

“Have any Vagabonds ever been forgiven and lived?” Rainbow Dash asked.

        Twilight nodded sagely,

“Yes, there aer four historically. In every case, once the Vagabond was forgiven, they went on to live out their lives normally. Also in every case, the spirit of the victim tasked a different pony to tell the Vagabond he or she was forgiven. I thought maybe the spirit told you, but it looks like the Vagabond isn’t done with his punishment.”

“Can you tell me anything else about the ponies who had to tell the Vagabonds they were forgiven?” Rainbow Dash asked.

        Twilight Sparkle looked askance at her friend,

“Did you decide to change your story?” she asked.

        Rainbow Dash made a rude noise,

“Psh, no! I’m just curious.

“I’ll have to look it up. I’ll let you know if I find anything.” Twilight said, ‘Even though I KNOW you’re not telling me everything.’ she thought.

“Thanks Twilight, I have to go. See you later though.” Dash said flying out the window.

        Twilight began her research immediately. Spike was out visiting Rarity again. Twilight decided not to rush him. She needed him to send a message to Princess Celestia , but that could wait, there were books to read.

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

        Rarity was feeling very out of sorts, ‘I never say things like that. Not only is it unladylike but it’s presumptuous and mean. He WAS responsible for a pony’s death but he didn’t seem . . . NO! I simply CANNOT make a judgement call, I don’t know all the details. Remember Rarity, to assume, makes an ass out of you and me.’ she thought quietly to herself as she worked.

        Rarity blinked in surprise,

“That was MOST unladylike.” she said out loud.

“All you did was pin up that hem Rarity.” Spike said.

        He stood stock-still, modeling a small tuxedo for the skillful and perfectly groomed pony. Rarity hadn’t realized she had spoken out loud. She put down the pins,

“I’m sorry Spike. I suppose I’m simply too distracted to work right now. Thank you for modeling for me though.” she said replacing the pin cushion.

        Spike began carefully removing the tux,

“Do you wanna talk about it? Maybe I can help.” Spike offered.

“I shall try. Thank you Spike.” Rarity said taking a couple of deep breaths, “I may have said some rather hurtful things earlier today.”

“That’s easy.” Spike said waving a claw, “Just apologize to the pony you said those things to. I’m sure if they see that you really mean it they’ll forgive you. Anyone who knows you, knows you’re not mean, besides I’m sure you couldn’t have said anything THAT hurtful.” Spike said honestly.

        Rarity cringed,

“It was really mean darling.”

“If it really WAS so bad, Rarity, you should give them something.” Spike suggested.

“Spike! I would NEVER try to bribe anypony. The very notion of it is just simply ghastly and ever so tacky.” Rarity said, hurt that Spike would even think of it, ‘I’ll admit, I do have my shallow moments but I wouldn’t dream of stooping so low. It would be an insult to anyone with even a shred of decent character and I would be debasing myself too.’ she thought furiously.

“I didn’t mean a bribe. Bribes are shallow. Give them something meaningful, like you put some thought and effort into it.” Spike suggested.

“But how? I don’t even know this pony?” Rarity admitted.

“Then get to know them. All seems pretty simple to me.” Spike said partly under his breath.

        Rarity gave the idea earnest thought,

“You know Spike you’re right! I’m going to march over there right now and get to know him.” Rarity said with genuine conviction.

        Spike wilted inwardly, ‘Him? Aw man. Just when I thought we had a connection.

“Would you like to come with me darling?” Rarity asked Spike heading for the door.

        Spike hid his emotions so Rarity wouldn’t feel bad,

“No thanks, I need to get back to the library. Twilight’s probably throwing a fit.” Spike said following Rarity out the door.

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

        Rainbow Dash was having problems of her own. She had returned to her cloud-house and was trying, and failing to take a nap. The vision of the dead pony, Arabesque, kept playing over and over in her head. Rainbow Dash grunted in frustration.

        “What the hey did she mean, ‘When the time is right?’ When is the right time to tell someone something like that?” Rainbow Dash corrected herself, “No, she said, ‘When he is ready’ How am I suppose to know when he’s ready?” she yelled, “Arg! This is so frustrating!” Rainbow Dash rubbed her head with her hooves and thought out loud, “I shouldn’t have kept Arabesque a secret from Twilight. She’ll help me, she’s great with weird cryptic stuff like this.” Rainbow Dash swallowed her reservations and decided to bite the proverbial bullet. She went back to tell Twilight.


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 4

“Wow! He might be able to out eat me!” Pinkie Pie said.

        Vagabond had devoured three bowls of fruit salad ravenously and was working on a fourth with equal gusto.

        Pinkie Pie leaned over and whispered into Big Mac’s ear,

“It’s a good thing I’m a baker or else he would eat Fluttershy out of house and home.”

        Big Macintosh grinned slightly,

“Ayup.”

        Vagabond’s ear’s had picked up on the exchange but he carefully hid his reaction. He cringed inside, ‘I’m so hungry.’ he thought, ‘But I absolutely will not abuse anyponie’s kindness.’ Vagabond raised his head, maybe a little too quickly,

“I’m finished. Thank you Fluttershy.” In truth he was still ravenously hungry, but he refused to misuse Fluttershy’s hospitality, hungry or no.

        Vagabond felt bad,

“I need to find some way to repay you for everything Fluttershy. Let me see if I have anything in my saddlebags.” he said.

        Vagabond knew it would hurt terribly to reach so far, but he was willing to endure it.

“Oh, that’s quite alright Vagabond. You don’t have to give me anything. I’m just glad I could help.” Fluttershy said meekly.

        Vagabond couldn’t help but to stare at his hostess,

“You’re so kind. I feel I need to do something for you, anything.”

“Just get better. That’s all I want.” Fluttershy said earnestly.

        Vagabond was deeply touched. He vowed that if there was anything he could do for Fluttershy, he would do it gladly.

        Somepony was knocking on Fluttershy’s door yet again.

        Pinkie Pie, acting as butler, bounded over to the door and flung it wide,

“Hi again Rarity!” Pinkie said letting Rarity in.

“Hello again Pinkie darling.” Rarity said stepping into Fluttershy’s cottage.

        Vagabond’s memory jogged to the last thing he heard Rarity say, ‘Imagine! A killer among the good ponies of Ponyville. He should be banished immediately.”

        He remembered Rarity’s previous words as he was feigning sleep. Vagabond suppressed his frustration, ‘At least she was paying attention. She is Fluttershy’s friend and I won’t make a scene.’ It was difficult not to say anything. Rarity’s words were so similar to those of his own village. That memory would forever be burned into his mind and Vagabond couldn’t think of anything that would lessen the pain. He forced his expression into neutrality as Rarity looked him over.

        He thought he was doing well until he heard a trio of tiny voices call,

“Rarity! Wait up.” and three adorable tiny fillies bounded inside the cottage.

“Sweetie Belle!” Rarity scolded, ”What are you doing following me? It’s dangerous here! Go home at once!” she said dramatically pointing out the door with a hoof.

        Vagabond couldn’t help it, Rarity’s words echoed in his mind, ‘It’s dangerous here!’ ‘It’s dangerous here!’ ‘It’s dangerous here’.

        Vagabond’s mind suddenly snapped back to reality when he heard one of the fillies say,

“Whose that?”

        Vagabond opened his eyes and saw the three fillies standing right in front of him, not two feet away.

        One of them, a cute little Earth pony wearing an over-sized bow peered up at Vagabond,

“Are you sick?” she asked.

“No silly he’s hurt.” said a tiny pegasus.

        The third, a white unicorn, asked,

“How did you get hurt? Did you fall down?”

“Girls, I’m sure he’s very tired.” Rarity said with a nervous smile.

        Vagabond took the hint and yawned loudly. The three fillies hung their heads and turned to leave.

        The tan pegasus suddenly turned around,

“Can we see his cutie mark before we go?”

        Vagabond realized his saddlebags were covering his flank, which was a good thing. He shifted trying to make his flank inaccessible and wound up laying directly on his still-healing wing stump. The pain hit him like a tsunami. He turned his head away. There was no way he could stave off the tears of pain. His body shook slightly with convulsions and he broke out in a sweat almost instantly.

        Rarity sent Scootaloo, Applebloom, and Sweetie Belle back to town with Pinkie as quickly as possible. As soon as the door closed, Vagabond rose to his knees to take the pressure off his wing stump. He was panting heavily, his whole coat was covered with the sheen of sweat, tears were streaming down his face, and his whole body began to convulse uncontrollably. He lost control of his legs and collapsed, chest-down, on the couch.

        Fluttershy flew over to him,

“Oh dear!” she said quietly.

        Vagabond continued to convulse in agony,

“P...pain...medicine.” he stuttered between convulsing breaths.

        Big Macintosh walked over and held Vagabond still, his expression vaguely unhappy,

“Dr. Mend didn’t give ‘im no medication earlier.” he said.

        Fluttershy gasped,

“He laid right on one of his wing injuries! And you said Dr. Mend didn’t give him anything? Oh, the poor thing! He must be in absolute agony!” she said flying over to where Dr. Mend had left the perscription bottle, “Rarity would you help me look?” she asked.

        Rarity couldn’t help but to glance at the royal blue pony laying on Fluttershy’s couch, ‘He was a pegasus?’ she thought, ‘Tis unimaginable, loosing one’s wings.

        The two pony’s looked and looked but the medication was nowhere to be found. Fluttershy began to panic.

        Fluttershy pushed objects around, even knocked over the table before she finally turned around in a panic,

“I can’t find it!” she cried frantically, “You don’t think Dr. Mend took it by accident when he left?”

        Big Macintosh growled, realizing what had happened,

“Ayup, he did. He grabbed it right when he left. Ah’m sorry, Ah didn’t think nothin’ of it.”

“I...deserve...it.” Vagabond said through gritted teeth.

        Every pony in the cottage just stared at him.

        Fluttershy went back to Vagabond’s side,

“Don’t say that!” she said, eyes tearing up, “No pony deserves this.” she turned to Rarity and Big Macintosh, “We have to do something!” she cried loudly.

“You...have...no...idea...how...much...I...deserve...this...” Vagabond grunted.

        The convulsions were making the pain worse. The agony combined with the convulsions plus the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and the never-ending flood of emotional sorrow finally broke Vagabond’s will. Everything came tumbling out like a tidal wave.

        Vagabond closed his eyes, the pain was just too intense. His head swam, he felt nauseous and his body ached for relief from the agony. He couldn’t stay still, he had to move, had to escape the pain. He struggled against Big Macintosh imposing strength, five years of steady walking had made him incredibly strong for a pegasus.

        Big Macintosh fought to maintain his hold,

“Stay back! He’s in Fight-or-Flight mode an’ he’s stronger than he looks.” Big Mac let go so he wouldn’t hurt Vagabond.

        Vagabond stood up shakily, gasping,

“Let me die!” he cried, “I can’t take it anymore! It’s too much!” he gasped, “I didn’t mean to! I DIDN’T MEAN TO! Oh, Celestia! I killed her! I killed her! She was my only friend.” Vagabond took a deep, shuddering breath, I LOVED HERRRRRRRRRRR!” everything overwhelmed Vagabond, utterly.

        He collapsed  onto the couch. Fluttershy, Rarity, and Big Macintosh were completely dumbstruck. They rushed over to Vagabond. Big Mac settled him gently on the couch, directly on his chest, while Fluttershy and Rarity positioned pillows on either side of him.

“Let me die.” Vagabond whispered as the darkness of unconsciousness enveloped him, “Celestia, if you have any mercy, let me die.”

        Vagabond’s words hung in the air. The rest of the cottage was silent.

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

        Dr. Mend looked up from his desk suddenly. There was shouting coming toward his office, through the clinic.

        Fluttershy burst into his office, tears streaming down her normally gentle and serene face,

“How dare you!” she cried.

She took to the air charging straight at Dr. Mend. Dr. Mend stood up just as she reached him. Fluttershy reached back and slapped him across the face. the blow was light, like a foal’s strike, but the intent was clear.

“What about your oath!” she sniffled, “How could you do such a thing!” she yelled.

“Monster’s deserve what they get!” Dr. Mend yelled back.

“Don’t you dare, don’t you DARE talk to me about monsters!” Fluttershy said emphatically, “Of ANYONE in Ponyville, I know a monster when I see one, and the only one I’ve seen in months I just hit.” she paused to take a breath, shaking with fury, “Give it to me!” she said forcefully, “Give me the medication this instant or I’ll have you arrested! Give it to me!” she said shaking with anger.

        Dr. Mend set his jaw,

“Fine. Wait here.” he said leaving his office.

        Fluttershy landed, she couldn’t trust her wings right then. She was shaking all over, ‘I’ve never hit anypony before.’ she thought sadly, ‘But poor Vagabond. Hasn’t he suffered enough? I just can’t imagine how I would feel if I was responsible if Applejack or Rarity died because of me. I wonder what happened?’ she thought.

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

Dear Twilight,

        That a Vagabond is in Ponyville is somewhat alarming. Use caution, but do not presume to make a judgement call unless you have all the facts. Use discernment and wisdom at all times when interacting with him. Do not become too familiar with him unless he is forgiven. Remember, he has to serve his sentence. I cannot pass judgement on him and neither can you for that is not our place.

Be safe my student,

Princess Celestia

        Spike read the scroll out loud to Twilight.

        Twilight nodded from her position, laying on the floor,

“That makes good sense, I suppose.” she said.

        Spike rolled the scroll back up,

“I didn’t know a Vagabond was here. Aren’t they supposed to be dangerous?” he asked.

“Yes and no. Spike, don’t you remember that class we took in Canterlot about crime and punishment?” Twilight asked.

“Only parts of it, that class was boring.” Spike said dully.

“And that’s why you only got a c+...” Twilight was interrupted by Rainbow Dash walking in boldly.

        Dash looked tired,

“Twilight,” she addressed, “I...I’m sorry.” she hung her head, “I lied to you.” she said sadly, then quickly added, “But I had a good reason.”

“I’m sure you thought you did Rainbow Dash, but there is rarely a good reason to lie to anypony.” Twilight said rising to her hooves, “Don’t worry about it too much, I forgive you. Now, it was about the Vagabond wasn’t it.”

“Yes, you were right, the ghost did speak to me. She said she forgave him, but we can’t tell him yet.” Rainbow Dash said pensively.

        Twilight looked dead serious as she said,

“You need to tell me everything, Dash.”

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

        Rarity placed a cool, wet cloth on Vagabond’s head,

“He lost his wings.” she whispered, “How horrible. I simply cannot imagine loosing my horn. Twould be literally loosing a piece of yourself.”

“Ayup. Ah think he lost a piece of himself a long time ago.” Big Macintosh said, Something more important than his wings.”

“I whole-heartedly agree, Big Macintosh, but what can we do?” Rarity asked.

“Don’t know.” Big Mac said simply.

        Rarity’s attention was drawn to Vagabond’s saddlebags,

“Good heavens, those things are filthy! Why hasn't anypony removed them? They can’t be comfortable to sleep with.”

“Ah don’t think the word ‘comfort’ has been in his life for five years.” Big Macintosh mused.

        Rarity looked sideways at Big Mac,

“If he has to leave when he’s better, we should at least see that his belongings are in good shape. Big Macintosh, darling, would you be so kind as to help me with his saddlebags?” Rarity asked sweetly.

“Nope, Ah don’t touch another pony’s things unless Ah’ve got permission.” Big Mac said.

“But who knows when he’ll wake up. What could it hurt?” Rarity asked.

“Sorry Rarity, Ah don’t compromise mah morals for nopony, an Ah won’t let you touch ‘em either.” Big Mac said.

“I would never dream of asking you to darling. I do have to ask, why are you being so protective of him?” Rarity enquired.

“Do unto others, Rarity,” Big Mac said, “Do unto others.”


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 5

“So what you’re saying, Rainbow Dash, is that you couldn’t sleep?” Twilight asked, “That doesn’t sound like you at all.”

“I know!” Dash exclaimed, “It was like Arabesque was saying it over and over and over. Like she was inside my head! Arg! I can still hear it!” Dash said dramatically placing her hooves on either side of her head.

        Twilight’s eye’s unfocused for a few moments, deep in thought,

“Almost as if she were still here.”she said distantly, then snapped back to reality, “Spike, where is that book Spirits, Wraiths, and Ghosts?” she asked.

“I’ll get it.” Spike said despondently.

“Dash, what if Arabesque didn’t just give you the message then go to her final rest? What if she’s still around? What if she’s with you now?” Twilight asked interestedly.

“Don’t say that Twilight! It’s just, like, too creepy.” Dash said turning her head away and waving a hoof.

“It’s not THAT creepy Rainbow Dash. Maybe she just wants to make sure the Vagabond knows he’s been forgiven. I mean, it’s not like she’s malignant or anything.” Twilight said walking toward where Spike was searching the shelves of the library.

        Rainbow Dash followed her in the air,

“Malig- what?” she asked.

“Bad, evil, means to do harm.” Twilight said somewhat patiently.

“She kept me from sleeping!” Rainbow Dash said emphatically.

“We don’t even know for sure if it was even her.” Twilight said, “You could just be suffering from P.T.S.D. for all we know.”

“I DO NOT HAVE S.T.D.s!” Rainbow Dash said, highly offended.

“What? No, it means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Twilight explained.

        Rainbow Dash arched an eyebrow,

“What?”

“Ugh!” Twilight grunted in frustration, “It’s like being in shock.”

“Oh.” Dash responded.

“Found it.” Spike said climbing down the ladder. He handed Twilight the book, then headed upstairs.

        Twilight levitated the book onto her podium and opened it to it’s index,

“Hmm. Ghosts in reference to haunting? Maybe...” she mused, “Aha! Ghosts in reference to Vagabonds. Page 187.” she said.

        Flipping to the page, she began reading,

“Here it is.” Twilight said clearing her throat, “The Ghosts that torment Vagabonds are the spirits of their victims. The ghosts subtly manipulates the perceptions of their hosts, causing no physical harm but psychological harm instead. Possible effects of the ghost’s manipulations include but are not limited to: visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, paranoia, dementia, neurosis, personality disorders, eating disorders, and sleeping disorders.”

“See?” Rainbow Dash said.

“There’s more.” Twilight said and continued reading, “Due to the rarity of Vagabonds, it is entirely possible there are other effects of which we are not aware. In the, even more rare, cases of forgiven Vagabonds the ghost tells another pony and tasks them with informing the Vagabond. It is believed, the ghost inhabits the pony until the message is delivered but, that said, there is not enough information to be certain. There are rumors and tales that non-ponies can also suffer the fate of a Vagabond. Of special interest are the zebras. Some of their masks are said to allow one to interact with ghosts, but it is not known if this is true.” Twilight looked up from the book, “Looks like we need Zecora’s help.”

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

        Applejack secured the cart to her harness,

“Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo! Come on, we need to hurry.” she bellowed.

        The Cutie-mark Crusaders came galloping out of the barn, a whirlwind of energy.

        Applejack began walking before they even reached her,

“Hurry up! This foods gettin’ colder by the minute. Applebloom, did yall get Big Macintosh’s blanket?” she called.

“Got it!” Applebloom beamed up at her older sister.

“Good. Now when we get to Fluttershy’s, steer clear o’ the injured pony on her couch. He’s awful messed up, what with loosin’ his wings and all.” Applejack bit her tongue as realized what she had said.

        Eerie silence met her. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. All three fillies had stopped, mouths hanging open. Scootaloo looked back at her own wings then back to Applejack.

Scootaloo’s lip quivered, and her eyes teared up,

“Th...that’s...that’s just...horrible!” she burst into tears, “Is...isn’t there...some way t...to...get them back?” she asked.

        Sweetie Belle and Applebloom began crying as well. Applejack felt terrible, she hadn’t meant to say what she had. She picked up the three crying fillies and set them onto the cart, ‘Well maybe they’ll wear themselves out cryin’. Wonder how Fluttershy’s doin’?

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

Fluttershy had just finished administering the pain medication to Vagabond, who had woken up only a few minutes beforehand,

“Thank you so much Fluttershy.” he said lowering his eyes, “I must apologize for my earlier outburst. You didn’t need to have heard that.”

        Fluttershy averted her eyes as she said,

“You begged Celestia to let you die. I’ve never heard anypony say that. It was just so sad. I know it’s none of my business, but is it really that bad?”

“I truly hope you never have to find out.” Vagabond said, then sighed heavily, “But that doesn’t answer your question does it? You’ve been so kind to me, if you really want to know what happened, I’ll tell you.” he said.

        Fluttershy sat down in front of him,

“Oh, I do want to know.” she said.

        Rarity and Big Macintosh were in the kitchen but had stopped what they were doing, and now both of them listened intently at the kitchen doorway as Vagabond began,

“I was raised in an orphanage. I never knew my parents, but the orphanage wasn’t terrible. I knew all the other colts and fillies, but I only had one real friend. Her name was Arabesque. She was a pegasus like me. She had a coat of light-red and her mane and tail were a shimmering silver-green color. She was beautiful.”

        “For as long as I can remember she had studied and practiced ballet. She was a natural. She seemed to be able to fly without using her wings sometimes. She eventually convinced me to try it too. I was terrible at it. My only real talent is with chemicals, especially herbs, roots, and flowers. I became known, in our little village, as a bit of an alchemist. I had a habit of tending to all the cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries of all the little colts and fillies around our village. Their parents loved it because my potions and salves actually worked and I never charged anything. I was always good with the little ones. Arabesque would help me sometimes, when we got older.”

        “Others said we were a cute couple. Eventually I fell in love with her but I could never bring myself to tell her. As far as I know, Arabesque never knew how I felt, she only had eyes for the ballet. Soon after her seventeenth birthday, we heard about a talent scout coming to our village. Apparently, he had heard about Arabesque’s talent and wanted to see for himself. Arabesque performed for him with me acting as her stage manager, rigging up lights and setting up props. She was perfect.”

        “The talent scout took her picture and sent it off to Canterlot with an invitation for a troop to come see her perform and maybe sign a contract. Arabesque was ecstatic when she heard. She began to work on a complex routine that would require me to run myself ragged behind the curtain changing scenes and lights. She began talking incessantly about ‘going away’. I didn’t want her to leave without me, so I asked her if I could go too. The talent scout overheard me and said there were enough riggers in Canterlot and that Arabesque would be fine without me.”

        Vagabond hung his head,

“I was so selfish though. Instead of being happy for her, I was angry. I asked her if she ever planned on marrying. She said she would meet a stallion in Canterlot who was also a dancer; and that they would marry and have several foals. I was so upset I had to walk away, I didn’t even see her until the next day. I had secretly decided to sabotage her performance. I would have the plywood backdrops collapse and distract her. I knew that with her skill there would be other auditions, and I promised myself I would only ruin one performance. I thought that if we had more time together she might come to love me.”

        “I didn’t care about anything else, I wanted her, I needed her. I was so engrossed, so focused on my own desires I hadn’t stopped to consider her. I was selfish, greedy; I should have put her needs first, her dreams first.” Vagabond bit his bottom lip and breathed deeply through his nose to calm himself down, “The troop arrived and the whole village turned out to see her dance. I rigged the set to collapse straight down, I didn’t want to hurt her. I knew the exact moment I would collapse it, she would be in the very front of the stage, away from the backdrop...” Vagabond began hyperventilating and shaking.

        He stopped and closed his eyes to concentrate on his breathing,

“I’m sorry Fluttershy *huff* I’m going to *pant* have to stop. It’s *huff* just too difficult right now.”

        Fluttershy stood and reached out a hoof toward him for comfort.

        Vagabond’s hoof snapped out, lightening quick, intercepting hers,

“I *pant* have no right to accept *huff* comfort until I’ve atoned. Please tell me you *cough* understand.”

“No I don’t.” Fluttershy said softly.

        Vagabond let go of her hoof,

“I take it you don’t know about Vagabonds, then?” he asked.

“I’d never even heard the word until you came along.” Fluttershy said softly.

“When somepony kills another, intentionally or not, the dead pony’s spirit inhabits the one responsible and passes judgement on the killer until the spirit either forgives their killer or the killer dies. Arabesque has yet to forgive me, so I must continue my penance.” Vagabond explained.

“But you didn’t mean for her to be hurt, right?” Fluttershy asked.

        Vagabond’s face hardened, as he tried to throw up his walls again. His will had returned in full force. He mentally repeated his old chant, ‘I am a stone. I feel nothing. I am nothing. Feel the void, the emptiness. Let it consume you. This is your life now, and your suffering will never end. This is justice for what you’ve done. Suffer until you love it.’ Vagabond repeated the old chant again and again to himself as he tried to snuff out the spark of life that had taken root.

“I would never intentionally hurt anypony,” he said, “But that doesn’t make Arabesque any more alive now does it?” his voice began growing cold, “She’s dead. Dead because of me, because of my actions, my jealously, my selfishness. I killed her. Accident or not, it didn’t matter to anyone then and it doesn’t matter now.” Vagabond stopped and took several deep breaths, desperately trying to keep tears out of his eyes, ”I’m sorry for yelling, Fluttershy. I didn’t mean to scare you, but you should be afraid. I’m the monster that dames use to scare their foals into bed with. It is my place to suffer and I won’t fight it.”

“Oh, Vagabond,” Fluttershy said softly, “I don’t think you’re a monster.” she stopped and swallowed, “This all seems so cruel. Why would Arabesque do this to you?” she asked.

        Vagabond couldn’t figure it out. He couldn’t extinguish the spark of life inside himself. The more he tried the brighter it became. He hated himself and had for years, but now something was different. There was the hint of something new, ‘Maybe Arabesque will forg...’ he strictly cut off that line of thought, ‘I’ve had that false hope before. It hurts too much to go through it again.’ Vagabond gave way to despair. It was a familiar, old friend, ‘There is no redemption for Vagabonds. Just slow suffering for the rest of their lives and dying alone, forever alone. Just like I should be now. Being here won’t last, I’ll enjoy it while I can.” he thought.

“It is not our place to judge things like this. The dead pass judgement on their transgressors. Nopony can truly know how Arabesque feels about what I did to her, in the same way nopony can ever feel exactly how I feel about it either. I could talk about it from sunrise to sunset and still I would have only scratched the surface. Nopony can know the secret thoughts of another and so any judgement call would be in error.” Vagabond said.

“That makes sense, I suppose.” Fluttershy said.

“I apologize for scaring you Fluttershy. I didn’t mean to.” Vagabond said.

“I know. I forgive you.” she said.

        Vagabond’s face lit up, enraptured,

“You have no idea how much those three words mean to me, Fluttershy. Thank you.” he said smiling.

        Everypony jumped as a knock reverberated through Fluttershy’s door.

        Big Macintosh and Rarity went back to what they had been doing in the kitchen as Fluttershy walked over and opened the door,

“Oh, hello Pinkie Pie.” Fluttershy greeted, then craned her neck to look over Pinkie’s shoulder, “Who is that behind you?”

        Pinkie looked over her shoulder as well,

“Hi Applejack!” she greeted.

        Pinkie Pie bounded into Fluttershy’s cottage, while Applejack hauled the cart up to Fluttershy’s front door,

“Fluttershy, would you kindly send out Big Macintosh to help unload all this here food?” she asked, then added, “Uh, would ya happen to have anywhere to lay three little fillies what wore themselves out cryin’?”

“Oh dear, why were they crying?” Fluttershy asked.

        Applejack looked away embarrassed,

“Uh, Ah might have let slip about Vagabond’s wings.” she said.

        Rarity appeared at the doorway,

“Oh, the pool little darlings.” she said gently lifting the sleeping form of Sweetie Belle down from the cart.

        Every uninjured pony helped bring in the food, while Vagabond watched, ‘I wish she hadn’t mentioned anything to the little ones. There is no need to traumatize them with things like that.’ he felt like it was his fault, ‘All this fuss for me? Why would anypony do this for me? I wish I could pay them back for it all.

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

        Twilight knocked on the door of Zecora’s hut.

        Moments later the door opened, revealing the zebra girl,

“What seems to be the problem this time, only trouble brings you to this house of mine.” Zecora said somewhat pointedly.

        Twilight wilted inwardly, Zecora had a point,

“We’ll come visit you more often Zecora, I promise. You are right though, we do have a problem.” she said.

        Zecora smiled knowingly,

“Come on in and state your request, I will never mistreat a guest.” she said leading Twilight, Spoke and Rainbow Dash inside.

        Zecora sat down next to her cooking pot,

“Tell me about this new issue, that you think I can help you through.” she said.

“Well I think that maybe Rainbow Dash has a ghost around her. I read in a book that said some Zebras may have special masks that let you speak with spirits. The ghost may be keeping Dash from sleeping and I want to be absolutely sure, one way or the other.” Twilight said pacing lightly.

“And you wish to use such a mask, to aid you in your task?” Zecora asked.

        Twilight nodded,

“Exactly.”

        Zecora stood up silently and pulled a wooden box out from underneath her bed. She opened the lid and removed a mask made of clear glass. It had strange carvings on the forehead, chin, and each cheek.

        Zecora laid it down in front of Twilight,

“Using this will indeed allow to see a spirit, but see only, you will not be able to hear it.”

“Huh?” Twilight asked, “Why not?”

“The living cannot hear a spirit’s voice, but perhaps there is another choice.” Zecora said cautiously.

“What would that be?” Twilight asked.

“Put on the mask and enter a trance, I believe that is your best chance.” Zecora said.

“Trance?” Twilight asked, “What kind of trance?”

“I was taught not to use it, lest I be tempted to abuse it. For you I will break this rule, for what is knowledge if not a tool. The trance is similar to being dead, put on the mask and lay in my bed.” Zecora said.

        Twilight levitated the mask onto her face, the top stopped just below her horn. She walked over and laid down in Zecora’s bed. It was comfortable. Both soft and firm at the same time. Meanwhile, Zecora walked over to her pantry and began rummaging through it.

        Rainbow Dash and Spike walked over to Twilight,

“Are you sure about this Twilight? I mean, I know Zecora wouldn’t suggest it if it was dangerous and all but isn’t it, like, really scary?” Dash asked.

        Twilight shook her head, her face distorted by the mask,

“Not really. Besides, now I get to know for sure what’s going on, and I can write about about it so others will know too. It’s actually really exciting.”

        Rainbow Dash and Spike back-peddled to let Zecora near the bed. The zebra girl carried a jar filled with some sickly-green paste and had a small knife hung around her neck. Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but Zecora held up a hoof for silence and shook her head. Twilight stayed quiet as Zecora opened the jar. She scooped the goop up with the knife and began to fill the grooves in the mask with the stuff. Zecora took great care not to let any of it touch either Twilight or herself. Twilight’s nose twitched, the goop smelled like rotten fruit and was making her drowsy.

        Zecora leaned over her and said,

“Calm yourself and be sure to close your eyes, because part of you now dies.”

        Twilight could just barely hear Zecora, her ears were roaring. She closed her eyes and suddenly she was back in Zecora’s hut. Everything was identical except that instead of Zacora, Rainbow Dash, and Spike standing next to the bed, there was a light-red pegasus filly with silver-green mane and tail starring at her.

“Hello Twilight Sparkle.” the pegasus said.

        Her voice was nearly as soft as Fluttershy’s but more deep, almost husky like Rainbow Dash. Twilight suddenly became very nervous. The pegasus’ eyes were pure white and seemed to bore into Twilight’s soul.

        Twilight finally found her voice,

“Arabesque.” she whispered.


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 6

        The cart was unloaded and the Cutie-mark Crusaders had woken up with a voracious appetite. Everypony sat down to eat, well almost everypony. Vagabond was already lying down; he wasn’t eating, he had fallen asleep. Pinkie Pie wolfed down her plate of apple dumplings and impatiently waited for some pony else to do the same.

        After about 10 seconds Pinkie’s patience was at its end,

“You know, I’ve thought a lot about what Vagabond said. I mean, I know he needs to be forgiven and all that, but I think he needs to forgive himself first. I think he might be holding himself back or something. I mean it’s OBVIOUS he learned his lesson and everything but his self loathing is, like, killing him.” Pinkie Pie said without taking a breath.         Rarity, Big Macintosh, Fluttershy and Applejack had all stopped eating and just starred at Pinkie Pie silently.

        For her part, Pinkie Pie just tilted her head to the side and blinked twice,

“What?” she asked innocently.

        After several seconds of stunned silence, they resumed eating. Pinkie began humming to herself to pass the time. Applebloom, Sweetie Belle, and Scootaloo finished eating at almost the same time.

        The three Cutie-mark Crusaders couldn’t stay still,

“What time is it Rarity?” Sweetie Belle asked.

        Rarity was almost finished eating,

“It’s late darling. Don’t worry we’ll have you home soon.”

“But we never got to see his cutie-mark.” Scootaloo said pointing toward Vagabond with a hoof.

“Darlings, let him sleep. You can’t just wake him up for that.” Rarity responded, “He needs his rest.”

“O.K.” the three fillies said sadly, in unison.

        Applebloom perked up,

“Can we see him up close?” she asked.

        Rarity glanced over to Vagabond’s sleeping form,

“I suppose so. Just be quiet and don’t wake him alright?” Rarity turned to Fluttershy, “Where did you run off to this afternoon?”

        While the older ponies were busy talking, the Cutie-mark Crusaders were plotting, with Applebloom acting as the mastermind,

“O.K. they’re distracted. Sweetie Belle, you stand on my back. Scootaloo, you stand on Sweetie Belle’s back and undo the straps to his saddlebags. They’re the only thing covering up his cutie-mark. Ready?” she asked.

“Yeah.” Scootaloo whispered.

“I’m ready.” Sweetie Belle agreed.

“Alright, let’s go.” Applebloom said.

        Vagabond was awakened by a strong shift of weight on his flank,

“NO!” he yelled.

        Every pony in the room looked his direction as the saddlebags slid off him onto the floor. Every eye in the room was instantly drawn to his flank. Vagabond saw the looks of disbelief on every pony’s face, and knew what it was they all saw. In the place where his cutie-mark was supposed to be was only a mass of scar tissue.

        The three Cutie-mark Crusaders gazed, fixated at Vagabond’s flank,

“Where’s your cutie-mark?” Sweetie Belle asked.

        Vagabond swallowed hard, he hadn’t wanted to show the little ones this,

“It got scraped off and it hasn’t come back yet, that’s all. Don’t worry it doesn’t hurt. Who knows, it may comeback someday.” he said smiling.

“N...no wings AND no cutie-mark?” Scootaloo asked tearing up.

        Big Macintosh laid a gentle hoof on Applejack’s shoulder to keep her from rising,

“Let’s just see what he does.” he whispered.

        Vagabond reached out slowly and wiped Scootaloo’s eyes, his voice was gentle and soft,

“Hey now, it’s alright.” he said raising her chin, “You just have to look on the bright side. My wings are gone, but I’m still alive. I don’t have a cutie-mark but that just means I’m like you three. You shouldn’t be sad for me. Do I look sad?” he asked calmly.

“Your eyes do.” Applebloom said.

        Vagabond had difficulty hiding his reaction,

“I’ll be fine.” he said, “Besides isn’t it about time for little fillies to go to bed?”

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

        Arabesque stood perfectly still like a statue, not a hair in her mane moved. She didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, and didn’t shift her weight casually like a living thing would. Twilight had absolutely no illusions that she was speaking to any kind of living thing. It was extremely disturbing. Twilight was having a great deal trouble speaking or even thinking.

        Fortunately, Arabesque solved that problem for her,

“Ask what you will Twilight Sparkle.” she said, voice like a rumbling echo yet crystal clear.

        Twilight was still frightened, but there were things she had to know,

“When will the Vagabond be ready to be told you forgave him?”

“When his tears flow for one, other than himself.” Arabesque said.

        Twilight’s ears lowered in mind disappointment,

“Can’t you be more specific? I can’t be around him all the time.” she asked.

“You will witness it.” Arabesque said.

“Wait, how do you know that?” Twilight asked.

“That is not a thing for mortals to know.” Arabesque said vaguely.

“Can you at least tell me how many days it will be before he is ready?” Twilight asked becoming bolder.

“I cannot tell you. The knowledge would change the future.” Arabesque replied.

“I suppose you can’t tell me anything at all about the future can you?” Twilight assessed.

“No.” Arabesque answered.

        Twilight began thinking, ‘I probably don’t have much time, so I need to focus on the most important aspects. She can’t tell me anything about the future, even though she obviously knows it. I probably shouldn’t try to trick her. I guess I should just move on to the next topic.

“Can you tell me anything about the past?” Twilight asked.

“Some.” Arabesque said mysteriously.

“Did the Vagabond intend to kill you or was it an accident?” Twilight asked.

“My death was accidental. Violence of that kind is against his nature.” Arabesque explained.

“Why did you wait until now to forgive him?” Twilight asked.

“He would not have healed or grown.” Arabesque said.

“What do you mean?” Twilight asked curiously.

“The incident involving my death scarred him badly and he ceased maturing both mentally and emotionally. I had to work on him from the inside. He is sincere in his sorrow, but hating himself helps no pony and only hurts him more. Now that he is finally here with the Elements of Harmony, his internal shell is beginning to crack.” Arabesque said.

“Internal shell?” Twilight asked.

“Yes. He doesn’t know it but he pulled darkness into himself. He needs the Elements of Harmony to break the shell or he will die as the bitterness eats him from the inside. It has festered within his heart for a long time. Do not be angered at what he says, Twilight Sparkle, pity him instead. He is kind and brave beneath his pain. His heart is passionate but misdirected, he needs guidance. Do not think him an idiot, though he may often act like one. He is very smart. He just needs the Elements of Harmony to point him in the right direction.” Arabesque explained.

“So he needs all six of us?” Twilight asked.

“And more, much more before his tasks are complete, but I can say little more. Ask your final question, Twilight Sparkle.” Arabesque said.

        Without thinking, Twilight asked,

“Final question, what final question?”

        Twilight’s ears began to roar again and she felt like she was falling. Her vision began to fade into a bright light.

        The last thing Twilight heard Arabesque say was,

“That one.”

 

        Twilight felt herself falling upwards at incredible speed. She began hearing voices.

“Zecora!” Spike yelled, “She’s not breathing!”

        Zecora held out her hoof toward the baby dragon,

“Twilight Sparkle will be fine, sit down and do not whine.” she said calmly.

        Rainbow Dash ground her teeth but kept quiet. Zecora walked over to Twilight and carefully removed the mask. As soon as the mask was off Twilight's eyes snapped open and she gasped, breathing again. Her head lolled to one side and all four of her legs kicked out as her heart started circulating blood again. She cried out as her lungs rediscovered air. Rainbow Dash flew over to Twilight and held her still until she calmed.

        Rainbow Dash had to hold Twilight tightly,

“You could have warned us Zecora!” Dash said somewhat heatedly to their zebra hostess.

        Zecora gently laid the mask back in its box,

“Be at peace Rainbow Dash, you came when you saw her thrash. The trance...” Zecora didn't get to finish her statement.

        Twilight suddenly yelled,

“She's real! Rainbow Dash, she's real! Arabesque is real!” she howled.

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

        Rarity herded the little Cutie-mark Crusaders toward the door,

“Applebloom wait by the door. Scootaloo, come here this instant and leave Angel alone. Oh, dear.” she said as Angel sprinted under the couch where Vagabond lay with Scootaloo in hot pursuit.

        Vagabond's hooves shot out, quick as a striking snake and gently picked up the pegasus filly,

“Did you hear miss Rarity?” he asked.

        Scootaloo's eyes shifted upward and she brought her left hoof up to her mouth, thinking. It was a very cute pose.

        After a moment she shook her head,

“Nope.” she said smiling.

        Vagabond set her down gently,

“You need to listen to her O.K.? It's time for you to go home.” he said.

“Can we come back and see you tomorrow?” Scootaloo asked eyes sad.

“Well I certainly don't mind but I'm not the one you need to convince.” Vagabond said indicating Rarity with his hoof, “Do you understand?” he asked.

        Scootaloo nodded her little head vigorously,

“Got it!” she said.

        Vagabond smiled, set her down, and kissed her forehead,

“Good night Scootaloo.” he said as she ran to Rarity.

        Rarity had managed to corral Sweetie Belle next to Applebloom and gave Vagabond a grateful look as Scootaloo pranced over to the door,

“Thank you. I'll be by tomorrow.” she said herding the Cutie-mark Crusaders out the door.

        Vagabond settled back with a smile, even though it still hurt a bit to move. He laid his head down on his front hooves and noticed Applejack starring at him.

        Vagabond raised his head and addressed the earth-pony,

“Did I just sprout an additional ear or something?”

        Fluttershy, Big Macintosh, and Pinkie Pie were in the kitchen covering up food and cleaning dishes so only Vagabond and Applejack were in the front room. Applejack had wanted to help, but everypony had insisted she had already done enough and to take it easy.

        Applejack's face was a mask of confusion,

“Ah don't get you.” she said.

“What's not to get? I'm a killer.” Vagabond said easily.

        Applejack shot up out of her seat pointing at him,

“THAT!” she said emphatically, “That's what Ah don't get! Yall come off like some hardened murderer, actin’, all mean and crazy and psycho, but when the fillies are around you're the perfect role-model!”

        The statement upset Vagabond; he narrowed his eyes,

“There's no reason to scare them. I would never hurt one of the little ones.” he said quietly.

“But you keep sayin' you're a killer.” Applejack said taking a small step forward.

“I am.” Vagabond said soberly.

“Are you? Ah mean, are you really? Or did you just make a mistake that cost somepony their life? Cause Ah don't think even you believe what you're sayin'.” Applejack said with brutal honesty.

        Vagabond's muscles tensed, his ire rising,

“It doesn't matter! Arabesque is still just as dead!” he shouted.

“WRONG! It sure as hell does matter! It's the difference between a murderer and somepony why made a mistake!” Applejack said taking another small step.

“But she's dead!” Vagabond yelled.

“Yes, yes she is. Is there anything you can do to change that? Is there?” Applejack asked pressing her advantage.

        Vagabond hung his head, the proverbial wind gone out of his sails,

“I wish there was. I...” he began.

        Applejack interrupted him before he could start down that line of thought again,

“Just answer the question, dag-nabbit!” she yelled harshly.

        Vagabond screwed his eyes tightly shut,

“NO! O.K.?” he screamed, “What do you want me to say?”

        Applejack lowered and softened her voice,

“You just said it.” she said.

        Applejack took the final step toward Vagabond and lifted his chin gently with her hoof,

“You knew her really well, didn't you?” she asked quietly.

        Vagabond opened his eyes and looked Applejack square in the face,

“She was my best friend, my only friend really. I was in love with her.” he said softly.

“Did she care about you at all?” Applejack asked.

“She didn't love me, but yes she did. I like to think she cared a lot.” Vagabond said.

“Ah, know you can't bring her back but you have to think here.” Applejack said mysteriously.

“About what?” Vagabond asked.

“What did you do wrong? Ah mean what was it that caused you to act in poor judgment?” Applejack asked.

“I wanted her to love me.” Vagabond said.

“There's more than that.” Applejack encouraged.

“I guess I wanted it too much. I wanted her to stay with me.” Vagabond said.

“What do your last three sentences have in common?” Applejack asked.

“I focused on myself, I know, I've learned that. I figured that out a couple of years ago.” Vagabond said.

“Then why in the world are you still beatin' yourself up over it?” Applejack asked, “There's nothin' wrong with mournin', but if you've learned then you have to let it go. You've got to move on from your mistake; don't let it ruin what life you have left.”

“What life?” Vagabond asked, “I've been a Vagabond for years.”

“Maybe the reason is BECAUSE you haven't moved on yet. Did you consider that?” Applejack asked, “There's a reason the quote says 'live and learn'. You’re still alive, so learn. Let it go and stop living in the past. You're not doin' Arabesque’s memory any justice by mopin' all the time. Stop hatin' yourself and others will stop too.”

“I don't know how.” Vagabond confessed.

“Alright then.” Applejack said thinking, “Aha! What will you do after you've been forgiven?”

“I have no idea. I never really considered it a possibility.” Vagabond said.

“Well figure it out and work toward it. You're smart, you'll get it. Ah'll be by tomorrow, and Ah want you to tell me what it is you plan to do with the rest of your life. O.K.?” Applejack asked.

“O.K.” Vagabond said sourly.

        Applejack shook her head,

“Nuh-uh. Convince me.” she ordered.

“I will Applejack.” Vagabond said, smiling slightly.

“That's better. Now get some sleep, you've got plenty of thinkin' to do tomorrow.” Applejack said.

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

        Pinkie Pie and Applejack left shortly thereafter, leaving Fluttershy and Big Macintosh alone with Vagabond.

        Big Mac never being one to beat around the bush, asked,

“If it ain’t' too much to ask, how did you lose your cutie-mark?”

        Fluttershy didn't bother to stop Big Macintosh; she was becoming used to the issues.

        Vagabond yawned almost bored,

“As soon as I was exiled I had to leave the village. I had to wait outside the village until dawn the next morning. I was supposed to receive my saddlebags from a couple of colts I knew. I fell asleep during the night. When I woke up the saddlebags were sitting next to me. I looked inside them,” he said nosing open one of the saddlebags, “And found these,” he pulled out two square patches of . . . Fluttershy felt sick when she realized they were patches of Vagabond’s own flank.

        Vagabond set the two patches of his own hide back inside the saddlebag,

“Someone took my cutie-mark,” he sighed, “It’s far too late to try to reattach them. I more-or-less got over it. It’s just really embarrassing.”

“Oh Vagabond, you’ve suffered so much. How do you go on?” Fluttershy asked sadly.

        The ghost of a smile floated on Vagabond’s face,

“I have something to look forward to, or I should saw I used to.” He said.

“What do you mean?” Big Macintosh asked.

“I used to look forward to dying, so I could be with Arabesque again.” Vagabond paused briefly and shook his head, chuckling, “As you know Applejack and I spoke earlier. She made a good point, well several actually. I was upset initially, but now that I’ve given it some thought, you and your friends have given me something I haven’t had in the longest time, hope. I believe Arabesque will forgive me someday and I look forward to it. With or without my cutie-mark, I still have a talent that can help others. I’ve been a fool wallowing in my sorrow. If Arabesque wanted me dead, I think she could have arranged it. I’m still alive and that means I still have a purpose.” Vagabond said smiling.

        Suddenly a thought struck him,

“Fluttershy, I never finished telling you how Arabesque died did I?”

        Fluttershy had to restrain her reaction as she realized Vagabond had said, ’How Arabesque died’ and not, ‘How I killed her’,

“No you didn’t, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“I think I can now. You still deserve to know.” Vagabond said quietly.

        He took a deep breath,

“I had rigged the backdrop to collapse straight down when I pulled on a rope. I waited until the right moment and pulled the rope. The backdrop would take only a few moments to collapse and Arabesque was supposed to stay toward the front of the stage so she should have been safe. Well she tripped and tried to catch herself but she fell and slid close to the backdrop. She would have just flown away but her wings were bound. She always had her wings bound so she could concentrate on the dances she practiced. The backdrop began to collapse, she was right underneath it. I knew what would happen. I ran toward her calling her name. In that last moment she turned to face me and we locked eyes. She reached out for me to save her. I was looking right at her when a piece of the backdrop fell onto her. I can still see it.” Vagabond drew in a deep, shuddering breath, “I’m sorry, I’m tired, but now you know. If it’s alright Fluttershy, Big Mac, I’d like to try to sleep now.”

“Of course Vagabond,” Fluttershy said yawning, “Will the guest room be O.K. Big Macintosh?” she asked.

“Ayup. Good night Fluttershy, Vagabond.” Big Macintosh said picking up his blanket and heading toward the indicated room.

        Fluttershy set the pain medication down, next to Vagabond,

“Take some if you need it O.K.?” she said.

        Vagabond nodded,

“Thank you Fluttershy. Good night.”

“Good night Vagabond.” Fluttershy responded from the stairs that lead to her room.

        Angel bunny began to hop up the stairs after Fluttershy, but stopped halfway up. He turned and studied Vagabond for a moment with crossed paws, sizing him up. He pursed his lips thinking, not an easy feat for a bunny. He held up a paw and pointed two pads at his eyes then pointed his whole paw at Vagabond; ‘I’m watching you.’ he seemed to be saying. Angel then hopped the rest of the way up the stairs after Fluttershy.

        Vagabond chuckled to himself at Angel’s antics, and laid his head down to sleep. He closed his eyes, but he couldn’t relax. The scene of Arabesque being crushed to death kept playing over and over in his mind. He had left something out of his tale. Arabesque had fallen underneath the collapsing backdrop and looked up realizing her fate. She had faced him and reached out for him, but she had also said something. Arabesque’s final words echoed in Vagabond’s ears, ‘I’m sorry.

        Vagabond steadied his breathing to keep himself calm as the feelings washed over him. For the first time in years he didn’t put up his emotional walls, ‘She knew,’ he thought to himself, ‘She knew what had happened. I saw it in her eyes. She knew I caused it.

“Oh Arabesque,” he whispered, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to be forgiven. I wanted you with me forever. Please forgive me. You deserve to be at peace, my love.”

        Vagabond lay his head down to sleep, but he was fully conscious of the bandages wrapped around his body, ‘These things are a problem. It will take weeks to heal up enough to even stand, much less travel again.’ he thought. A notion hit Vagabond suddenly. He listened silently for a few moments for any sound of anypony being awake. He heard nothing. He smiled mischievously to himself and opened the small white bottle next to him removing another pain pill, ‘Careful, not too many.’ he thought. He swallowed the pill and began to move silently pulling his saddlebags toward himself.  Vagabond had remembered a particularly useful potion he had discovered by accident, ‘That would be perfect. No pony will be able to believe it.’ he thought, ‘Now I just have to stand up. Oh, this is going to hurt.

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

        The whole of Ponyville was asleep except for one particular unicorn. Rarity was busy working on something special. She finally knew what to give Vagabond to apologize.


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 7

        Morning came in the afternoon for Rainbow Dash. Arabesque had finally let her sleep after she, Twilight and Spike had visited Zecora. Dash could never remember sleeping so soundly in her whole life. She rose with a feeling of refreshment in her body. She was full of energy, even more than normal, and that was saying something for her.

        Rainbow Dash opened the front door of her cloud/house and noticed the sun,

“Aw man!” she groaned, “It’s almost time for me to meet Twilight. I need to hurry.”

        Rainbow Dash leapt off the cloud and sped, like a bullet, toward Ponyville. She decided to stop at Sugar Cube Corner to grab a cream-cheese Danish. She smiled to herself, glad that only Pinkie Pie knew about her odd addiction.

        Within 1 minute, Rainbow Dash landed outside Sugar Cube Corner,

“Hey Pinkie, you got anything for me?” Dash asked walking in.

        Mrs. Cake greeted Dash,

“I’m sorry Rainbow Dash but Pinkie Pie just left about 10 minutes ago. She said she was going to visit Fluttershy. Can I get you anything?”

        Rainbow Dash tried to be indirect without seeming suspicious,

“Did she leave anything here for me by chance?”

“I don’t believe so. Was she supposed to?” Mrs. Cake asked.

“Nah. She just does sometimes.” Dash said shrugging, “Thanks anyway.” she said leaving the bakery and heading toward the Library.

        Rainbow Dash trotted briskly up to the Library and knocked on the door,

“Twilight? Are you in there?” she called.

        Twilight answered the door after a few moments,

“Hi Dash come on in.” she said holding the door for her friend, I’ve been reading more about forgiven Vagabonds, and it looks like I was mistaken. The ones that were forgiven didn’t go on to live normal lives, they lived extraordinary lives.” Twilight said closing the door.

        Twilight lead Rainbow Dash toward her reading podium and pointed to an old book with her hoof,

“The first forgiven Vagabond created the Royal guard and became the first Captain of Princess Celestia’s Royal Guard. The second founded Fillydelphia. She was the Mayor for over 50 years. The third became an ambassador to the Zebras, and the fourth was the cartographer responsible for all the maps of Equestria we still use today. He died more than 200 years ago, but he was the most recent. They all had other things in common too. They all married, they all traveled a lot after they were forgiven, they all became both famous and important in their times.” Twilight explained.

“O.K. so what’s your point Twilight?” Rainbow Dash asked raising a hoof.

“My point is, that if this pattern is any indicator, this Vagabond is going to be very important or at least do something important, which means he needs to know he’s forgiven.” Twilight explained excitedly

“Yeah, I get that Twilight, but remember what Arabesque said.” Rainbow Dash reminded her overexcited friend.

“Which was?” Twilight asked, mildly exasperated.

“You told me, Arabesque said we have to see him cry for someone other than himself. We can’t rush this, we have to wait for him.” Rainbow Dash said sagely.

“I’m not sure you understand how important this is, Rainbow Dash.” Twilight said.

“I get that he’ll be important, but if we tell him before he’s ready, it would be betraying Arabesque. She entrusted this to me and I’m going to do it right.” Dash said stomping her front right hoof.

        Twilight stopped her ranting for a moment and turned slowly toward her friend,

“Of all my friends you would be the last I would ever expect to want to wait to do something, Rainbow Dash.”

        Dash stomped both her front hooves on the ground and grunted in frustration,

“I know! And I hate it! But this is the way it has to be. I … I just … feel it.”

        Twilight’s mind began to spin, and her substantial intellect began working.

In mere milliseconds she had puzzled through thousands of possibilities and come down to a conclusion,

“You know Rainbow Dash I think you're right. Arabesque said the Vagabond would need the Elements of Harmony, and your element is loyalty. By refusing to tell the Vagabond he's forgiven prematurely you're being loyal to both Arabesque and the Vagabond. I think we just need to stay nearby the Vagabond and everything will just happen, it's in our natures. We personify the Elements of Harmony by proximity alone.”

Rainbow Dash shook her head, rolling her eyes,

“You know what I think Twilight? I think you’re way over thinking this.”

Twilight was off in her own world and didn't hear her friend,

“It's simple, we just...” Twilight stopped mid-sentence as Rainbow Dash shoved her hoof into her muzzle.

“Let's just go visit him O.K.?” Dash asked.

Twilight, with a muzzle full of hoof, nodded apologetically.

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

Applejack was pooped,

“Ah guess Ah never realized just how much Big Macintosh did 'round here. When he hurt himself during the last Applebuck Season he still did his chores, he just couldn’t buck apples. Whew doggy! I'll be glad when he's back.” Applejack was so busy talking to herself she failed to notice anypony sneaking up on her.

“Hiya sis!” Applebloom shouted.

Applejack jumped nearly four feet straight into the air,

“Applebloom! Don't sneak up on me like that! Yall near' done gave me a heart attack.”

“Hi Applejack!” Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle shouted from behind Applejack.

Applejack jumped again even higher. She landed awkwardly and overbalanced. She fell forward and landed on her chest, eyes rolling. The three Cutie-mark Crusaders laughed uproariously as Applejack came to her senses and stood up shakily.

“Ha ha, very funny.” Applejack said sarcastically, “Why ain’t yall playin' in your tree house?” she asked.

“We want to visit the hurt pony at Fluttershy's” Applebloom said, “Can you take us Applejack, please?”

The three fillies perfectly executed their pleading stare, directing all the intense cuteness straight at Applejack. Few there are who could withstand such an onslaught; Applejack was not among them.

Applejack sighed heavily,

“Alright girls. Go tell Granny Smith we're headin' out.”

The three fillies galloped away, toward the farmhouse, in a cloud of dust.

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

“He's mean then he's nice,

He acts cold as ice,

He's sweet and he's kind,

Can't tell what's on his mind,

He is truly good,

Eats Fluttershy's food . . . No that won't work either.” Pinkie Pie was busy composing a suitable song for Vagabond.

Pinkie trotted along the path to Fluttershy's cottage humming happily, and somewhat vacantly to herself as her saddlebags, filled with baked goods, jostled on her sides. The ground around her seemed to vibrate suddenly. Pinkie Pie turned her head and looked behind her. A small, giggling cloud of dust rushed at her, bypassed her and halted expectantly at the door to Fluttershy's cottage just ahead.

Applejack walked shakily up next to Pinkie Pie,

“So . . . much . . . energy.” Applejack panted haggardly.

Pinkie Pie put a hoof to her muzzle to stifle a sudden fit of the giggles.

        Applejack shot Pinkie Pie a scowl,

“Ah’d like to see you keep up with those three.”

        The statement only caused further merriment from the pink pony. Pinkie Pie looked like she was about ready to explode with laughter. Applejack rolled her eyes, ‘Whoever can figure out Pinkie Pie is a better pony that me.’ Applejack thought.

        Motion caught Applejack’s eye. She snapped her head up. Fluttershy had opened her door and let the Cutie-mark Crusaders in. Applejack was so relieved seeing Applebloom and her friends safe, she collapsed onto the path with a heavy thump. Pinkie Pie laughed so hard she almost fell over.

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

“Want some help?” Big Macintosh asked.

        Vagabond shook his head,

“No thanks. I need to do this on my own.” he grunted trying to stand.

        Vagabond lowered his front hooves onto the floor and flexed his joints down then up several times slowly, testing them. The shifting muscles made the bandage over his wing stumps rub abrasively and painfully. Fluttershy had already given Vagabond his morning dose of pain medication, so the discomfort was manageable, if barely. His forelegs held strong so he inched his way forward at an angle and slowly lowered his left hind leg down. He could easily feel the stiffness as he unfolded the joint. He slowly shifted his weight onto the limb and found it strong as ever. Feeling confident, he simply pulled his right hind leg off the couch and stood. Vagabond was feeling quite good.

        Vagabond shook out his mane loosening himself up,

“Ah, to be mobile again.” he said grinning, “I will have to be going soon, tomorrow morning I believe. I should be well enough by then.”

“How are you even able to walk Vagabond?” Fluttershy asked, “Less than two days ago you couldn’t even move.”

“It isn’t natural for anypony to heal this rapidly. I’ll show you how it works before I go.” Vagabond said.

        A familiar scent wafted by Angel’s nose as he sat on his almost-constant perch, nestled in Fluttershy’s mane. His ears stood up ramrod straight, he sat up alert, and turned toward the door, just as Applejack and Pinkie Pie walked in.

        Vagabond looked toward the door,

“I don’t have an answer for you yet Applejack. I’m working on it though.” He said taking the initiative boldly.

        Applejack smiled lightly,

“That’s alright,” she said, “Long as you’re workin’ on it.”

“Thank you Applejack.” Vagabond said humbly, “You really helped me out a lot. Your honesty was brutal, but I think it was exactly what I needed.”

        Applejack blushed, slightly embarrassed,

“Aw shucks,” she said, scuffing the floor with her hoof, “Weren’t nothin. Honesty is mah element after all.”

Vagabond cocked his head to the side, puzzled,

“Your element?” he asked.

“The Elements of Harmony, silly.” Pinkie Pie piped up, “Applejack is Honesty, Fluttershy is Kindness, I’m Laughter, Rarity is Generosity, Rainbow Dash is Loyalty, and Twilight is Magic. That’s how we defeated Nightmare Moon and restored Princess Luna.”

“I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea what all that means. Could somepony explain it to me?” Vagabond asked quizzically.

        Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie and Applejack took turns relating the events centered around Nightmare Moon.

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

        Rarity had caught up with Rainbow Dash and Twilight on the path to Fluttershy’s. Dash and Twilight were glad to see Rarity but the questions she was asking were beginning to make Twilight uncomfortable. Twilight answered Rarity’s questions as best she could. The topic was unusual and rarely discussed among average ponies, but Twilight had a firm grasp of the concept.

“Why did you ask me all that Rarity? It’s really unusual for anypony to discuss it.” Twilight said.

“I know darling, but I want to make sure I get it right.” Rarity said.

“Are you thinking about getting one, Rarity?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Heaven’s no.” Rarity said then sighed, “I suppose an explanation is in order.” Rarity drew in a deep breath, “I was horribly rude yesterday and I want Vagabond to know how sorry I am. I’m going to give him one that I shall make for him. I jumped to a conclusion about him at first, but then I went back over to Fluttershy’s to see him yesterday and learned that he isn’t at all what I thought.” Rarity admitted.

“From my understanding, I would think that no Vagabond is what they seem to be.” Twilight said sagely, “In fact I have a sort of gift for him myself.”

        Rainbow Dash and Rarity looked at each other quizzically. Both friends noted that Twilight carried nothing with her.

        Rainbow Dash was the first to ask,

“Uh Twilight, how can you give Vagabond something if you don’t have anything with you?”

“Not all gifts have to be physical Dash. My gift is magical. I stayed up late last night memorizing a spell I asked Princess Celestia for. It actually took a bit of convincing to get her to send me the spell on a scroll. After I had the spell I had to modify it so I could cast it on others. Princess Celestia made me promise not to use it unless she says it’s alright. She said it could be dangerous if it is misused.”

“Well come on darling, what is it?” Rarity asked.

        Twilight shook her head,

“I’m sorry Rarity I can’t discuss the details. I’m only planning on casting it this one time. Don’t worry everypony will be there.”

“I’m glad we’re almost to Fluttershy’s. This suspense is killing me.” Rainbow Dash said.

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

“Wow!” Vagabond said, eyes wide, “That is some tale! It sounds like you six are real heroines. I had no idea I was being cared for by living legends.”

“Silly,” Pinkie Pie said, ”We’re not legends; we’re just us.”

        Vagabond chuckled at Pinkie’s response and was about to say something when somepony knocked at the cottage door.

        Pinkie Pie appeared at the door like magic and opened it wide,

“Hi, Dr. Mend.” she greeted.

        Dr. Mend entered the Cottage and set down his bag,

“Hello Pinkie Pie.” he greeted.

        Dr. Mend was about to speak but he spotted Vagabond. The older earth pony’s mouth dropped open,

“How . . . how can you be standing?” he asked.

        Vagabond took a step back, lowering his head defensively and did not answer. Big Macintosh and Fluttershy eyed Dr. Mend warily.

        Fortunately, the Cutie-mark Crusaders didn’t notice the adults making faces at each other,

“Hi Dr. Mend!” they chimed in unison.

        The three absurdly cute voices shook Dr. Mend out of his shocked state,

“Oh hello Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, Applebloom.” He said acknowledging the three, then turned to Applejack and Pinkie Pie, “Would you two girls be kind enough to take the fillies outside to play? I have to change Vagabond’s bandages.”

        Pinkie Pie smiled hugely,

“Okie-dokie-lokie.” she said, “Come on girls, let’s go play tag.”

        Applejack was not fooled one bit. She had immediately seen Fluttershy’s expression not to mention that of Big Macintosh and Vagabond’s posture on top of that. She decided that Big Mac and Fluttershy would tell her what was up if they felt it was important. She left behind Applebloom and closed the door behind her.

        As soon as Applejack closed the door, Dr. Mend opened his bag and began talking,

“I admit I’m amazed you’re standing. You may want to lie down, this will probably be quite uncomfortable. I need to unwrap the bandage and examine the stitches to ensure infection hasn’t set in again. I have some steroids for your immune system and some more pain medication. Oh, and by the way,” Dr. Mend said looking at Fluttershy, “There will be no charge for my services. I’ll leave some spare bandages with you when I go.”

        Dr. Mend looked up at the stunned expressions of the three ponies around him and stood up straight,

“I am not so proud as to be unable to admit when I am in the wrong. Yesterday I did something cruel and caused you pain Vagabond. Don’t get it into your head that I like you, or like that you are here, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are my patient. As my patient, you deserve the best treatment I can provide no matter how I feel about you personally. I had forgotten why I chose this line of work and somepony was nice enough to remind me.” Dr. Mend explained, “Now if that is enough, I have work to do.”

        Vagabond sat down on his haunches, hiding a slight smile,

“Let’s get this over with then.”

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

        Applebloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle were playing a rowdy game of tag while Applejack and Pinkie Pie watched,

“Ah wonder why Fluttershy and Big Mac were lookin’ at Dr. Mend like that?” Applejack asked.

“Like what?” Rainbow Dash asked landing next to Applejack.

        Applejack was so startled, she reared back and fell over onto Pinkie Pie, who was on her other side.

        Pinkie Pie, being Pinkie Pie just laughed,

“Good one Rainbow Dash!” she snorted.

“Thanks Pinkie, but what did you mean Applejack?” Rainbow Dash asked.

        Applejack picked herself up off Pinkie Pie, who was still laughing,

“They were eyeballin’ Dr. Mend somethin’ funny, when we left.”

“Who was?” Twilight asked walking up with Rarity beside her.

        Applejack put a hoof over her eyes and sighed, heavily,

“For the last time, Fluttershy and Big Mac were lookin’ at Dr. Mend real odd-like when Pinkie Pie and Ah brought Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle and Applebloom out here so they wouldn’t have to watch Vagabond’s bandages bein’ changed!” Applejack said more loudly than she meant to.”

“No need to get upset darling, we were just curious.” Rarity said.

        Applejack felt bad, she hadn’t meant to yell,

“Ah’m sorry everypony. Ah guess Ah’m just tired. Ah’m not used to doin’ all the chores by mah self, on the farm.”

“Apology accepted, Applejack.” Rarity said, “I believe I know why they were looking at Dr. Mend so oddly though.”

“So, tell us.” Rainbow Dash said eagerly.

“Well when I was visiting yesterday, apparently Dr. Mend had left some anesthetics for Vagabond when he first treated him, but took them back and didn’t give Vagabond anything for the pain before he left. Vagabond laid on one of his wing stumps and . . . um . . . kind of lost it, before he passed out from the pain.”

        Rainbow Dash took to the air angrily,

“Why that rotten . . . ugh! I’m going to show him pain!”

        Applejack reacted first and grabbed Rainbow Dash by the tail with her teeth.

“It’s alright darling.” Rarity said, “It was cruel but Fluttershy went and must have convinced Dr. Mend to recant, because she came back with the pain medication. I’m sure Fluttershy and Big Macintosh will ensure there is not a repeat performance on Dr. Mend’s part.”

        Rainbow Dash settled down somewhat and landed,

“He better not try it again.” she grumbled.

“Applejack, do you think you could take Applebloom and her friends back to the farm for a while? Rarity and I have some things to do that they shouldn’t witness.” Twilight said.

“Like what?” Applejack asked cocking an eyebrow.

“I have a spell that they shouldn’t see. I’m going to cast it for the Vagabond. It’s not dangerous per se, but it’s not something they should be exposed to. I’m afraid I can’t elaborate further. You just have to trust me.” Twilight explained.

“Well, alright then Twilight. Ah’ll just have to ask Granny Smith to watch ‘em.” Applejack said standing.

        Applejack drew in a deep breath,

“Applebloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle! Come ‘ere!”

        The three fillies zipped up to Applejack in a flash,

“What’s up sis?” Applebloom asked.

“Ah need yall to come with me back to Sweet Apple Acres.” Applejack said.

        Three cute faces put on their most adorable pouty expressions,

“Aww.”

        Applejack suddenly had a thought,

“Ah’m goin’ to get the cart so we can bring Vagabond to the farm tonight. He’s leavin’ in the mornin’ and Ah wanted to make him some for his trip.”

        The Cutie-mark Crusaders found the idea acceptable and Applejack led them off toward the farm straightaway.

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

“Everything looks, well, remarkably good. I’m amazed at how quickly you recover. I would expect most ponies to take two weeks to recover this much, not two days.” Dr. Mend said astonished.

        Vagabond had been checked, dosed, and freshly bandaged. He was feeling refreshed and better than ever. The new bandages were cool and comfortable. They rubbed gently on the stumps, lubricated by the ointment Dr. Mend had applied. He could move without much pain, if he moved slowly and carefully.

        Vagabond walked carefully over to his saddlebags and pulled out a mortar and pestle,

“I have a talent for herbal remedies and, I think, alchemy. I snuck out last night and found some plants and roots. It was about all I could do but it worked. I mixed up a potion that I discovered by accident a long time ago. It multiplies the body’s natural healing, and it has no side effects. It continues to work for three days.  I’d be more than happy to give you the formula, but I need you to do something for me before I do.”

“And what would that be?” Dr. Mend asked suspiciously.

        Vagabond looked Dr. Mend dead in the eye,

“Promise me that you won’t ever charge anyone for it.” he said seriously.

        Dr. Mend was taken aback, but held his expression,

“I make enough bits for my regular services. Very well, you have my word Vagabond.”

        Vagabond hid a knowing smirk, as he reached into his saddlebags,

“I took the liberty of making three copies of it. One is for you Fluttershy.” Vagabond said passing a sheaf of parchment to Fluttershy.

        Vagabond then turned to Dr. Mend,

“I had originally planned to ask Fluttershy to deliver it to you with the understanding that it should be cost-free, but since you’re here, I can give it to you myself.” Vagabond said giving Dr. Mend two copies of the recipe, “Give the other copy to somepony who is good with herbs and natural remedies. Feel free to make copies as you see fit. I have a sample of the ingredients and the potion. There is enough for four doses. Fluttershy, Dr. Mend do you have containers?”

        Fluttershy dashed into the kitchen and grabbed a tiny spice jar. Dr. Mend rooted around in his bag and came out with a metal-topped glass jar. Fluttershy and Dr. Mend set down their containers in front of Vagabond.

        While Vagabond poured the runny paste into the respective containers, Dr. Mend couldn’t help but to ask,

“You planned to give me a copy of your potion even before you knew I was willing to help you again, and after what I said and did? I don’t understand.”

        Vagabond finished pouring the concoction into the jars and set down the bowl,

“You said what you did because you wanted to protect Ponyville. You may have been cruel to me, but everypony experiences a lapse of judgment. I figured if the citizens of Ponyville trusted you, it was because you earned it. I decided that the ponies who would do the most good were the trusted doctor and the veterinarian. You and Fluttershy were the only logical choices I could think of, despite any feelings I might have.”

        Dr. Mend gingerly placed the jar into his bag,

“I still don’t like that a Vagabond is here, but . . . uh . . . thanks”

        Vagabond bowed his head slightly,

“So long as you care about your patients, I can live with that.”

        Vagabond’s words struck home like a knife blade,

“Well then,” Dr. Mend said picking up his bag, “I need to be going. I did leave the steroids and pain medication with you didn’t I?” Dr. Mend asked.

        Vagabond nodded,

“I already put the bottles in my saddle bags. Thank you.”

“I’ll see you around Fluttershy, Big Macintosh.” Dr. Mend said to each then turned to Vagabond, “I hope I don’t have to see you again, as a Vagabond.” Dr. Mend quickly said then closed the door behind him.

“I wonder what  he meant by that?” Fluttershy asked.

        Big Macintosh smiled knowingly,

“Ah think Ah’ll let Vagabond answer that.”

        Vagabond turned toward Fluttershy,

“I think that was his own way of wishing me luck.”

        Pinkie Pie came back in, followed by Twilight, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity who carried saddle bags as heavily laden as Pinkie’s.

“Where is Applejack, Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, and Applebloom?” Fluttershy asked.

“Twilight and I have some things to give Vagabond that we felt the fillies shouldn’t be privy to darling.” Rarity said.

“I’ve taken enough. I don’t want to impose.” Vagabond said yawning loudly, “Excuse me, the pain killers are making me sleepy.”

“That’s quite alright darling. Take a nap. We’ll still be here.” Rarity said placatingly.

“But . . . “ Vagabond began.

        Rarity interrupted him,

“I won’t hear another word. We shall discuss it when you wake up.”

“I’m sorry,” Vagabond said, yawning again, “The new stuff Dr. Mend gave me is supposed to make me sleepy. I thought I could handle it but I’m just too tired.” he said making his way to the couch.

        Vagabond lay down and fell asleep almost instantly.

        Rarity took off her saddle bags,

“Does anypony know what his original cutie-mark looked like?”

“Ayup.” Big Macintosh said, “His cutie-marks are in his saddle bags. He showed Fluttershy and Ah last night.”

“Since he showed you, would it be alright if I saw . . .” Rarity began, then stopped. Her eyes bulged, “How is his cutie-mark IN his saddle bags?”

        Fluttershy averted her eyes,

“Oh Rarity, it was horrible! Vagabond said when he was exiled somepony cut them off him and left them in his saddle bags.” she explained.

        Rarity swallowed hard, steeling herself,

“May I see them?” she asked.

“Why Rarity?” Fluttershy asked.

“I’d rather not say yet.” Rarity said pulling a sketch pad out of her saddle bags.

        Rarity reached out and gently shook Vagabond. He didn’t respond so she shook him harder. When he still didn’t respond, Rarity put both hooves against his side and pushed hard, rocking him back and forth.

        Vagabond cracked open his eyes and looked at Rarity, barely awake,

“Huh,” he asked sleepily, “What is it miss Rarity?”

“May I see your cutie-mark please?” Rarity asked.

“Yeah, s . . . sure I guess.” Vagabond said.

        Vagabond laid his head back down and almost instantly began snoring again. Rarity cringed as she approached Vagabond’s saddlebags. Twilight’s curiosity was piqued so she opened the saddlebags and levitated out the two patches of Vagabond’s hide.

        She levitated them over to Rarity,

“I’ll hold them for you Rarity. I think I know what you’re planning considering what you asked me about earlier.”

“Thank you Twilight.” Rarity said picking up a charcoal pencil, and began sketching.

        Everypony watched Rarity mimic the design. Vagabond’s cutie-mark design was of a mortar and pestle with a mushroom, a root, and a flower inside then a trio of Dock leaves behind it all.


                                        VAGABOND

                                        PART 8

"Thanks Granny, Ah really appreciate it. Ah'll be back later tonight." Applejack said, thanking her beloved matriarch.

"Hurry back dear. These old bones can't keep up with youngsters the way Ah used to." Granny Smith said.

"Ah will Granny." Applejack said respectfully.

        Applejack stepped off the front porch and headed toward the barn. She pulled the canvas off the cart and strapped on the saddle. The cart was old but it was one of those things that was well made and it had withstood the test of time proudly. It was sturdy, made of Black Oak and, as far as Applejack could tell, nigh on unbreakable. The saddle/harness creaked softly, complaining of frequent use. Applejack made a mental note to, 'Oil up the dang thing.'

        Applejack pulled the cart out of the old barn and stopped several yards from the house,

"Ah'll be back soon girls. Yall behave yourselves for Granny while Ah'm gone." she yelled.

        Three adorable faces poked out of the second story, far right window, where Applebloom's room was,

"Bye Applejack." they said in unison.

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

        Vagabond slowly came-to and saw that Applejack had returned; not only that but everypony was sat down on the floor staring right at him,

"How long was I asleep?"he asked.

        Rarity smiled mischievously,

"Long enough for me to give you your cutie-mark back. For a time at least." she said pointing to Vagabond's flank.

        Vagabond whipped his head around and stared in awe. There, on his flank, was his cutie-mark. It was back and better than ever. The design was exactly the same except now the rim of the mortar bowl was lined with marquis cut gems; the same formed a circle around the thin center of the pestle.

        Vagabond couldn't speak for several moments. The cutie-mark was beautiful. Rarity had obviously put a lot of work into it and it showed. The gems seemed to add a third dimension, making it look like it was going to spring right out at you.

        His eyes welled up with tears, but he blinked them away, and found his voice,

"It's a beautiful painting. Thank you Rarity."

"Do you like it darling?" Rarity asked.

"It's actually better than my old one. I love it. I wish it was permanent." Vagabond said, voice cracking.

"Do you really mean that?" Rarity asked rising to her hooves.

"Yes I do." Vagabond said, "I truly do."

"Then hold still." Rarity said.

        Vagabond didn't move. Rarity closed her eyes to concentrate as she lowered her horn. Vagabond closed his eyes too, focusing on holding as still as possible. He felt his flanks begin to heat up slowly and poured all his will into not moving. The heat on his flank kept increasing. It became uncomfortable, but he held his posture, not moving a muscle. Seconds ticked by and still the heat intensified. It was all Vagabond could do to stay still. Tiny beads of perspiration formed all over his body, but his will held firm, 'I won't let Rarity's gift to waste.' he thought over and over again.

        Finally the heat subsided. As it did Vagabond opened his eyes and found Rarity standing not a foot from him. Her horn still pulsed from the effort and she was breathing heavily.

        Rarity raised her right fore hoof and placed it on Vagabond's left one,

"It is permanent now darling.” Rarity began, “I badly misjudged you Vagabond. I assumed the worst and I was wrong. Whatever you used to be, you are different now. Can you ever forgive me?"

"I already had Rarity." Vagabond said softly.

        Rarity removed her hoof from Vagabond and stepped back,

"I do believe there is somepony else who wants to give you something." she said indicating Twilight.

        Vagabond turned toward Twilight,

"No need for introductions. You’re Twilight Sparkle, and my savior is Rainbow Dash. Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy and Applejack told me how you all defeated Nightmare Moon. That's also how I learned your names." Vagabond paused then, thinking, "I can understand everypony else being so nice to me, they've gotten to know me, but you and I haven't even spoken before now. Why give me something if you don't know me? I don't mean to sound unappreciative because I do appreciate the notion. I'm merely curious about your motivation."

        Twilight stepped into the very center of the room and starred Vagabond in the eye,

"Did they tell you how much I value knowledge Vagabond?" she asked.

"Yes they said you were quite the scholar." Vagabond admitted.

"I did some research and, while you were asleep, I spoke to everypony about you and your situation. Through all that, I made a few discoveries and came to some conclusions." Twilight paused to take a breath before continuing, "From what my friends tell me, you are a good person, you just made a poor decision and you don't want to risk hurting anypony. You've learned your lesson and I believe I can provide you with some relief and a good bit of closure." Twilight paused again, amassing her courage, "If you want, I know a spell that will let you see Arabesque again."

        The entire cottage became utterly still and silent, even Pinkie Pie stopped hopping and stood still waiting. Seconds ticked by, becoming minutes. Everypony was shocked at what Twilight had offered. Vagabond's mind raced at dizzying speed, his thoughts were a maelstrom of conflicting ideas and emotions.

        Finally Vagabond found his voice again,

"How long will the spell last?" he asked.

"The spell is complex and I'll have to concentrate on it the whole time, so not long. I might be able to give you a full minute, but that will be pushing it." Twilight explained.

"Will I be able to talk to her? Will she be able to see me? Will she be able to hear me?" Vagabond asked rapidly.

"Arabesque will be able to see and talk to everypony but me. I have to maintain the spell." Twilight said.

"I'll do anything, ANYTHING to see her again. Please Twilight, let me see her." Vagabond pleaded.

"Do you want to be alone for this Vagabond?" Twilight asked, "It is personal."

        Vagabond didn't even pause,

"No, you all have been here for me. Every one of you has earned the right to be here."

"Ah'm not so sure about that. Ah've hardly done anything." Big Macintosh said.

        Vagabond turned to the massively built earth pony,

"You've been here, listening to me gripe and whine. You've stayed by my side, helping me even though it's been inconvenient. You deserve to be here Big Mac; all of you deserve to be here." Vagabond said then turned to Twilight, "Whenever you're ready Twilight."

        Twilight nodded solemnly and took a bracing stance. She lowered her head and breathed evenly, closing her eyes. Twilight's horn began to glow as she cast the spell. The glow of her horn intensified after a moment, changing from a glow to a blinding flare. Sparks of magical energy crawled and leapt from the tip of her horn. Twilight's horn flashed so blindingly that everypony had to shield their eyes.

        As the light receded, every eye in the cottage was drawn to the center of the room. Twilight had vanished. In Twilight's place stood a light red pegasus pony filly with bright yellow mane and tail. Her cutie-mark was a pair of ballet slippers of the purest white, but it was her eyes that drew the most attention. Arabesque's eyes were pupil less and pure white.

        Vagabond starred dumbly at the spirit of his long dead love before he remembered the time constraint of the reunion,

"Arabesque?" he asked.

"It is I." Arabesque responded.

"Ooh, she's pretty!" Pinkie Pie blurted.

        Vagabond remembered the presence of his new friends,

"Arabesque, these are my friends. They've . . . " Vagabond began.

        Arabesque interrupted him,

"I already know. I knew they were here. That's why I led you here. You needed their influence to begin your recovery. Your sorrow and hurt blinded you. You pulled your pain into a shell and used the darkness of despair to harden it. You have to learn to open yourself to others. These ponies gathered here, are all here for you. They care about you."

"I never meant to hurt you Arabesque." Vagabond said.

"Not physically, no. I know my death was not intentional. But you were willing to hurt my dream to obtain what you wished." Arabesque said pointedly.

"I was wrong. Love isn't selfish, it's selfless, it's . . . generous." Vagabond's eyes widened as all the pieces fell into place.

        Clarity hit him like a train. Suddenly it all made sense. Vagabond looked at Rarity, then to every face in the room. Vagabond began speaking again.

        The words flowed from him like a waterfall,

"Love doesn't judge or assume. Love is accepting. Love takes things as they are without foregone conclusions." he said looking at Big Macintosh.

        Vagabond turned his eyes to Fluttershy,

"Love isn't heartless, it's caring, no matter the cost to yourself, love is kind."

        Vagabond's eyes turned to Pinkie Pie next,

"Love isn't sad or depressed. It's joyous, laughing, always looking on the bright side."

        Vagabond's eyes fell on Applejack next,

"Love has no secrets. It's open and honest to a fault, even when you may not want to hear it."

        Rainbow Dash was the next to feel the weight of Vagabond’s gaze,

"Love never abandons. Love is loyal and steady, always there no matter what comes."

        Vagabond shifted his gaze to Rarity,

"Love isn't greedy or selfish. Love is generous, giving of itself in all things and at all times with gifts both meaningful and thoughtful."

        Vagabond looked straight at Arabesque,

"Love isn't stoppable. Love is magic. Through love all things are possible, love conquers all obstacles." Vagabond took a quick breath and continued, "That's why you brought me here, to learn what love really is. Not just to heal, but to learn through example."

        Arabesque smiled warmly,

"Very good." she said.

        A bright light flashed and Twilight reappeared. She was breathing hard and sweating heavily. Twilight collapsed onto the floor, her legs lacking the strength to support her. Applejack and Rainbow Dash ran over and helped Twilight up.

        Twilight cracked open her eyes, gazing groggily at Vagabond,

"I'm s . . . sorry I couldn't . . . hold it any . . . longer."

"Don't you dare apologize Twilight." Vagabond said boldly, "I owe you more than I can ever repay." Vagabond took a breath and turned his head to a certain apple-flanked earth pony mare, "Applejack, I have your answer now."

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

"Granny, can you make us somethin'? We're hungry." Applebloom asked, shaking Granny Smith gently awake.

        Granny Smith blinked owlishly and looked up from her rocking chair,

"Eh, what's that?" she asked.

"Ah'm sorry to wake you Granny but can you cook us up somethin' please?" Applebloom asked sweetly.

        Granny Smith smiled warmly at Applebloom,

"Oh certainly dear. Applejack made a couple of pies the other day. Ah'll just heat one up and call you when it's ready. Are yall still playin' in your room?" Granny asked.

"Yes ma'am, we are. Thank you Granny." Applebloom said running off.

        Granny Smith rose, creaking from her rocking chair on the front porch and slowly made her way inside. The front door lead to the foyer. You could go left, into the Den, or right, into the Front room. Granny Smith turned right. Once in the Front room, she had to turn left sharply and head on into the kitchen which was toward the back of the house. Once in the kitchen, Granny Smith lit one of the burners on the old gas range but kept the flame low.

        Everypony in the Apple family knew that though they would try, no single one of them could match Granny Smith in the kitchen. Granny Smith may have been old, the oldest pony in the Apple family, but Celestia help anypony who thought they could match her in culinary skills. The only one who even came close was Applejack.

        Granny Smith had to tug hard to break the seal of moisture which had cemented the door of the old ice box. She rooted around for a moment before she found a pie.

        She pulled the pie out and examined the bottom,

"Ah'll have to use a pan to heat that one up." she said noticing the absence of a bottom she could put safely on the range top.

        Granny Smith's mind was still keen even at her advanced age. She set the pie down and grabbed a cast iron pan off the counter top. She put the pie into the pan then set the pan on the counter next to the range. Granny felt a sudden icy sensation hit her back. When she was removing the pie, Granny Smith had brushed the top of her head against the enfrosted roof of the freezer. She shook large chunks of melting frost out of her mane, which splotched noisily as they hit the floor. 'Huh' she thought, 'Some of the frost from the ice box must have fallen into mah mane when Ah pulled out the pie. Ah need a towel to wipe that up. Don't want anypony slippin' on it.' Granny put the pan onto the range, then went for a towel.

        Granny Smith failed to notice one large piece had fallen into her tail as she wiped up the water. The chunk of frost melted and plopped quietly onto the floor behind her. She finished wiping up that water, the towel was soaked. She turned around, toward the washroom but didn't see the reflective sheen of wet linoleum. She slipped on the water, fell back, and hit her head, knocking herself out cold.

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

"My talent is for herbs, herbal remedies, and alchemy. Once I'm forgiven, I'll go to Canterlot and study chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and alchemy. I don't know what will happen after that, but I've been considering getting a wagon and traveling to different cities and towns to give away potions and pamphlets about some of the recipes I know. I want to provide a service to families who don't have much money. I'll also teach a couple of ponies at each stop, how to do the same. I want to leave a legacy to as many as I can. As an ongoing reminder of what has been done for me, I want to provide for those who have a need." Vagabond said, slowly limping his way out of Fluttershy's cottage door.

"And what is it that has been done for you Vagabond?" Twilight asked.

        Vagabond smiled at his new friends,

"You and your friends have sacrificed a great deal for a stranger, a condemned stranger. You have come together to give me the greatest gift of my whole life. That gift is hope. I am going to do my very best to pass that along." Vagabond paused next to the Apple family's cart, "Are you sure you don't want me to walk Big Mac?' he asked.

"Ayup. You need to save your energy for the road tomorrow." Big Mac said.

        Applejack couldn't help but to comment,

"You're a pegasus, yall don't hardly weigh a thing to us earth ponies. Ah've pulled this here apple cart all the way from Sweet Apple Acres to Fluttershy's cottage with it fully loaded down with apples. It's not a big deal, especially for Big Macintosh. Ain’t that right big brother?" Applejack asked.

"Ayup." Big Mac replied.

"As long as you’re sure. Thank you." Vagabond said slowly crawling up into the back of the apple cart.

        Vagabond lay down and nestled between his saddlebags, and the pastries Pinkie Pie had brought, then wrapped himself in Big Macintosh's blanket. He was warm, surrounded by friends who had opened their lives to him, and he loved it. Vagabond felt more at peace in that moment than he had in a long time, 'I feel at home here, like I'm supposed to be here. It's so perfect here, among friends, among such loving ponies. I love it here in Ponyville. I will come back, I swear.'

"All set back here Big Mac." Vagabond yelled from the back of the cart.

        Applejack, Twilight, Rarity Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie walked behind the cart so they could talk to Vagabond, while Rainbow Dash flew overhead, preferring to be airborne. The procession of friends set out at a casual gait. Night had fallen and they wanted to reach Sweet Apple Acres before it got too late.

"You seem much more cheerful than when you first woke up Vagabond." Pinkie Pie ventured.

"I am Pinkie. Seeing Arabesque again and talking to her, gave me absolute assurance that she will forgive me someday. She indicated that I was starting to recover. I had no idea she had been keeping me a Vagabond for my own good. It would never have occurred to me. I still have to stay a Vagabond, constantly wandering, but now I have hope. I wouldn't have that if not for all of you. Once I'm forgiven and I'm done with my traveling, I would like to come back to Ponyville and live here, if you all will have me."

"We would love that darling." Rarity said.

"I agree." Twilight said, "Your knowledge of plants probably rivals that of our friend Zecora."

"Zecora?" Vagabond asked, "I don't believe I've met her."

        Pinkie Pie began humming an odd little tune, which caused her friends to shoot her a series of scowls,

"What?" Pinkie asked, "It was still a good song, even if Zecora isn't evil."

"Evil?" Vagabond asked.

"It's a long story." Rainbow Dash said from above.

"From my understanding, it's a long trip from here to Sweet Apple Acres too." Vagabond said hopefully.

"Well," Twilight began, "I didn't even know Zecora was even around for a while after I moved here. It had been about two months since we defeated Nightmare Moon . . . " Twilight explained.

        The story continued for a little under half an hour, but finally Twilight finished,

"And since then, every shop has been open and available for Zecora anytime she wants." Twilight finished.

        Vagabond absently noticed they had entered the orchards of Sweet Apple Acres,

"Wow! A Zebra! I've never met one. They're . . . " Vagabond's sentence was cut off from above.

"Fire! There's a fire at the farm house!" Rainbow Dash cried from above.

        Big Macintosh set his jaw and took off at a gallop, yelling,

"Come on! Granny Smith and the girls were at the house! Dash take a look!"

"Sweetie Belle!" Rarity shrieked.

        Everypony burst into a charge toward the homestead; everypony except Vagabond, who could only hold on for dear life. His injuries screamed as the cart bounced down the path. He let go of the side of the cart and balanced precariously as he opened his saddle bags and took out the pain medication Dr. Mend had given him. The pills spilled as the cart bounced. Vagabond grabbed as many as he could with his muzzle, but the cart bounced again and he accidentally swallowed them. Vagabond had no idea how many he swallowed, 'I'll have to vomit them up later.' he thought.

        The cart nicked the side of an apple tree, causing several of the juicy fruit to fall. One struck the side of the cart, splattering its juice all over the back. Vagabond blinked mushy pulp from his eyes. A reflective twinkle caught his attention. Some of the juice from the apple had landed on Big Macintosh's heavy blanket. As Vagabond watched, the blanket absorbed the juice.

"Applebloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle are still inside, but the outside of the room they're in is an inferno! I didn't see Granny Smith either, but Wynona is somewhere inside barking. I think she's with Granny Smith." Rainbow Dash yelled to the galloping friends.

"Dash!" Vagabond yelled, "Could somepony get in on the ground?"

"Only if they were fireproof!" Dash yelled back.

        Vagabond turned his attention to Twilight,

"Twilight, how long would a building have to burn before it collapsed?"

"Depending on the intensity of the flame and how dry the wood . . . " Twilight began.

        Vagabond interrupted her,

"Just guess!" he yelled.

"Twenty to forty minutes I guess." Twilight said panting.

"We've been traveling that long! Do you think the structure could support an adult pony right now?" Vagabond asked.

"I can't see it! How should I . . . " Twilight began, then made another guess, "A pegasus perhaps. But Fluttershy's not strong enough to carry much and Rainbow Dash said you can't get inside."

"Unless you're fireproof!" Vagabond yelled.

        A crazy idea had hit him. It was truly insane to even think of, but he knew he had to try.

"Rainbow Dash! I need a bucket of water ready when we get there! Can you do that?" Vagabond asked.

        Even as the words left his lips, he began to pray, begging Celestia and Luna to help him.

"I'm on it!" Rainbow Dash yelled and took off like a rocket.

"Rarity, Fluttershy, do you have enough in you to catch a filly in freefall?" Vagabond asked.

"I guess so." Fluttershy said.

"I believe I can, yes." Rarity said.

"Big Mac, Applejack, Pinkie, get ready to spot for them." Vagabond yelled.

"Twilight," Vagabond addressed, "Are you recovered enough to catch something with magic and levitate it down to the ground?"

"Yes. I'm sure I can" Twilight said.

"When we arrive, get ready to do so." Vagabond said, then turned his attention to Applejack, "Applejack, which room would the fillies be in?"

"Second floor, far right door." Applejack yelled.

"And your Granny?" Vagabond asked.

"Um . . . She might be in the kitchen. That's the only place a fire could have started. Applebloom knows not to touch the stove or play with matches. It's on the first floor, to the right and all the way back." Applejack instructed.

"Look!" Big Macintosh said.

        The farmhouse had come into view. It was in flames on the right side, but the left side was beginning to catch as well. Over the roar of the flames, over the thunder of galloping hooves, everypony could hear a trio of voices crying for help. Vagabond looked for the window to Applebloom's room and spotted it. Rainbow Dash had been right, nopony could get in that way. Vagabond looked for Rainbow Dash by a well that caught his eye, but she was not there.

"Over here!" Rainbow Dash called from the side of the barn, "These are rain barrels!"

        Big Macintosh skidded to a halt and began fighting to unbuckle himself from the saddle/harness. Vagabond's body screamed at him as he leapt out of the back of the cart with Big Macintosh's blanket in his mouth. As he landed, the jarring force and the pain combined to make him nauseous and dizzy. He ran, staggering over to Rainbow Dash and dunked his while head, blanket and all, into the closest rain barrel.

        Vagabond pulled the blanket out and whipped it open, yelling,

"Rainbow Dash, can you catch?"

"Like a champ." Dash bragged.

"Good. Hoover outside Applebloom's room window and be ready to catch fillies." he said.

        Twilight caught on to the idea,

"I'll dump the rain barrels on the front of the window! Break it to signal me! I'll organize everything out here! GO!"

"You got it Twilight!" Vagabond said.

        Vagabond whipped the soaked blanket over his body and pulled it closed in front of his face, with his muzzle. He breathed through his mouth, using the moisture and fabric to filter out the smoke.

"Celestia help me." he whispered in a prayer and charged the front door.

        Vagabond hit the door, shoulder out, with bone jarring force. The door gave way and swung open, the jam broken at the handle. Flame surged forward with the fresh air to fuel it. Vagabond closed his eyes and kept running, straight into the flames. It hurt. By Celestia it hurt. Vagabond smelled burning hair as his eyebrows and eyelashes were singed off. He forced himself not to cry out as his mostly unprotected legs took the full force of the heat and flame. His hooves struck wood and Vagabond opened his eyes. He was at the base of the stairs, stairs which were already on fire. Vagabond gritted his teeth and charged up the stairs as swiftly as he could.

        His body raged against his will. His wing stubs hurt to no end, his legs were beginning to blister already, and while the wet blanket held off the fire itself, it also insulated the heat, right up against Vagabond's body.  His hooves blistered and smoldered. The agony was nearly overwhelming. He reached the top of the stairs fighting off fight-or-flight instinct. Tears streamed out of his eyes but were almost instantly evaporated by the heat. The physical trauma was beginning to take its toll. Vagabond's mind was fuzzy and beginning to go numb, as a result of the pain, trauma, and pills.

        Vagabond stumbled down the intensely hot, smoke-filled hallway, mumbling to himself, through the blanket,

"Far right door, far right door."

        The door was easy to spot. The girly designs on the door were a dead giveaway. The door was closed and Vagabond still had to breathe through his mouth, so he just ran the door down. Vagabond hurt everywhere, his hooves were blistered and charred, his face hurt to move, and his legs were beginning to feel weak. As he entered the room, he saw an armoire to his right as he closed the door.

        He shoved the armoire in front of the door, yelling as the blanket slid off him,

Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo, Applebloom! Where are you?"

        Vagabond looked around the room, frantically, for the girls. Motion to his left caught his eye and he looked down. A tiny head with an oversized bow poked out from under the canopy bed, followed by two more.

        The three terrified Cutie-mark Crusaders rushed out from under the bed,

"Help us! We're scared!" they cried holding onto Vagabond for dear life.

        Vagabond scanned the room for a pole-like object and immediately settled on a wooden lamp. With the three fillies holding onto him, Vagabond picked up the lamp and threw it out the window. The hot glass broke easily. A split second later, water cascaded down around the window, temporarily extinguishing the flames chewing on it. The water had the wondrous secondary effect of knocking away most of the remaining window glass.

"We're ready out here!" Rainbow Dash yelled through the window.

        Vagabond bent down to pick up Applebloom, but stopped short as his vision blurred and he almost fell over from a dizzy spell. The pills were beginning to take effect. Vagabond realized he was now in almost no pain at all. In fact he could barely feel anything.

        He shook his head to clear his vision,

"Curl up tight into a little ball and don't move." he ordered Applebloom.

        Applebloom curled up into the fetal position and screwed her tear-filled eyes tightly shut. Vagabond picked Applebloom up by the tail and tossed her out the window like a softball. Rainbow Dash caught Applebloom easily and passed her off to Fluttershy who then let go of Applebloom when Rarity levitated her and lowered her onto the ground. Vagabond tossed out Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo, both of whom made it out safely as well.

        Vagabond threw out the blanket, yelling,

"Get ready Twilight I'm combumum . . .” his mouth felt dry, and his body felt strange.

        Vagabond shook his head to clear his vision. It only partially worked. He knew he couldn't wait any longer. He ran for the window, but his legs refused to work right. He tripped and instead of jumping, he hit the window sill and his momentum pushed him. Even in his numbed state, he could feel the pressure of the window frame against his chest. His momentum carried him though and Vagabond grunted an entered freefall for an instant, before Twilight levitated him to the ground safely.

"Rainbow Dash!" Twilight yelled, "Go get Dr. Mend, hurry!"

        Vagabond leapt into clumsy action as soon as his body hit the hot soil. He staggered to his hooves and slung the blanket up and over his back, then ran back into the house, ignoring his friends' cries for him to stop. He knew he didn't have but maybe a minute before his mind and body gave in to the drugs.

        Vagabond could barely see through the heat. He stumbled several times, but at least the floor hadn't caught fire yet. He followed the sounds of Wynona barking for guidance. He reached the kitchen and saw Granny Smith lying, unmoving on the linoleum floor. Vagabond peeled off the blanket and bent low to avoid the smoke. He picked up Granny Smith by the mane and set her down on the blanket.

        Vagabond bit the edge of the blanket, keeping his head low and began pulling Granny Smith toward the front door, backwards. He had only just entered the Front Room when the ceiling of the kitchen groaned loudly. Vagabond didn't hesitate for even a moment. He pulled on the blanket with all his might. He stumbled and slipped, but Granny Smith was clear of the kitchen. Wynona leapt over Granny's body just as the ceiling collapsed with a thunderous crash, sending glowing embers flying like little molten fireflies.

        Vagabond ignored the spectacle and focused his quickly diminishing strength on hauling Granny Smith to safety. He heard sizzling and felt a tingling sensation all over his body. Instinctively, he knew his own skin was beginning to cook. He gritted his teeth, trying to focus, but his strength was depleted.

        Vagabond's vision began to swim and specks of every color danced in front of his eyes, 'I can do this!' he thought furiously, 'No matter the cost,' he looked through his swimming vision at Granny Smith, 'You will live!' his thoughts screamed with muffled determination.

        A minuscule ember of strength sparked to life somewhere deep inside Vagabond. He focused his entire being; his whole heart, body, mind, and soul, on the tiny pinprick. Hope surged through him, a cool, calm stream of peace amid the seething, raging inferno of despair.

        With a short, but monumental burst of strength and will, Vagabond hauled Granny Smith toward the front door, building up momentum as he went. He moved with speed greater than his own legs could keep up with. He stumbled but still he moved. His body ceased responding and kept moving of its own accord. Vagabond suddenly couldn't breathe. His body began gasping for air involuntarily. His vision unfocused and his mind began to wander. Vagabond was only dimly aware he had cleared the front door.

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

        Big Macintosh saw Vagabond come running out of the front door backwards, pulling Granny Smith with him. Everypony rushed up to take care of Granny Smith, but Vagabond kept pulling, like he didn't know he was clear of the house. Everypony yelled for Vagabond to stop, but it did no good.

        Big Mac thought quickly and tripped the wingless pegasus with his hoof,

"Take Granny! I'll handle ‘im!" he yelled ripping the blanket out of Vagabond's muzzle.

        Dr. Mend dropped to the ground next to Big Mac as Rainbow Dash returned to the sight of the inferno with the doctor,

"Pry his mouth open! Shove a stick in between his teeth and make sure he doesn't swallow his tongue! I'll see to Granny!" he ordered.

        Big Mac held Vagabond down and shoved a stick between his teeth, then just held him there for a moment. The panicking, burnt stallion began vomiting violently.

        Big Macintosh turned him onto his side and cleared his airway with a handkerchief,

"It's O.K. now, ayup. Just calm down and breathe."

        Big Macintosh was trying to comfort Vagabond when he heard Applejack scream,

"NO! No no no no no no no no no no!"

        Big Mac turned his head and saw Dr. Mend pull his own blanket over Granny Smith's still form, covering her face. Applejack was sobbing brokenly over the still form of Granny Smith.  Big Macintosh felt his heart lurch in agony and his eyes teared up. He hung his head and wept, even as Dr. Mend gently, but urgently pushed him out of the way.

        Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash kept the little ones away from the scene. The fillies were inconsolable. They had seen Vagabond cooked, almost to death and had seen Granny Smith pronounced dead. The only pony who seemed even remotely calm was Twilight, and calm would not have described her accurately. She blinked away tears constantly, her whole body shuddering, as she made her way to Dr. Mend.

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

        Vagabond's world turned sideways and his hearing returned,

"Twilight hand me my bag, quickly!" Dr. Mend shouted.

        Vagabond saw Twilight levitate the bag over to him. Dr. Mend began working faster than Vagabond thought possible, when suddenly he stopped.

        Twilight looked over Dr. Mend's shoulder,

"What . . .” she sniffed, "What is that?"

"It's a shard of glass, probably from the window he fell through. It's punctured his lung." Dr. Mend said.

        Twilight's ears dropped completely,

"Will he live?" she asked.

"I'll make his as comfortable as I can." Dr. Mend said softly.

        Vagabond struggled to speak, but it came out only as a gurgling whisper,

"Granny O.K.?" he asked.

        Dr. Mend hung his head sadly,

"I'm sorry," he said, "I had to declare her, she didn't make it."

        Vagabond's eyes widened, brimming with tears,

"NO!" his scream rivaled Applejacks, "She's going to live!"

        Vagabond had nothing left, but his mind burned with white-hot determination. He coughed up frothy blood, but through sheer force of will, managed to stagger to his hooves.

        His hooves cracked and began to bleed, his whole body was a mass of blisters and charred skin, and his blood was seeping into his lung, but he wouldn’t give up hope,

"NO!" he shouted, coughing roughly, "She's going to watch Applebloom grow up!" he said taking a step toward Granny's body, "She's going to watch Applejack proudly on her wedding day!" he took another step, "SHE," step, "WILL," step, "LIVE!"

        Vagabond took his final step, coming face to face with Applejack,

"I will save her, I swear."

        Vagabond felt pain again. He felt the glass shard dig deeply into his chest as he bent down and pulled the blanket from Granny Smith's still form. He took a deep breath and coughed up more blood, intentionally to clear it out for a moment. He placed his hooves on Granny's chest and pumped five times.

        He lowered his head and breathed into her muzzle then pumped five more times,

"Twilight! Force start her heart! I've seen it done . . . " Vagabond trailed off as a fit of coughing took him.

        Twilight blinked away tears,

"She's gone, Vagabond. I . . .”

"DO IT!" Vagabond yelled, interrupting her, "You gave me hope now have some yourself! DO IT!" he cried turning back to Granny, "You will live!" he said tears streaming down his face.

        Twilight, moved by Vagabond's actions, pieced together a spell and began casting it repeatedly. Vagabond could actually feel his life slipping away, but he was beyond caring. He would see this done before he died. He would force his body to live until he had resuscitation Granny Smith.

"Though my body be burned and broken, I will see you live!" Vagabond muttered.

"Look!" Big Macintosh said pointing.

        Every eye present saw it. It was brief, and it only happened a couple of times, but as Vagabond worked, a bright light flashed behind his back. For the briefest of moments, during each flash the gathered ponies could swear they saw a pair of beautiful golden glowing wings, nearly as long as Celestia's, attached to Vagabond's back.

        Vagabond's strength failed him for the last time. He took a deep breath, but his legs gave out and he collapsed chest down onto Granny Smith, driving the shard of glass deep within his body.

        Granny Smith gasped loudly as Vagabond hit her chest. Big Macintosh reacted first and hauled Vagabond off Granny Smith. Everypony present gathered around to see the miracle.

"Thank Celestia." Vagabond said. He rolled over onto his back and tried to draw a breath, but found that he couldn't. Vagabond began to thrash his limbs, feebly trying to draw breath.

"Hold him!" Dr. Mend ordered, "He's dying. Try to comfort him, help him pass peacefully."

        Big Macintosh held Vagabond's legs, Dr. Mend held his fore hooves, and Rainbow Dash held his head still.

        Fluttershy flew over and began whispering into his ear,

"There, there." she said, eyes overflowing with tears, "Just stay still and let it happen. It will all be over soon. It's alright. All your friends are here with you. You'll see Arabesque soon. You can be with her now."

        Vagabond struggled violently as he slowly suffocated and drowned in his own blood. He couldn't think straight, his vision was going cloudy. He knew he was experiencing his final moments.

        Rainbow Dash leaned over and pressed her forehead against Vagabond's,

"You are forgiven." she whispered.

        It was the last thing Vagabond heard, but it was enough. He stopped struggling, even as his body convulsed trying to breathe. He used his final iota of will to steady his body, as he died. He was at peace finally. His body gave out and his heart stopped beating.

        Everypony present was in tears. Even Dr. Mend wept heavily. Dr. Mend reached a hoof out and slowly closed Vagabond's eyes. Dr. Mend tearfully stood up and retrieved the blanket he had former pulled over Granny Smith's body.

        He laid the blanket solemnly over Vagabond's body, whispering,

"Take your final rest, son of Equestria. Be at peace, brave hero, your suffering is over."


VAGABOND

PART 9

        Arabesque smiled at the figure before her. The colt she knew in life stood before her now, a proud stallion. His body was no longer emaciated and thin, but full and strong, covered with lean muscle from his years of walking. His mane and tail were thick and full, a handsome light brown that flowed down behind his neck and flanks. Gone was the look of suffering and despair. That look had been replaced with a confidence and assurance that spoke of leadership. He was, Arabesque had to admit, a good looking pegasus, if you could get past the missing wings and scar tissue behind his cutie-mark. His amethyst colored eyes shone brightly as he looked upon his oldest friend.

        Arabesque smiled,

"You are whole once again, my friend." she said.

        The stallion looked at himself, from hoof to back,

"As whole as I can ever be I suppose. I'm dead aren't I?" he asked.

        Arabesque nodded,

"Your body could take no more. You barely held together until the end, but you succeeded. You saved the old mare. You died a hero."

        The stallion shook his head, mane flowing back and forth,

"I am no hero, Arabesque, but I couldn't stand idly by while there was something I could do. I was the only one who could have done it, so I did. I didn't have a choice."

        Arabesque tilted her head to the side,

"You could have stayed outside and lived."

        The stallion shook his head again,

"That is not living. To stay put while others suffer? That isn't right. They were helpless, I wasn't."

"You knew it would cost you your life, but you went anyway. That is who you really are. That is the colt I knew in life. It has taken you a long time, but you are him once again. Welcome back." Arabesque said.

        The stallion shrugged,

"So what now? Do I get to learn the secrets of the universe?" he asked.

        Arabesque shook her head,

"No, I'm afraid not."

        The stallion raised an eyebrow,

"You know them. Why can't I?" he asked, "Who am I going to tell? I'm kind of dead here. You know passed on, bought the farm, kicked the bucket. I'm not exactly going to be spreading the secrets all over Equestria now am I?"

        Arabesque hadn't laughed in a long time, but she did then,

"You could tell one of your friends." she said.

"How? I don't plan on haunting anypony." he said.

"What is the duration of your healing potion?" Arabesque asked.

"Three days." the stallion said.

"Did you know it works even after the body has died?" Arabesque asked.

"I do now." the stallion said.

        Arabesque nodded,

"It continues to mend the body post mortem. It even heals scars, if administered in time."

"I fail to see your point Arabesque." the stallion said.

"Your friends removed the piece of glass from your chest and your lungs healed. The doctor noticed that your burns were still healing, when he visited your body in the morgue. He informed your friends of the healing. They pieced everything together and convinced the doctor to give you C.P.R. while Twilight cast the spell you came up with, even though you had been dead for two days. It worked. Your body is alive. In the time you perceive we've been talking, three months have passed in Ponyville. Your body lives but you are not inhabiting it. You have to go back and live again. You still have much to do before you join me here." Arabesque informed the disbelieving wingless pegasus before her.

        The stallion groaned,

"I don't want to have to die again. It was horrible beyond words. I want to stay here with you. I love you Arabesque."

        Arabesque walked up to him and nuzzled his neck affectionately,

"I loved you as my best friend, and I always will, but I was never meant to be your wife. You have a full life ahead of you. I will be here for you when you return."

        The stallion began to fade, slowly becoming transparent,

"Please, let me stay." he begged.

"I am sorry but you have to live." Arabesque said

        The stallion focused his, now impressive, will and actually began to re-solidify, 'I WILL stay with Arabesque.' he thought, 'I will NEVER abandon her.' he opened his eyes and faced Arabesque,

"Never again! Never again will I abandon you." he said.

        Arabesque took the stallion's face in her hooves,

"You are not abandoning me. You have a purpose. You have others to help. Remember what you said about traveling and leaving a legacy? Don't you want to fulfill that? Don't you want to bring relief to those who are suffering? Do you want others to suffer like you did? There are many who can benefit from your potions. If you stay, you will be denying others the chance to have what I lost. You will be responsible for their misery. Do you want that?" she asked softly.

        The stallion sighed heavily,

"I will go, but tell me one thing, first."

"I may be able to tell you." Arabesque said.

"Will I ever know happiness again?" he asked.

"Do your friends not make you happy?" Arabesque asked.

"Of course they do, but I mean, will I ever marry? Will I ever get the chance to have a family?" he asked.

"Does the answer really matter?" Arabesque asked.

        The stallion had been about to say something, but he stopped himself. He had to be honest with himself, 'Does the answer really matter?' he wondered, 'If I can help others, do my desires really matter? I WANT to know, but others NEED my help. It doesn't matter what I want. If I can do something about the pain that others are experiencing, I have a responsibility to do it.'  

        The stallion made his decision,

"No it doesn't." he said, "You have been looking out for me for years. I want you to know I appreciate that."

"I know." Arabesque said, "One last thing before you go." she said as the stallion began to fade, "I cannot tell you what the future holds, but I can tell you this: No matter what you see, no matter what you hear, no matter what you feel, through love all things are possible." she said.

        The stallion was fading fast, barely more than a wisp of a shadow, but he heard Arabesque say,

"Go and bring hope to those who are in despair."

        The stallion floated away slowly. Away from where? He could not say, for he did not know. He felt like he was rising, falling, spinning, and twisting all at the same time. He had no concept of time, for he was incapable of being patient or impatient. He felt neither urgent nor casual. He simply existed.

        Eventually he perceived a mild disturbance that was both sound and movement at the same time. It was faint at first, but slowly, ever so slowly, the intensity increased. It was being produced by a heart beating. He slowly became aware of his body as the fog in his mind began to fade. His senses slowly began to crawl back under his control and re-created his physical perception.

        The first sense to return to him was touch. He felt his body being immersed in warm liquid and the feeling of somepony bathing him with a soft sponge. The second sense was smell. He smelled clean linens, and lilac scented soap. The third sense to return was taste. He tasted celery and radish broth. The fourth sense to return was sight. He slowly cracked open his eyes. His eyes felt heavy, like they were weighted down. He took in his surroundings, but didn't dare to try to turn his head, just moving his eyes wore him out almost immediately. He saw a white ceiling above him and the tops of white curtains around him on all sides. He closed his eyes and decided to try again later.

        Finally, his hearing returned in full force. He could hear two ponies talking,

"I'm sorry Pinkie Pie but visiting hours are over. I have to ask you to leave. You can come back tomorrow morning."

"O.K. I'll just leave this next to his bed." Pinkie chirped, "I don't want him to be hungry when he wakes up."

        The other pony, the stallion recognized as Dr. Mend, said

"Pinkie please, you've left a cake here with him every day for the last three months."

"But he never had a chance to taste one of my cakes." Pinkie pouted.

        The thought of a piece of cake woke the stallion up all the way,

"Cake." he moaned slowly.

        Pinkie Pie and Dr. Mend stopped talking. The stallion waited for what seemed like eternity then decided to repeat his request,

"Cake." he said again more clearly.

        Suddenly, there was a high-pitched explosion of sound,

"HE'S AWAKE!" Pinkie Pie squealed.

        Pinkie Pie launched herself into the air, through the curtains, and clobbered the formerly comatose stallion off the bed and right onto the floor, in a giggling tackle. The stallion found himself laughing, despite the discomfort of having a fully-grown earth pony on top of him. He opened his eyes and beheld the pink pony who was framed by lights that seemed to be way too bright.

        Pinkie Pie bent down and enveloped him in a massive hug, eyes streaming with tears,

"Oh my gosh! I've never been so happy in all my life! We’ve missed you so much! We all come to visit you every day. We read to you and talk to you and bring you things and . . . and . . . and . . . It's just so good to have you back! Oh, my gosh I have to tell Rainbow Dash, she just left!" Pinkie Pie sprung up off the stallion and disappeared in a cloud of dust which somehow materialized out of thin air.

        The stallion couldn't help but to laugh at Pinkie's antics,

"I've missed you too Pinkie." he whispered.

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

        Big Macintosh plodded steadily against the weight that tried, in vain, to hold him back.

        An earth pony about Big Macintosh's age called to him,

“Can yall hold it there for a minute Big Mac?" the voice belonged to Big Mac's cousin, Red Delicious, or just Red to his family.

"Ayup." Big Mac responded.

        The entire Apple family had descended on Sweet Apple Acres, once the news of the fire reached them. Everypony pitched in to rebuild the destroyed house. The barn was filled to overflowing with the extended members of the Apple clan. In three months the new house was nearly completed. The builders were down to tacking on the roof shingles. The new house was even better than the old one. It was twice as big and far more spacious. The day was almost done, and night was falling quickly. The workers could smell the nightly feast of apple related foods that were being prepared for them.

        

        Red called to Big Mac again, after a few minutes,

"Alright, take a couple of steps back, so we can land this here pallet."

        Big Mac backed up three steps and stopped when he felt the tension on the rope slack off. He was facing Ponyville and very much enjoying the sunset, 'Ah wish he was here with us. He'd love this sunset. He seemed like the kind of pony to be able to appreciate this kind of thing.' Big Mac's thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a gleam of sunlight reflecting off a cyan blue body that was flying toward him from the direction of Ponyville at reckless speed.

        Big Mac threw back his head and bellowed,

"Incoming! Hit the dirt!"

        Everypony within earshot, which meant dozens, instantly ducked and covered their heads with their hooves. A few short seconds later, Rainbow Dash collided headlong with an eight-layer thick weaved canvas with a bulls-eye painted on it. The Apple family had erected the canvas specifically for her, to minimize possible injury, but wanted to take no chances, and thusly were in the habit of ducking when anypony yelled.

        Rainbow Dash hit the canvas yelling,

"He woke up! He's awake! Applejack, Big Mac come quick he's awake!" she yelled laughing.

        Big Mac turned his head and yelled up to his cousin,

"Yall good up there Red?" he asked.

        Red looked perplexed,

"Yeah I'm all set. Hey, Big Mac," he yelled back, "Who woke up?"

        Big Mac slipped out of the harness he wore and called back,

"The pony that saved Applebloom and Granny!"

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

        Rainbow Dash sped away from Sweet Apple Acres and pulled to a halt, in mid air, hovering above Ponyville's square. She saw the citizens of Ponyville down below her going about their business, oblivious to what was coming their way.

        Rainbow Dash drew in a huge breath and yelled at the top of her lungs,

"STAMPEDE!"

        The ground shook under the onslaught of heavy hooves striking the ground. The square cleared out almost instantly as ponies retreated to their homes. A cloud of dust came up over the hill between Sweet Apple Acres and Ponyville as the entire Apple family charged, one and all, toward Dr. Mend's Medical Care Facility. They all wanted to personally thank the brave hero that had saved their relatives.

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

        Dr. Mend could not believe the speed of the former Vagabond's recovery,

"There is positively no reason he should be able to speak at all right now!" he said to the attending nurse, "By all rights he should be starring off into space, drooling and trying to relearn how to use his eyes! I've never even heard of this! Nopony comes out of a coma with full faculties! He was clinically dead for two full days! He was dead! Now he's acting like he was just taking a nap!"

"I can hear you, you know doctor." the formerly vegetative pony said, smiling.

"THAT!" Dr. Mend said expressively, "IS normal. Hearing is supposed to be the first sense to return, not the last!" he turned to his royal blue coated patient, "How are you speaking in full sentences?" he asked.

        Dr. Mend's patient only shrugged,

"I have no idea. I feel fine though. May I have visitors now?" he asked.

        Dr. Mend walked over to the door to his office and tossed his whole clipboard into the trash,

"I don't see why not. I can't find anything wrong with you." he admitted dejectedly, "I'm going to keep you overnight for observation then discharge you in the morning. Now I have to throw away everything I spent years learning," Dr. Mend ranted, "Twelve years of my life thrown away for nothing." Dr. Mend entered his office and closed the door behind him, still mumbling to himself.

        The nurse cast a worried look at Dr. Mend's office door and sighed. She turned and walked toward the double doors leading to the waiting area. She pushed open the doors and starred silently, in awe. A veritable ocean of faces turned ominously in her direction.

        The nurse let out a whimper, as the bodies attached to those faces rose from the floor,

"Oh boy."

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

        The Apple family eventually departed, late into the night, leaving eight ponies to talk alone finally.

"But darling you just woke up. You simply cannot leave now!" Rarity argued.

        The royal blue stallion shook his head,

"I have to Rarity. There are ponies all over Equestria in need of the kind of help I can provide. It would be selfish of me to stay here. I consider Ponyville my home now. I will return someday, but the world can benefit from my potions."

        Nopony present could argue his words. The eight friends sat on and around the hospital bed silently. Nopony was happy about the former Vagabond having to leave. The double doors leading to the waiting area swung open and Dr. Mend walked in. He stopped a few short feet away from the eight friends and just stood there for a few minutes silently.

"Are you going to go to Canterlot to study?" Dr. Mend asked.

        The royal blue stallion nodded,

"That's my plan. I need to learn more."

"I'm going with you then." Dr. Mend said, "I'm old school and apparently out of touch with recent medical breakthroughs. I can't help anypony with ignorance. I'll do more harm than help if I don't keep up to date, and I can't do that from here. I tenured my resignation to the Mayor just now. She'll see it in the morning. I'll go pack."

        Twilight shot up off her haunches,

"You can't abandon Ponyville!" she shouted.

"I haven't and I won't. I'll be back. I still have foals to deliver and broken bones to set. I just have to be sure I know the correct procedures when lives are at stake. For instance, I had no idea unicorns could force start a heart. That fact alone saved two lives. I intend to save as many lives as I can, it's my passion in life, and it’s who I am. I abandoned that once and I refuse to do so again." Dr. Mend said with conviction.

"Actually," the royal blue wingless pegasus said, embarrassed, "I came up with that concept."

        Dr. Mend was dumbstruck, so Twilight spoke for him,

"You said you had seen it done. Did you lie to us?"

"No, I didn't. I didn't have a chance to finish my sentence then, I was dying and kind of in a hurry. What I had meant to say was that I had seen it done in my mind's eye. I had thought of the possibility before and the theory seemed sound enough. I just never had the chance to tell anypony about it before. I never meant to mislead any of you. I apologize." the stallion said.

        Dr. Mend found his voice,

"Then we must travel to Canterlot immediately! Time is of the essence! Countless lives will be saved by The . . ." Dr. Mend trailed off, "The procedure needs a name. As the one who invented it, tradition dictates the procedure have your name on it."

        Pinkie Pie bounced up and down excitedly,

"I'm so excited!" she squealed, "We finally get to learn your name!"

"Ayup."

"Oh, my. I had completely forgotten." Fluttershy said.

"How in the wide world of Equestria did we overlook that?" Twilight asked.

"We can't just let yall go without knowin' your name." Applejack said.

"Well then come on darling, tell us." Rarity urged.

"Yeah," Rainbow Dash said taking to the air, "We're all, like, dying to know."

        The royal blue stallion smiled to his friends,

"My name is Valiant." he said.

        Twilight could only comment,

"Well that's poetically ironic."

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

        Dear Princess Celestia,

I apologize for the late hour of this letter but your urgent attention is requested. A new lifesaving medical breakthrough has been discovered by Valiant, the former Vagabond. The Valiant-Mend procedure has already saved two lives and the sooner word is spread, the more lives it will save. Valiant and Ponyville's doctor Dr. Mend wish to begin teaching the Valiant-Mend procedure as soon as possible and are ready to depart at any time. I await your response.

Your Student

Twilight Sparkle.

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

        Dear Twilight Sparkle,

"You did right to send the letter. No matter the hour, if lives can be saved by any action, it is our responsibility to take it. I already dispatched a carriage before I began writing this letter. The carriage should arrive within the hour. I look forward to meeting Dr. Mend and Valiant when they arrive.

Princess Luna

        P.S.: Celestia has 1,000 years of sleep to catch up on, so I took the liberty of responding myself since the lives of our subjects hang in the balance.

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

        The wind whipped Valiant's mane and tail all over the place as the carriage flew, pulled by a pair of white pegasai. He and Dr. Mend were nearly invisible in the moon light, although Dr. Mend's ice white mane and tail did rather stand out. Valiant looked toward his traveling companion and chuckled lightly. Dr. Mend more resembled a flying ghost than anything else.

        Dr. Mend, for his part, noticed Valiant's attention and cleared his throat; he had something he needed to say,

"I hate it when I have to admit that I'm wrong. But I must apologize for what I did to you Valiant. I misjudged you." the older stallion admitted.

        Valiant smiled and said,

"That makes two of us."

THE END OF THE VAGABOND

THE BEGINNING OF

THE TRIALS OF THE ELEMENTS


The Trials of The Elements

Part 1

        The chariot landed smoothly in the inner courtyard of the Royal Palace. Valiant helped Dr. Mend unload his suitcase and black doctor's bag. Valiant guessed the hour to be close upon midnight; the chariot had made remarkably good time.

        Dr. Mend sighed and looked around,

"Canterlot," he sounded relieved, "It has been a long time since I set hoof here." he paused for a moment and looked around as if he was only just realizing where they were, "I wonder why we set down in the Royal Palace?"

        Valiant glanced sideways at his companion, Dr. Mend. The good doctor was an older looking jet black Earth pony stallion with ice white mane and tail, both grown to lengths one might think would drag the ground. His mane and tail stood out in the moonlight, making him look more like a ghost than a living, breathing pony and his cutie-mark was that of a stethoscope with a scalpel and tweezers crossed behind it.

        For Valiant, on the surface he appeared to be a young Earth pony stallion as well, probably in his late teens to early 20's at a glance. In truth he was 25 years old and a pegasus. He had lost his wings to a hungry bear some months previous. He was royal blue in coat and his mane and tail were light brown and worn long. His cutie-mark had only recently been given back to him by a particularly generous, perfectly groomed, white unicorn. The mark was of a gem rimmed mortar and jewel encrusted pestle with a mushroom, a root, and a flower inside then a trio of Dock leaves behind it.

        The night was pleasantly cool and comfortable. The sky overhead was clear of clouds and a gentle wind blew almost constantly, cooling the four stallions in the Inner Courtyard of the Royal Palace.

        Valiant surveyed the courtyard. The entire affair was circular, as far as he could tell. From one side to the other, Valiant judged the distance to be roughly 600 paces. Green, healthy plants grew in overabundance covering every wall. Tall trees, blooming flowers, and fruit-bearing plants surrounded the two stallions and their white pegasus escorts. The grass under hoof was soft and lush, like a gentle cushion for them to walk on. Fireflies lit the entire courtyard with a dazzling display of flashing lights while an orchestra of crickets chirped out a hypnotic melody that Valiant could only describe as chaotic, yet utterly melodious.

"It's so beautiful." Valiant said distantly, "Like the perfect dream you never knew you longed for."

"Times have indeed changed since my exile. At least one pony can appreciate the night." said a soft feminine voice from behind the two stallions.

        Dr. Mend and Valiant turned slowly toward the voice. Behind them stood a dark blue alicorn with a mane and tail only just barely a few shades lighter. Adorning her hooves were a quartet of opaque crystalline slippers, around her neck hung a shining obsidian-link sash emblazoned with a crescent moon. Crowning her head, around her horn was a simple yet regal onyx tiara. She stood as tall as any adult mare but her voice indicated a young filly, not yet come to maturity. Her folded wings looked abnormally long compared to the rest of her body and her cutie-mark was that of a crescent moon.

        Neither stallion harbored a single doubt about who they stood before. They both quickly bowed deeply to Princess Luna, muzzles pressed firmly to their hooves. The courtyard was silent for the briefest of moments before the prostrate stallions heard another set of hooves come running toward their position.

"Rise." the Princess of the Moon said simply.

        Both stallions were quick to do as they were told. They saw a bright yellow unicorn mare, with veridian mane and tail setting up a writing table next to Princess Luna. The unicorn worked with precision and speed. In mere seconds she had the table set up with parchment, quill, and ink vial at the ready.

"Topaz, write down every word they say exactly." Princess Luna ordered the unicorn. Turning toward the two silent stallions she nodded, "Describe the Valiant-Mend Procedure and how to perform it in as great a detail as you are able."

        Dr. Mend began the description, with Valiant adding bits as needed. Valiant didn't know the proper terms used between medical professionals so he happily allowed Dr. Mend to take the lead. After Dr. Mend had described it as accurately as he could, he asked the unicorn to repeat it back to him so he could make double sure everything was accurate. The entire time, Princess Luna simply stood by watching and listening. Valiant felt nervous, being so close to the Princess.

"Everything sounds good. I believe that's as good as it's going to get." Dr. Mend said after two run-throughs of the directions.

        Princess Luna turned her head toward Topaz,

"Thank you Topaz. Take the document to the courier's office, have them copy it, and send a copy to every city, town, and village in Equestria with instructions that every medical practitioner is to have a copy by noon today. After you are done with that, have the scribes at the University put it directly into the Medical Curriculum by royal decree."

        Topaz bowed deeply to Princess Luna then turned and sped off carrying the document in her mouth.

        The Moon Princess turned her head and addressed the two white pegasus escorts who had flown the chariot,

"Thank you, you may depart." she said.

        The two white escorts took to the air and sped away into the night. Valiant watched them go and longed to be able to fly again. He subconsciously flapped his nearly invisible wing stumps a few times, his body remembering the natural movement. Valiant realized what he was doing and stopped immediately. He dug at the ground a couple of times and snorted in aggravation, shaking his light brown mane around.

"Don't be rude!" Dr. Mend hissed quietly, "Remember you're in the presence of royalty."

        Princess Luna cleared her throat,

"Ahem. Twilight's letter indicated you both wished to provide personal instruction to the medical community regarding the Valiant/Mend procedure. Is that correct?" she asked.

"That is only part of the reason we are here your majesty." Dr. Mend began, "I can't speak for Valiant, but I'm here to catch up on recent medical breakthroughs."

        Princess Luna nodded, apparently accepting Dr. Mend's explanation. She turned her head toward Valiant,

"I take it you are Valiant? What brings you here?"

"I'm here to learn about pharmaceuticals and alchemic formulas." Valiant said simply so as to not seem braggadocios.

        Princess Luna regarded Valiant seriously for a brief moment before asking,

"To what end do you seek to study at the University?"

"I've made some discoveries about potions and salves and I want to learn more. I want other ponies to be able to benefit from what I've learned. After I've learned enough, I plan to buy a wagon and travel around from city to city to teach other ponies how to make potions for themselves." Valiant explained.

"How do you plan to fund this venture of yours Valiant?" Princess Luna asked.

"I was hoping to get a job at an Apothecary while I was studying at the University." Valiant said.

"Why not a pharmacy? You would make more money." Princess Luna ventured.

        Valiant scuffed his right fore-hoof on the ground, his head slightly lowered,

"I have no formal education and I'm not certified. Besides, not everypony can obtain the types of ingredients needed for pharmaceutical drugs, but anypony can get a hold of apothecaric ingredients."

        Princess Luna raised an eyebrow,

"So you plan to make your fortune selling your potions and knowledge as you travel?" she asked.

"No your majesty," Valiant said, "I plan to provide my wares free of charge."

"Why?" Princess Luna asked.

        Valiant took a deep breath,

"Several ponies, including Dr. Mend here, provided for me when I had nothing. I want to pass that selflessness on to every pony I can."

        Princess Luna gave Valiant's words some earnest thought before turning to Dr. Mend,

"Is he being truthful?" she asked.

        Dr. Mend took a small step forward, toward the Moon Princess,

"I don't know. I can only tell you what I've witnessed from him."

"And what would that be?" Princess Luna asked.

"I've seen him look past his own feelings to do what he believes is right. I've also seen that he is willing to take any action he can, to help others, no matter the cost to himself, and I have personally seen him die to save somepony's life." Dr. Mend explained.

        Princess Luna's gasp was nearly silent,

"He died?"

        Dr. Mend nodded solemnly,

"From injuries he received while saving three little fillies and an older mare from a burning house. He suffered a shard of glass through his left lung and sustained second and third degree burns all over his body."

"You said he died though." Princess Luna repeated.

        Dr. Mend nodded,

"Valiant was dead for a day and a half. A combination of one of his potions and the Valiant/Mend procedure brought him back. I will give him this much, he's a walking testimony to his own skills. He came up with the idea for the Valiant/Mend procedure. His potions work well too. The potion he took before dying, heals the body so effectively he doesn't even have any burn scars."

        Princess Luna processed the information for several long minutes before moving on to the next topic,

"Twilight's letter also mentioned that you used to be a Vagabond yet you use your name freely. I take it you have been forgiven?" she asked.

        Valiant nodded,

"Yes your majesty."

        Princess Luna smiled warmly at the two stallions,

"Excellent. The current semester is half over. Enroll in the upcoming semester. That should give you ample time to get settled in. Your first semester will be paid for out of the royal coffers, also you will be staying in the dormitories. Your lodging, text-books and food will be paid for but only for the first semester as well. In regard to providing personalized instruction on the Valiant/Mend procedure to the medical community at large, I cannot authorize such an arrangement. I have however arranged to have you two speak about the new procedure in a series of sessions which will be held twice a semester. Each session will be four hours long and should provide ample time for you two to demonstrate how it is done and so forth. I've had a dormitory prepared for your arrival. If you will follow me, I'll show you the University." she said trotting away.

        Valiant and Dr. Mend scrambled so as to not keep the Moon Princess waiting. They grabbed a bag each and trotted briskly behind the regal alicorn. Princess Luna wound her way through a dizzying series of corridors, hallways and chambers, but finally, the trio emerged onto the drawbridge of the Royal Palace.

        Princess Luna indicated a series of buildings in the distance, with her left fore-hoof,

"The Canterlot University. Home to more than seven thousand students each semester. I have arranged for a carriage for you. It will take you to your dorm room." turning to the two stallions behind her, Princess Luna said, "I'm afraid I must go now. If you ever have need of anything simply request an audience with either Celestia or myself. I may be easier to reach though, Celestia is often busy. Farewell good stallions, may your work bring peace and prosperity to Equestria."

        Princess Luna took to the sky with a grace and elegance neither stallion had ever witnessed before. Valiant watched her go, wondering how she could have recovered so quickly from her 1,000 year ordeal as Nightmare Moon.

        Dr. Mend nudged Valiant's side gently,

"Don't go getting any ideas about her Royal Highness now. She has plenty of things much more important than a pair of ordinary ponies like us, to take care of. Come on, let's get settled in."

        Valiant reluctantly pulled his eyes away from the sky and followed Dr. Mend down to the carriage waiting for them.

        Princess Luna landed on the tallest parapet of the Royal Palace and looked down at the two stallions entering the carriage, far below. She knew of the deeds that former Vagabonds were known for, and hoped she had made the right decision regarding Valiant, but he was not her concern. The jet black stallion Mend worried her to no end. She had seen something deep down in his soul, something she recognized, something she feared. He had a wound deep inside him that had been festering for many years. Something deep and terrible that had eaten away at him for almost his whole life. Mend's issue was old and profound and the wound ran deep, poisoning him to the core of his being. Princess Luna could only hope that Valiant was up to the task before him. Mend needed healing, or his soul would shrivel up and die very soon.

"His pain is already taking its toll on his body. The most powerful magic in Equestria was not made to handle things such as this. The Elements of Harmony cannot save Mend. He needs something more geared toward his type of wound." Princess Luna said leaping from the parapet, "There are other Elements which need to awaken. It has been 1,000 years and they have slept for far too long. As Twilight is Celestia's champion, so too is Valiant mine." she said, then whispered a prayer to the citizens of Canterlot, "Awaken soon sleepers. I pray you, awaken soon."


Trials Of The Elements

Part 2

        The carriage pulled up in front of a four story white stone building that was dotted with windows. The front doors were made of solid looking black oak, but seemed welcoming instead of imposing and ominous. There was not a pony in sight, save for Valiant, Dr. Mend and the carriage driver.

        Valiant disembarked first,

"Thank you driver. Did the Princess give you any specifics on which room we were given?" he asked the older, brown coated unicorn stallion who was their driver.

"She sure did. Third floor, room 317. She also gave me two copies of the room keys for you boys." the driver said offering the two keys, "I'm afraid I can't stay and chat, got plenty more work to do."

        Valiant took the offered keys and closed the carriage door behind Dr. Mend. The carriage departed swiftly into the night, leaving the two stallions to locate their dorm room. They entered the building and took a look around. Valiant noticed a staircase off to their left and held the door for Dr. Mend. They reached the third floor and found room 317 easily.

        Dr. Mend set down his black bag on the bed against the right wall, next to him Valiant set down Mend's own suitcase. The dormitory was of a fair size. Mend judged the dimensions to be 20 paces x 20 paces, plus it had a bathroom and spacious closets for each of them not to mention writing desks with lamps and chairs.

        Dr. Mend couldn't help but to voice his opinion,

"I remember these rooms being much smaller."

        Valiant smiled and slipped off his saddlebags,

"We should try to get some sleep. The sun will be up soon and I want to get an early start."

        Dr. Mend looked across the room to his companion,

"A wise idea. You go look for a job and I'll select our courses in the morning. Sound good?"

        Valiant sprawled on his bed, against the left wall, it was soft and comfortable,

"Alright, I trust you. Just don't overload me with classes. I'm not used to this and it will take some time for me to get up to speed."

"I know a little secret that should help you out. Get a hold of the course books early and read them from cover to cover at least twice before the courses begin. That way you'll have a head start on the material. With a basic knowledge of the material, you can take on a larger course load and you'll do better than the other students." Dr. Mend said.

        Valiant looked up at Dr. Mend from his bed,

"Ah, is that the voice of experience I hear? Do tell, oh wise one." he said playfully.

        Dr. Mend pursed his lips together, but managed not to make a smart retort,

"Another hint for you Valiant. Don't go partying too much. You can get alcohol anywhere on campus. Avoid it like the plague. A hangover will addle your brain and you will miss questions you know by heart. Catch your meals as early as possible. The cafeterias run out of space fast. Don't eat in the cafeterias either. Bring the food back here and eat while you study. It's called multitasking."

        Valiant's eyebrows rose almost above his head,

"I take it you didn't do much partying when you were a student here did you?"

        Dr. Mend shook his head,

"None at all. I was here to study, as I am now. We've been given a great opportunity here. A fully paid semester of courses, lodging, books, and food? You don't come across an offer like that every day?"

        Valiant thought about Dr. Mend's words seriously,

"You're right, but I would like to take a look around tomorrow. I do plan to study hard, but I also want to have some fun. Didn't you ever go to one of Pinkie Pie's parties back in Ponyville?"

        Dr. Mend shook his head,

"I never had the chance. I had a clinic to run. The clinic must stay open at all times so I let my nurses attend the parties. I've even delivered a foal solo. I've been a loner since I can remember. It doesn't bother me too much. I have a purpose and I will serve that purpose until I pass from this life."

        Valiant blanched at the notion,

"But what about a family? What about fun? When was the last time you had fun? Why didn't you ever marry? I'm sure there were tons of fillies and mares who would have loved for you to take them to dinner. I'll bet there still are some."

        Dr. Mend regarded Valiant seriously,

"My life is my business Valiant and I'll thank you to stay out of it." he said frostily.

"Hey now, I never meant to offend you. I'm just concerned. Everypony needs to have fun at least once in a while." Valiant said placatingly.

        Dr. Mend laid down on his bed and sighed heavily,

"It's not that I'm offended Valiant. I didn't mean to come off like that. I'm just socially awkward. I was nearly a recluse back in Ponyville. I only really liked one pony in the whole town enough to talk to, and that was Pinkie Pie. She was the only one who could ever make me smile."

        A mischievous smile crept over Valiant's features,

"Thinking of robbing the cradle are we doc?" he teased.

        Dr. Mend shot up out of his bed and was face to face with Valiant in a quarter of a second,

"Don't even let it into your HEAD that I feel that way about Pinkie! Do you hear me? I have never harbored impure thoughts toward any pony, much less Pinkie Pie. I can tolerate her that's all."

        Valiant's eyes were wide with shock,

"Alright doc. I hear you loud and clear. I was only joking."

        Dr. Mend took a step back toward his own bed,

"Sorry, I over reacted. But you hit on one of the only things that can make me violently angry. I do not and will never approve of that kind of thing. Pinkie isn't even old enough to date anyway."

        Valiant wisely kept his mouth shut about Dr. Mend's last sentence,

"Would you be willing to tell me what the others are, so I don't accidentally offend you later on?"

        Dr. Mend laid back down on his bed,

"I doubt they'll ever come up. God night Valiant."

        Valiant snuggled down in his own blankets,

"Good night Dr. Mend."

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

        Morning came early for Valiant and Dr. Mend. The two stallions had neglected to close the room's curtain, so the Celestia's bright morning sun woke them. After only having slept for five hours, the two stallions were so bleary-eyed they actually stumbled into each other on their way to the bathroom. Valiant let Dr. Mend go first while he began unpacking his saddlebags.

        Valiant opened the buckles and pulled open the bags, then dumped the contents out on his bed. He made a vague mental note of everything he had brought with him. He found his mortar and pestle, his digging trowel, his pruning shears, his canteen, his blanket . . . blanket? Valiant was suddenly fully awake. He flopped the blanket onto his bed and looked at it astonished. It was decidedly not his own blanket, it was far too large, yet it looked familiar somehow. Valiant suddenly realized where he had seen it before. He held it close and sniffed the thick fabric remembering the scent and what it meant to him, 'Thanks Big Mac. I owe you one. You gave me a little piece of home.' he thought.

        Valiant spread the blanket on his bed and continued to riffle through his belongings, astonished that his friends seemed to have sent him off prepared. He found a piece of cake in a plastic container, probably from Pinkie Pie. The cake was accompanied by an invitation for Valiant to return and they missed him already.

        Next, Valiant found a bejeweled purse filled with paper that had his name on it. Valiant looked inside the purse and was surprised to find around 500 bits worth of bank notes, 'Who in Ponyville has that kind of money?' he wondered. The answer came to him almost immediately, 'Bless you Rarity.' he thought.

        Valiant continued his search and found a sealed packet of pencils, quills, ink, and parchment, probably from Twilight. He set them down on his desk neatly and went back to his new belongings.

        He looked again and found a worn but very sturdy waterproof hooded cloak, which smelled faintly of apples, 'Applejack, ever pragmatic.' he thought. Valiant tried the cloak on. It was snug but it fit and it was thin and not very heavy.

        Continuing his search, Valiant discovered a faux rabbit's foot on a lanyard, 'Courtesy of Fluttershy and Angel I'll bet.' he said. When Valiant set it down on his desk, it clinked slightly. Curious, he examined it closer and found that the top screwed off, revealing a single dose of his very own healing potion. Valiant immediately hung it around his neck.

        The final item Valiant found was a small pillow, filled with cyan colored down feathers. Valiant smiled hugely,

"Your gift was the most personal Rainbow Dash." he said.

        Dr. Mend emerged from the bathroom looking pristine, refreshed, and recently showered,

"Your turn Val . . . " Dr. Mend trailed off at the sight of Valiant's new gifts,

"Those girls really do like you a lot. Big Mac too. I've never seen him take such a liking to anypony before you. It's good they sent you off prepared, you really needed that stuff."

        Valiant sat the pillow down at the head of his bed and sighed,

"It feels so different to have ponies who care about you."

        Dr. Mend turned his head away, his thoughts flashing back into his past for a brief moment. The jet black stallion shook his head to clear away the thoughts and headed for the door.

"Hey wait!" Valiant said, "I just realized, I don't know your full name."

"Yes you do. It's Mend." Dr. Mend said.

"Is that your first or your last?" Valiant asked.

"It's my only name. Like Fluttershy, or Rarity. Do you have a last name?" Dr. Mend asked.

"Good point. I don't." Valiant admitted.

        Dr. Mend made to leave again but Valiant called after him,

"I'll see you tonight doc."

        Dr. Mend peeked back into the room,

"Call me 'doc' again and I'll call you 'wingless'." he threatened, half playing.

        Valiant smiled,

"Whatever you say . . . 'DOC'."

        Dr. Mend sighed lightly,

"I'll see you tonight 'wingless'."

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

        Valiant roamed the streets of Canterlot marveling at all the wondrous sights and searching for an apothecary in which to apply for a job. He had grabbed a bite of breakfast from the cafeteria and eaten it on his way out. He was in such a rush, he almost forgot his saddlebags. Valiant wondered how residents of Canterlot found their way around the city. The buildings were closely packed together, 'But they're made of stone so a fire wouldn't be nearly so bad here.' he thought.

        Valiant wondered the city for what he judged to be several hours. He found the Tower Library where Twilight had lived, he found several Emergency Medical Clinics as well as some Non-Emergency Care Centers, he found several Pharmacies but was having a good deal of trouble locating an Apothecary. Valiant was becoming somewhat disheartened about finding one, and was wondering around, eyes upward, toward the signs of the various shops.

        Valiant heard somepony shout and lowered his eyes just in time to come face to face with a lime-green unicorn colt with bright-yellow mane and tail,

"Hey! Watch out!"

        The colt's warning came too late. Valiant and the unicorn both tumbled down to the ground, limbs sprawled in every direction. Valiant groaned and shook his head trying to figure out exactly why he saw stars.

        The unicorn colt struggled, trying to disentangle himself from Valiant, all the while talking at the speed of sound,

"Ouch! Oh, hey are you O.K.? Sorry about that, I'm always running into things. Is this your hoof? Hehehehehehe. Oops, there we go. Eew, get your tail out of my face. Oh, that's my tail. Wow! You don't weigh much for an Earth pony, do you. Hey, where did you get those scars on your flank? Did it hurt? Huh, huh, huh?"

        Valiant grabbed the unicorn and held him still, while he untangled the two of them. The unicorn never stopped speaking,

"Wow! You sure are strong. Are you a weight-lifter? Are you here for a competition? I didn't know there were any competitions in Canterlot. When is it due to begin? I'd love to come watch and I could cheer for you like, 'That's my friend down there! Woohoo! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!' Wouldn't that be cool? Don't you think? Are you here with a group, or are you here solo? If you're here with a group, I'd love to meet the rest of them. See I don't have many friends here in Canterlot. Everypony says I talk too much, but I don't think I talk too much. My name's Lemon Lime but my family just calls me Live-Wire cause it sounds like Lime-Wire and Lime is part of my name. Does that sound strange to you?"

        Valiant stood up and shook himself off. Looking at the Live-Wire, Valiant judged him to be just a touch older than Pinkie Pie,

"I'm fine, and no, I'm not here for any kind of competition. I'm just a student at the Canterlot University." Valiant said slowly.

"Oh, cool! I went to the University, but I already graduated. I'm a Physical Therapist at the South-East Medical Care Center. What are you studying? Oh yeah, I almost forgot. What's your name?" the unicorn colt spewed out all five sentences in less than four seconds.

        Valiant was a bit confused as to which question he should answer first,

"My name is Valiant, and I'm studying Pharmaceuticals and Alchemy. How did you become a Physical Therapist? You don't look old enough or strong enough?"

        Live-Wire smiled hugely and launched into another explanation,

"I'm too intense to study just one thing at a time so I was taking courses at the University while I was still in school. As I already said, I don't have many friends so I had lots, and lots, and lots of spare time. I don't mean to brag, but I had my four-year degree by the time I finished school. I'm actually 19, I just look super duper young because I always eat healthy it’s one of my passions, I’m a health nut. Any way, I use magic to help with my work. I'm not very strong but, I can carry the full weight of an adult Earth pony for several hours at a time, while they learn to use their legs again. It's so, so, so, so, so satisfying to help somepony out like that. I mean everypony needs help once in a while and I'm there to do it. I know it may be hard to believe but I'm actually pretty patient, I just have a condition that makes my brain work about 4 times faster than the average pony's. So basically I just think and talk really, really, really fast. Oh yeah, I get migraines all the time too. It sucks, but meh, it's just who I am. The doctor's say that's also why I'm such a heavy sleeper and my appetite's so big, because I need the energy to keep my brain working. It really hurts my feelings when all the other ponies make fun of me or say I'm on a drug or something. I can't help it, I'm just always this talkative. What about you?"

        Valiant shook his head, 'This guy reminds me of Pinkie Pie.' he thought,

"I'm here for at least one semester. I'll have to see if I can afford to stay after that. I'm looking for an Apothecary so I can get a job, but I can't seem to find one. You wouldn't happen to know where one is would you, Live-Wire?"

        Live-Wire nodded his head at a normal speed, then started machine-gunning again,

"Well of course I know where one is. I do work in the Medical field after all, and patients and doctors are constantly asking me to make runs to all kinds of places to get things. I know of um, um, um, um, um, five different ones. Don't feel bad they were pretty hard for me to find at first too. The closest one is let's see eight blocks that way and three blocks that way, oh wait, there was construction going on that way... Why don't I just show you? Would that be O.K.?"

        Valiant could only nod. Live-Wire trotted on down the streets chattering away happily, even if he did sound like an auctioneer, with Valiant in tow.

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

        Live-Wire, true to his word, lead Valiant right to an Apothecary,

"Here it is." he said opening the door for Valiant. It was the least Live-Wire had said in the 30 odd minutes it took for the two to reach the place. Valiant stepped inside and took in the various aromas of the store. He knew for certain, by smell alone, that this was the correct location. The walls were lined with an overabundance of herbs, roots, flowers, berries, and mushrooms in a variety of forms, from pastes to powders to fresh, whole pieces. Each shelf was meticulously labeled with the proper names of the corresponding variations of flora. The store itself was a square affair roughly fifteen paces by fifteen paces with a table in the center for mixing ingredients. In the rear of the store was a counter with a fuchsia coated, middle-aged unicorn mare behind it. The mare had a mane and tail of dark purple, with lilac colored highlights and her cutie-mark was that of a sprig of bright red leaves and berries.

        The mare smiled when she saw Live-Wire,

"I would have thought you had to be at work by now Live-Wire."

"My  appointments all got canceled today so I was trying to figure out what to do when I ran into Valiant here. He's a student at the University and he needs a job. I figured you could use the help Mrs. Soothe. I mean you're always saying you don't have enough time to organize anything and you have to stay here half the night restocking and your husband is always asleep when you get home. I thought Valiant might just solve your problem."

        Mrs. Soothe turned her attention to Valiant,

"What are you studying?"

"I'm going to be taking courses for Pharmaceuticals and Alchemy. I already know a little bit about how to mix herbs and I also have several potions that can help with a variety of ailments. I need a job to keep studying at the University. I can start tomorrow if I need to. Do you have an application I could fill out?" Valiant asked politely.

        Mrs. Soothe bent down, behind the counter and pulled out a piece of parchment,

"I'll need you to fill out as much as you can. I like to get a good idea of who I'm hiring. My last employee decided this line of work was not for him. He made a real effort but, in the end he just wasn't cut out for it. If you could bring this back tomorrow, I will take a look at it. The job will pay twenty-five bits per day, and I have a medical, dental and vision plan. Does that sound alright?" Mrs. Soothe asked.

        Valiant nodded politely,

"That sounds fantastic. I'll be back tomorrow morning with the application. Will I need my own tools?"

"No, you can use the ones I have here in the store. If you have any recipes, bring them with you for me to analyze, so I can get a good idea about your skill, and how much I may have to teach you." Mrs. Soothe said.

        Valiant took the application and carefully placed it into his saddlebags,

"Until tomorrow then, Mrs. Soothe." he said closing the door behind himself.

"So, what do you want to do now? I don't have anything to do today, but since I found you we can hang out, if you want. I can show you around the city. I know all about the landmarks. I can show you the Royal Palace, the Tower Library, the Canterlot Central Park, the Coliseum, the clubs, the best places to eat, the cleanest bars, although most of the bars are pretty clean . . . " Live-Wire continued chattering.

        Valiant put a hoof to his face, 'I have to make sure Live-Wire never meets Dr. Mend.' he thought soberly, 'Mend wouldn't be able to handle half a minute of this.'

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

        Dr. Mend sat down on a stone bench and set his and Valiant's course schedules on the stone table in front of him,

"Hmm, six courses for Valiant and nine for me. That's a good start. He should be able to handle that no-problem. Let's see, at four hours each, twice a week. That's two courses per day and that adds up to eight hours per day for Valiant, plus his job. He should be able to pull that off. For me that's nine courses at 4 hours, twice a week, that's 72 hours per week and about 15 hours per day, plus I'll have to get a job at a hospital or clinic so I don't get rusty. That should be my next priority."

        Dr. Mend's thoughts were at peace there, on the concourse of the University. There was a huge, white-marble fountain not forty paces from him. The fountain displayed statues of three ponies, a unicorn, a pegasus, and an Earth pony, each reared back onto their hind legs and spitting water from their mouths in three different directions with a center geyser fountain in the center which sprayed water up and over the statues.

        The sound of cascading water, Mend remembered, always helped calm him when had been been at the University before. It was the only place in the entire land of Equestria that could calm him, and he was rarely actually calm. He was constantly at war with himself and his internal turmoil was never-ending and emotionally violent, the results of which, spilled over into his less than cheerful demeanor. At only age 36, Mend was by no means old, but he looked to be in his mid fifties. Although he would never admit it, Mend fervently wished for somepony to talk to.

"Oh, to be fifteen again." he said, "The prodigal student returns. Only eleven years after graduating as Valedictorian and I'm out of touch." Mend's frustration grew very quickly, "I should have kept up to date!" he grunted, striking the table, "It was my responsibility! My responsibility to my patients and I failed at it! I won't let that happen again!" he snorted angrily.

"Are you alright professor?" asked a passing unicorn stallion.

        Mend looked up, startled. The unicorn was turquoise in his coat, his mane and tail were dark orange with yellowish highlights and his cutie-mark was that of a note book with a pen inside it set on a sofa. The stallion looked to be almost exactly the same age as Valiant, but he had a wizened gleam to his eyes.

"I'm a student, thank you." Mend retorted sharply.

        The unicorn looked taken aback,

"Oh, I had no idea." he said, "A pony can always learn something new, no matter how old they are. You can never know too much, but I'll bet you could teach the other students a thing or two."

        Mend was distinctly NOT amused,

"I'll have you know I'm only 36 and I'm only here for a refresher of what I already know. So, you can take your opinion about my greatly advanced age elsewhere." he said sharply.

        The unicorn looked concerned,

"I apologize. I suppose I assumed a bit too much. I didn't intend to offend you."

        Mend took a deep breath and let the sound of the fountain soothe his nerves,

"You don't need to apologize. I overreacted. You were just stating your mind and I was already frustrated. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."

"That's very decent of you." the unicorn stallion said.

"No, decent would have been having enough self-control not to be offended. I'm the one who should apologize." Mend admitted trying his hardest to be humble.

"Very well, apology accepted." the unicorn said.

"I never said I WAS apologizing, only that I should." Mend said.

        The unicorn stallion chuckled, hoof to his muzzle,

"Alright then, theorized apology accepted."

        Mend couldn't help but to smile,

"I'm glad your sense of humor is better developed than mine."

        The unicorn continued smiling as he said,

"So am I. I'd hate to be a grumpy as you."

        Mend raised an eyebrow, thinking,

"I suppose I am." he said after a moment's thought.

"So why not be more cheerful?" asked the unicorn.

It's not my personality. I'm grumpy by nature." Mend said.

"Now don't take this the wrong way, but you just gave me an excuse. You control the way you act. You can change it if you really want to. The question is, why do you stay so grumpy?" the unicorn stallion asked.

"Are you a psyche student or something?" Mend asked.

        The unicorn smiled,

"I'm a counselor, and you're changing the subject. That's normally a defensive mechanism."

"I'm happy with who I am." Mend said calmly.

"Then I'll leave you be." the unicorn said laying a card on the table in front of Mend, "If you ever change your mind, here is my card. My address is on it. Feel free to call on me any time day or night. Have a good day." the unicorn said walking away.

        Mend grumbled to himself as the unicorn walked away. He picked up the card and looked at the name, 'Sea Blue'. The card also gave an address, presumably the counselor's home address.

        Mend grunted,

"Huh, his parents must have been color-blind or something."

        Mend stowed the card and put his head in his hooves. In his heart, Mend knew exactly why he always acted so cantankerous, 'It's safer,' he thought, 'You can't be hurt if you don't let anypony in.'

        Mend sat and thought for a long while, trying to justify his excuse and find a flaw, any flaw in what Sea Blue had said. He thought, and thought, and then thought some more. Try as he might, Mend couldn't find a single crack in the counselor's argument. His thoughts drifted back to his earlier yearning for companionship. He wanted, so much, to have somepony there with him, he nearly broke down in tears, 'Why can't I do this? Why is it so hard for me? Am I that bad? Am I that unlovable?' he thought.

"Still self-centered as always, I see." said a female voice.

        Mend tensed but didn't bother to look up, he already knew there was nopony around, 'Oh no! Not again! Oh please not again!' he thought. Mend knew exactly what was happening, it had happened before. The voice he heard was a voice he knew very well, and it was a voice he had hoped to never hear again, a voice he dreaded more than almost anything, a voice that terrified him by its implications.

"No pony is perfect, mother." Mend said out loud, still not daring to raise his head.

"You've become so lazy!" she shouted, "Your ignorance nearly killed Granny Smith! You should have thought of that procedure long ago! It's a good thing Valiant was there! You failed again, AGAIN!"

        Mend put his hooves to his ears and closed his eyes tightly, trying, in vain, to block out the voice,

"Why did you come back?" he whimpered, "You've been gone for so long."

"You've forgotten Mend! You've forgotten what happened! You’ve forgotten your failure!" she yelled into his covered ears.

        Mend's mind flashed back to when he was a young colt, only six years old. His father sat on the bed next to him where he had been crying. He could hear his father's voice as he tried to comfort his son,

"She didn't mean it Mend. She just forgot to take her pills. She loves you son. She just wants what's best for you and she doesn't know how to show it."

        It was an all too common occurrence. Mend remembered when his mother had been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. His father would go to work and Mend would go to school while his mother would clean the house. She was very industrious. Mend and his father always came home to a pristinely clean house and a hot meal, but oftentimes she would get so caught up in her work that she would forget to take her pills. When she took her prescription, she was so sweet, so vivacious, so happy, so full of life, so much like Pinkie Pie. When she forgot to take her pills though, she was so mean.

        Mend remembered bringing home his first report card and showing his mother excitedly. He had gotten four As, a B+ and a C-. His mother had gone ballistic. Mend remembered cowering in the corner of the kitchen as she ranted and raved about how much of a failure he was.

        She stood screaming right in his face,

"I do not slave away every day in this damned house only to have my son fail! A C-? The B+ was bad enough, but a C-? What were you doing, sleeping? How could you do this? Don't you want to make your father and I proud? Or do you want to be a failure all your life? Because that is exactly where you're going, mister! If You don't turn these grades around I will throw your ass right out into the street! Maybe we should have another son, one who won't fail all the time! Go to your room!"

        Mend had run to his room and locked the door. That night, he skipped dinner and stayed up all night studying, but it was all for nought. The paper he turned in was too tear stained to be legible. When he brought home his next report card he had five As and one B-. Mend thought his mother would be proud of him. He had been wrong, he had been very wrong.

        The cycle had continued until Mend was in seventh grade. One day he came home from school and found his father waiting for him on the couch. Their house was a mess, which worried the young colt.

        He remembered it clearly,

"Come sit down son." his father had said.

        Mend remembered wondering why his father was crying as he took a seat next to the older pony,

"What's wrong Daddy? Why is the house messy? Where's Mommy? Did Mommy get mad at you too?"

        His father had hugged him close. Mend remembered feeling his father's tears on the top of his head as he whispered,

"Mommy fell today Mend. She fell a long way and she got hurt very badly."

"How did Mommy fall? Did she trip?" Mend had asked.

"She jumped, son. She jumped from the city walls." his father had barely been able to get the words out.

        Mend remembered being frightened at the statement,

"How badly did she get hurt? Will she be O.K.?"

"She got hurt too badly, son. She . . . she died." his father said.

        Mend remembered the next part very well,

"NO! She's O.K.! She has to be!" he had stood up shouting at his father, "You're lying! She's fine! She just went away! She went away because I'm not good enough!" he yelled, tears streaming down his face, "I'll be good! I'll make her proud! I won't fail anymore, I promise! I won't fail! Tell her I won't fail! Tell her so she'll come back!" he threw his head back yelling to the different rooms in the house, just in case she was listening, "I'll be good Mommy! I'll make you proud! Please come home! I promise, I'll be good! I won't fail! Please! I'll do everything right! Mommy please come back! I'm sorry, Mommy! I'll do whatever you want, just please come back! I won't fail anymore! I WON'T FAIL YOU ANYMORE!"

        Mend had run to his room and locked the door. He remembered his father pleading with him to open the door, to let him in,

"I WILL MAKE YOU PROUD!" he had cried, shouting over his shoulder at the locked door, "LEAVE ME ALONE! LEAVE ME ALONE! I HAVE TO DO BETTER! GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE!" Mend was too busy studying, he had to do better so she would come back and he was afraid if he didn't do better his father might leave him too. Mend didn't come out of his room that night, he fell asleep studying.

        When he awoke the next morning he heard his Mother's voice, she was angry but it was her. It didn't matter if she was mad, she had come back. Mend had rushed down stairs only to find an empty kitchen. His father was asleep on the couch. Mend looked and looked for his mother. She sounded so close, but he could never find her. She was saying that Mend was still failing, he had to do better, 'If I do better she'll come back. I know she's here, she's just hiding. I have to do better.' he thought.

        Mend fixed his own lunch for the first time that day and went to school, just like normal. The other students and even the teachers kept asking about his mother all day. Mend ignored them and studied all through lunch. He had to do better.

        That afternoon, he finally had enough,

"Leave me alone! I have to study! Just leave me alone!" he remembered throwing his uneaten lunch at his best friend, Edge.

        Everypony had left him alone after that. His father tried talking to him that night, but Mend was too busy studying. He studied all the time, it became his life. He never had time for his friends after that, he didn't have time for anypony. He would go to school then come home and study. His father forced him to go to a Therapist, but Mend would just sit and complain that he had to study the whole time. After two months of going to the Therapist every day, his father just gave up and stopped taking him. Mend was happy with that, he could study. That evening, his father took Mend to stay with his grand parents. The next morning his grandfather had to tell Mend his father had jumped from the same place his Mother had. At that moment Mend's world stopped turning.

        He realized he could hear both of his parents yelling at him,

"Failure!" they cried, "You failed again! You're worthless and lazy! It's because of you! Your shame! Your failure!"

        Mend ran up to his new room and locked the door again, he had to study. He realized his parents were never coming back, physically, but they were there to keep him from killing his grandparents with the shame of his perpetual failure. Mend loved his grandparents, he didn't want them to die too. From when he woke up, till the time he fell asleep studying, the screaming voices of his parents drowned out almost all other sound.

        Mend graduated three years early and received a full scholarship to Canterlot University. He didn't want a graduation ceremony, he just wanted his diploma. He remembered how proud his grandparents said they were, but Mend knew better. He could see the shame in their eyes.

"No!" he had yelled, "You say it but, I know the truth! You're lying! I'm still not good enough!" he threw down his diploma and spat on it, "I took too long! It's too late for them, but I can do better! I can do better and I will, you'll see! I'll give you a real reason to be proud of me!" he remembered his grandfather reaching out a hoof toward him.

        He had swatted it away angrily, tearfully,

"I have to study!" he said galloping up to his room.

        Later that evening, Mend heard his grandparents crying and thinking to himself,

'NO! Now I'm failing them too! I'll make you proud! I'll make you proud, I swear!'

        While at the University, Mend had literally memorized his text books. He broke every record, had a solid 4.0 grade average every semester, he never missed a single class or question. His internship was positively flawless, even if he had no friends. He became so wrapped up in his studies, he failed to notice that his parents had stopped yelling at him. They were gone. Mend could never remember being so happy, in his while life.

        He had finally made them proud and his grandparents were safe. He was overjoyed, but he had pushed himself even harder after that, he had to make sure his loved ones would be safe from any future failures. Shortly thereafter, Mend had moved to Ponyville. That way if he did fail, his grandparents would be safe from his shame.

        Mend's mind flashed back to the present,

"I . . . had forgotten." his eyes widened in abject horror as he realized why his mother had returned, "I've become lazy." he whispered.

        He had thought his parents' spirits had gone to their rest. Their return could only mean that he was endangering his grandparents again.

        Mend rose to his hooves and picked up his and Valiant's class schedules in his mouth, mumbling,

"It's not enough. I WILL make you proud."

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

        Valiant trotted happily back toward the dormitory. His day had been good. He had a job application, and a new, if highly talkative, friend. Celestia's sun was setting and Luna's moon would be out soon. Valiant had learned his way around Canterlot and felt comfortable taking a few shortcuts back to the dorms. He cut down an alley way behind several shops that had already closed up for the night, 'It's so peaceful.' he thought.

        As Valiant walked, he looked out onto the street at the many ponies going about their business, most probably heading on home from their jobs. Motion caught his eye and he turned his head toward it, just in time to see a dark colored cloak flutter around the side of a building and duck behind the alleyway across the street, 'Odd,' Valiant thought, 'Ponies don't usually wear clothing except for special occasions. I should go take a look.'

        Valiant sprinted across the street and crept silently up to the corned of the building. He peeked around the corner and saw something that made his blood run cold. A shadowy unicorn in a long, black, hooded cloak stood, horn glowing, levitating an Earth pony high off the ground. Valiant judged the Earth pony to be twenty-five or so paces up, too far for a safe landing.

"Give me your bits and I MIGHT set you down safely." the unicorn said.

        The unicorn was obviously a young mare, but her voice had a slur to it, like she couldn't speak properly. The Earth pony was also a young mare. She had a mint-green coat and a mane and tail of cream, streaked with lavender, and she wore saddle bags which concealed her cutie-mark.

        The Earth pony's expression was terrified,

"Please don't drop me!" she pleaded tearfully.

"Your whining just earned you another ten paces." the unicorn scoffed, "Drop your bits or I'll drop you. Do it!"

"Please! I don't have any bits. I'm a student, I'm broke." the Earth pony sobbed.

"You're lying!" the unicorn growled, "That's it . . ."

"Wait!" Valiant yelled, "Set her down, please." he said thinking to give the unicorn the bank notes Rarity had given him. Valiant realized he had left the purse in his dorm, 'Oh crud.' he thought.

        The unicorn turned on Valiant,

"Stay out of this!" she commanded, "Mind your own business or you're next!"

        Valiant had no bargaining chip to play, so he decided to use fear,

"Set her down or you'll regret it." he said calmly.

        The unicorn took a step toward Valiant, and thereby into the sunlight coming down the alley. Valiant took an involuntary step back at the sight of the unicorn. Her face was quite pretty, save for her eyes. It took Valiant a moment to realize her entire body and eyes were all the same color: muddy, sickly purple. The unicorn's eyes were solid purple, no pupil, no iris, no whites, just solid disgusting purple.

"What are you going to do eh?" the unicorn asked, "You don't have a horn, so you can't levitate her and you don't have wings to catch her. You have nothing!" the unicorn snarled.

        Valiant felt his will strengthening,

"Wrong." he replied softly, "I have experience. I'm not just trying to help her, I'm trying to help you."

"I need that money." the unicorn growled,

"I'm not arguing that. But if she dies because of your actions, you will regret it. If her death is your doing, you will become a Vagabond." Valiant said taking a step forward and forcing the unicorn to take a step back, "You will become an outcast. Her spirit will haunt you and torment you until you die." step, "If you kill her, you will be subject to an agony, the likes of which you have never imagined." step, "Forget all your bravado, it would do you no good." step, "No matter how powerful you say you are, at the end of the day you still have only your own thoughts to keep you company." step, "Imagine not being able to trust your eyes, ears, or limbs for fear of your perception being manipulated by the very pony you murdered."

        Valiant noticed out of the corner of his eye that the Earth pony was slowly descending, he continued his slow verbal onslaught, taking a step at the end of each sentence,

"I speak from experience. For five years of my life, all I knew was the pain of my deed." step, "Through my actions, my best friend, the filly I loved, lost her life." step, "All her dreams, her aspirations, her future, gone." step, "No more sunrises or moon-rises, no more time with friends or family, no chance to have a family, no finding the love of your life, and n watching your foals grow up." step, "Do you really want to take that away from her and in so doing, loose it yourself?" step, "Are a few bits really worth all that?"

        The unicorn took another step away from Valiant, the mist of tears in her eyes,

"Stay back!" she cried.

        Valiant took another step forward,

"If you need help, I can help you, but I can't do anything until you set her down."

        The unicorn backed up yet again, but could go no farther, she was against a wall,

"Don't come any closer!"

        Valiant didn't want to scare her, but he had to take anther step so he could be right underneath the Earth pony,

"No matter how desperate your situation is, there is always hope. I can help you, miss." he said offering his hoof.

        The unicorn closed her eyes cringing,

"It's too late! Leave me alone!" she cried.

        Her horn glowed brightly, and she vanished.

        Valiant lowered his hoof slowly,

"I know despair when I see it." he said quietly.

        The Earth pony cried out as she fell the half a dozen or so paces down  and directly on to Valiant. Valiant, expecting to have to break her fall, had bent his legs and flexed his muscles. The Earth pony hit Valiant's back and the two fell onto the dirt with a thump. Valiant grunted and gasped as his chest hit the ground. Fortunately, he felt nothing break or sprain. The Earth pony mare screamed, and struggled to rise. She gained her hooves and took off running like she was being chased by a monster.

        Valiant picked himself up off the ground and watched her go sadly,

"I didn't mean to frighten you miss," he said to the empty alley, "But I'm glad you're safe."

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

        Valiant was waiting for Mend when he returned t the dorm. The sun had long set and Luna's moon was bright in the sky when Dr. Mend returned to the dorm. He had spent the day retrieving text books and meeting professors, many of whom remembered him. Valiant had just come straight back to the dorm, the afternoon's encounter having disturbed him somewhat.

        Valiant was sitting at his desk with a quill in the corner of his mouth when Mend opened the door. Valiant set down the quill and looked at his friend,

"Where were you all day? I was worried."

        Dr. Mend grunted under the oppressive weight of the text books and flopped his saddle bags down onto his bed,

"I gt our class schedules and text books. Then I met some professors and bought some supplies. Did you find a job?" he asked.

"It took me quite a while to find an Apothecary, but I brought back an application. I just finished filling it out." Valiant said proudly.

"Off you go then," Dr. Mend said, "You need to turn that thing in."

        Valiant blinked,

"But the Apothecary is closed. I'd be wasting my time. I'll just turn it in tomorrow morning."

"Then you can get started studying." Dr. Mend said, "Here, come get your books."

        Valiant retrieved the books and set them neatly onto his desk,

"Our classes don't start for several months, doc." Valiant said playfully, "I was hoping we could just hang out and talk, you know, get to know each other. Don't be a wet blanket."

"Don't you dare tell me what to do!" Dr. Mend snapped, his voice became hoarse almost immediately, "Not everypony has years of their life to waste on pity-parties! Five years of worthlessness! Five years you could have been helping others! You should be ashamed of yourself! How many died because of your stupid, infantile, petty jealousy? You spent years moping while others died because you were too busy with your own problems! How many could have been saved by your potions during those five years? Your potions could have saved hundreds, maybe thousands, but NO, you were too busy with yourself to think about anypony else! Every single one of those deaths are on your head VAGABOND!" Dr. Mend bellowed.

        Valiant was completely dumbstruck by Dr. Mend's harsh words.

"Good, you're quiet." Dr. Mend said, opening one of his text books, "Now, stay quiet while I study."


Trials of the Elements

Part 3

        Valiant was horrified by Mend's words. Everything he had worked so hard to overcome came crashing back onto him like a tsunami. Valiant shut his eyes tightly and began praying for help from the only source he knew he had with him, 'Arabesque help me. I'm not yet strong enough to handle this on my own.' he pleaded. The answer seemed to come from the recesses of his own mind, in his own voice, 'Answer with the truth you know. You are forgiven. There is nothing bound to your soul, no guilt, no shame, no sorrow, only hope. Declare what it is you know and be proud. You have nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. Do not be cowed by untrue words. Do not be silent, speak and know the strength and power that is within you.'

        Valiant calmed his mind and took a firm stance,

“Arabesque forgave me, Mend.” he said quietly.

        Mend turned toward Valiant, eyes burning,

“That's one out of how many? Huh? How many?”

        Valiant refused to be drawn into the type of shouting match Mend seemed to be trying to instigate, yet,

“Just one.” he said softly, “I cannot be held accountable for any death that may have occurred during my exile. I was incapable of doing anything and nopony is omnipresent, not even the Royal Sisters. I have no idea where all this anger came from, but it isn't healthy. What happened while we were gone?”

“I failed, that's what! I failed again!” Dr. Mend spat venomously.

“How did you fail, my friend?” Valiant asked softly.

“I was named, the most brilliant student ever to come out of Equestria! I failed because I should have figured out your procedure years ago; I just didn't realize that until today! I failed so many who now lay dead. I killed them.” Dr. Mend hashed through gritted teeth.

“Nopony is perfect Mend. Neither you nor I are to blame. Calm down and think about it. Even if one of us was to blame, there's nothing to do except live and learn. If you are so convinced you are at fault, then forgive yourself, and do something about it.” Valiant said calmly.

“I can't forgive myself!” Dr. Mend shouted, “It's my fault! They died because I failed! I'll never fail again! I'll never fail again! I'll never fail again!” Mend screamed himself hoarse and flung open one of his text books.

        Mend began reading at a breakneck pace muttering to himself,

“No more deaths. I can't fail. Never again, never again. I can't fail. No more deaths.” Mend kept up the quiet chant as he seemed to disconnect himself from the idea that Valiant still occupied the same room.

        Valiant grabbed his class schedule and saddle bags then slowly and silently inched toward the door, but his ears picked up on a clue as Dr. Mend muttered to himself,

“They killed themselves because I failed. I will make you proud.”

        Valiant watched as Dr. Mend angrily wiped teardrops from the pages of the text book below him. Valiant slipped out of the dorm room quietly and closed the door behind him. He set down his saddle bags and blinked away the forming mist invading his vision.

        He placed a gentle hoof on the door,

“What happened to you, my friend?”

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

        Valiant trotted down the deserted streets of Canterlot. He knew something was wrong with Dr. Mend and he couldn't bear to watch his friend hurting like he was. Valiant figured that if he knew more about Dr. Mend he might be able to help him. Valiant needed information and what better place to look than the Tower Library.

“He said he had been named the most brilliant student ever to come out of Equestria. There must be a record of that somewhere.” Valiant voiced his thoughts aloud as he ascended the tiers of carved white stone steps up to the double doors of the Tower Library.

        Valiant reached the top stairs and knocked politely on the ornate doors. As he waited, Valiant noticed the posted hours of operation were from sunrise to sunset. The hour was close upon midnight and Valiant suddenly wished he had read the posted hours of operation before knocking.

        Never the less, the left door opened up revealing a very familiar mint green coated Earth pony mare, who looked like she had been roused from her bed,

“May I hel . . . “ she trailed off as she saw Valiant, eyes popping wide.

        Valiant swallowed, trying not to look imposing,

“Is the Library still open?” he asked.

        The mint coated Earth pony began closing the door as she said,

“Only University students may use the Library after sunset.”

“I'm a student!” Valiant said quickly whipping out his class schedule.

        The Earth pony looked doubtful, and still scared of him,

“Who are your professors?”

        Valiant scanned over his list quickly,

“Professor Aloe, for Introduction to Alchemy and Professor . . . it says Rx,  but I assume it means Rex, for Introduction to Pharmaceuticals.”

        The Earth pony mare shuffled her hooves, obviously nervous. Her ears were laid back and her posture was cautious as she let Valiant in. Valiant noticed an open balcony to his left as he entered the ancient repository of knowledge. Books were set in massive shelves, some only accessible by ladder. The only other pony still in the Library was a young, tan coated pegasus mare with sky blue mane and tail and a cutie-mark of a confusingly massive collection of stars set against a pitch black background. She was up on the second level of the Library and was laying down on a bright red, tasseled cushion, quietly reading a book that looked to be more old and worn than Granny Smith. She was situated next to a massive glass window that offered a spectacular view of Canterlot.

        Valiant marveled at the huge gold and crystalline hourglass in the middle of the second level of the Library proper, after the foyer, but decided not to waste any time. Valiant began his search by section and eventually found himself pouring over older editions of the Canterlot news paper 'Equestria Daily' on film strips. His search lasted deep into the night but Valiant could not find any mention of Mend anywhere. After two hours of searching, Valiant decided to take a break. Thoughts of the strange unicorn with the frightening eyes kept interrupting his concentration, so he decided to try to find out about that.

        Valiant figured the mint coated Earth pony mare might know something since she seemed to be the librarian. Valiant hesitated on searching her out, 'She is obviously scared of me. She probably heard what I said about being a former Vagabond. Heh, I might be scared of me too. It would probably be a good idea to leave her alone for now and not pester her too much, but who else could I ask?' he wondered.

        Valiant looked around and noticed the tan pegasus was still in her same spot reading, 'Ooh, she looks like she's really into her book. I have to ask someone though. She's sure to know more about the Library than I do. It couldn't hurt to ask, I suppose.'

        Valiant slowly walked over to her and was about to clear his throat, but she spoke first, without even looking up,

“Is there something you need?” her voice was tiny but crisp and it carried like a bell in the silent Library.

        Valiant lowered his head to her level to show her proper respect,

“I'm sorry to disturb you miss, but . . . do you know where the librarian went?” Valiant hadn't originally intended to ask that particular question, but he felt bad for disturbing the tan pegasus.

        The pegasus raised her head; her eyes were a pale yellow,

“She probably went to sleep, like most ponies with good sense. I might be able to help you though.” she said rising, “I'm Evening Star but you can just call me Star. What do you need help with?”

        Valiant swallowed, he had never been particularly comfortable talking to mares, except ones he already knew,

“Um, do you know where I could find a list of diseases, specifically ones that change the color of one's eyes? I'm Valiant by the way.”

        Star didn't even have to pause to think,

“Depending on the color. If the color is yellow or brown, it could be a case of Hemolytic Anemia.” she ventured.

        Valiant's eyebrows shot up, and before he could check his mouth, he asked her,

“Are you a medical student or something?”

        Star giggled,

“No, I just know some things. What color do the eyes change to?”

“Purple, muddy purple in the iris and the whites.” Valiant responded.

        Star shook her head,

“There are no known diseases that cause purple eyes. Perhaps it's a type of infection, like Conjunctivitis or it could be due to a subconjunctival hemorrhage where the blood vessels in the eyes burst.” Star began pacing, talking to nopony in particular, “Nothing seems to fit. Unless . . . Wait!” Star said turning to Valiant suddenly, “Did you see this on a living pony?”

“Yes, I did.” Valiant said curiously.

“Was it a unicorn?” Star asked.

“Yes, she was. How did you know?” Valiant asked.

“I know what it is!” Star said excitedly.

        Evening Star took to the air and began searching the books high up on tops of shelves. Within moments she landed in front of Valiant, holding an old book in her muzzle.

        Star set the book down in front of Valiant on the floor,

“Magical & Metaphysical Disorders, page 113.” she said proudly.

        Valiant opened the book to page 113 and began reading out loud,

“All unicorns practicing magic on a regular basis should be well aware of their limitations and not push to perform beyond their capabilities or they may suffer from Magical Strain. There are three types of Magical Strain a unicorn may suffer, depending on the amount of magic they use as compared to the amount of magic they use on a regular basis. The most common form of Magical Strain is Magical Fatigue. Magical Fatigue is caused by mild overuse of a unicorn's magic and can physically manifest as a type of Physical Fatigue with corresponding symptoms: panting, perspiring, ect. Once a unicorn begins experiencing Magical Fatigue the unicorn will have some difficulty continuing to use magic and should be encouraged to cease using magic until they are recovered.” Valiant stopped to take a breath before continuing, “The second type of Magical Strain is Magical Exhaustion. Magical Exhaustion is caused by moderate overuse of a unicorn's magic and can physically manifest as a type of Physical Exhaustion with corresponding symptoms: stomach pain, anger, chest pain, fever and insomnia as well as the previously listed symptoms for Magical Fatigue. Once a unicorn begins experiencing Magical Exhaustion the unicorn will have a great deal of difficulty continuing to use magic and should be stopped immediately.” Valiant paused for another breath, “The third type of Magical Strain is called Critical Magical Exhaustive Stress (also known as 'Caster's Stroke'). Critical Magical Exhaustive Stress or C.M.E.S. is caused by extreme overuse of a unicorn's magic. C.M.E.S. can manifest in many ways, such as: dizziness, nausea, migraine headache, and painful hypersensitivity, in mind cases. In more severe cases symptoms may vary widely, such as: projectile vomiting, bleeding from the eyes, nose, or mouth, cracks in the horn, ect. There are also longer lasting effects of C.M.E.S. as well: change in the pigmentation of the skin, eyes, mane, and-or tail. These effects can last for days. Once a unicorn begins experiencing C.M.E.S. the unicorn will find it nearly impossible to continue using magic. If the unicorn continues using magic their life is at risk.” Valiant ceased reading and looked up from the book, “She must have been suffering from Critical Magical Exhaustive Stress then. Why would she push herself so hard if it's dangerous?” he asked.

        Star shrugged,

“Maybe if you put her into the context you encountered her in?” she ventured.

“She was in a back alley levitating the librarian and demanding her bits or the unicorn would drop her. She had the librarian some 30 paces up in the air.” Valiant explained.

        Star's eyes bulged and she held her head out toward Valiant,

“I've never heard of such a thing!”

        Valiant shook his head sadly,

“Nor I. The unicorn seemed desperate for the money. I think there was something else going on though. I interfered and talked the unicorn down, but while I was talking to her, I picked up on something else, something that I don't think anypony else would have picked up on. The unicorn was engulfed in the darkness of despair. It was so thick I could almost touch it.”

        Evening Star took a small step toward Valiant, her face saddened,

“How did you come to know despair so well?” she asked.

        Valiant remembered the librarian's reaction when she learned about his formerly outcast status,

“I would rather not say. The librarian found out and now she's scared of me.”

        Evening Star inched forward, right up next to Valiant,

“I won't judge you Valiant. Please tell me.” she asked softly.

        Valiant took a deep breath to steel his nerves,

“I was a Vagabond for five years.”

        Star was silent for a moment before she said,

“Then you were alone for five years. I can understand the despair.”

        Valiant looked sideways at Evening Star,

“I'm surprised you know what a Vagabond is.”

        Evening Star couldn't help but to chuckle slightly,

“I spend all my free time in a library.” Star's face then changed back to serious, “I know a few things. I know about Vagabonds and their punishment. It must have been very lonely for you.”

        Valiant shuddered,

“You don't know the half of it Star.” he said lowering his head.

        At his side, Evening Star nuzzled him gently,

“Tell me.” she said, voice barely above a whisper.

“I don't want to scare you Star.” Valiant said.

“You won't. You have no idea any of the things I've seen in my own lifetime. I promise, Valiant, I won't judge you or be afraid of you. We all have our own demons to face.”

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

        The sun had only barely risen over the horizon in Ponyville when Spike belched loudly, a puff of green smoke issuing forth from his mouth and materializing into a scroll. The little purple and green baby dragon covered his mouth to try to keep from laughing. He and Twilight had been eating breakfast when the message arrived. Spike had been chewing a mouthful of his breakfast, a large stack of apple pancakes, and had spewed the contents of his mouth all over Twilight. Twilight, on the other hoof looked rather decidedly un-amused. Her entire face was speckled with bits of partially chewed pancake. She had the reflexes to close her eyes just in time and opened them, blinking away pieces of pancake. Her face was set into patient neutrality, as she levitated a napkin over and wiped her face clear of the offending particles.

“Spike,” Twilight addressed calmly, “Would you be so kind as to read the letter?”

        Spike put his little hand into his mouth and bit it, trying not to laugh, and failing utterly. Twilight sighed through her nose and waited patiently until her reptilian assistant had finished laughing.

“Spike,” Twilight said once again, “Would you be so kind as to read the letter, please?”

        Twilight's calm demeanor caused further bouts of merriment from her assistant. Spike laughed so hard he fell out of his chair and onto the floor, clutching his stomach with tears streaming down his face. Twilight couldn't help but to smile to herself, Spike's laughter was rather contagious. Twilight tried to maintain a straight face but as anypony knows, the harder you try, the funnier it becomes. She allowed herself a couple of audible giggles, before Spike managed to pull himself off the floor of the Library.

“Sorry Twilight.” Spike apologized picking up the scroll, “Ahem. Dear Twilight, Dr. Mend and I arrived in Canterlot safely. We were personally received by Princess Luna. I am sharing a dorm room with Dr. Mend, compliments of the Princess. Our classes begin next semester, but I'm deeply worried about Dr. Mend. Something in him changed, and not for the better. I'm worried he might be having a mental breakdown. Besides our doctor friend, there is another concern troubling me on a different level. I encountered a unicorn mare who was using magic to force ponies to give up their bits or she would drop them from great distance. Her eyes were solid purple, which leads me to believe she was suffering from C.M.E.S. I am at a loss concerning Dr. Mend and the unicorn, and would gladly welcome any advice from anypony (or dragon). Your friend, Valiant.” Spike lowered the letter, “That sounds pretty serious Twilight.”

        Twilight began pacing back and forth in front of the table as she explained,

“It is, Spike. In the past, unicorns who pushed themselves too hard have inadvertently leveled entire towns. If any unicorn continues suffering from C.M.E.S. for an extended period of time, their magic becomes completely uncontrollable. This unicorn sounds like she could be a danger to herself and others. The only method I've ever heard of for stopping a unicorn like that is by another unicorn of greater power. The unicorn suffering from C.M.E.S. has to be held and cared for until the effect of Caster's Stroke wears off, which can take several days. I don't know of any unicorn except one of the Princesses or myself who could perform such a task. Valiant and Dr. Mend have no way to stop this rogue unicorn on their own. In ancient times, C.M.E.S. was more common and each town or city would have unicorns dedicated to subduing a rogue magic user, but that practice has been abandoned for hundreds of years because most unicorns with that much raw potential are sent to the Canterlot School for Gifted Unicorns. The school teaches you iron clad rules for safely practicing magic and drills them into you. This unicorn must have been overlooked somehow. Valiant said she is capable of levitating other ponies, that takes a fair bit of magic and plenty of practice . . . “

“But you levitated that Ursa Minor like it was nothing.” Spike interrupted.

“It wasn't easy, Spike. Remember, how I had to spend a couple of days in bed afterwards? I didn't feel it immediately, except for the basic level of Magic Fatigue. I knew I had to be careful; the effects of C.M.E.S. can creep up on you. The school taught me that, so I was prepared. Imagine what would have happened if I had lost all control of my magic?” Twilight asked.

        Spike shuddered,

“I see what you mean. It would be like what happened when you took your entry test for the school.”

        Twilight nodded,

“Exactly, except it would be worse. My magic, right then was only being used for self defense because I was frightened. As a filly, I had no idea about death, so my magic took over and neutralized anything it perceived as a threat, but it can only use what the unicorn knows, so a little filly isn't as much of a threat. A unicorn in a panic won't be able to think clearly or make rational decisions; their magic will take over and identify any living thing as a potential threat. I wasn't suffering from C.M.E.S. I was in a panic, there is a big difference. Imagine all that power channeled only toward destruction. One of the things I learned in my research is that a unicorn suffering from Caster's Stroke becomes paranoid and sees everypony as an enemy trying to harm them. They basically self defense everything to death. Let me give you an example, if Rarity began suffering from C.M.E.S. even with her limited power, she could raise Ponyville to the ground in a matter of minutes.”

“But just seeing Princess Celestia brought you right out of the panic.” Spike observed.

“Princess Celestia radiates calm and magic just by proximity alone, Spike. It would have been impossible for me to stay in my state with her around. I'm certain Princess Celestia would have done something if she knew about the unicorn, and that worries me. The Princess knows about everything going on in Canterlot, so why hasn't she done something about it yet?” Twilight ceased pacing and turned, sharply, toward Spike, “Spike, take a letter . . . “ she began.

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

        Valiant woke up late in the afternoon. He stretched and yawned and then looked around the dorm room. Dr. Mend had been lying in his bed reading when Valiant had come back from the Courier's Office that morning. Dr. Mend still lay in the exact same position as he had been when Valiant had gone to sleep. Neither stallion had spoken to the other since Dr. Mend's verbal explosion the previous day. Valiant had spent the rest of the previous night talking to Evening Star. The memory made his smile. Valiant shook his head and cleared his thoughts. He pulled back Big Macintosh’s blanket and got out of bed.

        Valiant decided to break the silence his roommate had silently imposed,

“Have you had anything to eat yet today?” he asked quietly.

        Dr. Mend never looked up from his book,

“I'll eat when I have time.” he said emotionlessly.

“I'm just trying to look out for you.” Valiant said carefully.

“I'm a big colt. I can take care of myself.” Dr. Mend replied.

“Would you like me to bring you something from the cafeteria so you can keep reading?” Valiant asked concerned.

“I can take care of myself. Besides, you have plenty to do don't you?” Dr. Mend said testily.

“I'm never too busy to help a friend.” Valiant said softly.

“Then help one of the ponies in Equestria who actually needs it. I only need to study.” Dr. Mend replied.

        Valiant bit back an honest retort,

“I don't want to start an argument, but don't you need to take a break?”

“I'll have plenty of free time when I'm in the ground. Until then, it's my responsibility to keep others from heading that direction prematurely. I can't do that unless I study.” Dr. Mend said raising his head from the book, “So let me study.” he said, voice edged with warning.

        Valiant took the hint,

“I'll be at the Tower Library if you need me.”

“I'll remember that.” Dr. Mend said dismissively.

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

        Valiant walked into Mrs. Soothe's Apothecary holding his application in his muzzle,

“I'm sorry I'm late. I had a late night at the Tower Library.” he said plopping the application down on the counter.

        The fuchsia coated, middle-aged unicorn mare, looked over the application carefully,

You seem to have no job experience at all. How old are you?”

I'm 25, Mrs. Soothe.” Valiant explained, cringing internally.

Hmm. That doesn't bode particularly well for you here Valiant.” She said honestly, “I'm not exactly swamped with applications, but I don't want to hire somepony who might give a customer the wrong ingredients. If you can prove to me that you know your stuff, I'll consider more seriously.” she said looking up.

        Valiant opened his saddle bag and removed his mortar and pestle,

These are mine and I have a couple of recipes that I invented. The first one is written on here,” Valiant said laying down a piece of parchment on the counter, “It makes the whole body completely numb while allowing you to maintain total control over your motor skills.”

        Mrs. Soothe read over the recipe carefully nodding to herself,

This one is somewhat basic, but it would get the job done well enough. You said you have had no formal education in the field of alchemy, correct?”

        Valiant nodded,

That's right. I developed these on my own.”

        Mrs. Soothe arched an eyebrow,

These, plural? You've only given me one.”

        Valiant hesitated,

I do have another one, but I must ask that if I give it to you, you won't charge money for it.”

You are here asking for a job, to make money, but you don't want one of your recipes to be sold for money?” Mrs. Soothe asked incredulously.

Yes, ma'am. I do have a reason for it though.” Valiant responded.

Alright, let's hear the reason.” Mrs. Soothe said.

It's potent. So potent, in fact that it could easily be abused. It heals the body of injury at an accelerated rate and can even keep scars from forming. If used properly if can heal a broken bone, once set, in three days.” Valiant explained.

        Mrs. Soothe looked highly dubious,

I'm sure it's nice, but nothing I've ever heard of can do that. Let's see the recipe.”

        Valiant took a deep breath and reached into his saddle bag,

I'll do one better. I'll prove it.” he said laying the parchment on the counter.”

        Mrs. Soothe began reading the recipe, ignoring Valiant, while she did so. Valiant took a breath and raised a hoof up in front of his mouth and bit down, on his leg, as hard as he could. Valiant felt the pain and took a breath, then bit harder, until he tasted blood. He let go of his leg and set it up on the counter in front of Mrs. Soothe.

        Mrs. Soothe saw the bloodied appendage in front of her and reared back,

What are you doing?” she asked mortified.

You see this injury?” Valiant asked, Mrs. Soothe nodded, “By tomorrow I believe it will be gone.”

If it isn't, I'll report you to the closest psychiatric hospital. If it is, I'll hire you under one condition. Don't EVER do that again.” Mrs. Soothe said emphatically.

        Valiant removed a small jar from his saddle bag and set it on the counter,

I'm going to drink this, then go to a clinic to have the injury documented. I'll come back tomorrow with the document as proof. I apologize for resorting to such drastic measures to prove my point, but this really is the real deal. I'm being completely honest with you.” Valiant said, then proceeded to chug the contents of the jar.

        Once finished, Valiant screwed the top back onto the jar,

I'll see you tomorrow, Mrs. Soothe.”

        Mrs. Soothe didn't know if she should fear for her safety or if she should be hopeful, this pony was crazy,

I'll be here.” she said nervously.

        Valiant left the apothecary and went, limping, in search of the closest clinic, 'Sometimes you just have to make a point.' he thought. As he walked, he realized he was drawing a lot of attention to himself, because of his injured leg. He lowered his head and broke into a trot, he didn't want to draw too much attention. He tried to remember where the closest clinic was, but his leg was dulling his concentration.

Hey Valiant, what's going on?” asked Live Wire trotting up next to Valiant, “Wow, what a coincidence running into you like this. I stopped by Mrs. Soothe's apothecary a couple of times today to see if you had turned in your application, but she kept saying she hadn't seen you. I was headed back there now to ask again.” He machine gunned off in less than 5 seconds, “Hey why are you limping? WOW! What happened to your leg? Oh my gosh! That looks like it really hurts! Are you going to be O.K.? Are you headed toward a clinic? Because if you are you're heading the wrong direction. The closest clinic is two blocks that way.” Live Wire indicated the direction with his hoof, “Here let me help you. You need to be careful. Did you get bit by a stray dog? If you did then you need a shot. It doesn't look like you're in any danger of dying from exsanguination, but all the same you need to get that all patched up. It doesn't look like the injury hit any of your tendons maybe a muscle, and wow do you have a lot of muscles. Did I tell you that before? You are seriously buffed up. Oh yeah, I did tell you that when we first met, remember I asked you if you were here for a body building competition. You know, not many ponies can stand all my talking. I’m really grateful that you’re willing to put up with me. Hey, you know you should try to make some more friends while you’re here in Canterlot. I’ll bet there are just tons, and tons, and tons, and tons, and tons, and tons of ponies who would like to be friends with you, because you’re all strong and smart and everything. Maybe you could help me work out like you do, then I could attract a mare. I’ll bet you have the girls falling all over you. I'm sorry if I'm talking too much right now, but I'm trying to keep you distracted so you don't feel the pain, plus it will make the trip seem a whole lot shorter. See, here we are. NURSE!” Live Wire bellowed.

To Valiant's surprise, Live Wire spoke at a normal speed, although it was obviously difficult for him, as he related the injury to one of the nurses. Live Wire stayed with Valiant while he had his self inflicted injury cleaned and bandaged, chattering the whole time of course. The nurses looked at Valiant really oddly when he asked for written documentation of his leg injury, but complied. Valiant and Live Wire left the clinic and headed for the Tower Library, 'I wonder what Evening Star will think of Live Wire?' Valiant wondered as the Tower Library came into view.


Trials of the Elements

Part 4

        Valiant led Live Wire toward the Tower Library, with Live Wire chattering the whole time about the history of the structure,

“You know, the Tower Library is one of the oldest structures in the whole of Equestria. It was formed straight out of the white marble that forms the bedrock foundation of Canterlot itself. Princess Luna was personally responsible for creating it. Princess Luna created the Tower Library and Princess Celestia created the University. Both structures were originally of the same white marble, seamless and perfect; raised straight out of the rock by magic, no artisans’ tool has ever touched the Tower Library. The original University was destroyed during the struggle between Celestia and Luna when Luna was overcome by Nightmare Moon. Nopony even knew that Princess Luna created the Tower Library until recently when Princess Luna returned. Princess Celestia couldn't bear to talk about its history because it brought back too many sad memories, but when Princess Luna returned, Princess Celestia was only too happy to tell everypony who was the founder of the Tower Library. Since her return, Princess Luna has been searching out ancient tomes that had been lost since her banishment and returning them to the Tower Library. She's been reportedly seen there a couple dozen times in the past few months. I wonder if we'll see her there? Oh, I hope we get to, I'd love to meet a Princess! Hmm, maybe that's not such a good idea. I get so nervous around mares I don't know, I just start rambling so much I wouldn't know what to do. When I'm nervous I can ramble on for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. My mind is running in circles just thinking about it. Hey, speaking of thinking, why are we going to the Tower Library anyway? Do you need to do some studying for your classes? I used to go there all the time, but the old Librarian didn't like me too well, she said I talked too much. She was always real nice about it though, oh she was pretty and incredibly smart too! She was a purple unicorn, but I never caught her name. I was always too embarrassed to talk to her much. Now, I know that may be hard to believe, me not talking much, but I stutter so badly when I'm around pretty mares. Her assistant was nice enough. His name was Spike, he was a dragon. He used to show me where the books were that I needed. He used to say that I helped him memorize the cataloging system. I don't know if that's true or not but he had trouble finding books at first. After a couple of months, he automatically knew where every single book in the whole Library was . . . “ Live Wire stopped when Valiant interrupted him.

“You knew Spike?” he asked.

        Live Wire nodded his head,

“Yep, I sure did. He . . . “

        Valiant interrupted Live Wire again,

“If you'll wait for a second, I can tell you the former Librarian's name, if you still want to know it.”

        Live Wire nodded his head again, staying quiet, so Valiant continued,

“Her name is Twilight Sparkle. She's Princess Celestia's star pupil, and supposedly one of the most, if not the most powerful unicorn in all of Equestria. She's really nice, but I don't get the impression she's particularly interested in romance right now. She seems too interested in her studies and besides, isn't she a bit young for you?”

“I don't know how old she is. I always thought she was close to my age. I figured she just aged well, because nopony I know could be that smart and know so much unless she was at least my age, probably a bit older. Aw shucks, I should have known she was too good to be true.” Live Wire lapsed into silence for the first time since Valiant had met him.

        Valiant felt bad for his friend,

“Hey Lemon, don't put on a sour face . . . “ Valiant stopped speaking as what he had said sunk in.

        Valiant tried not to laugh, he didn't want to make Lemon Lime feel worse, but he couldn't help himself. He stifled his laughter, biting his tongue and closing his eyes. He needn't have worried. Lemon Lime began laughing loudly in the most outlandish way imaginable, in hyper speed. The sound reverberated off the surrounding buildings and echoed through the street, making it sound like there was a whole chorus of ponies laughing. The sound was utterly beyond description and so hilarious, every pony on the street began laughing uncontrollably. Valiant couldn't hold his laughter back if his life depended on it. His laughter burst from his mouth, joining the chorus already in motion. The layers of laughter folded on themselves, perpetually increasing the hilarity until Valiant and Live Wire couldn't even continue walking. Both stallions sat down on the street, tears of mirth streaming down their faces.

        Valiant was the first to recover,

“I, hehehe, I apologize. I never meant to say that, I was trying to encourage you, but it just came out all wrong.”

        Live Wire held up a hoof,

“Stop making me think about it, or I'll get going again. No harm done.”

        The two stallions rose to their hooves and began making their way toward the Tower Library again, still chuckling. They climbed the stairs up to the ornate double doors and pushed both open, Valiant on the left and Lemon Lime on the right. The Librarian was sitting behind her desk quietly, but looked up sharply at the sound of a snigger. Upon seeing Valiant, she ignored the sound and focused on the book in front of her.

        Valiant was delighted to see Evening Star already in her spot near the window, except this time she wore saddle bags, which she still wore even lying down,

“Good afternoon Star.” he greeted quietly, “I hadn't expected to see you here so soon, I had hoped too though.”

        Evening Star looked up from her book, the same old worn one from the previous night,

“I come to the Library every chance I get. I'm here every day. I love knowledge. What brings you back here so soon, and who’s your friend?” she asked quietly.

“This is Lemon Lime, but he likes to go by Live Wire. Live Wire, this is Evening Star, and she likes to go by just Star.” Valiant introduced his friends.

        Live Wire extended his hoof and shook Star's offered one,

“H . . . hi. I . . . I'm pleased t. . . . to m . . . meet you.” Live Wire stuttered.

        Evening Star put a hoof to her muzzle, giggling,

“You don't have to be nervous, Live Wire. I don't bite.”

“I . . . I'm s . . . sure you d . . . don't, but I c . . . can't help i . . . i . . . it. I g . . . get n . . . nervous when I t . . . talk t . . . to p . . . pretty mares.” Live Wire stuttered so badly, Evening Star could barely understand him.

“Well, thank you. You're very sweet. I do have a question though. Why are you called 'Live Wire' if you stutter so much?” Star asked.

        Live Wire tried to answer but he couldn't get the words out, fortunately Valiant stepped in,

“He's normally a real chatter-box. He has some kind of condition where his mind and mouth apparently work about four times faster than other ponies. He generally talks so fast he's hard to understand.”

“Oh, he has Cerebral-Lingua Accelerari. That's a rare disorder, but it can be beneficial if controlled. Ponies with Cerebral-Lingua Accelerari tend to excel at anything they do, and make fantastic auctioneers.” Star informed the two stallions.

        Valiant decided to get right to the point, Star had helped him the night before,

“The reason I'm here, Evening Star, is to try to learn about a friend of mine's history. That's what I was originally looking for last night.”

        Star looked puzzled,

“Why? Won't she tell you?”

“He's a he, and no he won't.” Valiant replied.

“Then why don't you ask his parents?” Evening Star asked.

“I don't know their names, and I'm afraid to ask him.” Valiant said.

“Then why don't you check the Census records? You know his name right?” Star asked.

“Yes, but I have no idea when he was born.” Valiant said.

        Evening Star shook her head,

“You don't need to. You can cross-reference names with birthdates, breed, coloring, and genealogy. Canterlot updates its Census every year. There's a new copy here in the Library. I'll show you where it is.”

        Evening Star rose from her cushion, put her book in her saddle bags, and unfurled her wings. She took to the air and landed up on the second floor mezzanine. By the time Valiant and Live Wire climbed the stairs to the second floor, Star already had a thick book laid out on a reading podium.

        She waited patiently until the two stallions reached her, so she wouldn't have to raise her voice,

“What's your friend's name?” she asked.

“Mend.” Valiant responded.

        Star began flipping the pages of the Census book,

“Hmm, Mend . . . Mend . . . here it is. Earth pony, right?” she asked.

        Valiant nodded,

“Yes, he has a black coat, white mane and tail.”

        Evening Star nodded,

“Yup, that's him.” she said and began reading.

        After a moment, Star looked up,

“Uh oh.” she said sadly.

“What is it?” valiant asked stepping up to the podium.

“His parents are listed as being deceased. It looks like they died when he was little, both suicides. It says like his grandparents raised him after that. His grandparents still seem to be living though.” Star said.

        Valiant perked up, this was just what he had been looking for,

“Where could I find their address?” he asked.

“It's listed here.” Star said reading again, “Looks like they don't live too far away, just a couple of blocks from here.”

        Valiant looked over the address, but couldn't figure it out,

“Live Wire, are you good at remembering things?” he asked.

        Live Wire seemed to be alright, since Evening Star wasn't addressing him directly,

“Yes, of course. I can remember all kinds of things. Like for instance . . . “

        Live Wire was cut off, as Valiant pulled him over to the podium and gently pushed his head toward the Census book,

“Can you memorize this address, and do you know where it is?” he asked pointing to an entry in the book.

“Yeah, I had the whole page memorized before you got done pushing my face toward it. I have a photographic memory. Why, I can even remember . . . “ Live Wire stopped as he realized he was rambling again, “Sorry, I tend to do that.”

        Valiant patted his friend on the shoulder,

“That's alright Live Wire. I apologize for pushing you around like that, but I'm really worried about Mend. Come on, let's go talk to his grandparents. Maybe they can tell me why he went mental.”

        Live Wire and Evening Star looked worriedly at each other, then at Valiant,

“How did he go mental?” they asked almost in unison.

        Valiant was already heading down the stairs,

“Come on, I'll tell you on the way.”

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

“We would be honored to have such a fantastic mind on staff here Dr. Mend.” said Dr. Avalon.

        Dr. Avalon was a dark yellow, middle-aged, Earth pony mare who had a mane and tail of the lightest shades of blue, highlighted with streaks of shining silver. Her cutie-mark was that of a syringe filled with a glowing, golden liquid. Dr. Avalon's mane and tail were luxurious and long, but pulled back into a pair of tight buns. Her voice was smooth but unusually deep for a mare. Dr. Mend knew it was from long hours of yelling orders to interns and nurses. Dr. Mend had come in with his résumé and applied for a position as an on-call doctor. Dr. Avalon had taken him into her office to interview him. As the chief of the clinic, the responsibility fell to her to interview all potential candidates. She had heard about Mend when she had gone to the University. The two were close to the same age, but Mend had graduated first.

        Dr. Mend bowed his head politely,

“I can start as soon as you need me to, Dr. Avalon.” he said.

        Dr. Avalon smiled,

“Wonderful. I'll put you on the schedule for . . . “

        Dr. Avalon was interrupted by a blood-curdling scream that made both ponies jump slightly. Dr. Mend and Dr. Avalon rose from their respective seats in preparation for an emergency call on the intercom. Instead of the intercom, a light gray unicorn mare with light purple mane and tail burst through the door. Her eyes were wide and she looked nervous.

        Dr. Avalon took a step toward the unicorn,

“What's the matter?” she ordered in a commanding tone, there was no hint of a request.

        The nurse looked over her shoulder, then back at Dr. Avalon,

“A pegasus just came in. It looks like all four of his legs are broken in several places.”

        Dr. Avalon looked concerned,

“Immobilize him so he doesn't hurt himself further. I'll be right there.” she said, then turned to Dr. Mend, “Looks like I need you right now Mend. Follow me.” she ordered.

        Dr. Mend quietly but quickly followed Dr. Avalon to the scrub basin down the hallway in the clinic. Dr. Avalon turned on the faucet and both ponies began scrubbing.

“Nopony since you, has even come close to matching your grades and skills Mend. You'll be a bit of a celebrity to all the interns.” Dr. Avalon said as she pushed down on the iodine dispenser.

        Mend utilized a bolted down, dual-sided, scrub brush as he replied,

“I hope foalish hero worship won't hinder their performance. If I become a distraction, would you have a few words with them or should I?”

“I'll deal with it, if it becomes a problem.” Dr. Avalon said passing a towel to Dr. Mend.

        Dr. Mend used the towel to wipe off his hooves,

“Let's go see what happened to this poor pegasus.”

        The two doctors trotted out onto the highly sterilized Emergency Room floor to the sound of agonized wailing. Dr. Avalon assessed the pegasus' condition quickly as she approached the bed he was writhing on. He was royal blue in his coat and his mane and tail were light brown. His bright orange eyes were wide and his pupils were dilated from the pain. All four of his legs were obviously broken. Each limb was puffy and swollen in multiple places with correlating discoloration.

        Dr. Avalon went right to work,

“He needs to be sedated.” she told Dr. Mend over her shoulder.

“Too soon. If he goes into shock, he could slip into a coma. Besides, we need him to tell us if he's allergic to anything.” Dr. Mend responded.

        Dr. Avalon and Dr. Mend joined the nurses in holding down the agonized pegasus,

“Just had to be sure you weren't out of practice.” Dr. Avalon said to Mend.

        Dr. Mend didn't respond to Dr. Avalon, instead he focused on the pegasus writhing in front of him,

“What's your name?” he asked using his hooves to hold the pegasus' head still.

        The injured stallion grunted hoarsely, gasping for breath,

“Trooper.” he rasped.

        Dr. Mend lowered his muzzle down, right next to Trooper's ear,

“O.K. Trooper, we're going to fix you up but we need to know if you have any allergies. Are you allergic to anything?”

“No.” Trooper grunted, “Please, make it stop!”

        Dr. Mend looked up at Dr. Avalon,

“We need an Anesthesiologist to put him under, then get him X-Rays so we know what we're dealing with, then get him into surgery. Do you confirm?” he asked.

        Dr. Avalon nodded,

“I confirm.” she said, then turned her head toward the light gray unicorn with the light purple mane and tail, “Page the Anesthesiologist and prep the X-Ray machine. Find us a clear surgery bay; we need to have him in surgery within half an hour.”

        Dr. Mend thought fast and leaned down to Trooper again,

“How did you come by your injuries Trooper?”

“Unicorn tried to kill . . . Earth pony . . . saved her . . . unicorn bound my wings . . . magic . . . dropped me.” Trooper grunted.

        Dr. Mend's head snapped up at Dr. Avalon, shock written all over his face,

“Has this ever happened before?” he asked.

        Dr. Avalon shook her head vigorously,

“Not that I've ever heard. He may well be hallucinating from the pain.”

        Dr. Mend took a step back as the Anesthesiologist arrived to administer to Trooper. It was only when Mend stood back that he noticed something odd. Trooper looked a great deal like Valiant, 'In fact,' Mend thought, 'The two are nearly identical. Their only differences are their eyes and . . . ,' Mend's vision shifted down to Trooper's flank looking for his cutie-mark. Mend's eyes widened, 'He has no cutie-mark! It wasn't removed, like Valiant's, it looks like it never developed! An adult pegasus with no cutie-mark?

        Dr. Mend couldn't peel his eyes away from Trooper's perfectly smooth and blank flank.

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

        Valiant, Evening Star and Lemon Lime looked up at the beautiful two-story house that matched the address Lemon Lime had memorized. The house was pure white with sky blue shutters and a covered front porch, upon which sat two well used brown, wooden rocking chairs. The front yard was a good 20 paces deep and roughly 60 paces wide, only 20 paces wider than the house itself. Small, but lush trees provided shade for the entire yard, blooming in colors of orange, white, and pink.

        Valiant walked calmly up onto the porch and politely knocked on the front door, flanked by Evening Star and Lemon Lime. After a couple of minutes, the door opened, revealing an ancient Earth pony mare. She had a coat of chocolate brown and a mane and tail of almost pure gray with occasional streaks of light pink showing through.

        The old mare adjusted a pair of spectacles on her face,

“Yes?” she asked, voice creaking with age.

“I'm sorry to bother you ma'am, but do you have a grandson named Mend?” Valiant asked politely.

        The old mare's features fell drastically,

“Oh no. What happened?” she asked, hoof to her chest.

“I'm worried about him. He's a friend of mine. We recently came to Canterlot to study at the University . . . “ Valiant began.

“And he changed, didn't he.” the old mare said, there was no question in her voice.

        Valiant's fears were confirmed by her statement,

“This has happened before hasn't it.” he stated.

        The old mare nodded sadly,

“And you are?” she asked.

        Valiant, Evening Star, and Lemon Lime all lowered their heads respectfully,

“I'm Valiant, this is Evening Star, and Lemon Lime.” he introduced.

“My name's Goodie, my husband, Obsidian, is in the living room.” the old mare said, “If you're here to try to help Mend you'd better come in.” she said holding the door for the younger ponies, “This will take a while.”

        Suddenly and without warning, a sealed letter formed itself into existence in front of Evening Star,

“Oh,” she said, surprised.

        Valiant looked over to her,

“Where did that come from?” he asked, eyeing the letter oddly.

        Star shrugged,

“Sorry Valiant. This happens to Couriers all the time. I have my duties, you know how it is.”

        Lemon Lime looked toward the horizon,

“It's getting late. The Sun will be setting soon. You need to be careful Star.”

“I've been doing this for a long time, boys. I'll be fine.” Star said.

        She picked up the letter in her mouth and took off, waving good bye to Valiant and Lemon Lime. The two stallions watched Evening Star disappear over the tops of the nearby buildings, and vanish from sight.

        Turning to the living room, their attention was caught by Goodie as she yelled,

“Obie! There are some youngsters here about Mend. Put on a pot of tea. This may be what we've been hoping for.”

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

        Applejack was highly upset,

“You can't go, Big Macintosh! Ah know he's your friend, he's mine too, but you've got responsibilities 'round this here orchard. Ah can't do all your chores for long an' Applebloom's too young to help out much.” she scolded her older brother as he stoically continued packing his saddle bags.

“Ah've already asked Caramel to take care of mah chores while Ah'm gone. Give him mah pay while Ah'm away.” the immensely built, red Earth pony said softly.

        Applejack blinked back tears of frustration,

“But why? You've never left before, why leave now?” she demanded.

“Ah can't explain it Applejack. All Ah know is Ah have to go. Valiant needs me. Ah've saved up plenty of money and Ah'll be real careful.” Big Mac said.

“You heard what Twilight said about some crazy unicorn up in Canterlot. You're an Earth pony. How are you goin' to protect yourself? What can an Earth pony do against unicorn magic?” Applejack asked pointedly.

“Ah don't rightly know, but you didn't let that stop you now did you little sis?” Big Mac asked, “Yall defeated Nightmare Moon just fine and two thirds of yall couldn't even use magic.”

“Don't you go usin' your fancy mathematics again!” Applejack roared, “Yall ain't facin' Nightmare Moon!”

        Big Macintosh buckled his saddlebags and slid them on,

“No, we're just goin' to take care of a unicorn, not a diety. Ah'll be fine Applejack. Ah have to go, and you need to accept that.”

“What in tarnation am Ah supposed to tell Applebloom?” Applejack asked, nearly in tears.

“That she can't go with me.” Big Macintosh said, “She was listenin' 'till a minute ago. She, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle just ran to Applebloom's room. Ah think they're packin' to go too.”

        Applejack sped out of Big Macintosh's room fast enough to make Rainbow Dash proud, had the cyan pegasus been present. Big Macintosh smiled admiringly at his protective younger sister. He walked over to his antique desk, which had miraculously survived the fire, and pulled open one of the mahogany drawers. Inside the drawer was a pair of envelopes, one was addressed to Granny Smith, Applejack, and Applebloom, the other was addressed to Caramel. He carefully removed the sealed envelopes and set them on his mattress, then quietly crept downstairs while Applejack was still arguing with Applebloom.

        As Big Macintosh cleared the front door, he saw a cloth sack sitting on the porch with a paper tag on a thin wire tying the mouth closed. Big Mac peered at the tag and was surprised to find his name on the tag. Looking around, the huge Earth pony saw he was alone on the porch, so he picked up the sack and ran for it with the sack clanking faintly in his teeth.

        Granny Smith poked her head out of the barn and smiled,

“Go on an' help out that nice young stallion.” she said, “Your grandpa's solid steel shoes should help if anything happens. He don't need 'em anymore anyhow.” her hip creaked as she made her way back to the front porch and into her rocking chair, “When Ah saw you go runnin' off earlier, Ah plum knowed what you were up to. You went to get Caramel so you wouldn't be leavin' your little sisters an' Granny all alone. You never been away before so Ah says to myself, Ah says 'Granny, your grandson's headin' for trouble. He's needin' some plum good help. As much as you can provide.' Make good use o' them shoes and your Daddy's lasso. You best come back safe now, you hear.”

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

        Valiant and Lemon Lime sat quietly and listened as Goody and obsidian related the sad story of how Mend lost his parents,

“No matter what we said or did, we couldn't convince him of the truth. One day, just before he graduated from the University, we overheard him crying in his room. He spent his days in the University dorms but he kept his things here in our son's old room. He was talking like there was somepony else in the room. He said he was glad 'they' were silent and that he had made 'them' proud. The last thing he said was 'goodbye Mom and Dad'. We never realized he was hearing voices, before then. We told him it wasn't his fault that his mother and our son killed themselves, but he was convinced that he was. In any case, the voices stopped, so we left it alone in the hope that things would stay that way.”

        Valiant spoke up,

“Why didn't you tell anypony?”

        Obsidian replied to Valiant's query,

“Like Goody said, we didn't find out until the voices had already stopped. We kept an eye on him but to our knowledge, the voices never returned. Mend left for Ponyville to open his clinic after he graduated. We wrote him letters every week, but he never responded. We had no idea he was back in Canterlot.”

“He and I are students at the University. Princess Luna was kind enough to have every part of our first semester paid for by she and Celestia.” Valiant said.

“When you see him again, tell him we miss him. We have plenty of room here if you and he would like to stay here after your first semester is over.” Obsidian said.

“It's too early to say for sure, but I’m afraid Mend might be hearing the voices again. Do you have any advice on how to help him?” Valiant asked.

        Goody and Obsidian looked at each other then at Valiant and Lemon Lime,

“No, but he needs help. Try bringing him here so we can talk to him. He has to deal with this. We may have to force him to deal with it. We've talked about this and it's for his own good. If he won't seek help he may not be stable enough to practice medicine. If you see what I mean. Please Valiant, bring him to us as soon as you can.” Goody said pleadingly.

        Valiant rose from his seat, Lemon Lime followed suit,

“I'll do everything I can.”

“Thank you so much for talking to us.” Lemon Lime said, unusually somber and quiet.

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

        Dr. Mend breathed a sigh of relief. Trooper's surgery had been successful, his bones had been set, with the help of some pins, but he would be months recovering. A thought suddenly struck him, 'Valiant's potions would be ideal for Trooper.' Dr. Mend exited the O.R. And decided to wait for Dr. Avalon.

        Dr. Avalon left the O.R. As the nurse ponies wheeled Trooper into recovery,

“You're as good as rumors say Mend. Trooper's surgery couldn't have gone more smoothly. You've already been a great help.” she praised.

        Dr. Mend turned his head away, blushing furiously; he was not used to compliments,

“I uh, have an idea about a way we might be able to speed along Trooper's recovery.” he ventured.

        Dr. Avalon's ears perked up, highly intrigued,

“Oh, and what would that be?” she asked.

“I would, of course, need your permission to go ahead with the treatment, but I know a surefire way to have Trooper ambulatory inside a week.” Dr. Mend said.

        Dr. Avalon's eyebrows shot upward and she took a step toward Dr. Mend,

“If you're right, this new treatment could save patients weeks of recovery time and hundreds of bits. Are you sure it will work?”

“I've seen it work to lengths you wouldn't imagine. I had a patient who suffered second and third degree burns to his entire body. Through the treatment, he has no scarring whatsoever.” Dr. Mend said.

“Why haven't I heard of this before now?” Dr. Avalon asked.

“It was only recently discovered.” Dr. Mend said.

        Dr. Avalon absolutely beamed,

“We'll have to ask Trooper if he's willing to undergo the treatment. Is it expensive?”

“It won't cost him one bit. I've been sworn to provide it free of charge.” Mend said.

        Dr. Avalon looked suspicious,

“How?”

“It's a simple formula using common herbs in the correct proportions. I'll bring in several doses tomorrow. It's late and I haven't eaten all day.” Mend's stomach growled as if on cue, even as the words left his mouth.

“You're free to go anytime you like. My shift ended several hours ago.” Dr. Avalon hinted, subtly.

        Dr. Mend completely missed the hint, being about as subtle as a peel of thunder,

“Well then far be it for me to keep anypony from their dinner. I need to study tonight. I always eat while I study.”

        Dr. Avalon's ears fell somewhat,

“Oh, alright. Be sure to bring the treatment medication when you come in. Good night Mend, I'll see you tomorrow.”

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

“You've been a huge help, Live Wire. You didn't have to get involved, you know. It's my own problem.” Valiant said.

        Lemon Lime held out a hoof for Valiant to be quiet, before he began machine gunning again,

“You don't owe me a thing Valiant. Any problem you have, I do too. I already told you I don't have many friends, the truth is, I don't have but one, and that's you. Nopony can handle everything all by themselves. I'm glad to help. I help ponies every day, it's my job, and it’s what comes naturally to me. I like helping others do what they can't, in a way, I protect them. I hate very little, but what I do hate is seeing somepony who can't help themselves, go unnoticed and uncared for by others. I know that feeling. Nopony can help me with my disorder, so I give others what I can't have. It's taken me years of practice to be able to levitate a full grown Earth pony, but it's so worth it to see the looks on their faces when they take their first steps without my help. I give them back their lives. You have no idea how damaging it is to a pony, not being able to walk, or feed themselves, or do anything. It's depressing and in time it can destroy you. You may not believe it, but I'm actually very patient, I just talk a lot. You absolutely cannot be impatient with somepony who has to relearn to use their legs again. It can take years and if you try to rush them, you end up hurting them and they can end up even more damaged than before. I have to help. If not me then who? Who can do it? I have the ability to do something about it and I choose to. I don't generally care if I don't have many friends. If that's the price I have to pay to help others, then so be it. I absolutely refuse to watch anypony suffer needlessly.”

        Valiant was surprised at the intensity his friend spoke with,

“I never knew you felt so strongly about it. Boy, if more ponies could hear that speech, the University would be overflowing with medical students.”

        Lemon Lime shook his head,

“Nothing I say can make anypony do something. I might be inspiring to a small degree, but nothing can force a pony to do something they wouldn't normally do by themselves. It might be inspiring, sure, but they would have had to already been contemplating it on their own. Anyway, I'm starving. Come on, I know a great Bar where they serve the best hay fries in Equestria.”

“I'm sorry Live Wire, but I have to go back to the dorm. I need to try to get Mend to agree to visit his grandparents.” Valiant said.

        Lemon Lime's ears fell, drooping down his head,

“Alright.” he said, then perked right back up, “Can we hang out tomorrow then?”

        Valiant couldn't help but to laugh at his friend's antics,

“I'll do my level best, I promise.”

        Valiant and Lemon Lime parted ways, Valiant heading back to the dorm, and Lemon Lime to the Bar he liked so much.

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

        Valiant trotted up the stairs toward the dorm room, dreading having to talk to Mend. Exiting the stairwell, he headed down the hallway until he reached 317. He halted at the door and took a deep breath before entering. Valiant opened the door and to his surprise, Mend was busy with a mortar and pestle, mixing up some roots, flowers, and berries that Valiant was intimately familiar with. Next to Mend, on his desk, was a large number of small, cork-topped vials.

        Mend looked up, spotting Valiant,

“How much would an average adult pegasus with four broken legs need in order to be completely healed in a week or so?”

        Valiant was only too happy to answer,

“Three doses. One every 2 &fraCSSheightCSS2; to 3 days. You already have enough there to last you for two months at the least. Are there any pending natural disasters I should know about?”

“No, but there is some unicorn levitating and dropping ponies in the streets.” Dr. Mend said humorlessly.

“Blast! I'd hoped I had talked her out of that. Is that how the pegasus was injured?” Valiant asked.

“You had a run it with her?” Dr. Mend inquired, he was obviously worried.

“I did. I believe she was suffering from C.M.E.S. Her eyes were solid purple, a muddy disgusting purple.” Valiant said.

“That means her eyes were naturally purple to begin with. I've treated 'Caster's Stroke' before. It happened to Twilight a few times. The unicorn's coat, mane, tail, and their entire eyes change color to match their iris color. Is that what you were researching at the Library?” Dr. Mend asked.

“That was part of it.” Valiant said neutrally.

“She needs to be treated immediately. I'll bet that book didn't tell you that unicorns suffering from C.M.E.S. also experience paranoid delusions did it?” Dr. Mend asked.

        Valiant shrugged,

“It may have. I don't think I read the entire passage.”

“Well if it didn't, that book needs to be updated badly. Unicorns in the throes of C.M.E.S. don't know what they're doing and through that they can end up keeping themselves in a perpetual state of C.M.E.S. until it kills them. They become sporadic, random and dangerous. They will cycle through emotions and moods rapidly, laughing one minute and crying the next. Now, a unicorn's power grows steadily when they push themselves and they have to push themselves hard when they cast while suffering from C.M.E.S. so you do the math. If somepony doesn't stop her and soon, this is going to be a calamity of epic proportions.” Dr. Mend said worriedly.

“Somepony has to stop her.” Valiant said.

“Who?” Dr. Mend asked, “You? She'd swat either of us down like a bug. The combined muscle of four Earth ponies might be able to do it, but that would end poorly. In her confused state she would probably kill herself or somepony else or even level a couple of city blocks. I've heard of other unicorns overpowering one who was suffering from C.M.E.S. by cutting them off from their magic, but I've theorized that if the unicorn could be rendered unconscious, say by a drug, she could be subdued that way.”

“I'll see what I can do. Hey, um, there's something I wanted . . . “ Valiant began.

        Dr. Mend interrupted him,

“What are you doing tomorrow?”

“I'm planning to go to the apothecary to see if I got the job.” Valiant said.

“I'd like you to come to a nearby clinic, tomorrow morning. I'm going to present your fast-healing potion to the chief there and hopefully administer it to the injured pegasus. Oh, and Valiant?' Dr. Mend baited, ”He looks just like you.”

        Valiant's train of thought vanished,

“What?” he asked softly.

“His coat, mane, and tail are exactly the same shade as yours; his face is nearly identical too. I only spotted a few differences. His eyes are bright orange, your legs are more defined with muscle, and he has no cutie-mark, as in he never developed one.” Dr. Mend explained.

“Is the clinic still open?” Valiant asked.

“He's not going anywhere tonight. He probably hasn't even woken up yet. We had to take him to surgery; he'll be there when we arrive tomorrow. Now, what was it you were going to say?” Dr. Mend asked, turning back to the desk.

        Without thinking, Valiant blurted out,

“Does your family know you're here?”

        Mend froze and stepped slowly back from the desk, he turned his head and looked at Valiant evenly,

“Why?” he asked sharply.

“I'll go with you tomorrow, if you come with me to visit your grandparents.” Valiant said.

        Mend's face contorted in anger,

“How dare you go behind my back!” he bellowed, “How dare you meddle in my life! My life is my business, stay out of it!”

“I'm trying to help you.” Valiant said, trying to remain calm.

        Mend continued with his raised voice,

“I don't need any help! Not from you or anypony else!”

        'Time to play my trump card.' Valiant thought,

“You're hearing them again aren't you?”

        Mend turned his head away, he couldn't lie to Valiant’s face,

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Yes, you do. Whether or not you admit it, you have a serious issue and you have to deal with it. I would never have guessed you were only in your mid thirties. Mend, you look like you're in your fifties! This is killing you!” Valiant said emphatically.

“Leave me alone.” Mend said softly.

        Valiant had enough,

“I can't Mend! I refuse to watch you do this to yourself! You're my friend! I've already lost one friend needlessly! You said it was your job to keep other ponies from an early grave, well that's exactly where you're headed! Like you, I believe it's my job to keep others from the clutches of death, and that includes you!”

        Mend rounded on Valiant,

“Do you think I like being this way? The only time they ever stopped was when I was the best! I have to make them proud!”

“They're dead Mend . . . “ Valiant began.

        Mend interrupted him,

“Because of me! I failed them! The shame of my failure was so great they killed themselves! Do you know what it's like living with that?”

“No! But I do know what it's like carrying the burden of death! It wasn't your fault Mend! Of any pony in all of Equestria, I should know about blame! I want to help you!” Valiant said pouring out his heart.

“You can't help me!” Mend yelled.

“You haven't even tried! I'd do anything to help you! You've already given up hope without even trying! There is always hope, Mend! I'm living proof of that! You've pushed away everypony who wants to help you, except me!”Valiant responded, finally letting his feelings out.

“Leave me alone!” Dr. Mend yelled hoarsely.

“It was NEVER your fault Mend!” Valiant yelled with driving passion, “I don't care whether or not you want to hear it, you need to hear it! You want to talk about failing? You're failing at life by staying like this! Do you honestly think your parents wanted you to work yourself to death before you're forty? Furthermore, what do you have to show for all your obsession? Your grades die with you Mend! You have no family, no wife, and no foals! You have a great talent for medicine which could be passed on! You want to know what failure is? LOOK AT YOUR LIFE! You're robbing untold millions of the benefit of your legacy, because you have none! And it's all because you won't let anypony help you!”

        Valiant was out of breath and breathing heavily, but he continued on,

“Your grandparents love you Mend. Love has nothing to do with accomplishments or lack thereof. They're already proud of you, for just being you. You're failing them by not seeking help. You're breaking their hearts Mend. They already lost a son, don't make them loose you too.” he pleaded.

        Mend didn't speak, didn't move a muscle. He stood in place, not moving, like a statue. His ears were empty. There were no voices, there was no yelling, and there was no blame. For a few blessed minutes, the voices had ceased, and Valiant's words had struck with power. Mend starred off into space, and saw it all again: his whole childhood flashed before his eyes, shaded in a new light with a new perspective. The pieces of his life began falling into place, reality began to sink in, but Mend hand no way of dealing with it all. As far as emotions went, he was still a foal. Silent tears slipped out of Mend's eyes and spilled down his prematurely-aged face. Mend shook with a grief he had never felt before in his life, it was one he had always been too busy for.

        Valiant slowly walked up to his friend,

“You have to let us help you, Mend. We want to help you, but we can't if you don’t let us.” Valiant planted his forehead against Mend's and closed his eyes, “Please,” he whispered, “Please, let us help you.”

        Mend put a heavy hoof around Valiant's shoulder, clinging to his friend like a life-preserver,

“They're dead Valiant.” he sobbed brokenly. Mend’s voice was chocked with sorrow, “Oh, Goddess, they're dead!”

        Mend closed his eyes and bit his lower lip, he wanted the rare but radiant and gentle comfort of his mother, he wanted the strong, confident, and silent support of his father. Mend realized, for the first time really realized, he would never have that again. He lowered his head against Valiant's chest and began to cry out the first tiny part of the massive burden he had been carrying around for most of his tortured life. His grief came in uncontrollable waves of sobs and Mend found that he could no longer stand. He collapsed. His full weight suddenly too much for his own legs. Strangely, he didn’t fall, but the fact only dimly registered in his mind. Mend, almost subconsciously, realized something. Next to him, was a source of strength he had never known, had never acknowledged. Right there, next to him was a stallion who had torn down the walls of Mend's reality, but had stayed right there with him, supporting his full weight without complaint. Valiant gently lowered Dr. Mend down to the floor, but stayed right where he was, in front of his friend.

        Valiant felt the hot tears burn their way down his shoulder as Mend sobbed again,

“They're dead.”

        Valiant wrapped his left hoof around Mend's shoulder, his head followed suit,

“I know.” he said holding his friend tightly.

        Mend seemed to simply fall apart. He clutched at Valiant like he was trying to absorb the other stallion,

“I can't do this anymore, Valiant!”

“Will you let us help you?” Valiant asked remaining still.

        Against Valiant's shoulder, Mend nodded weakly, the nods becoming stronger by the moment,

“I don't know what to do! Please, help me! I don't want to be alone anymore! I don't want to be alone! Please Valiant! I don't want to be alone!” he cried, his voice becoming a whisper, “I don't want to be alone.”

        Mend's cries turned to soft whimpers, as he held onto the only solid thing he knew he had, his friend.

        Valiant hugged Mend close, holding onto the first precious signs of recovery, and whispered,

“You never were, my friend, and you'll never be again.”

        Had either Stallion been inclined to raise their head and open their eyes, they would have noticed a beautiful pair of Celestia-sized golden wings resting on Valiant’s shoulders, precisely where his wing-stumps were. They didn’t stay very long, but they were there, just the same.


Interlude

        Princess Luna sat in Celestia's room, high in the upper levels of the Royal Palace, in the calm, cool of her beautiful night watching over all of Equestria through a huge window. She sat with her eyes closed, in absolute silence, remembering her experience a Nightmare Moon. She remembered back to when the initial change had come over her and shuddered at the memory.  

        Her vision shifted, back to that very night.

        Princess Luna stood high on a cloud, overlooking Equestria, it was the same cloud she and Celestia met at, each and every dawn and dusk. She looked down at the ponies sleeping peacefully on the ground beneath her and had to put forth a conscious effort not to openly sneer.

        Luna dug her hoof at the cloud, she was agitated, more than agitated,

“For hundreds of your lifetimes, I have provided you with a cool, clear night after each day. You relish and play in my sister’s day, but you shun and sleep through my beautiful night. You love Celestia and everything she brings, but what about me? Would any of you, even know me if I was to walk among you right now?” she asked the open air.

        Princess Luna hung her head, she already knew the answer,

“I’ve heard it with my own ears now, for years. You ask each other and Celestia the same inane questions, ‘It sure must be a lot of work to raise both the Sun and Moon every day, when do you sleep?’ You don’t even remember me now do you?” Princess Luna stamped her hoof, tearing a large chunk out of the cloud, “Why do I continue on like this? What is the point, when nopony cares? Would an occasional ‘thank you’ be so much to ask? Without my night, you would never have any time to sleep, and I understand that, but the least you could do is acknowledge me!” the Moon Princess became frustrated, “If only one of you would just look up and see my night sky, even for a moment, it would be enough, some kind of acknowledgement, something. Give me a look, a nod, a simple comment, even if it’s just a whisper. Give me something!” she cried loudly.

        Down on the Earth below, not a single pony stirred. They did not hear her. She had made her night too perfect and every pony slept right on through her cries. The Moon Princess lay down on the cloud and wept bitter tears, ‘They don’t love me anymore. They don’t even remember me now. I’ve become ‘the other one’, a waste, useless and unnecessary.’ The Moon Princess wept and wept all through her night. Her sorrow had long ago turned to jealousy, and that night it turned from jealousy into bitterness.

        Princess Luna didn’t care enough, right then, to stop the emotion from filling her. She had enough, ‘I will MAKE them see my night. I will keep the Moon up until they see it.’ she thought, making her decision easily.

        Princess Celestia called out to her little sister as she ascended toward their cloud,

“I’m coming Luna,” she laughed happily, “Make way for the dawn!”

        Princess Celestia landed on the cloud smiling hugely, she pranced a merry little dance on the cloud top, extra happy that morning,

“Good morning little sister!” she beamed, “Are you ready to lower the Moon? I know you must be tired, I can take over now and you can go to sleep.”

        Princess Luna despised her big sister’s perky morning attitude, it made her even more angry. Luna walked over to the side of the cloud and looked down on the still sleeping ponies below her.

        She lowered her head and gritted her teeth, then turned toward Celestia with bitterness in her voice,

“No.” she whispered.

        Celestia stopped prancing on the cloud as if she had been stabbed. She turned her head toward her sister slowly, eyes wide and mouth agape, ‘What? This must just be a misunderstanding.’ Celestia turned her whole body toward her younger sister and for the first time, noticed the hurt behind Luna’s eyes, ‘What’s going on?

        Celestia took a careful step toward her younger sister, concern in her eyes, voice, and posture,

“Luna, what’s wrong?” she asked. Luna turned her head away, but Celestia pursued her, “What happened? Luna, please tell me.”

        Princess Luna raised her eyes and looked Celestia in the eyes,

“I’m not lowering the Moon.” she said, “They’ve forgotten me.” Luna said, eyes beginning to burn, “They’ve forgotten me but I will MAKE them remember! I’ll MAKE them appreciate my night for once! I will not lower the Moon until they love me again!”

        Celestia was shocked, Luna sounded nothing like her normal self,

“Luna please, you can’t stop the cycle of night and day, it isn’t natural . . .”

        Luna screamed,

“Is it natural for me to be unappreciated for all these years! Is it natural for a Princess to be ignored by her own subjects? To receive no respect or acknowledgement for what she does! I’m worthless to them now, Celestia! The only Princess they acknowledge is you! They don’t want me! This is going to end right now! I do just as much for them as you do! They will love me and they will love my night or they will never see the Sun again!” Luna didn’t actually mean her last statement, she was merely venting the bitterness in her soul.

        Suddenly time seemed to stop.

        The cloud vanished, Celestia vanished, everything vanished. Luna stood in a dark nowhere, there was a little light but no light source, she stood but there was no ground. A figure stood in front of her, one she couldn’t identify, but felt familiar all the same.

        Princess Luna addressed the figure,

“Who are you?” she asked, “Speak! For I am in no mood for games!”

        A deep husky voice addressed the Moon Princess,

“Temper, temper, little Princess. You’re not acting so royal right now. You have been forming me from the most denied, tortured part of your bitter little mind.”

“Who are you?” Luna asked.

“I am the embodiment of your pain and desire. I am the entity formed by your fevered dreams, your nightmare, if you will. I am Nightmare Moon and I have an offer for you. Indulge me for a time, allow me to grasp your power, all of it, and I shall give you what you most desire. I can see into your mind’s eye, for it is my prison. You are afraid to take any truly drastic steps to achieve what you yearn for, I however am under no such hindrance.” Nightmare Moon’s voice seemed to come from right behind Luna, “Think about it, my mistress.” she whispered seductively, “Everything you want, everything you’ve cried yourself to sleep over for the past several thousand years, can be yours. I am your humble servant and I shall do your bidding. I was born of your desire. Every dark urge that you fear to act upon I will do for you. My offer is only for you, my creator. You made me and to that, I am yours and yours alone.”

“You can do it? You can get them to love me?” Princess Luna asked hopefully, desperation tinting her voice.

        Nightmare Moon laughed,

“One way or another, they will bow to you.” she assured.

“Do it then.” Princess Luna knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left her lips.

        Nightmare Moon appeared on the cloud, clad in dark shimmering armor, thin and unhealthy, yet with a morbid and vivacious macabre malignancy. Princess Celestia was utterly shocked at the appearance of the mare that manifested where her little sister had been only moments before. From her cloud-top vantage point the dark mare spotted the white stone city beneath her. Nightmare Moon drew a deep breath and exhaled, breathing thick fog down into the city below. Its inhabitants ran out into the streets, drawn by the foggy darkness which heralded the dark one's manifestation. The fog in the continual darkness frightened them, one and all, 'Where is Princess Celestia's day? Where is the Sun? I can't see!'

        The evil mare laughed harshly at their plight,

“I will keep them in darkness for a time and then pull the fog away. They will embrace the night. They will love the night for it will be the only light they have! The night will last forever!” inside her, Princess Luna screamed.

        The Princess could see through Nightmare Moon's eyes but she was helpless to act. She called out to her captor,

“No! This isn't what I wanted! Nightmare Moon, you lied to me! They can't live without the Sun! Their crops will die and their skin will pale! They take nourishment from what the Sun provides! I didn't want this! I just wanted t be appreciated as an equal, not as a superior to Celestia! I wanted a longer night, not an eternal one! I just wanted them to see the night, not become prisoners of it! Stop this, please!”

        The Princess' words fell on uncaring ears. Nightmare Moon had been born of Princess Luna's bitterness. The Princess had fueled the emotions for years beyond count, giving Nightmare Moon more potency with each passing moment. Nightmare Moon not only took control of Princess Luna's power but her body as well, she needed a physical form. From the deepest depths of her new power she had magically manifested into a creature which represented the truest form of what she was and what she desired. Nightmare Moon chose a form loosely based on that of Princess Luna, but of an equal size to Princess Celestia, whom Luna envied so terribly.

“Luna?” Celestia cried, “Luna, what happened to you?” she took a step toward the new and fearsome mare who now stood in front of her.

“Silence foal!” Nightmare Moon bellowed, “Your pathetic sister has given her power to me now! I am Nightmare Moon, and I will give your sister what she desires! You have ignored her, just like the rest of your subjects, and now you will pay! She would have never been bold enough to confront you like this, so she gave her power to me instead! Now I shall rule Equestria and you will rule nothing! This land is mine now! Be gone!” with her final words, Nightmare Moon lowered her head and issued forth a bolt of magic which struck a shocked Celestia.

        The Princess of the Sun was not a creature of violence, nor was Princess Luna. The notion of violence went against their natures. Nightmare Moon had no such restraint. Princess Celestia vanished from sight and Nightmare Moon thought she had won. She laughed long and loud, her victory simple and quick.

        Centuries before Nightmare Moon had entered the picture, the two Alicorn sisters had born witness to the types of violence perpetrated upon the ponies by the various creatures which inhabited Equestria. Families were slaughtered, crops were destroyed, and homes were raised to the ground. The land of Equestria, in those days, was a place which bore little resemblance to the Equestria most knew, and the same was applied to its inhabitants. The ponies struggled to survive on a daily basis, and had become ruthless and selfish. The monsters had dominated the ponies and had obtained complete control over them. They forced the ponies to build them a great fortress high up in the mountains with a small city at its base to house their slaves. Within this city, the ponies were subjected to torture, starvation, and death at the whims of their masters.

The prominent characteristics which governed the ponies’ actions were based on what they knew at the time:

Lying, to conceal their true motives and keep themselves safe,

Cruelty, to any creature weaker than themselves and make others fear them,

Sorrow, for their lot in life as forced slaves and the torments that it brought,

Greed, to keep anything they had because they had so little,

Betrayal, they would turn any rebellious ponies over to their masters for safety or food,

Banality, the ponies had lost their identities, they simply existed in a state of perpetual existence without meaning, there was no magic and no wonder in them only an empty lack of everything,

Despair, for the ponies had lost the desire to strive for something better and saw no possible good in their future,

Impatience, for their needs were great and constant,

Ignorance, for they grasped at any chance to obtain what they needed without thought to feasibility or likelihood of success,

Denial, for they refused to believe there was anything better for them despite their strengths and abilities,

Laziness, for they refused to try to better themselves believing it would be useless, and finally,

Hate, for the ponies had lost the urge to forgive any misdeed or infraction no matter how minor or accidental.

        Neither sister had it within themselves to take up violent action against the marauding creatures, but their subjects, like Nightmare Moon, had no such innate restraints. A small group of ponies, six mares and six stallions, four of each type of pony, banded together to combat the aggressors. The small group used cunning and strategy, might and main to out-wit the monsters and try to force them out of the ponies’ land, but they simply didn't have the power necessary to do so. The small group fought valiantly, but to no effective end. They could use violence, but none of them had the power to make their will widely known and respected. As soon as one ravaging group was dealt with, another simply sprung up to take its place. The ponies fought an unending battle that they knew they would ultimately loose, but still they fought.

        The two sisters, seeing the bravery of the twelve ponies, entrusted them with magical gifts, each of which gave them power. To the mares, they gave the Elements of Harmony, to bring back to Equestria what had been taken by their enemies: Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, and Magic.

        To the stallions, they gave the Elements of Peace, to return to Equestria what had led to their inability to free themselves from their oppressors and work together: Hope, Patience, Discernment, Acceptance, Perseverance, and Forgiveness.

        The physical forms of the Elements of Harmony were jewelry for the mares, so that other ponies could look upon them and know the beauty of such traits. The mares had been the inspiration and were the true might behind the group. The Elements of Harmony were given the combined power of both Princesses to combat their enemies offensively, each Element represented by a powerful jewel. With their power, the mares could destroy any enemy which threatened Equestria or its citizens.

        The physical forms of the Elements of Peace were suits of armor for the stallions, so that other ponies would feel protected and know their safety was not an idea but a physical thing which could be touched and felt. The Elements of Peace were given the strength and resilience of Equestria itself to protect the Elements of Harmony and all of the ponies who needed such protection. They were the defensive line against whose combined might, no force could break through.

        The ponies, once free of their captors, had all gathered in one forest for safety. Within this forest was the original home of the Elements of Peace and Harmony who had named it The Everfree Forrest in honor of their crusade against their oppressors. The ponies built a great city within the deepest reaches of The Everfree Forrest. They also built the Palace of the Pony Sisters for Celestia and Luna, whom they named Princesses, and their rulers. As the years passed, the population of the city grew and overflowed its walls. The ponies knew they could not stay in their beloved forest but remembered the massive fortress their oppressors had built and journeyed, en-masse to rebuild the fortress and make their new city there where they could expand as needed. Celestia and Luna joined them and helped to raise the city walls and formed a new Royal Palace, both right out of the white marble that was the foundation of the original fortress. The two Princesses abandoned their old home and joined their subjects in their new home which they named Canterlot.

        Throughout the ages of Equestria, each Element was given back to the Princesses once its bearer passed on. The Elements of Harmony were given back to Princess Celestia and the Elements of Peace were given back to Princess Luna. The Princesses had designed the Elements of Peace and Harmony to metamorphose into small stone spheres so the Princesses could utilize them in a time of need if violence was not called for. If violence was required, the Elements would, invariably be taken up by the descendants of the original twelve ponies, and their true power could be used in full.

        Nightmare Moon laughed long and loud, her victory seemingly simple and quick. Her armor was beautiful and dark. Using Princess Luna's knowledge of the Elements, Nightmare Moon had summoned to her and subsequently absorbed the Elements of Peace, forming them into her own armor. Through Luna's knowledge of the Elements of Peace Nightmare Moon knew there was only one thing which could destroy her armor and threaten her, the Elements of Harmony. The previous bearers of the Elements of Harmony had passed away years before and there had been no need of them since, so they remained unused. Nightmare Moon wanted that power.

        She launched herself off the cloud and landed down on the ground, right in the center of Canterlot,

“Bow before me my peasants! I am Nightmare Moon and I am your ruler now!” she laughed.

        One tiny Earth pony filly trotted right up to Nightmare Moon, indignantly,

“We don't bow to anypony except Celestia!” she said punctuating the statement with a kick against Nightmare Moon's armored foreleg.

        Nightmare Moon looked down at the brave filly and smiled an evil smile,

“Well, it looks like my new subjects need an example of what happens to those who defy me.”

        Nightmare Moon's horn began to glow. She telekinetically forced the little unicorn filly's face into the dirt on the ground, beginning to smother her,

“I said bow to me, foal!”

        The filly struggled against the power being used against her but could not break free. Nightmare Moon pushed her down harder and heard the telltale snap as the bones in the filly's muzzle broke. She screamed and gasped for air, but Nightmare Moon held her tight, laughing maniacally. A sudden gust of wind broke Nightmare Moon's concentration and nudged her to the side. It was a minor annoyance at most, but the filly was free. Nightmare Moon turned to face the pony who dared to assault her and was faced with a very upset, slightly charred, Princess Celestia.

        Nightmare Moon turned to face the Princess,

“I thought I had destroyed you. No matter, the Elements of Harmony will see to that soon enough.” Nightmare Moon took wing and launched herself into the sky, heading right toward The Palace of the Pony Sisters where the Elements of Harmony were hidden.

        Celestia, in her weakened state, could not summon up the magic to summon the Elements of Harmony to her as Nightmare Moon had with the Elements of Peace. Never the less, Celestia took to the sky, not to give chase, but to stall Nightmare Moon until her own power had returned to its full strength.

        Nightmare Moon reflexively pulled back as Celestia soared directly in front of her,

“Return Luna!” she cried, “Return to me, my sister!” Celestia commended.

        Nightmare Moon only laughed,

“Or what?” she asked, “What can you do? I know everything Luna knows. I know you cannot attack me even if it’s to save your own life!” the evil mare punctuated the statement with another blast of her power aimed at Celestia.

        The Sun Princess dodged nimbly out of the way. The blast of destructive magical power flew downward and struck the heart of Celestia's prized University. The University buildings began to crumble, the cries of its inhabitants, rising into the air around Nightmare Moon and Celestia. The Princess of the Sun turned in mid air and focused her power, trying desperately to hold the buildings up long enough for the occupants to escape safely. Nightmare Moon took the chance and flew off in the direction of the Elements of Harmony once again.

        For the second time, Nightmare Moon had to pull back, mid-flight, as a team of pegasi intercepted her, pummeling her with their hooves. They attacked from every direction in groups of three and four. They did little but harass the evil mare, but it was something, and it was all they could do. They kept up the attack without abating for several minutes. Nightmare Moon aimed blasts of her power at the ponies barring her way, but the pegasi were too quick and the blasts landed within the city destroying large chunks of it with each explosive impact. She snared one pegasus with telekinesis and threw her into another one, like a battering ram. Using this method, Nightmare Moon broke the attack of the pegasi down to nothing. She flung the bodies down toward the ground, smiling. Her smile faltered, as unicorns on the ground began catching the pegasi with their magic and landing them safely, while Earth ponies kicked rocks at her like little missiles. Nightmare Moon turned toward where Celestia had been. The Princess of the Sun was nowhere to be seen, and the University had collapsed.

        Nightmare Moon smiled then and laughed as she winged away toward the Elements of Harmony once more. She flew as fast as she could, allowing Luna's memory to guide her to the ancient Palace of the Pony Sisters. She arrived and landed in the old Throne Room, there on a series of pedestals rested the Elements of Harmony. Nightmare Moon laughed haughtily to herself and casually trotted toward her new weapon. Suddenly six pegasi erupted from within the circle of pedestals, each grabbing a sphere, and flew off in a V-formation.

        Nightmare Moon reared back and bellowed,

“NO!” as she took to the air again.

        The pegasi flew in a tight pattern, but Nightmare Moon was faster. She reached the pegasus who was the closest to her and struck the poor stallion's back with her hooves. The stallion fell from the air dazed, injured and dropping the sphere he had been carrying. Nightmare Moon seized the sphere and let the stallion fall, choosing to continue the chase. It had been a mistake. The stallion's rainbow colored mane and tail flared out behind him as he fell, unconscious, toward the hard, unforgiving ground below. He regained consciousness and pulled up swiftly. He looked toward his fellow pegasi and the sight of Nightmare Moon gaining on another pegasus. He felt a surge of strength flow through him and flew with all his might, directly on an intercept course with the space between the dangerous Alicorn and the other pegasi.

        He flew as fast and hard as he could, pouring every ounce of speed he had at his disposal into his wing motion. Nightmare Moon reached out her hoof to strike-down another pegasus. The stallion burst between the two and a brilliant flare of rainbow colors exploded out in every direction with a thunderous crack, stunning and blinding Nightmare Moon momentarily. The stallion hit the evil Alicorn and took back the sphere. The six pegasi flew with all their might back toward the Palace of the Pony Sisters where Celestia waited.

        Celestia had taken advantage of Nightmare Moon's distraction back in Canterlot and had the six pegasi follow her back to the ruins to provide a distraction while Celestia's power regenerated. The six pegasi carried only round boulders. Celestia had cast an illusion spell on them and hidden the real Elements of Harmony.

        Nightmare Moon shook off the effect of the Sonic Rainboom and scouted around for the six pegasi. She spotted them flying back toward the ruins and sped after them, gaining quickly. She may have been evil, but she was no idiot, she had a new weapon in her arsenal, her own version of the Sonic Rainboom. The pegasi, seeing Nightmare Moon gaining on them, dropped down into the Everfree Forrest flying between the trees with much more agility than the evil Alicorn could muster. Nightmare Moon flew down to the forest floor and focused her magic. Instead of using speed to do it, Nightmare Moon simply used all her magic to cast her own version of the Sonic Rainboom: the Dark Nova.

        Malignant darkness spread out around her in every direction, mutating the very fabric of The Everfree Forrest, changing it and warping it. The very dirt changed, every animal, every tree. Nightmare Moon hung her head gasping for breath, the spell had taken almost everything she had, but the Everfree Forrest was her domain now. The heard the cries of the pegasi as the Dark Nova overtook them. Nightmare Moon felt satisfied, they could not escape her power now. She trotted along toward the cries of the fallen pegasi as quickly as she could.

        She spotted them laying on the far side of the old bridge, which the ancient ponies had used for defense instead of a wall. Nightmare Moon trotted triumphantly over the bridge and up to the fallen pegasi,

“The Elements of Harmony are mine!” she laughed.

        A crystal clear voice called out to her from the darkness,

“Be bound!”

        Nightmare Moon turned just in time to see Celestia standing at the base of the ancient Palace, with the Elements of Harmony floating in the air around her. The evil mare's legs, wings, muzzle, and horn were bound in place by immovable magic.

        Celestia gracefully walked up to Nightmare Moon,

“You were correct, Nightmare Moon, I cannot destroy you, but I can bind you and I can banish you.” Celestia planted her head against the evil mare's face, “Luna, I know you're in there, little sister. I'll find a way to bring you back, I promise.” Celestia stepped back, “Nightmare Moon you are hereby banished to the Moon, until the stars align exactly as they are right now, in a thousand years.”

        A ribbon of rainbow colored light swirled all around Nightmare Moon, enveloping her completely. The light ribbon shot up to the Moon, depositing her there to be imprisoned there for a thousand years. As a reminder of the kind of evil entombed therein, Celestia placed a shadow on the Moon in the shape of a mare's head.

        Princess Luna returned to the present.

        She shook her head, clearing away the memories. Since her emancipation from Nightmare Moon, Princess Luna had poured herself into all the history of Equestria she could. A thousand years was a lot to catch up on. Celestia eventually decided to form a Royal guard and fashioned their armor after the original armor of the Elements of Peace, since the originals were bound to Nightmare Moon for a thousand years.

        Luna smiled to herself remembering when she had asked Celestia about why Nightmare Moon hadn't been able to use the Elements of Harmony against her when she returned,

“I had no way of permanently defeating Nightmare Moon, but I knew that she had a way to eliminate me for good. I kept a close watch on the descendants of the original Elements of Harmony and I determined which fillies displayed the appropriate traits and just made sure they all wound up together. They could destroy Nightmare Moon where I could only imprison her. I hid myself and the Element of Magic with me, so Nightmare Moon couldn't find it. I hid on the Moon after she escaped, it was the one place she would have never looked, and the one place where I could watch and make sure everything went according to plan. I erased all knowledge of the Element of Magic from history books and put the rest of the Elements of Harmony back in the ruins to ensure the battle took place there, away from our subjects. As for the Elements of Peace, that is your domain and I didn’t have the heart to subvert you, especially in your absence.”

        Celestia hung her head sadly,

“I had no idea you felt so abandoned, Luna. I have no excuse for my oversight. I’m your sister, I should have known. I'm so sorry you had to endure for so long alone my sister. I wish there had been another way, but I didn't have time to come up with an alternative.” Celestia had lowered her head, nuzzling her little sister, “I love you Luna, I missed you so much.”

        Princess Luna smiled at the memory, then glanced down at Celestia's sleeping form next to her,

“Don't you worry, big sister. You raised the Moon for me for a thousand years, now I'll raise the Sun for you. Keep your strength and take a well-deserved rest. It’s my turn to work now. Sleep tight, Celestia.”


Trials of the Elements

Part 5

        Big Macintosh finally reached the gates of Canterlot, late in the evening. He had never been to visit a big city before and was thusly awestruck by the sight. He slowly walked up to the gates marveling at them. The gates were massive. The walls flanking the gates were, Big Macintosh judged, thirty paces tall, with the gates themselves close on to twenty paces. The walls were ivory colored, seamless, and gleamed even in the dim light of Luna's Moon. The gates themselves seemed to glow in the pale moonlight, each intricately carved door reflecting golden colored light in every visible direction.

        Big Macintosh entered the city and gazed, fixedly at the enormous white-wash colored buildings as he strode past, each one a marvel unto itself. Big Mac's ears picked up the sound of some pony's hooves striking the street in front of him and he quickly sidestepped to avoid running into them. He almost succeeded.

        The other pony, a lime green unicorn with a yellow mane and tail flopped back onto his haunches,

“Ouch!” he said, “Did I run into a brick wall? I don't usually run . . . “ the unicorn spoke quickly, but stopped mid-sentence when he looked up and saw Big Macintosh starring down at him, “Oh uh, I'm sorry.” he said eyes wide, “Are you O.K.?”

“Ayup.” Big Macintosh responded with his usual comment.

        Big Mac reached down and picked up the unicorn by the scruff of the neck with his muzzle, and set him down in a standing position.

“Wow, you sure are big. I don't think I've ever seen a pony as big as you. You're solid too, but then again I know a couple of other ponies like that.” the unicorn said, glancing at the red Earth pony's saddle bags.

        Big Macintosh shrugged,

“Ayup.”

        The unicorn looked up, his attention drawn away from the saddle bags,

“You don't say much do you?”

“Not unless Ah have somethin' to say.” Big Mac responded.

“Hey, I just noticed your saddle bags, are you new to Canterlot? I've never seen you before. Then again Canterlot is a big place and I can't be expected to know every pony now can I? That would be so cool if I did though, then I could go anywhere and . . . “ the unicorn stopped when he noticed, Big Macintosh was looking around, “I'm rambling aren't I?” he asked.

“Ayup.”

“Are you hungry? You look like you've been on the road for a while. I know a really, really, really, really, really nice bar where they serve the best hay fries. It's funny I bumped into you, I was just headed there myself. I wanted a friend of mine to join me but he had other things to do, so I just decided to go by myself, unless you want to come with me. Would you like to come with me? Oh duh, where are my manners? I'm Lemon Lime but everypony just calls me Live Wire. I never understood why. Oh well, so what's your name? ” the unicorn asked.

“Mah name's Big Macintosh.” the red pony introduced, extending his hoof.

        Lemon Lime took it to shake, but ended up being lifted and lowered several times,

“ . . . “ Lemon Lime's eyes were the size of saucers, “ . . . so would like to join me? . . . could use the company.” he said voice cracking.

“Ah am a mite peckish. Ah guess Ah'll join you.” Big Macintosh said smoothly.

“Alright then, follow me. Uh, you don't mind if I talk do you?” Lemon Lime asked.

“Nope.”

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

        Big Macintosh followed Lemon Lime to an unassuming place with a sign above the door that simply said 'BAR'. Big Macintosh had heard of bars but he had never had a chance to go to one; there were no bars in Ponyville. Lemon Lime opened the door and Big Macintosh stepped inside. The place was dimly lit but Big Mac could see that it was packed with ponies, more than half were mares and the vast majority were unicorns. Most sat at tables, drinking from mugs, others were watching a pretty unicorn filly in a fancy dress, dance up on a small stage. To his right, he saw a long counter with stools in front of it, and a slightly plump unicorn mare behind the counter cleaning glasses. Her coat was the color of red clay and her mane and tail were a shining silver color. She spoke freely with the ponies seated at the counter, laughing occasionally at some joke or other. The place seemed nice enough and Big Mac had emptied his canteen long before reaching Canterlot so he was both hungry and thirsty, 'It kind of resembles the juice bars Pinkie Pie has at some of her parties.'

        Lemon Lime hopped up onto one of the bar stools and patted one right next to him,

“Come on over.”

        Big Macintosh walked up to the counter and slid his saddle bags over the seat of the stool, then sat down atop the straps. Lemon Lime held up his hoof and waved the clay colored mare over. She looked up and smiled at seeing him.

        She walked over briskly,

“What can I get you Live Wire?” she asked.

“Give me an order of hay fries and a tall mug of your house special. I'm paying for me friend here. So get him whatever he wants.” Lemon Lime said.

        The mare looked at Big Macintosh,

“What can I get for you big fella?” she asked casually.

“You got any sasaparilla, ma'am?” Big Mac asked

“I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that one. You look like you can handle your stuff, so how about a Colt's Island Iced Tea?” she offered.

“Ayup.” Big Mac replied. He didn't know what the Colt's Island part was about, but iced tea sounded good to him.

“Do you want anything from the menu?” the mare asked.

“Ah'll have the same as my friend here.” Big Mac replied.

        The unicorn mare walked over to the rows of bottles and poured small amounts of liquid from several fancy looking bottles into a tall glass then added some tea, a straw, and ice cubes. Big Macintosh thought it was a strange way to make tea, 'Different strokes for different folks, Ah guess.' he thought. The mare then took a thick looking mug and pulled on a lever under the counter, filling the mug with a golden colored liquid, then levitated the two over to Big Mac and Lemon Lime.

        The mare turned and yelled through a window,

“Hey Al, we need two orders of hay fries, nice and crispy.”

        A disembodied, husky stallion's voice answered her from the back,

“What?”

        Lemon Lime levitated his mug up to his mouth and began chugging its contents, draining the mug in less than twenty seconds. Big Macintosh took a sip of his 'Tea' and managed not to gag, 'Boy howdy!' he thought, 'They sure do like their tea strong 'round here.'

        Somepony tapped Big Mac on the shoulder, none too gently,

“Hey! That's my seat! Move it!” the speaker was a tall, muscular, unicorn stallion.

        Big Macintosh turned his head and looked the unicorn up and down. He had a coat of creamy beige and his mane and tail were rusty red, cut short and straight.

        Big Mac opened his muzzle to reply, but the bartender beat him to it,

“Leave him alone, Cantankerous. He was there first. I don't need you starting any fights in here tonight.”

        Cantankerous refused to heed the bartender's warning and shoved Big Macintosh hard on the shoulder with his hoof,

“Hey, did you hear me? I said move it!”

        Lemon Lime turned around,

“Hey, come on 'Tank', he's new around here, don't give him a hard time. There's plenty of stools . . . “

“Was I talking to you Lame Ware?” Cantankerous asked.

“Tank!” the bartender said loudly, “I said cut it out and leave them alone!”

“Ah, don't want no trouble. Ah'll move.” Big Macintosh said hoping to avoid a fight.

        As Big Macintosh began to shift, so as to dismount the stool, Cantankerous' horn began glowing and he pulled the stool out from under the peaceful Earth pony. Big Macintosh tried to catch himself but he wasn't quite fast enough. His muzzle hit the counter-top of the bar, nose first. Big Mac's head snapped back, leaving a small trail of blood. He landed on the floor in a sitting position, with a heavy thump.

        Lemon Lime slid off his stool as fast a greased lightning,

“Hold still, Big Macintosh!” he said levitating a cluster of napkins down to his friend's face.

        Cantankerous laughed,

“That'll teach you to move faster, stupid! Come on, hurry up!”

        Big Macintosh slowly rose to his hooves and looked over his shoulder at Cantankerous.

        The unicorn took it as a challenge,

“What?” he asked, “You want to fight?”

“Nope,” Big Macintosh said evenly, “But that was rude, and Ah can't abide rudeness.”

“Tank! You're drunk, leave him alone! Just go home and sleep it off!” the bartender yelled, laying down a towel for Big Macintosh.

“Mind your own business fatty!” Cantankerous retorted.

        Big Macintosh, calm as always, simply said,

“You're goin' to apologize to the lady, right now.”

“Or what? You going to make me?” Cantankerous asked.

“Ah'd rather not. Ah'd rather you had the character to do that yourself.” Big Macintosh could have been discussing the weather for all the emotion he put into the statement.

“Buck you.” Cantankerous spouted.

“If yall insist.” Big Mac said.

        The puzzled look on Cantankerous' face turned to surprise. Big Macintosh bucked lightly, one hoof on either side of the unicorn's horn. The movement was lightening quick but gentle . . . for Big Macintosh, for Cantankerous it felt anything but gentle. The unicorn flew, in the air, backwards almost ten paces and landed on his back, dazed. The bar went completely silent as all eyes turned to the stunned stallion. Big Macintosh turned around slowly and walked over to the fallen unicorn. Using his mouth, the massive Earth pony bit Cantankerous' tail and dragged him up to the bar.

        Big Mac let the unicorn's tail go and lifted his head up onto the counter,

“Ah think he needs some ice.”

        The bartender put some ice into a cloth and tied the top. She brought it over and set it on the counter.

        Big Mac picked it up with his muzzle and placed it gently on the rising bumps on Cantankerous' head,

“Now what do you say?” Big Mac urged politely.

“Thank you.” Cantankerous croaked.

“And?” Lemon Lime asked.

“I'm sorry.” Cantankerous groaned.

“Can Ah get him some water?” Big Macintosh asked.

“Sure thing, sweetie.” the bartender said winking at Big Macintosh.

        The other bar patrons turned back to what they had been doing, now that the action was over. Lemon Lime sat back onto his stool and smiled at the heaping platter of hay fries that had appeared like magic. Big Macintosh wrapped his lips around the 'Iced Tea' straw and slurped down the whole thing. He felt better as soon as he was done and ordered another one.

        The bartender returned and pushed a pair of glasses over to Big Macintosh and Cantankerous,

“I tried to warn you 'Tank'. You should have noticed his cutie-mark. He's an apple farmer. They're as strong as they come.” she turned to the red Earth pony, “Let me guess, you're part of the Apple family, right?”

“Ayup.” Big Mac confirmed.

        The bartender sighed, shaking her head,

“You got off easy 'Tank'. This big guy could have knocked you clear through a wall. You're lucky the Apple family is a really nice bunch, and more importantly, almost impossible to irritate, well the stallions anyway. Be double glad it wasn't one one of the Apple family mares, they have some pretty bad tempers.” she noticed Big Mac's raised eyebrow and said, “I buy all the expired cider from Sweet Apple Acres to use in my drinks.”

        Big Macintosh smiled and looked down at Cantankerous,

“Can you stand?”

“Yeah, I think so.” the unicorn said rising to his hooves shakily, “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“Ah already told you, Ah can't abide rudeness.” Big Mac said simply.

“I uh, didn't actually mean to bust up your nose.” Cantankerous admitted.

“Ayup.” Big Mac replied.

“So you're not mad?” 'Tank' asked.

“I don't think that's his style, 'Tank', and you have to admit that kick was pretty stylish. I mean BAM right on the head! You should have seen yourself 'Tank'. You looked like a pegasus flying upside down and backwards. It was one of the funniest things I've ever seen. I'm not trying to be mean and I'm sure you're sorry for picking on him, but you really kind of deserved that. The barkeeper already told you to leave him alone, but you didn't listen, so you kind of got what was coming to you. I'm glad you're not injured or anything though, because that would be awful, but maybe you should think about not drinking so much. Why did you pull his stool out from under him though? I've never seen you go that far and I've been coming here for years. Why did you pull the stool out from under him?” Lemon Lime asked, speedy as always.

“I don't know.” Cantankerous said quietly, “I guess I went too far huh?”

        The bartender, Lemon Lime, and Big Macintosh all said in unison,

“Ayup.”

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

        Valiant awoke to the sound of Mend talking. Valiant turned his head to the right, quietly. The older stallion lay on his chest, on his bed, with his eyes fixed on a book in front of him, reading out loud.

“Bones have multiple layers . . . “

“Mend, are you alright?” Valiant asked quietly.

        Dr. Mend never looked up,

“They woke me up Valiant.” he sighed shakily, “I'm trying to drown them out. The outer layer is composed primarily of calcium . . . “ he continued reading out loud.

        Valiant was concerned about his friend,

“Do you remember last night?”

“Quite clearly, Valiant. I agreed to let you help me, and I will. The marrow produces blood . . . “ Dr. Mend continued reading.

        Valiant sighed with relief and began thinking, 'I had hoped the voices would stop, but I don't know much about this kind of thing. A psychologist would be ideal, but they might have to report Mend and he could lose his license. He's not a danger to himself or others. He hears voices, but it doesn't affect his work. His work . . . ' Valiant looked up,

“Mend, do you have anypony you can trust who is a psychologist? Doctors have connections like that right?”

“Different fields Valiant. I don't know a single . . . “ Dr. Mend stopped short and looked up sharply, “My saddle bags.” he said rising swiftly.

        Dr. Mend practically jumped out of his bed. He raced over to his saddle bags which were hung over the back of his desk chair. He opened the left bag and reached in with his muzzle. He withdrew a small card and set it down on his desk next to the vials containing the fast-healing potion.

        Valiant walked up next to Dr. Mend and peered at the card,

“Do you know him?” Valiant asked.

“Not really. We spoke on the concourse briefly and he gave me his card. He said if I ever changed my mind to call on him.” Dr. Mend turned his head toward Valiant, “I suppose I should take him up on his offer huh?”

        Valiant put a hoof over Dr. Mend's shoulder,

“That sounds like a fantastic idea, my friend. I'll go with you.” Valiant offered.

“To the clinic too?” Dr. Mend asked.

“If you agree to visit your grandparents.” Valiant countered.

        Dr. Mend hung his head,

“I don't know if I'm ready to face them yet, Valiant. I was terrible to them.”

“They don't care. They love you. Mend you've been denying yourself love for years. It's time to embrace it.” Valiant encouraged.

“It's just too fast, Valiant. Let me get better first.” Dr. Mend said, “Please, give me some time. I'll go to this counselor and everything, but don't rush me. How hard would it be for you to face Arabesque right now?”

        Valiant's eyebrows rose,

“How do you know about her? I never told you. I should have, but I hadn't gotten around to it yet.”

“Rarity told me when you were in your coma. Speaking of which, I'm sorry for what I said the other day, Valiant. I don't hold you responsible for any deaths and it was completely uncalled for. Will you forgive me?” Dr. Mend asked.

“Of course. But you also need to realize there are things that are completely beyond our control. Do you understand what I mean?” Valiant asked quietly.

“I think so. It's going to take me some time to forgive myself though. I know it doesn't make any sense, but you have to trust me. I've blamed myself for my parents' deaths for more than two decades. That doesn't just go away.” Dr. Mend said.

“That ,” Valiant said straightening up, “Is something I do understand. I'm still not completely over what happened between Arabesque and I, but I'm trying to move on. I know it's hard, but at least we have each other. If you ever need help or just a shoulder to cry on . . . again, just tell me, O.K.?”

        Dr. Mend stuck out his hoof,

“The same goes for you though. I'm not the only imperfect soul here. We're both damaged goods. I think fate brought us together and I, for one, am grateful for it. We'll be each other's strength, deal?”

        Valiant Shook Dr. Mend's hoof firmly,

“Deal. Now let's go see this Sea Blue guy.”

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

        Dr. Mend looked both nervous and preoccupied as Valiant knocked on Sea Blue's door,

“What do I say, Valiant? I don't even know this stallion.”

“I'll help you don't worry.” Valiant said supportively.

        The white, windowless door in front of Valiant opened, revealing Sea Blue,

“Good day, may I help you?” he asked cheerfully.

        Valiant expected Sea Blue to be . . . well . . . sea blue not turquoise. Sea Blue had bright orange mane and tail with yellow highlights and his eyes were, of all things, neon green. Valiant had also expected Sea Blue to be older, maybe in his thirties or forties. As it was the unicorn stallion looked to be Valiant's age, if not a hair younger.

“Are you Sea Blue?” Valiant asked, thinking he might have the wrong house.

        The unicorn stallion chuckled heartily,

“Not an inch of me, but it is my name. Would you like to set an appointment? I'm free right now actually.” he said cheerfully.

“Not for me,” Valiant said stepping aside, revealing Dr. Mend, “For my friend here.”

        Sea Blue's eyes lit up,

“Ah yes, I'm glad you decided to take me up on my offer. I'm afraid I didn't catch your name last time. Was it Grumpy Guts or Mr. Testy? Bellicose, perhaps?”

        Dr. Mend turned to Valiant, eyes dark,

“I'm going to kill him.”

        Sea Blue didn't seem even remotely phased by the comment,

“Now I remember. It was Psychopath.”

        Valiant had to strain not to smile at the obnoxious unicorn's antics,

“May we come in?”

        Sea Blue held the door for the two stallions, seemingly suddenly aware of Dr. Mend's serious expression,

“I apologize if I was offensive. I'm very playful by nature. By all means, come in and have a seat.”

        The inside of Sea Blue's house was decorated in calming pastel colors. To Dr. Mend's left was a comfortable room with two couches and one chair facing them. A coffee table of light brown wood stood interposed between the couches and chair. The backs of the couches were situated just beneath the sills of a trio of windows which spread vast amounts of light around the room. Directly in front of the front door, a mere six paces back, was a set of stairs.

        A tiny voice called out from upstairs,

“Who is it Daddy?” the voice was followed by a lively unicorn filly.

        The filly was eraser pink in her coat and her mane and tail looked like spun gold. She appeared to be around the same age as the Cutie-Mark Crusaders. The aspect of her which stood out the most was that her right eye was missing. Her left eye was a pretty, sparkling, cobalt blue. In the place of where her right eye should have been was a blank, unmarred, patch of smooth skin.

        The little filly stopped at the bottom of the stairs,

“Oh, hello!” she said brightly, “Daddy, has Glamour come by yet? We were supposed to go to the park.”

        Sea Blue turned all his attention straight to her,

“I'm sorry Patch, she hasn't. Why don't you go next door and play with Clover and Lucky? I'll come by and pick you up in a little while, then we can go get some ice cream. Does that sound alright?”

“Alright Daddy, see you later.” Patch said running past Valiant and Dr. Mend out the door.

        Sea Blue watched her go, smiling broadly,

“That's my girl.” he whispered.

        Valiant and Dr. Mend sat down on the first couch they came to while Sea Blue closed the door. Looking around, Valiant could see straight ahead of him, into the kitchen where the refrigerator door was covered with perfectly drawn pictures in crayon. To his left was a doorway leading to another room, presumably the living room.

        Sea Blue walked over and sat in the chair across from the two stallions, now all business,

“What was it you wanted to talk about?”

        Valiant took the lead,

“My very good friend here, Mend, is having trouble coping with the loss of his parents and I have no real idea how to help him.”

        Sea Blue turned toward Dr. Mend,

“Is that the case?”

        Dr. Mend nodded,

“I think that about sums it up.”

        Sea Blue leaned back in his chair and put his hooves together,

“Let me tell you a few things, then let you decide if you want to continue. First, I won't be telling you what to do. I ask questions and make recommendations based on what I know of you and what I studied. Second, I can't help you if you don't want me to. If you don't want help then I won't waste your time. Third, I am not only a counselor, but both a psychologist and a psychiatrist as well. I am certified to provide a clinical diagnosis of all known mental disorders. I do not report any disorders unless you seen unstable and/or dangerous. I occasionally prescribe medication for some disorders, but I tend to do that only in the most extreme cases. How does that strike you?”

“It sounds honest and straight-forward.” Dr. Mend said, slightly surprised by Sea Blue's sudden professionalism.

“Do you wish to continue, Mend?” Sea Blue asked.

“I don't want to, but I think I need to.” Dr. Mend said.

        Sea Blue smiled,

“That sounds honest and straight-forward. Mend, do you feel comfortable talking to me alone?”

“I'm going t have to. Valiant here, has things to do.” Dr. Mend said turning to his friend, “I'll catch up with you later at Avalon Medical Care Clinic.”

        Valiant rose from the couch and headed for the door,

“I'll be there at 3:00 p.m.”

        Valiant left Dr. Mend and Sea Blue to talk.

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

        Valiant ran back to the dorm and grabbed his saddle bags, grateful that Sea Blue's house was close to the University campus, and made his way toward Mrs. Soothe's Apothecary.

        Valiant arrived out of breath and opened the door, Mrs. Soothe stood behind the counter,

“Hello Mrs. Soothe, I'm back, like I said.”

        Mrs. Soothe visibly paled at the sight of Valiant,

“Yes, so I see. Did your potion work, or do we need to take a trip to an asylum?”

        Valiant smirked as he unwrapped his leg,

“See for yourself.” he said proudly walking up to the counter.

        Mrs. Soothe's eyes bulged,

“Sweet Celestia,” she breathed, “You really weren't kidding were you.”

        Valiant smiled at his completely healed leg,

“I'm not playing around if I'm willing to do something crazy like that.”

        Mrs. Soothe couldn't argue,

“And it was crazy, make no mistake about that. However, I'll admit you certainly know how to make a point. I'm as good as my word, you've got the job. Can you start today?”

“I’m yours till 2:30, boss.” Valiant said smiling. Finally things were starting to go right.

(Author’s note: Challenge, can anyone name the reference I made, when the Big Macintosh and Lemon Lime were in the bar? First one to name the reference gets a prize.)


Trials of the Elements

Part 6

Big Macintosh stirred on the couch he had slept on. He cracked open his eyes and peered around the room he was in. The room looked to be made out of purple everything. He lay on a purple couch, draped in a purple blanket, with a purple pillow. The coffee table next to him was painted purple, the flowers on the table were purple, even the carpet was purple. Big Macintosh noticed the ceiling and walls were purple, the door leading out of the room was purple, the dang ceiling fan was painted purple, with purple light-bulbs. Big Macintosh closed his eyes and still saw purple.

The massive Earth pony stood up from the couch and wondered where he was. He was unsettled by the room and quickly made his way to the door. Opening the door, the smell of biscuits assailed his nose. Big Macintosh strained his memory as to why he was in somepony's house, 'Ah remember meetin' Live Wire and havin’ to whack that 'Tank' feller, then . . . ' Big Macintosh drew a blank on the rest of the night, 'Ah sure hope Ah didn't impose on nopony.' he thought.

The huge Earth pony walked quietly down the hallway on the other side of the door, toward the smell of food. He could hear somepony talking to themselves rapidly and the sound of splashing water. Big Macintosh reached the end of the hallway and looked around, 'Ayup. This is Live Wire's house all right.' he thought. The room was decorated with pairs of pictures of Lemon Lime standing next to various ponies. The pictures on the left side of the pair were always of ponies in wheel chairs and various other means of transportation indicating the occupant was lame. The pictures on the right were of Lemon Lime standing next to the same ponies, now able to stand on their own.

Big Macintosh stood in the middle of the room surrounded by Lemon Lime's success stories, 'This is his whole life. So that's why his cutie-mark is a wheelchair.' He walked up to one set of pictures depicting Lemon Lime standing next to a little egg-shell colored Earth pony filly lying on a stretcher. The picture to the right was of Lemon Lime and the filly jumping in the air and giving each other a high-hoof. The picture on the left was dated three years prior to the one on the right. Big Macintosh just stood there looking at success story after success story, each one dated and hung with care.

“I see you found my wall, huh?” Lemon Lime said standing at the doorway leading to the kitchen.

Lemon Lime pointed to the picture of him next to the filly in the stretcher,

“This is Sky Seeker. She was climbing a tree when she fell right onto a big old rock. The impact shattered her pelvis and Dr. Avalon had to perform three surgeries just to make sure she could have foals when she grew up. She couldn't even move her legs when her parents brought her to me the first time. Two years, ten months, and thirteen days later, she was released; able to walk, run, and as you can see, jump. Her parents moved to Manehattan soon after that and I haven't seen or heard from her since. If you look to the ones right above those, that's old . . . “

“Yall never heard from her again?” Big Macintosh asked incredulously, “Ah woulda' thought that after you helped her walk again, she'd be a friend for life.”

Lemon Lime hung his head and flattened his ears; he spoke slowly and quietly,

“That's just the way it is though. They come in lame, I help them, they leave, ambulatory at least, and I never hear from them again.” Lemon Lime said with a sigh, “They go on living their lives and forget all about me. That's my job though, and I love doing it. What makes me so sad is that there are always more and more ponies who need my help. I'm just one unicorn; I can't get to every one of them. I wish, so badly, that there was a way for me to keep them from getting hurt in the first place.” Lemon Lime blinked rapidly, like he was holding back something as he spoke, “I mean, there's so much pain, they have to endure it every day. Some ponies never even get to me. They give up on life and just stop trying. I want to help them. I want to help them all, but I can't. I can't get to everypony in time and it kills me.” Lemon Lime said raising his head, “I'm powerful, Big Macintosh. I have so much magical power but it's not enough to even make a difference. Look at the table in the middle of the room.” Lemon Lime said levitating a thin bundle of papers in front of Big Macintosh's face, “These are the names of everypony from around Equestria who needs physical therapy. There are hundreds; seven-hundred and forty-one to be exact. I read this list every morning, I practically have it memorized. Each of these isn’t just a name, each one is an individual pony who is suffering and needs my help. I'd be doing more, but I have to keep my number of patients down to only a few so I don't suffer from 'burn out', but I could do more.” Lemon Lime shook his head and his face hardened somewhat, “It's not like I have much else to do with my time.” Lemon Lime looked Big Macintosh straight in the eyes, “Aside from you, I have a total of two ponies who can stand me, and I can only see one of you three staying around for longer than the next semester or two, then its back to doing nothing whenever I'm not working.” Lemon Lime stomped his hoof on the ground aggravated, “Damn it.” he whispered, “If only they would let me take on a higher work-load . . . “

“It ain’t your responsibility, Live Wire.” Big Mac said calmly, “You can’t be expected to help the whole world. You need to accept that you’re goin’ to do the best you can, but you can’t ever get to them all. You said so yourself, you’re only one unicorn and you can’t get to every one of them. Just think about all the ponies you have helped and think about what their lives would be like without you.”

Lemon Lime half-smiled and levitated the papers back onto his table,

“Yeah, but the little trip from your head to your heart can be a long one. Thanks for the encouragement though, Big Macintosh. Breakfast is ready, come on.”

Big Macintosh followed Lemon Lime back through the doorway into his kitchen. It was cozy but a type of cozy that also felt spacious somehow. Walking through the doorway, Big Macintosh looked to his left. The refrigerator, stove range, and sink were all lined up in a neat little row with counter space on the far side, near what looked like a row of glass doors leading out to a balcony. The far side of the room was taken up by an adjoining dining room and a large eight-pony table which looked to be made of mahogany. The right wall had a row of cabinets at the top, a long-flat counter in the middle, and a row of cupboards along the bottom. The space between the right wall and the left wall, Big Macintosh judged, couldn’t have been more than six paces, rather cramped but workable.

The big table in the dining room had a tray of steaming biscuits surrounded by a tub of butter and jars of preserves. A large bowl of chopped fruit sat on either end of the table and a tall glass of dark golden colored liquid was set next to each place setting.

Lemon Lime strode toward the table and sat down,

“Come on, before it gets cold. I have to get to work soon.”

Big Macintosh sat down in the wooden chair at the opposite end as Lemon Lime, the chair creaking under his weight. The huge work pony was surprised by just how much food Lemon Lime seemed to be able to pack away. The smaller unicorn wolfed down amounts that would have made the larger Earth pony sick.

The two stallions ate quietly for a few minutes before Lemon Lime spoke up,

“You never did tell me why you came to Canterlot, although you don’t have to if you don’t want to . . . “ Lemon Lime cut himself off when his guest opened his muzzle.

“Ah’m here to help out a friend of mine.” Big Mac explained, “He seems to be havin’ some trouble with a unicorn who’s been levitatin’ Earth ponies and demandin’ their bits. Ah figure he means to do somethin’ about it and Ah aim to help him out.”

Lemon Lime looked up from his bowl of fruit, face worried,

“I haven’t heard anything about that. This unicorn sounds dangerous. If your friend aims to do something I sure do hope he’s a powerful unicorn. A rogue unicorn can be real trouble, and generally only another, more powerful unicorn can best them. If your friend needs help, tell him I’m willing to lend a hoof.”

“Ah’m sure Valiant would be right grateful for that.” Big Mac said.

Lemon Lime stopped eating and looked at his guest in utter disbelief,

“Would your friend ‘Valiant’ be a royal blue Earth pony with light brown mane and tail and a cutie-mark of a mortar and pestle?”

“That’s him, but he ain’t no Earth pony. He’s a pegasus who lost his wings.” Big Mac said, refusing to show his own surprise.

“What are the odds of that? I met him just a couple of days ago. I’m going to see him later today after I finish my work. Oh, just wait, he’ll be so sur . . . “ Lemon Lime trailed off as Big Mac’s words struck home, “Lost his wings?” he asked eyes huge, “You said he lost his wings?”

“Ayup.”

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

Dr. Mend sat quietly staring at Sea Blue for several minutes after Valiant departed. The older Earth pony had no idea where or how to begin. Sea Blue levitated a pad and pencil up off the coffee table and set the pad down on his lap, the pencil hovering over the pad and just waited.

After several full minutes, Dr. Mend had to say something,

“So, uh where should we begin?”

Sea Blue raised an eyebrow,

“Where would you like to begin?”

“I have no clue. I've never done this before. Do I just talk and you respond?” Dr. Mend asked.

“Just say whatever it is you're thinking and we'll go from there.” Sea Blue responded.

Dr. Mend shifted uncomfortably in his seat,

“I . . . I . . . I have a problem.”

“Yes?” Sea Blue asked.

“I have an obsession with studying all the time. If anypony tries to get me to stop, I get kind of snappy with them.” Dr. Mend admitted honestly.

“So what I'm hearing is that you have an obsession with studying and you become easily irritated when somepony interrupts your studying.” Sea Blue said.

“Yes, I feel like I have to be the best all the time and if I'm not the best then I feel like I'm failing.” Dr. Mend continued.

“So you're saying that you are not so much obsessed with studying but you are more obsessed with being the best and the studying is only the symptom not the root of the problem?” Sea Blue asked.

“Yes. That's it exactly. I'm afraid that if I fail, somepony I love will commit suicide, like my parents did.” Dr. Mend said.

“So, you believe your parents killed themselves because you weren’t the best, and you feel like it's your fault they died?” Sea Blue asked.

“I know that's why my mother did and I think that's why my father did too.” Dr. Mend explained.

“Is there a history of emotional or mental instability in your family?”Sea Blue asked.

Dr. Mend averted his eyes,

“Yes, my mother was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. She rarely remembered to take her medication and she would become angry at anything.”

Sea Blue wrote some notes in his pad,

“Was your father diagnosed with anything, or was there any indication of instability from him?”

“Nothing particularly comes to mind.” Dr. Mend responded.

Sea Blue wrote some more notes in his pad,

“So why are you convinced that your mother killed herself because of you?”

“She would rant and rave about how much of a disgrace I was and that maybe she should have another foal, one who wouldn't be a constant disappointment. She was so mean whenever I did anything wrong. I couldn't be like the other colts; I had to act grown up all the time.” Dr. Mend said.

“So in a way, she denied you your foalhood and tried to make you into a stallion before you were ready. Would you say she was a perfectionist?” Sea Blue asked.

“Oh yeah,” Dr. Mend agreed, “She would have the house in perfect condition when father and I came home. We couldn't do anything without being yelled at. Then after she died, I missed her clean nature even if it was over the top.”

“Did you go to her funeral?” Sea Blue asked.

“I don't honestly remember. I think I did but I was not quite right at the time.” Dr. Mend admitted.

“What do you mean you 'weren't quite right at the time'?” Sea Blue asked.

Dr. Mend had trouble vocalizing what had happened,

“I . . . She . . . There was . . . Ugh! I don't know how to say it!”

“I have an idea, if you're open to it. I'm going to go get a pillow and put it here in my chair. I want you to talk to the pillow like you would talk to your mother if she were here. How does that sound?” Sea Blue asked.

“That sounds really silly to me.” Dr. Mend said frowning.

Sea Blue rose to his hooves and levitated a couch cushion over into his chair and stepped back,

“Alright come on, up on your hooves. I want you to face your mother and pretend I'm not here.”

Dr. Mend stood slowly, rolling his eyes, and faced the cushion,

“Hi mom . . . oh this is silly. You can't hear me, you're not really here and I'm just talking to a couch cushion. I'm talking to a couch cushion because it's supposed to represent you. How can a cushion represent you? You were much livelier, even if you were mean. You weren't just mean you were cruel. You never told me I did a good job, you never paid any attention to me. The house was more important or dinner was more important. Dad was always at work so you were supposed to take care of me. Did you? No. All you did was tell me how worthless I was because I didn't have good grades. As soon as I got home it was off to my room to study. That was my life. Study, study, study all the time. Huh, a whole lot of good that did. You killed yourself anyway. No matter how good I was it was never enough. I was never worth your time. I tried so hard to make you happy so you would love me, but it was all for nothing. You never loved me. I was just another chore to you.” Mend didn't realize it but his voice was beginning to crack, “That's all I was, another chore for you to deal with. I'm sorry I never made you happy. I'm sorry I failed you. I didn't want you to die. Why did you do it? Why? I could have done better! You didn't have to go! Why did you do it! Don't you know what it did to me and dad? You didn't have to go that far! I could have done better! I'm sorry I wasn't better! Why don't you say something! Say you forgive me, say you love me!” Mend was sobbing pitifully by this point, “I need to know! I need to know you love me! Stop telling me how worthless I am and just FUCKING SAY YOU LOVE ME! SAY SOMETHING! SAY SOMETHING! . . . “ Dr. Mend began shaking the couch cushion violently, “SAY IT! SAY YOU LOVE ME! SAY IT! FUCKING SAY IT! I'VE BEEN PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH HELL FOR YOU ALL MY LIFE! WHY CAN'T YOU JUST SAY IT! SAY IT! TELL ME I HAVEN'T WASTED MY WHOLE LIFE TRYING TO PLEASE THE VOICES IN MY HEAD! TELL ME! SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY IT! SAY IT! LOVE ME! SAY IT!” Mend screamed so loud, he had to break off in a fit of coughing that sent him down to the floor.

Sea Blue had been taking notes furiously during the episode and was beginning to draw a mental picture of Mend's emotional state. It wasn't pretty. The unicorn offered Mend a hoof, but the doctor refused it. Sea Blue levitated the, now throttled, cushion back onto the couch and waited for Dr. Mend to stand again. Sea Blue had easily determined that Mend needed closure with his parents. Apparently he had underestimated how much was needed. Something Mend had said stayed in his head, replaying over and over, 'He said, 'the voices in my head'. We need to talk about that. If he's hearing voices that could mean trouble.'

Dr. Mend slowly crawled back to the couch and sat back down, still tearful,

“Did you know that was going to happen?”

“I had an idea, but I didn't know the extent.” Sea Blue said calmly, “I think there is something we need to talk about, if you feel up to it.”

“I'm coherent.” Dr. Mend said, still breathing heavily.

Sea Blue nodded,

“Alright, you said you heard voices in your head. Tell me about that.”

Dr. Mend looked ashamed,

“I don't like talking about that.”

“I think we need to talk about it. If you want to get better, you need to tell me about this.” Sea Blue pushed gently.

Dr. Mend hung his head,

“I started hearing my mother the day after she died, then I started hearing my father after he died. They stop once in a while, but for the most part, I hear them all the time.”

Sea Blue took some notes,

“Can you hear them right now?”

“Yes.” Dr. Mend admitted.

“And what are the voices saying?” Sea Blue asked.

Dr. Mend closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath,

“Why are you wasting your time with this idiot!? You have work to do! Lives depend on you and you are failing again! There is somepony who you could be helping right now and instead you are here sniveling at the feet of some colt whose barely half your age!”

“That's enough.” Sea Blue said gently.

Sea Blue sat back and thought for a long while, before speaking again,

“Do you like having these voices talk to you all the time?”

“No . . . yes . . . I don't know.” Dr. Mend said confused.

“What do you mean, Mend? Take your time.” Sea Blue encouraged.

“I . . . I love them, because it feels like mom and dad never left. I've heard them almost since I can remember. It's like my family is still with me. I hate being yelled at all the time, but it's what I know. I . . . I'm afraid to lose them. I can't imagine what it would be like to not have them around.” Dr. Mend said with great difficulty.

“Do they distract you? Do they keep you from doing the things you like?” Sea Blue asked.

“That's just it. I don't know what I like, besides practicing medicine. I've devoted my life to doing what they say.” Dr. Mend replied.

Sea Blue's eyebrows shot up,

“You practice medicine? Your cutie-mark indicated something like that.”

“Yes. I'm a doctor. In a way, the voices help me with that. When I'm attending to a patient, they are quiet. It's like a motivation to work harder.” Dr. Mend said.

“Hmm,” Sea Blue grunted softly, “You previously said you liked having them around, now you said you like it when they are quiet. Which is it?”

“Both. They hound at me when I'm not working, but they shut up when I am.” Dr. Mend was a little puzzled himself.

“Have you tried telling them to be quiet?” Sea Blue asked.

Dr. Mend was taken aback by the notion,

“I can't tell my parents to be quiet.”

“Mend, the voices you hear are not your parents. The voices are your own mind. You are still blaming yourself for what happened. You need to realize that what happened was never your fault.” Sea Blue said.

“Yes it was.” Dr. Mend said darkly.

“How did your parents die?” Sea Blue asked.

“They both jumped from buildings, from the same one actually.” Dr. Mend said.

“Did you push them with your own hooves?” Sea Blue asked.

“No, of course not.” Dr. Mend said testily.

“You don't control the actions of others. The fault is not yours to bear Mend. Stop punishing yourself for something that was beyond your control. The first step to your recovery, I think, is to work beyond the belief that you were responsible for your parent's deaths. I want you to repeat after me: I can only control myself.” Sea Blue encouraged.

“This seems silly to me, but alright. I can only control myself.” Dr. Mend parroted.

Sea Blue smiled and sat back in his chair,

“Good. Say that to yourself every chance you get, I mean it. It will help. Now, for those voices. I want you to try telling them to be silent. Every time you hear them talking, tell them to be silent, and be forceful about it. Try this for two days then come back and see me again. If the voices will not go away, I may have to perform some tests to see if you might have a mental illness. I don't like to try things like that right off the bat and I don't like to drug up my patients unnecessarily, but there is some good to be had in a limited form of medication.” Sea Blue said rising from his chair.

The unicorn made his way over to the front door of his house and extended his hoof to Dr. Mend,

“I truly hope that my insights prove productive.”

“How much do I owe you?” Dr. Mend asked reaching for his saddle bags.

“Twenty bits, each session. I am more than willing to work with those of a limited income.” Sea Blue said motioning toward a heavy looking metal box built into the door with a slot on the outside, “Pay what you can, when you can. If I'm not at home just place the bits in an envelope and slide it through the door-slot with a note inside detailing how much you are paying. I like to keep it simple.”

Dr. Mend counted out twenty bits and passed them to Sea Blue,

“You're almost as expensive per hour, as I am.”

Sea Blue smiled and inclined his head toward Dr. Mend,

“How much is a series of booster shots, say for a seven year old unicorn filly?”

“About thirty-five bits.” Dr. Mend said.

“How about I let you have the next two sessions in exchange for those booster shots?” Sea Blue asked.

Dr. Mend nodded,

“That sounds more than fair. How about I bring the inoculations next session?”

Sea Blue's face lit up,

“A house call! How could I ever turn that down?”

Dr. Mend and Sea Blue shook hooves to seal the deal. Dr. Mend left Sea Blue's house, heading for the dorm room to collect the vials of the fast-healing potion.

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

Big Macintosh carefully examined the map that Lemon Lime had given him. He cross-referenced streets on the map with streets around him trying to locate the Tower Library, where his yellow colored unicorn friend told him he could find a tan pegasus named Evening Star, 'Live Wire said she was right nice.' The massive Earth pony had nothing better to do so he figured he should meet her, 'You can't have too many friends in a big city.' he mused.

Big Macintosh followed the directions and eventually saw the tell-tale sign of the Tower Library. The hulking white building was rather difficult to miss as it loomed high above the other buildings, dwarfing them easily. Big Macintosh followed the streets and easily found the steps leading up to the Library entrance. He clomped his way up the stairs and opened the right-side door.

Inside, the Library was eerily quiet. Big Macintosh closed the door behind himself so as not to disturb anypony within. The massive Earth pony looked around, but didn't see a single soul, even at the help desk. He decided to wander around and see if he could spot anypony who matched Lemon Lime's description. He saw a small flight of stairs leading up to the second floor where he could just make out a huge glass window. He climbed the stairs and took a look around.

There was an immense golden hourglass in the center of the floor which looked to be able to rotate in several directions. He stopped to admire the relic with a bit of fascination. A soft sound caught his attention and he whipped his head toward the sound. It was coming from behind a row of book cases. Big Macintosh slowly walked in the direction of the sound, not sure why he felt the need to be quiet. The sound became clearer as he approached; it was somepony having a quiet conversation.

Big Macintosh strained his ears to hear the whispers,

“I am very proud of you for doing so much. You have surpassed every expectation I had.” one voice said. The voice belonged to a mare, it was sweet and rich like flowing honey.

A second voice answered,

“It's the least I could do after what happened.” the second voice belonged to a filly; it was soft and smooth, like the air after a rainstorm.

“I happen to know there are several new books here in the library. Books that had been lost for centuries. Am I correct in assuming that was your doing?” The first voice asked.

“Knowledge is one of the few things that outlives us all. These books are needed, all knowledge is needed. There are very few things which are more valuable.” the second voice said.

“I am troubled though. This unicorn going about the city threatening ponies must be stopped.” the first voice said.

“I agree, but we must wait. There are things in the works that must come to completion.” the second voice answered.

“This is a very slippery slope, you walk on. I will stay my hoof for now, but if things deteriorate to violence I will intercede. I understand your position but I do not like this risk. This problem could be solved in one swift motion. Be sure you do not needlessly play with the lives of the citizens.” the first voice said in a warning tone.

“I would not be doing this if I saw another way, but you know what is coming. They will be needed and swiftly. There is no time for coddling them, they must learn and learn fast. I am not cruel, you know that, but if we do not let this run its course we may have a great deal more than the lives of a single city on the line. You have come to the same conclusion yourself. You are simply playing the opposition to see if there is a crack in my motives. I appreciate that; I would do the same for you . . . “the conversation cut off abruptly.

Big Macintosh tried sneaking away quietly, but he wasn't quick enough,

“Why hello there.” said the first voice, directly behind him.

Big Macintosh was ashamed at having been caught spying,

“Ah'm awful sorry about th . . . “ he cut himself off as he beheld the oldest alicorn in Equestria.

Big Mac knelt swiftly before Princess Celestia, his saddle bags clinking on the floor loudly. The regal alicorn looked down at one of the few ponies in the entire kingdom who stood nearly half her height instead of a third. She smiled warmly down at the hard-working Earth pony. Big Macintosh heard hoofstepps coming up from behind him, from the direction of the stairs.

“Rise, stallion.” Princess Celestia said.

Big Macintosh rose to his hooves and looked the Sun Princess in the eyes,

“Ah apologize for listenin' in on your conversation, your majesty.” he said earnestly.

From behind him, he heard the other pony call to him,

“Hey. I saw you on the floor, are you alright?”

Big Macintosh turned toward the new voice and saw a tan pegasus mare come around the corner of the hour glass. The pegasus stopped in her tracks and knelt down at the sight of Princess Celestia.

“Rise, Evening Star. I would have thought you knew I was here.” Princess Celestia said warmly.

“I'm sorry Princess. Do you have a task for me?” Evening Star asked.

“None, enjoy a day off from your duties. I believe this stallion was looking for something, maybe you could help him first.” Princess Celestia hinted.

“I will do as you command, Princess.” Evening Star said.

“It is not a command. It is simply an observation, nothing more.” Celestia answered.

Hearing Evening Star being so informal with the Sun Princess, emboldened Big Macintosh,

“Ah know it ain't none of mah business, but who was that you were talking to your majesty?”

Princess Celestia looked over her shoulder and her face fell slightly,

“It was my sister, Luna, but she seems to have gone now. Did you have a concern you wanted to voice?”

Big Macintosh remembered the topic of the conversation,

“Ah was wonderin' what you plan to do about that rogue unicorn, if it ain't too much to ask?”

“Of course not. I believe a solution is in the works as we speak. In the past, powerful ponies used to be charged with apprehending unicorns suffering from 'Caster's Stroke' and seal them from their power until they recovered. That ministry needs to be reborn, for Luna and I should not be charged with taking care of problems when citizens are capable of taking care of it themselves. Luna and I may not always be available for every problem, like when Nightmare Moon rose to power briefly. The Elements of Harmony handled the situation very well.” Princess Celestia said.

“Beggin' your majesty's pardon, but Ah'm not one of the Elements of Harmony. Should Ah go and get them?” Big Macintosh asked.

Princess Celestia tilted her head ever so slightly,

“Are you on speaking terms with them?”

“One of them just so happens to be mah sister. The Element of Honesty.” Big Mac replied.

“You seem to have an interest in stopping this unicorn. Why don't you work toward that goal without involving your sister?” Celestia looked out the window, “I'm afraid I have to be going. Duty calls.” and with that, Princess Celestia vanished in a wispy puff of mist, completely silent.

“You must be something else!” Evening Star said, walking up beside Big Macintosh, “I've never heard the Princess basically throw a job at anypony she wasn't intimately familiar with.”

The huge Earth pony blushed as his mind went several directions at once, not all of them useful for polite conversation,

“Ah was plannin' to do somethin' about it anyway.”

Evening Star looked puzzled,

“How do you even know about it? I only found out a little while ago.”

“Mah friend Valiant sent out a letter detainin' it and Ah caught wind of it, so Ah figured Ah'd come on out and see if Ah could help out.” Big Macintosh shrugged, “Ain't no real puzzle to it.”

“Wait, wait,” Evening Star said backing up a few feet, “You know Valiant?”

“Ayup.”

“With that statement, you could only be Big Macintosh!” she nearly squealed, “Oh, I'm so happy to meet you! Valiant's told me so much about you!” she said reaching out both of her hooves to shake his.

Big Mac extended his hoof and shook hers,

“Ma'am.” he said giving her a slight nod.

Evening Star seemed to regain her composure after a moment,

“I'm sorry about that.” she said sheepishly, “I'm usually more reserved.”

“S' alright, don't bother me none. Live Wire said you were right nice and all, so Ah just came with an open mind.” Big Macintosh said evenly.

Evening Star smiled hugely,

“You've already met Live Wire?”

“Ayup.”

“Did Valiant introduce you?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah met him last night and he let me sleep at his place. Ah haven't seen Valiant yet.” Big Mac said simply.

“So Valiant doesn't know you're here?” Evening Star asked.

“Nope.”

“We should surprise him.” Evening Star said eagerly.

“Ah don't know where his dorm is.” Big Macintosh replied.

“Nor I, but he mentioned getting a job at an apothecary. I'll bet Live Wire knows where that is.” Evening Star said.

“Live Wire's at work. He'll be off in four hours. 'Till then Ah've got nothin' to do so Ah figured Ah'd hang out with you, if'n you don't mind, miss Evening Star.” Big Macintosh said.

“Do you like to read?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah've been known to pick up a book now and again. Anythin' in particular you had in mind?” Big Mac asked.

Evening Star's eyes lit up,

“The Librarian just finished cataloging a new book! It's positively ancient!” she spun in place to show her delight, “The Princess just brought it in.”

Big Macintosh raised an eyebrow inquisitively,

“Ah thought you didn't know Princess Celestia was here.”

Evening Star just laughed,

“Silly, it's Princess Luna whose been bringing in ancient books.”

“So you knew Princess Luna was here, and you didn't think Princess Celestia would be here too?” Big Mac asked.

“What average pony can claim to know the mindset of an alicorn?” Evening Star asked.

Big Macintosh pondered the statement for a moment,

“Ah can't argue that.” he said, turning toward the much smaller pegasus, “So what's in this book that has you so worked up?”

“It's an ancient tome about the Elements! You said your sister was one of the Elements of Harmony, right?” Evening Star asked.

“Ayup.”

“Don't you want to know more about them? Maybe there are hidden facts about them that have been lost or forgotten. They are the most powerful magic in all of Equestria. Don't you think you should know as much as you can in case they're ever needed again? You could tell your sister.” Evening Star hinted without a trace of subtlety.

Big Macintosh didn't need to ponder his answer in the least,

“Ayup.”


Trials of the Elements

Part 7

        Evening Star and Big Macintosh lay side by side in the Tower Library, reading the ancient book labeled The Elements of Equestria. The book was a reference guide for the Elements and detailed their workings. The two ponies sat in awe of the original bearers of the Elements. Their deeds were astonishing and their sacrifices and suffering even more so. They would periodically take a break and discuss what they had discovered. Evening Star finished the part they were on and raised her head, silently waiting for Big Macintosh to finish as well.

        Big Mac finished a few minutes later and raised his head, looking straight at Evening Star,

“Ah just can't believe all this.”

“I know! It's amazing! Princess Celestia and Princess Luna made the Elements, and not just that, from what this book says, they sacrificed a permanent part of their own power to make them. From what I've gathered, it looks like your sister can wield a small part of a Goddess' power.” Evening Star said.

        Big Macintosh shrugged,

“Ah was referrin' to the Elements of Peace.”

        “Yeah,” Evening Star said eye wide, “I can't believe nopony's ever heard of them! I mean a whole other set of Elements? The book seems to indicate they were the opposite of the Elements of Harmony. While the Elements of Harmony were 'offensive' the Elements of Peace were 'defensive'. The Elements of Harmony seem to have always been mares, and the Elements of Peace seem to have always been stallions. I suppose that makes sense actually. It takes a stallion and a mare to make a family, right?”

“Depends on your definition of family Ah suppose.” Big Macintosh said sagely.

“Yeah good point.” Evening Star admitted, “This day and age you have stallions with stallions and mares with mares and they just adopt. But for the time, it looks like it was symbolic of a perfect pairing. It says that each of the Elements had synergy with their counterpart. See here?” she said pointing to a picture in the book, “It says that the Element of Honesty and the Element of Acceptance were a matched pair because they were so much alike. That would indicate that each Element, once paired, could seemingly operate independently from the others of their type. Like a Royal Guard and a Princess, like a husband and wife, or like . . . “ Evening Star trailed off as a thought hit her.

        Big Macintosh didn't quite follow her,

“Did you think of somethin' else?”

“Or like brother and sister.” Evening Star said turning to the huge Earth pony, “You said you sister was the Element of Honesty, right?”

“Ayup.”

“What if . . . What if you are the Element of Acceptance?” Evening Star said.

        Big Macintosh raised an eyebrow,

“Ah don't think so. Ah'm nothin' special, just a work pony.”

“Did your sister think she was special?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah don't think she ever gave it much thought, and Ah don't think any of us even knew about the Elements of Harmony until Twilight came along.” Big Mac said openly.

“So why is it impossible for you to be an Element as well? It would make sense. The book says that the Elements passed on generationally but always stayed with a family. Logic would dictate that somepony in your family is the counterpart to Honesty. Why can't it be you?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah just don't think it's likely. It was a pretty nice coincidence that Twilight just happened to make friends with the Elements of Harmony, but that's all it was. Besides, if Ah was the Element of Acceptance, Ah wouldn't be arguin' with you about it now would Ah?” Big Macintosh said logically.

        Evening Star deflated slightly,

“Yeah, good point. I just don't quite believe that this is all coincidence. It's too coincidental; it's too perfect. There must be a reason for this. Let's read some more, maybe we'll find out something else.”

“Mah eyes hurt, but Ah do want to hear more. Could you read it out loud?” Big Macintosh asked, laying his head down.

“Sure thing.” Evening Star said turning back to the book, “The Elements of Harmony are by far the more powerful of the set but the Elements of Peace are just as vital. The two groups must often work together to solve problems, but therein lies the dilemma of independence. The Elements of Harmony do wield awesome power but they take time to come to full power, like a unicorn casting a spell. The simplest terms are that of pregnancy and foaling. The Elements of Harmony are 'pregnant' with power but take time to come to fruition, like a mare who is with foal. While the magic, like a foal, is growing, it and its 'vessle' must be protected. The Elements of Harmony are like pregnant mares who embody and hold the magic until it is time for them to 'deliver' the magic to an end. While the magic is growing, the Elements of Peace, like a stallion, must protect the mare while she is vulnerable. Yet again, we see the reference to a family unit. The symbolism is profound and yet simple in its complexity. It has been theorized that a great many answers to questions regarding the Elements of Equestria can be solved through intimate knowledge of a family unit and its inner workings.”

“Sounds . . . simple.” Big Mac said smiling slightly.

“Right, on to the next part. The Elements of Harmony.” Evening Star cleared her throat, “The Elements of Harmony are the power beyond power, limited only by the bearer's imaginations. As such, they represent a great risk and a greater responsibility to whatever pony wields them. Princess Celestia created the Elements of Harmony to be the ultimate power for solving problems where she and Princess Luna were not able. The Elements of Harmony are Honesty, Kindness, Laughter, Generosity, Loyalty, and Magic after the original six mares who personified the needed personality traits to bring harmony to Equestria. They have generally been used only in a time of great need, but when invoked can harness the power of creation itself. For a mare bearing an Element of Harmony to invoke it, she must focus on her Element. For example: for a mare bearing the Element of Laughter to invoke her Element she must focus on every memory she has had which involved Laughter like births, marriages, parties ect. As the bearer of each Element gains more memories that coincide with their Element, the Element becomes more powerful and the bearer more able to wield it. The bearers of the Elements continue to grow in power until their deaths. Some of the bearers of the Elements of Harmony have gone so far as to be able to do, by themselves, what would have at first been only possible through a group effort by all the Elements together. A bearer of an Element of Harmony need not concern themselves with permanent physical impairments such as dismemberment. The Elements of Harmony, when invoked, will manifest powerful pseudo-members of their bearer's bodies to aid them in whatever task they undertake even if the task does not directly concern the use of said members. In the cases of minor things such as loss of mane or tail the missing part will be re-grown as if it had never been missing at all. The Elements of Harmony physically manifest as pieces of jewelry so that other ponies can look upon them and know the beauty of such traits. The Element of Magic is the 'leader' of the Elements of Harmony, or more accurately, the catalyst. Without the Element of Magic to call them out, the other Elements often fail to manifest the first time they are used, and only the Element of Magic can combine all the Elements and produce what is known as the 'Rainbow of Light' The 'Rainbow of Light' is the manifestation of the combined might of the Elements of Harmony when guided by the collective efforts of the bearers. When using the 'Rainbow of Light' the Elements of Harmony are at their most powerful and can produce results which in the past have been simply astonishing. There has been some speculation as to why the 'Rainbow of Light' is referred to as such. Ancient legends say there was such a thing as a 'Rainbow of Darkness' but any significant facts regarding it have been lost to the dust of time and no current knowledge exists that reference it. The power of the Elements of Harmony has, throughout history, been a testament to the determination of ponies everywhere and will be for generations to come.” Evening Star finished and turned the page.

“It sounds like an awful lot of power for anypony to wield. Ah don't know if Ah would want that kind of responsibility. Ah'd be afraid to misuse it.” Big Macintosh observed.

“Would you like to hear about the Elements of Peace next?” Evening Star asked.

“Ayup.”

“The Elements of Peace are the opposites of the Elements of Harmony yet perfectly compliment them in every way. The Elements of Peace are the ultimate bulwark against any foe that would threaten pony kind. Princess Luna created the Elements of Peace to provide protection and as a physical deterrent. The Elements of Peace bring to bear, the strength and resiliency of Equestria herself. The bearers of the Elements of Peace are stallions who use might and body to accomplish the lesser tasks to which the more powerful Elements of Harmony are ill suited, such as physical battle. The Elements of Peace are: Acceptance, Forgiveness, Patience, Discernment, Perseverance, and Hope after the six stallions who personified the needed personality traits to bring peace to Equestria. The Elements of Peace have been called upon for lesser tasks and are slightly better known than the fearsome Elements of Harmony.” Evening Star stopped reading and looked over to Big Macintosh, “If the Elements of Peace were better known, why hasn't anypony today heard of them?”

“How should Ah know? Maybe Equestria hasn't needed any of the Elements for a long time.” Big Macintosh responded.

“But there should still be legends and folklore. This doesn't make any sense. I don't get it.” Evening Star pondered the possible reasons for a few minutes until Big Macintosh came up with a reasonable answer.

        He raised his head and regarded her simply for a moment before speaking,

“Ah guess out of sight means out of mind. If you spent a month away from the Library because you were too busy with issues in your life then you wouldn't remember what book you were reading would you?”

“I don't know about that. I love my books.” Evening Star countered.

“Did you know about Princess Luna before she came back?” Big Macintosh asked.

“Well no, I don't think anypony did.” Evening Star admitted.

“Well then how could anypony not know about her? There should be tales and so forth for her too, but nopony remembered.” Big Macintosh explained.

“You do have a point there. But by that comparison, then the Elements would have to have fallen out of service, if you will, about the same time Princess Luna was banished. That's a thousand years ago.” Evening Star referenced.

“Is there anything else about the Elements of Peace?” Big Macintosh asked.

        Evening Star shook her head to clear it,

“Oh duh, yes. I'm sorry.” she turned her attention back to the book, “For a stallion bearing an Element of Peace to invoke, it he must focus on his Element. For example: for a stallion bearing the Element of Forgiveness to invoke it he must actively focus on his Element, remembering every action concerning his Element like coming to terms with a pony who has wronged him in some way. As the bearer of each Element gains more memories that coincide with their Element, the Element becomes more powerful and the bearer more able to wield it. The bearers of the Elements continue to grow in power until their deaths. The notion of bearers of the Elements becoming more physically powerful as they age has been in question for hundreds of years but it does indeed seem to be the case. The bearers of the Elements of Peace never suffer the ill effects of aging, but do continue to age as per the normal cycle of life. Eventually they grow old and pass on, but in near perfect health. In short they simply pass on in their sleep. This is not to say that they are invulnerable, indeed some bearers of the Elements of Peace have been gravely wounded in battle and some even killed, but these are rare occasions in which the bearer was generally alone and was overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. A bearer of an Element of Peace need not concern themselves with permanent physical impairments such as dismemberment. The Elements of Peace, when invoked, will manifest powerful pseudo-members of their bearer's bodies to aid them in whatever task they undertake even if the task does not directly concern the use of said members. In the cases of minor things such as loss of mane or tail the missing part will be re-grown as if it had never been missing at all. The Elements of Peace physically manifest as suits of armor so that other ponies can look upon them and know they were not simply an ideal but a physical representation of protection. Unlike the Elements of Harmony, the Elements of Peace do not have a 'leader' but they do have a catalyst of sorts. The bearer of the first Element to recognize who and what they are must call them out in order for them to physically manifest the armors, while the pseudo-members, for any bearer who is physically impaired, may be used without invoking the armor and may simply appear when the bearer personifies his Element. When acting in accordance with their Elements, the bearers of the Elements of Peace have the ability to invoke what has been named 'Inspirational Manifestation'. When invoking 'Inspirational Manifestation' the bearers of the Elements of Peace gain special abilities which directly link to their Element. These have been carefully recorded and catalogued according to each Element. The 'Inspirational Manifestation' for the Element of Perseverance is the ability to continue acting after logic would dictate the bearer would normally falter or fail. One recorded instance when this occurred was during the Great Griffon War. The bearer of the Element of Perseverance fought for two days straight and held a battle line by himself until the other Elements of Peace arrived with the Elements of Harmony. That particular battle was won with no loss of life, but plenty of injuries. The bearer of the Element of Forgiveness can heal grievous injuries to themselves or others either in battle or in the aftermath. The bearer of the Element of Discernment can gauge the actions and intentions of any being within the range of their perceptive senses providing knowledge of wounds or enemy actions. The bearer of the Element of Patience can calculate perfect timing for any actions weather in battle or in negotiating peace. The bearer of the Element of Acceptance brings peace to troubled bodies and minds and calm emotions and feelings; easing pain and soothing fear. The bearer of the Element of Hope can inspire others to act as they should even in the face of overwhelming odds or the most taxing and difficult tasks. A cautionary note to any bearers of the Elements of Peace: do not hesitate to do battle but do not fall prey to bloodlust. The taking of a life should be the absolute last resort and should never be perpetrated against another sentient being; there is no excuse for it. Broken bones can mend but all life is precious and death cannot be mended. The Elements of Peace are, above all, guardians of life. The Elements of Peace are well renowned for being powerful but it should be noted that the power of a single Element of Harmony could easily overpower the combined might of the Elements of Peace.” Evening Star finished and huffed out a breath.

        Big Macintosh was deep in thought; something was itching in his mind,

“Read the part about them pseudo-thingies again.”

        Evening flipped pages for a moment then began reading,

“A bearer of an Element of Peace need not concern themselves with permanent physical impairments such as dismemberment. The Elements of Peace, when invoked, will manifest powerful pseudo-members of their bearer's bodies to aid them in whatever task they undertake even if the task does not directly concern the use of said members. The Elements of Peace physically manifest as suits of armor so that other ponies could look upon them and know they were not simply an ideal but a physical representation of protection. Unlike the Elements of Harmony, the Elements of Peace do not have a 'leader' but they do have a catalyst of sorts. The bearer of the first Element to recognize who and what they are must call them out in order for them to physically manifest the armors, while the pseudo-members, for any bearer who is physically impaired, may be used without invoking the armor and may simply appear when the bearer personifies his Element.” Evening Star looked up at Big Macintosh, “Why did you want me to read that part again?”

“Well Ah'll be. Ah knew Ah wasn't seein’ things.” the massive Earth pony said slapping his leg with a flat hoof, “Valiant's got to be one of them Elements of Peace.”

        Evening Star cocked her head, puzzled,

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Did Valiant tell you about how he saved four ponies from a fire?” Big Macintosh asked.

“Yes. He told me, but he said he didn't remember much; he said it was all pretty blurry.” Evening Star admitted.

“He got burnt up pretty bad, and he was dyin' but he didn't let that stop him. When he heard mah Granny had died from the smoke, he forced himself up and managed to get her heart goin' again. When he was doin that Ah know Ah saw a pair of pretty, gold wings on his shoulders where his original wings ought to be. It only happened for a moment, but it was there. Does the book say anythin' else about these pseudo-thingies?” Big Macintosh asked.

        Evening Star turned to the index at the front of the book,

“Pseudo-members page 209.” She flipped through the pages quickly and found the entry, “It says, pseudo-members are magical representations of the bearer's true form, for only the physical body is injured but the spirit is whole and untouched. The Elements and their bearers are a combination of spiritual and physical representation, merged into one and able to access their power through that merger. In this way the Elements take the imperfections of the bearer's body and makes them whole again so as to aid in any given task in which the missing members may be vital. One case reports that the Element of Kindness allowed a disabled bearer to speak after she was born mute; another allowed a paraplegic to walk again after an accident rendered him unable to use his back legs. These pseudo-members are only temporary and will disappear after a time, leaving the bearer disabled until the next instance of manifestation. The pseudo-members have been recorded to impart additional gifts when they manifest. The above reference to the bearer of the Element of Kindness could articulate perfectly even having had no prior experience speaking at all and could sing so beautifully as to bring the most hardened heart to tears within moments. The second reference mentioned above allowed the bearer to run and jump to great heights well above the limit of normal ponies. There have been precious few instances where a pseudo-member has come into play but when it has occurred, it has been greatly to the benefit of the bearer. As yet there are but five recorded instances of pseudo-members being imparted to bearers of Elements.” Evening Star raised her head, “Are you sure of what you saw Big Macintosh?”

“Ayup.”

“If Valiant is the bearer of an Element, which one do you think he is?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah have no idea.” Big Mac responded.

“Oh, come on think about. You know him better than I do. Surely you must have some idea.” Evening Star said pressing for a response.

“He don't fit none of the Elements to well. He's always in a hurry so Ah don't think he's Patience and he's about as discerning as a pinecone so he don't fit Discernment to well either. He sure knows how to hold a grudge against himself so he doesn't seem like Forgiveness, and when Ah first met him he was over his head in despair, so Ah don't think he's Hope neither. He . . . “ Big Macintosh was interrupted by his newest friend.

“Maybe it's something he's worked past. I've heard the story about how each of the Elements of Harmony had to work past certain trials to demonstrate and bring out their Elements. Maybe it's something he's worked past. What is the biggest thing he's worked past?” Evening Star asked.

        Big Macintosh gave it some earnest thought,

“Ah just can't think of what it could be. Ah know Ah ain't Discernment at least.” he chuckled, “Let's not worry about it for now.”

“Why's that?” Evening Star asked.

        Big Macintosh looked out the gaping window up at the sky,

“Because it's about time for Live Wire to get off work.”

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

        Valiant sighed happily as he slid his saddle-bags over his flank. The time was 2:15 and he had to meet Dr. Mend at the clinic.

        Valiant turned to Mrs. Soothe,

“What time should I come in tomorrow?” he asked cheerfully.

“I open the store at 8:00 a.m. be here at 7:45. I do hope you can stay longer tomorrow.” Mrs. Soothe said.

“I'll be here from sun up to sun down if that's what you need. But once the new semester starts I'll have to get back to you on that. I might have to cut down on the hours. I have to make sure I do well in my classes and all that.” Valiant said heading for the door.

“Let me know as soon as possible. I do need help still.” Mrs. Soothe called as Valiant opened the door.

“Will do . . . “

“Boo!” a voice yelled from above Valiant.

        Valiant startled, stumbled, and fell right onto his posterior,

“Who the . . . “ he began.

        Looking up, Valiant saw Evening Star leaning far over the edge of the roof of the apothecary. She was smiling hugely. The sun shone bright behind her feathers, outlining them and their owner like a celestial being. Her mane and tail wafted gently in the breeze; she almost seemed to be sparkling. Valiant smiled, 'I do miss you Arabesque, but I think I might be falling for another filly already.' he thought. Evening Star covered her mouth with a hoof, stifling a fit of the giggles. Valiant's smile widened as he stood up, only to bump his head against something as solid as a rock. He fell back onto his backside, rubbing his head, 'That's what I get for not paying attention.' he thought. Turning his head he beheld a red wall in front of him and looked up puzzled.

        Valiant shot to his hooves as he recognized Big Macintosh,

“Hey! What are you doing here?” he asked hugging his unusually large friend.

        Big Macintosh hugged him back,

“Ah was wonderin' if a friend of mine could use a little help with a unicorn problem he's been havin'.”

        The reminder sobered Valiant up immediately, washing away any good feelings he was entertaining,

“Yeah. I've been wondering about that myself. Do you have any ideas?”

“Nope.” Big Macintosh said gesturing over his shoulder, “But he might.”

        Valiant craned his neck to look over the massive Earth pony, but decided to simply look underneath instead, it was closer,

“Hey, Live Wire. Is everypony I know coming to see me today?” he asked the citrus colored unicorn standing behind Big Macintosh.

“I don't think so, but that would be nice wouldn't it. Big Mac and Evening Star came to see me when I got off work. I wanted to scare you, but Evening Star won the bit-toss, so she got to do it. I think we should all go do something since you're off work now. You sure did get off work early. We were expecting to be here for a while and I was hoping Evening Star would get bored and let me scare you, but you got off work early so that's gone, but at least now we have more time to hang out right? I mean, now that I actually have friends and all, I want to spend as much time with you guys, and girl, as I can. I've never been able to hang out with friends much cause I didn't have any; so what is it that friends do all the time? Should we go off and get something at the park? They always have nice snack-carts out and everything. Or maybe we should go to the roller-skating rink . . . “

“Live Wire . . . ” Big Macintosh said.

“Or there's that awesome night-club that's open until all hours of the night. I've heard they have the greatest D.J. Of all time! I think she's called Scratch or something like that . . . “

“Live Wire . . . “ Valiant said slightly louder than Big Macintosh.

“Oh, I know! We could go watch the Wonderbolts practice! Those pegasi are amazing! Their aerial stunts . . . “

“Live Wire . . . “ Evening Star addressed raising her voice.

        Lemon Lime continued on, he hadn't heard a thing. Valiant looked at his other two friends and mouthed, 'One . . . Two . . . Three.'

LIVE WIRE!” the three ponies yelled in unison.

        Lemon Lime stopped mid-sentence and looked up, blinking owlishly,

“Did you say something?”

        The three ponies, all burst into gales of laughter at their machine-gun-mouthed friend.

        Lemon Lime was puzzled for a brief moment, then he figured it out and was slightly hurt,

“It's not that funny.” he said sourly, ears low, ”I'm sorry if I got off on a tangent, but you don't need to laugh at me. I'm just excited that's all.”

        Big Macintosh was the first to recover, and he did so quickly,

“Ah'm sorry Live Wire. We just thought the situation was funny. We weren't laughing at you. Well, we were, but not in a bad way.”

“Yeah,” Evening Star interjected, “We just thought it was funny that's all. Besides you're kind of endearing.”

“Don't take it personally Live Wire. Some things are just funny, and the fact that you didn't even know we were all calling for you just made it even funnier.” Valiant finished.

        Lemon Lime was quiet for a long moment as he digested the statements, then perked right back up,

“So what do you want to do?”

“I have to meet Dr. Mend at some clinic so he can administer the healing potion to a pegasus who was injured by our resident mentally unstable unicorn.” Valiant began, “After that I'm free.”

“Hey Valiant,” Lemon Lime addressed, “You never did tell me how you hurt your leg, and it looks like it's completely healed. I take it, that's your potion at work?”

        Valiant smiled proudly,

“I bit myself to prove that the healing potion really works.”

        Lemon Lime was floored,

“WHAT!” he exclaimed, “Valiant, that is not healthy! What made you think to bite yourself? What kind of a pony does that?”

        Evening Star landed beside Valiant,

“He's right. That's not healthy behavior at all. No pony would even think about biting themselves and draw blood.”

“Ah agree. Are you feelin' alright Valiant?” Big Macintosh added.

“Yeah, I'm fine. It's no big deal. I just did it to prove a point.” Valiant defended.

“It is a big deal Valiant!” Lemon Lime said emphatically, “I've only seen suicidal ponies do something like that. Self-mutilation is not alright, and it is most definitely a big deal.”

“Okay!” Valiant said defensively, “If it's that big of an issue I won't do it again. Yeesh!”

        Lemon Lime narrowed his eyes at Valiant, and took a step toward the wingless pegasus, head low,

“Don't you 'yeesh' me Valiant.” he said softly, “I know what I'm talking about and I'm not going to let any pony hurt themselves while I have something to say about it.”

        Valiant had to admit that when the smaller unicorn was determined he could be pretty intimidating,

“Alright, alright.” he said calmingly, “I apologize. I didn't know you felt so strongly about it.”

        Lemon Lime took another step forward, posture unchanged,

“I've seen ponies waste away, I've seen ponies mutilate themselves, and I've seen ponies that I've tried to help, end up killing themselves. They all had that same attitude, and I won't stand for it. Do. Not. 'Yeesh'. Me. Or I will levitate your backside to a psychologist so fast you won't be able to get your bearings until you're already doped up on medication. That isn't a hollow threat, I've done it. And so help me I'll do it again if I have to. This is serious matter and you will treat it as such.”

        Big Macintosh held out a leg, halting Lemon Lime,

“Ah think he gets the point, Live Wire.”

        Lemon Lime seemed to come out of a trance; he shook his head and banged a hoof on his left temple, just in front of his ear,

“Ooh.” he groaned, “I do not like doing that.” he looked up at his friends and smiled sheepishly, “Sorry, but when I get onto a subject that I'm passionate about I get kind of . . . intense.”

        Evening Star shot Valiant a perturbed look,

“That's fine. I agree with what you said Live Wire. Maybe a visit to a 'shrink' is in order if this happens again. Hint, hint. As in, it had better not happen again.”

        Valiant sighed dejectedly,

“Alright. I get the point. I promise I won't do it again.”

“But do you understand why you shouldn't do it again?” Big Macintosh asked.

“Because it's self-destructive, I guess.” Valiant said.

        Big Macintosh nodded,

“Ah've seen you do enough self-destructive things to last me a lifetime, and Ah don't want to see it anymore. Or do I need to get mah sister to give you another talkin'-to?”

        Valiant stood up ram-rod straight,

“No need for that. Message received loud and clear.”

        Evening Star broke the tension,

“Well if that's all cleared up, why don't we go with you and see this miracle stuff ourselves?”

        The suggestion was well-received. The four friends turned and headed for the predesgnated meeting place. Valiant smiled to himself, 'I may not have a family, but this is probably as close as I'll ever get.' he thought to himself.

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

        Dr. Mend gently pushed along a supply cart in front of him while Dr. Avalon trotted next to him, examining the unassuming vials which lay on top. Mend was dreading going back to the dormitory. He could feel the voices in the back of his mind buzzing like a hive of bees. He knew once he got back, they would start up again. He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

        Dr. Avalon took note of Mend's actions,

“Nervous?” she asked.

        Dr. Mend shook his head,

“Just have a lot on my mind. I already know this will work.”

“Then what's bothering you?” Dr. Avalon asked.

        Dr. Mend straightened up and pushed the cart a bit faster,

“I have some . . . personal issues that I need to deal with. Don't worry, I won’t let it affect my performance.”

        Dr. Avalon smiled warmly,

“Well, if you ever want to talk about it let me know.” she invited.

“I wouldn't want to burden you, Dr. Avalon.” Dr. Mend responded.

        Dr. Avalon placed a gentle hoof on the cart and brought it and Dr. Mend to a halt,

“It's not a burden, if I offered. I mean it. If you want to talk about it, I'm here.” she said looking Dr. Mend directly in the eyes.

        Dr. Mend didn't really know what to say,

“I . . . Well, thank you. I appreciate that.” he finally said pushing the cart into motion again.

“Take a left here.” Dr. Avalon said, guiding Dr. Mend toward Trooper's room.

“Has Trooper woken up yet?” Dr. Mend asked.

“Yes,” Dr. Avalon responded, “He woke up earlier and I spoke with him about the treatment. He's eager to give it a try. I brought him the waver and he signed it without delay.”

        Dr. Mend smiled, actually smiled,

“Did you give him the whole 'shpeel' about inherent risks and so forth?”

        Dr. Avalon shot Dr. Mend a playfully pouty look,

“Really! Do you honestly think I would neglect that kind of a detail? You don't think much of me at all do you?”

        The playfulness was both lost and wasted on the serious stallion,

“No! That's not what I meant!” he said frantically, “I just wanted to double check. I'm so used to running my own clinic it's a habit to double check everything. I meant no offense Avalon, I do trust you. You're a fantastic doctor and I never meant to insinuate you were otherwise.”

“Whoa there,” Dr. Avalon said, surprised, “I was only playing. I know you didn't mean it that way, I was teasing you. You know, sarcasm.”

        Dr. Mend felt like a heel,

“Oops. I guess I was a bit too serious huh?”

“You think? And since when have we decided to dispense with proper titles?” Dr. Avalon asked, poking Dr. Mend in his side playfully.

        Dr. Mend blushed furiously,

“I apologize Dr. Avalon. I had no intention of pressuring you to over familiarity. It was merely a slip of the tongue.”

        Dr. Avalon decided to cease with any hints and subtle messages,

“I never said I didn't like it, now did I?” she asked.

        Dr. Mend was being particularly dense at the moment,

“Well no. But if you didn't mind then why mention it?”

        Dr. Avalon had never wished for a pillow to scream into, so much in her life,

“Never mind.” she mumbled moodily.

“What was that?” Dr. Mend asked absent-mindedly.

        Dr. Avalon decided to change the subject,

“Isn't your friend supposed to be here when Trooper begins treatment?”

“Yes, he is. I don't know why he's late. But I suppose that's my fault, I didn't tell him where to meet me. He's probably in the waiting room.” Dr. Mend said.

“I'll go get him. What does he look like?” Dr. Avalon asked.

“His coat is royal blue and his mane and tail are light brown. His cutie-mark is a mortar and pestle with some herbal ingredients in it. He's a pegasus, but he looks like an Earth pony.” Dr. Mend described.

        Dr. Avalon turned her head toward Dr. Mend, unsure about the description,

“He's a pegasus but he looks like an Earth pony?” she asked, hinting at clarification.

“He lost his wings. I should know, I had to saw off the remainder of the bones.” Dr. Mend said.

“Accident?” Dr. Avalon asked.

“Animal attack.” Dr. Mend clarified.

“Take your next right and Trooper's room is number 23. I'll be there in a minute or two.” Dr. Avalon said heading off to the waiting room.

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

        Trooper had never felt so helpless. All four of his legs were slung up above him in traction, forcing him to lie on his back and press the full weight of his body against his wings, which were sure to be sore after he recovered. His tail lay straight out behind him and drooped off the edge of the bed exposing his backside to the open air. As if all that weren't enough, his legs itched fiercely and the slightest movement of his torso sent flashes of pain shooting all through his whole body which was absolutely slathered in ugly bruises and bumps. He detested having to ask anypony to do things for him and now his independence was completely non-existent. He never once uttered a single complaint, but oh how he wanted to.

        Trooper began grumbling to himself to pass the time,

“Of course this would not have happened had it not been for that detestable unicorn. So then, here comes Trooper to selflessly save the day. And what do I get for my bravery? Not one, not two, not even three, but four broken legs!” he griped, “I shall save you! The hero called out to the frightened mare. He swooped down and deftly caught her, mere moments before she would have fallen to her death. As he set her down gently, the wicked unicorn laughed brazenly, taunting him 'I will have that money!' The intrepid hero stood up to her boldly, 'Nay,' he said, 'You shall not harm a hair on her lovely head, for you now face the bravest of heroes, Trooper the Magnificent. Be gone from here wretch!' His words hung in the air like golden motes, glimmering in the afternoon light, bringing hope to all of Equestria.” Trooper's imagination was having a field-day, “He took to the air in his immaculate glory and swooped down toward the evil unicorn, 'Prepare thyself, fiend! For your doom is at hoof! I shall vanquish you without breaking a sweat!' he dove down toward her valiantly.” Trooper flopped his head back in frustration, “But instead of fleeing, she wrapped up his wings and flung him into the air only to fall onto the ground like a sack of potatoes.” he sighed irritatedly, “Thank Celestia, that only my legs were shattered. It could have just as easily been my whole body. I can see it now. My mother weeping brokenly over my headstone. My epitaph would be 'Here lies Trooper, best known for his impression of a pancake.' I do hope the doctor returns soon. I need to be out of this bed.”

        Dr. Mend opened the door to Trooper's room and pushed the cart in,

“Hello Trooper, how are you feeling?”

“As well as I can I suppose, all circumstances considered.” Trooper responded honestly, “I could be doing much worse. And hopefully you are here to help me with my recovery? With some radical new treatment I heard about?”

        Dr. Mend pushed the cart up along the left side Trooper's bed and locked the wheels with his hoof,

“Correct. All we're waiting on is for the pony who found this new treatment to arrive.”

        Trooper looked toward the ceiling, face enraptured,

“I can just imagine her now. She must be an older white unicorn mare with a shining silver mane and tail who exudes a matronly air of tenderness to all she encounters. The very embodiment of a caring matriarch.”

        Dr. Mend shook his head, quite amused,

“You couldn’t be more wrong. He is a young, pegasus stallion about your age . . . “ Dr. Mend was cut off as the door to Trooper's room opened.

        Evening Star, Lemon Lime, Big Macintosh, Valiant, and Dr. Avalon entered the room, making it seem quite cramped. Dr. Mend's face brightened significantly when he noticed the large, red Earth pony farmer. Big Macintosh, similarly cracked a smile and nodded to Dr. Mend.

        Trooper's eyes bulged at the sight of Valiant,

“Doctor, were I not in traction, I should have to accuse you of showing me a mirror. This fellow and I seem to favor each other in a most distinctive way.”

        Valiant analyzed Trooper carefully, 'His mane and tail are the exact same shade as mine, his coat too. Our faces are nearly identical as well. I've only ever heard Rarity talk like that though.' Valiant's eyes drifted down to Trooper's flank, his brow wrinkling in confusion, 'Hmm, he doesn't have a cutie mark either.' he thought to himself.

        Trooper looked at each pony in turn and finally settled on Evening Star, since she was the only pegasus in evidence.

        Trooper craned his neck over toward Dr. Mend and whispered,

“I say, he seems to be a bit on the effeminate side.”

        Dr. Mend, for all his seriousness, couldn't help but to laugh at Trooper's poorly informed statement,

“No, no, no.” he chuckled, “Valiant is the one who looks like you.”

“But you said he was a pegasus around my age. There is only one pegasus in the room.” Trooper said confused.

        Dr. Mend finished laughing and resumed his serious expression,

“He is a pegasus, he lost his wings.”

        Dr. Avalon cleared her throat loudly,

“Ahem. I believe we are all here.”

        Trooper caught on easily,

“Ah yes, much to do, much to do. Making medical history and all that.” he raised his head, as much as he could, “The proverbial test subject is ready whenever you fine ponies are.”

        Dr. Mend picked up a vial carefully with his hooves and pulled out the cork with his mouth,

“Open up.” he said spitting out the cork.

        Trooper opened his mouth and rested his head as far back as he could, so as to minimize the chance of any of the potion spilling. Dr. Mend held up the vial in his hooves and gently bit onto the side of it with his mouth, careful not to shatter it. He tilted his head and poured the contents down Trooper's throat.

        Trooper swallowed hard and made a face, whipping his head back and forth,

“Bwa! Beastly, vile-tasting stuff!” he scraped his tongue against his teeth several times, then closed his mouth and adopted a look of thoughtfulness, “Hmm, I do rather like the hint of mint and sage though. So, when should I expect to be mobile again?”

“If you take regular doses every three days, about a week and a half.” Valiant provided.

        Trooper brightened up like a flash,

“I say, absolutely top-hole! If this stuff works like you say I could be back out saving damsels in distress in no time at all!”

        The collective ponies looked at each other, but Evening Star beat everypony to the punch,

“Yes, about that. What can you tell us?”

“Ah . . . yes. About that,” Trooper's good mood evaporated like vapor in the summer sun, “Well it is all quite simple really. As much as I would love to portray myself as the brave hero, I am afraid that I am not.” Trooper's ears fell and he shrunk back into the bed as if he was trying to hide, “I was flying along, minding my own business, when motion in an alleyway caught my eye. I banked and came around and . . . Well I would have had to be blind to miss what was going on. A unicorn in a dark cloak was levitating an Earth pony filly right up above the surrounding buildings. The filly was scared to death, she was crying her eyes out, but the unicorn simply ignored that and kept demanding the filly drop her bits. Any pony could see the poor thing was not wearing saddle-bags. Where was she supposed to be hiding a bit-purse?” Trooper sighed, “Well the unicorn clearly did not care a whit about that fact and simply dropped the poor thing. Now, I am not a genius, but neither am I a fool. That unicorn meant to kill that poor filly. I never had a chance to think, I just acted,” Trooper snorted in a half-laugh, “I acted like an idiot. I caught the filly and, like a moron, I set her down right in the same alley as the unicorn. The unicorn bound my wings to my sides and flung me right up into the air, then teleported away. I thought I was going to die and that has to be the strangest thing. As I was falling, the only thing I was thinking was that I was glad the unicorn had let the filly go.” Trooper sighed again, “I do not even recall when the spell binding my wings ended or even how I arrived here. I hope that has been helpful.”

        Dr. Mend and Dr. Avalon looked at each other and nodded,

“I'm afraid we have rounds to make, but you four are free to stay and visit Trooper for a while. I'll come back when visiting hours are over.” Dr. Avalon said.

        The two doctors left the room, taking the cart with them, and closed the door, leaving five ponies to stay and chat. Trooper couldn't help but notice that the yellow and green unicorn was starring at his backside. He chose to ignore it for the moment and turned his attention to the other ponies in the room, none of which he knew well.

“If it is not too much to ask, Valiant was it? Yes um, how is it that we look so much alike and how, in the name of Equestria, did you lose your wings? I am simply dying to know.” Trooper ventured boldly.

        Valiant was surprised by the salvo of inquiry but he had some questions of his own,

“How about a trade? Information for information, you scratch my back I'll scratch yours.”

        Trooper gave the notion some thought,

“Sounds reasonable enough. You first.”

“Back at you. How do we look so much alike? I don't have any relatives that I know of. Do you have a missing twin brother or something like that?” Valiant asked.

        Trooper shook his head,

“Sorry, afraid not. I was the only foal my mother ever had. My parents married young and my father died when I was quite young. I do not even recall what he looks like. My turn. How did you lose your wings?”

“Do you want the long version or the short one?” Valiant asked.

“I believe I will take the short one.” Trooper replied.

“I was helping a bear whose back legs were trapped under some fallen rocks. I had to get close and the bear made a meal out of my wings.” Valiant said.

        Trooper pursed his lips,

“I was honest with you my good stallion. I will thank you to be honest with me.” he said frostily.

        Valiant opened his mouth to speak, but Big Macintosh beat him to it,

“Valiant don't lie to nopony. He's tellin' the truth.”

        Trooper hadn't heard Big Macintosh, he was distracted by Lemon Lime, who was still staring intently at his posterior,

“What is it exactly about that particular region of my backside do you find so incredibly enthralling?”

        Lemon Lime looked up sharply,

“I . . . I uh . . . “

        Trooper settled down a bit and took on a softer tone,

“If you are compelled to look, feel free to do so, but I will ask you not to touch without my permission. And just to save any embarrassment, my tastes run to the mares.”

        Lemon Lime's eyes were as large a saucers and his face instantly turned beet-red,

“No . . . no. I was . . . it's just that . . . “

“Oh come now. Do not be ashamed of who you are. I take it as a compliment and I am well aware of the modern age in which we live. I am as accepting as the next pony and I certainly cannot judge you for your preference. If it pleases you to look then look. So long as you do not invade my personal space, I have no issue with it.” Trooper said.

“But . . . it's not . . . I mean . . . “ Lemon Lime was stuttering more than he had when first meeting Evening Star.

“Good Heavens!” Trooper exclaimed, “It is not the end of the world! If you see something you like then fine! If it is that much of a big deal, I have some friends who . . . “ Trooper was interrupted by Lemon Lime.

“You don't have a cutie-mark.” the unicorn said quietly.

        Trooper stopped mid-sentence, mouth still open,

“Oh that. Yes well, you see, I simply never developed one. I do not have a special talent that I am aware of.” Trooper's ears fell, “Oh my. I apologize profusely if I embarrassed you. I seem to have made an ass out of myself in regard to my ass. My mistake, but my statement still stands.”

        The tension in the air was so thick, the assembled ponies could almost taste it. It was the awkward silence to end all awkward silences. After a full minute of loud crickets, Big Macintosh cleared his throat.

“Ah think we need to talk about this rogue unicorn and what we're goin' to do about her.” the massive Earth pony initiated.

        Lemon Lime, glad for the subject change, piped up quickly,

“I have an idea!”

        The other ponies waited for him to expound on the notion, after a moment, the short unicorn got the picture,

“I think we should ask the Elements of Harmony to deal with her.”

        Evening Star shook her head,

“Can't. Big Macintosh already hinted at that to Princess Celestia. She said we should try to solve it on our own. She seemed inclined to think that Big Macintosh would be in on it though.”

        Valiant turned a surprised eye to his huge, red friend,

“Really? When did you get an audience with Princess Celestia?”

        Big Macintosh shrugged,

“Ah didn't do it on purpose. Live Wire told me to find Evenin' Star while he was at work. Ah went to the Library and overheard a conversation. Ah tried to sneak away, but the Princess caught me, so Ah just said what was on mah mind.”

        Trooper was surprised to say the least,

“Do you mean to say, that you were, essentially, privileged with a private audience with the dominant ruler of Equestria?”

“Ayup.”

“Had I known that, I would have been keeping the company of work-ponies from day one.” Trooper said magnanimously.

        Big Macintosh ignored the statement and focused on the topic at hoof,

“We still need some kind o' plan. Any other ideas?”

        Every ear in the room instantly swerved toward Evening Star when she said,

“I think we should try to find the Elements of Peace.”

“We have already discussed the Elements of Harmony.” Trooper reminded.

“No, the Elements of Peace, the other set of Elements, the other half of the Elements of Harmony.” Evening Star said emphatically.

        Valiant rubbed his head with his hooves,

“Look everypony, Elements or no Elements, we still need a solution. I don't think we have time to seek out another set of Elements even if they do exist. I'm not saying I don't believe you Evening Star, but we need a solution right now. This unicorn is suffering from 'Caster's Stroke' and she isn't going to stop on her own. She's accelerating and next time there may not be anypony around to save her next victim. Mend and I discussed this briefly, and he had an idea. What if we could manage to get this unicorn to ingest an elixir that would knock her out, put her to sleep?”

        Lemon Lime caught the direction of his wingless friend's thought pattern,

“Then we could keep giving her doses of it until the C.M.E.S. wears off. We would have to care for her while this is going on, but that's no problem. I have plenty of room in my house and more than enough money to pay for her food and such. But the question is: how do we get her to ingest it? If we could put it into a syringe, I could administer it to her that way, but the chemical makeup would have to be different. If all we have to work with is a compound that has to be ingested, then somepony would have to hold her still, somepony would have to pry open her mouth, and while all that's going on, a unicorn would have to cut her off from her power to make sure she didn't teleport away.” Lemon Lime put a hoof to his chin and began muttering calculations quietly to himself.

        Trooper opened his mouth to speak, but Evening Star hovered over to him with a hoof to her lips,

“Shh. Let him work. He has Cerebral-Lingua Accelerari; his mind works four times faster than any of ours could.” she whispered.

        After what Big Macintosh counted out to be three minutes and twelve seconds, Lemon Lime looked up,

“I've run the numbers. Thank Celestia I work as a physical therapist or I wouldn't know this. The average pony's reflexive time scale is roughly 2.6 seconds when their adrenaline is pumping, with a variable of .4 seconds to account for the C.M.E.S. . . . “ Lemon Lime began, but Evening Star cut him off.

“Is it possible, Live Wire? Can we do it?” she asked hopefully.

“Yes. I believe we can do it, but we need to be organized. Let's go over what we have available. We need to know who is going to be participating in this, then write up a list of our strengths so we can utilize every advantage while minimizing our weaknesses and be able to act with the most efficient effort and keep the possibility of injury to as small a percentage as possible.” Lemon Lime said.

“Let's start with who's going to be doing this.” Valiant said, “I'm in.”

“So am Ah.” Big Macintosh said next.

“I have to be there. I'm the only one who could match her in strength, besides I can catch a pony in a heart-beat.” Lemon Lime interjected.

“I will go as well.” Evening Star said, “If she's suffering from 'Caster's Stroke', being confronted by a bunch of stallions in a dark alley way could send her into a true panic. I think I can calm her down.”

“I shall be glad to help as soon as I am recovered.” Trooper volunteered, “I can scout around for her. I am no hero, but I can be your eyes.”

“I'm pretty sure Mend would want to be there too.” Valiant said, “If for no other reason, than to be present to provide his expertise if somepony gets injured. That's six so far. How many do you estimate we need Live Wire?”

“I'd say, with the sheer amount of variables we have working against us. We will need a minimum of seven, preferably eight, but we could pull it off with seven.” Lemon Lime estimated.

“O.K. So who else can we ask to help us?” Valiant asked.

        Lemon Lime and Big Macintosh looked at each other, seeming to think the same thing,

“Danger and possible violence . . . “ Lemon Lime began.

“Physical strength and boldness . . . “ Big Macintosh continued the thought.

“Cantankerous.” The two stallions said in unison.

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

        Across the capital city of Equestria, away from the clinic, a unicorn stallion and his daughter trotted toward home after a fun-filled afternoon at the park. Father and daughter trotted along happily underneath Princess Luna’s waxing Moon. The night had begun to take on a slight chill, soft breezes began drifting in, out of the West and the temperature was dropping steadily. They walked along a familiar back-road, certain of their safety. Patch was pleasantly fatigued from her rambunctious playing with all the other Fillies and colts at the park and could proudly boast she was named the ‘tag queen’ of the day. The two unicorns were beginning to pick up the pace. The temperature was dropping more quickly than they had first thought and they longed to be back in their own home. Little did they know that in the growing obscurity of the evening a living shadow had detached from the darkness and was following them. The figure looked out from underneath her hood and her muddy purple eyes focused on the oblivious pair.

        The turquoise unicorn stallion heard a rock clack in the darkness of an alley way behind he and his daughter and turned his head to the deepening shadows. He turned, quick as a flash, his hoof shot out to the tiny unicorn filly next to him, keeping her still. Patch froze, almost instantly, fear beginning to creep into her thoughts.

“What is it Daddy?” little Patch asked.

“Quiet, baby.” he whispered tensely.

        His ears twitched this way and that, trying to focus on any possible threat, his eyes searching the ever-growing layers of gloom for whatever had made the noise. Sea Blue stood still as a statue for several full minutes, reaching out with his senses into the pitch black of the surrounding alley ways. Patch was frightened and held as still as her father. Neither pony dared to move a muscle. The night continued to cool, the temperature dropping more quickly. The two ponies could see their breath in front of their faces, but still they dared not move.

        Sea Blue knew he had heard something and began gathering his magic for a 'Light' spell. It was one he had learned when he had taken a self-defense course. He focused on hiding the glow of his horn so as to have the element of surprise. Sea Blue had fervently hoped he would never have to actually use the spells, but ‘better have it and not need it, than need it and not have it’; and now life seemed to be indicating that he needed it. He took a deep breath and began calming himself, clearing his mind and opening himself to the full spectrum of his admittedly limited magical power. He sent up a silent prayer to Princess Luna, whose night it was, and asked for what every parent would want, the ability to protect his daughter.

“Close your eye, Patch.” Sea Blue whispered to the little filly.

        In a blindingly brilliant flash of sudden light, Sea Blue finished casting his spell. He closed his eyes for a brief moment so as to not be blinded, as was the spell's intended use. He opened his eyes quickly and took in the surrounding area, illuminated by the spell. Eight paces to his left stood the wall of a pottery house, the heat from the kiln in the back wall still sending trace amounts of warmth into the night. Six paces to his right stood the abandoned bulk of an old textile factory, spooky enough in the first place. Directly behind him a good 23 paces, was the main road, a place he suddenly wished he and Patch had stayed on. Directly in front of him, illuminated by his spell, Sea Blue discerned the silhouette of a cloaked pony, not ten paces away. Sea Blue could not make out any particularly identifying characteristics in the darkness, which made the phantom pony so much more terrifying. Sea Blue took an involuntary step back, eyes hardening, preparing to fight. For several solid minutes, the phantom pony stood stock-still. Sea Blue thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, the wind was blowing, but in the outline he saw, the other pony’s cloak was still as a tomb-stone. Not a single piece of the phantom seemed lively, the mane hung loosely, the tail still as a stone, it didn’t hardly seem to even breathe.

        With a sudden, terrifying explosion of motion the cloaked pony charged, forward, horn glowing brightly in the darkness.

“Run!”Sea Blue yelled to Patch, “Run Patch! Run home and don't stop till you get there!”

        The tiny filly took off like a shot while her father braced himself and began gathering his magic for another defensive spell,

“STOP!” he bellowed, “Don't take another step!”

        The cloaked pony only increased her speed. She flashed out of Sea Blue's sight and re-appeared right in front of him. Sea Blue realized what was happening and had to decide between dodging and casting his incomplete spell. He decided to throw up his incomplete spell, hoping it would be enough to stop his apparent enemy. The spell was too weak. Sea Blue seemed to see the world in slow motion. He saw the flash of his own spell illuminate his enemy, her muddy purple eyes now dimly glowing in the night. Her head was low, using her natural weapon as unicorns had been want to do in ages past. Sea Blue tensed his body, preparing for an impact he was certain would come close to, if not outright pierce his heart. The unicorn's horn pierced his chest, the impact throwing him to the ground.

        Sea Blue felt a white-hot pain seared through his whole body, and to his infinite surprise, he felt a second wave of agony shoot throughout his body as his enemy delivered a spell, right past his natural defenses. The spell wracked his body with the fiery intensity of a thousand white-hot Suns. His muscles locked tightly then seemed to short-circut, leaving him to fall limply onto the ground like a rag-doll. Sea Blue cried out in pain, and to his horror, he heard the scream of little Patch as well.

        Sea Blue struggled to rise to his hooves, but the impact had left him winded and his muscles felt like jelly. His sanguine life essence began to slowly spill out of the open hole in his chest, staining the ground. Sea Blue focused his remaining strength and just barely managed to turn his head toward where he heard Patch's cry. The unicorn stallion’s fears were confirmed, coming to terrifying proportions. The cloaked pony stood in front of his daughter. Patch was shaking, frozen with fear. The blindness was only supposed to last for a few brief moments and Sea Blue wasn't even sure it had been effective at all.

        The figure held up a hoof, underneath Patch's chin, lifting her head. The terrified filly complied tearfully. The unicorn examined Patch's missing eye and turned swiftly to Sea Blue,

“This is your doing! How dare you!” she accused.

        Patch came to her senses, and kicked the cloaked unicorn with a front hoof,

“No!” she cried, “Leave Daddy alone!”

        The cloaked pony's hoof shot out and snaked around Patch's shoulders,

“Come with me, little one. I'll keep you safe. Nopony will ever hurt you again.”

        Sea Blue's blood ran cold, all color draining from his body. He struggled to stand; he struggled with all his might. He focused his will and slowly forced his senseless legs to comply. The unicorn turned back to Sea Blue, and for the first time, he managed to get a good look at her expression: she was shocked.

“What!” she cried, “Impossible! Nopony can shake off my 'Paralysis' spell!” she sneered, “It doesn't matter! You will never hurt her again!”

        With a bright flash of magic, both the unicorn and little Patch were gone, leaving Sea Blue alone on the street.

“Patch?” he called out weakly to the darkness.

        Sea Blue's call met only the dreaded silence of night, and his heart shattered,

“no,” he whispered, “Oh baby no, no, no, no, no, nO, NO, NO!” he began frantically trying to force his body to respond, “NO!” he cried, “No baby, you can't be gone! NO!” it was no use, his body wouldn't respond fast enough. He managed to get his front hooves underneath him but his equilibrium was shot and he pitched over onto his side, throwing up a small cloud of dust, “Not her! NO CELESTIA, LUNA NO! Not her!” he cried furiously, “NO, PLEASE NOT HER! PLEASE! I BEG YOU! NOT HER! NO!

        Sea Blue used his front hooves to drag himself toward where he last saw her,

“No baby, no. You can't be gone. No. No. No. No.” each word was whispered as he drug himself inch-by-inch closer to where she had vanished, his voice croaked through his sobs, “I can't lose you.” he whispered, “Please Patch, come back. Bring her back. Don't do this. Don't take her away from me.”

        Sea Blue reached the spot and looked around frantically for his precious daughter, his mind, unwilling to accept that she was gone,

“Where is she?” he asked the darkness, “Where is she? I have to find her. Where is she? Patch?” he called, “Patch? Come back baby. Daddy's alright, it's O.K. to come out now. Patch? Patch!” he cried.

        Reality finally sunk in to the poor unicorn's tortured psyche. Sea Blue collapsed onto the ground and cried, expressing a pain that only a parent could ever know. In that moment, the playful counselor wanted to die.

        Sea Blue’s mind began to fade away, his vision leaving him cold in the street,

“Patch . . . “ the name of his daughter was the last whisper come out of his mouth that night.

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

        Author’s note:

This was one of, if not the most difficult chapters to write. I will cherish every single comment that anyone wants to post. This is a chapter that I want A LOT of comments on. Especially in regard to Sea Blue’s reaction to Patch being taken away from him. Please give me your thoughts.


Trials of the Elements

Part 8

        Patch couldn't stop crying. She lay on a thin blanket on the cold, hard floor of a dark room. She could just make out the wall next to her; it was made of brown stone and was as cold as the rest of the room. The air smelled stale and old, just like the blanket she was laying on. Her head lay resting on her for hooves as her tears streamed down her face; it was the only warmth she had. She was afraid to move a muscle for fear of what the scary unicorn who had foalnapped her would do. She closed her eye and wished, not for the first time, she was back home, nestled in her bed with her Daddy reading her a bedtime story. She sniffed loudly as fresh tears began forming in her eye.

        The unicorn mare who had taken Patch paced back and forth somewhere in the darkness nearby. Patch could hear her hooves clopping around, somewhere between her and the doorway. The room, Patch guessed, was fifteen paces wide and twenty paces long. Patch was against the far wall from the door, which she could just barely make out in the darkness.

        The unicorn mare stopped her pacing when she heard Patch sniffle,

“It's alright little filly,” she said from the darkness, “STOP CRYING!”

        Patch shrunk back from the harsh voice. The unicorn would speak softly then suddenly explode for no apparent reason. Patch was deathly afraid of her.

“I wanna go home!” the little unicorn cried.

        Patch could hear the unicorn approaching her,

“You are home, away from that terrible stallion who took your pretty eye. I'LL KEEP YOU SAFE! Now why don't you try to get some sleep? We're safe here. This is my home. DO YOU LIKE IT? Settle down now.” she lay down next to Patch and snuggled up against the little filly, “The day is dead. Let us die too and be born anew with the dawn.”

        Patch had no idea what the unicorn was talking about. She hoped that her Daddy would come for her soon. She tried to crawl away from her foalnapper, but the unicorn held tightly onto her and escape was impossible. The unicorn wrapped her hooves around Patch and seemed to fall asleep almost instantly. Patch was too frightened to sleep. She lay her head down on the hoof that was tucked under her chin and wept silently.

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

        Dr. Mend shook himself as he stepped out of the shower, his mood was dark. Just as he feared, the voices had begun their ranting once again when he and Valiant had returned to the dorm. Dr. Mend closed his eyes and concentrated on his mind, 'Be quiet!' he thought. The voices didn't even pause, 'Shut up, shut up, shut up!' he mentally yelled. The voices just wouldn't abate, they kept rambling on and on about how much of a failure he was. Dr. Mend put his front hooves over his ears, vainly trying to block out the sound. He knew it wouldn't work, but he had to do something.

        Dr. Mend lay down on the floor of the bathroom and screwed his eyes tightly shut, his jaw grinding, 'Leave me alone!' he mentally yelled to the voices, 'What do you want from me?' He had no idea how long he spent in that posture, but after a time, he woke up.

        Dr. Mend opened his eyes, realizing he had fallen asleep in a very painful position. He raised his head and sucked in a breath, his neck hurt terribly. The voices were there already, yammering away again, like always. Dr. Mend stood up stiffly; a wave of nausea hit him like a freight train. He lurched over to the toilet tried to throw up the absent contents of his empty stomach. He only vomited yellow foam. He stayed in his bent over position for several long minutes, until the nausea subsided. He felt horrible.

        Somepony knocked on the bathroom door, rudely bringing the black stallion out of his stupor,

“Mend, are you alright?” Dr. Mend recognized the voice as belonging to Valiant.

“Yeah, I'm alright.” Dr. Mend replied, breathing heavily, “Just some stomach trouble. I'll be out in a minute.”

        The white maned Earth pony struggled to his hooves and wobbled to the door. He unlocked the old wooden door and opened it to find Valiant standing just beyond with a worried look on his face. Mend held up a hoof, forestalling any questions, and lumbered over to his bed. Dr. Mend was only dimly aware that the voices he heard in his head were different from those of the other ponies in the room. He didn't care, he just needed more sleep.

        Valiant watched his friend crawl into bed and pull the covers up over himself. The younger, wingless pegasus bit his lip but decided to hold his tongue, 'Mend's dealing with enough right now. I'll tell him what we decide in the morning.' he thought. Valiant walked back over to his bed, where his friends sat with quills and paper.

“Hey Valiant?” Evening Star addressed, whispering, “Should we go somewhere else, so he can sleep?” she asked, indicating Dr. Mend.

        Valiant nodded,

“That's probably a good idea. He needs his rest. Does anypony know a quiet place where we can get some food and continue on with all this planning?” he asked, continuing the whisper.

        Lemon Lime, unsurprisingly, had an idea,

“We could get some take-out and head on over to the Tower Library. The Librarian never locks the door and we could all sit out on the balcony. There's plenty of tables and chairs.”

        Valiant raised a hoof,

“All in favor?” he asked.

        A tree-trunk thick red hoof and a tan stream-lined thin one both rose, Big Macintosh and Evening Star giving their approval.

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

        The four friends congregated on the balcony of the Tower Library, each carrying their respective take-out containers. The night had turned cold in a snap, but none of them seemed to mind. Lemon Lime had opted for spicy zebra food, but the others had no taste for the sphincter melting stuff. They had all gone separate directions to acquire their meals. Big Macintosh, not wanting for anything fancy, settled on picking up a big head of broccoli and four avocados from the closest grocery store. Valiant had purchased a spinach quiche and Evening Star had grabbed a loaf of bread, some red grapes, and a small block of Havarti cheese. The friends all sat on the balcony eating and discussing their plans.

        Valiant had been thinking about something since they had been talking with Trooper,

“Star, you mentioned some new Elements earlier. What did you mean when you said we should find them? How could they help?”

        Evening Star broke off a piece of the bread and popped it into her mouth before answering,

“Big Macintosh and I spent the better part of the day reading this old book that Princess Luna brought in. It talked about the fact that there are in fact two sets of Elements; the Elements of Harmony and the Elements of Peace. The Elements of Harmony are always female and the Elements of Peace are always male. We already know the Elements of Harmony have bearers, but I've never heard of any stallion being able to do what the book describes the Elements of Peace are able to do. It mentioned several things about the two sets of Elements and one thing, in particular, stuck out to Big Macintosh. He believes that you are actually one of them, but he couldn't figure out which.” she explained.

        Big Macintosh nodded,

“Ayup. Ah saw it back on the farm during the fire when you were tryin' to revive Granny Smith. It only happened for a few seconds, but Ah know Ah saw a pair of golden wings on you.”

        Evening Star continued with the explanation,

“The book describes what it refers to as 'pseudo-members' for bearers of the Elements who were disabled in some way. Honestly, I can't think of any other possible reason for you to have manifested wings like that.”

        Valiant wasn't so sure,

“I don't remember anything like that, but then again they would have been on my back. I'm not saying I don't believe you Big Mac, but there was a lot of confusion that night. Is it possible you just mistook what you saw?”

        Lemon Lime pulled his head up from the platter of noodles in front of him; his breath reeked of Ghost Chilies,

“Why would it be Valiant in the first place?” he asked, “I mean no offense Valiant, but wouldn't the bearers of this set of Elements be special? The bearers of the Elements of Harmony were special, weren't they?”

“Ah think Valiant's plenty special.” Big Mac said, “There ain't been no forgiven Vagabonds in a long time. Ah'm not tryin' to throw a rock under your cart there Live Wire, but Valiant's done lost his wings, been forgiven from beyond the grave, saved the lives of four ponies, and discovered a new medical breakthrough. How much more special could you get?”

“Let me go get the book. I'll be right back.” Evening Star said taking to the air.

        The tan pegasus returned after only a few seconds and laid a thick old tome on the table,

“This is the one.” she said flipping through the pages, “Here, the Elements of Peace. Read that Valiant.”

        Valiant carefully read the entire dissertation, then looked up, questioningly a few minutes later,

“Actually, now that I've read this, it seems to me the pony most likely to be one of the Elements of Peace would be you, Big Mac.” Valiant said directing his gaze to the massive Earth pony.

        Big Macintosh shook his head,

“Evenin' Star already tried that. She said she thought Ah was the Element of Acceptance, but Ah don't think so.”

        Valiant's eyebrows arched,

“Really? That's the same one I would have picked. Why do think you aren't?”

        Big Macintosh shrugged,

“Ah just don't see it. Besides Ah'm nothin' special. Ifn Ah was the bearer of Acceptance, Ah wouldn't be arguin' about it.”

“Hmm, that is a good point.” Valiant had to admit.

“It would make sense though. Each of the Elements of Harmony has an Element of Peace that compliments it. Honesty is paired with Acceptance, Kindness is paired with Hope, Laughter and Forgiveness are another match, Loyalty and Perseverance, Generosity and Discernment, and finally Magic and Patience. The book also said that the bearers of all the Elements would be determined by ancestry. It makes a comparison to a family, husband and wife, or maybe brother and sister.” Evening Star explained.

        Lemon Lime had finished with his spicy noodles and was listening to the conversation with rapt attention,

“It seems to me that the bearer of Acceptance wouldn't be willing to unthinkingly believe everything he hears, that's just dumb. You're all thinking in linear and literal terms. Take a step back and look at the whole montage, not just one photo. To counter my earlier statement, it would make sense that no bearer of any Element would think of themselves as such. I think the description leans more to a character trait. Big Mac, have you ever called anypony a liar?”

“Nope. Ah've been duped a couple of times though.” Big Macintosh admitted.

        Evening Star caught on to what Lemon Lime was saying,

“Like when you met Valiant for the first time, you accepted him for who he was.” Evening Star turned to Valiant, “You told me that when Twilight cast her spell to let you see and talk to Arabesque again, you named each pony present as having one of the traits of love. Which one did you say Big Mac represented?”

        Valiant's face lit up with recognition,

“Love doesn't judge or assume. Love is accepting. Love takes things as they are without foregone conclusions!” he was becoming excited, “I think you're right! Big Mac, even your most commonly used statement oozes acceptance. What could be more unassuming or accepting than 'Ayup'? It, in itself, is a statement of accepting the world as it is.”

        Big Macintosh pursed his lips, deep in thought, as his friends continued naming events where the huge Earth pony had displayed the character trait,

“Like when Cantankerous said he didn't mean to bust up your nose. I would have been royally pissed, but you just took him at his word. You two got to be friends, even in the short amount of time we were in the bar.” Lemon Lime said.

“You didn't act oddly when Princess Celestia addressed you like a normal pony. Most ponies scrape and bow all the time, but you just acted like you were having a normal conversation with a neighbor. She addressed you as one regular pony to another and you accepted that and spoke with her the same way.” Evening Star pointed out.

        Valiant turned his attention back to the book,

“It says here that to invoke an Element, the bearer has to focus on their memories of times where they personified their Element.” Valiant looked up to Big Macintosh, “Would you feel comfortable giving it a try, Big Mac?”

        Big Macintosh shrugged, rising to his hooves,

“Ah don't like bein' the center of attention, but if it'll make yall happy then I'll give it a try. Ah still don't think Ah'm one of the Elements though.”

        The huge Earth pony took a couple of steps back and squared his shoulders. The other three ponies leaned forward on the table eyes glued to the muscular red stallion. Big Macintosh closed his eyes and concentrated. The three friends leaned even closer, hearts beating rapidly in anticipation, eyes fixated on their friend. Big Macintosh took a couple of deep breaths and seemed to be trying to calm himself. He lowered his head and steadied his stance.

Nothing happened.

        The massive Earth pony looked up after a few minutes and shrugged,

“Ah guess it was worth a try.”

        The other three ponies sat back in their chairs greatly disappointed by the lack of their friend's manifestation. Big Macintosh sat back down in his chair and took a big bite out of his head of broccoli. Lemon Lime was disappointed but he was as eager as ever to move on to something new. He stood up and put his plate in a nearby trash can by the balcony entrance, then moved to Valiant's saddle-bags. He pulled out his quill and parchment and settled back down, dipping the quill into the ink jar.

“We've wasted enough time on this. We can't wait any longer. Let's sum up what our strengths and weakness are. For simplicity sake, let's start with me. You all tell me what my strengths are then we'll move on to my weaknesses. We'll move on to you next, Evening Star. Does that sound good to everypony?” he asked.

        Big Macintosh started,

“Well, you sure are good at thinkin' fast.”

“No argument there.” Valiant agreed.

“You could use your mind to plan out our methods of searching. You know this city better than any of us. I only know it from the air; you know the history behind almost every building, which could be useful if we get into a chase.” Evening Star added.

“So, we have quick thinking and knowledge of the geography. What's next?” Lemon Lime asked taking notes.

“You said yourself, that you were probably the only pony who could match the unicorn at physical manipulation. You might be able to best her in a one-on-one fight.” Evening Star noted.

“I would need to learn some more spells but I suppose we all need some training before we launch into this.” Lemon Lime said.

“As far as weaknesses go, you talk, a lot. We will have to be quiet if we're to take the unicorn by surprise. You'll have to learn to keep quiet, that and you aren't very physically imposing. I'm not sure you could keep up with the rest of us if we have to give chase.” Valiant observed.

        Lemon Lime grimaced, but wrote down Valiant's observation faithfully,

“Is there anything else?” he asked.

“Nope.” Big Macintosh said.

“Then I guess it's my turn then.” Evening Star said taking to the air, “Lay it on me guys.” she offered smirking mischievously.

        Valiant began,

“You already mentioned you are a mare and that you might be able to calm the unicorn down if she thinks we mean to act . . . poorly toward her.”

“You've got wings, and you're fast. You know the city from the air and you're used to bein' up at all hours of the night, bein' a courier and all.” Big Macintosh observed.

“You're pretty.” Valiant said absent-mindedly.

        The three other ponies stopped what they were doing and just stared at Valiant. Valiant had no idea he had spoken aloud. It took him a minute or two to notice the silence from his friends. He looked from one face to another innocently several times before it hit him. The royal blue wingless pegasus turned bright purple and sank into his chair as if he were trying to hide from the gazes of his friends.

        Valiant cleared his throat and sat up, after a moment,

“What? It could help us. Most ponies wouldn't figure on an attractive mare being evil, now would they?”

        Lemon Lime dipped his quill into the ink and continued to write,

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Ah can't think of anything else.” Big Mac said.

“Me neither.” Valiant lied. In truth he could think of plenty of good things, but he didn't want to embarrass himself any further.

“Right then, weaknesses. You're a pegasus, you're light-weight, fragile, and you could be thrown around like a rag-doll, if the unicorn chooses to turn her magic on you. You should stay out of the physical aspect of the whole ordeal and let the larger stallions handle it. Hey, don't feel bad I'm in the same boat.” Lemon Lime said.

“If it came right down to it, could you catch one of us if you had to?” Valiant asked.

        Evening Star pondered the answer for several seconds,

“Maybe you or Live Wire. There is no possible way I could catch Dr. Mend or Big Macintosh, and if Cantankerous is as big as you say Live Wire, I doubt I could catch him either.”

Lemon Lime wrote down every word,

“O.K. Valiant, your turn. I'd say you have an advantage in that you are really strong for a pegasus.”

“Yeah, but I'm ground-bound. If I were an Earth pony I would be only a little bit above average. Would you agree Big Mac?” Valiant asked.

“Ayup. You do have your potions though, and that's definitely an advantage.” the big Earth pony said, “How many do you think you could carry in your saddle-bags and still move as fast?”

“I think I could probably have them full up and not be encumbered. That would be due to the five years of walking constantly.” Valiant admitted.

“You are pretty much as light as me and just as fragile, plus you don't have your wings anymore. In addition to that, the unicorn has already seen you, so she will be extra nervous. You should probably hang back, out of sight, so you don't antagonize her with your presence. Your disadvantages out-weigh your advantages.” Evening star noted.

“Good point,” Valiant admitted, “I hadn't thought of that. Anything else?”

“Nothing I can think of.” Lemon Lime said, “Your turn Big Macintosh. You are strong. I mean freakishly strong. You pulled your buck and still managed to knock Cantankerous ten paces away and onto his back. I happen to know that it's pretty difficult to teleport with another pony touching you. If you can tackle the unicorn, I think she won't be able to teleport. That and she won't be able to levitate you without levitating herself, which is nearly impossible to begin with.”

“Not to mention, you're used to hours of physical labor, so you're stamina should be well above ours. You're also tough. If it comes down to a physical fight, you could probably take a lot of punishment.” Valiant said.

“Ah don't want to be hurtin' nopony ifn Ah don't have to.” Big Mac said.

“We know that, but we may not have a choice. If push comes to shove, you may have to break one of the unicorn's legs. I know you don't like the idea, but we may find ourselves backed into a corner or out of options. If it's for her own good, can you do that Big Mac?” Evening Star asked.

        Big Macintosh looked unhappy at the prospect, but he nodded,

“Ah guess Ah can, but Ah ain't goin' to be happy about it.”

“Alright weaknesses,” Lemon Lime said, “Umm . . . uh . . . well . . . aside from not having wings or magic I can't think of any.”

“Reluctance.” Valiant said, “Big Mac's not a violent type. No offense, my friend, but you have to admit that if you had to buck a mare, on purpose, to injure her, you would have trouble doing that wouldn't you?”

“Ah might. Ah was taught to never even raise mah voice to a filly or mare, much less hurt one on purpose.” Big Macintosh admitted.

“Alright, good point Valiant.” Lemon Lime said, “Is that everything?”

“Well, I do know Mend pretty well. I could probably give you a rundown of his advantages and disadvantages.” Valiant offered.

“Alright then, go for it.” Lemon Lime said dipping the quill again.

“He knows all about medicine and he can do field work without a problem. He's resourceful and clever. He doesn't shy away from . . . messy things and he won't flinch if he has to get physical. If we can find a way to inject the unicorn with a strong sedative, Mend should be the one to do it. If anypony gets injured, he can provide triage on the spot. He'll be indispensible.” Valiant said seriously, “On the flip side, he is actually a gentle pony. He CAN get physical, but I seriously doubt he'll WANT to. He's dedicated his life to helping ponies recover from injuries, not causing them. I'm fairly certain that things get down to the grind, he'll be able to do what's best, but again, we face the issue of reluctance. He also isn't in particularly great shape. He's only in his thirties but, well, you all already know how old he looks. He is an Earth pony, so he'll be a little bit stronger than most of the rest of us, tougher too. I think that about sums it up.”

“Alright, tomorrow we need to find Cantankerous and get him to come to Trooper's room. Once everypony is there, we can discuss a strategy for tracking this unicorn. Remember, as yet we have no idea where she's staying. Assuming she's staying in Canterlot in the first place; she could be anywhere.” Lemon Lime observed.

“Let's go over what we have to work with. What supplies do we have available to us right now and what do we need to get?” Evening Star asked.

“Ah've got a lasso and some steel shoes, plus plenty of bits.” Big Macintosh offered.

        Evening Star's eyes bulged at the statement,

“Steel shoes?” she asked incredulously, “Whoo! You mean business don't you.”

“Ifn it comes to a pony's life Ah'll be savin' by hurtin' somepony else, Ah'll do what Ah have to and make it count. Ah may not like it none, but if it's what's got to be done then that's that, and Ah'll try not to hesitate.” Big Mac said slowly, as if the words hurt.

“I have my mortar and pestle, plus all the ingredients I could need.” Valiant hesitated before saying more, “I don't know if she can help, but I'll ask Arabesque what she can do, or I'll try to at least. I'm not sure I can get in contact with her, but I'll try.”

        Lemon Lime ceased writing and looked up at his friend slowly, the others were silent as well,

“I think we should let her rest Valiant. We shouldn't try to dabble with ghosts and spirits. This concern is for the living. We should handle it by ourselves. Let her go. You need to be on your own now.”

“It's easier said than done, Live Wire.” Valiant said stiffly, “She's lived with me for a long time . . . “ Valiant cut himself off as his own words sunk in, “I mean, I've lived with her for a long time. It's not easy to let go.”

“Tell me about it.” Lemon Lime said under his breath, then raised his voice, “Valiant, my point is still valid. We were never meant to rely on the departed. We were meant to rely on each other, the living. You need to do this yourself.” Lemon Lime turned to Evening Star, “What do you have at your disposal?”

        The tan pegasus shrugged her shoulders,

“Maps, that's about it. I could call in a few favors, but my requests would have to be specific, and I don't know how reliable they would be.”

        The yellow unicorn wrote it all down before adding his own possessions to the meager list,

“I have my home and a lot of bits, plus my home's resources. I guess I'm the strongest contributor in that regard. I've saved almost three-hundred-thousand bits since I started my job.”

“Holy cow!” Valiant exclaimed, “You are now officially my new best friend.” he said teasingly.

        Lemon Lime smiled,

“So what we need to do now is figure out how we are going to get this mystery sedative into the unicorn. Valiant, do you think you can come up with something that can be injected? It would probably be easier than trying to get her to swallow anything.”

“That's not my area of expertise. I make potions to be swallowed, but I do have my pharmaceuticals text and I've got Mend. I'm sure I can figure something out, but it will take time.” Valiant said.

“Couldn't you just use some of the sedatives they have in the clinic where Dr. Mend works?” Big Macintosh asked.

        Valiant shook his head vigorously,

“Nope, not an option. That stuff' is tightly regulated and no clinic would sell it. Mend could steal some, but I'm certain he wouldn't be at all happy with that thought. We'll probably have to make do with something I create from scratch, plus I'll need somepony to test it out on. We really don't have any other option.”

        Evening Star landed next to Valiant,

“If you have to test it out on somepony, we should make sure it's somepony who is about the same size and type. Would you say the unicorn mare is about my size?”

“Roughly, but she's a unicorn, and you're a pegasus. Your metabolism is a lot higher than hers. We need a twenty something unicorn mare who is a bit under average height. Do any of you know somepony like that?” Valiant asked.

        Big Macintosh looked a bit sick mentioning it,

“Twilight might do.”

        Valiant shook his head,

“No, she's a bit too young. She's what, sixteen?”

“Ah don't make it a habit of askin’ fillies their age, but that sounds about right.” Big Macintosh said.

“Yeah, she's too young, besides it could be dangerous.” Valiant explained.

“So you would put another mare's life in danger just because you don't know her?” Lemon Lime asked.

        Valiant groaned,

“No, you know that's not what I meant.” he sighed heavily, “Look, it's getting late. Let's wrap this up and continue tomorrow evening.”

“Sounds good to me.” Big Macintosh said.

“I second the motion.” Evening Star said.

“Yeah, I have to work tomorrow anyway.” Lemon Lime said capping the ink jar.

“Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight Big Macintosh?” Valiant asked.

        The huge Earth pony turned to Lemon Lime,

“Can Ah crash at your place again tonight?”

“Sure. Stay as long as you like.” Lemon Lime replied happily.

“Let's meet up again in Trooper's room tomorrow evening and be sure to bring Cantankerous. What time is good for you all?” Valiant asked.

“Around seven in the evening.” Lemon Lime said.

“Ah'm free all day.” Big Mac said.

“I'll be there as soon as I can, but I may have to catch up on some of my work tomorrow.” Evening Star explained.

“Sounds good.” Valiant said slipping on his saddle-bags, “I'll see you tomorrow.”

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

        The group of friends went their separate ways with Lemon Lime and Big Macintosh heading off towards the former's home. Evening Star took to the sky and Valiant trotted back to the dorm, wary of back alleys and deep shadows.

        It didn't take long for the wingless pegasus to figure out that somepony was following him. Valiant slowed his pace and listened carefully. The pony trailing him didn't; hooves clacking on the cobble stones toward him. Valiant mentally braced himself and spun around, raising his front right hoof to strike out if he was attacked. He met Evening Star's startled face.

        Valiant lowered his hoof, feeling ridiculous,

“Evening Star, why are you following me?” he asked.

“I need to talk to you, silly.” Evening Star said smiling pleasantly.

        Valiant tensed up slightly, but forced himself to go back to his normal trot,

“Is something wrong?”

        Evening Star trotted up beside Valiant and left the silence between them stretch for a moment before she answered,

“Earlier you said I was pretty. What did you mean by that? What did you really mean?”

        Valiant swallowed hard and kept his eyes forward,

“I uh, meant I think you're pretty. It's a fairly simple statement.”

“Come on Valiant, I'm not dumb. And it's not simple at all; it's far more complex than you make it sound.” Evening Star said looking up at the royal blue stallion.

        The two walked in silence for a few minutes longer before Evening Star broke the silence again,

“Are you attracted to me?” she asked quietly.

        Valiant stumbled on a cobblestone, nearly falling onto his face,

“That's a bold question, but I have t ask a counter question. Would my answer change the way you see me or treat me?”

        Evening Star was silent for several long minutes before she answered,

“Yes, it would.”

        Valiant had another question prepared,

“Why?” he asked in as neutral a tone as he could.

“Because it would mean that you see me as something other than just a friend.” Evening Star replied.

        Valiant swallowed again, this was the hard question, he didn't know if he even wanted to know the answer,

“Would that be a bad thing?”

“It would mean that things have changed between us. Have I led you to believe that I want anything more than to just be friends?” the tan pegasus asked.

“No you haven't.” Valiant said grimly.

        Evening Star grew more vocal,

“Don't be angry. You're a wonderful friend, but I don't have the luxury of becoming attached to you.”

“He's a very lucky stallion.” Valiant said quietly.

“No, it isn't like that. I don't have anypony, I can't afford to.” Evening Star said plainly, “Valiant, please understand. There is another mare out there waiting for you, don't disappoint her just because you can't be with me.”

“I don't want another mare.” Valiant said keeping his voice even, only with great difficulty.

        Evening Star kept her voice neutral,

“Listen to me Valiant. You have to understand . . . ” she said.

        Valiant whipped around in the blink of an eye and caught the tan pegasus' left fore-hoof to his muzzle. He had planned on kissing her, but she saw through it. Valiant's eyes merged on the hoof pressed up against his mouth, crossing them comically.

        Evening Star giggled,

“That was so cliché, Valiant. I could have seen that coming if I was blind.” she lowered her hoof, “Don't be so dramatic. This doesn't have to be a big deal unless you make it one.”

“I apologize.” Valiant said quietly, “I was out of line.”

“Yes you were.” Evening Star agreed, “But it's not the end of the world. Let me put this into perspective for you. Did you ever think you would get over Arabesque?”

“Yes, but not for a while. I was really surprised when I found myself attracted to you.” Valiant said blushing.

“And that's after knowing me for, what three days? Valiant there are plenty of other mares out there. As of right now, you have a crush on me, that's all. Don't make it something it's not supposed to be. Right now we need to focus on dealing with this rogue unicorn, alright? And don't be so serious all the time. Life is meant to be enjoyed and savored, not rushed and remembered. Let things unfold as they will and don't push the issue when you find the right girl for you.” Evening Star preached.

        Valiant felt sheepish,

“I'm just really awkward around girls, especially pretty ones.”

“At least you're not as bad as Live Wire. That poor guy couldn't pull off any one-liners if his life depended on it.” Evening Star giggled.

        Valiant couldn't help but to smile,

“No kidding. When he first met you, I thought he was going to implode. He's a really nice stallion though, even if he is really intense sometimes.”

        Evening Star rolled her eyes,

“He did get a bit too serious earlier. I thought he was going to clobber you on the spot. He did have a good point though. I think you still have some issues to work through before you're ready to settle down. By your own account, you've been denied five years of life experience. Along those lines, how did you stay sane all that time, with nopony to talk to?”

        Valiant stopped walking and turned his head to the night sky,

“Luna helped me.” he said dreamily, “I would look up at the moon, even though I didn't know she was up there, but the symbol of another pony on the Moon gave me peace. I used to talk to the Moon at night, as if there was somepony up there who could hear me. I didn't feel so alone at night; and besides it's not like I never encountered anypony else in five whole years. It was a rare occurrence, but it did happen. I just helped out wherever I could, even if I couldn't say pretty much anything.”

        Valiant looked up and realized they had reached the dorm, “I guess this is my stop. I'll see you later Evening Star.”

        Evening Star nodded and turned to leave,

“I hope you feel better Valiant, and remember what I said.”

        The tan pegasus mare took to the sky and flew off over the buildings. Valiant watcher her go, yearning to be flying next to her.

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

        Pain seared through his body as he was jostled up and down rapidly, like he was being borne on a wagon. His whole world was excruciating pain, exquisite in its intensity. He groaned quietly, not even realizing he was still alive.

        As he lay in place, still bouncing, he began hearing voices,

“We need to hurry! He's lost a lot of blood, I don't know if he'll make it!” a filly's voice said.

“I can't run any faster,” a second voice responded panting heavily, “I'm putting everything I have into it already!” the second voice belonged to a young stallion

“Take this right!” the filly shouted suddenly.

        Sea Blue's body jerked to the side, sliding on a flat surface. He felt the weight of somepony holding him down but sliding as well. After a moment, the rattling stopped. In a matter of moments Sea Blue felt himself being lifted by strong hooves. His closed eyes registered light beyond his eyelids. He heard some yelling and then he felt himself laid gently down on a soft surface. He felt like he was moving again but this time it was smooth as silk.

        He heard new voices, all mares asking questions rapidly,

“What caused his injury?” one mare asked quickly.

        The stallion he had heard before responded,

“I have no idea. We were getting an early start and we found him in an alley. There was nopony else around so we put him in the back of the wagon. That's why he smells so bad.”

        The mare's voice answered him,

“You laid a unicorn with an open, bleeding wound in the bed of a garbage wagon? Please tell me you put something under him.”

“We didn't have time.” the filly answered, “We had to get him here as soon as possible.”

        Sudden, incredible pain lanced through Sea Blue's body, causing him to groan. The pain ceased after a moment. He sensed the presence of another pony close to his face.

“Can you hear me?” the mare asked loudly in his ear.

        Sea Blue's mind was swimming in agony, but his thoughts were n only one thing,

“My daughter.” he whispered.

        Sea Blue heard the nurse's shocked voice address the other two ponies,

“Did you see a filly out there?”

“No, we didn't. There was no sign of anypony else. There weren't a lot of places to hide, either.” the filly replied.

“I saw him first. I came around the corner and for a second, I thought I saw a dark shape standing over him. It was light that drew me over. It looked like a tall unicorn with a really long horn glowing. My first impression was that Princess Luna was in the alley, but when I looked again, there was nopony there.” the stallion said.

“Took her.” Sea Blue mumbled.

“Somepony took your daughter?” the nurse asked, leaning down to the unicorn stallion again.

“Unicorn.” Sea Blue whispered.

“Get Dr. Avalon in here! I don't care if you have to wake her, do it!” the nurse said emphatically.

        Sea Blue vaguely heard a pony's hooves run off. Sea Blue felt a pin-prick against his skin and the world went mercifully blank.

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

        Sea Blue became aware of voices around him. He felt wonderful. The absence of pain was like a balm on his mind. He focused on the voices around him.

“He should have been long dead when those two garbage collectors brought him in. He needed fifteen quarts of blood to stabilize him. There is no way he should be alive, none. The only thing I can think of is that he used magic to keep himself going. He was nearly dry of blood, his arteries and veins had collapsed. The nurses had to put an I.V. directly into his left ventricle.” the voice belonged to a mare.

        A second voice, one that Sea Blue recognized, responded,

“Did you give him the potion?” the voice belonged to Mend.

“As soon as we had him stitched up. I'm not certain it was wise to wake him up so soon after he got out of surgery.” the mare said.

“We need to know what happened. You said he came in alone?” Mend asked.

“That's what the nurses told me. He was coherent enough to tell them his daughter had been taken.” the mare informed.

“That's why we need him awake. If I'm right, then the rogue unicorn who mangled Trooper up is the same one who attacked him. If that's the case, we need to move fast. That unicorn is suffering from C.M.E.S. there's no telling what she could do to a little filly.” Mend said.

        Sea Blue shifted painfully in his bed and mumbled,

“Was a unicorn.”

        He heard Mend approach the bed and felt the other stallion's breath on his ear,

“What happened?” Mend asked quietly.

“She gored me with her horn . . . took Patch. Teleported.” Sea Blue whispered as clearly as he could.

“We'll find her, Sea Blue. I promise.” Mend whispered.

        Sea Blue tensed his muscles and tried to rise from his bed,

“Got to . . . find her.” he grunted.

        Mend put his front hooves on the determined unicorn,

“Don't you dare move!” he whispered tensely, “You'll have her back, but you must rest now.”

“I can find her . . . lost foal spell.” Sea Blue grunted.

“That's great, but for now you have to be still. You're in no shape to use magic. Sleep now, I'll be back later to check on you. You can try the spell then. Alright?” Mend said.

“Have to . . . find her.” Sea Blue mumbled.

“You won't do her any good if you die from over exertion. Go to sleep. Doctor's orders.” Mend said sternly.

        Sea Blue relaxed and stopped moving. Within moments he was asleep.

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

        Valiant got off work late. It was seven fifteen when he closed up Mrs. Soothe's apothecary. He had an experimental form of a sleeping potion in his saddle-bags. Mrs. Soothe had a recipe for a sleeping potion and Valiant had spent his free time pouring over his text books trying to figure out how to strengthen it. The jar clinked inside his saddle-bags as he galloped toward the clinic to meet his friends.

        Valiant burst through the door of Trooper's room at seven twenty-three, startling his friends,

“Sorry I'm late. I had to close up shop. Mrs. Soothe went home early.” he panted.

        Valiant took stock of the occupants of the room. Dr. Mend stood next to Trooper's bed, both looking at Valiant like he was nuts. Evening Star, Lemon Lime, and Big Macintosh were huddled around a table and looked to have been studying something on a piece of parchment.

“I would invite you in, but it looks as if you have already invited yourself.” Trooper said smirking, “At least we know you are not a vampire.”

“Vampire ponies?” Dr. Mend asked.

“With all the magic floating around Equestria, I would not doubt it.” Trooper defended.

“Let's get serious here.” Lemon Lime said eyeing Trooper sourly, “We have a lot to discuss. I'm afraid we have some bad news Valiant. The unicorn struck again. This time she took a filly away from her father. She ran him through, with her horn. She almost killed him.”

        Valiant clenched his jaw,

“She's developing a pattern. Let's figure out what the victims have in common. We have to do something soon.”

“She chooses isolated victims. A lone pony, or a lone adult at least. It's always in an alley too.” Evening Star observed.

“It's always near after sundown and it's always ponies who can't fly, at least for her original victims.” Big Macintosh added.

“The location!” Lemon Lime yelled suddenly, “All of the incidents have been near the same area. I'll bet it's close to her hide out. Unicorns can't teleport very far, maybe a couple of hundred paces at most. Evening Star you mentioned you have maps. Could you go get one that shows all of Canterlot?”

“Sure thing.” she said heading out the door.

        Valiant turned a questioning eye to Lemon Lime,

“How do you know where the attacks happened?” he asked.

“I asked Trooper where he saw the unicorn and Dr. Mend told me where the latest victim was found.” he said proudly.

        Big Macintosh cleared his throat,

“Hey, uh Dr. Mend? How long can a filly go without food or water?”

        Dr. Mend looked stricken at the question and its implications,

“I'd say no more than two days. Less if she's crying, which is a safe bet. She'll be dehydrated already by now.”

        Trooper craned his neck up to speak,

“Is it out of the question to leave food and water in the area where this rogue unicorn seems to stay? She may be crazy, but she has obviously been eating and drinking. Even if we do manage to capture her, she will be too out of it to tell us anything helpful. She has taken a filly so she has at least some brain still working, she might have enough sense to feed the little one.”

        Valiant nodded,

“Good idea. It's the best we have to go on right now.”

        Dr. Mend addressed Valiant,

“Actually, we have more than that. Sea Blue claims to know a spell that should lead us right to Patch.”

        Valiant's ears stood up ram-rod straight,

“Sea Blue was the one injured?”

        Dr. Mend nodded,

“Yes. In all truth he should have died, but he managed to pull through. He might be well enough to cast the spell. We can use Evening Star's map. By the way, I introduced myself while we were waiting.”

        Valiant turned to Lemon Lime,

“I thought you were going to bring along your friend Cantankerous.”

        Lemon Lime's ears wilted,

“Big Macintosh and I went to find him, but he didn't go to the bar tonight, which is really weird, he always goes there. We waited and asked around and waited some more but he never showed up. It's strange, he's always there. Even the barkeeper was concerned. I feel bad for letting you down Valiant. I hate letting my friends down, especially now that I actually have them.”

        Valiant's expression softened,

“It's alright Live Wire. We'll just have to try again tomorrow.”

        Evening Star opened the door and came into the room carrying a thick map in her mouth. She laid it down on the floor and opened it up, displaying the whole of Canterlot. Big Macintosh stepped on two corners of the map to keep it down.

        Valiant looked over the map carefully, noting landmarks,

“There,” he pointed with his hoof, “That's where I encountered her. Live Wire can you put a dot of ink right there? I've got the quill and ink jar from last night in my saddle-bags”

        Lemon Lime reached into Valiant's saddle-bags and retrieved the ink and quill. He set them down and levitated the quill, dipping it into the ink then proceeded to put a thick dot on the map, where Valiant had indicated. The short yellow unicorn studied the map for a few more minutes and placed two more dots on two other locations, making a semicircle, almost in the center of Canterlot.

        Valiant pointed to a large clump of buildings near the center of the semicircle,

“What are these buildings?”

        Lemon Lime scratched his chin,

“Those are old condemned warehouses. There's a cluster of them that have been boarded up because they were deemed unsafe. They're due to be demolished within the week, and new ones are scheduled to be raised from the ground by Celestia and Luna. These particular buildings were made about eighty years ago. Back then there was a company that wanted to stand out in Canterlot and decided to build their warehouses out of brown stone instead of white-marble. The problem was that it's unstable and the rate of decay was greatly increases because of poor materials. The company went under after only about a decade, and the warehouses were left alone. Nopony wanted to use such ugly buildings, especially in the capital of Equestria. I agree, it's the wrong way to stand out.”

“Circle those buildings. I'll bet that's where she is. Let's leave food and water, here, here, here, here, and here.” Valiant said indicating five places in a rough circle around the warehouses, “We don't have enough ponies to even attempt a rescue, right now. We need to wait and hope for the best.”

        Trooper frowned,

“There must be more we can do than that. Hope is good and all, but we need something solid to go on. For all we know, we might be looking at the wrong area. I say we ask the father of the filly to cast his tracking spell and try to correlate it on the map. There should be a way to do that.”

        Lemon Lime nodded,

“There is, but we'd need an arcane connection, a personal item that the filly kept close and interacted with on a regular basis. Something like a favorite toy or an article of clothing. The best thing would be a strand off her mane or tail or better yet, a drop of blood, but it would have to be fresh, less than three days old. Valiant, you and Dr. Mend know Sea Blue right? Why don't you go to his house and grab a couple of things for us to work with? While you're gone, we can gather in Sea Blue's room. We can try to get Dr. Avalon to put Trooper and Sea Blue in the same room or at least close by. I think it's a given that Sea Blue will be willing to help us get Patch back. With him we'll have our full compliment of ponies necessary to pull off both the rescue and capture the unicorn. We'll have two Earth ponies: Big Macintosh and Dr. Mend, three pegasi: Evening Star, Valiant, and Trooper, and two unicorns: Sea Blue and I. It's a good balance of skills and strengths.”

“We'll have to get Sea Blue's permission to go into his house, but I think we can handle that. Come on Valiant.” Dr. Mend said.

        Valiant followed Dr. Mend out of the room quietly, while the other ponies gathered up the map, ink jar and quill.

“Pardon me, but what am I supposed to do?” Trooper asked from his bed.

“You just wait here and think positive thoughts.” Evening Star said as the three other ponies left the room.

“I'm positively sure there is something I can be doing to help!” Trooper yelled at the retreating flanks.

        Big Macintosh felt sorry for the lame pegasus,

“Ah'll stay here with him.” he offered.

        Evening Star and Lemon Lime nodded and left the room.

        The door closed and Trooper sighed heavily,

“A great lot of good I shall be doing, laying here on my back. Positive thoughts. Bah! I can still fly, even with my legs bandaged up like this. I could be trying to get my cutie-mark.” he sighed heavily, calming down, “As if I have anything left to try. I will have you know, I have worked for every business in Canterlot. Literally, every business! I have found plenty of things I am good at, but nothing that I am spectacular with. Nothing that drives me, with the exception of finding that unicorn so she will be unable to hurt anypony else. Obviously, stopping a single individual is nothing worthy of a cutie-mark, so I am, yet again, left to stew in my morass of self pity.” he stopped to take a breath, “Fear not my muscular compatriot! I will not wallow for long. I shall do what I have always done, pick myself back up and continue on. I will not rest, except in this bed, until my flank is filled with the symbol of the driving force in my life, my passion, if you will. Yes, I can feel it! The day is coming where I will finally achieve my lifelong goal of finding out who I am, and what I am meant to be!”

“Ayup.” Big Macintosh commented blandly.

        Trooper looked sidelong at the huge Earth pony,

“Are you mocking me sir?” he asked.

“Nope. Ah was just agreein' with you.” Big Macintosh informed.

        Trooper began ranting again,

“Such an encouraging companion, I have never encountered. I should like to shake your hoof, but that might prove difficult.”

        Big Macintosh smirked and put his right fore hoof on the side of Trooper's head and shook vigorously.

“Steady on there, large lad!” Trooper bellowed, eyes rolling, “I am not yet hale of health. Do you mean to give me a concussion, good sir? I believe you may have gelatinized my brain.”

        Big Macintosh had to stifle a laugh,

“Ayup.”

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

        Valiant and Dr. Mend returned with Valiant's saddle-bags full to bursting and entered Sea Blue's room, which was likewise filled to bursting. Trooper's bed sat next to Sea Blue's, with Big Macintosh, Lemon Lime and Evening Star standing around the base-boards of each bed. The map had been laid out on a rolling counter next to Sea Blue's bed. Sea Blue himself looked to be doing better, even if he still looked pale and weak.

        Sea Blue addressed the two stallions,

“Did you find it?” he asked weakly.

“Yes. We found her brush and brought the toys you said she liked the most.” Dr. Mend said removing each article, brush first.

        Lemon Lime levitated up the brush and plucked off a single strand with another spell,

“This should do. I've explained the plan to Sea Blue so we should be ready.”

        Lemon Lime used his magic to tie the strand to a small rock while he explained,

“I have a fair grasp of magical theory. I've modified the spell to channel through the strand and use the rock as a plum bob. Sea Blue will cast the spell into the strand while I levitate the tip of the hair and the rock will guide us to the location of his daughter on the map.”

“I'm ready.” Sea Blue grunted.

        The turquoise unicorn settled back and closed his eyes. His horn began glowing dimly as Sea Blue broke out in a sweat almost immediately. He clenched his eyes tighter pouring his concentration into the spell. He began breathing heavily, but his horn glowed all the brighter. The strand of hair Lemon Lime was levitating over the map began glowing a dim brown color. The rock moved toward the set of buildings and Lemon Lime moved the hair with it. It took some maneuvering but finally it settled right dead center of the old warehouses.

        Lemon Lime levitated the quill over and marked the spot,

“That's it!” he said excitedly, “We've got her location!”

        Sea Blue opened his eyes and stared blearily at the marked spot on the map,

“That's where Patch is?” he asked.

        Dr. Mend used a cloth to wipe off Sea Blue's face,

“We can't move yet. You and Trooper need to get better first.”

        Sea Blue looked stricken,

“You can't be serious!” he yelled weakly, “We can't wait that long! I'll be weeks recovering in here! I will not let my little girl stay with that monster one second longer than necessary!”

        Evening Star had an idea,

“Can't you get an idea of how she's doing with a spell?”

        Sea Blue shook his head,

“No. That's advanced magic, like Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns advanced. I'm nowhere near powerful enough to cast that, besides I don't know the spell.”

“I do.” Lemon Lime said in a quiet voice.

        Every eye in the room turned to the short unicorn, Lemon Lime explained,

“I use it to see exactly how much progress my patients are making and if I should increase or decrease the regimen. The version I know is for touch though. Doing something like that would be a serious strain. If it's too much I could go right into 'Caster's Stroke' in a matter of seconds. I mean I could try it, but I'd need to have a safety in place to render me helpless if I do. The best thing would be to get close to the warehouses. The longer the distance the more of a strain it is.”

        Big Macintosh stepped forward,

“Ah think Valiant, Evenin' Star and Ah should go with you and take some food and water along to leave nearby.”

“I'll go too. I know what to look for to diagnose C.M.E.S. plus I've dealt with it before.” Dr. Mend offered sagely.

“Then let's go, but remember, at the first sign of trouble we bolt. We can't risk an open confrontation with the rogue yet.” Valiant said.

        Nopony argued the point.

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

        The four intrepid friends approached the old warehouses as quietly as they could. The darkness surrounded them like a cloak, making it difficult to see. They were in sight of the decrepit buildings when Valiant called a halt. Valiant carried the food and water in his saddle-bags.

“We're close now. Evening Star, would you be willing to fly up and scout around for us? Take a look and guide us in the most direct and dark path. Make sure you aren't seen.” the wingless pegasus directed.

“Sure thing.” she said taking to the air.

        Valiant turned to the other ponies,

“Big Macintosh, you're the strongest. If the rogue spots us, I want you to pick up Live Wire and carry him away as fast as you can. Mend tie up your mane and tail in buns. They will stand out like beacons in this gloom. Live Wire, do you have any idea which part of the complex Patch is in?”

        The short yellow unicorn shook his head,

“Sorry I don't. I'll stay quiet from here on out. I'll use gestures.” he said.

        Each of the ponies was nervous and all but Big Macintosh showed it. The stalwart stallion simply stood nearby watching every shadow he could.

        Valiant took a deep breath and let out a quiet sigh,

“Be on your guards, everypony. She seems to go out at night the most, so we stand a good chance of running into her. Let's keep that chance to a minimum. Stick to shadows and walls where you can, only move across open ground if you're sure the coast is clear. All the buildings between us and the warehouses are white-marble and will make you easy to spot even in the shadows. Stay close to the ground when you're not moving.” Valiant looked toward the cluster of warehouses then back to his friends, “I estimate the distance to be close to seven-hundred paces to the walls of the warehouse complex. Follow Evening Star as closely as you can. I'll take the front. Give me a fifty pace lead then follow behind. Watch for my signals. You all know the hoof signals for 'stop' and 'come' right?” he asked.

        The other three ponies nodded silently, Valiant continued,

“Good. Let's get in and out as fast as possible.”

        The royal blue, wingless pegasus turned around and took a couple of deep breaths,

“Princesses protect us.” he whispered to himself.

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

        Valiant had the only experience sneaking around. When you spend five years outside of the protection of any town and in the wilderness, you learn how to keep from being noticed by anything that would make a meal of you. Valiant crept from shadow to shadow and from cover to cover making hardly a sound. He was a ghost. Sadly, the same could not be said for his friends. Big Macintosh, Lemon Lime and Dr. Mend stuck close together in a tightly packed group and often tripped over each other with many a loud 'shush' from each stallion when, said tripping occurred.

        Valiant knew they were getting close. The dark mass of buildings took up most of his vision. He stood at the shadowy corner of a building with a twenty pace gap in front of him that was swathed in moonlight. He looked up and saw Evening Star's silhouette directly above him. She pointed straight ahead, across the gap. He turned and motioned for his friends to come to him. They came as quietly as they could, which equaled about the same amount of noise a small flock of birds would make, just with less chirping. Less, not none. They reached Valiant and plastered themselves to the wall of the building.

        Valiant turned to his friends and whispered,

“I'll go first. Mend, you follow next. Live Wire, you come after Mend. Big Mac, bring up the rear. Wait for me to signal you. Now when we get across, spread out a little. You guys make a lot of noise when you're all bunched up. Follow nose to tail, not side-by-side. Ready?”

        The three stallions nodded silently. Valiant made a point to look left and right, in front and behind, hoping his friends would get the idea. Seeing the coast was clear, he lowered himself close to the ground and crept across the gap, barely lifting his hooves so as to minimize the sound he made. Valiant reached the deep embrace of the shadows, turned and looked around again. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, he motioned for Mend to come. The black stallion mimicked the younger pegasus and crossed the gap, joining Valiant in the shadows. Moments later Lemon Lime and Big Macintosh followed. They were all nearly silent.

        Valiant looked up, searching for Evening Star. He spotted her directly above their position. She was pointing around the left side of the building and toward the warehouses. Valiant crept around to the corner of the building and scanned the area. He saw nothing unusual. Motioning for his friends to follow him, he continued on down the length of the building. The warehouses were straight ahead of them with only a single large gap separating them from the walls of the condemned buildings.

        Valiant looked up, again searching for Evening Star. Dependable as always, she was directly above them, pointing across the gap. Valiant gauged the distance to be close to thirty-five paces of moon-lit open ground. He looked around once again and stealthfully crossed the gap. The shadows were deep next to the warehouses and Valiant breathed a sigh of relief, 'Even Mend will be all but invisible in this.' he thought. He motioned for his friends to cross the gap, realizing afterward that he had neglected to look around. He nearly panicked, looking in every direction at once. He saw nothing.

        Dr. Mend, Lemon Lime, and Big Macintosh crossed the gap quickly and hugged the warehouse wall, looking greatly relieved. Valiant didn't waste a second. He nosed open his saddle-bags and withdrew Patch's brush. Placing it on the ground, he stepped back, allowing Lemon Lime room to work. The unicorn lowered his head and plucked a single strand from the brush.

        Valiant leaned toward Big Macintosh and Dr. Mend,

“Keep an eye out while he casts the spell. His horn will shine like a beacon out here. I'll look left, Big Mac, you look back the way we came, Mend, look right. If you see something, don't say a word, just tap Live Wire. Live Wire, if you get tapped stop the spell immediately. If anypony spots something, Live Wire's horn will stop glowing. If that happens, lower yourself to the ground, lay back your ears and tuck your head between your hooves. Don't make a sound. With some luck we should look like nothing more than debris.” he whispered.

        Each stallion took their place and waited. Lemon Lime gripped the hair in his lips and focused his magic through it. The young unicorn could feel that the hair he had chosen was an older one, it didn't have nearly as much life left in it as the other one had. Undeterred, the unicorn focused all the more, his horn glowing brightly in the darkness. He closed his eyes and allowed his magic to interpret what it felt through his own senses. The strain was intense and began draining him quickly. The coil of arcane power penetrated the stone of the building, led by the hair to act as a guiding force to its origin. Lemon Lime became suddenly aware of Patch. She was in there for sure. The young unicorn filly felt exhausted, thirsty, and hungry, but she was alive and as well as she could be.

        Lemon Lime stretched out his magic even farther, trying to tap into her senses so he could get a feel for the area around her. It was an entirely unorthodox use of the spell but he poured every drop of his reserves into it. The strain was incredible. Lemon Lime could feel himself sweating from the exertion. He pushed his magic so far it hurt. He could feel himself shaking, he was losing the spell. For the briefest of instants he was rewarded with a momentary flash from Patch's sight. Darkness all around. A room, twenty paces by fifteen paces with a doorway set into the far wall, barely discernable through the darkness. A dark unicorn starring right at him out of the shadows.

        Lemon Lime's eyes shot open,

“She knows we're here! We have to go!” he whispered harshly.

        Valiant lowered himself to the ground with the others following suite. He quickly opened his saddle-bags and removed the food and water. He set the five bottles of water out in a row with small plastic bags of food in front of each. He stood back up and waved to Evening Star. The pegasus winged down to the four stallions quietly.

“What's up?” she whispered.

“We've been detected. Can you fly around and leave one of these at each corner of the complex? Leave the last one right in front of the main door if there is one. Be careful. If you're spotted high-tail it away. We'll meet you back where we started.” Valiant whispered.

        Evening Star picked up one bottle and bag in her mouth and took off quietly, winging away over the warehouse complex.

        Valiant rose to a standing position and addressed the other three stallions,

“Follow me quickly and quietly as you can. We have to move, now. Come on.” he whispered.

        The four stallions sprinted quietly back the same they had come, still keeping to the shadows. They arrived back where they started and hunkered down in the deep shadows panting for breath. They had only just settled down when Lemon Lime began shaking and a cold sweat rose on his skin. Dr. Mend noticed and put a hoof to the younger unicorn's inner-thigh, taking his pulse. Big Macintosh and Valiant looked on worriedly as Dr. Mend raised his head.

“He's going into shock.” the medical pony informed calmly, “The strain from his magic and the running is getting to him. He needs to rest. It's not serious but we need to keep him awake for now. He needs to get away from here. The stress will make him worse.”

        Big Macintosh shifted his position so his flank was to the smaller unicorn. Dr. Mend nudged Lemon Lime to a shaky standing position and maneuvered him over Big Mac's back, then carefully lowered him down onto the huge Earth pony.

        Big Macintosh stood up easily and turned to the other two stallions,

“Do you think you need to come with me Doc?” he asked quietly.

        Dr. Mend nodded and joined the other two ponies,

“Wait here for Evening Star. If she's not back soon, come get us. We'll be back at the clinic.”

        Valiant nodded,

“Thanks guys. I'll join you as soon as I can.”

        Valiant watched as the three stallions headed back to the clinic. The wingless pegasus laid his head back down onto his hooves and waited. A slight sound echoed in the darkness. Valiant became instantly alert. He quietly shuffled back against the wall of the building he was next to doing his level best to make himself invisible. He heard the noise again and moved his eyes toward the source of the sound, keeping the rest of himself as still as a stone.

        Valiant waited for eternal seconds as his heart raced, 'I'm completely vulnerable out here. I have no way to defend myself if the rogue attacks.' he thought. Fear raced through his veins, making it nearly impossible to keep still. His eyes searched frantically through every shadow, every dark corner. He came up with nothing, but still he looked. Suddenly, movement nearby caught his eye. It was faint, mostly concealed by the darkness, but Valiant focused his eyes on the spot. As he focused on penetrating the shadow, his vision began to pick out a form, just barely distinguishable from the enveloping shadows. She was there, not five paces from him. She was looking around with her eyes, moving nothing else. Valiant could see the faint reflection of light on her glazed-over eyes. She was so close, Valiant could smell her scent. It was as ugly as her eyes, tainted and muddy, like an icy wind coming off a mound of festering garbage.

        Valiant's breath caught in his throat when he noticed Evening Star leaning over the edge of a nearby building. She didn't give any sign that she had seen the rogue. Even so, she seemed to have the sense to stay still. The situation turned into a waiting game from there. Valiant's nerves were on a razor's edge. His fear swelled up and made him feel sick. He felt a bubble of gas crawling up his throat and swallowed it. He felt even worse after that. The rogue still didn't move, and Valiant feared Evening Star would get impatient and be spotted. The gas bubble came up again. This time Valiant closed his mouth and constricted his throat, making a nearly silent burp in his mouth. He blew out the foul stench silently and angled it toward the rogue unicorn.

        The rogue's nostrils flared and she cringed back,

“Ugh! Smells like dead rats. I hate rats!” she yelled to the darkness.

        She turned and skulked away into the shadows silently.

        Valiant waited for what seemed like hours. He looked up to where he had seen Evening Star. She was gone. Valiant determined to wait until he was sure the danger had passed.

        Suddenly, Evening Star landed right in front of him,

“Come on! Let's get out of here!” she whispered tensely.

        Valiant ran as fast as he could, while Evening Star flew overhead.

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

“You're sure she's alright?” Sea Blue asked for the um-teenth time.

        Lemon Lime lay stretched out on the floor between the two beds, barely coherent,

“I'm sure.” he grunted.

        Dr. Mend had kept the plucky unicorn stable but Lemon Lime was making a slow recovery. Lemon Lime had been suffering from Stage One C.M.E.S. when they had returned, but Dr. Mend was certain he was not mentally impaired.

“She's fine.” Dr. Mend said moodily, “Stop stressing about it. There's nothing more we can do right now. You'll impede your recovery if your body is stressed. Help Patch by helping yourself. We've done all we can for tonight.”

“You couldn't understand unless you had foals of your own. Any parent would be upset.” Sea Blue countered.

        Evening Star opened the door with Valiant following behind her,

“That was closer than I would have liked.” Evening Star said sitting down on the floor, “She nearly had Valiant there for a minute.”

        Valiant smirked,

“How are you doing over there Live Wire?”

        Lemon Lime raised a hoof into the air,

“Splitting headache and blurry vision. I'm doing great. If the room would stop spinning I would come over there and smack you. How can that rogue stand it? This is torture.”

“I think we need to revamp out list of strengths and weaknesses.” Evening Star laughed, “Valiant here, is a regular old biological weapon. You should have smelled what he let out! Whew! It was foul! I'll wager you could knock out Princess Celestia with that.”

        Valiant blushed, embarrassed,

“Well . . . it worked didn't it?”

“Where did you grow up to have a digestive system that developed to emit that kind of smell?” Evening Star laughed, rolling on the floor.

        Valiant smiled,

“I grew up in Haysburg. I doubt you've ever heard of it.”

        The statement drew a great deal of attention; Valiant had never spoken of his hometown before,

“It's a little village far to the East, near where the White River flows out into the Eldritch Basin. Most of the immediate area is a boggy swamp, but outside of that are leagues and leagues of plains. It's thick with bugs in the summer, but in winter you can walk right across entire portions of the swamp on the ice. Haysburg is on the western bank of the Eldritch Basin, that's where the swamps are. On the other side of the Basin is the Razor Wing mountain range which separates Equestria from Gryphonvale.”

        Big Macintosh cocked his head,

“Ah would have never guessed you used to live so close to the kingdom of the Gryphons. Did you meet a lot of them growin' up?”

“A couple of them would regularly come visit us. They always caused minor problems, but they aren't too bad. They almost never brought any younger gryphons with them because of the weather trouble.” Valiant explained.

“What kind of weather trouble?” Evening Star asked.

“Tornados. A lot of tornados. They happened all the time out on the plains. The swamp stopped most of them, but once in a while one would start out in the basin and work its way toward the shore. Every house in Haysburg has what we call 'swimming cellars'. The water table is only about four paces below the ground, so every cellar fills with water, up to about mid-chest. It takes a lot of effort to keep the water fresh and you need it to be fresh all the time so that when a tornado comes you don't have to hunker down in nasty, brackish water.” Valiant explained.

“But why don't your pegasi just keep the tornados at bay?” Evening Star asked.

“Pegasi hate Haysburg. We're so light-weight we get picked up and thrown around all the time. There's always a wind there and we would never have a chance to rest if we tried to control the weather. Any cloud-home we could build would be torn apart within a week. Trust me, I tried. It's a combination of constant wind and never-ending challenge for every pegasus family that moves there. Arabesque and I were the only two resident pegasi and we were only there because we were orphans. The vast majority of the population is Earth ponies. The few unicorns that live there tend to keep to themselves deep in the swamp where they can practice their magic. Arabesque and I really had no choice but to bond, we were alone.” Valiant said.

        Trooper grunted,

“I dare say, it sounds like a right old mess. Why would tornados pop up all the time? Furthermore why would anypony want to live in such a place?”

“The Everfree Forrest is huge. It spans from Ponyville to the plains and swamps around Haysburg. The weather it makes tends to drift right over the plains to the basin, and Haysburg is smack-dab in between. As to why anypony would want to live there, I can answer that without even thinking. The place is incredibly rich in ancient ruins and relics and the constant water is a perfect environment to grow rice.” Valiant explained.

        Valiant's statement was met with a plethora of curious stares,

“What's rice?” asked Sea Blue.

        Evening Star popped up from her sitting position to explain,

“Rice is a type of grain that has to have a lot of water to grow. It's sweet, like corn and full of starch. It's a delicacy here. I've had it once. It is really good. I'll bet there's no other place in all of Equestria that can grow it. Am I right?”

        Valiant nodded,

“As far as I know. Haysburg sells its rice to neighboring communities and the gryphons buy it for a premium.”

“Why did you mention ancient ruins and relics as one of the reasons to live there?” Dr. Mend asked.

“Oh that, it's easy. Archeologists from all over Equestria go there to nose around the ruins, but they have to pay Haysburg to go and they have to pay a high price to take any relics or artifacts back to wherever they came from.” Valiant smiled, “I'd have to say that Haysburg is one of the few places in Equestria where ancient history is common knowledge. I can tell you all kinds of things about what's in those ruins. Haysburg actually has a storehouse filled with relics and artifacts that archeologists have left because they couldn't pay to take them. The unicorns who live in the swamps were constantly begging Haysburg to let them have a look at the storehouse. Princess Celestia occasionally sends a unicorn to Haysburg once in a while to make sure the storehouse doesn't hold anything magical.” Valiant said.

        Out of the blue, Lemon Lime asked,

“You really miss it don't you, Valiant?”

        Valiant nodded,

“Yeah I do. But I can't ever really go back to Haysburg, now can I?”

“Ah don't see why not.” Big Macintosh ventured, “You've been forgiven and all.”

“I doubt they would see it that way. All they would probably see is a murderer, and I don't want to stir up trouble if I don't have to.” Valiant said in a low voice, “Remember, somepony carved out my cutie-mark. I don't want to think about what would happen if that pony saw me again. There might be another Vagabond running around before too long.”

        Trooper expressed himself loudly,

“What in the name of the Goddess is a Vagathingie?”

        Valiant sighed heavily and said,

“It's a long story.”

“Well, I happen to have a lot of free time on my hooves at the moment.” Trooper said.

“I'd like to know too.” Lemon Lime said from the floor.

“As would I.” Sea Blue chimed in.

“I'll tell you all tomorrow night. I have to get to bed.” Valiant said evenly.

        Everypony agreed. It had been a long day.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: As always I appreciate any and all comments feel free to leave your opinions as they WILL be read in short order. Since Google Docs doesn’t allow you to post anything too . . . explicit, would anyone be interested if I put an intimate scene in here? (it would only be available through e-mail) If enough people post comments asking for it (at least 25) I will do so.


Trials of the Elements

Part 9

        Valiant and Dr. Mend walked back toward their shared dorm room watching every alley and shadow nervously.

        They were nearly back to the dorm when Valiant cleared his throat,

“We've been so busy lately, I haven't had the chance to ask you how your appointment with Sea Blue went. Do you want to talk about it?” he asked cautiously.

        Mend drew in a shallow, shuddering breath, then exhaled it slowly,

“He showed me exactly how much resentment I have toward my mother. We didn't even start on my father or me yet. I had no idea I was so bitter. He told me to tell the voices in my head to stop whenever they pipe up. I've been trying all day. It hasn't made a bit of difference. I got sick last night when I was in the bathroom and I've been feeling sick all day. I don't know why.”

“When was the last time you ate anything?” Valiant asked.

        Mend gave it some thought before answering,

“Come to think of it, it was yesterday morning.” Mend chuckled harshly, “I guess that explains the stomach problems. I've just been so busy I forgot to eat.”

        Valiant looked squarely at his friend,

“I don't think it's just that though. I think it's stress too. When was the last time you had a vacation?”

“I don't take vacations Valiant. I don't . . . “ Mend cut himself off and took a deep breath, “Maybe I do need a break.” he said realizing his voice had started to rise.

        Valiant was internally pleased at the effort Mend was making,

“Yeah you do.” he agreed quietly, “So, take a break tomorrow. How many bits did you bring with you?”

“A couple hundred, why?” Mend asked.

“Go into the clinic tomorrow and tell your boss you can't come in. Explain only as much as you have to. Afterward go do something that is nothing like work or work related. Go see a show, go to the park, go to the library, have a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant, go sight-seeing. There's a whole city here at your disposal. We're in the capital of Equestria for crying out loud. Have you even taken time to just enjoy it?” Valiant asked.

“Well no. I've always been to busy.” Mend admitted.

“You have every opportunity to be free for several months. Take advantage of that. Go do whatever you want. Have fun.” Valiant encouraged.

        Mend gave the idea some serious thought,

“I only just started at the clinic. It wouldn't look good if I asked for vacation so soon.”

“Do what your heart tells you to do. I won't ask you to compromise your morals, but you need some time for yourself. Focus on Mend. What does Mend WANT to do? What did you find fun when you were little?” Valiant asked.

“I honestly don't remember.” Mend said sadly.

“Then this is the perfect time to find out what you like! Try new things. A wise pony once told me that life is meant to be savored and enjoyed, not rushed and remembered. Big Macintosh doesn't have anything to do tomorrow. Why don't you go with him and see what Canterlot has to offer?” Valiant asked.

        Mend's face seemed a little brighter,

“You know what? I will. I'll need you to show me where Live Wire lives before you go to work tomorrow though.”

        Valiant smiled hugely,

“That's the spirit!” he said noticing they had arrived at their dorm building, “Live Wire told me the address, I'll write it down for you. Now, let's get some rest and tomorrow you get to start your vacation”

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

        Mend found Lemon Lime's house easily the next morning. He and Valiant had walked to the younger stallion’s work-place and Mend went on alone from there. Dr. Mend wore his saddle-bags in case he decided to buy something. Lemon Lime's home was nice. It was a large apartment set nearly against the very walls of Canterlot. Mend made his way up the stairs to the seventh floor where the smaller unicorn's apartment was and knocked on the door to number 7b. Lemon Lime opened the door looking like a house-wife. The yellow unicorn wore an apron with a mixing bowl floating in the air next to him.

        Lemon Lime's face lit up when he saw Mend,

“Good morning doctor!” he piped, “Come on in.” he said opening the door for Mend.

        Dr. Mend stepped in and took notice of the color-coated front room,

“Is Big Macintosh awake yet?” he asked his host.

“Nope. He wakes up on his own. I think he has an internal alarm-clock or something. I can't do it. I need the loudest alarm I can get. I'm a really heavy sleeper and a big eater. I always make a huge breakfast. Would you like some coffee? I just made a pot. It's good and strong, but I could make another pot if you like it weak. Breakfast will be ready in about fifteen minutes. Do you like biscuits? I love biscuits! I make a huge batch every morning. Did you know there are more than seventy-seven types of biscuits? Oh yeah, I also make a huge batch of fruit salad every evening for breakfast the following morning. I let it sit in a honey-based syrup overnight. That way, even if I end up with under-ripe fruit it's still sweet. Sometimes I make oatmeal too. I have some dry cereals as well if you want. My rule is, when you're here you're family. So if you see something you like, go for it, just make sure you tell me so I can get more if you use the last of it. Come take a look in my kitchen and tell me what you want. I'll make it in a jiffy.” Lemon Lime said in a matter of seconds.

        Dr. Mend's eye twitched slightly,

“I see now, why everypony calls you Live Wire. I could hardly keep up with you.” he said pleasantly, strained, but pleasantly.

“Oh, no. That's because of my condition. I tend to go off on tangents all the time, but that's just because my mind works so much faster than a normal pony.” Lemon Lime explained.

        Dr. Mend arched an eyebrow,

“I wasn't aware you had a mental condition. You don't seem to let it bug you too much.”

“It used to. I didn't have any friends until I ran into Valiant. I mean I literally ran into him. Since we've met, I've made a lot more friends. Evening Star, Big Macintosh, you, and maybe Trooper; I have plenty of friends now. I just have to learn how to interact without being overbearing.” Lemon Lime machine-gunned off.

“And maybe a little patience too.” Mend offered.

        Lemon Lime shot the doctor a sidelong look,

“Why does everypony say that? I'm actually very patient. Do you know how patient you have to be to be a physical therapist? I mean really! Sometimes you have to work with a patient for years before they're healed. I have to be patient. You can't rush therapy, no matter what type it is. Injuries take time to heal, especially really deep ones. You have to be willing to give everypony time to work out at their own pace. I don't rush it, I can't afford to. For an example, take a pony who has broken their leg and needs therapy because they've been bed-ridden for weeks. Minor muscle atrophy sets in and they don't need too long before they're ready to go. Now on the other hoof, if somepony came out a coma after several years, they would need a lot of time. They would need help learning how to use every muscle again, and that can take years in itself, not to mention the exercise so their muscles are strong enough to work normally. Then to top it all off, they will need time to learn how to interact with others properly. The mind is a muscle of sorts too. Patience is a must, when dealing with any type of therapy. Some heal fast, others take a long time. It all depends on the individual.”

        Dr. Mend was amazed at the depth of knowledge Lemon Lime had in regard to his work,

“You seem to be an expert in the field. I'll bet your boss loves you.”

        Lemon Lime winked,

“Oh yeah. Dr. Avalon says I'm her favorite.”

“You work with Avalon?” Dr. Mend asked, following Lemon Lime into the kitchen.

        Lemon Lime smiled over his shoulder as he plopped balls of dough onto a cookie sheet,

“Of course! Why else do you think she never pestered us about how late we were at the clinic last night?”

“I thought it was because I work there.” Mend admitted.

“Oh, so you're the new guy who has her tail all twisted huh?” Lemon Lime blurted without thinking.

        Dr. Mend's ears stood up on his head, ram-rod straight and facing forward, listening intently,

“Really? What did I do wrong?” he asked concerned, “She never said anything to me.”

        Lemon Lime blushed deep orange,

“I shouldn't have said anything. It isn't my business.” he said hurriedly, which for him really meant something.

        Dr. Mend pressed for answers,

“Please tell me.” he asked, “I had no idea she was upset.”

        Lemon Lime sighed, sliding the cookie-sheet into the oven,

“She isn't upset, per-SE. See, she mentioned to me that there's this new doctor at the clinic who's a real genius. She's hot-to-trot for him. She's dropped several hints, but apparently he isn’t interested. I was wondering who it was. I've never seen her go for anypony before. I always assumed she wasn't interested in a relationship. I guess she just has certain standards . . . “

“I had no idea.” Mend said quietly, “I have no experience with mares. I mean, none at all. What should I do?”

“Well, are you interested in her?” Lemon Lime asked.

        Mend had to give the question some serious thought,

“I . . . I don't know.” he said honestly, “She's smart and she's really good at what she does, but it would be a violation for me to date her. She's technically my boss.”

        Lemon Lime blew out an exasperated breath,

“That's not the question. The question is: Are you interested in her? Do you have a romantic interest with her or not?”

“I have no idea. Until recently, I didn't have an interest in anything except being the best a medicine.” Mend admitted.

        Lemon Lime raised an eyebrow, as he leaned against the counted next to his fridge,

“I hope that wasn't your motivation.” he said evenly, “Competition is probably the worst reason to get into the medical field. You should do it because you want to help injured and sick ponies, not for your own ego.”

“You've known me for a day and you're already passing judgment on me?” Mend asked becoming defensive.

“Not at all.” Lemon Lime said, unperturbed, “What I'm saying is that it's a poor reason to get into it. I'm not accusing you of it, I'm just saying that maybe you missed your true talent. There are so many specialties in medicine you might have missed your real talent and just ended up settling for something else for the wrong reason. It's just a possibility. Look, we're getting off track here. Do you, or do you not have an interest in Dr. Avalon?”

“I need time to answer that.” Dr. Mend admitted honestly.

        Lemon Lime smiled,

“Good answer.” he said opening the oven and removing the cookie-sheet, “Breakfast is ready. Take a look around, see if anything strikes your interest.” he offered.

“Ah wasn't expectin' to see you here doc.” Big Macintosh said from the kitchen doorway.

“Until last night, neither was I.” Dr. Mend said rummaging through Lemon Lime's fridge, “Big Macintosh, how do you feel about going with me today. I'm taking a day off and I could use some company. I've never had a vacation and I'm sure I could use some pointers, besides I don't hate your company.”

“Ah guess Ah could go with you doc. Ah didn't have any other plans.” Big Macintosh replied.

        Dr. Mend opened one of Lemon Lime's cabinets and looked around until he found something that caught his eye,

“Cream of Wheat!” he said excitedly, “My mother used to make this all the time! I haven't had it in years. Could you show me how to make it Live Wire?” he asked.

        Lemon Lime smiled hugely,

“Sure thing doc.”

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

        Dr. Mend was acting nothing like his normal self, as he and Big Macintosh sat down for lunch at an outdoor cafe. The two stallions had gone to take a tour of the Royal Palace and had even seen Princess Celestia holding court. They had walked around Canterlot until Dr. Mend spotted something that caught his eye. In one of the many groups of shops, they had found a bookstore. On a whim, they had gone in and taken a look around. They perused the selections slowly until Dr. Mend had found a section that caught his interest: Romance novels. The pictures on the covers drew his immediate interest. Images of beautiful mares locked in the intimate embrace of studly stallions made his mind go places it had never previously gone. His imagination began to churn out potential situations and scenarios that made him blush like a school-filly. With his interest piqued, he cracked open one of the books and began to read. It contained a type of adventure he had only ever rarely dreamed of. Dr. Mend purchased the book and noticed Big Macintosh waiting for him with a thick book of his own.

        The two had decided to take lunch at the closest café, which happened to be across the street. Dr. Mend had been surprised to discover that the book his huge friend had, was an adventure novel. The two of them ordered their meals and enjoyed a pleasant late morning reading quietly. Dr. Mend tore into his book with reckless abandon, finding himself drawn to the main character. She was a seamstress who had devoted her life to her work, never taking time to look for a love interest. She was awkward and uncomfortable in social situations. Dr. Mend sympathized with her.

        Despite the book's cover, Dr. Mend found it not so much steamy as heartwarming. Her love interest was a poor potato vender who had been attacked one day. She had taken him into her home and helped him recover. Dr. Mend easily realized the author had no idea what they were talking about regarding medicine, but the story was engaging and sweet. The two had an attraction for each other but both were too unsure to say something about it. The situation caused a lot of angst and unnecessary awkward moments. Eventually the stallion admitted his attraction and the two had begun an elegant courtship. Dr. Mend was in the middle of a particularly intimate scene when he heard Big Macintosh clear his throat.

        Dr. Mend looked up from his book, face flushed,

“Did you say something?”

“Are you alright over there doc? You look like you're about to start sweatin'.” the huge Earth pony pointed out.

“Yes!” Mend said a bit louder than he had planned, “Yes, I'm fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Did you tell your boss you wouldn't be in today?” Big Mac asked.

        Dr. Mend shot up, out of his chair like he had sat on a tack,

“Shoot! No, I didn't. I completely forgot!”

“Might be a good idea. You run along, Ah'll get the tab. Ah'll wait for you here.” Big Macintosh offered.

        Dr. Mend laid his book on the table and took off like a shot, heading for Dr. Avalon's clinic. He arrived, completely out of breath. The nurse at the check-in desk stood up quickly, throwing him a worried look. Dr. Mend held up a hoof to forestall any questions or concerns, while he regained his breath.

        Dr. Mend finally caught his breath and trotted up to the nurse, he couldn't remember her name,

“Is Dr. Avalon in?” he asked.

        The nurse nodded,

“She came in a few minutes ago. Do you need me to page her, Dr. Mend?”

        Dr. Mend shook his head,

“No, I'll find her, if that's alright.”

        The nurse smiled warmly,

“Sure, go on in.”

        Dr. Mend pushed open the doors to the examination rooms where Dr. Avalon received her appointments. He glanced at a clipboard hanging up behind the first nurse's station. Dr. Avalon was scheduled to see a patient in exam room 4, for a regular checkup. Dr. Mend left her a note that he was waiting in her office when she finished with the patient. He headed toward her office and sat down in the same chair he had before. He estimated he had half an hour to wait before she joined him.

        His mind began turning. He realized the voices were absent. He wasn't working, but they were gone for the moment, 'Maybe it's hospitals and clinics that keep them away.' he thought to himself, 'That book was a nice change. I had no clue, ponies wrote about romance. Reading it was like a dream.' he began to imagine the story in his mind, piece by piece until he reached the scene where the two characters were sharing their first kiss. Without realizing it, he began imagining the mare was Dr. Avalon and the stallion was himself. The mental picture was . . . interesting. Dr. Mend found himself enjoying the scene playing out in his head quite pleasantly. He imagined the feel of Dr. Avalon's coat brushing up against his own, the caress of his lips on her neck . . .

        The door opened suddenly, snapping Dr. Mend out of his day-dream. Dr. Avalon entered her office and looked Mend up and down, frowning somewhat.

        She took a seat behind her desk and folded her hooves politely,

“Was there something you needed to talk to me about Dr. Mend?”

        Dr. Mend cleared his throat, licking his lips nervously,

“Yes, there is.” he began, “I'm afraid I won't be coming in today.”

        Dr. Avalon's face fell, her expression worried,

“Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing's wrong. I just realized I've never taken a vacation. I'm . . . “ he trailed off as his brain snapped a decision into place, almost without his permission, “I'm afraid I have to tenure my resignation. I can't work here anymore.”

        Dr. Avalon held her expression, but her voice gave away her concern,

“Why?” it sounded choked.

        Dr. Mend sat up and decided he would continue the route he was already following,

“If I continue my employment here, I won't be able to date you without violating policy. Would you like to join me for dinner, once all this mess with the rogue unicorn is over?” the whole thing spilled out in a rush.

        Dr. Avalon's face went from hurt to puzzled to delighted in a matter of seconds,

“Very well.” she said, regaining her composure, “You can still volunteer your time here, you know. And yes, I would be delighted to go with you.” she said, cracking a smile.

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

        Big Macintosh watched Dr. Mend approach the cafe with the world's biggest grim plastered all over his normally dour face. Big Mac decided he liked seeing Dr. Mend happy. The older Earth pony sat down across from Big Macintosh and picked his book back up without saying a word.

        Big Macintosh leaned over the table, toward Dr. Mend,

“Are you alright there doc?” he asked.

        Dr. Mend looked up from his book,

“Oh yes, I'm fine. I quit my job.” Big Mac's jaw hit the table, Dr. Mend continued on, “Avalon and I are going out on a date whenever we finish with this whole issue with the crazy unicorn.” Dr. Mend said it all like it was nothing out of the ordinary.

        Big Macintosh blinked several times before he sat back in his chair, closing his mouth,

“Ah have to admit, Ah didn't see this commin' but Ah'm glad for you.” Big Mac cleared his throat and continued on, this was new territory for him, “Ifn it ain't too much to ask, what kind of traits should a feller look for in a mare? What was it that made Dr. Avalon attractive to you?”

        Dr. Mend was surprised by the unusual question,

“As of yet, I have no idea. I haven’t taken the opportunity to get to know her outside of work. I may not end up having an attraction to her, but I realized . . . recently, that I have to take that chance or else I’ll never know.” Dr. Mend sighed and scratched the back of his head with his right hoof, “If I had more sense in regard to romantic matters I would probably have been married a long time ago. I suppose the best answer I can give you is that I don't know anything about Avalon except that she's a brilliant doctor. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; just trial and error I guess.”

        The massive Earth pony mulled over Mend's words for several quiet minutes before he spoke again,

“Ah'm wantin' to get to know a couple of fillies around Ponyville. Do you know anypony who has experience with love? Ah can't stand the idea of rejectin' a filly before Ah've given her a chance and there’s been plenty who seemed interested.” he said bluntly.

“I can only think of one. Sea Blue has a daughter, he's sure to know more than I do, but he's never mentioned his wife. It might be painful for him. You could try asking your Granny Smith, she obviously has good experience.” Mend offered.

        Big Macintosh nodded,

“That there's a good idea, Ah should have thought of it mahself. Speakin' of family, didn't you grow up here in Canterlot?”

        All color drained from Dr. Mend's face,

“You know what Big Mac, there's somepony I need to visit. I'm sorry to cut out on you like this but I really have to go. I'll make it up to you, remind me. I'll meet you in Sea Blue's room at seven.”

        Big Macintosh was puzzled, but he could always go back to the Tower Library and take another look at the tome about the Elements,

“Well then, Ah guess Ah'll see you later doc.” he said pleasantly.

        Dr. Mend left twenty bits on the table and was gone in a flash, stuffing his book into hit saddle-bags.

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

        He ran hard and fast, remembering the location of his destination more clearly with each turn. The way had been burned into his memory long ago. He knew the way by heart. He was following his heart, letting it guide his hooves. He moved like the wind, with every step he became more and more aware of how much he needed to arrive. His heart beat hard and fast, his thoughts raced, memories rushing back to the forefront of his mind. He realized he was crying. He needed to be there. He had never realized how much he needed it. Tears flew off in the wind as he came around the final corner, bringing his destination into sight. He never slowed down, if anything his pace quickened. He was desperate, frantic. Thirty paces to his destination. He could make out every detail, it made his heart ache all the more. He called out to his destination, crying out in earnest, desperate to be received. Twenty paces, it hurt to see, but it was a hurt his spirit yearned for like his body yearned for breath. Ten paces, his senses were overwhelmed with memories. His whole body shook, he felt weak.

        Mend stood, frozen in place, weeping silently, trying in vain to blink away the tears. His chest felt tight and his mouth felt dry. His mind began bombarding him with memories. Each subtle color, every scent refreshed his memory, making the memories come alive. The reminders of the past tore through him like a hot knife through butter. Regret and pain washed over him like a tsunami, tearing away every barrier and hard place he had worked so hard to erect over the years. The wave of raw emotion subsided, leaving behind a wonderful sensation. It was an emotion he had kept at bay, actively working against accepting its embrace. He felt lighter, as if years of accumulated dirt and grime had been washed away. For a brief moment Mend had no name for the foreign, but now welcome, intruder in his heart. Its presence opened the floodgates of his soul.

        Mend collapsed, his hooves giving out beneath him, and sobbed brokenly. How could he have never come back? How could he have neglected to return to a place that meant so much to him? Mend slowly became aware of being touched. A presence surrounded him, holding him like he was no more than an illusion, a phantom in danger of dissipating in the wind. He weakly called out, his voice choked by tears. Years of anger fell away, leaving him feeling naked and vulnerable, like a newborn foal. He reached out, grasping the only solid thing around him. He held on tightly. He never wanted to let go ever again.

        Mend had no way of knowing how long he stayed there. It could have been seconds or days for all he knew. He didn't care, nothing else mattered. He looked up at his anchor, his refuge. His vision slowly cleared. There, holding him on the porch were his grandparents. For the first time in his life, Mend saw through his misgivings and read the expressions accurately. There it was, shining like a beacon in the darkness, just like in his heart. He saw it and embraced it with all his soul, holding his grandparents tightly. What he saw was something he had missed terribly. Love.

        The two older ponies held their grandson, once though lost to them. He felt whole. For the first time in his life for as long as he could remember, he felt whole. Mend heard a voice. It was a voice that could have come from a divine being. The voice was soft and choked with tears, but Mend heard it as clearly as the ringing of silver bells,

“Welcome home.”

Author’s note: If you happen to see the name ‘Reighniz’ in the message box on the right, that’s me waiting for real-time feedback, complaints, spelling error notifications, ect. If I’m there, feel free to chat. I LOVE talking to yall.


Trials of the Elements

Part 10

        Sea Blue was relieved. Trooper had been wheeled away earlier and had returned in his bed asleep, 'Good grief!' he thought, 'I never thought any pony could be so dramatic.' He settled himself down against the pillow beneath his head and worked on formulating multiple possible plans for rescuing Patch. The very thought of his daughter nearly made him tear up. He gritted his teeth angrily, 'How can I lay here while she's out there? What kind of father am I?' without thinking about it, he automatically began his breathing exercises. Long hours of dealing with other the issues of other ponies had taught him to practice stress-relief on a subconscious level. He calmed himself and refocused his mind, 'There is always a solution. You just have to be able to determine what it is.'

        Sea Blue's thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the room's door, which was followed by Dr. Mend's face,

“I . . . need to talk to you Sea Blue.” he said quietly.

        Sea Blue's mind automatically began picking out details about Mend, 'It isn't time for everypony to meet here, and the nurses were just here checking up on Trooper and I. He's here for something personal. He's been crying, his eyes are red. His posture is slightly slumped. He's nervous and unsure. He's preparing to do or say something he's uncomfortable with. He stuttered. That means it's something he's going to say. He's unsure about something, and it's something that has him doing something he's uncomfortable with, something that scares him. The intonation of his question indicates that he's going to ask me something that has to do with our sessions and he doesn't mind if Trooper overhears, yet he's uncomfortable with the question itself. It's either important or urgent.' Sea Blue's mind performed the observation in milliseconds.

“Sure, come on in, but keep it down. Trooper's asleep.” Sea Blue said.

        Dr. Mend entered and closed the door behind himself, and took a deep breath,

“I need you to test me for mental illness.” he said bluntly.

“I'm not sure that we need to go quite that far yet. Have you tried what I said, about telling the voices to stop?” the counselor asked.

        Dr. Mend nodded solemnly,

“Several dozen times throughout the past two days. It hasn't worked once. They only go away if I'm actively doing something that takes my full attention and even then they're like a buzzing in the back of my mind. I . . . think I may need some medication . . . like my mother had.”

        Sea Blue could easily see the words were difficult for the stallion to admit,

“This isn't really the place. Trooper might end up hearing some of this.”

“I don't care.” Dr. Mend said flatly, “I can't risk doing what my mother did. I don't care who hears this, it needs to be done.” his voice wavered slightly.

        Sea Blue nodded,

“As you wish. I'm going to ask you a series of questions and I need you to answer them as honestly as you can. If you aren't willing to answer honestly, the tests will be useless.”

        Dr. Mend laid down on the floor of the room and took a deep, shuddering breath,

“I'm ready.”

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

        Lemon Lime handed a sheet of paper to his supervisor,

“I'm sorry this is such short notice but I really do need this. It's really important and again I'm sorry this is such short notice, but you know I haven’t asked for this before. I've been a loyal employee for years and this shouldn't be too much of a problem, right? I mean . . . “

“Live Wire, slow down. Let me answer before you start explaining.” the older mare said. She was a deep, dark brown unicorn with an eggshell white mane and tail pulled back into a tight bun.

        She read the piece of paper carefully several times, then set it down on the counter behind her,

“I'm surprised you didn't give me more notice, but I can deal with this easily. You've been my star therapist for years now. It's no problem. You don't have to explain yourself. Alright?”

        Lemon Lime smiled hugely,

“Thanks, this means a lot to me. I have to go. See you around.” he said as he walked away toward the doors of the therapy center.

        Lemon Lime left the therapy center and headed straight for Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, 'First things first. I need a spell to cut off a unicorn from her magic, one for teleporting, one for marking and tracking, and I need to memorize them as fast as I can.' he thought even before he had taken a single step, 'I wonder what it's like living outside of Canterlot. I have more than enough money to move somewhere else, and now that I have friends I have a reason to move. The only problem is that Valiant, Big Macintosh and Dr. Mend all live in Ponyville. I can't abandon any ponies who need therapy, but I don't really have any friends here except Evening Star and I don't go to the library very often. I wonder if Dr. Mend's clinic needs a physical therapist. I need to stop before I begin going in circles. Maybe I'm spending too much time with my job. I make way more than enough money to provide for myself. Heck, I could provide for probably eight ponies even if I only worked for three days a week. Let's see, I generally spend 53 bits a month on food, 51 on utilities, 18 for Medical insurance, and 120 for rent. That's 242 bits per month to survive. The rate for physical therapy per hour is 25 bits, that's 10 for the use of the facility and 15 for the therapist. If I move away, I'll probably have to run the center out of my own home so I can lower the cost to 17 bits per hour, 15 for me but only 2 for the wear and tear on the equipment. That way more ponies can afford it, and I can work with limited incomes. So if I take the cost of living, 242 and divide it by 17 . . . that's 14.23529411764706 round that to 15 for a margin of error. That means I only have to work for fifteen hours per month. Wow! I can afford that easily.' he chuckled to himself, 'So then even if ponies only occasionally need therapy, I should be able to live there, but what about all the ponies who need therapy? I'd be abandoning them, I can't do that.' his heart ached for the names on his list and his mind ran in circles as he stepped off the curb in front of the therapy center.

        Lemon Lime made his way to the Spell Conservatory of the School for Gifted Unicorns and began his search for suitable spells, making careful calculations along the way.

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

        To say that Sea Blue, Trooper, and Lemon Lime were shocked at Valiant's revelation of what a Vagabond was, as well as his personal experience, would be a drastic understatement. The ponies met that evening and Valiant, true to his word, provided the explanation. Sea Blue was understanding and offered to council Valiant, nearly for free. Lemon Lime, being the sensitive type, burst into tears and hugged Valiant for nearly an hour. The younger unicorn had known about Arabesque's spirit having been with Valiant, but Valiant had left out the details of how she died as well as his personal feelings about her at the time. Trooper, by far, had the most animated response, even if he couldn't move any of his legs very well yet. Even so, the other stallions were willing to accept Valiant for who he was, sordid past or not. They had met him and gotten to know him before they knew about his history and had a sound basis to gauge his character.

        Sea Blue and Trooper's room became the impromptu base of operations for the group. They met there the following night before going to check on little Patch.

        The room was filled to capacity with ponies, Lemon Lime began,

“I've found the spell we need to keep the rogue from using her magic. It's pretty easy but the limits are on a one-to-one basis regarding sheer magical strength. I have to be the more powerful of us to pull it off. It would be best if we take her by surprise. I've taken time off until we have this problem solved, don't worry, I have a lot of vacation time saved up. So, what else do we have that's new?”

        Dr. Mend looked at the clock on the wall,

“Excuse me.” he said heading out of the room.

“Where's he going?” Evening Star asked.

“I'll let him tell you if he wants. It's not my business to spread that around.” Valiant said, “On my end, Dr. Mend and I have the sleeping potion, in both forms.” he said proudly.

        Sea Blue looked ecstatic,

“Wonderful! How did you manage that?”

“We needed some help. My boss's business is booming right now, since ponies discovered the healing potion, so we asked her to help. We managed to come up with a sleeping potion that's potent enough to knock me out but mild enough to be taken regularly without becoming habit-forming. I should have asked her in the first place. She already had something she developed for fillies and colts. All we had to do was amp it up a bit. We tested it on me this afternoon. It kept me down for four hours and my boss said there should be absolutely no risk for a unicorn mare. For the intravenous form, I'll let Mend explain that one. How about you Evening Star?” Valiant asked.

        Evening Star had saddle-bags next to her on the floor,

“I solved the problem of you boys not being sneaky enough.” she said nosing open one of the bags, “I have a friend who is a seamstress. She made clothes that are black, form-fitting, and they cover you from head to hoof.” she said bringing out one such garment and laying it on the ground, “Try it on, Live Wire.” she encouraged.

        The yellow unicorn slipped on the suit easily,

“Wow! It really is black! We'll be nearly invisible!” he said admiring himself.

“And that's not all.” Evening Star said nosing back around in her bag, “These,” she said laying a quartet of leggings on the floor, “Have rubber soles to keep you quiet and still provide traction. My friend designs the uniforms for the Wonderbolts. She just used the same design and added the socks.”

        Big Macintosh walked around Lemon Lime, admiring the outfit,

“These must have cost you a fortune.” he ventured, “Ah woulda' been willin' to help you out ifn' you would have told me.”

        The tan pegasus held up a hoof,

“They didn't cost me a thing. My friend owed me a favor. It's no problem, really. I have one for each of you. The material stretches so one size fits all, except you, Big Mac. I had her make one extra big for you.”

        Sea Blue had news of his own,

“I have something to show you all.” he said rising from his bed, “I realized earlier this evening that I couldn't feel the wound in my chest so I took a peep. Live Wire, would you help me with this?” he asked.

        Between them, the two unwrapped Sea Blue from his bandage, revealing the distinctive absence of any injury,

“It's completely healed. That potion of yours works wonders Valiant. Now I'm as fit as I ever was.”

        Trooper smiled hugely,

“Did you happen to notice today when Dr. Avalon came in and wheeled me away? I was asleep when they brought me back in, remember?” he asked.

        Sea Blue nodded, so Trooper continued,

“She removed the pins in my legs.” he lifted his legs out of the traction slings and rolled out of his bed, right onto the floor in a standing position, “Ta da! I am fit as a fiddle and frisky as a flea!” he snickered, “I simply wanted to wait for the opportune moment to show off. I still had to stay in bed for the day, but I am good to go now. Dr. Avalon gave me another dose and told me to wait for another day to be sure, but I'm sure right now.”

        Dr. Mend re-entered the room and stopped mid-stride,

“Aww! I missed it! I wanted to see the looks on your faces.” he said with admittedly very little disappointment, “Valiant, your potion works even faster than even you thought. Now we have documented proof. Avalon is presenting the successful cases to the medical-board in the morning.”

        Evening Star still had her one question in the back of her mind,

“Why did you leave the room a moment ago?”

        Dr. Mend licked his lips and took a deep breath,

“Can everypony here promise not to judge me on what I'm about to say?” he asked.

        He met a chorus of nods, so he plowed on,

“Sea Blue is my psychologist. I came to him because I've been hearing voices for most of my life. I tried to get rid of the voices but nothing worked, so I asked him to perform a battery of tests to see if I have any mental disorders. My mother had one so there was a good chance I would too. I took the tests earlier today and Sea Blue had another licensed psychologist confirm the findings.” Mend took another deep breath to steady himself and continued, “I have schizophrenia. The reason I left the room and the reason I've been carrying saddle-bags around today, is so I can keep my Lithium with me all the time. I saw what happened when my mother didn't take her medication and I don't want to make the same mistake. I left the room to take the pills. Don't worry, I'm stable. I . . . had to inform the medical board of my condition, but they said as long as I keep taking my medication, I can keep my license.”

“Would you like to tell them about how we came to . . . 'acquire' an intravenous sedative? Or do you want to keep that a secret?” Valiant asked his friend.

        Dr. Mend stood up, straight and proud,

“I approached Avalon with our 'predicament' and asked if she would let us have a single bottle for apprehending the rogue unicorn. She presented the issue to the medical board, here in Canterlot, and we have a single bottle open for us to use. I have to keep it on me at all times and I also have to vouch for its uses, but we have it.”

“Splendid!” Trooper shouted, “It looks as if we have everything we need to take this menace of a unicorn down tonight!”

“Hold on there, Trooper.” Big Macintosh said, “We need a plan on how to get her out into the open first. We've been lucky she hasn't done anything today, but we can't just go off half-cocked.”

        Trooper grinned hugely,

“Capital idea old thing! In fact, Sea Blue and I have been spending our time doing just that!” he said turning to the turquoise unicorn, “Would you like to do the honors, good sir? Most of it did come from your brain-box after all.”

Sea Blue nodded and began to explain,

“The rogue seems to only attack a single victim at a time. We can use that to bait her out into the open, while the rest of us hide nearby. It's really simple. All we need is for somepony to be willing to be the bait. Once we have her, I can use my tracking spell to find Patch. Quick and easy.”

“Ah don't know if Ah like the idea of usin' one of mah friends as bait for some crazy unicorn who’s already done nearly killed two ponies.” Big Macintosh said sternly.

        Valiant laid a gentle hoof on his friend,

“It's the best plan we have, but does anypony else have a better idea?”

“I have something to add to that.” Lemon Lime ventured, “We need a way to monitor her movements, so we can engage her on our terms, not hers. We need every advantage and, more importantly, we need to be absolutely sure what everypony can do.”

        Trooper volunteered,

“I am aerial reconnaissance, plain and simple.”

“I'll be the one holding the potion and syringe and I have to administer them. I need to stay out of the way until she's magically and physically subdued. I'd be no good in a regular fight.” Dr. Mend explained.

“Ah'm the one who’s got to get her down on the ground as fast as possible. Ah need to be nearby when the time comes.” Big Macintosh said.

“I have to cut her off from her magic and I have to be close to do that too.” Lemon Lime said.

“I can watch her movements and gauge her intentions by her facial expressions and body language. I don't have the simple strength to be a combatant, but I can guide your efforts. I would have ended up in better condition if I hadn't second-guessed myself the first time I encountered her.” Sea Blue explained.

        Trooper patted the turquoise unicorn on the shoulder,

“Right on! Who better than a psychologist to perceive the enemy's intentions? The very guiding force behind our efforts! The general, if you will.”

        Valiant's ears flattened against his lowered head,

“Drat. That means I'm the bait.” he mumbled.

        Evening Star put her hoof over his shoulder comfortingly,

“I'll watch out for you. You carry the food and water, in case we don't succeed. Live Wire needs to be able to focus on the rogue. You can act like she caught you in the act of dropping it off.” inspiration suddenly struck her, “That's it! We can go tonight! Valiant, you can just walk right on in there and have her chase you out! Drop the food for Patch and get her to come out. Be loud so we know where to be. We get the drop on her, I'll talk to her to distract her while everypony else goes after her.”

“I say, hold hard there!” Trooper exclaimed, “That leaves me utterly useless!”

“No it don't.” Big Mac said placatingly, “You can help catch anypony she drops. You've already done caught a full-grown Earth pony all by yourself. Evenin' Star's not strong enough to catch most of us. Ifn she gets away from us you can watch her from the sky. We can even call you 'Sky-Stalker' if you want.”

        Trooper immediately brightened at the idea, explosively expressing himself as always,

“Oh I say, capital idea there Big Mac-athingie! I shall be your eyes in the skies, the stallion of spying, the very embodiment of observation; swooping to the rescue of my brave comrades. No rogue unicorn will be free to perpetrate her misdeeds while the fearsome Sky-Stalker is about. We cannot all be warriors now can we? Very well, I acquiesce to your idea!”

“It's settled then, we go tonight. Let's get ready. Everypony put on your . . . uh outfits, I guess.” Valiant said.

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

        The seven brave ponies left the clinic looking for all the world like ninjas, except Evening Star who hadn't bothered to get one for herself. She figured she wouldn't need it since she would either be airborne or trying to talk to the unicorn. In either case she wouldn't need to conceal herself.

        They headed toward the cluster of derelict warehouses, each trying to calm their nerves and all failing utterly to do so. Big Macintosh was surprised at how quiet he was when wearing the outfit. He couldn't hear his hooves, no matter how much he tried and his friends were all but impossible to spot in the darkness. He had put on his steel shoes and had the lasso hanging off his saddle-bags.

        Lemon Lime had been calculating and recalculating their chances of success since they had left. He figured they stood an eighty-seven percent chance of success, if everything went according to plan. He was having trouble not chattering the whole way but he was well aware of what was at stake. He went over the new spells again and again and again in his mind. He knew he couldn't afford any mistakes tonight. Almost everything rode on his shoulders. If he couldn't cut the unicorn off from her magic they stood no chance against her.

        Sea Blue couldn't pull his thoughts from his daughter. He ground his teeth and shook his head, snorting in irritation. He would help his friends stop the unicorn, but his highest priority was Patch. He would rescue her tonight no matter what else happened. She was his whole world; he would die for her if he needed to, no question about it.

        Dr. Mend felt uncomfortable with the mass of his mane and tail stuffed inside the outfit, but as he walked he had to admit he probably was effectively invisible. He smiled to himself at the thought and thanked his lucky stars the voices were absent. His mind was quiet and he was relishing it. He could think clearly for the first time in many years. The two sedatives rested comfortably in his saddle-bags, with wadded up old medical forms to keep them safe. In his other saddle-bag he carried the contents of his black bag in case it was needed.

        Trooper was beginning to regret not waiting another day to heal up all the way, but he was there and time was of the essence, besides there was a little one waiting for her daddy