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Look, I Can Explain... · FiM Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
The Instruments of Our Surrender
The lucky ponies fled from Dodge City.

It was too dark to run, but they had little choice at this point. Their hooves banged against rocks protruding from the dirt, or caught on shallow divots and sent them tumbling. Each time – cut and bruised and scraped, their lungs already burning and coats slathered with froth – they stood and ran again.

Briar Thatch felt Dandi stumble beside him, and he stopped to pull her up. They paused amidst the stream of refugees, holding each other long enough to get their bearings, and he buried his muzzle in her saffron mane. He caught the stench of dirt and sweat and blood, but underneath it all, unmistakable and soothing, was a gentle floral scent tinged with the faint dander of feathers. It was the last thing he knew at night, and the first sense to greet him in the morning, suffusing their sheets and pillows.

“Are you alright?” He had to shout into her ear to be heard over the din.

“Twisted my hoof,” Dandi said. She held her left foreleg above the ground, and when she set it down he felt her flinch. “It’s not broken. I’ll be fine.”

He wanted to stop, at least long enough to splint it or wrap some cloth around the swelling joint, but that would require time they didn’t have. Already the herd was beginning to thin as the greater mass of ponies pulled away. Now they were with the stragglers, families carrying foals, the elderly, or those limping from some previous hurt.

A chestnut stallion passed them by, his chest heaving like a bellows. He carried on his back an insensate mare, limp as a rag doll. Whatever color her coat had once been was now lost in the dust and darkness and the terrible, sickly pallor that marked the consumed. Her eye cracked open, and for a moment Briar saw a clouded pupil, pale as a cataract, gazing at him with hopeless indifference.

Fear squeezed his throat shut, and Dandi shuddered. Neither spoke until the stallion had passed into the gloom ahead of them.

“Come on,” Dandi finally said. “We need to keep moving.”

Briar nodded. Soon even the faint glow of the twilight would be gone, and they’d be running in the dark. The further they were from Dodge City when full night arrived, the better. They started down the road again, slowly at first, but with each step Dandi’s gait grew smoother, and soon they passed the chestnut stallion and his burden. They both looked away.

Another hundred yards, and Dandi came to a shambling stop. She spun in a circle, left foreleg held tenderly above the ground, her head darting to and fro. Her breath came in quick gasps.

He was at her side in an instant. “What’s wrong?”

“My music box!” She pawed at her saddlebags – the flap on one was loose, the canvas thongs that should have held it shut were torn away, leaving only strings that danced in the breeze. “It’s gone!”

Briar turned toward Dodge City. Although miles away, he could still make out the blocky shapes of its roofs silhouetted against the sky. It was to the east, and in twilight it should have already been shrouded in darkness.

It was not. The fires were the brightest light in the sky.

Towers of smoke rose from the dying town. Their bulbous undersides glowed orange, lit from beneath by burning homes. Cinders danced around and through the dark columns, rising into the night to take their place amongst the dim occluded stars. The sound of cracking timbers and the roar of fire were just barely audible at this distance. It was mesmerizing in its own grim way, like staring into a bonfire or watching a storm gather on the horizon, or standing beside a set of tracks while a train thundered by. He could watch it for hours, and slowly forget that his own home was among those fueling the flames.

Something huge moved amidst the ruins. Even through the distance he could clearly see the monster’s hulking form – a horse’s body, but perched atop it were the arms and torso of a minotaur and the head of a bull. A centaur, with horns that rose like spires from its brow. It was taller than the town’s highest weathervanes, and it moved through the flames like they were nothing more than a gentle breeze.

The centaur turned, and a spark brighter than the sun built between its horns. It grew into a fireball, surrounded by tongues of flame that licked jealously at the centaur’s mane. Again it grew, and again, until Briar could see nothing else behind the searing light, and then it erupted. A lash of fire, like the sun’s own spear, leapt forward and washed across the town. The glow slowly faded, and when the swirling blue afterimages cleared from Briar’s eyes, he saw that another full street was lost in the conflagration.

Seconds later the thunder arrived. It rolled through them, shaking Briar’s chest and leaving his knees weak.

“I think I see it,” Dandi said. Briar followed her gaze to a small dark shape on the road behind them. It was about the right size for a music box. She took a trembling step back toward the town.

Briar caught her tail with his teeth. She stopped without protest, and after a drawn-out silence, she turned away and trotted past him. He gave the music box a final glance, then turned to follow her into the night.

Briar Thatch was on his way home from elementary classes when he heard a filly crying.

He stopped in the middle of the dirt road leading back to Dodge City. The schoolhouse was nearly a mile from the edge of town, and it occupied an old refurbished barn willed to the city by a farmer after his passing. On any given day, two dozen foals of all ages sat in desks for lessons and chased each other around the cavernous space during breaks, or roamed the endless, rolling hills that surrounded the school in all directions.

He spun in a circle, ears straining to hear. Nothing. He spun again, and again, until finally he felt dizzy and had to stop. Only silence, and the faint rustle of the wind blowing through the tall honeysuckle bushes lining the road. Bees and wasps and flies buzzed around the bright little flowers.

Nothing, then. Probably. He snorted away a fly that tried to land on his muzzle and resumed his trot down the road.

After just a few steps the sound came again. A weak, stifled sob. Muffled, as though the filly it belong to was jealous of her tears and afraid to let them escape. He could imagine a set of tiny hooves pressed against tightly clenched eyes, trying to stopper up the flow.

“Hello?” he called. “Who’s there? Are you hurt?”

Silence again. In his mind’s eye, he saw those same little hooves now clenched over a tiny muzzle, holding it shut.

“I know you’re here!” He trotted over to the edge of the road and lowered his head, trying to peer between the woody stems. The green thicket blocked his vision after just a few inches, and he snorted in annoyance. At the height of summer, the honeysuckle grew like weeds, drinking the sun and exploding all over the fields and woods unless it was trimmed back.

He squinted at the bees buzzing between the flowers, then carefully stuck his head through the dense curtain of leaves. Twigs caught on his mane and tickled his ears, but soon enough he had a hole large enough for the rest of his body to squeeze through.

The thicket was like a forest in miniature, with thread-thin vines and shrubs climbing over each other and the ash saplings in a headlong rush toward the sun. It was a tight squeeze, and if he’d been even a few years older he wouldn’t have fit, but after a few seconds of kicking and grunt and tugging his mane free of clinging tendrils, he found himself in a small open pocket in the weeds.

Something long and green and yellow twitched just feet away, and before he could even turn to see what it was his hindbrain shrieked SNAKE! at the top of its imaginary lungs, and he let out a very real shriek and tried to jump away. The honeysuckle caught him, wrapping him up in clingers and vines, and he screamed again as he tricked to kick his way free. After a few fruitless moments he recovered his wits and froze.

A few feet away, a small green pegasus filly stared at him with wide, red-rimmed eyes. Her tail, a slender braid of green and golden hairs that looked nothing like a snake upon further inspection, twitched to flick away the flies that buzzed around them.

“Uh, hey,” he said. He managed to stand after a few attempts, tearing through the thin stems that wrapped around his hooves. “Sorry, you startled me.”

The filly gathered her legs beneath her. Her muscles twitched, and her eyes darted about. She was about to flee, he realized.

“Wait!” he shouted, and her ears flattened at the sudden sound. “Sorry. I heard you crying, and, uh, are you okay?”

For a moment there was no answer – she simply stared at him, as though amazed that another pony had plunged into the weeds in search of her. But then her eyes began to water, and the trail of tears down her muzzle resumed. She turned away and sobbed.

Briar Thatch was an only foal, and his only experience with other crying foals involved the teacher or a parent rushing over to bandage their scrapes or console them over a broken toy. Nothing had prepared him to deal with a sobbing filly in a weedy thicket on a lonely, dusty road with no adults in sight.

So, he did his best. He stepped over, carefully, and laid a hoof over her shoulders just above her wings. “Hey, uh, it’s okay. Are you hurt?”

She shook her head.

“Then, um... what’s wrong?”

Her sobs, already quiet, slowly faded away. She sniffled once or twice, and when she spoke it was with a halting voice, broken in half by a hiccup. “They t-took my box.”

Briar frowned. “Who did? What box?”

“T-two big colts. They caught me in the road and p-pushed me and pulled my mane and then they t-took my, my…” The next word sounded like it might have been ‘box,’ but it was eaten up with a sob and soon the filly was crying again.

Briar didn’t need to hear any more. He already knew which colts she was talking about – Hognose and Moccasin, two giant earth ponies who, having been blessed with enormous bodies, proceeded to do nothing else with their young lives until, one day in their teens, they realized they had no skills, no smarts and no friends, only victims and sycophants and toadies. Rather than take on an apprenticeship and try to learn a decent trade, they haunted the same grounds they had trod as foals, content to terrorize and bully fillies and colts because it was the only thing they knew how to do. It wouldn’t last forever – Dodge City was known for its hooves-off approach when it came to the choices individual ponies made, but the town would only tolerate thuggish behavior for so long. Once they crossed the invisible line that separated teens from young adults, the town would come down on them hard, and they’d have to find some way to usefully contribute to frontier life, or get run out of town.

But until that day came, Hognose and Moccasin were free to exercise the worst demons of their natures. Briar had been on the receiving end of their hooves more than once, and while they were careful never to truly injure their victims, they had no qualms about bruises or scrapes or bloody noses.

On any other day, the sight of those two, or the mere mention of their name, would have instilled a sense of dread in Briar’s heart. His belly would feel watery and his tail would press down between his legs, and his ears would fold back so hard they buried themselves in his scraggly brown mane. Then he would freeze, huddling with the other foals until they passed out of sight. Or, worst of all, when Hognose and Moccasin found some other filly or colt to abuse, because that meant he was safe, and the relief he always felt was tinged with a horrible guilt that crawled up the back of his neck like hot oil, burning wherever it touched. But relief nevertheless.

And now he felt those same things – not the relief, but the dread and the fear. They were probably still around, and he was alone except for this tiny little filly who could never fight back, and as soon as they stepped out of this thicket they might be set upon, and it would be his turn next.

But today he felt something else, too. Perhaps it was the sound of the filly’s cries, or the way she suddenly turned and clenched her forelegs around his barrel in a tight hug. His body shook with each of her sobs.

Anger. This was anger, a red-hot coal that simmered in his heart. He realized he was trembling.

He stood. “Where are they?”

She stared up at him with red eyes. “What?”

“The colts. Where’d they go?”

She pointed through the thicket. Toward town.

“Alright.” He started pushing his way through the stems again, opening a hole back to the road. “Come on.”

Briar could have guessed where they would be – the Rose Ranch, an abandoned, fallow tract of land just outside town that had belonged to an enterprising young mare who fell in love with a unicorn from Fillydelphia and left with him one day for the city. With no local family to take over the ranch, it slowly grew wild, until the acres of roses grew with abandon. They consumed the trellises and fences, and as the years passed they even overgrew the farmhouse itself. In the spring and summer the whole ranch was a boisterous mix of every color of rose – red and pink and yellow and white and even rare blue blossoms that daring colts snuck in to filch for their fillyfriends.

Few adults ventured onto the ranch property. The roses grew in tight, thorny bunches that scratched at coats and caught on manes, and with no legitimate business to be had, the ranch became a sort of recess-ground for the town’s children.

Hognose and Moccasin were lounging on shaded porch. They blended well with the shadows, especially Hognose’s dark olive coat. Moccasin was a sandy, hulking form beside him, and they hunched over something on the planks between them, so intent they didn’t notice Briar approaching.

All the way to the ranch, he had fed the little coal in his heart to keep it burning. Memories of every time Hognose had cracked some poor colt over the head with his hoof, or the way Moccasin bit foals’ manes and shook them until they cried. He fed these memories to the little fire in his heart – every push, every kick, every stolen bit of lunch or broken toy.

But most of all, freshest of all, he remembered the little green filly’s cries. She was still with him, trailing a few steps behind, and her pace slowed as they approached the porch. Briar felt the faint breeze stirred by her wings as she flexed them in fear.

The bullies still hadn’t noticed them. Briar scowled. “Hey!”

They looked up from their toy, puzzlement written on their faces. Hognose recovered first and stood with an easy, fluid motion that belied his incredible size. “What do you want, runt?”

Briar hopped up the steps onto the porch, stopping a few steps away. Hognose was easily a full head taller, and probably weighed more than Briar and the filly put together. For a moment the angry coal in his heart faltered as the old familiar dread welled up inside him.

A little green filly, hiding in a bush, trying to cry quietly. The memory, still so fresh, fed the fire like kerosene. Anger built into rage, and his voice shook.

“Give it back.”

“What, this?” Hognose snorted and kicked at the little wood cube beside him. It fell onto its side, and the top sprang open, revealing a complex arrangement of metal wheels and gears and spindles. They turned slowly as some internal spring, dislodged into action, gave up a bit more of its power, and a single quiet note emerged from the box before falling silent again.

Moccasin laughed. It was a slow, stupid sound – laugher founded on incomprehension. “Make us, runt.”

“P-please,” the filly behind him said. At some point she had stepped up beside him onto the porch, and the three colts turned to her in surprise. “I just want my box back.”

Hognose tilted his head, and a smile slowly twisted his lips. “Well, look who it is. Listen, little filly, I know you’re new around here, but if you want this box back you’re gonna have to give us—”

What, exactly, the filly would have to give, they never learned. Briar stepped forward, drew back his hoof, and clocked Hognose right in the center of his smug, lying muzzle.

It had been years, at least, since anypony dared raise a hoof against either of the bullies. Certainly it was long enough that Hognose had forgotten what a punch felt like for the pony receiving it. A loud crunch filled the porch, followed by a howl as Hognose fell to his haunches, then tipped onto his side, his hooves pressed against his nose. Drops of blood splattered onto the sunburnt planks, painting little dark flowers on the wood.

Briar froze, staring at the downed colt. He hadn’t meant to punch him; he hadn’t even meant to move. The angry coal burning in his heart extinguished in a flash.

Moccasin stood. He loomed over them, but his gaze darted between his fallen friend and the two foals who had challenged them, as if unsure what to do. Finally, realizing there was a fight and he was supposed to do something about it, he took a lumbering step toward Briar.

There was a greenish flash, and the filly was between them. Her wings filled the air with a shimmering dazzle, and she snatched up the little music box in her hooves.

“Run!” she cried, before bounding off the porch. She moved like the wind.

Moccasin blinked at the space where the music box had been, then turned back to Briar, he lifted a hoof and started forward again.

That was all Briar needed. He turned and fled as fast as his little hooves could carry him, which was quite fast. A few yards ahead, the little filly paused between two giant rose bushes, and when she saw him following, she darted into the dark space.

There was just enough room for Briar to follow. Thorns scratched at his coat, but he was still small and slender enough to thread between them. A few feet away, he heard Moccasin’s thudding hoofsteps come to a halt outside the thicket. There was no way a pony his size could squeeze through, not without offering half his skin and blood to the roses in payment.

After a few more yards of crawling between the stems, they found a wide shaded space. Above, the crumbling remains of a trellis suspended a huge mass of climbing roses that blocked out enough of the sun to kill the groundcover. It was like a little leafy fort surrounded by flowers.

The filly sat on her haunches. Her breath came in gasps, but her eyes were wide and for the first time, she had a smile on her face. She hugged the little box against her chest.

Briar panted as well. The hoof he had used to punch Hognose throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and he knew the ankle would be swollen in the morning. But for now the elation of victory and relief at escape overwhelmed those little pains. He realized he was giggling.

“Are you, ah…” He paused to catch his breath. “Are you okay?”

She nodded quickly. “I am now. That was amazing! You just…” She waved her hoof in a vague approximation of a punch. “And he fell down!”

“Yeah, well, bullies aren’t so tough. But, uh, we should be careful around them for a bit.” Or, possibly for a while. Or forever. “Anyway, what’s your name?”

“Dandelion,” she said. “Or just Dandi. My sister and I moved here last week.”

That explained why he’d never seen her before. There were few pegasi in Dodge City. “Cool. I’m Briar Thatch.”

“Thatch? You mean, Briar Patch?”

“No, Thatch.” He shook his head, setting his scraggly mane shaking. “My mom and dad say it’s a joke about my mane.”

“Oh.” She stared at his mane in thought. “I don’t get it.”

“Yeah, me neither. So, what now?”

“Maybe we should stay here a bit, until…” She trailed off, and he realized she was staring at his flanks. “Er, is that new?”

He followed her gaze. There, emblazoned on his coat in bright silver that still glowed around the edges, was the image of a silver heater shield superimposed with a tiny pebble, about the right size and shape for a sling. He didn’t realize he was staring, or for how long, until he felt the breeze from Dandelion’s fluttering wings. She was just inches away, staring as intently as he.

A laugh bubbled up his throat. He tried to squeeze it back down, but it was irrepressible. After a moment, Dandelion caught it as well, and they both giggled until they ran out of breath.

“Yeah.” He wiped his aching hoof across his muzzle, brushing away tears. “Yeah, I guess it is.”

The refugees fled until the fires of Dodge City were a distant memory, and true darkness once again ruled the night sky. A full moon, high and solitary and distant, filled the world with cold silver light and sharp shadows.

Briar could have kept running, and of course Dandi could fly regardless of her injured ankle, but by unspoken consensus the herd came to a stop at the border of the Red Maple Woods. This far into the grasslands, the woods were still a small, sporadic thing, more collections of trees broken by wide meadows than anything like a forest, but the tall straight trunks and wide canopies offered shade during the day and cover by night. For the fleeing ponies, they were a thin blanket of security, all but imaginary. But still families huddled beneath them.

Dry grass scratched at Briar’s belly as he lay beneath a tree. He heard a flutter, and Dandi landed beside him. In the silver light of the moon her coat and mane appeared black and white, respectively, but the flowery scent of her namesake was unmistakable. He could be blind and still find her.

“How’s your ankle?” he whispered. There was no need to be quiet, and the darkness was broken anyway by dozens of crying foals, but he didn’t care for other ponies to overhear this conversation.

“Fine, as long as I don’t walk on it,” she replied. She ruffled her wings and extended one over his back like a blanket. Despite summer heat, he welcomed its fuzzy warmth.

“Okay.” He let out a long, slow breath. And then another. “We should make it to Junction City sometime tomorrow. We can find a doctor to… what’s wrong?”

At some point while he spoke, Dandi turned away. She buried her muzzle between her crossed forelegs and scrunched her eyes shut.

Finally, she spoke. “What if we’re too late? What if he’s already been there?”

He. Even that oblique reference to Tirek was enough to send a sudden chill down Briar’s spine, and he was grateful for Dandi’s wing on his back.

She must have noticed. “Sorry, I just—”

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “We… It doesn’t matter if he’s been there or not, we still have to head that direction. Once the princesses find out about this, they’ll come and stop him. I don’t care how strong he is, nothing can defeat them.”

Dandi swallowed soundlessly, and her eyes flicked back to the road, down the path leading to Dodge City. For a moment Briar remembered the distant sight of Tirek’s laughing face illuminated by the fire held between his horns.

The princesses can beat them. The princesses beat Discord and Chrysalis and Nightmare Moon and Sombra. They beat Tirek once. They can do it again. They can—

A faint rustle drew him back into the moment, and he saw Dandi fishing a canteen out of her saddlebag. She took a swig and offered it to him.

“Thanks.” The water within was stale and warm and tasted of metal, but he chugged it down without complaint. Part of him wanted to drink the rest, but the canteen was only half full, and they still had a long run to Junction City tomorrow.

She took it back without a word, and then she stood, her long primaries tracing up his spine before flicking his ear. He raised an eyebrow but remained silent as she stepped away, walking over to a pair of young mares huddled over the prone form of a stallion. He was coughing, and now that Briar looked closely, he could see the washed out color of his coat, the listless way his ears hung like limp flags, but most of all the empty, cloudy fog in his eyes. A wave of nausea rolled up his throat at the sight.

The consumed. Their magic, their energy, their cutie marks, possibly even their souls, devoured by the demon Tirek. Briar shivered. Better to die than that – at least then he wouldn’t be a burden on Dandi.

Dandi knelt beside the mares and held out their canteen. The mares stared at it, uncertain, but another cough from the stallion made up their minds. They took it and carefully upended the spout, letting a thin trickle dribble into his mouth. Most of it went to waste, pouring right back out onto the ground, but his tongue managed to find a few of the drops and lap them up. His breathing eased, and after a moment his eyes closed in troubled sleep.

Briar’s mouth was dry when Dandi returned. “How can you do that?”

She tilted her head. “Do what?”

“Go near them like that. It…” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath until the lightheadedness went away. “It’s like they’re already dead.”

“They’re not dead,” she said. The hint of a scold lurked in her voice. “They’re still ponies. Celestia will cure them. She… they’ll be fine.”

“Yeah.” Briar swallowed. “I know.”

But he found his gaze drawn back toward the road. He imagined he could still smell the smoke rising from the town, and see the flames licking at the sky. He could still hear that terrible laugh.

In time, with his head against Dandelion’s shoulder, he fell into a fitful sleep.

A high-pitched scream shocked Briar back to life. He gasped in a great lungful of air, and for a desperate second he could not tell if the crazed scene around him was merely an extension of the dream from which he had just escaped. A dream of a city on fire, an infinite city that extended in all directions, all ablaze, with gutters dripping molten ore and slate roofs glowing red. A great bank of smoke, filled with embers like stars, slowly descended, choking him with heat and searing ash that stripped away his coat and ate his lungs, filling them with fire until his whole body burst, and he became just another effigy among the million burning forms.

Just as quickly the images were gone, and he was awake. Ponies were still screaming though. That was odd.

He tried to stand and quickly became tangled in Dandi’s legs. At some point she had fallen asleep as well, and now they both scrambled onto their hooves. Her wings, flapping in disorientation and panic, struck him several times in the face.

“What? What’s wrong?” she said as they disentangled.

“I don’t know!” He had to shout to be heard. “I just, I…” He looked up, where several of the ponies around them were pointing, and trailed off into silence.

Dandi looked up as well. Her eyes widened, and her face went slack.

The skies had gone mad.

The moon drifted up from the horizon, larger and closer than he had ever seen. The individual craters were like pocks on its face. Stars swirled swirled about it like minnows in a stream, darting from shadow to shadow to avoid the hungry gaze of predatory birds. As he watched, a bright pink nebula erupted out from a swirl of galaxies, folded itself around several of the stars, and vanished back into the darkness, taking those little points of light with it.

“Oh, Luna,” he mumbled. Above, the moon shifted course, swinging around and falling back toward the horizon.

The sun rose to meet it, and in their brief passing the shadow of an eclipse washed over the world. The sudden shift of light to dark to light left him blinking away tears.

It was over in a minute. Everything – the sun, the moon, the hidden stars – all froze, and like a clock winding backwards they retreated to their appropriate positions. The moon sank below the horizon, and the sun edged its way toward an early dawn posting. Rosy morning light filled the world. Ponies slowly fell quiet.

“What was that?” Dandi asked. She stared at the fat red morning sun. “What just happened?”

“I don’t know.” Nopony else seemed to know either, judging from the buzz around them. Ponies pointed and babbled and attempted to reassure their foals. “It was… maybe Celestia and Luna were doing something? To fight Tirek?”

She was silent, then slowly nodded. “Maybe… Anyway, it’s light enough to move now. We should get going.”

He nodded. Around them, other ponies seemed to have the same idea, corralling foals and loading belongings into their saddlebags. Already the road was filled with colorful dots – fast movers, desperate to reach Junction City as soon as possible.

“Yeah. Let’s go.” They stepped off the hill down toward the road, and he found himself wondering how much the town had changed since their last visit.

“First time in Junction City?” Briar Thatch asked. He raised a hoof to shade his eyes from the intense noon sun.

“Juniper says we stopped by here on the way to Dodge City,” Dandelion said. She hopped up with a flap of her gangly teenage wings, alighting atop a nearby telegraph pole. From thirty feet in the air she surveyed the town before them.

“But I don’t remember it,” she called down to him. “It’s big!”

“Eh.” Junction City was big, compared with Dodge, but it was a speck next to Fillydelphia. Single boroughs in Manehattan were large enough to swallow Junction City whole, without anypony even noticing. “I guess.”

He resumed walking toward the town, and Dandelion landed in a clatter of limbs beside him. She’d filled out over the past ten years, growing from a markless little filly into a lanky teen on the cusp of adulthood, and one of his best friends beside. Along the way she’d earned her cutie mark, the image of a dandelion blowing in the wind, and become one of the best fliers in their little corner of Equestria.

But those wings… It’d be a miracle if she ever grew into them. The thought was punctuated with another faceful of feathers as she spun, trying to absorb the city’s sights.

“Er, sorry.” She tucked her wings back at her sides. “Just excited, I guess.”

He spat out a loose piece of down. “S’fine. Look from the air if you want. I’ll be here.”

She nodded and jumped into the air like a stone from a sling. In seconds she was a tiny green dot orbiting high above his head.

He smiled up at her, and wondered if she could see the expression. Probably – pegasi had damn sharp eyes. Of course, she was probably busy gawking at the town, not at little old him, and with that in mind he started down the road once again.

He reached the city in due course, and the hard-packed dirt road shifted to gravel, and then to asphalt. His hooves knocked loudly against it, and the black surface absorbed enough heat from the sun to burn the tender soles. He danced over to the white sidewalk, which was much cooler, and resumed his walk. Suddenly the shoes that city ponies wore made more sense.

He passed by every manner of shop on the city’s main street – clothiers and boutiques, bakers and confectioners, glass and candlestick makers. A few new storefronts stood out, like the telegraph office and typewriter repair shop. He’d only ever seen one typewriter in his life, a new addition to the clerk’s office in Dodge City’s town hall, and he stopped in front of the glass-paned store. Dozens of styles and sizes of typewriter sat on the shelves, some with big keys for earth ponies and pegasi, and others with dozens of tiny keys for unicorns. Just looking at them made him dizzy.

He left the store behind. Down the block, across from an ice cream stand, he found his old standby – Knick Knack’s General Store. Everything a pony could want, everything, was to be had somewhere within its cavernous confines, and if by some miracles its shelves didn’t hold what you wanted, Knick Knack could surely order it from somewhere.

The usual items were all in their usual places, and in a few minutes Briar’s wicker basket was full of odds-and-ends he couldn’t find in Dodge City. Batteries for the post office, pens and notebooks for the school, rolls of film for the photography club. A new gem-fired hurricane lantern for the weather team. He gathered all these up, and was on his way to the counter when something new caught his eye.

There was always something new in Knick Knack’s store – he rotated his selection constantly in search of some hot new item that would fly off the shelves. But Briar had never seen the old stallion selling jewelry before. But now there was a whole glass case set beside the checkout, filled with brooches and rings and necklaces and other things he couldn’t quite name. They looked expensive and out of place in a store whose shelves groaned under the weight of far cheaper goods.

“See something you like?” An old stallion’s voice broke his reverie, and Briar looked up to see Knick Knack on the other side of the case. “A gift for somepony special, perhaps?”

“Uh…” Briar bit his lip. He glanced outside, where across the street Dandelion had landed and was peering through the typewriter store’s picture window. “What do… would any of these go well with green? Or yellow?”

Knick Knack followed his gaze, and a little smile crept over his lips. “As it so happens, you’re in luck. A nice sapphire would complement those colors nicely.”

He reached into the display and pulled out a butterfly hairpin, with gold-wire wings and bright blue gemstone for a body. The pin was long, designed for a braided mane, and he could already see it glistening amidst gold and yellow hairs.

“How much is it?” he mumbled.

Knick Knack said a number. Briar winced.

“That’s, uh…” He looked down into his basket, wondering how much he could afford to leave. If he were only buying for himself, he could leave all of it, but most of these items were for other ponies, and they expected him to return to Dodge City with their wish list, not a pretty little hairpin. He sighed and shook his head.

“Hmm…” Knick Knack glanced out the window again. Dandelion had moved to the ice cream stand, and nearly knocked a cone from a nearby foal’s hooves with her wings. “You know, for a good customer I can offer a discount, and we have an installment plan.”

Ten minutes later, Briar Thatch walked out the store with a basket full of goods. Dandelion was sitting on the curb, her muzzle and forelegs messy with the sticky, drying remains of an ice cream cone.

“There you are!” she chirped and bounced onto her hooves. “What took so long?”

“Just, uh, browsing.” He set the basket down. “I got you something.”

“Oh?” She leaned forward to nose through the basket, but he had already removed his prize. She froze when she felt his hooves on her head, and he carefully slid the hairpin into place. The sapphire butterfly game to a rest just above and forward of her left ear.

“What? What is that?” She tried to peer up at it, then spun in a circle like a dog chasing its own tail. After a moment of this she stopped and trotted over to a nearby store. In the window, reflected in the bright sunlight, her image looked back. She stared for a long while, and reached up to touch the pin gently with a hoof.

“How… it’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“Yeah.” He smiled, and he was pretty sure sure they weren’t talking about the same thing.

A bright blush showed through her coat when she turned back to him. They stared at each other, inches apart, and she suddenly darted forward to kiss his cheek. Then, blushing even more, she jumped into the air and vanished in a swirl of feathers.

He closed his eyes. Her scent – flowery and dusty and mixed with the vanilla of the ice cream – lingered in his brain, and stayed with him all the walk home.

Briar Thatch stumbled on another rock. Somepony, he was convinced, had dumped a wagonload of loose stones on the road to Canterlot, and he was finding each and every one of them with his hooves.

Dandi was by his side in an instant. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fine.” He wasn’t, actually, but nopony else was either. Junction City was two days behind them, and they’d slept maybe three hours in that whole span.

The world was coming undone. Tirek was seemingly unbound by space and time – one day he was behind them in Dodge City, the next he was a hundred miles ahead in Canterlot, or far to the west in Appleloosa. Ponies across Equestria were in retreat, pulling back to the major cities, erecting futile defenses, and hoping Princess Twilight came up with some way to defeat him.

That had been the worst blow. Junction City was buzzing when they passed through with rumors about the princesses, how they had turned their powers over to Twilight Sparkle, how Tirek had broken through Canterlot’s defenses and found them, and how he banished them to Tartarus. Equestria was bereft.

Ponyville. It was the last town in this part of Equestria that had yet to fall, and the stream of refugees trudged toward it. They were only hours away, now – if she wanted, Dandi could join the rest of the pegasi and be there in a heartbeat.

But she stayed, of course. Part of this warmed Briar’s heart. Part of it made him want to shriek, to order her to flee as fast as her wings could carry her.

He knew better than to ask. She would just ignore him, and then they’d be angry with each other as well as Tirek and fate and the world in general.

So they trudged onward, together.

To the north, the great city of Cloudsdale drifted derelict across the sky. Whole neighborhoods, crafted from clouds the size of mountains, had fallen away, crashing to the earth as Tirek absorbed the pegasi’s magic. Briar watched as one huge cumulous, carved all over with homes and pillars and rainbow waterfalls, broke away from the city’s main mass. It tumbled, end over end, leaving a trail of fog as it plunged toward the ground. When it finally struck a huge cloud of mist erupted from the impact, billowing up thousands of feet before catching the wind and slowly drifting to the east. The ground shook in sympathy beneath his hooves.

Ponyville. Princess Twilight was there. If they could reach her, they’d be fine. Briar repeated those words, mantra-like, over and over in his mind. In time, they helped him forget his little pains and exhaustion, until the world was reduced to him, the road, and Dandi’s warm presence by his side.

Tirek was waiting for them outside Ponyville. Or, perhaps, he was waiting for Princess Twilight. Either way, one moment they were alone, just a few hilltops away from the charming little town, and then the monster was among them.

Ponies screamed and fled in every direction. Tirek seemed to ignore them at first, but his shoulders drew back, his mouth opened like a cave, and he drew in a tremendous breath. A wind like a hurricane slammed into the crowd, and half their number fell to the ground. Tendrils of blue energy rose from the fallen bodies, flowed toward Tirek’s mouth, and were swallowed.

Briar Thatch pressed a hoof against his chest, amazed to feel his heart still beating. All around him, ponies lay groaning on the ground. He spun in a circle, searching for green and gold.

“Dandi! Dandelion!”

“I’m fine!” she shouted above him. “Run!”

They fled together, sprinting between trees and boulders, over ridges and through gullies. Behind them, so tall he towered over the trees, Tirek laughed.

“Run, ponies.” His voice was thunder. “Or not. It is no matter.”

Fire billowed behind them, and the copse of trees they were running toward burst into flames. Briar skidded to a stop, his hooves churning up mud and dirt. To his left was a tall line of brush, and he crashed through it without any thought for what might be on the other side. A moment later Dandi soared over it to join him.

“Which way, Dandi?” He leapt over an earthen bank and skidded down into a stream, splashing his belly with water. “Which way… Dandi?”

He stopped and spun about mid-stream. Dandi was gone. A well of panic grew in his heart.

“Dandi!” He scrambled back up the bank. “DANDI!”

There, a dozen yards away. A small orange foal huddled over a fallen mare, tugging at her mother’s mane with her teeth. Tirek loomed over them, and he bent down to inspect the tiny foal like a lion viewing a mouse. The monster’s mouth opened, and Briar desperately wanted to look away.

The foal vanished in a flash of yellow and gold. Briar’s heart leapt into his throat. Dandi, his precious Dandelion, was just feet away from the monster, her wings beating like a hummingbird’s, the foal clenched in her forelegs.

She almost made it. But not even the fastest pegasus in Equestria could outrace Tirek’s magic. He inhaled, and a sickly blue glow surrounded her wings. She tumbled to the ground, spilling the foal into the grass. It wailed and fled into the bushes behind him.

Get up. Get up, Dandi. He walked toward her, numb. Her emerald coat was gone, replaced with sickly, dusty moss. Her eyes, open and clouded, searched for him. The earth shook as Tirek took a step toward them.

He touched her mane. The gold was gone now, too. Her hair was pale and brittle as straw. The only spot of color was her butterfly pin, broken and bent. A deep scratch marred the sapphire. He drew it out of her mane with a hoof and looked up.

Tirek was close enough to touch. His legs were thick as hundred-year oaks. Thick, rusty hair sprouted from ebony skin above his hooves. The grass beneath them shook with each beat of Tirek’s monstrous heart. A sickening, ashen stench clogged Briar’s nose, and a foul wind tugged at him as the centaur drew in the breath that would consume him.

Briar stepped forward and swung the hairpin. The sharp point sank several inches into Tirek’s leg, and black, tar-like blood bubbled from the wound. It boiled as it ran down onto his hoof, and where it touched the ground the grass withered and died.

Tirek paused, and for a moment they stood in silence, staring at the tiny wound. And then Tirek laughed.

“Little pony. Be grateful that Tirek is a merciful god.” His voice held all the warmth of a glacier, all the love of an avalanche. It was the sound of rocks breaking and trees falling.

Tirek breathed in again.

They were alone when Briar opened his eyes. A thick fog seemed to hang over the world, stealing away its colors and light. Sounds were muffled, like his ears were stuffed with cotton.

Dandi lay a few feet away. He pulled himself across the grass. A thousand tons of stone weighed him down, stealing his breath after only a few inches, and he paused to gasp.

And then he tried again. In this manner, over several hours, he finally made it to her side, and he buried his nose in her mane. She smelled of chalk and dust and ashes, and he wept.

“Why are you crying?” she whispered. A falling feather made more noise.

It took minutes to gather his breath to respond. “I failed. I’m supposed to stand up for ponies. Fight back against bullies.”

Time passed, and eventually he heard an odd sound. Something like a cough, but light, and filled with an odd levity that seemed so out of place. She was laughing, he realized.


“Oh, my silly Briar.” She dragged a hoof across the grass to touch his. “You did. You did. Maybe ponies can’t beat gods, but we can try. I think… I think that matters more.”

He thought about that for a while. It seemed like they would have a lot of time to think.

Finally, “Dandi?”

Her response was awhile in coming. “Yes?”

“Will you marry me?”

She laughed again. It sounded lighter, fuller, as though the weight of stones upon their chest had somehow lessened. “I thought you’d never ask.”


“Yes, Briar. Yes, I will.”

That was good. He found he had the energy to smile after all. He drew in a breath, and beneath the scent of chalk and dust and ash, he thought he smelled just a hint of flowers.

They lay together on the hill for a while, watching the sun set over Ponyville. In time, brilliant waves of rainbow light filled the sky. The ground shook with thunder. It seemed Princess Twilight was making her stand against Tirek.

Briar smiled and silently wished her luck. He had enough to spare.
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