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When the Man Comes Around

by GentlemanJ

First published

As Ponyville prepares for arriving royal marshals, a new traveler quietly slips into town.

The first story in The Journey of Graves.

Ponyville is getting ready for the arrival of Princess Celestia's marshals, elite of royal guard and travelling heroes of the people. But in all the hustle and bustle of party preparations, a lone traveler slips into town, a young man with business concerning Twilight Sparkle. What that business is remains to be seen, but you can be sure Ponyville won't make it easy for him.
After all, where would be the fun in that?

Chapter 1

This is the beginning of The Journey of Graves.

When the Man Comes Around

By: GentlemanJ

Chapter 1

Ponyville was quite a wonderful place indeed.

Located in Equestria’s western countryside, you could say that this little community was the perfect example of small-town goodness. Far removed from the larger metropolitans, no big city problems ever intruded on Ponyville’s perpetually sunny weather and warm seasons, or on the equally sunny disposition of its inhabitants.

So when it’s said that the atmosphere of Ponyville had taken on a decidedly more festive air, one can only imagine the sheer magnitude of excitement present in that little town.

Just what had spurred on this sudden influx of cheer and goodwill? Well, some of the more dangerous wild creatures of Equestria’s bestiary had recently appeared on the country’s borders, near the Everfree Forest to be precise. Now while this in itself was no reason for celebration, the news that Princess Celestia had ordered a contingent of royal marshals to protect the town most definitely was.

The crimson garbed officers, recruited from the finest of the finest of all Equestria’s guardsmen, were heroes of the people. The simple fact that they were coming to Ponyville was reason enough to celebrate, and that the Princess had personally ordered them here was further reason still. Thus, the entire town prepared to welcome them in traditional Ponyville fashion, and that meant a party.

Everywhere you looked, people were hustling and bustling in busy activity. Streamers and banners were hung, tents and tables set, and from every house, the delicious smell of baking pastries and savory cooking wafted into the fresh spring air. Yet despite the rush of preparation, a smile could be seen on every face and a laugh on every lip as the townspeople seemed to enjoy preparing for a celebration almost as much as the festivities themselves. After all, the citizens had gotten quite good at throwing parties since you never needed much of an excuse to have one.

Amidst all the chaos and clamor, it’s no surprise that the arrival of a single traveler did not rouse much notice. Sure, the people who ran into him on the streets greeted him with a smile and warm hello, but with so much to be done, nobody could pay him much mind despite the oddity of his appearance. And indeed, his appearance was odd.

In Ponyville, bright colors were the norm as clothes tended to reflect the cheery atmosphere. Furthermore, having many farms and fields in close proximity never prevented the town from remaining by and large a very clean, well-kept place.

This traveler was neither. The broad, flat-brimmed hat and long coat he wore were made of leather, sturdy and serviceable, but dark brown in color and stained from travel. His entire person was coated in a layer of coarse dust, not the powdery kind you find indoors, but the gritty, almost sand-like dust that comes from long days on the road. Where this road came from, it was hard to say, because besides a small canvas knapsack, the only other item on the traveler was a long, wrapped bundle on his back. Though unusual enough in that it was almost the same height as him while only being about as broad as his leg, the plain cloth wrapping gave no hint of its contents.

Beyond the superficial difference in outward trappings though, there was a much deeper difference about the person himself. With his hat pulled low over his forehead, few clearly saw the traveler’s face, but those who did paused for a moment in surprise. Tall and well built, he would have been quite the good-looking fellow if his eyes hadn't been so startling. Gunmetal grey and almost unblinking, his eyes seemed strangely disconnected, as if he was always looking at something far off in the distance. Few understood the significance of that look, but even those who didn’t knew one thing: this young man had seen more of the world than most. A lot more.

Still, preparations were foremost on every mind and the thoughts of the lone traveler quickly faded under the hurry of things to do. Alone amidst the bustling crowd, the traveler weaved through traffic towards what looked to be a large bakery called Sugar Cube Corner. Not a place he’d usually frequent, but he was tired and wanted at least a bite to eat before he set out again.

Pushing open the swinging door, the traveler found himself in a clean, spacious room filled with bright spring sun. The simple wooden tables, which at this time of day would usually be packed by the breakfast rush, stood empty with chairs neatly stacked away. Understandable really, since everyone was out and running errands for the celebration. As it was, the only other person in the room was an aproned girl who stood behind the counter polishing away at a tray of glasses.

“Excuse me,” the traveler called out, his voice low and slightly gravelly as if it wasn’t used to getting used much. “Could I–”

The rest was cut off as the girl spun around, her veritable mane of curly pink hair flying about as she met him with the biggest grin he had ever seen.

“Why hello there! I didn’t expect to see anyone around today, not with the big party coming up and everyone rushing around like headless chickens getting ready. But then again, I guess you haven’t heard yet, since you just came into town and… wait,” she gasped, her already large sparkling eyes growing even larger and sparklier, if that was at all possible. “Are you new to town?”

“… Yeah,” the traveler replied. “I was–”

“WELL HELLO THERE!” she squealed, vaulting over the counter and giving him a very big - and rather unexpected - hug. “My name’s Pinkie Pie, probably 'cause of my hair, or maybe it’s because my favorite color’s pink, but that doesn’t matter: you’re new! I just love seeing new faces around here! Of course, I love seeing old faces too, and that’s just about everyone, since I know just about everyone in town, but new ones are also great, and so when I saw you, I thought, ‘Gee, I haven’t seen this person before; he must be new,’ and I was right!”

Somehow, through this nonstop tirade, Pinkie Pie had managed to usher the traveler in, gotten him seated, set his bags aside, and laid out his tableware, all the while keeping up an incessant stream of chatter.

“So where did you come from mister?” the bubbly girl asked, running in and out of the kitchen yet somehow remaining clearly audible the whole time. “I bet it was a long ways away, since your clothes are all pee-yew! And that must mean you’re hungry! I can’t even walk down to Applejack’s without wanting a snack, and you probably came from a lot further away than that. Ooh, I know! I still have some of the stuff I baked for the party today! By the way, you should stick around for the party! Can you believe Princess Celestia’s sending her royal marshals out here? Ooh, it’s all so exciting, I just can’t believe it!”

Unable to get a word in edgewise, the traveler could only watch as Pinkie stacked up enough baked goods to feed a family. There were pies and pasties, cakes and crumbles, tarts and turnovers, and more pastries that the traveler could only begin to guess at. It was as if Pinkie Pie had unloaded an entire bakery onto his table. Twice.

“Well anyways, that’s pretty much what’s going on around here today,” she concluded, finally beginning to wind down. “There’s still a lot to do, so I might have to pop out of here, but you go ahead and enjoy yourself, okay?”

“Yeah, about that–” the traveler began, only to be cut off again.

“What, is there a problem? Oh, I get it. Too many sugary things. Silly me, you probably want something more manly, right? Grr! I totally get you! Of course, I always like sweets, so I always forget. Don’t worry, I’ll go get something–”

“It’s not that,” the traveler interjected hastily, very much afraid Pinkie Pie would steamroll him with another unstoppable tirade. “It’s just… I can’t pay for so much…”

Pinkie Pie paused. And blinked. And then she just stared at him, her mental activities grinding to a halt like a hamster that tripped on its wheel. Then, the meaning of his comment dawned on her and the pink-haired girl burst into fresh peals of laughter.

“Whoo-wee, and I thought I was the silly one here,” Pinkie Pie gasped through her fit of giggling. “Don’t worry, it’s all party food, so you would have gotten it anyway. Just think of it as a little pre-party snack.”

The traveler could only eye Pinkie Pie with a mix of incredulity and disbelief. He’d been told people from Ponyville were neighborly, but this, well… this was just unexpected.

“You sure about this?” he asked yet again, an eyebrow raised in question.

“Sure,” Pinkie Pie beamed. “Dig in!”

With one last look at his unexpectedly generous host, the traveler picked up his fork and took a bite out of a nearby cherry turnover.

Now even for breakfast, this man would never have expected that he’d enjoy a meal consisting entirely of sugary treats. But after the first bite, the fresh, flaky crusts, juicy fruit fillings, and sweet, fluffy frosting made it really, really hard to stop. And so he ate with Pinkie Pie happily jabbering away about anything and everything that was happening in Ponyville. The traveler could barely make out half of her rapid fire comments and understood even less than that, but he did have to admit, good food and friendly – if overwhelming – company, made the meal a very pleasant change of pace.

“…and that’s why Derpy isn’t allowed to drive the mail wagon by herself anymore,” his chattery hostess concluded as the traveler polished off the remains of an entire apple pie. “But I never did ask, what brings you out to Ponyville anyway?”

“Ah, that.” The traveler set down his fork and he reached into his coat. “I’m supposed to find… Miss Twilight Sparkle,” he said, reading the name off a small piece of parchment. “Know where she might be?”

“Twilight, eh?” Pinkie Pie mused, brow furrowed in thought. “Well, she’s helping out with all the organizing, and I know that I’m supposed to get a big shipment of apples from the orchard. You could probably find her out at Applejack’s, just down the road there.”

“Say,” she said, her eyes brightening as her face stretched into an ear-to-ear grin, “Want me to go with you? I could totally show you where it is!”

“That’d be… nice,” the traveler began hesitantly, “but don’t more apples mean more baking?” When Pinkie Pie heard this, her smile disappeared as she slapped herself on the forehead. Hard.

“Shoot, you’re right!” she said, rubbing the spot she’d just struck: apparently, it had been a little too forceful, even for her. “That means I gotta stay here and you’ll be all alone.” She looked so genuinely forlorn, the traveler was afraid she might actually break out into tears.

However, just as quickly as the glum expression appeared, it vanished, replaced once again by a face-splitting grin.

“Wait, why am I being so silly? I was so busy feeling sad that I totally forgot about the party! You can go ahead to Applejack’s – it’s just straight down the road to your left; you can’t miss it – and I’ll stay here and bake the best goodies ever and meet you at the party later! That’s perfect! I’ll see you later then; I’ve got pies to bake!” And with one last smile, the excitable girl bounded off into the kitchen, looking for all the world like a pink hurricane on the run.

It took a moment for the traveler to figure out what had just happened, and considering the whirlwind pace of Pinkie Pie, who could blame him? But however it had come about, at least he now had directions to find Twilight Sparkle. So picking up his baggage, the traveler stepped out the door and down the road towards the orchard.

**********

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

As the traveler walked along, the babble of crowds in the town center quickly faded away. Out here, away from all the bustle and commotion, the only sounds to be heard were the rustling of wind in branches and the droning of a few lazy bees.

Soon, the forest’s scattering of trees began to thin out, slowly shifting from unkempt wilderness into orderly rows of well-dressed apple trees. It was clear that each tree had received plenty of loving care to grow so strong and healthy. With sturdy trunks and vibrant viridian leaves, each tree’s dozens of branches hung heavily with ripe, delicious fruit that ranged in color from deep red to bright green to brilliant gold shining in the sunlight. It was as if–

“Ow,” the traveler said, more out of surprise than pain as he felt an unexpected thump on his head. At his feet, a bright red apple rolled to a stop.

Picking up the fruit, the young man looked overhead at the branches, wondering where it had come from and noticed a mass of leaves moving in a distinctly odd manner. Peering a little more closely, he was quite surprised when all of a sudden, a small freckled face popped out.

“Gee, thorry about that, mithter," the little girl replied, disappearing back into the leaves before shimmying down the tree trunk. Once aground, she stood there grinning at him, wearing little jean overalls, a big pink bow on her head, and an even bigger smile on her face. The traveler could see she was missing one of her front teeth.

“I wath trying to get that one,” she said, pointing at the apple at his feet, “but it lookth like it got away from me.”

“It’s fine,” he said, giving the apple a quick polish before handing it back to her.

“Thankth, mithter,” she replied and immediately took a big, noisy bite. “Tho, what bringth you out to Thweet Apple Acreth?” the little girl asked around a mouthful of fruit.

“Looking for Miss Twilight Sparkle. I was told she might be here.”

“Hmm,” the child mumbled thoughtfully, taking another bite of apple, “You thould athk Applejack. Thee’d probably know. Come on, I’ll thow you.”

And with that, the little girl skipped off, giving the traveler no choice but to follow along, rather bemused to say the least. As a stranger, and a man familiar with strangers, being accepted so openly was not normal. Nice, but definitely not normal.

Making their way through the orchard, the little girl led them to a sturdy old barn and farmhouse where several large baskets of apples sat next to a horse drawn carriage.

“HEY APPLEJACK,” the little girl hollered at the top of her lungs, “WHERE YOU AT? WE GOTTH A VITHITOR!”

“Apple Bloom, what 'n tarnation are you yellin’ about out here?” came another voice from inside the barn. A moment later, a cute blonde girl in a tied-up checkered shirt and Stetson stepped out with yet another basket of apples. She too, had freckles.

“Oh, there you are, thith,” said the younger girl as she skipped over to Applejack (who apparently was her sister if the traveler had understood the lisp right). “Thith guy’th looking for Twilight and thomebody told 'im that thee’d be here. You theen her around?” Applejack looked up and just noticed that there indeed was a stranger standing there with them.

“Well shucks, beg yer pardon for that, mister,” she said, dropping the basket of apples next to the others. “I’ve been runnin’ around so much I can’t tell heads from tails no more. Welcome to Sweet Apple Acres. The name’s Applejack.” With that, she took the traveler’s hand in hers and gave him a firm handshake. Though she only came up to chin height on him, the strength of her grip would have put many men to shame.

“No problem,” he replied, returning the shake, albeit not quite so enthusiastically. “Miss Pinkie Pie said I might find Miss Twilight Sparkle here?”

“You lookin’ for Twilight? Shoot, you just missed her. Just stopped in not some ten minutes ago checkin’ in about them apples. Apples, which my little sister here,” she added, sending the young girl a keen glare, “should’ve been helpin’ me load up.” The gap-tooth girl gave her sister a sheepish grin.

“Um… oopth?”

“I’ll take you over there as soon as I’m finished,” Applejack grunted as she lifted a basket of fruit, “so why don’t you make yourself at home while’s I finish up here?”

The traveler took a look at Applejack, then at Apple Bloom, and then at the number of baskets to be loaded. The little girl probably wouldn’t be able to help with much of the heavy lifting, and the number of baskets meant there would indeed be a lot of heavy lifting. Regardless of how tough this Applejack was, she was still a girl…

“Hey, whacha doin’, mithter? Apple Bloom asked. Applejack turned from the wagon and watched the traveler set down his thing and take up a basket of apples instead.

“Aw, that’s mighty kind of yeh, mister,” Applejack said, “but I can’t be askin’ a guest to help out with mah work. It just ain’t right.”

“You didn’t. I volunteered,” the traveler shrugged, heaving the basket onto the cart and squatting to pick up another. “Besides, a man shouldn’t rest while a lady’s working.” This last comment brought a surprised, put rather pleased grin to Applejack’s face. After all, people didn’t often call a tough girl like her a lady.

“Well, ain’t you just the gentlemanliest feller I ever did meet. Thanks, stranger,” she grinned, tipping her hat in salute, “I sure do appreciate it.”

The three set off to loading the wagon, the two older ones heaving the baskets onto the wagon as little Apple Bloom dragged them towards the front. As they worked, the two sisters began chatting about Ponyville’s upcoming festivities.

“Tho, what do they need all theethe appleth for, Applejack?” little Apple Bloom asked as she struggled to drag an extra full basket forwards.

“Why, it’s for the marshals, of course,” Applejack replied. “You know that the apples from our orchard are some of the best around. That’s why we figured if we’re gonna welcome such a mighty fine band of Equestria’s finest, we oughtta do it with the best we got an' that’d be our apples.”

“These marshals,” the traveler grunted with more fruit, “they’re a big deal?”

“Of courthe they are!” Apple Bloom chimed in, almost invisible behind a basket stacked higher than she was tall. “The royal marthalth are like, thuperheroeth! They go where there’th trouble and thtomp it out tho that uth folkth can live in peath. My friend Thcootaloo’th alwayth talkin’ about how thee’d join ‘em if thee wathn’t already joinin’ the Wonderboltth.

“Wonderbolts?” Applejack asked. “As in the best band of rune flyers in the country? Those Wonderbolts?”

“Yup,” the little girl nodded. “Of courth, thee doethn’t have her own thet of thpell wingth yet, tho it'th thtill kinda early to thay. That’th why thee practithes with Rainbow Dath’th, but it’th not the thame as having your own, you know.”

“They sure is fancy flyers, I’ll give ‘em that,” Applejack agreed, heaving up another basket, “but I still say them marshals is more impressive. The Wonderbolts put on shows, but the marshals, well, they go around helpin’ people, you know? Lendin’ a hand to folks in need, no matter how long the road or how dangerous the trip. I think that kinda selflessness make ‘em somethin’ else entirely.

The traveler just picked up another basket.

*****

In fairly short order, the three of them had all the apples loaded and ready to go. Placing her fists into the small of her back, Applejack leaned back and cracked her stiff spine. It sounded like tree branches snapping.

“Well, stranger, I gotta say, I sure am grateful for yer assistance,” Applejack grinned as she gave him a hearty slap on the back. The traveler couldn’t help but wince: girl or not, she could probably knock over lesser men with that kind of power.

“So anywho, we’ll drop these off with Pinkie Pie and see if we can’t rustle up Twi’s wherea… uh oh.” Applejack's smile disappeared faster than the sun behind a storm cloud. “Time to hit the deck.”

“Wha–?” was all he managed to get out.

“GAAAAANNNNNNNGGGGGWWWWAAAAAYYYYYYYY!!!!!!”

The traveler had barely turned around before what could only be described as a solid rainbow hit him square in the stomach and catapulted him back a good twenty feet. At least.

“Rainbow Dash! Are you alright?” Applejack asked as she rushed over.

“Ugh, I think so. Good thing I landed on something that broke… my… fall…? … Heh heh heh, oops. Um… sorry about that?”

Looking up from where he’d been sent sprawling, the traveler saw a young lady in a cyan tank top and athletic shorts sitting on his stomach with a sheepishly apologetic grin on her face. Actually, it took him a moment to notice these, because the first thing he noticed was the very obvious head of short locks shining in every color imaginable.

“Rainbow Dash, I presume?” the traveler finally asked, his voice slightly strained. After all, it’s not that easy to talk with somebody using your stomach for a cushion.

“The one and only,” she declared, jumping up and actually striking a pose before reaching down to help him up. “Sorry about crashing into you and stuff. Twilight sent me over to check on Applejack, and I figured I’d use the time to try out some new tricks.”

“Tricks?” the young man asked.

“Yeah, I’m training for the Wonderbolts! Once I get a routine set up, I’m heading up to Canterlot to show them my stuff. Check it!” Turning halfway around, she displayed the runework frame on her back where two luminescent, aquamarine wings fluttered softly. “Built this bad boy from scratch. With this little guy, I’m gonna be the greatest flyer in all of Equestria.”

“I don’t get it,” Apple Bloom asked, brow furrowed in confusion. “If you’re tryin' out for the Wonderboltth, then why ith your trick crathing into people?” Applejack only kept from laughing out loud by clamping a hand over her mouth and the traveler almost, almost broke into a smile. Rainbow Dash just gave the little imp the stink-eye.

“I wasn’t supposed to crash, pipsqueak. I was going for a double aerial back flip into an inverted barrel roll so I cou–ohmygosh! What happened to your hand?!”

Looking down, the traveler was surprised to the back of his left hand had been cut.

“Ah. Probably nicked myself in the fall,” he shrugged. It wasn’t that big of a deal really, daresay hardly even a scratch. But from the way the three girls started fussing, you’d think that he’d just spilled his innards all over the ground.

“Rainbow,” Applejack huffed in obvious consternation, “It’s a miracle you didn’t kill him, flyin' around and crashin' into him like you did!”

“Ohmygoshohmygosh, I am so sorry about this!” Rainbow Dash babbled, fluttering around him in a nervous tizzy. "Please tell me you’re alright! Oh, I am such a klutz. You’re not going to die, are you?”

“He’th gonna die!?” Apple Bloom wailed, tears starting to brim in her eyes at the grisly thought of his impending demise. “But that’th… that’th…”

“Nobody’s gonna die, sweetie,” Applejack said, giving her sister a reassuring pat on the head. “We just gotta get 'im patched up is all.”

“It’s not a big deal. Really,” the traveler said, trying to reassure them. It didn’t work.

“Not a big deal?” Rainbow Dash gasped. “Are you crazy? Look at yourself: you’re practically leaking all your gooey parts all over the ground! How can you be–” the rest of Rainbow Dash’s gruesome tirade was cut off as Apple Bloom really began wailing in earnest.

“Alright, that’s enough of this hogwash, “the blonde cowgirl firmly said. “Rainbow Dash, you take this feller down over to Fluttershy’s place. I’d go with you, but I gotta bring these apples in, and that’s plum in the other direction. Apple Bloom, you go inside and see if Granny Smith needs any help around the house, y’hear?”

“You got it boss!” Rainbow Dash replied with a crisp salute. “Come on, mister, we gotta get you patched up pronto!” Seizing him by his other arm, Rainbow Dash practically yanked it out of its socket as she dragged the traveler off.

He didn’t even have time to grab his things.

**********

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

At the rate Rainbow Dash was flying, still clinging onto his arm, the traveler was practically sprinting to keep up. She probably didn’t notice because all the while, not once had she stopped apologizing for crashing into him.

“I really didn’t mean it, honestly. I mean, I meant to come down, but I didn’t mean to come down on you, see? I was just trying out that trick like I was telling you about, only when you’re going that fast and turning at the same time, it gets really hard to–”

“Don’t worry,” the traveler repeated for probably the third time already. “I’m fine.”

“Really?” she asked, still incredulous. “But, your hand–”

“Is fine,” he insisted. “I’ve done worse rolling out of bed.” That got Rainbow Dash chuckling.

“Okay, if you say so,” she conceded, the tension in her face visibly draining away as she let go. Releasing his arm, the young athlete finally slowed down to a more manageable pace, even going so far as to turn around and float along backwards. As she lazily drifted, she took a second look at the traveler, eyeing him thoughtfully as if weighing him on imaginary scales.

“You know, you’re pretty cool for an old-timer.” The traveler almost missed a step: he certainly hadn't expected that.

“Old?” he asked quizzically. “I’m not that much older than you.” Rainbow Dash scrutinized him a little more, lingering a bit on his gunmetal grey eyes, before finally shrugging in acquiescence.

“Yeah, I guess," she agreed, still drifting along at a leisurely pace. “But I dunno. You’re just… pretty cool, I guess. Not cool like me – nobody’s cool like me after all – but more like… old person cool, you know what I’m saying?”

“Not exactly,” the traveler admitted.

“Hmm, how do I say it?” Rainbow Dash muttered, crossing both legs and arms as she thought in silence. That seemed to help, because after a few moments, her eyes lit up in sudden clarity. “I know! You’re the kind of cool that the marshals have! Not nearly as much, I bet, but still, it’s the same thing!”

“Have you met a marshal, before?” the traveler asked suspiciously.

“Well… no…” Rainbow Dash confessed. “But come on, who hasn’t heard of them? Traveling all across Equestria, seeking out trouble on the Princess’s orders, laying down the law wherever they go… I mean, seriously. Of course the Wonderbolts are way cooler, and I’m gonna be the coolest one of them, but the marshals are pretty cool too.”

“Old man cool,” the traveler repeated. Rainbow Dash nodded, seemingly very satisfied.

“Exactly. It’s like the ‘been there, done that, nothing’s gonna bother me’ kinda cool. That’s the vibe I get from ya.”

“And that’s good?” the traveler asked.

“Yup. Like I said, nowhere near as cool as a real marshal would be,” the cyan flyer added with a cheeky grin, “but you might get there one day. Ooh, wait, we’re here!”

*****

Approaching the edge of the denser woods of the Everfree Forest, the two came across a rustic little cottage situated in the midst of a sunny meadow. Birds could be seen flitting around and chirping happily as a few chickens lazily pecked at the ground behind the wire fence of their coop. Though not much different from the rest of town, there was something in the air that made the place feel tranquil and safe, like nothing bad ever had or ever would happen here.

“Hey Fluttershy!” Rainbow Dash called out as she started banging on the door. “You in?”

The door of the cottage creaked open and a shy looking girl with long hair the color of rose coral peaked out from behind.

“Oh, hello Rainbow Dash,” she smiled softly. “What can I do for–”

She saw the stranger.

“Eep!” she squeaked as her head vanished behind the slamming door. The traveler looked at Rainbow Dash, one eyebrow arched inquiringly.

Smiling ruefully, Rainbow Dash started banging on the door again.

“Relax, Flutters, he’s cool. He just got banged up a little, so I was wondering if you could patch him up for me.” After a few moments of silence, the door opened again, albeit much more slowly this time, and Fluttershy hesitantly peaked around the corner.

“Um… I guess if you need me to… okay,” she murmured as she opened the door a little wider to allow them in.

The inside of the cottage had a warm, homey feel to it and a oddly pleasant affinity to nature. With clean wood finish, russet greens, and warm browns lit up by bright beams of sunshine, the earthy tones of the inside almost made it feel like they were still outdoors. Fluttershy, a pretty young lady wearing a simple yellow sweater and long white skirt, practically ducked around the much shorter Rainbow Dash to peak out at the traveler from behind the safety of her friend’s shoulder.

“So… um… is there something I can help you with?” she asked, looking very much like she would rather find a nice hole to hide in.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, his voice little more than a dull rumble in an attempt not to startle her. “Seems I got knicked on my hand here.” He raised his hand slowly to show her the small cut.

“Oh my, you poor thing!” she exclaimed, bowling Rainbow Dash over to get a closer look. “Does it hurt? Ooh, come over here, and I’ll get you fixed up right away.” And with a surprising amount of force, Fluttershy grabbed the traveler and practically threw him into a chair as she began rummaging in her cabinets for medical supplies.

“Oh, I do hope I have enough ointment,” Fluttershy fretted, her arms now full of a variety of bottles, herbs, and rolls of bandages. “I knew I should have made more this morning. What would happen if somebody got hurt at the party today and I don’t have enough ointment?”

“Like that’ll be a problem,” Rainbow Dash muttered, eyeing the shelves lined with at least six large bottles of the same healing mix.

“Um… is she alright?” the traveler asked, now slightly worried that the pink-haired girl might genuinely have a nervous breakdown.

“Oh, that’s just Fluttershy,” the colorful athlete smiled offhandedly. “She’s always like that.”

“I see…” the traveler replied, watching as Fluttershy mixed a variety of ingredients in a mortar on the counter. However much she may have worried, the girl worked quickly, measuring out ingredients and combining them with a smooth, steady hand. It was clear that she had a lot of experience patching things up.

Finally finishing, the coral-haired girl brought the bowl over along with a roll of clean bandages and knelt beside the traveler.

“Now hold still; this may sting a bit,” Fluttershy said gently, for all the world treating the traveler like a child instead of a man who was a good half head taller than her. Pushing up his sleeve over his wrist, she dabbed on the mix, which was pleasantly cool and smelled of fresh mint, before quickly winding the bandage around his hand.

“There we go,” she smiled. “Leave that on for the rest of the day and you’ll be good as new.”

The traveler flexed his fingers to test out the wrapping. It was tight, but he could still move freely and comfortably. She really was good at this.

“Thank you, Miss Fluttershy,” he said with a smile that almost reached his eyes. “Feels better already.” Fluttershy simply blushed and looked away, mumbling something about how it was nothing, but seeming pleased nonetheless while she straightened up his sleeve. As she did, however, the quiet girl noticed that the cuff had been damaged – no doubt from the same fall that the scratch had come from – and was already beginning to unravel.

“Oh my goodness,” Fluttershy said in surprise, “it looks like your clothes could use some patching up too.”

“It’s fine,” the traveler said as he idly fingered the cut. “Shirt’s old anyways.”

“Hey, I got an idea,” Rainbow Dash interjected from her hovering perch between the two. “Why don’t we ask Rarity for help?”

“That won’t be necessary,” the traveler said hastily, trying to stand up and excuse himself. “Caused enough trouble already.”

“Oh, but you must,” Fluttershy said, catching him by the arm and dragging him back into his seat. “Rarity is really good with clothes. She’ll be able to fix that up in no time.”

“It wouldn’t be right–”

“Psh, don’t worry about it,” Rainbow Dash blew off with a nonchalant flip of the hand. “Rarity’s like, the most generous person we know.” Leaning in, she continued to whisper. “Plus, she’d probably be more angry we let you walk around with a hole in your shirt than anything else.”

“… You’re sure?” he asked suspiciously. He really didn’t want to be a bother, but the way these two girls were insisting, it might be more of a bother to refuse.

“No worries!” Rainbow Dash assured him. “Heck, I’ll take you over there right now!”

“… Alright,” the traveler sighed in defeat. “Just need to get my stuff from the orchard first.”

“Stuff?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “What stuff?”

“Long bundle,” the traveler said, using his hands to help describe it, “wrapped in white cloth. And a travel bag.”

“Oh, you mean that big thingy next to the little thingy next to where I crashed into you right?” Rainbow Dash asked and hastily continued when she noticed Fluttershy’s alarmed expression. “Well, don’t worry about it. I’ll fly back and grab it then meet you over at Rarity’s. See ya!” And with a quick, abashed grin, she dashed through the door and flew off.

The traveler blinked. He looked at Fluttershy, who blinked back at him in return. To say that the colorful flyer’s sudden departure was abruptly unexpected would be quite an understatement. But after the initial surprise wore off, the quiet Fluttershy’s eyes slowly grew to the size of saucers as she soon realized that she was alone with someone she didn’t know.

“So... which direction is Miss Rarity’s?” the traveler asked slowly, doing his best not to scare her. It failed miserably, as Fluttershy gave out a startled squeak and suddenly found the ground very interesting. Keeping her eyes fixed to the floor, the introverted girl nervously shuffled her feet, using her long pink hair as a shield to obscure her face.

The traveler was now faced with a difficult conundrum. He really needed his stuff back and Rainbow Dash was bringing it to someone called Rarity. That meant he had to get there and meet her, but he didn’t know the way. On one hand, he could ask Fluttershy for help, but that might very well set her into full blown panic. Or, he could try leaving and asking someone else, but he’d already gotten more people involved than he wanted anyways.

Fortunately, before he was forced to make what could have been a disastrous decision, a tiny ball of white fur dropped from the rafters straight into his lap.

“Angel Bunny!” Fluttershy gasped in surprise. “What are you doing there?”

The traveler looked down and saw that the little ball was indeed, a little white rabbit. It stared up at him, looking him over with its tiny black eyes before giving its nose a twitch. If the traveler didn’t know any better, he could have sworn that the bunny was looking up at him so that it could looking down on him.

“Oh, I’m so sorry about this,” the coral-haired girl said as she approached then backed away several times, unsure of what to do. “This is Angel Bunny. He likes to climb things, so I usually let him play around the house, but I didn’t think he’d go and do this.”

“It’s fine,” the traveler said, not sure what ‘this’ Fluttershy was talking about. The little rabbit may have been an insolent little thing, but it wasn’t heavy or anything. Plus, it was kind of cute.

“Angel, please come down from there,” Fluttershy pleaded. The rabbit simply shook its head and hopped a few circles around his lap before twitching its nose at her.

“Now now, it’s not nice to bother other people,” Fluttershy continued, trying to coax the bunny down. However, this just made things worse, as Angel decided to climb even higher. Using the traveler’s arm as a ladder, Angel climbed up to his shoulder and from there, hopped onto his broad, flat-brimmed hat.

“This… happen often?” the traveler asked, looking towards where he thought the bunny would be, probably glancing around smugly from its new perch.

“No,” Fluttershy said, her voice full of worried puzzlement. “He usually doesn’t like new people, and I’ve never seen him climb all the way up there before.” Then she paused and gave the traveler an odd look for a moment as if she were seeing him in a new light.

“Must be the hat,” the traveler guessed as he felt Angel Bunny happily thumping away on the top of his head with its back foot. Reaching up, he gently took hold of the rabbit and picked him up. While it seemed that the rabbit was most displeased at being forcefully removed from his new stomping grounds, at least it didn’t actively resist.

Setting Angel down on the ground, the traveler stood up and tipped his hat to the quiet girl.

“Thanks for the patch job,” he said. “Hand feels better already.”

“Are you leaving so soon?” Fluttershy asked, shaking her head as if she’d been distracted. The traveler nodded.

“Need to find Miss Rarity. Get my things back.” He turned to walk towards the door, but was unexpectedly stopped as Fluttershy spoke up once more.

“Um… if you’d like, I could take you there,” she offered softly. “It’s… just down the path out front. I could show you…” Her voice got progressively quieter as it trailed off in into a whisper the end.

The traveler looked at her again. She was obviously still nervous: he could tell from the way she bit her lower lip and shifted from foot to foot. But the way she occasionally glanced up at him, a hopeful spark in her eye, it seemed like she wanted to go as well but didn’t want to impose. That she had asked at all was quite surprising, considering how timid she was, and he didn’t want to upset her…

“If you would, I’d sure be grateful,” he said, smiling in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. Hoped because he had no experience dealing with easily frightened girls.

Apparently, it worked because with a small nod and an even smaller smile, Fluttershy put away her things and joined him at the door.

*****

As the two walked down the path towards Rarity’s, for a while, neither of them spoke. The nerve that Fluttershy had worked up earlier seemed to have dissipated and she appeared content to keep her eyes on the ground. Occasionally, he’d glance over and find her looking at him with that same puzzled look she'd had on earlier, but when he did, she’d let out a small squeak and avert her eyes once again. It was an interesting walk, to say the least.

“So… excited for today’s party?” he asked, trying to break the awkward silence. It felt very strange, trying to start a conversation: talking was something he’d never been very good at.

“Um… not really,” Fluttershy replied. “I’m not very good at parties: the crowds are always so big and everything’s so… loud.” The corner of the traveler’s lip twitched in amusement at her response.

“But,” she continued, her voice gaining slightly in both energy and excitement, “I would like to see the marshals when they come in.”

“Really?” the traveler asked. “How come?”

“Well, they’ve been all over the country, so I’m sure they must have seen all sorts of rare and exotic creatures. But the best part,” she continued as her face lit up with excitement, “is that even though they have to stop wild animals, they never hurt them more than they have to. Why, I’ve even heard stories where marshals have fought things like hydras, chimeras, and even dragons, only to end up making friends with them. That’s just so amazing, I… oh, I would just love to get a chance to talk to them.”

“So, you like animals?” the traveler dumbly asked.

“Oh, yes, very much!” Fluttershy agreed, her eyes positively sparkling with enthusiasm. “I like helping people too, and that’s why I started learning about treating injuries, but animals are just soooo cute. That’s actually what I wanted to ask you about,” she said, finally revealing the reason why she’d wanted to come along. “You see, Angel Bunny doesn’t get along with many people, but he seems to really like you. Do you work with animals?”

“Not exactly,” the traveler replied. “We just seem to have an understanding.”

“An understanding?” Fluttershy asked, looking puzzled.

“I don’t bother them if they don’t bother me. Guess that suits us both just fine,” the traveler shrugged. Fluttershy, however, smiled.

“That must mean you’re a really nice person.” This comment merely elicited a wry grin in response from the traveler.

“Not at all,” he replied, but Fluttershy eyes widened as she shook her head in strong disagreement. Well, strong for her at least.

“Oh no, I’m sure you’re a very nice person,” she insisted. “Animals have a very keen sense for that. If they feel scared, they wouldn’t like you at all, and since Angel liked you, you must be an extra super nice person.”

“I see…” the traveler said, clearly skeptical.

“That’s right,” Fluttershy nodded in satisfaction. “And that’s why I think the marshals must be some of the nicest people around: they wouldn’t be able to make friends with animals unless they were. You see, animals are…”

For the rest of the walk, the traveler listened as Fluttershy eagerly told him about the various things she’d learned about woodland creatures. At first, the traveler was simply surprised at the shift from her earlier introversion to her current enthusiasm. However, as she continued her animated monologue, he became far more impressed by the depth of her knowledge. Clearly, she was a girl who genuinely loved all animals, and with her sweet disposition and gentle nature, he had no doubt that animals must love her back.

Well, except maybe Angel Bunny, but that was probably just childish antics and plain acting up. Honestly, he had never met a cheekier rabbit.

**********

Chapter 4

Chapter 4

With Fluttershy happily chatting away, it was a surprisingly short time before they found themselves in front of a large, white building with multitudes of elegant dresses displayed behind gleaming windows. The traveler knew nothing about clothes – seriously, absolutely nothing – and yet even he could see that these were very high quality garments. They almost seemed to exhude elegance.

“You’re sure this won’t be a bother?” the traveler asked as he eyeed the building uncertainly. He’d never been inside a store like this, and the thought of asking its proprietor for a mend on his worn shirt just didn’t make sense.

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Fluttershy assured him, for once sounding more confident than he did. “Now let’s go inside and get you fixed up.”

The tinkling of a small bell accompanied the pair as they entered. The traveler was quite taken aback: if anything, the inside was even nicer than the out, and that was saying something. All manners of fashionable ensembles glittered under the light. From ladies’ gowns and dresses to men’s coats and jackets, the store held a dizzying variety of clothing in every style, color, and cut imaginable.

“Isn’t it nice?” Fluttershy giggled. “Rarity just makes the best dresses ever.” The traveler stopped midstep and gave her a funny look.

“You’re saying,” he began slowly, “that Miss Rarity made… all of these?”

“Of course,” Fluttershy answered, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “It is her store after all.” The young man simply let out a low whistle of awe.

As they made their way into the store, the traveler staring in wonder that one person could come up with so many different designs, a melodious voice called out from somewhere in the back.

“Hello, is someone there?”

Out from behind a mannequin in a stunning evening gown came an even more stunning young lady. From her perfectly curled violet hair to the simple, yet stylish white blouse, black skirt combo, she was quite possibly the prettiest girl the traveler had ever seen, and he’d been around and seen a few.

“Fluttershy, darling!” Rarity called out warmly as she embraced her quiet friend. “I wasn’t expecting to see you till this afternoon. What brings you here?”

“Hello, Rarity,” Fluttershy replied with a happy, little smile. “I was wondering if you could, that is, if you’re not busy, do me a tiny little favor and fix this nice man’s shirt.” Rarity looked up from the hug and noticed the young man in her store. And then she gasped.

“Goodness gracious, what happened to you?!”

“Slight run in with Miss Rainbow Dash,” he replied apologetically. Not sure why, but he felt that with Rarity, it was probably best to be sorry about the state of his clothes.

The young seamstress tutted in disapproval.

“Oh, that Rainbow Dash. I do wish she’d settle down a little.” Reaching into her pocket, Rarity pulled out a pair of glasses and after putting them on, began to carefully scrutinize the traveler’s appearance. From this close, the traveler could faintly catch the sweet scent of lavender coming from her hair.

“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with her hobby of flying,” she continued, wrinkling her nose as she pinched the sleeve of his coat, “but I do wish she’d be a little more careful. After all, what if she had a serious accident? She might even end up with a scratch on her face. Of course, she might not care, but a girl’s face is her life, you know.”

After making a full circle around the traveler, Rarity crossed her arms and pursed her lips in thought, only to end up shaking her head.

“No no no, this simply will not do,” she clucked in disapproval. “I’m sorry dear, but you’re just going to have to take it off.”

Well that was certainly unexpected.

“Take… what off?” he asked, almost certain that he had misheard. He hadn’t.

“Why, your clothes of course,” Rarity said as if she were merely stating the obvious. “You don’t expect me to mend an ensemble while you’re still wearing it, do you?”

“Mend?” the traveler asked, confused. “I just need a tear fixed.” He pointed the sleeve. Rarity dismissed it with an airy wave.

“Oh please, that’s just a simple patch job,” came her offhanded reply. “The rest of you, however, will clearly take some real work, and I’d best get started now if we want to make it in time for the party.” With that, she deftly spun the traveler around and stripped off his jacket as easily as if she were peeling an orange.

“My goodness, and that shirt!” she gasped in horror. “Honestly, where did you find that thing?”

“… A store?” the traveler replied. He knew he’d bought it someplace, but how the hay was he supposed to remember where?

“Just any old store?” Rarity asked, sounding downright scandalized. “Darling, have you even seen the way it looks on you? It’s not doing you any favors. Trust me.”

“But–”

“Now, now, not another word,” she interrupted before hustling him back behind a silk screen. “You take that off and hand it here. Oh, and send over your slacks as well. Those could use a good sprucing up as well.” A few moments later, the shirt appeared at the top of the screen. The pants however, remained unseen.

“Really, darling,” the pretty young lady sighed as hands settled on her hips, “do I have to come back there and fetch them myself?” A few scrambling moments later, and the pants appeared as well. Simply rolling her eyes, Rarity turned to her flush-faced friend and mouthed the word 'men' as an amused smile played on her lips.

Just then, the front door crashed open, and Rainbow Dash tumbled in, a two-handed death grip on the traveler’s bags.

“Rainbow Dash, what on earth are you doing?” Rarity called out.

“Hey there, Rarity. Hey Flutters,” the colorful flyer panted from where she lay sprawled out on the ground. “I got his stuff here. I don’t know what he’s got here, but it’s like carrying a ton of bricks. Seriously.” Finally standing up, the little lady looked around only to realize that the traveler was nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, I don’t see him anywhere. Where’s he at?”

“He’s back there,” Fluttershy said, pointing at the screen and making a conspicuously careful effort not to look anywhere in that direction.

“Well what’s he doing back there?” Rainbow Dash asked, scratching her head in confusion. Flitting over to the silk screen, she called out, “Hey buddy, I got–”

“Ahem. Rainbow Dash?” the violet-haired seamstress called out with warning in her voice.

“What?”

Rarity simply held up the contents of her hand: a shirt and a pair of pants. Tomboy that she was, Rainbow Dash just stared at them. A moment passed. And then it clicked.

“Oh. Oh!” she said, finally realizing the implications. When she did, the young athlete’s whole face turned a bright shade of cherry red. “Er, well then… I’ll just, leave your stuff here; don’t wanna crowd you or anything, right? So… I’m just gonna be… um… yeahgottagoseeyabye!” And with that, Rainbow Dash rushed out the door so quickly that she left a rainbow-colored streak in her wake.

"My word,” Rarity tutted. “Fluttershy, would you be a dear and go after her? Who knows what kind of mess she’ll get into flying around like that.” Giving Rarity a grateful smile, the pink-cheeked girl dashed off after her friend, not quite so quick, but with impressive alacrity nonetheless.

“Well, now that that’s out of the way, I can finally get to work,” the stylish young lady said with a satisfied nod.

“Miss Rarity,” the traveler called from behind the screen, “There’s no need for all the trouble.”

“Don’t worry darling, it’s no trouble at all,” she called back to him. “All I need to do are make some readjustments to the stitching, cast a few stain removal spells and perhaps one or two resizing charms on the more troublesome areas, and make some general repairs all around.”

“And… that’s not trouble?”

Rarity’s laugh was like the tinkling of silver wind chimes in a spring breeze.

“Oh please, you make it sound like it’s going to be hard.”

Even trapped behind the screen as he was, curiosity overcame the traveler. And so, peeking very carefully around the edge of the silk panel, he watched as Rarity began her work.

It really was quite a spectacular feat. Removing a small wand from a band at her wrist, Rarity flicked it a few times and made the room come to life. Scissors, spools of thread, needles, bottles of fabric cleaners, and so much more began flying to the table where she stood. In a furious whirlwind, all these things began to go to work – a snip here, a mend there, a dab at one spot, just a bit of magic in another – and all at a pace that would have put ten normal seamstresses to shame. All the while, Rarity stood in the eye of the hurricane, humming away happily as she worked with the poise of absolute ease.

In a few short minutes, it was done, and Rarity brought the clothes over and hung them over the top of the screen.

“There, that should do it,” she said as she slung the heavy leather jacket over as well. “Now, be a dear and put those on so we can take a look at you.”

Redressing himself, the traveler stepped out from behind the screen. Rarity paused as she eyed him up and down, scrutinizing him on every last detail.

“… Much better,” the young lady finally declared with a very approving smile. “Oh yes, Rarity, you are a talent. Now keep in mind,” she continued, looking up to address the young man before her, “there’s only so much I could do – the quality of the fabric being really only so-so and all – but I think you’ll see that with a little cleaning and some minor tailoring, the whole ensemble just comes together.”

And she was right. At a glance, not much had changed about his clothes. They were still the same shirt and pant, still the same dark leather jacket. But now, they all seemed much… nicer. The travel stains had disappeared, and the fabrics were once again soft and supple. The frayed edges on the ends were gone, and everything seemed to follow the contours of his body: from his broad shoulders to the taper of his lean waist, everything seemed to fit like they'd been made just for him. In a way, he guessed they had.

“Now, let’s have a look at that hat,” Rarity smiled as she plucked it off his head before the traveler had a chance to protest. With a quick wave of her want, the dust was whisked away and the stains faded to nothingness. “Most people tend to forget,” she explained as she applied some lotion to the leather and magicked it in, “but accessories are essential to the outfit.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind.”

Once finished, the young lady reached up to place the hat back on his head. However, she paused just before she did. She hadn’t noticed it before, but under the hat, the traveler had a head of long and very straight jet black hair.

“You could also use a trim,” Rarity commented as gave him a contemplative look, “something to brighten up your appearance, as it were. And of course, there’s no need for these bangs, either,” she said, reaching to brush them aside. “Why–”

And she stopped. As she pushed his hair aside, their eyes unexpectedly met, her large sapphire blues staring right into his distant gunmetal grays.

“Oh my,” she murmured, the hat completely forgotten in her hand. The traveler used this opportunity to quickly take it and put it back on, breaking the eye contact rather abruptly.

“Problem?” the traveler asked, adjusting the hat to make sure it sat low over his face. He didn’t much like people looking at him too closely.

“No, not a problem,” Rarity replied as she gave herself a little shake. “You have very striking eyes, you know, almost like moonstone. I did think that brown would be fine since it matches your complexion, but now I’m thinking something in a navy blue or possibly the charcoal grey variety. It would certainly do more to bring out those eyes of yours.”

“Miss Rarity, there’s no need–”

“Oh, I know that, darling,” she laughed with an airy wave of her hand. “Call it what you will, but whenever I see quality material, I do so love to see it properly displayed.” It took a moment before the traveler realized the material in question was him. “Ooh, if only the royal marshals would get here. Then I would really have something to work with.”

“Marshals are quality material?” the traveler asked.

“Oh my, yes. Why, heroes of that stature must certainly cut a gallant figure, and that is truly rare. After all, if you need a certain shape, then any mannequin will do quite nicely. But men like the marshals must have a certain… air about them. Do you understand what I mean?”

“I guess,” the traveler replied, although he really didn’t.

“Yes, it’s quite true,” Rarity continued. “Anyone can just wear clothes, but to bring out true style, the person has to have a certain… je ne sais quoi about them. Maybe it comes from seeing the world and facing dangers every day, but whatever it is, I believe the marshals have it. After all, who better to bring my outfits to life than genuine heroes?”

“Can they even wear nice clothes?” the traveler asked. “They're on the road an awful lot.”

“But of course!” she replied, aghast. “Just because you’re galloping across the country doesn’t mean you can’t look good doing it.” The simple logic of that statement made it impossible for the traveler to respond.

In the meantime, as Rarity began putting away her things, her eyes alighted on the wall clock and she gasped.

“Oh my goodness,” the young lady breathed, eyes widening in alarm. “Look at the time: I was supposed to be helping out with decorations fifteen minutes ago!” Quickly gathering a bag full of supplies together, she turned to look regretfully at the traveler.

“It really is a shame I couldn’t do a little touch up on your hair,” she sighed. “It simply isn’t right to hide your eyes behind those forelocks, you know.” As she said this, the violet-haired girl let out a vexed little cry. “Oh, you will stay around and let me finish the job won’t you? Please tell me you will.”

“I… have business to take care of,” the traveler said evasively.

“Oh. Well in that case, perhaps I could help you finish and free up your schedule. What exactly is it that you need to do?” Rarity asked with a smile. It seemed like anything for the sake of fashion was acceptable to this one.

“Need to find Miss Twilight,” the traveler said as he shouldered up his bags. “Make a delivery.”

“Twilight?” Rarity said thoughtfully as she finished gathering her things. “Well, most of the organizing should be done, so she’s probably back at the library. It’s not far, but the traffic on the streets today might make it hard for you to get there. Hmm…” Suddenly, Rarity gasped.

Idea!” Running over to one of her mannequins, she removed a simple yellow dress with white lace and deftly folded it before dropping it into the bag. “I needed to drop off Twilight’s dress by this afternoon anyhow, so why don’t I take you over there myself?”

“I’d appreciate that,” the traveler replied with a grateful tip of his hat.

“Excellent. Come along then.” Walking by the traveler, Rarity smoothly dropped her bag to his open hand as she headed to the door.

“Er…what?” the young man asked as he looked at the bag in hand, almost unsure of how it got there. To this, the young beauty simply turned around and gave him an innocent, little smile.

“What, you don’t expect a lady to carry that by herself, do you?”

**********

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

The streets were more hectic than ever as they walked towards the center of Ponyville. People were dashing around like busy little bees, rushing to finish festival preparations in time. And yet, Rarity seemed to have no problem clearing a path through the crowds as they headed towards their destination. Perhaps it was because any man who caught sight of her gave the lovely lady a smile and made way. Then again, perhaps it was the rather imposing figure following after her that inspired the wide berth. Who knows.

Arriving at the center of the town square, the traveler was surprised to find himself looking at a tree. And not just any tree, but a gigantic monolith of a tree that dwarfed many of the buildings around it. From what he could tell, it was still alive and healthy, yet the windows, balconies and doorways that dotted its surface clearly indicated that it was in fact hollow.

“This is a library?” he asked, eyeing it askance.

“Indeed,” Rarity replied. “A repository of Equestria’s knowledge and learning for the past thousand years, preserved for the understanding of future generations to come, or so Twilight tells me.” Approaching the door, Rarity gave it a few quick knocks and called out, “Twilight? Darling, are you in?”

The door sprang open and a little boy in a purple windbreaker, probably no more than twelve, practically jumped out to greet them.

“Hiya, Rarity!” he grinned happily, “How you been?”

“Oh, hello Spike, “she said, giving him a fond pat on his spiky green-haired head. “Is Twilight home?”

“Naw, she stepped out take care of some more party stuff. She should be back in a minute or so. Do you want to come in and wait?” The eagerness of his expression was almost palpable.

“I really can’t Spike,” Rarity said apologetically. “I have some business that I simply must attend to. But could you do me a favor?”

“Of course; what do you need?”

“Well, this gentleman here,” she said, gesturing to the traveler, “needs to see Twilight on some business. Can you make sure that they meet?”

“You can count on me,” Spike replied, throwing a smart salute.

“I knew I could,” Rarity replied with an indulgent smile and a pinch to his cheek. “Now, I must be on my way, but I’ll see you at the party.” Turning around, she took the basket from the traveler and looked up at him.

“And I trust I'll see you there too?” she asked, sapphire eyes twinkling as she did. The traveler paused, then gave an almost imperceptibly small nod of the head.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Though it wasn’t much, Rarity gave him a satisfied smile.

“Excellent. Well then, a fine day to you both. Au revoir.”

The pretty young lady glided off and was soon swallowed up by the crowd.

Turning to enter the library, the traveler was surprised to find Spike eyeing him suspiciously. Well, not exactly suspiciously, more like with a keen sense of distrust and/or niggling feeling that he was up to no good.

“So… you know Rarity, eh?” the boy asked the traveler, eyes narrowing.

“She helped fix my clothes,” he replied, unsure of the implications of the question.

“And?” Spike continued, eyes growing narrower still.

“She… showed me here, where I met you.”

“Is that all?” Spike asked again, his eyes so narrow that the traveler began wondering if the boy could even see him anymore.

“Unless I’m mistaken... yes?”

Spike eyed him for a moment longer. Then suddenly, his whole face brightened and he gave the traveler a big smile.

“Okay then, come on in.”

Spike waved him into the tree and it was simply amazing. Every spare wall and surface had been converted into shelf space where thousands upon thousands of books lay stacked in dizzying tiers up the entire height of the tree. Twilight hadn’t been joking when she’d called it a repository of all knowledge in Equestria.

“Sorry for the third degree earlier,” Spike called as he headed through another door leading to what seemed like the kitchen. A few moments later, he re-emerged, bearing a tray of small cookies and a pot of fresh coffee. Setting them down on the center table, he took a seat and poured two cups before sliding one to the opposite side where the traveler had taken a seat as well.

“I guess I shouldn’t have come down so hard on you since you’re new and all,” he continued, taking a sip. “But the thing is…” The little boy paused, looking around to make sure the empty room was still empty, then leaned in and lowered his voice into a conspiratorial hush, “… I sort of have a crush on Rarity.”

“I... see,” the traveler replied, unsure of how to respond. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“But you gotta promise not to tell anyone, okay?” Spike said, eyes wide with intent.

“Promise,” the traveler assured him as he took a sip coffee; it was quite delicious.

Satisfied with the answer, Spike reached for a cookie and popped it into his mouth. As he did so, the traveler caught a glimpse of a pair of rather long fangs. His eyes widened in astonishment.

“You’re a Salamander, aren’t you?”

He wasn’t sure how he could have missed it. The fangs, the spiky green hair that almost resembled scales in their shape, the reptilian shape of his eyes, and the sturdy nails on his hands that could very well be taken for claws, were all characteristic traits of people from the Salamander tribe.

Spike’s eyes widened in surprise as well.

“Yeah, that’s right!” he said excitedly. “Wow, you’re the first person besides Twilight that guessed that: how’d you know?”

“Oh,” the traveler said, and hesitated. “I met some in my… earlier travels.”

“Really?” Spikes eyes shone with excitement. “Where?”

“Not sure,” he said evasively. “Somewhere south, near the desert, probably.” He paused to take another sip of coffee, then redirected the topic. “Didn’t know Salamanders came so far north.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” Spike shrugged. “I mean, I’m the only one around, as far as I can tell, and I’m actually not from around here: I came from Canterlot with Twilight.”

“From Canterlot? How?” the traveler asked in surprise. It was a good question since Canterlot was even farther north of the deserts than Ponyville.

“Well, I was hatched there,” Spike replied, not seeming to understand the question.

“Hatched?” the traveler asked. “As in from an egg?”

“Well, duh. That’s how all babies are made, aren’t they? The mommy lays an egg and… they hatch,” Spike said, sounding very much like he was trying to explain walking to an infant.

“Salamanders lay eggs. Huh,” the traveler intoned as he picked up his mug once again. You never could tell when you’d learn something new.

“Wait a minute,” Spike said, his face contorted from concentration as his brain worked give shape to a new question. “Does that mean that other people don’t lay eggs? If you don’t lay eggs, then where do your babies come from?”

The traveler nearly spewed coffee clear across the table.

“Er… that’s…” he stammered: he did not like the direction this conversation was going.

“Well?” Spike pressed, “How does it work?”

Fortunately, before the traveler was forced to answer, the front door opened and another young girl walked in. She had dark blue hair with a two streak of color through it, one pink and the other violet. They must have been natural because with her calm, bookish sort of air that spoke of intelligence and an abundance of sense, she didn’t seem like the type to dye her hair. Of course, the fact that she was wearing an argyle sweater vest and held a clipboard with a quill tucked behind one ear probably lent to that idea as well.

“Hey Twilight, how’d the planning go?” Spike asked with his previous question completely forgotten. The traveler sighed in relief and silently said a prayer of thanks for children’s short attention spans.

“Everything went perfectly, exactly as I scheduled it, “Twilight said with a proud smile. That's when she noticed the guest seated at the table. “Oh, and who do we have here?” She looked to the newcomer with head cocked and curiosity in her big, amethyst eyes.

“Him?” Spike said, pointing back at the traveler with his thumb, “Rarity brought him over: said he had to see you about something.”

“Really? Twilight intoned as she took a third seat at the table. “Well in that case, how can I help you?”

Reaching inside his jacket, the traveler pulled out a small, nondescript envelope.

“I’m supposed to give you this,” he said, setting the envelope on the table and sliding it over.

“Ooh, what is it?” Twilight asked as she picked it up for careful examination. Beyond the fact that it was rather good quality parchment, there was not much else about it that stood out. Even the spot of crimson wax that sealed it was nondescript and unmarked.

“Can’t really say,” the traveler shrugged. “It was just on my way.”

“Well, thank you very much for bringing it,” Twilight said as she opened the envelope. However, when she unfolded the letter, she simply frowned and stared at it in confusion.

“Huh, well this is odd… are you sure someone asked you to deliver this?” she asked before looking up at the traveler.

“Why, what’s wrong?” he asked. Twilight turned the letter to him so that he could see it as well: it was completely blank.

“Curious,” the traveler replied, gunmetal grey eyes darting across the page. “That’s the letter I was given. Why it’s blank though…” he trailed off with a shrug.

“This is so strange,” Twilight murmured, still looking at the paper. “I don’t see anything, but that wouldn’t make sense. There must be something I’m missing.” She picked up the sheet and flipped it over, eyeing it so closely that her nose was almost pressed against it. Still nothing.

“Maybe it’s invisible ink,” she thought aloud as she pulled a wand from her pocket and lightly tapped the parchment. A faint purple glow surrounded the paper as it floated up, but it quickly dissipated and let the sheet drift back to the table. “No? Maybe it’s a Single-Eye Spell,” she said, tapping the sheet again, but with similar results. “No? Is it a Confidentiality Charm? No? How about…”

As Twilight continued experimenting with the papery, the traveler quietly slid his chair back and picked up his bundle. Having completed this task, he was walking towards the door to excuse himself when Spike called out.

“Hey, aren’t you gonna stay for some snacks?” he asked while grabbing another cookie.

“Still have business,” the traveler replied. “Best if I went and got started.”

“Aw, you’re not leaving so soon, are you?” Twilight asked as she set down the paper. “The party's about to start, and it’d be a shame for you to miss it.”

“I really should get going,” the traveler insisted. “Like I said, I have–” he didn’t finish, because Twilight’s giggling abruptly cut him off.

“I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t be laughing,” she said, trying to stifle her chuckling behind her hand. “It’s just that you sounded exactly like me when I first got here.”

“Oh?” the traveler asked, eyebrow raised in question. “How's that?”

“Back when I first came to Ponyville, all I could think about was getting my job done. It wasn’t till after I got to know the people here that I realized sometimes, jobs can wait long enough for you to make some friends.”

“Won’t be here long,” the traveler said simply. “Doubt I have enough time to make friends ‘fore I head out.” Twilight simply giggled again.

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” she said with a knowing smile. “People around here are awfully good about making friends in a hurry. Besides, I’m sure that whatever your job is, it can wait long enough for you to meet some new people. What do you say: join us at the party?” With Twilight looked up at him with such childishly innocent hope, the traveler really couldn't find the heart to refuse.

He sighed.

“I’ll drop off my things and come back in a bit.”

“Yay!” Twilight cheered, clapping her hands in delight. “Ooh, this is so exciting: I’m going to go quadruple check the plans to make sure everything’s perfect. Come on Spike, let’s make this the best party ever!” Twilight grabbed up the letter, grabbed Spike by the hand, and dashed out the door in an excitement fueled flash.

In light of Twilight’s incredibly abrupt exit, it was a moment before the traveler realized that he should probably get going. Taking one last sip of coffee, he stood up and headed for the door, shaking his head as he walked.

“People ‘round here sure are crazy.”

**********

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

At just before noon, the preparations were finally completed. The whole town was decorated, tents with delicious foods had been placed all over, and various bands dispersed throughout filled the air with cheerful music. By this point, everyone had gathered in the town square and were eagerly awaiting the arrival of their honored guests. Eagerly, but silently, as an unusual hush fell over the crowd, their anticipation suppressing revelry for the moment.

Then suddenly, Apple Bloom, from her perch atop her sister’s shoulders, called out:

“Hey, I thee thomething!”

Off in the distance, a tiny cloud of dust advanced towards Ponyville. As the dust cloud grew closer, along with it came the rhythmic thumping of hoof beats. The cloud grew closer, and soon the people could make out the forms of five riders quickly approaching the town. Finally reaching the first buildings, the five riders came galloping through the town streets before rearing their horses to a prancing halt in front of the crowd.

There they were, the marshals, and looking exactly as the people had imagined. Each of the riders sat atop a massive war stallion clad in gleaming plate armor. Each rider wore a matching crimson cloak with burnished steel shoulder pads adorning the left shoulder. And of course, each rider wore pinned to their chest, a glittering silver badge.

The Winged Shield. The insignia of the marshals, that badge stood for everything these soldiers represented. As the elite of the guards of Equestria, by pinning on that badge, they vowed to travel as they were called and crush evil wherever it stood, defending the lives and freedoms of Equestria’s citizens with every fiber of their being.

To do this, they carried with them the final mark of their station. Over the right shoulder of each of the marshals peaked the glittering silver barrel of a spell gun. Functioning somewhat like a wand, the spell gun had the added benefit of focusing and amplifying the power of whatever magic was cast through it. Powerful artifacts, these men had the right to use them however they needed in their quest to defend the people.

Yes, these indeed were a group of Equestria’s finest: the royal marshals.

“Greetings, gentlemen,” a distinguished, bespectacled lady with prominent white hair said as she approached the group. “As mayor of Ponyville, I would like to be the first to welcome you to our fair town: we can’t tell you how much we appreciate you coming out here. Now, I’m sure you’d like to see your accommodations and get settled in, but we’re just so excited to have you here, that we wanted to throw you a party and welcome you in the traditional Ponyville style.” She stood back and gestured to the festive grounds set out behind them.

The leader of the party, a giant bear of a bearded man with brown hair and beard and blue eyes, trotted his horse forward, slowly surveying the town square with each heavy hoof fall. The people waited anxiously: his face was impassive, stoic and unemotional. Was something not to his liking? Oh no, he couldn’t be… was he upset? Angry? Had something gone wrong?

Apparently not, because the marshal leader then broke into a smile.

“Well then,” he said, “let’s party.”

An enormous cheer went out through the crowds, and the party did in fact begin.

*****

An hour or so later, the party was in full swing. People were dancing, singing, eating, and of course, drinking. With so many fine apples around, Ponyville had no shortages of delicious brandies, cordials, and ciders to go around. For the adults, of course: the young ones stuck to juice.

Twilight made her way through the grounds, her studious nature compelling her to make sure that everything was going according to plan. Still, that didn’t stop her from munching on a delicious apple crumble and humming as she walked.

Just a little ways from the center of the square, Twilight spotted her friends Rarity and Rainbow Dash sitting at an open table. The athlete idly munched on a plate of cookies while the fashionista stared intently off into the distance, a quill and blank piece of parchment in front of her.

“Hey girls, having–”

“SHH!” A sudden hiss from Rarity cut Twilight clean off.

“What’s with Rarity?” Twilight asked, leaning in closer to Rainbow Dash and whispering.

“Not sure,” the colorful flier replied in an equal hush. “Something about, ‘inspiration’. She’s been staring like that for a good twenty minutes.” Turning and following the direction of Rarity’s gaze, the sweater-vested librarian found that her friend was staring at the table where the five marshals were sitting. They were laughing uproariously, clanking tankards of cider together, and seemingly having a grand old time.

“Oh, it’s no use!” Rarity wailed as she threw down the quill in despair. “No matter how I try, I can’t! I just can’t!”

“What’s wrong, Rarity?” Twilight asked, only mildly concerned considering how often her friend flew into fits of histrionic woe.

“It’s these marshals,” Rarity glumly gestured. “You know how I’m trying to launch a new line of men’s clothing, yes? Well, I thought that these traveling soldiers would provide the perfect creative spark I needed to get going, but it’s simply not working, Twilight. Not. At. All!”

“Why, what’s wrong with them?” Twilight asked.

“Everything!” Rarity wailed. Twilight simply looked at her askance.

“Really. Everything?” the sensible girl repeated with a voice heavy with skepticism.

“But of course,” Rarity replied, oblivious to her friend’s dubious tone. “I mean, they’re simply not what I was expecting. I thought that the marshals would be more heroic. Now, I certainly wasn’t expecting them all to have Adonis-like statures, but these men are simply… uncouth.”

“Uncouth?” Twilight turned to look the marshals again. “Come on Rarity, really?” Now it was Rarity’s turn to look at her friend with incredulity.

“Twilight, of all people I expected you at least to pick up on the details.”

“Details?” the sweater-vested scholar asked with a sudden rise in curiosity. “What details?”

“Yeah, what’re you talking about?” Rainbow Dash asked, spraying the remnant crumbs of her last cookie as she spoke. Rarity took a moment to frown at the tomboy before she continued.

“The one on the left for example,” the pretty seamstress began with quill used as a pointer, “looks like he hasn’t had a decent shave in days.”

“Maybe he’s trying to grow a beard?” Twilight offered.

“Perhaps, but that doesn’t mean it should be unkempt in the meanwhile. Furthermore, the one next to him seems to have spilled food onto his cloak more than once.”

“How can you tell?” Rainbow Dash asked, her face scrunched in confusion as she stared in complete incomprehension. The fashionista just rolled her eyes.

“Please, darling, there are stains, and there are stains. And let’s not forget the gentleman on the right, who looks like he’s been enjoying himself at the dinner table a little too much of late.” A little more scrutiny from Twilight revealed that indeed, the man’s midsection was much larger than it had once been as it strained at his shirt and noticeably bulged over his belt.

“Come on, Rarity. It kind of makes sense, if you think about it. I mean, they’ve probably traveled a long time, so maybe they just didn’t have the time to take care of that stuff.”

“That may be true,” Rarity agreed, “but what about their behavior? Travel wear, I can understand, but the way they act…”

Twilight leaned over once more, narrowing her eyes in concentration. She really didn’t see what had Rarity so riled up. I mean, sure, they were getting pretty loud, but it was a party after all. Okay, so maybe a couple of them were getting fairly red in the face, but that was understandable considering the circumstances, right? People drink at parties, and some get flushed when they do. And so what if the snippets of conversation drifting over were somewhat more mature than one might expect in polite company? Not everyone has the same sense of humor… right?

“Okay, maybe they’re a little rough around the edges,” Twilight acquiesced. “But don’t you think you’re being a little hard on them? After all, it’s a party: they’re probably just relaxing after a long trip.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Rarity conceded with a sigh as she slumped to the table. “It’s just that… well… they’re marshals. I just expected something more.”

“Aw, now you’re just being silly,” the bookish girl said, giving her friend a pat on the head.

“No, I think she’s right Twi,” Rainbow Dash interjected, now sipping from a cup of cider. “I don’t really get what Rarity’s talking about, but I agree: the marshals really should be cooler.”

“Cooler?” Twilight asked, confused. “How?”

“I dunno,” the young aviator shrugged.

“Like, their clothes, or something?” Twilight continued.

“No, the clothes are fine.”

“Is it their spell guns?” she prodded once more.

“Those are fine. They should just be… cooler. Like, twenty percent cooler, or something. Maybe more.” Now both Twilight and Rarity were looking at Rainbow Dash oddly.

“How do I put this,” the colorful one frowned as she pressed knuckles to her forehead in concentration. Suddenly, her eyes lit up and she turned to her violet-haired friend. “I got it! They should be more like that guy I brought over!” Immediately, Rarity’s sapphire eyes flashed with illumination as well.

“Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

“Guy? What guy?” Twilight asked, not understanding.

“The gentleman I brought over to the library,” Rarity answered. “You know, the one I left with Spike?” Now it was Twilight’s eyes that sparkled with understanding.

“Oh, that guy,” she nodded, having finally caught up.

“Yeah, that guy was cool,” Rainbow Dash continued. “Old man cool.”

“Old man cool?” Twilight and Rarity both asked.

“Yeah,” Rainbow explained, using her hands to make odd gestures as if gesticulations could somehow help define what cool was. “It’s not a normal cool, like me. It’s more like, what old guys should be like. You know, that thousand-yard stare they get after they’ve seen it all. That kind of cool.”

“I guess I see what you’re saying,” Twilight said. Strangely enough, she sort of did. “Like a rock.”

“A rock?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Yeah, a rock. Like, nothing’s gonna move him or surprise him. He’ll just be the same no matter what happens.”

“Right!” the athletic girl exclaimed. “That’s it! I mean, he was kinda built like a rock too. I musta been going like, mach three when I crashed into him. Barely left a scratch."

“He certainly was rather impressive,” Rarity agreed. “Now there’s a man I could find inspiration out of. Broad shoulders, excellent proportions, those dusky grey eyes... Ooh, idea!” she sang, and instantly began sketching away at a furious pace.

“Yup,” Rainbow Dash nodded smugly. “Those marshal guys have their fancy clothes and those fancy spell guns, but I still think that guy was way cooler.”

“Who was he anyway?” Twilight asked. Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to answer, but suddenly stopped.

“You know, I don’t really know,” she said, sounding rather surprised. “I actually don’t think I ever got his name.”

“Me neither,” Twilight said. “He dropped off a letter, but he didn’t stick around long enough for me to ask.”

“What was in the letter?” Rainbow Dash inquired.

“That’s just it. There was nothing: it was completely blank.”

“Wait,” Rainbow Dash said as she raised her hand for pause. “You’re saying that he spent all morning running around town to deliver you a blank piece of paper?”

“It seems like it,” Twilight agreed.

“Whoa. Weird.”

“There, finished,” Rarity said, holding up a complete sketch of a man’s waist coat. “Oh, this is going to be simply magnificent.”

“Hey Rarity,” the librarian began. “Dash and I were talking about that guy, but neither of us really knows anything about him. We don’t even know his name. Did he tell you anything?” The young beauty’s eyes lost focus as she came to the same realization her friends had.

“My goodness, no,” she said, covering her mouth in mild shock. “I was so busy with his clothes that I forgot to ask.”

As the friends were about to continue discussing the mysterious traveler, a rather worn out Applejack plopped down at the table and joined them.

“Land sakes,” she said as she flopped down on the table. “I like a good nip every now 'n then, but those marshals jess got me plum tuckered out.”

“What do you mean, Applejack?” Rarity asked.

“Okay, so yeh know how we brought out the good stuff for the marshals, right?” the young cowgirl said, leaning in conspiratorially. “Granny’s got some of 'er special zap apple brandy laid away for jess such occasions. Well, not some twenty minutes later, they all but finished it, so they go and send me back to the farm for some more. When I get back, it’s all gone in ten, and they send me back for some more. Again.”

“Wow, you had to run back twice?” Rainbow Dash asked in amazement.

“Three times. Jess got back from my last trip," Applejack sighed wearily. “Don’t get me wrong, I like providin’ hospitality for our guests, but this is a little much.” Grabbing Rainbow Dash’s cup, she drained it before continuing. “Maybe if they was more like that nice feller who came by this mornin', I wouldn’t be so worn out.”

“Oh yeah,” Rainbow Dash said, perking up. “We were just talking about that guy. He went over to Rarity’s, who sent him over to Twilight’s, but none of us got his name. He tell you anything while he was at the farm?”

“Gosh, I reckon he didn’t,” Applejack murmured in wonder. “Shoot, he helped me and Apple Bloom load up all them apples, and I didn’t don’t even know his name.”

“Ooh, ooh, are we playing a guessing game?” Pinkie Pie called out as she bounded over to the table. “Lemme try, lemme try! Is it something tasty? Is it chocolate cake? Ooh, it’s chocolate cake, isn’t it?”

“Simmer down, Pinkie Pie,” the freckled blonde laughed as she stuffed a cookie in her friend’s mouth. “We was jess talkin’ about this new guy in town. It seems we all met him, but none of us know his name.”

Bhhm ggmm wuh bwnnn hoa ah hah?” Pinkie Pie said with a mouthful of cookie.

“Er, come again?” Rarity asked. After she swallowed, Pinkie Pie repeated.

“Big guy with a brown coat and hat?”

“Yeah, that’s it,” Rainbow Dash remarked, sounding quite surprised. “How’d you know?”

“He stopped in for breakfast this morning before I told him to go to your orchard to find Twilight. I like him. He ate a whole pie by himself. A whole pie! Now that takes some doing, lemme tell you, ‘cause–”

“Did he mention his name?” Twilight asked. Pursing her lips, Pinkie Pie leaned on her chin and thought. Hard.

“Gee, I guess he didn’t,” she gasped. “Golly, you’d think I’d ask the name of a guy who could eat a whole pie by himself, but I was having so much fun getting ready for the party, I totally forgot about him, which is a shame, because anybody who likes pie has to be a great guy. I guess that’s why I don’t like the marshals that much. Oh sure, they must be great and all, but I haven’t seen them eat anything yet, and if you don’t eat pie, then there must be something wrong with you…” Pinkie Pie continued, but her friends started to tune her out: you had to do that from time to time to be friends with Pinkie Pie.

“Um… excuse me girls,” Fluttershy said softly as the five girls jumped: they just realized Fluttershy had already joined them at the table. While normally quiet, the timid one became even more so in public settings, to the point where she was practically invisible in plain sight.

“What’s up, sugar cube?” Applejack asked after she got her heart rate under control.

“Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Fluttershy apologized, “but I was just wondering if the person you’re talking about was the one Rainbow Dash brought over earlier?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot about that,” Rainbow Dash said. “I took him from Applejack’s to Fluttershy’s before he went over to Rarity’s.”

“You met him too?” Pinkie Pie gasped. “Omygosh, that’s so weird!”

“Did the feller tell you anything?” Applejack asked.

“No,” the quiet girl said, sounding crestfallen. “It’s such a shame: he seemed like such a nice man, I thought he might...” but with a sudden squeak, Fluttershy trailed off.

“What’s the matter, Fluttershy?” Rarity asked, looking at her friend.“Is there something on your mind?” The timid girl looked around nervously, seemingly very conflicted about whether or not she should speak. However, seeing her friends’ looking concernedly at her motivated her to talk.

“Well, it’s just that… he seemed really nice, so… I was thinking that... maybe… he could talk to the marshals…”

“Why, what’s up with them?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“It’s nothing really,” Fluttershy insisted. “It’s just that, well… their horses still have all that heavy armor on. I know they’re strong, but it looks so hot, and I was wondering if maybe… the marshals had forgotten…” Ah, that explained the hesitation. The only thing that could equal Fluttershy’s love of animals was her desire not to hurt anybody’s feelings. “So, I was going to ask him if he might… you know… talk to them.”

The five other girls stared for a moment in quiet amazement. Fluttershy almost never asked for favors: she hated to be a bother. So the fact that she intended to ask a person she’d just met for help must mean that he was a very, very nice person. Or maybe he was just really good with animals.

“Well, it doesn’t seem like he’s around here,” Twilight said, scanning the town square. "But if that’s it, I’m sure the marshals will listen to reason. I’ll go over there and ask them right away.” With that, Twilight stood up headed towards the noisy table.

“...How did he do it?” Rainbow Dash asked in exasperation as their bookish friend left. “I mean seriously, how?”

“What’re you talking about, Dashie?” Pinkie Pie asked.

“Think about it. This guy went from Pinkie Pie’s to Applejack’s, ran into me, stopped by Fluttershy’s, paid a visit to Rarity, and then headed over to Twilight’s place, and none of us even know his name! How does that happen?!” She didn’t even notice herself steadily floating higher as her agitated tirade continued.

“Uh, maybe because none of us asked?” Applejack suggested.

“Oh. Right,” Rainbow Dash said, settling back down in her seat.

“But what if,” Pinkie Pie interjected, carrying on where Rainbow Dash had left off, “What if, he’s a spy?!” Rainbow Dash’s eyes widened into twin violet disks: she hadn’t thought of that.

“Oh please,” Rarity scoffed. “A man like him? Of course he’s not a spy.”

“Maybe he’s a really good spy. Like, a super spy!” Pinkie Pie replied.

“Yeah!” Rainbow Dash retorted as she started to float again, “I mean, the people here are like, the nicest ever. How else could he get around without getting us to ask about him?”

“Maybe, we were so caught up in different things, like getting ready for the party, that we forgot to be nice to him?” Fluttershy murmured.

Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash were about to retort, but both of them froze as they thought over what Fluttershy had just said. The eyes of all five girls widened as they realized that that may have been exactly what had happened.

“Wow,” Rainbow Dash said solemnly. “We… are terrible people.”

“And how,” Applejack agreed.

“Now now, girls,” Rarity smiled, standing up and putting away her parchment. “Just because we made a mistake doesn’t mean we have to let it continue. We’ll find this gentleman and show him a true Ponyville welcome. How about it?”

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie agreed, jumping up. “The party’s just getting started! Let’s–”

The rest of her statement was cut off as a sudden shriek came from the direction of the marshal’s table. The girl’s stared at each other in surprise, then began running towards the sound as fast as they could.

The shriek had sounded an awful lot like Twilight.

**********

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

A few minutes prior:

Though Twilight left her friends full of confidence, the feeling slowly gave way to apprehension as she approached the marshals. At first, she’d thought that Rarity was being her usual self: precise on the details, but given to being overly critical. However, now that she had a closer look at the marshals, she was afraid that Rarity may not have been critical enough.

The marshals now were nothing like how they’d appeared earlier, sitting tall on their horses in their crimson cloaks and sparkling steel. Right now, they slouched, put their feet up on the table, laughed raucously with the occasional punctuation of belching, and drank far more than she thought was appropriate. Nevertheless, she still felt that as sworn marshals and fellow citizens of Equestria, they should be willing to listen to reason.

“Um, excuse me…” she called out, her voice made softer by nerves.

“Hey, lizard boy!” one of the marshals yelled. “Where’s my refill?”

“Coming!” Spike called out, as he rushed over, carrying a tray full of precariously balanced mugs.

“Excuse me,” Twilight called out, “Mr. Marshal? Sir?”

“What do you want?” the leader of the group said in a voice that was somewhat less than welcoming. Turning to face her, Twilight couldn’t help but flinch at the way he looked now. For one, he was no longer smiling, and coupled with the bright red blotches creeping into his face and the decidedly glassy look in his eyes, it was clear that this was not a person in the soundest state of mind. Still, Twilight had a mission, and so she swallowed her apprehension and pressed on.

“Good afternoon, sirs,” she began. “My name is Twilight Sparkle, and I happened to notice that your horses still have their armor on.”

“So?” the leader asked, almost snapping at her and looking down his nose disdainfully.

“Well, it’s getting pretty warm, and I bet those horses are pretty uncomfortable with all that extra weight on. So, I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking them off?” She finished, smiling at them weakly: maybe it would help.

The leader of the group seemed to be mulling it over, his eyes going out of focus as he swirled the remaining contents of his cup. Finally, he spoke.

“Hurry up and get me a refill,” he slurred, completely ignoring her request. “And make sure it's the good stuff; I've had enough of this cheap swill to last me a lifetime.” And to Twilight's great surprise, the man threw - actually threw - his cup at her. Striking her square in the chest, the dredges of beer splashed out, stained the front of her sweater vest before the mug clattered to the floor.

Though his companions broke out into another peel of raucous laughter at the sight, Twilight was significantly less amused. Brow rising in a mix of surprise and indignation, she stared at the group in stunned disbelief. First he'd flat out ignored her request, then, he'd insulted Ponyville's generous hospitality, and now he was actually throwing things? There was rude, there was unacceptable, and then there was this.

“Sorry for the hold up,” came a small voice from behind. Looking over her shoulder, Twilight saw Spike hustling over with a large tray of drinks balanced precariously on his pointy head. "I got everything you guys asked for right here."

"Now that's more like it!" the unshaven soldier chortled as he seized up a cup and raised it to his mouth. However, just before he could start drinking, the mug vanished from his hand in a purple flash.

"Hey, what gives?" he called out, his bleary eyes staring at his empty hand in confusion.

"I think you've had enough for one day," Twilight Sparkle called out. Looking up at her, the soldier found the mug firmly gripped in her left hand and a wand even more firmly gripped in her right.

"... And just what do you think you're doing, girlie?" the leader of the group asked, his voice dropping low as a dangerous glint appeared in his eye.

"I'm..." she paused to swallow the lump in her throat, trying to hide the act by setting down the mug. "I'm just saying I think you all have had enough."

Though her words came out clearly, the young lady quivered on the inside. She'd seen that look before, in wild animals like the hydra as they contemplated whether to try and eat you, and it was not a look she relished facing yet again. But she'd also done enough reading on the subject of intoxication to know that if she didn't do something now, then these out of control soldier might start to get really out of hand. She had to do something before it came to that.

"So," the big man drawled, his tone now surprisingly level, daresay even calm. "You think we've had too much to drink and you're trying to cut us off, is that it?"

"Well... yeah," Twilight nodded, a thrill of hope rising inside as she relaxed her grip on her wand. Maybe these guys were more reasonable than she'd thought. I mean, it sounded like the leader was honestly considering what she'd said, and if he stopped, then maybe the others would-

She never even saw him move. Darting forward like a viper, the marshal's hand seized her wrist and gave it a sharp twist. Crying out in pain, Twilight dropped her wand with a clatter to the floor as the marshal pulled her close.

“Now you listen here, you little brat,” the marshal growled, noxious alcohol fumes coming out with his almost feral tone. “If I wanted your stupid opinion, I would have asked for it. I'm a goddamn marshal, and the last thing I need is some snot-nosed twerp telling me what to do." To drive the point home, he gave her wrist another slow, painful twist.

“Hey, stop that! You’re hurting her!” Spike called out, tossing the tray aside as he rushed over and grabbed onto the big man’s hand. He tried to pry the leader’s fingers off, but was shaken off as if he were a fly. Undeterred, the Salamander child jumped up and tried again, but this time, the marshal wasn’t so nice. With a look of pure disdain, he grabbed Spike by the head and forcibly shoved him away, sending him crashing into a nearby table.

“Stop it!” Twilight cried out, trying to wrench free of the vice-like grip. “You’re a marshal! Why are you doing this?”

“Why?” The big man sneered at the question. “Because I've earned it, that’s why.”

Twilight gaped, completely speechless.

“Let’s get something straight here,” the big man said, looking down at her as he wrenched her arm painfully yet again. “We marshals risk our lives every day so that you stupid civies can go about your cushy little lives. So when we show up, you all better show a little appreciation; you get us what we want, when we want it, and you show us some goddamn respect. That means keeping your trap shut and not mouthing off to your betters. Got it?” To Twilight’s horror, she realized that not only were the other marshals not doing anything to stop him, they were actually smiling in grim approval.

All off a sudden, the marshal’s beard exploded in a burst of emerald fire. Crying out in surprise, the big man let go of Twilight to frantically beat out the flames. That’s when Spike struck.

Seeing that Twilight was now free, Spike rushed from the side and jumped onto the big man’s back, latching himself onto the marshal’s head. Then, breathing in deeply, he exhaled another plume of green fire straight onto the top of his head, setting his hair ablaze as well.

“Run, Twilight!” Spike called out as he hung on for dear life, “Get out of–”

From where Twilight had fallen, she had a clear view of what happened next. Reaching back, the leader of the marshals grabbed Spike by the neck and forcibly pulled him off, oblivious to the claws raking his cheeks as the little boy resisted. Once off, the big man held Spike dangling in front and stared at the boy with murderous intent.

“That was a big mistake, lizard boy,” the marshal said as he drew back his other arm and punched Spike straight across the jaw. The little boy instantly went limp and the big man dropped him to the floor in a crumpled heap. Spike wasn't moving.

That’s when Twilight screamed.

For a moment, the people surrounding the group froze, unsure of what to do. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help; it’s that they were so shocked they didn’t know what to do. Things like this never happened in Ponyville.

The big marshal gently touched his face, his fingers coming back red where the Salamander child’s claws had drawn blood. At first, he simply stared at it, as if not sure how he should react. But the moment of indecision passed, and without a second thought, the marshal leader pulled forth his spell gun and pointed its gleaming silver barrel directly at Spike.

“Stop!” Twilight cried out, jumping in front of the barrel to cover the unconscious boy. “You can’t do this!”

“Can’t I?” the big man asked, the calm of his voice barely concealing a seething mass of fury underneath. “As a marshal, I have every right to respond to threats with deadly force. And since your friend just attacked me…”

“Please, he was just trying to help me,” Twilight pleaded, her eyes starting to well up in tears.

“Well, in that case, maybe I should start with you,” he said, switching his aim to her.

“Twilight!” Rainbow Dash called out as the five girls rushed over. Seeing Twilight crying, Spike unconscious, and a man pointing a gun at them, it took less than an instant for them to figure out that things were getting very out of hand.

“You… what did you do to them?!” Rainbow Dash shouted furiously as took a step towards the marshals. Others in the crowd joined in. They may have been startled earlier, but these were Ponyville folk: you did not just threaten friends of theirs and get away with it. The marshals, however, simply chuckled.

“That would be a bad move, girlie,” the one with the large gut said. “You ever seen what a spell gun can do?”

“I ain’t scared of you, or your pea shooter,” Rainbow Dash yelled, rune wing frame flaring to life as she rushed forwards, but Applejack grabbed her before she could take two steps.

“Whoa there, nelly,” she whispered to her struggling friend. “I know how yah feel, but rushin’ in and gettin’ yerself killed ain’t gonna help the situation.”

“Smart move, cowgirl,” the unshaven marshal cackled. “After all, only morons aren’t scared of spell guns. But since it seems like you’ve never seen one before, I’ll give you a special preview. Watch.”

Pointing his rifle at the ground, the silver weapon began to hum and glow with a faint crimson light. With almost casual ease, marshal pulled the trigger and shot forth a blazing line of fire that struck the pavement and erupted into a roaring pillar of flame twice the height of even the tallest man. Rainbow Dash and the rest of the crowds could only gape, a stunned silence washing over the town at the overwhelming display of power.

“You see?” the gaunt-faced marshal snickered, the crowds shrinking back as all four remaining marshals pointed their guns at the crowd. “We’re given the power to exterminate trouble with these guns. And since we have these,” he continued, showing his badge to the speechless crowd, “we have the right to decide what trouble is."

“Please, gentlemen, let’s be reasonable,” Rarity said as she took a small step forward, a sickly smile stretched over her face. Even now, despite the fear they all felt, she was trying to use her natural charm to diffuse the situation. “There’s no need for violence, now is there? I’m sure Spike will be more than willing to apologize after he wakes up, and after that, there will be no more trouble from any of us. How about it? I’m sure you fine marshals could show a little mercy towards a foolish little boy’s actions?”

For a moment, it seemed like the marshals were actually considering it. But all hopes for peace were dashed as the five men began to chuckle.

“Sorry, girlie,” the leader said with a smirk. “But I think this town doesn’t have enough respect for the marshals. So you all sit back while I teach this brat and her pet some manners.” Turning his back to them, he once again pointed his gun towards the pair.

“Oh don’t worry,” he sneered at Twilight, “I won’t end you right here. A little scar on that pretty face should be enough of a lesson. Now hold still,” he said, leisurely taking aim at her face. “I wouldn’t want to accidentally put an eye out, now would I?”

Twilight did her best to hide Spike behind her as she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the inevitable blow to fall. The marshal’s spell gun began humming as the same crimson glow appeared. His finger tightened on the trigger…

“RUN!”

A booming voice echoed through the crowd just before a deafening clap of thunder roared. The townspeople screamed and ran for cover, instinctively following the firm command as a brilliant flash of light lit up the inside of the pavilion. A cry of pain rang out of from the tent.

“Twilight!” the five girls called out, heads covered and huddled on the ground, unable to see or hear anything, but unwilling to run and abandon their friend.

Soon, the light receded and the thunderous did faded, and the five girls looked up anxiously to see what had happened to the sixth.

**********

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

A moment passed. Then another. In the aftermath, it took some time to realize, but Twilight found that she didn’t hurt at all. In fact, she was perfectly fine. Opening one eye ever so slowly, Twilight looked up and saw that the one crying out was in fact the leader of the marshals. Bent over and face strained, he clutched at his right hand as silvery arcs of lightning danced across the skin. A few feet away, his spell gun cracked with the same electric energy, a faint puff of smoke escaping from the barrel as the spell charged inside faded.

"WHO DID THAT!?” he roared, clutching the back of his head and turning from Twilight to stare around wildly. “WHO!? SHOW YOURSELF!” The other marshals glanced at each other, confused and rather dazed. None of them had fired at their boss – that would be stupid – but save for the five girls remaining, the town square had cleared out. So if that was the case, then who–

Another thunderclap roared and the ungroomed marshal cried as a silvery needle of lightning struck his spell gun and exploded into a blast of electric light. Three more times, the thunder tolled, and the remaining marshals quickly dropped their weapons with echoed cries of pain.

“WHO’S OUT THERE?” the leader of the marshals called out. “SHOW YOURSELF!” Searching the surrounding buildings frantically, his eyes darted to and fro, but could not locate the assailant. Spotting his gun, he reached for it – at least he would be able to defend himself – but was forced to jump back as another blast of electricity shocked the gun.

“Boss, what do we do?” the fat marshal called out. After seeing what had happened to their leader, none of them attempted to retrieve their weapons: it was simply too dangerous.

“Grrr… get to the horses!” the lead marshal called out. “We have to get out of here!” With that, the five men made a hasty scramble from the pavilion to where their horses were tied to their posts. But just as the managed to get into their saddles, another clap of thunder sounded, even louder than before, and one of their numbers dropped to the ground, completely unconscious as arcing sparks skittering over his whole body.

The marshals ran for it, kicking their steeds into a full gallop. But the unrelenting lightning continued, not nearly as fast as before, but still striking with the same pinpoint precision and even greater force than ever. The second marshal fell as he tried to wheel his horse around while the third collapsed before he’d made it ten pace. With only two left, they had almost made it out of the town square, but another lightning bolt struck the fourth marshal, leaving only their leader to gallop out of sight.

The six friends, the only ones still present in the square, could only stare in amazement. Four of the men who’d held the town hostage at gunpoint lay unconscious on the ground, unmoving save for the occasional twitch of electric shock. All this had happened, and it hadn’t even been a full minute.

It was Applejack who first shook herself out of her stunned stupor and called out.

“Twilight! You okay?” she hollered. With that call, the five girls roused themselves and rushed over to their friend who still remained seated under the tent.

“Oh my goodness, oh my goodness,” Fluttershy gasped, taking her friend's head in her hands and looking her over. “Are you okay Twilight? They didn’t hurt you did they?”

“Uh, I don’t think so...” she said, her expression still slightly dazed and confused. Suddenly, her eyes snapped back into focus, and she looked around desperately, “Spike! Where’s Spike? Is he okay?”

“Let me see,” a low, gravelly voice called out from behind. Jumping, the girls spun around and were flatly startled to see the traveler from this morning trotting over. This initial surprise, however, was soon overtaken by an even greater surprise, for the mysterious bundle he’d been carrying on his back all day was now unwrapped, its contents laid out for the world to see.

He had a spell gun.

But the one he carried was different from the models they’d seen earlier. It was at least half again as long as the others, with a long scope attached to the top and a much thicker body. Also, where the marshals’ spell guns had gleaming silver barrels, polished till they shone like mirrors, this one was a dull grey that seemed to absorb the light. Though seemingly in good repair, the traveler’s gun had many scratches, scuffs, and markings all over its well-worn surface. It was clearly a weapon that had seen extensive use.

The six girls only had a moment to notice this, however, because the traveler quickly strode past them and knelt beside Spike to take a look at the unconscious boy. Pulling up Spike’s eyelids, he checked the pupils, then took his pulse, and finally examined the side of his jaw where a large bruise was already forming. After a moment or two of consideration, he stood up, unslung his rifle, and pointed it right at Spike, the low hum of a spell charge already beginning to build.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Twilight asked in panic. “Stop!”

The gun fired, but instead of a blast of harsh white lightning or scarlet fire, a flurry of ephemeral green petals burst forth. Swirling in the air for a moment, they began to gather on the blackish-blue bruise on Spike’s face. With a faint glow, the petals sank into the skin and faded, revealing only smooth, unblemished skin underneath. Soon, the petal had all vanished, and not single part of the injury remained.

“Can’t do much first aid,” the traveler said, slinging the spell gun back on, “but he should be fine with that.”

“Oh. Thank you,” Twilight breathed, knees buckling as she collapsed onto the ground in absolute relief. First being held at gunpoint, and then seeing what she thought was Spike about to be made a good head shorter, well… it’s enough to tire out a girl.

The traveler, upon noticing this, reached into his coat and pulled out a small, tinfoil packet.

“Here, eat this,” he said, handing the packet over to Twilight. She merely gave him a quizzical look. She was grateful to him, to be sure, but at this point, she didn’t know what to expect from this definitively strange man anymore.

“It’s just chocolate,” he said, unwrapping the packet and showing her the contents. “It’ll help with the shock.”

“Oh. Thank you,” Twilight repeated as she took a bite. The sweet snack seemed to warm her up from the insides, and she quickly began demolishing the entire bar.

“Ooh, got any more?” Pinkie Pie asked, eyes wide in anticipation. The young man looked at her and, almost smiling, reached into his coat for another packet, which Pinkie Pie received most gratefully.

“So, I reckon you’re the feller who saved our bacon earlier,” Applejack said, more statement than question at this point.

“One way of putting it,” the traveler said with a shrug.

“Well, we sure are grateful,” the freckled-blonde continued, taking his hand up in a body rattling shake. “Them marshals was causin’ a heap 'o trouble, and your fancy shootin' really did the trick.”

“Yeah, too bad he didn’t get them all,” Rainbow Dash added with a slight look of disappointment.

“Rainbow, don’t be rude,” Rarity admonished. “This man just saved Twilight’s life."

“I don’t think he was gonna go that far,” Twilight said, her need for accuracy forcing her to speak up despite what she’d been through. Rarity, however, remained unperturbed.

“He threatened your good looks, darling,” the seamstress sniffed with a toss of her violet locks, “and that’s just as bad, if not worse.”

“Oh. Right.” Twilight said nothing else. After all, you just didn’t argue with Rarity logic.

“Well like I said,” Rainbow Dash continued. “We appreciate it and all, but what do we do about the one that got away?”

The traveler just looked at her.

“Who says he got away?”

...

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash replied dumbly.

“Where’s the tallest building in town?” the young man asked, already scanning the skyline for the answer.

“Um, I guess that’d be the town hall, over there,” Rainbow Dash said, pointing over his shoulder. “But why do you –” the rest of her question was cut off as the traveler took off run, his long strides eating up the distance as he headed straight for the aforementioned building. The six friends looked at each other in puzzlement.

“What do you think he’s doing?” Fluttershy asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” Applejack replied, “but whatever it is, I reckon it’s somethin' worth seein'.” And with that, the six friends took off after him, Twilight carrying Spike on her back, who now seemed more like he was asleep than unconscious. It was probably the snoring that gave it away.

When they reached the inside of the town hall, the traveler was already halfway up the stairs to the upper gallery. Setting Spike in a corner to curl up and finish his nap, they chased him up, finally arriving at the top floor where he stood on the open veranda. From here, they had a clear view of the entire town and its surrounding countryside.

“What… are you… doing… up here?” Twilight gasped, the run up the long flight of stairs winding her. She was a scholar, for goodness sake, not a track star. The traveler merely pointed out towards the horizon, where a tiny speck was almost out of sight.

“What's that you’re looking at?” Pinkie Pie asked as she bounced over to the railing. “Ooh, ooh, let me guess! Is it… a raisin? No, raisins don’t move. A bug? It’s a bug isn’t it? A squishy little bug!”

“Is that…” Rarity began, squinting her eyes to see better. “Good heavens, is that the marshal that got away?” The traveler just nodded as he began adjusting his spell gun.

“Sir, I don’t mean to be rude,” she continued, “but do you mean to fire it at a man riding at full speed from this distance?”

“That’s the plan,” he said, giving the scope on top a slight twist.

“Hey man, about what I said earlier,” Rainbow Dash began, “I didn’t really mean what I said, you know? It’s not like you have to go and prove anything. Really.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not,” he said, hefting the gun to check it’s balance as the familiar hum of a spell charging began to grow in volume.

“But what can you do from here?” Twilight asked, eyes toward the horizon. “He’s almost out of sight. I mean, really. At this distance, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll miss.”

The traveler glanced down at her, a mild look of surprise on his otherwise impassive face. And then, for the first time any of the girls had yet seen, he smiled.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a smile. It was more of a grin, one of those sort of goofy, cocky and cock-sure, full-of-confidence smirks men his age seemed to specialize in. It lit up his whole face, and for moment, the disconnected emptiness around his eyes faded.

“Me? Miss?” he asked, giving his hat a little flick. “ Not by a long shot.”

With one swift motion, the traveler raised his rifle and pointed it out at the horizon. He stood perfectly still, the light of the afternoon sun reflecting off his grey eyes like silver disks. And as he stood, his back straight, his arm steady, and his face set with cool, unwavering determination… in that moment, the same thought ran through the minds of all six girls: this is what a hero looks like.

He fired.

A furious clap of thunder roared as a brilliant lance of crackling white light erupted from the gun’s barrel with an intense blast of wind. The girls cried out in surprise as the byproduct of the spell buffeted them. And though the traveler's coat whipped around him in a raging frenzy, he himself remained perfectly still, firm and unyielding as he calmly watched the arcane bolt fly forth.

Far faster than any arrow, the lance of energy flew across the countryside, drawing rapidly closer to the tiny moving dot. The six girls crowded at the railing, eyes straining to see the result of the traveler’s shot. The bolt drew closer and closer until… There was a bright flash of light, as if a star had suddenly been born on the horizon.

As the light faded, the six girls continued watching. Waiting. And suddenly, their eyes grew as they saw two specks in the distance. One continued moving at the pace of a galloping horse. The other was completely still.

“WHOOPEE!!!!” Pinkie Pie screeched as she began bouncing around in excitement. “THAT WAS TOTALLY THE MOST AWESOMELY AMAZINGLY STUPENDOUS THING I’VE EVER SEEN!”

“Omygoshomygoshomygoshomygosh!” Rainbow Dash repeated over and over, her hands pressed to her cheeks in amazement. “That was so… COOL! Oh my gosh, you are like the coolest person of like, all time ever!”

“Told you I don’t miss,” he said, pulling his hat over his eyes as he turned his back to them. Rarity and Fluttershy leaned curiously forward to examine him a little more closely. If they didn’t know any better, they could have sworn that he was… blushing.

“Hey Twilight? Why’s your pocket there all glowy 'n stuff?” Applejack asked, pointing to her friend’s hip. Reaching inside, the scholar girl found that the blank letter she’d received earlier was emitting a soft purple light. Unfolding it, she was quite surprised to see that elegant flowing text was scrolling across the page.

“Oh, a Conditional Event Charm, of course!” Twilight said, eyes lighting up as she finally understood the nature of the message. “It’s all so simple!”

“Well, that’s nice and all,” Applejack commented, “but what does it say?”

“Oh, right.” Twilight angled the paper so that both of them could read it together.

“Now hold on just a minute there,” Applejack said after both of them had read the letter. Twice in fact, to make sure they hadn’t gotten it wrong.

“Trusted agent…” Twilight thought.

“Awful brown coat…” Applejack continued.

“You don’t think…” The two girls turned, eyes wide, to where Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were busily flitting and bouncing around the traveler. And together, the two letter holders said at once, in perfect surround sound stereo,

You’re a marshal?!

Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash crashed to the ground as the four girls stared at the ones holding the letter, then back to the traveler.

Whaaaaa?!” Rarity gasped, a rare moment of uncivilized behavior appearing with her surprise.

The young man paused, as if trying to find a way to slink out of sight and avoid having to answer. But the way the six girls were looking at him pretty much made it clear that that wasn’t happening. So with a sigh, he pulled open the right side of his coat to reveal a silver badge pinned inside. Like his spell gun, it was not nearly so shiny as the others and had clearly seen better days, but the winged shield still stood proudly on its scratched, worn surface.

“Well land sakes,” Applejack breathed, “I reckon he really is a marshal.”

“Oh my gosh!” Rainbow Dash squealed, “That makes you like, fifty times cooler than before!” With that, she and Pinkie Pie began bouncing around in uncontrollable excitement again. The others just ignored them.

“How’d you know?” the traveler asked. Twilight handed him the letter so he could see for himself. This is what he read:

My dearest and most faithful student,

If you’re reading this letter now, then it means events have transpired as I’d expected. Recently, I’ve received reports that a group of my marshals have been abusing the authority of their post to terrorize the citizens. While it pains me to admit it, not even the royal marshals are completely free of corruption.

In order to correct this, I’ve sent one of my most trusted agents to you in order to catch them in the act. With this spell activated, it means that my agent has successfully dealt with the corrupt marshals and all is well.

That being said, I should tell you that the reports of wild animals running rampant close to Ponyville are completely true. This is why I also decree that my agent will remain in Ponyville until the threat is cleared and the town’s safety is assured. (If you’re not sure who he is, just find the quietest person you don’t know yet and ask to see his badge). I hope that you’ll welcome him warmly and treat him with extra kindness: he’s not very good at making friends.

Signed,

Princess Celestia of Equestria

P.S. Oh, and please ask Rarity to replace that awful brown coat of his: it’s about time that boy updated his wardrobe.

After he finished reading, the traveler stood in silence, clearly thinking over the things he’d just seen. The girls looked on, curious about how he’d react. He finally spoke.

“… There’s nothing wrong with my coat,” he mumbled sullenly. At this, Rainbow Dash literally crashed to the ground, clutching her sides in uncontrollable laughter.

“Well, you certainly could do better for yourself,” Rarity added, eyeing the coat very appraisingly. “Might I suggest a –”

“Not now Rarity,” Applejack interjected. “We got more important business to take care of.”

“Right,” Twilight agreed over her fashionable friend's indignation. “Like for starters, why didn’t you tell us you were a marshal in the first place?” The young man looked from one to the other before pulling his hat low over his eyes.

“I… don’t like announcing that,” he said simply.

“Why not?” Twilight continued, her curiosity fully aroused now.

“Always leads to disappointment,” the traveler shrugged.

“Disappointment? Fluttershy asked in surprise. “But how?” Looking back and forth at the girls, it was clear to the traveler that he wasn’t getting away till they had all their questions answered. So with a long sigh, he began to explain.

“People expect a lot from marshals. They’re supposed to be helpful, kind, cool, and heroic.” He gave Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash and Rarity each a look in turn. “And while not all of us are as bad as those down there,” he continued, flicking a thumb at the still unconscious villains, “people like me don’t live up to half those expectations. So, I figured it’s better to just finish a job and move on.” Once finished, the young man folded his arms and leaned against the wall, clearly done sharing on the topic.

The six girls looked at each other, then back at him.

“So, what you’re saying,” Twilight began a subtle smile coming on, “is that a marshal is supposed to be a lot of things...”

“… like really helpful when there’s folks in need…” Applejack suggested as she recalled the way he’d lent a hand down at the farm.

“… and really nice and not scary at all…” Fluttershy whispered, thinking how quickly both Angel Bunny and herself had gotten to liking him.

“… and wickedly awesome slash totally cool…” Rainbow Dash grinned as she remembered the way he’d made his last shot against incredible odds.

“… and, of course, heroic in every sense of the word,” Rarity smiled, eyeing the way how even now, just standing there with his arms crossed, the traveler exuded the same strength and reliability he’d shown them all earlier.

“And totally fun, too!” Pinkie Pie giggled. The other girls just stared in confusion. “What? He ate a whole pie! A whole pie! That’s amazing!”

“So in other words,” Twilight continued, “those are all the things a marshal should be, and you don’t think you live up to those expectations.”

“Pretty much,” he said levelly. And yet, despite the composure of his voice and hat obscuring his face, the six girls could clearly see a flush of embarrassment tinting the traveler’s cheeks.

It was simply too much. The girls couldn’t hold it in anymore and burst out into fits of laughter that so startled the traveler, he actually jumped away from the wall.

“Anything, you’d care to share?” he asked, eyeing them suspiciously. Maybe he was paranoid, but he had the distinct feeling they were laughing at him.

“No, it’s nothing,” Twilight said, wiping away a tear.

“Yeah,” Applejack continued, trying to suppress another chortle. “We were jess thinkin' that since the Princess told you to stay with us, we might as well take you in.”

“Despite you being such a big… disappointment,” Rainbow Dash snorted, bursting out into a fresh peals of laughter as she did.

“I... see,” the traveler answered dubiously. He really didn’t but what else could he say?

“Well, now that we’ve gotten that taken care of,” Rarity said as the first to finish laughing, though the hint of a smile still tugged at the corner of her lips, “there is one last thing we would like to ask you.”

“Oh?” the traveler said, raising an eyebrow out of curiosity, “What’s that?”

“What’s yer name, silly?” Applejack said, giving him an exasperated smile.

“Yeah!” Pinkie Pie beamed. “If we’re gonna be friends from now on, we gotta know what to call you. I mean, it’d be pretty lame if we went around calling you 'mister' all the time, right?”

“I guess it would,” he replied, the faint traces of a smile now playing across his face as well.

“So anyway, what’s your name?” Rainbow Dash asked as all six looked on expectantly.

“Graves,” he said with a small tip of his hat. “Pleasure to meet you all.” The six friends glanced at each other and smiled. Graves. It fit.

“Well, Mr. Graves,” Twilight grinned, “I’m Twilight Sparkle. These are my friends Applejack, Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Fluttershy, and Rainbow Dash. Welcome to Ponyville.”

**********

To Be Continued

The Journey of Graves will continue with the second story: So...What Happens Next?

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    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    12 Chapters, 38,713 words: Estimated 2 Hours, 35 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jul 24th, 2012
    Last Update Oct 20th, 2012
  8. Happily Ever After

    by GentlemanJ
    25 Dislikes, 11,129 Views

    One day, even the hardest of soldiers hangs up his gun to find a chance at happiness.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Slice of Life

    9 Chapters, 23,040 words: Estimated 1 Hour, 33 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Oct 27th, 2012
    Last Update Dec 16th, 2012
  9. A Long, Winding Road

    by GentlemanJ
    24 Dislikes, 7,467 Views

    The marshal's gone, cutting all ties and making clear his intent never to return. Why? What compels the grey eyed soldier to leave? To find the truth, Rarity and the girls start down a long, winding road that will hopefully bring him back. Hopef

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Romance

    16 Chapters, 60,772 words: Estimated 4 Hours, 4 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Mar 2nd, 2013
    Last Update Jun 9th, 2013
  10. There's a Reason They Call it a Crush

    by GentlemanJ
    22 Dislikes, 7,076 Views

    Spike is definitely looking forward to the Ponyville girls coming home. Only... what's he to do when the object of his deepest affections turns out to be taken?

    Teen
    Complete
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    3 Chapters, 9,720 words: Estimated 39 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jul 21st, 2013
    Last Update Aug 5th, 2013
  11. Dating is Hard

    by GentlemanJ
    17 Dislikes, 5,612 Views

    A short story in the Journey of Graves. Join our favorite grey eyed soldier as he navigates the new and treacherous minefield known as dating.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    3 Chapters, 6,744 words: Estimated 27 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Aug 22nd, 2013
  12. Nightmare Night 2: Halloweening Harder

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 6,281 Views

    Nightmare Night is back once more, which means a night chock full of hilarity, hi-jinks, and near apocalyptic obliteration. Need I say more?

    Teen
    Complete
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 3,201 words: Estimated 13 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Sep 14th, 2013
  13. Casino Battle Royale

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 6,251 Views

    In which a night of glitz and glamour becomes a bit more interesting for a couple of Equestria's finest.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Romance
    Comedy

    1 Chapter, 4,459 words: Estimated 18 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Oct 6th, 2013
  14. The Ugly Side of Right

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 3,771 Views

    Though the world sees the Equestrian Royal marshals as a band of heroes, Graves goes on a new mission that shows just how ugly doing right can be.

    Mature
    Complete
    Adventure
    Dark

    1 Chapter, 7,648 words: Estimated 31 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Nov 3rd, 2013
  15. Be a Man

    by GentlemanJ
    24 Dislikes, 6,789 Views

    With his crush on Rarity going the way of the dodo, Spike begins to wonder just what it means to be a man.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 5,140 words: Estimated 21 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Dec 1st, 2013
  16. Delivery Directive: Do NOT Be Late

    by GentlemanJ
    7 Dislikes, 7,005 Views

    Marshal Graves has simple orders: take the package and deliver it on time. Of course, simple orders never mean a simple time.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure

    1 Chapter, 6,755 words: Estimated 28 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Dec 24th, 2013
  17. Winter Wonders, Winter Worries

    by GentlemanJ
    16 Dislikes, 5,160 Views

    Winter's a wonderful time full of fun and festive frolicking. Just be sure not to catch the sniffles.

    Teen
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    1 Chapter, 2,901 words: Estimated 12 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Jan 19th, 2014
  18. Marshals: The Next Generation

    by GentlemanJ
    13 Dislikes, 5,234 Views

    Four of Equestria's finest military cadets seek entry into the elite branch of the marshal. However, in order to qualify, they have to pass the test of none other than Gunmetal Graves himself.

    Teen
    Complete
    Adventure
    Comedy

    4 Chapters, 12,221 words: Estimated 49 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Feb 23rd, 2014
    Last Update Mar 16th, 2014
  19. Marshmallows and Cotton Candy

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 5,005 Views

    A collection of fluffy tales around Graves and the best sisters in Ponyville. We start with Sweetie Belle doing business. Serious business.

    Everyone
    Complete
    Romance
    Comedy
    Slice of Life

    6 Chapters, 12,102 words: Estimated 49 Minutes to read: Cached
    Published Apr 13th, 2014
    Last Update Jun 15th, 2014
  20. Old Flames and New Sparks

    by GentlemanJ
    15 Dislikes, 4,071 Views

    When a piece of the marshal's colorful past comes back to town, Rarity starts to wonder whether some things just weren't meant to be.

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